It was just a typical day, a nightmare of an “as a family” picnic; my brothers following me around, me trying to get away and be alone for five short minutes. I’m sort of a loner sometimes, though when I say that, I don’t mean I’m a recluse, or that I’m not a people person, because I am. What I mean is that sometimes, or actually most of the time, I like to be just a little bit apart from everyone else, near to, but apart from, which makes sense to me but not really anyone else. It’s just that feeling, when you want to be alone, and if you could be alone, with no problem, whenever you wanted, the feeling would probably subside almost entirely. But when you have three little brothers pestering you, the feeling tends to get stronger, until you’re on the verge of running away. Which I was. Some kids, the stupid ones, probably would’ve gone away right off the bat, no thoughts whatsoever, gone to the most obvious place and gotten found within an hour. Not me. I had a plan, and the whole plan had one purpose, to go and live by myself, for a day or so, and then come back, smoothly and perfectly, with no mishaps, which of course I knew was unlikely and almost impossible, but I didn’t care. It would work. Almost everything that is planned well and done carefully works out in the end; I had done things like this enough to be sure of myself.
My bag had been packed—an extra set of clothes and some bandages—and put under my bed next to my neatly rolled-up sleeping bag. When my survivalist dad started squirreling away canned beans by the dozen in preparation for Armageddon, or a tornado, whichever came first, I snuck one or two cans out every week until I had enough to feed myself for, at the most, three days. Beans were a pretty boring diet, but it was the only thing I could think of that would keep and wouldn’t be too gross if I ate them cold. So after a month, I had enough food, which left only one unresolved problem—water. I definitely wasn’t carrying close to twenty pounds of water for six miles in the middle of the night, which was when I planned to make my escape. And as the days passed and the date I had planned to leave on grew closer, that problem grew bigger and bigger. I would be staying near a creek, but the water there wasn’t pure. What I needed was a water filter or a clean, fresh, cold spring or a magic unicorn that shot water out of its horn or some other wonderful thing that either didn’t exist or that I just didn’t have. That settled it. I would carry the water.
But on this particular day, when we had taken the truck to the creek, which was right below my hideout, for yet another “as a family” picnic that I was sure would end, as they all did, in someone crying and someone else with a scraped elbow; on this day, I was so full of two still-cold-in-the-middle hot dogs and countless burnt marshmallows, and happy in my family’s oblivion to my scheme, that somehow it just slipped out.
“If I ran away, I would go here to live,” I sang out to my brother Max, who is two years younger than me and the biggest tattletale in the world.
“You’re gonna run away?” He turned his wide-eyed face towards me and I saw that devilish, gotta-tell-no-matter-what glint come into his eyes. Then he turned to Adam and Nathan and yelled, “Let’s go tell Ma!”
“Tell what?” Nathan asked. He was the youngest—five years old and had been too absorbed in playing with a dry, crinkly butterfly wing and three skins from some kind of creepy bug to hear what I had been saying.
“Kelly’s gonna run away!” Adam yelled, jumping up and down. At seven, he was the most energetic of us all. Which could get annoying. I ignored them, caught up in the problem that was mainly my fault.
My brothers skipped over the rocks and for a moment. I bit my lip, afraid they would fall. The creek here was all rocks and rushing water, which was fun for me, and Max, now that he was getting bigger and wasn’t afraid to “rock hop.” But I worried about Nathan and Adam, who were still little and not as agile and long-legged as Max and I. Then, I decided that if they fell, that was their problem. I turned and jumped into the creek. I was sick and tired of my parents’ unorganized, supposedly fun “as a family” picnics, camp-outs, and other generally boring activities.
That night, I was lying in bed, trying desperately to read my favorite book, Shiloh, without anyone finding out, when suddenly Mom peeked her head in. “Max told me you said you wanted to run away and live in a zoo.”
“The zoo?” I closed my book with a sigh. Marty would have to save Shiloh on his own. “Max also told me that to start growing, babies have to eat snails. And that wedding rings have lasers in them.”
“He probably saw that in a movie.”
“Not the snails. Mom, I’m not gonna run away. To a zoo.” I added the last bit so it wouldn’t be a lie.
“But are you going to run away?” Mothers have the ability to read minds, I swear.
I fiddled with my book, looked away. “Max has a wild imagination. I said I thought it’d be fun to live at the creek.” I grinned. “No clue where he got the zoo.” The really bad thing about me is that I’m the best liar I know, so I can get away with practically anything. But Mom usually knows what I’m thinking, so I was surprised when this time, she didn’t. Or maybe she did. I dunno. Maybe I’ll never know, but Mom just brushed my hair back off my forehead and gave me a quick kiss.
“Well, I’m glad you’re not running away to the zoo.”
“Yeah, that would be awful.” I faked a giggle and inwardly cringed. “Night, Mom.”
“Night, hon.” Mom switched off my light and tiptoed into my brother’s room.
I sprang into action—pulled my clothes out from under my bed, my six cans of beans out of my closet, grabbed a pen and notepad and started writing a note to make sure nobody freaked out or called 911. At first, I thought about writing in rhyme, but that sounded stupid:
Don’t get upset,
I just ran away,
I won’t be gone long,
just for a day.
Then I decided to write a suicide note, just to scare them:
Dear Mom, Dad,
Tell the boys I love them, and tell Tom that I forgive him for ignoring me this past year, and you can have all my money…
But I crumpled that one up, too, because then they would call the cops, and I really didn’t want that to happen. Besides, Mom would kill me for faking a suicide note. So finally, I ended up with just a simple note:
Dear Mom, Dad, and boys,
Don’t worry, I won’t be gone long—just a day or so. I want to see what it feels like to be Huck Finn for a little while. I won’t do anything dangerous, I promise. Don’t call 911.
It was good. I tore it off the pad as quietly as I could, then snuck out to the kitchen with my things and put them outside. I stuck my note on the fridge but ended up taping it to Mom’s coffee cup, her first stop every morning. Then I was gone.
I biked almost the whole way, then hid my bicycle in the woods and carried my things to the tiny, dusty camp with the falling-off door. But just as I got there, headlights pulled into the trees as far as possible and two guys about seventeen or eighteen jumped out of a filthy truck.
“Dude, I can’t believe your dad’s gonna let us hang here!” the skinny one yelped.
“Shhh... Who says he’s gonna ‘let’ us?” the taller, bulkier guy said. “I do what I want around here. I’m tougher than he is.”
I watched with shock as my perfect hideout was invaded by two obnoxious teenagers with long hair and bad attitudes. Something crashed in the trees and the door slammed. For all their toughness, that door slammed awful quick.
Well, that did it. I suddenly started to question my own intelligence. I mean, what kind of eleven-year-old leaves her home at 4:30 in the morning to go to some cold, broken-down camp that is being stolen by two guys that are probably involved in underage drinking or illegal drugs or whatever it was that I was sure they were doing? An insane eleven-year-old, who has just been brought back to her senses and is riding her bicycle in a mad rush to get home.
I swear, I’ve never biked half a mile as quickly as I rode those six miles home. I heard squirrels and bears and dragons chasing me, and as my overactive imagination and bursts of adrenaline kicked in, I went into hyperdrive and, even now, I can’t remember anything after I started pedaling.
When I got home, Mom was sitting in her baby-blue bathrobe, drinking a cup of black coffee and reading my note. She looked up as I stomped tiredly up the steps.
“What’s this—your idea of a joke?” she asked in a groggy voice, holding up my note. I grabbed it and tossed it into the garbage.
“No…” I started, but the interrogation continued.
“What’s all this?” Mom waved her hand at my clothes and food.
“Uh…” I looked down and then back up at Mom. “I thought we could go camping. Later. So I started packing.”
“Well, OK,” Mom smiled. “I’ll tell the boys when they wake up. It’ll be a fun thing to do—as a family. Good idea, Kelly.”
I headed for my room, grinning. For the first time in a while, I felt really happy about those three words that usually meant endless boredom. As a family. I couldn’t wait.