Continued from: Earworm: Part 41 — Seeds of Doubt
Ms. Bradford’s monotonous voice crashed into Hope’s thoughts. Hope flinched. Had she fallen asleep? She glanced around the classroom. The other students watched Ms. Bradford attentively. Hope turned to look for William Knight. He was not in his seat. Mid-sentence, Ms. Bradford looked to the classroom door, and, sounding strangely inviting, she called, “Ah, Joel, come on in.” Hope turned to see Joel saunter into the room. He strolled to the front of the class and, with his usual, confident smile, he offered Hope a familiar wink. Ms. Bradford cleared her throat. “Now, class,” she announced, sounding as if acknowledging a room full of first graders. “Joel has something important to tell us.”
Joel faced the class, cleared his throat, and said, “Fellow classmates. It has come to my attention,” he paused, winking again at Hope, his smile widening, “that Hope Ferretti is a witch.”
The class gasped.
“What?” Hope squealed.
“She speaks of magic lands, of flying, and of raising the dead.” Joel said. A wave of accusatory exclamations traveled through the students.
“Joel? What are you talking about?” Hope said.
“I say Hope is a witch,” Joel said. “Who else thinks she is guilty?”
The students cheered and began chanting, “Witch. Witch. Witch.”
Joel’s smile vanished, his eyes filling with malice, and he strode forward, twisting his fingers into Hope’s long, black hair. He pulled her from her seat. She struggled to keep her balance as the class converged on her, their many hands groping. They whisked her across the floor and out the classroom’s door, through the hallway, pulling, pushing, touching, every student wanting to take part, all chanting, “Witch. Witch. Witch.” A heavy door banged open, and the crowd dragged Hope outside the building. She stumbled over many feet, righted by groping hands, until finally, the crowd abated. She stood on the football field. A deafening roar of cheers rose from hundreds of students lining the bleachers. They stomped their feet on the bleachers, chanting in rhythmic unison, “Witch. Witch. Witch.”
“I’m dreaming,” Hope screamed. “This isn’t real.”
A giant pyre stood in the field’s center, a pile of wood about twenty feet high, a tall pole rising from its center. Two of Joel’s football buddies dragged Hope onto the pyre, binding her wrists to the stake that topped the structure. The crowd hooted and called as Hope thrashed against the ropes like a hooked fish.
Joel was now waving a long torch with showman exuberance. “Hope is guilty of witchcraft,” he hollered to the crowd, pointing up at Hope. The crowd responded with animalistic, frantic whoops. Joel then called to them, “And what do we do to witches?”
The crowd chanted a new word that iced Hope’s blood. “Burn. Burn. Burn.”
“Will no one defend this witch?” Joel called to them.
A voice cut through the chanting. “I will.”
The crowd gasped and went silent.
William was striding across the field. He stopped at the bottom edge of the pyre, looking up at Hope. “I will,” he repeated. He lifted from the ground—in a rather Mary Martin-like way—hovering a few feet before Hope. “I can take you away from all this,” he said, spreading his arms. “Come with me, let me take you back to your castle.”
Hope closed her eyes, remembering the castle’s vast halls of gold and marble, her father’s familiar voice and gentle smile, and when she opened her eyes, she perceived the flicker of a glowing object below her chin. The lunar jewel was hanging from her neck. The same stars and moon William had given her in a far-off dream. Images flooded Hope’s mind, false memories—her father’s gaping neck, the graveyard, Joel’s insane grin—and Hope looked into William’s eyes. “It’s you,” she whispered.
“Yes, Hope,” William said with a look so earnest it was almost laughable, “it is me. And I will take you…”
“No,” Hope said, “it’s you who’s been doing all this.”
“Hope, let me save you.” William’s voice took on a desperate edge. “Let me take you from all this.” He gestured to the crowd. “Let me take you back to your castle.”
“Somehow, you’re behind this,” Hope said. “It’s you playing with my mind.”
“No, Hope, it’s him,” William said, pointing to Joel at the foot of the pyre. “He’s the one keeping you from your dreams. See?”
Joel lit the pyre with the torch.
The crowd became frantic as fire washed over the structure, the flames trickling up the stacked planks toward Hope.
“Hope, let me save you,” William said.
“You gave me my father only to steal him away again.”
“Hope, we have to go, please, let me take you.”
“It’s you behind the nightmares.”
“No. Leave me alone,” Hope shouted. The rising heat’s shimmer distorted William’s image, the swelter reaching inside of her, cooking her. “It’s not real,” she screamed, suffocating in the charred air, her nostrils burning with smoke and heat, the dancing flames erasing William from her view. She struggled against the ropes, hearing the crackling roar as the flames devoured the pyre like feasting creatures. “Wake up,” she screamed. The lick of a flame bit her toe. This was no dream. She was about to burn. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t break free of the ropes. The searing pain would slash her skin like razors and she would smell the char of her own cooking flesh. “No,” she screeched, running across her floor. “No. No. No.” Darkness exploded into a white glare. Someone grabbed her. She thrashed at the blurred forms looming around her. The stench of smoke stained her nostrils. “No. Leave me alone. No.” Hands fought to capture her. She slapped at them.
“Hope,” voices shouted. “Hope.”
“No,” Hope screeched.
Strong hands shackled her. “Hope,” a man called, stern and commanding. “Hope, you’re awake, it’s over, you’re awake.”
Another hand rubbed her back. “You’re awake, Hope,” a woman said. “Shhhhhh. You’re awake.” Hope opened her eyes and pulled away from the arms. She looked up at her stepfather. Her mother stood beside him. Her sister stood in the doorway. “Hope,” her mother said, touching Hope’s arm, “are you all right?”
Hope looked at her mother like an Alzheimer’s victim wondering how she arrived someplace. Her body trembled. “No,” she said, bursting into tears.
Continued in: Earworm: Part 43 — The Shot Heard Round the Gym
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