Fiction Page



Fire and Ice

Hysterical screams mixed with the whoops of sirens as I ran down the street to the St. Matthews shelter. Parents pled for their children to follow, to leave the cat behind; a couple fought bitterly. A young man wrapped in a plastic shower curtain, smiling faces on their heads, sat on the church steps and calmly explained that panic was senseless–this was indeed the end of the world, and we should approach it with a gentle heart and a willing mind. No one paused to listen.

I pushed past him, pushed past the crying parents, and ran to the basement of the church. Was I too late? The church had said that there was room for only forty people beyond the staff and other important dignitaries. As I came down the last three steps, I gasped with relief. The red doors still stood open. I barreled through.

“Forty,” said one of the priests, and he pulled the door shut. I had gotten the last bed, I thought cheerfully, as the sound of the couple’s argument was abruptly shut out.

I passed from the airlock to the common room, where stacked cans and boxes obscured the walls. That food would keep us through the weeks of waiting for radioactivity to fall, and through the months of rebuilding that would follow. My fellow inmates stood in clumps around the room, or huddled on plastic-cushioned furniture which looked as if it had been dragged down from a forgotten attic. At the back I could see several doors, leading–presumably–to sleeping and lavatory areas. There would be little, if any, privacy in the days to come.

I passed mothers who hugged small children, and a group brown-skinned Native Americans, construction workers, by the stains on their jeans. Businessmen and women who stared at the walls, their carefully built worlds tumbling. A small boy, apparently alone, sat on the floor and sobbed.

After some searching, I found an empty spot on a couch. The rip in the cushion bothered my leg, but I knew I should be grateful to have anything. The world was ending, after all. I told myself that everything would be fine–then noticed that while the doors of the airlock were shut, they were not yet barred. I frowned. Thousands of people still stood without, and when the flash came, they would come pouring down, like Noah’s old neighbors. And when they saw the shut doors, they would crush against them, break them down if they were not properly sealed.

How much time? Twenty-eight minutes of flight time, the news service had said. I’d surely spent ten minutes packing my duffel bag, and another ten running to the church. Not much, then.

“We’re waiting for someone,” said the old lady on my right. Knitting needles flashed in her hands as brown thread slipped through her fingers, slow and steady, like the thread of the fates.

“Who?” I asked.

“Someone dreadfully important. See, he has his own room.” She thrust a needle towards the only door with a lock on it.

The rest of us would be crammed together like sheep and goats in a pen, with our only possessions what we could keep by us. Most people, I noticed, had nothing more than what they were wearing. I had paused to grab a few comforts – underwear, toothbrush, paperback books– and had very nearly been shut out. I was rich among these people, but how long would I keep what I had brought?

But I was going to live. Unlike the fatalist on the church steps.

On my left side, a middle-aged man checked his watch. “Perhaps they won’t hit our city. We could be one of the lucky ones.”

Thunder roiled the ground beneath us. Lights swayed, and the old lady dropped a stitch, then picked it up.

“That answers that,” said the young man sitting in a cracked yellow chair across from me. His polished cowboy boots were crossed at the ankle.

The middle-aged man adjusted his spectacles. “That one wasn’t even close. We might get out of this war with nothing worse than low-level radiation.”

Another rumble, another sway of lights, this time harder than the before. The sobbing child began to scream.

The young man uncrossed his feet and leaned forward. “Actually, this is the end of the world.”

I put my feet up on my duffel bag. “I heard that one on my way in.”

“Seriously.” He smiled in a non-serious way.

“Posh.” The old lady turned her knitting and started a new row. “The world won’t end until the Lord ends it. Before that happens, there will trumpets and angels and signs. Then the Archangel Michael will smite the earth with his sword of fire, and all the earth will be consumed. And before that happens, all the righteous will be called home. So as I sit here before you, I know that the world will not end today.”

The middle-aged man rubbed his chin, and loose fat wobbled beneath a stubbled beard. “Fire can’t destroy a planet. Planets are made of rock, which doesn’t burn. Melt, maybe, but not burn.”

“If the Good Lord says that the planet will be consumed by fire, then it will.” She yanked a length of yarn from her bag.

“Sure.” The young man crossed his arms. “When the sun goes nova and blows up into a red giant. On that day, five billion years from now, the sun will swallow all the inner planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. But mankind will have destroyed itself long before then.”

Tonight, perhaps? The lights danced again as thunder, no, trumpets, sounded around us.

People screamed on the other side of the door, pounded it so hard that the frame shook. Through an intercom a priest was telling them to find another shelter, and hurry, this one was filled.

I wondered if the man in the shower curtain was still smiling, still dispensing peaceful words to an insane world.

The old lady started a new row. “The Lord will call us home, in his time. Mankind will have no say in the matter.”

The middle-aged man took off his spectacles, wiped them, and put them on again. “Did you know that the Norse also believed that the world would end in fire? There would be one last war between the gods, and the Destroyer would come with his weapons and burn everything up.”

I shivered. That sounded too much like today.

“My favorite version,” said the young man with a grin, “is the snake.”

“The snake?” Of all the animals I disliked, snakes topped the list.

He looked at the construction workers, who had begun to softly chant. “An old Indian myth – I forget which tribe. At the end of everything a snake will come out and devour the universe. It starts with the stars–munch, munch, mmmm!–and eats them, one by one. Next the moon will be swallowed–gulp!–and then, saving the best for last, it will slide its icy jaws around the warm belly of our Earth. We’ll slide whole down its inky-gullet. You know, I’ve wondered if it will be cobra or a viper. Or perhaps a fer-de-lance?”

“A lamprey,” said the middle-aged man.

“A what?” exclaimed the old lady. She dropped a stitch, and this time didn’t notice.

“A lamprey. Not a snake, per se.” The middle-aged man pointed a plump finger at her. “It a fish–a particularly hideous fish. Jawless, in fact.”

The rumbles were continuous now. I strained to listen to the absurd conversation, to better ignore the screams.

The young man leaned back. “Jawless? How does it eat without teeth?”

“Oh, it has teeth. They’re arranged in a circle, at the end of its mouth. It feeds by attaching itself to a fish, poor thing, and chewing a hole in the animal’s side, then sucking out flesh and blood. The fish may live for days after that, crippled and dying, doomed.”

“Ick,” I said. I had a new animal at the top of my list.

The young man, however, grinned. “So you think a lamprey will eat the world?”

Laughing, the middle-aged man spread his hands. “I think of no more disgusting a creature for the job.”

Indeed. So this was the future of humanity, these wise minds tucked into the ark? I rose to find better company, but could barely walk, so strong were the Earth’s convulsions. Something was dying, or perhaps about to be born–but what?

And the doors still weren’t barred. How much longer would we wait?

Picking a doorway at random, I struggled through a short hallway which led to a sleeping room. Row upon row of bunkbeads crowded, barracks-fashion, against the walls and back. The room seemed empty, until I heard the soft crying. Following it, I found a little girl with her face pressed into a lumpy pillow.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, gently touching her shoulder.

“My kitten. I had to leave him outside, and he’s scared, I know he is.”

We all are, I thought, sliding my arm around her thin shoulders. I lied, “He’ll be all right. He has nothing to worry about.”

“None of us do,” said a man in the bed above her. He slid down, then ran thin fingers through his receding hairline. There was a resemblance to their faces, father and daughter. “No more troubles, now.”

The steel beds were dancing. I could hear screams. “I hope they barred the doors.”

“They’d better,” said the thin man. “The big one has yet to come. But then again, this is all a useless gesture.”

“We’ve food and water, and air, to keep us safe until the radiation drops back to safe levels,” I protested. “We’re safe – if they bar those doors.”

He stared at me with intense grey eyes. “When we leave, we’ll walk straight into a nuclear winter.”

“What?” I steadied myself with a bed frame.

“All the dust kicked up by the bombs, all the smoke from the fires–it won’t settle for years. Decades. Centuries, maybe. No sunlight, no warmth, no plants to feed the animals, to feed us...” His voice caught.

“That can’t be right,” I protested.

He nodded. “Volcanos have been proven to drop temperatures world-wide, to cause crop failures and famines. These bombs have already kicked up more dust than a hundred such volcanoes – and there’s more to come.”

“You’re as bad as the people in the other room,” I protested. “Some are saying that the world will end in fire, or that it will end in the belly of a disgusting snake! If you’re so convinced that this is the end of the world, why did you come here? Why did you take a bed which should have been given to a heroic soul, someone dedicated to building a new future?”

He half-laughed, bitter. “I’m too much of a coward to kill myself. Like all the others, I’ll run until there’s no place to run to.”

I didn’t need this. I turned to leave.

The intercom crackled, and then I heard one of the priests. “St. Matthews shelter will now be permanently sealed.”

Behind his voice I could fists pounding, angry shouts, chants, and a familiar voice expounding on the features of the celestial lamprey.

“Wait,” said a second voice over the intercom. “He’s here.”

“Thank the Lord above,” muttered the first priest. “Let the Bishop enter, and quickly.”

A heard clicking, then the sudden load roar of an angry mob. Someone screamed something about a bomb, another cried for mercy. Then more clicks as the voices muted. There was a thud, and whines–the sealing and barring of the door.

“Your Excellency,” said the first priest.

In the background, I heard the old lady said, “What’s that thing?’

“What thing?” asked the middle-aged man.

“Your Excellency,” said the second priest

“That black thing, like a ball. Someone rolled it in while the door was open.”

“A grenade!” cheered the young man, overly enthusiastic. A nuclear grenade!”

Please, I prayed.

I felt the flash as much as saw it, a brightness which filled the door like a sunrise, a star exploding not forty feet from where I stood. The beds slammed into the far wall, taking me with them. Through their bent frames I realized I could see through the wall into the common room, or what had once been the common room, and was now only a ash and molten stone, as if clove by the Archangel’s Sword. The roof above the shelter, and the entire church above, the city around it, gone.

All gone.

A cold wind swept in through the hole, icy December air, the solstice night. Through a jagged hole, like the mouth of a lamprey, I could see the moon, the stars. Even as the Earth was still lived, the celestial lamprey sucked out her soul.

A cloud of dust roiled across the sky, swallowing the stars, hiding them for a hundred years or more. I whispered goodbye as the serpent swallowed the last one, and then the moon, turning ever deeper red, faded from view. The Earth trembled again as the Archangel touched his sword to her face, and we slid down into the eternal Fimbulvetr.

Web site and all contents © Copyright Helen E Davis 2011, All rights reserved.
Free website templates