With a shaky hand, I unlocked the door. Twisted the door handle. Stepped outside.
It was night; the brilliant dark sky glistened with light from far away stars. It wasn’t quite silent; I could hear the gentle chirping of crickets and the ominous sound of something else. I wasn’t sure what that something else might be. Cars? People? A monster?
I slowly closed the door behind me, careful not to make noise.
Careful footsteps, avoiding the brick on the walkway that tended to crunch when it was stepped on. I felt a sense of impending doom. I had to hurry.
Across the side yard, over our gravel and dirt driveway. Almost to the fence.
I heard the door open. Something was coming.
A flashlight shone brightly, its beam aiming for me.
“Who’s out there?” I heard my father’s voice beckoning. My dog awoke in the backyard and howled loudly.
I glanced back, just as the light landed on my small, five-year-old frame. Caught.
“What are you doing?” my dad yelled, when he realized who had made the noise.
He rushed towards me, and I quickly realized my oldest brother stood beside him. David carried a baseball bat, to stop whoever was intruding on their land.
I cowered under my father, afraid. “I was going to the store,” I lied. “I wanted a pack of gum.”
My father stared at me. Through me.
“Go inside,” he commanded. His voice was thick with anger, booming. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”
I paused, glancing back towards the beckoning light of the nearby shopping center. I was so close. I would’ve asked anyone. I instinctively knew what I so desperately sought; I was going on a quest to find new parents.
I walked back inside, went to the room I shared with my brother, Nick, and threw my backpack next to my bed.
We were going to talk about what I’d done. I cried myself to sleep, not for the first time.
But the morning came and went, and we never spoke about the time I tried to run away.
We had been a family of seven. To the outside world, we appeared to be a normal family. Two parents, a handful of kids. A dog, a cat. A large enough house, a backyard to play in, in a nice neighborhood. Zoned for a decent school. A transplanted family; my mom was born in upstate New York, and my dad was from New Jersey. They’d lived in the Northeast for most of their lives and had eventually settled down in a small town near Allentown, Pennsylvania. Right around the time Billy Joel crooned about how the town was falling to pieces, my dad lost his job as a chemist for a local zinc company. He needed work, so we moved to North Carolina, to relocate near a lithium plant. I was three.
We lived on the school bus route, and I began riding the bus with my Nick once I started school. Sometimes, if I was lucky, my oldest brother David would drive me to school instead. We would watch Inspector Gadget together and eat an extra bowl of cereal. I fondly remember the times that we would arrive late, guilty expression on his face, because hanging out was more fun. And probably because working nights as a pizza delivery guy was exhausting for him. When we finally left for school, he drove with the sunroof down and his car sped past all the other slower drivers in our town. He raced to get me to school, so I could become smart like him.
But it was my sister, Melinda, who I idolized. She was the smartest, funniest almost-grown-up that I knew. She was a cool teenager, and I was her pesky, annoying little sister who misbehaved. She hated watching me and Nick; we tormented her, and she couldn’t yell at us or spank us. If we told on her, she would get punished, even though she was watching us for free.
I generally enjoyed school, and I was eager to learn so I could be “as smart as Melinda,” or wise enough to figure out David’s numerous tricks.
After school Nick and I would race to David’s room, begging to play with his “junk box,” a little cigar box full on screws and nails and magnets. Broken toy cars, paper clips, buttons, dice. Empty lighters, damaged Lego pieces. I would do anything to play with that box.
Sometimes, he would close his door and we knew we couldn’t play with the box. But other days, he would surprise us with a list of tasks to do. “I’ll let you play with the junk box for twenty minutes if you wash the dishes,” David would tell me. I would race downstairs and wash every dish until it was spotless for those precious minutes. And when my twenty minutes was up, I would reluctantly hand back the box. I didn’t want to, but I would do whatever he told me to. I couldn’t risk losing my chance to play with the junk box.
Other times, if he was really in a good mood, or if he had a date with his girlfriend, Denise, he would ask me to wash his car. Usually by saying something like, “I’ll let you wash the knives if you wash my car.” The knives! The sharpest of sharp knives. David was wise beyond his years; he rarely had to do any chores because Nick and I competed to finish his work.
On days when David didn’t want to deal with an annoying kindergartner asking him questions, he would simply close his door. Other days, he would sit with me and Nick in the living room and teach us how to play Pong on his new Commodore 64. He was building video games in school, and soon after, he bought an Atari with his pizza delivery money.
Kevin left first. I wouldn’t learn the reasons until I was an adult, but what I knew at five years old was that one of my brothers was gone. He was a mystery to me. A brother I couldn’t remember; a big brother who had liked me enough but who was suddenly gone. The house had a stillness to it as it enveloped the absence of my brother. I was five years old, and he was thirteen. He’d been taken away, and he never came back.
I didn’t want my parents to send me away. I tried as hard as I could to behave, so that I wouldn’t share the same fate.
Our last vacation as a family was when everything began to unravel. A slow pulling away of the curtains, not complete, but opening just enough for me to catch a glimpse that change was coming.
I couldn’t have been more than seven years old. We were traveling back to Pennsylvania and New Jersey to visit friends and family, since we’d spent the past several years in our new home in North Carolina. It was a long road trip with a shrinking family; Kevin was gone; he’d been sent away to a place called “foster care;” a place in which children didn’t return from. He’d been quickly replaced by a foreign exchange student from Germany, but that didn’t last either. David left soon after, on his way to college. He was studying computer science at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, up in the mountains. Denise had gone with him.
We had just spent the morning at a friend’s farm, and we’d enjoyed fresh green beans and seasonal fruit. It could have been one of the happiest summers of my childhood. We had already dined on Tastykakes and A-Treat soda, both of which couldn’t be found in North Carolina. The rest of the trip would be spent visiting my dad’s old friends.
We had made all the stops; we’d even visited my dad’s favorite hobby train store. My dad is a big S gauge train collector. He kept an entire room full of his trains when I was growing up, and he would lock himself in there for hours to build and design the perfect world. We rarely were given a chance to see these trains in action; they spent most of their time being painted and displayed. Inside of the store, my dad introduced us to the owner. We were able to look at, but never touch, the trains lining the walls and shelves. Everything was so shiny, so fresh. So impressively detailed with perfect mathematical scale. An entire shop made for little old men who collected model trains.
I remember feeling so special to be included. My dad let me go with him! I was so happy to stroll through the store, imagining what these trains would look like in my dad’s collection.
Would he get a new engine? Would he need little trees and little people to line the tracks? My mind was painting a world full of little people living along a trainline, with everything perfectly sized to S gauge. I wanted to build trains when I grew up.
We went from store to store, my dad saying hello to his friends. We’d been living down in North Carolina for a few years by this point. I could tell my dad had not wanted to leave, and he enjoyed the small town feel of my birthplace.
Our trip ended, and we began our southward descent back to our home in exile. A few hours into our drive, we stopped to get gas. My dad was pumping the gas, and for some reason I wandered outside of the car. Those were different times, and it wasn’t unusual for a little kid to wander around the parking lot seeking their own entertainment.
I had a habit of always staring down at the ground, and an uncanny ability to find things. I often found quarters, nickels, and dimes. Sometimes a whole dollar. But on that day, I was elated when I saw them. Two tiny cars. Micro cars, really. Probably from the micro machines craze that had the fast-talking announcer on commercials. They had been abandoned, probably by some other wandering kid.
Two toy cars! I scooped them up in my hands, and I wanted to celebrate my new discovery. It was like Christmas, in the middle of a hot summer, during a long road trip. I was the youngest of five kids; or was it four kids, now that Kevin had been taken away into foster care? Most of my toys were of the secondhand variety. But these cars, they looked new. One red, one yellow. Shiny. Ready to take an adventure with us.
I climbed back into the car and shared my discovery with Nick. We were both enjoying them, riding them around the backseat. They travelled imaginary roadways and sometimes crashed into each other.
We were lost in our playtime, driving down the road. And then my dad saw the cars.
“Where did you get those?” he demanded, eyes glaring directly at me. I held one car, my brother held the other at this point. My dad had pulled over the car and was staring at me.
“I found them,” I told him.
His face contorted into rage. “You stole them. How could you steal from my friend?”
“What?” I asked, incredulous. They had been alone, abandoned. On the asphalt. Needing a kid to love them.
“You stole them from my friend’s train shop. Why would you do this?”
“But I didn’t!” I protested.
He snatched them from both of us. By now, hot tears were pouring down my cheeks. I didn’t steal them. I really didn’t. Why would he think I’d stolen these toys? I’d never stolen anything before that day.
He threatened to march me back to his friend’s train shop and make me apologize, but we were already beginning our return trip towards North Carolina. Instead, he tucked them away in his shirt pocket and kept driving. Every several miles, he recalled his anger and yelled at me again.
I stared out the window, tears falling from my cheeks. What had happened? I didn’t understand why he was so mad at me. I just wanted to play, and if I hadn’t rescued the cars, they probably would’ve been run over by somebody anyway.
My mother said nothing. She sat still in her chair, unmoved by the argument unfolding around her.
We continued our journey south. We had planned an excursion in Washington, D.C., and I saved my meager allowance all year to buy something nice at one of the museums. I had been so excited about this trip.
My dad announced to everyone that I wasn’t allowed to buy anything. And that he was watching me to make sure I didn’t steal anything else.
My face turned beet red and I shoved my hands into my pockets. I wasn’t a thief! I just wanted to play.
Nick stepped a little farther away from me, just out of our dad’s line of sight. I was his target now. Kevin was gone. He was finally seeing me.
We wandered through the great museums, and I watched my siblings search for souvenirs. My father kept me at his side in all the gift shops, just to make sure I didn’t steal anything. I remember staring longingly at the stuffed animals and little trinkets, wishing I could spend my six dollars on just one thing.
I don’t remember the museums. I don’t remember any of the beautiful exhibits or the history every building told through its architectural design. But I remember the pain of knowing that I was somehow different. Excluded.
The rest of the car ride home, everyone talked about how much fun they’d had. I sulked quietly in my corner, and throughout the drive my dad recanted my “theft” to me or to everyone else. My mom stayed quiet for most of the ride. She didn’t, or couldn’t, come to my defense. Nick had a gentle look of apology in his eyes, but he also carefully distanced himself from me.
Weeks after we’d returned home, after my dad had mailed the cars back to his friend at the hobby shop, he received a letter. The letter told him the truth; his friend didn’t sell those cars in his shop. He sent them back to my dad.
My dad read the letter, and then threw the cars in the trash. “Well. At least you didn’t steal them from my friend,” he said. “Where did you steal them from?” he asked. The anger had dissipated, but there were still unpredictable moments of rage.
I sighed. I would not win this battle. “I found them.”
“You should have left them wherever they were.”
I looked at my father, but quickly glanced away. I was unable to face him head on at such a young age. All that misery; a ruined trip. And he still presumed that I was a thief. “I found them,” I repeated, as I ran off in another huff of angry tears.