New York Times bestselling author Julie Buxbaum explores the blinding power of lies, the tight grip of family secrets, and the magic of first love in this poignant novel about a trio of friends and the allure of romantic feelings that fractures their bond as they struggle to remain true to themselves while building back the grounding friendship on which they once relied.
It was a year on fire. They fell in love. Someone was bound to get burned.
The Spark: Just days before the start of junior year, a spontaneous kiss and then a lie shake the very foundation of the friendship between best friends Immie and Paige. Immie’s twin brother, Arch, knows something, only he’s not talking. Some loyalties run too deep to be broken by accidental betrayal.
The Fuel: Enter Rohan, new to Wood Valley High by way of London, who walks into school on the first day completely overwhelmed by his sudden move halfway around the world. When Paige calls dibs on him—he’s too cute to ignore—Immie is in no position to argue, certainly not after taking the fall for the disloyal kiss. Too bad for Immie that Ro feels like the best kind of familiar.
The Kindling: Former lab partners Arch and Jackson, Paige’s ex-boyfriend, have never considered themselves more than friends. But sometimes feelings can grow like flames fanned by the wind.
The Flames: When the girls’ bathroom at Wood Valley is set ablaze, no one doubts it’s arson. But in this bastion of privilege, who’d be angry enough to want to burn down the school? Answer: pretty much everyone.
An Excerpt fromYear on Fire
A single kiss had blown up Immie Gibson’s life. How strange that two people’s lips touching--not even Immie’s lips, mind you, but two other people’s lips and for no more than thirty seconds--could be the reason why, on this first day of junior year, Immie sat sweating in her linen shirt. That’s how long Arch had said the kiss with Jackson had lasted: thirty seconds, tops.
On reflection, maybe it wasn’t that strange. After all, Immie had never been kissed, not properly, not in the way you see in movies, with eyes closed and a sudden, lurching passion.
Maybe everyone else knew that kissing bent the space-time continuum and validated chaos theory and also could indirectly make your best friend low-key hate you.
Maybe this kind of thing happened every day.
“Bad idea,” Paige said, pointing to Immie’s shirt. “Linen always wrinkles.” Her button-down had somehow, during the ride to school, turned from crisp and optimistic to defeated. Crumpled, like her mood.
“Do I have sweat stains? I feel like I have sweat stains,” Immie said, pretending she didn’t notice the new way Paige liked to throw tiny darts in her direction, how it was not yet eight-thirty a.m. and her torso was made up of a million microscopic seeping wounds.
“Say that a little louder. I think the boys in the back didn’t hear you,” Paige said.
“You do not have sweat stains,” Arch said. “Relax, Im.”
Paige had been Immie’s best friend since seventh grade, when Immie arrived at Wood Valley Middle School feeling nervous and overwhelmed, a donkey in a field of ponies. Middle school was supposed to be filled with awkward kids--braces and acne, an inability to move smoothly through the world, like you hadn’t yet been given the map. Wood Valley, on the other hand, was packed with the well-mannered, the well-groomed, the already slick. The girls even carried cute pouches--canvas and pink polka-dotted and monogrammed--to hold their new menstrual products, like puberty was adorable and fun.
Even at the horrific age of thirteen, Immie knew: these people were born with maps. The rules didn’t apply.
Also, her period was horrifying.
At their very first assembly in the auditorium, the headmaster stood on the stage and told the gathered mid-pubescents that their admittance to Wood Valley and this important first year of seventh grade were the start of an “illustrious career.”
Paige, who was sitting to Immie’s right, as she would many times after that by choice, but whose appearance that first day seemed like nothing short of a miracle, sneezed into her hand the word: bullshit. Immie thrilled at the transgression. Archer, Immie’s twin brother who always sat to her left, who had sat there since pre-K, probably since the womb, wrote down the words illustrious career in his shiny, new composition notebook in neat block letters, and then underlined it twice. Arch was born first, by four minutes, so they were always Arch and Immie, a single unit. Or Archer and Imogen, if their dad was angry. They had never been Immie and Arch (or, worse, the matchy-matchy Immie and Archie), which sounded like a crime-fighting duo in a kids’ chapter book.
Sometimes things are set in the beginning.
That’s what it felt like when Immie found herself sitting in between her brother and Paige on that first day of seventh grade, like the ground was firming beneath her feet, right there at the start of their illustrious careers or this bullshit, depending on your perspective. They would be Arch and Immie and Paige from then on.
Immie’s premonition had been right, or maybe it wasn’t a premonition. Perhaps she’d willed it. Either way, they soon became a threesome. Paige had rolled up like seventh grade was just seventh grade. No big deal. Later, Immie would learn Paige could do pretty much anything she wanted and not get in trouble, that sneeze-cursing was the least of her transgressions. Overconfidence and a sly sense of humor were Paige’s superpowers, and once Immie understood that about her best friend, she wondered if maybe she hadn’t been the one to will their connection--Paige probably had.
But that beginning was a long time ago. Middle school angst had given way to high school comfort--or at least, if not comfort, routine--and so today wasn’t supposed to feel like seventh grade all over again. And yet, Immie felt the familiar flutter of panic, the rush of wetness under her arms. If there weren’t sweat stains a moment ago, there were now. Paige claimed to have forgiven her, but this was, to sneeze-quote Paige herself, bullshit. If Immie had been in her position, if she had thought Paige had kissed her boyfriend, though of course Immie had never had a boyfriend for Paige to kiss because she was a normal living on a planet full of mermaids, she would have been livid. Immie believed in clear lines.
Now, though, if Immie somehow miraculously found a boyfriend, she’d pass him right over to Paige and make them even.
Here, kiss him and hurt me. I miss us.
Of course, neither life nor boyfriends actually worked that way. And Immie hadn’t kissed Paige’s boyfriend (well, ex-boyfriend now), Jackson, in the first place. But Paige would never know that, could never know that, and so Immie was stuck permanently in the aftermath of this ridiculous, self-destructive lie. She was also stuck in this wrinkled linen shirt that gave off a cardboard smell, in this school where she didn’t fit in, in this life that made her long desperately for college, as if she had to wait two whole years to pull the emergency exit lever.
That was what she was thinking about--the kiss and her earlier inexplicable optimism and her tiny wounds and their invisible droplets of blood--when the new boy walked in. Later that night, she would tell Arch that the new boy had smelled of smoke, that when she saw him she immediately thought of campfires and s’mores, and so he might be the arsonist. Arch, like a runner throwing a baton, would pass this information to Paige and plant a tiny seed of suspicion. They all felt badly about that later.
But Immie was wrong. The new boy did not smell like smoke. Fires can be a lot like kisses: they can confuse your chronology and leave no reliable witnesses.
Before the alarm went off and they were evacuated to the fields, Immie looked up and saw the new boy, took in his British accent and his sweet brown eyes, and felt an entirely different kind of wound, this one larger, more pointed, possibly fatal. Like someone had put out a cigarette on her heart. (Is that why she thought she smelled smoke? Had her subconscious transformed the image in her mind into something literal?)
Paige, who Immie had thought had gone to the bathroom, but was now sitting next to her again, a tiny bit breathless, tapped her on the arm.
“Dibs,” she whispered.
The new boy seemed conjured from her imagination, like that morning Immie had handed God a list not unlike the one she was putting together about herself for those future college applications, and God had handed her this person right back. This feeling was altogether new, and not, if she was honest, entirely pleasant.
“Apologies for my tardiness. Got a bit turned around on the motorway. Total chockablock,” he said to Ms. Lee, and handed her the slip of paper in his hand. “Also, you drive on the wrong side of the road here. Bloody confusing, it is.” He had tousled hair and brown skin and the sort of accent that conjured up the image of a monarchy. He turned to the class, sad-eyed and wry-smiled, and cocked his head to the side, puppy-like, as if waiting for someone to point to an empty seat and invite him to sit down.
Immie sucked in that bloody confusing, it is as if through a straw. She wondered if the new boy was intentionally using as many Britishisms as he could. Like he had decided on the plane ride over the Atlantic that this would be his bit--all Britishisms all the time. Maybe someone had told him that American girls liked that sort of thing.
We do, Immie thought. We do.
“It’s a freeway, not a motorway,” Jackson called out from the back of the room, reminding Immie again of Jackson’s existence, which is something she generally tried to forget. Immie had claimed the kiss with Jackson as her own, had reached out and grabbed it, like catching an air kiss blown across the room at someone else. There was no denying she had protected her brother at the expense of her best friend, which, even now, ten days after it all went down, while she was still stewing in the aftermath, felt like the right call. What surprised her most about the scandal was not the lie itself and how easily she told it; it was how easily Paige believed Immie, as if she had been waiting to be betrayed by her this entire time.
Arch, Immie’s twin brother and her better half, her favorite person since birth, had betrayed Paige and kissed Paige’s boyfriend, Jackson. Sometimes Immie repeated it to herself--Arch kissed Jackson and I said I did it--because it still seemed like a bizarre dream.
Arch liked to joke that he was the first out of the womb because Immie had pushed him. That might have been true. Immie’s mom often told the story that when they were babies, Arch wouldn’t settle unless Immie was placed beside him in the bassinet. That might have been true too. The point is: Arch and Immie predated Arch and Immie and Paige.
The two of them had never discussed the myriad other possibilities: Arch coming out and claiming that stupid kiss himself. Or maybe separating this particular kiss from some bigger statement about Arch. They didn’t even discuss the possibility of him trying what Jackson had managed through the years--cultivating an ambiguous sexual identity. No one would have been surprised to hear that Jackson sometimes kissed boys; he had long ago hinted at his bisexuality or maybe pansexuality, seeming to be above any concerns about labels. But Jackson was like Paige in that way: he was given the single gift of adulthood early--there would be no delay in him getting to be exactly who he was.
Arch was the absolute last person you would think would ever kiss their best friend’s boyfriend. Not because people thought he was hetero, but because he was Arch. Goodhearted, reliable, loyal Arch, who told you if you had toilet paper stuck to your shoe and left his test answers unguarded by his arm when he knew he was nailing them in case the person next to him needed some help.
Arch had come to her crying that night, covered in snot and guilty tears--Paige was his best friend too, after all. As they sat on the bottom bunk, Immie folded her arms around him.
She decided then, in the loneliest hours of the night, when her resoluteness felt like it could slip away by morning, that she’d be the one to take the fall with Paige. This was for reasons far more complicated than sexuality or identity. Or maybe it was for reasons far simpler. Immie and Arch’s father was unpredictable and a little scary, and neither of them wanted to explain to Paige the impossible tightrope they walked at home. How the slightest shift--a birthday, maybe, or friends coming over for dinner--could cause him to erupt, and how afterward, they were unsure how to trace back the unraveling. Their father wouldn’t rage about the birthday, of course--you couldn’t blame someone for having a birthday. Still, a target would always be found: how their mom made the cake, how their mom arranged the cake on the table, how their mom had forgotten their dad hated flowers made of frosting. Immie and Arch’s father was likely not homophobic, but that was irrelevant to this sort of inexplicable calculus.
And explaining this to Paige, when they could barely understand it themselves, would require a certain kind of strength and clarity neither of them possessed.
The new boy took the only open seat, which happened to be next to Arch. He had fidget hair, Immie thought, and when he reached up and nervously tugged on his head and twisted a strand around his finger, she silently groaned. She felt her eczema flare in her inner elbow, a burn that needed cooling.
“You must be Rohan, I presume?” Ms. Lee, the English Honors III teacher asked, and for a minute, her voice too had taken on the British accent, because the gentle lilting was charming and contagious and it seemed she couldn’t help trying it on for size.
“One and the same,” Rohan said, which made Immie want to turn to him and say something idiotic like Mind the gap or Have you met Prince Harry? Or maybe just: You. “Though everyone calls me Ro. Sorry again about the interruption.” He slid out a spiral notebook, which was covered in band stickers, none of which Immie recognized. Ro wore a black T-shirt with a cartoon of a mohawked chicken, tight cuffed jeans, and gray Nike high-top sneakers. His teeth were straight and white, and though, as a true Anglophile, Immie was Team Crooked Teeth, she forgave him this imperfect perfection.
Immie shivered and realized she was no longer sweating. Instead, she was covered head to toe in goose bumps, because his name was Ro, which seemed exactly what the boy of her dreams should be called. Something catchy and to-the-point. Im and Ro.
“Yum,” Paige whispered, another single-syllable follow-up to her earlier dibs, and the word landed in Immie’s gut, like a stone sinking in water. Of course, she wasn’t even a little surprised when Paige claimed what was always going to be hers, what Immie would have given her, had he been, against all odds, Immie’s to give. That’s how badly she needed Paige’s forgiveness.
Still, this boy, whoever he may be, was a person, not a penance to be given. He was not a figment of the imagination or even, Immie realized, anything more to her than a person, a stranger transmogrified into a feeling. If it had been a month ago, even, Immie might have made a joke about how you can’t call dibs on a boy the way you call shotgun for the front seat. But it wasn’t a month ago. It was the first day of junior year, and the kiss had just happened, like a lit match to the dry forest floor, and there was no pulling it back.
All she wanted was for them to be Arch and Immie and Paige again.
There was no such thing as Im and Ro.