Imogen says the sky reminds her of the end of the world, and Aurelie has to admit that it’s a good description, even if it’s inaccurate, since she hasn’t seen the end of the world and she’s pretty certain that Imogen hasn’t either. Imogen has her back turned to the conflagration that is eating up the hills and several small towns a little to the south and east of them. She can’t possibly see the sky because she is meticulously slicing prosciutto for a sandwich, but it outlines her spectacularly, in shades of orange and falling ash.
The sisters are eating a midnight snack. They sit across from each other, splitting a coffee table covered in items from their fridge that Aurelie doesn’t recognize. They are swaddled in the warmth of shared memories and the shorthand of sisters. Aurelie wishes she were somewhere else.
“I knew I needed this as soon as I smelled it,” Imogen says. She wields her knife like a scalpel and meat falls before it, so thin and pink that it looks like rose petals. “This dank little shop with such perfume spilling out of it, a whole bouquet of sweet pig.”
The same breeze that is jumping the fire from house to house a few miles away sends the flavor of singed air through the cracks around the windows and into Aurelie’s mouth. She can’t smell anything, except the world, waiting to be burnt to a crisp. “What are we going to do if we have to evacuate?” she asks. “We should pack.”
“Eat this.” Imogen puts a sandwich in Aurelie’s hand.
“I’m not hungry.” Aurelie turns on the hand-powered emergency radio that she found under the kitchen sink, where it has lived ever since their grandmother mailed it to them. Imogen rolls her eyes.
The fire, the radio says, has consumed two hundred acres, sixty houses, and more trees than anyone can be bothered to count. It moves with breathtaking speed. Reports of fatalities have not been confirmed at this time.
“I wish you would turn that off,” Imogen says. “You can’t listen to the news and eat at the same time. You have to pay attention to one or the other, or you ruin them both.”
“Fine,” Aurelie says. She turns off the radio. “We’ll be that tragic story. Two young women who spent their last moments eating sandwiches full of expensive Italian ham. Fine.” She bites into the sandwich and it is so delicious that it makes her eyes water. Her mouth is full of melting flesh, rough cheese, and flakes of salt. She tries to chew, but the food sits on her tongue. The wish to be somewhere else is huge, formless, but Aurelie is frozen in the middle of it with bread going soggy inside her cheeks.
When the doorbell rings, it is a relief. Aurelie sits up as if the back of the chair has stung her. She drops the sandwich in her lap. The doorbell rings again. A jolly sound, and innocent. Aurelie knows better. The doorbell is a messenger from the outside world, a tiny brass courier storming their sisterly walls. She wishes for someone official, a man in uniform who will tell them to leave, who will lift them into a vehicle with flashing lights and speed them to the safety of someplace else.
“Maybe it’s Max,” Imogen says. She dips a slice of cheese into a jar of mustard.
“Max wouldn’t go out in this. He’s too smart.”
“I know. He’s your boyfriend.” Imogen puts the mustard covered cheese in her mouth. She dips another piece. “Maybe he came to save you.”
“He would have called.”
The bell rings again.
“It’s not for us.”
“Of course it is.” Aurelie can’t stand up. She has Imogen’s sandwich in her lap, and Imogen’s voice in her ears, and her eyes are mired on Imogen herself, on the plump grace of Imogen’s hands as they drive her knife into a loaf of bread.
“No, it’s not,” Imogen says. “Whoever it is keeps ringing everyone’s doorbell. They don’t know who they’re looking for.” She doesn’t move. “You get it. I made sandwiches.”
“Fine,” Aurelie says, and it’s the magic word that releases her, or maybe it’s the sight of Imogen building another sandwich, legs folded under her, as serene and lofted as a swan.
The air smells worse in the hall, and even worse when Aurelie gets down the stairs. Doorbells ring all around her, but no one else comes out, and the chimes die in sad little echoes against the walls.
At first, Aurelie assumes that the woman standing outside is old. She is very short and gray all over. Her hair, clothes, and skin are entirely coated in ash.
Aurelie opens the door. “Are you looking for someone?”
“I have left my husband,” the woman says. She curls her hands into fists and taps them against her cheeks. “I have left my husband. I have left him alone. I have left him without a wife. Can you see him?” She thrusts a hand over her shoulder. The street is empty.
Aurelie tries for gentleness. “No, I don’t see anyone. But I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sure he just got lost, or something, and he’s looking for you.” Behind the woman, the fire litters the sky with light and heat, and fills the air with acidic dust. “You can’t stay out there. You have to come inside.”
“Are you married?” The woman’s eyes are wet and Aurelie realizes that she is hardly older than she is, or Imogen. She seems unbothered by the ash that has claimed her.
“No.” Aurelie is afraid to touch the woman, in case the only thing holding her together is the empty space between them.
“I left my husband while he was busy. There were so many of them, and I am supposed to tell them where to go. You should see them—men and women, those little children, birds and rats and babies . . . There are so many of them, all the time.”
Aurelie gives up. She reaches for the woman’s elbow and pulls her inside, shutting the door against the fire. “You’re in shock,” she says.
“I am in shock,” the woman agrees. Her feet, Aurelie notices, are bare, and they leave ashy prints on the carpet as they walk up the stairs.
“You don’t know her name?” Max tips the sugar over his coffee, and Aurelie knows he is counting: one, two. He stirs it with a wooden stick, one, two, three, and taps the stick on the rim of his cup before throwing it away.
“She says her name is Percy, but every time we say it she snorts out of her nose like she’s laughing. It’s terrible. I keep thinking I’ll ask Imogen about it, but I haven’t had a chance. When I woke up this morning, they were making pancakes.”
“Imogen likes her then.”
“Imogen likes everyone.” Aurelie does not put sugar in her coffee. She rolls the bitterness across her tongue before swallowing it.
“Imogen is strange,” Max says. He never says this with cruelty or curiosity, just as a fact, and Aurelie finds this irritating. If she were a fruit and Max found her without a peel, would he even recognize her? While they finish their coffee, Aurelie imagines taking one of Imogen’s knives and slicing through Max’s clothes, then paring him down in long and even strips until she reaches the pit of him and holds it in her hand, ready for cracking.
The office is closed because of the fire, so instead of going to work, they go to Max’s apartment, a shiny box that floats above downtown. They have sex, since it seems like the right thing to do, but their skin smells sour and burnt. Max’s weight envelops Aurelie, and she imagines her bones sinking out from underneath them and disappearing into the bed where they stay, wrapped safe in clean whiteness. Afterward, Max turns on the television.
“We are cautiously hopeful,” a fireman says.
A news anchor mentions that there have been an unfortunate number of fatalities.
“It’s not that I don’t like her,” Aurelie says.
“You don’t like her.” Max flips through the channels, but there are only images of swirling, ravenous orange, so bright they look like instant death.
“She just comes in and starts eating pancakes with my sister, like there aren’t people out there, dying.” Aurelie can’t describe the sensation of Percy, except that it’s uncomfortable and similar to the way she feels when watching the fire burn across the TV, like someone has transposed the positions of her stomach and her heart.
When Aurelie gets home, there is a homeless man at the kitchen table. He is eating a slice of chocolate cake. He moves slowly, as if the air has turned to liquid without him noticing, and a trail of ash records the passage of his limbs. Imogen and Percy stand in front of him, their backs to Aurelie.
“No,” he says. “This is almost it, but there’s something missing.” He puts his fork down and stares at the brown wedge on his plate.
“Can you remember anything?” Imogen asks. Her hands pat out a rhythm against the tops of her thighs. Aurelie notices the number of pans on the counter, the bowls nested in the sink, the chocolate spread everywhere, powdered, chopped, and scattered.
“Anything at all?” Percy cocks her hip and crosses her arms. Aurelie can’t see her face, but she sounds both impatient and bored, and there’s a loosening in Aurelie’s chest, a sweet vindication that lasts until she looks at Imogen, who is leaning across the table to hold the homeless man’s hand and hasn’t noticed. Percy turns around, and Aurelie would swear that her smile crouches on top of a smirk.
“We are recreating,” Percy says, “his grandmother’s chocolate cake.”
“And we are so close,” Imogen says. “We are so close.”
The homeless man looks up. Aurelie recognizes the expression on his face. He’s hungry and Imogen has just offered the only thing that will satisfy.
“I think there was a bottle,” he says. “She kept it up high on the top shelf . . . It was a fat, brown bottle with a skinny neck . . . Every time she opened it, she said ‘Orange you nice?’ and patted me on the head… I didn’t get the joke.”
“Grand Marnier,” Imogen says. “Oh, your grandma was decadent.” She shakes the homeless man by the shoulder and waves at Aurelie. “We’ve got it. I know we do.” Her cheeks are pink and she bounces away from them, her hands reaching out to push everything on the counter aside.
Percy pulls out the chair across from the homeless man and sits. “It was Grand Marnier,” she says. “But it’s not anything that you can have, not anymore. Imogen does not know this yet, and you are not going to tell her, but you are standing on the very edge of a foreign country now, and the things from this one can’t save you there.”
The homeless man begins to cry, but no tears come out, just dry coughs that blow ash over his slice of cake. “But I came to find you,” he says. “I don’t know where I’m supposed to go. You’re the one who’s supposed to tell me.”
“It’s not my problem.” Percy pinches off a corner of his cake and puts it in her mouth. “I’m not the person you’re looking for. Not anymore.” She chews, and then takes the homeless man’s fork out of his hand. She wipes the fork on the back of her wrist and eats the rest of the cake in large, fluffy mouthfuls, before replacing the silverware between his unresponsive fingers. “And you,” she says, looking at Aurelie. “You don’t even know what I am talking about.”
“I’m sorry,” Aurelie says. “I don’t.” She feels Percy’s eyes measuring her, then folding her in half, then folding her again, and again, and again, half by half, until she is small enough to put away somewhere and forget.
“Have a candy,” Percy says. “And then you can help Imogen with the dishes.” She takes a tiny ball wrapped in red cellophane out of the pocket of her shirt, which is really Imogen’s, and dangles it by one crackling corner until Aurelie has to take it, before the moment stretches into an embarrassing panorama with the two of them staring at one another, both furious, one confused, and a piece of candy hanging between them.
“Why is there a homeless man in our house?” Aurelie scrubs the bottom of a pan. Crumbs fall away from the onslaught of soap and hot water.
Imogen beats eggs, butter, and sugar. She tips a fat-bottomed, skinny-necked brown bottle over the bowl once, leans in to sniff it, and doses the batter again. “He’s not homeless. He just doesn’t have anywhere to go right now.”
“I don’t like her.” Aurelie holds her hands still so the pan doesn’t clatter against the sink. Soap bubbles burst against her elbows.
“Well, I do,” Imogen says. “I’ve already baked six chocolate cakes. We would never be doing this if it were just you and me.”
“You didn’t have to let her bring a homeless man.”
“He’s not homeless. Percy says he lost everything in the fire. He keeps telling us about this cake that his grandma used to make for him when he was little, over and over again. Percy says he’s in shock.”
Aurelie dries dishes while Imogen finishes the cake. She wants to tell Imogen about Percy making the homeless man cry, but she can’t think of how to do it. While she thinks, she unwraps Percy’s candy and puts it in her mouth.
It’s tart, and then it’s sweet, and then it’s so sweet that the flavor rolls around the inside of her jaws, and up her nose, and comes around to being tart again. She chews what’s left of the candy and then, because there’s a bowl full of them on the counter, she takes another.
“Want one?” she asks.
“No, I hate pomegranate. The juice ruins everything. If you like them, you should eat them.” Imogen pushes the bowl toward Aurelie and crouches to peer through the glass of the oven door. “You know,” she says, “I think if we do a reduction of the liquor with some sugar it might be even better.”
They stay in the kitchen for the rest of the day. Imogen cooks and Aurelie washes dishes. Imogen uses the dishes again before Aurelie can put them away. When it starts to get dark, Aurelie turns on the lights, and Imogen keeps cooking. More people arrive, all of them empty-handed men and women in charred clothes whose only possession seems to be a capacious and precise hunger for something that Imogen can almost, but not quite, create. Percy lies on the couch, eating chocolate cake and watching the fire march across the television, switching from one channel to another whenever a commercial threatens to break the screen’s continuous blaze.
Aurelie drops a pan into the empty sink. The crash stops everyone.
“What are you doing?” Imogen asks. “Be careful.”
Aurelie turns on the water and lets it pound across the pan. It’s thunder in the sink, a sound that Aurelie would hold in her arms if she could, lasso tight to her chest, and sling out in spitting, spangled fury at the woman lying idle on the couch.
Percy licks the tip of a finger. She presses it into the crumbs that carpet her plate and lifts the resulting fuzz to her mouth. “Delicious,” she says, and at the sound of that one word, a sigh runs through the strangers in the house. They shake off the pause, pushing into the kitchen to speak to Imogen, stepping over and around and into Aurelie where she stands at the sink, as if she were nothing more than the smell of soap.
Aurelie calls Max. “I don’t know where they’re coming from.”
“Why are you letting them in?” Max asks. The introductory bugles of Percy’s evening news punctuate his voice.
“I’m not letting them in.” Aurelie whispers. At the edge of what she can see from the kitchen door, Percy sits alone on the couch while people—Aurelie counts six of them—fill plates from a table covered with food. The sky is no longer orange, and Percy sits with her back to the window, a crisp figure on a night of thick, unyielding black. “Percy says they need to stay here until someone shows up who can tell them where to go.”
“I don’t understand why you’re listening to her. Just tell them that they have to leave.”
Underneath Max’s voice, Aurelie can hear the newscaster.
“Dead . . . Unexpected leap across a highway . . . dead . . . All efforts are being made . . . as of yet unidentified. . . dead . . . except . . . dead.”
“I can’t,” Aurelie says. “Imogen won’t let me.”
Max sighs. Aurelie loves his sighs. They are deep expulsions of breath, and they still contain all the frustrations that she gave up so long ago. She wishes she loved Max as much as she loves his sighs. “Carry on then,” he says. “I’ll see you soon.”
Across the room, Percy sits above their guests. They have arranged themselves in ash-covered, smoke-scented piles on the floor. They hold their plates and stare at their food while Percy bobs her head at each of them, one after the other, and mouths the words of the newscaster like someone bestowing the gentlest of benedictions.
“Dead,” she says. “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”
Imogen and Percy are describing their favorite foods. Imogen’s is a precise combination of juices, frozen in the compartmented trays used for making ice cubes. Their mother only ever made them in the summer, when she would put them in bowls and crush them with the back of a spoon before topping them off with a ladle of sweetened cream. Imogen tells their guests about sitting on the edge of a swimming pool and letting the hot tile burn the backs of her legs while those three juices melted in her mouth, cushioned by sweet and milky fat.
“I don’t remember Mom making that,” Aurelie says.
“You didn’t eat them.”
And Aurelie remembers the hole that seemed to take up residence in the bottom of her stomach when she saw Imogen’s juice-red tongue all those summers ago. She remembers filling the mirror with her fine, flat body and tiny swimsuits that smelled like sunscreen and boys. “I didn’t want to get fat.”
“Predictable,” Percy says.
Their guests sway slightly. They pat their faces with dusty, gray fingers, and when they look at Imogen and Percy, their eyes are watery from refusing to blink. It is like being caught between a swarm of moths and a lamp. Aurelie is an invisible screen in the dark, and they press themselves against it, trying to break through with their pale, hollow bodies and fill their mouths with light.
Aurelie goes to bed. She stands in front of her closed bedroom door and listens to the voices on the other side of it. She reaches out, unwilling to think about why, and pushes in the flimsy button that locks the handle in place.
When Aurelie looks at the dark, she sees a person, a roughly vertical column that swims in and out of certainty a short distance from her bed.
Her heart beats so hard that she can’t breathe.
She gets out of bed. The figure doesn’t move, or disappear. Aurelie walks toward it, and then she stands next to it, and then she sees that it’s Max; but it’s Max in slow motion, Max covered in ash, Max with skin that feels as solid and cool as an unlit candle.
“Aurelie,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
She pulls him into her bed, lifts the covers over his fire-stained clothes, switches on the lamp next to his head. He stares at the ceiling.
Aurelie holds his hand. It doesn’t move from its indentation on the blanket. His fingers feel thick, and she tries several times to fit her own hand around them, but gives up when she finds herself clutching the padded base of a still thumb.
“Max,” she says. “Are you dead?”
“I’m hungry,” he says. “I never ate. I never had the chance. It was a cigarette, of all stupid things—a cigarette!—
like in some cheap soap opera: a man, drunk for no reason except general despair at being alive; sheets on the bed; an expired battery in the smoke detector.”
Max’s hand has achieved a new position. It’s a hardly perceptible change.
“I didn’t think it would be like this.” Max’s face betrays no disappointment, his features are fixed. Aurelie puts her face against his, cheek against cheek, her ear crumpled against the stiff peak of his nose. She detects smugness in his slow face, a relief that surprise would never betray it, not ever again.
“What’s it like?”
“It’s like being sealed up without notice. It’s like being full of want and not knowing what it’s for. It’s like being hungry for your favorite food and not remembering what it is. I need someone else to tell me because I think I forgot.”
Sadness hits Aurelie so hard that she is blind for several seconds. When she can see again, Max’s face looks exactly the same. “I don’t know what your favorite food is,” she says.
“I didn’t know what yours was either.”
When she stands up and leaves the room, the only thing that seems to notice is the mattress, which springs upward to claim the still, slow shape of Max, alone.
Aurelie is surprised to find that the apartment is still full. Imogen and Percy sit at opposite ends of the couch, surrounded by the bodies of strangers who lie still on the floor.
“My husband’s favorite food,” Percy says, “is boiled wheat, sweetened with honey and embittered with ground walnuts. He likes it seeded with sesame and anise. He likes pomegranate seeds mixed in, so many of them that the dish is red and wet.”
Aurelie walks around the edge of the room. She wonders how she overlooked it before. It’s obvious that the strangers are dead. They’re stuck here at an immovable end, with their backs jammed against an ash-dusted wall and no place to go.
Her foot knocks against a ghost’s ankle. She steps on a ghost’s long hair and is surprised that it’s soft and not tangled. She makes it to the kitchen and examines her insides for the swell of fear. She checks herself over as carefully as Imogen might check a pantry, noting the contents of each shelf and cupboard, but there’s nothing there.
Percy’s voice continues. “My husband likes it mounded on a platter and topped with powdered sugar, like snow dusting the top of a grave.”
Imogen says, “My sister’s favorite food is whatever she hasn’t eaten. She’s always been like that, ever since I can remember.”
Aurelie unwraps a candy and drops its square of red cellophane on the floor. She unwraps another and another. She remembers a birthday party, whether it was hers or Imogen’s she can’t decide. There was a cake with ruffles of white frosting and a ring of candles that stood up like the poles on a carousel. Imogen smeared frosting across her face, but Aurelie held her plate in her lap until some grown-up told her that only very strange children didn’t know what to do with a cake when they saw one.
Aurelie crushes the pile of candies on the counter. She puts fistfuls of red into a glass and scuffs through the cellophane that litter the floor. She fills the glass at the sink and drinks down grit, sweetness, and all. Then she pushes through the ghosts, ignoring their complaints that she is getting in the way, letting them surge shut behind her so they can drink up Percy’s voice and Imogen’s, and escapes down the hall.
Imogen’s room is disconcertingly clean. Everything has been put away, the bed has been made. The only elements that are out of place are the bag, packed, and the two golden coins that lie on top of it. The coins are such small, insignificant objects, but their gravity overwhelms the room. They drag everything in towards them, and Aurelie feels that she is standing beside a gilded, rushing blur.
Dizzy from the sugar, Aurelie thinks. She reaches out and takes the coins, one for each hand.
When she walks out of the room, they already feel like they are stuck to her palms. She has to push through more ghosts to get to the door, and once she opens it, she finds a double row of them lining the hall. They are burnt black and still, but they all make the effort to study her face as she passes. She’s not the one they’re looking for, and every time a face turns away from her, Aurelie tells herself that she doesn’t care. She doesn’t care, she repeats, she doesn’t care. It’s a song that she beats out in her chest and in her head and against the roof of her mouth as she walks down a hall of the dead with sweet pomegranate grit in her teeth and two golden circles safe in her hands.
The ceiling is lost in smoke so thick that it looks like the furry underbelly of a forest at night, or the surface of a river when viewed from below. The ghosts here are a crowd, their burnt limbs unmoving. Aurelie is surprised at how easy it is to pass them, how short a distance it is to the open door.
Just outside, there is a boat. It floats on a current of smoke and the man who stands up in it is dressed in a narrow black suit. All around him, the world is on fire.
“I am looking for my wife,” he says.
When Aurelie steps into the boat, it dips beneath her, and there is a moment when she thinks that she will get away with everything. The man in the suit holds her hand, bracing her as she steps out of the door and clambers across his knees. He is unexceptional, but hungry looking, which makes them, Aurelie supposes, two of a kind. She lets him settle her into the boat and, in a motion that feels ridiculous as well as fake, she offers him the coins.
“I can’t feed you,” she says. “My sister is the one who does that.”
“It doesn’t matter.” His voice, Aurelie thinks, is not sad at all. She lets him cradle her shoulders and cup her head and realizes that she is falling backwards of her own accord. When she is lying in the bottom of the boat, he sets the coins on top of her eyes. She can feel them balanced there, the cool flatness of them sitting on the curve of her lids.
“Percy gave those to me,” Imogen says. From her voice, Aurelie knows that she is standing in the doorway. Aurelie sits up. As soon as she moves, the cold weight of the coins slides off her face, and everything is shockingly bright.
“They weren’t for you.”
“But you took them anyway.”
The coins are just gold discs in the sun, ordinary; the taste in Aurelie’s mouth is suddenly bland. Imogen’s mouth goes down at the corners, but Aurelie knows it’s actually a smile that has gotten turned around on its way into the world.
“I’d never have suspected you,” Imogen says. “You aren’t the bravest.”
From any other person, Imogen’s words would be darts piercing the soft parts of Aurelie, but between the two of them, sisters, they are the sound of a door being opened to a room where they are the only two people in the world.
“I know,” Aurelie says. “But I’m going anyway.”
Imogen doesn’t respond. Aurelie tries to memorize her: the way she fills the door, her hand pinching the frown off her bottom lip. The boat slides away.
“Percy’s gone,” Imogen says. “She asked me to tell you that you should watch what you eat.”
“Thanks,” Aurelie says. She wants to say something else, but as Imogen gets smaller and smaller and the boat leaves her behind, Aurelie still can’t decide what the right words might be.
“Goodbye!” she shouts across the smoke. “Bye!” She thinks she sees the fluttering wave of Imogen’s hand answering her, but even that is lost in the distance, so Aurelie stops looking. She turns her attention to the man across from her, to the dry wooden smell of the boat, and to the smoke that thins as they float through it, reeling into their wake and leaving behind the remains of a fire that flicker, blacken, and die.
The man in the suit smiles. He offers her half a pomegranate and keeps half for himself. They pick out the seeds together and Aurelie is so suddenly, incredibly hungry that she ignores everything except the taste of them bursting on her tongue.
Megan Kurashige is a professional dancer and a writer. She and her sister, Shannon Kurashige, collaborate on wild and quixotic dance projects under the name Sharp & Fine (http://www.sharpandfine.com) in San Francisco. She attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop at UCSD in 2008 where she learned that telling stories rocks her soul. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Unnatural Creatures, an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman and Maria Dahvana Headley, Electric Velocipede, Sybil’s Garage, and Strange Horizons. She has a blog (http://immobileexplorations.blogspot.com) and is on Twitter @mkazoo