The first time I was five years old. It was right after my sister was born and I guess I was feeling sorry for myself, what with the attention my parents were paying to her and all. I remember I put some plastic dinosaurs in my pocket, tied a cape around my neck (a raggedy old towel, actually) like Superman, my favorite superhero, put on my Minnesota Twins baseball hat, and left home. My jerk older brother just laughed at me. I got two blocks away before Mrs. Nelson, a kindly kindergarten teacher out working in her garden, saw me, figured something wasn’t quite right, and brought me home. I don’t believe I could sit down comfortably for a week after the spanking my father gave me.

The second time, seven years later, I should have known better.

“God damn it, you big bully,” I yelled at Sean. He grabbed me in another headlock and ground his knuckles over my skull, giving me a knuckle rub, just one more torture in his bag of tortures he was forever dishing out on me, his unfortunate little brother. Then he threw me to the ground, punched me in the back, rubbed my face in the dirt, and walked away laughing. It was just another normal day.

Older than me by three years, Sean outweighed me by fifty pounds, was almost a foot taller, and was becoming the horror, the absolute terror of my existence, something I certainly didn’t need. Mom had left home with her boyfriend the year before, never to be heard of again, leaving me and Sean and my younger sister, Lea, under the care of my poor excuse of a father and his girlfriend Sally, who my dad, I kid you not, always called Sexy Sal. Geez.

Now when I say that the two adults responsible for taking care of me and Sean and Lea left something to be desired in the parenting department, that would be putting it mildly. Dad worked for some kind of auto parts store and drove a delivery truck between our home in the little town of Long Lake, located 20 miles west of Minneapolis and St. Cloud, 70 miles to the north. Sexy Sal worked at a cut rate (no pun intended) hair salon in Brooklyn Center, about 30 miles away. I think it was called the “Cut n’ Go,” so you could probably imagine what it was like.

Sexy Sal wore her bleach blonde hair in a beehive style like it was the year 1965, smoked Kool cigarettes, and liked to drink any kind of beer that was available. Dad wasn’t much better, but without the hair. He was a large man, a Camel straight smoker with a big beer belly who shaved his head when he started going bald ten years earlier and had grown his beard out so he looked like an outlaw biker. Maybe that was his fantasy. Who knows? All I can tell you is that he didn’t own a motorcycle. I knew that for a fact. Being an outlaw? Well, not that I knew of, but you’d have to ask him if you really wanted to know.

I’m telling you all of this to let you know they were gone from home a lot, leaving us to supervise ourselves, and let me tell you, the end result wasn’t pretty. Especially that summer. I guess Sean at 15 was supposed to be in charge, but he was a mean little kid when he was young, and the older he got, the meaner he got. My belief, from the time I could think at all, was that he was born mean and nothing in my life up to this point contradicted that idea.

I suppose, in the long run, I should have counted myself lucky to be just getting knuckle rubs from him. After all, in the beginning of the summer, he had started carrying a Buck 110 folding knife with a four-and-a-half-inch blade that locked in place and the things he used to do to frogs and toads and the occasional baby bird…man, it still makes me sick just thinking about it. It was my ever-growing fear that he could easily start doing the same to me. Or worse.

Fortunately, he didn’t bother with my poor little sister Lea. I guess he thought that being a girl, she wasn’t much worth the time. She mostly stayed in her room and played with her dolls, smart enough to stay out of the way of her two older brothers who fought all the time and, in general, made life around the house pure hell.

Add to that the fact Dad and Sal liked to party a lot when they were home…well, like I said, they weren’t going to win any prizes when it came to parenting, that was for sure. In fact more than once I heard them talking late at night, beer bottles rolling around on the floor, watching some late-night talk show and smoking a final bowl of weed. Something to the effect of:

Dad: “God those friggin’ boys are a major league pain in the ass.”

Sexy Sal: “No shit, Sherlock. Losers, both of them. Give me another hit.”

My teacher last year in sixth grade used to read to us from a book the final half hour of the day on Fridays. We ended the year with Tom Sawyer and I have to tell you that I liked the main character a lot. The two things I got from the book were: one, even though Tom was a hellion (big word, huh? I might have gotten it from the book), he at least had his aunt who loved him, and two, sometimes running away was a good idea.

So that’s what I did.

School had ended in early June, and by the middle of July, I’d had it with Sean. He was supposed to be working that summer at Jorgenson’s hardware store, a place near enough to us so he could walk or ride his bike, but he kept getting to work later and later until finally Mr. Jorgenson the owner just up and fired him. I heard that his final words to Sean were, “Send Quinn back here when you get home. He’s ten times the worker you are.”

Now, how he knew that I had no idea, but it pissed off Sean to no end and when he got back to our house, he beat me up, apparently just on general principle. He must have enjoyed it, too, deriving some perverse, sick pleasure in pounding on me, because it started him on his campaign of terror, tormenting me every day, beating me up whenever he had the chance and making my life miserable. And for no good reason, I might add, other than I was small for my age and couldn’t fight back. He was just as mean to me as he always had been and getting meaner with each passing day.

I remember the last time he did it very clearly. It was a Tuesday morning and he’d caught me in back by the garage cleaning the spokes of my bike, not paying attention or being on the lookout for him like I normally was. He jumped me from behind and pounded the crap out of me, twisting my arm up behind my back just for good measure while I begged him to stop. When he was finally done with me, he threw me to the ground, stomped on my back, and left me lying sprawled out in the dirt.

Then he sneered at me and said, “I’ll see you later,” which of course meant he’d beat me up again and sauntered inside to play on the Atari set up in the living room.

I sat up and wiped the blood from my nose and wondered how I was going to ever survive until school started, because now with him not at work, Sean seemed to take it as his new job to torment me at will. Full time! Not a pleasant future for me at all. Fall looked to be a long time away.

You might wonder, “Why doesn’t this kid just tell his dad?” That’s a very good question. I momentarily thought about it that day, but had a feeling it would be as fruitless as the approximately 500 other times I’d told him over the years about Sean and how he made my life a living hell on a daily basis. But there wasn’t a lot a lot of sympathy for my plight from dear old Dad on that front. “Just suck it up and deal with it, Quinn,” was his basic answer, often followed up with “Be a man, for Chrissake,” tacked on at the end for good measure. Thanks a lot, Dad. So no, I didn’t spend a lot of time that day thinking about telling my dad anything about Sean and what he was doing to me. I figured I’d just have to find a way to learn to live with it.

I was just rousting myself to get to my feet, get on my bike, and go for a ride just to get away from that big idiot of a brother for a while when something happened that I’ll never forget. Lea quietly opened the back screen door, walked across the thread bare patch of grass we called a backyard, and sat down in the dirt next to me. She was seven years old and a skinny little snip of a thing. She had long, stringy blond hair and liked to wear soft cotton dresses that probably were colorful once but were now faded away to gray after so many washings no matter what the color they’d been. And, like I mentioned before, she liked to stay in her room and play with her dolls. Barbie’s. I think she had three of them. She and I were pretty close, maybe because of Sean. I liked her and she liked me and I even gave her rides on my bike every now and then, you know, just goofing around.

Anyway, she never talked much and she didn’t this time either, but she did something then that I later thanked her for over and over and over again in the years to come. She reached her hand into the pocket of her dress, pulled out Sean’s knife, and handed it to me, only saying, “He left it on the kitchen table. I don’t think he’s missed it yet.” Then she got up, brushed the dirt off her dress, skipped back to the house and went inside. It was the most she’d ever spoken to me in I don’t know how long.

Stunned, I held the knife in my hand. It had a golden-brown handle, and when I snapped it open, its shining, razor-sharp blade gleamed in the sun. Sean had bought it earlier that summer at the hardware store with his first paycheck and was as proud of it as anything else in his life. Probably more than the Atari, even. I knew it was only a matter of time before he noticed it missing and why Lea gave it to me, I could only guess at. Maybe for my own protection. But if I kept it and he found out…man, I pictured him beating me up in a way so bad that I quickly had to erase the image from my mind because it was too disturbing. Then I imagined him coming at me with his knife, using the blade on me like I’d seen him use it on those poor defenseless creatures…

God, why was I thinking about those kinds of things right now? Stop it! I told myself. So, I did.

But what I did think about right then and there was this: now is the time to go. Now’s the time to get away from this hellhole and move on to “greener pastures,” (another phrase I’d heard once in school, maybe in Tom Sawyer). And that’s exactly what I did.

I stood up, put the knife in my front pocket, crept to the back door, and listened through the screen. I could hear Sean playing Space Raiders on the Atari, so I knew what little mind he had was now completely occupied by his make-believe world of outer space aliens and whatnot. I quietly opened the door, holding my breath when it screeched a little, and tip-toed across the kitchen floor, glad I was wearing my Converse sneakers. I crept to Lea’s room and went inside, closing the door quietly behind me. She was sitting on the floor with her dolls arranged in front of her in a half-circle. She looked up at me with her big eyes and greeted me with a little smile. I went to her, knelt down, and gave her a hug.

“I just wanted to tell you goodbye,” I said, holding her tight, “I’m leaving and I’m taking the knife with me.” I couldn’t think of what else to say. I sat back, looked at her once, and then hugged her again. She held me close and I almost didn’t go then, not wanting to leave her all by herself, but I forced myself to pull away and stand up. I quickly stepped back before I could think too much about what I was intending to do and maybe talk myself out of it. I went to her door and opened it, looking back once when Lea said, “Be careful.” I waved to her and whispered, “I will,” as I stepped out of her room, watching as she waved to me while I closed the door behind me. With the sound of it latching in place, I felt like I was not only saying goodbye to her, but saying goodbye to part of myself, too. I have to admit, it was pretty emotional. But since I now had the knife, I had a strong reason to go or else face Sean’s wrath, my desire to run away stronger than doing the smart thing, which would have been to put the knife back on the kitchen table and forget the whole thing.

Lea’s image would come back to me again and again over the course of that day. Dad and Sexy Sal? I never thought of them once.

I snuck across the hall to the room I shared with Sean. It was a mess. I had made the beds that morning and picked clothes and stuff off the floor like I always did because it was one of my jobs ‘round the house, but after pounding on me, Sean must have decided to trash the room just for good measure. It didn’t take much to set him off. I looked around, thinking to myself that I should pick it up and straightened things out again. Then I almost slapped myself on the forehead. Who’s the idiot now? I thought. Not me. Nope, not anymore. The hell with it. It’s his room now and he can do whatever he wants to with it. And to hell with him, too, by the way. I’m outta here.

I reached under my mattress where I kept my wallet hidden. It had seven dollars and thirty-seven cents collected from the odd jobs I did for my next door neighbor and I figured I could use the money on the road. I put it in my back pocket and then glanced in the mirror, choosing not to dwell on my small size and skinny build, concentrating instead on what I was wearing. I had on a T-shirt that once was white but now was kind of gray (like my sister’s dress) and cut-off blue jeans. I wondered if I should maybe bring a jacket. Naw, I thought to myself, it’s too hot out. I’ll get a job somewhere if I need more clothes. The idea of traveling light appealed to me. Just like a hobo or something.

I took one last look around and said goodbye. I was really going to do it. I was really going to run away. I was both excited and nervous, but not that nervous. Goodbye forever, I said, and then I was gone.


For all installments of “Why I Don’t Run Away Anymore,” click here.