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Candles and Waiting
August, summer, and the wonderful season of vacations and good times was slowly coming to a close. However, the dreaded heat wave wasn’t. Record temperatures had been scorching the area all month. Most people didn’t stay outside for long, and when they did, they were wearing minimal clothing, and were probably looking for some way to cool off. I didn’t like it; the heat often caused unbearable conditions to work in, especially since I have to wear several pounds of protective gear. I wasn’t the only one complaining, either. My buddies were still muttering about it as we climbed into the truck, off to put out the fifth fire in two weeks.
The road we took out of town wound past the suburbs and into the surrounding forest, where there were more rural neighborhoods. It was probably another forest fire. Or a barbeque gone awry; crazy people, trying to cook outside in this ridiculous heat. They don’t even think to have water nearby.
We pulled up the driveway. A tower of flames waited to greet us…
He said a few weeks. Weeks. That was back in December. Now it’s August.
But she wasn’t going to blame him. No, it wasn’t Stephen’s fault. The army has a funny way of telling time. They deploy you, saying it will be a month or two, and give you back to your family in a year. The cruel, wicked government is the one to blame. They are the ones keeping a lonely wife up at night, wondering what is keeping her lover away.
But she does not give up. She does not think of the thousands of possibilities- violent, sadistic possibilities- of why he hasn’t returned home. She has not lost hope. This is why, every night, she lights a candle, and places it in the front windowsill. He asked her to. He wanted a sign that she was waiting for his return.
Every night. Every night since the dawn of last spring. There were often times when she had to go out every week to buy more matches and candles.
Candles. So many. So damn many candles. She left the light going for him. Once in a while, the flame died before her insomnia did. So she would light another, and once again attempt to fall asleep before the flickering went out. At first, she stayed up almost every night. If he returned at a late hour, she could run out to greet him. Now, she only wished she could escape to unconsciousness. It was better than the maddening grief, this staying up all hours of the night, sick with despair. There was crying, so much crying. Or she would just sit on the edge of her bed with a shocked expression, unable to even form a thought.
Sometimes she lit more than one. Maybe he had forgotten where the house was. It had been so long; maybe, if the light is bright enough, he will make it home.
But her Stephen never did return. A letter sat in the mailbox from his captain, proclaiming his death. But she never saw it. She had long since stopped looking for his letters. She only had one from him- one he sent before he left.
The nightly ritual was becoming manic. Sometimes she would light until she ran out of matches. Sometimes she would just sit over her precious little flame until the wick ran down, and all but scream at it for going out. Too much expectation and disappointment strung out for too long had come to this.
It had come to this…
This had gone on far too long. Tonight would be the night, she was sure of it. So she went about lighting all of the candles in the house, until they perched in every window, on every table and available surface, and wherever else they could fit. Dozens. Hundreds. Countless flickers, which any person could see without a doubt from the front drive- and probably the highway, several hundred feet away.
She flitted across a floor already coated in wax, tending to the flames. Hands blacked with burns quickly put out matches. She was excited. He was going to see this. He had to.
She was too excited. The floor, as aforementioned, had more wax than what would be considered safe. I am sure you can guess the ending…
Actually, too bad. I like morbid endings, so I will tell you anyway.
All this hurrying about stunted her caution and she slipped and fell, knocking down a well-lit table in the process. Bright spots of heat rained down, reaching for every flammable surface: carpet, furniture, her clothes, her hair. She screamed in agony, writhing in pain. Her precious little flames, which she had given life and had such belief in, turned on her. As the house was engulfed, the other candles fed the fire.
Quite the appropriate twist, isn’t it? Her unique expression of love became her manic obsession, and was finally her demise…
This house was past saving. All we could do was put out the flames, and hope that the surrounding forest did not catch as well. After the fire was out, we scoured the area for survivors. Chances were improbable, but we had to check.
As I crept through the sultry, charred rooms, one detail became apparent to me: there was a lot of glass. But not in shards, as if the windows broke. They were in round, uniform shapes. I finally picked one up, and recognized it. It was one of those things that candles are set in, similar to the ones my wife has. Was this person a collector?
We found one body. Or the remains of one, anyway. It was always a sad thing, to know we didn’t make it to the scene in time to save the victims. Our job is to aid people, and failure is an awful burden. None of us would be in a very good mood for the rest of the day.
The other firefighters and I walked slowly back to the truck, with solemn expressions, to call for someone to identify the body. As I crossed the front lawn, something I saw caught my attention. It was a piece of paper skittering over the ground. It must have blown through an open window in the house before this whole mess started.
Out of curiosity, I picked it up. Maybe it would give us information about who this person is. Well, was…
My Dearest Julia,
It is in these sad times that I wonder why I decided to join our nation’s army. But then I remember that it is my duty to fight and defend this country, whatever the reason may be. Still, I hate to leave you. Each minute away from you is a minute that lacks true happiness. Though it is my passion to fight for American rights and serve my fellow citizens, I look forward to the day I return home, and hold you in my arms again.
Until then, all we have are the letters. This is my first. I am writing this the day before I have to go, and I will leave it in our mailbox for you to find soon enough. I know you are eager for me to be granted leave, but at this point there are no comforting words to be said, except this: I will surely be back in a few weeks. I am not even going to be on the field, unless something terrible happens and more soldiers are needed. But I wouldn’t count on that, so I won’t be gone long. Expect me back before spring. In fact, leave a candle burning in the windowsill through the night, around the time I am to return. If I should come back late, I will see this, and know you are waiting for me.
I am eager to see you again, my lovely wife. I will write as often as I can, and I will be missing you so much more than you know.