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art by Cheryl Owen-Wilson

The World Will End in Fire

K. C. Norton's work can be found at Flash Fiction Online, and in the upcoming volume of Writers of the Future, among other venues. She lives in the least-rural part of rural Pennsylvania with a small cow-spotted dog. She can be found at facebook.com/greekpunk, and can be tweeted @kc_norton if the urge should strike.
"I'm tired, Viva," I said, blowing into the cup formed by my hands.
She said, "Me, too," as she tugged the flaps of her hat low over her ears and looked away from me across the field that would yield no crop but winter now. Her breaths came out in little puffs of steam. "Have you found Daffy?"
I had indeed found Daffy, his soft grey fur knotted with icicles, his lips the silver-blue of the newly dead. "Cats are desert creatures," I began.
"No," said Viva, "enough, don't." She wrapped her arms around herself and frowned at me. "I can't. It's fine. Just tell me he's fine."
"Daffy's fine," I lied.
She said, "Thank you."
There were no trees for miles. The weight of snow had pulled most of the branches down, and the trunks had followed. All that was left was the valley, and the mountains, and the stars. And my wife. And me.
We had been digging for three days by my reckoning. The stars gave off just enough light to see by, when the snow diffused it all around us. The snow had stopped; it was too cold. It seemed absurd to consider that now that there was no sunlight, and then--by definition--no moonlight, even the snow had given up.
"Did you find anything?" I asked.
"Nobody," said Viva. "You?"
"Nobody," I lied.
"Good," said Viva, and then, "God, I'm frozen, let's stop."
"Yeah," I said, "we should."
We'd been inside when the sun went, and had climbed from our second-story window in search of Toby and the cat.
Viva did not say, I tried to go to him, and you would not let me.
Wrapped in all our coats, two layers of gloves, and a rind of ice, we pulled ourselves up through our window, not even the crackling outer layer of our clothes touching. Two days ago I had worked up a sweat while searching; now the sweat was frozen into my jacket, and did not melt even where it pushed up against my skin.
Viva would not look at me.
"He's dead," she said, as if I might contradict her.
After a long pause with my tongue clenched between my teeth to keep them from chattering, I said, "Cats are desert animals."
"Shit, Farouk," she said, but that was all.
We built another fire, piling bits of furniture in our enamel bathtub and throwing in two matches, three matches, our supply dwindling and neither of us able to care because the cold had climbed so far inside us that even fire could not drive it away.
And out there in all that snow, Toby and Daffy and the whole world stood still, as if in a lull between heartbeats, or a breath drawn in and not yet, or ever, exhaled.
"Fuck this." Viva put her hood back and a wave of dark hair broke over her shoulders. "Poor fucking Daffy."
"He didn't feel it," I said. "Nothing. It's like going to sleep."
Viva struggled to her feet and began to unzip her jacket.
"Stop that," I demanded.
She did not listen. Her zippers unfurled and coat after coat fell away, until she emerged, her arms the color of cooling tea, her skin crackling.
"Don't," I started.
But she said, "No. Please. God. Just once in my life, let me choose something."
She was so small in the night, the firelight crawling over her skin, the black rot of frostbite embracing her body. In that moment I felt as if the world had ended on account of Viva, and I was nothing but a witness. As if the sun had fled the sky only in an effort to become both the source and the consequence of her limitless grief.
"Choose what," I said. Not asking.
"The road," she answered, struggling with her boots. "The way the world ends."
"And you choose what," I said. Still not asking.
"Fire," said Viva. "I choose fire. Burn the house down, asphyxiate, make love."
I understood the impulse. To shut the whole world out; to negate it. "I don't want to die, Viva," I said.
She was naked, her skin taut with goose bumps. She could not control her shaking. When she spoke her teeth chattered so loudly that I thought they might splinter in her gums.
"You want to live?" she asked.
I reached for her. "Someone will come. Maybe someone will come."
She pulled away. "I don't want them to come." Her eyelashes were rimmed with frost.
I said, "Maybe Toby's out there somewhere."
She said, "Of course he's out there. And he's dead, like Daffy."
"You don't know that," I said.
"Farouk," she said. "Sweet Christ."
Viva threw her coats in the bathtub one by one. The smoke they sent up was black, the smell synthetic and nauseating. "There," she said when she was done. "Now you can't make me stay."
"I would never make you," I said.
She said, "That's true."
Her skin was bluish, even in the firelight.
"Now what?" she asked.
Three feet beneath the surface I had unearthed our son, his tiny hands clutching on to Daffy, his face turned under against the onslaught of an unstoppable storm, frozen so suddenly that he had not had time to succumb to frostbite but was, instead, perfectly preserved for what would now be an eternity of moonless winter nights.
I pulled off my scarf, my hat, my gloves, my coat. "Now what," I said.
For the first time since the sun went out, Viva kissed me. Her skin on mine felt like the touch of one already dead. "I love you," said Viva, very softly.
I said, "I know."
And then--as if finally succumbing to fate--the fire blazed, and shivered, and winked out. It made no sound as it went. Thick, ashy smoke hung between us, and Viva coughed; but I could still see the firelight, still feel its heat, when the night roared in.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

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