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Zoe Miller’s finger hovered over the RECORD button. A quiet, cautionary voice inside her head said: Don’t do it.
The recording device—a cheap digital voice recorder that she had purchased at Walmart—was about the size of a cell phone. The recorder was perched atop the gravestone of a man named Bernard McElroy. Even in the heat of the early July evening, the surface of McElroy’s headstone was cool to the touch, Zoe had noticed.
The light was fading, but she could still easily read McElroy’s epitaph: “Let us pray that he rests in peace.” This could be interpreted in a variety of ways, not all of them comforting, considering what Zoe was about to do.
According to the inscription on the face of the stone, McElroy had lived from 1855 to 1930. Seventy-five years. Not an amazingly long life, but not a bad run for that period, when the average American man had been lucky to see the age of fifty.
Zoe Miller was twenty-seven years old. She was tall with long dark hair. Most people would have described her features as attractive, if somewhat angular. She frequently drew the stares of men.
Zoe also had her share of first dates, and sometimes even second dates. But after a while, potential boyfriends inevitably found out about her ghost hunting. Even Zoe had to admit that it was an unusual preoccupation for a woman in her twenties.
And sometimes, things followed you home. That could really freak out men who were otherwise boyfriend material.
Zoe hoped that nothing followed her home tonight. While summoning the courage to push the record button and be done with it, she took a moment to survey her surroundings.
This old graveyard was known as the Pioneers’ Cemetery. It was, in fact, designated as a historical site in Clermont County, Ohio, a semi-rural county just east of Cincinnati. The Pioneer’s Cemetery was located atop Goshen Hill, via a winding, lane-and-a-half gravel access road. The graveyard was surrounded by forest on three sides. On the northern face of the hill was a clearing that afforded a panoramic view of much of the western half of Clermont County: farms and country roads, warehouses and electrical towers, and subdivisions in the more developed areas.
No one had been interred in the Pioneer’s Cemetery for decades— since before World War II, in fact. Bernard McElroy had probably been one of the last. Most of the gravestones that Zoe had passed on the walk from her car bore dates from the early- to mid-1800s.
She had chosen Bernard McElroy’s headstone because it was one of the tallest in the cemetery, with a top end wide enough to accommodate the digital recorder.
Zoe knew the risks of taking EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, recordings in a location like the Pioneer’s Cemetery. An EVP recording could be done with any recording device, really. To the unbelievers and the skeptics, it was nothing more than a recording of white noise. But to anyone who believed in supernatural, an EVP recording was an open invitation for communication with the spiritual realm. The problem was, you never knew who—or what—might accept the invitation on the other side.
Zoe was startled by the sound of movement in the woods behind her. She turned around, momentarily forgetting perils of EVP, the inscription on the headstone of Bernard McElroy.
The tree line was located at the end of long slope, a stone’s throw beyond the last row of graves. It was old growth forest: hickory trees and pin oaks. There would be many trees back there that had been saplings when the oldest of the dead in the Pioneer’s Cemetery had been born.
Zoe had grown up in Clermont County; and she had spent her whole life in and out of the woods, more or less. But these were the woods atop Goshen Hill, the woods that enclosed the Pioneer’s Cemetery.
Zoe looked back at the tree line. What had she heard, exactly? It had sounded like someone—or something—moving back there. She knew that in the middle of summer, there were all varieties of natural sounds in the woods, most of them harmless. Even now, she could hear the last of the day’s cicadas. A few minutes ago, a crow had cawed. A few hours after full dark, the crickets would start chirping.
Zoe also knew that wildlife was nothing unusual in these parts—and nothing to be alarmed at. There were a few coyotes and foxes around here, but they left people alone. The woods also teemed with deer, and they could frequently be heard moving about.
Still, the movement that Zoe had heard hadn't sounded like those of deer. The movement had sounded more deliberate and furtive.
Zoe, you’re just psyching yourself out, she thought, chiding herself. Get this done with, and you can drive back into town. And be done with this. You have to go to work in the morning, don’t forget.
Zoe turned back around, and she was ready to push the RECORD button, when she heard another sound in the same area of the woods behind her—the unmistakable sound of a dead branch snapping.
Although the Pioneer’s Cemetery was known to be paranormally active, ghosts didn't ordinarily break dead branches on the forest floor as they moved about. Whatever had made the sound was very much alive—and quite possibly human.
I could just go back to my car, Zoe thought. She could be back in her Honda Accord in a few short minutes if she walked briskly—even faster if she ran.
Then she thought: No, I’m not going to be spooked out by a snapping tree branch. Zoe was active in the in the Southwestern Ohio Ghost Hunting Adventures forum—an online venue utilized by avid ghost hunters in the area. Just last week, two other members of the forum, CSmith and AHarris, had posted some hair-raising footage that they’d recorded along a stretch of two-lane highway known as Dead Man’s Curve. Skeptical experts might dispute the authenticity of the footage. But it looked legitimate enough to Zoe. Smith and Harris had found themselves in the middle of undeniable paranormal activity.
And was she going to allow herself to be scared away by a tree snapping in the woods? It probably was nothing but a deer.
But she had to know for sure.
Zoe turned around again, and began to walk down the slope toward the tree line.
But before she departed, she pressed the RECORD button on the digital recorder.
Zoe braced herself as she approached the woods behind the Pioneers’ Cemetery.
She had second thoughts: Was this really necessary? But then she thought: No, you had to confront your fears. A ghost hunter who made a habit of running wouldn't last long.
Her feet swished through the long grass on the way down to the tree line. She picked a straight-line path that was relatively free of gravestones. She briefly imagined herself tripping and falling into one of the stones headfirst, then waking up here in the middle of the night, delirious and with a knot on her forehead. No, she wouldn't let that happen. Nor did she want to risk something so mundane as a sprained ankle. Not here.
It did not take her long to reach the woods. She didn't go back among the trees. (She wasn’t feeling quite that brave.) She stopped, rather, at that place where she could feel the coolness of the forest, where she could make out the patterns in the bark of the foremost trees.
From this proximity, Zoe could also see the mulchy ground, the Virginia creeper and poison ivy plants that grew on the forest floor. But she was still far enough away that she could turn and bolt back up the hill if something—or someone—lunged out from the shadows.
“Is anyone there?” Zoe called out. “I heard you moving around.”
Having announced herself, Zoe went silent, and waited for a response. No one replied. No big surprise, she thought. If someone were back there spying on her, why would he come forward now?
Zoe held her breath, and listened. Nothing.
She was about to return to the grave of Bernard McElroy when she heard another fallen branch snap from back in the woods.
There was definitely something, or someone, back there. Not immediately behind the tree line, but farther back. Close enough to look out and see her, but far enough back so as to be obscured by the shadows.
“Hello?” She said. This time she noticed a slight trembling in her voice, and rebuked herself for it. She wasn't feeling as brave as she wanted to. This was no state in which to confront a prankster, a peeping Tom or a stalker.
It might have been the impending darkness, the Pioneer Cemetery, or the idea that someone was spying on her. (Most likely it was a combination of all three.) But Zoe was actively disturbed now. She could feel the skin on her bare arms break out in goose flesh.
Maybe it’s a deer, Zoe thought. That would be the best case scenario. In any event, if there was someone back there, he or she didn't seem inclined to answer.
She decided that it was time for her to return to Bernard McElroy’s grave, retrieve her digital recorder, and call it a night at the Pioneers’ Cemetery. The recorder had been recording for about five or ten minutes now, plenty of time for her to gather a decent sampling of any EVP that might available here tonight.
She gave the woods, now impenetrably dark, one final glance. She had a sudden desire to get away, and quickly.
Zoe turned and walked back uphill. During the walk, she exercised care so as not to trip over any low-lying headstones.
The entire way, she had the sense that someone was watching her.
Zoe was a cub reporter for the Clermont Tribune, the only real newspaper in Clermont County. The job didn’t pay much, but at least she was nominally a journalist.
Zoe had not even graduated from college before she realized that she had picked the wrong major. Even before the Internet age, journalism had always been a chancy career choice. But since the turn of the twenty-first century, the Internet had been rapidly displacing newspapers and magazines. By the time Zoe earned her four-year degree, journalism jobs were few and far between.
When she reached the headstone of Bernard McElroy, the digital recorder was still in record mode, still taking in the white noise of the cemetery. Zoe reached down, tapped the RECORD button off and snatched up the recorder.
There was nothing overt, no concrete phenomena to indicate that anything had happened.
Zoe heard another branch snap back in the woods. It was almost full dark now. She looked back down the hill, and she could see nothing but the basic shape of the tree line. In the intervening space, a few fireflies glowed and went dark, accentuating the transition into night.
She didn't exactly run for her car, but she didn't waste time threading a path between the headstones, either. I’ve been here long enough, she thought.