She slept beneath a tree that night, sitting upright. She imagined she would have been scared for her life out in the open, for she was often terrified in her own room at home, even after double-locking the windows and covering the glass with quilts. Instead, she felt an odd calm spirit here in the wilderness. Was this the way people felt at the instant they leapt into rivers and streams? Was it like this when you fell in love, stood on the train tracks, went to a country where no one spoke your language? That was the country she was in most of the time, a place where people heard what she said but not what she meant. She wanted to be known, but no one knew her.
It was cold in the morning when Emily awoke. She was shivering. Now that it was daylight she realized she had reached the top of the mountain. She made her way down, to the village below. There were brambles, thorn trees, yellow jacket nests, poison oak. She had never walked quite so far and was thrilled and terrified by her own bravery. Her hair was knotted. Her hands were raw. There was dew on her shoes.
Soon the sun warmed the air. Emily went on, past an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. There were rabbits in the yard. They too cried like human beings when trapped. The house at the edge of the woods was old with a thatched roof. What if she lived there? If her brother and father searched for her, they would walk right past, not guessing she was inside. She could will herself to be invisible. Her family would give up hope and stop their search and here she’d be, safe and alone and free. She could make her clothes out of tablecloths, sleep on a pallet of straw, keep the windows open, leaving behind the overriding fear she carried so close to her bones.
She went on, past meadows, through an orchard. There was a canopy of apple blossoms and the air was fragrant. When she gazed up through the haze of white she could imagine there was snow, that heaven had opened, that the world was hers alone. It was a small town she’d stumbled upon, and no one noticed her until she went past the Brady homestead, the oldest house in town. There was a man out in the yard, sitting in a chair in the sunlight. He was in his thirties, handsome, with a dark beard. He was looking up at the sky, but somehow he knew she was there.
“Were you going to pass without saying good morning?” He had a slight accent, a charming manner.
“Good morning,” Emily managed to say. She felt as if she had swallowed bees. Perhaps she’d been stung. Later, a red welt would rise on her wrist, one she hadn’t noticed as she stood at the gate. She was in a town she’d never been to, conversing with a man who had the nerve to address her as though he knew her, when no one on earth knew her. Likely no one in heaven did either.
“You’re not from here,” the man said. He knew that much.
“I was in the woods. Looking for wildflowers.” It was something of the truth. Enough.
“You’re not afraid of bears?” the man teased.
“I fear myself more than I fear any bear,” Emily blurted. It was the way she’d felt in her aloneness, the comfort she took in being on the mountain. What might she do next?
“So you’re fierce?” He didn’t laugh at the notion but asked in all honesty. He sat forward, shifted his gaze.
“I’m a mouse,” Emily said, suddenly shamed.
“I doubt that. Have breakfast with me,” the man requested. He had a napkin tied around his neck. “I’m desperate to talk to someone interesting.” The dark-haired man wore a white shirt and a light-colored suit. He was casual, the way too-handsome men often were. He bordered on rude, but he did have a tray of delicious-looking food set out before him. There were muffins, honey butter, apple slices, along with a plate of bacon. Emily realized she was starving. Still, she hesitated.
“Sir,” she said, “I don’t even know you.”
“I’m Charles Straw,” the man said. “My friends call me Carlo.”
Emily felt the bird in her chest, trapped in a net.
“Don’t say no,” this man Charles urged. “How many times does a beautiful woman walk by this old house?”
That was when Emily understood he was blind. She nearly laughed out loud. No one who could see would ever think she was anything but plain. She came in through the gate to take the chair that faced him.
He felt her shadow graze his skin, and he knew he’d drawn her in. He smiled. “So you’re not so fierce as you pretend.”
“It was you who suggested I was anything other than a mouse,” Emily protested. “What happened to your eyes?” she asked when she noticed they were without a gleam. They were the most unusual color—a flat, deep blue. If she had to describe them on a page, she would say a lake, a door to heaven.