When we stopped looking, the gods started dying.
It was a quiet fall, one centuries in the making, and no one noticed until it paved the way for the apocalypse.
Here, the snowflakes spiral slowly.
It’s August, but the lake below us is frozen. The snow is beautiful and terrible in the same ways the gods were. I think we tried to live like them, once.
Now, the sun is fading as surely as they are. As surely as we will.
“It’s a fire sun,” Jaime says when she looks to the sky, swinging her legs beside me where they dangle over the dock. The contrast between the burnt red of the sun and the stark white of the snow makes the horizon bleed something terrible. The sky is falling and fading, and it’s taking us with it.
I've seen it once before.
Not all of it. Not like this, not like the end of the world, but years ago, I saw another fire sun.
Jaime wasn’t with me then, but she was the first one I told. It was a family vacation that I’m too young to remember most of, but I remember the sunrise on the drive back. We’d gone West, explored all the ghost towns and scarred places of desert, and by the time we left, we heard that most of California was burning. I’d never even heard of a wildfire before, didn’t know that when the world’s burning, it makes the sky hazy and sun crimson, but I’ve never forgotten it since.
Apparently, neither has Jaime.
She looks at me now, with her dark eyes and hair and humor, and she smiles. It’s not one of the tense ones I’ve seen the last few months from the adults who know better than us. She smiles like the world’s not ending, like we’re not watching the stars fall and the sky bleed.
“You seem happy,” Danny says from my other side. He’s not curious, exactly, more just saying it to comment, but Jaime answers anyway.
“What’s there not to be happy about?”
Her sarcasm is biting, but Danny lets out an explosive laugh, his blue eyes sparkling and broad shoulders shaking.
“I can’t think of anything,” he says with a grin. “Can you, Claire?” he asks me.
I don’t feel like playing along.
Instead, I ask, “Do you think they’re falling faster, now?”
I don’t tell them, but Jaime and Danny know that I mean the stars. They always know.
I pull the blanket around the three of us tighter.
“I think it doesn’t matter how fast they fall as long as they’re gonna crash anyway,” Jaime says evenly.
“I think they’re falling faster.”
The voice comes from behind us, and we all search for it in the fading light.
The boy who stands there is really not a boy at all, but the remnants of one. Nate’s voice is feeble and insubstantial, and his expression aches of decay where he looks down at us.
He breathes a quiet sigh, and I can see the heaviness of his shoulders from where I sit on the edge of the dock. Maybe it’s the edge of the world.
“Yeah, well how about you watch with us, Zombie-boy,” Jaime requests with a grin.
Danny looks like he wants to reprimand her, but the truth is that Danny and I dislike the nickname more than Nate does.
He wedges himself in the space between Danny and me.
“How’d you know we’d be here, anyway?” Danny asks, rubbing his calloused hands together to stave off the cold.
Nate huffs a laugh, exhaling stale air that isn’t warm enough to condense in the air.
“Where else would you go to watch the world end?”
“We tried to find you,” I tell him.
We hadn’t wanted to go to the lake without him, but we’ve learned that with Nate, it’s best not to look when he doesn’t want to be found.
“Yeah,” Nate smiles sadly. “I know.”
Jaime leans forward to rest on her elbows. “Was it zombie business?”
Danny shakes his head at her in exasperation, but Nate just turns to meet her eyes. “I guess it was.”
“What kind of zombie business?” Jaime asks shamelessly.
“The kind where someone else came back.”
That’s not the kind I was expecting.
“Who is it this time?” Danny asks breathlessly.
“Not her,” Nate tells him, eyes turned down and voice soft.
Danny has been waiting for his mother to return since the dead started rising. Right now, his strong shoulders look impossibly small.
“It’s because of Hades, though, isn’t it?” Jaime asks, seemingly out of nowhere.
“How could we know, Jaime? Even the adults can never agree.”
It’s not what she wanted to hear, but it’s all I can think to tell her.
There are too many gods of death to know for certain which one we can thank (or blame) for all the people living like Lazarus. Whatever god it is has been dying for months.
“Then, who do you think is making the stars fall?” Jaime tries again. She could keep a conversation going forever.
Nate looks up as he says, “Astraeus. According to the Ancient Greeks, he was the god of stars.”
“Titan,” I correct fondly. "He was the Titan of the stars."
Nate smiles a silent acknowledgement.
“I’m surprised he didn’t go sooner,” Danny tells us. “I’ve never even heard his name before.”
Nate shakes his head. “I don’t think they fade just because we stop saying their names. I think believing in them has more to do with how much we respect the things they’re gods of.”
“And everyone likes looking at the stars,” Jaime finishes for him.
“Even when they’re dying, there’s something beautiful about the way they do it.” My voice comes out as more of a whisper than I intended.
“But maybe it’s all Apollo,” Danny says suddenly. “The sun is a star, and we know it started dying the same time the stars started falling.”
Jaime dismisses him.
“I think it’s Astrus—Astra....the guy Nate said,” she proclaims.
“I think they all go together,” I tell them in response.
Danny’s eyebrows furrow beside me. “How?”
“I think the gods don’t like dying alone,” I tell them. “When more people started coming back, more fires started. Even now, when the stars keep falling faster, so does the snow.”
“And so does the temperature!” Jaime exclaims with a shiver. She leans in to my side for warmth. Beside me, Nate is nearly the same body temperature as the air around us, as cold as the marble headstone his father chose. I scoot closer to him, anyways, and Danny wraps a strong arm around him from the other side. We let the moment hang in the air, breathing in each other and the aching cold.
When Jaime speaks up, it is sudden.
“Do you remember Homecoming freshman year?” she asks, and her voice is wistful in a way I’ve never heard from her before.
Danny laughs. “Honestly? No.”
I reach past Nate to wack Danny lightly on the back of the head.
“That’s because you went and got yourself a concussion,” I chide him gently. Danny just pulls the blanket up around us. The wool scratches my cheek, but I smile against it.
“I remember,” Nate says softly.
Jaime smiles back at him, eyes holding something far gentler than her usual demeanor.
She tells us, “Well, it was like this.”
I can’t help but laugh at that, because she’s right.
“I think we even used the same blanket that night!” I recall, remembering the cold air beneath the Friday night lights.
The wool was scratchy back then, too.
“We were all there to watch you,” Nate says to Danny.
“Then you went and got too hurt to play before we even hit halftime,” Jaime finishes.
Danny almost has the grace to look embarrassed.
I nudge Nate in the ribcage, ignoring how hollow it feels. It's like he was put back together wrong.
“You had to call his mom to make him go to the hospital,” I remind Nate.
Nate smiles. “I remember trying to explain it all to your mom, but I can’t even remember if we won.”
Jaime laughs. “I remember. We lost— badly.”
“We won sophomore year, though!” Danny defends.
“Yeah, by one touchdown at the very end,” I remind him.
Danny shrugs, and some of the cold air slips under the blanket.
“A win is a win.”
“We won last year, too,” Nate points out, voice almost stolen by the wind.
We all freeze, silence stretching out around us. Nostalgia fills the places between us, but now it’s turned bitter instead of sweet.
“Maybe a win isn’t always a win,” Jaime says tentatively.
“Nate…” Danny begins, and I can hear the ache in his voice.
Nate shakes his head, face contorting into a smile.
It’s not, and I don’t think it ever will be, but I smile back at him anyway.
That night, we had won the game and lost Nate. The car crash happened on the way back.
It was eight months before Nate returned as something not quite human, and I think that he has not stopped aching since.
A win isn’t always a win.
Something even heavier than snow in August lingers in the air, but we just let it hang. I hitch up the blanket again.
“Who were we supposed to play this year?” Jaime asks, breaking the silence.
Danny smiles at the ice below his feet.
“The Titans, I think," Danny tells us, and I try not to think about the irony. “It was gonna be a good one.”
“I think we could’ve beat them,” Jaime says, and the amount of conviction in her voice makes me smile. She is so sure that they have nothing on us, those Titans.
“Me, too,” Nate says softly. He is less irreverent, but just as sure.
Now, there are snowflakes on our eyelashes and faces, and there is cold in our bones. The sun doesn’t look as bloodied now, but it seems even smaller. It has started fading instead of burning.
The air around us has teeth, and the wind bites wherever it can.
Danny’s rough hand is warm on my shoulder, though, and we’re both doing our best to give Nate whatever warmth we have left to give. I pull Jaime even tighter against me, hoping to share body heat and courage. The four of us give each other whatever we can.
We hold each other.
Nothing feels real anymore, but their hands are solid and certain. The blanket is still scratchy.
Around us, the snow has settled on the world like it is infinite and inevitable.
In this dying light, it almost looks like it belongs there.