Letha wrenched open the window of the bar bathroom, wriggled through, and dashed between the trash bins. Where the paving crumbled, she plunged downhill into darkness, her frail shoes slipping over wet grass, stones, and mud till she reached the stream lined with willows. She ducked under their skirts and crouched, looking back.
Up above, the beast bellowed: Letha. He’d pushed his hand up into her to show he owned her, then let her go on back to pee.
His shape crossed neon haze, moving toward the dark bulk of the closed textile mill. When she was a child, her grandmother told her not to play here and sang old ballads of sad mill maidens who’d vanished, never to be seen again. As she grew, her father and uncles came home with tales of accidents, suspicious spills, and layoffs, before they left in search of work.
He was selling her, the beast had told her. She was pretty enough, but too glum, not worth keeping.
Grasping slim branches, she felt her way around to the streamside. She balanced by the water, its night breath cool.
Rattling rocks, the beast descended.
Leaves whispered: Willow in water puts demons to flight. Letha tossed away her shoes and stepped in. Bending, she sank her toes deep and took root, there among the other girls.
Lynne Barrett’s most recent story collection is Magpies, winner of the Florida Book Awards gold medal for fiction. Her recent work appears in Necessary Fiction, Fort Lauderdale Magazine, The Southern Women’s Review, Trouble in the Heartland, Fifteen Views of Miami, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches in the MFA program at Florida International University.