Welcome back to our weekly serial story posts. This week we present a flash fiction from our inaugural volume of Anthology Askew. As always, please let us know what you think.
One Candle from Dark – E. S. Martell
She’d been angry when Tom bought the case of candles. Each one of the slim white tapers seemed a nail in the coffin of their slowly dying marriage. At first she’d thought his penchant for storing emergency supplies was cute, but then, when money became scarce, it had seemed stupid and paranoid. Now she was glad that she had the candles. They kept the ghosts at bay.
All of the supplies were running low. It was only a matter of time before the little lights were gone and the ghosts would get her.
The wind was starting to pick up. Jane stood on her front porch and looked at the dark southern sky. A storm was coming. From the darkness and the flickering lightning, it was going to be a serious one. Perhaps it would cool things off. It had been unseasonably hot since the flash.
She glanced over her shoulder into the darkened house. The lace curtains in the kitchen were blowing in the wind coming through the screen. It blew in strong gusts every day but gradually died down as evening progressed, leaving the nights to swelter in the unusual heat.
She entered the house, bypassing the kitchen, taking one slow step at a time, glancing at the dark corners. She wearily trudged up the stairs to the master bedroom. There she looked out the window, down at the distant road.
She thought about lighting a candle. She’d always hated the dark and now that the ghosts were here, she hated it even more. It was winning. The blackness would eventually conquer everything. As far as she knew, she was the sole point of light left in the world. She looked at the candle box for a moment.
Returning her attention to the south, she sighed deeply and hoped no one would start up the long driveway toward her house. The area behind the barn wasn’t a place she wanted to visit again, but she knew she’d have to go back there eventually.
Tom had gone off to work as usual on the last normal day. He drove over to the Smith’s house to pick up George. The two men worked at an aircraft plant almost one hundred miles away. That was the best employment available near the lightly populated, rural area. The commute had seemed worthwhile, given their debts and reduced income.
Jane had watched Tom drive down the hill from their house. She had seen George climb in from where he’d been standing by his mailbox. The pickup had turned onto the main road trailing a cloud of dust and vanished. She’d gone about her daily chores, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, and then tending to the garden behind the house.
The garden was Jane’s primary interest. The vegetables were thriving, even though it was still early in the year. Now that the unseasonable weather had set in, it seemed like the corn shot up inches every day. It wouldn’t be long before the ears were ripening. She’d never seen as productive a growing season. Maybe it was the heat. The sun seemed brighter, somehow.
She’d been bent over, weeding the potatoes, when the flash happened. She wasn’t sure what had occurred, just that it suddenly grew brighter. She straightened and looked around, puzzled. It was almost like the sun had been shaded by some high clouds that had suddenly disappeared. She shrugged, then turned to the house. It was time for a break and she was thirsty.
The lights wouldn’t come on it the kitchen. Irritated, she checked the other rooms. It looked like the power was out. The stupid electric company couldn’t seem to keep the service going. It went off at irregular periods. She was used to that. It’d come on eventually.
Jane continued working on her chores until lunch time. She threw some greens to the chickens, checked on the two goats, and worked some more in the garden.
The power still wasn’t on when she went in for lunch, so she made herself a ham sandwich, closing the refrigerator door quickly to conserve the small amount of cold that was still in the machine. If the power didn’t come on soon, she’d start to lose food. That irritated her and so did the fact that the phone was out. She couldn’t even call to report an outage.
At two pm, as on every week day, she walked down the hill to check the mail. The box at the end of the mile-long drive was empty. Either the postman hadn’t come or there was no mail for them today. That made her happy. Most days the thought of the bills waiting in the mailbox was depressing. The absence of mail was pleasant, and the long journey back up the hill to the house seemed easier as a result.
Tom was due home by eight. She hated the dark house and the dark corners of the rooms, but it would be better when he returned, unless they started fighting again. The arguments were wearing her out. No, the arguments were erasing their love; that was what was happening. Their discord was slowly putting out the light in her life.
She’d lit a candle as dusk gradually morphed into night. She was beginning to worry, since he still hadn’t arrived.
She tried to dial his number, but the cell system was down, or her phone wasn’t working correctly. It was off, and she couldn’t get it to start. She thought about charging it, but the power was still off.
It was a long, hot night. The wind had died and the still air held more heat than was usual for this time of year. She tossed fitfully on top of the sheets in their second floor bedroom. Tom’s absence made her nervous. Their relationship had been deteriorating for months due to the financial stress when she’d lost her job, but she still relied on his presence. Something about his quiet competence made her feel secure.
He wasn’t back by morning. Jane was forced to consider the idea that he might have had an accident. She had some cereal for breakfast. Might as well use up the milk before it went bad. The refrigerator was now no more than a storage cabinet. She cleaned out the spoiling food, shaking her head at the waste.
Somewhere Tom had a solar-powered radio. That might help with her isolation. She dug around in the spare room upstairs. That was where he kept the bulk of their emergency supplies. Eventually, she found the radio. It was still in the original packaging and had been hidden from view behind some boxes of ammunition.
The sun was shining brightly and the radio powered up quickly, but there was nothing to receive. Turning up the volume only resulted in static. There weren’t any stations broadcasting. She couldn’t find anything from one end of the dial to the other. She went back inside, and sat at the kitchen table, her head in her hands.
She watched the wind blow the lace curtains, her mind blank. After a time, there was a faint noise. She could hear a shrill screaming blowing up the hill, carried on the wind. She laboriously climbed to her feet and looked out the window.
The sound was coming from the Smith’s house across the road. It shouldn’t have carried to her, but some trick of the wind seemed to waft it into her kitchen. Jane scrounged around for her binoculars. She used those for bird watching, but now they seemed perfect for spying on her neighbors.
She couldn’t clearly see what was going on. The Smith’s house was too far for that, but she could see that it was on fire. Smoke was blowing down the wind at an increasing rate. The fire seemed to be out of control.
She stiffened attentively as two figures came out of the house and trotted down the sidewalk. As they walked away, Mary Smith came out of the house, stumbling across the porch. One of the figures turned back and raised something in its hand.
Jane heard a shot. Mary Smith tumbled forward off the porch, rolling down the steps in a flurry of arms and legs, to land, unmoving, on the front walk. The two figures turned and continued on toward the road.
Jane watched for a moment, trying to hold the binoculars steady, although her hands were shaking. The next obvious target for the two marauders was her house. They were coming directly toward her drive. She was ready to panic, but then she found a degree of control in the thought that the two were on foot and it would take them several minutes to get to her door. She dropped the binoculars and dashed for the gun case.
That was another thing that she and Tom had fought over. He owned more firearms than she felt necessary or even prudent. Now she was glad that he’d forced her to learn to shoot the light hunting rifle. She could manage its smaller caliber and it had a good telescopic sight. She located the gun, fumbled for some cartridges, and loaded the magazine.
It took three attempts for her shaking hands to insert the magazine into the well on the bottom of the weapon, but it finally clicked in. She released the bolt lock. The mechanism slammed shut with a solid, metallic sound, carrying a cartridge into the chamber. The rifle was ready. Was she?
She hesitated, looking at the front door, then climbed the stairs and went into their bedroom. The window overlooked the long drive that ascended the hill. The two marauders – she could now see that they were men – were about half-way up. She watched, waiting for them to get closer.
There was a fence about a hundred yards from the house where the driveway gate hung open. The men approached the gate and Jane aimed through the telescopic sight, observing them. Both carried handguns, but she couldn’t make out the weapons’ details. One was also carrying a large bag filled with some items that must have belonged to the Smith family. They gestured toward her house and joked back and forth. She could hear their laughter faintly.
One lagged behind to check his pistol. He chambered a round as the two came through the gate. Jane shot him before he could take another step, then instantly aimed at the other man. He hadn’t heard the shot or noticed that his compatriot had fallen. The wind was gusting harder and had kept much of the sound confined inside the bedroom. She aimed at the center of his chest. Her mind was cold and elsewhere as she pulled the trigger. The rifle bucked against her shoulder and the man went down.
He wasn’t dead, though. He writhed around on the ground and fired several shots at the house. None came close to her window, although she heard the sound of breaking glass from downstairs. She aimed, took a deep breath, and fired again. The writhing man dropped the pistol, and stopped moving.
Jane carried the rifle with her as she went down the drive to check on the two. Tears were streaming down her cheeks and she could barely walk. Her face was pale with shock as she bent over the bodies. The bag, a pillowcase, contained some collectible items that she recognized as belonging to Mary Smith.
She took the two handguns and the pillowcase of stolen possessions into the house. Then she returned to the corpses, pushing her two-wheeled garden cart. It had an oversized flatbed. Its long handles and bicycle wheels provided extra leverage that allowed her to move both bodies to the back of the barn.
She couldn’t leave them on the drive. How would Tom get in, and what would he think?
At subconscious level, she feared that they would begin to stink and the wind would blow the odor into the house. She couldn’t stay there with that kind of smell.
It was a hard job, but eventually she dumped the second body and returned the cart to the garden. She was still in shock, but now she moved deliberately, calmly, as she went into the kitchen and fixed herself a glass of iced tea, without the ice, of course.
Jane sat at the kitchen table. The tea glass was empty. She had placed the men’s two handguns on the other end of the table after cursorily examining them. One – the revolver – held two fired cartridges. She had only heard the shot that had dropped Mary. The only other person in the Smith house had been Mary’s aged mother.
Jane did not want to go over there to check. Mary’s body still lay at the foot of the steps. Somehow Jane was sure that Mary’s mother lay dead somewhere in the depths of the smoldering house.
It was time to think. Something had happened. Something terrible. The power had gone off, then Tom hadn’t come home. Her phone and radio didn’t work. The Smith women were dead and she had two corpses rotting in the heat behind the barn. Everything was somehow related. It had begun when she was working in the garden.
Now she remembered. The sun had flashed. That seemed to be the start of things. She’d noticed the power was off right after that.
Tom had gone over various catastrophic events with her, arguing that they should be prepared for anything. She wondered if the flash had been a solar flare. They’d talked about that possibility. The power and electronics must be related to that. If that was the cause, it was no wonder that Tom wasn’t back. His car must have died and he’d now be on foot trying to walk almost ninety miles to get back home.
She calculated that if he managed to make twenty miles a day, he’d be back by Monday. She resolved to be ready when he returned. She’d show him that she now understood and appreciated his efforts to be prepared.
Jane had brought all of the rifle ammunition into the bedroom. She had set up a shooting position with a blanket to kneel on and a padded rest on the window sill. One of the dead men’s handguns, the revolver, was securely belted to her waist. Now she kept watch for more marauders.
If the problem had been a solar flare, then no one would be driving. Newer cars and trucks wouldn’t work, and people wouldn’t be able to pump gas without electricity. There were two smaller towns within a day’s walking distance. Those places held many people who would want the supplies that were in her house. She was prepared to defend herself and her possessions until Tom got back. He would know better what to do and he would take over. She’d show him that she understood and he’d be proud of her. Their fights would be a thing of the past.
Night fell uneventfully. No one else had shown up, either on the road or coming up her drive. The wind had started to diminish, but was still blowing harder than usual for night-time. The curtains billowed softly, adding to the spooky feeling that now permeated the house. Jane found herself continuously looking over her shoulders and peering fearfully into the dark corners of the rooms. There was an invisible presence that demanded her attention.
She moved from room to room, pausing uneasily at each door to stare into the dark, trying to see if there was someone or something there. The revolver in her hand did not provide any solace. Her sense of unease was too disturbing and yet too diffuse for her to locate the source.
She suddenly remembered the candles. A few minutes later, she had placed two lighted candles in each room, leaving only her bedroom dark. She had shut the windows and pulled the curtains so that the light wouldn’t shine down to the road. No one would be drawn by it. She’d sit in the dark bedroom, where she could watch the drive, unobserved from below.
Something about the candles seemed to keep the spooky presence at a distance, but she could still sense the unease. She first thought that it was the ghost of Mary Smith or her old mother. She slowly became convinced it was the two men she had shot without warning. She thought, no, she knew they wanted revenge for their deaths.
She tried to convince herself that they had deserved to die. They’d killed the women across the street, after all.
Somehow that rationale didn’t make her feel better. Their spirits were still present, hovering around in some dark, unknown space, demanding revenge. The candles were all that kept them from reaching her.
Morning found her asleep at the window. The candles had burned down. She had replaced them every couple of hours throughout the night, but now their remains were pools of wax, accompanied by a slight smoky odor in each room.
Jane awoke with a start. There was a small group of people walking up the drive toward the house.
They’d already passed the gate and now were only about fifty yards away. There were three men and two women. All held a weapon of some form. One man had an ax, another a long length of steel bar. The third, a long gun. Both of the women carried kitchen knives.
They gave off a combination of guilty furtiveness and brazen, unconcerned boldness, as if they knew they shouldn’t be planning on looting her house, but were determined to do it despite that knowledge and weren’t worried about being caught in the act.
The rifle spoke five times. After observing the scene to make sure no one else was coming, Jane went for the garden cart. Two hours later there were five more bodies beginning to bloat in the heat behind the barn.
That night the ghosts were back in force. All seven of the unknown looters were after her. The candles were the only defense. She lit them in every room, then cooked one of Tom’s packaged emergency meals on the portable camp stove. The angry spiritual presence seemed to circle around and around the outside of the house as she ate.
Later, she watched at the window, leaving only to check candles and replace those that had burned out. The wind continued to blow, but it hadn’t cooled off. The night was hot and she missed the air conditioning. They hadn’t been running it much since it was too expensive, but still it would be nice to have a break from the heat. Maybe Tom could figure out how to get it going again when he returned.
In the morning she drew some water from the old cistern and took a welcome bath. The water was almost the same temperature as the air, but it cooled as it evaporated from her skin, leaving her feeling somewhat refreshed.
Breakfast was more dehydrated food. The food buckets held a variety of meals, and Jane eagerly went through them, organizing them into piles so that she could eat for a week without any duplication.
She looked out the kitchen window. Things looked wrong out in the yard. Feathers were blowing across the grass. Something had gotten at the chickens during the night. Jane hadn’t heard it. The chicken run was behind the house, and the wind had blown the noise away. Either that or perhaps she had slept. She didn’t know.
The chickens were all dead. They’d been savaged. Feathers and blood were everywhere. Jane feared the ghosts had gotten them, until she noticed a large paw print outlined in blood on the back step. She hurried to the small barn to check the goats. The scene there was the same. Both Billy and Nan had their throats ripped out. Something had partially devoured both goats’ abdomens.
Jane backed away in horror, staring at the violent scene. It somehow bothered her more than the bodies of the people she’d shot. She reached behind her for the barn door, fumbling for it as she tried to step out, her gaze still fixed on the two goats. They’d been her special pets. Now they were bloody messes; nastily dead.
There was a growl from behind her. She whirled to face two huge dogs moving slowly toward her, jaws gaping, slaver dripping to the ground. She raised the revolver and fired. The ground between the dogs puffed with the shot, but the animals only flinched, then continued to advance.
Jane ducked back inside and started to shut the door. The dogs lunged forward with snarls, wedging themselves in the narrow opening. Jane shot again and again until the revolver clicked futilely.
One dog was dead. The other was struggling. It limped slowly away from the door, then dropped to its stomach and crawled a few feet farther before becoming still.
She looked at the sides of the barn, the corners of the house, and around the yard. Nothing. She started for the house.
About halfway to the door, she heard a rush and a chorus of growls over the wind’s noise. A whole pack of dogs was coming around the far corner of the barn, running full-out towards her. She screamed and ran.
The distance to the back door seemed infinite, but she somehow moved closer, her heart pounding in her chest. She didn’t look back. It would only slow her down.
A yank at the door knob and a spin followed by a slam, then the door shuddered as several heavy bodies impacted it. She was afraid the frame would break. The dogs snarled and clawed on the wood outside.
She pulled the portable island to the door, overturning it so the solid top was against the bottom
panel. That additional barrier made her feel more secure, until she remembered the front door. It was open, the entrance to the house barred only by the flimsy screen.
She sprinted through the rooms, nearly falling as the parlor rug slid across the polished wood under her feet. The front door! She slammed it, and turned the deadbolt.
There was a movement. A dog was looking through the sidelight window at her. Where was her rifle?
She flew up the stairs to the master bedroom. The wind had blown the door closed. The ghosts were conspiring to keep her out. She fumbled with the door knob as a window shattered downstairs. There was the scrabble of rapidly moving claws on the wood floor and the heavy thump of a body falling as its feet slid out from under it at the sharp corner to the stairs.
The knob yielded and she slammed the bedroom door before the animal cleared the top of the staircase. She lunged for the bed, hands reaching for her weapon. She cried out as her hands touched the polished wood of the stock.
With the comforting weight cradled in her arms, she considered what to do, ignoring the scratching and growling on the landing.
Jane climbed through the window onto the porch roof and attracted the dogs by yelling.
They clustered in a constantly moving pack below her, dancing in their eagerness. Even the one inside burst out again, as they howled and barked, clamoring for her flesh. The rifle spoke multiple times. The yard became silent.
By the time she’d wheeled the bodies to the back of the barn, it was growing dark again. She’d paused to eat and perhaps drifted away into what might have been a fugue state. She wasn’t sure where the hours had gone. Her emotions seemed flat, almost dead. She felt numb.
The ghosts were thick around the house in the dark, trying to come through the windows. The candlelight held them at bay. Now they moaned for vengeance and howled with a hunger for her body. She shuddered as she kept her vigil at the bedroom window.
Two more men tried the drive the next day. Their bodies went into the rotting pile of flesh that was making a nauseating stench behind the barn. Jane didn’t know if she’d be able to go back there again. It was lucky that the wind blew the smell away from the house. She thought of it as a dark cloud that made her retch.
It was evening when another marauder started up the driveway. He limped towards the house, moving slowly. She inspected the man through the telescopic sight. This one had disguised himself with a blood-stained rag wrapped around his head, covering part of his face. She sighed, willing him to turn back.
He paused. She hoped he’d change his mind and leave.
The ghosts, now bolder, whirled around him and drove him onward. Jane choked back a sob. She was tired of killing. Maybe it would be better just to submit. If she were dead, she could join the ghosts, and not have to worry about fighting them. If she were a ghost, she could fly around the outside of the house in the dark and not worry about anything but the candles.
Those would be gone soon anyhow. She’d been burning so many every night that the case was nearly empty. When their little lights were gone, the ghosts would surely enter the house and get her. The thought of being absorbed into their black cloud of stench terrified her.
Down on the drive, the figure came on steadily closer. Jane steeled her will. If only Tom were home, he’d know what to do about the ghosts and everything else. His calm presence would make her feel secure. Gone were her doubts in him. The carefully stored supplies that once seemed crazy were now the work of a sane and prudent man. She wanted him back.
The figure below came on, one limping step after another. The Marauder was carrying a large corn knife, a type of machete. She could see blood on the square end of the weapon. Had it been used to kill some other hapless woman? The man kept coming.
In due course, the rifle kicked against her shoulder and the body dropped by the gate. She descended to get the now blood-stained garden cart. The ghosts were becoming bolder in the gathering dusk. They were howling on the wind, the hot wind.
She dragged the body onto the cart and started for the back of the barn, only to pause. The rag about the man’s head had caught in one of the wheels and had wound around the axle. She tugged at it and it slipped off his head.
It was Tom.
She might have screamed in horror, or perhaps she mutely smiled in despairing acceptance of the death of her hope. She didn’t know. Her mind had snapped to a featureless white, then had gone completely blank.
When she came back into herself a little, she looked at him. He had been cut across the forehead; a jagged slash that extended down across and deep into his right eye, blinding him on that side. The purpose of the rag hadn’t been to disguise, but to bandage. She saw that, and also noted that her shot, as usual had been dead center in his chest.
She didn’t remember moving his body. When she eventually found herself in the kitchen, she thought to look out the window. His body was gone and the garden cart was standing on the front walk, fresh blood dripping to the flagstones below.
She was getting sloppy. She’d have to move it, but maybe tomorrow. Right now she had a more pressing problem. The ghosts were back, louder than ever, whirling around the house in the dusk.
She lit a candle, carrying it with her through the dim rooms.
She was running out of candles to fight the dark. The ghosts were more powerful than ever. She could hear Tom’s voice mixed in with their continual plaints. They wouldn’t wait. They demanded retribution. She wandered aimlessly from room to room, unaware that the hot wax from the candle sometimes dripped on her hand.
She found the way back into her mind when the candle burned out. She was sitting in the master bedroom by the window. She picked some wax off the back of her hand, calmly touching the little blisters it had raised.
Jane did not know how long she sat in the darkening house. The ghosts were spinning through the wind outside, triumphant cries in their silent voices. The rest of the house was dark. Her bedroom was lighted by the next to the last candle. Now, it had almost burned out.
With shaking hands, she took the final candle and held its wick to the barely flickering flame. It caught, flared, then steadied, bringing a comforting light to the room. The ghosts gave cries of disappointment and moved away from the opened window.
They had forever; they could afford to wait. Their dark was winning. She’d been so sure that she was of the light, a creature of life and hope. The ghosts argued otherwise. Perhaps they were correct.
Jane carefully stuck the base of the last candle in the candle holder, then sat quite still, her hands in her lap. She had to make a decision. She’d make it by the time the candle was gone.
A single rifle cartridge sat on the window sill in front of her. She could keep on fighting or she could give up. The ghosts were waiting for her just outside. She could hear Tom’s voice somewhere out there, calling her name. It sounded as though he was slowly coming closer in the dark.
The ghosts cried expectantly outside, not loudly, but never quite still. She took a shallow breath and looked at the candle, then a deeper breath, and looked at the rifle cartridge.
She was just one candle from dark.
If you liked this story, you can find more Askew tales inside Anthology Askew: The Collective Perspective.