Sarah, Returned--Chapter 15 (A Steemit Original Novel)
The smoke is pressing down on us. Oily, thick, and full of wood ash, I’m more afraid of this swiftly circling monster than of the orange flames licking the rough log walls and solid oak beams in the roof above us. We can survive a few burns incurred in escaping, but the smoke has every opportunity to take Hannah and me before the fire can touch us. There are only seconds to get to the door, and I’m going to have to do it crawling, using the small, clear space near the floor before the smoke permeates it, too.
Grizel and I planned everything so carefully, but we didn't take into account the swiftness with which the Penacook's fire is taking the garrison. The walls are so thick, the wood so solid, we thought it would take longer, giving Hannah and me more time to get out.
Now, the journey to the door is going to be a far greater challenge than we imagined.
Crawling with a terrified two-year-old is going to be difficult. There’s no question I can get out on my own if I go now, but I cannot, will not, leave Hannah. This is the moment I’ve been planning and practicing for since the day she was born. I’m not backing out now. Hannah must be protected. I promised.
I drop to my knees, more due to necessity than any concrete plan, and move on pure instinct. There’s no actual thought as to what I’m doing. My body takes over, in simple survival mode; thankfully, that primal instinct extends to Hannah. I guess that’s only natural, as I’ve always thought of her as my own child. I’m doing what mothers do.
As I crouch down as low as I can, I take her with me, shielding her underneath my body with only the slimmest amount of space between me and the floor, the bare minimum of what she needs to crawl, too.
“Hannah, we’re going to crawl to the door,” I say, coughing loudly as a whiff of stray ash assaults my nose. “You stay under me and crawl. Hold onto my arms if you have to, but do not move out from under me until we are outside. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Hannah whimpers, using one of the few words she knows. She’s a smart girl and should be talking more than she does. It turns out that old saying, “Children should be seen and not heard” was taken quite literally in centuries past, and the Otises, as kind and loving as they were….were….it’s still strange to think of them as being gone now….believed in it and practiced it wholeheartedly. When we get out of here, I’ll let her know it’s okay to start using her words. I know she understands far more than she says.
“Remember, stay under me no matter what. Until we are outside,” I remind her once again. Then, I position her under me tightly, my knees against her feet, my arms touching her arms, so I can push her along with me as I crawl. The edges of my dark blue dress fall down on either side of me, shielding her and giving her a clear sort of corridor in which she can hide from the horror on the other side.
I can see the door. It’s no more than eight feet away. However, the smoke is racing me to it. Only the bottom of the door is visible, the rest obscured by my ash-filled enemy, and I suspect the top part is engulfed in the flames that are quickly taking down the rest of the house. There are mere seconds, if that, until the full blackness of the smoke reaches the floor and covers us. If that happens, I may lose my bearings and wander away from the door, which will surely doom us, or the smoke will claim its victory by taking us before we get there and push our way outside.
Complicating things is Hannah. I have to take smaller strides to reach the door than I would on my own if I’m going to keep her below me. And, I’m going to have to take those tiny strides quickly, pushing her tiny body to move faster than it ever has before.
All I have to do is touch the door. Once I touch it, it doesn’t matter anymore if I can see it. I touch it, I push it, and we’re outside. We’re safe. I just have to touch the door.
“Come on, Hannah. Time to go.”
Pushing her tiny feet with my knees, I propel her forward, using quick steps of only a few inches each, one right after the other, moving like ants racing away from a flood. With every four or five paces forward, the smoke bears down on us another inch. It truly is a race between us and it, and the door is the finish line. I intend to cross it first, with Hannah.
Four feet from the alcove and halfway to the door, and I can only see the last inch or two of our gateway to freedom and life. I keep my head bowed down as low as it will go, lifting only my eyes to keep them focused on the prize in front of me. I can’t afford to lift my head any higher, though my neck is aching. The smoke is gently caressing my back now; I can feel its heat laying itself across me. If I lift my head, I’ll be in it, and our journey to the door comes to an end.
If I can get another two feet closer, I can push Hannah out from under me and through the door, then crawl the rest of the way on my belly. So far, my dress is protecting Hannah from the smoke. There’s just enough space left between the monster and the floor that I can slide her out without exposing her to it, if I can just get a little closer.
Another foot. The floor is getting hot now. I can’t see it, but know the flames have reached the wooden boards upon which we’re crawling. They will have started at the edges, by the walls, and are now making their way toward the center of the house, closing in on all sides, towards us. Hopefully, it will just remind Hannah of the warmth around the hearth during winter, or when Grizel cooked a meal. The floor around the hearth could get rather warm at those times. She’s used to that kind of thing.
Another foot. There are about three inches of door left that are not obscured by smoke. Enough to get Hannah out of here. I reach forward, stretching and pushing Hannah a little bit more forward as I do. I can’t even look at the door anymore. My head is hung so low, my chin brushes the floor. But, my fingers feel the wood. There it is!
With a mighty shove, I slam the heel of my hand against the bottom of the door, and it swings open, letting in a rush of blessedly fresh air that momentarily sweeps some of the smoke aside. It’s enough that I can see a clear path to the outside. Reaching back, I grab Hannah with one arm, keeping my body held just above hers with the other, and pull her forward. When her head is even with mine, I whisper, “Go outside, love. I’m right behind you.”
I pull her out from under me, and push on her bottom until she starts crawling on her own. Just as I instructed, she crawls outside, into the fresh night air. Thank God. I press my entire body against the hot floor, and slide forward, intending to be out the door myself in two moves, but the smoke isn’t ready to let me go yet. Our race is nearly over, and it is determined to claim victory. Hannah may have escaped, but if it traps me, it can still win.
It slams down on top of me, covering me in its inky blackness and obliterating the view of Hannah’s path to freedom. I know better than to take a breath to try to hold it now. If I do that, my lungs will fill up with my enemy’s filth, and it will take me, its sacrificial victim. Everyone else in here was already dead when it claimed the house for its own. It wants the honor of taking me itself, to make its victory complete.
I can’t see the open door anymore. It’s like a big, black wall came down between me and the exit. I reach forward, knowing it’s there. I feel an open space, but have no way of telling if it’s the doorway or inside the house. I move forward a little more, working against time now. It’s just a couple more inches. Surely I can make it there before I’m forced to fill my lungs with the blackness that now surrounds me.
Come on, Sarah. Hannah needs you.
I slide forward and my hand touches a burning hot wall. I snatch it away, barely avoiding an involuntary gasp that would have surely killed me. The open door should have been there. Where is it? I reach toward the other side, and only feel searing hot wood there, too. Oh, God. Could I really get lost so easily, this close to freedom? I can’t imagine the tragedy, for me and the community, for me to be found in the remains of the house, mere inches from the exit.
A screaming hotness near my leg almost does me in again, and lets me know the flames that have been so close, but invisible, this entire time may have reached the edge of my dress. If I don’t get out of here soon, and I mean right now, the smoke is going to become the preferable option. I don’t intend to have to make that choice. I reach out again, my eyes closed tight against the damage the heat and debris could do to them, water streaming out of the scrunched up corners, and once again burn my hand on a roasting wall. Could I have come all this way, carefully planned this rescue for so long, only to take Hannah's place in the annals of history? Was that the whole purpose of my coming here?
I don’t want to believe it. No. Hannah and I are supposed to be together, and that means we have to escape together. I can’t have been brought back in time just to die saving her. That can’t have been the reason. As I reach out once more and yet again fail to find the exit, the skin on my palm now blistering from repeated encounters with the smoking logs, I start to wonder. One more time. One more try. That’s all I’ve got left in me, anyway. Whether it works or doesn’t, I’ll have my answer.
I reach out one last time. But, before my arm is fully extended, a tiny hand grasps it, taking hold of the side of my wrist, and pulls me with all its kitten-like might toward the left. I must be right at the doorway, pushing on the wall that leads to the inside of the house, rather than the open space that leads outside. Oh, what a foolish way to have gone to the next world. The desperation to get away from the smoke was greater than I thought, clouding my judgement and logic.
I let the hand guide me to the left, then pull me forward. In two seconds, I am rolling on the grass outside, coughing up traces of smoke that made it to the top of my throat, while taking great gulps of the clear, clean night air. Laying on my back, I wipe the water away from my eyes and open them. The stars are bright and twinkling in the cloudless sky above me, so close I can almost touch them. They are gorgeous.
I made it. I made it.
A small hand gently strokes my hair. I tilt my head back and see Hannah sitting just behind me, looking no worse for wear.
“Sarah,” she says, still running her fingers through my hair like she’s soothing a pet. “Safe. I safe you.”
I grin, slowly. Yes, we’re going to have to work on those words. But, she’s right, and the magnitude of it is astounding. This was a two-person job all along. We saved each other.
There is still smoke in the air outside, but it’s nothing like what is in the house. We will be all right now. Still, we need to get away from the garrison. There’s always a risk of being injured by a stray flame or falling timber when you sit too close to a burning building. Besides, we have to warn the others, those lucky few who might not know what’s been going on in Dover tonight.
I check my dress. Singed at the bottom along the hem, but obviously any flames that may have been on it were put out when I rolled onto the grass. I’m sure there’s a light burn on my leg near where the dress got damaged, and undoubtedly a somewhat more severe one on my right hand. I’ll plunge it in the bucket at the well on our way off the property, to stop any further damage to the skin. There’s always cold water waiting for anyone who wants it in that bucket, because anyone who uses it must replenish it before leaving.
I scramble to my feet and do a swift self-check. Head, arms, torso, abdomen, legs, feet. Everything seems as it should be, except those two burns, and I suspect they will heal without leaving any scarring. Grabbing Hannah and swinging her up onto my hip, I look into her beautiful blue eyes, framed by those long, black lashes, her wavy blonde hair framing her face against the flickering firelight like a halo. To my amazement, those gentle eyes are round, not with fear, but with wonder. Is she as amazed we escaped as I am? Or is the whole thing like some hearthside story playing out in real life to her? The girl never ceases to amaze me. So much Grandma’s little sister in both appearance and attitude.
“Come on, Hannah. Let’s get away from here.”
A bit dazed, I carry her down the hill, the sight of other fires in the distance in either direction reminding me we weren’t the only garrison raided tonight. I say a quick, silent prayer for those lost and those taken, for the women and children being marched to Canada at this very moment. I say another, special prayer for Grizel and baby Margaret. They will be safe, I know, but I still want them to have a little extra protection on their journey. They are my family, just as Hannah is, both by choice and by genetics.
I did it. I actually did it. Hannah is safe and I changed history. This proves my theory that time is fluid and not fixed, not that there’s anyone I can tell who would believe me. If I ever get home, the books on the history of Dover will now say Hannah always survived the raid. There’s no way I can prove there was an alternate version of Hannah's life. Still, it’s nice for me to know I’m right. I now remember both versions of the story, the one where she died and the one where she lived. I suppose I always will, since I was at the “ground zero” of the change.
As for what happens next, I’m not sure. Saving Hannah and getting home have been my only objectives since I arrived here. I’ve done one, and, despite four years of trying, I still have no idea how to accomplish the other. Clearly, I’m going to be here a while longer, since I’m nowhere close to a breakthrough on opening a new portal. I suppose I may as well settle in and help rebuild Dover. The citizens beyond the Otis garrison already accepted me as one of their own long ago. I’m sure someone will put me up until I can devise a plan for my future. I need a backup plan for what kind of life I want to have if I'm forced to stay here.
As I walk down the eerily quiet and empty hill, Hannah fast falling asleep in my arms, it occurs to me. Grizel and I planned for me to save Hannah, but not what to do with her afterward. Naturally, she will stay with me in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, as things will be too chaotic in Dover for a while for the selectmen to consider such things as child custody. I think I have a pretty good case for keeping her. It wasn't something I considered before, as I was so determined to get home. I've been in the 17th century long enough now to realize that might not happen. That means I can be here fore Hannah, and I want to be.
Hannah has no other living relatives left in Dover now, and no one knows her better than me. The whole town knows I’ve cared for her more than her own mother since the moment she was born. We have a close bond, she and I. Grizel made sure of it. Naturally, the town leaders will make an effort to find Grizel and Margaret and bring them back, but I know that will come to nothing. Grizel will stay in Canada with the Frenchman who buys her, and eventually become his wife. Margaret, re-christened Christine by the Catholic Church in Montreal, will come back to Dover in about thirty years with her second husband, and live the rest of her life here. That’s a long time for Hannah to wait for a sister she won’t even remember. Someone’s got to take care of her. Why not me?
Surely, the selectmen will see I am the perfect choice. They won’t let me raise her alone, though. If I was a widow, maybe, but a woman never wed? No way. Keeping her with me until things settle down is one thing, but raising her permanently is quite another. The selectmen take the physical and spiritual wellbeing of every resident quite seriously. A single mother is unheard of in colonial New England. There always has to be a male guardian who is in charge of everything, even if the mother is doing the actual raising of a child or children. It’s one of the few areas of daily living in this century where Quaker and Puritan attitudes intersect.
Actually, without my own independent fortune or land left to me in anyone’s will, the selectmen will no doubt look for a male guardian for me. Crap. Why did I not consider that before? Bile rises up in my throat at the thought. It’s repugnant. I am now 16 years old in this time, perfectly old enough by 17th century standards to be on my own. But the town authorities will not allow it; even grown single men have to board with a family. I’ll either be placed with a male guardian or become someone’s live-in servant, and I certainly don’t want either of those things; I would not be allowed to bring Hannah with me into either of those situations, anyway. Since Richard Otis was effectively my guardian from the moment he took me in until tonight, the town will no doubt look to place me in another respectable family.
Everyone who is left is lovely, but I don't want any of them in charge of me. And, a servant’s life is a hard one in these times. No. The only way I’m going to be allowed to keep Hannah and some measure of autonomy is if I get married. That is one of the few choices I can make on my own here. Luckily with no family, the choice of husband will be entirely my own. The issue is finding a man to ask me, and that raises a host of other questions only a time traveler would have to ask.
For example, who in the world am I going to cajole into asking for my hand? Is there any single man in town who I could tolerate being married to? And what about Carter? If I get married here, what does that mean for our relationship if I make it back home? My head spins a little with all the “how’s” and “what if’s” (or maybe that’s the remnants of the smoke). Fortunately, they can all be kept for later. There are more pressing things at hand.
With Hannah fast asleep, resting her little head on my shoulder, I march down the hill, away from the Otis property, and into the inky backdrop of this uniquely chaotic Dover night. The genuine possibility that I may also be walking into a permanent life in the 17th century weighs heavily on me as I go. I still miss my home, my friends, Carter, what’s left of my family, and modern life in general. Being stuck here isn’t an idea I will allow myself to entertain, not yet. My belief on that front remains the same: There was a way here. Surely there is a way back. I intend to find it. Even if it takes years, I will be younger again when I get home, maybe even the same age I was when I left. Grandma, Grizel, and I all established backward aging as a fact. I can take my time.
At this moment, only one thing is certain; whether I stay or go, I want Hannah with me. That is decided. She is related to me, so she must be able to go through a portal; in the unlikely event she isn’t, I will turn my back on 2017 forever and stay here with her. It’s the only thing that will voluntarily keep me in the 17th century. Before she was born, I loved her. But, the moment she took my hand and guided me out of the burning garrison, I knew beyond doubt I was never giving her up. This child is mine.
Grizel and I devised it that way from the beginning; she made sure I was always Hannah’s primary caregiver, knowing her daughter would have to rely only on me one day soon. And, it worked just as my great-grandmother hoped. The bond I have with Hannah is just as strong as with any child I might have birthed myself.
The massacre came. The Otises are gone. As far as I’m concerned, Hannah Otis is my daughter now. No one is taking her from me---ever. ________________________________________________________________
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