I AM FORCED down the corridor and thrown out of the nearest fire exit. How Michael knew we were here, I don’t know. What he’s doing, I don’t know. But I need to stop that fire. I need to be in there. If I can’t do anything, then it will have been for nothing. My whole life. Everything. Nothing.
He tries to grab me, but I’m practically a torpedo. I race back through the fire exit and down the next corridor, away from the oncoming flames, searching for another fire extinguisher. I’m sort of hyperventilating and I can’t see anything and I’m running so fast that I have no idea where this corridor is in the school and I start tearing up again.
But Michael can run like he skates. He grabs me around the waist, just as I tug the fire extinguisher off the wall, just as the fire bypasses the fire exit and closes us in—
“TORI! WE NEED TO GET OUT, NOW.”
The fire draws Michael’s face out of the dark. I flail around in his grip and burst forward, but he closes his fist around my forearm and squeezes it and starts to drag me, and before I know what I’m doing I’m yanking my arm so hard that my skin starts to burn. I’m screaming at him and pushing and I swing my leg around and actually kick him in the stomach. I must kick him hard, because he tumbles backward and clutches his body. I instantly realize what I’ve done and freeze, looking at him in the orange light. We meet each other’s eyes and he seems to realize something, and I want to laugh, because yeah, he’s finally realized, just like Lucas did eventually, and I hold my arms out to him—
And then I see the fire.
The inferno in the science lab to our right. The science lab that’s connected to that English classroom by one single doorway, which the flames must have stormed straight through.
I leap forward into Michael and push him away—
And the classroom explodes outward: crumpled tables, chairs, flying fireballs of books. I’m on the ground, several meters away, miraculously alive, and I open my eyes but can see nothing. Michael is lost somewhere around me in the smoke. I scramble backward as a chair leg soars past my cheek, and scream his name, no way of knowing if he’s alive or—
I get up and run.
Crying? Shouting things. A name? His name?
Solitaire’s eternal idea. That childhood dream.
Is he dead? No. I see a shape rise vaguely from the smoke, flailing around before disappearing farther into the school. At one point I think I hear him calling me, but I might just be imagining it.
I scream his name and I’m running again, out of the smoke cloud, away from the science corridor. Around the corner, flames have reached an art classroom and the artwork, hours and hours of it, is melting into globules of fried acrylic and dripping onto the floor. It’s so sad that I want to cry, but the smoke has already started that. I start to panic, too. Not because of the fire.
Not even because I’m losing and Solitaire is winning.
Because Michael is in here.
Another corridor. Another. Where am I? Nothing is the same in the dark and the burning. Epileptic lights flash around me like sirens, like I’m passing out. Diamonds sparkling. I’m screaming again. Michael Holden. The fire growls and a hurricane of hot air careers through the school’s tunnels.
I call out for him. I’m calling him over and over again; I’m shaking so hard, the artwork and the handwritten essays on the walls are disintegrating around me and I cannot breathe.
“I failed.” I say these words right as I’m thinking them. It’s funny—this never happens. “I failed. I failed.” It’s not the school I’ve failed. It’s not even myself. It’s Michael. I’ve failed him. I failed to stop being sad. He tried so hard, he tried so hard to be nice, to be my friend, and I’ve failed him. I stop screaming. There is nothing now. Michael, dead, the school, dying, and me. There is nothing now.
And then, a voice.
My name in the smoke.
I spin on the spot, but there are only flames that way. What building am I in? There must be a window, a fire exit, something, but everything is burning, the smoke slowly starting to suffocate the air and eventually me, so before I know what I’m doing I’m tearing up a flight of stairs onto the second floor, smoke and flames at my heels.
I turn left, left again, right, into a classroom. The door slams behind me. I grab a chair, not thinking about anything except fire and smoke and dying, and smash the thin window. I close my eyes as a sprinkling of glass dust showers over my hair.
I climb out into the morning and onto the top of what seems to be a concrete roof and finally, finally, I remember where I am.
The beautiful place.
The small concrete roof of the art conservatory. The field of snow and the river. The black morning sky. Cold air.
A thousand thoughts at once. Michael Holden is nine hundred of them. The rest are self-hatred.
I failed to do anything.
I look at the smashed window. What does that lead to? Only pain. I look at the metal stairs to my right. What do they lead to? Only myself, failing, time and time again, to do anything right, or say anything right.
I’m at the edge and I look down. It’s far. It’s calling me.
A hope of something better. A third option.
It’s so hot. I take my coat and gloves off.
It hits me, then.
I haven’t ever known what I wanted out of life. Until now.
I sort of want to be dead.