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Ode: Two teens travel cross-country in a desperate escape

Jessica Zepeda
Ally Karsyn

When I was 13, I ran away from home with my 16-year-old brother.


We were living with our dad in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Our mom was in Delaware. The day after Dad hit Josiah in the face, we decided to leave. It was good timing. Mom was getting married that weekend. We’d get there in time for the wedding.


As soon as Dad left the house, we pulled up MapQuest on the computer and printed out directions to Middletown, Delaware. It was nearly 2,000 miles away. Jo and I pooled our money and came up with $20. So, while I threw clothes and toiletries into a cardboard box, my brother Josiah ran down to our grandma’s house. She lived a block away. He told her some sob story about needing money. She gave him $40.


We took the keys to Dad’s new car and hit the road.


The whole time, I kept looking in the rearview mirror, expecting to get caught by our dad or the police. The car wasn’t registered. It didn’t even have license plates, and we're pretty sure it was actually part of a drug deal.


None of that mattered. We had to get away.


Our parents split up when I was 3. My two older brothers and I went to live with our mom and her parents in Texas for a couple years. But then, our dad fought for custody and won. We’d been asked who we wanted to live with. We chose him. Dad was the fun one. He’d let us play outside without a curfew, and he’d let us eat ice cream every day. That was the sound logic of a 5-, 8- and 11-year-old. It broke Mom’s heart.


We moved from Texas, out of her gentle hands, to our father's tiny hometown in Wyoming.


At first, we’d take long walks out to the old army bridge, and we’d go on adventures along the North Platte River. We’d sing along while dad played guitar, and we’d always end our days with big bowl of chocolate ice cream, snuggled up on the couch, next to Dad, while he watched TV.


But it wasn’t all smiles and sweets living with Dad.


In some ways, I raised myself because Dad worked so much as a single parent. I was on my own to figure out all the girl stuff from makeup to tampons. It didn’t take long for Dad’s short temper to show through. Countless nights, I’d hide in my room and cry, listening to my brothers beg for mercy.


Despite the abuse and instability, life then would seem like a cakewalk compared to what would come next.


The shift happened after 9/11. Dad was serving the National Guard. He got called to mandatory training in Fort Collins, Colorado. Without going through the courts, he had our mom come get get us. She took us home to Sioux City, and I was able to enjoy a couple of carefree years here.


But then, when I was in eighth grade, Dad showed up to take me and Josiah back to Wyoming. He had full custody of us, and Mom wasn’t going to put up a fight. So, away we went.


This time, Dad seemed different. He looked skinnier, and he kept talking about how the government was living the attic. He furiously taped up every electrical outlet in the house—that way no one could spy on us. I’d get sucked into his paranoia. I had nightmares about being watched and demon shadows sweeping through the house. Sometimes, I would get lucky and an angel would chase them away. The only thing that pulled me through was my faith in Jesus Christ.


That spring, around Easter, Dad came up with a special chore for us. Josiah and I had to clean the garage. It was filled with fishing rods, tents, bikes, ropes, hoses, shovels, lumber, linoleum and other construction supplies. After a few hours of organizing, we were proud of what we had accomplished.


But when Dad walked into the garage, he went into a frenzy. He told us that we’d done an awful job. He started yelling at us, ordering us here and there, to get it done right. I could feel the blood pumping through my face, making my ears hot. My arms and legs felt like lead, and I had a giant lump in my throat.


After a while, Dad got in Jo’s face and started yelling at him to punch him, “Come on, be a man and hit me!” I stopped what I was doing and watched. My brother was 16 at the time. Tears welled in his eyes. His voice cracked when he said, “Be a man and hit my father?”


He wasn’t going to do it, so Dad hit him instead. Right in the face. Jo fell to the ground. In that moment, I knew our time was up, and my brother agreed. Later, when we were alone, Josiah and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s leave.”


The next day, right after our dad left to pick up his girlfriend from the airport, Jo and I took off with $60 and a stolen car. When we ran out of money, we panhandled at gas stations. We’d approach people at the pumps and tell them that we’d lost our money on the way to our Mom’s wedding, and a lot of them helped us. It seemed like we were actually going to get away from Wyoming for good.


But then, halfway to Delaware, a cop started following us on the interstate. I looked in the rearview mirror, just waiting for the flashing lights. What cop wouldn’t stop two teenagers in a car without license plates? With every minute that went by, I could barely breathe. I crossed all of my fingers and toes and prayed not to get pulled over. And we didn’t.


We kept driving for three days, and in that time, Jo and I talked about everything under the sun. That’s how I learned about meth. Jo said Dad was using it, and he’d done it with him a couple times. He made me promise to never try it.


Finally, we made it to Delaware. When we got to Mom’s house, no one answered the door. So we waited. And the police showed up. My heart sank.


The officer said, “You’re going to have to come with me,” and he put us in the back of his squad car.


Our mom, her parents and her soon-to-be in-laws were all waiting for us at the police station. A social worker was there too. He laid out the options: one, buy a plane ticket and send us back to Wyoming the next morning; two, place us in a runaway shelter; or three, send us home with Mom, who still had partial custody of us.


There was no doubt in my mind—we were going home with Mom.


Within minutes, an argument broke out. My mom’s parents and in-laws wanted to send us back to Wyoming. They said we were disrespectful, bad kids for running away. Mom didn’t say much, but she said enough to disagree. As tensions rose, the case worker took me and Josiah to a different room.


I begged him, “Please, don’t let them send us back to our dad.” He told me not worry and that going back to Wyoming was highly unlikely. He was right, and I was wrong.


That was the first night I slept in a shelter.


For the next five years, I stayed in foster care. My brother and I were split up. I went to live with a loving, wealthy family in Delaware, where my foster parents were lawyers. I was sad, but I was safe. And that was worth the risk.



Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.


The next show is 7 p.m. Friday, April 6 at The Marquee, 1225 Fourth St. The theme is “Just Keep Going,” inspired by this year’s One Book One Siouxland selection, “Hidden Figures.”


Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.

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