Eventually I figured out either I was going to have to leave or I was going to have to be prepared to be like the other girls and find a guy that would “protect” me. I decided there was no way I was going to start sleeping around just to get something to eat and keep from getting beat up all the time or worse. My parents didn’t raise me to be like that. Besides there is a reason why girls like that are the first ones to die in all those scary movies. They always seem to pick the guy willing to runaway and leave them to be monster chow.
Daddy expected me to be a different kind of girl. He didn’t stop me from being a tomboy but he was always on me about being careful about how I played with the neighborhood boys. I didn’t know what he meant back then. I do now. Sometimes I wonder if Daddy hadn’t died would things have stayed the same or would I have gotten into the same kind of trouble and been a disappointment to him. I always try to think about how Daddy and Momma would have expected me to act. I don’t always act that way but I do try and think first.
Daddy used to tell me there wasn’t anything in the world I couldn’t do if I set my mind to it. I’m old enough now to know that isn’t completely true. But I do know if there is something I want I’ll never get it if all I do is sit around and wait for someone to hand it to me. And if I try my best and fail, that is still better than never trying at all. I sure as heck wasn’t going to sit around and wait for some guy to rescue me, especially considering what he was asking for in return.
Part of me felt a little bad about leaving but me staying wasn’t going to make it better for anyone and could get me dead or worse. Most of the friends that I had managed to make over the last several months, those that hadn’t died when the flu swept through the warehouse, had picked sides in the gangs … and not all of them were on the same side. The drama was awful. I couldn’t talk to her because she was having a fight with him over the fact that he used to belong to this gang but had switched allegiances because he was hot for a girl in the other gang. It got to be I wondered who my friends were. When Tony … the jerk that didn’t understand the word “no” … started talking about what was going to happen to me I found it wasn’t a matter of “who” my friends were but “if” I had any at all.
Once my decision was made I packed the few things I had left and kept them pretty close at hand. I didn’t look any different than the other kids. Stealing was a big problem anyway so people had started to their keep stuff with them if they had anything they didn’t want to “lose.” I didn’t have much of anything that was going to be useful and most of what I did have would have weighed me down if I had tried to take it. After dumping all my school books and the broken radio there really wasn’t that much left.
I was down to only a couple of sets of underclothes so I had to take all of that. My shoes were shot and that was probably the only reason they hadn’t been stolen, but they were all I had. At least I had two other pair of jeans plus the ones I wore and my two t-shirts only had a couple of holes and my other shirt still had all but the top and bottom buttons. No jacket but since it was April I wouldn’t need one. No hat so that went on my List. The List is in one of those mini steno pads I used to keep my school assignments and due dates in. It helps me to remember what I need most when I have a chance to get it.
There wasn’t any extra food so that was going to be a problem but I did have a water bottle. It didn’t hold much but it was better than nothing and the lid didn’t leak. I kept my CDs and DVDs the lawyer had had made of my family photos since the originals were all stored up at Sparkleberry Ranch. I had a toothbrush and hairbrush but no toothpaste or shampoo; that stuff had run out a long time ago. I swiped a bar of soap from the bathroom and wrapped it in some plastic wrap. That made me feel bad for a little bit but no one was using soap much these days. The warehouse smelled like a locker room after a football game when I left.
I had my plastic bowl and spork that we were issued when we were first brought to the warehouse and they were pretty sturdy and in good shape except the spork was missing one of its tines where I had tried to pry off pull top a couple of weeks ago. And I had some rags that I kept washed out for my monthlies. All the girl stuff had run out a long time ago and we just had to do what we had to do. The monthlies were the worst but I guess because we weren’t getting as much to eat a lot of the girls weren’t having their monthlies any more. Kinda gross to think about it, but if a girl doesn’t take care of herself that way no one else will. The boys were always teasing us and making us miserable. If I could have a couple of wishes one them would be for boys to have to go through what us girls go through for a whole year before they got to claim their so-called manhood. Bet there would be a lot fewer dirty jokes if they did.
One of the last things I packed was a knife out of the kitchen. Momma’s butter knives were sharper than this thing is but they took all the sharp knives away when they took the little kids. That didn’t mean that there weren’t those kinds of weapons you find in prisons. We had a couple of Juvie Hall guys in the group that showed everyone how to make stuff. The adults used to come through and confiscate anything that looked like a weapon or that could be used as a weapon but they gave up on that after a while when it didn’t do any good.
I had planned on taking my sheets with me but someone stole them a couple of days before I took off. I know who but it doesn’t matter anymore. It only hurts if I think about it. She used to be my best friend.
That was it. All I had were some clothes, toiletries, and a few personal things. The day before I left I started a twig on fire on the kitchen burner like a match and took it outside and burnt my old journal then buried it. We aren’t allowed outside too much except in the courtyard and I turned around to find one of the guys that wore the urban camou uniforms watching me. The weird thing is that he didn’t ask me what I was doing or tell me to go back inside; he just stared.
I remember Daddy inviting guys like this to our house for one of Momma’s home cooked meals. They would be older guys with gray in their short cut hair and no wedding band on their finger. They never quite seemed to know what to make of my brother and I and Momma always told us to be on our best behavior when Daddy had friends like that over for dinner and to stay out of the way afterwards. I think Daddy did some kind of liaison work sometimes becuase these guys were always just passing through and weren't always in the Air Force either.
I went back inside and started to wonder if I was going to be able to sneak out after all. I had to wait until way after the moon rose for everyone to go to sleep. The adults sleep in the common area if the weather is bad but it wasn’t so they were all outside breathing fresh air which was partly why it took so long for things to settle down. The doors all got locked when the last adult left but I had made sure one of the bathroom windows was left so that I could get out. I had to stand on the sink to crawl onto the ledge and nearly fell on my backside a couple of times but I got out and onto the dumpster that I had pushed against the wall a couple of days ago and I managed to do it without making too much noise.
I had both feet on the ground and was just turning around when I nearly wet myself. It was that same guy and he was still just staring. When he didn’t try to stop me I didn't know what else to do but start walking across the courtyard so I could climb onto the other dumpster I had moved and get over the courtyard fence since I was too big to squeeze through the chained and padlocked gate. I fell getting off the fence on the other side but the only thing I hurt was my pride.
The guy still hadn’t said anything and it was weirding me out but then as I stepped away this gravely voice whispered, “You’ll either dish it out in here or dish it out out there girly. A pretty little thing like you won’t last long.”
Gross. I kept walking. If it hadn’t been so dark I would have run. I was was so scared he was going to come after me that I didn't pay close enough attention to where I was going and it wasn’t long before I realized I didn’t really know where I was. Tampa is a big place and everything looks different when the electricity is out. I knew we were somewhere near the school but I didn’t even know what direction I was going. As bad as it was back at the warehouse it was worse being outside and alone. I realized I needed a lot more of a plan than what I had.
That was when I saw the street sign and finally figured out where I was. I was a mile down the road from my highschool. I headed that way trying to come up with a story to give to the adults I thought would be there. But when I got to the school there wasn’t anyone and it looked like the place had been looted and abandoned. Papers and books lay all over the ground and they’d been there long enough to get rained on at least once.
I didn’t have to climb a fence this time because the gates were barely hanging on and I could just walk through. I knew the safest place for me to hideout was the old projection booth in the assembly room. My luck was out though because the door was chained shut. The next thing that went on the List was bolt cutters; I was already tired of getting locked out of places I wanted to go. I knew where a pair were but I wasn’t going hunting for them in the dark. The School Resource Officer kept a big pair in his filing cabinet to take combination locks off of lockers for when people didn’t use regulation locks issued by the school.
The next place I tried to hide worked out better but I banged my head on the trap door when I was trying to close it. There is a crawl space under the stage where all the wiring is for the speakers and floor lights. The assembly room was so dark it took me forever to find the recessed release handle so I could move the panel. It’s a good thing I’m not scared of much anymore because it was as dark as the inside of a black cat down there and it smelled funny too. But by that time I was too tired to care, not to mention that it was easier to go to sleep than worry about the fact that I was hungry and hadn’t eaten since that morning. It had only been stale cereal with milk from powder to pour over it; better than nothing, but not by much.
I banged my head worse the next morning. I woke up to this munching sound in my ear and when I went to brush it away I touched something fuzzy. I didn’t care, I wanted out of there fast only I couldn’t find the door to get out. I got so turned around and scared that I kicked out the speaker covers and crawled out that way. The thing I had touched was a mouse and it had been chewing off the wispy curls that grow around my ears. When I got around to looking in a mirror I found there was a whole curl missing. Ick.
I could tell it was daylight because of the light coming around the doors. I had to go to the bathroom really bad so I listened at the door and when I didn’t hear anything for a long time I slowly pushed it open and peeked out. There was no one around and hadn’t been anyone around for a while. I didn’t notice last night but there was a dead furry something that had been drug up under the azalea bushes. I imagine it used to smell pretty bad so if grown ups had been around they would have gotten rid of it.
I ran to the closest bathrooms praying that they weren’t locked. The girls bathroom was so I had to use the boys’ bathroom. Talk about your weird experience. It was so gross in there, but most of the grossness was dry. I hit the first stall but it was too disgusting for words. I started at the other end and found one that didn’t make me want to gag and just managed to take care of things without making a mess. Next that went on my list was toilet paper and wet naps if I could find them.
I’d never been in a boys bathroom before so I wasted a few minutes looking around. I almost laughed and I would have only I thought if I did it might turn into crying. If I started crying I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stop.
After I snuck out of the bathroom I decided I had nothing to lose and headed to the cafeteria to see if there was anything to eat in there. I shouldn’t have been disappointed but I was. There wasn’t anything edible left. But I stopped right before leaving and made myself really look around and see if there wasn’t something that I could use. By the time I left I had an armful of stuff. There was salt and pepper and some ketchup and mustard packets. I found a bundle of napkins and a handful of those mini straws we used to stick in the orange juice boxes. I got a couple sets of silverware. I got a pizza cutter, a beat up aluminum pitcher, some coffee filters, and a big knife with a heavy handle. I wrapped everything up in this huge sweater jacket that was draped over the chair at the head cafeteria lady’s desk. The sweater has made me a good pillow on hot nights and a blanket on cooler nights. It smelled funny at first, like somebody had dumped a bottle of perfume on it so when I took everything back to my hidey hole I laid it over the bushes to try and get some of the stink out of it.
Next stop was the Resource Officer’s office because I was not sleeping with the mice anymore. Next time it could be my ear they decided to munch instead of my hair. The administrative offices were a mess. All of the computer monitors looked like they had been kicked in, key boards had keys missing, there were holes in the walls where they weren't spray painted with dirty words, and filing cabinets were turned over. Betcha a disgruntled student did it; probably a couple of them. But whoever had tore things up was just doing mischief, they weren’t really looking for anything useful like I was.
One of the secretary’s desks had a couple of boxes of those fancy herbal teas, some sugar packets (only the fake stuff but it was better than nothing), and a tin of shortbread cookies. I was so hungry I ate a couple right there even though they were so stale they barely had any taste to them. Another desk had a whole pile of those diet candy bars, guess even the mice didn’t like them but I dumped them into a file box I was loading up; beggars can’t be choosers. The principal’s office had a bunch of cool stuff in it … coffee, tea, real sugar packets, hot chocolate, and a really big stoneware mug that said “Every Day is Recess.” The best though was the big flat of those little pint-sized water bottles stuck in the corner behind the door. I opened one and guzzled it down to chase the taste of stale cookies out of my mouth and get the fur off of my tongue.
The bolt cutters were buried under a tipped over filing cabinet but I finally managed to pull them out. I also found the master keys to all the doors and lockers on campus and I pocketed those real fast so I wouldn’t lose them. Our highschool actually had a nurse's station because of our PTA. It wasn’t really useful but I grabbed the big first aid kit that had been ripped off the wall and after fooling with the master keys for a minute was able to get into the closet that held the stuff that was put aside for the migrant kids and their families that would sometimes show up. There wasn’t much left, a lot of the illegal migrants went back where they came from when all the jobs dried up and the PTA stopped buying it for the school, but there was a box with some shampoo and deodorant and stuff in it and suddenly I felt all dirty and itchy. Wasn’t a thing I could do about it though until I could find more water.
I took everything back to the Assembly Room and cut the chain off the projection booth door and took all my booty inside. What I hadn’t counted on was how dark it was in there so I just left everything and went looking in all of the janitor’s closets. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Worse was how rotten all of the mildewed mop heads smelled and they made me a little sick to my stomach. I finally found what I was looking for in Coach Adams’ office in the boys’ locker room. There were also big bags of powdered Gatorade that I guess they used to make up for the jocks and about a half a case of bigger water bottles. I hit the jackpot in the girls’ locker room when I found a bunch of feminine hygiene stuff.
When I was coming out of the locker rooms I heard the first vehicles that I’d heard since leaving the warehouse. I ran and hid, nearly dropping the box that held everything I had found except the water. I went back for that after it sounded like the vehicles had kept going on down the highway. I had just gotten back to the assembly room when I heard the vehicles coming back. I ran to the projection booth and stayed there for the rest of the day and night only coming out to use the bathroom once after it had gotten good and dark.
The next day I made sure to be more careful. I know nobody saw me but it was too easy for someone to sneak up on me if I got too busy treasure hunting. That day I went through most of the lockers on campus. There wasn’t much but I still managed to find a few things including a nearly new pair of tennis shoes that fit. I also found a couple of knives and even a gun which nearly freaked me out. Now I don’t mind guns and I don’t think they are bad or scary, Daddy had a bunch of them; he just never got around to teaching me how to use one. I mean it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know which end to point and what part to pull, but for all the rest of it I would need a book or something with instructions and I sure as heck wasn't going to find a book like that in the school library.
I put the gun back where I found it because not only did I not know how to use it, it was rusty and I couldn’t even figure out how to tell if it was loaded or not. I figured until I had a better idea what I was doing the gun wasn’t worth the risk of what I could accidentally to do me with it. Since I don’t know how to use a gun yet I’m concentrating on staying out of situations where I would need one.
I heard the vehicles again about the same time I had heard them the day before. I was on the second floor in Hall 3 and peeked out a classroom window that faced the road. The noise came from two military humvee looking things, only they were convertibles instead of hard tops. There were four guys in each one and the guys wore urban camou and had big black guns. They wore those military helmets that strapped under their chins. They were just driving, not really looking around.
I hadn’t seen a live TV show or a radio broadcast in a long time but if there was a lot of looting and riots I bet the people in charge had put curfews into effect. That would explain why there weren’t any cars on the road or people going around. It didn’t explain all of the Twilight Zone stuff but that would explain some of it. It also meant that if I got caught I would be in really big trouble.
That afternoon it rained and I put out a bunch of buckets from the janitor's closets and later had the first bath I had had in a long, long time. I scrubbed and scrubbed. I washed my hair and just generally got all of the stink off of me that not even the deoderant to cover up any more. I felt like a different person. I'd already brushed my teeth so many times my gums bled but this was even better. I didn't bother shaving though. I figured I just have to go furry like guys do when they don't have razors. Besides who was there to care if I could plait the hair on my legs or not. I used scissors to trim my underarm hair just because I didn't like the gunky feeling of being hairy with deoderant all stuck to it. Yuck.
I knew I couldn’t live in the school much longer so when I found the maps in the Driver’s Ed classroom I started making plans for getting further out of town. Until I figure out what I can get away with I have to travel at night which means that I need to stay close to a road or I’d probably wind up going in circles or tripping over stuff or having to travel through people’s yards which might be even more dangerous than what I was trying to avoid.
It took a while for me to pick the road I was going to travel on. The Interstate would have been the quickest but I had a feeling that was going to be a bad choice if I wanted to stay away from adults that would try and tell me what I could and couldn’t do. I was already on the north end of Dale Mabry Hwy and that dead ends into US41. I looked at the maps and I could follow US41 all the way up to US441 in High Springs. Then I could take US27 to SR49 and SR49 would run right by Sparkleberry Ranch. I was set, at least until I started adding up all of the miles.
Two hundred miles. I couldn’t believe it. I mean I knew that traveling by car on the interstate it took three hours to get to the property from Tampa but … gee whiz, two hundred miles. I figured that I could hike for eight hours each night if I was careful and didn’t try going too fast. I didn’t have any idea how fast I could walk though so I guessed around two or three miles per hour. That meant if I walked the whole way it was going to take me about two weeks to get there. There was no way I had food and water for two weeks. Those diet bars didn’t go very far and they had a lot of fiber in them so I had to go to the bathroom a lot too. They also made me thirsty which means I was drinking a lot of water and my water was already half gone even though I was trying to be careful.
I supposed I could have stayed in Tampa and tried to make a go of it but there really wasn’t anything left for me there. It took me two days to try and pack everything. I kept having to change backpacks. I finally found the biggest one I could find in the AV room. I think it belonged to one of the chess club members because it had a box of chess pieces in one of the pockets. I nearly brought the game but in the end I had to leave it because the back pack was a lot heavier than I expected after it was all loaded. The scale in the nurse’s office said it weighed over fifty pounds. I knew right then I was in trouble but I didn’t know what I could leave behind.
I did get rid of a little bit of the weight when I took all the first aid stuff out of metal first aid kid and repacked the stuff it in a couple of make-up bags. I also left the folding chair and just cut me another piece of plastic like I used to make me a tent and ground cloth with. I got rope and stakes for my tent by going through all the sports equipment in Coach Adams’ office. It wasn't a perfect solution but I was kind of proud of being able to make something out of nothing.
Finally I was as ready as I was going to be and I Ieft as soon as the sun was all the way down, heading north on US41. I was scared but kind of excited too. Boy was I in for a rude awakening.