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John Saul. Perfect Nightmare

For Terry and Judine —

Our parallel lives seem constantly to be intersecting.

May it always be that way!

Prologue

I prowled through their house for a long time last night before I finally did what I knew I had to do.

I loved the house the first time I saw it — loved it almost as much as I loved the girl who lived there. And last night it was as perfect as it has ever been.

It was the candlelight, I think.

I remember the house being candlelit the first time I saw it — indeed, I think perhaps it was the candlelight itself that drew me to it.

Like a moth being drawn to a flame?

It’s a cliche, I know, but didn’t someone once say that a cliche is only a cliche because it’s true?

And the candlelight did mesmerize me, almost as much as the girl’s face.

Her face, and her body.

The first time I remember being in the house, the candles were lit. The family was having some kind of a party.

A birthday?

I don’t know.

Now I shall never know.

It doesn’t matter that I shall never know, of course, just as it never mattered that I didn’t know her age.

All I know is that she was perfect, that I knew I loved her from the moment I saw the candlelight flickering on her face, making her flesh glow as if with an inner light.

A light I have never known.

Could that be why the candles fascinated me? Because of their strange, flickering light that warms as much as it illuminates?

I don’t know.

Nor do I care, if I am going to be absolutely honest about it. All I know is that the first time I saw the house it was glowing with candlelight, and her beautiful young face radiated even more heat than the candles, and I was drawn to that heat.

After that first night, I came back to the house as often as I could, slipping into it at night and lighting the candles — just enough for me to make my way around. And the first time I slipped into her room, feeling my way through the darkness of the corridor, moving so silently I could hear my own heart beating — but nothing else — I knew.

I knew she was mine.

She, you see, loved candles as much as I do.

Her room was filled with them. She had them on her dresser and on the table by her chair, and on her desk and on the nightstand by her bed.

Most of them were out, of course, but there was one still burning.

I remember it even now, remember how I stood at her door, which I had opened just far enough to peep inside, and found myself gazing at a flame.

A flame that drew me toward her even from that very first moment.

I slipped into the room, closing the door so silently there wasn’t even the softest click to betray my presence. Inside the room — her room — an odd sensation came over me. It was as if I was floating, drifting over the thick rug on the floor, my feet not even touching it.

When I was close by her bed, I looked down and beheld her perfect beauty in the light of that single candle, and knew that we belonged together.

I didn’t touch her that night. No, I was content merely to hover above her, gazing down on her youth and innocence.

It was a long time before I finally touched her. I don’t know how long.

And she didn’t mind.

I know she didn’t, for she lay still and let my fingers trace her soft contours, let my lips brush hers.

So perfect… so very perfect.

I thought it would stay that way forever, that we would share our perfect love, but then one night she pushed me away.

Just like the other one had.

And I knew what I had to do.

I even knew it had to be last night.

Last night, after all, was Christmas Eve.

I’d seen the house once before on Christmas Eve, as I lurked hidden in the shadows, watching the candles being lit one by one, each of them pushing the cold and darkness a little farther away, until the entire house was suffused with a flickering golden light.

Even the Christmas tree, standing in front of the great picture window that overlooked the lake, was aflame with candles, each set in its own holder, clipped to the very ends of the branches so no wick had a twig above it.

It was a beautiful sight, that tree, and last night I lit it once more.

They had all gone to bed by then, of course, and I was alone downstairs.

I only lit that one room, but I lit every candle in it. The ones in the sconces on the walls, and the ones in the uplifted hands of the pair of brass figures — they look oddly Russian, though I don’t know why — that stand on the mahogany game table. I even lit the six tapers in the three pairs of sterling silver candlesticks atop the glass- fronted bookcase that fills the wall opposite the picture window.

Then I lit the tree.

For a long time — I don’t know how long — I gazed at the tree, knowing it would be the last time I saw it.

Knowing it would be the last time I saw this house.

Then I carefully extinguished every candle I had lit and went upstairs.

As always, she had a single candle lit by her bed, and I gazed at it for a long time, too.

It, and the perfect face it was illuminating.

Her hair was spread around her face like a halo, glowing in the soft light of the candle’s flame, and as I beheld her innocence, I wanted to touch it one last time.

Touch her one last time.

I didn’t touch her, though. No, not last night.

Last night I did what I knew I had to do, and as the candle by her bed burned low, I lit the dozen others that she had in her room.

With each match I struck, with each wick I lit, the room grew brighter, washing away the shadows that concealed me.

It didn’t matter, though, for after tonight I would never come back here.

Never see this perfect place — this perfect child — this perfect family — again.

When all the candles were blazing, I turned to look one last time on the girl.

She was smiling, content in her sleep.

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