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By Tom Farr

The note stared up at Bianca as she held it in her trembling hands. The promise of a romantic getaway sparked the slightest flame of hope before the pain washed it away again.

“I’m surprised you would still want me after all this time,” she said, imagining her husband Asher’s face, weary from the long hours he worked to be away from her and the emptiness they felt.

Her phone rang in her pocket. Asher.

“Tell me you’re packing,” he said, his voice bright.

Bianca sighed. “Tell me the pain will stop someday.” She sounded desperate.

“Trust me, Bianca,” he said. “This weekend will change everything.”

She tightened her grip on the phone. “How can you say that?” Her frustration boiled over at the thought of someone taking what was most precious to her. “You know we can’t have another baby, Asher.”

“This isn’t about another baby. Just trust me. I need you to believe that what I have planned will prove my love for you and how much I believe in you.”

Bianca glanced at the clock in the kitchen. 4:37. “Okay,” she said. “Let me pack and I’ll be on my way. Text me the directions.”

“Loaded into your phone this morning,” he said, and she knew he was smiling. Maybe there was hope for them.

“I love you,” she said.

###

An old faded sign on the outskirts of town read THE FOLLOWING, POPULATION 428. Bianca drove past it, wondering why she’d never heard of it before. A break in the trees revealed a street with buildings on either side.

As she peered out her windshield at the trees surrounding either side of the road, she wondered why Asher picked this place. The town looked deserted. The few working streetlights gave the street and buildings on either side a hazy glow against the backdrop of the blackest night Bianca was sure she’d ever seen. It didn’t exactly scream romance.

As she approached the town, her car began to shake. She glanced at the dashboard as all of her warning lights came on. She slowed the vehicle, and the shaking stopped.

A few more feet and the car sputtered to a stop.

Great. Perfect way to begin the weekend.

She put the car into park and tried the ignition. Not even a click.

She sighed and pulled out her phone to call Asher. The phone lit up, then went black. She pushed the power button,sure that her phone had been charging on the way. Nothing.

She peered out the window. Asher didn’t tell her where to meet him. He told her to call him when she got to town.

She stepped out of the car.

Where are you, Asher?

In the distance, she saw a figure walk up the steps of an old church and go inside.

She closed the door of her car and made her way toward the church. Every building she passed looked dark inside, and the whole town was eerily silent.

The person she’d watched go into the church didn’t look like Asher, but she hoped whoever it was would be able to tell her where she might find her husband in this creepy town.

When she neared the steps, she felt a chill in the air that wasn’t there before. Had the temperature suddenly dropped? Her shoes clacked against the concrete with every step she took.

The large wooden doors of the church were slightly ajar, and Bianca slipped inside. The first thing she noticed was how quiet it was.

“Hello?” she called out.

No one answered.

She took a few steps forward and found herself at the back of a massive sanctuary. The room was dimly lit, and the figure she’d seen walk inside was huddled over something at the front.

“Excuse me.”

The figure didn’t respond. Instead, the arms of the figure rose up in the air, and Bianca noticed a large knife in the figure’s hands.

Bianca gasped as the arms came down and the sound of a woman’s scream filled the room.

“Please, don’t,” the woman said, choking on liquid. “I can find another way.”

“It doesn’t work that way.” The figure’s voice was male, deep, and filled with contempt. “If you can’t deliver, then we have to go to the outside. You know what happens when we go outside.” He raised the knife again. “You’ve outlived your use.”

Bianca’s eyes went wide. She covered her mouth to keep from screaming.

The man stabbed the woman repeatedly. The sound of blade slicing through flesh brought a wave of nausea to Bianca’s stomach.

She backed up and bumped into the door. It creaked, and she froze as the man at the front turned. The look in his eyes was almost inhuman.

The man wiped the blood from his blade as he stepped toward Bianca. She turned and lunged out the church doors.

She raced down the steps, ran toward a building on the opposite side of the road, and frantically pounded on the front doors.

“Please. Help me!”

She glanced back and saw the man at the top of the steps. The man grinned, and Bianca was suddenly sure she’d seen him before.

He dashed down the steps, and Bianca slipped in between two buildings. As she rounded the corner of the building to her right, a hand reached out and grabbed her, covering her mouth with a cloth. She fought against her captor as she breathed in the sweet-smelling liquid on the cloth. Then her world went black.

###

Bianca woke up in a small dimly lit room, and the first thing she noticed was Asher sitting in a chair across from her. His hair was tousled and his clothes were dirty. A bruise ran along the left side of his face.

The second thing she noticed was that she was strapped to a chair and he wasn’t.

“What’s going on, Asher?”

He forced a smile. “Welcome to the weekend that changes everything.”

Bianca fought against the straps. “Why did you bring us here? What is this place?”

“It’s a self-contained community. No one new comes in. No one goes out.” He stood up and walked toward her, a knife in his right hand. “The women have stopped getting pregnant. They’re being executed. The community is dying.”

Bianca kept her eyes on the blade. “What does that have to do with us?”

Asher put his hand on one of the straps and sliced through it, freeing Bianca’s right hand. He looked at her with soft eyes. “It has everything to do with us.” He cut her other strap and pulled her up. He kissed her on the forehead, then looked her in the eyes. “I’ve spent four years looking for this place. All for you.” He gestured behind her.

She turned. The little girl with dark hair and innocent eyes startled her. She’d recognize the girl’s face anywhere, even though she’d only seen it once.

“Maggie,” Bianca said, her voice cracking. The little girl stared at her, curious. Her face looked like Bianca’s, but with Asher’s nose. Her eyes seemed like pools of blue.

“How did you find her?” She rushed to the girl and pulled her into her arms. It was the first time she’d held her. The stranger had taken her baby before she’d ever gotten to hold her, and now, four years later, here she was.

The girl pulled away and looked at Bianca with questioning eyes. “Mommy?” She looked up at Asher.

Bianca let out a laugh through her tears. “Yes, Baby. I’m your mommy.”

“We only have one shot at this,” Asher said. “We’ll never get it back. We have to go now.”

Bianca picked Maggie up and followed Asher outside. The man with the evil grin stood at the entrance to town. Asher approached the man with the knife still in hand. “We don’t want any trouble. We just want to take our daughter home.”

The man produced his own blade, a long machete. “It doesn’t work like that. No one leaves. Especially the girl.”

“She doesn’t belong to you,” Bianca said.

The man smiled. “Both of you belong to me. You created a life once. Now you’ll create it again, just as she will someday.”

Bianca held Maggie tighter as she took in what the man wanted.

Asher turned to her. “Run,” he whispered before he ran at the man, his blade held high. “Don’t look back!”

Bianca hesitated, then held Maggie tight and ran for the direction she’d entered town from. For a minute, she ran without looking back. But then she looked at Maggie. She deserved to have a father like Asher. A father who would search for her until he found her.

Bianca stopped and turned around.

The town was gone, replaced by a thick forest of trees. “Asher!”

The night was silent except for the little girl in Bianca’s arms.

“No one will ever take you again,” she whispered as she turned and walked forward into the night.

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