The last flame of candlelight had flickered out hours ago, but even in the complete darkness, Annabelle Caldwell’s eyes refused to remain shut.
It’s hopeless, Annabelle said to herself as she gazed out the window at the full moon. I’m never going to fall asleep. Her mind began wandering and it settled upon Ruth’s birthday party later this week. She and the other girls from her class would wear their nicest dresses and sit primly at the patio table, sipping their lemonade and nibbling their tea sandwiches. They’d make small conversation and giggle occasionally at appropriate times. Perhaps there…
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Annabelle jumped out of bed. Her heart raced. She could barely breathe. Beads of sweat began to form on her forehead. What was that sound? And where was it coming from?
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The thumping was coming from above her.
Are there ghosts in the attic? Annabelle thought as a shiver ran up her spine.
Don’t be silly, she told herself as her heartbeat slowly returned to its normal pace. Ghosts aren’t real.
But when the noise continued, she decided to investigate.
Stealthily, she crept across her bedroom to the bureau. She groped around for a few endless moments and finally drew out three items: a lantern, a box of matches, and an old wooden bat.
Annabelle tiptoed to the door and opened it a crack, just wide enough so that she could slip out of the room and into the hallway. She crawled to the spiraling staircase, wincing at every creak, every groan. Her heart pumped faster every second.
When she finally came face to face with the closed attic door, the thump, thump, thump-ing was noticeably louder.
Cautiously, she opened the door, making a terribly loud squeak. The thumping stopped at once.
Annabelle grasped onto the wall to keep from fainting. She should’ve run away: fly down the stairs, race into her room, and hide under the covers. But instead, with a shaky hand, she lit the lamp with a match, positioned her bat to swing, and inched forward.
Through the beacon of light, Annabelle could make out a petrified face.
It was a hot summer day when Annabelle’s father returned home from the cotton fields with a female slave.
“She’s no good on the plantation. Hopefully, she can help out in the house.”
Susan was only a few years older than her, so Annabelle had tried making friends, but whenever she tried talking to her, the girl would always turn away and not respond. Annabelle had given up trying a couple years ago.
“Susan, what are you doing here?” Annabelle whispered, lowering her weapon slowly.
Looking down at her bare feet, her face burning with shame, Susan muttered grimly, “I was leaving, miss.”
A long silence stretched between them.
Annabelle was smart enough to realize that Susan wasn’t leaving for a vacation.
“Miss, how much do you know about slavery?” Susan finally asked, looking straight into Annabelle’s eyes for the first time.
“Not much,” Annabelle admitted.
“When I was seven, a group of European men came into my small village of Bunumbu, armed with guns and bayonets, and chained everyone up. They kicked us, whipped us, even threatened to kill us. They forced us into a cramped boat in horrible conditions. During that voyage, many, including my father and baby sister, died. When we arrived in Virginia, we were informed we’d be working as slaves. My mother and I were separated. I was placed in an auction where we were bid on.”
“Oh, Susan,” Annabelle whispered, “that’s dreadful.”
“Yes, miss,” Susan confirmed. “I was hoping to head north to Pennsylvania, where I could begin a new life.”
Annabelle knew that this was all wrong. The right thing to do was to tell her father of Susan’s plan to escape.
What would it be like, Annabelle thought, for me to be Susan?
But as she looked into Susan’s wide chocolate eyes, she knew she couldn’t do such a thing. How could she ever pity herself again when there were people out there like Susan? People who have lost everything. People who have nobody left to turn to.
“Susan, I want to help.”
Annabelle took the girl’s small burlap sack and signaled for her to stay put. Then, silently, she went downstairs and collected a week’s meager supply of food, a refillable canister with water, a cotton blanket, a roll of gauze, and a compass.
Susan’s eyes lit up and she opened her mouth to speak. Annabelle put a finger to her lips and shook her head.
“Thank you,” Susan whispered quietly.
Annabelle reached for the girl’s hand and led her to the backyard, where there was a surrounding forest.
Annabelle could see the tears running down Susan’s face as she said, “I will never forget you and your kindness.”
Annabelle didn’t hesitate as she wrapped her new friend into a hug.
“Goodbye,” Susan said. She turned around and disappeared into the woods.