She held the match to the candle and waited. Slowly the wick caught and flared up, sucking and wavering, burning her fingers. She dropped the match and stamped on it with bare feet. She looked into the flame.
"He's gone," she told it.
It puffed and stretched.
"When will I see him again? When will I hear from him? He won't write to me, he doesn't know I exist. I'll never find out what becomes of him, and I can't stand it. Forever. He's gone forever now."
"Don't tell me about it," the flame said in a dry, light, crackling voice. It darted like a snake's tongue.
"I have to tell somebody. "I've never loved anyone before, an dhe doesn't even know I love him and he's going away. Oh God, what can I do?"
"It's not my fault. Don't give me all that sop. I've heard it a hundred times. Always the same. Go complain to somebody else."
"Well, try him. I don't suppose you ever thought of that."
"Him? Him? How could I? I'm dirt under his feet."
"He doesn't know you, you said."
"He knows me. He sees me. He talks to me. He doesn't love me."
She waited for a reply from the flame.
"Well?" it said. "What do you wnat me to do about it?"
"He's beautiful. I mean his person, his soul. He's got a million sides and they're all perfect, all beautiful. Like a tree full of butterflies. Like water running in sunlight. Beautiful."
"You said that before."
"Oh, he's beautiful. I can't even look at him. I can't even listen to his voice. He's beautiful."
The candle shrank disgustedly. "Why don't you light some incense. It smells awful in here."
She looked up from the flame, through the fog of smoke. "It smells like him."
"Can't you talk about something else?"
"I can't put it out of my mind. It won't go. I keep thinking ..."
"Don't. Light some incense."
"I like Vanilla better." She held a stick in the flame and then put the incense in the holder.
"Blow it out or you'll just burn it up."
"Oh, yes." She blew it out. Smoke swizzled into the already thick air.
"What a lousy world," she said, self-pityingly.
"So much wisdom in one so young."
"I can never have what I really want."
"If you want him so much, why don't you buy him? You buy all the rest of your happiness."
"You can't buy happiness."
"So much wisdom."
"You want to hear real wisdom," she said suddenly, excitedly, "nothing that's real can ever be had. Love, happiness, pleasure - they're all real but nobody ever has them. Some people think they do but then they turn around and it's not there. It doesn't stay. It's too real to be owned."
"Stop babbling, you don't know what you're talking about. You, me, this room, this world - that is what is real. That other stuff is only dreams. You've got it switched around backwards."
"Shut up and let me think"
The candle was silent and she was silent.
Then, "Revelation!" she said, announcing. "Nothing is real. He isn't real, love isn't real, I'm not real. And so it doesn't matter. None of this exists." And for a minute she was free, weightless, worryless, invisible, and nonexisting.
"I exist," the candle said. "I don't know about you, but I exist."
"If I exist and I am talking to you, then you exist too."
"Don't be so stupid. Everything is real. Everything is real. Stop trying to fool yourself."
"Shut up!" She yelled and blew the candle out, wax splattering her face. In the darkness there was nothing. Then she saw the incense glowing. Then there was something standing in a far corner.
It didn't move but she could hear it breathing. "Who's that?" she asked softly, already knowing.
"I am real," the figure said. "But it doesn't matter. I came to say goodbye."
"I don't believe you. No. You never existed. And all this crying was over nothing. It's not real, none of it, and don't tell me any different."
"I've got to go."
She was frozen, watching the figure through the smoky blackness. Then she shook herself violently and fumbled for a match. She tugged it away from the book and frantically struck it against the wrong side of the cover, then flipped the cover over and struck it on the right side, terrified, not knowing why.
"Fzzzt. Fzzt. Zffft," it said. Then, "Shiffffss" as it lit, raising its face to the black air. She put it to the candle wick with shaky hands. The candle lit slowly. She raised her eyes to where the figure had been standing in the dark.
The flame said irritably, "Can't you leave me alone?"
She sat still, weeping silently. He was gone.