I am now more desperate for escape than ever. The one person I can ask is Ernest, but no one knows about him except for Ava--yet she won’t speak about it. She was whipped publicly this morning, and I didn’t stop them. Not this time. I watched. It is a sick feeling, but with every crack of the whip, I remembered the way she had endangered me. The suffering I would go through.
Betrayal is like a poison that spreads to your core, and feeds on it, slowly eating away at all the walls you’ve built. You try forgiveness, but one day you realize the only cure is revenge. It’s taken me years to learn that.
It’s not a good thing when people disappear without a word around here. Well, it never is. But they like to make it public--who has the power, and who suffers from it. Something is wrong. The overseers are harsher on us lately. They seem nervous too. There’s no time to question anything--only pick cotton.
I glumly accept my breakfast, work in the fields, and go through the next few weeks in the same fashion. It is exhausting and I feel broken. I hear no word about Frederick, so I hope they dropped the court case. But I don’t know, and the ignorance gnaws at me.
Isaac asks constantly what’s wrong with me, but I don’t want to tell him what’s wrong. I can’t. Because if I’m taken away one night without word, I don’t want him to know why. It would kill him that we never escaped. He’d blame himself for not getting us out, but I know he couldn’t.
I think it’s killing him knowing for once, he can’t know what I’m thinking. He can’t help me.
But I’ve already decided that this is one battle I have to fight alone. I’m going to free myself.
I walk to the manor house at dusk, determination plastered across my face. I run into Ava, just the person I was looking for.
“Tell me” I say bluntly, “tell me where he is.”
Her face and back are scarred from being whipped, and she glares at me.
“I have no business with you, girl.”
“You got me in this mess--and you’re getting me out.”
“I owe you nothing,” she sneers.
“You owe me everything. Where. Is. Ernest?”
She sighs. “Will ya leave me alone for god’s sakes if I tell ya?”
I nod, though I lie. I will never leave her alone. I will never let her rest. It is a corruptive thought, but it comforts me.
“He tried to poison Massa Whitley last month. Slipped somethin in his drink, but Winston saw ’im. They whipped him dead.”
“Dead?” I whisper, thinking of the cranky but determined man.
She nods. “He was old, they din’t need ’im and he sure was a trouble maker. There’s a whole fuss ‘bout it now--killing off a man. Abolitionists gettin’ all riled up and wanting a law change. Trouble in the North, see. Ernest’s death shore ain’t helping the Massa’s case. He’s mad”.
I squint my eyes at her, something not fitting to me. “And how do you know this?” I frown.
“I work in the bloody manor house, girl. I was there when they took Ernest. Now leave me alone.”
I spin on my heel, my mind racing and unsure of what to believe.
“Oh, and one more thing” she calls.
I turn to face her, fists clenched.
“Jarrah asked me tah give you this.” She draws a crumpled paper from her apron, and I grab it quickly and stuff it into my pocket. “But girl, you oughtn’t be getting mixed in his business. He knows yer to be sent ter Mississippi. Best stay with yer own kind and leave him be.”
I hate that she is the only one that knows of Frederick coming for me. I hate her having that power.
I toy with the paper in my hand for a bit, desperately itching to open it, to see where he wants to meet, or if he’s forgiven me, or even some stupid poem he’s written. Any form of communication. To know our friendship is still there. But then it comes, a small, nagging part of me knowing I have to forget him. Whatever kind of a person Ava may be, I know she’s right. We shouldn’t be friends with the white folk. Not when we aren’t equal.
I crumple the paper and toss it on the ground, walking away from it and my past.
* * *
I sit in my quarters, humming to myself absent-mindedly. The women all chatter about their kids, and the usual gossip on the plantation. Ruth seems to be trying to tell her friends and me a story about her son, but I’m honestly providing feedback through the smile and nod technique.
“And then little Jimmy did the most adorable thing” giggles Ruth, along with a chorus of middle-aged women.
“He pinched Eliza’s cheek and well, of course she didn’t like that--Alice dear, are you listening?”
“Why did you have kids, Ruth?” I ask abruptly.
“Sorry?” she asks, flustered. I earn some angry glares from the other women.
“I personally don’t understand why. They just grow up to be slaves to the white people, they aren’t freed unless some miraculous stroke of fate happens. Why would you want that on anyone, let alone your kids?”
She frowns. “Now dear, I understand you’re upset and all about being here, but kids are--”
“Alice? Can I talk to you?” interrupts Isaac, standing at the doorway. I’m thankful for the excuse to leave, and I mumble a quick apology before I exit with him.
“Thank the Lord you showed up. I was just so annoyed and--” I begin
“What is the meaning of this?” he asks, holding a crumpled paper in his outstretched hand.
I frown at first, before I realize it’s the note Jarrah left me.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before” I lie.
“So why did you throw it on the ground last night?”
“How did you know I--”
“I followed you,” he says bluntly, and I frown.
“Let me explain.”
“Please do,” I say coldly.
He sighs, running a hand through his hair and ruffling it. He does that when he’s nervous. “You’ve been acting really weird lately, and I was worried. You won’t talk to me, anyone really, and then you just started yelling at Ava...and I went to see what was going on.”
“And what is going on? What did you hear?” I ask cautiously.
“Not much at first, but I asked Ava and it turns out, you’re a fucking liar and a hypocrite.”
I flinch at his bluntness.
“I mean, Mississippi? For Chrissakes Alice, why didn’t you tell me Frederick was trying to take you back? After everything we’ve been through, this is a real knife in the back”.
The pain in his eyes from my betrayal makes my heart melt. I just want to hug him tightly, and tell him it had nothing to do with him, but he is angry and I have to hold my ground.
“I don’t know,” I say honestly, “I wanted to...but I thought if no one knew, and it just went away...I didn’t wanna worry you.”
“Worry me? I’m not a baby. You aren’t supposed to take care of me,” he sighs, clearly frustrated.
“Then why should you take care of me, huh? Maybe I wanted to handle it alone.” I respond icily.
“I see you were handling it alone real well. When were you planning on leaving me and escaping with him exactly? If this is how it’s gonna be, then I...I don’t wanna be a part of it anymore.”
“What are you talking about? Why would I escape without you?” I frown.
“Your plan with Jarrah?”
“Plan...?” I echo, confused.
“Stop playing dumb. You two were just gonna elope out of here, weren’t you? Meet by the stream and be home free. In fact, I’ll bet you’re already late. So just go on. I’m done.”
His face is unreadable as he drops the paper and walks away. I chase after him, calling out.
“Isaac, come back!” I grab his wrist, and the force from running causes me to smack right into him.
“Shut up and listen. I would never leave. Not without you. And not with him, alright? I don’t know what you read--frankly, I didn’t even look at that note, but you’re my oldest friend and if you really think-”
“Oldest friend, huh?” he sighs.
“Of course,” I confirm, slightly confused. “But I don’t understand why you think I would leave now, anyway. No one’s told me anything about the case results, so I figured--”
“Alice, have you really not read the damn note?”
“I can’t read, you idiot.”
“So you don’t know?” he stresses. I nod.
Isaac’s eyes are filled with alarm, and his brows furrowed. “Then there’s no plan...”
“I wish there was. But I don’t understand, why would we need--”
“I’m sorry”, he interrupts, “fuck, I’m sorry.”
“Would you please just...tell me what it says,” I sigh impatiently.
Picking up Jarrah’s crumpled letter and uncurling it in his hand, he reads aloud what has to have been the longest words of my life.
“Lost the court case. Need to get you out. Find me.”
* * *