Sparklers crackle like gunfire in the night, draping the warmly-lit street in a light, gray haze. Though the smoke fills Victor and Christina’s lungs and spreads its talons over their pristine white clothes, they seem to not notice, instead waving at the friends and family friends and family friends’ friends lined on either side of the street. Their clothes have been pressed and cleaned by Christina’s parents in preparation. The clothes had hung like a phantom bride and groom in her childhood home for two weeks. They stuck to them now, coating them like a second skin, the warmth of the evening already making Victor start to sweat through his undershirt. The sparklers add to the heat, shooting microscopic bits of ash into the July night.
As they walked, the warmth slowly became too much for Victor. He knew the sparklers would be a problem, but he had hoped his thoughts would wash away in the day’s ceremonies. They had been Christina’s idea. She loved their contained chaos, she had said. And he had agreed. He regretted that now, feeling the thoughts build up inside him. The noise, the heat, the pressure, the smiles, the looks, the woman beside him; they built. They pressed down on his chest, below his heart and above his stomach, the space where fear and anxiety and despair breed like an invasive species. The sparklers grew brighter and brighter, until it felt like he was waving at dozens of small, handheld suns.
Before they had come around the corner, before the suns seared his retina, Victor debated telling his new wife why he hated those damn sparklers. He had looked over at her, holding her hands, ignoring the sweat that built there, and felt the words grab hold of his vocal cords, refusing to let go. She noticed something was wrong just by the look in his eyes. She asked. In another instance, he would have deflected. This time, though, her words dislodged his, and out came the torrent.
There was a different girl, fourteen years ago, whom he had loved. His first love, that beautiful experiment of a year where it was nothing but them two in their town. They had danced and talked and slept together and fought and made up. He had spotted her one day in the square, dancing to strange music some band had been playing. He had fallen in love with her dancing then, and, a few weeks later, in love with her as well.
He looked over at Christina. She kept her gaze. They were locked in a stare, his eyes unable to leave her starless-night eyes. Already, he felt that he had said too much. But she didn’t say anything. He decided he must push on.
On their one-year anniversary, Victor had decided to throw the other girl a surprise. He wanted to have a show for her. He wanted to light up the night, make a few minutes of night become day, just for her. In the unnatural light he’d sit back and watch her dance, that dance she had done when he first saw her. So he had bought fireworks from anyone he could talk to. Friends, people on corners, stores with sales. He had set them up. He had waited. He would insist that she light them, promising that she’d love it.
He looked at Christina, drowning in those brown eyes. and found that his mouth wouldn’t form around the sharp edges of the true ending. His lie came out almost like a whisper.
And she never showed up.
He looked at his new wife. She looked back.
What was her name?
Christina nodded, seemingly accepting it, sizing up the phantom rival she would compete with for years and years, then looked ahead.
She was the one who apologized, her jaw hard-set. He shook his head.
I just thought you should know.
She just stared ahead, hard-set. How could he tell her that the sparklers did more than just bother him? That those perpetual, minuscule, handheld explosions she loved made him want to climb out of his skin, that they made him relive that night over and over and over and made him question how he had gotten here, behind this wall, not sure of whether he wanted to do it all over again or have never done it in the first place?
It was time for them to start walking.
They turned the corner, right into the hallway of midnight suns. Soon her hand had slipped out of his, and they put on their warm smiling masks. At least, that’s how it had felt to him. She seemed to revel in it, to synthesize that bright fire into energy like a great, glowing tree. She pulsed with energy, and he wondered where his words lived in her. Was it in her head? Was it in her chest, where the anxiety lived in his?
He had, indeed, arranged the firework show for Autumn. But she had arrived on time, as always. She had even lit the fuse. But he hadn’t told Christina of the mistake he made, the fuse that he had cut too short. The night had lit up; a midnight sun formed in the clearing they had been standing in. There was no more dancing in their town, no more rockets of light that pricked the night sky. There was only a charred girl, barely breathing, unable to dance, and a boy, too young for promises of forever. A dancer who no longer danced, staring at that boy who suddenly no longer loved, who apologized over and over as he backed out of the all-white room for the last time.
The noise and heat and pressure became too much for him, threatening to split him in two in front of his friends, and family friends, and family friends’ friends. He inhaled deeply in the thickening haze, coating his lungs in the vapors of those balls of fire. Tearing his eyes from the people standing around them, squinting a bit through the smokey gray veil, he looked over at the black, beautiful woman beside him, who seemed to absorb those flames into herself, her arms raised above her like the wings of an onyx phoenix. Autumn. She walked; somehow, for the first time in fourteen years she walked alone, beside him, living, unhurt, breathing. Fear shot through him.What if Autumn told his wife the truth?
How had she found him? She turned and looked at him, the corners of her mouth turning up. The spectators kept laughing, snapping pictures like nothing.
Easy, she said, her ghostly words mixing with the heat and the vapors and the abandon and his lies to the defiant wife to whom he had pledged his life.
I followed the midnight suns.