It seemed as if the only sound was my boots clicking on the pavement, and my own heavy breathing, my fingers twitching restlessly at my sides. And the eyes on me. Dozens of pairs of eyes watching me walk toward the road out of town. Distantly, as though I was underwater, I heard women and children crying, and my heart ached as much for their pain as my own. These were the people I’d been raised beside, my neighbors and friends and schoolmates. And I had to leave them.
But that didn’t stop panic from blooming inside of me, flowering bright red inside my throat. I wanted to run back into the house, back to my siblings and parents, the hardest of them all to leave, and hide from my destiny. I’d known that I’d face this alone, but I couldn’t quite ignore the yawning pit of loneliness inside of me that just keep growing with every step I took farther from them all. I kept my head high, my feet moving of their own accord; I couldn’t let them see just how much I didn’t want to do this. They’d all been so brave, so supportive; the least I could do was return the favor to them. And I’d be damned if I walked to my fate without a good poker face.
“Please be careful!” One of the neighbor’s wives called, her voice thick with tears. “Come back to us!” She waved, and I nodded, waving back at her. “Yes, ma’am.” I said, and turned back, walking down the road, hands shoved into my jacket pockets to hide my shaking. I heard footsteps behind me, and then arms around my waist, holding me anchored in place. “Please don’t go,” A quiet voice whispered into my jacket, wetting it with tears. “You don’t have to do this! Please! We need you here!”
“Oh, Alice,” I replied, turning in her arms, looking down at her, one hand stroking her hair, feeling my throat close with everything that I longed to say, but could not. “I have to. You know that. I agreed to this before I even knew what was in store.” “But we’re your family!” “I’ve got to save everyone.” God, I wanted to walk her home and pretend that this had never happened. But it was too late. I’d given my word to the people I loved, and I had to see this through, even if it meant I wasn’t going to come out of it unscathed. “But what if you die?”
“Then I will die knowing that I did my very best. That I fought for our family and our neighbors with my very last breath. Now go home. I love you, all of you.” I set my hands gently on her shoulders and gave her a light push toward home. Then I turned and ran, as fast as I could, down the road, toward the outskirts of town, my heart hammering with both fear and anticipation. As if in answer, a roar exploded the silence, vicious, hungry, angry, and I gritted my teeth, my resolve hardened.
I would face this with all the bravery I could muster. I wouldn’t risk going to my grave cowering.