Chapter One Chapter One
THE MORNING AIR is damp and warm. Soupy. Disgusting. I swipe a hand across the back of my neck as sweat curls beneath my hairline. The iconic neon lights of the BONANZA sign are muted in the daylight. I shift my weight onto my good ankle and let out a quiet sigh.
There is no choice to be made here. I have to go in. That was the deal I cut with my parents over the phone last month. You need structure, they said, something to keep you centered and grounded.
I will also be grounded until next year’s high school graduation if they see fit, the only exception being my new job. I would call that an extreme measure, but for what I put them through last summer…
Well, I can’t blame my parents.
I can blame a lot of people—Kensington’s star defensive player, Lily Thompson; my ex–best friend, Brie Bradley; and certainly myself. But my parents? They are not to blame.
A car beeps next to mine. I watch as a middle-aged man walks toward the Bonanza entrance, grocery bag in hand. Maybe his lunch for later. It’s time for me to go in as well. I arrived home yesterday evening and still haven’t unpacked my things, but we were all eager for me to get a job, so I scheduled my interview for this morning. The interview is just a formality, supposedly. Joey, my younger brother by one year, got a job here last fall when he turned sixteen. He promised I’m a shoo-in to be hired.
And yet, my muscles tense with nerves. I have no work experience, a mediocre academic record, and zero recommendations other than the one from my kid brother. Joey is a charismatic goofball with a heart of pure gold. I’m sure the boss loves him because everyone loves him. Unfortunately, my brother and I could not be more different.
Will the manager realize it from the start? What if he asks how I spent my last year? Thank god I don’t have any sort of record, but it’s still like I’m marked, officially slotted into the problem-child category. And I feel like people can read it all over my face.
I shift my weight again, wincing as it settles onto my left ankle. I wasn’t like this before. I was never unsure. Unsteady. I used to have confidence, used to know and not think. But everything is different now. I’m different now.
The BONANZA sign blinks at me, and I walk inside.
“No former work experience?” the manager asks.
His name is Pete. He looks exactly like a Pete, middling height, middling weight, pale white skin and eyes that seem a shade too dull, like someone turned down the saturation. I have a feeling if I saw Pete on the street tomorrow, I wouldn’t recognize him.
I concentrate on these details instead of the spiral of thoughts that stems from his question. “Um, no.” I sit up straighter. “No, sir. No former work experience. Well, I did a little babysitting, if that counts….”
I didn’t really babysit so much as hang out with Brie while she watched her little sisters, twin girls, miracle babies. Her parents had trouble conceiving for years, and then got a two-for-one special when Brie was nine.
I cross my arms and dig a nail into my skin. I haven’t spoken to my best friend since I was shipped off to Mountain Bliss Academy. Ex–best friend. Spending an evening watching Monsters, Inc. and baking snickerdoodles with her little sisters feels like a lifetime ago.
“Babysitting is applicable here,” Pete replies with a nod. “You’ll be with children all the time. Are you good with kids?”
I’ve never been good at anything other than soccer, and with soccer no longer an option in my life, I guess that leaves me with being good at nothing at all.
“Um, yes,” I say.
Kid-wrangling is a requirement at Bonanza, a megaplex entertainment center serving our Atlanta suburb since the eighties. There’s a bowling alley, mini golf, go-karts, an arcade, and more, so birthday parties and Little League celebrations are regular occurrences. My traveling team went here in fifth grade after we won the regional championship. I stuffed my face with chocolate cake, guzzled soda, and ran around all afternoon, eventually throwing up somewhere around the windmill hole of the mini-golf course.
Thankfully Pete doesn’t notice my lackluster lie, as he’s busy fumbling with the wrapper of his protein bar.
“Great!” he replies, finally ripping open the wrapper. He smiles at me. “Love the peanut butter flavor.”
I give a weak smile in return. “Great.”
“Well, your brother is one of our favorite employees, and I’m sure you will be as well. I can only offer a seasonal job for now, but if you want it, you’re hired.”
“Really?” My stomach flips, and I realize how scared I was of failing a task this simple. “Yes, definitely. Thanks. Thank you.”
“Let’s get your paperwork filled out, and then we’ll get you on the floor for training.”
As in today, today?
I don’t have other plans, per se—being grounded and alienating all your friends clears a calendar with impressive totality. But we weren’t allowed access to our laptops at Mountain Bliss, so I’m about three hundred episodes behind on all my favorite reality TV. I was planning to numb my brain for the rest of the afternoon with straight-to-camera confessionals.
“Yep!” Pete hands me a clipboard of paperwork. “Welcome to Bonanza, Hannah Klein!”
The paperwork is easy to fill out. I have to call Dad to ask for my Social Security number, and after he lightly nags me for not having it memorized, he congratulates me on getting the job. I can hear the eagerness in his voice, the hope that this will fix things. That this will fix me.
I don’t share in his hope, but I don’t have the heart to burst his bubble, either. And if getting a job is what it takes for them to let me spend my senior year at home instead of back at boarding school, then that’s what I’ll do.
That was the deal, at least part of it. My parents agreed that I could come back home for summer and then return to my regular public school in the fall if, and only if, I got a job.
Mountain Bliss isn’t the worst place in the world. It’s like the Diet Coke of boarding schools for troubled teens. My cohorts’ crimes ranged from cutting class to shoplifting jewelry from Forever 21. Our daily activities ranged from yoga to sustainable farming. And the entire place is tucked against the beautiful backdrop of the North Georgia Mountains. We even peer-interview past students before enrolling to ensure it’s a safe space.
But I missed home. I missed my bed and my things. And most of all, I felt a heavy weight of guilt thinking about how much my parents were spending to keep me in line. My bad behavior draining their savings.
I love my parents, and I don’t want them to worry. So I can fake it for a year, pretend things are fine, be a good little worker, act as if I’m like, totally okay. And then I guess I’ll go off to college or something and be away from their nervous eyes.
I finish filling out the paperwork and hand everything over to Pete. He hands me a Bonanza T-shirt in return. In the bathroom, I send Joey a quick text. We share a car now that he’s sixteen and I’m home from boarding school.
Got the job. Apparently my first shift is today—can you get a ride here?
Joey: Mazel tov sis! No problem, Ethan can drive us
Ethan is Joey’s best friend and basically my second kid brother. They’ve been inseparable since they met in their preschool synagogue class. Ethan regularly sleeps at our place more often than his own home. One summer, when I was on a traveling team, I’m pretty sure he slept at our house more nights than I did.
I text back great and then slide my phone into my pocket.
“Everything looks good here!” Pete says when I return to his office. “Let’s get you started!”
He leads me out into the hallway. The dark carpets are grimy, plastered in decades of dirty shoes and spilled concessions that no steam cleaner can erase. The offices are in a hallway off the arcade, but Pete says he wants to start me on mini golf. “It’s slow during the day,” he explains. “Too hot for most of the customers. So it’ll give you a chance to learn the ropes.”
We pass the entrance of the arcade. From here, I can feel the cool blast of air-conditioning, see lasers and blinking lights, hear the electronic beeps and whirs. For a moment, the sounds yank me to the hospital, to images of my bubbie weak in bed, to images of myself broken and battered.
I rub my arms, shivering as I walk past a vent.
It’s barely noon, so there are only a handful of people playing games, and another few in line at the EZ Eats concession stand for slices of underbaked pizza and dry hamburgers. Culinary fine arts, not exactly a strong suit of the Bonanza brand.
Sunlight hits us as Pete pushes open a pair of heavy double doors. I blink, eyes taking a moment to adjust. Then I follow Pete down the sidewalk path toward the mini-golf course.
When we’re halfway there, his phone beeps. He looks down at the screen and gives a tiny “Hmph.” Then he turns to me. “Hannah, I apologize, but there’s a kerfuffle at the bowling alley about the senior discount. I need to go handle it. Head straight to the check-in counter and let the employee on staff know you’re new. Sound good?”
“Yeah.” I clear my throat and force a pleasant smile. “I mean, yes. Sounds good. Thank you, again.”
Pete gives a little wave before doing a half jog back toward the main building. I’m curious about the senior community drama, but I follow Pete’s instructions and finish walking down the path to the check-in counter.
There’s a family in line, a dad and his two kids. I’m not sure if I should stand to the side or cut the line or what. Awkwardly, I step behind the dad like I’m getting in line to play mini golf as well. I rub my hands up and down my jeans as I wait. The fabric is too warm for the hot sun, but Mom said it wasn’t appropriate to interview in shorts.
Eventually, the dad and his kids finish paying. They walk away to pick out their clubs, and I step up to the counter to introduce myself, and—