The Appalachian woods were dense and dark, the shadowy outlines of pine trees rising straight and narrow from the needle-strewn, uneven forest floor. It was almost the new moon, and the forest was spookily quiet except for the occasional owl hoot and the sound of distant crickets.
It was time.
Inside his tent, Poe Dameron saved the document with what he had of his exposé so far and slid his tablet into its case. Carefully, he hid the case under a pile of camping gear, just in case anyone came upon his little campsite. Not that there should be anyone else out here: he was conducting an investigation on private property. Trespassing, if you wanted to be technical, but Poe didn’t really want to think about that.
The night was cool, not the steam-cooker he’d imagined the South to be, but a humid chill that went right to his bones. He wrapped himself up in the thrift-store leather jacket he’d been grateful to have with him since his first night here, climbed out of the tent, and zipped the door flap shut behind him.
He strapped on his camera and hiked up the hill towards the compound, zig-zagging around the trees and holding onto their thick bark for balance. At the edge of the woods was a rustic chapel, lit on the inside with eerie, color-distorting fluorescent lights that seemed out of place in the natural setting and a building with exposed wood on its outside walls. From the cover of the dark woods, Poe aimed his camera at the chapel’s window and twisted the lens to bring it into focus.
Inside the chapel, a group of adolescents sat in a circle of metal folding chairs that looked uncomfortable. The kids seemed scared-- some were tense and rigid, others fidgeted nervously. Within the circle, one of the camp leaders, a man with red hair that clashed with his red sweater vest, was giving a sermon, like he had the past few nights. Or maybe less of a sermon and more of a rant. He paced around, agitated, sometimes striding over to one child or another to glare down at them and point his finger accusingly. Off to the side, with their arms folded over their chests, a tall man in long, black, clerical robes and a tall woman with a steely grey bun watched with stone expressions. They might as well have been wearing masks for all their faces said.
From his distance, Poe couldn’t make out everything the preacher was saying, but certain louder phrases stood out, from calling some of the girls Jezebel, to the “demons of Sodom,” to, in one crescendo, begging God to “crush the spirit of rebellion.” That fit with what Poe had gathered of the group’s beliefs so far: anti-women, anti-gay, anti-thinking for oneself. His stomach churned and he was fuming, but he kept his hands steady enough to photograph the diatribe.
The preacher stopped in front of one kid, a pale boy probably in his late teens, and yanked him to his feet by the front of his shirt. The man in the clerical robes stepped into the circle, took the boy by the back of the neck and led him to the center, where he shoved him roughly to his knees. The boy’s eyes were wide with terror, and he wrapped his arms around himself protectively. Poe couldn’t make out what the clergyman was saying to the group, but they stood up, reached their hands forward, and formed a huddle Poe couldn’t see through.
One kid, however, hesitated to join in whatever the group was doing. He hung back towards the edge and put his hands down, breathing heavily as though he were panicking. The woman with the grey bun walked sternly around the circle to confront him. He shook his head. She frowned, took him by the arm, and walked him through the door of the chapel and into the dark, cold night. Poe was curious what would happen to him, but part of him was scared to find out.
The clergyman went on for some time longer before dismissing the group. The children stood, solemnly formed a single-file line, and left the chapel. The pale boy was the last to leave, and his face was red and tear-stained when he finally stood to go. The two camp leaders turned off the lights and closed the door, leaving only shadows in Poe’s camera.
This place was definitely creepy, and definitely fucked up. But whether there was enough evidence of illegal activity to get it shut down, that was hard to say. Poe could just go back to his campsite, copy the pictures onto his tablet along with the others, and write about what he saw and heard over the past few days. Or he could keep sticking his nose where it didn’t belong to dig up some real dirt on this place.
He crept around the outside of the chapel, stepping quietly through leaves and pine needles. It was too bad he couldn’t interview one of the kids trapped here. They’d have a lot to say if he could get alone with some of them, he was sure of it, but there wasn’t a way to make that happen that didn’t involve making life worse for them both.
The door to the mess hall was unlocked, and Poe smiled at his luck as he snuck into the kitchen. The record of food shipments was taped to the refrigerator, and Poe shone a flashlight onto it and photographed it. He’d do some math and research later to figure out if it was enough food for the number of kids that lived here, but guessing from what was on the page, he doubted it. The source that tipped the paper off to this camp suspected that they were underfeeding kids, or withholding food as punishment. His editor-in-chief, affectionately known around the paper as “The General”, was counting on him for this exposé, and he refused to let her down. And now that he was getting an idea of what was really going on here, he refused to let himself down by leaving these kids in what was almost certainly an abusive situation. Determined, he headed for the kitchen door, ready to see what he could find in some of the other buildings.
He opened the door, and-- Zap! -- two sharp pangs stabbed his stomach, throwing him backwards. A jolt of electricity made him convulse and scream in pain. After a few seconds that seemed to go by in slow motion, the circuit stopped, and he lay on his back, groaning and twitching, with a dull ache in the back of his head. When he opened his eyes, he was staring down the double-barrel of a shotgun held by the woman he had seen before, who was staring down at him.
In a thick drawl, she muttered, “Told ‘em we had someone sneakin’ around.”
She jabbed at the underside of his chin, but he couldn’t gather the muscle coordination to move.
“Reverend Ren! Pastor Hucks!” she called. “I got our intruder.”