Freedom's Path

***

I close the door, turn, and quietly make my way through the people on the street. It is louder than anything I am used to, and the people on the street are shouting about their wares. I try to think as they shout. Lets see, Jane said the small green bottle on the top shelf on the left, I think as I make my way through the crowd. Silver Spring must be a big city, I suppose as I walk past a man selling apples. A boy takes one, throws it at a man's head, and snickers loudly. I smile, remembering Jack and his pranks that he tried to pull on Meggie and I, but he couldn't fool me. The last prank Jack had pulled was throwing a frog at Meggie when I was taking care of them. As I replay the scene in my mind, I grin at the memory. I had been so angry at the time. Now I miss them so much it hurts. I quickly shrug that thought away and return to my path down the street. A newspaper boy shouts as I walk by.

"Buy the Evening Globe! The best newspaper in Maryland! Runaway Slave girl; find her, and ya' win 300 dollars! Buy the Evening Globe!"

As he repeats his call, I freeze. That's me! I think desperately. But how? Only Norah knows where I went, but she wouldn't tell anyone! There was no way it could be her! I am thinking through this carefully when a man speaks to me harshly.

" This 'ere medicine is four dollars, girl. You ain't got enough." He grins a rotten-toothed grin, and I inwardly grimace before answering.

"Would you like to donate it?" I ask politely. The man's eyes narrow, and a dog-like growl comes out of the man's throat. My eyes widen, and I back away slowly. Then I turn right into a young man, not much older than I, with a mop of red hair and a bemused look on his face. Now I am cornered between two men, although one of them looks anything but dangerous, and I slowly slide to the side, grabbing the bottle as I move, leaving them looking face to face, although the dog-like man is looking up almost a foot into the tall boy's blue eyes, now surprisingly enough narrowed dangerously. I watch, fascinated, as the young man slowly speaks, holding the other man almost mesmerized.

"Leave the girl alone," He says slowly and calmly. The man blinks, looks down at his balled up fist, and looks up at the menacing stare of the young man. He relaxes his hand, turns, and walks away. The young man turns to me, a glint of amusement in his eye.

"Caleb Connors, at your service Ma'am," He says courteously, doing a sloppy yet lovable bow. For one of the first times in my life I don't know what to say, not to mention he called me "ma'am", which is anything but normal for a 16-year-old black girl like me. Also, he's wearing a suit and tie. I answer, flustered.

"Lydia Johnson, your service, Sir," I say, also courteous, and do a curtsy before looking up. Our eyes meet, and my heart flutters. Time freezes as I stare into his gentle blue eyes. They are warm and twinkling, yet dangerous, and all of the sudden I understood why the disgusting man was so captivated. Suddenly time speeds up again, and I look away, embarrassed. He smiles lopsidedly, and sticks out his hand. I shake his hand. We turn to walk away, and we passed about three stands when he pauses.

"Did you ever get the medicine?"

"Yes. No charge, too," I say, and smile up at him. His eyes widen, and for a second I fear I have something stuck in my teeth. Before I have time to do something stupid like pick it out, he shakes his own thoughts away and holds out his arm. I link my arm through his and we make our way down the street. Suddenly Caleb is full of questions, and I carefully answer them.

"How old are you?"

"16. How old are you?"

"19. Are you from around here?"

"No."

"Oh. Where are you from?"

I panic and try to find an answer, but thankfully we are nearing the house, and I quickly say goodbye and close the door in front of him. I turn to see Jane sitting in her rocking chair.

"Who was that?" She asks calmly, but I know better.

"Caleb Connors."

"And who is he?"

I answer carefully. "A boy."

"What kind of boy, Lydia?"

I sigh. "A white boy."

"And what have I told you about white boys?"

I roll my eyes.

"Don't roll your eyes at me," she says, without looking up from her sowing.

"That they are selfish and greedy no-goods," I reply.

"Precisely. I hope you will listen to my advice as you get older. Now give me the medicine."

I obediently walk over and hand her the green bottle. She takes it and stands up, unfolding her tall frame, and glides up the stairs to where Jeremiah lies.

"He looks even worse than when I left," I say, horrified.

Jane nods, and quickly unscrews the bottle, puts a few drops on a spoon, and pushes it between Jeremiah's lips, making him cough. He opens his eyes and turns to me.

"Hi Lydia," He says. My worry must show on my face, because he smiles weakly. "I am going to get better. I promise." I force a smile on my face, and he closes his eyes and turns over. I get up and leave quickly so he won't hear my sobs. Jeremiah has been my rock and comforter since we met on the Underground Railroad; I so desperately want him to get better so we can finish our journey to freedom. I leave the room quickly, lay down on the couch, and soon I am asleep.

***

Nursing Jeremiah is a difficult task. Night and day I tend him, with almost no sleep. My eyes are drooping when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I look up into Jane's suddenly soft blue eyes.

"Lydia, why don't you get some fresh air? You've been taking care of Jeremiah for almost three days straight with no rest. Go for a walk and then take a nap." I obey happily and walk out into the late afternoon air. The breeze blows through my hair, and suddenly I hear a voice behind me.

"Well, well, look who's out of their hole?" I turn to see Caleb smiling at me. I suddenly realize how dirty my face and clothes must look, and how frizzy my hair must be. I answer quietly.

"I've been busy." He looks at me with curiosity, and I explain. "Jeremiah is sick. That's who the medicine was for." He nods, and we slowly begin to walk down the street. He turns to me, once again curious.

"Why are you here?" There was no venom or hostility in his voice, merely curiosity. I answer him.

"What do you mean?" I ask, faking misunderstanding, even though inside I am panicking. Does he know?

As if reading my thoughts, he speaks quietly. "You and I both know what I mean." He studies me carefully, and I look at the ground,

"I want to be free," I whisper. "I want to be able to go into a house and say 'this is my house'. To be able to be my own owner, to not have to be at the mercy of anyone else. To be free." I look up, expecting him to call for the police or to laugh at me.

The worst part is I trust him, even though I have only known him for a total of four days. What's wrong with me?

"If my father were here…" he shakes his head and laughs quietly. He looks up.

"My father wants to control my life, just like what you're trying to escape from. He wants me to be a businessman." He laughs again. "Me? A businessman? I mean, look at me! Do I honestly look like a businessman to you?" I can't help it, but I study him as he speaks. I study his blue eyes, filled with sadness and bitterness, his curly red hair blowing in the wind. He really is handsome in his own way, I think. Then I look at him as he asks. I honestly can't picture him as a businessman. He's wearing another suit, but he looks like he'd be more comfortable in a pair of overalls with a paintbrush in hand. He patiently waits for my answer.

"No," I say. I look up at his face this time, and when our eyes meet, I feel no fear. I wish the moment could last forever, but he looks away, and we continue our walk. The rest of it is in silence, as kindred spirits this time.

***

After that day we go for a walk every day, every afternoon. I know it isn't safe, but I am so relieved to have someone understand that I can't bear to be away. We talk about many different things-sports, writing, music, art, even politics. It turns out he's an Abolitionist and thinks a war would be pointless.

Jeremiah is feeling better, and he and I walk this morning. We are walking in silence when he speaks.

"Lydia, we have been in Silver Spring for two weeks," Jeremiah says. My stomach clenches in fear. He continues. "I think it's about time we continue our journey."

"No Jeremiah! We can't continue!" I say. Jeremiah looks at me, surprised. "I…I like it here. You go on without me."

"Lydia, this place is Confederate Territory!" He exclaims, getting angry. "You can't stay here! They'll find you! You'll be sent back!"

I sigh. I guess I have no choice. "I…I have a friend here. I'll miss them."

Jeremiah smirks. "Who, Jane? You dread Jane!"

I shake my head. "No, Jeremiah. His name is Caleb."

Jeremiah's gray eyes widen in surprise. "A boy?" He studies me. "A white boy?"

I nod my head, and the color slowly drains out of his face.

"What were you thinking?" He says angrily. I cringe.

"He's a nice boy, Jeremiah! He's funny, and thoughtful, and-"

"WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?"

"Look, I'm sorry, I-"

"We can't stay here any longer. We have to get out before we're caught." He pulls on my arm and I resist with all my might. Then he picks me up effortlessly and carries me back to the house, much to my embarrassment and frustration. We burst through the door.

"Feeling better, Jeremiah?" Jane is still sitting in her rocking chair.

"We're leaving, Jane. Lyddy's told some stupid white boy we're here and-"

"He is NOT stupid! PUT ME DOWN!" Reluctantly Jeremiah puts me down and I storm upstairs to pack my things, knowing that fighting would now be useless.

***

Trying to hide in the tiny town of Emmitsburg is not easy. I sleep in the cellar of a Quaker family's house, and I wake the next morning and go with Jeremiah to the store. We blend into the large crowd of people, and I am walking down the street when I hear a familiar voice.

"Lydia?"

I instantly turn back and make my way through the crowd.

"Caleb? Is that you?"

"Lydia?"

"Caleb!" I almost leap into his arms, but Jeremiah's hand on my shoulder stops me.

"Lydia, who is that?"

I quickly recompose myself and turn back to Jeremiah.

"Jeremiah, this is Caleb. Caleb, this is Jeremiah." I step back quickly for fear of what could happen. They eye each other carefully, intense gray eyes looking at the gentle blue. Finally they both look back at me, Jeremiah frowning and Caleb smiling.

"Glad to make your acquaintance, Caleb, but Lydia and I must be going," Jeremiah says quickly, and with a strong grip on my arm, pulls me back through the crowd into the open street and we hurry back to the house.

We pack our things, and leave the next night. Jeremiah is still angry with me for telling Caleb my secret. I think about Caleb often, and while we are walking I realize something. I love him.

***

We have been walking for hours, and I am hurrying across the grass, just about to cross the border to Pennsylvania and freedom, when suddenly three men jump out from behind a bush, armed with nets, pistols and whips. Slave hunters, I gasp, and I look around. It is late at night, and no one is out. Jeremiah and I are alone with dangerous men blocking us from the freedom I so crave.

"Come with us, and no one gets hurt," a man with a red beard says menacingly.

Jeremiah gets a determined look on his face, and suddenly I know. No, Jeremiah, don't do it. Not for me. I'm not worth it. Please. Jeremiah ignores my silent pleading, and runs forward towards the men. I close my eyes and brace myself for the crack of the pistol. The shot echoes into the forest on all sides, and Jeremiah slumps on the ground. I run forward to see blood oozing from his chest. The tears fall unbidden from my eyes, and Jeremiah looks up at me one more time.

"Lllyddia?"

"Yes Jeremiah?"

"Lyddy, I…love…" He never finishes his sentence.

My tears drop on the ground.

Suddenly I look up. Red Beard is there, and he smirks. Suddenly all my sadness turns into anger, and I stand up and slap him, hard, across the mouth.

"You killed him!"

He stumbles away with a surprised look on his face. Suddenly the three men are circling me like lions around the prey, and I prepare myself for my last battle. One man leaps at me, and just as I look up and breathe a prayer, the blow is blocked by another arm. A white arm.

"Caleb!" I gasp. Soon Red Beard and Caleb are locked in combat, and the other two are watching, waiting. All of the sudden one of the men takes out his pistol and aims it at me. Then everything happens in slow motion. The blast thunders across the hills, and the shot collides with my body in an explosion of pain up my arm.

"No!" Caleb shouts, and the men run away in fear. I fall to the ground. Caleb rushes to my side.

"Lydia, I…are you alright?"

I struggle to sit up, only to be laid back down again by Caleb.

"They just shot my arm, Caleb. I'll be fine."

"Lydia, I…I love you!" He says, in surprise. I smile up at him.

"I know you do."

He smiles back, and suddenly everything begins to fade.

"I'll always be here for you, Lydia. I promise."