Chapter One of Fire’s First Breath
by Kathy Milne
If Ryan Harte had known what was waiting for him, he’d have stayed in bed. Had he understood what was really happening, he’d have hidden under the bed.
Unaware of the events aligning around him, Ryan pushed out through the back doors of Yorkcliffe Academy for Young Men and trotted down the stone steps. It was the final day of high school. He grinned to himself. He’d already finished one exam this morning, and all he had to do was avoid Dick for another hour until his last exam started.
Then four years of torment would finally be over.
The five-hundred year old oak tree towered above him as Ryan crossed the driveway and strode onto the grass. His fingers brushed against the bark in a downward stroke, a gesture of good luck all the Yorkcliffe boys made before stepping onto the adjacent playing field. He couldn’t wait until -
The fist shot out from behind the tree, filling his vision for a millisecond before slamming into his face. Ryan hit the grass with a thud, rolling onto his back. Stars sparkled in front of his eyes and his vision grew dim. He had to get up, get away. But the pain spiralled out from his forehead until his whole head thumped with each tiny movement.
As he squinted up, Richard Preston-Merritt loomed over him. Dick. Four years older than Ryan and four years bigger. Dick took a drag from his cigarette then flicked the stub away. A steel ring protruded from his nose, at odds with his blond movie-star looks.
With a groan, Ryan held his forehead with both hands so Dick wouldn’t see the wetness in his eyes. A lump was already emerging. He wanted to scream, to yell, to curse. It should have been safe out here. Ever since he’d developed the Bully Alert website six months ago, it had been safe. The system sent text messages to all the boys whenever one of them posted an alert on Dick’s whereabouts. And it had worked. They all knew what was at stake.
“Bully Alert and Detection – A Safety System,” Dick smirked as he prodded Ryan with his foot. “Quite the little business you’ve got going. Just like your father.”
A block of ice formed in the pit of Ryan’s stomach. “How…?”
“Jeremy and I had a little talk. Did you know his password’s teddybear?” Dick sneered as he held up Jeremy’s phone. “Your system’s not very reliable. Says here that I’m at the front of the school. See, right here…” Dick shoved the phone down into Ryan’s face.
His vision was still fuzzy but Ryan could read ‘Dick out front’, the same alert he’d seen a few minutes ago on his Blackberry, right before he’d decided to head out behind the school. He swallowed the bile that heaved up into his throat. He never should have allowed Jeremy into the system.
Dick was still smirking. “Gotta say, I’m flattered. All this effort just to avoid me.”
If Ryan didn’t know better, he’d have thought there was grudging respect in Dick’s voice.
“But I can’t let it go. Not today.” Dick stalked back and forth as though pondering what new torture to inflict.
Ryan staggered to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a crowd of boys gawking at them from the driveway.
Why had he opened his mouth? He should have run, should have escaped while Dick wasn’t looking.
Dick stopped pacing.
“What did you call me?” His nose ring quivered as his nostrils flared and contracted.
Ryan winced as a jackhammer pounded in his brain. Splinters of light stabbed at his eyeballs and images danced in his vision, glimmers of some other place. He squeezed his eyes shut, but the images played like a movie in his head. A man with long pale hair was speaking to him although Ryan couldn’t understand the words. The strange man gripped a sword with both hands, his mouth open in a roar. He whirled, his sword a blur, but it was too late…
Ryan blinked and the images vanished. He swayed unsteadily.
Dick peered at him. “You don’t look so good, like you’re going to fall over again. I can help with that.” He pulled back his fist.
Ryan held his swirling head, ignoring Dick. What in the world? It was the second time in a week he’d had that vision, the same man with the sword and everything. And he’d been having some really weird dreams lately. He had a feeling the man had been in those too.
“Hey!” Dick snapped his fingers. “Pay attention while I’m talking to you.” He patted Ryan’s cheek with his open palm then struck it forcefully.
The slap reverberated through Ryan’s head as all the blood in his body surged up to his face. The whole school must be watching by now. That man in his vision wouldn’t have just stood there looking stupid, he was sure.
As Dick stepped towards him again––
He punched Dick.
Mesmerized, he watched as Dick’s head snapped to the side and his new school ring snagged the edge of the bully’s nose ring. The ring ripped from Dick’s nose and soared through the air, landing with a metallic clink on the driveway.
Dick screamed, a high pitched inhuman sound, like a wounded animal. Blood ran down his face.
Ryan cradled his throbbing fist with his other hand. “I… uh… I didn’t mean to…” he stammered. What had he done?
Dick swiped at the blood with his cuff then tore off his school jacket. Tattooed dragons writhed around his arms.
“Jerkhead!” Dick shrieked. “Stinkin’ rich boy teacher’s butt-licking pet…”
Run! Ryan tried to move his feet, but his legs wobbled and his head still swirled.
He took a faltering step back, then another, but before he could make his legs move any faster, Dick lunged at him. Ryan thudded backwards into the old oak tree, the air bursting from his lungs. The bark gouged into his back as he slid down the tree.
“You’re dead.” Dick’s breath was hot against Ryan’s ear. He grabbed Ryan’s school tie, wrapping it around his hand, then yanked up.
Ryan gasped for breath, fearing he might never draw another. Dick’s blood dripped onto his face, each drop freezing him, rendering him incapable of movement. Sweat rolled down his back, stinging the cuts from the bark and soaking his shirt. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think straight. No one was going to help him; none of the other boys would dare interfere. Dick really was going to kill him.
Ryan’s fear bubbled close to the surface. He could feel a pressure building. Panicked now, he thrashed his arms and legs violently, and something inside him burst free. When he shoved Dick hard, the bully let go of his tie, and Ryan could breathe again. The air around them grew hot. Dick shuddered, his eyes wild.
And everything exploded into flames.
Ryan flew through the air and landed hard on the ground with a muffled oomph. He couldn’t see. The fire was everywhere. He scrambled up and ran but he had no idea if he was moving away from the fire or not. His feet tripped over something and he sprawled, landing on Dick. Frantically, he rolled to his feet again, dragging a stunned Dick with him.
As they stumbled clear of the flames and smoke, Ryan let go of Dick and dropped to the ground, coughing uncontrollably. With shaking hands, he quickly checked himself but he didn’t appear to be burnt at all.
He stared in horror as the fire raced up into the branches of the school’s lucky tree, crackling and spitting. Shrivelled black leaves were whipped away by the breeze like tiny birds escaping. Bits of ash rained down all over the place. The heat was overwhelming.
Ryan couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Within minutes the fire had consumed the entire tree. All that was left was a blackened trunk and bare branches stark against the blue sky. The pungent smell of scorched wood lingered.
Gradually Ryan noticed that a crowd had gathered at the edge of the grass, a sea of faces staring in disbelief. There was movement upstairs in the third floor library too, faces pressed against the windows. Dick sat on the ground beside him, his shirt scorched and holes burnt out in several places. Soot streaked across his face, mingling with the blood from his torn nose, and his blond hair was full of ashes.
Ryan eased away from Dick and stood up. His stomach lurched in protest at the sudden movement. Now would be a good time to leave...
“What did you do?” Dick screeched as he staggered to his feet.
“Me?” Ryan yelled back. Why did Dick think it was his fault? He wasn’t the one who carried a lighter. “You set the tree on fire with your cigarette.” It made sense. He looked at the ruined tree, then back at Dick. “It was an accident. I’m sure they’ll believe you.”
“I don’t know how you did it, you little freak…” Dick shook his head then stopped. He gave Ryan a strange look. “You pulled me out of the fire.”
“You’d have done the same...” Ryan mumbled. Maybe not, he decided, as he watched Dick’s eyes.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” Dick told him. He backed away, a weird expression on his face. Then he turned and ran across the field.
“See Dick run,” Ryan muttered in relief as he walked over to the tree. His fingers brushed the charred bark then he pressed his hand against it. Oddly, it already felt cool to the touch. So much for school luck. “Sorry,” he whispered to the tree then wondered what he was apologizing for. The whole thing was clearly Dick’s fault.
Sirens sounded in the distance, but Ryan knew it was too late. The fire was out and the tree was gone. Without a backward glance, he ran across the grass and into the mass of gawking boys. Everyone stared at him.
“Hey, look!” someone said to him.
Several more of the boys called out to him and tried to stop him as he pushed through the crowd. There were ooooh’s and awwhh’s, but he ignored them, hurrying across the driveway towards the school and up the stone steps. His head was throbbing and he had to make an effort not to throw up in front of them. He still couldn’t believe what had just happened. It had to be Dick’s cigarette that caused the fire. What other explanation could there be?
Ryan grabbed at the handle of the school door but his hand, covered in soot and sweat, slipped. As he wiped his hands on his pants, the door opened from the inside and a woman’s wrinkled face peered out at him, blocking his way.
Ryan frowned, certain he didn’t know her.
“Are you alright?” the woman asked. She smiled at him in a motherly sort of way.
Ryan nodded. “Excuse me, I’m a little dirty,” he said as he squeezed past her and in through the narrow opening. He turned back to her and tried to smile in return, but his lips trembled. He frowned again. She seemed a bit familiar now.
Then he smothered a gasp as he realized who she was: the head librarian. Her pointy features were softened by the grey hair that curled around her shoulders. Usually it was pulled back so tightly, they all joked that it was her idea of a face lift. Everyone called her Monster McCauley because she was so nasty all the time. Why was she being so nice to him?
“I… um, yeah, I’m fine,” he managed to get out. Her smile was creeping him out. She’d never done anything more than hiss at him before. “I… uh… need the bathroom.” Then he turned and ran down the hall, ducking through the nearest door and into the washroom.
Ryan sagged back against the door. He’d run too fast and his head pounded, each time worse than the last. His stomach heaved again and he staggered to the sink, leaning over as he breathed slowly in and out. The room tilted and he had to hold on to the sink to keep from falling over.
Once the nausea had subsided and the room stopped spinning, he straightened up. His reflection stared back at him from the mirror: his pale face covered in soot, eyes too brilliantly blue. Tall for his age but skinny, with sandy hair so long it flopped down into his eyes. The youngest boy at Yorkcliffe for the last four years. For the millionth time, Ryan cursed his father for accelerating him through school so quickly that he was graduating from high school at fourteen.
How could he have been so stupid? He’d actually punched out the school’s biggest bully. He’d be lucky to survive the day.
He threw some water on his face, again and again, until the water swirling down the drain was no longer grey. The cold water felt good. The pounding had stopped, but the bump on his forehead had grown to the size of an egg, the pain hovering there as though waiting to escape.
The door opened and a boy he didn’t know came in.
“Hey, did you see – ?” the boy asked.
“Yeah.” Ryan was already halfway out the door, in no mood for conversation.
The hallway was clear. Everyone must still be outside staring at the tree and the fire trucks that would have arrived by now. He ran down the hall, slid around the corner and burst in through the library doors. He’d be safe in here. Dick would never come in the library, like a vampire would never enter a church.
Ryan almost leapt out of his skin.
Even in a library-sanctioned whisper, Monster McCauley’s voice could tear a strip off at fifty feet. She glared at him, a vein pulsing in her bony forehead, her look of concern from earlier nowhere in evidence. Her hair was up again and she perched on her stool behind the front desk like a grey-bunned gargoyle. There was a rumour going around that she had wings hidden under those hunched shoulders. With an effort he pulled his eyes away from hers. He let the door swing shut and hurried over to the table where Colin Roberts sat. Colin was two grades behind him but two years older, the only boy in the entire school who had risked becoming his friend.
A buzzing rose over the hush of the library. Several boys scuttled from between the rows of books, quickly choosing a seat at nearby tables. Everyone stared at him and the whisperings grew louder. Monster McCauley glowered at him in particular, her thin lips compressing into a straight line.
Slouching down in his seat, Ryan wished he could just disappear. Obviously they’d all had a front row view of the whole Dick incident from the window.
“Did you see the tree?” Colin whispered to him, his eyes bright with excitement.
“Yeah, I was there, remember?” Ryan frowned. Why did everyone keep asking him that?
Suddenly he sat up straighter. Colin said something else to him, but he was no longer listening.
She was there, standing behind the long front desk. The reason none of the boys sat in the back now: the new afternoon librarian – Miss O’Neil – the headmaster’s daughter.
It had taken two weeks, but he’d finally found out her first name.
She was much too pretty to be hidden away in a library, he thought. Delicately beautiful, she had green eyes and blond hair that curled down to her waist. He desperately wished she’d come out from behind the desk, but she never did.
Ryan gaped in amazement. She was motioning to him to come up to the desk!
He swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. She’d never spoken to him, or to any of them for that matter, and she wanted him, the geekiest boy in the school! Grinning, he stood up to the envious glares of every boy in the room. Colin stared up at him, his mouth hanging open. Ryan ran his fingers over his hair, making sure it covered the goose egg on his forehead. Then slinging his backpack casually over his shoulder, he sauntered up to the desk. At least he hoped he sauntered; he wasn’t sure his legs were working properly.
Up close she was even prettier. His eyes followed the curve of her fuzzy black sweater as it flowed all the way down over her hips and out of sight below the desk. Monster McCauley glared at him so hard in disapproval that Ryan thought the vein in her forehead might pop.
“Yes, Miss O’Neil?”
“Your books,” Sabrina whispered to him.
“Huh?” Ryan asked. Huh? The first time he’d spoken to her and that was the best he could come up with?
“The books your father donated to the school library. We’ve put them out on a big bookcase in the back, with a plaque – The Harte Legacy.”
Ryan tried not to roll his eyes. That was Rupert alright, generous when he could get credit for it. Leaning on the desk, he couldn’t help but stare. She was the most incredible girl he’d ever seen up close. Her skin was flawless, and spiky black lashes outlined the bottomless pools of her sea-green eyes. A scent wafted about her, something spicy like cinnamon. He was starting to feel a bit lightheaded.
“You should go back there and see the display.” Sabrina smiled at him and a dimple melted into her cheek.
No! I want to stay here with you!
Had he said that out loud?
But she was still smiling and no one behind him was snickering. He might have imagined it, but he thought Sabrina had flushed slightly when she spoke to him. She was much younger than all the other teachers, looked barely out of high school herself.
“Okay, thanks Sab… er… Miss O’Neil.”
He forced himself to turn and walk away. Who cared about a bunch of old books? As he swung around for a farewell glance, he saw she was still beaming at him. Raising his hand, he gave her a little wave then strode straight into one of the wooden tables, sprawled across the top, rolled off and landed right in Cyril Brownridge’s lap.
Laughter rippled around the room, even Sabrina was giggling with her hand over her mouth.
“Get off me, pervert!” Cyril hissed.
Ryan shoved himself up and ran, not stopping until he was deep in the stacks near the back of the library. His breath heaved in and out as he fought to control it.
Why did that have to happen in front of Sabrina? He paced back and force in frustration. Now he wouldn’t be able to leave the library until she was gone, even if it meant missing his last exam. A flash of silver on the corner shelf caught his eye. There it was, that embarrassing little sign Sabrina had told him about: The Harte Legacy. Good thing it was his last day here. He smiled though. Rupert would be annoyed his legacy was hidden far in the back and the plaque was very small.
He walked over to the enormous bookcase with the glass doors. In front of it, a red velvet-covered rope hung between two metals stands. Ryan moved the rope out of the way and yanked the bookcase doors open. A stale mustiness rushed out, tickling his nose, as if the books had been closed up somewhere for millennia instead of just sitting in Rupert’s rarely used library.
Ryan glanced at the books, not really seeing them. What had he been thinking? That Sabrina might actually like him? She’d probably just felt sorry for him. One day he was going to meet a girl and not make a complete fool of himself. He just wished today had been that day.
The books appeared to be his father’s collection of business and reference volumes. Rupert had probably convinced the school these were the books that had been used to build his vast empire. At the outer edge of the shelf, the books were more colourful. Ryan ran a trembling hand along the leather bindings, scanning the titles – Robin Hood, Treasure Island, The Hobbit. He could remember reading that last one with his mother, just before she died, and the title blurred in front of his eyes. These were all his old books. Why had Rupert given them away? Didn’t he understand they weren’t just books, but his memories?
Ryan bunched his fist then shoved the glass door. When it bounced back at him, he stalked away from the books to the back of the library. Sunlight streamed in through the arched windows. He leaned his forehead against the warm glass. Three floors below, he could see the stone stairway, with its spiked iron railing curving like a horned serpent down the stairs and around the side of the building. Everything appeared slightly dreamlike, distorted by the old leaded glass panes.
He thumped his head over and over against the window, the pain from the lump on his forehead like small daggers piercing his brain. This last day of school, which had loomed in his mind as the one bright thing in his life, had turned out all wrong. As he banged his head again, one of the small panes jiggled loose. When the next thump knocked it out of the window, he jerked back. A moment later he heard the glass smash on the stone far below. Ryan looked around, hoping no one had noticed him breaking it. He stared out the window again, wishing –
Then his eyes widened.
On the other side of the driveway, the ancient oak tree was whole again, its leaves glowing bright green in the sunlight. He goggled in disbelief. The tree was perfect, not one scorch mark or charred leaf.
How was that even possible?
He turned away then back again. The tree was still green. The fire trucks were gone and there was no one outside. Had he imagined the whole thing? He must be having a breakdown. It would explain everything.
Except the smell of soot on his hand.
Ryan backed away from the window. Was that what everyone had been talking about? He had to go outside and see if the tree really was okay.
Ryan jumped as his Blackberry vibrated and he yanked it out of his pocket.
YOU OWE ME! screamed across the screen in bright red letters.
Ryan glanced around nervously. Was Dick here? No, he could have sent that message from anywhere. He was just a bit jumpy, that was all. Shoving the Blackberry back in his pocket, he ran towards the bookcase of his father’s books, rounded the corner and skidded to a halt, almost tripping over his own feet.
“Did you get my message? I’m here to collect, princess.”
Dick was leaning against the shelf at the end of the row and he didn’t have a friendly expression on his face. His school uniform had been replaced by a black leather jacket and pants. “We can have a private chat back here. You wouldn’t dare make any loud noises in your precious library, would you?”
Dick took a step forward and Ryan stepped back.
“You know what today is, of course. It’s been a long time coming, ever since your father fired mine,” Dick murmured. “It’s too bad. I might have liked you otherwise.”
“What?” Ryan’s mind whirled. Dick’s father worked for Rupert?
“Did Rupert remember the ten year anniversary today? I’m sure he boasts about it even now. The public termination, the gory suicide. I watched him die, you know.” Dick paused to catch his breath, or perhaps it was for effect.
“Who…?” Ryan struggled to remember if Rupert had ever mentioned a Preston-Merritt.
“Pallen Hornsby. Don’t pretend with me. You knew all about it.” Dick paused, watching Ryan carefully. “No? Well, no matter. It’s time for my anniversary present to Rupert Sterling Harte.”
Dick strode towards him, his glassy black eyes jittering feverishly.
Was Dick right? Ryan could easily imagine Rupert firing someone without a second thought. Just as he’d sent his only son off to school like a lamb to the slaughter.
As Ryan scrambled back, he knocked over the stand with the velvet rope. He grabbed a book from the bookcase and held it out in front of him like a shield. His arms ached with the strain. How could a book be so heavy? Unlike his father’s books, which were all in mint condition, this book was old and scuffed, bound in dark leather with strange symbols on the cover. He’d never seen anything like it before.
“We’re going to end this now,” Dick yelled. “I’ve been waiting for ten years.”
Ryan kicked the rope from around his feet and staggered back again, but he was near the window now and there was nowhere else to go. Nothing left between him and Dick. An icy hand squeezed at his heart. Should he cry out? He’d already made a fool of himself several times today. Voices approached, louder than the usual library voices. It sounded like the headmaster among them. They’d heard Dick yelling, Ryan thought with relief.
Dick cursed, pulled something from inside his jacket and whipped it at him.
Time seemed to slow and Dick appeared very far away now. Ryan stared as the knife flipped end over end, spinning towards him, motes of dust swirling oddly around it in the sunlight. Shouldn’t his life be flashing in front of his eyes? Oh yeah, he didn’t have a life. He could see the headlines now. Billionaire’s Son Assassinated by Psychotic Classmate – Never Kissed a Girl Yet. He wondered vaguely who would play him in the TV movie.
The sounds of the library faded away. He could no longer hear anything except the beat of his heart and the echoing rush of his blood as it whooshed in and out of his head. The knife was very close now. He jerked the book up in front of his face and the blade pierced the cover with a loud thunk.
A wind rose, swirling his hair on end, as it sent a shudder rippling down his back. The book convulsed and suddenly disintegrated in his hands, ripped apart from within. A shrieking noise tore at his ears as if the words on the pages were screaming at him and a shockwave of blinding incandescence slammed into him. Ryan blew backwards through the library window, shards of glass like tiny projectiles all around him.
And then he was falling through the warm spring sunlight.
The white of the soccer goal stood sharp against the vivid green of the field far in the distance. As he somersaulted over backwards, he could see bits of glass sparkling below him, dropping towards the stone steps bordered by the black iron railing.
The glass hit the stone below with a twinkling sound, pieces bouncing every which way. The spikes on the top of the railing seemed to reach up for him then, to caress him. He felt an instant of shock.
And everything went black.
has always been a voracious reader but it never occurred to her to write anything herself until she saw an article in the Oakville Beaver entitled “How to Get Published”, about a workshop being led by Brian Henry. It took 10 months (and several more workshop articles) before she finally got up the nerve to attend one of his Saturday classes. That was 5 years and many workshops and Intensive Writing courses ago. Her novel in progress, Fire's First Breath is a fantasyadventure for juveniles. On Sept 16, 2009, she read the first chapter, "Shockwave," at CJ's Cafe
For information about Brian Henry's writing workshops and courses see here