Stress breakout. Perfect. The nasty pimple on my chin peered back at me from my rearview mirror. There was no way I could walk into an interview with that monster on my face. I caked on foundation as thick as the dust on the back of my TV in an attempt to cover it.
Deep breath in . . . and out. Living back with my parents was temporary. Was I thankful to have a place to stay after my entire life had practically collapsed in on itself a week ago? Absolutely. Had I ever thought I’d be one of thosekids who returned to their parents’ basement as an adult? Not in a million years.
I was a college educated, hard-working, independent woman. All I needed now was a job. Five interviews in four days and not so much as a “we’ve gone in another direction” phone call. Not a great track record. But sixth time’s the charm, right?
My father had found the ad in the morning newspaper. The front page featured a grainy photo of Ronnie Tilsdale holding his state-record catfish—a slimy, whiskered blob almost as big as Ronnie himself.
At the end of the story, the report noted that Prairie City, the fifth largest city in Colorado, was looking for summer urban park rangers. Urban park rangers? What did they do? Defend the homeless from murderers, drug dealers, and rabid dogs? If not for the required degree in Parks and Recreation Management, I’d have probably skipped right over the ad, but seeing as how that was exactly the degree I held, I submitted an application and received a call back the next day for an interview. Bring on the murderers.
Opening the door of Cherry Anne, my red Mustang now one payment shy of repossession, I tugged my skirt down and made sure the pantyhose my mother had insistedI wear hadn’t formed a static electricity alliance with the hem. I squared my shoulders and steadied myself on my heels, doing my best impression of a runway walk. In my mind I looked like Alessandra Ambrosio or Giselle Bundchen, but in reality I’m sure I looked more like a flamingo on roller skates.
When I walked into the large tiki-style building on the edge of the Alder Ridge Reservoir, a pretty woman with gigantic blonde 80’s hair smiled at me but continued to listen to a weasel-like man’s complaint.
“He caught that fish illegally, Car,” the lanky man said, his face turning an ugly shade of fuchsia above his stringy beard. “He better watch his back or he’ll end up in the same predicament as that fish he caught—dead.”
“You can’t just go around making threats like that over a stupid fish, Dave.” Her shirt showed more cleavage than Dolly Parton. “And I’ve already told you, the rangers are looking into it.”
Dave muttered something about pansy-ass rangers and marched out of the office bumping my shoulder on his way.
“What can I do for ya?” She smacked her bubble gum.
I regained my composure—forcing myself not to yell ‘excuse you’ after him—and smiled as sweetly as I could. “I’m here for an interview.”
“We’re not doing any more interviews for receptionist. Maybe you were supposed to go to the City Offices?”
The pantyhose were definitely too much. “I’m here for the summer park ranger position.”
“Oh, you must be Rylie.” She looked me up and down. “The guys are gonna love you.” She giggled.
I shifted from one foot to another. I had gotten the same reaction when I joined the fire department.
“Let me see where they’re at.” She picked up a mic attached to a radio base station mounted under her desk. “Office One to Ranger Four.”
She stuck a long, manicured finger into her mouth and pulled out a string of bright pink gum. After she twirled it around and around, she scraped it back into her mouth with her crooked teeth.
“Ranger Four, go ahead,” a deep voice came back through the speaker.
“Yeah, I got Rylie here to interview for the summer ranger position.”
Ranger Four came back on the radio. “Send her to the banquet hall. I’ll meet her there.”
“Copy. Office One clear.” When the mic locked back in its holster, she turned back to me. “See that building right across the way? Through those doors is the banquet hall. He’ll be with you shortly.”
“Thank you . . ?”
“Carmen. It’s Carmen.”
She held out her hand and shook mine as if she’d had one too many espressos that morning.
“It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” She leaned in a bit closer. “You didn’t hear it from me, but if he asks you your favorite kind of music, say Christmas.”
I nodded. “Christmas music. Okay. Thanks.”
“Anytime. I hope they keep ya.”
I just smiled and turned to go, tugging my skirt down as I walked away. I hoped they kept me too.
# # #
The banquet hall was exactly as I’d expected: a large room with round tables and chairs dotting the hardwood floor. A door to my left likely led to a kitchen for caterers, and a small stage took up the far wall. The smell of freshly treated hardwood reminded me of the summer cabin my family had always rented.
I did my best to sit still and wait, but the waist of my pantyhose was starting to roll. I couldn’t wait to be out of my interview attire and back into my yoga pants.
I heard his steps before I saw his face, boots on the wooden boardwalk leading up to the door. When he walked into the room, he flashed a big, genuine smile.
The light gray button down shirt and navy cargo pants that made up his uniform only slightly diminished his hulking muscular form. Even though I was tall for a girl, I’d probably only come up to his armpit. A badge shone on his chest and a radio, pepper spray, multi-tool, flashlight, and an asp—a telescoping baton—hung from his belt.
“You must be Rylie.”
I stood and shook his hand with the same firm grip my dad had shown me before my first job interview . . . as a babysitter.
“It’s nice to meet you—uh—Ranger Four?”
“Ben.” He chuckled.
“Ben.” Big Ben. Easy to remember.
He motioned for me to sit before clicking the mic on his shoulder. “This is Ranger Four. I’ll be off the radio for an interview. If you need me, call my cell.”
“Copy,” another male voice said. Ben snapped his radio off.
“Kyle—your direct supervisor—was supposed to be here for the interview, but he got held up in a meeting. So I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.” His grin was slightly apologetic. “In your application, I noticed you were a volunteer firefighter and have your degree”—his face lit up into a wide smile—“in Parks and Recreation Management from Denver State.”
“That’s correct.” I returned the smile while trying to sit perched on the edge of the chair with my back as straight as possible.
“I went to Denver State too. Got the same degree. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not a worthwhile one. It may not be wildlife management, but it’s still been helpful to me all these years later.”
“Good to know.” It was always good to have something in common with the interviewer, right?
“Tell me about your time as a firefighter.”
“I was with the Big Mountain Fire Department for about four years. Being a small town, we did more training than actual firefighting. Most of our job was assisting on medical calls and rescue situations, like ice rescue and vehicular accidents.”
Ben pulled a notepad from his left breast pocket and jotted down a few notes as I spoke. His knuckles were covered in the same salt and pepper hair that made up the stubble on his face. “I can imagine those probably got pretty gruesome. Would you say you’re well equipped to handle stressful situations?”
The time I’d been paged to a thirteen-car pile-up sprang to mind. Bodies lay strewn all over the ground, most of them dead. It had been me who rallied the other firefighters into action, set up triage. “I’d say I’m very well equipped.”
Ben nodded knowingly. “And how do you feel those interactions would help you in your position as a park ranger?”
I thought about this for a minute. I likely wouldn’t come across as many gruesome scenes as a park ranger. Images of fishermen with hooks in their hands came to mind. “I’m sure that as the first responders, rangers have to manage some of the same tasks I did when I was a firefighter. First aid, CPR, calling in additional help when needed. I’m trained in radio communication, and if I were able to stay on past the summer season, ice rescue.” I sucked in a breath and tried to steady my nerves. When I got nervous, words spewed from my mouth. Verbal vomit, my ex used to call it. I hated that term . . . and him.
“And how about the law enforcement side of the job?”
My insides clenched. Other than working with law enforcement while I was a firefighter, and sleeping with a cop for the past five years, I had absolutely no experience in that realm. “As I understand it, the only law enforcement required would be to enforce park rules, which would be no problem.”
“I see.” He made another note.
If only I could have seen what he was writing. I knotted my hands in my lap. I needed this job. “If I’m wrong about the job description, let me know.”
“No, that pretty much sums it up. We don’t do a great deal of what you would think of as real law enforcement. Not exactly equipped, if you know what I mean?” He looked down at his belt where an asp rested in place of a gun.
Ben asked a few more questions. My strengths and weaknesses—attention to detail and organization. My likes and dislikes—Christmas music and spiders. Where I saw myself in five years—in a steady job and out of my parents’ basement. Okay, so maybe I left out the part about my parents’ basement.
“Well, it looks like everything is on the up and up. Can I answer any questions for you?”
I thought about it for a minute. “The job title is an urban park ranger. Does that mean I’ll be required to go out into the city at times?”
“Good question. The answer is yes and no. As a summer ranger, you will primarily stay within the three city-owned reservoirs. There have been times, though, when summer rangers have gone on patrol on the trails that wind throughout the city. We are currently looking to obtain some additional land that butts up to the foothills and may even extend into the forest at some point, but that could be years away.”
I nodded. “What does a typical schedule look like for a summer ranger?”
“You would work a week of morning shifts followed by a week of evening shifts. The reservoir hours change from month to month depending on sunrise and sunset, so your shifts will change to be earlier or later depending on opening and closing times. We also occasionally have overnight shifts when the reservoirs are closed but we rarely require summer rangers to take those.”
Overnight shifts with no one around and no gun to protect yourself? Sounded like a recipe for disaster to me.
“I think that’s all the questions I have for now.”
“Great.” Ben stood and I followed suit. “Kyle said if everything seemed good that I should go forward with a job offer. Pending a background check, of course.”
It took every bit of restraint in my body not to jump up and down with joy. I shook his hand. “Thank you so much.”
As soon as Ben snapped his radio back on, chatter resumed.
“—white male running in the nude on the back side of the lake.”
Ben let out a low groan. “I’d better go help. It was nice to meet you, Rylie. I’ll call you when the background check comes through and we can get you scheduled for training.”
I nodded, but my mind had jumped from the interview to the call on his radio. Naked men? Better that than homeless drug dealers, murderers, and rabid dogs, I guessed.
# # #
Once back in the comfort of Cherry Anne, I shimmied out of the pantyhose and tossed them, along with the heels, into the back seat. When I looked up to start the engine, two men in gray and blue uniforms stood gaping at me.
Seriously? I know I looked around before removing the pantyhose. Maybe they didn’t see anything?
Who was I kidding? By the look on their faces, they saw plenty.
The engine purred when I turned the key over, and I hit the button to roll down the window.
“Can I help you?” I asked in my most sincere and innocent voice.
They looked at each other like they’d forgotten what they were going to say. One was breathtakingly gorgeous, Italian, around thirty with muscles in all the right places. The other was tall and skinny with hints of gray peeking through his dark hair and a look on his face like he had a stick up his rear end.
“We certainly hope you can.” The Italian one spoke first, his voice deep and warm like a vat of molten caramel. “Benny asked us to come up here and introduce ourselves.”
“Don’t you have a naked guy running through the park?”
He snickered. “Dusty and Seamus apprehended him.” He offered his hand through the window. “My name is Antonio.”
Of course it is.
“And I’m Kyle,” the tall, skinny one said, “Your supervisor. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to the interview.”
“It’s no problem. Ben was very nice.” I shook their hands in turn. “Pleasure to meet you both.”
“The pleasure is all ours,” Antonio said in his thick accent before Kyle elbowed him hard in the side.
“Ben said you’ll be joining the team,” Kyle said. “But I’d suggest you ditch the pantyhose.”
“Done and done,” I motioned to where I’d thrown them in the back of the car.
“Yes. We saw,” Antonio said.
Kyle elbowed him even harder this time. “You can’t talk to her like that. Remember the sexual harassment class we had to take?”
Antonio stuck out his chest. “They can’t tame this Italian Stallion.”
I stifled my giggle. Something about him was magnetic.
“Ranger Four, Ranger Two,” Ben’s voice crackled through their radios.
“Ranger Two,” Kyle replied.
“If you and Ranger Six could come to the back of Muddy Water Cove, it looks like the MWB has struck again.”
“Copy, we’ll be there shortly,” Kyle said.
“MWB?” I asked.
“Muddy Water Bandit. I came up with it,” Antonio said through his devilishly handsome grin.
“It wasn’t a hard name to come up with,” Kyle said. “We have to go.”
“Until we meet again.” Antonio winked at me when Kyle wasn’t looking.
They jumped into gigantic matching black Chevy pickup trucks and tore off in the direction opposite the exit.
Plopping my head back against the seat rest, I allowed a smile to breach my face. Finally, a job, no pantyhose required.
# # #
The drive back into the city from the reservoir took so long, I wondered if I had actually been in Wyoming. My parents made the idiotic decision to leave our beloved home in the mountains when I graduated high school, to move to this hellhole city filled with tree-huggers and their stupid sweater-wearing dogs. Who put a sweater on a dog anyway? They have this thing. It’s called fur.
Pulling into their lower driveway, I dodged my sister’s minivan and my brother-in-law’s work truck. My parents parked in the attached garage, of course. Thankfully their house had been large enough for my sister, her husband, and my four nephews to live in the apartment above the detached garage with their three ankle-biting dogs, while also allowing me to have their walkout basement all to myself.
It was bad enough I’d had to quit the fire department and flee my hometown when my ex and I split. But to my mother, boundaries were merely suggestions, especially when I was “living under her roof.”
I tossed my keys onto one of the boxes stacked in the basement living room and shimmied off my skirt. While I was searching through my box of clothes for my favorite yoga pants, I heard my mother’s voice behind me.
“How’d your interview go?”
“Mother!” I crouched trying to cover myself, knowing full well she had just gotten a great view of my bare ass.
“Oh, stop it.” She didn’t avert her eyes in the slightest. “I made you, birthed you, and bathed you. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”
I grabbed for the skirt and yanked it back on.
“It went fine,” I said in my most exasperated voice. “I got the job.”
Her face didn’t change. “You know, I worry this job will be too dangerous for you.”
“I know, Mom. You told me this morning.” I put my hands on my hips. “But it’s no more dangerous than being a firefighter.”
“Volunteerfirefighter. It’s not like you were in any real danger doing that.”
I fought the urge to throw something at her. We had been over the fact that the town only had volunteer firefighters, and we did everything paid firefighters did.
“Well, at least I got a job. A good job. A job that could turn into something more than just a job. Plus now I can save up and let you have your basement back.”
“But you’ve only been here a week.” Her lip jutted out in a pout. “And I like having the whole family back together. It just feels right.” She wrapped her arm around my shoulder and squeezed. “If it would make you feel better, I could start charging you rent.”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t want you to start charging me rent. This was supposed to be a way for me to get back on my feet after . . .”
She nodded slowly. “I told you that boy was trouble from the start. Kicking you out of his apartment for—what did you call her? Giraffe girl?” Every word was like salt in a wound. “Don’t you like being here with us? Watching NASCAR and football games with your dad? Having family meals?”
This conversation was going to end up one of two ways: me hurting my mother’s feelings by saying something stupid, or me lying and saving her feelings.
“Yes, Mom. It’s nice to be home.”
“Good.” She squeezed me one last time and released me from her side hug. “Now come upstairs, I got Fizzy a present.”
I looked around. Fizzy, my pit bull Lab mix, was surprisingly not weaving in and out of my legs like he normally did when I got home.
“What kind of present?” I asked, unsure I wanted the answer.
“Come upstairs and you’ll see.”
When I reached the top stair, the first thing I noticed was a look in my dog’s eyes that I only ever saw when he was chasing cats. Murder. The second thing: a pink doggie sweater.
“Oh no. No, no, no.” I walked over to where Fizzy sat next to my dad. “You cannot be serious.”
“He was cold. I saw him shivering outside the other day and his hair is so short, so I bought him a sweater.”
“Mom, it’s almost summer. And he’s . . . a boy.”
“Boys can like pink. Your father has a pink tie.”
My dad made a goofy face, and I tried not to laugh.
“Plus,” she continued, “I am always shopping for my two-legged grandsons, but I never get to shop for my four-legged grandson.”
“Please, do not tell me you just compared my sons—my human sons—to that mutt.” My sister and her husband walked through the front door carrying two of their adorable and crazy little boys while the other two bounded in and knocked over a plant.
Megan, almost two years older than me, had her life together. She always looked like she’d just emerged from the salon with her perfect brown ringlets. No one would guess she’d popped out four boys with her tiny frame. I had always been jealous of her petite stature, especially when she could wear the cute feminine clothes while I struggled to find ones that fit my taller and more muscular build.
“Oh, Megan, you know I love them all the same.” My mom snatched up her oldest and planted a big kiss on his cheek—which he promptly wiped off.
“That’s the problem.” Megan shook her head. “They’re humans.” She pointed around to her boys. “And he’s a dog.” She pointed at a very anxious looking Fizzy. “Theyhave your blood running through their veins. And hehas cat guts rotting in his stomach.”
“That’s disgusting.” Mom put the wiggling little boy back down. “And I won’t have any talk like that under my roof.”
“Sorry, Mom.” Megan muttered before turning her attention to me. “Ry, did you get the job?”
I nodded. “Sixth time’s the charm.”
“But she’s not sure if she’s going to take it yet,” Mom said.
“Um, I already accepted the position.” Not quite true, but I had every intention to when my background check cleared.
“Why wouldn’t she take the position?” My brother-in-law, Tom, sat down on the couch next to Megan.
“It’s just so dangerous. There are all those criminals and—”
“She’ll be just fine,” my father piped in. “She’s a smart girl. She can handle herself.”
“Thanks, Daddy.” I planted a kiss on his cheek. “Now, let’s get this thing off Fizzy.”