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A Promise Kept by Candle Flame

Kelly Sandoval's fiction has appeared in Asimov's, Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, and other venues. She lives in Seattle, where the weather is always happy to make staying in and writing seem like a good idea. Her family includes a patient husband, a demanding cat, and an extremely grumpy tortoise. You can find her online at kellysandovalfiction.com.

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 for me. 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 your rest.
But I know better. You promised to stay with me. No matter what, you said. Love beyond death, if necessary. You used to say it with a smile. After the sickness came, you stopped smiling. But you kept promising. 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. Candles, all around the living room. I keep lighting until the house is warm 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? Is that a yes or a no? 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 patterns and codes. Speak clearly, for my sake.
I start again. Maybe I confused you. I find a needle in your sewing things and 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 lay 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, searching for your hand in them. 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 grow out my hair, echoing your style. That brings you out clearer, as if you just needed a bridge. 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 be social. We'd meet friends for drinks. We had favorite restaurants. Now, I order takeout. And when friends come by, they never seem quite comfortable. 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.
Funny, how things work. Now, when it's too late, he's ready to be supportive. 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 shakes his head and says you would want me to be happy.
You do want me to be happy. That's why you stay, isn't it? 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.
And maybe that's 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 candleholders. It's your scent that wakes me, ginger and cigarettes. Turning, I catch your gaze in the dressing-table mirror. Are you crying? Or laughing? I can't tell. And then the alarm blares, and it's just me again. I hurry to 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.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, August 24th, 2015

Author Comments

Some of my beta readers thought this was a ghost story, others didn't. I know what I intended, but stories belong to their readers. I believe in the sort of ghosts that haunt hearts instead of houses. We carry them with us. We want to be haunted. And maybe that means we are.

- Kelly M Sandoval
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