Johnny America


Light­ing Out


Illustration of a hand grasping keys

I was eleven when I ran away from home. My moth­er had been at me for what seemed like ten years. “Don’t ag­gra­vate me,” she’d hiss at me. I looked up the verb. It means to make things worse. So, I ag­gra­vat­ed my moth­er even be­fore I ag­gra­vat­ed her.

“Your hair, don’t you ever brush it? Ei­ther grow it out or cut it but do something…A ‘B ’ — ? In math maybe, but histo­ry? Re­al­ly?… Stop be­ing so fresh… If you slouch like that boys aren’t ever go­ing to like you… One more eye-roll and I swear… It wouldn’t hurt to lose a lit­tle weight, you know… Enough with that go­daw­ful noise al­ready— and no, I don’t mean turn it down — turn it off… No way you’re go­ing out look­ing like that… Je­sus, your room! You re­al­ly are a pig, aren’t you? Oink, oink!”

I made her shiv­er. I looked up words for the way she looked at me. An­tipa­thyre­pug­nanceloathing. I nev­er mea­sured up. How could I? I didn’t even know what her stan­dards were, on­ly that they were way be­yond my reach. 

My mother’s dis­con­tent de­ter­mined the house’s weath­er, which was gen­er­al­ly like one long rainy No­vem­ber day. Her de­pres­sion wasn’t mine but I was pret­ty sure I caused it. I was even sur­er that hers caused mine. When I was eleven, I stopped car­ing why she was mis­er­able; I on­ly knew that I was.

One af­ter­noon, be­fore my fa­ther got home from work, she re­al­ly lost it. It be­gan as a lec­ture (my weight, en­core), turned in­to a ser­mon (my shab­by val­ues), then a de­nun­ci­a­tion (my em­bar­rass­ing con­duct, my bad taste), a philip­pic (my ab­sent man­ners, my de­press­ing grades), and fi­nal­ly a prophet­ic screed (my bleak fu­ture). I stormed up to my room, slammed the door and on­ly came down for din­ner. It was dur­ing that frosty meal that I said, un­der my breath, that my friend Sheila, whose moth­er had just died of breast can­cer, was lucky. 

“What was that? What did you say?”

My moth­er turned on my fa­ther. “Did you hear that?”

My fa­ther didn’t look up from his plate. “Nope.” 

“That does it! Put down that fork and go to your room. Im­me­di­ate­ly!”

As I stomped up the steps I could hear her go­ing at my fa­ther. “NopeRe­al­ly? Oh you cow­ard. You damn well heard her loud and clear…”

I got up be­fore dawn and heft­ed my back­pack which I’d stuffed be­fore go­ing to bed. I tip­toed down the stairs and in­to the kitchen and laid the back­pack be­side by the re­frig­er­a­tor. I want­ed a bowl of Chee­rios for the road. I didn’t turn on the light so I was star­tled to see my fa­ther seat­ed at the ta­ble with a mug of coffee.

He nod­ded at me, then the backpack.

“Re­mem­ber your toothbrush?”

I stared at him.

“Hand san­i­tiz­er? Wa­ter bot­tle? Sham­poo? PJs? Socks and un­der­wear? Clean sheets? Rain jack­et and sun hat? Phone charg­er? Flash­light? Space heater?”

I be­gan to giggle. 

“Wait,” he said.

He went down the cel­lar steps and came back up with his own back­pack, the big one he used when we went camping.


“I keep it ready, just in case.”

I felt an odd ache in my stom­ach, a kind of panic.


He put a fin­ger to his lips. “Shh.”

“But —”

“Come on, sweet­heart. Be­fore she wakes up.”

“Did you have a big fight or some­thing — you know af­ter I went upstairs?”

He didn’t an­swer, just rinsed his mug and put it in the dishwasher.

I couldn’t be­lieve he was se­ri­ous or whether I want­ed him to be.

“But where?”

“Does it mat­ter? Out. Away. The open road.”

“But… school?”

He tossed his keys high in the air and caught them, all happy-go-lucky. 

“There are schools every­where, Pook.”

“But your job?”

“Jobs too. Now, come on.”

If you’re go­ing to run away from home, it’s nice not to have do it all by your­self. It makes it eas­i­er to live hap­pi­ly ever after.

Filed under Fiction on November 26th, 2021

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