For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado, out from Sourcebooks Fire on May 3.
For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain. Sixteen-year-old Raquel does her best to ignore it. After all, the police only look for the white kids. But when her crush Charlize’s cousin goes missing, Raquel starts to pay attention—especially when her own mom comes down with a mysterious illness that seems linked to the disappearances.
Raquel and Charlize team up to investigate, but they soon discover that everything is tied to a terrifying urban legend called the Echo Game. The game is rumored to trap people in a sinister world underneath the city, and the rules are based on a particularly dark chapter in New York’s past. And if the friends want to save their home and everyone they love, they will have to play the game and destroy the evil at its heart—or die trying.
THE ROT SPREADS
The Bronx was alive.
He was alive.
Cisco shot forward with a desperate urgency.
The hospital. Get there. Go.
The thought felt foreign to him, as though someone—or something—was whispering it into his ear, but he didn’t fight it. He couldn’t fight it. He was busy fighting something else, something that was working its way through his body and blackening his veins. Sweat coated every inch of his skin, and confusion clouded him, making him question where he was and why.
He tried to shake it off, fight it off as he walked-stumbled-ran. Desperation ebbed and flowed. Like a rubber band, he felt his body snapping between worlds.
Even in his daze, he knew something was wrong. The streets weren’t supposed to be turning this way and that. That person wasn’t supposed to be peeling half their face off. Was that building always abandoned? Always smoking? Always on fire?
He dug inside himself for answers, only managing to earn a half second of clarity.
His name was Francisco Cruz, he was eighteen years old, he was a student at Fordham University, where he met some people, played a game—or was it a challenge?—and then he…he…
He snapped his head up, sure he heard it.
An insect-like pitter-patter that was almost certainly getting close. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew fear when it crawled up his spine.
Cisco pulled out his phone. No bars. No bars? He was in the Bronx. Why was there no signal?
He stared at the screen wallpaper, a picture of himself with a dark-skinned girl whose curls looked like springs. Her smile was bright and calming. Tears pricked his eyes as he thought about his cousin and his promise before he realized what he’d done.
A deep shiver ran through his core. A car honked, and he realized it was because he was suddenly in the middle of the street. He tripped—there was the curb. The streetlights were on which meant it was night. He checked his phone again and finally had signal. Full bars meant he was safe.
The hospital. Get there. Go.
Cisco stumbled again and fell forward to grip a wrought iron fence. Missing-persons posters stuck loosely to some of the bars. He squinted. Some of these faces looked familiar. In fact, he was sure he had seen them at some point during the hellish night, but here they looked too… healthy. Alive.
The people he’d seen were neither.
There was a misshapen urban garden just beyond the fence with small compost bins. Brook Park. Not too far from Lincoln Hospital.
He held on to that knowledge like an anchor as he groped along fences and brick walls. A sea of confusion raged all around him, but as long as he made it to the hospital, things would be fine. The doctors would help him. That was their job, wasn’t it? They would see Cisco, see the black veins coursing through him, touch his clammy skin, and know just what to do.
They would get it out of him—the rot—before it was too late, before it could take any more of him and his thoughts and memories.
Finally, he got to the emergency room. After scribbling through whatever paperwork they handed him, he found himself in an isolated room, a plastic bracelet sealed on his wrist. The nurse who came to see him had long dreadlocks and a familiar face. She stared at him like she knew him.
“Okay, Cisco, why don’t you walk me through what happened tonight.” She stood just a few feet away. “I promise you, you aren’t going to be in trouble. We just need to find out if you took anything that could be making you sick. Was it Molly? Did you drop some acid?”
Even her voice sounded familiar, Cisco just couldn’t place it. Still, he shook his head, eager to get the rot out of him. He just needed to explain, if only he weren’t so confused—
“I br-broke the rules.”
The nurse blinked, waiting for him to go on. He opened his mouth again, brain trying to put the words in a correct sentence, but all that came out was an agonizing screech. His entire body felt engulfed in flames, and when he looked at his arms, he could see his veins blackening again.
“Francisco!” The nurse jumped as he threw himself over the bed. “We need some help! Security!”
The room exploded with security guards and another nurse. They pulled at him and tried to flatten him against the bed, but he pushed back, tossing the other nurse against the wall and kicking a security guard in the stomach.
“What is this?” the first nurse yelled, finally getting a look at his veins.
Cisco’s hands shook against his will before wrapping themselves around her arms. His nails pierced through her scrubs, and she screamed.
“I’m sorry!” he cried, vision blurring with tears. As she tried to claw his hands off, he felt the black rot pulsing out of him and into her.
The security guards descended on him. Cisco threw himself away from the nurse and into the wall. Then he turned and ran.
Forget the hospital, he decided. Between the rot and the snapping between worlds, nothing was making sense. Maybe his cousin could help him. Once he put a few blocks between himself and the hospital, he turned into in an alleyway and squatted for air.
Cisco shook with a quiet sob that made him sink to the ground. The game—the stupid game with stupid rules that he and his friends broke. It all went to shit in less than an hour and he was going to pay for it.
He sucked in a breath so deep, it hurt and focused on his surroundings instead. The squeal of rats fighting for food, the pulsing red and blue lights of cop cars going by—was that for him? Probably. He had no way of knowing how many people he injured on his way out of the hospital.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
Cisco froze. He knew he heard it: a flurry of legs skittering around in search of its prey.
“Fuck!” he hissed, pressing himself farther into the shadows. Eyes darting around, he looked for signs of decay and ruin only to find the buildings around him still intact.
Cisco stilled his breathing and his shaking body. The skittering was suddenly gone. Or maybe it was never there. He hadn’t snapped back yet.
But he would.
Cisco jabbed his hands into his pockets and pulled out his cell phone.
The ringing went on forever, and he whispered prayers into the receiver for his cousin to pick up.
“Cisco?” Charlize yawned. She sounded half-annoyed and half-sleep-deprived.
“Ch-Charlize!” He choked back a sob. “I need he-help. Please—”
“What are you doing calling me? It’s like four a.m.”
“Th-the game—” He tried his best to explain, to communicate that everything was thoroughly and deeply wrong. Words tumbled out before he could even process them, and he hoped he was making a crumb of sense.
“Whoa.” Charlize hushed him. A spring mattress creaked from shifting weight. “What are you talking about, Cisco? What game?”
“Don’t leave th-the train before f-four, don’t-don’t talk to the Passengers, don’t touch the Passengers, don’t turn around—” The rules shot off his tongue like firecrackers, sharp and all at once. “The game—the challenge, Ch-Charlize—”
“What? Cisco, I can’t hear you. You’re cutting out.”
“Li-listen, I’m coming over to you now, Charlize, okay? And I ne-need you to bring a wea-weapon—a knife, bat, something, ju-just anything, okay?”
Cisco ended the call and shoved the phone deep in his pocket. The confusion was hanging low on his mind again, washing him in panic. He only had a vague idea of where he was. Just up the street was Rite Aid, and if he crossed it, there would be McDonald’s. There was a train passing over him, which meant he had to be somewhere uptown.
Even more pressing was the familiar build of the snap before it happened. It was like something inside his chest began to stretch and when it reached its limit—when it snapped—he’d end up somewhere hellish.
Paranoia seized Cisco as the skittering returned. He screamed and took off toward Charlize’s house.
He could only hope he made it before the creature caught up.
THE NEXT STOP IS
The train was packed tight this morning.
Aaron and I watched as it pulled into the platform. We quickly scanned each car for even a sliver of space we could squeeze ourselves into. Once the train slowed to a stop, we had only a few seconds to choose our fate or risk being late. Hyde High School was notorious for giving lunch detentions for even the slightest infractions, and neither of us cared to stay an extra hour after school in silence.
“Yo, there’s space here, Raquel,” Aaron said. I twisted my head in his direction and eyed the car he was heading toward. He was a thin guy as tall as a traffic light. It was next to impossible to lose Aaron in a crowd, but that also meant he could easily lose you. As soon as the doors slid open, an automated voice spoke clearly.
This is a Wakefield-bound two train. The next stop is…
A small trail of people emptied out the car, and that’s when we took our chance. Aaron filled in the closest gap, and I was on his heel.
“Sorry. Excuse me,” I mumbled, still having to push my way into the crowd. I shimmied my backpack off and rested it on the floor between my legs. The train chimed again with a robotic voice.
Stand clear of the closing doors, please…
The train doors slid shut before it continued on its way. I sighed.
“I told you we’d make it,” Aaron said. His eyes were already glued to his phone, Twitter reflecting in his glasses.
“Barely.” I rolled my eyes. “You really need to wake up earlier. My mom is getting real serious about me not leaving the house without someone around.”
Aaron made a face.
“So I gotta come pick you up every morning?”
“Well.” I frowned. “Only if my mom is home. She really won’t let me leave if I’m by myself.” Today was one of the exceptions, though. When I woke up, Mami was still out, probably working another late shift at the hospital. I noticed because the shower curtain was still open when I went to use the bathroom. I always left the shower curtain open, but Mami insisted on closing it each time. It was one of the few things I did that drove her wild.
I felt a twinge of guilt about it, the word wrong going off in my head like a Jeopardy! buzzer. That happened whenever I chose to dodge Mami’s rules. She called it a “strong moral compass.”
I sent a quick text before going to school, letting her know I was on my way out and would likely see her after school. She didn’t respond, but that was normal when she worked late.
“She’s really that freaked out about the disappearances?” Aaron asked, yawning.
I nodded. “Her and the church people she hangs with have been thinking about setting a curfew for all kids just in case.” I’d accidentally eavesdropped on her conversation about it just the night before. The walls were thin, and Dominicans never knew how to talk quietly.
Still, I guess I could understand her fear. The whole borough was on edge, unsure what was causing the disappearances. And since no bodies had been found, the police didn’t want to call it a serial killer.
Aaron furrowed his brow and frowned.
“That sucks,” he said.
“You know it’s bad when they can’t even find the white kids.”
They were the first group to disappear. The faces of those four students from Fordham University were plastered everywhere, and the police damn near busted their asses trying to find them. There were a lot of protests in the street about it, unsurprisingly. Someone went digging around and found out the students had rich parents with connections, so rumor was cops’ jobs were on the line.
They never did find them, though. Then every month, almost like clockwork, one or two more people would go missing. Homeless people or late-night workers, but sometimes it’d be kids. I’d feel my phone buzz with an Amber Alert, only for the police to later dismiss the idea that whoever abducted that particular kid was responsible for all the other disappearances.
“True.” Aaron was never a particularly talkative guy. If anything could be said in one word or two, he would do it. Sometimes it annoyed me, but he’d been my best friend since we were kids and the good always outweighed the small pet peeves, so I got used to it.
The next stop came.
People shifted, either trying to get off or make space for new passengers. I tucked my shoulders inward and tried to make myself as small as possible with a winter coat. The automatic voice spoke up again, just as a young girl sat in an empty seat on my right.
“Why was Papi being so weird last night?” the girl said, leaning into an older woman next to her, maybe her grandmother. Their faces were oval-shaped and brown, and the older woman had a frown set deeper than the ocean.
“He just has a lot on his mind. Why?” The woman glanced down. “Did he say something to you?”
The girl nodded. “He said to never get on the train at night. That there was something in the tunnels that took people.”
“And how does he know that?”
“He said it came to him in a dream.”
The older woman cursed in Spanish under her breath.
I looked over to Aaron. He was still focused on the sudoku puzzle.
“Yo, you heard that?” I whispered.
“They said something in the tunnels is taking people.” I hoped the concept would freak him out enough to look up, but he didn’t.
“Well, we don’t have to worry about that,” he said as the train went from the underground tunnel to the open air.
Light streamed in through the windows, and we rode above buildings where we could see illegible graffiti coating the top edges. Store signs and billboards were just as dirty, with grime inching along nearly every crack and crease. Out on the street, a shopkeeper swept the sidewalk, pushing fallen twigs and crumpled leaves out of the way of the store entrance. The wind would likely toss the debris back, but he was diligent in his cleaning, nonetheless. For some reason, it reminded me of a phrase my aunts and uncles would say about the Bronx: It’s not all that…but it is all that.
People did what they could to take care of their home, and the graffiti told stories about people who came and went with a desire to be remembered. Even the dirt and grime gave the message: We’re here. The South Bronx, despite being looked down on by all the other boroughs and maybe even some of the residents, was a place where people lived, continued to live, and made their own way.
And that made it perfect.
Just then, Aaron leaned down, fidgeting with his backpack. “Imagine if there was really something in the tunnel.” He snickered. “That’d be wild.”
Excerpted from Burn Down, Rise Up, copyright © 2022 by Vincent Tirado.