The trail steepened as I darted up the worn path. With a glance back, I released a sigh. No footprints left.
One deliberate step after another, the distance to the water lessened. The breeze blew through the trees and their leaves rustled from the sides of the path. I quickened my pace. Rocks, tree limbs, and pine needles took up more room as the path narrowed.
Voices drifted across the breeze through the wooded area. My heart thrashed against my ribcage. Tears fell with each step. This day would not end well if I made too much noise. Still, I took tentative but faster steps. If the pursuers caught up with me, the attempt at covertness wouldn’t matter anyway.
I tripped and threw my arms like wings to stay upright.
Was the boat still tied to the dock even after five years? Had Mom and Dad moved it? I sucked in a breath and whimpered.
“Oh God, please. Let the boat be there and the key be in its normal hiding place.” The whispered prayer came too loud and desperate. I curled my lips in on each other and bit down.
I didn’t need God as a teenager. I didn’t need Him when I moved out. Why should I need Him now? My breathing staggered.
Such a lie. But I did need Him then and I need Him now.
As the voices grew louder, I pushed branches aside and hurried down the path.
“I think she went this way.”
“Look, that’s the band from her hair.”
I reached up and patted my head. Gone. Forget it and get to the water. But what if the boat’s gone? It is my last hope.
Any other time, I might laugh. Now today.
Painting the boat’s name on both sides and the back of the boat had been so much fun. Ayla’s Hope. Some joke that turned out to be. I’ve never had much hope in anything. Could it have been one of those prophetic things? Name it after me and maybe I’d find hope? But it hadn’t worked that way.
Step after step, tree limbs fought for space. The water still called out like it had the first time. Without much effort, the memory of the ocean’s mist washed over me. I wiped my face and shook my head. No moisture except my own tears. I would give anything right now to feel spray from the crashing waves.
Bile crawled up my throat and I swallowed hard. No point leaving another sign of my presence. “Where did everything go so wrong, God? I used to love spending time with You.”
Arthur. He wanted to explore other beliefs. Why did I listen to him? Boyfriends were supposed to encourage not lead their girlfriends the wrong way.
I shook my head as I struggled to see the trail.
It wasn’t his fault. I made the decisions that put me in this mess. I knew better. I looked everywhere for answers but where I knew they would be. The commune hadn’t provided anything but fear, stress, and someone else to control me.
I let the tears fall. “I’m sorry, God. If I’m found, no way will I get away from the cult again. Please help me,” I swallowed a sob.
As I turned the last bend of the trail, the clear blue water spread out as the trees fell away. Whitecaps surfed the waves, then faded.
I stopped short. No boat. My head lolled back and I dropped my shoulders. I put my hand on my heart to keep it from coming out of my chest. With short, choppy breaths, I wrapped my arms around myself.
No way off the island now. I kept walking until I paused on the dock where Mom and Dad’s boat had once been moored. Why couldn’t anything ever work out?
With a few more steps, I stood nearer the end of the dock. Should I swim? Maybe once, but it had been so long since high school. It might have been my passion, but could my endurance hold long enough? Yet dying at the hands of those from the cult who chased me wasn’t an option.
I took my shoes off, pulled off my socks, ran back to the land, and hid them behind a boulder. As if on their own, my steps brought me to the end of the dock. Maybe slip in and under the water instead of diving. But if I dove, I could cover more space, though it would cause a splash. I eased myself onto the edge of the metal mooring and let my feet dangle into the cool water. I shuddered.
Slowly, I lowered myself the rest of the way into the water. My breath caught against the chill.
“Where could she have gone?”
I sank below the surface. A hum magnified. What was whirring? I swam under the metal dock, then raised between the water’s surface and the bottom side of the pier enough to breathe.
“We have to find her. She knows too much.”
A pounding noise came from above me.
I took a deep breath and dropped deeper.
The droning increased as the voices decreased.
Again, from under the dock, I lifted my head and drew in slow, deep breaths. The water continued to sway. I grasped for the piling under the dock, but the movement grew stronger.
A motor. Had to be a boat. The engine’s thrum increased. “God, please let me get help from the boaters.” I breathed out the prayer.
I panted like my dog used to after a run. What if whoever was on the boat was from the cult? Maybe they were searching the island’s shoreline. After another quick breath, I slipped under the water again. It would definitely be more difficult to get away now.
My muscles shook. The boat rocked near the mooring My face broke through the surface again, and I tilted my head back so I could breathe.
The white hull was close. I drifted to the opposite side of the dock and wiggled until I could see better.
Tears joined the ocean’s water. I reached out and touched Ayla’s Hope. Does it still belong to Mom and Dad? This spot on the island was so remote, surely only someone familiar with the island would know about mooring a boat at this spot.
Maybe hope was within reach. If Mom and Dad still owned Ayla’s Hope, would they be glad to see me? Dad’s favorite Bible story was the son who came home. It was time to find out if life and a Bible story really did connect.
I swam to the end of the dock, rose, and lifted to where I could see. My heart fluttered in my chest as I watched Dad tie the boat off while Mom scurried around the deck. The boat motor was still running. We wouldn’t have to wait for it to restart before we could make our escape.
I pushed against the metal and lifted myself up. Dad turned around quickly.
He dropped the rope. His hands dangled. “Ayla.” A whispered word and waves of time drifted away. Tears dripped like a slow leak from his eyes.
I wiped wet hands across my face.
A gasp brought my attention to the boat deck. Mom’s mouth hung open. Dad wrapped his arms around me and I buried my head again his strong chest. How often had I gained strength and comfort from this man in this same way? Another set of arms wrapped me as well. As strong as Dad’s arms were, Mom’s were gentle. She rubbed her hand over my dripping hair.
I stepped back. “I am sorry, Dad … Mom.”
Dad pulled me into another strong hug.
I pushed back, “I want to tell you all about what happened, but right now, we need to leave. There are some men who have been chasing me, and if they come back … well, we just need to not be here, if they come back.”
Dad gave me another quick hug, then rushed to untie the boat. We climbed aboard. As the boat began backing up, shouts came from the tree line. A shot rang out and water splashed. Dad took over the controls from Mom and revved the motor.
Within moments, the boat bounced across the ocean toward the mainland.
Below deck, I dried off and put on a pair of Mom’s shorts and a shirt, then sat down on the not-so-padded seat. I bowed my head and gripped my trembling hands. “I don’t know how You did it, God. But thank You.”
Hope returned and I didn’t want to lose it again.
Photo Credit: Mine