“Did you know mayflies live only a day?” Helena asks.
When I don’t reply, she continues, “And the Atlas moth emerges from its cocoon without a mouth — can’t feed or drink until its death. It’s funny, if you think about it.”
We’re naked in a bed of moss-soft velvet, our hair twined together like tendrils of wisteria across the pillows.
“I hate it when you talk like that,” I say.
We both look out the tiny window of our attic room. A brilliant sunset ignites wispy clouds.
She offers me a wry smile. “Any minute now.”
My heart is a closed fist. “I know.”
The sky darkens, but our room is alight with the flames licking Helena’s side of the bed.
At the beginning, I used to stay with her every sunset as she died, then flit in and out of sleep while I waited for her rebirth.
Now, with her ashes still fresh on our bed sheets and the inside of my nostrils, I slip into my favorite red party dress and hail a cab downtown.
The techno music shivers my bones even before I’ve entered the nightclub. Inside, I grab a strobe-light-pink drink from a boy wearing fishnet sleeves and haphazard eyeliner. He winks while we shimmy our shoulders and hips to the hypnotic rhythm. My eyes gravitate to his lips, but no — I’m not doing this to Helena. Not when she keeps dying every night to keep our love alive.
It was here that I fell for a phoenix. We met at the first light of dawn, on the pulsing dance floor. From then on, everything was fiery and electric. I used to think I was the luckiest girl alive. Now I think we might both be cursed.
Helena once confided in me, when we were both drunk on wine, that putting herself back together hurt more than disintegrating into ash. Back in her realm, the sun never sets and everyone is made of flame. Here, in the human world where she chose to stay for my sake, her girl form spontaneously combusts without sunlight. I can’t explain the science behind this. Even her people are baffled by it. By us.
Dancing amid the glittering crowd is a girl in a yellow fur vest. She drifts through the dance-floor like a bumblebee, and people slip dollar bills into her hand. Once we make eye contact, she buzzes toward me. Her mouth presses against mine for only a moment, but the pill she slips under my tongue will last me a good hour or so.
No time for guilt now. I spread my arms wing-wide and fall back into the crowd’s embrace, hoping they catch me before I hit the ground.
Distantly, I wonder how long bumblebees live.
In the morning, gentle fingers brush against my throbbing temple.
“I brought you an aspirin and some juice,” Helena says. The mattress dips under her weight. “Must have been some party.”
“Gods, I’m a mess,” I mutter and crawl across her lap.
She caresses my matted hair, combing out the remains of yesterday’s ashes. Here she is, dying time after time for me. And I’m the big baby who can’t stay sober long enough to welcome her back to existence. I drink and drug myself numb to suppress my fear that one day she’ll grow weary of all the pain and effort. She’ll leave the human world for good, and I’ll be doomed to forever think of her when the dying sun paints flames across the sky.
I kiss her hand, over and over again. We’ve been together for almost two years. How many deaths does that equal? How many sunsets?
We spend the day in bed, talking and touching. Although I want to harness the sun and still its descent, gold-red hues bleed across the horizon all too soon.
Helena’s lips stretch into that self-deprecating smile I’ve come to loathe. “Any minute now.”
I could tell her, You don’t have to do this anymore. You can let go. I’m letting you go.
I could, but I don’t. I’m human: selfish and averse to goodbyes.
The last traces of sunlight are swallowed by the sky’s dark maw. That’s when the flames envelop her. In the moments before her death, Helena is not a being of myth and magic, but a lost girl, burning. Her face contorts into an anguished grimace before her entire body crumbles into ash. The stench of charred skin and burnt hair remains even after the bright tongues of fire have vanished.
I prop open the window. Something tickles my fingers — a mayfly fluttering against me. I uncurl my fist and watch the slender insect crawl across the lines of my palm.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper as I crush the mayfly between my fingers, easing its suffering like I won’t ease hers.
I return to bed and lie beside Helena’s ashes. With my eyes closed tight, I wait for the sun.
Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, The Forge Literary, Wolfpack Press, Argot Magazine, The Colored Lens, and other venues.