My vision blurs, and the pressure behind my eyes becomes pain. I can’t stop the tears. It’s all my fault she’s here. If I had insisted she stay with me, they never would have gotten her. She wouldn’t be here now, preparing for another night of abuse.
I feel like I’m choking. I wipe my nose with the back of my hand and try to get my thoughts composed. I have to push all this aside. I can’t think about it. If I do, I’m going to rush in there and seal her fate. If I can keep myself together, I can make a plan that will work, a plan that will get her far away from here.
When I look up, another man has entered the storehouse. He’s an older man with a bit of a gut hanging over his jeans, a bald head, and a long, grey goatee. I hold my breath, waiting for him to get whatever he’s come for and get out, but he takes a seat at a small table and opens up a large ledger book. I can see him fairly clearly through the cracks, but I don’t recognize him. He jots down a few lines in the book, and then the door opens again, and two others approach him.
“Got a newbie for ya, Gary.”
The man looks up from his ledger and eyes the scrawny, wide-eyed kid in front of him.
“What’s your name?”
“Let me explain to you how our system works around here,” Gary says. “Every three days, we get together at Kessler—”
“Kessler?” Mike asks.
“It’s the fountain in the middle,” Gary explains. “It used to be a big bell tower called Kessler Campanile, but that collapsed in the attacks. There’s only the fountain now.”
“We meet at Kessler, and everyone chooses a bracelet out of the pot.” He holds up his wrist for Mike to see.
I have to shift to one side to get a look at it, but he’s wearing one of those rubber bracelets around his wrist—the same kind people used to wear for various causes. The one on his wrist is red.
“People with red bracelets are the bosses, and we always have the same jobs.” He speaks fluidly, as if he’s made the same speech many times. “I’m in charge of work details and any labor disputes. Wayne and Ryan are responsible for supplies; Brian takes care of the kitchen; Brett’s in charge of the whores, and Caesar’s in charge of everything.”
“Tomorrow is choosing day,” Gary continues. “If you get a yellow bracelet, you work for Wayne and help get everything inventoried and figure out what we’re getting low on. That info goes to Ryan, and he figures out what we’re willing to trade. Black means border patrol and guard duty; green bracelets are camp cleanup, and brown ones mean you’re on the latrines. There ain’t no trading, either. You get whatever you get.”
“Okay.” Mike nods. “And then after I do the work?”
“Every day, you’ll get a voucher from your boss, based on what you get done. If you do your work, it’s enough to keep you fed and provide you with whatever other necessities. If you do really well at your job—go the extra mile—you’ll have enough left over at the end of the week. You can spend that on whiskey and whores or whatever else floats your boat.”
“Okay,” Mike says, “I’ll be there. Where do I sleep?”
“There’s a barracks set up on the northeast side,” Gary says. “There are always a few cots available. If you do well, you move up in the ranks, and you could end up with a better place. Just put some effort into it.”
“I will,” Mike says. “Anything’s better than being out there.”
“Good attitude.” Gary shakes Mike’s hand and closes his ledger. “Meet by the fountain first thing in the morning. You’ll meet Caesar and the other bosses then. Be patient—drawing the bracelets can take a little while. Some people like to complain, but don’t be one of them. It takes long enough to get everyone their assignments anyway.”
They’ll all be in one place tomorrow morning, including Caesar and Brett.
That will be when I make my move. That’s when I will get Hannah back.
Outside of the rubble-enclosed compound, I fight with my desire to march right back in and drag Hannah out. I have to remind myself over and over again that it won’t work—I’d be dead, and she’d be in the same situation.
One more night.
One more night of them doing God-knows-what to her.
My stomach heaves, and I swallow back bile. I need to focus, get my plan together, and get us both out of there alive. I only have a vague time frame—first thing in the morning. I’ll have to be prepared before then, and that doesn’t give me a lot of time.
It physically hurts to walk away from the compound. Hannah is closer now than she has been since she was taken from me, and I don’t even want to leave the area, but I have to prepare. I need supplies, ammo, and an actual plan. I run back to the camp, formulating a plan as I go. Chuck greets me immediately.