Don't Have to be Here By Virginia Burns

The sound reverberated in his ears and he had to turn his head away. This was the fifth of these executions he had played part in, but the sudden gasp they released and their gentle cries never ceased to horrify him. He looked up to where the rope was suspended, a lump growing in his throat as he thought of the body below. She wasn’t dead, and she wouldn’t be for a small period of time. But her eyes closed and breathing became more and more strangled, and he knew as always that this was the end.

He never batted an eye at the job before, but after this whole ordeal started he couldn’t help but feel guilty. Truly, they had done nothing wrong. But the pressure of the people had brought down too many, with many more to come. It wasn’t right, what they were saying, but it didn’t matter. Once a choice had been made, they never went back on it.

He sighed, stepping down and away from the woman. He didn’t leave the area completely, instead just enough so he couldn’t hear her anymore. Not wanting to be approached by anyone from the crowd, he turned his back to them and leaned against a tree, letting out another breath. At first, he thought they could find someone to replace him. He very quickly figured out that was wishful thinking, and he would not be allowed to exit the position without consequences. 

“Another has been found guilty!” A voice rang out from behind the others. The group turned to look, eyes falling on a messenger boy whose face was well known throughout the streets.

“Another young woman. Looks to be about 20 or so, I’d say. They’ve lined up her execution for the day after to-morrow. I’ve heard that she does just ghastly things.”

The man cursed under his breath, unsure of how this had come to be so quickly. He snapped his head around at the sound of his name.

“John.”

“Yes, sir?”

“Go collect the woman and put her in holding. No use to have her sit around, spreading her heinous ideas.”

“Yes, sir. I will go get her,” he nodded, hoping the dread in his eyes wasn’t obvious. No reply came, and he left to fetch the town’s newest adversary.

When he arrived, he noticed how different she was from the others. She still had fight in her, he could tell immediately. It radiated off of her in the way she moved and the way her eyes locked with his, a fight already brewing inside of them. Her posture, however, was civil and refined, like she was above everything that was happening.

“Come with me, please,” he said dully. She said nothing in return, but stood and followed him out of the building.

“What is your name?” He already knew, he had been informed when he came in.

“Elizabeth.”

“I’m John.”

He didn’t know why he told her, soon it wouldn’t matter.

“John.”

“Yes?”

“Have I committed a crime?”

“Witchcraft is illegal.”

“Is it?”

He quieted, unsure if she was serious. Surely she was aware. He looked at her, and she flashed a smile.

“It’s not funny. They’re to kill you, you know.”

“I figured when my hands were bound with rope, that it wouldn’t end in my favor.”

“You don’t look like a witch.” 

“You find me too attractive?” she joked again. He swallowed.

“Wouldn’t say I didn’t.”

This time, it was her who closed her mouth.

“Do you want to hear a story, John?” she asked, no more than a few minutes later. He shook his head.

“I’ll tell you anyway. Once, there was a girl. She was smart, smarter than the man she was arranged to marry. He wasn’t kind to her, and she showed more interest in one of their workers, a blond stable-boy. She informed her parents of her feelings, but they pushed her aside. The night before they were to be wed, she and the stable-boy ran away together. Some of their belongings were found in the woods the next morning, and they were presumed dead.”

“That’s not a good story.”

“I disagree. I think that, even if that was the end, she found freedom, and that fate would be better than the one lined up for her.”

John considered her words, opting not to argue and bringing back the silence between them. The only sounds were their feet as they pressed down the grass and walked along the pathways. He should have taken her straight to the hold, but instead they went in zigzags along intricate pathways and circled back and forth. She can probably tell, he thought. I need to do my job.

He snuck some bread down to her cell before it was to close for the night. Slipping it through the bars was simple, but he struggled to hold his tongue. He couldn’t speak to her, not with the guard outside. He hoped his face conveyed the thoughts running through his head. She simply smiled, grateful for the gesture. Their hands brushed as she reached out and he drew back, causing her to almost drop it completely.

“John!”

“Apologies!”

He wasn’t only referring to the bread.

“It’s alright.”

She wasn’t either.

“You don’t want to be here,” she mused.

“I don’t think I want to be here at all, anymore. Not Massachusetts, not the jail, and certainly not where my job puts me.”

“You don’t have to be, you know.” 

The guard’s voice came through the doorway, startling both of them.

“Everything alright in there?”

“Yes,” John answered automatically. He gave Elizabeth another apologetic look. “I was just leaving.”

It was to happen at noon, but he arrived before dawn, snatching a key from the desk and cutting the rope from her hands in the dark. If he nicked her, she didn’t indicate it. He paused to look out the window, the night sky speckled with stars.

“John?”

“We don’t have to be here.”

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