First published in Ash & Thorn #4 by Ahoy Comics | August 2020
He hated her smoking but he’s gone so to hell with it.
Nina perches in the window, smoking, her back against the frame. It’s the first filthy hot day of summer and it keeps the street downstairs quiet. She turns and blows the smoke into her lounge room. Why not? Who’s here to complain? Nina untangles her legs and stands, closing the curtains, and whispers a prayer to the cigarette.
It’s not even three in the afternoon and she’s bored. Stuck at home. The TV weatherman had panicked Nina every hour on the hour until she thought the water must be sizzling in the pipes. She walks back into the bathroom, swearing steam’s already in the air.
Nina doesn’t believe in God. The churches she was dragged to every weekend as a kid weren’t stained glass and fancy architecture; just a few dozen gathered in nondescript halls. She remembers the fluorescent lights, the banners of mismatched fonts. The memories still come with dull anger. She’d been too young to bat away belief with irony.
When something goes wrong, she can’t just hope or wish like everyone else can. There’s an itch to pray that never quite fades.
Stepping out of the shower, she wonders what the weather’s like where he is. If he’s home, if he’s sleeping, who he’s sleeping with. She wonders if he still likes the cool that grows like moss on the underside of his pillow.
She stands, naked, and whispers a prayer to a neighbourhood cat. This is her theological loophole. Nina is always praying, but to cats, to cutlery, to characters she remembers from childhood storybooks. Nothing disappoints if you don’t believe in miracles. And a sweet side effect is how it makes her fonder of these things – she loves this cat, and doesn’t even know its name.
Nina darts back out onto the carpet to retrieve her cigarettes and matches before returning to the bathroom tiles. She lets her thighs adjust to their thin layer of relief, then flattens her back to the floor, setting dust alive around her. The chill will be cooked away in seconds so she makes herself enjoy it.
Nina rattles the matchbox, like she always does. The cartoon redhead on the box smiles as Nina selects a match. Nina mutters prayers to the leftover smell of him, to the last movie they saw together, to the car that took him away. She prays to the woman on the matchbox.
The cartoon redhead just smiles.
Nina draws on her cigarette. When she pulls it loose of her lips, a webbing of flame sits between her second and third fingers. She claps her hands in slow applause and soon both hands are burning. The fire spreads up her arms, across her chest, up to her shoulders.
This should hurt, she thinks, but all that’s changed is the temperature. Things could be worse. Even this morning, when she woke up and stared at the ceiling, she knew it could be worse. She can still eat. She’s talked on the phone. She could probably miss him more.
Nina jerks back as her eyelashes catch fire. She stands up, swatting at her eyes. What was she thinking about? She has no idea, and chalks up the amnesia to the fact fire’s eating all her oxygen. There’s still no pain, but in the air, there’s treble with tinny traces of a beat. Music is drifting in from the lounge room. She’d been showering with the door open. She can’t remember a time when there was a reason to close the door.
Nina bats away smoke until she sees her phone, buzzing on the coffee table. Is its ring a song she once loved? Nina could listen to it all day. She catches herself singing along until the words burn out of her head and her mouth hangs open. When she steps from the bathroom, her footsteps give permission to what’s behind her. The fire rushes free.
There’s all this junk out here, cluttering the room: notepads, photographs, books by authors with unfamiliar names. She watches, smiling, as the fire embraces it all. Still naked, standing at her window, Nina can’t think of a reason to blush. Strangers are staring up at her from the street. One of them points at her. It’s a shame, she thinks, that everyone’s so unhappy.
The phone rings another verse and the temperature rises with each note. When Nina turns around, she can barely see the apartment’s four walls, let alone the phone. She gropes around for the song. The fire takes t-shirts, pot plants, and her laptop. The room’s full of cellophane flames.
But there’s still that tinny beat! She moves towards it, leaving blackened footprints. Right now she couldn’t tell you her own phone number, or her mother’s maiden name, or the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. When she finally grabs the phone, she only mashes at its screen out of animal curiosity.
The music stops. “Hello,” says a voice, forming out of static. “You there?”
Nina’s fingerprints smudge into the phone’s soft backing. “Hi,” she says. The word is cool, like mint, on her tongue.
“I know I said I wouldn’t call,” he says, “but I wish you were here. It’s winter. It’s beautiful.”
The static on the line forms sleet in her apartment, and she remembers his voice as it drifts down by degrees.