Writer's Wednesday!

Midnight Rogue 3–Dawn

When the bell had struck hours ago, she should have run. A messy murder was better than a risk like this: to be so far from home and take her time going back. He had taken too long to die. 

When the bell had struck hours ago, when her knife had plunged into his beating heart, she shouldn’t have waited for his last breath to be drawn. It was too late. Even before she left the alley, she knew this. She had gone too far, waited too long, been too careless.

The girl slunk from the hallowed place; she was alone again. Bloody morning sun rays painted her face in gold, glistening off a pallid, milky mask: the face of a killer. Beginning to perspire, little beads of pearly sweat adorning the pale canvas, her boots struck hard on the concrete as she started to run. 

Her feet were slick with the sweat, boots stuffed with paper upon paper to disguise her actual shoe size…a smart tactic. A smart tactic, but a disgusting one; her feet were swimming in greasy newspaper, toe sweat, and blood that had seeped through the fabric. 

Uncomfortable. Not an uncomfortable like wet socks after a water ride. No. Uncomfortable like the fact that her mind no longer lingered on the fresh blood on her hands. Uncomfortable that the swampy sweat bog of her boots was of a bigger concern to her than the man she just slaughtered. Oh, well. Discomfort could pass. Guilt, which she decidedly shut out, would have passed too. The girl had greater things to worry about.

She had been sloppy today. She was never sloppy–never. Gloves cleanly disposed of. Knives properly cleaned, soaked in chemicals, restored to their place. Boot prints left, yes, but in a size that was almost laughably big. Those grimy shoes had been passed around among relatives so many times the purchase was virtually untraceable. None of those were the problem. Not at all. 

Her problem was the sun. The sun, and the thousands of dirty, drug-shooting, poor saps rising with it as the outer boroughs spurred to life. Panther-like steps were abandoned. It was a race against the clock, a race against any early risers. This time, she had taken it too far, too lightly, too late. Sprinting now, her boots thudded so loud that she was more likely to wake up the people with the sound of her footsteps than the sun through the windows.

Idiot, idiot, idiot…how could you be so careless? It was at least a mile left to go; she had traveled so far through the night, hopped up on sadistic adrenaline and practically unfazed by the trip to the victim’s apartment. 

But her energy was waning fast. The Midnight Rogue persona was slipping through her sweat-slicked grasp, the addictive, psychotic energy dissolving. 

She had killed at midnight. 

Recounted their sins. She was the devil. The cruel Fates of hell. Anubis burning a sinner alive with the flames of their own wicked crimes. 

An easy dagger thrust. She was an assassin. 

Pierce the heart. She was Death. 

Watch the life bleed from their eyes, draining like thick soup through a strainer…make sure the victim is dead. She was vengeance.

The girl shifted through her roles easily now, easier than the first times. Each kill was smoother than the last; this broken shell no longer felt guilt. 

Why not? Simple: does the grim reaper feel guilt? No. Then neither would the Rogue.

She had killed at midnight. 

It was four A.M. 

The time in between had slipped through her grasp, springing through alleys and dodging the sleeping masses of homeless people, stewing in their own filth.

A dingy street flew by, she passed onto a silent avenue. Movement in her peripherals, just a flitting shadow. The girl faltered. There was a shape in the window, a heavyset figure: a silhouette wreathed in the brilliance of an old-fashioned light bulb, a set of eyes staring out into the void, a man. Did he see me? Is my cover blown? 

The girl hoped she was unrecognizable as the Rogue. As dangerous as it may be to face down the Midnight Rogue as a criminal, it was twice as dangerous to be the Rogue at the mercy of a citizen. In this lawless, disgusting place, who would falter to kill her?

 The vacant-eyed Reject on the street–some ex-politician from City Central, a broken man swaddled in urine-soaked blankets–who would turn her in for a scrap of cloth on his back? 

A criminal wandering the avenues, haunting bars and clubs, waiting for a young girl he could prey on to stagger from a bar?

Not even a mother, wreathed in cigarette smoke, puffing her lungs with toxicity to shut out her grief? Desperate to make ends meet? Living paycheck to paycheck?

Even her only friend would condemn her to hell if he knew. So why not every other sinner in the boroughs? She had no right to play reaper. No right to play God. No right to deal justice where none existed. Yet she still kept running. Somehow, inexplicably, she would not let herself die.

She knew what had to be done. There was no time to get to the bunker. No more shadows to hide in. Now was the time to be the girl she’d grown up as, the girl she was before the triggers, before the ugly monster inside her reared its head. It was time to shed the disguise.

Shrugging off her cloak, the Rogue ducked into the first alcove she saw off the street. It was dark, humid, with a dumpster that smelled disturbingly close to human feces. The boot slid easily off her foot. Sweat-soaked newspaper shook loose from its pungent prison. Remorseful, the girl stuffed the royal purple silk into the lining, cringing as the hand woven cloth was smashed into a moist boot. When she stuffed the boot back on, she was equally delighted and regret-filled by the coolness of the cloak on her foot. 

Pony tail holder: it had carved a pinkish track in her wrist. Her hair felt coarse under her greasy fingers; she quickly tied it up in an unflatteringly high ponytail. Shrugged off her jacket, loosely knotting it around her waist. 

Then, the worst problem. My dagger…the bronze etched handle was laughably visible. The sheath at her belt, so easily concealed by her cloak, was now glaringly obvious. Choking on laughter, she surveyed the sharp edge of the dagger, the designs on the sheath. Very uncharacteristic of a teenage party girl. 

Such a beautiful sheath. Shining black leather. Perfectly crafted to caress her dagger. Easy draw. And without a doubt, the most expensive thing the girl owned. 

Every nerve in her hand rebelled at the motion. A tangible ache gripped her gut, but she knew she had to do this, no matter how much it hurt. The dagger slid easily into the soggy newspaper of her left boot. 

And the perfect dagger sheath fell to the concrete. Abandoned. Ripe for the pick of any drug-hungry Reject scouring the dumpsters. The thought made her sick.

“Hey, missy. You lost?” She jumped. A voice. So close it couldn’t be more than six feet away. She pressed down the scream that clawed at her throat. A wave of terror crashed over her: what could she do? 

Panic. Hot in her veins, on her cheeks, in her throat. Hide the dagger hilt? No time. Flirt with him? No experience. Pretend to be a party girl? Drunk? Lost? Maybe…but only because killing him would be too much of a fuss this late in the morning. 

The Rogue turned. Attempting a casual pose, she gave a dopey smile, heart pounding her ribs. A man stood at the mouth of the alcove. Beefy. Heavyset. No more than a few feet away. Threateningly close. 

“Um…who are you?” She managed, slurring her words. She tried to think of what a blackout-drunk party girl would say, how she would act. The exact way her eyelids would flutter. The drool dribbling down her lip. No time. No time! Any truly drunk City Central girl would never stop talking, never, especially if she was with a man who was even slightly interested. She was panicking. Desperate to conjure something flirty, stupid, bewildered. Yet what spilled from her lips was the most idiotic thing she could imagine.

“Rebecca? Is that you?” 

Idiot. 

Idiot! 

But wasn’t that something a drunk girl would say? She didn’t know. The Rogue had never had a drink. She was only a teen…too young. Too impulsive. Enough sense to know that alcohol would send her spiraling further than blind rage ever could.

The man screwed up his brow. It was obvious he was male–masculinity practically radiated from him, dashed with the usual arrogance and self-righteousness. He frowned, uncertain,

“Uh, no, I’m–” 

“Thank god! I left my bag at the club, do you have it? My mom would killlllll me if she knew! Kill me, Becky! Becca…Rebeccs…Rebie, some rando Reject could, like,” she hiccuped, “steal it and then I would be all like, ‘mom my bag got stolen’ and she would be like ‘your nice one?’ and I would be like ‘yes, mom, the one with all my I.D and monies in it!’” 

Fanning herself, the girl started to tear up, wavering on her feet, clutching the bricks for support. Her eyes were wild. She looked down, rifling through the crumpled papers at her feet. Dazed. As if her bag was somehow in the newspaper. 

“I’m not Rebecca. But if you want–”

“Oh! My. God.” Her lip quivered like a plucked bowstring. The jacket around her waist sagged, falling down to her knees as she trembled, clouds growing in her gaze. Perfect. Even in a fake stupor, she could appreciate her acting skills. 

“Are you alright? I can take you hom–”

A piercing shriek cut the air. She wailed like an air horn. He could have sworn her eyes crossed for a second.

“Where. Is. Gerard?! I promised him that I was going to give him my number! Oh, where is he?” The girl stamped her boot. 

“I totally forgot after I lost my bag! Oh…he’s never going to…Rebecca!” The girl whined, practically whimpering now, oblivious to the fact that the man was backing away.

“Becca…Gerard was like…” her eyes glassed over. Silence hung for a second, a strange interaction coming to a halt in a little divot, on a disgusting avenue, in a trashy borough, far away from the glittering lights of City Central. Silence.

Then she wretched. Doubled over. Gagged. Saliva splattered the ground, gruesome chunks of god-knows-what painting the concrete. Vomit. Vomit! Hot, thick, clumpy, moist vomit. The man cringed back, sprinting from the alcove and down the street. 

As soon as he was out of sight, the Rogue stood up, eyes clearing. With a decisive motion, she let her hair down, pushing the hair tie onto her wrist and shrugging the jacket back on. Always the actor, the girl, name unsaid, ungiven, strutted confidently from the steaming stew of vomit and saliva. 

Just as she shifted through her roles of justice, she transitioned from drunk-party-girl-with-a-lost-handbag-and-a-crush-on-Gerard to confident young woman returning home at dawn.

The mistakes wouldn’t go unnoticed. Unremarked. The Midnight Rogue was sure of that. Only that. She flowed through her forms fluidly as the devil changed faces. The only role switch she had to control was the shift from Midnight Rogue to guilty teenage girl. All the rest came naturally.

The girl stepped into the street, thoughts of the approaching day already clouding her mind. She was no longer the Rogue; her rage had dissipated with the night. The only signal of her crimes was the dagger in her left boot and the cloak in her right, a vague recollection of bloodthirsty rage, a memory of a scream. 

She had been invited to meet up with a friend at 8:00 A.M., which meant she would have to jog home, further matting down the beautiful cloak–

A hand encircled her throat. Cloth against her lips. She flailed her limbs. Feet lifted from the ground.  Immediately, a wall of rubbing alcohol scent smashed her nostrils, deep, pounding. Her vision blurred. She drew in a breath as her feet scrambled for purchase. The regret was instant. Nausea roared at her like a gut-punch. Chloroform. 

Breathless, dripping with sweat, the man from the alcove lifted her into a car trunk. She lost consciousness before he could even close the lid. 

Karma, she thought. The world was paying her back for her sloppiness. Karma, and arrogance, for believing she could so easily outsmart every passerby. Her mistakes were not unremarked. Justice comes at a hefty price in the outer boroughs. The Midnight Rogue would soon pay it.


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Writer's Wednesday!

Midnight Rogue 2- Vengeance… Writer’s Wednesday!

Image from Shutterstock

I’m a stalker. Officially. He scrunched up his face, fingering the tape and decisively pasting the picture on his cluttered wall. As soon as the paper left his hands, he sighed, gazing at the mess of notes that scattered his walls. Fragments of the life of a killer. An assassin. A girl. A girl. Was this really all about her? 

No. He could deny it all he wanted, but this wasn’t about the assassin girl, the vengeful, breathtakingly beautiful goddess of the night that prowled the boroughs. No. This didn’t have anything to do with her, he decided. It was about who she had killed. 

The boy took two steps back, nearly running into his disastrous desk… the one scattered with bright yellow post-it notes that seemed ironically happy. Sunshine, golden honey dribblings, sweet canary songs, autumn leaves in the park on Rachington Avenue, sugary candy yellow. Why were the words written on them all about murder? Regret? C.S.I. evidence?

Looking at the sprawl of information on his wall, fragments of bloody brutality and silver dagger slayings. Fragments of her. The assassin. The justice-bringer. 

I’m just like those stereotypical victim characters in the movies, their only use to cry their eyes out and plot half-baked revenge schemes that never work. At least I didn’t link the pictures with red yarn. The only difference between me and the “dead-family-member,” vengeful character is–

Knock knock! The boy yelped, recoiling and slamming his back against the desk. 

“Ooow… frickin…fricker…stupid…desk!” He growled, teeth tearing at his lips with each word. Hopping over to the bathroom mirror, he ran a hand hastily through his bedhead hair. It wasn’t going to get better than this. No time to gel it. No time to brush his teeth, which probably should have been done hours ago when he woke up. Praying it wasn’t her, he hopped to the door, pain still shooting through his back…

Yup. It was her. Crap.

“Hey, Ben! There’s this new show on Netflix that looked really good and I-” she paused, seeing his flustered expression and unruly gingerbread-brown hair. Mentally cursing himself for his laziness, his cheeks flushed bright red, praying she wouldn’t say those words before he could collect his thoughts–

“Euh… should I go?” 

“No, no, sorry. Please! Come in!” Okay, now too desperate. With an uncertain smile that displayed her shiny row of purple braces, she meandered in, feet moving so lightly on the floor it was as though she was gliding over the wood. 

“Switched out the dark blue?” Ben asked her, swinging the door shut as she took in his room. The girl cocked her head, eyes still roving the cluttered room. 

“What do you mean?”

“Your braces. I like the purple.” His cheeks flushed again, and he cursed under his breath. She already knows about my sister and my investigation, and now I’m making creepy observations– his thoughts immediately halted when she smiled self consciously, sitting down on his bed. She looked like an angel sitting in the depths of hell, a vision of beauty right in front of him. Sitting on his bed, inky black hair stirred by her breath, sparkling black eyes.  

“Thanks. I don’t know, I liked the dark blue but it didn’t really match my cloak–not cloak. Uh… coat. And the purple is more mysterious.” Miranda cleared her throat awkwardly, averting her eyes. Cloak? Mysterious? An inkling popped into his head, one that he shoved aside. Irrational. Stupid. But true all the same: she matched the description perfectly… dark haired girl, tall, pale skin, cloak billowing behind her, braces. But Miranda was no killer, Ben thought, shoving the notion from his mind. It was just a slip in speech. Nothing more.

“You know, your wall is getting kinda… graphic.” 

“Huh?” He paused, following her dark gaze to the smattering of pictures dotting the wall of his apartment. “Oh. I’m sorry, I should have taken it down–”

“No, no, it’s okay. But, honestly, Ben, how long will you keep going with this? Hasn’t she been avenged enough? The Midnight Rogue slaughtered him a week ago. Justice has been served, Ben! Isn’t that what you wanted?” Her eyes grew abruptly stormy. She looked away, a glimmer of something other than concern flashing in her gaze. 

“Yes. Paisley is in a better place than this awful town, these horrible outer boroughs. But I need to thank her, Midnight Rogue. I need to know her, know why she did it. Why she killed him.” He gestured vaguely to the picture, a stocky man with a gaunt face and a ravaged stomach, torn and gushing dark blood. The man that killed his sister.

Miranda stood up, muscles taut, coal eyes glittering dangerously. Plucking her bag off the bed, she whipped it over her shoulder, fingers twitching as she brushed off her black leather jacket. 

“Isn’t it enough to have justice?” Her mouth was downturned, lips curled in a pained sneer. What is she talking about? A cluster of birds twittered nervously outside the window, a cloud passing over the sun as though the whole world was holding its breath. 

“Miranda? What are you talking about? It’s just… I need to find her. I don’t know why just… feel like it’s the right thing to do. For Paisley. For me.” The room was silent, the world around them proceeding lightly, apprehensively. Clanks sounded from the other side of the wall–the resident next door cooking spaghetti, from the smell of it. 

“Can’t you ever stop? I’ve done what I can, Ben. Paisley was my best friend… you are too. But she’s gone. And she’s never coming back.” Dusting off her skinny jeans, she turned, ice in her eyes, face slack and emotionless. Ben lunged for her hand, mouth curled in a desperate frown, freckled nose crinkled in confusion. She shook off his grip easily, opening the door to leave.

“Miranda! Wait, stop!” She paused for a fraction of a second, just long enough for his heart to falter and flail in his chest. He could think of nothing to say to her—thoughts empty except for the way Miranda’s name was bitterly sweet on his tongue, the storm cloud visage of her moon dust face, how the rare smiles lit up her eyes and made her cheeks go red. 

His tongue was lead in his mouth.

“The Midnight Rogue is dangerous, Ben. An enigma: a night prowling, devastatingly heartless, brutal avenger of the innocent,” her knuckles flexed on the door, face never softening from that emotionless glaze.

“She’s cruel, Ben. Just. Fair. Vengeful… and more dangerous than you could imagine. If  I were you, I would give it up. You’ve had your vengeance.” The door shut silently. It hurt worse than if she would have slammed it: irrational people exit with slammed doors, but people who are right leave silently, dignified. That was the scary part…Miranda was right. He’d had justice for Paisley. What was he still seeking? What was out there that he needed so badly?

Alone again, Ben collapsed on his bed, where Miranda had been moments before: bright eyed, excited, leather jacket shiny as an oil slick in the faint light that trickled through the window.

 How quickly she came and left, barely three minutes and enough to leave his heart aching with a sour, longing grief. A grief that wasn’t so much about Paisley as it was Miranda. It was a guilty truth… but a truth all the same. 

He told himself it would be different if he knew what set her off, what flipped that switch, that it would take her off his mind. But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was something more, something he was too scared—too guilty?— to admit to himself. 

***************

The Midnight Rogue had found her next victim. Opening the hatch in the abandoned apartment floor, the assassin glided silently down the stairs, feet just barely padding the stained cedar, a leopardess stalking the jungle. She didn’t bother to close the hatch. The season for drug addicts and squatters seeking refuge had long passed, the winter months over and already deep in the rainy dregs of spring. There would be no one to intrude. It was time to get ready.

In the dim light of the cellar, everything was dull and grimy, grisled with gray soot. Something about the space struck a chord with her heart—perhaps it was the chill that permeated the space like the mournful spirit of a lonely ghost adrift in the air, dancing in sorrowful harmony with the clouds of dust. Or maybe the brutally thin slits of light falling through the bars were symbolic to the bars she had put around her heart; how little of the sweet, sweet sunshine she let herself have. 

Either way, to her it was one thing, and one thing only. A place to store her daggers. Rows and rows of razor sharp blades, meticulously cleaned and not a speck of blood in sight. 

Most assassins, those for hire or not, were sloppy. Blood spatters on their knives, fingerprints everywhere, wearing their true shoe size to the crime scene. Everyone knows to wear oversized boots and stuff them with newspaper. Anyone with a brain, at least. That wasn’t the only advantage she had over “regular” killers. Reputation or not, everyone underestimates a pale teenage girl with braces. 

If only they knew the coldness in her heart: a well of pain overflowing, a pounding surf of fury relentlessly beating in her mind. Some girls solved their anger with technology, speeches and tirades, mall trips (the metropolitan ones, at least—drugs seemed more popular in the outer boroughs). Bloodlust, however, was not a trait they had. The Midnight Rogue was overflowing with it.

She sauntered over to the daggers, running a hand over their handles gently, touch soft as an angel’s wing caressing a cloud. Envisioning her next victim, she fingered through the daggers, letting her gut guide her choice. 

Something inside her was broken, she knew, thirsty for vengeance that wasn’t her own. It was easier to ease into it, down the cellar where there wasn’t anything else to trigger the bloodlust. But even with all her fractures, breaks, ruptures and seams, she could pick out the perfect dagger and let the hurt settle.

It was a cool, soft pain, a cold arctic river coursing under the icy facade. 

This was how it always happened when the switch was flipped. 

Normalcy, pushing the irrational, pounding grief into the far corner of her mind. Allowing herself a brief glimmer of happiness. 

A trigger. Blind. Hot. Heart-wrenching grief, a drowning sorrow that pulled you under. Fury. Burning. Anxious. Itching for something unreachable, intangible, impossible. Then the ice washed over and softened the burn.

Her gaze fell on the dagger. She smiled, less out of true emotion than the knowledge that justice would be served soon enough. It was a silver blade, serrated, jagged as a shard of glass. Crude, glittering, bronze etchings spiraling up and down the black handle. Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she crouched to pick it up, turning it over in her long, piano-player’s fingers. Holding it up to the thin streak of sunlight, she marveled at how dazzling the silver was in the light; lethal and imperfectly perfect.

Sheathing her knife and grabbing her dark purple cloak, she fastened the silky fabric neatly around her shoulders. Of course, she would wait for night to fall when visibility was limited and some rogue passerby wouldn’t have much to report. The people already knew too much–and vengeance was far from complete.

Tonight the streets would run red with blood, for the second time that week.

Writer's Wednesday!

Writer’s Wednesday! Home at last

*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.