M. C. St. John
Worsley did not know how the fire had started, only that it did, and the camp burned a bright bonfire orange in the night. He stood outside the circle of heat marked now by the singed grass, watching and waiting. The fire made the dark hairs in his beard glow like oven coils.
Deep in the fire a timber snapped from the roof, exhaling sparks. A man crawled out from the smoking hole beneath the beam. On his back was a bulging canvas bag, black as char.
“The whole ceiling just about collapsed on my head,” he said. “The bag took the brunt of it. Do I still have my hair, Worsley?”
“As much as a friar.”
“That’s about right, yes. Got to find me a new cap. Maybe in the next town. Do you reckon it’s far? We should get going, in case it is.”
“Dalton, you know the rules. We need to have an inventory.”
“Yes, right. What did you save?”
Worsley pointed to the ground, next to his heavy boots. Lit as if by hearth light was a piece of stained canvas, its edges lined with dirty brass grommets. A rope could be threaded through them and cinched to make a bag, like Dalton’s. Worsley’s, however, was undone. The canvas lay in a perfect square on the ground, the contents on it set in neat rows.
“We have the maps,” Worsley said, “my hatchet, two bundles of rope, the canteens and compass, four ration squares, and matches.” He looked at Dalton. “What’s so funny?”
“I didn’t mean to laugh,” Dalton said. “It ain’t funny, but…you saved the matches.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“No reason, none at all.” Dalton shifted his bag to the other shoulder and then touched his forehead with light fingers. Beneath the ash his bald pate was very pink and starting to peel. “It seems we have the essentials, thanks to you,” he said. “We can make it to the next town with those supplies.”
“What about you?”
“Yes, Dalton, you. Who else? We’ll need more than what I have for both of us to keep going. This camp was good for a while. But no travelers have come by in weeks. That nearest town may have dried up. We may have to go farther out to find people.”
“Do you think the sickness has spread?”
“We’ll have to find that out for ourselves now.”
Both men watched the fire burning the camp to merry hell. Part of the building’s facade was left standing, a slab of scorched stone with a single window. The glass panes had blown out with the heat. The fire watched the men from the frame with a burning eye.
“These old buildings could only last so long,” Worsley said, “before the wiring or some damn computer part decided to burn up. Fire or fever, that’s the way of the new world.”
“Bangs and whimpers,” Dalton said.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, nothing. Just saying words. They fit well together, don’t they?”
“I don’t care about words,” Worsley said. “Your turn then. What did you save?”
Dalton looked at the fire, his pink face turning orange. “It’s not much.”
“I told you where the emergency ration squares were.”
“In the back, between the periodicals and the special archives,” Dalton said. “Right on the tall metal shelf marked R-S, which you said stood for Ration Squares. That’s how I remembered. I got the last four squares.”
“There were ten,” Worsley said.
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t miscount, Dalton.”
Another timber cracked and fell into the fire. This time, something sizzled inside the flames, sending out sparks of hot blue light. A wave of smoke fell over the two men, a thick smoke smelling of spent electricity. Neither man could see the other, and it was then that either man may have thought he was alone in the world, as he had been before he met the other, alone in the night as the fire burned.
When the smoke cleared, Worsley said, “Where were you off to?”
“Nowhere,” Dalton said. “I was seeing if I dropped any ration squares near the fire.”
“The road’s over there,” Worsley said.
“Is it? My eyes are running from all the smoke. Yes, so it is. I see the road now. Of course, there wouldn’t be any of our supplies down there. But we’ll be leaving that way, together. Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be off?”
“Open the bag or I’ll do it for you.”
“Okay, yes, that’s a good idea.”
Dalton slipped the bag from his shoulder and placed it on the ground. The rope cinching the top was a melted black skein. He had trouble undoing the knots because of it. His shaky hands made it worse.
“There we go,” he said. “Got it. Yes, here are the ration squares, one, two, three, four…and five, yes, I forgot there was a fifth one. It had fallen off the shelf, I remember, and I got on my hands and knees to grab it. The fire was everywhere. It was going to be the last trip inside, so I wanted to get all that I could get. Who knows the next place we’ll end up in. A county jailhouse or a looted mall. There may not be essentials there.”
“I’m sorry, but I was thinking all those things while everything was burning. I did my best to save as much as I could.”
“Then what’s left in your sack?”
“I’ll carry it. You don’t have to take one ounce.”
“For Christ’s sake, Dalton, get on with it.”
The fire illuminated Worsley’s face. The old scars crisscrossing his nose and forehead appeared wet and fresh. He folded his arms across his chest.
Dalton looked once more to the fire and then to the road before settling his sight back on the bag. His pink head ran with sweat. He reached inside to show what he had.
“Books?” Worsley said. “You grabbed books?”
“They’ll feed us in a different way,” Dalton said. “They’ll keep us from being a certain kind of hungry.”
“I read some of them while we camped here,” Dalton said. “The words are good when they’re strung together the right way. The poets do it best. I’d read a line and the words would make me lick my lips like I’d eaten a handful of blueberries. Remember those, Worsley? The wild blueberries we picked off the bushes near that big lake? There aren’t any more berries left. The sickness took them. The sickness took everything.”
Dalton pulled out more books, thin ones and fat ones, some with glossy covers and others frayed and warped with age. He placed them on top of one another in a crooked tower.
“That library was a blueberry patch. But the crop burned up, except these ones I saved. These books made me full in a way a ration square couldn’t. They made me whole. Look here,” he said, pointing to a passage in one book, “here are cold plums in an icebox. And here,” holding up another page, “jugs of wine from Persia. And here, sugar cane cut to a harvest song. I could chew these words in my head and feel better about all of this. About the lives we’ve had to lead.”
Dalton knelt before the books, his arms spread open as if he were about to hug them.
“When the fire started, I knew I couldn’t leave them. There won’t be another crop, Worsley. These are all we have. I couldn’t leave them.” His eyes brightened. “I can read them to you. You’ll hear what I mean. They can make the night less lonely. They can fill you up. Here, let me show you.”
“You left half of the emergency rations for books,” Worsley said. In the harsh light his scars writhed all over his face. “I always thought you were a fool. Now I know without a doubt.”
With a soot-covered boot Worsley kicked the tower of books. The heaviest ones made dull thumps as they fell to the ground. Beyond them the fire continued to burn. The flames consumed everything, dwarfing the stone facade of the library. The night pulsed with heat.
“I should’ve done to you what I did to the others,” Worsley said. “Before you, I did those things to them so I could survive. Now I do the hard things for the both of us. It was a simple thing you had to do. Why don’t you understand? We needed those rations to keep going.”
Dalton slumped back on his heels. He regarded each fallen book with eyes that were watering, either from smoke or tears. “But they can feed us too,” he said.
“If you’re a horse,” Worsley said. He picked up the thickest book. “This one agrees with me.” He sounded out the words on the cover. “Leaves. Of. Grass. Is it any good?”
“The best,” Dalton whispered.
“That’s what I wanted to hear.”
Worsley reached behind his back and from the waistband of his pants pulled out the handgun. He undid the safety. The click was lost in the crackling din of the fire. He kept the barrel aimed at Dalton while he handed over the book. “Start with the first page,” he said.
“No.” Worsley pulled back the hammer. “I want to make sure you don’t go hungry.”
Dalton said nothing more. The first page was the hardest because it was the first, but that page, like the others that followed, was ripped from the spine without much difficulty when he had committed to the task. Each time, he could read a single line, or see the shape a poem made, a flower, a leaf, a scatter of stars. Those quick glances gave him some comfort, some small peace, before he crumpled the next page and placed it in his mouth.
As he chewed, the taste of ink and old paper took him away from where he was. He was next to a large lake in high summer, surrounded by more blueberries than he could eat in his entire life.
With such a long book, he would find out if that were true.
M.C. St. John is a Chicago writer. He is the author of the short story collection Other Music. His work has been published in Aphelion, Coffin Bell, J.J. Outre Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Tangled Tree Publishing, and Transmundane Press.