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Light a Candle for the Kids

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There's something you should know about me before I start this story: I used to be an arsonist.

Sure, it was never anything huge, but it was still the real deal, not just Jane Plays With Matches. I'd stake out the buildings for weeks, checking for security or squatters, and then I'd plan it out from there: the patterns, the chemicals, how to keep it all nice and contained. (A lot of the boys thought it was too much damned work, but I never did take chances.) Then it was just the wait for the right moment, and the big boom -- another abandoned shack or warehouse given to the fire.

I did my first one when I was 15, and I'd done over a dozen by the time the news broke about only having five years left. I don't need to tell you that's why I stopped, do I? Sure, right afterwards it seemed like it was free-for-all time -- if it was all coming down, why not drink and smoke and fuck and burn as much as we could? -- but after a few weeks of it, even that started to fall apart. The sex stopped being fun; the drinking got faster, and the hangovers got worse. And the arson...

Well, the thing about arson is, I always did it for two reasons: for the thrill, and to see how people reacted. It felt like I was changing the world, like I was making people stand up and notice something I did. The thrill died like the rest of them did, once we learned the news, and the reactions... well, suddenly nobody cared anymore about the big holes in the city. Nobody was going to rebuild them or live to see them overgrown, and everyone just stopped noticing. There wasn't any damn point.

Some of the kids I ran with just sank deeper, doing more and more to try and keep the heart pumping. I stepped away. I was a stupid kid, yeah, but I also knew a broken thing when I saw it.

I took the job at the Children's Home because I needed the work, and they hired me because they needed the hands. I wasn't really qualified, but I did my time babysitting when I was younger, and I've always been good with kids; it didn't matter, though, because I'm pretty sure they hired everyone who bothered to apply. With so many people dropping out of society, it was hard to find workers, and everyone knew it.

When I took the job, I thought it was just a paycheck. I didn't know it'd end up saving my life.

The Children's Home was a new place in an old building, an old school that had become office space and then become the Home years later. It still smelled like an office building, too, all fresh paint and old plaster; nothing ever quite looked right, or much like a home, but we were always too busy to really decorate the place. Every month, we had at least a few new kids: suicide orphans some of the time, but more often just kids whose parents gave them up to the state. Maybe the parents were running off, or maybe they just didn't want to bother taking care of a kid who'd never grow up -- I never asked, and it never seemed to make much difference either way.

The thing about the kids, though, is that they kept on living. A lot of them were too young to even know what was happening, and even the ones who did get the news didn't give up the same way the rest of us did. They just went on, and they needed adults to go on with them, to make sure everybody got fed and washed and cared for. That was where we came in.

A whole bunch of us started at the Children's Home at the same time, and although there were a few older house mothers, most everyone was like I was: young, dumb, and just as scared as the kids. They weren't the crowd I'd run with before, but soon enough we got to know each other. The first one I met was Crystal, who was built like a brick house and had a ginger braid down to her waist; a few minutes after her was Jenny, her roommate, the one who owned the car. Damian showed up a day later, weedy in secondhand clothes that didn't fit, and then two days later was Irfan, the part-timer, the one who was still trying to handle university. There were others, of course -- dozens of others, people who lasted a few months or a few weeks or a few days before they drifted off again -- but those were the ones who stuck with me, the ones who really became my friends.

The first few months of the job were the kind of numb, mute fuckup that every new job is: making mistakes, being busier than busy, and going a little mad. It's mostly a blur now, this great mess of crying kids and antiseptic, but somehow we all got through. The tipping point, the point where it finally got bearable, came after our Friday-night party. Damian'd gotten some weed from his man, and he had enough for all of us; it had been a while since I smoked up, and I thought it might be fun for once. Irfan and I were the last to finish up that night, and we got to the staff lounge an hour after lights-out to find the party'd already started. Someone'd brought in a case of beer, and the smokers had pulled the lounge couches and chairs together to make a little circle. Over the sound of the radio, I could hear them talking.

"... Heard it's something coming from space," said one of them -- Kev, I think his name was: a big man, African, with dark eyes and a strong face. "A comet or something, and it's going to hit the Earth and kill us all. The government's not talking because they don't want people trying to build rockets and blowing up the neighborhood."

Across from him, Jenny shook her head, pausing to take a swig of her beer before she spoke. "Nah, it's a virus. Heard it from my aunt at the hospital. They've had people dying of nothing, just dying, bleeding from places -- nasty stuff." She leaned heavily against Crystal, who eased an arm around her shoulder, gently, carefully.

"Aliens," murmured Damian. "They're coming to get us. 's gonna take years for them to get here, but the people in charge already know..."

I moved in to take a seat on the couch, and Irfan followed along. "It's none of those," he said. "It's simpler, but it's worse. You all go to the zoo, don't you?"

There was a chorus of sleepy nods from around the circle. "And you see the animals," continued Irfan, "when they've been stuck in little cages too long, right? They just lie down and die. They can't go on any longer. That's what's happening to us, too. We've been stuck in this dreary little cage so long that we're all just ready to give up."

For a moment, there was a lull in the conversation, and I could tell he'd hit a nerve. It was easy enough to have a stoned laugh at the conspiracy theories, but Irfan's was probably right, and nobody had anything to say about that. In the silence, I could hear the radio more clearly; it was a pretty song, something I'd never heard before, and that struck me. It had been months since I'd heard a new song on the radio.

At last, the moment of silence passed; Damian started telling a dirty joke, something about a small-town vicar, and someone passed me the joint. The hard edges of the day were starting to get filed off, in the cloud of smoke and music, and for the first time in a long time, I was happy.

Bringing the radios in was Crystal's idea, but it caught on fast. We started out with the stations playing happy old songs, just to get rid of the silence in the halls; once we started to hear about Ziggy, we went to the pop stations, and we stayed there. The kids liked everything we played, but even they could tell we were onto something once we found stations that played Ziggy.

It wasn't that he was that much better than anyone else, or that his music was that special. It was good, sure, but it was about the same stuff all music is about: sex and love and sadness and the stars. It was just... it's hard to describe now, but it was the first time in what felt like years that someone was singing like he wanted to be alive and that he loved the world. Ziggy and the Spiders cared about whether we lived or died, even though we didn't, and that mattered. I know it sounds daft now, but the songs gave us something to live for. We sang them with the kids, with each other, to ourselves on the bus... and we weren't the only ones. The Stardust songs were catching like wildfire, and you could feel the good mood in the air. It wasn't much, just a little flicker of optimism, but it was there.

Ziggy and the Spiders released their first LP that October, and I heard it through for the first time in a cafe, having a cup of coffee with Irfan after work. One of the waiters put it on just after we'd ordered, and we ended up lingering over our coffee until the end of Side 2, just taking it in. I don't think we said a single meaningful word in between, and it took us a few minutes after it ended just to be able to talk. Irfan was the first to manage it; he cleared his throat and looked me in the eye. "Look, Mel, I was thinking about Bonfire Night. I think it might be fun to do something do something up for the kids."

I probably grinned too widely when he said it. I've never liked the Guys -- a little too morbid -- but other than that, Bonfire Night was about my favorite night of the year. "Sounds good. We could get some fireworks, and do you think we could do a proper bonfire in the parking lot?"

"Yeah, I bet we could." Irfan nodded, and I started doing out a diagram in my head as the waiter flipped the record over to start again. A waitress came by to top off our coffees, and I was grateful for the renewed warmth in my hand and down my throat. The cafe around me felt as warm as the coffee, and the record player hummed along, the herald of the start of something new.

The next couple of weeks, I worked on getting Bonfire Night set up properly. I wanted to do it as a proper last burn, better than the last one I did on the street -- and safer, too, obviously. Thankfully, the parking lot behind the building was big and barren enough to give us plenty of space at a safe distance from the building. I built the bonfire pile myself, with the help of a few of the oldest kids, and I'm still proud of it: all natural, old dry wood, and built to last for hours. You just know when you've done the job right, and this time, I knew.

We started a couple of hours after nightfall, after bedtime for the babies and the little kids. It was a cold night, and I remember we bundled up the kids warmer than they needed, just because we were worried. We shouldn't have been. After we shot off a few fireworks, I got the bonfire going, and it went up like the clappers, bright orange against the clouded black sky. The kids let out a yell, and so did Crystal, even as she kept them all away from the flame; I stepped back to help her and see the fire properly for myself. I swear it warmed the whole parking lot up, that bonfire, and as I watched it go, I was as proud as I'd ever been of a fire of mine.

I got lost in it a bit, and the next thing I knew, Irfan was reaching out for my hand. Crystal and Jenny were leaning against each other, swaying a little bit, and Damian turned on his radio. We played Ziggy up into the night, to the moon and stars we couldn't see, until the fire and the music and the wind all merged together. The chill, the heat, the tinny sound of Ziggy singing about love -- it was our soul, and it was all we had.

We stayed out until the bonfire burnt itself down, way too late, and the morning after was awful, but I've never regretted that night. Some nights, even now, I still dream of it.

That Bonfire Night was the first time I could really feel the world getting better, but soon the signs were everywhere. Suicides were down, said the news, and we had fewer and fewer new kids coming in; what was better, we started to have kids being adopted or taken back by their parents. For the first time, the Children's Home was losing population, and it felt great.

By the time they closed the place down two years later, Ziggy'd already started to wane, but we were all still listening to him. I got a new job at a boutique downtown and went back to school; Irfan was still in, and we started seeing each other properly then. We got married my junior year, after he got a teaching job at the high school, and once I got out of the University I started out in social work. It was still a busy job, but by then, everyone could feel things getting better, and the projections for how long we had kept going further out. Fifteen years, they said on the news the day I started, and soon they stopped even guessing when we might give out. The world was going to live.

It's been ten years now since the news first broke, five years since what was supposed to be the end of the world. Ziggy slipped away from us somewhere down the line, but we still play his records and remember our years at the Children's Home. I've kept up with some of the kids, and they're doing better than you'd think -- some of them at home, some of them with new parents, all of them okay. It's safe to be a kid again these days, and it's safe to be a parent.

That's why I'm writing this all down. It took a while, but Irfan and I decided it was time to start a family. We adopted our Jamillah three months ago, and we're thinking we might try to have a child of our own a year or two down the line. This is for Jamillah and for any of our kids to come, kids too young to remember Ziggy Stardust or when the world was about to end -- one day, when you grow up and you're ready to read this, I want you to know where your folks were when we were young and how we felt about it. It's not all pretty, but it's a story you deserve to know.

If there's a moral to it -- and I'm not sure there is -- it's that you've got to keep living, whatever happens. I know you'll find some time when hope is gone; as hard as Ziggy and the Spiders tried, it's still not a perfect world. It's life. All I want you to know is that you can take strength from us, or from your friends, or from whatever music moves you, or from a bonfire on a dark night. Take your strength where you find it, and use it as best you can. It's a beautiful world, my loves. I hope you love it, too.