©2015 by Don Gillette
For this and 24 of Don's other short stories, the collection Old Leather is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Abebooks, and other retailers world-wide.
In candlelight, no one sees the truth. They see only shadows—expectations of things to come and fading memories of what has been.
There is no need to fear the dimness of the glowing specters cast from the slowly burning aromatic wax. And there is no reason to search the tiny fire for glimpses of the real: In candlelight, there is no truth. The flickering liquid of visibility comes and goes like the goodness in a man’s life or the weakness in his soul.
But in candlelight there is no sin.
With the rapid onset of the evening in the winter, the white room transformed itself to a pale gray. The walls seemed to expand a bit, leaving a more open, airy feeling in the apartment. The winds off the lake brought a chill that crept through closed windows and settled comfortably within. Electric heaters turned on and off, accompanied by metallic clicks as they warmed themselves and their surroundings and the sound of the heaters echoed through the empty halls like footsteps.
Inside the spare bedroom, papers littered the blue carpet like whitecaps rising on the lake in the winter breezes. The old IBM Selectric typewriter was still running, humming on the desk as if waiting for someone to hit a key and bring it alive. A number of reference books were scattered around the desk in little mountains, some close to toppling, some stacked neatly as if untouched. A glass ashtray brimming over with the butts from two packs of Winston cigarettes sat next to the sleek machine.
On the wall in front of the desk hung a photograph of an old man standing next to a younger man. The old man was holding a lighted candle in his left hand.
Light flickered briefly in the room and then died, returning it to still darkness.
The old man in the photograph was smiling.
Somewhere around 11:00 PM that night, Paul Burroughs unlocked the front door and began his ritual of settling in for the evening. He hung his heavy winter coat in the hall closet and then walked slowly into the living room, flicking on the light switch. The artificial illumination brought the whiteness of the room back into focus. He moved toward the couch, picked up the television remote, and flopped his tall frame down next to the refinished school desk that was his end table, simultaneously pushing a button on the remote to turn on the TV. Voices speaking French filled the room and he eyed the screen waiting for the color images to appear.
He watched absently for a time and then drifted off to sleep, the remote control still clutched loosely in his hand.
As he slept, he dreamed of the old man in the photograph. The old man had his hand cupped around a flickering candle flame until his eyes fell on Paul, standing in front of him watching with rapt attention. Recognition flashed behind the old man’s eyes and he took his hand away from the flame and waved. Paul waved back as the old man snuffed out the candle, turned, and walked away.
Paul awoke to the sound of his own screams.
He took a moment to gather himself and then bent to retrieve the remote he had dropped sometime during his nap. With contempt, he switched off the television and got up slowly, rubbed his face, muttered, “Bastard,” under his breath, and despite the chill outside, opened the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. Then he walked down the hallway to his makeshift study.
He heard the humming of his typewriter even before reaching the study. As he opened the door, he noticed the faint glow of the margin indicator light and eyed the unattended machine with mock scorn.
“One of these days, you’ll blow up,” he said, shaking his head. He reached for the light switch and then paused, glimpsing the dimly lit photograph of the old man standing next to a younger man. “Too late for you though, Dad,” he added, and then clicked on the overhead light fixture.
He pulled the chair out from under the desk and sat down, fingering the keyboard of the typewriter. Opening a desk drawer, he withdrew a sheet of 20# bond and cranked it into the machine. He leaned back for a moment with his eyes closed and then began to type slowly.
From the other side of the room, something watched silently but intently.
Paul worked at the typewriter for fifteen minutes, but he sensed it was in the study and he just couldn’t keep his mind on what he was doing. It was always in the house someplace, but tonight he knew it was in the room watching him. He couldn’t see it with the light on and he couldn’t see it with the light off. He could only see it in candlelight.
“Micawber,” his grandfather had called it for no reason at all. And when his grandfather died, Micawber moved on to become the constant and unwelcome companion of Paul’s father. That lasted for sixteen years.
Now, after the incident, Micawber belonged to Paul. But to Paul’s way of thinking, it was the other way around.
Paul looked around the room. “I know you’re here, Micawber, and you can go fuck yourself. The back door is open. Go away.” He looked up at the picture of the old man and younger man—his grandfather holding the candle, his father standing alongside him. “What did you do, Grampa? Why’s this fucking thing even exist?”
The ear-piercing screech and rustling of the curtains told him Micawber had left the room.
“Kiss your ass goodbye, you miserable piece of shit,” Paul whispered, and went back to his typing.
Paul’s grandfather had actually liked the thing... almost toyed with it as if it were a pet. He never told anyone where it came from or when it showed up or how he first discovered it, but he took great enjoyment in lighting a candle and watching the combination of fright, terror, and disgust when people saw it for the first time.
Micawber was completely hairless and its skin was translucent so you could see the red and blue veins underneath it. It was about the size of a kindergarten kid, had a human face, and sat on its haunches like a squirrel. Its arms (or front paws) had long, sharp claws and its feet had pads like a dog’s paws.
By any measure, Micawber was the ugliest, most repulsive creature anyone had ever seen. Paul’s grandfather absolutely delighted in introducing the uninitiated to Micawber and then sitting back and watching the show unfold. Everything from disbelief to heart palpitations to fainting to vomiting followed. Several people actually ran screaming from the house—his grandfather loved it.
Paul’s father, though, was not a great fan. First of all, he didn’t like the “feeding room” the old man had set up for Micawber. It was his old bedroom.
“I don’t know why you have to feed him in there, Dad,” he said once. “I used to live in there—now it’s live chickens and lizards and snakes and who the hell knows what else. Why can’t you just feed the damned thing out of a bowl like a dog?”
Paul’s grandfather had just smiled. “He’s got a healthy appetite, son,” he said. “And he likes a bit of sport.”
And then the old man was gone. Dead of a stroke at eighty-nine. They buried him behind St. Francis church in the old cemetery next to Paul’s grandmother. Paul’s father spent two weeks cleaning out the house, including the “feeding room,” and within two weeks, it sold to a construction company that tore it down to make room for condos.
A week after that, Paul’s mother lit a “Mountain Lodge” Yankee Candle in their kitchen and fainted dead away.
Micawber was sitting in the corner of the room next to her chopping block. As soon as she lit the candle, it screeched so loud the windows vibrated.
The family’s education about Micawber came swiftly. They already knew he could only be seen in candle light, but what they didn’t know would fill an encyclopedia. First of all, Micawber was impossible to catch. And it was mean. Even when Paul’s father managed to get a hand on it once, it bit like a wild animal and tore a chunk out of his forearm that required twenty-four stitches and a tetanus shot.
It was also incredibly fast and agile—like a big mouse. Paul’s dad went after it once with a pitchfork and said it was like trying to stab lightning. All he managed to do was knock over quite a bit of furniture and punch a few dozen holes in the sheetrock.
And Micawber could come and go anytime the door was opened—nobody saw or felt anything, but whenever a door was opened it could come in or go out.
The only thing in the family’s favor was that Micawber caused no trouble in the household at all unless there was candle light. For all practical purposes, it was powerless, invisible, and didn’t exist except in candle light. Except for the occasional screech when it was displeased... and the feeding problem which is what usually caused it to be displeased.
A few weeks after the Yankee Candle incident, Paul heard his parents talking in the kitchen.
“It’s going to be a problem, Bess,” Paul’s father said. “One or two stray dogs or cats and nobody’ll notice, but last night I picked up at least three skeletons out there and I swear to you, one of them was the Melkonian’sBeagle. It leaves the heads on its victims pretty much whole except for two big puncture wounds right on top of the skull.”
“Eewwww,” Paul’s mother said. “That’s disgusting.”
“Oh, I know... and we can’t leave it outside because the screeching is making us all crazy. I can’t kill it—I’ve tried everything. It eats rat poison like it’s cotton candy and drinks antifreeze like I drink beer. And the only things I’ve caught in those traps are skunks. They’re skeletons by the time I get to them except for the heads. It won’t go away, I can’t kill it, it won’t bother us if we don’t use candles, and I’ve only got one idea left.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ve got this thing I’ve been rolling around in my head. It worked for the old man, so I’m going to give it a try.”
Paul’s mother gasped. “Oh, John,” she said, “not a feeding room?”
“Nothing like Pop’s,” Paul’s father said.
And the next day, construction began in the basement.
Paul had to hand it to his dad. The “containment chamber” was pretty much brilliant.
It took almost three months to build, but when it was finished, it looked like a four-foot-deep tile swimming pool with a narrowing chute on one end. That chute emptied into an industrial strength garbage disposal—like one you might find in a butcher shop. Paul’s father called it “The Goat.” At the opposite end of the structure were four high-powered steam nozzles.
They’d learned Micawber’s “feeding schedule” by listening to the screeches, leaving the back door open, and burying the skeletons. Once a week was plenty, sometimes less. Paul’s father settled on Sunday.
Since they lived in the country, nobody thought a thing about the chicken coops. And although they rarely got a chicken dinner out of it, Paul’s mother was grateful for the eggs. Most of the chickens and the attendant rats, snakes, and squirrels went into the basement “containment chamber” or what Paul’s father had dubbed “the CC” for Micawber’s Sunday brunch.
An exhaust fan in the casement window kept the basement odor-free, a chute that opened outside the house and emptied into the CC kept Micawber’s food from having to be lugged through the house, and Paul’s father had sound-proofed the CC using the same material some recording studios use in their walls—noise absorbing wall blankets.
On Sundays, when Paul and his mother were at church, Paul’s father would open the cellar door and wait for the slaughter to begin. He would blare loud rock and roll, usually The Rolling Stones, so he wouldn’t have to listen. When Micawber was finished, Paul’s father would open the basement door, and then open a little compartment he’d built in the wall that turned on the steam generator. In a few minutes, the pressure would be built up enough so he could flip another switch and scalding water would jet out of the nozzles in the CC. He’d flick another switch to start up “The Goat” and within just a few minutes, the CC would be spotless.
After several years and several pleadings, Paul’s father let him listen to what was going on in the CC on Sunday, but he never allowed his wife to hear it. Eventually, after Paul stopped going to church, he and his father even lit a candle one day and took a peek from the top of the stairs—but only once. After that, neither one of them had any desire to witness the carnage again. “Your grandfather warned me a million times,” Paul’s father said. “When it’s feeding, it doesn’t care—it’ll eat you or me just as soon as look at us. I think the only reason it doesn’t kill us in the house is because it needs us.”
After the construction of the CC and a few slight modifications, Micawber’s presence was, if not accepted, tolerated. From time to time, Paul’s father would devise a plan to rid the family of the thing, but each plan would fail and he would announce defeat. Paul’s mother reluctantly gave up her Yankee candles for the less gratifying “room sprays” during the holiday season and his father eventually solved that problem by buying some frosted glass cylinders and using little chemistry-set-style alcohol lamps. He’d fill the lamps with scented lamp oil and drop them down inside the cylinders. No one knew why, but since these “candles” weren’t really candles, Micawber stayed hidden. Paul’s mother was thrilled, a small inconvenience was alleviated, and in a few years, the family settled into routine.
Paul’s mother died of a massive heart attack three months after he graduated from the University of Vermont. He had landed a job as an “Arts and Entertainment” editor at an English language newspaper in New Brunswick and had just moved into a house outside of Edmundston when his father called with the bad news.
The paper was sympathetic and extended their usual three-day bereavement policy to two weeks (unpaid) owing to the distance involved—and the fact that Paul hadn’t worked a day yet. Basically, what they’d done is put off his hire date by two weeks.
Paul drove home the next day, Monday, and he and his father took care of planning the services although Paul did most of the decision-making. His father wasn’t in the best of health by now and the loss of his wife had clearly taken a lot of wind out of his sails. His father seemed distant, forgetful, reflective. He spent a lot of time staring off into the distance... didn’t smile, didn’t cry... just stared.
The visitation for Paul’s mother was held on Thursday and burial was on Friday.
Paul and his father sleepwalked through the services and went home alone after the burial. Exhausted from the ordeal, they silently ate leftover fast food from the night before and were both in bed by 9:00 PM. Sleep came quickly.
Next morning, Saturday, Paul made breakfast for his father and after some light conversation, suggested they give Goodwill a call and set up a day/time for them to send a truck to pick up his mother’s personal things.
“No,” his father said. “No. I’ll do that on my own later. Not now. Not tomorrow. Later.”
And so it was left... and never discussed again.
Paul spent most of the weekend outside, cleaning and straightening up around the house, putting new straw in the chicken coop, and around the floor of the barn. He hung most of the garden tools back on their nails, arranged the old work bench, and then serviced the tractor as well as he could, changing the oil, cleaning and gapping the spark plugs, and greasing everything on it that had a grease fitting.
On Sunday afternoon, he drove his mother’s car to the grocery store and came back with a trunk full of supplies for his father plus two ribeye steaks, a couple of enormous baking potatoes, some French rolls from the bakery, and a ready-made Caesar salad from the deli. He’d also remember two of his father’s favorites; Irish butter and Johnny Walker Black.
That evening, Paul fired up the grill, came inside, and poured each of them a generous Scotch and soda. While his father sat in a recliner, Paul set the table, and got the food ready to cook. The drink seemed to help his father’s mood considerably as did the second. And the third. And the fourth. And then they lost count.
By the time dinner was on the table, his father was telling stories Paul had never heard before. Although the older man’s usual exuberance wasn’t there, the heavy sorrow that seemed to have been crushing him was gradually abating. When the stories included Paul’s mother, instead of turning inside and growing quiet, Paul’s father would smile and nod his head, remembering the good times, continuing with his tale.
They finished their meal and their Scotch at about the same time. “Let’s leave the dishes until tomorrow, son,” Paul’s father said. “I’m beat and I know you must be, too. Everything was great—and the estate looks lovely.”
“The estate” had always been Paul’s father’s sarcastic description of their three acres. Never “the farm” or “the yard” or “the house.” Always “the estate.”
“Sounds good to me, Dad,” Paul said. “I’ll be lucky to make it upstairs anyway.”
They got up unsteadily and Paul followed his father upstairs. His father, one hand on the wall, walked slowly down the hallway to his bedroom and Paul opened the door to his old room.
“You’re a good son, Paul,” his father said. “Thank you.”
Paul’s throat closed up a little. “G’night, Dad,” he said. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
The first screech came at around 5:00 AM just as the sun was coming up and jolted Paul awake like somebody had poured ice water on him.
The next one vibrated the pictures hanging on the wall and Paul threw his legs over the side of the bed. “You evil bastard,” he whispered. “I’d almost forgotten about you.”
As Paul was pulling on his clothes, there was a knock on his door and he knew it was his father. “Come on in, Dad,” he said.
Paul’s father opened the door slowly. “Sorry, son,” he said. “I forgot all about that sack of shit. It hasn’t been fed.”
“It’s okay, Dad,” Paul said. “You go back to bed. I’ll take care of it.”
“No, that’s something I never let you do on your own, son. Give me a minute and you can come with me.” He left the room and started back down the hallway.
The third shriek was accompanied by what sounded like a cross between a growl and a moan followed by a metallic scraping.
Paul heard his father shouting, “Hold your horses, you ugly son-of-a-bitch, I’m coming!”
Ten minutes later, Paul and his father had collected two live chickens from the coop and tossed them down the chute leading to the CC. Paul’s father motioned back toward the chicken coop “There are two good-sized rats in those Hav-A-Heart traps next to the fence there, son—we ought to throw them down, too. Go and fetch them, will you? My head feels like I’ve been kicked by a mule.”
“That’s that Johnny Walker talking to you,” Paul said, grinning. “You’ve been telling me my whole life that the ‘good stuff’ didn’t give you a hangover.”
His father grinned. “Yeah... well if that’s the only lie I’ve ever told you in your whole life, you ought to be feeling lucky.”
Paul brought the traps over, got the rats down the chute, and the two men went back inside the house.
Paul’s father motioned toward the kitchen. “Why don’t you make us some coffee and I’ll open the door for the bastard,” he said.
Since the death of Paul’s grandfather, Micawber wasn’t usually called by name; rather, it was given any selection of monikers as long as they were derogatory.
“Can do,” Paul said and went into the kitchen.
The next sounds Paul heard were his father’s surprised cry, the tumbling of his body down the basement stairs, and the muffled thump when he hit the hard tile floor.
Paul rushed to the top of the stairs and was on the second step when his father’s words came back to him. “...when it’s feeding, it doesn’t care—it’ll eat you and me just as soon as look at us.”
He squatted down and looked under the joist. The containment center looked like the inside of a tornado. All he could see were feathers, bones, skin, and blood flying around the inside. No sign of Micawber.
Paul vaulted up the stairs, slammed the basement door, and ran into the kitchen. He grabbed one of the kitchen chairs, put it against the sink, climbed up on it and felt around on top of the cabinets until his fingers closed around the one candle in the house—one he’d put there when he was sixteen years old and wanted to see Micawber again, then chickened out.
Snatching the fireplace lighter off the mantle, he went back to the basement. He lit the candle and opened the door slowly. The usual sounds of slaughter were already gone. He slowly descended. On the third step, he bent down to have a look.
Micawber lifted its fangs from the top of Paul’s father’s disembodied head, glanced up at Paul, sniffed the air, screeched, threw the head aside and bounded for the staircase.
Paul made it to the top and slammed the door just as he heard Micawber bang against it from the other side.
He staggered to the kitchen, still holding the candle, slumped onto one of the chairs, and sat at the table, shaking.
After loading up his clothes and the family mementos he wanted to keep into his father’s new Jeep Wrangler, Paul took two five-gallon jerry cans into the house, one full of gasoline and the other full of kerosene, and put them next to the basement door. He opened the small compartment next to the door and turned on the steam generators that were used to hose down the CC after weekly feedings, but he didn’t turn on the water.
Then he went outside, grabbed two chickens by the feet, went over to the house and tossed them down the chute.
He re-entered the house, opened both fuel cans and kicked them down into the basement, closing the door quickly behind him.
He pressed his ear to the door and could faintly hear the squawking of the chickens and the usual feeding mayhem.
Satisfied that Micawber was sufficiently occupied, Paul pulled two road flares from his pocket, popped the caps, and lit them. “So long, you son of a bitch,” he said, opened the basement door, tossed in the flares, slammed the door shut, and ran out of the house.
Paul’s guess was that he’d driven at least four miles from the house when the propane tanks that fueled the steam generator exploded. He pulled to the side of the road, rested his head on the steering wheel, and cried for the first time since he was fourteen.
Investigations in rural Vermont don’t amount to much, especially an investigation into a house fire where the accompanying explosion didn’t leave much to investigate. And taking into consideration Paul’s description of his father as unusually depressed and suicidal, this investigation didn’t last two days—by that time Paul was on his way back to Edmundston in his father’s Jeep.
He started his new job, enjoyed it, tried not to think about his Dad or Micawber, and began to settle in. His first week went well and he spent the weekend driving around Edmundston, feeling his way around his new hometown.
On Monday morning, as Paul was rounding the carport getting ready to leave for the newspaper office, he spotted the animal carcass next to the trashcans. A dog. The skeleton was stripped clean but enough of the head remained that he could tell it had been a Collie.
“Damn,” he mumbled, looking around. He’d seen enough of Edmundston and read enough to know there were Canada lynxes, coyotes, and red foxes all over the place and it was considered common knowledge (and common sense) to keep pets either inside or in covered metal cages. Glancing at his watch and deciding he had time, Paul got a large trash bag and shoveled the animal’s remains inside it. He tied the bag shut, tossed it in the trashcan, and headed to work.
The following Sunday, in the twilight between awake and asleep, Paul heard Micawber’s screech for the first time since leaving Vermont. He sat upright in bed. His eyes darted around the bedroom. His breathing was rushed, hard. He knew he had been dreaming, but he despised the sound—the horrible sound—and as much as he hated to admit it, it scared him. The images it brought scared him, the memory of Micawber—an ugly, hairless, fanged abomination that brought nothing but misery to his family—scared him. And for what reason? Why?
Paul shivered slightly, laid back down, and closed his eyes.
The next screeching shriek, right next to his bedroom window, was so forceful and violent, he bit his tongue and drew blood.
“No,” Paul whispered. “It’s not possible.”
And yet the two animal carcasses outside his back door told him otherwise.
When Paul had finished typing, he pulled the paper out of the typewriter and read it over. Satisfied with the finished product, he took a pen from the desktop and was about to sign his name when it hit him.
Candlelight. Candlelight. Why didn’t anybody try this before?
The owner of the fencing company thought it was a bit strange, and he did warn Paul there were laws against keeping wild animals or running puppy mills in Edmunston, but with reassurances from Paul and an extra $500, the cage went in as requested—right in the middle of Paul’s living room.
It was five-foot square, chain link, with a door that had to be opened from the inside. From outside the cage, a person could reach in with a pair of channel-lock pliers and lift the latch, but it took some doing.
Paul spent the next few days inspecting the cage and laying in his supplies.
On Saturday afternoon, Paul put a small stool in the center of the cage—a swivel stool. He sat down on it, spun in both directions for a while, and then went out to the Jeep and retrieved a large canvas gym bag. He came back inside, left the door open, went into the cage, closed the door behind himself making sure the latch was in place, opened the bag, and took out six candles—Yankee candles. “Mountain Lodge.” He placed the candles around the stool.
Then he pulled out a pistol-grip 12 gauge Benelli M2 Tactical Shotgun loaded with seven rounds of ammunition. The first two rounds were standard #1 buckshot. Following those were two one-ounce slug shells. The remaining three rounds were 00 buckshot. This shotgun was automatic—no pumping or re-loading between shots.
Finally, Paul took out a gallon zip-top plastic bag containing a freshly killed chicken, blood and all. He opened the bag and unceremoniously dumped the contents directly across from him up against the cage.
At twilight, he proceeded to light the candles, and then he laid the shotgun across his lap pointed toward the door.
Within five minutes, Micawber crawled into the room.
“Hello... you ugly... motherfucker,” Paul said.
Micawber’s nose twitched. The creature sat up on its haunches and eyed Paul. It curled it’s lip revealing sharp, uneven fangs. Its head swiveled and it wiped its face with its claws.
The screech caught Paul off-guard and he jumped a bit, tightening his grip on the shotgun.
Micawber looked away from Paul, toward the back room, and Paul’s gaze followed.
The instant Paul took his eyes off Micawber, it charged the cage, slamming against the side. Instinctively, Paul pulled the trigger on the shotgun.
Micawber’s right arm was gone, ripped off by the blast. It howled and slammed against the cage again.
“Yes!” Paul shouted. “Yes, you son-of-a-bitch!” He pulled the trigger again and Micawber’s translucent belly exploded spewing clear fluid and intestines all over the room.
Paul stood up, crouching inside the cage, and moved closer to Micawber. Micawber was lying flat on the floor. Paul took aim and fired the third round, a one-ounce slug, into Micawber’s head. Then he fired another into what remained of its body. The next two rounds of 00 buckshot he pumped quickly; one into Micawber’s upper body and the other into its lower body.
No movement, no sound, no sign of life. But the room looked like a slaughterhouse. Pieces of Micawber were everywhere.
Paul opened the cage and turned on the overhead light. He nudged what was left of Micawber with his boot.
“I knew it,” he muttered. “The candlelight. I knew it.”
Standing over Micawber, one round left in his shotgun, Paul looked from Micawber to the cage and back again. He tilted his head slightly and furrowed his brow.
Stepping back into the cage, he began to extinguish the candles one by one. As he blew the last candle out, he raised his eyes and looked at what was left of Micawber. And with the last candle’s last gasp, all that was left of Micawber vanished. There was plenty of damage from the shotgun blasts remaining, but not a trace of Micawber.
“Son of a bitch,” Paul whispered. “That’s all it took. Feed you in the candlelight...”
Later that night, after burning the suicide note he’d spent an hour writing, Paul sat at this desk in the makeshift study.
He rolled a fresh sheet of 20# bond into the typewriter and began to write...
“In candlelight, no one sees the truth. They see only shadows—expectations of things to come and fading memories of what has been.
“There is no need to fear the dimness of the glowing specters cast from the slowly burning aromatic wax. And there is no reason to search the tiny fire for glimpses of the real: In candlelight, there is no truth. The flickering liquid of visibility comes and goes like the goodness in a man’s life or the weakness in his soul.
“But in candlelight there is no sin.”
He paused and looked over to the photograph of his father and grandfather.
The candle his grandfather held in the photo all these years was gone.