What is life? Is it nothing more than a series of events and random chance, or is there more to it? Maybe a larger plan designed by something bigger than ourselves? Sometimes life seems to have no guidance or purpose other than what people ascribe to it. Other times it is difficult to ignore the subtle clues that something governs life’s events.
These were the ponderings of a woman who sat alone beneath the stars. She shoved a stick into the dying fire before her, stirring a few branches onto the last bit of hot coals. Strands of her hair plastered themselves to her sweat-covered face. In the waning hours of the day, she remained in thought by the fire, unable to sleep. She dared not look toward the village behind her. The pain of the previous day’s events threatened to envelop every corner of her mind.
The woman fought back tears as the faces of those she lost forced their way to the surface of her mind. It doesn’t make sense. Why did no one stop them from being taken and sacrificed? All our neighbors have known and loved us forever. She tensed her jaw muscles. No, Abigail. You must be strong, she told herself, but the words felt hollow and silly. Abigail wanted nothing more than to leave the wretched town and never look back. There was an idea festering within the town, taking on a life of its own. Abigail snuck a peek behind her. Nonsensical ideas and untruths that become widely believed are more dangerous than a plague. She knew there were unfriendly eyes on the town’s edge, hindering anyone from coming or going.
The woman poked at the fire some more. Exhaustion quickly overtook her mind as she sat in thought. Painful memories threatened to resurface, but she shoved them down where they could be dealt with later, or never. Abigail no longer knew how long she had been there. Perhaps it was hours, maybe only minutes, but she really didn’t care. Feeling nothing but emptiness, the woman sighed and contemplated sleeping, but the fear of unwanted memories told her sleep was impossible.
The night was calm and still, more so than she had expected it to be. Abigail thought the peace of such silence would be welcome, yet as the night drew on, it became unnerving. Her thoughts grew louder and harder to contain. She heard the cries of agony, the screams, and the suffering of her loved ones before she could reach them. Abigail smelled the burning flesh. She saw their faces lying on the ground. I wasn’t fast enough. They said we were the hateful ones, that we had to be stopped. In the name of ideas that surpassed decency and reason, they came for us. I should have been among the slain. Tears streamed down her face.
The sound of feet crushing grass stirred her out of the dark rabbit hole. “May I have a seat?” A wizened face appeared in the light of the fire.
Abigail smiled softly and quickly wiped her face. “Of course, Charles. You are always a welcome sight.”
“It’s the first night in nearly a week I haven’t heard the coyotes about. Look at you, a pretty little thing sitting here alone at night.”
“You needn’t worry about me. I will be fine.”
“No one is fine these days. Not even those who think they are,” he answered with a sidelong look.
“Indeed. It seems insanity is the new disease. Worse than the plague our ancestors faced.”
“How did it come to this?” Charles sighed. “If you were to tell me thirty years ago that a cult could have gained so much power, I would have laughed in your face.”
“It’s strange how quickly things change,” Abigail mused.
“People are fickle, that’s one truth that hasn’t changed over the decades. They want freedom, but at the same time, they need a governing body or another group in power to care for them. Some believe there can be compromise, while others do not.”
“Do you believe there can be a balance?” Abigail inquired.
“I don’t know. I’m just an old man who has lived too long.” Charles chuckled. “The fools in the forest tell us they are the bringers of true freedom. Yet they worship beings that demand sacrifices, and they hunt down all who disagree. These people say they would bring equality, but only bring death. I don’t think that there is a chance for balance within their organization or this town with them present.”
Abigail faced the fire and let the dancing orange-red tongues mesmerize her for a while. After staring silently at the glowing logs for several minutes, her blue eyes shifted to the old man beside her, who also was entranced by the flames.
“Do you think they are watching us at this very moment?” Abigail whispered.
“Undoubtedly,” Charles replied, not even bothering to quiet his voice.
“How many of them are there? Have they spread to other cities?” Abigail wondered aloud.
“I’m not sure it matters anymore,” Charles sighed. He quickly rose, shaking his head. “I should get going. It’s getting late, and I need rest. I know it’s hard, but you should rest too. In the morning, you can continue what Abner started.”
Abigail nodded and forced a smile. Charles feebly walked off toward a cluster of homes in the distance. Easy for you to tell me to sleep. You don’t see what I see when my eyelids close, She thought, keeping her eyes on the old man until he disappeared beyond her sight. The weight of fatigue began to grow more rapidly, and Abigail reasoned it wouldn’t hurt to lay her head down for a moment. She was only able to hold her eyes open for mere seconds before exhaustion overtook fear of what lurked in her dreams.
Abigail awoke to the sun almost directly above. She raised her head and looked around her, rubbing the confusion from her eyes. Her ears caught bits of hushed conversation nearby, but since she was still waking up, she couldn’t make sense of it or where it came from. An awful stench assaulted her senses. Turning around, she saw smoke pouring into the atmosphere from a group of three or four blackened trees, their branches still red with embers. A group of somewhere between thirty and fifty people stood near the smoldering trees, talking quietly amongst themselves. The trunks looked like dull, ebony stone rather than wood. Abigail looked upon the sight in awe, silently wondering to herself how she could have slept through such a terrible fire that was only a few hundred feet away. She knew what it meant: Something horrific had taken place sometime after she had fallen asleep. She hoped this time it was an animal, which was far more common, but she couldn’t be sure. The group of people slowly broke up as each returned to their daily duties.
After they were all gone, Abigail walked closer to the burnt trees, and as she did so, a pit formed in her abdomen. A dark crushing feeling came over her, as if the land itself had become tainted. The very spot had become a manifestation of pure, unadulterated death. Yet despite the awful feeling it conjured within her, Abigail was inexplicably drawn to the ruined trees. One she figured was an oak, despite the deformity cause by the fire, and Abigail placed her right hand on the trunk. It was warm, but surprisingly not hot enough to burn her.
“Abigail! What are you doing?” A man’s voice called out.
The woman jumped back, clutching her chest. “John! You gave me a fright,” Abigail laughed.
“You know what this is. It’s dangerous to get too close. They may still be watching!” He grabbed her forearm and jerked her backward.
“Why should I care? They’ve taken everything from me already. I’m not afraid of them and their superstitions. They probably view me to be as much of a threat as Abner was, no matter what I do to prove that I don’t want anything to do with this fight. Besides, most of the cultists just aren’t bold enough to fully implement what they teach.”
John looked over his shoulder. “You need to be careful saying things like that. You don’t know who is trustworthy these days.”
“Indeed.” Abigail’s eyes flared.
John rested a hand on the woman. His long dark hair with silver streaks tossed in a stray gust of wind. “My wife and I are terribly saddened by what happened. We are here for you for whatever you need, including a place to stay.”
Abigail smiled. “Thank you, but I don’t plan on staying here much longer.”
“Where will you go?” John’s face wrinkled in concern.
“New York. I want to build a life where no one knows me. I need to start fresh. There are too many memories here, too many people that know me.”
“That is precisely why you should stay! You have people here that love you,” John protested.
“John, you and your family have been so good to me ever since I was a little girl. I’m tired of the mess, the riots, waking to find people sacrificed, and the narrow-mindedness that is growing more prevalent. What was once wrong is now celebrated as good and vice versa.”
“I understand. Trust me, I do. I often wonder if I should take my family and leave. The madness here will only spread if we ignore it. Who knows? Maybe it is already beyond our borders. No matter the case, running and hiding will only keep us safe for so long before we are confronted with the ugliness that now permeates our city. No, my family and I shall remain here and do what we can,” John said with a sigh.
“I once had hope like you do. Pray you do not have to endure what I have.” Abigail sighed and shook her head.
“I do pray. Every day and night, and thankfully the Good Lord has spared my family from such cruelty,” John replied. He eyed Abigail silently for a moment before he continued. “If I may, why haven’t you departed? It is probable they are looking for you.”
“It’s hard returning home to gather my things. I don’t want to go back, but I must to depart. My heart cannot bear to see that house empty after so many years of love and laughter.”
“I know, dear, but you have to be strong. For them, if not for yourself. They would not want their deaths to paralyze you. It is trials and tragedy that strengthen us. One day you will find that strength and power. I have a feeling you are more capable than you know.” John stretched his smile wider and warmer, then he embraced Abigail before walking off.
Abigail swallowed, pressed her lips together, pivoted on her heel, and hurried to the heart of the city. Horse and buggies, carriages, and people on horseback bustled about. All of them independently unaware of the others. Each man and woman appeared as if they only cared about their own existence. How many of them harbor dark secrets? Who amongst them have been deceived? She wondered privately while sucking on her lower lip. Smoke billowed from chimneys as Abigail craned her neck up. The further she went into the heart of the settlement, the more smoke she saw. A sweet yet bitter odor wafted into her nostrils, telling her she was nearing the home she had lived in for a half decade.
Four white pillars lined the front of the home with a porch plopped before the entryway. The marigold pigment of the house appeared more yellow in the unobstructed sunlight. Abigail breathed heavily as she stepped up to the white door and slid the key into the lock. As her foot stepped over the threshold, her heart beat harder and her hands shook. She looked around at the living room which appeared as if nothing was amiss, as if the residents were simply not home. Abigail swallowed hard, but the lump in her throat would not budge. Children playing, a husband smoking a cigar in the leather chair, memories both beautiful and terrible rushed at her. No, I mustn’t be distracted. She found a large cotton bag with a tie string at the end and began packing clothes into it.
When she had finished stuffing the bag, she grabbed the pistol from the nightstand drawer, a pouch of extra powder, and five bullets. “It isn’t much, but it’ll do in a pinch,” she whispered. Abigail ran back down the stairs and stepped out the door. Taking a short walk outside, she saw a blanket of dark gray clouds moving in from the west. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, another mass of clouds passed overhead from the north as well. What was left of the blue sky had been quickly enveloped from the cloudy masses knitting together. As the sunlight was choked out, Abigail’s heart leapt, her eyes darted back and forth, and the hairs on the back of her neck erected. The woman scowled, catching herself looking over her shoulder a third time. She stopped walking and took a deep breath. What is wrong with me? I’m too old to act like a scared little girl. She resumed walking, trying to ignore the unsettling feeling that continued to grow.
Instinctively, Abigail walked toward the heart of the city. A low, pulsating hum reverberated in the distance, at first so faint Abigail barely heard it. As it grew louder, she thought perhaps her ears were ringing, but the sound continued to grow louder, and as it did, the pitch deepened. Abigail wrapped her arms closer to her chest, doing her best to ignore the maddening din that filled her head. Can anyone else hear that? She estimated more than half the people outside seemed completely unbothered until the noise was the only thing audible. The people still outside covered their ears in unison. Abigail felt a sudden onslaught of negative feelings and emotions. Depression, fear, and anxiety weighed down upon her so heavily she felt her knees buckle. Without warning, the horrific sound ended, but the feeling of death and despair lingered. The crowds quickly diminished, almost like they knew something she didn’t. Many familiar faces stood out amongst the crowd, some of which Abigail had known her entire life. And no I must leave them without saying farewell.
Abigail wondered if she would be trapped outside, alone with whatever danger was coming. From beyond the edge of the city, she heard a low rumbling hiss. Abigail headed toward a general store a few blocks away. It was smaller than some in the city, but it would suffice to shelter her from whatever was going on. As she approached the building, the hiss was replaced with chanting. The chants began as a low hum, and after three or four minutes, an indiscernible phrase was added and repeated continuously.
“This is why I need to leave for New York. I need to keep going,” she uttered breathlessly to herself. Abigail hoisted her bag over her shoulders to get a better grip and quickened her pace. Nothing will stop me from leaving. Not the forest or the swamp. Even if I must walk around it for miles, I will reach New York. Abigail eyed the sky. Despite the crushing weight upon her spirit, something rejuvenated her. Whether it was her own determination or help from the Good Lord above, she didn’t know, but she knew she needed to face whatever lay beyond the boundaries of her hometown.
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