MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
STOP, DROP, AND LET'S ROLL
RYAN SLAMMED the book shut and tipped his head back, sprawling on the bench and claiming it as his own. I looked down at my lap, his current pillow, and shook my head.
"I'm not asking you to write the paper for me, Ava. Just engage in a lively discussion about the book." His put on his best pleading face—eyebrows up, a wide smile that showed his teeth, his hands clasped in supplication and—the kicker—his hazel eyes begging. Say what you would about Ryan James, the boy had killer eyes. And he knew it too. It was almost impossible to say no to him. Almost.
"You want to discuss a book you haven't read so you can write a paper on it. So, yeah, totally cheating."
"You seemed way less concerned with moral fiber yesterday." His grin was so impish, there were probably imps nearby taking notes. Not that imps are native to Maine.
I could feel the flush creeping up my cheeks as memories of yesterday, when I'd closed up the bookshop a little early so that Ryan and I could have a little, er, "quality time," started a conga line through my mind. I looked out at the harbor until my blush dulled.
"Illicit make-out sessions aren't even in the same league as skipping your required reading, hoss."
Ryan sighed. "Can't I just watch the movie?" Then he started laughing, no doubt at the scandalized look on my face.
"You did not just say that to me, Ryan James!" I sputtered, and shoved him off my lap. He hit the bricks with a thud but kept right on laughing. "The Count of Monte Cristo is a classic for a reason. I don't know what I see in you. Ugh. Such blasphemy."
He rejoined me on the bench, and I helped him brush some of the grass off his jacket. We were deep into mud season, or "early spring," as I'd heard it was called in other states, and Ryan was lucky that grass and twigs were all he was brushing off. The weather had warmed lately, the snow melting, for the most part, and what was left was more mud than a body knew what to do with.
Ryan leaned over, sweeping a kiss along my temple while putting his arm around me at the same time. "You're so mean. Why do I date you, again?"
"Because you like pain?" I made it sound like a joke, but really, I had no idea why Ryan dated me. Besides his killer eyes, Ryan had curly brown hair that always looked a little tousled, like he'd been doing something forbidden, a lean build, and these lips … man. He made me act like a mush-headed girl, which I hated, but it was hard to avoid his allure. He always had this sort of hand-in-the-cookie-jar look about him, just bad enough to be fun.
He pulled a cigarette out and placed it in those devil lips, using his free hand to pat his pockets for a lighter. I cupped my hand around my old-fashioned Zippo, flicking the cap open with my thumb, and lit his cigarette.
"You're always ready with a light—that's one thing in your favor." Ryan took a drag on his cigarette, the cherry flaring a bright red. I tucked the Zippo into my pocket with a tight-lipped grin.
The lighter was a prop, empty of fluid and flint. Since I was playing a regular human girl, props were necessary. I could set fire to the bench we were sitting on and every boat in the harbor if I put my mind to it, and that's all it would take: just my mind. But Ryan? He didn't know that. He was normal. He thought I was normal.
Ryan sighed, the smoke from his cigarette coming out in a whoosh. "I wish I was homeschooled. You didn't have to finish reading Lord of the Flies when you hated it."
"They were stuck on an island and no one even tried fishing or digging for clams? I understand the symbolism of the pig, but really."
"They were ignorant boarding-school kids. It's not like Woodland Foraging and Basic Survival Skills was a class."
"Whatever. Anyway, don't be jealous. I had to read two books to replace it and write a five-page essay clearly stating my reasons for protest." Then Sylvie and I did a dramatic reenactment of the essay using sock puppets we made to look like the main characters from Lord of the Flies, but I didn't tell him that. I think I can honestly say that was the day my little hyperactive coworker and I really became friends. She made a killer puppet that looked like an angry clam. Then she sang a song called "Clams, the Better White Meat," which she accompanied on the mandolin. She's thinking of turning the whole thing into a full-length musical.
Ryan threw up his hands. "You win. I'll read the book."
I curled into him, kissing his cheek. "Good, because you would have failed if you went off the movie, anyway. They're different."
He turned into me, his face only a breath from mine, those damn hazel eyes going bedroom sleepy. "You couldn't have just said that?"
I shook my head. "Nope. Tell you what, though. I'll discuss it with you while you read it and go over your paper with you."
"You're a harsh mistress." Ryan was about to kiss me when I heard a disgusted scoffing noise behind us.
"Hey, Ryan. Hey, homeschool."
Aaaand enter Brittany, sullen bitch queen of Currant, Maine.
I rolled my eyes. "Get new material." Technically, I was not an orphan. My mother was dead, yeah, but my dad was probably still around. I just didn't know where, or who, he might be. I kissed Ryan on the cheek. "The sound of her mind cogs screeching as she tries to think up new insults is my cue to leave." I stood up and brushed my hands on my jeans.
Ryan grabbed my arm, glaring at Brittany. "You don't have to go."
My phone chirped and I shrugged. "Yeah, I do." It was maple sugaring day, and if I missed that, Cade would have my head.
* * *
CADE was my guardian. He was one of those family friends so entrenched that he transcended trivial things like genetics and blood. We weren't related, but we were family, even if the state labeled him differently. He was my mom's childhood sweetheart and, to be honest, her forever one as well. You could tell from the way she'd looked at him that Cade was my mom's true heart. Which sounds like a vomit-worthy line from a crap poem, but for them it had worked. They'd been epic poetry in motion.
Whatever the label, my guardian took his job as a parental figure seriously. Everything became a lesson, and being regular old human didn't stop him from training the firebug side of me one bit. Especially during maple syrup season.
I pulled the truck up to the cabin and wasn't surprised to see that we had company. I recognized Lock's car—which probably meant Ezra, too, since he would never turn down a free meal—and Duncan's beat-up Jeep. Apparently it was a party. Cade was fairly serious about his maple syrup, or really anything we could make or grow at home. He owned the used bookshop, Broken Spines, where Sylvie and I worked, and he didn't make oodles of money. So he planted gardens. He canned, pickled, jammed, traded, and did whatever he could to supplement his income. Some of the syrup from today's session would go to Duncan, and in return, we'd get some smelt and whatever else he pulled out of the water.
The guys were already settled in the shack, which was mostly just a roof and a concrete floor with a brick-lined hole in the center for the fire pit. The "walls" were a few structural timbers to hold the roof up, and that was it. Sugaring produces a lot of steam.
A game of cribbage was about to begin, snacks were on the card table, and Duncan had brought some Allen's Coffee Brandy, according to tradition. And also according to tradition, Cade kept looking at it and shuddering.
"No true son of Maine can resist Allen's," Duncan said, pouring himself a small measure. Duncan also brought a case of Moxie for those of us not old enough for Allen's, but only Lock would drink it. Imagine Santa dressed in L.L. Bean, and you might have a good grasp on what Duncan looks like. He was, of course, whittling. Duncan was a golem maker, and I knew that the things he whittled were more than mere wood.
"Then I guess I'm no true son. I'm fine with a mugup, thanks." Cade poured coffee for the rest of us. If you put my guardian and me together, we're like opposing bookends. He's tall, blond, cheerful, and bespectacled. The thin gold wires frame blue eyes that are almost always in good humor. I'm surly, brown eyed, and have more curly dark brown hair than I know what to do with. My vision is perfect, my height is average, and if you look deeply into my eyes, you'll probably just see flames. If you look into Ezra's, you'll probably just see bullshit. Not so sure about Lock's.
I grabbed my mug and one-arm-hugged Cade. We may be opposites, but I love my guardian more than anything. I tousled Ezra's hair and took a seat by Lock.
"I know what you're doing," Ezra said, not glancing up from his cards. "You're trying to irritate me, thinking my vanity would howl at you messing up these glorious tresses." He moved a card on the end into the middle of his hand. "You should know by now, Ava my darling, that my hair will be fantastic no matter what."
The thing is, Ezra was right. He seems like he's two steps away from strutting down a runway or entering a photoshoot all the time. He's not handsome or pretty or good looking. Ezra Sagishi is nothing but time-stoppingly, heart-rendingly, sent-straight-from-temptation gorgeous. Good cheekbones, dark hair with deep russet tones, amber-golden eyes that look lined in kohl, and a smile that actually does stop traffic. I've seen it happen. Twice.
And he knows it too. Ezra is a fox, literally, and they don't believe in false modesty. Stealing everything that isn't nailed down, yes. But modesty? Not in their lexicon.
I nudged Lock. "I know Ezra's here for the free food—did his stomach drag you along?"
"You don't think I'm here for the sparkling conversation? The scenery? To watch Ezra lose spectacularly?"
"I do everything spectacularly." Ez moved another card. "What makes you think I'm going to lose?"
"Because we won't let you cheat. There goes everything in your favor."
Ezra gave a minute shrug. "Can't argue there. Anything you need to wait for isn't worth it."
"Whereas I am a creature of patience."
"Well, I'm not," I said. "And you didn't answer my question."
"What else would I be here for? You, cupcake. I'm here for you."
Cade smiled over his coffee mug. "Have you come to make me an offer? I'm almost positive my girl here is worth her weight in chickens, so let's start talking dowry."
"Chickens? Cade, you insult the girl."
"Thank you, Duncan." I leaned in and kissed him on the temple.
"Now, goats, that's getting closer. But not cattle. She's not worth large livestock anymore. Maybe when she was a little younger…"
"You're all jerks."
"My apartment building doesn't allow goats," Lock said. "So you're safe. For now. And since you asked: I'm here to keep the trees calm. For some odd reason, firebug, you make them nervous."
Ezra may be all fox, but Lock is half-dryad. Or as he puts it: half-dryad, all man.
I decided to ignore the rabble and get to work. Maple sugaring is a process. You tap the trees, collect the sap, and then boil it down. Sap has to be kept cold, and since the weather was warming up, this would be our last batch. It's a forty-to-one process, so if you have ten gallons of sap, you're going to get one quart of syrup. That makes storing the sap indoors difficult unless you have a lot of freezer space, so we kept ours outside.
It takes several hours to boil the stuff down, and that takes wood. Well, it usually takes wood. Using me to provide the fire, or at least part of it, kills two birds with one stone, which is Cade's favorite way to do things. He loves multitasking. It saves us wood for our woodstove, which is the main way our cabin is heated, and works on my endurance.
Cade stacked a few logs into the fire pit to give me a little fuel to work with, and I settled in for the long haul. With the wood and the abundant oxygen, it wasn't hard to get the fire going. All it took was a little concentration on my part.
My phone beeped, and a photo came through: Brittany with her arm around Ryan, her lips pressed to his cheek. Ryan bowed away from her, one eyebrow raised in question.
Wish U were here, homeschool. Ryan seems lonely, but what R friends 4?;)
I thoroughly regretted ever giving Brittany my phone number. The flames shot up with a whoosh, the tips reaching like a tower to the ceiling. I pulled the fire back before anything was scorched, but the ceiling looked … smoky. I'd need to wash it.
Cade eyed the ceiling speculatively. "Lock, could you take her phone? Ava is apparently having concentration issues."
I mumbled an apology, my face flushing. A firebug without control is dangerous, and I'd let mine slip like an amateur. Lock took my phone, at the same time setting a bottle of water at my feet and a snack bowl to my right. Like the flames, I'd work better with a little fuel to keep me going. He squeezed my shoulder, and I instantly felt less embarrassed about making an ass of myself. Lock's good like that.
Cade was still examining the ceiling. "Maybe I should get the shack warded as well. Something to look into."
I doubted it would happen any time soon. It had cost a mint to fire-ward the cabin, and the shack didn't have the same level of priority. I'd read an article that said the average cost of raising a child is around $250,000. I bet that looked like a sweet deal to Cade after raising me the last few years.
We were a couple of hours into the syrup-making process, and I was taking a break, when my phone beeped again. When Lock's followed, I knew it wasn't Brittany this time. Ezra's phone, saying Did we get up on the wrong side of the coffin this evening? in the smooth, rolling voice of the actor Cleavon Little, confirmed that it was Venus. Ezra wouldn't assign that text tone to anyone else. We all grimaced, the joy draining from the room in a messed-up Pavlovian response. I grabbed my water bottle and kissed Cade on the cheek. He hugged me tight.
Duncan got a kiss on the cheek too, and the same silent conversation we always had passed between us. Take care of him, my eyes said.
And his replied, Will do.
We never discussed whether that meant until I got back or in case I didn't. Probably for the best.
* * *
COMBAT BOOTS don't make the best running shoes. Of course, I hadn't been planning on joining a marathon. The file that Owen, Venus's pet firebug, had emailed us had said "ice elemental," not "god of sprinting." I'd expected the creature to throw icicles—and hadn't been disappointed—and I'd known to keep my hands to myself. Nothing like a quick hypothermic death to ruin my night. But nowhere in the file had anyone said, "Oh, and by the way, he runs like a gazelle with an espresso addiction." At least not in the parts I'd skimmed. I didn't read the files closely, because if I read too closely, they became real. And I desperately needed them to be statistics. I only wanted the bare minimum of information. I didn't want to humanize anyone I had to hunt—and I mean humanize in the loosest sense of the word. Most of the people I met on the job were about as human as string cheese.
I leapt over an overturned trash can, my feet sliding on the ice as I landed. A conveniently placed brick wall broke my momentum, bruising the hell out of my shoulder, but I kept going. My quarry was sprinting away from me, leaving the lacy pattern of hoarfrost twisting fernlike on the buildings and pavement in his wake.
The creature turned long enough to throw another jagged ice missile at my head. I ducked with a curse, only barely getting out of the way. He'd been doing that just often enough to keep me from getting within easy range, continually breaking my concentration. It's hard to dodge, run, and throw a fireball. And anyone who thinks icicles aren't dangerous hasn't spent a winter in the Northeast. But fire, well, that's another story, isn't it? Everything fears fire.
Calling this a job makes it sound like it involves a time card or a name tag, something that will lead to bigger and better things. A choice. I guess it is, sort of. I can choose to hunt down targets for the Coterie, or I can be "in violation of my blood pact." In the Coterie that means someone like me shows up and helps you into a pine box. No one turns them down twice. No one gets the chance to.
Why couldn't I work only at the bookstore or have one of those mindless summer jobs every other teen got to have, like scooping ice cream or washing dishes? I would have sold my soul for a crap paycheck and a little polyester uniform.
Instead, I got to be brass knuckles in human form. Worse, really. I was there to kill the creature I was chasing. Not warn, not smack around, but straight up end his existence. That's the fun of being Coterie owned. And I was owned. I was chattel to Venus, queen of the manor and head of the Coterie. Lock and Ezra at least had the illusion of hope. Since they were tithes, their blood pacts were over at age twenty-five. They donated a few years of service to the Coterie, and Venus left their families alone. My contract only ended with death—mine or Venus's. Oh, there was a line saying she could release me at any time of her choosing, but Venus doesn't give up her toys. I think that line is in there to give me false hope or leave her the option of trading me to someone else if I become too problematic. Lock's and Ezra's don't have all those clauses—they're not as valuable as I am—but on some level we all know they are the same pact. No one leaves the Coterie without enforcers on their tail, and no one knows that better than the enforcers themselves.
A stitch sliced into my side as I tried to catch the ice elemental. Now, he was hardly innocent. The file told me that. Ice men like ice, which makes sense. They create it wherever they go, and they don't differentiate between a tree and a human being when it comes to building materials. Then they build nests, like birds. In their enthusiasm to create ideal conditions for themselves, they often freeze people to death. Venus couldn't give a shaved yeti about the most recent victim being human, though. She only cared that this particular ice elemental had been poaching on her turf. I was the only one in this equation who cared about the humans. All creatures have a right to survive. I know that. But Ice Man could have built his nest somewhere else.
Kinda sucks, doesn't it? Most girls my age worry about prom dresses and SATs. I have to weigh the ethical nature of being an assassin against the value of human life and basic freedoms. Makes detention seem like cake.
"He saw me, and he's doubled back. I think he's headed for the park," I heard. Ezra's voice was so clear, it sounded like he was right next to me, whispering. My earpiece looked like it was part of a high-tech walkie-talkie. The idea was similar, only ours ran on a spell. Safer that way. Actual walkie-talkies run on radio waves, and those can be intercepted. Not a great idea when you're working for the Coterie. But ours? I could speak safely into the microphone attached to my watch and know that only Lock and Ezra heard me.
"As your eye in the sky, I feel I should inform you that there's a pond in the park." Ez and Lock had flipped a coin for roof duty. Lock won.
Cursing to myself—though the boys probably heard it—I doubled my speed and shot out of the alley I'd been running down and across a street into a play park. The night was so cold, my breath crystallized in front of me, so the park was understandably empty. The ice creature was closer to me now. He was getting tired and had been slowing down, but as soon as he saw the playground, he put on more speed, heading toward a small frozen duck pond ahead of him. The ice might be thinning, but it was still ice. It was still his element, and I had to keep him away from there. He stopped tossing ice missiles and focused on running. Which was his mistake. The only things keeping me at bay so far had been the distraction of dodging and attempting to close the distance between us.
"From the sound of your panting, I can tell we need to start jogging as a team again. Clearly you're not training on your own. Ezra, stop groaning. It will be good for you. By the way, Ava, Ez is in position and I don't see any cannon fodder about, so we're a go."
Owen would have started on the outside—enveloping the creature in a low flame until he melted slowly away, fully aware the whole time. The Coterie and Owen: a match made in heaven. Or, more realistically, a match made in much warmer and brimstone-y climates.
I am not Owen.
I concentrated on something small—the creature's frozen heart. Ice elementals are made of snow and frost and other wintertime things. But deep in their chest lies a heart that looks like a Swarovski crystal about the size of an apple. It's hard and dense, and if I tried to do something pedestrian like hit it with a bullet, nothing much would happen. I mean, yeah, it would shatter, but after about three seconds the elemental would just fuse it back together. Magic.
But I wasn't going to shatter it—I was going to melt it. If this were a movie and I the action hero, this is where we'd have a dramatic standoff. The creature would ask me why, and I'd either apologize or give my tortured reasoning. But this wasn't a movie. The creature didn't care why I had to do it. And I'm not much of a hero. So before he could reach the ice, and without a single word, I concentrated until a white-hot flame erupted in the elemental's chest.
I stopped running, my hand glued to my side as I stood gasping, hoping the stitch there would go away soon. His heart gone in the smallest of seconds, the elemental probably didn't know what hit him. Or, at least, he hadn't had time to care. That was the most I could hope for.
Yanking my phone out of my pocket with half-frozen fingers, I took a picture of the melting elemental—the proof that would get the boss-monkey off my back for a little while.
We waited until he was a puddle. Lock tossed a handful of seeds from his pocket into the water. Green sprouts shot up, opening out into large, heart-shaped leaves. A sea of tiny blue flowers erupted between the leaves.
"Pretty," Ezra said.
"Brunnera macrophylla—a perennial forget-me-not." Lock looked up at the cold, clear night sky. Though we were an hour from home, we were still far enough from Boston that there wasn't much light pollution. "It's an early riser, well suited for the season." He slipped an arm around me. "Ready to head out, Aves?"
"Wanna make Lock whip us up some late-night hot chocolate?" Ezra asked.
I nodded to that, too.
Copyright © 2014 by Lish McBride