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When we arrived at the river, which separated us from the mill and the hilly forests behind it, we found it swollen from nearly a week of rain. We dismounted and pushed our bikes across the wooden bridge, watching the water rush by beneath the planks until we stepped on to the ancient cobblestones around the mill. Weeds pushed through the cracks of the pavement and the mill’s sandstone buildings seemed to be deserted. Nothing moved in the haze between the carefully renovated houses, black shingle roofs baked in the sun. A lone butterfly fluttered across a wooden fence, a car clattered by on the nearby street. Behind the mill, the first trees of the forest loomed, a foreboding sight.
Ever torn between my thirst for adventure and a coward’s instincts, I shivered.
“It’s dark here,” I said.
Maja nodded solemnly while Anja rolled her eyes.
“It's just trees. Lots of them. It's the druggies you have to look out for, says my sister.”
Anja's sister, Bea, was three years older than us, and unlike Dorian and his stories, Bea was a person you could trust to know what was going on. I shrunk back from the trees.
“Think they'll be in there now, the druggies?”
“Nah, they only come out at night. Otherwise the cops would catch them.”
“Uh…Great I guess. Then there’s really no reason not to do this. Unless you guys think…”, I took another good look at the dark fir trees and the even darker shadows beneath them, hoping one of them would offer me a way out with my pride intact. “We could always go back if you're afraid, Anja?”
Anja shook her head in denial, the braid bouncing around her shoulders.
“I'm fine. I just think it's stupid.”
Maja started walking towards the trees and we followed.
“Guys, let’s do this,” Maja said, walking toward the trees. “Let’s find this cave before it does get dark.”
I quickened my pace until I caught up with her, pushing my bike along the sandy path that started up behind the houses and led into the forest.
“What do you mean, before it gets dark? What happens then?” “Uh, didn’t you listen? That's when the druggies--”, started Anja.
Maja interrupted her with a loud and dramatic sigh.
“That's when the weird things start to happen. In the stories--”
“Since they're Dorian's stories, is there a ghost of a mountain lion involved?”, asked Anja.
Maja sent her a seething look and then continued.
“It's NOT a mountain lion, thank you.”
“Then what?”, I asked with fascinated horror.
We entered the woods and the path continued alongside a gurgling forest creek. The trail had fallen into disuse and we had to duck under tree branches and climb over roots and also maneuver our bikes across them. After a few minutes, the trees receded again and we arrived at a large clearing, divided by the narrow creek. On the other side of the stream stood the remains of an abandoned restaurant, all withered walls and broken windows. With the musk of the forest wafting around us, I wondered who would have ever wanted to sit under the faded parasols still stored in heaps around its overgrown backyard. In the distance, coming from the mill, the sound of a saw shrilled through the dusty air.
“This is creepy.” “It's the cave’s influence,” breathed Maja. “What does the cave have to do with some old restaurant?” Anja asked, arching her eyebrows at our superstitions.
“It's the Devil's Grotto, remember? It's evil.” “Wait! It's evil?”, I stopped in my tracks. “Then why are we going there?”
Maja cocked her head to one side, arms akimbo.
“Um-- because you wanted to see it? Are you too scared to go now?”
“Am not! But why is it called the Devil's Grotto? Why is it evil?”
I had to wait for Maja’s answer, because we reached the creek and had to balance across the only bridge provided: Two wooden planks, which creaked alarmingly under our weight. But luck was on our side and we made it safely across. On the other side of the stream, a muddy path led deeper into the woods. The sounds from the street over by the mill had stopped, and all we heard was the gurgling creek and the whispers of the wind in the trees.
“Maja, this place is really creeping me out!”
I cast a worried glance at the leafy darkness in front of us.
“SHHH! Careful what you say! We're on cursed ground now,” hissed Maja.
“Really, just from crossing the stream?”, asked Anja with a sarcastic undertone.
“Wait! I know!”, I exclaimed, excited again. “Running water! It’s supposed to prevent evil spirits from crossing to the other side. That’s why, right?”
“SHHHH!”, Maja reminded me. But then nodded, her face solemn.
“Yes, it's the creek. The evil from the grotto can't cross it.”
“But there is a bridge right here,” said Anja. “We've just crossed it. Are you saying the devil is too stupid to cross a bridge?”
“Not the devil, obviously. But the evil spirits that haunt the cave.”
“Why? What happened at the Cave?”, I asked, wishing we had had this discussion earlier, in the safety of the playground.
Maja's voice dropped to a whisper and we inadvertently moved closer.
“Dorian says an evil man lived here. Alone. In the woods.”
“What’d he do?”, I breathed.
“SHHHH! Dorian also said you shouldn't tell the story on this side of the creek, because the man can hear you.”
I stared at the forest, alarmed, but all I could see was darkness between the trees.
“He’s still here?”
“His ghost is. And ever since he died, this place has been cursed. It all happened long ago, in the middle ages, when they first built the mill. The families who settled the area had only just finished building their houses when their daughters started disappearing, always young girls. Another after another.”
“How? The mill is on the other side of the creek. I thought evil couldn't cross it,” said Anja, ever skeptical.
“But the man was alive then! So he could have crossed it. Besides, at first no one knew there was a bad man in the woods. They thought a wolf or a bear might have taken those girls. The children would go in the woods, to pick berries and mushrooms, or even to snare some rabbits. Or sometimes just to play.”
Maja glanced at Anja, waiting for another snide comment, but the resident sceptic remained silent.
“Like us...”, I whispered into the silence.
Maja nodded sadly.
“Exactly. That’s why I didn't want to come here. But you insisted.”
“We could turn back; forget we ever--”, I offered in a hopeful voice.
“No! That’s how you draw his attention! The man will know we were here and that we were afraid. We have to go and find the cave now, otherwise he'll be able to follow us home.” I shuddered.
“But the bridge?”
She shook her head.
“We entered his woods. That means we invited him to cross the water and find us.”
“Lots of people walk into these woods every day,” said Anja. “Druggies, dogwalkers, hikers, and I’ve never heard about anyone disappearing around here.” “He’s only after young girls. He never took anyone else, even back when he was alive,” Maja replied.
I bit my lip and tried not to look too closely at the forest, seeing threatening silhouettes everywhere. Even the rustle of the leaves sounded ominous.
“The girls he took, what’d he do to them?”, I whispered through a parched throat.
“The people from the mill found their bodies in the grotto, but they kept it a secret what exactly the man did. Dorian thinks he was following some kind of ritual to give himself magic powers, to live on after death. And he succeeded. The villagers killed him and buried him in the woods, but he returned as a spirit.”
“We should never have come here,” I whispered.
“Told you so,” Maja said. “But we can save ourselves. We just need to find the grotto before nightfall.”
“But won't that make it easier for him to find us?”, asked Anja. “We’d be entering his territory.”
“He only hunts you if you’re afraid. If you go to the cave where he killed the girls – then you prove you're not afraid.”
“What if we don’t make it?”
“Then he'll have gotten us. But he isn’t as strong during the day. It's at night that he's really dangerous. We should be fine. We just need to follow the stream.”
“So we go to the cave, then what?”
“We have to draw a cross for each of us on the cave's walls as proof we were there.” “Draw? With what? I didn't bring any pens!”
“With water.” Maja smiled. “As I said, we just need to follow the stream. It’s supposed to flow right by the grotto. Let’s get going, though. Dorian said it’s still a long walk.”
We looked at the path, diverging from the stream just behind the tree line.
“You sure it’s even the right path?”, Anja asked. “According to Dorian, it’s supposed to swerve back to the stream a little way in.” Maja sighed. “Fantastic,” muttered Anja. “So reassuring!”
The path meandered through the woods for what seemed like an eternity. We trudged through mud and flailed our arms to keep away the relentless mosquitoes. Fly swarms darted through the air, and every once in a while a strange sound would filter through the trees from far away. No bird sang in these woods and the wind had ceased, the air grew increasingly damp and hot. Soon we had to leave our bikes behind. We locked them and continued on, wading almost knee-deep in the mud.
“Oh my god oh my god oh my god, this is so disgusting!”, Maja complained, with a face like she had just taken a bite out of a lemon with every step she took into the mud.
“No choice but to keep going,” I said.
“My mom will kill me when she sees my pants!”, she whimpered.
“You’re not getting any cleaner if we turn around.” I tried to get rid of the sweat on my forehead with my sleeve and only succeeded in smearing it across my face.
“I thought this would be fun, but it’s way too much effort for such a stupid story,” Maja said.
I bit my lip. So she never believed what she had told us, she just knew that my imagination would never be able to resist turning this into an adventure. Feeling vaguely used, I turned around to her.
“And what if it’s not just some story? What if it’s true? And the moment we turn around, the evil man gets us? I’m not going to risk it, Maja. Are you?”
“Next time let's just stay at the Ship,” said Anja.
For once even Maja didn't object. We struggled on, until a massive black spider crossed our path. Maja squealed and jerked away from it. When she was a few meters away from the crawling nightmare, she stopped, her face pale.
“That's it! There's mud, spiders and mosquitoes. Look at me; I'm filthy!”
“But what about the cave?”, I asked, bewildered. “It’s just one of Dorian’s stupid stories! Like the mountain lion!”
“What if it isn’t though?”, I insisted, glancing at Anja.
I was still curious whether we would actually find a cave in these woods, but now I was afraid they would both desert me, and I wasn’t brave enough to continue on into the woods on my own. Anja gave me a barely perceptible nod. Maja threw up her hands in frustration. “Fine! You two go on like idiots. Have fun looking for a cave that was never even there in the first place! I'm going home. Maybe I’ll still catch the last episode of the Baywatch marathon!”
She looked at us expectantly, but I shook my head. If the only other option was to watch David Hasselhoff rescue yet another blond beach babe, I would continue on this path even if I had to swim through the mud. But of course I couldn't say so. Instead I shrugged and looked at Anja with what I hoped were pleading eyes. Anja shrugged in response. “I’m in if you want to go on...”
Maja realized that she had lost this battle and took her leave. We watched in silence as she stalked away, back the way we had come from. Her blond hair was speckled with mud and hung in wild strands. The sweat stains on her pink T-shirt were a comforting prove that she wasn't the immaculate beauty queen she was always pretending to be. The squelch-squelch of her shoes in the mud grew fainter and fainter, and when she finally turned around the next corner, it was as if she had never been there at all. Silence surrounded us.