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Trailer Park Heart
Author: Rachel Higginson

Prologue

Bucket Lists and Booze

The bucket list— the stupid, reckless, overly-ambitious bucket list—and the three wine coolers I’d managed to down since wandering into Kristen March’s graduation kegger three hours ago got me in trouble.

Parties were not my thing. I was more likely to spend Friday night with my favorite book or an AP assignment than with friends and alcohol and bad decisions. I’d managed to avoid parties my entire four years of high school. Also, for my entire life. And I probably would have avoided tonight’s final blowout too if it hadn’t been for the damn bucket list tucked into the tight pocket of my cutoff jean shorts.

The tattered paper was folded into the neatest square I could manage. I’d thrown it away at least fifty times over the course of this school year, but I could never manage to stop myself from saving it.

Senior Year was scribbled across the top of the paper, followed by bullet points denoting my biggest dreams for my final year at Clark City High School and my final year in Clark City, Nebraska. I was three months from blowing this popsicle stand for good.

Three months.

One summer.

I’d spend the summer waitressing at the diner I’d worked at for the last two years. Then I’d pack up my meager belongings and say goodbye to Clark City, hello to my future.

My stomach clenched with fierce hope. I could make it. I could survive three more months. I’d lasted this long in this tiny, godforsaken hellhole. I could make it ninety more days.

God, that sounded like a long time when I counted the days.

I could make it three measly months.

There. That was better.

Looking around at the clustered groups of my peers as they drank themselves into oblivion, I couldn’t stop the small smile from twisting my overly full lips. It wasn’t a feeling I expressed very often—happiness that is—but I could feel it slowly creeping over my skin, warming me from the inside out.

For a lot of people at this party, they were saying goodbye to the easy life. Their glory days were fulfilled and enjoyed in high school. They would go on from here and do nothing… become nothing. This was it for them. Their top dog status ended tonight.

The mean girls in the living room, sucking down JELL-O shots and flaunting perfect legs and shiny hair had nowhere else to go but down. They’d spent a lifetime reminding me of how beneath them I was, of how other side of the tracks I was. Of how trailer trash I was.

I’d put up with it. I’d faced it with gritted teeth and clenched fists, but I’d handled it.

Now, it was their turn. Mentally, I released them into the world, bitterly wishing them good luck.

In Clark City they were the elite, the cream of our withered corn crop. But out there, in the rest of the world? They were a dime a dozen. My mom once told me that college was meant to find out just how not special you are. And I couldn’t wait for the Clark City select to have that momentous, reality-altering epiphany.

The jocks surrounded them, beefy, muscled, brain-dead athletes the cheerleaders kept on short leashes. They were as awful as their female counterparts. Unable to use their minds for individual thought, they joined the toxic group think of this tragic town.

The haves and the have nots. Isolated enough from bustling civilization, the only kind of people that tolerated this kind of middle-of-nowhere-ness were farmers with enough land to make it worth their stay or the poor among us who couldn’t afford a ticket to the big city.

I was part of the latter group. Born on the wrong side of the railroad tracks and far enough outside of town to be considered the boonies. The dilapidated double wide I called home was located dead center of the local trailer park and had an open door policy to any of the men that hadn’t managed to piss my hurricane of a mother off.

I didn’t have an idyllic childhood, but it was the only one I knew. I didn’t choose the trailer trash life, the trailer trash life definitely chose me.

“Little Ruby Dawson,” a smooth operator of a voice crooned from behind me. “What the hell are you doing here?”

I stilled, willing my shoulders not to rise. It wasn’t that he’d called me out in an angry way. It was actually the opposite. His voice was rumbly and gentled, as if he were afraid to spook a cornered forest animal.

His voice irritated me all the same. And it did funny things to my resolve. The bucket list burned in my pocket, forcing me to question my motives for showing up here tonight.

Turning around as nonchalantly as I could manage, I stared at the boy that went out of his way to make my life extra miserable. “I could ask you the same thing, Levi Cole.” Ha, using his full name the way he used my full name would show him who’s boss.

He smirked. Because that was what Levi Cole did. He smirked and smoldered and sneered. And sometimes he smarmy-d.

Not that he couldn’t pull it off. Because he so could. Tall enough for a power forward position on the basketball team. Fast enough for starting quarterback. Smart enough to invade all my AP classes. And handsome enough to have all the females simpering after him down every hallway at school and around every stalk of corn on his family’s mega farm. He was the epitome of everything everybody wanted to be in Clark City.

Plus, his parents made him work their farm. So, his muscles were natural. Not the plastic-y gym kind. But the born-from-back-breaking-labor kind. He made some girls drool.

Not me, obviously.

But other girls.

Okay, sometimes he made me drool too. Like when he took off his shirt off for practice. Or when he stopped smirking for long enough to flash a real, genuine, heart-stopping smile. But mostly, he made me consider murder in the first degree.

Unphased by my tone, he leaned forward and I got a whiff of him. I wrinkled my nose, expecting the strong smell of booze. Instead, I inhaled clean soap and the faint hint of laundry detergent.

“This isn’t your scene, Ruby. What are you doing here?”

Again, anyone else in our class would have been aggressive when kicking me out of their party, but he was only openly curious. Not that it would last. Eventually, our moment of neutrality would break and one of us would strike.

Hopefully, it would be me.

Hopefully, I would draw blood.

“Congratulations,” I deflected. “Salutatorian. That’s a big deal. I thought for sure Kristen had it in the bag.”

He narrowed his eyes. I could have sworn it was to stop the eye roll I knew he wanted to let loose. His perfect, perky, popular cheerleader girlfriend was probably the very last on the list of award-winning candidates and he knew it.

“Make fun of her all you want, Dawson. But we both know she would have given a hell of a speech.”

His gaze flicked to where she stood in a group of clones, pumping her fist in the air, shouting, “Chug! Chug! Chug!”

Sucking in my bottom lip, I felt the sting of his subtle insult. He was referring to my valedictorian speech. And how badly the short, insincere, mumbling I’d managed had bombed. What could I say? Public speaking was so not my thing.

Being in public, in general, wasn’t my thing.

Maybe it was time to start drinking. Er, continue drinking.

Reading my mind like he was sometimes unexplainably able to do, he added, “Don’t feel bad, Ruby. That’s what everyone expected.”

God, I wanted to kick him in the shins.

And then the balls.

But I refrained. Because, despite my upbringing, I was a lady.

Also, I had no backup. My best friend Coco had abandoned me for a junior she’d been flirting with for the last three weeks. I was all alone in a sea of people that barely tolerated my existence, let alone my presence at one of their prestigious parties.

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