Eight Candles Burning Bright-
Short story excerpt from
Welcome to Simmins Detective Spencer
Sunday, December 13th 1998 - First candle 🕯
Nana enters the dining room. Her eyes are red from crying.
Nope. Not going there.
She stands by me, wringing her hands, chewing on her words as if they taste so bitter. She can't get them out. I don't look up again and keep doing my puzzle. First, I need to find the corners. After you find the corners, everything starts to fall into place.
"Noah," she hesitates, but when I keep my focus on the table, she continues. "Grandpa and I are thinking we'll transfer you to the school here in town after New Year's."
"That's silly. Mom and Dad will be back by then," I say, eyes still firmly on the table.
Nana shakes her head, squeezing her eyes shut and clasping her apron in a wrinkled hand. "Noah—"
“Whatever. I'm going outside to play." I shove my chair back, the motion sending puzzle pieces flying across the table and into the plate of cold potato latkes by my elbow.
"It's nighttime," Nana protests, but I grab my hat and gloves and leave the room as Nana expels a sigh heavy enough to blow me all the way out the door and into the backyard. I shut the door with too much of a bang and freeze as though my hand is stuck to the doorknob. This was dumb. It's dark outside and bitterly cold, but it's too late to rethink my choices now.
The menorah in the window holds a lonely first candle, standing its solitary watch against the night. The backyard is full of creepy shadows. A sliver of moonlight and the light from the windows barely allow me to see what I'm doing as I gather snow to make a snowman. I attack the measly covering of snow on the ground, scraping together a ball that is at least half dirt, but I don’t care. It won't be perfect. Life isn't perfect.
I push and pull, stumbling on the frozen ground till my breath is coming in big gasping pants. I pour my worry and hurt into the snow. Despite my efforts, my mind keeps flicking back to the empty driveway. The space where Mom and Dad's car should be parked.
My nose streams from the cold. My hands are icy and cramped despite my gloves.
I’ve managed to make the body, but I need more snow for the head. There are deeper drifts up against the trees at the edge of the yard, but I don’t really want to go too close to the woods. It’s darker there. The moon is rising over the house. The trees creak, bare branches rubbing against each other in moaning complaints. They sound like our cranky neighbor back in Illinois, Mr. Thomson, muttering underneath his breath about kids playing on his lawn. I stare into the darkness under the trees till my eyes play tricks on me. The shadows move, darting between the trees.
“Stop being a baby,” I scold myself. “You’re almost thirteen. Gonna be a man soon.” At least that’s what Rabbi Moishe says during practice for my Bar Mitzva.
I square my shoulders and step out of the protective bubble of light close to the house. The darkness grows heavier. Weighing on my shoulders like a massive hand, pushing me towards the trees.
I dive at the nearest snowdrift, focusing on the heap of powder, gathering it into a haphazard pile when there's a CRACK under the trees.
Ok. That wasn't my imagination. Maybe it’s a bear or a wolf. Do they have wolves in these woods? I scrape my snow together faster, preparing to bolt back to the safety of the house when something moves out of the deepest shadows. My heart thumps, pa-pum, pa-pum. It skips a beat when someone steps out of the dark.
"Whatcha doin'?" A voice asks. I jump, laughing because the voice is high, like a kid's.
The shape moves towards me. I stay frozen in place, my plans to run forgotten as I strain to make out the person in the darkness. Whoever it is - is short. Shorter than me, and though I'm not proud to say it, I'm not tall for my age. I'm round. My Nana calls me her little donut, and it isn't the compliment she thinks it is. Whoever this kid is, they're smaller than me.
"I'm making a snowman," I try to reply calmly, but my voice cracks on the last syllable.
"Cool, can I help?" The figure is close enough now for me to see the kid. Thin as a rake, cheeks red from the cold, and dressed in a funny old-fashioned costume. Brown pants, a green and red coat decorated with bells, and white trimming.
"What are you supposed to be?" I ask instead of answering his question.
"I'm Nick," he says, though I hadn't asked his name. "I'm an elf." He doesn't explain the strange get-up, and I let it go. This town has a lot of weird holiday customs.
"Oh. Cool." I study him a moment longer. He doesn't look dangerous. "Sure, you can help." I indicate the pile of snow I'd gathered. "I'm putting together the head. You wanna grab some sticks and stones for the face?"
Nick seems more than happy to dig around in the ground for rocks. He even ventures back into the trees for sticks, snapping and stomping around out of sight before he emerges. His smile is a bit too wide, and he is way too excited about building a snowman in the dark. I can't send him away now, but I regret my decision. I'd rather be alone.
We work in silence. The only sounds are crows hopping on the tree branches behind us and an occasional caw. When the snowman is ready, he's a sad, scary thing. Nick made a gaping hole for a mouth and used two black stones for eyes. They look like holes you could fall into and get lost forever. Nick rubs his bare hands on his coat. He must be freezing.
"You wanna see something cool?" He asks.
I shrug, which he apparently takes as a 'yes'. A crow caws loudly in the trees. I glance over my shoulder. There are at least six of them sitting in the nearest tree, moonlight reflected in their shiny black eyes.
"Stupid birds," Nick mutters, fumbling in his pocket, pulling out a crumpled scrap of paper and a pencil, then hands them to me. "Write down your greatest wish."
"What? As if. That's dumb."
I don't take them. A crow on the tree caws again as if in agreement.
"Ever heard of genies? I can grant your wish… sort of."
"You can't grant this one." My fist clenches so tight my nails dig into my palm. I might punch him. This is the wrong game to play with me right now.
"Try it. What do you have to lose?" He taunts, and my desire to deck him intensifies. Everything. I hesitate. Nick adds with a sneer, "Unless you're scared."
"Scared? What would I be scared of?" I scoff, grabbing the paper. I stare at the blank scrap for a long time before I write.
I want my parents to come back.
I fold it up and offer Nick the note, but he shakes his head.
"Put it in the snowman's mouth, but take your hand out fast."
The crows behind me caw up a storm, flap their wings, and hop up and down. This isn't funny anymore. I've had enough. I'm mad, sad, and cold. I'll just do what he says and go inside. I crunch the note in my fist and shove it as deep as I can into the snowman's mouth. The hole is deeper than I expected. Deeper than possible given the size of the snowball. It's wet and almost warm. I let go of the note and pull my hand out fast. Not because Nick said so, but because it's gross. A shiver runs down my spine.
When I turn around, Nick is nowhere to be seen, as if he'd melted back into the shadows. The crows fall silent. One by one, they fly away on midnight-colored wings. I spin around myself once, peering into the shadows, trying to find Nick, and then I bolt for the house.
"Did you have fun?" Grandpa asks from deep in his armchair.
I start, too lost in my own head to notice him sitting there at first. I grunt something and make a beeline for my room, where I shuck off my damp clothes and pull on my pajamas. The only light in the room is the night light in the bathroom. It lights the en suite bathroom, showing me a bit of the wall and the open doorway. I don't need it anymore. I'm not a little kid, but the gentle glow is a part of the room, familiar and comforting.
I jump into bed and pull the covers up, but I can't fall asleep. Instead, I lie awake, waiting for the sound of a car pulling up, car doors slamming, and my parent's familiar voices. Staring into the semi-dark, my gaze snags on the open bathroom door. The mirror is a black square reflecting the room behind me.
In the darkness, something moves.
Just a tree branch, I whisper as I pull my covers over my head. Just the wind.
Want to see what happens on the next seven days? the story continues in Welcome to Simmins, Detective Spencer
In December 1998 Detective Spencer moves to a small town in the Appalachian mountains expecting a quiet holiday season...
What he wasn't expecting was living snowmen, vengeful trees, mothmen, ancient forest spirits, murderous cats
And a New Year's party to die for.
A collaborative winter-themed horror-mystery anthology. Stories by:
Mara Lynn Johnstone
Peter J. Linton
Pan D. MacCauley
David M. Simon