It was 4:30 am when I woke up and pulled my backpack out from under the bed. I'd spent the last few nights obsessively packing and unpacking and repacking it, making sure I had exactly what I needed and no more: a couple of changes of clothes, Dr. Bronner's castile soap (good for "Shave-Shampoo-Massage-Dental- Soap-Bath," says the label), and a Swiss Army knife that I'd swiped from my dad's desk drawer. A camera. And, of course, my journal, which I carry everywhere.
Oh, and more than fifteen hundred dollars in cash, because I'd been the neighborhood's best babysitter for going on five years now, and I charged accordingly.
Maybe there was a part of me that always knew I was going to split. I mean, why else didn't I blow my money on an iPad and a Vera Wang prom dress, like all the other girls in my class? I'd had that map of the US on my wall for ages, and I'd stare at it and wonder what Colorado or Utah or Michigan or Tennessee is like.
I can't believe it took me as long as it did to get up the guts to leave. After all, I'd watched my mom do it. Six months after my little sister, Carole Ann, died, Mom wiped her red-rimmed eyes and took off. Went back East where she'd grown up, and as far as I know, never looked back.
Maybe the compulsion to run away is genetic. Mom did it to escape her grief. My dad escapes with alcohol. Now I was doing it ... and it felt strangely right. At long last. I could almost forgive Mom for splitting.
I slipped on my traveling clothes and sneakers—saying good-bye to my favorite boots—and hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder, cinching the straps tight. I was going to miss this apartment, this town, this life, like an ex-con misses his jail cell, which is to say: Not. At. All.
My dad was asleep on the ugly living room couch. It used to have these pretty pink flowers on it, but now they look sort of brownish orange, like even fabric plants could die of neglect in our apartment. I walked right by and slipped out the front door.
My dad gave a small snort in his sleep, but other than that, he never even stirred. In the last few years, he'd gotten pretty used to people leaving. Would it really matter if another member of the Moore family disappeared on him?
Out in the hallway, though, I paused. I thought about him waking up and shuffling into the kitchen to make coffee. He'd see how clean I'd left it, and he'd be really grateful, and maybe he'd decide to come home from work early and actually cook us a family dinner (or a what's-left-of-the-family dinner). And then he'd wait for me at the table, the way I'd waited so many nights for him, until the food got cold.
Eventually, it would dawn on him: I was gone.
A dull ache spread in my chest. I turned and went back inside.
Dad was on his back, his mouth slightly open as he breathed, his shoes still on. I put out a hand and touched him lightly on the shoulder.
He wasn't a horrible father, after all. He paid the rent and the grocery bill, even if it was me who usually did the shopping. When we talked, which wasn't often, he asked me about school and friends. I always said everything was great, because I loved him enough to lie. He was doing the best he could, even if that best wasn't very good.
I'd written about eight hundred drafts of a good-bye note. The Pleading One: Please try to understand, Dad, this is just something I have to do. The Flattering One: It's your love and concern for me, Dad, that give me the strength to make this journey. The Literary One: As the great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." And I want to go create myself, Dad. The Pissy One: Don't worry about me, I'm good at taking care of myself. After all, I've been doing it since Mom left. In the end, though, none of them seemed right, and I'd thrown them all away.
I bent down closer. I could smell beer and sweat and Old Spice aftershave.
"Oh, Daddy," I whispered.
Maybe there was a tiny part of me that hoped he'd wake up and stop me. A small, weak part that just wanted to be a little girl again, with a family that wasn't sick and broken. But that sure wasn't going to happen, was it?
So I leaned in and kissed my father on the cheek. And then I left him for real.
Robinson was waiting for me in the back booth of the all-night diner on Klamath Avenue, two blocks from the bus station. Next to him was a backpack that looked like he'd bought it off a train-hopping hobo for a chicken and a nickel, and his face made me think of a watchdog resting with one eye open. He looked up at me through the steam rising from his coffee.
"I ordered pie," he said.
As if on cue, the waitress delivered a gooey plate of blueberry pie and two forks. "You two are up early," she said. It was still dark. Not even the birds were awake yet.
"We're vampires, actually," Robinson said. "We're just having a snack before bed." He squinted at her name tag and then smiled his big, gorgeous smile at her. "Don't tell on us, okay, Tiffany? I don't need a stake through my heart. I'm only five hundred years old—way too young and charming to die."
She laughed and turned to me. "Your boyfriend's a flirt," she said.
"Oh, he's not my boyfriend," I said quickly.
Robinson's response was almost as quick. "She asked me out, but I turned her down."
I kicked him under the table and he yelped. "He's lying," I told her. "It's the other way around."
"You two are a comedy act," Tiffany said. She wasn't that much older than we were, but she shook her head like we were silly kids. "You should take that show on the road."
Robinson took a big bite of pie. "Believe me, we're gonna," he said.
He shoved the plate toward me, but I shook my head. I couldn't eat. I'd managed to keep a lid on my nerves, but now I felt like jumping out of my skin. When had I ever done anything this crazy, this monumental? I never even broke my curfew.
"Hurry up with that pie," I said. "The bus to Eureka leaves in forty-five minutes."
Robinson stopped chewing and stared at me. "Pardon?"
"The buuuuus," I said, drawing it out. "You know, the one we're getting on? So we can get the heck out of here?"
Robinson cracked up, and I considered kicking him again, because it doesn't take a genius to tell the difference between being laughed with and laughed at. "What's so funny?"
He leaned forward and put his hands on mine. "Axi, Axi, Axi," he said, shaking his head. "This is the trip of a lifetime. We are not going to take it on a Greyhound bus."
"What? Who's in charge of this trip, anyway?" I demanded. "And what's so bad about a bus?"
Robinson sighed. "Everything is bad about a bus. But I'll give you some specifics so you'll stop looking at me with those big blue eyes. This is our trip, Axi, and I don't want to share it with a dude who just got out of prison or an old lady who wants to show me pictures of her grandkids." He pointed a forkful of pie at me. "Plus, the bus is basically a giant petri dish for growing superbacteria, and it takes way too long to get anywhere. Those are your two bonus reasons."
I threw up my hands. "Last I checked, we don't have a private jet, Robinson."
"Who said anything about a plane? We're going to take a car, you dope," he said. He leaned back in the booth and crossed his hands behind his head, totally smooth and nonchalant. "And I do mean take one."
"What are you doing?" I HISSED AS Robinson led us down one of the nearby side streets. His legs are about twice as long as mine, so I had to jog to keep up with him.
When we came to an intersection, I grabbed his arm and whirled him around to face me. Eye to eye. Scalawag to Ms. Straitlaced.
"Are you serious about this?" I said. "Tell me you're not serious."
He smiled. "You took care of the route. Let me take care of the ride."
He shook off my grip and slung his arm around my shoulder, big brother–style. "Now settle down, GG, and I'll give you a little lesson in vehicle selection."
"A lesson in what? And don't call me that." It stands for Good Girl, and it drives me absolutely nuts when he says it.
Robinson pointed to a car just ahead. "Now that, see, is a Jaguar. It's a beautiful machine. But it's an XJ6, and those things have problems with their fuel filters. You can't have your stolen car leaking gas, Axi, because it could catch on fire, and if you don't die a fiery death, well, you're definitely going to jail for grand theft auto."
We walked on a little farther, and he pointed to a green minivan. "The Dodge Grand Caravan is roomy and dependable, but we're adventurers, not soccer moms."
I decided to pretend this was all make-believe. "Okay, what about that one?" I asked.
He followed my finger and looked thoughtful. "Toyota Matrix. Yeah, definitely a good option. But I'm looking for something with a bit more flair."
By now the sun was peeking over the horizon, and the birds were up and chattering to each other. As Robinson and I walked down the leafy streets, I felt the neighborhood stirring. What if some guy stepped outside to grab the newspaper and saw us, two truants, suspiciously inspecting the neighborhood cars?
"Come on, Robinson," I said. "Let's get out of here." I was still hoping we'd make the bus. We had ten minutes left.
"I just want the perfect thing," he said.
At that moment, we saw a flash in the corner of our eyes. It was brown and fast and coming toward us. I gasped and reached out for Robinson.
He laughed and pulled me close. "Whoa, Axi, get a grip. It's only a dog."
My heart was thrumming. "Yeah, I can see that ... now."
I could also now see it wasn't likely to be an attack dog, either. He was a small thing, with matted, shaggy fur. No collar, no tags. I took a step forward, my hand extended, and the dog flinched. He turned around and went right up to Robinson instead (of course) and licked his hand. Then the darn thing lay down at his feet. Robinson knelt to pet him.
"Robinson," I said, getting impatient, "Greyhound bus or stolen car, the time is now."
He didn't seem to hear me. His long, graceful hands gently tugged on the dog's ears, and the dog rolled onto his side. As Robinson scratched the dog's belly, the animal's leg twitched and his pink tongue lolled out of his little mouth in total canine ecstasy.
"You're such a good boy," Robinson said gently. "Where do you belong?"
Even though the dog couldn't answer, we knew. He was skinny and his fur was clumped with mud. There was a patch of raw bare skin on his back. This dog was no one's dog.
"I wish you could come with us," Robinson said. "But we have a long way to go, and I don't think you'd dig it."
The dog looked at him like he'd dig anything in the world as long as it involved more petting by Robinson. But when you're running away from your life and you can't take anything you don't need, a stray dog falls in the category of Not Necessary.
"Give him a little love, Axi," Robinson urged.
I bent down and dug my fingers into the dog's dirty coat the way I'd seen Robinson do, and when I ran my hand down the dog's chest, I could feel the quick flutter of his heart, the excitement of finding a home, someone to care for him.
Poor thing, I thought. Somehow, I knew exactly what he was feeling. He had no one, and he was stuck here.
But we weren't. Not anymore.
"We're leaving, little buddy. I'm sorry," I said. "We've just got to go."
It was totally weird, but for some reason that good-bye hurt almost as much as the one I'd whispered to my father.
We left the dog with one of Robinson's sticks of beef jerky, then headed to the end of the block, where Robinson pulled up short. "There it is," he whispered, with real awe in his voice. He grabbed my hand and we hurried through the intersection.
"There what is?" I asked, but of course he didn't answer me.
If things went on like this, we'd have to have a little talk—because I didn't want a traveling companion who paid attention to 50 percent of whatever came out of my mouth. If I wanted to be ignored, I could just stay in Klamath Falls with my idiotic classmates and my alcoholic father.
"There is the answer," Robinson said finally, sighing so big you'd have thought he just fell in love. He turned to me and bent down in an exaggerated bow, sweeping his arm out like a valet at some superfancy restaurant (the kind of place we don't have in K-Falls).
"Alexandra, milady, your chariot awaits," Robinson said with a wild grin. I rolled my eyes at him, like I always do when he does this fake-British shtick with my full name.
And then I rolled my eyes again: my so-called chariot, it turned out, was actually a motorcycle. A big black Harley-Davidson with whitewall tires and yards of shining chrome, and two black leather side bags decorated with silver grommets. There were tassels on the handlebars and two cushioned seats. The thing gleamed like it was straight off the showroom floor.
Robinson was beside me, whispering in some foreign language. "Twin Cam Ninety- Six V-Twin," he said, then something about "electronic throttle control and six- speed transmission" and then a bunch of other things I didn't understand.
It was an amazing bike, even I could see that, and I can hardly tell a dirt bike from a Ducati. "Awesome," I said, checking my watch. "But we really should keep moving."
That was when I realized Robinson was bending toward the thing with a screwdriver in his hand.
"Are you out of your mind?" I hissed.
But Robinson didn't answer me. Again.
He was going to hot-wire the thing. Holy s—
I ran to the other side of the street and ducked down between two cars. Adrenaline rushed through my veins and I pressed my eyes shut.
There was no way this was happening, I told myself. No way he was going to actually get the thing started, no way this was how our journey would begin.
I had it all planned out, and it looked nothing like this.
Then the roar of an engine split open the quiet morning. I opened my eyes and a second later Robinson's feet appeared, one on either side of the Harley.
We're breaking the law! I should have screamed. But my mind simply couldn't process this change in plans. I couldn't say anything at all. I just thought: He's running away in cowboy boots! That is so not practical! And: Why didn't I bring mine?
"Stand up, Axi," Robinson yelled. "Get on."
I was rooted to the spot, my chest tight with anxiety. I was going to have a heart attack right here on Cedar Street, in between a pickup and a Volvo with a MY OTHER CAR IS A BROOM bumper sticker. So much for my great escape!
But then Robinson reached down and hauled me up, and the next thing I knew I was sitting behind him on the throbbing machine with the engine revving.
"Put your arms around me," he yelled.
I was so heart-and-soul terrified that I did.
"Now hang on!"
He put the thing in gear and we took off, the engine thundering in my ears. My dad was probably going to wake up on the couch and wonder if he'd just heard the rumble of an early-summer storm.
We shot past the Safeway, past the high school football field, past the Reel M Inn Tavern, where every Friday night my dad hooked himself up to a Budweiser IV, and past the "Mexican" restaurant (where they put Parmesan cheese on top of their burritos).
Yeah, Klamath Falls. It was the kind of place that looked best in a rearview mirror.
Seeing it flash past me, feeling the rush of the wind in my face, I suddenly didn't care if we woke up the entire stinking town.
Eat my dust! I wanted to shout.
Robinson let out a joyful whoop.
We'd done it. We were free.
This wasn't anything like the moped I rode once. It wasn't like anything I'd ever felt before. We weren't even on the highway yet, but already it felt like we were flying.
Then above the roar of the engine I heard Robinson's voice. "I don't want a tickle/'Cause I'd rather ride on my motorsickle!" It was an old Arlo Guthrie song. I knew the words because my dad used to sing them to me when I was a little girl.
"And I don't want to diiiiie/Just want to ride on my motorcy ... cle," I joined in, even though I can't carry a tune to save my life.
Robinson leisurely steered us past strip malls on the outskirts of town. He was whistling now (because if you ever want to blow out your vocal cords, try singing loudly enough to be heard over a Harley). He was acting like it was no big deal to be zipping away on a stolen motorcycle.
Excerpted from First Love by James Patterson, Emily Raymond, Sasha Illingworth. Copyright © 2014 James Patterson Emily Raymond Sasha Illingworth. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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