Lindy Spellis signals through my bedroom window at two-thirty. It awakens me like a tap: a white smear from a streetlamp, angled in off the Kate Spade compact she keeps tucked against her right breast. I am Kind Lie every third Friday, and I sleep in full attire, Cooper's combat boots loose around my ankles. I slip through the casement and down my mother's wall-mounted trellis, fraught with wisteria. Lindy has the Harley tonight. Even on 600 pounds of custom chrome, she smokes like an heiress, her Dunhill Blonde pinched between two manicured fingertips.
"Finally," she says, shivering. Her costume is a cobalt whisper on her body, the spandex well-worn and barely there. She tosses me the helmet. I can't see her eyes behind her mask. "Get on. Someone told Hurst. He's doing something stupid."
I climb on behind her. She sweeps the kickstand up with one heel and pushes off the asphalt, soles squealing. Lindy Spellis drives like she kisses Cooper, in fits and pulses, her pace so hungry it flattens me free of breath. We're tearing down the street before I have time to curse. My parents' estate is gone in an instant.
"Careful!" I yell. The helmet is a wind tunnel, rattling my teeth.
She wrings the left handgrip, and we take a corner too fast, stammering onto the sidewalk and grazing a hedge of red oleander. Petals scatter behind us like shotgun blasts. Lindy taught me to lean into the turns a month or two ago, but I'm rusty. I don't know why she trusts me to throw my weight the right way on a deathtrap. I pray she knows something I don't.
We reach Brevard Street. Huge, straight stretch of road. You can get anywhere from here, even home. Lindy picks up another ten miles per hour. The synthetic hair of her wig whisks against my face shield in blue lashes, and I can't let go to bat it away.
"I can see the light!" I shout.
"You're hilarious! Is it white or red?"
"At the gas station!"
Her dark humor evaporates. "That's them," Lindy says, and strokes the accelerator.
The motor whines shrilly in protest. We are going eighty, then ninety. I tighten my arms around her abdomen, feel the muscles jumping under her skin. My heart beats twenty-seven times before the final ribbon of road disappears under the cycle's greedy wheels. I have to remind myself to breathe.
When we reach the Gas 'n Go, Lindy screeches to a stop, hauling the Harley into a curve that pares the tread off my boot where it skims the ground. She hits the pavement running, leaving me fumbling for the kickstand.
Flick O'Dowlane leaps out of the darkness, a blur in Freddie Fortune's gray-green leather. "He's opening the gas tank! Talk him down!"
Even their voices change incognito, their mannerisms sharper, honed with purpose. I've always felt clumsy in costume, but my friends fall into it every night like naturals. Lindy and Flick's feet throb down the street in step, and Todd-Alexander slips in from the south, Coda's black cloak an envelope of night around him. I dash after them. I'm a target in the dark, pale as a spotlight. I've always hated being Kind Lie. He was Cooper's construct. He was born to be seen, exactly how I wasn't.
Cooper raises a hand as we approach but doesn't turn his head. He is not costumed, and it jars me, his normalcy—he wears only his letter sweater, faded jeans, a Gas 'n Go nametag and a safe key on a chain. No mask. I can see the resolve in his expression.
"It's okay, Mr. Hurst," he's saying. "Whatever you're going through, we can fix it. Put it down."
Hurst is holding a match above his wife's champagne Corvette. He's shivering; the flame trembles, a stutter between his fingers. His tank is uncapped and the gasoline spills down his slacks, his polished cap-toe Oxfords. He flinches when he sees us. "It's you," he says.
We stand the way Cooper taught us: Kind Lie in the center; Cass Cade a sinuous shadow to his right; Freddie Fortune and Coda on the left, two steps behind. Always aware of our light source. Never much more than silhouettes against the streetlamps. We share four identities between the five of us, and it is rare that Cooper Corentin is the odd man out—Cooper, who rallied us together three years ago, who told us to speak up against transgressions and hold our tongues when the local newspaper ran our Sunday comic series. Stonemont knows us, loves us, laughs at us. We laugh at ourselves. But Cooper's not laughing as he inches toward Hurst tonight, his arms outstretched in peace.
"Please," he says. "Let's just talk."
The match sputters out. Mr. Hurst plucks another one free and strikes it to life, his teeth chattering. The wind carries the smell of gasoline over us in one caustic wave. Flick steps out of formation to yank Todd-Alexander behind him.
"Cooper, back off. He's going to do it," Flick says.
"He's not," Cooper insists. "He's not that selfish. He wouldn't take me with him."
"I'm doing this," Hurst says. "Leave me."
Lawrence Hurst teaches ninth grade English at Daring High School. He is a young man, handsome, performs Ginsberg with an irony so full and strong it tastes like dimes. Laura Hurst sleeps with Thom Timmins on Tuesdays, while Mr. Hurst leads the Poetry Club. Todd-Alexander is the co-president. He says Hurst favors the caesura these days, stops too often when he reads, his eyes paused miles past the pages. We never wanted him to find out about Laura. We loved him too much to tell him.
"Cooper, run," Lindy pleads. She's not supposed to speak; Stonemont knows her voice, but today she wrenches off her wig. Her brown hair spills free, a relief from the electric blue. "We can't handle this! It's not a stolen signet ring or a fucking cat in a tree!"
"It's what we were meant to do!" Cooper shouts. "It's our purpose!"
We have never prevented someone from self-immolating. We combat petty theft and boredom, not combustion. Our shadows are larger than we are now, stretching sixteen feet in front of us. We are children in costumes, and the gas is sharp in the night, cold, and getting colder.
"You're kids," Mr. Hurst says. "You're playing a game. Have you ever been in love? Has the smell of someone's perfume ever brought you to your knees? She left me for him. What do you know about life?"
"We know it's worth it," says Flick, removing his mask. He invented Freddie Fortune and still plays him best. Wingman, stuntman. Gray eyes that set fire to his stance, the shimmer of his insignia.
Todd-Alexander hesitates before he pulls his own eye mask away. He's barely fourteen, beautiful in all the quiet ways that Cooper isn't. "Mr. Hurst, please," he says. "This isn't the way."
And finally Hurst pauses. Todd-Alexander touches a wound in you that you don't know you still have. Hurst's match dies again and he doesn't scrape a new one, his platinum wedding band winking in the night, soft as a spell.
"It's you five, isn't it?" he says at last. "The lot of you. I should have known. You have this way about you. This magnetism, and—inexperience."
We wait. The Sunday serials depict us this same way: brave and backlit; blue, white, black, green. It's an inside joke that everyone here understands. Four strong, Four Honor—vigilante justice with a white-collar whimsy. Stonemont needs superheroes like millionaires need pocket change. Hurst is a twenty-thousand dollar torch, all tailored Italian wool and Clive Christian cologne.
Mr. Hurst rips the rest of the matches free and grinds them aflame. The glow of it is as bright as day, white and pure. "Why do you do it?" he asks, barely audible. "What do you hope to achieve?"
Cooper is three feet away, one foot in the fuel. The hero in him can't step back. His voice is strangled. "We want to make a difference."
Tears trickle down Hurst's clean-shaven cheeks. "It's not too much to ask. I'm sorry I couldn't help you."
"No!" I cry, launching myself forward. "Please—!"
He drops the matches.
The fire catches against the silk twill tie Laura bought him last Christmas. Splits at the groin, devours both drenched legs down to the cement. It climbs the Corvette. Laps up the Chardonnay paint, curling the color right off the silver skeleton. Cooper still hasn't moved, so I lunge for him. I make it three steps. Then the flame touches the gas tank.
Everything holds still for half a second. I see Cooper's shoelaces picking up the first tongues of fire, Lindy screaming without sound. Flick heaves himself at Todd-Alexander, driving him to the frosty grass. Then the blast shears Hurst free of skin and lifts Cooper off the ground, consuming him, and in the heat and hysteria that follows, I do not notice the car door arcing toward me.
A metal edge catches me clean across the throat. My breath jolts out of me in one brusque gasp—the last sound I will ever make. The pain is distant. I see constellations, our names written in the sky. My blood fans the gravel where I land, and Flick is on me in an instant, both palms pressed to my neck, mouthing words that I can't hear. The world goes black, then white. Only Kind Lie's insignia punctures its solidity, a diamond of gold light framing the initials, the serifs as sharp and unforgiving as shrapnel.
A week before he died, Cooper drafted his symbol over our school's announcement board. The emblem was beseeching in his calligraphic hand, bone white on bronze, the flourishes so furious the cork could barely contain them. "I didn't choose this," he said when I asked him, drawing Kind Lie's hood over his eyes. "It was never a game to me. I just know that someday we'll be in the right place at the right time, and it's going to count for something. We're more than Bentleys and debutante balls. One day, the five of us are gonna move the world."
I'd wondered then why he told me, of all the treasures in his retinue. Me, What's-His-Face, ever unremarkable against Lindy's stoic beauty and Flick's fortitude and the tenderness of Todd-Alexander's tennis serves. Only later do I realize that my presence is my power. That I have two ready hands and I hear what needs hearing. When Cooper is killed, his words resonate inside me, and what echoes up strongest is the sense of being enough.
I read part of it in the paper when I wake up four days later. Freddie Fortune, Coda, and Cass Cade disappeared moments before the ambulance arrived. Flick, Lindy, and Todd-Alexander beat my mother to the hospital, already showered free of smoke. The EMT shows me the clothes they found me in, a potpourri of my friends' fashions: Lindy's socks, Todd-Alexander's shoes and belt, the rest Flick's. All of it stiff with blood. Flick tells me that they disposed of the costume in the fire, everything that would burn, saving only the cufflinks. Tiny gold monograms. They scalded Lindy's hands when she grabbed them. She shows me the marks, swept backwards into smiles: CC, Cooper Corentin. The only part of him we have left now.
"It severed your vocal cords," Lindy tells me. She wears no makeup; her face is naked, a stranger's. "You might never speak again. I can't believe this is happening."
She expects the silence to hurt me, but how is this any different? I remember my voice. I'll remember the rarity of it, the crispness of my T's, the way the sentences sounded when I meant them. My only regret is my last word. Please, I'd screamed, flinging myself into the fire, as if it'd merit any mercy. Given another chance, I wouldn't waste my breath on an appeal. Cooper, I would say, as many times as I could manage. My best friend. Seventeen years of him, bathed in flames.
Cooper Corentin. The original Kind Lie.