It started in a fire.
Tom found the girl, unconscious in the industrial fire in the warehouse district, and carried her from the burning building. The photographer caught an award-winning photo of the two of them, Tom looking stalwart and heroic and the girl pale, her red hair streaming in the wind like the flames blazing behind them. When they revived her, she had no memory of why or how she had been in the building. She had no memory at all, and she was resting at Rose Gardens General Hospital in midtown until her family could be found.
Tom knocked on Jane Doe’s door and entered when invited. He was in street clothes, a waffle-textured shirt stretched tight over his shoulders and chest and a favorite pair of jeans. He flashed a warm grin and ran a hand through his tousled hair. Jane was sitting in a chair next to the bed, swallowed up by the gray pleather, her form waif-like and petite, her hair taking on a life of its own around her thin face. She wore a pair of leggings and a long sweater, two sizes too big, probably donated by the hospital since her own clothing had been too damaged in the fire for her to wear.
“I don’t know if you remember me,” Tom began, ” but I’m the one who found you in the fire.”
He smiled when the girl nodded and continued. “I just wanted to make sure you were feeling better. You had us worried, you know.”
“I am sorry for that,” she said, and her voice was lower in pitch than her appearance would suggest and she had an accent, but one Tom could not identify. “I am grateful for your assistance, of course.”
“My captain tells me that you have no memory of the accident, but I can tell you that you were very lucky. Despite the intensity of that fire, they found no burns and no smoke inhalation at all, just the head trauma.”
“I suppose,” she said with a shrug, “I just wish that I could remember why I had been there, or anything about my life before the fire, it is frustrating.”
“I can only imagine.” He glanced over at the closed curtain where the girl’s roommate slept. “Hey, would you like to get a cup of coffee or take a walk in the hospital’s garden? It might be good to get out of this room for a while.”
She practically bounced to her feet. “Oh yes, please, I would love that.”
They decided to do both, get a cup of coffee and take it out to the garden. It was a warm day, but cool enough in the shade of the mature trees, and they walked and talked. Despite the amnesia about everything personal, they discovered that Jane could remember books and movies she had enjoyed and they chatted for quite some time, comparing interests. He preferred nonfiction books while she loved fiction of all types, but in movies they found a common love for documentaries and classic science fiction. He worried that she might be easily tired, but more than an hour passed and she showed no signs of flagging. Except for a wrinkle between her brows whenever the conversation moved too closely to personal topics, she was at ease and made a fascinating companion. When the time came for him to leave, he asked if he could visit again and she eagerly agreed.
He visited the next day and the next, but her memory still had not returned and there was some discussion about what to do with her. She couldn’t leave the hospital and no one could track down her name, address, friends, or family. That famous photo had been seen all over the city and even made the national news, but no one came forward and she matched no missing persons report.
“You could come home with me,” he said, one evening after a meal of sub sandwiches he had brought in from his favorite shop. When she looked up, a little startled, he continued. “I have a spare room right now. My roommate is on a trip for Doctors without Borders and I didn’t want to sublet it for just a few months. He wouldn’t mind and you could get out of here.” He waved to indicate both the cramped, semi-private room and the hospital in general. “You said you’re healthy in everything except the memory, so why stay?”
She bit her lower lip and then smiled shyly, “Separate rooms?”
“Definitely. After all, you could be a married woman, right?” This was Tom’s greatest fear. Not that Jane would turn out to be a psychotic, axe murderer, but that she might have a husband or even children out there, somewhere.
She searched his face, her warm, brown eyes serious. “I wish I knew.”
“I know, so do I. What do you think? Roomies?” Tom smiled when she nodded and it was decided.
The hospital was happy enough to release her as there was no one paying her bill, so she checked out the next morning and Tom picked her up in his classic mustang. His apartment was small, but comfortable, and Tom had made room for her tiny collection of donated clothing and toiletries in his roommate’s closet.
The next two weeks were busy ones as Tom took Jane on long drives through the city and its suburbs, hoping to spark a memory. They also visited local churches, malls, schools, libraries, and every public place they could think of. He had taken some of his neglected leave time and was free to be her chauffeur and tour guide while she returned the favor by doing most of the cooking. She had discovered a love of cooking and prepared nearly gourmet-level meals every night.
No matter how they searched, they could find nothing that sparked a memory and she became more solemn and discouraged as time passed. Tom had to continually remind her not to worry, while privately reminding himself not to get too attached, but it was too late. His heart was engaged and he felt that hers was, too. There was a spark between them that could not be denied, and he felt drawn to her in a way that was completely new. The more he cared about her, the more he wanted to know her past, otherwise he couldn’t dream they could have a future.
“Aerialist, maybe?” Tom said, stretched out on the couch, the last night before he had to return to work.
“You know, those girls in glitter and spangles, flying through the air in a circus tent,” Tom teased. “I could definitely see you in tights and a glittery costume, high overhead.” He wriggled his eyebrows at her and she laughed.
“I still think I was a chef, cooking seems so natural to me.” She wriggled her feet on his lap and he picked one up to massage it, making her toes curl and then relax in pleasure. This was the only physical contact they allowed themselves while her past remained a mystery. Tom was distracted by the delicacy and warmth of her tiny feet. Most women, in his experience, had cold feet, but Jane seemed almost to have an inner furnace. She was never cold despite her thin frame.
“You can definitely cook, but I can’t see you in a white chef’s hat, covering up that glorious red hair. On the other hand, maybe you were a librarian. You’ve read more books than anyone I know. I can just see you now, hair in a bun, little glasses perched on your nose.” He grinned at her and she grimaced.
“I don’t know, that seems a little tame,” her smile grew distant and he knew she had lost interest in their game. “I think I need to go back.”
“Back to the hospital?” he asked, heart sinking.
“No, back to the fire,” Jane glanced up at him and then back to where his hands engulfed her feet. “I think I need to go back. Maybe it will spark a memory.”
“We can do that as soon as I’m off duty. I don’t know if it will help, but I don’t see how it could hurt. You’ll just have to be careful, the site is unstable after that fire.”
“I will be careful,” she promised and, after his next shift, they drove to the site.
The building, which had been some kind of factory or manufacturing plant, was a pile of broken and blackened bricks and twisted metal. Despite several weeks of rain and settling, a faint shimmer of ash seemed to float over the site.
Jane stood in one spot and turned in a slow circle, examining the surroundings. After a long moment, she turned to Tom and shook her head to indicate that she felt no recognition.
“Can we get closer?” she asked and Tom looked at the site.
“A little, I think. The arson investigators are done with their work and we should be okay as long as you don’t go in too deep.”
She nodded, her face more solemn than he was used to after the weeks of laughter and camaraderie.
He let her lead the way, skating the edge of the burned foundation her eyes intense as she searched the site. He wasn’t sure what she was looking for, but he thought that she was just as uncertain, so he kept silent and followed her, keeping her safe.
Suddenly, she stopped and pointed into the ruins. “Do you see that?”
He looked where she pointed and saw nothing out of the ordinary. “I’m not sure, what am I looking for?”
“I see something metal, right there.”
Tom looked around and tried to orient himself. Were they near the exit through which he had carried her from the fire? It looked about right. “There’s a lot of metal here, hon. What kind of metal do you mean?”
“I don’t know, but I think it’s important,” she said, and darted forward before he could stop her. She only went a few yards into the perimeter of the building and stopped, bending to pick something up from the ashes. A chain dangled from her fingers, curiously untarnished or otherwise damaged by the heat of the fire. She wandered back to Tom, the chain twisting in a slight breeze and he saw a pendant hanging from the chain.
“What is it?”
Jane stopped in front of him, examining the chain. Although the chain itself was miraculously untouched by the heat of the flames, the pendant was blackened and cracked. It looked like it had been a stone, perhaps a gem, a rather large one, set in a metal he couldn’t identify. Whatever it was, it was as undamaged as the chain.
“I think it’s mine,” Jane breathed, tracing the metal setting without quite touching the stone. “I think it’s important.”
Tom studied her face, was there an expression there he had never seen on her features before?
“Are you remembering something?” He asked, fighting to keep his voice calm.
She looked up at him, eyes haunted. “I don’t know. But I think it’s the key. Tom, what if I’m not an aerialist or a chef or a housewife, even. What if I’m something worse? Why was I in this building? What if that investigator was right? What if I started the fire?”
“You heard the arson report, no sign of accelerant, no proof of any kind of arson. I don’t think you need to worry about that, we’ve talked about this.”
She shook her head, “I don’t know,” she said again. “There’s so much I don’t know, can’t know. Who was I? What was I? I don’t want to lose what I am now for who I was then.”
He gathered her in his arms and held her as she cried for the first time since he had carried her from the fire. He stroked her back and murmured reassurances into her wild mane of red hair until the sobs slowed and then ceased. She lifted her face and, for the first time, their lips met and they clung to one another, the spark they had refused to acknowledge fanned into a flame.
She pulled away first, stepping back while he forced himself to let her go. She touched his face and sighed deeply, lips trembling. He stared at those swollen lips and fought the urge to pull her in for another kiss. She stepped away, putting distance between them.
“I can’t hide forever,” she half-whispered and held up the pendant. While he watched, not knowing what to expect, she wrapped her right hand around the broken, blackened gem. Nothing happened, and he began to wonder what exactly he thought would happen, when he saw it. Light leaked out between her fingers, escaping her tightly-clasped fist. She left her hand fall open and the pendant swayed from the chain as she held it in front of her eyes. The gem, no longer black, was completely whole. It shone a brilliant red, swirling with yellows and oranges. She tore her gaze from the sight and gave Tom a long look, her eyes reflecting all of the colors of fire.
Suddenly worried, her reached for her, but she lifted the chain and placed it around her neck. The glow of the gem expanded to her skin and her hair swirled around her head, more flame-like than ever.
Her borrowed clothes, always a little too big and never quite right, fell away, and she became wreathed in flame. As Tom watched, horrified and struck with incomprehension, Jane sloughed off the mortal form she had been wearing as easily as she had abandoned the clothing, as if it also didn’t quite fit. She stood, glowing with an unearthly light, revealed in her true form. He had no name to put to it, but she was a creature of flame and light, not flesh.
“What is happening?” He cried, reaching for her, while also taking a stumbling step away. “Jane?”
Her voice was richer and more complex than it had been in her mortal form but no less loving and he realized suddenly that she had loved him as much as he had loved her.
“Not Jane, Tom, not anymore. I am Edana. I’m sorry I can’t stay with you, but my life isn’t meant to be among the mortals. I would stay if I could, but there are things I must do.”
“What are you?” Tom asked, lost in the wonder and horror of her transformation.
“Not an aerialist,” her voice contained mirth and compassion, “nor a chef, doctor, or librarian, I’m afraid. I’m a spirit of fire, and I have responsibilities beyond the mortal world. I am sorry, I would stay Jane for you, if I could. Jane loved you and I remember that love now, as I remember everything else I had lost. Thank you for caring for me.”
Tom felt his eyes fill with tears and fought to keep his knees locked and himself upright. “I will miss you,” he said, the words woefully inadequate.
“You will miss Jane, but I will never be far. I will always watch for you in the fires you fight.”
She bent as if to kiss his cheek and he felt a small burn blossom there, leaving a scar that he never explained over the long years of his life, and then she swirled into the sky, lost in the rays of the setting sun.