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The Candle in the Woods

The Darkness in the Flame

By Andrew Forrest BakerPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 17 min read
1
The Candle in the Woods
Photo by Aishwarya Gunde on Unsplash

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. The flame ignited swiftly, flickering behind what was left of the dirty pane of glass, just as Lacey stepped into view.

“Very funny, Charles,” she called into the otherwise dark night. “Seriously. I can see you moving around in there!”

Charles didn’t answer, but the shadows cast by the flame against the cabin windows ceased their movement. Lacey chuckled gently to herself. They’d have to try a lot harder than that to scare her, she thought. Sure, it was nearing midnight; and she was, for all intents and purposes, alone in the woods, but it would take more than an abandoned cabin and a candle to make her lose this bet. She wasn’t quite sure how Charles had managed to beat her through the woods without being noticed, but they’d always been a runner.

Lacey leaned against the rough bark of an oak at the edge of the circular treeline which surrounded the cabin. She had to admit it was kind of creepy, the way the old growth of the forest stopped ten yards from the structure, like even the trees and the vines didn’t want to touch it. Even the branches pulled away from the building. And then there was the cabin itself: dilapidated but sturdy, dark wood splitting but firm. The corrugated metal roof was beginning to rust in spots, but most of the window glass was still in place, except for where time or rocks thrown at spooks by local children had fractured the panes. The glow of the full moon above the clearing held it in its spotlight, but Lacey couldn’t decide if the beams acted as a beacon or a warning.

The local folklore surrounding the cabin was more frightening than the structure itself. In one tale, the cabin had belong to a perfectly normal family, except for when the moon went full, reflecting just the right amount of sunlight to hunch their shoulders, grow their haunches, and cover their bodies in fur. Their descendants were said to still roam those woods in the winter months when they migrated south in search of better prey. In another, a man was said to have gone insane within the walls, hacking his father and his children again and again with a hatchet. When he was arrested, he claimed the walls had spoken to him, told him what had to be done. Depending on who told the story, the cabin had been home to a witch or a monster, a layway point for an escaped psychopath or a nest of cannibals. Some folks in town believed all the stories were true: that the cabin itself was an ancient place of evil, adapting and adopting new horrors with each generation it remained.

“Boo!”

Lacey jumped, her arm scraping against the bark of the tree.

“Oh, shit! Sorry. You’re bleeding.”

“Dammit, Charlotte Rae Johnson!” Lacey bellowed as she clamped the scratch on her arm. It stung a little as the slow trickle of blood met the humid August air. The insects ceased their symphony as she yelled, and she heard the underbrush snap and rupture as the nocturnal creatures fled. “How’d you get out here so fast?”

Charles’s look went from concern to confusion, their brow remaining furrowed but their wide eyes narrowing.

“What do you mean?” they asked.

“Didn’t you light that candle?”

Lacey turned back to the cabin, but the window was bare and dark. Even the moonlight seemed to have abandoned the scene.

“The cabin is making you mad,” Charles laughed, their voice undulating like a ghost’s from an old horror movie. “Now get up there and carve your initials so we can get out of here.”

Lacey sighed. Maybe she had imagined it. Maybe the reflection of her flashlight, the swirling of the forest in its darkened state had tricked her into thinking she’d seen the candle.

Blood smeared on her jean shorts as she pulled the knife from her pocket and stepped forward into the clearing. As she passed the trees, the world seemed to change. The weight of the air was oppressive, thick with a molasses humidity which clung to her shoulders and slowed the movement in her knees. It was silent, eerily so, but underneath that—beneath what should have been nothing—a low hum turned into a barely audible howl. The cabin loomed before her, growing larger with each step she took. She heard it gasp as she mounted the first step to the small front porch.

The wall before her was covered in the scrawled, scared lettering of decades of teenagers. It scarred the wood surrounding the door, stretching nearly to the rafters and moving off in either direction toward the edges of the cabin. For years it had been a rite of passage. All the popular kids, in the summer before their senior year at Hawthorne High, were challenged to put their mark on its walls. Lacey was not popular, but she was also not one to back down from a bet.

She found a blank spot, too close to the window for her liking, and pressed the tip of her pocketknife against the siding. ”L. A. S.” On instinct, she touched her fingers to her initials when she finished. The blood from her scratch still there on her fingertips seemed to glow as it contacted the wood.

Maybe I really am losing it, she thought.

She slipped the knife into her pocket, and moved, as quickly as the oppressive air would let her, back to Charles and the wood.

***

She couldn’t get the cabin out of her mind. It had been a week, and every night when she closed her eyes, she saw it, steeped in darkness with a tiny, flickering light in the window. The first night, she dreamed of a single flame. The tall taper of the candle beneath it dripped slowly, pooling its thick wax at the base in a tenuous, anxious crawl. Shrouded figures moved behind it, casting dark shadows across the glass. It looked like a ritual, the way they were moving. Each measured glide seemed filled with intent, like whomever had lit the candle had done so for Lacey and Lacey alone. Like they were beckoning her, calling for her return.

Each night a new flame appeared until there were seven. They looked like teardrops against the glass, painted in sunset colors of red and orange and blue atop all that black. Though they shone brightly, the light seemed contained, like specters breaking through from the other side. The shadows behind them writhed against the light, slithering like snakes against the midnight cabin walls.

Lacey felt summoned. She could hear the whispering flames calling out to her. Her body arched against her bed, a somnambulist dance as her limbs tried to make her return to the woods, to the cabin, to the flame. A faint ringing sound wafted beneath the wind, small and far away. A dread overtook her dreams. The seven candles shone as a warning.

Morning felt like relief as Lacey woke. She could still see the flames, hear the low howl of the wind moving through her mind, calling out to her. “Come,” it said. “Come.” She stretched as she squinted her eyes into the bright morning. Outside her bedroom window, the neighborhood was already alive with the last days of summer. Neighbors mowed their lawns or tended their hydrangeas. Families tossed sticks for their dogs to retrieve from the far end of their yards. A group of young children rode their bicycles, most still with training wheels, up and down the street, clanging the tiny little bells on their handlebars like the music they made was magical. Lacey recognized the sound from her dream and was glad the real world had somehow seeped into her nightmare to ground her. She waved at the children as the seven of them rode by.

***

“You think we’ll get Callahan for English this year?” Charles asked as they laid on Lacey’s bed, feet propped against the wall above the headboard, staring at the made-up constellations of glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. The two of them had put them up there themselves before they even started Middle School. At one point, the designs formed had had names—Percival’s Hammer or Deborah’s Dragon—but they had long been forgotten.

“Huh?” Lacey said from the window, her eyes transfixed on the passing children on their bikes. “Oh yeah, sure. Probably.”

“Are you even listening to me?” Charles asked.

“Uh-huh. Yeah.”

Charles turned to their stomach and watched as Lacey peered through her window to the street below.

“I’ve decided to shave my head, tattoo my skin green, and live as a lizard person in the Amazon. What do you think?”

“Great. Sounds fun.”

Charles threw a pillow to break Lacey from her trance. She turned her gaze from the window and batted her eyes in apology.

“Why are you so out of it?” Charles asked, concern coating their voice as they sat up and patted the mattress to call Lacey over.

“I haven’t been sleeping well,” she admitted as she leaned into her best friend’s shoulder. “Ever since that night at the cabin. Have you had any weird dreams?”

Charles shrugged. “I dreamed that Lizzo and Elliot Page both asked me to marry them, and Morticia Addams wanted to be the flower girl. That count?”

Lacey chuckled. It felt good to laugh. She could feel the tension leaving her body.

Suddenly, she heard a piercing screech fill the room, the sound of tires on asphalt, and the crunch and clang of metal. She and Charles rushed to the window. The street below was a macabre tableau of tire marks and broken tail lights. Six children on bicycles looked on in horror as the seventh bike lay crumpled in the middle of the road, its front wheel still turning lazily in the wind.

When she finally fell asleep that night, Lacey shivered as a shadow bent behind the candles in the cabin window, extinguishing one of the flames.

***

In the days which followed, Lacey tried to convince herself everything was normal. Her mind was running wild, playing tricks on her; forcing correlations that weren’t really there. She needed simply, she told herself, to forget about the cabin, to lose the memory of that strange light in the window, the eerie glow of her own blood as she touched the initials she’d carved. It was just a cabin, after all, long since abandoned and unclaimed, no matter what the local lore would have her believe. Still, with each new day, with every dream at night, her terror grew.

The day after the accident outside her house, a team of city workers were called to add new lighting to the telephone poles. It was an empty gesture—the accident had occurred midday and no amount of street lamps would have changed it—but people felt the need to do something following the death of such a young child. Lacey watched as the group worked: two men directing traffic around the large trucks; two men manning the controls at the base; and two others working with the wires and drilling in the lights. The sharp snap of a live wire hissed as it dropped from the grip of one of the workers, swaying like a serpent until it found purchase on the man beneath the pole. The jolt of electricity killed him instantly. And that night, another candle was extinguished in the window of the cabin in her dreams, leaving only five flames flickering through the darkness.

The next day Charles showed her a video that had been posted to social media. In it, five of their classmates were dancing in a roughly choreographed cadence and laughing wildly as the warm summer sun lit them from above. They didn’t even notice as the pack of dogs mounted the hill behind them, mouths all snarls and saliva, bounding at full speed toward the girls.

“Chrissy actually died,” Charles said. “Can you believe it?”

“I don’t want to,” Lacey gulped. She felt her heart sink into her gut.

In her dreams, another candle lost its light. The cabin burned in her memory, the now four tiny flames growing more ferocious as the darkness consumed her vision. The howl of the wind was beginning to call her name with each swirling gust. Even when she woke she could hear it, beckoning her back to the woods, to the porch, inviting her inside.

***

“Are you okay?” Charles asked, squinting their eyes and leaning toward Lacey’s piqued image on their phone screen.

Their cough—low and guttural—broke Lacey from her daydream.

“That’s what I’m supposed to be asking you,” she said.

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” Charles beamed. “It’s just allergies or a summer cold or some shit. I promise I’ll be alright before our trip this weekend.”

Lacey had almost forgotten about their trip. She sighed with deep relief. It was just what she needed. In just two days, they’d be off—coast bound and away from the woods and the cabin with only the sand and sea to surround them. Both of their parents had agreed to let them do the trip alone since they were “becoming adults.” They’d been looking forward to it all summer.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Charles wheezed between coughs. “In just two days, it’ll be just the two of us!”

Lacey felt a harsh tug at her throat but shook it off. The trip would be glorious. It was just what she needed in order to let go of the cabin, to stop it haunting her dreams.

Charles coughed out an “I love you too” as Lacey hung up the phone. She shook the shiver from her spine as she moved down the stairs for a snack she knew her mother would say would ruin her supper. Just as she predicted, her mom was waiting there at the table as she rounded the corner into the kitchen. Lacey beelined for the fridge, avoiding eye-contact so she couldn’t be stopped. As she reached for a yogurt, she glanced over the refrigerator door. Her mother’s eyes were red and hollow.

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

Her head shook as if she had been in a trance. Her face fell and her lips trembled as she took in her daughter.

“I just got off the phone with your Aunt Carla,” she said. “You remember Jason, don’t you?”

Of course she remembered Jason. He was the youngest of her cousins. Their photo was magneted to the freezer door right in front of her. She stared at their joyful faces: freckles and curly hair and four brilliant smiles.

“He died this morning. They think it was a spider bite or… Or… They don’t know. He just didn’t wake up.”

Lacey dropped the yogurt to the floor and moved to sit beside her mother. Her hands cupped her mom’s shaking fingers, still wrapped around the receiver of the landline, unwilling to let it go as if hanging up the phone would somehow make it all the more real. The dial tone buzz sounded like howling wind. Lacey heard it calling her name, begging her to return to the cabin in the woods.

When she dreamed, another candle went out.

And then there were three.

***

It was everywhere she looked now. The cabin loomed in her vision. Its dusted, clouded windows taunted Lacey as she wandered her neighborhood park, trying to clear her mind. Great swaths of splintered wood stretched and rotted before her with every turn she made, as if it were calling her, guiding her toward its walls.

She’d watched its candles light for seven days, and now, each day, another extinguished alongside a life. Seven children on bikes, six city workers, five classmates, then four cousins: each lost a life to correspond as the visions grew larger, grew louder, threatened to consume everything Lacey was. If the pattern held, today a group of three would lose someone. She couldn’t bear the thought of another death. She had to get away from it all: from the visions, from the cabin, and from that damn candle.

And tomorrow she would. Tomorrow, she and her best friend since elementary school would be on the road, headed for the beach and far away from that God-forsaken candle. They would lounge in the hot summer sun, breathe in that fresh salt air, and forget about the rest of the world. It would be just the two of them—the way it was supposed to be.

Just the two of them.

Lacey froze in her tracks, her mind a flurry of motion as she attempted to grasp onto her thoughts. The deaths had matched the candles. If today was meant to be a group of three, tomorrow would be a pair. She heard Charles’s cough echo through her mind, saw their pale pallor flash against the windows of the cabin, amplified by the candlelight.

She gulped as a trio of paddle boats on the small manmade lake in the park capsized out of nowhere. She heard the screams as two of the children surfaced. She watched in horror as the third never did.

Charles. Charles couldn’t be next. There was no way she would let that happen. She had to confront whatever was causing all this death, all this heartache, and make it stop.

***

The moon hung like a sliver in the sky, nearing it’s newest state before the cycle would start again. The cabin lurched against the clearing, two ominous flames shining through the window. Lacey braced herself just before the clearing, just as she had done nearly two weeks prior. She saw the cabin now for what it truly was: a dark, forbidden place the local folklore could never dare to capture. It was evil rooted into the very earth of her town. The forest around her swirled, branches clawed at her shoulders to pull her away, vines twisted at her ankles to pull her back. But she couldn’t turn around. Charles’s life depended on it.

She spun swiftly as a twig snapped.

“What are you doing here?” she called. “I told you not to come!”

“You tell me some crazy-ass story about the cabin killing people and how you think I’m next,” Charles laughed between coughs, “and you think I’m gonna stay home? Not a chance.”

Lacey stuttered in protest as she took in the determined sneer spread across Charles’s face. She knew that look. There was no telling them “no.”

“Just stay back here, okay?” she pleaded. “Don’t go into the clearing.”

Charles crossed their arms over their chest and leaned back against a tree.

“I’ll give you five minutes to go in there and realize this is insane,” they bargained. “After that, I’m coming in after you.”

Lacey nodded. She hoped five minutes was all it would take to, if nothing else, at least put her mind at ease. Still, a doomed shiver trickled over her spine, chilling her as she took her first steps toward the cabin.

Just as before, the world seemed to stop as she entered the clearing. All the noises of the night subsided, and there, buried beneath the silence, was a low moaning growl.

“Come,” it said. “Come.”

Lacey hesitated as she reached for the doorknob, but the two burning flames like watchful eyes urged her forward. She breathed in deeply as she pushed open the door.

The inside of the cabin was as still as the clearing around it. A fine layer of silt covered everything, the dust of decades left to decay. Old furniture sat unused beneath threadbare sheets which looked like ghosts in the dim light. Pictures had faded in their frames, leaving behind hollow remnants of the things which once were. There was no sign of movement; no sign of life.

Lacey forced herself to move down the hallway, angling her body against its will toward the room which contained the window which held the candles. The floorboards sighed beneath her feet, each threatening to give way, to swallow her, even as it urged her on. Shadows grew and merged along the walls, darkening the way with each step she took.

“L. A. S….”

The voice slithered its way around her initials, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere at once as she entered the candlelit room. Darkness danced across the walls.

“You have answered the call.”

Lacey trembled as she stood in the doorway. She used all her strength to keep it from her voice.

“I’m not answering anything,” she said. “I’m here to make this stop!”

Laughter echoed from every corner of the cabin; deep and guttural, tinny and hissing.

“You cannot stop time,” the voice bellowed. “You cannot stop death. You must answer the call. You must take your place.”

“No!”

Lacey shrieked as an unseen force shoved her to the center of the room. Shadows rose against the walls, threatened to overtake the ceiling, to overtake her.

“You have to leave Charles alone!” Lacey cried between gasps. “Leave us alone!”

“You signed your name,” the voice answered. “You marked it in blood. It is your time.”

Lacey glimpsed the memory of her pocketknife finishing her initials. She remembered the strange glow when the blood on her fingertips had met the wood. No. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening.

“This is bullshit!” Charles yelled from the doorway.

Lacey turned to see them standing there, a bottle of their dad’s vodka held in their palm, a rag tucked into the neck, and lighter sparking in their other hand.

“Charles, no!” Lacey screamed. “Get out!”

The shadows swirled viciously, no longer bothering to remain against the walls. They enveloped Charles, vining around their body until the Molotov cocktail and the lighter fell to the floor. Lacey shivered as Charles was lifted from the ground and carried across the room. They collapsed to the bed, the shadows weighing them down. The second flame was beginning to dim.

“Please,” Lacey cried. “Stop this.”

“You must answer the call,” the voice repeated. “You must take your place.”

Lacey lurched to Charles’s side. Their face was a ghostly white; their cheeks sunken and hollow. They strained to keep their eyes open.

“What do I have to do?”

Charles tried to protest, but the energy would not come. They were dying.

“You signed your name. You marked it in blood,” the voice said once more. “You must become the Keeper of the Flame.”

Lacey gasped. Her cheeks burned with her tears.

“And if I do, this stops?”

The shadows swirled for a moment, as if considering her question. The low, moaning song of them intensified in the candlelight.

“You will be the Keeper of the Flame,” the voice said.

Tears were filling Charles’s eyes as well. They looked into Lacey’s as she grasped their hands.

“Lacey, no,” they pleaded.

“I love you,” Lacey said, then she turned to face the darkness. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I answer the call! I accept my place!”

The shadows overtook her, raising her body to float in the center of the room. Darkness surrounded her as Charles disappeared from the bed. She heard the front door slam shut, locking itself into place. The candles in the window went dark and faded away. Lacey was alone, but she knew, in her heart, that Charles was okay. She knew that the horror was over.

She knew she could never leave.

The cabin in the woods had been Lacey’s home for years, and one night, she burned a candle in the window.

Short Story
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About the Creator

Andrew Forrest Baker

he | him

Southern gothic storyteller.

My new novel, The House That Wasn't There, is out now from April Gloaming Publishing.

www.andrewforrestbaker.com

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