Cold Fire: A Short Story

Just in time for Halloween, I’ll be releasing a handful of short stories here. They’re all fairly short and varying degrees of spooky. We’ll start off easy, with one that probably won’t scare you, but it may stretch your brain. Read on below.

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The wind was a whip, thrashing his face again and again, as he stood bent over among the tombstones. He lowered his head, raised his shoulders, and tried to shield himself from it, but there was no hope. Like so much in his life, the wind was relentless, torturous, and refused to leave. His hands were curled up in a ball, the fingertips a shade of blue. But he didn’t feel any of it. He only stared.

His eyes were fixated on the tombstone at his feet. It was smaller than most of the others, crumbling at the top, while all the others stood prominent and proud. This stone seemed much like himself: bent over against the wind, losing its stature more everyday. He hadn’t seen it for nearly a month; now he wished he hadn’t come back at all.

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Without so much as a whisper, he ran his blue fingertips along the top of the granite. Dead leaves covered the base of the memorial, if it could be called that. They gave an eerie crunch as his feet shifted, and then quiet settled over the graveyard once again. Somewhere beneath his icy toes, his father lay. He wondered if dead bodies could feel cold as he did, or whether his father really felt nothing after… after it happened.

“Husband of… Father of…” He repeated aloud what he could remember from the funeral. It felt like hundreds of years ago, but it had only been six. So why had the tombstone crumbled to this extent? Why did it seem as if everyone had forgotten? His mother certainly had. She’d forgotten everything.

His father’s name on the tombstone was still legible, as were his date of birth and death. He had to squint to see them, though, and fall onto one knee. Just above his father’s name was a symbol, some kind of cross, only with an extra line through the top. He felt in his pocket for the block of wood he always carried. It was a square, barely three inches on one side, very cumbersome to carry. But he did, no matter what.

Without warning, his mind fell back to that day six years ago, when his father sat in his favorite rocking chair. His head always sagged in those days, while the rest of his body remained vibrant. It was like some type of disease that began at the top and worked its way downward, until his entire body became sluggish, unusable, and then unwakeable.

At that time, his hands still functioned. Oliver had given him the block of wood and his carving knife, the smallest one. His father took them and thanked him in a raspy half-voice. His eyes rolled in his head, unseeing, useless. Oliver wondered if a man that blind could even cry about the son he would never again see.

“Carve this for me, please,” Oliver had begged.

His father smiled and began to work. Two hours later, he had his own replica of that cross.

Oliver turned his back on the grave at last, shoving the wooden carving back into the pouch at his side. As he walked through the graveyard, the wind kicked up leaves at his face and tugged on his clothes, as if pushing him back towards the grave. He fought through it, nevertheless. At last, Oliver stood at the edge of the cemetery and surveyed the surrounding country.

There were a few houses in the distance straight ahead, with a forest beside them. To his right, he knew the road led on for miles and miles. The sun also drifted in that direction, now beginning its final stage of descent. He needed somewhere to sleep and something to eat, or at least one of the two. His eyes caught on a house to the left, much closer than the first ones he’d seen. This wasn’t the route Mother took when they had come to the cemetery, but then again Mother wasn’t perfect. Not even close.

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Oliver set off in that direction and felt the wind at his back now, no longer whipping his face. He grinned and knew this had to be the right direction. The leaves were far behind him now. His feet swished through the tall, uncut grass that licked at his calves. The fields were mesmerizing, with this wind pushing them all to one side. He wouldn’t call it beautiful, for he felt no real emotion. But it was certainly something.

As Oliver approached the house, he saw a man standing on the front porch. He was large and bulky, the kind of man who preferred to do the work rather than hire somebody else. His stomach stuck out farther than normal, giving him the distinct impression of someone who enjoyed a little too much beer on a nightly basis. But his voice was jolly as he worked, singing a song that Oliver didn’t recognize and wouldn’t care to remember. He realized the man was beating dust out of carpets, something he’d never seen a man do before, and that struck him as incredibly peculiar. Did he not have a wife?

“Hello, sir,” Oliver called at last, once he could see the distinction of the man’s ears.

The farmer turned around and gave him a bright smile. His eyes seemed to pop out of his head, and he moved his hand in a very exaggerated wave. “Well, how are you, boy? Where’ve you come from t’night? Bit cold to be doing so much wandering as yourself.”

“Just the graveyard,” he said.

“Ah, like a ghostie then, aye?” The farmer chuckled. “I ‘spect you’ve been visiting some?”

“Yeah.” Oliver stopped once he was level with the edge of the man’s house. There was still a good space between them, so he didn’t feel like he was trespassing. “Just heading home. I was wondering if you have any food you could spare? I’ll take a piece of bread, anything you have.”

“Piece of bread?” The farmer laughed again, but it was in a kind way. “That’s no meal for a boy like yourself! Come in; we’ll get you proper food.”

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Oliver followed the man into his house. It was more spacious on the inside than he’d expected. There was a neat sort of sitting area straight ahead that he saw, as well as two rooms to the right. But the farmer led him to the left, where Oliver found a table for four already prepared for dinner. In the center of the table, there was a very shiny golden cross. It seemed to have jewels set in it. The entire kitchen felt vibrant because of its undeniable beauty and worth.

“Got a guest tonight, hun,” the man called out to the rest of the house.

There was no answer for a moment, and Oliver seriously considered whether the man was speaking to his house. But then a rustling came from the other side, and a woman tramped into the kitchen, wearing a flowery dress and equally-flowered hair.

She was much more beautiful than his own mother. That was Oliver’s first thought. And the second was that she seemed very tidy for a woman in the country. There were no obvious dirt marks on her clothing, no scars on her arms, and she even seemed to have clean shoes. All of it made her seem out-of-place, especially compared to her husband with his dirt-matted, hairy arms.

“Here, boy. Here’s a seat for ya.” The man pulled out a chair and Oliver sat, keeping his eyes on the woman.

“I’ll go wash. Why don’t you serve the boy something to appease him for now?” The farmer said to his wife, as he passed her through the doorway. “He looks like a hungry one!”

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They were left alone in the room together. The flowered woman turned her attention to Oliver, running her eyes over his face, neck, and shoulders. He sat a little straighter and suddenly the wooden carving felt immeasurably heavy in his pocket.

“You…” she began, drifting around the table to get a better look at him. “You… are not from here.” Her voice was as airy as her footsteps. It seemed as if she never touched the ground, nor did her voice ever echo through the kitchen. Any noise she made seemed to evaporate into thin air. She could have vanished, become nothing more than smoke, and he wouldn’t have noticed much of a difference.

“I am too,” he said, trying to maintain a steady voice. The kitchen had turned gold all around him, between the enchanting woman and the dazzling gold cross. He wasn’t sure which he preferred to look at. They both reached out to him in their own special ways.

“No… you were… but then you moved away.” She ran her fingers over the top of his head, before pulling back.

“I moved back, but I’m from around here. I lived in the city for years. That doesn’t make me-”

She set a plate of bread down in front of him, running her same finger over his lips. “Quiet. Eat. You are hungry. I will feed you.” The woman eased a chunk off the plate and raised it to his mouth.

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“No, it’s fine, I really can-”

She forced his mouth open with sudden strength, and then returned to her gentle self. After he begrudgingly took a bite, she let the bread fall back to the plate and stroked his cheek while he chewed. Oliver couldn’t help but feel comfortable. A strange feeling welled up in his stomach. He wanted her to feed him again. He wanted her to talk with him forever, to see her eyes, so beautiful, always watching him.

“There, there,” she cooed.

“Adeline!” barked the farmer. He stormed into the room, hair slightly damp still, but overall much cleaner than before. “Get away from the boy, you witch. I tol’ you to give him food, not t’ feed him wit’ your own filthy hands!”

She jerked away from Oliver, glaring at her husband as they passed. Oliver thought he heard a snarl pass from her lips. Before leaving the room, she turned back. Oliver saw a fire in her eyes that hadn’t been there before, and she bared her teeth at the two of them.

“Out, Adeline!” the man yelled. And she slunk away into the recesses of the house.

The room lost some of its luster after that. His bread no longer looked as delicious. He raised his eyes to meet the jeweled cross and noticed it seemed larger than before, as if it had absorbed all the glow from Adeline into itself.

“My apologies for her,” the man said, leaning against the table with a heavy sigh. “She’s a straight handful sometimes, ya must understand.”

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Oliver nodded his head, not trusting himself to speak.

“Friendly, for sure, but sometimes a bit too much. She can be a real treat, once ya get to know ‘er.”

Again, Oliver made some unintelligible movement, and the farmer took that as an excuse to talk more.

“Who were you visiting in that graveyard?” he asked, peering more intently at Oliver’s face.

Oliver shook his head and swallowed the bread in his mouth. “Just my father.”

“My own father’s buried there, too. My whole family, matter of fact.”

“Were they farmers like you?”

He scoffed. “Farmers? What makes you think I’m a farmer? I ain’t got a barn, do I? No, no. I don’t farm.”

Not caring enough to ask what his actual profession was, Oliver focused once more on the bread in front of him.

“You see that cross there?” The man puffed out his chest and ran a finger over it, much the same was Adeline had done to Oliver’s cheek. “That’s a right family heirloom, they say. Been passed down for generations. Worth more than this whole house, I reckon. More beautiful, too.”

Oliver took great offense at this, seeing as how Adeline was part of the house, but he showed no emotions.

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“You have any family heirlooms, boy?” The man raised an eyebrow. “You have any family at all? Seem to be awful quiet, and awful lonely. Not a safe place for it, either.”

There was screaming from the other side of the house, and the sound of glass breaking. The man cursed loudly and stormed off from the kitchen, raising his voice and yelling something about “bloody witchcraft” and “have you hung up at the gallows.”

Oliver eyed the cross. It seemed to eye him back. He grabbed the bread and stuffed it into his pouch. And then the cross seemed to shine even brighter. He felt for the wooden carving. It was frigid now. Freezing to his touch. He held it in one hand, as he snatched the golden cross. It fit perfectly next to the bread. He closed the pouch, made sure it was held fast around his neck, and then ran from the house. The front door slammed behind him, just as he heard more screaming from Adeline.

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Once outside, he ran straight ahead, not caring where. The sky was pitch black, and his fingers began to freeze. The wind had picked up, now threatening to carry him off with it. With a surge of inspiration, he threw the wooden carving as far as he could, and plunged both hands into his pouch. The golden cross warmed them; it seemed like fire itself, offering comfort to his frigid body. Perhaps he wouldn’t sell it after all. Perhaps this was meant to be his.

Oliver managed to find a barn that night where he could sleep. The farmhouse beside it remained dark, but also looked similar to the one he had just left. This unnerved him greatly. Nonetheless, he made his bed of hay next to the pigs and settled in for a night of rest, clutching the golden cross in his hands as a source of warmth.

☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨☨

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The intense heat woke him, not the animals’ shrieking. He opened his eyes, trying to see through all of the smoke. Every inch of him burned. The door was completely blocked by flames. The animals were shrieking in their pins. And most importantly, his golden cross had vanished.

He threw himself off the hay, turning in all directions, looking for any means to escape. The fire closed in on him. The hay under his feet began to smoke. He jumped up and down, waving his arms, screaming for help. The animals were quiet now. All he could hear was the roar of fire all around him, that intense heat as it crawled up his leg.

And then he saw the cross. It sat on a piece of wood that stuck out from above the barn door, much too high for anybody to reach. Its gold surface reflected the flames, so that the cross itself took on the colors. The fire seemed to avoid it, burning everything but that cross. And as Oliver gave one final cry, he saw that the cross was no longer gold, but fire, and it had always been fire.

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