Photo by Emma Kumer
Caitlin twisted a thimble-sized plastic cap between her fingers, feeling the ridges still holding cracks of dried paint scrape past her skin, back and forth. “Are you almost done yet?” She drawled lazily.
“There,” I whispered, shaking the can of spray paint after detailing the wall with one last stroke of pink. It made the tinny sound that we’d learned meant it was nearly empty. Satisfied to contemplate the full image for a moment, I leaned back - as far back as I could without falling.
Caitlin and I were kneeling in concrete windowsills, glass long gone. We were confronted with thirty feet of empty air on one side and two shambling floors of rubble on the other, both covered in the litter of hollow paint cans.
For a moment, I stared at the wall directly across from our perch: Childhood nicknames in globular bubble letters and a rainbow wash of neon, two hours in the making: Cat. Emmy. And the bitter smell of aerosol.
I was surrounded by broken pieces and open ends, but for the first time in weeks, my head stopped spinning.
We all need an escape.
For some people, it’s an island. It’s a mountain, it’s a forest. It’s somewhere clean, serene, and beautiful. But we don’t want that. We come from money, we come from illusions of perfection. We come from snowglobe cities with synthetic smiles and postcard parkways. For us, the escape is somewhere dirty, somewhere old, somewhere secret. It makes us uncomfortable, stumbling over rubble. It makes us scared, possibly being followed. It makes us exhilarated, finally doing the wrong thing.
Nobody wants to be perfect all the time.
“Imagine if they found us,” Caitlin whispered, glancing down at the abandoned warehouse floor and then back up to where we sat, legs hanging from window sills on the shaky second level. “I wonder if they’d climb all the way up here... you know, just to get us in trouble.”
She was smiling, but she turned her head toward the open side of the window so that I wouldn’t see completely. She’d like to see them try, wouldn’t she? Feeling like a renegade was the reason we ran away. If only for an afternoon, our polished images were scuffed and tarnished.
Everybody likes to feel like a rebel, sometimes.
We were only feet away from likely death, sitting in our windows, but I had never felt more alive. Staring out across the expanse of the city from an unknown lookout, the world seemed so small. It felt like it was ours, and we were the only ones who could see it, at least in this way. That building - that ancient ode to Milwaukee’s trademark Cream City brick - that was our canvas. That wall - with its rainbow-tinted new mural of angular shapes and smudged lines - that was our artwork. And we were vandals.
“If they find us, they can’t catch us,” I said. My voice was only a quiet echo in the forgotten factory, but there was a confidence to the words.
Everyone wants to think they’re badass.
But you can’t be, not always. Because that’s exactly when we heard the scuffle, saw the black-capped head enter through the loose board in the wall we thought only we knew as a secret door. That was the moment we froze in place, hoping he’d look past us, but he was already shouting to his group that he wasn’t alone.
Sometimes, coming from a privileged world gives you this complex of invincibility, but the two police officers that dashed into the building didn’t see our sky-high GPAs and three-story houses as their boots broke through the debris. You realize pretty quickly how much danger you are in, especially when a third man runs in with a ladder and leans it against the machines you had used to climb up. Trapped.
We’re all in love with the action, but we don’t want the consequences.
And then they were on top of us. Flashlight beams cutting across our skin like lasers. Walkie-talkies spitting static. Footsteps crashing through the piles of wood with no regard for the way decay had balanced them so artistically. Closer, closer. Voices echoing across the empty space, and it wasn’t quiet anymore.
“Down the pipe!” Caitlin screamed, snatching my hand.
I grabbed the metal pole and slid like a firefighter without giving myself time to think. The minute my feet hit the ground, I bolted toward the narrow opening. Caitlin was only two steps behind when our feet hit the grass outside the building, daring the police to race us out. Even though I knew there was a heavy fine resting on our escape, I could feel a smile fighting to pry itself onto my face. Looking back at Caitlin with adrenaline pulsing through my veins, I saw the climax unfolding for a story we couldn’t wait to tell. It would be a thriller, for sure, but that wasn’t why we did this.
Sometimes, the high just comes from breaking the law.