Agata never thought her knowledge of candle flames would change. Even from her infancy, their behavior was constant. They were lit, they melted their base, and then they were blown out. Every candle had done this. Every one she read by at night. Every one they decorated cakes with… but now, in these dark cold waters, the candles surprised her.
She recognized the candle as the one placed in her cold dead hands hours ago. It was certainly something to watch one’s own funeral from behind stiff eyes. Her mother and father were there, because she had fallen at the early age of twenty-five. She did not yet have a husband, and so that spot next to her coffin was empty.
The candle pulled her towards the distant light, perhaps its great flaming parent. Wherever that light was, it couldn’t be in the waters with them, of that Agata was sure. It was too cold. The light spoke of warmth, shouted it in fact, and she was happy the candle knew the way.
Agata had never known the way in life. She always struggled to arrive on time: to dinner, to the only ball she was ever allowed to attend, to her bed in the dead of night. Her arrival always meant stern faces and disappointment. She had wondered if there was a lazy slug in her soul, dragging her a few minutes behind everyone else. Too late for any of the boys. Too late for the carts spilling their goods into her poor village. Too late to see the sun set. She did love the stars though.
The candle took her into the shallows of the strange waters. The light above revealed a bed of sand, a sharp incline of it, beneath them. Before she knew it, before she oculd ponder the candle’s flame living underwater, it dropped her into the sand. She watched the candle bounce against the surface; it was covered in a skin of ice and dotted with small scratch marks. The sand billowed around her, white and shining, and she waited for it to settle.
When it did she was greeted by a strange entity, half-buried in the glistening sand before her. Its eyes were strange bubbled tubes like those of a crab, but there was a friendliness to them. The creature had claws, but they were blunt and swollen. It had numerous legs, but rather than scurrying away they just tapped at the sand contemplatively. A bubble emerged from its segmented mouth and then burst, sharing a message with her.
“You’re just in time,” it said, its voice like a sunken echo. Its pupils darted up to look at the candle, but then dropped back to her. “Are you ready to begin?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, stuttering because she expected to swallow water. Talking seemed strange, but no stranger than the flickering candle above or the polite crab-like creature before her. “I don’t know what I’m on time for. And… I think you’ve got the wrong girl. I’m never on time.” She chuckled. “Also… I think I may be dead.”
“You certainly are,” the crab responded. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
“Is it? I’d always heard death was to be feared. I guess it wasn’t so bad though. It was a wagon that got me,” she said. The crab-like thing nodded, as much as segmented creatures could. “Pa always said the wagons dropped stuff around that turn. I wanted to sell something, get a friend a present… but the whole wagon dropped this time! Crushed me flat!”
“You look perfectly plump to me,” the crab complimented. “I like your candle.”
“It brought me here. My parents put it on my body. We believe that… if I remember my scriptures… candle light helps guide the dead in the darkness.”
“It does. So does the shine of coins, the smell of small pastries, and stones skipped across lakes exactly seventeen times.” The crab gestured upward with a blunt claw. Agata followed it and realized the ice was dotted, on either side of her, with thousands of other objects: cakes, cards, flags, dolls…
“Oh. So they could have used anything,” she said.
“Yes,” the crab answered. “All that matters was that they cared. All that matters now is that I care for you. Are you ready to begin? We’re very eager, me especially.” The crab opened its claws wide, gesturing to its sides. Agata looked left and right; suddenly there were many more half-buried things and a floating person for each one. They all looked to her, calm smiles on their faces.
“I don’t know how to begin,” she said. She felt like blushing, but there was no longer color to her cheeks. She felt all her color at her core, slowly revolving, waiting for something. “I don’t want to ruin this. Have I ruined it by being late?”
“No, no, no,” the crab assured. “As I said you are on time. We had to wait for the cold season to end. Now the ice is thin. You people can break through. With you, we have enough.”
“Yes. Just touch the ice Agata. I’ve watched you your entire life. I know you can do it. Here, take this with you.” The crab reached onto its back and broke a small knob off of its shell. It handed it to Agata. “Bang this on the ice and it will break.”
“What happens then?”
“A new life for you and a new generation for us,” it said, gesturing to its kin. The other crabs clicked their approval and spat happy bubbles. The other ghosts silently applauded her, urging her forward and up. “They all have pieces of us,” the crab went on. “They will be mere thoughts in your next life, but they will help shape you as our shells shape us. Your happiness will be our offspring.”
“And you’re sure I’m on time?” Agata asked, as she swam forward and nearly touched the knob to the ice.
“Oh yes. It was your time. You couldn’t be late. Go on now.”
Agata rapped the knob against the ice. It cracked, letting in the incredible light from above. All the objects that had escorted them floated into the sky. The ghosts, led by Agata, marched up onto the sparkling white sand. On the horizon they saw their new lives waving like banners. Agata pocketed the knob inside her death-gown. She was happy to have someone with her for next time.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by AnxietyBatman during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!