Adrenaline. Pounding heart. Stumbling feet. Sweaty palms. Reeling head. Dark night. Tall trees. Rain.
Sooner or later, his feet got one step ahead of his mind, and he collapsed on the forest floor. The rain fell mercilessly in the pitch-black hollow of the woods.
Meet Tony Fanworth. Tony just killed a man, and now he’s on the run. If he lies on the softened earth for any longer, they might find him. They are looking for him. They won’t stop looking for him until he stops…and then they’ll find him. This is why Tony must get up.
Tony tried to ignore his pounding heart, but its crescendos only heightened his mixture of fear and thrill. Just an hour ago, Tony had been in a dark alley of downtown. It had been dirty back there, and it had smelled like five months of garbage. He was supposed to meet a man who claimed to know where Tony’s long lost daughter was. But Tony somehow knew that this man was lying. In a rage, Tony had grabbed a piece of scrap metal from the broken concrete and clubbed the man to death. He wanted to see his daughter so badly. She had gone missing a year ago while Tony and his family were on vacation. Her body never showed up. Months later ransom notes came pouring in. Then, out of the blue, they stopped coming. More months went by, and finally a letter from the mysterious man arrived: “I’ve found your daughter!”
The letter had been so spontaneous and promising that Tony couldn’t help but meet this man who boasted such coveted knowledge. Maybe he had been foolish, he had just wanted to find his daughter and not see doctored photos and newspaper clippings. Nevertheless, Tony wouldn’t take any nonsense. This arrogant, sleazy man had to pay the price for his mistake. And pay he did.
The rain was still falling, and Tony had not too long ago stopped hearing the unjustified sirens. The police didn’t know the weight of the situation. That man didn’t deserve to live.
Suddenly, as Tony tried to get back up, the soft, muddy earth gave way and he began to fall down the hill. The mudslide carried him through the menacing trees. The horrid fall down seemed to last forever. Finally, a tree halted his slippery fall with a crunch. Are my bones broken? he wondered. Am I dead?
Lethargically, Tony got up: first, to a kneeling position, then, using the tree, to a wobbly standing position. His vision blurred like an old television screen until he gained his balance. To his surprise, the leafy mud-covered ground below him gave way to a fervently grassy expanse, still dense with foliage. Amongst the trees, many stone buildings towered high above the trees with soft, warm light emanating from the windows.
Almost instinctively, Tony stepped forward and was at once entranced with the village of stone buildings. Cobblestone pathways, slippery due to the rain, weaved through the trees and the architecture, leading to a center square. Tony’s pace slowed as he studied the wooden structure in front of him: gallows. He immediately grabbed his neck and screamed. “No, you don’t understand! He tricked me! He deserved to die! Don’t kill me for his mistake!” The dizziness returned, and Tony almost went unconscious.
The noise of his thoughts soon silenced, and he could see an old, robed man running towards him with a pained expression. The sounds of the world beyond his mind echoed distantly: “What’s wrong, sir? Please, come with me to the chapel!”
Tony’s knees gave out just as the man reached him and the man grabbed Tony’s arms before he fell to the ground. The saint dragged Tony away from the gallows and across the square into the depths of the mysterious village.
“Here in Arnettiqua, we strive for unity with God through the purification of our world,” explained the aged priest. Tony sat, covered in blankets, at a small wooden table in the back of the cold, dark chapel. “It’s not easy, though. Our population dwindles as more and more people succumb to the evils of witchcraft. Ever since the Old Days, the witchery still hasn’t been extinguished. Do drink your tea,” he added kindly.
“Old Days?” questioned Tony.
“I’m sure you and Your Kind have heard of the Salem incident long ago. After that fiasco, the village leaders decided that it was time to form a new society, far away from the all-seeing eye of the public. This, unfortunately, did not get rid of the witches, but it at least provided some rest from the outside world. We are content in our secluded society.”
Tony contemplatively drank the thick tea the priest had brewed, then asked, “Where is everyone?”
“In their homes. The stone buildings you saw serve as the houses. We found it plain preposterous to build so many small homes and kill nature, so we constructed those stone towers. They’re quite cozy.”
“Tony heard the rain splatter on the roof, and then he spotted something in a distant corner, dimly lit by the stained glass: a telephone. “If you are secluded, how did you manage a telephone?”
The priest sighed heavily. “We are only allowed to live our secluded lives with permission from Your Kind’s government. Every month they come in to collect taxes and pass out ‘gifts’ to keep us quiet. That’s where the phone came from. They’ve also given us televisions, and we’ve managed to learn how to use them in time.”
“I see,” mumbled Tony. He briefly and painfully flashed back to the hooded man in the alley. He had tried to pull out his cell phone to call for help—stupid fool. A frantic woman in a black dress burst through the door, jerking Tony back to the reality.
“Whyler! A witch has been discovered in tower three! What should we do?”
“Hang the sad soul. Arnettiqua can’t afford a breakout these days.” The woman solemnly nodded and left.
Moments later, as Tony and the priest drank their tea in silence, Tony saw a mob form in the center square. A weeping woman stood on the gallows as the mob chanted wildly. Tony cringed. The dangling feet. The broken neck. He let out a shriek and quickly excused himself out the back door of the chapel.
“What a strange man,” whispered the priest, as the back door to the church closed. “Oh well…time to watch my daily television.” He flicked to the news station and watched some story about a man who had died in town. “Immoral, dirty world Their Kind lives in…” Then, an image of a man he recognized appeared on the screen: Tony. He’s the killer? I must call the police, he thought.
Among the deep green weeds and mud, Tony stood outside the back door of the church, leaning against its stone wall. From the depths of his pockets he pulled a miniscule medicine bottle, and drained its contents: two pills. I’m not gonna sleep tonight, he thought.
Suddenly, a man with an axe rounded the corner and paused upon seeing Tony. Then his eyes narrowed. “In the name of God, what is that bottle you possess?” he bellowed sternly.
“Medicine,” replied Tony.
The man stood still. “Come with me.” Tony cautiously followed, but by the time he rounded the corner, the man had already huffed away towards the center square. A lump seemed to grow in his throat as fear grew inside of him. He suddenly realized: witches make medicine. He was going to be hanged. As the center square came into view, the mob was still there, and all their eyes were on him. Despite the rain, their torches were lit. The people began to grab him and throw him forward toward the gallows. In his head, the screams of “No, you don’t understand!” rang louder than ever. The chanting swelled feverishly all around him.
Before he knew it, he was on the gallows, noose in place. The priest read from a brown leather book, stating the crime and its punishment—as if it wasn’t obvious. Rocks were being thrown, insults hurled.
A vision of his daughter playing on the sandy beaches of Florida appeared before him. The shouts of the mob dissipated as the image of his daughter shone around. “Goodbye, honey. May God be with you, because he’s left me, now,” whispered Tony. The image abruptly vanished, but the light remained, zooming around the center square. Three men in uniforms with flashlights made their way to the gallows, halting the priest mid-sentence.
“Tony Fanworth. You are under arrest for the murder of Jason Pauling. Anything you say…”
Like I’d say anything, he thought. You’re saving me from dying a witch. What more could I want?
The mob was silent, stunned by the intruders. As the policemen led Tony away, he looked at them, relieved that he wouldn’t die for an unjust reason…yet…