When The Time Comes To Light A Fire
Prologue: Summer Before 8th Grade
Minnie Mouse would get more attention in a bikini. Looking in her bedroom mirror, Vanessa tied the strings of her new bathing suit around her neck, wishing her mom had let her buy the one she’d really wanted. She sighed at the red polka-dotted boy-short bottoms reflected back at her, remembering their conversation.
“Vanessa Roberts, no thirteen year old girl has any business showing off her butt cheeks. I will not be spending money to have you looking like a street-walker.”
“Oh my god, it’s a swimming suit.” Vanessa’s eyes rolled back in her head, hard.
“Roll your eyes at me again, and you’re liable to spend the summer in your room with no need for swimwear.” The tone in her voice wasn’t playful, and Vanessa readjusted her expression.
“Yes, Mom.” She put the beautiful purple suit with the bows back on the rack and stomped slightly to the dressing room.
Her bedroom door opened, bringing her back to the present, and she glanced up in the mirror at her best friend. Courtney’s dark curly hair looked wilder than normal, given the humidity, though she had tried to tame it with bobby pins into a high ponytail. Her friend assessed the bathing suit situation.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about. I think it’s cute.”
“Ugh, don’t patronize me. I look like Minnie Mouse, and Brad James is never going to look twice at me.”
“I thought you were hoping to run into Luke something-or-other?”
“Yeah well, apparently he’s with Elena now, so I set my sights elsewhere,” Vanessa admitted begrudgingly. Courtney’s ensemble was much like her own; though her short muscular build filled it out very differently than Vanessa’s more slender frame. Courtney just raised her eyebrow. “Whatever, let’s just go.” They bounded down the stairs with their over-stuffed pool bags to let her mom know they were ready to leave.
The pool was crowded, but she supposed that was the point. The air smelled of chlorine and warm grass- it was effectively a run-of-the-mill Gem City summer. She and Courtney found a spot in the near-shade, and her eyes scoped out the boy situation.
“I hope your mom will let me come back next summer too. Then I can almost pretend we’ll be going to high school together,” Courtney mused with a frown.
“My mom will let you come back anytime. She loves you. You don’t talk back, so she might like you better than me,” she smiled. “And don’t depress me. I wish we were going to high school together too. You don’t think you guys will ever move back?”
“I don’t think so. I miss it though.” Vanessa sighed. Her other friends were fine, but she and Courtney had been through everything together since they were five. The Ross’ moving had done a number on her. The thought of the two of them not cheering on the same team and obsessing over boys had a melancholy effect on her demeanor. She also wasn’t sure who she was going to cheat off of in math.
“Well, summers it is then, friend.”
“Summers it is. So, where is this Brad character?”
“Basketball court. Black shorts, blue t-shirt.” She flipped her long blond ponytail over her shoulder as if he could see her.
“He’s cute. But who is the other guy?” Vanessa had to smirk.
“That would be Luke Miller.”
“Things are making much more sense now.”
“I don’t know her, but I’ll second that.”
“Whatever, two more years and we’ll be in high school, probably cheering varsity,” she added, giving Courtney a lazy fist bump at that prediction, “and most importantly, getting our licenses. I just wish we could skip freshman year. I want a car. I want boys to take me out on dates. I want to listen to my music as loud as I freaking want. And I want a super hot jealousy-causing boyfriend.”
“I think I’d probably settle for a sort-of-cute mathlete at this point, but I like your ambition,” Courtney confessed, looking as she always did when she went into low-self-esteem mode.
“Stop, you’re adorable. Come on. Give me your perfect boyfriend checklist.” Vanessa plopped her sunglasses onto her face and prepared to mentally correct her friend’s choices.
“Shut up, your checklist. Don’t lie and say you don’t have one. For example: tall, cute with a good smile, football player, preferably, because you know how I feel about the uniforms, smart enough to hold a real conversation, great sense of humor- not like ‘oh he laughs at amusing jokes,’ but like ‘oh my god he is hilarious and my sides hurt from laughing.’” Courtney was looking at her curiously, but she didn’t care. “And I want a guy who can make me mad. Just a little bit.”
“Um, ok? Everyone makes you mad. Except for me,” Courtney retorted with a smirk.
“Ha, until now,” Vanessa replied. “No, you know what I mean, like a guy who’s not afraid to argue. Someone strong.” She sipped her lemonade. “Your turn.”
“I don’t think I have quite the extensive list you are looking for, friend.”
“I call bull. Tell me anyway.” Courtney made a Kermit-the-Frog face at her, but she knew she’d give in.
“Fine. Also tall. Ummm nice?”
“Well yeah, nice, like easy to be around. And likes to read.”
“So you want to date a nice book-reader.”
“And I’m your best friend. What does that say about you?”
“That I need to save you from yourself and make sure you don’t date a librarian.” Courtney promptly threw a handful of ice from her cup of water at Vanessa and stuck out her tongue.
♫ "What About Your Friends” - TLC
“So What” - P!nk
Chapter One: Two Years Later
Vanessa breathed in the scent of what was left of the summer sun heating the asphalt outside of the gym. It was the last cheer practice before the start of school, and she was officially one week away from having her license. No more parent drop offs, she thought blissfully as she watched her mom’s Durango pull back out onto the street. She trotted easily into the gym to warm up.
“Ohmygod, thank you for being here early,” Jessi practically yelled, placing a death grip on her forearm as soon as she made it over the threshold of the gym doors.
“I’m here, I’m here, what’s the deal?” Her friend’s green eyes were shining, and her dark red hair was pulled into a messy bun atop her head. She was practically vibrating with anticipation over something.
“I need a favor. Like a big favor. Flavoricious. Flavorful. Favor. Please say you’ll do it.”
“English. And I’m gonna need more information. Like, any information really.”
“You know that guy Josh I’ve been wanting to go out with forever and ever and ever?”
“From Ohio State?” Vanessa raised her eyebrows suspiciously. When Jess said “forever and ever,” it could have meant since yesterday. She really didn’t remember the first time her friend had mentioned him.
“Yes! Well, he’s in town for the weekend and asked me to go out, but he can’t like, pick me up at my house, you know my parents would flip their tea kettles. And my car is kind of out-of-commission at the moment. You see why this is an emergency right?”
“Not particularly, no. And last time I checked, tea kettles didn’t flip. Just borrow your mom’s car.”
Jessi rolled her eyes. “The whole reason my Jeep is in the shop is because I curbed it so hard I popped the tired and jacked up my alignment. My parents told me I would never sit behind the wheel of either of their cars again.”
“Still unsure how this equals a flavoricious favor from me,” Vanessa let out, becoming annoyed. Always with the drama.
“Say you’ll come with me.”
“I could say it, but it wouldn’t be true. I am sort of missing the key components to be able to do that. Namely, a license and a car. Plus, why would I come on your date?”
“Don’t be dense, he’s bringing a friend. Didn’t I say that?”
“Oh, well he is. And aren’t your parents out like playing Jenga on Friday nights or something? I’ll have my mom drop me at your house this afternoon, and we can take the other car; we’ll be back before they’re home. I’ll even drive so you’re not like breaking the law.” Jessi tapped her foot impatiently as if Vanessa were somehow annoying her, and she used the phrase “breaking the law,” as if she meant “breaking a nail.”
“It’s Bunco. And you’ve lost your mind.”
“Did I mention his friend is cute? Like Leo in Romeo and Juliet cute. You haven’t been out with anyone since Michael, come on. It’ll be fun. We’ll just go play pool for a while and then go home, no big deal. Your parents will never even know we were gone.” It was a low blow mentioning Leo. Not good enough, she argued in her head.
“You literally just told me your own parents won’t let you take their cars because you’re an awful driver, but you want me to give you the okay to drive the car of one of my unsuspecting parents?” Vanessa side-stepped the red-headed devil to get to the mat and begin stretching. The conversation was getting more ludicrous by the moment, and the mention of Michael annoyed her.
“I would do it for you, but whatever. Be afraid to have any fun.” Jessi stomped past her, pouting as she warmed up her scorpion. Vanessa sighed, wishing her friend hadn’t helped her out of rather sticky situations that past year. She would probably still be grounded if it weren’t for Jess’s ability to spin a story at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t a lie; she would do it for her.
“You swear to god we’ll be home before eleven?” Jessi’s expression turned from glowering to elated immediately, lighting up her full lips and wide emerald eyes.
“Cross my heart. Eeeeee!!!! I love you!” Vanessa almost lost her balance with the force of Jess’s hug.
There was still sweat dripping down the curve of her spine from a particularly brutal conditioning session after practice. She had headed out the door of the locker room and was rummaging in her bag for her phone when she ran face first into a wall. A human wall.
“Jesus, look where you’re going,” she relayed, annoyed. She tried to fight the redness she knew was spreading over her cheeks when she realized it was a very cute, broad shouldered, grinning human wall.
“I am so very sorry for letting you run me over. How rude of me,” he retorted with amusement. From the looks of him, he was headed to the weight room. She realized, horrified, that her hand was still resting on his arm where she’d placed it trying to catch her balance. Her horror deepened when she recognized who said arm belonged to, which was the new starting wide-receiver of their football team.
“I, um, well. It’s possible I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry for almost tackling you,” she managed evenly, regaining some of her composure and trying to salvage the situation. She took in his dark wavy hair and bright blue eyes. He was still smiling at her, and it didn’t help her focus.
“I think I might be all right being tackled by you.” His grin widened, and she realized he was flirting with her. It also struck her that she was in gym clothes, and there was literally no part of her that wasn’t sweaty. She bit her lip in uncertainty of how to react. “Just to make sure the rest of the students are safe, I think I’ll walk you to the parking lot. I wouldn’t want you to run over anyone else.” He changed his initial trajectory and fell in step with her in the direction of the junior lot.
“How safety-conscious of you.”
“Just looking out for my fellow man,” he smirked, glancing sideways at her. She tried to flip her long blond ponytail over her shoulder and failed miserably. It just sort of flopped there, a sticky sweaty mess. Seriously. Could this not have happened any other day? “So, should I just call you blondie? Or do you have an actual name?”
“Vanessa. Roberts,” she replied tentatively.
“Good to know, Vanessa Roberts. I’m Zack. Roads,” he stated, mimicking her structure. “And tell me, why haven’t I seen you around?”
“I don’t know. Have you been looking?” she asked flirtatiously, not particularly wanting to say it was because she was a freshman last year. He was only a year older, but he seemed moreso. Everyone knew who he was… high school football was sort of a religion in Gem City.
“Well, I’m looking now,” he replied without missing a beat. “Will you be at Vader’s bonfire next weekend?”
“Is that an invitation?” It was taking everything she had not to clap her hands and jump up and down. Vader’s parties were legendary, but she had never been invited.
“It is. I’ll see you there, then.”
“Sounds good. Thanks for keeping the sidewalks safe,” she mentioned as they walked through the gate to the parking lot.
“All in a day’s work. I’ll see you next weekend, Vanessa Roberts,” he flashed those white teeth again and headed back towards the gym. Oh.my.god. She could not wait to see her friends’ faces when she told them where they were going next Saturday.
“Are we seriously doing this?” Vanessa asked incredulously while Jessi took her hair down for the tenth time. “And just make up your mind about your hair, will you? You’re stressing me out.” Vanessa’s own long blond hair was done in a loose fishtail braid, and she elected for a simple white t-shirt and jeans, having no expectations of anything glamorous happening that evening.
“Of course we’re ‘seriously doing this,’ it’s just playing pool, not a bank heist, V.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll feel better once my mom’s SUV is back in the garage.”
“Chill, we’ll be back in a couple of hours.” She sighed, fluffed her shiny red hair one last time, and rubbed her glossed lips together. “Let’s go.” Vanessa took a breath and committed to the transgression. You’re all in now. Despite her friend’s driving record, she figured letting the licensed driver operate the car was better than them getting pulled over with her behind the wheel.
“I swear to god if anything happens to this car-”
“Stop, we’re driving like two inches.” Vanessa shook her head.
“Who is this friend I’m supposed to be entertaining anyway? Is he actually cute or was that just a carrot you wanted me to chase?”
“Um? Jesus, Jess.”
“No, I mean, I assume he’s cute because Josh is cute, I just haven’t actually met him,” she replied, clicking the garage door to close.
“It’ll be fun! Come on, stop acting like Kim. If I wanted someone to be a downer, I would have asked her to come.” Vanessa pursed her lips at that.
“Whatever. Kim’s not bad.”
“No, no, I love her. You know what I mean, she’s just all mom-ish.”
“Ok. I’ll attempt to be more cheerful.” Jessi simply smiled victoriously.
They arrived at The Eight Ball without incident, and Vanessa plastered on her most charming smile as they strolled in to the pool hall, the smell of old smoke flooding her nose. Dodging a precariously placed cue on the way to a table towards the back, she watched as Jessi ran up behind a broad shouldered male and threw her arms around his neck playfully.
“Hey there,” he smiled, turning around.
“Hey yourself,” Jess replied, her eyes shining. Vanessa stood, feeling bored already, waiting to be introduced. Not at all surprisingly, she was now invisible.
“Hi. I assume you’re Josh?” she interrupted the couple’s hello. He was moderately attractive, but had a weak jawline. There was nothing she could see to warrant the lengths they’d gone to in order to get there.
“Oh, yes, silly me. Vanessa, Josh, Josh, this is Vanessa, or V. Whatever,” Jess giggled, flipping her hair.
“Hey, good to meet you,” Josh responded, holding out his hand. She shook it, but wasn’t totally fond of the way his eyes rolled over her skin. “My buddy Matt’s around here somewhere, I’m sure he’ll be back in a sec. You guys wanna play?”
“Sure. I’m crap at pool though. You’ll help me?” Jessi asked him. Could she be more obvious? Vanessa thought, knowing it was going to be a long couple of hours if she was already this annoyed.
“Of course babe.” Vanessa didn’t really play the helpless female role very often. Being that she had a pool table in her basement, she was actually pretty decent at the game and offered to break, sinking two balls.
“Nice shot,” she heard from her right. She leaned back up, away from the green felt surface of the table, and locked eyes with a completely average looking guy. She mentally calculated his stats. Five-ten, probably one-eighty, meh hair, meh face, meh.
“Thanks,” she offered lazily. “Matt?” she asked, hoping he would say no.
“The one and only.” Charming.