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Lingering Flame

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Rain pounded against the roof and windows, drowning out the floorboards that groaned beneath Edith’s feet. The gas lamps in the McMichael mansion—now hers as much as theirs—had long been extinguished. As she passed, she could hear the McMichaels stir in their beds, then fall still. They had not been called up by the charge that pervaded the house; the electricity that both threatened and beckoned.

A glow emanated from beneath the ballroom doors. Edith descended the stairs, crept toward the doorway, then hesitated. Each time he called for her, each time she came, they carved a deeper groove, like a river eroding away rock. If this went on long enough, she might one day cleave herself from Alan, from her friends, from the world of the living. She reached for one of the knobs, the chill of its metal slithering deliciously across her palm. Once more, she determined. Just once more.

She opened the doors to a nearly black room, its furnishings lost in darkness. In its center floated a taper candle, its delicate flame motionless in midair. The mirrors and windows reflected this point of light, forming a constellation that stretched to the far walls.

Edith approached, anticipation swelling in her chest. She extended her hand towards the candle and felt a set of incorporeal fingers, light as spider silk. Her touch conjured a plume of smoke, which suffused the hand, then an arm, a chest, a neck, and at last a face. Shadows gathered around mournful eyes and in the deep hollows of cheeks, above which an ephemeral stream of blood trickled toward the ceiling.

“Edith,” Thomas murmured. His voice was strained, yet smoky and soft. The nearness of it never failed to astound her. His name weighed heavy on her tongue, but she could not bring herself to say it, fearing it would break a spell and he would vanish.

He closed his hand around hers, pressing her skin to the warm wax. He circled his other arm around her back, enveloping her like fog. She reached for his shoulder and felt his ghostly flesh yield beneath her fingertips. The residue of countless waltzes and minuets seeped from the draperies and upholstery, and at the sound of a note only they could hear, he swept her across the floor. The hem of her nightdress hissed as it brushed over the wood. His steps were so swift and his hold so powerful, it seemed he might pull her with him into the air. Exhilaration rose in her throat and snatched away her breath. The flame above their hands wriggled and stretched and threatened to blink out as they whirled from one end of the room to another. Edith did not dare look away from Thomas’s face, which appeared faint in the wavering light. With every movement he drew her back to the night of their first dance, long before the lies, the violence, the death of possibility.

A translucent bead of wax rolled down the taper, fell, and spattered on the floor. Thomas stopped as though a bell had tolled. Air flowed back into Edith’s lungs. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “There’s no-one but me.” No onlookers, no Lucille, no Father, no Alan. She reached up to stroke his hair, which floated from her fingertips.

“No one but you,” Thomas whispered, his breath cold against her ear. His gaze shifted for a moment to the flame, then back to her. “And there never will be.”

Without breaking his hold, he pressed her backwards toward the wall. She surrendered to his lead. Beneath the firelit arms of a candelabra he kissed her. Smoke filtered past her lips and onto her tongue. Edith tasted bitter poison and regret, and with them a sweetness she’d never know the like of again. His right hand glided over her rib cage, stroked her jaw and neck, and swept over her breast, while his left held the candle fast. She reached for him, struggling for purchase, fearing his spectral body might dissolve beneath her hands.

Springs creaked upstairs. Thomas sighed and let Edith go, his essence ebbing from her lips. He took her hand in his, gave it an evanescent kiss, and cupped her hand around their shared flame.

“Thomas, please, stay.”

Nevertheless, he began to recede, his hands and arms vanishing. As his fingers disappeared, the candle trembled. Edith tightened her grip, holding fast even as a drop of hot wax struck her skin. His sorrowful eyes were the last to disappear, taking her in until they could no longer maintain their form.

“You’ll keep it lit, I know, until the time comes,” he said in a voice already an echo.

A draft flowed through the room. The sensation of desire that had pervaded the house, that called her from her sleep, finally dissipated. In her solitude, Edith drew the candle close to her and cradled the lingering flame in her palm, shielding it from the dark.