I can’t take it anymore. I need it to end. Please.
I sit up in bed, the cry from two towns over echoing in my dreams. It’s a young boy, about nine years old, sitting on the floor of his tiny bedroom. He’s crying and bleeding, listening to screaming in the next room. Usually, I would wait a week and assess the situation and get my current children prepared before leaving, but today is different. If I don’t save this child, he will take matters into his own hands. I can feel it.
I jump up and pull on pants, a shirt, and a long jacket. I grab my small bag that already has my most useful potions and tools. Then I head next door to Lionel’s room. He’s the oldest now at seventeen. Aaron has been gone for six years, Michael for three years, and Mariel two. Josey left two months ago. Now it’s just Lionel, Abigail, Theodosia, and a boy I saved two years ago named Abram.
“Hello?” Lionel says after I knock on the door. His voice is thick with sleep and he’s rubbing his eyes when I enter.
“I’m so sorry to wake you, Leo,” I say, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“It’s okay. Is everyone alright?”
I nod. “Everyone is asleep but there is a boy who needs me.”
“You’re going tonight?” he asks, sitting up further.
“I must. He is two towns away so I don’t think we will be home until tomorrow. Can you handle the children?”
“Of course. Is he okay?”
I bite my lip and nod. “He will be. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Don’t let Theodosia out alone; she’s been keen on climbing trees recently. If anything does happen, there is a healing draught in my left drawer. You can just make stew tonight if you want. If I’m not back, feel free to let all the girls sleep in one room and let Abram sleep with you.”
He nods as I talk. “Be careful, Mama,” Lionel says. “You got your potions?”
“Always thinking of others.” I grab Lionel’s arm and lean down to kiss his cheek. It’s a miracle all my children have been okay with this. It must be the air of The Wood. “Thank you, Leo. I’ll be back as soon as I can. I’m so proud of you.”
I wave at him and as I do, the lights dim and the houses raises a few degrees. I know in all the other rooms, the blankets on top of my kids will have gotten a little heavier and any open curtains will have closed, so the light is kept out and they can sleep as late as they want.
I grab the bag by the door and my hat, which yes, comes to a point at the top. I pull my traveling cloak on first before the bag and then my travel shoes, which withstand the speed in which I can move through The Wood better than normal shoes.
It’s dark outside, which isn’t surprising as it’s still 2 am. Usually I would be able to hear every creature within a mile radius, but today the volume of the universe has been turned down and all I can hear is that young boy crying miles away. I start to worry I won’t make it in time. I can feel his physical pain, in my gut and my shoulder and my chest. It’s so overwhelming that my speed is a bit slower than normal and the first mile of the trip takes me a full five minutes. The boy is still crying and I can still hear shouts from outside his room.
Let it end. Please. I need it to end. I need it to stop.
These are the most dangerous cases because when the kid is considering taking matters into his or her own hands, they aren’t as easy to convince to come with me. They question everything and their emotions control them so they can’t listen or focus on my face. Once I have them in The Wood, more specifically in my Wood, they start to calm, but while they’re still in their house, where tensions are high and fear is tangible, they’re too rattled to hear me and I’m too drained to alter the emotions of the room.
The sun is already rising by the time I’ve made it around my old town. It would have cut down my time if I’d gone through it, but the only way I’m able to get myself to reenter the town is if there is a child in there who needs me. Once I’ve circled it, though, I’m able to go down a road that connects this town to the next one. I don’t run as fast and with unlimited endurance when I’m not in The Wood so I’m forced to walk until a cart comes trotting by.
“Hello, ma’am,” the man in the front says, grinning maliciously. He’s watching me with a hungry look in his eyes and he’s missing at least two teeth. He does not scare me but I don’t want to deal with him, so I wave my hand in the air and he frowns before looking straight again. I haven’t mastered the art, but usually in a glancing situation, I can make myself almost invisible to an unfocused eye.
When the cart is in front of me, I run and jump on the back, holding on tight. My hat tips and I reach out, grabbing it right before it lands on the dirt below.
Inside the cart are a dozen of boxes of liquor and three cases of chickens. I walk in, letting myself breathe easy after the hours of travel.
“Hello,” I say, squatting in front of the chickens. They cluck and run away from me, to the back of the cage where they ruffle their feathers and climb over one another. Each one has bald spots and is obviously been abused. I assume they are headed to be slaughtered and though I know it is necessary to kill animals in order to feed humans, I also believe they deserve a happy life and a peaceful end. These ones tell me, not in words though in impressions, that they have had the opposite. And based on the driver, the humans they will be nourishing don’t necessarily deserve it.
“You have to leave quietly, without being noticed,” I tell the chickens, wiggling my fingers. They each calm immediately and as I unlock the cages and open them, they walk out in a single file line. I follow them to the back and lower them down as smoothly as I can one by one. They flap their wings and stumble as they hit the ground, rolling a few times before jumping up and running off. The cart is moving fast and it’s not as gentle as I would have liked, but it’s the best I can do. Once they’re empty, I throw the cages out too, just in spite.
The driver doesn’t notice, or he shows no signs of noticing, and two hours later, we’ve pulled into the next town. He starts to slow and before he can stop, I jump off the cart and head down an alleyway.
I know this city well. It’s smaller than the one I grew up in but there is a surprising amount of bad parents here. I use the back roads to weave my way through it but still pass dozens of people on their way to work in the morning. They each look at me in confusion, the hat and cloak give me away, but aren’t able to focus long enough before I’m past.
My heart is beating fast. The boy fell asleep hours ago but he could wake up any moment. His city bumps up right against this one, but I want to get there before his parents enter his room this morning.
Halfway through the town I start to get exhausted from causing everyone to ignore me, so I climb up one of the stone buildings and finish my trek across on the rooftops. They are close enough that the jumps between each building are not difficult. Soon I’ve crossed into the other city and I have to stop at the top of a building and sit to try and focus in on the boy. I take out a potion and take a sip, feeling my concentration narrow in. I pull up my cloak to block out the sun and close my eyes, thinking hard.
He’s sleeping, but he’s having nightmares and his heart is racing and he’s still in pain. He’s sleeping, but he’s not getting any rest.
He’s sleeping in a small, rough bed in the basement of a building that is… half a mile away. East. I tie my cloak tighter and peer over the edge of the building. As soon as a hunched over old man turns the corner, I swing over the edge and fall to the ground. It would have been a more graceful fall in The Wood, but in the city it’ll have to do.
Then I start running, taking the straightest shot to the kid’s house as I can. Occasionally, my senses tell me I’ve gone the wrong way and I have to turn around and go back. I make it in front of his house in seven minutes. It’s a small building shoved in the middle of a butcher shop and a broken down store front that looks to have been abandoned for years. The door is splintering and the window to the left is broken. I take a deep breath and head up the steps that creak under my weight. I push open the door and am overwhelmed with the smell of alcohol and sweat. There is dirt on the ground and clothes strewn all over the floor. I take a few steps and the ground creaks. The chair a few feet down the hallway moves and an old, fat man stumbles out of it. He falls to his knees and turns to look at me. His eyes grow wide and he jumps up.
“Who the hell are you?” he yells. I instantly feel the boy wake up below me, living in a state of fear. “What the hell are you doing in my house?” he runs toward me, his arms swinging. “Get the hell out!”
I wave my hand in the air, making him fall asleep. I fight the urge to do something worse, but I control myself and let him fall to the floor where he instantly starts snoring. He’s lying on his side with his face pushed against the splintered floor and I know when he wakes up, hours from now, he’s going to be sore for days.
I step over him and open the door to the basement. The steps down are steep, breaking, and groan with the slightest pressure. I’m halfway down when I feel a stab in my gut that is the young boy’s fear. I double over, breathing hard, when I say, “It’s okay. You’re safe.”
The words are tight in my throat and they do little to ease the boy’s fear, but it’s enough to give me the opportunity to finish the trek down the steps. When I’ve made it to the bottom, I see a small room that’s mostly empty save for a wardrobe, an empty bookshelf, and a bed in the corner where the boy is sitting. His knees are pulled up against his chest and he’s holding his blanket against his face, watching me with wide eyes. I only imagine how I must look to him, an intruder wearing a long black coat and a pointed hat. I am what he’s told to fear. But he knows better – he knows what he really has to fear is unconscious upstairs.
“Hello,” I say, holding my hands up, palms out. I take a few steps, careful to move slowly. I don’t break eye contact with him, but I’m also sure to keep myself small and lowered toward the ground, to show him I mean no harm. “My name is Alice. I heard that you needed help.”
He frowns at me and his eyebrows pull together.
“I just want to help. You deserve so much better. You deserve a safety, a house where you’re happy to come home to, a family. You deserve love.” I take another step.
The boy flinches and grips the blanket tighter.
“My name is Alice,” I say again. “What’s your name?”
He doesn’t say anything, but he starts to lower his blanket. I smile and wiggle my fingers, helping the process along.
“I have a family of my own. We all were once afraid every night. We all felt worthless and alone and in pain. But now we feel hope, success, safety, and love. We want you to come with us. Can you tell me your name?”
He swallows and lowers the blanket even further.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Peter,” he mutters.
I smile. “Peter. Do you want to come home with me?”
He closes his eyes and pushes away the blanket.
“I promise, it will end. You’ll be happy. You’ll be safe and loved. Do you want to come with me, Peter?”
He nodes. “Yes.”