Crouched behind the boxes, the frightened girl huddles further into herself. She decides her head can’t be seen above the dusty wood. The dank cloying scent of encroaching mildew assaults her nostrils. Obviously, her parents and siblings have not lived here for some time, the house as left behind, as bereft of care and warmth as she. Small fingers and dainty hands grasp tighter around her knees. She has managed to crawl carefully, making no noise as she moved. Despite the tense atmosphere about her, she smiles cautiously at her accomplishment. Somewhere in the small corner of her psyche she notes that her smile has not been instantly slapped from her face. At this realization, she smiles again.
. Her drab colored skirt spills in folds upon the floor, hiding her long nickers and rounded shoes beneath. Painfully slowly, she sucks in musty air to catch her breath. Too slowly. Her head spins dangerously. She has been running for a fortnight.
Each cold fireless night she spent scavenging for table scraps from strangers who pitied her. Some had offered for her to stay the night, and always she refused. She was certain someone would match her to the picture of the missing runaway; it was a risk she could not afford to take. So far, upon each morning, she awoke stiff and shivering, but still a free person.
Free? Was this what freedom would be like, then, days of silent screaming fear? She has no other reference point from which to answer the question. But she knows it is better, much better, than what she left behind.
She had run across the cobbled courtyard and passed through the heavy iron gate, surprisingly left unbolted, unscathed. Hurrying straight for the dormitory had been a mistake, but an understandable one. She can only vaguely recall a life outside the confines of the reformatory, and what she recalls of it, she wishes to forget, just like her family chose to forget her. As much as the girl needed to hide, become invisible forever, part of her longed to be recognized, to have her name kindly spoken. She dared not hope she would be loved. But she did dare one last glance at the place, however repugnant. At least it had once been her shelter. She would not speak of it as home. She has never had a home.
But the dormmates didn’t recognize her. She had spent too many years trapped within the penitentury’s high forbidding walls, a fallen woman who was told she was worthless and deserved the treatment she got, who dared to disagree. Strict rules and barbed words were not good enough for her then, but solid bars.
Those hands which built such high and mighty convent walls blessed the forsaken who entered them within inches of their lives. And yet they have not won, not yet, the girl thinks now to herself. By the blood in her veins, she is still living.
At least, within this meager existence of hunger and terror, she can choose the circumstances of her confinement, she can breathe in the cold morning air, she is allowed to think and to move and run. She can run through her confusion and her grief and her shame and her pain, and exhaust the memories out of her body.
Thoughts are interrupted. A board creaks above her head. Her heart almost stops beating. She knew her small taste of freedom couldn’t last long. Someone would see her and turn her in. But so soon? Should she try to run?
She almost makes a bolt for the door. She knows doing so will make noise and give away her position, and worse things happen to those caught running than found hiding. With a sense of despair, she chooses to stay. She is weak in body and spirit now, she knows she will be outrun.
The sisters will overturn the whole house until they discover her. Then they will take her back with them in chains. She refuses to think about what might happen after that. She does not know.
Then, with a start, she realizes they must have suspected her destination and were here in waiting for some time. It explains the mess strewn all about her, her hiding place only granted due to unheeded respect for other’s belongings in a frenzied attempt at a search. Why hadn’t she read the signs? It is too late. This time, the betrayer is no one but her self.
To keep alert against her mind’s cries to shut down, she slowly begins counting backward from ten to one. Footsteps sound upon the stairs. She shuts her eyes.