"I feel like Smokey and the Bandit," dad muttered.
"Who?" I asked.
"Old movie," dad explained. He checked his phone and the conversation was over. Bren was asleep in the back, her head dangling over her booster seat, her Happy Meal toy clutched in her hand.
Our hunt so far had not been easy. Dad had gotten to the coordinates the GPS company had given to him only for us to find out that Joe had already gone. After another harried phone call, we were back on the road.
"Keep your eyes peeled," dad said for the hundredth time.
"I am," I said. I shifted in my seat, my legs cramping up. Twenty more minutes went by.
"If we find these two before the police do. I'm taking Krista back and your mom and I are taking you two home," dad said suddenly as if we had been keeping up a steady chat. I turned quickly, a protest rising in my throat. Dad cut me off.
"Your job with the horses fell through. You've got enough volunteer time with that organization for a future resume. Besides, after this stunt, I doubt they'd let you back at the home."
He had a point there. Suddenly, even I was getting angry at Joe. He ruined everything for me.
"Besides, you should enjoy the last couple weeks on the beach," dad reasoned. "Relax."
"You're going to let Joe go to the beach?" I asked. Dad's jaw tensed.
"He'll be lucky to get bathroom privileges," he answered grimly.
After another half hour, I had to talk dad into pulling over. I almost screamed in relief as my legs hit solid ground. I did a couple knee bends, loosening the stiff joints in my body. I was doing a slight back bend when a little fist began to bang on the window.
"LET. ME. OUT!" Bren demanded.
Dad had gone in to buy some sodas. I opened the rear passenger door and unbuckled Bren's booster seat. She scrambled out of the car and took a huge breath.
"This day is boring!" she complained. "I'm hungry!"
"You just ate a little while ago," I said gently.
Bren's cheeks grew pink. She lifted her shirt with her right hand to the point where it covered her face. With her left, she pointed at her belly button.
"It's GROWLY!" she declared.
I know its horrible, but I realized at that moment that sometimes being a distant aunt held its advantages. Bren was adorable in small doses. In large doses?
She tried my patience. Not for the first time, my respect for my sister shot up a thousandfold. Bren was the symbol of my declaration of abstinence.
"Let's go see grandpa," I relented. "Maybe we can get you a little something."
The shirt went down and a smile lit her face.
"ALLLLLLL RIGHTY THEN!"
"Dad I think that's them."
Dad kept alternating between staring straight ahead and glancing down at his phone. It had been an hour since the gas station stop and my heart was lodged somewhere at my throat hoping that I was right. When he ignored me, I snapped. I reached over and shook his elbow. His phone slipped down onto the floorboard.
"DAD! Look at the side of the road, damnit!"
"Hey, that's Uncow Joe!" Bren declared. "Dan-nit!"
Dad's head turned towards me. One glance was all it took. He braked hard enough that I was grateful for the extra secure seatbelt. He crossed two lanes of traffic before coming to a stop behind the car on the side of the road. The car was smoking slightly and my brother was currently attempting to change the tire. I was pretty sure Joe had never changed a tire in his life.
"Al, stay in the car with Bren," dad ordered. I reached for my seatbelt.
"Stay," dad repeated. I scowled. Something told me mom probably would want me to run interference.
"I wanna go!" Bren complained as dad shut the driver's side door.
"Me too," I muttered. I watched as dad snuck up behind Joe. He grabbed him by the back of the neck. Krista was sitting safely on the barrier, wrapped in Joe's suit jacket. She jumped off as Joe flailed backwards. I rolled down the window to try to hear what was going down.
"What the hell are you thinking?" dad barked.
"Let me go!" Joe complained. "You're hurting my neck."
"I'm going to hurt a lot more before I'm done," dad countered. "Do you have any idea what kind of trouble you're in?"
"She isn't going back to that place."
"That's where she belongs. She's a ward of the state until she turns eighteen."
"Please," Krista begged. "If you need to take Joe back, just let me go. Just tell them I took off."
Dad let go of Joe for a second and turned towards Krista. She looked small wrapped up in the too-big coat. "I'm sorry, but the law is the--"
I gasped. Joe tackled dad and they both ended up falling back into the barrier. Joe grabbed onto dad's shirt, catching him before he smashed his head. Even so, he shook the cotton shirt that clung to dad's frame.
"Why don't you ever shut up for a second and listen to me?" he cried. "I'm so sick of your holier than thou attitude!"
"I'm your father and what I say goes!" dad screamed, prying Joe's fingers off his shirt. I felt sick as dad actually raised his hand to him. I waited for Joe to flinch, but he just stood up straighter.
"Hit me old man," Joe said coldly. "If that's what's going to make you feel better. But I swear to God if you'd just listen to me once in your life you'd see--"
"I'd see what?"
I couldn't see Joe's face, but the emotion in his voice wafted through the air.
"You'd see that I'm just like you. A screw up. And I hate it."
"Awwy, I wanna go home," Bren whined. "I wanna see daaadddy."
Dad's response got drowned out by Bren. I turned around. Bren rubbed her eyes. She truly did look miserable.
"Just a little while longer," I said gently. Bren propped her chin in her hand. I turned back around and looked out the window. My eyes welled up with tears.
Whatever had gone down was major. Dad was holding Joe close, looking teary-eyed. Meanwhile, I saw Krista sneak into the driver's side of the car. I had a bad feeling. I rolled the window down all the way.
"DAD, I THINK SHE'S GONNA DRIVE OFF!" I yelled.
I ruined the moment with my warning. Dad jumped into action. The car rumbled to life and she lurched forward just a couple feet. The car, which had still been lifted on the jack, came to a crunching halt. Joe slumped against the barrier, wiping his face on his arm. Krista was visibly shaken. Dad helped her out of the car; the tears were pouring down her cheek. I slumped down in the seat.
I had thought I'd feel one hundred percent better once we tracked them down.
Instead, I felt worse.