by Bethany Cutkomp
The touch of a flame’s fevered breath always made my skin colder. Hungry. Never satisfied. I didn’t have time to grab the quilt from the couch before you were at my porch rapping both fists against the door, pleading through its crack that we needed to go. Right now. It’s time to get out of here.
I didn’t argue with you. Distant fires crawled closer, catching vegetation and rotting barns in its wake. You called it the end, an apocalyptic climax of drought conditions and mischanneled anxiety. We knew that there’d be a blaze angry enough to swallow our rural patch of homes, but the end just came sooner and meaner than anticipated.
And so I shivered.
You pulled me to the curb, squinting at the incandescent sky. It was a red, red evening. Was it truly sunset or just an illusion? Wisps of tangerine streaked across the raging canvas above. As the blood-orange sun retired for the evening, a large marble moon ascended through the haze. It swallowed us, that moon.
They ain’t coming back for you, someone from across the street called.
Since catching the first whiff of smoke beyond the horizon, we’d assisted young families in evacuating their homes. We let them take our cars as long as someone came back for us. Only a few neighbors remained on their front porches—old souls and large egos willing to go down with their property. They watched us with grinning grimaces, cigarettes poking from their teeth like toothpicks.
Might as well catch the last ride out from my nephew, my next-door neighbor added. Unless you want to burn.
You looked at me. Through your gaze, I fell into a reel of memories from our home. We’d sold these neighbors lemonade as kids. We mowed their lawns, watched after their dogs. I’d slept over at your place dozens of times, sharing your warmth beside the crackling fireplace.
A tractor pulled a wagon stocked with hay bales around the corner. Over its sputtering engine, the driver called out an offering to every house.
This is your last chance, he shouted. Stay, and you die.
Stubborn neighbors scoffed on their cigarettes. Leave, but you ain’t guaranteed jack shit.
I helped you up in the wagon and sat across from you, wedged between locals I’d only spoken to a handful of times. The hay bales prickled my thighs and reeked of mildew. With my eyes closed, I pictured a hayride through autumn’s cornfields.
Soft music breached my vision. Clustered on one porch, our neighbors brought out a stereo. An acoustic guitar and bass. A cajon. I recognized the warm opening chords to a classic rock tune. Sending snakes of smoke to the sky, those poor souls destined for ruin sang to the swollen moon above.
To my disbelief, you started humming along, just like you did on long car rides through the orchard. You’d always had a wonderful voice. It coaxed a few passengers to join in, and soon a slurry of notes consumed our wagon. Indifference in the face of disaster sounded eerie and wonderful. My vision drifted out of focus as if succumbing to a dream—a bad one.
The end was here and nobody cared.
Maybe it was the fumes playing tricks on me, but our neighbors were dissolving before my eyes. Knobby fingers pinching their cigarettes fizzled away to dust, indistinguishable among their smoky exhales. They were succumbing to ghosts, fading before the flames even reached them.
A metallic groan croaked in the distance. Down came the empty water tower, collapsing at the expense of tractors operated by frenzied townsfolk. The impacting blast shook the atmosphere like a bomb, pushing a wave of heat through the neighborhood. Goosebumps prickled down my arms. Pinching our collars over our nostrils, we marveled at the bloom of flames and dust consuming the sky.
The music faded out to a crackling blaze closing in. On instinct, my hand flashed out and grabbed your knee. One squeeze sent a thousand words that wouldn’t reach my lips.
You fumbled for my hand and squeezed me back.
As we rounded the corner, I glanced over my shoulder. One last look at the familiar. Most of the porch dwellers have turned to smoke. Maybe they’d become moondust. Maybe they’d sizzle against the surface of the sun. Maybe they’d find a beginning in the afterlife, an opportunity to build a life as rich as the one they refused to leave.
A lone neighbor—perhaps a ghost—rose from his lawn chair and raised his cigarette to us. Even with the distance put between us, I read the words clear off of his chapped lips.
The weight of your grip felt like ash.
Bethany Cutkomp is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. One day, she hopes to write YA novels and befriend the opossums under her porch. Her work appears in Mag 20/20, Alternative Milk, Heimat Review, Exposed Bone, and more. Find her on social media at @bdcutkomp and on her website.