Captivity. It brings to mind steel bars, forceful actions, cold restraints; all very physical sensations. But I’ve found that the less-substantial version of captivity that exists in my mind is just as efficient at barricading me from the rest of the world as ever a prison cell could. In some respects, the invisible bars that confined me were self-imposed, but my teenage mind did not comprehend that just yet.

Outside, darkness was giving way to dim light, and the softly-haloed moon hung low in the sky. Gently shutting the door behind me, I left behind the molding walls and rotted floors of the ancient blue and white single-wide trailer that my mom and I occupied. The snowy expanse spread out before me was silent, deathlike in its pale quietude. Each step made a light crunch as my boots pierced the pristine white armor guarding Mother Earth. I shivered. As the cold wind swirled around me, it swept hair across my face, hiding the tears that glistened in the moonlight. I longed for escape, and I thought I could chase it across the miles of snow-covered hills.

Yesterday in art, my friend asked about my Christmas gifts and I had answered her reluctantly. I could still hear my friend’s voice brimming with jealousy and accusation, “You are so lucky, you get all this neat stuff!” She should have balled up her fist and punched me in the stomach. It would have hurt less.

If only she knew. If only I could explain. But no, I had to hide within the cover of normalcy that I wove about myself; if I even let a stray thread show, it might unravel my whole façade and that was dangerous. He had made it clear that my life was forfeit if I let anything slip. These were not idle threats. I have seen guns in his possession that would make a hired killer envious. Those threats extended to my mother’s life as well, who was oblivious to the danger he represented.

These gifts that inspired such jealousy in my friend were also a façade. They hid beneath their bright exterior an evil perversion: a manipulative force that turned my resistance into a weapon against my own self. “Ungrateful bitch!” “Lazy!” “Selfish!” These were the daggers flung at me when I tried to fight against the puppeteer directing this perversion. My aunt and uncle thought the world of him. They thought he was only being kind and that I was repaying that kindness with defiance. And my friend, seeing only the gilt wrapping and bright colors, longed for my life without knowing what she was wishing for. If one needed evidence of my emotional and mental confinement, they only needed to see how clueless my dear friend was to the real state of affairs in my life.

The loneliness that welled up inside me as I walked was well-matched by the desolation of the landscape around me. I was surrounded by dark, towering trees, almost as dark as the anguish in my heart. All night I had thought of suicide, and I was ashamed I didn’t have the courage to pull it off. It seemed like the only escape open to me, but I couldn’t even manage that. I felt powerless. I couldn’t stop him from hurting me, I couldn’t ask anyone for help, and I couldn’t take my own life.


Maybe out here I could just drift off in the snow and leave my body behind. I could imagine the police, telling my mom that I must have gotten lost, died of exposure. I could imagine her breaking down and weeping. Sudden guilt overwhelmed me. My relationship with my mom was complicated and we often argued. I know that a lot of it was because she didn’t understand my behavior. She got frustrated, lost her temper, and then we would be at it. At that point all insults and accusations were on the table, all of them except for the elephant in the room that only I could see.

A hint of color was creeping up on the horizon, and with that concession a nearby bird cast off its slumber and started to warm up for early morning choir. I sighed at the feathered happy intrusion. The truth was that I just didn’t know what to do. I paused and looked around, indecision momentarily halting my trek. I was on the edge of a clearing, likely a farmer’s field, and the ground sloped up and away from the forest, blocking my view of what was beyond the rise.

I shifted on my feet, feeling the discomfort of the wetness seeping through my socks, the cold numbness. I shrugged it off and started forward once more, determined to make the top. It’s hard to explain why the hill represented more than a change in elevation at that moment. I needed to feel like there was at least one obstacle I could overcome, no matter how insignificant. I needed hope, something tenuous to cling to.

As I ascended to the crest of the hill, the sun broke the edge of the horizon, and the fingers of light touched everywhere, bathing the landscape in a layer of molten gold interspersed with dancing stars in the snow, like little twinkles of merry ephemerals sprinkling fairy dust. I could see for miles over the treetops.

It was all wilderness, and all beauty.

It was dazzling, breathtaking. It was almost like being transported to an alternate universe, one where my tragic existence maybe wasn’t so tragic after all, where I could make out some underlying meaning to life. The sun spread its warmth over me, filling all the dark emptiness inside with light, bringing a sense of peace.

How was it possible? I pondered for a moment, thinking about how I had set out with the hope of ending it all because I thought that was my only escape from misery. Yet here I was: not miserable, but peaceful. Almost happy. Nothing about my circumstances had changed. At the top of the hill, I had simply stopped and opened my eyes and heart to the world around me. I had made the choice to see beauty. At that moment, I recognized the feeling for what it was: freedom. The freedom to live. Live life, even though it was hard. Even though I didn’t know any way forward that could stop the hurt and the loneliness. Turning back, I followed my footsteps home, carrying that peaceful moment close to me, as if it was a shield for my heart. Never again would I allow myself to become a captive.

To this day, I stop and think of that moment whenever I start to feel overwhelmed, whenever I feel the weight of my sadness becoming too much. And every time, it fills me with peace, and I follow my footsteps back to the light.



Crystal Smith grew up in the small rural town of Cato, NY. She started off her adult life attending Buffalo State College as an art education major and music minor, but a physics of sound course grabbed her attention and drew her into the STEM fields. Guided by her fascination with viruses and quantum physics, she graduated with a B.S. in Biotechnology from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. When she isn’t trying to determine just how deep the rabbit hole goes, she’s off chasing after her three unruly children, gaming with her life-partner, and finding inventive excuses for her procrastination.