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Evangeline lives with her pa at the Cadillac Motel, the tacky coral-colored building with the butt end of a pink Cadillac sticking out of the office wall. With the motel empty and Pa drifting in and out of an alcoholic haze since her mother died, Evangeline's whole life feels as stuck and embarrassing as that Cadillac butt. But she's too proud to let anyone know it.

Then a new kid named Farrell comes to town. Farrell has taken a lot of hard knocks, but he just might turn out to be Evangeline's first real friend. He understands what it is like to have a disappointing father and a house you're ashamed to show to your friendly new teacher. He also knows what can happen when well-meaning outsiders -- especially the state authorities -- get involved in family matters. And Evangeline is determined not to let anyone mess up her life, even if it means running away.

Chapter 1

I've lived in Paradise all my life.

Paradise. Sounds pretty, don't it? That's the name of this town though I can't for the life of me imagine why. I figure whoever named it must have been out in the Florida heat too long or something. Either that, or the real Paradise is full of dust and dirt and rotting buildings, too. I hate to think it might be, and I'll be truly disappointed if it really is.

My Pa's Cadillac Motel is on Celestial Avenue. It's a long, low coral-colored building -- one of those motels where people park in front of their room and the air conditioner sticks out of the wall by the door and drips water on the cement.

There's no missing it. It's right between BAIL BONDS -- 24 HOURS and all of the bicycles and junk on the sidewalk outside Gus' Pawn Shop. Then there's this big metal arrow sign full of light bulbs pointing right to the office. The arrow is supposed to flash at night, but most of the bulbs are burned out. AIR CONDITIONED. TV. VACANCY. Those words still work.

But the real reason you can't miss the Cadillac Motel is the big butt end of the pink Cadillac. It looks like it's crashed part-way through the cinder block wall of the motel office. Only the trunk and tail fins stick out, and the lights in back go on and off. That was Pa's idea. He said it would get more customers, but I sure wish he hadn't thought of it. I had enough to deal with, what with living in a motel and all, and the kids at school, well, they just wouldn't leave me alone about that pink Cadillac butt. So I don't mess with them any more, and they don't mess with me. I do just fine on my own.

In the summer I mostly read my library books, but lots of times I help Ruby clean the motel rooms, especially when she brings me some of her chocolate cookies. That woman surely can cook! Course anyone could tell that just by looking at her. She's got little sausage fingers and sausage arms and little sausage legs end in teeny tiny feet. I don't know how they keep her up. Her husband, Wendell, looks just the same.

Ruby cleaned rooms for Pa from the beginning, when him and Mama bought the Cadillac Motel. I was a baby then. After Mama died, it was just Ruby and Pa and me. Ruby would bring me leftovers to heat for supper the next day, and wash Pa's and my clothes in the laundromat across the street when she washed the sheets from the motel. Sometimes she'd get us groceries when Pa gave her money for them; otherwise I just ran over to the little store a couple of blocks away. The stuff in that place was so dusty, I figure it must be at least a hundred years old, but we haven't died from it yet.

Me and Ruby get along pretty good because she's not a hugger. That sits just fine with me. I don't like to be hugged and sometimes fat old ladies just want to squeeze the bejeezers out of you.

"Time you started thinking about school," Ruby said one August morning as we ripped the sheets off a bed. "Summer's almost over."

She didn't need to remind me, but her words felt like a fist punching me in my gut. I picked the sheets up off the brown rug and jammed them hard into a dirty pillow case.

I hated school. It was so boring I could hardly stand it. Maybe it was because of my library books, but I already knew most of the stuff, and if I didn't, I learned it real quick -- quicker than the other kids, I guess, because the teachers would repeat things until I'd like to shrivel up and die.

And this year was going to be the worst. Probably the rottenest year in history, because Mrs. Thornton was going be my teacher. I already knew her from when she was in charge of the playground. I'd be minding my own business when all of a sudden she'd holler "Eddie Brown!" Then she'd stomp on over to me in those black, laced-up man shoes of hers, marching so hard across the playground that the glasses on the string around her neck would jump. She told me I was a troublemaker and we had a personality conflict. I wasn't sure what that meant, but if it meant we hated each other's guts, well, I guess it was probably true.

I wanted to move away before school started because there was no getting away from her this time. There was only one sixth-grade class, and she was the only sixth grade teacher. I even asked Pa if we could move, but he said no, the motel was our home. Well, he didn't have to be in a class with nasty Mrs. Thornton all day, or he'd have moved in a minute.

"You hear me?" Ruby asked as she pulled the spread over the bed. "Only a couple more weeks till school starts. Better let your Pa know you need some clothes." She smoothed the bedspread over the pillows while I threw the sheets into the hamper. "I'll take you to Tina's on Thursday after I finish here." She sat on the edge of the bed and fanned herself. "Doesn't look to me like anything you own still fits. Tell him you need shoes, too."

I looked down at my scruffy tennis shoes and knew she was right. No sense in giving those kids at school anything else to tease me about.

When we finished up, I took my library book off the laundry cart and went to look for Pa. He was sitting on one of the rusty green chairs in the shade outside the motel office drinking a beer like he usually did in the afternoon. There were a couple of empty cans beside him.

"Pa?" I said when I got close.

He squinted up at me and gave me a little grunt.

"Ruby says I need some clothes for school and she'll take me." I hated to ask for money with things being so tight and all.

I think he was ready to tell me there wasn't any money to give, but I guess the way my ankles stuck out of my jeans and the bones on my wrists poked out of my sleeves made him change his mind. He got up and went inside to get some money out of the cash box behind the counter. When he came back out, he handed me a few bills.

"Now don't spend too much," he said, sitting back down and picking up his beer.

"Yes, Pa. And thank you." I knew to be polite to Pa when he handed out money because it didn't happen that often. I carefully put the money between the pages of my book so I'd have it ready come Thursday.

Pa leaned forward in his chair, trying to look down the street. "You see Jesse coming?" he asked.

Jesse fixed cars in the old garage at the corner and was a friend of Pa's. They knew each other while they were growing up in another town. His kid, Farrell, had moved to Paradise with him about a month before and was supposed to be about my age, but even though Pa and Jesse hung out together at the motel or the garage and drank their beer and whisky, Jesse's kid never came around. Not ever.

"How come I never see your boy?" I asked Jesse once.

Jesse just yawned and said, "Farrell's not one for being with people much. He likes to keep to himself."

I guess that was true because I surely never saw him. I wondered how come, and thought maybe there was something wrong with him or maybe he wasn't quite right in the head.

But that didn't stop Pa and Jesse from being together all the time, or Pa from waiting for Jesse outside the motel most afternoons like he was now. I looked down the street.

"No, Pa," I said. "Can't see Jesse coming."

I was ready to go inside when I caught sight of a boy I'd never seen before out in front of the garage.

ISBN: 0-525-47221-5

Released -- May10, 2004 by Penguin Putnam