“The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.”
“Have you heard this one?” Kyra asked the children as they made s’mores around the campfire. It was their fifth & final night at Camp Aafiq, their favorite time for ghost stories.
Cecile squeezed a little closer & looked up at Kyra with pleading eyes. She hated scary stories & had been terrified from the moment the first had begun. The thought that Kyra, her protector, was about to join in the telling horrified her.
Kyra held her close with one arm, caressing Cecile’s cheek with her hand. “It’s okay, Cece. The stories aren’t real. They can’t hurt you.”
Cecile’s eyes welled with tears & her whole body shuddered as she buried her face in Kyra’s lap. Only half the children were still listening. The others were busy with their own conversations or roasting marshmallows. There were nineteen of them, eleven years old, with three other counselors besides Kyra. She liked those numbers. Nineteen & twenty-three were two of her favorite primes.
Receiving no acknowledgment, she continued. “It happened just over there on the other side of the lake in that empty cabin where we had so much fun today.” A few pairs of eyes followed her finger as she pointed to a spot they could not see through the dark. She paused, giving them time to remember.
“Does anyone live here?” Dhrish had asked. He was always curious & Kyra enjoyed watching as he took in every aspect of the place.
“Not as far as I know,” Kyra had answered. “I couldn’t even tell you who built it or when. I’ve asked around but no one seems to have any idea.”
The cabin was half-swallowed in underbrush & vines. There was a woodpile, but the wood itself was mostly rotted into pulp & dust. What was left of an axe leaned against it.
The cabin’s thick logs seemed weathered but sturdy. The roof appeared to be intact. Several of the children tried the door to no avail.
“I don’t know whether it’s locked or just stuck,” Kyra said. “Why don’t we try looking through the window?”
The children took turns pressing their faces to the dirty uneven glass, their hands cupped around their eyes to help them see. There wasn’t much they could make out. A bed frame with what remained of a mattress, a small table with a broken plate, a single chair, fireplace, spinning wheel, & dust—a thick layer of which clung to everything.
“Wow,” Kyra exclaimed as she peered through the window. “This must have been the maid’s millennium off. No wonder we couldn’t open the door! It’s been so long since it’s been used it’s become fused to the frame.”
Then, just as the children were about to lose interest & clamor for further adventure, Kyra exclaimed, “Well, will you look at that!” She pointed toward a spot just beneath the windowsill, all but out of sight.
It took some time for each child’s eyes to adjust sufficiently to allow them to make out the narrow shelf lurking in the shadows. It, too, was covered with a thick layer of dust—except for one small circle right in the middle. In that space, the shelf was completely clean, as though someone had just removed a saucer which had been protecting it all those years.
“Who could have done that?” Kyra asked. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s been in there.” None of the children answered. They were completely puzzled but once again intrigued.
“Could someone have opened the window?” Ojal suggested. He was the most levelheaded among the kids. He could spot a simple solution for conundrums others could not even imagine. This one, however, seemed a little more like, “Well, duh! Why didn’t I think of that?”
Even so, the window appeared as undisturbed as everything else. They tried it anyway. It wouldn’t budge. Not even Ojal had an answer for that.
The children spent the rest of the afternoon playing around the cabin, skipping rocks across the lake, looking for snail shells, fossils & arrowheads, & chasing one another in games of tag & hide & seek. A few of the boys & one of the girls attempted to climb the underbrush to the top of the cabin, but after one of them fell into a thornbush they all thought better of it. They drank from their canteens whether they were thirsty or not (it made them feel grownup), & completely forgot about the trail mix Omaha had lugged in his counselor’s backpack.
One of the boys “accidentally fell” into the water which, of course, prompted the other eighteen to follow. The counselors happily joined them. It was a beautiful afternoon & Kyra allowed herself to relax & enjoy it. The hard part of the week was still hours away. The last night of camp tended toward a poignant mix of spending time with friends & not wanting to say goodbye. She was weary of goodbyes.
Supper was set for six back at the camp—hotdogs roasted around the campfire with potato chips, water, pop, ketchup, mustard & sweet relish set up on one of the picnic tables. The kids scoured the campsite for the perfect sticks with which to roast (or thoroughly char) their dogs. The first four returning were tasked with finding another for each of the counselors who were occupied with building the fire.
Once they’d had their fill, Percy brought out his guitar for a round of camp songs while the kids made s’mores. The sun was just going down. When it was completely dark, the telling of ghost stories commenced.
Kyra’s turn, Cecile squeezing in, holding on for dear life, shaking, crying, hiding her face in Kyra’s lap, refusing to see what terrors awaited.
“It’s okay, Cece. The stories aren’t real. They can’t hurt you.”
“Have you heard this one?” Kyra asked. “The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.”
“It happened just over there on the other side of the lake in that empty cabin we saw earlier.” She watched as the children who were still listening searched through the dark where she was pointing.
“Eighty-nine years ago, three friends, a boy & two girls, came to this lake to play. It was a hot muggy day, they’d just finished their chores & wanted to cool down in the water & shade.”
Kyra’s voice was soft & steady as she spoke. Those who were trying to listen began shushing the others so they could hear. Faces turned toward her, becoming attentive, reflections from the fire dancing in their eyes.
“It was late in the afternoon. They were competing to see who could climb highest in the trees when one of the girls spotted the cabin over the next promontory. Now they knew about the place, having played there often, & they knew that no one had lived in it for a very long time. Not even their parents or neighbors could say to whom it belonged or of anyone staying there.”
The last of the conversations around the fire had come to a stop. A few of the children were still making s’mores & Percy occasionally twiddled with his guitar, but all ears were on her.
“The thing that stopped her mid-climb was that she could swear there was a candle burning in the window. She was certain it wasn’t a trick of the light for the sun was behind it & all but set, & the cabin was already deep in shadows. But who could have lit & set it there?”
“Well, before long the other two noticed she had quit climbing (she never stopped before they did; she always won this contest). They asked what she was doing &, when she told them about the candle, they were as puzzled as she was. The three decided to investigate, even though dusk was now upon them & they would surely be in trouble if they didn’t get home before dark.”
“Once they had climbed the outcropping of rock there was no question about it. The light from the candle pierced through the deep shadows between the two promontories where the cabin was located.”
“They knocked on the door, but no one answered. They tried the door, but it wouldn’t budge. As they stood there, transfixed by the wavering of the flame, they lost track of time & didn’t notice how dark it was becoming. Clouds had moved in blocking even the moon & stars, & none of them could say whether it was the flash of lightning or the sudden downpour which broke them from their stupor.”
Kyra stared into the fire as she spoke, to all appearances no longer telling a story but rather losing herself in memories.
“Without thinking, all three bolted for the door seeking shelter from the storm’s wrath. This time it opened easily, as though it had been waiting for them.”
“They stood just inside & breathlessly took it in. There were not one but three candles in the lonely room. One sat upon a narrow shelf just beneath the window. Another stood upon the table next to a broken dish. The final candle sat on the floor, next to a spinning wheel. A pleasant fire crackled in the fireplace. Dust covered everything. And none of them noticed the door slowly closing behind them.”
“They were glad for the shelter & for the warmth of the fire. And though the abundance of dust caused them to sneeze prolifically at first, they eventually settled in & began making the best of things. They drew pictures, played tic-tac-toe, & teased one other by making hearts in the fine powder with the names of those they were supposed to like.”
“As both the storm & the night wore on, each found themselves gravitating toward one of the three candles. The girl who had seen it from the tree, moved to the window where she could watch the storm outside & the flicker of the candle in the uneven glass. The boy sat at the table fiddling with the broken dish. The other girl lay down on the floor next to the spinning wheel.”
“As she stood at the window, the first girl had…, not exactly a thought…, more of an urge welling up from within. When she could no longer contain it, she said (without moving from the window nor even turning from it), ‘Let’s play a game.’”
“The boy asked, ‘What kind of game?’ The other girl said nothing but was clearly eager to hear the answer. Anything to relieve her boredom & growing concern over what would happen once they got home.”
“‘Deepest, Darkest,’ she replied. She had no idea why or from whence the idea had emerged, only that it did.”
“‘How do we play?’ the boy asked.”
“‘We each take turns telling our deepest, darkest secrets. If the other two don’t agree that its either deep or dark enough, you get punished.’”
“‘What happens if we agree that it is?’ he queried again.”
“‘Then that’s cool. We know each other that much better.’”
“‘I don’t think I like this idea,’ the other girl countered from her spot on the floor.”
“‘Aw, c’mon,’ the first girl challenged. ‘It’ll be fun. More than that, it’ll be good. We’re already best friends. Who better to share our secrets? Imagine how close we’ll be once we’ve played.’”
“‘I’m in!’ The boy sat straight up in his chair. ‘I’ll go first. I’ve got a secret I’ve never told a living soul. Are you ready?’”
“‘Fire away!” the first responded. The second girl was not yet persuaded.
“‘Remember that time my dad got so upset because someone let the horses out when he wanted to go to town?’”
“‘He asked me if I knew who did it & I said I didn’t…. But I really did.’”
“Both girls snorted at that & burst into laughter.”
“’That’s not a deep, dark secret!’ the girl on the floor exclaimed. ‘Who hasn’t told a lie to their parents to stay out of trouble?’”
“‘You don’t understand…,’ the boy objected. But just then a loud pop came from the fireplace sending embers flying in his direction, some of them landing on his arm, sizzling for a few moments before flaming out with a wisp of smoke.”
“Once he quit screaming & flailing about, the three of them began to laugh. Sheepishly? Awkwardly? Nervously? None of them could say. But it was clear to both girls those embers had really hurt. There were blisters on his skin & the faint scent of burnt hair.”
Kyra paused to let her words sink in. Cecile squeezed her leg so tightly it was beginning to go numb. Her whole body was trembling & Kyra’s shorts were now drenched with her tears. She felt for Cecile, but she knew she had to continue with the story.
“The girl at the window said with only a hint of irony, ‘I guess now we know what the punishment is like. Perhaps you’ll take it more seriously next time.’” With her back to the candle, her face took on a dark reddish hue, an eerie nimbal light surrounding her.
“After a long, awkward silence, the girl on the floor offered sheepishly, ‘I’ve got one.’ The other two looked at her & waited for her to continue.”
“‘I still wet the bed.’ Neither of her friends moved. They had no idea how to respond. ‘That’s why I don’t do sleepovers or camp out with you guys. It’s not because my mother won’t let me. I’m just too ashamed.’”
“With this, her face became beet red—not the kind of red you get with embarrassment—more like burning up with a high fever. Beads of sweat popped out on her forehead, legs & arms. It began to soak through her clothing until she was drenched. Something like smoke or steam rose from her body, filling the cabin with an acrid stench that made them all feel slightly nauseous.”
“Once the moment seemed to have passed, the girl at the window asked, ‘Are you okay?’ Oddly enough, she realized she had not moved either to help or to comfort.”
“‘I think so,’ her friend answered a bit shakily. ‘For a while there I felt really uncomfortable & thought I was going to die. I didn’t think I could bear it a moment longer, but it kept going, on & on. Now I just feel light-headed & a little dizzy, like somehow my feet aren’t quite reaching the floor.’”
“‘They aren’t reaching the floor!” the boy in the chair snarked at her. ‘You’re lying on the floor with your feet up in the air, silly!’ This time, no one laughed.”
“None of them wanted to continue the game though for some unknown reason they did anyway, sharing secrets, each one suffering the consequences, as though portions of both skin & soul were burning away in hellfire. Finally, the boy in the chair said, ‘I want to return to the horses.’”
“‘No!’ the girl at the window cried out. ‘Remember what happened last time?’”
“‘You don’t understand. You didn’t let me finish. I wouldn’t tell who let them go because I knew why she did it.’”
“Both girls stared at him, waiting intently.”
“‘You know how down my dad gets sometimes. Well, my sister heard him muttering to himself one afternoon how he was done. He’d had it & was determined to end it. But not just him, everyone he thought had ever done him wrong, including mom & us young’uns. He didn’t own a gun, but he knew how to get one. He talked himself all the way through it, had it all planned out, & she heard every bit of it. She was only seven at the time, but she knew he wasn’t in his right mind & that he would never forgive himself if he carried out any part of it. When he went inside the house to get what he needed, she checked his work in the barn. Everything was wrong. She knew he wasn’t thinking straight. That’s why she let the horses loose, so he couldn’t go to town! And I couldn’t tell him ‘cause it would have killed him to think she knew.’”
“Tears streamed down his cheeks & he had to wipe the snot from his nose with his scorched arm to keep it from running all over. The girls sat there speechless as his grief worked itself out.”
“‘Didn’t make much difference,’ he finally sputtered. ‘A week later he lit out. Nobody’s seen him since. And it’s my fault. I just shoulda told him I did it & taken the whoopin’.’”
“Neither of the girls had time even to protest this self-condemnation. His words were still hanging in the air when the fire began spilling from the fireplace & the entire room became like a furnace. His body broke & skin cracked, releasing flames of light so bright it blinded them. The rumble of thunder shook them to their core.”
Kyra glanced around the circle. Three sticks lay upon the ground, burnt marshmallows still attached, toasted skins broken, molten innards covered in ash & dirt. Reuben, one of the counselors held a half-eaten hot dog in his hand, ketchup, mustard & relish oozing through his fingers, oblivious to the mess they had made of his boots.
She continued. “As the burning in their eyes eased & their sight returned, the two girls looked around. A smell of sulfur filled the air. Their friend was nowhere to be seen. On the chair lay a small pile of ashes, the final remnants of ember & smoke fading away. His candle, still setting on the table, had been snuffed.”
“The girl sprang up from the floor in a panic & began looking under, around & behind everything, all the while screaming, ‘This isn’t funny! Where did you go? Where are you hiding? I’ve had it with this game!’”
“She continued this way no less than thirteen minutes before collapsing in a heap & sobbing into her hands, ‘You can’t be gone! You just can’t! I can’t go home without you!’”
“‘But he is gone,’ her friend replied. Her voice was as calm & comforting as she could make it. And yes, she was still at the window.”
“It took a while, but when the girl finally managed to compose herself, she got up from the floor. She did not look at her friend but kept her head down, shaking it with fierce resolution. ‘I’m done with this game. I’m outta here!’ She bolted for the door, but it would not yield.”
“‘Why won’t this thing open?!!!” she screamed as she shook the door with all her might.
“‘I don’t think it will,’ her friend replied. ‘I don’t think we can leave…, not until we’ve finished the game.’”
“‘Why did you start this?’ the girl sobbed as she returned to her place on the floor.”
“‘I don’t know. I wish I did, but I honestly don’t.’”
“After what seemed like hours just listening to the storm rage outside, the girl on the floor spoke. ‘He said that we didn’t understand & he was right. But you don’t understand me, either.’”
“‘I’m scared.’ Her voice trembled with the words.
“‘I know you are. I’m scared, too.’”
“‘No! You don’t understand! I’m scared…, I’m scared all the time.’ Her voice broke with her confession. ‘The two of you gave me courage. You made it possible…, you helped me to do things I never could have done. But now he’s gone, & you…, I don’t know what to make of you anymore! I think you may be a witch or a demon! So now I’m alone. And all I have left are my fears, every fear I have ever known…, & a few more I’ve only recently discovered.’”
“Her shoulders sagged & her head dropped. Beside her, the spinning wheel began to turn, whirling until it glowed with white-hot intensity. ‘Oh, why not,’ she sighed, turning her head to see what was happening. ‘I’ve nothing left for you.’ She closed her eyes, let her head fall forward. Broken body. Cracking skin. Blinding fire. Thunder, like the opening of hell itself.”
“When the girl at the window awoke, she was alone. A small pile of ash & dust remained where her friend had been, no smoke & nothing smoldering. The candle on the floor was out. The cabin door stood open. The storm had passed. Nothing remained in the fireplace. There was neither warmth nor cold left in the room. Only the flickering light from the candle in the window.”
“She lifted the candle from its place on the shelf, a perfectly clean circle of rough-hewn wood left behind, & walked out the door. There were no moon nor stars nor sun nor clouds in the sky above her. All was dark, save for the candle she now held in her hands.”
“At first light their parents searched for them. Friends & neighbors spent weeks combing the forest & dredging the lake. Their bodies were never found. A few noticed the round circle of bare shelf surrounded by dust. They puzzled over how it had come to be as there were no footprints & none could find a way to open either window or door.”
“And no one ever saw that burning candle through the empty cabin’s window again…,”
Kyra set the candle on the ground before her, already lit. Eyes went wide all around the campfire & even the counselors let out an audible gasp. No one had seen it coming or had any idea it was there with her. Sounds of, “Oh, wow!” “Awesome!” & “Cool!” rose from around the circle. Several of the boys moved closer to get a better look. Cecile eased her grip on Kyra, lifted her head & gazed into the flame. She blinked several times, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, & then just stared.
Kyra waited for them to take it in. At last, she continued. “I’ve kept this candle for eighty-nine years. Never has its light gone dim, its wick been trimmed, or its wax been spent. It has always been with me, but none have seen it unless I have shown it to them. Tonight, I have shown it to you.”
“Would you like to play a game?”
“Awright!!!!” Petro cried out, jumping from his perch with excitement. “Do we get to play…, what did you call it…, Deepest, Darkest??? And if we can tell a good enough secret, will we get ‘killed off’ & disappear, like in that old Agatha Christie story?” Petro was a sharp kid. It was hard to slip anything by him.
Kyra gave him a wry smile & asked, “Do you want to play?”
“Yeah!” most everyone shouted. A few looked a little unsure & worried, including a couple of the counselors. But for the first time since the evening stories had begun, Cecile seemed intrigued.
“First, let me tell you,” Kyra went on, “I’ve been watching that cabin from this camp for eighty-nine years, ever since the first time I played the game with my friends. Last night while the rest of you were asleep, I saw it, shining across the waters of the lake as clear & bright as all day, the flickering light of a single candle that was not my own.”
“So, I followed that light right across the water to that cabin where the door stood wide open, just begging me to enter. I walked inside & what did I see but twenty-one more candles spread out across the room, twenty-two in all if you count the one in the window, twenty-three if you count the one I have with me here. One candle for each one of us.”
As Kyra prefaced the game, several of the kids groaned & chuckled out things like, “Ooo, spooky! Someone’s come to getcha!” The counselors did their best to remain serious, but more than a few times they laughed a little, too.
As she began to describe each of the candles & where they were in the room, however, the kids became quiet. They closed their eyes & began to see the room as though they were there. Teasing & wisecracks were replaced with, “Oh, I like that one. That one’s mine.” The wording changed from child to child & child to adult, but the meaning remained the same. Twenty-one candles were chosen, none of them twice. Only Cecile remained silent.
“Okay, then. Are we ready to play? Who would like to go first?”
“I’ve got one,” Nighat said with an impish grin.
She looked around the circle & said, “I keep a dragon in my bedroom closet!”
Of course, all the children laughed. Even Kyra couldn’t quite contain herself. It took a few seconds before she could don an almost serious face & say, “That’s no good. It’s got to be a real secret, one that means something to you, that you’ve been holding onto for a very long time, or at least one you would like to hold onto.”
“It is a real secret. I have a plastic toy dragon in my closet right now. And I’ve been holding onto it ever since first grade. We love dragons in my family. We sing ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ all the time.”
How could Kyra have forgotten? Nighat had led the singing on the bus to camp at least seventeen times.
“Does anyone here think that’s good enough?” All the campers shook their heads with fiendish delight. “What do you think her punishment should be?”
“How about we pour sand down the back of her shirt?” Beenish asked. She was sitting right next to Nighat & had a handful of sand ready to go.
“Sounds good to me,” Kyra replied. “That should teach her to make light of these proceedings!”
Nighat squealed with glee as her friends grabbed her on either side & showered her with sand. She didn’t even bother to brush herself off before returning to the circle, wearing it as a badge of honor.
“Would someone like to try again?” Kyra asked.
“I’ve got one I’ve never told a single soul,” came a still small voice from the other side of the fire. As Jalwa made her confession, Kyra knew this was real. “And so it begins,” she thought to herself as she tried to settle in for the long night that lay ahead.
The children made light of her confession, attempting to tease her out of it as best they could. Only Kyra saw how her face went pale & grimaced with pain as she spoke, desperately gasping for breath by the time she finished. Only Kyra & Cecile, that is, though Cecile did not understand.
As the night wore on, confession after confession was made. Before long the cries of anguish could no longer be ignored. One by one the children disappeared. One by one their candles were extinguished. Cecile wept for each as they were taken away, but she was no longer afraid.
By the time the other eighteen children had passed into the ether, the campfire was little more than a smoldering pile of embers. Only Kyra, Cecile & the three other counselors remained, & those three seemed hardly there at all. They had only spoken their confessions sparingly & none of them had sounded like much. Now they sat there, silent & faded, frozen in place, as though waiting for something that had already happened.
“What now?” Cecile asked. “I can’t think of anything to confess, though I know there must be plenty.”
“You don’t need to, not tonight,” Kyra assured her.
Kyra took her by the hand & led her out onto the dock where they could watch the candle’s light from the cabin as it glistened across the water.
Cecile sat with furrowed brow, deep in thought. Finally, she said, “You lied to me.”
“Of course I did.”
“You told me the stories weren’t real & that they couldn’t hurt me.”
“I’m sorry, it’s the only way I know to do this.”
“Do what?” Cecile asked.
Now it was Kyra’s turn to think. After what seemed like ages, she looked out over the lake & said, “I’ve never told this to anyone. I think it may be the last confession I’m supposed to make.”
Cecile remained silent.
“My name hasn’t always been Kyra. My friends knew me as Cecile. That’s who I was. In many ways I was a lot like you.” She let that sink in for a few moments before she continued. “But at my first camp, everyone called me Lucy. No one called me Kyra until this week.” There was another long pause. “It was the same with the camp. It was always called Camp Gehenna. This is the first time it became Camp Aafiq.”
“I think maybe it’s because it took that long for me to see that no matter how deep, dark & depraved our secrets go, grace & love always manage to reach deeper.”
“Do you think that’s true?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.”
Kyra sighed & took her hand. Together they rose up from the dock, stepped onto the water & walked across. The cabin door stood open, a single candle burning inside. Cecile felt a kiss upon her cheek followed by the slightest of breezes. And just like that she was alone.
She stood briefly by the window, searching for something she could not see.
Then she picked up the candle & walked out the door.
About the Creator
Retired Ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church having served for a total of 30 years in Missouri, South Dakota & Kansas.
Born in Watertown, SD on 9/26/1959. Married to Sandra Jellison-Knock on 1/24/1986. One son, Keenan, deceased.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Original narrative & well developed characters