Authors: Roger Hayden
Copyright 2016 All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means without prior written permission, except for brief excerpts in reviews or analysis.
Table of Contents
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
It was early evening when the cargo truck roared through the cleared streets of Tartarus with its precious cargo in the back. The roving metal beast gained the attention of townspeople within earshot. It had been so long since anyone had seen or heard a working vehicle, and they wondered if it signaled a change of things to come. The military-style truck was large and bulky, with a camouflaged canopy covering the back. The mere sight of it instilled hope.
“We’re saved!” a bushy-haired middle-aged man shouted from his ransacked house.
“Cliff!” his hesitant wife cried out as he vanished.
The man’s family stayed behind and watched from the window as he ran outside to flag the truck down. The truck’s headlights were off. Its bulbs even looked shattered. Smoke billowed from its long vertical exhaust pipe. There was a black star painted on the passenger’s side that looked like the symbol of the US Army. The sight only propelled Cliff further. He dashed through his overgrown lawn and ran out into the middle of the street as the truck steadily approached.
“Hey!” Cliff shouted, waving his arms frantically in the air.
The truck’s horn blared, and the shuttling beast showed no signs of slowing down.
“Get out of the way!” his wife shouted from the front door, clutching her tattered bathrobe. The truck was bearing down, a mere ten feet away from him.
Cliff flailed his arms. “We need help! Stop!”
The truck was getting dangerously close. The blaring of its horn grew more incessant. Cliff’s instincts took over, and he leapt out of the way as the truck zoomed by. Wind and exhaust enveloped him as he flew face-first into his neighbor’s yard. With his face in the dirt, he couldn’t see a thing. The sound of the truck’s engine became fainter as it sped on.
Cliff rose from the ground and wiped his face on his shirt sleeve just as two lines of people began to walk by on both sides of the road, trailing the distant truck like foot soldiers. Cliff knocked the dust off his jeans and looked more closely. The men were armed with rifles and appeared as shadows, backlit against the dusk sunlight.
“Get back in your house,” one of the men belted out in a gruff voice.
Cliff squinted, trying to see more clearly what this was, as a sinking feeling came over him. They weren’t soldiers after all. They were freemen, the gang of criminals who had taken over the town for the past two and a half months. Their makeshift fatigues were dirty and bloodied. They looked exhausted. Maybe the rumor he had heard was true, and they had just returned from an assault on Bear Mountain, where they had destroyed a supposed group of bandits who threatened the town. At least that’s what the townspeople had been told by Arthur Perkins, their mayor. Perkins had convinced over a hundred townspeople to join the cause, and from what Cliff saw, there were few townspeople returning.
“What happened?” Cliff asked as the freemen walked by, not even glancing at him. “Where is everyone?”
No one answered.
Cliff turned to try to catch another glimpse of the cargo truck as it turned away at the end of the street. “Where did you find that truck? What’s going on?” he asked.
His repeated questions were ignored.
“Damn it, answer me!” he shouted.
Larry, a lanky leather-clad biker type and the mayor’s right-hand man, stepped to the side and pushed Cliff away. Larry scowled, and his handlebar mustache twitched. His face was covered with black smudges, dirt, and sweat.
“I said go back in your damn house!” he shouted.
Cliff approached him, defiant. “I had friends who went up there!”
Larry crossed his arms, clearly amused now. “Well, aren’t you a feisty one?”
Silence came over both men as Cliff tried to catch a glimpse of anyone he knew passing by. They were all Arthur’s men. Not a single person he knew personally.
“I just want to know what happened to my friends,” he said.
“Sounds like you’re prying to me,” Larry said. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll let it be.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Cliff said. “This is
town. And a lot of the people who went with you were
“They’re dead,” Larry said bluntly.
Cliff tensed up in shock.
“Well…” Larry paused. “Not all of them. Most, though.” He patronized Cliff with a pat on the shoulder and walked off, leaving him standing there in the yard just as the sun faded and night encroached on the shattered town.
The cargo truck continued down an obscure nearby road, approaching a vacant warehouse commandeered by Arthur and his men and initially used as a hideout. But things had changed. The warehouse had been converted into a prison of sorts while Nyack’s modest town hall building had become freemen headquarters. Long since vacated by the real mayor, Jeanine Layton, the town hall offered Arthur and his men the appearance of legitimacy they so desired—even if acquired by force.
The four-term mayor had disappeared soon after the September 12 EMP strike, along with most of the county council. In this time of crisis, their absence was baffling, but not nearly as disturbing as the disappearance of the sheriff and most other law enforcement officers.
After the blackout, it took less than a week for the looting to start, two weeks for Arthur’s men to ravage the town, and two months to completely take it over. By then it seemed unlikely to most that things would ever go back to normal. As prisoners in their own homes, reliant on the freemen for necessities, and afraid of things to come, it seemed there was no end in sight to their daily nightmare.
Arthur rode in the passenger seat of the truck as Eddie, one of his trusted men, careened the truck over the bumpy dirt road to the warehouse. The engine ran fine for the most part, considering that the truck was so old. The Vietnam-era truck had been discovered during a raid of farmhouses on the outskirts of town. Its owner, a coarse, elderly man named Dewey, tried to stop the freemen from taking it and was quickly dispensed with. The discovery of a working vehicle had been kept a secret from the townspeople. Any such knowledge could possibly lead to a revolt. But now it wasn’t a secret, and he had some explaining to do.
As the sun faded behind the horizon, the town became barren and dark. The only light came from the flickering of kerosene lamps in some homes and outdoors, from the glow sticks raided from a local outdoorsman hunting shop. The truck was difficult to navigate in the dark on account of its blown-out headlight bulbs.
The truck rocked and shook along the rugged path to the warehouse. When the long, rectangular one-story building came into view, Arthur pointed ahead and shouted directions to Eddie over the noisy engine. “Go ahead and park around back!”
Eddie nodded and pulled onto the grass, where the ground got even bumpier. They could hear shouting from the back of the truck. Young voices, some howling in pain. Eddie carefully followed a line of glow sticks that led to the back, where a few guards stood, rifles in hand. The truck heaved as Eddie downshifted. Arthur flew forward, almost hitting the metal dashboard. The window was down, and a breeze blew through his hair.
Teresa, his wife, hadn’t given him a haircut in a few weeks. But that would have to change. Appearance had a lot to do with being mayor. At forty-five years old, Arthur had the look of a politician. He was tall, with a chiseled face, steely eyes, and a thick head of silvery hair that now fell just below his ears. Bruised and dirty, he was as exhausted as the rest of his men. But there would be no time for rest. Not that night.
The Bear Mountain assault hadn’t gone as well as he had planned. The mountain people were formidable foes, and they had defended their land well. Arthur and his men were unable to defeat them and seize the five cabins that made up their camp. Instead, they were staved off with a variety of booby traps—trigger wire and spikes hidden among them, like something out of a movie.
The mountain people were no joke. They knew what they were doing, and their leader, named Rob, posed a serious threat to Arthur’s vision of staying in charge when the power grid came back on. Arthur would have to destroy him… eventually. In the meantime, he had the best bartering tool that he could imagine: their children.
Five boys, from ages twelve to fifteen, rattled around in back of the truck together with three girls, from ages eleven to fourteen. Some of them were siblings, and all of them had been abducted from their families during the assault against their camp by dozens of fired-up, frightened, and deceived townspeople. In the back, one of the boys, Josh, held the railings of a wooden bench and tried to find a way out in the pitch-black darkness of the covered cargo bed.
“Where are they taking us?” Kelly, his younger sister, cried out.
“I don’t know,” said Antonio, the oldest boy among them. “Everyone just be ready to run.”
Escape was the most logical plan. They hadn’t been tied up, just tossed in the back of the truck and trapped inside, with a tarp tied shut.
Josh tried to stand and keep his balance. The truck’s erratic movements threw him back against the bench. “Damn it!” he shouted.
“It’s okay,” Antonio continued. “If they were going to kill us, they would have already done that. They need us.”
“Why?” Gabrielle, Antonio’s sister, asked.
The Atkins boys remained quiet as always, along with their sister, Allison. Seeing their mother beaten to the ground in front of them had put them into a state of shock.
Josh gained his footing and tried to stand again. The truck rocked to the side and almost threw him over, but he managed to stay upright. At the tailgate, he could see a thin slit in the tarp, where light shone through.
“Anyone have a knife or anything?” he asked.
Sitting beside him, Antonio checked his pockets. “I could have sworn I had one on me. Everything happened so fast. It might be on the floor somewhere.”
“We have to look,” Josh said. “Everyone has to look.”
The truck then hit a large bump that tossed everyone off their feet. Josh landed hard on his back and into a small puddle of water that soaked through his shirt. Kelly hit the bench, shouting out in pain.
The Atkins boys, seated on the passenger bench on the other side, grumbled and tried to hold on. The truck vibrated as they hit a dirt road. The driver was moving too fast with little regard for its passengers. But they weren’t passengers. They were prisoners. What that meant for them, no one was entirely sure.
Josh crawled around on the granite floor, searching. He could feel dirt and pebbles but no knife. “Antonio, get down here and help me,” he said.
Antonio grunted and slowly knelt down, trying to keep his balance. Josh continued toward the tailgate, sweeping his hand across the floor in front of him.
Josh felt something small and metal. “Think I got it!” he said.
The truck slowed and then halted. The force sent Josh tumbling back into Antonio, and they both rolled on the floor as the knife flew out of his hand. Josh gasped in return.
“What happened?” Antonio asked, sitting up on his knees.
“Nothing,” Josh said. “It’s just… I think I almost had your knife.”
The truck downshifted and vibrated twice as hard as before. The smell of noxious exhaust had drifted inside the canopy.
“You had it? Out of my way.” Antonio crawled past Josh and moved his hands across the floor.
Without warning, the truck squeaked to a halt and rustled the children around once again.
“Got it!” Antonio pronounced. The truck was still as the engine purred. Josh and Antonio stood up.
“Kelly?” Josh asked.
“Right here,” she said from a seat nearby.
Josh looked around. He could just barely make out the shapes of everyone else. “We need to stick together. That means everyone—Antonio, Gabrielle, Jeremiah, Mark, Luke, and Allison.”
“What’s the plan?” Antonio asked.
“Keep that knife hidden, for starters,” Josh said.
The engine shut off. They could hear the voices of several men approaching them.
“Everyone gather around,” Josh said.
Antonio pulled out his pocketknife and unfolded it. Josh could see its faint glimmer in the darkness. “I’m going to stab the first guy who sticks his head in here and take his gun. You ready?”
Gabrielle scoffed. “Have you lost your mind?”
“In a situation like this, it’s kill or be killed,” Antonio said.
Antonio was a big talker. No one was sure if he actually meant it. The plan, however, was much too risky.
“We’re outnumbered,” Josh said. “Keep the knife hidden and we’ll think of something later.”
Antonio remained defiant. “It’s now or never. I can do this.”
“No, Antonio,” Josh repeated.
The tailgate dropped, revealing a dark, graying sky and several shadowy men standing below with their rifles aimed.
“All right. Everyone out!” a man in front announced.
The children stood frozen, unsure of what to do.
“Let’s move!” another man shouted, startling them again. “One at a time.”
With knife in hand, Antonio glanced back at Josh as if expecting guidance. With the canopy open, the group could see each other a little better. They were dirty and sweaty, with matted hair and worn, frightened faces. It had been a difficult day, with no end in sight. Josh nodded. Antonio folded the knife and slipped it into the side of his shoe.
“Ain’t got all day!” yet another man shouted.
Antonio took a deep breath and walked forward. Josh followed and pulled Kelly along.
There were ten men below, each one armed, and their faces showing no signs of empathy. No matter how young he and his group were, it was clear that they were prisoners and weren’t going to be treated any differently from any other prisoners. Antonio stopped at the end of the cab, where a ladder had been placed. He climbed down first, as Josh and Kelly followed.
A tall, clean-faced man came around the side, and Josh recognized him immediately. He had come to their camp to make a deal with Josh’s father. He had chased Josh and Antonio through the woods. He had tried to kill them. Josh got chills. Antonio looked up as the man placed a black beret on his head and smiled. Their group huddled together, ready to defend themselves.
“Welcome home,” the man said. His grayish eyes didn’t seem to blink.
The group said nothing in return—that was, until Antonio stepped forward. “What do you want with us?”
The men raised their rifles at Antonio.
“There, there,” the leader said, signaling his men to back off. “Let’s not make our guests uncomfortable.” They lowered their weapons halfway.
Antonio continued. “We’ve done nothing to you. Why do this?”
The leader took a long breath and then looked at his men. “Leave us,” he said. “I’ve got this under control.”
All but two of the men dispersed. The leader looked back at the group and examined them as their eyes looked away.
“This some kind of sick game for you?” Antonio asked, holding nothing back. Gabrielle grabbed his arm to quiet him down.
Uninterested, the leader simply looked past Antonio to Josh. “You,” he said, pointing. “Come here.”
Josh couldn’t help but to look up and make eye contact. Kelly squeezed his hand. He let go and took one small step forward.
“You must be Rob’s son,” the leader began. “I can see the resemblance.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Josh said.
The leader was amused. “Sure you don’t.” He then pointed at Kelly. “That your sister back there?”
Josh glanced back then did a quick turn, facing the man again. “Um. No.”
Josh scoffed. “No way.”
Antonio cut in. “We recognize you. You killed Grady then tried to have your men kill us.”
“Grady?” the leader said, perplexed.
“He was an old hermit who lived in the mountains. He was an old grouch, but he didn’t deserve to die like that.”
The leader tilted his head back and then opened his mouth. “Ah, yes. I already explained that to Rob. One of my men mistook him for an animal. The wilderness can be a very dangerous place, you know.”
Josh decided to press their captor. “You still haven’t answered our question. What do you want with us?”
The leader of the town nodded. “I’m the mayor of this town. And being mayor sometimes means I gotta do what’s necessary to keep my people safe from your parents.”
Josh wasn’t sure what to say. He looked around in the darkness for any place to run. If it was just him, he’d probably consider it, but that wasn’t the situation. He was part of a group and they had to stick together.
“I don’t have immediate intentions of hurting any of you unless you give me a reason,” the mayor continued. “We made a deal. At least, I thought we had a deal. Your parents, Rob in particular, backed out of our arrangement in the worst way possible. Many lives were lost as a result.” He paused to adjust the bill of his hat. “With their own children as collateral I can now minimize the threat of further violence.”
Further ahead, beyond the truck was a long, dilapidated warehouse.
The mayor opened his jacket halfway, revealing a holstered pistol at his side. “I’m confident that we can reach a compromise with your parents. Until then, we have you.”
“Our parents aren’t stupid,” Antonio said. “All you’ve done now is sign your own death warrant.”
Arthur laughed. “I’m terrified. I really am.” He motioned the two guards over. They rushed forward and pushed the children toward the warehouse, jabbing them with their rifles. The children cried out in protest, frightened of what awaited them.
“Don’t worry,” the mayor said as they passed him. “They’re just going to show you your accommodations.” His voice trailed off as the armed men shouted to them to move faster.
Inside the warehouse was a long concrete hallway, with rooms on both sides—pure darkness, with glow sticks aligned on the floor in careful intervals. The larger of the two guards lead the way. He had a ponytail and wore a leather jacket. His neck was covered in tattoos all the way up to his chin.
The other one walking behind them had a bushy beard and scarred face. They were gruff, demanding men with no patience or care.
“Where are you taking us?” Antonio asked.
The bearded man raised his arm and smacked him across the head. The pop echoed down the hall as the group gasped. Antonio stumbled to the side as Josh caught him by the elbow.
“No… no,” Josh said quietly. “Don’t do anything. Not now.”
Antonio regained his balance and walked along holding his face, angry and humiliated.
The men’s black boots clicked along the hall as they passed door after door.
“What is this place?” Kelly whispered.
“I don’t know,” Josh said.
They came near the end of the hall, when the men stopped and opened a door. An even darker room awaited them—the air cold and sterile.
The men turned and held their weapons to their chests. The large ponytailed man pointed inside. “In the room, now.”
No one wanted to go. Josh’s legs were frozen to the ground. Arthur had said they wouldn’t be harmed, but he felt no trust. Once in the room, they would truly be prisoners. There would be no way out.
“Move your asses!” the bearded man shouted.
Josh knew they had little chance in resisting—not with three automatic rifles in their faces. He took Kelly’s hand and walked into the room as the others followed. He couldn’t see anything. No walls. No chairs. Nothing but darkness. He held his hands up to feel around and could faintly see the shape of his fingers. The Atkins boys piled in with their sister in tow.
“Josh,” Antonio called out. “Where are you at?”
“Here,” Josh said, feeling around. The walls were cement as well—rough and bumpy.
Once they were all inside, the door slammed shut. Gabrielle screamed. Any hint of light vanished, and they were left standing in a mysterious room in complete darkness.