Site Loader

Sneak Peeks

Read an excerpt of We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire by Joy McCullough

From the author of the acclaimed Blood Water Paint, a new contemporary YA novel in prose and verse about a girl struggling with guilt and a desire for revenge after her sister’s rapist escapes with no prison time.

Scroll down to read an excerpt of Joy McCullough’s We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire.

we are the ashes

Content warning: this book contains mentions of sexual assault.


Chapter One

“You can’t react.” Mom smooths her hair for the forty-­seventh time since we parked in the public garage a block away from the courthouse. Now we sit in the freezing car. Waiting. “No matter what. All the cameras—­”

“I know.”

“Don’t snap at your mother, Marianne.”

I watch the slice of Papi’s face in the rearview mirror. The fresh gray at his temples, the new lines around his eyes.Weary would be a specific word choice.

They’re so afraid, my larger-­than-­life parents. Shrinking into themselves for nearly a year, layering on armor that doesn’t even protect them. Retreating when they should have been on the front lines. With me.

My fury begins to unfurl, deep down. If I stay trapped in their inaction, it will spill out, blazing hot, and scorch them until their skin blisters, the seats of this ancient car melt, the whole thing burns down.

“I have to stretch my legs.”

I bolt from the car before they can object.

They would object. They want to keep me close, muzzle me,don’t write your columns about the case, Marianne, don’t be so outspoken, Em, don’t, don’t, don’t.

Outside the car, I’m free of their crushing inaction but I’m boxed in by the dark, low ceilings of the parking garage, the stench of furtive smoke breaks, urine, and gasoline seeped into concrete that’ll never be washed clean.

I walk toward the hazy light of the exit to the street. Every step I take away from the car, I know my mom is fretting. We’re supposed to wait for Layla! Walk in together. United front!

But the slick sidewalk grounds me, the damp air, the concrete and steel fading into skies that are yet another shade of gray. This is my Seattle. I dig a dollar out of my pocket and hand it to the guy huddled in the opposite corner of the parking garage entrance.

Mom can still see me from the car. And I can see the courthouse down the block. It was imposing at first. Now, after so many months, I yawn at the building. The way my sister’s tabby always yawned his ambivalence about human existence. Until he got hit by a car, at which point he was probably less ambivalent.

Across the street, a guy immersed in his phone looks up, leers. Does he recognize me from the trial coverage? Or is he a dime-­a-­dozen dirtbag?

I hold his gaze until he looks away.

Dirtbag, then. The trial never looks away.

Even after it’s over—­so soon, it will be over—­its gaze will linger.

A car pulls into the garage and I catch a glimpse of Layla’s hijab, bright orange in the dull beige of her ancient station wagon. Nor pulls in right behind Layla, as though the victim advocate took her job so seriously she escorted my sister all the way from campus. Really, we’re all here at the same time by horrible circumstance.

Papi climbs out of our car and heads around to open Mom’s door like he always does, but she bursts out on her own.

“Good morning.” Layla’s voice echoes in the parking garage and I flinch at the slam of her car door. “How are we doing?”

Papi gives her a tight smile and nod, but Mom can’t rip her eyes off my sister’s car. She’s fighting every instinct she has to race over, throw open Nor’s door, and yank her out into her arms. I know, because I’m doing the same thing.

“We’re okay,” I say. “How are you?”

Layla gives her familiar smile, the one we’ve seen for months. It manages to be warm and supportive, while never dismissing the reason she’s in our lives. “One of my neighbor’s new chickens has turned out to be a rooster,” she says. “But aside from that I can’t complain.”

When this is all over, I’ll send Layla a thank-­you for all the time she spent answering my questions about legal procedures, and what all the various charges meant. The difference between “indecent liberties” and “assault with sexual motivation.” If I could make sure my high school paper got it right, theSeattle Times reporters could have spent a bit more time critiquing how our system works and less time weeping over the lost potential of Craig Lawrence’s future.

Nor still doesn’t get out of the car. My parents wanted to pick her up, arrive together. But they didn’t insist when she said she’d drive herself.She needs to feel like she’s in control, Mom said, like we haven’t all read the same books and websites about supporting survivors.

Mom starts toward Nor’s car, but Layla places a gentle hand on her arm. “Give her a minute?”

Layla’s as badass as they come but she doesn’t need to talk like an alpha male to get my mom to listen. I could throat-­punch every armchair pundit who criticized Nor’s uptalk in the one interview she gave—­and the defense attorney for defining her speech patterns as “hesitant.”

When Nor finally emerges, though, Mom doesn’t hold herself back. Layla doesn’t stop her—­she’s Nor’s advocate, not her bodyguard.She doesn’t like to be touched anymore, I want to scream as Mom fusses over ­Elinor’s everything. Perfect collar, perfect hair, perfect cheeks. If everything looks perfect, maybe we won’t shatter into a million irretrievable pieces.

I pull my hair out of its ponytail, let the wind rip through it. My lungs seize in the unusually cold air and I breathe deep to spite it.

In the midst of Mom’s hovering, Nor catches my eye. I tell myself she’s going to roll her eyes any second.Classic Mom, right? We’re going to share a moment like always, Em and Nor, Nor and Em, they basically share a brain.

But before the moment can flicker into a flame, Layla clears her throat. “All right. Everybody ready?” A flame never stood a chance in this wind anyway.

We move as a group, a funeral procession. Layla puts herself between us and the scrum of reporters as we approach the courthouse steps, but she’s small, no match for a dozen cameras. I glare defiantly, give them something to photograph while Elinor looks demurely down. They might think we’re allies because I wanted this story covered, I fed them tips, but being Twitter mutuals doesn’t give them a right to treat my sister like a Hollywood starlet with a wardrobe malfunction.

Though the reporters are kept outside, the probing eyes, the pointing never ends. Through security, up the stairs, more glares, more scrutiny, better suited to someone headed for the defense table, accused of a terrible crime, but instead, once inside the courtroom Layla leads us to the seats behind the prosecutor’s table.

Once upon a time, Nor and I sat together through every family movie, school assembly, wedding, funeral, holiday dinner. But now my parents flank my sister, leaving me to the side. It’s not about me. I get it. But also I want to crash through their miserable attempt at a fortress, take Nor’s hand, and remind her that I’m the one who’s never wavered, never given up belief that she would have justice.

The assistant district attorney appears in front of us, gives me an encouraging nod, then turns to Elinor and my parents, murmuring softly. She’s young, newly appointed, passionate. She’s made an excellent case. When she almost took an absurd plea deal—­only six months for violent rape with a witness?—­she listened when I sent her theOracle piece I wrote about the Jacob Anderson case. She considered the Twitter attention around the article and held out for actual justice.

Our case couldn’t have gone better, really. In a brutal, horrific, gut-­splattering way.

The only thing that remains is for the jury to deliver their verdict, the judge to render his sentence. For Craig Lawrence to go to prison for the rest of time.

The jury files in. I study their faces. The single mom who works double shifts as a nurse to stay afloat. She’s tough, hardened by the horrors she’s seen in the ER. The high school dropout who made it big with a tech start-­up. He drives a Tesla and brews his own IPAs. The kindergarten teacher who’s so burned out that she’s seen these weeks on the jury as a vacation. The notes she’s constantly jotting down are occasionally about the trial, but mostly they’re for the sci-­fi trilogy she’s writing.

These aren’t their real identities, their actual stories. These are fantasies I dreamed up when the trial devolved into hours of analyzing and comparing fiber samples, or when I couldn’t bear to hear Craig Lawrence’s smug, lying voice anymore. Then I’d stare at these people who held Nor’s fate—­all our fates—­in their hands and try to figure out who they were and how their experiences—­imagined though they were—­might lead them to judge the monster on trial.

The final moments when we’re waiting for everyone to get settled, the jury forewoman to stand, to finally spit out what’s on the folded piece of paper in her bony fingers, are agonizing.

Was I wrong? Was it all for nothing? I can’t bear to lean over and look at Nor’s face. We’ve come all this way and I’m abandoning her now, but her hope will crush me as much as her defeat.

Because I realize in a flash that this could go either way. The clear evidence, witnesses, Nor’s squeaky-­clean image . . . it’s not always enough. I’ve been hopeful, but not stupid.

“Has the jury reached a unanimous verdict?” the judge asks.

“We have.” The forewoman’s voice shakes, like it’s her life on the line.

The clerk retrieves the paper from the woman and delivers it to the judge. He reads. His brow furrows. There’s no way to guess what it means. The clerk’s walk back to the forewoman stretches out for a millennium.

The forewoman takes the paper and draws in her breath. The courtroom holds the breath with her.

“On the count of unlawful imprisonment,” she reads.

At the defense table, Craig Lawrence gives the tiniest shake of his head, like it’s so absurd. It’s not imprisonment to take a drunk girl into an alley.

“We find the defendant guilty.”

Relief all around me. But that’s the least of the charges. My breath is still shallow.

“On the count of indecent liberties,” she reads.

Flashback to Tyler Jacobsen in the cafeteria, laughing and shouting that he was going to take some indecent liberties right before grinding on Patrice Kuan.

“We find the defendant guilty.”

Voices murmur throughout the gallery.

“On the count of assault in the second degree with sexual motivation,” she reads, her voice stumbling over the wordsexual.

Craig’s lawyer has a comforting arm around his shoulder. The men in suits behind him are already on their phones, mobilizing their brotherhood for whatever comes next. The papers will write with pity about the defendant’s lack of weeping family, but who needs family when you’ve got the patriarchy in your corner?

“We find the defendant guilty.”

My mother starts to sob. It’s good. But there’s still one more charge to go.

“On the count of second-­degree rape,” she reads.

The plea deal would have dropped this count. He’d have served a few months for the assault charge. But this is the one that can put him away for life.

“We find the defendant guilty.”

Nor sits silent, stunned, as the courtroom explodes around her. I search her face for a reaction. It’s not like I expected her to dance around the end zone. This doesn’t change what happened to her, this monstrous cloud that will follow her forever—­not only the brutal attack, but also the trial, the reporters, the dissection of every aspect of her life.

Get photographed with a red Solo cup in your hand? Noted.

Dress up as “sexy” Amelia Earhart for Halloween? Noted.

Have an immigrant father? Noted.

Both my parents are sobbing now. The urge to smack them startles me. This is a good thing. But I tried to tell them. They didn’t believe me.

Idealistic Marianne, things don’t always turn out the way you hope, it doesn’t matter how cut and dried the case, how many survivors you profile in your high school paper—­none of that is going to change our justice system . . .

I’m relieved, of course. But now I need the sentence. Everyone in this courtroom knew that smug fucker was guilty. The question is, how is he going to pay?


Get your copy here

Penguin Teen