Everything changed the night I saw the burning man fall from the sky.
I'd been reading well past a reasonable hour, the white eyelet quilt tented over my iPhone to block any escaping light even though my father was already tucked away in bed dreaming of new ways to make me safer.
The cell phone was a compromiseI added extra music lessons to my scarce free time in exchange for a phone. It was win-win for Father; the few hours a day I wasn't with him or sheltered in the safety of my pink and ivory room, decorated by a prestigious designer to gild my cage, I was now instantly accessible. In addition, there were now even fewer hours in which I might find trouble. He didn't know I could read e-books on the phone; he didn't even know what e-books were. Father just thought he'd finally broken me of reading by flashlight.
It would never have occurred to him that I hadn't been brokenI'd graduated. Every night I went somewhere new and pretended to be someone elsesomeone interestingon the device he'd purchased to control me more than he already did. A priceless freedom to a girl with a strange British accent living in the small town of Serendipity Falls, California, under her watchful father's thumb.
But the burning man falling from the sky pulled me from my faraway world. My gaze wandered to the window an instant before he appeared. And then, slowly, like a feather caught on a light breeze, he willowed past my window, turning his grotesque head towards me, his mouth open in a silent scream. He was more than on fire. He was fire.
Orange and red flames braided together in the shape of a man, but it was his eyes that caused me to suck in my breath and hold it as I ran to the window. His eyes, scared and imploring, told of a darkness and agony I couldn't begin to understand.
I leaned farther into the window, the glass surprisingly warm from his brush past it. Like I touched a trace of him. As he completed his unhurried, torturous descent to the lawn, he kept his gaze locked on mine. Beseeching me for something I couldn't give as the flames consumed him. So many things I should have felt, wondered, or worried about, yet I just watched, fascinated and compelled to see him to the end.
He landed in the yard, still burning alive. My father's pristine lawn would be scorched.
He'd be so disappointed.
Afraid to leave my perch, I was unsure what to do next. Surely what I was seeing was a figment of my overactive imagination. A dream caused by too much reading and not enough sleeping. But what if he suffered while I did nothing?
I turned and ran, as quietly as I could, through my room, down the stairs, and finally out the back door. The dew-covered grass beneath my feet reminded me of my state of undress. The nightgown felt thinner and more revealing than what my father had intended when he approved its purchase.
I shivered, not with cold but with nerves. The flames of the burning man sputtered and cooled, revealing charred bones and hunks of flesh. Yet he moved and groaned.
I sank to my knees, horrified that God would be so merciless as to let this poor human being endure such misery. The scent of cooked meat triggered my gag reflex. Strips of bumpy, burned flesh covered his bones here and there, buthis eyeshis eyes remained whole and lucid, giving him the garish appearance of a Halloween corpse.
The smell of sulfur stung my nose, making it hard to breathe. Yet the burning man continued to rasp and sputter.
How could he? His lungs had been incinerated.
For the first time, I noticed I still held the phone. Stupid girl. I should have dialed 911 a long time ago. I'd just pressed the 9 when he spoke.
I whimpered at the sound of his raspy, inhuman voice. "You need an ambulance."
The skeleton gurgled a bit, the sound grating and raw. "Too late. I don't have much time."
He shouldn't have had any time. I looked to the sky, but there was no sign of smoke or anything else falling. He groaned again.
"I…; I'm sorry." Lame, stupid girl. "I don't know what to do. I…; wish I could make you more comfortable."
"You must be so frightened." He whispered now, slowly yet with a carefully measured cadence. "I'm sorry you had to see this."
How could he worry about my comfort right now? "Do you want to…; um…; pray or something?"
His answer came too quickly, too vehemently.
"You'll stay?" he askedno, implored. "I have no right to ask it of you, but…; I'm afraid to be alone right now. Will you stay…; until…;"
Moisture from the cold, wet grass seeped into the material of my nightgown, promising ugly stains in the virginal white shroud. I already felt the weight of yet another of Father's disappointments.
"Do you want me to ring anyone for you? To say good-bye?"
"There…; is…; no…; one." His whisper weakened with each word.
No one to mourn him? I forced myself to look him, death, in the eyes, and leaned closer, blocking out the revulsion of his grotesque appearance. His last vision should be of someone caring that he died. Someone mourning him. He raised his bony fingers as if to touch me and I steeled myself not to flinch as his hand, still smoldering, neared my face.
He rattled and spoke his last words. "Worth…; the…; fall."
His hand dropped, and the grass sizzled beneath it.
Then his body turned to dust, leaving only a blackened scorch mark on my father's lawn.
I rolled away from the sunlight streaming through my lace curtains and burrowed my head under the pillow. It was a dream. It must have been. Burning men don't fall from the sky. Skeletons don't speak one minute and turn to dust the next.
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and stared at the ceiling. I was going to have to look. Resigned, I walked the distance from my bed to the window, and it seemed to stretch farther and farther away, the way things do in nightmares. I touched the glass firstit was cool, of course. My fingers splayed on the window and I leaned into it, looking down, hoping to find the perfectly manicured lawn I'd known just yesterday. But the perfection was marred and the grass seared where he'd lain. The burning man.
My heartbeat sputtered and restarted, thumping wildly and faltering with its own rhythm. My mind raced to find an explanation that didn't include a fiery cadaver with scary eyes and a lonely soul.
What kind of…; people…; fell from the sky? Aliens? Fallen angels? Skydivers?
Maybe his plane crashed. But none of that explained his ability to talk with no lungs…; or skin, or organs, or…; No. I must have dreamt it. There was no other explanation. Best to put it out of my mind. Nightmares had no control over me and there was nothing to fear.
Besides, nothing happens in sleepy towns like Serendipity Falls. That's why Father bought a house here. His commute to the city wasn't bad, a half hour unless the fog blanketed us in. He did whatever it was barristers do in their offices all day and made it home for supper almost every evening.
He'd chosen this town precisely for its lack of drama, I reassured myself as I grabbed my pink robe off the hook. What devilry ever befell a girl in a counterfeitly cheerful Victorian house? Surely the heavy cornices and gingerbread trim were wards against all things evil.
It wasn't until I turned on the bathroom light that I remembered what day it was.
The familiar numbness that got me through this day every year painted itself over me. One foot in front of the other, one routine, then the next, lather, rinse, repeat. I'd go downstairs, drink my orange juice, take a vitamin, walk to school. It was just a day, after all.
Father would already be gone to his San Francisco office. It was easier that way, at least in the morning. Not having to face each other meant not having to acknowledge the significance of the day, this day.
The anniversary of my mother's death.
I struggled with my hair. The wild curls preferred to be loose and resisted the taming of elastic bands or clips. The wildness of my manea curse, according to my father, who'd tried unsuccessfully to convince me that I should style it shorter and sleekerwas a gift from my mother. The wildness of my heart was yet another unwanted motherly inheritance. Father tried to convince me that I should live carefully, and the struggle to rein in my spirit, as well as my hair, kept me battleweary day after day.
Wanting to please Father, I always pushed back my impulses. He needed me. Sure, he could be gruff and impossibly strict, but I was all he had. Things would have been different if my mother hadn't died, but there was no sense going down that road. Especially today.
I sprinted down the stairs and then chastised myself for the recklessness since Father wasn't there to do it for me. I took the vitamin he'd left out, drank the juice he'd poured, and ate the biscuitI mean cookieonly after I'd first double-checked that he'd actually left, and then made sure no stray crumbs would give me away. I avoided the greeting card left on the center of the polished table for as long as I could.
My hands shook as I opened our one exception to completely ignoring that this day existed. Happy 17th Birthday, Theia.
I put the card in my pack, grabbed a sweater, and walked to school.
Nobody at Serendipity High extended me birthday wishes because that was the way I wanted it. My friends, now that I had them, shot surreptitious glances at me all day, but respected my request. I was lucky for their friendship; my life had been so different only four years ago, when we had first moved to the States.
Life in London had been even lonelier. Our estate had been a cold place, steeped in Alderson history but not love, not laughter.
After all the years of homeschooling with a stodgy tutor, I had been surprised that Father had given in and allowed me to attend a public school when we moved to America. Surprised and grateful, until I realized that the strange girl with a funny accent was not going to be welcomed easily into a small school with cliques already firmly in place.
Everything about me was different from my American peers, starting, but certainly not ending, with my accent. Not having spent much time with my British peers either, I was as awkward as a foal taking its first steps when it came to interacting.
"Earth to Thei."
I blinked at Donny across the cafeteria table. "Sorry. What were you saying?"
DonnyDonnatella to those who dared call her thatrolled her eyes and stole another Tater Tot from my lunch tray. "I asked if you had figured out your prison-break plans for this weekend."
Father preferred I not spend much time with Donny. Which, when I was being honest with myself, I realized was part of the appeal. Donny was irreverent and maybe a little wild.
Okay, make that a lot wild. Why she wanted to be friends with me, a girl who worked so hard at being completely boring, was a mystery. Whenever I asked, she would reply with a comment about liking my hoity-toity accent, and then she'd wink at me mischievously. She'd taken me under her wing during a particularly bad experience in my PE class that first year, and I would do anything for her.
Donny's family was the kind I used to dream about. They lived in a much smaller house, but it was a lively, almost-too-loud house. Someone was always laughing…; or yelling. It was never quite clean, but there were always good things to eat and someone to listen to how your day was. I even envied her for her little brother, as mischievous and destructive as he was, and for her parents, who didn't put up with much but did it with a sense of humor.
Also, I envied how comfortable she was in her body. A couple inches taller than me, mostly due to her legs, Donny exuded this aura of confidence about her appearance that I would never have. Everything she wore was chosen carefully, as if to exhibit her assets. Her brown hair was layered around her face to draw attention to high cheekbones, and the part was on the side, accentuating her proud forehead. She always wore earrings that peeked out when her hair moveda whisper that there was more to see if you took the time to look.
"Why is it so important that I go to this club with you?" I asked. Donny was very social, whereas I was not. She often had her own plans on the weekend that didn't include me, and I was more than okay with that.
"Because you need to get out more. I swear to God, you are going to explode one day if you don't vent a little wickedness now and then. Does your father know what happens to daughters of overly uptight and strict parents when they get their first taste of freedom at college?"
"Girls Gone Wild, that's what."
The thought of me flashing my breasts to a camera in exchange for a trucker hat made us laugh so hard we couldn't breathe. The funniest part was that we both knew Donny would do it for a stick of gum.
Our third musketeer, Amelia, joined us as the giggling subsided. As usual, she was dressed in what Donny liked to call "rebellious goth." Ame liked the alternative styles of the emo/goth kidsbut she hated black and dark colors. Instead, she looked like a rainbow with skull and spider accessories. "What's the laughing about, or do I want to know?"
"You don't. Trust me." Donny patted the bench next to her. "Ame, help me convince Theia that she needs to cut loose with us this weekend." She bit the tip of her pizza, the cheese stretching a mile before breaking. Only Donny could make that sexy. When I ate pizza, I cut it into bite-size pieces.
Ame unpacked her lunch from the reusable tie-dyed sack she brought every dayshe was very conscious of her carbon footprint. "Theia, if you don't cut loose with us this weekend, I will have to listen to Donny bitch about you all night and it won't be any fun at all. And I won't have anyone to talk to when she ditches me for the first pretty boy who comes along. You have to come."
Amelia wasn't joking. Donny really enjoyed her pretty boys. Amelia, on the other hand, had pined hopelessly for the same bloke since he'd moved to our school in seventh grade, the same year I did. She'd been stuck in "just a chum" purgatory for four years, but refused to tell him how she felt or give any other boy the time of day.
Ame carried herself differently from Donny. Donny was catlike and slinky, while Ame was more like a happy puppy. She bounced a lot and used her whole body when she spoke. She was also beautiful, but you couldn't tell her that.
Now that Amelia had let her hair grow back to the shiny black-brown it was naturally, and not the brittle blond she'd been trying to keep it, Donny and I both felt like she was the prettiest of all three of us. Amelia, however, saw only flaws with the features we thought made her exotic and outstanding.
Ame was born in Korea and adopted by a family perhaps even whiter than my own. Most of the time, I think she handled the diversity well. Sometimes she acted like we didn't see her wishing away her heritage. Other times, though, she talked about going to Korea someday, not so much to find her birth parents but just to walk where her roots had once been.
But when it was just the three of us together, roots were never an issue.
Donny put her hands together as if in prayer. "Pwetty please, say you'll come with us on Friday. You will love this club. It's the only under-eighteen club I've ever been to that didn't make me worry about our generation. It's actually fun. And not lame."
"I have nothing to wear to a dance club." And I didn't. Father's personal shopper chose my wardrobe according to a strict outline of recommendations—none of which included anything that would be suitable for dance clubs.
"I have your outfit all picked out," Donny answered a little too gleefully. "Oh, yeah, and Sandra Dee called; she'd like her sweater sets back."
That was low, but not wrong. Father's shopper believed thinking outside of the box meant three-quarter sleeves in place of long ones. And I have bottoms in every shade of khaki ever made. You know, for my wacky, carefree days.
All the same, Donny was not to be trusted as a replacement for the shopper. "Your clothes won't fit me, Donny. Your legs are a mile longer than mine."
"All the better to wrap around a boy with. Speaking of" She paused so Amelia and I could groan.
Donny really was certifiably boy crazy. I had no such aspirations. Aside from my accent and "strange" English ways, my real boy problem had less to do with my looks and more to do with my upbringing. As in: Father says no. I'd been segregated from boys my whole life, not allowed to have coed parties even as a child. And dating was out of the question.
I was untouchable.
He just wanted me to be safe, and he worried that boys would make me reckless and distract me from my music studieswhich were far more important to him than they were to me.
I love the violin, truly I do, but I'll admit to sometimes being bored by all the work involved in maintaining my skill level. However, musical proficiency is important.
It didn't matter to him that I was beginning to feel less joy in the music. The more he pushed, the less I cared. In fact, I preferred playing modern music but could do so only when he wasn't home. Because modern music wasn't respectable. It didn't pay tribute to the deep roots of my family tree.
Aldersons were to be the best at whatever they did. Father proved that daily at his workplace, or so I heard from his colleagues at the picnics every summer. His company had transferred him twice to the States to fix its sorrier officesonce the year he met my mother, and again when I was thirteen. He was also unbeatable at racquetball and sailing. I was to follow in the grand tradition of all the Aldersons before me and excel.
Whether I wished to or not.
Donny continued, ignoring our groans. "My sources in the admin office tell me we are getting fresh meat tomorrow. All the way from New York City. God, I hope he's cute. We need new cute at this school."
Amelia picked at her salad. She hated salad but was on what Donny dubbed a foreverdiet. "We only need new cute because you have exhausted the population of already-here cute. Take it easy on the new guy, will you?"
"He's probably a sneetch anyway," Donny said.
"Sneetches" was what we called the in-crowd at school, the haves as opposed to the have-nots. We named them from a Dr. Seuss story in which the Star-Belly Sneetches, who were born with a green star on their bellies, thought they were better than all those who had no green staror in this case green money.
By current standards, I possessed all the right accoutrements to be a sneetch, except the ones that would have made me want to be one. Much to my father's dismay, the children of his business associates and fellow golf club members were not the chosen brethren of his daughter. Of course, he never helped me get accepted, since he resolutely shielded me from their activities and social situations, but try telling him that.
Donny pulled out her compact, checking for nonexistent damage before fourth period. "Amelia, if you tell me you want the new guy, sneetch or not, I'll stay away from him. But you have to promise to actually talk to him. Not just pine from afar. Reruns are boring."
"I'm not even remotely interested in the new guy, but thanks for the offer. I know how hard that must have been for you."
Donny started on me next, but I held up my hand. "Halt. I am not remotely interested in the new bloke we haven't seen yet either." On a whim, I asked them both, "Did either of you hear anything about a plane crash last night? Or maybe a meteorite?"
"Did you have dreams about aliens probing your secret places, Thei?" Donny asked, again much too gleefully.
"No, INever mind."
The bell rang, reminding me that my fourth-period class was on the other side of campus, but at least it smelled better than the cafeteria. We had to wait for a pack of sneetches, several of them in cheerleader uniforms, to file past our table. As per their social custom, they made no eye contact with those of us without stars upon thars.
When one of the varsity basketball players tried to pass without even seeing us, Donny drew the line. "Hey, Bill, did I ever tell you how much it meant to me that you made sure my needs were still met that one time you couldn't get it up? That makes you a real gentleman."
Of course, Bill did no such thing. Oh, he really did have a problembut he left Donny to finish things for herself when he didn't bring his A-game.
He grunted, someone muttered, "Bitch," and all was right in our world.
By the end of the evening, I was wiped out. I practiced for two hours after school with my new tutor, who knew within ten minutes that I was better than he was. So, like anyone with an overinflated sense of self, he punished me with futile exercises and extra practice time.
Dinner was a somber affair, as usual. Muriel, our housekeeper and cook, tried to sneak in a cakelike dessert to appease her own guilt at my lack of birthday celebration, and Father read his paper throughout the meal, stopping to tell me to "Sit up straight" and "Stop fidgeting so much."
"Father," I began cautiously, "I'd like to spend the weekend at Donny's."
"We'll see," he answered. And that was the end of the discussion.
I'm not sure how my mother could have fallen in love with him. He was so cold. And worse, I think he was trying to make sure I turned out as icily perfect as he was. Sometimes I felt the crystals forming inside, etching a pattern of frost on my heart, and I thought it would be easier to follow his path than diverge from it. If I was careful and cautious, dutiful and obedient, perhaps I could stop the wayward longings I had. The ones where I thought, There has to be more. More than this uncomfortable silence at a table too large for the two people who ate here every night.
But if there was more, Father wanted none of it. He retired to his study and I retired to my fancy decorated cell, finished my homework, looked at my violin and considered playing it for an hour, and then put myself to bed with no hope of falling asleep.
But fall asleep I did. I think. And that was when everything got worse.