by Kristina Mahr (@Kristina_Mahr)

Editor: Holly Ingraham (@holly_ingraham)
YA Contemporary Fantasy

Query

In a world where heartbreak physically manifests as heartfire, love could quite literally kill you.

Eighteen-year-old Juliana Wells has always been quite sure love isn’t worth the risk. After years of visiting heartfire scenes with her fire chief dad, she knows firsthand how quickly love can go from head over heels to an inferno, to ashes. She has college in the fall and big dreams to chase, and she can’t do any of that if she’s dead of something as stupid as heartfire. So no, she has no intention of ever falling in love.

What she didn’t count on was her best friend Mavi falling in love with a boy named Bastian Vaughn, whose twin brother Ezra challenges everything Juliana has always believed about love. Desperately trying to prevent Mavi’s heart from going up in flames, Juliana finds herself thrown together with Ezra over and over again, her carefully drawn lines blurring. All of a sudden, her lifelong plans to keep her heart firmly in its place, with its barbed wire borders and No Trespassing signs, are in danger of falling apart thanks to the unexpected way he sees the world and allows her to see it, too, and his penchant for taking the simplest moments and stretching them into magic.

After a life of black and white, of knowing who she is and what she wants, one summer spent amidst the sunflowers with her best friend and the boys who could very well be the death of them, puts everything at risk. If only she could know if this is a risk worth taking… or the beginning of the end.

HEARTFIRE is a contemporary young adult fantasy novel, complete at 77,000 words. It is a standalone project with series potential. I believe it will appeal to readers who enjoy contemporary novels with the first love feel of Kasie West's novels, as well as fantasies in the style of Maggie Stiefvater.

I currently reside in Chicago, Illinois, spending my days with numbers as an accountant and my nights with words, working on my next novel. My debut novel, All That We See or Seem, was published by Uncommon Universes Press in May 2018, with the sequel, A Dream Within a Dream, released in March 2019, but I would like to work with an agent going forward to really help move my career forward.

First Five Pages

CHAPTER ONE

Even in death, she reaches for him.

Even in death, she’s a fool.

He died first, is my guess. Forensics will confirm, but I can already see it all playing out in my mind so vividly, so clearly. He’s got a cell phone in his hand, and I’m assuming it’s hers. She was in nothing but a towel, like she came out of the shower and there he was, sitting on the couch, her phone in his hand.

I bet it was a text.

It usually starts with a text these days.

I bet it dinged or buzzed and he just couldn’t help himself.

Maybe it said something like “I miss you” or “I need you,” something like “I love you.”

Maybe it was from a number he didn’t recognize.

Or maybe it was from his best friend.

His heart was probably halfway up by the time she even got out there. And then when he showed it to her, screamed it at her, desperately, desperately pleaded with her… her face might’ve shown something. Guilt, shame. Defiance. Probably not defiance though, because hers went up too.

She broke his heart, and in today’s world, heartbreak equals heartfire. And when she saw what she’d done, hers went up too.

They’re both goddamn fools.

We all know the way the world works. We all know it. There’s no excuse for anyone to go strolling into love with their head in the clouds, thinking theirs will be the love story that doesn’t end in heartfire. There’s no excuse, and yet here we are, at the second double this week. The second double this week here, in my small town of Saudade, California. I don’t need to watch the news to know that we’re not an anomaly. Cities like Los Angeles have 3-5 doubles a day. It’s an epidemic. A plague.

Darwin at his finest.

“Within minutes of each other, I’d say,” my dad says, coming over to stand next to me as he tousles one hand through his increasingly grayer hair. He has his firefighter’s helmet under his arm and exhaustion layered deep into the lines on his face. He’s been up for nearly 24 hours by now. He was supposed to be on his way home when they got the heartfire call, and my dad doesn’t know how to turn his back on a call, even if his shift was technically over an hour ago. He’s the chief of the Saudade Fire Department, and I’d say it’s a toss-up between which role he takes more seriously: being chief or being my dad.

They go pretty hand in hand, though. When he got the heartfire call, the first thing he did on his way over was call me and tell me to meet him here. I’ve been coming to heartfire scenes with him since I was eight years old. Ten years of being shown firsthand the risks of falling in love. It’s not something I’m likely to forget at this point. What used to be horror at seeing burned bodies has long since morphed into disdain toward fools who fall in love.

Not that I don’t still throw up every time I leave a heartfire scene.

Not that I don’t still wake up in the middle of the night some nights and frantically look around, haunted by the scent of burned flesh.

It’s unorthodox parenting, but it’s kept me safe. It will continue to keep me safe. I’m not dying before I live out my life. Not of something as stupid as heartfire. I mean, if a bus gets me crossing the street one day, that’s another thing entirely. But no, it’s not going to be heartfire.

And anyway, what started as him bringing me along to show me the risks has evolved into something else for me. Something more. It’s turned into my life’s goal, why I’m majoring in forensics at Penn State in the fall. I love taking in the details of a scene and trying to piece together what happened. It’s like a puzzle. A charred, broken puzzle, but it will always form a picture. So even though part of me wants to turn and run the second I walk through the door of a heartfire scene, a far bigger part of me can’t resist trying to figure out what happened.

“Him first, right?” I look up at my dad. “And then she went for the door?”

“For help, I’m guessing,” he nods. “To try to stop it from happening.”

I ask the question I always ask, the one I can’t ever help asking. “Do you think his would’ve stopped if he’d seen hers go up for him?”

My dad exhales long and slow, a sigh that lasts a second for every year he’s been on the force, half a second for every body he’s seen with ashes where a heart used to be. He answers the same way he always does, a crackle beneath the words, a sink to his already deep voice. “There’s no way to know. The timing never works out in cases like this.”

No, it never does. He was too busy dying from her hurt to notice her start dying from hurting him.

“Captain, we’ve got a car.” Linden had been leaning in the doorframe, grinding the heels of his hands into his eyes, probably past his own time to clock out, but he stands up a little straighter as he gestures us over with a flick of his chin. Squealing tires back him up half a second later.

Everyone had already been wearing pretty sober expressions, on account of the two bodies in the room with us, but as one, their mouths flatten, their brows furrow. Mine probably does too. We all know what comes next.

The family.

“J -” my dad starts to say, but I cut him off with a nod and slide out the front door. I know I can’t be here for this.

There are a lot of different kinds of heartbreak. Not just the fools who fall into love, who trip and fall and plummet into it like it’s a pit they should’ve seen from eight miles away, but love is blind and all that. There are also the ones who aren’t fools, who didn’t have a say in it. The ones born into love. You can’t help but love your kids. Your parents. Your siblings. It’s a different kind of love, but it’s love.

And even that kind of love can end in heartbreak.

In heartfire.

I cut through the bushes to the right of the front door, ignoring the cracked, uneven path that would’ve taken me to the driveway, the driveway now occupied by a car whose tires give one final squeal before they come to a halt. My dad takes that way. My dad and Linden and Calder, their helmets all back on, every step cautious. Even the three cops who had been milling around the crime scene give them space. After all, they’re not equipped for what may come.

I break into a jog as I duck under the reaching arms of an oak tree, my legs eating up the green, green grass of the lawn, of their lawn, of a lawn that no longer has an owner. It looks and smells freshly cut. Like someone took pride in their small corner of the earth, like someone planned on sticking around. As I run, I can’t help but wonder who planted the flowers in the bed to my left. Who hung the hammock from that reaching oak. Who built a life, who built this life, who burned it all to the ground.

And then the wailing starts.

I skid to a stop on the sidewalk and turn to face them.

There was a woman in the passenger seat - she is now on the ground.

She is kneeling, keening, clenching her fingers into the dirt patch beside the driveway, her face tilted into the sun, forgetting, from the sounds of it, how to breathe.

I listen closely. There’s a difference between a grief-stricken wail and a heartfire wail.

I watch closely. If there is smoke coming from her chest, I can’t see it from here.

My dad squats down a step or two - too close, I think - from where she is, his mouth forming words that I can’t make out, that I doubt she can hear over her own screams.

It’s a frozen moment.

A pause, while we all wait to see.

I count to five, slowly, slowly.

And finally, my dad sits back on his haunches. I don’t need to be closer to know that his next exhale will be a relieved one. If it was going to go up, it would’ve gone up by now. The man who had climbed out of the driver’s side at some point comes to put his arms around her shoulders, to pull her into him, and it’s like someone pushes play on the world again. The birds, who had been silent, who had seemingly held their breath along with the rest of us, resume their frenzied conversations. Somewhere, a lawn mower starts back up.

There aren’t going to be any more dead bodies here today. Just the two.

“What happened?” A voice abruptly says, from far too close.

I jump ten feet in the air and leave my skin behind.

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