Prompt: A man walks up to a shop girl and hands her a slip of waxed paper. It has the word ‘impermanence’ written on it.
The shop would close soon, evidenced most notably not by the switched-off lights, the calm music, or the closed sign itself, but by Buttercup’s yawning. She was a champion at it by now, after three years working the register at her mother’s shop. She could yawn like a hippo, loud enough to drive the last lingering scent-hounds out of the store.
The reason for calling them scent-hounds, as well as the excuse for her yawning, was in the nature of the shop itself. They sold candles. Oils. Incense. Extracts. Dried things in bundles from every continent that could grow sprigs or branches. They had all the positive smells in the world, but about seventy-three percent of them were relaxing. Every shift was a battle against fatigue, especially with the humming of the folk music in the background all day.
Buttercup yawned once more, tasting all the lavender and the sheep milk from their artisan soaps on her tongue. She really didn’t mind her job, or the way her mother had integrated every aspect of the store’s attitude into their lives. She was lucky to get away with a name like Buttercup really. The number two candidate, those nineteen years ago, had been Potpourri.
It was nearing the end of Fall, so her mother had allowed her to wear a sweater to work. She scrunched her hands up in the sleeves and played a little game, seeing if she could put away the last of the day’s change with only scrunched-up nubs of fabric as hands.
Tink! She dropped a nickel and bent down to pick it up. When she came back up there was a man standing there. It startled Buttercup so much that she took a step back and collided with a giant bundle of flowering sticks. She was showered in pale petals and had to gag as several of them flew up her nose and down her throat.
“Uhhh, uhhh… hang on… Huuuurrkkk…” She let one hand escape her pillowy sleeve and put up a finger to indicate she would need a moment. The man just stared with the slightest of smiles on his face. Buttercup’s started to go red, both from the lack of oxygen and the realization that he was quite attractive, even if it was in a sheep-like brainwashed sort of way.
“I’m sorry,” she sputtered as she pulled the last petal off her tongue and dropped it into one of the change drawers, “but we’re closed. I actually locked the doors already… I didn’t know anyone was still in here.” He didn’t respond, other than to reach out and hand her something. Buttercup took it. It was a delicate curl of waxy paper. She unfurled it and read it carefully.
It took her a moment, but she remembered where she’d seen it before. Impermanence was one of the brands they sold at the store. They made mostly candles that came in very unusual scent combinations that tended to make you extremely hungry. One whiff often triggered tumultuous stomach grumbling. Her personal favorite was vanilla and caramel, though her mother favored poppy seed and butter.
“Was there… a problem?” she asked him. She tried to pin down his age, but found it impossible. His hair was lighter than it should’ve been for a face with no wrinkles. He had no smile lines, but he didn’t seem capable of any other expression. The label he’d handed her was usually wrapped around individual candles, hence the waxy quality. He turned and walked slowly away, towards the Impermanence display.
“Uhh… sir?” she came out from behind the counter and followed him, only to gasp a moment later. He had no feet. His pants simply flickered around the ankles like the tip of a flame. He acknowledged her shock with a nod, but then turned and kept walking.
The display was made up of hundreds of candles, thick as flutes, arranged in such a way that they looked like a lavish pipe organ. During store hours, an old portable CD player was stuck behind it, playing hymns on repeat. All of the boxes with the actual candles that were for sale were stowed directly under it. The man stood off to the side of the display so Buttercup could approach it.
All the candles were lit. She’d snuffed them out half an hour ago. The man gestured to one of the smaller ones on the side. It was mostly melted, its drippings routed into the pan on the floor they had for such things. It leaned to the side, spilling drops scented like strawberries and cream. Buttercup grabbed it gently by its warm soft sides and held it in her palm, letting it rest on the waxy label.
“I don’t understand…” she whispered. She looked down once more. His legs were gone now, and his thighs did the flickering. Buttercup panicked. She never liked time limits. Whatever this handsome specter needed to say, he didn’t have long to do it. He reached out a finger and touched it to the candle’s flame. His whole body glowed brightly for a moment.
“This… is your candle… this… is you?” she asked. He nodded. When the flame was out, he would go as well. “Okay. Do you… want it?” He shook his head no. “Well then what do you want?” He couldn’t say. The fire gave him the power to appear, but not to speak. He’d used the label to do it. Impermanence. What did he mean? Buttercup thought. It had to be poetic and full of meaning. Ghosts didn’t show up for anything less, and he certainly didn’t seem like the body snatching type.
Or perhaps… it meant exactly what the label meant. The company. The people who made the candles and shipped them over. She couldn’t remember the parent entity’s name. She did remember some of the stories. Her mom was going to stop taking their product because of them. There was a scandal with their workers a few nations away. There was a fire in a building that shouldn’t have been as vulnerable as it was.
“No…” Buttercup muttered. “Did you… work for them?” He nodded. The flickering was up to his chest now. She could see the rest of the store behind him. A bough of plastic flower drooped down and passed through his head. There was only one conclusion she could draw in time. The brightness when he touched the candle. It was his. Perhaps it was there as well when the fire hit. The product escaped, but the workers did not. The fire the candles held, the potential energy, was theirs.
“I’m sorry…” she said. A flame like a tear rolled out of his eye and across his cheek, dissolving it in silky streaks and strands of smoke. “We won’t sell them anymore. I promise. We… already heard about the fire.” This distressed him, even as his neck was eaten up and his arms separated. He shook his head, violently spraying smoke in all directions. He pointed to the candles. “What? You want us to keep them?”
He opened his mouth and shook his head. That was a yes. It had to be. The strawberry and cream candle in her hand slumped over, squashing its own wick and extinguishing the flame. The last of him vanished in a puff. Buttercup set the candle down. She rubbed her cheek with the end of a sweater sleeve and found she was crying, even as her face was warm from the rest of the display.
She spotted other things forming in the air. Strands of ethereal hair. Other ghosts, other victims of Impermanence, coming to tell her what their friend already had. What was left of them was in the candles. To burn them was to use them up. She quickly blew them all out, making the hair vanish.
She would stockpile them in the back and keep them safe from the fire. She hoped that was what they wanted. Was it? Was permanence any better?
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by pinkeyepoxy 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!