I BURST INTO THE KITCHEN. “I’M SORRY,” I blurt out to a startled Andrew.
“For being so rude this morning,” I clarify. “And yesterday, and the day before, and… You know. I was—well, I still am angry, and irritated, with so many things and so many people, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Andrew says, waving at me with mitt-covered hands. “You should’ve seen Maggie when she first got here. She cried all the time and wouldn’t let anyone near her. Took Parker weeks to calm her down.”
“Where’s she from?” I ask curiously. There’s a bowl of apples on the counter, and I take one and bite into it. “She’s so young.”
“South, I think,” Andrew goes to the fridge and takes out a block of cheese. “She and her dad are really private. The Prof was worried they’d already been targeted until he showed up here with her in tow.”
I frown. “‘Targeted’?”
He pauses, one hand still on a cupboard door. “Prof didn’t tell you?”
“Andrew,” I say, “surely, by now, you’ve realized that no one tells me anything?”
“Hey, I always answer your questions,” he points out. “Okay, let me get this and I’ll tell you the whole thing.”
“I can help,” I offer. I set my apple down, and take the cheese and the shredder from him while he gets a bowl from the dishwasher and slides it across the counter to me. “What are you making, anyway?”
He grins. “Pizza.”
I shake my head. “Of course,” I tease, moving the cheese to shred it into small pieces. “So? What’s this whole ‘target’ deal?”
“Okay,” he says, leaning his elbows on the counter. “So awhile ago—like, years ago—somebody started to basically target all the lighters across the country. We try to stick together to, you know, help each other out, especially the families with really young kids, since sometimes their fires can randomly go out of control. And this guy—or gang—starts to off the lighters, one by one, working their way up north. You know—” His voice lowers. “—your friend Asher, he lost a cousin to this guy.”
I blink. “I didn’t know that,” I say.
Andrew nods. “Yeah, well, it was a big deal back then, of course. But they got to him in eventually. Maggie’s family just wasn’t in contact for the longest time so everyone was surprised when her father flew in one day with her in tow, and her mother… Gone.”
“Poor girl,” I say.
“I know, right? My family’s far away, but at least I know they’re there.”
I nod. “Must be nice,” I say.
We fall into silence again as I help him make his pizza—well, silence on my part, at least. Andrew chatters on. I wonder how long he’s been here, whether he’s felt lonely, what with Parker taking it on himself to look after Maggie.
“Why do you need to come here to learn how to use your fire?”
“As opposed to, like, learning at home?”
“You know, I kinda wondered about that, too.” He scratches his neck. “Some families do do that, which is why there are so few of us here. I activated—that means my fire woke up—when I was 14, which was barely a year ago, and I got the hang of the basics really quick. But Mom thought I needed more training and, I mean, I have learned a lot of new tricks here. Wanna see?”
“Er, sure,” I say, surprised by the sudden enthusiasm in his voice.
He nods quickly, and then smooths his expression as if to take back his earlier exuberance. I hide a smile.
Andrew puts his hands on the counter, palms down, and takes a deep breath. He closes his eyes and frowns in concentration.
The flames start at his fingertips—they always do, I’ve noticed. They seem eager and rush up all the way to his elbows before they stop, seeming to slow down, finding some resistance. I take a deep breath myself. Involuntarily I hear Ash’s voice in my head. He’s got it under control, it’s his, it listens to him…
Then the flames start moving again, slowly circling his arms, over and under and over and under until it’s as though two red dragons have entwined themselves around his arms. When they reach the top, they snake over his shoulders, one going down and around his chest while the other wraps around from the back dozens of times, finally ending back at his collar, where they—in the shape of actual dragons, I realize—settle down and curl around his neck.
“Woah,” I say.
He can’t hide the wide grin that stretches across his face, although I notice that several beads of sweat now dot his forehead. “It’s like an armour, y-you see?” He says, with some effort.
“Well done,” Ash says from behind me.
I almost jump. He blinks at me in a way that makes me think he’s almost grinning, and then looks at Andrew again. “That’s very impressive. You’ve obviously been practicing.”
“How long can you hold the armour?”
Right on cue, it winks out. Andrew’s face flushes and he looks away from both of us. “I dunno, a minute or so,” he grumbles.
“It’s already quite impressive,” Ash says again, oblivious to the other boy’s discomfort. “We can start on animal forms tomorrow.”
“What? But that’s—Parker said that’s hard! It took him weeks to get it right without collapsing!”
I can’t help it; I laugh at the expression of pure distress on Andrew’s face, and both of them look at me as though I’ve gone crazy. Maybe I have. It certainly feels insane to be laughing.
“Are you done with dinner?” Ash says abruptly.
“Oh yeah,” Andrew says, and heads out the back to call Parker and Maggie inside.
I go to the open oven, and busy myself with taking out the three large, full-size, ready-made pizzas. When I turn around, though, Ash is standing there holding three plates.
Silently we get the pizzas onto the plates and cut them up, and then he takes two in his hands and one in the crook of his elbow, like a waiter, and tilts his head towards the dining room at the front of the house.
“I’ll follow you,” I say, even though there really isn’t anything else to do.
Ash opens his mouth as if to say something, but at that moment, Parker, Andrew, and Maggie tumble into the house.
“Phew! It’s cold out there,” Andrew says loudly, shivering. “Think it’s gonna snow soon?”
“Probably,” Parker replies, and Maggie cries, excitedly, “I LOVE snow!”
“I like snow, too,” I tell her. As I help her with her little coat while Parker gets her tiny boots off, Ash slips out of the kitchen soundlessly, and I exhale with relief.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Dinner is uneventful, save for Andrew and Parker’s absolute shock and Maggie’s delight when they realize Ash is eating with us. The boys glance at me sideways, and I resolutely look away—especially when Callia flounces downstairs halfway through and plops herself down at the head of the table, right next to him.
After dessert, Parker and Maggie do the dishes while Andrew flips through the channels on TV. When he stops on the news channel, and turns up the volume, a familiar name makes me look up.
“…has seen this boy, please notify the Edgecliff Police at once. His name is Russell Lee, a senior at Edgecliff High. He has dark brown hair which he wears in a mohawk, brown eyes, and is 5’8”. Other distinctive markings include a gold necklace, a mole to the corner of his mouth, on the right side, and a tattoo of a rose on his right bicep. Also missing are—”
I look at Andrew, who’s frowning, and then to the other side of the room, and there’s Parker, standing with the remote in his hand, grinning. “My turn,” he says gleefully.
“Um, no, it’s not…”
I leave the boys to it, climbing the stairs back to my room, the room with its blue polka-dotted ceiling. I brush my teeth, wash my face, change into a set of pyjamas Callia had reluctantly given me the day before, climb onto bed, and think.
Russell Lee. Lee. That’s what the principal had called the other girl, the cashier from the store—Ciara. Ciara and Russell, I mouth to myself in the dark. A girl without her brother. I can understand how that feels…
I turn over in my bed to face the window. I’d forgotten to close the blinds. Dim moonlight peeks through the clouds, rolling through the glass and across the floor. I can see the pine forest from here. Dark, imposing, a distinct shape on the skyline.
It’s nothing like the woods at home—those trees always seemed friendly, welcoming, beckoning. Full of life and adventure. I don’t hear any birdsong here. I don’t see the cliffs, nor the ocean.
I miss the ocean.
Almost unconsciously, my fingers touch the bracelet at my wrist, trace the thin silver chain to the circular charm, follow the raised lines on its surface. Mist has settled over the forest, tendrils of white winding through the treetops. I yawn sleepily, and blink, and close my eyes, realizing that I must’ve been lying there for hours.
Just before I turn my back on the window, I think I see a a cloud of red billowing out from the centre of the forest. But it has to be a dream, right? Nobody goes into the forest, they said…
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
“It didn’t work.”
I close my eyes, and try again. I think about what Ash said. I think of my heart, imagine it’s a ball of fire, warm, spinning, full of power waiting to be unleashed. Slowly, I peel it back, layer by layer, drawing out strands of flame—I suppress a shiver at the imagery that comes to mind—and pulling them upwards, over my lungs…
“…feel it gently through your lungs, over your shoulders, down to your shoulder blades, warming your upper back. Now feel it shifting downwards—down through your arms, slowly, inch by inch, to your elbow. Your forearm. You wrist. And now…”
I’m barely awake—it feels like I’m half unconscious, in a world void of any sensation but that of Ash’s voice, his breaths, his warmth. Or is that the warmth of—of the fire? My fire? “I can feel it,” I breathe.
“Good,” he says, still in that same, soft tone, almost a whisper. “Now, let it expand… Gather power, energy. Relax every part of your body. Sink into the heels of your foot, let the earth ground you. Lift your head—imagine the air rushing through you, igniting the fire inside you. And now—”
He grabs my right hand, suddenly, and pulls it up and pushes—I feel the warmth growing and growing until it’s hot, hot, hot—I open my eyes, expecting to see flames—
Ash releases my hand, steps away. “It’s fine, East,” he says, for what must be the fiftieth time. “It’s not unusual for a lighter to have trouble with her first fire.”
“Really?” I say, sarcastically, turning on him. I’m frustrated, frustrated by the hour of useless attempts, by my pounding headache, by his calm demeanor, by his eyes that regard me with a tint of sadness—a tint of pity. “Truly? Tell me, how many lighters have this much trouble?”
He hesitates. “I’ve only ever known one,” he admits.
“But…” he adds, touching me briefly on the shoulder to stop me from walking away. Instantly I scoot back almost three feet. “That person was me, and I…”
“You’re the most powerful lighter they’ve ever seen. Yeah, yeah, I know.” I rub my head. The headache won’t go away. “Doesn’t look like you’re helping me now, though, does it?”
“Don’t apologize,” I say, because I know I’m the one being nasty, and I should be apologizing—but no, shouldn’t he be apologizing? He got me into this mess in the first place, didn’t he?
“Let’s try something different,” Ash says finally. “Let’s… How about we just get you acquainted with fire, first.”
“Acquainted’ with fire?”
He blinks, and walks away.
That doesn’t sound good. But I follow him anyway. Ash leads us away from the front yard and towards a small shed that’s half-attached to the side of the house. “Wait here,” he tells me, then goes inside.
A few moments later he comes out with an armful of wood and holds them out to me.
“Wait a second,” I say. “You don’t mean—literally—are you trying to—?”
He looks at me.
I shudder and take a step back. “No. No way.”
“It’s just a fire, East.”
“I’ll be right here.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
His hands tighten, then relax. “You are immune to fire.”
Okay, that’s true. “Yes, but—“
“I’m trying to help you, East.” He steps up to me, forcing me to catch the wood when he abruptly lets go of them. “If your gene happens to activate when you’re not aware of it, this will at least help protect you—and the people around you.”
He ducks back into the shed, and comes out again with another armful of wood. Ignoring my protests, he dumps the wood in a spot on the lawn—not, not the lawn. It’s a small circle of dirt.
“Three guesses what happened to the grass,” I mutter under my breath.
“Nothing,” I say quickly.
He tilts his head, then stands back and gestures at me.
Eyebrows pulled into a frown, I slowly add the wood in my arms to the pile on the ground. Then I scurry back as far as possible.
Ash shakes his head, and starts to draw a circular shape in the air with his fingers. He rubs his thumb and index finger together, the way he had the other day, as is he’s rolling something between them; and then he suddenly he opens his hand, fingers pointed at the wood.
A thread of yellow instantly springs to life, and then another, and another. Even knowing what to expect, I still flinch.
Ash regards me for a moment while I do my best to avoid his gaze, focusing instead on his neck. It’s a cloudy day, and the orange and yellow of the flames dance brightly on his skin. “We can wait another day, if you want,” he says.
“If you really—”
“No,” I say firmly, forcing myself to approach the fire. The sound of crackling wood and the sight of the jumping embers makes my heart race, adds to the pounding in the back of my head, but I continue. “I can do this.” I don’t need your pity.
“Alright,” he says, still watching me.
When I’m so close that I can feel the heat of the flames, can imagine them licking up the side of my leg to my lungs, my chest, my head, I stop, and another shudder runs through me. “Right,” I say again, though it doesn’t sound so confident. “What do I do?”
“You won’t burn, East.”
I stare at the fire with revulsion.
“It won’t hurt you,” he says again. “As you know.”
“Yeah, right,” I murmur, but I take another step closer, take a deep breath, and raise my hand.
Slowly, unsteadily, I lower it to the flames, flinching when the first one brushes itself against my palm. But besides a slight warmth, nothing catches on fire, nothing burns. I take another break and press my hand closer to the centre of the fire. Warmth—more warmth, more, more, but not once does it hurt. I don’t even feel the bite of winter anymore.
“Good,” Ash whispers from behind me. “Now, the other hand.”
I put my other hand into the flames. That same warm sensation now engulfs all of my fingers, as though I’d just dipped them in hot water. I turn my wrists, letting the flames wrap themselves around my hands. To my surprise they seem to climb up my wrist, caressing the skin there, reaching up towards my elbow before falling back again.
“It tickles,” I say, and I realize I’m smiling, sort of. Immediately I try to wipe the expression from away, then sneak a peek at Ash.
He’s staring at my hands, a peculiar expression on his face. No, it’s not enough to be an expression—just a sort of hint of something…
A particularly adventures flame licks across the inside of my elbow, and I jerk my arm back out of surprise. Ash’s eyes catch mine. His face smooths over again.
“Good job,” he says evenly. “Now, step into it.”
I stare at him, aghast. “You want me to touch more of it?”
“Yes. Step into it.”
“No.” I shake my head, turning around to face the flames, and then turning back to him. Imagining the fire wrapped around me, walls of fire… “No, I can’t do that. That’s—that’s just too much.”
Ash closes his eyes, then opens them, a determined set to his mouth. “East, you have to get over that night some time.”
My mouth opens in shock. “‘Get over it’?”
“Yes. If you can’t face your fear, you’ll never be able to—”
“You know, your mother told me you might say that, but I never thought you could be so heartless,” I say loudly, cutting over him. She hadn’t said those words to me in that context—but I’m so angry, shaking with anger, that I don’t care anymore. How dare he say that to me?
“I told you, you shouldn’t trust everything the Professor says. She has her own motives.”
His words yesterday come back to me, and the words escape me before I can help it. “Are you sure that was what she’d intended?” I say doubtfully. “I mean, parents can be harsh sometimes, but usually what they ask is for our own good.”
Ash’s eyes narrow, and immediately I regret what I’d said. His gaze is colder than ice. And his face is stone.
“Maybe it’s better if somebody else teaches you,” he says abruptly. “Clearly, this isn’t working.”
I think of the way his mother had pleaded with me to forgive him. “No, I shouldn’t have said that. It was out of line. I just…” I shake my head. “I just can’t believe you never mentioned her, to anyone. And you call her ‘Professor’, like everyone else. God, Ash, do you know what I’d do to have my mother back?”
“You don’t understand. Your mother loved you. Mine…”
“But she had cancer, Ash! Cancer! How can you not forgive her for that?”
He blinks, and blinks again, confusedly, the first sign of emotion I’d seen from him all day. I latch on to it. “And that—there. How can you be so expressionless all the time when your mother is always smiling? She’s so warm, and friendly, and kind, and you—you—”
“I’m cold, and unfriendly, and unkind?”
I snap my mouth shut. I hadn’t meant to imply that, but so what? It’s no less than the truth. It’s no less than what he deserves, I tell myself.
Ash flicks his hand suddenly, startling me. But it’s only extinguish the flames; they fly to his hand, disappear with one last flash. Wordlessly he begins to gather up the wood, carrying them back to the shed. Nervous, and feeling like I’ve just done something horrible, something irrevocable—but that’s absurd, isn’t it?—I bend to help him.
When everything is gone, I follow him back to the house. At the door he pauses, and turns to me, but doesn’t meet my eyes.
“The Pr…” He stops, his fingers tighten, and then relax again. “My mother should be back tomorrow. I will let her know that this didn’t work out, and she’ll find some other way to teach you.”
I swallow. “That would be best.”
“Yes.” He doesn’t say anything else.
I open the door awkwardly and go into the house. He doesn’t follow. When I look back, the front lawn is empty, and Ash is nowhere to be seen.