First Chapter: Fireworks
August, Twelve Years Ago
A sixteen-year-old girl stares out the window of her mother’s beat up Dodge. They don’t even make this model of car anymore. Nothing in this girl’s life is new. Not her clothes. Not the threadbare duffel bag at her feet.
Only the scenery. That’s always new, because they’ve moved five times in three years, each time into the home of her mother’s latest boyfriend. Then—a few months later—they leave again.
This time, the countryside rolling past the car window is prettier than usual. So that’s something. There are farmhouses and cornfields. Tawny cows graze beside a dark-red barn. In the distance, she catches occasional glimpses of Lake Champlain between the hilltops.
“The school is much better here,” her mother is saying, the words squeezed around a cigarette dangling from her lips. “And the air is clean. You liked Vermont when you were little.”
But our girl knows to make her own judgments. Her mother never tells the truth. And in spite of the scenery, she’s already worried. They’re heading for the home of her least favorite of her mom’s ex-husbands.
Her mom has had five marriages. And five divorces. It’s a staggering number for a woman who’s only forty-six.
Skye is never getting married. She already knows better.
“Are you sure Rayanne won’t be there?” she asks her mother. The last time they lived with Jimmy Gage, Skye had a stepsister. That was a dozen years ago, but it was the only time in her life she ever had a sibling.
“No, she won’t.” Her mom sniffs. “That fool ran off to California. But now Jimmy has a room just for you,” her mother says, turning off the main highway.
This is no comfort, because Skye likes Rayanne a whole lot more than Jimmy, her mother’s second husband. She was five when they last lived with him. It was nice to have a seven-year-old sister. Wonderful, even. But she’d been afraid of Jimmy. He had scary eyes, and smelled of liquor and chewing tobacco. When Skye had said something he hadn’t liked, he’d been quick to backhand her. She’d learned to keep her distance.
Maybe he’s mellowed with age.
They turn off onto a narrower street, and Skye knows the trailer park is nearby. You can always tell. Even pristine Vermont has these roads—the ones with tires in the drainage ditch. Nobody takes pride in this stretch of land. They roll past a bathtub rusting by the side of the road. Then a sign comes into view: PIN VIEW PARK.
Our girl wrinkles her nose at the missing letter. “Last time we came here, he lived in a house,” she points out. Sixteen year olds always point out the painful truths. It’s their job.
Her mother turns into the trailer park, ignoring this bit of criticism. “Skye, look at the numbers,” she orders. “Which one is thirteen?”
Lucky number thirteen. “That one,” she grunts. Naturally it’s the most tired-looking trailer in a tired-looking place. The front porch rests on cinder blocks, and the windows need cleaning. “She’s a looker.”
“You watch your mouth, girlie. At least you have a roof over your head.” Her mother pulls into what passes for a driveway and gets out of the car. After slamming the door, she takes a moment to straighten her blouse and finger-comb her hair.
Skye doesn’t make a move. She waits in the car, knowing there’s no rush. Sometimes her mother pulls up to homes where they aren’t as welcome as her mother expects. She watches her mom knock on the flimsy door. After a moment, the door opens and she disappears inside.
It’s not a bad sign. But our heroine gives it a few more minutes just to be safe. And when no shouting comes from the house, curiosity gets the better of her. She pulls her duffel out and steps up to the door. Her mother stands just inside, speaking to Jimmy. The man’s face is just as hard as she remembers.
And, yup—those scary eyes. He’s wearing a trooper’s uniform. That’s new.
“Sweetie, come in here,” her mother calls with artificial cheer. “That will be your room. In there.” She points down a narrow hallway as Skye enters the trailer.
First she has to pass Jimmy Gage. But he doesn’t step aside. She can feel the slow slide of his gaze down her body. “Somebody got awful pretty,” he says under his breath. “Sixteen going on twenty-six.”
Our girl doesn’t have any idea what to say to that. So she says nothing. She squeezes by, holding her breath, and it’s only two paces past him until she can turn into the musty little bedroom. There’s a Kanye West poster hanging halfway off the wall. This little room was obviously Rayanne’s.
Skye is still sad that Raye isn’t around. She’s entertaining, and Skye’s only almost-sibling. On the other hand, there is no way the two of them could share this closet of a room. The twin bed barely fits inside.
From the kitchen comes Jimmy’s voice. “How long are you staying?”
Our girl freezes in the act of setting the duffel on the bed. Jimmy’s question is not a good sign.
“I’m not sure,” is her mother’s coy answer. “Just until I have a little money saved up.”
He grunts in agreement. “There’s some things I need you to do for me.”
“I’ll bet there are, sugar.”
Our heroine does not want to hear any more. Leaving her bag, she slips out of the room, passing the two adults where they stand in the tiny kitchen. “Housekeeping things,” he clarifies.
She’s through the front door before she can hear anymore.
Stepping outside is a good decision. The air is sweet and cool, with a piney scent. Unlike some of the uglier trailer parks she’s seen, this one is small. The single and double-wides are arranged in a half-moon, backing up to an old-growth forest. The ground is dotted with the season’s first orange leaves.
Skye walks behind trailer number thirteen. There she discovers that when you turn your back on all the tin cans that people called home, only nature is visible.
She steps between two towering pines and walks into the forest. Her eyes are drawn upwards, into the canopy, while she takes slow steps through the woods. How many years does it take a tree to grow so tall? Seventy five? A hundred? If she only looks up, there is no trailer park, no unwelcoming ex-step-father. Only the colorful canopy against a blue, late-summer sky.
“Watch your step.”
Skye chokes on her shriek of surprise. Her chin snaps downward until she finds the source of the voice.
Then she’s even more startled, because it belongs to the most beautiful boy she has ever seen. With thick black hair and dark eyes, he smirks at her from a ridiculously large lounge lawn chair. It’s sized for two people, and sitting right smack in the middle of a clearing.
“What are you doing here?” she asks stupidly.
He regards her in silence for a moment, which might be creepy on some boys, but not on him. His gaze is nothing like Jimmy Gage’s. It’s more friendly than leering. “Probably the same thing you’re doing here,” he replies eventually. “Getting away from all that.” He tips his head toward the trailer park.
“Oh,” she says, in another display of brilliant wit.
“Oh.” He smirks. “You got a name?”
She can’t answer for a second, because she’s distracted by the cleft in his chin. She would like to measure it with her thumb. “It’s Skye,” she finally remembers to say.
“Welcome to the trailer park, Skye. I’m Benito Rossi.”
Our girl smiles inside, because Vermont just got a little bit brighter. But her face is impassive, because she’s an old hand at keeping her own counsel. “Do you go to the high school? It starts tomorrow, right?”
He nods. “Senior. Thank God. You?”
“Ah. Got a schedule yet?”
She shakes her head. Skye’s mother can’t be bothered to register her ahead of time. By the time her mother gets around to driving her there tomorrow, and filling out the paperwork, Skye will have missed the first two or three periods already. “Is there a bus?” she asks, because her mother isn’t good with details.
Benito Rossi nods. “Stops outside the park at ten after seven.” He moves his long jean-clad legs to the side and pats the generous space next to him on the broad seat. “This is my double-wide,” he says with a smile. “Trailer-park joke.”
“Have a seat.”
Skye would love to sit there next to this handsome creature on the chair’s cushion and lean back to see the tree tops. But she’s the new girl and has to watch herself. Boys make assumptions. Ever since Skye turned fourteen and grew B-cup breasts, men have stared, and boys have tried to help themselves.
At sixteen, she knows she’s attractive. Once in a while she finds it useful. She knows the sophomore boys will give her whatever information she needs at school tomorrow. They’ll offer her a seat because she’s nice to look at, saving her the embarrassment of eating alone.
But most of the time being desirable is a drag. The lingering eyes on her chest. The smirks, and the uninvited hands on her bottom.
This is why Skye avoids the giant chair and sits on a stump instead. There’s a sort of fire pit, too—a circle of rocks and a dug-out place where blackened coals crumble. “Is this your party spot?” she asks.
“No.” Benito shakes his gorgeous head. “That would ruin it. This is where I go to get away from people. I like people but there’s too many in my trailer. I have three older brothers and a twin sister…”
Skye gasps. “That is crowded.”
He smiles again, and it makes her stomach dip and swoop. “One of my brothers is away at basic training, and my sister is staying with a friend this year. So there’s just Mom and me and Damien and Matteo. Still crowded. We’re not small people. A guy needs his own living room.” He raises both arms like a king showing off his palace. “But if you keep my secret, you can use it any time. Just don’t hide the remote.” He winks.
Skye smiles in spite of herself. “I won’t tell a soul,” she says.
He tucks his hands behind his head. “Now what else do you need to know about school?”