Over the past year, many of us have joked that the world is on fire – but parts of the world actually have been, with wildfires raging across the United States with strapped government agencies left to fight them. Heather Ezell’s Nothing Left to Burn explores the twenty-four hours after sixteen-year-old Audrey Harper is forced to evacuate her family home and sort out exactly what has happened to her over the summer, the potentially dangerous romance she’s become entangled in, and why the fire is raging.
Nothing Left to Burn releases from Razorbill on March 13th. Curious about what the book is like? Then you’re in luck: we have the exclusive reveal of the first chapter below!
The Sunday morning after I lose my virginity, I wake to knocking. My mom and dad’s alarm clock reads 5:22 a.m. More pounding from downstairs—loud and rapid—and I wonder if it’s Brooks. No. He’s probably still at the party, passed out on a couch, or better yet, on the floor where I left him. This thought enables me to move.
I jump from the bed, Mom’s caramel afghan around my shoulders. The room sways. My hips ache, and there’s a raw throbbing between my legs. I might still be drunk. I might only be hungover. I need to shower. Need to go back to bed.
I pull aside the curtains. It’s still dark, but porch lights and streetlights and brake lights and red and blue lights illuminate the dense smoke that hazes the street. Our pepper tree whips in the October wind, spraying leaves on the police car idling at our mailbox. A man shouts. The lashing gale takes his words. The doorbell rings—once, twice, three times.
Move. I need to move.
I drop the afghan, run downstairs, and yank the front door open to smoke and two firefighters. My dad’s old In-N-Out shirt sticks to my back. I’m not wearing a bra, and rum laces the spit beneath my tongue.
“Mandatory evacuation,” the older man says, his gray hair a crown of ash. “The fire is approaching the ridge.”
I peer across the sreet for evidence—flames, a spark—but the scrubby bank’s top is concealed by white smoke.
The younger firefighter lowers his chin, shifts. If he were a friend, I’d think he’s about to hug me, but instead he coughs with a wheeze and says, “Miss—”
“Brooks said it’d be okay,” I say, because he did. But the words are mud in my throat and I know it’s not true, I know it’s not okay.
“Can we talk to your parents?” The older firefighter studies me, and I wonder if he knows Brooks. “You have twenty minutes before you have to go.” The blister on my palm throbs against the door, and I’m about to say fine, goodbye when I see a deer at the base of the hill that leads up to the Cleveland National Forest, where the fire burns. The deer is looking up toward the pluming smoke, as if she can see the flames. Where will the deer go?
I step back. “I’ll wake my parents,” I lie. “We’ll be out.” The potential hugger says, “Twenty minutes.”
I slam the door—evacuated—and scramble to the kitchen. The hardwood floor slips beneath my feet. I spin to the kitchen phone, the landline Dad insists we keep specifically for emergencies. Mom, pick up, pick up, please. “Hi, this is Alison. I can’t answer my—” I slam the phone down, imagining her and Maya nestled in their air-conditioned room at the Hilton. Maya has her eye-mask on, socks with Vaseline on her toes. Her audition doesn’t start for another five hours.
The oven clock reads 5:32 a.m. My backyard is an eerie gold. Is the light from the fire or the soon-to-rise sun? I call my mom once more, watching the door of Maya’s old plastic cottage swing open and shut. An olive tree branch floats in the pool. Mom’s phone rings out again.
I call Dad. He’s in Colorado for a work conference. It’s an hour ahead there, and he’s an early riser. He has to be awake.
“Audrey?” “The fire—”
“Go back to bed,” he says. “It’s fine.”
“Firefighters came to the door! They said we have to leave.” “What? When?”
“Now, Dad, just now.”
I clutch the porcelain edge of the kitchen sink and hang my head down, phone still pressed to my ear. My cereal bowl from yesterday morning is crusted, a trail of ants line the rim. I think of last night, and I think I might puke. Brooks’s lips on my stomach. Now? You’re really ready now? I spit into the sink, aching to be empty, to erase every curve of my body.
“Listen,” Dad says. “Grab some clothes. Your schoolwork, whatever you need.” If he were home he’d be acting in fine precision—checking tasks off his mental evacuation to-do list by the minute. “The metal safe in the office, that’s extremely important. And the photo tub! Don’t forget the photo tub in the family room. Pack all that up and go and meet Mom or head to the school or somewhere. I’ve got to get to a meeting, but I’ll call you after, okay?”
I want to crawl into Maya’s faded plastic cottage and chain the pink door shut. At thirteen, she hasn’t been inside for years—surely the grass has grown high and dry inside. Warm hay. It’ll make a nice bed. The phone is slick in my grasp. I think of last night and how I slept in my parents’ bed. How I burrowed beneath the duvet like I used to as a kid when I was sick, nuzzling my mom’s pillow.
Dad’s still talking, still listing.
It’s 5:36. I’ve wasted four minutes.
“Don’t forget the safe. Crap, the desktop too,” he says. The oven clock twitches. 5:37.
“Dad.” I’m done spitting at the ants in the sink. “I need to go.” “You can do this,” he says. “Call me when you’re out.”
The phone is glued to my hand, and my tongue is glued to the roof of my mouth.
“I love you,” he says.
It’s too late for me to respond, to say I love you too, because I’ve already peeled the phone from my ear, my thumb is on the End button, I’m already running upstairs. I throw my gym shorts and the In-N-Out shirt onto my bedroom floor, then snap on a bra, pull on a blouse, zip up my jeans. I yank on a hoodie and grab my cell, its charger too. My hands shake. I shove shirts and underwear and sweats into a duffle bag. My backpack is untouched from school on Friday. I push in my laptop, and it’s ready to go.
For half a beat, I stare at the pillow Brooks gave me on Thursday for our three-month anniversary. It’s embroidered with a list of epic couples: Romeo & Juliet, Lancelot & Guinevere, Antony & Cleopatra, Odysseus & Penelope, and in the middle, in red: Brooks & Audrey.
I take my crocheted green baby blanket instead.
The small metal safe and my backpack go into my truck first, followed by Dad’s computer. Outside, the dry wind is hot. The dark sky is still tinted gold, and the two firefighters are only a few houses away. They’ll be back.
I cough on the smoke. Above, a helicopter fights the wind, its red light blurred. I wish the sun would rise and the smoke would clear.
5:49. Another twelve minutes gone. I run back inside.
The giant tub of photos is impossible to move. I was supposed to scan them all onto a hard drive this summer, but I was too busy making out with Brooks. I yank out the mass of plastic grocery bags from underneath the kitchen sink, cram them full of images of my youth, and lug them to the truck. I keep the doors open for the cab’s light, and embers drift in the glare. Back inside. Back outside. A bag rips open and pictures scatter across the driveway, snapshots of a vacation to Big Sur spinning in the wind.
“No!” I chase the photos. “Stop!”
Beyond our yards’ dividing hedge, Mr. Peterson is carrying a crate to his SUV. “Crazy, isn’t it?” he calls over. He’s known me since I was in Pull-Ups. “You need any help?Your parents home?”
“We’re good,” I say. “Thanks.
I pull a photo from the rosemary needles—a picture of all of us, my family, sitting on a collapsed sequoia. Dad’s wearing the goofy voyager hat he still has and Mom still hates. Mom’s holding toddler Maya, mid-wail, on her lap. And then there’s pigtailed seven-year-old me, showing off my newly braced teeth, red-faced and grinning as if I won a trip to Disneyland.
A second helicopter roars above. Another minute gone.
I search for the photos in the rosemary bushes, but it’s too dark, too windy, and I can’t stop coughing. I’ll have to give up on them. Another fire truck flashes into view and parks at the base of the bank. Did Brooks’s cell finally ring? Are his boots laced tight, is he somewhere nearby, finally living his dream, fighting the fight? A cop car crawls, its headlights blinding and intercom booming: “Mandatory evacuation. Evacuate immediately. Mandatory evacuation. Evacuate immediately.”
But I’m still not done.
I run inside one last time, up to Maya’s room. It doesn’t smell like fire in here, but instead like snickerdoodles and vanilla, as if she’s stashed cookies in the walls. Her bed is made, zebra comforter smoothed down, stiff sequined pillows properly placed, like always.
Donny, the ratty stuffed elephant I gave to Maya on her sixth birthday, hides behind her therapeutic memory foam pillow. I picked him out myself at Target. Maya toted Donny around for years, to the doctor appointments and the hospital visits, and—when she was declared lymphoma-free—to the studio. He’d sleep in the car, and then in her dance bag, snuggled with her street shoes and jeans. But then Maya sprouted four inches, and Mom redecorated her room to look like a college dorm, and suddenly Maya was too classy for the old elephant.
But Maya is big on beauty sleep, and I drink caffeine and can be sneaky, so I know she still dozes off with the stuffed elephant tucked beneth her cheek.
I snatch Donny and scan the rest of the room. Her walk-in closet is a mess—piles of clothes that somehow smell, though Maya never smells. I’d take her journal from her sock drawer too, but then she’d know I’ve known its hiding place. I choose her first pointe shoes instead.
Donny and shoes in hand, I rush into my parents’ room and grab Mom’s afghan from where I dropped it on the floor. She brought it home from her and Dad’s fifteenth-anniversary trip to Italy years ago. I ignore their closet—they each have a suitcase full of clothes with them—and charge down the stairs and out of the house. I lock the dead bolt. Dad will be pleased.
I’m late. The whole street is late.
I back out of the driveway and accelerate away, past my neighbors shov- ing their lives into their cars, past the waving firefighters and cops and the evacuation boundary, and into the still-sleeping, still-dreaming land where families are tucked into their beds—families that won’t wake for their pancake breakfasts and church gatherings and golf club visits until the sun rises over the flames.
I drive out of Coto de Caza’s gates not knowing if I’ll still have a home when the day is over. The burn on my hand is tender and hot, and I think about Thursday night, when the sparklers blew, and last night, and what I did and did not say.