“Come back… Kate, come back!” A frantic woman called after me, over and over. “Come back!” More voices joined in with cries of their own.
“You are in big trouble!”
“You can’t just run away!”
“Kate Paxton! Get back here this instant. You can’t just live in the woods, now can you?”
The begs and screams meant nothing to me. Fire exploded through my soul, fueled by their futile attempts and rising with each step like gasoline poured over a raging blaze. I didn’t look back. I didn’t need to see the shock, the pain of the faces of the people. It was in their voice as they shrieked insistently for me, “Come back! Kate! Come back!”
There was a solemn tone to the voices even as they begged, an underlying layer of desperation because they knew I wouldn’t turn. I knew it, and they did too. People shouted and screamed. Roared angrily of consequences when I got back. And yet, no one tried to follow. Not a single one. Tears burned in my eyes as I sprinted ahead, propelled by the springy moss. This is finally happening! I thought, not with glee, but with a deeper feeling. A leaping joy that the nagging passion that I had always held close to my heart would be satisfied at last.
The forest I had always known invited me in with its warm, calming arms outstretched in silent greeting. Welcoming me home. Leaves twirled down from the branches, a maelstrom of brilliant autumn leaves tumbling to the earth like falling stars. Normally I would stop to admire the beauty; but even I knew that I couldn’t. Not now. There will be a lifetime for that, I thought, Now is the time to run.
As I surged through the undergrowth the urgent cries faded away. I let them be washed away. They never wanted me before. I was a misfit before. A girl who was weird because she loved the woods, I thought, salty tears tracing tracks down my cheeks. The final shriek pierced the cool evening air like a knife, stopping me dead in my tracks for a single, heartbreaking moment.
“Kate! Come back to us. Kate, we need you!”
The words echoed in the dark, and my eyes snapped open. Groping blindly in the dark, I expected to feel the same old wooden nightstand sliding smoothly under my fingertips next to my bed. But it wasn’t there. It was cold, hard stone.
I jolted up, sitting ramrod straight in an unfamiliar room. Not my room, not my plushy bed with downy blankets like an angel’s wing. A cave. Before the shock could surge in my veins, the memory arose, a bubble rising to the water’s surface.Yesterday flashed across my mind’s eye, running through the forest till the moon shone bright in the midnight sky and collapsing in a dark, stony place.
Climbing to my feet, I walked toward the sliver of sunlight around the corner, rounding it to see the mouth of the cave, a gaping hole in the jagged gray rock. I stared out into the small, rugged clearing, smiling as the yellowing grass sparkled with speckles of dew, tiny jewels dripping down the stems.
And beyond the clearing? The autumn forest in all its glory. The grass squished under my sneakers; water flooded into my shoes, but I didn’t care. I was finally, finally in the loving embrace of the forest and surrounded by the majesty of the Blue Ridge Mountains which towered above the cave.
An odd buzz filled my ears. I froze. A helicopter! No! My mind was spinning. I had hoped they wouldn’t come, at least not so soon. They’ve begun the search. Diving into the cave, I scrambled down into the darkness. The search chopper’s hum was deafening; I could almost feel the whipping wind from the blade as it passed directly over the cave where I sat crumpled up in a ball on the floor.
Minutes later, the drone faded and I edged toward the mouth of the cave. Deeming it safe, I stepped carefully out into the meadow. They were heading back towards Sapphire Peaks, the town I had always known. I pumped my fist in victory. I had thwarted the town that had despised me, ostracized me for being the “weird kid.” Now that I’d finally run, now they wanted to find me. Now they cared, when they never had before.
That morning, I took a long, slow walk into the forest that I had always dreamed about, that had always called out to me, tantalizingly close and yet so far away. I’m here now, I thought, warmth expanding in my chest.
I took a walk. A simple walk, and yet it was all that I’d ever wanted. Freedom from the town that had pinned me down all my life. I couldn’t help but smile as I looked up at the soft periwinkle sky, watching the helicopter fade into the distance.