Rosie was so engrossed in her work that she never saw the half fisted hand swinging towards her, she only felt it after the fact. Pain blossomed red and hot across her right cheek, vibrating up towards her temple in short, stabbing jabs. The blow should have knocked her right off her feet, but she had been drawing water from the well and her feet had been planted just far enough apart that she staggered back a step and managed to keep her balance.
It had been a mighty blow for sure, but Rosie didn’t cry, she didn’t flinch, or raise her hand to touch the swollen flesh. She had learned long ago that such actions only made them want to hurt you more.
Save for the brief widening of her eyes, there was no other indication that the slap had caught her off guard. Turning from her task, Rosie squared her shoulders and lifted her chin as though saying “Go ahead, hit me again.”
Her body trembled, her hands clenched into tight fists at her sides. She wanted to hit him back, but knew better than to purposely antagonize the man who seemed to tower over her like a giant.
For a long moment the only movement was the hem of her threadbare dress as a hot, rough wind whipped it around her knees and thighs.
It was too short, that dress, but it was better than going naked so Rosie made due.
“What did you do that for?” Rosie asked at last, a throbbing jolt lancing through her jaw with each word.
The man behind the fist, Mr. Eugene Hayes, stared hard at her for a long moment. Then his eyes dropped towards the expanse of dust streaked skin where the hem of her dress should have reached to her knees, and then to where it actually fell several inches higher up her legs.
It made Rosie feel uncomfortably exposed and her hands moved around to her front, her fingers uncurling from fists as she grasped at the tattered hem to keep it from fluttering about..
“What I tell you ‘bout walkin’ ’round dressed like that?” he demanded, his tongue sweeping out over his dry, cracked, pink lips, his eyes staying low. Rosie grimaced, her nails pressing through the thin, weathered cotton and biting hard into the palms of her hands which had grown slick with sweat.
“It’s the only-”
Hayes made to lift his hand again causing Rosie to stop short in her protests. Though she appeared calm on the outside, her heart was skipping staccato in her chest. He took half a step closer and despite the sweltering heat of the day, Rosie felt the hairs on her arm stand on end as a cold chill swept over her. She wasn’t sure which scared her more, the hand poised and ready to strike or the darkness lurking deep in his hard blue eyes.
It didn’t matter because she resolved in that moment to run if he took another step closer. She didn’t care about the consequences, nor about the fact that despite his bulk, Mr. Hayes was quick on his feet, his long legs capable of eating up whatever distance she might put between them.
Oh, he’d catch her for sure, and she’d pay for running, but attempting to escape was better than standing there doing nothing.
Rosie waited, sweat forming in tiny beads across her forehead and the back of her neck. Mr. Hayes watched, his eyes calculating. It was almost as if he could read her mind, as if he knew the moment he took action, so would she. His gaze flickered upwards, focusing on something past her shoulder, and Rosie knew he was assessing her chances of success.
She knew the only thing behind her were empty fields and the barn.
If she made it to the barn and up into the loft, she’d be safe. As much as Mr. Hayes loved to beat on little kids, he was not without fears of his own.
Mr. Hayes hated high places, and he hated the loft the most.
As if they had come to the realization at the same time, Mr. Hayes shifted his narrowing gaze back towards her. Rosie felt panic trying to claw its way to the surface. She fought the feeling, pushing it back down, unwilling to let it take control.
“Now you c’here, girl, don’t you make me come get you,” Mr. Hayes said at last, his foot shifting forward, the worn soles of his boots scraping harshly against the packed earth. The sound was deafening, as though a gunshot had been fired, the sort of shot that signaled the start of the Kentucky Derby.
It was all Rosie needed to hear.
Like the horses, Rosie sprang into action, narrowly avoiding the sweeping paw of Mr. Hayes as he lunged for her half a second later.
She heard him curse and shout after her, but Rosie didn’t look back, she didn’t want the fear of knowing how close he was to slow her down.
After several seconds, the sound of her heavy breathing and pounding heart were all Rosie could hear.
The barn was all she could see.
The dominating structure, dilapidated due to years of neglect, leaning severely to one side and looking as though one strong wind might blow it over, would be her refuge.
As she drew closer, ignoring the rocks and sticks digging into the calloused soles of her bare feet, a new sound washed over her. It was the sound of approaching doom and came in the form of heavy footfalls slamming violently into hard earth. It chased her like roaring thunder, settling deep in her bones as it shook her to the core.
Her heel caught a jagged stone.
A cry of pain and outrage lodged itself in her throat which had squeezed tight with the fear she refused to acknowledge.
She stumbled once, twice, three times, and then -- she fell.