Finnegan Riley was fourteen when he first noticed the candles.
There were three of them, white and waxy in a smudged pane window of a crumbling house across the way. They were lit even though it was the middle of the day and the sun was high in the sky. And there was a set in another window — two this time — dancing aflame in another entrance window down the street. There was even one in the shop window of the butcher in the main square. And then again in the gunnery shop, of all places.
He’d never noticed candles before, and now, whenever he was prowling with the neighborhood kids, he couldn’t stop noticing them. It was sort of weird, really. In the scrappy neighborhoods of Genesis, no one made a point of standing out; it was unsafe and it simply asked for trouble. If you were lucky enough to afford groceries that week, you kept quiet about it; otherwise word would spread quickly and your door would be beaten down.
So this was a puzzle. It was eerie, actually, how they kept catching his eye, ghost-like in the windows everywhere he looked. There weren’t any in the apartment building he lived in with his mother and his aunts.
He finally mentioned it aloud after a few days of observation. Six of the teenage neighborhood boys crowded in a narrow, dusty alley and resumed their work. They’d been planning for weeks now how to get back at the boys who lived by the train station. There’d been a sidewalk scuffle three weeks ago. And then one of them had wolf-whistled at Atla’s sister. And then a brick had been thrown through the window of Abdela’s house. And there were rumors they were planning a bigger raid. Of course, they had to beat them to it.
“So here’s what we’ll do,” Manick was saying, drawing a map in the dirt with a stick. “They always stay close to the station, so we’ll move in there. Witlin, you said your dad could lend you his shotgun?”
Finn, however, was distracted. His heart wasn’t in this plotting and scheming meeting, and he didn’t know why. Usually he loved a good revenge story. But today, he simply muttered, “You seen them?”
” — so we’ll bring the gun, should probably give it to Finn, he’s the best shot — ” Manick looked up. “Seen what?”
“Those. The candles. You seen ’em? Why are they everywhere?”
Manick looked, and shrugged one shoulder. “Probably something for Concordia.”
But Finn shook his head. “No,” he said. “There’s nothin’ about candles in windows in the Concordia story.”
“How do you know?” said Witlin, another boy in the group. He pushed himself off the brick wall and grinned slowly. “Read that somewhere, did ya?”
Finn was among the few who knew how to read; his mother had taught him years ago. It did not make him popular.
Nonetheless, Finn straightened up from the wall and grinned his best grin.
“Sure did,” he said brightly. “Speaking of learning, Watty, you ever learn to use the bathroom indoors, or is that too much for y–”
“Don’t. Cut it out,” Manick snapped, throwing out his arm to catch Witlin by the chest. “Not now you fucking idiots, we have a job to do. Finn, can you take the gun or not?”
Finn and Witlin glared at one another for a moment, until Finn looked away. Boastfully, he said, “Of course.”
– – – – – – –
The raid would be the next night, right at midnight, of Concordia. That would make it burn even more, they had decided. Ruin their holiday.
Witlin had said he’d get the assault rifle for Finn and then they’d be ready.
For now, they dispersed to their separate homes. On the walk back, Finn counted ten more candles along the dirt road. It was well past dark, a warm, breezy evening, by time he made it back into the shabby apartment building at the end of the street.
The bottom floor of the building was the communal kitchen, and it was crowded and noisy with his aunts and the other tenants preparing the Concordia meal. Strangely, his mother was not among them. She loved Concordia and she loved their neighbors; he couldn’t imagine why she wasn’t here, cooking up a storm with the rest of them.
Curiously, he headed up the staircase toward their one-room apartment. He creaked open their front door, surprised to find it totally dark inside. In the shadows, he squinted to see his mother was at the kitchen table. Her elbows were on the surface and she held her forehead in both hands. It was silent except for her uneven, choking breathing.
“Mum?” he asked cautiously.
“Right here, Finnegan.”
Instantly, Finn could tell by the warble in her voice: she’d been drinking. She didn’t usually, but something must have happened.
Really, it wasn’t as alarming as it could have been. His mother didn’t get violent with him — not ever, not when she drank — which he knew was a possibility. She wasn’t like the man downstairs, or like Witlin’s father. She simply got sad and quiet.
Still, Finn’s chest tightened. He hated it when this happened. He closed the door behind him and tentatively came forward. “What’s wrong?”
“I was just thinking,” she said, her voice broken. Finn saw a flash of white — her hankerchief — and she blew her nose. “Have you seen all those candles?”
Finn blinked in surprise. His eyes adjusted to the darkness now, and she saw his mother’s eyes shining on him.
“Yeah … what about them?”
“Those memorials,” she sighed. “Tributes to lost family members — kids. To all that gunfire.” She blew her nose. “There was another raid today just three streets away.”
So that’s what they were. They were memorial candles, for the people lost to the city violence.
“And I thought — ” Her voice choked. “What if I had to light one of those? What kind of Concordia would that be?”
Finn felt his stomach drop. He thought of Manick, and Witlin, and their plan. Their raid, weeks in development.
“We need to leave this city.” She was crying harder now. Finn felt cornered: he didn’t know what to do. They were close, but not typically the hugging sort. “I know we need to leave. This — this will be our last Concordia here. I swear it.”
Leave Archeti? Did she mean that? How would they afford passage out? Finn’s head was spinning. Finally, her hankerchief fell to the floor and her hands found his shoulders.
“You’ll stay out of trouble, won’t you Finny? Please?”
Witlin was going to call him a little bitch. And Manick would probably never speak to him again. Hell, they’d come after him now: probably jump him, throw sand in his eyes. But Finn’s voice was sincere when his mother crushed him in a hug and he muttered, “Yeah. ‘Course I will.”