Every Friday this summer, we're featuring the work of young writers in partnership with the Telling Room In Portland. This week's entry is "The Forest of the Runaways," by Molly Ruth Daley.
Julia sat on the edge of a sturdy wooden chair, tapping her fingernails on the table in front of her. She could hear the rumble of her parents' snores in the next room. Her lungs felt constricted by the pressure of her minuscule world. The kitchen walls crept toward her and an insufferable sensation of claustrophobia set in. Wispy hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and her cheeks were patched with angry, red blotches. Her skin crawled and her muscles tugged at her bones, urging them to move, to stand, to flee. She pushed herself away from the table and out of the chair. Her legs carried her out the back door. Barefooted, she ambled across dew-soaked grass, and through the gate that shielded her house from the outside-a world of harsh light, blaring sound, and pungent smell.
She unlocked the gate determinedly. Her senses embraced the thrilling stimuli beyond her fence with an eagerness that had lain idle within her for ages. She hiked up
the swerving hill that loomed over her home. In the shadows of the hill, her house remained, rooted securely in place. Steely gray clouds hung heavily overhead, obscuring her view of the top of the hill. Every few beats, her heart longed for her home below, and the comfort it provided. But the air around her was cool, and her legs continued to propel her purposefully away from her comfort and closer to her future, the mysterious unknown.
The clouds rose with her as she came to the crown of the hill. Her pounding heart was no longer ailed with bereavement, but instead was preoccupied with the rapid pace that adrenaline generated. She stood valiantly at the hilltop, and looked down on her world as she'd known it. It was a dreary world of small houses with slanted roofs, lined up like soldiers in crisp uniforms. She saluted them, and they bowed in somber response.
One house, painted a stark white, held the fragile lives of Julia's parents, protected by black shingles overhead, and gray shutters aside hazy windows. She watched them dawdle jadedly about their cramped abode, stoking a stiflingly hot fire and pouring bland porridge into yellow and orange plastic bowls. Their routine made her stomach ache with vexation, and she felt sickened by their apathy.
Julia shook her head and took a greedy swallow of fresh air, grateful to be high above the dead, stagnant air that rested listlessly in her mundane house. Air inhaled and exhaled repeatedly by the same people who thought the same thoughts. Air that held the uninspiring words of tired humans content with perpetual exhaustion.
"Boy," Julia sighed into the chilly air that nipped at her ears and flushed her cheeks. "I sure am glad I got out of there when I did." Only the wind whistled in return.
"Boy!" she called louder into the empty air. "If I'd stayed in that terrible house another day I might have fallen into permanent sleep, just like the rest of them!" But once
again, no one gave a response, or acknowledged her thought, or even her existence. With a frustrated pout she rose to her feet and began to wander the world she had yet to explore.
Through thorny bushes and wiry branches Julia trekked all day, kicking at stones that jutted from the blanket of decaying leaves underfoot. She tucked frizzy strands of
hair behind her ear to keep them from catching on prickly vegetation. The sun had risen, dissipating the fog and brightening the previously gray sky. Streaks of magenta and
tangerine stretched across the horizon, textured like an exquisite oil painting. Puffy clouds of a silvery white floated swiftly across the sky, spurred by the breeze.
Julia followed the flaxen-colored orb overhead as she continued her hike through the rugged forest, each step taking her further and further from all she knew. She blazed
new trail over untrammeled soil and jumbled brush. Each shrub and canopy glimmered and shone brilliantly, a kaleidoscope of hunter greens and emeralds. The leaves fluttered and swayed, executing a beautiful and effortless dance. As the hours passed, the sun began to follow her on her solitary adventure. Then behind her, it warmed her hair and back.
Julia's stomach was plagued by hunger, as she had skipped her morning porridge and had eaten nothing since. She had loathed the repetitive, tasteless meal every day it
had been served to her, but suddenly she missed it terribly. As the sun fell beneath the tree line, she began to forage for berries and edible plants. The dimming light made it difficult to find a single morsel.
Before long the moon had nudged the sun from the darkening blue sky, and the overwhelming blackness of night held her. What little light there was emanated from the
luminescent crescent and the glittering stars above her. She meandered with hindered vision through the wild forest surrounding her. She'd relished her freedom, but loneliness began to gnaw at her ankles.
Julia felt a heavy tear collect in the corner of one eye, but then she encountered the edge of a clearing, in which the company she yearned for sat in a lopsided circle.
Countless children were grouped around a small pile of glowing embers, radiating just enough heat to ensure warmth, but not so much to suffocate or smother the assembled gathering. The children were engaged in conversation that seemed to rivet them, as they did not notice Julia hide behind a thick tree trunk. She strained to hear the words that slipped so effortlessly from their mouths. Curiosity forced her out from her hiding spot, and she approached the circle.
"I'm Julia," she called gently to the children, nervous to interrupt their intense focus. Each of them turned in Julia's direction, with wide eyes. Their ears seemed to stand up like an animal's and point in her direction.
"Welcome," the children greeted her. She was almost surprised they spoke her language, so amazed was she that they were there at all in this deep forest. Two of them
scooted eagerly apart, making space for her, the newcomer. She joined the circle as one of the children handed her a cup of water and a leaf filled with nuts and berries.
"What brought you here, Julia?" a small boy asked.
"I ran away," Julia replied as she stretched her muddy feet toward the fire. She felt herself fall easily into the otherworldly atmosphere created in the hammock of the
woods, the fire, and the ring of children. "I was getting tired, you see, and I didn't want to fall asleep. My parents sleep soundly on their feet, all day long, day after day, and they just don't seem to care at all!"
The children nodded sympathetically, and murmured their congratulations for escaping such a lethargic world.
"You'll like it here, Julia. We don't sleep," said a young girl with deep brown eyes.
"We can't sleep," another child chirped in a joyful tone. "If we do, monsters may encroach on our glade, or flesh-hungry beasts, or even worse, the slumbering zombies
that are our parents!"
All the children gasped then, in horror at the thought of such savages entering their virginal clearing, untouched by monsters, beasts, or parents. Julia saw that it was all
theirs. A small world in which they had settled an intimate community of their own. The thought of an intrusion hurt their hearts. But the lack of security in the clearing made
Julia's heart ache as it had on the hill.
"We must stay awake to protect ourselves and each other. We must stay awake to survive!" the same child added, when the frightened exclamations had ceased.
Julia shifted nervously, worried at the possibility of such monstrosities lurking in the shadows. Dead leaves crackled with her every move and sparks roared up in the fire
as a night's breeze blew in as though a giant set of bellows stirred the wickedness there. Her mind flooded with thoughts of home. Yes, it was abhorrent. The conversation
was a bore; all the stories to tell had been told. When words were spoken, they were spoken softly, as not to disturb the unnerving peace that enveloped the cozy prison. It was an absolute horror! But, it was also safe. Here, a black-shingled roof, clean clapboard walls, or dove grey shutters did not protect the clearing of runaway children.
"It doesn't seem to be very safe here," Julia noted, feeling her throat tighten as she spoke. She did not want to insult this welcoming group of children, or their home, or their lifestyle, but it did frighten her. It had been a long, exhausting day, and she was much too fatigued to hide her emotions, even from strangers.
"Oh, it isn't," a clever boy stated matter-of-factly, shrugging his shoulders. A wide and charming smile spread across his young face. "It's very wild."
"Julia," a girl said in a pacifying tone, rolling her eyes at the boy, "he was not always this composed and confident. He was just as fearful and apprehensive as you when he first found us. Perhaps even more so! But, do stay with us. You will change."
"It's hard to wake up from comfortable slumber, and stay awake in this intimidating world at first," the small boy said, more softly, defending all of the children who had been scared upon arriving in the clearing. "It's simply terrifying to realize the dangers that exist outside of your picket fence. But you can't stay locked up forever."
Julia nodded, absorbing the knowledge and advice of her new friends.
"Julia," the young girl said, "soon you will appreciate the possible dangers of this unpredictable life we lead. Fear comes in handy for staying awake." And with that, the children stared intently into the dwindling fire, and once again their voices crackled in the blackness surrounding them. Their long orange shadows ran up the trunks of trees and into the night.
The original full length version of "The Forest of the Runaways" by Molly Ruth Daley, 17, is featured in the most recent anthology of the Telling Room in Portland, a non-profit writing center dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural story tellers.