“Do you feel like an adult?”
“Can you elaborate?”
“I’m twenty-nine and still working at the store I started with in high school.”
“And you feel stunted?”
“To a point—when you became a psychiatrist, did you feel like you reached adulthood?”
“I felt a sense of accomplishment, but I don’t recall linking it to being an adult. Do you believe people achieve adulthood through their profession?”
“I guess that’s only part of it. I never married, I never had children, and ties to the little family I have left are tenuous. I’ve never felt grown, and I don’t know if these factors are the cause or the result.”
“What do your parents do for a living?”
“My Dad is a factory worker. Last I heard from Judith, she was still with the MIR.”
“And how do you think they perceive you?”
Luke rubbed his hands together as if heating them over a fire. He had spent longer than he anticipated in the frozen food section, though that was not the reason for his restless hands. What the hell do we feed it? thought Luke as he read the prices. From what Ron described, the food would have to fit on a tray, sliding through a two-inch gap at the base of an isolation chamber door. None of this will work.
Luke led his brother, guiding the front of the shopping cart as Ron slumped over the hand rail. The other customers grazed past through the narrow aisles. They had always ignored Luke, but today they watched every step. Do they know? How could they? Luke tugged the bill of his Sox cap lower. Do kidnappers shop a certain way?
The cart slipped from under Luke’s fingertips. He turned to find Ron upright, gazing into the wine and spirits section. He pressed the wrinkles from his hoody as if the booze would judge him. If they did, they would have dismissed Ron as just another thug with his facial piercings and cheap sunglasses, doing little to conceal the swelling. Ron’s finger hovered past the shelves before he reached for the rum.
“We’re not here for that,” said Luke.
Ron filled the cart one bottle at a time, building a miniature skyline of glass and liquor. “No, but it’s here for us. It’ll calm you down.”
“I am calm.”
Ron stared at Luke’s hands with a raised eyebrow, arcing above his shades.
Luke stopped rubbing his hands together and stuffed them down his pockets. “They won’t sell any of this before noon. If we had done this yesterday when dad called…”
“I was busy.”
“With what—the demanding schedule of the Bridgeview Public Works? How many dead possums could there be?”
Ron restocked the shelves without a word.
He’s been spending more time with those dickheads in disguises, thought Luke. Looks like those masks don’t protect against riot batons. Luke left Ron for a stack of bottled water on an end cap. His fingers dug into the plastic packaging and he swung it onto the cart’s bottom rack.He spotted another shopper using the same technique with a bag of dog food. That’s Macho’s brand, and it’s on sale. Maybe I can kill two birds with one stone. ”Did dad say anything about what to feed this thing?”
Ron sidled up next to Luke. “He didn’t have time to talk.”
He’s hiding something, and not just the bottle under his hoody. “Is there anything else I should know?”
“You know what I know. Dad needs it alive while he takes care of something.”
Luke regretted asking for further details, but it was better than going in blind. He was relieved not to know what ‘something’ entailed. “And he asked that we both do this?”
“He wanted no one else.”
Luke weighed what was more bizarre: his father keeping a wolf alive or his father asking him for help. Although they agreed that the world needed fewer wolves, Luke and his father had avoided one another due to Luke’s ‘no kill’ policy. “Well, let’s not waste anymore time. It’s probably in worse shape than we think.”
He was in no rush. Luke knew the infected still needed food like everyone else, but their regeneration made starvation an unlikely obituary.” Let’s just get a box of protein bars and some water for now.” We’ll worry about tomorrow’s menu later.
They walked to the cashier and emptied their cart onto the express counter. Luke reached into his brother’s hoody for the bottle of spiced rum and stood it on the conveyor belt. Ron’s sunglasses failed to hide his displeasure.
“I can’t sell this before noon,” said the cashier.
“That’s fine, just these for now.” Luke leaned in close to Ron. “We’ll drink when it’s done. It’ll calm you down.”
As they approached Luke’s car, Macho’s snout peaked through the passenger side window, lapping the space between glass and doorframe. Luke unlocked the doors for Ron to load the groceries. “The trunk is full, so try not to smash anything while you’re back there.”
Macho rode up front, as he did every car ride. That’s not going to change just because Ron lost his license. Luke slid behind the wheel and noticed Macho’s bandana on the floor. He fastened it around the black lab’s neck. He even dresses better than Ron.
They drove south on a toll road. Luke tried to remember their exit, but was distracted by the vibration of the car floor. He thought his tires were uneven until he realized it was Ron’s leg, shaking against the back of his seat.
“So about yesterday,” said Ron.
“I know you were at another protest in Springfield, and no, I will not be joining you.”
“I wasn’t planning on asking. They require more backbone than you’re used to.”
Strong words from a man who uses chew toys to scare people. “Why do you care where they’re buried?”
“They don’t belong among the god-fearing. Let them rot in the sun.”
Your bosses at the public works wouldn’t appreciate that. “It serves no purpose. You’re not helping anyone.”
“It’s the principle. They gave up their humanity and all that came with it. Our group refuses to let the infected comingle with humans, in life and in death.”
“The infected need to be quarantined before they spread, like what we’re doing today. Making a show of where they should or shouldn’t be buried is a complete waste of time, not to mention insulting to the families.”
“Judith was there,” said Ron.
The words repeated in Luke’s head. “At the protest?”
“Yes, at the protest.”
“You were seeing things; she doesn’t go to the funerals.”
“I must have been hearing things too, because she called me ‘Luke.’”
She has time to go to some animal’s funeral, but she won’t reply to an email? “Must be.”
Luke wanted to keep quiet until they reached the house, but when he looked at Ron from the rearview mirror he was waiting for more of a response. Luke stayed silent for as long as he could. “We don’t look anything alike.”
“Well, that’s what a decade of absence will do.”
Has it really been that long? “How did she look?”
“Old,” said Ron. He removed his sunglasses. “One of her goons did this.” He pointed at his face before tapping the area around his eyes.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“No. Our meeting was brief.”
“Does Dad know?”
“No point in getting him worked up,” said Ron. “He’ll probably just get pissed off at me for some reason.”
“Why are you telling me about it?”
“I figured I’d let you know what kind of person she really is. It’ll give you two something to discuss in your emails.” Ron slid his shades back on.
“I’ve sent her maybe two or three emails since I graduated high school, so what? Nothing’s stopping you from doing the same.”
“Common sense stops me,” said Ron. “Crazy is crazy, and I don’t need a shrink to ‘work out’ what she’s done to us.”
Leave Dr. Khyzyr out of this. “Like you’ve never thought about stabbing Dad.”
Luke felt his car seat pull back under Ron’s grip. His brother’s breath heated the back of his neck, and the stench of alcohol lingered.
“That man worked a shit job everyday to raise us by himself,” said Ron. “He’s done more for us than that bitch ever did. Don’t you ever fucking joke about that.”
Luke’s seat shot up after Ron let go. At least Judith never shot children in the street. Luke hesitated to ask his brother for the address of the house in Midlothian. He pulled out his phone to call his father.
“What are you doing?”
“Calling to confirm the address.”
Ron ripped the phone from his hand. “Pay attention to the road.”
Luke pulled the car over. He watched Ron in the rearview mirror, waiting for his brother to make eye contact. “Is there a reason you don’t want me to talk to him?”
“There’s something I left out. Our hostage is a human.”
“Are you fucking kidding me!? That changes everything!”
“I know it’s fucked, but he wouldn’t have contacted me unless I was his only option!”
“So what kind of side deal did you two work out for this—money!? Maybe he’ll have his buddies erase that DUI on your record!?”
“It’s not like that, Luke.”
“Is he promising you initiation!? He is, isn’t he!? You’d stick our necks out for a little ‘F’ on your palm!”
“It’s more than that.”
This is too much, thought Luke as he rested his head on the steering wheel. Holding an infected hostage was already giving me an ulcer. I won’t put myself through this. “Get some Finisher to help you.”
“I can’t just ask some Finisher.”
“Because it’s Jessup!” said Ron. “The man we’re supposed to keep alive is Jessup.”
“Why is dad holding his boss hostage!?”
“He didn’t go into detail, but he has a plan. If he does what he needs to do, he could come away from this with some real authority in the militia.”
“Did Dad even mention me when he called?”
Ron sighed. “He said… he said to keep you out of it.”
Goddamn him. “It’s a moot point. I won’t waste any more time with his bullshit and neither should you. Tell him it’s his problem. Get out of my car, Ron.”
Ron grabbed Luke’s arm “We’re not killers, Luke. We’re not hurting anyone. I know the stakes are higher than you thought, but this is still what we want. We’re stopping the spread. We’re making a difference, and no one has to die.”
Luke ripped his arm away. “How can I trust you?”
Ron sunk back in his seat. His body shook more than before. “My drinking has gotten worse, in case you haven’t noticed,” said Ron. “I’m getting help, but things have been touch and go for some time. The last thing I need right now is to let dad down. I have a hard time trusting myself lately, but I’m asking you as your brother to please help me do this. Help me do this one thing to show him I’m not completely worthless. Don’t make me tell him it’s over.”
Luke never saw his brother beg. He caressed Macho’s stomach as he stared back at the twitching stranger in his rearview mirror. “I’ll help you, but only when I can, and only until Jessup is released. Once it’s done, it’s done. Is that understood?”
The house looked like any other as they pulled into the driveway. Its sleepy demeanor betrayed its horrible nature—a torture chamber hiding in plain sight. How many people have walked past oblivious to the agony just below the surface? Luke was more concerned about the hidden dangers above the surface, scanning the neighborhood for witnesses before turning off the engine.
“Are you expecting someone?” said Ron.
“I don’t want anyone to know we’re here.”
Macho barked at the house, making Luke jolt up in his seat. He soothed his dog with a scratch behind the ears. It would take more than that to put him at ease.
“I know you’re scared,” said Ron. “But you have to admit—this is a lot more exciting than sitting in a store for twelve hours.”
As much as Luke hated that store, it was still a lazy purgatory of little consequence. There was no jail time for selling the wrong shirt. “We haven’t committed a crime yet. It’s not too late to leave this all behind us.”
“He’s downstairs. Let’s make it quick.” Ron slammed the car door behind him.
Luke sighed before undoing his seatbelt. “Sit tight, Macho. We’ll be back.”
When Luke reached the porch with the water and protein bars, Ron had found a spare key their father had hidden. They stepped inside to find an unfurnished living room, their footsteps echoing in the empty space. Luke rested the packet of bottled water near the front door. He removed a bottle, and handed the box of bars to Ron before they proceeded to the basement. Maybe we should have drank first, thought Luke as he gripped the bottle tightly with both hands.
Ron led the way down, brushing his hand against the wall for a light switch. Luke seized him before he could activate the lights, and pointed to the chamber in the lower corner with light streaking out from under its door. The only sound came from the lights buzzing within.
“No talking until we’re back upstairs,” said Luke.
They approached the door in the darkness, its features became more pronounced with each step. The door looked like part of a submarine, with a porthole at eye level and a valve protruding from its gut. I should look to see if he’s still alive. Luke placed his hand on the bottom of the circular porthole cover. Ron leaned his back against the wall to stay unseen. He nodded, and Luke followed his lead. With his back pressed against the cool steel, Luke lifted the cover.
He peeked inside to find a tiny cell. A bed was pressed against the back wall with a toilet a foot away. Kneeling before his bed was their hostage, an enormous man with his hands rested palms up at his sides. He reminded Luke of a warrior monk, awaiting his next order. Is this for real? The figure remained so still that Luke believed he had died during meditation. He closed the porthole and motioned for Ron to carefully open the box of protein bars.
“RETO!!” said the prisoner. “You’ve finally come!”
Luke looked at his brother and saw the whites of his eyes glistening in the darkness. He slid the partially opened box into the cell.
“You never share your rations with anyone. I’m honored,” said Jessup. ”I’ll leave no one alive, you know this. Your child wife, your baby, even your coward sons.”
The wrapper crinkled open and they listened to him chew.
“You could have at least brought liquor.”
Luke tried to slide the bottle of water through the gap, but it was too large.
Ron pulled a flask from his hoody and filled it as full as it would go. He screwed the top on and slid it under.
The prisoner drank deep. He growled when he learned it was only water. “You son of a bitch.” The flask shot out from under the door, and another bar was unwrapped. “How long do you plan to keep me here?”
The brothers said nothing.
“I know you’re still here, Reto. Answer me!”
Luke counted a third bar opening.
“I suppose Danny’s dead—congratulations are in order. I don’t know what you plan to gain from all this, but my men will find me. They’ll come for you in your sleep if they have to. What you’ve done is—.”
Ron ran to the porthole. “He’s choking!!”
Ron grabbed the release valve for the door and turned it left. Luke grabbed the valve to stop him, but Ron would not be stopped. “We have to keep him alive!!”
“It’s a trap!! He’ll kill us both!!”
Ron shoved Luke to the ground and released the door. The air was thick with heat and the smell of urine. Jessup had fallen to his knees with his hands at his throat. His eyes widened as veins bulged from his temples.
Ron placed his arms around the giant’s waist and compressed.
“You’re doing it wrong! Move!” Luke wrapped his arms around Jessup and squeezed. Each compression exhausted every muscle in his arms. After five turns, he felt as though he would collapse.
With a final heave, Jessup vomited the blockage onto the floor and coughed uncontrollably. Ron pulled his brother from the floor. “We need to get out!”
When they escaped the cell they gripped the heavy steel door. Luke caught a glimpse of Jessup crawling through his own filth. He bellowed a sound not human as the door valve sealed shut.