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Editor's note:

More than 200 writers followed our lead and entered the 2012 Buffalo News Short Story Contest. Starting with a prompt involving a prepared table (for a dinner? a dissection? a secret ceremony?) and an upset pet, the entries headed off into dozens of directions, from holiday meals and long lost relatives to zombie jamborees. Every story was read through at least once; the selections were narrowed down based on creativity, clarity and the quality of the writing, along with the sheer interest of the tale being told. The three stories printed here ranked high on every judges' list. You'll find one more entry, a Christmas story, in Tuesday's Buffalo News.

– Melinda Miller, Features Editor

***

‘‘At least the table looks good."

It did – everything was shiny and perfect. The other preparations were coming along, too, though there was much still to do. With luck, they would have it all ready in time.

And then: "Grrrrrr -GRRRRR!," loud and louder! What on earth was upsetting the dog?
"Here's a biscuit ... What's the matter? You don't want it?"

The growling continued. The hair on the dog's back stood on end as she glared at, but did not approach, the door.

"Is that smoke? I think I smell smoke." Henry glanced into the dining room.

"Yikes!" He tossed the biscuit to the dog and went flying into the kitchen in a panic. "Mom, ummm, a candle fell over on the dining room table and well, fire – there's a fire," he blurted out while hopping from foot to foot.

"What?," his mother sprang up from her stool and flew around the corner, whipping the tea towel off her shoulder as she ran. By the time Henry got back she was smothering the tiny flame on the tablecloth.

"No harm done," she called out for the benefit of everyone rushing after her. "It wasn't secure in the holder; it's fine now; could you please relight it, Henry?"

Henry pulled from his pocket a small box of matches that his father had given him earlier in the night, ?and he struck the tiny green tip along the side of the box. A small flame sprung to life and he tilted the match ?to help the flame grow. He carefully leaned over the chair to the lifeless candle. The tiny flame caught almost ?instantly and the pale yellow taper was alive again.

He glanced over his shoulder and met his mother's gaze. She was smiling, but her face looked frozen. Not in a cold way – she looked distant, like she was a million miles away.

"Mom, mom," he repeated. Color flashed back to her cheeks and she smiled at him, her eyes focused again. "I love you," she said. "Having fun?"

"Yes," Henry answered. He slipped past her, catching her hand in his for a brief second. He knew what she was preoccupied with; his mind had been elsewhere all evening, too.

He still wasn't sure what he was going to wish for.

Henry wandered back into the living room and flung himself onto the white leather couch. There were candles all over the living room, 46 to be exact, and the whole place literally glowed. There was a warm haze floating in the air and a smell like clover, or grass. He laid his head on his hands and stared out the window into the night. The dog was whining by the door. He glanced over the back of the couch and noticed her fur shimmering in the flickering light.

Where was everyone? It was time to start. Henry always hated the waiting part. He reached over the arm of the couch and stuck his fingers into the bowl of pomegranate seeds on the side table. Chewing a handful thoughtfully, he choked a little on the tart juice in his throat.

The dog was up now, nose pressed against the door, growling, deep and long.

"Ella, Ella girl, what's going on? Are they here? Do you smell something?"

The dog snapped out of her trance and peered over her shoulder at him. She gave a little whine and slid back down onto the cold tiles. A log cracked in the hearth, breaking the mood.

The first people to arrive were Mr. and Mrs. Farmer. They were bundled and their cheeks were bright red from the cold. They must have walked over, because small drifts of snow were perched on the shoulders of their coats. They were kind people, Henry thought, always volunteering and coming around collecting clothes and food for the shelter downtown. They were older – maybe in their 60s. Henry had known them his whole life, and they were always here for the ceremony.

Right behind them were the Timbels. They were young and interesting. Dr. Timbel was a professor of history, and he was always talking with Henry about current news events and explaining how they were all a part of our lives, past, present and future. He said everything that had happened in history affected everything that was happening now.

Soon the house was half full, and there was a pile of boots on the entry floor. He could hear people scattered around the house, clinking glasses in the kitchen and checking out the food in the dining room. The door flew open with the wind and an arm shot in and caught the knob before it slammed into the wall. In came George and Kenny Nichols, twin boys who lived a few houses down. They were 10 years older than Henry, but they had known him since he was born. They were both red in the face, and covered with snow.

"It's a serious storm tonight," Kenny said through snorts. He pulled a tissue out of his jacket pocket and wiped his nose.

It was New Year's Eve, and in this house for the last 121 years there had been a "hope lighting ceremony." That's what his great-great-great-grandmother had named it. The first time was in 1891, and that year 11 people were in attendance.

Each person had stood in front of a lighted candle on New Year's Eve and on the stroke of midnight they all blew out their candles. In that one breath, the person had made a wish or had a thought of hope for the future, and each year for the last 121 years someone's wish had come true. Since then, there had been much debate over the ethics of the ceremony. Was it selfish and self-serving to wish for something trivial, like money or success? Some said yes, but each year the ceremony continued to take place.

One time, in the 1980s, someone actually won the lottery for $300,000; apparently they had wished for a million. They donated some to charity and gave everyone who had been at the ceremony a portion.

One time during the Vietnam War, a woman wished that her son, who had been drafted, wouldn't have to go, and a week before he was deployed someone from the Army called and relieved him from service. No one knew why, and no one cared.

What was a 13-year-old boy supposed to want? Something for the future, or the present, something trivial or big? He knew his mother was wishing that his father would find a job this year, a permanent one. He was a professor at the local university, but each year they threatened to eliminate his position due to budget cuts. Every year, both his parents went into a tailspin stressing out over money. Maybe he should wish for his father's job, too. He knew that would be the noble thing to do.

The door swung open again and a small flurry of sparkling snow swirled into the entryway. Two more families came in shivering and smiling. The Bingums and the Fosters. Mr. and Mrs. Bingum were writers and published cookbooks together. They had grown children; one lived in Singapore teaching English and the other in Washington working at an old movie house that showed silent and foreign films.

Next through the door was Mrs. Fielding. Her husband was a nurse and he worked overnight at the hospital downtown. He must be there tonight, Henry thought, because she was alone. She and her husband had one child, Oliver. He hadn't come to a ceremony in two years – some horrible fight over something Henry could never get the details to. Last in were Lucy Johnston and her parents. They quickly undid their coats and scarves and took a position in front of a burning candle.

Lucy seemed to float across the room. Her dark hair was flattened by the hat she had been wearing and the ends were wet and almost frozen. Her cheeks were bright red and her nose had a slight glisten to it, but Henry couldn't stop staring at her. Lucy was 14, and she could read a whole book in one day and remember all of it. She could throw a football, and draw a realistic horse on paper in less than five minutes, and she was beautiful.

Henry knew she was the most wonderful girl on the earth. He knew it. She slid past him and stood in front of a purple candle a few places down. She turned and looked him right in the eyes and smiled.

Henry blinked and turned toward his candle just as he realized his father was entering the room with a bowl of matchbooks. The floor creaked as he made his way around the room and everyone fell silent as they took a book from the bowl.

Each person there was standing in front of a candle and most people were watching their tiny yellow flame dance. His father was flipping his matchbook over and over in his fingers and the rattle of the tiny matches seemed suddenly loud.

His mother began the countdown. Very quietly, she reached 1. Everyone looked around at each other, internalizing the moment and then they all took a breath, the breath. Henry turned toward his candle and blew it out.

All around him candles went dark. The smell of smoke filled the room and everyone was silent. He heard his mother's bracelets jingle as she opened a window and all the cold, new air rushed in to mix with the smoke. A few moments passed, heavy with eagerness, and then the sound of matches being struck filled the thick air. Each candle was relit and a warm yellow glow filled the room again. The dog was whining softly.

Henry moved over to the window seat, sinking onto the floor in front of it. A light murmur of voices had picked up again. This whole ritual never seemed like much outwardly, but everyone was buzzing with the game of it. The floor was cool, and as he stared out the window at the falling snow, Lucy came over and sat down next to him. A cold drop from her hair landed on his arm.
She stared out at the falling snow and slid her hand into his.