Worst. Summer. Ever.
Diego Ramos strode out to the parking lot, ignoring the rules to go check on his precious car. His ’69 Charger had gotten him here but he’d lost his muffler on the way up. He’d growled the final miles to Camp Firefly Falls on the faulty part.
He’d been working on this car forever. He was finally old enough—sort of—to drive it, even though he’d been tooling around Dot illegally for the past few years.
He was working all summer to pay for the muffler at cost. He’d been planning to buy the one Tío Raul had at his garage. But before Diego could scrape together the money, one of Raul’s full-paying customers needed one and his uncle couldn’t turn down the sale. Their family friend Hector said he might be able to get his hands on a replacement. Might. But if he got a full paying customer, Hector had to sell it to them, because he needed the money too.
It was the worst to be stuck here. He totally understood that if they had buyers while he was here at camp, he was screwed. He had to stay at camp to make enough money to buy the part.
He kicked at a stone, sent it scuttling into the brush that lined the path.
A single spotlight on a post cast more shadows than illumination over the lot—which was really just a decent sized opening between two stands of trees.
Diego opened the hood. Not a squeak. He took damn good care of his baby.
He stroked the sleek, clean engine like he was petting his little cousin’s cat. “Soon, baby. You’ll be all prettied up,” he crooned to the engine like she was a girl.
He flushed, glanced around, but no one had seen him talking to his car like she was real.
Diego climbed up on the trunk of his car and lay back to stare up at the stars. The Charger was the one constant in his life. His mother and father were in and out. He had bounced from relative to relative until his uncle got married a few years ago and then he’d gone to live with his tío and tía permanently.
His uncle got him this camp job through one of his customers. Diego was supposed to be thankful for it. He was. Sort of. He’d never tell anyone but he missed his little cousins, Raul Jr. and Zinnia, even though they annoyed him ninety-nine percent of the time.
One thing he’d give to these mountains, the sky was amazing. Light from the stars twinkled in deep blue mysterious space.
He jerked up so fast his head went dizzy.
And there she was.
He hated working here. Little Miss Princess Penelope embodied every single reason. She was only like nine years old and so damn smug. She’d been whining since her parents dropped her off at the beginning of the week. They were in Europe. Without her. Boo. Fricking. Hoo.
“You’re not supposed to be out here,” he snarled.
Dammit. Why was she here?
Penelope Hastings stood there looking at him with those stupidly innocent, bright green eyes. “Neither are you.”
“Get back to your cabin.” Except he was going to have to take her. He couldn’t let her wander around in the dark.
Part of his job was making sure the campers were safe.
“Why are you so upset?” She stepped closer to his car.
Her pout caused everything to bubble up inside him. Couldn’t he get frustrated and angry in peace? Couldn’t he have one damn minute alone? Apparently not, if he wanted enough money to keep fixing up his baby.
“Let me take you back to your cabin.” Diego sighed. He slid off the trunk, dropped to the dirt and gravel parking lot, then took a second to stroke his palm over the blue paint before he gently eased the hood closed.
She danced back a step. “Is something wrong with your car?”
She frowned, her ginger eyebrows crinkled as if the
concept of car problems was beyond her. “Why even bother working on that old piece of junk?”
Junk? Maybe to her it was junk but to him this car was everything. It was freedom. It was life. It was his future.
“Aren’t you only fifteen?”
And she was nine. They’d done the whole introduce yourself in a circle on the first day. So he knew her name was Penelope Hastings, she was rich as fuck, and so super sad that her parents had left her at camp instead of taking her to Europe.
“So?” So he’d driven here slightly illegally. So the fuck what? He had his permit.
“Well, if you’re only fifteen—” She laughed, a delighted trill of sound, like the birds in the forest only softer, and weirdly sweeter. “When’s your birthday?”
He trudged toward the line of cabins where the girls stayed. “September.”
What that had to do with anything he had no fucking idea. Of course, he never claimed to understand rich kids.
They lived in their own stupid bubble.
She clapped her soft pale hands and laughed again. “Well then, silly. You only have to wait a couple more months and you’ll get your new car for your sixteenth birthday!”
She dropped the words so eagerly, so happily, as if she’d magically solved his problem and everyone in the fucking world got a car when they turned sixteen.
“That’s about as likely as the Red Sox winning the
“I don’t understand.”
“Welcome to the real world where kids don’t get new
cars on their birthdays, you spoiled brat.” Shit, he was going to get in trouble for that. He was a counselor. And he needed this job so he could afford the parts for his beloved car.
Yeah, the owners made it seem like they were all equal and happy and shit, but the reality was, Diego worked for Miss Richy-Rich Hastings.
“Oh.” Her face fell, her brows scrunched together as if she were actually trying to imagine a world where kids didn’t get a new car when they turned sixteen. “So not everyone gets a car?”
Could this kid be any dumber?
“There’s a whole world of people who don’t have food to eat at night, don’t wear shoes without holes.” Ugh, she glanced down at his feet and his ratty old Converse. “And don’t get new cars. So, no.”
“Yeah, it’s a real fucking nightmare.”
Her shoulders slumped. Her dark ginger hair was almost Charger Red in the soft light of the parking lot.
“Well,” she said brightly, her smile reappearing. “My dad always says, ‘How do we turn this failure into a success?’”
“I’m a failure? Thanks for making your opinion loud and clear.”
God, he hated her. She was everything he wasn’t. Clean and perfect. Her blindingly bright white tennis shoes and her naïve, always smiling face versus his threadbare high tops, soles so worn they were just about to crack, and his scowl.
Her smile faltered. “Oh no, of course not. He just says, ‘When things don’t go the way you planned, you work with what you’ve got, and turn that negative into a positive.’”
“I’ve got nothing.” Diego spit out the words. He wanted, with an agonizing pain in his heart, to throw some dirt on her. To ruin that sparkly perfection so she was as dirty and grumpy and mean as he felt inside. “So get the hell out of
here, you stupid little rich girl.”
Tears filled her bright green eyes. She lifted her trembling chin and shot him a vengeful glare. “I was just trying to be a good friend.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t need any friends. Go away.”
She finally ran down the path toward the cabins. He should go after her, follow her and make sure she got back to her cabin without harm. But he flung himself on the hood of the car.
He was so getting fired.
As he lay there, his initial rage simmered and stewed as he kept reviewing their conversation. And dammit, the picture she painted wouldn’t leave him.
A new car for his sixteenth birthday. The promise that he’d never go cold or hungry again. The shiny idea that he could turn a failure into a success dangled out of reach like a sparkling lure on the hook of life.
He lay under the stars dreaming of that life and ignoring the reality that he was probably going to get fired. Which would mean no new part for his car, no awesome life, no perfect future.
But in the morning, a subdued, less sparkly Penelope Hastings never said a word to the camp director. She also never spoke to Diego again. He knew he should apologize.
But he didn’t.
That regret festered in his heart. Once he got back to Dorchester, he decided he could apologize next summer. But after that first summer, he’d been able to work in his uncle’s garage, learning more about cars and mechanic skills. Then camp closed and he never got the chance to apologize.
But he never forgot her.
Penny Hastings twirled in a circle, her head thrown back and her face tilted toward the cerulean sky with puffy white clouds floating above her. Laughter burst from her chest in an explosion of joy. Like a kid, she whirled until she was too dizzy to keep turning. “I’m baaackk.”
Seventeen years since she’d been a camper at Camp Firefly Falls, and now happy memories flooded her.
This place was the scene of the best times of her young adolescence, and her heart overflowed with delight as her gaze touched on landmarks, the lake, the boathouse, the dock, the cabins, each spurring their own vignette of happiness.
A lot had changed.
Penny staggered over to the nearest tree and leaned against the trunk, waiting for the world to stop spinning. She might have lain down in the grass but since she hadn’t yet checked in with her pal, Meg, or the owners of the newly renovated summer camp, Michael and Heather Tully, she didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with grass in her hair and dirt on her face.
Her gaze slipped to the large oak and the bumpy rutted staff parking lot mostly hidden by a row of bushes. And for a moment her happiness dimmed.
There was one memory that wasn’t good, and yet, that night had changed her life.
She shoved away from the massive old oak tree and grabbed her simple canvas duffel from the back of her car. Most of the time she tooled around in her battered Ford F250 pickup. The ’69 Charger was her pride and joy but she didn’t get many chances to drive her.
Another souvenir from the memories of her first year at camp. That confrontation between her and Counselor Diego had impacted her in ways she’d never have foreseen when she’d been young, immature, and spoiled. Her only regret was that she’d never had the chance to tell him how he’d changed her perspective on the world.
Shaking off the odd memories, Penny headed down a path lined with cheerful wild azaleas to the beautifully restored Pinecone lodge. What a great job the Tullys had done.
Penny dropped her duffel on the porch. She couldn’t remember if she’d spruced up before she left the farm this afternoon. Working in the dirt most days she barely slathered on moisturizer and sunscreen. If she was feeling particularly fancy she’d slick some Burt’s Bees on her lips.
Penny did a quick inventory, took out her ponytail and threaded her fingers through her too-long hair—she really needed to get it cut again—then twisted it back up into a haphazard bun. She rubbed her palms together, checked for dirt under her fingernails—hazard of her life— and brushed her fingers over her cheeks and underneath her eyes and over her brows hoping that she didn’t have any mascara smudges.
As ready as she’d ever be, Penny took a deep breath, let out it out, then knocked on the front door.
The large wood-paneled door flung open. “Penny!” Meg squealed and dragged her inside the lodge.
Penny laughed, thrilled to see Meg again. She was the one who’d gotten her this gig at Camp Firefly Falls.
“Oh my gosh, it’s good to see you,” Meg said. Penny and Meg both worked seven day weeks and they lived hours apart so they rarely got to see each other in person.
“I’m so sorry about the restaurant.” Meg’s restaurant had burned down. She was going to rebuild but since she had no place to cook right now, she’d agreed to come back to camp this summer.
“Thanks.” A shadow fell over Meg’s features, and she tilted her head forward, her curly brown hair hiding her features. Her bold vibrant personality dimmed for a moment. Then Meg slung her arm over Penny’s shoulder, her wide smile once again brassy and welcoming. “How are you?”
“Excited to get started.” Penny had conceived of FEED Together, the small garden and farming opportunity for corporations, as her senior thesis at UMass Amherst. Pretty Penny Farms, her small woman owned farm was finally doing well enough that she could devote some time to the philanthropic and therapeutic program that had been haunting her for a long time.
Penny planned to consult with businesses about installing small gardens on their rooftops or courtyard areas and having their employees take care of the gardens. The employees would get outside, commune with nature, and grow food—either for company consumption or as donations to local food banks.
When she and Meg had initially discussed her thesis, Penny hadn’t figured a way to get the word out about the semi-radical proposal.
Then Meg had the idea to approach her bosses at Camp Firefly Falls to see if they would be open to Penny presenting her idea at one of the corporate retreats scheduled this summer.
Her program had a lot of potential. The nonprofit charter would hopefully be a win for both companies and food charities. This weekend was a test run to refine her sales pitch, and gauge how to sell the philanthropic idea to companies. She needed financial participation by the companies in order to get the idea off the ground. If she could secure some initial commitments, she could prove the concept would work.
So here Penny was. She was helping the Tullys with the corporate retreat this weekend, and in exchange, Penny got to pitch her nonprofit idea to the companies attending the retreat and set up her first garden for Camp Firefly Falls. Her thesis idea was one step closer to becoming a reality.
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