This story is by Wei Ern and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
2 months 1 week
The flickering candle was all Stephen could see. It both warmed the heart but burned everything else. It burned the rest of world until it was only him and the candle.
“Hello, is anyone in there?”
“Huh,” Stephen snapped back to reality. “Wha – Sorry, you were saying?”
“I said, my eyes are down here. Why are you looking above my head?”
Stephen dragged his eyes away from the candle and down at her. Her thin black hair framed her pale face, highlighting the hollow below her eyes.
“Wait,” the girl reached up to her head. “Am I going bald? Is that the reason why you keep looking up there?”
“What?” Stephen replied, shaking his head. “Elena, you’re not going bald.”
Still covering her head, Elena bunched up her knees, rocking on the hospital bed. “You liar. The doctors told me I will lose my hair.”
“Elena, will you cut it out?” Stephen said. “You’re not going to lose your hair.”
“Then, you need to promise me.” Elena shot back. “Stop looking above my head and start looking at me.”
Stephen was taken aback by the sudden activity from Elena. Her thin hair. Her ashen skin. Her stick-like limbs underneath the hospital gown. Illness was written all over her. Scribbled on every surface like his class notes. Elena was sick.
But her words and actions spoke life. Her eyes were bright and shining. That was Elena.
A candle burning away, but still burning bright.
Stephen could not help but smiled. “Fine, I promise. I will look at you.”
“Good.” Elena remained quiet after that. It took a while until she spoke again. “Promise me one more thing, will you, Stephen?”
“Yeah, of course. What is it?”
“Promise me that you will wake up each day with your head held high. Promise you will remember to look up at the sky.” Elena turned over to look at Stephen in the eye. “Promise me you will live.”
“I promise.” Stephen answered. “And you will be by my side. And for that, you need to take your meds.”
Elena began to groan and complain, but Stephen stood firm. Elena hated taking her pills and Stephen hated forcing her. But there was no other way. Only by taking these medicine will Elena get better.
It had to.
Relenting, Elena took the pills. “But know that I am doing it for you.”
“Yeah, thanks.” Stephen replied.
“Why it had to be so bitter. Can’t they, like, sugar-coat it?” Elena forced the bitter pill down her throat. She looked down before adding, “Will it really make me better?”
Her sudden question caught Stephen off guard. “Of course.” Stephen forced the words out. “It will definitely help you.”
It had to.
Stephen opened his mouth but nothing came out. Elena seldom asked so many questions. It was tough enough convincing himself, but to also convince Elena… It was killing him.
“Sure. You have to trust me.” His words felt robotic. Fake.
It had to.
Stephen waited as the machine poured out his drink.
You shouldn’t drink those. It’s so sweet how you stand it?
That was what Elena would be saying to him if she was there. If she was anywhere but on the hospital bed. A month ago Elena could at least walked around the hospital grounds. Nowadays, going to the toilet was enough to make her breathless.
The doctors didn’t know what was happening to her. Or even what to do. All those pills, Stephen knew it only served to make her feel better. Nothing else.
To carpet the walk to the guillotine so to speak.
It all started 3 months ago. When Elena began to cough and her temperature rose.
When Stephen began to see the candle above her.
Stephen knew the meaning of the candle right when he first saw it appeared above Elena. Immediately the numbers appeared in his mind.
It just clocked down to a month, right at the stroke of midnight.
The machine had finished pouring out his drink.
He knew those pills will do her no good. He knew bringing her to the hospital will do her no good. He knew those tests will do her no good. He knew nothing will do her good.
When the candle goes out, so does Elena.
It was all Stephen could do to make Elena believed she had a fighting chance. That everything will be ok.
It took everything to lie to her.
It had been days since Stephen came to visit. He used to come every day. Elena thought to herself as she fiddled the mask around her face.
She hated it.
But it couldn’t be helped. That morning her lungs just gave way. No one told her but Elena knew it was soon before the rest of her followed. Her kidneys were goners since last week.
Elena knew from the start she will lose this one.
The only thing that made her kept fighting was Stephen. That silly boy believed she could be saved. He wanted to believe so much that Elena didn’t have the heart to tell him otherwise.
So, she played along. Ate those pills. Had those tests.
However, now that Stephen had stopped coming, Elena didn’t know what to fight for. Just like her body, her one support was failing away.
Too bad for Paris.
1 week 3 days
“Hey, Elena.” Stephen greeted with a forced smile.
Elena was lying on the bed with the oxygen mask, face turned away.
“Sorry, I couldn’t come lately.” Stephen apologized lamely. “I had exams, assignments…”
He was used to Elena not replying, but this silence was different. There was a strangeness to it. Only then Stephen noticed Elena looking at him.
Her eyes. They were… Stranger.
“Who are you?”
Stephen looked at the box. It contained some of Elena’s stuff. And hopefully, it could jolt some of her memories. Elena’s memories… They were burning away just like the rest of her.
Decided to do something other than just sitting and looking, Stephen took out the first thing his hand touched.
It was Elena’s notebook. It was all about their trip. The trip the two of them were supposed to take before she got sick. Stephen skimmed through as her voice rang inside his head.
We have to go there.
This place looks interesting too.
The memories of them together. Those happier times hit him hard.
Then, realization hit him even harder.
Stephen gasped when he saw Elena. Her hair was all gone now. Additional to the mask, there were now multiple tubes and machine hooked to her. And her eyes. They used to shine bright and lively. But now they were half-closed, dull.
They were dying.
“You liar.” Her voice was soft like the breeze on a windless day. “You lied to me.”
“What you mean?” Stephen tried to control his voice. “When did I lied to you?”
At least she recognizes me now…
Elena gathered her strength before replying. “You told me… I won’t lose… hair…”
“Sorry,” Stephen tried to smile unsuccessfully. “Can’t be right all the time.”
Another span of silence filled the air.
“I am so tired.”
“Then, rest.” Stephen replied immediately, wanting to fill the silence. “I will be by your side. Don’t worry.”
Stephen sat beside her, drawing her close. “Remember about out Paris trip?”
Elena didn’t reply, but Stephen continued anyway.
“We planned all those places to go and food to eat. Remember when we couldn’t decide to go to the pyramid or the war museum.”
“I remember… sunrise… Eiffel tower…” Elena finally replied.
“Ah, that… You were very excited about it.” His mind made up, Stephen continued. “I know what. Imagine we are in Paris. Imagine sunrise at Eiffel tower.”
“That… nice…” Elena replied slowly before going quiet again, her eyes closed.
Stephen turned to look at her face. She looked so peaceful. She looked… happy. His gaze turned upward, finding the candle shorter. Two more nights and it will burn itself out. But, for now, it was still burning bright. Just like her.
A candle burning away, but still burning bright.
With a breath, Stephen blew it out.
Stephen stood in front of the grave.
Elena had always known. She knew she would not make it. She was just going along with everything.
Just for him.
Stephen thought he was fighting for her. Lying for her. Pretending for her. However, it was all for himself. He couldn’t accept the fact Elena was going to die. But alas, the inevitable couldn’t be avoided. Elena will die. Stephen couldn’t change that.
But at least he could make sure Elena will leave as Elena. Without her memories, Elena wouldn’t be… Elena. Then, she would truly be gone.
So, before she burned herself out, Stephen decided to blow the candle. At least Elena went away as a candle.
A candle still burning bright.