05 Nov The Candle
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"The Candle"Written by Charles Howard
Estimated reading time — 27 minutes
She gave him the key as soon as he had walked in the door. It had been in a small box, wrapped up with a bow.
He tried not to show his concern as he was acutely aware she was waiting expectantly for him to say something.
“Well, what do you think?” She asked.
A bit sudden, don’t you think? came to his mind, but he knew better than to say that. They’d only been dating for a month and here she was giving him a key to her house. Still, he guessed there was no set time for this kind of thing.
“Great,” he said, struggling to find an adequate response. “Now I can come over and watch your big screen anytime!” Trish rolled her eyes and gave him pouty lips until he gave her a kiss. He tried a simpler tact.
“Thanks, hon.” She pecked his lips, grinning. “Get your coat off and relax. I’m going to get the grub,” she said, then ran to the kitchen. She had a quick enthusiasm he thought was adorable, somewhat childlike.
He did as she said, listening to her in the kitchen; she made the commotion of ten professional cooks in there, instead of just one. Metal clanking against metal. Bowls slamming on countertops. She started singing softly as she worked. He collapsed on the couch.
“Hey, hon?” she called from the kitchen.
“Uh, yeah?” he said hesitantly. His immediate fear was that she was going to follow the giving-of-the-key by telling him she loved him. That would not be his idea of starting the evening off right. He quickly ran through his options.
Tell her I love her back? No good. I’m a terrible liar. She would see threw me like a window.
Tell her I think things are going too fast? No, she’s in the room of the house filled with the most knives.
Oh! Tell her—
“Can you light the candle?”
“What?” He had been so engrossed in his thoughts, he honestly didn’t hear what she said.
“Can you light the candle,” she said again.
“Candle?” It was so far out of context of where his mind was, that at first he honestly found the word to be exotic, somehow. He tasted the word again, softly. “Candle.”
“Yeah, CAN-DLE. It’s by the TV,” she called out, sounding either concerned, or slightly annoyed. “I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it, yet.”
He turned and sure enough, there on the entertainment unit was a candle roughly the size of a very small refrigerator.
“Whoa! How did I not see that?”
“I know, right? It’s so big it needs six wicks just to burn the whole thing.”
He approached it. It was sitting on the end of the TV unit, in a spot the designer obviously designated for a very large potted plant or for giant speakers.
“Where did you get this thing?” he asked, thinking he had never seen this much wax in his life. It came up to his knees. It was a pale white and he could smell a hint of vanilla coming from it. He hated vanilla.
“Online,” Trish said and went back to her singing.
He went to pick it up, curious to know how much it weighed; but before he touched it, he pulled his hand back, feeling a familiar sense of dread he hadn’t felt in years.
There was a time in his childhood when he loved watching scary movies with his friends. They were always impressed with him because no matter what movie they put on – of course without their parents’ knowledge – he never lost it. He never jumped when the mass murderer popped on screen to the surprise of the hapless blonde; when the blood and guts would fly and his friends were screaming their heads off, he would be sitting calmly, eating a snack, or more likely laughing his head off at them.
But something he never told his friends was that every night for the following week after watching the fright flick of choice, he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He might doze off for an hour or two as dawn approached, but most of the night, he would be cowering under his covers, afraid to peek his head out; he desperately wanted to peek his head out, too, because he would always be hot, sweating and claustrophobic. But he couldn’t. He knew that as soon as he did, he would see eyes peering over the top of his Darkwing Duck bedsheets. Or hear a creak and see a hand pop out of his closet door. He would feel all the fear he never felt when the lights were on and he was surrounded by his friends. In the dark, he felt watched and terrified.
Now, fifteen years later, he felt that same fear envelop him like a wave. Sweat burst out on the back of his neck and he glanced quickly over his shoulder, convinced he had seen something peering at him from behind the couch.
There was nothing there. He looked at the overly large candle in front of him, feeling all the fear and apprehension of his childhood. He realized he didn’t want to be near it, let alone light it.
Come on. This is ridiculous. I’m not a kid anymore! But still he felt fear as he reached out to grab the matchbook that was sitting next to it. He moved quickly, like when he would reach for the light switch as a kid; hoping you could be quicker than the monster who would inevitably be trying to clamp its talons on your wrist.
“Everything okay out there?” she asked, noticing the silence. He realized that he had been sitting there for some time.
“Just wool-gathering,” he said.
“Less thinking, more lighting,” Trish said with a smile in her voice. “I’m almost done here!” She went back to sing/humming her little tune. The sound comforted him, knowing there was someone else here. He grabbed the match out of the book and popped it alight against the black strip on the back.
He touched the tip against the first wick, one last premonition of a leathery hand popping out of the center to latch onto his arm. The first wick lit without any paranormal activity, so he began lighting the rest, each one getting easier.
His fear drained away as he was lighting the final one and he absently thought that a monster would wait for this moment to strike—
He jumped back as the last wick caught and blew a loud spark. He landed hard on his back, feeling the hand that had been holding the match going numb. Trish rushed into the room at the sound, either of the pop of the sparks, or of him falling to the ground.
“Are you okay? What happened?” She was holding a bowl of popcorn as she looked down on him and he thought for a second that she was going to spill it all over him in her concern. She looked very worried.
“I’m fine,” he said before he knew if he really was. He shook his hand, trying to get circulation back in it. He looked up and saw that she was waiting. “One of the wicks popped, that’s all. Probably had some material imbedded in the string that ignited. No biggie.”
“Oh honey,” she said, obviously not catching the ‘no biggie’ part. He let her kiss him all better, kneeling over him with a curtain of hair.
“All better?” she asked when she was done.
“Lots,” he said with a smile. “Thanks, babe. I’m fine. Need any help in there?”
“Nope. Almost done. Get the movie ready, huh?” With that, she got up and went back to the kitchen.
He sat up and tossed the book of matches, which he had held onto during his fall, onto the cabinet and just looked at the flame of the candle for a few minutes, enjoying the mesmerizing quality of fire.
He shook his hand out again. It was mostly back to normal. He steadied himself to get up and that’s when he saw it.
With all the flames going the light was casting a white glow down the length of its mass, but there was a shadow in the midst of the candle. He couldn’t make out much, and there was certainly no reason for it to concern him, but it did just the same.
“All ready!” Trish said coming out of the kitchen. She had a giant tray in her hands filled to the brim with snack food and beverages for them to enjoy with the movie. Being a cook, she also had a long history as a waitress, so she handled the tray with style. She frowned at him, still crouched by the candle.
“You okay?” She asked, concerned again.
“Yeah, sorry. Just lost track of time watching the fire. It’s pretty mesmerizing.”
“Okay. Movie time.” He got up and helped her with the snacks. The flame burned the wax down all night. When he left later that night, there was a good sized divot forming.
He forgot about the spark and the thing inside the candle during the movie. He didn’t think about it again until he went to bed that night. Then he got to thinking about what could have been inside. It wasn’t so bizarre a concept that warranted a sleepless night, but the dark has a way of robbing even the sanest mind of rest. The worry itself caused him to worry.
He also thought that kids had an advantage over adults when it comes to being scared. Unlike kids, adults know that covers and bedsheets don’t stop monsters.
* * * * * *
“Hey. It’s me,” Trish said. Stephen gripped his phone tighter and his stomach lurched. He looked around the studio to see if anybody was listening, but they were busy checking levels and setting up the mics for the next read. He cleared his throat.
“Hi!” he responded. “How are you?”
“I’m good. Things are good. Working at a new kitchen.” He nodded, but didn’t say anything. He knew about her new job, but didn’t want her to find out he’d been asking mutual friends about her. He felt too much like a stalker.
Silence from Trish’s end. She didn’t ask how he was. That was understandable. He had been a bit-
-the last while they had been together.
“So, you think we can—“
“Look, I just called to ask if you could do me a favor.”
“Sure! Anything,” he said, rolling his eyes at the eagerness he heard in his voice.
“Do you still have the key to my apartment?”
He hesitated. He felt like admitting he did was like saying he still knew the code to her bank account, or the password for her online diary or something. “Um, yeah. Still on my keyring. Didn’t throw it away or anything. I haven’t even realized I still—”
“Good. I’m sorry to ask, but can you go to my place?”
“You want me to come over?” He perked up slightly at this. He had never been very good at breakups, even when he was the one who had done the breaking up.
“I’m not there. I’m in Florida for a work seminar.” She sighed, pushing on. “I left a few days ago and I just now got to thinking that I don’t remember blowing out one of my candles.”
If his stomach had lurched before, now it gave a full out lunge. “The candle?” He pinned the phone between his ear and right shoulder so he could gently scratch the bandages on his left hand. The stitches were ready to come out soon, but they still itched.
“Yeah. You remember the big one I had by the TV? The one with six wicks? I was getting ready and should have blown it out, but I wanted it going till I left – you know how I love my vanilla – and was going to get it on my way out, but it slipped my mind.”
He could hear her getting a grip on herself. “Can you just go down to my place and check to see if there’s a smoking crater where my house used to be? I’m not going to be home till tomorrow morning. I’d really appreciate it.” She said this somewhat sweetly, the way she used to ask him to get the high things off shelves that she couldn’t reach, always rewarding him with a kiss. It still made him weak in the knees and he forgot what she was asking him to do and only heard the promise of a kiss.
“Yeah, sure. I’m just heading out for lunch, so I can swing by your place.” He waited for her gratitude.
“Oh, and while you’re there, you can leave the spare key under one of my plants in the mudroom.”
His belly liquified in disappointment. “Leave the key?”
“Yup,” a little irritation in her voice. “Just under one of the pots. I gotta go, Stephen. The next session is starting. Thank you so much for checking. I didn’t have anyone else to call. Bye.” She hung up.
He listened to the silence on the other end, thinking how she didn’t used to need to apologize for asking him to do things for her.
Then his mind turned to the candle, by the TV, in the house that he hadn’t been to in weeks and this time his liquified gut froze over in fear.
* * * * * *
“What’d you ‘grunt’ about?” she asked.
“Nothing! It’s okay!” he reassured her. “I just got startled.”
“Oh yeah?” she said, quizzical, like he was setting up a joke. “What by?”
“Uh, hon. I don’t want to gross you out, but I need to show you something.”
He directed her over to the candle without a word. He saw her follow his gaze down and he took his first good look at, well, whatever it was.
There was only about an inch or so visible below the liquid, at which point it grew milky as the wax cooled, but he could see- something. Some thing. He supposed someone had included a little easter egg surprise in her candle. He briefly thought maybe it was valuable or something, but closer inspection convinced him it was too gross to be worth anything.
The parts he could see were pale green, almost the white of the candle itself. Whatever it was had a bumpy, almost scaly, surface. It also had random thick black hairs sprouting sparsely all over it. Stephen thought that they looked sharp. Like quills on a porcupine. The top had two round mounds, the only parts actually poking out of the wax, with seams down the center of each, as if they were lids. And where there were eyelids, there were always eyes. Down in the liquid, he spotted two holes between the mounds that looked like they were nostrils on a frog – if frogs had nostrils. Stephen wasn’t sure.
“Oh, gross!” Trish said.
“Totally. What do you want to do about it?”
“Well, you’re the man! Get it out of there!” She picked up a small teaspoon off the tray and handed it to him. He looked at it for a second, not understanding how he was supposed to remove the thing that was stuck in a foot of wax with a teaspoon; then he looked down and saw a spider floating in the wax on top. It must have fallen in when his back was turned.
“I hate spiders,” Trish said, staring down in disgust.
Stephen hesitated. “Yeah, spiders suck. But,” he thought of how to phrase it. “I’m talking about the other thing.” He pointed at the thing in the wax, the thing with a green surface and pointy hairs. The thing that looked like it had eyes. He didn’t let his finger get too close.
She looked for a moment, eyebrows raised, begging him to tell her what he was talking about. Finally she said, “There’s nothing else there. Now get that damned spider out of my candle!” She walked away, a little irritated it seemed. It was a new relationship and they were spending more and more time together, so irritation was never far behind. He was a little irritated just then, too.
Why did she just lie to me? he wondered. He could see the thing in there right now. It was murky, mostly hidden by wax, but it was clearly there. He rolled his eyes in frustration and went to scoop out the spider.
But the spider was gone. In its place, a single bubble lazily floated on the surface.
* * * * * *
He slowly let himself into the house.
He stood in the mudroom for what felt like twenty minutes, but which was more likely two, working himself up to going in.
Something felt wrong about the house. Or rather, something felt wrong IN the house. Something felt different. He had never had the sensation of feeling a presence before, but he sure felt it now. He felt blocked in on all sides; he felt eyes on him, as if his every move were under close scrutiny. He could hear laughing children outside, playing at recess. Sounds which should have comforted him; but instead, he just felt alone under the gaze of those eyes.
It had been a while since he had seen the candle. Two days before he ended their relationship. Things had gotten too complicated. He had told himself that if the thing hadn’t done anything to hurt her yet, that probably meant it couldn’t.
What a load of self-centered rationalizing, he thought. I bailed because I was afraid.
He had spent the previous several visits to the house watching in slow, drawn-out horror as the candle burned down inch by inch, the wax vaporizing into thin air, revealing more and more of what Stephen thought to be his own insanity.
He didn’t go in. Not yet. He was too busy reliving his fear.
The single eye opened in two parts. First the outer lids, then an inner set. Each trailing a viscous goo. A star-shaped pupil surveyed the room wildly.
They were watching a movie, again. It seemed to be their favorite date night. With both of them snuggling on the couch, he glanced over and saw it happen. He had been feeling a sense of mounting foreboding all evening. He didn’t look over because of any movement. The thing had not given any signs of life since Stephen first saw it. The candle was huge, so she must have been burning it twenty-four/seven to go through it so quickly.
It hadn’t moved a bit and he had become convinced it was just a statue or something. Although he couldn’t figure out why Trish couldn’t see it, or refused to admit she could see it. He figured he hadn’t discussed it with her because of a fear that maybe he was just seeing things.
He had looked over as the foreboding built to a point of crescendo, like a balloon that you know only is seconds away from popping as it expands in your mouth.
The eye must have been held shut by the mucus that trailed the lids. He could almost hear the smacking sound as they pulled apart. The eye had turned wildly for a moment and then the oddly shaped pupil rested immediately on him, as if after some disorientation it had found its target.
His body had given an involuntary jump, startling Trish into a scream.
“What’s wrong with you?” was the first thing out of her mouth after the scream. She was breathing heavy, but not as bad as him.
He was staring back at the creature in the candle, into the eye which was looking back at him. He didn’t seem to realize she was there.
“Honey.” Hesitation. “Are you okay?”
He looked at her, all composure gone from his body. He was shaking pretty badly. He extended his finger at it, which jerked spastically as he did so.
“D-don’t you see it?” he said in a breathy whisper. He looked back at the candle. “How can you not see it?”
He was barely aware that she had followed his gaze. He was too busy trying not to freak out. The shape of the pupil was the worst part. He thought he might have seen some sea animals with a star-shaped eye, but this was certainly no fish.
“Stephen,” she said, her voice strained, as if she were choosing her words carefully. “I don’t see anything strange. What do you see?”
At first he didn’t seem to hear her.
His head whirled to her, again, as if he had forgotten she was there.
“Nothing! Never mind.” He got up, turning off the TV. “Look, let’s go for a drive, huh?” He plucked his keys out of his pocket and headed for the door. “Get some ice cream?”
“It’s chilly out,” she reminded him.
“Well, then we’ll get some chilly,” he said with an almost frantic laugh. He looked at the candle again and the thing seemed to wink at him, as if acknowledging his joke. He jumped again, feeling like he needed to vomit. He turned and rushed out the door, saying over his shoulder, “I’ll meet you in the car,” and was gone.
She met him a few minutes later and the night air wasn’t the only thing that was chilly. The conversation was stilted. He would not answer her questions and any conversation ended in an irritated silence from both of them.
He dropped her off early and sped off back to his apartment.
She watched him drive away, concern in her face.
* * * * * *
He pushed and watched the door glide open on its own, his key-
not my key for long
-still in the lock. He looked deeply into the living room just beyond the door and prepared himself for the bright glow of the candle, which would be illuminating the creature like a halo.
Actually, it’s been so long-
I’m not going in!
-the candle probably looks-
Don’t let it in!
-like a sinister wax skirt on-
Get out of here!
–whatever it is. Flames glowing brightly against it’s-
Why am I here? I’m so scared!
But the house was dark. It was an overcast day outside and there was a gloom even in the brightest parts of the room. Over by the TV, in the corner, it was almost blotted out with darkness.
Great! She didn’t leave the candle burning after all! Isn’t that just dandy news. I hope I can still salvage enough of my lunch break to get some food. But he wasn’t hungry. His stomach felt like it had shriveled up to the size of a prune. He thought about all the things that had happened the past few weeks. He absently rubbed at the bandages on his left hand; the ones that had just finished healing, ready to have the stitches removed. He had done it to himself, but the creature was to blame. He wouldn’t let it in his head again!
Okay, no fire. I’m out of here. He reached in to grab the door handle, close it and get out of there. When he was far enough away, his hunger would come back. He would grab some food, bring a coffee back for Tim, then get back to recording some funny voices for some funny cartoons. He would continue doing a great job, win an award, meet a girl, get married, live happily ever after and most importantly, never think about candles, or creatures that might live inside them, again. Everything would be alright.
He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, leaving all the plants and shoes and knick-knacks alone in the mudroom.
* * * * * *
They spent time either out or at his place after that and things got better. He never explained what had freaked him out that night, and strangely, she never asked.
About two weeks later, he suggested that he make dinner for her. She was shocked when he said yes to just staying in at her place. He said he would go over to her place while she was still at work and get dinner started. She thought it was a great idea.
Stephen let himself in with his key, carrying a bag full of groceries. He didn’t really remember what he had purchased; he had kind of been distractedly throwing things into his cart, thinking about the candle. He needed to see it again. Make sure it was real. He had begun to doubt himself and that was no way to live. Plus, he couldn’t just leave it there. If he wasn’t just imagining things-
–then he had to do something about it. Trish was actually living with that thing!
He walked to the kitchen, avoiding looking toward the entertainment unit, plopped the groceries down and stood there, thinking. Deciding whether to make the food before going into the living room, or just get it over with. Part of him hoped that the thing was gone, and a part, that didn’t want to face life knowing he was losing his mind, hoped it would still be there. Although what was worse? Knowing you were insane, or only being afraid of the possibility? He brushed away a fly that had landed on his ear.
He walked into the kitchen, eyes averted, looking at the couch. He stood in the middle of the room, tensed and turned.
Another two or three inches had been burned away. Lines of dripping wax covered the sides and the divot in the middle had deepened.
In the center of the divot was a greenish-grey lump with scaly skin. A lump that Stephen immediately identified as a head, though not like anything he had ever seen before. Its eyes were strange. They sat on top of the head, kind of like a crocodile; and they both peered up at him now. The left one flicked sporadically around the room, as if in search of something, but the right one stayed on him constantly.
This is a bigger issue then her saying she can’t see it, Stephen thought. It’s sticking out far enough now that it’s got to be getting in the way when she lights the back wicks. He would be interested in seeing her actually light the candle.
“How had she not seen you?” No response. They both just stared.
After a moment of this odd game of ‘look away’, he broke the gaze when he moved to brush another fly – or the same one? They all look the same to me! – off his nose. That’s when he noticed that the room wasn’t silent; it was actually quite noisy with the sounds of buzzing insects. They were all over the room, landing, flying away. He didn’t know how it was possible. Trish hated mess and disorganization almost as much as she hated bugs. Not a speck of food was laying anywhere in the house. For crying out loud, she washed the crumb guard on her toaster oven after every use! What could possibly be attracting all these flies?
“Do you have anything to do with them?” he said to the lump. Nothing happened. One eye went on twirling. The other went on staring.
He had been walking into the kitchen, but turned back to the candle at the sound. Nothing. No movement. Just the star-shaped pupil staring from its wax prison. The unreality of the situation washed over him then. He didn’t know what to do. Nothing really prepared a person for something like this. What were you supposed to do when you found a living creature in your girlfriend’s candle?
He walked to the kitchen to get supper started.
Again, he glanced around, but he couldn’t see what had caused it. He was turning to the kitchen again when he noticed a fly hovering in front of his face. It buzzed there momentarily. He swatted it away. It evaded his strike, hovered a moment, then turned in a lazy arc and buzzed slowly in the direction of the candle. Stephen felt compelled to watch its journey. As it got to about a foot away from the white waxy surface, it hovered dumbly for a ten count.
Stephen saw the orange color of the tongue dart out of the creature’s mouth and snatch the fly out of the air with horrifying accuracy. He stared dumbfounded. He hadn’t even seen the thing had a mouth yet and was disgusted to find that it was segmented: its muzzle seemed to split apart into two sections. The tongue was a bright neon orange.
The eyes, both of them this time, locked back on Stephen’s.
Crunchy. Juicy. Yummy. Tummy, Stephen thought. He stopped to wonder where that thought had come from.
He walked into the kitchen-
-to begin making supper. He’s no world-class cook, but Trish would just have to choke the food down. He’s focused on other matters.
I should probably do something about that thing! Take it somewhere. Or maybe just destroy it!
He pulls out a cutting board from the counter where they are kept.
Am I crazy? Am I hallucinating? Maybe there’s really nothing there!
He tears open a bag of carrots which he grabs from the pile of groceries and begins washing them.
No! This is the real world! In the real world, when you see something, it’s really there! This isn’t a movie. Besides, am I hallucinating all those bloody flies?
He grabs a knife from the rack and begins cutting the carrots.
What about that fly? It seemed like it was intentionally hovering in front of my face.
Chop. Chop. Chop. Tire-shaped slices of carrot fly in all directions, rolling off the cutting board. Some flying off the counter, landing with a bounce on the floor.
It was like it was getting my attention. That’s a pretty stupid thought. Unless-
“Ow!” he dropped the knife and looked at his freshly sliced finger. Serves me right for not paying attention to what I’m doing.
He looked around the room for something to use as a bandage.
It is possible, he thinks as he finds a roll of paper towel, tears off a piece and uses it to slow the bleeding from his finger, that whatever it is can control the flies. I mean, obviously it eats, but it can’t possibly move. Even if it does have limbs, it’s stuck in wax.
He stands over the kitchen sink and removes the paper towel, letting the blood well up in the wound and spill over the side, into the drain.
It must have some kind of ability to mentally lure less sentient beings close enough to feed from.
Man am I ever crackers.
He chuckles at himself as he turns and grabs the knife off the kitchen counter and walks into the living room. His bleeding finger sticking out, droplets of blood falling to the floor.
Seriously, just thinking, if whatever it is was really stuck, then it’d have to have some means of eating. Maybe it really does call food to it. Flies and spiders. Small creatures like that, something to feed on.
Stephen heard the lapping noise from a distance and slowly climbed back up the trail his mind had taken him down to find the source. He looked at this own hand, which held a knife. The knife was digging into the flesh of the finger on his other hand; it moved slowly and gently, sawing back and forth. Before the pain began to register, he followed the spill of blood as it traveled down the length of the blade, pooled on the edge and eventually dripped down in a steady stream of pattering blood. Down below, the thing in the candle was happily lapping up the blood, like a thirsty dog drinking from a fresh downpour. The orange tongue was whipping around furiously, grabbing every drop from the air.
He dropped the knife – unfortunately it didn’t land in the creatures head, he would later think – and ran to the sink, crying out in pain and terror.
He vomited. Later he’d find burst blood vessels under his eyes.
He rinsed off his finger, taking desperate gulps of air and wrapped it up carefully with the first aid kit Trish kept under the sink, trying to keep the panic at bay. He was going to need stitches. The minor cut he had given himself while chopping the carrots had been gored open by the knife. And he had used that cut to actually feed the thing.
He cleaned up as best he could, not wanting to startle Trish when she came home with the sight of blood. He eyed the thing carefully as he did so. It seemed to have gone into a kind of doze, something you might expect to do after a large Thanksgiving dinner.
He left a note explaining that he had gone to the hospital and she should meet him there. Later, after an argument, he realized he should have let her know he was alright, that she shouldn’t worry. But at that moment, he hadn’t felt alright.
He felt very afraid.
* * * * * *
“Oh no,” Stephen said, staring down at the place on the mantle where the candle stood; or what was left of it. The candle looked as if it had been burned down, about halfway, over the course of the last few weeks and now it sat, sides mushroomed outward, as if something inside had pushed its way out. As he was sure it had.
He turned quickly, expecting the creature to be standing behind him. He looked down, up, around the room frantically, glancing behind his back, certain that it would be there, behind every turn when he wasn’t looking. He took a few stumbling steps toward the door, desperate to get out of the house. He jerked to a stop and turned to the kitchen. He felt an ‘itch’ in the back of his mind, compelling him back. A familiar voice in his head. He tried to fight against it. Without even noticing what he was doing, he walked over and grabbed a book of matches off the mantle, then walked into the kitchen.
In his mind, he was out of the house, in his car driving away. In reality he was in a darkened, gloomy kitchen, walking with heavy footfalls coming from behind; he was followed by a scraping, slithering sound which could only be a tail. He no longer glanced around, which was good for him, because the sight of the now seven-foot tall thing behind him would surely cause heart failure.
He grabbed a can off the counter in mid-stride and held it close to his side. Stephen was no longer arguing with himself. In fact, he was no longer really thinking at all.
He entered the short hallway, turned slightly and went into Trish’s bedroom. He flicked on the light to see what he was doing. His breath caught in his throat, then let out in a sort of horrified moan as he surveyed the room.
Candles of all shapes and sizes lined the shelves around the room. Multi-colored cylinders with wicks protruding from them were scattered along the floor. They weren’t all as big as the one Trish had unwrapped weeks before, but some were, and he spotted two or three that looked to be even bigger. There was a pile in the middle of the bed, all with wicks facing upward, waiting for someone to set them alight.
Stephen, despite his best intentions, could imagine the newly freed creature, in the midst of it, ’s growing pains, laying its strange waxy eggs in its nest. He didn’t know what would have happened if Trish had been home when it escaped. Maybe because she couldn’t see it, that meant she would have been safe; but Stephen had his doubts.
He put the can in his pocket, then took a match from the book. He glanced sideways at the creature, but it stayed out of the light and all Stephen could see was a terrible spiky-haired silhouette. He felt the itch in his mind again and knew that the creature was gesturing him forward.
The match popped as he struck it and he lit the first wick. The flame caught and a spark erupted, causing him to jerk back. His hand went numb and he knew that spark was only the beginning. He struck another match and began lighting the rest of the wicks to his right, not every wick erupting, but every time a candle was fully alight. He could barely feel his fingers and he was only on the fifth candle. Although the flame reached his fingers, he kept lighting. The creature compelled him onward. His face tightened in pain as the flames licked and ate at his fingers.
Finally, the flame went out. He hissed in pain as he dropped it to the ground, but he promptly grabbed a new match, struck it and continued around the room, lighting matches under the supervising gaze of the thing in the hall.
It took him a long time to light every candle in the room and he was on the last match of the book that had surely been full. He was finishing off the last of the ones on the bed. The flame was almost lighting his fingers on fire and each spark that blew brought a fresh bout of pain; but the creature wouldn’t let him stop. His hand trembled in pain and fear as he put the precariously low flame of the match to the last bone white wick. The flame almost died out, and Stephen knew his death would be very painful if that happened. The creature growled behind him. Stephen breathed a sigh of relief as the flame caught on the wick with one final pop of sparks and grew. The flame grew like the creature seemed to grow.
He blew out the match and now that his work was done, he was allowed to put his charred fingers in his mouth. He thought the creature would kill him now, but nothing happened. It just stood in the hall. That’s when Stephen realized that it couldn’t kill him. At least not yet. It couldn’t light the candles and therefore needed him to stay, in case any of them went out. And eventually, the children would need to feed.
Horrified, he grabbed the can in his pocket. The creature clearly didn’t read minds, just controlled them. It didn’t know what the can was, or what Stephen’s intentions had been when he grabbed it. Otherwise, he knew he wouldn’t be holding it right now.
The creature moved toward him and Stephen thought maybe he had been wrong about it being able to read minds. He braced himself for a blow as it approached, but it moved past him, going to stand in a different position, as if it wanted a better view of the birth of its babies.
Stephen now had a better view of the quill covered creature, which was more or less standing in front of him now. It was much taller than him and he thought he could see it growing even now. Its eyes, which each seemed to be surrounded with tentacles tipped with razor-sharp bone, tightened and constricted with pain as its bones expanded inside it; or maybe it was just eager to eat him.
He slowly pulled out the can of oven cleaner that had been sitting on the counter, thankful that Trish was a neat freak, especially about her kitchen. Standing in front of the warm glow of the bed, he popped off the cap. The sound disturbed the creature and Stephen stilled. It eyed him suspiciously for a moment and Stephen felt his bladder give a little. Oh well. I’ll be dead soon, anyway.
The creature seemed to decide to stop standing around and do something about it’s supper; it took a half step toward Stephen; he cringed back, waiting for the end.
But then one of the candles-
-began to tremble. It caught the creature’s attention and before it could reach out and bat Stephen aside like one of those punching clowns, it went back to the bed, excitement in its posture.
He saw his only chance. Lifting his hand, Stephen began spraying the contents of the can straight into the open flames of the candles, turning the cleaner into a bonafide flame thrower. He was at the wrong angle and couldn’t get the flame to hit the creature, but the bedspread caught and erupted into flames.
The creature seemed to scream. Its cry was high and wailing, sounding almost like crickets- if crickets had the same decibel range as a fighter jet. It started toward him.
Stephen had already known he was going to die. Even if he had done nothing, they would eventually have eaten him, after killing him if he was lucky. So this was no surprise. He ducked down, narrowly avoiding a swinging limb. He felt one of the spiky hairs on its arm graze his neck, which instantly erupted in pain. He felt his neck go limp and he struggled to stay on his feet.
He swung the can around, spraying at the candles against the wall. The flaming liquid hit the walls, which caught with flame immediately. The flames from the bed had spread to the curtains. The room was aglow with angry fire.
Stephen, who was still spraying any place that he could, felt his chest collapse as a tree trunk of an arm finally made contact with him. He flew ten feet across the room and crashed against the far wall, not able to breathe, partly due to several cracked ribs, he was sure, but also due to the spiky hairs on the things arm that had penetrated his lungs. His chest was crying out in pain. The quills felt a thousand times worse than bee stings.
It lumbered over to him, fury in its eyes. Stephen couldn’t move, let alone duck and dodge another blow.
He jumped as a flaming candle rolled off the bed. The wax had mostly melted away and inside, a tiny creature was writhing in agony. It was blackening, but Stephen still recognized a kinship to the monstrous thing he saw in front of him now.
Without thinking, Stephen picked up the flaming thing, adding more pain, and hurled it at its giant mother, who caught it gently-
-in its talons. Stephen hoisted the can with great effort and sprayed into the creature, which burst into flames. It writhed but held onto its tiny child. Stephen almost felt pity for it at that moment. Then its eyes turned to him. And as the room, and eventually the house, burned down around them, it lunged itself at him, ready to exact its final revenge on him.
They died together.
* * * * * *
Trish pulled up to her house as close as the fire trucks and police tape would allow. Her face showing the shock she felt at all the commotion around her home.
She got out and flagged down one of the firemen. The house was a smoldering ruin, but there weren’t any flames or smoke, so the fireman was free to come over.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Yeah, I live here. Or did,” she said. He lifted up the tape barrier and she bent under.
“I’m very sorry,” he said as she surveyed the damage.
“No, I am. I knew I forgot to blow out that candle. I asked…uh…a friend to come take a look at it, but I guess he forgot, or it was too late.” The fireman’s face tightened as she spoke. “What is it?”
“Well, I can assure you that it doesn’t look like the fire was your fault. You say you asked a friend to come check on the house? What was his name?”
“Stephen Miller. He was my-“
The fireman stopped a passing policeman. “Hey, we got a possible ID. Check the system for a Stephen Miller.” The cop nodded and ran off.
“What’s going on?” Trish demanded. “Why are there so many police here?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Ms…”
Ms. Saunders. I’m sergeant Cooper. It appears that your house was set on fire.
“There was somebody inside when it happened and it appears that some kind of accelerant was used-“
“Accelerant?” Trish said. She was sounding close to tears.
“A flammable substance. Someone lit your house on fire. Now I’m going to go talk to those officers over there and in a minute, they’re going to tell you what they know and then they’ll have to ask you some questions. Can you have a seat in your car, please?”
She nodded and stumbled under the police tape.
The fireman walked over to an officer who was talking into a CB receiver. The firemen were being replaced by police.
“Got the owner of the house sitting over there, in that blue Taurus,” he said, pointing. “Said you’d want to ask her some questions.”
“Thanks,” the officer said, reaching in the car to grab a clipboard. The fireman hesitated. “Something I can help you with?” the officer said, noticing.
“Just wondering if you’re going to tell her about the other…things we found.”
The officer sighed, resigning himself to a long day. “No, I’m not. And look, I need you to get all your men who went inside that house together, before they go home. I’m getting calls from higher up that want to make sure nobody ever knows about that. I would imagine they’ll make it worth your while to forget about those charred black…things,” the officer said, mimicking Cooper’s phrase.
“Heh. I’d happily pay them to forget what I’d seen. Any word from the corner?”
“Yeah, and just between you and me, it looks like the body,” he glanced around. “The human body had a couple of really big bites taken out of it. Some living we gotta make, huh?” He gave a quick bark of a laugh, then walked off to talk to the owner.
* * * * * *
In her car, Trish was fighting back tears. She thought about her house and all her stuff. She didn’t know where she was going to sleep that night. She didn’t know anybody in the city; not anyone really close, at least.
She also thought about Stephen. But not as much as she would have expected. She knew he was going to die; that’s why she started dating, wasn’t it? She just didn’t expect him to take her ‘darling’ and her whole house, with him when he did.
Trish watched out the window as the police officer walked slowly toward her car. She knew the police wouldn’t mention if they found anything…strange. And that was good; there were some things she didn’t want to explain. She just wasn’t looking forward to starting over. New house, new stuff, new boyfriend.
And she had to start her candle collection from scratch.
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