“Tell me how the world ends,” Ani says.
Michael shakes his head.
“Some things,” he says, “it’s better not to know.”
They sit across from one another, at a table in the back of a dimly-lit bar. His hands are wrapped around a half-empty bottle of Belgian beer. She lifts a martini glass, sips delicately at a drink that’s more fruit juice than liquor.
“You think you know everything,” Ani says.
Michael shrugs. It’s a statement of fact, not an accusation. They’ve only just met, but this much at least is already clear.
“I’m dying,” Ani says. “Did you know that?”
Michael hesitates for a moment, then nods. He looks up from his bottle and into her eyes. Ani doesn’t look like a dying person. Her skin is smooth and pale white, with a dusting of freckles across her nose and her cheeks. Her hair is long and full and red streaked with blonde, flowing over her shoulders in a billowing wave. The only hints at her mortality are a slight gauntness in her face, and a faint tremor in her fingers as they rest on her glass.
“Do you know what will kill me?” Ani asks.
Michael nods again, and takes a long pull at his beer. Lank brown hair frames his broad tanned face, and the week’s worth of stubble on his cheeks and his chin.
“I do,” he says, “but I’m not going to tell you.”
“I already know,” she says.
“No,” Michael says. “You don’t.”
Her eyebrows knit in annoyance.
“I do,” she says, “but you obviously don’t. You’re trying to be mysterious. It’s not working.”
Michael smiles, spins his bottle like a top, then catches it before it falls.
“I know you have malignant melanoma,” he says. “I know you’ve been told it’s in your liver and your lungs. I also know it’s in your brain, in your right temporal lobe. And I know that your doctor hasn’t told you that yet.”
Ani’s jaw sags open. Michael finishes his beer, waves a waitress over, and orders another. He orders a second drink for Ani as well, though her glass is still half-full.
“But…” she says.
“Right,” he says. “I know you’ve got cancer. You know you’ve got cancer. You think that’s what’s going to kill you, but it’s not.”
“It is,” she says. “My oncologist says it’s not curable. He wants me to do chemo anyway, says it could give me an extra few months, but…” Ani touches her hair absently with one hand, then shakes her head.
“I know,” Michael says. “You made the right decision.”
He leans his chair back on two legs, balances for a moment, then drops it back down with a bang. A song begins playing on the jukebox at the front of the bar. Ani smiles at the first few notes, then looks down at the table and blinks away a tear. Michael raises one eyebrow in question.
“My father used to sing this to me,” she says. “When I was little, and I couldn’t sleep, he’d come into my room, sit by my bedside and sing. I think this was the only song he knew.”
“It wasn’t,” Michael says. “It was just the only one that didn’t have the word ‘fuck’ in it.”
“You’re probably right,” she says. She slides her hand forward until their fingertips touch. “I still love it, though.”
“So do I,” Michael says. He pulls his hand away. “My father never sang this to me, but my first girlfriend did once.”
The waitress comes by with their drinks. Michael hands her a twenty, smiles, and refuses the change.
“She was dying too,” Michael says. “My girlfriend, I mean. It was a summer thing. She was gone before Christmas.”
“What from?” Ani asks.
“Brain tumor. She was sixteen.”
They drink together in silence until the song ends.
“So,” Ani says. “Are you going to tell me?”
Michael looks up, wipes at his eyes with one hand, and finishes his second beer in one long, bitter pull.
“Tell you what?”
Ani rolls her eyes.
“What’s going to kill me.”
“No,” Michael says. “I told you. Some things, it’s better not to know.”
Ani tries to meet his eyes, but Michael’s gaze slides away.
“Did you tell her?” Ani asks.
Michael closes his eyes, and bows his head until his forehead nearly touches the lip of his bottle.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Ani says. She looks around. The bar is nearly empty. “Tell me how the world ends.”
Michael raises his head, and looks down at his hands. They lie on the table, palms up, fingers half-curled. His nails are short and ragged, bitten almost to the quick.
“You’re right,” he says. “It doesn’t much matter.”
The song on the jukebox now is a saccharine dance mix that nobody’s father or girlfriend would ever sing to them. As it spins down, a light flares through the window at the front of the bar. It grows brighter and brighter, until the whiteness seems to seep through the ceiling and the walls. Ani looks down. Her bones are dark tendrils in her glowing white hands.
“You see?” Michael says.
Ani closes her eyes.
Edward Ashton is the author of more than a dozen short stories, as well as numerous technical articles and medical texts. His fiction has appeared most recently in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, and Escape Pod. You can find his work online at smart-as-a-bee.tumblr.com.