*Note- this is a continuation of the Kate Paxton story.
Just when I least expected it, they came. Hard and heavy. There was nothing I could do to stall them. Not a single thing. They had found me. Finally, finally they had found me.
The birds sung a sweet, soft melody from an austere pine that towered above, leaning over the lake and shedding emerald needles that floated on the water like miniature rafts. Golden sunshine filtered through the leaves, warm and pure like a soft embrace. I allowed myself a smile, stopping for a moment to simply listen.
The sound of lapping waves washed over me, a steady thrumming rhythm as the water crept up the sand and receded, crept up and receded.
A sleek brown hawk soaring through the unclouded blue sky, screeching an insistent caw! Caw! That echoed through the air and reverberated in the lofty pines.
Some people love the woods for its silence. I thought with a knowing grin. I love it for its noise. Just as loud, but in a peaceful way. The moment passed just as quickly as it arrived, and I continued the morning ritual I knew so well that there was no longer any thought needed.
I yanked out the laces of my sneakers with a quick flourish, flinging them off onto the sandy shore. A cloud of golden sand exploded into the sky with a puff.
I smiled, taking a step towards the lapping waters of the lake. The sand was warm against my sore feet, sending a sweet heat all through my body. My lips curled into a happy grin as I dug my toes deep into the sand, relishing in the soft yet grainy sand caressing my bruised skin.
Reluctantly, I lifted them out and watched as the sand spilled between my toes, rejoining the millions of tiny grains that gleamed gold in the summer sun. I reached over to a nearby stump, grabbing my makeshift wooden bowl and dipping it into the water. The bowl was made of a thick stick, hastily carved out and patched up so that it held the cool blue water of the lake perfectly.
I had done this every morning since I had run away from school. School… I let out a short laugh. School seemed like a distant dream, a world away. Though it had only been a few months since I’d left, it seemed as though it had been a lifetime. Bittersweet memories flooded my mind, and I fell into the whirlpool, letting myself relive the moment that had single-handedly changed my life forever.
“Oh, so nature girl can actually talk, can she now?” Maria Maize jeered. Everyone looked over to watch my brutal reprimand. Maria was the most popular girl in the high school, with her perfectly styled black hair that always cascaded down her back, shiny and perfect and meticulously curled. Her gang of girls crowded me in an instant.
“Kate, is it? Kate Paxton, the poor girl that nobody likes,” a girl said, looming over me with laughter in her harsh brown eyes.
“I heard she’s got daddy issues. He was a druggie, right? Drug overdose?” A pang of agony hit my stomach like a lightning bolt. I remembered flashes of his eyes, him smiling down at me after my dance recital. A hospital. White sheets. Funeral.
Tears ran down my pale cheeks, coalescing and streaming in rivulets until they dripped down onto my shirt. As if sensing my pain, the girls smirked, obviously pleased.
“Drug overdose. Poor Kate, no friends and no father.”
“Maybe you would actually be popular if you didn’t spend all your time in the woods.” At this, they all snickered.
Waves of hurt crashed over me, and I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning in it, gasping for air and relief, reaching the surface only to be forced back under by a tidal wave of jeers.
“And what about your robot mom?” They waited for a response, for more tears. I didn’t give it to them. Something inside me just simply snapped. Like a cord snipped with scissors, releasing with a twang. I didn’t need to think. My feet did all the work. I sprinted off out of the classroom. The teacher finally looked up, yelling at me to come back. Slamming the door shut, I heard the teacher fling it open behind me.
Running harder than I ever had in my life, I leapt down the stairs and bolted out the back doors that led into a small courtyard. The grass passed in a blur, I heard dim shouts of my classmates behind me through the raging wind in my ears. I never did look back.
I let the memory wash away as I sipped the cool blue waters. It was truly bittersweet. The bitterness of harsh words, the sweet joy of freedom… BAM!!! I was slammed to the ground. The small wooden bowl flew out of my grasp, rolling away into the lake.
A heavy body was on top of me, holding me in a death grip. I let out a muffled scream, biting into my attacker’s arm with all my force, clamping my teeth down on the bare skin. I felt the skin rip away under my canines, and the man recoiled back with a guttural yell. My eyes widened, nearly popping out of my head. The man? The man was a Search and Rescue Team member. Behind him? Five more, their eyes trained on me, bolting in my direction.
No. No. NO. I was too careful. How did they- how…? Billions of possibilities ran through my mind. I doubted that Tara or her group had mentioned it… we had met at the old scene of our campfire about a week after the incident, and I was proud to call them my only semblance of a friendship. They promised to hike out again soon to visit, and some part of me knew they wouldn’t turn me in.
The man sprang to his feet, trying to grab me. I screamed, bolting out around his back and leaping onto his back. Strangled grunts were ripped from his throat as I looped a muscled arm around his neck, squeezing as tight as I could. With one final groan, his body went slack and I jumped off and let him fall to the ground. His chest rose and fell, and I was almost completely sure that he was just knocked out.
A woman lunged for me, her attack even quicker and more feral. She seemed shocked that I could take down an adult man, and obviously they hadn’t expected a fight. This time, there was no holding back.
Fists flew through the air, hers and mine. She made contact, and my breath left in a whoosh!
Wheezing, I recovered and slammed my elbow into her face. Staggering back, I swiftly took advantage of her surprise and flung my fists into her head over and over, until she was gasping for breath and clearly unable to fight.
A hand yanked me from behind, pulling me back by the collar of my shirt. Strong arms secured my limbs and lifted me up off the ground. My toes dangled in the air, all three remaining people clamping down my limbs and began lugging me forward.
Straining, I arched my back and howled with fury. The trees danced and swayed above me, infuriatingly calm and peaceful.
“No! No! NO! You can’t- I can’t-“ I gave up on the sentence, shrieking until my throat was raw. Looking behind me, I caught a glimpse of the little wooden bowl floating away. And something inside of me broke. That little wooden bowl that I had made myself was now gone. Forever.
That one little thing shattered my soul. Sobs wracked my body, and I begged and begged. For mercy. For the first time in my life, I actually prayed. If not for the past to reverse, than to hold that wooden bowl in my arms, to feel the rough wooden edges against my fingers just once more.
The people trekked on, calmly carrying me to a white van that lay in wait in the woods. My whole body yearned for the woods as they shoved me into the back of the van, strapping me in and securing my hands and feet with duct tape.
Gleaming fluorescent lights shone down, illuminating the bed of the van. Writhing. Screaming. Howling at the top of my lungs. My cries were silenced by the thick walls. No. Not school. My mom. Life without the woods…. The thought was unbearable. I was finally captured. Running away had once seemed like a faraway dream, and now returning home was equally as unfathomable.
After a while, the van lurched forward. I assumed that they’d retrieved the people I’d incapacitated.
We rumbled off, and all that I saw was white. Shining white walls. Bright white lights. My eyes could barely process this, after the months of vibrant colors and earthy tones of the forest.
Everything was gone. My sweet life of freedom was gone. I was on my way to Sapphire Peaks now. It was like waking up from a pleasant dream, but not back to reality. No. I was waking up to a nightmare.