The world burned around me.
I curled up underneath the stairs, hiding from the warm glow that lit the night. My breath caught and I coughed into a blanket that smelled of smoke weeks old. The stale air burnt and tears sprung to my eyes. I blindly flailed, fingers searching for the other end of the blanket so I could wipe them.
My hand hit another’s.
His voice was old, from smoke or age or some combination of the two. I couldn’t see his face, but imagined it to match his voice, with more wrinkles carved into the skin framing his eyes than there were embers in the air.
“Sorry,” I croaked. I tugged at the light metal canister that rested against my spine and pressed the flimsy mask to my face. I braced my fingers against the cracking plastic, and inhaled the stale oxygen. I could breathe again. I relished it.
The man leaned forward, close enough for me to see his sweat-streaked forehead and yellowing teeth, made more yellow by the fire’s glow.
“Can I have some?” He licked his bleeding lips, cracked almost beyond recognition, and I felt a stab of pity.
I offered it to him. Shaking fingers clattered against my own. A squeeze of the valve brought a gasping breath into his lungs, and I reclaimed my canister.
Feeling emboldened by the energy I had just inhaled, I spoke.
“Sometimes I think the canisters aren’t even worth it, no matter what that President Johnson says.”
“President Carys Johnson?” He asked, leaning back.
I nodded. “It’s just a temporary stay to a problem she created, after all. Might as well just die quickly.”
A rasping laugh from the other corner turning into a coughing fit. “I suppose I have my own reasons for wanting to stay alive.”
I assessed him carefully, his peppered hair that was probably white when clean, the burnt and torn clothes.
The fact that he was alone.
“What would you be losing?” I asked.
“You mean besides my life?”
“Some lives aren’t worth living.”
“Life is always worth living.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. The older they were when the fires began, the more likely they were to still be naive. Hopeful. And hope didn’t make sense, not in the world I was living in.
He nodded, almost approvingly. “No,” he said, “I lied. Some lives aren’t worth living.”
“Then why try?”
His mouth twisted into what might have once been a smile. “A bet.”
What bet would be important enough to force you to survive in a pale semblance of a world? A play where fire was rain and smoke was air, where death was imminent and inevitable?
He paused. He examined me with a desperate caution I hadn’t seen since back when people wanted to live, wanted it bad enough that they would kill and eat another human.
The world stopped spinning. The sulfur fire stopped raining. My lungs stopped wheezing. For a moment, everything was silent.
“The person who started all of this?” I didn’t look for an answer. “You knew the person who started all of this?”
He looked ages older, a streak of flame glinting off the sweat inching down his forehead.
“I did. Before.”
“You knew her, though? Personally?”
He nodded, and I scooted close enough to nudge his leg with my toe.
“What was she like?”
A smile shone through the grime, clear and bright this time. The smile of a crush that had never died. I shuddered. A monster, loved? Despite the heat, goosebumps rose on my arms.
Why would a monster- a killer- ever be loved?
He glanced around at the destruction around, and the smile began to fall. “She was going to change the world.”
And as his smile fell, so did the fire. And the world burned around us.