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Chasing Amanda
by Melissa Foster

Category: Mystery/Crime
Description: Nine years ago, Molly Tanner witnessed a young girl's abduction in the busy city of Philadelphia, shifting her occasional clairvoyance into overdrive. Two days later, the girl's body was found, and Molly's life fell apart. Consumed by guilt for not acting upon her visions, and on the brink of losing her family, Molly escaped the torturous reminders in the city, fleeing to the safety of the close-knit rural community of Boyds, Maryland. Molly's life is back on track, her son has begun college, and she and her husband have finally rekindled their relationship. Their fresh start is shattered when a seven-year-old girl disappears from a local park near Molly's home. Unable to turn her back on another child and troubled by memories of the past, Molly sets out to find her, jeopardizing the marriage she'd fought so hard to hold together. While unearthing clues and struggling to decipher her visions, Molly discovers another side of Boyds, where the residents--and the land itself--hold potentially lethal secrets, and exposes another side of her husband, one that threatens to tear them apart. **AWARDS FOR CHASING AMANDA** Nominated, Dan Poynter's Global eBook Award (winners TBD summer 2011)
eBook Publisher: Solstice Publishing,
eBookwise Release Date: July 2012

eBookeBook

Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [446 KB]
Words: 102035
Reading time: 291-408 min.


One

Molly kissed her husband goodbye and closed the front door of her colonial home, listening to the silence that echoed in her ears. It had been eight years since Amanda's death, eight years since she'd escaped the painful memories of Philadelphia, and moved to the quiet community of Boyds, Maryland. In the stillness of the mornings, Molly found herself missing the incessant background noises of the city, which seemed amplified in the six weeks since her son, Erik, had left for college. Her bare feet lightly slapped the ceramic tile as she padded into the kitchen, stopping in front of the picture window to watch Stealth, her rambunctious Rottweiler, and Trigger, her playful black lab. Molly briefly envied their carefree lives, then turned to look at the calendar that was clipped to the refrigerator with an enormous magnet that read, Dance like nobody's watching! The calendar was blank, as it had been every day this month, except for the third Thursday, where she had scribbled, Civic Association Meeting. Molly sighed, remembering a time when every day had held a different list of assignments and chores, schedules for Erik, and important meetings for Cole. Eight years ago she had needed a calm, almost boring, lifestyle to save her sanity. Now, she wondered if she hadn't let it go on that way for too long. She coyly lifted her eyes to the magnet once again, remembering when Erik was young, and they'd danced unabashedly around the kitchen to silly songs from Sesame Street. The edges of her lips curled upward at the memory. That seemed like a lifetime ago. She raised her eyebrows, glancing around the empty kitchen, like a child about to reach into the cookie jar, and suddenly burst into spasmodic movements that did not resemble a dance by any stretch of the imagination. The phone rang, saving her from feeling any more ridiculous. "Yeah, right," she said to the magnet, and answered the phone.

"Hey, Ma, what's up?" Erik's use of "Ma" rather than "Mom" made Molly smile. When Erik was about twelve years old, he'd suddenly started calling Molly "Ma" when he needed her help or was simply in a jovial mood, and he'd used the term "Mom" when he was angry, scared, or upset, just as Molly had called him Erik Michael Tanner when he'd misbehaved as a child. Molly had seen it as a sign of his maturing, testing the waters.

Molly blushed, her lame excuse for a dance fresh on her mind. "Not much. Are you okay?" A shadow of doubt about her mothering skills momentarily gave Molly pause. There had been a time, just before finally moving away from Philadelphia, when she'd been unable to care for herself, much less for Erik. Cole had stepped into the roles of both mother and father while Molly struggled to come to grips with the trauma that had befallen Amanda. Even now, years later, that fleeting trepidation was enough of a reminder to keep Molly on her toes.

"Yeah, 'course. I wanted your opinion. There's this girl, Jenna? We've been hanging out a lot, and, um, well, she used to hang out with this guy down the hall, and--"

"And you're his friend, and you aren't sure if you should keep hanging out with her, right?"

Erik breathed a sigh of relief. "Yeah, exactly."

This was nothing new for Molly. She'd been helping Erik with everything from skinned knees to breakups forever. When Erik was younger, he'd draw Molly outside to discuss matters of the heart, as if the fresh air had somehow made things easier for him to discuss. Molly pictured the way he'd drop his eyes as he spoke, the way he bit his lower lip between thoughts, just as he had since he was four, and the nervous, crooked smile that always accompanied a relieved sigh when he'd heard her thoughts. She pictured that smile while she spoke with him, gently asking about his relationship with the other boy, how much he liked Jenna, and generally getting a feel for his long-term intent, of which, of course, he wasn't really sure, although he "really liked" her.

"Okay, so basically, I need to decide if I'm good enough friends with this other guy to be worth the pain I'll cause him if I keep seeing her?" The conflict in Erik's voice was tangible.

"Yeah, in my opinion, anyway. Is she worth hurting someone else, and are you good enough friends with the guy to care?" Molly thought about how cold the latter sounded, quickly revising, "It's all about karma, Erik. Would you care if you were him? That's what you need to think about. Put yourself in his situation. Was it a painful breakup? Were they madly in love, or was it a college fling?"

"Right. Okay."

Molly knew the meaning behind that particular response, This isn't easy, so I don't want to think about it right now. "You'll figure it out," she said. "Everything else okay?"

"I guess. Thanks, Ma, for making it a little harder," he laughed. "I gotta run. I've got class in five minutes, and it's across campus. Love you."

Before Molly could answer, the line went dead, and Molly longed for a hug from the boy who was no longer little, the boy who was now a young man and only needed to touch base with his mom rather than follow her around, hanging onto her every word. Molly missed those moments, feeling as though mothering a young man came with a whole different set of guidelines than mothering a boy, and accepting a phone dismissal without being hurt was one of the requirements. She missed building school projects and chaperoning field trips, taking pictures at soccer games, and standing at the sidelines, painfully silent, as her son had ordered her to remain because he was embarrassed by her cheering him on, "Go, Erik! That's my boy!" Molly shook her head, missing the child that he'd never be again, and smirking at the trials and tribulations that accompanied youth--and motherhood--then she headed upstairs to put on her running clothes.

Molly had wondered, recently, if they'd done the right thing when they'd uprooted from Philadelphia and moved to the country. Those thoughts were immediately chased by painful memories of Amanda. Nine years ago, Molly hadn't been sure she'd make it through each hour, much less each day. After Amanda's death, she'd spiraled into an abyss of depression, wrapped in the guilt of her silence, paralyzed by the truth--if she'd only spoken up, told somebody besides Cole, then maybe she could have saved her. Memories of that dreadful afternoon haunted her, the nightmares that followed suppressed her only hope of escape from the mental torture. She couldn't eat, and sleeping was out of the question. Losing her job had come as no surprise, since the commute to and from work, the sounds of the busy streets, had brought constant panic--an obsessive need to search the face of every child, looking for that hint of fear, looking for the deceit in the eyes of adults. Every screeching child had reminded her of Amanda, bringing forth a gut-wrenching visceral reaction, causing parents to guide their children away from the crazy woman who wouldn't stop asking them, Are you sure this is your parent? Molly remembered the unease she had felt as Amanda's abduction had unfolded before her.

It had been a cool October evening. Molly had left Walmart with an armful of groceries. She popped open the trunk and threw the bags in, trying to ignore the little girl's screams coming from the black minivan two cars over. She settled herself into the driver's seat, and rolled down the window. The deafening screams continued. Molly backed out of her parking space and inched slowly past the van's rear bumper. The child's father frantically tried to settle the little girl into the van, the little girl's arms and legs thrashed wildly. The frustrated father's eyes shot in Molly's direction.

"She didn't get the dolly she wanted," the man had said through gritted teeth.

Molly hadn't realized she was staring. Embarrassed, she had driven away. It was three days later, when Molly had seen Amanda's face on the front page of the newspaper, that Molly put her nightmares and the image of the man together, and realized that it had not been the little girl's father she'd seen, but Amanda's abductor, her murderer.

Molly shuddered. It had taken her years to understand the post-traumatic stress she'd been experiencing, to relearn normal reactions, and to retrieve her confidence. In small increments, she'd begun to move forward, to accept her failure. You did the best you could, her therapist had told her, and eventually Molly had found her footing again, slowly moving forward with her life. She pushed the distressing memories aside and reminded herself of how she'd come to grips with the nightmare she'd lived. For years, she had been confident that she would never slip back into that panicked, anxious state, but at times like these, when she remembered, she wasn't so sure. Determined to remain strong, she employed the coping mechanisms the therapist had taught her, reminding herself how far she'd come, and telling herself, out loud, that Amanda's death wasn't her fault. Yes, she thought, moving to Boyds had been the right thing to do. Erik had quickly fallen into favor with the kids at school and neighbors, and Cole had transitioned seamlessly to a nearby practice. Molly liked the close-knit flavor of Boyds, where most of the residents of the small farming community had grown up and still remained. She found safety in knowing who her neighbors were, and that strangers were few and far between in the three thousand acres that made up the small town.

The parking lot of the Boyds Presbyterian Church was empty, save for Pastor Lett's Corvette, which, it seemed to Molly, was ever present at the church. Molly's hamstrings burned as she stretched toward the sun, feeling each muscle pulsate as it was drawn to life. She stretched her arms above her head and let out a long sigh, thinking of the day that lay ahead, and wondering what she would do to keep herself busy. She yearned for her morning run, her escape from the mundane errands that barely filled her days.

Molly bent her lean body at the waist one last time to loosen her hips, pulling her head almost between her shins, her long, auburn ponytail flipped toward the ground. A faint clicking sound caught her attention, and she let her gaze move in its direction, but from her upside-down view, she couldn't see anything out of the ordinary. She turned and faced the aged white clapboard church which loomed behind her. Molly shielded her eyes from the bright sun and watched a blue bird whisk by. Blue bird, blue bird, fly away home. Your wings are signs of peace for none. Molly heard her mother's gentle voice ring in her head and cringed. Great, she sighed. Throughout her life, Molly's mother had often made random comments that Molly had later realized were psychically-charged warnings. Her mother had been clairvoyant for as long as Molly could remember, and when Molly had first realized that she had the same ability, she had thought of it as normal. She called the powerful episodes the Knowing, as her mother had. Now, she'd give anything to be able to close her eyes against her ability, wash it away like dirt from a fall. Before Amanda, Molly's visions had been vague and sporadic, sand under a breaking wave, morphing from one second to the next in unclear shapes and patterns. Amanda's death had changed every aspect of her life, including the clarity and frequency of her visions. Molly didn't mark time like most mothers, cherishing each of their child's milestones. For Molly, there was only life before Amanda and life after Amanda.

Molly caught a glimpse of Pastor Lett standing alone in the shade of the church. Her long arms hung limply at her sides. When Molly had first moved to Boyds, she had thought it very progressive to have a female pastor in such a small town. Now, as Molly watched Pastor Lett crane her neck and look into the cornfields behind her, she couldn't imagine anyone else taking her place. She was a bit aloof and even slightly mannish, but Molly didn't find either of those traits unappealing. Molly had quickly confided in Pastor Lett about the tragedy that had befallen her in Philadelphia, and Pastor Lett had been patient and supportive of Molly's need to visit her at the church several times each month to cleanse the chaos from her mind. That's what Pastor Lett had called it, Cleansing the chaos. She'd said that everyone had confusion in their minds about things they'd done, or not done, and that one needed to resolve that turmoil in order to move forward with a productive, sane life. Molly smiled as she thought of their visits, which had become less frequent as the years had passed and Molly had come into her own once again.

Molly waved, "Pastor Lett!"

Pastor Lett's head turned toward Molly. She thrust her hands deep into her pockets, hunched her shoulders and lifted her chin in curt acknowledgment, quickly retreating into the church.

Molly disregarded the slight brush-off, thinking that perhaps she was just in a hurry, distracted. She jogged out of the parking lot toward White Ground Road, a three-mile stretch of secluded rustic road that wound through the historic section of Boyds, Molly's typical morning run.

She ran at a strong and fast pace for the first half mile, pushing the worried thoughts of Erik and his latest female conflict to the back of her mind and focusing on the sting of the crisp fall air as her lungs expanded with each breath, until the familiar rhythm of her feet pounding the earth lulled her into an easier pace, and she found her groove.

Every morning, her own body surprised her. At forty-two, she was still able to run several miles without issue, but the fact that she could run was not what surprised her the most, it was her desire to run--almost an insatiable need--and the confidence she felt as she ran. Her therapist had wondered, maybe rightfully so, if running was symbolic of Molly running away from her past. Molly had never quite been able to shake the similarity. Before Amanda, Molly had run to stay in shape. After Amanda, running had centered her mind. With the absence of the responsibilities of work, Molly had still been plagued by thoughts of Amanda. She craved the escape that running provided--the escape from her own thoughts.

No sight was more beautiful than the graceful branches of the tall oaks that lined the rural road. She knew every rut and pot hole, the areas that deer favored as their highways, and even where the sun shone through the brightest, up around the bend near Hannah Slate's farm. She anticipated the shift in her footing as the paved road ended, fading gently into dirt and gravel, and felt her body relax as she inhaled the smell of the bright fall day.

At first, the change in temperature seemed imagined. Molly's eyebrows furrowed. She sped up her pace and her heartbeat followed. Within seconds, the air around her became cold. Goose bumps rose on her arms and sent a chill down her spine. She swallowed hard. Her calm slipped away, overshadowed by dread and certainty of what was yet to come.

A cold sweat replaced the perspiration she had earned. She swiped at her brow with a shaking hand. Her shorts and tank top clung to her small muscular body. An eerie silence took shelter in her eardrums as her vision dimmed, and an acidic taste settled in her mouth. Each breath became a fight for air. Her feet stopped moving. No! Not now! She closed her eyes and tried to will away the pressure in her head. There was no escape. She clenched her fists and brought them to her forehead, bracing herself for what she knew was happening. A fog enveloped her mind, and her legs became weak beneath her. A passerby, seeing her body shake and thrust, would have thought Molly was having a seizure. A passerby wouldn't have been able to distinguish between a seizure and the Knowing. Molly could.

She cursed herself for allowing the Knowing to continue to control her, year after year, yet she had no power to stop it. She felt like a puppet on a string. Visions flashed in her mind: A cavern-like room surrounded by shadowy darkness; a young girl huddled in a corner, scared and shivering; the smell of rancid, wet earth.

Molly fell to the ground and cried out in fear and frustration, "No!" She lay there, amidst the dirt and gravel, too spent to move, her mind in turmoil. A war raged within her--a battle of fear and denial--fear for what the Knowing had shown her and her own denial to believe it. She held onto reality by a thin thread, her trachea refused to open, to breathe. She stood on shaking legs and staggered, grasping at her neck and trying desperately to take air into her lungs. She spun around, looking for anyone, anything that might help her. She finally gasped a breath, a tortured inhalation. Molly pushed on, trying to make it out of the secluded area, to the clearing around the corner. Her mind saw flashes of the little girl and instantly replaced the images with one she knew--Amanda. Tears ran down her cheeks, and a familiar weight bore into her gut.

Breathe, breathe, breathe. She stumbled forward. It's not my fault, echoed in her head. The visions were now part of her. Molly scanned the edges of the forest; the mass of tangled branches and fallen trees were thick, the underbrush unforgiving. She couldn't maintain her focus. Her mind was too foggy, her body too weak. Nothing made any sense.

She limped up the road in a stumbling jog. As she neared the bend of the road where White Ground ran into Old Bucklodge Lane, she found her footing, pushing forward, faster, trying to make it to Hannah's before the Knowing disabled her once again.

Adrenaline coursed through her veins, and she ran faster than ever before. She ran up the hill and sprinted the last half mile to the old red farmhouse where Hannah lived. As if she had passed into another universe, the air lightened, birds chirped, horses gamboled in the pasture. Normalcy abounded. Hannah was outside with one of her many hunting dogs, a small beagle with floppy brown ears and a little tuft of brown fur in the center of its white and black body.

"Hey, Molly!" Hannah hollered, waving.

Molly grabbed her left side, kneading a stitch, her renewed energy left her as quickly as it had come. She lifted her arm in a limp wave and lowered herself to the grass of Hannah's yard, her mind in a bubble of disbelief.

Hannah came running over, "Molly, are you all right? You look like you've seen a ghost." She crouched next to Molly, reaching for her hand. "Molly?"


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