Chapter One

Running South:


Running South
- Annotated:
“He looks like sweet, yummy chocolate. Don’t you want to eat him up?” Sydney said over the noise of a party in the Hollywood hills.
“Who? Javier?” Lexi stared across the white-marble and chrome living room at her boyfriend. She folded her arms and frowned. Sydney had no clue of the tragedy two days ago.
“Yeah, well if he's chocolate, he's bitter dark chocolate.”
“Uh-oh. A problem in candy land?”
“You didn’t notice in the car? He’s ignoring me.” Why were they at this party pretending nothing happened?
“He seemed fine to me.”
“A few weeks ago it was all tuxedo colors and honeymoon destinations. And now we don’t talk about—anything.” Lexi stopped herself before she said too much.
“Maybe he’s stressed about college. You both started nerd classes at UCLA. Hello, UCLA, ring any bells?” Sydney tapped Lexi’s head.
“It’s not that.” The pit in her stomach grew and she tugged on her lip-ring.
“Okay. Then what?”
“Look, they’re dancing by the pool. Come on, let’s check it out.”

Running South:


Running South
- Annotated:

Sydney pulled her back to the chair. “Not so fast, little butterfly. You can do better than that. Give up the details.”

Lexi stared at a glass coffee table. She hated keeping a secret from her best friend. “Is this still about copying your homework?”

To avoid crying, Lexi tried to recall from chemistry class the compounds found in glass. “Lex, that’s like nothing. You’re Little Miss Honest and you said no. End of story. This’ll blow over. You so overthink life.”

On the other side of the room, Javier talked with a pretty Asian girl.

“Look around.” Sydney pointed. “Every estrogen infused predator wants him, but you’re the best thing that ever happened to Javier. He’s not gonna to blow that.”
“Then why am I sitting here while he talks to her?”

Sydney leaned past a teenage guy shouting about a sports team. “She’s not even in your league. I wish I had half your looks and brains.” She took off her thick glasses and grimaced. “I’d settle for the looks. Twenty bucks says that chick will make the universal flirt move and he'll shut her down. Then he’ll look over here and give you a big chocolaty Javi smile.”
“The universal flirt move?”

Sydney shook her head. “How could someone get a twenty-one hundred on the SAT’s and not know about the universal flirt move? She's going to find an opportunity in the conversation to touch him, on the arm or somewhere. Universal flirt move. Watch and learn.”

They hid behind a magazine and Sydney hummed the Mission Impossible theme song. Lexi crossed her fingers. Maybe Sydney was right. Javier would snap out of his silence and come back to her. Then they could deal with this ugly mess.

Javier laughed at something the girl said. She bent in hysterics and braced herself against his arm.

Sydney pumped a fist in the air. “Yes. Universal flirt move. Okay, now for the smile at you. Wait for it . . .”

Javier laughed and laid his hand on top of the girl’s. A minute later, he turned his back toward Lexi and led the girl out to the pool that overlooked the lights of L.A. Lexi slid lower and finished her cranberry juice and lime. “Maybe it’s your turn to be the D.D.”
“No, don’t listen to Sydney. Bad Sydney. The guy's totally hooked on you. Universal whatever. Sydney spoke foolishness.”

Lexi shook the ice in her cup. She knew the reason Javier left her falling off a cliff, while he flirted with another girl. “Do you mind if we leave early?”
“You mean ditch chocolate boy while he’s dancing with Chinese Methuselah? Good plan.”

Lexi rocked in tiny motions in her dark room. It was two nights after the party, and the secret was eating her from the inside. She couldn't handle it alone. The only one who knew what she’d done was Javier. She checked her phone for the time: 3:04 a.m. He’d still be playing online games.

She typed a text message:
I’m havin nightmares We shouldn’t have killed it

Did he regret it, too? Something had changed since the clinic. She had to know what he was thinking. But he wouldn’t return calls. She stared at the screen and willed it to receive a reply. Had to try one more time. The phone chimed and she jumped.

They said it’s not a baby til 24 wks U didn't kill nuthin

Lexi read it again and got stuck on the word “you.” What was the “you” stuff?

She jabbed at the keys.
What happnd 2 we? I seem 2 recall u were there About dat Th only mistake was us tryin 2 b an item

She pressed in her response.

What r u sayin?

I don’t think we r right 4 each other

She used his speed-dial, but it bounced to voicemail. He sent another text. Its ova

U leave when I need help??? What kind of . . . She deleted the words and typed: U R A COWARD!!! But she backspaced over that message, too, and threw the phone against the wall. Scum, couldn’t even say it to her face. She swung both fists against the bed and let anger overpower her tears.

“Lexi?” Mom’s sleepy voice came down the hall. “You okay?”
Lexi didn’t answer. What could she say?
Mom threw the door open. “Lex? I heard noises. What’s wrong?”
Lexi crawled out of bed to find her phone.
“Well?” Mom put a hand on her hip.
“It’s . . . Javier. We’re fighting.” She spoke through clenched teeth, and wanted to punch the wall.
“At three in the morning?” Mom’s voice rose. “I have to go to work, and you have classes, college classes, Alexi Dietrich. Go to sleep, and fight with Javier tomorrow, like normal people.” She slammed the door.

Mom didn’t get Lexi, never had. Javier had been so perfect. Smart, funny, he never even looked at other girls. Now he was a jerk. No more talk of marriage, or the clinic. No more talk of anything.
And where was her MIA father?
As Lexi thought about her father, the light of a childhood memory slipped under her anger. She was on the grass, six years old, and Dad had closed a storybook. “I love you, Leximite,” he said, and kissed her head and face with loud smacking noises until she giggled. Now his words brought a hint of comfort. “I need him back.” Dad was the only one who could ever fix her mistakes. She twirled a lock of hair around a finger. Drying her eyes, she squinted at her mother's door.
“Mom?” She eased the door open and spoke into the darkness. “Mom?”
“What now, Lexi? I have to sleep.”

She swallowed but nothing came out.

“Lex, something’s wrong. What happened, baby?” Mom leaned on one elbow.

A thousand words raged in Lexi’s head. She needed Mom, but she couldn’t get the most important word past her lips, “abortion.” Would Mom agree with the doctor who told her she had a right to choose abortion?
“Where’s Dad?”
“What? Why are you asking in the middle of the night? I have no idea where that snake is.”
“I heard you on the phone—Lima. He’s in Peru, isn’t he?” Her father once told her about an offer for a restaurant partnership in South America. But what she’d overheard with her mom sounded like he was on another binge.

“You wake me up so you can fight with Javier, and again so you can ask me about your father? Lexi, go, to, sleep. You’re killing me.”
“Do you at least have his number?”
“After what he did, there’s no way you’re talking to that man.”

Lexi knew the real story, it wasn’t all Dad’s fault. Mom had pushed him away. What if he was in some foreign country and drinking? That could be really bad. She had to find out.

“He’s still my father. I’m an adult and I have a right to know.”
Mom groaned. “You’re eighteen, by one month. Go to bed.”

Lexi blew her hair away from her mouth and turned.

Mom shouted through the door. “He dumped us, Lex. Dumped us both for some Latin bimbo. Get that into your head.”

Lexi kept the light on and sat on her bed. The electric lavender wall paint showed marks where she’d taken down, first Care Bears posters, and later fashion pinups.

Was it true, Dad dumped her? Both him and Javier? No, she couldn’t lose her dad, not now.

Tears blurred her vision. She’d fixed a mistake with a bigger mistake, and Dad was the only one left to help.

She searched her phone and found a photo of herself and her father at Disneyland. He had that dimpled smile, the same as hers. He’d never abandon her. So why hadn’t he called?

She had to find out what was wrong, and Mom wasn’t going to help. What if Dad was drinking himself to death, and no one came to help? He’d nearly done it before. She closed her eyes and pictured him with empty booze bottles and a razor blade.

“Lex, you’re the reason I stuck it out.” That’s what he said when he came came out of the treatment program.

And Javier—what had changed him? Her mistake was letting him mislead her into sex. Now he was . . . She refused to think about him.

Lexi stood and paced. She wanted to be someone different, someone better. Had to make a difference in the world, do something good. Helping Dad get his life together made sense. She eased a drawer open and reached to the back under her socks. The directions on the hair color said to leave it on for thirty minutes, she decided on an hour. She tiptoed to the downstairs bathroom and let hot water run over her blond head.

Staring at her reflection, Lexi waited for “candy apple red” to do its magic. The dye burned into her scalp, and Javier burned into her heart.

She would tell his friends what a loser he was, and they’d dump him. Like he did her. A pale Lexi stared back from the mirror, and the image seemed to condemn her. She couldn’t admit the secret. If anyone knew what they did, to a baby . . . She couldn’t say a word. Frustration grew into a growl. She squatted to the floor and wrapped her arms around her chest. She wanted to scream, but couldn’t let Mom hear.

In the morning, Lexi tiptoed to the granite kitchen counter. Since Dad left, they rarely used the professional stove and cookware.

“What have you . . . Orange!” Mom pointed a spoon at her. “Tell me that will wash out.”
“It’s supposed to be red.” Another screw-up added to her list. Lexi felt tears coming, so she busied herself with coffee. “I guess I left it on too long.”
“Most girls would give anything to look like you, but you poke holes in your face, and ruin naturally blond hair. So now you’re red? I don’t understand you, Lexi.”

Lexi pulled at the lid of a Tupperware canister and sent sugar flying across the counter. Mom’s perfect Mary Kay-face twisted.

“Sorry. And sorry I’m not the prissy model you wanted.” Since Lexi was six, her mother had paraded her through pageants and advertising shoots. All that ended with face piercings and a big tattoo of a bullseye target on her neck.

“Eighteen years I’ve sacrificed. I gave up law school so you could be a—”
“Top model.” Lexi finished the sentence.
“I only want the best for you, Lex. I love you but I feel like you work against everything I try.”

Lexi bowed her head. This was an old conversation that always ended in shouting. She didn’t want to go there.
“I need to know where Dad is.”
“Really, still with that?”
“So you’re not going to tell me?”

The S-curved vein on Mom’s forehead pulsed. What if she already knew about the clinic?
“Alexi Dietrich, I can’t hear another word about that man.” Mom slammed a hand into the middle of the spilled sugar. “I’ve had it with your attitude, and your . . . face mutilations, and all the rest. If you think I’m a bad mother, fine. Go to your dad in Peru, or hell, or wherever he is.” She swept her hand across the mess, sending sugar onto the floor.

Lexi took a step back. Mom probably didn’t really want her to go, but she had to leave. Dad might need her. For sure she needed him.

Mom would never help her rescue Dad. She’d have to do it on her own. Upstairs in her room, Lexi heard Mom’s shower stop. Pulling heavy textbooks and a laptop from her book bag, she stuffed in clothes and bathroom items.

A clatter in the kitchen. High heels clicked on the entry tile. She waited for Mom to say goodbye and don’t be late for school. The front door slammed. She was still mad. Lexi choked back a sob and raised her chin. She spoke to the empty house. “Goodbye, Mom. I love you.”

 


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Research Trip Through South America.

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