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The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. Hannah stared at the soft light, transfixed. It’s warm flickering captivating, calling her nearer.
She blinked, and the hold of the gently bobbing flame broke. She studied the dilapidated shack that seemed an unlikely home for any signs of life. It stood lonely at the center of the clearing, tendrils of ivy snaking around the structure, holding its decaying boards in place. The gently pulsing light gave the sad structure an almost homey feel, beckoning in the darkness of the forest.
A strange stillness seemed to fill the air today, the woods empty of the normal bustle of chirping birds and chattering squirrels. The faint sound of music tinkled in the distance, the sounds of a carousel filtering through the trees.
The county fair was her favorite night of the year, breathing life into this backwater Louisiana town, with a population so low she could name most of them off the top of her head. For one night a year, strangers would flock to their tiny town, bringing with them incredible lights, music, food and laughter, temporarily transforming the sleepy haven into a vibrant bacchanalia.
Soft chatter in the distance pulled her attention back to the forest path behind her. Squinting, she made out three figures emerging from the midsummer haze. She recognized Peter’s tall frame and shaggy hair first, and quickly placed his companions as his girlfriend Natalie and best friend Cam.
She smiled as she spotted the bouquet of sunflowers hanging loosely in Peter’s grip. He was always going out of his way to find little ways to make Natalie’s day better. It was his sweet and caring disposition that banded their little foursome together.
Hannah had met Peter back in second grade, when he selflessly took the blame for her after Cam complained to a teacher about her adding hot sauce to his sandwich at lunch. Since that day, the three of them had been inseparable, with Peter constantly having to play mediator between the two pranksters.
Natalie had only joined their group two years ago, and Hannah was thrilled that Peter finally had someone in his life who could match his sweetness. He deserved it after all of the chaos he’d been forced to put up with.
Grinning, she trotted over to the group. “…it just doesn’t feel real.” Peter was saying, as she fell into step next to Cam. She knew exactly what he meant. The fair always felt surreal. All the bustling activities and brilliant decorations turned their tiny town into an enchanting Utopia, where for a night it felt as if the lines between reality and the fantastic, and maybe even supernatural, could blur. A metamorphosis of epic proportions.
She giggled as she took in the attire of her friends. It was rare to see them in their Sunday best. The fair had everyone wanting to show their best side. Natalie looked her normal perfect self, in a soft pink dress, but the boys were sure to be complaining about their chosen outfits by the end of the night. Peter’s white button down was sure to be dirtied in no time at all, and Cam looked downright silly in a suit jacket that had clearly been handed down to him from his older brother, the sleeves hanging comically long on his small frame.
A comfortable silence fell over the group as they trod down the dirt path towards the clearing that would host the fair. The Louisiana heat hung heavy in the air, making them sticky with the steadily increasing humidity.
Hannah frowned as she spotted some dark clouds rolling in from a distance. The weatherman had been insisting all week that they would have a beautiful day for the fair, with the area’s frequent rain showers holding off until after the festivities had passed. Typical weatherman, unable to predict anything correctly.
Once again, Hannah felt her attention being dragged to the forest, unable to escape the demand of the soft flickering. She felt herself being pulled into a sort of trance as she watched the light bob and weave among the trees. Weathermen forgotten, a calm settled over her as she contemplated going to find the source of the mysterious flame.
“I don’t know why anyone would ever want to be that high anyways” Natalie’s voice pulled her from her thoughts. “Ferris wheels are just unnatural. If we were meant to be that high up, God would have given us wings.”
Hannah rolled her eyes in annoyance. As much as she liked Natalie, she could really be a baby about things sometimes. Ferris wheels were the best part of the fair. There was nothing quite so freeing as the feeling of being 50 feet in the air, with nothing but the stars above you, and twinkling lights below you as far as the eye could see. From on top of the world, with everything you’ve ever known nestled far below your feet, one could finally feel at peace. It was as if all the problems and stress in the world just ceased to exist for that moment.
Natalie had liked them just fine too, before she went up with Hannah and Cam last year. She hadn’t found their prank of rocking the gondola nearly as funny as they had. Now Natalie refused to set foot on any ride that involved being more than three feet off the ground.
Hannah opened her mouth to defend her precious ride, but closed it as she was cut off by Cam. “Just shup up” he spat angrily, glaring at Natalie. Frowning, Hannah eyed him in confusion. Clearly she had missed something that had gone down between the two of them. Usually she was the only one who could get him so worked up.
The question on her lips died as she spotted the sunflowers blooming by the side of the road. Smiling, she walked towards them to inhale their earthy fragrance. Of all the flowers that grew in their little county, sunflowers were by far her favorites. She loved the way they towered above the other plants, demanding attention. Their synchronized movements as they followed the sun across the sky each day were a thing of poetry. She had once written an entire report about them in school, and to this day, her favorite fact was the knowledge that when sunflowers can’t find the sun, they turn towards each other.
Tearing herself away from her beloved plants, she hurried to catch up with her friends. As always, none of them had bothered to wait for her, too used to her easily distracted ways.
They stepped into the clearing together, walking beneath the large stone archway that always marked the entrance to the fair. No one was really sure who had built this arch in the middle of the woods, or why, but it served as the perfect gateway into another world for the night.
She glanced around, surprised that more of the fair wasn’t set up yet. Some half-assembled vendor carts and decorations dotted the field, but there was still a lot to do in the few hours left before sundown, when the festivities would begin.
They still needed to assemble all the rides, and string the lights through the trees that would give the space an ethereal glow. Hopefully all the vendors and entertainment would distract from how downtrodden the grass looked. It was a miracle they were able to transform such a pitiful space into a magical backdrop year after year.
She spied the old oak in front of which the Ferris wheel was set up every year. The oak tree may be the only thing in this clearing older than the gate, its gnarled branches curling skyward in clear defiance of the restraints of gravity, physics, and life in general. She had no doubt this tree would still be here, raging at the sky, well after all of them had completed their time on this earth.
A white cross rested at its base, the ground beneath it speckled with flowers of every color. A flickering candle rose from their midst.
Glancing at the sunflowers hanging in Peter’s hand again, she frowned. How odd it was that he would choose sunflowers, when he knew as well as she did that roses were Natalie’s favorite?
The soft sound of the calliope music swelled, its haunting melody settling eerily in the air. The candle beckoned.
***This story was originally posted to Vocal for the Campfire Ghost Story Challenge****
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