Authors: Robin Reul
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Robin Reul
Cover and internal design Â© 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover images Â© Wibofoto/Getty Images; Marcel/Stocksy; Tais Kulish/Getty Images
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Fire, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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FOR MOM AND DAD, INFINITY AND INFINITY.
FOR MY FAMILY, WHO NEVER STOPPED BELIEVING.
YOU'RE MY KIND OF CRAZY.
So here's the thing. It's not like I woke up this morning and said, “Hey, I think I'll light the hundred-year-old eastern red cedar tree in front of Amanda Carlisle's house on fire today.” Because I don't know about you, but when I wake up, my mind doesn't go straight to arson. Honestly, the first thing I focus on is how fast I can get from my room to the bathroom without my dad's girlfriend, Monica, trying to chat me up while I'm awkwardly standing there in my boxers.
I'd read online that how you ask a girl to prom can completely make or break a guy's chances. I wanted to do something special that Amanda would never forget. Apparently it worked, just not the way I intended. “Use sparklers to spell out PROM,” the article on the Internet said. There was even a picture with them all lit up on the ground. Totally idiotproof.
I snuck into her yard like a ninja under the cover of darkness and tried to jam the sparklers into her lawn, but the soil was hard and unyielding. I looked around, desperate, and then I spied a nice, soft patch of mulch underneath the cedar tree near the side of her yard. It was perfect, and the sparklers slid in easily. A few minutes later, I had them all lined up just like I'd seen in the picture. Once they were lit, I yelled, “Amanda!” I actually had to call out twice because she didn't hear me the first time. Then she came to the window and gazed down as the sparklers fizzled down to the ground andâ
Turns out it was fresh pine mulch underneath that cedar. Pine trees produce turpentine, so I might as well have lit those sparklers in a pool of gasoline, considering how quickly the mulch caught fire.
I didn't know what to do, so I ran. Which is why I'm now hiding behind a bush across the street in her neighbor's yard. This is definitely going down in history as the most epic promposal fail ever. And then, as if things couldn't get more catastrophic, they do.
Baseball is practically a religion where I live in Massachusetts's South Coast. People take their Red Sox pretty seriously, and the diehards decorate their trees with red and blue streamers every season in a show of support. The Carlisles are no exception. And it doesn't take long for the flames to catch and race the length of those ribbons into the dry branches above.
From where I'm crouched down, I have a perfect view of the Carlisle house. I can see Amanda's eyes widen and her jaw drop open as she observes the quickly escalating situation in her yard. She pulls away from the windowâI'm guessing to call the fire department. We should probably talk about prom some other time.
With things clearly going south, I do what any sensible person would do: I get the hell out of there. Of course, a sensible person wouldn't have put sparklers in a pile of fresh mulch directly under a highly flammable tree. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.
So in the most casual way possible, I hook my backpackâwhich is loaded with empty sparkler boxesâover my shoulders, hop on my bike, and pedal away from the scene at what I hope passes for a normal speed. Cool as a cucumber, that's me.
I reason for a brief moment that perhaps Amanda didn't actually see me there. Even if she did, she doesn't know me all that well so she might not recognize me. I am wearing black jeans, and my Batman hoodie conceals my medium-length, stick-straight brown hair, so I am sort of camouflaged. Not to mention that those flames were pretty distracting.
The fire station is about five streets away, near the library. I start to worry that the firemen won't get there fast enough and Amanda's whole house will burn down. I know I'm a lame-ass chickenshit for hightailing out of there, but the last thing I need is Dad on my case for something else. As far as he's concerned, I can't do much right. I would like to say he's just being an asshole, but lately I've been wondering if he's onto something.
I consider turning around and heading back to Amanda's, which would be the right thing to do, but I swear I'm about to piss myself with fear so I pedal faster, listening for the sounds of approaching police sirens. For good measure, I jerk my bike off the main road, cutting through the back alleys toward home.
By the time my key is in the door, I'm sweating like a whore in church and feel like I'm going to puke. I have two objectives: avoid all human contact and get to my room as quickly as possible.
Naturally, this does not happen. Dad is sitting downstairs, nursing a beer and watching a baseball game on TV. He's wearing his stained lucky Red Sox shirt that he never washes because that would bring bad luck. His eyes are puffy and his face hasn't seen a razor in days. It's sad to see him like this. He's actually a pretty handsome guy. Even when my mom was alive, I noticed other women checking him out. If I'd been paying a little more attention, I might have noticed he was checking them out too. It wasn't until Mom was gone that I think he realized how much he loved her.
Normally when I come home, Dad acknowledges me with little more than a wave and a grunt, his eyes glued to his precious Sox, but lucky for me, tonight he decides to strike up a conversation.
“Hey! Hank! Just in time. Sox're killing 'em. Top of the ninth.” He raises his bottle and tips it toward me as if he's toasting me.
“Nice,” I tell him, but I can't think about baseball right now. The only balls I can concentrate on are my own as I wonder how I'm going to grow a pair and deal with this mess.
Dad yells at the umpire on the screen. When he was younger, Dad was a hell of a ballplayer with dreams of playing for the Sox. He was offered a spot in the minor leagues out of high school, met my mom, fell in love, and the future looked bright. Four years went by, and he never got picked up for the majors. Then he tore his ACL and that was that. Game over. Time for Plan B.
“Monica made some kind of enchilada casserole. I think there's some left. You could warm it up.”
That sounds dangerous. She means well, but Monica might possibly be the worst cook on the entire planet. It's not that my mom was some great cook, but in comparison she was Betty frickin' Crocker.
Dad takes a swig of his beer and then places it on the coffee table beside an empty. The condensation will leave a wet ring on the wood. All our furniture is covered with them, like a dog pissing to mark his territory or something. That's one of the few things I remember my mother hassling Dad about the day she and my older brother, Mickey, died, even though that was nearly six years ago. “Use a coaster, Larry!” It was her mantra.
“I'm not all that hungry.” It isn't even a lie. I'm pretty sure that if I eat anything, it will come hurtling back up at light speed.
“Not like you to pass up the Sox or a meal.” The role of concerned parent fits him like a cheap suit. He gives me a once-over, clearly judging my pale, skinny frame. I'm no wimp. Just because I'm not bench-pressing with a bunch of jockstraps at the gym doesn't mean I can't lift four forty-pound bags of dog food at my job at the Shop 'n Save without breaking a sweat.
I'd much rather be up in my room working on the latest installment of my comic
. Add that to the list of disappointments life has dealt my dad. The only thing worse than losing his wife and superjock son and being left with me would be if I were a girl.
“I'm good. Maybe later. I gotta take a shower and study for a bio test tomorrow. Plus, I have to work tonight. They're doing inventory so I'll be back lateâ¦” I drift off, hoping he'll lose interest and I can make an escape.
“Yeah, well, you'll have to wait a few minutes. Monica's upstairs using the shower.”
Initially, I wondered what the hell someone like Monica was doing with a guy like my dad. She's twenty-six, only nine years older than I am, and she's a dancer. Not ballet or Broadway or some fancy crap, but off the highway at Mo's Boobie Barn. She says it's only temporary to help her pay her way through beauty school, but I guess it goes without saying where they met.
According to Monica, he showed up at the club one night and they spent some “private time” in the back. Somewhere along the line, he lost his shit and broke down crying, and they ended up spending the rest of the night just talking. They've been seeing each other ever since. Monica moved in nearly a year ago, so it seems pretty serious. From what I can tell, she loves that he sees her as more than what she does for a living, and she has a soft spot for men she thinks she can save. I'm hoping she can.
The opposing team strikes out, and the crowd goes bananas. The TV switches to a commercial and a newscaster saying, “Coming up on the news at eleven, sparklers lead to a fire in a local neighborhood igniting controversy: prank or arson?”
I try to act casual as they flash live video of Amanda's charred front yard. Must be a slow night for them to pick up the story that quickly. I swallow hard.
Dad stares at the TV and shakes his head. “Jesus, what goddamn moron would do something like that? Sparklers on a lawn?”
“At least it sounds like nobody got hurt.” He belches and wipes his mouth with the edge of his fist.
“Well, that's what matters, right?” And then I do that thing I do when I'm nervous or trying to cover something up but hope that nobody will notice. I get total diarrhea of the mouth. “Who knows why anyone does anything really. Maybe the person had a reason. Someone doesn't just light sparklers on a lawn for no reason, right?”
The game comes back on and instantly he's gone, his attention riveted like a dog's to a squirrel. Someone hits a homer out of the park on his first at bat and Dad is up out of his seat cheering, so I make my exit.
I sprint up the stairs and pass the bathroom door, which is cracked open precisely enough for me to make out a sliver of Monica's pale-white skin as she wraps herself in a terrycloth towel. My hand is reaching for my bedroom doorknob when suddenly the bathroom door opens. She smiles as if I've been lurking.
Which I haven't.
I mean, it was only for like a second.
She runs her fingers through her long, brown, wet-from-the-shower hair. Her skin glistens with moisture.
“Oh, hey, Hank,” she says. I try to act like it's completely normal to stand in the hallway chatting up my dad's girlfriend who is only wearing a towel.
“Oh, hi. Iâ¦umâ¦have to study for a test.” I readjust my backpack strap. “Gotta maintain that GPA.”
She fiddles with the edge of her towel. “Hey, what'd the girl say?”
“The other night you told me you were goin' to ask some girl to prom this week. How'd that go? Did she say yes?”
Shit. Fuck. Shit.
My mouth hangs open for a second as I regroup and collect my thoughts. Monica had asked me if I was going to prom while I was cleaning up after dinner. Fortunately, I hadn't told her any details, only that I had someone in mind to ask.
“Uh, it went fine, I guess.”
“Fine? So she said yes?” Her face lights up like she is genuinely happy for me.
“Um, not exactly. I'm not really sure.” Her towel slips a little, but I pretend not to notice.
“How can you not be sure? You either asked her or you didn't. Did she say she had to think about it? Because any girl who says she has to think about it is probably waitin' for some other guy to ask her, and you've become her backup plan while she buys some time.”
I nod, perhaps a little too vigorously. “Right. You are so right. Great advice. I will definitely keep that in mind.”
“Never settle, Hank. You're a great guy. And you're adorable. Any girl would be lucky to go with you.”
“Adorable” is a word that I generally reserve for teddy bears and kittens, but I'll take it. The smell of soap and Suave Ocean Breeze shampoo hits my nose as she pulls me close for a hug, and I start to feel awkward. Now I really have to get in my room fast, or else this could get highly embarrassing. So I pull away and hurriedly push open my door, shouting, “Thanks! See ya!” and give her a thumbs-up as I swing it closed.
Holy Mother of God.
Once I'm in, I throw my backpack on the bed and tear it open, pulling out the empty sparkler boxes. I've got to hide them somewhere until Thursday, which is trash pickup, because I can't risk leaving them in the garbage can. Murphy's Law says that if I do, this will be the week a freak band of raccoons decides to rummage through our garbage or some homeless guy goes diving for recyclables. I've got enough fish to fry without Harry the Hobo getting interviewed on the eleven o'clock news about the “suspicious packages” he found when he was playing amateur archaeologist for old Pepsi cans.
I quickly inventory my boxes. And then I panic. There should be seven of them. Eight sparklers came in a package, and the website specifically recommended seven boxes. But there are only six boxes here. My bag was zipped, which means I dropped one of them somewhere in front of Amanda Carlisle's house. And unless it burned up in the fire, it's lying there covered in my fingerprints and practically wrapped with a bow for someone to find.
I've done a lot of dumbass things in my life, but this is pretty much the capper. I break into a sweat all over again. If someone had found the box and connected it to me, the police would have already shown up at my door, right?
I count the boxes again but there are still only six. Which means I have no choice.
I have to go back to Amanda's house.