Bringing Freedom Home

by - August 02, 2011

Bringing Freedom Home 
Kaylin Hamilton

The hooded figure stepped forward slowly through layers of snow—making his way deliberately toward us in the empty clearing. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can help you.”

I kept the bow aimed at his stomach. There would be no mistakes tonight.

“Who are you?” I tried to sound threatening, but the break of my voice didn’t embody boldness.

His eyes flickered nervously from me to my older sister, Rhea, lingering there. She glared back, her tawny eyes full of venom. But beneath the steel of her expression, I caught a flash of recognition. She mouthed the stranger’s name as he pronounced it.

“James,” he answered slowly. He lowered his hands and walked through the clearing, boots crunching against the fresh drifts of snow.

I tightened my bow, switching my aim from his stomach to heart.

“I’ll kill you if you move any closer, I swear.”

“On what?” He took another step.

I frowned. “Beg your pardon?”

He continued walking forward, closing the distance between us rapidly. “You swear that you’ll kill me, but my question is—what will you swear on?”


“Your family?” he asked. “Friends? Whoever they are, their life must not be worth that much to you, if you’d throw it away so willingly.”

He paused, crossing his arms menacingly across his broad chest. The material bunched up, revealing a pistol that was jammed into his worn belt loop.

“What about a sister?” he asked.

I wrenched my eyes from the illegal weapon, forcing myself to look him in the face. He was young—not as young as me—but still young. Raising one eyebrow, he waited patiently as I studied him, examining the dark—nearly black—irises and light, disheveled hair.

I didn’t answer, preferring to keep that information to myself. I didn’t have any reason to tell him just how much I was willing to give up for my freedom. I changed the subject.

“When you said you could help us—what did you mean?” I said. “And make it quick, because I’m running out of patience.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “I can’t tell you.”

Rhea had been mute for the entire exchange, and I was surprised when she spoke.

“Why not?”

James addressed me instead of her, staring pointedly around my bow and into my eyes as he replied to Rhea’s query.

“Because your sister never answered my question.”

I counted to ten, breathing steadily to control my anxious heart rate. This was always how it was, even before the revolution. It was me calling the shots. It didn’t matter that Rhea was older; it was always my words that stung—even as I spoke the truth.

Back when things were happy, it wasn’t so bad. Mum and dad loved all three of their children. But as the baby, I was spoiled—not only by them—but by my older brother and sister as well.

“Well?” James asked irritably, pulling me back to the present.

Though the years had passed, and we were both nearly adults, my soft spoken sister had not changed. She wouldn’t save me from answering this question, and I knew that no matter how many times she denied it, my answer would hurt her.

But who says I have to tell the truth? The thought had barely crossed my mind, but immediately I knew it was rubbish. I couldn’t lie about losing the only family member I had left.

“Yes,” I said. “I would. This world has been turned so far on its head that I’d be willing to swear on my sister’s life.”

I avoided Rhea’s gaze, knowing that even a glimpse of the expression of hurt on her face would make it impossible to go on. She knew that I meant what I said, and my confession stung.

“However,” I lowered my bow, hanging it back over my shoulder. This stranger was clearly not a threat; otherwise he would have acted already, “I would only do that, when I knew without a doubt that I would win. You see James,” I smiled slowly, “I love my sister; Rhea’s the only thing that I have left. So when I put her life in the balance, whoever is standing in my way better get the heck out of it.”

The silence of the air drifted between us. I felt—rather than saw—Rhea step closer, linking her arm through mine. The luminosity that she gave off warmed more than my hands. She wasn’t as upset as I thought, though pain still veiled her eyes. We both knew that since the uprising, things had changed.

He chuckled softly, uncrossing his arms and slowly bringing his hands together—applause. Its sound was muffled by his gloves, but there was no doubt of the intention.

“You pass for now Tay,” he smiled. The expression lit up his face, transforming it into something that might actually pass for slightly amiable.

I didn’t care enough about what that meant to ask.

“Tell me what you know,” I demanded, “now. Otherwise, get lost.”

He spoke, “It’s not something to tell, really—more like something to show.”

“Well whatever it is, hurry up.” I rubbed my hands together, willing the friction to raise their temperature.

James stepped closer to Rhea. “Could I see that map you have hidden in your pocket?”

My sister frowned, pulling the compacted ball from her jeans, sitting down on a fallen tree, and smoothing it out on her lap. James knelt beside her, studying the small area where a black dot marked the position of a house, across the forest.

That’s where we aimed to go—at least until we could move on to someplace safer. Living after the revolution had broken all trust of society. For right now, we just had to get away.

He began, “When we drew this map, our navigator plotted the cabin in the wrong spot on purpose—that way no one would find us.”

“Wait,” I looked down at him, “you mean—this map is yours?”

He shrugged, “Of course.”

“So actually how far away is the cabin?” Rhea asked. She carefully kept her eyes away from James, an expression of pure hatred crossing her face when he replied. I laid my hand on her shoulder in concern; her heated temperament was beginning to scare me.

“Well,” he bit his lip, calculating the distance to the hideout. “It’s about six hours to the house—twice as far as what the map says—and two more days to the city after that.”

“There’s a city?” I stared at him, openmouthed. When I escaped the compound, dragging Rhea along behind me, I wasn’t sure that there was someplace else to go at all. That I had found the map was pure coincidence, though now I wondered if somehow it had been planted.

James nodded. “It’s a town, really.” He stood, brushing the snow from his waterproof pants. Unlike the two of us, he was dressed for the weather. “It’s safe there, and I know the way.”

“I suppose we’ll follow.” I felt uncertain, but couldn’t see any other way out of the situation. The enforcers might notice our absence from the compound at any minute. We had already wasted enough time.

“No, we won’t.” Rhea glared at him, drawing herself up to full height— just slightly shorter than James.

I knew that she shared my hesitation, but there was something strange going on with Rhea. My gentle older sister didn’t judge a book by its cover.

Obviously, she must have already read the book.

“We have less than three hours of night left to cross the forest. Whether you like it or not, I’m going.”

“No.” Rhea stood firm, arms crossed firmly over her chest.

He whispered into the night, his warm breath sending clouds of mist and reassurance into the air. “You can trust me. I used to live in the compound; I remember what it’s like.”

I saw the horror flash through his eyes as memories from the camp encircled him. His angled jaw twitched slightly as he turned away, trudging back through the forest ahead of us.

I took Rhea’s arm, pulling along behind me. For a moment she resisted, but then, sighing, we followed behind our contested leader.

His hasty retreat reminded me of my own; mentally, I wasn’t prepared to face the terrors of my past. The only difference between us was that as James withdrew physically from the pain of distant memories, I withdrew inside myself, locking away stinging recollections of dismay that came back to haunt me—never loosening their grip on my gradually eroding heart.

The image of my brother came unbidden into my mind, his limp body being thrown by the enforcers into the common grave near the outer wall of the compound. Jonny had tried to fight back from the moment they took our parents away, and it cost him his life.

I pushed the memories aside before they could get worse, shutting them away in the steel lined chest of my mind. But no matter how tight I slammed that chest, something rose up: a sound, a face, a memory.

Trying to forget was like trying to hide behind a pillar of smoke. Though someone might not see you for a moment, eventually the smoke would swirl together, leaving patches of light. It was these clear, momentary pictures that rose up through my mental defenses, pushing their way into my mind and taking control.

Rhea glanced over at me, her expression one of comfort. It could be worse. After all, that was her job. I make the decisions, but Rhea provides the security. It wouldn’t change just because she didn’t trust James.

There were only two things that I could begin to understand about this stranger.

The first was that if Rhea could, she would do anything it took not to depend on his familiarity with what lay ahead of us. The crime one has to commit to gain this condemnation from her was substantial.

But the second truth was enough to outweigh the first, however significant it may be.

It was enough for me to know that he held a common interest.


Although, I wondered, if he really is like us, and somehow managed to escape, then what could possibly have drawn him back to the forest?

The answer—I guessed—was one that I probably didn’t want to know.


Rhea jostled me awake around midmorning for my watch. I rolled off the blanket, wincing as my bare skin hit the chilling snow.

"The fire's still going," she mumbled, crawling into the nest of blankets that I had inhabited seconds before. "It'll warm you."

"Thanks," I whispered. Before leaving, I glanced around the tent, checking to make sure everything looked all right. It was a habit I had gained on guard watches at the compound. No matter how safe a situation feels, always double check your intuition with your eyesight.

I nudged the lump where James was supposed to be. Groaning, I kicked at the rolled up blankets; he was gone.

Grabbing my bow, I left the tent and approached the fire, stretching out against the fallen tree that lay sprawled near its dim light. Because of the climate of the North, the sky was still dark and much of the light came from the coals.

Chewing my lip, I moaned again. Why on earth did we ever believe he would stay?

There was no good that could come of trusting a stranger. We had met in the woods, for goodness' sake—you'd think that I might have exercised better judgment.

"Hey." James emerged from the trees—a dead rabbit in hand—sinking down next to me on the ground.

"Hey," I replied, careful to control my expression. My eyes didn’t move the slightest from the view of the dim fire. Even without looking, I sensed the uncomfortably small distance he had left between us. "I thought you left."

“Why would you think that?” he asked. "My stuff's here; why would I leave?"

Truthfully, I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was surprised. Somehow, despite my best efforts at apathy, I had still wound up thinking that maybe—he was different from everyone else I’d ever known.

We were silent for a moment, the crackling flames making their own conversation in the early dawn. It was worth the risk—building the fire. The warmth that radiated from its center melted through my damp clothing.

I felt his gaze burning into the side of my head. "You don't trust me."

I snorted softly. "Why should I?" Tossing a pebble into the flames, I listened intently for the pop as it exploded in the coals.


I twisted my bow in both hands, working out my frustration on its wooden surface. If anything, his vague remark served as a reminder of why I didn’t have any confidence in him. We sat in stillness, watching the day grow from black to gray as a slim amount of light filtered through the trees.

“Would you stop that?” James leaned over, pulling the bow from my hands mid-twist. My eyes flashed in warning, startled by the warm brush of his hand in the midst of the freezing draft.

"There's something I have to tell you." He frowned, the corners of his lips scowling in frustration.

I didn't respond—slightly put out.

“Tay, when I lived at the compound—" he stopped.

"What?" I prodded. Looking over at him fully this time, I studied his brown eyes. They flickered across the fire, its intensity mirrored in each movement. There was something in him almost longingly coveting those flames.

“Well, I used to know your brother, and I was there the night he died.”

I stopped analyzing his movements, stunned at the revelation. “You knew Jonny?”

He nodded, “I know that you saw the way Rhea looked at me.” Standing quickly, he rushed to finish the sentence. “I just wanted you to know why she’s so bitter.”

I struggled to form the words to speak. “She doesn’t like you because you knew him, or because you saw him die?”

He shook his head sadly, looking at me from above. “Both. But she has good reason to hate me.”

“Why?” I was sick of all this mystery about what had happened between James and Rhea. Now I needed to know.

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

He turned away, ducking into the opening of the tent, not bothering to shut its flaps behind him.


The restless wind began picking up as we wandered through the gloomy forest. My dark choppy hair blew into my eyes, adding to the misery of this march through the snow. I pulled up my hood, nervously scanning the trees and watching anxiously for the cabin to appear.

"I think there's a storm rolling in, don’t you?" James studied the sky, frowning at the dark expanse of clouds visible through the tops of the leafy foliage.

When I didn’t respond, he hiked up beside me on the ancient trail. "Look Tay, I’m sorry about last night."

"Save it.” I knew that no amount of prodding would convince him to tell me the truth, and until I figured out what it was, I didn’t want to deal with him at all. I ran ahead a few meters, taking care not to trip over any raised tree roots. Leaving him behind felt gratifying, aiding me in burning off some of my frustration.

He fell back a few feet, sidling up next to Rhea. Though I couldn’t see her expression, I knew it was one of loathing. Having just witnessed our heated exchange, she jumped to my aid.

"What's wrong with her?” she whispered. I slowed down just enough to hear them, yet far enough to discourage pulling me into their conversation. I hoped they wouldn’t notice my attention was focused on them.

"James," she warned when he didn’t respond. The malice in her voice rang clearly into the wind. "I can’t stand you, and I don’t trust you, and you know that. So you have about three seconds to tell me what’s wrong with Taylor."

I scowled at her use of my full name.

“I can’t tell her the truth,” he sighed. “It would kill her.”

“Yeah,” she said sarcastically, “Sort of how it killed me as I watched it. I didn’t used to be like this, you know. I used to know how to laugh.”

They lapsed into silence.

“Rhea,” James nearly choked over her name; it had been so long since he had allowed himself to say it, “Can I ask you something?”

“No.” I heard her footsteps increase, trying to outpace him the way I had. But Rhea had never been as fast as me, and he caught up easily.

“Why didn’t you ever tell her?”

Rhea’s voice shattered, “Tell her? Sorry James, that’s your responsibility. For six years I’ve avoided telling her what happened that night. It’s not something that I can do.” She stopped. “I think it would crush me just as much as it would crush her.”

I increased my speed, putting as much distance between us as possible. Their voices, for the most part, were inaudible. Thirty minutes later, I chanced a peak behind me, watching my sister wipe a tear from her cheek.

The forest began to grow thicker, and I pulled back. Getting separated now would be devastating, if not deadly.

Rhea’s voice floated back toward me. “You have four hours, James. That’s all I’m giving you to tell her. Any longer than that, and I’ll tell her myself.”

They were silent for a moment, and I thought that maybe it was safe to fall back a bit, closer to them. But then Rhea spoke and I stopped, listening again.

“You were our friend, James. When we were kids, Tay adored you. Even I wish that I had my best friend back. Make it right.”

I listened to his bitter laughter, traveling through the ever increasing torrent of wind. Every aspect of that laugh hit me, knives plunging into the surface of my typically resilient skin. It was to the sound of that laughter that I hurried on, isolating myself into my own misery and pulling ahead into the ever increasing wind.


We found the cabin by morning, a blessed fortress against the deep snow piling around our ankles. Within seconds of opening the door, I collapsed, curling up in front of the empty fireplace.

Rhea found a blanket in the closet, draping it across my wilted form. She rustled my hair, her maternal senses almost immediately returning after the stress of braving the elements. The last thing I saw before drifting off was James’ hands—coming together to create sparks that warmed the hearth.

Little did I know that as soon as we were both asleep, he would escape into the forest— leaving us alone.


“Tell her!” I heard Rhea’s voice shout from outside on the porch. Across the clearing, her words hit James’ retracting back. “Dang it, James, tell her the truth.”

I got to my feet, though rather unsteadily, trying to make sense of the commotion outside.

I crashed through the half-open door of the cabin, wrapping the blanket around me. The hinges swung faster than I expected, leaving me shoeless in the snow.

“Whaswrong?” I mumbled, still groggy from the short nap in front of the fire.

But my eyesight cleared, revealing James halfway across the opening in the trees. In his arms was a backpack, no doubt packed with the remainder of our food. He had left most of the snow gear inside, probably so that he wouldn’t have to carry it.

“James,” I accused through the torrent of white floating through the air, “where are you going?”

He turned, facing Rhea and I where we stood at the door of the cabin. His hands shook, the cold bleaching his face white. “I—“

In one motion he crossed the clearing, jerking to a stop in front of me. Rhea staggered backward, his repulsing presence like a negative magnet, pushing her away.

But I stood where I was, waiting for the explanation to pour from his mouth.

“Everything I told you was true,” he stammered. “I really did live there, in the same town. But I not only saw the devastation,” I watched a tear slip down his cheek, “It was my fault.”

From behind me, Rhea spat. “I remember the day that you came for Jonny. How could you? He was only fifteen—”

I snapped, “Stop it, Rhea. Just stop.”

My mind spun, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my sister’s words. What did she mean, he “came for Jonny?” What did my brother have to do with this?

He took my hands, his eyes pleading. “I didn’t want to, Tay. When the commander sent my unit after your brother, I fought it with all my strength. We were friends—me and Jonny—I couldn’t hurt him.”

“You did more than hurt him,” Rhea cried. “He died because of you. Don’t you get it? He died.”

“Rhea,” I turned, pleading for her to stop. “I need to hear him.”

She nodded, retreating to the edge of the porch. I didn’t blame her. Right now distance looked really good, especially from the person in front of me. I yanked my hands from his and pulled the blanket tighter around me, as if it would protect me from reality.


He swallowed, “I was only six months older than him when they issued the draft. The war was on against the rebels, and Jonny just barely missed the cut-off.

“He decided that if he couldn’t fight on one side, he might as well fight against them. It wasn’t so much the cause. It was the war: the glory.

“Then your parents found out,” I stood stunned as he laid out the story of my life. Suddenly the fears of a million memories flooded my vision. I remembered the dark nights as winter approached and mum and dad grew more restless, constantly trying to hide something. I was young, only thirteen, but I knew; I remembered.

I filled in the information he missed. “After my parents were arrested, it was just me and Rhea at home. Jonny was hiding out, someplace over on West Street.”

James took a broken breath, “They sent my unit that night to apprehend him. It was either go, or die with him.”

I met his eyes, their dark centers shining. “I chose to go, Tay—just like I’m choosing now. If I could change what I did that night, I would. I would die before reliving life the way I have—hiding. But as for this choice—I know that I’m doing the right thing by leaving you.”

I shook my head. “You’re making a mistake. You promised to take us all the way to the city—to freedom.”

I didn’t care if he’d never actually spoken that promise aloud. It was implied, and he knew it as well as I did.

“No,” he smiled sadly. “I’m bringing freedom home.”

I felt a shiver travel through the soles of my feet, icy on the cold wood of the porch. It spread, chilling through my spine and spreading across my shoulder blades. He backed away, retracing his footsteps through the snow.

“You have to trust me,” he pleaded, “it’s what I’ve said all along.”

I nodded slowly, gritting my teeth and accepting his word for what it was. There was simply no way to change his mind now.

Now it was my choice to make. I could sit here and wonder what to do, now that he’d abandoned us.

Or I could trust him.

For the first time in my life, I made my decision fully, holding nothing back.

I chose trust.


The days spent in the cabin were long and grueling. Most of the time we slept, regaining the energy lost on our short trek through the forest. I didn’t venture outside except to collect firewood.

That is—until our food ran out.

Three days after James melted into the trees, we ate our last bit of salted rabbit and gruel. I grabbed my bow and arrows and pulled on my boots—somehow still wet from our escape.

The land was barren as well as cold and I spent hours scouting the area from the above in the trees. The most I ever saw was a squirrel, swallowed by the undergrowth before I could even grasp an arrow.

Returning to the cabin empty handed, I helped Rhea collect snow to boil down. We could last a few more days on water alone, but—.

We fell asleep that night to the incessant growling of our stomachs. If we didn’t get food soon, there would be nothing left when James returned.

If he comes back at all.

I tried to smother the thought, but by now I was seriously re-evaluating my decision to trust the boy I had grown up with. Although I was finally able to unearth a few blurry memories of him from the back of my mind, I still couldn’t pinpoint exactly where I had first seen those dark eyes.

The fifth day arrived, bringing with it sunshine. I rolled over on the mat, pulling the blankets over my head. Rhea laughed at me from beside the fire. She was already up—busy boiling our drinking water for the day. By now it felt like my stomach had shrunk to the size of a pebble; pretty soon, even water wouldn’t satisfy my body’s need for sustenance.

Suddenly, a loud bang shook the cabin. The door flew open, letting the cold air seep in.

I sat up and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, heart racing as hope dripped into my veins. “James, is that you?”

I heard Rhea gasp, then a crash as the pot of water in her hands dropped to the floor.

James—his face unshaven—stood in the doorway, his eyes sparkling in triumph.

Behind him, seemingly grasping each other’s hands for support, stood a middle aged couple, their dark hair just beginning to abandon its color and turn a light gray. Neither of their faces was free from tears, and as I glanced between them and James, something clicked.

For in the doorway, standing with tears of joy streaking down their faces—

Stood my parents.

Rhea was in their arms before the news sunk in. James crossed the floor to me, pulling me up and leading me over to them—sensing that I needed the guidance. As I embraced my family, something tugged at my heart. James had been true to his word; he had —indeed —brought freedom home.

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