The first thing you need to know is that my mother used to love me. Sins create losses, and some losses are unforgivable. But my mother used to love me in a fierce way, and I think maybe there’s still an ember of that love, deep and smoldering; I think I could be loved again.
Others saw her as the ice queen, with her cool blond hair and her red lipstick and her perfect, unyielding manners. She was elegant when she was angry, devastating and calm. She had old-fashioned posture; she was beauty wrapped around an iron spine.
But when I was little, she was the one who could bend in three-inch-heels and pick Ash and me up together, one on each hip. She wasn’t dignified when she sashayed around the kitchen with us, singing into wooden spoons, or when she tossed us onto the couch and tickled us. She deserved two daughters who also grew into lovely women.
Instead, she ended up with one dead daughter, and the one who may have killed her.
Things had changed terribly the night that my sister died. They changed again the night I woke from my nightmares into a world on fire.
One minute I was in a lush, green garden. It should have been beautiful, but I was chasing Ash. My sister ran away from me, the long blue satin gown she wore the night she died streaming behind her. Her long dark hair, the same color as mine, flickered behind her as she turned a corner in the garden’s maze and disappeared behind a stone wall.
I turned the corner, and orange tiger lilies seemed to fill the space where she had been. The bright orange blossoms waved in the wind, and then I heard the low, constant rush of flames, and the blossoms crackled into a wall of fire.
I screamed for Ash. My voice sounded desperate and loud in my own ears, and the garden fell away, leaving me alone in my bedroom. Flames licked the curtains and the ceiling, casting an orange glow throughout the dark of my room. My face felt hot, my throat dry, and when I tried to draw a breath, it didn’t quite fill my aching lungs. I gasped in another frantic breath.
I scrambled across the foot of my bed. I yanked the comforter off my bed to try to smother the flames.
The door flew open, and my mother stormed in with a fire extinguisher in her hands. She aimed it at the flaming curtains. White foam covered the flames, dousing them, and flecks of it flew back to splatter across my face.
When the last sparks died away, the room was dark again.
My mother threw the fire extinguisher on my desk. It rolled across the white-painted oak. It pushed my snow globe ahead of it. White flakes of snow whirled as the globe rolled towards the edge, the heavy red canister pushing it closer to its doom.
I rushed to grab the canister and the snow globe before it could shatter on the carpet, but Mom reached out and grabbed my wrist. She was still breathing hard, but her voice was low and controlled when she said, “You’ll tell them that you were smoking.”
The snow globe fell, but landed, upright and unbroken, on the carpet.
“I wasn’t, I promise. I wasn’t smoking. I didn’t do anything—”
The fire extinguisher landed heavily on the glass bubble of the globe, shattering it. The fluid in the globe seeped out to darken the carpet.
“You were smoking,” she repeated. “I had to call 9-1-1. The fire could be in the walls.”
In the distance, I could hear the roar of fire engines; the station was only a few miles away, and we only had a minute or two before they were here.
“Mom.” I had to at least make her understand about something. “I promise—”
“I don’t want any of your promises,” she cut me off. “Tomorrow, I’m sending you away.”
“You’re sending me away?” It was such a ridiculous threat that I smiled in disbelief.
“Yes,” she said. “There’s a place for people like you.”
“People like me? I think it’s called college, Mom. Hang in until fall, and we’ll get away from each other. Hell, I’ll move out. I’m almost eighteen—”
“You’re almost eighteen,” she said. “And that’s why I have a few more days to choose where you’ll spend your summer. I’ve been debating if I should send you there or not, but you could have killed us both tonight. I’m not going to let you hurt anyone else, Ellis.”
My mother’s ashy-blond hair fell in stringy strands over her shoulder around a wan face. It was the middle of the night, and that must be why she looked other-worldly tonight, with her eyes as black as sin in the dim light.
As black as my sin.
I shouldn’t hate her for blaming me for Ash. Because I did too. But I desperately wanted her to wrap her arms around me and tell me it would be okay. Tell me she still loved me.
She just stared back at me.
The spell between us was broken by the thumping on the front door. Firemen. She startled, running her hands through her limp hair, as she turned. “I don’t want them breaking down the door.”
She swept towards the door, imperious even in sleep pants and a t-shirt. She turned and glanced at me over her shoulder, one last look, and then she hurried down the hallway.
One last look like I was the fire in the walls, a hidden danger that could burst into full flame at any moment.
* * *
The firemen didn’t believe me when I said I hadn’t been smoking. My mother had planted the idea in their heads, and it was the only thing that made sense. By the time they left, dawn was breaking, and I was so exhausted that I almost believed the story I’d started the fire with cigarettes myself. Except I’ve never smoked in my life.
I didn’t want to be in that house anymore. As soon as the fire truck pulled away down the street, I sat down heavily on the porch swing. It squeaked back and forth under my weight as the red-and-white lights faded down the street. The house across the street from me, an enormous gray stone McMansion, was empty; it was being foreclosed on. So I knew no one was watching me through the curtains, curious about the drama at our house tonight.
Left alone, I thought about the flames closing in on me while I slept. Despite the distance between my mother and I, she had saved me from the monster that haunted me, the flames that seemed to appear in my wake now. I felt a rush of gratitude as I imagined the way the smoke could have overwhelmed me in the sleep, how I could have slipped away to a dreamland where I would chase Ash forever. I wished I could tell my mother thank you for not letting me die. But I didn’t want to say a word to her and have her shake her head and turn away. I would just show her I appreciated her. I would do the dishes and fold the laundry and stop setting things on fire. Somehow.
I pulled my knees up to my chest, hugging myself against the morning chill. The first rays of morning light washed the sky with a soft yellow glow over the trees and rooftops. It was beautiful. It always seemed odd to me that the sun kept rising when my sister was dead and my world was all wrong. I knew I should go to bed, but the thought of walking back into the house, which smelled of smoke and soot, made my chest tighten all over again.
What the hell was my mom talking about? I was so close to being an adult. I was going to college in the fall. It was across town, but I had every intention of living in the dorm. I rubbed my hand across my face. My eyes were hot and bleary.
And when I opened them again, there was a man standing at the end of the driveway.
I pressed the palm of my hand to my chest, almost jumping out of my skin; my heart fluttered wildly, and I could feel its rapid beat through my shirt. Where the hell had he come from?
He was tall and broad-shouldered, lean at the waist, dressed in a flannel shirt and dark wash jeans and motorcycle boots. From here I couldn’t see his face well, but I got the general impression of high cheekbones, a determined jaw, and ruffled dark-blond hair. He was cute.
Too bad he was also creepy.
I jumped to my feet and made a run for the front door. I’d rather choke on the acrid scent in the house than stay out here with the guy who who was staring at me for no reason. At least, no good reason.
“Ellis, wait,” he said. His voice was low and calm, but somehow I heard it even with the distance between us. He had a rough, gravely voice. Sexy.
It didn’t matter how sexy he sounded. He shouldn’t know my name.
I twisted the doorknob in my hand, but it didn’t turn. My palm slipped over the cool metal, trying it again, frantically.
Mom had locked me out.
I banged on the door with my fist, and then, hoping that my mother was on my way, I turned around to see where he was.
He stood at the bottom of the porch steps. His hands were shoved into his jeans pockets, his posture relaxed. “I’m not going to hurt you, Ellis. Relax.”
“Well, you seem to know me,” I said. “And I don’t remember us meeting. Who the hell are you?”
“Maybe you just don’t remember me yet.” He had deep green eyes, lushly lashed; they couldn’t have been in sharper contrast to that chiseled, masculine face.
“I’d remember you.” My voice came out deadpan. It was true. He was too Hollywood-looking to forget.
His lips quirked up slightly at that.
How old was he? A few years older than me, maybe? His shoulders were broad and his arms were thickly muscled, unlike most boys my age, but there was something lean and boyish about his frame too. And his face was young. Young and handsome.
“My name’s Ryker,” he said, crossing those muscular arms over his chest. “I would shake your hand, but I can’t.”
“Why’s that?” Not that I wanted him to come any closer. Still keeping my eyes on him, I slapped the wooden door with my hand. Come on, Mom. You might hate me, but it’s really going to embarrass you if I’m murdered on the front porch. Imagine what that will do to property values.
“I’m not really here,” he said. “Listen. Some men coming for you. Don’t fight them. Just let them take you.”
“They? You’re going to have to be more specific.” My voice came out surprisingly crisp. My 11th grade English teacher had despised the use of The Faceless They, as she called it; we always had to name who they were before we could use the word. Gosh, that was a good year; my sister was alive, my mother still hugged me goodnight, I didn’t accidentally start fires in my sleep, and terrifying-but-handsome men never showed up on my doorstep.
“I would tell you, but you might try to explain it to your mother. She thinks she called some residential treatment facility for wayward mutants, that you’re going to spend the summer camping and surrender your power, Firestarter.” He glanced down the street, then back at me; those green eyes stared into mine intensely. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll be there. And we’ll escape together.”
Don’t be afraid was not helpful advice when he was the one making me afraid.
“My kind of problem? Escape? Together?” All my questions blurred together. My voice broke on together. I banged on the door again, even though I no longer had much hope in my mother.
His eyes widened slightly in response to my panic, although his voice was still low and cool. “Don’t be scared. I’ll explain it all.”
“Yeah, let’s do that. Right now,” I said. “Because you telling me not to be scared is really just freaking me out. That is not effective.”
“Sorry,” he said, but he glanced down the road. His eyes stared at something in the distance, and his jaw set in response.
I followed his line of vision and saw a white panel van turn down the road. I turned back to him, a question already on my lips.
He was gone.
I banged on the door again, watching as the van slowly rolled down the road. It was probably a carpet cleaner or an HVAC company. Perfectly ordinary. But Ryker’s words had set me on edge.
The van didn’t even come to a stop before the side hatch flew open. An enormous man, tall and broad and heavy, jumped out onto the pavement. He looked around briefly, getting his bearings, and his eyes settled on me.
Behind him, a second man jumped out. This one didn’t hesitate; he followed the first man, who was barreling across the lawn.
My stomach twisted.
Don’t fight them, Ryker had said.
I didn’t trust him either.
I turned and ran for the side of the porch. Planted my hand on the smooth wood and heaved myself over the porch railing. My feet hit the grass hard, my knees buckling, and I caught myself kneeling before I pushed off again. My ankle throbbed like I had twisted it.
I ran so hard that my chest strained and my legs ached, my arms pumping, and then someone hit me from behind. Hard. Tackled me. I felt the shock of my head thumping into the dirt, all the force of my body behind it. I almost somersaulted. The man came down heavily on top of me. I scrambled in the grass, trying to get my knees beneath me.
A beefy arm wrapped around my throat. I breathed in a bad scent for a second, sweet cologne and oniony body odor, and then he squeezed. I could still draw ragged breaths, but his bicep was pressed into one side of my neck and his forearm on the other. My fingers scrabbled at his muscular arm, trying to get free, but I couldn’t break loose
“Don’t hurt the girl,” someone said.
“It’s just a blood choke.” The voice was close, in my ear. “And even so. Don’t kill the girl. Be precise.”
“I guess you’re right.” The other voice was amused. “She’s going to get hurt a whole lot.”
I raked my fingernails against this guy’s arms and heard him grunt in pain. I was trying to draw blood. To mark him. To shove my DNA under his fingernails. If I disappeared forever as if the hand of God had plucked me out of this sleepy suburb, maybe someday, someone would figure out what had happened to me.
The world went dark.