Andrew timed it perfect: he opened the front door just at the moment Mama’s thrown picture frame hit the wall right behind Daddy. Neither of them heard him leave. He learned early to get out unnoticed when he wasn’t the focus of his parents’ violence, when they were just beating the hell out of each other and not him or his sister.
Janey, five years old and as weary of violence as her big brother, followed him from her seat on the porch. They went around to the big dogwood that covered up the living room window, sat on the furthest side facing the dirt road. It was a fine Southern night: no clouds, a small updraft of a breeze, a high moon bouncing light right at the kids. When (well, “if”) their parents were calm, you could hear the deep, natural country quiet out here in this part of the woods. Only good thing out here, in either sibling’s opinion.
Andrew tried to focus on the sky and not the drafty, angry wooden house behind him. Janey put her head on Andrew’s shoulder. He adjusted his arm, wrapped it around her tiny body. “I’m so sick of their shit,” she said in a small voice.
Andrew, aged nine, snorted at her language. “Ditto.”
Inside, something heavier than a picture frame hit the wall, landing with a thud. Mama shrieked in pain; Daddy demanded she shut up and stay down. Janey shifted in his embrace, put a mangled hand on his arm. Those broken fingers hadn’t ever healed right. “Why ain’t we just run away yet?”
He stopped. It was the first time she’d ever asked him. She didn’t remember when she was a baby, and he, a new witness to his parents’ general rage, tried to run. They followed his small shoeless footprints in the dirt road, caught him two miles away. He had bruises for three weeks, and never complained about Janey’s crying ever again. But now… “I don’t know, sis,” he whispered. “I don’t think we oughta.”
“Well, I’m gonna. Just ’cause they’re crazy don’t mean I am.” She put pressure on his leg to stand up, then put one foot in front of the other. Her dirty dress swished around her as her little feet moved through the grass.
“Janey, no.” She turned back to him. “Not the dirt road. They’ll see.”
She shrugged and walked towards him. He thought she’d sit down beside him, and they’d wait out the fight and slip back inside, two good kids that never made too much noise because neither parent liked it. And they’d eventually annoy one or both parents, or someone would run out of ‘shine, and there’d be another night of either hiding and waiting or getting caught and suffering. But Janey spun in place and started off down the road, moving in a light trot that barely disturbed the dirt. She picked up speed, making tiny puffs of dust around her ankles, and she giggled, a small sound that carried in the Southern quiet…
And her feet left the ground, even as she kept on running.
Andrew’s eyes went wide as she stopped midair, her left foot held in place about seven inches off the ground. Janey grunted with effort, and her right foot came up, landing over a foot above the left. “Come on, Andrew,” she whispered, low and urgent. “It’s just like stairs. The best ones yet.”
He had questions. He had fears. He had nightmare scenarios about what they’d do if they caught her and/or him running, no matter what direction. But something metal made a sharp sound inside the house, and Andrew stopped worrying. He got up and ran after her, foot rising in the exact same place. He was stepping on nothing, no texture on his soles, just a slight sinking feeling. He imagined stepping on a large, invisible marshmallow, big enough to hold him, but not so big he wouldn’t leave an imprint. It was the first time he’d laughed in weeks.
One foot after the other. Up and up. The dirty shack’s roof, with its freckling of unpatched shingles letting in the night sky, was visible after a bit. He stopped looking back. Janey was so brave, she hadn’t looked back at all.
For long bits of sky, they didn’t rise; they just ran level, like it was ground. Janey kept ahead for the most part, but sometimes he caught up with her, only for her to gain the lead again when it came time to step upwards. The moon and stars seemed to get brighter the higher up they went, way past the treetops, nearing a cave opening up towards Mount Horton’s peak. He had no idea how long they’d been running. “Hey, Janey, you think we need to run, or can we just walk?”
She stopped, thinking. Her next step was slower, hesitant. It didn’t go up as high, but it went. “I think it’s better if we run, but we can walk if you need to.”
Andrew shook his head. “I’m not tired. I can run all into the night.”
“Where to? Ain’t much to call a finish line up here.”
Janey’s head tilted around, stopping on a cloud formation; she pointed. “See that cloud there, the one that looks like a bell? Betcha I can get there first.”
Adam Judge lives in Huntsville, AL with his wife, two cats, and various pop culture fixations.