by Sara King
A gift gone wrong. First Place, Ordinary Horrors Contest.
Dave was wading through a ratty local flea-market looking for a cheap, last-minute gift for his wife when he saw the candle.
It was fat and heavy, requiring two hands to lift. The wax had an off-white color, and smelled slightly of some foreign herb Dave could not identify. As he hefted it, Dave ran his fingers over the little ivory globules had leaked down its side and found himself disappointed that it had been used before. It would have made a good present for Emily’s birthday if he could’ve passed it off as new—she loved candles.
He was beginning to set it down when the candle’s owner spoke.
“You picked it up. Now you gotta take it.”
Dave laughed and gave the candle another look. It felt heavier than it looked, having all the weight of an infant. Then he looked up at the seller.
Instantly, Dave felt a churning in his gut. The man’s pasty face was covered with horrible, puckered, half-healed scars. Some of them still oozed a thin orangish pus from thick, dried cracks so deep they seemed to reach into the man’s skull.
Dave swallowed, but was unable to take his eyes off of the seller. He wore a baseball cap, but it was obvious to anyone looking that he had only a few whisps of hair on a scalp otherwise ravaged by some horrible force. With a flash of panic, Dave wondered if it was contagious.
He cleared his throat and tried to force his frozen lips into a smile. “No thanks. I’m looking for a present for my wife.”
“Your wife likes candles.” It was not a question.
Dave managed a shaky, “Well, yes, but—”
“You’ll never find another candle like that. It’ll burn forever. Made over a thousand years ago in China. A collector’s dream. Besides, you picked it up. Now you have to take it.”
Dave had to suppress the urge to snort. He began setting the candle down, saying, “Sorry. If it’s really that old, then I sure as hell can’t afford it.”
“Two dollars and it’s yours.”
Dave hesitated again. The candle was worth much more than two dollars, even if it wasn’t old. Due to his wife’s annoying hobby, Dave had seen enough wax to know what was expensive and what wasn’t. He’d never seen anything this size or with this much heft, and he guessed that it was custom-made.
Emily would kill him for passing up this deal.
Yet, somehow Dave felt uneasy. It wasn’t the odd smell the candle gave off—it was almost pleasant, in a strange way. Nor was it the man’s scars—Dave had been startled at first, but it had passed.
No, it was something about the way the candle felt against his fingers. The weight felt…dead. Like he was holding a baby’s corpse.
I could put it back on the table and walk away, Dave thought. He wanted to. In fact, he would have loved to set the thing down and hurry home to take a nice, hot shower.
Instead, he shelled out the two bucks.
Emily would’ve found out, eventually. She always did.
As he was leaving, Dave hesitated to ask the seller where he’d gotten his scars.
“Fire,” the man said, crinkling his face in a smile. It was horrific—Dave couldn’t bring himself to smile back.
“Your house burn down?” Dave asked, despite himself.
“I lost everything I cared about in a single day,” the man said.
Dave got the distinct feeling the man wasn’t answering his question.
“Sorry to hear that,” Dave said. He added a couple more dollars to the pile he’d left on the table. “Hope you can get your life back together.”
“I already have,” the seller said. Dave could have sworn his gaze flickered to the candle in Dave’s arms. Then the seller smiled again and began packing up his goods.
“You leaving already?” Dave asked. He saw plenty of expensive antiquities still gracing the table—stuff that would sell eventually, and for higher prices than the odd-smelling candle.
“I’ve sold what I came to sell,” the seller said.
Dave watched him a moment, curious, then left the swap-meet to go find his car.
He made the mistake of putting the candle in the passenger seat for the ride home. Every minute or so, Dave caught himself looking at it instead of watching the road. Had it been a person sitting there, he would have sworn the person was facing him, watching him with an utterly motionless, unwavering, dead expression. It sent goosebumps up his arms and legs.
At a stoplight, Dave finally couldn’t handle it any more. He threw the candle into the back seat, no longer caring if he dented the wax.
It was a mistake. For the rest of the ride home, he felt the same unearthly gaze leveled at the back of his head.
When Dave finally got to his driveway, his entire body itched like he was crawling with roaches. He parked on the street outside, giving Emily access to the garage. Then he jumped out of his car, slammed the door, then had to open it again when he realized he’d left his keys in the ignition. He left the candle in the back seat and hurried into the house.
Dave took the longest shower of his life, and by the end of it, he was finally feeling a little better. He began cleaning the house, getting everything ready for the quiet surprise party he was going to throw for Emily when she got home from her business conference. Three times during his preparations, Dave opened the door and glanced out at the car. Each time, he had the compulsive instinct to run down, tear the candle off his seat, and throw it into the dumpster across the street.
Instead, he merely went back to his chores.
It’s just a candle, Dave thought as he iced Emily’s chocolate cake. Just a candle. Just a—
He hadn’t realized he’d ruined the cake until parts of it tumbled off the plate and onto the floor. Dave stared at it, confused. He’d pushed the icing knife straight through the cake over and over again, until there was nothing left except chocolate-coated crumbs. Chocolate spattered the kitchen around him, and when he looked around, Dave realized that a couple sticky black pieces had even traveled all the way over to stick to the brushed-steel fridge.
Disgusted, Dave threw the cake into the trash and went to find another mix.
The only other type of cake mix they had was for a carrot cake, which Emily hated. The idea of getting back into the car with the candle, however, was too much for Dave. He made the cake, hoping Emily would forgive him if he used her favorite icing—chocolate—on it instead of the standard cream-cheese.
By the time they heard Emily’s BMW enter the garage, the house was ready. Dave had cleaned up the kitchen and invited over a couple neighbors and they waited in silence as Emily took off her shoes and jacket at the door. As soon as she stepped into the living room, however, they surprised her, showering her with gifts and compliments.
The party was a success, despite the odd looks Emily gave him over the cake. When the last person finally left, Emily closed the door and gave him a sultry glance. “You didn’t give me a present,” she whispered, coming to nibble at his ear. “So I figured it was something you didn’t want the others to see.”
Dave blushed. It was something he didn’t want the others to see. In fact, he wished he’d left it at the flea market and bought her nothing at all.
“Well?” she murmured into his ear. “What is it, lover-boy?”
Dave cleared his throat. “It’s uh…”
She pulled back, her green eyes dancing as she looked up at him. “Yes?”
“It’s in the car.”
She kissed him on the cheek and went to the door.
She turned back, grinning. “Yes? You want me to close my eyes?”
“No, uh…” Dave forced a smile. “I hope you like it.”
“I will,” she promised. She shut the door.
She was gone no more than thirty seconds. When she returned, she slammed the door behind her and threw the candle on the couch. Her green eyes were livid, her copper hair looking as if it were on fire.
“Was that it?” she demanded.
Dave cringed. “I’ll go to the mall tomorrow.”
“Don’t bother!” she snapped. “I can’t believe you, Dave! For your birthday, we go to Honolulu and I give you a new car and tickets to the Mets game. For my birthday, you feed me cake I don’t even like—with chocolate icing, where the hell did you get THAT bright idea—and the only thing you buy for my birthday is a used candle? You’re a piece of work.”
"You bought me a new Dodge piece of crap," Dave muttered. "About a fifth of what the Beamer cost us, right?"
Her eyes flashed with challenge and immediately, Dave knew he had made a mistake. Softly, in her lawyer’s voice, she said, “What’d that candle cost you, Dave?”
“I was busy,” Dave stammered. “I had tests to grade.”
“I had conferences in three different countries while I was ordering your favorite champagne at the hotel. You thought they just had that cheap shit? No, I had to request it. Found out they don’t even sell it in Hawaii. They flew it in from California.”
“I’m sorry,” Dave said, “I should’ve spent more time—”
She held up a hand. “I don’t want to hear it, Dave. Take the damn candle back to whatever flea market you bought it from. It’s an ugly piece of crap that stinks like a whorehouse.”
Dave stared at her as she stormed up the stairs and slammed the bedroom door shut behind her.
Dave tore his gaze from the now-locked door and leveled it on the candle resting upon the sofa. Anger uncoiled within him and he grabbed the hated thing and stormed down the driveway and tossed it into the dumpster across the street. Once inside the house again, he locked the door and went to the TV.
He stayed up late watching comedy shows that weren’t that funny. At every commercial break, he glanced up the stairs, considering going up and apologizing to Emily through the door, but then knowing that it wouldn’t help. Finally, he fell asleep on the sofa under the bright green-and-orange afgan that Emily’s grandmother had made for him before she died.
Dave woke several times throughout the night in a cold sweat. Every time he sat up, his heart still pounding itself into exhaustion in his chest, he thought he saw motion in the shadows. After his heart skipped a beat and he could hear it trying to burst his eardrums, he realized there was nothing there.
On the fourth time this happened, however, he turned on the lights.
He slept better after that.
“That’s just like you, to be too lazy to turn the lights off before going to bed.”
Dave sat up, groaning. In his latest dream, he’d been slipping into an inferno, unable to claw his way back up the waxy edges of the pit he’d fallen in.
“Morning, love.” He opened his mouth in a yawn. His breath died in his throat when he saw the fat, glistening candle perched on the table beside the sofa, only inches from where his head had rested as he slept.
“I thought I told you to get rid of that damn thing,” his wife muttered, catching his gaze. “I was serious when I said it stank. I think I smelled it last night, all the way up in the bedroom.”
Dave tore his eyes away from the candle and glanced at her. “Then why’d you get it out of the trash?”
She frowned at him as she pried her feet into the fancy black heels she always wore to important meetings. She had a bagel in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other, her purse hanging from her suited shoulder in a disorganized skew.
“Look, sorry for yelling last night,” she said as she gathered up her keys. “I’d just had a hard day. We’re about to close the deal with VoCorps. If all goes well, it’ll be over tomorrow afternoon.”
“Sorry I just got you a candle,” Dave said. “I should’ve spent more time on it.”
“Yeah, well.” Emily sighed and tugged open the door. Then she looked back, wrinkling her nose. “That smell’s gotten really bad. Just get rid of it and we’ll be even, okay?”
Dave nodded, then glanced back at the candle after she tugged the door shut behind her.
That day, Dave decided to use his last remaining hours of in-service to make it up to her. He threw the candle into the dumpster and went out for flowers, steak, wine, chocolates, another cake-mix, and an emerald necklace he knew would compliment his wife’s eyes. When he came back, he was pleased to find that the candle hadn’t mysteriously re-appeared in his absence.
Just to be sure, however, he went out to the dumpster to check.
The candle, the bags of trash, and the busted lamp were all gone. Monday was trash day. Dave let out a pent-up breath, half-expecting to see everything but the candle still in place. Now it was gone, out of his life forever. He felt like dancing right there in the street.
Instead, he went inside and made the best chocolate cake of his life.
After he finished icing the cake, he caught a whiff of the candle’s unmistakable herbal smell. Frowning, he went back into the living-room, his breath tense in his lungs as he scanned the room.
The candle was not there.
The scent, however, was thicker than ever. In the flea-market, Dave had only smelled a tiny wisp of herbs. Here, it was like the stench of a sickroom. The reek stuck to the back of his throat, clinging there like mold. He had to rush back to the kitchen to avoid gagging.
Dave finished decorating the cake and stuck it in the fridge to keep it out of sight, then immediately went back to the store for air freshener. He sprayed three bottles of the stuff around the lower story, but by the time he was finished, he couldn’t take a breath in the living room without choking on the stink of death. Closing the doors to the den to trap in the smell, he went to his home office and searched the internet for tricks to remove odors.
Dave went back to the den armed with baking soda and vinegar, but came back out twenty minutes later feeling on the very edge of vomiting. He resigned himself to locking the doors and explaining to his wife that his birthday present would cost them two thousand dollars in remodeling, but oh, yeah, here’s your new cake and fifteen bucks of flowers.
Emily came home early that night, and the two of them had a nice dinner to the soft accompaniment of jazz on the house speaker system. They ate by the light of the dining room chandelier—Dave had opened the candle drawer only to find himself repulsed by the very sight of the pale ivory wax votives—and Emily seemed genuinely pleased with the cake he brought out for her.
She was even more impressed with the necklace. She put it on—then immediately began to strip. By the time the night was over, they had opened another bottle of wine and neither of them was wearing much in the way of clothing. In Emily’s case, the necklace was her only adornment.
Sometime during the night, Emily stirred from her wine-induced slumber and left the library.
“Where you going?” Dave mumbled. He’d had much more to drink than Emily and the room was genuinely beginning to spin.
“Just sit tight, Davey. I’m gonna go light the fire in the den. Then we can sleep on the sheepskin by the hearth.”
At first, her comment didn’t register. When he heard her open the doors to the den, however, Dave sat straight up. “Emily? Maybe we should just go upstairs!” His speech sounded like a dentist had jammed a needle of anesthetic into his tongue as he’d dozed with Emily.
“Oh, poo,” Emily called, her voice echoing with the distinct hollow note of someone standing in the den. “This was the best night I’ve had in ten years. A little firelight will make it the best in twenty.”
Dave hesitated, listening to her rustlings in the other room. “Emily? You don’t…smell…anything?” Even then, he could hear the sickroom stench emanating from the den, crawling over the plush white carpet, oozing around him in a rancid pool.
“You’ve had a little too much to drink, babe. Just go back to sleep. I’ll come get you in a minute.”
Dave surrendered to the spinning and closed his eyes once more.
He woke when the dawn sunlight burned his eyes from between the library shutters. Groaning, Dave sat up, feeling wretched. He cocked his head at the hallway leading to the den. “Emily?”
Grunting, Dave got to his feet and stumbled down the hall to the den. Immediately, he was hit by the sickly deathbed stink…and the acrid tinge of smoke.
She’d made a fire, after all. The hearth was still smoldering, several new logs added over the night. Dave frowned at the dusting of ash she’d left on the sheepskin from adding the logs too quickly.
“She must’ve been drunker than I thought,” he muttered, holding his head. He stared at the sheepskin, debating whether to brave the stench of the den to shake it out, then decided that the damage was done and shut the doors to the den.
Let Emily clean it up. After all, it was her mess.
Dave checked the clock, then went and made himself coffee and cereal. He drove to class, downed two aspirin in the university cafeteria, then tried to ignore his pounding headache through six hours of student presentations. By the end, he was giving extra credit to anyone who finished under their time limit.
Dave stopped by the greenhouse for more flowers on the way home. Stargazer lilies this time, though it was the fact that the smell supposedly filled the entire house that finally convinced Dave to choose them over a huge clump of roses.
As he was leaving the greenhouse, the sickly smell of a deathbed came back to him in full force. At first, Dave thought it was the candle scent clinging to his clothes, then he realized it was everywhere, not just around him. It was around the clerk as she walked him to the door, it was in the air outside as he hurried to his car, it seeped into the windows when he rolled them down on the ride home.
I’m losing my mind.
Dave pulled into the driveway and got out of the car, but he hesitated on the cobbled walk leading up to the front porch. He could smell the scent of the candle, oozing out the doors of the house.
This was the source, he realized.
Then, with horrible certainty, he knew that the candle was somewhere inside the den. He jogged up the walk, left the flowers on the porch, and stepped inside.
The candle’s stink was a thousand times stronger, here. It had moved out of the den, pervading the entire structure. Inside the foyer, the stink of a deathbed mingled with that of char, creating a putrid miasma that made Dave’s stomach churn. Dave backed out of the house, slamming the door between himself and the smell. He caught his breath on the porch, willing his stomach to settle.
He felt his innards cramp again when he saw the lilies he had bought his wife smoldering like they’d been caught in a furnace. There was nothing left of them but burned green tinfoil and a melted plastic pot. Wisps of brown smoke trickled into the air from amidst the ruins.
Dave jerked his head up and scanned the street, but saw no one. He walked down the porch and around the house, checking to see if someone had ducked behind the stucco garage, but no one was there. He stared at the garage door, having the sudden compulsion to yank the door open and check to see if Emily’s Beamer was inside.
I’m losing my mind, he thought again.
He went back to the flowers and knelt beside them. Gasoline? He could see no incendiaries, no matches…nothing to have caused the fire.
Stepping away from the porch, Dave cocked his head at the sky and decided it would be a good time to mow the lawn. He had another two hours until nightfall, and it would give him points with Emily if she came home and he was already at work.
Dave took as long as possible dragging the lawnmower out from the tool shed and took even longer in cutting the grass, going over it at least five times in each direction. Each time he passed the house, his neck prickled. The smell was gone, now, edged out by the fresh scent of a fresh-cut lawn, but Dave still didn’t want to return to his house.
He wanted Emily to come home.
It was nearing seven o’clock when his friend Jack came across the street holding a six-pack of Miller. “Give it a rest, Dave. You’ve been at it two and a half hours. And that’s just since I started keeping track. Meg says it’s been more like three.” He held up the beer. “Anything you wanna talk about?”
Dave just watched him, unable to take his hands off the lawnmower, unable to face the inside of his house again.
Sighing, Jack came up and shut the lawnmower off. “Here,” he said, shoving a beer at Dave. “Let’s go inside.”
Dave pried his whitened fingers off the mower and followed his friend to the door.
Jack hesitated on the front porch and Dave held his breath, knowing he was about to comment on the reek that was once again emanating from between the cracks in the door-jamb and windows.
Weather-proofing, Jake thought. That’ll seal it in there.
“What happened to the philodendron?” Jack asked. “Last time I was here, it was doing great.”
Dave tore his eyes away from his friend and glanced at the plant that had held a revered place beside his door for almost a decade now. It was visibly wilting, almost brown.
“You watering it?” Jack asked, bending to check. “Damn, man. It’s wet. That’s tough. Think it’s a virus or something?”
Dave frowned at Jack, unable to contain himself any longer. “You don’t smell that, Jack?”
“Smells like you burned a roast,” Jack said. He opened the door. “Hey, nice candle.”
Dave pushed his way inside and his entire body felt as if it had been dipped in cold water. The flea-market candle stood on the kitchen counter, in clear sight of the door.
It was burning.
“You get this at the flea-market the other day?” Jack said, walking up to it. “Man, I bet this tickled Emily pink.”
“Don’t touch it!”
Jack hesitated, then set the remains of the six-pack on the black marble beside the candle and turned to face him. He pried open his beer and took a long sip. “Somethin’ goin’ on with you and Emily, Dave?”
“You’re actin real strange, man. You’re lucky you’ve got any grass left. I think if I hadn’t come out, youda been there all night.”
“I was just thinking,” Dave said.
Jack nodded and took another sip of beer. “She want a divorce, then?”
Dave flinched. “No. It has nothing to do with Emily. Family troubles. That’s all.” His eyes never left the place where Jack’s elbow was almost touching the candle. He had the crazy idea to push his friend away from it, push him back out into the street and all the way back to his own door.
“You should go,” Dave said. “I’m not gonna be much company today.”
“Uh-huh.” Jack checked his watch. “So where’s Emily, Dave? She’s usually home by six. It’s seven-fifteen.”
“Emily’s coming home,” Dave said. “Really. We’re doing fine.”
“Oh, yeah? Meg and I were here, Davey boy. You screwed up her birthday real good. Meg and I could see it. She was pissed, man.”
“It’s not about Emily!” Dave gritted.
Jack shrugged. “Think there’s a game on?” He began walking toward the den, uninvited. Dave could only clench his fingers around his beer and follow, trying to ignore the reek of the dying as they both entered the living-room. Dave tried to breathe normally, but to him, his den would have been better suited to house the wheezing, pustuled victims of the Plague than two drinking buddies looking to watch baseball.
Jack haphazardly flipped through the channels, then, seeing nothing, slumped down on the couch and looked up at him. “So tell me what’s up with your family. Your sister die or something?”
“No,” Dave said. He held his breath, wondering how much he could tell his friend without sounding crazy. He decided to tell all of it. “I was at a flea market looking for—”
“Man, you guys ruined a nice sheepskin. What were you doing in here the other night? Playing tag in the fireplace?”
“Emily did that,” Dave said. “She was a little wasted last night.”
“Man, she dumped half the hearth on that rug.”
Dave went over to the sheepskin to inspect the damage. As he was squatting beside it, a flash of green caught his eye. Frowning, he dug through the fibers of the rug, coating his hand with oily black ash as he retrieved the object.
It was Emily’s necklace.
“What is it?” Jack asked, leaning forward off the couch.
Dave could only stare down at the thing in his hand, unable to speak.
Jack stood up and peered over his shoulder. “Huh. Looks expensive. Emily’ll be glad to get that back, huh?”
“So what happened with your family, Dave?”
Dave slowly got to his feet. “I’ve gotta go check the garage for something.”
“Shop vac,” Dave said. Without waiting for Jack’s response, he went to the garage and let himself inside.
Emily’s BMW was parked in the center of the garage. The perfect gray sheen that Dave had always coveted reflected perfectly Dave's sihoutte from where he stood in the yellowish light inside the entry. The plush black seats, the chrome tires, the ultra-fancy neon headlights that Dave envied...it all sat in perfect silence, waiting to be used.
Dave stood in the doorway and stared at it until a wave of nausea swept through him with convulsive viciousness. He vomited into a paint bucket and squeezed the emeralds into his palm until he felt the delicate silver chain snap.
He returned to the den without the vacuum cleaner.
“Couldn’t find it?” Jack asked.
Dave could not respond. His eyes were fixed on the greasy black ash marring the Australian sheepskin.
Jack sighed and stood. “I’ll go. Thought maybe I could cheer you up, but you obviously got something else on your mind.”
Dave followed him out to the foyer, clutching Emily’s broken necklace in fingers that trembled all the way up his forearm.
“Say,” Jack said, “You wanna come over Friday? We’re having a barbecue. The Folson’s kid just got back form Iraq. Roasting a pig in his honor.”
“Sure,” Dave whispered.
The phone rang. Jack hesitated in the foyer, watching Dave twitch with every nerve-grinding vibration. “You want me to answer that, Dave?”
Dave went to the wall and gave a shaky hello.
“How did Emily’s birthday go, Mr. Tanner?”
Dave felt his throat go dry.
“I called because I want to know how long you want me to keep Ted and Lizzie at my house. It’s already been a week and the children are missing their parents horribly.”
“I want you to keep them there,” Dave said, his voice rising.
“Yes, but how much longer, sir? I have a doctor’s appointment Wednesday, so I must bring them back to you Tuesday evening, at the very latest.”
“Yes, sir. I’m very sorry. I hope this doesn’t ruin your birthday plans with Emily. I wish I could re-schedule the appointment, but it took me six months to get it. The hospital’s backed up.”
“You’re bringing them back tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Tanner. Emily said she’d watch them last week. I believe she already scheduled time off for Wednesday.”
“It’s fine,” Dave said. “Tomorrow is fine.” He hung up.
“Man, you look like you just got punched in the balls,” Jack said. “That was Emily? She take the kids?”
“The nanny. She’s bringing the kids back here tomorrow night. Jack, will you do me a favor?”
Jack stepped away from the door, a flash of sympathy drawing his thick brows together. “Sure, man.”
“Will you take that candle with you? Emily hates it.”
Jack squinted at the candle. “You serious? I thought she loves candles.”
“Not that one.”
Jack grunted. “I don't know...Meg wouldn't really like it.” He winked. "Won't match the curtains, you know?"
Dave felt the emeralds of Emily’s necklace biting into his palm, but he said, "I'm sure you can find somebody who'd like it."
Sighing, Jack took the candle from the counter and grunted at its weight. “Damn, Dave, what’s in it? Thing's gotta weigh ten pounds.”
Dave's eyes were fixed to the ivory mass. “You picked it up. Now you gotta take it.”
Already, the deathbed stench was fading from his house, leaving only the scent of charred meat in its wake.
Jack chuckled. "You want it gone that bad, fine. I'll throw it in the basement and use it for a door-stop." He blew out the flame and held it with both hands as he went to the door. “Keep the beer cold. I’ll be back tomorrow to see how you’re doing.” Jack tugged the door shut behind him and Dave heard his footsteps on the cobbles outside.
Dave went to find the keys to Emily’s car.
The Candle took First Place in the Holiday 2007 Ordinary Horrors Contest