Her fingers tighten and I try to shove her off—hot air whips across my arms, my neck, I cry out—a blinding flash of red fills the room.
The girl yelps, too, and jumps back, landing hard on my legs. The red fades away. “What the fuck, Asher?” She says angrily, ignoring my grunt. “What did you do that for?”
Ash doesn’t answer, instead reaching for her arm. She lets him but when he tries to pull her off the bed, she shakes him off. He reaches for her again; faster than my eyes can follow, she flicks her wrist and a shower of sparks erupts from her fingertips, aimed straight at his eyes.
I gasp loudly and lurch forward, but Ash doesn’t even blink, just raises a hand and catches them in his palm. For a moment his fist glows orange as though flames are licking their way through his skin, and then he makes a gesture like he’s cleaning his hands, and the glow goes away.
“Show off,” the girl is saying, somewhat teasingly, and the shock finally catches up to me.
“What just—did you just—b-b-both of you—” I splutter, freezing in fear when they both turn their eyes on me, icy blue and clear grey. “H-How did you just—you just…”
They both ignore me. “What were you doing?” Ash says in a low voice.
“Saving your ass,” she snaps at him. She waves a hand around the room. “We heard… Something. Some loud roar from this room. Isn’t that why you’re here?”
He doesn’t answer, his eyes instead sliding to me.
She turns to face me and I see her face, fully, for the first time. My mouth drops open. “You’re the girl from the grocery store!”
“Yeah,” she says dismissively. “And you’re East Winters, the murder girl.”
I close my mouth and clench my teeth together, but whatever retort I’d had dies on my lips when she flicks her wrist again.
“East, it’s alright,” Ash begins to say, but she interrupts him.
“Does it scare you? Are you afraid of fire, honey?”
She crawls closer, the flicker of flame on her finger tip pulsing nauseatingly.
I’m frozen, and I know I should say something to prove her wrong but my eyes are widen open and fixed on that flickering flame and when she laughs, it’s loud and terrible. I try to push back—my head hits hard wood—and I press deeper into it, as though I could make myself disappear—
“Is this necessary?”
Callia sighs and turns to him. All the breath leaves my body when that flame is finally extinguished and she puts her hands on her hips. “You should’ve heard the things they were talking about back at Edgecliff—God, I was barely there for a day and they were all ready to rip her apart to anyone willing to listen. Don’t you think that’s worth investigating?”
Ash doesn’t reply. She nods at him, and turns back to me, and when those flames appear again my throat tightens and I look at Ash and I beg him to look at me but his face is expressionless, so much like the Ash I used to know, and it makes me cold, and when Callia moves closer yet again, obscuring my field of vision, I forget to breathe.
“Oh, this is rich,” the girl says, lips twisting into a sneer. “She’s afraid of fire. Did nobody tell you what you’d be walking into? Tell me, who hired you?”
When I don’t reply she snaps her fingers again and the flame jumps. I scream—I can’t help it. For a moment I can’t see anything but a world on fire, flames and heat, red and gold everywhere. “I-I don’t know,” I gasp when it flashes away.
The girl snorts. “Oh, please,” she says, and the flames glow brighter again.
“No, I don’t know—I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
She sighs. “Do we really have to play this game?” Suddenly all of her fingers are aflame, and she moves her palm to cover my face, mere millimetres away from my skin, covering my entire field of vision. “I’ll ask you one last time, girl. Who hired you?”
“All spies work for somebody, darling. Who hired you?”
“What? I’m not—” Sharp pain slashes across my forehead. “I’m not—”
“She’s not a spy, Callia,” Ash says.
She frowns at him. “How do you know?”
“I knew her, from before,” he says. “That’s why I went to check on her.”
“I brought her here,” he repeats. “She’s… An old friend.”
“An old friend.”
“I brought here here.”
“I heard you the first time,” Callia says. “What I’m wondering is… Have you lost your mind?”
Ash regards her for a moment, and then he does something that makes my heart stop and my mind erupt with astonishment.
It’s barely there—barely the lift of one corner of his mouth, but it’s a smile. It’s a smile. “No, I haven’t,” he says to Callia. “Trust me.”
I don’t understand the feeling bubbling inside me—this strange heaviness in my chest, in my stomach, that appeared so quickly at the sight of his smile. All I know is that it’s heavy and unpleasant and suddenly I’m irritated. “You kidnapped me?”
And the smile is gone, and I hate myself for it but the sight of that blank mask only fuels my anger. “You took me away from Edgecliff? To here? T-To—what even is this place? What the hell is going on? And—A-And—” I shake my head, but I’m awake enough, and I was awake enough, to know what happened. “—you drugged me?”
“It wasn’t a drug,” Ash tries to explain, then stops.
Callia rolls her eyes. “Um, yeah, it might as well be, if you’re really a lighter,” she says. “But don’t get your panties all in a twist. You’re not the first one we’ve tried that on and everyone else is fine.”
“‘Not the first one’?”
“East, she means other lighters,” Ash says.
“‘Lighters’? What on earth—” I choke on my words and catch myself. “What the hell are lighters?”
A peal of laughter comes from Callia, and we both turn to her. “She doesn’t even know what she is?” She can’t stop, the giggles rocking her body, her hair flying around her face. “Oh, this is grand,” she says, patting Ash on the back. “I’ll leave your friend to you, then. Don’t forget to bring her to the Professor. Later!”
“Callia!” Ash says, but she’s already left the room.
Ash closes his eyes, rubs at his nose, and sighs. I watch him.
“What,” I say slowly, after a while, when it’s evident that he doesn’t plan on continuing the conversation. “What—are—lighters?”
Immediately I regret my words. He looks up, and I’m caught. You know what.
“No,” I say. “No, it’s not possible.”
And that—saying those words—that feels so familiar, that sadness engulfs me and threatens to bring tears to my eyes, and for a second I’m floundering, searching for solid ground, and my hands grip the bedsheets.
“It is possible, East,” Ash says.
“It can’t be.”
“How would it even work? It’s not viable!”
“It shouldn’t be!”
The tinge of shame in his tone surprises me, and makes me falter. But then I remember.
And, slowly, I think about all the reasons he would have to be ashamed.
And the fear returns.
“I want to go back,” I say, shakily.
I don’t recognize my voice. I know he’s watching me, probably with pity in his eyes that I can’t look at or I just might throw something at him—or strike him—and all he’d needed to do would be to—to—
“You can’t,” Ash says, and I start to tremble with fear, all over, trembling, cold, hot, all at the same time.
“I-I have to.”
“You’re a lighter, East. You have to stay.”
“I AM NOT!”
My outburst startles both of us. I dig my fingers into the skin of my arm, but the whimpers won’t stop. “I’m not,” I try to say again. “I can’t be. I can’t be like you.”
That’s when Ash makes his mistake—he flinches. And I see it, and I say, “I can’t be like you—you and your fire. Because you were there that night, weren’t you? That night my mother—” No, I can’t say it. “—the night of the concert—each and every time, it was all your fault!”
“East, when will you let me explain—”
But I’m awake now, not muddled and stupid like I had been before, and I can’t stop. “And now you kidnap me, and bring me here, and you—you drug me? What the hell is this place? What kind of sick plans do you have now?”
I stop. Ash’s face is hard, cold, and for the first time, his eyes make me afraid…
“You can deny it all you want, East,” he says coolly, “but it doesn’t change the fact that you have to stay here for now. It’s not safe for you to be anywhere else.”
I shake my head. “Edgecliff is safe.”
“Is it really, East?” Ash raises his eyebrow, and steps closer to the bed. “Do you really think that town is safe for you, right now, after everything?”
“I have other friends.”
“Who?” He jeers. “Jem? Denny? Charlotte? Friends like Kieran?”
“No, you won’t. You’re alone,” he says bluntly. “You have no friends. And even if anyone was sympathetic to you… Do you really think Dennis won’t have told the truth by now?”
“He wouldn’t. Dad wouldn’t let him. It would—it’d bring things back up, open things again. Dennis wouldn’t.” I hesitate. “Would he?”
And Ash surprises me when he says, “You’re right, he wouldn’t.”
I look at him, confused, but he ignores my gaze and simply heads for the door. He pauses with his hand on the doorknob.
When he looks back at me again I suddenly understand what he’s saying, what he means. And I force myself to look back at him, refuse to let him see how much his words hurt, refuse to let him see the shock of betrayal break me again when I knew this would happen—hadn’t I know? Hadn’t I tried to protect myself?—when I should’ve known better, I should’ve been prepared, I should’ve known.
“He wouldn’t, but I would,” Ash says softly.
He smiles at me, but it’s not at all like the smile he gave Callia. This one is cold—malicious. “If that’s what it takes to keep you here…”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Of course, I leave.
It’s a while before I can summon the courage to open that door, but instead of the brimstone and fire all that’s there is a small, small hallway. It’s just a house, I realize, a three or four-storey house, like somebody’s home.
The pictures on the walls almost look like family photos—old, old family photos—but I don’t stop to examine them carefully. I creep along the floor, tugging once in a while at the unfamiliar jeans that I’d thrown on, heart racing whenever something creaks. But nobody comes out to check, so I move on.
At the edge of the stairs, I pause to listen. There are a few voices downstairs, at least four or five. I can make out Andrew’s, and Callia’s, along with another girl or two. Try as I might I don’t hear Ash, but he’d never been that talkative anyway, at least not with his close friends. And since he’d smiled at that girl…
Stop, I tell myself, and put a foot on the first stair. Nothing. I move, shifting my weight slowly, carefully, but nothing creaks, at least not loudly enough to attract attention. In this way I make my way down the stairs and find myself in an entrance hall. The floor is tiled so I move quickly, sticking my feet into a pair of sneakers that are just a little too snug for me—probably Callia’s—stop—and put my hand on the handle of the door.
The voices haven’t stopped. They’re still on the other side of the stairs, through a doorway to what’s probably the den. To my right is a dining table with a few chairs pulled out, and to my left, a Steinway grand. The bench is missing, I notice. I don’t see anyone.
I breathe, and unlock the door, and pull it open a fraction; and when no alarms sound I quickly slip out.
It’s cold, but not so cold that I’d freeze to death. At least, I hope not. My heart is still thudding in my chest, but a different part of mind feels elated, is warm, and a sense of right warms me, too, as I move quickly and softly away from the house.
The grass mutes my movements. When I’m sure that all the curtains are drawn, and I’m far away enough and deep enough in the shadows, I break into a sprint. It’s a large front yard—far too large for a regular house—but I don’t stop, I keep running, I run and run. I can see the gates—no, the gate—there’s just one iron gate, tall as the brick walls around it, hanging slightly open.
The cry of a siren breaks the silence of the night, and I move faster. I don’t look back but I can still hear loud voices from further back, back at the house, and I hear doors slamming and shouts across the lawn, and people yelling There and Stop and Stop right now or else—
The gate, the gate!
I run through the gate. My chest burns, my throat burns, my legs burn but I force myself to keep going—it’s a long road, an empty road that stretches out indefinitely to my right—I almost swerve down in that direction but something tells me to go left—trees.
It’s a forest of pines, tall and forbidding, and something in me breaks. I sprint towards it, and that warm feeling gets warmer and warmer and warmer, like I’m almost home, telling me this is right, telling me I’ll be safe in the woods—I think I hear someone yelling my name, telling me I’ll be safe—I’m almost there—
The first explosion takes me by surprise. The ground at my feet erupts, grass and dirt splitting and opening and then raining down like shrapnel as an enormous wall of fire shoots up towards the sky. A howl of pure agony splits the night—boom, boom—two, three—four times the ground opens and fire thrusts itself through the darkness and aims at me, stabs through me—I scream and scream and scream, I’m on fire, I’m on fire, I am on fire.
This time, it’s fire that splits open, a tornado of red that wraps itself around me and swallows me and slams me to the ground. And smoke covers my ears, my eyes, snakes into my lungs, makes me choke on something with a bitter iron taste, and all I can see is gold, so bright it sears my sight and scorches the inside of my skull. And then it’s gone.
The screams become clear to me now. No, not screams—shouts, many of them, far away, and one louder voice right by my ear. East. East. It’s my name. I’m not the one screaming, I realize, and the darkness focuses until I see the shadows of a body kneeling over me. And the warmth on my cheek isn’t coming from flames but fingers. East.
“Ash,” I croak. The fingers stop.
“I-It hurts,” I try to say, and give up when I realize it’s a lie. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt at all.
I push his hand away and sit up. I touch my hair, my face, my arms.
“Holy shit,” somebody mutters, and someone else, and someone else says, “What happened to her clothes?”
“Here.” Ash drapes a coat over me and I touch the thick fabric, smoothing my fingers over it, too stunned to do anything else. He wraps it around me from the back, tightening the belt around my wrist and tying it.
“I’m alive,” I breathe.
His movements stop. I turn around to face him, and I say, “I’m alive. How am I alive?”
“Still want to pretend you’re not a lighter?”
My throat closes, and tears fill my eyes. When he tries to pull me off the ground, I shove him away from me and climb to my feet, nearly tripping over them in the process. He stands back. But when we begin to walk back to the house, when I stumble and Ash catches me by the elbow, I can feel the way his entire body is shaking unsteadily from his breaths to his shoulders to his hands—so much so that he shakes me, too.