By Shawn Sarles
Foreword by James Patterson
Read by Charlotte Blacklock
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Be careful what stories you tell around the campfire . . . they just might come true.
While camping in a remote location, Maddie Davenport gathers around the fire with her friends and family to tell scary stories. Caleb, the handsome young guide, shares the local legend of the ferocious Mountain Men who hunt unsuspecting campers and leave their mark by carving grisly antlers into their victims’ foreheads.
The next day, the story comes true. Now Maddie and her family are lost in the deep woods — with no way out — being stalked by their worst nightmares. Because there were other, more horrifying stories told that night — and Maddie’s about to find out just how they end . . .
As a storyteller, telling scary stories around the fire was always my favorite part of a camping trip: listening to the fire crackle, holding a flashlight up to my face, whispering ghost stories and urban legends… and making everyone too terrified to crawl into their dark tents.
Campfire by Shawn Sarles took me right back to those hair-raising moments. The idea that scary stories can come to life—that the stuff of nightmares might be real—is so terrifying, I guarantee it’ll give you goose bumps.
“EARTH TO MADDIE,” A VOICE CRACKED.
Maddie jerked, the reins snapping in her limp hands. Underneath her, the horse picked up its head and snorted but kept trotting smoothly along the path.
She’d been daydreaming again. Or rather, she’d had a daymare. The same one that always haunted her. She took a deep breath and filled her lungs with fresh mountain air. She tried to shake off the bad feeling.
“Hellooo.” The voice broke into her thoughts again.
This time Maddie swung her eyes around to meet those of the girl riding beside her. Maddie barely managed to stifle a laugh as her best friend, Chelsea Park, jostled uncomfortably in her saddle, almost falling off.
“When you invited me on this camping trip,” Chelsea said in a strained voice, her teeth gritted the entire time, “I thought it’d be like a hiking-through-the-woods kind of thing.”
“Are you really telling me you’d rather be walking up this mountain right now?”
“Well, no.” Chelsea stiffened as her horse stepped around a rock in the path. “But my chances of breaking my neck are a lot smaller when I’m on my own two feet.”
“Nothing’s going to happen,” Maddie promised, “as long as you keep those feet in your stirrups.”
A panicked look crossed Chelsea’s face and she jammed her feet into the stirrups as far as they’d go. Maddie couldn’t keep her giggles back this time. It felt good to laugh, especially at her best friend, who rarely lost her cool.
“It’s not funny.” Chelsea tried, and failed, to keep a straight face as she jostled around atop her horse.
“You look like you’re constipated.” Maddie giggled some more.
“I do not.”
Chelsea shot up in her saddle, her back ramrod straight.
“You kinda do.” And Maddie mimicked her best friend’s face, gritting her teeth and pursing her lips tight like she’d just taken a bite out of a lemon.
“Stop that.” Chelsea swatted at Maddie, completely forgetting she was on top of a horse. She wobbled in her saddle again, but this time Maddie reached out and grabbed her.
“Relax,” Maddie said. “The horse can feel when you’re uncomfortable.”
Chelsea’s fingernails dug into Maddie’s arm as she pushed herself back up on her horse. She took a deep breath, like she was about to meditate or something, and then slowly let go of Maddie. The horse continued walking along underneath her, and she didn’t falter this time.
“I think I’ve got it,” Chelsea whispered, afraid to upset the fine balance she’d found with her horse. A few strides later and she seemed marginally more comfortable in her saddle.
“Who are you trying to impress anyways?” Maddie asked.
“I thought that was obvious,” Chelsea eyed Maddie conspiratorially. “But the real question is who you should be worried about impressing.”
Maddie’s cheeks flushed pink as she shook her head and looked down at the ground.
“Don’t act like you haven’t noticed our hot mountain guide,” Chelsea pressed on.
A nervous snort erupted from Maddie’s lips, and she almost fell off her horse. She flipped her eyes up to the front of their group and got a good look at the guide with his blond hair and tan skin. His bright blue eyes.
“He’s kinda hot, isn’t he?” Maddie confessed.
“Scorchin’,” Chelsea replied.
Maddie had to roll her eyes at that one.
“Well, he’s all yours.”
“Oh, no,” Chelsea shooed the words right back at Maddie. “He’s not my type at all. You’re gonna have to take this one.”
Maddie hesitated. She didn’t usually go after the guy. That was Chelsea’s area of expertise. Maddie had never even had a boyfriend, though she’d had her first kiss. And it hadn’t been at a party or with Tommy Meyers and his Funyuns breath, though she couldn’t say that it had been much better.
But this could be fun. It wasn’t like she’d ever see their guide after this week. It could be nice to look and maybe even flirt a little. She was sixteen, after all, and entitled to a little crush here and there.
What had he said his name was? Maddie tried to remember, but when he’d introduced himself she’d been too busy gawking at his perfect, one-cheeked dimple.
Carl or maybe Calvin. Maddie tried to recall it.
“Caleb.” Maddie said it out loud, snapping her fingers in delight as she remembered. A nervous excitement bubbled up in her stomach. Her face flushed again, warming her all over.
“This little camping trip just got a lot more exciting,” Chelsea trilled, her eyes cutting mischievously to Maddie. “So here’s what we’re going to do—”
As Maddie listened to Chelsea unfurl her master plan, an uneasiness crept in and replaced her excitement. What had she just agreed to? Sure, Maddie had talked to boys. But what did she really know about flirting with them? Only that she wasn’t very good at it.
All of a sudden her slender legs itched in their stirrups. They longed to pound against the dirt trail, to get away from Chelsea’s sly gaze, the glimmers of her mean-girl past shining through. Maddie could run up this path in a flash. And the altitude training would be great for her. Her cross-country coach wanted her up to speed by July.
But why was Maddie thinking about training right now? This was supposed to be a vacation. Was Maddie really so afraid of talking to a boy?
“How about I just go up and talk to him?” Maddie offered, interrupting Chelsea’s elaborate plans of late-night encounters beside the campfire.
“I guess that could work, too.” Chelsea seemed a little deflated.
“I’ll just go now then,” Maddie said, effortlessly urging her horse forward.
“I’ll be right behind—” Chelsea cut off as she tried, and failed, to mimic Maddie’s easy moves. She lost her balance again and nearly slipped off her horse. “On second thought, I’ll stay back here. I’m gonna need a detailed report, though. I’m talking every syllable and hair flip. Don’t you dare forget a single thing.”
“I won’t.” Maddie laughed at Chelsea’s super-serious approach to all things boy. “Try not to break your neck while I’m gone.”
And Maddie pulled in front of her best friend.
Up ahead she saw her father sidling his horse toward another with a woman riding it. Maddie’s breath caught in her lungs. Her face flushed red with a painful heat. She squeezed her eyes shut and then opened them again. Her vision blurred in the bright morning light and then focused on the woman.
For a second, she’d seen her mother. But, of course, that couldn’t be. How could her mind still trick her like that? She hadn’t seen her mother in five years.
Maddie blinked the tears out of her eyes. It was only Mrs. Towson—Kris, Maddie corrected herself. Even out here in the wild, stripped of her usual pantsuit and three-inch heels, the woman looked all business with her short hair dyed blond, like some kind of wannabe politician.
Had her mother taken herself so seriously? Maddie couldn’t remember. But Mrs. Towson—Kris—had taken over the real-estate business after her mom had died, and the woman had gone full-on power broker. It wasn’t a bad look. It just could be a bit off-putting at times.
As Maddie’s horse caught up to them, she could just make out their conversation.
“Enjoying the great outdoors, Kris?” Maddie’s dad asked, his tone light.
“More like worrying about the paperwork piling up on my desk.”
“You’re supposed to relax on vacation. Unplug and unwind.”
Kris shot Maddie’s dad an annoyed look.
“Well, since we’re miles away from civilization, the nearest cell tower, and any Wi-Fi hotspot, you can consider me good and unplugged.”
Maddie heard her dad chuckle at that, though she knew Kris was deadly serious. The woman had a Blu-Tooth hooked into one ear at all times, always carrying on conversations with herself. Maddie got ready to urge her horse forward again but stopped as she saw her father lean in close and speak in a hushed voice.
“So—uh—do you think you’ll have time to talk later?”
Maddie had no idea what that could be about and nudged her horse a little closer to try to listen.
“It’s important, Kris,” Maddie’s father pressed.
“Fine,” Kris relented. “But this better not be why you dragged us up this mountain.”
“The trip’s for the kids.” Her dad looked more relaxed now, his breezy self again. “Charlie and Dylan are going off to college in the fall. This could be the last time we’re all together.”
Kris rolled her eyes and pulled her horse away. Maddie’s father didn’t seem to mind, though, as he smiled to himself and rode on.
That was weird, Maddie had to admit. But it was probably something stupid like coordinating graduation gifts for her older brother and Kris’s daughter, Dylan. Maddie’s dad had the annoying habit of making a big deal out of a small thing.
Maddie pulled on her reins and made her way toward her father. She sneaked a look back over her shoulder and saw Chelsea watching her, excitedly nodding her head toward the front where Caleb was riding.
Well, maybe she’d ask her dad about it later. Right now she had a date with a hot guide named Caleb. She dug in her heels and her horse picked up speed.
But just at that moment a roar ripped through the woods, followed by the crack of a gunshot. Tree branches shook as birds leaped from their roosts. The ground seemed to give way underneath Maddie. She jolted in her saddle and hung on for dear life as her horse rocketed up on its hind legs.
THE HORSE’S FRONT HOOVES PAWED THE air. Its whinnies cut shrilly through the afternoon, louder than the original beast’s roar. The horse stomped and kicked and threw its head back and forth. It was like riding a jackhammer hell-bent on tattooing its name into the mountain.
Maddie couldn’t think. Her teeth clacked in her mouth. Thankfully, her tongue rolled up on its own, otherwise she would have bitten it clean off. The force of the stomps hammered up her legs and rattled down her arms. The bucking threw her feet from the stirrups and jerked the reins from her hands. Her strong runner’s quads strained as they squeezed the horse’s back, as she clung on through sheer will.
A picture of her body lying broken on the trail flashed through her mind. She panicked, grabbing blindly at the air, the horse’s back, the saddle… anything that might save her.
Mercifully, her fingers found the horse’s mane. They twisted into the fine hairs and crooked into knots, giving the horse a vicious French braid. Maddie stopped sliding, but she’d only pissed off the horse more as it continued to buck and neigh, no signs of tiring in sight.
“Hey, there,” a voice rolled under the commotion. Maddie had forgotten there were other people around.
“Hey. I’m talking to you.”
The voice was sterner this time. It demanded to be heard.
“Everything’s gonna be all right.”
Maddie tried her hardest to focus on the calm, soothing words. But she couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes. She was scared. Petrified. And her fingers were slipping. If she was going to die, she’d rather go without having to witness the final, grim descent.
Fear was what made death so bad, the fear of knowing that it was all about to end. She liked to believe that her mother had burned up all in one instant. In one flash. One explosion so intense she couldn’t have felt it. Gone before she had the time to think about all she was leaving behind—about her husband, who was hopeless without her, who could barely work the oven to heat up fish sticks; about her son, who still needed her to remind him that socks had to be changed every day and that sleeping past noon on Saturday was a terrible waste of a weekend; and about her daughter, who she’d never watch grow up, never see go on her first date or hear about her first kiss, never help her through those lowest of low moments in life when a girl needed her mother’s shoulder to cry on more than anything else.
Who would Maddie miss most?
Her brother. And Chelsea. The two best things in her life. Her anchors and protectors. She would never have made it this far without them.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, though. At least when she was gone she wouldn’t feel the pain or fear anymore. It’d be theirs then. Maddie felt her fingers loosening, letting go of their knots. She slid backward.
“Come on now,” the voice persisted. “Just look here. You can trust me.”
Even as her heart pounded in her ears, Maddie focused on the voice, pulling herself back up an inch, then another. Now she knew why she hadn’t recognized it at first. It was Caleb speaking. She eased one eye open and spotted him, hair golden in the light, standing under her horse’s pawing hooves. Her other eye snapped open. He was too close. The horse was going to kick him right in the face, knock the teeth out of his beautiful smile.
“You can trust me,” Caleb reiterated, and with a jolt, Maddie realized his words hadn’t been for her at all, but for the horse.
“I’m not going to hurt you. No one is. Whoa, now.”
And it was like he’d spoken the magic words. The horse snorted loudly as it came down onto its front hooves and looked into Caleb’s bluer-than-blue eyes. Maddie couldn’t help staring, too, transfixed by the guide’s piercing gaze.
The horse paused there on the ground, eyeing Caleb, marveling over him. Or maybe deciding whether to maul him next. But that few seconds was all the time Caleb needed; his hand shot up and grabbed the reins.
The horse nickered and tossed its head, but Caleb refused to let go. The earth grew steady under Maddie. She couldn’t believe it. He had saved her.
“TH-THANKS.” MADDIE’S VOICE SOUNDED FUNNY IN her own ears, like hearing it through a long and narrow tunnel. Maybe one with a bright light at the end of it. She looked down at her hands and could barely focus. Even though the horse had stopped moving, her whole body quivered still.
“It’s all right,” Caleb said in the same soothing voice. “I’ve got her. You can dismount if you want.”
Maddie nodded slowly, hearing but not quite understanding. She looked at her hands again. They were lost in a snarl of horsehair. She concentrated on them. She bent her index finger, and it surprised her when it moved. Carefully, she untwined the rest of her fingers from the horse’s mane, her knuckles coming unhinged one at a time.
Maddie turned. It took her a beat to realize that it was her brother’s hand outstretched to meet hers.
She grabbed for it and felt relief at the familiar rough skin of his palm, the calluses from hours spent on the baseball diamond. She leaned on him and slid off her horse. Her legs hit solid ground and faltered, threatened to buckle, but Charlie was there again, lifting her up, handling her weight easily as he slipped his arm around her waist.
“You all right?”
“Yeah,” Maddie’s voice wavered. “I’m fine… thanks to Caleb.” She met the guide’s eyes and her cheeks flared. She dropped her gaze to the ground.
“Oh, my gosh. Are you okay?” Chelsea pushed through and flung herself at Maddie, wrapping her in a crushing hug. The girl’s makeup had bled around her eyes, giving her a ghoulish look. But she didn’t seem to care as she held on tight to her best friend.
“I was so scared,” Chelsea babbled on. “It was like slow motion—the roar—and then the gunshot—and then your horse—I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”
Actual tears dotted Chelsea’s cheeks as she buried her head in Maddie’s shoulder.
“I’m—I’m fine. See? Still in one piece.”
Maddie held her arms out, proving it to herself as well as to Chelsea. Then she gently shrugged her best friend away. She had to wipe her own eyes now. She sniffled and looked up, trying to keep more tears from leaking out.
“I’m so glad you’re okay. You wouldn’t be a very good best friend if you were a pancake.”
A laugh gurgled out of Maddie’s mouth and a smile sneaked across her lips. She shook her shoulders back and started to feel like herself again. Until she noticed everyone looking at her.
All those eyes. All of them staring at her with the same expression, the same wide-eyed, poor-little-girl look that had dogged her for the last five years. Chelsea was the only one who’d never looked at her with those pitying eyes. Maddie’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. They all thought her helpless.
And wasn’t she? Hadn’t she been? She tilted her head forward and let her hair swing down to hide her face.
“I think we could all use a little break,” Caleb said. “Take ten. Grab some water and stretch your legs. I’ll help you tie up your horses. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
The group broke up slowly, everyone still on edge after Maddie’s brush with death.
“Promise not to go endangering your life again,” Chelsea said, holding up her pinkie.
“I promise.” Maddie slowly lifted her head and hooked her pinkie with Chelsea’s.
“Good. I’m gonna hold you to that. Now, I think I better go check on my horse before it gets too far away.”
Maddie nodded and watched her best friend go, thankful that she’d invited Chelsea along on the trip.
“You sure you’re feeling better?” It was Charlie’s turn to check on her.
“Yes. I really am.” Maddie didn’t like all the attention. She was fine. Couldn’t they all see that? “Now stop worrying about me and go help Dylan. Your girlfriend looks like she could use a big, strong man to haul her pack down for her.”
Maddie shooed her brother away, sticking out her tongue so he’d know she was all right.
She was all right, wasn’t she? She looked down at her hands and watched them tremble. She clenched them hastily as someone walked up to her.
“I just wanted to apologize again for that—um—freak-out,” Caleb said. “I know it must have been really scary.”
Caleb looked embarrassed, and Maddie hated it. She didn’t want him to feel bad. Not after he’d saved her. Accidents happened.
She wanted to say all this, but her voice had abandoned her. She could only nod and hope she got her point across.
“I don’t know how you stayed on for so long.”
“Instinct, I guess.” Maddie swallowed and could somehow form words again.
“You’ve got good ones, then.” Caleb beamed at her. “Do you want to take my horse the rest of the way? She’s sweet as can be.”
“I guess…” Maddie hesitated to accept. “I mean—that’s nice of you to offer.”
Then she remembered Chelsea’s dare. This was her chance to get closer to Caleb. She could do this. She just had to be bold. She cleared her throat and met Caleb’s eyes, her best attempt at a flirtatious smile curling her lips.
“But only if I can ride alongside you.”
“I’d be honored.”
Caleb flashed his brilliant white teeth at her and Maddie felt her stomach flip-flop. Her knees wobbled and a giddy tremor tickled up her spine. It was such a relief—this feeling—the exact opposite of fear. Why hadn’t Chelsea ever told her that flirting felt this good?
A few hours later, Maddie felt like herself again. Riding next to Caleb, she’d completely forgotten that her first horse had almost thrown her to the ground and stomped on her head. She felt light and happy. But also like such a schoolgirl. She was sixteen. Way too old to have a puppy crush. But she couldn’t help it. Every time Caleb spoke, her heart skipped, her cheeks flushed, her breath came in short gasps.
She glanced back and saw Chelsea still struggling on her horse. She felt guilty for leaving her behind, but this was Maddie’s chance. How often did a girl get the opportunity to flirt with an older guy? Especially one this attractive. She knew Chelsea would understand.
“You know,” Caleb said, glancing at Maddie out of the corner of his eye. “I think we need a new name for you.”
“A new name?”
“Yeah. A nickname. Something legendary. I mean, that was some feat, the way you held on to that horse.”
“It was only luck,” Maddie mumbled. “You did all the real work.”
“Don’t sell yourself short.” Caleb set those blue eyes on Maddie and she almost melted. “You held on to that horse all by yourself. That took strength. And guts.”
Caleb winked at her, and Maddie blushed from head to toe.
“Now about that name,” Caleb thought out loud. “How about—how about Mustang Maddie?”
Maddie had to use every bit of willpower she possessed to keep from leaping out of her saddle.
She loved it, even if she didn’t quite understand it.
But she couldn’t let Caleb know that. She had to play it cool, erase that smile bubbling behind her eyes. It was what Chelsea would have whispered in her ear if she could. So, with her best straight face, she turned to the mountain guide.
“What kind of nickname is that?”
Had she sounded convincing? Not over-eager?
“It’s something my kid sister and I used to do,” Caleb explained. Then he seemed to lose his train of thought. “Actually, you kind of remind me of her.”
Warning bells sounded in Maddie’s ears. Kid sister? She had to get this flirting back on track.
“So I’m like a superhero or something?”
Caleb laughed, and Maddie gave herself an inner high-five.
“It’s more old-timey, though,” Caleb went on. “More like a tall tale. Like—”
Caleb took both hands off his reins and waved them in front of Maddie to illustrate his point. He lowered his voice and spoke in a deep drawl, loading each word with action like an announcer at a rodeo.
“Introducing Mustang Maddie, the finest horsebreaker in all the West. She’ll ride the wildest colts to the ends of the plains and back to tame ’em.”
Maddie couldn’t hold back anymore. Her giggle bubbled out of her.
“So like Pecos Bill.”
“I like it. I like it a lot.”
But before Maddie could go on, the horses came to a halt. Next to her, Caleb turned and lifted his voice to speak to the rest of the group.
“Take a look, everyone.”
They had stopped at the edge of a ridge. Down below them a valley opened up. It was just as breathtaking as Caleb had promised. The ground popped with bright green grass and a lake shone brilliant blue, reflecting the larger-than-life sky in a picture crisper than any HD television.
“We’ll be camping down there. Welcome to your new home. At least for the next week.”
TENTS WERE HARD. ESPECIALLY WHEN THEY didn’t come with instructions. Maddie stared down at the limp, olive-green canvas and winced. What dingy corner of the attic had her dad dug this out of? And how long had it been there? The thing looked more like a dead frog waiting to be dissected than a tent. Discolored splotches spotted its back. They could have been old mud stains or black mold. Maddie kicked at it, half-expecting it to jump to life and bite her. There was no way she was going to touch this thing.
Even though she and Chelsea were sharing the tent, Maddie’s dad was supposed to help her—that is, put the whole thing together—but he’d disappeared the moment they’d thrown their packs down. And Chelsea had absolutely no clue how to put the tent together. Maddie looked around, hoping that maybe she could get Caleb to help.
“You need a hand?”
“More like two or three,” Maddie said, a bit disappointed to see her brother.
“You’re my hero,” Chelsea jumped in, laying it on thick. Charlie didn’t rise to her bait, though, and instead bent over and set to work on the tent.
Over his head, Chelsea shot a furtive look at Maddie, who could only shrug back. She knew why Chelsea had passed on the opportunity to flirt with Caleb. Her crush on Charlie was no secret between the best friends. But it had taken on a new wrinkle in the last few months, ever since Charlie and Dylan had surprised everyone and started dating. Chelsea insisted that that coupledom wouldn’t last long and so had kept right up with her obvious attempts at flirtation. Charlie never bit, though, and today didn’t look like it’d buck the trend.
“Do you need any help?” Chelsea made one last attempt with Charlie, but he only shook his head. Chelsea rolled her eyes at Maddie—boys—and walked off, but Maddie knew better than to take that as surrender. It was more of a rallying of the troops. She’d lick her wounds now and then come back with the big guns later.
“She gone?” Charlie spoke once Chelsea moved out of earshot.
“Yes, silly. She doesn’t bite, you know.”
“Oh—I think that girl could bite and then some.”
“You might like it, if you ever gave it a shot,” Maddie teased.
“That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”
Charlie wasn’t teasing, though, and it shocked Maddie to hear.
Praise for Campfire:A Barnes & Noble Best Book of the Month!
- "When fictional murders become the blueprints for actual killings, where is the line between imagination and reality? Slasher film fans will want to gather round the fire."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Entertaining... Sarles keeps up a fast pace with toxic family drama and graphic murders alike, with effective use of red herrings. This slasher will work for teens raised on Goosebumps."—Booklist
- "[Campfire]'s treatment of the traditional horror tropes gives it a nostalgic sense. This nostalgia will likely appeal to older teens with fond memories of their younger years spent enjoying series horror fiction such as R.L. Stine's Goosebumps. ... near-constant action and peril, family drama, and plenty of gore, liberally spread around."—VOYA
- "A fast-paced, chilling read that will pull you in and keep you guessing until the last page. Campfire had me on the edge of my seat and had my heart pounding. I did not see that coming. Five incredibly creepy stars!"—Natasha Preston, New York Times bestselling author of The Cellar and The Cabin
- "Wholly chilling and unputdownable, Campfire is spooky summer fun for fans of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Scream - just be sure to read with the lights on!"—Kerri Maniscalco, New York Times bestselling author of the Stalking Jack the Ripper series
- "Campfire gave me two new nightmares. Utterly delighted!"—Dawn Kurtagich, author of And the Trees Crept In and The Dead House
- On Sale
- Jul 17, 2018
- Hachette Audio