It's the 1980s. The American steel industry staggers and all but collapses. Pitcairn Pennsylvania, a little town east of Pittsburgh, on the banks of Sulfur Creek, gasps its last ragged breaths. The train barrels through town, always on its way elsewhere; it is as inevitable as the forces that draw two isolated teenage boys to one another in this coming-of age-story.
BILLY HARTMAN, a beguiling latter-day Huck Finn, is all but abandoned by his too-young barfly mother, JAN, and forced to sell drugs at school by JACK, a local drug dealer.
SID HARRIS arrives in town on the last day of school. Beautiful, athletic, but sensitive and shy, Sid has moved every year, as his father, an efficiency expert, cheerfully shuts down industry.
Billy and Sid are barely introduced before they face-off against high school tough-guys, then escape together, bolting from the school, through town, and down into Billy's secret world, a ratty yet lovely natural kingdom on the edge of town. There, by the creek's orange water, they discover a shared vulnerability and forge unexpected friendship.
They rampage through an idyllic summer before senior year; one step ahead of the tough kids, they also dodge growing threats from Jack, the drug dealer. When fall comes, the pressure of small-town high school drops on the boys, driving them from each other. Billy's girlfriend, LISA is pregnant and Sid's girlfriend, JENNY, hates Billy; the drug dealer's demands turn violent and he forces Billy into an unwanted encounter with an older man. Sid struggles, but fails, to save Billy.
The story creates a portrait of a time before cell phones and the internet, when the collapse of the industrial economy strangled small towns, and boys might fall in love... but could never speak of it.