“Tell us a ghost story, Lindsay!”

“Yeah, you’re so good at it! Please?”

The small voices of my cousins and I echoed through the tiny room built onto the backside of my grandpa’s workshop. It was a mild mid-summer night in the woods of Bladenboro, North Carolina, and we young grandkids were all up well past our bedtime.

It was family vacation at my Mema and Papa’s—the highlight of my summer. The family on my mom’s side always gathered for one week to let the adults catch up and to let the kids run free in the woods. We were at liberty to dig through the creek, catch frogs, and ride our bikes or the golf cart to who knows where as long as we didn’t go past the end of the road.

Because space in the house was limited, Papa had used his carpentry skills and built a small room adjacent to his workshop that was for the sole purpose of providing beds for children. We affectionately called it “the bunkhouse.” Six beds lined three of the walls of the small additional building, with no room to spare. It was decided that the girls would be sleeping in the bunkhouse, and the boys would be sleeping just next door in the workshop. It was on this night that one of the eldest of the girls was designated to speak on the legend of the ghosts that lived in the woods not twenty feet from the room we inhabited.

“Okay, okay,” Lindsay’s voice chuckled from the lower bunk across the room from me. “As long as you don’t get too scared,” she teased. I peeked my nose over the edge of the upper bunk in which I had made my temporary nest for the night. Lindsay’s face was lit mysteriously. Emma, Tori, and my sister Stephanie were already sitting upright in their bunks, ready for the story of the night.

She launched into her story. . . .

“Many years ago, before Papa ever built this house, this property was all part of the woods nearby. The trees were thick, and there were no trails for people to find their way. Boys and girls were scared to go into the woods because they were worried that they would get lost! There was an old house nearby where a little boy lived. One night, he dreamed that he met a beautiful girl.” My little heart fluttered. We were girls . . . would he have dreamed about us?

“He dreamed that she wandered into the dangerous woods alone. He tried to warn her not to go! She would lose her way! But his voice was not to be heard. He cried out and awoke from his sleep, afraid that the girl would be lost forever. In his distressed state, he tugged his blue blanket about him and rushed out to save her. Without thinking, he ran into the dark of the woods without even shoes or a light.”

A collective gasp came from the mouths of the four other girls in the room. Would the little boy be okay?

Lindsay continued her tale, suspense rising in her voice. “Strange sounds began to fill the boy’s ears: the haunted hoot of an owl, the screech of a black bat, the croak of a bullfrog. The little boy soon realized that he was lost and began to cry. He understood that the beautiful girl must have just been a dream. His eyes spilled over with tears, and he pulled the blue blanket over his head. He sat where he was, unsure of what to do next . . .”

There was an eerie silence in the dark bunk room. By this time, Lindsay had extinguished the flashlight, leaving the poorly insulated bunkhouse pitch black and still. The croaking of frogs could be heard from the nearby ditch. An owl hooted loudly somewhere in the woods nearby. The tension could have been cut with a knife.

“GAHHHHHH!” Lindsay shouted suddenly.

The following moment the room was filled with the high-pitched screams of young girls startled out of their reveries. Lindsay’s jump scare reduced us to a pile of noisy giggles immediately. It took several minutes for the room of cousins to settle down again. We were hurriedly reminded that the boys were sleeping right next door and that we needed to quiet down. Stifling our laughter, we all returned to our bunk beds to resume our enraptured listening.

“The little boy sat in the forest for a little while. His cries never stopped. He wanted to go home . . .” She paused for effect. “CRACK!” She shouted, and we all jumped a bit. “What was that?” Lindsay whispered dramatically. “What was in the woods with the little boy? He hesitantly looked up from under his blue blanket. To his surprise he saw the beautiful girl! ‘Come and follow me,’ she said sweetly. ‘I can take you home!’ She offered her hand. The little boy, though hesitant, did as the girl said and placed his palm in her grasp. Her hand was very cold. He followed the girl deeper into the forest with his little blue blanket.”

Lindsay fell quiet. We were all anticipating the ending of the story.

“What happened to the boy?” someone piped up from below me.

“Well,” Lindsay continued, “he never came home. People say that he still wanders the woods, looking for his home. They say he even approaches people’s houses and will knock on their doors . . .”

BAM! BAM! BAM! The door to the bunkhouse rattled viciously with the force of loud pounding. Terrified screams ensued. The door was thrown open violently and to our horror a small figure with a blue blanket thrown over his head stood menacingly in the doorway! Screaming intensified from the room of now-traumatized girls, and we quickly shrank as far away from the door as possible. I even hid beneath my own blanket for protection.

After allowing us several moments of panic, the figure removed the blanket, and my cousin Haddon emerged from beneath, laughing at our distress.

“Y’all are so loud,” he chuckled, “Good grief, we can’t sleep. We can hear you straight through the wall. Keep it down, will ya?”

We all stared at him, dumbfounded. As our heart rates began to return to their regular paces, we shouted him out of the room for scaring us so badly, promising we would quiet down.

To this day, I am hesitant to approach those woods after dark, but those nights spent with my cousins in the bunkhouse telling ghost stories, watching movies on a tiny VCR player, and having very close-quarter pillow fights are some of my best memories. Revisiting that little room is like walking back in time. There are drawings and secrets etched into the undersides of the bunks. The wooden walls have dents from where we hit them a little too hard. VCRs are still stacked in the corner, collecting dust. Did I appreciate it all enough? Did I make the most of the time that I had there? Will I be haunted by nostalgia and regret for missing time gone by? How many hours did I spend at Mema’s just sitting on the couch ignoring my family? The entrance of tablets, smartphones, and laptops into our teenage lives seriously cut down on the quality of interaction that we used to have. We didn’t dig trails through the woods anymore. We stopped putting on plays for our parents. Not even the golf cart got its fair use. Slowly, the week at Mema and Papa’s became a time to sit around the table, sometimes not even speaking to one another, playing games or scrolling through social media.

Most of us are all grown up now. Many of the cousins have graduated college, and some are even married with kids. The week of summer at Mema’s doesn’t happen anymore because no one has the time. The memories of our Papa, who is now with his Lord, are buried in our minds and in his creative works. He built them with his own hands: the house, the workshop, and the bunkhouse. Sure, we have pictures and a few videos, but none of that compares to the relationships that were built during that time.

I’m so thankful for my family’s intentional gatherings, which gave me the opportunity to become close with my cousins and grow up with them. My mom and her siblings made an effort to give my cousins and me the gift of family. Those summers that started when I was too young for me to remember were one of the greatest gifts I’ve been given. Even though many of us live quite a distance from each other, we are still able to pick up right where we left off whenever we meet up.

Did I appreciate it enough then? I probably didn’t, but I can appreciate it now. I won’t be haunted by regret, because I have been truly blessed. I have a family I can lean on. I can be thankful for those years of growth and keep those memories deep at my core. We may not appreciate things until they’re gone, but we can be thankful for how they’ve impacted us for the rest of our lives.