Written by Kathleen Anderson
Art by Nipunidraws
The end of the world was exactly how I imagined it.
Smoke and dust choked the sky above. The remains of half-collapsed buildings towered around me on all sides. What I once called my home now sat in shambles behind me, groaning as flames climbed up its crumbling walls.
I clawed my way through the debris in search of a way out, until my fingernails were cracked and bloody. My strangled screams for help were drowned out by the raging fires encircling me. Realizing the true hopelessness of my situation, I retreated back to ground level, as far away from the flames as I could manage.
I collapsed to my knees, disturbing the layer of dust that coated the uneven cobblestone street. Burying my face into the skirts of my dirtied dress, I began to cry.
I was trapped. I could do nothing but wait until the flames slowly closed in, devouring me along with the rest of the city. Despite my hastily rolled up sleeves and the sweat trickling down my forehead, the thought chilled my bones. My end was a far cry from the ballads about heroes who sacrificed themselves to save entire kingdoms, or the stories about lovers who died in each other’s arms.
Instead, my end was slow. Hopeless. Forgettable.
When I first felt the hand on my shoulder, I thought I was imagining it. Before me stood a man. He was clad in black from the tips of his shining boots, which were somehow absent of any dust, to the collar of his long overcoat, brushing against the bottom of his chin.
Where did he come from? Had he heard my cries for help? Whoever he was, he held himself with a collected composure that told me he was no longer searching for a way out of this mess, either.
Selfishly, I was comforted to think that someone else shared the same fate as me. That I was not alone. My tears slowed.
He extended one hand out to me. “Would you like to dance?”
“Excuse me?” I replied, sure I had misheard him. It was the end of the world as we knew it–we were facing the final minutes of our lives–and he wanted to… dance? He offered me a smile before repeating himself.
I looked around, squinting at the blazing fires that crept closer with each passing second. “This isn’t exactly a ballroom, nor the time for a dance. I’m– we’re–” The next words caught in my throat. When I finally managed to speak, they emerged as a whisper. “We’re about to die.”
He did not spare a single glance to the city unraveling around us. Instead, he kept his eyes locked on mine. They were a glittering gold color, shining brighter than the surrounding flames. I had never seen anything like them before.
“True,” the certainty with which he said that one word made my stomach roll. To hear someone else confirm what I already knew made the situation feel significantly more dooming. “But,” he continued, “I think it’s much better to dance into Death’s arms than to sit around and wait for Him to claim us.”
Dance with Death. The idea was so hysterical, I laughed. It wasn’t a small chuckle, but a
thunderous cackle that rivaled the roar of the surrounding blaze. But, I accepted the hand he offered me.
Were we mad? Perhaps. But it was most certainly better to spend my last seconds dancing instead of crying, face buried in my own dress.
Pulling me close, his lips lingered only inches from my ear as he said, “Shall we?” We fell into movement like a pair of practiced partners. He whisked me through the dust and smoke. The intensity of the flames grew stronger from all sides, ripping the air from my lungs and causing my eyes to water. Sometimes, we needed to adjust our steps because of a newly fallen, or flaming, piece of debris. But not once did we stop.
I did not pay attention to the world around me; instead, I created my own. Focusing on his golden eyes, it was easy to construct another reality around us. My dress, which was torn and encrusted with dirt and blood, was now a mass of perfectly tied ribbons and ruffles. The dirt drifting through the air was stardust. It was no longer wild flames that lit up the night, but candles stuck in sparkling chandeliers, hanging from a ballroom ceiling. When the hem of my dress caught fire my illusion faded for a second, but my steps did not falter.
“You were a beautiful partner,” he said, still holding my hands tightly. I noticed, for the first time, that the flames did not touch him at all. “Maybe, we will meet again in another life.” Slowly, he became one with the shadows, before fading into the night entirely. Perhaps he was only a part of my illusion all along.
I was alone now, but I was no longer scared. I continued the dance by myself. I did not
feel the scorch of the flames as they crawled up my dress, and slithered down my arms. Maybe my end was worthy of a tale after all. I was not the girl who cowered in front of Death, I was the girl who danced fearlessly into His arms.