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“Just whatever, Erin. It’s all good,” he said with a shy smile.

“Did you just say she was good, Wes?” Brady Beck chided. “How would you know? I didn’t know you’ve been slumming it.”

The other guys chuckled and made stupid noises.

Weston’s cheeks were already flushed from practice, making them look like someone had brushed a light red paint brush across them and slapped him … twice. They turned two shades darker. The rosiness of his cheeks against his emerald eyes made them appear even brighter. I’d been trying not to stare at those eyes since grade school, and once Alder had set her sights on him in eighth grade, I tried even harder.

“Ignore them, Erin. They’re ass**les.” He choked a bit when he spoke, then he turned to cough into the crook of his elbow.

I made him a simple strawberry dip cone—extra tall, because I knew that was his favorite—took his money, and watched him drop his change in my plastic tip jar.

“Thank you,” he said, taking a big bite off the top as he walked back to his truck.

The other guys weren’t as polite, and most of them didn’t even look me in the eye. I was used to that, though. Growing up with a mom who had seen the inside of a jail cell more than once, the other parents weren’t shy about keeping their children from being corrupted by Gina Easter’s daughter. My mother wasn’t always so messed up though. She was Blackwell’s homecoming queen in 1995. I knew that only because I’d come across the photos. She was beautiful, with her blonde bangs teased to one side and her full, healthy cheeks pushing up her big brown eyes into slits.

Like Frankie, Gina got pregnant young. Unlike Frankie, she let the resentment of trading her dreams for an unplanned baby become so unbearable, she turned to alcohol. And weed. And as the years added disappointments to the growing pile, any drug was good enough if it helped her forget what she could have been. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it did numb her anger, but most nights adding a case of Keystone Light to her rage just made it worse.

Every night when Frankie shut off the lights and said her favorite phrase, I cringed, knowing it was time to go home to Gina.

“Adios bitchachos!”

“Don’t forget I have a senior class meeting tomorrow after school, so I’ll be a little late.”

“I remember,” she said, grabbing her purse and keys. She held open the door for me. “Ride?”

I shook my head. Every night she asked me, and every night I said no, which is why she barely made a question of it. I lived only five blocks behind the DQ anyway, and the first day of spring was right around the corner.

The soles of my shoes crunched the loose gravel next to the curb as I walked along the dark street. Only random areas around town had sidewalks, and the shortest path to my house wasn’t one of them. A few cars drove by, but it was an otherwise quiet Thursday night. No church traffic, no game traffic. Thursdays were my favorite nights to walk home.

I climbed the concrete steps to the porch, and the screen door whined when it opened. I could hear Gina’s music from the other side of the door, and hesitated just long enough to psych myself up for whatever awaited me on the other side. When the door swung open, and I saw that the living room was empty, I hurried to my room and shut the door.

The music was coming from her bedroom, down the hall from mine. I could smell the weed as soon as I walked in, so she was probably smoking and relaxing in her bed, which was always preferable to a drunken rage.

The loose strings of my apron untied easily, and I peeled off the rest of my clothes, throwing them into a full hamper. Most nights I was too tired to do laundry, so it piled up until I hauled it to the Laundromat a few blocks south of the Dairy Queen. Being alone at the Suds & Duds was creepy at night, so I preferred to wait until early Saturday afternoon. Gina was awake then, and it was a good excuse to get out of the house before work.

I slipped on an oversized, faded black T-shirt that read Oakland Raiders. I’d assumed it was my dad’s, but I wasn’t sure. It could have been one of the random items Gina picked up from the secondhand store. But for some reason, I liked to think it was his—whoever he was—and wearing it made the roach-infested termite palace we lived in feel a little more like home.

I sat on the green carpet in my bedroom. It was once something similar to shag, but it had become matted over the years and looked more like the pelt of a very ugly animal. I had a page of Algebra II to finish; then I crept down the hall to the bathroom, washing my face and brushing my teeth to the muffled lyrics of Soul Asylum. Gina was definitely high. “Runaway Train” was her go-to song when she scored a dime bag of weed.

Back in my room, I sat on the edge of my bed and watched my reflection in the mirror atop my dresser. They were from the second hand store, like everything else in our house. The mirror wobbled when anyone walked across my floor, and most of the dresser drawers didn’t open right, but they completed their function, and that’s all I needed. I brushed my dark brown hair away from my face until the brush could pass every strand without catching then smoothed it back into a ponytail.

The aging springs of my bed complained when I crawled under the covers. The ceiling fan bobbed as it turned slowly, lulling me to sleep as whatever song Gina was listening to hummed through the walls. I took a deep breath. The next day would be long. The senior class meeting was mandatory, and I dreaded going. I generally avoided school functions, just to save myself the humiliation suffered at the hands of the other Erins. Middle school taught me that any attempt to socialize was not worth the inevitable teasing and sometimes bullying that ensued. At times, teachers intervened, but mostly they didn’t. The Erins, along with Brady Beck and a few of their friends, relished only one thing more than taunting me—making me cry. That always seemed to be the goal, and the more I resisted, the harder they tried. So for the last four years, I kept to school and work, and myself. I had won a scholarship, and between that and grants, I was getting the hell out of Blackwell, away from the Erins, Brady, and Gina.

I reached over and pulled the lamp string. As much as Sonny genuinely wanted me to, I wouldn’t turn out the light and kill myself. I was going to rest, save my strength for another grueling day. Tomorrow would bring me one day closer to the freedom that Frankie dreamed about.

Chapter Two

Thirty minutes before the first bell rang, I adjusted my backpack and set out on my morning trek. Blackwell High School was just a few miles away, so unless something wet was falling out of the sky, the walk really wasn’t that bad. It was these quiet moments between Gina and school that I savored the most—but I wouldn’t miss them. I wouldn’t miss anything about Blackwell, except for Frankie, her snot-nosed kids, and maybe Weston’s green eyes.