We’ve all been there: standing in the aisle of a store, trying to hurry up and get the stuff on your list so you can get done and get out. There’s a hundred other places you’d rather be, and you’re already annoyed because it was hard to find a parking place and you can barely get down the aisle because there’s so many people there, many of whom apparently came for the sole purpose of standing in your way and chit-chatting with the neighbor or friend they happened to run into.
And then, the screaming starts.
Some loudmouth kid is braying because they didn’t get cookies or a toy, and their parent is just standing there, either trying to negotiate with the little terror, or, worse, trying to ignore it. And you stand there and think, that right there is a demon from Hell.
Well, you could be right.
Kealan Patrick Burke, inspired by a similar scene that he himself witnessed in a Walmart (the epicenter, it seems, for such scenes), uses that scenario as the jump-off point for a twisted exercise in psychological suspense, a novella called Sour Candy. Phil Pendleton is spending his Saturday morning in a Walmart candy aisle, choosing chocolate for he and his girlfriend, Lori, to enjoy later that day, when a piercing scream startles him and several shoppers around him. Further down the aisle stands the screamer, a young boy, and his harried-looking mother. Phil, who lost a marriage over his unwillingness to have kids, finds relief in the fact that the boy isn’t his, but it’s a relief tinged with a deep sorrow for the woman, who seems to have more weighing on her than just a bad-tempered child. He even speaks to them in an attempt to diffuse the situation, and accepts a piece of sour candy from the kid.
It’s a move he will come to regret. That simple act sends his life spiraling out of control, with the young child at the center of a hurricane that sweeps away the life he’d built and the hopes he held for the future. That act also sets off a chain of events that rip away the veil of reality as Phil once knew it, introducing him to dark and sinister corners he never before knew existed.
In Sour Candy, Burke employs his finely-honed skills to unsettle readers at their core. By introducing the unfathomable into the everyday, he hits all of us right where we live. Phil Pendleton was simply doing what we’ve all done before – making a quick run to the store. That, coupled with one kind gesture, was enough to ruin him. If the idea that we could all be so close to an abyss doesn’t scare you, then I don’t know what would.