A Portrait By the Artist In His Late Period

The world was ending but that was hardly anything to fuss over, thought Remy, licking the tip of his paintbrush. It tasted earthy and sharp, undoubtedly toxic, but as he raised his hand and applied a judicious amount of umber to the canvas, he decided that he did not care. This canvas, his body, the little streak of paint in the corner of his mouth, they would all be ash shortly.

It wasn't that much time to paint a pastoral, but it would have to do.

Remy eyed the silhouettes of the oak trees that bordered the canvas with a critical eye. A touch more umber, he considered, and then on to something more interesting.

At the other end of his study, an old television set was doing its best to break his concentration. He had left it on to get a better sense of his timeframe, but the newscaster - a platinum blonde with a professional bob-cut - was delivering the reel of destructions like it was the only thing keeping her sane.

Different strokes, Remy figured.

"Calcutta," said the blonde. "All of it."

The television cut to footage, but Remy did not look. It would have contaminated the image on the canvas.

Besides, he had never found ash all that fascinating.

Remy preferred oaks anyway.

He added a wheat field in between them, their trunks acting as a natural frame for the rows of swaying gold. The sun was high on the horizon and it was not burning anyone to cinders. A scarecrow wore a kerchief, leaning languidly on its post, and a flight of geese forged a path through the bright autumn sky.

"Nepal," said the blonde. Her mascara had begun to run.

Remy thought about the geese for a moment, then removed them. He imagined the grumble of a propeller plane instead as he added some more definition to the trees.

The blonde sniffled once, loudly, then blew her nose. Her co-anchor had handed her a stack of tissues, their bodies all wadded indiscriminately together. She tried to shoo him back to his station, but then when he turned to go she caught him by his sleeve and pulled him back.

"Guangzhou," she said, stabbing vaguely at a graphic of the PRC. "Jilin. I've never been in love, Bradley."

Remy added bright brass buttons to the scarecrow. Just because.

On any other day, what was happening on the television would have made the news.

With quick, deliberate strokes Remy built a farmhouse in the corner of the frame. He added doors and windows and a path through the wheat.

"Polynesia," said the blonde, though she was distracted. "Hawaii."

Remy imagined that he could smell charcoal through his window. A quiet summer evening barbecue.

He leaned closer to the canvas, took a deep breath of the fumes, and then told himself that what he was smelling was wheat.

"California," said the blonde, eyes wild, and she vanished.

Remy bit the back end of his brush. It was a terrible habit, he acknowledged, but one not likely to be repeated.

He added a doorknob to the house and some birds roosting in the woods. He began and then scrapped a chocolate-brown dog in the foreground.

"Portland," he said idly.

The air around him had warmed several degrees. Convection currents prickled hot across his skin. His painting was not dry, not yet, but it would have to do.

He leaned in until he was almost touching the canvas, widened his eyes, and let the farm fill his vision. Let it dominate his retinas. Let it become as believable - as inevitable - as truth.

He could almost hear wind through the grain and so he tipped forward another few inches, his chair toppling over underneath him.

The world behind him vanished in brightness and ash.