From Chapter One – Life After Chocolate
“It’s the end of the world!” Zander Martin jumps in front of me and shoves his iPhone in my face. He grins, displaying a double row of ceramic braces. “Look. See?”
Against my better judgment, I squint at the small screen. The YouTube video shows a large herd of buffalo galloping down a road, bluish mountains in the background. “So?”
“Animals sense disasters before they happen. I hope it’s an alien invasion.” He says it as though stick figures with big heads are cool.
Where do people get this stuff? A sarcastic comment rises to my lips, but the pudgy little geek is too cute to crush.
“So I guess you’re telling me I can eat all the cookies I want, because the end is near?”
“Yup. Do you have what it takes to survive the apocalypse?”
I shake my head. “Good question. I’m thinking, no.”
Later in Chapter One – Life After Chocolate
I don’t have to squint to know Austin and Milena Kelley have arrived. Their dad is a US senator, and they have money. Austin and I actually went together for a while back when I was in eighth grade and he was in ninth.
I start to wave them over, then stop myself just in time.
Behind them strides Connor Falk.
My entire face heats as his eyes catch mine, and right then I sort of wish a comet would explode overhead and wipe the planet clean. I’ve been dodging Connor since last October, when he came home for the weekend from college. The guy I was dating dumped me right as school let out, and I was lurking around, waiting for Sarah Martin to get done with cheer practice so she could drive me home. Connor had dropped by the school to say hi to his old football coach. He stumbled across me in the empty chorus room, playing an Agnes Obel song on the piano. Not a piece I would typically go for, but it was my mother’s favorite and that day I was feeling especially teary. So embarrassing. He said something kind to me like, “Hi, Emma,” and I lost it. But he was actually a real sport about things, even when I cried into his shirt over the death of my mother, over my father’s indifference, and Pap’s increasing weirdness. The getting-dumped part too, although that had been more of a catalyst than anything else. After all, the ex chewed tobacco. Anyway, Connor hardly knew me then, but he’d been so sweet. God, the things I told him. Afterward I sort of hoped he’d move really far away, or at the very least develop amnesia. It helped when he went back to Penn State after the weekend was over, but he comes home a lot. Every once in a while I catch him looking at me, and each time I give him that same awkward smile, then turn and run.
But the guy is the poster boy for great boyfriend material, as long as it is for someone else. In fact, he’d be perfect to get Claire’s mind off Tyler. I’ve been trying to convince her of this for weeks. Ever since his semester ended, I see him all over the place. My legs twitch every time, and my eyes search for a place to hide. For Claire’s sake, though, I stick around and play matchmaker. She deserves to be happy.
Connor saunters forward, and the air seems to shrink, as though by merely arriving, he’s taken command of the place.
I sit up straight, adopt a bright smile, and wave. Claire goes white.
A hungry look crosses Connor’s face, and for a moment I feel an odd thrill in my stomach as his gaze captures mine. Then the corner of his mouth lifts and he strides toward our log, one we set out earlier as a bench. The fabric of his jeans hugs his lean, muscular legs. I’m happy to see that he hasn’t adopted the super-skinny jeans so many hipsters wear. I have a rule. If I can tell with one glance whether a guy dresses left or right, he should be avoided at all costs.
“Oh my God,” Claire mutters.
“Don’t say ‘God,’” I retort, making my voice prim.
Claire’s giggle comes out slightly hysterical.
“Hey, Connor,” I say. “Wassup?”
Connor drops his messenger bag on the grass and eases down beside me. He studies us for a moment, and I get the odd feeling he is deciding something, like whether we are friends…or prey. “Where’s the rest of your crew?”
I shrug. “We wanted to talk secrets. Didn’t we, Claire?”
Claire looks like she’s just swallowed a chicken bone. “Um, yes.” Then she seems to warm up, because she gives him a flirtatious smile. Good girl!
“I’ll bet you have tons of secrets,” Connor returns, an answering glint in his eye. He scans the tables of food. “Lotta stuff here.”
“Yeah. Help yourself. Anything that doesn’t get eaten will just go to the pigs.”
“Why not give it to the homeless?” he asks.
Claire snorts back a laugh.
“The fatter the pigs, the better the bacon,” I answer with a wink.
He crinkles his brow, but then his face relaxes into a smile. “So, you two going to Trevor Stanley’s kegger next weekend?”
The question is especially ironic coming from the son of the police chief.
“Stick around,” I tell him. “Tyler snuck one in when Pap left to get the pizza.”
He cocks his head to the side. “How do you plan on hiding that?”
“He’s setting it up back there.” I wave toward the woods. I thought it was weird of Pap to put a gazebo this far from the house, but it’s proven to be a godsend.
He nods, his gaze full of appreciation. “Sweet. Cool party, Em.”
“It’s my first kegger,” I confess.
“Then you should go to Trevor’s party. Everyone will be there. Even that new guy,” Connor says, nodding toward the six-person Frisbee game.
I turn to see who he means. It doesn’t take me long, for there in the field among the mortal people of Earth, right beside Sienna Fallon, former hand model and Queen Bee Extraordinaire, stands a tall godlike creature with mussed dark hair and a smile that could coaxed the panties off a fifty-year-old virgin. How did I miss that? “Who is he?”
“Ryan Kennedy. He just graduated from North Al.”
Is that near Valhalla? Hello, Thor. Actually Thor is a blond. Still, he could be his brother. Nom.
“North what?” asks Claire.
“North Allegheny. Down near Pittsburgh. He was a running back on their football team. Played basketball too.”
“How do you know him already?” I ask. Thor definitely hasn’t been at school. I’d have heard about it. Why would they move here, of all places?
“Dad and I met him down at the shooting range.” Grinning, Connor gets to his feet. “You guys should think about next Saturday. Could be fun.”
“You never know.” I give Claire a wink.
Connor turns and wanders off to his friends.
I suppress a squeal. “Okay. Satisfied now?”
Claire’s lips twist. “I don’t know. Does he always wear that hat?”
I swivel around and wince at the loose green beanie he wears over his hair—hair that somehow manages to look both windblown and meticulously maintained.
“No. He has a bunch of different hats. Teachers used to make him take them off. Actually, I don’t know why he still bothers.” Sometimes when a teacher made him take his hat off, I’d catch an expression on Connor’s face, like he was trying not to laugh.
“I don’t think he’s into me.”
“Of course he is,” I say, picking at the label on my root beer. “Why else do you think he’s always where you are? None of Connor’s friends are here. Well, the Kelleys, but that’s it.”
“You said that a week ago, and he hasn’t made a move.” Claire leans forward to pick a seed stem, then glances back toward Connor.
“He probably thinks you’ll shoot him down. You didn’t seem all that into him just now.” I pick my own stem, wrap it around its tip, and flick the decapitated head at her.
“Hey!” She swats the shrapnel, then peers back toward the gazebo. But Connor is nowhere in sight. “Now I feel bad.”
“Don’t worry.” I regard my cowboy boots with pleasure. Dad told me on my way out that cowboy boots and a sundress look ridiculous. I do not agree. “We’ll continue our assault tonight.”
Claire frowns. “You make it sound like a war.”
“Then let the battle begin.”
She grins. “If we’re going to war, I’m going to need more black eyeliner.”
“You said it, sistah.”
I tilt my face to the sky and allow the sun to kiss its way into my pores. I could spend hours like this—staring at the perfect little cotton balls wafting through the blue and letting the sun blanket me in happiness. Why do people go indoors, ever? A faint rumble sounds, and I glower at the darker clouds to the west. Sugar! It’d better not rain. We haven’t even started the bonfire.
“Hey, didja hear about those earthquakes they’re having out west? Pap insists it’s a sign.”
Claire smirks. “What does your dad have to say about that?”
Pap told us three weeks ago that there were rumors of harmonic tremors and ground lift and a bunch of other stuff, and a couple of scientists said the Yellowstone volcano was about to explode. That’s Pap for you.
Every couple months he is absolutely certain the end is coming. Last time it was Ebola. This time it’s the Yellowstone supervolcano. I went online after he warned us and pulled up the USGS website, just in case. Nope. No activity. No eruptions, and Old Faithful is as prompt as it’s always been. “Dad has no idea. Are you kidding?”
“You didn’t tell him?”
“No. And don’t you either. Dad would never let me come to the farm again if he thinks Pap’s one of those prepper guys.”
“What’s a prepper?” Claire scans the area as though searching for something. Or someone. Tyler or Connor, I suppose. A flash of green pulls my attention left, and sure enough I spot Connor over by the swings with Tyler, Austin, and Milena. He bends down to pet one of the barn cats. When he looks up, he catches me staring. My chest flutters, and for a moment I can’t look away.
Claire sneezes, breaking the spell.
“Preppers are people who prepare for the end of the world as we know it.” I grimace. “He got really depressed after Gram died, and when Mom died, he sort of…ah…found a hobby.” He always had a small armory and a ridiculous amount of canned food, but it’s gotten worse recently.
“So, like, what? Do they build bunkers?”
“I don’t know about bunkers, but I think he bought about thirty years’ worth of corn and wheat.” I saw his list of preps, and it’s a long one. He also ordered several cases of booze, which I thoroughly approve of. But what Pap is going to do with six cases of condoms, I don’t know, and I don’t want to. He has an entire section of his basement walled off just so he can hide his “stores.”
“Wheat? You mean flour?” Claire asks.
“No. Apparently it lasts longer if you store it as wheat, then grind it when you need flour.” Unfortunately he’s been training me. I know way more about this stuff than I ever wanted.
Claire droops. “Poor Grandpa. Does he really think the earth is going to blow up?”
“Just a volcano, not the whole earth. And yes, he does.” I smile, but my innards squeeze in pity.
Claire gives me a sympathetic smile.
I shift from the log onto the grass. “Hey, don’t tell anyone about Pap and his stash. Okay?”
“I just don’t want everyone to think he’s one of those weird survivalist people.” I shouldn’t have told her anything, really. Pap thinks if people know what he has, they’ll mob the place and steal it. I promised I’d never tell, and I won’t. The Dents look after their own.