The Burning Flame

The flickering flame of a burning taper danced cautiously in the window. Sitting on the bed in the room Kevin and I had shared for four years, I stared at the flame and wondered how long I would wallow in self-pity. I had buried Kevin over six months before, and still, I could not bring myself to get on with my life. Our room, once so bright, airy and warm, was now a grave of sorts, for when Kevin died, the part of me that was bright, airy and warm seemed to have died with him.

Turning on the bedside lamp, I picked up the portrait that had become my sole companion. Smiling back at me were two people I no longer knew: a jet-haired thirty-one-year-old Kevin and a smiling twenty-three-year old whom I vaguely recognized as a happier version of myself. The portrait, taken on our wedding day in 1986, was my last reminder of a great love that blazed suddenly and died too young.

Carefully replacing the portrait on the nightstand, I turned off the light and thought about the disagreeable cards life had dealt me. I was a widow at twenty-nine and found no reason to carry on a life that once had been so promising and now looked so bleak.

Rising and again turning on the lamp, I left the bed to fumble with the bottom drawer of the nightstand. The candle's flame had flickered out, and I had notions of relighting it. Before I could locate a book of matches, however, my eyes bounced to the cold, steel box that occupied much of the drawer's space. Hesitating a mere moment, I lightly grasped the steel encasement and removed it from the drawer, gently placing it on the bed. Realizing I had yet to light the candle, I turned my attention back to the drawer but decided not to relight the flame. After all, I saw nothing bright about my future.

Opening the steel box, I carefully removed my husband's gun. Stroking it lightly, I decided what I had to do. Feeling better than I had in months, I tightened my hold on the gun and walked over to the window and looked out at the dark night. It was cloudy, and there was no moon. Staring into the void, I saw nothing to give me reason to live. Kevin was gone and nothing would bring him back. I could not accept that I would live the rest of my life without him and raised the gun to my temple.

Tears streamed down my face as I attempted to convince myself that pulling the trigger was the only way to end a six-month-long misery. I wanted to do it, but before I could, painful memories flooded my mind. All I could think of were the many happy days that Kevin and I had shared. We were different, but it did not matter. We were happy. I pressed the gun harder to my temple, but unwillingly, I slipped into excruciating memories of the past.

* * *

At twenty-one, I was a serious-minded college student who studied on Friday and Saturday nights. I would soon graduate and was looking forward to earning my diploma. To earn money to pay my tuition, I worked part time at a local video store. The hours were long, the pay not very good, but I was a responsible person and worked hard to do the best I could.

One morning as I opened the store for business, the bell on the door jangled. My first customer of the day had arrived, but I was under the counter flipping computer buttons. I sensed that someone was at the counter, but I had two more switches to flip.

"Excuse me," an irritated voice growled. "Is there a person back there or a big rat?"

Behind the counter, I finished flipping switches and crawled out from under the counter's ledge. My face was burning--from hanging upside down or from the man's nasty comments I did not know. Trying to compose myself, I lingered a moment and crouched behind the counter. I was angry at the man, but I did not wish to be rude. Before I could rise and greet him, he spoke again.

"Miss, are you deaf?" he yelled. "Come out from behind that counter this instant!"

Rising from behind the counter, I pasted on my most winning smile and said, "May I help you, sir?" When I saw the stranger, the smile was immediately swept from my face. I found myself staring into a very warm, expressive pair of coffee-brown eyes, definitely a contrast to the stranger's rude words. Recovering, I tapped a few keys on the keyboard in front of me and waited patiently for a reply.

The stranger stared at me a moment, walked around the counter and came to a stop less than six inches from me. Slowly, he held out his hand and replied, "Kevin Griffis. I'm the regional manager, and I'm here to help you." After a moment of silence, he spoke again. "Do you have a name, Miss? Or should I just call you Miss?" he prodded. There was an ever-so-slight smile on his face, and I knew he was amused at my silence.

"I'm Michelle," I stammered, shaking his hand. Quickly, I whirled around to grab a billing report. "Shall we get to work?" I tossed over my shoulder.

Kevin put his hand on my arm. "Yes, Michelle," he answered. "We'll get to work." He smiled at me, took the billing report, and walked to the desk in the back to begin the records audit.

The billing reports were finished very quickly that day, and Kevin was gone all too soon. I had never paid more than a passing interest in anyone, but Kevin caught my fancy. As it turned out, I had caught his, as well, for he became a familiar sight around the video store, usually coming two to three days a week. Gerald, the owner, found this amusing because Kevin had rarely graced the store more than once a month before. Now, he and I practically lived there, but it was some time before either of us was willing to admit why.

Eventually, Kevin asked me out to dinner, and I eagerly accepted. He was older, a business man, and a college graduate. I was barely of legal drinking age, still in school, and had no idea that I would be able to live up to Kevin's success. However, we saw each other frequently and became very close. After seven months, we were engaged to be married and could not have been happier.

* * *

Life with Kevin was never simple. When we were planning our wedding, I became ware of how different the two of us actually were. I was anticipating a huge wedding and an even bgger reception. Kevin, though, had imagined a much different affair. While I was looking at the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church in Athens, he was eyeing the smaller chapel. I was pleased to note that the sanctuary would comfortably seat 800 people; Kevin was appalled that the chapel held 100.

I had my heart set on a long white wedding gown, tons of family members I could barely get along with, and a band playing as Kevin and I danced to a slow romantic song. My need for such an affair escaped Kevin's comprehension. "Michelle," he had said, "all that matters is that we love each other. Why do we need a big wedding? It won't change the way we feel."

As usual, he was right. We did not need a big wedding, but I did want to celebrate our marriage with friends. Thus, on June 19, 1986, we were married in a private ceremony at the chapel and went to the country club to celebrate with 600 of our closest friends and relatives.

Soon, two blissfully happy years passed, and we found ourselves ready to make the biggest decision of our two-year marriage: the construction of a new home. We sat on the sofa in our apartment each night, perusing home plans and furniture catalogs. We had decided to look at several different books and catalogs before we ever discussed making a decision. On one particular evening, we simultaneously spilled forth a fusillade of excited choices.

"This log home would be perfect on the farm my parents gave me," Kevin proclaimed. "It has pine walls and hardwood floors, as well as an upstairs loft. It's perfect." He looked at me with a radiant smile, but I was not really aware of what he had said. I was too busy with my own thoughts.

"Oh, Kevin, look at this," I squealed. "This is it. This Victorian with the gingerbread trim is the house. And there's a subdivision over on the north side where the covenants stipulate that homes built there must have this design. We have got to build this one!"

Once again our differences were surfacing. How we would resolve this discrepancy of taste, I did not know. We were considering two very different homes.

After our home was finished, both of our families came to dinner. As Kevin and I rushed around our kitchen making last-minute preparations, our mothers and fathers sat in the living room making small talk and admiring the house and furnishings.

"This is interesting, you two," Kevin's mother had announced during dinner. "The Chippendale-style furniture looks interesting with this floor plan and style." She tried hard to hide the distaste on her face, but to no avail.

Kevin and I secretly smiled at each other. "Thanks, Mom," he offered. "I chose the house plan, and Michelle chose the furniture," he explained. "Log homes are often decorated with 18th century furniture." He looked at me and grinned. Apparently, our compromise was not appreciated.

* * *

The years continued to pass quickly, and many friends and relatives came to visit us at our famous "mismatched" house. Our great compromise, the evidence of our commitment, was the talk of the town. Everyone hated our house, but still our marriage thrived and continued to grow. No difficult decision or obstacle was enough to crumble our relationship, but our beliefs did collide at times.

For example, two months before our sixth anniversary, Kevin's boss opened four new video stores in North Carolina. He asked Kevin to venture to the state to oversee the new operations, a request that meant imminent promotion. Although Kevin would be gone for nearly six weeks, we knew the opportunity was too important to ignore. Therefore, we began preparing for him to leave.

A week before he left, we got into an argument about his trip. He asked me to go with him and stay for a couple of weeks, but, because I was a teacher, I felt that it was important for me to stay and take care of my students. Kevin, on the other hand, did not agree.

"Michelle," he argued, "You have life outside the school. You don't owe those kids your marriage. What about me? Why do I always come last with you?"

Angered by his comments, I could only stare silently at him for several minutes. We had had this argument before, and it had gone nowhere. "You don't come last, Kevin. You come first. But I can't just run off for two weeks while those kids sit and twiddle their thumbs!" I yelled at the top of my voice.

Kevin looked at me for a few more seconds, and turned on his heels to leave the room. He knew I had to care for my students, but he was convinced that he was second on my list of important people.

The next week was strained, but we resolved our differences and planned a short weekend getaway when Kevin returned from North Carolina. We were both over much of our anger and tried to forget our argument. But Kevin was hurt by my decision to stay home and was quieter than usual during those seven days.

On the morning of his departure, I stood at the door and watched him walk to his car. He had kissed my cheek when he left but said very little. As he opened his car door and ducked into the front seat, he turned and looked at me. Quietly, he said, "I love you, Michelle." Then he was gone. I was so angered by his silent treatment of the previous week that I refused to return the words.

That evening, the front doorbell rang shrilly. Thinking that Kevin had returned home and was standing in the pouring rain, I ran to open the door. On the front porch, Gerald, Kevin's boss, stood apprehensively, awaiting my greeting. Looking at his face, I knew Kevin was gone.

My voice barely above a whisper, I looked up at Gerald's eyes, as tears began to spill from my own. "I didn't tell him I love him when he left this morning. Do you think he knew?" Gerald's only answer was to gather me in his comforting arms, as we stood under the cover of darkness.

* * *

Some slight noise jarred me from my reverie. Something cold was resting against my temple, and I lowered my arm to look at the weapon I still held in my hand. Memories did little to change what I had to do. If anything, they only increased my sorrow and loneliness, and death was the only answer to ending the nightmare that started six months ago.

Kevin had put away his pride those months ago to tell me how he felt, while I stood there and refused to acknowledge his words. If only I had known I would never see or speak to him again, I would have run to him and begged him not to go until we had resolved the argument that had started the problem. We had worked out so many problems before that one more would have been nothing. The house I was standing in was testament to that fact.

Looking out into the darkness one last time, I spoke aloud to the heavens. "Lord, if I only knew that he loved me, that he forgives me, I could go on. But he died thinking I was angry, and I'll never forgive myself for that. If only he knew. . .

Did he?

Slowly, I raised the gun to my head and placed the barrel next to my temple. Looking into the night, I said one last prayer. Suddenly, as I finished my words to God, the silvery moon slid from behind the clouds and bathed the earth with its warm glow. My hand slowly fell to my side, and a peace such as I had not known for six months fell over me. There was a slight whisper in the air, and I felt almost as if I had been touched.

Speaking aloud to the room, I whispered, "Kevin, is that you?" The only sound was a rustling of the curtains, and outside the moon slowly descended behind the clouds.

Knowing that the clouds were too thick that evening to allow the moon any reprieve, I understood the message I was sent. Kevin was up there somewhere, telling me in his own way that things were okay. He knew I had loved him, and his presence in my room was real. The message that he would always be there, in the whisper of the wind, the rustling of the curtains, the beauty of the night, even the glow of the candle, gave me courage to go on.

Turning from the window, I walked over to the bed and replaced the gun in the steel box. Carefully, I lifted it and placed it back in the bottom drawer of the nightstand. Scrambling hurriedly for some matches, I went back to the window and lit the candle. Blowing out the match, I walked slowly to the bed, crawled in, and switched off the light. As I fell into a peaceful sleep, the burning flame danced merrily in the night.

Melody Williams