A Promise Kept by Candle Flame

After your death, everyone’s so ready to move on. They offer to help me pack up your things, and then, to pack up my things. It’s only weeks and my father’s talking about cleaning out his guest room. Honey, he says, you can’t sleep in the same room where Gemma passed on.

That’s how they say it. Passed on. At the funeral, the priest talks about heaven, about God welcoming his daughter home. He talks about all the good you did, and how you deserve rest. 

But you promised to stay with me. No matter, what, you said. After the sickness came, you held my hand and said you’d send me messages. Love letters in dust or frosted glass. Whatever it took, for as long as I needed.

Well, my love, I need. And you’ve always kept your promises.

Candles. In the movies, it’s always candles. I buy them by the dozen, not caring whether they smell like Spring Melon or Winter Mist. I warm the house with tiny flames.

The candles flicker, and I know you’re close. What does it mean when you make the blue one burn brighter than the red one? What question are you answering? I assign each candle a letter and write them down in the order they burn out. It spells lbcagfikdejeh. What are you trying to say, love? You were always good at crosswords, but I’ve never had your head for codes. Speak clearly, for my sake.

I start again. Maybe I confused you. I carve letters in the wax. A candle for I. For l, o, v, e, y, o, u. I watch them burn out, one by one. They spell uylievoo. You and your jokes. But I know what you meant to say.

Remember, how we’d lie in the dark, listening to the old house creak and groan? I laughed when you blamed the sounds on ghosts. Now, I chart the noises. Did that stair always whine under the weight of the cat? Is there a rhythm to the rattling of the window? Does it mirror my heartbeat or yours? 

After nights of listening, I start to catch on. Morse code. Clever, love. One short creak, one long, two more short. I spend the night writing down the noises, the longs, the shorts, the quiet spaces. It’s better than candles. I’m good at hearing what you meant to say. I know where the silences belong. I spell out your name, then mine. I spell “love” and “promise.” 

You’re so close. You’re in the walls. You’re in my shadow, stretched strange by candlelight. You’re in our bathroom mirror. I leave the shower running as long as I can, until no hot water remains. We always looked a bit alike. Remember all the times we were taken for sisters? Obscured by moisture, my hazy reflection might be yours. I can feel you watching me.

It’s nice to be looked after.

You get lonely when I’m at work; I can hear it in the sounds the house makes. We used to be social. We’d meet friends for drinks. We had favorite restaurants. Now, I order takeout. And when friends come by, they never stay long. You were always a little shy, my love. Maybe you like it better when it’s just the two of us. When our friends’ schedules grow cluttered, when they’re suddenly busy with work and children, I don’t get angry. I have you.

You and the cat and the sounds of this house and shouldn’t that be enough? I shouldn’t be lonely. You’re here. You stayed. 

After a few months, it’s only my father who visits. We sit, the three of us, but he ignores you, even after you make all the candles flicker at once. You know how he is. When he mentions his friend, whose daughter is “like that” I expect you to get angry. I expect the floor to whine, the walls to bleed, the candles to all go out at once. But you ‘re silent as he tries to sell me on this woman. Just one date, he says. 

I try to explain that I don’t need to meet anyone. You’re right here with me. I tell him about creaking stairs, candles, and mirrors. I show him the notebook where I’ve recorded your messages. He says you would want me to be happy.

You do want me to be happy. That’s why you stay. Long nights and hollow days. Ours is a long-distance relationship, though we share this house. You write me letters. I run my fingers over the banister and hope you feel it. Alive, you were soft. Now, you’re wood and stone and candle wax. 

It hurts, I whisper into the flames. It hurts, you write in creaks and groans. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts. We are both stuck on repeat.

Is that why you do it? To save us both from pain.

The fire starts in the living room, where your candles fill the shelves, line the walls, and spill onto the floor in teacup candle holders. It’s your scent that wakes me, ginger and cigarettes. Turning, I catch your gaze in the dressing-table mirror. Are you crying? Laughing? And then the alarm blares, and you’re gone. I catch the cat, just him and our notebook before I’m standing outside, watching the fire. The firefighters do their best, but you’re determined.

Flames, burning bright as memory, until the house is no more than a blackened husk. You’re in the smoke. I see the shape of your arms, the curve of your hips. I see your eyes, gazing upward. This is what passing on looks like. Bright and vibrant and leaving nothing but scorched earth behind. 

After the fire is out, and the last of the spectators leave, I stare into the hollowed out space where you aren’t. This is a message. This is I love you written in flame. I leave our notebook in the ashes, that way, you’ll know I heard.


Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, August 2015. Reprinted here by permission of the author.