“When the Ice Comes In” by Ephiny Gale

I’m curled up in the middle of the carpet, away from the windows where the cold is worst. I am wearing two beanies, two scarves around my face, several layers including a snow jacket, and four or five blankets, but I am still so cold. The gas, electricity and phone signals are out. The gas, electricity and phone signals are out for everyone.

The curtains are drawn to keep what little heat remains inside, but I know exactly what the view looks like: snow drifts so high I could almost step onto them from my second-storey apartment. But I don’t think I’m going anywhere. I’m so cold I can barely move. And where would I go?

This apartment block is not built for snow. There has never been snow here before. Bushfires—those we know how to deal with. I picture an inferno outside, capturing the trees and igniting them into fiery beacons. The church outside, smoking and smoldering brick by brick. Fire, fire everywhere and not a flame to flick.

Wait. The matches in the cupboard are long gone, of course, but didn’t I drop a pack beside the stove a few months ago?

Didn’t I? I think so. It has to be worth a check.

I uncurl myself from the blanket nest, slowly, stiffly. Clumsy because my hands are numb. I force myself to stagger to the kitchen, to shove the oven to the side with my elbow.

There, towards the back. A box of matches. Oh my god.

I kneel and stretch my arm awkwardly into the gap I’ve made beside the oven. It hurts my shoulder, but who cares? When my gloved hand makes contact with the box I know from sight, rather than touch, but I nudge it closer to me, closer…

There. I grasp the box between my clawed fingers and drop it into my lap. It rattles like maracas. Mine. Matches. What can I do with matches?

There isn’t any wood in this fucking apartment. I had a single wooden chair that I threw onto the bonfire down the road, the one flaming in the middle of the street maybe twenty days ago when no-one thought things could get any worse. Why did I do that? It had seemed a good idea at the time…

I already burned the lantern oil. And the kitchen oil. The candles burnt out days ago. My books the day before yesterday. What else can I fucking burn?

I’m so cold. Maybe if I was a little warmer I could think better.

I fumble with the match box until I can push out the drawer with my forefinger. Count the matches inside: nine, two burnt and seven unburnt. Seven’s okay. Seven’s enough that I can strike one just to feel the heat. So I can thaw my hands a little. So I can think a little straighter.

The match finally lights on my eighth try. The flame hisses to life and I cup my free hand around the back of it, worshipping this drop of fire. And then it’s not a drop anymore: there are legs and hips and arms and hair; the flame has morphed into the shape of a woman, no taller than my thumb.

“Hello,” she says. Her voice sounds like water sizzling as it hits a gas burner.

“Hello,” I croak.

“You need to put me somewhere, if you want me to last,” she says. “You have those…”

But the flame hits the top of my fingers, and flickers, and goes out.

Another match. With as much panic as I can salvage in these temperatures, I fumble with the matchbox until I have another lit.

When the flame twists into her shape again I want to sing. “Crayons will burn up to half an hour in an emergency,” she says. “Go. Go now.”

With the match pinched carefully between my fingers, I struggle towards the hallway cupboard. There’s a plastic crate in there where I kept toys for my niece and nephew… And down the bottom, under the cars and construction blocks, some crayons.

The second match has gone out, of course, because I wasn’t quick enough. I empty the crayons out onto the floor: only two are left—apparently the kids don’t use a lot of white or beige. I scoop them up with shaking hands and return to the living room.

I make another nest with all my blankets, on the couch this time as there’s a film of ice across the carpet. I wrap myself up as best I can. I light the match, and then the beige crayon. A stronger flame shoots up from the crayon’s tip, and there’s the woman again, now the size of my forefinger. I hold the crayon just on top of my chest.

“Thank you,” I say.

“Thank you for giving me a home.”

I stare at her body floating in the flames. If I wasn’t so cold, so exhausted, I’m sure I’d be laughing or crying by now.

“Why are you here?” I ask.

“To see you,” she says. And that’s more than good enough for me.

For as long as the crayon burns I am fixated on her, mesmerized, delirious. She is so beautiful, like a goddess, a genie, a djinn. I do not ask her what she is. I tell her everything, and she says I have had a good life, and that is true.

When the crayon burns out the cold rushes back in, and now it is properly dark, and my nose and hands, which were starting to hurt with the glorious pain of thawing out next to her warmth, turn icy and numb again. Tiny icicles form on my eyelashes. It is too much to bear.

I light the second crayon, and this time she tells me stories, the most wonderful stories I have ever heard. Stories of blooming deserts and families of phoenixes and shining palaces with towers that brush the stars. Stories of fire-eaters and fire-breathers and festivals a hundred nights long, where the sun never rises and everything is firelight and hot and good. Anywhere there is fire, she has been, and she can go.

When I light the fifth match she says, “Careful, you have no more crayons to burn.”

When I light the sixth match I say, “I love you.”

When I light the seventh match I just stare at her in silence, and that is enough.

“You need to watch out,” she says. “Your hand is tilting. I’m getting very close to your blankets, and they’re highly flammable. Stop.”

“I don’t want to be cold anymore,” I say.

And then she’s all over me, and I’m not cold, not ever again.

Ephiny Gale has written more than two dozen published short stories and novelettes, which have appeared in publications including GigaNotoSaurus, Daily Science Fiction, and Aurealis. Much of her short fiction has recently been collected in Next Curious Thing. She is also the author of several produced stage plays and musicals, including the sold-out How to Direct From Inside at La Mama and Shining Armour at the 1812 Theatre.
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