Everything Katerina Nielsen knew burned to the ground when she was sixteen. She had nothing but memories to keep her warm at night. At eighteen, life throws her into an inferno and the only choice is to become someone else.
Until she becomes the interest of two strangers.
They offer her a chance at a normal life. But she’s learned everything in life comes at a price and the cost of what they’re giving her may just burn her alive.
With the promise of a future she’s always wanted, she can’t refuse.
But what happens when a dark secret comes to light?
Will she rise from the ashes and embers, or will she burn?
“Your parents are dead.”
The solemn words uttered by a deep voice ring in my ears like a foghorn in the darkness. Sounds meld into nothing. Only silence remains as I pull in a breath. It hurts to do it. My lungs feel as if pins are filling them.
When I exhale to keep the pain at bay, it doesn’t help. The agony is so acute, it feels as if my chest has been sliced with a sharp blade and I’m left flayed before the two police officers who are watching me intently.
My gaze is locked on the armrest of the sofa across from me. Rather than on the police officer who’s sitting on it. He’d introduced himself as Officer Dalton. The house suddenly feels cold. Not like the burning heat of my parents’ store where nothing of them remains.
I lower my gaze to the gray sweatpants I’m wearing. They’re dotted with smudges of paint. I’d been working on a piece of art for the shop when the doorbell rang. The woman who was meant to babysit me while my parents were at work is still in the kitchen. I hear her clinking cups, or mugs, the sound of the crockery is so close it’s as if she’s right beside me.
“Ms. Nielsen,” one of the men, Officer Lionel, calls to me, but I’m frozen in time.
My name is Katerina; that’s what my teachers call me. Everyone calls me Kat.
But they don’t know that. These men are not my friends. They’re strangers.
My hands tingle as if I’ve been sitting on them for a long time, and I can’t feel my fingers anymore. It feels like when winter bites at the tips, making them turn blue. My whole body shakes, trembling as if we’ve had a heavy snowfall and we’re in the middle of a storm of epic proportions.
“Miss,” Officer Dalton says, reaching for me, but I flinch the moment his fingers are on mine. Lifting my gaze, I meet a set of worried brown eyes, his hair is messy, it looks like he’s been tugging at it. “Do you have any family to go to?”
I want to shake my head, but I can’t move. My brain has switched itself off, and nothing works. My limbs, my eyes, even my heart. It’s stopped, and all I can do is sit there like a mute.
“Perhaps she’s in shock. Let me get her some water.” The brown-eyed officer leaves, and I want to shout at him, to scream and tell him not to go near my mother’s kitchen because she likes to keep it neat and tidy. But no words come out. It’s her space. The one place she ensures is perfect at all times, even when she’s making her famous ravioli.
I don’t want strangers to touch her things. It’s bad enough the babysitter is fiddling around in there. They all need to leave. To go away and never come back.
Instead of shooing them out of the house, I just stare into nothing.
I don’t know what I’m going to do. A sixteen-year-old girl needs a guardian, but I’m grown up. I can be on my own. I mean, would the authorities allow me to live alone? Or do I have to find some long-lost family member to take me in until I turn eighteen?
How do I say goodbye to my parents?
What do I do with all this stuff? Our home?
How am I going to get to school?
Am I going to graduate?
Do I take over my family’s burned down store?
How do I say goodbye?
All these questions spill into my mind, turning over and over like a reel of black and white photos, which feels like it’s never going to end. I suck in a breath, opening my mouth to tell the officer I want to be left alone, but no words come out.
They can’t leave anyway. I know they can’t. Once Mrs. Lowell goes home, I’ll be alone, and I can’t be alone. It’s against the law for an underage child to be left without a guardian. But I’m not a child. I don’t feel like a child right now.
I’m an orphan.
No family, no parents, and nothing but the pain that’s sluicing through me.
If I had been at the store tonight, I could’ve helped them. Maybe I would’ve been able to save them, call for help. Guilt lances my chest over and over, and I find breathing difficult. I usually stay home when they’re out working on orders.
A flower shop in the middle of the small town of Olive Grove, only two hours outside San Francisco. My father told me the beauty of living here is we get the best of both worlds—a city on our doorstep and the stillness of a town.
And now, the town has stolen them from me. I hate this place. This forgotten, hidden gem as it’s usually called that took my parents and burned them to ash, leaving me with nothing.
Wetness drips onto my fingers that are twisted in my sweater. I glance down. Everything looks blurry, forcing me to blink. When I finally lift my hand and swipe at my face, I find it wet with tears. I’m crying, but I don’t feel anything.
My focus is on the coffee table in the middle of the room. The glass top is lit by the reflection of the living room light. My mother would shine the surface every day, making sure there weren’t any rings on the top, or any scrapes from my father’s keys, which he used to dump on the table when he got home from work. He’d settle on the sofa and read while he waited for dinner.
“Here you go.” Office Dalton appears from the kitchen; his heavy black boots don’t make a sound on the soft carpet. He sets down the glass of water which is soaked in precipitation, and that’s when it all hits me. They’re no longer here. My mother can’t shout at him for ruining her table. She can’t even tell him to use a coaster.
As I pick up the glass, water spills over the sides. I subconsciously draw my hand back behind me. Flinging the object against the living room wall, I hear it shatter. The sound drags me from my stupor, and I’m brought back to the painful present.
“Get out.” My voice is raspy, but they hear me. They rise slowly, one of them stops before me like he wants to say something, and that’s when I screech, “Get out! Get out! Get the fuck out!”
“If you need any—”
“I said, get out!” My voice is so loud, I wonder how I’m not shattering the windows in every room. Surely the neighbors can hear me.
Officer Dalton leans in closer, his face in mine causing me to shuffle backward. “I just want to let you know we’ll give you some privacy. We can’t leave yet, but we’ll wait in the kitchen with Mrs. Lowell. Child Services will arrive to . . .” The words taper off into the silence, and he sets a card on the table, telling me to call them if I think of anything that could help the case.
Once I’m alone, my mind runs a million miles a second. More questions dawn on me then. Will they find the person who did it? What would my parents want me to do? Will I be sent to a foster home? Is there anything left at the store? Do I bury their ashes? There aren’t any bodies left. They burned to nothing but piles of gray embers. And I wonder how one mistake can turn into an inferno. How can fire steal everything from me?
Once I’m alone, I sit back in my father’s recliner, curling into a ball, I close my eyes, and that’s when my feelings—all my emotions—spill free and I cry.
I sob like I’ve never done before. Until I can’t breathe. Until my body is shaking so violently, my teeth chatter and my head throbs with a migraine. And I shiver while lying on the soft leather, unsure of what is going to happen to me.
I hear footfalls before I see the person enter the room. A suit—dark and foreboding—settles in the sofa opposite where I’m lying. I don’t look at his face, but his voice washes deep calm over me.
“Ms. Nielsen, I’m here to talk to you about representing you in court,” he says quietly. “I know you need time to think about everything that’s happened, but I need you to contact me in the morning. I’m here to help you.” He sits in silence, watching me, I can feel his eyes on me, but I don’t meet his inquisitive gaze.
After long moments, he rises, sets a black rectangular card on the table on top of the officer’s card, and leaves me alone.
I’m all alone.