She takes another bite of her salad as the restaurant around us crumbles into ash. A sip at the glass of merlot beside her plate as the picture windows shatter, shards raining down across the dark hardwood floor.
The tables near the door disappear into flames, then the servers and diners go up in smoke with them. There’s a sound like the world being swallowed by waves as the air itself burns and the walls fall apart.
In a moment, we’re all that’s left of the building, the brick and mortar strewn in charred heaps around us. She stares at me across the table, the smile in her green eyes fading away.
“You see it again,” she says with a frown.
I nod slowly and survey the decimated room, struggling to keep the fear from my face. She, out of everything, has somehow failed to vanish, and that is some solace, at least.
“Different this time,” I reply. “Worse.”
She reaches across our table, the pristine white tablecloth an untouched island in the sea of rubble. On the ground beside my feet, all that’s left of the chandelier is a puddle of silver.
“It’s all right,” she whispers. “You can tell me.”
She squeezes my hand, and the nightmare reverses. Piece by piece, the room rebuilds itself until the world is whole again.
“All of it,” I mutter. “They’re going to burn all of it.”
I can’t lie to her, no matter how much the truth hurts.
“How soon?” she asks, keeping a straight face, to her credit.
“I don’t know. But soon enough that we need to leave.”
* * *
We pull up to our street half an hour later, jeeps patrolling the road, and helicopters cutting through the sky overhead. A young soldier stops the car and asks for our IDs.
I could tell him what I’ve seen—that this whole city will be gone by morning—but he wouldn’t believe me. At most, he’d take me half-seriously and think I was making a threat.
I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t even believe myself if I hadn’t seen the soldiers and planes arrive weeks before they actually did.
She takes her hand from mine to reach inside her purse, and the world disappears again. Outside our car, the lights flicker out, until all that remains is the cold glow of the moon on an endless sea of soot.
I watch the soldier crumble, his body growing gray and cracked like overused charcoal, then breaking away in the light evening breeze. Before he has time to completely fall apart, his charred remains hand our cards back through the open window.
“Have a good evening,” his ashes instruct.
She turns to me and takes my hand again, the houses and gardens re-emerging from the dark. On the corner, our home reforms from the ruins, and a dog barks happily in the neighbor’s front yard.
“All this, too?” she asks.
“All of it,” I reply.
She cries for the better part of an hour, but I can’t lie to her.
* * *
We reach the mountains just before daybreak, cracked roads and stalled convoys turning what should be an hour’s trip into the entire night. The aging pines stretch like towers along the side of the gravel road, the light from the city still glowing at their edges.
The car sputters out of fuel a few miles from the trailhead. Not perfect, but farther than I thought we’d get on half a tank of rationed petrol. Not perfect, but close enough, I hope.
She shifts the car into park, and I reach into the back seat for the bags we crammed with all the canned food and bottled water we could find in the cupboards. “We’d better start walking,” I say.
As her hand slips from mine, the pines go up in flames, smoldering, charred stumps lining the road like misplaced torches.
“All this, too?” she asks, staring behind us. The light from the city is gone until she takes my hand again.
We trudge through the dark until we find the place on the map where the entrance should be. An abandoned copper mine with just enough stone that it might keep her safe. I unsling the rope from my shoulder—the old, fraying one we kept in the garage–and toss it down the hole in the ground. The sound of its end slapping onto cold stone echoes up from the mineshaft.
I let go of her hand to tie the rope around a boulder, and watch the trees around us tilt and fall. Dark clouds rush across the sky, blotting out the stars until I take her hand and help her into the hole.
“You first,” I say, glancing over my shoulder. The rope is too weak to hold us both at once, and the fall too far to risk it.
She pauses for a moment at the mouth of the mine shaft, and for the first time since dinner, she looks me straight in the eyes. Then she asks the question I’ve been dreading all night.
“You and me,” she says. “We’re going to be all right, aren’t we?”
I let her hand go as she starts to climb down. See the forest burn and topple around us. I stare at my own arms like I have been all night. Watch my skin fade from amber, to gray, to black, then my fingers and feet blow away with the wind.
As I watch myself crumble away into dust, I see that her smooth, pale skin never changes—the freckles on her cheeks still untouched by the storm. And for the first time all night, I can believe she’ll be safe.
I lean down and plant a kiss on her lips—taste the soot and smoke on my own—and for a moment my body reforms.
“Hurry,” I whisper, as our lips move apart, because I can’t lie to her.
On the horizon, a bright orange light begins to bloom.
© 2017 Steven Fischer