It began on the Friday of my second week at P&A Industries when Neville, one of my older colleagues, approached my desk. Our last shared conversation still stung, so I pretended to be engrossed in the CRM system on my screen.
“Heya, Welshy,” Neville said brightly.
“Gary,” I corrected him.
“Gary, then. Look, I expect you’re busy right now, but… Well, I’m here on Scott’s behalf. He wants to apologise for the whole sheep-shagging joke.”
I remembered the whole sheep-shagging joke quite clearly. Standing beside me in the break room, Scott had wanted to know how often I sheared my girlfriend - which was ridiculous, since I didn’t even have a girlfriend. Right now, Scott hovered by the break room door, actively ignoring me and Neville.
“And I want to apologise too,” Neville went on. “I know it can’t be easy for you, moving to a strange new office full of old farts like us. You know, we were just having a bit of fun.”
He played with the lamp on my desk, which was otherwise bare. It wasn’t his lamp. I hadn’t given him permission to touch my lamp. But if Neville noticed my glaring at the CRM system, he didn’t mention it.
“But anyway… Me and the guys go Geocaching at the weekend, and we want you to tag along. It’d probably interest you. Lots of hiking involved. Philip goes with us, when he’s not taking his kids to Playzone or whatever.”
I looked up. Philip worked at the cubicle adjacent to mine. He was twenty years my senior, but still the most relatable colleague I had. Geocaching couldn’t be all that bad if he was interested. At least I’d have someone to talk to.
Neville drummed on the base of the lamp, awaiting my answer.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“That’s great,” he replied, his smile brightening again. “I’ll let you get on.” Then, just as he was walking away, “Croeso i Gymru!”
I left it until Saturday morning to do the research. We'd be walking through a woody nature trail called the Glenn. There were several caches hidden there, each containing a notebook to be signed and a small personal item to be swapped with one of our own.
“It’s like a time capsule,” Philip said as we struggled up the first steep hill, “only without the time. Fucking knee.”
“You OK?” I said, stopping so he could recover.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just getting older.”
“We’re all getting older.”
“All right, you little smart-arse.”
I smirked and we carried on. Most of ‘the guys’ were gathered ahead of us, phones out, their GPS informing them of the first cache’s location. Neville wore a brown fleece and jeans, and Scott was even more laughable in his oversized quilted jacket.
“Got it,” the latter called, holding up a Tupperware box for all to see.
“Excellente,” Neville said. “OK, our next cache is lucky number seven. Welshy, you want to lead the way?”
I shrugged. “If you want.”
Nigel from Marketing tapped away on his mobile. “Oh dear. It’s in the East part of the Glenn. We’ll have to watch out for Clarabelle.”
There was a ripple of assent.
I turned to Philip. “What? What is it? Who’s Clarabelle?”
“Nobody,” said Philip.
“Ohhh,” Nigel said, delighted, “he won’t know, will he?”
Scott had finished pencilling his name in the cache’s notebook, and replaced the novelty pencil sharpener inside with his key ring.
“About ten years ago we had a would-be serial killer living here,” he told me. “His second victim got away, so he was caught. But the first one was murdered in these woods. Her name was Clarabelle Edwards.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Clarabelle? It sounded so made-up.
“It was horrible, by all accounts,” Neville said. “Really bloody. She was only seventeen at the time. These days, there’s a legend that she still haunts-”
Philip began to cough furiously, and Neville frowned.
“Come on,” I said, “you don’t seriously expect me to believe there’s a ghost in these woods?”
“Believe whatever you want,” said Scott, “but sometimes, walking through here, you see some spooky shit.”
“Paranormal,” said Robert, who liked to chip in with a helpful word or phrase every now and then.
This was getting uncomfortable. I quickly retrieved my phone and examined the GPS.
“Cache number seven’s about half a mile east of here,” I informed the others. “Let’s go.”
So off we went. Philip managed to stay close now he’d recuperated, but the others seemed to purposefully slow their pace, drifting some way behind me. I wasn’t too sorry about this.
“Why would someone bury a cache so close to a murder site?” I wondered aloud. “Did the killer leave it there?”
“If he did,” Philip said, “I dread to think what kind of personal item is inside.”
We cleared the top of a grassy slope. Sunlight filtered through the trees and brightened the fallen leaves at our feet. It must have been getting on for midday. Philip and I let the silence envelop us as we strolled deeper into the woods.
Of course, I didn’t believe the ghost part of the story. But could the first part be true? Had a girl really died here? I began to realise after a while that I was looking, actually looking for signs of past horrific violence. Blood-stained leaves, an inauspicious clearing in the trees, a discarded wood saw, something like that. Then I realised how ridiculous I was being, and stopped.
“Are we close?” Philip presently asked.
I consulted my phone. “Just about.”
The trees were now so thick that the sunlight struggled to reach us. I hoped the cache wasn’t hidden under the fallen leaves in this section, or we’d be searching all day. With any luck, it was concealed in a tree hollow somewhere.
“Let’s wait for the guys to catch up,” Philip suggested.
I nodded and found a felled trunk for us to sit on. There was still nothing I could think to say, apart from “Nice weather we’re having.”
Philip took off his glasses, showing the prominent crow’s feet around his eyes. “I don’t know. I think it’s getting darker. Clouds, maybe.”
He was right. It was darker.
I rose from the trunk. It wasn’t my imagination - the sunlight from above was fading. It gradually drained our surroundings of their colour, and yet I couldn’t see the cloud or the passing plane that was responsible. Philip and I exchanged glances.
“You guys,” I called out to the huddle of men at the top of the slope. “Hey! Come look at this.”
They drifted down and perceived the darkness for themselves. Their expressions ranged from moderate confusion to mild interest. In particular, I noticed Neville’s turned-down bottom lip and raised eyebrows – they seemed to say, ‘not bad’.
“Bit early for sundown,” Scott remarked. “Is it these trees, d’ya think?”
I craned my neck again, despite myself. “Well…”
“Probably the trees,” Neville conceded, still impressed.
Something about it was bothering me. I’d have liked to communicate this privately to Philip, but it wasn’t possible right now.
“What’s the matter, Welshy?” Scott asked. “Feeling a little spooked?”
Of course I’m not, you quilted racist bastard.
“No,” I told him. “But I think maybe we should look for this one another time.”
“But we’ve got to make a clean sweep,” said Nigel.
“Yeah, come on, we’ve only got yours left.”
Things might have gone on in this vein for some time. Luckily, Philip had picked up on my misgivings and stepped in to help me.
“I’d like to get back, actually,” he said. “Knee playing up… Kids at home unsupervised… You know how it is. Maybe we can come back to this one next week. At least Gary’s got the idea now.”
I saw the guys give him a reproachful look, but I knew somehow that they’d bow to his judgement. No matter how old and irrelevant they perceived him to be, his opinion still held some weight, both in and out of the office.
“Fine,” Neville said, “we’ll tackle this one again next week.” We walked back along the trail and were soon bathed in sunlight again. “Probably be even darker by then. Oh well. Anybody want to hit the burger van on the way back?”
The burger van in question was a filthy catering trailer, permanently parked alongside the dual carriageway, which ironically called itself “Sam ‘n’ Ella’s”. I decided to pass.
Sunday morning was rather slow. I had a call from my parents and made cheese and crackers for lunch. Apart from that, there was nothing to do but reflect on and rationalise the events of the previous day. The sudden darkness in the Glenn had been strange, but it had to have a reasonable explanation. It wasn’t going to stop me finding cache number seven. I decided then and there to go back on my own. I’d just look around, find the cache and leave.
That afternoon, without the group slowing me down, I quickly found the east section. There were hardly any distinguishing features such as clearings or large trees, so I kept to the path.
I hunkered down and began to sweep the leaves away from the ground, in search of the elusive cache. As I worked, a thought occurred to me. If I was facing towards the east, then the sun would set behind me. Soon my shadow would creep out from under my feet and stretch along the path.
But no. As I rummaged, darkness appeared to descend from directly overhead, until I couldn’t see the treetops any more. I carried on regardless, determined to find the cache.
A moth fluttered past my left ear and vanished from sight. I shook my head and carried on. Then a few seconds later, it happened again. It was a small, bright thing, and kept flickering around in my periphery. I couldn’t see it directly.
“It’s just a stupid moth,” I said aloud. “Leave it alone and find the damn cache.”
It zoomed past my right ear, moving unlike any moth I’d ever seen. In the growing darkness, I’d glimpsed its white, almost luminescent glow. I flinched away from it and toppled onto my side. My eyes darted around, and I was unable to locate it.
The silence struck me harder than ever before.
Perhaps it would be better to explore the area as part of a group.
Next morning, I went back to P&A Industries, where the guys were not to be distracted from their first coffees of the day. While all was quiet, I decided to conduct a little more research.
I made sure neither Mr. Phelps nor Mr. Anderson was lurking near my cubicle, and then opened up Google. The voices of my co-workers could be heard from the break room as they stood around, exchanging unpleasantries.
“My missus got a new Milton solution for the kitchen floor,” Neville told those assembled.
I typed in ‘Clarabelle Edwards’.
“Any good?” Nigel wanted to know.
“I don’t know. It’s got a lemon scent.”
The search results came up, and I clicked on the first. It was an archived news article with the title - ‘Farcing woods murder victim named as Clarabelle Edwards’.
“I mean, nothing against it, nothing against her, but a guy can only stand so much lemon-scented shit around the house, you know?”
According to the article, Clarabelle had been discovered by a group of school-children cutting through the woods on their way home. She was only partially buried.
“Can’t have it in our house,” said Arnold from Accounts, “it upsets the dogs.”
Her arms and legs were missing, and never found.
“We’ve got the steam-mop for our floor,” chipped in Scott. “sooo, no lemon scent to speak of.”
“Citrus,” said Robert.
I looked up from my research and gave a long sigh. So the girl had died there; that much was true. It still didn’t mean Clarabelle was haunting anything or anyone. From the adjacent cubicle, I heard Philip’s harsh cough, looked up and caught his eye. He looked more exhausted than usual. I wheeled my chair across.
“Hi, Philip. Can I talk to you?”
He pulled away from the computer screen and massaged his eyelids. “Depends. What about?”
“Well…” I wondered how to put it. “What do you know about the Glenn being haunted?”
Philip glanced in the direction of the break room and then motioned for me to wheel into his cubicle. I did so.
“Right,” he said, “before we discuss this, you should know I'm the only one in this office who lived here at the time of the murder.”
That made sense. Philip was the oldest.
“Years ago, I had this tremendous fear of leaving the house. You’ve heard of agoraphobia, right? Well, I was just getting over it when the news about that poor girl came out. These other guys, they don’t know how long it took me to work up the courage to walk my dog again. They don’t know how much I worried, and still worry, about my kids cutting through the Glenn to get to school. They couldn’t know what it‘s like, because they weren’t here when it happened.”
“So, why do you go Geocaching with them?”
He sighed. “I thought it might help me get over this… this fear. The other guys, though, I think they need a bit of fear, to take them out of their boring lives. I don’t know if they’re the ones who came up with this haunted Glenn thing, but they certainly don’t mind indulging in it.”
“But the Glenn’s not haunted.”
Philip swivelled on his chair. “Is that a statement or a question?”
“Well, all right then. Is the Glenn haunted?”
“Depends what you’re asking. If you’re asking if I believe in ghosts, then the answer’s a resounding no. If you want to know what I’ve seen…” He trailed off.
He swivelled in his chair back to his original position, facing the monitor. I saw the reflection of his troubled face.
“I’ve talked to my daughters about going through there. They only admitted to cutting through once, and said they noticed something strange. These… white moth things.”
“Yes!” I said, punching my palm. “Yes, that’s what I saw.”
He gave me a look. “Gary, I wouldn’t even think about that. What you and the girls saw was a trick of the mind. Not even a hallucination – I think they’re called ‘visual disturbances’. They’re common. Now, put this Clarabelle thing out of your head. We’re not even searching the Glenn much longer. Once the caches are found, the group moves on.”
“But that’s the thing,” I told him in urgent tones. “I can’t find cache number seven. I’ve looked twice and there’s still nothing.”
“You’ll find it,” he assured me. “Just… don’t indulge this urban legend any more. You don’t want the guys to think you’re suggestible. You’d just be giving them another stick to hit you with.”
I nodded slowly and soon returned to my cubicle. The old news article was still on my screen. At the end of the massive chunk of text was the link to a follow-up article, which I clicked on. This one bore the heading, ‘Clarabelle Edwards killing: Man arrested in murder investigation’. There were two pictures. One was of Clarabelle, a moderately pretty girl with freckles and long blonde curls, and the other was of the killer. He looked ordinary enough. In fact, he could have been any one of the guys I worked with. The only thing that seemed off about him was the sullen expression, but that had to be typical for depictions of ruthless killers.
There was no picture of the second victim, the one that escaped, as she was too young. I gazed at Clarabelle’s smiling face and wondered if she’d be smiling right now.
That week, my mind was full of the woods. I had thoughts about trees. I had dreams about moths. Ghost or no ghost, I was definitely haunted by something.
Maybe it was, as Philip said, to do with suggestibility. All my life, people have told me I was quiet, mellow, and easily stimulated. It doesn’t take much to keep me amused, which is why office work suits me. So, clearly, the revelation of a murdered girl had unsettled me and allowed my mind to be fooled by strange natural phenomena. Really, a few insects and an early sunset were nothing to be afraid of. It was just Nature’s mysterious way.
Still, every day of my third week at P&A Industries, I was distracted. Every evening, I sat in my living room chair, watching out for anything white and winged.
On Saturday, the Geocaching group reunited at the Glenn, and the search continued.
“We’ll leave Welshy ‘til last,” Neville declared, “since he likes to take his time about it.”
Calm, Philip mouthed to me.
In the hours that followed, the group uncovered caches number nine, ten, twelve and fourteen, and finally it was my turn. Once again, I led them to the east side of the Glenn and worked against the clock to find cache number seven. I checked under the fallen leaves, in the branches of trees, under stones, even in bird’s nests. However, all too soon, the sunlight began to fade. The shadows came down over everything like a shroud.
“No!” I punched the leafy ground as the others looked on.
Nigel regarded his watch. “It’s not even gone four,” he exclaimed. “What the hell is this?”
“Well, it’s ludicrous, is what it is,” said Neville. “Two weekends we’ve spent looking for this sodding cache-”
I stood up. “What was that?”
“Did you call me a sodding taff?”
“What? No, I said-”
“You know what? I’m not going to take it anymore. I’m fed up with all the slurs.”
Philip approached, a worried expression moulding his face. “Gary…”
I pushed him off. “No, I mean it. As soon as I find number seven, that’s it. I’m not coming out with you guys any more. I’m sick of looking at this stupid Glenn.”
There was a beat of silence.
“Angry,” said Robert.
Neville took a step forward. “Look, mate, this was never about your nationality or what have you, it was just-”
“There.” Nigel pointed. “Over there. Can you see?”
We looked in that direction, some of us more reluctantly than the others. Philip didn’t want to know. I already knew.
Dozens of brilliant white moths, flying in perpetual loops above the ground. A long, rough patch of ground, free from grass.
We fled. As Philip and I had been nearest to the swarm, we now brought up the rear. I heard one of their screams (I would later learn it was Scott and draw from this no small amount of satisfaction) and in the moment, everyone picked up their pace until we were safe in a brightly lit clearing.
I took a moment to catch my breath. Once I had, there was only one thing I wanted: to get as far away from nature as possible. With a single apologetic gesture to Philip and a glare for the others, I stalked back along the designated trail.
Later on, in my empty flat, I turned on the laptop and found another photo of Clarabelle. She was once again smiling, and pictured in a sitting pose, hugging her legs. The pose concealed most of her torso, but I could still tell she was a slight, willowy sort of person. Her head rested demurely on her knees. The article described her as a sweet girl who, according to her bereaved mother, ‘loved hugs’.
“Why are you doing this? Why are you torturing yourself with these images? Forget about Clarabelle and ghosts and Geocaches and go the fuck to sleep.”
But I couldn’t sleep, not with the dimly lit walls of my flat confronting me; not with the creeping sensation that something was about to flutter past, along the edge of my field of vision.
I wish I’d hung some pictures up. Just one photo of my parents. An old girlfriend. Something.
There was no way I could bear this any longer. I had to find the seventh geocache. I had to. Then I could put this whole nightmare out of my head. My mobile phone was resting on the otherwise bare coffee table. Thinking back, there was something a little ominous about it. Maybe I should have called my parents; they’d have made me see sense. Instead, I found Philip in my list of contacts and pressed the green button.
Saturday night. Other men my age might have been out on the town, but I was walking into the shadowy Glenn with my terrified older colleague. Philip held his million candle torch in front of his chest, like a shield. I held my more traditional flashlight in one hand, like a weapon.
“Are you positive you dropped your camera down there?” Philip asked.
I merely nodded. Deceiving him in this way didn‘t feel good at all, but it was nothing compared to the fear I would have felt going in alone. I’d reasoned with Philip that setting off at night made the most sense. If the woods were already dark, then there’d be no creeping darkness to worry about.
By now, I knew the way very well, but by torchlight the trees and their branches were especially sinister - thin and colourless, like bone. Once we cleared the grassy slope, the wood thickened. The trees were definitely healthier in this area. Suddenly, inexplicably, I remembered my parents’ plants, which had flourished only when our pet was buried beneath them. Had these trees only thrived because of Clarabelle? Had her burial here allowed them to grow stronger, more powerful?
It was hard not to let a ghostly legend get to you, I realised.
“Just so you know,” Philip said, “the guys at work think you’re going crazy.”
Of course they did. Years of processing the sales of photocopiers in front of a computer screen had deadened their imaginations.
“I’m not crazy,” I said.
Philip nodded. “I’m just telling you what they think.”
“Because it helps me to keep talking, all right? Let’s find your camera and get out of here.”
Now it was my turn to nod. I didn’t tell him that as long as we were here, finding cache number seven was my real priority.
“This thing at work,” said Philip, “I’d like to tell you it gets better with time, but in all likelihood, it won’t. Sometimes you have to keep your head down to survive.”
I shone my torch on the rough patch of ground - a place I’d never checked before. Had it ever really been here before, or was it just another ‘visual disturbance’?
“You get what I’m trying to say, don’t you, Gary? Don’t go looking for trouble. It’s not worth it.”
We followed the beam of light and stood before the rough patch. I bent down to sweep at the loosened dirt. The cache was there; it had to be there.
“Trust me on this one,” Philip pleaded. His hands were shaking, his torch rattling. “Take it from someone with twenty-one years of experience. It’s never worth it.”
There was something there! I began frantically digging, and after a moment, Philip crouched beside me and helped to pry the object loose. We had in our hands a large plastic box in green camouflage netting. Through the holes, I could make out the number taped to the lid. We’d found cache number seven.
“Yes!” I could have hugged him.
“Open it, then,” he said. The fear was still in his voice, but there was a little relief now, too. At his word, I undid the netting and removed the lid of the box.
My expectant smile faded when I saw the motionless moth inside.
Philip’s hand found my shoulder. My brain tried to process the terror and frustration I was feeling, when the inert creature woke up and furiously beat its wings. I threw myself backwards as it took off, the fuzzy underside of its thorax just missing my face. The torch beam in my hand caught a further two moths materialising from the trees. Yet more of them appeared, and before Philip or I knew it, there was a whole flurry of them, circling round each other in the air.
“Oh God,” Philip said.
He flipped on his own torch at last. It was brighter than I expected and concentrated on the white, swirling mass; I was afraid of being blinded. As I watched, though, the thing began to change - tightening, thickening, and changing into something new.
I was scared to watch. I was scared to look away.
Finally we saw the brightness in its new form. It was a pure white figure with limbs that tapered off at the elbow and knee. No, ‘tapered off’ was wrong - the limbs had been brutally severed, ending in mangled flesh and splintered bone. Worse still, the torso was torn open and below the exposed breastbone was an empty ribcage. This girl, for it was a girl, turned her face to us and smiled peacefully. I hadn’t moved from my sprawling position on the ground. Next to Philip’s million candle torch, mine was useless, so I tossed it to one side. We needed to go right now.
“Oh God,” Philip said again.
Clarabelle smiled at me, then at him, flicking her snowy hair out of her snowy eyes. She drifted towards us, raising her stumpy arms.
Our screams were simultaneous. I leapt to my feet and grabbed Philip, and together we ran. I didn’t dare look back, but he did. His yells echoed in my ear. Then, to my horror, there was a familiar flickering and fluttering to my left. Wings and legs touching the side of my face. I brought a hand up to frantically bat the moths away and felt their fuzzy little bodies hitting against my skin. Philip yelped and smacked at his bare forearm, the one I had hold of. They were biting him. They were biting us.
We kept going. The moths flew around me, orbiting my skull. The faster we ran, the more indistinct they became, until they were mere blurry spots on my vision, like an afterimage. But I could still feel them. Panic struck me when I felt their fussing antennae on the back of my neck, and there was nothing I could do. I had to keep going. I had to ignore them. They were Clarabelle’s way of slowing us down.
After a moment - I don’t know how long exactly - I let his arm go. We ran side by side, and then he fell behind.
The ghost of Clarabelle was still following us. She must have been drawn to Philip’s torch because he was the one she most intently pursued. And he was slower than me. Like a fool, I trusted that he would outrun her. I didn’t even look round. Not until I heard his piercing wail.
He’d been caught.
“No! Let me go! Please, I have a family, I have children! Let me go!”
He struggled with her, pleaded with her, just like he’d pleaded with me moments before. Unmindful of the moths, I stopped running in time to see him die. Despite his efforts, Clarabelle pulled him into a tight embrace. I saw her broken ribcage come to life, open wide and bite into his abdomen. His blood stained her spotless skin like red paint on a white rose. Then he gurgled, and his heavy torch dropped to the ground.
A different kind of darkness descended after that. It was in my own mind.
The next thing I remembered was collapsing at the foot of the steps leading to the nature trail. I was out of the Glenn. I was out in the clear, cool air. And Philip was dead in the woods.
It was all I could do to roll onto my back and stare up at the stars. So much blackness up there, rich and full. The tears rolled down either side of my face and came to rest in my ears. I hated the dark. I hated the light. Philip was dead. Everyone thought I was crazy. Everyone would think I’d killed Philip.
I blinked up at the stars and realised the truth. His death was down to my insistence that he join me in those woods. I really had killed him.
The stars blinked back.
ohgod og h godg what ha vie done hewlp me please I don’t know what to do I DON’Y LNOW WHAT t;to do I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO I apdm ax xcan;t I CAN’T I CAN;’T I can’t I don’t know what to do please moths everywhere I see moths moths everyhere oh god oh god please so dark ;];help me I killed him I killed him I killed Phiilip fucking Clarabelle she ate bhim she’ll eat me what the hell am I foing to do this is my fault THIS IS MY FAULT oh go doh god please
Right now, I’m in the flat. My mind has cleared a little; enough for me to write this up. But the fact remains that Philip, the only decent employee at P&A Industries, is dead because of me. All because of a little box. I can’t face going back to work. I can’t face doing anything at all, really.
I don’t know who this explanation is for. Maybe it’ll help my parents understand what I’m about to do. Maybe it’ll go viral and help perpetuate the legend of Clarabelle, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Anyway, all that remains is to go back to the Glenn and surrender myself to the ghost.