Burned Away

When rumors of an uprising in Metaltown’s factories hits Bakerstown, sixteen-year-old wannabe reporter Caris knows she’s found the story that will finally prove her worth to the Journal. “Burned Away” is a standalone story set in the world of Metaltown (Tor Teen, September 2016).

 

Caris kept close to the dirty brick building, out of the yellow rings of streetlight coming from above. The story, brewing in her head for the last few days, began to take shape. Night, and the crumbling streets of Metaltown are still with anticipation. She committed the line to memory so she could jot it down later in her notebook, now tucked safely in the satchel hanging over her shoulder.

Her worn boots creaked over the frosted sidewalk, and her mittened fingers gripped the strap of her bag even tighter as she picked up the pace. A week ago she’d overheard some of the boys from McNulty’s crew talking outside of the Cat’s Tale. Metalheads in one of the factories over the beltway are tired of being pushed around, they’d said. They’re making some sort of stand. Rumors of fighting had come to Bakerstown. Not the usual violence the factory district was known for, but some kind of pushback against their boss. She’d known right then that this was what she’d been waiting for. The story that snobby editor at the Journal needed to take her seriously. He thought she wasn’t reporter material, just because she was sixteen? That she couldn’t land a real story? They’d just see about that. Hampton Industries owned half the Tri-City—the logos were printed everywhere from her schoolbooks to the outside of the hospital where she’d gotten stitches last spring. If Josef Hampton’s workers were standing against him, something big was going on.

The memories of that first day in Metaltown were enough to make her heart pound. The young workers of Division II, blocking the entrance of the factory. Shouting back at the Brotherhood thugs who attempted to pull them away. Press, they’d chanted. They were refusing to work until the boss came to talk to them.

That was the first time she’d seen him. The boy with the cockeyed smile.

He’d stuck out in the crowd—grinning when everyone else was shouting. Smiling when the tension had broken into fights. A group of workers had walked together to one of the restaurants to meet their boss, and while they all looked worried, he’d stood tall, a head above most of them anyway on account of his height, a crooked smirk lifting the corner of his mouth. It was like he wasn’t afraid of anything.

She’d stuck around as long as she could, hoping for another chance to see the curious boy, but had had to leave before the end of that meeting in order to make it back before her Aunt Charlotte got home from the hospital and realized Caris hadn’t gone to school.

She walked faster, thinking of the press, and of Hampton, and of the tall boy with that crazy smile. It was getting dark earlier, but it wasn’t too late. If any of the workers from the press were still around, she might be able to get an interview. An inside look would be impossible for the Journal to turn down.

Even in the haze, the factories stuck out: giant fortresses, each the width of a city block, each bathed in harsh yellow streetlights. The number of each division carved into the tarnished stone over the entryway. Only once she’d reached Division II did the nerves that had been creeping over her skin sink beneath the surface. Everything about this place screamed danger, but danger was part of the job. To get the good stories, you needed to take risks. That’s what her mom had told her.

Caris’s chest grew tight, and as she buried her chin into her scarf she glanced from side to side, looking for bums, or murderers, or worst of all, the men who ran these streets as McNulty ran hers at home: the Brotherhood.

Where was everybody? Just two days ago half of Metaltown had gathered here to watch the press, but now the streets were empty.

Creeping closer to the building, she snuck down a narrow alley filled with trash until she came to an indented double doorway, marked by the words Employees Only. Her heart sank. She’d heard the workers sometimes worked late, but the door, which appeared broken at the lock, was already chained shut. Everyone had gone home.

Refusing to let the trip be a waste, she opened her satchel and removed her notepad, flipping back the leather cover and a dozen pages of random notes from her first visit here. On the first blank page, she recorded the time and place with a charcoal pencil she’d lined with bite marks. By the time she’d finished her observations of the building itself, she’d sagged against the brick behind her. Her thick coat provided a buffer, but the cold still leached through.

If she left now, Aunt Charlotte probably wouldn’t have noticed she’d been gone. She’d save herself the interrogation and wouldn’t have to listen to all the reasons why this trip had been a stupid idea.

“Hey. What you doing over there?”

Caris jumped at the voice coming from the street, holding up her notepad to block the light. A man, bundled in a thick coat and knit hat, turned into the alley. Her eyes drew to his hand, where he pointed what looked like a metal stick her direction.

Her spine zipped straight. Every bit of fear in her body balled in the pit of her stomach.

This was not the interview she’d been hoping for.

Without another thought, she lowered her head, turned, and walked quickly the other way.

“Stop before I make you stop,” he called.

Taking that as a cue to run, she sprinted between the rust-stained stone walls, heart pounding in her ears, bag slapping against her side. She glanced over her shoulder, finding not just one man chasing her, but two. Their faces were hidden by shadows, but the weapons in their hands were easy enough to spot.

With a wince, she spun back, slipping on the frosty ground. Her body spilled forward, heels of her hands striking the concrete first. The bones felt like they’d shattered straight up to her wrists. Her pants ripped at the knees. Swinging forward, her bag smacked against the side of her face. She tried to scramble on, but before she could was hauled to a stand and slammed against the alley wall.

“Wait,” she said before the sneering mouth before her could speak. Her breath clouded in front of her face. “Is this Division Two? It is, right? I’m a little lost. See, I’m supposed to start work here tomorrow, and I just wanted to make sure I’m in the right . . .”

“Shut up,” said the man gripping her shoulders. He shoved her against the wall again, but her coat absorbed most of the blow. He couldn’t have been more than a few years her senior but was several inches shorter and had a fresh cut on his upper lip that he dabbed at with his tongue. He lifted his chin and met her gaze.

“Shouldn’t have strayed from the pack, little girl,” he said. “They send you out here on purpose? You spying for your little charter?”

She recognized the word. The Brotherhood was supposed to be a charter—the factory employees who made sure the workers were being treated fairly—but as far as anyone was concerned they were a gang, just like McNulty’s crew. The workers who’d been pressing, they’d claimed to be a charter too. She wasn’t sure which side these men fell on, but clearly they didn’t like the other side.

“How can I be a spy? There’s no one here to spy on but you two.” Her voice shook with nerves and a disappointment that was impossible to hide.

“Maybe she’s a thief,” said the second man. “Maybe she was trying to break back in.” He ran his knuckles along the side of his jaw. They glowed yellow from the pale streetlight behind them, and her gut tensed at the thought of how much a punch from him would hurt.

“With my fingernails? I don’t think so. You’d need some bolt cutters at least to get through that chain . . .” They were staring, and it occurred to her that telling them she was unarmed was probably not the best idea.

“Well,” she said. “This was fun. Now that I’ve found where I need to go, I’ll just be heading home.”

She shifted to the side, eyes darting to the notebook, still on the ground to her left. The man with the cut lip followed her gaze, bending to retrieve the book before she could. As soon as he touched it, her cheeks turned hot, and her hands balled into fists.

“That’s mine,” she said.

He grinned at her, the cut in his lip cracking open. He pressed the back of his gloved hand to it.

“What’s this? A diary?”

He tossed it to his friend with the brass knuckles. Automatically, her hand rose to intercept, but she missed.

“Where’d a metalhead learn to write so nice?” he asked, turning it on its side, as if she’d written sideways. “These love letters to your boyfriend?”

“They’re none of your business,” she said.

How many times had she told her aunt the same thing when she’d caught her snooping through that notebook? This kind of stuff’s going to get you in trouble, Aunt Charlotte would say. Caris hated that she was right.

Brass Knuckles turned the book the right way and glared at the page before him. “What are you writing about Small Parts for?”

“Small Parts?”

“The factory,” said Cut Lip. “Don’t play stupid, sweetheart.”

“Don’t call me sweetheart,” she snapped, then took a deep breath. Her mother’s words whispered in her ears: the truth is stronger than the fist.

“If you have to know, I’m writing a story for the Journal.”

“What journal?” he shot back. No wonder people in Bakerstown always laughed at metalheads. If they all were like these two it was a wonder the whole district hadn’t caved in on itself by now.

The two men looked at each other, then back to her.

“The news,” she said, exasperated. “They’ve sent me to report on what’s happening at the factory.” It was close enough to the truth anyway.

“There’s nothing happening,” said Cut Lip, staring evenly at her. “As you can see.”

“So there’s no reason to snoop around,” said Brass Knuckles. With each page he flipped, her shoulders rose. It felt like he was doing something too personal, like pawing through a drawer of her underclothes.

“Give it back,” she said.

“Mr. Schulz doesn’t like rats,” Cut Lip told her. “Metaltown business stays in Metaltown. You understand what I mean by that?”

Every red alert in her head began blaring all at once. Mr. Schultz ran the Brotherhood; she didn’t need to be from Metaltown to know that. She looked back to the mouth of the alley. She’d stumbled right into the very men she needed to avoid.

“I’m . . .” She searched her mind for an answer. The Brotherhood was at odds with McNulty’s clan, and though she wasn’t part of that crew, she knew that saying she was from Bakerstown was condemning enough.

Cut Lip lifted the pole, rolling it between his hands. Maybe the truth was stronger, but that didn’t mean the fist wasn’t going to hurt.

“There you are!”

From the fire escape to her right came a male voice, clearly pleased to see one of them. Lifting her chin, she saw a boy standing on the metal grate, two stories up. He was dressed in shabby clothes—trousers, held up by a rope belt, and a coat with one sleeve ripped and hanging from the elbow. With the light behind him, it was hard to make out his face, but since his voice was unfamiliar she doubted he’d come for her.

Using the distraction, she tried to bolt back toward the main street, but was clotheslined by Cut Lip’s arm.

“Not so fast,” he muttered, sending a chill through her.

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” the boy continued, kicking the ladder to the fire escape off its brakes. With a clang, it slid free, falling down to the next level. Slowly, he descended the steps, keeping one hand in his pocket.

“You are with the charter,” Cut Lip said to her. He clicked his tongue in his cheek. “Shouldn’t have lied.” He looked up at the boy, now on the landing just above. “Come on down here, kid. I got a few things I want to talk to you about.”

Knuckles took a step back, looking farther up on the roof, as if he expected more people to follow.

“Still sore about how things went the other morning?” The boy whistled. “That’s a nice cut on your lip. Did I give you that, or someone else?”

Caris edged away from the man in question, thinking she might be able to make it around him and back to the street if she was fast enough. The boy wasn’t here with the Brotherhood, but that didn’t mean he was safe.

The men glared at him. “Where’s your friend, Colin, huh? Heard they locked him up.”

“Heard it didn’t stick.” The boy shrugged. “Hey, you ever mix nitro and white phosphorus? A little spark and bam. Stuff’s got some kick.”

From his pocket he pulled a small piece of metal, hanging from one finger by a copper wire.

Both men took a step back. “Where’d you get that?”

She squinted up at it, wondering what had got them so rattled.

“What? This detonator?” The boy began swinging it in a circle around his finger. “Pulled it from the defectives pile. Wanna see if it still works?”

Cut Lip laughed, though the sound was strained. “You’re full of it. No way you’d set that off so close.”

“I guess we could always find out.” The boy reached into his opposite pocket and withdrew a match with his bare hand. Then, with nothing more than the snap of his fingers, he had it lit. He held the small flame before his face, and for the first time Caris caught a glimpse of his narrow jaw, and his mouth, quirked on one side, and the dark lashes around his eyes. It looked like he was missing half an eyebrow, too, though that might have been a trick of the light.

It was the boy she’d seen in the press.

“She’s with us,” the boy said. “And you know what happens when you mess with one of us.”

His meaning was clear: you mess with all of us.

“Your charter’s done, kid,” Cut Lip said, though he couldn’t have been much older. “Your little press? It’s over.”

Her chest clutched. The press was over? Already? Did that mean that the workers had gotten what they wanted from Mr. Hampton? She didn’t even know what they’d asked for. No one she’d asked in the crowd had known the specifics—that’s why she’d needed an interview with one of the members. She felt like she was running a race and had just been lapped by the leader.

“Then I guess we’ll have to take our chances with the detonator,” said the boy. “What do they say? If you’re going to go out, might as well go out with a bang.”

Cut Lip glanced back at Brass Knuckles, then scoffed, like this whole conversation was no more than an annoyance. He slapped the other man on the shoulder, then turned away.

“You forgot her book,” said the boy.

Turning, Cut Lip dropped it on the ground at Caris’s feet.

“Write a word about any of this, and you’ll never write again.”

With that, the two men left.

She watched them saunter past the employee entrance to the mouth of the alley, and only once they were gone from sight did she swallow a huge, cold breath and shudder.

Above her, the final ladder of the fire escape crashed to the ground, and she jumped, her nerves drawn tight.

“You all right?” the boy asked. He backed down the steps and moved closer, and she found herself tilting her chin to look up at him.

She rarely looked up to anyone.

“Yes,” she said. And then she blew out another breath and shook all over again. “I can’t believe they just left like that. The Brotherhood. Can you believe it?”

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “I can believe it, all right.”

She squinted at him, suddenly realizing that if they were scared of him, she should be really scared of him. This was a person she’d seen smiling in the middle of a fistfight. But he didn’t seem scary. Apart from the eyebrow that actually was half-missing, he had a nice face. Smooth skin and dark eyes. Narrow shoulders and long legs. Her story pulled him in: He looks like he’s been stretched, like his hair would probably stand straight up if he took off the hat he’s pulled down over his ears.

“Well,” she said slowly. “Thank you. I’ll just be heading home now.”

“To Bakerstown?” he asked.

She wasn’t sure how much she should tell him, or if where she lived might get her in trouble, as it could have with the Brotherhood.

“It’s all right,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets and slouching a little. “I got a friend from Bakerstown. Came over when he needed to work. I can hear it a little in your voice.”

She’d never noticed her voice sounded a certain way and had the sudden urge to say something, just to see if it sounded different.

“Come on,” he said. “I’ll walk you to the bridge. Better to stay off the streets tonight.”

He turned, without waiting for an answer, and climbed the first few rungs of the fire escape. When she didn’t follow, he paused.

“You comin’ or not?”

She thought of all the times her mom had taught her to be wary of strangers, and how she’d only just escaped two Brotherhood goons. She didn’t know this boy, but he had stood up for her. Besides, it wasn’t as if he was dragging her somewhere. He’d offered to take her back to the bridge between his home and hers.

Quickly, she retrieved her notebook and pencil off the ground and, shoving them into her bag, raced after him.

They climbed up four stories before they reached the roof. It was colder there, the sky black and starless, the low-hanging smog hiding the buildings beyond. Only a little light led their way, emanating from the street below. The quiet stretches on endlessly, not eerie, as it is on the ground, but peaceful and calm. It made her feel like they were the only two people in Metaltown.

“We can get most of the way there on the rooftops,” he said. “Not too many people know about it. I found it a while ago.” He looked down, cheek pulling inward, like he was biting it. It struck her that he’d grinned his way through the press but wasn’t smiling now.

“Okay,” she said. “I like it up here.”

“You do?”

Her face heated. He seemed so surprised she’d said it, she wondered if it had been stupid to admit. She could almost feel Aunt Charlotte’s judging stare.

She nodded, and when his lips tilted up, hers did too.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Matchstick.”

She looked sideways at him. “That’s your name?”

One shoulder jerked up, dropped. “That’s what people call me. What do they call you?”

“Caris.”

They’d walked to the edge of the building, where the next ledge was just a couple feet away. Between the buildings was an abyss, four stories deep. Her eyes widened.

He stepped onto the ledge, then straddled the divide, reaching for her hand to help her up. After a moment, she took it. His hand is warm, even through our gloves, as if he’s made of fire. It was no wonder they called him Matchstick.

“Was that really a detonator?” she asked, remembering the way he’d lit the match with one hand and just the snap of his fingers.

“Sure,” he said. “Would’ve made a mean pop if I’d lit it.”

She glanced again at his half-missing eyebrow, trying to gauge if he was serious. She was almost certain his entire brow had been there when she’d seen him two days ago.

“An explosion, you mean?” She stopped. “You were really going to blow something up.”

He grimaced. “No?”

“Who are you?”

“Matchstick,” he said.

She pulled off her hat, scratching her head in frustration. Maybe he was worse than the Brotherhood—he was carrying around explosive devices in his pockets. Feeling his stare, she turned to face him.

“Your hair’s orange,” he said in awe.

She shoved the hat back on her head. All the names the kids had called her in school came roaring back. Brush Fire. Copper Kettle. Big Red. It was bad enough she was taller than everyone, but she had a million freckles and hair that never let her blend in.

“Yeah, what of it?” she said.

“It’s orange,” he said again. “Like fire.”

She narrowed her eyes. “You some kind of pyro?”

“Kind of,” he said, so enthusiastically she couldn’t help but laugh. His mouth fell open, and he pulled his hat lower down on his ears. He started walking again, faster now, and when they crossed between buildings he didn’t reach out his hand to help her.

“Is the press really over?” she asked, catching her breath.

He sighed. “I dunno. Maybe. The meet with Hampton didn’t go so good.”

“What happened?”

Her fingers itched to take out her notebook.

He crossed his arms over his chest. “You really a reporter? I saw you before. In the crowd.”

Something fluttered in her stomach.

“Yes,” she said. But then added, “Kind of. I’m working on it. I just need the right story.”

“Why?”

The question threw her off guard. Because then the editor at the Journal will take me seriously. Then I can get an assignment that gets me away from Aunt Charlotte and the Tri-City.

“I want to go to the front lines,” she said.

“Report on the war?”

She nodded. Not just any reporters were sent to the fighting on the Northern Fed’s border. You had to be good, proven, with lots of experience.

“Whoa,” he said, and she beamed because he was clearly impressed. “I’m going there too. Once I save enough for the train, that is.”

“It seems like a good place for someone who likes to blow things up.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” he said. “So what are you writing about? The press?”

She almost said yes and whipped out her journal to ask him the dozen questions bouncing through her brain, but then she remembered what the Brotherhood had said. She wanted out of here. She wanted to go to the front lines more than anything. But their threat had been clear, and if there was one thing she knew from growing up on McNulty’s turf, it was never to underestimate the reach of a gangster.

“I was,” she said. “But I sort of like the whole being-alive thing. Not sure I want the Brotherhood to change that.”

He made a humming sound. They’d come to another rooftop, this one filled with the soft cooing of pigeons. In the distance she could see city lights now, rising in lines from the apartment buildings, and knew they were coming close to the beltway.

“They told us not to press, too,” he said. “We don’t listen so good.”

She squeezed the strap of her bag, torn between the journal within and the too-clear memory of metal rings lying over knuckles.

“Why did you, then?”

“Because . . .” He hesitated. Glanced her way. If she hadn’t seen him take on two guys from the Brotherhood just minutes ago, she would have thought he was nervous. “The charter . . . We’re like family. We got to stick together when things go wrong.”

The notebook in her bag called to her. What had gone wrong? What had brought them together to press against the biggest man in the Northern Federation?

But instead she asked, “Why do they call you Matchstick?”

They took a few steps in silence.

“The nuns used to say I had a temper when I was little.”

“The nuns?”

“At St. Mary’s,” he said. “The orphanage by Charity House.”

She nodded, something in her chest twisting at the thought of him being raised without parents. She’d had her mom at least, and even after she’d gone to live with Aunt Charlotte, she’d had somebody. She couldn’t imagine having no one left.

“They’d say I’d blow up when I couldn’t figure something out. Then, when I started working at Small Parts, I figured out how to really blow things up.”

Because the factory made parts for bombs. She’d learned that the last time she’d come to Metaltown. Division II built the intricate pieces for explosives—the “small parts” that gave the place the nickname.

“And figured out you liked it.”

He chuckled. She’d made him laugh.

“Some things just don’t work the way you want them to. You’ve just got to blow them up and start over,” he said.

The way he said it was so matter-of-fact, she believed it was true. Something about him and the cold air and the rooftops made her feel brave. Made her want to start over.

She stopped and took out her notebook. “Could I ask you a few more questions?”

He tilted his head, and then motioned over to the ledge. There, they sat, and he pulled another match from his pocket and lit it with the snap of his fingers.

“Show-off,” she said.

He held it closer so that she could see the page, and in the soft yellow glow she found herself looking up at his face, and the smudges of soot on the back of his jaw, and the pink skin where his eyebrow abruptly ended.

And his cockeyed smile.

Clearing her throat, she asked him about the press and the charter. They talked about the Brotherhood, and McNulty’s crew in Bakerstown, and laughed about the first times he’d experimented with explosives. They talked about Hampton and the way he was treating the workers.

If the Tri-city City knew what he’d done to the workers in his factories, there would be an uproar. Half the stuff couldn’t even have been legal.

It was much later when he walked her to the beltway.

“So,” he said. “You going to write the story or what?”

She held the notebook against her chest, feeling like the secrets it held could crack a hole in the world. “I don’t know.”

He nodded. “Well, if you do, tell me. And if you want more, you can talk to some friends of mine. We come here a lot. To the beltway. If you want to find me. Us, I mean.”

The prospect of more interviews made her eyes widen. The idea of seeing him again made her feel light and warm.

She wasn’t sure how to thank him for what he’d done tonight—not just for helping her with the Brotherhood, but for the interview. She watched him standing there, weight shifting from foot to foot, and realized how much she didn’t want to go.

He stands before me, a boy who finds answers in ashes, with no idea how important he is.

She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. His skin was cold, and smooth, and her lips were cold, too. She lingered as his cheek lifted with a smile, their warm puffs of breath making a cloud to hide within. Then she backed away and headed home.

 

Aunt Charlotte was still snoring when Caris snuck in. Quietly, carefully, she set down her satchel and changed into her nightclothes. She eased into her cot in the corner of the room, but couldn’t sleep. Her mind was filled with the daily grind of the machines, and the sour scent of nitro that came on the breeze, and the smoke from the factories that clung to the roofs of the buildings, never lifting. She thought of the Brotherhood telling her not to write the story, and the power of the words Matchstick had given her. Of the snap of his fingers that brought the light, and his half-missing eyebrow

And she thought of her mom, as she always did, right before she drifted off.

It’s just until the fighting ends, she’d said when she got the assignment. The Journal needs someone on the front lines. I’m the best they’ve got.

Her mom was the best. And when she’d written home, she’d told vivid stories about the fighting and the starving people in the Southern Fed. How much they needed help from the North. She’d signed each letter: We’ll be together soon.

The last letter had come six months ago. Caris was tired of waiting.

She turned on the corner lamp and began to write.

Night, and the crumbling streets of Metaltown are still with anticipation.

 

“Burned Away” copyright © 2016 by Kristen Simmons

Illustration copyright © 2016 by Goñi Montes

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