STRATAGEM Chapter 20
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
“WE’VE GOT TO GO,” Derek said to Paige. As soon as Mom’s friend drove away, he went back to the living room.
“It’s all right, Derek,” Mom said, “That was just—”
“Is Dad’s car still in the garage?”
“It’s not registered. Derek, what’s going on?”
“There’s something about your friend Maggie. Something in her eyes I think I saw back in New York with all the bizarre events. Can’t explain right now, please just trust me. Is there room to park the Ford I drove here in the third garage space?”
“Ok, can you open it so I can park it inside?”
“I’m pretty sure all the toll both cameras and facial recognition software will have connected me to that car. We have to keep it out of sight.”
“Paige,” Mom said, already heading for the garage, “You stay here with Hulk. I’ll be right back, okay?”
She nodded and sat on the couch.
“Hurry,” Derek said as he and Mom both went their respective ways. He stepped outside and looked around to make sure no one was watching. The garage door went up just as he got into the Fusion and powered it up.
Mom waved him in.
As soon as he finished parking, the door went down. Parked next to him was Dad’s old blue Honda Accord. He could always have afforded something more luxurious like a Lexus or a Benz, but that was what he had called a vain status-symbol. While it caused Derek a measure of embarrassment in high school, he now appreciated Dad’s principles and confidence. The car was about eighteen years old and still in good condition. Dad had driven it until the day he passed on. Hopefully it would still run tonight.
Derek got out of the Fusion, went to the key rack on the wall, and found Dad’s keys, still hanging there. “I’m going to take Dad’s car and go figure out a plan. The less you know the better. Can you watch Hulk and let Sabine know I brought him over?”
“What about Paige?” Mom said. “We have to find her next of kin.”
“I agree, but right now there are some dangerous people are trying to take her.”
“Is she safer with you?”
“Your friend Maggie? I think she might be affected by whatever it was that changed those people trying to abduct Paige into these freakishly strong and aggressive beings.”
“The point is, neither of you are safe here now.”
“You’re trying to tell me Maggie’s a zombie,” she said.
“No, Mom—Look, I just know that I’ve seen that thing with the eyes before, and…Hulk! He was barking and snarling before she came to the door.”
“So you’ve both got a bad feeling about Maggie?” Mom didn’t look convinced.
“You’ve got to trust me,” Derek said. “This isn’t by far the weirdest thing I’ve encountered today.”
Mom took a deep breath, considered him. With her mouth pulled into a tight line, she shook her head. “I’m going to trust you,” she said. “But only because I know you’d never make things up, especially anything this outlandish.”
“Thank you. Now, we’ve got to get away from here now. Are you sure the cabin is off the grid?”
“You’d have to know it exists, and where it is to be able to find it.” She held the door open and waved him in. “Let’s go inside and figure it out.”
Hulk barked once and came running to Derek. He reached Derek’s feet, then turned to walk at his side, tail wagging. “That’s probably the first time he’s ever seemed happy to see me.”
“Isn’t he always friendly?” Mom said.
“Not with me.” Derek turned and saw what had caused the Corgi’s mood change. Paige sat at the kitchen table finishing her dinner, and at her feet sat the plate that had once held all the remaining chocolate chip cookies.
She looked up with a chocolate smudged smile. “We shared!”
Mom touched him on the shoulder. “Give me two minutes and meet me in the garage.”
She was already on her way to her bedroom.
“Listen, Paige,” Derek said. “We have to leave now.”
“I don’t want to scare you, but I think some of those weird people are still trying to find us.”
“The ones that wanna take me away?”
He nodded. “We have to go somewhere where you can be safe.”
“How about Hulk?”
Mom returned with a duffle bag in hand. “All right, who’s ready to go camping?”
Paige clapped her hands. “Yay!”
“What are you talking about?” Derek said.
“You said so yourself,” she said. “None of us are safe here.”
“And you’ll need my help finding your away to and around the cabin.”
“I can remember where to go.”
“It’s been a few years,” she said, “and with everything overgrown around it, you might not recognize the trail. Especially at night.”
A minute later, Derek sat in the back seat with Paige and Hulk as Mom opened the garage door with the remote clicker and started the engine. “You all stay down, okay?”
The windows of Dad’s car were tinted and probably would have concealed them well at night, but Derek took Mom’s advice anyway. Can’t be too careful. He leaned over the seat and put his head down. To his surprise, Paige leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder and let out a tiny yawn.
“I miss my mommy and daddy,” she whispered and rubbed Hulk’s ears.
Without thinking, Derek put his arm around her and held her close. “I know. I’m sorry. But don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you and keep you safe.”
The car backed out of the driveway.
Outside, the garage door rumbled as it slid shut.
Mom looked in all directions before pulling out of the driveway. “We’re going to make a quick stop for gas and supplies. I know it’s not comfortable, but stay down and out of sight.”
“Good idea,” Derek said. “Let’s take a nap, Paige.”
“Okay.” She yawned and snuggled into his arms, hand still petting Hulk, who put his head down on the floor of the car.
The steady hum of the car engine and Mom’s smooth driving lulled Derek into a gentle slumber. It seemed this day would never end. For the first time since this waking nightmare began, he could rest his eyes and his mind. As he drifted off, images of recent events haunted his sleep.
Smoke…flames…dead bodies…Paige struggling to breathe, dying…
He awoke with a start.
Felt like he’d slept an entire night.
How much time had actually passed?
“Derek?” Mom whispered.
He turned his gaze upward. The sky had turned dark and the only light came from the overhead lamps outside above the gas station pumps. “What time is it?”
“Almost 9:00. I’m going to get some food and supplies from inside. I’ll lock the door. Whatever you do, keep down, and don’t let anyone see you.”
Paige and Hulk were asleep.
“Be careful,” Derek said.
Mom got out, shut the door, and engaged the locks. Moments later, she opened the gas tank lid and cap and started filling the tank. Despite the warning, Derek couldn’t help but raise his head just enough to look over the window’s edge to see Mom walking into the gas station minimart.
They were traveling in a car that hadn’t seen the light of day for several months, Mom’s face and name had not been circulated through the media—that Derek knew of, anyway—and as far as he could tell, they were at a rural gas station out in the middle of nowhere. So why was his heart pounding like this? Mom looked completely relaxed and natural walking into the minimart.
She’ll be all right…
Without warning, Hulk lifted his head, ears perked.
He tilted his head slightly.
A low-pitched growl formed within his stout body.
From the shadows, around the corners of the gas station’s convenience store, two men approached and walked toward the entrance after Mom.
Hulk climbed up, setting his
front paws against the window frame and continued to growl. That was when one of the people turned to look in Derek’s direction. In that split second, reminiscent of a cat’s eyes reflecting in the dark, the man’s eyes flashed with a blue light.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.
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