Hayden sits on the bench inside the bus depot. He zips his sketchbook into his backpack. His eyes dart around. A security guard’s coming. He shrinks his neck into his hoodie and reads a brochure. The guard passes. He looks at the boards. Fifty minutes until departure.
He doesn’t pay attention to Allie when she sits, touching the heart-shaped locket around her neck.
“Going away?” She smiles.
He looks over. “Um, what?”
“Your backpack. Looks pretty stuffed. How bad is it?”
He’s petrified. How could she–
“Who are you? Are you going to call the police?”
Allie chuckles and waves that off. “No, I’m not telling on you. It must be pretty bad. You have people where you’re going?”
“I don’t need people.”
“We all need people. The fucking world ended. It’s finally almost back…” She pauses. “I’m grabbing a bus, too. To here.” She shows him her ticket. “It’s where I live. For two years, now. It was bad for me, before.” She studies him. “If you have someone to go to, somewhere to go, cool. But, if you’re alone, you can come. We’ve got food, shelter, safety. We won’t tell, won’t call the police. You need a place like that?”
Hayden stares at her, unable to take this in. Where the hell did she come from? How does she know? She doesn’t look crazy or scary or… she seems genuine.
“So, what then?” He thinks for a moment. “You’re saying I should change my bus ticket and just go with you? I don’t even know you.”
She laughs. “Fair enough. I’m Allie. You look lost, worried. I saw you from over there, avoiding the guard. Been there, done that. Thought you might need help. I’ll leave.”
“Wait!” Hayden nearly yells. Then, he looks around, concerned. He lowers his voice. “I’m not saying I’m not interested, exactly. I mean, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, right?”
“Bet you heard that from the same people you’re ditching,” Allie jokes. “Look, I travel a lot. Every now and then, I see someone who has the look I used to have. And, no offense, but it hurts my heart.” She touches her locket absent-mindedly. “I don’t want anyone to feel their father’s hands on… you don’t need to know about that. Each story is different, okay?”
“You saw where I’m going. Two-twenty. If you need help, see ya there. If not, no worries.” And, with that, she’s gone.
Hayden sits on the bench, deep in thought. They announce his bus, but he walks to the ticket counter.
“Could I change this out, please? My sister called. She wants to meet at my aunt’s house instead.”
He walks away with his new ticket, eyes sweeping the depot for Allie. She’s not around.
Once he boards, he scans the seats. She’s not there. He sits by a window. It could worry him, but the truth is, his original destination was just a random choice. Away from here. Away from them. So, this place is just as good as the other one. There aren’t really any great places now.
Just as the bus doors are closing, Allie hops on. She spots Hayden and plops beside him.
“Glad you made it,” she smiles warmly. “Gum?” She offers a piece his way.
“Does my breath stink?”
“No idea. Not planning on finding out. It’s yes or no, dude. Stop overthinking.”
He takes a piece. “Sorry. So, anyway, dude’s okay, but it’s Hayden. Can you tell me about the place or is it some kind of secret?”
She belts out a laugh. “A secret? No! You just didn’t seem to care. It’s like… an artist’s retreat, only you don’t have to be an artist.”
“I actually am an artist.” He shows excitement. He wrangles his backpack from under the seat and props it in front of his legs. She watches with quiet amusement. He unzips it. Up close, she notices very little clothing and a lot of notebooks. He pulls one out, hesitates, then sits up and opens it.
“I write graphic novels. This is just one of them. I’ve been doing this for, like, five years. I was kind of bad when I was ten. I’m getting better. It’s what I want to do, you know, like do with my life. People have jobs again. It’s not like when my parents or grandparents were growing up.”
Allie watches intently as he flips through the detailed drawings. “They’re nice! You’ll have the time, for sure. You will need to do some work. Can’t get out of that. Dishes or mowing. And some schoolwork, but it’s more condensed. A few hours a day, total, and the rest of the time is yours.”
He looks at her, bewildered. “Seriously? You’re really serious?”
She nods. “You act like you’ve never heard of artist retreats?”
“Because I haven’t! This is… this is crazy. I couldn’t have dreamed it up. I can’t think.”
“Then don’t. You overthink anyway. Take a nap. We’ll talk later. I’m going to sleep.”
Sixteen stops, two-thousand miles, and thirty hours later, they arrive. His body’s so sore. Why aren’t there express buses that don’t stop at every town? Allie goes to change appearances (her words) in the bus bathroom before getting off and tells him that he has to leave alone. Girls are so weird.
He makes his way to the parking lot three blocks down and one over, and finds the old, waiting, two-toned pickup she’d described. Ten minutes later, she cheerfully bounds onto the scene. “It’s not much. It runs. Hop in already.”
“Does this place we’re going have a name? Why’d you change how you looked?”
Allie laughs again. She’s so easygoing. “No name. Did you name your house? It’s just a hangout, Hayden. We help each other out.”
“Sounds like Utopia to me.”
“Call it that if you like.” Allie’s smile looks so sincere. “Can I ask how old you are?”
“Yeah, but I’m still going to say eighteen.”
She ponders that. “Fair enough. If your ID doesn’t say eighteen,” she makes air quotes, “you should avoid going into public until it does. I’m just saying. To answer your other question, I changed how I looked so they couldn’t track us. If they saw me with you on both ends of your trip, they’d track me to find you. Duh.” She looks at the truck gauges. “We need gas.”
The pickup slowly fades from view.
In the truck, later, Hayden looks impatient. “We’ve been across three states, and we’ve gotten gas twice. Why did you park so far away from where you live?”
“You nutjob. I didn’t. I told you… I travel a lot. I had a meeting before I met you. The world is getting back to the old normal. So, I was going to another meeting–near where I left my truck last week. Once I knew you needed help, I made some calls, canceled plans, and decided to drive you in myself. Meetings can wait.”
Hayden seems appeased. “Oh. Sorry to mess up your plans.”
“Nah. You didn’t. Things happen for a reason, right? I believe that, anyway. It’s all good. I like road trips.”
Four states from the last bus station, the truck drives along a rural highway. In the countryside, it turns down a long road, then a dirt road, and onto a driveway deep in the woods. They finally arrive at a menacing-looking gate.
Allie immediately offers, “That’s for our animals. We don’t want them hit by cars.” She pulls a remote from her purse, punches in a long code, then hits a button to close it after driving through.
“You have electricity here?”
“Yeah,” she says. “Of course.”
Workers tend to some fields. A guy in the distance sits before an easel, painting scenery.
“This place is awesome!” Hayden beams.
They drive a winding path, passing various campers, yurts, out-buildings, and stop at a main area. “We’re here,” she says. “Come on, this is so exciting.”
They walk into a huge room with long tables, a kitchen, and a lounge area. All open. Gabriel approaches. Allie’s eyes lock with Gabriel’s. They share a smile.
“Gabriel, this is Hayden. He could use a place to stay.”
Gabriel reaches out his hand, disarmingly. “Happy to have you. She said on the phone you’re an artist. So ideal. Mi casa, su casa.”
Hayden looks confused.
Gabriel adjusts. “That’s Spanish. It means my house is your house. Welcome, Hayden. I’m Gabriel. I run– I started the place.”
“You’re an artist, too?” Hayden asks.
Gabriel smiles at him. “Something like that. Allie will show you where you’ll stay. Today, your life changes. Everything you could ever want is here.”
Hayden looks around. “Is there TV and internet? They’re up again, everywhere, right?”
Allie and Gabriel both laugh. “We’ll give the full tour later. For now, just relax. Do you have a cell phone?”
“I do, but I left it at home. I thought they could track–“
Gabriel nods, knowingly. “Got it. Smart kid. Don’t worry. I was thinking the same thing.”
One week later, in Hayden’s hometown, the security guard shrugs at the detective’s flyer. The ticket agent shakes her head. Security footage is found, watched, paused, rewound. On the footage, Hayden talks to a couple people. Buys food, a ticket, sits on a bench. Some girl talks to him for less than three minutes. He sits alone again, changes his ticket. Gets on the bus alone. Dead end.
At the destination depot, a new detective shows bus personnel Hayden’s picture. Shrugs all around. No one on the footage looks suspect. Hayden gets off the bus alone. He leaves the terminal alone and walks off by himself. Dead end.
At home, Hayden has one brother, Hunter, two years older. Hunter tries to talk to the bus people himself, but they are no help. He tries to go through his brother’s phone, email, and messages.
Hayden has been smart. Deleted all emails and messages. Deleted his apps and accounts. His phone is back to factory settings. He’s taken his notebooks. Dead end. Dead end. Dead end.
Hunter doesn’t know what was so bad that would have made his brother do this. He keeps it all in case there is a better way of tracking things later. Technology was catching up again.
Driven into law enforcement by this mystery, he finally transfers into Missing Persons eight years after Hayden disappeared. He looks over the bus footage himself, frame by frame, and runs each face through a special, new software. Technology has almost caught up to the days before the end times.
He sees that the girl from the bench–before Hayden changes out his ticket–is the same girl getting off the bus, alone, later. She is the key. She is who Hunter needs to track.
Hunter feels like it takes forever to find a pattern and follow Allie’s movements.
Nine damn years since Hayden vanished without a trace and now Allie has trained a younger replacement: Jenny.
Frankie, a cadet, looks like he’s in his mid-teens. The perfect mark. Hunter had Frankie swallow a GPS tracker earlier. Now, Frankie sits on a bench, looking anxious, with a bag at his feet. Eventually, Jenny sits beside him and casually mentions this retreat. She shrewdly leaves Frankie to consider it on his own. His GPS leads the team there.
Once Hunter and his team storm the retreat, they uncover a cult who brainwashes members into luring others. Everyone becomes predator or prey. The cult serves as a way station for a sex-trafficking ring, discarding those who refuse indoctrination.
Nothing ever changes.
Hayden didn’t buy in, so he passed through their system years ago. Hundreds have come and gone since. Hunter sighs. There is no saving Hayden now, but Hunter takes comfort in shuttering this place.
Not so ideal, but he’ll sleep well tonight and be at it, again, tomorrow.
About the author
Zephyr Zywick has three books, each #1 New Releases, still Top 20 Best Sellers on after six months, and remain in "Amazon's Top 100 Best Sellers." She is neurodivergent (on the spectrum) and has specialized in short fiction for two decades.