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The Beckoner

A Fiery Tale

By Alex CaseyPublished 7 months ago Updated 7 months ago 14 min read
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The Beckoner
Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

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

She froze.

It had finally happened.

She thought she’d be more prepared. She’d had 16 years to ready herself.

And yet, here she stood, completely still and staring at a solitary candle–and a shadow rocking behind it.

------------------;------------------

Honestly, she’d resented having to go to camp in the first place. She was one year away from being a teenager, and she had better things to do. She wanted to listen to the music that irritated her parents. To talk on the phone to her best friend and examine the minutiae of their ordinary lives. To skateboard down the tall hill on Main Street.

Her parents argued constantly; after she went to bed, they’d have whisper fights in the next room. The primary topic was money, but other subjects included housework, her father working late, her mother’s mediocre cooking, and some horrible event that had happened on New Year’s Eve 13 years ago.

She never did find out what had happened that night. Even as an adult, her parents refused to tell her.

So, her being shipped off to camp for a month didn’t really have anything to do with her or the amazing experiences she might have. Instead, it had to do with her parents needing time alone while they contemplated the logistics of divorce versus trying to save their marriage.

The first week was a stereotypical camp experience, and she enjoyed it more than she had expected. She had canoed on a calm lake, created tie-dye shirts, and roasted marshmallows. She quickly became friends with her three cabinmates, and they whispered stories to one another when they were supposed to be asleep.

But then the second week came. One of the counselors beckoned her away from the campfire and into the woods.

And everything changed.

----------------;----------------

She had never intended to say anything. She thought she could just put it behind her and move on. So what if she had nightmares? And she couldn’t concentrate. And the fear soaked into her soul like the oranges and reds in her camp t-shirt. She knew it would pass, as long as she kept moving forward.

But then another camper said something.

And then another. And another. And another.

She’d been questioned about her camp experience, and she decided not to lie. Primarily due to a belief in solidarity, not in the system.

The beckoning counselor was sentenced to 15 years. The camp never recovered its reputation.

She graduated from high school. College. Law school. She was recruited to a prestigious law firm, but she accepted a job at a legal aid clinic instead. The money was terrible, but the work was meaningful, and that was what mattered.

And she’d done her best to pack the rest of her life away in a tiny, locked box. But occasionally, she’d open it long enough to think about the future. How would she react when the inevitable happened?

What would she do?

--------------;--------------

She thought about that now, as she continued to stare at the window. Her body still frozen, her mind raced with all the possibilities.

She placed her hands behind her head, catching her breath. Her coral tank top hung loosely over her burgundy sports bra and matching running shorts. She suddenly felt very underdressed.

You shouldn’t be here, she thought. You can’t do this. Not tonight.

She shook her head. “Okay,” she whispered to herself. “Okay.”

And she turned around. She heard her heart pound against her ribs and the orange leaves softly crunch beneath her shoes. But she heard no footsteps behind her.

------------;------------

Click. Click. Click. The old, oak fan blades turned rhythmically, and her eyes followed them as she stared at the ceiling.

She thought about all her accomplishments and the good work she had done at the clinic. Families she had saved from evictions. People she’d helped leave violent situations. Refugees who had been granted asylum. This small part of the world was better for her being in it.

But now a candle was burning in the dilapidated cabin, and a rocking chair was moving back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

She’d known he would return someday. Yesterday, apparently, was that day.

“I don’t understand why you run there anyway,” Kiera had said several months ago. It was both a complaint and a statement of concern.

“Because Jack can’t.” The conversation ended abruptly.

Click. Click. Click. The fan blades reminded her that time was finite. She couldn’t get lost in the rhythm this morning; she had things to do.

She needed to make a single decision: would she return to running in the woods?

----------;----------

Thud. Thud. Thud. Her shoes hit the asphalt of the paved path in Greenland Park. The sun was almost up, and she passed fellow runners enjoying the cool morning.

She arrived at the dirt path that she knew so well.

You can turn around, she thought. Or stay on the safe path with other runners. You don’t have to do this.

But it wasn’t a real choice. Muscle memory from thousands of runs made her feet turn to the dirt path covered in dying leaves and pine needles.

There it was again. The sound of her pounding heart and the movement of leaves. It would take her 15 minutes to arrive at the cabin. She knew it by heart.

Fifteen years; fifteen minutes.

But when she arrived, it appeared as it always did. No candle. No rocking chair. No shadowy figure.

She looked in every direction, but there were only chirping birds and scampering squirrels.

She stepped closer. One step. A second. A third.

She smiled. You didn’t imagine it.

In the window was the candle, just waiting for a match.

She needed to make one more decision: would she provide the flame?

--------;--------

She took a cool shower before emailing her boss that she was taking a personal day. She didn’t claim to be sick; she didn’t give any excuse at all.

She switched on the closet light and walked to the very back. Past the baseball bat. The crowbar. The baton. There it was, leaning against the corner, almost forgotten.

Nine years ago, the owner of the hunting supply store had been patronizing. The men at the firing range had snickered.

“Don’t you have some aluminum cans you could put on a fence?” one of them quipped while nearly blocking her path.

But she ignored them. No one will stop me from reclaiming my power.

They had watched her first shot, far from perfect. The second, not much better. But she had bought plenty of ammo, and she had years to practice.

Now when she visited the range, the men stepped aside. No quips or guffaws. Every shot, no matter the angle, hit the center. And with every bullseye, she gained confidence.

That confidence had evaporated last night when she had seen the candle. She had forgotten everything she’d learned and all her hypothetical plans that were no longer hypothetical.

But now, holding the weapon she knew so well, she felt its power, and her courage returned.

Before leaving the closet, she smiled, eyeing her oil paints on the highest shelf.

------;------

She dipped five steel spheres into a jar of turpenoid and let them dry. If she did this correctly, she would only need one.

The less she carried, the better. She had bought a small backpack for this purpose, and she packed it now. Five pieces of ammo in a zipped bag. A small flashlight she didn’t plan to use. Climbing gloves. Face mask. Weapon.

She dressed in a charcoal, long-sleeved sun shirt and midnight black running pants. Her new running shoes with excellent tread. A scarlet hair tie.

And finally, the frayed, crimson and apricot friendship bracelet Jack had given her three weeks before he jumped off the bridge.

It was still light when she started the car engine and drove back to Greenland Park.

----;----

In the beginning, she fantasized about all of her plans happening on moonless nights, her face shrouded in darkness. But in reality, late dusk was better. There were plenty of runners jogging in the early evening, and she would need enough light to avoid using the flashlight. Inconspicuous was preferable to incognito.

She parked just as the sun was beginning to fall behind the horizon. She placed her car keys in the backpack, but kept her phone in the glove compartment. It was powered off anyway.

She stretched and began her run. To the dirt path: 26 minutes. To the cabin: another 15.

She knew she should be terrified. Her heart should be pounding, reminding her that this was a horrible idea.

But she wasn’t terrified at all. She was calm. Collected. Focused.

She slowed as she neared the cabin. The sky was a blur of dark oranges and purples. Shadows were long, and even the wildlife seemed to settle.

She squatted close to the earth and removed her pack from her tense shoulders. She put on her climbing gloves and repositioned her backpack.

She was light and quick on her feet. Twenty feet away, she could see the tall oak she had passed so many times–and, across from it, the burning candle in the cabin’s window.

It had been years since she had climbed the tree, but its low branches made propelling easy. Her gloves clung to the bark and she stopped at the fourth branch. From it, she had a clear line of sight to the window–only 30 feet away.

There was no shadow tonight. The rocking chair, obscured by translucent curtains, was still. Nevertheless, the candle burned, and that was enough for her.

Carefully balanced on the thick branch, she opened the pack and removed the weapon and bag of ammo. The slingshot felt solid in her hand. It wasn’t the toy you received from the relative who was out of ideas. It was professional equipment used by dangerous, skilled hunters.

Tonight, I'm the skilled hunter.

She carefully loaded the single shot. The winds were calm as she aimed her tool at the candle.

The glass broke, the candle fell, and the curtain was set ablaze.

Bullseye.

The fire spread quickly in the decrepit wooden building, abandoned for so many years. She stayed on her perch and watched, waiting for the scream.

She waited, but there were no screams.

She waited, but there were no sirens.

She waited, and waited, and waited, as the flames grew higher and the smoke thickened.

Of all the possibilities she had considered, setting the building on fire had been a passing musing at best. The candle had given her an opportunity that she had seized, but she hadn’t considered what she would do next.

Do I just leave?

It would be a 40-minute jog back to her car, her phone. There was nothing to do but watch.

She fidgeted with the friendship bracelet. I hope this gives you peace.

She was putting on her gloves, when she saw a shadow in her peripheral.

Again, she froze with shock.

There he was: the beckoner.

--;--

In her mind, he had been nearly seven feet tall. Lean. Dark hair and eyes. A cruel smile. A monster.

But time changes individuals and perspectives.

Frozen on her silent perch, she saw only a man, and barely that.

He was well under six feet, and he had gained weight, now pudgy and nearly as battered as the cabin. His dark hair was grey, at least in the flames’ light.

He looks…ordinary.

She squinted, wishing she had brought binoculars. What is he holding?

A dead trout was in his left hand, and a wooden fishing pole in his right.

She shook her head. He’d been fishing. He’s not in the cabin. He’d been fishing.

You missed your shot.

She stayed perfectly still, watching him stand perfectly still, watching the fire.

The refulgent flames lit her face as well as they lit his. If he looks up–

And before she could finish that thought, that’s exactly what he did.

Their eyes locked, flames dancing in all of them.

She held her breath. Her heart pounded so loudly she thought he might hear it. She tasted metal, and she felt a sharp tingling throughout her body.

She couldn’t read his expression. Not angry, like a man witnessing the burning of his home. Not shocked, like a man seeing an unexpected face from half a lifetime ago. If there was an emotion to witness, she didn’t see it.

She had anticipated a question, but what could he really ask? What are you doing here? Are you responsible for this? How have you been? There were no questions, no answers.

He broke her gaze, turning his attention back to the house. He stepped closer. One step. A second. A third.

He stopped halfway between the house and the tree and opened his fists, dropping the trout and fishing pole on the ground. Empty-handed, he turned around and locked eyes with her once again. A black figure against a blazing background, his face was shielded, but she felt his gaze just as she had so many years ago.

Still staring at her, he took a step back. And then another. And another. And another. Never breaking his gaze or his stride, he placed himself closer to the fire one foot at a time.

It’s a trick. There’s no way–

The flames were only a few inches from him, already singeing his clothes. With one final step, the fire embraced him with a permanent, choking hold.

She listened for a scream but heard none.

She waited a few more minutes before slowly climbing down from the tree. She landed on the soft earth with a thud, repositioned her backpack, took one last look at the burning cabin, and began to run.

She had promised herself she would be out of the woods before dark, but the farther she ran from the incinerating cabin, the more she began to stumble in the darkness. Pausing briefly, she found the miniature flashlight in her pack and turned it on.

It was then that she realized her hands were shaking. She could barely grip the flashlight hard enough to hold it, let alone keep it steady, but she kept it lit throughout the 12-minute run.

When her shoes hit pavement, she turned off the light. The park’s path was lit with streetlamps, and she could run on the flat terrain without tripping and breaking her ankle. She was running faster than ever before, and she arrived at her car 19 minutes later.

She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and screamed against it. Taking a deep breath, she turned the key in the ignition and drove away from the park.

;

Two miles later, she powered on her phone and called the police, reporting that she had seen smoke close to Greenland. She was told they were aware of the situation and firefighters were at the location.

The next day, she read the paper, watched the news, and skimmed social media; there was no report of the fire.

The next day it was the same. And the next. And the next. Neither Keira nor anyone else in her life mentioned it.

Maybe they knew who the owner was and didn’t want to raise awareness of his crimes. Maybe I just missed it. Maybe there were bigger things to report.

She stayed away for more than a week, running in other parts of the city. If they were still investigating the fire, she wanted to be nowhere close.

But nine evenings later, she was running in Greenland, and her feet moved onto the dirt path of pine needles and red leaves. She slowed as she neared her destination.

There, 10 feet in front of her, was a dilapidated, wooden cabin, untouched by flame. She hesitantly walked closer.

In the window, sat a burning candle, and through the translucent curtains, she saw a rocking chair moving back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth.

The birds chirped; the squirrels scampered.

And then, finally, she heard the scream.

psychological
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About the Creator

Alex Casey

I'm a full-time educator and part-time writer. My best ideas usually end up on Vocal.

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Outstanding

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  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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    Original narrative & well developed characters

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