Chapter 1

May 2017



“. . . two . . . three . . . four . . .” Andy’s count was infuriatingly slow. The lit firecrackers we held sparked and sizzled. A mix of exhilaration and dread made goose bumps break out all over my body.

We stood next to a swimming pool at a private party in Brooklyn. It was the night of our college graduation, and maybe that made everyone crazier than usual. Andy was definitely in peak crazy zone tonight. He and I stood facing one other, a brown-wrapped firecracker the size and shape of a hotdog lying across each of our four palms. The base of my spine tingled and my heart pumped ba-bum ba-bum ba-bum, like the strokes on a drum on a slave ship in some old movie.

God, I never felt more alive than when Andy and I were performing a stunt!

This particular trick had started with Andy showing up by the pool, holding aloft four candle bombs. “Where’s my man Jake?” he’d called out.

I’d been in position near the pool, pretending to listen to a group conversation. At Andy’s prompt, I stepped forward. “What are you doing, bro?”

He brandished the firecrackers. “You and me, Jakey. We light these puppies and hold on to them for the count of ten. You in?”

The crowd reaction washed over us in an electric rush. There were hoots of encouragement from the guys, and some girls lost their shit, especially Andy’s girlfriend, Amber. God, it was great. Andy was a show-off, and I was always willing to get swept along in his wild wake. His eyes stayed locked on me, but I knew he was soaking in every mote of the attention as everyone at the party gathered around the pool to see what would happen.

Andy drew attention naturally. He was so damn good-looking and charismatic with his bleached-blond hair, huge blue eyes, and wide smile. When he wasn’t being all serious, when he was playful and wild and free and reckless like he was tonight, no one could resist him.

Certainly not me. Never me. Though I pretended otherwise.

“It’s too dangerous,” I said with a pfft of dismissal. “You’ve lost your mind.”

“Only the good die young, man. Come on.”

“No way.” I shook my head, my voice firm. “We’ll blow our hands off. You’re crazy.”

“I dare ya, Jake Masterson. I. Dare. You.” He continued to hold out the firecrackers.

“Stop it!” Amber insisted. “Andy, please.”

There were hoots in the crowd. More people came out of the house to watch.

With a dramatic roll of my eyes, and a loud grumble about death wishes and how dangerous it was, I slowly reached out and took two of the firecrackers, acting all reluctant. Andy loved to fuck with people’s heads, and he said I was the best wingman ever. I certainly did my best to help freak people out.

He held up the two brown-wrapped candle bombs he still had left. “Right, then! Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, or however you define your innies and outties, I give you . . . the last great dare of NYU class of 2017!”

There were smatterings of applause and more rumbles of worry and fear. Yeah. We had them hooked.

“We’ll need four volunteers with lighters or matches.” I held out my open hands, rolling each firecracker so it was positioned partially off the side of my palm, wick facing out.

He did the same as four guys came up, lighters in hand. Andy eyed my palms to make sure I’d positioned the firecrackers just so.

“Drop them, you guys! I swear to God!” That was Amber. Her voice sounded both tearful and angry. “This isn’t funny!”

“No shit. Dudes! You’re going to get yourselves killed!” some random guy called out.

But Andy’s blue eyes had danced with life, brighter than the lit fuses, the way they only did when he was putting himself, and usually me too, in imminent danger, when he was willfully breaking every damn rule. His eyes had stayed locked on mine while a naughty grin beamed on his face. That grin said: You and me, Jakey. You and me.

“. . . seven . . . eight . . .”

I inched my hands higher, prepared to toss the firecrackers into the pool the second he got to—

“. . . nine . . .”

That’s when the world exploded.






I could blame that infamous firecracker dare on the two beers I’d had at the party, but that would be a lie. The truth was, I’d been itching for trouble before we’d even arrived.

I had to pick up Amber, so Jake took the train with a few other students to the party. The graduation bash was being hosted by some guy whose parents were out of town. It sounded like a nice change from the usual frat parties, a chance to get off campus, and there was supposed to be a pool. So everyone we knew said they were going. When I got to the house, I started walking around with Amber holding on to a back loop of my jeans. I was looking for a) beer and b) Jake.

I found the beer keg first. I poured a glass for Amber and me, and drank mine fast. Refilled my glass. Amber started to talk to some girl she knew, and I went looking for Jake. I finally spotted him talking to a brunette off in a corner of the living room. She was his type—bookish but cute, petite, part Asian, and wearing librarian glasses. She laughed at something he said, totally focused on him. And why wouldn’t she be? Jake had clearly made an effort for the party. He had on a purple, long-sleeve, button-down shirt that made his pale skin and dark hair look paler and darker than usual. The shirt was fitted, and his jeans too. He wasn’t a huge guy, but he had a great face and big brown eyes. He looked good. He also seemed to like the girl he was chatting up. Only someone who knew him well, the way I did, would see he was nervous talking to her. His throat had light pink blotches, and he licked his lips more often than usual.

Watching them, I felt a rush of jealousy. For a moment, I couldn’t breathe. It was ridiculous, and I knew it. It wasn’t that I was jealous about the girl. Whatever. No, but this was our last night out together before Jake left for California. The “terrible two-o,” as Jake jokingly called us, was breaking up. He’d landed a real job with a software company and I, I was headed to Harvard Law. Jake insisted we’d still be in touch and all that, but it wouldn’t be the same. Jake was going off to his adult life, and I’d be on the other side of the country. For tonight, at least, I wanted to spend time with my best friend. I wanted Jake’s attention on me.

Instead of interrupting him, I headed outside to poke around, get the lay of the land. That reckless itch was building inside me, pushing me to act. I needed something, something dangerous, something exciting. I just didn’t know what it was going to be. I contemplated the pool for a moment, but there were too many people already in it, and I couldn’t come up with any brilliant stunt to do in a pool.

The garage door was open and the lights were on. There was an extra keg in there, waiting to be summoned. I looked around on the shelves, bypassing tools and cans of oil, various balls and sporting gear. That’s when I found the box of firecrackers.




“It’ll be awesome!” I put my hand on Jake’s arm. I kept my voice low and looked around to make sure we were alone in the garage. “I just tested one. I counted to fifteen before it went off. I’ll make the dare for ten and we’ll have five seconds to spare. We’ll stand by the pool and toss them in the minute I reach the count.”

Jake crossed his arms and looked at me with that mix of I-want-to-but-I-don’t on his face. “What if it goes off early? We could get seriously fucked up.”

“Won’t happen. And even if it does, we’ll be fine. Watch.” I placed the firecracker across my open palm so that the wick and a good inch of the cardboard tube was hanging off the side.


“A firecracker is an explosion. When it goes off, it’s going to expand and it’ll use the path of least resistance. With our hands open, all the energy would go up into the air. Whoosh.” I mimicked the explosion with the outspread fingers of my other hand. “Our palms would barely be scratched. Now this—” I closed my fist around the firecracker and gripped it tight in a fist. “This would be stupid. The energy of the explosion would have nowhere to go, so it’d rip up skin and bones, but like this . . .” I went back to the open palm. “It’s harmless. Trust me. But, fuck, it’ll look dangerous, won’t it? People will lose their shit.” I grinned at him.

I could tell I’d hooked Jake. He might deny it, but he got off on our stunts as much as I did. He pursed his lips as if trying not to smile, then he did anyway, unable to contain it. “You’re the best bullshitter I ever met. Like, if bullshitting were an Olympic sport, you’d be Michael Phelps. You know that right?”

I felt a glow of pleasure at his words. “It’s called showmanship, my friend. So wanna do it? This is the last time. Our last dare. We’ll go out legends.”

He snorted. “Hopefully the ‘going out’ part will be figurative and not literal.”

Yeah, he was totally caving. I gave him puppy-dog eyes to seal the deal. I was manipulating him a little, but Jake knew me well enough to be on to me. And the sucky thing was, it actually was the last time. The last time for the Andy and Jake Show, for the “two guys who’ll do anything.” I knew it, and I hated it. Despite my excitement over the stunt, a nasty pang twisted in my gut.

“One last dare, Jake. You up for it?” I pushed, more to assuage the pang than because I really doubted he’d agree. I held out my fist.

He nodded slowly and bumped my hand. “Let’s do this, then. The last show.”

“The last show,” I agreed.

In the end, it turned out the information I’d quickly read on a blog about firework explosions wasn’t entirely accurate.


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