A gentle breeze.
Penny could smell dirt and greenery, sour and delicious, as the world rocked and soothed her. Like a child in its mother's arms. She was aware of something pushing down on the back of her head, like a stone in her pillow. It ruined the pleasant atmosphere and she shuffled to push it away.
Pain exploded like lightning in her skull, and Penny cried out. She jumped up with surprise and the world lurched around her. Disorientated, she fell back to the hard ground with another sickening stab of pain. Something wet hit her cheek.
She froze, only now aware of the cool light that was trying to burst through her closed eyelids. Only just recognising the sweet smell of cool water and greenery.
Penny took three deep breaths, clenching her fists. Fighting against the tears that threatened to push their way out of her. She forced her eyes open.
A beautiful, autumn day greeted her. Sunlight caressing trees of green, red and purple. A rushing river, the river Penny was traveling on, sent up sprays of foam as it hit rocks on the far, far, shore.
This couldn't be happening. It just couldn't. Nobody ever found themselves on the river without a lottery. It just didn't happen. Penny wiped sweat from her forehead, causing her makeshift boat to plunge into the water. She cried out again, but covered her mouth with a hand before the noise could escape. She had already made too much noise. She couldn't alert Them to her location any more than she already had. The daylight would only keep her safe for so long.
She needed to remain calm. To work out what was happening. She pinched an arm until the bare skin grew pink, then exhaled. She looked around her, careful not to move too much and cause the boat to topple.
She was in a small, rectangular, wooden object of some kind. Large enough for her to fit while lying down, but only just wide enough. Penny could feel a few notches in her left side, and when she felt around, she could feel wooden markers. Like something that would hold up a shelf.
She was in a bookcase. A bookcase with a thin, cardboard back that was becoming damp at an alarming rate. Without knowing how long she'd been on the water, she had no idea how much longer it would last.
"It's going to sink," she whispered to herself, almost laughing. She would die in a bookcase. Put here because...
Penny touched the throbbing lump at the back of her head, grazing it with a feather's touch. She winced, and then pushed her fingers into the wound, angry tears falling down her face.
Yes, she knew why she was here. How dare she do this? After everything she had already done?
Well, if Mary thought that she would just take this lying down, she was in for a shock. Penny had let her get away with too much already. Time for that to change. But before all that, she needed to get off the already submerging boat.
Penny reached down into the water and began to paddle, pushing against the current like a fly in a hurricane. The river refused to be swayed and continued her on her course. She was beginning to see why nobody had ever returned. She could try jumping in the water. There was always a chance that the river was shallow enough to touch the floor, though not a big chance. Besides, Penny had stopped swimming after her father had died. She wasn't confident she would make it.
"Damn it," she swore, and began to paddle again.
The river forced her onward. Penny began to slash at the water, frantic and a hairs' breadth from crying out in frustration. Her knuckles hit rock. She pulled her hand back, hissing in pain, then threw both arms out into the water as she realised what this meant. She waved her arms around beneath the surface as the boat lurched and continued to move. There wasn't much time. If she didn't find it now, it would be gone.
She began to pant, terrified she had missed her chance. Then she felt something cool and solid slip beneath her fingertips. She scrambled for purchase, fingers dancing against the rock like a lover. Her hands brushed against a thick crevice and she dug into it until her hands had grasped it fully. The boat came to a stop. She grinned, but only for a brief moment. The current was much stronger than she had expected. Her arms started to tremble with the force of the river pushing against her. It was desperate to carry her away as it had the others.
Penny looked up. The shore was still far from her reach but if she could swing herself around it could be possible to grab a tree root. Or another rock, maybe.
"Better than staying here," she huffed, and began to pull herself closer to the rock.
The boat inched closer. Penny pushed against the side of the boat closest to the rock with her knees. As if pushing them closer to the rest of her in a strange fetal position. The boat clunked against the rock.
Straining, sweating, hair glued to her forehead, she slid her legs down into a corner of the boat and pushed. Her arms trembled. Penny shoved her legs further into the corner.
Pushing, pulling. Trying to create enough of an angle to swing herself towards shore. The boat began to circle the rock. Penny laughed in triumph, causing her fingers slip. Penny lost her grip of the rock. She screamed in frustration, turning to grab it again. The boat rocked with the sudden movement, and then hurled Penny into the glacial water.
Penny gasped with the impact, inhaling river instead of air. Water forced itself into her throat and chest. She spun below the surface, dizzy, unable to orientate herself. She pushed in any direction she could, arms and legs flailing.
She remembered a warm, wise voice telling her to kick her legs. That was all she had to do. Just keep kicking.
Penny kicked against the current, chest burning, and broke the surface. She coughed and spluttered, but the river pulled her under before she could regain her breath. Her back bumped into something solid. She thrashed around, hoping to find something she could use to anchor herself. Rock slipped beneath her frantic hands, but she dug into it. She forced her eyes open and began pulling herself up to the surface using the rock to climb. Her vision grew hazy, smoke encroaching upon her vision as her arms screamed with pain.
Penny found the surface, and vomited up the water in her chest. She clung to the rock like a child, shaking and coughing, still fighting the current even now. She looked around, reluctant to move her head more than a minuscule amount. There was another rock a few meters to her left, within arm’s reach. She could use it to move closer to the shore and to the tree roots that pushed through the dirt like white fingers.
Water whipped at her face as she stretched out an arm, swearing as she just came short of the second rock. She would need to let go of the first.
Penny stretched out again, this time extending the arm that kept her secure against the rock. She yelled, a wordless guttural noise, then let go completely. Her arm found the second rock without issue. From there she could reach up and pull herself towards shore.
Dirty, bloody, angry, Penny crawled up tree roots until the roots became dirt. She hauled herself over the edge and lay flat against the shrubbery of the forest floor.
She didn't even have enough energy to cry.
Penny stared at the gnarled tree root in front of her, her chest rising and falling with each heavy breath. Her heart racing. Her head pounding. She needed to plan. Needed to keep moving, away from Them, but couldn't find the energy. She only stared, aware of a distant dripping and the roar of the river.
It was her own fault, really. She'd let her guard down. Others may not have believed Mary had it in her. She had always been miserable, sometimes even rude. But nobody ever thought of her as vindictive. No one except Penny. She shouldn't have let her guard down. Still, all those years of nothing. Mary sulking in dark rooms with her insect like husband. Trying to forget what she had done. What had pushed her over the edge? Penny didn't even go near her anymore. She'd done nothing to deserve this.
Mary should be the one out here, not her.
Penny's expression clouded as she thought back to the evening before. Mary had been watching her put her son to bed.
"It's everyone's business," she had said.
"She wants him," Penny murmured to herself. "She wants to play Mother."
She turned on to her side, then up on to her front, her knees, and finally on to her feet. She wobbled, falling against a tree, speckles forming in her vision like dust mites. Penny's stomach cramped and gurgled. She had no way of telling the time, but she had to have skipped several meals already. She would need to find food, then shelter. Somewhere to hide from Them while she worked out how she would get home.
Because she would get home.
And she would take her son back.
Penny took a step forward, testing herself. When the earth remained under her feet, she began to walk further into the forest. It was not like the forest surrounding the house, pretty spaced out trees like sentries. It was instead thick with roots and brambles, the sun above hidden by a thick blanket of leaves. It was like pushing into the wind, branches catching on the holes in her shirt and pulling at her ankles. She slipped and stumbled around, hissing as she stubbed a toe she only just realised was bare.
"Damn it," she muttered as a sharp twig scratched the ball of her foot. She stopped to clutch at it when a large crash, like a falling tree, echoed around her. Penny froze, rooted to the earth, listening as what had been her boat hit what sounded to be rocks and boulders. A waterfall.
The sound continued for several seconds, seconds that felt like a forever. Penny barely dared to breathe. There was no light here. No guarantee of safety. She had a choice, but no time. Stay and hide, or run from the noise.
Stay or run.
Stay or run.