This material is copyrighted by Shanyn Hosier. Any retranscription or reproduction is illegal. It contains strong language and other material intended for adults only.
Amanda tore across the frozen ground of the cornstalk stubble-filled field. Her lungs ached from the frigid air. The blunt force of the cold struck her face like an open palm, the sting of it bringing tears to her eyes. The exertion kept her core temperature up, though, and for this she knew she ought to be grateful.
She risked a look over her shoulder, paranoid he might send her brother after her. There was always a chance her father might change his mind – and she was committed to her course now. She would never go back. No matter what.
A few yards further, then she was embraced by the welcoming obscurity of the forest. The ground was more even here, less treacherous to her ankles. She relaxed slightly, comforted by the shroud of thick trunks and leafless, interwoven branches the woods generously provided.
She slowed her pace to a jog, then a quick walk. The bare skin of her legs burned from the cold air whipping up under her skirt, and her knees stung, oozing a little blood but not enough to drip. She tried yanking her socks up a little higher to no avail. Wrapping her arms tightly around her body to conserve what little heat she’d produced, she began paying closer attention to landmarks. The shrub in front of an oak told her she was too far to the west, and she adjusted her heading.
She paused, looking over her shoulder once more, listening for any sound of pursuit. Hearing nothing, she forged ahead cautiously like a hunted animal, frequently pausing to listen. When she came upon the familiar wild grapevine wound around a locust tree, a thin veneer of relief spread over the barely controlled panic within her. She was getting close now.
Finally, she arrived at the right place. Triangulated between an odd assembly of three walnut trees was a little clearing, naturally kept bare by the tannins of the fallen hulls. Her eyes scanned the ground, attempting to winnow out a hint, any clue as to what treasure was hidden there.
Amanda smiled in satisfaction. Without a metal detector, no one would ever know what was here unless they’d witnessed her hiding it.
Her satisfaction was short-lived, however – cut off by a sense of urgency. She took a deep breath and half-closed her eyes, redirecting her mental focus. Unfolding her tightly knotted body, she spread her arms and hands open, palms facing the ground. Her attention properly adjusted, the item she was searching for began to glow weakly yet distinctly from its spot below the soil. A faint ripple was now visible in the air above, signaling the tiny disturbance in the magnetic field.
She closed her eyes fully. Rise. Come.
The little object obeyed her commands. Wiggling, shimmying, bucking against the foot of soil above it, a small metal can worked its way to the surface. The earth did what it could to ease its passage, cooperatively mounding itself to one side. Liberated at last, the can zoomed toward her outstretched hands, and she caught it in midflight.
Clutching it to her body, she wrenched it open, wincing slightly as her tender wrists protested the violent movement. She dug out the wad of money within and shoved it deep into her pocket. Without bothering to replace the soil in the hole or hide the evidence in any way, she dropped the can and its lid, spun on her heels, and ran off.
Her breath coming hard, she ran along the stream toward what she prayed would prove as friendly a refuge as it had been in the past. As her feet rhythmically hit the ground, her mind worked frantically, planning what to do next. Then making alternate plans. Then more back-ups to those, in case they fell through. She was on a wire, and one false step could ruin everything. She hoped her father was right, and that she had some talent for lying.
She’d expected it to come to this at some point. It was inevitable, really. She’d even looked forward to it, in a way. Only it hadn’t happened as she’d imagined it. She didn’t feel quite the sense of victory or relief that she’d fantasized about. She certainly hadn’t expected it today, of all days.
This morning had begun as almost every other one in her life had done. She awoke well before dawn, showered, dressed, braided her ridiculously long hair that her mother insisted was something to be proud of (but not too proud – for vanity was a sin, after all). She had tiptoed quietly down the back stairs of their old farmhouse directly into the kitchen, hoping as she did every day that she might not attract any unwanted attention, eat some little morsel in peace, and escape. She prayed that she might sneak off to the relative obscurity of school where she could quietly keep her head down, observing and learning about the real world, anticipating joining it some day soon.
She hadn’t expected anything special this morning. She certainly knew better than to look for gifts or a cake. No one ever marked the anniversary of her entry into this world. Such celebrations smacked of paganism and were an affront to God – just ask her father.
But to her surprise, this particular morning she’d discovered a stranger was seated at the kitchen table. Along with her brother, her mother, and… her father. Amanda’d stood in silence at the foot of the stairs, frozen in confusion.
“Good morning, sissy,” her father had addressed her.
Amanda knew a greeting should sound more welcoming than his did. Her still-sore stomach had clenched. “Good morning.”
An unusually large pile of food lay on the table. Nervously, she slid into her usual seat. She knew better than to serve herself any of the breakfast – it was clearly not intended for her but rather for the benefit of their guest. She swallowed anxiously as her older brother, Phillip Jr., greedily shoveled toast and sausage down his gullet, taking advantage of the uncommon bounty rather than questioning it, despite the warning glares from their parents.
“Today is your birthday, is it not?” her father asked her.
Even Phillip Jr. paused his gorging in stunned silence. A crumb fell from the corner of his mouth onto the table.
“Yes, sir,” Amanda replied, carefully controlling a spike of fear that threatened to affect her voice.
“And you are eighteen years of age as of this morning?” he pressed.
“I am,” she responded, eyes averted in what her father chose to interpret as a sign of respect rather than loathing.
“I thought so,” he said. “Amanda, you will be pleased to know your presence at school is no longer required.”
“What!?” she exclaimed, her head jerking up. Her eyes insolently searched her father’s face, praying he wasn’t serious. Regrettably, she was unable to master her shocked disappointment more quickly.
Phillip Ryder Senior did not have an especially expressive face. His features were taciturn; his eyes generally cold. Amanda was a practiced reader of his expressions, however, and saw far more there than the stranger at the table did. Her little outburst – which he construed as a threat to his authority – would surely cost her something later.
“You are finished with school,” he said, carefully enunciating every word.
Each one was a dagger twisting in her gut. Amanda’s eyes scanned the room and noticed her book bag was nowhere to be seen. She presumed her father had likely hidden it, if not outright destroyed it as she’d slept last night.
Without any warning whatsoever, he was cutting her off from the real world – which was drowning in sin, as he frequently asserted. Instead, he was lashing her to the slave ship his house had become. Any chance of normalcy had just been scuttled; without even a high school diploma, she’d have no hope of escape, unfit for anything but ignorant breeding of more mindless, subjugated witnesses to his version of the truth.
“I’d’a thought most kids your age would be glad not to go to school no more,” the stranger chuckled. But the unfamiliar man’s awkward attempt at levity was unappreciated and largely ignored by the family seated around him.
Against her better judgment, Amanda risked speaking the truth. “B-but… I like school.”
Phillip Senior’s eyes narrowed. The gesture was barely noticeable, but Amanda recognized it for the glaring scowl it represented. “I am your father, girl. And I will not be questioned.”
Amanda’s dull stare expressed a fury of her own. “Yes, sir.”
She watched him shake his head minutely in angry warning. He took a sip of steaming coffee. “And now, we’ll see to purifying your immortal soul.”
She glanced at the stranger, understanding finally settling on her mind. Other kids her age got presents of clothes, concert tickets, or video games for their birthdays. She even knew one boy in her class who had received a car on his sixteenth. But it was in that moment that she realized her gift this morning was to be yet another exorcism.
Amanda had been the subject of at least a dozen deliverance ceremonies over the years of her life – and those were just the ones that had taken place since she was old enough to remember them with any confidence. They were for the most part harmless, though she wouldn’t go so far as to claim any comfort in their familiarity. Such trials were often long, drawn out affairs, fraught with anxiety. She’d be interrogated, every action examined, every utterance dissected for evidence of demonic possession. She’d recite whatever oaths or bible verses they told her to recite, fast for as long as they required her to go hungry, and most likely get dunked in the bathtub for good measure – just in case the previous twenty-odd baptisms hadn’t taken.
But Amanda understood it didn’t really matter what she said or did in an attempt to defend herself. Her father was convinced of her sinful nature, and his was the only opinion that counted as long as she lived under his roof.
She couldn’t help who – or what – she was. It wasn’t her fault she could see, hear, sense things no one else around her could. She hadn’t asked to be able to do what she could do. Despite her father’s accusations to the contrary, there was never any conscious decision or satanic negotiation whereupon her abilities had been bestowed upon her. She couldn’t remember a time when she’d been unable to do what she did. She’d simply been born this way.
She only wished she’d had the sense to keep it hidden. But as a child, she’d lacked such foresight and control. She’d stupidly blurted out the evidence of her abnormality or accidentally summoned something she wanted before realizing what she’d done. It had taken some practice to sublimate that part of her nature, to reliably move her body toward the object she wanted, rather than the other way around.
But she’d spent years hiding herself – what she could do – from the outside world. Overall, her “gifts” had proven themselves far more trouble than they were worth. Proof in point: her present situation.
She’d submitted to the cleansing rites all morning long. Her stomach growling with hunger, she’d expressed her remorse for whatever imaginary sins she’d committed, rejected Satan and sworn to accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior for what had to be the hundredth time, obediently pleaded for his forgiveness and aid to abandon her unholy ways. The whole thing had, for the most part, gone as expected. Almost.
Then something had gone horribly wrong. And now, she’d just joined the ranks of teenage runaways.
Amanda slowed her pace as she exited the woods and approached the house. She took a moment to collect herself – it would not do to frighten the little old lady that just might prove to be her deliverance. She put the morning’s disturbing memory from her mind, brought her breathing and heart rate under control, then knocked on the door.
It opened a few moments later. “Amanda!?” the hunchbacked little woman exclaimed in a quavering voice.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said with as much of a smile as she could muster.
The old woman’s wrinkled face puckered further in confusion. “Why aren’t you in school, dear? Is something wrong?”
“I… I need your help, Mrs. Bruner,” Amanda pleaded hesitantly.
Mrs. Bruner looked searchingly at Amanda for a moment, then nodded knowingly. “Come in, dear,” she said, shuffling her warped body aside.
Amanda stepped inside the warm, welcoming little home.