by Graham Gremore
I was eight years old when I overheard my mother say: "Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like had I never had children." She was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of Folgers instant coffee and chatting on the telephone with her friend, Prudence. Prudence and my mother had been best friends since high school. She now lived an adventurous life in New York City, where she worked in publishing, smoked expensive cigarettes, and absolutely refused to marrya stark contrast to the simpler, more traditional life my mother led back in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother spoke longingly and in wistful tone, which caused me to perceive her statement as a desire to have never given birth to me altogether. It was one of the most devastating moments of my entire childhood, almost as devastating as the time I learned that everyone, not just me, pooped.
"Do you need something, sweetheart?" my mother asked when she saw me standing in the kitchen doorway.
Lies! My eyes narrowed into two dark slits and my cheeks grew hot. Sweetheart? Just who did my mother think she was fooling? I wasn't her sweetheart.
"Do you need something?" I replied before turning on my heel and storming out of the room.
There's nothing more heartbreaking than being eight years old and hearing your own mother confess to a friend that she regretted ever having you. This must be how adopted children feel, I thought to myself as I headed upstairs to my bedroom. I knew there was only one thing left for me to do: run away.
Blinking back tears, I started packing my suitcase with all the things I thought I might need to start a new life somewhere else: my Ninja Turtles, my Archie Comics, and my Captain Planet and the Planeteers Action Figurines.
As I filled my suitcase with all of my most prized possessions, my older sister, Georgia, passed by the door. Georgia was four years older than me and a blossoming, young extortionist. She made it her personal business to know everyone else's personal business at all times. One couldn't so much as sneak a popsicle from the freezer before dinner without her scribbling it down in her secret Lisa Frank pocket notebook. Growing up, my sister kept painstakingly detailed reports of everything anyone did that she might be able to use as blackmail later. The operation seemed all the more sinister given that she kept this incriminating information in a notebook with a picture on the cover of a neon unicorn galloping blissfully through a meadow of rainbow stars.
When Georgia saw what was going on in my bedroom, she poked her head in.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
Under normal circumstances, I would have kept my mouth shut for fear having whatever I said one day used against me. But I was bereft and not thinking clearly.
"Running away," I sniffled. Then I told her what I had heard our mother say to Prudence over the telephone. Georgia was equally as upset as me.
"She's not allowed to say that!" she cried. "I'm coming with you. There's no sense sticking around this old dump if we're not wanted here."
Our mother was still gabbing on the telephone when Georgia and I crept down the stairs, suitcases in hand, and out the front door.
"Did you see that?" Georgia said once we were safely out of doors. "She didn't even notice us leaving. Clearly she doesn't give a stink about us. Not one stink!"
It was late October and the autumn air had a bite. The trees had long since shed their leaves, twiggy branches now bare and lonely looking under a dismal, gray sky. I immediately wished that I had packed warmer clothes, or at least remembered to wear my jacket, but I had been in such a hurry to get out of the house that it simply slipped my mind. Now I would have to suffer. If I froze to death, so be it. My reckless mother would be the one to blame. I imagined her being locked away in a penitentiary for child neglect. She would be made to wear an unflattering striped uniform and assigned an extra long inmate number which she would then have the difficult task of memorizing. Her days would be spent confined to a tiny, square prison cell, where she would be left to pine for her lost freedom and the innocent children she let die outside in the cold.
"Where should we go now?" Georgia asked, knocking me out of my reverie.
It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't planned that far ahead. In the process of running away, I had been so focused on the running aspect that I had neglected to consider the away part.
"How about Grandma's house?" I suggested.
"That's too far," Georgia replied. "We could never walk there."
Our grandmother lived out in the suburbs, in a small city called White Bear Lake. It was roughly 20 miles or so from our house. Once upon a time, White Bear Lake had been a popular resort town in Minnesota. These days, however, instead of picturesque cottages lined along a placid lake, it's mostly senior citizens, tract housing, and crystal methamphetamine labs.
Just then an incandescent bulb went on in my head. "We could take the bus," I suggested.
Georgia agreed that this was a good idea and we proceeded down the block and to the corner, where we caught the school bus each and every morning. We waited for what felt like hours, until the sky grew dark and the streetlights flickered on and our stomachs growled as we shivered uncontrollably.
"Maybe we should go back," I proposed after I could no longer feel the tips of my fingers. "I don't think the bus is coming."
"No way," Georgia replied, shaking her head. "There's no turning back."
"But it's freezing out. And I'm starving."
"We're not wanted there! Don't you get it?" Georgia shouted. My sister had become more determined to run away than I was, which seemed odd since the whole thing had been my idea in the first place. She was just supposed to be along for the ride. "This is our chance to start over," she continued. "This our chance to make something of ourselves. We've gotten this far, Graham, we can't give up now."
"But we're not even all that far," I replied. "I can still see the house from here."
Just then, a set of yellow headlights appeared in the street from a block away, cutting through the darkness like a glimmering beacon of hope.
"The school bus!" Georgia cheered. "It's coming! I can see it!"
My heart swelled inside my chest. We both picked up our suitcases and watched as the headlights drew closer and closer, temporarily blinding us. When they were just a few feet away, I was disappointed to see that it wasn't the school bus after all, but rather a car. And not just any car. It was our father's blue Pontiac Sunbird. He was on his way home from work.
The vehicle rolled to a stop and our father stepped out, leaving the engine idling in the middle of the street. He looked tired after long day at the office, with dark bags under his drooping brown eyes. His thinning hair was unkempt and his JC Penney suit hung awkwardly from his lanky frame.
"What the hell are you kids doing out here?" he barked.
Georgia immediately burst into tears. I opened my mouth to explain, but before I had a chance to say anything, my father cut me off.
"Get in the car," he said. "It's 45 degrees outside and neither of you are wearing jackets. Has your mother completely lost her mind?"
Georgia and I regretfully climbed into the car and our father drove us home. When we got back inside the house, our mother was still chatting on the phone with Prudence, reminiscing about their youth, when life was so much less complicated and the future not nearly as bleak. She hadn't even noticed that my sister and I had been gone for a whopping 45 minutes, which only further proved my theory that she didn't love us the way a mother should. But I was too cold from standing outside to care anymore, and the house was warm and toasty, made even toastier by the frozen lasagna my mother had baking in the oven. The mouth-watering aroma of mozzarella cheese and tomatoes wafted through the air.
"Dinner's almost ready. Hurry and wash up," she called from the kitchen when she saw the three of us step in through the front door. "And, kids," she added, "the next time you decide to run away, wear your jackets. It's cold out there."
Graham Gremore is a playwright and essayist born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. He holds a BA in English from California State University, Los Angeles and is currently earning his MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He has a mother and a father and a sister, neither of whom he particularly likes. He lives in San Francisco and hates his neighbors.
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