Duff Pringle has bought his first car. (Used.) He's got six days to drive 3,000 miles cross-country to California and start a new hi-tech job that will make him wealthy. (Sort of.) Nothing can stop him. (Or can it?)
Uh-oh . . . CAR TROUBLE.
Duff's Ford Escort barely makes it a hundred miles from home before breaking down. What's he supposed to do? He's promised his new boss he'll be there by Monday. But he's also promised himself that he'll make this journey by car, so he can really see the country. Using his laptop and some quick thinking, he pieces together a way to continue his trip. What he doesn't plan on are the people he meets along the road. There's Stu, a hitchhiker with a secret; Bonnie, an aspiring singer with a con artist for a mother; two thugs looking for a trunkful of cash; and Moony, the terrier prone to carsickness.
He was ready. He stood on the front porch in the first light of dawn, with his duffel bag in one hand and in the other the carrying case that held his laptop computer. Out by the curb, his car awaited him—the small blue Ford Escort he’d bought last week from Pete at the pizza place. It was a little banged up, but in the yellow glow of the streetlamp it looked better than in daylight. He took a long breath of warm, grassy-smelling air and ran the heading of his trip program through his mind: BEGIN: THE GREAT CROSS-COUNTRY JOURNEY OF DUFFY PRINGLE.
Behind him the screen door creaked open. His father came out, holding a cup of coffee wrapped in both hands. He stood beside Duff and gazed out at the car. “If you run into problems,” he said, “you know what to do.”
“I know,” Duff said. “Call you right away.”
“And when you get there, you know who to call if you need help.”
“I know,” Duff said. “Wade Belcher.” Wade Belcher was some friend of his father’s from a million years ago who now lived in San Jose. He was in the furniture business. Duff did not intend to call him.
“All right, then,” his father said, nodding gloomily.
It was strange, Duff thought, not having to argue with him. For the last two weeks he’d argued nonstop with both parents: about how he ought to be going to college instead of to California, how he was too young to drive across the country alone, how there was probably some hitch to this job offer that sounded so good, and how he might know a lot about computers but he didn’t know a thing about the real world and would probably wind up in jail or in the hospital or dead. “This isn’t some computer program you can control by typing in a bunch of numbers,” his father had said over and over. “This is life.” He’d glare at him as if Duff had never heard of this advanced science called life and would never be able to master it.
But in the end, his parents didn’t forbid him to go. They gave in, finally. They understood that their son, Duffy, had to be something special if a company on the other side of the country wanted to pay him good money to fool around with their computers.
Again the screen door opened. Duff’s mother came out, rummaging through her purse for the name badge she wore at the restaurant. “Have you got your jacket, hon?” she said. “Did you pack some aspirin in case you get one of your headaches?”
Duff nodded. He’d forgotten actually. But he wasn’t planning to have any headaches.
His mother stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “Promise to drive real carefully, okay? Don’t pick up any hitchhikers.”
“You’ve got your cell phone?” his father asked.
“Naturally,” Duff said.
“All right then,” said his father. “If you run out of money, just call.”
“I will,” said Duff, though he knew he wouldn’t. His father had no extra money. His business—Pringle Electric Works, Lamps & Lighting—never did much more than limp along. But Duff had the money he’d saved from working on weekends during his last year of high school; he was sure it would be enough for the trip.
He set down his bags and hugged his mom, who felt small and feathery in his arms. He hugged his dad, who felt large and stiff. Then he picked his bags up again and went down the steps to the street. His parents followed.
Duff opened the car door on the passenger side and laid his laptop on the seat, where it could ride next to him. The little computer was like a part of him—an external brain, a second pair of hands reaching out to the world. He put his duffel bag and a sleeping bag in the backseat. Then he got himself into the driver’s seat and rolled down the window.
“Bye,” he said to his parents, who had both bent slightly at the waist to look in at him.
“Call us from wherever you end up tonight,” said his father.
“Don’t forget,” said his mother. “Bye, dear.”
Duff turned the key in the ignition, and after a couple of coughs, the motor caught and hummed. He stepped on the gas and headed out into the street. It was so early that not a single other car was in sight.
Half a block on, he took one last look in the rearview mirror. His parents were still standing on the lawn, watching him go. He waved one more time, and they both waved back. Then he rounded a corner, they disappeared, and he was on his own, executing the first and most important line of his trip program: DRIVE WEST.