More than half a decade ago, a story was birthed here on this blog. For fans of Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman comes my newest novel, THE PATHS BETWEEN THE STARS, a genre-bending story about a young girl finding her way after a devastating loss. Due out in 2021, I’ll offer a complimentary copy to my newsletter subscribers before it comes out, so enter your email below to be the first to read.
Want to get a sense of the story? Read the first chapter (not yet finally edited) below:
Chapter 1: C8H18
“Octane is an alkane with the chemical formula C8H18. It has 18 isomers. It is an important constituent of gasoline. Less dense than water and insoluble in water. Hence floats on water. Produces irritating vapor. Flammable.” — The Open Chemistry Database, “Octane”. National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Petrol. Chemical. The sweet scent of gasoline that burns the back of your throat. Slick on my skin like a silken dress. Shimmering multicolors dancing across my body in the afternoon sun. It is the smell of power. But also of fear.
I press the match to the paper; pause. Hesitate. Once I strike, there’s no going back. I close my eyes and breathe a sigh of relief, relishing my last moments.
“Let it work,” I whisper, my words floating out on the flammable wind, the vapors already evaporating off my body, chilling me. A silent prayer to whatever gods or ancestors may or may not be watching me.
It won’t, comes the haunting voice of doubt in the back of my head. Nothing has changed. Just like every other time, I’ll fail.I grit my teeth and shake my head. It will work this time!
It has to.
I let out a deep breath. Only one way to find out. I strike the match. Heat and flame erupt around me. God, it’s beautiful! I smile as the gasoline ignites and is carried off in front of me on the spring breeze like the unfurling of a flag. The orange, red, and white tendrils lick at my hair and skin. No, they are my hair, my skin, my fingertips. The chill in the air is gone. I stretch out my fingers in front of me and marvel at the way the flames caress me. They are warm and welcoming, like an embrace from an old friend.
But there’s no pain.
Is this what death feels like?
Worry bites, and my happiness evaporates like the gasoline off my skin. No, God, no, it’s not working, there’s no pain, nothing’s happening. The fire does nothing. It’s supposed to burn, like wood, like buildings, like humans when their bodies are immolated after death, but to me the flames are gentle, welcoming, but powerless. I cry out in anger and clench my fists. I bite my lip hard and again, feel no pain. Nor does my skin blacken and turn to ash. As the fire burns out, its energy exhausted and with nothing else to feed on, I bite my tongue and choke out a sob.
Why? Why doesn’t it work?
The flames are gone. I blink back tears and look down at my skin for traces of a burn, for blood, for anything. But there’s nothing. I am unblemished. I am clean. I am alive.
I stare around the little copse of wood I’d chosen, the pine trees nearby and the lush, damp floor of raw pine needles. Before I started, I set a ring of stones around me to contain the flames. I didn’t want to start any forest fires. I’m not trying to destroy the world. Just myself. I look down at the scorched ground beneath me, wondering at how everything around me seems capable of death.
Everything but me.
Suddenly angry, I pick up one of the stones in the circle and throw it viciously at a nearby tree. It misses, and my rage only ignites further, like the striking of the match. In a fit, stumbling over my own limbs, I step out of the circle and pull my underwear back on. Uncoordinated and foul, I trip over myself as I pull on my pants. I throw my tee shirt over my head and spit on the ground, cursing every vile force of nature that for some godforsaken reason refuses to allow me to leave this world on my own terms.
A dose of the familiar shocks me out of my anger: black spots freckling my vision, crinkling like the static on my father’s old television. Renewed fear floods through me. I am alone, and they will find me here. The energy from the fire, from my hope and my anger, surely will have drawn them to me. Vertigo washes over me. As blackness crowds out my vision, browns and greens and spring flowers disappear, replaced by swallowing, empty darkness. I stumble and throw my hand out, catching my palm on the rough bark of a nearby pine, trying to clear my head, trying to fight them off.
I straighten. My vision clears almost instantly. The forest around me reappears. My breathing, ragged, slows.
I whirl, my heart pounding. The sleek brown hair and gentle green eyes of my younger sister, Ada. I rush towards her, pulling her into my arms. With her, I’m safe. With her, no one can hurt me.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I scoop her up into my arms—though she’s almost too big for me to do so—and plant a kiss on her forehead. “Now that you’re here.”
“What were you doing?”
I plop her down on her feet again, and she stares suspiciously at the circle of stones a few feet away, and the charred earth inside. Even Ada, as young as she is, has learned over the years not to trust me alone.
“Teaching myself to build a fire,” I lie.
“Oh.” She stares at the blackened dirt. Then she looks at me, smiling. Maybe she believes me. Or maybe she decided it doesn’t matter. She slips her hand in mine, pulling me back towards our house. “Mom said lunch is ready.”
“Let’s go, little peach.”
I let her lead, pulling me through the pines and the mossy carpet of leaves and needles and around to our house. When Kuri starts barking, my sister drops my hand and dashes towards the house, where the little dachshund is waiting impatiently inside his electric fence. She scoops him into her arms and carries him up the stairs of the porch and through the sliding glass door, as he licks at her ear the whole way.
Inside, my mother is frying balls of falafel, and my sister is already at the table with Kuri on her lap. The kitchen is steamy and warm, and smells of warming bread and toasted cumin.
“Noomi, where have you been?” my mother asks as she sets a plate with warmed pita in front of me. There’s restraint in her tone. She wants to say more. I know she’s trying not to be too impatient, too demanding. Her short hair bobs around her chin as she moves. She sprinkles fresh-cut scallions over a bowl of baba ghanouj, and crosses her arms to watch me.
“Outside,” I say. “Practicing building a fire and setting up my stove. For our overnighter in a few weeks. The counselors said it would be good to practice. They taught us last weekend.”
“Really? Is that what you were doing out there?” It’s a good thing I hid the gasoline canister in a blackberry bramble so thorny no one but me could wrangle it without a full hazmat suit. I know she’ll be out there later. Like Ada, she doesn’t trust me. She doesn’t believe me. But I don’t blame her. After ten suicide attempts—now eleven—in my sixteen years of life, my mother has a right to be suspicious of me.
You don’t need to worry anymore, I want to say, my thoughts solidifying, crystallizing. This afternoon’s failure has finally proven that my attempts at self-destruction are useless. Worse than useless, as the energy from the attempts will draw the shadows to me. They’ll find me, like they did today. It’s impossible for me to hurt myself, so I won’t try anymore. Instead of fleeing the things that haunt me, I must finally acknowledge the truth I’ve been running from for the last eight years: I am here to stay, and so are they.
I shiver. I don’t want to feel the emptiness anymore. But escape is impossible.
I laugh as Ada pushes Kuri’s nose away from her plate while he begs. I relish the warmth of the warm spices on my tongue the same way I relished the flames lapping lovingly at my skin. The cool tingle of the fork against my lips, the delicate pull of the pita against my teeth, the softness of my mother’s eyes as she looks at me—
I don’t want to leave these things behind. I never have. All I want is to escape the shadows, and death seemed the easiest way.
It’s time to find another path.
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