At 3 am in the morning, there is a knock on Benny’s door. It interrupts a dream of silk mountains, and he sliding down them on a plastic food tray. He’s snacking on a cucumber.
He wakes up. “I hate cucumber!”
He peers through the eye-hole, and opens the door. On the ground is a candle in a glass cup. A little flame is burning.
Up and down the hallway, there is no one. There is no sound of the person who had been here a moment ago.
He picks up the candle and goes to the kitchen table. The apartment is dreary, but the candle helps. His shadow bobs in the flame. He studies the fire. It might be small, but it’s resilient: a small puff of breath hardly disturbs it. When he puts his hand near to it, the heat is palpable, if minor.
“I was having a good dream,” he tells the flame. In the fridge, he finds a jar of pickles. It’s at least a year old, and perhaps one or two are missing. He doesn’t remember eating them. At the table, he snacks on the briny things, one by one, reasoning that this is the closest he is going to get to cucumbers just now. The little flame, as though understanding his thoughts, bobs in agreement.
“It doesn’t turn off!”
Fifty four years of being fat and unattractive has not in the least caused Abigail Reed to dress in anything less than her best. She’s in a blazer, and grey slacks. Her hair is immaculate.
“It’s a candle, Benny. Candles don’t turn on and off. They are lit and then blown out.”
“Try it,” he tells her, his hands on the desk.
The little candle is unimpressive. It’s like a stump of something larger, and the flame is pitifully small. She blows, and the flame bends for a moment. Stronger still, she puffs. But the flame stays lit. “Trick candle,” she says. “Someone giving you the gas.”
Benny nods. He’s in jeans, a ruffled shirt. People can see him through the glass walls of the office, and Abigail – she of the movie star name and the trailer park physique – wonders what they think of this encounter. Then Benny puts a jar of water on the desk. “Watch,” he says, and promptly puts the candle into the jar.
There’s a tiny hiss. The candle drops to the bottom of the jar. Abigail brings her face to the desk to get a better look. There, under water, the flame continues to burn.
Benny should have asked her long ago, of course. He’s been with two women in five years, and neither had been particularly interested in reaching out to him afterwards. Now, Abigail’s in his bed, warm and breathless. She whispers to him that he’s an amazing lover, and much as he knows she’s lying, he takes the compliment. Then he brings her an apple juice, and sits cross-legged in the king-size bed.
The room is illuminated the by the light of a single candle.
“It’s watching us,” he says. “I think it’s alive.”
Abigail comes closer to him. “Thanks for the apple juice.”
“I hate apple juice,” he murmurs, unsure of why he has any in his apartment. “Last week, I did some research. Do you know that ever-burning lights have appeared through history, back to the Egyptian times? They used them in crypts, to keep the light burning for those who had died.”
“Are we going to die?”
“Others hung them at the gates of their cities, to show how strong they were. Others still, to ward away demons.”
“Am I a demon?”
He looks at her. “No, you’re my boss. Don’t you find this candle strange? It’s been weeks, and I’ve not yet found a way to blow it out. Plus, the wax never melts.”
She glance at the candle, but then her attention turns to him again. He knows she’s pretty. He’s sure of it. Now and then, through the glass walls of her office, he looks at her and sees a type of beauty that is impossible to miss. But it’s not always there. Here, now, in the light from the candle, she’s beautiful.
And because she is, he tells her so.
“Someone knocked on my door last night, then ran away,” says Benny, over the phone. “I could swear someone’s watching me.”
Abigail is at the farm, in her tall boots. They’re thick with mud. She’s wearing a scarf, as the horses bicker amongst each other on the other side of the fence. “You’ve had that light for three months. Nothing bad has happened.”
“It’s not natural. Nothing about this is natural…”
“Do you want to have dinner tonight?”
“Then just concentrate on that. Nothing else.”
“Abby,” he says, and she’s reminded of what he looks like, especially in the light from that little flame. In that light, he looks like a dream that she’s had before, when she was young. When she wasn’t fifty four. “Abby, there’s someone at the door.”
“Who? Wait, don’t open it.”
“No one knocks on my door. I’m going to go look.”
“Okay. Just stay on the line.” She holds a board of the fence.
She can hear walking. Benny’s breathing. He’s whispering to her, but she can’t make out what he’s saying. “Stay calm,” she says. “Don’t open the door if you don’t want to!”
“Abby,” he says again, “they didn’t run away this time.”
“Don’t open the door.”
She hears a click of a lock being turned. The sound of a door latch sliding open.
The phone stops working after that.
“He had plenty of gas,” says the officer, pointing to the car on the shoulder. “We don’t know why he stopped here, but he got out and went into the forest.”
“Up there?” asks Abigail. The forest slopes towards a mountain.
“It looks like it. Any idea why he would do this? Did he have any mental health issues?”
She doesn’t know how to answer that. Instead, she thanks him for his help, and promises to call if she hears from Benny.
When the police leave, she’s alone on the stretch of road. The trees tower over her.
In town, she finds an outdoor shop. The clothes are not to her liking, but they’re new, and when she puts on a fedora, it looks fine. She buys granola bars and water bottles, a backpack and a tent. A lady in the shop explains how to put it all together.
The next morning, she’s standing next to Benny’s car. They haven’t towed it yet. She looks at the forest for a moment. Then she walks into it.
There’s nothing ominous about the place. The trees are healthy. The bush isn’t thick. There are animals, but they don’t come near her. To her mind, there’s a trail through the place, and she follows it. Occasionally, she comes across a footprint.
The land angles towards the sky. Ahead of her, there’s a mountain. Around it, clouds have gathered.
She hikes all day. It’s not a type of activity that she’s used to, but she has plenty of water and bars. When night comes, she finds a spot in a glade, and sets up the tent. Inside, she lies in her sleeping bag and listens to the forest.
She changes her clothes in the morning. For years, it’s been Abigail’s policy to never wear the same clothes twice. She rips down the tent and continues her hike.
When she reaches the ledge of the mountain, the caves start. The officer had told her to expect them, and that they reach very far. She stares at the openings, each dark and cool. Upwards she walks, bypassing the first caves. The slope increases, and her legs burn. When she looks back down, the forest opens beneath her. In the distance, there’s the line of the road.
Just past noon, the trail stops at a cave mouth, the biggest yet. There are scuff marks in the hard-packed dirt at the opening. She takes a drink of water. Eats another bar. Then she walks in.
The light vanishes immediately, but the flashlight deals with that. The cool air surrounds her, and makes her glad that she brought a jacket. The cave cuts back and forth through the rock, ascending and descending in equal parts. Soon, sunlight is a rumour. Warm air is a myth. When her watch tells her that she’s been walking for three hours, she puts her backpack against a boulder, and loads a smaller bag with food and water.
She’s tempted to call out; her footsteps are loud enough, though. Soon, she has to pick her way down a steep course of rubble. Her watch tells her that it’s nighttime, but she keeps going. A grotto opens before her, too wide for the beam of her flashlight to illuminate it. On the other side, a new tunnel starts.
By dawn, her flashlight dies. She’s been going downwards again, always downwards. In the darkness, she takes a breath. A wash of cool air gives her a start. The groaning of rock tries to tell her something.
She takes out the little candle Benny left in his apartment. Its light is pitiful, but it’s enough. The cave opens under its light in a way that the flashlight couldn’t manage. There are indentations in the rock, long histories that come alive. She is sure that there are scrawls on the surfaces, the remnants of people who have come here before, and passed away long ago. These are drawings and words, mournings and remembrances. She couldn’t see them before. Didn’t imagine that such things could exist. They lead her on, gathering colour from the small flame, arcs of electricity wavering on the end of flashing rainbows, or sparks that glimmer with a single, tiny breath before they, too, simply go away.