Storm Away

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"WHAT KEPT YOU FOR so long?"
Sarah's slim frame enters the small room connecting to our kitchen, voice ringing out and laced with demand. She grabs a rag to wipe gathering dust off of our aging furniture, unkempt hair pulled back into a bun. "You know that I need you here in the kitchen, not dallying about outside."
My shoulders slightly slouch against the back of our hard kitchen chair, eyes scaling the wall in front of me. "I'm sorry. I guess I lost track of time." I silently plead with God for this to not turn into another war of words as I try to remember to respect Sarah as my elder and hide my contempt for her trying to replace my mother. I slide out of my chair calmly, a soft whistle from our teakettle beckoning me over. It rests on the cast iron stove, it's rusting handle jiggling slightly at the water boiling inside. Grabbing a rag, I wrap the handle and gently lift the teakettle off of the stove top.
"It's everyday that you come home late," I hear a click from Sarah's tongue, "just as dinner's supposed to be getting ready. When will it stop, Maddie?"
I hold my breath, thinking of how to respond, but her clamorous mouth lets loose again before I can speak.
"Irene!" Sounds of her sorting through shelves reverberate off the kitchen walls. "I need you to run into town this evening. We're out of flour."
Steam from scorching water coats my skin in a thin, moist layer, escaping through the top of the teakettle as I delight in the opportunity to escape Sarah and go back into town. "I'll go. Irene is outside anyway." I peer into the dresser a few inches above my head, reaching inside to retrieve a cup. "As soon as I have my tea, I can—"
"Irene will go," her voice peaks, scornful. "You have already been to town today, and Irene needs to make her social circles far more than you do."
I turn to face her, fighting to stay composed. "I don't care about social circles. I'm just much faster at getting things done."
"You're staying, Maddie."
I start incredulously before thinking, "Why does it matter to you whether I go or Irene, as long as you get some flour?"
Her sparse brows raise in disapproval. "Do not question me!"
I bite my lip till blood meets my taste buds, fixing my attention back on the teakettle. Grabbing it's handle, my nerves tingle in annoyance. I tilt the spout downwards, a small flow of water pouring out, crystal clear water now light brown in color. The sudden sound of commotion makes my shoulders jump, a pair of boots shuffling and a boyish voice squealing in playful banter. Sarah gasps with a start, turning her head towards the direction of the noise.
"Michael Holt! If you dare to make any further ruckus for one more second, so help me, I will come in there myself to silence it!"
My eyes glare at the ceiling above as I resist the urge to let them roll in aggravation. My mother taught Michael and I various manners during my early years, which I've been careful not to let slip my mind.
The sighing under one's breath, the pouting of the lip, and the rolling of the eyes, simply because one is annoyed, is no reason to lose your poise; for they hold no honor and display the lack of self-command.
I smile faintly to myself. She was wise beyond anyone's years. Though her words are with me wherever I go, I do often have my uncontrolled moments and wish I was able to hold my tongue like she always did. She was the great encourager for Michael and me during any time of trouble. But I doubt Michael remembers her dark brown eyes or the gentle touch of her hand.
The front door squeaks, opened wide as Irene's bouncy figure rushes through on quick feet. "I heard you call, Mother!" She places a handful of lilies on the kitchen table, scattering bowls and spoons to make room for the flowers. "Sorry I didn't come sooner, I just got so enchanted by these lilies. Aren't they beautiful?"
I glance at the flowers and nod absently, grabbing a spoon to stir my tea.
"I need you to buy flour," Sarah directs her command to Irene, resuming wiping down each table and shelf with a rag, "Prepare the vegetables with Maddie first." She nods to the dresser above my head where utensils are kept.
Irene comes up to my side, retrieving two bowls. "Very wise of mother, as you could certainly use—um—practice in the kitchen." Her blonde head bobs up and down as a mocking stare glares into my face. I scowl, but accept the wooden bowl, hastening to the table board across the room. I grip the cup of tea with white-knuckled fists all the while, desperate to escape her remarks. She follows me to the table, holding out two ripe tomatoes until I finally set down the cup and reluctantly accept them. They'll be used for stew later on, a widely accepted meal in every colony.
"You must learn to cook like a housewife, mustn't you?" Irene prepares a bowl of vegetables herself, gathering carrots and onions to cut.
"From you?" I force the irritation in my veins to calm, sliding a knife off the table to slice. "It's not as if you do a finer amount of cooking than all the other young ladies in town."
She sucks in a sharp breath. "I do far more than you!"
I lean in, returning the challenge in her eyes. "Will you always think so highly of yourself?"
"Girls!" Sarah gives a light shout.
I shake my head, taking my anger out on the tomatoes, my tongue letting loose with a low whisper. "This isn't the 1600's anymore, Irene. We ladies can choose what to do with our lives." I peek over her shoulder, eyeing Sarah quickly then looking back to her defensive glare. "Some colonies are even allowing women to vote."
Her eyebrows shoot up, knife slipping from her fingers and toppling onto the table. "Living in the late 1700's does not make a difference when it comes to learning to make meals for a man!"
"Oh, please." My nose scrunches at her words. . . make meals for a man.
Uck! There is no earthly way that I, Maddie Holt, daughter of the courageous Colonel Holt, will be forced to make a meal for any man for his own pleasure any time soon! Glaring at Irene, I contemplate whether or not to throw another witty remark or one of the tomatoes at her vain self.
"Think about that response going through your head before you let it come to your mouth, Maddie." The words of my mother float around in my mind. Her wisdom often keeps me from getting into mischievous trouble. I must admit, my words run wild when I'm not careful.
Still slicing tomatoes, I hear the pitter patter of a pair of muddy boots sound. "Michael!" I whisper, a smile spreading across my face. "Come here!"
I see the same smirk on Michael that always stays on Papa's lips, just barely there, but holding secret mischief behind each corner of the mouth. As he shuffles over from the doorway, I think again about how similar they look, yet Michael resembles a more playful version of Papa, his carrot colored hair matching his adventurous seven-year-old personality. My little brother looks up with curious, blue eyes, coming up to my shoulder, saying my name like its one of his treasures. My heart warms as he speaks through round cheeks.
"Yes, Maddie?"
I set the tomatoes down, wiping both hands with a rag. "Here." Reaching in my pocket, I pull out the chocolate stick. His eyes light with excitement as I grin. "And that's not all. I have another surprise for you." A twinkle gleans behind my eye as I run my fingers through his curly hair, the texture like Papa's. "It's in my—"
"What is this?" A voice rings out from the doorway to my bedroom. My eyes snap to the right, immediately spotting the piece of wood wrapped firmly in Sarah's palm. She holds it out in front of her with a rigid hand.
I step away from the table, pulse quickening. "Where did you . . ." I frown at the toy carved carefully to imitate that of a soldier in the American Army.
For Michael.
So help me if I just left it carelessly to be found on the top of my bed.
How could I be so dumb!
"Where did you get it? I never sent you to fetch some useless toy." I cringe as she shoves the special possession in my face, its new and smooth wood glaring into my eyes.
I swipe her hand away, speaking through gritted teeth. "It is not useless. Uncle Henry made it for me because I asked him to. How is it any of your business anyways?"
Her nose scrunches, brow furrowing furiously. "It is every bit of my business as it is yours, young lady! Now you listen to me—"
"No!" I step backwards defiantly. "That is a special gift to remind Michael of Papa while he is away and you have no right to take it from my room. You're—" I falter, then raise my chin, speaking firmly. "You're not my mother."
She steps back up to me, fiery irritation in her mouth. "I will be."
A knot forms in my stomach as I stop, my voice barely a whisper. "What?"
"You're too young to understand, child." She huffs, triggering my confusion. Standing still, a chill works down my spine. Sarah's voice sounds ten times more booming than before. "Whatever were you doing at Henry's anyways? Is that where you've been going all these times I've sent you out to town!" I don't respond, my eyes falling to the ground, arms hugging my waist. "How did you ever find the money to . . ." Her voice lowers. "Maddie, did you—"
My head snaps up instantly as I push my confusion to the side. "Sarah!"
I study her eyes as tears fill mine at the brim. Such a feeling of betrayal fills my heart that I can't quite explain. My voice trembles slightly, dismay lying behind each word. "You actually believe I could be so dedicated to a piece of wood that I trade my dignity for it? You now assume I stole?" She opens her mouth as if about to respond, but I reach over and snatch the wooden gift from her hands before she can speak, slipping the toy into my dress pocket. "You see, the mother I was raised by actually taught me a little something about dignity."
I see her catch her breath as I glance at the tip of her nose and back to her eyes. I lean in, my voice lowering to a whisper as it wavers deep in my throat. "I made that money with my own hours. That's more than you'll ever do for this family."
She doesn't bother to pull on my sleeve or grab the loose threads of my dress as I pivot around, striding to the door. I turn the knob, stepping through, knowing I can only escape for a short time.

***

A thickness to the forest seems to crowd the trees closer together than they really are, the area tight and dense in a comforting sort of way. I watch the entrance to the woods, walking to the pen behind our house. A whiny neigh turns my walk into a jog and I soon stop in front of my beloved mare. Her milky white mane is still the prettiest thing I've ever seen. I step onto the gate, leaning forward, it's hard, wooden boards poking into my ribs.
"Hey, Faithful girl." She neighs in response to my greeting. I stretch out a hand, running gentle fingers along her face. "No time for riding tonight. Just going for a walk." Her head shakes with a loud snort, lips fumbling with my hair in discontent. "I know, I know. It's so rough, isn't it?" I shake her mane in fondness. She's been mine for four years, a present from Papa when he learned I loved the giant creatures and had a desire to ride. I lay a kiss atop her nose, stepping off the gate. The forest beckons me once again, dark and menacing yet perfect for hiding.
I come here often, one of the many tree's sturdy surfaces pressed against my back as I spend an hour thinking. Sarah only ever bothered to come after me once; luckily I had hastened to meet her closer to the house so she wouldn't discover my hiding place. She's never come after me since. I dodge crevices and stumps along the uneven ground, a warm breeze sending the braid on my shoulder flying. Sighing, I wipe my brow with the side of my arm. My skin begins feeling moist, beads of sweat forming along my forehead and arms from the humid climate.
Loathsome summer is coming early this year . . .
Stopping, I stand by a particular tree, its trunk marked with signs of old age. Its lifeless branches hang low from the dry weather, sagging as if a burden weighs it down. I circle around the giant plant as twigs crunch beneath my shoes, running my eyes over its rough surface indifferently and lowering to the ground. Doubts and questions plummet my thoughts.
How can I know what to do next? Where should I be, and why can't I be where I long to go? What's stopping me?
Why can't I be with Papa?
Too many doubts. Too many questions.
Knowing that I'm only digging myself an emotional hole, I shake my head firmly as if to get rid of the antagonizing thoughts causing me to sink further down. But they never seem to completely go away. Distracting myself, I continue gazing at the blue skies and wildlife above me. My ears tune into the hidden sounds of nature that take a little more attention to hear, including the sudden sound of a single twig snapping in half, bouncing off the nearby trees with a crack!
I gasp, lurching forward. Faster than a blink, I dart to the other side of the tree so that I am concealed by its massive size. Finding the blade safely hidden in my boot, I crouch down low, keeping a careful watch on the open arena lying ahead.
I listen cautiously with keen senses as I wait for the noise of another dead twig to snap, but hear nothing. Only the continual songs of various birds float in the air.
Sensing something or someone's presence, I peer further around the tree as the breeze grows stronger, lightly blowing strands of hair framing my face from side to side. My eyes squint to see, but besides the singing birds, not a living thing is in sight. Brow dropping beads of sweat, I blink widened eyes.
My body tears from the tree, gripped by a hand.





*Stick around for the next chapter to finally meet the mysterious messenger of the story. He might just have something to do with Maddie's :)

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