Elise was not looking forward to waking up.
Sleep seemed like it was the only relief, the only safe place for her to escape her cruel parents, teachers, and life in general.
Yet, as she lay on her straw mattress staring up at her ceiling, wide awake from her recent nightmare, a heavy, meaty fist pounded on her door, making the wooden boards that made up her room clatter against each other. The fist continued to beat on her door, shaking the walls of her shack she called home.
“ELISE!” her mother screamed. “WAKE UP THIS INSTANT!” Elise didn’t reply or move. She heard her mother grunt forcefully and storm away from her door.
Elise inwardly groaned and sat up, throwing the moth eaten, thin, and faded red blanket off her cold body. She rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and looked around.
Her room was tiny. It felt like more of a pantry than a room. A single shelf held her few personal belongings while her clothes were stuffed in wooden crates below her bed. The floor was hard wood and full of splinters, ensuring that Elise would have to wear her moccasins wherever she walked.
Elise stood and stretched, her fingers brushing the ceiling as she did so. She shook her head to jolt her out of her sleep-like trance.
Focus, she scolded herself. You don’t want to be useless today.
She pulled out a crate with her clean clothes in them. She pulled out a patched brown skirt and blouse and changed out of her dirty white tunic. She brushed her hair with a smooth wooden comb she made herself, pulling it back into a simple ponytail with the hope that her parents wouldn’t object. Who was she kidding?
Of course they would.
She sighed and grabbed a small pocket mirror that she had found on the side of the road. She lifted it up so that she could see her reflection.
The 9 year-old gazed at dusty brown hair and sharp green eyes. Her ponytail complimented her heart shaped face, making her look a few years older than she actually was. Her cheekbones were high and her shoulders were broad, giving her a warrior princess look about her.
“Please, please, please,” she prayed, hoping for a better day than every other one in her life. She knew that there was only a tiny chance of it coming true, but she wanted this with all her heart, and from the books she read at school, trusting her heart was a sure sign that you were going the right way, right?
Elise shrugged to herself and smiled. Only one way to find out.
She left the shack and looked around. To her left stood a wave of ominous trees, their leaves red and gold from the autumn. She was told never to go over there, but when she played, her curiosity always got the better of her and she couldn’t help but go to the forest edge and peer in, straining to see and explore beyond the tree line. She was reprimanded harshly, but she always thought it was worth it.
She turned her gaze to the right, where her house sat facing a dirt road. It wasn’t much to see, but it wasn’t an eye sore like her room was. The walls were simple, polished wood and the roof was full of even tiles smiling a toothy grin. A stone chimney up the side of the house was spewing a lazy curl of smoke into the air. Dark green shutters were open to reveal clear windows.
Elise started towards the house, walking through the tall golden grass that stretched as far as the eye could see.
She agreed that her home was a lovely place to live. That is, if you weren’t in her situation.
She walked up to a dark green back door and knocked three times. She heard footsteps inside. The door opened to reveal a smiling woman. Her dress was new and without patches, but the apron she wore was splattered with flour. Her black hair was tied back and her blue eyes were soft and welcoming. She held a bowl full of flour, eggs, milk, and possibly other baking ingredients.
The woman’s smile disappeared. “Oh, it’s just you,” she said, curling her lip in disgust. Elise’s heart fell. She’d hoped that her own mother would’ve complimented her appearance. Instead, she reached a flour-coated hand into her daughter’s hair and untied the ponytail.
“You can’t wear your hair like this,” she said. “You’re 9!”
“What does my age have anything to do with it?” Elise muttered. “Everyone else wears their hair like that!” Elise knew she had crossed the line. Her mother’s expression turned sour. She grabbed her by her dress and gruffly pulled her inside, slamming the door behind her.
Her mother pointed to a wooden chair at a small and circular wooden table. “Sit.” Elise obeyed and sat next to her father, who was currently reading a leather-bound journal. She recognized it. The journal had been her grandfather’s. She’d only heard stories about him, when her parents were either really drunk or in a very good mood. She absolutely lived for those stories.
Her grandfather had been a pirate: a bloodthirsty, cunning, quick, and very successful pirate. He went by the name of Slit-Throat-Stern, Stern being his middle name. He never let anyone know his first name. Elise’s middle name was Lila, making her full name Elise Lila Hazelwood. She doubted that Lila was a good pirate’s name.
Once, Stern had burned an entire castle to its foundations (after robbing it, of course) and had held the Royal Family for ransom – even though there was no one that could possibly make the desired payment. Another time, he had sunk 20 ships in half a day. Those events were only a few of the sickening and exhilarating deeds he had carried out.
Elise’s father turned the page and continued to read, only once looking over the brim of the journal at Elise and asking, “Your homework done?”
“Yes sir,” she said. “I also did extra credit for my-”
“Hey,” he interrupted her, raising his palm towards her face. “I don’t care. Just keep your grades high, or it will reflect badly on us.” She nodded, and looked down at her hands, now folded neatly in her lap.
Her mother set three plates of eggs, bacon, and toast onto the table. Elise’s stomach growled. She hadn’t gotten home in time for dinner, so she was merely denied it. Elise’s mother sat in the remaining chair to her left and looked distastefully at her.
“Eat,” she said. Elise grabbed her fork and dug in, eating quickly so she could get to school early and see her favorite teacher, Ms. Serena.
Ms. Serena was the only teacher at her school that showed kindness toward her. She would give her advice, tips, and listen to Elise talk. No one else ever did that. Ever. Plus, with black hair and clear blue eyes, she was by far the prettiest woman in Norgate fief, making everyone want to spend time with the kind and beautiful lady, but she only spent time with Elise, which just made her feel even more special.
She focused her attention mainly on her food, unwilling to look up at her quiet family. She was totally aware of her mother’s glare as she wolfed down her breakfast. Meanwhile, her father only took occasional bites, his nose still buried deep in Grandfather’s journal. The sound of wood on wood told Elise that her mother had started eating too. She ignored it and kept eating.
Finally, she had finished. She leapt up from the table and ran to the front door, where an old leather bag waited her arrival.
“HEY!” her father boomed. Elise froze, the bag only half on her back and half off. She turned towards him.
“Yes father?” He stood up, the journal on the table now forgotten.
“Clear your dishes!” he said, making wild gestures with his hands. “We’re not your servants!” She hung her head. She’d never get to school early now.
“Yes father.” She walked over to the table and cleared her dishes. She grabbed a wet towel and started washing her utensils.
Elise was walking down a long, dirt road scattered with sharp brown rocks that occasionally made their way into her moccasins. She stopped for the umpteenth time and took off her shoe, shaking it to let out the dozens of pebbles that’s aspiration was to ruin her walk home.
Well they were certainly doing a good job.
She was walking home from a long, hard day at school. Everyone had bullied her, which wasn’t really different. Usually, she’d curl up and start drawing. None of the teachers ever took notice.
Today was different. She had decided to fight back.
To be fair, they had started it, but that wasn’t stopping Elise, oh no. A school bully had pushed her down, making her bag and all of its contents spill out onto the ground. She bent down to pick her stuff up, but the school children were all over it like kids to a piñata when the candy finally comes bursting out like a colorful waterfall. They sneered at her and circled around her, making fun of her as they went. Elise had weakly put up her fists to the bully – John. He looked around, then suddenly came running at her, a wicked right fist pulled back to his jaw. She leapt to one side and spun, putting her out of harm’s way and into an advantageous spot. The bully would’ve turned around any second, and Elise had to make a split-second decision. She thrust out her right foot and hit the bully square on the back; sending him crashing into a hard, stonewall. He had crumpled to the ground, a bead of blood trickling down the side of his face.
The school children noticed something over their shoulders, thrown Elise’s stuff everywhere, and fled. Elise hurriedly picked of her papers, bending over to pick up her English homework and standing to meet the head master’s cold, beady eyes.
So she had been expelled and sent home early, despite the protests she had given. She was not looking forward to seeing her parents again. They’d scream and…
A tear refused to stay hidden deep inside Elise and slid down her cheek. She hugged her school materials and cried, not holding the tears back as she normally did. She hated her life. She hated everyone in it. The only reason she stayed was because of Ms. Serena, and she was getting married to the Baron in a few weeks. Today was her last day of being a teacher. She’d be yanked out of Elise’s life and she’d have nothing. Absolutely nothing that she cared about.
But now, she was free. She realized that now, she could do anything she wanted. There was nothing holding her down, nothing that she couldn’t do.
She looked ahead at the forest that had been haunting her childhood. Now, it seemed cold, yet inviting, as if it wanted people to explore it or, more specifically, wanted her.
Elise dropped her things on the side of the road, hiding them in the tall blades of grass. She was going to start over and jump into the future, without a plan or anything to guide her. She broke into a run, moving at top speed towards the forest. The wind howled around her ears, but to her, they were shouting encouragement. The woods grew larger, seemingly running towards her as well. The bushes grew thicker, brushing against her legs.
Then, she came to the edge. For the first time in her life, she was sure of something.
She had to run.
Taking a deep breath, she plunged into the dark forest.