*Editor’s Note: The previous chapters have been rewritten. If things don’t make sense take a look at Chapters 1-3.
THE SIDEWALK FLIES AWAY under my feet as I run, and then I veer off of it, towards the field, across the field, into the woods. I slow to a jog once I reach the shade. Here, everything is dark blue and dark green and all shades of purple, thrumming with the chirping of birds and whispers of wind.
I follow the main trail for a while, counting my steps until I come to the tree. It’s marked with a dash of fluorescent white paint that has faded so much over the years that you really would only see it if you were looking for it in the first place. I turn left.
The air tastes different here. I can hear soft splashes in the distance, no, crashes, water breaking on rock and stone. I speed up, then tell myself to slow down. Enjoy this. I savour the slight saltiness of the air and revel in the stronger, colder winds.
The shade ends not far ahead as the woods cut and fade to open rock. I feel my heartbeat pick up—I kick off my shoes before stepping out onto the rock—I’m safe. The surface is rough under my feet, but not icy cold, just cool. A few patches of green moss stick out here and there.
I can almost feel each swell of water pushing against the cliff beneath my feet, and I smile and breathe and breathe and smile. My heart calms, thumping in time to the ocean.
Welcome home, she’s saying; I imagine that she’s climbing up the side of the cliff to see me. I close my eyes and I almost think I already feel sprays of cold water gently tickling my face, and I throw off my shirt and throw it aside, and there’s only a few more steps, and I unbutton my jeans to push it over my hips I’m so close—
His voice startles me awake and I trip on my jeans; instead of rock my hands grasp open air, and then suddenly I’m slipping off the edge.
Pain explodes in my right shoulder as my fingers grip onto sharp rock, and my entire body drops and those fingers are the only things holding me above the rushing, rushing sea. I bite back tears—God, it hurts—a finger slips—I cry out, and my left hand frantically grabs at the rocky shelf above me—
Relief isn’t a strong enough word for what I feel when Ash appears overhead. His expression is ferocious as he reaches for my wrist and hauls me up in one smooth motion, giving me a strangely weightless feeling, then immediately wraps me up in his arms and pulls us away from the edge as fast as he can.
He buries his face in my hair. We’re both breathing heavily. My heart stutters in an abnormal rhythm and so does his, furiously pumping against my ear. His breaths make me shiver. His hand soothes down my back, through my hair, skin on skin. My heart calms, and I stiffen.
We pull back at the same time. He doesn’t look at me as he hands me my shirt, and turns away while I pull it on. Then my jeans.
I glance at the sea again just to steady myself. It seems so far away, a silken mass of blue twisting and twisting, angry, tumultuous. But I have to face reality first. I have to face Ash.
When I finally gather the courage to turn around again, he’s sitting on the rock, face in his hands, back against the big slab of protruding stone that Jem and I used to use as a picnic table. I stop short.
I walk to him, slowly. “Ash?”
“Hey…” I swallow my pride. “Um. Sorry.”
We’re both surprised by my words. My voice sounds hoarse and raspy, so I clear my throat awkwardly as he rubs his face—dry and tearless, I notice—and finally looks up, jerking his head in a small nod. I hesitate. He pulled you back, a voice in my head says, so I sit down next to him, facing the open sky.
The ocean whispers, You’re okay, I’m here, you’re safe.
When Ash still doesn’t say anything, I ask, “How did you know?”
“Who do you think told Jem about this place?”
“I hate you.”
Ash bows his head as if he feels ashamed, but when turns to me his face shows a complete lack of contrite. He says, loudly and without hesitation, “And I just saved your fucking life.”
The comment flies out of my mouth before I can stop it. “Well, you certainly played that hand well. What do you want from me now?”
He gets up so quickly I flinch. That seems to make him even angrier—yes, angry, because there’s no mistaking that fire in his eyes or the tension in his jaw. He puts his hands together and cracks his knuckles, then runs his fingers through his hair. He walks halfway to the edge of the cliff, stops, walks back. He comes right up to me.
“Get up,” Ash says. His voice is tight and even.
I try to dart around him but he catches me around the waist and lifts me up and swings me all the way around. The world becomes a blur of dark grey and blue and indigo until he sets me down, hard, on the big slab of rock. He puts his hands down on either side of my hips and leans forward. I’m trapped.
“What were you doing?” Ash demands in a low voice.
I’m ready for this. “Jumping off a cliff. Wasn’t that obvious?”
“You could’ve died. You would’ve died if I didn’t get here in time. Is that what you wanted? To kill yourself?”
“Of course not!” I say, irritated. But I’m panicking, grasping desperately at all kinds of flimsy excuses. “I just wanted to take a dive.” Please please don’t mention—
“Then why didn’t you go to Little White?”
It’s out, it’s done, it’s there. I let out a sound, a weird sort of sob-laugh-scoff that sounds desperate even to my ears. It doesn’t matter; he keeps going. “Eea, this area is locked off for a reason. Don’t you remember what happened to my aunt’s cousin?”
There’s no logical reason as to why I’m still alive; I know that. That’s why I never think about it, never pause to wonder how I can casually drop off a two-hundred-and-forty-seven-meter cliff into the ocean and come out no worse for wear.
Ash is still angry, shaking, and I wonder if it’s just my imagination that there’s actual heat coming off his skin. The warmth diminishes a little as his breathing seems to go back to normal. He leans backwards, but doesn’t look away from me.
“You promised me you wouldn’t try this again,” he says.
His voice is so uncharacteristically vulnerable that I look up, startled, to meet his eyes. They search my face. Two orbs of tumultuous—something.
“This wasn’t the same,” I say quietly, holding his gaze.
Instantly he’s on fire, glaring at me, almost shouting, “You’re damn right it’s not! What excuse could you possibly have this time? How do you think your family might feel, especially after they lost your mother? Did you even stop to think about what your dad and Denny and Jem would feel? What I might—”
I miss the rest of his sentence because I’m staring at his sleeve.
Half of his left arm is aglow—ablaze, from his elbow to his wrist. The flames dance on his skin and in their light a game of shadows play on his face. I stare at it; I can’t move, I can’t speak. He’s frozen, too, and he doesn’t look away from me. His silver eyes shine almost as brightly as the fire on his arm.
And then I think, I am going to die.
“East…” he says slowly, taking a step closer. I shake my head frantically and he stops, a pained look on his face.
“How are you…”
His eyes burn brightly with something that looks like regret. You know.
The yellow sparks flicker, then falter, and then they disappear altogether. I look at his face, then his arm, then his face again.
“Listen, East. That night before I left—”
Everything falls into place. “No,” I whisper. “No. Not you. Not this. You… It was you…” Terror rushes through my blood. Fire. On his arm. His skin and flesh and blood and bones.
And he had put it out.
When I finally breathe again, I’m transported back to the night of the fire. And instead of my brothers’ best friend, my own former friend, the boy I see standing in front of me is the boy who caused the fire that had killed my mother.
“No,” I say, again, more forcefully now, when he tires to speak again. He hesitates. And that’s when I run for my life.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I can’t quite catch my breath. My throat burns, and I have the strongest urge to scream—bile rises—there’s a pungent taste in my mouth—finally I stumble and fall to my knees on the side of the path, dry retching.
It’s several minutes before I can stop. I’m on my hands and knees, crawling, the only coherent thought in my head telling me to get off the path and into the trees, just in case he comes back again, if he comes after me again. Those flames, God, the fire…
Somewhere in the forest, a twig snaps.
For the first time these trees feel claustrophobic. You can’t stay here. I pull myself up, I’m moving, running, tripping and falling, reeling, sliding down slopes of soft grass. In the back of my mind the last, remaining lucid part of me realizes that I’d left my shoes behind, and now sharp pebbles dig into the soles of my feet. Thorns and branches cut my skin, my clothes. I feel mad.
When trees no longer tower over my face, I start to run. As I move a strange burning sensation begins in my leg and grows stronger, until I’m certain I’m burning alive, until I’m certain I’m aflame, too, just like he was, just like he’d been that night…
I crash into our front door so hard that for a moment I see stars. My fingers slip on the door knob and another sob escapes my lips as I pat my pockets. Burning. Where is my key? Back pocket, there—but I can’t hold still, my hands tremble they won’t stop moving. Oh God. Fire. I twist the thin piece of metal desperately—fire, fire—I fall into the house, hit a hard, cold floor—
Cold cold cold. Cold. Not a fire. I lurch forward and kick the door closed. BOOM. It sounds like an explosion and echoes through the empty house. Another sob. No, no fire, no fire. “The floor is cold. There’s no fire. No.”
“East? Is that you?”
I gasp, and look up, and there’s Dennis, and there’s Jem, rushing to me. He takes my elbows and my face and looks at me carefully. “What’s wrong?”
“Fire,” I try to say, but it comes out garbled and I say, “No, fire, fire, no fire…”
“Oh, Eea,” Jem sighs, and drops his chin on top of my head. “Deep breaths. Come on, deep breaths.”
I listen to the sound of Dennis’ footsteps going somewhere, and breathe to it. In, out, in, out, and thump, thump goes my heart, quieting down. “There’s no fire,” I say again.
“There’s no fire,” Jem agrees.
“No fire,” comes a gruff voice, and a tanned hand thrusting a cup of water at my face.
I take it and drink, drink, drink, and it’s beautiful, it’s sweet, it’s the stuff of life. “More,” I gasp, then “No, no,” when Jem tries to take it away.
“Slow down,” he urges, and Dennis says, “It’s okay, let her drink.”
Jem shoots him a look but Dennis has already taken hold of the cup and holds it firmly so that it doesn’t splash down my front, but I can keep drinking. When I finish, he tilts it back, and asks, “Feeling better?”
“Wanna tell us what happened?”
I shake my head. But Jem’s eyes are narrowing, then widening with horror.
“Was it…” He hesitates, as if the words are having trouble coming out. “Was it… Asher?”
A sob breaks out of me, and Jem’s face falls but I grab his shoulder and say to him, “No, it’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.”
“I sent him to get you,” he says, aghast.
“You didn’t know that he would…”
“What, Eea? What did he do?”
I shake my head. What would he do if I tell the truth? I know the answer.
Fire, fire, fire.
“Nothing,” I say unconvincingly. “It’s nothing. We had a fight, that’s all.”
Jem swears. “Don’t do this, East; don’t shut down. Tell us what happened. Please.”
“Nothing happened,” I repeat more firmly. “It was a misunderstanding, that’s all.”
I get up off the floor, and though Jem nor Dennis tries to stop me, they still look highly suspicious. I pause. That’s not good.
“If you have to know…” I say slowly, summoning a blush. “He… We…”
Dennis catches on first. A grin spreads across his face, and he nudges Jem, who now looks like he’s trying to decide whether it’s easier to stab a six-foot-something person to death or to just strangle him.
“Don’t kill him,” I say quickly when Jem looks like he’s decided to try both options. “It was me—I started it. And he, uh, he said he couldn’t, since… You know, you’re such good friends and all…”
“And he made you cry?” Jem growls, but Dennis barks out a laugh and says, “Such a fucking gentleman.” He grins at me. “Gonna try again?”
“Of course not,” I say. Oh, God—the image pops into my head and now I feel warm all over, and I regret going with this ridiculous lie. “I’m not…”
Jem’s face is starting to turn a shade of red. “I’m going to have some words with him, the little shit…”
“No, no, no, don’t,” I say urgently, but he’s already reaching for his coat, throwing it over his shoulders then striding towards the door. “No, don’t—Jem!”
He waves at me without even looking back, and then with a few quick strides he’s in his truck and driving away.
Oh, God. What have I done?
Dennis snorts, coming up beside me as we watch Jem drive off. “Don’t worry, he won’t go too hard on your lover boy. He just needs to blow off some steam.”
Steam. Heat. Fire.