“The Devil’s Tramping Ground”–Tara Strickland

Fiction

“There it is!” Taylor shouts as our car approaches a trail on the side of the road. “The Devil’s Tramping Ground!”

We’ve been driving down this god-forsaken highway for what feels like three hours now. There’s not much to look at. Nothing but bare trees and a gray sky. The road is unnervingly lonely. We haven’t passed another car since we got off the highway forty-five minutes ago. The road is as straight as a Dakota highway and it elicits the same feeling of going nowhere, fast. No matter how fast I go or how many miles I cover, it feels like I am perpetually stuck in the same place.

I pull over and put my car in park. I look down at the map on my phone and then up at the trail that led into the woods on our right. “Yep, that’s it,” I reply. “You have the flashlights, right?” I ask Taylor.

“Yep!”
“Bug spray?”
“Yep!” Taylor repeats.
“Lighter?”
“Always. And my pocket knife, too!”
“Good. That’ll be useful. A little pocket knife will definitely keep Old Scratch away if he shows,” I say.
“Oh shut up, Ava. We can whittle a stick if we get bored. We’ll need a pocket knife for that. Unless you want to use your nails.”
“Ouch. No thanks.”
“Didn’t think so.”
Taylor and I get out of my car and go around back to my trunk. I open it up and let her get the backpacks and camping supplies out. I observe the area, wondering if I parked legally. There isn’t a designated parking area—it’s just a worn, pull-off spot. I hope my car will still be here in the morning…
“Are you ready?” Taylor asks enthusiastically, slamming my trunk shut.
“Um, yeah sure,” I respond slowly. I’m hesitant to actually go through with this. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“No. But nothing we ever do is. Like that time we broke into Dorothea Dix in the middle of the night. And the deserted battleground we went to at two AM just to hear phantom gunshots and smell rotting flesh. We never have ‘good ideas.’” She chuckles to herself as she pulls her backpack over her left shoulder. She held my backpack out to me. “Coming?”
I sigh. “I guess,” I grab my backpack, pull the right strap over my shoulder, and follow her into the woods.
This place is creepy no matter what, but being here at dusk makes it even more eerie. It isn’t dark yet, but it isn’t exactly light outside, either.
“You read up about this place last night, right?” Taylor asks. When I nod, she goes on. “I know we talked about coming here last year, but it’s been a while since I read about it. What’s the folklore about again? And why didn’t we come last year?”
“We didn’t come because I chickened out. It’s a freaky place. I didn’t want to come here in the daytime back then, but now I’m spending the night. You must have drugged me today or something…” I half-joke.
I remember what I read about last night online about the Tramping Ground. The trail that we’re on is very obviously barren. Even though it’s forty degrees out here and the middle of December, there are weeds growing outside this trail. There are trees around it, but nothing grows on this trail. As far as anyone knows, nothing ever has. And the actual ‘tramping ground’ we’re going to get to soon is a huge circle where the same phenomenon happens. The circle is about forty feet in diameter and absolutely nothing will grow there. No one knows why. Scientists have come out here and tried to find some scientific reason for the absence of life but they’ve had no success. Locals here in Siler City— even people all over the country— say that the Devil himself rises up from his fiery throne at night and walks along this circle plotting his evil deeds.  The website I read also said that anything put inside the circle at dusk will be violently thrown outside the circle by dawn the next day. Many professional ghost hunters have investigated this popular North Carolina site, but none have ever been able to make it through the night.
“Why are we here again?” I snap back into reality. “Do we have a death wish?”
“No! We’re here because it’s freaking awesome! So what are we putting in the circle?” Taylor beams.
“You, since you dragged me to this literally god-forsaken place.”
“Ava, you can wait in the car all night if you want. I’ll stay here alone. I have my knife. I’m good.”
“No, I’m not leaving you alone with Satan. And being alone in the car is worse.”
“Okay good,” she responds. Then her eyes light up. “Ooh! There it is!” She starts running toward a huge, lifeless circle of dirt that lies a few meters ahead of us.
“Lovely,” I say, quite unenthusiastically.
“Let’s start a fire,” Taylor suggests. “It’s getting a little cold.”
“Good idea. You figure out how to do that and I’ll find some sticks to burn. And we can leave my road map in the middle of the circle overnight. Since it’s a big book, the wind won’t be able to blow it away.”
“Cool! And we can put some rocks on top of it just in case.”
“Yeah! I’m actually starting to get excited,” I smile slightly.
“Finally!” Taylor shouted.
“Though it could be the anxiety caused by the fact that I am in the woods, in the dark, alone with you – another twenty-year-old – AND WAITING FOR SATAN HIMSELF. You do realize what we’re doing is completely idiotic, right?”
“Yes, but you won’t leave. You want to know what will happen,” Taylor tells me.
“Or what won’t…”
“Or what will…” she smirks.
I paused for a few seconds before saying, “You right.”

After multiple attempts at starting a fire in the middle of the Tramping Ground, we finally get it going just as the sun disappears over the trees. We don’t have a tent to sleep in because we’re planning on staying up all night. The wind starts blowing and I begin to regret my decision to go without a tent. It’d be nice to have a shield against the wind right about now. Taylor and I are sitting as close to the fire as we can, though we have to stay a good distance from it to stay away from the ashes blowing in the wind.
Taylor jerks her head around and looks behind her. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” I ask, curiously turning my head around, too.
“I heard howling. Not exactly like a wolf, but not like anything else, either.”
“It’s probably just the wind whistling through the trees.”
She chuckles nervously. “Yeah, probably…”

Taylor and I try to get our mind off of the creepy sounding nature around us by roasting marshmallows. Taylor came prepared for real camping.

“So, how are you doing in English?” I ask Taylor after a long silence. We were both trying to listen for out-of-the-ordinary sounds. The marshmallows aren’t soothing our nerves as much as we thought they would. I figured distracting ourselves would help.

“I’m doing okay. I hate my professor, but I’m hanging in there. He’s a prick,” she complained.

“Is this the same professor I had last semester?” I ask.

“Yes. I don’t know how you put up with him,” she scoffs. “I swear he doesn’t know how to grade essays… Prick.”
I open my mouth to respond but my thoughts are interrupted by a rustling in the woods closest to us. It sounds like footsteps upon dead, crisp leaves. It gets louder with each step. They’re getting closer. I look over at Taylor and her eyes are wide open. Her face has been flushed with terror. The footsteps stopped right behind us. We remain completely still for about five minutes, which feels like two hours. Somehow Taylor gets up the courage to slowly open her pocket knife and throw it behind us forcefully. It lands a good distance away from us. If something is there, it’s transparent.
“Turn around…” I whisper as quietly as I can.
You turn around!” she whispers back.
“Well, if there’s anything back there, it’s already heard us, and we’re gonna die anyway so…” I turn around in an instant and the fire is blown out simultaneously. Everything goes black. I can’t see anything behind us and we’re sitting in darkness. There’s nothing to light the area except for the full moon, which is mostly hidden by the hundreds of tree branches that surround us overhead. The temperature of the air went from feeling like thirty degrees to seventy in a matter of seconds. The wind stopped blowing in one direction and began to blow in a cyclonic rotation. Maybe the way things are thrown “violently” from the circle is via tornado.

Taylor and I stand up and try to escape, but we can’t cross the boundary of the barren circle. It’s like there’s an invisible wall between the inside of the circle and the outside. We begin pushing against the boundary and banging on the invisible force. With each push we deliver against it, the wind blows harder and the wall seems to get stronger. We’re too terrified to turn around even though we can tell by the illuminated trees in front of us that the fire has someohow been rekindled. The light we see on the trees moves higher and higher and the air around us gets hotter and hotter. The fire is growing larger than is physically possible for the amount of wood we used to burn it. The flames are reaching the tops of the trees. The limbs that are blocking the moon are ignited by the flames.

We stop fighting the wall long enough to wipe the sweat from our foreheads. As are arms slide across our heads, we hear screaming and howling that is unearthly. The sound is a high pitched screech that causes Taylor and me to crouch over and cover our ears. I look over at Taylor and notice blood running from her ear and down her arm. I start to scream at her to draw attention to the blood, but when I open my mouth I feel something in my left ear burst that causes me to instantly drop to my knees. My ear starts throbbing as I feel blood run down the side of my face. As the screaming continues, low growling joins in with it. It sounds, for lack of a better term, demonic. The deep growls are coming from right in front of us, though we can’t see anything but leaves. The screeching sound continues until we can no longer hear. Despite my efforts to cover my ears, my right ear begins to bleed then everything goes silent.

I look over at Taylor and she lets out a scream I perceive to be silent. I jump to my feet and begin beating on the wall again. The wall that blocked us before finally breaks and we can get through. We run, screaming – silently, to us – and run for our lives, quite literally. We run as fast as we can and we don’t dare to look back. As we run, the weeds that grew around the trail that we’d taken to the Tramping Ground come alive and begin slithering across the path, as if reaching for our feet. Taylor is successfully jumping over every root and weed that reaches in her way. The weeds are slowing me down, but I keep going. I can feel a mass of heat coming up behind me. With every step I take, It takes three. There is no out-running It.

About ten meters ahead of me, Taylor is reaching the edge of the woods. My car is in sight. I reach in my back pocket and grab my car keys. I lunge forward and throw them to Taylor. She turns and tries to reach them but they slip through her fingers. They land on the ground in front of her feet. I keep running as she scrambles to pick them up and unlock the doors. I am at the edge of the woods when the root of a tree wraps itself around my ankle. I hit the ground with incredible force, having gone from running at a high-speed to a complete halt.

“AVA!” Taylor screams, but I can barely hear the muffled sound of her voice.

I roll over so I’m lying on my back and I look up at the giant mass of fire now hovering over me. I try to scramble away but it plunges down so close to my face that I can hear my hair sizzling from the intense heat. I am paralyzed in fear. I look straight up at it, watching the flames engulf the trees above me. I hear the muffled growls of invisible wolves approaching me, surrounding me.
The mass of flames above me morphs into a shape I recognize: human. It lowers itself onto the ground at my feet. I try to move my feet away from it but I can’t. I’m scared to breathe. I’m scared to even blink. The bottoms of my tennis shoes start to melt as It puts its feet up against mine. This human-shaped creature has skin that looks like lava. Its eyes are black as coal. It speaks to me in a deep, raspy, almost inconceivable tone of voice, and in a language I have never heard before, but I understand it: “Ava… I’ve been waiting for you…”