Elise held a candle in one hand and a knife in the other. The panic that had simmered in her skin subsided, and she could breathe easily again.
The candle was one of Maxine’s. She collected them the way some women collected cats. When Jonathan first introduced Elise to his older sister, he brought up the candle thing within five minutes, as if it were a defining trait. Later, when he took Elise to Maxine’s flat for dinner, Elise noted the malformed skylines of half-melted candles on the mantelpiece and in the windowsills, the spaces where other people would display family photos. Teardrops of solid wax ran down their sides. Charred wicks bowed to the room. Elise pressed her fingers into the hollows the flames had left behind.
That Christmas, Jonathan gave Elise a lavender-scented candle, a gift from his sister.
“It means she likes you,” he said.
Later, when Elise arrived at Maxine’s door with hair still smelling of smoke and perfume despite the countless hospital showers, the candles had gone. Crusted wax rings and oily smears were all that remained of the collection.
“I threw them away,” said Maxine, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. Elise couldn’t tell if Maxine’s tears were for her brother or her collection.
The authorities advised Elise not to leave Maxine’s flat before the inquest, so she passed the time opening cupboards and drawers, skim-reading Maxine’s books and trying on her clothes while she was at work. She traced the waxy smears on the bare mantelpiece.
She did not deserve to be here.
Her lungs grew tight, her breathing short. She had felt this before: the fear, the panic, burning through her from the inside out. She laid down on the floor and drank the carpet-dusty air like water, anything to quench it, to flush it out, to feel calm and still again. That was when she spotted the candle under Maxine’s sofa, white and unscented with a clean, virgin wick. A refugee from the clear-out, safe and hidden for Elise to find. She rolled onto her belly to retrieve it, then fetched Maxine’s vegetable knife from the kitchen.
The blade sunk easily into the wax. She cleaved away the corners in solid chunks that fell like broken china into her lap. She whittled away the jagged edges she had created, then set to work excavating a nose, a jawline. The knife sat in her hand like a fountain pen as she traced out earlobes and arching eyebrows. Working entirely from memory, she carved Jonathan back into existence.
While she traced the outline of her boyfriend’s wide lips, considering the expression he should wear, the knife slipped and sliced off a piece of her thumb. From then on, her movements lent a peachy flush to his skin, her blood smearing across the wax.
Jonathan had asked Elise time and again when she would light the candle Maxine had given her. It had sat on the hearth for years. It was there to be used, he would say. Did she not like the gift? Was she ungrateful? Elise had not then known how to articulate the reason, even to herself: that she could not bear to set the pristine, white wick aflame and inhale its cloying scent. She did not want to unsettle the shadows in their home with flickering, dancing candlelight.
Elise was almost finished carving when she heard the key in the door. Maxine stared at her for a moment, then set down her bag and knelt beside her.
“What are you doing?” Maxine asked. She spoke gently, without anger. Her tone made Elise pause. All she had left to do were his eyes. The irises were flat, the pupils absent. Slowly, cautiously, Maxine removed the knife from Elise’s bloody, trembling hand.
“I just wanted to see him again,” said Elise.
While Maxine went to fetch a towel, Elise examined her creation. Though as small and unseeing as a baby’s skull, it was unmistakably Jonathan. He scowled up at her through bloody wax, a silent, shrunken double of the man who had watched her so closely in life.
Maxine took her brother’s waxen head from Elise and set it on the vacant mantelpiece, then pressed the towel into Elise’s cut. Together they watched as the fibres blushed scarlet.
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Maxine. “You know I don’t blame you, right?”
Elise nodded. The towel would be ruined.
“You’ll need antiseptic for this,” said Maxine. “I’ll nip out and get some. Hold up your hand, keep pressure on it, okay?”
Elise wondered what kind of sister Maxine had been. If Jonathan had given Maxine her first candle, if she had accepted it to keep him happy. She wondered if Maxine had noticed, back then, how anger could spark in Jonathan’s eyes if he did not get his way.
Alone in the fading light of Maxine’s front room, Elise caught Jonathan’s lifeless eye. The panic began to rise in her once more. It fluttered in her chest, desperate to be free. She let the bloody towel and the cracked, flaking wax fall to the carpet, then locked the front door and retrieved the near-empty matchbook she had found on Maxine’s bookcase. She snapped the last match free and struck it against the matchbook’s rough outer paper. It sparked into life in her hand. The dancing light cast flickering shadows across Jonathan’s waxen face, softening his expression and curling his sneering mouth into the smile he wore in public. If only he could have kept smiling when he was alone with her.
The match shriveled. As the flame grasped to scorch her skin she held it, at last, to the wick. Jonathan’s expression fell. He looked as angry as he had been that last night in the flat, before the drink stopped his mouth and closed his eyes and Elise finally listened to the panic that rose within her every time he started to shout.
She breathed in the memory of lavender-scented smoke and felt calm. For years she had struggled to find a way to stop that fluttering, choking sensation in her lungs, the anxiety that Jonathan’s bad moods provoked in her. Now she knew how. All she had to do was watch him burn again.
Amy Slack is an editor and aspiring short story writer from the North-East of England, currently based in London. Her work has been featured by FlashBack Fiction, The Cabinet of Heed, and Visual Verse. You can find her on Twitter @amyizzylou, or follow her blog, Amy’s Ever-Growing Bookshelf, at amyizzylou.wordpress.com.