FIVE CANDLES FOR THE APOCALYPSE
by Michelle Muenzler
The first candle is the biggest—it’s from when we met, don’t you remember? Everything was still Christmas and pumpkin spice despite the news, and we found ourselves reaching for the last unscented candle on the shelf…and when our hands bumped, we both apologized at the same time, then blushed. Around us, people were screaming and snapping up essentials from each others’ carts like Black Friday. So much screaming.
We were different, though. Quiet. Two lonely ships adrift in a sea of chaos.
I still don’t know why you invited me, a complete stranger, back to your apartment.
But I’m glad you did.
The second candle is from our first blackout. We were going to light the candle, you and I, but we couldn’t find the matches. And how silly is that really, in retrospect? To know where the candles are but not the matches?
Yes, I remember fumbling blindly through junk drawers, tossing stray pens and paper clips everywhere in the dark. Outside, sirens wailed. Somewhere, a car crunched into another.
But we were laughing. Probably because crying already hurt too much.
That first blackout was the worst in many ways.
And yet, what I wouldn’t trade to go back to that day.
To go back with you.
The third candle is from your birthday.
The cake was terrible. There were no eggs, of course, those being a luxury by that point. Same as butter. But there was a bit of sugar. Enough to pretend, at least.
Still, I remember the scrunch of your face when you took that first bite. As you choked it down. And afterward, you smiled and we danced in the living room to old cassettes you’d never gotten around to discarding. Cheated at Scrabble. Watched the moon rise and whispered about what we’d do after.
It was a perfect day. The most perfect I can remember.
As for the lone birthday candle I’d scrounged from the pantry to set atop your cake, we never did light it.
I wish I could remember why.
The fourth candle was your neighbor’s.
The blackouts were a constant by that point, as was the screaming. But there were no government advisories on staying safe, so we did the only thing we knew—hunker in the closet with a blanket drawn overhead and wait for the power to return.
I nearly peed my pants when someone banged on the door.
We didn’t know it was your neighbor at the time. Only that someone or something was yelling in an incoherent language, beating at our door like a drum.
It was hours before it ended. Hours more before we dared open the door. And what we saw, what was left of her—
I don’t want to remember this one anymore.
Let’s move on.
Are you tired still? You were so tired, at the end. The pools of your eyes were gray, your shoulders sunk like wrecks. I didn’t know anyone could be so tired.
I felt it too. I know you won’t believe me, if you can still hear—and can you? Can you hear me?
No. I’m sure you can’t.
I suppose that’s one thing to be happy for. At least you’re no longer tired. No longer afraid.
At some point, it’s hard to be anything else. You’re just another bit of flotsam, subject to the storm.
And not all flotsam makes it ashore.
You never saw this one. I found it behind the shelf at the corner bodega that last scavenging run. It smells like cinnamon. I’d almost forgotten what cinnamon smells like, but yeah, definitely cinnamon. Obnoxiously so.
I know it became a joke after our first few failures to light any candles. Why start now, you’d said as I revealed the matches finally uncovered in the laundry closet of all places. We shouldn’t have to be afraid of the dark.
And so our candle stash remained unlit. Despite the blackouts. Despite what happened to your neighbor. Despite what’s happened to everyone in this increasingly silent world.
I thought you’d be okay if I went out. I was only a few hours. Barely any time at all.
But your calm was a lie.
I wasn’t there when you needed me. The darkness came at last to our apartment, and you decided to open the door. To let it in.
I was never enough—I know that now, and I’m sorry for it. I was just a stranger in the end, a random person occupying a shared space for a while…then not.
But I’m not sorry for lighting these candles today. For setting them aflame, one by one.
This last one—the cinnamon—is pretty awful. You’d have hated it.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’d have loved the smell.
Because at least it would have reminded you of living.
And some days, that reminder is all we have.