The small cottage swallowed in weeds and vines might as well be a hole in the brambles rather than a home. The thistle-covered trail in front of me led out into the thick forest away from my hovel. If I attempted to run on the path to free myself, my bare feet would bleed and suffer for days. I had to consider possible infection, and the time spent in the forest until I reached the nearest village.
Staring at the road, I sighed. A magic carpet would be useful. Or anything with wings to fly me right out of here.
Mama called from the threshold, a dark glare stitched on her face, her long hair always kept better than mine. “Grace, get in here, now.”
My heart sank. Something in her shrill tone told me she was up to something, and when I glanced at a mysterious object clutched in her hand, I shrank. Before I could enter the house, she placed her hand on my shoulder and gripped it. “What is this?” The half sewn sock I’d tried to make from Mama’s stolen red-checkered scarf, dangled from her hand.
My stomach lurched. I couldn’t very well tell her it was part of a plan to hike that rough road out of here.
“Nothing, Mama,” I answered, trying to soften my voice and hide any deceit. “Is just a skirt I’m making for Bunny.”
She raised her hand and slapped me across my face. “Liar! No shoes or socks allowed! You little witch.” She squeezed the fabric. “It’s ruined!”
Another slap across my cheek and I crashed on my hands and knees, getting a good view of her perfectly shined flats covering thick socks. She once tied me to the barn for taking those shoes for two days.
“Show me where you’re hiding them.”
She yanked my arm behind me as she marched me to my room and pushed me on the floor. I squealed on impact, rubbing my arms.
“Where are they?” Her booming voice made me feel even smaller than my five-foot self.
I pointed at the chest, the old wooden one that Papa gave me before he left without a trace. ‘No men allowed,’ she’d stress.
Mama kicked my straw mattress as she reached a hand to grab the trunk handle and dragged it out of the room.
“No, Bunny is in there!” I couldn’t help gripping the other end of the chest.
Her hand struck me again, and I let go. She closed and locked the door behind her. Of course Mama knew what I was up to. After all these years of trying to gain her trust and I had ruined it with one mistake, leaving that half made sock poking out from under my bed.
Closing my eyes did not fight the tears from stinging. Thudding sounded by my window. I crawled to the wooden sill. Mama tossed the chest near the graves where she made me bury that poor woman and man. A frenzy of waves erupted in my chest as I watched her take a lantern and lit the trunk.
I gazed at the flames all night, until the last ember flew into the sky. Mama had long since gone to bed, and I was still locked in here. Hunger pains reverberated in my belly, and I had to pee, but had no way of getting to the outhouse. I ended up relieving myself on the floor. The stench quickly swarmed the room.
Often I wondered if I was being punished by a higher power. Maybe I was getting what I deserved for burying that poor woman and man. They meant well. Their journey was short-lived when they stopped at our house asking for directions and water. When they saw my bruises and grimy skin, they demanded I be removed from the house immediately. I remember those words being the best thing I had ever heard in my life. And the way the woman and man took my hand, so gentle and warm. Their solemn gestures marked my heart that day.
A tear slipped past my cheek. They never made it out the door. Mama played along and asked me to boil water for her. She had that wicked look, like the one she’d made before choking my secret kitty. I knew she was up to something, but I just couldn’t figure it out in time.
The cavern in my stomach felt as if it was crumbling. I remember what Mama did to the kind couple. She took the pot of scorching water and threw it on the innocent people. Their screams pierced me into a glacier. Then she took the pot and hit them each on the head. No more sounds came after that. All I remember was Mama raising the pot and slamming it down on their heads over and over again. I had closed my eyes at one point to try and escape the nightmare, but the blood found a way to reach my bare feet, forcing me another glance at their battered bodies.
Till this day, it still stains the kitchen floor. You can’t wash away blood. Believe me, I’ve tried.
Wishing to have helped them did not make it so. Their graves stared back. Forever in the ground, they were trapped. All I wanted to shout was how sorry I was. I should have known to warn them. They were innocent people, full of life, and…wealthy. It occurred to me how the older gentleman was wearing tough leather boots. My chest lifted. I didn’t have to make shoes, I just had to take them.
I scrambled and dashed to the corner of the floor where I lifted a loose board. A spoon rested there. I should have hid my sock there, but I was so stupid. I just wanted it near me, proof I would get out of here soon.
The window was nailed shut, but new hope rose in me as I grabbed the spoon and pried at the nails. The reinforcements were added after my first attempted escape. I once got out and tried to take Mama’s horse, but it bucked me off. I didn’t know a thing about horses, Mama made sure of it, and the result was a broken arm. It still aches during the winters.
The frame loosened as I pried and stabbed the gap, enough to slip my fingers under. Rusted nails squeaked as I lifted the frame up. The window flew open and I stumbled backward. A chilly breeze entered the room and raised the hairs on my skin. Mama could have heard me. I needed to be quick.
Climbing out the window, I rushed toward the barn and grabbed a shovel. The horse neighed from the stall.
“Ssshhh,” I whispered. “I promise I will come back for you.” ‘No man left behind,’ that was my motto, or what I read on a ripped poster that man had folded in his suit pocket.
I dashed toward the scorched chest. Somewhere in the debris was Bunny’s ashes. I couldn’t bear to look for her. I focused my attention at the graves beside the trunk. Weeds and mold already covered them. I began stabbing the dirt with the shovel. Sweat trickled down my neck. Mama could hear me at any minute. Blisters formed on my palms and I forced my aching arm to dig and dig. I couldn’t stop. Not now.
The tip of the shovel got stuck on a rock. When I yanked it out a skull came along with it. Some dark hair left behind. A foul odor smothered me. I muffled my scream with my hand. No. The poor woman. I had almost forgotten about the little bonnet she wore; fragments of it almost unrecognizable were stuck to her discolored skull.
“I’m so sorry to disturb your rest, but I need something. Please understand.” I shook the skull off the shovel and continued to dig. I was getting closer.
Another skeleton emerged from the dirt, this one wearing patches from part of a dark suit. It was him. The man. My hands and knees pressed into the dirt as I uncovered the man’s bony stomach and legs. A putrid stench swarmed me. A rubbery layer of skin rested on some of his bones.
Nausea swept over me. I didn’t understand why death had to be so ugly. If only flowers could sprout out from the rotten flesh instead. I swallowed and worked my way to his feet. “Oh please dear sir, forgive me.”
A release eased my muscles as I stared at haggard leather boots. They were perfect! Well almost. “Sorry sir, but I really need to borrow these. Please, may I have them?”
“I’ll take that as a yes.” I yanked them off the man’s skeletal feet and stared at them. They were as big as my head and I wasn’t sure how I would wear them.
I pinched my nose as I caught a whiff of a horrid stench coming from the shoes. “You no longer smell like I remember, sir.”
My stomach scrunched when I realized I didn’t even know how to tie shoes, Mama made sure of that.
One leg at a time, I slipped my feet into them. Not a comfortable fit, rather they were brittle around my toes. I wasn’t sure how I felt about wearing a dead man’s shoes. But the man did want to help after all, so maybe he just did.
Yanking at the laces, I wrapped them around my calves. If only there was a way to keep them fastened around the shoe tongues and not leave them dangling to trip my stride. I pulled at the strings again and attempted a knot, but it didn’t stay put.
I turned to the skeleton and blew out hot air. “How did you ever manage to work with such complicated things?”
Something moved under the dirt. I wasn’t sure if it was the moonlight playing tricks, but it seemed as if the man’s bony finger was pointing to a hidden piece of fabric beneath the woman’s skull. I kneeled down and saw a part of her worn bonnet tucked under the chin, the knot still tied.
My arms stiffened as I glanced at the man. “But I don’t know how to tie one like that.”
Crawling, I picked up the woman’s skull to study the encrusted knot under it. I noted the two mangy loops sticking out, and how they were secured by a knot I’d never seen before. My hands grew clammy as I tried to mimic the knots, but it didn’t hold.
A tear streamed down my cheek. I didn’t come this far just to stop. The man’s skull was tilted, like he was watching me from the grave. He almost appeared disappointed. I didn’t want to displease him, not if I was going to take his shoes.
One more try, this time experimenting with two loops pinched with my thumbs and tied those around each other and pulled at their ends. A sturdy knot formed in my hands. Not as nice as the missus but it was tied!
“I did it. Not bad, huh?” Smiling, I graced the man and woman with a bow and wink. “Thank you, lady and gentleman.” I bent down and grasped the other boot. “And now for my next trick.”
I tied the last knot and tried to pick up my leg. They were heavier than I predicted, and awkward. Lifting my feet, I attempted a stride, but tripped and crashed right on the missus.
It couldn’t have been my imagination because I swore I heard muffled giggling. How dare they? I scrambled up, and with my hands on my hips, whispered in a harsh tone, “It’s not funny. I’ve never worn shoes you know, so I think I’ve earned some props, thank you very much.”
I rubbed my cheek, studying my new shoes. This was an easy fix. All I needed was a little assistance. I grabbed a handful of grass and shoved them inside the boots to keep my feet from sliding. They would take some getting used to. I raised my knees higher to avoid stumbling again. All that was needed was practice.
Testing my sprint out in the boots, I darted around the house. Who knew I could run so fast? It was as if the man’s strength were in these boots alone.
The path leading through the dense brush and trees stared at me, daring me to take the first step. I turned and glanced at Mama’s bedroom window. My heart ached. She was my Mama after all. I dashed back and ran towards the graves again. I grabbed the skulls from the mister and missus and cradled them. Otherwise the journey would be lonely, not to mention worthless.
Air filled my lungs as I ran toward the trail leading away from Mama. Clenching the skulls against my chest, I turned to the cottage and smiled.
“And now for my final trick.” I whirled back to the forest, sprinting across the thorns, my thick boots crunching them beneath me.
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