“Annmarie! Wait for Mommy!” Panting, Winifred chased her daughter across the vast lawns. Lilting giggles urged her onward. Annmarie zigged and zagged, running between the flowerbeds and willow trees like lightning. The giggling stopped – a sure sign the girl had begun playing ‘hide-and-seek’.
At first, the quiet was soothing; it had been a chaotic morning. But Winifred quickly realized the eerie silence harbored something more sinister. Finally, she called out, “Alright – I give up!” She strolled from tree to tree, expecting Annmarie to pop out and scare her at any moment.
“Annmarie?” she called out. “Annmarie, where are you? Don’t scare Mommy. It’s time to come out now.” Nothing. Not even the crickets chirped, nor did the birds call. Then, a rustling from the bushes alerted her to an odd sight.
She spun to face the bush, ripe with blueberries. Her face paled, and she let out an ear-piercing shriek before fainting to the well-trimmed grass. The groundskeeper heard her cry and ran to to edge of the flower garden, looking for his mistress. He soon spied a shock of silky, blonde hair, draped across the grass like a river of pure honey.
“Oh! Mistress!” The fear and panic could be heard in the man’s gravelly voice as he ran to help Winifred to her feet. His attention focused on her, he hardly took notice of the slight movement behind the bush. He fanned Winifred’s face, grateful when he finally saw her eyes flutter open. “Thank the gods, you’ve risen, Mistress! Not to worry, Old Gerald’s here, now.”
Pulling herself to a sitting position, Winifred paused only a moment to gather her wits before remembering… Annmarie. Pushing the elderly groundskeeper aside, she clumsily rose to her feet. Her heart beat faster in her chest as her brain rebelled against what she knew she’d seen.
“Annmarie,” she croaked. “Annmarie – no!” Winifred made a mad dash for the blueberry bush, paying no heed to the carefully cultivated beds of tulips and lavender nearby. In a flurry of petals, she lifted and tugged on the thin branches. The groundskeeper came forward, at a loss for words. Her chest heaving, Winifred continued to cry out for her daughter, until she finally collapsed into a sobbing heap on the now-destroyed flower bed.
Unsure of what to say, the old man realized Annmarie must’ve wandered off and began to survey his surroundings. The flower beds were all intact – with the exception of the ones Winifred had trampled. Every few feet, another blueberry bush lined the perimeter of their lands. On the other side, a heavily wooded area stretched a few dozen acres wide. Beyond the woods, there was nothing but farmland for the next thirty miles or so. Annmarie couldn’t have gotten far.
Scratching his white beard, Gerald returned his attention to Winifred. “Mistress, please allow me to escort you inside. I’m sure Master James will want to know of this.”
Winifred nodded and returned to the manor in despair. They’d barely made it into the elaborate foyer, before she collapsed onto a red velvet divan. Gerald lost no time in searching for his master.
“Martha! Nico!” At his call, Martha, a young maid, and Nico, the household errand boy, appeared from the common room.
“Yessir?” they asked in unison.
“Go, and fetch Master James. Hurry now!” he clapped his hands together, and the two took off to find the Master as Gerald continued trying to console Winifred. Her vacant stare and bedraggled appearance unnerved him. “There, there, Mistress,” he soothed, “Miss Annmarie will be fine, you’ll see.”
Winifred snapped her head up, catching the man in a fierce glare, “No, I won’t see. I’ll never see my little Annmarie again!” Erupting into a fresh round of sobs, Winifred’s face disappeared into her hands. She pulled her knees to her chest – a difficult task to manage in a long dress and petticoats – and rocked herself back and forth.
Finally, Master James appeared, followed closely by Martha and Nico. He hurried to his wife’s side, but, when he could get nothing intelligible from her, he looked toward the groundskeeper for answers.
“What happened here?” Master James could barely hold back his panic.
“‘Twas something in the gardens, m’Lord. I found Mistress Winifred lying on the ground – asleep-like. I knew something bad must’ve happened. When she woke, she started running to the bushes, shouting for Annmarie.”
“Where is Annmarie?” Master James’ panic was wholly evident now, and he rose from the divan.
“I – ah… that is to say,” Gerald gulped, “I saw her playing with the Mistress, but they were running so fast, I lost sight of them when they went farther into the garden. I looked. I didn’t see her, but I figured it’d be best to get Mistress Winifred back here to you.” He held his breath; at times, the Master was known to have a temper.
Thankfully, his concern for his wife and daughter seemed to override any anger he might have felt. He marched toward the ornately-decorated wooden doors and open them wide.
“Come along,” he ordered. “Nico, Gerald, you will help me look for Annmarie. Martha,” he motioned to Winifred, still rocking herself on the little couch, “watch over my wife.”
“Yes m’Lord,” Martha whispered, her green eyes wide and full of alarm.
Before Nico left her side, Martha grabbed at her brother’s arm and whispered, “Do you think it could be them? The Hollow Children? Are they really real?”
Nico shrugged her arm away, “That’s just a story Mother told me to scare me away from the woods. There’s no such thing as ‘Hollow Children’. Really, Martha, sometimes you’re so gullible.” Martha shoved him away, and the three men exited the Baroque manor.
Once again on the sprawling lawns, the groundskeeper led the way to the side gardens. The property was surrounded by the dense woods on three sides; the front of the large house faced the only road, across which was a large clearing and a panoramic view of the nearby mountain range.
“This is where I found Mistress Winifred, m’Lord,” Gerald motioned to the disturbed ground. “And, there’s where she ran when she came to,” he pointed a gnarled, old finger toward the bush.
Master James nodded, “Right, let’s split up, then. Nico – you take the far end of the gardens. Gerald – you search the front gardens, in case she circled around. I’m going to check the woods.”
Neither Nico nor Gerald dared to argue. Still, there were many… unnatural stories about the woods, and they feared for their Master. The group split, each man heading in different directions. Gerald searched the front gardens diligently, calling out Annmarie’s name every so often. Finally, he thought he heard something. His heart leapt as he strained to hear better.
There! A distant cry! No… a scream. As the pitch began to rise, Gerald ran toward its source. Rounding the corner to the side gardens, he stopped in his tracks. Standing, uncaringly, on top of a bed of tulips, previously trampled by Winifred, Master James stared blankly ahead – into the darkness of the woods.
It became clear, the scream was not coming from Master James. Its origins were of some other, ethereal realm. As the wraith-like howling continued, a figure appeared from the shadows. It was small in stature – no bigger than a child. No bigger than… Annmarie.
As he laid eyes upon it, Master James lurched forward, crying out for his daughter, “Annmarie! Thank the gods!”
Nico ran to Gerald’s side, “I heard – Is that… is it really her?!” he asked, breathless.
“I don’t know. Who else could it be, though?” Even from a distance, Gerald could make out the shape of the dark skirt, white top, and bonnet Annmarie had been wearing – though her body was imperceptible among the inky, black shadows.
Gerald and Nico watched from a distance as Master James continued to close the gap between himself and the small person. The shrieking echoed all around them. Nico thought back to what he’d said to Martha about the Hollow Children. It was just a story, right?
“Say, Gerald?” he began nervously, “You reckon it’s one of those ‘Hollow Children’?”
Gerald pursed his lips. He’d never believed in such things. But, now…
Instead of answering the boy, Gerald focused on the scene unfolding before him. Master James was just a few yards away from the silhouette, who hadn’t budged an inch since appearing on the tree line.
The screams reached an ear-splitting plateau and, in one fell swoop, the shadow-child distorted and changed into a demonic beast. With one massive, black claw-like hand, it smothered Master James, leaving nothing but s smoking dust pile.
Gerald and Nico, frozen in fear, stared in open-mouthed horror. Forcing their feet to move, they spun on the spot and ran for the house.
Once inside, they found Martha and Winifred. Winifred was sitting upright on the divan. She had solid black eyes and blood dripping from her ears. Martha stood nearby, gripping her hands together so tightly, her knuckles had turned white.
Breathless, she turned to Nico and Gerald, “What happened out there? Mistress Winifred was finally beginning to calm down when she began to seize as if the Devil, himself, took hold of her. And now… and now she’s like this and I… ”
Nico shushed her and took her in his arms, wrapping her in a tight embrace, “I was wrong.” He looked soberly from Martha to Gerald. Taking a moment to gather his composure, he elaborated, “The Hollow Children are real. Annmarie just became their latest victim. Once they have the first born, they lay claim to the entire family line. That’s how the story goes, anyway.”
Martha’s jaw dropped, “But… but, you said-”
“I know what I said!” Nico snapped, “If you have another explanation, by all means, let’s hear it. But, I’m telling you – this is what my mother said would happen if you encounter the Hollow Children.”
“Then let’s get far away from here!” Martha pleaded. Gerald and Nico exchanged a look. There was no way they’d be able to explain this to the authorities without looking guilty.
Gerald nodded and cleared his throat, “Pack a bag. We leave at dawn.”
This could be The End…
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