The Fires in Winter
I sat amongst the broken bottles and burnout cigarettes. Breathing the cool ash-soaked air, I grabbed my chest. Then my mouth as dry cries heaved out of my body. Every wrench made my mind spin back to a time before all this had happened. When I had a home, even a family, most importantly I had him. All that remained was a pair of boots he was wearing, and the debris scattered across the floor. The only question that played out in my mind was ‘what do I do now?’.
“Only you could know the answer to that question. What do you want to do now?” Three weeks had passed by but for my manager, that was still too much time. This was my third therapist in as many weeks.
“What do I do now? It’s a never-ending question that only raises more concern and questions to be asked.” Standing from the green plush chair, I found myself gazing at the fresh layer of snow now covering the drive up to Hawthorn Manor. Winter had always been my favourite season. A time for renewal after the death autumn brought.
“Does the snow hold the answer for you, Eliza?” I could see in his tiny green eyes the will to help me slowly fading. I understood why these questions were relevant and why I was no longer left unsupervised in my day to day existence. But what do I do now?
“The snow. That’s when we met.”
“Eliza are you ready to talk about what happened?” My eyes glazed over-focusing once more on the snow. “Eliza? Shall we talk about what happened the night your husband died? The fire?”
“Doctor, with all respect, I’ve been a psychiatrist since before you were born. Why don’t you ask me to start with what is comfortable?”
“Call me Dan. Eliza, please start at the beginning.”
The dewy-eyed doctor sat listening intently as I talked about my thirty-year marriage. Winter for us was our time. We had met on Halloween while attending a friend’s party. I had gone outside for a cigarette. My fingers locked trying endlessly to light a match, almost giving up, a flame tickled the tobacco releasing the sweet tar I grew to love. Thanking the kind stranger, I finished my nicotine buzz and fell back inside to warm myself by the alcohol. Thinking nothing of the night, a month soon glided over, marking the beginning of Christmas and frolicking festivities that would follow. Christmas party after party seemed to flow into another; until the grand final on the 24th December. Again, I found myself stuck outside without a light. The smell of cinnamon and musk breezed past offering a match to light my cigarette.
“I gave up three weeks ago, been a nightmare ever since.” The deepness of his brown eyes and soft voice kept me from going back inside. After a brief introduction, Colby joined me in polluting our lungs. The more we talked revealed the extent of our connection. Both junior doctors, both specialising in mental health. It wasn’t until my fingers eventually turned blue did we join the other guests and their polite conversation. A look flickered from our faces, boredom from the conversation but an insatiable thirst to be in each other’s company. Sensing the rising tension, our mutual friend Gina suggested Colby take me home as he hadn’t been drinking, and cab fares would be high.
As the hour-long journey back began, the sky tingled into a purple, almost if the cold had squeezed snow from the clouds. The blizzard began, and the snow got thicker. Arriving at my empty home, I could only see Bingo, my tabby cat sat waiting for me in the window. Not wanting the night to be over we sat a little longer talking. He told me the only thing that waited for him was a glass of brandy, the perks of living by yourself at Christmas. Somewhat lonely but intrigued, it only felt right to invite him in. The fire roared in the background as our first kiss slowly drifted into our first Christmas.
From that day forward our days were spent together, always cherishing when the first crisp, orange leaf would float to the ground. Soon it was a tradition for Gina’s Christmas Eve party to be followed by an hour-long drive every year up until the birth of our first son, Taylor. He arrived on Christmas Eve swiftly followed by his brother Jacob on Halloween. We started our own family ritual and without fail, each time the winter pulled the festive times closer, we would spend it as a family. Every Christmas was the same, his cinnamon and musk scent cloaked me through the winter months, keeping me warm.
“Do you remember what the scent was? That your husband would wear?” Noticing the young doctor not making any notes but just listening, I walked away from the window.
“It was a very old musk, you couldn’t buy it now. The cinnamon was from all the cookies he baked over autumn and winter. In the first two weeks since his death, I swear I can smell it.”
“When would you smell it?”
“Normally after I would wake up. I’ve convinced myself a million times that when I wake up I’m at home, in my own bed, next to him. That’s when I smell it.”
“And your sons?”
“No one can tell me if they were home at the time of the fire or not.”
I phone and get no reply. I email and still no reply. The officer that was dealing with this has now stopped contact with me. Perhaps it is because I’m locked inside this place constantly, never allowed to leave the premises. I need to know if the rest of my family is still safe. A gentle bell rings that signals the end of the session.
“Eliza, I think we’re really making some progress.”
“Ok. Is it always this empty in here over the holiday season?”
“No, it used to be thriving, but a lot of people have gone to spend time with their own families.”
I left the book bounded walls to venture down a long corridor. Something about this place felt familiar but I couldn’t quite work out what. Landing outside my room the door flung open and a sudden rush of cinnamon floated through, a white mist walked through me. Cold trickled through my body followed by an intense warmth. I knew it had to be him. Terrified at the thought of an apparition I hesitated. Then, something triggered inside me, a need to see my husband. This propelled me into action as I ran back down the hall as far as I could go until a nurse escorted me back to my room. Kicking and screaming they brought in something to ‘calm me down’. I don’t remember anything until the next day when I found myself fixated once more on the snow. A soft voice asked me to explain what had happened yesterday. After calmly retelling the story, Dan stood next to me at the window.
“The mind often sees, feels, and therefore creates what we want it to. The thing that we are wanting more than anything else. Eliza, I believe after thinking so much about your husband yesterday your mind created what you wanted to see.”
“I know what I saw and what I felt.” I also knew what he said was true. “Dan, did you find out any more information about my sons?”
Moving away from the window, he began to ruffle a few papers before confirming to me that my sons were alive and there was every possibility that they may visit me over the upcoming days. Of course, I demanded to know why I had been left for so long without knowing what had happened. Doctor Dan only stood and apologised before asking me to take a seat. We sat and talked about general winter activities and then specifically what my family enjoyed the most. As a family each year we visited many log cabins during the winter, with real fires burning to keep us warm. The day of Colby’s death we had arrived back from our normal place.
“Are you ready to talk about what happened?”
“The kids got back before us. They left a note on the side to say they would be home again for Gina’s Christmas Eve party. Exhausted we threw the bags at the foot of the staircase, with all our ski boots and gear. I knew we wouldn’t bother to unpack until later that evening. We began having a few bottles of beer. Searching through the empty fridge I knew we needed some groceries to last until the food delivery came. Colby was too drunk to drive…”
My feet skimmed the floor until I was back over by the window. The snow froze the pain, giving me the strength to talk about the next part. “I left to get some basics, milk, bread…” My voice trembled and broke as my eyes became transfixed on the scene taking place in the snow.
“Eliza?” I began to shake.
“It’s my sons, they’re here!” A gush of tears spilled over my tired eyes as I banged on the window. The closer they got the louder I banged. “I’m here!”
After a few moments of hysterically slapping the window and crying, they both looked at me. Then through me. Jacob turned his back away, dragging Taylor with him who looked on in fear. It was too much for me, I needed to let them know I was alright. Bursting through the doors, time was running against me. Trying to catch them before they left the grounds, I pushed my way through the nurses and doctors stopping me from leaving this hell. Squirming out of a stronghold, I made it to the front door, my foot almost reached the snow before being flung back inside by one of the nurses. The smell of cinnamon and musk cascaded past until once again it was morning and I was stood next to the window, lifeless looking at the snow.
“Eliza, we need to talk about yesterday.”
“I don’t remember anything after they put me to sleep.”
“Eliza, I think it’s time you knew.”
Rustling with papers on his desk, Dan picked out a newspaper.
“Eliza, it’s time for me to go. Please stay in here, sit down, and read this.” Leaving the paper in my hands he looked at me one last time with a smile painfully filled with pity.
Sitting down in the plush green chair, I opened the newspaper.
Local Woman Tragically Killed in House Fire
Eliza Hernandez was tragically killed yesterday in a fire they suspected was caused by an unattended cigarette. Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez had arrived home after spending two weeks skiing with their sons Taylor and Jacob. Mr. Hernandez left to buy some groceries. It is believed that in the time he was gone Eliza had fallen to sleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. Colby Hernandez penned a beautiful letter for his late wife which has been inscribed upon her headstone.
My Dearest Eliza,
My heart will never forget our time together. How every year winter became a time of warmth. Our happy place in the snow.
I could never imagine a greater woman to have spent my life with or how wonderfully you raised our sons to be the men they are. You will be forever missed but always know there’s a space for me and you in the snow.
Until we meet in the winter once more,
All my love
Mr. Hernandez will start rebuilding his home after the Christmas period, so the family may spend the next Christmas there. Our deepest sympathies are with the family at this time.
Dropping the newspaper to the ground, images flashed back in my mind. Tears flooded my mouth as I choked on the salty reality. My eyes cleared as I looked around me. Hawthorn was my house, a home. Where a book-bounded wall once stood was now the charred remains. Burnt pages scattered across the floor. The plush green chair was reduced to a piece of fabric and a wooden foot. The windows I would spend hours looking out of were now blackened by the smoke and fire that had destroyed this home. The never-ending corridor was a large open space.
And there it was. The chair I had fallen asleep on. The chair that enviably was my last resting place. Hearing the debris at the front of the house being kicked, I ran back into the study. Hiding behind a burnt door I could smell the cinnamon and musk wafting through.
“I know it’s strange being back here, but we’ll rebuild it.” I knew the kind, gentle voice.
“I saw her dad. The last time we came. I saw her. You did as well Taylor.”
“I know you miss her and at this time of year, it becomes harder. We’ll get through it and next year we can spend Christmas here, just like your mum would have wanted.”
For the best part of a year, I hid away. Occasionally leaving a small sign behind. Sometimes I would move the odd tool around that Taylor had been using. Or when Jacob sat alone in the study focusing hard on the window, I’d sit next to him. His gentle sniffles would let me know he knew I was there. He often came into the study to smell cigarettes and Samsara, the ‘smell of mum’ as it was always described. Finally, the 25th December rolled around, and I was able to watch my entire family, including the new arrivals, enjoy our favourite time of year.
A new tradition was born from this first holiday season without me. Every Christmas at midnight I would stand by the windows in the study gazing out at the snow waiting for Colby to walk in. He would stand behind me, and for a moment I could feel the warmth of his body. He stayed a while, telling me what had happened this year and how much he missed me. I only wish I could tell him.
The years went by and eventually, Taylor and Jacob had their own families. With that, their own traditions. The house was quiet. Colby came to the study more with each passing day. Until one December the house was filled with life again. A variety of gentle sobs and boisterous laughter rippled through our home. By the evening time, the house was quiet once more.
The study door creaked, and I watched as Colby walked towards me. The fresh smell of winter lingered in the air. I looked outside as Taylor and Jacob waved goodbye to their father. Warm arms fell about my waist. Turning from the window I looked at my husband and touched his face for the first time in ten years.
“I promised we’d meet again in winter.”
More ghost stories available in Truth or Scare: Volume 1