St. Cloud likes burning things. It doesn’t matter what, but women’s clothing has become a favorite. Nightgowns, especially. There’s something to the manner in which they ignite and burn to ash. Some surrender immediately to the flame, combusting in a passionate sigh. Others resist, crackling in thick plumes of probably toxic smoke, illuminated by brilliant colors as the dyeing chemicals burn away. More than this, she yearns for the ritual of it. The creation of the flame itself, made more challenging, and in turn, more rewarding, by the Reckoners’ fire stone protocol. No lighters. No matches. Just the stone and a blade with which to strike it. She likes the anticipation of the spark. The arc it travels. The way she must be clever enough to catch it as it falls despite the quality of wind and tinder. The quick whiff of ignition, when she’s lucky. The brilliant red, orange, and white flame. The smell as it commingles with a small nest of dry grass or twigs or, her favorite—and now, quite rare—dryer lint. It smells beautiful. It smells like the end.
Today, St. Cloud is patient. It isn’t always so. The scouts are miles ahead while she waits in a bombed-out fuel station for the rain to stop. There are relics, here. Things the Reckoners have sworn an oath to erase. Things that cause grief and confusion and, in worst-case scenarios, hope.
Her green poncho has been torn and repaired more times than St. Cloud can count, even as she runs her scarred fingers over layers of silver duct tape. It rains most days, now.
She scoots back, her large, angular body compressing into a corner, so that she occupies the only portion of the station where the roof remains intact. Still, water creeps in dark, cold puddles toward her black boots. There are few things St. Cloud hates more in the world than being wet. By morning, she fears she will be soaked through.
She sharpens her blade, drawing it slowly back and forth across the whet stone. She’d been trained to live without the usual comforts, but she needs the knife. She can defend herself and hunt with it. She’d used it to clear a path through a small town overgrown with dark green ivy. She’d split and cut wood, dug latrines, and picked out splinters and stingers. Once, caught in a typhoon, she’d used it to signal for help. The blade is like another limb. Without the knife, she is lost.
It will be dark soon. She will have to spend the night. Maybe two. The weather changes quickly, without warning, just like St. Cloud’s moods.
She has spent the last four hours collecting relics from the station, surrounding buildings, and homes into an enormous pile that is twenty feet wide and eight feet tall. It’s constructed to optimize and propel ignition. St. Cloud knows about the mechanics of fire. The Reckoners tell her it’s muscle memory, that she’s lucky to have this skill woven into her blood, bone, and tissue. With it, she can fill a role, serve a purpose. They tell her not to worry about retaining other things. The other things will fall away, just as they are meant to.
In her hands, she stretches the fabric of a pink satin slip, bending it to and fro, catching the fabric’s sheen in the dwindling light. What must it have looked like on its owner? Had it hugged full, round hips or hung loose on a slender frame? She brings it to her face, smelling deeply. A trace of something sweet, familiar, or maybe just her imagination.
She has burnt her hands many times, holding fingers to flames. She cannot feel the texture of the slip in her hands, just the weight of it like a sigh on her neck. She rubs it across her cheek to gauge its silken smoothness against others she has known and is disappointed. Not the highest quality, but well cared for. She will save it to last. A memento of Camden County, the last holdout in New Nevada.
St. Cloud wakes to the echo of crunching glass. In her clenched fist, the knife. She’s on her feet, crouching, eyes already adjusted to the pitch black of night. Movement. A breeze. A skittering of debris. She’s not alone.
“Who goes there?” Her voice is deep and commanding, but it elicits no answer. A scent, like cedar and wet earth, burns her nostrils. She pivots into the density of a body with ready hands trained to search for and find: the throat, the eyes, or the groin. Soft spots. Vulnerable spots. Her fingers tighten around a narrow neck. She brings the blade up, pressing it against skin. One, two, three steps and St. Cloud has pushed the interloper into a wall. The body squirms in her grasp, but it is no challenge to St. Cloud’s strength and training.
“Please, no!” It’s a small voice, brittle as sun-bleached grass.
“What group?” St. Cloud asks. Camden County residents had been rounded up and sent south of the wall to a field hospital. Whomever this person is, they don’t belong. They begin to tremble in St. Cloud’s arms. They must know what the law dictates and yet, they’ve come from the shadows to make themselves known. Why?
There are two dozen streets named ‘Elm’ in New Nevada. It doesn’t help. She needs more.
Whitaker? St. Cloud had been near a Whitaker, maybe a year ago. Supposedly, there was a bunker there, in the high country, where the snow falls ten months out of the year. They said it was populated by women, young girls. Most of them pregnant.
“Elm Whitaker.” St. Cloud releases her and takes a step back, keeping knife at the ready. “County?”
Elm rubs her throat and coughs. “St. Cloud.”
Impossible. St. Cloud’s thoughts burn. There was no one left. They’d said she was the only one. They’d told her that. They’d sworn to it. They’d shown her pictures when she’d had one of her outbursts, and there’d been many, especially in those first months, when St. Cloud didn’t believe anything anyone said.
She lowers her knife and gropes for something to bear her weight. The room spins. Elm reaches for her about the time the blackness comes, but it’s too late.
“You slept for a few hours,” Elm says when St. Cloud opens her eyes to a piercing blue winter sky. Elm has left St. Cloud where she landed not because she wanted her to suffer, cold and wet in a puddle, but because St. Cloud is a dense woman, full of muscle and righteous indignation, even when unconscious.
St. Cloud feels her belt for the knife. It’s gone.
“Looking for this?” Elm asks, holding up the blade. It shines in the morning light. “I found some oil in the bottom of a drum in the back office. I oiled it for you.”
“Gimme,” St. Cloud demands, standing too quickly. Lights dance before her eyes and she is on her ass, in a puddle, wet. Again. “Fuck!”
Elm has seen the symptoms before. Many of the Whitaker women had fled to the mountains when things got out of control in the cities. Elm had found her way there, alone and scared.
The whole mess started one winter morning in the Eastern Barrens. It had been a dry December, and warm. At a local grocery store, a young couple lost consciousness in the produce section. A block away, stuck in traffic, eight people passed out behind the wheel of their vehicles. Downtown, twenty people blacked out on sidewalks, inside coffee shops, restaurants. Within an hour, thousands of people across several hundred miles, simply fell asleep and would never wake. They went quickly, like an off switch had been flipped. They were the lucky ones.
Experts thought it was a new flu, impervious to known treatments. It seemed to attack the memory center. The afflicted forgot the faces of their neighbors, friends, and loved ones. They forgot their own names. They became violent. Unfettered by the anchor of the past, reality unraveled like a ball of yarn under a cat’s detached attention.
Hundreds of distress calls turned into thousands. At 9-11 dispatch centers across the States, the ever-ringing phones remained unanswered. Services stretched thin, then ceased. Chaos prevailed, and with it, a cloistering, a tightening. Division. Survivors fell into one of two categories: the intact and the impaired. Like St. Cloud, Elm had lost everything. Unlike St. Cloud, Elm remembered.
“You need some water and B1 and B9.” Elm unzips a pouch kept around her waist and rifles through its contents. She finds two tablets and inspects the markings carved into them. “Here,” she says. “It’s your lucky day.”
St. Cloud bats the pills away. They dance across the cement floor, ping-ponging. Click. Click. Click. “Knife. Now.”
“They made you a Reckoner. Didn’t they?”
“Knife.” St. Cloud’s face tightens. She sets her teeth. “Now.”
“You always did like to play with fire.” Elm zips her pouch and sighs, closing her eyes. “I suppose that’s why you became a firefighter.”
“What the fuck do you mean, I always—”
“Do they know? Do you know?” Elm’s face sags and her breath catches.
“Answer me! What do you mean I liked playing with fire?”
“You’ve got it.”
“Do you know me?” St. Cloud staggers. “Oh, God. Do I know you?”
“You’ve got the virus,” Elm’s eyes fill with water.
It’s night and a cool breeze—made colder by the wet dungarees clinging to her legs—makes St. Cloud shiver. She wakes to find Elm staring at her. She struggles to rise. Her hands are bound behind her. Elm has stolen her boots.
“Same size,” she sighs. She brings her feet together, tapping her toes.
“I’ll tell you one time.” St. Cloud begins. “I have a job to do. You’re hindering an ordained Reckoner in the line of duty. You’re in violation of code—”
“Code?” Elm laughs. She folds and unfolds a slip of paper the color of a robin’s egg. She holds the paper to her face, breathing deeply with eyes closed. “I don’t give a shit about their code.”
“You’re sick and you don’t even realize what you’re doing… what you’ve done.”
“I’m an ordained—”
“Blah, blah, blah. Save it. No one with any authority over us ordained you.” Elm rises to peer out the cinder-blocked framed hole that had once held a large pane of glass. The clouds are heavy in the sky. Along the horizon, the sky is smudged. More rain is coming.
“They won’t pay you, you know. F-for me. Reckoners don’t do ransom.”
Elm turns to St. Cloud. She digs the tip of the knife into her fingernails, flicking away the grime that blackens them. “That’s not why I’ve been following you, Charlie.”
Charlie? Where has she heard that name before? Why does it make her stomach tighten? With a great deal of effort, St. Cloud rolls onto her side and sits up.
“I used to think there were worse things than forgetting or being forgotten.” Elm tucks a strand of dirty blonde hair behind her ear and trains her gaze at St. Cloud. “Seeing you, here, like this, well, I think I’d rather be dead.”
“Who the fuck is Charlie?” There is an edge to St. Cloud’s voice, sharp as the knife’s blade.
“The night you disappeared,” Elm begins, tapping fingers to her lower lip. “I was on call with the hospital.”
“Who the fuck is—”
“I should have been home. I—” Elm digs the tip of the knife blade into the yellowed paint of a cinder block. “We had reservations at Carmine’s. Do you remember Carmine’s?” Elm wipes away a tear before turning to look at St. Cloud. “It was your favorite. God help me, I don’t know why. Their meatballs were for shit. Dry, too much bread,” Elm laughs. “I never should’ve picked up the phone that night, Charlie. I never should have left you.” She moves so quickly St. Cloud has not enough time to wince away as Elm wraps her arms around her shoulders and squeezes. “But now that I’ve found you, I’m never letting you go. Never again.”
St. Cloud shrugs off, falling to her side. She pushes her bare feet into the floor and scoots, but they slip and slip and she can’t move fast enough. Elm is on her, holding her, again.
“Get the fuck offa me!”
“No. Never again, sweetheart.”
“Sweetheart? Now, wait a fuckin’ minute—”
“You don’t remember, but you will. In time. I’m taking you back to Whitaker. We have doctors. A neurologist, even. Then, you’ll remember. Me. You. Us. Everything. They’ll fix you.”
“Fix me? There’s nothing wrong with me.”
St. Cloud shoulders Elm away. Her face is a tangle of confusion and it stings Elm to see it. A long scar waterfalls over her right eye down the bridge of her nose and rises slightly at her cheek. She reaches out to touch it. St. Cloud doesn’t stop her.
“You got this scar on your eleventh birthday when your brother pushed you down a hill on your training wheels. Remember?”
“And this one”—she touches a thick white mark on Charlie’s chin—“you got when you were running with a pencil.” She bends her head to kiss it. Her lips are warm, soft. St. Cloud’s heart skips like a motor struggling to turn over. “Oh, Charlie. It was our anniversary. Don’t you remember?” Elm sits back on her haunches, scanning St. Cloud’s face with glacial blue eyes. “Please tell me you do.”
St. Cloud has never seen this woman in her life. If presented with a stack of bibles, she’d swear to it before burning them all. Still, there is something when she looks at Elm. A pulling sensation, deep inside, from an unfamiliar, hidden place.
“I don’t remember much… before two years ago.”
“So?” Elm says, shrugging. “It’ll come back to you. It’s the virus. This is what it does.”
“I don’t know how else to tell you, lady.” St. Cloud pitches forward onto her knees then thrusts her body upward, onto her feet. “I don’t fucking know you.”
When she body checks Elm into the wall, there is a dull cracking sound before the woman crumples to the floor. A red smudge paints the wall marking the path of Elm’s descent. St. Cloud makes quick work of her bonds, empties the woman’s pockets, steals her pouch, and runs.
She runs and runs, each footfall erasing random words from their strange conversation. Soon, the events at the fuel station and the woman from St. Cloud County turn blurry and begin to fade away. She runs until her body and mind are full of the effort of running, of breathing in and out, of lifting and lowering thigh and calf and foot. Her entire world becomes the road and her navigation of it.
Thirsty, she reaches into the pouch. Her fingers graze a folded slip of paper and for some reason, it troubles St. Cloud, stopping her in her tracks. She pulls it out. Something about its color, about the way it’s worn through at the creases nags at her. She unfolds it.
Scrawled inside are the scratch marks of a language lost to St. Cloud. If she could decipher it, she would know it as a letter—a love letter—one she, herself, had written two years prior. She would see that this love letter is written on a piece of stationary emblazoned with her own name: Charlene Jameson. She would read its three short paragraphs—bookended by the words “my darling petal” and “yours forever”—and know the truth of Elm’s words. She would know that she was deeply in love and loved in return. She would see that, just before she’d disappeared, something was terribly wrong with her and that, what was possibly worse, she’d known there was nothing anyone could do to help. St. Cloud would have surmised that she had fled in hopes of protecting not herself, but the woman she’d loved. If she could have accessed the part of her memory where written language had once lived, she would have known all this and more.
Instead, St. Cloud strikes blade to stone. A small spark flares, arcs, and lands on the letter. The spark catches. The fire consumes.
Miles down the pot-holed road, Elm’s face is little more than a shape in St. Cloud’s memory, its edges soft and devoid of definition. Gone are the details of their confrontation. Gone are the exact words Elm has spoken. But a part of Elm remains, like a bit of sinew wedged between her teeth.
A propagation of worry that intensifies, pulsing like a migraine with every beat of her heart. Questions like a hook in a fish’s mouth: Who is Elm and why must I get to Whitaker as soon as possible?
I’ve got to move. I have to go. I have to.
Heading north, away from the meet-up location where the Reckoners expected her days ago. Heading toward the high country where the snow conceals more than the geographic features of the land.
Elm. Elm Whitaker St. Cloud. A warmth in the pit of her, spreading and growing. A buoyancy in her step. Elm. A flash of blue. The blue of Elm’s eyes. The crinkle around them when she smiles. The comfort of Elm’s soft cotton scrubs between her fingers. Her perfume. A whiff of bergamot and red ginger. The line of her chin, the curve of her throat, as she throws back her head. The sound of her laughter.
St. Cloud pushes a cupped palm into her temple. Was any of it real, or was it a trick of the mind, a suggestion, like a virus-seed planted and sprouting in the fertile ground of her burnt-out memory? Why could she remember? Why now? Was it the warmth of Elm’s soft lips on her chin?
Suddenly, certainty fills her like air in a balloon. Her name isn’t Elm. It’s Genevieve. Her name is Genevieve Jameson. I love her and she loves me. We were married. Oh, Christ! Genevieve!
St. Cloud unfastens her belt as she runs, eager to be lighter, to move faster. The knife falls to the ground. Gone is the desire to set fire to the world, to watch it burn. Replaced now with a hunger to remember.