by Elin Olausson
On Excursion Day, the girls wear red rubber boots and heavy backpacks that claw at their shoulders. The boys trail behind, throwing sticks, laughing. Mr. Ander walks ahead, his neck flushed from the sun. They’re heading for the Hill, which has a name that keeps slipping the children’s minds. Simon Olsson claims that it’s something to do with graves, but the girls know better than to believe what Simon Olsson says.
“That big rock over there is from the ice age,” Mr. Ander says, pointing with his meaty hand. The rock really is big, sharp-edged as if it’s been cut with a knife. Robin and Elliot rush toward it in a race that Mr. Ander puts an end to, to everyone’s disappointment.
“This isn’t a playground.” He’s out of breath after chasing the boys and bringing them back in line. “Who can tell me a fact about the ice age?”
No one can, because they are only six years old and haven’t been taught anything yet. Mr. Ander seems to remember this, and his throat makes a wet, coughy noise.
“Let’s keep going.” He trudges on and they follow, ten little shadows, twenty little feet. The heat glues sweaters and t-shirts to their skin, and at least three of them wish they were back home instead of here. Simon Olsson picks up stones and puts them in his pockets for some unknown reason. The stones look like his eyes, grey and unyielding.
When they reach the final stretch up to the hilltop, Mr. Ander stops mid-path to help them across the rocks and the mud patches. His arms look impossibly long as he lifts them, one by one, and his hands are clammy as if he’s dipped them in the mud. Some children need no help, and some make scrunchy faces and yearn for the chocolate bars at the bottom of their backpacks.
“Don’t run ahead now,” Mr. Ander says when everyone starts scattering, except for dough-faced Lisa Johnsson who has already burst into tears twice. The children roam the woods, the sun-gilded woods with anemones littering the ground, white and grape-flavor purple.
“You can’t catch me!” someone yells, or maybe all of them, and Mr. Ander is only a distant memory with sludge staining his brogues. Robin and Elliot find another giant rock to climb, slippery with lichen and hot to the touch. Perched on top of it they are kings, tiny kings of a vast kingdom.
Some girls sit down on the campsite logs to rebraid their hair and watch the view, calmly pointing out the school, the church, and the roads leading here and there. Others push through the undergrowth like cats, locating the old lookout tower that was abandoned decades ago and that the older kids have shared stories about. Nasty stories, too grim for six-year-olds, but they’ve dreamt about seeing the tower and now they’re here. It reaches toward the clouds like a deformed arm, all dead wood and rusty nails. The ladder has lost a few rungs, but it stands, whispering sweetly about the sights it can offer.
“I’m not going up there,” Julia Storm declares, before heading back to the well-behaved girls by the campsite. But Julia Storm was never to be trusted anyway, and everyone knows her dad drinks too much beer and forgot about her sixth birthday.
“Lena says that there’s a ghost up there,” Ida Bergman says, Lena being her older sister who wears black lipstick and has a skull tattoo on her shoulder. “That’s why the grownups don’t come here anymore.”
No one believes that there’s a ghost in the lookout tower, but at the same time they sort of do believe it. From the ground, the platform up there is obscured from view by the wooden fence. Maybe a ghost really does hide on the platform, waiting for people to climb the ladder.
The girls are watching the tower, wishing the mosquitoes would leave them alone, wishing their backpacks weren’t so heavy. Ida Bergman bites her lip, wondering why her sister told her that story in the first place. They are shuffling their feet in the moss, rubber boots shining, when Simon Olsson plods through the undergrowth and fixes his stone-eyes on them.
“What are you waiting for?” His voice is a child’s, small and weightless, but it contains the promise of future growling. “I’ll go up there, since you’re all too scared.”
“It’s not safe, Simon. Don’t be stupid.” But they don’t try to stop him as he heads toward the tower that just stands there, silent, like a sleeping giant. Simon walks around the structure a few times, studying it as if to see whether to trust it. Then he starts scaling the ladder. The girls grab at each other, and Sara Ahlgren puts the tip of her braid in her mouth even though her mother has told her not to. Simon climbs swiftly, monkey-like, easily getting past those places where rungs are missing.
“He’s going to fall,” Ida Bergman says, though that’s not what she fears the most. He’s going to be taken by the ghost.
They let out a collective breath when Simon reaches the platform. For a moment he’s gone from view, but then he shows, arms flailing but face too far away for them to read his expression. He howls with glee, as if he’s done something great, and maybe he has. Then a rock lands in the moss next to Sara Ahlgren’s boot, and they shriek when they realize what Simon is doing.
“Stop it! You’re not allowed to throw rocks!”
Simon shouts something, but they can’t make out the words. More stones come flying, one hitting Jessica Svensson’s knee, and they flee through the undergrowth, back to the campsite. Mr. Ander is there, angry at everyone and speaking loudly while Lisa Johnsson stands by his side, crying.
“Where have you been!” He glares at them, Ida and Sara and Jessica, and his forehead is glossy with sweat. “This is the last time you’re going on an excursion with me, let me tell you that much. We’re going back to the school right now.”
“But Simon is in the tower,” Ida Bergman pipes up, because she strongly feels that Simon being in the tower is her fault.
Mr. Ander’s face knits together in a frown and then widens, as if something has pulled it to the sides. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
The children glance at each other, fairly certain that Mr. Ander is not supposed to use that word in front of them. He dashes into the woods and they follow, nine little shadows, eighteen little feet. When they reach the tower Mr. Ander starts shouting Simon’s name, but Simon doesn’t show. He’s not standing on the platform, he’s not on the ladder, and there’s no trace of him on the ground. Only the rocks, the tiny, sharp-cornered rocks he’s littered the moss with. They look just like Simon’s eyes.
Maybe he’s trapped up there, Ida Bergman wants to say. Maybe the ghost has taken him. But Mr. Ander shakes his head, and in the end Simon Olsson is just an annoying brat who throws rocks at girls. He has probably hidden away in the woods in order to prank them on the way home.
“I need to make a call,” Mr. Ander says, but he has no reception until they’re back at the school and the girls sit down on the swings to drink their milk and eat their chocolate bars. They watch Mr. Ander talk, and talk, and talk, and they wonder if Simon Olsson is a ghost now, too.
AUTHOR BIO: Elin Olausson is a fan of the weird and the unsettling. She has had stories featured in Curiouser Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and anthologies such as Dark Ink Books’ Unburied, Nightscript 7, and Scare Street’s Night Terrors Vol. 4. Elin’s rural childhood made her love and fear the woods, and she firmly believes that a cat is your best companion in life. She lives in Sweden.