Chapter One

Reading and Teaching Guide to Follow First Chapter…


Fake It


That’s definitely number one in my notebook. All people do it. Faking it could save your life.

Just then, I was faking it. Writing in my notebook, like I had a purpose. A reason for being here. Like I had all the time in the world to sit outside this sun- scorched gas station, waiting. I should have known better. All my natural instincts told me not to trust him.

“Where’s Daddy?” Billie asked. At eight, she was four years younger than me and forever wishing he would turn into the dream dad she’d always hoped for. So alright, we had both hoped for. But after everything that had happened, now I knew better. Even if I wanted to cry (and I’m not saying I did), I couldn’t let Billie see me.

Now I was just angry. Angry like the sun that burned a hole in the desert sky, so hot and bright, it might just eat us up.

“Liberty, where is he?” whispered Billie, a crease of dirt, like a lightning bolt, slashed across her swollen cheek. I reached for it, but she shrugged me away.

“I don’t know. Don’t worry, he’s coming back,” I said, trying to hide my fear and convince both of us he was coming back. What else could we do but sit on the curb and wait?

I patted Billie’s golden hair and forced a smile. “He’s coming.” I hated faking it with her, even though sometimes I couldn’t help it.

“What about this morning?” she choked out. The whites of her eyes were slippery with tears. “It was an accident.”

“He knows that, Billie. Don’t worry. Come sit with me.” I curled my arm over her back, nothing but angles and lines, and willed my tears to return to their ducts. Stupid tears; they would not scare Billie.

“I’m hot,” she said, pushing free of me. She wandered toward the shade over near the gas pumps.

A car rolled past the gas station, and Billie stood on her tippy- toes to see over the jiffy co. gas station sign.

A brown Jeep.

Not our camper. Were we in Arizona? This morning we had been in Arizona— the Grand Canyon State (at least that’s what the sign had said)— but one of the weird things about living in a camper is that you can fall asleep in one state, wake up in another, and not even know.

Dad stopped here at the Jiffy Co. to fill up over an hour ago. Billie and me went inside to use the bathroom. When we came out, he was gone. Already we had been waiting too long. My heart bumped.

I tried to distract my brain and opened my notebook again, scanning the pages of animal facts. Already, I felt better. The only thing to do now was to be purely logical, and wait. I could do that. I could do that for Billie.

From where we sat on the curb, the glass on the gas station door looked smudged with countless sweaty hands. It hadn’t opened in a while. Three whole cars had creaked across the gravel road and deposited themselves in front of the gas pumps, shiny with oil.

A million bat wings beat against the lining of my stomach. I might throw up.

Stop it, Liberty. Facts only.

Did you know a cow has four stomachs? I saw that on Animal Planet, back before—


I balanced my notebook on the tips of my knees.

Another car drove past.

I scooched around on the curb to the side of the cinder- block building, keeping my eye on Billie. What had Mom always said? You’re in charge, Liberty. Mom hadn’t had a brother or a sister, but she always wanted one. That’s why she had two children, so Billie and me would have each other. Sisters forever. But being the oldest can be hard. Billie didn’t always appreciate everything I knew.

Mom took it for granted that I did what I should. Twelve going on twenty-one, she had said. But what she didn’t realize was that I was always responsible because I had to be. At least, almost always.

A line of ants crawled over a potato chip from the bag I bought from the vending machine after Dad left, what felt like years ago. I wrote in my notebook:

1. Ants, red.

2. Playing follow the leader.

3. Never alone. Always together.

4. Brave.

I didn’t know what my hypothesis was about ants yet, but they looked like good friends. Maybe a family.

Did ants fake it?

I patted the cover of my notebook. It was still new and shiny in some places, but worn around the edges. It felt smooth and soft. Notebooks were good. Something to touch and hold. I wrote everything in my notebook because every good scientist had important observations. I wasn’t a scientist yet, but I was going to be one someday.

I opened my book and read an entry in the middle from about six months ago—when Mom took Billie and me to the aquarium in La Jolla. The Birch Aquarium was, by far, my favorite place.

Spotted Wobbegong Sharks.

Dive and Live Feeding Schedule:

Mondays 10:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m.

I’d begged Mom to take me back to watch the live dive. I couldn’t believe someone could actually get into the shark tank and feed them. Mom said maybe. Maybe we could go next week. But I never saw those sharks again.

I shut my book. I didn’t want to think about sharks, either. So I watched the ants. Hundreds of little skinny ant arms grabbed the chip and dragged it toward the gash in the asphalt parking lot, just as the sun reached its highest point in the sky.

A truck (the fourth one we’d seen) pulled into the gas station with a low, squeaky whine. Blue, dusty, ancient. An old man with a ponytail and a huge belt buckle got out and stared at us. Billie ran over and crouched behind me. My heart vibrated. But then I remembered, I was faking it. I was supposed to scare off potential predators.

Go away.

A bearded dragon has a chin full of spiky armor it uses to intimidate. It inflates its body, opens its mouth, and puffs out its lethal throat. Then the attacker thinks twice about messing with that lizard.

I took a deep breath, stood as tall as I could, and stared right back at the man— without blinking. He turned, opened the door, and went inside.

That’s right. Go inside and buy your gas. Me? I haven’t a problem in the world. I stood tall in front of Billie and shaded my eyes from the hot desert sun.

Billie poked her head out from behind me. “You still watching for Dad?” she asked.

I pulled her hair back to get a look at her cheek, but she jerked away.

“He’ll be back. I know it. He’ll be back for us,” she said.

Billie didn’t know anything.

But still, she was my baby sister. Stringy white hair, dark blue eyes. Pure gold. That’s what she was. Ever since Mom died, Billie reminded me of pure gold, not that fake kind you buy as a souvenir in old tourist mining towns, or mixed in with the semiprecious stones at an Indian gift shop. The real thing, fourteen- karat.

After living in a camper for the past two months, San Diego felt light- years away. Like we had slipped through a crack in the atmosphere and dipped ourselves into this strange summer, sticky with newness. And still after everything, we were alone. Just the two of us roasting in clay on this quiet, dusty road.

The jiffy co. gas station sign swayed and creaked. It didn’t matter how long I sat here writing in my notebook, faking it—he wasn’t coming back.

I had to fix it.

But how?

Reading Guide: Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave

Teaching Guide: Survival Strategies of the Almost Brave