My breath comes in short, raspy gasps. I jump over a tree stump, my feet land on the twiggy undergrowth and, for a second, I fear I will tumble. But my body remains upright, my legs keep running.
I can hear Nath behind me, to the left. I glance that way, but I can’t see him. Further behind, the dogs bark. Voices shout our names.
We’d planned the escape for months. Mother Arabelle and Father James weren’t really our parents. I don’t remember how we worked it out, the realisation came like a thief in the night. But instead of a thief stealing, we were gifted with knowledge. Powerful knowledge.
‘Nath,’ I call out. It’s a stupid move, but I need to see him.
‘Right behind you,’ comes his urgent reply. ‘Keep going, the river’s just ahead.’
Our plan took us to the river and no further. We didn’t think we’d be hunted like foxes. I am going over our options: float downstream and make our way to bank further away from the camp, or simply cross and keep running. Or remain here, have them catch us and be taken back to camp.
‘I see it!’ I yell. I’m only about ten metres from its rapid flow. My heart is a pounding drum; its beat thumping charge from my core to my fingers and toes. I keep running.
I am at the cliff’s edge now. The river further below that I’d imagined. I turn back as I hear Nath’s footsteps crunching on the dead leaves.
‘Jump straight in. Don’t wait for me. I’m coming,’ Nath says.
My heart lurches, stops. It sits in my throat like a lump of sand. What if he doesn’t follow me? What if he’s caught? I leap. My mind spins in sync with my body as I sail through the air. I crash into the water; it hurts as if I’d broken through a glass pane. It’s deep though, as we’d guessed from the fireside tales told by Mother Arabelle on ceremony nights.
She’d talk of others who’d tried to escape while Father James prepared his special area for his chosen child. My mind preoccupied with avoiding Father James’ selective and creepy gaze that I’d never wondered what happened to those who’d attempted escape. But later, once I learned more about our camp, I understood. Their ‘reprogramming’ had failed and they would not return. I knew not to ask questions.
I come up to the surface to see Nath dropping from the cliff. I dive below. Hold my breath. Open my eyes in the murky river water to find him. Fatigue overwhelms me, taunting me to give up, to allow myself to be taken by the powerful undertow of the current. My mouth gapes open and my eyes sting. Just as I close them, Nath pulls on my arm, dragging me upwards.
We reach the surface.
‘Christ, Nellie,’ he says, water and spit flies from his mouth as he speaks. ‘We can’t give up now.’
My legs are heavy, burning from exertion. ‘I’m sorry. I’m so tired. I never thought they’d chase us so far.’
‘Come on,’ Nath whispers. ‘We’re downriver enough, and almost to the opposite bank. Keep your head low.’
We swim and drift along. I guess the further we allow the current to take us, the further away we are from their hunt. Minutes pass. Silent moments. Fear swirls and rises within, bile explodes out as it hits me.
‘Nath, there’s no noise. Not even the dogs.’
‘Noticed that. But I don’t think they’ve given up.’
‘They’re back at camp, you think?’
‘Yep. Someone will be in the van, driving to the bridge to find us on this side. Probably Ricky.’
If Ricky finds us, we’re dead. He’ll shoot us and bury us in the woods. Nath and I both know this. Our eyes meet as we reach the sandy bank.
Dripping and cold, we crawl from the river. My feet slide out from underneath me and I land hard on tummy and face. Something bites me, near my eye.
‘Shit,’ I yell. My hand flies to my face. It’s sticky, warm and oozy. I look at my fingers and see blood.
‘It’s alright. You’re lucky. It’s just a branch. Got you near the top of your nose. Two centimetres to the right and you’d be blind.’
He pulls me to my feet. ‘We gotta keep running, Nellie.’
I nod. We run. We don’t know where we’re headed. Fear propels each footstep. The promise of freedom, of a normal life, pumps through our veins.
‘Can you hear that?’ Nath asks.
I shake my head.
‘It’s traffic. Cars, trucks. We’re near a road. A highway, maybe.’ Nath cocks his head to the left. ‘This way.’
The black ribbon to freedom stretches as far as my eyes can see. Nath hails a truck. It stops.
‘Melbourne?’ the driver asks.
We nod. Climb aboard. We sit in silence for the journey to the city. It takes nearly an hour, judging by the clock on the dash.
‘Anywhere in particular?’ the driver, Ted, asks. He’s been mercifully quiet, intuitively understanding that aside from our names, we hadn’t much to say.
‘Police station, please,’ Nath responds.
Ted pulls to a stop twenty minutes later, out the front of a police station on the outskirts of the CBD. ‘Good luck you two,’ he says kindly. He gives us wink. Hands Nath a small card. ‘You need anything at all, give me a call. My number’s on there.’
Tears well in my eyes. Nath mumbles, ‘Thanks Ted.’
He drives off, with a honk of his air horn. Nath and I hold hands, as we walk up the stairs.
‘Ready?’ he asks.
Nodding my head and wiping my eyes, I smile at him. ‘Couldn’t have done this without you.’
‘You got the journal still?’ Nath asks, his eyes suddenly filling with terror.
‘Yes.’ The book that I had painstakingly recorded the activity in the camp over the last few months is stashed safe in the back of my knickers. It’s wrapped carefully in plastic, sealed with duct tape I’d stolen from the work bench when Ricky was at meals.
‘You think it’s going to be enough?’ I ask Nath.
‘Think so. But we’ll find out for sure, won’t we?’
We walk inside the station, approach the reception area. I feel relief, exhaustion, terror and happiness, all tumbling inside me.