The four of us sat around the campfire, holding our mugs of hot chocolate that brisk October evening. My best friend David was holding court, telling his best ghost story as he circled the fire, walking behind and between us as he spun his tale.
“As old man Kohler was wrapping up an all-nighter of catfishing, he reached down into Bull Swamp Creek to pull out his catch. As his hand touched the surface of the water, a rotting hand reached up out of the creek and snatched him. He let out a scream and pulled back hard.
“As he pulled, a zombie-like creature slowly rose from the water. First those hands. Those hands with flesh peeling off them. Next, his head, an eyeball hanging from its socket. The creature slowly eased out and the water. Old man Kohler somehow pulled himself free of the creature and stood up in the boat. The zombie reached up, grabbed the side of the boat as old man Kohler edged backwards. Just as the old fart was toppling over the side, a second zombie hidden in the tree reached down with his moldy arm and SNATCHED Kohler up and bit off his head.”
With that, David grabbed Tommy from behind. Tommy visibly jumped. The rest of us fell into fits of laughter.
“Tommy,” Eddie laughed. “You might want to change your underwear because David just scared the crap out of you.”
“Did not,” Tommy said grumpily. “David just made me lose my balance.”
Eddie laughed. “Maybe you should lose that nasty underwear.”
We were all experts at giving each other a hard time. We’d known each other since we could remember. Growing up in the town of Bull Swamp, South Carolina – population 750 – it was something of a miracle that four boys were actually born in the same year. For 16 years, we had each other to hang out with, compete against and occasionally fight. But we always ended up back together.
We were on one of our regular camping trips. David, Eddie, Tommy and I have been camping out since we were old enough to convince our parents to put up a tent in David’s backyard.
We all have our roles. David is the most popular guy in school. Blonde hair, green eyes. Cool car. Eddie is the athlete – football, baseball. You name it, he can play it. He’s cocky and something of a joker. Tommy is the true outdoorsman. Raised on a farm out in the country (not in the big town of Bull Swamp like the rest of us), his muscles are hard from the physical labor of helping out on his grandad’s farm. But his heart was as soft as his muscles were hard, probably from being abandoned by his parents when he was six years old.
My name’s Clay and I’m pretty much the nerdy one in the crowd. Blame my family. They were the only ones who managed to make it out of Bull Swamp for a little while they went up to Columbia to get a college education. But they came back when my dad saved up enough to buy Bull Swamp’s Rexall Drugs. Dad is the town pharmacist and mom keeps the accounts for the store.
I spend my spare time reading books, taking photos and posting them on my blog.
And that night – around the campfire – I snapped away trying to capture shots of the leaping flames and steam coming off the cups of hot chocolate.
“Let’s go for a hike,” Tommy suggested, clearly trying to get the spotlight off of his skittishness.
“I have an idea,” Eddie said. “Since David was such good buddies with old man Kohler before the zombies got him, let’s hike up to the old Kohler mansion and poke around.”
“Is that a good idea?” Tommy said. “Do we really want to trespass?”
Eddie starts mimicking a chicken. “Bock, bock, bock… Chick-KEN!”
Tommy fumes but David takes control. “Let’s go have a look. If the back door is open, we’ll go in. If it’s not, we’ll come back and Tommy can tell us all about his date with Anna. I hear she’s very friendly on that second date.”
That was enough to get Tommy moving
The Kohler mansion was built in 1848, across the lake from the town of Bull Swamp. To get to it, you could either take a boat from town and dock, or you could wind your way around the lake, pass the gatehouse and then follow a winding road lined with live oaks dripping with Spanish Moss. At the end of the drive was a classic Southern plantation house with white columns, rocking chairs on the porch, surrounded by the biggest azaleas in Orangeburg County.
The mansion was dark and foreboding as we approached. Leaves covered the great front porch and a swing was creaking in the crisp wind. “No Trespassing” signs were nailed to the front door.
“Is it really worth a trespassing charge,” Tommy asked?
“Bock, bock, bock,” mocked Eddie.
David spoke up: “Let’s head around back.” So we did. “See, there are no “No Trespassing” signs here,” he rationalized.
Trying to look brave, I shine the flashlight on the back door and turn the doorknob. After a hard push, the back door opened into a little room with a big sink and hooks for coats.
“What’s this?” Eddie asked.
“It’s a muck room,” I said. “If you’ve been working in the fields all day, you can take off your mucky boots and clothes and clean up a little before you go into the house.”
“Mucky is right,” Eddie said, pointing his flashlight onto the half-inch of dirt and mud lining the floor. “This is one nasty place.”
Cobwebs filled the door frames and dust lined the floors, which creaked loudly as we made our way through the old mansion. We stop in the dining room where – amazingly – the table is still set for dinner. China plates, silverware, wine glasses. Three candelabras, complete with never-used candles, are arranged perfectly on the table.
“What the hell?” David asks. “How is it that everything is still perfectly in place? Daddy says nobody has lived in this place in 50 years. It looks like everybody just disappeared right before dinner.”
“Well then, let’s look in the oven because Tommy’s probably ready to eat again,” Eddie joked. “Anyway, any food we find here is fresher than anything Tommy’s Grandmom serves.”
Tommy pops Eddie in the head. “At least we have enough money to eat meat,” he says.
“Yeah, 50-year-old meat.”
Every room we walk into, it’s the same. A massive ballroom is set for the biggest dance of the season, although dried rotting flowers fill the massive vases. Sheet music is set out for an orchestra. In the front parlor, a card table has four hands dealt for some long-forgotten card game. Above the fireplace mantle hangs a sword.
“Holy crap,” I exclaim. “That’s a Model 1860 Light Cavalry Saber. There’s a famous photo of J.E.B. Stuart posing with his sword – and this is exactly the same.”
“Thanks, Professor,” said David, who reaches up and takes the sword off the wall.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I ask. “I’m not sure we should be moving anything.”
“I just want a little protection in case we run into any of those zombies,” David laughs.
Around the room are ancient portraits of the Kohler family. As we point our flashlights on paintings, one stands out: A Confederate colonel and a lady. We move close and we inspect the portrait.
“Hey, I think he’s wearing your sword,” I say. “It looks exactly the same.”
Eddie rubs the dust away so that we can read the inscription at the bottom of the painting: Col. Edwin Kohler and his fiancée Eliza Livingston.
“I wonder if they ever married?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but I’d go for a little of that,” David jokes.
“Only you would get the hots for a 150-year-old chick,” Tommy says.
“Come on, check out those bazoombas,” David said. “You telling me you wouldn’t?”
We carry on with our unauthorized tour, moving upstairs and where we find beds still made. David pulled on the door of an old standalone wardrobe and dust flies everywhere.
“Now this is perfect,” David says. “A Confederate uniform.”
David pulls the uniform from the wardrobe, slips on the gray coat, displaying the rank of a colonel. He dons the hat and belt, hangs the sword jauntily from his hip.
“You may call me Col. Beauregard,” he says with an exaggerated drawl.
We howl with laughter as David steps in front of a mirror to admire himself. But as David stood face-to-face with his reflection, the color drains from his face.
“Crap... oh crap,” David says slowly.
I look at David but can’t work out what was wrong. But then I step behind him and I understand. My heart jumps into my throat as I look into the mirror.
A young, beautiful Southern Belle is standing next to David. One gloved hand lay on his shoulder, the other on his hip. She’s in a hoop dress. Her hair in ringlets. And she’s translucent.
“Dance with me,” she whispers hoarsely as she steps out of the mirror and into the room.
David and I are frozen with fear. Eddie and Tommy look at the ghost, at each other and then haul butt toward the staircase. They rush into the ballroom where they come to a dead stop as Confederate soldiers and their ladies waltz to music played by a phantom orchestra. The dead flowers have come back to life, emitting a scent that is more reminiscent of a funeral home than a florist.
David is in almost a hypnotic state as the ghost leads him down the staircase an into the ballroom and begins to dance to the haunting sounds of the orchestra.
“This is insane,” Tommy says.
“That’s an understatement,” I agree. “I had no idea that David knew how to dance the Virginia Reel.”
“We’ve got to break up this party and get out of here,” Eddie says. “I’ve got an idea.”
We huddle in the corner and let Eddie lay out his plan. Tommy and I run back upstairs and start rummaging through the closet for Civil War era clothing. Eddie slips outside for a few minutes and comes back with a handful of Spanish Moss.
We meet up in the bedroom and prep Eddie for his starring role.
David and his dance partner move effortlessly across the dance floor. David’s eyes are locked on the specter. I look at his hands and see that they are starting to fade.
“Now!” I shout to Eddie and Tommy.
Tommy – now dressed in a top hat and tuxedo - moves carefully down the staircase in full view of the dancing phantoms.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he shouts. “We have a special guest tonight. General Ulysses S. Grant of Ohio.”
The music suddenly stops and ghostly dancers look up as Eddie appears with a ridiculous beard made of Spanish Moss and wearing something resembling Yankee uniform.
“The Stars and Stripes Forever!” he shouts as the three of us tear through the ballroom, grabbing David by the belt and smashing through the front window of the house, landing on the front porch.
I look back into the house and see Eliza shrieking in agony. Ghostly Confederate soldiers slip through the window, surrounding us on the porch. They scream. They howl. But ultimately, they are powerless outside of their home.
We’re taking no chances. We take off down the front drive and Eddie, the fastest runner, yells “Split up!”
Eddie and Tommy go straight down the drive. David and I take a hard right and cut through the woods. It was a poor decision.
We stop to catch our breath but realize we have stopped in the middle of the Kohler family plot. Tombstones and a mausoleum surround us.
As David and I hold on to a headstone, panting heavily from our sprint, the clouds shift and moonlight shines on the ground in front of us. From four different graves, we see rotting fingers quickly digging their way out of the ground.
“Zombies,” David says, exhausted. “Freaking zombies.”
These are no George Romero “Night of the Living Dead” zombies. These are the OG: Voodoo zombies – undead creatures.
They come for us. And don’t believe what you see on TV. Zombies move faster than you think. The first one leaps from the grave, screeching and flailing its arms at us.
David draws the sword from his belt and neatly slices off its head. He spins around and cuts off the arm of the second one just as I pick up a tree branch and plunge it into its chest.
Number three grabs David and slings him into a tree, dazing him. Quick as a flash, the zombie is in my face as I back away from him. He slashes out with his nasty fingernails, tearing my jacket.
When it comes to fight or flight, my body’s reaction its usually neither. I just freeze. But not tonight.
I feel the flashlight in my hand. I shine the light directly into the zombie’s dead eyes, stun it momentarily and then shove the flashlight straight through its nasty teeth and deep into its throat.
It slows him but doesn’t stop him. He’s almost on top of me. I smell his rotting flesh and feel his warm, nasty breath. As I prepare to meet my maker – or be transformed into a zombie – a long blade comes sliding through the zombie’s chest, stopping just inches from mine.
“Take that, you asshole,” David yells.
“Thanks, brother,” I sigh.
“No time for thanks – Run!” David says.
We run toward the lake, the final zombie close on our heels. We somehow reach the lake ahead of the creature.
Spotting a small fishing boat, David and I jump in. I try to start the outboard motor, jerking hard on the pull cord. It spits. It sputters. But the motor will not come to life.
David leans over the edge of the boat, reaching down into the dark waters of Bull Swamp Creek to pull out the anchor. As his hand touches the surface of the water, a rotting hand reaches up out of the creek and grabs his wrist.
The freaking zombie had caught up with us. David screams and pulls back hard.
David somehow pulls himself free of the creature and stands up in the boat. The zombie reaches up and grabs the side of the boat as David edges backwards.
David loses his balance and starts to topple over the sides when – from the trees above – he’s snatched up.
It’s Eddie and Tommy, who reached the boat minutes before us, but had the good sense to take shelter by climbing the nearby trees.
There’s only one problem. I’m in the boat. By myself. With a zombie.
The zombie lunges at me. I somehow avoid his grasp. We both almost fall overboard but find our feet on the small boat. It rocks perilously on the water. We’re staring at each other, waiting for the other to make a move.
David yells “Catch!” and tosses me the Confederate sword. Whether by luck or through the adrenaline rush, I catch the sword and in one swift motion chop off the zombie's head. It plops in the water. Its body falls over the other side of the boat, green slime oozing from its neck.
“Frigging sword,” I swear, and I hurl it as far as I can into the deep murky waters of Bull Swamp Creek. It sinks to the bottom, forever lost.
From the distance, we hear the Eliza’s shriek as her hopes for companionship fade.
We drag ourselves to the bank of lake. Dirty, sweaty, exhausted, we sit there in silence. Eddie pulls Spanish Moss off of his face and out of his hair.
Tommy finally speaks up. “Call me a chicken if you want. But next time we go camping can we please stick to hot chocolate and lying about girls?”
That was our last trip to the Kohler mansion. But it’s said that if you’re out catfishing after midnight on Bull Swamp Creek, you can occasionally hear the voice of Eliza calling wistfully…”Edwin…. Edwin… Edwin.”