The title came first for this story, which is surprising, because I’m usually rubbish at coming up with titles for just about anything. Well, really, the idea of burning love letters came first, and then the questions of who would be burning them, and why, and what if someone was receiving those burnt love letters, through some sort of weird magic? What if this person was like a patron saint, like Valentine, but for the opposite of love – for broken hearts? From there I had a title and a main character, and with a little bit more digging, a story line. Originally, the story was supposed to start with a picnic basket turning into a kitten, and while that’s still referenced there, I think the resulting story more accurately represents the idea I wanted – a story about self-love and loss, fear and hope.
The Patron Saint of Broken Hearts
There was a particular cruelty in Valentine’s Day, especially when it was up to one person – or rather saint – to fix the thousands of hearts surely to be broken as a result of it. And especially when all that saint wanted to do was sit in peace and finish an unbroken three-day marathon of Friends.
“Come on,” Valentine – saint of all things love and, inexplicably, bees – said. He fussed with the tea kettle on Ember’s stove. “It’s one day. We’ll go together.”
“You say that every year,” Ember pointed out.
“This year will be different.”
“You say that every year, too,” Ember said. On the TV screen, which was the size of a thirteen-foot wall, Phoebe sang a song about a smelly cat. Ember’s own cat, a massive orange thing, arched his back and hissed in indignation. Ember personally thought he was over-reacting; being smelly had to be a lot better than being a picnic basket, which is what Fluffy was before Valentine had magically transformed him into a kitten as a present for Ember.
“But this year, I can guarantee it,” Valentine said.
A letter appeared on Ember’s lap, the edges still curling and smoking from burning.
“I thought I told you to stop going through my things.” Ember pushed the letter off his lap, careful not to let his sweatpants catch fire. “Besides, I’ve already decided. I’m not going out this year.”
“You’re being careless,” Valentine said.
Ember glanced at the smoldering paper out of the corner of his eye to make sure it hadn’t lit anything else on fire. “The couch is flame-resistant.”
Valentine came into the living room and handed Ember a cup of tea. He licked a spot of honey off his hand. “The Coalition hasn’t been impressed.”
“By the couch?” Ember asked, though he knew that Valentine was referring to the stacks of letters and dove messages and emails all saying the same thing: Ember was under-performing. The Coalition of Saints was concerned about the vitality of his mission. When was the last time he’d actually fixed a broken heart? Had he ever fixed a broken heart, for that matter?
He took a sip of the tea, winced, and turned it into a gin and tonic. “I told you to stop putting honey in everything.”
“They want to discontinue your mission,” Valentine said, and for the first time, a steel edge entered his voice. This was the voice that caused people to fall in love with each other, whether or not they should. “They want to discontinue you.”
There was a dull ringing in Ember’s ears. He’d had a feeling it would come to this eventually. After all, he’d never actually fixed a broken heart before, and what use was a saint if he couldn’t do the one thing he’d been created for? He just hadn’t realized how soon it would be. He thought that he’d have at least another few centuries before the Coalition really took action. But no, here it was. The ultimatum. Fix a broken heart or be poofed out of existence.
As if he could hear Ember’s thoughts, Fluffy leapt down from the back of the couch. Ember watched him slink away into the dark depths of the bookshelves. Traitor.
“Well,” he started and then stopped, because really, what was there to say when you found out that the end had come?
Suddenly the gin and tonic disappeared from his hand.
“Well?” Valentine said. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
For a long, quiet moment, Ember considered all of the things he actually wanted to say.
He never got the chance.
There was a flash, and then the tell-tale compression of the world that meant Ember was hurtling through it. But it wasn’t until his knees hit pavement and the smell of concrete and cities and humans reached him, that Ember realized what had happened.
“You drugged me,” Ember said, accusingly, to the man standing above him.
Valentine brushed snowflakes off his coat. “I gave you tea.”
Ember pressed his cheek against the freezing ground and closed his eyes. He should’ve known that Valentine would try something like this. Should’ve known as soon as Valentine magicked that letter into his lap that he’d find a way to trick Ember into giving this whole thing one last shot. Should’ve known it as soon as Valentine gave him tea that there’d be nectar – traveling serum – in it.
“Get up,” Valentine said.
Ember didn’t want to. He wanted to lie here with his eyes shut and wait for the Coalition to get on with disappearing him.
A noise, something like a cross between a gasp and a sigh, something that wasn’t Valentine, made him look up.
There was a girl at the other end of the alley staring at them. Behind her, red painted flowers dripped down the bricks. Even from where he was, even with the smell of garbage and the sea, Ember could smell the iron and salt in those flowers.
Valentine said again, quietly, insistently, “Ember. Get up.”
Ember got up.
The girl’s feet scrambled against the pavement, and for a moment, Ember thought she was going to run. But then he saw her arms and the knife next to her, and something inside of him clenched and clenched, until all he wanted was to run himself, to hide and close his eyes and disappear.
It wasn’t that Ember hadn’t seen this before. It was that the last time he had, he’d sworn off Valentine’s Day altogether. Broken hearts from failed relationships he could handle. But hearts that were broken because someone had stopped loving him or herself were a completely separate story. Those were the ones that haunted Ember. Those were the ones that hurt.
Those were the ones that he had always been too late for.
But not this one.
Valentine had known.
Ember looked at his friend, at the saint that had been by his side through all of this. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to hug him or punch him.
This year will be different. I can guarantee it.
Valentine opened his fist. The burning letter appeared next to Ember.
There would be questions, and lots of them, but this wasn’t the time.
At the other end of the alley, the girl said, voice shaking, “I have a knife.”
Dark, tight curls fought to escape her knitted-black cap, and beneath them, shadowed by her broken heart, the girl’s muddy eyes found Ember’s. There was something ferocious and determined in them. Something that made Ember’s own heart pull tighter inside of him.
They want to discontinue your mission.
Ember looked at the flowers behind the girl, still dripping but beginning to turn brown. There was still time. For the first time ever, there was still time.
“Go on,” Valentine said, putting a hand on Ember’s shoulder, nudging him forward. Because in this, Valentine couldn’t come with him. In this, they both knew, there were rules, and the Coalition was likely watching.
Ember’s feet were still rooted to the pavement. His heart ached with fear and with possibility. Behind him, the air shuttered with Valentine’s departure. In front of him, the girl’s heart beat a broken rhythm, her eyes wide, shocked. Fear. Ember could smell it on her.
You can save this one, Valentine had once said to him, years ago, and Ember hadn’t believed him. He’d stayed away, stayed home. But Ember wasn’t home now, and soon enough, he wasn’t going to have one.
“Who are you?” the girl demanded. Her voice, her gaze, even her posture – shoulders straight despite everything – were enough to startle Ember into moving.
He paused in front of her and crouched down to eye-level. This close, he could see the cuts and her pain, and he pushed back his own fear. There was time. “I’m Ember,” he said.
The girl’s face was fierce. “What do you want?”
A single, impossible bee buzzed towards the painted, macabre flowers, and in the distance, sirens sounded, growing closer.
Ember thought of the millions of letters in his museum. All of those broken hearts and lost causes. He remembered all of the people he’d failed to help. He remembered and remembered and remembered them.
He was tired of just remembering. He wanted to act.
“I want to save you.”