The flames swayed in the light breeze of the ceiling fan. Still, they burned strong and bright. To Dustin they were scorching eyes glaring at him straight out of Hell, all ten of them. Beads of red wax rolled down the candles and pooled like blood on the iced surface below.
He wanted nothing more than to forget his birthday altogether.
His family would have obliged him, but not this year. It was an even numbered year—a check year. The celebration was more for them than for him.
Dustin was the youngest of three boys in a family bonded tight to their kin. The problem was Dustin wasn’t kin. He was adopted. Orphaned as an infant, he never knew his parents. Supposedly, they were killed in a botched break in, but the details, as told to Dustin, were always watered down or vague.
The Thompsons, neighbors to his parents at the time, offered to take him in. The justice system granted their request since no other relatives were known and there was an existing connection between the families. The court also awarded the Thompsons’ rights to Dustin’s inheritance, doled out in biennial support checks; the same frequency with which they chose to celebrate his birthday.
“Better get them all, Dusty.” Tucker said and punched Dustin in the ribs. Tucker was the younger of his two foster brothers, but still five years his senior. The brothers both displayed the Ginger linage that dominated the Thompson bloodline—fiery red hair, freckles, pale skin, and a lean but strong frame that matched well with their innate aggression.
The unexpected blow sent a dull burning pain through Dustin’s chest, shortening his breath. He winced as much from the nickname as the punch. He hated that name. The foster brothers dubbed him Dusty because his bedroom was nothing more than a mattress tossed in the middle of the dirt floor basement. At least he didn’t have to sleep down there tonight. Every two years, after his birthday dinner, Dustin was allowed to spend the night in his ‘for-show’ bedroom. It was a small room with minimalistic décor for guests, unless Child Services stopped by to check on Dustin, then a few posters, books, and toys were sprinkled around.
“Yeah,” Barney added, giving Dustin a punch of his own. “Blow hard or take the curse.”
Dustin tried to ignore their taunts like usual, but this time their jibes hit a weak spot. He’d been dreading this moment ever since they told him about the curse on Tucker’s birthday.
— Four Months Earlier (Tucker’s Birthday) —
“What are you waiting for, Tuck? Worried you’ll miss a few?” Barney said, laughing.
“Shut up, asshole. I’m just thinking of what to wish for, is all.”
A moment later, Tucker sucked down a deep breath and exhaled across the cake. The candles went out one by one. The teen’s lungs hit empty as the 15th flame flickered. In that moment, with the lone candle still fighting to stay aflame, his eyes widened. Everyone stared, motionless and silent. It fluttered, clinging to life, but ultimately extinguished in a puff of smoke.
Tucker finally drew a new breath.
“Ha! Nice one.” Barney congratulated his brother with a slap on the back.
Dustin looked at them, his brow creased by confusion, “Why were you so worried about that last candle?”
“I wasn’t worried, you moron.” Tucker shouted.
“What?” Barney turned his attention to Dustin. “You don’t know about the Anti-Wish?”
Mr. Thompson shook his head and smiled as he went about cutting the cake.
Tucker hopped off the chair to join in the fun.
“When the Birthday boy or girl doesn’t blow out all the candles in one breath, they get the Candle-Curse.”
“And the remaining flames act as a doorway from Hell where demons escape to exact their dark deeds upon the failed candle blower,” Barney explained, speaking in a campfire spook-story voice.
“Demons?” Dustin asked incredulously.
“The demons take the wish, twist it into a curse, and make it come true.”
Dustin watched the brothers for a moment, looking for a tell, a punch line.
“Yeah right, whatever.”
Barney lowered his gaze. “We’re serious. What do you think caused Jonnie Schnelling to get hit by a school bus last year? And, what about Mr. Beakman’s science class explosion that melted off half his face? That had to be the Anti-Wish.”
“Jacqueline next door, she blew out her knee just walking down the street.” Tucker added. “I saw her miss some candles at her birthday party the week before. Everyone knows she wished for faster legs. She was tired of losing track trophies to her sister, Tonya.”
“I don’t blame her for being jealous; Tonya’s hot—ripe for the picking. I’d love to have a shot at her cherry. I bet she’s dying to get dirty.” Barney sucked his teeth as he groped himself.
Mrs. Thompson shook her head. “Alright, settle down boys.”
“Don’t talk about her like that.” Dustin said, scowling.
Tucker laughed. “Awe, Dusty’s got a hard-on for her.”
“Shut up!” Dustin shouted back.
Their mother stood up. “Dustin, stop fighting with your brothers. I’m tired of hearing you talk to your older brothers that way.” She handed a piece of cake to everyone but Dustin and made a show of dropping his slice in the trash. “Now wash your mouth out with soap and go to bed.”
Dustin bit his lip and left the table.
“Your birthday’s coming up soon,” Barney called after him. “Better practice blowing out candles or you might get cursed.”
— The Present (Dustin’s Birthday) —
Dustin watched the flames dance. In the darkness of the dining room, the candles cast a horrid glow on the faces of his foster family, exaggerating their expressions into psychotic masks. They were all grinning as they watched him, but not all for the same reasons. The boys were clearly excited at the chance to see him get the curse, and Dustin knew the mother and father were happy that his birthday meant the arrival of another check.
But as Dustin hesitated in front of the lit cake, some of the smirks fell to impatience and annoyance.
Mr. Thompson sighed and leaned on his elbows.
“Get on with it, will you?” Mrs. Thompson said, rolling her eyes.
Barney tossed his hands over his head. “Geez, just pick something already. Here, let me help you… How about you wish for a pair of balls?”
Dustin closed his eyes and tried to calm the jackhammer in his chest.
“Poor Dusty’s scared.” Tucker hugged him in mock concern.
Dustin ignored him, but he couldn’t push the Candle-Curse lore from his mind. He fought for rational thoughts, to think of a worthwhile wish, but superstition conjured visions of demons and fire.
Tucker slapped Dustin on the neck. “Do it!”
Pushing his fears aside long enough, Dustin chose a wish. I wish I could live in peace.
Then, he opened his eyes and took a deep breath.
Ten. It’s only ten candles. I’ll go from left to right at a steady pace, he thought.
Hands gripping the table, Dustin leaned in and blew hard.
The flames writhed and fluttered until succumbing to the force of his breath sweeping across the field of candles, leaving smoking, lifeless towers in his wake.
Almost there, he thought. Just one more.
With the last candle sputtering under Dustin’s exhalation, Tucker jumped up and shouldered him off the chair. The impact with the floor stole what little oxygen he had left.
All eyes were fixated on the candle that refused to die. It burned bright, flame straightening as if proud of its resilience.
The brothers yelled and laughed, jumping around the room like crazed chimpanzees.
“Curse!” Barney shouted, starting a chant. “Curse, curse.”
Tucker joined him. “Curse, curse, curse.”
Mr. and Mrs. Thompson made a meek attempt at stifling their laughter.
Dustin regained his breath and climbed to his knees.
“No – I can’t be cursed!” He said. “You pushed me!”
“One’s still lit… you lose.” Tucker pointed at the candles.
“That’s not fair!” Dustin yelled. His eyes blurred behind a swell of tears. He balled his hands into fists and started swinging, landing cross-blows to Tucker’s chin and left eye before Barney decked him.
Dustin lay sprawled on the floor; seething and bleeding.
“That’s enough.” Mr. Thompson stood up fast, knocking his chair backward. “Get out of my sight,” he ordered and pulled Dustin by his shirt toward the basement door.
“But, I didn’t get any cake.” Dustin pleaded, the fight sucked out of him.
“You’re done. Go to bed, now.”
Tears spilled down his face. “Can I please still spend the night in my show bedroom?”
“Not anymore. Get your ass in the basement before I throw you down the steps.” Mr. Thompson shoved him at the open doorway.
Sniffling back tears as he went, Dustin didn’t look at the brothers. He knew they were smiling and seeing that would make his punishment all the more difficult to bear.
Tucker yelled after him. “You’re mine tomorrow Dusty. Payback’s coming.”
Dustin shambled down the rickety steps to the dirt floor below. Door locks clicked home as he descended. His limbs felt as heavy as his deprived heart.
He padded over to his unframed mattress, flopped down, and cried.
Tears trailed across his arm and dripped to the ground in little muddy splashes. He wept for hours. Muffled sounds of merriment sifted down from above like dust between the floorboards. Eventually, exhaustion took over and he slept.
Dustin dreamt of fire.
A hot and hungry blaze tore through the house. He was upstairs at the table, watching. He stood motionless, petrified by the sight of demons leaping into his world through the flames. His spine froze and he shivered despite the rising heat around him.
The demons had massive, backward-arching horns and slotted yellow eyes. They danced around the house leaving charred hoof prints along the carpets, furniture, and walls. They ripped the place apart, scorching everything in their path. Nothing was left untouched by their long reptilian fingers as they pranced through the rooms in morbid glee.
Dustin heard cries and pleading from down the hall. The creatures’ hooves clunked loudly as they leapt around, tormenting the family. A man’s voice yelled out unintelligible things, his voice high and frantic from agony. Then, the smell hit Dustin like summer grilling on an August breeze—the father was burning. His foster brothers were screaming and their mother wept. In reply, the demons only snorted and continued their twisted game.
The woman’s unanswered pleas turned to shouts of rage. Dustin heard a flurry of activity and the hysterics stopped abruptly.
Dustin’s pounding heart pulsed in his throat. He stood bolted to the spot, waiting for something to change, something to make sense. Then, a soft voice exhaled the words peace now against his ear. He whirled in both mind and body.
He found himself in bed, slick with sweat. The musty smell of the dirt basement wafted over him. Dense curtains of darkness hung close. He must have had a nightmare—that horrible dream of fire and demons, of violence and death. He could still sense an echo of the screams in his waking mind. Drawing in a long breath, he sighed. He nearly smiled. It was strange how cold he felt now after the imaginary flames were gone.
Something landed in the dirt. Dustin jerked his head toward the sound and peered into the inky shadows. Too dark, he couldn’t see more than a few inches beyond his mattress.
He strained and squinted. Something moved. It was coming closer.
His body tingled in anticipation. Fear oozed from his pores as his cold sweat returned.
Dustin watched it emerge from the gloom, but wished he hadn’t.
A large figure strode toward his bed. It was similar to the demons of his dream, but this one was bigger. Its legs began as cloven hoofs, stretching and bending upward, changing from oily fur to wet scales. Its torso bulged with muscle and the tumorous anatomy of an unknown creature. Slotted goat eyes glowed yellow from a face riddled with nodes of protruding cartilage. The horns terrified him—long, backward-curving growths, like reverse tusks with deep ridges.
Dustin lost control of his bladder but couldn’t look away.
Bedside, the creature leaned down and smiled in an unnatural display of needled teeth. It reached out a hand, stopping the upturned fist inches from Dustin’s face. Slowly unraveling its fingers, the demon revealed a single candle, standing straight in the palm of its hand.
The grinning creature cocked its head and, with a snap of its fingers, brought the candle to life. “You missed one, Dusty,” it said in a voice dank and rich like crude oil. Then, the demon blew out the flame and cast them in total darkness.
~ Tyr Kieran
© Copyright 2014 Tyr Kieran. All Rights Reserved.