Authors: Gary Paulsen
Alida’s Song • The Amazing Life of Birds•The Beet Fields • The Boy Who Owned the School• The Brian Books:The River, Brian’s Winter, Brian’s Return, andBrian’s Hunt•Canyons • Caught by the Sea: My Life on Boats • The Cookcamp•The Crossing • Crush • Danger on Midnight River • Dogsong•Father Water, Mother Woods • Flat Broke • The Glass Café•Guts: The True Stories BehindHatchetand the Brian Books•Harris and Me • Hatchet • The Haymeadow•How Angel Peterson Got His Name • The Island•Lawn Boy • Lawn Boy Returns • The Legend of Bass Reeves•Liar, Liar • Masters of Disaster • Molly McGinty Has a Really Good Day•The Monument • Mudshark • My Life in Dog Years•Nightjohn • The Night the White Deer Died•Paintings from the Cave • Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers•The Quilt • The Rifle • Sarny: A Life Remembered•The Schernoff Discoveries • Soldier’s Heart•The Time Hackers • The Transall Saga•Tucket’s Travels(The Tucket’s West series, Books One through Five) •The Voyage of theFrog• The White Fox Chronicles•The Winter Room • Woods Runner
Picture books, illustrated by Ruth Wright Paulsen
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2013 by James Paulsen and Gary PaulsenJacket photographs copyright © by Eric Isselée/Shutterstock (top) and Erik Lam/Shutterstock (bottom).
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division ofRandom House, Inc., New York.
Wendy Lamb Books and the colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Visit us on the Web!randomhouse.com/kidsEducators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us atRHTeachersLibrarians.com
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataPaulsen, Jim. Road trip / by Jim and Gary Paulsen. — 1st ed. p. cm. Summary: A father and son embark on a road trip to a distant animal shelter to save a homeless border collie puppy.eISBN: 978-0-375-98857-8[1. Fathers and sons—Fiction. 2. Automobile travel—Fiction. 3. Border collie—Fiction.4. Dogs—Fiction. 5. Animal shelters—Fiction.] I. Paulsen, Gary. II. Title.PZ7.P28432Ro 2013 [Fic]—dc23 2012014284
Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.
This book is dedicated to
everyone who’s ever
loved and been loved
by a really good dog
(and that includes you,
Debra Kass Orenstein).
And to all the dogs
who make us better people
by their example.
Other Books by This Author
Author’s NoteChapter 1: The PlanChapter 2: The Sucker PunchChapter 3: The Criminal ElementChapter 4: The BusChapter 5: The BrawlChapter 6: The Fiery InfernoChapter 7: The Drag RaceChapter 8: The Big PictureChapter 9: The Bigger PictureChapter 10: The Reason for the TripChapter 11: The Time After
About the AuthorsAuthor’s Note
Working on a book with my son never crossed my mind before this—Jim’s a sculptor, not a writer, and I work alone—but he’s got a great sense of humor and a way of looking at things I’ve always admired.
We talk on the phone nearly every day, and one day he mentioned having gotten a new dog. Like me, he collects strays and gets his dogs from the pound—we take the next one that’s not going to make it and give it a home. We’ve done this forever; our family always has five or six dogs, all ages and sizes and breeds. I can’t recall exactly what he said about how he came to discover that his new dog was in need of a home, but after I hung up the phone, I wrote a section about a father and a son rescuing a homeless dog.
I sent it to him even though I never send him booksI’m working on and the characters didn’t have anything to do with us. A few days later, I got an email from him; he’d written a chapter about the characters on a school bus. I was surprised, but I liked what he’d done, so I added another section and sent it back to him. We never talked about what we were doing or had a conversation about how the story was unfolding. We just wrote and read what the other wrote and then wrote some more. And then our editor came in and tied it all together.
Maybe it’s because we both love dogs that we could work together like this. I’ve written about dogs many times, and those books seem to have become my favorites. Even if it’s not expressly stated or a part of the story line, I always think the characters in my books probably like dogs.
Jim and I lost track when we tried to count how many dogs we’ve owned over the years. But we’ve never lost sight of how much they added to our lives, and we can remember something about every dog we’ve ever known. We always encourage our dogs to expect that we’ll share whatever we’re eating with them, and we remembered the dogs who liked ice cream sandwiches and baby carrots and liverwurst. We can picture what each dog looked like sleeping and how some tucked into tight balls burying their noses under their tails while others slept on their backs, paws in the air, and still others slept with their legs out to the side like anEwithoutthe middle stick. We remember their games and their tricks and how, as a rule of thumb, dogs don’t seem to enjoy practical jokes or being snuck up on. We recalled their births and deaths and how the world turns a different, brighter, softer color when a litter of puppies is born and then dims slightly when you have to say good-bye to an old friend.
Dogs never lie or cheat, and their default setting is love. Some may seem grumpy, but all dogs have honor, humor, and dignity, and if you’re really lucky and you pay attention, they will bring out those same characteristics in you.The Plan
“Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Because I’m your father and I said so.”
“That’s really lame.”
“But it works. We’re going.”
“That’s what I thought.” I lean against the pickup in our driveway and watch Dad shove the road atlas in the glove box without even looking at it.
Checking freeway numbers and plotting a route beforehand would be too traditional for him—he knows which direction he’s heading and how to find the main freeway out of town; he’ll figure out how he’s getting where he’s going when he’s closer to getting there. That’s how he rolls.
I don’t roll like that, but I usually wind up going along for the ride. This time, literally.
Dad’s always coming up with ideas for things for us to do together—rock climbing, sculpting class, fencing lessons, poetry slams, white-water river-rafting camping trips, helping the librarians organize a protest against censorship during National Library Month, ATV riding, and a photography class we took at the community center last year.
You’d think I’d be used to his spur-of-the-moment plans by now. But the clock on the dash says it’s 5:17 a.m., and I didn’t expect to be up this early on the first day of summer vacation. Dad shook me awake a few minutes ago and pulled me out to the driveway, talking nonstop: “We have to get on the road, now, right now, this very minute. Hurry up, Ben, we’re burning daylight. We gotta hit the road.”
I yawn, rub the sleep out of my eyes, and smile as I remember the rest of what Dad said. “There’s a border collie pup who needs us. I just got an email from someone in the rescue group. We’re going to bring him home.”
We already have a border collie, Atticus, and we foster them sometimes when they’re between homes, so I know how awesome they are. I love all dogs, even if they’re ugly or yippy or they drool all the time or snort and wheeze. I even like the old, fat, waddly ones who can’t control their pee. But border collies are extra special.They’re not like dogs. They’re more like control freaks with paws. They’ve been bred to herd sheep for generations, and even if they haven’t been born and raised on a sheep farm, border collies are always trying to keep everyone in their world in check. Another border collie is definitely a good idea for someone like Dad. And maybe this one will like me best. Atticus has always preferred Dad, even though he tries to pretend not to. I can’t really blame him; Atticus was part of the family before I was.
“Gimme fifteen minutes so I can get packed.” I start back for the house.
“Packed? You’re not making a grand tour of the capitals of Europe, you know. Couple days, there and back. I already threw skivvies and a toothbrush and a clean T-shirt and shorts in a paper bag for you. A sweatshirt, too. You’re good to go.”
I look at the crumpled bag he’s tossed on the floor of the truck. I’m not at all sure that’s everything I might need, even if it is just a two-day trip like he promises. I start a mental list: snacks, bottled water, a book, my iPod and the charger, my laptop, sunglasses, sunscreen …
Dad guesses what I’m thinking. “Travel light, Ben, so you can move fast.”
He won’t even let me brush my teeth or take a shower before we leave. I sleep in gym shorts and a T-shirt, so he considers me dressed. He does let me slip on a pair offlip-flops and grab my phone and charger from the kitchen counter.
He’s revving the engine and has started edging away from the garage, so I hop in the truck and slam the door as he whips down the driveway in reverse. The house is a blur as we leave.
“How do you think Atticus is going to deal?” I tip my head toward our fifteen-year-old border collie sitting between us on the seat. He’s staring holes through the windshield as if he’s responsible for memorizing the route and is making note of landmarks and directions.
I’m not sure how Atticus will react to a new dog in the family, because I don’t think he considers himself a dog. I get the feeling Atticus believes he’s more of a person than a pet. He’s old and kind of crabby. Plus, he ignores other dogs if they approach him. So I’m a little worried about how he’s going to live with a new puppy.
Dad laughs. “Oh, he’ll hate it. But they’ll work it out.”
That’s his motto, I think: It’ll work out. I pull out my phone and take a quick picture of Dad and Atticus in profile. Ever since our photography class, I take a lot of pictures and post them on my Facebook page.
“What did Mom say when you told her we were taking off?” Mom runs a tight ship and is very organized, but she’s a lot more flexible than a border collie, so itmakes sense that I’d have worried about Atticus’s reaction before I thought about how Mom would take it.
“I’m going to stop by Colonel Munchies on the way out of town.” He screeches around a corner and jerks the truck to a stop in the parking lot. He jumps out and says, “I’ll just call your mother while I’m grabbing supplies.”
Ah. He didn’t tell Mom.
She probably wouldn’t have been happy that we were taking a trip before we cleaned the gutters and painted the garage. So I’m pretty sure Dad’s timed the call, hoping Mom will be in the shower before she goes to work so he can leave a message. But I bet she woke up and realized we were gone and she’s been sitting at the kitchen table ever since, drumming her fingers and waiting for the phone to ring.
For a second I’m worried that Mom might put an end to our puppy rescue, or at least delay it until we get the stuff on her chore list checked off. But then I see Dad stagger out of the convenience store, loaded down with enough junk to keep us fed halfway across the continent, and he nearly drops the phone as he flashes me a thumbs-up. Nice. Dad’s good at getting people to see things from his perspective. Plus, Mom loves dogs as much as Dad and I do, so getting her to say okay to the puppy was a no-brainer. Our sudden exit was the onlywild card. Mom and I aren’t as good with the unexpected as Dad would like us to be.
Atticus makes a noise like a snort. He’s watching Dad on the phone. He cocks his head and flattens one of his ears, skeptical.
And Dad’s not so good at getting border collies to see things from his perspective.ATTICUS
I wasn’t paying full attention when the boss and my boy were talking before we left. They were near the truck and the only thing on my mind was getting in the front seat before they left without me. They forget sometimes and try to drive off without me. When that happens, I sulk. Sometimes I chew a sock. Not a good one, but the next time, they think twice about forgetting me.
The boss is driving too fast. He always does when he’s excited. And my boy has no idea what’s really going on. I do, though, and I’m worried.
Plus, I don’t want a dog. Getting a dog is a terrible idea. Dogs are not my favorite thing. Dogs are messy and needy.
The boy should have a dog, I suppose, because boys like dogs. But dogs are a lot of work, and I just know this one will not understand the pecking order at home.
Maybe they’ll forget about getting a dog. The boss does forget things. That’s why I always have to remind him to take me in the truck.The Sucker Punch
Dad hops in the driver’s seat after stowing supplies in the backseat of the cab. Instead of roaring out of the parking lot to hit the highway, he turns to face me and clears his throat.
“Ben,” he says in a voice I don’t recognize and that makes me a little sick to my stomach. “I have something to tell you.”
“Uh-huh.” I nod, though I’m sure something really bad is about to be dumped on me. Good news never needs that serious tone.
“I quit my job yesterday.”
It’s funny how five little words can make you go numb all over. I hold my breath, waiting for him to continue. And, I hope, get to the good part.
“I can’t continue existing as a soulless midlevel corporate drone.” He talks like he thinks I’ll understand.
“Well, no, I guess that’s not right,” I say cautiously.
“I was suffocating behind a desk.” This is news to me, but I nod as if I get where he’s going. “I needed to get out in the real world and start working with my hands.”
“I’ve started my own business.”
“You did?” I struggle to remember exactly what it is Dad does for a living; weird how you never really pay attention to the things that matter, isn’t it? He’s a vice president in charge of, um … something for an insurance company. Mutual Fidelity Unlimited. I know that much because of all the pens lying around our house with the company name on them.
“Yes. Flipping houses.”
“Excuse me?” I look at the clock again: 5:47 a.m. This is a pretty big change to take in before six in the morning. Has so much news ever come my way in such a short amount of time? We’re going on a road trip and getting a new dog; Dad quit his job and is starting a new business called flipping. I’m a little dizzy and glad I’m sitting down.
“Buy low, renovate, sell high. It’s a no-brainer.”
“Oh.” I think. “You’re going to remodel houses? Like that show on TV?” That’s scary. Dad can fix or build anything, but he’s not great at finishing. I flash on ourgarage, which is packed with half-completed projects. Mom and Dad have to park in the driveway.
“Not remodel. Renovate.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Civic responsibility and making the world a better place, one crummy neighborhood at a time. The plan is, I’ll go into a run-down area and buy a house in rough shape. After I renovate, not only will I provide some family a top-of-the-line new home and make a profit, but I’ll have raised the market value of the entire neighborhood at the same time.”
“What do you mean, ‘crummy neighborhood’?”
“I bought our first place over on Fifteenth and Humboldt.”
“You bought a crack house.” I know that intersection from the news: a police car crashed through a wall during a drug raid.
“Webought a crack house.” Dad beams. “Duffy and Son, that’s our company name. Nice, right? Oh, and for legal purposes, it’s a formerallegedcrack house.”
“Well, that makes all the difference,” I say, rolling my eyes. And wait just a minute here: “Youalreadybought it?”
“I had to move fast to get it.”
“Yeah, I bet formerallegedcrack houses are very popular.” Dad always thinks everything needs to happen fast.
“I was sure you’d be more excited about this. I was counting on your support.”
Fat chance. “Does Mom know?”
“She’s not happy.”
“Define ‘not happy.’ ”
“Your mother’s problem is that she’s looking at this from the wrong angle, son.”
“What’s the angle she should be looking from?” I hope he tells me something amazing enough to make the rising panic go away.
“That this is the start of a brand-new chapter in our lives.”
I feel worse. He’s delusional.
“Good chapters hardly ever start with houses where drugs have been sold,” I point out.
“That’s what makes this so cool—it’s completely unexpected.”
“We can finally agree on something.”
“The future is ours, Ben. There’s no limit to what we can do with this opportunity.”
“Where’d you get the money?” The other day Mom said we couldn’t stretch the budget to afford the new laptop I want. Lately we’re eating more leftovers and she runs around turning off lights in empty rooms. She’s been trying to talk to Dad about the bills over dinner, but he puts her off. They don’t think I notice that he’s been sleeping in the guest room lately.
Dad’s phone rings. He looks down and tilts it toward me so I can see Mom’s picture and phone number on his screen. The second he hits the answer button, I hear her: “… getting ahead of yourself … wish you had told me first …”
Dad shrugs and starts to get out of the truck to take the call. Before he shuts the door, I hear him tell her, “We’ll work it out.”
I wonder if Mom’s stomach is as jumpy and tight as mine.
Okay, I never gave much thought to what Dad did for a living or whether it made him happy. Still, the fact that he quit his job and bought a crack house to fix up is a little terrifying. And kind of selfish.
I watch him pacing in the Colonel Munchies parking lot, phone to his ear. He’s doing a whole lot of listening. When he catches my eye, he makes his right hand into a beak and taps his fingers and thumb together so I understand: Mom is talking his ear off. He gestures at me to take the phone. I shake my head; no way am I getting in the middle. Even though I’m curious to hear what she has to say.
I grab a half-empty bag of red licorice from the dash, and Atticus and I share breakfast while we wait for our folks to figure this one out.
I adjust the radio to a news station. We listen to international events: same old, same old—economic sanctions,military invasions, overthrown governments. “By comparison, our day is relatively peaceful. It’s all a matter of perspective,” I explain to Atticus. He yawns and looks unimpressed by my wisdom. “Yeah, you’re right,” I admit. “When you have to compare your day to wars and market collapses in order to find the upside, you aren’t in good shape.” We each chew another piece of licorice and watch Dad head back to the truck.
He climbs into the cab, a big phony grin pasted on. “She thinks a road trip is a great idea.”
Sure, she does: Mom likes her space when she’s mad, and I bet she’s mad enough to hope Dad stays on the road all summer.
I’m a little surprised she didn’t insist he bring me back home. Even for Dad, this business idea and sudden trip is off the rails.
“Uh, one more thing,” Dad says in the voice that makes my stomach do that alley-oop thing. I wish I hadn’t just snarfed all that licorice. I might spew it all over the inside of the windshield. Depending on what he says. “We’re going to have to live close to the bone for a while. Until the profits start flowing in.”
“And …?” This affects me how? is what I’m thinking, but that’s too selfish to say.
“We might have to cancel hockey camp next month.”
He didnotjust say that.
We’ve been talking about hockey camp since I wasfive years old and got my first pair of skates. I’m finally good enough to hold my own with the other players on the A squad, and I pulled straight As all year. That was the deal: when I turn fourteen, if I get the grades, then I can go to hockey camp for six weeks.
“I know you’re bummed, and it kills me to even think I might have to let you down, but for the time being, even with your mom working and me putting everything I’ve got into the new business to make it a success, there’s a possibility I might not have the cash in time to send you.”
“Mom would never let me down like this. What did she say about hockey camp?”
“She agrees that we can’t afford it right now.”
“So neither of you care that I killed myself to get those grades. For nothing.”
No wonder Mom didn’t make me come back home. She didn’t want to face me after breaking her promise.
“You have to look at the bright side: there’s still a chance everything will work out.”
“How big a chance?”
He ignores my question. “And it’s definite that you can go next summer. You’ll be able to goeverysummer once the business starts turning the kind of profit I know it will.”
“Our deal wasthissummer.” Even I can hear how whiny I sound. Too bad; he deserves it.
“You’ll work with me. It’ll be great. No one else you know is going into business renovating houses with their dad.”
“I don’t build houses. I play hockey.”
“That’s why we’re going on this trip—to spend some quality time together, talk about the business, and get you the dog.”
“You think a dog is going to make up for missing hockey camp?”
“A dog makes up for everything.”
“Not even close.” I feel disloyal to Atticus saying that, but I’ve never felt so … resentful.
Atticus, who’s sitting between Dad and me, is looking back and forth as we speak. He can tell something bad is happening—his ears are back and he’s panting a little.
Dad’s still talking but I’ve stopped listening, I’m so mad. The ice is the only place I feel comfortable, and my teammates are the best friends I have. They’re all going to camp. The summer is going to be miserable and lonesome. Nothing to do, no one to hang out with.
Dad’s voice changes and I start listening again. “I hate to say it, Ben, but I’m a little disappointed in your attitude.”
“You’redisappointed?” That’s rich. My parents double-cross me and he criticizes me for being bitter.
Before I can ask him how I’m supposed to tell myteam that I’m not going to camp with them like I said, Mom calls. Again. This time he waits until he gets out of the truck and shuts the door before he answers.
This trip stinks like rotten eggs and untreated sewage and little green olives with the red things stuffed inside. The last thing I want to do is be stuck in a pickup with my dad for two days. But watching him talk to Mom on the phone, I realize I’d be more miserable at home with her, because she’s mad at Dad and worried about money and would make me paint the garage.
At least I’ll get my own border collie if I go with Dad. I’ve been wanting that—a dog that belongs just to me—for a long time. I have a list of possible names: Zamboni, Puck, Carom, Stanley …
And nothing says I have to talk to him or listen to him tell me about the business. I’ll go, but I won’t like it. No reason to be on my best behavior if hockey camp is out of the picture. And no matter how many maybes or mights he throws in, my gut tells me I’m not going.
I glance out the window and snap a picture of Dad talking on the phone—I might as well photograph all the elements of this trip—when I see the clerk from the store come out to grab a smoke. He looks kind of rough around the edges, like Theo.
I’m glad the boss and my boy were talking. But I don’t think my boy wants to talk to the boss anymore. Then it will be too quiet in the truck and the boss will play outlaw country music on the radio loud and my ears will hurt. It’s better when they talk.
Talking is always a good thing.
Even the new house is a good thing.
I saw the house the boss bought. And I saw the way his eyes smiled and his shoulders lifted when he walked through it. I don’t know why he didn’t try harder to tell my boy that he bought the house three months ago. Or that he worked on it at night and on the weekends and it’s for sale and there’s an offer already. The boss can’t stand sitting around waiting to see if it works out, and that’s why we’re going on a trip.
The boy didn’t notice that the boss was always gone and always tired.
I noticed.The Criminal Element
Theo’s a guy I know from school. He should have graduated this year, but he’s missing a few credits. Our guidance counselors hooked us up because I’m a volunteer tutor and Theo needed someone to help him stay focused. I don’t actually tutor him, since he’s a few years ahead of me. We just get together to study. It must be working, because he’ll graduate next semester.
When I first met him, he scared the crap out of me—he’s got a shaved head and an eyebrow piercing. I’d heard about him around school. They weren’t the kind of stories that scream future study buddy.
Getting to know Theo is one of the coolest things that ever happened to me.
I do all right for myself, friend-wise, but no one’s knocking people down to hang out with me. Or theyweren’t until word got out that Theo and I were tight. My stock rose after his street cred rubbed off on me. That’s what I like to think. I noticed a lot more people sitting at my lunch table after everyone heard I was friends with Theo, and the guys on my hockey team keep asking if Theo’s going to come to a game. This is what friends of rock stars and professional athletes must feel like.
Plus, Theo’s just cool. No one else I know can talk about the subtext and dramatic irony of the play he’s readingandthe community standards for curfew violations and truancy. He’s been in some trouble, but he’s a good guy. Atticus loved him right off the bat.
Dad got a bad first impression of Theo when he overheard me telling my friend Todd that Theo had told me one of his buddies had been picked up for vandalism. Dad thought I was talking about Theo. He calls Theo “the hoodlum.” I never bothered to correct him, because I liked the idea that Dad thought I was hanging out with a juvenile delinquent. Besides, Dad hasn’t been around much lately.
Theo is exactly what this trip needs.
I dial his number. Theo picks up on the fifth ring, drops the phone, swears a blue streak, and says, “Five-fifty-six. In. The. Morning. This better be good.”
“Sorry about the time. It’s Ben. Got two words for you: Road. Trip.” As part of his “I’m really serious aboutgraduating” plan, Theo has been doing nothing but studying for months, and he’s itching to taste freedom now that summer vacation has started. He lives with his older brother. I don’t know where his parents are, so it’s not like his folks are going to say no. Theo says his brother’s only rule is “Don’t smoke in the house.”
“When do we leave?”
“We’re on our way. Swing by your place in five.”
“Good to go, dude.”
I love Theo. I really do.
Dad does not. Which is what makes Theo essential for the trip.
The second Dad opens the truck door, I blurt out, “Theo’s coming with us.”
Dad doesn’t say a word, just rests his forehead on the steering wheel. Welcome to my world, Dad. Now we’re both miserable.
“How about a different friend? What about Todd? Let’s bring Todd. Todd doesn’t have a record and I’ve never seen his butt crack because his pants hang down too low, and Todd doesn’t scare old ladies and little girls at the mall. Let’s give Todd a call and drop the Theo idea. Whaddaya say?”
“Is it even legal for him to leave town? Won’t his electronic ankle bracelet go off and alert the cops, put him in violation of some court-ordered restriction?”
“You exaggerate. Theo might seem rough, but he doesn’t have an ankle bracelet and he’s expecting us. We should get going.” I point to the clock. “Weren’t you the one in the big hurry?”
I can tell Dad wants to argue, but he’s dying to get on the road.
“Fine.” He slams the truck into gear, zips onto the road, and floors it. “But I am not—repeat not—posting bail for that kid if he robs a convenience store or mugs a senior citizen along the way.”
“Understood. I don’t think theft is his thing anyway.” Dad flinches. I smile. “Take a right here. Third apartment building on the left.”
Theo’s standing on the street corner, smoking. He flips the butt away as Dad pulls up next to him, and climbs into the cab. Even though it’s a big interior and Theo’s in the backseat, his nicotine fug is gagging. Atticus wrinkles his nose and sneezes. Theo’s taking off his jacket. He’s wearing a sleeveless T-shirt. Excellent. No way Dad’ll miss the homemade tat on Theo’s arm. I turn to snap his picture and Theo flexes his bicep so that the tattoo really pops.
“Ben.” Theo pounds my back as we pull away from the curb. “Ben’s dad—how’s it hangin’?” Awesome. Disrespectful to Dad and a bad influence on me in five words.
“You can call me Mr. Duffy.” Dad’s gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles are white. Thismight not be a totally horrible trip after all. I open a bag of barbecue chips and settle in.
“Can I smoke?” Theo asks.
“No,” Dad says. “Not in the truck, not on the trip, not in front of my son.”
“Got it. You one of those health nuts?”
“Just opposed to carcinogens.”
“Sure.” Theo shrugs and I’m a little disappointed he doesn’t put up more of a struggle.
I hand Theo the bag of chips to take his mind off the nicotine fit he might be having and he starts crunching away. I pass back a can of soda, hoping he’s the kind of guy who does big burps. That’ll slay Dad. But Theo isn’t a belcher.
“So, Theo,” Dad says suddenly and in such a relaxed and friendly tone that I glance over in surprise. He winks at me, his Mr. Insurance Salesman, I’m-your-best-buddy wink. I bet he learned it at a convention. It means he’s trying to work the situation to his advantage. He’s probably hoping he can charm a confession out of Theo that will justify dumping him on the side of the road. I hope Theo hasn’t got that kind of confession in him. I’m not sure how much of a past he’s jammed into eighteen years. He doesn’t like to talk about himself. “Tell me about school. Ben says you’re really pulling your grades up.”
That’s an exaggeration. Theo passed all his springcourses, but his GPA isn’t anything to get excited about. And I’ve never talked to Dad about Theo’s grades. I don’t have a good feeling about this. Theo is supposed to make Dad’s head explode trying to put up with him, not become his new best friend.
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I stopped screwing around and got serious about school.” Theo is obviously trying to impress. Dad nods, obviously impressed.
Man,nothingis going my way this morning.
“Impressive,” Dad says. “What about after you graduate?”
“I’m planning to go to a community college to take care of my prereqs and get some decent grades. Then I’ll be able to apply to the university.” Dad’s nodding like crazy, which is all the encouragement Theo needs to continue: “My guidance counselor said that with a GPA and a history like mine, that’s the best plan. If I had known I was going to have to bust my butt this hard, I’d have taken high school more seriously, not skipped so many classes and so much homework, not to mention all the other stuff I pulled.”
I knew Theo probably wasn’t the kind of person who’d wind up in the middle of a street fight or the back of a cop car like Dad thinks. But I had no idea he could charm a parent this way.
My phone buzzes. Mom. I let her go to voice mailand then text her the picture of Theo’s tattoo with the message “We’re bringing my friend Theo.” Mom’s not as freaked as Dad about Theo, but he’s not her favorite person.
“Got a job lined up?” Dad and Theo are still mapping out Theo’s future.
“Not yet, but I’ll have to find work because there aren’t any scholarships for a guy with grades like mine.”
“I’m glad you came with,” Dad tells Theo, grinning at me with an evil look in his eye. “Ben wanted to ask Todd, but I encouraged him to invite you instead.”
Atticus barks. Sounds like “Liar” to me.
“So, what’s the story with this trip?” Theo asks.
“Going to rescue a dog,” Dad answers.
“Cool. I like dogs. Why take a road trip to get a dog, though? Can’t you pick one up around here?”
“This one needs us.” Dad hands Theo his phone. “Read the email I got. Read it out loud. So Ben can hear it.”
“ ‘This six-month-old border collie was found on the side of the freeway, skinny and dehydrated, his paw pads scraped and raw from the asphalt. Due to overcrowding, it’s urgent we find a home for him as soon as possible.’ Wow. Rough start for the little guy.”
“You can say that again,” Dad says. “I had border collies when I was growing up. One saved my life, pulledme out of the street, kept me from getting hit by a car when I was a kid. Promised myself I’d never be without a border collie.”
“Oh, hey, a picture.” Theo holds it up for me to see.
Border collies, I swear, can smile, and this one has a big dopey grin that breaks me right down the middle. Especially to think that such a sweet pup had been dumped and left to fend for himself.
Theo’s still reading: “ ‘Approximately four million dogs and cats are put down each year because of overpopulation.’ Man, I had no idea.…”
I swipe at my burning eyes and glare at Dad. “I’m making this trip for the dog; spending time with you isn’t going to fix anything between us.”
“How long are we going to be gone and where are we headed?” Theo ignores the bad vibes between Dad and me. “I left a note for my brother that I was taking off with you guys; I should text him a few details.”
“A couple days, there and back,” Dad answers.
“Don’t let him fool you. We’ll be lucky to roll back into town by Labor Day,” I snort.
“Ben thinks I’m too impulsive to be trusted on a road trip,” Dad says.
“Well,” I say, “maybe it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if you’d prepared a little before taking off.”
“Get the truck serviced?”
“The truck runs fine. It’s just a simple trip. It’s almost boring.”
I feel a shiver run down my back. Dad is lots of things, but he’s never boring. I hope I’m wrong to be worried. There’s nothing I can do about it anyway except buckle my seat belt and hope for the best. I sit back and throw an arm around Atticus. He looks out the window like he’s the one driving.
“Yup.” Dad takes a swig of water from the bottle in the cup holder. “Nothing but smooth sailing from here on in.”ATTICUS
I wonder what the cat is doing right now. If I’m not around, he sharpens his claws on the side of the couch. I’m the only one who gets upset. I’m not allowed to bite—the people yell if I so much as snap at the cat—but I bare my teeth and the cat knows I mean business. He’s probably sleeping in the sink, which I never allow, or sitting on the kitchen table licking the butter, which they always forget to put back in the fridge after breakfast unless I sit by the table and bark to remind them.
A dog is going to be a lot of work for me.
Maybe we’ll keep the smoky-smelling big boy Theo, instead, and forget all about the new dog. He’s keeping the boss and my boy talking. And he reached up and scratched the itch for me when he saw that I couldn’t quite reach the right spot behind my ear with my back paw. He’s good people. I can tell.
My boy thinks Theo doesn’t care that he’s not getting along with the boss. He does, though. I felt him tense up when they were talking even though he pretended not to see what was going on. He knows. I know that he knows.The Bus
“Yup. You done thrown a rod.”
“That sounds bad.”
“Well, it ain’t good, mister. This here truck is in terrible shape.”
I glance at Dad from the other side of the open hood. We’re all staring down at the engine. We’ve barely left home and we’re already standing in a garage with a busted truck, which makes me feel hopeful that the universe has stepped in and put an end to Ben’s Quality Time with Dad.
“To call you three candybutts would be an insult to stupid folks,” the mechanic says like we’ve gone and ruinedhistruck. “Dummies like you drive their trucks into the ground. Hopeless. I seen a lotta nimrods like you. Always come when it’s too late and then whine andcomplain about how much it’s gonna cost. If you’da took care a your vehicle, you wouldn’t a wound up with your bottoms in a sling like this, but you can’t tell anyone anything these days.”
Theo and I exchange a look and then he slides between me and the mechanic. Does he think the guy is going to take a swing at me or Dad for not taking care of the truck and that he needs to protect me? He might have a sixth sense about upcoming fights. And he probably knows I’m not really good with, um, conflict. Unless it’s on the ice. Then I’m fierce. Not so much without a stick and all that padding.
“You sure it’s that serious?” Dad asks, not seeming to notice that the guy’s called him an idiot ten different ways.
“Of course I’m sure. I’ve had my head inside engines since I was old enough to stand on a wooden crate and look under the hood, and I been running this here garage since dirt was a fresh idea. I know everything there is to know about engines and a few things ain’t been invented yet. When I say you done thrown a rod, you can take it to the bank: you done thrown a rod.”
“We were making such good time.” Dad shakes his head.
“Yeah,” I say in my most sarcastic voice. “Nearly twenty miles before the truck broke down.”
The mechanic—the patch on his shirt readsGus—glares at Dad. “You know you ain’t gonna go no further than that twenny miles for a right long time, don’tcha?”
“I got the feeling we were in for a delay when the truck started sounding like someone was hitting an empty aluminum garbage can with a hammer.”
“How long will it take to repair?” I hold my breath.
“It’s not a repair. I gotta rebuild the whole engine.”
This is just like what Dad said about his flipping business. No one canfixanything anymore; they’re all aboutcompletely redoing.
Gus keeps talking: “This ain’t no tune-up. I’m gonna hafta put in new crankshafts and rod bearings, maybe pistons. Lots of times the whole thing has to be rebored. We’re talking new rings, at least. Gonna have to order the parts first, which might take as long as a few weeks. Can’t keep everything I might ever need on hand, ya know.”
“Weeks?” I try not to look as happy as I feel. We can have the dog shipped to us, since Dad and I won’t be bonding on the road. And maybe I can go stay at Theo’s or Todd’s until Mom and Dad settle things. Or until school starts next fall. Whichever comes first.
“Sucky news. We’re going to pick up a border collie and I was kind of looking forward to meeting the little dude,” Theo tells Gus.
“One a them black an’ white dogs that herd sheep?”
Theo nods and jerks his head toward Atticus in the cab, looking out the window, pretending we’re not here.
“Is that dog ignoring us?” Gus looks surprised.
“Probably. He’s annoyed. I don’t think he was too happy with the noise the truck made,” I answer.
Gus chuckles. “He’s embarrassed by what a fool yer dad is with vehicles.” He snorts. “Smart critter. Why’d ya want another one if ya already got that one?”
“We’re on a border collie rescue list. When one’s been abandoned or needs a home, there’s a bunch of us on a national email list who’ll take them in. Atticus, in the truck, was a rescue dog once.”
Atticus, as if knowing we’re talking about him, turns his head and pretends to notice the mechanic for the first time.
“That there dog is sizin’ me up, ain’t he?”
“Looks like he’s barin’ his teeth, but I know what a smile looks like. I like to see a smile now and again. Even if it does come from a dog. Nice fella.”
“Once you get to know him.”
“What happens to those dogs if you rescue people don’t step in?”
“At most places, dogs only have so long to find a home or they’re put down.”
“Don’t like the sound a that. I never had a dog myself, but that’s not right.”
“Our family fosters border collies; we keep them for a while till they find homes. This one, though—we’re keeping him. He’s mine.”
Gus nods and starts to say something, but he’s cut off by an awful noise.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep. BEEEEEEEEEEEP. Someone’s punching a car horn. We jump in surprise. I look next to me: no Dad. He’d gone poking around Gus’s lot while we were talking. He’s nosy; I should have expected he’d wander off and explore. I sigh and follow Gus and Theo as they head around to the back of the garage. Atticus climbs out of the truck and ambles alongside me. His head is down; like me, he’s not looking forward to seeing what Dad’s gotten into.
Dad is sitting behind the wheel of an old school bus. He stops honking when he sees us and waves.
“Took that bus in trade a while back. Didn’t know what I was gonna do with it besides start a mighty fine rust collection, but who can pass up havin’ their own personal bus?” Gus tells Theo and me.
“Very cool.” Theo and I speak at the same time.
“I made it hum like it was brand-new.”
“Did you need to get a special driver’s license?” Theo asks.
“Yeah, never drove it, though. Where’m I gonna drive a bus?”
“Too bad,” Theo says. “I bet it’s a sweet ride.”
“Always meant to take it out, never got round to it.”
Dad comes bouncing out of the bus, grinning from ear to ear.
“I get the feelin’ I’m gonna hafta keep an eye on yer old man,” Gus tells me. “Worse than a bull in a china shop. Not the kind of guy ya wanna trust with too much rope, because sooner than later you’re gonna feel it trippingyouup.”
“Yeah, pretty much.” How did he manage to understand so much about Dad so quick?
“I’m a good judge of people, if I do say so. Got to be when you work for yourself like I do here. Can’t afford to misread a fella.” Gus reminds me of Atticus.
Gus, Atticus, and I watch Dad and Theo walk around the bus, kicking tires like either of them knows anything about it.
“We’ll take this as a loaner while you’re fixing our truck,” Dad calls.
“The heck you will. I’d never let a complete stranger who can’t take care of his own vehicle borrowmybus.”
“I’ve always wanted to drive a bus,” Dad says. “Even got my license for it a few years back. This is way better than the pickup. It’s a statement: we support educationandborder collie rescue. What’s the gas mileage on athing like this? It’ll be mostly freeway driving, once we get out of here.”
“Is he hard a hearin’?” Gus asks me. I shake my head. “No,” he says loudly in Dad’s direction.
“We can put a banner in the rear window:BORDER COLLIE OR BUST.”
“You can come with.” That’s my voice. Dad looks at me and beams. Even Theo smiles. Gus studies the ground. I’m the only one who seems surprised I spoke up. What was I thinking? This breakdown was my ticket home.
“No one can ever say I don’t pull my weight,” Gus says. “I work seven days a week. You don’t work, you don’t eat. Don’t believe in namby-pamby stuff like trips. No.” He shakes his head, but he’s still looking down, thinking.
Atticus leans against his leg to be petted. Gus ruffles Atticus’s ears and nods. Makes up his mind.
“All right. Someone’s gotta be there to check the oil. Make sure you get to that dog in time. And I don’t like the thought of you two boys in the care of a man who doesn’t look after his vehicle. Lemme get my toolbox and lock up.”
We introduce ourselves as we collect our stuff from the pickup and climb into the bus. Gus tosses Dad the key, but sits where he can keep an eye on him, toolboxon his lap. Theo and I flop down across the aisle from each other. Atticus stands in the door and stares at Gus.
“Yer dog’s lookin’ at me like I’m settin’ in the spot got his name on it, but I ain’t movin’,” Gus tells me.
Atticus grunts, real put out, but he jumps onto the seat ahead of me. Dad turns the ignition, grinding the starter.
“Turn it. Let it go. What’s so hard about that?” Gus growls at Dad.
Dad tries gently and the engine purrs.
“Touch a motor right, she sings for ya.” Gus tips his head, listening.
Even Atticus seems to sigh and settle back.
Dad adjusts the mirrors and studies the dashboard. Slowly, he backs up a few feet. Getting the feel of the bus, carefully maneuvering it between the cars up on blocks and piles of old batteries and tires, backing up and easing forward a little at a time. He gets the bus pointed toward the street without driving over or crashing into anything.
“If I can fix anything, this fella can drive anything,” Gus says. “He’s got the touch.”
Dad turns onto the street without running over the curb. Then he guns the engine and we’re smoking down the road.
Gus throws back his head and laughs. “Well, all right, then.”
Theo and I high-five.
We watch Dad weave through city streets and get on the highway. Atticus moves over to sit with Gus, and I take their picture. Atticus smiles. Gus doesn’t. I take a photo of Theo, too, even though what I get is him flipping me the bird.
I take a self-portrait. No photo of Dad. I text the picture of Gus to Mom. “We made a new friend after the truck broke down.” She’ll go out of her mind trying to figure out who the stranger is and what happened to the pickup. Excellent.
Like clockwork, Dad’s phone rings.Hecan explain Gus And The Bus to Mom. Dad’s probably going to use up all his minutes this month before lunch.
“Want some popcorn?” I ask Gus, digging through a sack next to me. I’ve got the morning munchies.
“Cheese or caramel?”
“I’ve got both.”
“Snacks are important.” I toss Theo a bag of mini-donuts.
“Amen.” Gus rips into his popcorn.
“How’d you wind up owning a garage?”
“Only thing I’m good at.”
“I’m not sure what I’ll be good at.”
“Well, you’re what, fourteen?”
“Sooner or later you’ll know. Find yourself where you’re supposed to be without noticin’ ya got there.”
Theo speaks up. “Man, I hope so. That sounds like a sweet deal.”
“It ain’t easy; gotta work for it. You a good worker?” Gus is giving Theo a hard stare.
“I am now. Wasn’t always.”
“You two brothers?” Gus asks.
“Friends,” Theo answers. I wish a speech bubble were over his head so I could take a picture of his answer.
Gus bellows, “Yer fool pa is gonna run us off the road he doesn’t stop yappin’ on the phone and start watchin’ the road.”
Dad straightens out the bus and salutes Gus in the mirror.
“Where’s yer ma and why ain’t she here, too?” Gus asks me.
“Why?” I can’t see myself saying “My father spent our savings on some house-flipping/get-rich-quick scheme and I’m not talking to him because he screwed me out of hockey camp and my mom is glad we’re gone.” Especially to a stranger who might think I’m a huge baby for whining.
“Last thing we need is a woman,” Gus says. “This bus is gonna remain woman-free.”ATTICUS
I like the bus. The truck felt crowded with Theo; it’s usually just the boss, the boy, and me. I like having my own seat and being able to walk up and down the aisle and go from side to side looking out the windows. It’s important to be able to see everything all the time.
Maybe we’ll forget about getting a dog and just keep picking up new people. That’s a better idea.
The man who smells like grease acted like he didn’t want to come along, but he did. He got on the bus quick. And he’s looking at my boy and the boss and Theo out of the corners of his eyes when he thinks no one notices. And he smiles a little with his eyes. Not his mouth, but with his eyes, which is always real.The Brawl
“I don’t mean to complain,” I say to Theo, low, “but it seems to me Gus spent a lot of time on the engine and not much on the shocks.” We’ve been on the bus for twenty more miles.
Theo nods. “Yeah, everything inside of me is either sore or bounced to the wrong place. And we just got started.”
“I don’t like what I hear,” Gus says, tipping his head just like Atticus when he’s listening hard.
“Dad’s singing, right?” I call to Gus.
“Our complaining?” Theo guesses.
Gus snaps at Dad, “Pull over. Need to see what’s going on with that engine.”
I haven’t noticed anything. It would take something pretty extreme to catch my attention. The pickupsounded like nails in a blender; the bus just sounds like a dull roar to me. Normal.
Dad takes the first exit and pulls into a strip mall parking lot. Dad and Gus are poking around under the hood before Theo and I hit the ground. We’re stiff from the bouncing, so we walk toward the stores, Atticus at our side. I’m trying not to think how long this trip will take if we only get twenty miles before we have to stop again.
We’re passing a diner just as some guy is being kicked out. His arm is twisted behind his back as he’s propelled out the door. Theo and I dodge as he sprawls across the sidewalk, and we look past him to the person who threw him. It’s a girl. She’s a big girl, but I’m still surprised it’s not a man doing the heave-hoing. Her name tag saysMia, and for the second time this morning, I think how cool it is when people are labeled.
Atticus moves between us and the guy on the ground, and the hair on his neck goes up. He doesn’t bark or even growl, but he drops his head and raises his butt and backs away from the guy, trying to edge us farther away from him by nudging us with his hip.
“Get your filthy mouth out of here, Bobby,” Mia says in a calm voice. “I told you I wouldn’t stand for that.”
Bobby staggers to his feet, about to say something to her when he catches sight of Theo. Theo ducks his face and grabs my arm. Before Theo can drag me away,Bobby takes a swing at him. Theo moves out of range and Bobby’s punch misses him, but the momentum—and Atticus’s nip on his ankle—knocks Bobby off balance and he teeters into Mia.
She slaps both hands on his shoulders and shoves him so hard I swear I see snot come out of his nose when he lands flat on his butt on the sidewalk. He makes a weird sound—I think she’s knocked the wind out of him. His mouth is opening and shutting like he’s a fish in an aquarium. Atticus makes a panting noise that sounds a little like a laugh: “Heh heh heh.”
“I’ve had it with this place,” Mia tells Theo and me. “This is the third loser I’ve had to toss this week and I am over it.”
Bobby gets to his feet, glares at us, and snarls, “This ain’t done.” I think he’s talking to Mia, but he seems to be looking at Theo. Weird. Bobby limps away and the three of us exhale. Mia glances from Bobby to Theo and lifts one eyebrow. Atticus sits down, the fur on his ruff still raised.
“You handled yourself like a pro,” I tell Mia.
“Bouncing bad customers wasn’t in the job description. I can’t take this anymore. I’m quitting. Wait right here.” She storms back into the diner. For some reason, Theo and I do as she says and stay put. I look at him and he shrugs. I pull out my phone and take a picture of Atticus in front of the diner. I wish I’d thought to take apicture of Bobby, but I’m not really an action-cam kind of guy. I point the camera at Theo.
His eyes are locked on his phone. He’s having a text conversation with someone. His thumbs fly and he chews his lip while he waits for the reply. It’s not warm, but he’s started to sweat. I can see dark patches under his arms.
Mia comes flying out. “Okay,that’sdone. Oh my gosh!” She’s looking at me. “You’re bleeding!”
I am? I reach up to touch my face.
“There’s blood! Did Bobby come back and hit you?”
“Oh, uh, no. Um, well, see, stress gives me nosebleeds. Sometimes.”
“He’s barely bleeding; it’s just a few drops.” Theo studies my face. He thinks Mia’s making a big deal over nothing. She puts her arm around my shoulder. I slip an arm around her waist, lean against her. Theo rolls his eyes. Probably wishing he were the one with the bloody nose. I smirk at him as Mia leads me to a bench.
“Here, tip your head back. I’ve got some tissue in my purse.” Mia crams tissue up both my nostrils.
“Nice look.” Now Theo’s the one who smirks. “Let me takeyourpicture.”
I shake my head and snap a picture of the bloody tissue I pull out of my nose.
“Do you know Bobby?” Mia asks Theo. “Looked like he recognized you.”
“He’s someone I used to know, yeah. More like a non-friend of a friend.”
“He didn’t look friendly when he tried to deck you.”
Theo’s phone buzzes and he checks the text, frowns, and shoves the phone back in his pocket. He’s gnawing on his lip.
“Were you guys heading into the diner?” Mia asks.
“No, just stretching our legs. Rest stop,” I tell her.
“Road trip? Cool. Where you headed?”
“We’re on a quest to save a life.”
“Shut. The. Front. Door.” Mia’s mouth is hanging open.
“Yup. There’s a dog who needs our help and we’re going to save him from certain death.” I sound just like Dad. Now I get why he’s like that: I’d say anything to see that look on Mia’s face.
“I love dogs.” As if we couldn’t tell—she’s feeding Atticus a sandwich she pulled out of her bag and not even getting squeamish that he’s drooling all over her foot. “I’m Mia, by the way.”
“I’m Ben, this is Theo, and Atticus is the one slobbering on you.”
“Are you brothers?”
“Friends,” Theo and I answer together. Nice.
“That’s my Dad and Gus.” I point to them still working on the bus.
“You’re going to rescue a dog in a school bus?”
“It’s kind of a long story.” It’s not even lunchtime and my day is already a long story. Geez.
“Did you steal the bus?”
“Um, no, why would you ask?”
“Thatwould be a long story,” she says. “I stole an ATV once. And a small sailboat. And a snowplow.”
“Well, not at the same time. But you can see why I asked if you stole the bus.”
“Ohhhh-kaayyy.” Is this what career thieves or compulsive liars look like? She’s probably eighteen or nineteen, and there’s a lot of her crammed into a little waitress uniform. I count six earrings in the ear facing me, and she’s got purple and green streaks in her hair. Black fingernail polish and red cowboy boots and a ton of noisy bracelets. She’s not pretty, but there’s something about her that makes you keep looking, and the longer you look, the more interesting she is. I’ve never seen anyone like her.
Theo’s checking her out, too. “Did you really just quit your job?”
“Yeah. I should have left months ago. It’s a hostile work environment. Sharkey, he’s the owner, said the uniforms brought in the big tips. He’s the kind of perv who orders the uniforms one size smaller than what the girls tell him. The hem’s always creeping up and there are buttons missing in the front so you’re showing thegoods more than you’d like. Still, he promised that they didn’t allow touching, it’s policy. So when Bobby patted my bottom and said ‘You might as well go out with me because I’m gonna tell everybody we did anyway,’ I’d had enough.”
“What are you gonna do now?” What is with all the up-and-quitting jobs today?
“Follow my dream. This job just paid the bills while I got on my feet.”
“What’s your dream?”
“To be a triple threat.”
The only triple threat I can think of is the football player who can run, pass, and kick. I don’t think that’s what she means, even though she’s, um, hefty enough to hold her own on a football field.
Theo asks, “Singer, dancer, actor?”
“Not the kind in football,” she laughs. I turn red, embarrassed that I thought that a minute ago.
“Are you any good?”
“So far I’m just good at being told ‘You’re not really what we’re looking for’ and ‘Come back when you have more experience.’ ”
“Your dad’s waving at you. Introduce me.” She’s halfway across the parking lot before I can get to my feet. Theo and I jog after her.
“Hi, I’m Mia.” She’s shaking hands with Dad andGus. “These guys just gave me the guts I needed to make a major change.”
“There’s a lot of that going around.” Dad smiles at Mia and raises his eyebrows at me. I look away; it’s cute whenshedoes it.
They’re chatting about chasing dreams; I’m not really paying attention. I’m watching Atticus watch Theo texting. Atticus is sitting with one paw raised and he keeps reaching out to scratch at Theo’s leg. He wants Theo to put the phone away. So do I.
“So, how about I come with?” Mia’s asking Dad and my attention is back on their conversation. “I’d like to help rescue a dog.”
“It ain’t a real bus route, ya know, stoppin’ to pick up people along the way,” Gus grumbles from under the hood. She looks over his shoulder.
“Nice ride. In-line six-cylinder, four-stroke-cycle diesel engine, right?”
“Finally. Someone who knows engines.” He glares at the rest of us. Mia’s in and we all know it. She texts her roommates to let them know she’s going on a quick trip and will be back in a couple of days.
She makes Dad show her his license and she sends his info along to them. She snaps a picture of all of us beside the bus and sends that, too, with our names. “No offense,” she says. “But a girl can’t be too careful these days.” We all nod.
“How do you know about the engine?” I ask Mia.
“I know a little bit about a lot of things. You never know when you’re going to need stuff, so I try to keep my eyes open.”
“We’re not sure how long we’ll be gone,” I try to warn her. “Dad’s not really a planner.” I hope he hears the disgust in my voice even as I hope Mia doesn’t. I wish there was a way to be charming to her and make Dad know I’m mad at him. “We’re supposed to be in a hurry to get there, but I wouldn’t count on it.”
She shrugs. “I can take a couple days. It’ll be a good story. A person in my line of work needs to collect life experiences; makes my art more authentic.”
“Saddle up, then. We’re heading out. Put some ice on that nose,” Dad says to me as he jumps on the bus, Gus, Theo, and Atticus behind him. Mia and I drop into seats as the bus lurches out of the parking lot. Theo hands me a wad of paper napkins filled with ice from the cooler.
I watch Atticus hop onto the seat and lean against Mia as he looks out the window. She puts her arm around him and nuzzles his ear. I take their picture. Mia grabs the phone, studies her image, and makes me take another one she likes better. “Always looking for good head shots,” she tells me. “And a picture with a dog will make me more memorable. He’s very handsome.”
I take a couple of shots of my iced nose and sendthem to Mom. She’s sent a few texts. I press Save without reading them. Maybe later.
Theo’s texting again, chewing on his thumbnail. Gus seems to have fallen asleep. Dad’s singing along with the radio.
I take the ice away from my nose and check for a new leak. I’m good. So I’ve stopped dripping blood and I’m sitting on a school bus talking with a kinda-hot girl who’s just decided to run away with us. I usually have trouble talking to girls. I’m pretty shy and can never think of what to say. Apparently rescuing a dog makes it easy to keep a conversation going. Good to know, though I’m not sure how many times I can use the technique. Probably more than the average person, given how nuts our family is about dogs and saving them from being put down.
“I like you, you’re impulsive,” Mia says.
I glare at the back of Dad’s head. “It kind of runs in the family.”
“You don’t sound happy.”
“Not so much.” Because pretty soon I’ll be quitting good jobs and disappointing kids. It’s a slippery slope, this impulsive thing. And she should talk. She just walked away from her job and got on a bus with a bunch of strangers to rescue a dog.
“You guys have a beautiful aura,” she tells me.
“That’s not something a person hears every day. What’s it mean?”
“You have good energy, I can tell. I’m sensitive to that, and chakras. It’s a gift.”
This is turning into a very weird trip. But a few hours ago, I thought I’d be stuck in the truck listening to Dad, and here we are on a bus with three other people and I’m eight rows away from him with a girl who’s getting prettier all the time. And she’s smiling. At me.ATTICUS
The girl who smells like pancakes and bacon, Mia, points out the cows on the side of the road and then we bark at them. No one else thinks this is a good idea. They’re wrong.
I’m going to have to bare my teeth at Theo and my boy if they look at her that way again. I lifted my lip at them when they hesitated by her seat the last time we stopped for gas, and they got the message and sat behind her. She’s mine. They can talk with her, but they can’t sit next to her.
I’ve seen the Bobby person who tried to hit Theo. My boy and I were taking a book to Theo’s apartment and he was in a car parked at the curb. Waiting. And when Theo answered the door, his shoulders were tense and he kept looking past us. I think Bobby was right when he said it’s not over. Theo knows that and that’s why he keeps texting. Mia knows, too; that’s why she keeps watching Theo.The Fiery Inferno
“Does anyone but me care that we have no idea where we’re going or how long it’s going to take to get there?”
I get a chorus of sleepy no’s. We’ve been on the road for six hours, one speeding ticket, four pit stops, and one drive-thru crisis (Dad wrongly guessed the height of the bus and we took out the lane sign at a hamburger place).
I know we only left home this morning and we’re on a well-traveled interstate, but I have visions of running out of money and gas and being forced to live in the wilderness with Dad. He’ll love it. He’s probably hoping we’ll have to eat small animals we catch with sticks, and strain drinking water through our underpants from puddles on the side of the road.