VENICE BURNING. By A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area. Her stories have appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction and Strange Horizons, among others. She is co-editor of the online ‘zine, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology. She can be found online at www.acwise.net.

A FLOATING CITY, a sinking city, a drowned city; there isn’t much difference, really. When R’lyeh rose, it rose everywhere, everywhen. Threads spiral out, down, in, stitching past to present to future.

There are ways to walk between, not particularly hidden, if you’re willing to lose a part of yourself. Most people aren’t; it’s my specialty.

I stand on a pier, eyes shaded against the water’s glare. It’s 2015, by the smell—diesel and cooked meat, early enough that such things still exist—and the particular pale-jade of the canal. It might as well be 2017, or 3051. But this year is where my client is, so I wait, sweating inside a black, leather jacket, watching slick weeds stir below lapping waves.

The sun burns white-hot. Across the water, atop a basilica whose name no longer matters, Mary stretches marble arms over a maze of twisted streets. Legend claims that, when the basilica was built, the statue turned miraculously toward the water to guard the boats in the canal. The day R’lyeh rose, she turned her back on the water forever and wept tears—sticky and ruby-dark—that weren’t quite blood.

A hand touches my arm, nails perfectly manicured and painted sea-shell pink. I’m surprised the Senator came herself. A frightened mother looking for her lost son is one thing; a politician desperate to protect her career is another. I wonder: Does the Senator know which she is?

Sunlight catches the diamond net of hairspray holding every blonde strand in place. Her lips press thin, leaving unkind wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, marring otherwise-perfect skin. Nails, lips and suit all match; only the Senator’s eyes betray her.

From her perspective, it’s just beginning. R’lyeh is a shadow beneath the waves and there is still hope. But I’ve seen tendrils slide through the canals of the city, sinuous, licking the stones and tasting the ancient walls. They want nothing. The Senator still thinks she can bargain with the Risen Ones, strike a deal and become a new Moses to her people.

I focus on the Senator’s nails, striking against my black leather. I know this about her: Her life will end in a church, green water rising between the pews, light reflecting against the ceiling in shifting patterns. She will die screaming, bound hand and foot, while her blood is pulled through her skin by sheer force of will.

I don’t offer to shake her hand. “Do you have a photo of your son?”

The slim case tucked beneath her arm matches nails, lips and suit. She hands me a glossy, professional-looking headshot. Her son looks nothing like her. Mr. Senator is an actor, younger than the Senator by at least ten years, dark of hair and eye like his son, but prettier by far.

Marco, the son, gazes back at me from the photograph. Slick-oiled hair hangs to the collar of a leather jacket, an open-necked white shirt beneath it. He has deep-brown eyes and the faintest of scars—acne, despite the medicine and the cosmetic surgery his parents could easily afford. I hide the edge of a smile at Marco’s tiny act of rebellion.

“You understand this is a matter that requires the utmost discretion.” The Senator holds out an envelope. She tries for frost, the same control she displays on the Senate floor, but her voice fails.

“I’ll be in touch,” I say, looking at a point beyond the Senator’s left shoulder.

A subtle tugging wraps threads around my spine. I’m amazed at the Senator’s self-control, her talent for denial. How can she not feel what the world has become? How can she resist the temptation to slip into the future? She has the perfect pretense—looking for her son. She could see how it all ends.

I pocket the envelope and Marco’s photo, and step past the Senator. Her mouth opens, snaps audibly closed; she isn’t used to being dismissed. My bootheels click as I walk away, thinking about her son.

A family vacation in a city of masks and illusory streets—the perfect place to hide, the perfect place to disappear. Twenty-six and vanished—of course Marco doesn’t want to be found. Even photographed, the desire to run shines clear in Marco’s eyes. Desperation and fear, they bring a flicker of memory, which I push aside. There is no place far enough, but he’ll still try, fleeing forward to test the notion that the future is infinite.

I know where to start—Harry’s Bar. I step forward, and slide cross-wise, surrendering to shattered light, burning stars and the aching space between. Tentacles as insubstantial as breath slide beneath my skin. They want nothing, but they take what I have to give. Cold, cold, cold, they grip my spine, caress my skull, and scoop out the heart of me.

If they were beings to be reasoned with, I would ask them to take everything. It doesn’t work that way.

Firelight flickers. My scars itch, stretching tight across my back. I hold the memories up as an offering, but the tentacles find their own prize. I don’t know what they take from me; I only feel the familiar, hollow ache when it’s gone.

It’s 2071 when I enter the bar. The light is green, but the waiters still wear immaculate white jackets and ties, a terrible joke. I slide into a seat.

“A double.” I don’t specify of what, but it hardly matters.

Behind the bar, where mirrored shelves used to hold bottles of liquor, pendulous nets hold a jumble of perpetually dripping starfish, conch shells, mussels, and clams. Breathing, wavering things cling to the wall. Occasionally, the waiters pause, offering their fingers, as if feeding choice morsels to a favourite pet. Fragments of shadow stretch in tacky strands, linking the waiters’ hands to the creatures on the wall as they draw away. The air smells of brine. Things at the corner of my eye shift, skirl, unfold impossible dimensions, and retreat—deep-sea anemones shy of the light.

The bartender slides a drink in front of me. Misery haunts his gaze. This is our life now, our life then—this is the life to come. His mouth doesn’t move when he breathes. His nostrils don’t stir. If I didn’t know to look, I wouldn’t see the gills slitting his throat above his starched collar, nictating almost imperceptibly. His eyes bulge, moist, blood-shot. I place a bill on the bar and add a stack of silver-gold coins, a generous tip.

I wait a moment, then place Marco’s picture next to the coins. The bartender’s skin sweats oil and sorrow. People determined to vanish come to Harry’s Bar and, for the right price, the miserable waiters in their starched, white uniforms show them how.

“When?” I ask.

“Can’t say.” The bartender’s voice is frog-hoarse.

I know he means ‘can’t’, not ‘won’t’. Everything can be bought and sold here: sugar-sweet cubes that melt on the tongue and bring oblivion; death; pleasure; escape; even answers. The man behind the bar taught Marco how to leave, but didn’t ask questions—a good bartender to the last.

“Thanks.” I down my drink in one shot.

The liquor unfolds in my mouth, sending a spike through my lungs. My eyes water. I walk back outside.

It’s dark. The stars are right. But the stars have always been right.

Where would I go if I were Marco? A useless question. He knows what he’s running from—a suffocating life of expectation, his parents’ blind oblivion a shadow pressed between his shoulder blades. Some people can feel the future coming; others refuse to believe in anything but the infinite Now. The future reached out blind tentacles, snaring my heart. Marco chose R’lyeh’s ways; R’lyeh’s ways chose me.

Firelight flickers. A horse whinnies—a soft, breathy sound. The scent of wet leather and dry hay overwhelms me. Lips trace mine, arching my throat, shivering across my belly. I gather sweat on the tip of my tongue, briny-sweet like the sea. The horse’s whicker turns to a scream. My scars tingle, hot and cold at the same time. Fragments tumble, edges sharp like splinters of bone lodged beneath my skin. Some things can’t be outrun, taken, or let go.

Suddenly, I don’t give a fuck about Marco. And I have all the time in the world.

I walk along the water’s edge, where there used to be a restaurant. Once—after R’lyeh, but before now—the entire city burned. The canals turned to oil and fire swept from rooftop to rooftop, sparing nothing.

Centuries of human existence, wiped out in the blink of an eye. I was there. I will be there again.

Venice, as always, survived. It rose from the ashes, born anew in brick and stone and marble, in deference to the old ways. It was also resurrected in glass and steel, in deference to ways old-yet-new. Finally, it shambled back from the dead, with walls that bled and seethed, flickered and writhed, in deference to the way things are now and always will be. Venice—an impossible city, impossible to kill.

I turn inward, crossing a bridge made of glass. A canal creeps, sluggish, beneath it. Lights glimmer on the water’s surface; things sleep in its depths. Venice floats, it sinks, it is drowning, it is drowned. And it survives. So do I.

I’ve been to the underwater city where Venice used to be. I’ve kick-pulled through cathedrals lit by the unearthly, phosphorescent glow of things best left unseen. I’ve worshiped at unholy altars, caressed by tendrils of night, studded by unnatural stars. I’ve witnessed the twisted images of saints spider-walking up church walls, their mouths open in silent screams. I’ve kissed the greened marble lips of the Mary who wept tears that weren’t blood, as she watched the fish nibble her children’s bones. I’ve seen Venice in all its guises, peeked behind all its masks, witnessed all its states of decay. Venice survives, no matter how ugly its scars.

My feet guide me through twisting ways to a little restaurant off Calle Mandola. It’s almost unchanged since the old days, except for the light, and the sick-green smell, and the taste of salt in the air. They still serve a killer martini—an olive and a twist. Inside, the sound hits me like a wall. My heart skitters, painful.

Guilt persists, even when I’ve given up love.

The place is nearly empty, but Josie sings as if the restaurant is full. Her voice is heartbreak: smoke and burnt amber and chocolate so dark it draws blood. It suits the restaurant’s mood, and mine. Waiters move listlessly between tables, bringing baskets of bread, plates of limp vegetables in heavy, oily sauce, and pasta—everything but meat, which ran out long ago, and fish, which is forbidden.

I tried to bring Josie fresh meat once—unspoiled, untainted. She wouldn’t touch it. The thought of anything that had been in-between made her shudder and gag.

I remember—as much as I want to forget—how I held Josie’s hands. Her moss-green eyes glowed with fear. I asked her to trust me. We stepped in-between.

Just as soon, we were jerked back, as if R’lyeh’s ways had spit us out. Josie pulled away from me, the brief touch of otherness enough to shatter her already fragile mind. I followed her back. I could have kept running, but I didn’t even think twice.

We were staying in a hotel next to the theatre on Calle Fenice, in a room with walls the colour of blood, patterned in threads of pale gold and delicate lines of mold. The shower had stopped working long ago, but the toilet still flushed and, against all reason, the sheets were clean. When I stepped out of the between, Josie lay curled on the floor, clinging to the Turkish carpet rucked beneath her folded body as if it were the only thing holding her to this world.

“It burns. Ara, it burns.”

I crouched beside her and touched her, feeling the sharp ridges of her spine through clothing and skin.

“Make it stop.” She rocked and whimpered.

I lifted her sweater, peeling it as though from a wound. Tattoos, inked long before R’lyeh rose, writhed across Josie’s flesh. Black ink against skin the colour of fired clay, lashing, twisting, moving in ways nothing ever should.

“Make it stop. It hurts. Make it stop.” Josie turned her face, just enough to show tears and stark terror.

“I’m sorry,” I told her. “I don’t know how.”

There were so many places I wanted to show her. I wanted to take her deep—somewhere off the coast of Mexico, to another drowned world full of turquoise water and old bones. I wanted to hold her hand, even through thick rubber gloves, and gesture to her through the enforced silence of breathing tubes and masks, hoping she’d understand.

She shuddered at the mere mention and I went alone. I let the stillness envelop me; I drifted. Vast things floated beside me; an eye the size of Luxemburg opened below me in the deep. I should have been terrified, but I felt only peace as it looked into me and through me.

I used to think there were some sins too terrible even for R’lyeh, some offerings the spaces between would always refuse. But in that moment, I understood: Sin is a human concept. I did what I did to remain human. I buried sin deep at my core. I could walk the ways between a hundred, thousand times, and it would never change the deepest, most fundamental part of me.

In the end, I never took Josie anywhere. For a while, I tried to hold her when nightmares shivered beneath her skin, when her tattoos writhed in their own dreams. My touch made it worse.

The day I left, she sat on the hotel bed, head bowed. A red-glass heart from Murano lay cupped in her palm, brilliant as blood. Bubbles ran through its core. I touched it with one finger; the glass was warm from her skin.

“I don’t know why I have this,” she said.

Her eyes held hurt, raw as a wound. Whatever I’d taken from her, trying to guide her through the between, was something I could never replace. Some wounds never heal. I left. I didn’t ask her to forgive me.

Here and now, a ruby spotlight pins Josie—an American girl, singing Southern standards and bluesy jazz in a drowned and drowning city half-way across the world. Her song cuts knife-deep, touches bone. I can’t help remembering the last time we lay, cooling in each others’ sweat, windows open, listening to the crowds leaving the Teatro. The breeze raised goosebumps on her skin, skin the colour of Tuscan hills, of earth, of a time before the Risen Ones.

That was the last time salt tasted good.

Josie’s voice is sandstone, rubbed against my skin. It is coffee, scalding hot and poured into my lap. In the ruby spotlight and the green seeping from the edges of the world, she’s beautiful.

I sip my martini, slid without asking across the bar by the loyal bartender, Lorence. His skin is damp, his eyes as pained as the poor boy who served me in Harry’s Bar. No matter that it hurts him, he still labours to breathe with human lungs, shunning his gills.

Josie leaves the stage. Her dress swirls against legs encased in nylon, blooming roses. The skirt catches light in its folds, red on red, pooling blood. She wears a flower in her braided hair. Once upon a time, I may have given her a flower the same shade—a real one, not a silk monstrosity with hot-glue dew-drops clinging to its petals.

Her eyes meet mine, their moss-green accentuated by the underwater light. A smile touches her lips but not her gaze.

“Ara.” Josie brushes her lips against my cheek, making sure to catch the corner of my mouth.

She smells of powdered lily-of-the-valley, dusted heavy to hide the reek of fear. Someone very wealthy must have bought it for her. Scents like that are hard to come by.

Guilt spreads patterns of frost across the surface of my heart, but it doesn’t touch the core. Pain flickers in Josie’s eyes. I’ve forgotten; she hasn’t.

I tip my head towards Lorence; it’s the least I can do. Josie orders something as blood-red as her dress, but with far more kick.

“What are you doing here?” Josie asks.

Her fingernails are ragged, as if she’s been raking them across the walls in her sleep. A tendril of ink slips from beneath the strap of her dress, a questing tongue tasting the air. She shivers. The ink-shadow stains her eyes for a moment, too, turning them the colour of lightning-struck wood.

“I was lonely,” I say. It may be the most honest thing I’ve ever said; I don’t know.

“Oh?” Her eyes are green again, sparking mockery.

She lifts the long, black braid lying over my shoulder, running it through trembling hands.

“I wish I could do something for you.” The words fall, a numb rush over my lips.

Josie is the most breathtaking woman I’ve ever known. Why can’t I feel anything for her? I know what she meant to me, what she means to me, but I don’t feel it. Not anymore. Her skin flickers, the ink shivering across its surface and underneath. I mimic the motion unconsciously, my body responding to her hands on my hair.

“There’s nothing you can do.” She drops my braid, a soft slap against my leather.

Josie hes her drink and orders another, her mouth set in a hard line that reminds me of Madam Senator and the case I should be on. What am I doing here?

“There’s nothing I can do for you, either.” Josie steps back, eyes as hard as the line of her mouth.

She’s right. There’s nothing I can do except buy her drinks. And isn’t there a selfish hope that her inhibitions will drop and we’ll end up back in that decaying hotel room, listening to the remnants of humanity leave the Teatro while we fuck?

Once, in the space between midnight and dawn, in the half-dark—an unnatural glow belonging to caves and never aboveground—I tasted the nightmare-sweat slicking Josie’s skin. I traced the writhing lines of her tattoos with my tongue. She didn’t wake. That sweat wasn’t sweat—it tasted like the oil born of the rotting bones of prehistoric beasts, oozing beneath the skin of the world.

Josie’s next words send my pulse into the roof of my mouth. “Do you remember what you told me about your stepbrother and the night you got your scars?”

“No.” The word comes out hoarse, terrible. Josie’s smile is worse. I can’t remember if it’s a lie.

What did I tell her? What if I took her between, trying to make her forget?

Josie leans forward, her lips against my ear, her breath raising tiny hairs on my skin. Her voice is smoke, rough whiskey, shattered amber. “He called you his angel. They’re shaped like wings, your scars.”

When she draws back, I feel the absence of her breath.

“I don’t think you’re even human, anymore.” Her hips sway as she walks back to the stage.

God help me, I’m wet and trembling. I want to throw her over the bar and bury my head between her legs, nipping the soft flesh of her thighs till she bleeds. Maybe she’s right about me. Maybe I’m not human. Maybe I’m too much so.

Josie grips the microphone like she wants to throttle it. Her voice is steel wool, scouring flesh; her eyes are fixed on me.

The blood-and-seawater light fills my mouth with salt. The world rolls. Firelight flickers, throwing shadows against the thinness of my eyelids.

“The world is going to end.” A voice speaks against my ear.

“It’s already ending.” I smell wet leather, tangle my fingers through wheat-gold hair, and pull wine-stained lips against mine. Rain drums. Hay prickles bare skin. “So, fuck me,”

I bite down hard, yank fabric roughly over hips; a body pushes into mine. A cry of pleasure and pain, and after, the world burns.

Josie’s voice wails. Her smile is blade-edged, her tattoos unmistakable, now. They slither across her shoulders, beneath the neckline of her dress, chasing the ghost of my fingertips across her skin. Josie tips her head back, throat working. The song becomes a scream, her body shuddering, eyes rolling white between agony and ecstasy.

The bar squirms in murky half-light. Tentacles unfold. They undulate across the walls, wrap my arms, lift my hair. I drift in the green deep and they caress my bones.

I stagger for the door, retch on fire-scored pavement. Chill air slaps my face; I shift without meaning to. The threads binding past to present catch me, hurl me forward in time. My bones nearly shatter, filled with desire to part company with my flesh. I want to scatter wide enough that I don’t have to remember anything ever again.

In another reality, following another skein of time, I follow Josie back to her tiny, hot apartment, overlooking S. Francesco della Vigna. We listen to distant water lap. We fuck. Her tattoos writhe; she whimpers with pleasure and fear. I taste her while she screams. She tells my future in her sleep. I say goodbye. And she forgives me this time.

I brace myself against a wall, trembling. Damp, heavy breezes push air through the narrow, winding streets. My skin cold-sweats with borrowed dew. Where am I? When?

I walk, boots hushing over time-worn stone. I sympathize with Marco. I wonder why I’m hunting him. The Senator’s envelope presses against my chest. I want to get this case over with and pretend there’s a place I can go to that will feel like home.

Blonde hair, the smell of leather in the rain. I survived; he didn’t. Fire scored my back with a thousand whips, tracing the shape of wings.

I walk along the waterfront, fighting memories that insist on surfacing, no matter how many times I try to give them away. I’ve begged the dark spaces teeming with star-ripe tentacles to take them away, but they never do. There are no refunds on the price of survival, once it’s paid.

I pass a nightclub where a church used to stand. Tentacles—half-seen—lash the night. Shadows obscure the stars and they are just right. The club-beat is a heart-sound, a pulse-thump. The building sways. It shivers. Pigeons weep and mourn in cages embedded in walls of slick, trembling flesh. Overhead, gulls still scream their laughter, but then they would, wouldn’t they?

I know where I’m going now. Farther down the wharf, where, once upon a time, goods used to be delivered in rusting, corrugated containers, is the man I need to see.

Vincenzo sits at the end of a pier jutting out into the water. The piles are ghosts against the lapping dark. Each weed-slicked piece of wood is topped with a creature with too many arms, suckers gripping rotten wood. They sing.

The eerie-sweet sound licks my spine, too much like the timbre of Josie’s voice. But instead of smoky-hot, the tentacles sing cold. How can things without mouths sing?

Their voices—if they can be called that—are vast, reaching distances but also reminiscent of the deeps, of cavern-glow and waving fronds. Their tears—should they ever cry—would taste of copper, iron, sulfur, and flame.

Vincenzo cocks his head. He hears me coming, but he doesn’t pause. His arm moves, his brush stroke jerky, involuntary.

“Ara.” He doesn’t turn.

The scant, pulsing light falling from behind me illuminates the rotting pier. The dark water shimmers, bioluminescence touching the waves but never what lies beneath. It shows Vincenzo’s face and the gaping spaces where his eyes are not.

I was the one who found him. The bathroom tiles—staggered white and black—slick with blood. Vincenzo’s head rested against the edge of a claw-footed tub. He wept.

Rather—his body shook with sobs and his eyes lay next to the drain in the otherwise-spotless tub, darker than the most cerulean sea and incapable of tears. Blood had spattered where they’d fallen, but otherwise, the porcelain remained white, white, white. His palms were stained rust-dark; so were his clothes. I nearly slipped in the blood covering the floor, but in the vast, arctic space of the tub, there were only a few drops, trailing from the drain back to the eyes.

“I can still see.” Vincenzo’s sobs turned to laughter while I held him. I couldn’t make his dreams stop, either, but at least I resisted the urge to taste his bloody tears.

“Hello, Vincenzo.” I can’t tell if he flinches or not when I lay my hand on his shoulder.

“You smell like her,” he says. Did I tell him about Josie? My stomach turns.

“I need information.” My soles should be hard after years of running; my soul should be hard after years of leaving myself behind. Some things R’lyeh will never cure. Not in any place—not in any time.

It’s what I was counting on.

“Watch the painting.” Vincenzo’s voice holds the same quavering tone as Josie’s song.

Pain flickers through the space where his eyes should be, stars shifting through black, bloody caverns. I see blue, crimson-tinged spheres against porcelain-white; I feel him shaking in my arms. It’s too late for apologies.

Vincenzo sets aside a canvas of writhing blues and greens. The paint is still wet, fresh and thick. I want to run my hands through it and feel it between my fingers like river mud. I want to drift in it and be seen by a vast, opening eye. I want to be told I did the right thing.

Vincenzo places a fresh canvas on the easel. His arm jerks, spastic. I watch over his shoulder as he paints. Flames. Venice burns.

“Thank you.” I put my lips close his ear. Vincenzo’s body hitches; he might be bleeding the paint—crimson, saffron, umber. He doesn’t stop. I leave him to his colours and his pain.

I shift. Sideways, cross-wise, moving through a cold space as crushing as the deepest parts of the sea. My lungs compress. I could not scream if I wanted to. Tendrils wrap me, loving me. They lap my heart, sucker-hold it; they caress every part of my spine. They take a bitter-sweet song sung in a smoky voice like burnt almonds. I shiver as it fades; salt lingers on my tongue. It leaks from my eyes and I don’t bother to brush it away.

Venice burns.

Heat batters my cheeks, drying stinging eyes. I throw an arm up to shield my face. Inhuman tongues hiss unknown words, shiver laughter, babbling inside the flames. The stars spin. The canal heaves. Angles and rounded nubs of stone-not-stone—worn by untold eons—rise, dripping. The city would shudder in revulsion if it could; instead, it screams as it burns.

Against all reason, I turn toward the city’s fire-wrapped heart. Sweat pools beneath my leather. My scars itch, pulling tight between jutting blades of bone.

Marco is here. I was wrong. He wasn’t seeking the end of the world, just the end of his world.

I find him in the little restaurant off Calle Mandola—Josie’s restaurant. The soles of my boots have almost melted. Heat-cracked, multi-coloured glass from the shop across the street crunches under my feet.

The restaurant’s walls are black, curling with smoke-wrought shadows. They don’t shift and unfold yet, but they will. Everyone else has either fled or burnt to death. Only Marco remains, belly-up to the bar. His hair, greasy as it is, should burn. Instead, it clings to his collar, loving. I think of water-wet tendrils cupping pale skin.

He turns a pock-marked face towards me, unsurprised. Flame makes his already-dark skin ruddy. His eyes shine, and not only with the glow of alcohol. He mimes a toast, lifting his glass, and throws the liquor back, grimacing.

“I knew my mother would send someone.”

I don’t bother to answer. How long until the flames reach us? I pour myself a drink, and refill Marco’s glass. Nothing unfolds against my tongue as I drink. My eyes don’t water. It’s only alcohol.

“She wants you to come home.” I pour again.

Marco slugs the drink in his glass. His eyes shine empty, staring into a middle distance only he can see. When he ran, how far did he go? Has he seen the end of all things? Did he watch his mother die screaming? His eyes are unsettling. Not burnt-wood, something else.

“What are you running from?” he asks.

My stomach lurches. I try to pour another shot, but most of it spills on the bar. It will evaporate soon; the bar will go up in flames. All this alcohol—we’re a Molotov cocktail, waiting to happen. “What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t have chased me this far if you weren’t running from something.” Marco’s eyes fix me. I know the colour now—river-mud brown.

I shudder. The sensation goes all through me. I don’t taste what’s in my glass; I taste cheap wine stolen from a funeral table the day we buried our parents—my father, his mother.

Jason. My stepbrother.

I saved his life once, pulled him out of the river after he slipped on a rock. He was nine; I was ten. Lying on his back, rocks darkening with the water running from his skin, squinting up into the sun, he called me his guardian angel.

I breathe deep, and draw in a lungful of wet leather and hay. Firelight flickers from the old trashcan we dragged into the barn. Rain drums the roof. Our feet hang over the edge of the loft, heels kicking dust-pale wood. A horse whickers softly.

“I hate them,” my stepbrother says.

“Who?” I drink straight from the bottle, bitter tannins clinging to my skin, staining cracked lips red.

“All those people at Mom and Dad’s funeral. They’re all a bunch of fucking phonies.”

He takes the bottle from me. I nod. A storm hangs over us that has nothing to do with the rain. A weight presses between my shoulder blades; my skin itches. I know Jason feels it, too. There is something waiting to rise.

Then, there, I am pulled out of myself. I am in Venice, looking at Marco across the bar, watching the world burn. I am floating above the vastness of a star-filled eye. Time means nothing.

I know what I will do to survive.

My stepbrother hes the rest of the wine, tosses the bottle against the far wall where it shatters, spraying glass. A few droplets fall into the fire, making it snap and sizzle. I retrieve another bottle, pen-knife out the cork. We stole a whole armful as we left the funeral.

My stepbrother says, “They’re lucky they aren’t alive to see what happens next.”

I don’t have to ask what he means. He feels what’s coming, but has he seen the end of the world? Does he know what I’ll do to make sure I will?

“What’s the worst sin you can think of?” I squint into the dark on the far side of the barn. “Not that Bible shit. Something real.”

Shadows shift, fold and unfold. Jason looks down, heels drumming the wood, dust spinning up every time they hit.

“Hurting someone you love and meaning it.”

I nod. The stars shift. They’ve always been right. They prick the sky, prick my skin, and draw blood. I know what I have to do to survive. Tendrils reach for me, the colour of starlight and as cold as the moon. I have to wrap myself in a sin I can never forgive, the worst thing I can think of, a pain I can never forget or give away. It’s the only way to stay human.

I reach for Jason’s hand, squeeze fingers as chill as ice.

“The world is ending.” Jason’s breath is rapid, wine hot.

I nod, lean close. Our faces almost touch. He understands what’s coming and he wants me to save myself because I once saved him. I could refuse his gift, but I don’t. My heart beats, cracks, and salty water rushes in.

“It’s already ended,” Jason says.

“So, fuck me.” I pull him close, bite down hard on a kiss. I taste cheap wine and blood.

It would be mercy to say I slid into oblivion, but I felt every minute. I tasted every drop of sweat. I cherished every tear, cradled it on my tongue. After, Jason slept. I drank half the remaining bottle of wine, and threw the rest into the trashcan—a spray of glass, a gout of flame, the horse’s soft whinny turning into a scream of fear.

The fire traced wings on my back.

And I flew.

Dizzy, I grip the edge of the bar. “Your mother paid me a lot of money.” I force the words out through clenched teeth.

Marco’s image doubles, sways. I see other eyes, reflecting flame—eyes so pale they would pick up the colour of whatever was around them, flaming gold like the setting sun, or silver like the rising moon. River-coloured eyes; rain-coloured eyes. Jason’s eyes, weeping love.

I swam in marble corridors, in drowned-green canals. I tried to let tentacles steal the best of me, the rest of me. It wasn’t enough. My sin kept me safe; it kept me whole.

“Your mother…,” I try again.

“It doesn’t matter.” Marco shakes his head.

The ghosted memory of a smoky voice, tasting of bitter chocolate, threads the air and fades away. Scratchy hay presses a pattern of almost-words into my skin. I hold a blind man as he sobs. Shadow tendrils touch the deepest part of me, stripping my bones clean, taking everything except what matters.

I could cash in. I could make the biggest paycheck of my life. I could keep running and test the theory that the future is infinite. Or I could stay this time. I could burn.

Marco’s gaze meets mine. Flames reflect between us. Inside the flames, impossible angles rise dripping from the canals. An eerie, piping song needles me with remembrance. Stars draw blood from my skin. Marco lays his hands, palms up, on the bar—an invitation.

Ragged-nailed hands grip a microphone, cup a glass heart. Palms slicked with blood drop eyeballs near a drain.

There are many possible futures; I see them all in Marco’s eyes. Two charred corpses decorate the remains of Josie’s restaurant, one in front of the bar and one behind. One charred corpse sits slumped against the bar. An empty, charred husk of a bar dies alone, with no one to witness its end.

It will come down to a battle of wills, my will to survive against Marco’s will to die. I know what I gave up to survive; what did he give up to run? Which matters more?

My scars itch and stretch tight across my back, shaping wings. Wings for flight, or wings for salvation? Maybe this time they’ll stay stitched beneath my skin, folded tight around my body like loving arms.

My wings have always been there; the stars have always been right. R’leyh rose everywhere, everywhen. I have always been what I am now. I have always survived.

For the moment, I take Marco’s hands. And together, we watch Venice burn.

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