The smoke starts to seep into the room and the unbearable heat make my skin shrivel and crackle. We wrap our arms around our munchkins, who say nothing, do nothing. Their faces are much more serene than you’d imagine, but then why should they be scared when we’re not? You catch my eye and reach over to hold my hand. We say a prayer.
Outside the apartment, flames tear through our city; their roar becomes louder by the second. Inside, we are surrounded by the flaking yellow walls that we never got around to repainting. You mentioned it early this morning, Mr Fix It, which is funny now. Dishes have piled up too, unsoaked, unwashed; I’m glad I didn’t waste time doing them, because what does it matter now the world is ending?
Our lives together flash through my mind, right back to when we met. It was the golf club meal, our two churches joining to celebrate Christmas on two different tables. Together but not together. We were the Young People, bringing the average age down by decades, and had kept attending despite everyone else falling away. The Old People’s voices rumbled with doom and gloom. Their time was nearly over, but we were nineteen and wouldn’t let it consume us, choosing contentment rather than fear of what we would lose. Dissenters.
It was love at sight – for you, not for me. I liked you, respected you, knew we would have a good life together. That’s all. Perhaps that’s what true love is anyway, not tingles and flutters, or the feeling you’d be dead without them. I thought that was what I wanted, but I also knew if I let you go, life wouldn’t be as full as it could have been.
You’ve lined the doors with clothes, wettened with toilet water; we gave the clean water to our munchkins to ease their thirst, or at least stop their tongues sticking to the roof of their mouths, as mine is now. None of us has talked for a while. What on earth do you say at a time like this? I love you. It’s all going to be okay. We didn’t start the fire. Ha! Billy Joel. No, we may not have started the fire but it’s about to eat us. A distant education reminds me, Don’t use the lift, dial 999, walk don’t run, the smoke will kill you before the flames…Oh, and, Drop and roll, drop and roll, if you go up in flames – not that rolling would extinguish the end of the world. But this strange smoke hasn’t strangled us and the fire is yet to appear. Maybe He’s giving us a moment longer, to reflect and prepare.
As the weeks and months had passed, something shifted. It started the day you unblocked my toilet. I stood in the doorway, all trussed up in my red duffle coat and the high ankle boots I tottered along in, ready for a Saturday-night date at our favourite restaurant. I was still at the stage of doing everything I could think of to impress you, however unnecessary that was; I wore makeup and everything. When you arrived to pick me up, I told you about the toilet situation, and you immediately removed your shiny black shoes – without untying them – and bustled into the bathroom. You took off your suit jacket, thrust it at me, and asked for the plunger. I knew we would be late for our reservation, but it didn’t matter; there was a feeling spreading up from my stomach and into my chest. Tingles and flutters. Right there, at that moment, as I buried my nose into your jacket.
The grey cloud comes closer, wraps itself around us, and shrinks our bubble. It’s getting hard to breathe. Little hands tighten inside mine. Fingernails dig into my palms. Olivia Grace and Lorelai Joy – two for the price of one, beautiful, dark, full of nine-year-old energy. They look like you today, faces crinkled, as though trying to solve a problem. Our Little Miss Fix Its. But this one is out of everyone’s control. There’s peace in that.
You smile at me, the man who has protected me, respected me, adored me fiercely, as though our vows were tattooed on your forehead. It’s no less intense now. And I know you’re happy that the toilet is in good working order for the end of the world. That’s just the way you are.
I smile back and wink at you; a tear falls with it. Sitting here, waiting for our New Life, something strange and unknown, I’m glad I took this risk. I chose my man and had children with you, knowing The End couldn’t be far off, and we’ve had longer than expected. I thank God for that each day. I wouldn’t have had it any oth–
Hannah Retallick is a twenty-seven-year-old from Anglesey, North Wales. She was home educated and then studied with the Open University, graduating with a First-class honours degree, BA in Humanities with Creative Writing and Music, before passing her Creative Writing MA with a Distinction. She was shortlisted in the Writing Awards at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019, the Cambridge Short Story Prize, the Henshaw Short Story Competition June 2019, the Bedford International Writing Competition 2019, the Crossing the Tees book festival competition 2020, and the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize 2021. https://www.hannahretallick.co.uk/