“Where do you think you’re going?” I heard the warning tone in her voice. It was the kind of tone that would stop anyone in their tracks. The tiny hairs on the back of my neck went into a frenzy even though I’d done nothing wrong.
“I’m going out.” I briskly made my way across the hardwood flooring to the front door. Zeus, my two-year-old German Shepherd Dog, followed close behind. Though the exit was only a few feet away, the expanse seemed to stretch on for miles. Every step I took seemed to get me nowhere, as if the door were increasing the distance between us, like my worst nightmare coming to life, that is, being stuck in slow motion, never reaching my goal. Grasping the doorknob thrusted me back to reality. I placed my hand over my heart. It was beating heavily. I pulled the door open a crack, and the cool winter air filled my lungs.
“Don’t you dare go out that door,” she seethed through her teeth. She was so far away, I had no clue how she knew I was trying to leave. Unconsciously, I wiped a fallen tear from my cheek. I need to get out of here. Zeus nudged me with his nose, giving me a little dose of encouragement, telling me to go, to be free. I yanked the door open and ran outside, jumping off the icy porch and onto the snowy sidewalk. My feet sank a few inches into the snow, almost causing me to fall. I snuggled into my black cashmere coat pulling it so tightly that it hugged my body like a glove. The door slammed behind me. I knew she was on the porch; watching me. The icy wind whipped my hair across my forehead, blocking my vision. It created a curtain that shielded me from the woman society expected me to call Mother.
“Baby, come inside,” she cooed. She talked with such a sappy sweetness. Her voice was dripping with emotion. It made my cheeks burn even with the slaps of freezing wind. The drastic change in tone was unsettling. She went from pure venom to feigned motherly love in a matter of seconds. Subconsciously, I tucked my wild hair behind my ears. I have to get out of here. The porch rattled as she slowly made her way across the ice patches. I ran. With Zeus at my heels, I ran through the snow. With every step, the layer of white powder crunched beneath my snow boots. Tall pines and trees stripped of their proud colors lined each side of the winding street. I veered into the woods, toward the place I hadn’t visited in years, but a place I knew well. A place of safety. I ran, not looking back.
What was left of the overgrown path was hidden by snow. Solely by memory, I headed deeper into the heart of the forest, maneuvering around vacant trees and pushing through stray branches stripped of life. A thorny vine grabbed ahold of my hair and refused to let go. It took several minutes of carefully avoiding the sharp spokes to fully unwind each strand. Zeus pranced ahead of me, completely unaware of my struggle. I continued along the old path until I reached it, a little clearing in the middle of the woods.
“Finally,” I muttered to myself as I stepped into the clearing, well, what once had been a clearing anyway. It wasn’t very clear anymore, but you could tell that there once had been a small open space in the middle of the trees. Now, it was carpeted with snowy grasses, bushes, and vines. If it wasn’t for the several inches of snow on the ground, signifying the freezing winter, the dormant and dead plants would be a thriving green and completely cover my little hideout. In the middle stood a massive willow tree. Growing up, I remember always hiding in its long branches. For some reason, dad favored this tree over all the others in the woods by our house. Maybe it was because of the strength it held, maybe its beauty, but there were no other trees in the area like it, and dad always said that made it special. I never understood why he was so mystified over a simple tree. It was just an oversized plant after all. I stepped up to the tree and ran my hand along the cool bark which shimmered from glistening water droplets that had fallen from the melting snow above before caressing the rope that kept a slab of wood suspended from the thickest branch. It was just a simple swing, a wooden plank attached to a set of thick ropes. I grasped the rope so tightly my knuckles turned white. Memories of the past plagued my mind.
I was a young girl, maybe eight or nine, and I was seemingly flying on the swing. My current scene of death and coldness transformed into a scene of warmth and growth. I was souring high on the swing, my blue gingham dress flapped with each push. With a smile beaming on my face, my little hand let go of the rope to reach for the crystal-blue sky.
“Careful, Tess,” Dad warned. He was the source of my momentum. I could never make it that high on my own.
“I can do it, Dad,” I called through the hair blowing in my face. Some strands got caught on my tongue. “I can do it!”
Happier days. I pushed the memories out of my mind. It’s ironic how those happy memories of the past are what hurts me so much, today.
“Why did you have to go?” I whispered, asking no one in particular. I brushed off the pile of snow on the swing. It hit the ground with a little thump. I sat down and rested my head on the rope, pushing my feet slightly on the ground so that I rocked back and forth. Zeus trotted up to me and rested his face on my lap.
“You’re a good boy, Zeus” I said scratching his ears with the thumb and index finger on my hand. They perked up at the sound of his name. “You can’t leave me too, okay?” He only stared up at me, looking like he wanted to take all my heartache away. His top lashes closed to meet the bottom ones whenever my fingers got too close to his eye. I sighed. Things were easier when Dad was around, and living with that woman was bearable. He was always so patient and kind even after getting sick. I remember visiting him in the hospital on one of his roughest days. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was one of the last conversations I would have with him.
“Tessa,” my dad had barely whispered my name. My ears had perked up at the sound of his voice. I remember leaning over his hospital bed and grasping his hand.
“I’m here,” I had said, searching his eyes for any sign of the youthfulness they once held.
“If I’m not on this earth much longer,” his voice was faint. His voice was barely a whisper. “I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Anything,” I said, leaning even closer. I could feel my eyes filling with water. I remember begging myself not to cry.
“Your mother,” he whispered. “Don’t give up on her when I’m gone.”
“Dad,” I choked out. Sound would no longer come out of my mouth. It had felt like a lump was in my throat threatening to explode.
“I’m so tired, Tess,” his voice faded to nothing as he closed his eyes to sleep.
Now, back at our favorite spot, all I could think about was how much I missed him. Leukemia had hit him hard, but he always kept a positive attitude. When he passed away, living with my mother was worse than before. With Dad not there to help calm her down, her anger was uncontrollable. Living with her was almost impossible, but I will never give up. Sure, sometimes I had to get away from the situation for a few days, but I always came back. I sighed and clumsily slid off the swing. I should head back to college, I thought to myself.
“Let’s go, Zeus,” I called. He obediently followed behind me as I made my way out of the forest. “I shouldn’t have left my car at Mom’s,” I told him, regretting my rash decision to run out in the snow. After a few long minutes, we made it back to the house I grew up in, the house filled with so many memories, the house I needed to escape. It was completely still. I opened the back door of my car, and Zeus jumped in, tail wagging. His collar jingled as he positioned himself on the leather seats. I slammed the door shut before hopping into the driver’s side. My spring break was ending a little early, but my visit home wasn’t for nothing. I promised Dad I wouldn’t give up on her, and I plan on keeping that promise. I took one last look at the house and just faintly caught a glimpse of a sullen face peering through the window. Mother. I drove away without even bothering to say goodbye.
“I’ll be back next break,” I whispered. “Maybe next time we’ll make more progress.”