Never Let You Go (a modern fairytale)(2)By: Katy Regnery
Gris took his hands, her keen eyes darting back and forth between his. “Stone to stone. I jump, you jump.”
Holden whipped his neck to see Cutter bound out of the corn, emitting a proud wail when he caught sight of the two children huddled together by the shore’s edge.
“Now!” screamed Gris.
Pulling Holden’s hand, she stepped forward with a splash and Holden followed, the cold water both shocking and soothing on his shredded feet. She dropped his hand so she’d be able to maintain her balance, and started hopping from rock to rock. Holden stared at her feet, just as he had all the times they’d practiced in the damp, dark cellar. As she leaped, the water cleaned her feet, until they were shiny and white, with deep scratches and gouges. Hop, steady. Leap, stop.
If she looked behind to confirm he was following, he didn’t know it, his eyes were so fixated on her feet. His heart thundered in his chest, knowing that at any moment Cutter could leap into the water, or the Man could grab the back of Holden’s threadbare gray T-shirt and yank him back to shore, away from Gris.
From behind, Holden heard a loud splash, like how it would sound if a pair of men’s boots hit the water at the same time, but Cutter didn’t sound as close. His barks went back and forth across the riverbank, where he must have been pacing and howling, reluctant to follow his master into the cold, rushing water.
“Ruth!” the Man called to Griselda. “Ya stop right now, gal, or I’m a’set to lash s’many stripes in yer back, it’ll take the devil hisself to stop me.”
The Man’s breath wasn’t so far away now. Not close enough to smell, but like a dragon’s from the fairy stories Gris told, it was burning and hateful and roaring and low, filling Holden’s ears with dread. He fought the temptation to turn around, to look at the monster behind him, but he heard Gris’s voice in his head: Don’t look back, no matter what. Our feet are small. Stone to stone. I jump, you jump.
He hazarded a glance up, and Gris was getting to the middle now, but consumed with her progress, she wasn’t looking back anymore. The distance between them was widening little by little as Holden struggled to keep up with her.
“And you, ya godforsaken half-wit, I’ll club yer head in and finish the job the devil started, Seth.”
Holden clenched his fists at his side as he heard a loud splash followed by some angry cussing.
We get halfway across, he won’t follow.
Hop, steady. Leap, stop. Hop, steady. The water rushed around the rocks now, making them more slippery than they’d been closer to the shore, and Holden’s breath caught as he almost slid off a mossy one, compensating by tilting his body back, then forward, to find his balance.
“You still with me, Holden?” Gris yelled.
The butt of the Man’s rifle rammed against Holden’s ear with a sharp, shocking thwack that made the side of his face explode in pain and sent him sailing off the rock and into the river. Disoriented, with stars bursting behind his eyes, he heard Griselda scream “Holden!” over the sound of the water sluicing between them.
The Man stood waist-deep in the rushing water, holding the neck of Holden’s shirt bunched up in his hand. With one yank, he dragged him up out of the water and onto a nearby rock like a rag doll.
“I got’ya now, dummy . . .”
Holden coughed and gurgled, crouched on the rock in defeat, the front of his shirt almost strangling him from the Man’s hold on it. It took strength he didn’t have to raise his head and find Gris’s stricken face about ten feet ahead. She hopped back one rock closer, her eyes desperate as she looked from Holden to the Man, back and forth, her face crumbling in agony as she understood her choice.
“Oh, Holden,” she sobbed.
“Ya’ll come on along, now, gal. Ya’ain’t leavin’ him all on his now. Are ya?”
Holden could hear Cutter’s victory wail from the shore as the Man’s hand twisted and tightened on Holden’s shirt, almost cutting off his oxygen supply.
“You leave him be! Let him go!” she demanded in a shaking, furious voice, small hands fisted by her sides. She flicked her devastated blue eyes to Holden before looking back up at the Man.
“Fuck. You,” he drawled. “Ya’ll come on along, Ruth. Now!”
Holden shook his head back and forth, faster and faster, his throat chafing against the tightness of the fabric around his neck, as his eyes locked on hers. He felt the hot, wet, humiliating tears trail down his cheeks, but he kept his jaw firm and square, his lips tight, his eyes burning with thanks and regret and love.
Ask me if I’m whole . . . Ask me . . .
“G-G-Gris,” he sputtered. Then, mustering the last bit of strength in his small body, pushing through a haze of tears and terror and exhaustion, he bellowed, “R-r-r-r-uuuuuun!”
And then there was only darkness.
Ten years later
“No, Jonah. I can’t do that. I won’t.”
“Don’t you love me, baby?”
Griselda shifted her glance from the windshield to her boyfriend’s handsome profile, running her eyes over his thick, chestnut hair, aquiline nose, and pouty lips. He caught her staring and winked at her playfully before turning his glance back to the road.