It was more than a little surreal, Martha felt, to be in the home of the woman she’d heard so much about over the past three years.
Her face was the perfect mask of composure as she allowed Elizabeth to lead her through the small house, examining the photographs that hung from the walls and the oddly textured furniture that was haphazardly placed around the room. Martha listened to Elizabeth’s one-sided conversation without really hearing the words that came from her mouth.
Martha fixed her gaze on the woman. She was older than Martha, but her bright smile and sleek brown hair gave her a regal, youthful appearance that radiated her trustworthy nature. Absentmindedly, she flicked her long locks behind her shoulder and picked up an odd device, filling it with water at her kitchen sink. She waved her hand towards a dining setting and Martha took a place as far from the kitchen door as possible.
Though she was aware she could trust Elizabeth, Martha wanted ample warning if anyone entered the room and demanded she come with them.
She shivered at the thought of anyone coming in through the doorway. Her hair, which up until then had been progressively drying after being assaulted by the rain outside, became damp again – this time with perspiration as Martha tried to control her shaking limbs. Deep breaths, she told herself. She was no longer there. No longer in danger.
But despite her mental reassurances, she was forced into an atrocious stream of thought that forced her to relive one of her darkest moments…
I wake up, shaken violently by an unseen being. Though my mind is still groggy my eyes navigate the darkness to focus on the person who continues to wake me.
I focus on the individual’s face; it’s my sister – her eyes are wild and worried. She is whispering madly for me to get out of bed and follow her. The dread in her voice pierces my soul with a sharp twinge. I leap out from under my blanket – the one she helped me stitch together – and place my hands on her shoulders.
“What is wrong with you?” I ask her, half annoyed and half scared. She has nothing to fear: The Family are the only trustworthy people in the world. Nothing bad can happen to us if we are with them… her fear is entirely illogical.
She pushes my hands away from her, but drags me by the arm towards the door. I dig my heels into the ground, but she is stronger than me and manages to pull me through the exit.
My stomach swirls with unease, my throat constricting. I know I’m not supposed to leave – but she is determined to bring me with her in her escape plans. I trail restlessly behind her, unwilling to follow her blindly and yet unable to break free from her vice-like grip. The hallway is dark as we make our way to the front door. My stomach clenches tight – I do not want to leave.
She turns the handle slowly; the usual creaky noise is nearly indiscernible as she opens the door.
And then the lights turn on.
I am alone.
I do not move. I do not speak.
My entire body is nauseated, and my skin prickles with a chill. I try to keep my breathing even as my grasp on the bed-sheets tightens, but thoughts of my sister consume my mind and completely engulf my senses.
I sense, rather than hear, someone entering the room. Or maybe they were here the entire time; the uncontrollable lonely feeling has completely overshadowed my ability to comprehend my surroundings.
I long for my sister. Where did Father take her? My chest feels as though it is compressing in on itself, trying to pull every inch of my skin towards my heart in the hope that it will alleviate some of the emotional pain. It hurts more than any punishment I’ve ever received.
Soft footfalls creep their way closer. My mind is trying desperately to push my body as far down into the bed as possible, urging it to become one with the less-than-comfortable piece of furniture. But my mind and body have never felt more disconnected.
Breath – Moist. Dense. Hot. It’s fanning my face, and I know that someone is leaning over me.
But I do not open my eyes to find out who it is…
Martha kept her expression calm as the agonising memory surfaced. That had been the week before her sister was married. Rachel had constantly nagged Martha with her unorthodox beliefs regarding The Family and their traditions, but until that night Martha had truly believed she had convinced her sister it was a bad idea to question it…
She became infuriated with her own lack of control over her thoughts as another memory – one from the day before her sister had shaken her violently awake – intruded her mind.
Light spills through the open window, illuminating the room in a warm glow.
I lean back against the door, a little frustrated by my younger sister’s attempts to make our newest family member laugh. I find that the baby tends to succumb to sleep faster when left to his own devices, so Rachel’s decision to make him laugh – rather hysterically, in my opinion – is entirely inappropriate and will only result in him resisting sleep.
Rachel tickles Joseph’s belly, making him giggle and reach his tiny arms out to her. He squeals with delight as she lifts him up towards her face.
“Rachel,” I chastise sternly, “that is not going to help him sleep.”
Rachel only grins back at me, “Relax, we are just having fun. Right, Joseph?” she kisses the side of our brother’s face, and then cuddles him close to her chest.
Though still disapproving of Rachel’s method, I have to hide a smile at the interaction between my siblings. The sunlight highlights the blonde strands of Rachel’s hair; it glows – a visual representation of her pure, angelic soul.
My smile doesn’t last long; Rachel’s display of affection brings a nagging thought to the forefront of my mind.
“You will be a good mother,” I state confidently, though a little sad. Rachel’s cheery expression falters slightly as she grapples with Joseph. He attempts to bring the end of Rachel’s long blonde braid into his mouth, presumably to chew on it in a most undignified manner.
Rachel diverts her attention from the giggling baby in her arms to glance at me. Stroking Joseph’s head she responds with an unconvincingly joyful, “Not any time soon, I hope!” And then focuses back on our brother, slowly swaying him back and forth in her arms.
I try to stop myself from grimacing but, as is usual in my sister’s presence, I find it to be a difficult task. “You are getting married next week. It may be sooner than you think.”
This does not seem to faze my sister in the slightest. If anything, Rachel’s hardened expression and her deliberately strong movements make me certain that she is only more determined to defy the laws of The Family and attempt to coerce them into seeing the world through her own gleaming eyes. Her eyes begin to emit a familiar shine, one I had learned to associate with sassiness, mischievousness, cheekiness – and trouble.
My mind is disquieted, my stomach clenching nervously. My head begins to feel… floaty. Like I cannot grasp on to my thoughts as they metaphorically disappear through the open window. “Rachel…” my voice is pleading. Her gleaming eyes are revealing her desire to unravel a plan I have no doubt is only going to end in her yelling, most likely at Father or another authority figure that will definitely punish her. “Please do not do anything Father would consider morally questionable.”
Clouds begin to darken the room. The glint remains in Rachel’s eye…
Martha took in a deep breath without changing her posture or giving Elizabeth any indication of what she was thinking. She’d had seventeen years to practise hiding her feelings, and it was a habit that would be difficult to change.
Elizabeth watched her carefully, and Martha had to hold in a shudder.
“Tell me about your sister,” Elizabeth said, calmly assessing Martha’s stiff posture and fiddling idly with the tea-cup that sat on the dining table between them.
Martha’s pale blonde hair was dishevelled and damp from the torrential downpour outside. Elizabeth’s hand twitched with the need to run a brush through it and re-arrange it back into the neat braid the girl usually had.
Though Martha had nineteen sisters – twelve from different mothers – she needed no further prompting to know which sister Elizabeth enquired of her. There was only one who had dared to communicate with someone from the outside… only one who Elizabeth would bother to enquire about. Only one girl had enough courage to defy her Father.
It starts with a simple question.
Well, to Rachel it is simple. I, however, try desperately to keep from frowning as I stare intently at my dinner plate as if it is the most interesting thing in the world. Compared to today’s scripture lesson, the intricately designed patterns that frame the plate’s rim are rather intriguing…
“Father,” Rachel had begun, a bizarrely respectable tone in her voice. I shot her a warning look; I know exactly what is coming, know precisely the words that are threatening to tumble from Rachel’s mouth. I had already tried in vain to convince my sister that this is definitely a bad idea.
But my sister embraces bad ideas as though the challenge in fulfilling them will enrich her life. It thrills her to defy our father, and this… scares me.
Do not cringe, I chant to myself, do not cringe. Do not cringe. Do not cringe…
“Can you please cancel my marriage to Father Jones?”
Our Father, however, makes absolutely no change to his posture or facial expression. He continues to solemnly slice his vegetables and does not even glance at her. He knew she would ask this, I realise. The thought does not comfort me. Not at all.
After a long minute of tense silence from the entire family, which is only interrupted by the furtive glances we shoot each other, before quickly returning our gazes to our dinner plates, our Father finally speaks.
“The Prophet has foreseen that you will marry Father Jones.” He looks up and stares directly into her eyes. Had I been the receiver of our father’s piercing gaze, I would have shrunk to the size of a pea. Or an ant. But Rachel only draws herself taller in her seat. “You will not disobey that which has been decided by God.”
Rachel holds his gaze defiantly, and I notice a slight tightening of her eyes. “I request that you reconsider.”
Their conversation continues in much the same way for several minutes. Though it is a ridiculous thing to fear, I am almost positive I will drown under the overwhelming hostility that is rapidly building in the dining room. I chance a glance at my younger brother, who is sitting directly across from me and already staring straight ahead with wide eyes.
At thirteen years old, merely a year younger than me, Jordan is taller than me and nearly as tall as our father. His blue eyes, similar my own, have a permanently intense look to them, which is only enhanced by stressful situations, much like our current one. He fiddles nervously with his fork, and I wonder if he too is struggling to hold back his anguish – I certainly am.
Soon the heated discussion becomes so loud I wondered if it can be considered yelling. I cannot resist flinching in surprise when my father stands up angrily, then practically marches around the table to forcefully grab Rachel by the arm and drag her from the room.
“You cannot force me to marry that old man!” Rachel screams so loud The Family in its entirety must have surely heard. I become agitated and silently pray that my sister will stop shrieking at our father. The echoing sound of a slap reverberates through the house, and I cannot stop myself from jerking in my seat.
“It has already been decided.” Our father’s voice is too calm, too even…
I cannot contain the urge to block my ears with my shaking hands.
Throughout the course of her small tale, Elizabeth noticed that Martha’s strained face was growing increasingly pale. A twinge of guilt entered her mind as she watched Martha’s expression turn from forced-neutral to fearful.
Elizabeth knew what had happened after that slap. Her own mind recalled the haunted, lost demeanour Rachel had when she had met with her during their usual time. After the initial encounter between the girls, Elizabeth had met with Rachel several times in Fallen’s Forest. The girl was full of curiosity, and Elizabeth had detected within her a desire for rebellion. Elizabeth agreed to meet with her every fourth Sunday, and the two shared information about their respective worlds.
In the beginning, Elizabeth’s goal had been to gather information about The Family; she was studying psychology and wanted to research the psychology behind cults – primarily, why people stayed, and why some chose to separate themselves from the only life they knew and flee to the outside. But, over the years, Elizabeth had developed a… friendship of sorts with the young Family member.
She tried not to let Martha see how sick she felt as she remembered Rachel’s description of how all Fathers within The Family prepared their daughters to be wives…
Across the table, Martha recalled the first time she and Rachel had seen Elizabeth, inadvertently revealing a part of her sister’s personality.
Though it is a warm day, a deep chill ripples through my body. The longer we stay in the unfamiliar terrain, the more sinister it becomes. The branches become talons, their sharp fingers reaching out to ensnare me. To trap me. To latch on to me and never let me return home to The Family. I glance up, a daunting feeling settling over me as I realise the sun no longer glows through the leaves above. The forest is becoming dangerously dark.
Rustling. It comes from a distance and I wonder if perhaps I am allowing fear to overtake me. Nevertheless, I clutch my sister’s hand tighter and begin walking in the other direction.
Because I am already on edge, my younger sister’s musical voice nearly scares me to Hell. “Martha, where are we?”
“Hush Rachel,” I whisper back. Is it my imagination, or are the trees moving?
Rachel is uncharacteristically quiet. I glance warily at her face and see a too-familiar sparkle in her eyes. Oh, dear Lord, I cannot stop myself from thinking. A cheeky grin plasters itself on Rachel’s face. “Martha… are we lost?” she seems ecstatic by the prospect. “Father will be so angry!” she says cheerfully.
I halt in my tracks. “Banish whatever wicked thoughts you have this instant.”
Rachel laughs out loud. It is a melodious and soothing sound, but I cannot allow myself to be comforted. Of all the times that our getting lost could be my fault, it has to be when we truly are lost. For the first time ever I long for one of Rachel’s mischievous plans to make me panic. Those, at least, I can handle. Her feigning hopelessness and deceptively making me worry that we will never find home again is a usually unwelcome obsession of hers. But, at the very least, I know she will eventually give in to my constant harassment. The game will be over. We can return home unscathed, except for perhaps my perturbed morale. Now, though…
She begins to explain in unnecessary detail all the terrible things that can happen in the forest. Much of it reminds me of the stories Father would tell us as young children to keep us out of here. Being at risk of discovery from the Outsiders play a heavy role in Rachel’s gruesome story; she stops telling me how angry Father will be and turns to the horrifying acts that the Outsiders will perform on our decaying bodies.
“Enough!” I almost yell, but she gleefully laughs and plucks a stick from the ground. Twirling it in her hands, she marches in the opposite direction.
“Home is this way!” she announces confidently.
A stab of annoyance materialises in my mid-section. “You know where we are!”
“Yes.” She does not even try to hide the smug look from her face. “But I feel it is appropriate to remind you that it is your lack of directional skills that put us in this situation.”
I take in a deep, calming breath. The rustling in the trees begins again and I freeze. My unsteady breathing hitches to a higher level of instability. My chest tightens. My mind swirls with the images of death Rachel had described. I reach out to her, temporarily forgetting that I am irritated with her ridiculous antics.
Her hand grips my arm as a figure comes into focus. My organs turn to frost as the face of an outsider reveals itself…
Elizabeth looked at her young guest expectantly. She knew an encyclopaedia’s worth of knowledge about Rachel, but her primary goal was to divert Martha’s attention from her growing panic regarding being in the “Outside,” as her people referred to the regular, modern day society. Getting Martha to talk about things that were familiar to her may be the only way to distract her from thoughts of things to come…
Martha remained seated rigidly, her eyes darting towards the door periodically. Elizabeth smiled encouragingly at her to continue recounting stories about Rachel. Martha seemed weary, but Elizabeth knew it was out of fear of the unknown – fear that she, Elizabeth, may return her to The Family.
Elizabeth had, of course, been surprised to find the girl with her husband and children wandering along the deserted road near Fallen’s Forest. It was a road she had driven up many times in the past three years, gathering information about The Family through observation, and her very helpful confidant.
Martha bit her lip for a second, appeared to realise her action and then forcibly closed her mouth. She seemed unwilling to say more than she already had, but Elizabeth needed to keep her calm.
“How did you know I’d be near the forest?” she enquired of the girl out of curiosity, and because she really needed to know what she and the girl would be facing once the authorities arrived.
Martha focused her energy on staring at Elizabeth before she answered. “Rachel told me about meeting with you…”
The cheeky sparkle in Rachel’s eyes has gone when I finally see her again. She is not looking at me. The distant, haunted gaze she’s had since she fought with Father to cancel her marriage makes me want to shiver, although I am not cold in the sunlight.
I have only met Father Jones once outside of our daily worship services; the night before he was married to Rachel, the night she tried to run away and bring me with her. I hadn’t been allowed to attend the ceremony as punishment… I take a deep breath to prevent my body from quivering.
Rachel’s arm is linked with Father Jones’. I search her face, frantically looking for a sign that my sister has not changed too much. Ice prickles my insides. My sister is no longer there… a vacant, expressionless being is currently replacing her.
It takes nine months for my sister to return.
I struggle to keep my composure when Rachel tells me she has been meeting with the Outsider regularly.
“Rachel, we do not associate ourselves with them because they are in a dalliance with evil.” Do not scream at her, I beg myself, do not scream at her, do not scream at her…
Rachel waves her hand dismissively. “The Outside does not seem to be what the Prophet says.”
I grip her forearms. “Rachel, you are a mother now. You cannot endanger your child’s soul! She is lying to you, Rachel. Whatever she has told you is false; the Outsiders are in liege with evil and wish to drag you into Hell with them.” I take a deep breath to ensure my voice does not rise above the necessary level. “The Family are the only people in this world that are good.”
She looks me dead in the eye. There is no gleaming mischief present, no hint of the cheekiness she once possessed. But there is a faint glimmer as she asks, “Do you truly believe that?”
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
Elizabeth cursed the rain drops as they pelted down hard on her tin roof. The kitchen had become too noisy for either woman to hear themselves think, let alone have a deep discussion about the events that led up to Martha’s departure from The Family. Elizabeth led Martha out of the kitchen and into her small lounge-room. In the adjoining room was a spare bedroom, where Martha’s husband, Xavier, and the three small children Elizabeth had found them with were currently residing. Elizabeth would have left Martha with them, but the poor girl needed some form of emotional support and Elizabeth needed to know what to tell the authorities. They had said they would arrive within the hour…
“I have a quilt like this.”
Elizabeth looked up to see Martha eyeing the patchwork quilt she’d thrown over the side of the lounge. She ran her hands along the soft material, delighting in the small familiarity between her home in The Family and the home of an Outsider. Martha had spent a rather relaxing afternoon with Rachel sewing together a quilt uncannily similar to Elizabeth’s. Martha’s chest tightened as she thought of the gleam in Rachel’s eyes as she put her usual impish thoughts to something more productive.
That was before she’d begged Father not to force her to marry Father Jones… before the gleam in her eyes disappeared.
Martha flinched as Elizabeth’s voice forced her out of her reverie. “Martha…” her voice was soft and encouraging. “What happened to Rachel?”
Martha did not want to think about it. Did not want to remember the shattering sensation she felt throughout her body as Xavier told her what had happened. Did not want tell Elizabeth, someone who she knew cared almost as much about her sister as she did, about the events of what would always be the worst morning of her life.
But words spilled from her anyway…
My throat constricts on itself and threatens to smother me. I have never swallowed a rock before, but if I did I know it would feel like this.
My eyes become watery and my vision blurry. My husband tries to comfort me, but he has never been any good at expressing his emotions. He puts a hand on my shoulder and I use every ounce of my willpower to stop myself from shaking him off.
Rachel is dead.
He tells me that the Prophet disapproved of her latest attempt to flee from The Family. She was no longer in her right mind and had strayed too far from the path of God. If he had allowed her to run from The Family, she may have talked to the Outsiders… revealed valuable information that would allow them to shut down our peaceful town…
I do not believe a word of it.
I am holding my newborn daughter Annie, my precious gift from the Lord. The tiny faces of Rose and James obscure my mind. Rachel loved her children more than anything in the whole world. Even more than God… which was unacceptable… was it not?
“Rose and James…” I manage to choke out of my closed up throat.
Xavier bites his lip, a nervous habit that I know his father disapproves of. “They are to be taken into the forest and left for Hell to take them.” He audibly gulps. “They have been tainted by her evil…”
My chest feels as though it will crumble into a thousand tiny pieces. Or rip itself in two. Evil? Rachel was feisty and sassy, and defied the rules of the Prophet and Father Jones… but she was certainly not evil.
And neither is Rose… or baby James. Rachel’s infant children are the complete opposite of any form of demonic essence I’d been informed of during worship services.
I take in as much air as my lungs will allow, and swallow my tears. I can finally see Xavier’s face, worry etched into his features and determination in his eyes.
“What would you like to do?” he asks, and I see that he is willing to follow my decisions, no matter what I may ask him…
She knew it was coming, but Elizabeth couldn’t help the stabbing pain that ripped through her when Martha confirmed her fears; Rachel, the young, rebellious member of the notorious, fundamentalist religious sect, The Family – the girl who’d told Elizabeth numerous times of her plans to someday leave with her children – was gone. Dead. Her cold, lifeless body was somewhere in Fallen’s Forest, decomposing in the rain and mud.
Elizabeth couldn’t help feeling a tidal wave of guilt that could out-pour the heavy rain. Could she have prevented this? She should have taken Martha with her to the authorities the second she’d mentioned her desire to leave The Family. She shouldn’t have waited…
Her eyes watered, and hot, burning sobs threatened to incapacitate her. But she couldn’t cry. Not yet…
In the next room – a small, spare bedroom – Xavier stood watching his niece, nephew and daughter sleeping under the elaborate covers. All three had been dried off and “rugged up,” as Elizabeth had put it, in warm clothing and fluffy blankets, then left with Xavier while his wife was practically dragged through the house by their rather eccentric host.
He could have sat in the armchair that was next to the bed, but Xavier couldn’t help feeling anxious as his eyes frequently darted between the door and the bedroom window. Any moment, someone from The Family could burst into the room, demanding justice be served against the traitors who left their safe haven and wished to bring down the wrath of Heaven and Hell alike on their “peaceful” community.
Yes, Xavier thought to himself, it is a more sensible idea to remain standing. He would then have a far greater chance of defending his family. He knew this was his duty as a father. He would protect his child. Children, he reminded himself. Rose and James were as much his responsibility now as Annie was. Though he tried to remain alert and focus completely on being ready for The Family, should they choose to come looking, he couldn’t help allowing his mind to wander… to reminisce about his own father, an how completely and utterly wrong he was about a man’s responsibility to his family…
Xavier’s issue with his father was not that he did not believe he held authority over him. It was not even that he held resentment for him for allowing his son to be married against his will. Xavier’s will did not matter, it was the Lord’s that truly mattered… and he had become quite fond of Martha…
No, if Xavier had to pin point the exact moment he began to lose faith in his father’s beliefs, in his own beliefs, it would be a single sentence that had shattered Xavier’s confident view of the world.
“You should not be allowing your wife to visit her sister without your permission.”
Xavier had always deduced that his father was a wise man, but this… idea… that Martha needed to ask him before walking the short distance to visit her sister and their niece and nephew was completely absurd. Particularly when he was nowhere in sight to ask, and would not be for hours. How could he expect his wife to remain inside the house while he was free to wander about his workplace?
When he asked what the point of it was, his father responded with, “She must understand that you are her authority now. She must acknowledge this or perish in the eternal fires.”
Xavier could not come to terms with this notion. “But she is home alone all day with the baby while I am working in the corn fields. You expect me to force her to stay here and wait for my return to ask for my permission to leave the house?”
His father nodded solemnly. “Of course. It is your duty as a husband. And you must beat the defiance of her if she questions you. It is the only way to save her soul. Have I taught you nothing in your childhood? ”
Xavier had been unsure how to react to this, and had not formulated a response before his father had left. Soon after this his wife had returned.
He’d been waiting for her in their bedroom when she returned. He appraised his wife for a moment before she smiled at him.
She flitted around the room and Xavier couldn’t help but become entranced by her confidence as she placed their daughter in her crib before straightening things that were misplaced within the house. She asked him about his day and he told her about the corn crops he harvested. He did not mention what his father had told him…
She began to tell him about James’ progress, how large he had grown in the week since she last visited her sister. Rose had said her first understandable words and was constantly climbing on top of things she shouldn’t. Xavier steeled himself, ready to ask her the question that was burning itself into his conscience.
“Why did you not ask me?”
She stared at him, confusion in her features. A wave of guilt flowed through his body. “Ask to visit Rachel? You were not home.”
His father’s words rang through his mind as he regarded his wife. “It is your duty… to save her from the eternal fires…”
She came towards him, eyeing his features with a quizzical look of concern. “Are you ill?” she asked softly.
Xavier had shaken his head and offered his wife a warm smile. He decided he’d review the scriptures himself before acting on his father’s “wisdom”…
Once more he looked back down at his children and was glad to see them sleeping peacefully.
Back in the lounge-room, Martha and Elizabeth considered each other thoughtfully. Elizabeth had encouraged Martha to wrap the patchwork quilt around her. She wasn’t sure why, exactly, but Elizabeth felt that the girl might find some form of closure now that she’d talked about her ordeal – had expressed the confusing thoughts that had plagued her.
Soon she’d have to explain to the authorities how she’d escaped, what had occurred within the allusive green walls of Fallen’s Forest… and what The Family had done to her sister.
It was a small comfort, but Elizabeth couldn’t help thinking that Rachel’s death hadn’t been in vain. If not for her death, Martha would never have left The Family. And now they had more than enough proof that there was something sinister within Fallen’s Forest.
Martha let out a long sigh, and averted her gaze to the small droplets of water that slid down Elizabeth’s window. She couldn’t be entirely sure, but she thought perhaps the rain had slowed ever so slightly…
I clutch Annie as close to my chest as I can, shivering as my arm brushes past a wet branch. She keeps my mind focused on what I have to do. What I need to do.
It is raining; the tears I have failed to hold back trickle down my face and are washed away, unnoticeable to anyone other than myself.
Had it only been three years ago that I’d accidentally led Rachel through this ‘dangerous’ part of the forest where we’d first seen the Outsider? Back then, neither of us had been mothers… I hold Annie tighter.
Rain continues to pour down, but I am saved from being drenched by the canopy of the trees above. The icy water still dampens my skin, though, and I shudder as waves of cold ripple through my entire body. The only thing that keeps me warm is the child against my chest.
Xavier laces his fingers through mine. The ice that surrounds my heart begins to melt, leaving a miniscule, but warm afterglow behind. The trees that encircle us are as dark and elusive as ever. I’d once found them sinister and frightening, trying to enslave me and prevent me from returning home. Now I feel them beckoning, urging me forward towards the Outside. Towards Rose and James, the babies abandoned by The Family – by my family. Towards a life where God loves the world in its entirety. Towards hope. Towards freedom…
I am practically dragging Xavier along with me now. I would not reflect on his blind trust of my actions until many years later. Was it that he loved me too much to lose me, or did he simply no longer care for The Family and their mission for submission? Maybe he hoped we’d be caught and killed or re-educated like so many other Family members who dared to question the ways of the Fathers… To him, he once told me, that would be better than punishing his wife for things he found sufficiently irrelevant to any scripture teaching he’d read.
I push forward through the thick forest. My heart speeds up – we are getting closer to the edge now. The rain begins to slow, but the wind howls, violently shaking the trees. Branches smash against each other in a battle to the death. A few twigs fall, and I become wary of how heavy some of the higher branches are…
I hear a noise. It is unintelligible at first, and I tense up, apprehensive. Xavier remains quiet behind me, his ragged breath the only sign he is still here. I hear the noise again, a high pitched wailing that is distinctly separate from the rushing wind. I hear it again, louder now that I can focus on it.
I start running, barging through the thick branches with my shoulder, my hands occupied by my daughter and husband. I hear the wail again and fasten my pace. It is difficult not to trip and fall over when navigating through the broken twigs and shrubs that are scattered along the ground in a disorderly array, but I persevere.
The wailing is louder…
And then suddenly it stops.
I had no idea my heart could beat faster than it already is, but in this moment my ears throb with the pressure. My breathing hitches and comes out in quick gasps. I strain my ears to pick up on any sound other than the torrential rain… my eyes dart around the forest… searching… until they land on a small being, its body contracting in on itself.
My hearts almost stops beating.
Rose is staring, and I see a sparkle in her eye as she recognises me. Her face splits into a grin as she bolts towards me, leaving her brother forgotten on the forest floor. Part of me registers that Xavier lets go of my hand and darts towards him, but for the most part all I can do is stare at Rose.
I bend down and carefully hug Annie to one side, catching Rose with my free arm. I almost topple over with the force of her enthusiasm, but I do not care.
Rose’s eyes are red and puffy from crying, but there is no sign of tears as she smiles a familiar… almost cheeky smile… one that I have not seen in too long… a glimmer reveals itself in her irises…
I am filled with rage at The Family for leaving Rose to die out here. She is so small and fragile in my arms that my instinct to protect her surges forth and wills me to stand up and forget about them. Forget about them all.
But I cannot forget…
I glance backwards. Jordan is still here… all of my siblings and my mother remain with The Family. I can still go back to them… nobody knows we are here… but if we go back to The Family…
… I will have to leave Rose and James here to die.
“Martha.” Xavier’s voice is like a loving caress and a soothing melody. I hear James begin to cry and relief washes over me faster than the cold rain. I do not know precisely where we can go from here, but if what Rachel had told me about Elizabeth is true, we can find her if we walk far enough down the road that is just past the edge of the forest…
I give one final, appraising look to the trees that block out my home. Then I turn around and do not look back…