Stepping into the summer’s bright light was like waking from a nightmare. The heavy weariness, the lingering foreboding, but the feeling, the knowing, that it was over. I blinked, lifted a hand to my brow, and shielded my eyes from the blinding glow. As they adjusted to the harsh light of day, I sought his form in the barren street; and yet I was not surprised when it was not there. How could I have expected it to be, after all? After all… after all he had done, after all we had done. After everything, I still loved him. The thoughts, the memories, swam at the edges of my vision—his soft brown curls, the deep dark eyes, heavy lashes, light touch—the pain, raw as ever, seized my chest and for a moment, just a moment, stole my breath. I closed my eyes, clenched my jaw, and sought out the hard cold of the cell, the merciless misery of the nightmare that had made the betrayal bearable. The walls that kept me in somehow also kept the pain out. But the cell and its stench were behind me, and though not forgotten, its protective shield had cracked. As I stood in the empty yard, in the bright, yellow, dusty sunlight, I felt my legs wobble, my head sway, and as I crashed to the hard, packed dirt, I caught sight of his tall silhouette, a shadow, a spirit, a specter.
They blamed bodily weakness, the overwhelming rush of freedom and fresh air, wrapped a ratty blanket around my shoulders, and settled me into a rickety wagon. I should not have expected to return to the Baileys’—how could they take me back, after all, after everything?—and yet of course, naively, I did. I thought he had come for me as he once promised he would. As the darkness faded and I came back to the unyielding light, his name was the first on my lips—Nathan.
I received no reply. Instead, a gnarled hand brought water to my lips and brushed the hair from my cheek.
“There, there, dear,” the crone muttered, “it’s all over.”
My stomach lurched. It was all over. Over. A life gone and not forgotten, painfully unforgotten. I felt the world wobble, but this time I was already on the ground. I closed my eyes against the movement and found that the sightless whirling was worse. I opened them.
“Come along, child,” the gnarled hand was helping me to my feet, “we have a ways to travel yet.”
“But where shall I go?” I couldn’t help the pathetic tone. I felt like a child again, utterly lost and alone. “I have no one.”
The old woman smiled at me, her face strangely warm despite its wrinkles and wear—a kindness so foreign as to make me uncomfortable.
“I’ve a place for you,” she said, “It’s not much, but it’ll do.”
“I don’t need—” I began but was interrupted.
“I need the help, and from what I understand, you need a home,” she said, a bit more brusquely. “Either way, I paid your bail. You’re indebted to me for the time being.”
So that’s why I had been freed. While the rest rotted in their cells, I had been returned to the world, to the blindingly bright, bitterly painful world. I was not sure whom to envy. I was not sure I wanted this rebirth.
“Thank you,” I said after a few moments, just as the thought came to me. I felt socially incompetent, a pariah. But that wasn’t new.
She just nodded and indicated I take to the bench of the wagon. She followed, moving slowly but making the climb. One large horse waited patiently for the snap of the reins.
I resisted the urge to look back at the dismal prison that had so long been my home.