Read Burn Online

Authors: Monica Hesse

Burn

For Rob

What was he trying to find?

He pulled out the desk drawer too roughly; it came out off its sliders, spilling pens and notepads all over the floor. An emptied box of thumbtacks scratched against his hands as he sifted through the pile.

It wasn't here.

Whatever it was, it wasn't here.

There was a beep. It was the security monitor, the one positioned on the wall, the one trained on the entrance outside. Figures appeared. They were coming, coming, they were too close. He couldn't stop looking. He had to find it. He had to—

Lona lurched against the mattress. It was that sensation of falling, like she had been levitating, and regaining consciousness sent her crashing back to the bed. That was one blessing of nightmares. They ended with whiplash, but at least they ended quickly. Her heart was racing and she couldn't stop it. Telling herself it had only been a dream – that it hadn't really happened to her – didn't help. It was the fact that it hadn't happened to her that made it so terrible.

Outside the sky was violet, an in-between time. Post-midnight, pre-dawn. Post-sleep, pre-awake.

Lona knew something about the subconscious, and the hazy way it could straddle reality and fantasy. In some of her dreams she was still Julian, still dreaming like she was on Path. Other times, she managed to wrestle her mind away from the Julian Path and have her own dreams. It had been confusing at first, for her dream life to be split between two people, but she'd trained herself. She now knew within seconds whether she was Lona or Julian in any sleep cycle.

But in this dream she wasn't Julian. And she wasn't herself.

She was someone else entirely.

Someone had stolen her dream. Someone had put her on a new Path.

1

“Are you going to make a wish, Lona?” Gamb poked her in the ribcage. “I've already made, like, forty-seven of them and it's not even my birthday.”

The cake was shiny. The smooth buttercream reminded Lona of an ice-skating rink. It was almost too immaculate to eat, except that her stomach growled when she looked at it. It smelled like hot sugar and butter, and the vanilla extract that had been whipped into the frosting. She could almost taste it on her tongue, the sweet grainy sheen.

“Wait until it is your birthday, Gamb,” Ilyf said. “The birthday fairy is going to be all, ‘Oh, sorry, your wish allotment has been filled. You used them up six months ago when you stole someone else's.'”

Gamb was careless with his wishes. Lona didn't want to be. This was, after all, the only one she'd ever made. It was her first birthday. Her seventeenth year, but her first birthday. Pink and green streamers hung around the kitchen, and also an iridescent banner with “Happy Birthday” spelled out in bubbly gold and silver. It was the décor of a little kid's party, but she liked it. She liked the giant bouquet of sunflowers Ilyf had arranged on the table, and the paper cone hats Gamb ceremoniously put on everyone's heads, affixed with stretchy elastic.

Today she would turn seventeen, and she would get a new name. Lona Sixteen Always would become Lona Seventeen Always. If she wanted. Now that she wasn't on Path anymore, there was no reason to obey Path naming traditions – but there was no reason not to, either. It's not like she had any alternate options.

“She doesn't have to make any wishes if she doesn't want to.” Under the table, Fenn's hand stroked the soft underside of her wrist. He leaned in closer and his breath tickled her ear. “Or you can make a million. Or a million and one.” His fingers traveled higher, skimming over the crease of her elbow. It was a gesture of comfort, a remnant from the way Pathers used to be stroked by Coping Technicians, but it still felt sharp and shivery on her skin.

Fenn reached into his pocket and produced a lighter for the candles – eighteen in total: seventeen for every year of her life, and a symbolic one to grow on. Gamb turned off the light so that the room flickered, and Lona's face felt warm from the heat. As many wishes as she wanted. Gamb sighed at her indecision. “Give her some
time
,” Ilyf ordered him.

“I don't need anything,” she protested.

“You suck at birthdays,” Gamb said. “You're not supposed to wish for something you need. It's supposed to be about something you
want
.”

“Before they melt,” Ilyf encouraged. A spot of pink wax had already dribbled onto the frosting. “It's just a birthday tradition. It doesn't have to be a big deal.”

A birthday tradition. Lona closed her eyes. She should make a wish, for the full, traditional birthday experience. But her deepest wishes had already come true. She was alive. Fenn was alive. Fenn was here, at this moment, his hand still skimming her arm. She and Fenn and Gamb and Ilyf were the first living graduates of the Julian Path. They were so much luckier than they could have been. What more was there to wish for?

I wish I could know my real name.

The thought appeared in her mind unbidden, an unexpected guest at the door. That's what she wished for. Her name. Not Lona, which was the arbitrary conglomeration of letters assigned by the Julian Path when she was an infant. But her real name. The one her mother intended for her in the hours before she relinquished custody of her newborn daughter to a government program. The one that signified someone had cared about her. That name.

Lona watched as one of the candles listed slowly to the right, a snow bank of white frosting piling up against its side.

I wish I could know my real mother, too.

There. That's the wish she wanted more than anything. The wish that was too extravagant to say out loud. It could only be conceived of in secret, on birthdays.

Before she could take it back, she drew in a breath and blew. Seventeen candles went out, leaving puffs of smoke and the smell of wax and sulfur. The eighteenth flickered, but eventually it died too and the kitchen was bathed in gray.

Gamb immediately smeared a glob of frosting on Lona's face. She licked it off the side of her mouth, feeling the sugar particles roll around on her tongue.

“We forgot to sing Happy Birthday!” Ilyf cried. “We were supposed to do it with the candles.” They were all still amateurs at the patterns of birthday parties. They'd only had three to practice on – Fenn's, Gamb's and Ilyf's when they'd all turned nineteen the previous year.

“I don't think there's an official rulebook, Ilyf,” Gamb said. “I think Lona still gets to turn seventeen whether we sing the song or not.”

“But we have to,” Ilyf insisted. “Tradition.”

They started in three different keys – Ilyf, determined and slightly flat; Gamb in a ridiculous falsetto; Fenn, softly and just to Lona. She clapped when they were done, and Ilyf sliced around the candles to give Lona the biggest piece, with the sugar rose.

“Are you going to tell us what you wished for?” Gamb asked, but he lost focus before Lona could think of a pretend wish she could use instead of her vulnerable real one. “Hey – listen. When I do this, I can play a song.” He took his paper hat off and strummed the elastic, stretching it to longer and shorter lengths. “
Oh my darling, oh my darling, oh my darling Clemen
t
—
ow.” He sucked at the finger he'd snapped.

Ilyf rolled her eyes. “The package did say ‘not suitable for children under four'.”

“The package wasn't considering the musical possibilities of these hats.”

“Anyway. All the candles went out on the cake, Gamb. So Lona doesn't have to tell us her wish. We'll see it when it comes true.”

“The important ones already have,” Lona insisted.

“Please don't tell me you wasted a wish on, like, world peace or ending poverty,” Gamb said.

“I wished that I could play a musical instrument.”

“You – wait, what?”

“The elastic chin strap, Gamb. I wished I could play the elastic chin strap.”

She darted her hand out before he could back away, and
—


Ow!
” He rubbed his face where she'd snapped at it. “Let the party record show, the birthday girl is going to be punished, as soon as it's not her birthday.”

2

She wrapped her arms around her knees, watching her breath come out in white clouds and disappear. December 15, but no first snowfall yet. The forecaster said maybe next week.

“There you are.” The screen door squeaked behind Fenn as he stepped out onto the porch.

“Just watching for snow.”

“Do you want a blanket? I can go get one.”

“No. I like feeling how cold it can get.” When Fenn and Lona had been in the Julian Path, their sensory perceptions had been dulled. For their own comfort, things were cold, but never freezing. Off Path, Lona liked feeling the thousand tiny pinpricks of a windy night, the way the frigid air found the gaps in her clothing and gave her goosebumps.

Fenn sat beside her on the porch swing. His skin was still inside-warm against her shoulder, and his eyes were still summer-green against the bleak winter landscape. Today his shirt was flannel and brown, the color of the wet earth and a few shades lighter than his hair.

He used the heel of his foot to rock the swing back and forth, and she leaned into his body. “What does this cold taste like?” he asked.

She smiled and breathed in. “
This
cold? Peppermint. Or wintergreen, maybe. Something spicy. What do you think?”

She felt his ribs expand as he inhaled. “Cloves? If it were snowing, I'd definitely say peppermint. But the brown – the fact that everything is muddy and damp and thick – it makes me think of the cloves in the ham Julian's grandma used to make. How if you put them in your mouth, they tasted spicy and hot and cold at the same time.”

“You win.” She loved that about him, the attention to detail he gave things like sights and sounds. The night was exactly clove-flavored. “What musical instrument does it sound like?”

“Not a flute.” He cocked his head away from hers to listen, exposing his neck. “Maybe a clarinet? Or maybe
—
” She tilted up and brushed her lips against his bare skin, watching it ripple with goosebumps. He groaned. “No fair. Now I can't hear anything but my heart pounding.”

“Are you saying the night sounds like drums?”

He laughed, then reached into the zippered pouch on his shirt, producing a small package and two slender envelopes. “I didn't know if you'd want to open these in front of everyone.”

“More birthday?”

“The first card is from Talia.”

“I'll see her in a couple days for Tuesday dinner.”

“She wanted you to have something to open on your actual birthday.”

She slid her thumb under the envelope flap, pulling out a blue card from the Monitor who'd helped Lona and Fenn shut down the Julian Path six months ago. And who, though it still seemed strange, was technically Lona's legal guardian. “Gabriel signed his own name.” Lona showed Fenn the card with Talia's block print and the shaky scrawl of a four-and-a-half year old, belonging to Talia's other ward. “I think, at least. I think that's supposed to be a ‘G'.”

She guessed who the second card was from even before opening it. The cover said “Happy Birthday” and nothing more, and the inside was blank except for a “J”. Julian. This card was the first time she'd heard from him in months. The postmark was foreign, though, which meant he'd remembered her birthday in advance, in time for the card to cross an ocean. That was something. Even if he never called.

“Who's this from?” She picked up the final package. It was small and square but heavy for its size, wrapped in green tissue paper that whispered against her fingers.

“Me.”

“The party was supposed to be my present!”

“This is your
other
present.” She tore off the wrapping. Inside was a book, plain and brown, no title on the cover or the spine. “Open it.”

The first page was creamy and textured. “For all of your birthdays,” Fenn had written in careful cursive. There was no text on the next page. Just two pictures of infants, each propped up against a beige background – one bald and wailing, the other dark-haired and solemn. As Lona turned the pages, the infant in one set of pictures grew a pointy nose, sandy hair, grey eyes. The other grew curly hair, and his nebulously colored eyes became a bottle-glass green. By the fourth page, he was as she remembered him the first day they met, standing by a calisthenics machine.

“Fenn – it's us. It's all pictures of us. How did you—”

“Do you like it?”

She turned another page, sixteen in total
.
Mirrors hadn't been illegal in the Julian Path, but they hadn't been prevalent, either. There was no point in providing anything that would have encouraged individuality – not when the goal of the Julian Path was to teach them all to be like Julian. Lona had never seen these before.

“I had Talia dig them out of our files before they shut down the system,” Fenn explained. “Our yearly progress photos – the ones they took for records.” He looked worried suddenly. “I hope you like it. Ilyf said I was supposed to get you jewelry for your birthday.”

“Fenn, I love it.” Jewelry. As if there was a bracelet that could be half as beautiful as this album. “I wouldn't have thought to ask for it, but it's exactly what I needed.”

“It is?”

“You have no idea.”

Only Fenn would think to give her something so grounding, so affirming of her own past. Because he had shared her Path. He was her first and only friend there.

“Can I—” He still did that sometimes, asked permission before he kissed her. It was a residual habit, a leftover taboo from when they lived in Path and excessive touching was frowned upon. This time, he didn't complete the sentence before his mouth found hers and she inhaled the earthy scent of his skin. She didn't know whether Fenn actually smelled like grass or whether she just associated it with him because he taught her to appreciate the scent. Either way, when he was close she smelled prairies and meadows, and the dry rustle of wheat or corn. His lips were soft; his fingers wound through her hair and tightened when she leaned in closer to him.

“Thank you,” he breathed, when their lips parted. He still did that sometimes, too. He was grateful for the simplest experiences, in ways one could only be if one knew what it was like to live without them.

“Are you going to bed soon?” he asked.

She nodded. They had their own rooms, but sometimes when Lona had a bad dream, Fenn would slip in and crouch low beside her bed. She would wake to his hand stroking the small of her back, or his voice whispering in her ear. She did the same for him. Nightmares were a symptom of withdrawal from the Path, but they nursed each other through the worst of them. She had gone from fearing physical touch to feeling as though her life depended on it.

Her nightmares were mostly gone. There was only one recurring bad dream left, and it was always the same: she was kneeling on the floor in a sterile white room, hunching over the lifeless body of a beautiful girl as blood seeped onto Lona's pants, spreading until her clothes were soaked. Genevieve, the girl who loved Fenn and who ultimately died proving it. That dream replayed in her sleep almost as it had happened in real life, except that in real life Lona couldn't will herself to wake up. It was sad and strange to live in Genevieve's house, left to them after her death, but Lona didn't want to move. Grief, like cold, could be a reminder of being alive.

“Have you had the dream lately?” Fenn could read her quietness sometimes, know what thoughts sent her into herself. He knew how Genevieve's death haunted Lona's sleep.

“Not for almost a week.”

Now is when she should tell him about the other dream, the one that woke her last night in the dim, quiet hours of her seventeenth birthday. She could still feel the thumbtack scratches on her hands, still remember the clinical beep made by the sound of the security system. She could still feel the man's panic as he searched through the ravaged office.

What was he trying to find and why was it so important he found it before they did?

She should tell Fenn about that, but she couldn't. She didn't want to mar such a beautiful day, and she didn't want to remember the dream. She just wanted it to go away.

“Are you sure?” Fenn asked.

“I'm sure,” she said, technically answering his question honestly. “I haven't had the dream about Genevieve.”

That night, in her bed, she dreamed of cake. She dreamed of doughy sweetness, shortening and sugar, and running her tongue over her lips, tasting happiness.

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