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prologue 04.14.21


Prologue



My palms were sweaty as I waited.

My heart pounded in my chest.

The lights were so bright, I felt like they would reveal my secret at any moment.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Breathe, Belle. You just have to get through these last twenty minutes, and then…freedom.

I opened my eyes with renewed confidence and clenched my fists. Twenty minutes, that was all I had to wait after 17 years of agony. Twenty minutes was nothing.

I could smell those peach trees and hear that country music already!

My toes would finally feel sand between them and my skin would glow in the perfect summer sun.

I focused back on the stage where our Valedictorian was saying something about how it is our responsibility to follow our dreams because nobody else could pave the way except for ourselves. I sat a little straighter, knowing that was exactly what I was doing. I had to create my own destiny. I had to pave my own way.

The sound of applause brought me back to the current moment. My heart began thumping louder than the hundreds of people around me.

I was moments away, now.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I imagined what he would do to me if I got caught. My hands began trembling. Oh, God. Oh, God…I can’t get caught this time…I shook my head. I couldn’t afford to get in my head, this had to be perfectly executed. I had prepared this exit for weeks now, I knew it like the back of my hand. My nerves needed to take a seat before they blew my whole cover.

Our principal cleared his throat and twisted the microphone stand to raise it up to reach his six-foot-three-inches height. He adjusted his glasses and glanced through them at the end of his nose to read the pamphlet in his hands. “Graduates, please stand and walk in an orderly fashion towards the stage.”

I stood and almost threw up. My knees quaked.

“Belle, don’t be so nervous!” My classmate, Alyssa, said from right behind me and poked me playfully in the back. “We’ve been dreaming about graduating for six years, this isn’t like reading a paper on stage, this is us getting our freedom!”

I closed my eyes as I felt my eyes water.

Freedom.

I opened my eyes and marched forward with enough determination to lead an entire army into battle.

“Isabelle Christiana Bennet.”

I flashed the biggest grin I never knew I had, marched across that stage, shook Principal Douglas’s hand and exited the stage with a diploma in my hand and freedom in my mind. This is it. What you’ve been rehearsing is finally happening—now! Instead of taking a left and following the beeline of classmates infant of me who were going back to their seats, I kept walking straight.

“Belle?” I heard Alyssa call my name.

My heart pounded in my hears.

“Belle!” I barely heard her call again, along with another classmate or two who joined her, confused at my impulse decision to leave the gymnasium.

I approached the gym doors and with trembling hands, I pushed them open.

When I stepped through the doorway, I took my hat off and I sprinted down the hallway towards the parking lot.

Tears poured down my cheeks and fell carelessly behind me.

“I’m doing it, Mama!” I whispered into the air breathlessly.

I dared to steal a glance behind me to make sure he wasn’t following me.

Empty halls.

Excitement launched me forward as I turned my head back around and burst into the parking lot. I placed my hand over my eyes to shield them from the bright afternoon sunlight and glanced around for my Uber driver.

I heard a friendly honk and glanced to my left. A woman in a white sedan waved at me only a few parking spaces away. I hurriedly ran towards her, jumped into her back seat and exclaimed, “Go! Go!” I nervously looked towards the school to make sure that he didn’t follow me out. Relief flooded my body as I noticed that nobody had followed me and that the driver responded to my eager tone of voice and stepped on it out of the parking lot. I gripped the seat with trembling hands.

When we were about ten miles from the school, and almost to the airport, I exhaled loudly and then covered my eyes with my hands and burst into tears.

I sobbed for what felt like hours. No… years. After all of this time, I was one step closer to freedom than I had ever been before.

My Uber driver had been very patient the whole time, but finally she asked: “Hon, are you okay?”

I began laughing hysterically while tears poured from my eyes and snot from my nose. “I’m finally free!” I exclaimed. I unzipped my gown and rolled my sleeves up, looking at the blue and black bruises and scars from stovetop burns that suddenly didn’t seem to hurt anymore. “I’m free.” I said in disbelief. “I’m free.” I looked into the driver’s eyes, who was quite alarmed. I felt embarrassed and apologized. “I’m so sorry, it’s just—“

She snapped her head around and switched between looking at me and the road ahead as she spoke: “Don’t you ever apologize!” She gripped her wheel a little tighter. “Do the police know?”

I shook my head. “Nobody knew. And nobody will ever know.” I replied quietly. That’s what Mama wanted. She loved him, she would remind me, so she wanted him to keep his reputation. I didn’t love him at all, but I loved her, and that was her dying wish: for me to love him, too.

Well, I was going to find love, but it wasn’t going to be here and it wasn’t going to be him.

As if reading my thoughts, my driver asked: “So, where are you going to?”

I looked out the window and smiled. “Tennessee.”


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