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if a candle burns in the woods, and nobody is there to see it…

A short horror tale

By Briant LasloPublished 2 years ago 21 min read

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window.

The candle had been placed there by Jonathan Taxia, a man in his mid-20s with everything laid out in front of him. He was a newlywed who was just about to finish his law degree and he already had a job lined up with a highly reputed firm in Chicago. His wife Catherine, a grade-school teacher, had just learned earlier in the month that she was pregnant, and they were both overjoyed.

Despite the fact that life seemed to be lining up about as perfectly as he could’ve hoped, Jonathan was a firm believer in not skipping steps. While he prided himself as a man of laws and logic, he had grown up on a farm and understood the value of hard work and discipline.

“Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched,” his father had said to him frequently.

Jonathan remembered rolling his eyes so many times during his youth.

“Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched,” he would mock his father. It was so cliché!

“I’m tellin’ ya son, sometimes, no matter how well things are going, ya just gotta wait and make sure everything holds true.”

“But dad, you say that every single year, and every single year we have more than enough chickens.”

“Johnny, you remember last year when the circus passed through town? Remember them folks that would climb way up to the top of the big tent? They would get up there, and then walk across the entire length of that tent on a tiny little rope. No net underneath them. No safety wires. Nothing. How many times ya think they did that perfectly? Show after show, day after day, year after year. Now, how many times ya think they lose focus, assume everything’s gonna go as smoothly as it did yesterday, slip up and have a really bad day? I guarantee ya, it ain’t more than once.”

It was that year when the Taxia Farm was hit by a particularly virulent strain of Newcastle Disease which presented itself almost exclusively through the symptom of extremely soft shells midway through development. Over 80% of the eggs proved unviable and they nearly lost the farm.

That was also the year that Jonathan stopped mocking his father.

“What are you thinking about, babe?” Catherine’s words stirred him from his memories.

It was still two days before Jonathan would see the cabin for the first time.

“I was just thinking about my dad, about why he never even took us to this cabin when he was alive. Hell, I never even knew of it before a couple of days ago.”

“Well, he and your uncle Samuel were never very close, right?”

Jonathan nodded thoughtfully.

“You still want me to come with you?”

“What? Yeah, of course I do.”

“I could do like what we originally said, I’d be fine just shooting up to Chicago and meeting you there.”

“No, no. I mean, if you would rather just go to Chicago, that’s okay. But, I would really like to have you come with me. I’m just distracted by this whole cabin thing.”

“At the reading of the will last week,” Catherine offered, “it sounded like this cabin was something your grandfather left to both your dad and uncle, and your grandfather’s been gone, how long? I know it was before I met you.”

“It’s been, geez, over 15 years. I don’t think I was even 10 yet.”

“Maybe there’s some sort of history to it between your dad and his brother? I mean, if it partially belonged to your dad for over 15 years and he never even mentioned it, let alone took the family up there, then there could be more of an emotional connection to the cabin, something uncomfortable, at least on your dad’s part.”

“Yeah, I suppose that’s possible. But, I don’t think Sam ever really spent any time up there either. I mean, uncle S was always traveling, like, year-round. Never had a wife, that any of us knew of any way. Never had any kids, again, that we knew of. He would pop into town once every few years, swing by the farm for a few minutes, maybe an hour. I don’t even know where he lived.”

“Could be something from when they were younger.”

“That’s true.”

“And he died, when again?”

“Uncle S? I don’t even know! All I know is he must’ve died before dad because, like you said, from the way the will was read it sounds like this cabin wouldn’t have been passed over to me until they were both gone.

“All I really know about Sam is from my dad. He said Sammie was his little brother and was always a troublemaker. Never did chores around the farm, left, well dad said grandpa tossed him out, but either way, he was out on his own before he was 18 and never looked back. Other than that, I only met him maybe a dozen times, and that was just for six or seven hours total.”

“What kind of feel did you get from him? You’ve always been really good with first impressions, even if they are brief.”

Jonathan shrugged.

“He was always smiling when he would swing by. Good-looking guy. Always looked to give me and the other kids a few dollars, but dad would never let him. The only time I saw him successfully give money to the family was that one year he lent dad a fair sum when our flock was devastated and we thought we were going to lose everything. He literally saved the farm, but, even then, dad was so reluctant to accept his brother’s help.”

“Your dad was always a bit too self-respecting when it came to needing assistance,” Catherine walked across the bedroom handing Jonathan a small stack of folded shirts. “Here, these should be good regardless of what the weather is like up there.”

“Thanks,” Jonathan took the clothing and placed it into a suitcase. “Yeah, but it was more than that. Dad held out way longer than what made any sense. Mom begged him, she lit a candle every night and prayed to God to have her husband accept the help we needed, and when he finally gave in, he seemed… I don’t know, defeated. And that was also the one time that I got kind of a bad feel off my uncle.”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know. As usual, he was smiling, and it was totally sympathetic, like he understood the difficulties we were all going through. Was very caring and concerned about my mom. But, there was something different about the smile. Like, it was just… There on his face. It didn’t reach his eyes; you know what I mean?”

“Like Christian Bale in American Psycho, or Ryan Goslin in everyday real life.”

“Yeah, exactly!” Jonathan laughed. “Like they are playing a completely different card game than everybody else, and they know they are winning.

“And then mom died a year later to the day of him accepting the money, and it was like that was when my father realized he had been playing the wrong cards and he never fully recovered.”

“Listen,” Catherine wrapped her arms around her husband, “Mike was a good man. Even if we go up to this cabin and find some sort of deep, dark, family secrets, it’s not going to change the fact that your father cared more about his family than anything in the world.”

Jonathan loved the way her body melted into his; softening any shell of stress he had encased himself in. He took a deep breath and kissed the top of her head.

“So,” she stood up on her tiptoes and kissed the side of his neck just above the collar of his shirt, “let’s finish packing, get up to this cabin and see what kind of place it is, what we want to do with it. And then get ourselves off to Chicago.”


48 hours later, after a pair of overnight stays in St. Louis and Columbus, Jonathan and Catherine pulled the car to a stop in the Pennsylvania Wilds of Potter County, not far from Kettle Creek State Park.

“Well,” Catherine began as they both stepped from the vehicle, “that… Is definitely… A cabin.”

“I swear to Christ, Catherine, if we go in there and find a Necronomicon, we are going home immediately.”

Catherine covered her mouth with her hand, partially out of habit to cover her laugh, partially out of instinct to hide her genuinely surprised look at what her brain insisted to her qualified as a shack.

“This might explain why your dad never brought you here.”

From the outside the cabin almost appeared as more of an apparition than a solid structure; the walls, door, and the small porch all having taken on that ghostly grayish color that extremes in weather can impart onto wood that has gone unprotected for too long.

While the light from the setting sun filtered through the trees, illuminating a multitude of colors against the Autumn backdrop, it seemed to be spread too thin and dissipate in the black-and-white aura of shadows that surrounded the cabin.

“We might have made a mistake planning on spending the night here,” Jonathan said as the couple met each other at the front of the vehicle.

“Ya think?” Catherine said. It sounded like a question but was clearly a statement. “I’m pretty sure I saw a little motel 10 miles or so back up the main road before we turned off.”

Jonathan nodded.

“You didn’t notice it was part of the Bates family chain, did you?” He chuckled.

Catherine slapped his shoulder.

“Even if it was, I think we’re better off checking it out.” She said as Jonathan continued nodding. “It’s just three quarters of a mile back to the main road. I’m sure they’ll have a room available, we can relax, get up early, come out here tomorrow morning, take care of everything in the daylight and be done with it.”

“Yeah,” Jonathan’s acknowledgment that Catherine was on to a good idea became more and more enthusiastic as a chilling, silent breeze blew over them, “yeah, I’m sold.”

Within moments they were back in the car, turned around, and on their way back up the overgrown, dirt path that led to Route 144.

“Man, it gets dark quick in the mountains when the sun goes down,” Catherine said as her husband flicked on the headlights.

“Oh yeah, it’s nothing like Oklahoma,” Jonathan agreed. “Living on the plains, we get to watch the sun go all the way down to the distant horizon, but you get into some elevation? Hell, I’m not even talking about real mountains like the Rockies, or the Sierra Nevada’s, even 2000 feet or so like here in the Alleghenies, and that darkness gets on you in a hurry!

“It’s just a straight shot to the road, right?” Jonathan abruptly changed topics just to double check.

Catherine looked up from trying to get her cell phone to work.

“Um… No, there was that little right we had to take shortly after leaving the pavement, wasn't there? We turned left off of Route 144, and then that path went on straight and we made a bit of a right-hand turn onto this trail."

“Shit, did I miss it?” Jonathan looked behind him for a moment.

Catherine leaned forward a bit.

“Nnno, I don’t think so. It’s right close to the road, I think it’s on the left-hand side right up here.”

They continued on a few more moments as the shadows of night continued making the rest of the world more obscure.

“This isn’t right, I must’ve missed it,” Jonathan started slowing down.

“Like I said, the turn was really, really close to the main road, like we should be able to see the road before we have to take the bend.”

“Was it a turn or a bend?” Jonathan asked.


“Was it just a bend in the road around to the right, and we stayed on the main dirt path? Or was it actually a turn onto a separate trail?”

“It was like a split, right?”

“I don’t know Catherine, I just remembered it being a straight shot. You’re the one who said there was a turn,” Jonathan said with a bit of frustration as he pulled to a stop.

“Hey, listen, you were driving,” Catherine said steadily.

“I know, I know, you’re right. Sorry.” Jonathan began turning the car around. “Regardless, we should have seen the main road by now, right?”

Catherine nodded, looking out first one side of the car then the other.

“Yeah, go back slow, I’ll keep an eye on the right side, you focus on the left.”

They continued backtracking extremely slowly for about 20 seconds.

“There!” Catherine said louder then she had intended, simultaneously grabbing her husband’s arm and pointing off to the right. “Did you see that?”

“No! What?”

“A flash of light, I think it was a headlight. The turn has to be right around here.”

Another 10 seconds and this time it was Jonathan pointing.

“There it is!”

Just to the right of them, the dirt pathway clearly split off while the trail directly in front of them still showed the signs of having been recently disturbed by the passage of their vehicle.

They both laughed in relief.

“Thank God,” Jonathan said, “I was starting to freak out a little there.”

“I’m with you! When we come back tomorrow, I’ll record a video with the phone since we don’t have any connection out here, that way we will at least have some visual clues.”

“I don’t plan on being here anywhere near sunset tomorrow.”

They both laughed again as they took the turn and headed for the main road.

The laughter naturally faded to quiet… But then that quiet settled into a heavy stillness as they continued moving forward.


“Yeah, I know. This is the trail that should intersect with the main road.”

There was a growing uneasiness. The sensation that there was movement that was always just beyond the arc of illumination in front of them; that there was something right against the face of the glass on either side of the vehicle.

“There’s no way we crossed over it, right?” Catherine asked knowing the answer.

“Fuck me…”

Catherine looked forward as Jonathan followed the slight, right hand bend the trail was taking.

Her mind screamed as her chest threatened to explode, but she could not make a sound.

There, crossing the periphery from darkness into the light cast by the headlights of the slowly moving vehicle, was the cabin.


“Okay…” Catherine took several slow, deep breaths steadying herself. “Let’s go through this logically.”

Jonathan pulled the car to a stop.

“Right, logically,” Jonathan kept his hands on the wheel. He was unable to look away from the cabin, the only movement in his field of vision was the occasional fine mist drifting between the vehicle and structure. “That is the same cabin, right?”

“I think so,” Catherine answered hesitantly, looking forward. “I mean, it has to be! We had to have just gotten turned around somehow.”

“Exactly. So, if we just got turned around, do we just give it another shot? Try to drive out of here again?”

“Is that definitely the same cabin though?” Catherine leaned forward a bit more, her eyes squinting a bit. “It doesn’t look as… Sickly.”

Jonathan saw what she meant. The boards didn’t seem as ghoulishly colorless. The porch appeared sturdier.

“Wasn’t that window cracked?” Catherine pointed to the clearly intact pane of glass next to the front entrance.

Jonathan paused and shook his head slowly.

“I can’t remember for sure. I thought there was a crack, but then as I think about it in my head right now, I also remember contemplating how drafty it had to be in there because so many of the boards were separated from each other, but look,” Jonathan joined Catherine in the pointing, “those all look pretty tight.”

“Okay, so, logically speaking…”

Catherine found herself speaking in the same tone of voice used when she was trying to break down any of the number of highly improbable stories one of her schoolchildren fabricated in an attempt to explain why they had not done their homework, or what happened to their textbook, or why they were barefoot in school when they clearly had shoes earlier.

“We have two primary possibilities,” she continued, “with each of them having a number of subsets. This is the same cabin we visited a short while ago when the sun was up, or this is a completely different shelter.”

“So far, sounds accurate.”

“If this is a different location, then we are potentially moving further and further into the woods…”

“With no cell phone coverage.”

“With no cell phone coverage and no map. The Pennsylvania Wilds are over five hundred thousand square acres. People go missing here all the time.”

“Okay, so, if this is a different cottage, driving around in the dark could be bad.”

“Yes,” Catherine agreed, “yes. I think that makes sense.”

“Of course, this cabin could be home to a family of cannibals.”

“Wild speculation does not help here John!” Catherine exclaimed, holding one finger up and looking out into the nothingness to make her point clear.

John nodded. “Right, right. Understood. Go on.”

“If this is the same location, then we either legitimately got turned around in the dark and can give it another go as long as we take it slowly, or…”

Catherine seemed reluctant to continue.

“Or…we have some real-life ghost story bullshit going on right now.” He concluded, looking matter-of-factly at his wife.

“Okay… Okay, let’s go worst-case scenario here,” she offered. “Let’s say this is some actual, fricken horror movie shit. What would the young couple in the movie do?”

“They would go into the cabin.”

“Yes! Exactly! Let’s not do that.”

“Alright,” John pounded on the steering wheel enthusiastically a few times, “I see what we are doing here! Identify the most probable actions of our characters in a horror movie, and then, don’t do it.”

“Precisely! So, if the horror movie couple does not go into the cabin, what else do they try?”

“They try driving out of here again, and just keep on coming back to the same location.”

“Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that scenario before. Okay, thinking ahead a bit, it seems to me if we continue to successfully remove real-life ghost story bullshit from our possibilities, then our worst-case scenario becomes waiting in our car until sunrise and then finding our way out of here.”

John inhaled a bit as if having a different opinion on something.


“I don’t want to speculate but… Cannibals.”

“Goddamnit John! That falls under ghost story bullshit.”

“Well, okay, hillbillies then! Armed hillbillies! You have to admit, that’s way more than just a possibility up here! These windows won’t protect us from a backwoodsman with a gun.”

Catherine took a deep breath.

“I’m willing to concede the fact that it is somewhat possible, if not probable, that this cabin located in front of us is the home to folks who live out in these woods. Folks who may, by some people, commonly be referred to as hillbillies, and they may possess firearms for the purpose of anything from home defense to hunting.

“However, we are looking for positive steps forward here, so I have to maintain that the likelihood that any individuals calling this area their home, who are exercising their Second Amendment right to own a rifle, or number of rifles, are ultimately God-fearing, law-abiding, friendly citizens and not Deliverance style hillbillies as that would cross into the realm of horror movie.”

“Your premise and reasoning are acknowledged and accepted,” Jonathan said, realizing his wife was on the verge of entering, what he referred to as, her Squash and Wither mode, where she would systematically dismantle your argument and present her case in such an impenetrable way that all other possible or theoretical differences you may have been considering dissipate like forgotten grapes upon the vine.

“So, we are in agreement then?” Catherine asked. “Our best course of action is to lockdown as best we can and stay in the car.”

“We’ll have to turn off the car,” Jonathan offered. “It would be a classic horror movie faux pas to make the right decision, leave the headlights on and the battery dies, or we run out of gas.”

“Good call… Do it.”

Jonathan turned off the vehicle and the darkness that descended upon them was palpable. It was like a solid weight had impacted the car causing it to shimmy, as if a physical force had pressed against it.

“That is a whole, new kind of dark.” Jonathan nearly whispered.

The couple’s hands impulsively found one another. The murk was so thick, so absolute that they could not even discern the outline of the person sitting next to them.

“Just give it a few minutes,” Catherine’s voice was steady on the surface, but she could feel the shakiness just underneath, “our eyes will adjust.”

“Um, what is that?” Jonathan asked.

“What is…” Catherine cut herself off as she noticed the soft glow coming from the cabin. “Is that… Is that a candle?”

As their eyes adjusted, it became evident that it was indeed a candle in one of the windows and beyond that, what was clearly an elderly woman was motioning them in. Her kindly appearance punctuated by the cottony, lace rimmed apron and soft gray hair in a neat ball atop her head.

“Yep,” Jonathan leaned back into the seat a bit, not looking away from the window, “that’s just about the creepiest fuckin thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Let’s look at this factually,” Catherine was breathing deeply and slowly, “this has to be a different cabin. Look, in front of the window with the candle, that looks like a flower box. That definitely was not there on the original shack we pulled up to.”

“So what?”

“So, looking at everything factually, there’s nothing inherently creepy about the scene in front of us, right?”

Catherine wasn’t sure she was believing her own line of reasoning, but she was sticking with it.

“Older woman, living in what, as of right now, looks to be a well-maintained homestead,” she continued, “concerned about the young couple lost in the woods out in front of her home. It’s just us freaking ourselves out. We’re not familiar with the area, we come across what is admittedly a very macabre cottage, we get turned around, it’s dark, our minds start going off in all sorts of different directions.”

“Catherine,” John proceeded cautiously, “that right there is a spectral apparition waving to us fro… Do you hear something under the car?”

Catherine didn’t need to answer. As soon as the conversation stopped a shuffling sound was distinctly audible from underneath them. The sound of something large wriggling against the ground, moving from the rear up towards the front, with occasional out of place snipping sounds.

“That’s it, we’re out of here!” John turned the keys in the ignition and quickly moved to put the car into drive.

Nothing but the sounds of something crawling below.

John tried the keys again.


Suddenly, a hulking, twisted humanoid figure stood up directly in front of the vehicle, placing his hands upon the front hood and pulling itself out from underneath. It quickly shambled off into the darkness away from the cabin.

“What the hell is that?” Jonathan exclaimed.

“Look! Look at the old woman!” Catherine pointed.

The elderly woman had her hand up in front of her mouth, obviously also scared of the happenings just outside.

“Your call John; possible spectral old woman in the cabin, or almost certain mutated cannibal out here with us!”

John tried the keys one last time with nothing but silence.

“Son of a bitch… Possible specter in the cabin it is!”

Both of them opened their respective doors at the same time, running the dozen or so feet past the front of the car towards the cabin.

The door in front of them flew open as the old woman, looking as solid as ever, stepped aside for them. They quickly ran into the cabin and for just a moment felt relieved.

And then, the woman pulled the door shut and immediately vanished. No mist. No dissipation. Just a blink.

Jonathan just nodded, trying to catch his breath.

“Yep, that just happened,” he said in between gasps. “Now what?”

Catherine moved over to the doorknob, trying the door, only to realize that, somehow, there was no actual opening there. Only a knob attached to a wall with the outline of a door scrawled into it.

Before either of them could form a question they were silenced by the echoes of footsteps approaching them slowly from across the room.

They huddled together, Jonathan instinctively positioning himself between his wife and the approaching sound.

In the light from the candle that was still there in the window they could see a shadowy image moving toward them. And then, an insidious laughter.

“Ah, it never gets old, does it Johnny boy?”

Stepping into the light, there was Uncle Sam… But not quite. The eyes were completely black, and the skin had an overly moist, pale look to it; like wet marshmallows that threatened to drop a piece off here or there but somehow stuck together.

And he was smiling.

“What is… I don’t…” Jonathan was shaking his head, blinking more rapidly than usual trying to stay conscious.

“You don’t understand, I know,” Uncle Sam moved closer. “You never do. Where’s your wife?”

Jonathan spun to hold onto Catherine only to find no one there.

Again the laughter.

“What’s going on?” Jonathan cried out as he staggered back against the walls, almost feeling as if he sunk into a squishy surface by a quarter of an inch.

“Let me remind you, this is the deal.”

“What deal?”

“The deal your father agreed to. The deal that our father, your grandfather, the old man on the hill with all the power, encouraged him to make… To save the farm, so you could make it to college. So you could meet Catherine, and make that little boy of yours who would grow up and spread the word.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’re an old man Jonathan.”

Jonathan peeled himself away from the wall, looking at his hands. They were thin and bony, skin stretched across the knuckles and bunched up into wrinkles along his fingers and wrists.

“This doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s okay Johnny,” Samuel stepped forward, embracing him. Again, Jonathan felt as if he sunk in a quarter of an inch, this time against the chest of the being that held him.

“We’ve been doing this for nearly 50 years. We’ve been through all the permutations. You come to the cabin with Catherine, you come to the cabin without Catherine, you get attacked by cannibals, you find your mom trapped in the cabin, you find a book of the dead, it goes on and on. But it always winds up right here because you belong to me now. And you always have the same choice.”

“What choice?”

The figure took Jonathan by his shoulders and moved toward the window, pointing at the candle as it went out.

“You can either light the candle or leave it as is.”

“What happens if I light the candle?”

“Then, if nobody sees it, you get to do this all over again,” Samuel patted him on the back. “Some combination of fear and pain, loss and sadness, ultimately ending right back where you are now.”

“What do you mean if nobody sees the candle? What if somebody sees the candle?” Jonathan felt as if the world was swirling around him.

“Well, if somebody sees it, then they get to take your place, Johnny! You get to die, and then they take your place with the same options.”

“And what if I just leave the candle as it is right now? Unlit.”

“You get to go free!”

Johnny looked up confused. Images of chainsaws cutting into his body and demons feasting upon his flesh flooded his mind.

“And your boy becomes mine.”

Even though Jonathan had never met his son, he knew this was not an option.

“If somebody sees the candle, can I decline? Can I still choose to stay here and not give them the options?”

Samuel smiled, his voice deep and somehow soothing. “Of course you can.”

“How long?”

“What’s that?” Samuel asked.

“How long do I have to do this?”

The being chuckled.

“Forever Johnny. If your boy dies and we’re still doing this, then you are mine forever. The world goes on, your grandfather and I play another game at some point, but you… Are always… Mine. You just have to make your decision.”

The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, decades in fact. But one night, a candle burned in the window.


About the Creator

Briant Laslo

Briant has defied the odds for a long time. Born with MD, his parents were told he would be dead before he was 5. He turned 5 in 1977 and is still going strong. An avid reader, he is now seeking to bring his creations to a larger audience.

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