Prologue

SOMETIMES I wonder if I’m the only high school freshman on the planet who actually likes school.

Well, I guess I don’t really like school itself. I don’t really enjoy writing papers or listening to lectures or dealing with quadratic formulas or any of that stuff. It would probably be more accurate to say that I like resting.

School is one of the few places where I get a chance to relax, sit back, and not think too hard. My buddy Race hates when I talk like that—he says it’s egotistical of me to brag that I can ignore about 80 percent of what our teachers say and still get the grades I do—but I’m not trying to brag. That’s just how school is for me.

Take the class I’m currently chilling out in: history with Ms. Carlson. This is a class that probably makes other freshmen want to slit their throats. I mean, I know all students think their teachers drone on and on, but Ms. Carlson brings it to the level of an art form. She must have been absent from teacher school on the day “class discussion” was introduced as a method of instruction.

Me? I love this class. Most of the time I completely zone out for forty minutes and just recap whatever I missed with a little textbook skimming during study hall.

Today I’ve managed to lean back my chair as far as it will go, and I’ve got my feet propped up on my backpack. I’m half-listening to Ms. Carlson; she’s going on about the Pike Expedition. After all, this is Colorado Springs, home of Pikes Peak, the semifamous and epically huge mountain that is currently looming right outside our classroom window.

“Zebulon Pike and his team did attempt to ascend the peak, but they were forced to turn back, essentially due to weather conditions and a lack of appropriate gear. There were no REIs in the area then, you see.”

The class titters, which is more of an effort to keep Ms. Carlson smiling than a nod to how great the joke is. Ms. Carlson is one of those teachers who enjoys thinking she’s hilarious. We’re a bunch of students who enjoy inflated grades.

“Wait, Ms. Carlson, I don’t get it. Do you mean he didn’t get to the top?”

Ms. Carlson looks annoyed by the interruption, and I’m pretty sure it’s not just because Albert Lansing forgot to raise his hand. I’m telling you, this is not a woman who appreciates student involvement in her classes.

“No, Albert, he did not. Now, shortly after the Pike team was forced to abandon the—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Now Dani Gonzalez is interrupting Ms. Carlson’s thoughts, also without raising her hand. Definitely not good for Ms. Carlson’s composure. “Why is the mountain named after him? Why is it named Pikes Peak if Zebulon Pike didn’t climb it?”

Ms. Carlson takes a moment to collect herself before she addresses Dani. Her lips are pursed so tight they could easily disappear. That would probably make speaking difficult, which would make her teaching nonexistent.

“The mountain is named Pikes Peak because Zebulon was the one who first discovered it, Danielle. Whether or not he reached the top of it is hardly the point.”

James Fuerte raises his hand, and Ms. Carlson calls on him. It’s a foregone conclusion that she doesn’t want to, but at this point her flow has to be shot anyway. “But there were already Native American tribes that had been living in this area for hundreds of years; wouldn’t it be more accurate to say they discovered the mountain? Shouldn’t it be named after them?”

James is smart. He knows Ms. Carlson loves to talk about how the land we live on was stolen from the Native Americans. She’ll have to get sucked into this now.

“You are correct, Mr. Fuerte. The mountain had been discovered long before Zebulon arrived. It would be much more accurate for us to say that Zebulon first recorded the existence of the mountain.” She shakes her head at the flurry of hands that go up in the air. “That said, the fact that he did not climb the mountain himself is entirely irrelevant. History has shown us time and again that discoveries are far more important than conquests.”

I’m actually paying attention for once, and I sort of would like her to expand on that point, but she goes off into how Zebulon Pike’s team was captured by the Spanish.

While Ms. Carlson heads with Zeb Pike’s team and the Spanish authorities to Santa Fe, I stay comfortably at the side of Pikes Peak, wondering if Ms. Carlson is right. I just can’t see it. My life proves over and over again that discoveries don’t matter at all; you have to conquer what life throws at you if you want to get anywhere in this world.

The fact that my brother and sister and I aren’t in foster care is proof enough of that. I “discovered” early on in our lives that my parents were basically worthless, as parents go. That discovery? All it meant was that I had to conquer taking care of Matt and Julia at, like, age ten.

The results of that conquest, I’m proud to say, have so far been pretty positive. Take today: it’s one of those sunny, balmy days that can still appear in September in Colorado. I’ve promised to take Matt and Julia to the park this afternoon, and we’re going to have a great time. My friend Race is coming too, which means I’ll get to use his skateboard a few times, and Matt is hilarious in the park. He’s a great soccer player, and he loves to show off his skills. He used to play for one of the city teams when he was younger, but we haven’t had that kind of money in a few years.

And all that great family bonding will be brought to us because I conquered learning how to do laundry and make dinner before social services could figure out that my mother can’t find our apartment most nights. I don’t think discovering the laundry was sitting by the hamper really got me anything.

Ms. Carlson is still going on about Zebulon Pike and the Spanish, and I go back to relaxing.

I run a quick mental check to see if there’s anything I should be worrying about right now. Life seems to be treating me better than it treated Zeb Pike during the Pike Expedition, because I can’t come up with anything. The money Mom left us a week or so ago is stretching. We’re eating a lot of ramen and frozen dinners, but Matt and Julia like that kind of stuff, so they don’t seem to care. The electricity is still on. I don’t know if the gas still is, but we can worry about that when it really starts to get cold. I’m pretty sure Mom paid the rent through the end of the month. Things are working out a lot better than the last time Mom took off—that time she’d forgotten to pay the electric bill, and I had to track down Dad and get money from him to pay it.

Things seem to be going okay. I mean, at least I’m not stuck in waist-deep snow on the side of a mountain and about to accidentally stumble directly into Spanish territory.

The school secretary, Mrs. McMann, comes to the door and motions for Ms. Carlson. Ms. Carlson puts off her lecture long enough to walk to the door and read the note Mrs. McMann passes her. “Dusty,” she calls out. “The front office needs you.”

I pull myself up out of my cramped desk chair to go see Mrs. McMann, the tiniest secretary in the history of school secretaries. I like the woman and all, but she truly is miniscule. She can’t be more than five feet tall. I’m only in the ninth grade, and I tower over her.

Mrs. McMann is frowning intently at me. “Dusty, I need you to come downstairs with me for a bit. Julia seems to be pretty sick, and I can’t get your mother on the phone. She’s not answering her cell number. I called the work number she listed, but the person who answered said she no longer works there.”

Of course they had…. Mom hasn’t been at that temp job in nearly six months. My mom takes the phrase “temporary” to a whole new level. I reflect briefly on how impressive it is that the school hasn’t needed to reach Mom in that long, and I have a moment of pride. Who needs parents, anyway? We’re doing just fine.

I pause my inner monologue of what an amazing brother I am to notice that Mrs. McMann is nervously tapping her foot, which instantly makes me nervous. Mrs. McMann has been Prescott Charter School’s secretary for a long time, and she knows the difference between a sick kid and a faking one. She also knows Matt and Julia pretty well, so Julia must be in bad shape if Mrs. McMann thinks I need to be pulled out of class.

I practically race down the stairs to the health room, all the while worrying myself into a panic. Julia hardly ever gets sick—she hasn’t even had a cold for the past few months. I start to wonder if a person can get sick from eating too much ramen. By the time I reach poor Jules, I’ve completely remade our grocery list in my head and added about twelve green vegetables to it.

The health room reeks of vomit. Julia’s lying on her side on an old green cot, her skin as white as the ugly fluorescent light in our apartment hallway. Her light-blond hair is stuck to her face with sweat, and she’s holding her stomach. “Dusty,” she whispers, “I threw up twice.”

“Aw, that’s okay.” I sigh. “Just lie there for a second.” I sit down next to her and put her head in my lap. Her forehead feels like someone could cook an egg on it.

I look up at Mrs. McMann. “Can I please take her home? Please? She looks horrible.”

Mrs. McMann hesitates. “Maybe we should try your mother’s cell again. We really need to get her to come take Julia. I can’t release her to you like that. Anyway, how would you get her home? She’s in no shape to walk.”

I suck in a breath and release it slowly. This is definitely a challenge. How am I going to get Julia home without anyone realizing that our mother is MIA? “Mom just got a new job with the temp agency, and I don’t know her office number. She won’t be home until at least five. Please let me take her, Mrs. McMann. I’ll take good care of her; you know I will. She can piggyback home with me. She’s too sick to stay here.” I give Mrs. McMann my best puppy-dog face and hope I look like the upstanding, perfect student I always try so hard to be at Prescott Charter School. I know I have a pretty good shot of her saying yes. Prescott doesn’t have a school nurse full-time, and if Julia stays here, Mrs. McMann will have to take care of her.

She hesitates for a moment, and I feel suddenly powerful. If I get away with this lie, I can get away with anything when it comes to my brother and sister. I am really in charge of their lives, even if no one else knows it.

I wonder what my parents would think of that.

“You’re sure there isn’t another number I can call?”

I shake my head. Odds are Mom doesn’t even have that cell phone Mrs. McMann’s been calling all morning. My mother changes cell phones almost weekly, depending on which pay-as-you-go company she’s using that week, and she never bothers to leave me a new number.

“Let me check with Mrs. Sabring,” Mrs. McMann finally decides. Mrs. Sabring is Prescott’s principal. She’s known my family for a very long time, since I was in first grade, and if anyone is going to blow my cover, it will be her.

Mrs. Sabring comes in and looks Julia over. Jules whimpers and clings to my hand. “And you don’t know your mother’s new work number, Dusty?” Mrs. Sabring asks, her face etched with concern.

I shake my head. “Un-uh. And she never gets home till late.”

“Well… I suppose I can let you take her. On two conditions: I will drive you both home, and you are to have your mother call me immediately when she gets home tonight.”

“Of course, Mrs. Sabring.” I agree with that same upstanding nod, even though I have no idea how “Mom” is going to call that night. At this point, I don’t care much. All I want to do is get Julia home and in bed.

I stop by Mrs. Hall’s algebra class to ask Race to pick up Matt, and bring him home. Race keeps my secrets well. He’s the kind of friend you can make farting noises with during lunch and still trust to never tell anyone that you almost set his mother’s couch on fire in the fourth grade. I’m never sure which quality I appreciate more.

I help Julia into Mrs. Sabring’s car. She whines and groans, and for a minute I’m afraid she’s going to throw up all over the expensive-looking interior of Mrs. Sabring’s sedan. “Probably just that nasty flu bug going around,” Mrs. Sabring says as she drives us down the street to our apartment complex. “Everybody’s coming down with it. Make sure you give her lots of fluids, Dusty.”

At home Julia shows no signs of improvement. I follow all Mrs. Sabring’s flu instructions, but none of it seems to help. Jules throws up every glass of water I give her. She whimpers more loudly each hour, holding her stomach more firmly every time she grabs it. I try to take her temperature on our old, beat-up thermometer, but it says she has a fever of 110 degrees. I know that can’t be right, but she definitely has a fever. Her forehead feels like a fire pit.

By the time Matt and Race get to the apartment around three-thirty, I’m starting to freak out. Matt comes racing up the hallway and into the doorway shouting, “Dusty! Is Julia okay, is she okay?”

I stop him at the door to Julia’s bedroom. “Shut up, kiddo,” I whisper, bumping my shoulder into his to let him know I’m not mad. “She’s finally sleeping.” And she is, a little. She’s dozing on and off, but she wakes up periodically to tell me how much her stomach hurts and throw up again. Nothing stays down.

Matt nods and tiptoes into Julia’s room. He sits down on the bed with her and frowns hard, as if he’s trying to diagnose her just by looking at her. Matt’s a really funny kid. Most of the time he’s a bundle of energy, loose and fun, like a lot of other eight-year-olds I’ve met. But there are some things he takes very seriously. His teacher has told me that Matt will be a class clown all day long, but when it comes time for math, which is the subject Matt enjoys the most and is best at, he settles right down and becomes the helper for his entire group. Matt takes Julia very seriously too. He hardly ever fights with her, even though they are really close in age and Julia can be pretty whiny sometimes. He seems to have endless patience when it comes to her. Julia was really young when Mom and Dad started skipping out on us, and Matt always seems very aware of that.

Six-year-old Julia’s not the laid-back kid Matt is—she’s much more deliberate and careful. She picks out her clothes carefully (even though we never have the money to buy her anything all that great), she fixes her hair carefully, she eats carefully. When she does her homework, she takes almost an hour to write a paragraph—not because she’s slow, but because every letter she puts on the paper has to be perfectly formed. It cracks me up, except when we’re in a hurry and she’s taking two hours to pick out the perfect pink outfit.

I wish she could be sitting at the kitchen table right now, taking twenty minutes to write her name at the top of her paper, instead of lying in her bed looking like she’s never going to stand up again.

Race pulls me backward out of the room a little ways. “Dude, is she okay? She doesn’t look so great.”

I run my hand over my forehead. “Race, I don’t know what to do. Her fever’s really high and she won’t stop throwing up.”

Race looks in on Matt and Julia. He shakes his head slowly, tongue between his teeth. This is Race’s “thinking” look. Normally I’d make some joke about how much brain power he’s wasting just keeping his tongue in place, but I don’t have the energy right now.

“Man….” Race pauses. “I’m not sure you have any more choices, Dusty.”

Even before he says it, I know he’s right.

WE CAN both see that Julia is in no position to be carried anywhere, so Race decides to call his mom and see if she’ll bring us to the clinic near our house. We agree to try to hold up the pretense that my mom is at work for as long as possible, even though I don’t think it will hold up very long if anything is really wrong with Jules. Still, it’s worth a shot.

I unsuccessfully take Julia’s temperature one more time and try not to wince every time she moans while Race is on his cell phone. “Yeah, Ma, Dusty’s sister is really sick, and his parents are at work. No, we can’t reach them. Could you give them a ride to the clinic? Yeah, thanks, Mom.” He hangs up. “She’ll be here in twenty minutes.”

At some point I start to think this might be the longest twenty minutes of my life. Julia’s whimpers are getting more and more pronounced, and Matt finally turns away from her a little. Race is sitting on the floor, staring at the ceiling. It’s horrible.

At least Race’s mom, Barbara, is great. She really likes Matt and Julia anyway, and she keeps Matt distracted in the front seat of the car while Race and I hold Julia in the back. At the clinic, she fills out all the paperwork for us so I won’t have to stop holding Julia at all. She does look concerned, though, and I don’t like that very much.

Julia’s still on my lap, and I’m glancing at the stupid signs around me—“Wash your hands to wash away worries”—when I notice the insurance information paper Barbara is filling out. I feel a spear of panic jab into my spine. I don’t even know what health care plan Julia has—I know it’s the state one, but I don’t know anything else about it, and I don’t have that much money from the stash Mom left. Are they going to refuse to see Julia?

Barbara is next to me, asking me questions about Jules as she fills out the clinic paperwork. “Uh, Barbara?” I mumble. “I think I have a problem. I don’t have any money with me.”

Barbara doesn’t take her eyes off the paperwork. “Don’t worry about it, Dusty. I’ll help you.” Maybe she sees a look cross my face, because she pats my knee and says, “I’ll talk to your mom about all this later.”

Her mouth gets tight when she says that. She’s never said anything to me, but I’m pretty sure Barbara doesn’t think too much of my mom. That’s fine with me—I don’t think too much of her either most of the time.

“Julia Porter,” a nurse calls from the hallway.

I hold Jules, who is sleepy and dazed, against me, and Race and I half-carry her into the room. I help her lie down on the padded exam table, where she curls up and starts sucking her thumb. Normally I hate when Julia sucks her thumb (she is six years old—it seems babyish to me), but this time I don’t try to stop her.

Race leaves the room to wait with his mom, and I stand there, my arms crossed tightly across my chest and my hands balled up into fists. The doctor is taking forever. Every time Julia cries, I want to run into the hallway and grab the first person I see in scrubs.

Finally the doctor comes in. He pokes and prods Julia and asks her all kinds of weird questions before he announces what I hear as my own death sentence: “You need to get her to a hospital immediately. Her appendix is close to bursting.”

Julia’s whimper is about the only thing that stops me from putting my fist through the wall. Julia will be okay once we got to the hospital, but this is the end of my family. The doctors there will notice that neither of our parents ever show up, and Matt and Julia will be taken away from me. I’ll never see them again.

The doctor must notice how shaky I suddenly look. “Now, it’s nothing to be that concerned about. It will require an operation, but you caught it in time. She’ll be just fine, I promise.”

Easy for you to say, doc.

I have a momentary flashback to Ms. Carlson’s lecture du jour. This must be what Zeb felt like when he realized the snow was only getting deeper… and the mountain was only getting higher.

Chapter One

SEVEN YEARS Earlier

“Dusty, can you change Matt’s diaper?”

Dusty stared at his mother. She was on the phone, cigarette smoke hanging around her head like a fading halo, cackling and laughing over the sound of the crying baby in the next room.

Dusty hated changing his brother’s diaper, but he also didn’t want to listen to Matt scream anymore, so he put down the Transformer he’d been playing with and headed into the bedroom he shared with the baby.

Matt’s face was so red Dusty wondered if he might explode. Dusty found a clean diaper in a box next to the crib and started unsnapping Matt’s dirty onesie. It looked like his mother had forgotten to do the laundry again.

Matt finally calmed down and put his fist into his mouth. He studied Dusty as he chewed on his hand, and Dusty couldn’t help but smile. Matt almost always stopped crying when Dusty held him, which was something their mother certainly couldn’t say.

Now that Matt was quiet, Dusty could hear his mother’s loud voice traveling from the next room.

“Donna, I just can’t handle it sometimes! I swear, that man is driving me crazy… yes, he lost another paycheck. Poker, this time, I think. Well, he was drunk, of course.

“What do you mean, how do I let it happen? You’ve met Luke. You know how he can be. He said the incident at Lucky Dames was the last time he was going to let that happen….

“Oh God, I’d love to go with you. I can’t wait until Dusty’s old enough to take care of Matt all night so I can finally get away from here for longer than a few hours.”

She started whispering then, which always made Dusty nervous. What was she talking about now? He finished getting the new diaper on his brother and latched it as tightly as he could. The sounds from the next room suggested his Mom was finally off the phone and maybe even making dinner.

“Abby!”

The sounds of his father coming home filled the apartment. Dusty moved toward the doorway to say hello before he decided to wait a few minutes. It was usually better to see what kind of mood Dad was in before talking to him. He’d know it was a good mood if his father was laughing and calling his mother “Abbero;” growling and yelling meant a bad mood that Dusty would hide out in his room to avoid.

“Woman, I keep telling you not to worry about that! I got more money coming in, I swear.”

Uh-oh. A bad mood. Dusty lifted Matt out of his crib so he could play on the dingy apartment carpet. It was looking like they were going to be in here for a while.

His father’s yelling became so loud that Dusty was pretty sure the neighbors could hear. “Pregnant? What you do mean you might be pregnant again? You don’t need no stinkin’ test! We just had another kid.”

More yelling and some crying, but Dusty couldn’t make out words anymore. He was pretty sure it was his mom who was crying.

“Geez, I can’t even listen to you when you get like this! I gotta get out of here.” Then the door slammed again, and soon all Dusty could hear was his mother sobbing in the next room.

Matt giggled and held his arms out to be picked up. Dusty lifted him in the air and tried to pretend it was just the two of them in the apartment.

ON THE way to the hospital, Race’s mom chats with Matt in the front seat while Race and I conspire in the back. “Maybe you can tell them your Mom works nights,” he whispers.

“Stupid, Julia will be in the hospital for days.”

“Should we tell my Mom? Maybe she can help us,” Race whispers back.

“No way,” I answer quickly. That will blow everything.

I’m being taken down by a bodily organ that doesn’t even have a purpose—except, apparently, to destroy Dusty Porter’s life.

The hospital gets Julia into surgery quickly—the clinic must have called ahead. Then Race, Barbara, Matt and I are left alone in the waiting room, and I decide it is probably time to do something. Barbara keeps asking me if I’ve gotten in touch with our parents yet, and my whole “waiting for them to get home” story is starting to sound shady even to me.

Producing my parents isn’t all that easy. If it was, I probably wouldn’t have had to figure out what fabric softener is three years ago. Dad hasn’t lived with us in years, but at least he still lives in Colorado Springs, and I can usually find him if I really need him. Who knows where Mom is? When she disappears, she disappears. She once came home with a story of some friend who took her to Florida.

It seems like locating Dad is my best option.

I ask Race if he wants to find a vending machine with me to get Matt some soda. We’re barely at the machine before I drop my plan on him.

“Look, I gotta go find my dad. Can you cover for me for a few hours?”

Race nearly chokes on the piece of gum he has in his mouth. “Are you crazy? A few hours? Where am I supposed to tell them you went for a few hours?”

I run my hands through my hair, hoping the plan I’ve been forming in my head isn’t going to sound incredibly stupid coming out of my mouth. “I’ll tell your mom that my mom still isn’t answering her phone. Then I’ll say I need to go back home and tell her what’s going on. Then I’ll just come back with Dad instead. No big deal. It’ll take me awhile to come back… just keep telling her that I must’ve had to wait for Mom or something.”

Race pinches his eyebrows together. “I dunno, Dusty… you really wanna do this?”

Is he crazy? “What else do you expect me to do? I have like ten minutes until your mother realizes something is up and starts questioning me hardcore.”

Race rubs the tip of his blue Converse sneaker into the vomit-colored hospital linoleum below him. “Maybe… tell her what’s going on?”

I stare at him, wondering if I’ve ever actually met this guy before. Maybe he has appendicitis too…. He must have a fever to be talking like this. “Are you serious?”

He stubs his toe a little harder into the linoleum and keeps his eyes on the floor. “Yeah. I mean, you can’t keep this up forever, Dusty. You’ve always known that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I snarl, forcing him to look up at me. “I’ve done this for a long time, Race, and I can keep doing it. All I need is someone to cover for me.” I put as much emphasis on those last few words as possible.

I’ve known Race since the third grade, when we discovered we shared a common passion for Pokemon. We gave up on Pokemon a long time ago, but Race has stayed the one guy in the world I can trust. He’s cool to hang out with and yet still very rational and loyal—an awesome friend. It almost feels like the image I have of him in my head is fading, and it’s being replaced by a blurry, confused vision of the kid I’ve known since I was eight. Race looks around the room for a few minutes before he glances at me again.

“Fine, dude. I’ll cover for you.” I turn to walk out and he grabs the shoulder of my jacket. “Just… be careful, okay? And don’t take too long.”

“Sure. And hey, could you do me a favor? Make sure Matt and Jules know I’m coming back, okay?”

Race only looks puzzled by that for a second before it seems to connect in his head and he nods. “Course, dude.” I can see worry lines adding up across his forehead. “Where do you think your dad is this time, anyway?”

I shrug. “I’ll start with that apartment complex he was living in a few months ago. Who cares? I’ll find him. Just make sure you cover for me, okay? Especially to your mom, and to the school if anybody calls from there.” I don’t know if Barbara has gotten in touch with them.

“Sure. Man, it’s a good thing you guys all go to the same school.”

He’s right. There aren’t a lot of K-12 schools in the city, and Prescott Charter School is one of the few. If I had to go to a regular high school when I started my freshman year this fall, someone in administration would have noticed pretty quickly what was going on with our family. But Prescott is small enough for me to watch the kids and make sure things don’t look too sketchy with our parents. I’m always there to come up with some answer for why Mom and Dad can’t make it to a meeting or a field trip.

“You’re not gonna try to track down your mom?” Race asks, stubbing the heel of his wide sneaker into the linoleum this time.

“Nah. You know how hard she is to find. She’s probably not even in the Springs. At least Dad’s always around here somewhere.”

“You got any money?”

“What do you think?” I snap.

Race reaches into his sock and pulls out a ten, which he slaps into my hand. “Bus fare. No sweat. Take it, okay?”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “I bet there’s tons of sweat all over this.”

Race whacks me in the stomach. “Ya, beats whatever your socks smell like right now.”

I look down at the money in my hand, wishing I could hand it back and say I don’t need it. Race is always way too generous with his money. Once he bought Julia this brand-new Barbie she wanted because he knew I could never afford it. I hold that thought in my head for a moment before I curl the bill up into my pocket. I’ve got a limited amount of time to find my dad, and trying to do the whole thing on foot or hitchhiking isn’t going to help.

I grin at Race. “Thanks, Track.” I enjoy coming up with new ways of torturing him about his name. It’s his mom’s maiden name or something. It would be a complete liability to anyone else, but not Race. Somehow it works for him.

“Whatever, Dirt pile.” His nickname for me isn’t all that clever, but creativity is not Race’s strong suit.

“Look…,” I add as we walk toward the waiting room, “whatever happens… make sure the kids know I haven’t left them. That’s the most important thing.”

“Yeah…. I know.”

The picture of Race clears in my head again.

I look over at Matt, who is totally engrossed in a cartoon he’s watching with some other kids in the waiting room. That’s the most important thing.

“WHAT DO you mean you have to go wait for your mom at home? You still can’t reach her?”

Barbara isn’t swallowing my story as quickly and easily as I hoped she would. This is going to be harder than I thought.

“There’s no answer at her work, and she still isn’t answering her cell. And we don’t have a phone at home.” That’s true. It’s been shut off for months now.

Barbara rubs her face in exasperation. “Fine. Let’s go. I’ll drive you to the apartment.”

“You can’t!” Even I know my voice gets too sharp then, as Barbara looks up in confusion and Race gives me a warning glance. “Uh… someone has to wait here in case Julia wakes up or something.”

“Okay. You and Race stay here and I will go to your apartment to wait for your mom.”

Hmm. This is definitely going to be harder than I thought.

“Umm… no. That won’t work either.”

“Why not?” Barbara sighs.

“It’s just… my mom doesn’t know you all that well. She’s not gonna want to find you in her house telling her that her daughter has appendicitis.”

Barbara sighs. “Dusty, let me understand this. You want me to send you home—alone at night, and without a ride—to tell your mom where your sister is, while Race and I wait here with Matt?”

“Yes.” I try to pull out that same “upstanding” look I used earlier on Mrs. Sabring. “You don’t have to worry about me, Barbara. I know how to take the bus. And actually, it’s only like five thirty. It won’t really be dark for another hour.”

I’m actually a little surprised when she agrees.

I head for the hospital lobby, feeling apprehensive. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find my dad, and I’m also pretty sure he’ll come back to the hospital with me once he knows how sick Julia is. But I can’t shake the gut feeling it might not be that easy. It sure wouldn’t be the first time my unpredictable and freewheeling father didn’t say what I wanted to hear from him.

I FIND my way to the bus stop outside the hospital and wait, staring down the Front Range mountains in front of me.

The Front Range is pretty impressive, even if you’ve been looking at it your whole life. It’s a span of enormous mountains, rocky and tree-covered, almost purple-colored. And yes, these are the “purple mountain majesties” from the song “America the Beautiful.” (Believe me when I say every kid who’s ever spent more than five minutes in a Colorado Springs elementary school can recite that song backward and forward.) Right in the center of them is good old Pikes Peak: fourteen thousand feet of mountain that, apparently, its own namesake couldn’t even climb.

Who would think that right now I’d find Colorado History class to be a helpful distraction?

The thing is, I’ve grown up in Colorado Springs, and these mountains are part of my life, part of my existence. They’ve always been a constant in my life, and I appreciate that about them. Except for the coats of snow that sometimes cover them, they never change.

They are the one and only thing, I sometimes think, that never change. I’m still staring at them as the bus arrives.

When I last saw my dad, he was living in the Lakeview Apartment complex on Circle Drive. The name’s about as deceiving as it gets. The only water anywhere nearby is this tiny pond in the courtyard of the apartments. I figure the name needs to be deceiving because the apartments are so disgusting. All four buildings in the complex have peeling brown paint, carpet that is probably older than me, and month-to-month renters who’ve got to cheer the day they finally save up enough to move down the road to an apartment with an actual view of something besides brown grass. The upper central area of Colorado Springs, where the apartments are, is not exactly known for its quality living. The southwest area is really high-class, and the north end too. But the upper central part of the city tends to be known for its low-income housing and bars.

We live in the lower center of town, which isn’t much better than what’s directly above it, but that doesn’t make it any easier to go visit my dad. The last time I stopped by (it was less stopping by and more begging for grocery money), his place was packed with unemployed guys who apparently had nothing better to do than sit around a dirty apartment all day.

My dad swears he makes pretty good money, but that always seems sketchy to me. I have a good idea what he does for that money.

It doesn’t help that I always feel like I’m getting ready to do battle when I go looking for Dad, which I sort of am. He always gets angry with me for letting Mom disappear, even though there’s never anything I can do about that. Then he goes off about how she must’ve left us with plenty of money; how could we have run out so quickly?

He hasn’t lived with us in so long anyway that most of the time it’s easier just to pretend he doesn’t exist. He only comes by the apartment to see Matt and Julia once every couple of months. I swear that if I didn’t need the money, I’d have stopped going to see him years ago.

I get to Circle okay, and I stand in front of his apartment complex for a second before I get up the nerve to go into the unlocked front door and up the stairs to the apartment. I stare at the bell as if I can will it to ring itself, but I quickly remember I don’t have time to goof around and press the white button.

I can hear whooping and laughing, surrounded by loud music, coming through the door. Just Dad’s environment.

The guy who answers the door is skinny and balding, about thirty, with really bad teeth. I recognize him as my Dad’s friend Seth, but he sure doesn’t recognize me. “Who the heck are you?” he practically snarls, lighting a cigarette as he speaks. I clear my throat to be heard over the music and try to stand up to my full five feet seven inches. It’s moments like these I wish I was taller; maybe that would make me look like someone this guy would listen to.

“I’m looking for Luke. I’m his son.”

Seth chokes on the some of the smoke drifting up around his face. “Luke’s got a kid?”

Seth has met me a bunch of times, and Matt and Julia too, actually, but I decide not to bring that up just then. “Yeah. Three of us. You know where he is?”

Seth is sucking his smoke and staring at me. I can tell he’s trying to decide whether to help me or slam the door in my face. I must look at least a little bit intimidating, or maybe he finally remembers me, because he shakes his head. “Luke moved out. Don’t live here anymore.”

Some guy, who I remember as Charlie, comes out of the kitchen. “Luke’s living over Sunny’s Bar now.”

Great. Getting to Sunny’s is going to take time—time Matt and Jules and I don’t have. “Thanks,” I mumble. I get out of there as quickly as I can, without even thinking about saying good-bye.

I haven’t been to Sunny’s before, but at least I know where it is. Sunny’s is actually an old bar more toward the center of town, but the guy who owns it is another friend of my dad’s. Who knows what Dad is doing there? Probably the exact same thing he was doing at the Lakeview apartment.

The bus trip to Sunny’s seems long. I spend the whole time checking my watch and calculating the number of minutes I’ve been away from the hospital. I think way too hard. Has Matt noticed I left yet? What does he think of my leaving? Is Jules out of surgery yet? Needless to say, it’s not a great ride.

Sunny’s is one of the ugliest businesses I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out of a bad horror film, complete with peeling paint, a very brown lawn, and an old wooden sign missing half the letters that says SUN Y BAR and G IL. I wonder if the health department actually lets them serve food.

The inside of the place is dark too, mostly because half the light bulbs in it are burnt out. The tables are smeared with grease, and the bottles behind the bar are so dirty I could build Julia a sandbox with the crud caked onto them. I stop at the bar and wonder why the bartender doesn’t look shocked to see a fourteen-year-old in front of him (and trust me, I don’t look big for my age).

“Whatcha want, kid?”

I lean on the bar, trying to look a little more mature or something. Somehow, I don’t think it’s working. “Is Luke Porter here?”

That same look Seth gave me spreads across the bartender’s face. He’s trying to decide whether or not to help me.

“Maybe. Who are you?”

“His son.”

He doesn’t say anything else. He just turns and leaves the bar, and I follow him down a dusty hallway and up some stairs to a scratched and worn door. “Luke, some kid’s here to see you. Says he belongs to you.”

I force myself into the room. It’s a mess of old green rugs, with little lighting, furniture, or color. It smells like rotten eggs and dirty socks. A few men are sitting around the room smoking. It only takes a quick scan before I notice my dad lying across a patch of floor by a heating duct.

It’s getting hard not to grimace whenever I see him. He looks just like Matt, with dark-brown hair and these really intense bright-green eyes, and he used to be incredibly built when I was younger. Not anymore. He gets skinnier every time I see him these days. His hair is patchier around the back, and his teeth are starting to turn brown.

“Dusty!” He gets up quickly and comes over for a hug. “God I’ve missed you! What are you doing here?” They’re both weird sentences to hear from your father when he’s living in the same town as you, but I don’t bother softening up the edges.

“Dad, Mom’s not around and Julia’s in the hospital. Her appendix burst.”

He steps away from me. “Where did she go this time? Does she think she can just keep leaving you guys like that? Did you tell her to leave, Dusty?”

I shake my head, not too surprised that he missed the part about his daughter being in the hospital. He’s not always all that sharp, my dad. “Dad, did you hear me? Julia’s in the hospital. I need you to come with me.”

Dad runs his hands through his thinning hair and sinks back onto a stained couch. “Geez, Dusty. She’s in the hospital? Is it serious?”

How can it take so long for someone to digest something? I suck in a deep breath. “Yes, Dad, it’s serious. The doctors want a parent there… you or Mom. They say Julia will be okay, but if you don’t come back with me, they’re going to start to wonder where you guys are.”

I can see him mulling this over, and I take a second we don’t have to wonder how it’s possible I can look so little like this man. I don’t look anything like my mom, either.

There’s actually this picture of my family that a friend of my mom’s took when Julia was just a baby. In it, Dad is standing behind Matt, and you can see how much they look alike—Matt has always had Dad’s dark hair and green eyes. Mom is holding baby Julia, who already is a mini version of her with blond hair and brown eyes. I’m standing between Mom and Dad, the odd man out with light-brown hair and blue eyes, in the exact center of the picture—I look so different from them it’s almost strange. I’ve never figured out who I’m supposed to look like.

“I can’t come to the hospital with you, Dusty.”

“What?” He says it so quietly I’m sure I must have heard him wrong.

“I said… I can’t go with you. Not right now.”

I’ve known since I left the hospital that this was a possibility. Isn’t that the reason I’ve felt so anxious all evening? My dad has never been a real dad before, so why would he start now?

But to hear him say it, standing in front of me… to hear him sell us down the river without any real warning… to give us up without thinking about it for more than a second….

I almost take a swing at him. I want to. I can feel my fists clenching at my sides. I’m pretty sure the only thing that stops me is the fact that we’re surrounded by guys who are a lot older and stronger than me. Maybe not, though. He is still my dad, and he’s always looked so huge to me—even now, broom-handle skinny guy that he’s become.

“You gotta understand, Dusty. I have deliveries to make; stuff to do. I can’t just take off.” He shakes his head. “Kid, I work with some guys who won’t care why I left. They’ll just care that I left. I mean, I’ll come later, when I can. I just can’t right now.”

I just stare at him, incredulous. “Dad, what do you think it’ll be like when I show up at the hospital with no parents? You don’t think that will be bad? They’ll put us into foster care, Dad.”

“Dusty!” He shakes his head. “Don’t be such a worrywart. It won’t be like that. I’ll be there eventually, or your mom will show up. She’ll be back before they even notice anything is wrong.”

And then he actually smiles at me.

He lives in a world all his own, that’s for sure. As I look around that world, covered in grime and stain, I can’t figure out why he likes this life so much better than the one with his kids.

I spin away from him and head for the door.

“Dusty—”

He doesn’t get a chance to say anything else, though, because someone opens another door and start yelling, “Luke, you got packages ready in the other room.”

I don’t wait around to hear any more excuses. I just slam the door behind me.

I’m through Sunny’s and outside again before my anger gives way to panic. What am I going to do? I have to go back to the hospital, and I have nothing to show for this trip of mine. No Dad, no Mom.

It’s finally happened. After all that hard work… our cover’s finally been blown.

I catch the bus, barely aware of what’s going on around me. I think the bus driver asks me if I feel okay, but I don’t really hear him. All I hear is my dad, over and over again, saying, “I can’t go with you.”

In my head I keep seeing that picture of the five of us. We’d all been at the park together. Mom had packed a picnic lunch, and she and her friend had sat on the grass with Julia while Dad and I played soccer and pretended to let Matt, who was really tiny then, play too. Mom’s friend had taken the picture after we’d all gone for a walk around the lake together.

Too bad that’s the only picture we have like that. That day was a total anomaly. My dad’s never been the responsible-dad type. Even before he lost his job at the power plant and he and Mom broke up for good, he always drank too much and gambled all the time. Not exactly a shining role model.

I make a quick stop at home, just to see if my mother had a brain aneurysm that caused her to remember she has three kids and return home. No dice. The place is dark.

I go back to the hospital and stare at the entrance for a while before I can will myself to go in.

Nothing much has changed in the waiting room. Barbara is reading a book, Race is playing his Game Boy, and Matt is asleep on a couch. He looks so peaceful, so happy. I feel like I’m dealing him and Jules the biggest blow of their lives as I walk up to Barbara.

“Dusty!” She says it with immense, obvious relief. “You’re back. Where’s your mom?”

I didn’t even hesitate this time. After all, what’s left to do? Mom isn’t going to reappear at any minute—she usually takes off for weeks at a time, and she’s only been gone for a week and a half now—and my dad has made it perfectly clear where he stands.

The snow has been getting deeper and deeper, and it’s now pretty clear I’m not going to make it up this mountain.

“Barbara? I need to talk to you.”

JULIA IS in surgery for another hour. Matt spends the time sleeping and periodically waking up to watch cartoons again. Barbara gets some information from me about where Dad is, and I know she goes to talk to somebody about it, but we don’t say much more about what’s going to happen to us next. I don’t really want to talk about it, so I don’t ask. Race tries to do his homework and tries to get me to do mine too, but I can’t concentrate on anything. When I tell him three plus five equals seven, he finally hands his Game Boy to me. “Oh, just play that,” he says. “You’re useless.”

I can’t do anything with that, either. All I can do is think. Where are we going to end up? Will they keep Julia and Matt together and make me disappear? Will that be my punishment for lying to everyone for so long? Finally I fall asleep across three cold, hard metal chairs. It is the worst place to take a nap, but I sleep like Matt after he’s come off a Mountain Dew high until someone starts shaking my shoulder roughly. “Dusty, wake up.” I hear Race call from what feels like a long way off. “Jules is out of surgery.”

The room they have Jules in is small and cramped—Race says it’s a recovery room. She looks smaller than I’ve ever seen her, her dirty-blond hair framing a face that is still really pale. At least she’s sleeping. I pull a chair up next to her bed, and Matt quickly hops into my lap. We sit there for a moment, staring at her, with Race shadowing the doorway. Matt buries his head a little way into my shoulder. “She’s going to be okay now, right Dusty?”

I can’t answer that, so I don’t.