Fire came on a Sunday morning, sharp and steady. It fell from the sky like rain, and it trailed smoke that lingered like clouds in an otherwise clear sky. Most of it fizzled out quickly in the air, whistling into nothingness. Where it struck the ground it steamed and hissed and left blackened charred spots, which crisped and flaked off with the wind. No one knew why it had come, or what had triggered it: only that it was steady and inescapable, and those who were caught outside when it came were burned badly, unless they managed to flee very quickly for safety.
Broadcast stations were overrun by terrified reports. TV evangelists thundered that this was a sign of the End Times, and it was proof that God was finally bringing his judgment down upon the deeply sinful world. Soon the angels would descend, they claimed; they would come and shepherd off the true believers into the bosom of heaven and leave the rest of the world to burn.
But the fire ended on Sunday evening, as suddenly as it had begun. People crept outside to survey the damage in the light of the fading sun. Everything smelled of smoke and ash and all the things that had burned, bitter and black. There were scars left even in stone and concrete, and places where glass had melted and warped. Some of the debris was left for Monday morning: it was too late to do anything now, they said. Some things would need to be checked in full light of day, they said.
On Monday morning, the fire came again. People stood at the windows and watched as it rained down from the sky, and the smoke was thicker than it had been the day before. More if it hit the ground than before. Smaller fires caught in the dry grass and sputtered and smoked, but they faded out quickly enough.
Again the TV evangelists beat their breasts and screamed. Further proof! Soon, now! Soon the time would come when the true believers were saved and the scum that had abandoned their faith would be punished for their foolishness.
But again, the fires stopped on Monday evening. This time, people came out and tried to clear away what they could — the ruined cars were towed (when they could be), the worst of the clutter in the streets were swept away, and people stopped and looked at each other in confusion. There was a silence in the air that felt more like anticipation than curiosity. Some people murmured to each other, low and nervous, but it was the sort of night for quiet, for wondering and for worry.
Would the fire come again on Tuesday? Everyone looked at each other and nodded: of course it would, somehow, whether people were prepared for it or not. The countryside was already burned in so many places; cities were pocked and blistered and ruined as if a thousand years had passed in the space of two days. How much worse would it be when the third day of fire came?
But it did not. Tuesday dawned sunny and bright, but without any more fire.
This was the calm before the storm, the evangelists roared, before their listening crowds (and how much bigger those audiences were than they had been just a few days before; rows and rows of seats that had stood empty on Saturday now swelled, and there wasn’t enough room to accommodate everyone). After this, oh, after this the fire would return, greater and more terrible than before; the whole world would drown in flame; fire would sweep everything and rebirth the world into something pure and new.
There was no fire on Wednesday, nor again on Thursday, nor Friday. Nor Saturday.
When Sunday came again, there was rain.
The skies billowed thick with dark black clouds, and for a moment the whole world held its breath, waiting–
And there was rain. It was cool and it was sweet and there was no sting of fire to it, no brimstone or smoke or anything terrible. People who were caught out in it — and there were very few, after the mishaps of the Sunday and Monday before — were only soaked to the bone, with nothing worse to show for the event. The soot was washed away in places, and in others it had been burned in too deeply, and the world watched through its warped melted windows.
People inhaled. People exhaled.
The world went on.