Running As Fast As I Can
Sixteen-year-old Daniel Robinson is haunted by his father’s drunken tirades and his mother’s trips to a mental hospital. When he is sexually abused by his pastor, he runs away and spends the next ten years wandering the country trying to forget the bedlam he called home. On his journey he is caught up in the hippie drug invasion in San Francisco, racial violence in Cleveland and Detroit, and especially a deadly anti-war protest at Kent State. Beaten and nearly killed several times, lost and alone, he almost loses hope he will ever be happy—until he meets Kate Fitzgerald, who was running from her own demons. Together they find love and the family they both want.
Daniel and Kate now try to help other abused people. But when they allow a homeless black man just released from prison to move into their home, the white neighborhood is enraged, and violence erupts. Daniel must decide if he’s willing to put in danger the family he loves, or compromise all he believes in and run away again. How he answers that question changes both of their lives forever.
“I am captivated by the story and find myself reading too fast to find out what happens next.”
“Wrought with emotional intensity…I literally felt Daniel’s tears and wanted to hold him and hug him…I still want to find him in the dark of this night…Daniel is all of us.”
“I am speechless. My heart was racing and aches already and this is only the first chapter. I want to read more!!!!”
“My Favorite part is Daniel taking the model plane outside and burning it. Such real emotion.”
“I’M RUNNING AS FAST AS I CAN was more intriguing than any John Grisham book I’ve ever read. A real page turner.”
“I feel like I have lived what Daniel lived. It has broken my heart. I had to stop at times and weep.”
“I was quite captivated right from the start and cared about the characters.”
“I’m not that much of a book reader…but I found myself absorbed with the story, and wanting to find out what was going to happen next.”
“The sweetest love story ever.”
“The reader is drawn into the lives of the characters and wants to see where they are going. It keeps the reader’s attention and is not easy to put down.”
“It takes on the establishment, be it religious or secular, and pulls the rug out and highlights the decay.”
“The part during and after Daniel’s college years spoke to me as a young person who is unsure of the future. I think we all ask a lot of the same questions he was asking and that made the story relatable.”
“I felt extreme sadness, empathy and even rooting for some of the characters. I was very drawn into the novel.”
“Even after I finished the book, I was still thinking about the story the next day.”
Chapter 1: We live as we dream – alone
Chapter2: In the belly of the beast
Chapter 3: Lost in Wonderland
Chapter 4: The fires of spring
Chapter 5: The helpless instruments of blind chance
Chapter 6: Call me Ishmael
Chapter 7: Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian
Chapter 8: Surely all this is not without meaning
Chapter 9: A prism through which pain could be divided and dissipated
Chapter 10: A world turned back to cinders
Chapter 11: Like a dead man walking
Chapter 12: Tender Mercies
Chapter 13: I’m running as fast as I can
Chapter 14: The crucible
Chapter 15: In the margins of uncertainty
Chapter 16: Heart of darkness
Chapter 17: I’m haunted by memories
I wanted my father to say something about my plane. Nice job. Looks like it was hard to build. I’m really proud of you, son. But he didn’t say anything. I just stood in front of him, anxiously holding up my airplane like it was some sort of offering to the gods.
I shared space with people called family. We had the same address, ate at the same table, even had the same last name, but we were strangers. We all lived alone together.
We almost were a couple. All those walks together all semester long were like a date. We shared personal thoughts and feelings. We held hands. We kissed. We even made love once! But Elizabeth calls that just being friends. It bothers me when she says that, especially when I see her on campus with Craig. But I never said anything to her about it. I’m afraid if I make her choose, she’ll pick Craig. The thought of losing what little I have of her scares me too much.
I knew it was madness to see her, not now. Not ever. I knew if I opened myself to her again, if I allowed my passion for her to come out, I knew she would consume me. But I couldn’t help myself. The agony I endured during our separation was too much.
“I really did try to believe in God,” I finally said, more to myself than Doc. “But I can’t. Not after what I saw today.” I looked up at him. “But I believe in hell. I’ve been there.”
“Drugs.” Elijah spit out the word. “It started with LSD. But in no time it was heroin, and nothing good comes with that shit. These streets eat up kids like James. Just to survive, they’ll do whatever it takes. You saw that just the little time you was on the street. That’s why I’m not judging James. When I was in the bottle I did some things to get by I’m not proud of either.
“What can we do, Elijah?”
“We’re doing it. He’s here now, with you and me. All I care is he’s willing to start over one more time. Church calls it grace. I call it survival.”
“Don’t make me choose. I can’t. I love you, but I can’t leave Robert. I just can’t. That would be wrong.”
“What we’ve been doing every afternoon has been wrong. What I did to Ruthie was wrong. I’m asking you to make it right and come with me. Enough lying from both of us. Let’s be honest with each other just once. I gave up everything and everyone I care about just for you. Now I’m leaving Ohio. I love you. I want you to come with me. That’s as honest as I can be. Now you decide.”
I think it’s best that I start over again. I do that pretty well, you know. Start over, I mean. I like to think life’s written in pencil so we can get a lot of second chances. That’s the only hope I have. Lots of second chances.”
I wrote a little verse with each photo. But it was the last one that was my favorite. I asked some hiker we met at Oakland Wilderness Park to take a picture of me with Kate and Susan. I thought we looked like a real family, all of us standing, holding hands and smiling. We just fit together. And that’s what I wrote. “My journey led me to you. We were meant to be together.” She cried when I gave it to her.
“With all our money worries, and now with a new baby due, it’s only going to get worse. You never say anything, but I know it worries you too.”
“Sure, I’m worried. But what makes you think I’ll leave you?”
“Because you say all the time you hate your job. And you hate living in Detroit. You’ve been all over the country. I just know some day you’re going to say you can’t take the pressure anymore and just leave me.”
“Lots of people hate their jobs, Kate. And everyone hates living in Detroit.” I pulled her close to me on the bed.
She took a deep breath and looked at me, like she had to say something so hard the words seemed to catch in her throat. “All men leave,” she finally blurted out, then buried her head on my chest, sobbing.
Truth is such an elusive thing, Daniel, especially in these matters.” He sounded so condescending, like I was some kid in the principal’s office who wasn’t smart enough to realize he was trying to help me. “Quite frankly, perception is really all that matters. If someone perceives they’ve been harassed, that’s all that concerns us.”
The most unnerving part of prison, something I never got used to, even after nearly a year and untold number of visits, was the sound of the door closing behind me. I felt trapped, like I was locked up too, forgotten, never to go home again—just like these men. No matter how hard I tried, I never relaxed until I was outside again, in my car and driving down the road away from that place. Maybe that’s why I always drove home with my windows open, even in winter. I needed to feel the wind on my face. I needed to feel free again. Yet strange as it seems, I always looked forward to these prison trips. When I was with these throwaway men, these men who were just numbers now, I felt I was needed.
“Salem Hill police and Shawnee County deputies have been searching all day for a missing college girl named Lynn Mitchell. She was last seen jogging here in the Shawnee Creek Park more than thirty-six hours ago. She’s not been seen since and authorities are conducting an extensive search of the park, the town and much of the county.”
“This isn’t good, Daniel,” was all Kate said. I didn’t answer.
We live as we dream—alone
I’m haunted by memories.
I can still see that model airplane I built when I was twelve years old. I had a job delivering newspapers after school and saved all my money through most of the seventh grade. I wanted to buy an authentic P-40 Tomahawk fighter kit I’d been eyeing in the window of Thompson’s Hobby Shop. It even had a working motor. The manager told me it could actually fly, but he didn’t recommend it. “More for display,” he said.
I worked on my new plane in my room after school for hours and hours until I had every detail perfect, so it looked exactly like the one pictured on the box. I even painted it a camouflage color and added authentic decals to make it more realistic. When I was finally done after weeks of work, I wanted to show it to someone. My mother was in one of her moods again and wouldn’t come out of her room. But my father was watching television, and from what I could tell, he wasn’t drunk yet.
“Built it myself. What do you think?” I asked and held my airplane in front of him.
He didn’t look up, but just took a drink from his bottle and kept staring at the television.
“It’s an authentic P-40 Tomahawk fighter plane,” I said. “You know, a Flying Tiger, just like the ones that flew in World War II. You were in the war, weren’t you? Did you ever fly in one of these planes?”
He still didn’t say anything, or even look up at me.
“Built it myself. Really hard too. Not easy to put the frame together. It’s made of balsa wood and covered with a special paper I soaked in oil so it would shrink to fit just right. Look at all the decals,” I said as I turned it around slowly. “I even painted the shark’s mouth on the nose, just like a real Tomahawk. Motor works too. The man at the store said it can actually fly, but I’m not planning to do that. I’m gonna keep it on my dresser ’cause it’s real special.”
I wanted my father to say something about my plane. Nice job. Looks like it was hard to build. I’m really proud of you, son. But he didn’t say anything. I just stood in front of him, anxiously holding up my airplane like some sort of offering to the gods.
“Want to see how the motor works?” I asked, desperate now for his attention.
After what seemed like forever, he finally looked up, slammed his bottle on the table and gave me that irritated look I saw so many times. “You’re blocking the fuckin’ television,” he yelled.
He didn’t hit me. Not like he sometimes did. But it felt like it. I started to cry, but turned away and wiped my eyes. I walked out of the room and went to the backyard. I set my new airplane on the ground, filled the tank with fuel and flicked the propeller several times until the motor screamed to life. I grabbed my father’s Zippo lighter from my pocket, flipped open the lid, hit the striker twice until I had a steady flame. I held it under the tail until the oil-treated skin ignited. Then I launched the plane into the air.
For a few wonderful seconds my special P-40 Tomahawk fighter with all those authentic decals flew up and up, just like I always imagined. But when the flames engulfed the wings, the plane suddenly veered sharply to the right, then down and down in a death spiral until it crashed to the ground. I wanted to cry again, but I didn’t. I never built another model airplane.
“Dad, we need to get going or we’ll miss our flight,” Emma called from the bottom of the stairs. I smiled, but I didn’t get up from the chair in my bedroom. Of all the kids, Emma is most like her mother. Oh, she doesn’t have her red hair. Her sister has that. But every time Emma walks in the room and looks at me, I see Kate. The tilt of her head, the look in her eye, and especially the way she taps her foot when she’s upset. Obviously she’s upset now. But not with me, and not even because I’m moving in with her family. She’s glad for that. But like I said, she’s just like her mother. She’s only trying to protect me.
“Just looking at a letter,” I answered. I doubt she heard me, but it doesn’t matter. She knows what I’m doing. She’s seen me do this too many times these past thirty years. Even when she was a little girl and I was still drowning in my grief, she found me sitting here reading this letter too many times, tears running down my cheek. She always crawled up on my lap and “hugged away my hurt,” as she called it. That’s when I first knew she had her mother’s heart.
The kids told me to sell the house, especially after they were grown and married. “Move away from Salem Hill,” they said. “Come live with us. The grandkids need you.” I thought about it a couple times, but then I remembered how Kate looked at me when we first saw this neglected, broken, shell of a house. The sagging porch, the damaged windows, the leaking roof. She was tapping her foot before we even got in the door. But together, we slowly transformed this ruined building no one wanted into more than just a house. It was a healing place when I bared my great shame to her. It was a refuge from the hatred and violence that surrounded us when that girl disappeared and everyone blamed me. Especially after that horrid night at the city council meeting, this house has been my sanctuary where I always have Kate with me.
“Dad,” Emma called a second time from the steps, but I didn’t answer. She can wait a few more minutes. I need to look around this bedroom one more time. I need to feel Kate lying next to me again
I need to remember…
It was my sixteenth birthday when everything turned to hell at home. It was around lunch time when Frankie Denardo showed up at my door and said he’s taking me to the Clairton Theater for a John Wayne double feature.
“Happy birthday,” he announced and held up two tickets.
I wasn’t expecting anything, even from Frankie. We grew up on the same block since we started first grade together at Wilson Avenue School. His old man worked in the mill and frequented anyone of a dozen Clairton bars, just like my old man. We were in a lot of classes together, and both of us had newspaper routes ‘til we started high school. He was as close to a best friend as I ever had.
“Sure. Love to see the Duke,” I said.
“You need to tell anyone where you’re going? I mean ‘cause it’s your birthday?”
Mum wouldn’t even know I was gone. I saw the pattern too many times. The crying, the threats to hurt herself, the long periods of silence when she stayed hidden in her bedroom, praying in the dark, not seeing or hearing anyone. For as long as I remembered, the neighbor kids all said she was crazy. I was too young the first time it happened to know what crazy meant. But after a half dozen trips to Woodville State Hospital over the past ten years, I understood all too well.
The old man was still passed out on the couch, and neither of my brothers cared much what I did today.
“Nah. It’ll be okay.”
When I got back home four hours later, there was more tension at the house than usual. My brother Robert always got the brunt of the old man’s anger for any real or imagined reason. Like closing a door too hard. That was the worst thing we could do when he was drunk, except when it was something else. We never knew what it would be. Robert was the oldest and tried to protect me and my little brother Billy. But he was never strong enough to stop him. None of us were.
I found Robert standing out in the alley behind the house. I could hear the old man yelling at Mum.
“What set him off this time,” I asked.
“I got no idea. I just know I can’t stand living with him anymore!” he said and threw a rock as hard as he could at Mrs. Martini’s cat in the alley. She lived next door and always complained about everything we did.
“That’s it!” Robert looked at me like he realized something obvious. “He’s just Him.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, then I realized he was right. Calling him father, dad, or even my old man all seemed too personal. Those were terms normal families used. They implied a degree of affection, some sort of relationship. But we had no relationship, and certainly no affection for him. From that moment he was just Him—some abusive stranger who happened to live in the house with us.
After that, both of us tried to get along with the old man, or at least avoid him as best we could. But two days later Robert planned a date with a girl who lived fifteen miles away in Pittsburgh and everything fell apart. He said he needed to borrow the old man’s car, the new fire engine red Chevy Impala SS coupe.
“You sure you wanna do that?” I asked. “Nobody drives that car except Him.”
We both knew the old man bought it that spring to impress a neighbor woman he tried to seduce. He still treated that car better than us and my brother detested Him all the more for it.
“Can I borrow the car Saturday?” Robert asked when he found him sitting in the living room opening another bottle of beer. Robert clenched his jaw, like he always did when he had to talk to him.
The old man didn’t look up, but kept watching the television.
“Dad, I need a favor.” This time Robert tried to sound less hostile, even calling him dad, but that word stuck in his throat when he said it. “I got an important date Saturday. Can I borrow the car? I’ll put gas in it.”
He didn’t answer. He just took a long drink and stared straight ahead at the television.
Robert looked toward Mum in the kitchen, as if asking her to somehow intercede. But she had no more influence over him than we did. She gave up on making peace with her husband long ago.
“William, he’s a good driver and he needs the car Saturday night,” she said with little enthusiasm. “Let him use it, will you?”
He mumbled something. “I think he said yes,” Mum told Robert, then went back into her bedroom.
Robert spent most of Saturday afternoon getting ready for his date. It was obvious he wasn’t looking for any advice from the old man. Both of us were long past that sort of normal family expectation. Maybe some warning about not getting any scratches on his car. “It gets more attention than any of us anyway,” he muttered as he got dressed. All he wanted was the keys.
“Okay. Leaving now. Can I have the keys?” Robert asked when he walked into the living room.
The old man didn’t answer.
“I gotta go now. Can I have the keys?”
He took another long drink and kept staring at the television.
“I’m gonna be late. I gotta go. No kidding. Can I have the keys?” Robert asked again. His face turned red as he spoke. His jaw clenched.
The old man ignored him.
“I asked for the car three days ago,” Robert yelled. “You said I could have it. I made plans. Now, dammit, I’m using the car!” He lunged at the old man, landed several quick blows and grabbed the keys from his pocket and ran out the door before he could stop him.
“You little goddam prick!” the old man screamed and threw his bottle at him, shattering it against the wall. He ran after Robert and grabbed him just as he reached the car and jerked him back. Robert spun around and knocked the old man to the ground, then jumped in the car, slammed the door shut and locked it.
The old man staggered to his feet and yanked the door handle several times. “Open this goddam door or um gonna bust it open!”
Mum heard all the screaming and came out of her room and stood in the yard with that same frightened look I saw so many times.
“Can’t you do something?” I asked, but she didn’t answer. I don’t think she even heard me. She just cried like she always did when he got violent.
Robert shook as he tried frantically to start the car. In spite of his stupor and rage, the old man somehow realized Robert wasn’t going to open the door. He stumbled to the front of the car, unlatched the hood, yanked it up, climbed on the bumper and grabbed for the coil wire. “I’ll teach you to steal my fuckin’ car!” he yelled from under the hood.
Robert finally got the key in the ignition and the engine roared to life. He slammed the transmission into reverse, floored the accelerator and careened down the street with the old man still standing on the bumper and hanging onto the radiator. “Stop the fuckin’ car!” he screamed.
Robert swerved left and right, nearly hitting several parked cars. A half block down the street, the old man fell off the bumper, slammed onto the pavement and rolled over several times. Robert didn’t seem to notice, or care. He kept going down the street in reverse with the hood still up. At the corner of Walnut Avenue, he stopped the car, got out, slammed the hood shut and drove off.
The old man laid there for several minutes without moving. Then slowly, he stood up and limped back toward our house. I didn’t move. I was scared he’d come after us now. Mum held Billy behind her and tried to protect him. But the old man walked past us without saying a word, limped into the house and slammed the door so hard the windows shook. I looked at Mum, but I was too scared to speak. Mum didn’t say anything either. She slumped to the curb with a blank look on her face, like she wouldn’t hear me anyway. Billy and I sat with her.
We stayed there for maybe an hour, not saying anything. Finally, Mum stood up. “He’ll be passed out on the couch now,” she said without even looking at us, like this was something normal, and walked back into the house. We followed, but when she went into her bedroom and shut the door, we didn’t know what to do. We went to our room and just laid on our beds in the dark, too scared to say anything.
Sometime past midnight Robert climbed in the window and got into his bed without saying a word. I laid awake, staring at the ceiling and worried what would happen now. I didn’t know what time it was, but Robert asked of no one in particular, like it was something he’d been thinking about all night, “Why do you think Mum married the old man?”
I didn’t know what to say to him.
“I think she did it to get out of Coal Valley,” he said, more to himself than me.
I knew she grew up in there. It was the poor part of Clairton, downwind from the steel mill that covered a thousand acres along the Monongahela River. I hated going anywhere near that place ‘cause all the smoke made my lungs burn for days. She never talked about Coal Valley, and I never thought about it—until now.
“Maybe,” was all I said.
Near dawn I heard Robert leave the room. I got up and followed him. I was afraid there’d be another fight. When he saw the old man still passed out on the couch, he walked down the hall to the kitchen where he found Mum sitting in the dark.
“I’m glad you’re up,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye.”
She didn’t answer.
“I can’t stay here. Not after last night.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, but with little emotion, like she wasn’t listening.
Robert looked toward the living room again. “I’m leaving. I’ve had enough of Him. I gotta go.”
“Where? What are you going to do?” she asked and looked toward Robert and started to cry softly.
“Join the Army so I can get as far away from Him as I can. I just wanted to say good-bye before I left.”
Robert tried to hug her, but it was awkward and she didn’t respond. She was crying too hard now. He turned toward me instead and grabbed my hand and shook it. “Take care of her for me,” he said and nodded toward the old man in the living room. Then he turned and left.
I felt bad for Mum, but Robert was right. All of us were going to pay for what he did. I wanted to leave too. But I was just sixteen. I couldn’t join the Army. I still had two years left in high school. I had nowhere to go.
None of us mentioned Robert after that. He was gone. That’s it. Mum and I did what we always did—avoid the old man and survive one more day. I spent all my time with Frankie, mostly hanging out at the Clairton Park. The city had a great pool that only cost twenty-five cents. We rode our bikes there, usually around eleven when it opened, and stayed until dark when it closed. I hardly missed Robert.
Mum spent most of the summer in her room. I don’t think she missed Robert much either. At least she never said anything about him.
Billy was different. Maybe because he was just ten and Robert always tried to keep the old man from hurting him too much. But now he was gone and Billy looked to me for help. He didn’t come right out and say it, but it was the way he followed me around the house, always asking if he could come with me and Frankie to the pool. But he was just a kid. He couldn’t swim yet. He didn’t even have a bike. What was I supposed to do?
He cried a lot that summer.
The old man was pretty quiet after Robert left until sometime in January he came home in a particularly foul mood.
“Fuckin’ bosses laid me off,” he yelled at Mum when he walked in the house. She didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking. I’d seen that same worried look on her face every time he bought something we couldn’t afford. How will we pay the mortgage? She walked back into her room and shut the door.
The old man spent his time at home now, drinking and yelling at us—and mostly at Billy. He was the weakest one because he still wanted Him to be a real father. He wanted us to be normal. I gave up on that a long time ago.
“Get outta the front of the fuckin’ television, you horse’s ass!” That was his favorite name for Billy—horse’s ass.
I was in the kitchen when I heard him. “God dammit! I said move!” I came into the living room just when he threw a bottle at Billy and barely missed his head. It smashed into the screen of the brand new color television he bought on payments for himself two weeks ago. There was a loud POP, and the screen went blank.
“I told you to get outta the fuckin’ way. Now look what you done!” He grabbed Billy by the arm and threw him hard against the wall. He cried out and went limp.
That made the old man even madder and he jerked Billy up off the floor. He screamed out in pain. Mum heard all the yelling and came out of her room. That’s when we heard it. SNAP! Billy cried out again, this time much louder.
“Damn you, William!” Mum screamed and grabbed a glass lamp and hit the old man on the head. For a second, he stood there, too stunned to move, his face contorted with rage. Then he lunged at Mum and grabbed her hair, yanked her neck back and slapped her hard in the face. Once, twice, three times. Mum covered her head as best she could, but it didn’t help.
I never saw him this angry, and it scared me—a lot. But when he hit Mum like that, I just went crazy. I ran across the room and slammed into him from behind with my shoulder. He fell hard against the wall and slumped to the floor, gasping for breath.
“Grab Billy, Mum, and get outta here!” I yelled. She tried to lift him, but his arm was hanging at a weird angle and he cried out in pain. I grabbed his other arm, lifted him off the floor and the three of us ran across the yard to Mrs. Martini’s house. I pounded on her door forever until she opened it. She looked at Mum’s face, that was now red and swollen, then at Billy, who was still crying and holding his dangling arm. That’s when the old man came out of the house and saw us. He stumbled across the yard screaming at Mum, at me, and Mrs. Martini.
“Get in the house quick,” she said, then slammed the door behind us and locked it just as he reached the steps. He screamed and beat on the door, “God damn you, you old bitch, open the fuckin’ door!” But Mrs. Martini ignored him. She called the cops instead.
They arrested him and took Billy and Mum to the hospital. She was okay, just a black eye and some bruises. But Billy had to stay there for a couple days because the doctor said his arm was broken. Some people from the welfare office came to the hospital and asked a lot of questions. They asked Mum about Woodville too. She didn’t want to talk to them. She’d been real quiet ever since the old man hit her, so they asked me all about our family, and especially Billy. I didn’t know what to tell them. I think they were real worried about him.
A week later those same people came back and said it wasn’t safe for Billy to stay at our house. They said my Aunt Mary in Pittsburgh was willing to take him. Mum cried a lot, but Billy didn’t cry at all. I think he knew he couldn’t live with the old man anymore. None of us could.
We didn’t talk about Billy after that. Mum stayed in her room in the dark. I listened to the radio alone.
In March somebody from the court called and said the old man was getting released. They wanted to know if she could come get him at the jail. Mum didn’t say anything, but just walked back into her room and shut the door. The next morning an ambulance came and took her to Woodville.
I had nowhere to go.
I shared space with people called family. We had the same address, ate at the same table, even had the same last name, but we were strangers. We all lived alone together.
For the first time his mind grasped the fact that when life has sentenced you to suffer, the sentence is neither a fancy nor a threat, but you are dragged to the rack, and you are tortured, and there is no marvelous rescue at the last moment, no awakening as from a bad dream. He felt it as a foreboding which struck him with terror.
Jens Peter Jacobson