This story is by Kris Traverse and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
One night during spring break, when my parents were out for the weekend and Emily had invited herself and Aria over, Emily became bored with all the usual activities and ordered us to search online for something different to do. It was probably because we’d just finished studying about Asia, as Aria came across an old parlor game called “One-Hundred Tales”. The participants would light a hundred candles, extinguish them one by one as they told ghost stories and after the hundredth tale, some sort of apparition would appear; it also unconvincingly recommended we desist at ninety-nine to prevent a spirit from actually rising. I didn’t like the idea from the start and didn’t want to play, but Emily latched onto it and Aria had no particular objection so I couldn’t protest.
Whether it made sense or not, Emily always got what she wanted with Aria’s support. I tagged along; I knew how they loved to torment people who got in their way, like when she got most of our classmates to blatantly ignore a girl named Cassy for an entire semester. Cassy had to change schools.
I wanted anything than to become Emily’s next target.
We decided to use a large box of tea candles my mom had just bought and it was a task to light all of them. Finding stories wasn’t so difficult though—plenty online.
Still hoping that Emily would change her mind or that Aria would say something, I unhappily sat in our circle with only the candles to light the room when I looked out the window and suddenly realized how the cherry blossom tree was fully bloomed. Against the bright moon, it looked like a still, cottony cloud.
“Once upon a time, there lived an old man and old woman and the woman took ill and died . . .”
She blew out one candle after she’d finished.
Aria went next and then I.
The first twenty or so were easy and fast but the difficulties began when we approached forty.
Aria was getting tired and wanted to do something else, but Emily had this unnatural zeal to get to a hundred. I would have sided with Aria, not because I was bored, but because I was getting extremely uneasy about the whole thing; the dark room, the flickering lights and unmoving tree outside made something in my gut squirm. I wanted to stop. Aria didn’t raise any more resistance and we continued.
At the fiftieth tale I glanced out the window. Though there was no wind, I realized a few of the white petals were fluttering to the ground like unseasonal snow. The sight was a little unexpected as the tree had just bloomed that day.
Because Aria was lazy and I really wished Emily would let us quit, we were taking our time to find the next stories and Emily was getting impatient.
“If you really want to stop, we could start telling tales about each other instead,” she said. I stayed silent. She was foul when she got in this mood. Aria pursed her lips and complained no more.
In her soft voice, Aria continued the chain.
“There was once an old forgotten tunnel, and it was said that whoever passed through it would never return. One day, a couple was hiking and spotted it . . .”
I glanced out of the window again. To my surprise, now more petals fell unceremoniously towards the cool ground. It was quite strange as there was still no breeze, yet something was causing those blossoms to detach.
Trying not to annoy her any more, I started, “Um, Emily . . .” She glanced at me and I, yet again, was too intimidated to voice my concerns about the eerie feeling I had. She turned away like I wasn’t there and Aria glanced at me but didn’t say anything either. They just kept on their phones, searching for the next tales.
The two muttered their fables and I stared, as in a trance, at the tiny remaining flames that hardly swayed or flickered until my eyes drifted over to the extinguished candles which were steadily growing in number. As I stared into the expanding abyss, my premonition became perfectly clear. I knew—I just knew that something bad would happen at the end and we were inviting it, one tale at a time . . . one candle at a time.
My eyes drifted to the tree in the garden as it continued to lose its beautiful coverings at an alarming rate. Until this point, I had just wanted to stop because I had an ominous feeling, but now I was frantic.
When it came my turn, I paused for a long time until Emily asked why I was being so slow.
“What if this really works?” I blurted out. Aria and Emily looked at each other and began laughing hysterically.
“Uh-huh, a ghost is really going to appear, right?” said Emily. The other two were still snickering at me.
“What if . . . what if something bad happens?” I said.
They giggled again.
Feeling silly and embarrassed, my face turned bright red, but then it fell deathly pale when I saw the blossoms fall unforgivingly from the tree like a rush of rain. Chills were running up and down my spine, but I remained quiet, not wanting to be made fun of again.
“Why are you being a pain, Blake?” Emily said. Her voice was flat and she wasn’t really asking.
“We’re almost there. Just stick with it,” said Aria.
I needed something that would convince them to stop on their own volition, maybe a distraction would do. Looking out the window, I came up with the only thing that drifted to mind which would potentially scare them or make them curious enough to stop this madness.
“I should go check on the tree,” I said.
“Tree? What tree?”
“The blossoming one. Something’s wrong.”
Aria and Emily took a quick glance out the window and then at each other with raised eyebrows.
“What are you playing at? What tree?”
They shook their heads, snickered and returned to their phones.
I stared back down at my hands. Were they always this bloodlessly white?
“I guess it’s my turn.” Aria proceeded with a story about a haunted unfinished painting of an empty room that would literally suck in anyone who touched it, trying to complete itself by adding people to the scene. She softly blew out the ninety-eighth flame.
The ninety-ninth tale was mine. If I was going to stop this, it would be now or never.
“No, let’s stop now. I have a bad feeling . . .”
“Blake,” Emily said. “Remember Cassy?”
I was more afraid of her than of that unknown entity which only I could see.
“In a certain town . . .” I clenched my fists and swallowed hard, so that the other two couldn’t hear the tremor in my voice. A cold sweat formed in my palms and at the nape of my neck as I whispered the story about an old shack that was haunted by the ghost of a boy. The two candles left were near to the end anyway, but I put one out of its misery with a feeble puff of breath.
The blossoms had all fallen, motionless on the dirt, and now the trunk itself was turning darker and waning from its roots. The moon, which had been so bright that night, was now covered by a thick, billowing cloud.
Emily searched on her phone for a moment and then sneered, “Speaking of trees, here’s a good one for you, Blake.”
She told the hundredth tale.
“Years ago lived a woman who, good or bad, would go along with everyone and anyone like a branch swaying in the wind. Eventually, she forgot how to speak and no one remembered her. She became invisible like the wind itself. She even sat under the most beautiful flowering tree, but no one noticed she was there until finally she died on the spot. It’s said that the woman was turned into a blossoming tree, and is now allowed to be seen once a year by only one person, but she always disappears with her falling petals, taking along with her the one who saw her.”
As the last of the silver faded and the tree turned black and withered, I saw, in the reflection of the window, my own face which disappeared when the last flicker of candle light was extinguished and the room sank into darkness.
“See Blake? Nothing happened.” Aria and Emily giggled as Aria got up and switched on the light. They stopped a second later. “Blake? Where are you?” They searched and called out around the room, the house and even the garden, but they were the only two left on the premise—save a rotted tree and brown petals covering the early spring morning’s ground.