Callie walked past the house, the barn, the piney windbreak, and then through the woods to the prairie. The sky was so clear and blue and cold that her every exhale briefly took flight, like a dove, and then held still: frozen in the air overhead, marking the path back. Her puffy pink coat crinkled and wisped, echoing each crunch as her feet broke through the ice crust on top of the snow.
The roman candle was almost weightless in her hand.
She knew she’d gone far enough when she looked back and couldn’t see the smoke rising from the chimney beyond the forest, and couldn’t hear the traffic on the interstate. She tucked the firework under her arm and pulled out Uncle Sal’s golden zippo.
She’d found it in the attic two weeks before. It wasn’t a roman candle when she found it, just an old cardboard mailing tube with her father’s diploma in it. “More trouble than it was worth,” said dad, when she showed it to him. “Useless, and I’ll be paying for it long after waters rise and the sun burns the crops and we all starve.”
“Hush, dear,” said mother.
“Sorry,” said dad. “Hyperbolically starve us all.”
So Callie left the diploma in the attic and took the tube.
Every time she walked into the living room, her parents turned off the news, but Callie was no fool. She read the internet on her tablet after bedtime. She knew how bad it was, and she knew how much worse it was going to get. She wished she could talk to Uncle Sal about it but he couldn’t cross the border into the states anymore. No one could. Last week, when she and her parents tried to visit him in Toronto for Thanksgiving, the border patrol turned them back and confiscated their passports.
“I should’ve known,” her father said as they drove back home, slapping his hands on the steering wheel. “There wasn’t even a line. We shouldn’t have even tried.”
The temperature on the prairie dropped even further. Callie cleared her throat, and the sound froze in a pocket around her head, echoing in her ears. She took off her glove and spun the wheel on the zippo, watched the flame leap up. She held the flame to the wick. The gnarled old apple trees behind her tilted forward to watch.
That morning, she’d asked her father: “How do you make a roman candle?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I guess you get some sort of propellant, and some sort of explosive, and pack them in there side-by-side.”
“Okay,” said Callie, and she’d gone upstairs to her room to think about it.
In her room, she thought about the border, and Uncle Sal, and the rising oceans and the burning sun. She thought about the men who did whatever they wanted. She thought about her father’s diploma, and the people who knocked on the door, and the time she heard her parents whispering and crying. “2040,” her mother’d whispered. “She’ll be out of college.”
In her room, she pressed her mouth against the opening of the tube and filled it with fire and gasoline. She poured out all her dynamite and napalm and white phosphorus. She pressurized it with all of her gunpowder and pure hydrogen. Then she put on her coat.
The wick flared up.
Deer and rabbits and ground squirrels poked their heads out from between the trees. Foxes stared at her. Cardinals looked down at her from naked branches. The grass gave a tremendous push and broke through the snow to see.
The firework rumbled in her hand, then spat. A blue ball of flame spewed out onto the snow, which caught fire. A bright black line of sparks shot into the sky and ignited a cloud. An enormous white disc, brighter than the sun, wobbled a quarter-mile before collapsing into the duck pond, belching smoke and spinning more discs into the air.
The clouds were embers. The air started to catch.
Callie dropped the roman candle to the ground. She sighed, nodded, and closed her eyes.
Keef works and lives in Austin. He’s working on a series of short, sad, spooky, horrible little fables, on the web at horriblelittlefables.com. He’s on twitter @keefdotorg.