DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 9

Please stop screenin’ and pick up… he wasn’t there, but it looks like he headed closer to the lake. With any luck, the trail won’t get cold by the time we arrive.  I got Tim and Kalvin Lucero with me—strength in numbers, I guess. Looks like they’re all in on this one. They seem genuinely concerned about Danny, our boy has good friends. It’s been nice having people to talk to about things, such as they are.

                You should try it sometime.

                Call me when you can.

                 I love you, Claire.

                Bye.

Chapter 9:

Such As They Are

                  Eustace dreamt of police in his home, tracking his son’s blood across the steps and hardwood. Each officer was oblivious to the corpse, writhing on the ground with an “F” carved into his throat. Only Kalvin’s father acknowledged the body and carried Danny to the back of his SUV, overflowing with body bags that squirmed out onto the floor like burning larvae. Eustace begged Tim not to take his son. He ran to pull Dan from the car, but Eustace had no arms.

                The dream faded the harder he tried to remember. Eustace sat at the edge of the motel bed and tied his shoes in the pale dawn. There was no argument over who got the bed; although neither slept well. Kalvin looked like a puppet, his arms and legs bent over the armrests of the corner chair. My body doesn’t bend like that anymore, thought Eustace. He would let the boy sleep, closing the door gently behind him.

                 He checked his phone as he walked through Warren, still no reply from Claire. She chose to send messages to Danny instead, his phone vibrating in Eustace’s pocket every few hours. Just turn it off, Eustace.  You can’t do anything for her now so let it go.  He scrolled through every plea for forgiveness. Between verses of You are my Sunshine, Claire wrote how much she hated herself for letting Eustace get his way. She called him a monster. He knew as much; her stare let him know, back when she still looked at him.

                Most stores in Warren were closed that early, but Eustace discovered a coffee shop to sit in and read the newspaper. He was unable to read past the first sentence, his attention torn between thoughts of last night, and the pawnshop across the street. We would have never left that tavern if it wasn’t for the bartender. What could he have done other than stand there, unarmed and exhausted, knowing that a single punch from the giant would have snapped his neck? And what of Kalvin, wagering another man’s son to save his own? Eustace refused to be so careless again and resolved to carry something more substantial than a sledgehammer for protection. The pawnshop might carry that something; it can’t open soon enough.

                 He left the shop with two coffees and a box of mini donuts, thinking they could eat during their three hour drive to Saugatuck. It sounded made up, this insignificant beach town blurted out by a dead man, and Eustace felt sick for listening. Why would you follow him? thought Eustace. For all you know, he could have been deranged long before the attack. Still, it gave him hope, although the search would be more treacherous this time around.  Fugitives don’t take kindly to knocks at the door.

                He found nothing etched above the pawnshop entrance as he pushed the button for admittance. You’re full of shit, Kalvin, thought Eustace as the door buzzed open. The owner counted money near the register as he approached. Eustace asked about the Browning .22 on the wall and pointed at it with his coffee cup. The old man sighed and placed the cash in the drawer. He lifted the weapon from the wall and placed it on the counter. “Six fifty,” he said.

                “I’m gonna need a closer look,” said Eustace.

                The owner twisted the rifle in two, setting the barrel aside. He pulled the receiver apart as if cleaning a fish and held the bolt to the light that poured in from the barred windows. “Some wear, to be expected.”

                Eustace noticed diced flesh along the owner’s palm, concentrated at the center into a nest of pink seams and wrinkles. That’s one way to remove a brand. He’s either reformed or a coward—maybe both. “Anything in the three-hundred range?”

                The owner opened a drawer and pulled out a Glock. He removed the magazine and slide, pulling out the recoil spring to reveal the barrel. A bit of soot dusted the counter. “I can do three fifty.”

                “I’d feel good at three twenty-five.”

                “Three forty and I’ll throw in a shoulder holster.”

                “Can I walk out with it today?”

                “Handguns are tricky. It’ll take a day or two for the background check, and of course I’ll need to see a Michigan License.”

                Let’s see if this little “F” still means something. Eustace presented his brand.

                The owner squinted at the mark and adjusted his glasses. “I wouldn’t be flashing that around if I were you.”

                “I see you used to be a member.”

                “We used to call ourselves the ‘Finished Militia’ after so many members were killed. With only a handful left we agreed to dissolve, and the infection spread. We’re a wolf state now, overrun and feeble. Not even the MIR come through here anymore.”

                “Will you help a Finisher out on his last mission?”

                 “Suppose you’ll be needing silver, too?”

                “You sell ammunition here?”

                “Not quite.” He pulled out a coffee can and plucked bullets from the pile of refuse.

                “How do I know those are pure?”

                The owner sighed again. He crouched until he was completely swallowed by the counter. When he came back up, Eustace took a step back. Jesus Christ. A severed wolf’s paw laid between them, dwarfing the handgun nearby. Much of its hair had been shaved off, leaving behind patches of charcoal flesh. The old man placed a bullet against a finger and it sizzled down to the bone. “How’s that for pure?”

                “All right then,” said Eustace. “What else you got back there?”

                The owner grinned before disappearing behind the counter once more.

                When their business concluded, Eustace returned to the motel room. He entered to the sound of whistling. He had never seen the boy smile, let alone whistle. Must be good news, thought Eustace. Kalvin emerged from the bathroom, patting his head and face dry with a towel. He looked a full shade lighter, having washed away last night’s filth. His jersey still smelled of leaves and dirt.

                “Mornin’,” said Kalvin with a smirk.

                “I brought somethin’ to wake you up, but you look plenty alert as it is.”

                Kalvin draped the towel over his shoulder and took his coffee from Eustace. “Thanks. I practically boiled myself in there, but that’s not why I’m smiling.” He took a sip. “Did you happen to bring any cream?”

                “In the bag.” Eustace handed it over.

                Kalvin set everything on the nightstand.  “It’s amazing how much relief one text can bring.” He popped open the creamer cups and poured. “He finally made it to Warren.”

                Eustace envied the joy in Kalvin’s voice. He thought only of Claire’s messages to Danny, dreading the day she would stop.

                “Good,” said Eustace. “Did your dad mention what took him so long to get back to you?”

                “I’m just happy he’s all right.” Kalvin took another sip and nodded. “Thought he’d be angry about what happened on the expressway, but he said he wants to meet us for breakfast—his treat.”

                Eating had become just another distraction to Eustace, every minute creating more distance between him and Danny. It’s ridiculous we’re not on the road already. “There’s a box of mini donuts in that bag. Tell him to just meet us at the beach.”

                “It’s still early. You wouldn’t rather have a sirloin smothered in hash browns?”

                Why don’t we get back massages, too, while we’re at it?, thought Eustace. “I’m thrilled Tim learned how to use his phone, but we’re not on vacation.”

                “I never said we were. It’s just…who knows what we’ll find today? Last night took a lot out of us; it would be nice to get a good meal before whatever else comes.”

                It’ll waste daylight, but sitting down to a full breakfast would be good for him—for both of us. Tim’s probably anxious to see his son as well. “One hour. We get one hour to eat and then we’re back at it. We don’t stop again ’til we find him. Understood?”

                “Loud and clear.” Kalvin pointed to the bag dangling from Eustace’s wrist. “Looks like you picked up more than donuts.”

                I’d have to show it to him sooner or later. “Yeah, ‘bout that. I found a guy in town sellin’ stuff we could use.” He reached into the bag and pulled out a clear plastic jug, sloshing the contents.

                “Is… is that piss?”

                “Wolf piss, yeah.”

                “Why would you—“

                “Infected have a heightened sense of smell, even in their human form. We’re gonna pour it into a bucket and set it in my trunk with the door open. We’ll drive around the beachfront, keepin’ an eye open for anyone who gets curious. We make them come to us instead of knocking on every door we see.”

                “And that’ll work?”

                Too well, thought Eustace. How many lives have I ruined with this little trick? “It has—several times.”

                Kalvin’s smile became a sneer. “I forgot,” said Kalvin into his cup before finishing what was left. He walked to the bathroom and draped his towel over the shower bar.

                Last thing I need is to go remindin’ them of what I am, thought Eustace. I’ll keep the gun to myself for now.

*****

                They waited in the restaurant parking lot for Tim. When he failed to arrive they asked to be seated outside near the entrance. The smell of grease and batter made Eustace hungry, even if the restaurant appeared to be violating numerous health codes.

                “What made him pick this place?” said Eustace.

                “I picked it. It’s actually one of Dan’s favorites. I thought it’d bring us good luck.”

                Eustace rolled out his silverware and tucked the napkin into his collar. “Did you see a moon carved anywhere?”

                “You think I should go check?”

                Danny didn’t get my jokes either. “No, Kalvin. How ‘bout you stay seated for now?”

                Eustace perused the menu only to be drawn to his watch. Tim was now ten minutes late.

                “Was I right about the steak and hash browns?” said Kalvin.

                I’d rather eat what was left of that wolf than anything from here. “I’m not that hungry. Did you hear anythin’ from your dad?”

                “Not since this morning.”

                Eustace scanned the menu for something that suited him. He stopped when he felt someone scanning him. “Try lookin’ at the menu, Kalvin.”

                “I’m sorry; I was just…never mind.”

                “Boy, if you got somethin’ to say, say it.”

                “I was just trying to find similarities.”

                “Similarities to what?”

                “Between you and Dan. I know this’ll sound weird, but I can’t see how you two can be related. I mean, physically, emotionally, mentally—you two couldn’t be more different.”

                This little shit thinks he has Eustace Bully all figured out in a day. “And this bothers you?”

                “Well, not particularly. I just thought you two would have more in common. A lot of people say I take after my dad, and there’s no denying that. I don’t know. I shouldn’t have brought it up. Maybe Dan takes after his mom.”

                It’s great that you and Tim are best buddies, but I’ve been busy trying to keep my son from getting killed. And how ‘bout you keep your mouth shut about my wife?“Can we just order? I thought you said you wanted to eat?”

                “How is Mrs. Bully, all things considered?”

                THAT’S ENOUGH! Eustace slapped his menu on the table. “Overjoyed, Kalvin! I’ve read about sixty messages from her to Danny tellin’ him how much of piece of garbage I am and she won’t so much as return my calls! I’ve talked more to my answerin’ machine this month than my wife!”

                “I don’t’ know why you’re getting upset—“

                “Dan is so fuckin’ lucky to be his mother’s son! I thank god he’s nothin’ like me so he won’t have to put up with a mute of a wife and a factory of psychopaths!”

                “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

                Eustace rubbed the bottom half of his face and dwelled on what Kalvin had said. “A cleft lip.”

                “Excuse me?”

                “That’s the only thing he got from me. We were both born with cleft lips and we both got scars from the corrective surgery. Look.” Eustace held up one side of his mustache. ”Danny used to have a tiny, almost invisible scar on his lip. It’s gone now, thanks to the infection. I noticed it the moment he walked in the door. The only, microscopic detail we ever had in common doesn’t exist anymore. We have nothing.” Eustace sat there quietly, massaging his forehead in an attempt to calm down. He stared at the menu, but the words had no meaning.

                “You’re more alike than you think,” said Kalvin. “You’re both fans of whiskey. He’s the only person I know who prefers it over beer.”

                There’s always whiskey. Eustace closed his eyes and chuckled. “Get some better friends, will ya.”

                Kalvin laughed eventually. “Danny also talks in his sleep.”

                Where is this goin’?. Eustace glanced up at him. “Is that right?”

                “You were saying some stuff last night. I’m afraid to ask, but I thought maybe you’d want to talk about it.”

                “I don’t.”

                Kalvin put his elbows on the table and leaned closer. “When I had nightmares as a kid, I’d run into my parent’s room. My dad would ask me to tell him everything that happened in the dream from beginning to end. When I heard it out loud it sounded so stupid that I felt embarrassed for ever being scared. It’s nice having people to talk to about nightmares, such as they are.”

                 What the hell did I say in my sleep? “We need to get moving, he’s taking too long.”

                “Let’s just order. I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

                “We’ve been sitting around for half an hour, Kalvin.”

                “You’ll feel better with food in your stomach, Euwie. I promise.”

                “I told you I’m not…what did you call me?”

                “Sorry. Mr. Bully, do you know what you want yet?”

                 I never told him that name. “Why did you call me ‘Euwie’ just now?”

                “I don’t know. My dad said for me and Euwie to meet here. I figured he didn’t want to spell out ‘Eustace.’”

                There’s only a handful of people on this earth that call me “Euwie” and Tim Lucero ain’t one of them. “When exactly did he text you this mornin’?”

                “I don’t know, around four, four-thirty?”

                Jake has Tim! I don’t know how, but he has Tim! “Kalvin, I want you to think real hard for me. What did you tell him?”

                “I said we were going to stake out beach houses in Saugatuck. He asked if I had an address and I told him no. That was the last thing he said to me.”

                “We need to leave.”

                “But what about—?”

                “He’s not comin’.”

*****

The next turn brought them to the road closest to the beach. Eustace’s gun lay heavy against his heartbeat. Looks like you’ll make your debut earlier than I thought. He pulled the Buick over into the forest preserve and turned off the engine.

“You know what to do, right?” asked Kalvin.

“They used us to find Saugatuck, so we’ll use them to find the beach house,” said Eustace. “They’ve had time to search, but if they’re still around, we should spot a silver pick-up.”

                “What if there’s no truck?”

               You’re thinkin’ too much. “Then we’ll use the lure like we planned. We won’t have much time. Did you get any other texts?”

               “Nothing…will my dad be okay with those people?”

 I don’t know who those people are anymore. “They don’t kill people without a damn good reason. If he keeps his mouth shut he should do fine.” Eustace pointed into the distance. “Look over there. I see three houses. There might be a few more past the hills. I’ll do one pass around. Keep count of how many you see.”

Eustace started the car and drove along the beach. Kalvin counted six houses and zero silver trucks.

“I don’t see the hunting party,” said Kalvin. “Do you think they found them?”

I don’t know what to think. “I’ll get plan B ready.”

 Eustace stepped out from his car. Let’s hope Jake didn’t have the same idea. He popped open the trunk and twisted the cap off the jug. The old man went on about its potency, being harvested from a non-castrated wolf for its high levels of testosterone. Eustace was told to use it sparingly, but he emptied the jug into a bucket and secured it in place with bungee cargo cords.

They circled back around slower than before. Eustace told Kalvin it was to give the lure time to work, but part of him wanted to postpone the inevitable. He stopped the car in front of each house for a moment, thinking about how he would tell Claire.

They lingered in a cul-de-sacby the tallest home. Kalvin watched for the lure to make something happen, and Eustace watched him. If only I came alone, thought Eustace. You’re the reason my son is dead, not me.

“I think this is the place,” said Kalvin. “I saw someone moving in there.”

“That’s enough, Kalvin.”

“Look! They’re on the second floor. I think they’re holding something.”

                The back window burst into shards. A second shot ripped through the trunk. Eustace’s tires screeched as they bolted up the hill. Has Jake completely lost it!?

                Kalvin hunkered forward in his seat, struggling to breathe.

                “Don’t go to pieces on me now, Kalvin!”

                “What do we do!?”

                “We park it at the preserve and make our way inside on foot through the beach.”

                “With what!? A sledgehammer!?”

                Eustace pulled the gun from his holster. “I was going to tell you sooner.”

                “You had that all along, didn’t you!? ”

                “I bought it this mornin’! I haven’t even fired it!”

                “So now we’re just going to rush in shooting!?”

                Eustace grabbed him by his jersey. “No one’s comin’ to help us, Kalvin. I’m not leavin’ until I know without a doubt what happened to Danny. You can run away and send messages into a black hole for the rest of your life, or you can come with me and know for sure what happened here today.”

                When he let go, Kalvin shoved his door open and threw up in the sand. He wiped his mouth and gave Eustace a thumps up. He hasn’t given up on Danny, Eustace. He’s not to blame.

                Eustace surveyed the damage to his car. A bullet cracked the bucket in half and soaked everything inside with wolf urine. Money well spent. He pulled out the sledgehammer and handed it to Kalvin. “Stay behind me at all times. I want you to use this to bust open the back door. We have no leeway for fuckups.”

                Their feet sank with each step as they climbed up the dunes and loose patches of grass. Eustace’s legs burned as his breath shortened. They avoided the wooden steps up to the deck to muffle their approach. When they reached the top, they pressed their backs against both sides of the door. Like ridin’ a bicycle. Eustace pulled open the screen and nodded at Kalvin. The college kid brought the hammer down on the doorknob, severing it from the door. The second swing planted squarely on the dead bolt. The door gave way, and Eustace lead them into the laundry room.

                The steps creaked as they made their way into the kitchen.  Before they could survey the area, the shooter fired two 12 gauge rounds blindly from behind a divider, grazing Kalvin’s leg. Eustace knocked over the kitchen table for cover and dragged Kalvin behind it. Shotgun beats table, Eustace. It’s over.

                “You’re rewritin’ the Doctrine, Jake! I was given two weeks to take care of my boy! This is madness!”

                “Who the fuck is Jake!?” said a voice from behind the divider.

                That doesn’t sound like anyone from the factory. “Who are you!?”

                “Throw down your weapons!”

                “We’re putting our weapons down! One of us is hurt!”

                The shooter’s footsteps clicked against the linoleum floor. She looked down upon them with a rifle slung over her shoulder and her shotgun drawn, ordering them to slide over the Glock. He did as she demanded and raised his hands in surrender.

                “That’s not much of an injury,” she said, pressing the toe of her shoe into Kalvin’s wound. “Just winged him.” She took the handgun and slid it down the back of her jeans as Kalvin wailed. “What’s this about a boy?”

                “My son is being hunted.”

                “So you break into my house?”

                “You fired on us first!”

                “I was attacked before dawn! Goddamn hunters caught me off guard, but they never found me. You’re saying you had nothing to do with that!?”

                “We’re trying to stop them, Lady, we swear!” said Kalvin.

                “Saunders. My name is Bernadette Saunders, and I’m getting fucking FED UP with assholes harassing me because of my niece!”

                “Is Char your niece?” said Kalvin.

                Bernadette kicked Kalvin in the stomach. “You don’t get to ask questions!” She shifted her focus on Eustace. “On your feet. Tell me more about your son.”

                Eustace struggled to stand. “My son Danny is traveling with your niece and her husband. Those men who broke in earlier are members of the Finisher Militia.”

                “Finishers? I thought they disbanded?”

                “These are the Illinois Finishers.”

                “Who are you two then?”

                “I’m Eustace and this is Kalvin. We’re trying to save Danny.”

                “And you’re positive he’s with Char and Gator?”

                “We’re not even sure Char and Gator have been through here. The last place they were turned into a crime scene.”

                Bernadette lowered her weapon. “Char and her husband were here. I don’t know about your son. She sent an email with a list of things they used during their stay. It seemed like a lot for just two people.”

                He might still be alive! “Did she say where they were headed?”

                Bernadette cocked her gun. “What did I say about questions!?”

                “Please. I just want to find my boy.”

                “They went to see her father; he operates the Motor City Bedlam Complex just outside of Flint. He takes in all kinds of infected, and they never leave.”

                “That’s where the Finishers are headed. Your niece and my boy are in danger.”

                “You don’t get it, Eustace. The Finishers won’t survive Bedlam, and neither will your boy.”

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