When it began, there was light. A red flickering light. And a hint of smoke that stung his nose.
Donny coughed and tried to rub the irritation from his eyes. His brain was still half asleep, but he knew there were at least three things wrong. One was the smoke. Another was that strange glow. Something’s on fire, he thought. The third was somehow worse. When he’d finally fallen asleep the night before, curled up in a corner of the top floor of this abandoned building, all he wanted was to wake up and find out that everything that had happened late yesterday was just a terrible dream. He wanted to open his eyes and see his room and his bed, and laugh about the crazy nightmare.
No such luck. It happened, all right. His life was now a disaster zone.
He sat up, put his chin on top of his knees, and shook his head as he remembered. His father had been speaking to some man who Donny couldn’t see. His father didn’t know Donny was home, standing just inside the front door. As Donny listened, he thought his dad was joking at first, talking like a gangster from some movie. But after a while the truth had become clear: his father, Benny Taylor, was a criminal. A violent, dangerous one. Somehow he’d hidden that from his son for all these years.
Then things happened so fast. Getting caught eavesdropping. Running with his father at his heels, screaming for him to stop.
It was crazy, picking this place to hide. But that was just the way it had worked out. His first instinct was to race to Kevin’s house. But his father was chasing him, and his best friend’s house was the first place Donny would be expected to run. So he kept on running, weaving between buildings and across the streets of Brooklyn. He finally managed to outrun his father after he darted through somebody’s backyard and hopped a fence. Suddenly the old empty brewery on Franklin Avenue was right in front of him. He knew the place. Kevin had brought him there a few weeks before and showed him how to get inside. Urban exploration, Kevin called it. He always wanted to go into abandoned places, boarded-up buildings, the creepier the better. They leaned a wooden palette against the brick wall and used it as a ladder to
reach a broken window. The old brewery had been scary that day, with its cavernous first floor and dim, dusty upper stories. But it was scarier now because he had no home to go back to.
It was still dark outside. Donny looked out a broken window. The skyscrapers of New York twinkled in the distance, always beautiful. The reddish light came from outside, reflected from the walls of the building across the street. As he watched, a tongue of flame rose up and licked the windowsill.
“Oh no. Oh no, no, no.” He scrambled up and ran to the door that led to the stairs. When he pushed it open, smoke and heat gushed from the stairwell. He backed away, coughing and spitting. A pair of squealing rats shot through the opening and brushed past his legs.
The stupid building has to be seventy years old, and it picks tonight to burn down! Think, he told himself. And then: Fire escape. There had to be one, even in a building this old. Where? He whirled, staring out every window of the wide-open floor, and finally spotted a rusty black railing. There was a door right beside it. He ran to it, yanked it open, and stepped onto the fire-escape landing. Just four stories to the street and he’d be out of trouble. But before he was down a single flight, fire billowed from the floors below, sifting through the grating and reaching for him. As he retreated from the blistering heat, he shouted for anyone to hear, “Help! I’m up here! Send help!”
The room he’d left had filled with smoke. Idiot, he told himself. Should have closed the door to the stairs. The only option left was to climb all the way to the roof and look for another way down. The top of the fire escape ended in a wobbly, corroded ladder, bolted to the brick, which took him over the edge of the roof.
Smoke flooded up every side of the building. He ran to each side and searched for any escape route. The drainpipes were long gone, and there was nothing to shinny down. The buildings next door weren’t close enough to let him jump. And it was a fatal distance to the ground. There were no options.
He heard a roar somewhere below as the fire gorged on air. Flames lapped over the roof’s edge and forced him to back away. Of all the places to hide, he thought. A sensation he’d never known came to him: the certainty that he had only moments to live. He put his hands around his mouth and shouted again, “Help!”
Suddenly he heard a voice close behind him. “Well. Someone sounds nervous.”
He spun around. A girl—or a woman?—was standing on the roof. She looked like a little of both. It was hard to tell, as the sting of smoke forced him to squeeze his eyes almost shut. She stood there, a slim figure, her arms folded and, insanely enough, a sly grin on her pale pretty face.
“We have to get out of here!” he shouted. It was a mistake to talk—the smoke sandpapered his throat, and he
started to cough. He pulled the front of his hoodie over his mouth.
“We certainly do,” she said. “Lucky for you, I’m willing to take you with me. As long as you’ll make me a promise.”
“A promise?” he said through the sweatshirt. Great, he thought. Now there’s a fire and a crazy person.
She stepped closer. “That’s right. But it’s a significant promise. You should think it over, but don’t take too long.” She stomped the roof with the heel of one of her boots. “This’ll burn through any second now.” As if she had prompted it, part of the roof nearby sagged and collapsed, and flames shot through the gap from the howling inferno below.
“I promise!” Donny shouted. His eyes were closed for good now—the smoke was too intense.
She seized him by the collar and drew his ear to her mouth. If she was afraid of the fire that was about to take the whole building down, there was no hint of it in her voice. “You don’t even know what I’m asking yet. Here it is: You work for me. And you do what I ask. For as long as I want. Promise me that, and I’ll save your life.”
“But” was all Donny could say, and then he just went on coughing. The heat came closer. He felt it on his skin, and even through his jeans.
“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t make you do anything illegal. For the most part. And I don’t see what choice you have, honestly,” she said.
He heard sirens growing louder. When he forced his eyes open for a moment, he saw bright pulsing lights in the smoke. The fire trucks, finally. But it was too late for him. More of the roof caved in, dangerously close.
“Shake my hand,” she said. “That will do.”
A powerful blast of hot air struck him like a wave of boiling water. He fell to his knees and put his elbows across his head. Pain was everywhere. He could feel it coming: his hair about to burst into flames, his skin about to fry.
“I can’t tell if you’re demented or stubborn!” he heard her shout over the din of the fire. “I mean, you have seconds to live at this point, and it’s not a pretty way to go. I’m leaving now. Are you joining me? I’ll even accept a thumbs-up.”
Donny felt his mind going dim. No air, he thought. The roof under his knees groaned and tilted, pitching him sideways. He thrust a hand out, and another hand was there in an instant, gripping his. Powerful arms lifted him easily. Someone else is here, he thought. It couldn’t be her—she couldn’t be so strong. He heard her voice again, whispering something he could not understand in some bizarre tongue. The fire built to a crescendo of heat, light, and howling wind, and then it was gone, switched off like a radio. Heels clacked on a hard surface, and then the strong arms set him down on a cool smooth floor.