All That Rises

by shukyou (主教)


100 days before the Fire


Lizzy was in the kitchen, chopping onions, when Nina walked in the front door to their apartment. “I’m in here,” she called, as though the rhythmic sound of her knife might not be enough to give her location away. Dinner would be simple tonight; Lizzy was too tired to spend much longer on her feet than she had already. She was looking forward to a weekend of doing nothing, catching up on sleep, maybe working on some of the million projects she always meant to get started and then never did.

Nina appeared in the doorway a couple minutes later, leaning against the frame. Her curly hair was a little damp; the weather had been grey and rainy off and on all day. “So you remember I had that doctor’s appointment today,” Nina said softly.

“Yeah?” Lizzy dropped the chopped bits of onion into the hot oil, where they started to hiss. “What’d he say?”

“He said it’s time.”

Seconds passed, but they felt like hours. Lizzy knew she needed to do something — react, respond, anything. It was just that nothing was working quite right, not her face, which needed to make the right expression, or her tongue, which needed to say the right things, or her mouth, which needed to smile and swear that nothing was wrong. After the length of several heartbeats, she managed all three. “So are you–“

“I’m going to do it,” Nina said, her voice soft but steady. She’d made the decision.

“Oh, hey, that’s–” Lizzy bit the inside of her cheeks. She forced herself to turn and look at Nina, to make eye contact. Lizzy had trouble making eye contact when she was upset, so she made sure to do it now. “Okay! Wow. Okay, let’s do it.”

Nina stepped close. She put her hand on Lizzy’s bare shoulder, and Lizzy could already feel the heat rolling off her in waves. Nina had always been warm; that had been the first thing Lizzy had ever noticed about her. Almost two decades later, that heat had finally come to burn everything down. “Are you okay?”

“Me? Yeah, sure, are — how are you?” One of the onions in the pan hissed and popped, and Lizzy took the opportunity to break from the contact and go back to stirring things so they wouldn’t burn. “Are you excited?”

Nina couldn’t hide from Lizzy the excitement in her eyes, the little spark that made it clear, yeah, she’d made her decision. There was no way to tell when she’d made it, if it had been years ago or if the doctor’s warning had settled everything in an instant. They’d even joked about it together. It had been funny right up until it wasn’t anymore. “Yeah,” said Nina after a beat. “I mean — yeah. If it’s time, then … it’s time.”

Lizzy nodded, keeping her eyes fixed on those onions. Couldn’t burn them. It was so easy, not to burn onions. She couldn’t do much, she couldn’t keep the fire from everything, but she could manage to do that. “Well, okay!” She reached for a clove of garlic and crushed it between her knife and the cutting board. “Are you hungry?”

“I love you,” Nina replied instead.

Lizzy turned back to her, and this time the smile on her face appeared without effort. “I love you too,” she said, and meant it.




500 days before the Fire


“Can you believe it, a dragon? You’re married twenty years, you have kids, and you wake up and your husband tells you he has to be a dragon now?”

Lizzy found herself wishing for death, or at least that her headphones hadn’t broken the day before. Sounds carried everywhere in an open-plan office, where even the most inane conversations between co-workers became everyone’s problem. She needed to go buy another pair so badly, maybe some nice noise-canceling ones that would let everyone know she didn’t want to talk. Nothing said leave me alone like giant puffy speakers latched over each ear.

Alas that her two co-workers on the other side of the table had no such boundaries when it came to talking about stupid shit rather than actually doing work.

“Isn’t there that new suppression medication he can take?”

“It’s not new; it’s been around for decades. But he didn’t want it!”

“How could he not want it?”

“He says he wants to be a dragon! Can you believe that? He wants to go through with it!”

Lizzy wasn’t even typing anymore. She was barely tapping her fingers on her keyboard in a way that mimicked typing, except that the characters appearing on the screen were nonsense that she’d have to delete. Or maybe she’d just send the email to her supervisor like this anyway, in an attempt to convey exactly how annoying it was to try and get anything done in an environment like this.

“There’s a whole colony of them up a mountain somewhere. Says he’s going to go join them.”

“Join them and … do what?”

“Be a dragon, I guess.”

“Be a dragon? No wonder Margie’s so devastated.”

“Just inconsolable, the poor thing.”

There were times Lizzy wished she were a more confrontational person. She wanted to be able to glare across the table and tell her co-workers that they were full of shit, and bigots to boot — or even to be able to look over at them sweetly and ask if they wouldn’t mind keeping it down. Unfortunately for her, the idea of doing that seemed even more miserable than the idea of sitting quietly and enduring their chatter.

“At least it could be worse. A dragon’s a dragon, but he could have turned out to be one of those snake things. Or one of those spider things.”

“I thought I saw on the news that they’re sure the spider things are extinct now.”

“Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? It hides in your DNA. They don’t have a foolproof way to test before it starts manifesting, so there may be tons of people out there with recessive genes for it that we just can’t detect. Twenty years down the road, and poof! All the doctors are telling us the children are all spiders now!”

There were two wolves inside of Lizzy right now. One wanted to shout that they needed to keep their mouths shut about things they didn’t understand. The other wanted to flee into the wilderness where she wouldn’t have to hear stupid shit anymore. Both wanted to eat her co-workers.

“So does he have, you know, wings?”

“I don’t know. Margie didn’t say.”

That was it. Lizzy needed coffee. She had a near-full mug at her desk already, but it wasn’t full enough. Or it was too cold. Or something. She’d think of a reason if someone asked her, and of course no one would ask her, because getting up and walking over to the coffee maker was a normal thing to do in an office. Maybe by the time she got back they’d be on to a topic that didn’t make Lizzy’s soul want to exit her body.




78 days before the Fire


“Fucking hell,” Lizzy grumbled as she glowered at her laptop screen. “I am sick of this website. Listen to this: ‘For permitting please,’ comma, ‘the application for the verification,’ period. Buddy, you’re going to make a site for English-speaking visitors, make it so that we’re less confused after we get here, not more.”

Nina looked up from the far end of the couch, where she was stretched out with one ice pack across her forehead and another over her belly. “I can do it.”

Lizzy smacked Nina’s bare foot affectionately. “Nope. You’re lying down. Doctor’s orders.”

It wasn’t strictly the doctor’s orders that Nina be stretched out on the couch at this very moment. But she had been told in no uncertain terms not to exert herself, or it would undo the work of the course of antipyretics she’d taken that morning. It was fifty degrees outside, all the windows in the apartment were open, Lizzy had two separate pairs of woolen socks on, and Nina was sweating. She’d be better by the evening, the doctors had promised. It was dark out now, though, and relief still seemed a long way away.

Some game show rerun chattered away on the TV as Lizzy scowled at the website. Two weeks ago, she hadn’t known that the Mount Pyrilampis National Protected Area had existed. She had lived in the blissful ignorance of the eighty billion different forms the Greek government needed just to let someone in the front gates, much less up the mountain itself. She hadn’t even started on the burn permits yet.

So she complained about the website’s translation, because if she’d complained about anything else, Nina might think it was her fault. 

Lizzy couldn’t help an exhausted little grumble as an email notification popped up on from a Greek government address. At least this one appeared better versed in English than whoever they’d gotten to translate their website.

Dear Mrs. Whitewater,

Thank you for your correspondence on behalf of Mrs. Nina Villca. I am Petros Argyris, and I will be handling your case. This email is to inform you that we have received your application and are processing it. I have attached the necessary files to proceed to the next step in the process. They will need to be filled out by Mrs. Villca’ doctors and faxed to us at the number on the bottom.

Thank you for your understanding of our care and regard of this protected area, which is a part of our cultural history and heritage.


Petros Argyris
Deputy Director, Ethnikós Drymós Pyrilámpis

Ooh, a deputy director. And a “Mrs.” with it. Lizzy was really moving up in the world now.

The truth was, as much as she’d been frustrated by all the holdups and requirements and forms and more forms and returned forms, she’d never been mad at the people on the other end of all that. They were just doing their job, and she supposed she should be grateful that there weren’t asshole tourists running up and down the mountain all day, setting fires and leaving beer cans and whatever. It wasn’t their fault that all this bullshit was making Lizzy’s life hard.

Whatever, it was fine. It didn’t matter. It was just paperwork.

And now, it seemed, it was even more paperwork. Lizzy didn’t want to bother Nina with this, but she’d hit a roadblock. “Hey, do you have your doctor’s office email handy?” Lizzy asked.

“Yeah, it’s–” With a little grunt, Nina reached for her phone and unlocked it, then handed it over to Lizzy. “It’s somewhere in there.”

“Thanks.” Lizzy opened the mail client and went scrolling through Nina’s address book.

“How come?”

“Oh, just some more forms. Don’t worry about it.” Lizzy would worry about it. She would call and nag the office until someone did the paperwork, and then she’d have to email and nag Mr. Petros Argyris until she got confirmation that it had actually been sent, and after long enough of that, she’d probably have to be the one to go to the office and pick up the paperwork and find a fax machine somewhere and send it through herself, because if there was one thing she’d learned in all her decades of living, it was that if you wanted something done at all, you pretty much had to do it yourself.




5000 days before the Fire


Mardi Gras was a good time for several things, and one of those things seemed to be getting drunk, going up to the girl in your friend group you’d had a crush on for five years, telling her you wanted to kiss her, and hoping like hell she wanted to kiss you back.

As it turned out, Nina did. She wanted that a lot, in fact, which was why they were no longer in the street-level gay dive bar where the party had been happening. They were instead laughing as Lizzy chased Nina up the stairs to Nina’s third-floor walkup just down the street, trailing glitter everywhere she went. She hadn’t even put any on herself deliberately; it was all collateral damage. She giggled and clomped her way down the hall behind Nina, whose delicate high heels sounded the perfect clipped counterpoint to Lizzy’s boots. As Nina tried to get her key in the lock, Lizzy got up behind her and stuck her hand right up under Nina’s shirt. She had to know what her breasts felt like right now.

Nina squeaked with surprise as Lizzy’s chilly fingers slipped easily up over her braless front, finding her nipple like a homing missile. “Not here,” she protested, even as she leaned back against Lizzy in a way that said keep going.

“Why not?” Lizzy asked, nipping at Nina’s neck from behind. “I could eat you out right here in the hallway.”

Nina laughed at that, and it was a sound Lizzy had heard hundreds of times before, except it was different now because it was for her. She rolled Nina’s nipple between her fingers, making Nina have to rest her head against the door and catch her breath. “If you keep dong that, we’re never going to get in the front door.”

“Fine by me!” Lizzy said, but she backed off just enough to let Nina do what she needed to do with the key. After that, she was fair game.

As soon as they were inside and the door was shut again, Lizzy grabbed Nina around her waist and scooped her off her feet. One of the perks of a studio apartment was that it was always obvious which way the bed was, so Lizzy hauled Nina there. She was so light, like she weighed nothing at all. Bird-boned, Lizzy would later think, and laugh about.

The two of them landed on the bed together in an ungainly thump, with Lizzy turning them so Nina landed right on top of her. As Nina straddled her, Lizzy reached around and grabbed Nina’s ass through the short skirt she’d worn out that night. Nina smirked down at her and hiked up the hem more, until Lizzy could see that all Nina had underneath was a little pair of red lace panties, barely enough to count as underwear. “You still want to eat me out?” Nina asked with a wink.

“It would be my pleasure,” said Lizzy, affecting as much of a gentlemanly bow as she could while flat on her back with a beautiful woman on top of her.

Nina considered their respective positions and hummed thoughtfully. Then she swung her leg back over Lizzy’s body and stood by the side of the bed. Seconds later, Nina’s top, skirt, and panties were in a pile on the floor, leaving nothing on her but her perilously high heels. She folded her arms across her chest and looked down at Lizzy. “Take off your pants.”

Lizzy didn’t hesitate to comply, even if her undressing took a lot more unzipping, untying, and unbuckling than Nina’s had. Lizzy had never considered herself much of a proper dyke in her real life, but if you couldn’t be one for Mardi Gras, then when could you be? By the time she was done, Nina was back on the bed, propped up with pillows, her slender legs spread and inviting.

It was an offer Lizzy couldn’t refuse, and she had no intention of trying. She fell all but face-forward onto the bed, putting her mouth right against the prominent bud of Nina’s clitoris and sucking lightly. Nina moaned and grabbed for Lizzy’s short-cropped hair — positive feedback by any metric. “I always figured you’d be good at that,” Nina purred as Lizzy traced little circles with the tip of her tongue. Lizzy chose to take ‘you look like a natural pussy-eager’ as a compliment and set about proving Nina’s original impression right.

There was something almost meditative about giving a woman oral sex, Lizzy had found, and never more so than with Nina. Nina wasn’t particularly verbal, but she was vocal enough that Lizzy could always tell from her pretty sighs and moans just what felt good. When Lizzy started stroking Nina’s lower lips with two of her fingertips, Nina happily shifted her hips and parted her legs further. Well, Nina had dated boys before, so Lizzy wasn’t too surprised she was into penetration. “You have any toys you like?” Lizzy asked, pressing a wet kiss to the inside of Nina’s thigh.

“By the — that thing. There. Drawer.” Nina waved a hand dreamily in the direction of her bedside table.

Lizzy was still more than a little drunk, but she was on it. Indeed, the drawer in question had a number of wonders in it, including a sparkly purple dildo with a suction cup base. Lizzy couldn’t resist — she took it and immediately jammed the base smack dab in the center of her forehead, where the fleshy phallic end undulated. “Look at me! I’m a unicorn!” Lizzy proclaimed proudly.

Nina completely lost it. She laughed so hard that tears streamed down her face as Lizzy strutted in front of her, every motion of Lizzy’s head making the silicone dick wobble. Lizzy got on all fours on the bed and made something of a rocking horse motion, which of course just made the dildo comically flop around even more. “Stop!” Nina managed to gasp out between howls of laughter, slapping Lizzy’s shoulder. “Stop … can’t … breathe!”

Lizzy decided the only proper response to this was to kiss her — but she moved in too fast, and without taking the dildo off her head, so before she could even get near Nina’s mouth, she jammed the dick part straight into the wall and bounced off. That sent them both off into such hysterical fits that a sex time-out had to be called for nearly ten minutes, during which time they held one another and kissed and got the giggles out of their systems. That was always the worrying part about making a friend into something more than a friend, that the original friend part might be lost in the translation. From the way they Lizzy’s face and belly hurt from laughing so hard, she suspected that might not be something to worry about at all.

 When they did finally get back to it, it was even better for how relaxed and giddy Lizzy was feeling. Nina moaned as the dildo opened her up, slipping wetly inside her with a fit that Lizzy always found satisfying, even from this end. When that was snug in place, Lizzy went back to work with her lips and tongue, translating her laughter into how good she wanted Nina to feel. She alternated between licking and sucking at Nina’s clit, loving the soft, warm taste of her. Nina was as warm between her legs as she was everywhere else. Lizzy lost herself in learning just what pressures and sensations made Nina tick.

It was hard to tell at times where one climax ended and another began, until after about the third or fourth shuddering orgasm, Nina began swatting lightly at Lizzy’s head. “Stop, stop,” she groaned as she sank back into the pillows. “I’m done, I’m good, I can’t anymore. That’s it. I’m empty.”

That, to Lizzy’s ears was the sound of a job well done. She drew back the covers and wriggled them both underneath, until Lizzy was flat on her back with Nina tucked up against her, head pillowed against Lizzy’s shoulder. Nina draped her arm bonelessly across Lizzy’s waist. “You good?” asked Lizzy, realizing she didn’t need to go hunting for any more blankets. Being in bed with Nina was like sleeping next to a space heater.

Nina nodded emphatically. “Are you…?” she began, letting her hand wander lower down Lizzy’s body.

“No, I’m–” Lizzy chuckled self-consciously. “I think I’m a little too drunk and sleepy to be anything but frustrating right now. But … can I take a rain check for the morning?” It wasn’t the most artful way Lizzy had ever asked to spend the night before, but she worked with what she had.

“You got it.” Nina squeezed her tight. “I’ll go out and get us coffee and donuts from the little place downstairs, and then I’ll come back and make you see stars.”

“It’s a deal.” Lizzy idly brushed her fingers through Nina’s nut-brown curls, then chuckled as her fingers found something strange. There, tucked close to Nina’s scalp, were three little feathers that shook loose at Lizzy’s touch. They were wispy, like down, and a soft orange. “Looks like you got too close to somebody’s boa,” Lizzy joked. “Unless you’ve been sticking your head in a chicken coop.”

But Nina didn’t laugh. Her once-loose body had grown tense again. She took a breath and held it, and then let it out in a thin, slow trickle. “No, that’s … they’re mine.”

“What, like, they’re your pets or something?”

“No, they’re…” Nina reached up and took one, grabbing her fingers around its … whatever the hard middle part was, Lizzy didn’t know the word for it. “I mean they’re from me.”

The pause it took for Lizzy to get what Nina was saying was too long, such that when Lizzy did get it, she spun right into cheerful cool-girl mode. That was who she was, the cool girl who was cool with everything. “Oh, hey, that’s–” She didn’t want to say cool; she’d thought it too many times. “That’s neat, huh? You have a lot of these? You ever think about making a pillow with them?”

In her arms, Lizzy could feel Nina relax again, back into the boneless safety of Lizzy’s arms. “Is that okay?” asked Nina softly.

By way of response, Lizzy leaned down and kissed Nina again. It was okay. It was going to be okay. If it wasn’t, she was going to make it okay. That was just what Lizzy did.




53 days before the Fire


The joke was that only virgins could see Yijun, which wasn’t strictly true, but she did have a way of making herself invisible. Lizzy swore she looked around the little café ten times before she saw her sitting at that corner table, hiding behind the dark curtain of her bangs, looking like nothing special at all.

“So can I ask a personal question?” Lizzy asked after their food had arrived. When Yijun nodded, Lizzy steeled herself to ask something she’d always been taught was rude as fuck to ask. “Why’d you choose inhibition over changing?”

Yijun laughed a little as she stirred another packet of sugar into her coffee. “There were a lot of reasons, as you can imagine,” she began. She had a sweet, low voice. Maybe she’d always had it; Lizzy hadn’t known her before her change. “Family pressure, job obligations, my boyfriend at the time, wanting kids someday, you name it. But mostly I just … and this is going to sound like a betrayal of every six-year-old girl out there, but I didn’t want to be a unicorn.”

As she talked, Yijun’s feathered bangs parted slightly, revealing the pale mark at the center of her forehead. That was the place where she might have grown a horn — or maybe not. That was the thing about these developments, that there was no way to tell how far they’d go. There were other fully transformed unicorns out there who looked not unlike Yijun now, mostly human but with some telltale features, like prominent forehead markings and semi-iridescent hair. One was even starring in some new show, which was of course getting a lot of buzz for that casting choice. Lizzy had seen ads for it in the subway.

But then there were the ones who wound up like real, historical unicorns: four legs, hooves, horse parts, the whole nine yards. They had a whole homestead somewhere in Germany that not only allowed but encouraged tourism, unlike most of the other colonies and reservations, which tried to keep themselves off of maps in order to avoid unwanted spectators.  A few of of the more horse-like unicorns made a living as performers and advocates for the larger community. Of all the visible descendants of legendary creatures, they tended to be the most visible and vocal.

No surprise, then, that the introverted Yijun wanted nothing of it. She had been Lizzy’s supervisor two jobs ago, where they’d been cordial but professionally distant right up until Yijun and Nina had met at a bring-your-plus-one office party and realized what they had in common. Yijun wasn’t even really Lizzy’s friend — she was Nina’s. This was the first time Lizzy could remember having met Yijun without having Nina along. Lizzy just didn’t know who else to talk to.

“But that’s just me,” Yijun added. “That’s entirely me. It’s not a good or bad thing to do it differently.”

“I know,” Lizzy said, which was true. “Does it ever bother you, though? That you didn’t … go all the way?”

Yijun’s fingers tightened slightly around the fork she’d stuck into her steak, her knuckles going a little pale as she pinned it down almost like prey. “Sometimes. Yes.” She looked up at Lizzy, the true color of her eyes hidden by dark contact lenses. “Are you thinking of trying to talk Nina out of it?”

“No.” Lizzy held up her hands like she was a teller held at gunpoint. “No. I wouldn’t. I just wanted to know some things. Before it all started. That’s all.”

That answer seemed to relax Yijun a bit, and she went back to working through her lunch. It had amused Lizzy to no end to find out unicorns were not vegetarians by inclination. “Have they managed to put you touch with other phoenixes?” Yijun asked.

Lizzy shook her head. “There’s just not that many. Nina’s doctor is the guy on phoenix biology, and even he doesn’t have a way to get in touch with most of them. Especially after they … you know.”

Yijun nodded. Most changes, like the unicorn one, were what Nina’s doctor classified as both gradual and inevitable: gradual in that they would take several months, if not years, to complete, and couldn’t be rushed; inevitable in that unless they were actively halted, they would proceed independently of what the individual did or didn’t do. The way Lizzy understood it, if you were going to become a unicorn, you would do so on the timeline your own body set, and nothing you did could make it go faster.

The phoenix transformation was different. The word Nina’s doctor used was pyrocatalytic.




30 days before the Fire


Lizzy sat politely across the desk from Tony, her boss. The nicest thing she could say about him was that he was moderately adequate boss. “You’re not in trouble,” Tony said, in the way where the unspoken second part of the sentence was but trouble’s not far off. “I just wanted to review this FMLA request with you before I approved it.”

“Yes, sir,” Lizzy said, keeping her hands folded in her lap. “I’d be happy to explain anything.”

Tony glanced down at the paperwork, obviously trying and failing to read between the lines of the reasons Lizzy had given. “It’s just that a month is a long time to lose you, when we’ve got quarterly deadlines coming.”

“I know, sir,” Lizzy said. Tony had never been in the military, but he had the bearing of a man who wished he’d been in the military, just so he could lord his military service over everyone he met. Lizzy supposed this job was his next best thing.

“Are you sure this can’t be rescheduled? Your, ah, friend’s surgery?”

He was fishing. Lizzy wasn’t going to give him anything. “No, sir. My wife’s” –she tried to keep from spitting the word in his face– “doctors have scheduled the procedure at what they believe is the appropriate time, with the appropriate amount of recovery time scheduled afterward. I will be caring for her before, during, and after.”

That answer didn’t please Tony, who was the kind of man who thought everyone else’s business should be his business too, if only so he could tell them precisely how their personal lives were far less important than their jobs. He leaned forward, folding his hands on the desk. “I just don’t know that we can find someone to cover your work on such short notice. What about her other family members? Doesn’t she have someone else?”

“Sir,” Lizzy said, trying to keep her voice as even as possible, “I have completed the family leave request based on my family’s needs. All the information is in the documentation I’ve submitted.”

Tony’s lips thinned. “It’s just a very inconvenient time for us,” he said through a smile he obviously didn’t mean. He was a good-looking man, and unfortunately that seemed to have taught him that the way to get through life was by being good-looking until the other party caved and gave him what he wanted. “You understand.”

Lizzy took a slow breath and let it out through her nostrils. She pictured the surface of a lake at dawn, calm and undisturbed, smooth as glass. She’d slept four hours the night before, and not consecutively. She’d run a cold bath for Nina around two in the morning, trying to bring her core temperature down. She’d dumped whole trays of ice from the refrigerator into the water and watched the little cubes melt away to nothing.

“Okay,” Lizzy said at last, and she could see from the expression on Tony’s face that he thought he’d won. She stood from her chair with a grace that only came from having to think about every muscle. “Then you may consider that paperwork my resignation.”

It was worth it, all of it, for the look of panicked shock that gripped Tony then, like he’d been the one plunged into an icy bath. “That wasn’t–“

“I’ll clear my desk and exit the building.” Lizzy wanted to feel triumphant, like she’d just accomplished some incredible mic drop, but mostly she was just done. She turned and walked from his office back into the hall. She heard Tony calling her name, but she didn’t care anymore. Fuck her job. Fuck everything.

She gathered her few personal belongings into a reusable grocery bag she’d stuffed under her desk months ago. She started a new email and addressed it to Tony, his boss, his boss, HR, and a couple other employees who deserved a heads-up on this: As my documented FMLA request has been challenged and threatened with refusal without cause, I am tendering my resignation, effective immediately. Regards, Elizabeth C. Whitewater. Part of her hoped that would make things miserable for Tony on her way out, but a larger part didn’t care. She left her card key and badge on her desk, then left without saying goodbye to anyone. There wasn’t anyone here she’d miss anyway.

It wasn’t until she stepped out into the chilly noontime sunlight that Lizzy realized just what she’d done. She couldn’t stop shivering as cold sweat beaded on her skin. Christ, what had she just done? She’d just quit her job. With everything happening to Nina, to both of them, Lizzy had just done the dumbest thing in the world and quit her job. With shaking hands, she went for her phone. She had to call Nina. She had to tell Nina.

Nina picked it up on the third ring. She sounded out of breath. “I was just about to call you!”

“I quit my job,” Lizzy rushed to confess before she lost her nerve.

From the other side of the phone, there was a sound Lizzy hadn’t expected to hear: an outright cheer. “Ha! Fuck them! Good!”

“No, that’s–” Lizzy leaned against a tall concrete planter. “You’re not supposed to say that’s good.”

“Why not? Fuck them!” Nina laughed, a sound that soothed Lizzy’s soul more than a thousand hours of picturing serene mountain lakes. “I hope you told them to go fuck themselves. Specifically, I hope you went around and pointed at all of them, and said, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you in particular…” Now Lizzy was laughing too, maybe laughing too much, near-hysterical with fear and relief all at once. “Fuck that fucking job. Fuck it. They treated you like shit and you should’ve quit years ago.”

The wind blew icy against Lizzy’s cheeks. She ran her palm across her face and realized she was laughing so hard she was crying. “Maybe I should have.”

“You should have,” Nina said, and to her credit, she had been saying it for the whole time Lizzy had worked there. It had just always seemed easier to stay, right up until the point it hadn’t. “Come home. We’ll order lunch. We’ve both got things to celebrate.”

That was right; Nina had said that she’d been about to call Lizzy. “What’s yours?”

“I just got off the phone with Director Argyris. The last approvals just got signed. We’re in.”




1500 days before the Fire


Of all the places Lizzy was expecting to be taken for her birthday, the Verizon store was not on the list. She frowned at the strip mall storefronts through the window of the car, then turned back to Nina. “Did you put the right address into the GPS?”

Nina laughed and poked Lizzy in the arm. “Get out. Your birthday present is, I’m making you buy yourself a new phone.”

“I don’t need a new phone,” Lizzy said.

“You need a new phone.”

“I don’t.”

“You do! You– Pull it out.” Nina wiggled her fingers in a beckoning gesture.

With the reluctant sigh of a woman facing an argument lost before it even began, Lizzy reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out her phone. Sure, it was a little old, but it still worked fine. That was, if you ignored the crack that split the screen in half, or the weird discolorations it had developed along the left edge, or the way it struggled to run anything more than the most basic texting functions, or how the fingerprint recognition hadn’t worked since she could remember. And Lizzy did ignore those! Every day, she ignored the problems and got through life, and that was all she really needed out of a phone.

…Okay, maybe she complained once in a while. Like when she had to be away from a plug for more than an hour and the battery died. Or when she couldn’t download a picture of her brother’s cat because she was out of memory. Or when it decided to reboot in the middle of a call to her boss. But those weren’t really problems, and if they were, they were the kinds of problems everyone had. It was the sort of thing you just lived with.

Before Lizzy could begin to protest that this wasn’t necessary, Nina snatched the phone from her hand and hopped out of the car. All Lizzy could do was follow her, chasing along after as Nina’s longer legs got her to the door and inside the store sooner.

With the near-predatory ways of retail being what they were, an employee was at Nina’s side almost as soon as she stepped through the door. “Can I help you ladies?” he asked, giving her a cute little twinky smile.

“This is my wife’s phone,” was all Nina said as she handed it over.

His expression went from bubbly grin to exaggerated horror as he gave a campy little shriek. “Oh, honey,” he said, looking at Nina but pointing to Lizzy. “How did she let it get this bad?”

“She’s just like that,” Nina said, making no attempts whatsoever to defend Lizzy, and on her birthday! “Can you help?”

The salesman held up a just-a-second finger. “I’m going to go get my tablet, and then we’re going to do something about this, okay?” Without waiting for a response, he scurried away to the other side of the store, over to the main sales counter where, presumably, the tablets lived.

When they were alone again, Lizzy stuck her hands in her pockets. “I can live with it,” she sighed, trying one last protest before she got roped into spending money on herself, which was one of her least favorite things to do. This, of course, had been why Nina had come along instead of just giving Lizzy permission to do it herself — Lizzy would have dithered over the displays for an hour and gone home without buying a thing.

Nina reached her hand into one of Lizzy’s pockets and twined their fingers together, her skin always warm against Lizzy’s. “Yes, but you don’t have to.” She squeezed Lizzy’s hand. “The human brain can live without oxygen for three minutes, but you’re allowed to breathe more often than that.”

“I will die without oxygen. I will not die without a new phone.”

“Which is why I’ve let it go this long.” Nina poked Lizzy square in the center of her chest with her free hand. “But it’s your birthday, so you are required to let me make you do a nice thing for yourself. Because I love you, and you deserve nice things.”

Lizzy believed only one of those statements, but it was the more important one, so that was all right.




21 days before the Fire


The good news was that being freed of job obligations gave Lizzy more time to accompany Nina to her various doctor’s appointments. The bad news was … well, the exact same, honestly.

Lizzy didn’t so much mind the specialists’ offices. They tended to be cozy and small, filled with potted plants and reasonably comfortable chairs, staffed by receptionists and nurses who recognized their regulars. The worst part about them was the daytime television they always had blasting at terrible volumes, and honestly, that was bearable unless Lizzy forget her headphones.

Today, though, they were at an honest-to-goodness hospital, because even the best specialists didn’t tend to keep around their own room-sized imaging machines.

“You’re doing great, sweetheart,” said a round-faced lab tech whose nametag read MEDINA, KEVIN S. He was talking to Nina, but not directly to Nina, because whatever radioactive material was involved in the imaging process meant there needed to be a wall between her and everyone else; instead, he spoke into a microphone that ferried his words of encouragement into the headphones she wore. At least he’d been kind enough to let Lizzy in with him. It wasn’t as though she could do anything in there, or even that she worried Nina wouldn’t be perfectly fine during the procedure. It was just nice to be able to see her.

Slowly, Nina’s body was fed headfirst through the halo of the machine, a high metal arch six inches wide that stayed put as the flat bed moved at a snail’s pace. They’d have to do this full scan three times, Kevin had told them. This was trip one.

By the time Nina’s thighs were in the machine’s scanning range, the monitor in front of them began filling in with the shape of a head and torso. The familiar shapes were made of bright colors, bursting reds and yellows swirling throughout like ink dropped into water. “Oh, wow,” said Kevin as he stared at the screen. “You said phoenix, right?”

Lizzy nodded. “Yeah.”

“Well … wow. Because that’s just … really, yeah. Wow.” Kevin tapped his fingers against the screen, at a particularly bold swirl of red concentrated at base of the figure’s throat. “I’ve only seen pictures before. Never one in real life.”

The colors were nice, but they weren’t particularly meaningful to Lizzy. “What’s, um… Can I ask what’s wow about it?”

Kevin laughed and scratched the back of his neck self-consciously. “Sorry, I don’t mean to — well, do you know how to read a LCT scan?” Lizzy shook her head. “Okay, so what you’re seeing is auric energy. And when the doctors get this scan, they can tell you sort of … where it’s going to go, I guess is the best way to put it. Most of the time we use it to check on healing progress. You know, see if whatever the doctors are doing is working. But with people like her” –Kevin tapped the screen again as more of the picture filled in– “we can get a hint of what’s going to happen next.”

Behind the glass wall, the machine bed came to a stop, with Nina’s body fully on the other side. One down, two to go. Nina lay still, eyes closed as though she were asleep. Lizzy hadn’t thought to ask what music she’d chosen. After a pause of only a few seconds, the bed began its trip again, this time in reverse.

“Do you want to see what her old scans look like?” Kevin asked. When Lizzy nodded, he entered something on the keyboard for the adjacent machine. The scan it pulled up was the same basic image as the one that was being created now, except that Lizzy could see the difference immediately. The old scan looked like someone had drawn the outline of a person, then filled it in with watercolors, careful not to paint outside the lines. In the new one, outline looked no longer like a guideline, but like a border, a fence someone had drawn to keep all the colors inside.

What would happen when that border burst, when the dam broke? Everything inside, where would it go?

“Now, if she were a unicorn, let’s say, there’d be this sort of … halo, I guess is the best way to think about it. It just sort of creeps out and there’s a glow.” Kevin ran his finger along the screen, outside the edges of Nina’s body, which on her scan were still dark. “Chupacabras, it’s all this kind of blurry motion, like when someone’s taking a picture but you move. You have to send them through like ten times to get enough data. Some, especially dragons, you can’t even run them through the scan. They’ll burn the imaging right out. I got to work with a qilin when I was doing my residency, and he destroyed this zillion-dollar machine the second they turned it on. And that was just his feet!” Kevin laughed as he remembered the tale. “But your girl here, this is like looking at a volcano that’s about to explode. I almost want to poke just a little hole right here, let some of it out. Like draining a cyst, pardon me for being gross.”

Lizzy shook her head; she didn’t mind gross. She couldn’t stop thinking about the storm she saw raging on the screen, all of it contained within Nina’s slender body. “Does it hurt? Hurt her, I mean. Not the scan, but … being like this.”

Kevin just shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine it feels good, but … everybody’s different, you know? From here, I can’t tell.”

Lizzy suspected that he did know, and that the answer was yes, but before she could press Kevin on it, the door to the observation chamber opened. In the doorway stood a sour-looking nurse in bright pink scrubs who appeared less than happy to find the console occupied. Then her eyes caught on the scan on the screen, and her expression turned from sour to disgusted. As she pulled the door shut again, she said to an unseen person behind her, “Whenever the vet’s office is done, we’ll check back.”

Lizzy froze. She didn’t know what to do. She could barely process the words, much less make sense of how she’d just heard a person say them in real life. Kevin was visibly mortified. He swore in Spanish, then turned to Lizzy. “I am so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Lizzy said, not knowing if it was or not.

“I can’t believe — I’m going to file a complaint about that.” Kevin scowled back at the door. “So unprofessional. I can’t believe people. I can get you her name, if you want to file one too.”

Did she? No, Lizzy mostly wanted to crawl into a hole and die. She was just grateful Nina hadn’t heard. “Maybe. Yes. Thank you.” At least she’d have the information. She could decide what to do with it later.

Kevin nodded, then shook his head. “Don’t know why she thinks that’s some kind of an insult, anyway. In my next life, I want to come back as my cat.”

Maybe Lizzy shouldn’t have laughed at that, but she did.




17 days before the Fire


Unemployment didn’t agree with Lizzy, but neither did the idea of applying for positions and having to say to all the hiring managers, I want this job, but can you hold it for me for another month? Especially since the truth was, she didn’t know if she’d be okay in another month. She didn’t know where she’d be, emotionally or geographically. An unseeable future had never suited her. She liked making plans for the long term.

Instead, she was sitting out on the balcony of the apartment, half-listening to Nina draft a will with their attorney and wishing Nina hadn’t made her quit smoking. Not that she’d ever been more than an occasional smoker, but some bad habits were bad no matter how often you indulged in them. At the time, she’d found the irony funny. Now she tried not to think about it.

“Can those be divided among my nieces and nephews?” Nina asked her computer screen. Lizzy couldn’t hear the reply; Nina had her headphones in. “Okay, let’s do that. But not until they’re eighteen. Or until they go to college, whichever comes first.”

Lizzy scrolled down the list of postings. There was one for a Chief Supervisor of Interdepartmental Communications. Lizzy had no idea what one of those did, but she suspected it wasn’t anything she wouldn’t be good at. She opened it in a tab to learn more about later.

“Lizzy,” Nina said, and it took Lizzy a moment to realize that had been a reply to the lawyer, and not a call to her. “Lizzy, too.” Nina was quiet for a few more seconds. “Lizzy for all of those.”

Oh, a Strategic Director for Equitable Corporate Engagement. That sounded like something Lizzy could do, and it was remote. So if she decided the only way to deal with everything was to move into a hole in the bottom of the ocean, she’d be fine as long as that hole still had wifi.

Nina laughed at whatever the attorney said next. “No, I don’t care. Whatever makes the most sense to you.” Another pause, this one longer. “Sounds great.”

A Resource Coordinator? That seemed too simple. Could it really be considered a real corporate job if it took only two words to describe? Besides, Lizzy barely had her own shit together; she couldn’t imagine trying to manage anyone else’s at the moment. Pass.

“Lizzy can make all of those decisions on my behalf,” Nina said, shifting a little on the couch. “After that, Tamya, and then Miski. But not my mother. Can we put that in writing?”

Where could Lizzy find the job that listed under its requirements the ability to keep cool while your wife calmly discussed power-of-attorney privileges in the next room? Should she mention that in her cover letter or wait until the in-person round of interviews to bring it up? Which dumbass question should that be the answer to, “If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?” or “What did you like least about your last job?”

“Let me check,” said Nina to the screen, and then raised her voice so it was clear she was addressing Lizzy. “Can you go with me tomorrow at two-thirty to sign some things?”

“Sure!” Lizzy called back cheerfully, because what else did she have to do? Tweak her LinkedIn profile for the thirtieth time? Open twenty more tabs of jobs she’d never apply to anyway?

Of course, these were all just sensible precautionary measures. It was reasonable to have a will; Lizzy herself had one, even if its instructions were just to let Nina sort everything out. It might not even be necessary. A month from now, they might both be sitting in these exact same spots, in their same (or at least mostly-same) bodies, going about their lives like this had all been a weird fever dream.

Or they might not. That was the problem. No one, not even the most experienced of doctors, could tell what things would be like on the other side of the coming transformation. There were guesses, there were options, but nobody knew. No one could look Lizzy in the eye and say for certain whether that woman on the couch would still be recognizably herself on the other end of it all, or if she would be something so different that Lizzy couldn’t imagine it now.

An Associate Brand Director, Crisis Management Department? Maybe. Lizzy just had to manage her current crisis. Then they’d talk.




2200 days before the Fire


“What happens if it doesn’t work?”

“He drowns, I guess,” said Yijun, sounding casual, considering the topic of conversation. Of course, Lizzy supposed she wasn’t one to talk — she was right there alongside Yijun and Nina, all seated on the couch to watch the livestream. There were many things to be said about reality television, most of them negative and all of them true. But damn if it wasn’t compelling.

The camera panned to a beautiful drone shot of the rocky Norwegian landscape, high cliffs set above the icy sea. Winter had misted everything white, so that all the camera crews and everyone else gathering for the event stood out in stark contrast against the ground beneath them. They were all bundled up in their colorful parkas, everyone looking absolutely giddy despite their half-frozen states.

Everyone, that was, except the man of the hour. His name was Ige, a twenty-year-old Nigerian man who’d traveled to the northern reaches of the planet because he was turning into a squid. 

Well, not actually a squid, even if that word had featured prominently in all of the viral marketing, which Lizzy hadn’t been able to escape for weeks. A squid was to a kraken as a flower pot was to a farm — same basic concept, unimaginably different scale. Ige’s English didn’t seem particularly strong; Lizzy wondered how much of the nuances of the ad copy he’d understood when he’d agreed to let three different camera crews film his point of transformation.

Lizzy didn’t want to ask what would happen if he didn’t. She could see it on his face — he looked sick in a way she couldn’t quite define, like a wet dishrag someone had wrung out. His hands shook a little as he was handed a cup of coffee, which he mostly just held underneath his chin, letting the steam waft upwards. He would die if he didn’t. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or this month, or even this year. But he would eventually, when whatever it was inside him broke out and found itself on dry land. This was the only acceptable solution.

A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING, read the graphic on the screen as Ige stood and shrugged off his towel, revealing only a pair of loose white pants underneath. A strange shrieking music started up in the background, accompanied by drums. The camera cut away to a wider shot, one where the source of the music became clear: a group of about a dozen people at the periphery, singing and dancing ecstatically. They seemed to be wearing a lot of leather. One of them was waving around a mean-looking double-headed axe.

“Who are those people?” asked Lizzy. She had kept her stupid questions to a minimum, but she figured this was a justified curiosity.

“Probably some kind of viking squid cult,” said Yijun with a smirk. This was a side of Yijun that Lizzy never got to see at work, and frankly it still started her sometimes.

Nina rolled her eyes, then turned to Lizzy. “Some of the different legendary creatures, especially the rarer ones, have religious significance to the indigenous people of wherever they’re from. So they’re here to support him.”

“Viking squid cheerleaders,” Yijun clarified. “‘Viking’ modifies ‘cheerleaders,’ not ‘squid.’ Though I guess he’s kind of a viking squid. If he wants to be.”

On the screen, the dozen or so dancers shout-sang and twirled around. One of them picked up a torch, and soon many more torches were flaming and spinning underneath the cloudy midwinter sky. They were so far north now that they had barely an hour of good daylight to work with. It was going to be now or never.

Ige stood and walked to the edge of the cliff. A few drones whirred around him, and one wide shot from the other side of the fjord caught the enormity of what he was about to do. As the camera caught a close-up of him from behind, Lizzy could see the broad plane of his back shift unnaturally. There was something underneath his skin. It was time to let it out.

The authorities had demarcated a clear boundary line several meters back from the cliff’s edge. All the cameras and onlookers were pressed against it, but only Ige could pass it. He walked steadily, one foot in front of the other. He didn’t look worried or hesitant. Lizzy thought he might pause at the edge, for effect or to gather his nerve or maybe just for one final flourish.

He didn’t. He walked straight forward until there was no more land under his feet, and when there wasn’t, he fell into the sea.

Lizzy felt her heart seize in her chest. The wide-angle lens caught every inch of his descent. There wasn’t even anything artful about it — he just plummeted straight down, his body making a half-rotation until he hit the water headfirst and disappeared beneath the surface with a great splash.

The music from the viking squid cheerleaders rose even higher as all the media people instantly grabbed their headsets and phones, trying to find someone who had a better angle on the situation. A few Norwegian police officers sternly kept everyone back behind the boundary, reminding all the others that there was nothing good that could come out of their making the same trip Ige had.

For nearly a minute, Lizzy held her breath, probably right along with every other person watching, except the dancers. She wished she could take a page from them, to sing through it. Instead she could hardly move.

And then: “One moment, please,” began the voice of one of the unseen commentators. “We’re getting — hang on, there are reports of — can we get Drone B on it?”

The screen changed to an overhead shot of the water. As far as Lizzy could tell, there was nothing to see there but the waves. Then suddenly a snakelike shadow cut across the camera’s field of view, breaking the water for only an instant before slipping back beneath. It wasn’t much, but it was proof enough.

Nina and Yijun clapped happily, while Lizzy finally let herself relax enough to exhale. She was trembling a little herself; she was cold. Left without anything else to see, the camera turned back to the dancers. They had all thrown their torches into a pile in the center and were whirling around the pyre, laughing and clapping. Lizzy wondered if Ige would remember what they had done for him — if Ige was even still anything anyone would recognize as Ige. Maybe he was still the person he’d been before in everything but form, or maybe what he had become when he’d hit the water was a creature that knew nothing except the depths to which it now belonged.

Now the text scrolling across the bottom of the screen had changed to an informative crawl. There are 82 known krakens living in the world today. Ige will be the 83rd. The average kraken lifespan is 200 years. The oldest known kraken on record died at 261 in 1784. Krakens are social creatures and live in pods. It is a myth that krakens sink boats. Some krakens retain the ability to breathe air and live on land. Kraken sightings are thought to be the source of mermaid myths in several cultures. Krakens prefer depths of 2000-3000 meters, known as the Bathypelagic Zone. Great, Lizzy had just watched a man walk off a cliff, and now she was learning kraken facts.

Yijun pulled out her phone. “I’m hungry. Who wants to order calamari?” Nina bopped her with a throw pillow.




12 days before the Fire


Lizzy woke when dawn broke through the plane window, miles over the Atlantic. She grunted a little as she sat upright. The cheap little travel pillow she’d bought at the airport hadn’t lived up to its hype, and now she had a crick in her neck.

It turned out airlines had all sorts of protocols in place for people with conditions like Nina’s — and, in fact, conditions exactly like Nina’s. At first, Lizzy had suspected they’d have to do a lot of explaining about Nina’s specific needs and concerns. What they’d discovered, though, was that any international airline that served Greek airports had to account for the contingency that one of their passengers might be in a state of thermal flux.

Lizzy looked over at Nina, who was in the window seat, not asleep, but watching the sunrise. The rich orange light washed across her face, casting all her features into sharp relief. She seemed to be staring directly into the sun without blinking. That didn’t seem to matter anymore.

“Hey,” Lizzy said, reaching over to rub Nina’s thigh. “Did you some sleep?”

“A little.” Nina shrugged, then took Lizzy’s hand in her own. In the air-conditioned cold of a transatlantic flight, Nina was shockingly warm. “You were out.”

Lizzy leaned her head to the side, hearing the joints pop. “Seems like it. Are we there yet?”

Nina pointed to the little screen in front of them, where the little airplane-shaped icon showed they had a little less than three hours left to their destination. She had both of their air vents turned directly on her, in part to compensate for the insulated blanket the airline had required she keep over herself at all times. Fair enough that they didn’t want to fuck with the possibility of open flames at 30,000 feet.

They were arriving well over a week ahead of their scheduled park entry date, which had been the latest flight they’d been able to arrange with the airline. Any later than that, and they wouldn’t have been permitted to fly, in much the same way that heavily pregnant women weren’t allowed on long plane flights. Lizzy had looked into making the journey by boat, but the idea of sweating out a three-week trip on a cruise ship had made both of them turn a little green. Air travel it was, then, unless someone was going to build a bullet train to Europe in the next ten days. Lizzy wasn’t holding her breath.

“How are you feeling?” asked Lizzy.

Nina exhaled. “Rough. God, even a microdose of those inhibitors sucks ass. I can’t imagine doing that daily.”

Lizzy supposed you got used to it. Yijun had gotten used to it, though Lizzy had never thought to ask her what that was like. Lizzy hadn’t even known there were side effects until Nina had told her. Hell, Lizzy hadn’t even known anything beyond that there were inhibitors before Nina had told her about those too. There was this whole world out there of concerns and information and considerations and contraindications, and Lizzy had barely known it existed until she’d fallen in love with part of it.

Lizzy didn’t know if Nina had ever considered the inhibitors as a viable option. She’d never wanted to ask, because she’d never wanted to make it seem like she was pressuring Nina one way or another. It was Nina’s body; it was her decision. Lizzy’s job was to support that decision, not to be the bitch who said, sure, I know you’re in excruciating pain all the time, but isn’t it worth putting up with it for me?

The flight attendant stopped by then, a slender older woman with a light Greek accent who’d been keeping an eye on them all journey. “Can I get anything for you, madam? Would you like another chilled blanket? Some ice water?” Lizzy knew she wasn’t asking out of the goodness of her heart. This was part of the protocols too, making sure that their most volatile passenger was stable enough for comfortable transport.

“Both would be great, thank you,” said Nina, handing over the one covering her body already. She looked a little wilted, like a plant left too long in direct sunlight without water to compensate.

“Of course,” said the flight attendant, giving Nina a kind smile. “When we are an hour from our destination, I will come to discuss disembarkation procedures with you. There will be special customs and immigration officials waiting at the gate to help you through the screenings.”

On the surface, that seemed so nice of them — who wouldn’t love a guided, personalized trip through customs? Except that what was really happening was that they were treating Nina like a hazardous material, one that needed extra scrutiny and paperwork before it could be allowed to cross the border. Even with all the visas and permits they’d accumulated, they’d been warned to be ready for a wait of several hours. They were landing a little before noon local time; Lizzy just hoped they’d be out of there in time for dinner.

“Thank you,” Lizzy said. “That’ll be helpful.”

The flight attendant gave them both a little nod before wandering off to wherever they kept things to let them get cold. Lizzy wondered if they didn’t just have a hatch down into the uninsulated cargo hold where the blankets could freeze along with the rest of the luggage, getting ready to do battle with Nina’s body temperature. Lizzy had joked about how maybe Nina would be more comfortable traveling down there, and then had stopped joking when the expression on Nina’s face said that she was clearly considering asking about it. No, they were headed to Greece for one particular dangerous stunt. No others along the way.

Nina sighed and rested her head on Lizzy’s shoulder. “I just feel…” She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t have to. The only word that could go there was bad.

“I know,” said Lizzy, kissing Nina’s hair. That was all she could do. There was literally no option left to Lizzy that could make her wife hurt less, and it made her want to scream and punch dents into the bulkhead in front of them. “We’ll be there soon.”




450 days before the Fire


When had Lizzy known that it would happen? Long before she’d admitted it to herself. 

Not everyone did, of course. Just because you had the gene didn’t mean it would awaken. You could go your whole life with the DNA of some far-off legendary ancestor sleeping inside your own bones, and never know it. That was how most people throughout history had, after all. Sure, maybe they knew of some great-uncle or twice-removed cousin who had hooves instead of feet, or shed scales when they brushed their hair, or never had a rodent problem in their house. But then those people would see these distant relatives, who would look completely human, and they’d wonder what had started those rumors in the first place.

So Lizzy had lived her adult life like someone with an ordinary relationship with an ordinary person who just happened to shed feathers occasionally. She’d planned everything like this would be the only plan, forever. She could live with feathers. She could live with watching Nina wear shorts in the snow. She could live with a partner who never had cold toes in bed.

She lay there in bed, her hand on Nina’s belly, trying to wonder how much a body could change and still be recognizable as the body it had been.

After a minute or so, Nina stirred. “What time is it?” she mumbled.

“Around three,” Lizzy whispered back. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Go back to sleep.”

You go back to sleep.”

“I will.” At least, Lizzy hoped she would. She’d try. She’d lie there and close her eyes, at least, which was close enough.

Nina made the noise she always made when Lizzy said something that was an obvious lie for Nina’s benefit. She put her hand on Lizzy’s side and pushed up Lizzy’s sleep shirt, baring her breast in the near-dark of the bedroom they shared. Her warm little fingers found Lizzy’s nipple and ran a light circle across its sensitive peak, making Lizzy shiver. “Need some help?”

Lizzy had to admit, as cures for insomnia went, that one has a proven winner. “Sure,” Lizzy said with a smile. “Yeah, actually. Yeah.”

Nina played at Lizzy’s nipple a little, chuckling softly as Lizzy’s breath caught. It was a slow, teasing motion, done with the patient calm of someone still not fully risen from sleep. Nina tucked close to Lizzy, letting her slender body press up against Lizzy’s sturdier one. Then she bent her head down and took Lizzy’s other nipple into her mouth. She closed her teeth down with just the lightest touch while she pinched with her thumb and forefinger. Lizzy sighed happily as she melted into it. It was nice to let herself be taken care of for a while.

“Which one do you want?” asked Nina, her lips brushing against Lizzy’s breast as she spoke.

“Just the little blue thing,” Lizzy said, indicating the vibrator they owned that looked like someone had squished a hardboiled egg in the middle. Nina kissed Lizzy’s nipple, then rolled over to her own side just long enough to retrieve it from … well, no, there were sounds of Nina’s rooting around in the drawer, but no hint of success. “Or something else is fine too.”

“Nope, got it,” Nina announced, pulling it out from beneath a few other larger, sturdier implements they owned. Her hands were small and slender, and yet she nearly could have closed her fist and hidden this particular tool inside. She pulled it from the charging cord and gave it an experimental buzz. It purred to life, so Nina snuggled up against Lizzy again, only this time low enough that her hand fit easily right between Lizzy’s thighs.

There were toys that Lizzy liked when she wanted to take her time, ones that would stretch out her pleasure for hours. This was not one of them. The little blue thing did not fuck around. It was targeted and intense, and when she felt it buzz up against her clit, Lizzy moaned softly.

Nina made a very satisfied little noise as she put her lips back against Lizzy’s nipple. She gave it a kiss first, them parted her lips again, letting her tongue do much of the work of teasing. Lizzy shifted her hips and spread her legs wider, letting Nina have access to more of her. Sometimes she tucked the same little blue thing into her strap-on and let Nina ride her while the vibrator purred for both of them. It was easier like that sometimes, having someone else to focus on. Having her pleasure be at the center of things was not Lizzy’s most comfortable state.

And yet, with Nina, it was okay. Nina didn’t care if Lizzy made a stupid noise or decided midstream she didn’t like something, she needed to try something else. Nina’s concern was with Lizzy’s pleasure, and if Lizzy wasn’t feeling it, then yeah, they would try something else. Or they’d switch off. Or they’d stop entirely and come back to it all later. Whatever it was, it would be okay.

Lizzy came not long after, gasping and shuddering and squirming her hips away to protect skin suddenly become too sensitive. Nina clicked the power button on the vibrator, stopping it instantly. “Feel better?” she asked, nuzzling underneath Lizzy’s chin.

“Yeah,” Lizzy said, which she did. Even if she couldn’t stop the gears in her mind from turning, she could exhaust her body, and with any luck, her flesh would collapse and take her brain down with it. She settled back against her pillow and exhaled hard. “Thanks.”

“Glad to help out,” said Nina, who was already yawning. She put the little blue thing on the bedside table, where Lizzy would clean it up in the morning. Then Nina leaned over to kiss Lizzy on the lips, slow and sweet. “Love you.”

“Love you too.” Lizzy tapped her on the tip of her nose. “Go to sleep.”

You go to sleep,” Nina said, sticking out her tongue. Then she lay down on her side of the bed and shut her eyes. She was snoring again within a minute.

But despite Nina’s good efforts, Lizzy still lay awake for several minutes more, staring at the outline of Nina’s sleeping frame. Someday you won’t be there, Lizzy thought with absolute clarity. Someday I’m going to be in this bed and you won’t be there because you’ll be gone, and I don’t know if it’s going to be tomorrow or in fifty years, but I know it’s coming, and I don’t know what that’s going to feel like, and I have no idea how I’m expected to deal with knowing that it’s coming, and it scares the hell out of me that I can’t stop it.

Even though she knew that Nina hated being snuggled in her sleep, since she ran so hot, Lizzy decided to risk it. She turned and curled her body up against Nina’s. She pressed her face up against the back of Nina’s neck, right where her hair smelled the strongest and sweetest. With Nina as her anchor, Lizzy closed her eyes and tried not to think of what it would be like when she couldn’t do this anymore.




5 days before the Fire


“So this is where we are right now,” Petros Argyros told them, standing in front of a wall-sized map of the protected area. He pointed to a rectangle at the bottom left edge meant to represent the management offices. It was right on the inner edge of a thick blue line marked ΟΡΙΟ ΠΑΡΚΟΥ. Park boundary. They were technically inside of the area already, but they’d be going much deeper.

The map was arranged in three concentric zones. The outermost ring, the widest ring, was lightly shaded blue. That was where the general public could go, provided they registered and paid the gate fee. There were all sorts of hiking and biking trails alongside several campgrounds and three wide rivers. All the guidebooks recommended it as a destination for travelers looking for some “off-the-beaten-path adventures,” noting that its somewhat remote location cut down on crowds even in the most popular seasons.

The middle ring was tinted yellow. This preservation area was restricted to individuals with special permits, park staff, and the five hundred or so inhabitants of three small villages that still thrived on the rocky mountainside. A barbed-wire fence marked its borders, keeping wayward tourists out and the herds of village sheep in. There were strictly no motorized vehicles permitted within the yellow zone.

The red center was the mountain itself. No one went there without permission, and permission was incredibly hard to get. Ask Lizzy how she knew. 

“Tomorrow morning, my staff will drive you to this checkpoint.” Petros pointed to a spot on the border between the blue and yellow zones marked Δ02. “You’ll spend the night in the village three kilometers in and begin your hike the next morning.”

It was strange to think how this wasn’t strange for Petros, not really. The arrival of someone like Nina was uncommon, but not unprecedented. He was one of the few people who could give them at least the rough outline of what the journey would be like, because he’d seen it happen before, if only from a distance. She wasn’t the first phoenix he’d guided up the mountain, and the odds were good she wouldn’t be the last.

Lizzy had seen the summit on her way in. She had expected it to loom large and menacing, some ominous fantasy-novel tower that cast its shadow on all the land below. But honestly, Mt. Pyrilampis wasn’t even as tall as the other mountains surrounding it, nor as pointy. It looked less like a proper mountain and more like a giant hill with a round, rough top. What made it stand out was how solitary it was, separated from its taller kin by the river valley below. Unlike the other mountains, which were forested and green, Mt. Pyrilampis was patchy and bare, especially near its summit. The few trees that grew there seemed like they’d neglected to take someone else’s good advice.

“How long do you think it’ll take us to get up?” asked Nina, looking at the winding trails on the map. Instead of heading straight from the bottom to the top, they snaked their way up the peak, with long flat paths and switchbacks.

Petros shook his head with the wisdom of a man who couldn’t make a guess. “An experienced mountaineer could make it in a day. But you are not so experienced, yes?”

That was putting it mildly. For all the adventures Lizzy and Nina had had together, they’d never steered too far from running water and climate control. Lizzy hadn’t been camping since high school, and she didn’t know if Nina ever had been. “So … two, three days?” asked Lizzy.

Petros nodded. “It changes with your pace. But yes. Plan for three days up, two back.”

Lizzy felt a lump form in her throat. Right. What went up also had to come down. So much planning had gone into what would happen at the summit that she’d barely spent any thought on what might come after. Frankly, she didn’t really want there to be an after. She wanted to close her eyes on top of the mountain and wake up back in her own life, without the mess of having to connect the two dots.

Whatever. It was going to be her problem, and hers alone. If Lizzy had a problem, Lizzy had a problem. If Nina had a problem, they both had a problem. If they both had a problem, Lizzy had a problem. She’d tried her hardest her entire relationship to make this true.

 “I guess I’m going shopping!” Lizzy said, putting on an enthusiastic grin. “Know of any good places around here to buy camping gear?”

Nina exhaled hard. “I think I need to go back to the hotel and rest. I hate to ask, but can you…?” Nina’s fever had gotten worse since their arrival, leaving her always looking flushed and a little wan. She’d spend much of the last several days in the hotel bathtub, submerged in cold water while Lizzy cleared out every ice maker in their hotel. Nina had even slept like that, while Lizzy had hovered and tried to make sure she didn’t drown.

“Sure, sure,” Lizzy said. What was she going to say — that no, Nina had to come shopping with her? “I’ll take care of things. You can rest up.”

“Never fear!” Petros clapped his hands together merrily. “I know you are feeling poorly now. But once you are on the mountainside, you will feel better. You will feel it in you. Those like you, they always do, when they return. They always do.”




99 days before the Fire


She screamed. She screamed and beat the steering wheel hard enough to bruise her palms. She opened her mouth as wide as it could go and shouted until she could feel the raw, swollen folds of her vocal cords rasping against one another.

This far end of the strip mall parking lot was empty at this time of morning. Lizzy had woken up first and gone out for coffee and donuts. She did this sometimes. It was a regular thing she did. She’d even left a note so that Nina wouldn’t be worried if she woke up and found the apartment empty.

The little donut shop was three storefronts down, its cheerily lit windows the only signs of life at this early hour. It was Lizzy’s destination She hadn’t made it there yet.

She’d been fine the night before. She’d made dinner, and she’d sat down with Nina, and they’d discussed the practicalities of the situation, and Lizzy had listened so well through all of it. She’d nodded and said she’d understood. She’d made all the right sounds. She’d been so supportive. She’d reassured Nina that no matter what happened, Lizzy would support her. She’d even been excited about the possibilities. Then she’d turned off the light and fallen asleep by her side.

Nearly twelve hours, she’d made it. She supposed she deserved some kind of record.

She wondered what she looked like, a middle-aged woman having a breakdown in her car. Absolutely ridiculous, she was sure of that. If she didn’t want other people to think she was ridiculous — and she didn’t — she needed to stop sobbing hysterically right this instant. She needed to pull herself together. Stop it. Come on, stop it.

It wasn’t working. She grabbed a handful of napkins in the center console and pressed their rough paper folds against her face. She was a snotty, blotchy, hideous mess. She was unfit for human society. She was unfit for supporting anyone. She was a piece of useless garbage and she was the one who needed to be thrown into a bonfire. Ugh, with her luck, she’d be too wet and mucose to burn anyway.

She struck herself hard across her face, something she hadn’t done in years. It helped a little, in that it made her focus on how she now felt like a complete idiot for having hit herself. It wasn’t a better feeling, but it was a different one. She could work with different.

Shit, she’d only been sitting there parked for three minutes or so. It felt like it had been an hour. She opened the vanity mirror in her sun visor and cringed at the sight reflected back at her: puffy eyes, saggy skin, every wrinkle out in full force. She felt eighty. She felt lost. She felt like driving off until the car ran out of gas, and then walking until she couldn’t walk anymore, and then falling down and lying by the side of the road, hoping to dissolve like chalk in the next rain shower.

Instead, she dried her eyes, took several deep breaths, and got out of the car.

The only person in the donut shop was the cashier, a bored teenage boy wearing a t-shirt from one of the local high schools. He didn’t even so much as blink as Lizzy walked in the door. She supposed he wasn’t the worst he’d seen. “Um, yeah,” Lizzy started, clearing her poor abused throat until she could make words again. “Can I have a dozen … you know, a dozen whatever, and, fuck it, the biggest coffee you have.”

“We’ve got, like, this box,” the cashier said, holding up a cardboard carton with a dispenser on the front. “For meetings and stuff. It holds something like ten cups.”

“You know what, that’s perfect,” Lizzy said. She felt a tear start to trickle from the corner of her eye, so she snatched one of the napkins out of the dispenser on the counter and pressed it to her cheek until the urge stopped. She was not going to cry in front of a perfect stranger.

As the cashier opened the back of the donut case, he looked up at Lizzy. “So you just want whatever, or…?”

Lizzy nodded. “Yeah, whatever. Whatever’s good. Whatever’s–” She stopped as her voice hitched. She pressed a hand across her mouth and looked upward, trying to blink back the tears that were stinging her eyes. God, if she couldn’t even get through ordering a dozen assorted donuts, how was the rest of this going to go?

Once he was done filling the carton with coffee, the cashier dutifully picked out twelve different donuts, placing each of them neatly frosting-side-up in the flat donut box. They looked like such a happy little assortment. How could she be crying when there was a happy little assortment right in front of her? She had to snap out of it. 

“Hey, um.” The cashier put the coffee and donuts together on the counter, but his hands hesitated over the register. “Like, it’s none of my business, but … are you okay?”

Oh no, Lizzy visibly wasn’t, but she was grateful the cashier had at least been willing to pretend that there might be confusion about the matter. Her cheek where she’d hit herself felt swollen and itchy. “Oh, yeah, sorry, I just–” She took a deep breath, then went for a couple other napkins. “My wife’s sick,” she said at last, which she figured was the easiest version of events to get across the a complete stranger. She folded all her complicated feelings, all her hopes and fears, down into a single phrase: “My wife’s sick.”

“Oh,” the cashier said, with all the adolescent awkwardness of someone who had no idea about the proper social conventions regarding responding to a confession like that. “Well, I hope she gets better.”

What else was there to say? Everybody walked around with their own little tragedies, dealing with their own hidden losses great and small. The world ended every day. Lizzy couldn’t expect everyone else to stop for her, not when she didn’t stop for them with the same frequency.

Besides, the cashier’s wish was going to come true. Nina had made the decision that was indeed going to lead to her getting better. Whatever getting better meant.

“Thanks,” Lizzy said. She took a deep breath, and when she let it back out, she felt some of the tightness in her chest begin to ease. “Me too.”




3 days before the Fire


The villagers didn’t speak a word of English, and neither Lizzy or Nina knew more than a few Greek phrases scared up from a guidebook. But they’d welcomed Nina and Lizzy with open arms, fed them a thoroughly astonishing amount of food, led them to a b ed, and sang songs outside the window until Lizzy fell sound asleep. 

She was surprised to awaken the next morning and find that she was the only one in the bed. She got up and pulled on her clothes, then went out into the main room of the hut. There, Nina was sitting at a table looking bright and chipper as three elderly women fussed over a stove, talking and laughing amongst themselves. Lizzy hurried over to her side. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” Nina said, sounding a little surprised herself to be able to give such an answer. The color was back in her cheeks now — not the bright red of fever beneath sallow skin, but the pinkened flush of health. “Great, actually. I slept great. Did you?”

Lizzy took Nina’s hand in hers, then nearly dropped with with surprise. She touched Nina’s shoulder and could feel the heat from her body radiating through her shirt. It was like being near an oven. “Let me go get the antipyretics from my bag,” Lizzy said, remembering where she’d stashed the bottle.

Before she could move, though, Nina caught Lizzy’s arm and held her in place. “No,” Nina said, her voice a soft but firm reminder. “I’m done with those.”

The village women fed them a breakfast to rival the size of the dinner they’d had the night before. It did Lizzy well to see how much Nina ate, especially when she’d been doing little more than picking at food for weeks, if not months. All Nina had to do was suggest that she might want more of something, and one of the little old women was right there to serve her seconds and even thirds. When they were finished, the women presented them with bundles of food that looked far more appealing than the instant noodles and crackers Lizzy had packed.

As one of the women led Lizzy and Nina out of the house, Lizzy heard music. It grew louder as they walked down the path, puzzling Lizzy until they came over a small rise and saw the trailhead — or, more specifically, the people gathered at the trailhead. Petros had said there were several hundred people who lived in the three mountainside villages; the crowd here looked to be nearly all of them, all dressed in white tunics and stockings, decorated with garlands of greenery and flowers.

Even if she’d had years instead of months to learn the language, Lizzy suspected she wouldn’t have been able to understand the words they were singing. Songs like that were old — as old as the creatures sung about, back when they had been beings in and of themselves, and not just genetic memories. It occurred to Lizzy that the person who first put those words to music might have actually seen a real, original phoenix with their own eyes, one of Nina’s ancestors from an unimaginably distant past.

Now that unknown ancient bard’s descendants were here, singing the same song to Nina herself. A pair of young boys came over with garlands. Nina bent low, letting the boys hang them around her neck. They were made of flowers and dying leaves the color of sunsets, the color of fire. Nina smiled as she raised her head and looked out at the crowd before her.

“You’ve got your own viking squid cheerleaders,” quipped Lizzy, because she was allergic to emotional vulnerability and because if she didn’t do something, she’d wind up crying again. She couldn’t start crying now. They had a three-day hike ahead of them.

Nina laughed a little and took Lizzy’s hand. In the cool morning breeze, the warmth of her touch felt good. “I wish I knew what they were saying.”

“Probably a whole song about how great you are,” Lizzy said, squeezing her fingers. She hoped she was telling the truth. If anyone in the world deserved songs sung about them, entire ballads composed about their beauty and bravery and kindness, it was Nina. A display like this was the least of what she merited.

“Do you remember how to say thank you?” Nina asked.

Lizzy frowned, trying to remember. It had been one of the first handy phrases she’d learned, so of course it had been one of the first she’d forgotten. “Efharisto, I think. Or efcharisto. One of the two.” Boy, Lizzy sure hoped she was pronouncing that right. Otherwise this could turn a touching moment into an international incident.

Nina gave the shrug of a woman who figured this was worth a try. “Efcharisto, everyone,” she said, raising her voice to be heard above the singing. “Efcharisto.”

The crowd clapped and smiled in response. Gold star to Lizzy’s memory banks. Either that or she’d gotten it close enough and everyone was just being polite. Lizzy turned to the trailhead, to see what terrain was ahead of them, and then looked back to Nina to ask if she was ready to go.

Before the words could leave her mouth, though, Lizzy found herself looking at Nina — really looking at Nina, radiant in the morning light. She was beautiful, and Lizzy knew right then she’d never love again else like that her whole life long. This was it. Some people got a lot of loves in their lives, a lot of chances for romance and soulmates and whatever else fell into that category. Lizzy had gotten one, and oh, what a one she had gotten. She’d spent years making Nina her heart. And the price of having put her there was having to burn her right out of her chest.

“Come on,” Lizzy said at last. Holding Nina’s hand tight, she stepped forward and led the way. Soon the singing, like the rest of the world, would be behind them, and only the peak would lie ahead.




3300 days before the Fire


“I promise to…” Lizzy grunted and flopped back against the bed. “I don’t know! What am I promising?”

“I don’t know!” Nina called from the hotel bathroom. “What do you want to promise?”

“I don’t know!” Lizzy kicked her feet over the edge. “This is hard!”

“Marriage is hard!” Nina hollered back, like she was speaking from personal experience. She was doing her makeup in there, at the one mirror in the room that had decent lighting. “Promise me something good.”

Lizzy exhaled hard as she looked up at the ceiling. “I promise to … always be the one who washes the sex toys afterward.”

A half-second later, Nina’s head popped out from behind the door frame, her eye makeup in a state of half-readiness. “Don’t you dare. My mother will be there. She’s already spent all morning looking at pictures of my sisters’ weddings and sighing wistfully. Acknowledging that we have sex will send her right over the edge.”

Lizzy laughed at the thought of her future mother-in-law’s scandalized face as Lizzy swore to love, honor, and always put the dildos in the dishwasher. It would almost be worth it. Almost. “Do you think your mother even knows how we have sex?”

“No, and you” –she jabbed a finger in Lizzy’s direction– “are not going to be the one to tell her.” With a little huff, she disappeared back into the bathroom.

They hadn’t done things traditionally, to say the least. Instead of fancy gowns, Lizzy was wearing a pantsuit she’d bought on clearance a few years back and Nina had on her favorite summer sundress. Instead of getting a big romantic venue, they were heading to City Hall. Instead of having a reception with hundreds of their parents’ closest friends, Nina had made reservations for their immediate families only at a fancy seafood restaurant. They weren’t even exchanging rings, as Lizzy wasn’t much of a jewelry person and Nina found anything on her hands uncomfortable.

The only thing Nina had insisted on was the vows. They needed to write them from scratch, and they needed to be from the heart, she had declared. Of course, she’d had hers written for weeks. Meanwhile, here was Lizzy, a pad of hotel stationery in her hand and a half hour left on the clock, trying to figure out what she needed to say.

She thought about doing something simple — maybe just looking in Nina’s eyes and saying, I promise I’m yours, and then being done with it. No, that was terrible, and besides, it would look incredibly half-assed and lopsided next to whatever work of reasonable length Nina had written. Maybe she could just wing it, speak from the heart. Ugh, that was worse, and a recipe for making inappropriate comments.

What was there to promise she hadn’t already? They’d been functionally living together since about their third date. They had joint bank accounts. They’d moved to two different cities together, once for Lizzy’s job, once for Nina’s. They were joint owners of their shared car. They each had various members of the other’s family in their phone contacts. How many other ways were there to demonstrate that a relationship was for good?

No, Lizzy knew, that wasn’t the point. Sometimes it wasn’t enough just to do things. Sometimes you had to say it too.

I promise you I’ll stick with you until you get sick of me, Lizzy scrawled on the notepad, taking care to ensure that her usual chickenscratch handwriting was at least halfway legible. I promise you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. I promise I’m never going to stop doing my best to be the best thing that ever happened to you. I promise

There were times Lizzy hated how much she hated sappy shit. She just wanted to open her mouth and have Hallmark cards and first-dance pop ballads come flying out, and have them sound sincere. She wanted to be the kind of person for whom live, laugh, love didn’t sound like vapid crap and jackass didn’t serve as a term of endearment.

Alas, Nina had known what Lizzy was when she’d turned to her one afternoon while they were walking through the park, eating ice cream, and asked, Hey, do you think we should get married? and Lizzy had responded, Your face should get married, which had of course made no sense and been the perfect way to say yes, Lizzy-style.

I promise I’ll always think you’re funny, Lizzy wrote. I promise to give you the pickle spears that come with my sandwich. She looked at that last one and scratched it out, then revised: I promise to always be grateful that you take the pickle spears that come with my sandwich, thus saving me from having to deal with pickles. There, that was a more honest reflection of the situation. I promise to try and let you do nice things for me. I promise to remember that you don’t like red wine. I promise to remember you do like daffodils.

These were stupid. They felt petty; they felt like not enough. She was about to proclaim her love for this woman, both legally and in front of several family members. She could do better than getting a favorite flower right.

I promise we’re in this together, Lizzy wrote, and then she stopped. That was it. That was the crux of it, the promise she could keep — that no matter what happened, no matter which way everything went, she would be with Nina every step of the way. All other promises started from there.

Nina poked her head out of the bathroom. She looked beautiful, with her curls piled atop her head and spilling down over her bare shoulders. “Ready?” she asked, doing a little twirl to show off the way her peach-and-grey sundress skirt spun as she moved. She was perfect, absolutely perfect. The kind of perfect girl you wanted to marry and love forever.

Yes. Lizzy was ready. They had people waiting and promises to make and then keep. It was time to go.




the Fire


The edge of the burn zone was marked black by centuries, maybe even millennia of heat scarring. Nothing would grow there again, if anything ever even had in the first place. Maybe it had been like this from the moment of the mountain’s creation; maybe it had risen from the sea already burnt, knowing already what it had been made to be. It would be nice, Lizzy thought, to be so certain of one’s function.

A pile of logs was already there, arranged in a circle and draped with the same festive garlands the villagers had been wearing. A few of the banners appeared to have handwritten messages scrawled on them, though in languages Lizzy couldn’t read. She decided to believe that they were prayers, made by those who thought this would take them wherever they meant to go. Maybe a month ago she would have thought that was a stupid idea. Now she found it made her smile. Besides, delivering prayers seemed a small price to pay for not having to haul the wood all the way up here themselves.

“Do we just…?” Lizzy said, not even sure what she was asking, nor why she thought Nina would know any more than she did.

“I think so.” Nina shrugged her pack off her shoulders and let it fall to the ground behind her. She’d packed light, and neither one of them had acknowledged that it was because Lizzy might have to carry both their gear back alone.

They’d made the whole trip in near-silence, speaking only for immediate concerns. Lizzy had spent so much of her life babbling to fill dead air that the quiet had felt unnatural at first, then sobering, then almost comforting. She could listen to other things instead, like the way the wind rustled through the trees that got thinner and thinner as they got higher and higher. They had woken up and broken camp that morning with barely a dozen words exchanged, because there’d been nothing left to say that wasn’t already understood. They loved one another fiercely and completely, but sometimes that wasn’t enough. The silence hadn’t become something to fill; it had become the medium itself through which everything was transmitted.

The late autumn sun hung low in the sky, preparing to disappear behind the nearby peaks. Soon it would be winter here, and everything would be covered in snow, even the charred black earth. And then? Spring again, much though Lizzy might not have been able to believe it from where she was standing. She let her own pack fall, taking from it only a small leather shoulder bag. All that was needed was in there.

In the dying light, Nina gazed at the woodpile. It was hard to say from the look on her face what she was thinking. She looked peaceful, free from the last three months’ worth of agony. In the village and in the tent, she’d slept soundly. Her skin still burned hot, but the heat no longer seemed to torment her.

Lizzy hadn’t eaten anything since the night before. She didn’t think either of them had — Lizzy because she felt like she was going to throw up every time she moved, and Nina because … it was hard to say, but Nina felt like she was being fueled by something else now. Petros had been right that the mountain had made her feel better. Part of Lizzy wanted to believe that that had been the cure, that they could declare the mission a success right now and turn around and head back down to their ordinary lives. The mountain had done its work! Good job, everyone! Time to go home.

It wasn’t that simple. It never would have been.

To be restored, our sickness must grow worse. God, where had she heard that line? College, probably. She couldn’t even remember what she was quoting. It sounded like something she’d thought was so profound at the time, and then promptly forgotten. The joke was on her, she supposed. Some memories came back to life when you least expected it.

Nina slipped off her shoes and socks and walked, barefoot, to the edge of the stacked logs. Lizzy watched as Nina ran her fingers over the banners, taking in the writing if not the words themselves. She took a look around at the scenery that surrounded them, the beautiful overlook of the valley below. There was so much life down there, so many people and so many lovely, impossible things.

Lizzy thought of giant squids floating in the midnight-dark of the deep sea. She thought of dragons that looked like people and dragons that looked like dragons. She thought of unicorns on primetime television. She thought of all the future children declaring that they were spiders now, shocking and horrifying their parents as they danced and built webs together. She thought of all the knowable outcomes, and of just how many unknowable outcomes there were alongside them. She took a deep breath and let it go.

“Okay,” Nina said at last. There was a log near the center of the pile that had been cut short, like a stool or a short pedestal. Nina walked over to it and brushed her fingertips across its smooth surface, tracing the rings. This was where she was supposed to go. “Are you ready?”

No. “Sure,” Lizzy said, putting on the biggest smile she could. She swallowed hard and willed herself not to cry. She wouldn’t cry. What was she crying for? “Let’s light ‘er up, shall we?”

Nina gave a little nod. Lizzy thought of the young man on the Norwegian coast, walking into the sea without hesitation. That was really it — that Nina had never hesitated. It didn’t matter whether or not this was the right choice. It was the only choice. Now it was Lizzy’s job to see her through.

Lizzy opened the little satchel and pulled out a bundle of sticks. They were wrapped in bright red string and smelled of tree resin. With her other hand she took out a lighter, a heavy-duty Zippo from back when she’d been a smoker, before she’d been with Nina, before most of her life had happened. It had always been a sturdy little thing; it had never let her down. She flicked it once and watched it spark to life. Still good.

“Hey, um–” Lizzy said, before she was really aware she was speaking. When Nina lifted her head to look at Lizzy, Lizzy tried to look back, but her vision was blurry. Shit, she was crying. Way to go, always making this about herself. Asshole. With both her hands full, she rubbed her face across the back of her sleeve. “Hey, will, um — whatever it — whatever you — whatever’s next?” Shit, why was it so hard to talk? Her chest was hitching now as sobs heaved out of her, unwanted, uncontrolled. She shouldn’t even ask. It was just that now she’d started, she couldn’t stop. “Will you, will you, you know … know that I love you?”

Even as the sun disappeared behind the far mountain, it cast enough glow so that Lizzy could see twin streams of tears down Nina’s cheeks. But unlike Lizzy, Nina was calm, and when she spoke, her voice was steady. “I don’t know,” Nina said at last. “I can’t know. But … I know that whatever comes next, whatever I become, it will be better. And it’ll only be possible because of how much, right now, you love me.”

“Okay,” Lizzy managed. She pressed her lips together until they hurt and nodded. “Okay. Okay. Okay.”

With a flick of her thumb, she lit the lighter. When she touched the flames to the bundled sticks, they caught quickly, sending their fragrance into the air. Before she could let fear keep her from what she had to do, Lizzy pitched the lit bundle onto the woodpile, with the woman she’d love forever inside.

The wood didn’t just catch. Lizzy had started campfires before; she knew the kind of patient coaxing it took to get even a handful of kindling going, much less whole logs. The whole structure ignited instantly, shooting a pillar of flame into the air with such concussive force that Lizzy was knocked back on her ass. She had to scramble backward out of sheer self-preservation. The heat was like nothing she’d ever felt before. It was hard to breathe without feeling like the inside of her lungs were being scorched. She made it to her feet, then grabbed the backpacks and carried them far enough away that she felt out of immediate danger of melting. Her hands and jeans were smeared black from the charred ground.

It was beautiful. Lizzy had never seen flames in those colors before. She didn’t know if those colors even had names — they were reds and oranges and yellows, but somehow more. In the flames she could see (or pretend to see, if there was even a difference) suggestions of shapes, like feathers and hands and wings. She almost wanted to cry now. She felt like she should be crying. But how could she be sad when things like this existed in the world?

Everyone in the valley must be watching too, Lizzy realized. All the villagers and tourists, everyone for miles, they were no doubt standing outside their homes and offices at dusk, pointing up to the mountain and the spectacular column of fire rising from its peak. Everything that they’d ever been together was now there for everyone to see. They could make of it what they would. Lizzy knew what it all really meant. 

No, that wasn’t right. She knew half of what it meant. She knew only what was ending.

Lizzy stood there, watching in silence, until her legs couldn’t hold her up anymore. When they gave way, she sat down hard on the ground, half-landing on the packs beneath her. The sky continued its journey from blue to black, but the blaze on the peak seemed to show no signs of letting up, even though by now that pile of logs must have been long since consumed. The fire was the catalyst and the reaction. It reached high into the night, and above it, sparks rose on the air and lifted until they too vanished against the moonless sky.

At some point, and Lizzy couldn’t say when, she fell asleep. Somewhere in there, the exhaustion of it all overtook her and dragged her away from the harsh light of the blaze, down into a soft, dreamless quiet that held her until the following dawn.

When that first light broke, Lizzy opened her eyes, half-expecting to see the fire still raging. But no, everything was still now, with only the faintest burnt smell still lingering in the air. Lizzy sat up, then pulled herself to her feet, staggering as she tried to remember how her legs worked, or if they worked at all. God, she was hungry. Whether that was a good or a bad sign, she couldn’t tell.

Step by unsteady step, she approached the center of the blackened circle of ground. The newly charred earth crunched beneath her feet. All of the banners, all of the wood — everything identifiable was gone now. In its place was only a grey pile of ash, tall as Lizzy’s waist. In the chilly morning light, the warmer parts of it send trails of white vapor spiraling into the air.

Slowly, almost reverently, Lizzy knelt beside the tallest part of the pile. She pushed each of her sleeves up to her elbows one by one, baring her forearms. Then she took a deep breath and thrust both her hands into the heart of the ash, trusting that her own heart was waiting inside there — and that whatever it had become, it would be better.

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6 thoughts on “All That Rises

  1. You have an inhuman gift for making me cry and I’d be pretty cross about it if the results weren’t so good!

    At first I assumed Nina was a dragon, due to the fire imagery, the mention of dragons by her awful coworkers, and the fact that dragons in general can take up a lot of memetic space; I just assumed the feathers were more Dragon Things until phoenixes were explicitly mentioned. More fool me! The numbered-days scheme for each chapter is such an elegant way of handling looking at two people growing closer together over such a long period of time, while providing the reader with a concrete countdown that cannot be reversed no matter how much past Nina and Lizzy share. As I read I was wondering what kind of ending there would be: would Nina be recognizable? Would she be an elemental beast, unshackled by reason? Would she be able to remember Lizzy at all? The more I read, though, the more the ending you chose felt right, because that uncertainty is kind of the point. The reader has to trust the way Lizzy does.

    It’s a metaphor for something, all right, and I hope that metaphor is going well whatever the crucible leaves behind.

  2. This was very good and beautifully done, and made me cry at like midnight in our home time zone.

    I love you. Thank you. I’m sorry. I know.

  3. I love the world building and the non-linear story telling and the open ending. I think it was especially poetic to set the wedding vows before the fire. I’ll admit I teared up a bit at, “I promise we’re in this together,” with the whole unknowability of everything.

  4. Love the non-linear story and the use of the Fire as the timeline. When I finally got to section actually labelled “the Fire” it hit like a ton of bricks! I spent most of the story impressed at how realistic everything was. So many great details, like the medical treatments and the reality show that are all too plausible. The overheard conversation from Lizzy’s awful coworkers was SO spot on I got stuck somewhere between laughing and wanting to throttle them. Husband of twenty years says he’s a dragon now, and the kids will turn out to be spiders! Moral panic!! Ditto the brief “vet” comment when Nina’s getting her scan.

    I do hope that whatever’s happened with Nina, Lizzy can get some therapy or something and learn to put ANY percent of her care toward herself. She was genuinely painful to read — the barely-functional phone, the shitty job she stayed at too long, the forcing her emotions down until she lost it in a parking lot. And the comment “always making this about herself” toward the end. I guess it’s also very realistic, but it breaks my heart.

  5. Gosh, this really made me cry. What a beautiful story, and what a vivid depiction of the ways that people can grow closer and intertwined. I particularly loved the quiet middle-of-the-night sex scene, so ordinary and so simple. The ending is just perfect, thank you for this.

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