Candles for Sale

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
kThe gas and oil has run out, civilisation is in meltdown, Callie had learned self-presevation in this now hostil environmentwhere there is danger all around. Then she comes across the little candle seller, and the child finds a chink in her armour. She attempts to help the child, an attempt that ends in disaster for both of them.

Submitted: September 01, 2007

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Submitted: September 01, 2007

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Candles for Sale.

 

 

 

"Candles for sale, matches and candles for sale."  The small child stood in the darkest corner of the desolate street.  Callie though she was seeing things.  Was it a real child or a wraith of her own imagining?  Small, thin, the child had that pinched-faced, old/young look, which was the face of hunger and deprivation.  The dirty rags she wore for clothes seemed to be part of the gathering dusk.  It was impossible to tell what colour her hair had once been, for it was tangled and filthy.  It did not surprise Callie to see that she was barefoot too, for any kind of footwear was impossible to come by in these times.

Unusually Callie felt drawn to this creature.  She was ultra wary about people and would not go near another human being if she could help it, especially at night and away from her shelter.  The city was now a wilderness where only the fittest and most ruthless survived, and didn't care what it took to do so. As Callie drew nearer to the child she saw that it raised its head and her eyes were haunting and desperate.

"Candles for sale," she said tiredly and held out a tall, fat, wax candle like the kind that used to be seen in churches.

"Candles!" Callie couldn't help gasping.  "Where on earth did you find them?I haven't seen a whole unused candle since the power went out."

The haunted eyes stared back at her.  "Candles for sale.  Matches for sale."

"What do you want for them?" Callie asked a little impatiently.  The sight of several more candles on the dirty pavement near the girl's feet filling her with a strange sort of excitement.  Wonderful candles, bringers of light and warmth to the nightmare of cold and darkness that was the world now.

The child whimpered, "Candles for sale."

"Yes, but what do you want for them?" Callie persisted.

The child just stared, "I am hungry and cold," the child whispered in a voice so weak it was almost not there.

"We are all hungry and cold.I will give you this for them.  Callie unwound the thick woollen scarf from her neck and held it out to the child.  The scarf had once been bright and clean and expensive, now it was filthy and full of holes.  The child looked at the scarf mournfully, and then said again, "I am hungry."

For the first time in years Callie felt pity for a fellow human. She had understood very early when things started to fail, that to survive she had to look after herself, first and last.  She could spare no compassion for anyone.  Everyone had to look out for themselves, for there was nothing, and nobody to do it for them.

Callie could remember quite clearly when the gas ran out.  The oil had gone some time before, and cars and trucks stood rusting in overgrown driveways or abandoned where the last tank of petrol had run dry.  Filling stations lay derelict.Some were boarded up, but a lot had been wrecked and looted by angry and frustrated drivers when they found there was no fuel left.  The shops had stayed open for a while, lit by candles.  At first it was a novelty; romantic, exciting - then the candles had run out.  Now they were as scarce as gold, and when they could be had, mostly from the black marketers who had sprung up swiftly like loathsome scabs on the face of a diseased person, and their price was exorbitant.

Life had slowly ground to a halt.  The supermarkets ran out of food.  First, of course the fresh food had vanished from the shelves, then the tinned and dried foods.  There was no way of replenishing the stocks, for the great pantechnicons could no longer deliver foodstuffs the length and breadth of the country, and the factories that processed food had, starved of electricity, had fallen silent.  What people had they hid, and rationed frugally.  It usually came in a tin, and was eaten cold, for what basic fuel there was they hoarded for cold weather.  Water had become scarce, too.  Water treatment works, no longer existed.  All water was unsafe, and like others Callie collected rainwater in bowls and buckets on the veranda of her high rise flat.  She knew that life was now held cheaper than a battered tin of soapy carrots, and people were killed at the very sight of tinned meat.

All cats and dogs disappeared from the streets, and even the city birds and pigeons vanished.  The only animals that were not slaughtered were the horses.  Horses were a precious commodity, for they were the only source of power and transport.  They were guarded and cosseted.  Those who owned them trekked far into the countryside in search of fodder and grain to feet them.  Horse owners became the new elite who lorded it over everyone else.  In a world without transport of any kind they held the power. People had been murdered for their horses, and this had revived an old law; to steal a horse was now, once again, a hanging offence.  But justice was not dealt out by courts and juries but by the elite horse owners themselves, and the useless lampposts became makeshift gallows.  As was once traditional, the hanged were left to dangle until they rotted, and there were quite a few of these strange decorations on the streets.

Slowly people began to starve, and the strongest began to gather in gangs that roamed the city streets, and the outlying countryside, rustling and poaching the few cattle still left in the fields.  Any farmer who protested was set upon and beaten unmercifully.  The gangs would butcher the cattle, sheep, pigs and fowl; roast the meat on great bonfires, and gorge themselves on it.  There was no point in selling it, for money had become worthless, and there was nothing to exchange for it.  They had truly taken leave of any sense they had ever had, for it never occurred to any of them to try and preserve the meat to make it last.

Callie often thought with anguish and longing of the life she had lived before.  It had been a good, comfortable, life, though she realised now that it had also been self-indulgent, with no thought of the future.  She had a well paid job and was able to afford a smart car in which she went everywhere.  She never used public transport, and jetted off on exotic holidays without a thought to the fact the fuel that fed the jets might one day be exhausted.

She didn't really know how she had managed to survive this long, perhaps it was luck, or perhaps it was her own instinct.  She had an apartment on the top of what had once been an exclusive development.  It had become her prison.  With limited food she sometimes did not have the energy to descend and then re-ascend the twenty-five flights of steps.  The lifts, of course, were immobile.  In a matter of a few short years it seemed that what had passed for civilisation had collapsed completely.Yet somehow she survived, eking out her remaining food, always on the look out for more, and managing to keep fairly warm. 

 

 

She could light a small fire there when she had something to burn.  She had fed most of her lovely Italian furniture, and her costly designer wardrobe to the fire, and now she had no furniture left, but slept on the floor on a pile of quilts and rugs which were getting more progressively more dirty and unpleasant.  Water was too precious for washing clothes - or herself.

Tonight she had been forced to go out into the hostile, dark city, for she had run out of medication.  For years frequent, excruciating migraines that sometimes lasted for days, had been her trial.  Over a year and a half ago, fear of these migraines had sent her to the pharmacy on the next block where she ransacked their stock until she found a carton of Migraleve.  She had slunk by way of narrow streets and dark alleyways like the thief she now was, back to the safety of her apartment.  It was hardly easy carrying the bulky carton of medication, and she had prayed every step of the way that she would not run into anybody, especially the gangs, who were, even then making the desolate streets their own.  She knew they would kill her without hesitation for what she carried.

But the constant nagging hunger, thirst, and fear had exacerbated the migraines, and they attacked with increasing ferocity.  Her precious stock of the magic medicine that took away the pain, and had stopped her jumping from her high balcony in despair, had dribbled swiftly away.  But when she got to the pharmacy she found it had been burned to the ground.  It was then she had sunk onto her knees, unmindful of the broken glass and other detritus and screamed in anger and terror.  Nevertheless, her practical common sense reasserted itself, and she made the grim decision that the next time she was struck down by the paralysing agony, and had no means of relief; she would take that long fall from her high veranda.

Suddenly the child started to cough a dry, hacking sound that startled Callie out of her self-absorption.

"Where do you live?" she asked the child.

"I live here," she whispered back between gasps.

"Here, on this street corner?  But why haven't I seen you here before?"

The child did not answer.  Callie sighed, "You can have the scarf," she said and took it from around her neck and held it out to her.  But the child didn't move she just stared at Callie with infinite reproach.  Callie turned away; there was nothing she could do for this pathetic creature.  There were so many like her.  Sooner or later she would fall victim to the gangs of marauding thugs who would kill her for her precious candles and matches without a qualm.  There was nothing she could do about it, and it wasn't her responsibility after all.  Her responsibility was to look after herself.  Callie turned and walked to the entrance of her apartment building, but when she reached the doors she could not stop herself looking back at the child.  She still stood there, and seemed even more insubstantial than ever.  Callie put one hand on the door to push it open but found she could not move on.

Then she heard them coming, faint at first but getting louder with each moment that passed.  She heard their shouts and cried of intimidation that echoed in the deathly silence of the city streets that had once been filled with noise and light.  Her first instinct was to dive inside and drag herself up the endless flights of stairs as fast as she could to safety.

 

 

 

The gangs were always drunk and high on drugs.  But how much longer could they go on looting pub cellars, pharmacies, doctors` surgeries and abandoned hospitals to feed their addictions?  Also there was a much more disturbing element; the gangs seemed to be stronger and healthier than the rest of the remaining population.  Somehow, from somewhere they were getting protein, and plenty of it.  There were hideous rumours being passed mouth to mouth amongst the survivors.With a kind of  shuddering denial she refused to let herself even think of the obvious answer.

The wild catcalls of the gang were getting closer.  They now sounded as if they could be on the next block; soon they would turn the corner into this street.  The child was so small, so vulnerable, and she knew she could not leave her to the mercy of the gang.  Callie sprinted back to the little girl and grasped her hand, which felt boneless and icy in hers.  "Come with me," she said.  The child stooped in a surprisingly agile movement and caught up her candles and boxes of matches, holding them close against her chest.  Together they ran into the apartment block.

Callie did not look back, for she dared not.  She half carried half dragged the child across what had once been a pristine marble tiled foyer.  She headed for the stairs and began the terrible climb upwards.  After the first five or six flights she had slowed to a dragging pace, gasping for air as she went.  Beside her the child too gasped for breath, but kept up well.  Callie forced herself to climb steadily.  By the time they were on the fifteenth floor, she heard them behind her, and prayed she would get to the top before they caught up.  If she got to the top and safely into her barricaded apartment then they would not know exactly which floor she was on.  At least, that was what she hoped.

Callie and the child dragged themselves up the last few flights of concrete stairs and then out onto the dark, littered landing.  She knew where her door was by sheer instinct.  She grabbed at the key that hung around her neck on a piece of string, slipped it into the lock, opened the door and flung herself and the child into the apartment.  Callie slammed the door behind her and shot the bolts.  She had fitted these in the early days, when there were still useful things to be found in the abandoned stores.  Then she collapsed against it her breathing harsh.  Then she felt the sick pounding at her temples, answered by the equal sick churning in her stomach Oh no, she moaned to herself, not now, not now.  Not when she needed all her strength to defend herself.  The first lightening flashed in the corner of her left eye.  That was how the migraine always started.  She dropped her head into her hands and rocked too and fro, as the pounding in her head increased and the waves of sickness rose in her throat.  For a few moments she completely forgot the child.  Then she heard a movement, and forced her eyes open to focus on the shadowy figure in the dark room.

The child was seated on the bed of frowsty quilts, and had laid out her candles in a circle in front of her; Callie watched as slowly she struck a match and began to light them, one by one.  Callie stared at her for a moment then with a movement that almost caused her head to explode with agony she lunged across the floor, "NO!" she cried out and began to snuff the candles.  "No.  They will see the light from the street.  They will know we are here."

 

 

 

The child said nothing, merely sat back on her heels and stared at her with those cadaverous eyes.  Then she said, "I'm hungry."

"Yes.  Yes I know you are," Callie replied.  "Stay here, do not move, and do not go out onto the veranda.  I'll get you some food."  Callie went to where she kept her small store of food in a cardboard box hidden in the flue of the fireplace.  She hadn`t had a fire there for weeks, for she had nothing to burn.  She took a tin out the store, unable because of the darkness to see what it was.  It could be meat, peaches, rice pudding, or peas.  She opened it. It was peas, but it would have to do.  She passed the tin to the child together with the only spoon she possessed.  The child snatched the tin not even looking to see what it contained and began to literally shovel it down her throat.  Callie felt nauseas as the monster in her head grew bigger and bigger until it filled her whole skull.  All she wanted to do was to curl up on her bed of quilts and bury her head.  She turned to the child, who was drinking the last of greenish liquid at the bottom of the can. 

"Are you tired?" she asked trying to focus on her through the veil of pain that was blinding her.

"I'm cold," the child replied.

"You can snuggle up with me and keep warm," Callie suggested, and joined the child on the tumbled bed in the corner.  The child lay down obediently, and gazed up at Callie while she tucked a quilt around her.  Then she lay down beside the waif, and surrendered to the ocean of pain she was slowly drowning in.

Awaking from a merciful sleep Callie opened her eyes carefully, and the terrible pain behind her eyes bit at her like a vicious animal.  She groaned and rolled over.  Then she remembered the evening before, and the child.  She looked around her; the little girl was gone.  She staggered to her feet, handicapped by the tunnel vision that now afflicted her and saw the veranda doors stood ajar, and she could see the child standing on the balcony outside.  Callie realised the child was actually leaning over the balustrade and in her hand she held the scarf that she had given her.  The child was waving the scarf, like a flag, or a signal.  She dashed forward and pulled the child away from the balustrade, and as she did she looked down into the street.  Her blood turned cold as she saw the figures standing there staring up at the veranda and realised that the gang had besieged them all night.

"What are you doing" she hissed angrily at the child, catching her by her skeletal shoulders and shaking her until her teeth rattled.  But the little girl was too agile, she twisted out of Callie`s grip and ran back into the room.  To her horror Callie noticed that the gang was running towards the entrance of the building.  The child had run to the door and was dragging back the bolts with a strength that amazed Callie.

"No, come back!" she said, "They will kill you!"

Then she heard them pounding up the stairs, faster and faster.  She ran to the door to rebolt it but the child flung herself onto Callie and sank her teeth into her hand.  Callie tried to shake her off, but the migraine had drained her and she fell to the floor still with the little girl hanging onto her with sharp teeth, like a ravenous mad dog.

"You little bitch!" Callie gasped.  "Why are you doing this?  They will kill us both."  Then she heard them on the landing outside her apartment.  How had they managed to climb those horrendous stairs so quickly?  Of course, they were fitter, better fed, and high on amphetamines and any other drugs they could find.  She

 

 

 

cowered on the floor, the child's teeth still fixed in her hand.  She did not feel them, for the migraine diminished every other hurt.

Despair had already claimed her when the leaders of the gang burst in. Callie saw they were no more than children, savage, feral children.  When they saw Callie and the child, they stopped and stared at her.  Behind them more and more crowded into the room.  One of them, pointed an arm clad in shredded rags, "Take her!" he cried, and there was a surge forward.

Callie got to her knees and the child finally released her hand, which was bitten to the bone and bleeding.  Measuring the distance to the windows with her eyes, Callie dragged herself to her feet and ran to them.  As she went she grasped the child, who squealed loudly and kicked out at her.

"You are coming with me. You will never have the chance to trap anyone else!" she cried as she scrambled onto the balustrade.  Behind her she heard the gang roar, but it was too late for she had stepped out into space, her hand clutching the icy one of her betrayer.

As they fell with the air rushing at their faces, the child did not utter a sound.  Callie kept her eyes open.  She wanted to see the pavement rush up to meet her, she wanted to see her freedom from pain and fear and hopelessness approaching, and she wanted to greet her salvation.

 

 

----ooo00ooo---

 

 


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