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Between Home and a House on Fire


Between Home and a House on Fire

Home / Between Home and a House on Fire
Original Fiction apocalyptic

Between Home and a House on Fire

The survivor of an apocalypse event in an alternate universe tries to rebuild and avoid being dragged back into the past when a visitor crosses the in-between and asks for…

Illustrated by Dave Palumbo

Edited by


Published on May 15, 2024

An illustration of a silhouetted person, filled with flame and smoke, facing an old pickup truck.

You’re taking the long way home, through that stretch of no-man’s-land between two one-traffic-light towns, when you feel the air pressure drop. Swearing, you pull the pickup onto the shoulder and key off the ignition.

There’s no one else on this unassuming highway, level for miles, hiding nothing among the wide flat boulders and bent grassland. But you know emptiness is sometimes an illusion, especially on this lick of road. Your knuckles are white on the steering wheel as you wait. For God knows what.

A minute passes. Your ears pop and suddenly this girl, seventeen or twenty at most, is rapping on your pickup’s passenger-side window. She’s covered in ashes, her knuckles torn and swollen.

You roll down the window.

“Can I?” she asks.

“Sure,” you say and move your jacket from the passenger seat. She slides in, without preamble or explanation. She slams the door closed with more force than necessary and you both jump. She doesn’t apologize, though, and for that you find yourself warming toward her.

“Heading to town,” you say, starting the engine and pulling back onto the road. “I can drop you off at the motel there.”

“Which one?”

“There’s only one motel.”

“No, which town?”

“Littleton.” You say it with fondness. It might not be much to spit at, especially compared to some places you’ve been, but Littleton’s home to one of the best coffeeshops in the world. Your family too.

The stranger nods, unsurprised, and pulls out a phone from her jacket pocket. The screen’s a massive web of cracks, but she doesn’t seem to notice as she furiously types out message after message.

Her composure unnerves you. Were you ever this self-assured when you were in her shoes? Especially after whatever disaster she looks like she fought before coming here? Maybe, you don’t remember. Those are not the details you held on to from your old life.

You keep your eyes on the road as the pickup speeds down the silent highway, grateful that maybe you won’t get a backstory. (If you didn’t want a story, your voice of reason counters, you wouldn’t have taken the long way home.) But you can’t help stealing glances at your passenger and wondering. At the tears in her navy t-shirt and cargo pants. At her disheveled black hair and the grit under her fingernails. The exhaustion in her eyes and her posture. You clock, with some relief, that there’s no resemblance between you and her.

But you recognize the pin on her jacket, a burning house, and there can be no denying where she just appeared from.

She catches you looking, but you don’t apologize either. Throughout this quiet drive, she’s been snatching glances at you too.

The sky’s gray and growing darker as the sun falls behind the distant mountains; bluish-black against the horizon, hundreds of miles away. The air in the car stays still and bated. Until the stranger swears under her breath.

“Dead,” she says. She holds up her phone. “Have a charger?”

“Nope,” you reply, patting the steering wheel. “This baby’s a dinosaur.” Your trusty truck still has an analog radio, dials and all.

The stranger slumps against the headrest, with that fluid drama that only teenagers can pull off well. She closes her eyes.

“Why haven’t you asked me why I’m here?” she says.

“Live around here long enough and you stop questioning some of the strange shit you see.”

“That’s very trusting of you.”

“I could say the same about you.”

She shrugs. “They told me this was one of the good places.”

You’re about to pry, ask for names and details, but you catch yourself. Because, despite your curiosity, you don’t want to know. Not anymore.

“I’m Selene,” she says.

“Jen,” you reply, and some of the tension in her shoulders releases. The air in the truck becomes easier for a stretch. But as the lights of Littleton rise up in the distance, she begins to fidget, picking the ashes off her clothes.

“Was it a bad fire?” you ask before you can stop yourself.

Damn your curiosity. That insatiable appetite.

Her lips go flat and tight. “Always could be worse.”

Good answer, you think, and swallow your unasked questions.

At the edge of town, you pull over to refuel. Not because you want to prolong your time with this stranger, Selene, but because you know yourself too well. You’re not going to leave again when you get home tonight and Thom, understandably, would be annoyed if you left him the car running on fumes.

You grunt as you climb out of the pickup, stretching your bad leg, muscles protesting after sitting for so long. You were tenser than you thought, the stiffness is worse than typical. It’s not a graceful limp to the gas pump. But you don’t think much of it until you catch her expression through the windshield.

Selene stares, practically gaping at your scars, thanks to your cutoffs, visible from calf to ankle.

“Old accident,” you say, though you don’t owe her an explanation. Actually, you don’t owe her or where she came from jackshit. You’ve given them enough of yourself. Selene turns red and looks away. She doesn’t apologize when you get back into the car and this time, you aren’t impressed.

It occurs to you that you’ve probably become a cautionary tale to the people in your old life, one of those nameless characters talked about during lulls and meal breaks. The thought makes you incredibly depressed. And angry.

You hold the steering wheel in a death grip during the short drive to the Grand Motel. You speed. The air in the car is oppressive.

She slips out of the passenger seat when you pull up to the front of the two-story building.

“Thanks, Jenna.” You nod once and she closes the door, gently this time. You watch her walk into the lobby and give Pam working the front desk a two-fingered salute. Then you peel out of the parking lot, swearing to never take the long way home again. This was the nail in the coffin that you needed. End of story.

It’s only when you’re on the couch, beer in hand, legs draped over Thom, your pit bull mix, Pecan, sprawled out on top of both of you, that you catch her slip.

It’s been a decade since anyone called you Jenna. Not since the In-Between.

The problem with the In-Between is that it’s always calling you back.

You’re neck deep in a reservoir restoration design proposal when your cell rings. Unknown number. You don’t answer these, usually. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. But your curiosity wins out, again.

“Jenna, it’s Selene,” says the stranger as soon as you pick up.

“Jen, actually,” you reply with an evenness that surprises you. Three weeks have passed and you were relaxing into the idea it was all over. You’ve asked around, naturally. Pam said there weren’t any more soot-covered visitors at the motel and Thom reported no wayfaring strangers at the coffeeshop. “How did you get my number?”

“I asked the motel lady for it. In case this happened.”

Pam’s kind heart’s a double-edged sword. Your fingers tighten around the phone. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” she says quickly. “I just…I need a ride.”

You sigh. The trouble with living in a one-traffic-light town is you can’t tell her to piss off and order a taxi or rideshare. You consider saying no anyway because you recognize the strings. You feel the pull of your old life rattling in its coffin, the magnetism that kept you taking the long way home and kept you up at ungodly hours sketching concepts, year after year.

But you also remember what it was like to be stranded in a place you barely knew.

“Where?” you say, picking up your keys and your coat, already moving toward the door.

“Not far from where you found me last time. I think.” Her hesitation does not inspire confidence.

She’s off by ten miles.

You find her in a worse state than before, soaked to the bone and shivering in the wind that streaks across the grassland. God, you remember what that was like too. Guilt gnaws at you for considering not answering the call. Yet you put up a hand before she climbs in.

“No talking about the In-Between, its problems, anyone in it, or their problems. Got it?”

She pauses, stunned. This has clearly thrown a wrench in her plans. You wait for her to come to the obvious conclusion. No rideshares here.

She hesitates, then nods and concedes. She hoists herself in and you hand her an old towel from the back seat, usually reserved for Pecan. Clean, or as clean as possible with an endlessly shedding eighty-pound dog. She wraps herself in it and cranks up the heat on the dashboard.

“Thanks for coming to get me.”

“Sure,” you say. She smells like mildew and honeysuckles, and something like homesickness hits you in the ribs. (But you are home, you remind yourself.)

(Then why, your voice of reason asks, do you still feel the pull of the In-Between?)

This question eats at you in the silence. For thirty miles, neither you nor the stranger speaks.

Then Selene cracks. “Elise says hi,” she says.

“Hey, I mean it.” The sharpness of your voice surprises you. “I don’t want to know.”

“Not even that the water retention wall that you two built broke?” she snaps. “The Summer Quarter is completely flooded. Thought you’d at least care about that.”

You decelerate.

“Oh my God. You seriously going to abandon me on the side of the road?”

“Please. You have return plans,” you reply. “When’s the rendezvous? Tomorrow at seven a.m.?”

She ignores that. Instead, she says, “The flowers along the boulevards are still blooming, though. I didn’t even know there were so many colors.”

You swerve to the shoulder.

“Fine!” she shouts. She crosses her arms and slumps as you ease back onto the highway. “But I need to know—”

“That is always the problem,” you mutter.

“—why don’t you want to come back?”

(Oh, who said that? that little voice inside you whispers.)

“After the accident,” you begin and glance over. Selene nods. You roll your eyes. In-Betweeners are nothing if not adventurers and gossips. “After the accident, I built a good life here.” Selene wrinkles her nose. “Yes, you can live well here. One day you might find the work in that other place is not worth the cost.”

“Never,” she spits. But you don’t take the bait. There’s no point in arguing with an obsessed nineteen-year-old. Neither of you speak until Littleton’s in your sights. The atmosphere in the car is like a brewing thunderstorm.

“I need some coffee,” she announces as you pass the town’s welcome sign.

“You need some sleep.”

“We need help.”

“Too bad,” you say and Selene scowls and types out something on her shattered phone.

Were you such an asshole when you were that age? Probably.

But you feel the pull of your old life grow stronger as you begin to see the depths of Selene’s stubbornness. And that frightens you. You realize, then, you need help. Someone to ground you, remind you, be the counterweight to this ceaseless lure. Also a good cup of coffee sounds perfect right now.

To the untrained eye, the Pit Stop is just another diner, with its neon lights outside and vinyl seating within. But it’s the smell of espresso that embraces you like a long-lost friend when you enter, not grease. The whirl of coffee grinders is constant and every item on the menu is made to complement your drink.

And unlike roadside diners, the proprietors of the establishment have a history of welcoming the lingerers, the travelers who are both wandering and lost.

Thom is on his usual perch behind the counter. He’s surprised to see you in the middle of a work day, but a grin lights up his face. Then, he spots Selene beside you, and it dims slightly. Then he sees the pin on her jacket.

“No,” he says.

You hold up your hands. “I’ve been trying to tell her that.” You tilt your head toward Selene and take your usual seat at the counter.

Thom turns to the stranger. “No.”

“Dude, I just want a coffee,” she says.

“That’s how it starts,” he mumbles and looks at you. His eyes widen and you know he understands why you came. God, you love this man, and not just because you’ve been together long enough that you can ask each other questions without saying a word.

“Large cappuccino, please,” you say. “I’ll be sticking around for a while.” He disappears with a grunt. A moment later, your phone buzzes in your pocket. You glance at the text.

THOM: thought u said it was over.

YOU: Yeah. They want me to come back

THOM: oh NOW they miss u

His indignation eases some of the pressure off your ribcage. Beside you, Selene picks up the menu, pretends to read it.

“The French toast is good,” you say, because it’s true.

“You gave up the In-Between for French toast?” she asks, incredulous.

“No,” you reply. “I gave it up for coffee, but the French toast helped.” You give Thom a small smile as he works the espresso machine. His shoulders relax but the worry line on his forehead doesn’t disappear.

You bite back a grin when Selene listens and orders the French toast and then a laugh at her stunned expression when the food arrives. A mountain of homemade bread, battered and cinnamoned, cooked to golden, and adorned with fresh whipped cream and even fresher raspberries.

The In-Between, for all its wonders, doesn’t have good, home-cooked food.

“I’m going to go out on a limb here,” you say, “and guess that Elise sent you.”

Selene answers by jamming another forkful of food into her mouth.

So, you tell her about your life after the In-Between. About the painful process of healing after the accident and learning the new limits of your damaged body. About rebuilding — everything. Because your head and your heart belonged to the In-Between for so long, you didn’t have much to work from when you decided to make a life in this world. You only chose Littleton because the people here had shown you some kindness when you turned up out of nowhere covered in water or ash or slime. Like the woman at the only motel in town. And the coffeeshop owner you fell hard for. You finished your engineering degree and made yourself useful here. You were stunned to learn how many small disasters happened in Littleton.

In some ways, you are doing the same thing you did in the In-Between. Difference is you build and repair things here without risking a limb. Here, the work lasts.

You tell the stranger all of this, knowing that the story will find the person you’re really telling it for. Elise, who was with you when you stumbled into the In-Between for the first time during your sophomore year in college. Who spent countless hours with you in the mud and ash, shoring up walls and digging drains, trying to preserve this magical place you’d both lucked into. Who never forgave you for refusing to come back when you healed.

Selene fidgets and picks at her food. She’s clenching her fork and her jaw. Her phone buzzes as you finish your story. She glances at it, drains her coffee, and gets up. She looks straight at you for the first time in thirty minutes and says, “I’ll never give up on the only place that feels like home.”

The last words Elise texted you before she blocked you.

Selene strides to the door.

You’re stunned, a little hurt. Then Thom is there, hand on your shoulder, and you give him a broken smile. “Out-of-towners are the worst.”

He doesn’t return it. He hands you the jacket she left behind on the chair.

“Jen, close this chapter for good, yeah?” he says.

You hesitate. For too long. Then nod and follow the girl.

You find her behind the coffeeshop, near the dumpsters. The air is charged and you’re so startled by the sudden rush of water around your feet, you failed to notice the obvious. The trap.

Selene’s standing before a rift in reality and beyond it is a place that’s neither of this world nor the next one. The smell of roses and ash fills your nose and you’re struck by nostalgia so deep and raw it knocks the air out of your lungs.

There, you see a slice of the main boulevard in the Autumn Quarter. Sunlight dancing among the reddening leaves and late season blooms garbing the old stone buildings. Stone faces of statues and gargoyles peering out from the foliage. It looks like a beautiful day on the other side.

You’ve missed this. God, you’ve missed this. Even as water pours out from the In-Between, engulfing your ankles. Even though every word you told Selene was true.

She turns and there are tears in her eyes. “It’s being destroyed faster than we can save it.”

She steps into the rift.

You spend the rest of the day mopping the floors of the Pit Stop with Thom. The sudden flood from the In-Between was too much for the street drains and the coffeeshop found itself with an inch of sooty water on the linoleum floor, despite clear skies and sound pipes.

Thom blames the pipes anyway as he apologizes to the evacuating customers.

But when only the two of you are left with mops, he swears off the In-Between loudly and colorfully. You don’t blame him; you just finished replacing these floors two months ago.

“Why do the disasters there always leak into here?” he says. “Literally, in this case.”

“She said that most of it has been destroyed now.”

Thom’s expression softens. “I’m sorry.”

You wring the mop. “I’m just worried about her and the others.”

“Why? They cut you out after you got hurt.”

“Did I ever tell you the story about the guy who came back from the In-Between and met an older version of himself?”

“No.” He pauses. “How’s that even possible?”

“It’s a weird space and time is weird anyway.”

He frowns. “But you don’t think she’s you, right?”

“No, my hair was never that straight or my boobs that small,” you say, with a laugh. “But she’s not so different either.”

Neither of you speak for a little while as you push the mop back and forth, making more streaks than progress.

“You told her off, though, right?” asks Thom, hesitantly.

“We didn’t leave on good terms,” you reply. But that’s not what he’s asking, and you both know it.

It takes you both a long time to dry the floor.

That night, you’re back in the In-Between, in your dreams at least. You’re walking down the twisty, mysterious streets of the Spring Quarter with Elise, joy and wonder filling you up as you discover a new garden courtyard or art gallery. That quiet thrill of being in the In-Between hasn’t faded.

You’re brought back by the sound of your phone buzzing. You squint at the clock. 3:24 a.m. and Thom’s snoring softly beside you. Pecan’s paws twitch, lost in his own dream, as he sleeps at the foot of the bed.

Your leg protests in your night brace as you slip out of bed and into the living room. Selene’s texting you, making your phone a spasm of light and vibration. You read.

SELENE: So I dont know if youll just delete this without reading it, but I just wanted to say sorry for what I said in the diner.

SELENE: Im really bad at talking. You didnt want to listen. But you deserve to know bc you fought for this place once.

SELENE: You and Elise I mean.

SELENE: The In-Between is disappearing. Like really really fast now. Floods + fires + vanishings happen all the time now. Always losing another piece. Last week it was the grand hall in the Winter Quarter. You know the one felt out of a fairy tale?

SELENE: Im not dumb. I know why you wont help us.

SELENE: And yeah that was really shitty how everyone ghosted you after the accident.

SELENE: Im not asking for them. Im asking for me.

SELENE: And I know you dont know me + you might not like what youve seen. But this is the first place Ive loved. Its first time Ive felt useful + good at something.

SELENE: Ive nowhere else to go.

SELENE: Ill spare you the gory details but my life before the In-Between was bad. Really bad. Its the only home Ive ever had.

SELENE: Will you seriously not help me???

You’re crying. God, when did that happen? You knew, you knew, what type of people were called to the In-Between, because once, it called to you. It’s a paradise for lonely kids, lost teens, and desolate adults. It filled your otherwise empty life with wonder, and trying to save it from disappearing gave you a reason to keep waking up. There, the first time in your life you felt valuable, strong. You had friends with the same purpose. And that was almost as intoxicating as being in the In-Between itself.

You sink to the floor and rub your eyes. Pecan licks your snotty nose. You didn’t hear him trot out from the bedroom. He rests his big, dopey head on your knees, his expressive eyes fixed on you and concerned.

“Why can’t I just walk away from this?” you ask him as you rub his velvety ears.

(Because you’re not that type of person, answers your voice of reason.)

You text Selene back.

YOU: When will you be here next?

You get up and go to the coat closet. From its recesses, among the piles of your late-night design sketches, you pull out an old denim jacket with a pin of a burning house on it. A twin emblem to the one Selene wore. You sling on the jacket and look in the mirror. It still fits and you smile at the bitter irony.

Something moves behind you. You turn. There, standing barefoot, wearing only pajama pants, is Thom. His expression’s devastating as you stand there in your old jacket, just like the day you met.

There’s that question in his eyes.

You don’t have an answer for him.

You meet Selene in no-man’s-land, almost exactly between the first place you found her and the second. She’s sitting on one of the wide flat boulders when you park your pickup and step out with a thick folder under one arm and the old denim jacket over the other.

“Ready?” she asks. She’s grinning. It makes her look so young.

Before you can answer, the air pressure drops and suddenly there’s a rift in the world before you. It shows the manor in the Spring Quarter, your home with all the other In-Betweeners. Beautiful and grand as always. Even with the scent of burning things in the air.

“Shit, another fire,” she says and starts rushing toward the rift. But you catch her by the shoulder.

She turns, confused, and it takes you a minute to swallow back the memory: the panic, the sound and feeling of stones crumbling and trapping your leg under them. The look of horror from Elise when she realized this was not a clean break. Nothing that followed was a clean break either.

“Here,” you say, handing her the folder. All the designs for the In-Between that have been haunting you for years. “Drawings and instructions on how to build a better retaining wall. And a few other improvements too.” You nod at the rift.  “I’ve learned some things since my days over there.”

“But you’re coming, right?” Selene asks. There’s desperation in her voice. Now, ash is blowing through the rift in thick gusts.

You take a half step back, though the strings to the In-Between are tight and strong. “I’ll help as much as I can,” you say.

“I can’t do this alone!”

You take her hands in yours and, God, you’re tearing up again. “You won’t be,” you say.

Afterwards, you go back to the Pit Stop. It’s an hour drive and you think about Selene the entire time. You hope she’ll be okay, that she doesn’t lose too much. Of the In-Between or herself. But she isn’t you. You aren’t her.

You arrive at 11 a.m. on a workday and you reek of ash. You take your normal seat at the counter.

“And what can I get you?” Thom asks, with some hesitation. The question in his eyes is still there. Which is fair. Because up to an hour ago, you didn’t know what you would choose. You were a lonely kid once, a lost teen. You still feel the pull. But you are no longer desolate. You have another world to tend to now.

“Cappuccino. Make it a large,” you say. “I’ll be here for a while.”

Buy the Book

Between Home and a House on Fire
Between Home and a House on Fire

Between Home and a House on Fire

A. T. Greenblatt

About the Author

A.T. Greenblatt


A.T. Greenblatt is a Nebula Award winning writer and mechanical engineer. She lives in New York City where she's known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. Her work has been nominated for a Hugo, Locus, and Sturgeon Award, has been in multiple Year's Best anthologies, and has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, as well as other fine publications. You can find her online at and on Bluesky at @AtGreenblatt
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