Across the Wall of Fire lies salvation, if it doesn’t destroy her first—
Sheltered inside an electromagnetic dome city, Emery believes she’s safe from the worst dangers the world has to offer. But when her beloved brother falls victim to a strange and deadly disease, she risks everything to save him, illegally crossing the Wall of Fire that divides their city in search of the medicine that will save his life.
Soon she meets Eason, a boy she’s secretly loved forever and never dreamed she’d see again. Suddenly, everything she thought she knew is thrown into question, and trusting the wrong person could mean the difference between life and death—not only for her brother, but for everyone Emery has ever known.
Could the one thing that was meant to protect her actually be her biggest threat?
Targeted Age Group:: Teen/Young Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I've always loved young adult dystopian novels, ever since I read the Giver when I was young. This particular novel was originally inspired by the idea of a game that decides your whole life, but has evolved significantly since then.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I think sometimes my characters come up with themselves. I start with a vague idea, and as I write, they begin to come to life to me in ways I didn't always expect.
The sky is endlessly blue—just as it has been every day of my entire life—and it feels like a prison. It’s supposed to make us all feel safe, but for some reason I can’t quite grasp, it always feels wrong to me. Clouds, rainbows, and the sun—things I’ve only heard of in stories—seem to call to me from somewhere beyond. Of course, it’s not really the sky at all, just a projection on the barrier field that encompasses The City in a protective dome, sparing us from sight of the horrors it holds at bay.
“Mina!” someone calls from behind, and a heavy hand claps down on my shoulder.
I sigh. As I turn, Liam does a quick double-take and then rips his hand away as if the mere sight of my face has burned him.
“Oh, it’s you, E…” He runs his fingers awkwardly through his messy brown hair, letting my name trail off as he realizes that, despite the fact that we are only one year apart in school, he’s not quite sure what my name actually is—Emmaline, Ember, Ebony…
“Emery,” I mutter and turn away, hoping he’ll just move on, but he doesn’t take the hint. Apparently he was not specifically looking for Mina, and anyone to fill the silence with will do.
“It’s just that when I saw Mina—or thought I saw Mina, because your long hair looks pretty similar from behind—I wanted to ask her how her dad was doing,” he says. “He was really sick, you know.”
“I didn’t know.” I try to infuse my tone with the added sentiment that he can go ahead and spare me the details.
Mina is several years younger than me. We know each other, but not well. Her dad being unwell isn’t really news. Just last month, my own father had to have two fingers on his left hand reattached after a malfunction at the metal recycling plant severed them. Things happen. It’s just life.
I start walking again and enter the queue for breakfast. Unfortunately, Liam follows and takes his place in line directly behind me.
“More people than usual have been coming into the Medical Center the last few weeks,” Liam says, clearly hoping to capture my interest. He fails. You don’t survive in the Smoke by getting involved in things that aren’t your problem, and this sure isn’t mine.
Refreshing silence hangs between us as people receive their trays of food and we press closer to the window. I search the nearby tables for my younger brother, Whyle, and find him two tables over, staring at his half-eaten tray. It’s typical for him to rush through his meals, but that’s just so he can play with the other kids before school starts. I’m surprised to see him still sitting there and not eating. Something must be wrong. I hope that snotty ten-year-old, Kline, didn’t tell Whyle that he’s too young to be on their team again. If he did, I’m going to have some choice words for him. Whyle may only be eight, but he’s faster than any of the other kids.
I pick up a pebble from the ground and toss it to get Whyle’s attention. My aim is perfect as always, and it lands squarely on the tray, not even touching the uneaten food, drawing the admiring gaze of a few people who happened to notice. He raises his head and turns to see who threw it. I wave and grin, but all I get in return is a weak upturn of one side of his mouth that can’t even honestly be classified as a smile.
Whyle is about the most expressive and exuberant kid there is, so his reaction only heightens my sense of unease.
I’ve almost forgotten about Liam when his need to fill the silence with anything he can think of gets the better of him, and he says, “Are you going to join?”
“What?” I ask, distracted.
He gestures toward the faded sign hanging on the wall near the food dispensary window, reminding us all that today is the beginning of the next round of the Burning.
I laugh, but my eyes are drawn involuntarily to the Wall of Fire standing not far in the distance behind Liam. Flames lap from the ground up into the air, reaching twice my height. The blazing barricade separates the entire city center—the Flame—from the perimeter where we live—the Smoke.
There’s only one way for us to cross the Wall of Fire, and a limited window of time to do it. The Burning occurs twice each year. Anyone who is seventeen can join—giving each of us two opportunities to decide to go. Pass the gauntlet of tests and you earn a permanent place in the Flame. But if you try and fail the Burning, you will be expelled beyond the barrier field to the Ash to fend for yourself among the Roamers.
“If I wanted to be sent to the Ash, I could think of easier, less humiliating ways to go,” I reply.
Liam opens his mouth to say something else, so I turn his question around on him to cut him off. “It’s not like you went when you had the chance.”
“Yeah, well…” he mutters.
There’s really nothing to say, because we all know why he didn’t go last year when he was seventeen, and why I won’t go now. It’s only once every year or two that someone from the Smoke actually joins. No matter how dismal life’s prospects might be here—with long, grueling work days, buildings that collapse without warning, and the same gray mush for three meals a day—at least we can count on what we’ve got.
How could we ever hope to pass the Burning when we’re competing against those who grew up in the Flame, trained by teachers and parents who have passed the Burning themselves?
Occasionally, someone gets the idea that they’re going to train for the Burning, but I can’t see what the point is when not a single person in the Smoke can tell you a solid thing about what to expect. Once you go to the Burning, succeed or fail, the one thing you can never do is return to the Smoke. It’s clearly rigged against us, and unless you’re looking for a way out of The City—and soon thereafter out of life—we all know to steer clear of the Burning.
Thankfully, the awkward and pointless conversation comes to a halt as I reach the front of the line. I scan my ID card and am issued a metal tray laden with mush. It’s a slightly redder hue of gray today. Sometimes they change the exact formula to make sure our dietary needs are optimally met. My stomach grumbles in anticipation of being filled, and I head for the table where Whyle sits alone. Our parents both work the early shift today. Their assignments change every few months, just like everyone else’s. Right now, Mom is at the power plant and Dad at the metal recycler.
As I approach, my earlier impression that something is wrong with Whyle returns, and I don’t think it’s just social angst. He’s swaying in his seat and looking around in alarm. Before I reach him, Whyle collapses face down onto the table.
“Whyle!” I cry. I drop my tray into the dirt, not caring that I won’t be allowed a replacement, and take off running for him.
Most people ignore the entire incident, but a few come over to check on the boy. He’s young and here without his parents. Shoving past a woman who’s trying to shake him awake, I take his head in my hands and raise it to look into his eyes. They are open slightly, but unfocused.
“Whyle! Whyle!” I shout into his face, but there’s no reaction.
More people start to gather, and I know most of them are wondering if the boy’s food is going to be abandoned. I’ve lived here long enough that I don’t have to look back to know that my food has already been scooped from the dirt and devoured behind me.
A man steps forward and reaches for Whyle. “I’ll carry him to the Medical Center,” he offers. I recognize him as one of the men that works with Dad, though I don’t know his name.
“I’ve got him,” I insist, hoisting Whyle over my shoulder with lumbering effort.
“Don’t be silly,” the man says. “Let me help.”
“I’ve got him,” I snap back, and the crowd parts to let us through.
Thankfully, the Medical Center is just across the street. Still, Whyle is heavier than the fifty-pound bags of dirt I sometimes haul for the repair crews, and I’m feeling the strain by the time I reach the entrance.
“Here, let me get the door for you,” Liam says. I guess I didn’t manage to shake him off after all.
“This way.” He starts to lead me to the left, away from the usual check-in desk.
When I begin to protest, he says, “I can get him right to a bed. I’m assigned to work here now.”
So that explains both his knowledge of and interest in Mina’s father’s illness.
With back and legs burning under the weight I carry, I follow him through a gray and dusty curtain and around a corner. This brings us to a long row of beds, each surrounded by a waist-high wall. The first two beds are occupied by one woman and one girl who can’t be much older than six, both of them unconscious. Liam stops at the third bed and reaches for Whyle. I resist the urge to push him away; accepting a little help is better than accidentally dropping Whyle head-first on the concrete. A concussion isn’t likely to be the antidote to whatever has seized his body and left him limp and moaning with eyes rolling behind half-open lids.
While I straighten my brother’s legs on the bed, Liam races away. By the time I have Whyle tucked beneath a blanket, Liam has returned with two doctors in tow.
The first doctor rushes to Whyle’s side. Her brow is furrowed, and she looks like she hasn’t slept in days.
Her companion sweeps a
hand-held scanner over Whyle from head to toe. I would guess he’s about my dad’s age, and though his body is less worn down from manual labor, his eyes convey a different kind of strain he bears each day.
The two doctors ignore me and go to work on Whyle—placing a monitor on his forehead, inserting a needle into his arm, and injecting some kind of medication.
“What is that?” I demand. “What’s wrong with him?”
The two doctors pay me no more attention than they would an insect buzzing overhead.
They can’t ignore me like this. I need to know what’s wrong with Whyle. More than that, I need to know that he’s going to be okay.
“Hey, tell me what’s wrong with my brother,” I demand.
Sensing my distress, Liam pulls me away from the frenzied action. “Emery,” he says, “let them work.”
“What did they give him?”
“Just some medicine for the fever. They have to keep it down or it will cause brain damage.”
I glance over and notice for the first time the beads of sweat rolling down Whyle’s brow and neck. My own adrenaline was running so high when I carried him here that I didn’t even realize how hot he felt. His shaggy black hair clings to his forehead. His face has settled into a disturbing shade of red, like blood is trying to burst through his flesh.
“Is it…?” I can’t finish the question, but I don’t have to. Liam knows what I must be asking—the first thing anyone would want to know.
“Not the Withers,” he says.
His assurance should comfort me, because if the Withers has crept its deadly tentacles into The City—past the electromagnetic Safe Dome barrier erected twenty-two years ago to save us from its reach—then all hope for humanity really is lost. But Liam claims that it’s not the Withers. Not the virus that made people appear as though their flesh was melting from their bones, that slowly disconnected people’s bodies from the inside out. So why does Liam’s face not give me hope as he says it? Has nature found a new horror to torture us with, like a dog taunting a rat before at last biting its throat?
“We don’t know.” Liam gestures to the room at large. “Your brother is the fifth person to come in with the same symptoms in the last month.”
I take in the sight of the other patients on the beds near Whyle. They are all unconscious, skin reddened. Occasionally, they jerk in random fits. But there are only three of them, if you include Whyle.
“Fifth? Then what happened to the other two? Are they better now?” I ask, hopeful.
“One person, Mina’s father that I was telling you about earlier, was sick with the same symptoms. Now he’s better. But that was a special case.”
“What do you mean?”
“The doctors gave him Curosene—it’s a medicine that was invented when they were trying to find a cure for the Withers. It kind of worked, too, just not fast enough to actually save anyone. But it really is kind of a miracle drug. It actually restores damaged DNA to its original form. One dose did the trick against this…whatever it is. The doctors don’t know what’s causing it, so they haven’t named it yet.”
I feel both hopeful and annoyed. “Okay, so let’s give Whyle and everyone else a shot of Curosene, and we can all be on our way. What are you people doing here?”
The answer seems so simple and obvious that I can’t imagine why they haven’t done it already. Is it a matter of credits to pay for the medication? That’s definitely a possibility. Already I’m starting to strategize ways we can save up credits. For my birthday a few months ago, we started saving to buy me a new pair of shoes. I wiggle my toes and feel the holes. These will do for a little longer if Whyle needs the credits. If that’s not enough, we can keep the lights off at home and skip meals—whatever it takes.
Liam frowns. “That was the last dose we had.”
“You’re telling me that the Flame can’t make more?” I protest. “I thought they could make anything there with all the raw materials we keep stripping out of everything The City recycles. If we could make it once, we should be able to keep on making it forever.”
He shakes his head. “The Council won’t approve it.”
“Making it, or sending it here?”
He raises his eyebrows and shrugs.
“What about the other person? You said five. Three are here, one got better. What happened to the other one?” I’m not sure I want to know the answer, but I need it.
Liam bites at his lower lip.
“Tell me,” I whisper.
“He died two weeks after his first symptoms,” Liam admits, pity seeping through his words.
I refuse to believe that’s the only option, and that nothing can be done. Rather than stay here and listen to any more, I retreat to Whyle’s side.
The doctors are slowing their efforts now, making notations on a tablet, covering him back up, preparing to leave.
“Is he going to be okay?” I demand.
The woman turns to me as though she’s just noticed that I’m here. “We’ve done what we can for now.”
“Will he die?”
The doctors exchange an uncomfortable glance. Probably most people are not so direct, but more than anything, I hate ambiguity. Whatever it is, just give it to me straight so I can deal with it.
It’s the male doctor that speaks this time, his voice unsteady. “That’s the way it’s looking. No one has recovered so far, but we’ll keep trying.”
“Except for the man you gave Curosene to,” I counter, seeking either confirmation or contradiction.
The doctor shoots Liam a chiding glance as he speaks. “Well yes, there was that. But that’s not possible now. Nothing we have access to now seems to have any effect.”
“Why won’t the Council send more? Isn’t there something you can say, something you can do?” I plead.
“There’s no arguing with the Council. I’m sure they have a good reason,” the woman says with a derisive smile. “I’m sorry.” There’s real empathy in her parting words.
“You better get to school,” Liam says.
I don’t move. The Enforcers won’t enter the Medical Center to look for me. I’m safe here.
The two doctors and Liam leave me alone in the room of unconscious suffering. I try to push everything and everyone out of my awareness until all I see is Whyle. He was fine just yesterday. Now he looks frail, his life fading.
I move his arm, making room for me to sit on the bed next to him because there’s nowhere else to sit. I nestle his hand in mine and use the thin blanket to wipe the perspiration from his face.
I try to imagine what life will be like without this little beacon of joy to brighten the dreary nothing of each day. At the same time, I try desperately to suppress the understanding that life without Whyle is possible.
* * *
I lose track of time until the rumbling of my stomach brings me back to the present and I realize that several hours have passed. It’s only now that I consider that other people should be here—my parents need to know about Whyle. But there’s nothing Mom or Dad can do for Whyle right now other than fret over him, and I’m doing that enough for us all.
There has to be something that can be done, someone who can help. It’s just one small vial of medication that we need. Surely there’s a way to get it.
Old memories start to coalesce, and I inhale a sharp breath in excitement. I let go of Whyle’s hand and slide off the bed. Away from his radiating warmth, the air feels cold; a shiver runs through me despite the perfectly regulated air temperature.
I should go straight to the power plant and tell Mom what happened. I should go to school before the Enforcers catch me and dock me a day’s worth of credits. Neither of those things will help Whyle now. But I just might know what—or rather, who—can.
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Melanie Tays is an author of young adult, speculative fiction. She loves stories with twists you don’t see coming, intriguing questions, and satisfying answers. She spends her days imagining how the world could be different and then takes readers along for a surprising and exciting ride. Melanie lives in Arizona with her husband, Chris, and two brilliant daughters that keep life interesting.