I don’t know why Shakespeare popped into my head this morning, but it did. So, I went with it. And the story below is where it took me. A note. This is a first draft written straight into site. I tried to check for typos, but probably missed some. It’s a little darker than the other short stories I’ve posted here, but I hope you like it anyway.
[to see the beautiful picture by DanMorgan1 originally posted on this page, click here.]
Stepping on the stones got me across the river’s icy flow, but once I stood on the opposite bank I didn’t know where to go. This is where my instructions ended. Walk West out of town until you hit a fork in the road. Leave the road and walk north into the woods. When you get to the river, cross using the nearest stepping stones. You’ll know what you’re looking for when you find it.
The message had been intriguingly cryptic, but now I doubted my sanity. Who follows a note they found in their locker? Seriously. Only crazy people. And me, apparently. Casting one last glance over my shoulder, I wonder how long it will take someone to realize I’m missing. Not long, but I couldn’t even see the road anymore, so the chances of anyone finding me were miniscule.
“If you’re going to get in trouble anyway, you might as well make it worth the hassle,” my older brother Jim always said. Maybe his dubious words of wisdom sunk deeper than I’d realized. It was a little disheartening to realize, especially since I’d spent so many years trying to fly well under the radar.
This late in the year, it got dark early. The gray sky is darkening fast and I knew that pretty soon I’d have a hard time finding my way home again, but I’d brought a flashlight and my phone had GPS. If worse came to worse, I should be okay. I hoped. The more cautious side of my mind wanted to bring out the flashlight immediately, but something stopped me. It’s not time. If I use it now, I might not find what I’m looking for.
I started forward again, walking straight ahead because the directions hadn’t told me to turn. My gaze swung left to right and back again with each step, but I didn’t see anything out of place. The dead leaves and dried twigs crackled under my feet, the sound impossibly loud in the silence of the forest. Whether I found anything worth looking for or not, there would be hell to pay at home when I finally got back. If I ever made it out of this forest alive, anyway.
My ribs burned with each breath as my lungs pressed against the bruised bones. One of them might have been broken, but I didn’t care. I’d dealt with broken bones before. What made this trek almost impossible though was the pain in my knee that sharpened with every step. I think my mother had been trying to break my leg this time, but I’d moved out of the way in time to escape with only a glancing blow. Still, I might need to thank her. The injuries she gave me helped me escape the far more painful attention my father would have bestowed at night.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and tried to let the icy air numb everything. I knew why Jim had to escape this life, but every night I wished he hadn’t escaped without me.
With my eyes closed, I didn’t see the exposed root that brought me crashing to my knees. My gloves saved the palms of my hands from being skinned raw, but my already injured knee protested strongly to the impact. I hissed in pain and shifted until I could lean against the trunk of the tree.
Taking one more look around, the truth finally sunk in. There wasn’t anything out here. I was chasing phantoms and only getting myself in more trouble at home. This was probably someone’s idea of a practical joke. Let’s get the weird rich girl lost in the woods. Well, it worked.
Maybe I should stay here and let the cold numb the pain forever. I wondered how long that would take, to die of exposure. Even if it took days, it would still be better than dying inch by inch as the people who were supposed to love me stole little bits of my soul every day. Maybe I could go back to the river and let the icy flow swallow me whole. I’d be the town’s golden child as everyone mourned the tragic loss of my life in the flower of my youth. My parents would be the center of attention as they coped with their grief in the most public ways possible and everyone offered their support in this trying time.
I wondered if Jim would come back for my funeral or if he would know why I couldn’t go on anymore and stay away, hiding from the truth in whatever way he’d found to dull the pain. I wondered if maybe he’d taken the permanent way out too. Four years and not a word from him. I had to fear the worst even if I hoped he’d finally built a life for himself somewhere else. Without me.
The tears started falling before I even realized I was crying. I hate crying. It’s a weakness that only got me more punishment. After all these years I still couldn’t tell if my parents liked my tears or hated them, all I knew was that the pain was worse when I cried.
I pushed to my feet, giving up on chasing ghosts and determined to become one instead. Each step toward the rushing river lightened my heart. I’d never have to see my mother smiling at her friends and pretending that she loved me. I’d never see my father in the front row at my piano recitals pretending that he cared. I’d never lie awake at night listening for the sounds that meant I wasn’t alone. I’d never stand outside my front door too terrified to step inside. I’d never fear for my life again.
The water was in sight when I heard something behind me. Steps, quick steps crunching through underbrush. Ignoring the pain in my chest and my knee, I picked up the pace. Maybe my mother had come looking for me. Maybe it was someone else entirely, but it didn’t matter. They’d only return me to hell and this time I refused to go. Whoever it was must have seen where I was headed because they cursed and started running, their feet pounding against the dried earth.
“No, Janie! Stop!”
It couldn’t be. I skidded to a halt, but couldn’t bring myself to turn around and prove myself wrong. What was he doing here? But then he was standing before me, older and more beautiful than I remembered, but enough the same that there was no mistaking him for anyone else.
Without another word, my brother dragged me into his arms and held me tight. I wanted to press myself against his chest and breathe in the scent of hope, of life, but I couldn’t stop the gasp of pain as his grip hit the bruised bones in my chest. He loosened his hold instantly, not needing to be told what was wrong. His brown eyes were dark with fury and his eyebrows pulled together as his gaze scanned my face. I watched him carefully, too scared this wasn’t real to even breathe.
“I’m so sorry it took me so long to come get you,” he finally whispered. “I wanted to get in touch with you, but I knew they’d be watching everything.”
I nod. My parents have full access to my cell phone, my email accounts, and every website I have an account on. For my safety, they said. For their safety, they meant.
“Where were you going, Jane?” he asked. His hands still rested on my shoulders, but I glance past him to the edge of the river. I didn’t know what to say. It had seemed like a good plan at the time. Jim followed my glance and shuddered when he realized my intention.
“Give me your jacket, your backpack, and your phone.”
I quickly handed over the requested items, not even minding the additional bite of the wind. Jim had a plan and I was willing to do anything if it meant leaving this place with him today.
“Give me your hand.” I placed my hand in his and met his eyes as he took off my glove. “This will hurt.”
In the next instant, he dragged a penknife along my palm. I didn’t even flinch. We smear my blood on the backpack and the jacket, place the phone in one of the jacket pockets and arrange the whole thing to look like I’d been injured and tumbled headlong into the river.
“Will it be enough?” I asked him as he gave me his jacket and turned me toward the woods.
“Probably not, but it’ll lead them in the wrong direction,” he said. He’s learned a lot in the past few years and carefully hides our trail as we walk away from the river along a different path than the one we’d taken toward it. Eventually, long after the light has faded, we come across an old pickup truck hidden in the trees. He opened the passenger door and helped me in before walking around to the other side.
“Is there anything from their house you have to have?” he asked. He hoped the answer is no, I can tell, but he’d go back there if I asked him to. For the first time I let myself believe this might be real.
“I don’t want a thing from them. They’re dead to me now.”
My brother smiled, cranked the engine, and started driving us into our new life. “That’s my girl.”