They sang the song they knew so well, the dimness of the candle flame illuminating each family member’s false smile. As the moment came, the veil of joy was quickly replaced with undisguised fear as they all watched Toby blow out the candles. He blew at the waxen wicks as if his life depended on it. His father closed his eyes and wished that when he opened them again, he would see nothing, but darkness and his family would be spared from another visit. Before he could lift his eyelids, he knew the result by the sound of his wife’s desperate scream. Feeling her grasp his arm, he quietly whispered, “No, it can’t be, not again.”
Someone flipped the light switch, revealing the spotlessly clean but very plain kitchen of Jonathan and Kelly Oates lake home. Kelly moved from her husband and hugged her son tight from behind as they both stared at the final lit candle that sealed the sixteen-year old’s fate. Looking brave for his family, he patted her rail thin arm and said, “It’s o.k. mom, just because he got Robby, it doesn’t mean he is going to get me.”
She muffled her cries by burying her face into his shoulder and tugged tighter, drawing him closer. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair at all!”
Joyce, their youngest daughter scared from her mother’s reaction, moved up close next to her father and clutched his hand. In her nearly four-year-old voice she whispered, “Why’s mommy so upset daddy?”
Jonathan looked down at her wide eyes and trembling lip. “Because Toby is going to get a visitor tonight.”
“Like the story you and mommy told me, the one about the birthday man?”
With her front teeth missing, it sounded more like birffday. Under different circumstances, Jonathan would have smiled at his youngest’s adorable sweetness. Instead, he just looked away and said, “Yes, like the story we told you.” He wanted to curse at his wife for letting Joyce in on the ritual. He knew his daughter's time could come very soon, but he still didn’t agree with explaining what was happening, not before it was an absolute necessity.
“The birthday man is coming just because he didn’t blow out all his candles at once?”
Jonathan saw the image of the night visitor that his children called the birthday man, with his large oval head and scrawny body standing in the corner of the room, whispering his foolish words in his secret language. It had been two years since he last saw the creature, two years since it took his Robby, but the memory was as clear as if it was yesterday. “Yes honey, that is why we told you when it is your turn you have to try very, very hard to blow out all the candles.” He looked to his oldest daughter and said, “Clarice, can you please take Joyce to her room.”
Kelley screamed, “Don’t you do that! She has to see this so she will be ready when her time comes.”
Afraid of upsetting either parent, Clarice grabbed her younger sister's hand and pulled her to her lap. She silently stroked her sibling’s long blonde hair, trying to calm the trembling child.
Jonathan walked to the cake and grabbed the extinguished candles and put them back into the aluminum storage box with the devil’s head logo. The fixed smile of the red creature wearing a pointy clown hat stared mockingly at him. Etched below the caricature was the inscription, “The user of the flame will be granted any reasonable birthday wish. Be warned, if the recipient does not blow out all the candles, they will receive a surprise of another kind!” Thinking of the surprise and the terror it had brought his family, his heart raced.
Ever since he found the candles in the kitchen drawer of their lake house, the ritual was the same. Each new year the well-worn case was opened, revealing a single unlit match and the exact number of candles corresponding to a member of the family's upcoming birthday. The talisman unselfishly would only select one of the group per year who would then have no choice but to act out the ritual, desperately hoping they got their wish. If not, they were forced to spend the night by the light of the remaining candlelight and await the night visitor who came to take its rightful place amongst the living.
Kelley, through her alcoholic haze, screamed, “You did this Jon! You brought this onto our family!”
Claire, no longer caring if she upset her parents, grabbed Joyce’s hand and pulled her from the room.
Jonathan, trying to remain calm, said, “That is enough. We all have enough to worry about. Your shouting is not helping!”
“You don’t tell me what to do anymore!” she grabbed her son tighter.
Toby protested, his voice muffled from the grip around his throat. “Ma, please let me go now, it is alright!”
“Kel, he is turning red. Let him go.”
“Oh, you are worried about him now! Maybe if you would have listened and thrown that cursed game away like I told you, our son won’t be taken away like the others.” She let go and put her hands to her mouth quickly adding, “Toby I am sorry, I didn’t mean to say that. You are going to be alright, I promise you will be.”
Toby’s strength let go all at once, he began a quiet convulsive sob his voice fighting the wave of emotion between breaths he said, “Do you promise, promise I won’t end up like them ma?” The syllables came out in detached spurts sounding more like grunts than words.
His mother got to her knee at his side and hugged him gently, petting the back of his head, “It will be alright son, it will be alright.”
Jonathan didn’t want to say it, but he had no choice. They were running out of time. “Toby, it’s almost midnight…. I am sorry but you have to go now.” He felt brutal, but he had no choice. He had to protect his girls. Soon they may be all he had left. Looking away from his only living son, he still refused to call the others locked in the basement his children, he took the lit candle between thumb and forefinger and placed the colored wax in the holder on the outside of the box. Holding the box in the palm of his hand, he said firmly, “Son, it’s time.”
Kelly let out a loud sob that matched the cadence of her son. Toby gripped her arms and disentangled himself. Looking at his father, he controlled his crying. “Will you walk with me?”
Leaving Kelly on the floor hugging herself, they walked out the back door toward the lake to the tool shed where they used to store their summer tools. Jon had converted it into a makeshift bedroom for the annual visits. He removed the padlocks. The room was pitch black, Jonathan had boarded up the window after the last incident, the tiny candle now was the only source of light illuminating the single mattress in the corner. By the dim light, he could see his son struggling to find a last minute solution to evade the terror that was about to come. Toby stopped in his tracks. Wide eyed he said, “Why can’t I just run, or take the boat out to the middle of the lake?”
“It will find you no matter where you go.”
“Please dad, please don’t let him take me, I can’t end up like Robbie and Elaine. I can’t even look at them anymore!”
“I told you to never go down there!” His mind filled with images of his children, they no longer had any human qualities after the birthday man was through with them.
“It’s too late. I already did. Why don’t you put them out of their misery! If I can’t fight him off, please promise me you will finish me off, I can’t live like them locked in the basement. Jonathan couldn’t tell his son the truth. He had no chance to escape. Once the night visitor came, it would be all over. He lied without much effort, “Please don’t speak like that, you will make it.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because you have to.” Even this far removed from the cottage, they heard the grandfather clock in the front room loudly strike midnight. Toby stared with pleading eyes. His father hugged him and left the room, locking his son inside. He slid the panel at the top of the door and watched as his son paced in the tiny space. Jonathan wanted to leave but knew the consequence to altering the ritual, so he quietly stayed and waited for the candle to burn out, triggering the birthday man to appear and enter his son, forever changing him. All he could do now was wait and hope for next year and a wish that could make his family whole again.