The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.
Todd was the first to see it.
It was a wintery Monday evening and after-school basketball practice had gone later than usual. The wind threw crystals of ice into Todd’s face as he wound his scarf tightly around his ears, nose, and mouth. He pulled his beanie lower over his forehead and pulled his hood up over his head.
Wheeling his bike into the street, he put his leg over the bar and was about to push off when Martin’s mother pulled up next to him. She wound her window down just a bit and squinted at him.
“Do you need a lift home?” she called. Her ghostly breath snaked like smoke from a dragon’s maw through the small opening before the freezing wind snatched it away. Martin hunched in the passenger seat, his upper arms pressed close to his torso and his hands held out toward the heater vents. His bright red face turned to watch Todd.
“No thanks, Mrs Williams,” Todd said, shaking his head. He didn’t want to leave his bike at the school overnight and if he took the shortcut through the grounds of the old hunting cabin, it would cut at least twenty minutes off his ride home.
“OK then, pedal fast to keep warm,” Mrs Williams said, winding her window back up. She looked glad that she’d done her civic duty by offering him a lift, but gladder still that he’d said no.
Martin waved at Todd as the car pulled away and Todd raised a hand in return. Todd pushed off, wobbling slightly in the crosswind until he picked up speed.
The light on the front of his bike hardly made a difference once he left the town limits, but Todd knew every pothole, every rise and dip on this road, and could ride it with his eyes closed. In fact, he often did when he got bored and, tonight, he had no problem finding the turn onto the dirt road that would take him past the cabin.
The old stone cabin brooded at the very end of the road. It was solidly built but thirty years of neglect had left it alone and lonely, caressed only by the loving hand of nature slowly reclaiming its space. After the ‘incident’, no one had any reason to go down there, and only kids and forest rangers went anywhere near the place nowadays.
Nobody could agree on exactly what had happened all those years ago. There was no official record, nothing in the local newspaper archives, only speculation and stories that got increasingly more bizarre, like Chinese whispers, as they passed from mouth to ear. The only thing everyone did agree on was that four hunters had died there and that no one wanted anything to do with the place now.
Todd was a member of the local Scouts and the isolated cabin was often used as the setting for ghost stories told over campfires deep in the woods on dark nights. But, in all the years of using the cabin’s overgrown backyard as a shortcut home, he’d never seen anything that even mildly scared him. He and his friends looked for phantom faces in the dirty, broken windows, listened for creaking timbers and ghostly wails, but they never saw or heard anything remotely supernatural.
It was just a sad old shack, abandoned in an uncaring world.
Which was why the flame flickering in the window to the right of the front door made him ram his brakes on hard, his rear wheel fishtailing violently on the gravel driveway.
He sat on his bike with his heart hammering in his chest and the sound of blood hissing past his ears. He felt a prickle of sweat in his armpits as he breathed deeply and rapidly. It’s from the exercise, he told himself. I’m not scared. I should keep going. I need to get home.
But he sat there unmoving, watching the candle flame dance hypnotically back and forth, back and forth. He couldn’t look away and found he didn’t want to. His brain felt foggy; he couldn’t think clearly. After a few minutes, he couldn’t remember where he was going or why he was here. He cocked his head and pushed his beanie off his ears so he could properly hear the flame whispering, whispering, as it gently stroked his mind.
He got off his bike and wheeled it up to the front steps. The weak beam from his bike’s front light fluttered like the candle flame then sputtered out but he didn’t notice. He couldn’t pull his eyes away from the flame in the window.
He walked his bike up the three steps and leaned it against the handrail. He walked across the veranda to the window, smeared a circle in the dirt with his gloved hand, and peered in. The candle on the windowsill sat in a glass and metal cylinder perched in the middle of a small pair of brown deer antlers. As Todd watched the flame, his mind seemed to sway in time with it and he listened, listened to its words, its promises. Looking through the flame, the shadows on the far wall became animals, goats and deer and elk with huge antlers, cavorting across and around the space, growing large, then small, then large again. He finally understood.
The flame beckoned and the front door of the cabin clicked and groaned as it opened just a crack. Todd turned and grabbed his bike. He pushed the door open with his front wheel and stepped inside.
No one saw the door close quietly behind him. No one saw the candle flame go out. No one heard Todd scream.
Martin and his mother were minor celebrities for a short time since they were the last ones to see Todd. Mrs Williams fiercely defended the fact that she’d let Todd ride home alone that night.
“What should I have done?” she screeched into the microphones shoved into her face. “Forced him into my car? He didn’t have that far to go and, anyway, he said no. I’m not going to pick up a thirteen-year-old boy and forcibly put him in my car.”
Martin told the police how Todd used to cut through the grounds of the old hunting cabin to get home. But they didn’t believe he would have done that on such a dark, cold night and they never even searched the area.
Less than a week after Todd’s disappearance, Martin began to feel his presence. He felt Todd’s touch in the breeze as it ruffled his hair. He heard Todd’s footsteps kicking pebbles behind him and sometimes felt Todd’s hand on his shoulder urging him to stop. He kept spinning around, thinking Todd was just behind him but he never was. Todd’s voice whispered in the rustle of the leaves in the trees, but Martin couldn’t understand what he was saying.
Martin lay in bed, night after night, replaying the last time he’d seen Todd and whispering in the dark, asking Todd what he was trying to tell him. He was grateful he didn’t have nightmares that he remembered, but he didn’t sleep much. Dark circles spread around his eyes like bruises, and his pale face got such a haunted look that kids at school started to call him ‘the Ghoul’.
It wasn’t long before Todd became a cold case, just another missing teenager, just another paragraph in the town’s history. With no clues, no breakthroughs, the media got bored and moved on. The police closed Todd’s file and stuck it in a drawer in an ugly grey filing cabinet.
Todd’s sibilant whispering became more insistent but no more coherent and Martin strained his ears constantly, desperate to know what he was saying. He went out to the cabin a few times and stomped through the long grass, but found nothing. He stood in the driveway, looking at the frowning cabin, listening to Todd’s voice borne on the eerie wind that moaned through the trees. Martin chided himself that he was too chicken to walk up the steps and look in the window. But he was too scared of what he might see so he left with his head down, ashamed of his cowardice.
Then one Monday morning, Martin awoke abruptly from an instantly forgotten dream and he finally understood. It was quiet; Todd’s whispering had stopped. The red 3:17 on his bedside clock glowed like demon eyes in the gloom of his bedroom. He lay awake for the rest of the night, determined not to forget.
Todd said to watch for the candle, so Martin would watch for the candle.
That Monday, the school day dragged on. Martin doodled, drawing candles and flames and eyes and shadows, as the teachers droned their way through the classes. At the end of the day, Martin walked out of the school gates with Sarah, to his mother’s car. Sarah lived next door and they often gave her a lift home after school. After Todd disappeared, many parents were reluctant to let their kids walk or ride to and from school unsupervised.
“Thanks, Mrs Williams,” Sarah said as she got out of the car.
Martin watched her walk around to her front gate. She smiled and waved at him as she skipped down the path to her front door. He waved back and headed inside with his mother.
He did his homework and watched some cartoons until dinnertime. Shortly after dinner, he went to his room, telling his parents he was going to have an early night. He closed his door and opened his window, making sure there was enough room for him to climb out later. He got into bed and pulled the covers up to hide the jeans and t-shirt he was wearing.
Time moved like molasses on a winter’s day, and he lay and watched the numbers tick, tick, tick over on his clock. He pretended to be asleep when his mother looked in on him. After a while, he heard his parents go to bed; first, his father, followed soon after by his mother.
He waited another forty-five minutes before easing out of bed. He pulled on the jacket he’d left hanging on the back of his chair, pushed his feet into his sneakers, and wriggled through the window.
Grabbing his bike from where he’d left it leaning against the garage, he wheeled it out to the road and set off. Cold rain quickly soaked through his jeans, but he pedalled as fast as he could, heart thumping rapidly, and didn’t see anyone else on his way to the cabin.
He didn’t know that he stopped in almost the exact same spot as Todd had when he saw the candle burning in the window. Martin couldn’t look away as the flame swayed and danced, beckoning, urging him to come closer, come closer. He couldn’t remember ever seeing anything so delicate and elegant, but so full of power and energy, and he couldn’t resist its call.
He wheeled his bike up the three steps, across the veranda, and looked in the window. He looked through the flame and saw shadow animals dancing across the far wall as the orange glow moved and swayed. He lost all sense of time as he watched the sinuous grace of the shadows twining around each other.
Then he saw Todd’s shadow join them. Todd beckoned and danced and called to him, promising things Martin had never even dreamed of. When he heard the front door of the cabin click and groan open just a crack, he didn’t stop to think. He grabbed his bike and pushed through the door.
No one saw the door close quietly behind him. No one saw the candle flame go out. No one heard Martin scream.
The town was in an uproar as they tried to deal with a second missing boy. The police defended themselves from a rabid media who descended on the town and blamed them for lazy investigating.
Martin’s parents came under suspicion, but the police cleared them quickly. They were left to their grief which eventually turned to anger, and Mr Williams moved away not long after.
As one of the last people to see Martin, Sarah gave a statement to the police. She told them that Todd and Martin often hung around the old stone hunting cabin. This time the police did a cursory search of the cabin and its grounds but found nothing. There was no sign of either of the missing boys.
About a week after Martin’s disappearance, Sarah began to feel him. She heard him muttering in her ear, but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. The slightest noise, like the creak of her house settling in the evenings, made her nervy and jumpy. She became paranoid, constantly turning around, expecting to find Martin right behind her reaching out to embrace her with half-rotten arms, flesh hanging off the bones and blood dripping onto the ground.
She began to lose weight and she didn’t want to go to bed, too scared to allow her body to drift into that vulnerable sleeping state. When her mother made her get into bed, she lay there for hours listening to Martin’s voice in her ear, like static on the radio when it was off the station. She pictured his skeletal fingers tap, tap, tapping on her window even though she knew it was just the old oak tree swaying in the breeze.
“Why are you haunting me?” she whispered, frustrated that she couldn’t understand what Martin whispered back.
Just like with Todd, no clues meant the media quickly lost interest and left town to chase the next story. The police dumped Martin’s file on top of Todd’s file in the ugly grey filing cabinet and the town moved on.
Then one Monday morning, Sarah awoke suddenly, and she finally understood. Martin’s muttering had stopped, and the room was silent. She blinked at the glowing green 3:17 on her clock and lay awake for the rest of the night, determined not to forget.
Martin said to watch for the candle, so Sarah would watch for the candle.
She moved through the school day like a robot, going over and over in her head what Martin had said. Her best friend, Alice, chattered at her throughout the day and didn’t seem to notice that Sarah only responded with grunts and words of one syllable.
Sarah’s mother was waiting at the gates after school, and they walked Alice home. Alice turned and waved as she walked down her driveway. Sarah smiled a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, waving back as she and her mother continued toward home.
When she got home, Sarah got her bike out of the shed and rode it up and down the driveway. Her mother was pleased that she was doing something physical instead of moping in front of the television, so she didn’t insist she come in and do her homework. When her mother called her for dinner, she dropped her bike in the front yard and ran inside.
After dinner, Sarah told her parents she was tired, and she went to her bedroom and closed the door. She pushed the window open, then she climbed into bed and pulled up the covers. She lay there listening to the rain pelting against her window as she waited for her parents to go to bed.
Once the house was silent, she got out of bed, put her jacket and shoes on and climbed out the window. She dropped silently into the sloppy mud of the garden bed, ran around to the front of the house, picked up her bike, and headed to the cabin, blinking away the raindrops that caught on her eyelashes.
She almost didn’t believe it when she saw the candle burning in the window. She sat motionless on her bike, watching the orange flame weaving and bending behind the cracked pane. She couldn’t drag her eyes away and she kept looking directly at it as she got off her bike and walked it up the three steps.
She went to the window and held on to the window ledge as she stood on tiptoes to look inside. She closed her eyes and her stomach churned, afraid of what she’d see, but something satiny-smooth stroked her mind the way she stroked her cat, urging her to look, telling her it would be alright.
She opened her eyes and saw the candle embraced by the antlers, the fluttering flame projecting its light across the far wall so shadow animals could dance gleefully, twisting and twining around each other. She couldn’t look away, couldn’t even blink, and her eyes widened more when she saw Todd’s and Martin’s shadows join the dance.
Todd and Martin waved at her and she found herself waving back without even knowing she was doing it. They spoke to her, offering to show her fabulous, wonderful things, and the front door of the cabin clicked and groaned as it opened just a crack.
Sarah grabbed her bike and pushed through the door.
No one saw the door close quietly behind her. No one saw the candle flame go out. No one heard Sarah scream.
About a week after Sarah went missing, Alice started to believe her friend was just behind her everywhere she went. Sarah sighed constantly in the wind, touched Alice gently on the shoulder in the sun, breathed on her neck, ran her ghostly hand down her long, brown hair.
Alice had been one of the last people to see Sarah and she felt bad that she couldn’t tell the police anything useful. The media came and went again, and the police were frustrated again, but Sarah’s file was eventually dropped on top of Martin’s and Todd’s in the ugly grey filing cabinet.
Alice tried desperately to understand what Sarah was trying to tell her and she cried when she couldn’t work it out. Her eyes became red and sore from wiping away the constant flow of tears.
She told her mother and teachers, and even Father Stefan, how Sarah was haunting her, but they didn’t believe her. They said she was traumatised by Sarah’s disappearance and her mother arranged therapy. But the silver-haired man she had to talk to looked bored, as if he’d rather be somewhere else. He just doodled in his notebook as she spoke, so after a couple of sessions, she stopped mentioning Sarah and he proclaimed her cured.
Then early one Monday morning, Alice sat up in bed. The clock glared 3:17 and she finally understood. Sarah’s whispering had stopped and she knew what to do.
Sarah said to watch for the candle, so Alice would watch for the candle.
The next day Alice acted normally but seemed distracted. I know, because I was her second-best friend after Sarah, and she spent most of that day with me. I knew something was on her mind and I made her tell me. She told me that Sarah had stopped haunting her because she now understood. She now knew what she had to do but it wasn’t something she could tell me.
I told her not to be stupid. There’s no such thing as ghosts except in stories. Alice said our lives are stories so how can there not be ghosts? I had a bad feeling and told her she couldn’t do it alone. I’d come with her. She told me I couldn’t because I didn’t understand.
After school, my mother gave her a lift home and Alice waved and smiled at me as she stood on the sidewalk outside her house and watched us drive away. I turned and watched her go inside and close the door behind her.
After dinner that night, I told my parents I was going to bed. I shoved a bunch of clothes into the bed to make it look like I was there, then I snuck out the window and rode my bike to Alice’s house in the rain. I crouched behind the bushes in Alice’s front yard and waited. It was boring and I was cold and damp and shivering, but I sat there until she wheeled her bike around to the street, got on, and pushed off.
I picked up my bike and followed. I don’t know if she knew I was there but I stayed back a bit so she couldn’t tell me to go home.
When we got to the cabin, there was a candle flame glowing in the window to the right of the front door. Alice stopped and sat there, just staring at it. I stopped beside her and stared at her, but she didn’t look at me, didn’t acknowledge me. She was too entranced by the flickering flame.
When she started to wheel her bike towards the cabin, I grabbed her shoulder, but she wrenched away and kept going. I watched her pull her bike up the steps, lean it against the wall, and move to the window. Her gaze never faltered from the candle.
I dropped my bike on the gravel and ran up behind her. I shaded my eyes so I wasn’t looking directly at the flame, and I saw shadow animals gambolling across the far wall. They twirled and spiralled, coming together as one, then separating again into individuals.
I gasped as Todd’s, Martin’s, and Sarah’s shadows joined the fun, twisting and twining around each other, beckoning, beckoning. Four adult-sized shadows slid up from the floor and snaked around the others and that was when I realised Todd, Martin, and Sarah were not beckoning me. They were warning me, warning me not to look at the flame, not to look through the flame.
Like a shadow stage show playing out in front of me, I listened and watched with horror as they murmured, telling me their stories, showing me what had happened to each of them in the hours and days before they’d stepped into the cabin: to Todd, to Martin, to Sarah, to those four hunters all those years ago.
I don’t know how long I stood there watching, but they never showed me what happened to them after they went through the doorway, and I was glad because I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to understand.
I don’t know what Alice saw or heard, but it can’t have been the same as me because she smiled and nodded when the front door of the cabin clicked and groaned open just a crack.
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t try to stop her. I ran back to my bike, slipping and sliding, ripping holes in my jeans and getting gravel rash on my knees. I couldn’t breathe. I looked over my shoulder and watched Alice wheel her bike into the cabin.
I saw the door close quietly behind her. I saw the candle flame go out. I heard Alice scream.
I’m telling you this now because Alice has started whispering to me.
She follows me, every minute of every day. She’s there when I go to sleep; she’s there when I wake up. I think she’s in my dreams, but they’re hazy and fleeting so I can’t be completely sure.
No one else believes me but I hope you’ll tell someone about this if I disappear. I hope someone believes you and that you don’t become the next link in the chain. I don’t want to haunt you, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop it.
I hope someone will destroy the old stone hunting cabin and stop whatever this is. It’s hungry and greedy and will never be satiated. It will continue to lie and grow and feed and will never willingly move on from such an abundant hunting ground.
Alice is behind me now, trying to tell me something, trying to make me understand. Can you hear her? I can see in your eyes that you can’t.
Alice’s voice rides the breeze, she gently touches my back, her perfume tickles my nose. She’s in the corner of my eye but she giggles and hides when I move my head.
I don’t know what she’s saying, but I’m scared. I’m scared I’ll wake up tonight and I’ll understand.
I don’t want to understand.
Please don’t make me understand.