by Mackenzie Reed (@mackenziemreed7)
Editor: Katie McCoach (@katiemccoach)
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Izzy Blase is hiding a burning secret––she comes from a family of professional arsonists, and she's one of the best.
Turning empty houses to blistering infernos comes naturally to the seventeen-year-old, especially with the help of an airtight alibi––her family’s pizzeria that makes the best pies in town. What’s not as easy is managing the looming threat of college, leaving her widowed father an empty-nester, and attracting the attention of her long-time crush, Noah Grayfield. When a mysterious arson job with a promise of $50,000 lands on her family’s doorstep, accepting the offer is a no-brainer for Izzy, despite the red flag that somebody knows their secret business.
But things get complicated when the job leads Izzy to unwittingly burn down Noah's house––and nearly his mother with it. Now Izzy has a new reason to get closer to Noah––she’s desperate to discover who ordered the arson job and… was she set up to commit murder? With the growing fear that Noah could be next, she covertly investigates while struggling to keep her role in the arson a secret. But Izzy’s reminded the inevitable truth of playing with fire: she’s bound to get burned. And if she’s not careful, she might drag her loved ones into the flames with her.
AN ARSONIST’S GUIDE TO HIGH SCHOOL is a YA thriller complete at 95,000 words. Following the antics of a savvy teen arsonist, this novel features strong friendships, big family dynamics, and an abundance of pizza. It combines the suspense and teen angst of Karen McManus’s One of Us is Lying and Diana Urban’s All Your Twisted Secrets with the covert familial association of Ally Carter's The Heist Society.
I am a member of Rochester Area Children’s Writers and Illustrators (RACWI) and this manuscript is a RevPit 2020 winner. I previously completed an editorial internship with Rochester, New York’s regional publication, (585) Magazine.
Thank you for your time and consideration!
First Five Pages
When burning down a house, my family has three strict rules.
Rule number one: Always strike a match in the dead of night. Not midnight, not one in the morning, but between two and four, when even the insomniacs konk out and the overachievers haven’t woken yet.
Which is why, at the eye-rubbing hour of 2:30 a.m., I’m sneaking into an old widow’s abandoned mansion in the suburb of Cottondale, New York. The back door is unlocked, which makes it easy for me to sprint from the coverage of the surrounding trees and slip inside unnoticed by the neighbors. Not that they’re up, of course. In the overflowing pockets of Cottondale’s finest, everyone is either ancient and long-since asleep, or young, married, and nurturing two-point-five kids. Definitely not the type to stay up late on a Saturday night partying.
Not that I’m really the type either, but tonight, I would have bent the rules.
That’s because tonight, I was supposed to be at my high school’s homecoming soccer game with my two best friends. After that, I would have gone to the afterparty at Mason and Margaree Callahan’s enormous house in Westover, another rich suburb. I’d have rolled my eyes as my classmates pretended to get drunk off of “Jungle Juice,” which is just Hawaiian Punch with a few splashes of cheap vodka mixed in. I was supposed to be acting like the totally normal seventeen-year-old girl that everyone believes me to be. That I am.
And most importantly, I was supposed to be plotting how to get Noah Grayfield to fall in love with me.
So no, I’m not salty that instead of flirting with the cute goalie of Saint Maria’s Catholic High’s varsity soccer team, I’m lighting some granny’s house on fire so she can get her late husband’s insurance settlement.
Not. Salty. One. Bit.
But whatever. Fall is the season of insurance fraud so clients can get their settlements before tax returns are due in the spring. Besides, a couple more weeks of steady jobs will give my bank account a nice padding. I’ll need it if I end up sending out college applications.
My nose wrinkles at the thought. I started shadowing my dad and uncles on arson jobs when I was fifteen. By sixteen, I was getting dropped off on my own to do the jobs closest to home. Nearly two years later, I’ve burned down dozens of buildings, and I’m only getting better, smarter, and faster.
Needless to say, I doubt college is in my future. My talents are more suited after midnight with a match in my hand.
Which brings me to rule number two: Always come prepared.
Being prepared for this line of work means a lot of things. For one, I’m dressed head-to-toe in black, because only an idiot wouldn’t be. My braided dark hair blends in well enough on its own and the only sliver of white I allow is the three stripes on my Adidas sneakers, which are a permanent wardrobe staple. The bag on my back is black and made of thin cotton. It will burn itself and everything inside in under a minute if I need to get rid of evidence. Not that I ever do, of course. When in the delicate business of arson, there is little room for error.
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I make sure the client followed the instructions my family gives out prior to jobs––disable the smoke alarms, leave the back door unlocked, close all the curtains, and make sure the house is vacated.
The curtains are drawn, but bits of moonlight sneak in, allowing me to match the layout to the blueprints I studied earlier tonight. The backdoor enters into the kitchen. In the dining room to the right, there’s a fancy glass cabinet with expensive-looking bottles of liquor. I fight the itch to swipe one just to be a show off at the party. I’m sure it’s over by now anyway.
Setting my bag on the counter, I pull out what I need. This part of the job––I call it the kindling phase ––always fills me with angst. I’m in the house, in a position that would certainly get me arrested if caught, and I basically have my hand in the cookie jar.
I line up my two ride-or-die necessities: a box of matches and a gallon container of sauce. Thankfully, the floors in the kitchen are wood, and the living room has this God-awful shag carpet that looks ancient, like it’s from the sixties. Knick-knacks line the shelves in the dining room and the stove is corroded with grease and charred food residue. My lips curl up in a smile.
This place will go up like a match.
I take the container of sauce and pop the cap, dousing the downstairs with it. The familiar scent of my family’s secret ignitor wafts to my nose, a unique blend of garlic and alcohol, plus a slew of other ingredients that are kept under lock and key. My stomach growls in the silent house, an unkind reminder that the slice of pizza I had for dinner hours ago has worn off.
Here’s the thing about burning down a house––it’s not as easy as people might think. Nowadays, nearly everything has some level of fireproofing to it, which means lighting a match and walking away like actors do in movies is pretty much useless. On top of that, an arsonist of my professional caliber needs to make sure the fire starts slowly so there’s enough time for smoke to damage the house before the flames get out of control and a neighbor notices. If flames peak too soon, the fire department will show up in no time and be able to salvage most of the house.
Which means I don’t get a paycheck.
The other hard part about burning down a house is what is used to burn it. This varies greatly, but any semi-competent arsonist knows kerosene is for amateurs. It’s great for explosions and dramatic effect, but it’s also a sure-fire way to make the job look like someone did it on purpose. Kerosene leaves traces which police hop on. That’s another way to lose payment. Get the cops on a client’s trail for collusion of arson and everyone goes to jail.
I shake the remaining contents of sauce from the container. Since kerosene is a no-go, my family uses our own ancient recipe to make a deadly, flammable concoction. It burns without a trace but lasts long enough for flames to catch on anything around it.
With the downstairs thoroughly soaked, I step back to admire my handiwork. I trailed sauce over the couch and terrible carpet, snaked it into the dining room and over the ornate table beside the cabinet, splashed a little bit into the office for good measure, and ended in the kitchen with red streaks splattered across the stove. That will catch last, which is just as well. By the time the oven explodes, I need to be long gone.
Which won’t be a problem. I have a pick up scheduled for 3:00 a.m. Being prepared doesn’t only regard burning the house, but also the before and after.
I tug out my phone to check the time, battling the temptation to open Snapchat and get FOMO at seeing posts from the party. I’m running ahead of schedule, so I roam through the house. The hair on my arms raise as nerves blossom in my belly. This part of the job is creepy as hell, since it’s just me and the flashlight of my phone. Tonight, guilt invades, because there are pictures left around; reminders that this was someone’s home. Typically, houses are stripped.
But this house looks stuck in time. I can’t help glancing at the pictures propped on the fire mantle. I run my finger over the frame of a black and white photo, a streak of brown dust appearing on my leather glove. The woman looks to be my age and is laughing with an attractive young man who stares at her adoringly.
I scowl. That could have been Noah and me tonight. Someone might have taken a picture of us laughing flirtatiously; a polaroid I could have tucked away or posted on Instagram.
Shaking my head, I rip my gaze away from the picture and shove all thoughts of the cute goalie from my mind. I’m here on business, not to fantasize about my non-existent love life.
It’s kind of strange this lady left so many memories of her husband to burn. If he were alive, I’d be nervous he might be asleep upstairs. Assassination that looks like an accident doesn’t fall incredibly far from arson. There are certainly underground businesses––like the Montesori family––that don’t mind the crossover, but my family draws the line at murder. Burning down empty houses? Sure, no problem. No one except the insurance company really gets hurt, and they’re rich enough to bounce back. But bumping people off for a check? No thanks. I don’t need ghosts trying to strangle me in my sleep.
I shiver. Returning to the task at hand, I smear some excess sauce up the stairs. It’s a big house, so I’m not leaving anything up to chance.
I retreat to the kitchen with the empty carton, grinning at what comes next.
My fingers tingle.
All that’s left is striking the match.