The concrete was cool against the side of my face. That cold stone feeling. It flashed on a thousand memories: the heft of a rock too big to skip, the feeling of too many gravestones, too many hours spent tracing the names of people who had lived before me. Our house backed onto a graveyard. We spent hours there, my sister and I, playing, pretending we weren’t scared. Our house was brick and on hot, summer days, I would lean against the shaded side of the house. The bricks were cool and smooth. The concrete was not smooth. It was uncomfortable. But that was the way it was supposed to be. Rebellion is not supposed to be easy.
My sister sighed a deep, soul cleansing sigh. At ten years old, she was four years my senior and an expert in everything.
“We ran away, doofus. It’s not supposed to be a vacation. Don’t worry. What do you want to do, go back and live with them?”
I shook my head. No way we were going back. Ever. We had a box of cookies and a thermos full of water and the future was opaque and exciting.
“How long are we going to hide here?”
“Until it gets dark. Then we’ll make our move. Stop asking questions.”
I put a cookie in my mouth and chewed it slowly. We were lying underneath a big, gray van. I had never seen the underside of a car before. It was surprisingly complicated and simple at the same time. It was dirty, and that seemed right, too. We were warriors now. Life was supposed to be hard. It was the path we had chosen.
The summer was almost over, and the proverbial last straw had crippled the camel. It had been an unfair summer. First, the move. Not that it was the first time. But it was the first time I had realized that it hurt. I didn’t know any kids except my sister. And she was usually buried inside some book, pulling the words around her like a shroud. Closing out the world, including me. I didn’t blame her for it, but I was tired of being lonely. I was tired of making up games to play by myself in the back yard. I was tired of besting my record for juggling a soccer ball. There were no more pranks to play, at least none that could be laughed off.
With effort, I rolled onto my back. I was rewarded with a shower of rust. I squinted and blinked my eyes clear. I lay quietly, making shapes and characters out of the patterns of rust decay. I was silent for as long as I could stand it…about four minutes.
“Beth? Why are we running away?”
“Because we refuse to live under tyranny, Dan. Because we are people. Just because we’re kids, that doesn’t change the fact that we have certain enviable rights. It says so in the constitution.”
I rolled this around in my head. I had no idea what she was talking about, but that was pretty normal. My sister was the smartest person I knew. And I got the idea. Fair. It wasn’t fair. And we hadn’t lived enough to realize that fair is a largely malleable concept.
Beth was reading a book (big surprise), so I lay on my back and closed my eyes. I tried to think about nothing, but my mind kept returning to the past. At one time, everything had been perfect. Family dinners had been the highlight of the day. We’d tell jokes and talk about things I didn’t understand…but that didn’t matter. I was used to that. I just liked the sound of the big words. My family was not one particularly made for small children. I was constantly being complimented by teachers on my large vocabulary. They didn’t understand that a large vocabulary was a necessity at my house. Even with one, I was lost most of the time. My parents loved to read as much as my sister. I liked reading, but not as much as I liked playing soccer or setting things on fire.
I especially liked to set things on fire. I always carried matches and lighters and fireworks if I had them. But I rarely did. I sprayed WD-40 on brick and set it on fire. I wrote my name and the few curse words I knew. I drew pictures. Ephemeral artwork. Gone in seconds. I left sooty marks around town. I stole cigarettes from ashtrays and pretended I was going to smoke them. It was more fun when there was an audience. Now my friends were a million miles away. And I was under a van. Waiting until it was time to move on. Ready to sleep in old abandoned freight train cars. Ready to start a whole new life.
“Beth, I’m getting cold.”
“It’s only been an hour, Dan. Don’t be such a dope. Do you want me to run away by myself? Maybe I should. I mean, you aren’t exactly exhibiting…”
“No! No, I want to go. It’s not that cold. Sorry.”
“Dan…you need to prepare yourself for what is about to happen. It’s not going to be all Boxcar Children. Allright? It’s going to be a lot more like Hatchet.”
“You mean we’re going to starve and get attacked by bears???”
“No dummy. We’re not going to get attacked by bears. And we aren’t going to starve. We might get a little hungry from time to time. I still need to work out a lot of the plan. It’s complicated, you know.”
“And I’m older than you, so you’re just going to have to trust me.”
I did trust my sister. Always. She was my defender. We were a few years from becoming competitors. Sometimes I felt like I had two mothers. But that wasn’t such a terrible feeling. There are a lot worse things than having two mothers. At the last school there was a kid in my class whose mother was dead. I didn’t know him well. But there was something about him…like some part inside of him had broken. Or been bent. He was unpredictable and angry. I tried to keep my distance. And I accepted absolutely that two mothers is better than no mothers at all.
The truth was that my resolve was starting to weaken. I couldn’t even remember what my parents had done that had made us angry enough to leave. It must have been bad. But if it was so bad, why couldn’t I remember? I wanted to ask Beth, but I knew I shouldn’t. She would know that my heart wasn’t in it. She would know I was weak, and above all else I didn’t want her to know that I was weak. Because I was.
Once, when we were younger, we were playing at a park. It was just my sister and me. We played on the swings and then we got lost inside our imaginations. And then, out of nowhere a rock hit me on the side of the face and someone laughed. We looked out into the woods and saw a group of older kids smoking and laughing. My sister told me to ignore them, but the rocks kept coming. And then something amazing happened. My sister transformed from a quiet, reliable, bookwormy older sister. She became fury and it was both exhilarating and terrifying to see. She grabbed a handful of rocks.
“LEAVE ME AND MY BROTHER ALONE!!!”
The scream was from deep inside her somewhere. It was an animal noise. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And then she was throwing the rocks like hand grenades. At first the older kids laughed harder, but soon they were yelling. Then running. I was confused. Trying not to cry. My sister turned around and her eyes were murder. Her face was mangled with rage. Even then, I understood that it was not about those kids. It was not about that day. And I realized that moving hurt my sister even more than it hurt me. And I decided that someday I would make it up to her. I just didn’t know how yet.
In hindsight, it was a very strange time to be a kid. It was a time of posters and slogans and Police officers burning cheap dirt weed in our classrooms. Passing around boxes with glass tops…boxes filled with pills and powders and temporary tattoos. There were razor blades in our Halloween candy. There were hypodermic needles stuck in the backs of movie theater seats. There was a new disease that was killing like a plague, but we never talked about it. Instead we talked about how some kid from my class was going to make me do drugs with him. How I would turn to a life of crime. Steal my parents VCR. End up broke and dying of some disease that no one ever talked about. It all seems stupid now, but I was scared. I didn’t want to “do pot”. I didn’t want to put on a temporary tattoo and go crazy. It would be years before I was hoping that someone would try to force free drugs on me. It would be several years after that that I realized that it didn’t work that way. And several years after that that I realized the damage Nancy Reagan had done convincing us that ALL drugs were evil. Once I figured out that weed was safe, there was no stopping me. And by the time I was sitting in an empty apartment, hugging my knees and trying not to cry…waiting for my nose to start bleeding again because at least it would be a diversion…it was too late. By then, it was all kind of hazy, but I realized what the propaganda and fear-mongering had accomplished. With me. With all my friends. And I wondered if Nancy Reagan knew. And I hated her for it. But that was all in the murky future. I was still a scared kid. Scared of being beat up. And, thanks to Nancy Reagan, scared that I was one step away from robbing liquor stores to buy heroin.
Kids have no frame of reference. That’s the problem. And it would not be oversimplifying things to say that Beth was my frame of reference. I accepted everything she said absolutely. And she was usually right. And that was how I ended up underneath a van trying to stay completely still so I could avoid the rust showers.
“Do you remember when Aunt Rita died?”
“Did it make you sad?”
“Yeah, it made me sad.”
I felt the tears starting. I cried too much. It was one of the things I hated about myself.
“I wasn’t sad, Beth. I wanted to be. I tried to be sad. But I just didn’t feel sad.”
“That’s okay, Dan.”
“NO IT’S NOT! I should have felt sad. Everyone else felt sad.”
I felt my sisters hand squeezing mine and realized that I was sobbing.
“Danno, it’s OK. You barely knew her. You only met her once.”
“That doesn’t matter…she was family. Everyone cried except me. And I cry all the time. So, why didn’t I cry?”
“Kiddo, calm down. Breathe. I’ll tell you a secret. Not everyone was sad. And there was no reason for you to be sad. No one thought it was weird. You’re a kid. And you barely knew the lady. The only reason I was sad was because Mom was sad.”
My eyes burned, tears washing away the last of the rust particles.
“Do you think Mom and Dad will ever let us get a dog?”
“Because we move all the time. Because Mom doesn’t like dogs. But it doesn’t matter. After we run away we’ll get a dog. He’ll help protect us.”
“Can I name him?”
“Cool, then we’ll call him Aunt Rita. So we never forget.”
“I’ll name the dog, OK?”
It’s funny the things you remember. I can’t remember my first kiss. I can’t remember the first goal I scored in a soccer game. I remember laying under the van like it was yesterday. I remember the taste of Nilla Wafers in my mouth. I remember the rust. I remember watching the sun move across the sky via the shifting shadows of the van and the glimpse of the world we had from underneath it. I remember watching a beetle for a really long time, wondering what it would like to be a beetle.
I was a “sensitive” kid. That’s the word everyone used back then. Except the other kids of course…they were far more creative. But it was always in the reports sent home by teachers. It was the word my mom used to make me feel better about myself. But that’s the irony of childhood. You try to hedge your bets with kids. You don’t want to tell it like it is, so you say they are ‘sensitive’ or some such nonsense…and pretty soon sensitive just means the same thing as pansy, pussy, wimp, wuss, girly, retard. I suppose it is true. I was sensitive. And I had speech problems. I stuttered. And I took things very seriously. I still do. I was just lucky enough to grow up a few years before doctors decided that all of man’s problems could be fixed with medication. I’m sure they would have had me on something. And Nancy Reagan probably wouldn’t have liked it. So, I was sensitive.
I’m not sure how long it took for my resolve to really start weakening. Not long. A few hours. I don’t remember that part as well. I’m sure my sister was disappointed. I’m sure I was disappointed in myself. I do remember how it ended.
I watched my Dad walk towards the van. He was smiling. I watched him walk towards us until all I could see was his ankles and the old running shoes he wore when he got home from work.
“If you guys want dinner, it’s ready. We’re having pizza.”
“You can’t buy us off with pizza, Dad. Dan and I are leaving.”
I looked at my sister and something shifted in her eyes. She sighed.
“OK, Dan. Let’s go inside. We won’t run away. THIS TIME!”
It was getting dark. I was hungry. We were both dirty. We left the van sitting in the driveway and went inside to eat.
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