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A Nice Place

Home is where the candle is lit

By Alexandra HubbellPublished 4 years ago 8 min read
Third Place in Spooky Shorts Challenge
A Nice Place
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

They arrived in Autumn Heights without warning. The “For Rent” sign wasn’t even plucked from the front yard of the Grimley House when their old Buick sputtered into the driveway. People stared, as people do. The school bus driver even made a point to drive off-route down Maple Leaf Road just to get a glimpse of the newcomers.

“There they are!” a kindergartener gasped. “Mrs. Baker, look! Is she coming to school with us tomorrow?”

“I’d imagine so,” the bus driver replied, stopping the bus. She waved to the woman in the yard.

“Welcome to Autumn Heights!” Mrs. Baker said. The Grimley House hadn’t had tenants for at least a decade. As though the house could read her mind, the top nails of a shutter detached from a second story window, making a loud thwack as it slapped against the house.

“Oh gosh,” the woman said. She adjusted the antique chest she was carrying, and her daughter took it from her. She looked at her with wide eyes. “Be very careful with that.”

“Thank you!” Helen said to Mrs. Baker. She walked toward the sagging porch when Mrs. Baker spoke again.

“Elsie Baker,” she said, introducing herself. “I’ll be driving your daughter to school tomorrow? Just wanted to let you know we usually stop on Blaine and Elm, not too far a walk for her.”

“Helen Jude, and my daughter is Emily,” Helen replied with a taut smile. “We homeschool.”

“How nice for her,” Mrs. Baker said, her voice crisp as the autumn air that had settled into the metal bus. Helen’s smile was frosty too, and Mrs. Baker realized she might have overstepped. “Well, if you need anything, I’m at the school weekdays and working at the Corner Coffee on the weekends. Not many folks in town anymore. We all do our share.”

“We’ll be fine,” she said.

“Well then,” Mrs. Baker said with a worried little smile. “Seats, everyone!” She pulled the door lever and the bus wheezed off, the children craning to get a last glimpse of the house.

Helen and Emily unpacked as they always did, paper plates, balled up sleeping bags, a few outfits a piece. They traveled light and stayed wherever the cheapest rent was in each town.

Emily unlocked the trunk with the key she kept on a chain around her neck. She took a vial of holy water from her pocket and rinsed her hands. She laid out the chest’s contents on the bed: candlesticks and lanterns, holy water, crucifixes, evil eyes, a box of matches and a jar of coarse sea salt.

“Shoot,” Emily said. The jar had shaken loose in the chest, and salt coated the bottom. “Mom!”

“What is it?” Helen said as she ran up the stairs. Emily tilted the box toward her. “No! We don’t have time! Is there any left in the jar?”

“Enough. Mom, we can just scoop it--”

“No!” Helen said, and she snatched the jar from Emily, cradling it against her like a newborn. “It’s tainted now. You’ll get more tomorrow, and I’ll bless it. This will get us through tonight.”

They began the ritual. They sprinkled salt along each windowsill. They sealed all the panes with duct tape so no draft could come through. They placed candles in the lanterns, setting one at each window, making sure they were lit before the sunset. Then, they placed the protective objects in each room and marked all the doors with holy water.

“Pizza ok?” Helen asked.

“Sounds great, Mom.”

They ate and fell asleep, each on either end of the couch, as they always did upon moving to a new place. They woke to the sun streaming through the windows, and Emily blew out the candles.

“I’ll head to town for more salt,” Emily said.

“Sea salt,” Helen and Emily said in unison. Emily kissed her on the cheek and continued, “I know, Mom.”

She walked down the leaf-scattered sidewalk and noted how cheerful the other homes in the neighborhood looked compared to theirs. Grimley was covered in rotting cedar shake siding, that looked like crooked, grey teeth. The wood was unpainted, and everything slumped over a bit, like a deflating bounce house. It was also gigantic, with a sprawling wrap around porch and an ostentatious spire at the top. The little yellow, blue, and red ranch houses on Maple Leaf Road looked like Monopoly pieces next to it.

When she arrived at the town center, she saw the coffee shop. Mrs. Baker was behind the counter.

“Hello dear!” she said, filling a paper cup with coffee. “How is Grimley?”

“Oh fine. We’re used to strange places. We won’t be here long.”

“Well, don’t rush off too quickly,” she said. “Autumn Heights is a nice place for a young girl.”

Emily gave her a quick smile and took the drink. She hurried to the general store and scanned the shelves for sea salt. A girl was standing right in front of it. She had purple and black hair, a piercing through her right eyebrow, and black eye liner. Her basket was full of herbs, votives, and a ball of yarn.

“Excuse me,” Emily said. “I just need--”

“You’re the new girl,” the girl said.


“Xan,” the girl replied.

Emily stared at her piercing. “I just need salt.”

“Well how about a tour of town?” She raised the pierced eyebrow.

Emily looked at the time. It was only 10 o’clock, and usually no one wanted to be seen with the new girl. She’d never had a friend.

“I have to be back before dark.”

“Easy enough,” Xan said. They checked out and toured the town.

They arrived at a trail that led through the woods. The girls walked a while before coming across an old building, a church, with a steeple and rows of broken pews. The altar was covered in items from the woods, yarn dolls, upside-down crosses.

“Scared?” Xan asked. Emily wasn’t. She felt a comfort wash over her she’d never felt with anyone other than her mother.

“Not at all,” Emily said. “Did you make all of these?”

“For Summoning spells,” she replied. “My parents died when I was little. I stay with my Gran.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway. The Grimley House, huh? Always wanted to go there.”

“Do you want to come for a sleepover?” Emily said. She regretted it immediately, but Xan grinned. A real friend. She gathered some of her totems from the altar into the shopping bag, then they made their way to the Grimley House. They arrived just before sunset, and Helen burst through the door.

“Where have you been?” Helen said. “It’s almost dark!”

“Mom,” Emily said calmly. “It’s ok. I have the salt. This is Xan.”

“Wow,” Xan said, heading to the porch.

“I told her she could stay the night,” Emily said. Her mother’s eyes grew wide, and Emily mouthed Please.

“It’s not a good--” Helen started.

“She’s cool mom,” Emily pleaded. “She gets it. She may even be able to help us. Look!”

Emily showed Helen the contents of Xan’s shopping bag. Helen’s heart sank, but she saw the excitement in her daughter’s eyes. She’d missed so much. And the girl did seem different. Weird. Maybe it could work, for a while.

“Do you like pepperoni, Xan?” Helen said with a sigh.

“Thank you, mom,” Emily said, bouncing to kiss her cheek.

Helen took the salt to the kitchen. She could hear the girls giggling upstairs, and she felt a smile spread on her own face. She placed the salt in her bowl, prayed over it, and carefully funneled it into a crystal jar. She took some salt to Emily. She told her that if Xan washed her hands with the holy water, she could help. Emily told Xan about everything, unable to contain herself once she started. She’d never had a friend to tell.

“So, you do this every night?” Xan asked. “Then move once people ask questions? Why?”

“I don’t really know,” Emily said. “I never asked. Dad said she was crazy and sent her to a shrink before he finally left. I think this just makes her feel safe. Make sure every candle is lit and protected by the lantern. They can’t blow out.”

“What happens if one does?”

“I don’t know,” Emily said. “But it scares mom.”

“What if a candle went out, and you showed her the next day that you made it through the night just fine?” Xan said. “I mean, nothing bad can actually happen from a candle blowing out.”

Emily shrugged and the girls finished the ritual by sundown. They ate pizza and played cards and watched some trashy reality TV show. Helen laughed with the girls but kept a close eye on each door, each window, making sure the salt was thick and the candle flames erect. Finally, she nodded off on the couch, the girls in sleeping bags on the floor.

Xan nudged Emily awake. She pointed to the candle in the window. Emily looked around at the empty plates, the card game, the friend lying beside her. The almost normalcy of it all. Do it, Xan mouthed. Emily crept across the splintered wood floor. She said a little prayer, closed her eyes, and blew out the candle. She waited a moment, but nothing happened.

See? Xan mouthed. Emily grinned back. She crawled back in her sleeping bag, her head feeling light.

As soon as she closed her eyes, the sound of glass breaking jolted all three of them upright. It sounded as though every window upstairs was being smashed. Helen looked at the extinguished candle in horror.

“What did you do?” Helen roared at Emily, and the smell of smoke began to fill the room. One by one, the downstairs windows shattered, and the candles fell, lighting the dry wood of the house like kindling. “She’s back. She’s worse this time.”

Emily, Xan, and Helen ran for the door. Helen tripped over the table, and Emily caught her foot on the rug. Xan grabbed onto Emily with all her might, but her head snapped back, like someone yanking her hair. Helen screamed for Xan to go, just go. Xan watched in horror as Helen’s clothes caught fire. The air suddenly went cold despite the roaring flames. She ran out the door, into town, but by the time the fire department arrived it was too late.

Police investigated the site, and called Emily’s father, Dan. He informed them he’d tried to charge Helen with child endangerment before, but it had never gone through. After further investigation, the police recovered items from a tin box in Helen’s suitcase. There was an ultrasound of a baby boy, and a journal filled with notes: salt for protection, water to drive out evil, candles for sealing. There was also a letter from Dan’s first wife. It read: The only child he’s meant to have is the one I’m growing inside me. Your child is a bastard, a sin, and you will suffer. -Nellie. The police called Dan to ask about her as a suspect for arson.

“Nellie died in childbirth, the same year Helen and I had Emily,” Dan said over the phone. They heard a woman scream on Dan’s line. “I’m sorry, it’s my new wife--she’s pregnant. Something’s wrong. I have to go.”

Xan was brought in for questioning. They thought the weird girl in town, with her pentagrams and piercings may have played a role in all of this, but the case for arson was dismissed when they found a message written in soot on the broken upstairs mirror: Bastard, sin, suffer.

Mrs. Baker now drives the bus for tours on weekends. The Grimley House is a bit of a haunted attraction. She never lies though, and she always tells the tourists she doesn’t believe in ghosts. She tells them Autumn Heights is a nice place for young folks. Some of them have even stayed.


About the Creator

Alexandra Hubbell

To see more art:

Insta @alexandrahubbellart

To get more art:

Etsy https://www.etsy.com/shop/AlexandraHubbellArt?ref=shop_sugg

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