I could feel it, I could hear it, I could almost see it. It was haunting me. Too quiet, I thought. Something I was not used to. My feet were blistered and sore, dusty from my toes to my heel. The half a litre plastic jug of cold water I filled up at the servo twenty kilometres ago was now scorching hot. My forearms were aching, my back was bruised and I could have sworn a cloud of flies decided to reside on the top of my head. My hair was oily, nothing like how I looked just over forty-eight hours ago. The heat was unbearable. Get yourself through it; you can do this. The voice in my head told me not to look back, even though I knew if I did I would only see a never-ending dirt road. The bus line ended forever ago and there was no sign of human life for at least the last three hours. I kept going though, I was born here, and I knew passed endless amounts of dirt tracks my home was somewhere nearby, it had to be.

I slumped onto a yellow patch of grass I spotted to my left and pulled out my belongings, studying each and every one of them individually. The ink on my map had begun to run down the sides of the paper and my pen no longer worked. One thing that remained untouched though was his photo, placed in the most protective plastic pocket, as I knew the likelihood of it being damaged was quite high. But there I analysed it, still in perfect condition, the black and white Polaroid as clear as it had been when I captured it eight years ago, my son’s eyes staring back at me, longingly and hopeful.

My break was over, it was time to hit the road again, time was running out and I could feel my body giving up on me. I picked up my backpack and followed my map in the right direction. My phone had no signal, it hadn’t for the last few hours, but what use was a phone low on battery in the middle of the outback anyway? Hence why I played it safe with a map. My backpack felt heavier than it did a day ago, but I knew that was just a warning sign from my cramped shoulders. I continued to walk, shooing any bugs that flew my way, wiping the sweat off my face and counting my blessings as I watched the hours go by on my rusted watch. Surprisingly, I was still standing. Soon, the sun was going to set and I was nowhere near where I needed to be. I bit my nails anxiously as I started to plan out my night. The batteries I bought to replace my flashlight were to be used only in emergencies. I snacked on a muesli bar to keep me steady for the next few hours and decided that I was going to try and sleep at least a couple of hours through the night so I could be rejuvenated tomorrow morning. That didn’t stop me from circling the dirt road way passed midnight. My neck pillow was attached to the bottom of my backpack and I still had my disposable blanket in its packet ready for use. I walked a couple more kilometres until I found a comfortable surface by a rock. I elevated my head and shut my eyes, and instantly I was situated in this beautiful garden, surrounded by the smell of fresh flowers, with my precious son by my side, smiling, laughing, and feeling free…

The sun was shining bright at 6am the next morning. I struggled to get up. Four hours sleep was just not enough but I knew I had a long day ahead of me so not a single minute could have been wasted. My eyes were crusty and my breath smelt terrible, but in a time where my only need was shelter and my son in my arms, none of that mattered. I picked up my backpack, packed up my belongings and followed my compass north. Had my map been accurate, my next stop over should have been only a further few kilometres, and my hometown only another thirty from there. However just my luck, over ten kilometres north and not a single trace of human life. Perhaps it was my mind that was telling me that I had been walking for hours on end, maybe my feet themselves were not actually moving at all. The dehydration was catching up to me and I was starting to feel delusional. Was that rock always there? Have I been walking for a while? Have I not moved at all? My legs were getting weaker and weaker until my knee snapped and I tripped straight onto the hard ground. I checked out my calves and they were bleeding. Keep moving! I told myself, as though my life depended on my own encouragement. The birds above me were flying freely, how I wished I had been born as a raven, soaring through the sky, maybe then my body would not have felt so frail. I wiped the blood from my legs with a cloth I had on me and opened my first aid kit from my bag; I came prepared for this. As I bandaged my leg and dusted myself off I pulled my body up and gripped the tree in front of me with my bare hands for support. Nothing was pulling me up, all the energy I had was lost. My eyes were closing but this time it wasn’t from exhaustion. I tried to snap myself out of it but I lost the battle, I fell to the ground and instantaneously felt like I was trapped inside a pitch-black room coming from my eyelids…

‘Is she awake yet?’ An unfamiliar woman’s voice.
‘She’s not, but we have her on heavy medication, it may take a while until her body feels strong enough to wake her. We’ll let her rest for now and check in on her in a few hours.’
My eyes were still; even if I tried to move them they would not flinch. I tried to move my hand but I could feel it attached to something. A drip. And then I heard it, beep, beep, beep. I was in a hospital. I had no idea how I got there, how long I had been there for or who those ladies were. I wanted to get up and continue on my journey but I took advantage of the comfortable bed I was placed in and how good the medication felt as it made its way through my bloodstream. I could feel myself getting stronger and stronger, I also felt clean. Perhaps they managed to wash my body while I was passed out. I sank into the bed and felt myself dozing off. Whatever it was I encountered, I promised myself I would deal with it in the morning.

A young girl stood at the end of my bed filling out documentation, she was in a nurse’s uniform with a lanyard around her neck that had her name on it, Lara.

I cleared my throat to catch her attention and she quickly looked up.

‘Ms Neridah, wow, we were starting to lose hope.’ She saw me shuffling with the pillows behind me and made her way to my side of the bed to help. I had almost forgotten how to speak due to my lack of human interaction the days prior to that, but all that was going through my mind was my son, and I knew if I hadn’t spoken up I would have never found him.

‘How long have I been here for?’ I asked, eagerly.
‘Almost a week now,’ she responded, ‘we found you on Monday, it is now Friday.’ I was shocked.
I reached for the glass of water beside me and drank it all in one go, the coldness of it soothing my throat. ‘Can I ask where you found me?’

Lara finished scribbling some notes in my folder and then placed it back onto the clipboard. She filled up my glass of water and fixed my bed upright. ‘The town’s local farmer Orad found you, you were passed out a couple of kilometres out of our town, it was pretty disturbing to see. Your leg was quite badly injured and you looked beyond dehydrated. I’m surprised you didn’t suffer any permanent damage to be honest. But you’re okay now.’

I looked down at the colour of my skin and noticed how healthy I looked, I didn’t even want to imagine the state I was in when I was found ‘You were put on heavy medicine to bring you back to life, but by the looks of it you just needed some rest. Where are you from?’ I didn’t know how to respond, my past was my past and I had no intentions of bringing it up again to anyone, especially to those I had met on the journey of my escape.

‘It doesn’t matter, I need to find my son.’
‘Ah yes, is he the kid in the photo? We recognise him. He’s our local newspaper boy. Such a wise young man for his age –’she then paused, ‘he has never told us about his mother before, were you on vacation?’ I began to cry. ‘I just need to find my son, now, please.’ My hands were shaking at the thought of embracing my baby in my hands again; he was a grown man by then, and probably nothing like how I had left him. I pulled the needles out of my hands and lifted myself up to escape. Lara called for backup and suddenly four doctors were holding me down as I screamed for my son to come and save me. Lara cried amongst my shouts, ‘we’ll bring him to you don’t you worry Ms Neridah, please you’re safe here.’ I felt a needle go into my arm and before I knew it I was passing out again.

How does a mother explain to her four-year-old son that she has to leave him behind while she took on an opportunity so she can financially provide for her family? How does a mother explain to her now twelve-year-old son that she was held hostage and had to cut ties with her family? How does a mother explain to her twelve-year-old son why her weeklong job costed her eight years? She doesn’t. She fights for freedom, she fights for justice and she fights for his forgiveness.

I was sitting in the hospital biting my nails in anticipation. They told me they would bring him to me in the next few hours. Each time somebody walked passed the door my heart skipped a beat, but there was no show of him yet. I was replaying conversations in my head, training myself on what to say, preparing for the worst, perhaps he didn’t want to speak to me, maybe he didn’t want to hear my reasoning, maybe he could have never forgiven me, I knew I could have never forgiven my mother if she did that to me, especially if I didn’t know the reason behind it.

The door swung open, it was Lara. ‘He’s here.’
My stomach sunk. My heart was beating so incredibly fast. I was going to throw up. I was shaking. I held his Polaroid in my hands, hoping for those same eyes to walk through the door and jump straight into my arms. I just wanted to touch his cheeks, feel the warmth of his hands and embrace every part of my son, the love of my life. The door flew open, and of course there were his eyes, filled with anticipation, tears. Just how I saw him in the photo, hoping, longing for his mother to return. It was exactly like the dreams I had been having, the world paused for a second and it was just me and him in that room, and while only a few seconds had passed I felt like I had been in his presence for a decade, like he never really left my side, like he had been there all along.

Tears came running down his face and my first reaction was to get to him in the quickest possible way, not a single care in the world about the pain that came from my infirmed body. I gathered all the energy I had left in me to pick myself up and headed for the door. He met me half way and before I knew it he was in my arms, I held him so tight, just like I used to when he was a child, that not even the strongest of earthquakes could separate us. Nothing had changed; it was as if no time had passed since the last time I held him like this. He was tall and built, but his face hadn’t changed. He still resembled me from a mile away. Suddenly, I felt like that young twenty-two year old single mother who had only her and her son against the world. It was just me and him, in our little garden just like all my dreams, our family, we were unstoppable, no one could tear us apart. Being in his arms I forgot about all the trauma I had encountered all those years, the beatings, the suffering, no traumatic memory could take away the joy I felt in that moment. I drenched his chest with my tears and he sobbed into my shoulder.

‘My mother, you came back! You came back!’
I imagined a young boy growing up all these years thinking his mother abandoned him, I imagined him questioning what he ever did wrong.
‘I’m so sorry.’ I repeatedly said, running my fingers through his hair. ‘I’m so, so sorry.’
‘I knew you would come back for me, I have so many questions to ask,’ he said.

‘Don’t worry my darling, we have the rest of our lives to answer them.’