A cassette tape in a sealed plastic tub full of rusty screws. There was no way Justin could have passed that up when he spotted it, just off the running trail through Fens Pool. In a way, that explained it. Someone he knew, one of his jogging buddies maybe, must have planted it there for him to find. Ben fancied himself as a funny bastard; it was probably him.
Justin flipped the tape over and slotted it back in the deck of the old blue boombox he’d brought down from the loft – it had taken him ages to scrounge enough batteries to get the thing to work. He pressed the play button and the eerie recording began again.
Justin Maxwell Taylor… Justin Maxwell Taylor… Justin Maxwell Taylor…
Whispered again and again at the same pitch and timber. Once every two seconds. Over three thousand times across both sides of the tape.
“I know, right? Even for Ben.” Justin paused the recording, not wanting to hear any more of it. Of course it was his friend fucking around, had to be, but the voice still creeped him out.
Felicity scooped a few of the screws out of the jar and dribbled them through her fingers. Justin’s younger sister sat forward in his gaming chair, paying full attention to something other than her phone for the first time he could remember. She didn’t even seem to be worried about the metal chipping her new nails, currently the second most important thing in her life after her Samsung.
“Why are you so sure it’s that idiot? He’s not this creative. It’s gotta be paranormal, ghosts or something, sending you a message.”
“Don’t believe everything you read on Reddit, Fliss.” Since her sixteenth birthday she’d barely come up for air between hours of trawling Reddit, YouTube, 4chan, anywhere she could get her fill of creepypasta. Justin kept on expecting her to get tired of it, but for months her appetite for campfire stories of the supernatural had only increased. That was another reason he’d picked up the strange tub – Fliss would have pitched a fit if he’d passed it up.
A week ago she’d misplaced her favourite coat and blamed it on poltergeist activity. Her friend Kallie had found it a few days later at her house – Fliss had left it there during a sleepover.
“Does he even know your middle name? You hate the Maxwell. Maxweellll…” Fliss held the last of the screws up to the light, turning it this way and that between thumb and forefinger. She stared at it transfixed, as if willing it to do something spooky. Justin rolled his eyes.
She had a point though, loathe as he was to admit it. He thought hard. No, Ben probably didn’t know about the Maxwell, unless someone else had told him. They really weren’t that close.
“Maybe not Ben, then. But Scott knows, and so does Pawan.” Yes, and Pav never let him forget it.
It was Fliss’ turn to roll her eyes, which she did with the kind of over-the-top drama only a teenage girl could muster. “It’s a woman’s voice, bro. Like those two nerds have ever been near a girl.”
“Pav has a girlfriend.” Justin didn’t know why he felt the need to defend his friends on their behalf, but he couldn’t help himself.
“And I’m Miley Cyrus.” Fliss laughed, and dropped the last screw back into the tub. “I’ve got a Ouija Board app on my tablet, you know. You just put your fingers on the screen and-”
“The programme runs at random until it automatically spells out something scary and terrifies the kids, I know how it works,” Justin interrupted. “Mum would lose her shit if she knew you had something like that downloaded. What good would it do, anyway?”
“We could ask the spirit world who it was. What?” Fliss saw the look on his face and scowled. “Piss off, I’m serious!”
“I know, that’s the only scary thing about all this.” Justin tried to be a good older brother, he really did, but Fliss’ fixation with the occult drove him crazy.
“Fuck. You. Sideways.” Fliss picked up the battered plastic jar, and while glaring right at him, poured the screws out all over his desk. Rusty flecks of metal bounced and rolled in all directions.
“Hey, stop it! Pick those up.”
Fliss ignored him, stirring the coppery pile left on the desk with one finger. Justin swore and bent down himself to start cleaning up.
“You know there’s some paper in here too, right?”
He looked up. “What paper?”
“This.” Fliss tweezed a crumpled brown scrap out from amongst the screws and held it up. “It looks, like, really old. There’s some writing on it.”
Justin stood and went over to his desk, the screws forgotten. The paper was crumpled from its time in the jar, old and water damaged. But the series of numbers and letters scrawled in fading pencil were still just about legible.
“Those are coordinates,” Justin said, feeling a little thrill of excitement surge through him in spite of himself. “I saw loads when I did orienteering for my Duke of Edinburgh award.”
“Geek. Know where these point to, genius?”
Justin didn’t, but a quick search on his phone brought it straight up. A point at one end of Strumpshaw Fen, just a few miles down the road.
“We have to go and check it out.” Fliss was as good as bouncing up and down on the chair.
Justin shook his head, going back to collecting the errant screws all over his bedroom floor. “No, sis, we don’t.”
“Why?” His sister stared at him, her head cocked to one side.
“Because there’s no point, Fliss. It’s just someone’s dumb idea of a joke.” He didn’t want to admit it, but the coordinates creeped him out almost as much as the recording had. The thought of someone – or something, his subconscious mind added – leaving a trail of breadcrumbs to a remote spot out in the marshes made him shudder. A trail just for him.
His sister, however, remained unfazed. “Look, there’s a creepypasta about an old tape I saw online. Boombox Banshee, it’s called. The tape’s cursed, and this woman in black stalks anyone that listens to it. Her shriek’s supposed to kill you stone dead from fucking fright. Maybe this tape is something like that.”
“Crazy hobos, child traffickers, a paedo ring, Ben taking the piss, a serial killer.” Justin counted the options off on his fingers. “It could be anything or nothing, but all of that’s more likely than a bloody real-life ghost story. We’re not going.”
Fliss held her palms out in a strangely adult act of contrition. “Okay, maybe it is just one of your doofus friends messing about. But that’s even more reason to go! Catch him in the act.”
He shook his head. “It’s not worth it.”
“C’mon, it’ll be fun. I’ll take all my ghost-hunting stuff. Mum wants the house to herself tomorrow anyway. Steve’s coming round.” She stretched out the first ‘e’ in Steve with a sneer, succeeding in vocalising both their opinions on the new man in their Mum’s life in a single sound.
Justin didn’t want to see them mauling each other’s faces off on the sofa. An afternoon of ghost hunting with Felicity would be heaven by comparison.
He tilted his head back and let out a sigh. “If we go, will you quit it with the ghost crap for a while?”
And that was that.
They took the short trip into the Norfolk countryside in Justin’s knackered old Fiesta, and parked up at the RSPB centre at the edge of the fens. Fliss was unusually quiet the whole way there, her face drawn and pale. Justin tried making a little fun, but when she didn’t react he let it drop. Maybe the reality of what they were going to do had finally hit home. How dumb it was.
The sign on the window said the centre was closed on Thursdays, but it was easy enough to hop the gate and head into the marshland on foot. They headed off amongst the reed beds and lily-covered pools, the sun breaking through the early morning clouds high above.
Justin had travelled light, with just a waterproof jacket and a couple of bottles of water that Fliss had given him in his bag. Her backpack, on the other hand, looked heavy and almost fit to burst, but she refused to let him carry it.
“What exactly have you got in there anyway?”
“My spirit box, an EMF reader, a voice recorder.” She looked up and must have seen the look on his face. “All my ghost shit, in other words. You wouldn’t understand.”
“There’s not much that I do understand about you, Fliss.” Just a little dig, but she didn’t take the bait.
“The trees around here are weird. It’s still summer but some of them are dead already.” Fliss pointed to a stand of drooping willows on the meadow bank. Leafless, chalk-white branches hung low over the silty water, and every now and again the breeze blew through them, making them clack together like hollow bones.
“I guess, but it’s not exactly enough reason to call the Ghostbusters, is it?” Justin suppressed a shudder, chiding himself for being on edge. Maybe that’s what willow trees were supposed to look like.
“This is supposed to be a nature reserve. Heard any animals recently?”
“A few,” he replied, though in truth he’d been too focussed on his phone map to listen for pigeons. He’d heard a few calls and the occasional bit of rustling since they’d hopped the fence into the fen, but not many. It was strange for such a bright day, when he thought about it.
“It’s seriously spooky.” Fliss shrugged her bulging backpack higher onto her shoulders, trying to look haughty.
They walked in silence for a while, every now and again checking their phones to make sure they were on the right track. Justin downed a water in a few quick gulps as they picked their way around patches of spongy ground and bristly shrubs. He usually had a cast iron bladder, but for some reason it went right through him.
“I need to pee.”
Fliss raised an eyebrow. “Well, if you’re gonna do it, go in the bushes over there. I don’t need to see all your shit.”
“Number one, not number two.”
She gave him an odd, unreadable look. “Whatever. Take your time.”
He almost stopped to question it – she was acting weird even though the whole trip was her idea – but a warning twinge from his abdomen sent him jogging for the bushes. By the time he got there he was fit to burst, and a wave of nausea took a sudden, clenching hold of him. It was all he could do to drop his cargo shorts before he went.
After he’d finished he felt a little better, but his stomach still churned and grumbled the way it did when he ate dairy. Had he put normal milk on his cereal that morning by accident? No, it had been there on the breakfast bar waiting for him when he came downstairs. Fliss had made it.
Justin zipped himself up and waded back out of the bushes, only to find his sister gone. He had a moment of worry but shook it off; he’d got turned around in the undergrowth, that’s all. He spun around in a slow circle, looking back the way he’d come.
Then he saw her, running into a copse of sickly trees some way off to his left, already a few hundred yards away and accelerating. Her unwieldy backpack jigged from side to side as she ran.
“Hey, wait up!” Justin jogged after her, checking the map on his phone as he went. She was heading the right way at least; the coordinates were leading them right into the middle of the trees.
His sister should have heard him, but she didn’t even break her stride. Justin struggled to catch up, but every time he tried to run his stomach pitched like a boat in a storm.
A shadow under the canopy far ahead coalesced into a slouching cabin, and Fliss charged right inside without a pause. His stupid bloody sister was going to get herself killed by some crazy hobo and he couldn’t even keep up to stop her.
“Fliss, don’t go in there without me for fuck’s sake!”
Justin forced himself into a run, then a sprint as an inhuman shriek echoed from the cabin and pierced the eerie quiet amongst the trees. That wasn’t Fliss, it couldn’t be.
Boombox Banshee flashed across his mind, leaving behind an echo that repeated as he ran, and his hearted thudded in his chest. A screaming spirit, come for the souls of everyone who listened to that stupid bloody tape.
A ball of panic welled up inside of him, the blood pulsing at his temples much too fast. He carried on running anyway, unheeding of the skeletal branches that whipped at his arms and back as he trampled through the undergrowth. All he wanted to do was get to his sister, then get the hell out of the marsh.
“I swear to God, you’d better not be fucking around.”
Justin slowed as he approached the dilapidated cabin. Little more than a shed, now he was up close, an abandoned hide for twitchers coming to see some meadow birds maybe. Just a few walls of splintered wood, swollen by constant moisture, a narrow slit for a door, and a rusting corrugated roof. The stench of damp and leaf mulch radiated off it like a pall. He checked his phone in one shaking hand, not quite sure why he was doing it – the coordinates related exactly to the rotting ruin in front of him.
“Fliss? Where are you? Come out here now, I’m not joking.” He meant to shout, but he could barely manage a whisper.
Something rustled quietly, somewhere within the decaying shack. He tiptoed up to the yawning doorway and peered inside. It was dark as night within, except for a few rays of sunlight filtering in through a hole in the roof, illuminating a mouldering vegetable crate with something familiar perched on top of it.
The blue boombox from home. The tape inside played, just on the edge of hearing, whispering his name over and over and over again.
Justin Maxwell Taylor… Justin Maxwell Taylor… Justin Maxwell Taylor…
There was no sign of his sister, but by that point all thoughts of Fliss, or anything else for that matter, were blocked out by a rising hum of terror.
“What the hell?”
Justin took a few uncertain steps inside towards the stereo, hands up as if he were warding off an evil spirit. Perhaps, in a way, he was.
A flash of movement in his peripheral vision caught his attention. He started to turn, but far too late. Something heavy cracked him across the back of his head, and everything went black.
Felicity, or ScreamQueen16, as she was known in all her favourite places, stepped out of the shadows next to the cabin door. She lifted the hefty tree branch in front of her face and stared with a kind of glazed dispassion at the blood and hair matted to the end. She turned and flung it into the corner of the shack, far enough so that it wouldn’t be in shot when she started taking pictures.
After all, what self-respecting creepypasta got any attention without a few pictures for evidence?
She walked over to the boombox and stopped the tape. She was quite proud of that one, the recording had taken ages to mess with and get the spooky voice just right. It had been worth dragging it all the way here in her backpack, batteries and all.
The stupid idiot had nearly not noticed the coordinates. After all the effort she’d put in ageing the paper and practising different handwriting. She’d had to wave it right in front of his nose, pretty much.
Some people just didn’t appreciate a good ghost tale.
She picked the stereo up with both hands, hefted it, and bought it down hard on her brother’s smashed head with another sickening crunch. Shards of plastic shrapnelled into the shadows and pattered off the wooden walls. When she put what was left of it on the crate under the hole in the cabin ceiling, the sunlight glinted off the jellied grey of brain tissue as well as the slick of blood.
Her phone didn’t have the greatest camera, but that would add to the authenticity of the pictures, make them look like found polaroids or something once she’d applied a few filters.
“Here is the noise that smashed his head,” she whispered in a singsong voice, as she snapped a picture of the ruined and gore-soaked boombox, lit up by the sun far above to look almost otherworldly.
“Here is the boy, face down dead.” Another photo, this time of the body on the floor, but from the cabin door and without the flash, so that it wouldn’t be too clear. They could argue over whether it was real or not in the comments.
She’d get a few shots of the cabin and the copse of spidery trees on the way out. Just to set the scene for the story.
Boombox Banshee; as a title it needed some work. Maybe a better one would come to her while she wrote up her post.
The kids on Reddit were going to love it.
Adam Down writes stories about bad people doing bad things, often to each other. He lives in Birmingham, UK, and divides his time between working and running past anything even slightly unusual as quickly as possible.