Heller thought the entire world was going to melt that summer.
Excerpted from Burning City by Ariel and Joaquin Dorfman Copyright © 2005 by Ariel Dorfman. Excerpted by permission of Random House Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
It was the Fourth of July and all of Manhattan was sweating. It was coming out of the streets, buildings, faucets; even the Hudson River could be heard for miles, begging for a drink, something to keep it cool. Radios reported the weather out of habit. Sleeping couples woke up to damp sheets. Construction workers went without their shirts and stockbrokers loosened their ties with quiet envy. Tourists complained, ice-cream vendors smiled, and mercury climbed steadily up tired thermometers.
Heller Highland saw all of this, and that which he couldn’t see he simply knew. School had been out for just over a month. He sat on the roof of his building and kept his eyes on the sky, due southeast. Glass of water in his left hand, ice already dissolved, even in the cool of the evening. Airplane lights traveled past, left and right, fireflies of the twentieth century--
Twenty-first century, Heller corrected himself silently. It’s two thousand and one; twenty-first century. . . .
He took a sip of water. Waited for the fireworks to start.
There was no American flag in his right hand. Just a telegram. No red, white, or blue. Just an elegantly embossed message on an ambiguously light green card; 4 x 8. Heller was barely aware he was holding it. Just watched the sky. An unchanging Manhattan skyline. The sounds of the city kept him company. The distant blast of traffic, pedestrians, and the hum of a thousand air conditioners and fans, all in the same key.
A breeze managed to find its way into the city, and Heller’s blond hair lifted itself, thankful. Heller smiled. He stopped. Smiled again, stopped, smiled, bit his lip and stopped. A few seconds later the wind died down, and Heller was left in his chair, on his roof, in his city of millions.
“Fireworks are late,” came a voice behind him.
Heller didn’t turn around. “Any minute now, I’m sure.”
His grandfather, Eric, walked up next to him, stood for a while, glanced down.
“I thought you had the day off.”
“It’s from Mom and Dad.”
“Really? What’s it say?”
“Haven’t read it.”
Eric kept quiet, thought about it. Then:
“They should be coming back soon.”
“I’d like to think so. . . .”
Grandfather forced a chuckle. “You make it sound like they’re dead.”
“I do not,” Heller said. “I just know how it can be with them.”
The two of them watched the sky. An ambulance cried in the distance. Heller wondered at the emergency. Thought about a phone call at three in the morning. Thought about a family waiting for news thousands of miles away. Thought too much.
“Did you see Silvia today?” Eric asked.
“. . . I stopped by the coffee shop,” Heller said cautiously. “She was there.”
“When do I get to meet her?”
“I know your grandmother’s been wanting to meet her for a long time. . . . Heller?”
“I know how she feels. . . .”
“Heller?” Eric repeated, voice softer this time.
“We should have had some sort of celebration, you know.”
“I like celebrating like this.”
“Are you happy living with your grandmother and me?”
“You know I am.”
“Are you sure?”
“You know I am,” Heller said.
“Mom and Dad are fine, I promise.”
“Now you make it sound like they’re dead.”
“I don’t think you’re hearing me right.”
An explosion tore the night apart and a hot blast of red lit the air. Heller jumped inadvertently. Within three seconds the entire night was filled with a thousand lights, imitation stars, fireworks mirroring the glow of apartments and office buildings.
“Hey, there they are,” Eric said.
“Happy Fourth of July, Heller.”
“I’ll go get your grandmother.”
Heller listened to his grandfather’s footsteps head for the stairs. The sky erupted over and over, and Heller felt the smile return, bit his lip. “Eric?”
The footsteps halted. Twelve deafening fireworks were released at once.
“Mom and Dad say they’re doing fine.”
Heller cleared his throat. “Happy Fourth of July.”
He couldn’t see his grandfather but could sense him nodding as he said, “Happy birthday, Heller. . . . Sweet sixteen . . .”
The ribbons of light cascaded over the city. Blast after blast, the sky rained down on Heller and the rest of the country. The world seemed to be getting smaller, the summers hotter, and despite the air-conditioning, the city continued to sweat.
Heller brought the glass of water to his lips and realized it was empty.
The entire world was going to melt that summer.
There was no doubt about this in Heller’s mind.
From the Hardcover edition.