This story is by Soleah Kenna Sadge and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Plop. A drop of black ink had escaped the tip of her fountain pen and dropped on the blank yellowed page. She stared at the foreboding stain for a few more seconds. Shaking her head, she set the folio aside and took a clean new one.
This letter had to look perfect.
A date she cherished: the National Letter Writing Day and their anniversary. Twenty years ago, she married her childhood friend. That day, she had handed him the first letter, her vows. Every year after that, she never missed sending him one on that day.
This one needed to be special though, so she decided to make it vintage. He would appreciate the touch. After all, wasn’t he the one who pushed her toward her dream job as an art restorer? This morning, she bought a new black fountain pen, black ink, yellowed paper, and old stamps. Now sitting at her desk, she nibbled on the end of her pen, sensing something was missing.
She slapped her forehead. Of course, she should have completed the vintage feel and gotten candle wax and a seal. A beautiful seal with their initials intertwined, looking all Victorian and fancy. But there was no time now; the mahogany tall case clock already struck two. She always gave him her letter at 4:13 p.m., at the exact time they had said, “I do.”
Her eyes fell on the corner of her antique secretary desk where a crumbling, untouched candle stood. “For the time in need,” her great-aunt had said when she handed it to her ten years ago on the worse day of her life. Until her last breath, the old lady had asked her if she’d used the candle.
“Did you need the candle yet?”
“No, great-aunt. The lights never went off.” Plus, she couldn’t stand its smell. The only time she had ever touched it was to place it on her desk. Its nasty smell stuck to her fingers for a week. Washing her face without gagging had been prowess, so she couldn’t bear to imagine its scent if she lit it.
Her great-aunt would just shake her head and purse her wrinkled lips. Her breathing was shallow, yet she said, “It doesn’t only shed light. Wish and light. I told you.”
But her great-aunt must have heard the disbelief in her voice. “If you need something, you’ll stand its pungency.”
Those had been her great-aunt’s last words. Was now the time to use it? Her throat tightened just at the thought. Her eyes went from the candle to the letter. She desperately wanted it to be perfect. With a sigh, she surrendered. The time had come: she’d have to use this candle wax.
Everything was now ready for this big day. She shivered. Her heartbeat was strong, although more from excitement than fear. She had finally mustered the courage. It took her ten years, but now she was ready.
I’m coming, Love.
She loosened her grip around her fountain pen and moved closer to her desk, sitting on the edge of her chair. She dipped her pen in the ink and started.
I have written you so many letters that can all be summarized in three words: I adore you.
What is left now is hindsight, although I wish you received this letter on our wedding day.
Perhaps, if you hadn’t gone to study abroad, we would have spent one more year together. Perhaps, if you had changed careers earlier, we would have enjoyed our dream city more. Perhaps, if you hadn’t trusted John’s lies on that September night and acted on them, we would have kept the best friend we had.
But if I had stopped smoking, you would still be alive.
Hands shaking, she raised the paper and blew on the ink to dry it before folding it with meticulous execution. She crinkled up her nose as she took the candle and lit it with the small lighter she always kept in her pocket as a reminder of her crime. The acidic smell slapped her in the face, but she held her breath.
Through teary eyes, she dropped the wax to seal the letter before blowing out the flame. Coughing and waving the smoke away from her face as she set the candle aside, she looked at the ultimate letter. Well, she hardly got her vintage ceremony right. Since there was no seal to press on the wax, she used her letter opener to flatten it on the sides and with its sharp point wrote the date: Dec. 7, 2001. Signed off and sealed, this last letter had become her first. If he had read this one on their wedding day, she would be preparing for their anniversary dinner tonight.
She headed downstairs and stopped by the bookshelf in front of the entrance door. She had set his smiling face, relaxed and stoic, on the middle shelf, so his picture was the first thing she saw each time she entered their house and the last one when she left. A single tear escaped and ran down her cheeks. She wiped it off and her lips stretched in a sad smile.
She was ready to go see him now.
A chilly breeze welcomed her as soon as she stepped through the massive metallic gates of the cemetery. It was formerly the backyard of a rectory. The old tree bearing their initials stood tall and strong, as he once used to be. She touched the bark with shaking fingers and circled the tree three times, as was their tradition. They would hold hands and run around it, laughing and chanting promises.
Her lips quirked up, and she turned to the small headstone with only a name on it. She hadn’t wanted to write anything else, and instead kept the “loving husband and eternal friend” branded on her heart. Engraving these words in stone would have put a limit to them, while within her they were spoken with each breath.
She knelt and with her gloved hand moved the wet soil aside. The torn corner of an envelope appeared. After setting the new letter on top of it, she covered the letters with earth again. A tear traveled down her cheek and fell on her dirty glove. With a soft, “I love you,” she stood up, touched the tree again, and took out a small bottle from the pocket of her skirt.
“This is my last letter. The one I should have given you the first time. Please, don’t be mad at me, but I can’t go on. I am coming to join you.”
Her voice had sounded decided, but her heart squeezed as her trembling fingers tightened around the glass bottle. Taking a deep breath to give her courage, she twisted the glass bottle cap off. Before she tilted her head back to drink its lethal content, a memory sprang to her mind. His last moments. She had stood by his bedside, and he had asked her to smile so he could leave in peace. He had gone with a serene face.
She wanted the same, too. His framed picture on the bookshelf facing the entrance door played in front of her eyes. She needed his smile to go peacefully. Slowly, she closed the bottle and put it back in her pocket, right by the lighter. Tall and straight, she headed back to her car and went home.
She pushed the door open and froze. The keys fell from her hand. No smile welcomed her home. His portrait was gone, replaced by a piece of old tarnished paper. She took slow steps to the bookshelf and squinted at the framed document. Her stomach churned up as her eyes scanned through the few sentences.
She set a stiff hand on her chest, willing her heart to calm its pounding. It was the letter she had just written a few hours ago and buried in his grave.
Through her foggy mind, a faint voice reached her. “Honey? You’re already back?”
The voice joined her. “Oh, your first letter.”
He smiled and hugged her. Numb at first, her blood rushed through her veins again, and she tightened her arms around him. Unshed tears flooded her face as her heart exploded in her chest.
He chuckled. “Your imagination was quite vivid and a little macabre.”
She had held her salvation for ten years. A candle. She could have used her great-aunt’s gift before and saved herself the heartache. With a sob, she accepted her new truth: nothing preceded its time. Deep inside, she knew the candle was now gone. Her great-aunt would have never given it to her on the day of her husband’s death.
Cheeks blushing, she kissed him now and promised the universe to make this second chance count.
“Love?” He set his brown eyes on hers. “You never told me. How did you know about John?”