I was surprised that Friday morning when I walked out of the side door of my house and saw my girl Kari sitting on the back of my motorcycle holding that little brown Cocker Spaniel puppy she took everywhere. It was one of those stuffed toy dogs that we bought on one of our day trips to Santa Barbara. She named it Gypsy before we even got it out of the shop because, she said: “Gypsies are Freedom.” She brought it with us whenever we went riding, always tucked safe inside her jacket, talked to it like it was alive, and I know she slept with it every night.
Kari was dressed for riding from the black helmet, which she already had strapped on, down to her black riding boots. She also wore the black windbreaker, matching gloves, and blue jeans that defined our signature riding outfits. Her dark-brown hair was tied back in a ponytail but it still mushroomed out across her jacket. Her black backpack was already strapped to the luggage rack with the black bungee cords that I always leave on it.
“How long have you been out here?”
“A while,” she said, petting her Gypsy. “I waited in the backyard until your parents went to work.”
“So, what are you doing here so early?”
“He beat me again last night, with his fists and belt this time. I got bruises all over and cuts on my back. Shawn, it hurt really bad.”
“Why didn’t your mother stop him?”
“She tried but he slugged her in the face and locked her in the closet. She screamed and I screamed but nobody ever came to help us.”
I wanted to kill that man and I knew I had the anger in me to do it right then and there. “Where is he now?” I demanded.
“I don’t know. He left.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“She left too.”
“What about your back?”
“She put bandages on them and then she went kinda insane on me and left.”
“Where’d she go?”
“I don’t know where but she was crazy crying. Maybe abuelita Socorro’s.”
“She just left you alone?” I asked, astonished. What if that monster came back?”
“I got my things and left.”
“Where have you been all night?”
“In your backyard.”
“Why didn’t you let me know? You could of come inside.”
“I was afraid your father would send me back home. I can’t let him hit me again, ever.”
“Well,” I asked, angrily, “what the hell was his reason this time?”
“Take me to our spot and I’ll tell you.”
“You know I’m supposed to be on my way to work.”
“Not today. Please, Shawn, I need you bad.”
I only thought about it for a few seconds while I watched her squeezing Gypsy against her chest, trembling. I stepped close and I could see through the visor that there was something missing from her brown eyes, and it frightened me.
“I’ll call my boss.”
I went back into the house and telephoned work to say I had a family emergency and wouldn’t be in. I went back to my bedroom and changed into my riding clothes – black; all of which matched the outfit I had bought for Kari and the custom black paint on my two-year old Honda CB750. We almost looked like twins when we had our riding clothes on. Well except, of course, Kari was a beautifully proportioned young woman whose five-four height, five-six with her boots on, was a full four inches shorter than my own.
“Let’s go,” I said.
She tucked Gypsy inside her windbreaker then I started the bike and we rode for about twenty minutes to our spot alongside of a fire road up in the Susana’s. We left our helmets, gloves, and Kari’s puppy on the bike then stumbled up to the hillside through the tall brown grass and chaparral to our spot overlooking a small canyon. We stood next to the rock we used as a bench and she gave me a hello hug and winced when I squeezed low across her back. I felt the bandages through her coat and blouse and raised my arms higher and we kissed, cried over our impotence, and held on to each other until the hurt passed. Then we sat on the boulder with our fingers tightly entwined and stared into the rocky canyon waiting for it to speak its healing words to us.
We watched three Turkey Vultures circling higher in the warming air and listened to the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk that was being harassed by several crows. There was a line of scrub oaks in the canyon below us that sheltered the little brown birds looking to make a meal of the insects hiding in the shrubs and litter. We’d been going up to our spot ever since I bought my motorcycle from my boss’s son the summer before because he decided he would rather have a Harley. We usually don’t see much from our roost besides birds, ground squirrels, and insects but we’ve seen a few foxes and we even saw a mountain lion back in February.
“Let’s go away,” she said, still staring into the canyon.
It wasn’t the first time she’d brought up the subject of running away together but it was the first time it sounded like a demand and not subject to discussion.
“Where nobody knows us,” she said, and turned to me. “Someplace,” she emphasized, “where we can be together all the time.”
I watched her lips turn down and heard her clamp her teeth together. I knew she was serious but really, how was I supposed to take her away? She leaned over and pulled a twig from the dirt, brushed away the leaves, and scratched a little house in the sand.
“We can go far away from people that want to hurt us. Like maybe into the mountains.” She pointed at the drawing with the twig. “We can build a little cabin there like this one.”
I watched as she added four stick figures to the drawing, two large and two smaller, with triangular bodies.
“See,” she said, “that’s me and that’s you.”
“And the two little ones?”
“Our two girls.”
“Just two, and we’ll raise them right. They won’t have to spend their lives in hell.”
“Hell,” I echoed, rhetorically.
“You know my father. You know the bastard he is.”
I nodded while she stared at her drawing.
“It’s hell, Shawn. Goddamn fucking hell and I can’t take it anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say. She was angry, angrier than I’d ever seen her. I’d seen her sad, even depressed. I’d seen her mad but I never saw her lose control. She grabbed a handful of dirt and rocks, jumped up from the rock where we were sitting and threw it into the canyon. She stooped over picking up handful after handful and heaving them and screaming the obscenest profanities at her father. After at least a dozen bombardments she sat back beside me with her fists clenched, grinding her teeth, and shaking. She leaned against my side and I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.
“Let’s,” she pleaded, “just get on your motorcycle and go away.”
“Bullshit. Take me away.”
“But what would we do?”
“We’ll find a place to live and get jobs.”
“It’ll be tough to find work. We’re still pretty young.”
“You got a job now, don’t you? You can get another.”
“You know it’s under the table,” I tried to explain. “You’re supposed to be eighteen to work with power tools.”
“You can always lie about your age. Say you’re nineteen or twenty.”
“It won’t work.”
“I’ll say I’m eighteen.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I’ll wear makeup. Goddamn it Shawn, we’ll make it work. We have to make it work.”
“They’ll look for us.”
“We won’t let them find us.”
“If I have stay here another day I’ll kill myself.”
“You don’t mean it.”
She pulled away from me, grabbed my face hard, and turned it toward hers: “Shawn, look at me,” she said softly and deliberately. “I’ve already made up my mind.”
I looked into her lightless eyes, through the years of her father’s abuse, and I believed her. “Where would we go?”
“It’s so far away,” I mused. “A whole nother country. It’ll take forever to get there on my bike. We’d need a lot of money for motels and stuff.”
“We’ll camp out. You got a tent and a sleeping bag.”
“We’ll both fit.” She smiled: “we’ll keep each other warm.”
“But only one sleeping bag.”
“We can do it.”
I hesitated long before asking: “It?”
“Kari, I ain’t ever done that.”
Kari dropped her head and murmured: “I have, sorta.”
“You. With who?”
“I’m not supposed to tell.” She held the sides of her head and added: “He said he’d kill me if I did.”
“Not your father?”
“No, that bastard just uses his belt and fists.”
“Your uncle? When?”
“When I was eleven.”
“You know how I got sent to visit my cousins after school was out?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“My aunt took them to a Girl Scout meeting and left me alone with him. He pulled my clothes off and climbed on top of me. It hurt bad when he tried to get inside me.”
“What’d you do?”
“I cried and screamed and bit him. He slapped me over and over and said he’d kill me if I didn’t shut up. Then he got up and jerked off all over me.”
I cringed when Kari ran her hands across her face and chest. “That sick bastard. How come you never told me?”
“He said that if I ever told anybody he’d kill me and whoever I told. I believed him.”
“You should’ve told me. We promised no secrets, remember?”
Kari cried: “I didn’t want him to hurt you.”
I hugged her close and asked: “Did he leave you alone after that?”
“No, he did it more the next summer.”
“You should have told your parents.”
“I tried to tell my mother but she told me to shut up, that I was just lying so I didn’t have to go.”
“You didn’t go last summer.”
“No, I mixed a bunch of stuff together the night before I was supposed to go and drank it before dinner. I threw up all over the table.” She laughed and added: “It really pissed my father off.”
“I thought you had the flu.”
“They want to send me again.”
“Is that why he beat you? You told him no.”
She closed her eyes and bowed her head. “I told the bastard that his brother was a pervert.”
“You can’t go.”
“I won’t let him touch me again.”
“I’ll kill him if I have to. Hell, I’ll kill both of them if I have to. I’m not gonna let either of them ever hurt you again.”
Kari was quiet for the longest time and I wished I could read her mind. She stared at the drawings in the dirt then sketched a grave and headstone. I took the stick from her, tossed it away, then leaned over and erased her morbid addition with my fingers.
“They can’t hurt me if you take me away,” she said hopefully, then added: “or, if I’m dead.”
I looked at her with as much love as God made possible for me. “I won’t let anyone touch you ever again. I swear it.”
She took my hand, still looking at the drawing of the cabin and her dream family. “But I want you to touch me.”
I nodded and squeezed her hand then pulled her close to me.
“You know,” she said. “I love you more than anything.”
“I do know.”
“I’m sorry Uncle Dread spoiled me.”
“You’re not spoiled, Kari. You’ll always be the most important thing in the world to me. Besides, it ain’t your fault what the bastard did.”
I held her and muttered: “I’d really like to kill both those sons-of-bitches.”
“It won’t change anything that’s happened.”
“Maybe not,” I challenged, “but it would keep them from hurting you again.”
“I can’t lose you.”
I thought about what she said and I knew that if I were to do anything I’d wind up dead or in jail and she really would lose me and there’d be no one to take care of her. I had always considered myself to be a non-violent person but when I thought about her father and her uncle I fairly seethed until I felt Kari’s fingers rubbing the creases from my face.
I took her hand in mine and turned to look into her wistful eyes.
“If you take me away,” she suggested again, “they can’t hurt me anymore and we can be together, all the time.”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s leave right now. Let’s get your stuff and leave.”
“What about your things?”
She turned and pointed down towards the motorcycle. “Everything I want is already packed. Please, let’s just go.”
I was scared. Here I was just sixteen, seventeen in a couple of weeks, and my girl, the one I loved more than anything wanted me to take her away. She wanted me to leave the job I’d had since before my thirteenth birthday, my family, my friends, the Scouts, everything. Okay, the job wasn’t the greatest but it had paid for my Honda, our clothes, and all of our rides. And it’s not like my father would ever miss me, although I know my mom would. I’d miss my senior year of high school, there would be no college, and the very worst thing was that I would miss my Eagle Scout ceremony in September. But, the more I thought about it the more I was certain that Kari would really kill herself and I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let that happen anymore than I could let her uncle rape her, or her father beat her, ever again.
Kari put her arms around my neck and nearly strangled me as she kissed me on the cheek. She jerked my head back and forth until I had a headache.
“Stop it,” I shouted.
“Alright already,” I pleaded. “We’ll go.”
“I don’t know.”
She hugged me, stood, threw her head back, and screamed happiness into the canyon louder than I thought possible. She stopped, listened to the echo fade away, and screamed two more times.
“Now,” she commanded, with her hands on her hips looking like Peter Pan, “let’s get your stuff and go.”
Kari reached for me and I took her hand. She pulled as I stood. We walked and slipped down the hillside to where we‘d left the bike. I could tell she was ecstatic as I drove down the dirt road to the highway. I wasn’t positive but it sounded like she said: “I’m saved,” as I merged onto Erringer.
We drove back into town and stopped at my house where Kari and I went into the garage to pack my camping gear. I took my Scout backpack out of the cabinet and removed the external frame. We packed my little backpacking pup tent, hatchet, camp shovel, mess kit, silverware, can-opener, flashlight, jackknife, Buck sheath knife, first aid kit, poncho, a line of rope, my portable fishing pole, filet knife, and a mesh bag for hanging our food. I carried the backpack into the house while Kari brought along my sleeping bag and my two desert canteens.
Inside my bedroom I rolled up an extra pair of blue jeans while Kari picked out a couple of shirts. We rolled them up along with some extra underwear and added them to the pack.
“I packed mine too,” she said, handing me a sweatshirt, which was half of the matching set we’d bought in April on a chilly day trip to Santa Barbara during our Easter Break.
“Did you pack some tennis shoes?” I asked.
I took a pair of mine out of the closet and stuffed them into the side of the backpack. I looked at everything that was still hanging in the closet and took down two of my coats.
We got my toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, and a bar of soap from the bathroom then raided the kitchen for matches and canned goods and reorganized and packed as much food as we could fit into Kari’s and my backpacks. Kari filled the canteens at the sink and draped them over her shoulders. We took one last walk through my bedroom and I regretted having to leave my guitar behind. I think Kari understood my sadness because she took my B-flat Marine Band and my favorite Stephen Foster songbook out of my dresser drawer and added them to her load. We strapped both packs and the canteens onto the luggage rack, covered the load with my two jackets, and tied it all down with even more of the black bungee cords. The sleeping bag was strapped on top of the front fender under the headlight. It looked comical but we had everything loaded.
I knew my father could care less about me going but I worried about my mom. I left Kari standing by the motorcycle and went back into the kitchen to leave her a note. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate so I simply wrote: “Dear Mom, I’m sorry but it’s time for me to leave home,” and signed it, “Love Shawn.” I put my house keys on the paper, remembered to get the spare key for the bike, and locked the door behind me.
I gave Kari the second motorcycle key and she zipped it into the front pocket of her windbreaker. She and I stood holding hands looking at the little yellow and white stucco house that had been my home since we moved from Los Angeles when I was only six. I was reluctant to move and didn’t quite know why. Maybe it just takes a little time for some of us to close one door before moving on through another.
“We are going?” Kari asked, after allowing me some time to mourn the comfort I was leaving behind.
I took a long sad breath before answering: “Yeah, we’re leaving.”
Our last stop was my bank. Kari waited outside with the bike while I went in to close my saving’s account. They wouldn’t let me close it but they did let me withdraw most of my savings when I told them I needed the money to buy a car. I walked out of the bank with eighteen hundreds and six twenties in my wallet. I showed Kari the money then stuffed the wallet inside my riding boot.
“You know,” she said, hugging me, “we’re going to be very happy.”
“I hope so.”
“Hope so?” she asked. “You do love me?”
“You know I do.” I answered, and then emphasized it with: “Estoy loco por ti.”
She kissed me and asked: “Do you remember when I was in the second grade? When you said you were going to marry me when we grew up?”
“Now we’ll be able to do it.”
“And we will.”
“Are you afraid?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m a little scared.”
I wasn’t just scared. I was terrified and couldn’t imagine how it was going to work out. I already knew in my heart that they would catch us and bring us back. Maybe even put me in jail or juvenile hall. I worried so much that I began feeling like I wanted to throw up and turned away from Kari and hunched over gagging. She stepped beside me and rubbed my back without saying a word. The touch of her hands and the sound of her humming calmed my stomach. Like a man I stood straight and strapped my helmet on, waited for Kari to do the same, and then I put my riding gloves on, started the bike, and headed for the freeway.
“Where we going?” Kari asked, when I stopped for the red light at Cochran.
I had no real idea but said: “North.” I guess because that was where Canada was.
That was on Friday, the twenty-fifth of June 1976, and we never looked back.