SHE COVERED her mouth to stifle a scream but gagged noises escaped through the gaps between her blood-soiled hands. Her feeble sobs and heavy panting were muffled as she gasped for air. The chill wind numbed her skin as she hastily tried to sneak into the thorny brambles.

Mud had clung to her skin, which was now wet with perspiration. The thorns of wild shrubs scratched her skin without cease. She listened intently for heavy footsteps as her heart pounded inside her chest.

There was no one. Only silence and tension that hung thickly in the air.

Clutching tightly her bruised and swollen foot, she tried to prop herself up a tree.

She couldn’t remember how far she had walked. All that mattered to her then was to escape from her captors. She had no inkling of what had happened to the other hostages as she fled for her life into the dense sanctuary of the trees.

She was having difficulty getting past the rough, steep edges of the mountainside before stumbling in the tangled bracken. Suddenly, she lost her foothold and slipped into a shallow crevice in the earth.

Dusk was nearing. A dense mist slowly formed a blanket over the landscape and the sky transformed into a dark velvet hue. She trembled in fear as she thought of what awaited her and whether she would survive the night.

As bursts of wind descended upon her, she wrapped her arms around her tired body in an effort to keep the cold away. Every now and merged with the dull stillness of the air.

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She was now lying flat on her back, facing a number of stars whose light was not blocked by the protruding branches of the trees. How she wished to be like these celestial bodies whose brightness never seemed to falter.

Suddenly, her thoughts were disturbed by a swooshing sound. She listened wide-eyed.

“Must be the wind,” she thought.

The crickets began their mantra. Everything seemed tranquil at that moment, as she drifted into sleep.

Hazy images slowly crowded her mind. She dreamt that she was with her mother in the marketplace, selling root crops harvested from their small backyard. She had been able to endure the scorching heat of the midday sun as she helped her mother till the soil. They were able to survive with a meager income, despite all the hardships.

She dreamt of what had transpired before—she and her mother walking hand-in-hand on their way to the maket. It was still dark, and she could barely see the path they were trudging. Suddenly, she heard her mother shriek.

A burly figure of a man emerged from behind her. He gripped her wrist and hurled her into his back. She fought back but her legs kicked in despair. She saw her mother lying on the ground unconscious, the basket she had been carrying beside her, its contents strewn about.

Then everything went blank.

Gunshots.

She thought she heard them in her sleep. But as she opened her tired eyes, she realized that her fears were real. The sound came louder now. She stayed rooted on the spot as she was too weak to run.

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For a moment, she struggled to get up, to wander, only to slump on the ground again. She looked at her bloodied hands, bruised arms, and torn clothes.

She tried to fight back tears of desperation as the grim truth dawned upon her: this wasn’t a dream.

It seemed just like hours ago that she was in the assuring arms of her mother. Then, pictures of the recent events flickered in her head—the futile government negotiations, the innocent victims robbed of their future, the destruction brought by gruesome encounters, and the dust hanging low in the Mindanao skyline.

She waited for that day when she could be with her parents again. But now, she was not even sure if she could get out of this place alive.

Looking around, she felt a feeling of loneliness she had never experienced before. The surroundings started to become unreal: the trees seemed to grow larger and the animal sounds frenzied and scary. Her fright grew as she realized the extent of her danger—she had more than one enemy now.

The trees seemed to move aside to expose her. The birds and the ground creatures sounded as if it were telling her location. The forest and the night conspired to spell her doom.

As tears formed in her eyes, the child in her mind found a room filled with dusty memories. She remembered Him. How could she have forgotten Him? And so she sought comfort and refuge in that thought.

But her situation overtook the memory and reminded her once more of her misery. No one was there to help her, she thought. Not even Him whom she and her parents worshipped in the town mosque.

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Slight drizzle fell from the sky. She stared into the darkness, then bent down to weep.

Her head still in her hands, she didn’t see the beams of light cutting through the gloom.

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