She didn’t know what else to do, and she didn’t have much time to think about it. Even as she pulled herself away from the window, she saw the congregation of torchbearers disbanding. They scattered in every direction, the light of their fires snapping in the night’s gusts, shadows shrinking away from them as if afraid. The thing crouching in the tree watched them with baleful, glimmering eyes. Pa—at least she assumed it was her father—loped towards the farmhouse, his steps hesitant and labored.
He’s going to kill me, Madi thought.
Maybe she was letting her imagination get the best of her, but she didn’t plan on waiting around to find out. She grabbed a musty duffel bag from under her bed. With a snap of her wrist, she sent the dust-bunnies that had been nesting on the bag flying. Throwing open the dresser drawers, Madi packed several untidy handfuls of clothes.
“You’re coming with me, too,” she said as she bunched up the boy’s skin and shoved it into the satchel along with the garments.
Madi took one last look around. She didn’t know if she’d ever see her room—let alone the house or the farm or her father—again. She drew in a shuddering breath to steel her courage. She wasn’t afraid Pa might catch her. She knew she could duck out into the night before he so much as suspected she was gone. But she was afraid of what else might be waiting for her … out there in the dark. More than that, she feared leaving the only home she had ever known behind.
It dawned on her that the boy’s skin might have been lying. It might have been trying to trick her into leaving the safety of her house and rushing into danger, like fool’s fire dancing over a bog. The raw flesh and bloody bones of the boy’s body might have been waiting in the darkness to pounce on her and eat her alive.
And maybe Pa was on his way to choke the breath from her lungs right this very moment.
She couldn’t trust anything or anyone except herself, and she didn’t put much faith in her own mind any more. The dark thoughts surfacing in her head didn’t feel right. It felt as though she was losing touch with the person she had always been.
Old Man ‘Riah said something about me changing, she thought. Maybe he was right. Maybe this is what he was talking about. Maybe whoever it is I’m becoming doesn’t deserve to live.
But it didn’t matter what she deserved. She didn’t want to die. At least, not tonight. Not by her father’s hand.
She barely remembered racing through the house, crashing out the front door and jumping from the porch without so much as touching a single step. Once second, she stood trembling in her room. The next, the night air was whipping past her. She dashed through the yard, past the animal pens, and into the wood. She stopped and crouched in the brush, watching the house.
Pa rounded the corner. He tossed the torch to the ground and stomped upon it until it went out. Wisps of smoke rose around him in tangles. His eyes scanned the woods, and Madi flinched and hunkered down, even though there was no way his old eyes could have picked her out in the darkness. He climbed the steps and went inside.
If he stays inside, Madi thought, that means he didn’t mean me any harm. It means he went straight to bed without so much as looking in on me. But if he comes back out—
The front door couldn’t have been closed more than a minute before it swung open again. Pa strode onto the porch. He leaned against the railing. His hands were clenched into fists. His knuckles were pale white.
“Madi!” he called. “Where are you, girl?”
Madi crept backwards, trying not to make a sound. When the branches obscured her view of her father, she turned and scrambled through the thickets.