Flames from the torched cabins lit the moonless night sky over the small southern Illinois settlement known as Kasper. Blending with the crackling of fire, helpless screams of desperate souls filled the quiet night. Those whose homes were not set ablaze were dragged out, the females by their hair, fighting the men who held torches high. Some cried for their children. Some watched their men get gunned down for attempting to save their families.
In the center of the settlement, thirty poles reached toward the sky with a piece of wood nailed vertically across the top. Underneath the crudely made crosses, branches waited to be ignited. Men, women, and children—whoever was left alive—found themselves bound to the crosses. Next to the poles, men, dressed in dark attire, their straw hats lowered to cover half their faces, stood at attention with their sticks of death held firmly in their hands.
As the final home vanished in a sea of red, the last of the women, a nineteen-year-old named Abigail Smith, was pulled by her long black hair along the coarse ground. The long dress did little to stop the scratches from tearing apart her legs. When her captor released her, her head bounced off the ground.
“Witch,” the man scorned before spitting upon Abigail.
“Leave my daughter alone,” a woman barked from a cross.
Mary Smith’s face lay battered and bruised. Through the strands of brown hair across her face, her eyes narrowed. She glanced at her fallen husband, noticing blood still flowing from the hole in his head.
“Mama.” Abigail’s frightened tone echoed through what was left of the town.
Abigail’s executioner set his torch down and lifted her by the arm. When she resisted, the man swung his hand out before swinging it back and striking her in the face. Abigail went limp in his hand. Another man strolled up with rope as she was hoisted onto the cross.
She regained her senses, feeling her wrists being bound outward. There was no more fighting, for she was helpless and could only wait for her fate like the rest of the settlement. Her heart pounded in her chest as she glanced around at what was left of town. Children, some as young as eight, cried desperate tears, unexpecting the fate that awaited them.
“Thou shalt not commit the practice of witchcraft ever again,” the man said, holding a Bible close to his chest. “The Lord shall clean this settlement of all that is unholy.” He pointed at the executioner next to Mary Smith and gave a nod.
Abigail watched the man lower the torch and ignite the branches below her mother. The flames crept up Mary’s skirt, burning the flesh off her legs as her agonizing cries swept deep into Abigail’s soul.
“You shall all burn in hell for condemning innocents!” Mary screamed. “For this land and those surrounding shall be cursed for all of eternity.”
“Thou are not innocent.” The man lifted the Bible over his head. “They shall meet the one for whom they worship.”
Fire raced up Mary’s gown until it licked the bottom of her brown hair. Flesh oozed off Mary’s face and dripped into the expanding fire until nothing remained except her torched skull. The fire burned through the ropes, releasing the remains of Mary which fell into the expanding fire.
“Burn in hell,” the remaining settlers chanted in harmony. “Sinners. Sinners.”
Abigail’s feet exploded in heat. Glancing down at the fire rapidly spreading up her body, she kicked her feet clear. The more she frantically swung her legs, the faster the fire raced up her dress. There was no time to think about her family, for she’d gone up faster than her mother had.
We shall be together and strong, Mary’s voice rang in Abigail’s mind over the death consuming her.
Abigail’s vision of the flames became a distorted circle.
Yes. Together and stronger. May our souls forever roam, combined voices stated.
One by one, the people of Kasper ignited. The flames gave the children no chance to feel pain as it consumed their bodies in an instant. The burning wood toppled over, sending their glowing ashes into the sky. The smoke turned a soft white and drifted down, then was absorbed into the ground.
Peeking out from the lush brushes in the darkness, a pair of green eyes watched in morbid fascination as the families she’d grown to love burned into the night.
Go forth, Carrie-Ann, Mary’s voice echoed in the young one’s mind. Their religion and those who worship it shall be made to suffer. We have roamed this land for centuries, and it shall continue with you. Keep our bloodlines alive, Carrie-Ann, and when the moon once again darkens the sky on this day, you and your future daughter shall return. For I have seen the future, and our future is in you.
Abigail’s voice chimed in. Go, sister. Let the fires you have seen tonight rage inside your soul and fuel the desire to see us again.
The distant rumble of thunder snapped Nikki back into reality, causing her to drop her Bible onto the banks of the Kaskaskia River. Nikki grabbed her chest as sweat rolled off her forehead from the humid Southern Illinois air. She pulled her flowing black hair from behind her back and set it across the right side of her chest which reached all the way down to her stomach. She swiped her hand down her narrow face to wipe away the sweat. Her thin stature and face, that showed her twenty-year-old innocence, only strengthened her charm known throughout the town.
She’d spend many days at the riverbank, consuming her thoughts in the ways of the Lord. She felt at home and one with God as if the warmth of the sun beamed His love into her soul. To Nikki, here by the banks, she was in Heaven. Her family, the town, her religion . . . this is all she needed to be in euphoria. She leaned her head back and lost herself in the love shining down on her from her savior.
From out of the woods, a cool gust of wind flowed through her soul and, for an instant, blew away the warmth she had welcomed. A chorus of soft whispers spoke to her in the breeze. Uneasiness came over Nikki as she snapped her head in the direction of the dense trees. As quickly as it had arrived, the cool air vanished. From the corner of her eye, Nikki spotted a figure obscured in the rustling leaves before dissolving amongst the foliage.
She shook it off as her imagination and reached to pick up the brown leather-bound book and wiped off the dirt. She stood and peered down both directions of the river, only to find the same sight that greeted her when she’d arrived. Vegetation hugged the red water of the creek. The sounds of birds singing echoed endlessly through the dense set of trees.
Nikki recited the Lord’s Prayer before ending with the sign of the cross. The warm breeze blew her black full-length skirt against her legs as she made her way up the bank and onto the small path that cut through the woods.
She dashed onto the road and past the faded green sign welcoming visitors to the town of Perfect, population thirty-seven. Perfect had nothing to offer except open fields and woods. It rested in the middle of nowhere, cut off from civilization with most of its residents living within two miles of Our Lady of Hope Church. There were no cell phones, cable, or internet in town, and a few local shops made up what was considered to be Main Street. While towns to the east gathered Sunday for local high school football games, Perfect gathered for church. Often referred to as The Holy Roller Town by outsiders, Perfect was just that to its residents. Perfect. A close-knit community isolated from the temptations of Satan.
Nikki heard the sound of gravel kicking up behind her and turned. She saw a tall, well-built boy running to catch up to her. Jake Barrett was a year younger than Nikki but clearly could pass as a twenty-year-old. His straight brown hair bounced with every step he took, and his black T-shirt clung tightly to his chest. The moment his face came into view, Nikki’s face blushed.
“Wait up!” Jake yelled.
Nikki stopped and crossed her arms across her chest, hugging the Bible. “You want to hurry before we get poured on?” Nikki spoke so softly that Jake couldn’t hear her.
“What?” Jake asked, huffing.
“Rain,” Nikki said, pointing at the dark ominous skies.
“Oh, yeah,” Jake replied, not bothering to take his eyes off Nikki. “Heading home?”
“Mind if I walk with you?”
“Of course,” Nikki answered.
His charming brown eyes captivated Nikki, sending her stomach into knots. She’d glance down at his lips as he spoke, wondering what it would be like to feel them against hers. As quickly as the thought entered her mind, she’d recite a prayer to push away any ideas that crossed her mind.
“You okay? You seem troubled,” Jake’s soothing voice asked.
“Yes, thank you for asking,” Nikki said.
“Reading our favorite book, I see.”
“Yes. Reading the verses about—” Nikki cut herself off, her cheeks turning warm and red.
Jake smiled. “About what?”
“Never mind.” Nikki lowered her head and tried not to smile. For as long as she could remember, her crush on Jake had remained steady. During Bible studies, she’d sit far away from him to shield the gleam of admiration and the cold sweat that would sit on her forehead. Jake empowered everything she’d desired in a boy. Temptation fueled her hormones, and often it turned into a power struggle between those hormones and the Word of the Lord.
“Amber will be back in town tomorrow for a few weeks,” Jake said. “I envy her for getting out of here and into college.”
Nikki quickly glanced at Jake before lowering her head again. “It was the Lord’s doing that showed her the way,” Nikki said. “Just like He showed you the way.”
“Believe me, I’m going to need all the help I can get from Him. I’m nervous about next year. Small town kid going to a big university from being homeschooled.”
“We’re all home-schooled, including Amber, but this only demonstrates the power of prayer. We all prayed for the best, and look; it’s not only Amber and you, but Jenny, Samantha, and so many more who are leaving and making something of themselves. To spread the Word of God.”
“What about you, Nikki? You’re almost twenty, and you’re still here.”
“I believe that’s the Lord’s plan. I was meant to stay here with my parents and to take over for my father.”
“Well, I pray for you every night to find your way from here,” Jake said.
“Thank you, but when it comes time, I will follow the path He has set out for me.”
Before they realized, they’d come up to her house. Faded white siding enclosed the small ranch home, which lay nestled behind two large oak trees. Nikki cut through the front lawn, kicking up dirt from the several dead spots littering the front lawn.
“Thanks for walking with me,” Nikki said.
“No need to thank me,” Jake answered with a grin. “I’ll see you around.”
Nikki’s heart fluttered. Not sure how to respond, she offered him a smile. She leapt onto the porch and stopped in front of the door. The gray screen door creaked when she swung it open, then slammed shut behind her, sending paint chips falling to the porch.
“Mama, I’m home,” Nikki said, removing her sandals and setting them to the side.
“Nikki, come to the kitchen,” a female voice called.
Nikki walked through the tiny living room, curling her toes as she walked on the beige carpet. The dark-brown-paneled walls were home to several depictions of Jesus Christ and God. Bibles sat on each end table that were nestled on either end of a worn sofa. Fans rested in the two large open windows, allowing the scent of vegetation to flow throughout the house.
She peered into the cramped kitchen, decorated in the same style as the living room, to see Marie Strange standing over a simmering pot of stew. Everything about her screamed fifties, from her brown hair nestled up in a bun and the long blue dress covering every inch of her body to the glasses resting on her small nose.
Sitting at the tiny dining table, James’s eyes shifted from the Bible to a notebook as he ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper hair. A tall, brooding man, Mr. Strange did not appear to be your run-of-the-mill pastor. For a man in his late fifties, he kept himself in shape.
The Stranges moved to Perfect once they had adopted Nikki after the death of her biological mother. James and Marie had been the influential couple in town. James became the pastor of Our Lady of Hope Church after the original preacher dropped dead from a heart attack while giving a sermon. Even though James had had no formal training, he took hold of the opportunity. He believed his faith was strong enough to continue to spread the Word of God.
“Have you been memorizing your reading for the picnic?” James asked.
“Yes, Papa,” Nikki replied in her usual soft tone.
“Tonight after dinner, I want you to read it to us.”
“Sunday after Mass, there’s going to be a special studies class,” James said.
Nikki stood in silence, waiting for any other commands. “Anything else?”
“No,” James said. “Go and wash up for dinner.”
Nikki started to walk away, but before she took her second step, Marie stopped her. “What’s this?” Marie lifted Nikki’s dress. “How did this happen?”
Nikki glanced down and saw a brown, smeared mud stain that spotted her dress. “I’m sorry, Mama. It must have happened when I was reading,” Nikki replied.
“Take it off, and wash it,” Marie said.
Nikki started to walk away, hoping to avoid what she knew would be coming next.
“Where are you going?” Marie asked.
“To clean my dress,” Nikki replied.
“No,” Marie barked. “You’ll do it right here in the sink before that stain gets any more settled in.”
Marie reached over and pulled down Nikki’s dress, leaving her standing motionless in her white undies. She peeked at James, who kept a close eye on the events unfolding. Ashamed, Nikki turned and hung her head. The only sound entering her ears was of water filling the sink, and like a river, the running water calmed her nerves.
“Here,” Marie said, pushing the dress into Nikki’s hands. “Scrub it out.”
After taking the dress, Nikki turned to the sink. As she scrubbed off the mud, a smile spread across her face. With the pressure of punishment off her back, Nikki could relax.
“Mama, Papa, Mrs. Keller reminded me that Amber will be back in town for a few weeks. I was hoping I’d be able to see her tomorrow,” Nikki said.
“Absolutely not,” James snapped.
“Why?” Nikki asked.
“She’s been corrupted by the devil’s playground,” Marie said.
“It’s only college, Papa,” Nikki stated. “I haven’t heard from her since she left. Plus, I’m going to see her at Mass.”
“And we’ll be with you when you do,” Marie stated.
“Please,” Nikki pleaded.
“Do you question the Lord’s decisions?” James asked.
“But, Papa, she’s the only friend I had.”
“Do you question the Lord’s decisions?” James snapped again.
“No, Papa, but—”
James stood and moved behind Nikki. “You see that?” James pointed over her shoulder toward a crucifix hung above the sink. “He died for the sins of people like Amber, exposed to all the Satan’s doings. She has fallen into his hands, and we will not allow you to follow.”
“That’s right, Nikki,” Marie said, moving to Nikki’s side and running her fingers through her hair. “Like Jesus, we love you very much, and we don’t want you to fall prey. Amber is a wonderful girl, but unfortunately, she’s been poisoned. Drugs, sex, alcohol, all tools he uses to lure innocents to him.”
“And that will not happen to you.” James cupped his hands on Nikki’s shoulders. “Let’s pray for Amber. With the Lord’s help, I’m sure we can rid her of the demons dwelling inside her.”
They made the sign of the cross, and James led them in prayer. Marie and James didn’t move as Nikki finished cleaning her dress. She lifted it out of the water and showed Marie, who nodded with approval.
With the wet dress in hand, Nikki made her way down the narrow hallway to her room. She shut the door behind her and leaned against it, taking a deep sigh. After stripping down into a pink nightgown, Nikki moved to her bed, knelt beside it, and rattled off a quick prayer before dinner.
A fan sat in the open window, bringing no relief as it blew in the steamy night air. The soft glow of a full moon lit the room, and a harmony of crickets blew in with the sticky air. Nikki stared at the ceiling, following a single blade on the ceiling fan as it swirled the hot air toward her.
She put her focus back on the branches of the dying tree sprawled across the moon, and it brought a sense of uneasiness, causing Nikki to shift to her other side. The first thing that met her eye was the crucifix on the wall.
Her eyes became heavy as she fought to keep them open. She gazed upon the saddened eyes of Jesus, almost feeling his pain—a pain she was becoming all too familiar with. Nikki began to question her decision to defy her parents and meet Amber tomorrow. She wrestled with the thought that her vision had been a sign from Satan himself that defiance would be the path to damnation, that the mist must’ve represented him and all the things she detested.
Nikki lost the fight as her eyes closed.
Nikki was brought up to be the perfect daughter. Raised on the word of God by her parents, who kept her on the correct path with punishments if she strayed from her faith, Nikki was the perfect Catholic. A respected citizen in the small religious town of Perfect, Illinois, Nikki held firm to her beliefs.
Until her heritage returned to claim her soul.
Guided by mysterious entities who claim to be her true family, Nikki is shown the haunting secrets of not only the town she holds close to her heart, but also her parents and friends. Discovering that Perfect is a dark and twisted place, her faith is put to the test and sends her spiraling down a path of insanity, for which there may be no escape.