Krystal Ryan was tired. Not work-tired, when your eyes start to burn. Or mom-tired, when your shoulders ache and your neck feels hollow. The 34-year-old mother of two was tired in a way she couldn’t sleep her way out of. She’d tried, but her 5-foot-7-inch frame had stopped doing what she wanted it to. Her nose ran constantly. Her teeth ached. By that fall day in 2009, her whole being just seemed to belong to someone else.

She padded around her Houston townhouse touching things—clothing, furniture, makeup—and leaving them all exactly where they were, seemingly undisturbed, so nothing looked amiss. She didn’t dare look at herself in a mirror. Although she normally grinned a lot, a smile that stretched across her mocha cheeks, it never seemed to light up her almond-shaped eyes, which always remained somber, worn, and wary. She thought about taking her journals but decided she’d like him to read them—just after she was far, far away.

Earlier that week, she’d sat on the couch with her children, 14-year-old Jay and 11-year-old Adara, and repeated a conversation they’d had many times before. If we left, where would we go? By then, Adara was so withdrawn she couldn’t bring herself to meet people’s eyes, and she rarely spoke up. This time, she was unusually self-assured.

“Denver,” she told her mom decisively.

“Denver, Colorado?” Krystal asked. They’d never been there. Didn’t know anything about it.

“Yeah, let’s go to Denver,” Adara said. After about six years in Houston’s swelter, she longed to see snowflakes.

With their destination decided, they now had to determine what to pack once they were ready to leave their entire lives behind. Krystal told her kids to take only what they couldn’t do without. She knew the more they left things looking normal, the longer it would take him to figure out they’d gone. Leave the toys. Leave the pictures. Leave the Mercedes. Leave the lease, the report cards, the Xbox, the medical records, the money. Leave the dogs.

A day earlier, Krystal had stuffed some shoes in a suitcase and pulled pants and shirts out of her closet before taking the luggage to a trusted friend’s house. She shuffled the remaining hangers to make it look like nothing was missing. I want it to look like he’d expect it to be. The next night, after dinner, she told him she was taking the kids for ice cream. She gave him every indication she’d be back in a moment. On their way out the door, she stole one last glance at the puppies, and thought, Man, I’m leaving.

Not long before she fled, Krystal had $650 to her name. Not his. Not theirs. Just hers. She’d been squirreling it away for a month, knowing he’d ask for it when the bills came. Make that demand it. If she didn’t have it, he’d know something was up.

She used it to buy bus tickets to Denver, just like Adara asked, even though the purchase ate up $585. It left the three of them with $65 to start a new life. For shelter. To eat. Of course it wasn’t enough; she couldn’t think about that or she’d turn back.

She led the kids to the Houston bus station’s loading zone, where only ticketed passengers could sit. She’d already turned off her cell phone so he couldn’t call her. Their bus didn’t leave for hours, though, and Krystal was getting nervous. She told a police officer standing nearby they were running away. “Don’t worry,” the cop said. “If you don’t have a ticket, you can’t get back here.” Could he see them through the terminal windows? Could he buy a ticket and try to stop her? Though he’d menaced her countless times, she’d never been so frightened as when she stared at the bus station clock and watched the seconds creep by.

Finally, they boarded the bus. Krystal didn’t stop worrying until the doors closed behind the last passenger. Adara quickly fell asleep. Jay couldn’t stop smiling, a wide grin that softened his eyes and made him look more like the boy he used to be than the man he was becoming. At last, Krystal slept.