*This is the seventh edition in the Kate Paxton series. Find the rest in the archives!
The world blurred around me as I sailed through the open air. It was so right. It was so wrong. It was just so… different. Something about it felt wrong. But, in the same way, it felt better than ever before. Crack! I collided with the branch, a sickening crunch and crackle of the wood bending echoed in my ears. Frantic shouts drifted through the window, and deja vu hit me like a hurricane.
“Come back… Kate, come back!” a student shouted after me. The same thing that someone had screamed after me the first time I’d run away, the first time I’d given in. Their sheer force slammed down on me like a ton of bricks. Tears brimmed in my eyes, my heart crumbling with each beat. Those words that I had heard before pounded my brain, indecision flooding in before I could even begin to scamper down the tree.
It had been so much simpler last time. The woods had called. I had answered. Simple. Not easy, but simple. But now? My heart sang for the mountains and the trees, beat for the feeling of my feet against the mossy ground. Each step I took in Sapphire Peaks felt like a step wasted, each thought was a yearning cry for freedom. Every night since my capture I had dreamed of that beautiful wooden bowl drifting away across the lake, a reverberating echo of the pain of that day. A small water dish that had fragmented my heart. It was like I was Tom Hanks in Castaway, watching Wilson be pushed under the waves over and over each night as the earth cried out to me.
Boom! The branch I had been climbing down on snapped, and I tumbled the rest of the way down, hitting the grass with a thump. Pain ricocheted through my bones, my knees throbbing from the impact. Some small part of my rational mind was still trying to saw away my will, saying, Stop. You could get better. The counseling will help, you can learn to be normal again! You could live your life, have friends, find a way to stay connected with the wilderness…
Leaping up, I felt the fire burning in my soul, ignited by the hopeless attempts at reason my mind had conjured. My feet flew across the ground, so fast I could barely feel the grass beneath them. Clouds of dirt and grass billowed behind me as I whipped across the yard, sprinting for the woods that lie just beyond the clearing. I felt more sure of myself with each dismissed doubt.
Why? Each speculation, each hope of my rational mind was easily debunked by what I knew in my heart. You could get better. My mind insisted, but deep down I knew it wasn’t true. The only place for me to heal had always been nature, the mountains, the crystal blue lake on the shore. My feet hit the earth faster and faster, a drum beat wildly increasing tempo. The counseling will help, you can be normal again! It cried desperately, and I almost snorted at the thought. The only thing Emilia Pavledes had done was 1) drag up the past, making me sink deeper into despair and 2) singled me out for running away, trying to make me feel guilty so that I wouldn’t do it again. Even the reasonable half of my brain was being silly at this point.
Quickly, I made a split second decision when I came to a crossroads. I could either book it for the woods, like I did last time, with nothing but the clothes on my back and the fire in my heart. Or I could do a quick run past my house, grab some supplies and do a more strategic plan that would hopefully limit the chances of the search teams finding me.
A bang erupted off in the distance as the school’s front doors swung open. There was no time to think. If I didn’t choose soon, a horde of teachers and School Resource Officers would see me, and then I’d have no chance at all. Visions of being dragged to the police station flashed through my mind, visions of wailing red sirens and my mom’s cold blue eyes coming alight with fury, snapshots of a future where I was under constant scrutiny. A future where I was never allowed near the forest, years going by without the dirt beneath my bare feet and the soft, springy moss beneath my hands, where I could never sink into the cool blue water of the summer lake or watch the golden grains glimmer on the shore.
Perfect job, perhaps, a decent living and a family further down the road. But at the cost of my freedom. At the cost of the feeling that nobody could ever restrict you, the glow when you realize that you are one with nature and that you lived a life of complete independence.
I shuddered at the idea of it, and without another second of thought, I took off down the trail towards my house. Sticks and branches cracked and popped beneath my feet, like an exclamation point on every step. Wind throttled my ears, hair coming loose from the ponytail and cascading around my shoulders in wild waves. Run! My heart cried. Stop! Some small part of me insisted. But my heart beat for the woods and the mountain stream, and I would always listen to my heart first. Run! My feet hardly seemed to hit the grass as I sped down the winding path.
After a solid minute, my cabin-like house came into view. The cozy wooden home was nestled among oaks, barely visible in the sea of leafy green. Rusty, our new red bone coon hound and my “therapy dog,” was baying in the front yard, his howls echoing through the silent woods. I’ll unchain him before I leave, I thought, eyeing the small silver chain that tethered him to an oak. Smiling, I sprinted past him, knowing that this time around I would have a companion.
Throwing open the screen door that was never locked (despite my mom’s insistence that I “needed to be more responsible” and actually click the lock), I ran to the linen closet. The kitchen was just a streak of sparkling black tile in my peripherals as I opened the door, wasting no time in yanking down the hatch to my attic bedroom.
Sunlight streamed through the windows, illuminating my small twin bed and the wooden desk in the corner that was strewn with papers. My mom had always called it a “loft” before… before the accident with Dad. Fine. Before his overdose, before the heartbreak, before the cold, heartless Mae took over.
“Loft.” Ha! She had made the cramped space sound cozy and homey before, always crawling through the hatch with a tray of cookies to leave on my bed as I read a book, smiling and asking how I was enjoying my “own personal loft.” Ever since Dad, she never came up anymore. She called it simply, “the attic.” Lately when something would creak and I would look over, half-expecting to see the Mae Paxton of before opening the hatch, with a tray of warm cookies in hand and a grin spread over her lips. But there was nothing there but empty space and the ache of loneliness deep in my gut.
Shaking away the thought, I walked over to the corner, crouching beside the desk and pushing it away from the wall. A smirk lit up my face at the sight of it, though I knew it would be there. My secret spot. Now, when I say secret spot, I mean just a small crevice in the wall, big enough to fit your arm into but not much else. Though so much had changed through the years, that never had. Wiggling my sun kissed fingers into the hole, I had a flashback that struck like lightning, sending waves of shock through my body.
Deja vu bubbled in my soul and my vision swam, remembering a similar moment almost a year before. It was a chilly November evening and the dust danced in the dull gray light. Rain pitter-pattered against the panes, dozens of droplets streaming over the glass. The instant I heard the click of the lock, signaling my mom had left, I practically ran over to my desk, straining my weak, thin arms to pry it from the wall. Shaking with effort, the small crevice finally appeared. Shoving my hand into it, I pulled out the supplies. Today’s the day. I have to do it today! I thought, producing a tiny flashlight, a plethora of foods, an extra pair of shorts, undergarments, and a shirt, all neatly stuffed in a blue string bag. In that moment, I heard the lock unclick and the screech of the screen door. “Kate?” A voice called. My mom. Crap! I thought, desperately fumbling to wedge the bag into the hole. Just as the hatch began to open, I slammed the desk against the wall and flung myself awkwardly onto the bed. Today was not the day to run away. I was beginning to wonder if there ever would be that day. I sighed, watching the droplets drip down the dull glass. Not today. I thought. Not today.
Blinking hard, I opened my eyes. It had gotten darker while I was having the flashback, and the sky was filling with bruise-colored clouds so much like the November day so long ago. The same blue string bag was clenched in my hands. The bag was the same. Everything was the same, down to the tiny rip in the bag and the small silver flashlight. The only difference was me. I had easily, confidently slid away the desk, feeling strong. The pale, weak arms of the past were now finely toned and sunkissed to a brilliant olive/gold. Wasting no time, I slung the small pack over my shoulder and slid the desk into place.
The rest was a blur. I don’t remember going back downstairs or opening the door. All I remember is that one moment I was in my old room and the next I was outside, unhooking Rusty. I didn’t look back. Rain began to drizzle, little drops peppering my shirt. Rusty was silent, bounding at my side as I took off at a sprint, blowing past the trail. Where I was going, there was no trail necessary.
Hours and hours passed, the sun inching lower and lower on the horizon. From my house, the mountains were just a blue smudge in the sky. Now, finally, I was right below them, looking up at the rocky peaks that jutted from the Earth. It was new, far from the lake I had loved and the cave that I had called home.
Would I have rather returned there? Absolutely. What I wouldn’t give to see the bed of pine needles tucked into that alcove, or the little wooden bowl I drank from everyday… but life interferes. That would be the first place they searched for me.
Slowing to a walk, Rusty yipped, running around me in circles. I laughed, patting his head and feeling the soft fuzz of his copper fur against my fingertips. Pulling out his favorite red rubber toy (which was already marred from days of constant chewing), I chucked it as far as I could, watching it disappear in the thick foliage.
A minute or so passed as I waited. I was starting to get worried, for Rusty was the fastest dog I had ever seen, and pretty obedient too. But he was a coon hound, and they were hunting dogs. If he saw a raccoon, he would take off in an instant, leaving nothing but a trail of dust and scattered strands of red fur.
“Rusty?!” I screamed. Silence. The woods itself had gone utterly still, the sweet bird song ceased and the air still. My feet pounded the grass, seeming impossibly loud against the quiet of the forest. No. You can’t lose Rusty too. You’ve given up so much for this, but you can’t give up him. A tear threatened to trickle out, but I blinked it away, cursing myself. How could I be so tough on some things, but crumble at the smallest moments? Just when I began to shout his name, I came to a clearing. And in the middle? The most beautiful lake I’d ever seen, crystal clear with a sandy shore. Rusty barked when he saw me, running back and forth along the sand until paw prints littered the beach. It was a lake, backed up almost directly against the mountains. And, embedded in the sheer rocky face was a cave opening.
My jaw dropped. This was it. Rusty had found our new home. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, I saw it. My heart stopped. I’d failed to notice before, but a little, tiny rivulet of a stream trickled into the lake. It must have been connected to my old lake, because, lying abandoned on the shore, was the bowl. Rusty seemed to notice it, and he picked it up by the rough-hewn rim, setting it in my hands. Hugging it tight to my chest, I cried for the first time since my capture. Tears of joy. Tears of memories. Everything in the world seemed to center around this right here.
My name is Kate Paxton. First, I’d been a girl who longed for the woods, a girl with a heartless mother and a dead father. Then, a runaway, completely free and loving life. After that? Just a girl who’d been captured, forced back into society even when she had changed so much, even when she knew that she could never live that way. Now? I was a runaway again. Funny how life comes full circle like that, isn’t it?
Maybe I’ll get captured. Maybe I won’t. The only thing that mattered was that I was in the woods, surrounded by the majestic mountains and the lake with a loyal, adorable dog I loved with all my heart. My name is Kate Paxton, and I am finally home.