The story starts on a lovely (well, for some people)Saturday morning in June in a mall parking lot in Peewauket, Connecticut.
The Tillerman children—Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy—have been traveling with their mother on a car trip. Now Momma has decided to make a quick little stop at the mall. She gets out of the car and tells the younger three kids to listen to their big sister, Dicey. No big deal, right?
Except Dicey—who's thirteen—can't quite shake the feeling that something's not right.
Last night, Momma woke them up in the middle of the night and told them to pack clothes and food, saying they were headed to visit their rich Aunt Cilla in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Leaving for an unplanned family vacation at 3 a.m. is kind of odd…
But, that isn't all: Momma was acting strange even before this. She lost her job; she'd leave the house for hours at a time and never say where she was; and she wasn't behaving the way she usually did with the kids—singing or talking to them or making up games. Something was up.
Dicey falls asleep waiting for Momma to come back. But when she wakes up two hours later, the kids are still sitting in the car. What the heck?
James, who's ten, is hungry; Maybeth, who's nine, is worried; Sammy, who's six, opens up their bag of sandwiches and digs in.
Dicey decides to go look for Momma in the mall. But no matter where she searches, she can't find her anywhere.
So, what on earth are the kids supposed to do now? Has Momma wandered off? That seems like the kind of thing she might do…
Dicey is afraid to ask for help from the police since they'll just put the kids in foster homes or split them up, and she cannot let that happen. But they also can't go home because Momma hasn't paid the rent in weeks. Oh, Momma.
So Dicey decides that the four of them have to keep going. Momma wanted them to go to Aunt Cilla's house in Bridgeport, and that's where they'll head, gosh darn it.
When Dicey gets back to the car, she takes the kids into the mall to have a look around. They eat dinner at the food court and when Dicey counts their money, she sees they only have about seven dollars left to get to Bridgeport with. Uh-oh.
Dicey decides that they'll all spend the night in the car,and when the younger two kids fall asleep, she confides in James about her plan to head to Bridgeport.
James worries that Momma is crazy. That must be why she left them, right?
But Dicey assures him that Momma loves them and that everything's going to be fine—even if she doesn't quite believe that herself.
Dicey decides to call a bus company to check how much it would cost for the four kids to catch a ride to Bridgeport.
While she's at the pay phone in the mall, she gets stopped by a security guard who mistakes her for a boy, and then questions her about what the heck she's doing there alone at 10 p.m.
Dicey lies pretty easily, but the guard tries to arrest her and she has to think fast in order to get away from him.
Luckily, the security guard isn't the swiftest runner and Dicey is able to get back to the car safely. Whew.