Chapter Eight ~ Ragin' Jakes
“Ragin’ Jake’s,” Nicki announced. “Looks like we beat the dinner rush.”
Elizabeth raised her head and rubbed her eyes. Melissa stretched and yawned next to her. They peered out the windshield and saw a squat building painted in reds and browns. A statue of a lumberjack guarded the front door. He held an upraised ax in one hand and a hamburger the size of a chihuahua in the other. “Ragin’ Jake’s—Best Burgers Known to Man or Beast” read a sign on the roof.
Logan pulled into a parking lot full of trucks, ATVs, rusted motorbikes, and police cruisers. Elizabeth’s gut seized up. A specter rose before her mind’s eye and paralyzed her with its gaze. Elizabeth Morgan, it said in a gravelly voice, Your parents have been devastated since you left, you evil stinking girl. You’re a truant, pansy-smashing, oath breaking car jacker and it’s time you owned up to everything you’ve done. You deserve to be arrested.
Elizabeth shot Melissa a panicked glance.
Melissa had seen the police car too, but she didn’t look worried.
“Now what?” Elizabeth asked her.
Melissa smiled, her gray eyes calm. “We did have an adventure. Want to go home after this?”
A lump rose in Elizabeth’s throat. Yes. She wanted to go home more than anything. She missed her mum and dad and her bed and going to school and eating three meals a day. Especially that. And her room, and her house, and maple leaves, and maybe even soap.
Elizabeth swiped her eyes. “What about movie night?”
“Every other Friday. Open invite,” Nicki put in.
“Will you be there?” asked Melissa, eyeing Logan with distaste.
“Will there be kissing?”
Logan put his arm across Nicki’s shoulder and smirked.
Nicki grinned. “Extra smarties if you promise not to stab him or smash his head with a textbook.”
Elizabeth took a shivering breath. Her voice sounded small, “Can we get the hamburgers to go?”
It felt strange to leave her pencils and backpack in the car after all the kilometers she’d carried them. It felt strange to walk across the parking lot towards the lumberjack statue with Logan and Nicki, as though she and Melissa were regular kids who had never missed the school bus, run away from home, slept on a rock, scared off a bear, vanquished a tin can, eaten expired baked beans, helped an injured zombie, or stolen a ruffian’s car.
Melissa didn't say anything, but she tucked her shirt, brushed hair out of her face, and swallowed hard.
“Bandit den ahead,” Elizabeth said to cheer her up.
Melissa managed a smile, “Oh good. We’ll fit right in.”
But they never made it inside.
The door opened and a policeman came out. He glanced at them, wiped his lips, and tossed a mustard-stained serviette into the trash bin.
“Hullo,” said Nicki.
The policeman grunted, walked three paces towards his police cruiser, then stopped and turned around. Melissa froze mid-step. Elizabeth did too, but not because of the officer. Someone else had come out of Ragin’ Jake’s. It was a haggard man with blood shot eyes. He held his clipboard with listless fingers.
“Dad?” Elizabeth’s legs went wobbly and started to shake. Tears welled up and flowed down her cheeks. She felt like a stake in her chest had suddenly come free.
He stared at her, then went down on one knee, as though he didn’t have the strength to stand up any more. He opened his arms. Elizabeth rushed into them. And suddenly she was sobbing. Sobbing uncontrollably while the whole story swarmed out of her—the oatmeal and her vow and the woods and the bear and the hut with baked beans. He held her tight and only let go to pull Melissa into the embrace.
She cried too.
Somewhere beside them the officer spoke into his radio.
Logan nudged Nicki’s shoulder and whispered in her ear. She smiled and nudged him back.
“Are you angry?” Elizabeth asked.
Dale Morgan smiled through his tears. “I’m angry and sad and so so happy to have you back.”
The officer pulled out a pad of paper and fired questions at Nicki and Logan. More police officers appeared. Dale took Elizabeth and Melissa over to straighten things out. There was lots of blushing and toe scuffing and awkwardness and phone calls. Then a Honda civic squealed into the parking lot. Jane Morgan and Emily and Rob Halcot piled out. The hugging and crying started all over again. Jane’s mascara ran down her cheeks, but it didn’t worry Elizabeth. She decided she liked zombies.
Jane brushed hair off Elizabeth’s face. “Why did you run away?”
She ducked her head, her voice raspy in her throat. “We saw you with the brownies.”
“Oh honey. We’re going to talk more about that. About everything.”
Elizabeth bit her lip, “And I trampled your pansies.”
“You’ll have to help me plant more.”
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
Then Nicki’s parents and siblings showed up, and Logan’s dad, and half the precinct, including the chief of police, all of them wanting to know the story and arguing and asking questions and shaking their heads.
Ragin’ Jake came to see what the hubbub was about and suggested they all buy burgers to celebrate the return of the runaways. Nicki disappeared inside to order. By then the place was so full that there weren’t any seats left, so they ate on the curb. Elizabeth’s Moose Burger Melt was the best she’d ever tasted. And it wasn’t just the fun of eating burgers without serviettes or forks and knives. It was sitting between her parents. That was the best part. They didn’t complain once about how impractical it was to eat dinner on a sidewalk.
Pretty soon Dale Morgan and Rob Halcot and Logan’s dad and the chief of police were swapping stories about crazy stuff they’d done as kids. Nicki’s mom and Jane Morgan discussed the finer points of gardening. Pieter and Anika made Logan give them piggy back rides, and Nicki and Emily Halcot talked about dancing and choreography. Elizabeth and Melissa could barely take it in. They exchanged wondering glances, ate their burgers, and cried off and on.
Then they all went home.
Over the next weeks and days there was lots more crying and family chats and arguments and hugs, but eventually they sorted things out. Elizabeth only had to eat oatmeal four times a week. On the fifth she could have her pick, and on the weekends she made breakfast for her parents.
She and Melissa got permission to go to movie night at Nicki’s one Friday a month. Nicki and Logan picked them up once in a while and took them into the woods where Logan taught them how to build fires, hang bear bags, and whittle with a pocket knife. They were both going to join Girl Guides that summer.
After that was over, Elizabeth, Melissa, Nicki and her siblings, Logan and his dad, and Mr. Morgan were all going camping together.
Elizabeth couldn’t wait, even if Logan insisted on calling her “Porcupine” and Melissa “Hammer.” She didn’t really mind. It was a better name than Twigs.
“I’ve start writing a book about our adventure,” Melissa told Elizabeth while they waited for the bus one day. Want to write the Survival Guide for the back?”
“About how to pick guide trees?” Elizabeth asked, listening to the school bus honk its horn around the curve on Bella.
“And how to open tin cans with nails and rocks,” added Melissa, grinning.
“How to terrify black bears,” said Elizabeth, touching the pencil she kept tucked behind her ear.
“And the proper application of war paint.”