Xander was bored. Truly, deeply, sincerely bored. Video games lost their interest after the first week or so. Trying to convince his parents that he really needed a car of his own killed a few days. Hitting the blockbusters was a way to spend afternoons a couple times a week. He'd done the part time job bit over spring break, working in Buffy's mother's gallery, and really didn't want to do that again.
Why was it that he never remembered how boring summer was when he was in school?
That was when he had his Truly Brilliant Idea: Camping trip. A week out in the wilderness, man against nature. Well, men against nature. He didn't want to go alone. So he called up Wendell and Pete and Josh and told them of his Truly Brilliant Idea. Since they were as bored as he was, they went for it.
Planning took care of a week. They needed tents, backpacks, hiking shoes, food, insect repellent.... His mother asked him if he was planning the Normandy Invasion. A phone call from Willow barely stirred the edge of his interest. The Trip was all.
Xander's mom drove the four boys to a popular camp site in the nearby Santa Trista mountains. "I'll be here on Friday to pick you up, right?" she asked anxiously.
"Sure, Mom," Xander said, hefting his backpack.
"Be careful! Watch out for snakes! And scorpions! A scorpion sting could kill you!"
"Actually, Mrs. Harris, out of ten species of scorpions that live in the Southwest, only one kind is of any danger to humans, and that only to children and the elderly--"
Xander slapped a hand over Wendell's mouth. "We'll be careful, Mom. Promise. Bye now."
Finally, the only thing that remained of parental worry and fussing was a dust cloud in the distance. The four boys looked at each other. "Okay, now what?" Pete asked.
"Um... we start walking, right? I mean, there are a lot of trails around here," Josh turned in a slow circle. The sun was beating down on them intensely, and the wind was blowing grit into their eyes.
"Well, we can't just stand here," Xander said finally. At random, he picked a trail. "Okay, we're going that way."
Slowly, the four boys shouldered their packs and set off into the vast reaches of uncharted wilderness.
"Why did we decide to do this, again?" Josh panted. "Hold on, I've got to stop."
"Come on," Xander urged, bouncing from one foot to the other. The diffuse light under the trees was cool, and they walked on a cushion of pine needles. "Think of it: Making it in the great outdoors, meeting Nature on her own terms. We're strong! We're proud!"
"I'm getting a blister!" Pete whined.
"Hey, you were the one who wanted to go fishing, right?"
"We've been walking for three hours. Can't we make camp?" Josh asked, sagging against an equally tired looking pine. "What, now you want to wuss out on me?" Xander asked.
Josh and Xander started to go toe-to-toe. Wendell intervened. "Hey! Let's walk another hour, okay? If we hit a stream before then, we'll stop. We'll need more water by tomorrow anyway. If we don't hit a stream, we'll camp there, and go looking for water in the morning."
Josh looked like he badly wanted to take a swing, but shrugged and said, "Okay."
"Fine by me," Xander said, reeling his chin back in.
Luckily for Xander's chin, Josh's temper and Pete's blisters, they found a beautiful clear stream in less than fifteen minutes. A small clearing sat near the bank, and the four boys set up camp for the duration. There was a rock formation a half-mile away for climbing, the stream for fishing and swimming, and the woods to wander in. The perfect campsite.
Tempers restored, the boys stripped down to their shorts and had a noisy water fight before pulling out their packed rations. "Tomorrow, fresh fish!" Pete bragged.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll believe it when I see it," Xander dead-panned. Pete threw pine needles at him.
They carefully cleared ground for a fire, circling it with rocks, gathering kindling. "Guess all those years as boy scouts paid off, huh?" asked Wendell.
"Remember Troop Leader Bently?" Josh snickered.
"Yeah. How did he become a troop leader? His knot was a little less than half-hitched. His piece of wood was half-whittled. His merit badge had a few demerits. His--"
"We get the point, Xander," Wendell cut him off. "At least he taught us the rudiments of cooking on the trail." Wendell tossed Xander the pot and a can of beans. "And, if I remember correctly, you were his prize student."
"Oh, man," Xander muttered. "One tuna casserole, and I'm the King of Home Ec for life..."
Exhausted, the guys crashed early, arraigning their sleeping bags around the banked fire. Xander woke only once during the night, to hear Wendell muttering in his sleep, "Get them off me! Get them off me!"
~Man, he's remembering the spiders,~ Xander thought with a little shudder. It hadn't taken him, Buffy, Willow and Giles long to figure out that only the people present in Billy's hospital room when the little dreamweaver woke up remembered the nightmares that had come true. Which was a vast comfort to Xander, but weird now, since he knew exactly what Wendell was dreaming about.
"Just hope the dream doesn't come true," Xander murmured sleepily, dropping easily back asleep.
"*That's* your big catch?" Josh hooted with laughter. In the slanting, setting sun, the string of three goldfish-sized fish that Pete held up glimmered with tiny sparks of silver. "Oh, yeah, I can see that you're going to feed us. Wow, you think we'll be able to eat all that?"
"Josh, you're being a butt-head," Xander said mildly. "Shut up."
Pete looked at his catch. "I think we scared away all the fish when we went swimming. Or maybe it was that I didn't start until noon. Aren't you supposed to fish in the morning?"
Wendell clapped Pete on the shoulder. "So get up early tomorrow and fish before we disturb the fishes."
Pete's troubled face cleared. "Yeah. Good idea."
Josh pulled out a radio and popped in the demo tape for a band that played in the Bronze, and rock floated through the pine trees. Twilight slid into full dark, but none of the boys was as tired as they had been the day before.
"You know what we need?" Wendell asked, tossing another stick on the fire.
"Marshmallows?" Josh asked.
"Yeah, marshmallows. And chocolate and graham crackers. 'Smores!" Pete enthused.
Xander groaned and turned over onto his stomach, staring into the fire. "Torture me, why don't you? Here we are, camping, and not a 'smore in sight."
Silence reigned for a few moments, until Wendell said in a dark and spooky voice, "Then how about ghost stories?"
Pete sat up. "Cool! Yeah!"
"Who starts?" Josh asked.
"We'll tell one every night," Wendell improvised. "And whoever's is the scariest, wins. And since I thought up this contest, I'll go first."
The other boys settled back down, drowsing in the firelight, and waited to be scared.
"Okay, so there was this guy and girl. And they went out to a quiet hill to make out. And while they were there, they heard this report on the radio that this guy had escaped from the Correctional Facility, and that everyone should be inside tonight, because--"
"Aw, man, I know this one," Josh groaned.
"Shut up," Wendell told him calmly. "Let me tell it. Anyway, this guy was really scary. He apparently had Hannibal Lecter as a role model. He had a particular fondness for eyeballs. In his trial, he said they were the tenderest part of the human body. When he was in jail, the other inmates were really freaked by the fact that he was a cannibal, and one of them cut off his hand and pretended to eat it. So ever since then, this guy had worn a hook on his arm. And he sharpens it regularly, to a gleaming silver point. And he used it to tear the guy who cut his hand off to pieces.
"So this guy and girl hear about this guy on the radio, and she wants to book. Especially since the guard there was found in pieces -- with his eyeballs missing. The guy was just getting lucky, so he tries to talk her out of it. 'What? Like he's going to come all this way and bother us? Yeah, right.' She's really scared. 'I think we should go now.'"
The three other boys snickered softly at Wendell's sudden, trembling falsetto for the girl's voice, but settled quickly back into listening mode, caught by the story and Wendell's storyteller's cadence.
"But she keeps thinking that she hears something, sees something. A shadow. A footstep. She's really wigging out now. Finally, the guy gave up, and started the engine. The car wouldn't move for a second -- it was like they were caught on something. He started getting freaked and floored it, and after a moment, they shot out of there. He drives her home, and she's shaking too hard to get out of the car, so he gets out and goes around to her side to let her out."
Wendell paused dramatically. "And there was a bloody hook on the door handle, sharpened to a gleaming silver point."
"Arrrrrgh!" Pete screamed, and dived under his sleeping bag. A few minutes later he came back out, sheepishly grinning at his friends who were howling with laughter. "It was an owl. I knew that."
"I'm going tomorrow," Josh stated.
"If you think you can top that one," Wendell told him.
"Yeah, I've got a good one my dad told me. No prob. No, wait, I wanna go last."
"I'll tell one tomorrow night," Pete volunteered.
"Fine by me," Wendell shrugged. "You're still not going to be able to top mine."
"Will to," Josh taunted.
"Boys!" Xander shouted. "Can we please pretend we're not eight years old?"
A few minutes later, all four of them settled down to sleep. This time, Xander didn't wake to hear if Wendell had any nightmares about spiders.
He did wake up when Pete rose just before dawn to try for a better catch. Yawning, he untangled himself from his sleeping bag and went to take care of certain morning necessities. Still sleepy, he decided to head back to bed when the scent of freshly-cut wood accosted him.
Confused, he looked around. They hadn't cut any wood for their fires. There was more than enough deadfall, and they wouldn't be able to dry out enough live wood in the time they were there to make it worth the effort.
After a moment, he saw which tree was releasing the scent. On the dark bark, he could see deep, deep gouges, the wounds showing white and clean. Freshly made.
And they looked like they had been made by a hook, sharpened to a gleaming silver point.
"I caught something! I caught something!!!" Pete came running from the river, a large silver trout flopping in his hands. He held it out proudly to the three boys gathered at the campsite.
"Wow. That's some maximum fish, Pete," Wendell said admiringly.
"Yeah. That's a lot of food." Josh's praise was somewhat grudging, but honest.
"We've got a pan, we can fry it. It should feed all of us," Xander said.
"One question," Wendell said. "Who's gonna clean it?"
Pete looked at Josh. Josh looked at Xander. Xander looked at Wendell.
Josh, Xander, and Wendell looked at Pete. Pete backed off, his prize still clutched in his grasp. "Uh-uh. No way. *I* caught it, one of *you* clean it."
"Thanks, but *not*! I'm not that hungry for fresh fish."
Pete sighed in resignation. "Okay, fine. Give me the knife."
Two hours later, the somewhat tattered filets of Pete's trout were cooked and consumed. The sun was down, the stars shining through the trees. The wind rustled the pine needles, making it seem as though they were surrounded by voices speaking just under the level of their hearing.
It was a night made for ghost stories.
"Pete? You're up. What story are you going to tell us?"
Pete poked the fire slightly, sending a shower of sparks into the air. "I don't know that many," he hedged.
"You've got to know *some*," Josh protested.
"Yeah, there's this one... it's about this girl. Her name's Miranda, and she's a babe. Really gorgeous, long blond hair, blue eyes. The only thing wrong with her is that she's missing an arm."
"Eeew," Wendell said.
Pete flashed him a grin and continued. "But her family's really rich, you see, and they could afford to have one made for her. And they made it out of solid gold. Anyway, her family dies, and she inherits all the money. And this guy marries her. She thinks he married her for love, but he just wants all her money. But she's got control of the money. So -- he kills her."
Pete drew a line across his neck with a finger and made a slicing sound. "So he gets all her money and he has a blast. But he spends it really fast, and needs more. Then he remembers... the arm. They buried the golden arm with her. That much gold... that would get him a lot of cash, real fast."
Getting into the rhythm of the story, Pete continued, "So one night, he goes out to the graveyard, just him, 'cause he doesn't want anyone to know what he was doing. And he digs up Miranda's coffin, and opens it, and pulls the arm out of the dress she was buried in. And her corpse is all gross, you know, decomposing and smelly. He closed up the coffin real fast and reburies it. Then he melts down the arm and sells the gold, and he's living fine again. "One night, he's drunk and alone in his house, when he hears footsteps. Sort of 'swish-THUMP,' like the Mummy. He thinks he's just imagining it, but it comes again. 'Swish-THUMP.' 'Who's there?' he shouts out, but no one answers. 'Swish-THUMP.' Then he sees the silhouette of a woman in the window, and thinks it's a chick that followed him home. So he opens the door.
"And it's Miranda. Her face is all falling off of the bones and she's got black moss in her hair. Her body's really stiff, which was why she was dragging one leg. So she comes into the house, and the guy stumbles back, really scared. He's got to convince her that he didn't steal her arm, that he was in love with her. So he sort of stutters out, 'Miranda, my love, what has happened to your beautiful golden hair?'"
Pete dropped his voice to a hoarse grind. "'All withered and wasted away.'
"'But Miranda, my love, what has happened to your lovely sky-blue eyes?'
"All withered and wasted away.'
"And Miranda, my love, what has happened to your clear sweet voice?'
Pete paused briefly to cough, the rough voice playing havoc with his throat. "'All withered and wasted away.'
"Now, this guy is calming down, because she hasn't gotten any closer to him. He figures that she doesn't know who took her arm. So he asks her, 'But... but, Miranda, my love, what has happened to your beautiful golden arm?'
"'YOU HAVE IT!'"
With a fine sense of showmanship, Pete tossed a big chunk of wood onto the fire as he shouted Miranda's last words. The fire flared up brightly, driving the other boys back. When it settled back into merrily crackling again, the three of them were still breathing hard.
"Wow," Xander said. "I've heard that story a hundred times before, but that was really good."
"Thanks," Pete said modestly.
"Yeah," Wendell agreed. "So, how gross did she look...?"
Wendell didn't dream again that night. Xander knew that for a fact, because he woke several times during the night.
Each time hearing the "swish-THUMP" of a corpse's footsteps.
The day passed quietly enough. Wendell spent it out in the woods, finding creatures that would have given Willow serious wig. Josh tried to build a lean-to by weaving together branches, and by the end of the day proudly showed off his lopsided wall. Pete left his early-morning catch in a basket in the river to keep cool, and went rock climbing.
And Xander tried to convince himself that no way, no how had he seen what he thought he saw. It was a bear, or something, sharpening its claws on the tree. Okay, so it was sharpening *a* claw on a tree.
It alarmed him that a bear was more comforting than the alternative.
And he made up the dragging footsteps he'd heard the night before. Power of suggestion, or something. No way he heard Miranda wandering through the wood. Nuh-huh. And there had to be an explanation for the furrows dug in the blanket of pine needles carpeting the forest floor.
That night, when the fire was dying down and they were bunked out for sleep, Josh claimed his turn. "I don't wanna wait. Xander, you can go tomorrow. Top me if you can. This story is gonna scare you so bad," he said, cackling madly.
"Uh, Josh, I'm really beat. Why don't we just go to sleep?" Xander tried.
"What, you're too *scared* to hear my story?" Josh taunted. "Fine by me, you can go sit somewhere else while I tell it. Alone. In the *dark.*"
~This is a baaaaaad idea,~ Xander thought, but didn't say anything. Any more protests and his friends would think he really was chicken. After all, it could just be his imagination.
It had to be his imagination.
"Okay, this is the story my dad told me. He said that years and years ago, when he was camping out here with his buds, they were warned to keep an eye out for this woman, La Charona. You see, when the Spanish lived here, she had two kids with a guy who owned a ranch. She was poor, so poor he didn't want to marry her, because he was greedy and wanted a rich wife. But she had two sons, and the rich wife that he marries can't have any kids. So the jerk kidnaps her kids and claims that they are the children of his wife.
"So, anyway, La Charona flips out. She goes to the ranch house and kills everyone in there. She takes a big ax, and chops up her lover and his wife. And she's so insane that she chops up her own kids too. She kills anyone who gets in her way.
"But then she realizes what she has done, that she's killed her own kids. But she's crazy, so she's convinced they're out there, somewhere. She thinks that if she can look into their eyes, she will recognize them. So don't sleep on your back when you sleep out under the stars, because she'll hover over you and wait for you to open your eyes. If she recognizes you as one of her kids, you're safe. But if not... SHE'LL CHOP YOU INTO BITS!!!"
Dead silence fell.
"Whoa," Pete breathed.
"Not bad," Wendell said judiciously. It was, of course, only the cold breeze that had him pulling his sleeping bag more tightly around him.
"Yeah, great story, Josh," Xander said weakly. Terrific. If his theory was right, he now had an ax-wielding mother to deal with as well as a homicidal maniac with a meat hook for a hand and a rotting zombie chick.
He was crazy. No way that their stories were coming to life. Except... how far away were they from the Hellmouth? How far away did they *have* to be for it to be safe? Giles had said the Hellmouth was closed, but then, it had been closed for all but about an hour on prom night, and still the energy from it had leaked above.
Restless, Xander finally fell asleep. And in his dreams, Buffy was there, smiling at him. "Xander, you know that I've always wanted to be with you. Angel... well, he was just a fling. You know, tall, dark and handsome." Her voice dropped, softened. "It's always been you."
"Buffy...." His dream-hands reached for her -- and she turned and slammed a stake into his heart. "What... what did you do that for?" he choked out. "I'm not a vampire!"
She tilted her head and shrugged slightly. "Ooops."
Right before Xander died, a shriek from one of the other boys woke him up from his nightmare.
"Pete! Pete, what is it?" Wendell asked, shaking the other boy.
"It... it was that woman! The one from the story! Man, I swear it! I opened my eyes and she was leaning over me with an ax! Swear to God!"
Josh snickered. "Guess I win the ghost storytelling contest, huh?"
"I'm serious! I saw her!" Pete insisted.
"Look, man, you were dreaming," Wendell told him. "She can't exist. It's just a story, remember?"
"Yeah. Yeah, right. Just a story. Sorry I woke you guys up," Pete mumbled miserably. The three of them all turned over and recaptured sleep.
Xander lay awake until dawn.
He stared at the small mound of turned earth. He'd found the possum before anyone else was up, and buried it before the others could see it. He didn't know if La Charona's ax or Hook Guy's slicer/dicer had done the work, but it had the same effect. Luckily, Miranda didn't come equipped with sharp objects, although he'd rather not meet a walking one-armed decomposing corpse, if it was all the same.
"Okay, now what do I do?" he asked the silent woods. They didn't have an answer for him. "You know, when all this weird stuff started happening," he said conversationally to a pinecone, "I pretty much knew what to do. Sic Buffy on it. I mean, she's the Slayer, she's good at fighting supernatural bad guys. But we're miles from anywhere, my mom's not going to be picking us up for another two days, and Buffy's in LA. So... that leaves me. Me, Xander, fighting the forces of evil." He would have thought he'd feel strong and mighty at the thought. Xander, facing down the bad guys.
Instead, he was scared to death.
Of course, he had been before. When he followed Buffy down into the electrical tunnel to rescue Jesse. When he and Willow and Giles had gone into the Bronze to rescue everyone from the Harvest. When he and Buffy had gone to rescue Willow from the demon in a tin can. When he and Angel had gone down to rescue Buffy from the Master.
"Of course, there's one word that keeps popping up in each one of those examples," Xander continued to the sympathetic pinecone. "'And.' There was always someone else along for the ride. Geeze, how does Buffy handle this on her own all the time?"
Options. He needed options. They could fight. That was his gut instinct. Bad things attack you, you fight back. Clean, simple, and it didn't take too much planning. Except that was iffy when you were fighting things that all seemed to be back-from-the-dead things. *Could* they die?
Xander started pacing through the woods, keeping an eye out for ghoulies and ghosties, but they seemed to generally be nocturnal creatures. They had been created by stories, old stories repeated time and time again, told by kids around a campfire.
Could they be made to leave the same way?
By the time it started getting dark, Xander though he knew what he was going to do. He collected massive amounts of firewood, to keep the fire high and bright. He kept a few sturdy sticks handy, in case hand-to-hand combat actually happened. Wendell and Pete showed up on time for dinner.
But neither of them had seen Josh.
"I think he went to the rocks," Pete said, pointing at the cliffs that were too tempting for a teenage boy to ignore.
"We all agreed that we wouldn't go wandering after dark," Xander argued. Impatiently, he opened a backpack and yanked out a fluorescent lantern.
"Hey, Xander, chill." Wendell put his hand on Xander's arm. "Maybe he just forgot. You know Josh, he may have decided to blow us off and keep climbing just because he wanted to. Hell, he may be hiding in the trees listening to us and laughing his ass off."
Xander switched on the lantern, cutting a stream of blue-white light through the darkening woods. "You two stay here, okay? By the fire. I'm going to go look for him."
"Xander... you think there's something out there?" Pete's newly-baritone voice trembled into treble for a few notes.
Xander considered for a moment. "Nah," he lied. "But there might be... um, bears. Yeah. Or mountain lions. Better stay by the fire."
Five minutes later, he was wishing himself back with Wendell and Pete. It was *dark* at night. And really, really quiet. So quiet, you'd think you'd hear someone sneaking up behind you really easily -- unless, of course, it was a ghost and could glide over the crackling pine needles. "Josh?" Xander croaked out. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Josh!" It was hard to shout in that silence, hard to attract attention in the night. But Xander gripped his makeshift club tighter and headed off to the rocks.
There didn't seem to be anyone there, but Xander persisted, clambering around, shining his light into various crevices. "Josh?" he called, his voice bouncing oddly off the rocks, reflected and refracted around him.
~One more. One more little cave, one more minute. Then I'm heading back and Josh can just find his own way--~
"Aaagh!" he and Josh shrieked at once. The light from the lantern caught Josh full in the eyes from where he had been cowering in the tiny depression in the rock, and the glitter had startled Xander. Xander nearly lost his balance and tumbled backwards.
"Man, what are you doing here?" Xander snapped, furious and scared, and *more* furious because he was scared.
"Sssssssh!" Josh hissed. "He's out there!"
"So are you, Josh. Come on."
"No! He's out there, I heard him. He was calling my name."
"That was me," Xander said patiently. "Come on, we'll be safer by the fire."
"I'm telling you, I saw him. Awhile ago. How long have you been here?"
Xander shrugged. "I didn't check my watch. Five minutes, maybe."
"I saw him before that. Right after the sun went down. He was big -- huge, seven feet tall and built like a linebacker. And he...." Josh gulped. "He had a hook on one of his hands."
Xander felt a shiver of fear work its way down his body from his scalp to his toes. ~This is so very, very, majorly bad...~ "Josh, we can't stay here. We've got to get back to the fire. To Wendell and Pete. We're not safe up here."
"You believe me?" Josh said gratefully.
"Yeah. Yeah, man, I believe you. Come on, let's go."
By the time they got back to the camp site, Josh had recovered completely from his brief bout with humility. "What, you thought I really saw some guy with silverware as an appendage?" He snickered at the thought. "Get real, Xander!"
"Weirder things have been known to happen," Xander muttered.
Pete had given in to the inevitable and had already cooked dinner, a largely inedible meal of burned beans and charred trout. "It took you guys too long to come back," he said sheepishly.
Josh leaned back on his sleeping bag and sighed, crossing his arms behind his head and staring up at the stars. "Aaaaaah. Tomorrow -- civilization! A Big Mac!"
"Running water," Pete chimed in.
"TV," Wendell contributed.
"Nintendo!" Pete, Wendell and Josh chorused.
"Yeah, yeah. You guys are a bunch of wimps. You don't have any appreciation for meeting Mother Nature on her own terms." Xander tried to sound noble, but flush toilets were looking more and more attractive. Not to mention that Men in Black was opening soon...
However, they still had this little problem to clear up. Hopefully, they would be safe for the night. The fire had enough wood to burn until morning, and they would head out in daylight.
But the next group of campers who came up there would get to face Hook Guy, Hatchet Lady and Putrefying Polly. Not a good scene.
"Okay, my turn to tell a story." Xander paused for a moment to listen. There wasn't any sound other than the snap of the fire and the murmurs of the three other guys. Even the wind seemed to have stilled. He mentally crossed fingers and toes in the hopes that his idea would work -- ~Hey, I'm not Knowledge Man, that's Giles's job!~ -- and dove in.
"You know that bend in the road, near the river back in town? You know how it's got guard rails up and reflectors and everything? Well, one night, this truck driver was going through there, and he almost runs over this girl who's standing on the side of the road."
There was a loud *snap* of a twig, out in the forest beyond them, as though a large man had shifted his weight, waiting. A point of light glanced off something in that direction, gleaming silver in the shadows. Xander gulped and continued. "It's pouring rain, thunder and lightning and everything. So, this girl flags him down. She's wearing a long, white dress, and she's soaking wet..." ~Buffy in a long white dress, face down in the pool, not breathing, not moving, not *living*...~ "...and she says that her boyfriend ran his car into the river on the way to the prom. He's hurt really bad, and she needs a ride back to town to call the police. The truck driver tries to call in the accident on his radio, but he gets nothing but static. Figures it's the lightning, and doesn't worry about it."
A long shriek echoed through the night, a woman's cry, flavored with absolute insanity. "What was that?" Pete asked fearfully.
"A mountain lion or something," Wendell said calmly.
"Oh. Okay. Go on, Xander."
Hidden in shadows, Xander's hands clenched and unclenched. Sweat that the fire wasn't responsible for beaded his forehead. "So, ah, so he takes her to her parents' house, like she asks him to. He's involved with setting the brake and everything, and when he looks up -- she's gone. Nothing there but a wet spot on the seat and a silk scarf."
Xander started talking faster. "The guy thinks that she left the cab when he wasn't looking, forgetting her scarf. So he gets out and goes to the front door. An older guy answers it, and the truck driver tells him that the girl left her scarf in his truck. 'Yes, this is my daughter's scarf,' the older guy says, very sadly. 'She died when her boyfriend crashed his car into the river on the way to the prom, twelve years ago.'"
Xander paused and took a deep breath. This was the important part. "You see, the things that don't belong in this world sometimes wander over into our world. But when their time is up, they disappear -- poof -- into thin air. They have no power to harm anyone here. They're not a part of our world, and they go away."
Nothing. Silence. No sound from the woods. Nothing at all.
"That was okay," Wendell said. "But you could've have picked a scarier one."
"That ending part was weird," Josh complained. "It ruined the whole story."
"I think Wendell's was best," Pete said, casting his vote.
"Hey, *mine* was the best! You had nightmares about it, remember?"
Xander settled down to sleep, listening to Pete and Josh bicker. And slept dreamlessly.
Just before dawn, Xander woke up. He packed all his gear, grabbed some raisins out of the dwindling rations, and went to check out the surrounding area.
There were no new marks on the trees, no mutilated animals, no furrows dug by a dragging foot. Just quiet, and stillness, and the breath of the forest. Surrounded by the whisper of the wind, the scent of sap and leaves and earth, Xander smiled. "Way to go, dude."
"So how was the trip?" Xander's mom asked as the four boys piled into her station wagon.
"Way cool, Mrs. Harris," Wendell grinned.
"Yeah, I caught a lot of fish," Pete bragged.
"Me, big man, lord of the forest." Josh beat his chest with his fists.
"Oh, man, we are *not* letting you see George of the Jungle," Wendell groaned.
"Xander? You're awfully quiet. Didn't you have a good time?"
By long practice, Xander was able to gracefully duck his mother's fussing hand over his hair. "Sure. It was cool."
"'It was cool'? That's all you can say? You didn't enjoy yourself?"
"Yeah, I did." Dawning understanding appeared in Xander's voice. "I really did."
"Well, good." Xander's mom smiled at him and started the engine.
"And *I* won the ghost story telling contest," Josh bragged.
Buffy's Story | Giles' Story | Willow's Story | Xander's Story
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