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Chapter 1

Upton Hill was one of those small tourist towns that attracted all kinds of weird people during summer and in winter.

It was sitting at the foot of a rocky mountain range, in the close vicinity of two crystal clear lakes divided by a turbulent river that was popular among white water rafting adrenaline junkies. If one didn’t enjoy trekking, camping, rock climbing, or fearing for their own lives in an unstable, inflatable raft, then the town had nothing left to offer. It was a Podunk, so to speak.

That was why, I couldn’t even get a proper job to save money for my own car and had to pedal 6 miles to school on a rusty bike in deadly heat, wearing a helmet that was trying to boil my head hard.

That was also why, when I finally arrived at the ugly, concrete building, sticking out against the omnipresent greenery like a sore thumb, I was sweaty and out of breath.

I parked by the racks and immediately took off the horrid helmet, welcoming a cool wind on my wet forehead and beetroot red face. I was sure I looked like a wreck and had already given up on impressing anybody today. If my friend, Emmie Weston, didn’t go on a camping trip this weekend, I would have asked her to give me a lift. As it was, Emmie went radio silent for the whole three days, most probably holing up in the middle of who knew where without access to the Internet or service. Her parents were crazy like that. Scratch that. From what little she had actually told me about her family, they all were like that.

Speaking of the devil...

“Gee, Gem-Gem, your parents should buy you a car...” Emmie shook her head, smiling.

I had to admit she was atypically beautiful. With 6′1, not only was she tall but also, well, bulky. Despite a rather manly figure, she was surprisingly agile and limber. And whereas her body kind of lacked feminine traits, she had striking, dark brown, almost black eyes, surrounded by long, thick lashes and full, wide lips with a pronounced Cupid’s bow. Her raven black hair cascaded down her back and ended at her waist.

“Well, hello, stranger. Finally made it to the land of the living?” I joked, yanking a safety chain one last time to check whether it was attached correctly to the metal rack. I wasn’t afraid that anybody would actually steal my bike. As far as I was aware, I was the only seventeen-year-old out of the entire school population who didn’t own a car.

“I literally am. TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter... you name it. I’m back on it all”, Emma grinned.

It was my turn to shake my head.

“Anyway, I’m glad to see that the wolves didn’t eat you alive. They were unusually active tonight. One of them even decided to serenade right outside my window, almost giving me a heart attack.” I complained, too busy discreetly sniffing my grey tank top to notice a sheepish smile on Emmie’s face. “Gee, I stink. Bathroom?”

She checked her pink and gold wristwatch.

“We do have a couple of minutes...” She mused.

“Thank God!” I said, grabbing her by her arm and pulling her towards the school building. “I have chemistry today and if your charming cousin sees me like this, he won’t let me live for the rest of the day.”

Emmie made a face.

“I wish you and Zach could get along...” She sighed while we navigated through the human obstacles that were amassing on the school’s corridor.

“Believe me, Emmie, I’ve tried. Me and Bennett, we just don’t work out. It’s like we’re allergic to each other or something.”

And it wasn’t even an exaggeration. Frankly, I couldn’t stand Zachary, Zach, Bennett - and I was almost sure the feeling was mutual. Made no mistake; Emmie’s cousin wasn’t bullying me. He also wasn’t (usually) particularly crude, mean, or anything of the sort. I didn’t even mind so much that he thought I had a bad influence on Emmie, only because I had befriended her and had gotten her out of his elite clique of dorks.

No. All of that, I could stand. What I couldn’t stand, however, was that something about Bennett threw me off. Ironically, I wasn’t even sure what exactly. And it drove me utterly nuts. So I avoided Bennett like the plague.

“I know, I know...” Emmie replied with a sigh as we arrived at the bathroom that smelled strongly of chlorine and grey paper. “But, I never really gave a shit about that now, did I?”

“Nope...” I admitted, accenting “p” with a plosive.

“So, if that’s clear, I’d like to invite you to the party this Friday at Azure Lake. We’re bidding goodbye to the summer with a spunk.” She winked.

I stopped wrestling with my tousled, wavy, strawberry blond hair and looked at my friend with a gleam.

“You do realise that summer had finished almost a month ago?” I wasn’t even trying to hide my amusement.

Emmie rolled her dark brown eyes and waved her hand.

“Details... Anyway, you need to come. We have music, marshmallows, drinks and... boys.” She wiggled her brows suggestively.

I burst out laughing.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I conceded, still not entirely sure if I wanted to willingly put myself anywhere near Emmie’s cousin and his crew.

“Bennett’s staring at you.” Stacy Williams, my lab partner, observed coolly.

I jolted in surprise, missing the mixing bowl and sprinkling a whole tablespoon of baking soda and sugar on our metal lab table.

“Shit,” I mumbled to myself, grabbing a clean cloth to wipe the mess I made. I wasn’t exactly sure what shocked me more - the fact that Stacy got interested in a boy or that Emmie’s cousin was, apparently, watching me. I tried to ignore my treacherous heart, which for some ridiculous reason sped up, and glanced discreetly at Bennett to check if Stacy wasn’t imagining things... Well, she wasn’t. Bennett was staring at me - his enigmatic, cyan blue eyes caught my (obviously not-so-careful) gaze, and he smiled lazily.

The nerve of him...

“Why is he even looking here?” Stacy frowned, adjusting the rim of her wire glasses, clearly oblivious to the state of my internal turmoil and racing pulse. “Does he need a tip or something?”

Good question. I had no clue. Though, I doubted Bennett needed a hand. He was too much of a chemistry buff to seek help with something as simple as a black snake. At least, he sure as hell had known what he had been doing on that one occasion when Mr. Beauchamp paired us up.

“I don’t know. We don’t really talk.” I said, forcing myself to look away from Bennett, his distressing gaze and alluring looks.

I tried hard not to admit how attractive he was. First off, we didn’t get along. Besides, I knew a player when I saw one. And Bennett definitely looked it with his short, chocolate brown hair with a shaved hard part on the left side, mystifying eyes surrounded by thick dark lashes, strong jaw, luscious lips, and ripped body that was hiding underneath the tight-fitting, Prussian blue t-shirt that I wanted to...

“Well, whatever.” Stacy shrugged, finally deciding to pay attention to the task at hand and saving me from my own brain. “We have like five minutes to finish this shit before Beauchamp comes to grade us”.

“It won’t take that long...” I stated, once again trying to put the soda and sugar mix into the bowl. This time I succeeded in making a tight pile without spilling anything.

Stacy took the lighter.

“Ready to fire it up?” She asked with a wide grin.

I nodded a bit bewildered, but the girl had already tuned me out, too focused on heating the mix.

But nothing happened.

And then nothing.

And still nothing.

“Have you mixed it 4:1?” I asked, looking for my notes to check the process step by step once again.

“Yeah...” She took the bottle with ethanol and started to soak sand even further. Just as I glanced up, she flicked the lighter.

“Stacy, no!” I managed to should before she let it burn.

And boy, did it ever.

The fumes immediately caught fire and exploded towards the unaware girl. I pushed her out of the way just enough that it didn’t burn her face. She tripped and landed in a heap on the hard floor. Her lab coat rode up to her waist while her gold-brown hair spilled out of her loose ponytail on the black and white tiles like blood.

“Jesus...” She said, leaning on the elbow and adjusting crooked glasses in the abrupt, deadly silence that followed.

I caught Bennett’s befuddled gaze out of the corner of my eye at the same time that Mr. Beauchamp asked in an eerily calm manner:

“Misses Matthews and Williams, care to explain what are you actually doing?”

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