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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Playing with Fire

April Henry

Henry Holt and Co. (BYR)




6:22 P.M.

WHEN JASON AND BRIAN had scouted this stretch of road in the middle of the week, it had been empty. But now, early on a Saturday evening, Jason counted a half-dozen parked cars. The lot for the nearby trail to Basin Falls must be full.

Only Brian’s plan had called for parking here, and he had made it clear that Jason shouldn’t deviate from the plan. And so far, Brian’s plan was going like clockwork.

So Jason found a spot. Before he got out, he cranked down the windows. Then he opened up the back of the little 1984 Chevette he had bought off Craigslist. Four hundred cash. Three hundred for the car, and another hundred for not asking questions. Later, Jason had destroyed the burner phone he’d used to arrange the deal.

The trunk of the hatchback was empty except for a single road flare.

After he retrieved it, Jason looked up and down the road but didn’t see anyone. He walked around the car until it was between him and the road. He pulled the lid off the white cap to expose the coarse red striking surface. Then he twisted off the cap. He took a slow breath, trying to steady his nerves. Then in a single fast movement, he struck the black button on the end of the flare across the coarse red surface on the plastic cap, like striking a giant match. It lit with a hiss and a shower of sparks, reminding him of fireworks.

He tossed it into the back seat, the way Brian had said.

And now he was supposed to walk away. Walk back down the road to where it joined up with the bigger road. Brian would pick him up. And meanwhile, their getaway car would turn into a fireball, destroying any prints and DNA they had left.

But what if the flare guttered and went out?

A flame started on the stained fabric of the seat, then began to inch up the back. It felt like magic. He had just created it out of nothing. Now it danced and moved like a living thing. The flames were yellow in the center, then orange and finally red at the edges.

Smoke was beginning to billow out of the car. A breeze blew through the driver’s side window and pushed the flames toward the middle of the seat.

The smoke was turning from gray to black. It tasted acrid. Jason stepped back, coughing, still reluctant to walk away. What if someone showed up with a fire extinguisher and put it out?

The flames reached out of the car, up past the roof. Inside, the headliner caught. It fell, a blanket of fire.

Boom! The back glass of the hatchback shattered, and a piece of metal shot toward him. It landed in the dry weeds, and suddenly they were on fire as well. Suddenly, everything was on fire.

Jason turned and ran, trying to get ahead of the flames.



6:24 P.M.

A FLAT POP SPLIT the hot summer air. It sounded far away but also out of place.

Natalia heard it even over the rush of the waterfall. She lifted her head from the beach towel they had spread on a wide flat boulder. “What was that?”

Next to her, Wyatt, who had been half-asleep, pushed himself up on his elbows. His eyebrows pulled together. “It almost sounded like a rifle shot.”

“But it’s not hunting season, right?” Natalia was pretty sure hunting season was in the fall. Not in the middle of a scorching August.

“No. It’s not.” Wyatt was still listening, head tilted, hazel eyes narrowed. But the sound wasn’t repeated.

Had anyone else heard it? A couple of hikers still at Basin Falls were also staring toward the trail that led back to the parking lot, less than two miles away. But most seemed to have noticed nothing. A pitted-out plump guy in his late twenties was drinking a Gatorade on the sun-warmed rocks. A college-age girl was taking a selfie with the falls in the background, while her boyfriend threw a stick for his medium-sized brown dog. Thirty feet from them, a mom and dad were putting their toddler into a backpack-like contraption.

Wyatt finally relaxed. “Sounds can carry weird out here.” He shrugged. “What time is it, anyway?”

Natalia checked her phone. “Six twenty-five.” Even though the corner of the display had shown the same thing since they left the parking lot to start the hike here, it was still disconcerting to see zero bars and the words “No Service.”

“Oops. I must have drifted off.” Wyatt picked up his socks. “We should get going. Even though it’s an easy trail, we don’t want to be on it after dark.”

Natalia didn’t think it had been all that easy, what with the roots and rocks and being uphill. Sunset was still nearly two hours away, but it had taken them almost an hour to hike here.

Wyatt reached for his hiking boots, scuffed with use. She did the same, wishing she didn’t have to put hers back on. They were so hot and heavy, and because they were brand-new, they had already left a red spot on one toe.

And had she really needed them? Some people had made it here in Tevas. The girl taking a selfie was actually wearing flip-flops. Natalia had considered this a trip to the wilderness and prepared accordingly. Maybe it had been overkill to buy the hiking boots and the emergency supplies. It had certainly been expensive, way more than she’d expected.

After Natalia finished tying her boots, Wyatt pulled her to her feet. Although they had spent hours next to each other this summer, it was the first time they had deliberately touched. She was aware of his slightly calloused palm, his strong fingers, but he released her hand as soon as she was up.

Natalia couldn’t quite figure Wyatt out. She thought he liked her, but today he’d treated her just like a friend. Which was what they had become at the Dairy Barn this summer. Coworkers and friends. Handing out samples on tiny blue plastic spoons. Joking as they packed ice cream into cones. Bumping hips in the small space behind the counter.

And then last week Wyatt had found out that Natalia had never been hiking.

“What? Never? This is Portland!” He widened his eyes dramatically. “The place where babies are born wearing Gore-Tex and hiking boots. People come from all over the world to hike the Columbia Gorge. You live less than an hour away, and you’ve managed to go seventeen years without even taking a day hike?”

“Sorry.” With a half smile, she hung her head, savoring his attention.

“What about Outdoor School?” In Portland, most fifth graders attended Outdoor School, where they stayed in cabins, tramped around in the woods, and learned about nature.

Copyright © 2021 by April Henry