‘Hold your hand still.’ Peter held the candle out.
‘I don’t want to,’ Kevin replied. He shivered despite the summer evening. He glanced at his watch. Seven o’clock. It was getting late and his mum would be wondering where he was. The afternoon spent playing in the field had slipped by. Peter had led the way through the twisted path to the ruined church at the edge of town.
‘Don’t be a baby,’ Peter said. He placed the candle on the bench and stared at Kevin. ‘Do you want the Stick Man to get us?’ He pulled up the hood on his parka jacket.
‘What’s the Stick Man?’
‘There was a priest that lived here, on his own, years ago.’ Peter touched the doll-like collection of branches that lay on the bench. ‘He used to catch kids playing in the graveyard and lock them in here.’ Peter picked the twig-doll up and held it close to the flame. ‘He used to punish them, by pouring hot wax onto their hands.’
‘That’s a stupid story.’
Peter put the doll back. ‘One day he caught two boys who fought back.’
‘What did they do?’ Kevin asked.
‘They pushed the priest, who fell back into the candles.’
Kevin looked at the rusted rows of metal around them and shuddered.
‘The wax from the candles fell onto his face, while he was knocked out.’ Peter tipped the candle, which dripped onto the head of the stick doll.
‘Don’t swear in church.’
‘The priest jumped up, blind and screaming. His gown was on fire.’ Peter kicked a piece of wood. ‘He chased the boys down to the door. The fire spread quickly.’
Kevin noticed the blackened walls and charred pews surrounding them. The air smelled heavy and musty. He tried to laugh, but his throat was tight. ‘As if,’ he said.
‘They found his body under this bench, covered in wax and splinters of wood from the rafters.’ Peter looked up at the shattered roof. The sky was an orange glow. ‘One of the boys was never found.’
‘Shut up!’ Kevin pulled away from the bench and turned toward the door.
Peter stepped in front of him. Streaks of wax lined his sleeves. ‘Where are you going?’ He pushed Kevin back towards the bench.
‘We need to keep the Stick Man away,’ Peter said. ‘It’s just a drop on each hand. Look.’ He dripped a bead of wax onto his skin. The wax hardened quickly. He rolled it into a ball and flicked it into the dark.
‘Your turn.’ Peter grabbed Kevin’s hand. He held the candle closer.
Kevin pulled free and pushed Peter’s arm away. Wax splashed onto the bench. The candle wavered, but stayed lit.
‘What did you do that for?’ Peter placed the candle back down. The stick figure was completely covered in wax.
‘You bloody weirdo,’ Kevin said.
Peter pulled his hood down, ‘It was just a joke…’ he paused.
They heard the tap, tap, tap, on the door.
Kevin glanced at Peter; who stared back, eyes wide, mouth open. He heard Peter’s ragged breathing, mingled with his own.
Kevin shivered. ‘Who’s that?’ He whispered. He heard the snapping sound of branches from outside.
‘It’s the Stick Man,’ Peter uttered.
‘Shut up,’ Kevin replied.
The snapping ceased, leaving silence outside.
‘I’m going home…’ Kevin said.
‘Who is it?’ Peter shouted, which made Kevin jump.
Then, thump, thump, thump, on the door.
Kevin stepped back and stumbled back over a piece of wood. The sickening twist of his ankle made him yell.
The thumping stopped. Peter took a step towards the door.
‘Don’t,’ Kevin rubbed his foot.
Peter ignored him. He pushed the door open. Dusky light flooded the church interior. The long shadows of the graveyard lay before them. Peter stepped out of the church. ‘Stay here,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll run for help.’
‘No!’ Kevin replied. ‘I’m coming with you!’
‘You’ll slow me down.’
‘Peter!’ Kevin leaped up on his good foot and grabbed the back of Peter’s jacket. Peter lurched out of his grasp. The door slammed shut.
Kevin pushed the door. It wouldn’t move. ‘Let me out,’ his ankle felt swollen.
‘You idiot. You ripped my bloody coat!’ Peter hissed from outside.
Kevin heard the snapping of branches.
He heard a sharp intake of breath, then the thud of something hitting the ground.
Kevin shivered. ‘Peter!’ he whispered.
He heard the snapping of branches. Then; tap, tap tap, on the door.
The door swung open.
Kevin saw the tear he had made on the back of Peter’s jacket, which flapped open like a crooked smile. The hood was up. Kevin looked down and saw the streaks of wax lining the sleeves of the parka.
He shuffled forward and grabbed a shoulder. ‘That was a really stupid joke…’
He stopped. He felt the brittleness beneath the jacket. The branches snapping.
The figure turned around.
Colin Gardiner lives in Coventry. He writes short stories and poems and is published by The Ekphrastic Review and the Creative Writing Leicester blog. He is currently studying a Masters in Creative Writing at Leicester University.