WRONGS TO BE RIGHTED
The damp earth gave way under her feet and her palms landed in the brush and dirt to catch her. Rather than stop to find her footing, she dug in her fingers and clawed herself forward until her feet found the ground again beneath her. She stumbled breathless through the dark and willed her eyes to adjust to the black of night but feared what they might find there.
Nothing ahead could be worse than what I left behind, she thought. She held tight to this naïve thought. All her seventeen years may have been sheltered and filled with lavish luxuries like those only her father’s kind of wealth could provide, but she’d seen the chasm between the world her parents had created and the one beyond their fancy colonial home, built on a hill overlooking the heart of her hometown, or the extravagant parties and her exceptional schooling. She’d always been grateful to live life on her side of the divide, free of financial strain and societal struggles, far removed from the filth and unsavory sort that roamed the streets at night, begging for a handout they’d only have squandered away again come morning. Always, until tonight. There would be no going back. Her survival depended on traveling deeper into this dark night, uprooting herself from all that she knew was the only way to stay alive. Beyond that, nothing was certain anymore.
As the heels of her boots stuck in the mud and her dress dragged along the ground, catching on brambles and ripping to shreds, whispers of nightmares still ahead hissed in her ears. She clutched at the branches that scraped her skin and she pulled herself onward. She was sure that by now he most certainly knew she was gone. There was no telling how quickly he would discover how she’d successfully escaped.
She pulled the worn wool coat tighter around her to insulate against the cold chill sweeping through the forest. A thick woven belt replaced most of the coat’s buttons, lost from years of use. She wrapped the sides of the long, rough material so it overlapped across her stomach and then retied the belt tighter without slowing down. She kept moving forward, but her thoughts drifted back to the woman who’d wrapped her in this coat. She and the woman, her housekeeper, had exchanged every article of clothing they both wore that night. She’d shed her gown of rose-colored satin and hand-stitched details, along with her polished white boots, and put on an olive day dress and shoes with hole-riddled soles and frayed black laces, one thicker than the other. She might have been stripped of her past tonight, but it was the other woman who’d paid the greatest price. She had sacrificed her future.
The wind burned her skin raw as tears smeared her cheeks. She hardly noticed the painful friction her hands caused as she swiped at her face. Somewhere in the distance she heard the howl of dogs. Her breath caught in her throat at the sound of the hounds, as bloodthirsty as their owner. She knew they were tracking her. She had prepared for this moment. Her shaky hands moved for the pocket sewn into the side of the dress as she silently begged her thundering heart to quiet, certain the dogs could hear the panic pounding in her chest. Her fingers searched the linen pouch until they closed over the cold, slick, raw beef and flung it far out to the right of her. She didn’t wait to hear it land. A cold sweat rushed down the crease of her back as her eyes stayed locked on the night sky and her legs kept running over the uneven terrain. Follow the North Star, she remembered. It would lead her to the water.
The creek was small and shallow enough to wade across, but the current was strong enough to cut the scent of her trail. It was a better way to outsmart the hounds than the meat she’d used to distract them. It would buy her time, but not much of it.
Her own panting rushed in her ears as she struggled for breath. Her lungs cinched from the icy air. Adrenaline pumped through her in almost unbearable surges of energy, making it difficult to control her body’s movements. The sounds of water lapping over the rocks along the shore went unheard until she held her breath to listen for the dogs again. Relief tingled through her in waves as she parted the brush with her arms and turned her slender body sideways to pass through. She was almost there now. Almost free. Just a few more feet and she’d be in the creek, washing away her trail and making herself invisible to the night and the monsters hiding within it—those on this side of the water, at least.
The sandy bank of the small river was softer than she’d expected and so she stumbled. Her hands landed under her and shards of small rocks dug deep into her palms, slicing her soft skin. She swallowed the pain and let it land in the pit of her stomach with all the rest of her accumulated hurt. The whole of it twisted in her gut like knives through her abdomen. Teeth gritted, she locked her jaw and forced down all that threatened to overtake her, until the numbness spread and she could feel nothing—nothing except the cold of the water rushing alongside her calves, then moving up around her thighs, until she passed the deepest point of the creek and waded through the dark, waist-high water. It silently coaxed her body to sync with the current and disappear forever in the flow of the creek. She was tempted to surrender and be free of this night and all the terrors that would live inside her mind forever after. Her eyes closed. She let her ankle give way to the current’s force. Until she heard
it. Her housekeeper’s voice rang in her ears, an echo of words lingering inside her. “You make this right. Whatever wrong comes of this night, you go out there, and you live, and you make it right.”
The sole of her boot kicked hard into the rocky ground beneath her, sending a dull ache through her heel. It felt good. It felt alive. In that pain she knew there would be no giving in to the current tonight. Not ever. Not when the cost of her freedom had been paid by another. She owed it to her housekeeper, to her father, and to herself to stay alive, to keep moving, to make things right, no matter how long it took.
The water began to sway around her, gliding past the curve of her body as if it understood somehow that it would not claim her. Her passage grew easier with every inch that moved her closer to the opposite shore. The cold slipped down her hips and past her knees until it pooled only around her ankles. She felt the squish of water inside her boots as they found dry land. She’d imagined herself collapsing from exhaustion as a false sense of security settled over her after crossing the creek, but she felt neither tired nor weak as she placed one foot in front of the other on the bank, with her shoulders straight, chest out, and head high. There would be no trace left for the dogs to find. There would be no trace left of her at all.