Children need to run away sometimes. They need to know that they have it in them.
She had her backpack ready, filled with a packet of crisps, a water bottle, and her favourite teddy bear. She didn’t breathe until she was down the stairs, across the room, and through the front door. As she walked she looked back at the house persistently, her all too familiar street leading her into the unknown. The sun was just beginning to peak over the identical houses. She’d told herself to leave while it was dark, but she couldn’t work up the courage to walk through the pitch blackness of the family room by herself. Her mum had taken away all the family photos. The bare walls were always so much emptier in the dark.
There were hardly any cars on the street so it was easy for her to make it to where she needed to go. The forest. She knew that was where the train tracks were, and she’d read enough to know that if you need to go anywhere you followed the train tracks. She was ready. Her shoelaces were double-knotted, hair tied into a tight ponytail, and red hoodie zipped. She was running on an energy bar and juice, breakfast that she’d stuffed under her bed the night before, sometime after her mother started sobbing.
She came to the edge of the road. If she crossed that final street she’d be where she wanted to be. It was bright enough for her to see the dew glistening on the foliage. It looked bright and fresh, like an oasis. There was a track crudely carved into the dirt, twisting in a messy line towards the tracks. She stepped off the curb and into the wild, savouring what it felt like to walk away.
The crunch of crumbling chips resonated in the forest. She hadn’t been walking long when she sat by the path and ate the only food in her bag. There would have been more room in her bag, if it weren’t for the stowaway teddy bear. It sat by her on the dirt looking shabby and worn.
Her mum would probably have left for work by then, thinking that her child had left for school already. They didn’t see much of each other those days; nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to worry about.
She zipped up her bag, grabbed the paw of the teddy, and walked. There were birds chirping and the sun was bright in the sky. Her classmates would be having recess. The teachers would barely notice the absence of the girl in the back of the class who hardly spoke. They would never make her answer questions. They’d heard about what had happened.
Every step she took felt marvellous, like she was going against nature by being alone, hiking around on a school day. Even when she got tired, it was just another sign she was leaving. It would have been intoxicating, if such a word sounded right when describing a child’s joy.
When the path opened up to a clearing she ran. The trees were a blur beside her. The trail was her race track and the opening was her finish line. She built up as much speed as a kid her size could, running faster than she ever had. It wasn’t that she particularly cared about the train track. She cared about the accomplishment. She cared about the leaving. She skidded to a stop.
The rails were huge. They stretched so far out that she couldn’t see where they ended, or even where they curved or changed path. She had to cup her hands over her eyes as she stepped out of the shade of the forest. Her classmates and her mother would have been at lunch by then. Had the school called her house? Probably not. They knew her mother’s state.
She sat by the rails for a while. She’d searched her bag for more food but it was hopeless, so she gulped down the water instead. She didn’t feel like walking anymore. She waited for the train.
It was so loud and unexpected. It sounded like a howl, or a screech, as the massive thing hurtled past her. A gust of air whooshed at her and winded her for a moment. It was like a gigantic creature. If there were people inside it she couldn’t see them. She couldn’t even imagine a person going that fast. The thing went on forever, sneaking through the forest. When she had heard the train, loud and blaring, from her home, she hadn’t realised what it would be like up close. It was a monster of thing and she cowered in the wake of something so huge.
“Awesome,” she breathed, giggling as the train disappeared into the distance.
She put her scrappy looking teddy bear into her bag. It was stitched and restitched in so many places, faded from years of washing.
Sunset. She was running late. She closed her suitcase and grabbed her red coat, running down the stairs and skipping the last one. Her mum was waiting, fidgeting, but smiling.
They hugged, cried, and said their own soppy goodbyes. They were both smiling through it all, so it was okay.
The station wasn’t busy, but most people had boarded the train already. She barely had time to get a seat before they started moving. She placed herself in a window seat and watched as her mum’s face faded into the distance. She looked out of the window until she spotted the area where she sat almost a decade ago; gawking at the same train she was in right at that moment.
She looked at that spot and remembered the day her mother finally stopped sobbing.