Home > Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(7)

Stranger Ranger (Park Ranger #2)(7)
Author: Daisy Prescott

This is why kids freak me out. Unlike adults, their world involves an irrational and fantastic existence not yet bogged down by science, logic, and facts. Part of me is jealous. I want to believe in their world.

Meeting eyes with these beings is like staring into the sun or the dark void; it’s as terrifying as it is fascinating.

Griffin thinks I’m weird when I mention any of this to him. Most people have the same reaction as he does.

“They’re just kids. Don’t you remember when you were young and curious about everything?” he asks, parking our official NPS vehicle in the school visitor lot.

I haven’t told him anything about my childhood. I rarely disclose the reality of my upbringing and family situation to anyone. Opens the door for questions I’d rather avoid.

Thankfully, when most people around here learn I’m from far away, they’re not interested in hearing more. It’s enough of a relief that they don’t have to figure out how I might be kin with them or their neighbor or the organist at their church. Familiarity kills curiosity. In my months in the Smokies, I’ve learned that around here community is one giant game of six degrees of separation.

I meet Griffin at the back of the white SUV where our presentation supplies are stored. “Speaking of curious, I wanted to run something by you before we do our presentation.”

“Shoot.” He slides my plastic bin toward the edge of the cargo area.

Before I can muster the nerve to ask him about Odin Hill and his weird attitude about the park, Griffin continues speaking. “I’ve been hoping to discuss something with you as well.”

I chicken out. “Really? You go first.”

Happy mischief sparks in his expression. “I’ve been thinking we need a salamander costume.”

My own eyes blink rapidly as my brain tries to process his suggestion. “Why?”

“Well, the Smokies are the salamander capital of the world. I keep telling Gaia we need to highlight our best assets, amphibian and otherwise. What size do you think you’d need? Medium?”

“Size?”

“For the salamander costume. Ideally, we’d get you one of the inflatable kinds like those T-Rex that are so popular. If we can’t find one of those, we can probably locate the high school mascot kind. Think of all the hysterical videos we could film for the social media accounts you’re managing. This is going to be great.” Wide-eyed and smiling, he shoulders the supply bin and closes the hatch.

Typical Griffin, he’s gone off on a ridiculous tangent. I never know if he’s serious or seriously wrong in the head.

“I’m not wearing one of those.”

“Fine. Suit yourself. I’ll do the research and see if I can find one in my size.” He continues walking toward the school entrance like I’ve agreed to his crazy idea.

I appreciate his enthusiasm, but there’s no way Gaia will approve the purchase of a costume. He keeps suggesting wild schemes for park activities and she always turns him down. For fall, he thought the history docents at the farm museum should wear zombie makeup along with their period costumes. Vetoed.

Bless his heart for still trying.

Sometimes I think he does just it to get a reaction out of Gaia. He’s a little boy pulling her braids or putting a frog in her desk. Even I know that’s the wrong way to express his interest—if that’s his intention.

When I first started, I thought he was handsome and funny, and I did consider the possibility of liking him in a romantic sense. I’ve had crushes on coworkers before and even dated a few, which hasn’t always been the wisest decision. While Griffin is nice, he’s too goofy for me. If I have to talk myself into liking someone, he’s probably not the one for me.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

Odin

 

 

I have buyer connections in Asheville, Knoxville, and Nashville. Basically, all the villes. Depending on the season, I drive to all three cities several times a month, the demand always outstripping my supply. Great for prices as long as I can provide top quality and my source remains a secret.

A friend from my old life has tried to persuade me to go in with him on a new venture in Asheville. No matter how many times I tell him I’m not interested in working in that world anymore, he keeps asking. We do this dance every time we see each other. He inquires and cajoles. I dodge and decline. I’m happy to be his supplier, not his business partner.

As a reward, I often treat myself to a fine meal whenever I have to drive into the city. The more froufrou and fine dining the better. Throw in a Michelin star, and I can’t stay away. Great food is my weakness.

Today, I’m making the three-plus-hour drive to Nashville with a couple crates filled with mushrooms. It’s me, Roman, a bunch of fungi, and a podcast on foraging.

The best part of a solo road trip is there’s no one complaining about my taste in podcasts. An open window, heat blowing up from the floor boards, and nothing but winding roads ahead of me makes for a nearly perfect day. Roman rides shotgun, either curled up asleep or hanging his head out the window, ears flapping.

Alone time was in short supply growing up with so much family around. Generations of kin living under one roof and more within a few miles, so many cousins and second cousins and cousins by marriage that I couldn’t keep track even if I were inclined to try. Somebody’s always having a birthday, getting married, giving birth, or dying.

Growing up, pretty much every weekend of the year was some sort of familial obligation. Holidays spent trying to remember the names of distant cousins, their spouses, and their progeny. Hundreds claiming each other as family when most of them wouldn’t give me the time of day should we pass in the street.

Being named for the god of thunder pretty much sealed my fate as being an outcast, made me stand out as different from the rest. Guess that was Momma’s plan. Maybe she thought she could save me, change my path in life. I think she was secretly happy when I left.

Always being told I was a black sheep just because of some family legend about first born sons, I couldn’t wait to get away from here and left a week before high school graduation.

Can’t pretend I wasn’t pleased that some of the Hill folks disowned me after I bailed on high school and moved to the big city. If they could’ve afforded pearls, they’d have clutched them while they whispered their opinions. Who does he think he is? Full of himself. Uppity. Arrogant. Entitled. Thinking he’s better than all of us for leaving the Smokies.

And my favorite: God bless his heart.

When I arrived in Atlanta, I lied about having my diploma. Turned out, working as a dishwasher didn’t require proof I’d finished high school.

Keeping a job was less interesting than having fun, and a fake ID and an attitude got me into any bar or club I wanted. Partying and drinking evolved into missing shifts and eventually getting the boot. Thing about being the lowest grunt in the kitchen, there’s always another place needing a body to do the work no one else wants.

If I kept moving around, my bad reputation took a while to catch up with me.

Blessed by good looks, I knew how to work with my natural talents to talk my way out of trouble and under skirts. The world owed me and I was there to collect. With sweet words and a slow smile, I could be allowed or forgiven almost everything.

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