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Between 'Outerscope' and the Sleestaks

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Summary: You have to admit, some of those special effects were so scary-looking that you can understand why adults describe a great fondness for the shows of their childhood mixed with an overwhelming feeling of terror. In between discussions of the creepy puppets from "Outerscope" and the Sleestaks, "Candle Cove" comes up again and again.
Warnings: Suggestions of violence, suggestion of harm toward a child, evil puppets.

 

My name is Jared McNeal. I'm a newspaper reporter for the Dallas Observer. Mostly, my beat covers entertainment, although I also cover serious news at times. But in this business, you're often asked to do what you're discovered to be good at, and I've always had a flair for making even the most mundane forms of entertainment sound interesting. At least that's what people tell me.

Somewhere along the way, I was pigeonholed as being the horror and science fiction guy. I reviewed local haunted houses, wrote about horror and sci-fi conventions, and covered spooky urban legends about ghosts and goblins that were unique to Dallas, Texas, the area where I grew up. Eventually, that became the thing that people associated with me.

It was the Lady of the Lake story that really did it. I still hear about that one, even five years later. I've never been sure why it made such an impression on our readers. You've heard this story before. A girl drowns, and her ghost spends the next century trying to hitch a ride home. Only she disappears from the car as soon as you get her to the address she gave you, and a woman inside the home cries when you mention her name. "My daughter drowned," she says. "It was a year ago tonight."

People tell that story here too. I don't know why, but it's always associated with White Rock Lake. Never Northlake. Never Joe Poole Lake. Always White Rock. That's the first thing I find unusual. The second thing is that it's rumored the Lady of the Lake is always seen wearing a Neiman Marcus dress.

Yeah, what?

And do you know who started that rumor?

It's certainly the most unusual retail ad campaign I've ever heard of. She died wearing a Neiman Marcus dress! And now her tortured spectre wanders the shores of White Rock Lake, the picture of fashion. Don't you just want to run out and buy some Neiman Marcus clothes right now?

Anyway...

That's how I stumbled upon the story that touched my life so personally that I feared for my safety, and the safety of my family. Because I'm "the horror guy."

It was that damn show.

There were urban legends. Some awful children's television show called "Candle Cove." I had never seen it; it was before my time. The way people described it on Internet message boards, it sounded like one of those bad 1970's shows with lousy special effects that kids couldn't help love anyway because they didn't know any better. Okay, I acknowledge that some of them had good stories despite the horrible foam puppets and the Chroma key screens, but you have to admit, some of it was so scary-looking that you can understand why adults describe a great fondness for the shows of their childhood mixed with an overwhelming feeling of terror. In between discussions of the creepy puppets from "Outerscope" and the Sleestaks, "Candle Cove" comes up again and again.

The memories people had sounded so fucked up that I could hardly believe this show ever existed. Apparently, it was about a little girl that talked to pirates who floated around in their ship and seemed to spend a lot of time beached at a cave that was part of Candle Cove. Doesn't sound so bad so far. I could accept Pirate Percy, with his porcelain baby head. Whatever, puppets were cheap and gaudy back then. I could accept Horace Horrible, who was just a set of teeth and a moustache, and maybe a monocle above all that. Sounds like something you may see on a kid's show. What I couldn't believe was The Skin-taker. No fucking way would anyone ever put a character on a children's program that had a name like that. That wasn't even the end of it. Apparently, The Skin-taker had a cape that looked like it had been pieced together... out of skin.

Yeah, I had to get to the bottom of this.

Before I pitched the idea to my boss, I did a little research. I looked for videos on Youtube. I scoured the usual websites that chronicled television from its beginnings until now. Nothing. There was nothing about a show called "Candle Cove." It was like it had never existed. I was beginning to think people had misremembered it, that they were thinking of another show they hadn't seen in 30 years and had embellished those memories with their own nightmares. Maybe this wasn't a story worth writing for our Halloween edition. After all, what would I write? Was there enough of an urban legend here to fill two pages?

Then I made the mistake of mentioning it at the dinner table. It was really more conversation for my wife, but our oldest son Evan was listening a little more closely than I thought. Now that I think about it, maybe it was better that I did talk about it in front of Evan. I might not have ever known... and after what happened... that horrible tragedy that made the cover of the paper for which I wrote might've been all about our family instead of someone else's.

My wife didn't remember "Candle Cove" either. She was saying how she thought it could be a worthwhile story if I put a particular spin on it when Evan, all of six years old, looked up from his burger and fries and said, "I know that show, Daddy."

It startled me. How could he know a TV show which was supposed to have existed in the early 1970's? Was it being rerun on some cable channel? "What do you mean, buddy?" I asked. "You've seen 'Candle Cove'?"

Evan nodded. "Yeah. It comes on every day 'cept weekends." He labored to pick up his hamburger without spilling anything out of it, but ketchup still dripped off the side of the patty and a pickle slice hung halfway out from under the bun.

"Really? Can you tell me about it?"

Evan described the show to me, and it sounded just like all the adults on those message boards had described. I hadn't mentioned any of this in front of him. I could draw no other conclusion but "Candle Cove" really did exist. With trepidation, I asked, "What about the skeleton in the cape? Is there a character like that on the show?"

He had a splotch of ketchup on the corner of his mouth. I remember that clearly, because the look on his face changed to such fear that the image of my child terrified out of his mind seared itself into my brain. "I don't want to talk about him," Evan said. He curled in on himself, his elbows plastered to his sides and his hands clutching the hamburger so hard that his fingers made indentations in the soft bun. "He does bad things."

"But, what's his name? Can you just tell me that, Evan?"

His eyes wide, my child said, "The Skin-taker," and almost began to cry.

My wife Melanie stepped in then. "I don't think you should watch that show anymore, Evan. It seems to scare you pretty bad."

"But Moooommyyyy, I gotta watch it," he whined. "Not everything on it scares me. Just him."

"Still, it doesn't sound like something children should be watching. The Skin-taker." She scoffed. "What the heck are people thinking, putting stuff like that in a kid's show?"

"We should tape it, though," I said to her under my breath, quietly. "Remind me to set the DVR." I wanted to know if this was the same show from the 70's, or a new show. Production companies remade TV shows sometimes.

"I wanna see what happens to Pirate Percy," Evan said. He was making a big mess of his plate as usual, but still managed to get some of it in his mouth. "They left him on a cliff today."

"We'll talk about it after dinner," Melanie declared. She looked at me. "We could fast-forward past the parts with this Skin-crawler person."

"Skin-taker," Evan corrected, that frightened whine still in his voice.

I tapped his plate so he'd concentrate on eating more of his dinner. "What time does it come on, buddy?"

"Umm, I think four."

"What channel?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. I just press the Up button 'til I get there."

I had to chuckle. Everything he said these days just sounded so adorable.

After dinner, I searched the TV Guide. No "Candle Cove." I asked Evan when I tucked him in for bed if he was sure he didn't remember the channel it came on. He shrugged. I understood; he was only six. Kids that age couldn't always keep track of stuff like that.

The next day, I left work early so I could be home at four. Mel got out of work earlier than I did, so she picked the kids up from daycare and was already there when I stepped in from the garage. "What are you doing home?" she asked as she puckered up for my welcome home kiss.

We kissed, and I explained. It sounded ridiculous. "We couldn't find that show in the TV Guide last night, so I'm going to watch it with Evan today. You know, to research my story."

She quirked an eyebrow at me. "You and your pirate fetish."

"Arrrr, me saucy wench." I limped like I had a peg leg and threw my arms around her. Melanie giggled at me. "I'll be takin' ye back to me ship and ravagin' ye now."

"Oh? It's almost four," she said, checking her watch.

"Darn," I replied, still using the deep, scratchy pirate voice. "I'll ravage me saucy wench tonight, then, arrrr."

“You promise?”

I could still hear her giggling from the kitchen all the way down the hall. Evan was in the family room in front of the large HD TV, lying on his stomach with his elbows bent and his chin resting in his hands, little legs bobbing back and forth while he waited for his television show to come on.

"Whatcha doin', buddy?" The TV must've been on a channel that didn't work, because the screen was black with a NO SIGNAL message in the middle. I sat cross-legged on the floor next to him.

"Watchin' my show," he said. Evan kept staring at that screen like there was something on it.

I waited a little bit before I said anything, then I checked my watch. It was 4:01. "You're gonna miss it," I told him.

He shushed me. "I can't hear, Daddy."

I looked at him. He stared at the TV. Finally, I said, "Evan, there's nothing on the screen."

"Uh huh," he said, nodding at me. "Can't you see it?"

I shook my head. "There's nothing there."

"Yes there is."

"Can you describe it to me?"

Evan told me about Pirate Percy and how he was talking to Janice, a little girl with blonde hair, about how scared he was to go into a cave he'd never seen before. Janice was trying to coax him into it. His talking boat told him he had to go in there. Then Evan's eyes widened in fear and he slapped his hands over them.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

"The Skin-taker," he whispered, as if the Skin-taker might hear him.

"What's he saying?"

Evan imitated a screechy, menacing voice. "'It's shameful, how much of a wimp you are. You're supposed to be a pirate, for pete's sake! Pirates explore caves! Get in there, you lily-livered land lover! Why, I'd take your skin to grind between my teeth if I thought it would taste any good.'" Taking in a breath that sounded almost like a hiccup, Evan finished in a wavery voice, "'Only the skin of children tastes good enough to eat!'"

I was horrified and fascinated at the same time. He was too young to make up such a terrible thing, and as much as I wanted to believe it was made up, there were all of those people on the Internet who remembered the same show. What the hell was going on here?

Evan continued in a softer, higher-pitched voice, imitating other characters. "'But what if there are BATS in there? They might bite me on the neck and suck my blood!' 'Don't be afraid, Percy. If there are any bats in there, you can just beat them to death with your cane.'" He adopted the screechy voice again, practically roaring, "'He's too SCARED to go in there! Scaredy, scaredy, scaredy cat, scaredy, scaredy, scaredy cat.'" And then he laughed crazily.

I touched his arm and he jumped. "That's enough, Evan. I get the picture." I began recording whatever was there with the DVR, hoping to get something I could watch later, but knowing it was unlikely. Theories began running through my head. An underground, pirate TV show? Pirate referring to the source, not the subject. But then, why couldn't I see it too? This was perplexing.

Melanie popped her head in. "You guys keep it down in here. I just put Dylan down for his nap." Dylan is our four-month-old baby. She stared at the TV for a second. "Jared, what's with the...?"

I put a finger to my lips. "I'll explain later."

Later, we had a chance to talk. She rolled her eyes at the whole story. "Our kid has you snowed."

"What do you mean?"

"He heard all this stuff somewhere and is just parroting it all back to you. There's no TV show. Evan's just pretending."

It didn't seem likely. The alternative, however... "I guess you could be right. But it's worth looking into for the Observer, don't you think?"

"I suppose, if you can get George to go for it."

That night, I kissed both my sons goodnight, having no idea just how much weirder this was going to get over the next month.

My boss agreed it was a story worth looking into. In that week's edition, we put an ad in the back asking people to send in their memories of the old "Candle Cove" and anything people knew about the new "Candle Cove." People were welcome to send in emails and videos or call in to our feedback line.

The first call I received was quite a surprise. It was from my old second grade teacher at Dartmouth Elementary School in Richardson, a suburb of Dallas, Mrs. Piersond. We reminisced for a while and she commended me for becoming a professional newsman. "I knew you'd get into writing somehow," she said. "You were always making up stories." Anyway, Mrs. Piersond has been teaching for a whopping 30 years, and she remembered children in her previous classes talking about "the little pirate show" as well.

I did the math. If "Candle Cove" was first broadcast in the early 1970's, how could her students have been watching it? Her first year of teaching was 1980. Were the kids watching video tapes? No, she doubted it. The kids talked about it coming on every weekday afternoon at four o' clock. Was she sure they were talking about "Candle Cove"? After hearing her describe the show and name the characters, I concluded the kids were definitely talking about the same program.

"What year was this, Mrs. Piersond?" I asked.

Her reply shocked me. "I would say it was... 1991."

So, what did we know so far? This bizarre kids' show had not only been broadcast sometime between 1970 and 1972, but also 2012 that I knew of for sure... and now here was a story of a broadcast from 1991 too!

An odd thought skirted my mind. It runs on a twenty-year cycle. It sure seemed that way. But TV shows didn't do that, did they?

Mrs. Piersond arranged for me to speak to a few of the kids. My plan was to keep their last names out of the article so I didn't have to get their parents' permission. There must be a hundred Tylers at that school, right? I was glad she remembered me so fondly, because she also got one of her teacher friends to bring a few older kids in for the interview session.

It was very enlightening.

The kids all described the same show my son had, and Mrs. Piersond had, and everyone on the message boards had. That wasn't the aspect that struck me as the strangest thing, though.

One little girl sat with two of her friends and listened to them chatter on about the show. She looked sad, and began to stare at her feet, which were bobbling back and forth a little nervously. I found out later she was ten years old.

I tried to get her involved in the conversation. "Which character is your favorite?"

She looked at me with her hangdog eyes and sighed. "I don't know," she said. "I can't see it."

For several seconds, I could not speak. "You can't... you can't see the show?"

The girl shook her head.

This threw all my theories into a confused tailspin. I thought there was some sort of gulf between adults and children concerning the viewing of "Candle Cove," but here was a ten-year-old child who couldn't see it either. "All my friends get to watch it, and I want to see it too," she lamented. "I feel so left out. All I see is a blank screen. Why can't I watch it too?"

I didn't have an answer for her. Not then.

Mrs. Piersond also arranged for me to talk to her teenage grandson and some of his friends. They went to Berkner High School, which is cattycorner to Dartmouth, so I headed over there after my interviews with the elementary school kids. These kids didn't surprise me much with what they said; in fact, they fit my theories perfectly. One teen had tried to watch the show with his eight-year-old brother, and couldn't see it. Another girl talked about how bizarre it was that her babysitting charges could watch the show, but all she saw was a blank screen. One of the kids was seven and the other was eleven. She showed me a picture of them she'd taken with her phone.

It struck me then, looking at the eleven-year-old girl this teenager babysat. Please don't think I'm a big ol' disgusting pervert who should be on "To Catch a Predator" for what I'm about to say, because it's just an observation anyone could make.

The eleven-year-old hadn't gotten her boobs yet. The ten-year-old I had interviewed at Dartmouth had developed early.

The cutoff is puberty. Even as the thought entered my mind, I knew it was insane. How could any TV show instill itself with such power, that anyone who had begun puberty wouldn't have the ability to see it? It was impossible. What would even be the purpose of being visible only to children?

The whole thing was taking on a sinister turn I did not like. Think of the awful, horrible things a show like that could say to your kids, and you can’t do a damn thing about it.

But wait, it gets worse.

A few days after we printed the ad, a rather nervous man named Mike Stark contacted me. He was almost fifty and had watched the show in 1971, when he was eight. I met him in a Starbucks restaurant. He chainsmoked the whole time and his hands shook; I had to keep sliding the ashtray under his cigarettes to keep the smoldering ashes from falling on the table. He was just that focused on the conversation. And he spoke with his hands.

"I've never forgotten the show," Mike said, a shrug moving from his shoulders down to his hands. "Everybody remembers something about the stuff they watched as a kid, right? But I still have nightmares about 'Candle Cove.' Vivid ones."

"What are they about?"

"Oh, you know... the usual stuff. The characters keep coming after me, demanding to know why I never did that thing for them that I was supposed to do. I'm my little eight-year-old self in these dreams, and they've got me chained to a rock, so it's not like I can run away, you know?" Mike laughed a little too high and took a deep swig off his heavily-caffeinated coffee.

"What is it that they want you to do?" I asked.

He shrugged again. "I have no idea. That's what's so frustrating about the dreams. All the puppets keep getting in my face, you know, right here..." Mike put his hand about six inches in front of his face. "...and moving around and shaking and screaming, and yelling at me for not finishing what I started. But I certainly have no idea what they're talking about."

Somehow, I got the feeling that he did know, but he just didn't want to say it out loud.

"It's been 40 years since I've seen that show, but I can still remember the details so vividly that the characters look just like they did on 'Candle Cove' when I dream about them. There was a little girl on the show named Janice. I can still see her face." Mike held his hand out in front of him, cupped in the shape of a little child's face. "She had blonde hair and a pug nose, with grey eyes... I guess they're actually blue or green, but they always look grey to me in my dreams. Janice also has this scar here." He pointed to the corner of his right eye. "It looks kind of like an X. In these nightmares I have, she always tells me to go along with whatever the others want. 'It would be better if you did,' she says. 'You have no idea what power they have.' Isn't that fucked up? Why would I dream stuff like that about some old kids' show?" Mike shrugged yet again, but he wasn't fooling anyone.

"Mike, I think you know what these dreams mean," I said. I kept my eyes on the table, trying not to be too confrontational. "Won't you tell me what you know? I think you'll feel better."

He just looked at me in disbelief for a moment, then took a long drag off his latest cigarette. "You'll just think I'm crazy," he said quietly.

"I've discovered enough about 'Candle Cove' to know it isn't a normal TV show," I assured.

That seemed to help. Mike said, "I think the show really does have power."

"What kind of power?"

"I don't know. Maybe... mind control?"

"Why do you think that? Because of the nightmares you keep having?"

Mike nodded. "And because... of what Horace did."

"Horace Horrible?"

"Yeah. You know how he looks. He's just a moustache with big, long teeth and a monocle where his eye should be. There was this one episode where they zoomed in real close on his... face, I guess you could call it... and suddenly, he had a hand too. It was a human hand that came from out of frame. Horace started talking and snatching at the camera. Each time he did it, the camera would zoom in closer on his face, and he'd make a scary noise." Imitating Horace's voice, Mike said, "'RrrAH! Got your nose!'" He snatched at the air, grabbing at what would have been the camera's eye view. What the children would have seen on their TV screens. Snatching at them. "'RrrAH! Got your mouth!" He snatched at the children again. "'Now you can't tell on me!'" Mike snatched with his hand a third time. "'RrrAH! Got your soul! You're marked! Marked for life! Come back tomorrow and maybe I'll give it back.'" I saw him shudder at those words, adding in Horace's voice, "'Maaaaaaybeeeeee...'"

"Did he really say those things?" I asked incredulously.

Nodding again, Mike added, "When he did that, I got this terrible pain... right here." He pointed to the center of his chest. Then he let out a nervous laugh. "My mother gave me Pepto."

"What do you think happened, Mike?"

His hands shook worse than ever. I had to help him light another cigarette. "If I was crazy, I'd say that the evil little bastard stole my soul." He chewed at his bottom lip. "But I'm not crazy. Right? This is all just a really creepy TV show that did its job and scared the beejeebus out of me. Right?"

I had to agree with him. To suggest otherwise...

That night, I did a tremendous amount of research. First, I scoured all the classic TV and kids' show message boards for any talk of "Candle Cove." I was not surprised to find a few people in their upper sixties who remembered an old black and white show called "Candle Cove" that was about pirates, a little blonde girl named Janice, and a skeleton. It was broadcast around 1951 or '52.

A twenty-year cycle.

One of the message board posters talked about Janice, and how curious he was about her scar. "I always wondered how she got that scar by her eye."

I had to stop reading there. The implications were too insane to even be considered.

I also had a cop friend of mine check Mike's criminal record. Yeah, I know. But I needed more insight into this guy's mental state. Turns out Mike had three DUI's and several drunk and disorderlies in his past. So those red-rimmed eyes meant more than a few nights of lost sleep. The problems with alcohol were exacerbating his fears over "Candle Cove."

There was something else, though. While searching the archives of old newspapers for Mike's name, I found articles about something very strange that happened to his family when he was eight. It seems that Mike and his baby brother, nine months old, had disappeared. Search teams mobilized to find the children, and they were found three miles from home later that day. Mike, cold, hungry, and exhausted, was simply walking by the side of the road with his brother in his arms, wrapped up in a blanket. Both kids were ultimately alright, but Mike couldn't explain why he had walked off with the baby. He assured everyone no one had taken them, that it was his idea. The parents didn't really believe him, they said in the article. They thought their then small town had a baby snatcher in its midst. Anyone with any information was asked to come forward.

All the puppets keep getting in my face, you know, right here, and moving around and shaking and screaming, and yelling at me for not finishing what I started.

At that moment, Melanie came up behind me and put her arms around my neck from behind. I just about jumped ten feet out of my chair.

"Jared, good lord! You're jumpy tonight!" she cried. Apparently, I'd startled her just as bad as she'd startled me. "It's after two. Are you coming to bed?"

Yes, I was coming to bed. But I wasn't going to do much sleeping that night.

I kept telling myself this was crazy, too crazy to be believed. Then the other calls began coming in.

There were multiple voices on the messages. At first, they said things like, "Are you curious about us? That's fine. We're not threatened by you, are we Horace?"

"No, you don't scare us at all. Ehhh heh, heh heh heh."

I told myself it was teenagers, playing a trick.

Then the messages became personal.

"Oh, Jared is so curious, isn't he? But he can't stop us."

"Nooooo, he can't do a thing. Ehhh heh, heh heh heh."

A little girl's voice. "You should stop poking around. They'll make you sorry, Mr. McNeal. I've seen them do it."

The voice of the scared, whimpy little pirate. "Oh please, please don't make them mad! They'll make me go in that dark cave if you make them mad!"

I'm fairly sure it was the Skin-taker who said, "If you're really curious about us, maybe you should ask your son what he knows. Your son, Evan?"

This was followed by maniacal laughter.

That day, I rushed home as close to four as I could and found Evan in the family room, sacked out in front of the TV, watching his blank screen. "Evan," I said, "I'm sorry, but I don't want you to watch 'Candle Cove' anymore. It's not a good show." I picked up the remote. "I think Spongebob is on. Let's watch that, okay?"

Evan suddenly whipped around and snatched the remote out of my hand. He hid it under his pillow. "No!" he said defiantly. "The guys on 'Candle Cove' are my friends. I don't wanna watch no stupid Spongebob."

"Evan, give me that remote!" When he tried to ignore me, I simply went behind the television and pulled the plug. "There. No more 'Candle Cove.' Now go to your room and stay there until Mommy and I come get you."

As I started to walk away, Evan said something that sent a chill up my spine.

He sing-songed, "I can still seee~eee iii~iiit."

*****

I made my decision to stop researching "Candle Cove" when the woman contacted me. It was the day after the last message from the puppets, where they mentioned Evan's name. She identified herself as Angie Reagan and she wanted to meet me for lunch in a restaurant I didn't really know. It turned out to be bright and sunny, with a full wall and half the ceiling made of wide windows and skylights, so I didn't feel threatened.

Not at first.

Her appearance was quite a surprise. Angie dressed in the typical garb of a punk rocker, with leather jacket and spiked bracelets, peppermint-striped stockings and a ring in her nose. Her dress was draped with torn webbing. When I first saw her, I couldn't see the ring in her eyebrow as well because she was wearing sunglasses against the bright lunch-hour sun. Angie's hair completed the ensemble, with dark red and purple streaks over an undercoat of blonde. She stomped into the restaurant in her combat boots and took a seat in the chair I'd pulled out for her.

After exchanging pleasantries, Angie got down to the point. "Mr. McNeal, you need to understand what you're stirring up here. I'm sure you've found through your research that 'Candle Cove' is no normal kids' show."

Nodding, I replied, "I have."

"There's more that you need to know. Much more." Angie began taking paperback books out of her backpack, which was printed with a spiderweb design. She placed them on the table. I read their titles.

They were all about serial killers.

"What is this, Angie?"

Angie opened the first one to a dog-eared page. Some lines had been highlighted. "Read this."

The book concerned a serial killer and rapist named Morris Solomon, Jr., born in 1944. The highlighted portion detailed how during his horribly abusive childhood, his only solace could be found in the small black and white television that his grandmother allowed him to have. He escaped through the adventures of the TV shows he watched, including "Howdy Doody," "Sky King," and a puppet show about pirates he couldn't remember the name of.

Without a word, Angie opened another book and pointed to the highlighted portion. Ted Bundy, born 1946, had a long conversation with one of his victims (who eventually escaped) as they drove down a Seattle highway in 1974. He had removed the door handle, so she couldn't jump from the car once she realized everything they said about the dangers of hitchhiking were true, and had to sit and listen to him describe how he was going to rape and then strangle her after ripping off strips of her skin "to grind between his teeth."

I picked up another one. Cary Stayner, the Yosemite Killer, born in 1961. The highlighted portion spoke of how neglected Cary felt after his little brother Steven was kidnapped, and his parents' lives became about grieving for and looking for Stevie. He had fantasized about killing women for years, even as a young boy, and during this lonely time, he found solace in an obscure TV show of which he could not remember the name, a TV show where a dancing skeleton in a cape and hat told him he was just fine the way he was, that he should do whatever he felt like doing because he was a good boy, an important boy who deserved attention just as much as anyone else. Stayner said the show was a "great comfort" in those first few months after Steven disappeared.

There were more books, recent books, but I didn't need to look at them. I knew what connections they would make.

I opened my mouth to speak, but Angie brought out a videotape next. "Watch this when you get home," she instructed.

"What is this? Episodes of 'Candle Cove'?"

"No." She pushed the tape across the table to me. "In 1994, Dateline did an interview with Jeffrey Dahmer. This tape contains portions of that interview that were cut before broadcast." I could see her eyebrow go up behind the sunglasses. "You know who that is, don't you?"

Too young to be conscious of Jeffrey Dahmer when the horrors he had committed had been discovered, I had caught up in the years since. You didn't have to be a newspaper man to know that name. "Of course. Who doesn't?"

"Good."

With a weary sigh, I said, "Angie, what are you trying to suggest? Are you saying that this show... that 'Candle Cove'... creates serial killers?" A chill swept through me. My son had watched that show.

"I'm saying that different children react to 'Candle Cove' in different ways, depending on what they need... and what talents can be encouraged in them."

"You realize what you're saying is insane."

"Yes, but it's still true, isn't it?"

A part of me wanted to say no just to spite her, just to spite this whole crazy thing. But I knew she was right. "What is it, some sort of subliminal message? A special wavelength that can only be interpreted by... by children's brainwaves?"

"You're on the right track," Angie said with a scoff.

I was growing impatient. "Stop dancing around what you really want to say, Angie. Tell me why you asked me to come here."

She zipped up her backpack, as if preparing to leave. "I just wanted you to understand what you're dealing with, Mr. McNeal. You think this whole thing can be stopped. I know you do, it's written all over your face. But you can't stop this thing once it's been set in motion. You've done your research. You know how long this has been going on."

I couldn't help it; I mumbled, "It runs on a twenty-year cycle."

"Yes. Yes, that's exactly it. And in another twenty years, it will be back."

"What's going to happen? What does the show do before it disappears for the next twenty years?"

Angie sat back, falling silent. I couldn't see her eyes, but she seemed to be thinking something over. Finally, she replied, "It's better if you don't know."

"Angie, tell me," I said, almost begging. "My son has watched 'Candle Cove.'"

"I know."

A chill ran up my spine.

Then she added, "And so do they."

To that, I backed my chair up several inches. I wanted to be away from her. The atmosphere had grown threatening in a big hurry. "Who are you?" I demanded to know. "Have you been sending me those messages in the puppets' voices?"

Angie didn't answer that question. Instead, she said, "Mr. McNeal, take your son away from here next Friday. Get him away from all televisions. Soon, it will happen. You don't want it to be Evan."

"Don't even say his name," I growled. "If you hurt my son, I'll - "

Interrupting me, Angie said, "I'm trying to save your son. It has to be someone; don't let it be him."

"Don't let him do what, Angie? What is going to happen?" It was my last effort to get her to confess the truth.

But she still wouldn't tell me. Instead, Angie revealed another mystery. "Mr. McNeal, you have to trust me." She removed her sunglasses. "You have no idea what power they have."

The breath stopped in my throat. Grey eyes. Pug nose. I hadn't noticed that until she took off the glasses. And the scar.

In a second, she had stood up and turned, walking away.

I jumped up so suddenly, my chair teetered and almost fell over. "Wait! That's impossible!" I called. "Are you Janice?!"

People in the restaurant turned and glared at me, yelling across the restaurant at the girl's retreating form. She looked about 27, 28... Who had I just spoken to?

What had I just spoken to?

*****

Makeup. People in television did amazing things with makeup.

That's how they did it. You find a little blonde actress with grey eyes, you add a scar, you've got the next Janice. It's not like there were any pictures from the various incarnations of the show to compare, so who even knew if the child looked the same every time? Maybe her face changed every twenty years.

She was just an insane fan. That's all Angie was. She wore grey contacts, she penciled in a scar. That's all.

Otherwise, what was I to believe? That "Angie" was some sort of creature who could change and maintain her age at will? That she had been little Janice in the 1950's... and the 1970's... and on, and on? Would she be little Janice for all time, when she wasn't being Angie?

Or was Angie her real name, and someone had made her into Janice?

You have no idea what power they have.

She seemed to be trying to help me.

That night, I watched the videotape Angie had given me. The content was exactly as she had described. There was serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, born in 1960, talking about his childhood in an effort to get at the heart of what had caused his compulsions to kill. I was always struck by how emotionless he was, how stoic, how stonefaced, like he was describing something that really bored him instead of the murder of another person.

When he began to talk about things he enjoyed in childhood, I knew it was coming. Dahmer told Stone Phillips about watching the usual shows on TV that were popular at that time... "Lassie," "The Brady Bunch," "The Carol Burnett Show"... and a little kids' show about pirates that he thought had the word "Candle" in the title.

"None of the other kids at school talked about this show," he recalled, "so I felt like it was my very own show, made just for me. When I think back about it, it seems really weird, though. Maybe I'm remembering it wrong. It seems like there was this puppet that was just a skeleton, and it wore a cape and a hat made of human skin."

Stone Phillips sat back, shaking his head. "No... this was a children's TV show?"

"As far as I can remember, yeah, it was marketed to children."

"But... human skin?"

"That's what it looked like. Maybe I was... projecting..." A light came into Dahmer's eyes that hadn't been there before. "Although, they called him the Skin-taker."

"The Skin-taker?"

"Yeah, that was his name. I'm pretty sure of it." A small smile came to his face. "The Skin-taker called me Jeff."

"He knew your name?"

"Yes."

"Had you sent your name in to the show? Many of the children's shows of that time period had you send your name in on a post card so they could say hello and good-bye to their fans..."

Yeah, Stone Phillips. Keep rationalizing it.

"Not that I can recall," Dahmer replied.

Yeah, Jeffrey Dahmer. Blow all our rational theories out of the water.

"The Skin-taker knew all the things I had been going through, and what I thought about when I was alone, and he said he would always be my friend, you know. When I think back, it's weird, because he knew my parents fought all the time, and how much I didn't like it. I used to wish I could go live in Candle Cove.... wait, that's what it was called."

"Candle Cove?"

"Yeah, 'Candle Cove.'" With that, the stoic facade completely melted away, and we saw a glimpse of the charming man underneath, the one who was able to convince multiple men that he was safe, that he would never hurt them if they just came home with him and trusted him with their lives. Dahmer grinned and almost giggled. "I really liked that show."

I can see why Dateline didn't air the segment. Not that it was any more disturbing than anything else Dahmer had said, but they must have thought it was some hideous nightmare thing the serial killer had just made up when they checked the TV schedules of the time and found no "Candle Cove." And then there was that grin...

You gotta wonder, how many other children had the show pushed in that direction, and how many hadn't been caught yet?

How many serial killers and rapists were being made now?

But I had to stop thinking such crazy things. Morris Solomon's family beat him just because he was there. Ted Bundy was a sociopath. Cary Stayner's family suffered a devastating tragedy. Jeffrey Dahmer had multiple mental problems; he had to, the man slept with corpses. They were disturbed boys who grew into deeply disturbed men. There was no television show that influenced kids to become killers. There was no person who could change her age and remain young as long as she wanted. Everything had an explanation.

Yeah, I don't believe that shit either.

*****

Mike Stark called me later that night. "Jared, I'm not sure I can hold it together anymore."

He sounded drunk. I was distracted, giving Dylan a bath. Still, I tried to talk to him. "What's going on, Mike?"

"I've been having the nightmares every night lately. Sometimes three or four times a night. They want me to do something horrible. I don't want to do anything bad to anyone." He began to cry.

"What do they want you to do?"

"I can't tell anyone, I'm afraid of what they would do."

"Mike, listen to me. Are you still going to your AA meetings?"

"How did you know about that?"

Dylan splashed his hands in the water, saying, "Da-da-da-da, da-da-DA!"

I didn't have time for Mike's problems. I had my own family to take care of. "I'm sorry, Mike, but I did an article on AA years ago and I know the look. I can't do anything for you. You need to attend your next AA meeting. In fact, call your sponsor right now. You still have a sponsor, don't you?"

Sniffling, he said, "Yeah. I haven't spoken to him in a while, but I have his number."

"Call your sponsor. Remember, there are some things we can't control. Right? You learned that in your AA meetings. You have to give this one up to God. God will take care of you, all you have to do is ask for His help. He won't lead you astray."

"No, no, God would never lead me astray. He will protect me. You're right. You're right."

I felt sorry for him at that moment. He sounded so lost and pathetic. "You're going to be okay, Mike." For some reason, I added, "Horace and the Skin-taker can't make you do anything."

We hung up, and I went on giving my son a bath. It was the last time I spoke to Mike Stark. Ever.

*****

Angie/Janice was right. I had to get Evan away from the television.

As the Friday she had mentioned came near, Evan defied me and kept sneaking in to watch "Candle Cove." The Tuesday before, I worked it out so I could be home at four. I found Evan in the family room, watching a blank screen on the television.

"Evan, go to your room."

He looked back at me, and had the audacity to say, "There's no TV in my room."

"That's the point."

He just frowned at me. "No," Evan said. "I want to watch 'Candle Cove.'"

"I told you you couldn't watch that show anymore. Now GO to your ROOM."

Evan had never been the type of child to throw a tantrum. At this moment, though, he began to throw a tantrum. Kicking his feet, pounding his fists on the floor, he screamed, "I want to watch 'Candle Cove,' I want to watch 'Candle Cove'! I won't go to my room, you can't make me, you can't make me, you can't make me!"

Oh, really? I went over and picked him up. "I said go to your room and you're going to your room."

As I turned to carry him out of the family room, Evan went wild. He pulled my hair, he scratched my face, he kicked and gyrated in my arms. "You can't make me, you can't make me, you can't make me, AHHHHHHH!"

The screaming woke up Dylan. Melanie came running. "What the hell's going on?! Evan?"

"He's throwing a tantrum," I said, as if it had to be explained.

I carried Evan to his room and put him down. He started kicking me in the shins, not stopping until I turned him around and spanked his behind. He broke down crying then, fingers crammed in his mouth.

"Daddy spanked meeeeeeeeeee..." Evan sobbed. "He won't let me watch 'Candle Coooooooove'..."

"You stay in here until you calm down," I commanded, and slammed the door.

When I turned around, Melanie was there, Dylan in her arms. She patted his back. He was already calming down. "Jared, what the hell happened? Evan doesn't throw tantrums."

"He did today." I tried to catch my breath. "It's that goddamn show. I wouldn't let him watch 'Candle Cove' and he flipped out."

"Jesus." She paused, patting Dylan's back. "Jared, what is it with you and this show? Since you've been working on the article, you've been sitting in the computer room, mumbling to yourself while reading stuff on the Internet, meeting weird people, getting strange phone calls..."

I tried to keep it as short and sweet as possible. Stroking Dylan's peach-fuzzy head, I said, "Mel, there's something really messed up about 'Candle Cove.' It's got some sort of subliminal message in it. It's fucked up other kids in the past, and if Evan keeps watching it, I'm afraid something will happen to him."

"Oh, that's silly. Are you listening to yourself?" Still, she leaned forward and kissed my nose. “I'll back you up. After hearing about that Skin-guy, I didn’t think he should watch it anymore anyway. Evan shouldn't be throwing a shit-fit over anything, much less some television show. We nip this in the bud before it becomes a habit."

I nodded. "Let's give him some time to calm down first."

Over the next hour, Evan stopped crying, and eventually became eerily quiet. I knocked on the door. "Evan? I'm coming in."

He looked at me like he'd been caught doing something he wasn't supposed to. Evan had something in his arms, wrapped up in a blanket. When I opened the door, he first clutched it to his chest, then dropped it like he was tired of playing with that toy. A male baby doll rolled out of the bundle.

"Whatcha doin', buddy?"

Evan picked up a ball and held it to his chest. "Nothin'."

"Come out to the living room. Your mother and I want to talk with you."

He suddenly hugged me around the waist. "I'm sorry I hurt you, Daddy. I shouldn'ta kicked you like that." Then he offered his hand for me to take.

Anybody else see a little boy trying to charm his way out of a punishment? Me too.

As we walked from the room, I turned back to look at the blanket and the baby doll, just for a few seconds. It troubled me, and I didn't know why.

Later that night, I got a call from the puppets... on my personal cell.

"You know what your son was doing, don't you?" the Horace voice asked. "He was practicing!"

He and the Skin-taker laughed. "Practicing, yeah! Practicing for the BIIIIG day!"

I should have yelled at them, cussed them out, told them to leave my family alone, but instead I just hung up. Shuddering all over.

I looked at the picture of Evan and Dylan on the bedside table. And I made a decision.

That night, I told my wife I was taking Evan on a fishing trip the next day. We'd be gone through Friday. After all that had happened lately with "Candle Cove," Daddy and son needed to reconnect. She thought it was a great idea.

Evan seemed distracted, but also a bit excited about going to Grandma and Grandpa's cabin at the lake. He'd never been there, but me and his mother made it sound like Disneyland.

What he didn't know was the cabin had no television.

And his mother and Dylan were not going to meet us there.

On Thursday, he kept wrapping the baby doll, which he'd insisted on bringing, in a blanket and carrying it everywhere. Up and down the lakeshore. Into the boat when we went fishing. In the car to the general store. (It's one of those quaint little lake towns that cater to fans of yesterday.) It was all I could do to keep his attention at times; he just kept looking elsewhere, carrying the doll like it was a real baby.

Late Thursday into Friday morning, Evan woke me up, shaking me hard and panting. "Where's Dylan?" he questioned. "When is he getting here?"

My six-year-old child was having a panic attack. "Dylan isn't coming," I told him. "He and Mommy are staying at home. It's just you and me."

"But... but... I gotta do what they told me to." He ran to the front door, yanking on the knob. "Daddy, let's go home. We gotta go home!"

"No, Evan. We're going to wait this out here." I went after him, picking him up and carrying him back to the bed. "I promise it will be okay." He began to hyperventilate in my arms. I held him on my lap, where he promptly fell on his side, breathing in a way that terrified me. If it got worse, we'd head to the nearest hospital. "Nothing bad is going to happen to you."

"Daddy, if I don't do it, they'll come after me!" Evan cried and shook and grabbed blindly at the air.

"Don't do what? What are they trying to get you to do?!" I cried.

"Can't tell you! Things'll be even badder if I tell you!"

Holding him tight, I kept an ear out for scary breathing and an eye out for those flailing arms. "We've just got to wait this out, buddy. She said it would all be over Friday. Friday will be over in less than 24 hours." It sounded like a long time.

Evan wailed like a wounded animal. "I gotta do it, I gotta do it, let's go home, Daddy, let's go home!"

I pictured the headline in the weekend paper. Child disappears with baby brother, parents frantic for answers. "We can't, I'm sorry, just wait it out."

"Daddy, Daddy, nooooooo!"

My heart skipped when there was a noise on the roof of the one-story cabin. A scattering, like little feet scurrying from one side to the other.

"It's squirrels. Raccoons. Squirrels! Raccoons!" I yelled, clutching Evan to me.

I thought I heard high-pitched laughter from above my head.

"They're here to get me, Daddy!" Evan screamed. "Now look what you did!"

"IT'S SQUIRRELS!"

We clutched each other, eyes squeezed shut, for several minutes. Eventually, things quieted down, and after about twenty minutes, Evan's breathing was back to normal. Still fretting every now and then, he fell asleep in my arms, mumbling about it being a big, important day.

Somewhere in there, I fell asleep. I woke up to Evan sitting at the table, eating a bowl of the cereal we bought at the general store and looking at the toy prize he found inside. "Mornin', Daddy," he said. "I feel lots better."

"Do you? That's good." Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I decided I wanted a bowl of cereal too. After what we had been through the night before, I could use some simple pleasures.

"Yup." I sat down, and Evan put a hand on my arm. "You don't have to worry anymore. It's all over."

Normally, that would have sounded adorable, coming from my son, but considering the meaning of what he was saying... "It is?"

"Uh huh." He took a mouthful of cereal, chewed, and then casually said, "They got somebody else to do it."

How my spine froze at that. "Do what?"

Cramming his mouth with another spoonful, Evan declared, "Mommy and Dylan are fine." As if he had read my mind.

I called Melanie anyway. It was true, she and Dylan were fine. I had been imagining someone breaking into the house while I was away and taking them both for whatever awful thing was supposed to happen today.

Of course, I couldn't get off that easy. "Do you know someone named Mike Stark?"

*****

MAN DISAPPEARS WITH FIVE-MONTH-OLD GRANDCHILD, FAMILY FRANTIC FOR ANSWERS

That was the headline in the weekend paper. I felt horrible. First, because I felt I should have been able to do more, and second, because I was happy it hadn't been my children who were involved and now missing. It's understandable that I felt that way, but that didn't keep me from feeling like a heel. Someone's baby was gone. It just wasn't mine.

Mike had left a note, one that was cryptic to even me. I knew where the reference came from, but not what it meant. Not what it meant for him or his grandbaby.

The note said:

DEAR FAMILY,

PLEASE DON'T HATE ME. I JUST COULDN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE.

I had
to go
INSIDE

MICHAEL STARK

*****

His wife tried to call me several times. I finally answered the phone when I could deal with it. She wanted to know what Mike and I had talked about. I imagined the police would be coming to speak with me soon as well.

"Mrs. Stark, I'm sorry for what has happened. I think your husband had some sort of breakdown. He kept talking about an old TV show he used to watch when he was a kid, and how he was having nightmares about it. I think he'd been drinking."

"Yeah... he had a relapse in the last few weeks. Always talking about that damn 'Candle Cove.'" She swallowed hard; I could hear her throat click. "I may never know what he was involved in."

"I'm sure he'll come home soon." It was the lame kind of thing people said when they didn't know what else to say.

"No. No, Mr. McNeal, my husband won't be coming home." She punched me in the gut with what she said next. "He was found dead Sunday morning."

I gasped. "Oh, God... I'm so sorry."

The woman began to cry. "Someone murdered him, Mr. McNeal. He was found face down in a ditch, what was left of his face, anyway. Whoever killed him cut off, no, ripped off the top half of his head and broke half his ribs. I can't even have an open casket funeral because his head from the top of his jaw up is still missing." She wept bitterly. I could say nothing, only listen. "If you know something about this whole thing, please tell me, Mr. McNeal, because my granddaughter has not been found. If you know anything that can help us find her - "

"I'm sorry, I don't know a thing," I said. It was mostly true. "I have no idea where she is or who could have killed your husband." And again, "I'm so sorry, Mrs. Stark."

"I hope you're telling the truth." It was like she could sense I wasn't telling her everything. "There's much more to this insane story than meets the eye."

"Why do you say that?"

"The left side of my husband's chest was caved in, Mr. McNeal, so the coroner ordered an x-ray to get an idea of what could have done that to him." Mrs. Stark punched me in the gut again. From all those miles away, her words could still hit like she was using her fists. Both of them. "They found a symbol stamped into his sternum. A goddamn symbol, Mr. McNeal. It looks like a skull and crossbones. So if you have any idea how someone could have done that to him, and why - "

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I hung up on her then. Abruptly, and cowardly. I just couldn't take any more of this horror.

*****

I will be leaving the subject of "Candle Cove" now. Now, and forever. My article for the Observer will never be written. It would only spread the poison of that horrible program.

I wish I could say that I braved on with valor and courage to end the evil for good, but there's my family to think about. It's like that old Nietzsche quote, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." If taking on the people behind "Candle Cove" meant that I had to be personally affected, if it meant that Melanie, Evan, and Dylan had to be put in danger, then I couldn't do it. I wouldn't even know where to start.

Stark's granddaughter has not been found. I don't know what was done with her. In some ways, I'm afraid to know.

I helplessly watched this tragedy unfold, and I did everything I could to stop it short of sacrifice my own family, but the cycle was completed anyway. The only thing I can do now is wonder for what purpose.

What insidious, evil purpose.

 

 

Author's Note: The serial killers and their crimes are real. Their connection to "Candle Cove" is not.

The locations noted in Dallas and Richardson, TX are also real, as is the story of the Lady of the Lake. Oh, and the Dallas Observer, too.