Patricia Skalka won the Edna Ferber Fiction Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers for Death in Cold Water, the third book in her Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery Series. The series also includes Death Stalks Door County and Death at Gills Rock. The fourth volume, Death Rides the Ferry, will be published in spring 2018.
Snow came early that year, and it was the night the season’s first flakes covered the ground that Nanci looked out her bedroom window and saw the white light in the forest. There were no near neighbors, so there was no chance that someone she knew could account for the glow in the distance. And Nanci’s room was at the rear of the house, away from the dark stretch of road where the occasional car passed, which meant headlights weren’t the source either.

Nanci liked her room well enough during the summer when the days stretched out for hours, but in the fall and winter when the sun went down early, she found it got too dark too fast. Her parents, being frugal people, didn’t let her keep a lamp on all night. Not even a dim nightlight was permitted. It was nonsense to be scared of the dark, they said. There was nothing out beyond the house except the mowed hay field and the trees. But that night, the night the snow fell, Nanci looked out into the swirling maelstrom and saw the light.

At first she thought she was imagining it. Then she remembered what her teacher had said about light being reflected and refracted and sometimes bouncing in seemingly random directions. Perhaps what she saw was the light from a far-away star being reflected off the snow- covered ground. Nanci, who was 8, delighted in the notion that light from millions of miles away had traveled to her patch of woods. The brilliant white glow made her feel special and less alone in the dark.

The next morning she slipped onto the bench behind the pine table in the big kitchen and told her parents and two brothers about the light and what she thought it was. Her brothers—Tim and Jon, who were both obnoxiously older by several years—guffawed and said she was going looney.

“Now boys, be nice to your sister,” her mother said, as she passed a plate of toast.

Her father lowered his coffee mug and said he thought her theory was correct. “It’s the only idea that makes sense. There’s nothing out there but trees,” he said.

Nanci left for school without giving another thought to the light. That morning she had art and music, her favorite subjects, and she was at outdoor recess when the sun came out at noon. By the time she stepped off the bus at the end of her driveway, the snow was gone.

When bedtime came, she remembered the light. Upstairs, she pulled back the yellow polka dot curtains that hung in her window and peered out. There was nothing; only total darkness. Nanci went to bed, smug in the notion that she was correct about the reflected star light and that her father was also right – there was nothing out there.

To be sure, Nanci checked the window every night. Two days later, on Thursday, the light returned. Poachers hunting rabbits, she thought. When she saw it again the next evening she figured that a group of teenagers were camping out in the woods. And probably drinking beer. Nanci didn’t know much about beer except that her father had a bottle every Saturday after supper and that her brothers would beg for a taste, which was always denied them.

By then it was Saturday, the end of the week. Her father opened his ritual bottle and they all sat in the living room watching TV. It was later than usual when Nanci trounced upstairs to her room and went through the rituals of brushing her long brown hair, arranging her half dozen stuffed animals on the bed, and fluffing both her pillows. Earlier, she’d decided that she wasn’t going to look for the light that night. Without ruffling the curtains, she slipped into bed and snuggled into the welcoming warmth of the flannel sheets. But sleep did not come.

Nanci stared at the ceiling. “It won’t be there. It won’t be there,” she whispered in the dark. Moments later she slipped from bed and pulled back the curtains. The light flickered through the trees. Nanci gasped and jumped back into bed. She had no more theories, and the light was starting to worry her.

“It’s still there,” she said on Sunday morning as her mother cleared the breakfast things from the pine table.

“What’s still there?” her father asked.

“The light in the woods.”

Tim and Jon elbowed each other and snickered. Her mother sighed.

“I saw it again last night.” Nanci glared at her brothers, and then she lowered her gaze toward the spot where her plate had been. “I’ve seen it three nights in a row.”

A moment of silence passed. Finally her father pushed back his chair. “Get your coat. We’ll take a walk and look around.”

“Go ahead,” her mother said. “Your brothers can help with the dishes.”

The boys groaned and, when her parents weren’t looking, Nanci stuck her tongue out at them. Serves you right for making fun of me, she thought.

Nanci’s father was a tall man with a long stride, and she had to hurry to keep up as they tramped through the rows of stubble in the muddy field. The sun was out but the wind was sharp, and she kept her face down and her eyes pinned on the heels of her father’s dirty boots. By the time they reached the woods, she shivered with cold and anticipation.

Her father stopped at the edge of the trees. “Is this where you saw it?” he asked.

Nanci glanced about. Everything looked different than it did from her window “I’m not sure. I think so,” she said.

Her father grunted and strode toward a large boulder. Then he pivoted 90 degrees and paced off another fifty feet. He continued walking until he’d marked off a large patch of ground, which he crisscrossed carefully. “There’s nothing here, Nanci,” he said.

Something in his tone told her that the notion of the light in the woods was nonsense. “Do you see anything?”

Too embarrassed to face her father, Nanci looked down and shook her head.

He grunted. “I guess we can look a little more. ‘Long as we’re out here.” He pointed to his right. “I’ll look there.” And to his left “You can walk around there for a bit.”

Another 10 minutes passed, and Nanci heard her father call her name. “It’s enough, we need to get back.”

Dejected, she turned toward the sound of his voice. Nanci had wandered further into the woods than she’d realized. Hurrying back, her foot caught and she fell. As she brushed the dirt and dried leaves from her knee, she looked for the tree root that had tripped her up. Instead she saw a rough ridge of rocks peeking through the dirt. Nanci ran her hand along the surface. The low rock wall formed a perfect corner.

“Dad!” she called. “Dad, look.”

When they got back to the house, Nanci’s father told her mother about the rocks. “Looks like someone built a primitive shelter out there. Must have been a hundred years ago, long before my grandfather bought the land,” he said.

“What’s it mean?”

“Nothing,” her father said, looking directly at Nanci. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

That night, Nanci stayed up past her bedtime. Around midnight the light appeared again. Father is wrong, she thought. It does mean something.

But the next morning, she said nothing.

The rest of the week was swallowed up in preparation for Thanksgiving. Every day after school, Nanci helped her mother prepare food for the traditional meal they would share with the aunts, uncles, and cousins who would drive out to town for the occasion. Exhausted from her chores and homework, she fell into bed at night, too tired to check for the light.

The relatives arrived early Thursday. As usual, the Nanci and her brothers played outside with the cousins until it was time to eat. The six adults gathered around at the table in the dining room, while the seven kids squeezed around the pine table which was moved into the living room for them. By the time they finished the many courses, listened to the old stories, and shared the family news, it was dark. But no one worried about the late hour because the relatives would spend the night.

The kids were playing hide and seek in the barn when Tim pulled Nanci aside. “I’m sorry for laughing about the light. If you want, I’ll watch with you tonight,” he said. “We can do it outside, from here. That’ll be better.”

She believed him.

At 10 o’clock, Nanci huddled behind the barn with Tim. “The light usually comes later,” she whispered.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” he said, as if the holiday made a difference.

“Sure,” she said. “Maybe.”

A few minutes later, the light popped on.

“Let’s go,” Tim said.

“What do you mean?”

“This is your chance to find out where it’s coming from. Come on,” he said. Tim was already up and walking toward the field.

Nanci hesitated. Then she ran after him.

Incredibly, the light started to move toward them. Closer and closer it came.

Nanci was cold with fear.

“Stop, wait,” she said, but Tim ignored her pleas.

They’d reached the middle of the field. It was too far for her to run back in the dark by herself, so she kept going, desperate to keep up with her brother.

The light intensified. Against the black expanse of night, it ballooned into a large orb.

Something was wrong, Nanci thought. The light was too bright, too big.

She stopped. A moment later Jon and the cousins burst out of the darkness. Jon held the lantern but they were all laughing as they raced toward her. Nanci looked to Tim, but he was laughing too.

“Nanci’s a nut case, sees a light in the night,” the cousins chanted.

“No, I’m not, and there is a light in the woods,” she said, in tears. Later, back in her room, Nanci looked for the light, but it wasn’t there.

“Please, come back. I know you’re real,” she said.

The next day she hid in the barn to avoid having to say goodbye to the cousins who were heading back to town. For the rest of the weekend, she complained of a stomachache and stayed in bed. Whenever her brothers peeked in, she feigned sleep, but at night she knelt by the window. “Please, come back,” she whispered into the darkness. But the forest remained inky black.

Monday came and with it, school. There was no hiding from anyone. Not on the bus and not in the crowded halls where the cousins whispered their clever little ditty as they passed her. By lunch time, the teasing words had taken on the sing-song rhythm of a chant that followed her from class to class and on the bus ride home. “Nanci’s a nut case…” Peals of laughter followed her to the door and down the steps as she got off at her stop.

At supper, Nanci pushed chunks of meatloaf around her plate and ignored her sniggering brothers. After the dishes were washed, she spread her homework across the kitchen table. I’m not crazy, she repeated to herself as she pretended to read.

When it was time for bed, Nanci went up to her room. Without looking out, she pulled the shades and drew the curtains tight across the window. Then she pulled her tall dresser away from the wall and slowly pushed it across the floor until it blocked the polka-dot panels and the glass panes that faced the meadow and the woods.

Downstairs, her father stepped onto the back porch. Ever since he and Nanci had walked into the woods, he’d occasionally come out at night and look around. Each time the horizon was dark. But that night, as his daughter slept upstairs in her room, he saw it. The light in the forest.

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