Editor’s Note: There is some explicit language that is used.
“I HAVE NO IDEA WHO the first lighter was!” Andrew says, setting his burger down to swallow a mouthful of orange juice. “But we’ve been around for awhile. For sure since before the Elizabethan era.”
I hand him a napkin, which he takes, though somewhat confusedly. “Your chin,” I say.
“Oh. Thanks.” He wipes the orange trail away, and picks up the burger again. “But, yeah. You know that big fire in 1666?”
“That was you guys?” I curl my lips. “What happened?
He shrugs. “I dunno.”
“I heard it was some love thing,” Parker jumps in. “Somebody cheated on a lighter girl and she got mad.”
“And set the city on fire to kill him? Gee, not very friendly bunch, are you.”
They look at me with something akin to hurt in their eyes, but I force myself to swallow any guilt I might feel. They’re lighters. They aren’t normal.
“Well, anyway, that’s the story…” Andrew’s voice trails off.
“My daddy said cheating is bad,” Maggie says brightly, oblivious to the awkwardness. “He said it’s mean and wrong, and hurts people, and I should stay away from boys who do it.” She frowns adorably up at the two boys next to her, and they grin and ruffle her hair.
“He’s right, Maggie.” I stiffen as Ash comes to stand beside my chair, at my elbow. Close enough I feel his gaze on my face. “We should never cheat, or hurt people.”
“Oh, the irony,” I mutter under my breath.
Silence again. Andrew and Parker exchange looks, then go back to their meals. Maggie steals a fry from Parker’s plate and giggles loudly when he makes a show of gasping in outrage, and hauls her into his lap, tickling her until she gives it up. Then she offers him her juice box and he smiles at her, and slides his entire plate to her side of the table.
“The Professor wants to see you,” Ash says tonelessly.
He looks at my empty plate.
“Are you sleeping badly again?” He asks immediately. “Do you need—”
“You know what? I’m fine,” I say loudly, cutting over him. Andrew looks at me curiously, and Parker wraps Maggie in a bear hug so that she isn’t facing our way. “I’ll come. Let’s go see this ‘Professor’ of yours.”
I say the word mockingly, caustically, and the way Ash’s fingers tighten into a fist for one moment both satisfies and surprises me. “Am I annoying you?” I ask nastily as he leads me towards the stairs. “Careful, now. People might start to think you’re actually human.”
“Do I what?”
He stops suddenly, turning to face me from the top of the stairs, and I almost trip over my feet. “Do you think I’m human?”
“Hell, no,” I say before I can stop myself.
Ash nods. He turns, and continues down the hall.
Ruthlessly I squash down the silver of guilt that tries to make its way up my throat, and out in an apology. I don’t owe him anything. He fucking drugged you, I remind myself.
I follow him up a second flight of stairs to the floor above where I’d originally woken up in this house. Up here, it’s dark, despite the bright sun outside. There are only two doors.
Ash pauses before one of the doors. I try to look around him, but it’s just a nondescript door, the same shade of dark wood as all the other doors in this house. “Are you going to let me in?” I say.
He turns to look at me. Though there’s no expression on his face, I get the feeling that he’s evaluating something, calculating the best way to say whatever it is that he wants to say.
“Just be careful,” he says finally.
I hate the warm feeling I get when he says that, and I hate the way he turns and walks away abruptly as if he can’t wait to get away. Of course, I can’t blame him.
“Don’t blame him.”
I turn around so quickly I almost crack my neck, and come face to face with a woman looking at me from behind the now-open door. She has white hair, a face wrinkled and full of laugh lines, and her fingernails are painted with forest green nail polish. She smiles at me kindly, and opens the door wider.
“Come in,” she says, still smiling, grey eyes bright and clear as water. “I’m the Professor. I’m Asher’s mother.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Her office is spacious, at least twice the size of the bedroom they’d allotted to me. But it’s clean and almost entirely bare, safe for a wall of books on one side and a small cabinet behind her desk by the window. At the centre of the room are two armchairs, with an ornate lamp and a small stack of books on the shared stand between them.
The Professor sits down in one of those chairs, and looks at me. “Come,” she says, gesturing to the other armchair.
I go to the chair, and, slowly, sit down.
“So,” she says, still smiling warmly. If it was anyone else I would’ve felt the urge to bolt long ago, but somehow, on this woman, the smile fits. It’s genuine and warm. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, East Winters.”
“Ash’s mom,” I blurt out, and wince. “Oops, sorry.”
She laughs—elegantly, somehow. It all feels so surreal, this graceful woman with her elegant laugh and forest green nails and matching earrings, and her smile. “It’s alright,” she says finally, a glint of humour still in her eyes. “Most people are surprised to hear it. At least you haven’t fainted yet.”
“That’s happened before?”
“It’s just—it’s just so surprising,” I say uselessly. “I mean… Well, Ash lived in Edgecliff for years and I never saw you.”
Something about her smile falls a little. “I wasn’t there,” she explains—a little sadly, I realize. “I was very, very sick at the time, and I couldn’t take care of Asher, so I sent him to live with my sister for a while.”
“By the cliffs,” I say, remembering.
She looks startled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite hear you?”
“Ash’s aunt—who lives by the cliffs?”
“Yes, that’s right,” she says, recovering. “It was a hard time for both of us, you understand. But I’m better now, so here we are.”
“Well, I’m glad that you’re—er—better,” I say awkwardly.
She smiles again. “He told me about you, you know,” she says. “Your brothers were wonderful friends to him. And, of course, he cares for you very much.”
“He said that?” I say—too loudly, and I flush with embarrassment.
“Oh, yes.” Yep. She’s teasing me. Ash’s mother is teasing me. “He loved to talk about you. He was—” She hesitates. “He was very sad to leave, you know.”
She sighs, and leans back into the armchair. “Please don’t blame him, East,” she says quietly. “It was my fault. When the remission worked, all I wanted was to see my son again. I was so eager to be reunited with him that I never even thought about the new life he’d built, the new friends he’d made. Please,” she repeats suddenly, urgently, “forgive him. It isn’t his fault. He still cares about you, you know. He wouldn’t let me see you until today, until he was absolutely sure that you had recovered.”
“I-I—er—” Well, if this isn’t awkward. I can’t exactly tell Ash’s mother all the reasons I hate him.
Then I realize what she said, and frown. He wouldn’t let her see me? I’ve been waiting for days, asking Andrew a million questions about this place, these people, waiting for someone to explain things to me. Why did he keep me away?
But I can see where Ash gets it from, now. That voice of his, the gaze, the soft way of speaking that can still command the attention of an entire room.
She smiles again, and waves a hand. “Think about it, please,” she says. “But let’s move on—I’m being embarrassing, aren’t I? Asher warned me not to embarrassing.” She laughs again, and I have to smile with her, imaging Ash staring down this elegant woman.
“I’ll think about it,” I promise her.
“Good.” Her smile widens again, if that’s even possible. “Now, let’s talk about you. Tell me about yourself.”
I shrug. “There’s not much to tell,” I say.
“Now, I know that’s just not true,” she says immediately. “Tell me about your childhood. Your family. What you like to do, who your friends are.”
A wave of grief washes over me, so raw and real, catching me by surprise. I’d been so tense the past few days that I still hadn’t fully processed the incident with—with Dennis, and Dad, and… Jem.
“It’s not a good story,” I say finally. I sit back into the armchair and look at her. “I have, well, I used have a Dad, and two brothers. Dennis and Jem—James, I mean. We live in Edgecliff. I was born there—or, no, I probably wasn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
I stop for a moment. I don’t want to remember that night, those hateful things they’d said, all the accusations and ugly truths. I’m not ready for it, and I’m definitely not ready to share.
“We had a really bad argument, that’s all,” I tell her. “My brothers… They disowned me, essentially. I don’t know. We don’t feel like a family anymore. We probably won’t ever be.”
She reaches over, then, and puts a hand over mine. “Oh, East,” she says kindly. “I’m sorry.”
I try to blink away the wetness stinging behind my eyes. “It’s fine,” I say. “It’s not a big deal. Anyway, it’s good timing. I would never be able to explain all—this—to them.”
“You’re a strong, strong girl,” the Professor says, and squeezes my hand. “I know you can deal with this, but… Ash and I were estranged when I first sent him away. He refused to answer my calls, or reply to my emails or texts for the longest time. It took a while, but eventually he came around, and we’re together again. A family again, mother and son. We’re a family, East,” she says firmly, still holding my hand. “Just like your family. And family is strong. You’ll reconcile with your brothers, I’m sure of it. I’ve heard Ash’s stories, and I know that they love you very much.”
I nod. It’s the best I can do without bursting into tears, and I think she realizes it, because she releases my hand finally and sits back in her own chair. “Now,” she says, cheerily, “let’s talk about all ‘this’. How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know,” I admit. “It’s—I still can’t believe it. I mean, I’m terrified of f-fire…”
“You wouldn’t be the first,” she reassures me. “We’ve had many children who were afraid of their own powers. Asher was, too, when he was little. You should ask him about it sometime.”
“All that means is,” she continues, “it won’t be very hard for us to help you face your fear, to ‘get over it’, as Asher likes to say.” No surprises there. “I’m more interested in whether you have any questions about us that I might be able to answer? Andrew told me you were very curious about our history.”
“Yes, I guess,” I say. “I mean—how did this all happen?”
The Professor gives an elegant shrug. “No one really knows,” she says. “I suspect our powers are the result of a gene mutation. Somewhere along the line, one of our ancestors was born with DNA that made him impervious to fire. And one day, maybe when something in his home caught fire, he discovered that he could also control the flames with his mind.”
“So it’s a genetic condition?”
She smiles. “It wouldn’t call it a ‘condition’. But yes, I do believe that it is a matter of biology. Of course, there are those who disagree with me, and believe instead in a rather romantic creation myth. That version says that it was a phoenix who first gave the gift of fire to humankind. But they were unable to use it properly. The fire wouldn’t burn strong enough or long enough in the cold winter nights when they needed it, yet it would flame tall and bright in the summer months and ravage entire fields of grass, entire forests, even scorch the caves where humans tried to hide.”
I shiver. I can see it in my mind—great fires, roaring, burning, destroying…
“The humans begged and begged for the phoenix to teach them how to control the fire, but he knew that they weren’t strong enough. ‘Your skins whenever it touches flame, your hair burns, and you blood burns, and you die,’ he said to them.
“But the humans couldn’t live without fire. ‘We need its warmth to survive,’ they begged him. ‘We need the life it gives to us, the energy it brings to us throughout our cold winter nights.’
“‘Then you’ll have to make a sacrifice,’ he said. ‘One of you must walk the fire.’”
“‘Walk the fire’?” I ask, confused. “You mean, literally…”
The Professor nods. “The phoenix said that if one of the men walked the fire—walked through it, endured the pain of it, endured the burning of his skin and his hair and his blood, then humans would forevermore be immune to fire. No more pain, no more fear. Fire would become their friend, their lover, their equal.
“But, of course, nobody wanted to do it. The humans shuffled and pushed each other and argued, but in the end, no one volunteered to walk the fire.
“The phoenix had just given up, and was preparing to take a great, big breath and retract his gift of fire, when out from the crowd sprung a young boy. He had black hair and black eyes, eyes of deepest, darkest black, and he ran straight into the fire. And he burned.
“His mother screamed, and his father shouted, but even they would not to touch the fire—not even a little, just to pull their son out of the flames. And so the boy burned—his skin, his hair, his blood, until finally, at the end of several long hours, the fire burned out.
“To the surprise of all the humans, the boy looked just the same. His skin was not blackened and his hair had not been singed away. It was still there—though a different colour, now, almost as pale as his eyes, a pale gold colour that no human had ever seen before. And when he opened his eyes, the humans saw that his eye colour had changed, too. They were pale now. Pale grey, pale as water.
“The boy was alive.”
“And just like that, they could control fire?” I ask incredulously.
The Professor shakes her head. “No,” she says. “The phoenix was angry that no one had tried to save the boy, so he bestowed the gift of fire to the boy and his descendants alone. Of course they married other humans, and some of them had less control than others, but always, the burn of fire would not touch any of them.”
“The burn of fire…” I repeat. I look at her, into her pale eyes. “So that’s why—that’s why I didn’t burn? At the edge of the forest? Because I’m a lighter?”
“Yes. It’s a safeguard put in place a long time ago, around the whole boundary of this property.”
I think about other people who might stumble across the grounds by accident—a hike through the woods, a wrong turn during their road trip. The Professor is watching me, and she says, “There is a reason why we’re situated so far from any main roads. And there are many cameras on the walls, and I keep a close eye on them.” She tilts her head towards the desk.
“But what is this place exactly?” I ask her. “Andrew called it a school for lighters and said that everyone comes through here, but Maggie said that her dad hadn’t, that he avoids this place and Edgecliff are his two least favourite places on earth.”
“Ah.” The Professor sighs. “The fire-born have not had an easy journey. Edgecliff in particular holds many dark memories for many people in our community; it is an incredibly tragic part of our history—and a story, I think, for another day.”
Her eyes slide to the window behind me, and with a start I realize that it’s starting to get dark. The sunlight creeping through the glass is no longer white, but pastel shades of orange and violent. I think of the phoenix in the Professor’s story, and I wonder what colour he would’ve been, had he been real.
“I’m so glad that I finally met you, East,” the Professor says, drawing my attention back to her. She gets up, and I do, too, and she leans forward and puts a hand on my shoulder. “I know you’re sad, and angry, and confused, but I promise you: It won’t be long before your fire activates, now, and learning to control it will help you deal with your emotions. It will strengthen you, and energize you, and awaken for you an entire world of possibilities. It is the most beautiful thing in the world.”
I believe her. Somehow, I believe her. “Thank you,” I say, and I mean it. “I’ll do my best.”
She smiles at me, that kind, warm smile. “Good.” She squeezes my shoulder one last time and lets go. “That’s all I ask. I have to go visit a friend tomorrow, but my son will stay behind, and I promise you that you will be absolutely safe with him. If you allow it, I can ask him to start teaching you about your fire?”
I take a deep breath. “Okay,” I say.
When I’m halfway out the door, head still reeling and trying to make sense of all the things that she’d said to me, she calls after me again.
“You’ll have an easier time with the fire,” she says, “if you can conquer your fear of it. But that myth of the phoenix is more than just a myth, East. It’s a warning. Don’t let fear hold your back, but never let go of it. After all, the fire is still volatile. There are many great and terrible destructions which could have been avoided if a fire-born had only been content with what he was given, and not been greedy for what he did not deserve.”
I think of Andrew’s words, of 1666. The Professor’s eyes are bright and heavy with the weight of remembering, and I wonder if her sickness had truly been cancer—something else altogether. “I understand,” I say. “Could I ask you one last question?”
“They all call you ‘the Professor’. Andrew, Parker, Maggie—even Ash,” I say. “What… What is your… Well, how…”
I stumble over my words, and she smiles at me again. “I have a rather embarrassing name,” she says. “I don’t know what my parents were thinking. The children started calling me ‘professor’ probably because I lectured them so much.”
Ash is waiting for me outside her door. Startled, I almost shriek, and catch myself just in time. His expression is grim.
I turn my back on him and head for the stairs. He follows me. “Well?”
“Did she do anything?”
“Besides smiling and finally explaining things to me, you mean?”
“You know I’ve been trying to talk to—”
“She was fine,” I say, cutting over him, suddenly suspicious. I stop and turn around to face him, narrowing my eyes. “Why did you tell me to ‘be careful’?”
He tilts his head. “I was trying to help,” he says. “The Professor isn’t always as nice as she seems, and…”
“And that,” I say, cutting over him. “Why do you call her that? She’s your mother!”
Ash’s face shuts down. His jaw clenches, his fingers tighten into fists. “She gave birth to me,” he says coldly. “But I wouldn’t go so far as to call her ‘my mother’.”
I stare at him, aghast. “How can you even say that?” I demand.
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Is that also why you kept me away from her for so long? Even though I’d already recovered and was dying for somebody to explain to me what the hell is going on around here?”
“And the drugs—for God’s sakes!” I continue. “I can’t believe you’d drug me!”
“It wasn’t a real drug. It was only a—a small trick, meant to keep you calm, to help you sleep. And I didn’t do it—Calli thought it would be best—”
“No, you know what? Stop.” I turn on him. “I am so sick and tired,” I say angrily, “of you and your games, of your secrets, your excuses, your goddamn—everything. Why can’t you just be honest with me for once?”
“You want honesty?” Ash takes a step closer to me, right up to me, and I have to step back. His voice is still calm and his face is blank, but his eyes burn with intensity. “You want honesty?” He repeats. “How’s this for honesty? You can be angry at me. You have every reason to be, I know. But don’t take it out on the others. Maggie’s barely six, for fuck’s sake.”
“This morning,” Ash deadpans.
He’s right, of course, and I can’t say anything back at him because he’s right. But I also can’t back down. I don’t look away from his eyes. It feels like a test, somehow—his stare—as though looking away would mean I forfeit and I lose. And I can’t lose to him. Ever. Never again.
“And if you want honesty,” he says, suddenly, even more softly, stepping up close to me again, pushing me back to the wall, forcing me to look up at him. “Did my mother tell you that lighters have varying degrees of power? That those degrees of power are always evident in their eyes?”
“Did she tell you that the lighter our eyes, the more powerful we are?”
I swallow, but I can’t look away from his clear as water eyes. “No,” I say.
A tiny spark of gold suddenly appears in his irises—I gasp—and just as suddenly, they’re gone. “And did she also tell you,” he continues, “that no one, no one in over a hundred years, has been able to walk cross the boundaries on these grounds and survive wholly unharmed? That when I tried, my body burned for half a day before my father came home and found me and doused me with water, ending her sick little experiment?”
I can’t breathe. But he doesn’t even seem to realize what he’s said—it’s merely an example, meant to prove something. Something about me…
“You are the first person in over a hundred years to cross the bounds of this place, and survive. That fire barely even lasted a second around you. And yet your eyes are so dark…”
Slowly, almost in a daze, he lifts a hand and his thumb traces across the top of my right cheek, just under my eyes. “So dark,” he breathes.
There’s a fierceness in his eyes that refuses to abate, that keeps pressing, pressing…
I take a deep breath. “S-Stop.”
He freezes. Stiffens. And drops his hand, and takes a step back.
I breathe in, and breathe out, again and again. He keeps stepping backwards until almost the entire hallway separates us.
Ash speaks, suddenly, sharply. “Dinner’s almost ready. Andrew can use some help in the kitchen. Or—Parker and Maggie are outside, and you can…” He waves his hands vaguely.
“Just go,” I say. And he goes.