Flowing water rouses Sullivan from a deep slumber. Expecting to wake to an opened bedroom window, he gasps at the realization before him. With hands and feet bound by tape, the seventeen-year-old sits alongside a creek, roped to a tree. Autumn temperatures in the forest chill him to the bone, so he draws his legs toward his body for warmth.

Sullivan’s heart races and he forces the growing panic to simmer. His eyes dart back and forth, scanning the forest, and he tries to recall what happened. Through an opening in the shrubbery, he spots two more captives. Both men, gagged and secured to trees, sit in the distance to his left.

Unsure if the other men can see him, he observes them in silence. The captive donning a red hat flails around. He yells through his gag, though Sullivan cannot understand a word. The larger captive dons nothing more than a yellow t-shirt and tan shorts. He shivers and struggles to warm himself. Unlike Sullivan, they appear injured and bloodied.

A movement to the right of Sullivan catches his eye. He turns toward the creek and sees a brawny man, dressed in dark clothing, standing at the water’s edge. The man glances down and stares into the stream, his reflection in the moving water as warped as his mind.

Realizing him to be their captor, Sullivan watches as the large man walks away from the water. He halts in front of what appears to be a hole in the ground, picks up a shovel, and begins digging. Sullivan’s eyes widen. Shit! That can’t be good!

Wriggling his hands back and forth, Sullivan realizes he may be able to free his left wrist. He keeps a watchful eye on his captor and continues to twist his hands to loosen the tape.

Alarming shouts fill the forest, and Sullivan halts movement. He looks toward the other captives. The red-hatted man spits out his gag and calls out for help. Sullivan shifts his gaze toward the captor, and his stomach sinks. He stopped digging and glares up toward the other captives. Oh no! What’s he gonna do?

“Scream all you want,” the husky voice calls out. “No one can hear you.” He turns away and continues to deepen the cavity.

Sullivan breathes a sigh of relief. He begins biting away pieces of tape to free his hands, then rips the tape off his ankles and slides out from the rope. Sneaking another peek, Sullivan sees the captor remains focused on digging. So he crawls away from the tree.

Instead of running, Sullivan decides to help the other men. He spots nearby dense shrubbery, perfect for concealment, and leaps toward it. Sullivan lands on a branch, and the snap echoes through the woods. Sullivan’s heart pounds away in his chest. Shit! He glimpses toward the captor, then releases a sharp breath. The oblivious man continues digging.

Sullivan edges out from the cover of the bushes. He sees more undergrowth nearby and begins moving toward it. Feeling a bit exposed, he opts to advance by descending into a ditch, to remain low and unseen. On his way down, his foot dislodges a rock and throws him off balance. Sullivan rolls down into the boulder-laden trench, whacks his head and falls unconscious.

After a brief period of unconsciousness, Sullivan wakes to a pulsating headache. He reaches up with a hand to feel around his head and discovers warmth and wetness. Inhaling a few deep breaths, Sullivan readies himself before proceeding.

He rolls onto his stomach and extends his arms outward. Moving with caution, he drags his body forward but meets resistance. Sullivan’s stomach plummets at the source of the obstacle. He’s crawled onto the boot of his captor. Looking up, he finds the eyes of a depraved man glaring down at him.

“Hello.” The gruff voice calls out.

Sullivan gasps at the sight of the needle within his grasps.

“W–what are you-” The syringe slams into Sullivan’s neck, cutting him off mid-sentence. He fades into darkness.

He wakes and finds himself roped to a tree near the other captives with taped hands but unbound legs. The captive wearing a t-shirt shivers in silence. The red-hatted captive fights to stifle the obscenities that spew from his mouth.

“Please! You don’t have to do this!”

The captor places his hands on his hips and glares at the red-hatted man. He shifts from one foot to the other and cocks his head to the side before releasing a mirthless laugh.

“I’ve got money. I’ll pay you if you let us go.”

The captor walks over to the red-hatted man and squats in front of him. He glares into his eyes, then slaps him across the face with such force a welt appears on his flesh.

The larger man begins to sob. He pulls his knees into his body and weeps like a child.

The captor balls his fists then picks up the shovel. He whacks the whimpering man on the back of the head and renders him silent.

“Please, sir,” Sullivan begins. “I–I don’t have money to offer you, but please let us go.” He looks into the eyes of the man towering above him. His heart thuds inside his chest, threatening to burst its way out.

The captor glares down at him while maintaining a firm grasp on the shovel. “Be quiet.” Then he turns and walks back toward the hole to resume digging.

A short while later, the menacing captor nods approval of his work and tosses the shovel aside. He heads toward a duffle bag positioned under a pine tree.

Sullivan cringes when he reaches inside the bag for an object. Relief floods him when he retrieves a photo instead of a weapon.

The captor heads over to the red-hatted man and holds the photo up to his face for a few seconds, then yanks it away. He tucks it into the pocket of his jacket and glares in silence at the captive.

The red-hatted man trembles and hollers. “Please! Let me go!” He panics and starts to hyperventilate.

What’s in that photo? Sullivan wonders.

The sinister captor pulls out a folding knife from his pants. He opens it, then thrusts it, once, into the neck of the red-hatted man. The man falls silent as his blood spurts out. The captor tucks the knife into his pants, then drags the silenced and bleeding man toward the hole. After delivering a powerful kick, the red-hatted man rolls down into the hole.

Sullivan’s stomach plummets. He watches the disturbed captor walk toward the shovel-beaten captive. He kicks the unconscious man until he awakens. Then he pulls out the photo and shoves it into his view, eliciting a series of screams. The captor retrieves his knife and strikes the sobbing man in the neck, causing a river of red to flow with vigor. The captor drags the limp body toward the hole and gives him a shove to join his friend.

Fearing he’s next, Sullivan bows his head and ponders a way out of the situation. Though, the captor retrieves his shovel and begins tossing dirt onto the bleeding men.

“Uh, e-excuse me, s-sir?” Sullivan stutters. “You’re–you’re not gonna bury them alive, are you?”

The brawny man sets the shovel down, then walks over toward Sullivan. “Would you like me to kill them first?”

“Ahh–I don’t want you to kill them at all. Sir, it’s–it’s not too late to get them some help. No one has to die. I won’t tell anyone about you if you let us go. I promise.”

“Well, I prefer for them to suffer. Bleeding out and being buried alive is what those two deserve.”

“But, sir,” Sullivan begins. “No one deserves that.”

The man reaches into a coat pocket and pulls out a photo. He shows it to the boy, and Sullivan’s face goes white. “H-How did you get a photo of my murdered mother?” Sullivan burst into tears. “You killed her, didn’t you? And, now you’re gonna kill me!”

The captor places the photo back into his pocket. He pulls out his knife and opens it.

“Please, don’t! Please, please, please! I’m begging you!”

“Relax, kid.” The captor bends down and frees Sullivan’s hands and body.

“My name is Rocco,” he informs Sullivan.

In a state of confusion, Sullivan stares up at the large man, his mouth agape.

Rocco retrieves a different photo from his pocket. “This was my family. It was my wife and two kids. Those two psychopaths killed them. As soon as I showed them this photo, they knew who I was–and their fate.”

Sullivan’s hands shoot up to his face and cup his mouth.

“Sullivan, they are the same two assholes that killed your mother.”

Sullivan’s hands drop to the ground, and the color drains from his face. He looks from Rocco to the men in the hole, then back to Rocco again.

“I don’t have much to live for anymore. So, I’ve devoted my life toward vigilantism.” Rocco explains. “They showed up at your apartment last night with the intention of killing you. Sorry for drugging you and binding you up, but I did it to keep you safe until I could explain things. I wanted you to see that your mother’s killers have been… handled. You’re free to go, Sullivan.”

Clutching his chest, Sullivan scans the forest and sits in silence. Rippling and bubbling sound from the flowing creek return to his ears. He struggles to stand, then wraps his arms around himself and gives a nod to Rocco before turning to walk away.

A short distance later, he stops and stands in silence a moment before turning back to look into Rocco’s face.

“Um,” Sullivan struggles to speak. “My–my best friend’s father abuses him. It’s really bad.”

The mutual but unspoken understanding causes a slight smirk to grow on Rocco’s face. “Well, I’ll need more details.”

Sullivan nods and joins Rocco for a walk in the forest, alongside the creek.