Wildefire (Wildefire Series #1)by Karsten Knight
Every flame begins with a spark.
Blackwood Academy was supposed to be a fresh start for Ashline Wilde. A secluded boarding school deep in the heart of California’s redwood forests, three thousand miles from her old life—it sounded like the new beginning she needed after an act of unspeakable violence left a girl in her hometown dead. But/b>… See more details below
Every flame begins with a spark.
Blackwood Academy was supposed to be a fresh start for Ashline Wilde. A secluded boarding school deep in the heart of California’s redwood forests, three thousand miles from her old life—it sounded like the new beginning she needed after an act of unspeakable violence left a girl in her hometown dead. But Blackwood is far from the peaceful haven Ashline was searching for. Because terrifying, supernatural beasts roam the forests around campus. Because the murderer from Ashline’s hometown—her own sister—has followed her across the country. Because a group of reincarnated gods and goddesses has been mysteriously summoned to Blackwood...and Ashline’s one of them.
Perhaps inspired by Rick Riordan's phenomenal success, debut author Knight takes a more-must-be-better approach for this multiple-mythology mashup.
Readers meet Scarsdale High sophomore Ashline Wilde in the school parking lot, where she's just felled the classmate who stole her boyfriend. Ash will knock out an incisor before she's done, and her sister Eve will do much worse. In the aftermath, Ash—like Eve, she's a Jewish-raised, Polynesian-born adoptee—transfers to a prep school sequestered in the California redwoods. There, she and assorted peers learn they're reincarnated deities, each from a different pantheon (Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Zulu and Polynesian) called together to prevent Ragnarok, a.k.a. the End of the World. Just enough narrative infrastructure is provided to keep the plot moving. Breezily values-free, these deities mostly drink, flirt and fight, displaying buff bodies and handy superpowers, but Ash is troubled by dreams of a child, who may be her sister, and visited by Eve, who plays rough even by action-hero standards. When the dust clears, enough dangling plot threads remain to supply as many sequels as the market will bear.
The Mighty Morphin Power Ranger ambiance and frenetically paced action scenes might have worked well in a graphic novel, but without art to supply missing emotion and nuance, the shallow, flat-footed prose, fueled by escalating violence, fails to engage.(Fantasy. 14 & up)
Meet the Author
Karsten Knight has been writing since the age of six, when he completed his first masterpiece: a picture book series about an adventurous worm. In the two decades that have followed, Karsten has worked as a proofreader, a bookseller, and a college admissions counselor before he finally decided that his true calling was to be a volcano goddess biographer. He lives in Boston, and for more information or to watch his video blog, visit KarstenKnight.com.
More from this Author
Read an Excerpt
Ashline Wilde was a human mood ring. Sixteen years old, and she was a cauldron of emotions—frothing, bubbling, and volatile. She had never heard of “bottling it all up inside.” She was as transparent as the air itself.
And as she loomed over her combatant in the dusty Scarsdale High School parking lot, it didn’t take an answer key for the gathering crowd to decipher her mood du jour.
Ashline was pissed.
Lizzie Jacobs touched her split lip and gazed with a mixture of fury and awe at her bloodstained fingertips. One right hook from Ash had laid the skinny blond girl flat out on her ass. “What the hell, Wilde?”
“What’s the matter, Elizabeth?” Ash massaged her knuckles. Goddamn, that had hurt. “You couldn’t find your own boyfriend?”
“Oh, I could.” Lizzie brushed the dirt off the seat of her designer jeans as she used the hood of a nearby car to rise to her feet. “He just happened to be yours at the time.”
A chorus of “ooh” echoed around them.
“With all the guys who come in and out of the revolving door to your Volvo’s backseat, you had to get your paws on Rich, too?” Ash asked. The crowd hollered again. Summoned by the promise of bloodshed, students flooded out of the high school’s back doors, the circle around the two girls growing thicker by the minute.
First rule of school yard fights: It didn’t matter who you cheered for, as long as someone got slapped around.
“Ashline, wait,” a deep voice called. Somewhere in the sea of hoodies and popped collars, a varsity letter jacket wormed its way through the crowd. Rich Lesley finally elbowed in to the periphery of the inner circle. He stopped dead when he caught sight of Lizzie’s bloodied face. At six-foot-four he stood a full twelve inches taller than Ashline, but he still shrank back when his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend turned around. His sandy hair bobbed as he searched for an emergency exit, but the crowd that had been so eager to let him through had now knitted together to block his escape.
It was the first time she’d seen him since Tessa had reported the horrible news to her in last-period chemistry. As Ash had stormed out midclass, she’d imagined all the awful things she would say to him, do to him even. But faced with the boy who had abruptly tossed their three months together out the window like an apple core to the freeway, she couldn’t even pretend to be anything but hurt. Maybe it was the naïveté that came with having your first real relationship, but nothing about their romance had screamed “summer fling” to Ashline. “Really, Rich?” she said finally, her voice sounding far more pathetic than she’d intended. “It’s bad enough that you cheated on me, during school . . . but Lizzie Jacobs was the best you could do?”
“Hey!” Lizzie protested from behind her.
“Shut up, bitch,” Ash said, raising a hand to silence her. “The grown-ups are talking.”
Rich shifted his tennis bag from one shoulder to the other. At one point or another every man dreamed of two women fighting over him, but this clearly wasn’t what Rich Lesley had imagined. “I don’t want to talk about this here.”
“I’m sorry,” Ash said quietly, unconsciously twisting the Claddagh ring that Rich had given her. Its heart was still pointed inward. “Is there some place quieter you had in mind to humiliate me?”
For a moment, when he tugged at the hair that was starting to grow over his ear, when his posture slouched as if he were deflating, when his feet shuffled restlessly in place, Ash thought she saw a specter of the old Rich, the same Rich she’d seen in his cellar the day his parents had announced they were getting a divorce. For a moment she felt like maybe it was just the two of them, alone again, lying in the bed of his green pickup.
But then the world around him seemed to coalesce, and the crowd snapped back into place. His eyes hardened. “The only person who’s humiliating you,” he said, “is you.” His fingers settled on the zipper of his tennis bag as if it were a holstered gun.
Ash leveled him with a stare that could harpoon a marlin from a hundred yards. She pointed at his bag. “What are you going to do, coward? Swat me with your tennis purse?”
Momentarily girded with courage, Rich turned and smirked at Reggie Butler, co-captain of the tennis team. “If only she’d been this passionate when we were dating.”
One second Ashline was standing in the middle of the circle. The next second Rich was curled in the fetal position on the ground, howling in pain, holding his tennis bag in front of him like a shield to prevent further irreparable injury to his groin.
“You have something to say too, Butler?” Ash asked.
“No, ma’am,” Reggie said, and after one glance down at his squirming friend, he defensively held up his hands. “Personally, I think he deserved it.”
“Traitor,” Rich rasped from the ground.
“Christ, Wilde.” Lizzie came up beside Ash, who had temporarily forgotten all about her. Lizzie planted her hands firmly on her hips and peered down at Rich with no particular touch of concern. “Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?”
Ever so slowly Ash rotated her head to the left, her eyes piercing out from behind her bangs.
“Ooh, right,” Lizzie said. “You’re just some crazy bush child that your parents came home from vacation with.”
Ash raised her hand and touched the skin over her cheek, at once painfully self-conscious of how her skin, the hue of earthen clay, clashed against the backdrop of her predominantly white school. She spent the better part of each day feeling like a grizzly in the polar bear cage, and now Lizzie Jacobs was poking her with a stick through the bars.
The crowd had fallen uncomfortably quiet as well. Oblivious to the silence around her, or perhaps driven by it, Lizzie wiped the blood from her still-bleeding lip. “Where do you think your parents are right now? Chanting in a circle back on Tahiti? Fishing with a spear? Or are they poking needles into a little voodoo doll, controlling you, and that’s why you’re acting like such a—”
It really wasn’t Ash’s intention to knock out anyone’s teeth during this altercation. But Lizzie hadn’t even finished her verbal portrait of Ashline’s birth parents when, in a blur, the Polynesian girl’s hands wrapped around Lizzie’s skull and threw her across the circle. The momentum carried Lizzie uncontrollably toward a familiar green pickup.
It was one of those genuine oh-shit-what-did-I-just-do moments when everything slows down. Lizzie’s face smashed into the truck’s side mirror—so hard, in fact, that the mirror snapped clean off and clattered to the ground, cracking in half on impact. Meanwhile Ash watched with a cocktail of glee and guilt-ridden horror as the light flickered behind Lizzie’s eyes and her eyelids drooped. Lizzie Jacobs was three quarters of the way to Neverland by the time she landed on the pavement, her outstretched arm mercifully providing a pillow for her head as she went down.
And there, spilling out of her mouth and onto the ground like it had just popped out of a gumball dispenser, was one of Lizzie’s incisors. One end covered in blood, it skittered across the pavement until it landed at Ashline’s feet.
“My truck!” Rich helplessly reached out to his castrated pickup.
Ash wasn’t looking at Rich or the bloody tooth in front of her. Instead the sounds of the crowd around her died away, fading into a void, replaced by a ringing in her ears. In that sliver of time Ash was frozen, looking at her split reflection in the cracked mirror.
A wind picked up from the west, and the already overcast sky instantly grew darker. The temperature plummeted to frosty levels. The short-sleeved students rubbed their exposed arms. Hoodies were zipped in unison.
Then, on that September afternoon, it began to snow.
Just a few flakes at first, carried like dancing ash by the growing west wind. But as a murmur rumbled through the crowd, the snow began to fall in blizzard proportions. Ash finally severed eye contact with her broken reflection and tilted her face to the sky, her cheeks quickly powdered by the storm. Despite her island roots, she always found the cold comforting.
“What’s going on here?” a sharp parrotlike voice screeched from the direction of the school. “You’re all blocking the fire lanes!”
The crowd shuffled to the side, letting Vice Principal Davis through to the combat zone. Mr. Davis pushed past Reggie Butler and, with no regard for where he was stepping, tripped right over Rich.
The vice principal caught himself just before he face-planted. “Mr. Lesley?” His bespectacled eyes tried to make sense of the tennis player on the ground, who still hadn’t risen and was cradling his man-bits as if they were about to run away. Then the vice principal’s gaze traveled across the circle first to Ashline, standing motionless, and then down to Lizzie Jacobs. Lizzie was just beginning to stir, her body now caked in a fresh coat of snow. As a half-human groan escaped her mouth, Ash thought she resembled a waking yeti.
The puzzle pieces clicked together, and Mr. Davis blinked twice at Ash. “Ms. Wilde?”
Ash shrugged and flashed her best attempt at an innocent smile, a look that, despite her numerous brushes with trouble, she’d failed to master. “What? I was just the referee.”
“Nice try.” Mr. Davis folded his arms over his chest. “But drama club tryouts were last week.”
Ash couldn’t meet his gaze, and looked away, as if there were a better future for her written somewhere on the pavement. Instead she found only a man-shaped cutout in the snow. Following the trail of footprints away, she spotted Rich fleeing the school grounds without his truck, his dignity trailing behind him like a string of tin cans.
“Mr. Butler,” the vice principal said to the tennis player still lingering at the scene of the crime. “If you would run in and catch Nurse Hawkins before she leaves . . . I have a feeling Ms. Jacobs will need an ice pack momentarily.”
On cue a loud grunt echoed from behind them. “My toof . . .” Lizzie moaned, sitting up. And then again louder, “My toof!” She touched her mouth in horror, and her finger explored the space where her left incisor used to be. She frantically raked her fingers through the snow, the fragment of her previously beautiful smile helplessly concealed by the white blanket on the ground. “Where is my toof?”
Meanwhile, the world war of snowball fights had erupted all around the parking lot. The silhouettes of its soldiers danced with delight through the impromptu snowstorm, using the cars as cover from the returning fire. The shrieks of mirth echoed through the eerie dark of the afternoon. A rogue volley splattered against the pleated pantleg of Mr. Davis’s khakis, and he took a hesitant step in the direction of Christian Marsh, who, with an ashen face, squealed and ran away.
But another sound overtook the school grounds. From behind the thick curtain of snow, a low rumbling picked up, an engine distinct from those of the factory-fresh cars and hand-me-downs that were slowly making their way out of the parking lot and onto the slippery streets. It was the churning rattle of a motorcycle, and even Mr. Davis, who had opened his mouth like he was about to really rip into Ashline, paused to listen. The snowball fight and the cheerful shouts of its participants faded to nothing as the sound grew louder.
Ash knew exactly who was on the back of the bike before the outline of the motorcycle emerged through the white gauze. The old Honda Nighthawk chugged threateningly as it rolled toward them, its red chassis like a spot of blood in the otherwise virgin snow.
The engine cut, and the bike drifted to a stop between Ash and her fallen adversary, who had finally located her tooth. Lizzie had it pinched between her thumb and forefinger and was squinting at it in a half-conscious daze. The arrival of the motorcycle caused her to drop it again.
The rider, cloaked in white jeans and a matching spandex shirt that made her look like a floating vision in the falling snow, dismounted the bike and plucked her helmet from her head in one smooth motion. Her short chin-length hair curved around her face into two ebony spikes that pointed forward like tusks. Her dark skin, even richer than Ash’s, betrayed her roots to an island far, far away from this suburban jungle. It was as if she and Ash had been excavated from different layers of the same clay.
The older girl glanced briefly at Lizzie Jacobs, perhaps noting the blood on her lip and the concussion-induced disorientation in her eyes. “Way to go, Little Sis.”
“What are you doing here, Eve?” Ash asked.
“Yes, Ms. Wilde, what are you doing here?” Mr. Davis echoed.
Eve pouted mockingly at her former vice principal. “Can’t a big girl check in on her wittle sister from time to time?”
Mr. Davis cleared his throat. “Not on the school grounds from which you have already been expelled.”
“Oh, please.” Eve rolled her eyes and tossed her helmet from hand to hand. “A couple of unwanted comments in biology class, and one teensy little cafeteria fistfight, and you kick a girl out of school? Hardly seems fair.”
“Three,” Mr. Davis corrected her. “Three teensy little cafeteria fistfights, and one restraining order.”
“See?” Eve exclaimed as if this proved her point. “Six months out of school, and I can’t even count straight anymore. And I was so eager to learn.”
Behind Eve, Lizzie Jacobs climbed unsteadily to her feet, tottering from side to side. She massaged her head and squinted at the new arrival. “Christ, Ash. Did you hit me hard enough that I’m seeing double? Or are there two Tahitian bitches strutting around the parking lot?”
“Lizzie, please shut up,” Ash said, this time pleading, not hostile. Eve had been missing for three months now, ever since her seventeenth birthday. But three months wasn’t nearly long enough for Ash to forget that when Eve got involved, things never failed to get out of hand.
“Didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” Eve said over her shoulder; the peon behind her wasn’t worth the energy of turning around.
Lizzie opened her mouth to reply, but Ash darted between the two of them. She experienced a pleasurable surge of victory when Lizzie flinched, but wanted to telepathically say, I’m trying to protect you, you moron.
“Forget about this one,” Ash said to her sister. “I’ve already invested enough energy in her, and Rich Lesley isn’t worth the fight.”
“Rich Lesley?” Eve scoffed, and swept the snow out of her bangs with a flick of her hair. “That gangly tennis twerp? Baby Sis, I thought I taught you better than that. You certainly didn’t inherit your taste in men from me.”
Ash forced a laugh, waiting for the tension in the air to melt. Her mind was no longer fixated on the threat of school suspension. Now she was focused on getting Lizzie, Eve, and the vice principal to go in separate directions. Even Mr. Davis looked on edge—his fifteen years as a school administrator had no jurisdiction over the teenage blood feud he’d interrupted, at least now with Eve in play.
Mustering up all the sisterly warmth she could for a sibling who was as frightening as she was unpredictable, Ash slipped an arm around Eve’s waist and guided her back to her bike. “Let me worry about all this,” she said. “I’m just going to go inside and collect my detention slip, and then I’ll meet you back at home. We can catch up then.”
Eve narrowed her eyes, like some sort of menacing ice witch with the snow collecting on her brow. “Why? Why do you just content yourself to go along with the status quo when you know you’re intended for much greater things?” She jabbed her finger roughly on Ash’s sternum. “I know that you feel it in you, the same way I did when I gave the middle finger to this place and rode off into the sunset. Do you really feel like you belong in this Wonder Bread town? Have you ever felt like you belonged here?”
Ash dropped her eyes to the pavement.
“Then, why don’t you stop acting like you do! Do you really want to waste your time sitting for hours in some vomit-colored detention hall, just because”—Eve leveled a finger at Mr. Davis—“this miserable unmarried tyrant is angry that you”—and she pointed her thumb back at Lizzie—“showed this whorish man-stealing bottom-feeder, who has terrible split ends, a little bit of street justice?”
“Are you kidding me?” Lizzie screeched behind her.
“Shut it, cupcake,” Eve snapped. “It’s called conditioner—use it sometime.”
Mr. Davis took a step toward Eve and pointed to her motorcycle. “You have sixty seconds to leave school grounds.” He tapped his imaginary watch.
“Just go home,” Ash said to her sister, more firmly this time. “I can take care of myself.”
The wind picked up with increasing ferocity from the west. Ash’s hair billowed around her like a sail. Eve held out the biker’s helmet. “Get on the bike, Ash,” she ordered her sister. “I’m not leaving this parking lot without you. It’s for your own good.”
“No,” Ash replied.
“Get on the back of the damn bike!” Eve growled. Her face contorted with such vicious lines that even Mr. Davis took a few steps back. “Get on the bike, or so help me . . .”
Ash was summoning the courage to refuse a second time when fate—in the form of Lizzie Jacobs’s stupidity—intervened. The blond girl snorted behind Eve. “I guess I wasn’t off target when I said that crazy runs in the family. But I can’t really blame you, Ash. If my older sister was a motorcycle-riding Antichrist, I guess I’d be a little rough around the edges too.”
The wind died, and the only sound that could be heard throughout the parking lot was the distant call of thunder. Mr. Davis held his breath, frozen somewhere between mediating and wetting himself. Eve’s eyes were still fixed with smoldering fire on her little sister, and for one blessed, relief-filled instant Ash actually thought Eve was going to let the comment slide.
Everything happened so fast. Eve whirled around like an Olympic discus thrower and, with her arm extended, smashed Lizzie Jacobs in the face with her motorcycle helmet. The already dazed sophomore spun around in an ugly pirouette on one foot, before collapsing to the pavement again, for the third and last time.
The onset of violence spurred Mr. Davis back into action. “I’m calling the police,” he said, and his cell phone was already in his hand by the time he knelt down at Lizzie’s side.
A vicious smile spread across Eve’s face, and she stepped forward so that she loomed over Lizzie. “I don’t know if it will be an improvement, but there’s certainly nothing I could have done to your face to make it any worse. Sweet dreams.” Eve flipped the helmet around in her hands. “Hopefully I knocked out another tooth and she’ll be symmetrical now.” She turned back to her sister, expecting Ash to look equally pleased.
But Ash had tears in her eyes. “Why do you always do this?” she whispered. “You couldn’t have just come back to see me. You had to make it about destruction. It’s always about destroying something.”
Eve stalked over to her with such intensity that for a split second Ash thought she might suffer the same fate as Lizzie. Eve leaned menacingly down so that she came nose-to-nose with her shorter sister. The familiar tang of cinnamon and patchouli washed over Ash as Eve exhaled. “You hit her and it’s retaliation and self-defense. I hit her and it’s destruction. Where do you get off making that distinction?”
Ash held her ground. “Because I don’t enjoy it.”
Eve sneered and gave her sister one more look up and down. “Keep telling yourself that.” She backed away and straddled the Nighthawk, her face livid with disgust as if the pavement were covered with rotting eggs. “Last chance. Are you getting on the back of this bike, or are you going to stay here in Pleasantville?”
Ash didn’t have the strength to reply. She could only shake her head.
Eve popped the helmet onto her head, and the motorcycle grumbled to life, mimicking the thunder in the clouds. “Grow up, Ash,” Eve said, her voice muffled behind the helmet. Ash caught her own tattered-looking reflection in the dark visor before the motorcycle and its rider zipped off over the snow, the back tire fishtailing out as she rounded the corner.
Ash crouched down beside Lizzie. The girl’s left cheek was turning purple, on its way toward a nasty bruise, and her eyelids were just starting to flutter open as she struggled to wake up from the second concussion. Ash was only vaguely aware of Lizzie moaning and stirring; of Mr. Davis’s panicked footfalls as he paced restlessly, waiting for help to arrive; of the distant wail of the approaching ambulance.
Instead she channeled all of her attention into listening for the whisper that each snowflake made when it touched the ground. But no matter how hard she tried to concentrate on this impossible task, she couldn’t shake the awful vision she’d seen as Eve had ridden off school grounds.
For one haunting moment, seeing her reflection in Eve’s helmet, it had looked as if it were Ashline riding away on that motorcycle, a path of carnage and ill intentions in her wake.
When Ash arrived home after her meeting with Vice Principal Davis, the police cruiser was already waiting in the driveway. The female officer sitting inside the house with her parents looked alert and self-important, stoked at the prospect of finally being able to dispense some sweet justice. Ash couldn’t particularly blame her. With Scarsdale, New York having one of the lowest crime rates in the country, the cops rarely saw much excitement beyond serving tickets to drivers who tried to beat the light, or chasing high teenagers through the woods behind the school. The opportunity to serve a warrant for the arrest of a “dangerous outlaw” like Ash’s sister was a welcome change of pace.
Of course Eve was nowhere to be found when the officer arrived. If Ash knew her sister, she was probably halfway to Buffalo on her motorcycle by now. It could be months before they heard from her again—if at all.
After the officer departed, Ashline sat on the stairs with her knees hugged to her chest. Through the wrought iron balustrade, which felt like prison bars, she watched her father pull on his boots and her mother rifle through the closet. The Wildes, true to their endless fountain of good intentions, had decided to take the blue Rav4 to, hopelessly, search for Eve in the freezing rain. As terrible as it had been for the police to present them with Eve’s arrest warrant, it had been a bittersweet reminder that after three months without so much as a phone call or postcard, their delinquent daughter was still alive.
From this angle, under the hallway chandelier, Ashline could see how peppered with gray Thomas Wilde’s hair had grown over the last few months. Over the years, Ash had always remained oblivious to the gradual signs of aging shown by either of her adoptive parents. She even sometimes joked that since she and Eve had lived in the Wilde house all their lives, maybe they would inherit the good Wilde genes through osmosis. But in comparison to her father’s image in the large family portrait over the stairs, taken barely a year after the adoption, when Ash was only a toddler, it looked now as though the last fifteen years had finally ambushed the patriarch of the Wilde family.
Her father scooped his keys off the foyer table and then fished around in the pockets of his khakis for the fourth time. “Wallet, wallet . . .”
“Dad,” Ash called down to him. “Back pocket.” She pointed to the lump on the back side of his khakis, and his panicked expression softened a few degrees as his hand settled on the billfold.
“You know, Ashline . . .” He slipped on his leather coat, which Ash had given him for his fiftieth birthday. “We could use a third pair of eyes out on the road. Your grounding doesn’t have to start until afterward.”
Ashline’s hands tightened around the balusters. “Thanks, but I’ll gladly opt for house arrest over ‘search party of three’ in the rain.”
Her father stepped over to the staircase so that they were face-to-face through the balustrade. “No one’s saying Eve hasn’t made enough mistakes for ten childhoods. But she was always a good sister to you.”
There was some truth to that. Even after the poison of adolescence had set in and Eve had slowly grown carcinogenic to the people around her—her classmates, her friends, and eventually her parents—she had always retained her loyalty to Ashline. On days when Ash had returned home from school feeling trampled and downtrodden, she could always expect to find Eve in her bedroom doorway soon after. Some days Eve would even invade their mother’s liquor cabinet and have two mint juleps mixed and waiting for Ashline’s arrival home. The older they got, the more Ash could count on Eve to sense her moods from a distance, like a change in the wind.
That is, until Eve disappeared.
Ashline stood up. “Good sisters don’t leave in the first place. They don’t make their little sisters hang up missing-person flyers on every telephone pole from Brooklyn to Albany . . . like she was some sort of lost dog.” She started up the steps toward her room. “I’ll be damned if I do it again.”
Ash stopped. This time it was her mother, perched on the bottom stair.
“Ashline, please,” her mother repeated.
Ash opened her mouth to say no, but then she spotted the jacket clutched in Gloria Wilde’s hand. “What is that?” Ash demanded.
Her mother held it up. It was the orange and silver warm-up jacket that Eve had worn when she’d still been a gymnast. Ash hadn’t seen her wear it since she was thirteen, and it was at least a few years past fitting her.
“I thought I’d bring it,” her mother said slowly. “In case she was cold.”
Ashline didn’t know if it was the way the jacket trembled in her mother’s hands or the pleading look that she gave Ash, as if Ash were the only one who could bring her sister back. But she walked down the stairs, opened the closet door, and pulled out her own winter coat. “Here.” She delicately replaced the warm-up in her mother’s hand with the wool peacoat. “This will probably fit her better.”
Her mother pecked her on the cheek. Ash was grateful that her mother didn’t cry until she was out the front door and walking to the car.
Ash stood at the glass door for a minute, until the red taillights of the car disappeared beyond the trees that framed their yard. No doubt her parents would stop at every diner, gas station, and motel they could find within a fifteen-mile radius.
Just like last time, they wouldn’t find her.
Curled up in her bedroom window seat with the lights off, Ash watched the rain splatter against the glass. For the second time that day, the weather matched her mood precisely—first the freak afternoon snowstorm, and now this midnight thundershower. She left the window open just a crack so that the patter of raindrops against the leaves could wash over her. She hoped she could cull some sense of relaxation out of the white noise, be cleansed by it, but Eve’s absence and her own weeklong suspension loomed over her instead.
Isolation. Ashline knew that being confined to the four cranberry-colored walls of her bedroom for the next month wasn’t the end of the world. The truth was that even if she had her run of the town she would still be numbingly alone. What few friends she had retained from middle school she’d lost quickly during the brutal transition from freshman to sophomore year. She’d been replaced like an old tube of mascara when the social tectonic plates had made their great shift. Rich Lesley, despite all his visible egocentricity, had served as a much-needed bandage, bringing with him an entourage of substitute friends in the form of his fellow tennis players and their plus-ones. But now the bandage had been ripped off with a single flick of the wrist—or, in this case, Lizzie Jacobs’s tongue—and the wound of loneliness had sprung open anew.
And when romances and friendships went to hell, weren’t you supposed to fall back on family? She scoffed. If family was supposed to be her safety net as she walked the tightrope of life, then Ashline’s “support system” currently consisted of two parents appalled by the life choices of their children, and a sister who was wanted for assault and battery.
Ash sighed and opened her window wider. Moisture spattered her face as the raindrops splashed through the screen. It felt good just to feel anything at this point. Considering that she had knocked out one of Lizzie’s teeth, there certainly were worse fates than a school suspension and a substantial grounding at home, but the loneliness was settling in.
In hopes of finding someone to call—anyone—Ash scrolled through three quarters of her cell phone’s contact list before she resigned herself to the fact that all her “friends” were mutual through Rich. They were unlikely to be sympathetic, and even less likely to pick up the phone at all. With a growl Ash heaved the phone across the room. It landed, skittered, and remarkably remained intact even as it crashed into her metal wastebasket with a defeated clink.
Soon her adrenaline levels faded, and Ashline’s eyes fluttered closed. She hugged her knees to her chest and placed her head near the window as she drifted off, lulled to slumber by the kiss of the raindrops against her cheek.
She hadn’t been asleep more than five minutes when the sound of female laughter echoed in through the window from the front yard.
Ashline’s eyes shot open. “Eve?” she said aloud, and peered through the window. The rain still came down in a steady drizzle, but she could see a silhouette at the end of the driveway, obscured in the darkness of the trees. “Eve?” she repeated.
But then she heard a chorus of giggles and discerned two additional shadows darting among the bushes that lined the front walkway. It was the excited chatter of girls reveling in the thrill of doing something illicit and enjoying it far too much. And as one of the girls stepped into the halo of light from the nearest streetlamp, Ash caught sight of her battered but unmistakable mug.
As her vision adjusted to the dark, Ash observed that Lizzie was carrying something—a field hockey stick—that she tossed playfully from hand to hand. If Ashline’s ears could be trusted, then Lizzie’s partners in crime were her teammates Gabby and Alexis.
They probably weren’t there to sell Girl Scout cookies.
With a shout of glee Lizzie pranced up to the Wildes’ mailbox, an old wooden bird feeder that Ashline’s mother had refashioned with a hinge door and repainted in pastels. Lizzie wheeled around, and the club end of the hockey stick struck the mailbox with a sharp crack that resounded across the yard. Channeling all of her rage from being knocked out twice in the same day, Lizzie made quick work of the refurbished bird feeder. Again and again her weapon came down, splintering the wood. Finally Lizzie launched a fierce kick that separated the mailbox from its post, and the already devastated bird feeder crashed to the driveway pavement.
Gabby joined Lizzie in dancing around the fallen mailbox, but Alexis lingered back.
Ash undid the clasps holding the screen window in place and pushed. It swung up and out, and she leaned out the window as far as she could without falling to the bushes below. If she filtered out the whisper of the rain against the leaves, she could just make out what the girls were saying.
Alexis kept looking frantically in the direction of the road. “Let’s get out of here,” the redheaded freshman pleaded to her friends. “The neighbors probably heard that.”
“Oh, grow some balls, Lexi,” Gabby said. “My mom just texted me to say the Wildes came by the inn looking for Eve. Nobody’s home here.”
Lizzie tipped her field hockey stick up on to her shoulder like a soldier cradling her rifle. “I haven’t even begun to claim my revenge yet,” she said. “The Wilde girls brought this on themselves.”
“Ash and Eve both deserve the worst,” Alexis agreed, tugging nervously at her hair. “I just want to make sure I don’t get booted off the team if we get caught. And besides, their parents live here too.”
“Their parents,” Lizzie snapped, “clearly raised two out-of-control self-entitled daughters from hell. They should be grateful that my dad is a dentist and I don’t need to sue.” She stepped forward and prodded Alexis roughly with her finger. “This is a mandatory team bonding experience, and if you bail now, I’ll make sure Coach glues your ass to the bench this season. So what’s it going to be?”
After a period of silence during which she glanced between the two older girls, Alexis shrugged in consent. “Okay, okay. Let’s just get in and out before the police show up.”
With that the girls disappeared out of Ashline’s view, vanishing somewhere in the direction of the garage. Ash cast a hesitant look at her cell phone, where it had landed next to the wastebasket. The smart thing would be to call the police. But curiosity overpowered reason, and this coupled with an intense desire to defend her house from the would-be intruders, so she picked up the phone, flipped it to silent, and dropped it into her pocket.
Ash ditched her moccasins and tiptoed out of the room, letting her socks mask her footsteps. Before she headed down the stairs, on a whim she grabbed a bottle of aerosol hair spray from the bathroom, wielding it in front of her like a gun.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she could hear the faint sound of giggling from the side of the house. Across the living room three shadows flickered past the windows, accompanied by a faint grating as one of the girls dragged her hockey stick along the siding. They were heading toward the backyard.
As soon as Ash heard their footsteps travel across the stone patio, she ducked behind the kitchen counter so they wouldn’t catch a glimpse of her through the slider door. She wasn’t ready to forfeit her element of surprise just yet. The motion-sensitive lights in the backyard buzzed on, projecting two silhouettes through the window and onto the back wall; so somebody had remained on the side of the house.
On her hands and knees Ash crawled across the floor until she reached the door that opened out into the side yard. With one hand perched on the doorknob and the other still clutching her can of hair spray, she gave herself a once-over and realized that her rabbit-covered pajama bottoms and pink tank top weren’t doing much to up her intimidation factor. Nothing she could do about that now . . . and getting caught should be enough to startle the mischievous girls.
Ash counted to three and marched out into the yard with cool intensity. The murmur of the heavy drizzle against the grass buffered the creak of the opening door, and for a few seconds Alexis remained oblivious to the angry girl crossing the yard toward her. She sat at the picnic table, a can of spray paint in one hand and her field hockey stick across her lap. She wore a miserable pout and was visibly sickened, either by the thought of spraying graffiti on the wall in front of her or because she was now soaked to the bone outside instead of tucked into her safe, dry bed.
Ash stopped a good five yards from Alexis, who with a flinch finally realized she was no longer alone. She was so startled that she fell off the picnic table, landing on her back in the muddy grass.
“You don’t want to be here,” Ash whispered to her, and pointed back toward Baker Lane. “I’ll give you five seconds to pick your sorry ass up off my lawn and run home. But you better run. One—”
Ash hadn’t even counted to two when the timid freshman pounced to her feet like a gazelle with a lion in hungry pursuit. She barreled off across the lawn, abandoning both her field hockey stick and her can of paint in the grass. If she showed that kind of speed on the hockey field, Ash thought, she needn’t worry about riding the bench this season. Ash wriggled with enjoyment watching Alexis stumble and fall to her knees in a huge puddle, before she reached the sidewalk and sprinted off into the night. There was a good possibility Alexis would either wet herself or throw up by the time she got home. Maybe both.
One down, Ash thought. She scooped up Alexis’s forgotten can of paint and tucked it into her waistband. And then she rounded the corner of the house.
In the backyard Ash found only one of the two remaining girls. Crouched on the patio tiles, Gabby was just wrapping up a graffiti portrait on the back wall—an enormous drawing of a penis. The field hockey co-captain had just begun to scrawl Ashline’s name beneath it. She’d made it only halfway through the h. She cursed and shook her can vigorously, but only air came out of the nozzle as she tried to complete the name.
“Damn it,” Gabby mumbled, and then she heard Ashline’s footsteps approaching across the patio. Mistaking Ashline for her teammate, she didn’t look up from her masterpiece but said, “I’m out of paint, Lexi. Can I borrow your can? It won’t have the same effect if it looks like I just wrote ‘ass.’”
Ash stopped right next to Gabby and leaned over. Gabby must have finally caught sight of Ashline’s socks and rabbit pajamas, because she snapped her head around in horror. “Sure,” Ash replied. “I’ll give you a spray.”
She let loose a long blast of hair spray past Gabby’s eyes, purposely just missing her face. Gabby shrieked anyway and dropped onto her back like a turtle. The spray can rolled out of her hand and across the patio.
Clutching her eyes, which began to stream with tears, Gabby fumbled onto her knees. But Ash seized hold of her letter jacket before Gabby could get too far, and heaved her off the patio and into the mud.
Ash knelt over Gabby and held her firmly by the lapel, bringing the other girl’s face toward hers until they were nose to nose. “I don’t give a rat’s ass about you, Gabby Perkins. So I’m going to do you a favor. Tell me where Lizzie is, and I’ll let you stumble out of here. I won’t call the cops, and when I pass you in the halls from now on, this didn’t happen.”
Gabby gazed up at her with bleary eyes, blinking furiously. And then she resignedly pointed up toward the roof.
Ash snorted. “Is this what you call team loyalty?” She released the girl and pushed her back into the mud. “Now get the hell out of my yard.”
Gabby cast a last torn look at the roof, toward the teammate she was leaving behind. And then she took off—if it were possible, even more quickly than Alexis had departed minutes earlier.
It took only a few seconds for Ashline to figure out how Lizzie had made her way to the roof. Ash had to give her credit. Either the girl had tremendous cojones or she just hated the Wilde family so much that she was willing to throw caution to the wind. At the corner of the house was a trellis, a crisscross pattern of woodwork that Ashline’s parents used as a clutching board for their Boston ivy. It was actually Ash’s favorite part of the house, and she enjoyed reading under it during the spring and summer months.
Clearly her enemy had used it as a ladder to climb onto the roof. Now Ash was going to have to as well.
Ash slipped off her wet socks and cast them onto the patio before she approached the trellis. She slipped her fingers through the square holes and rattled it a few times to make sure it was firmly attached to the wall. And then she began her ascent.
It occurred to Ash as she climbed that she was just as crazy as Lizzie to be following her up to the roof. The holes in the trellis were tiny and didn’t offer proper footholds, and her bare feet kept slipping off. More than once she found herself dangling by her hands alone. The whole wooden structure was slick with rain—not to mention the snow from earlier—and felt slimy to the touch, as if it were covered with algae. Every time Ash reached for a new handhold, she half-expected the wood to have rotted away and the trellis to break off in her hand.
And so it was to Ashline’s relieved surprise that she clambered over the gutter and onto the roof shingles without having broken a leg or dropped onto the patio stones twenty feet below. Lizzie was nowhere in sight. Using her hands and feet, Ash cautiously crawled up the treacherous, slippery slope, over the summit of the A-frame roof, and onto the side facing the street.
Lizzie, who was at the other end of the roof and had her back to Ashline, was concluding work on the exclamation point in “SLUT!” She had painted the word in eight-foot-tall letters on the shingles, more than large enough to be read by passersby on the street, possibly by the passengers of low-altitude airplanes as well. The rain had caused some of the paint to ooze toward the gutter like runny eggs. Lizzie was already done with her first draft, but had apparently decided that the letters were neither wide nor bold enough to sate her thirst for retribution.
Ash plucked her own bottle of spray paint from her waistband and clambered down the roof. “Let me help you with the dot on that exclamation point,” Ash said, and before Lizzie could turn around, Ash fired a stream of paint onto the back of Lizzie’s checkered London trench coat. By the time Lizzie could shy away, Ash had tagged her with a slime green bull’s-eye.
Lizzie extended her spray paint arm, as if the electric blue paint would protect her somehow. Her cheeks and eyes were a swollen mess of black and violet and blue and tinges of green where Ash and Eve had made a Jackson Pollock painting of her face.
Ash smiled acidly. “I figured I’d tag you, so that animal control would know that there’s a bitch on the loose.”
With a growl Lizzie stripped off the now destroyed coat and tossed it off the roof. “That was my favorite Burberry!”
Ash shrugged. “This was my favorite roof.”
“What are you going to do? Push me off it?” Lizzie asked, trying to sound fierce, but Ash caught her glancing nervously to the ground below.
“No.” Ash chucked the spray paint can to the side and took a deep breath, trying to quell the flames that this girl was so talented at fanning. “All I want is for you to go home. We don’t have to be friends at school, or even civil in the hallway. I don’t want to borrow your algebra homework, and I don’t expect you to come over and braid my hair while we watch VH1. I just want to go sit in my room alone, wait out my suspension, and forget this bullshit ever happened.”
“Don’t act like you didn’t bring this on yourself,” Lizzie said, though she sounded like she only half-believed it. “I’m not the villain here.”
Ash bowed her head. “I don’t know who deserves what anymore. I just know that all this”—she gestured around, to the roof, then to Lizzie’s bruised face—“isn’t worth a lowlife like Rich Lesley.”
Lizzie wiped the rain from her eyes and looked up to the heavens. The rain seemed to be coming down with renewed intensity, working its way from a drizzle up to a full-blown downpour. The girls regarded each other coolly in the rain. They were far from establishing a rapport but were perhaps coming to a truce, neither one fully understanding the events that had brought them up onto this slippery roof in the dead of a stormy night.
“So that’s it?” Lizzie said. “I just head home, you don’t call the cops. I don’t sue you for knocking out my tooth, and we don’t speak of this again?”
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy,” another voice shouted through the rain.
Lightning flashed over the trees in the backyard, illuminating the dark figure straddling the summit of the house—Eve. With vicious grace Eve slid down the shingles until she came to a stop behind Lizzie. Before the field hockey captain could react, Eve wrapped her fingers around the sophomore’s neck and squeezed.
With superhuman strength Eve lifted Lizzie Jacobs off the roof. There, with her eyes bulging and her blotchy bruises darkening to a more sickening shade, Lizzie dangled helplessly, with her toes flailing a full foot from safe harbor.
“This is the last time you screw with the Wilde sisters,” Eve said to the girl clutched in her talons.
“Put her down, Eve,” Ash ordered. “Everything will be okay. Lizzie will drop the charges against you. Won’t you, Lizzie?”
Lizzie was attempting to pry Eve’s hands off her throat, her face all the while turning crimson, but she managed a single frantic nod in response.
“Too late,” Eve said to her sister, and hoisted the field hockey player higher. “This is bigger than the law now. This is about respect.” Eve narrowed her eyes at Lizzie. “You should have learned your lesson the first time.”
In that moment a number of things happened. A strange sensation blossomed in Ashline’s stomach, the feeling of an approaching fall as if she were cresting the hill of a roller coaster. Her ears clicked, once, twice, and then there was a series of rapid clicks; she experienced the same phenomenon every time she traveled by airplane. The pressure around them on the roof was plummeting at an alarming rate.
Most frightening of all, the hair on Lizzie’s head stood upright. Ash watched as each of the girl’s wet strands of hair rose skyward, pointing up at the hidden moon, until a circular mane of blond hair had surrounded her face like the rays of a Mayan sun. Static electricity visibly crackled everywhere—through the ends of her blond locks, between her fingertips, from the tops to the bottoms of her eyelashes.
Ash took a frightened step back. “Eve, are you . . . are you doing this?”
But when Eve turned to look at Ash, her eyes shone fluorescent white, and the smile on her face told Ash everything she needed to know.
“Didn’t your parents tell you not to play outdoors during a thunderstorm?” Eve taunted the girl in her clutches. “You might just find yourself playing the lightning rod.”
With a crackle from above as if the fabric of heaven itself were tearing in half, Lizzie’s head snapped back, and a bolt of lightning shot from her mouth up into the clouds. The flash was blinding. Ash had to throw her hands up to protect her face as the air around them heated so rapidly that the moisture on the rain-slick roof evaporated into a mist. But through the slats in her fingers, Ash could only watch, petrified, as Lizzie’s body shuddered violently, her arms and legs rigid out to either side.
Then, as soon as the lightning had come, it was gone. The mist cleared and Eve dropped Lizzie’s lifeless body to the roof. Lizzie rolled limply down the slope of the A-frame, followed by a trail of smoke from where the lightning had burned holes in her tank top. Her body reached the gutter and dropped to the grass below.
“Oh my God.” Ash covered her mouth. “You killed her.”
Eve had been admiring the spot where Lizzie’s body had tumbled off the roof, dreamily appreciating her own handiwork, but Ashline’s voice snapped her out of it. Her fluorescent eyes blazed when she turned to face her sister. “You’re defending that monster?”
“Monster?” Ash repeated. She searched Eve’s face for any sign of the sister she once knew. “Eve, that monster made out with my asshole ex-boyfriend. For something like that you put peanut butter between the pages of her textbooks or . . . or spread a rumor that she has herpes. You don’t . . . you don’t . . .” But she couldn’t finish the sentence because her nose had discovered the scent of burned flesh. She gagged.
“I wouldn’t even know the name Lizzie Jacobs if you hadn’t gone and punched her in the face!” Eve shouted. “Here,” she said, and dipped her hand into the paint of the T in “SLUT!” Eve drew a line of the electric green paint across her own cheek. Then she crossed the roof in three long strides and smeared the paint on Ashline’s bare shoulder and down her arm. “Now neither of us is clean of this. Now her blood is on you, too.”
Ash touched two fingers to the paint and held it in front of her face, just as Lizzie had done with her own blood that very morning after Ash had punched her in the mouth. I did this, she realized. I did this. But when she opened her mouth to say it out loud, what came out instead was, “Why did you have to come back now?”
Eve’s face softened, and the afterglow behind her eyes flickered and dimmed gently like a firefly dying in the night. When she spoke, Ash could hear some phantom affection of the Eve who years ago would walk her to the playground when their parents were working late at the practice. “I came back to Scarsdale for you, Ash. To tell my baby sister all the places I’ve been.”
“Yeah,” Ashline muttered. “And now I’m chock-full of answers.”
Eve gestured to the road with a big sweep of her arm. The rain had picked up again. “You think I was really out on the road all these months? While you were canoodling with Rich Lesley, I was traveling to a place you can only dream of. I can take you there too, Ash. We can find out what gifts you have waiting for you in here.” She pressed a finger to Ashline’s chest. A trail of sparks blossomed beneath her touch. “Let me and my friends help you unlock it. Let us show you that we were all meant for a greater destiny.”
Ash gritted her teeth, trembling as she gazed up at her taller sister. “I will never go with you,” she said. And before she could think better of it, she added, “You freak.”
Eve’s hand shot up and fixed itself around Ash’s face, squeezing until Ash felt like her jaw was going to pop loose. A screech erupted from the back of Eve’s throat. She cocked her other hand back and then struck her sister so hard that Ash went tumbling across the roof. Disoriented and picking up speed, Ash attempted to reach out and grab the gutter.
The next thing she knew, the world had opened up underneath her and she was twisting and falling. After a stomach-churning plummet, Ash hit the ground back-first so hard that she thought her head would break right off her body and roll into the street.
Everything went still. She lay there, unmoving, watching the troubled night clouds billowing overhead, like the writhing gray matter of a brain come to life. Her vision grew bleary as a pool of rain and tears filled her eyes in a thickening sheen. There was a thud in the grass somewhere next to her, and the blurred image of Eve appeared in the foreground.
“I thought family meant something to you,” Eve said. She spit on the ground next to Ash’s face. “You are no sister of mine. Don’t come looking for me.”
Perhaps it was Ash’s increasingly soggy vision, but in the moments that followed, it appeared as if the wind itself swept down from the trees and whisked Eve’s body away.
A few dazed minutes passed before Ash had the presence of mind to pull her cell phone from her waterlogged pocket. She dialed 9-1-1, mumbled her address, and then dropped the phone into the mud, while the tinny voice of the dispatcher asked repeatedly for the nature of her emergency.
Even as the sirens picked up from the south, even as the red and whites flickered over the lawn soon after, Ash lay still in the grass, letting the rain cascade down around her, hoping her mind would take her some place—any place—other than here on the lawn with a dead girl.
© 2011 Karsten Knight
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