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At the skate park, everything from eighties music to alternative rock blasts from speakers and blocks out any possible distractions. I don’t even have to wear my earbuds. The only drawback is that Taelor Tremont’s family owns the place.
She called before the grand opening two years ago. “Thought you would be interested in what we’re naming the center,” she said, voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Yeah, why’s that?” I attempted civility because her dad, Mr. Tremont, had contracted my dad’s sporting goods store to be the sole supplier for the megacenter. It’s a good thing, too, considering we had been on the verge of bankruptcy because of Alison’s medical bills. Also, as an added bonus, I got a free lifetime membership.
“Well . . .” Taelor snickered softly. I heard her friends laughing in the background. I must’ve been on speakerphone. “Dad wants to call it Wonderland.” Giggles bubbled through the line. “I thought you’d love it, knowing how proud you are of your great-great-greatgrand-rabbit.”
The jibe hurt more than it should have. I must’ve been quiet for too long, because Taelor’s giggles faded.
“Actually”—she half coughed the word—“I’m thinking that’s way overused. Underland’s better. You know, since it’s underground. How’s that sound, Alyssa?”
I recall that rare glimpse of regret from Taelor today as I carve the middle of the skateboard bowl beneath the bright neon underland sign hanging from the ceiling. It’s nice to be reminded that she has a human side. A rock song pipes through the speakers. As I come down the lower half of the skating bowl, dark silhouettes swoop around me against the neon backdrop.
Balancing my back foot on the tail of the board, I prepare to pull up on the nose with my front. An attempt at an ollie a few weeks ago won me a bruised tailbone. I now have a deathly fear of the move, but something inside me won’t let me give up.
I have to keep trying or I’ll never get enough air to learn any real tricks, but my determination goes much deeper. It’s visceral—a flutter that jumbles my thoughts and nerves until I’m convinced I’m not scared. Sometimes I think I’m not alone in my own head, that there’s a part of someone lingering there, someone who chides me to push myself beyond my limits.
Embracing the adrenaline surge, I launch. Curious how much air I’m clearing, I snap my eyes open. I’m midjump, cement coming up fast beneath me. My spine prickles. I lose my nerve and my front foot slips, sending me down to the ground with a loud oomph.
My left leg and arm make first contact. Pain jolts through every bone. The impact knocks the breath from my lungs and I skid to a stop in the basin. My board rolls after me like a faithful pet, stopping to nudge my ribs.
Gasping for air, I flip onto my back. Every nerve in my knee and ankle blazes. My pad’s strap ripped loose, leaving a tear in the black leggings I wear beneath my purple bike shorts. Against the neon green surface slanting beside me, I see a dark smear. Blood . . .
I draw my split knee up, inhaling a sharp breath. Within seconds of my crash landing, three employees blow whistles and Rollerblade through the lines of slowing skaters. The workers wear mining caps, with a light affixed to the front, but they’re more like lifeguards— stationed for easy access and certified in the fundamentals of first aid.
They form a visible barrier with their bright crossing-guard vests to deter other boarders from tripping over us while they bandage me up and clean my blood from the cement with disinfectant.
A fourth employee rolls up in a manager’s vest. Of all people, it has to be Jebediah Holt.
“I should’ve bailed,” I mumble grudgingly.
“Are you kidding? Nobody could’ve seen that slam coming in time.” His deep voice soothes as he kneels beside me. “And glad to see you’re speaking to me again.” He wears cargo shorts and a dark tee beneath his vest. The black lights glide over his skin, highlighting his toned arms with bluish flashes.
I tug at the helmet’s straps beneath my chin. His miner beam is singling me out like a spotlight. “Help me take this off?” I ask.
Jeb bends closer to hear me over the wailing vocals overhead. His cologne—a mix of chocolate and lavender—blends with his sweat into a scent as familiar and appealing as cotton candy to a kid at the fair.
His fingers curve under my chin and he snaps the buckle free. As he helps me push the helmet off, his thumb grazes my earlobe, making it tingle. The glare of his lamp blinds me. I can only make out the dark stubble on his jaw, those straight white teeth (with the exception of the left incisor that slants slightly across his front tooth), and the small iron spike centered beneath his lower lip.
Taelor raked him up and down about his piercing, but he refuses to get rid of it, which makes me like it all the more. She’s only been his girlfriend for a couple of months. She has no claim over what he does.
Jeb’s callused palm cups my elbow. “Can you stand?”
“Of course I can,” I snap, not intentionally harsh, just not the biggest fan of being on display. The minute I put weight on my leg, a jab shoots through my ankle and doubles me over. An employee supports me from behind while Jeb sits down to strip off his blades and socks. Before I know what he’s doing, he lifts me and carries me out of the bowl.
“Jeb, I want to walk.” I wrap my arms around his neck to stay balanced. I can feel the smirks of the other skaters as we pass even if I can’t see them in the dark. They’ll never let me forget being carried away like a diva.
Jeb cradles me tighter, which makes it hard not to notice how close we are: my hands locked around his neck, his chest rubbing against my ribs . . . those biceps pressed to my shoulder blade and knee.
I give up fighting as he steps off the cement onto the woodplanked floor.
At first I think we’re headed to the café, but we pass the arcade and swing a right toward the entrance ramp, following the arc of light laid out by his helmet. Jeb’s hip shoves the gym-style doors. I blink, trying to adjust to the brightness outside. Warm gusts of wind slap hair around my face.
He perches me gently on the sunbaked cement, then drops beside me and takes off his helmet, shaking out his hair. He hasn’t cut it in a few weeks, and it’s long enough to graze his shoulders. Thick bangs dip low—a black curtain touching his nose. He loosens the red and navy bandana from around his thigh and wraps it over his head, securing it in a knot at his nape to push back the strands from his face.