The wind whispers through the dark, empty trees like a warning in a foreign language. Winter is here, and with winter comes the long-forgotten. The winter chill could mask the cold of their undead bodies as they sought a new home among the living. Their blue lips and frost-kissed hair wouldn’t stand out among the towns in the north. It was only with the change of the seasons that they were discovered, still pale and stiff, but by then it would be too late.
The long-forgotten received their name because they waited until everyone who would know them was long gone before making their return. Sometimes families would wait for all their members at the Lethe and return as one, as if nothing had changed.
Maybe to them, it hadn’t. No one really knows why some move on and others hold on to this world. It could be that they don’t even know they are gone, just a shell of what they used to be. That’s what some people say, but I don’t think so. I think the long-forgotten know more than people realize.
The long-forgotten are why outsiders are treated with such suspicion in the winter months. Our small town normally welcomes visitors with kindness. More people can always accomplish bigger tasks, and we share the burdens and the harvest equally. But only two kinds of people arrive in the coldest months: the desperate or the long-forgotten.
My best friend was one of these, a desperate person arriving in the depth of winter. But I knew immediately that she wasn’t one of the long-forgotten. I knew because, despite the chattering teeth and the hunger written all over her thin body, she smiled at me the moment I saw her. And there was no way such a beautiful smile could come from one of the undead.
I smile myself, and pick up the pace as I trudge my way through the snow to reach Jesiba’s house. It isn’t a long walk, but it still takes awhile when the snow comes up past my knees. I know once I reach her house, Jesiba will fuss over me and melt a cup of chocolate and cream over the fire.
I would be glad for the warmth, but mostly glad to be away from the silence of winter. The snow seems to muffle all sound, making everything eerily quiet and turning my thoughts dark. I can’t help feeling like something is coming, but I suppose I feel this way every winter, and the fears melt away at the touch of summer sun.
I hear a groaning sound and look up to see Jesiba opening the front door. Her brother squeezes past her and dashes out to meet me.
“Kaleb!” he yells. “We’re getting more wood for the fire. Want to come?”
“Certainly,” I say as I smile down at him.
Where Izais was bursting with joy, Jesiba’s was a calm cheerfulness. She greets me with a warm smile and follows her brother and I to the stacks of wood piled up beside the house. Jesiba carefully places the logs into my arms. I turn toward the house, but stop when I hear moaning.
I look back to Jesiba and Izais, but they both shake their heads to indicate the noise didn’t come from them. I jerk my head back toward the front door, but Jeisba tightens her lips and doesn’t budge. I hand her the wood and place a finger to my lips before creeping toward the back of the house.
Curled up in the corner between a stack of wood and the house lies a young girl. She doesn’t look much older than Izais’ 9 years. I reach down to shake her, but stop myself; she could be one of the long-forgotten. She slowly turns her head and looks up at me with scared eyes.
Jesiba peeks her head around the corner. Spotting the girl, she walks toward us.
“Stop. She could be one of them,” I whisper.
Jesiba looks at me reproachfully. “I could have been one of them too, Kaleb.”
She offers the girl her hand and helps her to stand. The girl shivers pitifully and looks between us. She jumps when Izais comes around the corner, balancing a stack of logs up to his nose. He stops suddenly when he sees the girl, sending the wood tumbling. Blushing, Izais rushes to pick it up. I can see right away that it will be hopeless trying to convince them to leave the girl out in the cold.
I grab the rest of the wood and march back to the house. I start the fire in silence as Jesiba and Izais fawn over the girl. Once the fire is lit, Jesiba brings over a cup of chocolate and warms it over the flames. My shoulders relax. I decide that I will take her peace offering, and we can decide what to do about the girl together.
Jesiba adds some cream to the melted chocolate and stirs. I start to reach out my hand, but she turns, handing the mug to the girl. I let my hand drop.
Of course she would give the drink to the girl, she’s been out in the snow for who knows how long, I tell myself, trying not to let it bother me.
I join the others and watch the new girl with narrowed eyes. She sips the drink as Izais wraps another blanket around her. The ice in her hair begins to melt, drip, drip, dripping onto the leather.
I turn to Jesiba and motion for her to come talk with me.
“You know you can’t let her stay here, right?” I begin.
“Oh, she’s completely harmless, Kaleb,” she says my name again in that disapproving way.
“Not if she’s one of them, and you can’t be sure she isn’t.”
“If she was one of them, why wouldn’t she try to come into the house instead of hiding outside?”
“It could be a trick to gain your trust,” I respond.
Jesiba scoffs. “You think the long-forgo—”
“Don’t say that around her,” I shush her.
I look toward the girl. She slides her gaze over to me, and I shiver. Some say that if the long-forgotten hear you name them, they will kill you to keep you from exposing them.
“You think they are that smart,” Jesiba says.
I bring my focus back to Jesiba. “Yes, I think they are that smart.”
We look at each other in silence. It appears we are at an impasse. I sigh.
“I didn’t say you had to kick her out into the cold,” I try. “She just shouldn’t stay here with you and Izais. We’ll find another place for her to go.”
“Where? Who else will take her in during the winter? No one would take me and Izais, remember? If your family hadn’t let us stay in the barn, we would be dead.”
I think back to three years ago, when the two of them dragged themselves into town. I could tell right away that they were among the living, barely. I convinced my parents to let them stay in our barn. They had agreed, on the condition that I lock them in each night. And I had turned out to be right about them. Which only made me more sure that I was right about this strange girl.
I also knew that Jesiba would take the girl in if no one else would. She was caring, and I loved that about her, but she could also be naive.
“Then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll let her stay in the barn until winter is over,” I tell Jesiba.
She smiles at me, and it’s so sweet it nearly breaks my heart. Because I know we won’t all survive the winter; it’s either us or the girl.
Jesiba was different. I could tell she wasn’t one of them. But this girl, I know she is. She didn’t say a word to me the whole walk back, she just watched me with calculating eyes. I had swiped the axe from beside the wood piles on the way and gripped it tightly, making sure to keep the stranger in front of me.
Now, I pace beside the fire, the stranger locked securely in the barn. I don’t even know if a lock can hold the long-forgotten. I have to protect my friends and my town. I can’t let this stranger infiltrate our lives and destroy everything. She’s a monster. I have to kill it.
I’m no murderer though.
But it’s not really murder. You can’t kill someone that’s already dead.
I snatch the axe and shove a torch into the fire before I can change my mind. The only sounds are the crunch of snow and my breathing. I open the lock and find that my hands are steady. The door creaks open. I peek through the crack, but see nothing.
I take a cautious step inside and swing the torch, trying to find the monster. The light flickers around me, but there’s no sign of the long-forgotten. I slide my feet deeper into the barn, careful not to trip. My foot connects with something, and I lower the torch.
It’s just staring up at me. The undead creature didn’t even flinch when my boot struck it. Fear tightens my chest. I need to act, but I’m frozen.
The monster rises. It just looks at me with cold eyes.
I blink. This might be my last chance. With a grunt I lift the axe and swing. I close my eyes, but I feel the impact.
The long-forgotten gurgles and clutches its neck, eyes wide. It lurches toward me and swings a tiny fist. The fist connects with my chest, but I barely feel it.
I can’t stop now. It might be able to recover from the blow. I need to sever the monster’s head.
I swing again and the blow knocks the creature to the ground. It isn’t enough. The monster still kicks at me futilely. I whack and whack, like I’m chopping wood. I don’t stop until I cut clean through its neck, and the long-forgotten no longer moves.
I breathe heavily in the silence. I did it. I saved us.
I laugh to myself. It was easier than I thought it would be, killing one of them. In all the stories the long-forgotten are strong enough to take down 20 men. It didn’t even hurt wh—
Suddenly I know, it wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t one of them. I drop to my knees.
What have I done?
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