TIME PASSES SLOWLY, ALMOST IN A DAZE. One day when I remember to check the calendar, I see that almost three weeks have passed since the night Jem threw me out of the house we’d grown up in together, the house we’d live in for over seventeen years, our home…
On the other hand, this strange place in the middle of nowhere feels oddly familiar, and I’m beginning to relax. Not around Ash—but I’ve barely seen him again. Callia, though… I might have disliked her at first, but she’s a good teacher. She knows what to say to goad me, to push me to push myself, to not give up.
Which is important, because even after the long weeks, not a single spark of fire has sprung from my fingertips.
“It’s useless,” I say to Andrew one night. The dishes are done and he’s lounging on the couch, eyes glued to the TV, as always. I pace back and forth behind him. “Nothing’s working. Callia promises she’s still got other tortures lined up for me, but I think she’s saying that just to be nice.”
“Are you even hearing yourself, North?” Andrew yawns.
“The Professor told me that most lighters activate around, or, at the latest, just after puberty. She was fifteen. You were fourteen. Parker was twelve. Ash was sixteen.”
“Callia was sixteen, too,” Andrew adds helpfully.
“Right, well, I’m way past my sixteenth birthday.” I round the side of the couch and plop down, barely missing Andrew’s head. “Oh, sorry. And the Professor said that the two kids she knew who’d spontaneously combusted—one was twenty, and the other one was eighteen. That’s not ‘early twenties’! That’s soon! I’m eighteen!”
“East, calm down,” Parker says, coming into the living room. “Really. Hey, I know you’re stressed, and I would be, too, but you are in the best position possible.”
“You mean, to spontaneously combust?” I say incredulously.
“You’re here with the Professor. You’re here with Asher and Callia. The two most powerful lighters anyone’s seen in generations, and their mentor, who knows more about our history, our powers, than anybody alive. They’ll find a way to help you. They will.”
“You really trust them,” I realize.
He shrugs, pushing Andrew’s legs out of the way to sit down. “They helped me a lot. I activated too early and… I hurt people.”
“Dude, you need to stop beating yourself up about that,” Andrew tells him, raising a hand to pat his shoulder without looking away from the TV screen. He ends up slugging Parker in the chin.
“Hey!” I warn, looking around for Maggie.
“I put her to bed,” Parker rubs his face, then he shoves Andrew, making him fall half on top of me.
I yelp, trying to push him off, but Andrew sits up suddenly, waving his hands frantically and shushing us. “Shut up, shut up, listen.”
“…Edgecliff High senior, Russell Lee, is still missing. Following an anonymous tip, the police force raided a farmhouse off Selton Road, but could only find the boy’s car, which had seen a significant amount of damage. Police now fear that Lee may be dead or in grave danger. Lee has dark brown hair which he styles…”
“I knew him,” Andrew says quietly.
Parker swears. “Sorry, man.”
Andrew sighs, and shrugs. “Were you two close?” I ask him.
He shakes his head in a so-so motion. “His sister and I are good friends.”
“Oh, you know Ciara?”
Andrew looks at me strangely, then recognition crosses his face. “Right. I keep forgetting you’re from Edgecliff.”
“That’s the second disappearance there this month, isn’t it?” Parker asks.
“I don’t know,” I say, and Andrew says, “Yeah. The first time was Charlotte Owens.”
They look at me. “You knew her?”
“Yes—well, kind of.” Charlotte Owens. She’d been the first one to call “Murderer!” that night, at the theatre, and everything just went to shit from there… “She wasn’t that great of a girl. But, wow. She’s dead?”
“Burnt to a crisp,” Parker’s face is grim. “They found her in a bonfire.”
Suddenly I remember watching TV with Jem, dozing off on the couch, waking up to the image of a bonfire on screen. “I think I’m going to be sick,” I say weakly. “As in, for real. Oh, crap.” I get up and race to the bathroom, where half the contents of my stomach regurgitate themselves just barely after I reach the toilet.
“Ugh,” I groan, flushing and washing my face. Callia’s training has intensified to the point where, during our runs, I can almost entirely ignore what’s now a constant headache. But it’s the third time in as many days that I haven’t been able to hold my dinner. “What on earth is Andrew putting in our food?” I mutter to myself.
“Cal? Are you in there?”
I freeze, and quickly turn around, but the door opens before I can do more than put my arm out. “Um, don’t—”
Ash blinks at me, surprised. “Oh. You.”
The way he says that—“Oh. You.”—makes me bite my lip and narrow my eyes in irritation, but when he blinks again and that surprise rolls itself back into a blank mask, I make myself do the same. “Yeah, me,” I say.
I take the time to study him. His hair is a little longer, but the rest of him is the same. I haven’t looked at Ash, not in the face, at least, ever since that day the Professor agreed to let Callia train me instead. We barely even talk. If not for his consistent appearance every night for dinner, I’d probably never even see him.
It’s exactly what I’d asked of him, of course, the first time I saw him in town. And, gradually, as I spent more of my time with the others, I found myself more comfortable with him as well. There’s no longer that mixture of nerves and fear and resentment that his presence would always incite. Maybe it’s the fact that I now know exactly what he is, I know that what I saw him doing wasn’t just a figment of my hallucination. But more of it, I think, is the fact that I know his mother is on my side—and is far more powerful than him.
“I thought it was Callia,” Ash says.
And instantly a surge of something unpleasant flares inside of me. “Cool. I don’t care,” I snap, then curse myself for the snark in my voice. Don’t react.
But then she appears, red hair loose and swinging, wrapped in a sleek brown coat. “Asher, where did you go?” Callia says impatiently, grabbing his arm. “Come on, let’s get this done—oh. You.”
“What is with you two?” I grumble, and in the corner of my eye I almost think I see Ash’s lips twisting swiftly into a mild smirk.
“Huh?” She sends me a confused look. “Um, were you talking about something important?”
“No,” Ash says, turning away. “I thought she was you. Let’s go out.”
“Finally,” Callia says. She looks over her shoulder at me. “Better get to bed early. I’m going to run you into the ground tomorrow.”
Something about that image—Callia literally working me into the ground while Ash stands by, watching emotionlessly—and the sight of the two of them strutting arm-in-arm out the door makes something in me snap. “I’m going outside tomorrow,” I say loudly.
Ash stops abruptly. Callia nearly runs into the door, and glares at him, then turns the glare on me. “What?”
“I’m going out,” I repeat. “I’ve been here for three weeks. I haven’t crossed the boundaries for nearly a month. I haven’t been any further than twenty feet away from this house in nearly a month, and I want to go o-out—” I break off, coughing and hacking.
“Well, if that was meant to convince us—” Callia begins, but Ash cuts her off with a single word.
“W-Why not?” I demand hoarsely.
“It’s too dangerous.”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere. Your mother said so herself. Look,” I say, trying for a milder tone. “I’m not running away, or anything. I know I can’t go back to Edgecliff… Yet. I just want a day away from here. Or a few hours. I’m sure the others would appreciate it, too,” I rush to point out.
“No,” Ash repeats, still in that monotone. “You can’t leave the grounds.”
I almost growl at him. “Don’t be an idiot, Ash. I’m only asking for a little breathing space. Just a few hours!”
“I said no, East!”
The harshness is so unexpected that it makes both Callia and I recoil, astonished. I stare at him for a moment, teeth clenched, a fury rising in me that I haven’t felt since Kieran Thomas. The murmur of the TV stops, suddenly, and Andrew and Parker’s voices fade away.
A new one cuts in. “What’s going on?”
I look up to see the Professor looking down at us from the third floor, already dressed in a dark green dressing gown. “I heard shouting,” she says. “Is everything alright?” She rounds the railing and starts to descend.
“Little princess here wants to leave the grounds,” Callia says immediately with a roll of her eyes.
“Callia, be nice,” the Professor chides. “It’s a perfectly reasonable request.”
“It is?” I say. “I mean—see!” I glare at Ash, but he isn’t even looking at me.
“She can’t leave,” he says coldly, looking the Professor right in the eye.
Everyone seems to hold their breath. We all watch as he stares down his mother, eye to eye, grey on grey, identical expressions of blank stubbornness refusing to back down.
“It’s too dangerous,” Ash says.
“I think it’s fine, Asher,” she replies slowly. “I’m glad that you’re looking out for East, but really, there’s no trouble. In fact, it sounds like a great idea—it’s about time you kids got a day off.”
“Wait, seriously?” Andrew pokes his head around the corner, no longer bothering to pretend he isn’t eavesdropping. “We can go?”
The Professor shrugs. “I don’t see why not. It’s perfectly safe around here. I can keep watch while you kids go out. Just don’t stay out for too long. What do you think, Asher?”
“I think it’s too dangerous,” he insists quietly, then hesitates—“Mother.”
A muffled sound comes from Callia, but neither of them notice. I watch as the Professor’s eyes widen, and her fingers tighten in the folds of her dressing gown.
And then they relax, and she smooths out the green fabric. “It will be alright,” she says, just as quietly. “Trust me.”
For whatever reason, Ash’s eyes slide to mine. Do the right thing. “Fine,” he says.
“Sweet!” Andrew cheers, and high-fives Parker, and even Callia fights back a grin.
My gaze is on Ash, though, and I see his blank mask suddenly shift into an expression of pure fear. It’s there only for an instant, and then all is back to normal. But that expression stays with me for a long time that night, and though I know there was nothing wrong with my request, I can’t shake the feeling that, maybe, just maybe, I should’ve listened to Ash this time.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Of course, when we pile into the SUV, wrapped from head to toe in coats and scarves and boots, any thought of caution disappears. Andrew finds the local music station almost immediately, blasting earsplitting music at full volume while Parker speeds through the gates with a glint in his eye—and then we’re on the open road—
I open a window and lean my face out a little, and breathe, and close my eyes, and I can almost pretend that I’m in the ocean again, being carried back and forth by swells of gentle water. Then the tires squeal, and the boy on the radio is singing about love and cities and I throw my head back and laugh—
Andrew climbs onto the centre console, Maggie held closely to his chest with one arm, and the skylight opens. He pokes his head out, stands up high, shouting to the skies, and Maggie raises her arms to him, bursting with giggles. “Aren’t you glad we came out, Asher?” Andrew yells back down.
I sneak a glance at Ash, sitting stoically in the front seat, and realize he’s not so stoic after all. His face is relaxed, almost open, and his lips curl up into the tiniest of smiles as he nods back at Andrew.
“God, I’ve missed this,” Callia says from beside me. I look at her. We’d squeezed into the back, four of us in seats meant for three, but she’s leaning against the door and stretched out comfortably like a cat. “It feels like I’ve been stuck in that house for ages.”
“At least you go out every week for groceries,” Parker reminds her.
“What’s with the lockdown, anyway?” I ask before Callia comes up with some nasty retort. “How come nobody’s allowed to go out?”
“It’s only been this particular month,” Parker explains. “The Professor’s been getting lots of bad news. Two of the lighter families out east disappeared.”
“Disappeared?” I frown.
“Mhm. And our parents are worried, naturally, even though this is probably the safest place we can be right now. But they called anyway and asked the Prof not to let us out of the house until they find out what happened.”
“Yeah, but it’s way out east,” Andrew yells back into the car. “We’re all the way up north! We’re fine! Right, South?”
“You won’t be for much longer if you keep ‘forgetting’ my name,” I say to him.
Quick as a flash, he sprinkles a handful of sparks on me, and I yelp as they singe my hair. “Andrew!”
“Here,” Parker says. Without even looking he snaps his fingers and a yellow comet flares from the tips of fingertips, racing towards Andrew’s neck—only to be caught by Maggie. “That’s mean, Parker!” She scolds loudly.
“He started it!”
Maggie shakes her head, and Callia and I laugh. “Nope, nope,” she says sternly. “You have to go faster!”
“What was that?” Parker cups a hand to his ear.
“I can’t hear you!”
“GO FASTER!” Andrew and Maggie bellow together, and Parker laughs and steps on the gas, and I have to grab the side of the car to avoid breaking my neck as we speed down the empty road. The wind whips my hair, makes a mess of it, whispers into my ear and bites at my nose, my cheeks, and I laugh and laugh, and the beat of the music shakes the car and Andrew is singing at the top of his lungs, making Callia punch him in the knee, and—
“Slow down,” Ash says sharply.
“What?” Parker yells over the music.
Ash slams his hand on the volume knob, shutting it off. “Slow down.”
He ignores Parker, instead looking up at Andrew. “Get down from there,” he commands, taking Maggie from Andrew’s grasp and handing her over to a bemused Callia.
“Geez, Ash,” I say into the sudden silence—he irritates me, his silence, the way he’d tried to prevent us from coming out, from feeling this way, from being free—“Do you really have to ruin ever—”
“Holy shit!” Parker yelps.
Without any sign of warning Ash suddenly reached over him to grab the wheel, and he twists it, sending the car off the road right into the thick grasses. Andrew shouts in panic above us—I grab onto his leg, scared to death he’ll fly off the roof of the car, holding on tightly—beside me Callia does the same with Maggie—“Asher, what are you doing?”
The car bumps its way through several lumps of dirt before Parker finally remembers the brake, and we squeal to a stop. I’ve barely rubbed my nose to make sure it didn’t broken on impact when Ash throws open his door, and sprints out.
“What was that?” Parker shouts after him.
“Wait, I see something,” Andrew says. “Get me down.”
But instead of waiting for our hands he vaults over the roof, making Parker swear in fright all over again. At the sight of his anger, Maggie suddenly bursts into tears. “Shh, shh,” Callia says frantically, rubbing her back, and Parker starts to apologize, getting out of the car and coming around the back to sooth Maggie.
I slide past him as he slides in, filled to the brim with fury; and I stalk to the middle of the road where Ash and Andrew are standing, staring at something on the ground between them. “What do you think you were—”
“East,” Andrew says. The sound of my name stops me short. “Look.”
“No. Don’t come any closer,” Ash tries to say, but it’s too late.
The body has been burned so badly that if not for the brown hair styled in a mohawk, I wouldn’t even have realized it was human. One of his legs is entirely ash, as are his hands and parts of his torso. I see a bit of melted gold around his neck—probably a necklace he used to wear, I realize.
A necklace. About 5’8”. A mole on the corner of his lip, on the right side. Brown hair, in a mohawk.
Andrew sucks in a breath, and asks, so quietly it’s almost inaudible, “Is this…”
I reach out, but Ash grabs my fingers, pushing them back. He moves forward himself, instead, kneeling down, touching his hands to the only limb on this body still left intact, dusting off bits of gravel and ash and orange dirt, lifting the sleeve of the burnt and tattered t-shirt to reveal the rose of a tattoo on his right bicep.
The boy standing next to me gives a loud cry and buries his face in his hands. Ash looks up at him, then me.
I breathe out, through my nose, unsteadily. “It’s Russell Lee,” I say.