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It's that time of year where people indulge in horror flicks and pay good money to wander through haunted houses. And why not? There's something foreboding about the waning light of day, something repelling in the slow decay of leaf and lawn. The air itself seems thinner, emptier, absent of the summer hum of insects and the trill of birdsong. The warmth of day weakens; the chill of night deepens; and the trees stand silent and bare beneath a cold, pale moon. A bitter wind gives sway to the barren branches; they creak and lift towards the mute, shadowed sky...but they will not be spared the winter. With nature's quiet, whispered reminder of our own mortality surrounding us, it's only fitting we go beserk in frenzied attempts to scare ourselves silly. It's the human way, perhaps, of giving our innermost fears the finger, by openly seeking what could rightfully freak us out. On the other side of the crypt, there's a few of us who have had enough creepy stuff happen that there's no need to watch a horror flick or to tour a haunted house. This post is for YOU. If you've seen a ghost, or had some unexplainable event freak you out, or you've lived someplace haunted, take a moment and tell us about it. I've got a few freaky stories. The one experience I never got over is a run-in with a will-o' the wisp. A will-o' the wips is a hovering, glowing and fading collection of pale, spectral light. It's like a small patch of fog with a dim glow, that hovers above the ground, and slowly drifts away as you approach it. Lore has it, that if you follow one of these, it will lead you to your doom - or at least, get you lost as hell. I used to live on 40 acres of woods and swamp, and I enjoyed walking around the trails at twilight, especially in the fall. Sometimes I'd see a deer, or see a fish jump. I liked to watch the sun sink down over the oak trees. I'd wait for that final blast of dying light that turned the low clouds into painted, cotton-candy colors. Well, one night I stayed out there way past the last fade of light. I'd been watching a doe and her fawn and lost all track of time. It wasn't until I couldn't see the deer for the darkness, that I decided to head back home. I knew the trails well, so I wasn't worried, though the sky was moonless and I had to be careful of my step. There were a few steep, rocky slopes that could cause a busted ankle to the unwary. I was completely alone, save for the call of a social-minded barn owl. I zipped up my jacket against the cold; the loss of the sun had caused a sharp drop in the temperature. I had a ways to go yet and now it was freezing out. I quickened my step... ....and then froze in my tracks, because there was this cluster of pale, winking light, in something like a soft, standing fog, just about twenty feet ahead of me. It was beautiful. I was transfixed by it. In truth, I was also a little bit creeped, because it seemed to be alive in it's own way. I wasn't sure if it found me, or I found it, but there we were. It was on the trail, dammit. That's the thing that got me, right then. I couldn't go home without either backtracking a long ways - in the cold and pitch dark - or, I'd have to walk forward and get closer to the mystical light. I was shivering by now and I couldn't tell you if it was just the weather. I took a step forward. The light hovered, bobbed...but didn't seem to retreat. It wanted me to come closer. I felt foolish for thinking it. Well, maybe it was just swamp gas, or a trick of a moonbeam. So I took another step, and another, thinking the thing would vaporize as I closed in on it, like a mirage. Interestingly enough, as I progressed, it was no closer, and no further away. I felt like I was following it without trying to. I tried to ignore it. Yet even while looking down at my boots, I felt the thing hovering in front of me. After several shivering minutes I realized I wasn't on the trail anymore. It was the absence of sound that tipped me off; there was no dry earth scuffing under my boots, no small stones. I was in the edge of the swamp, stepping through soft, mossy turf. It had been dark enough that I didn't visibly notice the change in terrain. I wasn't using the trees as markers as I usually did, as my eyes had been avoiding the creepy, drifting light that danced ahead of me. I looked around. I didn't see the creepy light; I didn't see anything other than the close, gnarled reach of bare, ancient oak trees, long dead, their roots rotted by the swamp. It was here, in this circle of dead oaks, that the only living sounds were those of my own heart and breath. No frogs, no crickets, on this cold night. The owl was silent. I couldn't even hear the sound of a car, so I couldn't tell where the road was...and therefore what direction the house was. How far was I from the trail? Which side had I stepped off ? The swamp covered this section of the woods like patchwork, so being at this spot, meant nothing. I could even be in the swamp proper, and a step to the right or left could sink a boot into deep, soft muck. I considered calling out to somebody. Anybody...but the silence around me was a suffocating thing, discouraging my voice. The only thing to do seemed to be to turn around, in an exact 180-degree pivot, and face back from the way I came, and hope I could backtrack more or less to the trail. I turned around, and there was the will-o' the wisp, which had been waiting behind me. OK, I was ready to scream. Literally. Something beat me to it, though, and the sharp, high-pitched shriek cut through the silence like a steel blade. A chaotic flutter of wings exploded in the brush not far from me, as the owl finished off its prey. I figured that out belatedly, though, because right then I was running like hell, straight through the will-o' the wisp, around the trees, through the brush. The deer spooked and bounded away, crashing through the undergrowth in their flight. I even flushed out a startled, under-sized coyote that bolted off with its tail between its legs. My headlong, thoughtless sprint accomplished a gain of my bearings. I reached a familiar point in the woods, seeing the leaning pine that the trail curved around. I knew the direction home from there. East, where the trail sloped down towards the road. If that friggin' will-o' the wisp was behind me, it better have some serious wattage to keep up, because man I was a track star by this point. I didn't worry about breaking my ankle anymore because now I was more likely to break my neck if I tripped. I scattered out more startled wildlife and burst into the clearing, jumping the ditch and crossing the road in seconds flat. I flew into the house, slammed the door and locked it. Then I turned on every light in the place. To this day, I'll never be certain if the will-o' the wisp was trying to help, or hinder. If the thing was a natural, scientific product of barometric pressure and humidity, or a woodland wraith. Whichever, it had a sense of presence that I'll never forget. Brian