The main character of the novel, Roy Eberhardt, is introduced by way of his curiosity about a boy with strawberry blond hair, wiry build, and nut-brown skin from the sun, who is running along the sidewalk as if to catch the same bus that Roy was riding to Trace Middle School. Instead, he runs on by on bare feet whose soles are as black as barbecue coals. Roy is also introduced at the same time as the victim of a bully named Dana Matherson who is mashing his face against the bus window at the same time the strange boy runs by. Because of Dana, Roy is unable to satisfy his curiosity about the running boy and must instead try to save himself from the bigger kid’s grasp. He gives into Dana’s demand that he says he’s had enough and then immediately opens the bus window to try to see where the runner has gone. He’s too late, but that doesn’t stop his innate curiosity - who is this boy and what is he running from?
The action then moves to that of Officer David Delinko, a police officer who has been sent to the future site of another Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House. For now, it is a vacant lot where he meets a construction foreman named Curly who, in spite of his humorous name (he’s as bald as a cue ball), is cranky and unsmiling. Someone has vandalized the site by pulling up all the survey sticks and filling in the holes, putting the project behind even more than it is already. Officer Delinko is concerned about whether to label the crime vandalism since there have been no monetary damages. He’s willing to label it trespassing and malicious mischief. As he walks back toward his patrol car, he trips after stepping into a rather large hole. Curly tells him that the hole is the burrow of some owls that are no bigger than a beer can. Curly has no sympathy for the creatures and labels them stupid. When Delinko asks what will happen to them, Curly just smiles maliciously and says, “What owls?”
Roy can’t stop thinking about the strange running boy. He looked in school between classes to see if he could recognize him, but he never saw him. He then sits alone at the cafeteria table, with the exception of a boy named Garrett who just says hi, because he is the new kid. He’s an old pro at being the new kid, because he has attended six schools and the town, Coconut Cove, Florida, is the tenth town his family has lived in since he could remember. That’s because Roy’s father works for the government and frequently gets promoted. Garrett then begins to carry on a conversation for the first time, talking first about skateboards and then snowboards since Roy had just moved from his favorite place - Montana - where he snowboarded a lot. It turns out Garrett is no better than a D student, but is very popular, because he cuts up in class. He is known as the “King of Farts,” because he can actually fart out the first line of the Pledge of Allegiance. His mother, ironically, is the Guidance Counselor for Trace Middle School. Roy tells Garrett about the running boy to see if he knows him, but Garrett can only guess that he might be a high school kid. Roy speculates that he might be an outlaw and is determined to find him.
Roy’s experiences reveal a great deal about him: he’s a somewhat lonely boy, because his family is always moving; he is creative, intelligent, and curious in his imagining the running boy’s story; he’s impatient with dealing with such kids as Dana Matherson, but he’s also realistic enough to know that he can’t beat his size; and he longs for the state he just left, Montana, where he was his happiest.
The incident with Office Delinko is foreshadowing in that it prepares us for the people who are trying to save the owls who live in burrows on the site of yet another pancake house.