Prologue

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Hayden Parker peeled his eyes open.

Christ, his head was pounding. It was like somebody was playing the damn bongos up there, and the song had obviously been written specifically to torture him. It was so damn loud. His chest felt unnaturally heavy, too. He looked down, expecting to see Bruiser sitting on top of him, drooling all over the blankets, but the old Rottweiler wasn't there. There was nothing there. He groaned at the empty space. He needed air.

His room was unseasonably warm, leaving him sweating on a night that had called for an extra comforter on the bed. All of these things together made him want to roll over and go right back to sleep. Or be sick. Whichever was going to make him feel better; anything was better than this. He shoved all of his blankets off, desperate for a bit of cool air.

Maybe he should open the window. Fresh air would probably help with everything—his headache, the heat, and the dryness all in one shot. Hell, it couldn't make things any worse. And water. He needed water. He could feel his lips cracking in the stifling heat of the room. His mouth was drier than the Sonoran Desert, where his family had vacationed last year...

He forced himself to sit up.

Bad idea. The bedroom spun all around him, at one point doing a complete three-sixty. Hayden gripped the headboard to keep from keeling over as bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it back down. It roiled in his stomach, bitter and warm, re-planning its grand entrance. What were the chances of him making it to the bathroom before it came back up? Slim to none, he was sure. But he didn't have a bucket nearby. Hadn't needed one since he'd cut party-girl Dianna out of his life.

Hayden resisted the urge to call for his mother. He was seventeen years old, for Christ's sake. He could deal with this on his own.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Except the breath didn't go as deep as he'd thought it would. His heavy chest wouldn't allow it to, and it didn't help him to steady himself. His head throbbed in protest, and he almost gagged at the bad taste in his mouth. What was that? It tasted like burnt toast. Was Violet trying to make her own breakfast again?

Smoke. That taste was smoke.

But it was the middle of the night. Why would he be smelling sm—

Hayden's eyes shot wide open.

His room was hazy. How hadn't he noticed that before? The glaring red alarm clock on his dresser told him it was three in the morning—nowhere near early enough for the sun to be coming up—but there was a strange light dancing through his window. It was faint, but more than enough for him to see by. It illuminated the billowing smoke outside, racing up into the night sky beyond—the smoke that had already invaded his room.

There was a roaring all around him, louder now that he'd noticed it, and somewhere beyond that roaring, his little sisters were screaming.

Fire.

The word struck him like a hurricane.

Fire. The house was on fire.

He launched from his bed and threw himself towards the door. His head screamed at him to lie down, to stop the spinning and the pounding and the nausea, but he ignored all of that to focus on what was happening outside of his room. He needed to get to his sisters; he needed to get to his parents. Why wasn't Dad banging down his door already? Why wasn't Mom screaming for Vivienne and Violet?

The doorknob scalded his hand, searing his skin as he grasped it.

He drew back quickly, sucking in a lungful of smoke as he gasped from the pain. He coughed immediately, working to expel the invasion from his body. He could see the smoke clearly now: seeping in through the cracks around his door, pushing its way into his space. Every now and then it would part to show him an orange flicker, and his heart sank. The hallway must have been ablaze. Had it already taken the stairs? It seemed likely.

His heart screamed in time with his head. How the hell was he supposed to get out?

He looked to the window, his only other option. If he was careful, he could skirt around to his sisters' room and get them out too, and all three of them could make it down the old willow tree to the yard below. Mom and Dad would have to find their own way out, if they hadn't already. There was no way he could get to their room—the ledge outside didn't stretch in that direction.

He went for the window, working the latch quickly, ignoring the heat of the handles as he pulled the panel up...

But the damn thing wouldn't budge.

What was usually a smooth and easy job had become something impossible. He shook the frame fiercely in an attempt to loosen it and pounded a fist against the glass when that didn't work, wanting to scream but not willing to waste what little breath he had left. The pane vibrated with the impact, the glass rattling in protest at his anger.

He stared at it dumbly. The glass...

His baseball bat was right where he'd left it—propped up against the head of his bed, his lucky cap hanging off the top of it. Its handle was comfortable in his hands, familiar after all the times he'd swung it. It was his oldest friend; he knew it wouldn't fail him now. Not when he needed it the most. Not when his life—and his sisters' lives—depended on it.

He took aim at the window...

The glass exploded in a crystalline shower before he could swing. It came in with the overbearing heat and plumes of smoke that bullied their way through the opening, all three pushing Hayden back so forcefully that he fell to the floor in an ungraceful, sprawling heap.

His head hit the warping wooden floorboards. Hard.

The smoke closed in all around him, a black mass that blinded and smothered him, pushing away the cool air that had been on the floor not a moment earlier. It scorched his throat as it forced its way in. His nose burned.

Winded and terrified, Hayden took a deep, shuddering breath—the last that he would ever take.

And on the other side of the world, Zoe Halsman jerked awake with the taste of smoke stuck in her throat.

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A/N: the prologue is one of the very few parts of this story that I didn't feel the need to totally rewrite, so those who read the first draft will have recognised this. I only added a couple of details; nothing major was changed. 

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