This story was first published by a little erotic indie in an anthology called 'Lust in the Dust'. It is an ill-fated story though, the first publisher pulled it because of real wildfires in California, and the second publisher want under in 2020, but this story has always been one of my favourites.
The story was reviewed back in 2019, when someone called it "a hypnagogic examination of despair". I want short stories to be tight images of someone's life that, taken in isolation, show something sharp and true about what it means to be a person, what it means to be human. I think maybe 1% of the stories I write actually do this, and this story, a queer romance, about two women trapped in a luxury home in California during an apocalyptic wild fire, is one of them.
After a while, it was almost nothing. Waking to the steady red glow of fire everywhere in the beautiful modern house of pale concrete, marble, and smooth, clear glass was almost disappointing. Ruby was living in a work of art, and some days, all she wanted was for it to burn to the ground and put an end to all their waiting. Dawn rose from the horizon, billowing black smoke and Blood sun dripping in an angry red sky. So much was gone. Everything really. Swallowed by smoke and flame. She still didn’t understand why this house didn’t burn. But after days of the blood-red dawn, she could not allow hope to flourish. Hope was ash. Everything was.
“Miami?” She asked, rolling over in crisp white bed linen, her eyes on the massive sky out the window. Smoke and flame and bleeding sun. “What do you think this was, before?”
“Like property value?”
“No. Who built it, who lived here. It’s so beautiful. I think it must be in books about modern architecture and articles about the homes of the future. I imagine someone famous lived here.”
“Yeah, well, now it’s kindling.” Miami slid an arm over her hip and kissed the back of her neck.
“Maybe.” Ruby rolled out of bed and walked to the wall of glass, a floor-to-ceiling window that ran half the length of the bedroom. The sky was full of vivid blood and dawn light. Pressing her hand against the glass. It was cool, a thing she always found surprising.
“Maybe there are enough of us left, and we will survive, and a thousand years from now they will find the pool deck or that massive marble tub in the master bath and they will put it in a museum somewhere and people will go and see it and they will try to imagine us, the last to take a bath here. The last people to swim in the pool.”
“Drive that awful pink Cadillac.”
“Whatever. It’s only a house.” But Miami was whispering as though not to disturb…what? There was only emptiness. She rolled onto her back, stretched. “It was probably priceless. It’s like living in a fucking scapular. A Henry Moore or something.”
Leaving Miami in bed, Ruby opened the sliding door to the terrace and stepped out onto the wide slate step down to the pool deck, the water still somehow the cool mint blue of toothpaste. Miami moved after her, stepping outside and closing the door, trying to keep the smoke out of the house.
“It’s strange, but it feels like home.”
The house seemed to hold and keep them, locking them and itself in an eerie stasis. Lettuce and, berries and tomatoes grew in the hydroponic fridge, the sails along the roof collected light and converted it to energy, somewhere an AI was running the lights, filtering and recycling water, controlling an ideal internal temperature.
“Is that so strange?” Ruby asked. “We have been here a month or more.”
“I didn’t think we would last this long.”
“Neither did I.”
They stood side by side, looking over the pool at the black hills of ash and the red hills beyond. Flames. They were long past having a hard time admitting it was beautiful. They’d talked about it in those first few days, but the beauty was almost monotonous now. Oppressive and constant, unbroken. It was a long time before Miami spoke again.
“I want to know your intentions.”
“I have none.”
The polished slate reflected the red sky, everything tinted with a soft pink light. They let the silence settle in with smoke in the distance. The pool was still as glass. Miami squinted at her. Miami lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply, waved the curls of smoke away.
“Everyone has intentions, Ruby. I deserve to know.”
“You are mistaken. I have no intentions. I told you, I’m out. I’m staying here.”
“There is always going to be something. We talked about this. There is always going to be a reason to stop, to stay. But we will die. If we stay here, we are going to die.”
“I know. You know, sometimes I don’t even miss it, deleting email and going to work. I wonder if I would choose this if I were given a choice.”
“No one liked checking their email, Ruby. But that doesn’t really matter anymore.”
Without a word, Miami stood and walked back into the house, the glass door sliding open for her, sliding closed, reflecting the hot red light as a soft dawn pink. Her cigarette was still smouldering on the slate. Ruby smudged it out, sat alone. When Miami returned, she was carrying two cups of tea. The china was white, almost transparent, delicate and perfect. Sometimes it seemed impossible to Ruby; with the mass of everything they lost, they lost everything, everyone, except each other. How could such a thing be true when perfect white China exited. How could the cup handle stand to be so delicate and whole in a world so broken? Earl grey swirled in the cups smelling of roses and dead, dry leaves. A shear of steam moved across the surface. They let the silence grow between them for a little while. Ruby could feel a strange defensive hurt rolling off Miami, but when she spoke, her voice was calm.
“We are not held down by arrangements, contracts, clauses, deals or counter deals. Everything is gone. We can do whatever you want.”
“We still have some momentum, but the pressure out there is building, and if we wait any longer…”
Miami sighed and started over. “I don’t want to talk about state of mind; I don’t want to talk about everything this has taken away, or that we lost. We have a window, we can make a break for it. But only for a little while. I just — I need to know your intentions.”
Ruby sipped her tea, tasting the oily sweetness of honey under its damp wood flavour. She wondered if there were any bees left.
“One of our first nights here.” When she spoke, she licked her lips and could taste honey and smoke. “When we were still terrified of the flames, remember, and we were sleeping in shifts. I was looking out the window watching everything burn and burn. And I saw a deer. It was right out here, it came leaping out of the brush by the deep end of the pool. It didn’t stop, it just leapt back into the hills. I watched it as long as I could.”
“I don’t have any intentions, Miami, I promise. Really, I don’t. I’m not talking about the things we lost, I’m not being dramatic or suicidal. I’m talking about this. Staying here, in this place.” She sipped her tea again. “What we have, right now, I want to keep it. I want to stay, I want to have something beautiful for a little while.”
“It’s like there is no concrete reality.” Miami sighed and held the bone china cup up to the red light so it shone almost transparent, like skin full of blood. I don’t know what to do. It’s too unreal. The circumstances are inhuman.”
“None of it was ever that real anyway.”
“Remember Rosewater ice cream?”
“Yeah. That night you dropped the cherry of your cigarette, and it burned your foot.”
“I let it burn me.” Ruby said, serious, and looked at her. Miami reached down and touched the small scar just over her little toe. “I wanted to remember that night.”
Miami pulled off her sunglasses. The eyes behind them were dark and heavy, older than Ruby remembered. She smiled, but for a moment, she walked back inside. While he was gone, Ruby walked along the length of the pool. The sun was bright, vivid red and hot and still low behind the wall of smoke. She slipped a foot in the pool water, cold water on the sole of her foot. She’d expected it to be warm, hot as bath water. She imagined it boiling and pulled her foot out. Fear found her then, like it did five or six or a hundred times a day, a hard bite. Flexing her hand around the teacup and her jaw around her fear, Ruby hurled the cup down the pool deck. It slammed into the grey slate with a hard pop, shattered, porcelain shrapnel flying in all directions. A shard skipped over the pool’s surface, ripples in its wake. It sank. One less perfect thing. Ruby watched the surface of the pool until it was smooth as glass. Miami returned carrying a bottle of sparkling wine. She didn’t mention the cup; its broken body scattered down the deck. Ruby drank the offered wine slowly, watching the red clouds roll. The bubbles burst on her tongue and made her eyes water.
“What’s going to happen to us?” Mami asked softly, her rough voice a whisper.
“You mean besides dying? Whatever happens when something ends.” Ruby’s voice was soft, wet.
“I lived in a state of fear, Ruby. For months before. Years maybe. I don’t know when it started, but when everything fell apart, it just lifted. Like a fog. You’re right. I don’t think I would go back.” Miami’s words have all the tone and weight of a confession. Ruby felt her sadness and her certainty; it filled the space between them like smoke, stung her eyes. Miami leaned forward and tied their hands together. Ruby explored her face through her black lenses.
“Fear or no fear,” Ruby said. “I’m with you until the end.”
Miami laughed, summer wind catching in her hair, blowing it around, red ribbons across her eyes. As easy as it appeared, the smile fell from her face.
“None of it was real?”
“Well, maybe it was real enough,” Ruby said.
“This is getting maudlin, but it’s the end, isn’t it. So perhaps it’s supposed to be.”
“I don’t want this to be the end, really. It’s just that the end is inevitable, no matter what.”
“And you’d rather see it here?”
“Okay,” Miami said, voice firm and final. She nodded, squared her shoulders. “We stay here.”
Ruby smiled, and Miami interrupted her with a kiss. It felt final because there was nothing left to say. Of all the things they’d talked about, they never touched on this. How close they lived to death. This was both, Ruby assumed, evident and remarkable. Miami’s fingers wound and knotted through hers. After a while, she let Ruby go and walked back into the house, bare feet, bare legs. Miami was beautiful, wild, a landscape Ruby wanted to watch forever. For as long as she could.
Ruby went swimming. The water was not as fresh had been when they first arrived, but the filters still worked. It only had a slight green tint, but it still smelled clean, chlorine and salt. She swam laps until her muscles sang and the sun was smaller in the sky behind the smoke. Higher. A red blister. Inside she filled a glass with water that tasted a little like metal, the deep of the earth, so cold it made her teeth hurt. She drank quickly and wondered for the hundredth time how it was possible the house still had clean water, power, and tea and sparkling wine. There was a clink of ice and glass as Miami made herself a drink. Vodka, the bottle has snowflakes cut into it like frost.
“Does it makes you mad that I’m going to get drunk right now? In the middle of the day,” her mouth was wet, a mischievous grin. Ruby laughed and shook her head, filled her water glass again.
“No. I don’t think that matters any more, really. Do you?”
“Obviously not.” Miami’s voice was as dark as ash around them. Her eyes were black, the colour of burnt trees. The standing dead, they’d called them as they drove south before the fire trapped them, and they had nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It sounded like freedom, even though it meant death. When Miami kissed her, the vodka made her spit taste like smoke and ash. She moved away, down the hall with the click of ice and the sound of her hand tracing lovingly against the wall. Ruby followed, sipping water. Their glasses sweat, forgotten on a bedside table as they fell back into bed; their skin and lips and touch were hot as flame.
“You’re safe now,” Ruby said, moving over her. And everything was happening; everything seemed happening and possible all at once. Everything was vanishing around them, flowers and trees, birds burnt up in a lick of flame, massive swaths of land and sky were poisoned, everything rusted, so hot and broken, red light all the time, at morning and the hard, sharp edges of the evening, the sound of world war three all ways at the door, dust. Like stars, everything they could call theirs burst out of existence, and still, their hearts hummed and hammered like tiny engines, and Ruby kissed her. Slid her arms around her waist and pressed her lips to Miami’s. Miami kissed her back long and full of hesitation, half-taken breaths. They smiled at the end, into each other’s mouths.
“No matter how massive this is, it is inevitable, necessary, that we try to understand it through our bodies,” Miami said, and Ruby laughed, still kissing her, kissing her again. Miami shivered as Ruby’s fingers touched the nape of her neck. All the space between them collapsed in want, a hard weight deep in the centre of them. Searching fingers gently ran the length of Ruby’s throat and shoulders, the dip of her spine. Miami’s hands stopped just above Ruby’s hips, then floated back up under the hem of her t-shirt. Ruby leaned in closer, feeling Miami’s length against her, breathing her in. She gasped softly,
Miami’s hands gathering around her breasts, her skin coming alive from the touch, palms grazing over her nipples so long tendrils of pleasure slid through her. Exerting a little more pressure, Miami ran her hands over Ruby’s stomach, hard fingers, and nails, and another moan escaped them, deepening their kiss. Soon Miami’s hand was cupping Ruby’s sex, and Ruby knew that she could feel the heat and want of her through her jeans.
The heavy sheet rustled, the fold and laughter of linen as Ruby pulled off their clothes, mouths and hands and hips always touching, growing frantic. Almost at once, Ruby’s skin was slick with fresh sweat, a deep brutal heat burning under her skin. She wanted touch, Miami’s hand tangled in her hair and held her still, kissing her more deeply. Miami let her go, only to slide her hands up her back. Ruby pulled a cotton over the landscape of Miami’s honey and burnt sugar skin. They locked eyes, and Miami smiled at her, mouth red and wet, a fruit begging to be eaten. They touched again, kissing with growing heat, letting clothes fall around them, sheets dripping off the bed as they tied themselves together. They smelled like chlorine and smoke and the cool, sharp no-scent of the house. Miami’s skin was kissed by the sun’s gradient, darkest at the tops of her shoulders, lightest on the bottom-heavy swell of the underside of her breasts. Ruby touched every part of her, legs and knees, the hill and valley of her hips, the small of her back.
“Is this right? To give up trying to survive just to stay in this place and fuck you every day?”
Ruby felt herself go weak with want when she heard desperation in her voice, answering her with a kiss. There was so much she wanted to say, but the fire took her words, burned them up. But they didn’t need them. They spoke through kiss and touch, fingers pulling hard across the curling of a hip and thigh.
“Please…” The word escaped Ruby, only a little, only a moment. “Don’t stop.”
So Miami didn’t.
A smile split her mouth, and her hands began to travel Ruby’s bare skin again. They kissed hard, breathing in whispers. Ruby trembled under the touch of Miami’s lips, the trance of fingers over her. Ruby smiled, seeing the delight in Miami’s face, her eyes dark with joy. Miami’s fingers teased her, fingertips brushing against the outer lips of Ruby’s sex, hardly touching her, and already Ruby could feel how wet she was. Knew Miami could feel it too. In the sky, the clouds moved over them, closing around them, and darkness came as smoke, almost obliterating the flicker and flare of flame. The wind picked up, pillars of smoke shedding ash like trees sighed out leaves. Ash pressed against the window, taking on a lustrous leather shine. All of this, Ruby saw through half-closed eyes, her body falling open around Miami’s fingers, her long gentle stroking. Drawing in in in … her mouth and sex half open, red like little flames in the new darkness. Ruby closed her eyes, lost herself to the feeling.
There were so many invisible things in the world, so many beautiful and horrible things that no one ever saw and might never see again. Miami’s fingers slid inside her, her hands humming with want, lips humming with it as Miami pressed her mouth and her hands on her, hot and instant and moved forward. Ruby’s hair was spread out all over the pillow, and as Miami fucked her fingers into her, she could see it wave, dark and tangled. Miami watched her in a trance. In a moment, they would laugh, they would break open and smile, they would abandon everything. Again. Always. Over and over. Miami bit her shoulders like apples, curled her fingers inside Ruby like she was telling her a secret. She caressed something inside her, and Ruby laughed as she moaned softly, suggestively. With her free hand, Miami pulled her closer, cupping her ass and forcing their hips together. Miami and Ruby rode the rhythm of her laughter as she came, moaning, letting a quiet, drawn-out pleasure grow more and more present. Miami could feel Ruby come, watching the depths and life of her surface bloom and grow under her touch. Alive. It was good to see something alive.
To see something live.
For a long time after, they lay entangled in pleasure, each other, feeling each other’s touch through their entire being, like a shared body, their boundaries being redrawn. The afternoon was dark and full of smoke; the wind shifted, and for a little while, Ruby’s eyes were burning, watering. They lay still for a long time, and she watched Miami as she slept in the dim sickening red light. It was easy to love her, to be still and watch. Listen. Wait. The end of the world simplified so many things. Fate, it turned out, was rather narrow. Her joints were stiff. Tired from swimming and fucking and stillness, the weight of smoke, the low burn of dread she knew was always running through her, strangled sometimes by joy but still present. Heavy. A dead weight. Carefully she started to roll out of bed, and half asleep, Miami reached out, hand closing around her wrist.
“I’m just going for a walk. You sleep. I’ll come back, I promise.”
Miami kissed her palm, her knuckles, the ivory ball of her wrist, smiling as she closed her eyes again. Sleep swallowed her almost immediately. Silently Ruby dressed, filled a canteen with water, and slid her knife on her belt. Leaving by the sliding doors in the kitchen, she made her way carefully along the ridge, up to the sheer cliffs over the house. The wild was thick, branches covered in ash and small struggling leaves... In places, the ash gathered in heaps and waves, black drifts, a rough black sea. Any houses she passed were messy melted blots, burnt lack ballasts against the sky. Walking up the hill, the air grew so bright it hurt. Blood red.
When things first began to unravel, she tried not to think of anything as special; she tried not to see the shattering beauty around her. She tried not to see too clearly that life was sacrificial meat to beauty, that their ending was shockingly powerfully gorgeous. But the more she lost, the harder it was to ignore. And now this was home, on a hill of ash in a work of art, in the kind of place she would have read about in a magazine in a different life. Magazines didn’t exist any more. And neither did works of art.
But love was real, Miami was real, in clean white sheets, her hand curled near her face in sleep.
One of the things she wanted so desperately in her life one was to feel the way she felt about Miami.
They did not just cling to each other and call it love; together, they lived to make love, to carve out another day for it, however, they could. That was one thing. But this reprise from death, being held in this red and glowing fist… Ruby did not know if this was a blessing, but it was the most real thing that had ever happened to her, and it didn’t feel real at all. It wasn’t real; the knowledge swam out of the smoke at her, whole and complete. Nothing was real anymore.
At the top of a ridge, a theatrical thunderhead gathered, a massive billow formed an impossibly high wall, like a mountain range. Beauty came with all the great waves of destruction. Giant pillars of smoke reach up, clouds tumbling like rocks towards the earth. The sky was groaning a gigantic resonant sound.
It was shatteringly beautiful and terrifying. The clouds were so bright in places they made her squint even behind her sunglasses. In the distance, it began to rain. She could see it, hear it. The wind picked up, and the ash around her began to lift and stir.
Rain…Of all the things she had given up hope for.
They have travelled too far and lived too long. Ruby had a perfect crystal awareness of the smallness of her perspective. Their journey wasn’t geographic, not any more, but they were progressing, a slow and steady crawl towards their own privet apocalypse. All around her, the hills were burning, the Hollywood sign in the distance was burning away to nothing, twisted black metal shadows in the flames. Everything was on fire. But maybe not Everything. Maybe not forever. Ruby wiped the ash from her hands and cheeks. She lifted her face to the sky and waited for rain.