The Candle

THE CANDLE cover decision - Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

Every Picture Tells a Story

The picture used in the original cover did….

What if you could give someone you love one more hour of life? The passion of love bursting into flame is more powerful than death, stronger than the grave.

Some reader comments:

“Poetic justice. Love it.” –Vicki Tyley

“It was wonderful. Chilling and hauntingly beautiful… very Stephen King-esque. Right up my alley, being a huge Stephen King fan. I have goosebumps. Absolutely loved it.” –Bobbie Today

“Captivating.” –Mohammad Azam Khan

“Stephen King would be happy to put his name on this story! (I mean this as a compliment).” –Jyoti Dahiya

“You wrote a great story and I felt every word. Your ending, the SPOILER REMOVED was significant. Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful heart!” –Evy Hannes

“Wow, I enjoyed reading very much.” –Irene Kimmel

“Wonderful, Dennis. Very well written!!” –Sylvia Sotuyo

“Wow… what a great story. I loved it, Mr. Lowery. Loved it!” –Jo Ann Boomer

“Wow, Dennis Lowery, I adore your writing! You pulled me in very quickly, and had me wanting more and more! Excellent story, I thank you for that amazing read. You are a very talented writer.” –Cristie Brewer

“Love it!” –Fay Handstock

“Brilliant, Dennis Lowery. Your writing always leaves me wanting more! I too saved it to re-read later. Thank you.” –Rebecca Harden-Heick

“Oh, wow… Very powerful… I felt so much compassion for the couple. And the intrigue of the supernatural, really gets you thinking. An excellent story.” –Margie Casados

“Great story!” –Susan Gabriel

“Like your writing, it is so original and imaginative. It comes from somewhere deep inside. And you deliver your words of art so well.” –Renee M.

The Story

I had seen the old woman alone at the entrance when we went through earlier in the day. We’d worked our way to the back of the outdoor market, then through all the side rows and offshoots. Peter was one step behind me, his arms draped with loops of full bags. He didn’t like to shop but had made it through a whole day—so far—without complaint. I guess thanks to it being our honeymoon. I smiled at him, and he smiled back. The packing I’d have to do this evening would suck, but today was our last day. Back to Chicago tomorrow and then on Monday, a return to the ordinary world and daily grind. This time as newlyweds in our own apartment.

Peter had been checking his watch—a subtle ‘can we leave soon’ message—for the past thirty minutes, so I headed back toward the only entrance and exit.

That morning the woman had had only one item, and I thought she waited for someone else or hadn’t unpacked more to set out. But there was still just the one thing before her; an old candlestick with a crooked candle in the middle of her table. The woman’s eyes did not wander. She sat so still, not trying to catch people’s eye or engage them in conversation to draw them to her table as did the other vendors. It didn’t seem to matter if she sold the candlestick or not. I slowed as we approached her.

“Amanda, come on.…” Peter’s low mutter was the first sign of impatience as he caught up to where I stopped.

The woman studied me without expression. In her eyes, deep wrinkles framing them was such a depth of sorrow it caught my breath. The bustling noise of the surrounding people faded into quiet just for the woman and me.

“Hello,” I smiled. The old lady nodded without speaking. “Is this all you have for sale?”

“All I have to offer.”

I picked up the candlestick. Surprised at its heaviness, there was nothing remarkable otherwise. Dull bronze or tarnished brass and an off-kilter candle of yellowed wax. I rubbed my thumb over the dry surface and pieces flaked off. But the wick seemed new, never lit, and not brittle like the wax. I turned the candlestick upside-down and checked the base. Solid but in the center was a rectangular compartment, a cover hinged on one side, with a tiny latch. I tried to free the fastener.

“That will only open for the owner,” the woman’s smile showed the glint of bright dentures far younger than she.

“What’s inside?”

“That’s for the possessor to discover.”

“Aren’t you the owner?”

“Why do you want to know what’s inside?” Those eyes fixed on me as she continued, “Do you like this candlestick?”

“Needs a good polishing,” the woman’s grin grew at my awkward haggling. “Too bad you don’t have another to make a pair.”

“That candle was used,” the smile was gone, and a pulsing ache came from her again in waves. But tinged with something else. Her eyes—something, some thought or emotion—changed when she looked at the candlestick in my hand, then to my face and on to Peter’s.

“You can buy another candle. What happened to the other candlestick?”

“It did what it was created for and all I… all we asked,” she stood, “this is all I have left.”

I didn’t follow what she meant and thought… time to leave. Peter, with frequent glances at me, had been looking at the contents of the next table over; an assortment of hand-carved salt and paper shakers. I’d put him through enough for today and started to set the candlestick down but something in the heft in my hands rooted me. Peter still fidgeted, moving shopping bags from hand-to-hand, and I knew he loved me and I loved him more than anything in the world. The certainty surged through me more than even during our marriage ceremony. “How old is it?”

The woman shrugged, “My husband,” the melancholy came back and caught at her words, “bought the set many years ago from a woman who told him a story. Also a practical thing to buy, when we were young, we often dined by candlelight as much to save money as because he was such a romantic man.”

As she spoke, the woman stroked the wedding band on her gnarled hand; at one time, a better fit with the fullness and firmness of youth. Now with the finger shrunken with age, only a swollen arthritic knuckle kept the ring on her hand.

“How long have you been married?”

“He died suddenly,” she reached out and touched the candlestick I still held, “a week past, today. We were married for sixty-five years.”

“I’m so sorry.” I glanced at Peter, who stood beside me with a tired smile and thought of our wedding just seven days before. For a moment, six heartbeats—I felt each one—I wondered about living with and loving him for sixty-five more years. Nothing would make me happier.

“We had a full life together… and even after.”

I didn’t follow the last part, but the woman was smiling again. “Why do you want to sell such a sweet reminder of your husband?”

“He is still here,” she touched her head and her heart leaving the hand over a now withered but once full bosom, “that’s all I need.”

“What about leaving to your children?”

Sadness dimmed her smile again. “We were not so fortunate… my daughter died at birth, and we could not have more.”

“I’m so sorry.” I set the candlestick down to open my purse, deciding one last honeymoon souvenir, this one, would be fitting.

The woman picked it up, “And this… I want to go to someone young.” Her eyes shifted from me to Peter, who with bags now at his feet, stood there paying attention, “Young and in love.”

Peter had his wallet in his hand, “How much?”

“Nothing.” Cradling the candlestick in her hands, she passed it to me, but her smile was for Peter.

“I have to pay you something,” I insisted.

“No,” and a sternness came into her eyes that didn’t harden the smile on her lips, “you don’t. A gift to you.”

“Thank you,” was all I could say. The old woman’s expression brushed my heart; a grandmother-not-to-be’s tenderness for a granddaughter she never had. I handed the candlestick to Peter as the woman folded the cloth on her table.

Seeing Peter inspect the cover and latch at the base of the candle, she said, “It will open for you when love and the need are the strongest,” her eyes glistened, “as its mate did for me.” As she turned to put the folded tablecloth in a large bag on the ground beside her chair, she whispered, “And so I had him, my love, for one more hour… to say our goodbyes.”

Peter had gathered our things, putting the candlestick in one of the canvas bags. Before the woman turned away, I leaned across the empty table and touched her arm at the elbow. She glanced at me, and I asked, “You say you bought this when you were married?”

“Yes,” and with a last look into my eyes, she turned away, “on our honeymoon.” She walked into the crowd and was soon out of sight.

✽✽✽

Bags were everywhere. Amanda had unpacked their clothes and luggage over the weekend, but the things they had bought were still in boxes and store bags. The one thing she noticed that had come out of the bags was the candlestick. In the hustle of flying back home and seeing family, she hadn’t even thought about the old woman. But there her candlestick sat on the mantle over one of those artificial, meant-to-look-like-the-real-thing fireplaces.

Amanda turned to Peter, who had, unlike her, had the day off, “That’s all you unpacked?”

“The only thing I was sure of where you’d want it to go.” He walked over to the window and studied the street three floors below. “I still don’t like this area.”

“I’ll be fine.” Before they took the lease, she had seen the crime rate was high but trending down.

Peter still had concerns, but this location was the closest compromise of affordability and nearness to the metro and their work. “As soon as I can finagle a change, I’ll get off the night shift.” But they both knew they needed the higher pay. At least until they paid off bills; which was going to take longer he thought contemplating the bags of things they had bought on their honeymoon.

✽✽✽

The woman with the long legs caught the young man’s eye. She rode the subway with style, graceful, elegant like an old Hollywood movie star among everyday people. He scratched at the coarse growth of hair that covered his cheeks and throat in patches and elbowed his friend who lifted eyes from his phone. He cocked his head toward the woman just down from them. “Check her out… legs in the blue dress.”

Amanda was wearing the pearls Peter had given her even though she had promised never to wear them without him with her. But it was a short week and a half-day Thursday for Tom, the senior partner’s office birthday party. She was so happy and wanted to finally show them to Sue, her best friend at the office. Besides, she was headed home in the mid-afternoon. No one would bother her in broad daylight.

The two men followed her when she got off.

Thinking of the three-day weekend with Peter, the first long weekend together since their honeymoon four months ago, Amanda never thought to scan the area as Peter had told her to do when she was going to and from the station. She entered their building, bypassed the elevator and headed for the stairs. It’s great for the legs, Amanda thought. Feeling that good burn in her calves as she went up the steps, she did not hear the rustling sound of the two men moving almost as fast to catch up with her. They did. Right as she opened the door to the apartment.

✽✽✽

Peter was excited and not just because he was off—no work tonight—a pleasant surprise when he’d showed up for his shift! The promotion, one he hadn’t told Amanda about, had come through. Starting Monday, no more night shift, and a 20% raise. Hallelujah… they’d have breathing room and save money toward buying a real house, a home with a yard. Everything they’d hoped for and dreamed. He loped up the stairs to the third floor. Their apartment was just across from the landing and keys in hand, he quickly unlocked the door and stepped inside.

✽✽✽

“We got time,” the scraggly bearded man said, “They ain’t going to complain,” he glanced down at the dead woman and dying man. “Bitch,” rubbing his shoulder, he kicked the candlestick gripped in the woman’s hand. They split and pocketed the cash the man and woman had on them. The pearls still had blood on them. He walked to the kitchen and washed them off and didn’t see the dying man stir. Hearing a clatter, he stepped into the hallway to call out to his partner rummaging through the apartment, “Hey, you wanna be quieter… you find anything else?”

✽✽✽

Peter heard them, one in the kitchen and the other in the bedroom, and tasted bitter blood. He hadn’t been there to save Amanda, a worse bitterness. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t breathing. From where he lay, he saw the pool of blood had expanded from under her body. His own grew to touch hers. God, how I love you, he beheld her and his vision flickered. His head lay next to the fireplace and in Amanda’s right hand was the candlestick she had grabbed from the mantle. He saw the bottom of the base and remembered the old woman’s words, ‘It will open for you when love and the need are the strongest.’ Not sure what he was doing or why, it took what strength he had left to pull himself forward to grasp her hand. He couldn’t free the candlestick from her hand but could lift to see the latch. It opened. Inside, he saw a rolled-up piece of paper. Not paper… some kind of parchment he slid out to read the writing.

Time within the candle wax
you hold now in your hand.
Sixty minutes in the molten drops
like hourglass grains of sand.
The wick when kindled for one you love
gives life for that single span.
Not enough to live your dreams
but enough for a moment planned.
Light it with heart’s last flame
to bring back at your command
a loved one from what was death,
now filled with life’s fire fanned.

The matches from the mantle were on the floor, too. Everything was slipping away as he fumbled with the box. Getting one out, the first wouldn’t strike and snapped. A black veil was coming down as he got another and struck the match. He held the flame to the wick. Dropping the burnt match, he held Amanda’s hand in his left as his right wrote on the tile.

✽✽✽

“What’s the blob wrapped around her hand?”

“Metal melted around the fist, but didn’t burn her.” The medical examiner stood, “She matches the identification upstairs for Amanda Mickson.”

“What’s her body doing down here on the street with this mook?” The homicide detective nudged with his foot the body of what had been a scruffy-faced man. “While her husband’s body is upstairs, his throat half slashed open and another man dead in the bedroom with his head bashed in like this guy?” He toed the body again.

“Now here’s the thing,” the examiner took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. “Where’s the blood?”

“What you mean, where’s the blood? There’s blood all over that guy?” He kneeled and pointed at the mook.

“That’s his blood… I’m saying Amanda Mickson’s. Her jugular was cut. I checked, and she’s bone dry.”

“What?” He checked his wristwatch, “Been a long fuckin’ day, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying Amanda Mickson is down here and did this guy in, busted his head open. But all her blood is upstairs. There’s no way she comes down all this way, chasing this guy, catches and kills him.”

The detective shrugged, “Don’t know, but I think the two fuckers deserved what they got.” He recalled what he had seen upstairs. Someone had written, had to be Peter Mickson, in blood: ‘Read the note from the candle. I love you Amanda…’ and surrounded with a heart.

“I think she was dead before her husband. But I won’t know for sure until I get them on the table,” the ME shook his head. Not sure what to think or how he would write this up, he beckoned for the men to bag her. “Why would he leave a message for his dead wife?”

“Don’t know… but seems she didn’t wait for no judge and jury,” the detective grunted as he stood. “Let’s go upstairs, I want to see the note again.”

The medical examiner turned to him, “I read that and it made me think of something. You recall your Bible?” At the detective’s puzzled expression, he shook his head and continued, “A line from the Old Testament in the Song of Solomon:

The passion of love

bursting into flame

is more powerful than death,

stronger than the grave.”

# # #

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