Madison finds a birthday cake with thirteen lit candles. But it's not her birthday.
|Entry for "The Writer's Cramp" Winner
My renovated farmhouse, built in 1703 creaks, rattles, and sometimes, gusts of wind chase up my skirt, even when all the windows are closed. So, when the power goes out, nothing seems odd, except for one disturbing detail. Weak flickers of light are slipping under the closed door leading to my dining room. Grabbing a broom, an iron cast pot, and a shovel, my slow, silent creeping brings me to the door. Setting my weapons down, one hand reaches for the doorknob and twists. Unlocked. With one shoulder braced against the door for stability, and all defenders of the realm improvised protection devices trundled together in my right hand, I ease the door open, enough to peek through.
The three-tier cake aglow with candles is not the strangest thing I've seen. Or so I tell myself as I shuffle into the room for a better view. Weapons obviously unnecessary, unless "Death by Cake" is possible, I rest them against the wall and cross to the table. Thirteen candles. The cake decorated with a flourishing spelling of Happy Birthday. No name, just thirteen candles and a birthday cake.
Surprisingly, no ghosts haunt the old place, so what seemed rather innocent has taken a turn toward the dark side. It's not my birthday, and even if it were, I live alone and don't have any friends. Which means, if something happens to me, no one will know. No idea how long I stood there and stared at those candles, but I did freak when they burned all the way down, plunging the room into a black so deep, the hands in front of my face are invisible. The temperature should plummet, because that's what always happens in spooky stories. If anything, the room warms enough to bring beads of sweat to my lip. Why didn't I bring a flashlight? Mom always said common sense wasn't in my tool kit, and I've proved her right. A broom, a pot, and a shovel, but no flashlight. Am I always this scatter brained?
A small voice starts singing Happy Birthday and I twirl around. "Hello? Who's there? My name's Madison, and twenty years ago, I was thirteen. No one ever gave me a cake or candles. No one sang. Will you share your birthday with me?" Where'd those words come from? It's all true, but why announce it to a voice in my terrifyingly humongous home. No ghosts live here. I'd like a child ghost. Anything's better than a disembodied child's voice. "Won't you come out and talk to me? Do you live nearby? How did you get in here?" No answer, but something brushes against my skirt and a controlled scream comes out as a squeal.
"No need to fear me," a threatening monotone adult male voice says. "Come here, little girl."
The way he says 'girl' rhymes with 'curl,' and my mind starts spinning through every evil fairy tale, horror movie, or thriller book I've come across. No references. "You're not from around here, then?"
"Yes and no." The child voice replies.
"So, two of you are here in this room with me? You're not ghosts. Did you break in here? Come to harm me?" I've never heard silence so sinister. A warm hand grasps the back of my neck.
"Francesca, here, just wanted a private thirteenth birthday party and you intruded."
His breath's too hot for a ghost. "I'm sorry. But this has been my home for fifteen years."
"In one dimension."
"One dimension? I don't understand. Can we turn on some lights?"
"We don't need light to see."
"Okay, if you're in a separate dimension, why are we together in the same room?"
"Do you remember closing the dining room door earlier today?"
Startled, I stumble back a few steps. "I . . . my dining room has no door. Never has."
A child's hand slips into mine. "So, who's in the wrong place and what should be done?" Her voice is sing-song and she's swinging our clasped hands together.
You're saying I traveled to another dimension by opening a door that shouldn't be in my house. Sorry, it's still my property. No idea how your door got here. Please leave."
Francesca laughs and takes my hand. "Tell her, Ben."
"Tell me what?" I yank my hand from Francesca's. Ben's arm goes around my waist, and my body stiffens.
"Now, now, little girl. We're going to offer you a piece of cake. Francesca and I will sing Happy Birthday to you. It's what you want. You said so before."
Ben leads me toward what I'm guessing is the table. "I . . . did." A chair scrapes across floor boards. I smell lilacs.
"Lilacs are my bestest flower. Ben always brings them to my parties."
The candles reignite and Ben looks like my grandfather, who died last April. Francesca like my little sister, who died two months later.
"In our dimension, we're still alive, Madison."
"No, you're nothing like my loving Grandpa or innocent Priscilla."
"Have a bite of cake, Madison," Francesca's tugging my hand, encouraging me to sit. The chair is rough against my legs. The girl's face is slightly visible in the glow. Ben's hand swoops in, a forkful of cake poised by my lips. "Just one bite, Madison, while we sing to you."
"I . . . I don't want to."
"You have to. You intervened in our dimension."
"No. I'd rather leave this room and stop what's happening."
"Francesca, can you close the door?" Ben shoves cake in my mouth while they sing. I try to swallow, but its lodged like a piece of cement, gagging me.
"So sad, isn't it Francesca? Madison's body can't work in our world."
"She's going to die?"
"Oh, yes." Ben drags my clawing fingers from my throat. "Don't fight it, Madison."
I want to talk, to scream, to breathe, but my head's full of cotton and my body is dissipating. So, this is Death.
"Happy Birthday, Madison."