Contemporary Fiction American

Winter separates the real addicts from the social smokers, Annabelle thought to herself bitterly as she attempted to flick the biting metal switch of the cheap Bic lighter in her hand. Her hot breath curled in winding, smoking waves in front of her face, mocking the activity she desired to perform that was so close yet so far away at the same time. She could see the icy crystals on the railing in front of her, but beyond that, nothing. The only streetlight for miles had gone out, leaving the block cloaked in the dangerous darkness of a winter new moon.

Her nose twitched with the sharp intake of cold air that pierced her sinuses. She hadn’t been able to stop the steady drip since she’d first landed in Michigan three days ago. Annabelle sniffed, but that just caused her nose to choke and her throat to clog with backed up phlegm. Mucous dropped onto her upper lip and since sniffling was proving futile, Annabelle—in her distracted concentration—settled for licking her lips instead. The sweet, tangy taste was disgusting in theory, but we’re never as grossed out by our own bodily fluids as we are of those of others. Annabelle swallowed and clicked the lighter one more time, hunched desperately over the spark, her hand cupped around it like it was a baby monarch butterfly she was trying to shield from a winter storm. But it was no use. It flickered and diet out, leaving her cigarette aggravatingly unlit.

The soft, steady snowfall was eerily silent. There wasn’t an animal for miles if you didn’t count the humans behind her tucked cozily into the noisy bar. If the door opened, a swell of raucous music and pleasant chatter spilled out into the night, but apparently Annabelle was the only person in this town with this particular vice, so the door stayed tightly shut, insulating the building’s occupants from the cold outside. No windows provided any access to the interior either, making Annabelle feel truly isolated. A scientist spending the winter in an arctic lab, laboring over an impossible experiment.

She was just about to give up and head back inside when the door swung open behind her.

Sound briefly poured out of the bar before it slammed shut again, silencing the crowd as if they belonged to another dimension.

Standing on the porch in front of her was a man that Annabelle did not know. Tall, pale, and freckled. His shaggy red hair hung around his face, and his raggedy coat seemed inadequate against the cold. A local.

He tilted his head as if giving her a curious look, then he pulled a pack of Marlboro reds out of his pocket, tapped one into his hand, stick it in his mouth, and with practiced familiarity removed a matchbook from his other pocket, flipped it open, tore a match out, lit his cigarette, and tossed the lit match into the snow, where it instantly fizzled.

“Can I have one of those?” Annabelle heard herself asking.

The man took a long drag. The end of his cigarette burnt cherry red in the darkness, and Annabelle inhaled the intoxicating scent like it was the smell of a lover. He kept the cigarette held up to his lips and leaned in towards her.

She mirror him, and they brought their tips together. They touched.

Annabelle inhaled deeply until hers glowed red, finally lit. She pulled back and released the smoke from her breath. It billowed up in front of her, dissipating into the night air.

“Thank you,” she told him. “It’s freezing out here. I could barely feel my fingers. I think I’m getting frostbite.”

But she only put one hand back into its mitten. The other held the cigarette between two fingers.

The man looked at her, taking in the coat, the hat, the scarf, the mitten. He laughed.

“It’s like 40 degrees out.”

“That is freezing.”

“It’s literally not.” He took another drag, amused. “You’re not going to get frostbite. I promise.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ve lived here all my life. I know how things work.”

Annabelle folded her arms in front of her chest and said nothing.

“Where are you from?” He asked her.

“Los Angeles,” she said.

“Ah,” he grinned. “Now it makes sense.”

“Because I’m a baby when it comes to the cold?”

“Because you’re so hot.”

He looked right at her. Annabelle squirmed, uncomfortable. She was attracted to this man and flattered by his words. But she was unaccustomed to direct, unafraid compliments like this.

In any other situation, she would have run away, but there was nowhere else to go, and she had spent so long trying to light this smoke that she’d be damned if she put it out before finishing it all the way down to the filter. So instead, she blushed and looked down.

“Thanks,” she mumbled. “I guess it’s true what they say about leaving the city.”

He looked at her questioningly.

“You go from being an ‘LA six’ to a ‘ten’ everywhere else.” She felt silly explaining this out loud.

“Is that what you think about yourself?”

She was looking at the tree line for a distraction, desperate to change the subject. “What’s that over there?”

“I don’t see anything,” the man said.

“Right there,” Annabelle pointed out. There was a small shape in the snow. A little creature. An animal probably.

The man took a step back. His energy shifted from confidence to fear.

“So, what brings you into town?” he asked Annabelle, but his demeanor was different now. It was forced pleasantness. He was trying to distract her.

“I’m here with my boyfriend for his family reunion,” but Annabelle was no longer interested in the conversation. She was looking closer at the thing by the edge of the trees. “Is that… a dog?”

But not just a dog. It was a shivering chihuahua in a delicate Christmas sweater.

“There’s no way a tiny thing like that can survive the cold.”

The chihuahua was bounding playfully in the snow. It didn’t seem to mind the temperature at all. Annabelle took a step down the porch towards it. The chihuahua noticed her movements and stopped its frolicking in the snow. It fixed its eyes on her, waiting.

The man grabbed Annabelle’s hand. His skin was cold and clammy on hers.

“Don’t,” he insisted. His Cool Guy demeanor was now completely gone.

Annabelle wrenched her hand away from his grip, pulling it into her body and rubbing it forth warmth.

“Why not?” she stubbed out her cigarette on the muddy slush of the wooden planks below their feet.

The man’s eyes shifted around, and he looked evasive.

“I can’t tell you,” he said. “You’ll just laugh.”

Annabelle raised her eyebrows.

“And then you’ll call us a bunch of stupid townies.”

Annabelle looked taken aback and defensive but also guilty. “I would never—Where did you…?” she sputtered.

Now it was the man’s turn to raise his eyebrows, vindicated.

“I know your type,” he said. “Coming here from the big city on the coast, thinking you’re better than us.” He spit on the porch in front of him. Annabelle watched it mix in with the snow and melt the ice.

“But the poor dog,” she said. “It won’t survive.”

“See? You think you know better than us,” the man told her.

“Are you saying that dog isn’t real? That I’m making it up?”

He gave her a look of pity. “Lady,” the man said, turning to head back inside the bar. “For your sake, I wish you were.”

Annabelle blinked, confused.

“She just knows how to get you city girls,” he continued. “It’s almost too easy.” The man opened the door to the bar and the warmth spilled out on to the porch again. A pop song started up on the jukebox and the patrons all groaned and complained good naturedly.

Then just as quickly as it had all came spilling out, the door slammed shut behind the man and sealed up all the warmth in with him.

Alone in the quiet, cold darkness, Annabelle turned back to look at the edge of the woods. The snow was falling faster and thicker but still silent. The chihuahua posed at the edge of the forest shivering, one paw held up in anticipation as it looked back at Annabelle expectantly, waiting for her to follow.

No matter what the man had said, she just couldn’t leave a little baby like that out in the snow by itself, so against her better judgment, Annabelle jumped down off the porch and gently approached the dog at the tree line.

“Here, sweetie!” she called out to him. “I’m not going to hurt you. Why don’t we go inside where it’s warm?”

The dog froze in place, watching her. Its wet little nose twitched.

She was feet away. Annabelle stretched out a welcoming hand, palm down so as to not scare him. The dog leaned in towards her. His nose wrinkled in affectionate curiosity. He was inches away.

Then just as she was about to touch him, he turned and sprinted into the forest.

“Hey wait! Come back!” Annabelle chased after him. She could barely see in the dark, so she pulled off her mittens and fumbled with her cold fingers, pulling her cell phone out of her pocket. She flashed the light around her, illuminating nothing but trees. The little dog was nowhere to be seen.

Annabelle’s heart started pounding in her chest so hard she was worried it would attract predators. Were there wolves in these woods? She hadn’t been listening when her boyfriend Charlie was talking at her about the history of the town earlier that day. She tried not to think about the man’s words echoing in her head.

“Fine,” she said more to herself than to the dog she had been chasing. “If you want to freeze to death out here, I can’t stop you.”

Annabelle turned around and started walking back the direction that she came. At least, she thought that was the direction. Annabelle realized with a sinking feeling that before when she was running, she’d had no idea if she was going in a straight line. And she had no idea where she was going now.

There has to be a compass app on her phone or something, she thought to herself. But when she did a search, nothing. A clock on the Map app simply revealed that she was nowhere near an LTE connection. Nothing was loading except the infuriating and obvious green expanse surrounding her, indicating that her blue dot was in a forest but refusing to give her more information.

Annabelle started to cry in fear and frustration. She could feel the prickle of her tears as they froze against her face. Was she going to die out here?

But then to her shock, she saw in front of her: the chihuahua. Patiently waiting as if confused by her tears.

“You little shit,” Annabelle sobbed, laughing with relief.

She smeared the snot and tears across her face with the back of her hand, ran over, and picked up the little dog. She wrapped it in her arms, more desperate to receive comfort from the creature than to give it, but hoping she could warm the little animal up all the same.

“What a kind girl,” Annabelle heard a scratchy old woman’s voice from behind her in the darkness. Before she even had a chance to whip around in fear and look at the source of the voice, a papery arm had snaked its way around her shoulders, gripping her in an embrace.

The dog squirmed out of Annabelle’s arms and dropped to the ground.

“It’s always the kind ones that need the most help,” a sultry, confident woman said, threading around the middle of Annabelle’s back and pulling her in tight.

“I’m so hungry…” a whiney teenage girl’s voice cut through as a third arm wrapped around Annabelle’s waist.

Annabelle felt her iPhone being wrenched from her hand. She was plunged into darkness once again.

Off in the distance, the chihuahua barked uselessly.

“Good boy,” the young voice said. “You did so good!”

Annabelle finally found her own voice. “Who are you?” she asked. “What do you want?”

“That depends,” the old woman answered. “On what it is that you want.”

“I don’t want anything,” whimpered Annabelle.

“That’s not true,” said the young one. “Everyone wants things.”

“I want to go home,” Annabelle said, pulling away from the arms holding her. “I want to not freeze to death.”

“We can help with that,” said the sultry voice in a calming tone.

“Let there be…” someone snapped her fingers and a crackling fire blazed before them.

The crone laughed. “They hate when I do that.”

Annabelle used the light from the flames to try and make sense of her surroundings. Thugh she had heard three distinct voices and had felt three very different arms on her body, the only person in front of her was an old woman.

Annabelle shivered.

The old woman gripped Annabelle’s bony hand in hers.

“Why did you come here?”

“The man at the bar. He said you were dangerous. Are you going to eat me?”

The old woman laughed. The sound echoed like three different women’s laughter mixed together.

“You’ve read too many fairy tales, girl,” she said. “Next you’ll be asking if I live in a house made of candy.”

Annabelle blushed and looked down.

“You’re here because you want something.” The woman peered into Annabelle’s eyes and suddenly she looked forty years younger.

Annabelle yanked back in fright, but the woman did not look away.

“Clarity,” she said in that sultry voice that Annabelle now recognized from earlier.

“How…?” she started to ask.

The woman studied her like a doctor doing an examination.

“Charlie,” she said. “Where is he?”

“We got in a fight,” Annabelle admitted to her in spite of herself. “I—” Her hand went instinctively to her pocket. She felt the ring she had been carrying.

“You’re not ready,” the woman said. And suddenly she was twenty years younger, a beautiful, haughty teenage girl, barely 16. “You have your whole life ahead of you.”

“But I love him,” Annabelle whispered.

“So?” the girl asked.

The girl plunged her hand into Annabelle’s pocket and drew out the packet of cigarettes. She took one in her lips and lit it in the flame of the bonfire.

The heat scorched the girl’s skin. Her eyebrows singed; her hair curled in the flames. The girl didn’t flinch. Her lips blistered around the tightly rolled paper. Her skin melted until her eye sockets drooped. She never took her gaze away from Annabelle. “You love lots of things.”

Annabelle scrambled backwards in a panic. The little chihuahua sitting off to the side of the clearing turned and ran. It swished its big, bushy tail.

Annabelle chased it like her life depended on it.

When she finally broke through the outer edge of the woods and saw the porch in the distance, she nearly cried in relief. She was so happy she didn’t even notice the coyote she had been following slip back into the woods.

Her mind was only on the crowd of warm strangers inside and the safety of the four walls of the bar.

December 05, 2023 16:41

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Belladona Vulpa
18:32 Dec 10, 2023

Interesting story. Annabelle's encounter with the mysterious trio in the cold darkness brought an eerie and suspenseful atmosphere. The chihuahua's role added a curious and fantastical element to the narrative. The dialogue was sharp, and the twists in the plot kept me hooked. The blend of the mundane (cigarettes, a cold night) with the supernatural made for a captivating read. Great job weaving suspense and mystery together!


Audrey Knox
05:16 Dec 12, 2023

Thank you so much! I appreciate the detailed feedback.


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J. D. Lair
04:01 Dec 13, 2023

Really enjoyed the turn this story ended up taking! It took what would have been an ordinary story of someone on the fence about something, and added a suspenseful flair to it which made it so much better. Your details were sprinkled in just enough to create a picture in the mind without overdoing it into purple prose. Well done! I look forward to reading more from you. :) Favorite line: “Sound briefly poured out of the bar before it slammed shut again, silencing the crowd as if they belonged to another dimension.” This detail is so accurat...


Audrey Knox
01:15 Dec 14, 2023

Thank you! The more I learn about supernatural mythology, the more fun I have incorporating it into ordinary everyday struggles.


J. D. Lair
02:26 Dec 14, 2023

It does sound fun! I may have to try the concept myself one of these days. :)


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AnneMarie Miles
02:35 Dec 14, 2023

I love your dark imagination, Audrey! Initially, there is nothing in the beginning of the story that tells us to expect this dark encounter in the woods, until the man gives her that subtle and mysterious warning. That brief exchange was a massive success in piquing readers' interest. The man knew something we didn't and it was almost torturous that he didn't give more details, but it made us fully invested in Annabelle's next move. As always, your dialogue is fun and witty. I feel bad for the next person who pities that shivering Chihuahua!...


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