I'll tell you what you do.
Ren was eight when he learned that love doesn't exist-that the one person who was supposed to adore him only cared how much he was worth.
His mother sold him and for two years, he lived in terror.
But then...he ran.
He thought he'd run on his own. Turned out, he took something of theirs by accident and it became the one thing he never wanted and the only thing he ever needed.
I was young when I fell in love with him, when he switched from my world to my everything.
My parents bought him for cheap labour, just like they had with many other kids, and he had the scars to prove it.
At the start, he hated me, and I could understand why.
For years he was my worst enemy, fiercest protector, and dearest friend.
But by the end...he loved me.
The only problem was, he loved me in an entirely different way to the way I loved him.
And slowly, my secret drove us apart.
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* * *
"STOP! WILLEM, SHOOT him. Don't let him get away!"
Bolting from the farmhouse with its broken paint-chipped shutters and rotten veranda, I swung the large backpack straps higher on my shoulders and leapt the small distance from hell to earth.
The weight on my back wasn't balanced, sending me tripping forward.
I stumbled; my ankle threatened to roll. My useless ten-year-old legs already screamed it wasn't possible to outrun a bullet from the wife of a killer and slaver, especially with such a cumbersome burden.
Even if it wasn't possible, I had to try.
"Come back here, boy, and I won't cut off another finger!" Mr. Mclary's boom cut through the humidity of the night, chasing me with snapping teeth as I darted into the thicket of leaves and stalks, weaving like a worm around maize twice as tall as me.
My tiny fists clenched at the thought of living through that pain again.
His threat only gave me more incentive to escape — regardless if a bullet lodged in my spine and I died in the middle of their cornfield. At least this excruciating nightmare would be over.
"Kill him, Willem!" Mrs Mclary's voice screeched like the crows she liked to shoot with her dirty rifle from the kitchen window. "Who knows what he's got pilfered in that bag of his!"
A noise sounded behind me; a sudden cry jerked into silence.
An animal perhaps?
I didn't care.
I ran faster, putting my head down and using every remaining drop of energy, pain, and hope in my wasted, skinny body. The bulky backpack dragged me down. The weight far heavier than I remembered when I'd slung it over my shoulders during a test attempt two nights ago.
I'd planned this for weeks. I'd scratched my escape route into the dusty floorboards beneath my cot and memorised the location of canned beans and farmhouse churned cheese so I could grab it in the dark.
I'd been so careful. I'd believed I could vanish from this rank place I'd been sold to.
But I wasn't careful enough, and I hadn't vanished.
Corn stalks shivered in front of me, cracking in place where a bullet wedged at head height. The cry came again, short and sharp and close.
Gulping air, I leaned into the soupy skies and kicked my burning legs into a sprint. The backpack bounced and dug into my shoulders, whispering that I should just drop my supplies and run.
But unless I didn't want to survive past a day or two of freedom, I needed it.
I had nowhere to go. No one to help me. No money. No direction. I needed the food and scant water I'd stolen so I didn't perish a few measly miles away from the very farmhouse I'd flown from.
An ear of corn exploded in front of my face. Mr. Mclary's voice warbled words with out-of-breath growls, giving chase in his precious field. My ears rang, blocking out another cry, amplifying my rapid heartbeat.
Just a little farther and I'd pop out on the road.
I'd find quicker escape on the sealed surface and hopefully flag down aid from some oblivious passer-by.
Perhaps one of the same people who drove past daily and smiled at the quaint rustic farmhouse and cooed at the diligent hardworking children would finally open their eyes to the rotten slave trade occurring in their very midst.
I ducked and fell to my knees.
The backpack crushed me to the earth with sharp edges and sloshing belongings, yet another noise chasing me. I was strong for my age, so why did I find such a thing exhausting to carry?
Shoving away such delays, I sprang up again, wheezing as my stupid little lungs failed to grant enough oxygen. My limbs burned and seized. My hope quickly dwindled. But I'd become well acquainted with pain and threw myself head first into it.
This was my one chance.
It was life or death.
And I chose life.
* * *
Dawn crested on the horizon, its pink and gold daring to creep under the bush where I'd slid a few hours ago.
The gunshots had stopped. The shouts had ceased. The sounds of vehicles or people long since vanished.
I shouldn't have turned off the road and entered the forest. I knew that. I'd known it the minute I'd leapt off manmade pathways and traded it for dirt, but Mr. Mclary had chased longer than I'd expected, and I was starved, beaten, and not prepared to give up my life by running in full sight of his rifle scope.
Instead, I'd scrambled into the bushes of private, untended land and fought exhaustion until the hairs on the back of my neck no longer stood up in terror, and the thought of earning a bullet in the back of my head was no longer enough to keep me awake.
The bush had offered sanctuary, and I'd fallen asleep the moment I'd burrowed beneath it, but it wasn't the dawn that had awoken me.
It was my backpack.
A mewling, muffled cry came again, sounding alive and not at all like water and cheese.
The noise was familiar. I'd heard it as I'd run, but I'd been too focused on living to notice it came from the very thing I'd stolen.
The heavy rucksack was ex-army canvas with faded green stitching and buckets of room for bed rolls, ammunition, and anything else a soldier might need.
I'd barely used any of the available space with my meagre supplies, yet it sat squat and full in the dirt.
Another wail sent me scrambling into a squatting position, ready to bolt.
Leaning forward with shaking hands, I tore the zipper open and fell backward.
Two huge blue eyes stared up at me.
Familiar blue eyes.
Eyes I never wanted to see again.
The infant bit her lip, studying my face with a furious flicker of attention. She didn't cry louder. She didn't squawk or squirm; she merely sat in my backpack amongst canned beans and squished cheese and waited for ... something.
How the hell did she get into my bag?
I hadn't put her there. I definitely wouldn't steal the natural born daughter of Mr. and Mrs Mclary. They had sixteen children working their farm and only the girl in front of me was theirs by blood. The rest of us had been bought like cattle, branded like a herd, and forced to work until we were begging for the abattoir.
The baby wriggled uncomfortably, sticking her thumb in her mouth and never taking her eyes off me.
"Why are you in my bag?" My voice was far too loud for my ears. Something small scurried off on tiny feet. Bending closer to her, she leaned back, wariness and fear clouding her inquisitive gaze. "What the hell am I supposed to do with you?"
A stream gurgled not far in the undergrowth. My thirst made my mouth water while merciless practicality made me think up other uses for the river.
I couldn't take her back, and I couldn't take her with me.
That gave me no option.
I could leave her unattended for a wild animal to make a meal of, or I could dispatch her humanely by drowning her just like her parents had drowned a boy three weeks ago for not latching the gate and letting three sheep escape.
She twirled a faded blue ribbon around her teeny fist as if going over the conclusions herself. Did she know I contemplated killing her to make my escape easier? Did she understand that I would treat her no better than her parents treated me?
Slouching in the bracken beneath my chosen bush, I sighed heavily.
Who was I kidding?
I couldn't kill her.
I couldn't even kill the rats who shared the barn with us.
Somehow, she'd crawled into my backpack, I'd stupidly ran with her even though I'd known something was wrong, and now my impossible task at staying alive just got even harder.CHAPTER 2
* * *
I'D KNOWN I might face death if I ran.
If not from a bullet, then starvation or exposure.
That was why I'd waited far longer than I should have. Why I'd lost weight that I needed and strength I couldn't afford to lose. I'd been sold to the Mclarys two winters ago, and I should've been smarter.
I should've run the night they filled my mother's fist with cash, stuffed me in a urine-soaked car, then shoved me in the barn with the rest of their kiddie prisoners and introduced me to my education the very next day.
The night I was sold was hazy, thanks to a strong cuff to the head when I'd dared to cry, and these days, I couldn't remember my mother, which was fine because I never knew my father, either.
I only knew that we'd been made to call Mr. and Mrs Mclary Ma and Pop.
I'd obeyed out loud, but in my head, they were always the hated Mclarys. Just as hated as their blood relative currently foiling my escape plan.
I glowered at the baby girl, adding another level of intensity, doing my best to work up enough rage to kill her and be done with it.
Just like I didn't know my father, I didn't know how she'd ended up in my backpack. Had she crawled in by herself? Had another kid put her there? Had her mother even placed her inside for some reason?
The bag wasn't mine. The scuffed-up thing belonged to Mr. Mclary who filled it with booze and thick sandwiches when it was harvesting time. It sat bold and dusty by the door, hanging out with its friends the musty jackets, broken umbrellas, and well-worn boots.
I scratched my head for the hundredth time, trying to figure out the riddle of why my carefully plotted escape had somehow ended up with an unwanted passenger.
A passenger that couldn't walk or talk or even eat on her own.
Tears pricked at my scratchy eyes.
I should be miles away by now, but I still hadn't solved this problem. I still didn't know how I could run quietly and hide secretly with a baby who would, at any moment, start screaming.
Just because she'd been deathly quiet and serious since I'd found her didn't mean she wouldn't expose me and get me killed.
I cocked my head, studying her closer, hating her pink clean skin and glossy golden curls. Her cheeks were round and eyes bright. She was a mockery to every kid in the barn with sunken faces and withered bodies that looked like trees poisoned by petrol.
She was lucky. She'd been cared for. She'd slept in a bed with blankets and teddy bears and hugs.
My fists curled, reminding me all over again of my one missing finger on my left hand.
Would they miss her?
Would they search for her?
Would they even care?
I'd lived my life with one existence: where parents were cruel and beat their children, branded them with hot cattle irons, and fed them by trough and pail.
Up until a year ago, I'd believed that was how all kids were treated. That we were all vermin only fit to toil — Mrs Mclary's words every night as we crawled exhausted into our mismatch of cots and pallets.
It wasn't until the night Mr. Mclary cut off my pinkie for stealing some freshly baked apple pie that I saw a different story.
I'd tempted fate by sneaking back into the farmhouse — which was the very reason I had nine digits and not ten anymore. After passing out and coming to from the pain, I'd exhausted my search for a cleanish rag to replace the blood-soaked undershirt around my severed finger, and decided the farmhouse would have a tea towel I could borrow.
It was that or drip blood everywhere.
Mrs Mclary was screaming like a shot rabbit somewhere upstairs. She'd been as fat as a sow for months and I guessed her time to give birth had finally come. I'd seen enough animals and the grossness of new life to tune her out as I tiptoed toward the kitchen.
Only, in the raucous of babies arriving, someone had left the TV on and I became spellbound by its magic.
Moving pictures and colours and sounds. I'd seen the thing on before but had been chased out with a broom and starved with no dinner for sneaking a peek.
That night, though, I morphed into the shadows, holding my throbbing stump of a finger, and watched a show where the kids laughed and hugged their parents. Where healthy dinners were cooked with smiles and lovingly given to plump children at a table and not thrown in the dirt to be fought over before the pigs could eat our scraps.
Mr. Mclary constantly told us that we were the lucky ones. That the girls he dragged by their ponytails into the farmhouse after Mrs Mclary had gone to bed were the chosen angels bestowed an important job.
I never found out what that job was, but the girls all returned white as milk and shaking like baby lambs on a frosty morning.
In fact, having my finger cut off was my worst and best memory.
Having him grab my hand and snip off my pinkie with his fence cutters as if it was nothing more than a stray piece of wire had made me buckle and vomit in agony. The fever, thirst, and throb while watching that TV show had stolen my wits.
I was beyond stupid to stay inside the home where the devil lived.
But when he'd found me passed out from infection and blood loss in his sitting room the next morning, he'd taken me to the doctor.
On the ride over — in a truck filled with sloshing diesel for his tractor — he'd yelled at me not to die. That I still had a few years of use left and he'd paid too much to let me quit yet.
When we'd arrived at the hospital, he'd stuck his reeking face in mine and hissed at me not to say anything. My role was to be stupid — a mute. If I didn't, he'd kill me, the doctor, and anyone else who helped me.
I'd obeyed and learned what kindness was that day.
The tale spun to the medical team was my clumsy ass had severed it with a columbine blade while cutting hay. My dirty face and knobby knees were used as Mclary's evidence that I was a reckless, unruly child, and thanks to his reputation around town for being a good farmer, civil neighbour, and regular churchgoer, no one questioned him.
No one asked me how badly his lies stunk.
The infection was bad, according to the nurse, and after shivering on her table with teeth chattering and stomach heaving, she'd sewn me up, pricked me with an injection, and given me a look that made me want to spill everything.
I'd bit my lip, fear stronger than I'd ever felt welling in my chest.
I wanted to tell her.
I wanted so, so much to tell her.
But I kept my mouth shut and continued living Mclary's lie.
In return, she'd told me I was so brave, kissed my forehead, and gave me a bag of jelly beans, a sticker with a gold star, and a little teddy bear that said Get Well Soon.
I'd hugged that bear harder than I'd hugged anything as I reluctantly climbed into the fumy truck and buckled in to return to hell.
The moment we were away from view, Mclary snatched the bear and jelly beans from my hands and tossed them from the moving vehicle.
I knew better than to cry.
He could take my teddy and candy, but he couldn't take the kind smiles from the nurse or the gentle tutting of the doctor as they'd made my finger all better.
Not that I had a finger anymore, just a useless stump that itched sometimes and drove me mad.
I should've run that night.
I should've run a week later once I'd finished my antibiotics and no longer flashed with heat or sickness.
I should've run so many times.
The funny thing was that out of sixteen children at Mclary's farm, the sea of faces constantly changed. When a girl or boy grew old enough to harbour a certain look in their eye or gave up the fight after years of struggle, a man in a suit would come, speak pretty words, touch trembling children, then both would vanish, never to be seen again.
A few days later, a fresh recruit would arrive, just as terrified as we'd all been, just as hopeful that a mistake had been made, only to learn the brutal truth that this wasn't temporary.
This was our life, death, and never ending all in one.
My thoughts skittered over the past in spurts, never staying on one subject for long as the dawn crept to morning and morning slid to afternoon.
I didn't touch the baby.
She didn't cry or fuss as if she knew her fate was still fragile.
Halfway through our staring contest, she'd fallen asleep, curling up in my backpack with her tatty ribbon in a tiny fist and her head on my crumbling block of cheese.
My stomach rumbled. My mouth watered.
I hadn't eaten since yesterday morning, but I was well-versed in withholding food from angry bellies. I had to ration myself if I stood any chance of surviving.
I knew that at least.
Mrs Mclary called me stupid. And I supposed she was right. I couldn't read or write. I'd been hidden away in some dark and musty place with my mother until I was sold and brought here.
However, I knew how to talk and use big words, thanks to Mrs Mclary calling herself a well-read and intelligent woman who liked to decorate her vocabulary because this town was full of simpletons.
I got the gist of what she said some of the time, but most of the time, my brain soaked up the word, sank its baby teeth into it, and tore it apart until it made sense, then stored it away to be used later.
I forgot nothing.
I knew how many hammers Mr. Mclary hung in the tool shed and knew one had gone missing two weeks ago. I knew three of the four cows he had planned to slaughter were pregnant to his neighbour's bull, and I knew Mrs Mclary skimmed money from the pig profits before telling her husband their tally.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Boy & His Ribbon"
Copyright © 2018 Pepper Winters.
Excerpted by permission of Pepper Winters.
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