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Valley Girls by Sarah Nicole Lemon (1)

One

Shadowy palms wavered in the streetlight, and a moon rose blue and waned over the San Joaquin Valley. Seventeen-year-old Priscilla “Rilla” Skidmore leaned against the metal pole of the empty bus stop in Merced, California. All around her, the air seemed cavernous and wide. You’re alone. All alone, it breathed.

She pulled her denim jacket tight over her sweatshirt. This was the best thing for everyone. Mom said it. Dad said it. Thea said she would do whatever they thought was best. The only one who thought leaving home in West Virginia to live with her older sister in Yosemite National Park wasn’t a good idea was Rilla.

Rilla’s phone had been taken away in exchange for a burner meant to last only for the bus ride, her friends left in confusion, and her Lab mutt left wandering the house looking for her. Rilla, who had to fit anything she loved in a duffel bag and board a bus in West Virginia, spent three days cramped and quiet, seeing America from the curbs of interstate gas and bus stations and trying to remember Curtis’s number to apologize. Best thing. She tucked her chin, trying to ignore the new bite to the western wind. For everyone else, sure. For Rilla, this loneliness didn’t feel like it could be good.

Her heartbeat thumped a roller-coaster rhythm. Up and down. Resigned and expectant. She pulled her last smoke from her pocket and bent against the wind to light it. With her bag between her boots on the sidewalk, she waited for the last person who might want her: her half sister.

A boy dropped his bag by her feet with a heavy clink of metal, startling her out of her thoughts. “Got another one of those?” he asked, gesturing toward her cigarette.

Rilla shook her head. “Sorry. I’m out.” The last place had carded her, and she was down to this cigarette and one emergency joint in the bottom of her bag. She was supposed to be done smoking anyway. It was part of the plan. She’d had three days to hash out new rules for a new life—to turn everyone else’s best thing into her own. She took a deep pull and held the cigarette out to him as an offering.

The boy reached for it. “Do you have much further to go?” he asked through a rush of a smoke.

“No idea. I think I’m close? It feels like I’ve been on a bus longer than I’ve been alive.” She pulled her hands into the sleeves of her jacket and hugged herself in the chilly May wind, glancing quickly at him and away, trying to get a look without him noticing.

He was a tall cowboy stuffed into a thin, black puffer jacket and old corduroy pants. Tangled earbuds dangled from around his neck, swinging as he curled forward to relight the smoke. His straight mouth and strong jaw landed him just this side of clean-cut and boring, but something she couldn’t pin down gave him a lurking edge of intensity. His gaze cut to the road, and in the amber light, as he took a deep pull on the cigarette, his eyes gleamed.

Her heartbeat surged, as if racing to match that ephemeral intensity.

He caught her staring and offered the smoke back.

She waved it off, trying not to blush. “I’m quitting.”

“Where’re you from?” he asked.

“What?”

“Your accent.”

Rilla frowned and pulled a strand of her long brown hair back from the wind as it swept across her face. “I don’t really have an accent.”

“Is it Kentucky?”

Kentucky? She made a face. “I do not sound like I’m from Kentucky.”

“I hate to break it to you, but you have an accent.”

She drew back. Did she? “But like . . . not like Kentucky. I’m from West Virginia.”

“Same thing.” He put the cigarette back to his mouth and looked in the opposite direction. “At least, west of the Mississippi. I get it. I’m from southern Ohio. I know people who have been to Antarctica more times than they’ve been to southern Ohio.”

Rilla opened her mouth to respond, but a lone truck swung into the parking lot, headlights blinding. Her stomach dropped, and she held her breath as the engine cut and door opened.

Thea.

Thea had left West Virginia with short black hair and multiple piercings, as the lead singer in a band who poured fake blood on herself during shows. Even then, Thea was the most responsible person Rilla knew.

Goth Thea did not climb out of the truck, but it was Thea nonetheless. Her face emerged out of the night, split with the warm, natural smile she’d always kept hidden. Her natural, dark brown hair was pulled over the shoulder of her purple windbreaker, her face tanned and makeup-free. At seventeen and twenty-five, they looked more like sisters than Rilla remembered. Without Thea’s goth persona painted on, they both looked like Mom.

“Rilla!” Thea stepped onto the sidewalk and folded Rilla into an iron hug.

A surge of relief flared through Rilla’s whole body. Thea was still taller. Thinner. Stronger. She smelled, impossibly, like she always had—orange and thyme. All things Rilla remembered from having an older sister. She buried herself in Thea’s arms, stomach in a knot. Thea might have said she would do whatever they thought best for Rilla—but what else was a decent human being supposed to say? It was hard to believe Thea wanted her when everyone else had sent her packing.

Thea pulled back. “How was the bus? Terrible, right? You ready to get back in the car?” Her smile flickered away from Rilla and deepened as she looked to the boy. “Look at you, Walker. Ah. Congratulations.” Thea lifted her arms, and Rilla stepped out of the way.

The boy—Walker—dropped the cigarette, a wide grin spreading across his face that made him look younger. He bent and gave Thea a friendly hug. “Hey, boss.”

Thea groaned. “Not so far. I’m up to my eyes in administration. And parking duties.”

Walker looked horrified. “Parking? I finally get on the team, and you’ve abandoned me?”

“It’s the price I pay for living the dream,” Thea said, reaching for his bag. “I haven’t even been climbing this season.”

“What?” Walker asked, swatting Thea’s hand away and picking up the bag himself. It clinked with that same metallic sound as he threw it, bulging and awkward, over his shoulder and stepped off the curb, into the shadows toward the truck. “What are you even doing with your life?”

Thea grabbed Rilla’s duffel. “Listen, whippersnapper, I got real tactical shit going on these days. Those minivans don’t park themselves.”

“Oh. Well. My apologies, Ranger Martínez,” Walker called dryly.

Rilla swallowed, shouldering her backpack. The wind snapped at her neck, biting open the loneliness she’d thought a warm welcome would resolve. Rilla rushed to catch up with Thea.

“You feeling okay? Relieved to be out here?” Thea asked. “Ready to buckle down and pull it together?”

Rilla knew what she was supposed to say to the long-gone sister who’d doubled back to disaster. “Yep. All good. I’m fine.” She did two thumbs-up to prove she was whatever normal was. Thea knew all the sordid details via Mom, but Rilla didn’t want to rehash any of it. “That bus ride was eternal, though. We broke down in Salina, Kansas. I probably smell. Someone was cooking liver and onions on a hot plate the last few hours. I—”

“Sorry to make you ride crammed in the middle after that bus,” Thea interrupted. “But it’s all I’ve got.”

Just then, Walker hollered, “Are you tying me to the hood or something?”

Rilla gulped back the rest of her chatter.

“Rilla’ll get in the middle,” Thea answered. She took Rilla’s bag and threw it alongside Walker’s.

The door hinges squeaked. “Come on then, West Virginia,” Walker called in Rilla’s direction. “I want to get there.”

Rilla ducked underneath Walker’s outstretched arm, sliding into the middle of the blue vinyl bench seat. He followed, putting his arm on the back of the seat to make room for his shoulders.

Rilla was aware of every part of his body filling the cab—from his fingers draped on the vinyl seat behind her neck to his ratty sneakers pushed up onto the floorboard. But it was hard to tell if he noticed—folded up and turned in on herself as she was.

Rilla smoothed back her hair and tried to avoid making eye contact with herself in the rearview mirror. She’d put makeup on in the bathroom in L.A. that morning—dark eyeliner and coats of mascara to make her narrow blue eyes as cutting as she could manage. But it looked all smudged and terrible by now, she was certain.

Thea shut her door and the dome light clicked off, bathing them in darkness.

Folding her hands in her lap, Rilla looked out the front window, at the amber-lit street and more lines on pavement.

Mom had reminded her before she boarded the bus—girls like her didn’t get chances like these. They didn’t leave Rainelle. They didn’t see the country. They didn’t get to start over, in a place where they could be anyone. They didn’t see their feet past a pregnant belly at the end of age seventeen. Rilla’s shoulders had sagged listening. Those were all truths her mom knew by experience, and none of Rilla’s protests convinced her this wasn’t the same. Rilla had never envisioned leaving like this. She’d never really envisioned leaving at all. Come hell or high water—and both surely came—West Virginia was home.

On the bus, she’d decided California was a chance to prove to everyone at home that they were wrong about her. Wrong about it all. Thea probably wouldn’t want her for long, but in that time she’d make everyone back home sorry. She’d show them.

Suck it, everyone back in Rainelle.