SOMEONE IS HUMMING A CHRISTMAS CAROL. I open my eyes to a low, dark blue ceiling painted with tiny polka dots. I blink, and my vision clears. I think they’re supposed to be stars.
I feel… Calm. Serene, tranquil, almost numb, save for a nagging doubt that makes my heart beat inside chest. I try to breathe normally, but my body won’t settle. Some instinct wants me to get up, run away… Get away from here…
The humming stops. A face enters my line of sight. “Oh, you’re awake,” it says.
It’s a boy. His voice is high and clear, his eyes burning with curiosity. I watch as he takes a glass from the bedside table, pours it full of water, then helps me sit up so I can hold it properly.
I bring the glass up to my lips, sniffing as discreetly as I can. Nothing. I take a small sip.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “we don’t usually poison newcomers on the first day. Maybe after your first week, though.”
I nearly choke. “What?”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding!” His horrified expression is almost comical. He waves his hands wildly. “The professor doesn’t condone poison; we’re not murderers. And we’d never hurt one of our own, anyways…”
I pause. “One of your own?”
“Our own,” he corrects. He takes the glass back, and places it on the bedside table. “Don’t worry, Callia will be here soon to explain what happened. Usually nobody comes to us looking as completely dead as you did, so the professor will probably want to hear your story too. But you’ll be treated just like one of the rest, I promise. No more hiding.” He wrinkles his nose.
“You know, who you are.”
Uh…what? I blink and breathe in through my nose. A somehow familiar smell catches me by surprise. It feels familiar, and that puts me on edge—wait, no, not really, except my pulse still hasn’t relaxed and I think that should bother me, though it doesn’t, not really…
“…I was just supposed to make sure you’re alive. You should sleep while you can, though. Callia, err—” The boy coughs. “—she isn’t always the nicest person. But don’t tell her I said that. She’d scorch me.” He shudders.
“That sounds extreme…” I mutter.
“Nah, not for her. Haven’t you heard? She’s supposed to be the most powerful lighter ever!”
“Well, that’s just slang, of course.” He pats my ankle and heads towards the door. “You’ll get used to it soon.”
“‘Use to’—used to what?”
He makes an impatient noise, the teenager finally peeking out. “Used to being around so many of your own kind,” he says slowly, almost sarcastically. “You know, other lighters. Yeah?”
An image of several hundred plastic lighters all lined up neatly in a row pops into my head, and I’m both amused and perplexed at the same time. But the boy turns away before I can say anything else, and opens the door and slips out.
He’s back in two seconds. “Right, and, I’m Andrew. Nice to meet you…?”
When he gives me a flat look I realize I’m supposed to supply my name. “Oh, sorry—my name is East,” I say.
I sigh. “Go ahead, I’ve heard all the jokes.”
His eyes crinkle when his lips stretch into a wide grin. “I’ll save them for a better time. Later, East.”
The door shuts behind him. I look around the room. Mine isn’t the only bed; there are two more, twins, neatly squeezed into this small space.
My mind feels heavy again, weighed down. Something whispers that I should sleep, and rest. My eyelids slide shut of their own accord—I try to force them open, to get up, but I’m so tired…
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“East. Wake up. I need to talk to you.”
A hand is shaking me roughly by the shoulder and I jerk awake, mumbling insults. “I’m tired,” I try to say, but I’m not sure it sounds like anything more than incoherent grunts.
“We don’t have much time,” a familiar voice says. I force my eyes open despite the bright orange light. “Callia will be here soon—hey, look at me.”
I blink at Ash. “Hi,” I say, and smile.
There’s a nagging feeling at the back of my head, like I’m forgetting something, but it’s easy to ignore. Oddly enough my hands are curling into fists of their own accord even though everything else—my mind, my thoughts, my emotions—are completely calm. What’s there to worry about?
“Hi.” He doesn’t smile back. “Listen, I’m sorry I woke you, but I really need to ask first—what happened to you?”
His eyes are strangely beautiful in this light. Silver and clear as always, but this close, I almost see flecks of gold in them. Or maybe that’s just a reflection of the firelight. I squint, leaning in, trying to see them more clearly. His eyes widen, then narrow.
“East.” Ash shakes me again, cups my cheeks in two large hands. “East. Focus.”
My head feels so heavy. My gaze drops to his nose, the corner of his upper lip that’s tucked in between his teeth. Hmm. “Hmm?”
He seems to pause for a moment, considering me. It’s his turn to look into my eyes now. And then he says, in a startled way, “Oh.”
He lets go of my face but touches his fingers to my temples. The action feels familiar somehow. He closes his eyes, forehead impossibly close to mine, eyebrows drawn tight in a frown.
Something starts to happen to my vision. The room behind him comes into focus; all of it is blue and white, and heart-wrenchingly familiar for whatever reason. Suddenly I really feel his touch, his skin so warm against mine. I’m aware of the bed beneath me, the pillow under my head, his body sitting close to me and turned to face me. A fog in my mind lifts.
I say, “Oh.”
“Yeah.” He exhales loudly and drops his hands from my hair, though he’s still watching my face. “Feel better now?”
I nod, then shake my head. It still feels a bit heavy, but loads better than before. “What did you…?”
“No time to explain.” There’s that uncharacteristic urgency in his voice again, in the way he grasps me by the shoulders to peer at my eyes. “They only do this to some of the new ones—it’s a way to keep you calm, make you feel safe. I’ll have to put it back after we’re done talking.” I’m sorry. Instantly something in me understands him and makes excuses for him and I nod and smile. “I can’t…well, maybe I’m not ready to take away all of it.”
He shakes his head. “Never mind. Just answer me: What happened to you?”
I’m genuinely confused this time. “What do you mean?”
“At the cliffs. After…” He hesitates. “After you left home.”
I try to remember what he’s talking about, but it all feels vague and hazy and I can’t latch onto any specific detail or memory that could help me answer his question. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, frustrated.
He touches a hand to my temple again. “And now?”
Images, sounds. I close my eyes and try to see them more clearly, but they flit through my mind at light-speed. It’s enough to make me remember, though… Just a little bit.
“I was upset,” I say slowly. “I didn’t know where to go.”
“So you went to the cliffs?”
“Yeah. I don’t know. My feet kind of just took me there.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” he concedes. “You’ve always felt safe at the cliffs. But—why did you jump?”
A flash of frustration lights his eyes, and though it’s gone just as fast I still grin dumbly. His finger traces my lips, and I shiver. He freezes and takes his hands away, and runs them through his hair. “But why did you jump?” he asks again. “Why didn’t you just—I don’t know, wade in from the beach?”
“Fine. Different question. Was it… Was it anything like the first time? Like the night after the fire?”
What’s he talking about? “What do you mean?” I try to say, but all that comes out is “No. Well, I don’t know. But the ocean wouldn’t listen to me.”
“It wouldn’t ‘listen’?” Ash tilts his head. “Can you explain that?”
“It was like last time,” I hear myself saying. What am I saying?” “I was so ready to go… I mean I was ‘there’ already—gone, I mean—but it forced me come back up and find you first. It wanted me to take you back to shore and make sure you were alright. And by then Jem was there, and he wouldn’t let me go back.”
“So you did save me,” he says, and there’s a softness in his voice that makes me shiver again. “I always wondered… Maybe that’s your gift, then.”
“A lot of lighters have an extra gift. Maybe that’s yours—manipulating the sea.”
I’m shaking my head before he even finishes. “Oh, no. I don’t manipulate anything, I can’t. It’s just. I don’t know.” I frown, trying hard to think past the murkiness in my mind, the hazy veil over some of my thoughts. “I don’t have any extra gifts,” I finish firmly.
Ash smiles for the first time. “Oh, I doubt that,” he says. “At the very least, I know you can breathe underwater.”
Ice washes over me. “I—you—what?
“You were under for way longer than I was, and I’m not even that bad at holding my breath,” he says quietly. “That night. Do you—no, you wouldn’t remember. Well.” He pauses, looking at me. “Well. Yes. A regular human being would not have survived.”
He sounds so sure that I can’t call his bluff. My body is still tense and uncomfortable but, still, my mind doesn’t think anything is wrong. I frown deeply.
This weight pressing on my mind, on my memories… I don’t like it. I close my eyes and sit back. “East?” I hear Ash say, as if from far away. I ignore him. I concentrate on the weight, the murky fog. After Ash fiddled with my forehead it felt better than before, but not completely. It was like… It was like there had been a blanket over everything but Ash re-adjusted it to cover a few things. Select things.
But I want to see what he’s hidden. I breathe again. In, out. I think of the fog in my mind and I imagine it’s just like any other fog, just a shroud. I imagine it lifting, leaving. It won’t budge. I imagine it dispersing—a wind, maybe, blowing it apart, pushing it away, shredding it—and evaporating under the force of heat. It moves a little. My fingertips feel warm and Ash’s hands are hot where they touch my shoulder. I push harder. It dissipates with a roaring, reverberating gong in my mind.
The force of it makes me gasp and my eyes fly open and I’m thrown back at the same time, away from Ash. His own face is open with shock. All my memories flood back at the same time, sliding into place where the fog had just been. Sadness, rage, despair, humiliation—I run through a thousand emotions a thousand times in those mere seconds as Ash and I stare at each other.
And then—fear. As my mind finally catches up with my body. The room still looks familiar but that prickly feeling is back, warning me that I’m not safe, that I need to leave. I hear blood rushing in my eyes loud and clear as though a tsunami wave is gathering strength inside my head, fuelled by the onslaught of forgotten emotions rushing through me as well as that a sense of unavoidable doom. “You—” I begin hoarsely but he cuts me off.
“How did you do that—”
The bedroom door opens, slamming against the wall. A girl with autumn hair storms into the room, leaps onto the bed, and lunges for my throat.