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By S.E. Clancy

Ever since Tori Weston and MamaBear were abandoned by her dad, finances have been tighter than a new pair of skinny jeans. As if keeping her grades up for scholarships and working every spare moment weren’t enough, Tori gets suckered into visiting a retirement home and paired with ancient resident Marigold Williams. After learning she’s the only one to visit Marigold in decades, Tori becomes a regular at Willow Springs. Besides, someone has to help with her history homework.

Corbin Dallas barges into Tori’s life with a prosthetic leg and a dimple, working his way into her hectic schedule. Though she tries to deny it, there’s something beyond his Texan drawl that gets Tori hoping she’s more than his sidekick. Together, they race to find Marigold’s missing family before she fades away. Tori ditches her soul-sucking job, along with her dreams of having a paint-peeled clunker to call her own, in order to help her friend one last time.

Chapter 1

Keeping a firm grip on my handlebars, I swiveled my head toward the music…and my dream car.

My morning had failed spectacularly. My Twenty One Pilots poster mysteriously fell from the wall during the night and left a massive crease across Tyler’s face. The janky water heater broke for the third time in a week, and my shower hovered a degree above glacial. And although I rarely wore eyeliner, the tip I tried to smear across my eyelid broke, and I ended up with a lovely scratch that resembled a raging case of pink eye.

Now I waited at the light on a bike, next to a car I could never afford. I expected a thumping bass line or twanging country, not “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the song that always weaseled its way into my mom’s playlists. But the guy in scrubs behind the wheel looked like he was trying to recapture his teenage years with custom dance moves.

Through the clouds, the sun glinted off stock chrome bumpers and down the curves of a 1967 red Mustang convertible. Even the rims were original. This was exactly what I needed. But I could be flexible. It could be a 2016 Mustang with air conditioning and leather seats, with no complaints from me. I only lacked the funds to own anything other than the blue ten-speed cruiser I got for Christmas three years before.

Back when I was fourteen, it was the best Christmas present a girl could ask for, complete with a miniature license plate bearing my name: TORI. The ridiculous matching helmet I’d outgrown was stuffed somewhere in the dark corners of my closet, along with the license plate. Three years later, the bike was my only form of transportation, when I couldn’t beg a ride from my mom. Maybe MamaBear didn’t feel my pain of being one of the only juniors at Butte High School without a car. Had the man who was biologically my father paid child support, I might already have owned a ride. But that’s another story.

The only highlight of the morning? It was Friday.

After the Mustang sped away, I pedaled on the back roads to school, fleeing the traffic backups and aggressive drivers jockeying for position to drop off their kids. It resembled a colossal competition of car Jenga.

If I could make it through the day without seeing Zane and his posse, I’d be fine. It was easy enough to disappear in school, but this type of day would land me straight in the path of the stereotypical, majestic captain of the football team.

My pocket chirped as I snaked the cable through my bike tires. I spun the lock closed and fished my phone from my jeans.

Mads: I’m sick today. So sick.

If my friend was sick, I was a natural blonde. I envied Madison’s ability to manipulate her parents into more three-day weekends than what I imagined most homeschoolers enjoyed.

What tropical disease did you catch?

Her absence narrowed my lunchtime choices to one option: eating with a book on the steps outside the cafeteria, hoping the September clouds overhead wouldn’t dump rain.

Most kids I knew were acquaintances, not friends. After moving to Redding as a sophomore, the jump from a tiny mountain community high school to one with over eight hundred students was more than a culture shock. There were groups and sub-groups—a hierarchy. Some thrived in their groups. Even fewer floated between more than one clique. But I was content on the fringes, friendly to all and provoking none.

Mads: Malaria. Or Zika.

I swiped the message into oblivion and sprinted to Spanish class. One more tardy and MamaBear would ground me for all eternity. The bell rang as I slid through the doorway.

My whole point of existence at Butte High was to play basketball, earn enough money to buy a car, graduate, and get community service credits for a college scholarship to anywhere other than Redding. Forget a boyfriend from the shallow pond of people who grew up and were related. Every day marched in the same boring way. Too many cowboy jocks, too many triple-digit summer days, and too few things to do for those unfortunate souls stuck in my age group. The limited options included sneaking out to parties thrown by upper classmen with their how-do-you-like-my-new-hair-color girlfriends, or going to the movies. And since I happened to work at one of the two multiplex theaters, I couldn’t wait to come up with my half of the cost of a car. It was my ticket out of far northern California after I graduated.

Rain splattered the windows during my Creative Writing class, before the lunchtime bell. Great. Not only would I be shoving food into my mouth in the hallway, I’d be fleeing to the library and into the territory of the self-righteous scholars of the school. They littered the tables in the hushed room, taking turns giving me the stink eye whenever my chair groaned against the floor. Who made the decision to install cheap woodgrain flooring in a library?

I hated reading James Joyce during lunch, but it was necessary. I wanted to spend an hour obsessing over Mustangs or random pictures on Instagram and Pinterest, but I had a paper due Monday and needed to keep my phone charged for my shift after school.

After lunch, my locker jammed. Of course. I trekked to the office and waited for Carl the janitor to escort me back to the deserted hallway. I wasn’t his favorite person. My locker seemed to be possessed with a sticking lock, no matter how many times he fixed it.

When I made my way into American Lit, three minutes late, Mr. Long expressed no sympathy, even with the note from the office.

Either my teachers were sadistic or they’d simultaneously experienced worse mornings than mine, because by the end of the day, I ended up with homework in every class. Sweet. Instead of complaining of nothing to do between shifts at the theater and my Saturday babysitting job, I’d be slaving at my laptop. Exactly how every seventeen-year-old dreams of spending her weekend.

At least I hadn’t lost my mind over trying to find a homecoming dress, like a majority of the girls in the hallways at the final bell. I never expected to be asked. Wasn’t a big deal. I may have mentally drooled over the way Zane’s shirts seemed to be painted across his torso, but in no way did I want to be anything other than a girl with a secret crush on him. I’d taken enough basketball bus trips the previous year to realize Zane wasn’t anything other than eye candy. Yummy, black-haired, blue-eyed, sculpted-muscles, selfie-obsessed eye candy.

Another red Mustang blasted by me on the ride from school to work—as if it weren’t enough to avoid potholes and hobos while weighted down by nine million pounds of school books in my backpack. I’m pretty sure the world plotted against me the entire day. Damp from the drizzled ride when I arrived at the theater, I hurried upstairs.

After changing into dry black pants and a dull white T-shirt with the theater logo peeling off of the back, I checked the mirror in the employee bathroom for ruined mascara. I twisted my wet, stringy hair off of my face with bobby pins. But the rebel in me left the tiny stud in my nose because my manager wasn’t scheduled to work. A new superhero movie had opened earlier in the day, and it would be a night of hustling from one empty theater to another to clean the perpetual deluge of popcorn and dodging the diehards who stayed to obsess over the credits.

I fired off a message to my mom before I headed down to the lobby, a clash of neon signs over black and white tiles.

At work. Off late. Rocky Horror showing at midnight.

MamaBear: Oof. Be safe. You have dinero for dinner?

Yup. Fast food is life.

MamaBear: Let me know when you are off.

Okie dokie.

The sigh escaped automatically as I trudged down the purple-carpeted stairs. Not everyone could have such a glamorous life.

Chapter 2

The only white Christmas I’d ever seen was on television and the internet. I had never tasted a chestnut, and open fires were illegal in Shasta County. MamaBear’s cheerful note on the bathroom mirror the next morning, declaring, “98 days until Christmas,” hardly conjured up visions of decorations or Nat King Cole’s album that MamaBear would have on repeat during the entire month of December.

All I could think of was the assignment from youth group at church.

The scalding shower relaxed my muscles, beckoning my eyelids back down. Wednesday night, Pastor Matt said that teenagers were generally expected to underperform in life. We wanted things to be easy. He’d challenged us to do something hard, to step out of our comfort zones before Christmas. I thought it was a great lesson—right until the moment the youth group deadline reminder arrived, decorated with a smiley face on MamaBear’s sticky note.

Thoughts of the Christmas deadline floated down the drain with my shampoo. My mind fiddled with the balance I had to earn to come up with the down payment for the car that MamaBear and I agreed upon. I was close.

A Mustang was out of the price range. Sure, I’d probably end up with a ten-year-old beater, more-than-likely-gold-colored foreign car, but it’d be mine. My choice of music would rule the stereo. I could prop a ridiculous piña colada-scented tree near the console because hanging it from the rearview mirror would obstruct my view. My luck, if I even hung it once, I’d get a ticket and that would mean no car. One of the downsides of having a cop for a parent.

Conditioner rinsed down my back when my phone growled on the counter. MamaBear was working the swing shift, eleven in the morning to eleven at night. It was her favorite shift, when all the “fun stuff” happened. She was probably checking to make sure I was awake. Instead of sending her a text as soon as I was up when I flopped out of bed near ten in the morning, I’d stumbled straight to the bathroom. I’m a naughty child.

After wrenching off the faucets, which had a tendency to drip incessantly if not forced shut with Herculean strength, I snaked my arm out of the curtain to retrieve the towel. Of course, it had fallen from the peg. I pulled it up from the floor, and an acrid odor hit my nose right before I dried myself.

“Trio!” I screamed into the otherwise-empty apartment. Stupid cat had peed on the towel while I showered. Sure, she was cute when she wanted to snuggle, but this was outrageous. She had a fully automatic self-cleaning litter box. The cat was a jerk, even if she only had three legs.

Naked, I rushed a few feet to the linen closet in the hallway and then back to the safety of the steamy bathroom, the fan humming in the ceiling. Out of habit, I’d already hung my clothes in the bathroom. Nothing like having your mom scare you into a routine with reminders like, “I handled a break-in today where a woman was showering,” or “There was a fire downtown and the man had to jump out of his window—butt naked.” Taking my clothes with me to the tiny bathroom was a small piece of insurance in case of an emergency. Heaven knows it would probably be my mom who would be dispatched to find her nude daughter crawling out the window to escape an ax murderer.

Once fully clothed, I swiped the fogged mirror and scrubbed the clean towel back and forth across my hair, making it look even more asymmetrical. My phone growled once, then twice. Most people mistakenly thought it was a clip of Hulk roaring, not the snarl of a grizzly bear. I had no problem teasing my mom. After all, I happened to be her only cub and the target of her protectiveness.

I sent my reply, along with a smiley face. Emojis never hurt.

Sorry. Showered first and Trio peed on my towel.

MamaBear: I trained her to do that.

Nasty. PB&J then babysitting at the Branches. Work after. Off at 10.

MamaBear: See you then, kid. Love ya.

Some days, we’d have entire conversations in emojis, out of sheer fun and determination to see who would break. Happy to say, I’d never lost.

Turning my reflection one way and then the other, I breathed a sigh of relief. My skin decided to cooperate and there was no need for makeup, other than mascara. I’d ignore my freckles today.

Ugh. My boss would be working, so out came my nose ring, leaving a tiny hole that resembled a blackhead. The joys of a working stiff. I deposited the towel into the laundry basket on top of the one Trio had christened.

In the kitchen, I crammed a PB and J sandwich down the hatch. A quick refill of my filtered water bottle, and I was out the door to the babysitting job, a fifteen-minute bike ride from our apartment.

After I pedaled up the steep asphalt to the Branches’s wrought iron gates, I punched the call button, trying to catch my breath and sound normal, instead of wheezing.

“Hi, Tori.” Michelle Branch, attorney-at-law, chirped through the impersonal speaker. My mind never let her title drop after seeing it on late-night television, especially after I met the name-brand attired woman at church. I waved to the miniature camera at the keypad, which I didn’t have the passcode for. No big deal—trust me with your kids but don’t give me the gate code.

I pushed my bike through the ornate gates. The oversized stained-glass doors yanked open, and three-year-old Zach barreled down the stamped sidewalk, yelling my name over and over. Six-year-old Jack followed, hands buried in his favorite green plastic Hulk fists. After my first job at the Branch house, I swore I’d never tag my kids with rhyming names.

I barely had time to prop my bike next to the front door before I was dragged by one tiny hand and a Hulk fist into the “every-ceiling-is-vaulted” home. Michelle, as beautiful in person as she was in her commercials—and even more likeable than her silly television monologue—walked down the hallway while securing her hair with bobby pins.

“Leave Tori alone!” She chastised her sons by voice tone only. I wasn’t sure if the two boys ever received parental discipline.

“The boys haven’t had lunch yet,” she said, “but there’s plenty of food in the fridge. Oh, we are going to be late! It’s my fault. I should’ve asked for you to come sooner. But they can’t start without the guest speaker.”

The guest speaker she referred to, her equally model-like husband Daniel, trotted down the carpeted stairs. “Hey, Tori.” He flashed a toothpaste-ad smile.

“Hi, Dr. Branch. I’ll get the boys’ lunch started.” Zach deposited his skinny butt onto my left Converse. “My shift at the theater starts at 4:30.”

“No problem.” Dr. Branch herded his wife toward the door.

I guided the boys to the doorway behind them, and we waved like trained seals while they sped off in a blur of a silver Mercedes.

Following an abbreviated lunch of canned organic raviolis, the clock sped by, assisted by the two animated boys. I played Black Widow to their Captain America and Iron Man, glancing at the enormous grandfather clock whenever I “died.”

My stomach knotted as it grew closer to 4:00, then 4:15. I’d never been late. My manager didn’t tolerate tardiness or downtime. As much as I wanted the money from babysitting, I couldn’t lose my job. I paced to the window between toy retrievals until the chimes from the driveway sensor sounded and the garage opened. My teeth snapped together.

“I’m so sorry!” Michelle pressed folded bills into my hand.

I wadded the money into my pocket. “It’s okay.” Grabbing my bike, I sprinted through the gates as they swung closed. Helmet snapped tight, I flew down the hill, praying no cars would pull out from their pristine driveways. The lights worked in my favor. There was barely enough time to lock my bike into the rack in front.

“Hey, Rosie!” I called to the girl in the ticket booth. I scampered into work before she had time to call back through the microphone.

My I.D. beeped into the computer as my apple-shaped manager, Mr. Bolt, huffed around the corner. He narrowed his eyes at my hideous black pants and not-exactly-white work T-shirt. I hated the dress pants and had lobbied for jeans months ago. Since then, I was subject to Mr. Bolt’s imagination that I’d try to sneak in a pair of jeans for a shift.

 He shoved a lime-green T-shirt at me. “These just came in for the new release.” The wretched neon top was a slight improvement over the required dingy white shirt. I sometimes wondered if corporate desk jockeys needed to embarrass the workers through forced clothing choices to keep the turnover rates high. My opinions aside, I slipped the T-shirt over my own, grabbed a walkie-talkie, and walked down the long hallway toward the ticket taker.

Aubrey adjusted her earpiece as I nodded a hello and squinted at the schedule. She and I shared a small sense of accomplishment, being the only girls on the theater crew. A firm believer in medieval patriarchal societies, Mr. Bolt loved to trap new girls in concession positions. Aubrey and I slogged our way through oily popcorn buckets, customer complaints about candy prices, and changing soda boxes. We advanced to cleaning spilled popcorn, customer complaints about the theater temperatures, and changing trash bags.

Midway through my shift, I spotted my church’s youth pastor beckoning to me across the tiled lobby.

Pastor Matt was a guy who tried entirely too hard. His voice pitched up with enthusiasm whenever he returned from conferences, geared with new things to teach us. He wasn’t horrible. A couple of the girls fawned over the single and eligible Christian youth pastor. It made my stomach roll, in a bad way. I mean, boys our age who were decent were few and far between, but Pastor Matt was a bit outside our range. It’d be like a gross news story.

But I felt like an outsider, preferring the green recliner in the high school room while everyone else scrambled for the blue couch or bean bags. I basically went because MamaBear went to church; it was therefore expected that I go to youth group.

The other kids weren’t outright rude to me, but they conveniently forgot to ask me to non-youth group parties or get-togethers. However, their lack of notice allowed my super-spy stealth abilities to secretly drool over Greek-god-like Zane and Hunter, his dark-haired, handsome sidekick.

Eyeing Pastor Matt, I stowed my sweeper against the wall and made sure there wasn’t any stray popcorn stuck to my belly. A quick hello and I’d be golden. The trick was to make it speedy, or I might be stuck in a conversation rehashing the youth group’s camping trip to Whiskeytown Lake. The one I didn’t go on because I was working.

“Hey. What are you going to see?” I asked the obvious question, but I was partially curious as to his taste.

“Zane should be here any minute. We’re going to see that new spy movie.”

I arched my eyebrows to hide the part of me that kinda died inside at his news. “I didn’t know you guys hung out.”

Pastor Matt slurped his soda through the straw and laughed nervously. “Well, I certainly didn’t expect him to text me, but here we are.”

I hummed an ambivalent response, glancing around for his missing movie partner. Although Zane probably had no intention of anything beyond a friendly greeting, I didn’t want to let him see me. Ever. I’d rather dream about our conversations than actually have one.

“Oh, I brought this in case I ran into you.” From the depths of his red fleece zip-up sweater, Pastor Matt removed a gaudy purple paper. “It’s an extra copy of the flyer from last Wednesday.”

Mentally, I concurred with his observations Wednesday night. He wanted us to be what God created instead of what people expected. Personally, I didn’t have time between work and school.

 “Oh. Thanks. I gotta get back to work now.” With expediency that would have impressed Mr. Bolt, I jammed the paper into my pants pocket and hustled to clean the bathrooms.

One would think, with all of the popcorn I’d made, burnt, and thrown out, that I would be repulsed by the unnaturally yellow pieces of fluff. But with a free container offered on breaks, I redeemed my allotted freshly popped snack and retreated upstairs for my thirty minutes after Pastor Matt’s movie started. With any luck, Zane would never see me in such fashionable attire.

 I’d forgotten about the paper until it poked my thigh as I sat at the employee room table. With twenty-five minutes to kill, I scanned over the list of “hard things” to do: volunteer to read to children at the hospital, habitually visit an elderly person, sign up for hours at the local teen crisis pregnancy center, and on and on. His whole list was thoroughly out of my comfort zone. And none of it interested me. Mouth full of oiled popcorn, I folded the paper and returned it to the safety of my work pants.

At the end of my shift, there was nothing quite as comforting as a quick flash of headlights. With sluggish steps, I thrust my bike into my mom’s open car trunk.

“Spawn.” Her face was lit by the dome light, devoid of makeup, and her hair seemed more black than brown in the dull glow. For once, I didn’t care that she was in her Disney pajamas.

“MamaBear.” As soon as I plunked onto the passenger seat and fastened my seat belt, my head dropped to the window. Eyelids drooped closed, no effort needed.

When the engine turned off, I jerked awake and struggled to unbuckle the belt.

“Go inside. I’ll grab your bike,” she said.

I walked to the apartment floaty, dream-like. My brain was pulling me to the down comforter on my bed, but I needed to wash the stench of gum remover from under my nails.

 With as little effort as was necessary, I chucked the folded flyer onto the kitchen counter. I was sure my mom would see it the following morning and declare them all too dangerous for me because she didn’t trust her daughter in the big, bad world with complete strangers. Sometimes, having a MamaBear worked in my favor, although it was a killer for the social life.

The next day, my eyelids barely stayed open for the late Sunday service at church. Once home and fed, I immersed myself in my History paper.

A flappy noise pulled my attention to my open bedroom door. Mom walked into my room, waving the flyer like a flag of surrender, Trio twisting around her ankles. Honestly, I’d forgotten all about the penned purple peril.

“Did you pick one?” Her eyebrow shot up.

I scrunched up my face. “Huh?”

“Which one did you pick?”

“Which one what?”

“How many ways do you want me to phrase it, Tori?”

“Well…” I laid my pen down, eyes glued to the flyer, while I scrambled for a response. “I wasn’t sure you’d allow me to choose. I wanted to run it by you for permission first.” Lame, lame, lame, but doable.

“Alrighty. Then my choice is number two. It’ll also help out with your community service credits for the quarter.”

My eyes rolled toward the ceiling before I let out a frustrated sigh. So unfair. I didn’t particularly like old people. They wore polyester pants and smelled funny. The white-haired ladies at church didn’t approve of my chain ear cuff and nose ring. I could get my community service credits other ways. But I kept silent—I knew better than to argue. She still held the proverbial keys to my future car.

“Fine.” I dropped my gaze back to my homework. This was going to be a colossal waste of my time.

“I’ll get ahold of the retirement home near your school and see if they have paperwork you need to fill out.” I could hear the smile in her chipper voice.

MamaBear retreated from my doorway, and I returned to my paper, trying to put the darting thoughts of wheelchairs and Velcro sneakers to the back of my mind.

Later, I remembered to pray and asked the Lord to have MamaBear choose a different task or put the brakes on it altogether. Yes—I brought my requests and laid them at God’s feet.

And He answered me.

In the morning, I found a freshly printed volunteer application for Willow Springs Retirement Home on the kitchen counter.

Well, amen to that.