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Elixir

(Part of Elixir)
By Hilary Duff

Read an Excerpt

one


I COULDN’T BREATHE.

Wedged in the middle of an ocean of people, I gasped for air, but nothing came. The heat from a million writhing bodies radiated over me, their sweat weighing down the air. I searched anxiously for an escape, but painfully bright lights strobed on and off, clouding my sense of direction.

I was losing it. I was going to pass out.

I forced in a deep breath and tried to talk myself down. I was fine. It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous. I was on a dance floor, in the most exclusive nightclub in Paris. People lined up all night in the freezing cold for even a chance to stand where I was now.

It didn’t help. The techno beat thrummed into my brain, five notes repeating over and over and over until I knew I’d have to scream. The crowd pushed even closer and I couldn’t move my arms, could barely turn my head, and I had a sudden vision of this being forever, an eternity packed in this tiny space as confining as a coffin.

Like my father’s coffin. Did he have a coffin? Was he even buried? Did anyone even know when he died? Was he alone, lost in the jungle? Was he attacked by animals? Was he found and tortured? Had he prayed for us to save him before it was too late?

That did it. Now I was hyperventilating. I closed my eyes and forced my arms up and apart, swimming for dear life through layers of writhing, grinding bodies. I nearly cried when I felt a burst of winter air on my face. I’d made it out to the balcony. I staggered to an open love seat and leaned against its back as I drank in gulp after gulp of fresh air.

I was back; I was okay. I took another deep breath, this one calm and centering, and looked out over the nighttime Paris skyline, the Eiffel Tower bathed in yellow lights. It was beautiful. Automatically I reached for the camera bag dangling at my hip, but of course I hadn’t brought it to the club. I sighed and let my hand drift to the silver iris charm I always wore around my neck. I ran my fingers over its three upright petals and three drooping sepals. The petals represent faith, valor, and wisdom, my dad had said when he fastened the necklace around my neck on my fifth birthday. You already have all those things in spades, little girl, he’d continued, then knelt down to look me straight in the eye. But when things get tough and you forget, this necklace can remind you.

“Clea? Are you okay?”

I smiled and turned to see my best friend since forever clicking across the balcony in high strappy sandals. Those combined with her golden dress, endless legs, and thick mane of red curls made Rayna look like she’d stepped out of a Greek myth.

“I’m fine,” I assured her, but the sudden crease between her eyes proved she didn’t quite believe me.

“You were thinking about him?”

I didn’t have to answer. Her eyes fell to my hand, still fingering the iris charm, and she knew.

“It’s worse when you don’t sleep,” she said. “Maybe we should go back to the room and …”

I shook my head before she could finish. I actually felt a lot better. And even if I didn’t, sleep wouldn’t help. More often than not in the past year, sleep was just an invitation to nightmares I didn’t want.

Besides, even though I knew Rayna would leave in a heartbeat if I asked her, I also knew it was the last thing in the world she wanted to do. She had only three days before winter break ended and she had to go back to Vallera Academy in Connecticut to finish up her senior year. I knew what that was like; this time last year I was at Vallera with her. It took an extreme act of pleading on my part to get my mom to agree to the homeschool switch. Rayna and I had dedicated the entire three-week vacation to traveling and jet-setting, and there was no way she wanted to lose a single second of her remaining time to something as mundane as hanging out in a hotel room.

“I’m great,” I assured her. “I just needed a break. And Le Féroce is open all night; we’re just getting started.”

“Yes!” Rayna squealed. Then she leaned in close and added meaningfully, “I’ll fetch our dates.”

I grinned as she clicked back to the glass doors. Our “dates.” I loved that she called them that when we’d only met them an hour ago at the bar.

I settled into the love seat and looked back out at the skyline, composing photos in my mind and musing about assignments I might take when I got home. Something meaningful, I hoped. Maybe something that could feature GloboReach, my dad’s charitable foundation. So much of my dad’s press in his last year centered around the vials he uncovered; it’s like the world forgot he dedicated himself to more important things, like saving people’s lives.

“Enter … the boys!” Rayna proclaimed with a flourish as she arrived with “our dates” in tow. “Pierre … and Joseph.”

“Hi.” I smiled, taking the drink Joseph offered me. “Thanks.”

“Pas de problème,” Pierre answered for Joseph as he collapsed into the cushioned chair next to mine. “It is a pleasure to take care of deux belles filles like yourselves.” He placed two drinks on a small table, then cried out to Rayna, “Viens, ma cherie! Viens!”

With a playful growl, he wrapped his arms around Rayna’s waist and pulled her down on his lap. Was he for real? Rayna seemed to think so. She squealed happily, then settled in sidesaddle.

“You are very bad indeed,” she scolded him.

“Mais non!” he protested, then handed her a drink as a peace offering. “Pour toi.”

“Merci,” Rayna replied, locking eyes with Pierre and arching her back just enough to add another cup size as she took a sip, then set her glass back down. “Et pour toi,” she purred, and closed the distance between them for a long, involved kiss.

Fascinating. Thanks to my parents, I’ve been lucky enough to see some of the greatest actors of our time perform onstage. Rayna engaging in the art of seduction beat all of them, hands down. I wasn’t sure about her choice of partner this time, though. Pierre was so beautiful, it would be a crime against humanity for him not to be a male model, but he was so slim and angular that I imagined sitting on his lap and kissing him would be like cuddling with a porcupine. Rayna didn’t seem to mind. She came up for air with a smile that promised more, then leaned toward me and stage-whispered, “Pierre and I are soulmates.”

I tried not to laugh. I would have if it was just a line, if she were just saying it to assure Pierre he wasn’t spending his drink money in vain. But I knew in this moment, Rayna absolutely meant it, as strongly as she had meant it when she’d said it about Alexei, Julien, Rick, Janko, Steve, and Avi … all of whom she had fallen head over heels with in the past three weeks.

Personally, I don’t believe in soulmates. Rayna relishes the concept. She adores the breathless romance of a brand-new relationship. It’s a drug for her; nothing makes her feel more alive. And each time that whirlwind of ecstasy sweeps her away, she truly believes that this time it’s real; this time it’s forever. No matter how often she’s let down and disappointed, Rayna remains endlessly optimistic about the prospect of true love. It’s an attitude I can’t relate to at all, but in her I admire it to no end.

“I’m happy for you,” I said. And I meant it. If a fantasy about the man with the angles brought her joy, I was all for it.

She returned my smile, then went back to kissing Pierre, expertly avoiding getting impaled on the points of his chin and cheekbones.

“Ahem.”

Joseph had perched on the love seat next to me. His brow was furrowed. Poor guy probably assumed he’d have my full attention the moment he arrived.

“Sorry,” I offered, turning my body to face him.

“Are you okay?” he asked in a clipped British accent. “You looked terribly upset when you left the dance floor.”

“I did?” I had a disturbing image of a juicy Page Six headline: Senator Victoria Weston’s Daughter Loses It in Paris Nightclub. “Did people notice?”

“In the middle of that zoo?” He laughed. “No one but the three of us. Or the two of us, really. I’m not sure Pierre’s had his eyes off your friend’s …” He tried gesturing with his face to illustrate Pierre’s obsession with Rayna’s chest, but it was impossible to do so without stepping all over his refined sense of manners.

It was pretty adorable, really. “It’s okay,” I assured him, “I know what you mean.”

“Oh thank goodness,” he gushed. And as we laughed together, I wondered if I shouldn’t reconsider Joseph. I had written him off as Pierre’s wingman, but maybe that wasn’t fair. Physically I had no complaints: He was a little taller than my five-four, with pale skin and dark hair, a forelock of which constantly threatened to fall into his face. He was slim, but clearly toned and strong, like …

“Do you play soccer?” I asked. “You look like a soccer player.”

Great. Now I sounded as cheesy as his friend Pierre. “I mean—”

“No, it’s okay. I do play soccer, actually. Not professionally or anything, but …”

Joseph started to tell me about himself, and I did listen, but I also watched his eyes.

The eyes are the windows to the soul, Clea. My father began telling me that when I was very young, and by the time I was old enough to know it was a cliché, it already felt like an eternal truth.

Joseph’s eyes were powder blue, open and clear. A little too clear, to be honest. I kept waiting for something he said to light a fire in them, but it never happened. When he told me he was in the middle of a two-year sabbatical to “travel the world and find his passions,” I knew I was done. The right guy for me is someone who lives his passions, not someone on a scavenger hunt to find them. Rayna would say that didn’t matter; Joseph didn’t have to be my dream man to be a wonderful night’s entertainment. Maybe she was right, but I got exhausted just thinking about all the energy it would take to seem interested when I really wasn’t.

Joseph leaned forward so his forelock fell over his brow. “So now that I’ve told you everything there is to know about me … tell me about yourself, Clea Raymond.”

“Actually … I’d like to go upstairs and dance,” I answered honestly.

“Great, let’s do it,” he replied, but I shook my head as he started to rise.

“That’s okay,” I said with what I hoped was a kind enough smile. “I really just want to be by myself for a little.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah … you don’t have to wait for me or anything. I don’t want to waste your night. There are a lot of other girls in the club.”

“Ah,” he said, rising.

I cringed—had I hurt his feelings? Then he smiled. He may not have been happy, but he got it.

“Well then … nice meeting you.” He extended his hand, and I shook it. He was a sweet guy; I hoped he’d find someone else. As he strode back inside, I tapped Rayna on the shoulder and caught her eye, then made my way upstairs. The breeze kicked up as I walked, and I shivered. My strappy silk cocktail dress was far too skimpy for winter—even a winter buffered by the club’s powerful heat lamps—but it was perfect for dancing. Not the claustrophobic mosh-fest nightmare going on in the main club, but dancing.

I pulled open the balcony doors and immediately felt at ease. Le Féroce’s small Upper Lounge was the polar opposite of its wild downstairs, and far more my style. It was intimate, with subtle lighting, plush booths, candlelit sconces, a large mahogany bar, a dance floor, and a small stage on which a phenomenal singer belted out Etta James. I felt embraced by the whole atmosphere, and threaded my way through the other dancers until I was right in front of the stage, where I let the music carry me away.

I love dancing. If the music’s right, I get lost in it, and for a little while I can forget about everything else. Dancing for me is what I imagine yoga or meditation is for Rayna. It’s similar to how I feel when I’m rock climbing, all by myself on a cliff side where I can only concentrate on the next handhold, the next foothold, and the addictive pain in my muscles as I pull myself higher and higher.

My mind wandered as I danced, and I found myself imagining how the conversation would have continued with Joseph. He gave me the big clue by calling me by my full name. Based on experience, that meant there was a good chance his next question would have been, “So … what’s it like being Victoria Weston’s daughter?”

It was a crazy question, especially coming from someone like Joseph, who had casually mentioned his ties to the throne and his family’s regular appearance in the British tabs. He knew what it was like to live in the spotlight. But he wouldn’t have been asking to really find out the answer, just for something to say.

Rayna loved that question. She got it all the time too, only her version asked what it was like to be connected to the Weston family. It was the perfect setup. She’d answer by locking eyes with the guy who asked and cooing meaningfully, “It’s the people. I get to meet the most incredible people.…”

That was never my answer. I am not a people person. Maybe that’s why I was so okay with homeschooling my senior year. Rayna said she could never do it. She’d be plagued by the dozens of social dramas she’d miss every day. I wasn’t bothered by that in the least. It’s not that I don’t like people; there are certain people I absolutely couldn’t live without. Or at least people I feel I couldn’t live without. I’ve learned this year that the truth is I can’t live well without certain people, but I can live.

Rayna is one of those people. I’ve known her all my life—Rayna’s mother Wanda is my mother’s “Equine Professional.” Basically, Wanda’s the nanny for my mother’s horses. It’s a full-time job, and Wanda could never do it if she had to commute. Instead she has a guesthouse on the property, where she’s always lived with Rayna’s dad, George.

Mom and Wanda were pregnant at the exact same time, and Dad told me it drove him crazy because neither of them would listen to him and take it easy. At nine months pregnant and big as a house, Wanda would still waddle endlessly around the property, mucking stalls, scooping grain, and personally grooming and walking every horse. Mom was in state politics back then, and even though most of her travel was fairly local, it was constant. To my dad, it was nothing short of miraculous that Mom was actually home when she went into labor … exactly five minutes before Wanda. Since George was at work, Dad ended up driving both women to the hospital. They clutched each other in the backseat—two huge-bellied, panting, moaning women, both of them freaking out about the work they were missing. Dad sped all the way to the hospital, sure he’d get pulled over and arrested for being a suspected polygamist with a taste for overachievers.

Rayna and I were born exactly five hours apart—I’m the older one—and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We say we’re twins with different parents.

The tabloids love to point out the difference in social status between Rayna and me, but to me, she’s blood. My parents feel the same way. They’ve always made sure Rayna went to the same private schools I did, and she’s been invited on every family vacation.

Still, to the rest of the world, she’s not a Weston. I’m not sure that’s such a bad deal. I am a Weston, and the main thing it’s meant is a bunch of photographers chasing me from the minute I was born, writing about how I might affect Mom’s career, or whether I’d follow in the Weston footsteps one day to change the world. My family name meant that two months into seventh grade, a photo spread appeared in People magazine: “Clea Raymond’s Awkward Tween Years!” It was filled with hideous pictures of me from camp the summer before—pictures I had no idea were even being snapped. There was one of me with sleep-knotted hair and thick glasses, another of me picking out a wedgie. There’s nothing better for a twelve-year-old’s blooming self-esteem than images like that papered all over her school. They gave me a stomachache that lasted until high school.

Rayna’s an expert at glossing over bad moments like that. She always knew when my name was in magazines. She loved that I got to travel the world with my parents, and squealed with glee whenever I told her I went to some celebrity-laden event. She’s never been jealous over any of it. And even though she’s been around that stuff all her life, she never got jaded about it. She’s always excited when she comes with me to a party, or an exclusive club, or an exotic vacation spot … or something like this winter break trip, where we got to do all three.

I didn’t even realize I was dancing with my eyes closed until I felt a hand grip my arm and they snapped open.

“Clea!” Rayna shouted over the music, her eyes shiny from the drinks and the excitement of a new love of her life. “Je vais aller chez Pierre! He has a penthouse with a view of the Eiffel Tower. C’est très bon, non?

Rayna clearly thought it was très, très bon, so I had to agree. “Oui,” I said, smiling. “Just be safe. You have his address?”

Rayna nodded, and I pulled out my phone so she could type it in.

“Pepper spray?” I asked.

Rayna rolled her eyes and pulled the cylinder from her purse. I nodded approvingly.

“Anything feels wrong, you call me. No matter what. And if you don’t text me within twelve hours I’m calling the SWAT team.”

“We’re in France. There is no SWAT team,” Rayna reminded me. Then she leaned close, touching our foreheads together and looking me straight in the eyes. “I will be fine. You will never lose me.”

For the past year she’d been saying that almost every time we separated. Much as I appreciated the sentiment, I always winced at the “never.” It seemed to be taunting fate. I’d told Rayna this, but she only laughed at my “crazy superstitions.” Apparently it was fine to believe in fate delivering you a soulmate every night, but crazy to believe fate might chafe at being told what to do. I believed Rayna gave fate far too much credit for benevolence.

I stayed at the club only long enough so Rayna wouldn’t see me leave. She’d feel bad if she thought I’d gone out only for her benefit. Back at the hotel, I dove greedily for the room safe and unlocked it to grab my camera.

For as long as I can remember, photography has been my escape. My father gave me my first camera when I was only four. “Remember, Clea,” he told me, “taking pictures is a huge responsibility. Many cultures believe a photograph can capture one’s soul.”

As always, I’d listened solemnly to him, hanging on every word and believing it without question, even when Mom laughed and rolled her eyes. “Oh, Grant, look at her,” she said, her voice filled with adoration for us both. “Her eyes are saucers. Tell her it’s not true.”

“It’s not true,” Dad agreed, but his back was to Mom and she couldn’t see what I did: He was crossing his fingers. I grinned, thrilled to be Dad’s co-conspirator.

From the minute Dad gave me the camera, I couldn’t get enough of it. He loved that. He was also a photography buff, and he was proud that I could always hang for the long hours in his basement studio. Both he and Mom claim I was very mommy-oriented before I got into photography, but I don’t remember that. In my memory, it was always Dad and me, talking, laughing, and sharing everything as we worked together to turn our pictures into art.

Rayna laughs at me. Given my antipathy for the paparazzi, she thinks it’s hysterical that I’m so attached to my cameras. But to me, what I do is the anti-paparazzi. TMZsters want to capture surface. If a picture’s in focus, it’s great. My goal is to capture what the surface is hiding. There’s a story behind every face, every landscape, every still life. There’s a soul in every subject, and when my camera and I are really speaking, really working together properly, we can capture it.

In my hotel room, I placed the camera gently on my bed so I could pull on extra layers and brave the cold. I’d brought my favorite camera along for the trip—a DSLR my dad had bought me just before he left for his final GloboReach trip. Newer and supposedly better models have come out, but this one feels tailor-made for me. Quickly I yanked off the cocktail dress and heels and pulled on a pair of silk long johns, my favorite jeans, a turtleneck, a thick pullover sweater, a hoodie, and a knit beanie hat. No gloves—gloves form a barrier between me and the camera; they break our connection.

Bundled as much as I could, I pulled open the door to the balcony and stepped outside. The temperature had dipped below freezing, and ice rimmed the wrought-iron railings and furniture. I gave the skyline a cursory view, knowing I wouldn’t really see it until I looked through the lens. I took a deep breath, savoring the moment, then lifted the camera to my eye. Immediately I started snapping. I could see it all from here: little cafés, markets and libraries tucked in until morning, and above it all, the breathtaking majesty of Notre Dame, glowing in spotlights that brought it vividly to life.

I stayed on the balcony for hours, capturing every tiny intricacy of the architecture, the street, the scattered people walking by. I snapped it all, and kept the Latin Quarter company until sunrise broke over the city and everything warmed just enough for me to realize my fingers had gone completely numb.

A perfect night; and I didn’t have to sleep.

I walked back into the room, felt immediately blasted by the heat, and silently thanked myself for the foresight to turn up the thermostat before I started shooting.

My hands were too numb to dial the phone at all successfully, but after two failed attempts I managed. I asked room service for a hot cocoa, their largest pot of hot tea, and a chocolate croissant, making sure they’d leave it outside the door if I didn’t answer. I planned to be in the shower until my skin turned lobster red and every bit of the cold was leached from my body.

Forty-five minutes later I was bundled in a cozy robe, sitting on my bed, drinking cocoa and munching the croissant. Heat still radiated from my body after the blisteringly wonderful shower, as delicious as the meal. Perfectly satisfied, I flipped on the news, curious if I might catch a glimpse of Mom. Where was she this week? I couldn’t remember. Was it Israel? Moscow? Could she actually be here in Europe? I leaned back on a stack of pillows and settled in to watch …

… and the next thing I knew, I was surrounded by flames.

They were everywhere. I squeezed my eyes tight against the angry orange sear, but it didn’t help. I knew it was there; even behind my eyes I could see it.

And the smell. The pungent odor of toxic chemicals melting out of plastics, rugs, electronics. The sick scent of burning hair. Human hair. My hair?

No. I saw him now. The man staggering around the inferno that had once been a hotel room, flames dancing over his arms, his legs, his hair. He pounded at the flames, but it only fueled them, and as they leaped down to his face, the man turned to me, and I saw my father’s final agonized cry of—

“NO!” I gasped, bolting upright. My heart raced, and tears of despair rolled down my cheeks. Where was I? I clutched for my necklace and found only the thick folds of my robe. Frightened and shaken, I looked around, completely disoriented, my nose hunting for the smell of fire.

My eyes caught on the room service tray lying next to me on the bed. Chocolate croissant crumbs. Specific. Concrete. My ragged breathing smoothed, and I glanced out the window to find the comforting glow of Notre Dame. I focused on the cathedral, taking in longer and deeper breaths.

The therapist had told me the dreams would go away as time passed, but it had been a year since my dad disappeared, and they were still pretty constant. The therapist now claims it’s because of the uncertainty. If I knew what happened, if there were any answers …

But there aren’t. So my mind fills in the blanks with every horrible thing I’ve ever heard, read about, or seen. And since I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work as a photojournalist, I’ve seen all kinds of things.

In other words, my brain has a lot of great nightmare fodder.

I chastised myself over this last one, though. It was ridiculous. If I knew anything, I knew my father didn’t die in a hotel fire. He hadn’t been staying at a hotel; he’d been at a GloboReach outpost. So why would I dream about that?

My eyes drifted to the television, and it all made sense. There was a fire on the screen. I must have heard it in my sleep and incorporated it into my dream. I made a mental note not to watch the news when I fell asleep. The last thing I needed was help with my nightmares.

I winced, watching the fire. It was huge, devouring a large, beautiful apartment building that had to have been around since the 1800s. It made me sad to think something could have the fortitude to last over two hundred years, only to be destroyed in no time at all.

I turned the volume up, wanting to know more about the building and the people who were inside. My French was only okay, but it sounded like the fire had broken out somewhere on the upper floors of a building that was much coveted for its views of the Eiffel Tower.

My blood ran cold.

I had heard something about views of the Eiffel Tower tonight.

No … I was jumping to conclusions … there was no way …

I heard Rayna’s voice in my head. Je vais aller chez Pierre! He has a penthouse with a view of the Eiffel Tower. C’est très bon, non?

Still, there were a lot of apartments in Paris with views of the Eiffel Tower. The chances that this building was the same one …

I grabbed my phone and scrolled to where Rayna had written Pierre’s address, then glared at the TV anchors.

“Come on, come on,” I urged them. “Tell me where it is! What’s the address?”

“Le feu est a vingt-quatre rue des Soeurs,” the female anchor finally said.

The world stopped.

The addresses were the same.

“No!” I cried out. “Please, no. No, no, no …”

I pounded out Rayna’s number and waited forever for the phone to ring. “Pick up, Rayna, please pick up.”

Nothing. No answer.

“Shit!” I hung up, yanked on my clothes, and raced out of the room, doubling back for only a second to grab my camera. It was sheer instinct. Whatever panic I was feeling about Rayna, the fire was a news story, and I take pictures of news stories.

“J’ai besoin d’un taxi maintenant!” I snapped to the doorman as I ran outside, then followed it up with a perfunctory, “S’il vous plaît.” But the doorman had heard the desperation in my voice and had already darted into the street to flag one down.

This was taking far too long. Could I run the two miles faster? No, better to wait, but standing there was making me insane. I had to do something. I checked my watch: nine a.m. Three a.m. in New London, Connecticut. It didn’t matter. I called his number.

He answered on the third ring, sounding completely awake and alert, though I knew he had been asleep for hours.

“Clea? Are you okay?”

Thank God for caller ID. Ben knew I wouldn’t call in the middle of the night unless it was absolutely vital.

“Ben! Ben, it’s about Rayna. There’s a fire—a huge fire!”

My voice broke, and I started to sob. I couldn’t keep it together, not if something happened to Rayna. I couldn’t.

“Take a deep breath and tell me. Tell me everything.” Ben’s voice was calm and steady now. I loved that about him; the more difficult and emotional a situation, the more he’d step back and handle it logically and methodically. His voice had been my security blanket a lot this past year.

“I don’t know,” I said. The doorman had finally found a cab and I raced inside, shouting Pierre’s address to the driver. “Vite, s’il vous plaît—vite!” I curled into the backseat of the car, hugging myself as I told Ben what I’d seen.

“Okay.” Ben’s voice soothed me from nearly four thousand miles away. “Don’t panic. You don’t know anything yet. You’re going there now, right?”

“As fast as I can,” I said, reaching into my purse and pulling out a handful of euros, which I held out to the driver. “Plus vite, s’il vous plaît,” I urged.

“Great,” Ben said. “Just talk to me until you get there.”

I have no idea what I would do without Ben. My circle of trusted friends comes to exactly two: Ben and Rayna. Not even enough to make a circle—a line segment of trusted friends.

I spoke to Ben every second of the ten-minute ride. I had to. The sound of my own voice reaching out to him was the only thing that kept my entire body from flying apart and scattering into molecules of panic.

“Arrêtez! Arrêtez!!!” I shouted to the cab driver. Not that it was necessary; road blockades prevented us from going any farther. “I’m here!” I told Ben. “I’m getting out; I’ll call you back the minute I know anything.”

“I’ll wait,” Ben said, and I knew he would.

I shoved another handful of euros at the taxi driver, then ran out and immediately shut my eyes against the acrid air. I yanked my turtleneck collar over my nose and mouth to filter the smoke and ash as I ran the last block to the blazing building, pushing through gawkers at every step. Fire trucks were on the scene, but the water from their hoses seemed like an insignificant trickle, a child’s water pistol in the face of an inferno.

“RAYNA!” I screamed up to the wall of flames. “RAYNA!!!!”

“Clea!”

I spun around wildly, needing to see her face like I needed air, needing to make sure she was okay, that she wasn’t calling to me from a stretcher, gasping out her last—

“Clea … Clea, it’s okay. I’m okay … I’m right here.”

There she was, bundled into sweats and a long wool coat five sizes too large for her, her curls hidden by a massive gray hat with earflaps—a look that could have been pulled off effectively only by someone in 1930s Siberia … or a supremely angular male model.

“Oh my God, Rayna!” I cried, pulling her into my arms and squeezing too hard. I couldn’t help it. I needed proof that she was really there.

“I’m fine. Pierre and I went out for coffee. We weren’t even here when the fire started.” She pulled back just enough to press her forehead into mine and look into my eyes. “I told you you’ll never lose me, remember?”

“Don’t,” I warned, but the panic had already drained enough that I could smile. I hugged her again, and even when we pulled away we kept our arms wrapped around each other.

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” she asked solemnly, and I followed her gaze to the apartment building, its entire midsection now engulfed in leaping flames.

I had seen things like it, but that didn’t lessen the impact. Fire is magnetic—an almost illicit combination of destructive force and awe-inspiring beauty. With an effort, I turned away from the dancing slashes of flame to the scene on the street. I saw the grim determination of the firefighters, their faces betraying no emotion. I saw the onlookers, split between the curious and the personally affected—the former gaping upward in a state of exalted wonder, the latter huddled together in frightened groups, or chain-smoking and pacing like Pierre. I saw the dissonance of rainbows as the sun glinted off the water from the fire hoses.

“Itchy trigger finger?” Rayna asked, smiling. I followed her gaze to my right hand, which had already removed my camera from its bag. “You should,” she said. “I’m going to check on Pierre. And if you give me your phone, I’ll call Ben back and let him know everything’s okay. Assuming you called him,” she added with a grin.

Rayna knew me far too well. I gave her one last squeeze, then handed her the phone and disappeared behind my camera, blending seamlessly into the scene. It was where I belonged. It felt right.

I had absolutely no idea I was taking pictures that would change my life forever.

© 2010 Hilary Duff

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