They can’t love each other… they’ve got nothing left to burn.

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Home is where the heart is — unless you’re me.

My steps slowed on my way to the front door, the ball of ice in my gut abruptly melting into this floe of guilt the second I heard their raised voices, every word pounding another stake through my heart.

“…can’t throw out all of his stuff. I won’t let you!” Mom shouted.

“Why? You think he’s gonna what — rise up from the dead and say ‘Thanks for keeping my room the way I left it?’ Stop dreaming, Abby.”

“I’m not dreaming, John. I’m grieving. Just like you and just like Reece.”

Dad snorted.

I couldn’t actually hear him snort, but that’s what he usually did whenever he heard my name. I mean, that’s what he used to do. Lately, he did this thing where he’d hesitate for second, like he was swallowing back a curse.

“That…kid. What the hell were you thinking, letting him drive at fifteen?”

And there it was, Dad’s favorite fill in the blank Mad Lib. You had your pick — goddamn, stubborn, thoughtless, careless, skinny, weird, freaky… Extra points if you added a vulgar expletive.

I shut my eyes and gulped back the scream that clogged my throat since Matt died, since I…killed him. I tugged on Tucker’s leash and turned away from all the shouting and the grief and the hate and just kept walking.

“Hey, Reece.”

I jerked, found myself sitting on Alex’s front steps, with no memory of walking the three blocks to his house. Tucker’s leash was still gripped in my hand. A lifeline. “Hey, man.”

“Whoa. What happened?” Alex took one look at my face and sat next to me on the top step, iPad forgotten in his hand.

I shook my head. “My parents.”

He blew out a breath, fanning the hair that was always in his eyes. “Oh. So I guess that means you didn’t talk to your dad?” He asked with his usual precise diction.

I hunched my shoulders. Tucker whined at the jerk on his leash.

“Reece. You have to talk to him. You promised—”

I shot to my feet. “I know. It’s just… he’s not the easiest guy in the world to talk to.” Or be near. Or be related to. Oh, he didn’t beat us or anything like that. He just…didn’t care. “I’m writing a note.”

Alex didn’t say anything. He just reached down, scratched Tucker’s head. The dog climbed up the steps, put his head in Alex’s lap and stared up at him with big happy eyes, grateful for the attention. I tried not to be insulted. “Can I hang out here for a while?”

Alex grinned and handed me his tablet. “Up for some chess?”

What the hell. I shrugged, unlocked the device, started a new game and moved my pawn. Alex made his opening move. We were silent, just passing the tablet back and forth between us. Soon, the screen flashed and Alex sighed.


I shot him a questioning look. Since we met in chess club in fourth grade, I’d beaten Alex Boyle only eighty-six times. For us to reach an impasse during a game was statistically more improbable than winning the lottery. “You throwing games now?”

His eyebrows shot up and he shook his head. “No. But I was trying out a new mating pattern.”

I nodded, but didn’t ask which one. It didn’t matter.

He closed the iPad’s cover and gave Tucker a head pat. “So you’re writing him a note?”

It wasn’t the worst idea I’d ever had. Notes kind of had the last word, didn’t they? Dad couldn’t interrupt a note or stalk off while it was still talking. “Yeah. It’s cowardly, I know. But at least I’ll get it all out.”

Alex suddenly grabbed my shoulders. “Reece, please don’t leave. Just write the note, tell him off for the various things he’s done. You’ll feel better and who knows? Maybe he’ll change.”

I laughed. The idea of my dad changing was even less likely than winning the lottery. “No. No, I have to go, Alex. It’s not just my dad. It’s Mom, too. She looks at me and she sees Matt and —” I broke off, swallowed hard. I was a year younger than Matt but looked just like him. “I hurt her.” And that was unbearable. “I hurt her every time she looks at me.”

Alex watched a car drive down the street, his lips pressed into a tight line. He didn’t say anything, didn’t try to talk me out of it. He knew me better than anybody but even he didn’t know how bad it had gotten with Mom crying all the time, Dad yelling at her for crying. I knew it was my fault, knew they needed time so they could heal. Time without me around to remind them of all the bad shit.

I turned to my best friend. “Could you take care of Tucker for me?”

Alex’s head whipped around. “You’re not taking him with you?”

“Um, no.” I quickly looked away. “I don’t want him there with me.” Definitely not.

“Reece, you’ve had him since he was born. You can’t leave him behind.”

Tucker’s ears twitched but he didn’t move from his spot, curled at Alex’s feet. “He likes you. I know he’ll be in good hands.”

Alex stared at me, mouth open and eventually nodded. “I will see what I can do.”

I shut my eyes, let my shoulders fall. That was one less thing to worry about. I knew my mother wouldn’t want to take care of Tucker after I was gone. I stood, walked down the porch steps and snapped my fingers. Tucker immediately stepped to my side. “I should probably go. Thanks for the game. And the talk.”

Alex smiled, stretching the freckles that dotted his face. “Let’s get something to eat. I’ll buy.”

I was happy to delay my return to home. After he dropped his iPad on the hall table and grabbed his keys, Alex walked with Tucker and me to Main Street, where we bought a few burgers and ate in the park, Tucker’s leash fastened to a bench. Tucker watched a game of Frisbee, tail wagging, wishing the disk would fly his way just once so he could snag it out of the air. In the distance, the fire alarm sounded and a few minutes after that, the sirens wailed. I watched for the trucks, heart twisting in my chest.

Matt would have been on one of them, if he’d lived. He’d been a Junior Squad volunteer since he was twelve years old. At seventeen, he was finally allowed to work an actual fire scene and become a full-fledged volunteer with the Lakeshore Volunteer Fire Department. He’d turned seventeen in November.

And died in December, the day after my sixteenth birthday. It was April now and the hole Matt left just kept getting bigger and bigger and —

“Reece. Reece!”

I stared at Alex, wondering why he kept shaking me.

“It was an accident, Reece. You know it was.”

I laughed. Accident was a funny word, a word people slapped onto events and incidents in one breath and then looked for somebody to blame with the next.

That would be me.

But me? I blamed my dad. If he’d done one thing, just one thing for me the way he used to do for Matt, I never would have asked my brother to show me how to drive in the snow. And Matt would still be alive today.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get home and finish my note. I had sixteen years of Dad-related crap to unload. It wouldn’t be a note, it would be a manifesto by the time I was done. For the first time since Matt died, I felt something pretty close to relief. I’d finally be able to fulfill the promise I made to my brother while the blood drained from his body. I would have promised him anything in the world to stop the blood.

Don’t you give up, Reece! Promise me. Promise you’ll fix things with Dad before you do anything.

I did. I had to. My brother was the only friend I had until I was nine years old. Even though I knew fix things with Dad was about as likely as me winning the Heisman Trophy. I’d do this last thing for my brother, and then I would go and let my parents live their lives without me around, constantly reminding them of what they’d lost.

“Well, I guess I stalled long enough,” I said when Alex crumbled up his wrapper and pitched it into the trash can. The shot went wide and Tucker tried to grab it, but his chain jerked him back.

“I’ll walk back with you. We can watch some Doctor Who on Netflix.”

I snorted out a laugh. Doctor Who was the best emotional anesthesia I knew. My chest tightened when I thought about leaving Alex behind. I would miss him as much as I missed Matt. But there was still time.

When we reached my front door, I blew out a loud sigh, relieved I couldn’t hear my parents’ raised voices. We stepped inside and I unfastened Tucker’s leash, hung it on the hook by the door. “Mom?”

A throat cleared. “In here.”

We found her in the kitchen, staring into a cup of coffee. She lifted eyes that were swollen and red and huge inside a face that was pale and lifeless. “I didn’t make dinner, but there’s some leftover pasta from last night if you want to reheat it.”

I shook my head, glanced at Alex. Something was wrong — off — worse. “No, um, we ate. We’ll just watch some TV.”

“Oh. Hi, Alex.” She blinked up at him, just noticing his presence.

“Hi, Mrs. Logan.”

She continued to blink and then jumped up. “Sit, sit. I’ll reheat some pasta.”

“Mom, it’s okay. We already ate.”

But she was busy pulling plates from a cupboard and a plastic container from the refrigerator.

“Mom. Mom?” I took her shoulders, turned her around to face me. “What’s wrong?”

She sighed heavily and shook her head. “Your father,” she said, her face blank.

I braced for it — whatever thing I’d done to piss him off this time. “What?”

The blank expression disappeared and her face turned stony and tight. “He’s…gone. He’s decided to leave. He doesn’t want to see either of us again.”

I forgot how to breathe. I opened my mouth, but the air just wouldn’t move. My ribs crushed my lungs and little black and white dots filled my visual field. System offline, reboot.

When I was little, I used to have these episodes. Everything in the entire world, every fear, every worry, every thing, coalesced into a single point deep in my chest and I couldn’t keep it inside. Matt was the one who’d taught me how to beat these episodes. He’d asked me silly things like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (It didn’t. The road merely passed beneath the chicken.) and “Why did six hate seven?” (Because seven was hungry and eight nine.) and if I’d been able to breathe, I’d have laughed. It helped. He told me jokes and riddles and had me answer questions because concentrating on him helped me forget about the pressure blocking my systems.

But without him, only one thought kept replaying in my head.

I promised. I promised. I promised.

He wasn’t supposed to go, I was.

Dimly, some corner of my brain realized if I could think about the promise, then I could think of questions Matt would have asked. I focused on chess openings in alphabetical order. By the time I got to Evan’s Gambit, I could breathe again.

“Reece. Reece!”

“I’m okay.” My voice was nothing but a wisp of air. I blinked, found Mom crying next to me and Alex leaning over me. Somehow, I’d ended up in the chair Mom was in when we arrived.

“Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” she whispered, folding me up in a tight hug.

“Not your fault.” It was his. I pulled in a deep breath, trying not to pant, trying not to obsess about the damn promise. Mom pulled back and just stared at me.

“I won’t lie to you. Things have been really hard since Matt,” she paused, swallowed hard, and then finished the sentence. “Died.”

My stomach rolled but I waited for Mom to make her point.

“Things have been hard for all of us, Reece, but they’ve been really hard for your Dad.”

I blinked. Did I hear her right? Did she just make a fucking excuse for him?

“He can’t talk about it. He can’t face it. He can’t even look at Matt’s things. He’s in complete denial.”

Oh, how terrible for him.

“Give him the time and space he wants and maybe he’ll—”

My sound of disgust stopped her from finishing this sentence. She raked hair off her face — it was wild and sticking out all over — and put up her hands in a gesture of surrender.

“No. Forget it. Reece, the truth is, your father will never change. Let him go. We’ll be fine without him.” Her voice cracked and she pressed her lips together. “You boys go watch your show. I’m going upstairs to soak in a hot tub.”

We listened to her footsteps climb the stairs and creak over our heads. Alex pulled out the chair next to me and sat down with a sigh. “Reece, you okay?”

It was a rhetorical question. Okay was a state of being that I hadn’t felt in a long time and he knew it. I was tired, tired of hearing excuses for my father, tired of being treated like a freak because I wasn’t Matt, tired of myself.

I shook my head and he stood up. “Come on. Let’s watch TV, get out of our heads for a while.”

Alex had the uncanny ability to compartmentalize his world. We’d watch TV and some part of his highly evolved brain would be working on chess gambits, SAT practice exams, and plans for the hovercraft he was bitterly disappointed to not yet have. Halfway into the first episode, Alex suddenly turned to me with the familiar gleam in his eye and twitch in his lip that I knew meant he had a theory.

“Reece,” he began appraising me from head to toe. “What does your dad love beyond all things?”

I considered that for a moment. Half an hour ago, I’d have said my mother, but what the hell did I know? “Fire fighting,” I finally answered.

Alex clapped his hands. “Yes! Exactly. It’s something he’d never quit, right?”

Slowly, I nodded, not quite connecting the dots. “Right.”

“What if you were to join the Junior Squad?”

When my jaw dropped, Alex stopped my protest with a raised hand. “Just listen. He’s a career firefighter. Loves it so much, he hired extra crews for his business so he could spend more time volunteering. If you signed up, he couldn’t walk away from you. He couldn’t ignore you. And he couldn’t kick you out — not unless you did something so terrible, he’d have no choice.”

I was six-foot-two and a hundred and fifty pounds if I wore clothes on the scale. “I’m not… physical enough for that.”

He waved a hand. “Matt didn’t get ripped until he was like sixteen and you’re taller than he was. You put the effort into training, you’ll be able to do it.”

“Maybe, but he’ll never sign the permission form.”

Alex inclined his head. “True.” And then he grinned. “But your mom will. Especially if you ask her now.”

My eyes popped wide. He was right. She was so pissed at my dad, she might do anything if she thought it would upset him back. “I like the letter idea better.”

Alex shook his head. “Write it if you need to get it out, but a letter now won’t make an impression. He’s already gone. You need to get inside him, Reece.” He tapped his temple.

“Yeah.” I reconsidered. “Yeah, where he lives.”

Alex smiled. “Exactly.”



He stood with the sun shimmering at his back and I stopped breathing.

Matt. Oh, my God. Matt.

The blood rushed from my head. The gear I was packing squirted from my hands, hitting the ground with a dull thud. I watched, dizzy, as the ghost in front of my eyes stepped out of the glare and became a living thing. Not Matt. Tall, maybe even taller than Matt, same toast brown hair, same piercing brown eyes. But where Matt’s eyes used to glint with a bit of mischief, this boy’s eyes held something else.


My heart gave a long slow roll when I realized who this was.

Reece Logan. Matt’s brother.

Oh, crap. I shot an uneasy glance over my shoulder where the guys on Truck 3 checked their equipment, but the lieutenant wasn’t with them. And then I remembered he wasn’t on-shift on Wednesdays. Is that why Matt’s brother was here — because he knew his father wouldn’t be? I looked away, really wanting to avoid getting sucked into somebody else’s family drama, but it was too late. He drifted closer to me, stood so close, I could feel the anxiety radiating off him in waves.

Damn it, when he spoke, he even sounded like Matt, but without the laugh in his voice. Frowning, I looked at him again. Now that I could see him up close, I noticed his face was more angular, his lips thinner than Matt’s and there was a tiny scar running through one eyebrow. When he took out a completed application from the bag on his shoulder, my mouth unhinged. He said something about Matt’s funeral and I swear, I’d have blasted him between the eyes if Mr. Beckett hadn’t picked that minute to walk in, crinkling a bag of potato chips.

He saw me talking to this boy and immediately frowned. “Amanda? Problem here?”

Crap, crap, shit. Mr. Beckett had a strict No Boys rule.

I quickly got rid of Logan and turned to my foster father. “Sorry about that.”

He upended the rest of the chips into his mouth, folded up the bag and put it in his pocket with a frown. “Who was that boy?”

I shrugged. “A new volunteer.”

“Do you know him?”

Don’t lie. Do not lie. No Lying is another rule. “His father’s a lieutenant here.”

Mr. Beckett’s eyebrows shot up over his glasses. “Really? He certainly didn’t look twelve.”

I shook my head. “He’s not. He’s in my grade, so he’s probably sixteen.”

“I wonder why he’s volunteering now? What changed?”

I didn’t wonder. I knew. “His brother got killed back in December.”

“Ah. How tragic.” Tragic — yeah, but Mr. Beckett’s expression relaxed. “But are you sure don’t know him personally? You seemed extremely upset speaking to him.”

Oh, I knew Reece Logan. But I shook my head. “I never spoke to him until today.” Not a lie. “I know the lieutenant and from what he says, he and his son do not get along. I don’t want that drama spilling over onto my squad.”

Mr. Beckett pressed his lips into a thin line and looked down at me, over the rims of his glasses. “I’m not comfortable with you continuing here if there’s going to be drama.”

Oh, God. The blood in my veins froze. Junior Squad was all I had — he couldn’t take that away from me. I shook my head firmly. “There won’t be. I won’t let that happen.”

Mr. Beckett considered that for a moment and finally smiled. “Okay. Just be sure you keep things entirely professional with that boy.”

I nearly cried with relief when Mr. Beckett turned to leave.

“Oh, by the way… I came in to tell you I can’t pick you up tonight. Can you get a lift?”

Yeah, from a boy. “Sure. No problem. Thanks, Mr. Beckett.”

“What’s on the agenda tonight?”

“Uh, we’re doing PPE.”

He flashed a wistful smile. “Oh, that’s a fun one. Okay, have a good class. Don’t let that boy’s drama become yours.”

Oh, count on it.

After Mr. Beckett walked back to his car, I finished checking the equipment on Engine 21.

“Man, got a minute?”

I looked up, found Neil Ernst, our instructor, standing behind me, his face tense. Immediately, I snapped up straight.

“Sure, Lieutenant. What’s up?”

He waved a hand toward the parking lot, so I followed him out through the bay doors. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground.

I started to sweat. This was bad.

“Um, yeah, so, the wife and I are moving to Florida. She got a really good job waiting down there and yeah. We’re leaving Long Island.”

I was nodding like I totally understood but all I kept thinking was what about us? I took a deep breath. “What about J Squad?”

Neil shrugged. “Chief’s still making up his mind. He’ll probably ask Steve Conner to take over for me.”

I was still nodding like some lame bobble-head toy. “Okay, so congratulations. Or good luck.” Or whatever.

“Yeah, thanks. Um, so I just want you to know I think you’re one of the best damn cadets we’ve ever taught here. I hope you’ll continue. When you turn seventeen, you’re eligible for full volunteer status.”

I knew that. I was planning to, assuming the Becketts didn’t ship me back into the system. “Uh, thank you.”

“I mean it, Man. You’ve been a great leader, a great assistant, and you really know your stuff. Whoever the chief puts in charge of J Squad, I know you’ll be his greatest asset.”

My face burned under the praise, but it made me happy to hear. I worked my ass off for the squad, for LVFD. It was nice knowing that was appreciated. “So, what about tonight’s class?”

“Oh, um, yeah. So that’s why I told you our plans. I can’t stay tonight. We’ve got some hot shot real estate agent coming by tonight to appraise our place. Says she can get it sold like that,” he snapped his fingers. “So I told the chief I couldn’t do tonight’s class. But you can. You’ve done PPE before — so has everybody else. Just run the practice drills and you’ll be fine.”

Still nodding. “Yeah. Okay.”

Neil held out his hand. “Thanks, Amanda. For everything.”

I shook my instructor’s hand. That was the only time I could remember him calling me Amanda. To everyone here, I was Man — short for Mandy, but a way of making me feel like one of the guys.

That had been Matt Logan’s idea.

While I watched Neil Ernst walk away, my eyes got stuck on Engine 21. It had been right there. That’s where I first met Matt Logan, two years ago. I’d been standing behind my foster father, trying not to shake in my second-hand shoes.