Hey everyone! For today’s post, I’ll be sharing the short story (it’s about 60 pages) that I had to write for my English class. I really hope you like it, and please comment with your honest opinion, and if you have any name opinions, please share them! Enjoy! Also, I won’t be able to post anything on Wednesday, but I’ll post on Saturday!
The sun sends rays of light to my face, momentarily blinding me. A fierce wind blows, ruffling my dress and messing up my hair. The clothes hang limply on the line, blowing with the wind. I bend down to pick up another piece of clothing, a white apron, and stand back up again to hang it out in the blazing sun
“Looks like a storm coming,” says Catherine, a house slave, beside me.
She has her dark hair tied up and covered with a cloth, like always, and her clothes are drenched in sweat from the hot sun beating down on us and the hard work she’s been doing all day. She is middle aged, and has acted like a mother to me since my own mother died.
She pauses a minute and wipes the sweat from her eyes. I look up to the sky and see a group of dark clouds coming toward us. I momentarily panic, thinking that the clothes will be drenched, but then calm down when Catherine says, “The clothes will dry before it hits. Go inside and do something fun. You work too much.”
I look up from the bin of clothing, my hand already wrapped around a piece of gray fabric, a dress. “What? No, I love helping,” I say quickly.
She looks at me, doubt in her eyes. “Look, I know your mother died. She was a great person. But instead of trying to bury yourself in work, why not actually do something fun?”
“Like I said, I enjoy helping and cleaning,” I say, then a gust of wind blows my hair into my face and I run inside.
It’s nearly six when the storm hits. Catherine was right when she said that the clothes would have time to dry before it began to rain hard. Now, I am pulling a golden loaf of bread out of the oven as rain pounds on the roof and l hear lightning strike somewhere in the distance.
Catherine comes and wipes her hands on the front of her apron.
“I’m sorry,” she says, putting the next two loaves of bread in the oven. “It’s just…it just seems like you’ve been working so much lately. Then you’ve been doing school, and helping with-” I cut her off.
“It’s fine,” I say. I look toward the door, where my father will be entering soon. I can’t stay annoyed or mad at Catherine.
“Okay,” she says.
She closes the door of the oven and looks around. It seems like she wants to tell me something.
“What is it?” I ask.
She looks around again, I don’t know what for, and then says, “You know how you’re always talking about how slavery is wrong?” She doesn’t give me time to answer. “Well, I’ve heard rumors that there’s a group going around, saving slaves, taking them to the north and offering them aid. It’s called The Underground Railroad. Mary was talking about it when I went to town on Monday.”
Catherine is the only one that knows that I don’t like slavery. I’ve always thought it was wrong to treat other people like animals. But I’ve never thought about doing something like this; freeing and helping them.
“Isn’t it against the law?” I ask thinking about the new law passed, The Fugitive Slave Act, that makes it illegal to harbor runaway slaves even in the north where slavery was abolished.
“Yes. It is. But sometimes you have to follow your heart; sometimes the law is wrong. It isn’t always the right thing, and the people who are deciding them are not always good people,” she says just before my father walks through the door. His black hair is many shades darker than mine, and much more thick. His rough, sun burnt face is pulled together in a solemn expression, like always, and he looks up to see what I’m doing.
“Grace,” he says. “We have some visitors.”
Now I see the people behind him. My brother is the first one I recognize, then beside him, his wife, Ella, and their child, Tommy. But behind them is another face, one that’s unfamiliar. It’s a boy, a few years older than me, probably my brother’s age, with black curls and a tall, athletic look. He smiles, revealing a row of straight, white teeth.
“Hello Grace,” my brother greets me. He got more of my father’s looks, dark hair and tall, unlike me who inherited my mother’s looks with my small nose, light hair, and blue eyes.
I nod in greeting, and realize Catherine is gone.
“Get the table ready,” my father says, a hint of annoyance.
“I’m sorry, I thought you would be home later,” I say, whisking away to the dining room.
I grab the dish of still warm pie, as Ella picks up a stack of plates. “You know why your father invited Albert here?” she asks.
“He said that he was one of Oliver’s friends,” I say, repeating what my father said.
“Yes, I know what he said. But what do you think?” she says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “He probably is one of my brother’s friends.”
“He is. But you know why he really invited him?” she asks.
Yes, I do know. My father wants me to get married soon. It is ‘unusual’ for a girl of 15 to not be married, as he always says. It’s not that no one wants to marry me. It’s that I don’t want to marry.
“What’s taking so long?” my father yells from the dining room where they’re waiting. I glance at Ella, her unruly curly black hair tied back in a braid. She sighs, and walks to the other side of the room, taking the unanswered question with her.
I cannot concentrate, and I keep staring off into space, resulting in my father’s annoyance. I am thinking of what Catherine has said about the law not being the right thing. And about the people who were saving slaves and helping them to the northern states. I don’t know if I would do it. It seems too risky–Catherine might get punished, or I might get found–but I also don’t know what I would do. How would I get food? How would I pay for clothing, and necessary goods? I wouldn’t really miss anyone, I was never close to my father or brother.
“Grace?” I hear my name from across the table. Albert is looking at me expectantly, and I think he might have just asked me a question.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “What did you say?”
“I was just saying that this pie is very good,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
“Oh, thank you,” I say.
“I think it’s too sour,” Tommy says, making a face.
Everyone laughs and the conversation resumes, and I think more about the people helping the slaves–what did Catherine call it? The Underground Railway? Rain pounds on the roof, and the warm aroma of cinnamon and apples fills the room. I look down to my plate to see my piece of apple pie, nothing eaten out of it yet, and my stomach rumbles. I take small bites while trying to keep up with the conversation. They talk about all different things, and I answer when someone asks a question, but mostly listen.
Albert is a nice guy. But I remember what happened when my mother died, how it felt like a piece of me was gone, like I was ripped in half. And I never want to make anymore friends or relationships now, because of that. It would be nice to help slaves to the north, and then leave them for someone else to take care of, while I helped someone else. I would never know what happened to them, and that would be better than finding out if they died.
Albert leaves after supper, and shortly after that Oliver, Ella, and Tommy go home. I am left with just my father. Before he can ask me any questions, I retire to my room, saying I have a headache. I fall asleep quickly, but am awakened after what feels like just a few hours. The rain has stopped, so what sound woke me up? I sit up, and strain to hear the sound outside my door. Everything’s quiet, but then I hear it again. A cry.
I wait, and hear another muffled cry, then sobs. Footsteps thunder through the house, and I sit up straighter, trying to squint through the darkness. I stand up, the cold wooden floor sending shivers through my whole body. The footsteps come again, this time coming closer to my door. A small, timid knock comes on my door, and I slowly walk toward it, tripping a few times because of the darkness.
I open the door to see a small slave girl, Margaret, who has been here for years. Her face is pulled up in a mixture of worry, panic and something else–sympathy? Pity? What happened?
As if reading my thoughts, she says, “It’s Catherine! She’s…” her voice trails off at the end, but she doesn’t have to finish.
“She’s dead?” I ask. But Margaret shakes her head no.
“She’s sick. But she might die. You should go see her. She asked to see you,” says Margaret, twisting her hands together. She might die.
In the dim candlelight, I can see her face, twisted in pain and sorrow. I gasp, and she looks over to where I am. A joyful expression crosses her face, replacing the pain. She motions for me to kneel by her bed, and the younger slave who was kneeling next to the makeshift bed, a wooden plank with a few threadbare blankets, takes the cup of water she was trying to make Catherine drink, and stands up, shaking the dust from her dress.
I kneel at the side of the bed, and take Catherine’s hand in mine. For some reason, I don’t feel sad. At least not like when Mother died. All I feel is a shattering kind of disappointment.
Her mouth opens, like she’s trying to say something, but all that comes out is a moan. She stifles a cough, and tries to sit up.
“Get Mary. She has the answers. The–The Underground Rail–Railroad. Help…” her voice dies away, her face suddenly losing life. Her hand goes limp. Margaret cries out, and I hear fabric rustling. The slave who was giving Catherine the water, Alice, is hugging Margaret, tears spilling out both of their eyes.
“What happened?” I ask, my voice strong and carrying a hint of authority.
“I–I don’t know!” Margaret says through tears. “She w–was-” Margaret says, but she cannot keep talking because sobs overtake her.
“She had a cough,” Alice takes over. “She didn’t want anyone to know. She thought she would get sold, or killed. So she hid it. I only learned about it last week, but I could tell it had been there for a while.”
I feel anger take over me. “Why didn’t you tell anyone? The doctor could have come!” I spit out.
“You know that wouldn’t happen,” Alice says, calmly.
Yes, I do.
A few of the slaves who work on the plantation dig a hole, and we bury Catherine near the wood line. Everyone seems to be mourning, as they all knew Catherine. Catherine was a mother figure to a lot of the children and young adults. She gave everyone advice, and was very kind to all.
The whole day goes by in a daze. I have some oatmeal with the last bit of sugar for breakfast, then work on some schoolwork. I don’t have to, but I like to. But today, I can’t concentrate. Not even when reading “Pride and Prejudice” which I can always seem to get lost in. I help Margaret with cooking some cornbread, and help Alice clean the floors.
But I keep thinking about what Catherine said, her last words, and I think I will go see Mary, at least to get more information.
I am walking to town, my excuse was that I had to buy some sugar, because I’m making a cake for Tommy’s fifth birthday today, which isn’t a lie. After I buy some sugar at the general store, I head down the dusty road, toward Mary’s small wooden cabin. I am just rounding the last turn before getting to her house before I hear voices. One’s Mary’s, but the other two are unfamiliar. I crouch down, and listen to the conversation.
“We have proof and witnesses,” a male voice says.
Mary’s voice is shaky when she answers, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You helped slaves to the north,” says the same person. “A slave, Eliza, has told us.”
“W–what? I don’t know what you are talking about,” she says. She clears her throat and when she talks again, her voice is less shaky. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know who that is.”
“You’re coming to court! Come on,” says one of the men.
I am ducking behind a small hill, the tall dry grass helping to hide me.
“At least let me go inside and get my children,” Mary says, a new determination in her voice. Mary has five children, and I suddenly feel terrified for this family.
“Okay; you have five minutes,” one of the men says, and I hear Mary’s footsteps receding into the house.
I stand up, still concealed by a small hill, and circle around the house. I make it to the back of the cabin without being noticed by the men, who are looking bored, and enter silently through the back door. Rosie, Mary’s four year old child looks at me frightened and she almost screams. But her older brother, Adam, puts his hand over her mouth.
Mary turns around quickly, in the middle of stuffing a brown dress in a tattered suitcase. “What are you doing here?” she whispers.
I don’t actually know. “Catherine, she died earlier. But she told me about how you helped slaves escape. I–I want to help,” I say. When did I make up my mind about this?
She looks out the window where one of the men is looking at his watch, and the other is tapping his foot impatiently.
Then Mary whispers quickly, “I do help slaves escape and take them to the north. It’s called The Underground Railroad. I have helped for years. But I don’t think I can help anymore. There’s this slave girl who escaped, Julia. She’s–” she is cut off by a shout from outside.
“C’mon!” one of the men shouts.
A small girl appears in the doorway to the children’s bedroom. She is a medium height, her hazel eyes terrified, and she looks like she hasn’t slept in days.
“Please help her! I can’t see her taken or killed. Please,” Mary says, gathering her children around her.
I think for a moment. Do I really want to do this? Should I help her? But I know before I answer. I could never say no to this neighbor who is in need. I nod, and look at Mary. Her face is filled with gratitude.
“Thank you,” she says, a single tear rolling down her cheek. “Children, come on.”
The five children gather around her, the older ones holding the little ones’ hands. Rosie is holding a doll, faded and ragged, silent tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” I say, because it’s the only thing I can think of. Then I stride out the back door, followed silently by Julia. This is just in time, because the front door opens, and heavy boots pound on the wooden floors right after we slip outside.
I look at the girl, who looks frightened, and wonder what I just got myself into.
My father shouldn’t be home, but I don’t risk it. I tell Julia to wait in the woods surrounding the house until I get her. She nods and sits on a tree trunk. I walk back to the road, and make my way to the house. My father isn’t home, and I set my basket with the sugar on the counter.
Alice and Margaret don’t acknowledge me when I enter the kitchen. They’re probably still mourning Catherine’s death.
I go back to the woods where Julia is, and find her in the same exact spot, staring off into space.
“You can come to the house now,” I say gently, trying not to frighten her. She looks at me startled, as if she hadn’t noticed my presence.
She stands up and brushes off her dress, silently following me. Will she ever talk? I wait until Margaret and Alice are in the kitchen and I take Julia in through the living room, and up the stairs to my room.
I still don’t know what I will do. But Julia will stay here tonight, and tomorrow I will decide my next move. I run back downstairs, and grab a few leftover rolls from supper yesterday. I bring them to Julia, who eats so quickly that I wonder when the last time was that she ate. I give her a plate of cold mashed potatoes and gravy.
It’s four when my father arrives, along with Oliver, Ella, and Tommy. The cake is cooling, the icing already finished, and he runs inside, beaming. “Do you know what day it is?” he asks me.
“Your birthday!” I exclaim, trying to be as happy as I can.
We eat cake, and Tommy opens presents. I made him a teddy bear, and he falls asleep hugging it while the adults are talking about ‘boring stuff’ as he calls it. They’re in the middle of a discussion about The French Revolution when I begin nodding off. A thump from upstairs makes me jump.
“What was that?” my father asks suspiciously, looking up toward the stairs.
I jump up, and quickly say, “It was Margaret! She was…uh…she was…” my eye catches Margaret’s. She has slipped to the base of the stairs, and speaks up. ” I was looking for a dress that Grace has asked me to mend,” she says.
My father looks at me, and raises his eyebrows. “What dress?” he asks, and I don’t think he believes me.
“The one I wore to town today to get sugar. It got ripped when I slipped in the mud,” I say. He looks at Margaret, who nods. My father shakes his head dismissively. She goes back to the kitchen. I breathe a sigh of relief.
“That’s my sister, always very clumsy,” Oliver says in a teasing tone, and I force a laugh. That was too close.
I cannot sleep. All night, I imagine my father finding out about Julia. I think about what happened to Mary and her children. I think about Julia, asleep on the floor. About an hour after Margaret covered for me, Oliver, Ella, and Tommy left. My father didn’t say anything after that, but kept seeing him glancing at me out of the corner of his eye. I know he didn’t fully believe the excuse about my dress, and he will probably question me about it later.
I don’t know what to do next. I can’t let Julia stay here, because my father will find out, and Julia has to go to the north, where she’ll be safer. I’ll leave in the morning. But I’m scared. I don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. I don’t know what to do when I leave, or how I’ll find her somewhere to go. I tell myself that I’ll figure it out when we get there, but I’ve always been the person to plan out everything.
After our company left, I went to bed. I wanted to thank Margaret, but my father seemed to be watching me. So I went to my room, and found Julia crying in the corner. I asked her what was wrong, but all she said was, “I’m sorry,” over and over again. I don’t know if she was talking about making the noise, or about the danger she was putting me in. I don’t even know if she was talking to me. But I kept assuring her that it was okay. I said that she could sleep on the bed, but she just curled up in the corner, and fell asleep.
Now, I am lying in my bed, staring at the ceiling. The rain has begun to pound on the roof again. I am surprised with myself; I am leaving tomorrow! And, before Catherine told me about The Underground Railroad, my plans were simple: I would study hard, and become a teacher. But now, my future seems unknown.
Because sleep seems like it will never come, I get up and walk across the room to my dresser. A suitcase is resting on the side of it, and I pick it up. After stuffing a nightgown inside, I find a simple black dress and a brown one with a white flowery pattern. I look through my old clothes, ones that don’t fit me anymore, trying to find one that will fit Julia. I find a few, but none seem like they’ll fit her. I pick out two, a plain brown one and a grey one, and fold them. After stuffing them in the suitcase I put a few thin blankets in, and I look around. The lamp I lit is shining around the room, throwing shadows across everything. I spot some simple black lace up boots that reach up to above my ankles. I lay these out, along with another dress and apron to wear in the morning.
I decide that Julia’s boots are too worn down for hiking, and I rummage through my closet to find some shoes. I find some with buckles that are probably too big for her, but they are the closest I can find. I find another dress for Julia, a faded red one, and set it next to the one I will wear for the journey. After setting out and packing all the things I will need, I sit on my bed. I still need some bandages and food, so I silently grab the lamp, and open the door.
As I walk down the stairs, every creak and groan makes me flinch, and wait for my father to come down and ask me what I’m doing, but he doesn’t, and I make it to the kitchen safely. I rummage through the cupboards and get four apples, a loaf of bread, two rolls and two bottles of water.
While I’m grabbing the first aid kit from the cabinet under the sink, I hear footsteps behind me. I think about trying to hide, but it’s already too late. I slowly turn around thinking about how much trouble I’ll be in when my father finds me, and what will happen to Julia?
But the face I see isn’t the one I expected. Margaret stands in the doorway. “What are you doing?” she asks, but I think she already knows.
“Uh…” I say. She’ll tell my father, then Julia will have to go back, be severely punished, or maybe die. I will get punished! “I was just…I…I was, uh, getting a snack?” I say, but it sounds more like a question than a statement. Somehow I have a feeling she doesn’t believe this. She glances down at the suitcase and the medical kit in my hands.
“At two a.m.?” she asks, “And with a medical kit?”
“I…oh! Thank you for telling my father…” I say, trying to change the subject.
“Yeah, what was that sound anyways?” she asks, and looks at me suspiciously. “It really seems like you’re hiding something.”
“What, no,” I say too quickly. I realize it’s no use. “Fine, promise you won’t tell anyone?”
She seems delighted, and nods. I know it will be putting her at risk, but I also know she’ll keep questioning me. “You know what Catherine said when she died. About Mary?” I ask. And I tell her everything. About the police men at Mary’s house. About the conversation with her. About Julia and about how I’m going to leave.
She seems to be getting sad when I get to this part, and I assure her I’ll come back, even though I know that’s probably not true. She seems to know this too, but doesn’t say anything. A deep silence descends upon us, and I am about to say that I should probably finish packing, when I see the silent tears trailing down her face.
I have seldom been good with people who were crying, and I never know how to comfort them. She takes a few steps back, and walks into the room she shares with Alice, and used to share with Catherine too, and I think she is going to get Alice, or just go back to sleep, but she comes back a moment later with something in her hand. I look at what she brought and I am stunned. It is a necklace, a locket, that looks a lot like the one my mother had. I couldn’t find it after she died.
In it was the only picture I had of her. But there was something more about it that I always loved.
“Where did you get that?” I ask a little more harshly than intended.
She sighs, and a sorrowful look crosses her face. “It’s your mother’s. I–I took it.”
She hangs her head in guilt, and I wonder why she would have taken it. “Why?” is the single word that passes through my lips.
Her head stays down when she says, “I was always jealous of you; of your family, of your money, of your happiness. Sara was always so kind to everyone, even to us slaves. I always envied you and your family. The riches, the wonderful life. But when she died, I took this. It was partly because of how nice she was; I wanted a reminder of what she looked like. But it was also to get back at you. I’m so sorry. These last three years I’ve had it, I have been in constant fear of you finding out. At first I just wanted to have it for a day, but I could never bear to give it back.”
I am shocked. Margaret has always been a little–what’s the word?–unkind to me? Or she at least ignored me.
I never thought much of it. But now, as the whole story unravels, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. She lost her mother and father both when she was three. My mother took care of her after that, and this was before I was born. I can imagine her life. Her parents dying, my mother taking her in, but then me being born and my parents’ attention turning to me. I can imagine what it was like for her when my mother died, because she knew her for longer than I did, and then she took the locket.
I know I should be mad at her, but I’m not. She holds out her hand for me to take the locket, and I do. It is an oval with a graceful looking rose carved on the front in the gold metal. I open it, revealing the small, faded picture inside. It is a picture of her. I realize I almost forgot what she looked like, and even though this is a black and white photo, I can still picture her blond hair, pale skin, and large blue eyes. Everyone always says I look a lot like her, and I realize they’re right.
I remember her telling me about how it was passed down from her mother. She always said that she would give it to me on my sixteenth birthday. She took it with her when she came to America from Britain. I am so glad that Margaret gave this to me. All this time I was trying to forget my mother. I tried burying my grief in work and school. I thought it worked, but it never really did. It’s better to feel sadness as well as happiness than just nothing.
“Thank you,” I say, and I realize tears are running down my face.
Because My father will be home today, I am planning to leave while he is still asleep. I change into the clothes I laid out earlier, and wake Julia up. She is disoriented for a moment, but then seems to remember. I give her the clothes and shoes I picked out for her earlier, and say, “I got these for you. You can wear them instead of the ones you have on now.” I hand her the clothes, and she changes into them.
Like I assumed, the dress is way too large, and I have to stuff rags in the toes to make them fit, but they’re better than what she was wearing. She packs her old clothes in the ragged, grimy burlap sack she’s carrying. I take one last look around the room, and decide that I’m not really leaving much. I might miss my brother a bit, but not my father. I was never very close to him, and after my mother died he was closed off. He started punishing the slaves more, ignoring me more.
I hesitate when I get to the doorway, wondering if I am really going to do this. I am about to leave the only life I’ve ever known–leaving my family, money, everything–for an unknown life. I don’t know if I can actually do this. I reach into my pocket and feel something metal. A locket. Mother’s locket. I take a deep breath and step into the unknown world.
It is nearly noon when we stop for a break in the middle of the forest. We ate before we left, but after more than seven hours of hiking, I am famished. It feels like I haven’t had a meal in days. My legs ache, and we’re also almost out of water. The warm springtime sun beats down on me, and I sit down on the ground setting the suitcase down as well. Julia plops down beside me and opens her sack. She pulls an apple out.
“I have some more food,” I say, pulling the rolls out of my suitcase, and she stashes the apple back in her bag. I hand her a roll.
“So, where’s your family?” I ask. Right after I say this, I think it might be a touchy subject. But she doesn’t seem affected by this and she just continues eating. She hasn’t said a word yet, except for last night when she kept repeating the words “I’m sorry”, and I am afraid she never will.
I stand up, shaking the dirt and dead leaves off my stiff dress. “Look, if you want me to help you, then I have to know where you’re going. I need to know your backstory,” I say, picking up the suitcase. She looks at me, her eyes showing the same fear that I’ve seen in them since I first met her. I sigh and begin to walk.
“M–my brother,” she says quickly, her voice mirroring the fear in her eyes. “My brother.” She says again. And she looks like she’s about to cry.
I nod. At least it’s something. I find a small creek with clear running water, and fill up the two water bottles. When I put the tops back on them, I hear a sound behind me. I turn around to see Julia holding out a water bottle to me. She offers me a timid smile, and I fill up the bottle. Even though it’s just a small thing, I am satisfied. I’ve never seen her smile before.
Night begins to descend. We’re still walking through the forest, pine needles and dead leaves from last autumn crunching under our feet. The rain stopped just a few hours after we left, and now the ground is soggy and wet. Julia hasn’t talked anymore, but that’s okay. I just keep thinking about what she said– “My brother.”
We are traveling through the woods, because I am scared people will think she’s a runaway slave. But I’ll have to go to a town soon to get more food. I have been thinking about her words, but also about Catherine. I wish she had told me about the cough earlier. But I know I wouldn’t be able to really do anything. But she’s the one who told me about the Underground Railroad and Mary. If she hadn’t told me about any of that, then I would just be at home, probably reading “Pride and Prejudice” while my father sits and smokes his pipe, reading the newspaper.
My feet ache, and I’m glad we’ll be stopping for the night. My clothes are drenched in sweat and rain from earlier, and my hair is sticking to the back of my neck. Thankfully, it is beginning to get cooler as the sun sets. I lie down on the ground and suck in the muggy air. It is very humid, and a warm breeze blows through my hair.
I haven’t had time to worry about the fact that my father has found out I was gone. I blow out a sigh of relief as my fingers graze the cool metal of my mother’s locket. I pick it up and open it so my mother’s face appears. I know she would be proud of me. She was always so nice to the slaves, and she was very adventurous unlike myself who doesn’t like to take risks. Well, until now.
“Your mother?” a voice says. I was so caught up in my thoughts that I forgot about Julia. She’s standing behind me, and was looking over my shoulder. “That was your mother?” she says again. Something in her eyes makes me feel bad for her. What happened to her mother?
I nod. I am stunned that Julia is talking, that she wanted to talk. “She died when I was twelve. She died from tuberculosis,” I say remembering the days I wasn’t able to see her. I lived away from home until my father came to pick me up. I could tell by the look in his eyes that she didn’t make it.
“I could tell,” says Julia. “She looks like you. Well, actually, you look like her.”
I laugh. “What about your family?” I ask. A hurt look crosses her face. “I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s fine,” she says, but doesn’t answer my question.
We eat in silence, and I keep wondering what happened to her family. She said something about her brother. But why? Did he die? And I saw how she looked at the photo of my mother. Did her mother die? All these questions gather in my brain as I eat a piece of bread that’s already going stale, and stare into the distance.
Soon the sun sets. I pull out the blankets, and hand one to Julia. There’s a hint of doubt in her eye, but after a few seconds, she takes it. Because of the sleepless night last night and all the hiking, I am fatigued. I lie down beneath a large tree and hope it doesn’t rain.
I am greeted by sunlight. It peeks through the leaves and makes a beautiful pattern on the ground. I slept so well, and I didn’t wake up once. It is a pretty sight out here, green leaves on the trees, flowers popping through the buds. I hear a creek running somewhere nearby. A bird lands on a branch above my head. It chirps out a sweet song, and flies away. I lift my head up, off my suitcase that I used for a pillow, and even though the ground was hard, the blanket was rough, the pillow the opposite of fluffy, I feel the best rested as I have in months.
I look around for Julia, but find her spot abandoned. I turn around, but she’s gone. I try not to panic as I stand up, and look around again. The sack she was carrying is laying next to the blanket I gave her. I look around again, but I don’t know what could have changed. Quietly, I call out her name.
I hear a rustling of fabric from faraway, and then footsteps. She comes bounding over the hill, from where I heard the creek running.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t think you’d be awake–I was just taking a walk,” she says quickly.
“It’s fine, I was just wondering where you were,” I say, then begin to laugh, because it sounds so funny. We were hiking all day yesterday, and now she’s taking a walk. I don’t know why I’m laughing so much, it isn’t that funny, but I can’t stop laughing. Julia looks at me like I might be crazy, but a small grin covers her face.
“Are we going to eat?” she asks after I finally stop laughing. I grab the suitcase, and take out two apples. She takes one, and I bite into the other. The sweet juice tastes so nice after just having bread and rolls yesterday. I finish it quickly, and I am still hungry, so we both have another apple.
“My brother,” Julia says when she’s finished her second apple. “He’s still alive.”
Some more information. Great. “He, he is?” I ask. She nods.
“He ran away from the plantation we were both working at…” she trails off, and her face has a faraway look as if she is remembering something, stuck in a bad memory.
“And he left you behind?” I ask. She looks up sharply.
“No!” she says quickly.
“What about your parents?” I ask.
“They’re–they’re gone,” she says. Somehow I don’t believe her. But I drop the question and change the subject.
“What do you have in your bag?” I ask softly. She looks down to the bag sitting on the tattered blanket, as if noticing it for the first time.
“Just some food and clothes,”she shrugs.
“That reminds me,” I say. “I got some extra clothes for you, some dresses. They probably won’t fit, but they might be better than wearing that.” I motion to the sweat soaked, faded red dress I gave her yesterday.
I change, pull my hair up, and put my shoes back on. This trek today is better, because of a good sleep. We walk silently, only talking if it’s about the direction we’re going, Julia has a compass, or the weather. The sky looks sunny, and there are no signs of rain.
But a question tugs on my mind. Why is she keeping secrets? Why won’t she tell me about her parents? Maybe they really are dead. It’s not uncommon for slaves to die in their twenties. But something in her voice made me think she was lying. Maybe it was just my imagination. But if it wasn’t, then why would she lie about her parents? But I also have secrets I haven’t told anyone.
After a few hours, my feet hurt so bad that I have to stop and sit down. Julia doesn’t seem like she’s tired at all, but she is probably used to this because she mentioned working on a plantation with her brother. I gulp down the rest of the water in my bottle, and lie down on the damp ground.
Julia sits down on a log, an exhausted look on her face, though I don’t think it’s from the walking. “We’ll have to go to town soon?” she asks, her eyes staring off into the distance.
“Yes, we’re running out of food,” I say. “How much do you have?”
“Three apples, and a biscuit,” she says. I know these will go bad soon, so I suggest having them for lunch. She doesn’t offer a complaint.
We have lunch, even though it’s probably just eleven, and after I eat, I am still so hungry. I look at what I still have left, about three fourths of the bread, and momentarily panic. But I see the money I took and am reassured.
It doesn’t seem like I will be able to walk anymore, but I get up and continue on my way. Blisters are forming on my feet, and I am very tired. I trip a few times, getting back up after several seconds.
When it’s midday, I stop again. We have to get to a town soon. We turn a bit, and turn left, where we should be approaching a town in a few miles. After about another hour of walking, I have to stop. My breathing is shallow, and I can’t seem to catch my breath. I feel the full heat of the day. My ears pop, and I collapse. The ground is so cold and nice. I wish I could just stay like this forever. I close my eyes, and imagine my mother standing in front of me. Someone else is there too. A young girl with green eyes and a mischievous smile. Her long blond hair is pulled back in a braid. “L–Lena?” I ask.
“Are you okay?” she asks. But this voice doesn’t belong to her. I open my eyes to see Julia. She has a concerned look on her face.
“I’m–I’m fine,” I say, but my whole body feels too hot, and when Julia lays her hand on my forehead it feels way too cold.
“I think you have a fever,” she says. “Go lie in the shade.”
I feel so weak, and a headache is pounding on my temples. All I can do is crawl under the shade of a large tree. The sun seems too bright, so I close my eyes. Julia says, “You have to have some water. I think you’re dehydrated.”
I barely open my mouth before I feel the cold dribble of water. I swallow. It tastes weird in my parched mouth, and my dry lips crack when I open my mouth. “No more,” I say.
Julia sighs, but says in a determined voice, “Every minute, I want you to take a sip of water, okay.”
I barely nod. My thoughts are foggy, but for some reason, I think of my mother. And my sister. For so long, I wanted to block them out of my memory. I was close to my mother, but ten times closer to my sister. A memory rises in my brain.
We were in the store. “You can each pick out a doll,” this was my mother. We, my sister and I, ran through the building until we got to the small table with the dolls. They were made of a pale white color, but each looked different. Some had red hair, some blond, some with brown hair, and some with black hair. Our faces lit up at the sight. I picked one with light brown hair, the same shade as mine, and with rosy cheeks. But Lena gave me a look like I had gone mad. “What?” I asked, surprised. She sighed. “You know what! We have to name them all,” she said. We did this every time. We named them all, so the ones we didn’t pick weren’t jealous. This was what we did every time, even if we weren’t able to get one.
For some reason, this memory doesn’t bring me pain, but happiness. I thought forgetting her and my mother would bring me happiness. But it’s the other way around. The minutes pass, and I remember all these memories. Climbing trees in the woods, swimming in the creek behind our old house, naming all the dolls in the stores we went to. I smile when I remember the one doll in my closet, the one that had my same color of hair. I wish I hadn’t thrown away all of my mother’s and sister’s things. I am now glad Margaret stole the locket. I would have gotten rid of it with everything else.
I hear Julia say that it’s been a minute, and I open my eyes. The sunlight seems too bright. I take a sip of the water, which is now a little warm from the rays of sunlight beating down on it. Her face doesn’t hold the usual fear, but something more like determination. I now realize how much she reminds me of Lena. Lena was always the one who was adventurous, and she had a stubbornness, a determination, about her that I really see in Julia.
“My–my sister. She died,” I say.
Julia nods, “I know.”
She picks up on everything, doesn’t she.
“My parents are alive,” Julia says, and I am surprised. She has never really given me any information about her backstory without me asking about it. Except when she told me her brother was alive. “They fell in love when they were both working at a plantation together. I was born a year later. But they wanted a boy. And the owner was anything but nice,” she says. “He was cruel. My mother lost many more babies after that. Five. But then my brother was born. My father and mother loved him so much. I was forgotten about. After six years, they finally made plans to escape. But those plans only included one child. I was–I was left behind.”
And now, I realize how hard it must have been for her. Her parents and her brother leaving her. “Did you escape on your own?” I ask.
“Yes, a few months after I heard they were found. I want to help them escape,” she says. “Maybe then, my parents will love me. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. All I’ve ever wanted.” A sad, heartbroken expression crosses her face.
It must have been really hard to have gone through all that. And I now know why she didn’t trust me at first. She probably thought I was going to leave her, like her parents.
“Another minute,” she says, handing me the water. I take a large gulp and now I am determined to help her find her family.
I didn’t realize I fell asleep. I sit up, my headache feeling much better. Julia is sitting a few feet away. “Do you feel any better?” she asks, concern etched in her voice. I look around, and realize I drank the last two bottles of water we had left.
“Much better,” I say. “You said you heard your family was found again?”
Her face lights up. “Yes,” she says. “I know where too!”
“Where?” I ask.
“It’s on a cotton plantation in Kentucky,” she says.
We’re still in Tennessee I think, so Kentucky can’t be far. We’ll go to a town and figure it out from there.
I pack up the rest of the stuff, and we look for a creek. There’s one about a half mile away, and we fill up all three bottles. I still feel a little weak, but better than a few hours ago. It must be about three or four, and we still have many hours of daylight. We walk for a few hours, until we see lights in the distance. A town.
When I awake, I am momentarily disoriented. It takes me a moment to realize that it’s still nighttime. Stars glitter in the navy sky, and I lie on my back staring at them. It’s so cool how the sky looks the same even when so many lives are changed on earth. I reach into my pocket and get the locket out. I think about Margaret keeping it. I should have been mad at her but for some reason I wasn’t. Maybe because of the fact that I would have gotten rid of it if she hadn’t kept it, but that doesn’t feel like the reason. It was because of how it helped her through a rough time. I can imagine her holding the small metal charm in her hand as she wiped tears away at night.
I try to think of all the times people did small things that made big impacts in my life. Like when that middle aged mother said she liked my hair, or when the nice old lady smiled at me on a dark day. Then I imagine all the times I impacted someone’s life. When I bought that doll for a young girl who was crying, or when I gave that starving family a meal, and I wonder if all these people remember me.
I awake a second time, and now it’s light out. Julia is still asleep, and I get up and grab another dress from my suitcase. I walk a little ways and find a small lake I remember seeing when we walked here. I wash up with the silky bar of soap I took from my house. It feels so good to wash my hair, which has accumulated a lot of sweat, dirt, and rain water from the previous days since I left my father. I watch as the water that runs down my skin turns from brown to clear. I finally finish cleaning the tangles from my hair and clean the layers of dirt and sweat from my skin.
I change into the last clean dress I have, and wash the others in the lake. I watch these turn the water muddy, as the fabric becomes clean. I remember washing the clothes with Catherine, on that last day of her life, when she told me about the Underground Railroad. I am hit by a wave of grief, and I welcome it. It is a reminder that I am human.
Julia is still asleep when I get back. I have been thinking of a way to go to town with Julia, but the only thing I can think of is going by myself; leaving Julia here and coming back later. I hang the damp clothes on a low tree branch, and I know they will dry before the day is over.
I get ready–do my hair, put my shoes back on, put on my mother’s locket, eat a piece of bread–and then wait. I want Julia to be able to have a good sleep, because I know she hasn’t been sleeping well. I fiddle with the locket while I think of what I’ll need to get in town. We’ll need food. I don’t know exactly what I’ll get yet, but it doesn’t really matter. I want to get a map, just to see where we are, and how to find Julia’s family. We’ll need some soap, a tablet of writing paper, and a charcoal pencil. I want to get a book, a novel, because it always calms me down at night, but that’s an extra thing I don’t need.
But now that I think of it again, most of these things would seem like extras to Julia. She would probably only be getting the food if she were going to town. She stirs, and whispers something in her sleep. I can only make out a single muffled word, but the second time, I can hear it more clearly. It’s a name. “Charley.” I bet that’s her brother. She turns around, and she sounds like she’s crying.
She jumps up, pushing the blanket off her body while saying over and over again: “Charley, Charley!” In a hysterical voice. It takes her a moment to realize that she’s safe, that Charley is not here.
“I’m sorry,” she says, suddenly defensive and irritable.
“It’s okay. I just cleaned up at that small creek we saw when we were coming here,” I say. “I am going to go to town.”
She looks hurt for a second, but quickly masks it. “Okay,” is the only word she says before she grabs her bag and strides off toward the general direction of the lake. I decide not to follow her, because she is already very stubborn.
I don’t bring the whole suitcase, but just my small coin purse with all the money I took. I would draw too much attention to myself if I did bring it, because it already looked like a smaller town, and I might be noticed, so people might ask questions about where I am from and why I am traveling. It takes a bit of walking, one or two hours, but I get to the town well before the sun is straight over me. I think it might be nine or ten.
I was right about it being a small town, but it’s not so small that everyone knows everyone. It is a good sized town. A lot of people walk on the dusty streets. I spot a general store a little bit away. I don’t think I would have to bring my suitcase, because I already look out of place among these people. They have fancy clothes, girls are holding parasols on this hot, sunny day. Men are wearing fancy suits, and I feel very out of place and I feel like everyone is staring at me. I am now grateful for the lake, and that I remembered to wash up before I came. If I showed up how I was before I came, I would be getting stares like I was crazy. My hair was matted, my skin was caked in a layer of dirt, and my dress was covered in sweat.
I walk into the store to find rows of neatly organized goods stacked on tables and shelves. There is everything here it seems, and the prices are more expensive, but I know I took enough money to buy all the things I want, with more money to spare.
“Hello, ma’am,” a voice startles me. It is a short, plump, man, the store owner. He has white hair and a kind face. “Is there a certain thing you are looking for?”
I look at the man, and wonder if I really stand out that much. “No, I’m just browsing,” I say kindly. He nods and walks across the room to help another customer. I walk around the store for a bit, and while I’m doing this, I realize how much I missed being around people. I haven’t been out, at a store or someplace else in public, for weeks. I never realized how much I loved it, though I do now, after being stuck in the woods with a girl who doesn’t talk, for two days.
And I also realize how easy it would be to go back to my father now. It would be as easy as another day walking, or better, getting a horse and riding home. But I can imagine Julia sitting in the woods, waiting for me. She would wait until the morning. The bread would be gone, but she would wait until about noon. Then she would finally leave, she would feel not a deep rage, only loneliness. She would feel like everyone has given up on her, like everyone has left her.
I get some bacon, rice, and dried beans. Then I look around for a map and am successful when the kind store owner helps. It is a map of the whole southern states. I find this town, a small town in Tennessee, so it’ll probably be okay. I find some writing utensils, and buy them along with some more soap. I also found a copy of “Oliver Twist” and decided to buy it. I leave with a few more things, and it ends up being not as much as I thought it would be, and I feel satisfied. I thanked the old store owner who helped me find the map, and now walk outside.
I buy a few loaves of bread at the bakery. I eat at a small diner where a few other people are eating. A middle aged woman takes my order and I get some lamb and biscuits. It is so nice to have a warm meal.
The streets are less full than when I came, people have gone home for the night. I briskly walk toward the wood line, as the sun is beginning to set. But I stop when I see a paper nailed on the post of a building, a restaurant. It’s a wanted poster. I rip it off in curiosity, but it quickly turns to horror when I see the name on the front. Julia.
I am stuck in place. I feel like the air won’t enter my lungs. After I’ve read the paper three times, I finally believe it. I quickly stuff the paper in my coin purse, and swiftly walk away. When I make it to the woods, I run. The few miles that it took to walk here the first time seem to go by so quick. I am entering the place where I left Julia and I see her sitting by a large tree.
She washed up in the lake, and she also did the same thing I did with my dresses; washing them and hanging them up on tree branches. She looks much better, her light brown skin glowing and her dark curls not matted or tangled. She notices me when I slow to a stop close to where she’s sitting. “Did you get anything,” she asks, though I know she sees the wicker basket in my hand.
“Yes,” I say. “Some food and a map.”
I don’t think she believes everything’s alright, because she gives me a doubtful look. I try to fake a smile, but it feels so hard. I don’t know what to do. “What’s wrong?” she asks, now worried.
I sigh and sit on the ground. “I had a good time shopping,” I say. “I got some food, a map, and a book. I also picked up some soap. But on the way back…” my voice trails off.
“What happened?” she asks. “Was it someone there?”
“No, it wasn’t that. I saw a paper, a wanted poster. It was for you,” I say pulling out the crumpled paper out of my coin purse, and handing it to her. She scans the page and looks at the ground with tears in her eyes.
“I thought it would work this time,” she says quietly, and I don’t think I was meant to hear it. She cries, her tears landing on the paper. I don’t know what to say. What did she mean? Did she try to escape before?
As if reading my thoughts, she says, “I tried to run away before. I just–it never worked. I was always caught.”
I am stunned. I don’t know why she never told me this. But then again, I didn’t tell her about my sister at first. “And now, I’ll be found again and taken away,” she says. “I’ll be beat and sold.”
She says this with so much defeat and loss, when she is usually determined and stubborn. It makes me resolved to help her.
“No. You’ll find your family. You’ll find them, and then you’ll go north. You’ll be safe,” I promise, even though I don’t know how to keep this promise. But I do. I’ll make sure she gets to her family no matter what. Whatever it takes I will help her. It doesn’t matter what sacrifices I have to go through.
I don’t eat, because I don’t feel like it. I still feel bad for stopping at the cafe while Julia worried about me, eating stale bread. I am also not very hungry, and I don’t know what I’ll do. Everything seems to be crushing me down, but I am growing stronger by lifting it up.
“Have you ever read it?” I ask when I see her staring at the copy of “Oliver Twist” that I bought. But then I think that she might have never learned to read.
“I haven’t. But in case you were wondering, I do know how to read,” she says. “I just haven’t really read any actual books.”
“You can have it. I’ve already read it. You might like it,” I say, picking up the novel and then handing it to her. She hesitates before taking the book.
“Thank you,” she says, though I don’t think it’s just about the book. It lies much deeper than that. She’s thanking me for helping her, for my promise to get her to her family. “You’re the only friend I’ve ever had.”
And she’s the main friend I’ve had. Of course I had my sister. She was my best friend. She was the only friend I had, and her death broke me. After she died, I didn’t want to make any more friends. I did have a few friends before that, but I was young and I don’t remember them much.
“Me too,” I say.
The setting sun sends its last rays of light down to earth. We decided to walk until it turned dark, and I think the time is coming. Even though she didn’t voice it, she is excited to start reading the book. We stop when the sun has almost fully set.
“Are we going to stay here all night?” she asks, clearly worried about the notice on the paper.
“Yes, we can,” I say, setting down the suitcase, which seems heavier and heavier every minute. “Why?”
“Oh, I was just wondering,” she says. She sits down, and pulls the book out of her bag.
“Are you hungry?” I ask, but she shakes her head.
“No, I just want to read,” she says distractedly, already hooked on the novel. I sit on the ground, and pull the paper out of my bag.
It says her name, physical description, where she ran away from and the date, and the ‘master’ she ran away from. John Williams. The name is unfamiliar, though I try to think if my father knows him. No memories come to mind. I look back to the paper to see the name of the town. It’s about twenty-six miles away from the town I just went to. “Where did you say your brother was now?” I ask Julia. She looks up from the book.
She tells me the name of the town, about four miles away from the one she was at. I guess they didn’t make it very far. “So, it looks like this place is about twenty-two or twenty-three miles. I think we can make it there tomorrow,” I say, still looking at the map. She nods, engrossed in her book.
“You like that book, don’t you?” I say.
“Yes, sounds good,” she says, preoccupied. I laugh and she looks up from the book. “What did you say?” she asks.
“I was wondering if you were enjoying the book,” I say. She nods.
“Oh! Yes, I love it. The best thing about reading a novel is that you get to know so many different people, even though you don’t really know them. You get to live so many different lives. It’s like you’re traveling, yet you’re just sitting there,” she says in a dreamy voice, staring off in the distance.
I smile. That is what it’s like when you’re reading. You get to know different people who aren’t really real, but still seem real. If you read multiple books, it’s like you are living different lives. It’s like you’re traveling.
“Yes,” I say. “You’ve never read a novel before?”
“No, my mother taught me to read,” she says. “But I never did read an actual book. It’s great!”
“I think you would like “Pride and Prejudice” I say, thinking of my all-time favorite book. “It’s pretty funny.”
She makes a face. “I like more serious stuff like this,” she says, holding up the book I gave her earlier.
“Whatever. I think you would like it,” I say.
“Whatever. You’re wrong,” she says, mimicking my tone.
We both laugh. She looks at the star sprinkled sky, and sighs. “Do you ever think that the stars look different sometimes,” she says, her voice is now a blend of seriousness and sorrow.
“Uh…not really,” I say. “What do you mean?”
“Like when my mother and father left. They seemed to glisten with sadness and loss and pity. But then the day that my brother was born, they appeared to burst with happiness. Then when I escaped,” she says. “They looked defiant, like slavery wasn’t supposed to happen. Like it shouldn’t be happening. But it is.”
We walk for miles. We walk in the creek because it is heading in the direction we need to go, and because it will cover our scent. We talk about everything. She tells me about the four times she tried to escape. Once before her brother was born, twice when her brother was little, and then now.
I tell her about my sister. About when my mother and her died. About when they were sick, and the time I had to go away. I tell her how she reminds me of my sister. She tells me about her brother, who sounds sweet and kind. I was right about his name being Charley. She tells me about her parents and I tell her about my father, brother, Ella, and Tommy.
It’s around midday when we stop to eat. This first half of the day went by so fast. We don’t want to make a fire, so we have some cold beans. It is a delicious meal after all that bread and rolls. We begin to walk again, and I think we still have about fifteen miles left to walk. We walk briskly, but still talk.
We get there when the sun is setting. Well, not there, but about two miles away. We set up camp and eat some bread. When we finish eating, Julia speaks.
“What if your father isn’t really as bad as you think?” she asks. “What if you just aren’t seeing things right.”
I told her about my father, how he beats slaves, and all he seems to want is money and for me to get married. I told her how he never seems to listen to me when I try to talk to him, and how he just ignored me after my mother died, like he was mad at me and he thought it was my fault.
“No,” I say. “He is bad. Trust me. If you met him, you would believe me.”
“I’m just saying, what if you’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. You said that he seemed to ignore you when your mother died. You thought that he thought that it was your fault. But what if he was just sad about her and your sister? Or how you said that he just cares about you getting married, and him being rich? What if he just wants you to be successful, be happy, because that’s something Lena never got?”
I shake my head in doubt.
“I’m just saying,” she says. “Try to see it from someone else’s perspective. You might see it differently.”
I lay awake that night. Julia is asleep, and I’m staring up at the twinkling stars. She was right. They do seem different sometimes. I think of what she said about my father. What if he isn’t as bad as I think he is. I try to remember the last time he beat a slave, but it only happened once. Right after my sister and mother died. It might have been out of frustration.
And maybe he was just sad about my mother and sister and he wasn’t just ignoring me; he was ignoring everyone. Maybe he didn’t believe it was my fault. And maybe she was right about him wanting happiness for me. Maybe she was right about all of it.
I am awoken in the middle of the night by the pouring rain. It enters my mouth, gets in my eyes. I can’t see anything, because of the darkness. I feel the suitcase under my head, pick it up, and gather the now soaked blanket from on top of me.
“Julia!” I cry out, rain running down my face. “Julia!”
Her answer comes from what sounds like yards away, but it might only be a few feet, muffled by the rain. “Over here,” she says.
I follow her voice, and reach my arms out in front of myself. I feel her hands right after I take one step. “We have to find shelter,” I say, though I don’t know if she understands what I said.
“Shelter,” I yell, and she yells back.
We hold on to each other’s hands, and slowly walk. The rain forbids us from going fast, and we can’t see anything. I hold my other hand out in front of me, fearing tripping on something or running into something.
It’s a few minutes after we start walking that I feel something fall on my head. It felt like a small stone or something and I keep walking. Another hits my shoulder a few seconds later. Hail. We run. The rain splashes on my face, and I close my eyes.
We continue to run as the small, penny sized pieces of ice hit me. We only stop when we hear the water. It’s running. A creek. We turn slightly and keep running. Lightning strikes somewhere nearby and the whole sky is illuminated. That’s when I see it. A barn. A shed. And there’s a light inside. Someone’s there.
We both notice it at the same time, and we begin to run, sprint toward it. A barn, even a shed, would be too generous a title. It’s a small, falling apart, shack. It is rotting with vines and leaves growing on it. But it is a building structure with a roof, a shelter, and it’s the best thing right now.
When we duck inside, I see a middle aged woman lying on the moldy hay. She doesn’t have to open her mouth before I know who she is. She shares Julia’s same glowing brown skin, her curly brown hair, though this woman’s is shorter and pulled back in a ponytail. She has the same determined, stubborn look about her, as she looks at us entering the small shack.
A look of fear then confusion then disbelief crosses her face. “J–Julia? Is that you?” she asks, uncertainty in her voice. I look over to Julia to see tears welling in her eyes.
“Mama?” she says, fear and sadness in her voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m,” she says, but she groans painfully and I see a bit of blood on her dress. “I ran away…” she tries to continue but pain is laced in her voice, and she closes her eyes shut.
“Mama!” Julia yells, and she runs to the corner where her mother lies. “Mama!”
“Julia,” her mother tries to say, but pain makes her voice quiet and uneven.
“Mama! I’m so sorry! I’m sorry Mama,” Julia says, tears streaming freely out of her eyes.
Julia sits down beside her mother on the straw covered dusty floor. “Mama,” she murmurs over and over again, as she holds her mother’s hand tightly. Tears drop from both of their eyes.
“Where’s Papa and Charley?” Julia asks, still gripping her mother’s hand tightly. When her mother closes her eyes, a mournful look on her face, Julia becomes frantic. “What happened to them?” she asks again, fear in her voice.
Julia’s mother sighs and opens her eyes again. “Your father, he’s dead,” she says. Julia looks sad, a new love for her father, the desire to see him one last time overwhelming. “He got sick. We almost all got it. Even the owner of the plantation. He died. Charley he, he was still alive when I left. That was four days ago. A few of the other slaves died too. I thought they might think I died from the fever. I–” she is cut off from her words by the blood which has been oozing out of the wound. Pain registers on her face.
“Why did you leave Charley there?” Julia asks, though there is no anger in her voice.
“People came. They were taking us somewhere I think. I didn’t know where we were going or who they were, what we were doing. They rounded up all the slaves who were still alive. All of them but me. I was at Papa’s grave, where we had buried him. It was partly hidden in the woods. I heard them coming. I hid. I heard one of the people asking where I was. Charley answered that I had died,” she says. “He wanted me to get away. I wanted to find you. So I ran. But then It got dark. I fell down a small cliff. A big rock hit me. I walked for days after that, trying to find you. I am sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, sorry.”
Julia is sobbing loudly and she doubles over in sadness. “It’s okay Mama,” she says. “I am reading a book.” Julia’s face lights up.
Her mother looks surprised and then pleased. “That’s great! I remember how you always wanted to read one and write one. I’m glad you had this opportunity. I’m so proud of you.”
Julia lies there for a while. I stand awkwardly in the doorway. The rain is leaking through the roof, splashing the rotting hay and turning dirt to mud.
I am so tired, so I sit on the floor, setting my suitcase down as well. I don’t mean to, but I fall asleep. I awake when the sun is shining down and the rain has stopped, and Julia is kneeling by her mother’s body, her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking, crying. Her mother’s body beside her is still, her eyes closed. At first, I think she’s asleep, but then I realize her body is too still. Dead.
“Julia, I’m so sorry,” I say standing up and brushing off my dress. She looks up like she hadn’t noticed I was here, and I see her eyes are puffy and her face is the exact definition of misery and suffering. She is still holding her mother’s hand.
“It was all my fault, she left to find me,” she says, tears still streaming freely from her eyes. “My fault.”
“It wasn’t your fault. It was her choice. A choice she made. A decision she chose to make,” I say. “And she did find you, so now you have to go find your brother.”
She stands up, and looks at her mother again. “Okay, but can we bury her? I can’t just leave her like this,” she says, resolve in her voice. I know she will stay and dig a grave for her mother either way, with or without me.
“Sure,” I say.
We go outside, and it seems the world has bloomed overnight. The sweet smell of flowers mixed with the smell of the rain, flowers budding, and the bright green leaves on the strong trees, all add to the cool March morning. We find a nice place a few yards away where flowers are blooming, and start to dig. It takes a few hours to dig a shallow grave, and we are both exhausted. We bury Julia’s mother, and then we find some flowers growing nearby. I arrange them in a beautiful bouquet, and set them on top of the spot where we buried her. But it seems incomplete. I find a good sized rock by a small stream and find a smaller rock to carve her name.
When I get back, Julia is sitting by the grave, a mourning look on her face. “I–I got these,” I say. Julia looks up and nods. “Do you want to write her name?” I ask. Julia looks like she’ll start crying again. But she nods and takes the rocks from me.
She begins by writing the letter A in a shaky handwriting. ANNA is the finished name. I realize tears are running down my cheeks. She might not have been the best mother to Julia, but at least she died knowing Julia wasn’t mad at her, that she forgave her. Julia sets the rock on the grave and sits there for a while. When she finally gets up, her face is wiped clean of tears, and there is no indication she’s been crying.
“Let’s go find my brother,” she says.
We decide to go back to the place Charley and Anna were working at. Then we can gather information from there. I take a few moments to go through my suitcase. The rice, which was in a glass jar, along with the beans and bacon are still good, but the bread is wet and soggy. I carefully wring out all of the clothes and they are now damp. I change into the black dress and I braid my wet hair. My shoes are soaked, and I decide not to wear them. I put them in my suitcase along with the drenched blanket which I try, unsuccessfully, to wring out and dry.
Julia is sitting by her mother’s grave, holding her face in her hands. I keep thinking about what she said, about my father not really being as bad as I think. So much more things begin to line up, like the fact that he was always wanting me to do school. I thought it was because he wanted me to be busy, I thought it was because he didn’t want to see me. I thought it was because he was mad at me.
Because when my mother got sick, I was the one who had it first, and gave it to her. I had it, and everyone thought it was just a cold. At First I was just tired and had a headache and I thought it was nothing. But then I got fevers, and then, when I started coughing up blood, my father and mother sent me to a fancy hospital, which used up most of their money. When my mother got it, we didn’t have much money left. But they never told me. They didn’t tell me she and my sister were sick. They didn’t tell me that they had used up all their money on me.
I just remember the white cotton sheets and the smell of cod liver oil, vinegar, turpentine, and hemlock all things they used to treat the disease. I remember the faces of the kind nurses, of the other patients in the hospital. I remember the day they said I was better. I remember my aunt. I remember asking where we were going. I remember her answer, that I was going to stay at her house for a while. I remember my confusion. I remember staying there for months. I remember when my father came, along with the news that my mother and sister had died. I thought he was ignoring me then, because he was mad at me. Because he thought it was my fault.
But now I’m seeing that maybe he was never mad at me. It wasn’t my fault after all. Maybe I have been seeing it wrong the whole time.
We enter the woodline where the house is. It’s big, about the size of my old house. There are large fields behind it where slaves should be working. But they’re empty, and all is silent. There are a few horses standing outside. I see a few people talking inside through the window.
“Julia,” I say. “I’m going to go and try to see what they are talking about. Stay here.”
I run off before she can protest. I run to the back yard. I try to look through the window, but all I can see is a pantry. So I take my chances and go in through the back door. I walk into the lemon scented pantry and crack the door open to listen to their conversation. It’s muffled by distance, but I can still make out the conversation.
“You got his will?” This is a male voice.
“Yes, but he didn’t say who he wanted the slaves to go to. I checked the date, and saw that it was from years ago. But it was his most recent one. So, I guess we’ll take them to the market. He didn’t have any more living relatives,” this is another voice.
“The one at eleven tomorrow?” asks the first voice.
“Yes,” the second voice says. “I’ll take them there tomorrow.”
A third voice joins in the conversation. “Did any more die of the fever?”
“Yes. There was one, a little boy. His name was Charley.” I don’t know who said this, but my heart seems to stop. Julia’s little brother has died. How sad will Julia be after she finds out? I think I gasp, because one of the people was talking, and they cut off sharply.
“Is there anyone else here?” one asks. I think the others shake their heads. Then I hear footsteps coming closer. I run, not bothering to close the door when I run out into the cool spring air. I hear shouts behind me. I keep running, and when I enter the woods, Julia follows confused.
After about five minutes, I have to catch my breath.
“Was my brother there?” she asks, trying to keep the hope from her voice. I never liked getting my hopes too high. It is always disappointing when you get your hopes too high, and then they let you down.
“No–he,” I say, but I cannot finish the sentence.
“What?” she asks, concern in her voice. “Was he somewhere else?”
“He, he’s gone,” I say, barely able to get the words out. Her face looks something like disbelief, and then she runs into the woods.
I am running after her, but she is faster. I fall and don’t bother to get up. What will I do? I can’t stay here. I lie on the ground for a few minutes. A bunny hops out of the woods, and it startles me, making me jump up. It hops back in the woods, and I get up. My suitcase feels heavy, but it’s probably just because of the damp clothes and blankets. I walk in the general direction Julia ran away in but she is long gone.
I failed. I didn’t get her to her brother soon enough. At least she saw her mother one more time. I don’t know what to do now. I don’t know where Julia is going, and it would be pointless to try to follow her. I pick up the suitcase and start to walk. I don’t know where I’m going, but I need to think.
What should I do now? I can’t follow Julia. I can try to figure out where she’s going, and then go there, but there isn’t a guarantee she’d be there. The only other option would be to go home. But I don’t know what my father would be like. Probably mad. And then would I get questioned? Did the people who were at the house see who I was? Do they know my father? Would they have told him that I was helping Julia find her brother? So many questions spin around in my mind that I don’t notice the shed until I am pretty close.
It’s the one Julia’s mother died in. I guess I’ll stay here for the night, because it’s already late afternoon. I enter the Shack to find it empty, still. I don’t know what I thought it would be like. I open the suitcase to see the book. It sits on top of everything. I am surprised untilI see the writing on the first page. The book didn’t fully escape the rain, a few of the pages were wet, but are now drying, making the paper crinkly and wavy. I read the writing, written in one of the charcoal pencils I bought in town. I read it, even though it is partly smeared.
Grace, thank you for helping me. I am so grateful. But when my brother comes, you can’t come with us. I am sorry. I don’t want to put you in more danger. I am sorry. You had to go away from your family and sacrifice everything when you decided to help me. I now see that. So Charley and I will be leaving when he comes. Hopefully you will be able to continue living a normal life. Goodbye. –Julia
She was already going to leave? And, yes I did have to leave a lot of things when I agreed to help her. My family, my education, my house, my money, the promise of a good, happy life. But I also gained a lot. I finally made a friend after my sister died. Julia also helped me to see how my father wasn’t as bad as I thought he was. I remembered my mother and sister. Well, I remembered them this whole time. But I really thought about them. Before that, all I did was try to forget them, forget the guilt that I had carried for so long.
I lay down even though it’s only about four. I am so tired. I don’t use the blanket because it’s still damp. I hung the dresses and blanket up so hopefully they will be dry by the morning. I close my eyes and try to imagine that Anna’s blood is not right by me. I close my eyes and try to remember what it felt like when I was living with my father. Predictable. Boring. Safe. These are all words I can think of. Predictable because I did the same things everyday. I knew what the next day would bring. Boring because I did the same things everyday. I did school, cooked, cleaned, and mended. Safe because nothing bad really happened to me. After my sister’s and mother’s death, nothing bad happened to me until Catherine had died. But I don’t think safe is the right word. Shielded. Protected. Sheltered. Defended. Those would be the right words.
I realize I haven’t seen the locket in days. I pull it out of the suitcase and hold it. Memories rush back to me. My mother smiling as I tried to decorate a cake. Her humming when I went to sleep. My mother smiling as she saw the gift Lena and I tried to make, a crocheted blanket, and the gratitude in her eyes when she told us that it didn’t matter if the gift was good, and that it was the thought that counted. Her eyes, a mix of worry and calmness, when I had to go to the doctor when I had tuberculosis. She told me that I would be okay. And I was, but she wasn’t.
What would she do? Would she go back home or try to find Julia? I already know the answer before I think of the question. She would go find Julia. She always had a sense of adventure, of determination. Of stubbornness. My sister inherited these traits. But me, on the other hand, inherited my father’s calm, quiet nature. His sense of wanting to stay in one place, live a quiet life. But now I don’t know what to do. Should I do what my mother and sister would do? Or what my father would do. I will find Julia. I will take her to the north. I guess there was a part of my mother’s stubbornness I got, because I remember what I thought the other day. How I would take Julia to the north. I will.
I awake in the morning. A bird chirps from outside. I sit up, and look around. I can tell the day will be hot, but it’s not muggy or humid. A dry heat. I get up and pack up the clothes, which are now dry, and I fold them neatly and put them in my bag. I set the book on top of everything. I get the bacon and beans out of my bag and go outside.
I will have a good breakfast, then go find Julia. Where would she go? I am answered when I walk outside. She’s lying by her mother’s grave, sleeping. Of course. But she wasn’t here when I first came. She was probably just running, not knowing where she was going, at first. Then she thought that this would be the best place to go. Where her mother’s grave is.
I make a small fire with all the dry brush I can find. I cook the bacon, then the beans. I will probably finish them today, if Julia has some too.
I walk back over to where Julia is. She is awake, but she doesn’t notice me. “Ju–Julia?” I say, trying not to startle her.
She turns around quickly. “Grace. Leave. I’m not going. I want to stay here with Mama,” she says.
I sigh. “Is this what they would have wanted?” I ask. “No. They would have wanted you to be safe. They would have wanted you to be free.”
“It doesn’t matter!” Julia yells. “They are not here anymore. They’re gone!”
“It doesn’t mean they would have wanted anything else. They loved you,” I say.
She looks at the grave where her mother lies. “Okay,” she says, finally seeing reason.
We eat and then pack everything up. I give her the book back.
“I love this book. I love books. I can get stuck in someone else’s story. But something else about books is that they can inspire people. They can help people through rough times. They can help people see the real thing that happened,” she says.
“I think you should write a book,” I say. She looks at me.
“I am always trying to. But I never know what to write it about,” she says. “But now I have an idea.”
We walk. I don’t know what to do now. We head north, but where will she go when we get there? But we’ll have to find that out when we get there. I remember to hydrate and we have to keep filling up the water bottles. We occasionally talk, mentioning and making comments about the land or weather.
I am planning to stop at a town soon, because we are running out of food and I need a new map because the other one got wet. We stop for lunch, and then walk more. It is almost four when we stop for a second time. I am seeing that I am not as out of breath as I would have been the first few days. Maybe I am getting used to it.
I sit down on the ground and open my suitcase. We eat the rest of the bacon and some rice. I give the book back to Julia, but she says that she doesn’t feel like reading now. She is staring off into space dreamily. She did mention that she thought of an idea to write a book about. I never really thought about writing a book, mostly because I wouldn’t be able to get past the first page.
I open the book and begin to read. I have never really liked “Oliver Twist.” I just thought it was boring and dull. I have read “Pride and Prejudice” eleven times. It is funny and entertaining to read. I thought that Julia would like it, but she disagreed and said that she liked more serious reads. I still think she would like it, and once we make it to a safer place, I will buy her a copy and make her read it.
“What do you think will happen?” Julia asks.
“We’ll go north. I don’t know what we’ll do then, but we will find that out when we get there,” I say.
“That’s not what I meant,” says Julia, frustrated. “I meant about slavery. What do you think will happen about it.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about it. I hope it goes away,” I answer. “But then that might mean a war.” I never really thought about it. I hope that slavery does go away; slavery is wrong. But there might also be a war if this happens. Then a lot of people may die. But would it be worth it?
Julia seems annoyed by my unworried answer. “You’ve never thought about it?” she asks angrily. “You told me that you have always thought it was wrong, but you never thought about what would happen? Do you even want slavery to go away?”
“Of course!” I say. “I just don’t want there to be a war.”
Julia looks at me like she found out I kept a secret from her. “Do you know how much people have died in slavery? I’ve seen many, many slaves die because of the cruel owners, or the work they have to do. If there was a war, and slavery was abolished, then not more lives would be lost. There would be more people dying so that people don’t have to later.”
She lays down on the ground and grabs the blanket from her bag. I know she won’t talk to me anymore, so I lay down and fall asleep.
I awake with sweat pouring down my face. I try to remember my dream, but fail. All I can remember is the feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I sit up to see that the place Julia was sleeping is abandoned. I quickly stand up and look around. Her bag is gone too, the blanket lying there on the ground.
“Julia!” I yell. “Julia!”
She must have left, seeing I had no real decision on how I wanted slavery to go. I quickly pack my bag and look around for more clues to where she might have gone. Thankfully, the ground is still a little damp, and I can see a set of footprints receding into the woods. I quickly follow them.
I follow them until I get to a small clearing where the woods disappear and houses arise. I check to see if her footsteps still go this way, and they do. Why would she go to a town? Why would she risk going into the town and being seen?
I continue to follow the footsteps,but then I wonder why I am. I should just leave and go back to my normal life. But I can hear my mother whispering in my ear to help Julia. I keep going. I soon realize that this is a bigger town than the other one I saw on the way here, and I am grateful.
I blend in with the somewhat fancy crowd of people. I am just turning around the corner when I see him. One of the men who was at that house. I panic and begin to run in the opposite direction. But this draws attention to myself. He sees me and confusion flits on his face before recognition takes over. I run full speed, not looking back, muttering short apologies to the people I accidentally disturb.
I am in front of a store when I dare to look back. I don’t see the man who was back there. I breathe a sigh of relief and duck into the entrance of the store. It smells like musty books and dusty fabric. There are only one or two shoppers scanning the rows of dresses and buying eggs and flour. I pretend to be admiring a pink bonnet with a flowery trim just in case they are looking for me.
“Excuse me ma’am?” I jump at the voice. I look around to see a middle aged woman with a white apron covering the faded red dress she is wearing. “Can I help you?”
There is something familiar about this woman, then I realize the long brown hair, the emerald green eyes, the scarred hands with burn marks, they all belong to Mary.
I almost jump for joy right in the middle of the store. She is carrying a wicker basket with eggs and flour in it. “M–Mary?” I ask.
“Do you want to go take a walk?” she asks, glancing at the door, suspiciously. I follow her gaze and see the man looking around the store. I hold my breath, pick up the bonnet and put it on. He leaves. He didn’t recognize me and I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
I replace the bonnet on the hook and look at Mary.”I would love to,” I say.
Once we make it to the bakery, I’ve told Mary about everything. Julia’s family, her running away, everything. I also heard Mary’s story. They couldn’t find her guilty for helping the slaves escape, so she was free to go. But she didn’t want to stay. She told me about how she didn’t have enough money, so she moved here. She is working at the bakery at a hotel now and all the kids and her are sharing a room in the hotel. I can’t help feeling bad for her. Her husband died while she was only days away from giving birth to Rosie. Mary has struggled to support all five children, but has always managed. When I offered her money, she refused.
“You said that Julia ran off here?” she asks. I nod. “Well, she was probably trying to find her brother. I know he died, but she might not fully trust you. This is where they’re doing that market you said about. She probably just wanted to make sure.”
I am thanking Mary and running off after she tells me where this market is. I approach the clearing where people are gathered. Slaves are gathered around for people to inspect, seeing if they are strong and healthy. I look around for her. I see some of the slaves are gathered in clumps, siblings, mothers and fathers, cousins, family. I know why she came. I wouldn’t trust a complete stranger if they told me my mother and sister were dead, I’d need proof.
I still haven’t seen her, and I think maybe she hasn’t come here. Before I am able to look further, someone says, “Excuse me ma’am?” But this time it’s not Mary. It’s the man who saw me help Julia.
I try to act like I don’t know who he is, but I am bad at lying. “I know you are the girl who was at the house. You were helping that slave, Julia,” he says.
I try to pretend like I don’t know who he’s talking about. He looks like he doesn’t believe me. He grabs my arm and leads me through the crowds of people. We walk past slaves that look like they’re starving. Mothers holding infants, children holding each other’s hands, lonely ones who probably lost their families. Some have tears running down their faces, burying their heads in their hands. But some look brave, holding their heads high in defiance.
I think of what Julia said about the slaves dying. About what she’s seen, slaves being beaten and starved. I think she is right about the fact that if there was a war, and slavery was abolished, then the lives lost would be just as much as slaves that would die.
“Over here,” I hear a voice. I look over to see a youngish man wearing a flannel shirt, one of the men that was at the house. And Julia is standing by him, a defeated look on her face. “I found this one who escaped.”
Julia’s eyes meet mine, and I feel her surprise and then her sadness, the sense that she failed. “Wait? Are you Thomas Johnson’s child?” the younger man asks me.
I nod. “We’ll take you back to him. But you,” he points to Julia. “You’re going back to Mr. Smith’s.”
I see a terror cross her face. Mr. Smith must have been her owner before she ran away. “No, please,” says Julia.
But the man just ignores her. “Did you have the paper?” one asks.
“No,” the other answers. “I thought you did.”
They argue for a while. How did I fail? I didn’t get Julia to safety soon enough. Now she’ll have to go back to her master who seems mean. I am so worried. And I have to go to my father again. He will probably have to pay a whole bunch of money because I helped Julia. But we have more than enough money. What did I get myself into?
If I didn’t agree to help Julia, then this never would have happened. But if I never went to see Mary, then I never would have known who Julia was. And if I didn’t ask Catherine what she was thinking when it seemed like she wanted to tell me something, then she would have never told me about the underground railroad and Mary.
I would still be at home living a quiet, boring life. I would be trying to not think about my mother and sister. I would be burying my grief in work and distractions, never feeling sad, but not really being happy either. I just wish that I got Julia to safety. If we made it earlier, then she might have even been able to see her brother again.
“I think it’s in the wagon,” a voice cuts through my thoughts. It was the man in the flannel shirt. “I think I left it in the wagon, in my bag.”
We start to walk toward a wagon with two horses attached to it. The older man who was walking beside me walks around to the back of the wagon. He pulls out a bag and digs through it. I could run. No one is close to me. I could run, leave. But that’s not what friends do. Friends stick together. They don’t leave each other. They don’t abandon each other. They don’t just run away when their friend needs them.
I see Julia looking at me, making the smallest motion with her hand that tells me to go; to leave. I shake my head slightly. No, I will not leave. I will not run. Because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. Running away from my problems, from my grief. But I will not run. I will fight. I will fight until I win.
The man pulls the paper out of the bag. It is crumpled and wrinkly. He smooths it out before reading it. Then he nods. “I’ll take them,” he says. The other man nods and walks off. The older one gets in the wagon seat and grabs the reins. “Get in,” he says in a rough voice. We get in the back of the wagon. I hold Julia’s hand, reminding her that I’m here for her, that I won’t let anything bad happen to her. But I don’t know how I can keep that promise.
The Wagon Ride
Julia is crying before we even begin to move. The wagon is bumpy on the gravel road. “Julia, it’s okay,” I say, trying to calm her down. “You’ll be okay, I’ll make sure.”
“No, that’s not it,” she says through tears. “I don’t care what happens to me. I am so sorry for making you get in trouble. For helping me. I never should have escaped.”
She’s sorry for me? I thought she was sad because she had to go back, because her family is dead and because she didn’t make it to safety. “I’m sorry,” she keeps repeating while holding her head in her hands.
“Julia. It’s not your fault. I didn’t take you to the north. It’s my fault. I was supposed to help you and I didn’t,” I say, a flood of guilt washing over me. I was the one who was supposed to help her. I failed. Not yet, I tell myself. I could still help her. She could still be free.
“It’s okay,” I say. “It’s okay. I won’t be in much trouble. My father will just have to pay a whole bunch of money. We have much more than enough.”
“I can only imagine what it would be like to have that much money,” she says, momentarily distracted from her sadness and regret. “It must be very nice.”
I think about this for a moment. Is it nice? Sure, it’s good to know I always have enough money in case I have to buy something. But people who have more money always seem to be greedy and selfish. They always seem to want more.
“Sometimes it is,” I say. “But once you have a lot, you always want more. People always want what they don’t have. I was friends with one of Mary’s girls, Ella, and I said that I always wanted to have a lot of siblings. But she said how it was tiring and exhausting to watch all three little kids, one of which was a baby, while her mother and older brother worked. I don’t know.”
Julia seems to understand. “I’m scared,” she admits. “I’m scared. I know that my master will beat me and sell me somewhere further south so I can’t escape anymore.”
These words are so mixed with fear. I know that I am afraid, but not for myself. I remember the day I had to leave when I was sick. My mother looked strong and brave but she was probably worried and scared; she was being strong for me. That’s how I have to be now. I have to be brave and strong for Julia. I at least have to seem like I am.
“No you won’t. You’ll be free,” I say. I know she knows I won’t be able to keep this promise, but I promise anyway. I have a feeling that everything will work out in the end.
Julia does remind me of my sister, being adventurous and strong willed, but my sister was also always really talkative and laid back, where Julia is more quiet and private. Even so, Julia is so similar to my sister. Lina was also about this age when I last saw her. I still miss her so much. We were always so close, always together. We often said the same things at the same times, or we knew exactly what the other would say.
Our personalities were always so different though. I was quiet, shy, and responsible. People always said I was hardworking and smart. Once I got to know someone, I would talk to them all the time. But Lina on the other hand, was energetic and outgoing, sometimes reckless. She would make friends very easily. She also was very funny and always saw the best in people.
But the thing I remember most about her, the way we are the most opposite, is how she would always stand up for what was right. When a child was getting bullied, or there was something she disagreed with, she would always say something about it, sometimes fight about it. But I would never talk about it when I disagreed with something or someone. I was always soft spoken and when I did try to talk to someone, they never heard me and I just disappeared into the background.
Kids would tease me, and Lina would stand up for me. She always knew what she would do, and once she had a thought, she would always follow through. She was very strong willed and determined. Sometimes she was too stubborn, and she would set a goal too high, so she would work so hard to achieve it that she would often work too hard or too long.
Julia begins to talk again. “I’m sorry. I should have never escaped. I would be much better off than I was now. And then I dragged you into this. I’m so sorry,” she says. She keeps apologizing but she didn’t really do anything wrong. She wanted to escape the hard life she was living. She wanted to leave and see her family; she wanted to be free. Free means to not be under the control or in the power of another; able to act or be done as one wishes or not or no longer confined or imprisoned.
But once you are free of something, something else imprisons you. I realized that I wasn’t thinking of my mother and sister, and now I think of them all the time; I feel sadness and happiness. But now I feel like I have to help Julia. The thought of leaving to go back to my father, leaving her, seems almost ironic.
We pass fields and ponds, lakes and forests. Then we begin to pull up to a house. It’s a big white house with two stories. There is a large field where slaves bend down, picking fruits and vegetables. I know that this is where Julia was from. She was here. This is the place she worked.
“It’s okay, nothing will happen to you,” I say. And I mean it.
When we stop, a middle aged woman comes out of the house. Her hands are red, probably from scrubbing dishes in hot water, and her brown hair with streaks of grey is in a tight knot. She has a stern look, but she seems like someone who looks strict and unsmiling, but is actually nice and kind. “May I help you?” she asks in a professional and informative voice.
“Is Mr. Smith here?” asks the man in a deep voice. “I need to speak with him.”
“He’ll be back in an hour,” she says. “What do you need?”
The man just grunts and jumps down from the wagon seat. He begins to walk to the back, toward where Julia and I are. He grabs Julia by her arm and yanks her out of the wagon. She hits the ground hard and I don’t know how she doesn’t scream or at least groan. But she gets up and stands straight, brushing the dust from her dress.
“I found her wandering around,” he says. “Grace Johnson was helping her.”
The woman, Mrs. Smith I assume, looks toward the wagon, straining her head to see me. “Take them inside. I’ll watch them,” she says, waving her hand toward the door. “You can leave.”
“I came for my money,” says the man, pulling the poster out of his pocket. “It says that anyone who found this girl got ten dollars.”
Mrs. Smith purses her lips, like she didn’t agree to this, but she just says, “I’ll go get the money.” She walks into the house.
I look at Julia, expecting her to look frightened or at least troubled. Instead, she looks strong and powerful. She is holding her head high, a sign of confidence and pride.
Mrs. Smith comes back with some money in her hand. She gives it to the man. “I’ll take care of these two girls and take Grace back home,” she says. The man nods and I jump out of the wagon, grabbing my suitcase. I wish I could just disappear into the background. But I can’t so I go over and stand next to Julia and watch as the man drives off.
Mrs. Smith looks at me and Julia and says, “Are you hungry?”
I realize that I am, the last time I ate was this morning, and now, it must be about four. “Yes ma’am,” I say.
She leads us inside the house, a cluttered and messy place, very unlike the neat and organized place I used to live at. I accept when Mrs. Smith offers me a piece of apple pie. I wait at the table when she goes to get it. Julia slides into a chair beside me. “Mrs. Smith has always been so nice,” she says. “But her husband is the opposite. He is cruel and mean. He has killed many slaves before,” she says. A moment later, Mr. Smith returns with the pie along with two glasses of cold milk.
“Here you go,” she says, setting the plate by me. Julia said that she wasn’t hungry, but Mrs. Smith still sets one of the glasses of milk in front of her. “Thank you ma’am,” I say when she sets the second glass beside my plate. Mr. Smith does seem like a nice woman. She seems like someone who would be in the Underground Railroad, if it weren’t for her husband.
I eat in silence and no one talks. Soon the silence seems too loud and I feel like I should say something, but I don’t know what to say.
“This is really good,” I say pointing at the half eaten piece of pie. Mrs. Smith thanks me, but then the conversation patters out and silence descends around us again. The next noise isn’t anyone talking, but the rattling of a wagon. Mrs. Smith glances out the window, and she says, “It’s Mr. Smith,” in a dreary voice.
A frightened look crosses Julia’s face. Mrs. Smith looks sad for Julia. “Let’s go outside,” she says.
I sit up and sigh. I don’t know how I’ll save Julia. It’s too late. No. I remember what my mother used to say about that. It’s never too late. My mother was always adventurous, yet she was kind and compassionate. She was kind to everyone, and she also had a very friendly nature about her. Her and my sister were very similar.
The wagon pulls up and I feel a shiver run across my skin. Mr. Smith looks like someone who is cruel, but I don’t know why. He just has a look about him. He stops the wagon and jumps down and spits out some tobacco in the grass.
“I saw Mr. Hendricks on the way home. He said he found Julia,” Mr. Smith says in a rough, deep voice. Mr. Hendricks must be the man that brought Julia and me here. He notices me standing there. “And I heard that you helped her escape. I’ll be talking to your father.”
I remember my father talking to Mr. Smith, and I remember them being great friends. I probably won’t be going to court or anything, my father might just pay him or give him a few slaves. I can tell that Mr. Smith isn’t really that mad at me, just Julia.
“Elena, go bring that girl back to her father and tell him that I’ll come tomorrow and talk,” Mr. Smith says, talking to his wife. She nods and mounts the wagon.
“Come on,” she says looking at me. “Let’s go.”
But I can’t just leave Julia. I shake my head. No, I won’t go. “Let Julia be free,” I say. He laughs.
“No,” he says. “Why would I do that?”
“Please!” I beg, but I know it’s hopeless. “I’m not leaving.”
Mr. Smith looks mildly annoyed. “Girl, you have to go home. Your father’s worried. And why would you stay for a slave?” he asks.
“She’s a human just like everyone else!” I proclaim. “And she’s my friend. I’m not going to leave her here.”
Mr. Smith is very annoyed now. He turns around and trudges inside. I don’t know what he’s going to do, until he returns with a gun. Julia screams. I am frozen in fear. No! This can’t be happening! Is he going to shoot Julia? He aims it at her chest. I look up to Mrs. Smith, but her expression is just dull, and I assume this has happened before.
It’s like I can’t move. Fear is keeping me here. I finally come to my senses when Mr. Smith talks to me. “She is your friend? Well it doesn’t seem like it. You aren’t doing anything,” he says.
He’s right about one thing. I am not doing anything. My mother. My sister. Catherine. My father. My brother. Julia. They are all the people I love. Family, friends, loved ones. Some dead, some alive. And one will be dead if I don’t do anything. Julia will die if I don’t do anything.
Mr. Smith begins to press the trigger. But I push Julia away, taking her place in front of the gun. The gun fires. I am momentarily confused, and Mr. Smith falls. What happened? I didn’t get injured at all. It takes me a moment to realize that it wasn’t Mr. Smith who fired the gun. It was my father.
I stumble back, but not because of the gun. It didn’t even hit me. I see Mr. Smith fall, blood squirting out of his arm. He yells. I see my father come closer, but I am confused. Why is my father here?
Mr. Smith shouts some foul words while he scrambles for his gun. But my father is faster, and he grabs Mr. Smith’s gun. I stand back up and look around. Julia seems just as confused as I am. I try to talk, but shock keeps my mouth shut. Mr. Smith is now lying on the ground, less blood oozing through the bullet wound in his arm. I know that this is not a very serious wound.
“Were you about to shoot my daughter?” asks my father, anger blowing through his words.
Mr. Smith tries to answer, but no words come out. Finally he says, “She stepped right in front of the gun! I wasn’t trying to shoot her.”
My father seems to soften a bit at this. “I’m sorry Jack,” he says.
And surprisingly, they both start to laugh. I look at Julia to see what she thinks and she seems to be happy yet confused. My father finally stops laughing, tears of happiness rolling out of his eyes. He turns to me. “Grace,” he says. “I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.”
He doesn’t have to elaborate. He’s sorry for being closed off and ignoring me. Sorry for everything. “It’s okay,” I say. Because it is. I finally believe what Julia said about my father not being as bad as I thought.
I almost forgot that Mrs. Smith was there until she says, “I’ll take the girls inside while you two talk,” she says to my father and Mr. Smith. She gestures with her hand toward the house, and I look around for my suitcase which is lying by the wagon where I dropped it when I ran to save Julia. I pick it up and follow Julia and Mrs. Smith inside.
It has been almost an hour. I couldn’t help glancing through the window, trying to see what they were saying. When I did look outside, they seemed to be having a friendly conversation, smiling and making gestures with their hands.
I can’t help but feel like it will all be okay. Now, my father and Mr. Smith walk inside. Mr. Smith isn’t very wounded.
“Grace, get your things. We’re going to go home,” my father says in a cheery voice. I look down at the suitcase that I am gripping so hard in my hand that my knuckle is turning white. I nod, but I know I’ll have to leave Julia, leave her here with Mr. Smith.
I look at Julia who has tears in her eyes. I want to tell her goodbye, but I’m afraid that I’ll burst into tears before we leave. I find that I cannot speak, tears welling up in my throat. I look at my father who has a secretive grin. “What is it?” I ask.
He pulls out a paper from his pocket. I don’t know what it is, don’t know what it means. Until I read it. It is a form for buying a slave. It is a form my father signed. And he bought a slave. The name on the paper is Julia. I try to keep reading it, but my eyes are welling up with tears.
I hug my father, tears of joy slipping out of my eyes. “Thank you,” I whisper.
I then go and hug Julia, but she doesn’t know what is going on. “What? What is it?” she asks. I grab the paper from my father’s hand, basically shoving it in her face. It takes a moment for her to read it, but when she does, recognition and then gratitude and gratefulness crosses her face. “Thank you,” she says, but it’s not directed to me. It’s meant for my father.
The wagon ride home is filled with the silence of joy. The only conversation goes on when my father tells us his agreement with Mr. Smith. Him and his wife were very poor, losing money. My father said that he gave Mr. and Mrs. Smith extra money to cover the payment of medical care and a giant sum of money for me helping Julia, and Mr. Smith said that it would be fine if he takes Julia, because he would have shot her anyway.
I can’t help but feel bad for Mr. Smith who doesn’t even think that slaves are like real people. I wish more people would see that slaves were still normal people; it doesn’t matter what color their skin is. I think that more people need to know that.
We pull up to the house and a flood of memories and feelings of euphoria washes over me. I feel like all those years after my mother and Lina died, there was a curtain over me. But it wasn’t one that was protecting me. It was one that I put up there. It was one that blocked my sight, like seeing the world through a filter.
But leaving, helping Julia, has taught me something. Maybe I didn’t actually learn anything new. Maybe it was just that I finally realized that sometimes you have to stand up for things you believe in. You have to take risks and go on adventures. And that not making friends is bad. Friends are the people who you can talk to. I bottled up my feelings after mother and Lina died, but it was slowly overflowing, drowning me. Because true friends would do anything for you, sacrifice anything for you.
When we get to the house, my father has to go to town and he tells me that my brother and Ella and Tommy will be coming over tonight for supper. We go inside, and I am greeted by Margaret and Alice. They fill me in by telling me that my father didn’t make a big deal about my leaving. He only told my brother, and told him not to tell anyone. Most of the slaves were oblivious to the fact that I left, probably because I never really went outside.
I am glad that he didn’t tell the whole town, because then everyone would be asking questions.
When I look in the mirror, I am stunned. I look so different than when I left. The first thing I notice is the dirt covering my skin and hair, caked into my nails. My hair has big tangles and smudges of dirt cover my face. But I also look older somehow. Wiser.
Julia is very happy. She walks around with a gleaming smile on her face even when she cleans and cooks. It feels nice to be home again, but I know that I had to leave. I wash up and change then get started on dinner. I cook some rolls and gravy, mashed potatoes, and some lamb. I also make some pies for dinner. Julia helps.
My father comes home beaming and happy. Julia and I look at each other in confusion. More good news? But my father refuses to tell us until after dinner. Oliver, Ella, and Tommy come. They say that they had been very worried about me.
Once they leave, I clear the dishes from the table, putting them in the sink that is already filled with hot soapy water.
Then I ask my father what the news is. He tells me to tell Julia to come too. I wander to the kitchen where I find her washing the dishes. “My father needs you. He wants to tell you the good news. C’mon!” I say excitedly.
I practically have to drag her into the sitting room where my father is smoking his pipe. “What is it?” I ask, excitement in my voice.
And my father says just what I was thinking. “I am going to buy freedom for Julia.”
5 years later
There are two types of quiet. There is peaceful silence, calm and pleasant restfulness. And then there is the silence that seems too loud, silent, uncomfortable, too quiet. Thankfully, this is the peaceful quiet, the one that seems tranquil. I sigh and shield my face from the summer sunlight filtering through the glass windows.
I sink down onto the pale green sofa. It was all five years ago. I still remember it like it was yesterday. The memories flood my brain. A journey. That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of it. But it wasn’t just a journey of traveling from one place to another. It was a journey of myself, realizing who I really was.
I pull the package out of my bag. It’s wrapped in brown paper and tied together with a brown string. Pride and Prejudice. I told Julia she would have to read it. We will be seeing each other in a few hours. I can’t believe I haven’t seen her in two years. She lived with my father and I until she turned fifteen and then she left to go help with the Underground Railroad.
But tomorrow will be her seventeenth birthday. I am giving her the book as a kind of…I don’t know the word. I remember how she was so intent on not reading it because I said there were some funny parts.
The crying awakens me from my thoughts. I walk into my room where Emma lays in her crib, the white knitted blanket wrapped around her tiny fist. “Shhhh,” I say to calm her. I pick her up and walk around. The view outside is lovely. The summer sun shines over the bright green grass and the bright flowers.
Emma is amazed by the scenery too because she stops crying. She is a few months old, born two years after I got married. My brother and Albert both left for the gold rush. My brother left Ella, who will be having a baby soon, and Tommy here, and they often visit.
A knock comes from the door outside. I hurry downstairs, Emma squirming in my arms. When I open the door, I am stunned. I thought that Ella would be here, but it’s Julia. She looks surprised too. I guess I look a lot different than I did five years ago.
She looks different too. Her elaborate braided hair and her fancy dress make her look more graceful and older. She’s also much taller. But I can tell she hasn’t changed much. “Grace!” she says. “You look so different. You didn’t tell me you had a daughter!”
I didn’t really know where she was or how I would find her until she sent a letter telling me she was going to come visit. I sent back a simple reply, telling her what day she should come. I didn’t really tell her anything about what my life was like anymore.
“Yes,” I say. “I didn’t really have time. But we can catch up and talk for a while. You weren’t supposed to be here for another few hours.”
My words are filled with happiness and joy. Julia’s are too when she says, “I arrived a little early.”
The next hour before Ella and Tommy come is filled with laughter and chatting in between bites of cookies and sips of tea. Julia tells me a little bit about how her life was when she was gone, but I’m the main one talking.
I tell her about how I married Albert, about Emma, about all the changes that took place when she was gone. I tell her about how my father is gone, about the stroke that killed him. She is sad, but she must have known something like this would happen. My father was almost like a father to her too, setting her free, being kind to her. She seems sad, but also content, like she expected it. Like she believes he is in a better place.
Our conversation is cut off by the knock at the door. I quickly walk to it and open it to see Ella and Tommy. Ella has one hand on her protruding belly the other holding Tommy’s hand. I welcome them in and offer them some cookies.
We spend an enjoyable evening talking. We have pork and beans. For dessert, and to celebrate Julia’s birthday, we have a vanilla cake. After that, I give her my present. Her face breaks out into a grin when she sees the book. “I told you I don’t like books that have funny parts or romance,” she says in a tone mimicking how she used to sound. She laughs, and I join in.
“Whatever, I think you’ll like it,” I say repeating what I had said that day she began reading her first novel.
“I will try it,” she says. Ella gives her a crocheted scarf, even though it’s still summer.
“You can save it for the winter,” she says. Julia thanks her.
After Ella and Tommy leave, Julia pulls something out of her bag. “Remember that time you said that I would be good at writing a book? I have always wanted to write one, but never had any ideas. But when you said that, I said I had an idea,” she says. She hands me the object that I now realize is a book. A notebook. She gestures for me to open it.
The pages are filled with small neat handwriting. “You wrote a book?” I ask. She nods. And I begin to read.
“Everyday when we wake up, we have the ability to change someone’s life.“