Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, as Audrey wrestles with the possibility of losing her family home, she also recalls her early, easy summer days with Brooks, the charming, passionate, but troubled volunteer firefighter who enchants Audreyand who is just as enthralled by her. But as secrets from Brooks's dark past come to light, Audrey can't help but wonder if there's danger in the pull she feelsboth toward this boy, and toward the fire burning in the distance.
|Publisher:||Penguin Young Readers Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.40(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Heather Ezell
The Sunday morning after I lose my virginity, I wake to knocking. My mom and dad’s alarm clock reads 5:22 a.m. More pounding from downstairs—loud and rapid—and I wonder if it’s Brooks. No. He’s probably still at the party, passed out on a couch, or better yet, on the floor where I left him. This thought enables me to move.
I jump from the bed, Mom’s caramel afghan around my shoulders. The room sways. My hips ache, and there’s a raw throbbing between my legs. I might still be drunk. I might only be hungover. I need to shower. Need to go back to bed.
I pull aside the curtains. It’s still dark, but porch lights and streetlights and brake lights and red and blue lights illuminate the dense smoke that hazes the street. Our pepper tree whips in the October wind, spraying leaves on the police car idling at our mailbox. A man shouts. The lashing gale takes his words. The doorbell rings—once, twice, three times.
Move. I need to move.
I drop the afghan, run downstairs, and yank the front door open to smoke and two firefighters. My dad’s old In-N-Out shirt sticks to my back. I’m not wearing a bra, and rum laces the spit beneath my tongue.
“Mandatory evacuation,” the older man says, his gray hair a crown of ash. “The fire is approaching the ridge.”
I peer across the street for evidence—flames, a spark—but the scrubby bank’s top is concealed by white smoke.
The younger firefighter lowers his chin, shifts. If he were a friend, I’d think he’s about to hug me, but instead he coughs with a wheeze and says, “Miss—”
“Brooks said it’d be okay,” I say, because he did. But the words are mud in my throat and I know it’s not true, I know it’s not okay.
“Can we talk to your parents?” The older firefighter studies me, and I wonder if he knows Brooks. “You have twenty minutes before you have to go.” The blister on my palm throbs against the door, and I’m about to say fine, goodbye when I see a deer at the base of the hill that leads up to the Cleveland National Forest, where the fire burns. The deer is looking up toward the pluming smoke, as if she can see the flames. Where will the deer go?
I step back. “I’ll wake my parents,” I lie. “We’ll be out.”
The potential hugger says, “Twenty minutes.”
I slam the door—evacuated—and scramble to the kitchen. The hardwood floor slips beneath my feet. I spin to the kitchen phone, the landline Dad insists we keep specifically for emergencies. Mom, pick up, pick up, please. “Hi, this is Alison. I can’t answer my—” I slam the phone down, imagining her and Maya nestled in their air-conditioned room at the Hilton. Maya has her eye-mask on, socks with Vaseline on her toes. Her audition doesn’t start for another five hours.
The oven clock reads 5:32 a.m. My backyard is an eerie gold. Is the light from the fire or the soon-to-rise sun? I call my mom once more, watching the door of Maya’s old plastic cottage swing open and shut. An olive tree branch floats in the pool. Mom’s phone rings out again.
I call Dad. He’s in Colorado for a work conference. It’s an hour ahead there, and he’s an early riser. He has to be awake.
“Go back to bed,” he says. “It’s fine.”
“Firefighters came to the door! They said we have to leave.”
“Now, Dad, just now.”
I clutch the porcelain edge of the kitchen sink and hang my head down, phone still pressed to my ear. My cereal bowl from yesterday morning is crusted, a trail of ants line the rim. I think of last night, and I think I might puke. Brooks’s lips on my stomach. Now? You’re really ready now? I spit into the sink, aching to be empty, to erase every curve of my body.
“Listen,” Dad says. “Grab some clothes. Your schoolwork, whatever you need.” If he were home he’d be acting in fine precision—checking tasks off his mental evacuation to-do list by the minute. “The metal safe in the office, that’s extremely important. And the photo tub! Don’t forget the photo tub in the family room. Pack all that up and go and meet Mom or head to the school or somewhere. I’ve got to get to a meeting, but I’ll call you after, okay?”
I want to crawl into Maya’s faded plastic cottage and chain the pink door shut. At thirteen, she hasn’t been inside for years—surely the grass has grown high and dry inside. Warm hay. It’ll make a nice bed. The phone is slick in my grasp. I think of last night and how I slept in my parents’ bed. How I burrowed beneath the duvet like I used to as a kid when I was sick, nuzzling my mom’s pillow.
Dad’s still talking, still listing.
It’s 5:36. I’ve wasted four minutes.
“Don’t forget the safe. Crap, the desktop too,” he says. The oven clock twitches. 5:37.
“Dad.” I’m done spitting at the ants in the sink. “I need to go.”
“You can do this,” he says. “Call me when you’re out.”
The phone is glued to my hand, and my tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth.
“I love you,” he says.
It’s too late for me to respond, to say I love you too, because I’ve already peeled the phone from my ear, my thumb is on the End button, I’m already running upstairs. I throw my gym shorts and the In-N-Out shirt onto my bedroom floor, then snap on a bra, pull on a blouse, zip up my jeans. I yank on a hoodie and grab my cell, its charger too. My hands shake. I shove shirts and underwear and sweats into a duffle bag. My backpack is untouched from school on Friday. I push in my laptop, and it’s ready to go.
For half a beat, I stare at the pillow Brooks gave me on Thursday for our three-month anniversary. It’s embroidered with a list of epic couples: Romeo & Juliet, Lancelot & Guinevere, Antony & Cleopatra, Odysseus & Penelope, and in the middle, in red: Brooks & Audrey.
I take my crocheted green baby blanket instead.
The small metal safe and my backpack go into my truck first, followed by Dad’s computer. Outside, the dry wind is hot. The dark sky is still tinted gold, and the two firefighters are only a few houses away. They’ll be back.
I cough on the smoke. Above, a helicopter fights the wind, its red light blurred. I wish the sun would rise and the smoke would clear.
5:49. Another twelve minutes gone. I run back inside.
The giant tub of photos is impossible to move. I was supposed to scan them all onto a hard drive this summer, but I was too busy making out with Brooks. I yank out the mass of plastic grocery bags from underneath the kitchen sink, cram them full of images of my youth, and lug them to the truck. I keep the doors open for the cab’s light, and embers drift in the glare. Back inside. Back outside. A bag rips open and pictures scatter across the driveway, snapshots of a vacation to Big Sur spinning in the wind.
“No!” I chase the photos. “Stop!”
Beyond our yards’ dividing hedge, Mr. Peterson is carrying a crate to his SUV. “Crazy, isn’t it?” he calls over. He’s known me since I was in Pull-Ups. “You need any help? Your parents home?”
“We’re good,” I say. “Thanks.”
I pull a photo from the rosemary needles—a picture of all of us, my family, sitting on a collapsed sequoia. Dad’s wearing the goofy voyager hat he still has and Mom still hates. Mom’s holding toddler Maya, mid-wail, on her lap. And then there’s pigtailed seven-year-old me, showing off my newly braced teeth, red-faced and grinning as if I won a trip to Disneyland.
A second helicopter roars above. Another minute gone.
I search for the photos in the rosemary bushes, but it’s too dark, too windy, and I can’t stop coughing. I’ll have to give up on them. Another fire truck flashes into view and parks at the base of the bank. Did Brooks’s cell finally ring? Are his boots laced tight, is he somewhere nearby, finally living his dream, fighting the fight? A cop car crawls, its headlights blinding and intercom booming: “Mandatory evacuation. Evacuate immediately. Mandatory evacuation. Evacuate immediately.”
But I’m still not done.
I run inside one last time, up to Maya’s room. It doesn’t smell like fire in here, but instead like snickerdoodles and vanilla, as if she’s stashed cookies in the walls. Her bed is made, zebra comforter smoothed down, stiff sequined pillows properly placed, like always.
Donny, the ratty stuffed elephant I gave to Maya on her sixth birthday, hides behind her therapeutic memory foam pillow. I picked him out myself at Target. Maya toted Donny around for years, to the doctor appointments and the hospital visits, and—when she was declared lymphoma-free—to the studio. He’d sleep in the car, and then in her dance bag, snuggled with her street shoes and jeans. But then Maya sprouted four inches, and Mom redecorated her room to look like a college dorm, and suddenly Maya was too classy for the old elephant.
But Maya is big on beauty sleep, and I drink caffeine and can be sneaky, so I know she still dozes off with the stuffed elephant tucked beneath her cheek.
I snatch Donny and scan the rest of the room. Her walk-in closet is a mess—piles of clothes that somehow smell, though Maya never smells. I’d take her journal from her sock drawer too, but then she’d know I’ve known its hiding place. I choose her first pointe shoes instead.
Donny and shoes in hand, I rush into my parents’ room and grab Mom’s afghan from where I dropped it on the floor. She brought it home from her and Dad’s fifteenth-anniversary trip to Italy years ago. I ignore their closet—they each have a suitcase full of clothes with them—and charge down the stairs and out of the house. I lock the dead bolt. Dad will be pleased.
I’m late. The whole street is late.
I back out of the driveway and accelerate away, past my neighbors shoving their lives into their cars, past the waving firefighters and cops and the evacuation boundary, and into the still-sleeping, still-dreaming land where families are tucked into their beds—families that won’t wake for their pancake breakfasts and church gatherings and golf club visits until the sun rises over the flames.
I drive out of Coto de Caza’s gates not knowing if I’ll still have a home when the day is over. The burn on my hand is tender and hot, and I think about Thursday night, when the sparklers blew, and last night, and what I did and did not say.
The fire broke out Friday morning in the neighboring canyons of the Cleveland National Forest, crawling southwest into Caspers Wilderness
Ash swirled down onto my high school, but according to the Orange County Register, Caspers Fire was calmly blazing southwest through the government-protected valleys of cacti and oak and flax. Coto de Caza residents were safe to remain in their air-conditioned homes. Windows locked. Lawns watered. Patio furniture cushions moved inside. We were safe.
That night at Celinda’s Deli, Brooks licked salsa from his fingers and said, “I’d be out there now if it was really that bad. It’s in my battalion, you know.” His overgrown hair was still damp from his shower at the gym, after his supposedly essential daily lifting with his crew—or, really, three of the other Level 2 Reserve volunteers who assist the Trabuco Canyon careers. He looked vulnerable like that, fresh from the shower, his hair flat and sticking to his forehead.
My quesadilla sat untouched. It hurt to use my right hand because of the blister on my palm. My lips still tingled from my afternoon with Hayden. And across the table, Brooks watched me in breaths.
“Audie,” he said.
He reached to me, and I smelled his sweat and his soap. He rubbed his thumb across my cheek. Just a brush, and I leaned in, as I always do, inhaling his skin. Under the table, my knees were still pressed together—because my body hadn’t yet received the message that this was him, Brooks, my Brooks. He felt like he always did, warm and somehow safe.
“I lost my Zippo.” He dropped a white lighter on the table. “Cameron gave me that Zippo for my seventeenth birthday, and now it’s God knows where.”
I clenched and unclenched my hands. He’d never told me that before, that the Zippo was a birthday gift from his older brother.
“It’ll show up,” I said. “When did you last have it?”
He barely flinched. “Yesterday, probably.”
I stared at my quesadilla, the cheese oozing onto the plate. “I don’t think I’m going tomorrow,” I said. “To Maya’s audition.”
“What?” He crunched down on a chip. “You’ve been planning on it since July. She’s been working for it for even longer. I thought it was a big deal.”
“It is a big deal, but Derek’s party is still on.” I glanced up. “I want to go. See my friends.”
He squinted. “You’d rather go to a miserable party than support your sister?” He even laughed. “What have you done with my Audrey?”
I broke a chip in two. “I’d only drag Maya down.”
Brooks finished his taco and sat back against the sunset-pink plastic of the booth. He looked up at the hanging light, and I chewed on my water straw, bracing myself for what he might say.
“Audie,” he said. “If this is about last night—”
“So our anniversary was kind of a bust.” I shrugged. “Big deal.”
He reached for me again, but this time I didn’t let his hand touch my skin.
“Hey,” he said.
“Don’t.” I forked my quesadilla. “This isn’t you.”
I let him put his hand on my knee under the table, because that’s something I would do. Friday night, me not eating Mexican food, me feeling nothing and my body feeling everything, I wanted to scratch his skin until he bled. I wanted to lower myself into his arms and let him kiss my head. I wanted to let the entire restaurant know that my heart was beating the fuck out of my chest, and I wanted to scream at Brooks, Look at me look at me look at what you’ve made me. I wanted the naive summer back, so sweet it hurts your teeth. Not this, not October.
Brooks’s lopsided left eye was acting up, tears slipping out—a faulty tear duct courtesy of a childhood rottweiler attack. He kept one hand on my knee and, with the other, snagged another chip and asked, “You actually want to go to that party?” Brooks has always hated parties.
“I do,” I said, because maybe if I said it enough, it’d be the truth. “It’ll have a good view of the fire.”
“Let’s hope it’s out by then.” But his hand came off my leg, and he gave himself away. He propped his elbows on the table and toyed with the lighter. Stared at the flame. Brooks wanted the fire to burn long enough for him to be needed.
His cell phone had been at his side all summer long, his station-specific ringtone wailing for fender benders on Antonio Parkway, fatal teenage drag races down in the canyons, and a few structure fires due to poor wiring or sleepy smokers, but no real-deal wild land fires. And Friday night, the air spiked with a peppering of ash, a fire hissing just fifteen miles south, Brooks’s cell still hadn’t rung. The San Juan Capistrano and Coto de Caza crews were handling it. Caspers Fire was 80 percent contained and the trenches were dug. Everything was normal. No danger lurking under the table. It was Friday night, the first week of October, and Brooks and I were simply eating Mexican food after a somewhat turbulent Thursday, a somewhat turbulent three-month anniversary.
Brooks peeled my quesadilla off my plate and finished it in five bites. I chewed a tortilla chip, slow, careful, the salt sparking on my tongue, while he wiped his mouth with a napkin and shook his head.
“This won’t be it,” he said. “This isn’t my fire.”
When he calls, I’m retching into a Starbucks bathroom toilet. His name on the screen is a flying arrow. There’s no time to duck, to reconsider. I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and answer. I can’t say hi, can only say his name. “Brooks.”
“I’m headed to the station.” His voice whooshes, because he has me on speakerphone and his window is down, letting in the new day, the smoke. “They’ll be calling us within the hour. I can feel it.” I picture him easily: sunglasses on, sleep-manic hair, lips split into a grin. “All local responders are on it. Audrey, it blew up.”
“I know,” I say. “I was evacuated.”
He doesn’t respond to this because he’s not listening to me. “I wanted to tell you, need to tell you before I go out there, I love you,” he says, and my chest compresses, a rock in my throat. He loves me. The words melt like ice in my hands. “We’ve got this handled,” he says. “It’ll be out in no time.” He says this as if he’s chief commander, not a volunteer. Not just a boy who likes to play with fire. I’ve never heard him so euphoric. He pauses before asking, “Where are you? Are you safe?”
I guess he is kind of listening to me.
“Starbucks. Puking the night out,” I say. “Maybe homeless.” I meant it as a joke—making light of a dire situation—but my voice cracks on the word. Homeless.
I ache for Maya and my mom and dad, ache so bad to be home on an easy Sunday morning. Dad making scrambled eggs with too much salsa, Maya stretching across the living room floor, me arguing with Mom that I’m old enough to drink coffee—doing nothing, doing everything.
“Oh, Audie,” Brooks says.
I close my eyes. “Stop.”
There is a click in the line, and suddenly his breath is closer, a phone held to his ear. “Hey,” he says. “I need to take this call, but you be safe today. Okay?”
“You be safe,” I say.
“You’re kidding. I was trained for this.” He laughs. He actually laughs. “I’ll call you as soon as I can. We’ll get this figured out. I’ll see you soon.”
As if it’s a normal Sunday, just like any other day.
I want it to be okay. I need it to be okay, so I say, “Yeah.”
“I have a fire to fight,” he says. “I guess it is mine.”
He says, “I love you,” and hangs up before I can respond, before he can hear me say, “Mine.”
Though I’m not sure why I say that. I never wanted a fire to claim.
The party was at Derek Sanders’s place—the first weekend of October paired with his parents being out of town apparently the perfect excuse to throw “the season’s greatest Halloween rager.”
Early afternoon, when the sky was yellow, Derek posted online:
Feel the heat? See those flames? Yeah, gonna be an epic night, girls and boys, so don’t let the smoke scare you away. Come to my place, take swigs on the pirate ship, and embrace the rage. BYOB, witches and bitches!
I wasn’t planning on going to the party. Grace’s Saturday was booked with babysitting and preparing for her girlfriend’s birthday on Sunday. (Quinn had yet to see the Redwoods, and that needed to be remedied ASAP via a camping trip up the central coast.) And if Grace wasn’t going to the party, I wasn’t going to the party. She’s the spine of my social life.
More importantly, Mom had planned a girls’ night in Newport Beach for Maya’s audition. The Orange County Institute of Ballet isn’t even forty minutes away, but Mom’s convinced that treating an audition extravagantly results in dancing extravagantly. I wasn’t interested in the girls’ night or the glitzy hotel—I only cared about being there for Maya. My little sister was doing it, her thing, pursuing her dream.
I had every intention to go to the audition with her and my mom.
But Friday afternoon, as the fire grew, I was wavering and making party plans with Brooks, and by Saturday morning, I knew I absolutely needed to stay home. The fire’s containment had dropped to 50 percent overnight: far too close to out of control. I had to stay. I had to keep watch, though I couldn’t explain it—my need to stay close to the fire.
I broke the news to my mom at the last possible moment, when she was polishing herself for their departure in the cave of her walk-in closet.
“You don’t want to support Maya?” she asked.
I sat on the edge of her porcelain bathtub. “I can support her from home,” I said, running my toes across the cool travertine tile. “The oh-so-distant half hour south.”
“This is a big deal, Audrey.” A slam of a drawer. “How far she’s come.”
“Of course it’s a big deal,” I said. Because it is—three years ago we didn’t know if Maya would still be alive, let alone auditioning for her dream academy. “Well.” The soft scratch of clothing hangers. “I’m not exactly comfortable with leaving you alone for the night with your boyfriend so nearby.”
“Mom,” I said. “I’m sixteen.”
A drawer rolled closed. “Yes, exactly.”
“Brooks will probably be working anyway,” I said, “and I have to start my psychology project—it’ll take the entire weekend.” Lie. “I’m meeting with Hayden.” Not a lie, though Hayden and I wouldn’t be starting until Sunday night, so I guess kind of a lie. “I want to go, I do, for Maya, but it’d be irresponsible.”
Mom emerged from the closet, a chiffon scarf around her neck. “Is this about you, sweetie? It’s understandable if you’re jealous.” She touched my head, as if checking for a fever, as if a fever would expose my secrets. “It’s okay if this is triggering some regrets.”
I pushed off from the tub’s edge. “Now I’m definitely not going,” I said, heading for the hall. Two years ago, I quit ballet—walked out of the same audition Maya will rock today, and my parents are still convinced that this was a mistake.
“Run it by Maya!” Mom called.
I knocked on my sister’s door, turned the knob. Pop music played loudly from her laptop. She was sprawled out in the splits, her stomach hollow and elbows down on the carpet, texting.
I coughed at the thick scent of vanilla cookie spray. “Hey.”
“I heard you and Mom,” she said.
I leaned against her mirrored dresser. “You mad?”
Maya looked up. “I thought you were excited,” she said. “Like for-real excited.”
My heart ached. “I am for-real excited,” I said. “I’m beyond excited.”
“But you’d rather get drunk and kissy-kissy with Brooks?”
“I don’t get drunk,” I said. “It gives me hiccups.”
She laughed at that and asked, “Can you keep a secret?”
“What? Why?” I stilled at my response, at my lack of a simple yes.
Maya looked at her hands, her white skin flushing pink. “I need to tell Mom something, but she’s gonna flip—”
Mom jumped through the doorway. “Flip about what?”
“Maya would really love to get a pedicure after the audition,” I said, because sometimes—rarely—I can think fast. “And have a glass of champagne if she so desires. But only a glass. She’s prone to hiccups.”
“Not true!” Maya demanded over her laughter.
Mom beamed at Maya. “Of course, hon! A mani-pedi will be in order. And maybe some bubbles.” She clapped her hands. “Five minutes and we’re on the road, come on, come on, get moving!”
Mom swung back to her room, and Maya gathered her bags.
“You can tell me on Sunday,” I said, assuming that her secret was a crush or maybe the arrival of her delayed period. “The secret.”
She smiled small. “Yeah, okay.” And then, “You’re really not coming?”
“If you need me there—”
“No, whatever,” she said. “I’ll get a bed to myself if you stay home.”
“I agree with Mom though.”
“You’re totally jealous.”
“Well, you’re a snot.” A tease—a sister ritual necessary from time immemorial. I pulled her into a hug. “And you’re going to knock the judges dead with your cancer-perfected pirouettes.”
She laughed into my shoulder. “My pirouettes have indeed been proven to be potentially lethal to both me and observers,” she said.
I held her tighter. “You’re dynamite, sis.”
So Mom and Maya left for Newport Beach, for their girls’ night before the audition, and I sat glued to the TV in the family room, where flames mere miles away danced on the screen—inching closer to my community. Legs tucked beneath me, I stayed there until Brooks let himself in through the front door. My calves were numb. The sun had set.
Brooks kissed my head and ran a thumb over the wrapped blister on my hand. He said I needed to get my mind off of it. He said the station hadn’t called him in yet, so obviously the fire was under control. He said that I was going to make myself sick. He said Derek’s party would help—hadn’t I said I wanted to go to the party?
“You hate parties,” I said.
“Not if the party makes you happy,” he said. “And it will, because . . . distraction, you know?”
So Brooks and I went to the party.
To her credit, Mom isn’t like the other studio moms, or at least she didn’t start out as one. She isn’t reliving her glory toe shoe days through Maya, nor did she gush over my solos out of nostalgia. Mom has never worn a ballet slipper. And unless you count a rather tacky seventies Halloween costume, as far as I know she’s never worn a leotard.
I was five when she asked, “What do you want to do?”
I guess I said be a fairy or a dancer or something, and I guess Mom listened, because it seemed to become her mission to help me live out my ballerina dream. But dancing never felt like a dream—rather it became something required, like school. Ballet was my decision, but I don’t remember making the choice.
Me, a toddler in a tutu and tiara. The works: ballet, modern, jazz, tap, theatrical dance. Maya followed close behind. By fifth grade, I was dancing six days a week and growing bored. That was also the year Maya passed out at recess, and three specialists later, a CT scan revealed tumors in her throat and chest.
A high rate of division—up close, the bad cells look like a starry night, Mom explained.
Burkitt lymphoma, stage 3, Dad said.
Will you dance for me? Maya asked, after chemo. Right now, please?
I was ten, and all I understood was that our world was shattering. I would have yanked off my ears if she’d asked. I liked ballet most then—when it wasn’t simply something I did because it was on the schedule taped to the fridge. I loved ballet when every plié was in my sister’s name.
So I didn’t question the next steps, the next class. Autopilot. Me, obsessive, one-track mind, all-or-nothing attitude—that’s what Grace says anyway. Maya was in and out of the hospital, on and off chemo for almost two years. My dancing was the levity. I was the healthy daughter, the strength. It was essential that I succeed. If Maya couldn’t dance, I would dance for her.
Ballet was never my thing. It was hers. My thing was being her light when she was sick. And then she was no longer sick, and I guess, in a sense, I dimmed.
Ultimately, obviously, it wasn’t my dancing that saved the day. Modern medicine kicked ass and Maya kicked ass and she was dancing again by the time she was nine, and then we were dancing at the same time, and it was good, she was happy, it was her passion, her urgency.
The way she smiled after class. That glow. I wanted to feel passion like that too, but I didn’t feel a thing. Actually, no, that’s a lie: I was sad, miserable, wrung out.
I was thirteen—it was the summer before freshman year—and I was still prepping for my Big Deal academy audition, but I wanted to tell Mom that I didn’t want to dance anymore. And I almost did it, I almost quit, but then Maya relapsed and they took out her spleen, and it hurt so much, and Dance for me, Audrey, spin for me, and I couldn’t quit, not when my dancing made Maya so happy, when it gave my parents something good to hold on to.
Fouetté, fouetté, fouetté, show me your mastered fouetté, she’d giggled from her hospital bed as I attempted to jump in the small room, laughing as I landed in the most ungraceful position, and Maya cheered, proclaiming, One day I’m so gonna out-fouetté you, just you wait.
So I kept at it. I pushed and I pushed, empty at the barre, empty all summer long.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fantastic dancer. My form is enviable, my ease with patterns nearly mechanic. My stubbornness kept me in the studio until I got the choreography down. The structure and discipline made sense to me. I was a machine.
But see, I didn’t have the spark, the passion. Ballet never belonged to me.
And then it was autumn, and my family didn’t need me anymore: Maya was recovering so fast, already dancing again, slowly at first and then full speed ahead. So fourteen and two months old, in the middle of my Big Deal audition, I quit ballet.
What matters is this: Maya’s thirteen now, three years cancer-free, and today she is pursuing her dream. And now that Brooks has his fire, I’m back to looking for my own thing.
I’m still in the bathroom at Starbucks. Someone is pounding on the door. I have to leave.
“Sorry,” I say, moving past a woman with frizzy bed hair, a little boy tugging at his Buzz Lightyear pajama pants. I step aside—straight into Brooks.
He’s dressed for the fire, in his turnout gear and boots. All that’s missing is the jacket and helmet. He showcases tousled bedhead that could easily be mistaken for a hard night’s work. I lose my breath. He’s beautiful. He’s making heads turn. He’s blocking my path, and I can’t run away.
“I had to see you,” Brooks says, drawing me into his arms. “I had to say goodbye.”
I met Brooks last June, the Monday night of my final week of my sophomore year.
I’d followed Grace and Quinn, and some of their older friends, to the staging of the senior prank. It was midnight, and the campus was cloaked in June fog. Students tossed caution tape around the one-story stucco buildings and haloed light poles and sycamore trees. Ketchup and sandy gray dirt were thrown, old newspapers and toilet paper flung: a lousy attempt at a fake murder scene.
Grace was eager to lend a hand to the upperclassmen, the majority of whom were drunk, roaming, loud, and sloppy, littering the quad with Budweiser cans and cigarette butts. Watching from a bench, I was content to enjoy the show.
I was mid-yawn when Brooks sat beside me, nearly spinning me into space. He was ready for a bank heist—black jeans, a navy pullover, and a gray beanie framing his thick eyebrows. Something was off with his left eye. It was lopsided, ever so slightly drooping, the green somehow sharper than the right.
That night, damp from June Gloom that teased rain that never came, Brooks sat beside me and said, “I don’t know you.”
My knees shook. “Nope.”
I didn’t know him either, not really, but that’s also not totally true. We all knew Brooks. He’d been the talk of the semester. The mystery troubled kid dropped in from somewhere north after being booted out of his old school, that’s the story we made for him. The older guy with both tentative charm and outbursts in the classrooms to his name, who never showed his face beyond school, keeping wholly to himself in a manner that only elicited more attention. From me included.
I recognized him from around campus. I was even familiar with his scarred eye from the whispers in the halls. It was suspected it was the reason he’d been kicked out of his previous school—maybe something as terrible as a knife fight. But a few of my friends had been in classes with him, Grace’s brother included, and they had used words like chill and intense to describe him. “He’s way too into chem and entirely checked out.” Every description a contradiction.
I sometimes saw him at lunch whenever he sat beneath the sycamore tree in the middle of the quad, dust jackets always stripped from whatever book he was reading. I’d wanted to talk to him. Of course I wanted to talk to him. Everyone did.
Yet the night of the senior prank, he sat next to me—me—on that bench.
And he was looking at me, a flush in his cheeks.
“You’re not a senior,” he said. He smiled so steady, but his hands were shaking, and he must have noticed that I noticed, because he stuffed them into his pockets. He leaned away and, exaggerating his gaze, looked me up and down. “You should be more excited right now—a youngster in on a senior prank. Huge deal,” he said. “You look ready for bed.”
“Hey,” I said, my voice a squeak. “I’m not a youngster.”
I was a sophomore in pajama pants and an old Nutcracker tee. My face was bare beyond sugary lip-gloss, and I hadn’t touched my hair since that morning. I was totally a youngster.
“I’m guessing fourteen?” Brooks asked.
I laughed naive, fourteen-year-old-like giggles. I felt tipsy on the sparkling wine Grace likes to snatch from her mom. “I’m nearly sixteen, thank you very much,” I said.
He grinned. “Hate to break it to you, but fourteen and fifteen are pretty much the same thing.”
“Maybe for you,” I said, “but not for me.”
He toyed with a silver Zippo, striking the flame up only to let it breathe out and die, and I remembered the silver glint in his hands while he’d read at lunch. The way he would quickly pass the metal back and forth between hands, letting it catch on the sun for a glance. Toying with campus contraband so carefully but with urgency.
“You should know I’m not a creep,” he said. “I’m recently acquainted with Quinn and Grace. They directed me over. Quinn said she’d pay me a buck if I made you smile.”
This was disappointing. I’d rather him have been a creep who’d simply wanted to talk to me than a friend-provided escort. I turned around and spotted the two of them watching, snickering. I rolled my eyes and turned back to Brooks.
“I guess Quinn better pay up,” I said.
A guy with a buzz cut and steroid-induced biceps squirted ketchup onto the sidewalk. Our campus looked like the aftermath of a fast food battle, not a murder scene.
“I have to say, as a fellow senior, I’m embarrassed.” Brooks drew in a breath. “Weak, weak, weak prank.”
“It’s not that bad,” I said, and I wondered why he was there at all, why he’d ever voluntarily choose to come to the social gathering of a prank. I let myself imagine he’d come just to meet me.
“We’re clearly not needed here,” he said. “Want to go for a drive?”
“I don’t even know your name.” Lie.
Still sitting, he bowed. “My apologies, mademoiselle. I’m Brooks Vanacore.” He clutched my hand and pressed it to his lips. I was horrified—my palms had been sweating since he’d sat down—but I was electrified, smiling, unable to stop. “May I have the pleasure to know your name?” he asked.
“Grace didn’t tell you?”
“She did.” His green eyes soaked me. “But I’d rather our meeting be, well, traditional and shit.”
“Right.” I looked at our hands, still clutched together—his so warm and heavy, calloused and firm, my hand too small. “I’m Audrey.”
“Audrey?” Brooks ran his thumb along the inside of my palm. I was as bright as the sun, so light I could have swum to the sky. Time slowed, and he wasn’t letting go, was looking at me as if I were already his everything.
I breathed. “Audrey Harper,” I said.
His smile hitched my breath—a small smile, but so sweet and genuine and only for me. He pulled his car keys from his back pocket and dangled them in the air. “Well, Miss Harper. I’m bored and you’re bored and I have gas in my tank, so let’s go.”
My jaw ached, and yet it felt so good. Talking to him felt so good. So, I went.