“The Cold Gets In” by Kyle Crocker

Winter has been harsh, with short days and deep snow. We gather in the spaces of Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie’s house with its creaking floors and dusty rooms as the ice on the windows thickens and the fire burns. The town is snowed in, the streets deserted, and the Mackenzies’ decaying Colonial holds a lonely vigil on the outskirts. Its windows are old, its insulation needs replacing, and its flue lets in too much cold air, which makes the fire gutter and threaten to go out. Mr. Mackenzie busies himself with a set of flannel sheets, cutting strips and stuffing them into windowsills and doorjambs, attempting to make up for years of neglected upkeep. “Gotta keep the cold out,” he says to Mrs. Mackenzie as he fumbles numbly with the rusty shears.

It’s no use, we whisper, but he ignores us. Mrs. Mackenzie shakes her head then submits another log to the fire.

“We need to be more careful with the firewood,” warns Mr. Mackenzie. “Or it won’t last out this front, then neither will we.”

“Oh, George,” says his wife as she sinks closer to the hearth, wrapped like a mummy in her shawl. “The wood’s the least of our problems. We need food and water. We need ol’ Sherm to come plow us out.” We listen for the sound of a snowplow, but we hear only the whipping wind. At regular intervals Mr. Mackenzie trudges outside to gather a kettle full of snow, which he hangs above the fire to melt. With the pipes frozen, it’s the only source of water. The trek leaves him deathly pale, save for his scarlet nose and purpling hands, and he shivers in front of the fire, saying “it never quite takes the chill out.”

The temperature continues to drop and we huddle around Mr. Mackenzie as he stands in front of a window, squinting for signs of life through the rime. Mrs. Mackenzie shuffles out of the kitchen, a plate held between her haggard hands. “This is the last of the canned ham,” she says. “And there’s not much left after this. We need ol’ Sherm…”

“To come plow us out,” Mr. Mackenzie finishes for her, breathing plumes on the opaque glass. He goes upstairs and returns even more bundled than before, two woolen scarves wrapped around his face and throat. “I’m going for help,” he declares as he heads for the door.

“Sit down, George,” says Mrs. Mackenzie. “You’ll freeze to death out there. Then where would we be?”

Her husband stares at the door then retreats upstairs. She stabs at the coals with a poker, rewraps herself, and settles into her chair where the warmth puts her to sleep. She wakes in the dark to find the fire has almost burned out. Shivering, she reaches for more logs, but she was wrong about the wood; the greedy fire has eaten it all up.

“George?” she shouts. Her limbs are stiff and heavy as she rises and limps to the front door. She finds it ajar, cold air pouring through the gap. She pushes her shoulder against the heavy wood, straining, but it’s frozen in place and won’t budge. “George?!” she cries desperately, knowing somewhere inside that an answer won’t come.

We went with him, we say.

Her expression becomes panicked. She flees back to the fireplace, losing her shawl as she goes.

She upends her old rocking chair onto the dying coals and fumbles for the box of matches on the mantle, but drops them from her shaking hands.

We’re still here, we howl as we surround her. The fire no longer keeps us away. She doesn’t hear us, but she feels our touch and she shudders. She collapses against the fireplace as the last shred of warmth fades.

The house falls still, except for the wind in the places where the cold got in.

A monstrous chill. A sweet-toothed witch. And a woodsy recluse with a proclivity for shredding victims with knives.

The Bulletin’s inaugural Halloween Fiction Contest elicited such specters from the 33 short-fiction stories sent in by Central Oregon writers — six of whom were kids 14 and under.

Each entrant grappled with our 650-word limit, which necessitated economy and quick pacing. The best stories, which are original works and have never before been published, featured complete narrative arcs and surprise endings. Eleven-year-old Bendite Caleb Kitchens earned honorable mention for his story “The Shredder” — the best among the youth entries. La Pine author Robert L. Perrine won second place and a $50 cash prize for his lyrical piece, “Witch’s Delight.” Bend’s Kyle Crocker won first place with his supernatural thriller, “The Cold Gets In,” good for a $100 cash prize.

We have printed the top three stories in their entireties. The entries have been lightly edited for clarity.

First place: “The Cold Gets In” by Kyle Crocker

Not only is this story the first of Kyle Crocker’s to win a short-fiction contest, it’s also the first short story he’s ever submitted for possible publication.

Crocker, 30, an IT consultant, always keeps notebooks stashed in his home and office so he’s ready when a story idea pops in his head. Originally from Idaho, Crocker moved to Bend this year by way of Portland.

Originally inspired by John Irving, Ernest Hemingway and fantasy, he began writing when he was 16. He likes a “background spookiness” in his stories, where “you have the tingle in your spine, but it’s not overtly in-your-face scary,” he said. Crocker wrote the first draft of “The Cold Gets In” one morning before spending two weeks refining the piece. Crocker began with two base elements: an old house and unrelenting cold. He wrote to see where the story might go from there.

Crocker suggests new writers write the kinds of stories they like to read.

“Find writers who speak to you, and try to write stories like them,” Crocker said. “Eventually you’ll find your own style and hopefully write stories that other people will want to read.”

Second place: “Witch’s Delight” by Robert L. Perrine

For La Pine author Robert L. Perrine, 36, finishing his second-place story “Witch’s Delight” became easier when he decided to write it in verse.

“I thought of darker stories I like, and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ came to mind. I liked the verse. It also freed me up (from having) to put a lot of information into the story and having to worry about all the details. It eliminated word count, which worked really well.”

The end result reads as a rich, child-friendly rhyme instead of a nuts-and-bolts short story.

The story was born of a childhood game Perrine played called “Ghost in the Graveyard,” where one person counts and the other “ghosts” hide. The phrase “Apples, peaches, pumpkin pie,” which begins Perrine’s poem, is what the ghost hunter calls out before beginning the search.

“The story is the brainchild of that game and ‘The Raven,’” he said. “With those two things together, I could say ‘OK, here we go — I can do something kind of cool with this.’”

Honorable mention: “The Shredder” by Caleb Kitchens

Caleb Kitchens, a fifth-grader at Seven Peaks School, realized he liked writing in the third grade.

The 11-year-old wrote “The Shredder,” a creepy camping story, last year over the course of two weeks. He recently spent two days revising the piece for The Bulletin’s Halloween Fiction Contest. Some of Caleb’s favorite writers include J.K. Rowling and R.L. Stine, who is famous for the “Goosebumps” series and inspired “The Shredder.”

There aren’t any autobiographical elements in Caleb’s story, thank goodness, beyond his having seen “squashed and decapitated animals on the road,” he said.

While Caleb has never read any real-life murder mysteries, he likes to write his own short fiction “any time I have a chance,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com