The following is an excerpt of my upcoming novel — which hasn’t been named yet. I’m not sharing any other details about the story, leaving it up to the reader to decide whether or not they’d like to continue reading.

This work is dated 3/19/2019 — Copyright Chelsea Hoffman x Anna Mist

Fat, cold beads of sweat covered her brow and neck, wetting Amanda’s hair and making it stick to her skin. She shivered as she sat upright, and tried to focus her eyes in the dark, quiet bedroom that enveloped her. Several seconds passed before she could make out the blurred red digits of her bedside clock.

It was 5:12 in the morning.

Amanda felt uneasy, but she couldn’t remember what had caused her to wake up so abruptly from her sleep. Her chest felt tight, and so did her throat. She was anxious, still sweating from her head to her feet. Her bedsheets were damp with perspiration and pulled from the bed as though a struggle had taken place. It was another night of deep, dreamless sleep that still left her feeling exhausted — like she hadn’t even slept at all. She sat in almost-total silence, hearing only the muffled sound of a leaky faucet behind the buffer of a closed bathroom door. The dull thud of water hitting porcelain was only amplified by the stillness of the outside world — the quietest hours of the night, suspended on the cusp between darkness and daylight. It wouldn’t be long before the ordinary sounds of the work-week started up for the morning, but in these long moments of dusk, Amanda felt like she was the last person on Earth. She both loved and loathed it.

Routine. Routine. Routine. She was up over an hour too early, but pulled herself out of bed. She started her coffeemaker and dropped a slice of bread into the toaster. She showered quickly, only long enough to wash away the clammy sweat from the previous night. She had mastered the five-minute-shower. She had to in this old, rickety house. The pipes were bad, and the well on the property was older than Amanda. Of course, most of the structures in the town were older than Amanda. During the colder months, the water froze, and during the summertime the cold water ran hot and sputtered grit. The faucets leaked. The water pressure was weak. The bathtub appeared to sink into the flooring of the old home on one side, threatening that every shower may be its last. Still, the rent was reasonable for the location, and Amanda had bigger problems to worry about than a two-hundred-year-old house that didn’t even belong to her.

She ate her toast with nothing on it, standing silently in her kitchen; A cup of black, bitter coffee in her other hand. She hadn’t gotten dressed for work yet. She didn’t want to get the crumbs or stains on her clothes. It was a habit that her grandmother had unintentionally taught her when she was a child, by the way she got ready, herself, every day. She never left the house unless she was perfectly preened, without a speck of lint or debris on any of the expensive outfits she wore. Her grandmother took pride in her appearance, perhaps more than any other woman she had known in her twenty-five years alive, and some of her did rub off in a way on Amanda — at least to the extent of getting ready for work. This was one of very few qualities she’d borrowed from the older woman, but it was a part of the daily routine that always led her right down the path of thinking about her, and even missing her to a degree. She was a difficult woman to miss.

– Boring, green scrubs. That was her work attire. The shapeless shell-top and elastic-waisted pants were a size too large, but they were comfortable at least. The slight curves of her petite body were completely concealed by the stiff, cotton fabric — and that’s what she wanted. The color, on the other hand, she hated more than the condition of her house’s pipes. The muted, dull green was more reminiscent of what a prison worker would wear, than what she — a triage nurse — expected to wear in any other medical setting. Amanda looked at herself in the mirror, sneering somewhat at the hideously-colored work uniform. The hue seemed to reflect off her skin, making her complexion appear lackluster.

She looked ill.

Truth be told, she kind of felt ill. She couldn’t shake off the anxious feeling that jolted her awake in the first place. She knew she had unsettling dreams, but for the life of her she couldn’t remember a single moment of them. In fact, she couldn’t remember even going to sleep the previous night. She hated nights that felt like she wasn’t even in her own body, as if she had ceased to exist for an entirety of seven hours with no recollection of her own nonexistence. Last night was one of those nights, and the residual feelings were those of uncertainty and of dread. The pit of her gut felt fluttery, and the tightness in her chest had only minimally eased. She thought about calling out of work, but it was only a fleeting moment. She knew she’d be far better off there, than alone at home with her thoughts. Besides, she needed the money.

    From her bedroom, loud country-western music loudly rattled. The twangy feminine voice blared through the tinney little speakers of Amanda’s radio alarm clock, filling her small home with the upbeat tune. The song was a popular hit that played often, a wild woman’s power ballad of vengeance and self-awakening. It was 6:00 a.m. — technically time for Amanda to be waking up and starting her day.

Guess I’ll just have to be early today, she thought to herself as she grabbed her purse from the kitchen counter.

She just wanted to get out of that damned house. The sounds of water hitting the sink and creaking floorboards were permanently embedded in her mind, and the overall feelings of dream anxiety made her feel like she needed to run as far from her bed as possible.

***

There was only one hospital in a thirty-five-mile-radius, and Amanda was in charge of its triage window — not that any of this meant that she was busy. The majority of emergencies that came this way were heart-attacks, strokes and accidental falls of the dying-off elderly population. During the winter months the occasional skiing or snowmobile emergency would come up with inexperienced tourists, but the area was rural and simply slow-paced. Sometimes Amanda and her coworkers would go several days without seeing anyone rush through the emergency room doors. Nonetheless, the hospital remained open — although the emergency room intake, itself, wasn’t a twenty-four-hour outfit like it had been in the not-so-distant past.

Pine Springs was a dying town, in a large and sparsely populated county. The closest big city was an hour away, where all the real paying jobs and opportunities were. This area had once been a coal-mining boomtown that later became a huge tourism spot in the 1960s and 1970s. Sometime in the ‘80s, the huge crowds of people just stopped coming, and residents started packing their bags and heading out for better opportunities. The few families who stayed were either too proud to leave, or too poor to go elsewhere. Amanda’s grandmother had once been a prominent member of the community, as was her great-grandmother and several of her aunts, uncles and other kin. Today, she was the only remaining member of her family still hanging-on to the Pine Springs area — and even then, she wound up wondering to herself every single day about why she was still here. The dying town was a frequent topic of discussion between the older ladies that worked at the hospital. The discussions always turned to Amanda, with a bombardment of questions that she didn’t want to answer.

“How is Estelle, dear? She must miss this clean air,” Donna Redding exclaimed.

“Oh, she doesn’t miss a thing about this town or the yokels in it,” groaned Valerie Johns, rolling her heavily-made up eyes to the point that Amanda could see the outer ridges of her fake, blue contact lenses.

The three women stood behind the desk of the emergency room entrance. Amanda had just walked in, nearly an hour early, and was already regretting her decision to even come to work that day. Donna grabbed the younger woman’s hand in hers and squeezed tightly. She smiled through large, brightly-whitened veneers with a genuine glimmer of happiness that showed on the smile lines that spidered from her brown eyes.

“Stop it! She was a delight just like her little girl, here. Amanda, you tell ‘Stelle that we all miss her so much up here. Has she said anything to you about us? Is she homesick at all? I just couldn’t imagine ever leaving. I’d miss everyone, just so much!”

“She misses all of you,” Amanda lied, “And she’s doing well, settling in perfectly.”

Valerie snorted a bit, then smiled. “Well if she misses us all so much, I’m sure she’ll tell us all about it when she invites us down to see her brand new house.”

“How nice is her house, Amanda? I heard she had an indoor spa installed. That must be wonderful. She must really miss the springs and wanted to have a piece of home with her,” Donna cooed.

“Living high off the hog,” Valerie chimed in, her voice carrying an almost mocking tone.

Amanda forced out another lie, “She’s definitely having a good time.”

She almost prayed for someone to be wheeled through the double-doors of the emergency room. She’d settle for anything at this point; An amputation, a bee sting, even a good old fashioned hypochondriac would suffice. Anything at all would be better than being bounced between two biddies who couldn’t agree on whether they were over-interested or not interested at all in her grandmother’s life.

“Good morning, ladies,” the familiar voice of Doctor Craig Adams called from down the hall.

Almost anything…

Valerie and Donna dispersed from their position behind the desk, heading down opposite sides of the adjacent hallway that led into the hospital’s main building. Amanda was left by herself in the emergency room intake, already tense from her rocky morning wake-up, made worse by the chatter of the two middle-aged women. Now she had to deal with Adams, a man only four-years-older than she, but with a phenomenally huge ego and an unprofessional interest in her. She could hear the jingle of the keys on his hip, and the echoes of his footsteps that bounced down the walls of the hallway. He was getting closer.

“Oh, you’re alone.” His voice was cheerful as he peered around the entranceway from the main building.

“Yep.”

“You look tired!”

“Thanks.” She forced back the urge to roll her eyes.

He was standing just about a foot from her, uncomfortably close as far as she was concerned. He laughed a little at her sarcastic response.

“You know I didn’t mean it like that. You look like you’re not getting enough sleep. You’re still a babe, though.”

“For fuck’s sake, Craig,” she sighed, annoyed. “I don’t have time for this.”

“See? Not getting enough sleep. My medical instinct is never wrong.”

“If you applied that medical instinct to your patients, you wouldn’t need to be here bothering me, but here you are,” Amanda retorted.

Adams chuckled and grabbed a stack of printer paper from a cabinet behind Amanda. He enjoyed messing with her. It had been a habit of his since they were teenagers. Amanda turned to face him, dead-on, and narrowed her eyes. His devil-may-care attitude had always been a source of annoyance, and always when she rebuffed him or showed her lack of interest. He winked at her with a smile as he stepped back out into the hospital hallway.

“You’ll have to loosen up eventually. Haven’t you heard? I’m the last man in town.”

“That’s very funny,” she said flatly.

“Maybe when you’re the last woman in town, huh?” He continued, still smiling. His smile always gave her the creeps.

“Please, just take your paper and go, Craig.”

“Hahaha, okay. Okay!”

Doctor Craig Adams winked at Amanda and took another step into the long hallway, leading toward his office. He stopped for a second and looked back at her with the same creepy smile on his face that he had moments earlier.

“Send your love to Estelle for me next time you talk to her, ok?”

“Sure thing,” she muttered.

***

Amanda stood in front of the empty lot where her childhood home once stood. It was the gloomiest part of her daily treks between home and work and back again. She rested her back against her idling car, which she had pulled over on the side of the road directly in front of the lot, and let out an exhausted sigh. It was a massive property that had once been the most beautiful estate in Pine Springs, that sprawled across two hundred acres of land. Where forty acres of grapevines and fruit trees once stood, nothing more than blackened, leveled terrain remained. A large foundation where the six thousand square foot home used to be was all there was to imply that any structures once existed there. All the dirt where a vast green lawn once grew was tamped down by the large tires of heavy equipment that had once been used to clean up the property. It was a heartbreaking sight to Amanda, and had been for every day for the past fifteen years. Still, she found herself stopping off to stare silently at the property on most days. It was where she’d recollect on the work day, and where she’d question the goings-on of her life. Sometimes she’d allow herself to enjoy the memories of wandering the expansive estate as a child, running through the grass in her bare feet and plucking ripe peaches, plums and pears from the trees, and eating them where she stood. Most times, she’d just stare blankly at the place, and allow herself to feel numb. Tonight was one of those nights.

The setting sun disappeared behind the trees that grew densley up the mountains that surrounded Pine Springs, overshadowing the rural town with instant darkness. It was a moonless night, and the little town didn’t have many streetlights. When Amanda was a child, two large decorative lamps adorned stone columns at the end of the long driveway, illuminating the street to showcase the home her great-grandfather had built for the love of his life. Now, she just stood in darkness as the visibility of the hillside residence disappeared into the consuming darkness of night.

2

“Don’t let her get away!” The tall man in black shouted to his accomplices. The torch in his hand glowed brightly, so brightly that Amanda couldn’t make out the features of his face. His voice was angry, deep and commanding.

She was running, barefooted, through the heavily wooded terrain behind the humongous mansion that she called home. She glanced over her shoulder, terrified, as the lights surrounding her home disappeared further into the distance. Also in the distance, and getting closer, were the torches held by the men sent out to capture her. They were gaining on her trail, coming at her from multiple sides as their leader shouted from the inner yard of the property. His voice carried through the forest, but became fainter the more she stumbled away from him. Still, the voices of his men grew closer, closing-in on her aggressively no matter how hard she tried. Her feet ached, and her bare legs stung from the whipping of the brush and bramble as she ran.

“She’s not far!” One of the men shouted, his voice piercing through her as she stumbled into the depths of the mountain forest. Her heart was beating so hard that she felt as if she could drop dead at any second, and her stomach twisted and flopped. A stabbing pain in her side slowed her down, but she pushed further into the dense overgrowth, blindly staggering where she’d never been.

“I can hear her over there! That way!” Another man grunted.

Amanda couldn’t see anything in the thick overgrowth of brush, trees and vines. She stumbled over rocks, and tripped over unearthed roots, falling to her knees. The men were coming closer. She could hear the movement through the forest, the snapping of twigs and leaves under their feet and the almost joy-like way they encouraged each other to find her and capture her for their leader. She could see the increasing glow of their torches. There were six of them. She stayed down, and frantically crawled through the bushes on her hands and knees, scrambling for a place to hide in the darkness to avoid detection. She stuffed her petite body into a crevice between a rock and fallen tree, and squeezed under a heavy bush. The footsteps were close, more sporadic. She could hear them surrounding the area in which she desperately tried to seek refuge.

“She’s gotta be around here,” One of them said.

“Yeh think iss true what they’re sayin’ about her?” Another man’s voice asked. His accent was thick, different.

“Doesn’t matter none,” the other man said, “What matters is we git her back to Hollins so this night can end.”

“What yeh ‘spose Hollins wants with the wretch?” The heavy-accented man’s voice was so close to her hiding spot that Amanda could almost bet that he was standing directly over her — but she was far too scared to move a muscle.

“He says she’s dangerous,” the deep, smoky voice of another man emerged. The goons were all coming together in the area surrounding her dark, brushy hiding spot.

The foreign man laughed, “Aye? The big tough Hollins thinks a wee bird is dangerous? Aren’t yeh scared then, Mr. Adams?”

“She’s a killer, that one!” Another man’s voice interjected, “And you best mind what you say about Mr. Hollins. He means business.”

“Aye, then what’s the crack? Who’d the little lass do off?”

“We don’t ask questions, Mr. McGuire. We do the job, we get the bounty. It’s just so,” the first man replied.

“You guys shuttup, I hear somethin’,” another voice whispered harshly. Amanda held her breath and clasped both hands over her mouth, trembling against a large rock. The branches of the bush where she stayed hidden were covered in spiky protrusions that scraped and pressed against her bare flesh, pinning her against the rocky surface of the uneven mountainside. In the distance she could still faintly hear the shouting of the man in black, whom she assumed was this Mr. Hollins that the henchmen spoke of with such respect.

She could hear the men surrounding her, and through the heavy foliage of the underbrush, she could see the intense glow as all six men stood together with their torches. She wondered if she was visible. She wondered if they could see her. She was too scared to move. The footsteps of all six men started to aggressively stomp on the forest floor as they began searching for the woman in the woods that surrounded them. She could feel the ground vibrating beneath her skin as she fought her own body’s natural reactions to the terror inside her.

The glow of one of the men’s torches was fully visible to her through the branches of the bush where she tried to stay hidden — and for the first time since she fled into the forest, she could see one of the men sent after her.

“This’d be plenty easy if we had some dogs. Dogs always find runners,” the man standing over her shouted to his cohorts.

“Hollins said no dogs,” another man shouted from a few yards away. “He said she had a way with ‘em.”

“That don’t make no sense,” The man standing over her quipped. “She some kinda indian or somethin’?”

“Worse than that, I’m afraid,” Another of the men shouted from further away.

“Yeh fuckin boys are scared aren’t yeh?” The foreign man chuckled.

“I ain’t scared of no woman,” the man standing over her shouted back, defensively, “Not even no indian bitch.”

Amanda buried her face into her knees, which she kept drawn tightly against her chest. Her hands were still cupped over her mouth and nose in a desperate attempt to stay still, quiet. She breathed minimally, and fought back the urge to bolt from her hiding spot, deeper into the woods that led into no-man’s territory. The odor of the burning torches permeated her cupped fingers, making her want to cough, but she struggled with all of her willpower not to do so. The men separated again, with several of them arguing as they disappeared in the opposite direction from where she stayed hidden — including the brash young man who had stood so close that he risked tripping over her with just another step. Two men stayed behind: The jovial foreigner and a quieter man who seemed more intent on heading back toward the mansion where the man in black waited.

“I don’t think we’re gonna find her out here tonight,” the man said. “Best wait until later and we can send the dogs out to find her body. She won’t survive out here — not in these woods.”

“Yeh think this killer Mr. Hollins is so worried about is gonna die out here?” The foreign man had a habit of laughing after everything he said.

“If the elements don’t get her, the animals will, Mr. McGuire,” He said quietly, “Those boys out there are wastin’ their time workin’ hard for a dollar. That girl won’t survive the night, or if Hollins is lucky she’ll be foolish enough to try sneakin’ into town.”

“Aye, if yeh say so,” the foreign man replied, “Head on back to Hollins. I’ll wait here for the others. Yeh may be right about the lass.”

The other man said nothing, but Amanda could hear the fading sound of footsteps as he headed back through the woods from where he and his fellow bounty hunters came. She still maintained her still position in the bushes, keeping as silent as possible — but the man was right: The elements would be a problem. She could feel the temperature dropping in the forest as the night progressed, and her skin was so cold that it began to hurt. The tip of her nose was numb, and her toes were stiff, wet and sore. She began to wonder how she would manage to survive the night — or beyond, for that matter.

“Aye, tiny lass,” the voice of the foreign man interrupted her fearful thoughts.

Amanda’s body stiffened. She was too afraid to look up in the direction of the man’s voice — which came from directly above her hiding spot. It mattered not to him. He continued speaking, quietly.

“I see yeh down there. If yeh dun want found yeh gotta do better than that, aye?”

She looked up. It was an involuntary reaction to the kindness in his voice. The flame of his torch illuminated his face, showing a man who couldn’t be older than twenty-years-old. He was smiling, a thick wisp of wavy brown hair dropped down in front of his eyes. Amanda didn’t say a word.

“What, yeh mute?”

“Pl-please…” she forced out, nervously, shaking her head. She didn’t recognize the sound of her own voice. She sounded timid, child-like and alien. The foreign man wrinkled his brow

“Yeh just a scared wee bird ain’t yeh? Not a monster like they keep tellin’ me.”

“No,” she whispered, her voice trembling on the verge of sobbing. She felt a familiar panic rising up in her chest, frightened at the unfamiliar sound of her voice. She looked down at her body, not recognizing herself at all. Her legs were longer, slimmer. Her chest was fuller, much fuller. Her eyes widened as she looked down at her own abdomen, seeing the typical swell of a pregnant tummy.

The foreign man known only as Mr. McGuire looked around in every direction, then back down at the girl hiding in the bushes. He let out a nervous breath and then looked around again, this time shrugging out of his heavy wool overcoat, allowing it to drop to the ground.

“Take it,” he ordered, still speaking quietly. “You’ll freeze out here without it,” he added.

She did as she was told, watching him inquisitively as he took his torch in one hand, aiming it down toward the ground, before extinguishing the flame in a muddy patch of ground. Darkness enveloped her instantly, completely separating her vision from the curious man who decided to help her. Still, she was horrified with what she was experiencing — and confused by her own apparent identity.

“They’ll have my head for this,” Mr. McGuire whispered, “But I dun see the good in it.”

She didn’t say anything back to him.

“Stand up,” he commanded, “Let’s go.”

She obeyed, slipping into the large coat that he had given her. She stood about a foot from the man, who towered over her. He was a large man, muscular and tall, completely able to overpower her and drag her back to the man in black without a problem. She took a step back away from him, preparing herself to continue her desperate run through the endless forest, allowing it to swallow her whole. He took a step toward her, and she stumbled backward, almost falling over a dead, grounded tree.

“Whoa, whoa, lass,” he whispered quickly, grabbing her and keeping her from falling over. “Be a quiet wee mouse.”

Amanda regained her footing but tore away from the man’s grasp, fearfully inching away, but remaining nearby. He appeared to want to help, genuinely, but she felt traumatized by the night’s events. Still, she stayed near him as he pushed through the woods in the same direction she chose to run from the evil man in black. He was leading her further away from the home that she escaped, accompanying her.

The duo crept through the forest without speaking, both deep in thought. Amanda’s mind was racing as she cradled her pregnant belly. She could feel the life inside of her becoming more and more evident with every moment she spent thinking about it. Meanwhile, the foreign man accompanying her had his own thoughts — or rather, worries. After about an hour of walking, Mr. McGuire stopped, finally breaking the silence.

“Where were yeh headin’?”

“I…Don’t know,” she replied.

“I sure don’t know how to get there,” he quipped, “Most of all not from here.”

Amanda leaned her weight against a giant pine tree, allowing herself to rest a bit. She closed her eyes and pressed her face against its trunk. She couldn’t think straight. She had no idea where she was, what she was doing — or who she was. She didn’t know how she ended up pregnant — and so heavily pregnant at that. Her stomach twitched and fluttered with a life no younger than eight months.

“As sure as we’re standin’ here, that lot’ll be lookin’ for me now too,” McGuire said to her, “So we’re in a bit of muck, now aren’t we?”

“Wh-why? Why are you doing this?” she breathed, still confused by the sound of her own voice.

Mr. McGuire snorted, “They said me mum was dangerous too, lass. They said me pop was a criminal, and me aunts and uncles animals. They say a lot of things, they do, but they were chasin’ yeh. If yeh be so dangerous why dun yeh do the chasin’?”

“I…Don’t know,” she replied, still confused.

“What are yehr charges, then?”

Amanda didn’t have an answer to that question. She didn’t know the answer herself. She straightened herself up and continued walking, her feet almost numb from the rocks, thorns and cold, wet mud. McGuire stayed beside her.

“They say yehr a killer?”

“I don’t know,” was all she could repeat.

“Well do yeh know yehr name then?” McGuire seemed annoyed at her inability to communicate.

“I…I really don’t know,” she started to sob, “I don’t know what I’m doing here!”

McGuire stopped walking.

“Well, yeh better figure it out, birdie,” he said.

***

The sun was coming up, and Amanda could finally get a real look at the stranger accompanying her through the dense untraveled forest. He was a good looking man with long, brown hair that he kept in a low ponytail. He was dressed in a loose-fitting white linen shirt, covered by a dark-brown button-down vest. His trousers were tucked into a pair of boots. A dated pistol was strapped to his hip, snugly secured in a worn leather holster. Amanda studied the strange-looking man, furrowing her brow in confusion. She looked down at the large overcoat he had lent her, studying its buttons and other details. It was an old fashioned coat, made of heavy brushed wool that had been dyed dark blue — almost black. When she looked back up at Mr. McGuire, she caught him studying her as well.

“We’re gonna haff to set up camp somewhere, bird,” he said, “And I’m gonna haff to find food. Real good mess we’re in here.”

She nodded, not speaking.

“Yehr gonna haff to pull yehr weight if we’re gonna make it out here, too.”

She nodded.

The two settled on the underside of a bluff for their campsite. It was concealed by tightly grouped dogwood and pine trees, which were overgrown with the vines and branches of various forest climbers. A formation of rocks and moss also concealed part of the sheltered space. A freshwater stream rushed over the top of the bluff, which jutted out over a ravine, creating a cascade of water that dropped down below the mountainside refuge, creating a series of water-filled indentions in the rocky ground. Under any other circumstances, this place could be the setting of a fantasy novel — but Amanda wasn’t able to fully appreciate the beauty that surrounded her. She struggled to gather what little wood she could find, to be used for fire — doing her best to keep her pregnancy concealed from the man who was helping her. It was something that not even she understood, so she hadn’t a clue how to address it if Mcguire knew.

Mr. McGuire started the fire, building it small and in a tight point of the underside of the bluff. He told Amanda that this was to keep the fire as hidden as possible, though he didn’t seem so sure when he explained it to her. She could tell by his voice and his nervous mannerisms that he was worried that they would be found, no matter how deeply they hid in the forest. As nervous as he was, the foreign man proved useful — managing to capture and kill a rabbit with ease while foraging for food. He quickly cooked the animal after dressing it , and then put the fire out, suffocating it with dirt. The two ate the rabbit in silence, Amanda fighting the urge to vomit each time she chewed on the meat of the helpless creature.

“So yeh ever gonna remember that name of yehrs?” he said with a mouthful of rabbit meat.

Amanda lowered her eyes to the hunk of dead animal that she still held in both hands. She didn’t know what to say. She genuinely had no idea who she was. She knew that, at this particular moment, she was not herself. She kept her eyes lowered, and whispered shakily.

“I don’t know who I am. I’m not me.”

“What in God’s green hills issat ‘sposed to mean, birdie?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered, “I wish I knew.”

Mr. McGuire shook his head and then propped himself against the wall of the bluff’s underside. He pulled a cigarette tin from his trouser pocket, removing a hand-rolled smoke from it and resting it between his lips.

“Yeh dun know much, aye?” He said before striking a match and lighting the cigarette that dangled from his mouth. Amanda could instantly smell the burning tobacco.

“I don’t know who I am,” she repeated, her voice cracking slightly.

Mr. McGuire closed his eyes, not offering another comment to the terrified young woman. He smoked his cigarette in silence, blowing smoke outward into the forest, so as not to trap it under the sanctuary they found in the mountain wilderness. Amanda looked down at her hands, still holding the charred rabbit meat. It was one of the slain animal’s haunches. It was hastily cooked, blackened on the outside with some of the flesh still pink from the blood that hadn’t fully drained from it, post-killing. She tore a strip of flesh from the thigh-quarter, and chewed on it, trying not to think about the fact that she was eating it. She was hungry, and the life inside her needed the sustenance. Anxiety began to rise inside her as she remembered, once again, that she was heavily pregnant. She instinctively pulled the large coat around her again to conceal her growing abdomen. She still wasn’t sure she could even begin to trust this Mr. McGuire. Nonetheless, he was her only saving grace at the moment. Had it not been for him, she’d surely be in the custody of the mysterious Mr. Hollins — or worse, she’d be dead. The man finished his cigarette and flicked it into one of the puddles of water that surrounded the bluff. He sat down on the ground several feet from Amanda, still leaning his back against the inner wall of their refuge.

“Best we get some sleep while we can,” he said “Yeh figure out where I’m takin’ yeh, right?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

He opened one of his eyes and looked at Amanda, not believing her half-hearted response.

“Get some sleep, then,” he said before closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the rock wall.

Amanda watched as Mr. McGuire relaxed into sleep rather quickly. He was exhausted — and so was she. Her legs ached, and her feet were torn-up from running without shoes through the woods. Her breasts were sore, and her pregnant belly growled with hunger. She looked back down at her hands, remembering that she was still holding the camp-cooked rabbit that McGuire hunted for them. She needed to force it down and stop the hunger pains that were making her all the more aware of her mysterious pregnancy.

The charred rabbit haunch was gone. Her empty hands were upturned and stained and smeared with a tremendous amount of coagulating, deep-red blood. The heavy woolen coat that once covered her body was gone, her bare arms were stretched out in front of her, and shackled at the wrists with heavy iron cuffs that were connected by a short, thick chain. The shackles were almost too heavy for her thin wrists, and were weighing her down. Her chest heaved with the terror she had felt while fleeing from the men in the forest, and her mind was overwhelmed by confusion. She tried to scream, but no sound emitted from her body — just a woosh of mute, empty air. Amanda looked around her surroundings, frantically, witnessing a mob-like scene. Mr. McGuire was down on his knees, at the feet of the foreboding man in black.

“You looked the little bitch in the eyes, didn’t you Mr. McGuire?” The man in black kicked McGuire, who appeared to had already been badly beaten.

Mr. McGuire didn’t say a word. He just looked up at Amanda with wide, fearful eyes, staring at her partially-nude, pregnant form. He shook his head in awe and then looked back down at the ground, his shoulders slumped forward with the weight of submission.

The man in black unholstered an ornate flintlock pistol from his hip. The long barrel of the firearm was engraved with a series of designs unknown to Amanda, and the sides of its handled-end were inlaid with cut-out swirls of wood in different stained shades. It was an impressive side-piece that had undoubtedly been customized specifically for the man whom the others referred to as Mr. Hollins. He twirled the gun with one finger like a showman, eyeballing Mr. McGuire who stayed on his knees on the wet forest ground.

“Do you know the punishment for stealing private property, Mr. McGuire?” The man in black asked as he played with his pistol.

Mr. McGuire’s shoulders began to shake. He was sobbing, still looking at the ground.

“Look me in the eye when I talk to you, you stupid Irish dog!” The man in black spat his words down at McGuire, kicking him again.

Mr. McGuire hesitantly looked up at the man brandishing the firearm, swallowing back his tears. Amanda could see that the man who had saved her was paying the price, and he was terrified.

“We’re a civilized society, here, Mr. Mcguire. We live by law, and law dictates that low-down criminals be dealt with accordingly, and permanently. You stole something that belonged to my associate, and my associate has demanded that you be held to the strictest standards of our laws. Do you understand what I am sayin’ to you, Mr. McGuire?”

“Aye, Mr. Hollins,” he muttered, holding eye contact with the man preparing to kill him. He knew he was at the end of the line. Amanda could sense the defeated spirit within him. She began to weep.

“Aye, now wee birdie. We knew this’ll be comin’. Dry yehr eyes. Dry yehr eyes.” It was the first time McGuire had spoken to her since their capture.

Hollins, infuriated, kicked McGuire square in the face. Blood sprang from his nose as it broke under the impact of the man in black’s boot. The other dozen men chattered between one another, looking over at both Mr. McGuire and Amanda with awe-filled eyes.

He’s bewitched –

She enslaved his mind! –

He’s one of ‘em! –

The devil’s agents! –

Amanda looked at the men who stared upon her like she was some kind of sideshow display. Their fingers pointed as they hurled indictments at her and the man who had only tried to rescue her from no-telling-what outcome. She scanned her surroundings, seeing that they were still deep in the woods. Three men worked out a clearing surrounding a thin, young poplar tree. They hacked at the limbs of the tree until it was nothing but a single stalk sticking from the ground. Another man stacked dried forest debris at the base of the tree. Her heartbeat sped up, as she watched the men build a pyre in front of her. Suddenly, she was hoisted in the air by two strong men, who carried her to the poplar trunk before slamming her back against it. Bewildered, she scanned her surroundings, stopping at the man in black who stayed by McGuire.

“If you have an last words, now’s the time to spit ‘em out,” Hollins said to Mr. McGuire, who stayed still at his feet.

McGuire didn’t avert his eyes from the man preparing to shoot him. “Aye,” he said. “I do.”

The man in black steadied his shooting hand, and pointed the intricately-designed flintlock at Mr. McGuire’s face. “Well, get on with it,” he growled.

Every man went silent, including the men who diligently began to tie Amanda to the tree against which she was pushed. All eyes were on Mr. McGuire. It was the only respect the men, bound by their religious convictions, were required to give him in his final living moments. Amanda’s chest ached and her limbs twitched with the instinctive need to break free from the men who fastened her to the poplar trunk with a series of heavy, rough ropes. McGuire, knowing his time was fully up, closed his eyes and began to sing.

“Let rogues and cheats prognosticate, concernin’ king’s or kingdom’s fate.

I think me’self teh be as wise as he that gazeth on the skies,

My sight goes beyond,

The depth of a pond,

Or the rivers in the greatest rain.

Whereby I kin tell, that all will be well,

When the king enjoys his own again.”

Mr. McGuire turned his head down at the ground. Amanda could see the tears dropping from his closed eyes to the leaf-covered soil beneath him. Her own tears returned, streaming down her face, dripping down her chin and landing down her trembling body. She was fastened to the poplar tree by her throat, hips and ankles. Her hands were still shackled in front of her. She couldn’t move, even if she tried with every bit of strength and desperation she could muster. It was hopeless. Mr. McGuire continued singing.

“There’s neither swallow, dove or dade can soar more high or deeper wade,

Nor show a reason from the stars, what bringeth peace or bringeth wars,

The man in the moon,

May wear out his shoon,

By runnin’ af’r Charles, his wain,

But all’s to nae end,

For the times will nae mend,

Till the king enjoys his own again…”

Mr. McGuire went silent and looked back up at the man in black. Mr. Hollins didn’t change the expression his face had maintained from the beginning. Amanda couldn’t tell if it was just a terrific poker face, or if he had truly not been moved by the foreign man’s words. The several other men who surrounded them all looked down at their feet, still silent even moments after McGuire finished speaking.

“Those were too many words,” Hollins stated, his voice devoid of any emotion.

Amanda flinched as the man in black unceremoniously pulled the trigger. It was over in an instant, but the blast that boomed from the barrel seemed to go on forever, echoing through the secluded forest and ringing in her ears. Mr. McGuire slumped forward, landing facedown. Blood began to pool around him, and his body twitched in the throes of death. Amanda looked away, beginning to hyperventilate. She could smell the gunpowder as it mingled with the odor of the thick, red ooze that pumped from the dead man’s head wound. The tightness in her chest was so overbearing that it felt as if her ribcage was collapsing inward on itself. She gasped for air, fighting to breathe as she looked away from the dead body of Mr. McGuire. At the same time, the men who had finished tying her to the forest pyre began splashing her with kerosene from cans that they had brought on the search for her and the man who lay deceased in front of them. Mr. Hollins walked toward her from where he had just murdered Mr. McGuire. He didn’t look back at the man; Instead, he focused on averting his eyes from Amanda’s, staring down at her swollen midsection. He didn’t speak as he pulled a long, sharpened blade from a sheath that had been fastened to the inside of one of his heavy hyde boots. Amanda closed her eyes, tears still flowing uncontrollably from the clenched corners.

“Your mistress is gonna want what belongs to her,” the man spoke coldly. He continued stepping deliberately toward her, re-holstering the gun he held in his other hand.

“I-I don’t think we should be doin’ this boss,” a younger man interrupted. He looked to be about sixteen, inexperienced with the work his leader was putting him up to doing. He controlled a leashed bloodhound, observing the goings-on from behind the other men.

“You shall not suffer a witch to live. What we have here is a bonafide whore of the devil. And a cold-blooded murderess, to top it off.”

Hollins turned his back to Amanda, who continued to weep, staring down at the form of her unborn child. He motioned toward her, over his shoulder before continuing.

“She doesn’t look like much does she? Those big doe eyes pleadin’ with ya ‘oh please, no. Please don’t kill me!’ Ha! Those are crocodile tears, boy.”

Mr. Hollins turned back to the terrified woman, still avoiding eye contact. He was now standing just about a foot from Amanda, wielding the knife in one hand firmly. He kept lecturing the young man, but also the other men who watched their boss attentively. Amanda felt sick to her stomach.

“If she weren’t tied up like the beast she is, she’d just as soon chew the gristle off ya while she sheds them crocodile tears. She ain’t got no soul. She just got lies and tricks; Gifts from Lucifer himself.”

“Please…Please, don’t,” Amanda cried softly, pleading with the man in black.

“Please! Please don’t!,” he mocked her with a laugh. “I’ll have your tongue, devil bitch.”

Mr. Hollins sneered from beneath the brim of his black, wool hat. “Ya see, boys? She sounds convincin’ doesn’t she? Lemme show ya.”

The man in black turned to his crew and motioned for one of the men who had helped tie Amanda to the stripped poplar. Hollins put his hand on the man’s shoulder as he approached, spinning him around to face her head-on. The man averted his eyes immediately, looking down at his feet and biting his lip nervously.

“Look at her,” Hollins commanded, “Go on and do it.”

“No, sir!” The man shook his head frantically, still looking down at his feet.

“Now, ya do what I say, boy! You show the rest of these lads what happens when ya look a devil in the eye.”

“I don’t want to!”

Hollins grunted as he grabbed the man by the back of his head and forced him to look up at Amanda. His eyes widened as they met with hers. She shook her head, not breaking her gaze from his, still sobbing. She mouthed the word no at the frightened man. His eyes stayed focused on her face as he started to shake his own head at the realization of what they were doing. She could see the regret and shame in his face.

“I’m so sorry, miss. I’m so sorry. Lord our father, forgive us,” he sobbed.

Mr. Hollins laughed, “This is her spell. This is what happens when you look right at a succubus and allow her to take control of you.”

The man continued praying and pleading with his Christian god, still fixating his eyes on Amanda. She couldn’t believe the scene unfolding before her; The violence, the ignorance and the accusations of which she had no knowledge. The teenage boy handling the dog looked convinced — as did the rest of the men. The man in black, Mr. Hollins, unholstered his pistol and shot the man in the back of the head without any further words. Like McGuire, the praying man dropped silently to the forest floor. The others solemnly looked on with no words and no resistance. Hollins slid his gun back in the holster on his hip and nudged the man’s body to the side. The entire event went by as quickly as the murder of Mr. McGuire; Just a couple of seconds.

“You have cost me one good laborer and an Irishman,” He declared, “But that ain’t nothin’ compared to the pain you’ve caused the Widow Stewart. For some reason or another she thinks that thing inside you belongs to her. I think we’d all be better for it if it died with you right here.”

Hollins pressed the cold, steel blade against the underside of amanda’s pregnant belly. The icy sensation of the metal made her skin tighten in an involuntary cringe away from the man. He pressed it more firmly into her bare skin, staring at her very pregnant stomach. He had a look of focus on his face, as if he needed to concentrate on what he was doing. Amanda couldn’t control the sobbing this time. She knew it was the end for her and her unborn child — a concept that she knew was sacred to her, even if she was confused about every other moment of the events that had unfolded. The man in black pressed the palm of his free hand across Amanda’s bare chest, pushing his weight into her as he sturdied himself. With his other hand, he tilted the edge of the knife, instantly slicing the outer layers of skin on the underside of her abdomen. Amanda released a blood-curdling scream at the pain of the man’s cold blade slicing into her. She felt lightheaded, unable to disassociate from the feeling of knife-upon-flesh. She felt the the blade  tear through her nerves, through fat. She could only groan and gasp as she looked at the men who helped capture and condemn her. Some of them couldn’t turn their heads from the horrifying actions of their leader. Others looked away, ashamed and unable to handle the visuals of a bound woman being robbed of her unborn child. Mr. Hollins jabbed the knife into her gut, and the intense pain that she had felt just moments earlier was replaced with an intense sensation of pressure. She couldn’t breathe.

“My ba–My baby,” she sobbed as she fought the darkness coming over her. “Please don’t hurt my baby!”

3

“My baby!”

Amanda sat up, instantly awake. She was completely drenched with sweat. Her bed was soaked. All of her blankets and pillows had been thrown to the floor. At the foot of the bed, several lines had been torn in the sheets by the frantic kicking and digging-in of Amanda’s toes.

“My baby… My baby,” she gasped quietly,  as she nervously pawed at herself.

She touched her abdomen, rubbing it all over. Her tummy was completely flat, toned. No evidence of any pregnancy existed by touch, and the feelings of life she had experienced earlier were completely gone. She felt her breasts with both hands, and then touched down her legs, to her feet. No injuries, scratches, bumps or scrapes were anywhere on her body.

“I’m not pregnant,” she breathed to herself.

Amanda dropped back into her bed and let out a whoosh of air from her lungs. Her chest ached with the rapid beating of her heart, and her head throbbed with the signs of a developing migraine. She glanced over at her bedside clock.

It was 5:12 a.m.

She closed her eyes and sighed again. It was going to be another long day without enough sleep, but this time she had a world of horrifying visuals to keep her company. She allowed her hands to caress the flatness of her stomach, once more. She knew she wasn’t pregnant, but her mind stayed stuck on the details of her dream. She felt a sadness for a child that she didn’t even lose, an unborn child that she knew did not exist. Still, it all felt so real. It all just felt too real, in fact, like she had left her body and traveled somewhere else for the night, into the terrifying life of someone else. She thought about the dream’s setting and how it appeared to take place right at the home where she was raised, and she thought about the dated outfits and weapons of the men she encountered.  

Amanda laid awake in the dark, semi-quiet serenity of her room, welcoming the familiar sounds of her leaking bathroom faucet and the creaking of the house as it settled. These familiarities kept her barely grounded as she obsessed in her mind over the nightmare she just had. It was the first bad dream she’d had in a long time, of which she could recall all the details, but even before her sleep issues began she’d never had a nightmare so vivid and realistic. Her thoughts were unorganized and confused as she’d shift her thoughts from one detail to the next; First remembering the sensation of rocks and thorns stabbing and tearing the soles of her feet, and then the pungent odor of a smoking antique pistol. She thought about the Irishman who tried with all his might to help her escape before defeatedly submitting to the dark figure they all called Mr. Hollins. She shivered at the thought of the evil man from her dream.

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