Valley Girls, page 1
PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cataloging-in-Publication Data has been applied for and may be obtained from the Library of Congress.
Text copyright © 2018 Sarah Nicole Lemon
Jacket and map illustrations copyright © 2018 Na Kim
Book design by Alyssa Nassner
Published in 2018 by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS.
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the publisher.
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ABRAMS The Art of Books
195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007
To L, J & M
and the muchness
of your minds
Real adventure is defined best
as a journey from which you
may not come back alive, and
certainly not as the same person.
—Yvon Chouinard, Yosemite climber, founder of Patagonia and Black Diamond Equipment companies, in Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
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.
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 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.”
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.
“Don’t get into trouble,” Thea’s note said at the end. Instead of something sisterly, or love you, or even a smiley face, there was a scratched admonition on the back of the map of Yosemite Valley.
“Get your schoolbooks from the office. You can eat in Half Dome Village—just sign my name on the sheet at the register. Call Mom and tell her you’re okay. And don’t get into trouble.”
Rilla folded the map into a tiny square and tried not to let it sting. All her eagerness to prove herself had drained away.
Last night, Yosemite Valley had been nothing but a blurry blob of darkness before Rilla had dropped straight into a squeaky cot in the attic. Fourteen hours later, she’d crawled down the attic ladder to find the Valley drenched in sunshine, and Thea at work.
Alone, the silent house echoed in her chest. No one to call. No one to kiss. No one to even talk to.
Rilla stared at the brown painted porch steps of the bare-bones craftsman bungalow Thea shared with three other rangers. The small house was plunked in a meadow in the heart of the Valley, in a neighborhood without fences, driveways, or different paint colors, and Rilla sat, unable even to lift her chin to the massive cliffs bordering all directions and the oaks shaking their silvery leaves in the crisp wind. This was supposed to be her new home, these mountains her new keepers. But she and Thea had done this before, just the two of them in Rainelle. Rilla remembered—when Thea got a chance, she left Rilla behind. Rilla couldn’t help but assume that it would happen again.
The sun touched the back of her neck—warming away the spring chill. All the wonder and awe she should have felt were missing. All she could see was don’t get into trouble. All she felt was alone.
Standing, Rilla tucked the map into her pocket and set off to complete Thea’s other instructions.
She picked up her books from the tiny school a short walk down the road, and found her way to the viewing platform of the massive waterfall she heard all night in her dreams. The rush of thick, white water pounded car-sized boulders and surged down toward the bridge she stood on. The mist washed over her, cold, even in the sun. The waterfall was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen, but watching it from the bridge where tourists all clumped to take photos and smile made her feel very small and forgotten.
She kept walking. Dazed. Lost. Exhausted. A boy who she thought was Walker passed across the parking lot, but when she called out, he didn’t respond. Her face burned and she picked up her pace, ignoring the tourists whose heads had turned.
Even with all the people, she felt out of place. It was clear from the winter paleness of her soft limbs, she was not here for anything Yosemite had to offer. It felt like everyone could see she was one of those rebellious teenagers dragged into the wilderness against her will, in hopes the awe of things bigger than herself would unlock the stubborn set to her jaw and the daggers she tried to shoot from her eyes. She kept walking, letting the asphalt path lead her through the Valley in hopes of finding the food Thea had mentioned.
The cliffs looked the same. The meadows blurred together. The map made no sense. The crested wave of Half Dome stood as her only landmark. Her phone died while sending a fourth text to a friend from home who hadn’t yet responded.
By the time Rilla wandered into a warm cafeteria filled with people eating at gleaming wood tables arranged around stone fireplaces, she had forgotten the shape and sting of Thea’s note, and thought only that she was tired, hungry, and overwhelmed.
A guy who looked like he definitely had a weed hookup stood behind the counter, serving mashed potatoes—friendly and non-threatening, with soft brown eyes and messy blond hair that touched his shoulders, even in the hairnet. Rilla had promised herself on the bus ride, she’d stop smoking in California, but with everything changing all at once, it felt like too much to ask that she also change.
Rilla smiled and tried to make her eyes friendly. “I’m new.”
“To what?” he asked, holding up a spoonful of mashed potatoes over her plate, his eyes questioning.
His forehead creased.
“I’ll take some,” she said to the mashed potatoes. “I thought weed was legal in California, but I couldn’t find it in the store over there.”
He chuckled. “I’m sure the tourists would be a lot more chill. Did Amber send you?”
“Yes? Sure!” She said it with a wink in her voice. If she had to be sent by someone, consider her sent. Let him and wh
He rolled his eyes, but his smile was as friendly as the rest of him. “I get off in an hour. I’ll meet you outside. My name’s Jonah.”
“Rilla. See ya,” Rilla said, sailing away with her tray.
The mashed potatoes were disgusting, but a hefty dose of hot sauce resurrected them into something edible. She took her time eating and nursing a cup of hot tea. Inside, she was shielded from the massive cliffs, surrounded by the murmur of people and the smell of warm food. The prospect of a friendly face cheered her almost as much as the food. It was true—going off with a strange boy for some smoke was probably under the umbrella of what Thea considered trouble. But Rilla could handle herself. Thea had forgotten what it was like at home.
“Where are you working?” Jonah asked as they walked out of the busy hub of Half Dome Village, into the fading afternoon light.
“Oh, I don’t work here. I just live here.”
He swung a look over his shoulder. “How did you get so lucky?”
“My sister lives here. I moved in with her. She’s a park ranger.”
“They just let you move in with her?”
“Special perks for wayward baby sisters.” She arched an eyebrow and put on her best villain face, in what she hoped was a charming take on the truth.
He laughed. “You’ll fit right in.”
Jonah was from Arizona, and ran ultramarathons—a hell Rilla had previously not known about where a person ran thirty-four or more miles for fun. He seemed to understand she didn’t know anyone and had just been looking for a friend, chatting easily about some Mont Blanc trail run and how running that far was an incredible experience, as he led her off the wide asphalt path, between two drab canvas tents built on wooden platforms.
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Rilla said. “If you see me running, I’m being chased.”
She followed him down a dirt path with tents on either side.
“Well this is what you’re missing over there in your luxe meadow housing,” Jonah said. “Welcome to HUFF.”