I think it was Simon Kewin who introduced me to the Advent Ghosts shared storytelling event at I Saw Lightning Fall. To quote Loren Eaton from the blog post I linked to, “Advent Ghosts seeks to recreate the classic British tradition of swapping spooky stories at Yuletide. However, instead of penning longer pieces, we post bite-sized pieces of flash fiction for everyone to enjoy.” What a fabulous idea! I really wanted to come up with a story, so for the past month or so I’ve had that page open as a tab in my Firefox and my brain has been chewing away at a wintery spooky story. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything. Nothing. Nothing.
Then, the other day I couldn’t sleep, so I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and working on this problem. Spooky winter tale. Flash-sized (preferably drabble sized, actually). Finally, at about two thirty in the morning I hit on something. I typed this story out on my iPod and emailed it to myself. It has since been revised, critiqued and cut down to be as short as I can make it (which is still about six times as long as a drabble ;)) and I’d like to share it with you.
It was bitterly cold. Bethany’s nostrils froze together with each inhalation and her eyelashes clung to one another when she blinked. She’d been walking through the snow a long time. Her thighs felt as though a thousand icy needles pierced them and her boots like anvils.
The blizzard had come out of nowhere, blinding her completely but Bethany knew they were almost home so she did her best to keep the horse pointed toward home and her heels in his sides. However, once the worst of the storm had passed it was clear they were in the middle of the woods, the worn track they’d been traveling on nowhere in sight. The storm had covered up their tracks so Bethany pointed the horse toward where the drifts seemed the lowest and pushed him forward. As daylight perished the horse had stumbled and refused to rise and now, many hours later, Bethany was sorely tempted to do the same.
And then she saw it.
The cottage filled the opening between the spruce trees, like something out of a fairy tale. Snow pillowed upon its roof but golden light poured out through its windows like honey.
She ran, stumbling in the knee-high drifts, and fell, palms first, into the snow. Her hands, bare, red and raw, burned from the cold and as she trudged the rest of the way to the cabin, she breathed clouds of warmth against them to soothe the pain.
The window glass was clear as crystal and through it Bethany could see the roaring fire in the fireplace, a tree bedecked with ornaments with a blanket of brightly wrapped gifts at its feet. A child sat between the tree and the pane, staring back at her through the barrier. A blue-eyed darling with golden ringlets and a sugary smile. A smile which widened as Bethany approached. The girl leaped up, gesturing excitedly toward the door.
As she trudged through the drifts to join her Bethany could almost feel the warmth of the fire. Almost. She glanced up at the stars, shining brighter than ever she’d seen them, and thanked the Lord for delivering her from the cold. For bringing her to safety.
Then she noticed the chimney.
It was straight as Jesus’ cross, and the moon lit it well enough for her to see the stones used to build it, but no smoke escaped its mouth. No clouds, like those which fogged the air before her, spilled from its lip.
Confused, fingers numb and mind slowed as well, she continued around the corner, toward the door the girl had pointed to. And there it was, flying open and spilling golden light and cheerful sound out onto the snow. “Come on, come on,” the girl laughed and beckoned with her hand. No fog surrounded her either, nor did any pour from the doorway.
Bethany hesitated. She stepped forward and the little girl’s eyes twinkled. Twinkled with something that had naught to do with being jolly and everything to do with hunger.
Hunger like Bethany felt for the warmth the cottage promised. Desperate and toothy.
She took another step. She could see the fire dancing behind the girl, could hear it crackle and pop, but though she was near enough to reach out and touch the door frame, she could not feel even a hint of its warmth.
“Come on,” the girl said. “Come in!”
Bethany looked from the child, alone in the cabin lit with gold and cheer, then back to the wood where looming trees boughs were twisted into claws and their moonshadows reached toward her. Better, she thought, to spend the night in Winter’s embrace than with whatever was in that house.
She took a step backward, and the girl-thing frowned. Then she took another, and another. Its features twisted into something feral, something fierce. “Come in,” it said once more, but this time the snarl hidden beneath its words was loud in Bethany’s ears, and the next step backward was easier to take than those which had come before.
Crossing herself, Bethany turned her back on the girl-thing and a howl, frustrated and fierce, echoed through the woods. And when, eventually, she dared look back over her shoulder, the cottage was gone with no sign that it had ever been.