My breath made a strange screaming sound as it whistled in and out, but for once I didn’t feel the strain. Adrenaline pumping through my frame, my whirling mind drowned out the screams from my broken knee and protesting lungs as I hurtled away from the van I’d just leapt from. I used the last fraction of my brain to try to come up with some kind of game plan.
I could run to my friend Bess’ house, but she wasn’t out of school yet. I could run to another friend’s house nearby, but the cops had looked there for me before and I faced the same issue: She was still in class too. That left one nearby option: I could hide until school was out and I could safely assume my friends were home. There was a nearby ski resort, and at one time my cross country team had run down a secret back trail into the slopes. I could hide there, I realized. As I reached a junction block, I leaned into my sprint. Until I was safely hidden, the fear would continue to fuel my shaking legs as autumn leaves whirled along the sidewalk in my wake.
The last bit of the road leading to the back trail was steep and I had to coax my aching body for the last hundred meters. As I crested the hill and descended into safety, I felt my body grow suddenly rubbery and I collapsed face-first into the frozen dirt. Heaving, I pushed myself back up. Just a little further to be safe, I promised my muscles.
After a quarter mile, I slowed to a walk, scanning the waving grass for signs of refuge. In the distance I saw a lanky tree, lazily reaching to the sky with its wide trunk and long willow leaves. There, I thought.
Upon reaching the tree, my injured knee gave out. I used my forearms to drag myself to the side furthest from the trail and pushed my back against it, closing my eyes and willing myself to stay conscious against the pain. The agony crawled up my leg and planted its tendrils in my brain, wrapping tightly. I passed out.
I woke to a border collie licking my face. Opening my eyes, I whipped myself into a sitting position just as the owner called out the dog’s name. Seeing me, he apologized in earnest. I sat there, terrified he would see something off about a young girl lying in the grass on a side trail, outside of school hours. Nonetheless, he passed me by.
The cool air seeped into my long sleeves and pants. What time was it, I wondered. A chilly October breeze swept up my arms, leaving goosebumps. I shivered, regretting forgoing putting my watch on that day. Surely, I thought, it was time and my friend Bess had just arrived home from school.
I wondered how she would receive me. In a long-sleeved gray tee and black basketball sweatpants with the name of the program emblazoned down the arm and leg, I looked like every bit the escapee that I was. I frowned. She knew I’d run away from home and had been found and sent to a program, so there would be a lot of questions to answer. Thankfully, I realized, almost every team parent disliked mine. I didn’t have any options besides trying my luck with their grace, I concluded again.
Stiffly, I stood up from my hiding place at the base of the tree. My leg throbbed and I tested it on the ground. I could walk a lot of the pain off, I realized thankfully. Slowly, I began to take one step…fire…then another….embers….then another…dull thudding pain. I can do this, I realized with an odd glee. I was broken, homeless and all but nameless but I could WALK! Smiling to myself like a slight maniac, I began to limp ever more surely along the trail. I was going to see if Bess would hide me while I figured out the next steps.
It took a shockingly short amount of time to reach town and the end of the trail. It seemed so much further with the adrenaline pounding my my knee screaming, I realized. Time hadn’t passed nearly as quickly as it had felt it did. As I neared Bess’ house, I eyed the street for any signs of her ancient hand-me-down commuter car, but to no avail; I had been too impatient.
As I stood before Bess’ house, it occurred to me that being out in the open as a runaway may be a caveat to wandering so freely in such a small town. I looked around; the houses, lined in perfectly identical lots left small areas to duck behind, but few alternatives. I’d only run away by night before, I realized. Bess wasn’t home, plodding back to my hiding spot on the trail sounded excruciating and my closest friend Brianne lived about a 30-minute limp from where I stood, hands on hips in the sun with leg and arm proudly displaying my program name. I would go to her house, I decided. It would help kill time and I was worried sick about her- I could get some answers. I began to limp along the sidewalk, heading to her home.
The local high school that my friends and I had attended let out around 4pm. Cross country practice lasted until 6pm, so I could expect my friends to be home roughly from 6:30pm-7:00pm. I’d jumped out of the car not too long before 5…. my mind whirled through every logical possibility and placement of my friends and potential help as I limped urgently along the sidewalk. I only had about a mile to go, but I wasn’t far from where I had jumped from my program’s vehicle and an uncomfortable amount of time had passed. I pondered what it was exactly that I wanted most and realized numbly that I just wanted sleep and quiet. I couldn’t sleep outside as the cold disturbed my peace and in 2004, options for runaway teens were nonexistent. A galactic blue Jetta rammed through my rushed thoughts as it hurled itself up past the curb and onto the sidewalk. I cried out as I stopped suddenly and my knee lanced new pain up my back. My eyes connected with the driver of the misplaced car and my paranoia was confirmed: my mother was behind the wheel. I turned in time to see my father leaping from his Mercedes to pursue me on foot.
No, I thought. If my parents were truly hauling me back to the dreaded school, I decided I was going to make them drag me every inch. As I turned and began to slam the soles of my work shoes against the sidewalk in the other direction, I watched my father leap in my direction and begin pursuit.
“Fuck you! Get away from me!” I began to scream obscenities at my father, willing someone to come out and help me escape him, but I was not so lucky.
I put my head down and put more into running than I had put into the fastest of my races.
As I open my eyes, the pavement didn’t seem to be moving nearly as quickly as it should; it was as if it was in slow motion. Over the course of my childhood, there were a few nightmares that I experienced night and night again. This scene of my feet moving as fast as I could will in the sidewalk moving in slow motion beneath my shoes was a scene I had experienced many times before; I knew how it would end.
The pain of my knee was unbearable; after four blocks, my chest heaved and my hands clutched at my leg as I ran. As I rounded a large rosebush, I turned to use it as a shield between my father and I while I paused, hands clutching my injured leg. I continued to scream obscenities, picking anything up I could find and throwing it at my father. Intent on catching me, he dodged my pitiful bullets and roared around the thorny bush to get in the car.
The car, my mother’s galactic blue Jetta, had squealed alongside the chase between my father and I, though thankfully my mother kept the car on the road this time. Unknown to me, she had been on the phone with the police, who showed up just as I was ripping off the blessed 4-way Catholic cross and flinging it in my father’s direction, still hollering.
“Skye, we won’t take you back. I promise.” My mother coaxed me from the Jetta.
“They lied to us just as much. We can go home and talk this through.” My father seemed firm, almost helpful in spite of the behavior that would ordinarily enrage him.
“Skye, it’s Officer Pendleton. You need to calm down.” The police had arrived. A single cruiser, the officer had coasted alongside my side of the large bush, talking kindly through his window.
“Skye! We can talk, but not like this. This is silly. You need to come home. You can have some chocolate milk and pet the dog while we figure out what to do. We’re trying too you know.” My mother’s voice cut through the distraction as quickly as it had come. The heartbroken thread in her tone stopped me cold- this was how she always got me.
I was being talked down and I could feel my resolve slipping away; where could I go now that I’d run into everyone looking for me? They seemed legitimately concerned for me; was there a chance they would really listen? I hesitated.
Somewhere in that critical pause, I lost my conviction. I had nowhere to run and nowhere to stay; my options were limited to approaching the cop or approaching my parents. I opted for the cop, walking towards him with my head down in obvious defeat.
The moment I was within reach, I felt a hand clamp down on my upper arm; I was caught. The cop talked and to my surprise, guided me to my mother’s Jetta. I wondered for a moment if he knew she’d tried to hit me impulsively. He opened the door for me and I got in the backseat, unwilling to look at my mother directly in front of me. I heard the muted thunk of the passenger door opening and slamming shut; my father was also in the car.
I didn’t speak to them. They’d said we were going back to the house but as they talked on the phone with the program staff, letting them know I was caught, their tones changed. The cop pulled away and I realized he was leaving my parents to manage me on their own; my face flushed. I didn’t trust my parents without someone to hold them to their word.
The child locks activated and the car pulled away. My mother said we were heading back to the program, where they would return me to face the consequences of my short flight. I choked in fear; they weren’t following through at all! Betrayal cut deeply through my gut and up through my heart. My parents didn’t care how bad the home was; they were just glad I was gone, I thought.
I tried the car door, knowing already that it was locked but hoping anyways. My father, hearing the snap of the child-locked door, looked back at me. I averted my gaze immediately; the rage was beginning to bubble out of the pain of the betrayal.
After thirty minutes of total silence, we arrived back at the home. I was led into the ‘worship room’ to sit down with the counselor, the owner of the program and one of the day staff. As Connie, the counselor, led me down the same hall I’d first left my parents at, I couldn’t help but breathe through slightly lowered revulsion as I left my treacherous parents behind.
“Skye, what prompted you to run away?”
I was silent, wondering how to nicely say I thought their program was based in Satanism and was abusive.
“If you want to finish this program and get out of here, talking is the only way to do it.”
“I miss my dog.” I replied lamely.
“This was all over your dog? Is she that much of a support for you? We don’t usually bend the rules but we can make a deal with you where your parents can bring her for a visit, but you can’t run away.”
I raised my head and looked at the program owner with a dangerous glint of hope in my eyes. Their rigid and sometimes cruel rules were only expanded; the idea of them bending a rule, any rule, for me seemed incredibly generous and outlandish. I nodded.
“We can do that. We’ll work the details out for the next visit. Since you don’t feel like talking, I don’t think you’ll mind us putting you on Quiet Time for the month.” I could hear the smirk in her voice as she revealed my punishment.
Quiet time was one of the most common punishments in the home, but it was usually for a few hours at a time. It entailed playing ghost- while on Quiet Time, you were not permitted to make eye contact, speak, make sounds, be alone in a room with another student or even have facial expression. The only people I would be permitted to speak to while on Quiet Time was the staff, and only if I raised my hand and waited. Often, the staff would never ask. As a result, kids on Quiet ?Time sometimes peed themselves waiting for permission to go to the bathroom.
A whole MONTH of quiet time?! No way, I thought. As I was directed back to where the rest of the girls in the home were cooking and cleaning to worship music, I resolved to run away properly next time.
Over the course of the next month, I used my silence to plan. I stole extra pairs of long underwear from other students, stashing them around my dorm room for the perfect opportunity. I mentally mapped out walking routes, ways to get food and money and contact my friends. There was always the chance of leaving the state, I thought, but that was too big for my fourteen year old mind. No, I could use the resources I had in the town and with my friends to get away.
A month went by. My Quiet Time had dragged on and on the morning I was supposed to be relieved of my silence, the staff member gave me a wry smile and said ‘the Spirit’ had instructed her to extend it another whole week. Had it not been for the other students reaching out and checking on me from time to time, I thought I’d have gone insane from the isolation in clear sight.
One of the girls, Sandra, was especially struggling. She had been caught listening to secular music while on pass with her family and as a result, the staff had opted to restart her time in the program after eight months. Struggling to simply survive through the program, it had been a heavy blow to her. She was the only person I had told about my plan, and when the chance I was waiting for came along, we exchanged meaningful looks.
It was a Friday night and the girls in the higher phases of the program had gone on pass for the weekend, leaving the newer and lower ranked girls behind. We would do service projects, cleaning tasks and additional prayer time over the weekend. On occasion, we would spend time in town at a staff members’ house for the rare treat of a children’s movie and knitting time. It was exactly the opportunity I needed.
We were instructed to go upstairs to our rooms and prepare to go to the owner’s home smack in the middle of town. With a knot in my stomach, I hid the elation on my face and hurried upstairs ahead of the other girls. Grabbing the long underwear and little bits of food I’d managed to steal and hide, I put every layer on underneath my required uniform. I grabbed my shoes and looked around before hustling to the bedroom door.
Not looking where I was going, I almost collided with Sandra as she slipped into the room to speak to me. We were always very careful, stepping around floorboards so the staff couldn’t hear where we were and speaking mostly in whispers and hand signs.
“Are you going to do it? Run?” Her eyes were wide.
“Yeah. They put me on QT for a MONTH and they still won’t take me off. I can’t do this place. It’s just as crazy as home.” It hadn’t occurred to me to not follow through with my plan.
“Can I come too?” Her voice was faint and there was a small twinkle of hope in her eyes.
“If you can keep up and get ready. Go put on your warmest clothes and-“
I was cut off by the entrance of another, less disgruntled student. Not wanting to risk too many people finding out about my plan, I moved past Sandra as if we hadn’t spoken. While I didn’t want to be alone, I wasn’t sure if having her would me would be wise if I wanted to stay at large. If I told her no, I would risk her snitching my plans to the staff. Making my way to the worship area, I waited to depart the home.
It seemed like an incredibly short drive before the long green van we occupied pulled into the alley behind the owner’s home. We piled out of the car and I made sure to be the last person in the house. As the girls dumped their shoes systemically in the mudroom, I quietly removed mine outside and placed them under a porch step, just out of sight before bustling in with the rest of the girls. No one noticed that I walked into the house with socks on, I realized with relief.
My last attempt at running away had taught me I needed to get a strong head start, and the best way to do that, I reasoned, would be to slip away while everyone was engaged in the movie. Eyeing the layout of the inside of the house, I frowned. There was no way to get back out the door without being seen. I would have to exit the home another way. I raised my hand and after a few minutes of waiting, was permitted to use the bathroom.
Closing the door and looking towards the window, I jumped when I heard a loud yowl; there was a cat in the bathroom and I’d stepped on his tail. So much for being sneaky, I thought. I’d have to try again when everyone is settled. Making sure to unlock the window, I cracked it and looked down; on the second story, the roof slanted past the window and led to the edge, where a very large, fluffy looking bush stood. I’d jumped out of second story windows before, so I was excited to see there was some kind of landing. Time to get back, I realized.
I sat with the girls and staff, watching a black and white movie and knitting. I tried to contain my fidgeting as I watched the clock. Thirty minutes would be the soonest I could return to the bathroom without raising suspicion, and the clock above the television ticked every more slowly. At twenty-eight minutes, I couldn’t take it anymore and raised my hand again. Sandra and I made eye contact. As I rose to return to the bathroom, she seized her knitting and followed me, pretending to ask me a quick question about stitching.
“Are you going?” She seemed more scared for me than I was.
“Yeah. Right now. If you want to come, wait twenty minutes, then grab your shoes and meet me at the school.” I was short, inspected her knitting and handed it back. The last thing I wanted was to get in trouble right before I disappeared.
“I want to. I’m scared. I hate it here….but I can’t.” Sandra waffled back and forth as I prodded her back to the living room, turned and entered the bathroom.
Locking the door behind me, I ripped off my boldly lettered uniform, turned it inside out and put it back on. In the darkness, I looked like any other kid in sweats now. Ever so quietly, I turned the window opener until I could fit through. I pried the screen off, crawled onto the roof and reached back through the window to wind it shut. Replacing the screen, I shimmied down to the edge of the roof and dropped into the fluffy-looking bush. It wasn’t until I made searing contact that I realized it was actually a rosebush. I hit the ground, torn and bleeding but free.
I didn’t have time to feel pain or check my wounds, but I felt a large cut behind my ear and blood dripped from my pant leg cuff. Flesh wounds, I thought, trying to muster all my bad-assery. I crept around the house, reached under the steps for my shoes and when I grabbed them I began to run.
Three blocks away, I paused to catch my breath and put my thin tennis shoes on my aching feet. I was almost out of the danger zone, I realized. It was already hard to imagine that just five minutes earlier, I was knitting and watching a movie. This was safer, I thought as I began to run again.
I knew this part of town well and having trained cross country for the last couple of years, I was in great shape. Over the course of the month, the pain in my knee had been greatly reduced to a dull throb and as I ran, I thanked my stars for the improved mobility. This time, I was never coming back, I decided.
And with that, my fourteen year old self fled into the night.
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