The Hilltop Residential Facility wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Under the jurisdiction of the Jackson County Family Court, it was located in a distant suburb of Kansas City in an area that was still largely rural. A number of suburban developments had sprung up around the area’s numerous lakes and golf courses, giving homeowners their own little slice of paradise within commuting distance of the city. The juvenile-justice facility was quite obviously built long before the suburbs, when it was quite literally surrounded on two sides by the Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport and on the other two sides by undeveloped farmland. There was no need for locks, fences or other constraints because there literally was no place for an escapee to go. Now that there were people living nearby, the facility was considered a minimum-security residential facility and a school for boys with special needs. Within the constraints of the rules, I could walk freely on the campus but was never out of sight of the cameras. It was also quite some distance from the state line.
Another thing that was different was the emphasis on the facility being a school first and a correctional facility second. The school uniform was more of a traditional private-school dress uniform with the Hilltop School crest on the jacket. School took place year-round, including in the summer, and the academic schedule was rigorous. The school was actually under the jurisdiction of the county school system. In spite of my best effort to appear to be age-appropriate, after several days of testing, I was assigned to the ninth grade rather than seventh grade and would start high school as a sophomore next fall. Of course, that assumed I would still be an inmate there – something I had no intention of being by then.
Were it not for the risks, I could actually see myself staying there until I graduated from high school, perhaps at the age of sixteen. I had a roof over my head, ample food and a first-rate education – undoubtedly better than the one I’d been receiving in Southern Indiana. There were only two problems with that. Firstly, I was only there because I had no place else to go and had refused to cooperate. The goal was still to place me within the community and into a group home or with a foster family. Secondly, there was the major risk that my fingerprints would be matched with those at the site of my dad’s death, and then I’d be sent back home and be incarcerated forever. No, the way forward involved getting out of Missouri, acquiring a new identity as someone who was at least sixteen, getting my GED and getting a job.
And then there was the issue of money. When I first arrived and checked out the computers in the school library, I was astounded to find I had pretty much free access to the internet. I’m sure I would have been paid a visit if I visited a porn site, but I had no trouble getting into Applazon. When I attempted to redeem the first Applazon gift card, as I expected, it had expired. That money was gone. When I attempted to redeem the second gift card to roll the balance into another card, however, the serial number was listed as invalid. Could I have remembered the number incorrectly?
I tried each serial number in sequence and found the same thing; they were all invalid. WTF? Slowly, it dawned on me that the Department of Corrections had confiscated my wallet when I was taken into custody back in Hannibal. I’d dumped most everything that had been in my wallet, with the exception of my cash and the Applazon gift cards. I didn’t even need the actual gift cards to use them. I’d memorized the serial numbers and PINs, but if law enforcement reported the cards stolen, Applazon of course would have invalidated them. The only reason I’d kept them in the first place was in case I needed to prove ownership. Had the cards been stolen, I could have redeemed them with the serial numbers and PINs, depleting the original, physical cards and rendering them useless. I’d just never conceived of the possibility of law enforcement rendering them invalid. Tens of thousands of dollars I thought I had were now gone. I was penniless. Even if I got away from the State of Missouri, I had no way to support myself. I had no skills. What was I gonna do?
I was still scheduled for a workup at Children’s Mercy Medical Center but had not had any further evidence of internal bleeding since faking it by eating spinach and taking bismuth. Since I’d apparently stabilized, the workup was considered only slightly more urgent than elective and, hence, had been scheduled to be done at a leisurely pace. I was scheduled to see a gastroenterologist downtown for an initial visit and would likely be scheduled for endoscopy at a later date. They’d likely draw some blood while I was there to make sure my counts weren’t dropping.
Someone from the school would accompany me to the visit, but I’d likely be left alone for at least part of the time. It might well be my best chance to escape, and with the state line less than a mile from the hospital, I could quickly get away from the state of Missouri, but then what? Where would I go? What would I do for food and money? I’d be destitute and homeless, and there’d be plenty of people who’d take advantage. Worse, there were outright predators who were actively looking for kids like me to exploit. As far as I was concerned, prostitution wasn’t an option, no matter how desperate I became.
I spent hours in the school library, studying the area around the hospital in Google Maps using Satellite and Street View, but the area around the University of Kansas Medical Center, where the hospital was located, was a maze of dead ends, bridges and passageways to nowhere. The train tracks leading out from the restored Union Station cut a broad swath through the area, cutting through streets and blocking any kind of pedestrian access. Then there were parks and a WW II memorial that blocked through traffic, so Street View didn’t even work in spots. I could see pedestrian walkways that Street View wouldn’t let me take. I developed a basic sense of where I needed to go to get to Avenida Cesar Chavez and the bridge that would take me over the Kansas River and across the state line, but beyond that, I had no idea where to go. I only hoped that my time spent looking at Google Maps didn’t alert the authorities to my plans.
Was crossing the state border enough? What if Missouri notified Kansas? I wasn’t a criminal, so it wasn’t like Kansas was gonna extradite me back to Missouri. Still, they wouldn’t let me live on my own, either. The bottom line was that I needed to stay well under the radar until I could establish myself elsewhere under a new identity with proper documentation. I needed a plan. When the day of the appointment finally arrived, I was no closer to developing a plan for survival than before. I could probably get to Kansas City, Kansas, but where to find shelter, food and clothing was a blank slate. The only two homeless shelters in the area were on the Missouri side of the line. I needed money, but if I attempted to steal it, I’d just end up back in Juvie.
They didn’t notify me that I had an appointment until breakfast on the day it was scheduled. I guess they were afraid I’d notify an accomplice on the outside to come pick me up, so they didn’t tell me about the date in advance. Fortunately, they didn’t stop me from eating breakfast, as I’d feared they might. I wasn’t going for a procedure or anything where I might get anesthesia, but I’d worried they might have been instructed to hold my breakfast, just in case they needed fasting labs drawn or anything like that. Had I been forced to skip breakfast, the need for food after I escaped would’ve been severe. As it was, I’d probably be hungry by the time lunch rolled around.
The school had a van, but there was no doubt it was a police van. The department-of-corrections logo was on the side, and there were steel-mesh partitions inside that separated the inmates from the driver and prevented escape. I wondered if the emergency exits were even functional in the event of a serious accident. We took off just after breakfast with a driver, a sitter and me. The driver dropped me and the sitter off in front of Children’s Mercy Hospital, on the campus of the University of Kansas City Medical Center, and the sitter took me into the outpatient entrance and followed directions she’d apparently been provided. I guess inmates weren’t permitted advance knowledge of such things.
We made our way through a labyrinth of hallways and elevators until we reached a nondescript clinic waiting area labeled simply, Gastroenterology. I wondered how many people even realized what that was before being referred there. Not even the medical profession called it that – they simply referred to it as ‘GI’. The sitter took me to the reception desk and provided my credentials, such as they were, and the receptionist handed me a clipboard with what I guess was an intake form. The name ‘John Doe’ and a fictitious birthdate with the correct birth year, but January 1, were printed on the form. I sat down and proceeded to fill out the form as best I could, leaving most of the information blank. I did relate a history of vague stomach pains, cramping and occasional vomiting since the age of ten. I crossed out everything else in terms of history and symptoms.
Finally, I was taken back to a room while the sitter remained in the waiting area. I couldn’t believe it. She simply assumed I’d be safe inside. There had to be a back door. There had to be. It was required by code in case of fire. She was foolish.
I was taken to an exam room and after a short while, a nurse, or maybe she was a medical assistant, came in and started chatting with me as she took my vital signs. I was shocked to discover that my height was now up to five-foot, nine inches, which was pretty damn tall for a thirteen-year-old boy. And yet I remained hairless, and my voice had yet to change. The nurse informed me that the doctor was running behind, which seemed strange so early in the morning, and she said to just sit tight, and he’d get to me as soon as he could. That meant I had an opportunity that might not come again. It was now or never, and so I asked where the restroom was.
After getting an answer, I headed right to the restroom and slipped inside. I actually did use the restroom while I was there as the next opportunity might not come until I was on the street. After doing my business, I slipped out of the restroom, and rather than head back to the exam room, I looked around and deliberately went down the wrong corridor. I expected someone would stop me fairly quickly and redirect me back to the exam room, but that didn’t happen before I spotted an exit sign. I made a beeline for it, and seeing no warning about alarms that would sound, I checked for anyone watching and then slipped through it.
I found myself in a stairwell and quickly surmised that it likely supported the clinic areas on multiple floors. As tempting as it was to head down to the first floor, I had no idea what I’d find there. There probably wasn’t a clinic on the first floor and I could easily find myself in a dead end. I decided to go up two floors as I doubted anyone would think of me heading up rather than down, and I looked through the window in the door. There was much activity, but I noticed that I saw only girls and no boys, which made me thing it might be a gynecology clinic. I’d almost certainly be stopped if I exited the stairwell there, but this was the top floor and so I went back down one floor and on seeing both male and female patients inside, reentered the clinic area and followed the signs to the reception area. Once in the waiting area, I simply followed the signs to the lobby and exited the hospital.
Once outside, I ditched my sports coat at the first trashcan I found. With the Hill Top school logo on it, it made me too easy to spot. As it was, I was a bit too well dressed, with a button-up white shirt, khaki slacks and comfortable leather shoes. They were by far too nice for the street, though, yet they were all I had.
Spotting Locust Street directly in front of the hospital, I crossed it and walked on the grass, crossing Gillham Road and walked down a grassy hill to Pershing Road. This was the route I’d spotted when studying Google Maps. I walked down Pershing, past multiple parking garages and past a Panera Bread – how I wished I had the money to stop there for something to eat – and then I crossed Grand Boulevard. I walked by Washington Square Park, alongside the Westin Inn and then crossed Main Street, which was a major intersection. The World War II Memorial and Liberty Tower were clearly visible on my left, but the dominant structure was Union Station, which dominated the view on my right for several blocks.
I stuck to Pershing Road until it came to an end at West Pennway Street, where I turned right. What I didn’t realize was that in staying on the same side of the street, I was locked into following Pennway until it morphed into Broadway Boulevard. It might not have made any difference had I been on the other side of the street, but at least I’d have had a view of where I needed to go. To reach the bridge that would take me across the state line and over the Kansas River, I needed to get to Avenida Cesar Chavez, but I was well past the point where I’d expected to turn onto it. I’d crossed over it on a bridge. It was a classic case of ‘you can’t get there from here.’
Making a turn onto Southwest Boulevard, I took it to where it intersected West 23rd Street. I didn’t even realize there was a West 23rd Street on this side of Union Station, but it was in the right place and it went under the Interstate, which I needed to cross, and so I turned and headed down it. I was surprised to find myself in an area that was more suburban than urban, with one- and two-story buildings with signs in Spanish and a lot of suburban-style houses. That was completely unexpected, and I couldn’t help but think I was headed in the wrong direction in spite of my having studied the area on Google Maps. I spotted a street sign confirming I was on Avenida Cesar Chavez, but the view ahead looked like a dead end. The area became increasingly residential as I walked and the houses seedier, with boarded-up houses visible ahead.
On a side street, I spotted a man on a ladder a few houses down and headed in his direction. In front of the house where he was working was a pickup truck with a label on the side that simply read, ‘Arturo Rodriguez and sons, Handyman’. When I reached the house, I saw that the man was up on a ladder, scraping loose paint from some of the wood trim. I also noticed there was a kid working with him, scraping paint on the first floor. The kid was shirtless and was very muscular, with a ruggedly handsome face that just about took my breath away. He looked to be about my age or perhaps a bit older.
I went up to the kid and asked for directions to the bridge in my most passable Spanish. “Buen día, señor. ¿Podría decirme cómo llegar al puente sobre el río Kansas?” Being self-taught, I had no idea if I was pronouncing it correctly, but it was the best I could do.
Laughing, he responded in perfect English, “Not bad for a gringo, but your accent leaves a lot to be desired. You’re definitely not from around here. Maybe Kentucky —”
“Close,” I replied. Then noticing how meticulous he’d been in removing the peeling paint, I added, “You do nice work. Not many take the time to do the prep work properly.”
“Popá and I always do good work,” he responded. “We paint the way we’d paint our own house.” Then he asked, “Do you know how to paint?”
“Helped my daddy last summer,” I replied. “He was a mean SOB, but he insisted on doing a job right. He had a reputation for doing good work, so folks hired him in spite of his temper.”
“What happened to him?” the kid asked. “You referred to him as, ‘was’.”
“He ticked off the wrong person and found himself on the wrong end of a gun,” I replied. Actually, it was an honest answer; I just didn’t mention it was me holding the gun.
“That’s too bad. How about your mom?” He asked.
“She died when I was born,” I answered.
“So what are you doing in KC?” the kid asked. “It sounds like you’re a long way from home.”
“It’s kinda a long story,” I answered. “Where I grew up was not a good place to be an orphan, and there were too many bad memories there, and I’d have had no choice if I went into the system. So I hopped on my bike and I ran.”
“Where’s your bike now?” he asked.
“You ask a lot of questions,” I replied. “As I’m sure you figured out, it was stolen, along with everything I own and all my money. I was so careful, too, but I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to steal it in a pouring thunderstorm, so I didn’t bother to lock it up when I made camp under a picnic shelter. When I woke up, it was gone.”
Laughing, the kid answered, “Criminals don’t let a little thing like pouring rain get in the way, amigo. By the way, my name’s Steve.”
“What kind of a Latino name is ‘Steve’?” I asked.
“Well, my given name’s Esteban, but this is America,” he answered. “Middle America, where different isn’t allowed. You’d think with so many Hispanic folks around that it wouldn’t matter, but especially these days, everyone seems to think we’re all murderers and rapists. It’s bad enough bein’ gay.”
“You can tell I’m gay?” I asked in surprise.
“Not you, dufus,” he replied, “me. Not that I make it a point to announce it, but I don’t hide it, either. So you thought I was referring to you?” he asked. My face felt like it was on fire. “You’re cute when you blush. I take it you just lost your bike ’cause your clothes are way too nice for a kid who’s been living on the street. In fact, they look too nice for anyone who’s been on the run at all and definitely not someone who’s been traveling by bicycle. You haven’t been workin’ as a prostitute, have you?”
“God, no,” I replied. “Not after a lifetime of abuse from my old man.”
With a look of shock on his face, Steve responded, “Your father raped you? You shoulda killed him yourself!” When I failed to say anything, he added, “If you did, he more than deserved it. It would explain why you’re on the run, but don’t worry, I’d never tell anyone. Not in a million. You don’t hafta tell me, and I won’t ask again.”
Then Steve reached out to me and literally saved my life. Maybe there was a god who brought me to this spot at this time, or maybe I really did have a guardian angel, but Steve asked, “So, you’ve lost your bike and the only clothes are the ones on your back, and you’ve got no money. What are you gonna do, and how will you eat?”
“I don’t know,” I answered earnestly.
“Would you be interested in working for us?” he asked. “Of course, my popá would hafta approve, and the pay wouldn’t be much, but we could give you a roof over your head, we’d feed you well and by the time school starts back up in the fall, you could be on your way with a new bike and a decent set of clothes with enough cash to get started on your next journey. It’d all hafta be under the table. We couldn’t afford to pay your Social Security or health insurance, and I doubt you’re old enough to be legal —”
“I’m sixteen,” I objected.
“Sure you are,” Steve responded with a grin. “Unless you’re a family member, you hafta be at least my age to work with a parent’s permission, but I’m guessing you’re only thirteen, if that,” he continued. My blush pretty much confirmed that he was right. “We couldn’t afford to pay minimum wage. Maybe fifty dollars a day, under the table, and double that if you’re really good.
“You may have noticed, it says ‘sons’ on the side of the truck,” he went on. “I had an older brother, but he enlisted the minute he turned seventeen. After boot camp he was sent to Iraq and hit an IED in his first week. We wouldn’t have had his help on jobs this summer anyway, but Popá always assumed he’d come back and go into the family business. The last few months have been hell, man.” When tears came to his eyes, I couldn’t help myself. I pulled Steve into a hug and didn’t let go until the tears subsided.
Neither of us had noticed that Steve’s father had come down the ladder, but there he was next to us when I released the hug. “Lo siento, papá. Me puse a hablar de Roberto,” Steve explained.
“Your brother’s name was Roberto?” I asked.
“To everyone else, Robbie,” Steve elaborated. Then turning to his father, he said, “Papá, este es … ¡No sé su nombre!” Turning back to me, he asked, “What is your name? You never said.” After a long pause, he suggested, “How about Simon? You look like a Simon to me.”
“That sounds as good as anything,” I replied.
Turning back to his father, Steve said, “Papá, el suyo es Simon. Dice que tiene dieciséis años y necesita un trabajo. Le dije que podíamos pagarle 50 dólares al día más alojamiento y comida durante el verano, y el doble si era realmente bueno. Solía trabajar para su padre, hasta que su padre murió.”
Seeming to scrutinize me, Arturo responded, “Sixteen? You’re not a day over thirteen, but I’ll take you at your word. Esteban said you have experience?”
“Trabajé para mi padre el verano pasado,” I explained. “Me enseñó que una reputación honesta es más importante que el dinero fácil.”
Cringing, he responded, “Your accent! Please don’t speak to me in Spanish. It’s painful to hear. I was born in America and have been speaking English all my life.
“We do only quality work, and I will not pay you if I have to redo any of your work. Don’t count on anything more than $50 a day. I’ll pay more for exceptional work, but not even Esteban’s work is good enough for that yet. We work six days a week. The only day we take off is Sunday, when we go to church. You do not have to go to church unless you want to. We are Catholic, and you’re probably not. I’ll provide a roof over your head and more appropriate clothes for painting. My wife will fill your belly with some of the best food you’ve ever had.”
Then holding out his hand, he asked, “So Simon, can we shake on it?”
Taking his hand firmly in mine, I replied, “It would be my pleasure to work for you. Should I call you Arturo, or Mr. Rodriguez?”
“It wouldn’t be appropriate for a child to call his employer by his first name, but my clients will probably think you’re my son. Why don’t you call me Papi?”
“Papi it is,” I replied.
“My son likes to work practically naked,” Papi explained, “but I have traditional painter’s overalls in the truck, and my son will get you properly outfitted, and you can start work today.”
After Papi had retreated back up the ladder, I asked Steve, “This is still in Missouri, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but we live in Kansas and most of our jobs are in Kansas, but occasionally we get a job over here. It’s a Latino neighborhood, and we’ve developed a reputation for good work. Unfortunately, without the help of my brother, we’ve gotten behind and we can really use another set of hands.
“Is there a reason you don’t want to stay in Missouri?” Steve asked.
“It was a police officer who found me sleeping in a public park, and he took me into custody. Of course, I was forced to leave my bike behind, so that’s how it was stolen. Because I refused to provide an identity, I’ve spent the last four months in Juvenile Detention. There were no charges filed, mind you, but they held me, nevertheless.”
“Can they do that?” Steve asked in surprise.
“Probably not legally,” I replied. “I asked for legal counsel, but it was refused because I wasn’t charged with a crime.”
“But they can’t hold you indefinitely,” Steve countered. “Not more than 72 hours, I think. I used to have a friend with some experience in that regard. Holding you beyond 72 hours is a violation of your rights.”
“Children don’t have any rights,” I explained. “They have a right to place an unaccompanied minor in a group home or comparable facility, and I guess the state of Missouri considers juvenile-detention centers to represent a comparable facility.”
“That’s unbelievable,” Steve responded. “No wonder you were trying to get to the bridge into Kansas. However, Papi will vouch for you being a family member, so there’s nothing to worry about as long as you work for us.”
Nodding my head, I added, “Remind me to tell you about how I managed to escape sometime.”
“Let me get you outfitted with some clothes,” Steve suggested as he led me back to the truck. He pulled out a set of white painter’s overalls and handed them to me, saying, “There’s no one around, so you can change right next to the truck. Unfortunately, I don’t have painter’s shoes to match, but these should work,” he added as he held up a pair of cheap flipflops.
Having never been modest, I wasted no time in getting undressed, removing all my clothes except for my boxers. I noticed that Steve was staring, and he was red as a beet. It was cute. I slipped into the overalls and snapped the straps closed, cinching them up quite a bit to keep them from falling off my rather narrow shoulders. Even still, it felt like if I leaned the wrong way, the whole thing could slide right off my torso. I noticed how sexy it felt, being in a garment without any belt and with an open back and sides. Slipping my feet into the flipflops, I saluted Steve and said, “Ready for my first assignment, Sir.”
Steve actually laughed and said, “Let me get you some tools, and then you can get started, Simon.” He handed me a bucket with a wire brush, some scraping tools, sandpaper and a sponge and said, “Let’s start you out working near me, in case you have any questions.”
Steve led me to a spot a few feet away from him where there was a lot of peeling paint and I got to work. Prep work is the least enjoyable part of any painting job, but I honestly didn’t mind it and enjoyed getting wood down to a smooth, flawless surface ready to be primed and painted. After about fifteen minutes, Steve came over and took a close look at my work so far and seemed impressed. “Your work is as good as my brother’s, Simon, and that’s saying a lot. You’re gonna show me up,” he added with a smile. “In fifteen minutes, you did as much work as I did in close to an hour.”
“I’m not trying to show you up, Steve,” I explained, but he interrupted me with, “That’s not a complaint! If you do as much quality work as my brother, we can take on more work. Maybe you can even teach me your secrets.” I couldn’t help but grin at that.
By the time we stopped for lunch a short while later, I’d finished scraping the entire front and a good portion of one of the sides of the house. Papi scrutinized my work very carefully, and then proclaimed, “This is outstanding work. It’s as good as anything I could’ve done.”
“I’m concerned about the front porch,” I expressed. “Sure, we can paint it, but the way the front has settled, it looks like the whole thing could collapse any day now. In spite of the flashing, water’s gonna continue to seep in behind the roof line and I’m pretty sure there’s rot behind this clapboard.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know,” Papi replied. “I told the client as much, but they can’t afford to fix it.”
“I figured as much,” I replied, “but the cost of saving the house after the front porch has collapsed would be prohibitive. You might as well bulldoze the house and start over if that happens. If the owner can’t afford to fix or replace the porch, offer to tear it down, put up a new set of steps in front of the front door and add a simple roof over the steps. Do it at cost as a gesture of good will. However, if the owner can come up with a bit more, you can buy a prefab gazebo or pergola from someone like Home Depot at a fraction of the cost of fixing this one or building one from scratch. You can adapt it to use as a front porch.”
“I did offer to demolish the porch at no cost to the owner,” Papi responded “but they love sitting out on their front porch. I never considered using a prefab gazebo in place of the porch. How did you ever think of such a thing?”
“My dad and I installed a few gazebos for people who couldn’t do it themselves, so I have a good idea of what’s involved and how much it would cost” I explained. “I’m certain it’d work.”
“Yes, I think it would,” Papi agreed. “We might even be able to salvage the foundation and level it, and just replace the decking and maybe the steps. Even if we have to replace some of the clapboard, if we do it at cost, I think we can keep the cost down to something the owner can afford.
“That’s a great idea, Simon. Now let’s go eat.”
Papi had a cooler in the truck, and it was filled with food. I’m not sure what kind of food it was, but it sure wasn’t like any Mexican food I’d ever had. Steve explained it was from a place called Oaxaca, pronounced ‘wa-ha-ka’, and it was much closer to the food eaten by the indigenous people of the region than most of the Mexican food served in America. We had something that looked like miniature pizzas, topped with beans and cheese. Called Tlayuda. To say it was delicious would have been a gross understatement.
Disclaimer: This story is purely fictional and any resemblance of characters to real individuals is unintentional. Although it takes place in actual locations, in no way are any official policies, opinions or events inferred. Some characters may be underage and at times engage in homosexual acts. Anyone uncomfortable with this should not be reading the story, and the reader assumes responsibility for the legality of reading this type of material where they live. The author retains full copyright and permission must be obtained prior to duplication in any form.