By: Mycah Houser
Running away is an art form, just like bank robbing, chess, and covering up a serious crime. It takes planning, quick thinking, and a sprinkle of luck.
You can’t just run away on impulse; you have to wait it out until you’ve got a destination and a way to pay for it. (If the world was peaceful and in harmony and everything belonged to everyone, this would not be a problem; unfortunately, the world is a chaotic hot mess that requires payment in exchange for survival.)
Because of these things, if you want to run away, you have to really mean it.
I started practicing when I was nine. Mom and Dad always fought, so oftentimes I would make myself a peanut butter sandwich and pack all of my valuables into my school bag (my favorite two stuffed animals, chapstick, a book, and a lighter). There was a drainage pipe at the end of a house several property lines away, which to my nine-year old self felt like three miles. Huge stones and chunks of cement lined the inside of the pipe and graffiti plastered the cylindrical inner walls. A small road ran above the pipe and at each end when the ground sloped downward, an overgrowth of weeds stuck out like unruly hair.
I would go sit in there for a few hours, lasting until my sandwich was gone, my stomach began growling, and the darkness projected ghosts and ghouls into the night. I would run home, only to find that nobody had noticed my absence. Mom would always be hidden in her bed while Dad was hypnotized by his computer screen.
Like I said, running away is an art form, not something you can master overnight. It took me seven years to perfect and complete my plan. Two-thousand five-hundred and fifty-five days (ish). Don’t ask me to calculate the hours, math isn’t my forte.
Although I would have loved to leave on Taco Tuesday, my least favorite day (yes, I know I’m a monster for disliking tacos), I couldn’t leave until Friday after school. It would give me several days’ head start before Fred (no longer deserving of the title “Dad”) noticed I never came home.
The Friday I planned to leave fell around Halloween, so an extended weekend would not seem completely unusual; I could be at parties or sleepovers or trick-or-treating. Melinda (also no longer deserving of the title “Mom”) would eventually find out when the police report was filed. If one was filed. I wouldn’t put it past Fred to hope I would return at some point on my own and simply wait for me to do so (in the meantime he would have his computer to occupy his thoughts).
Melinda works at a fancy bank, but she was never willing to help me buy a car. And as much as I was tempted to use my hard-earned waitress salary to buy a junker of my own, I needed every cent from my year of work to fund my runaway campaign. I planned to stay gone as long as humanly possible before the police tracked me down or my money ran out.
(Oh, did you think I would be stupid enough to think that at sixteen I could outrun the law forever? You might consider me ridiculous for running away in the middle of a school semester, but how dumb could I really be since I managed to disappear for a whole two months 33 before voluntarily returning home? Does that speak to the skill and determination of my city’s police force, or perhaps my own cunning? I’ll let you decide.)
Four days after I ran away, I wish I could say I was thriving. I bought myself a ticket to Chicago (super overpriced if you ask me) and occupied myself with ebooks during the three hour drive. (What can I say? I splurged a bit of my money on a Kindle. Nine year old me couldn’t leave without a book, so why would this version of me do any different?)
One thing I miss like a phantom limb is my phone, but it was necessary to leave at home. Once someone notices I’m gone, they won’t have any luck tracking me because I left my phone behind—if they even bother tracking it. (But if they do, it will be packed nicely under my notebooks outlining potential runaway locations, none of which include my true one. That notebook is with me, the rest are intentionally misleading.)
I had previously found a hostel that I would stay at, but upon arrival all of the occupants had a nasty flu. By the time I found out, it was too late for me; even though I left that same day, the bug leapt onto me and sunk its teeth in. Before long, I was as ill as the rest of them. My biggest mistake was leaving and trying to find a cheap motel to get away from their germs. Before I could find a place, I was in a sketchy area of the city and violently throwing up.
Chicago decided to challenge me. Not only was I throwing up in an alleyway, but the sky darkened as if it were about to unleash a heavy rainfall. I needed cover the open alley wasn’t giving me.
Despite all of my planning, I could not have predicted this. I've already come too far to turn back at the beginnings of aches and nausea brought on by the flu. Too much energy has been put into this runaway to give up. I needed to find cover and ride it out.
A slight drizzle fell from the dark sky packed full of dense gray clouds. I walked a block before spotting what was clearly an abandoned building. It kind of looked like an old church, but with busted windows and a trashed stone exterior.
When I ducked inside, I immediately tripped over a squatter. The bearded man groaned but did not stir. A beer can was still clutched in his grimy fist, cradled protectively against his chest. Other squatters were there, too, all in their silent bundles on the floor. I claimed an empty spot far away from the majority of the squatters (not super sanitary, but I was about to empty my stomach contents, so that wasn't my main priority).
I lasted until sunrise before my body betrayed me. I found an old bucket to be sick into, trying to be as quiet about it as possible. The people were curled up and covered, so I couldn’t tell who they were. Sick people like me? Threats? Perhaps they were addicts in a drugged slumber (spoiler: most of them were).
As the day progressed, even my bones felt weak and hollow from the flu. I could barely move. My cottonmouth begged for water, but there was none to be found and I didn't have the strength to leave the building.
In my fevered haze, I felt as if I were one of the addicts lifelessly slumped against the walls of the abandoned building. Squatters came and went, I think, ruffling through the possessions of addicts heavily unconscious. Trash littered the floor; this I remember because it was the only thing I could focus on as I sickly slumped in my corner. I only managed to hide my 34 money from thieves by stuffing it under my clothes and appearing as feral and unapproachable as possible.
Eventually the flu passed and I regained enough strength to grab the next bus out of that neighborhood. I fully intended to go back to the hostel, seeing as I had already researched it and was immune to the flu that had ravished the shelter.
They happily took me (and my money) in, and quickly the Crooked Roof hostel became my new headquarters. There was one public computer for use, and I waited my turn for a half hour before I could access social media to see if any alerts were posted about my disappearance. I admit that I was mildly surprised there were. Not an overwhelming amount, but enough to show that my parents had noticed and contacted the police. (Did they find the note I left on my bed saying I was not dead in a ditch but had decided to run away?)
Amber alerts from my town would not likely make it to Chicago, so I began my sightseeing expeditions. Bus tickets would eat through my budget, so in my week of tourism I walked everywhere. The first few days were physically and mentally exhausting, but soon my body adjusted and seemed to enjoy the pulling of muscles that got me around the Windy City.
My sickness had stolen a few days of my experience, surpassing Halloween and depositing me into a slightly grayer November. I had looked forward to witnessing how city people followed American traditions of dressing up in costumes and soliciting candy, but the chaos of a squatting house and dazed drug addicts was as close as I got (which, objectively, was somewhat similar to the strange sights you see on Halloween).
Snow fell on my second day of sightseeing. It took the city by surprise, but I didn’t mind the dainty dusting that fell upon the city. Even though the air was cold enough to slightly freeze the little hairs in my nose, I decided to trek to Millennium Park. I took my time getting there, enjoying the way the clear, sunny day reflected off the skyscrapers. I felt as if I was momentarily encased in a reflective snowglobe of concrete and glass, populated by a million moving souls who streamed through the city like ants on a mission.
The sheer vastness of Chicago calmed me. It was an embrace of monstrous proportions that echoed remnants of traffic horns, street vendors, and the slapping of an infinite stream of shoes on concrete
Endless fields of green were absent from the city, so strolling through Millennium Park was a nice change. The snow didn’t stick, only prettily dotted the sky and turned the grass a richer shade of green. It was a magical day. I bought an elephant ear from a street vendor, ventured over to the bridge arching above the Chicago River, and lingered by several different musicians playing bucket drums, trumpets, or guitars. People avoided eye contact with them, but I was enchanted by the passion they put into the music, even with the cold nipping at their fingers and noses.
For the rest of the week, my budget allowed me two museum visits (not including the overpriced food offered inside), a small play (STOMP), a day trip to see Hispanic culture in Pilsen (holy mother of murals!), and a stupidly expensive ride up to the Skydeck on the Willis Tower (the name change is awful, “Sears Tower” sounded much better). Depending on the remaining amount of money I had after my expeditions, I would search for little art vendors, or an art district, and try to blend in with the permanent city residents.
I was ignored by city-goers most of the time, but for once I didn’t mind becoming a ghost. Being left alone meant I could stray at anything that caught my attention for as long as I wanted. The only needs I had to meet were my own. Selfish, I know, but isn’t that generally the point of running away? (Depending on the severity of the situation, of course; mine was low and completely self-centered, others might flee to save their lives.)
During my downtime not occupied by the city, I would lounge in the hostel and talk to the residents. I met a multitude of interesting people, most between the ages of 18-25. A majority came to Chicago from another state or as a study abroad trip. I ran into Europeans, Nebraskans, Koreans, New Yorkers, and even, to my misfortune, some ill-bred southern hicks. At the close of each day when night had fallen, those of us who weren’t exploring the city would sit in the tiny common room and share stories. The language barrier was sometimes a struggle (especially with those heavy southern drawls), but we made a universal language from exaggerated facial expressions and sweeping hand movements.
When I told my runaway story, everyone blankly stared at me for a few moments before bursting out in hysterical laughter. I’ve been pegged as “That Runaway” ever since. Even the owner addresses me by the nickname, accompanied with an eye roll and a pointed look telling me to go home (and I took her advice… eventually).
Living in a bubble of sightseeing and nightly stories was something I struggled to leave. For all my planning, I never had a set date on when to return home. I planned on staying as long as my money lasted, but after being away from home, school, and responsibilities, I couldn’t bring myself to leave when I should have. However, this was an outcome I prepared for, so there were I few items I brought to pawn off for a couple extra bucks. Chicago had a magnetism that kept me reeled in; resisting would have been too painful.
I searched for the update of my disappearance online about once or twice a week. My parents didn’t have social media, so there was nothing I could find about how they were doing. Because I was a runaway (guess they found my note), the search priority was not very high. One thing that angered me was how often the article of my disappearance got shared across Facebook and Twitter. People who didn’t give a crap about me in real life were suddenly acting all distraught. Half of me wanted to stay away from the stupidity, but the other half wanted to return home and tell people where they could shove their fake concern.
When my favorite people in the Crooked Roof hostel began to depart for home, I knew it was time to start gathering my things too. The allure of the city was still there, but I needed to go home so that I had enough time to make up the homework I missed so I wouldn’t completely fail the school semester. For all the fun I had in Chicago, I knew returning home would bring an equal level of difficulty and consequences.
Maybe it would wake some people up (mainly Fred and Melinda) as to how their actions impact teenagers. My parents aren’t bad people, but the act of always ignoring me was a catalyst for this vacation. Maybe even some of my teachers would have an epiphany about identifying incredibly unhappy students and how to potentially help them. (Or, this could have entirely been a self-centered vacation planned by a nine year old and carried out by her future sixteen year old self in order to preserve a childhood dream.)
Even though I didn’t know what would face me when I returned home, I was content with the knowledge that I had crafted a beautiful getaway that went without a hitch (minus the crackhouse, of course). I felt empowered and capable of doing whatever my mind was set to. My planning had all the right details, all the proper motivation, and the air of luck on my side. Adults would probably not see it the same way (more like a decision that was reckless, stupid, irresponsible, etc), but this was something I had needed to do.
Now, what to plan next? Bank robbing and crime-committing (although I bet I could pull it off) don’t exactly fall into my non-violent life plan, so I’ll have to think elsewhere. (Perhaps inflicting harmless sabotage against the people who used my runaway to get attention? A nice vacation? Oh, the sweet possibilities…)