"An Awkward Prologue"
Tori Matteson tucked a strand of her straight, shoulder-length blonde hair behind her left ear and accelerated her shiny black Nissan Sentra from where she'd been stopped at a stoplight. Her right hand automatically went toward her car's radio, adjusting the volume louder when the latest hip-hop song boomed through her speakers. Singing and dancing as she drove down the road in contentment that Sunday afternoon, Tori's mind returned to just yesterday when she'd graduated from high school.
The outdoor graduation ceremony had, thankfully, gone rather quickly, and Tori's speech as valedictorian had been canceled to make the ceremony faster, thanks to the intense heat wave that was threatening the area's population with heatstroke. So instead of stressing about a speech as her classmates' names were called, she'd spent the extensive time texting her friends and letting her phone ring, as said friends kept fueling Tori's rebellion by calling to make her banned phone go off during the ceremony—not that anyone but the people around Tori had noticed. It really was amusing to her that, even in her last moments as a high school student, Tori could break the rules without getting caught. Something about her appearance must have just screamed 'good girl' to everyone with any authority, which Tori didn't exactly understand, because she had never gotten into trouble for any of the numerous rules she had broken throughout the years.
Suddenly, the increasingly familiar ringtone of Tori's cell phone blared, and she glanced at the tiny screen. Don't Pick Up Calling. Tori smiled to herself at her cleverness of editing Michael Stephens's contact information in her phone. While she could have just simply blocked him, she then wouldn't have been able to laugh with her friends about how often the guy called her, almost begging to get together with her, which was something else on the list of things in life that she just didn't understand.
Tori silenced her cell phone and rolled down her car's window, letting sunshine reflect off of her already tanned skin. Now that high school was finished, she had the entire summer to worry about college and reflect on how she never had to socialize with her high school friends and so-called friends again, unless she chose to, of course, and she probably wouldn't choose to socialize with most of them. With all of the drama of high school behind her, today would be her first day at her first job, and she was quite looking forward to it. This summer she would be working at the boat dock of a state park, renting boats and daydreaming the days away; maybe she'd even dream up a new life plan, since she was certainly lacking in one currently. What would have been a better way to spend her time?
Singing along to the radio, she drove to the boat dock and parked her car. Doing a double check of her straight hair and her outfit—khaki capris, navy tank top, and short-sleeved burgundy sweater—Tori climbed out of her car and entered the building, something that she quickly declared a shack. Inside, a rack of lifejackets hung in the left corner, and a hip-length swinging door led behind the counter, where she'd be sitting to rent boats. Many windows adorned the walls, which were painted a peppy shade of mint green. Behind the counter, a door on the side led to what Tori would later discover to be a bathroom. Also behind the counter was a short, chubby brunette.
"Hi!" Bethany Lamar greeted brightly. Bethany was a year younger than Tori, but they knew each other vaguely from high school. Both girls would be working together as attendants of the boat dock, sharing responsibilities. "How are you, Tori? I'm so excited to be back here this summer!"
Tori smiled at Bethany's excitement; she already knew that it was Bethany's second summer working at the park, and her enthusiasm was a good sign; working there must really be a good way to spend the summer if just mentioning it briefly brought out such happiness. "I'm good. How are you?"
"Great!" Bethany motioned for Tori to come behind the counter, and Tori obeyed quickly. "So Max—that's our supervisor—told me to show you how to fill out the receipts, so I'll train you. I've worked every position here at the park, so I think they're going to let me train everybody." Bethany paused expectantly, seemingly waiting for Tori to comment, but when Tori didn't, she added with a cocky laugh, "I'm the one who really knows everything that goes on around here!"
Tori instantly remembered why she and Bethany hadn't been anything more than acquaintances in high school: Bethany was full of herself. Beginning to smile out of politeness rather than pleasure, Tori was silent while Bethany explained procedures and boat rates to her. Just as Tori had expected, the job wasn't going to be too hard. When someone wanted to rent a boat, she accepted the money and wrote a receipt; there was also recreational equipment that could be checked out by visitors. What Bethany said was the hardest part of the job was cleaning the boats when renters left trash in them.
"You should've seen this place before I got here," Bethany griped, rolling her hazel eyes. "It was so dirty since the boat dock's been closed all winter, but I've been cleaning lots and lots." Tori's green eyes swept the room, and they immediately trained in on the dirt on the floor, the smudges on the windows, and the dust on the counters. Cleaning was clearly going to be Tori's job. "I've been busting my butt getting it clean."
Tori resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the obvious lie. "I can see that."
"Anyway, you're working second shift today, so I'm leaving at four-thirty," Bethany announced. Tori glanced at her watch. Due to a special graduation dinner at her church, she hadn't been able to get into work until three o'clock, and it was now three-fifteen. So that left her with only a little over an hour to deal with Bethany, at least for today. "By the way, you'll work two weekdays, and I'll work two weekdays, and we both work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, just different shifts. You're working tomorrow and Tuesday."
"That's fine," Tori agreed easily, taking a seat in one of two chairs behind the counter. She admired the pale greenness of the walls and was grateful that the inside of the boat dock wasn't a dingy color.
Bethany's talking filled the next forty-five minutes, and if Tori had been processing anything that came out of her mouth, she probably would have gone crazy, but, fortunately, Tori was accustomed to ignoring annoyingness; high school had trained her well for dealing with anyone even remotely irritating, and Bethany certainly met that requirement. Before she knew it, her supervisor, Park Ranger Max, had arrived to collect the revenue of first shift. Tori observed the closing paperwork and vowed to remember what she would have to do later that evening when it was her turn to be checked out by a ranger.
"Will you be closing me out?" Tori asked Max, who had been eerily silent. He was very tall, quite thin, and harbored a severe expression.
"No, I get off soon," Max mumbled, not meeting Tori's gaze.
"Carson has the next shift," Bethany supplied in her all-knowing voice. She gathered her belongings as Max signed for the revenue, but she did it much too slowly to please Tori's preferences. "You'll like him. He's really cool."
Tori tried to smile, but her hopes weren't very high. The good mood that she'd been in earlier—if not the good mood that she lived in—had dimmed considerably. Bethany's chatter was going to become exasperating quickly, and Max's lack of personality didn't offer any relief; he left without even saying goodbye. Too bad there's no chance that Bethany will do that, Tori thought bitterly, willing her cell phone to receive a text message as a distraction.
"Oh, it's Chad!" Bethany gushed suddenly, pulling Tori out of her thoughts and wishes. Tori's head snapped up to the door where a blondish guy with a big smile was entering. Suddenly, comforted by his smile, she felt a little better. "Chad!"
"Hey, Bethany," he returned, smile widening even more. He turned to Tori, acknowledging her right away, unlike her supervisor. "You're the new girl, huh? I'm Chad Robbins."
Grateful for the friendliness, Tori shook his extended hand and returned his smile. "Tori Matteson. It's nice to meet you."
"Chad works for the maintenance department in the summer," Bethany said to Tori, her face all alight. Tori had no doubts that Bethany had special feelings for Chad; it was beyond obvious from her expression. "I missed you so much!" Bethany squealed at him, going around the counter to hug him tightly. "How was your winter?"
Tori almost snickered, realizing that they must not have talked since last summer and yet Bethany made it seem like they were such close friends. Without any hesitance, Tori could admit to herself and anyone else that asked that she could certainly be a bitch at times, and, fittingly enough, it pleased her bitch side to draw a negative conclusion about Bethany's relationship with Chad. To Tori, the fact that Bethany's arrogance could be met with an apparent superficial friendship was ironic.
"It was pretty good," Chad replied easily. He leaned against the counter casually, and Tori fought the longing to tell him that the counter was too dirty to lean on; it then occurred to her that if he worked maintenance, he was probably used to dirt, unlike her. She stayed silent as Chad's attention turned to her. "So you just graduated?"
"Yes, she did!" Bethany answered jubilantly, causing Tori to cast an incredulous glance at her abundant, inexplicable happiness. "Valedictorian, you know."
Chad's tanned face showed that he was impressed. "Aw man, that's hardcore."
Modestly, Tori shrugged. "I'm just glad to be out of high school. No college can possibly have as much drama and stupidity."
"Don't get your hopes up," Chad laughed, his blue eyes sparkling. "I've been out for three years, and I've still seen my fair share of drama."
Tori wrinkled her nose. "Thanks." She gave him a teasing smile and added, "Don't be hurt if I choose to ignore that and keep hoping for the best."
Chad's smile never wavered. "Feel free." His head tipped to the side, and he studied Tori. She looked back at him invitingly. "You look really familiar. How would I know you?"
Laughing merely because Chad's easy attitude made her want to smile, Tori shrugged. "I have no idea. You've been out of school for three years, right?" He nodded. "So you would've been a senior during my freshman year." She paused, and the two studied each other in amusement. "I don't remember seeing you."
Chad's amusement turned pensive. "Yeah, I don't think I know you from school."
"You usually read the paper, don't you, Chad?" Bethany asked. Her voice wasn't as bubbly now, and Tori chalked it up to her being ignored for the past minute or so. "You've probably seen Tori in there for cross country. She's really good."
"Really?" Chad asked, obviously interested. "That could be it. You like to run then?"
"Running's my passion," Tori admitted, squirming just slightly in her chair from thinking about it. She offered a sheepish smile. "My day is not complete without it."
"See?" Bethany nearly whined at Chad. "I told you she was weird."
Taken aback, Tori found herself speechless. She'd been talked about by people that she didn't know, which was entirely different from being talked about by people that she did know—something that was not at all uncommon in school. Worse, she'd assumed Chad and Bethany hadn't talked based on her earlier question, but apparently they really were close after all. Now she wasn't sure what to think, so she avoided thinking all together and questioned, "You think I'm weird?"
"Didn't you get off at four-thirty?" Chad asked Bethany, blatantly taking the attention off of Tori, or so she felt. "You're not heading out?"
"You stopped by." Bethany smiled cheerily. "I didn't want to miss talking to you."
Tori watched Chad and Bethany watch each other for a few moments, and she wondered if there was a history of romantic sorts there or something. The vibe she was getting from them undoubtedly suggested that something was a little bit off the norm. She hoped it wasn't her presence and that things weren't going to be this awkward all summer long. However, this was something she was taking Chad's advice about and not getting her hopes up over.
"I just stopped by for a second," Chad said finally, evidently glancing at the time on his cell phone. He flashed Tori a grin and then glanced back to Bethany. "I'm about to head out. Dinner with the family tonight."
"I'll walk out with you," Bethany offered quickly. Tori was impressed that Chad kept on smiling, despite Bethany's overeager behavior. Either they really were close friends, or Chad didn't notice how spastic Bethany was over him. "Bye, Tori!"
"It was great meeting you," Chad told Tori, sounding as genuine as the smile appeared on his dimpled face. "We're going to have fun this summer."
Tori returned his smile and thought that it might really be legitimate on her face as well. "I'm looking forward to it. I'll see you guys later."
Bethany practically pushed Chad out the door, talking excitedly about how much she'd missed him and the park during the off-season. Relief rushed through Tori as she realized she was free to clean then. Now, she would be the first one to admit that she was obsessive-compulsive about a few things in life, and cleaning was most definitely one of them. If she had a quarter for every time that she'd been referred to as a germaphobe, her wardrobe would have been enhanced with designer clothing by now.
For the next forty minutes, Tori swept the wooden floors, wiped the newly white countertops, organized the recreational equipment, and set up the orange lifejackets by size and position. She was just starting to clean her second window when a park ranger came in. This one was shorter than Max with blond hair and a cheerful smile. Finally, Tori began to relax after meeting more friendly coworkers.
"Hi," she greeted him brightly, unraveling paper towels from the roll. "I'm Tori."
"I'm Ranger Hawkins," he said formally. Then he rolled his eyes, laughed, and added casually, "But you can call me Carson. You've really cleaned this place up already. I know Bethany didn't do it."
Tori smiled and shrugged. "Germaphobia. And this place was filthy." Carson glanced around, admiring the newfound cleanliness of the boat dock. "I'm loving the color of the place though. The green is really cheerful."
"Are you serious?" Carson asked, staring at Tori in mild disbelief. "You're the first person who has actually liked it. The walls were white till last winter, and then I got bored and decided to paint the place up. You really like it?"
"Definitely. White would get nasty, but the green?" Tori smiled brighter. "It's peaceful." She paused and added playfully, "And the paintjob is great."
Carson laughed. "Thanks, suck-up. I'm glad you like it." He motioned toward the box of rubber gloves on the countertop and then to the trash can. "I notice you're a big fan of rubber gloves too."
Grinning, Tori ducked her head sheepishly. "Okay, so I used…four pairs already." She and Carson laughed. "I don't like to get dirty."
Carson continued laughing. "I can tell." His head dipped, nodding toward the window cleaning supplies in front of Tori. "You going all out or what?"
Tori laughed lightly. "Germaphobia. I told you."
"This is a change—a good change though." Carson shifted his weight comfortably, visibly entertained. "I bet the windows haven't been cleaned since they were installed."
Crinkling her nose in disgust, Tori shook her head vigorously. "That's going to change, for sure." She lifted the bottle of Windex and aimed it at a window, sighing when the liquid barely sprayed the window. "Oh my God!" Tori exclaimed in frustration, slamming the plastic bottle down onto the counter. She glanced up and caught Carson's surprised expression. She gestured toward the bottle hatefully. "It's not spraying well," she explained, turning thoughtful. "Maybe the setting is funny." She picked up the bottle and glanced at the sprayer's setting. "Oh!" she laughed, feeling stupid. "It's on No."
"Yeah." Tori shook her head gently and flipped the knob of the sprayer around. She read the new adjustment and heard herself gasp, "Off! What? It says 'no' and 'off.' I need it to say yes!"
Laughter erupted from the other side of the counter, and Tori looked up in wonder. Frowning, she stared at Carson; watching him laugh for several moments gave her time to rethink what had just happened. Tori looked back at the bottle of Windex and burst out laughing as well. She'd read the 'on' upside down.
"No?" Carson repeated through his animated guffawing. "Damn, girl, I heard you were valedictorian."
Although she tried to scowl, Tori found herself giggling more. "Shut up!" she cried with little animosity. "It was a legitimate mistake!"
Carson shook his head sadly. "I'm going to go make a round through the campground," he declared. "You clean here, and I'll man my station over there."
Tori smiled good-naturedly. "You do that, Carson."
He said his goodbye and left Tori to her cleaning. A glance at her watch informed her that she only had two hours left, and so far she'd had no customers. She continued scrubbing the windows, singing casually to herself, and then swept the floor again for good measure. She opened the drawers behind the counter and organized things neatly—putting pens in the same direction and straightening the time sheets, receipt books, and revenue forms.
Once satisfied with her scouring and organizing, Tori settled into a chair and looked around. The windows in the boat dock gave her a nearly panoramic view, and to say that the view wasn't lovely would be lying. Although Tori was not a big fan of the outdoors—particularly the smelly lake—she figured working at the boat dock would get her out of her comfort zone and bring in some easy cash. While doing so, she could admire the pretty East Tennessee view, complete with mountains, lake, and trees.
I now present to you…the senior class of 2008!
Tori heard the words from yesterday's speech resounding in her head. She felt as though she should feel different now. Already she had been a high school graduate for over twenty-four hours, and yet she didn't feel any wiser. Maybe the wisdom would come as the realization of her accomplishment sunk in.
She glanced up and noticed a white Stratus with a green symbol—obviously for Tennessee State Parks—on its front doors. Tori froze, wondering if her boss had been summoned, but she relaxed when she reassured herself that she'd done absolutely nothing wrong. As far as she knew, it was not a major sin to use lots of rubber gloves, and that was the most questionable thing she had done.
Sure, she didn't have much common sense, but that was hardly a crime.
The car's door opened, and a younger guy stepped out. He was most definitely not her boss or one of her supervisors if Tori's judgment was worth anything. Tori knew that there were three park rangers at this park, but this guy was wearing jeans—not the customary green slacks—with his light brown shirt. Curiosity filled Tori's head, and she blatantly observed him as he walked into the boat dock.
Once the guy had entered the shack, he and Tori stared at each other for a second, neither of them saying a word. Neither smiled, but Tori didn't feel like either of their expressions were negative ones. It was more like neither of them knew exactly what to say, but, finally, the guy spoke first.
Almost cracking up at the momentary tension and weirdness of it all, Tori grinned back at him with unfeigned enthusiasm. "Hey." Tori extended her slender hand to him politely, saying, "I'm Tori."
"Trent." He shook her hand easily. "I'm supposed to come ask you for advice on operating Windex bottles." He gave her a crooked grin. "Think you can be of any service?"
Tori laughed even as her cheeks heated up in embarrassment. "Probably, yeah. I'm becoming quite the expert." She rolled her eyes. "So Carson's a gossip?"
Shrugging, Trent moved behind the counter and sat in the chair next to Tori's. At this distance, Tori couldn't help but notice how blue his eyes were. "I haven't figured out who's what around here just yet."
That surprised Tori. "Aren't you a ranger or something?"
"Seasonal ranger," Trent corrected. "I'm still in college, but I'm supposed to put together programs for the campers here—basically anything to keep them busy. You know, stuff like volleyball games and information sessions on lightning bugs and snakes." Tori raised her eyebrows at him, not sure if he was telling the truth. "Seriously. I'm kind of like the babysitter for the campers' kids."
Tori studied him quickly; he seemed honest enough. She glanced down at his badge and saw his last name: Manley. This was a small town, and she knew a large percentage of the people, but she definitely didn't know anyone with that last name. "Are you from here?" she asked bluntly.
"Nope, but I'm living at the park this summer. I'm from around Athens." Trent must have comprehended Tori's puzzled expression. "Between Knoxville and Chattanooga."
"Oh," Tori nodded, crossing her long legs. "How long have you been here?"
"I moved in last week." Trent leaned his chair back on two legs, rocking it in what must have been boredom. "And so far, nothing too exciting has happened."
A sad sort of smile hinted across Tori's lips as she stifled a sigh. "Trust me…nothing will in this town."
"You don't think so?"
Tori shook her head, brushing back a lock of her blonde hair from her face; the heat and humidity of summer, even in May, had put a gentle wave to her straight locks. "I've lived here for like ten years, and there's never anything exciting going on. Sure, you'll get your drama and a little scandal on a daily basis, but it's usually bullshit."
"Gotcha." Trent continued rocking in his chair. "Is this your first year working here?"
"Yup. Yours too?"
"Uh-huh." Trent reached behind his chair and plucked a volleyball from the metal recreational rack that Tori had found and immediately utilized; he tossed it between his hands casually. "I'm pretty excited about it."
Tori gently nodded her agreement. "How do you feel about living away from home?"
"It's not much of a big deal." Trent bounced the ball off the floor and caught it with an athlete's expertise. "I mean, I just finished my third year away from home for college. So I'm pretty used to life outside of Athens."
"Ah, I see." Tori began to pull her hair away from her face, fashioning it into a loose ponytail. "I just graduated high school. Where do you go to school?"
Trent spun the volleyball in the palm of his hand gracefully. "ETSU."
"The party school." Tori grinned, mirroring the expression of amusement on Trent's face. East Tennessee State University was sort of known as the school that one only went to with the intent of always partying and never studying. "How does that work for you?"
Laughing lightly, Trent tossed the volleyball to Tori, catching her off guard though she still had enough reaction time to catch it. "I like it a lot. Let's just say that I'm never bored. Where are you heading in the fall?"
Tori cringed visibly. "Well…I definitely don't know. I mean, UTC offered me a really great scholarship for cross country, but Maryville College wants me, and Carson-Newman gave me a full scholarship. But I'm also thinking about ETSU and UTK."
More laughter came from Trent. "So are you telling me that you missed the infamous May first deadline of choosing your college?"
"Of course not!" Tori replied, her tone coated with bubbling sarcasm. Trent laughed again, and Tori joined him this time. "Okay, so, yeah, I have no idea what I'm doing with my life. You like ETSU a whole lot?"
"Oh yeah. It's a good school."
Tori cocked her head curiously. "Better than my other options?"
As much as she hated to think about her college decision, or lack there of, Tori thought that talking about it was a good idea. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga expected her to run for them, but Carson-Newman and Maryville Colleges wanted the same thing from her while also offering her academic scholarships. Of course, ETSU and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville both had cross country teams that were vying for her attention as well. Always indecisive, Tori had a real problem on her hands, and talking about her options was the only thing that ever really made her think about them thoroughly.
"How can you, Miss Valedictorian, not know which college you're going to?"
Making a face, Tori questioned, "How did you know that I was valedictorian? No, you know what? Throw that question out—somebody's a gossip; I already established that, even if I don't know who." She sighed and shrugged her thin shoulders. "I really just don't know. I thought I'd have it figured out by now."
Tori grinned and tossed the volleyball back at Trent. "But I don't. It's a big decision. Whatever I pick, I'm stuck with. The decision that I make decides where I'm going to spend the next four years of my life."
"Not necessarily." Trent resumed bouncing the ball carelessly. "I went to a little private school—Tennessee Wesleyan—for a year and then decided I hated it. That's when I ended up at ETSU, and it's been much better."
Tori's eyes lit up with excitement, and she squirmed in her chair eagerly. "Yes, this is fantastic! You can help me make this decision! You've found your purpose in life, Trent Manley. It's helping me a pick a college."
The twinkle in Trent's ridiculously blue eyes showed how entertained he was by Tori's declaration. "All right, sure. Do you want a big school or a small school?"
Tori blinked. "I don't know. What do you like? Wait—the bigger school, obviously. Um, maybe I'd like a big school too."
"But that's a maybe," Trent said in mock seriousness, fighting a smile. "So we better leave that option open. How far away from home do you want to be?"
"Far. Like, far, far away. Even farther than my options."
"So, of those, you can mark UTK, Carson-Newman, and Maryville off the list, since they're pretty close." Trent tipped his head inquisitively, brown hair spilling forward on his forehead. "How do you feel about that?"
Thoughtful, Tori tipped her head back at him. "That leaves ETSU and UTC, and both of them are big schools. I guess I want a big school."
"I guess maybe you do," Trent agreed with a nod and a smile. He spun the volleyball in Tori's direction, and she caught it quickly, more prepared this time. "ETSU and UTC are similar. Would you rather be on the river or in the Tri-Cities area?"
"Location, location, location." Tori studied Trent in open amusement, tossing the ball back to him. "Did you pick your school based on its location?"
He shook his head and ricocheted the volleyball off the bathroom door. "Nah. I wanted a big school, and I'm not really crazy about orange, so being a UT Volunteer was not an option." Smiling, he shrugged. "ETSU had a good reputation for wildlife management, so it worked."
Tori sighed deeply. "Well. I've made no decisions."
"And I always thought that I was indecisive." Trent tossed the volleyball back in Tori's direction. "You make me look good, Miss Tori."
"You can't say that yet." Smirking, Tori hit the volleyball off the floor forcefully. "This summer may prove that you're even more indecisive than I am. So you just wait until you can put up or shut up."
With hands of stealth, Trent knocked the volleyball away from Tori in his direction, bouncing it with a grin. "Okay then. Let the summer begin."