Excerpt // The Runaway by Peter J. Thompson
Jack. That was what they called him. Jack Freaking Sullivan. Close enough to his real name, Zach Monaghan, so he’d remember it, but every time someone called him Jack, he felt like a phony, a fraud. The worst thing was, he had to answer
by the name at home too. He’d lived as Zach all his life, and now even his mom was calling him Jack. When she remembered anyway. It pissed him o?.
Zach pulled his baseball cap lower on his head and stepped
through the doors of the Greyhound bus terminal.
His T-shirt clung to his back, and
he wasn’t sure if
the sweat was from nerves or the overpowering Phoenix heat. He stood, knees weak, hands trembling,
unable to believe he was finally doing what he wanted with his life—
returning home, to Chicago. At last he didn’t have to do what his
parents told him to do. He wasn’t a little kid anymore, doing whatever they said without complaint. At almost sixteen, he was plenty old enough to make his own decisions and his own choices. He
thought of Lindsey and smiled. In
just a couple of days, he’d see her again. Without meaning to, he laughed out loud but quickly
stopped and covered his
mouth. Standing by himself, laughing like an idiot was a sure way to attract attention.
Zach glanced around the terminal. Along the front wall, behind a long counter, several ticket agents stood in front of computers, display boards behind them showing the bus schedules. He shu?ed toward the ticket counter, stood in line, and reached into his pocket to make sure he still had his money. He’d cleaned out his savings account the day before. All his birthday money, everything he’d earned from mowing lawns and shoveling snow back home, and from his summer job working at Dad’s old company. Money intended for his college education—close to three thousand dollars—was now divided between his pocket and an envelope at the bottom of his backpack.
The line moved quickly, and it didn’t take long for one of the ticket agents to motion him over. Zach ordered a one-way ticket to Chicago. He was afraid the ticket agent would ask him questions or make some comment about his age. At five foot nine and one hundred forty-five pounds, he wasn’t exactly the biggest kid, but with his wide shoulders, he could probably pass for at least a year or two older. He readjusted the baseball cap, covering his reddish-brown hair, and took a pace forward. The ticket lady barely glanced at him, punched something into the computer, and announced the price. Zach glanced behind him to be sure no one was watching, then pulled the money out of his pocket and counted out exact change. She handed over the ticket and told him the bus would be leaving within the hour.
Simple as that. Why had he been so worried?
Zach found a seat toward the
back of the room
where he could keep track of what was going on. He reached for his cell phone before remembering, again, his parents had taken his away when they
moved and refused to replace it—even though everyone else in
his class had one. The kids probably thought he was Amish or some-
thing. He took the old iPod from the top of his backpack, slipped
his earbuds on, and sat back to wait. The rush of excitement hit him again, churning his gut and making
his pits sweaty. He couldn’t wait to step on the bus and get out of town. Arizona, probably
the hottest, grimmest, grimiest, most boring place on earth, could go to
hated the heat, and the sun and the sand, and almost everything about it. Hated his new school too. The kids were di?erent, and he didn’t fit in at all. Most of all, he hated all the lying.
He turned up the volume on his iPod and tried to relax. It would take almost two full days to reach Chicago. Two days stuck on a bus with no bed and no shower, sitting next to a stranger who probably smelled bad and might be a serial killer or something for all he knew. The trip might well suck, but, still, he couldn’t wait to board the bus and take his next step to freedom. Freedom from his lying parents. His hands clenched just thinking about them. They claimed to love him and want the best for him. They tried to explain how they were doing this to keep him, Brenda, and Anthony safe. But that was a lie too. If they really cared about him, they wouldn’t have moved without warning in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t have cut o? all contact with his friends or made it so they couldn’t talk with Grandma Kate, or Uncle Lou and Aunt Tracey, or any of the other relatives. This wasn’t about love. His dad had made a decision and they all had to live by it.
Zach looked up as a young mom inched her way up the aisle. She was pushing a stroller while at the same time trying to pull along a suitcase. Her hands were full and a young boy, maybe four or five years old, walked alongside her, his little hand clutching the hem of her dress. The baby in the stroller was crying, loud enough to hear above his music, and the mom looked weary. They stopped a few seats away from Zach. The mom was trying to take her bags o? and set them down, but she looked overwhelmed. Zach slipped his earbuds down on his neck.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Is there anything I can do to help?”
The mom had the baby in her arms now, trying to stop the crying. She glanced over and gave Zach a flustered smile. “No. Thanks, I’m fine.”
Zach was about to slip the ear buds back on, but the boy was staring at him, his brown eyes wide. The mom was flustered and she
might not ask for help, but Zach could tell she needed it.
“Hey, you want to see something cool?” he asked the boy.
The boy didn’t say anything but nodded his head. Zach glanced back at the mom, and she shrugged her assent.
“Watch this.” Zach unzipped his backpack and pulled a small sketchpad from the top. He took a pencil out and made a show of opening the book and inviting the boy closer. The boy moved in and sat in the seat next to him. Zach drew a small sideways oval near the bottom of the pad, and then two long ovals right above it.
“What’s that?” he asked.
The boy shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
“Keep watching.” He added small circles to the bottoms of the ovals and darkened them in.
“Those are eyes!” the little boy exclaimed.
Zach smiled at him and kept drawing. He made a long half circle below, turning his sketch into a grinning face. A few more lines and its tongue was sticking out.
“Hey, that’s a face. Who is it?”
Zach smiled again but didn’t say anything. A few more lines and the kid was bouncing up and down with excitement. Zach finished the drawing by putting two near circles at the top for ears.
“That’s Mickey Mouse!”
The mom glanced over and Zach showed her the quick drawing. “Wow.” The mom bounced her baby on her shoulder. “You have a
real way with kids.”
“I have a brother just a few years older than he is,” Zach said. “How did you do that?” the boy squealed. “Can you teach me?”
“I can try. Here.” Zach gave the boy the pad of paper and the pencil. “We’ll do it together this time.”
He guided the boy’s hand as they slowly went through the steps. They worked together, one step at a time. By the time Zach heard the announcement for the bus leaving for Chicago, the boy was able to draw a crude version on his own.
“That’s me. I’ve got to go.” Zach stood up.
“Thank you,” the mom said. “That really helped. Don’t forget your pad.”
“No, I’ve got another one. He can keep it. If he forgets how to do it, they have this on YouTube.” Zach zipped up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. “See you, buddy. Have a great trip.”
He smiled as he hurried to join the stream of people moving toward a side door. His tension and anger were gone now. It felt good helping the mom and playing with the kid. He was several years younger, but the way he got so enthusiastic about the littlest things, the kid reminded him of his brother Anthony. It was going to be weird being away from his family. He was mad at his parents, but he knew he wasn’t running away for good. After a few days back home in Chicago, he’d let them know where he was so they wouldn’t worry. They’d see that they needed to treat him more like an adult then, and it would work out better for all of them.
He followed the people walking out a side door to an open area where several buses were parked, engines running, belching exhaust fumes into the superheated air. A group was gathered near the front bus, and he stepped to the back of the line. Others lined up behind him and Zach clutched his backpack a little tighter. When it was his turn, Zach stepped onto the bus and handed his ticket to the driver.
“This is going to Chicago, right?”
The driver punched the ticket and returned it to him. “With stops along the way, it sure is. Hold on to that. You’ll need it later.”
Zach reclaimed the ticket, nodded, and made his way toward the rear of the bus. About half the seats were already taken. A tall man with long hair and a cowboy hat stared at him as he sidestepped past, a weird half-smile on his face. Zach turned away and walked further back. The guy creeped him out. No way he wanted to get stuck sitting next to someone like that.
He found a window seat near the back, sat, and stowed his back- pack between his legs. The bus was air-conditioned, and the cool air was a relief. Turning his head, Zach stared through the gray-tinted windows as the rest of the crowd boarded, and he wondered when he would see Phoenix again. Not any time soon, he hoped.
A gray-haired lady with a mole on her neck smiled
at him and dropped into the seat
beside him. She
looked like someone’s
grandma. Zach returned her smile, relieved she wasn’t someone creepy. He readjusted his earbuds and settled in for the ride. After a few minutes, the driver shifted the bus into gear and started it moving. Zach kept staring out the window as they merged onto the expressway. This is it. He was really going through with it.
The scenery changed from o?ce buildings and strip malls, to housing developments and construction sites, to bare desert. He settled more comfortably into the soft seat. Soon enough he’d be back in Chicago. He smiled at the thought.
Before they’d fled to Phoenix, life had been good. He’d made the school football team, and right before the sudden move, he was moved up to the varsity team, one of the few sophomores to make it. Everyone else on the defense outweighed him by at least thirty pounds, but the coach said he played bigger than his size and he wasn’t afraid to hit. Zach wouldn’t be able to return to school or join the team again—the season was nearly over anyway—but he couldn’t wait to see his buddies. He’d emailed his best friend, Kyle, and told him he was coming. It was going to be great seeing them all again. The truth, though, was that if it was just the guys, he’d probably still be sitting in his new home pissed o?, but doing nothing about it.
It was all about Lindsey Cunningham. Even though he’d just met
her, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. The day before the move, he’d met her at the mall, and she smiled at him. He’d gathered up his courage and approached her and they’d talked and joked around for over an hour. Before she left, she gave him her number. She was cute and funny, and Zach couldn’t pull his mind away from her. If they hadn’t moved, she would have been his girlfriend for sure. And it was all his parents’ fault she wasn’t.
The situation might have stayed that way forever, but then last week, after getting into another fight with his mom, he finally
got up the nerve to contact Lindsey. The following day, he messaged her from the computer at the school library. He’d been certain she’d be
mad at him, but she understood
it wasn’t his fault and was glad to know he was all right. Even though
it was just by message, talking
with her made his heart race. Right then and there, he decided to run away, and they made plans to meet again at the mall the following Monday.
Zach kept staring out the window at the sand and rocks and straggly cactus. He couldn’t wait to be back in Chicago.
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Peter Thompson grew up on the east side of Chicago, in the shadow of the steel mills where the air was sooty and smelled of sulfur. His life wasn’t always so gritty, but the grit and realism finds its way into his thrillers. He has always loved stories of every kind, and one of his joys is finding a way to get inside character’s heads, seeing the world as they see it and feeling their triumphs, pain, and fear. He visualizes his characters when he writes, and they are larger than life in the big screen of his imagination.
Before pursuing his passion and becoming a full-time author, he tried his hand at everything from factory work, breaking cement in a construction crew, running his own pizza shop, and he was a well-regarded presence in the mortgage industry for nearly thirty years. When he isn’t writing, Peter loves, spicy food, live music, and exciting and thought-provoking books and movies. He is a fitness buff who loves to spend time with his grown sons and is looking forward to traveling the world and seeking adventures with his lovely partner.
To get in touch, find out more about future projects, please stop by authorpeterthompson.com. Sign up for his reading list to find out about new releases and receive free perks.