In just eighteen days the semester will be over, freeing Christina and her friends from the terrible Schooner Inne and the Shevvingtons, their creepy hosts during the school year. They’ll leave the mainland for the safety of Burning Fog Isle for the summer—and since the Shevvingtons may be moving out of town next year, the island kids could be free of them forever.
But then Christina begins sleepwalking, and doing odd things like leaving lit candles around the house, carrying around pockets full of matches, and doodling flames into her textbooks—or so claim the Shevvingtons. Can Christina survive their insane tricks until the school year ends? Or will they use all eighteen days to make Christina’s life a living—and fiery—hell?
No matter how hard you try, there’s no escaping this addictive thriller from the bestselling author of The Face on the Milk Carton.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Caroline B. Cooney including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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About the Author
Caroline B. Cooney (b. 1947) is the author of nearly a hundred books, including the famed young adult thriller The Face on the Milk Carton, an international bestseller. Cooney’s books have been translated into several languages, and have received multiple honors and awards, including an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults award and a nomination for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. She is best known for her popular teen horror thrillers and romance novels. Her fast-paced, plot-driven work often explores themes of good and evil, love and hatred, right and wrong, and moral ambiguity. Born in Geneva, New York, Cooney grew up in Connecticut, and often sets her novels in dramatic New England landscapes. She has three children and four grandchildren and currently lives in South Carolina.
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By Caroline B. Cooney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Caroline B. Cooney
All rights reserved.
Christina Romney woke with a jolt so intense she wondered if thirteen-year-olds ever had heart attacks. She pressed her two hands over her heart to stop it from beating so hard. What woke me? she thought. Christina preferred to take an hour to wake up, slowly sifting away the sleep.
Outside on the ocean, lobster boats roared. One was playing a radio station Christina particularly liked. She hummed along.
She ran her fingers through her hair, taming it. Sometimes she could feel the separate colors, as if the silver and gold and brown grew from different parts of her soul.
She hopped out of bed, dressing quickly. Even in May it was cold in the third-floor bedroom of the old sea captain's house perched on an ocean cliff. Christina needed a long-sleeved shirt, a cotton sweater, and a hooded sweatshirt. One by one, as the day warmed, she would peel them off.
She decided to go down to the wharf and talk to the lobstermen. She knew most of them. Christina was not from the mainland; she was boarding at Schooner Inne for the school year; her home was Burning Fog Isle, far out at sea.
Eighteen days until summer vacation! Christina exulted. I can last for eighteen days of anything. Even seventh grade. Then I get to go home.
She was much, much older than she had been the September before. She wondered if the islanders would see how changed she was. Probably not. She had learned that people saw only your outside. Christina was the only seventh-grader who had not gotten any taller. Perhaps fear was damaging to your height.
She tugged her sweatshirt down over her small flat chest and turned to leave the little attic bedroom.
A long, thin, pale candle was burning by the door. It was stuck in an empty coffee can, leaning sideways, hot wax dripping right onto the floor. The flame leaned toward Christina.
Her heart jolted again and thrashed in her chest like an animal trying to escape. Only a few nights before, she had been sleepwalking. Or so the Shevvingtons claimed. She had ignored them. Christina was solid as granite; she would never do anything as fanciful as sleepwalk.
She bent to look at the candle, and its golden flame leaned toward her, as if to kiss her lips. As if she and the tiny fire were old, intimate friends.
She had a vision of herself staring blankly, creeping silently down all the curving stairs of the mansion, like a blind butterfly, breaking her wings against the walls until she reached the kitchen. Finding a tin can. Finding a candle. Dropping it into the can like a blueberry into a pail and lighting it. Drifting up to the attic again like a ghost, leaving a trail of wax.
Schooner Inne, its timbers centuries old, would burn as easily as crushed newspaper. She would never have brought a burning candle up here.
The candle winked at her. It knew the truth.
She blew it out, but the candle re-lit itself.
She could not wrench her eyes away from the flame. It was shaped like a weeping tear. She knelt beside it, her hair falling forward, like tinder ready to catch fire itself. Holding her hair up in a ponytail, she blew the flame out forcefully. The candle sagged down into the coffee can.
Christina picked it up. Making no noise, she tiptoed out of her room, around the tilting balcony, and down the bare wooden stairs. On the second floor Mr. and Mrs. Shevvington slept. It would not do to awaken them so early in the morning. The Shevvingtons with their eyes like mad dogs? They would froth at the mouth and bite Christina if they did not get eight hours of sleep.
Two other island children were finishing out the school year boarding at the Inne: Michael and Benjamin Jaye, who were older, both in high school. Michael and Benj slept through anything. You would have to drop cement blocks on their feet to waken them at dawn. No worry that they would get up and ask what she was doing, playing with fire.
She did worry about the stairs. Twisting, open, lined with a forest of fragile white banisters, they creaked with age. On the second-floor balcony, carpet began: thick, rich carpet that soaked up sound and warmed bare feet.
She crept past the Shevvingtons' bedroom. They had a lovely suite. The island children were kept in attic rooms with only a coat of paint to brighten them up.
Criminals have better housing than we do, thought Christina.
Behind their door, she heard the Shevvingtons talking. Mrs. Shevvington was her English teacher and Mr. Shevvington the high school principal. Christina flattened herself against the wall. If she had awakened them, school would not be worth living through. She listened to their voices, furry like leopards. They were talking of something else entirely.
"... sell the Inne," said Mrs. Shevvington. Her voice was thick and sucking, like the mudflats at low tide. "We should get an excellent price for it. From city people who think it would be fun to run a bed and breakfast."
Christina nearly laughed. Mr. and Mrs. Shevvington did many things with those eight pretty bedrooms, but not once had they had a living guest. No. These guest rooms held only the shells of the past.
"... list it with a realtor today," said Mr. Shevvington. "I've been accepted as principal in that Chicago high school."
Christina pictured him: elegant and lean. Probably even his pajamas were tailored and impressive. All the parents adored Mr. Shevvington. They quoted him as if he were The New York Times. Even after all the terrible things that had happened that year, the parents still were on the Shevvingtons' side. "They tried their best," the grown-ups said sympathetically, bringing casseroles instead of drumming the Shevvingtons out of town.
Even Christina's mother and father said, "They were only trying to help their son, Chrissie. Have some compassion." For the Shevvingtons' grown son had been found living in Schooner Inne's cellar, giggling to himself, coming and going at low tide through the opening in the rock cliff.
People were already forgetting about Anya and Dolly.
Anya ... Christina had always wanted to be and look just like Anya. Anya was very fair, and never tanned. Like a princess in a fairy tale, Anya remained chalk-white, with a frame of black hair so thick and heavy its weight curled her slender neck forward like a swan's. Anya had been the academic star of Burning Fog, the one everybody expected would go out into the world and bring fame to her family. Her boyfriend was a preppy townie named Blake, who dressed in what the children called Catalog Maine: rugby shirt, boat shoes without socks, loose trousers made of imported cotton. But then the Shevvingtons chose Anya, and bit by bit, turned Anya's senior year—which should have been a sort of heaven—into insanity, taking away her grades, her looks, and finally, Blake.
Next they chose Dolly, the youngest of the island children boarding at Schooner Inne. Dolly was elementary school size: a fragile collection of slender bones in big overalls, her red braids nearly as wide as her shoulders. They turned Dolly from a laughing, flying sixth-grader into a trembling, nervous creature sure that life would suffocate her; and sure enough, Dolly nearly had fatal accidents ... three times.
How close the Shevvingtons had come to their goal—two island children destroyed in one school year. But Dolly was back on the island with her parents for the rest of the school year, and Anya had left for the city to stay with understanding relatives of Blake's.
So people were able to set the horror aside. They had a handy person to blame things on: the crazy son. Now that he was locked up it would be tacky and tasteless to mention the "problem" again.
"The Shevvingtons," everybody informed Christina, "have suffered enough."
As if Christina had not suffered! As if Anya and Dolly had not suffered!
" ... beautifully cleaned up," said Mrs. Shevvington. "I'll light fires in all the fireplaces when buyers come to look. It will seem so homey and cozy with embers glowing."
Homey! Cozy! The Shevvingtons? Hah!
And then Christina truly listened ... the words sank into her sleepy, crack-of-dawn brain. The Shevvingtons were leaving town! Putting Schooner Inne on the market!
She was free! She was safe!
Christina skimmed down the last flight of stairs, light as a tern. She slid barefoot out the front door and sat on the granite steps to put on her shoes. She stuck the can and candle behind the stone planter in which wind-beaten geraniums struggled for life. The sun curled on her lap like a honey-colored dog, licking her with yellow warmth.
Christina began laughing. Life was good. She was soon to be fourteen; seventh grade was nearly over; the Shevvingtons were leaving town. What more could a girl ask for?
Mr. and Mrs. Shevvington also dressed early. Then, smiling softly, they walked into each guest room. They stroked the bright blue colors in one room and gloated over the soft yellows in another. Downstairs they paced through the beautiful parlors still decorated as the sea captain had fixed them for his bride so many years before.
Nearly every room had a fireplace. These were not big sturdy brick fireplaces where colonial women cooked stew. They were small and elegant, surrounded by imported tiles and mantels of sea-green marble.
In the front parlor, the Shevvingtons crumpled newspaper, stacked kindling, and rested slender logs on the andirons. Mr. Shevvington struck a match. It was a wooden kitchen match. The big old house was drafty. The flame quivered, thin as a thread, and then fattened up, solid gold.
"I heard Christina go out," he remarked. His fingers were long and thin, like fireplace pokers.
"Christina," said Mrs. Shevvington dreamily, "would make a good wharf rat, don't you think?" She smiled, her little teeth like yellow corn, dried on the cob.
Mr. Shevvington laughed. His laugh crept through cracks like January winds. "Yes," he said. "A wharf rat. A girl who works on the docks, knee-deep in fish heads and motor oil, and loses all her teeth before she's twenty-five."
"A girl who sits alone eating jelly doughnuts, getting fat and repulsive, and nobody cares," added Mrs. Shevvington.
"A wharf rat," they said together.
Fire licked the wood, stretching into the chimney, reaching for oxygen. Silver and gold flames consumed the brown logs. "The three colors," said Mr. Shevvington, "of Christina's hair." His eyes were soft and warm, like a baby blanket.
Mrs. Shevvington's yellowish eyes were like poached eggs in an oatmeal face. "We do have," she said, "eighteen more days."
"How nice," said Mr. Shevvington.CHAPTER 2
Late that afternoon, the other seventh-graders on the beach began to think of supper instead of hacking around. They called their mothers from the public phone and got rides home. Christina watched enviously as mothers beeped their horns, calling, "Hi, honey, have a good time?"
I have a mother like that, she thought. But my mother's on the island.
She looked out to sea. Burning Fog Isle was lost in the thick fog that had started rolling in. Sometimes a trick of atmosphere occurred: The sun shone behind the fog, blazing like flames. Many times in the last three hundred years, mainlanders had rushed to save ships at sea or houses on the Isle from fire. But there never was a real fire; it was just the fog, catching the sun in its soft gray prism.
Christina loved the fog. It hugged her and kept her secrets. It belonged to the sea and went back to the sea; and you could neither hold it nor summon it.
The wind fingered her hair, until it was a mass of gold-and-silver ribbons. She walked alone up Breakneck Hill. The quick-moving fog walked with her, wrapping her like a wet scarf. Unlocking the heavy green door, she let herself into the gloom of the front hall of Schooner Inne. The only light came from the cupola three stories up. The paper on the wall was flocked and formal; nobody would ever crayon on those walls, or even lean against them. She passed the parlor where nobody ever sat, for the chairs were stiff and sharp, and the sofas rigid and unwelcoming.
In the fireplace was a silent fire.
Christina blinked, backed up, and looked in the door again.
Fire glittered. But it made no crackle, gave off no scent, produced no smoke. Christina moved toward the fire like an iron filing slithering toward a magnet. She stretched out her fingers for warmth but felt none.
A fire without heat.
Hair falling forward, blending with the flames, Christina bent to touch the cold fire.
An odd catlike smell filled the room.
Mrs. Shevvington's voice purred. She said, "Christina, darling, what is this fascination you have with fire?"
Christina jumped. There was something subhuman about the way Mrs. Shevvington could appear anywhere, like an ant or a mouse coming through the cracks unheard.
Behind Mrs. Shevvington stood the brothers, Michael and Benj. Michael was growing so fast you could hardly keep track of him; he was fifteen now, and getting muscular, his favorite cotton sweater shoved up past the elbow. He had cut his hair even shorter, as if the taller he got, the less hair he needed. Benj was just solid; Benj had always seemed like a grown-up. He had skipped childhood entirely. His face rarely divided into smiles or frowns. Christina always wanted Benj to shout and laugh. But Benj was just there.
Mrs. Shevvington said, "I've not forgotten that dreadful episode during the winter, Christina, when you set fire to your clothes."
Christina sucked in her breath. She hated looking at Mrs. Shevvington. Sideways, the woman had no profile.
In his heavy voice, dragging like a net on the bottom of the sea, Benj said, "Mrs. Shevvington, we all know it was your son who set that fire."
Christina nearly fell over. Benjamin was defending her?
Mrs. Shevvington's eyes grew dark and threatening, like a thunderstorm. But Benj was too solid for her. She went snarling back into the kitchen. "Benj," said Christina delightedly, "you stuck up for me."
"You saved my sister Dolly's life, didn't you," he said, without a question mark at the end, as if Benj did not have questions, only facts.
"Yes, I did," she said. For it was a fact. She had thought everyone had forgotten the terrible night in which she dragged Dolly across the mudflats, desperately trying to reach the opposite shore, while the tide hurtled forward to claim their bodies, and take them out to sea forever. While the Shevvingtons' insane son stood on the ledge, ready to throw them back into the sea if they tried to go back into Schooner Inne. Sometimes at night she woke to the sound of his laughter, shrieking over the waves, and she was never quite sure if it was a nightmare—or his return by dark.
It was nice to have done a good deed, and even nicer to get credit for that moment of courage that kept Dolly alive. Christina bounced toward old Benj, feeling warm toward him, warm toward the world. "Benjamin, Ice Cream Delight opened for the season. After supper do you want to go there and get a sundae with me?"
Benjamin stared at her incredulously. You would have thought he had never in his life gone for ice cream. He was too amazed even to answer her and went on in to supper.
Christina paused to check the silent fire. It was crinkled Mylar paper. Yellow, orange, and scarlet paper cut into flame shapes, crushed down over black Mylar that gleamed like coals. Fire of foil. How well done it was. And how like the Shevvingtons, she thought, to think that a fake fire will be cozy and homey enough for all those prospective Inne buyers.
She laughed to herself. She was always giving the Shevvingtons credit for supernatural abilities. And there always turned out to be dull explanations. Like the changing poster of the sea that had driven Anya crazy, its evil, curling waves beckoning her over the edge one day, and the next day its painted ocean flat and wall-poster blue. Eventually they found out that Mrs. Shevvington just switched two posters back and forth.
Christina went into the kitchen with the others. They never ate in the dining room, always in the kitchen, on a hideously ugly table, its top chipped, its legs as fat as thighs. Benj was setting the table.
He's sixteen and they already call him Old Benj, thought Christina. He'll quit high school and be a lobsterman like his father and grandfather before him, and he won't say another syllable unless he's forced to. I wonder how he'll ask a girl to marry him? Perhaps she'll ask him. Then all he'll have to do is nod.
Christina plopped down in her chair.
Excerpted from Fire by Caroline B. Cooney. Copyright © 1990 Caroline B. Cooney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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