an excerpt from The Mills

by Paul Hughes

In this excerpt from the upcoming horror novel
The Mills, a janitor has just clocked in at work at a utility company when reports of widespread, simultaneous terrorist attacks begin to come in. The company linemen invite him to follow their convoy north so he can get home safely.

The Mills, the fourth novel by seven-time Independent Publisher Book Award winner Paul Hughes, will be released in December 2012.

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R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E



“There’s bodies in the streets. They’re killing all the kids.” Tiny threw back the tonneau cover of his pickup and undid one of the rifle cases, revealing a pristine shotgun. “Whatever’s going on, whoever’s doing it, we can’t let them take out the power.” He picked up the shotgun and a box of shells. “Have you heard the radio? Central says they’re killing our crews too. Heard about a dozen Code Blues. Anyone checked the trucks in the lot for guns? Got a lot of hunters, should be a lot of—”


“No dice, bro,” Luke said. “These simple fucks followed the rules for once.”


“Okay, well…” Tiny held the shotgun and shells out to Mack.


Mack shook his head and reluctantly took the firearm. Tiny gave Dick a bolt action hunting rifle from the other case.


“What about you?”


“Mine’s in the cab. Rob?”


Robbie pulled his safety green vest aside to reveal a holstered pistol. “I’m good.”


“All the trucks have axes, too, if it comes down to it.” Tiny looked at him. “Hey, janitor, what about you?”


“I can’t—”


“You have a gun?”


“I have a knife.”


“You’ll need a gun.”


“He can follow us as far as Evans Mills,” Mack interjected. “We can’t ask him to come all the way to the substation with us when he’s got a family to look out for.”


“We all have families, man.”


“This isn’t his job.”


“It’s not our fucking job either. Not this.”


“He’s just the janitor. Leave him be.”


Tiny looked him up and down and walked to the open door of the cab of his truck. “You’ll still need a gun. Here.” He leaned in and pulled a pistol from the glove compartment. “I only have what ammunition’s already in it, but you’re welcome to it.”


“I can’t—”


“I have a better one for myself. Just take it.”


Robbie had already gotten into his truck, and Dick was on his way. Luke finished fueling his OPC truck as Mack checked the shells in his shotgun.


“You’re gonna follow us, right?”


A thunderous report echoed out from the city, startling them all, and the docks went dark, the lamps high above the fueling area fading to dull orange as they flickered and died completely. His eyes glanced over to the massive backup generator enclosure out by the employee parking lot, but it remained silent. Looking back at the main building, he could now begin to detect the pathetic white beams of a battery operated emergency light over in the western dock, but for all intents and purposes, the power was out at National Grid, and it didn’t appear that it would be coming back anytime soon.


The city to the north overflowed with new sirens. He saw flashes in the sky and he didn’t think it was lightning.


“I’ll come with you, yeah.”


“Good. And don’t worry, we’ll get you home to your boys.”


“Mack, I need to know what’s going on.”


Mack offered nothing beyond a steely gaze, his eyes a little crazy as he walked to his van. “Looks like it’s the end of the world, kid. Let’s get the hell out of here.”


So they got.




There was a moment in the parking lot in front of the main building when he thought for sure his Jeep wouldn’t start. She was pushing two hundred thousand miles and liked to jump and jitter a bit right around 65 MPH, but besides needing new tires and brakes and sometimes taking a little too long to turn over when it was cold and wet, his Jeep had been a good and constant companion.


He had left the guys to finish fueling their trucks at the diesel island and had run over to the main building, thankful that all of the trucks were out and the six massive overhead doors were all open. A ridiculous sense of responsibility compelled him to return the cleaning closet keys back to their hook between Kip and Odell’s cubicles at the front of the building. His phone provided enough illumination to allow him to maneuver through the eerily black corridors, now devoid of hushed conversations or soft rock radio at a sensible volume. Returning the keys would ensure he still had a job here tomorrow, but it also gave him the opportunity to make sure no one was trapped in the dark without a way to get out.


“Hey, anyone here!” he shouted into the main office area. He was greeted only with his tinnitus. He hung the keys from their ring—not the lanyard—and guided himself by cell light to the entrance door. Pressing the bar to open the door, he noted the keypad on its exterior edge flashed neither red nor green. He wouldn’t be able to get back in once that door shut.


The Jeep was where he had left her, in the spot next to the handicapped space right in front of the entrance, a coveted closeness being a night janitor afforded him.


And now he tried the ignition a second time and the straight-six engine turned over, the loose main belt squealing into place as it heated up and gained purchase. He jumped as the radio shouted at him, a cheerful and wacky Radio Bob from North Country Public Radio taking the time to list off all of the transmitter sites before playing some more cheerful and wacky music. He was confused as to why Radio Bob wasn’t talking about power stations being blown up across the North Country, but then he remembered that Bob had in fact announced during the first hour of the program on his drive to Rices Road that he was on vacation and this week’s Radio Bob show would be pre-recorded. Still, he wondered why no one had broken in to the regular programming to offer updates on the situation as it unfolded.


Before backing out of his spot, he looked to the left to see if the guys were driving out of the lot yet, but then he remembered that the security gate was automatic and wouldn’t function without any power. The guys must be driving around the back of the main building over to the secondary exit. And sure enough, when he looked around the other side of the main building, he saw Robbie fighting with some bolt cutters in an attempt to pop the lock on the manual secondary gate on that side.


He took this opportunity to try to call his wife. He didn’t think New York State would fault him for using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle under these circumstances. The authorities would probably be more concerned with the unlicensed handgun he had tucked down the back of his blue jeans. That or this widespread terrorist attack that seemed to be unfolding around him.


Busy signal. He tried again, hoping for a ring, but got the same result.


He tried calling his parents. Maybe they could drive down to make sure his wife and kids were all right. Or if it was really as bad as the guys said, maybe his dad could head to the Mills and take them home to the safety of the farm out on Elm Ridge. His parents had a generator, and his dad had enough firearms and ammunition to protect them, and enough wooded acreage on the eastern end of the property to provide ample cover if hiding was the prudent path. His dad would know what to do, and the boys would be overjoyed to have a slumber party with Grandma and Grandpa. Things were going to be okay if his parents would just pick up the phone. Everything would be okay. Everything will be okay.


Busy signal.


“Fuck!” He tried his wife’s number again but ended the call and sent a text instead: CALL ME ASAP. He was going to send another, but out of the edges of his vision he saw Robbie finally get that padlock cut, and now he was unraveling the thick chains holding the secondary gate shut.


Instead of fighting the rusted hinges and heft of the steel, Robbie simply went back to his truck and drove into the gate, easily pushing it open wide enough for the others to follow. As the convoy passed on its way to the road, he pulled the Jeep up to the edge of the lot, preparing to fall in line. Mack slowed his van and rolled down his window.


“We’ll take 81 to 342! Can’t risk going through the city!”




“Follow me close!”


“Will do!”


As he pulled out onto Rices Road and left National Grid, he remembered that he’d forgotten to clock out.


The vast sprawl of the darkened facility faded less gently into his rearview mirror, and as the winds of the dying hurricane whipped rain at the glass before him, he suspected he would never see that place again.




He wanted a goddamned cigarette.


Nothing in the last eleven years had elicited within him this combination of bright, acid fear or the sense that things were falling forever fundamentally apart. Not since watching the towers fall over a decade before had he experienced this disconnect with reality, his mind forcefully detaching itself from the outside world and shunting itself down paths into an animal survival mode. The moment he had shared his first kiss with his wife and later witnessing the births of his sons had loosely approximated that fear, but this was something different; this was the world unraveling. This was kids being shot in the streets. This was an old lineman sobbing at the savagery unfolding in the city to their north.


The convoy drove a sensible speed down Rices Road, owing primarily to the fact that Robbie, at the head of the line, had the biggest, slowest truck. This gave him the opportunity to divert attention from the drive to his center console, which he flipped open, digging within to pull out and drop aside a bottle of hand sanitizer, two chargers for phones he hadn’t used in years, a pair of gloves, and at the bottom, a half-flattened pack of Marlboro 100s. He knew his wife wouldn’t approve, but as his fingers mapped the four corners of the bottom of the console in search of a lighter, eventually succeeding, he didn’t care. He’d risk her flinch and frown at her detection of smoke on his breath once he got home. It’s not like he was smoking in front of the boys—he never had and never would.


He pulled a bent smoke from the pack with his teeth, loose tobacco spilling to his chest. The cigarettes had been a birthday present to himself—his wife had been in Boston for a wedding that weekend, and he had lounged smoking outside in the crisp March night with the baby monitor attached to his belt after putting the boys to bed—and had sat in the center console drying out for over half a year. He knew this smoke would be hot and fast, but he still had nine or ten others left. Given the circumstances, he might have to buy another pack soon just to calm his frayed nerves.


The first inhalation hit his heart like a hammer, and he half coughed the biting smoke back out. Tears bled easily into his eyes, and he blinked them back, the gravity and uncertainty of getting home to his family finding excuse for outlet in an old cigarette’s gray sputter.


The trucks climbed the overpass above the old railroad tracks near the Syracuse Utilities North yard, and he prepared to take the left turn onto 232 South to the 81 North ramp. The rain softened for a moment and he noticed in the black around them, at the end of the driveway into Rudd’s hardware store, a man stood watching them. His clothes hung heavy with the weight of the storm, and his long hair obscured a gaunt face, the quick animal reflection of the headlights in his eyes the only indication that the man had eyes at all. As he drove past Rudd’s and made the right turn onto the ramp, his taillights illuminated the man again as he jogged after the trucks, hands balled to fists, pistoning left and right as he picked up speed.


He accelerated into the curve of the ramp and merged left onto 81 North. Ahead of him, the trucks spread out, the OPC taking the lead, with the vans and pickups behind, his Jeep bringing up the rear. The traffic on 81 South looked like it would any normal evening, maybe a little heavier than usual for a weeknight, but 81 North was empty beyond the National Grid convoy.


He looked at his phone for messages, but the red LED flashed nothing. He unlocked the phone and texted his wife: TXT ME, letting the mistake in his spelling stand, although seeing the missing E sparked an itch behind his eyes that tugged like a fish hook at the place in his brain where all things good and right about the English language lay. She knew he was a stickler for spelling and grammar; maybe the obvious mistake would give her enough concern to text him back.


Brake lights ahead—this area of 81 was notoriously frequented by about ten million deer this time of year, and sure enough, to the side of the northbound lane, he saw what had made Mack brake in front of him: maybe eight or ten deer standing too close to traffic for comfort. Hitting one of those certainly wouldn’t help the situation any. They weren’t moving, but he merged into the passing lane just to be sure.


To his right, a parking area stretched for a quarter mile. Here were cars and trucks, quite a few tractor trailers. It was difficult to discern in the rain and dusk, but there were people outside of their vehicles, a throng of people, and as the utility trucks passed the parking area, they took notice, jogged, flat out ran to follow. Reflex reached out and hit the lock button on his door again. There was something reassuring about those four simultaneous clicks.


Those trucks ahead of him in the failing light, their paths marked increasingly in the hurricane’s windswept rains by only their taillights and the yellow telltale flashers mounted above their cabs, what were the thoughts each man held in his solitude as they careened down this dark path toward the city? He was impressed with their resolve and wasn’t sure he would possess such desire to do what needed to be done were he one of them and not just a janitor. Surely the Philly substation wasn’t important enough to risk their lives for. From what he remembered, it was just a little fenced in area with some big transformers, or what he thought they called transformers, and wires coming in from the south and heading out again to the north. Maybe a small concrete hut. Not much of anything to look at, but they treated it as something that must be protected first and foremost and repaired if required. Something to be held on to at all costs. What could possibly—?


There was someone standing on the overpass.


He blinked, certain that his eyes were just confused by the rain and the windshield wipers, but no, just ahead where the grassy median of the divided highway turned briefly into tall rock walls where Massey Street Road passed over 81, there was someone standing on the overpass, fingers hooked through the chain link that comprised the protective fencing, looking down at them—two someones now, three—now lifting something high above his or her—from the size of the person, he guessed his—head.


A rock? A cinder block? It could have been anything, and there was no way for him to know. His mind raced to multiple reports of objects being thrown off overpasses such as this many years before, crimes that had in fact necessitated the installation of protective fencing over the bridges that passed over that blacktopped artery of commerce and adventure.


The flashers, the rain, the speed, the curve, all contributed to the stop-motion feel of what he witnessed as the object thrown from the Massey Street Road overpass plummeted down on to Robbie’s truck, impacted on the boom of its seventy-foot bucket, and bounced off harmlessly into the air. Robbie’s massive Freightliner careened under the bridge with hardly a dent in the steel of its boom.


When the object landed again, it was through the windshield of Tiny’s pickup. It continued through his head and out the back window, the mist of blood and brains lost in the deluge of the hurricane’s remnants. The object smashed on to the surface of 81 North in front of the Jeep, cracking into pieces that revealed its nature as a cinder block, and he swerved deftly to avoid sending any of the chunks tearing through his undercarriage. Ahead, Tiny’s truck, piloted by what was left of Tiny, veered wildly to the left and impacted the stone wall of the median, not rebounding but simply stopping with a violent and palpable thud of steel and stone, flattening its cab completely. There were limbs. God, how many arms and legs had he had? The wreckage flopped down, caught between the rock wall separating the north and southbound lanes and the slumping guard rail. One lonely wheel rolled upright back into the path of Mack’s van, and the impact sent it spinning like a child’s top back into the median.


He smelled something acrid, felt heat, and for a moment he thought the Jeep was on fire, but his cigarette’s flame finally making contact with his lips wrenched him back to precise focus from the daze of unbelievable spectacle unfolding around him. He expertly spit the cigarette butt out the window, cracked to allow smoke to escape, and realized that some of Tiny had speckled the driver’s side of his car: a little blood, a little brain, a little blond. He forced attention back to the road and accelerated. The speckles of Tiny turned to streaks, impossibly red in the world’s dusk at first, then translucent, then nothing, and then Tiny was gone forever.


His rear window shattered before he heard the gunshot. The headrest of his passenger seat coughed out foam rubber and threads of utilitarian gray fabric, more burlap than luxury, more smoking than resting.


The next overpass was a minute away.


The trucks ahead all seemed to be speeding up, so he pressed forward harder on the accelerator. It felt like he was standing on the pedal but he still wasn’t going fast enough. Looking down at the speedometer, he saw the Jeep reaching a velocity he’d never before asked of her. That shimmy she made at 65 MPH turned into a resonance that threatened to unseat his teeth as the needle quickly approached its maximum measurement of 100 MPH. He locked eyes on the as-yet-unlit area of his display panel where he knew the CHECK ENGINE telltale lay, fully expecting at any moment his poor old Jeep to render unto Interstate 81 her straight-six engine block.


The Arsenal Street bridge over US 81 was a relatively new structure, a swooping arc of concrete offering the citizens of Watertown safe passage over the interstate highway that cut their city into unequal segments, the particularly dingy, residential east, with its decrepit downtown versus the retail, big box, fast-food, mall, commercial west. Interstate 81 hadn’t taken quite as egregious a detour through the underprivileged areas of the city as it had in Syracuse to the south, but Watertown was a city divided indeed.


The rain had let up to the point where he could see the silent guardians of international commerce, the billboards, rise up from the gloom of the fields through which  81 cut. Their spotlights were off, victims of the areal power outage, but he knew out in the dark they still beckoned weary travelers to the chintzy delights of Watertown, New York, the self avowed gateway to the Thousand Islands, although said thousands of islands were still dozens of miles down the road, and they certainly needed no gateway assist from Watertown. The billboards coaxed road folk to Arsenal Street with its many name brand hotels and attractions such as Denny’s. He knew one of these billboards advertised Old McDonald’s Farm out in Sackets Harbor, a petting zoo kind of place where they’d taken the boys only weeks before to get pumpkins and pet llamas and meet a sad, solitary camel. That memory was good. Thinking of the boys and his wife was good. For a brief moment he felt good.


The mall was on fire. He felt nothing at that besides hoping that Millie and Steve, Gaylord and the other good people had gotten out safely. As for the Pyramid people, well, fuck them. He hoped the floors were clean enough for them in hell.


Their convoy sped toward the city, 81 North splitting into three, then four lanes as they neared Arsenal Street. Explosions lit up the urban mess to the east, and all to the west was burning mall.


There were people on the overpass. Not just two or three, not just cinderblocks. As he watched in disbelief, a crowd of hundreds rocked the great steel fence, streams of sparks showering to the ground as the poles were cut away, rippling the fence until sections of it gave way and clattered to the interstate, leaving a hole like the gaping maw of something jawless and primordial, something that communicated in an insectile clicking and the leathery rasp of a dry tongue on tender neck meat.


Robbie made it under Arsenal Street in time to avoid the three people the crowd threw out of the hole in the fence and off the bridge to the highway below, nooses secured so tightly to their necks that one was cleanly decapitated, the body dropping to the pavement in front of Big Dick’s truck, another body smashing down onto his hood. He braked hard, swerved to the right, sparks jetting as the truck ground against the concrete abutment, and bounced into a roll, the boxy cap of the truck and all of the tools it contained spraying out like steel confetti as side over top over side the truck scraped a red and black path out from underneath the bridge, its cab flattened and Dick flattened with it.


The crowd on the overpass didn’t bother with nooses for the next set. The sky rained a dozen children, twenty, as many as could be thrown up and over or through, wholly or partially, intact or eviscerated.


He remembered once in rush hour traffic on 81 North in Syracuse almost hitting a mattress that had popped its rope and flopped down from a pickup into lanes two and three of a four-lane section of the highway. He had thought at the time that that situation was one of the closest calls he had experienced while driving, dozens of cars swerving violently, cutting each other off, bending fenders to ensure they didn’t hit someone’s pocketed coil queen. This was so much worse than a goddamned mattress.


Not all of the children were dead on impact.


He screamed, he screamed and his eyes filled with hot tears as he willed his Jeep forward, almost sideswiping Mack’s van ahead but braking just in time to fall in line at his bumper and avoid driving over the kids piling up on the pavement, so much mangled gore and so many more people left on the bridge.


The white flames from the mall cast the monsters on the overpass in stark contrast as he looked in his rearview, not wanting to see but needing to see them. All of Arsenal Street, not just the overpass, was awash in madness and slaughter. Stores burned. People schooled. The innocent charged down the ramps to the highway and were pursued and butchered by their neighbors.


How many more overpasses before home?


Coffeen Street approached out of the failing light now buffered by a Home Depot ablaze to his right and the Jefferson County Industrial Park to his left, smaller puffs of white erupting throughout the dozens of warehouses in the sprawling complex. His peripheral vision noted brake lights ahead again as the small white explosions approached the highway like a chain of fireworks, culminating in…


The tremendous phallic water tower that served the industrial park, a long, thin shaft topped by a great bulbous head, crumpled to one side as an explosion demolished one half of its base. A quick mental calculation and he assessed the threat as minimal, since the tower was nowhere near tall enough to strike the highway when it fell.


And it didn’t, but the water inside of it erupted out in a torrent that washed over the blacktop when the top of the tower split seamed and keening down over the exit ramp, providing that stretch of highway its own tsunami to add to the hurricane’s again steady wet, washing an obstacle course of chain link fence, orange road cones, and road work signage into the path of the convoy. He saw the trucks ahead of him fishtail, Luke’s OPC truck spinning around entirely before he expertly recovered and continued north. When the Jeep hit the water, he used three decades of driving through snow and considerable experience driving with an old Jeep that badly needed new brakes to maneuver his way through the threat.


It should be a straight shot to 342 now that Arsenal and Coffeen Street were behind them. No people lined the highway. The claustrophobic feel of city streets on either side gave way to fields opening up before them. There was still Bradley Street ahead, but that wasn’t an overpass. They would have the high ground.


He thought of Tiny and Big Dick, and his brain told him not to. He thought of the people on Arsenal Street, the children on the highway, the bodies hanging from the bridge, and his brain issued a warning shot. He thought of his wife and the boys, and his brain sternly but not without compassion told him to focus on getting home to them.


He looked down at his phone. No new messages.


He lit another cigarette as they left the city behind, crossing over the Black River. Like so much right now, he couldn’t see it but he knew it was there.


The Car-Freshner Little Trees factory was still there.


Jefferson Community College wasn’t.


There hadn’t been a single car on 81 South since they’d passed through the city.


They drove over Bradley Street without incident.


Their exit was just a few miles away, but already he felt so much calmer and safer. Maybe Watertown was the focal point of this outbreak of madness, whatever would inspire people to enact the very worst of themselves. Maybe the world was normal and good everywhere else. Maybe he hadn’t witnessed a swath of death and depravity cut bone deep north on a path parallel to that very highway.


The green sign at the side of the road said:






And he felt like he was already home. He’d open the door and the boys would be there, Jacob shouting “Daddy! Daddy’s home!” as he ran to give him a hug and Charlie simply squealing happily as he scooted his not-ready-to-walk-yet buns over to the door to greet him. His wife would stand in the doorway from the den to the kitchen: “Hey, love. How was work?” and he’d try to hide the smoke on his breath as he kissed her but maybe she wouldn’t mind because the world was going crazy and all they had was each other.


The road was blocked ahead. The convoy slowed to a halt.

And then the killing really started.






Copyright © 2012 Paul Hughes

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Paul Hughes lives in northern New York with his wife and two sons.

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