“Okay, Tricia, good luck,” she said, sounding sincere.
I might have felt guilty for lying to her face, but my need to get out of there before the Principal decided to come out of his office and overrule it.
“Thanks,” I muttered, slipping out the door just as quickly as I had come in.
The class change was still in full swing, and I headed straight for the front doors, winding my way through the jostling students who were getting rowdier every day it got closer to summer break. Just as I rounded the last corner to freedom, I spotted the two cops from the day before standing by the vending machines, watching everyone walk by. I abruptly changed direction and headed back toward a side door, in the freshman wing. They hadn't seen me, and I burst out of the doors and into the sunlight, on the side of the building facing Jason's car. I ran across the parking lot, checking over my shoulder every few seconds to see that no one was following me. They could very easily ask the front office about me, but by then I would hopefully be far away.
I slipped into the passenger seat of Jason's car, dropping my bag and catching my breath. He raised his eyebrows at me, and I nodded my head, getting my voice back.
“The cops were in the front hall,” I finally said to his silent curiosity.
“So you ran from them?”
“They didn't see me,” I replied, “and they never specifically said I couldn't leave town, but I'm kinda avoiding giving them the chance.”
Jason just shook his head and started the car again, the engine cutting through the silence. “Let's go catch my mom at work.”
He turned the music up before I could reply, obviously still pissed about the entire situation.
His mom worked as an accountant for a law firm about a half hour from our neighborhood. Her office was on the bottom floor of a 5 story building made of a red brick that was darker, and obviously more expensive, than my apartment building. Somehow, it managed to look classy, while my apartment always looked just this side of industrial to me. It might have had something to do with the lack of huge rounded windows that took up part of every floor. I followed Jason into the building and waited for him to sign in at the front desk. The guards on shift knew him by sight, nodding hello. He had told me that he often came up here in the summer to bring his mom lunch, but I had never joined him. It was one of many things he did with his vast amounts of free time while I was slaving away, working the longest hours I could get.
I was getting bitter again. We'd have to stop for more food before we left, since my mood improved with my diminished hunger. I decided to just go with it, keeping the frown on my face as he led me down the beige colored hallway past a few glass doors to his mom's office, which had its own glass door, this one frosted with her name painted on it in ornate black letters. He turned to me and nodded, putting on his own distraught expression and opening the door.
Her office wasn't very large, but it had a window view out onto side of the building, which was nicely landscaped, hiding a lot of the parking lot behind the bushes. The walls were a darker tan than the hallway, and partially covered by degrees and generic hotel room paintings of forest scenes. The wall to her left was covered with a floor to ceiling bookshelf, full of books and knickknacks. She was sitting at her desk, typing something on her computer when we walked in. She looked up, and smiled at Jason, worry flashing across her eyes when she saw his expression.
“Hello, Tricia,” she said, noticing me trailing behind him. “Jason, shouldn't you be in school?”
I gave her a small smile at her greeting, my stomach turning in knots.
“Can we talk to you for a minute, Mom?” Jason asked in a serious tone.
“Of course,” she replied, turning away from her computer to give us her full attention, her worry getting more obvious as she looked back and forth between us.
There were two leather chairs sitting in front of her desk, and Jason sat in one, while I chose to stay standing, walking over to the large bookcase and blindly perusing the titles, trying to give them a false sense of privacy.
“So, you heard about what happened to that girl at our school?” Jason began quietly, telling her more than asking.
I saw her nod her head out of the corner of my eye.
Jason continued, “well, Trish was really good friends with her,”
He glanced over as me, and I gave up all pretense of tuning them out, choosing instead to watch from my safe distance, arms hugging myself, back stiff. His mom also glanced at me, her forehead furrowing with concern.
“Anyway,” he continued, turning back to her, “she's gonna go out of town for a little while, just until all the commotion dies down, and she was hoping I would go with her, as, like, moral support.”
“Of course, you were planning that summer trip anyway” his mom said, leaning back in her chair, still looking worried, but obviously a little bit relieved. “Are you going to leave as soon as school's over?”
“Um, that's the thing,” he replied, glancing at me again.
Uh oh, time to jump in before he panicked.
“I can't really stay here while everyone keeps talking about, Mrs. Ross. My friend offered to take me in for a few days, and I wanted to leave today.”
Her eyes opened wide. Me missing classes was a pretty serious thing, and she obviously knew that. I tried to school my face into a neutral expression. If I looked too horrible, she'd be calling up the school counselor, or talking to my dad.
“It's just until it blows over a little,” I quickly added, “and since school's basically over anyway, I thought it would be okay.”
She was still looking at me thoughtfully, like she was trying to read my mind. Mrs. Ross had sometimes been like a mother to me at hard times in my life, and I was hoping she would remember that I was the responsible one, rather than thinking I was lying.
Finally, she looked back at Jason, nodding.
“Okay, hon,” she said, and leaned over to reach into a drawer on her desk.
Jason spared me a quick look of triumph. Even though he pretty much agreed with his mom that we shouldn't be leaving town, though for a completely different reason, he was committed now, emotionally even.
She stood up, holding an envelope in her hand.
“I want you to take this with you,” she said, walking around the desk and handing the envelope to him, “it's the cash I was going to give you for your roadtrip.”
Jason took it from her and gave her a tight hug. “Thanks, mom.”
“Okay,” she said, a watery smile on her face, “I'll call the school and get you excused. You should get your oil changed before you go. And call me every night to tell me how you are.”
Jason was smiling right back at her, and I suddenly felt like I was intruding. I would try to remember not to give him too much hell for being so emotional with his mom. I was envious of how good she was to him, and that sometimes came out wrong.
“Tricia,” she said, grabbing my attention, “you know you can call me too, right?”
I nodded, and she came over and gave me a hug as well.
“You'll be fine,” she said quietly to me, “and if you need to talk, Jason's Dad and I are here for you.”
I nodded again, and tried to keep myself from tearing up. She always had a way of making me feel like I was practically one of her own kids. If I could get out of this without hurting Jason's family in the process, I would be eternally grateful.
“Thanks, Mrs. Ross,” I replied, feeling even more guilty about lying to her.
“Okay, you two,” she said, recovering her composure, “I have to get to a meeting soon, or I'd spend some more time with you before you leave.”
“It's okay, mom, I'll call you tonight,” Jason replied, and I could tell he was getting anxious to leave.
I was anxious as well, but I tried to keep my cool. If everything went south, I could always send Jason back to his family, but I was hoping we'd both be seeing her again soon. She hugged her son one last time and ushered us out of her office with more reminders about maintaining his car and calling every night. We waved as we walked back down the hall.
Jason took a deep breath once we were out of the building.
“That went better than I hoped,” he said, as we headed back to his car.
“Your mom's great,” was all I could reply with.
This was it. Time to head out. I was making a mental checklist of everything left to do. Gas, food, packing. We could use my bankcard for the motels and his cash for backup, if it came to that.
“So where to now?” he asked, sliding behind the wheel.
“Let's go back to your house and grab your stuff first.”
He nodded his agreement and started the car. I felt a weight lift off my shoulders as we headed back to his house.
The drive there was filled with the usual loud music, but we didn't try to have a conversation. I think it was finally hitting him that he was actually doing this crazy thing with me. I looked over at him a few times, trying to figure out what he was thinking, but his face was impossible to read. It was disturbing, since he was usually so open. I had a feeling that after this, we probably wouldn't be as close as we had been. It was a painful thought. I had always had Jason as such a big part of my life, but I was putting too much strain on him, even if he was making good on his threat to stick it out with me. Not being able to tell if he was freaking out made me feel a sharp pang of loneliness. I had to figure this out as soon as possible, or everything in my life would be shot to hell.
He pulled the Camry into his empty driveway and shut off the engine.
“Come on in while I throw some stuff in a bag,” he said, opening his door, “I think there's some hamburger in the fridge if you're hungry.”
My stomach gurgled at me, loud enough for him to hear, and his expression darkened for a moment before he was off, heading toward the front door, not waiting to see if I would follow. I got out of the car at a slower pace and trudged up behind him. The weight that had lifted off my shoulder left a larger one in its wake. By the time I had gotten inside and closed the door behind me, he had already disappeared up the stairs. His house was a large two story, one of the largest in the nice neighborhood, paid for by his parents' lucrative careers. They were both accountants. His dad worked for a small firm across town, and their combined income per year was probably more than my dad would make in ten years. Despite that, I had never felt awkward here. The house was huge, but comfortable, filled with pictures of the extended family. The furniture was nice, but obviously used, big and cozy looking, just like the house. I wandered through the large sunken living room and into the bright kitchen. The walls were mint green and covered with cabinets. Pots and pans hung from hooks under the cabinets and an island took up space in the middle of the room. Jason's dad loved to cook, but hadn't managed to pass that trait down to Jason. Or to his mom, for that matter. I had been over to his house for home cooked meals on occasion, but when his dad was working late, usually around tax season, his mom always ordered us pizza. It was the life I had always wanted, and I liked to pretend I was a part of it when I was here.
I went over to the fridge, not being able to ignore my aching stomach any longer, and looked inside. It was bursting to the gills with fresh ingredients as well as takeout containers. I pulled open the meat drawer and looked inside. Jackpot. There were two different kinds of raw hamburger meat, one in a tube and one in individual patties, wrapped in plastic. The patties were seasoned and ready for the grill, the expensive kind that I never spent the extra money on. I went for the tube, hoping his dad wasn't planning on using it anytime soon. I closed the fridge and looked over at the stove. It was massive, and looked crazy complicated. I had always tried to stay out of the way when his dad was cooking, and wasn't sure if I was in the mood to figure it out. My stomach practically screamed at me and I groaned. I had just had breakfast, but I was already starving again. This, whatever it was, was getting worse. I wondered how long it would be before I was just constantly stuffing food in my mouth to keep the pain away. I grabbed a knife and cut the tube open, hoping Jason would take his time packing.
I pulled open the wrapping and squeezed out a chunk of meat, holding it in my hand for a moment. The fleeting thought of “are you really going to do this again?” went through my head before I stuffed the raw hamburger in my mouth. The taste was heavenly, and I groaned again, in a completely different way. I swallowed the meat and held the tube up to my mouth, squeezing the whole thing a little at a time and swallowing, practically without chewing, eating the entire thing.
Anything that tasted that good could not be wrong. When I was done with the hamburger, my stomach felt nice and settled, the pain almost gone completely. I almost felt normal again, although the empty wrapper in my hand told me that was far from the truth.
“Jesus,” I heard from the doorway, and I spun around to see Jason holding a duffel bag over one shoulder and looking at me with disgust.
I just stood there, open wrapper in my hand, and raw meat still on my lips.
He stared at me a moment longer, before leaving back through the doorway. I heard him drop his bag in the living room and sit down on the couch.
“I'm ready to go,” he said, his voice strained, and higher than normal.
My eyes closed briefly. That was something I could have lived without him ever seeing. If he had thought I was a freak before, I couldn't even imagine what he was thinking now.
I shook myself out of my stupor and threw the empty wrapper in the trash and the knife in the dishwasher, wiping the meat off of my face with a paper towel. Something else to leave for later. Right now I had my own packing to do.
We drove back to my apartment in silence once again, the music turned up a little louder, Jason's grip tight on the wheel. We were going to have to talk about some of this stuff eventually, or the entire trip would be way too stressful. Maybe now he would be able to understand why I wanted to find a cure so badly. If he were anyone else, he would have backed out of helping me a long time ago.
I packed quickly while he waited in the living room, the sound of the TV blaring in the background. I had one big suitcase and my messenger bag, which I filled with almost all of my clothes and toiletries. I decided to stuff my sewing kit in as well, just in case. By the time I was done, my closet was practically empty. Almost my whole life fit into two bags, which was a depressing thought.
Taking one last look around, I took a deep breath. Time to go. Hopefully I wasn't leaving my life behind, even though that's exactly what it felt like. I didn't want to abandon my dad, I didn't think he would be able to handle it, but I might not have a choice. Living like this would be worse in the long run. I grabbed the envelope Amy had left for me off the bedside table and turned out the light.
When I went into the living room, Jason was sitting in my dad's chair, watching what looked to be a soap opera and drumming out a rhythm on the arm of the recliner. He looked a little less tense, which I took as a good sign.
“You ready?” I asked, rolling my suitcase behind me.
He jumped up and turned off the TV, grabbing the handle from me like the gentleman his mom had been trying to make him.
“Are you sure I'm not interrupting your stories?” I said with a smile as I led him out of the apartment.
He rolled his eyes at me, a grin on his face, which I was relieved to see.
“I'll just have to catch it tomorrow,” he replied, opening his trunk to store my bag inside with his.
“Is that what you do with your summer?”
“Hey, it beats working.”
I had never watched a soap opera before, but I wasn't convinced that was true. Making money beat sitting around any day, as far as I knew. I was just glad he wasn't looking at me with disgust anymore. I'd have to keep my weird eating habits to myself as much as I could. Cooked meat from now on, even if the raw hamburger was still happily sitting in my stomach, keeping me from going crazy.
We got back in the car and Jason waited for me to give him the next destination. This one would make him happy.
“Snacks for the trip next,” I said, and sure enough his face lit up.
If it wasn't raw hamburger right from the packaging, food would always make him happy. He grinned at me as we headed off to the nearest grocery store to stock up on junk food. I would be all about the jerky this trip, it seemed.
The grocery store was pretty empty, considering it was mid-morning on a weekday. Jason immediately grabbed a cart, and I looked at him in exasperation.
“We're not planning for the apocalypse, Jase. We don't need to fill the backseat.”
“Hey, you're the one who packed your entire closet. I'm a growing boy who needs sustenance.”
I poked him in the stomach, “you're gonna be growing the wrong way after this.”
“You're just jealous of my awesome metabolism.”
“No I'm not,” I replied, leading him to the snack food aisle.
Well, maybe a little. He ate his weight in food every day, and was still a beanpole. Before this week, I had tried to eat relatively healthy, but I wasn't willing to get on the cheerleader diet, so I would never be a model. My normal weight was fine with me, if it meant I could still eat junk food. Of course, now I was on an all protein diet. I wondered again if that would make me lose weight, and snickered as Jason zoned in on the chips.
We loaded up the cart to the mellow sounds of muzak, and I made sure to grab as much beef jerky as possible. Instead of cringing, which I expected, Jason just laughed when I added it to our haul.
“You always complained about the beef jerky,” he said, throwing some bottles of water on top.
I never liked beef jerky before, but I was betting I would now. Besides, it was the only meat product that wouldn't instantly go bad without a fridge. I huffed at him and followed as he cruised down the candy aisle, adding sugar to all of his salty foods. By the time we were finished, it looked like we were hosting a massive party. Even if we were only gone for a few days, I knew Jason would manage to go through all of the junk food and insist we buy more. His dad tried to keep the family on a well-rounded diet, so he always went a little crazy when he got out of the house for meals, which explained the constant stream of cheeseburgers he ate around me.
We went to the front of the store to check out, and I managed to jump in front with my bankcard before Jason could try to use the big wad of cash his mom had given him. It was feeling more and more like a vacation, but I was still planning for the worst. If it ended up taking longer than I expected, I wanted to use as much of my own money as possible. Jason grumbled at me as I paid, no doubt planning to find a sneaky way to pay me back.
The clerk just smiled at us, amused by our little tiff over payment, and bagged up the snacks. I grabbed half the bags, and Jason grabbed the other half, before we headed back out to the car. We were officially on our way. Well, we would be, once I figured out which way that was. We dumped all of the bags in the backseat and I sat in the front and pulled Amy's envelope from my school bag. Jason watched as I took out the map and paper where I had written down all of the information on the man we were headed for. The ids fell out with the paper, and Jason grabbed them before I could stop him.
He studied the driver's license for a moment, then handed it back to me.
“So Amy made that for you?” he asked, looking at the library card as well.
“I guess so.”
“You know what this means?” he said, starting the car, a mischievous glint in his eye.
I glared at him.
The music came on, quickly growing to its normal ridiculously loud level.
“I am not buying you beer,” I shouted over it.
He grinned at me and pulled out of the parking lot. Yeah, I was going to end up buying him beer. Dammit.
He drove down the street to the nearest gas station and pulled in to fill up the tank.
“I'm gonna grab a cold water,” I said, hopping out of the car with him, “you want?”
“Soda,” he replied, as he pushed the buttons on the pump.
I went inside the convenience store part of the station and grabbed some cold drinks. There was a case of maps by the door, and I looked through them, finally settling on a vacation atlas. I wasn't sure exactly which states were between here and Wyoming, and I didn't really want to spend the next ten minutes figuring it out, so I splurged on the oversized book of maps. The college age girl behind the counter rang me up while chewing on her gum, the smacking sounds louder than the pop song playing over the speakers. This trip was already getting pricey, which was probably the main reason I never went farther than school or work on any given day.
I got back to the car before Jason was finished pumping the gas, so I laid the atlas down on the trunk and flipped over to the map with the full country on it, looking for our route. Wyoming was more than halfway across the country. This guy better have answers.
“It looks like we can take I-80 all the way there,” I said as he finished with the gas.
He came around to the back of the car to look at the map with me.
“We're gonna go through like seven states, but if we stick to the highway it shouldn't be too difficult.”
“Just point me in the right direction,” he replied, following the highway with his finger like he was trying to memorize its route.
“Just call me the navigator,” I said.
When he was done tracing the route, I closed the book and handed him his Coke. We got back in the car and headed off in the direction of I-70, to get us started on our drive. I turned the music down to a level low enough to easily talk over, ignoring Jason's grumbling about me touching his radio.
“It looks like it's gonna take at least two and a half days to get there,” I said, shuffling through the maps in the atlas, while trying not to hold it up high enough to block his view out of my window, “we should stay in the cheapest motel we can find that doesn't look like it rents by the hour.”
“It's not a real road trip without a sleazy motel,” he replied while speeding up to cut in front of a car in the next lane.
“Like you would even know. You've never stayed in a sleazy motel in your life.”
Jason grinned at me and reached over to turn the music back up. I rolled my eyes. If he was going to try to win every argument by drowning me out, it was going to be a very long afternoon.
I passed the time by mapping our route and eating a constant stream of beef jerky, which still wasn't my favorite, but was much better than I remembered it. I would have preferred it in its raw, preprocessed form, but I was trying to keep Jason from totally freaking out on me. He seemed to be in a pretty good mood, singing along with the radio loudly, his voice much better than should be allowed for the casual sing along. I sang along more quietly when songs I knew came on. No one needed to be subjected to my off key warbling.