“You’ve reached the home of Claire and Eustace Bully. We’re not in right now, so please leave a message after the beep. If you’re calling about the station wagon, it’s no longer available. Sorry.”
“Hey, I have to go to Shawnee Forest tonight; don’t know how long. Nothin’ major, the car ride will be the worst of it. Looks like it’ll just be you and Danny this evenin’. Now’s the time to grab any last-minute supplies. The curfew’s been moved up ‘cause of the rain (What? Who’s drivin’?)Don’t bother calling back, I’m leavin’ now.
Oh, and make sure all your car windows are rolled up tonight so it doesn’t get flooded like last time. Okay, bye.”
The windshield wipers offered little resistance to the downpour, scraping away just enough for Eustace to identify the exit ramps. He had been ordered to drive, but at least he was dry. Eustace glanced at the others in the rearview mirror, their dark ponchos flapping in a storm that had chased them since Bridgeview. Floyd and Randal had synched their hoods over their faces while Terry found comfort in his Walkman. Think warm thoughts, boys, thought Eustace. Think warm thoughts.
“What a fucking hole,” said Jessup as he gazed through the crack of his passenger window. “The bastards just scurry down here while we’re preoccupied up north. We’ll need to expand if we want to keep the whole state pure, but the ammunition—Jesus Christ. Men cost less than silver bullets these days.”
Smells like you’ve taken a few silver bullets yourself tonight. “No surprise a spreader would turn up here then.” said Eustace. “Speakin’ of which, it’s already past midnight; maybe we find a place to hunker down before things get real nasty.”
“Going soft already?”
“If we were tryin’ to stop the spreader, I’d say it’s a lost cause.”
“I have no intention of preventing it, Euwie. If they want to become animals, then we’ll slaughter them like animals.”
“That’s not how we handled it last time.”
“If we prevent the ritual now, they’ll just find another way to turn next month, or the month after, or the month after. No, these people require a more permanent solution.”
“You expect us to fight in this?”
“I brought you ponchos, what else do you want?”
How ‘bout a leader who doesn’t take dumb risks? “You could’ve given me a heads up. I’d of preferred my last words to my wife to be ‘I love you’ instead of ‘roll up your car windows.’”
“You called Claire before the mission?”
“I always do.”
“Does she know where we’re going?”
Eustace scratched his sideburn. “No, I never give her specifics.”
“Don’t make it a habit, Bully—for everyone’s sake.”
Let’s try and keep Claire out of this. “What do we know about our contact?”
“A member of the Huntsmen over in St. Louis, he requested permission from my old man to enter our territory this evening. He called again when none of the other Huntsmen would accompany him. From what I understand, he never asks for help. Keeps refusing to join our militia, maybe we’ll change his mind tonight.”
“Is he worth losin’ people?”
“You can stay in the truck if you’re too scared,” said Jessup. “Perhaps you’d feel more comfortable in St. Louis?”
Wordy drunk, aren’t ya? “Fifty dollars says I kill more than you.”
Jessup tilted his head back and laughed. “Fifty dollars? I really need to put a thousand-dollar minimum bet clause in the doctrine—call it the Bully clause. I accept your fifty dollars.” He took a breath so deep it made Eustace feel light-headed. “My God, I can almost smell the bodies.”
Eustace pulled into a flooded lot before the entrance of the forest preserve. The men in the truck bed jumped over the sides. Eustace and Jessup flipped up their hoods before stepping out. Rifles were issued and checked before Jessup lead them deeper. They were to meet their contact at the Garden of the Gods past the campgrounds. When they arrived, all they found was a bush at the edge of a rock cliff above an ocean of green. It was their contact, concealed with a leaf-covered poncho, concealing a semi-automatic carbine.
“You’re late.” said the contact.
“I assure you, Mr. Reto, the Finishers are worth the wait. Allow me to introduce—”
“You’ve wasted enough time.” The contact stood. “Split up your men to cover more ground.”
Eustace had heard few men address Jessup in that tone. He imagined an intensely red face under Jessup’s hood.
“Very well.” Jessup faced his team. “Eustace, go with Jake to the west. The twins will cover the trail east. Me and Terry will head dead center. Was that quick enough for you, Mr. Reto?”
Jake had already made his descent west by the time Jessup turned around.
“Stay on his ass, Bully,” said Jessup. “This may not have been my brightest idea.”
Eustace followed Jake as best he could after a six hour car ride, mimicking his movements across the rocks and roots. His boots sunk into the earth with each misstep. “You know how many are out here?”
“You seen anyone pass through?”
“How’d you know they were plannin’ to come here?”
Jake halted the search. Before he could answer, a screech tore through the rain and thunder. It reminded Eustace of the cries of butchered hogs.
“I should have come alone,” said Jake. “We’re too fucking late.”
“We take spreaders very seriously, Mr. Reto. We’ll make sure nothin’ leaves this forest on four legs.”
Jake appeared to ignore the sentiment. They continued their trek through the freshly formed streams, marching for hours with no sign of the infected group. The rain had dissolved any tracks, but Jake found clues where Eustace had not. He examined the tree bark and branches the way root workers read chicken bones. They seemed to whisper to him. After a thorough examination, Jake abandoned the western trail for higher ground. He stopped suddenly, and hunkered down into the tall grass. He didn’t take his eyes off what he saw, and motioned for Eustace to get low.
Eustace peeked over the log to find a man chained to a tree trunk, drenched and naked.
“Looks like our spreader,” said Eustace. “A little guy, too. They went overboard with the chains.”
Jake moved forward before Eustace finished talking, staying low with his weapon drawn. As they approached, the spreader called out. “Took you long enough, baby. Unlock this so we can go home.”
Eustace froze as Jake inched closer. “May God make this quick,” said Jake.
Eustace watched as a woman parted the tall grass, crawling through the mud. She gripped the side of her stomach as she gasped for air.
The spreader cackled as he watched her struggle, “Is it everything you had hoped?”
“It hurts so much,” said the woman. She forced herself to stand. The mud streamed off of her shaking body to reveal an oblong protrusion from her stomach.
“Looks like you got a hold of something big,” said the spreader. “Get me out of this so I can slit you open.”
“I’m not ready for that.”
“Better than walking around with somebody’s bones in your stomach. Serves you right for being such a glutton.”
“Not here,” she said as she hobbled forward with a key.
Jake stood and fired. The spreader’s eye burst, and the body slumped forward. His blood coated the woman’s face, slithering down her body with the rain. She gazed at Jake wide-eyed.
“How? How did you—“
“Where is she, Grace?”
“We were so careful…I…”
Grace fell backwards, her hands and feet disappearing into sludge. She choked back tears as she shook her head.
Jake took aim. “Where’s Sammie?”
Grace screamed for her child to run.
What the hell did I just watch? thought Eustace. He spotted movement from the bushes just beyond the slouched corpse. “There! In the bushes!” said Eustace, pointing at the little blur in the distance.
Jake emptied another round, sending Grace beneath the water.
They bolted through the forest. Jake called out for Sammie to stop, but she did as her mother told her. Exhausted, her escape soon ended before a wall of rock.
“It’s alright, Sammie,” said Jake. “They can’t hurt you anymore.” He tossed his gun aside and draped his poncho around his daughter’s shivering body. She wrapped her tiny arms around his neck, and Jake clutched her tight.
God damn them for this! Eustace readied his rifle, waiting. He followed the back of Jake’s head as he stood with Sammie in his arms. She whimpered at the sight of Eustace, and Jake whipped around to face him.
“I’m sorry, Jake, but you know what comes next.”
“We’re walking away,” said Jake. “Tell Jessup you lost us in the rain, and we all just walk away.”
“It doesn’t work like that. The doctrine doesn’t let us pick and choose.”
“And what does your doctrine say about murdering little girls?”
“She ain’t no little girl, Mr. Reto.”
Jake cradled his daughter a moment longer. “As her father, I believe I have certain…rights, do I not?”
“One comes to mind.” Eustace pulled his revolver from his pocket and handed it to Jake. This won’t end well.
He kissed his daughter’s forehead as she buried her face into his shoulder. Jake whispered comforts into her ear, and took aim. The barrel hovered next to her head, and he lingered, staring into Eustace’s eyes.
Eustace kept his rifle fixed on Jake. The second I look away he’ll be on me. He forced his eyes open, fighting against the rain, wind, and sweat. He thought of Claire and his newborn son, and what he would do to see them again. He stared down the Huntsman, his eyes burning and cold. Neither man moved.
The shot sailed clean into the back of the girl’s skull and out Jake’s shoulder. He fell to his knees without so much as a yelp. Jake shook the little body for some kind of response. He bowed his head to what remained, and stayed there as if she would return soon.
“I didn’t want this,” said Eustace, “I did what I had to.”
Jake’s body straightened, and he aimed the revolver at Eustace’s face.
“That’s enough, Jake.” Jessup tapped his rifle against Jake’s temple. He collected the revolver as the others descended from the rocks. Jessup helped Jake to his feet. They gazed down at the girl. “Eustace was right; she wasn’t a girl anymore, not a child, not your daughter. In time, you’ll see.”
Floyd scooped up Sammie while Randal dragged Grace away. Terry used bolt cutters to release the spreader from the tree.
“You handled yourself well tonight,” said Jessup. “Contact me when you’re ready, and I’ll find a place for you at our table.” He handed Jake his business card. “You have our deepest sympathies, Mr. Reto.”
Jessup turned to Eustace with a vile grin. “Almost forgot, Euwie.” He dug into his pocket and handed Eustace a soggy fifty-dollar bill.
This is all a big game to you, ain’t it? Eustace looked up to find Jake staring over his wounded shoulder at the money, following behind the procession of his slain family.
Eustace jolted awake inside of a waiting room. It was almost full before he dozed off, but now every seat was filled. Some even leaned against the wall beneath where the television was mounted. Movie credits scrolled. Eustace recognized the film from its starring leads—a World War II epic with a runtime of three and a half hours. Have I really been sitting here that long? He lifted himself slightly from the rigid chair to look for daylight through the entrance doors—darkness.
“We could just leave him here,” said Bernie. She sat across from him at the middle island of seats. She wore a Tiger’s cap with her ponytail pulled through the back. Her shirt had the sleeves torn off, exposing her shoulders to the florescent lights.
“Or you could just give us directions and call it a night,” said Eustace. “You’ve slowed us down enough.”
“I was protecting my home. I’ll do worse to your friends when we get to Flint, if they haven’t already been eviscerated.”
“These men are prepared for dens.”
“Not like this. Organized patrols, snipers in trees—rumors say Howard even has a torture room down in the old sewers underneath, custom built for burly militia types that don’t know the magic words. Knowing him I bet it’s more crowded than this place.”
Probably has comfier chairs. “How ‘bout we not discuss it here?”
“Fine. Go sleep for another three hours, waste more time.”
Eustace shot up from his chair to get away.
“And I expect to be reimbursed for my losses!!” said Bernie.
Fuck off already, you ain’t lost shit compared to me and Kalvin, thought Eustace. I’ll dump you with your ilk in Flint if you keep… Eustace leaned against a wall to steady himself. He realized he hadn’t eaten since his stay in Warren. He found a snack machine and popped in a five. He selected a Snickers bar, a Baby Ruth, and a Payday. He hated Paydays, but he selected it out of habit. It was Danny’s favorite. This is for when you find him, right? It had worked in the past when Danny “ran away” to his tree house. What’ll you have to do to get him down now? He pocketed the Payday and tore open the Snickers.
When he had calmed down, Eustace returned to the waiting room. Several people had left, including Bernie. He had nothing else to do but rip open his Baby Ruth and rest, but his peace was short lived.
Bernie took a seat next to Eustace, her elbow grazing against the side of his stomach. “They’re just finishing up on him. They wanted to keep him overnight, but I put the kybosh on that. You know, he won’t be very mobile.”
“You don’t get it. He has nothin’ to return to; he has me to thank for that.”
“He’s a big boy, he should have known the risks. You can’t control everything.”
“This is on me, I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise, but—“
“He’s a young man. There’s time for him to rebuild whatever he’s lost.”
“He just wanted to help my boy, now look at him. I can’t leave him behind now.”
“This life’s not for everyone.”
What do you know ‘bout ‘this life?’ “Were you a Finisher?”
“Almost,” said Bernie. “I was with a small company in Detroit for years, and then the Finishers got big and started gobbling up groups like mine. I didn’t agree with all their rules; too much of a boy’s club if you ask me. Pretty soon there wasn’t a bare palm in all of Michigan.”
“That ain’t why you quit.”
“No, no it’s not.” Bernie crossed her arms. “So when did your boy turn?”
“I don’t know exactly, didn’t find out ‘til recently.”
“He’ll be twenty-two in February.”
“My Charly was nine when it happened. I don’t know if there’s a ‘right age’ to turn, but it was better for me that she was so young. She wasn’t some monster; she was my heart. I mean, come on, how could anyone hate a little girl?”
“You’d be surprised by what you can hate.”
“These people that are chasing them, how many?”
“A typical hunting party is 3 to 5 people, but nothing is typical about this job. Jake isn’t even supposed to step outside his jurisdiction without permission.”
“He must have it in for your boy.”
“His name is Danny… and, yes, he does.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about Danny. He won’t have an easy life.”
Well, that’s somethin’ at least. “Thanks.”
“And I’m sorry about Kalvin, but put yourself in my shoes. What was I supposed to do?”
“Just make sure he knows that when they roll him out.” Eustace took a bite of his candy bar.
“You know, I could eat, too,” said Bernie.
Eustace pulled his candy bar apart and gave half to Bernie.
“Much obliged, Bully.” She took a bite. “So I guess super dad swoops in to save his son and life goes back to normal?”
“It’s more complicated than that.”
“I’ll say.” She tossed the rest of the candy in her mouth.
“You think they’ll kill him?”
“Well, I might have jumped the gun on that one. In a lot of ways, the Bedlam might be his only option.”
“The hell are you talkin’ about?”
“I’ve been through this before. You can’t keep him safe. Trust me. I stay up late thinking about my niece, but I take a deep breath and tell myself that she’s a grown woman in the one place no hunter can get inside. The MIRs and the watches can’t protect her, but the Bedlam gives her a place in this world. Isn’t that the most we can ask for our children?”
“So just let them join a bunch of deranged killers and hope for the best?”
“Worked for you,” said Bernie.
Eustace stuffed the rest of the candy in his mouth. Maybe I can’t keep him safe, but I sure as hell know his place in the world isn’t with the Bedlam.
Kalvin was wheeled out by a doctor and nurse. He held a pair of crutches across his soft cast.
“We were able to remove the shrapnel from his thigh, but he’ll need to keep off it for quite some time,” said the doctor. “I’ve given him a week’s supply of Vicodin and a prescription for one refill if need be.”
Danny was escorted outside by hospital staff. He was assisted out of the chair, and he tucked the crutches under his arms.
“I know I’ve asked you this before, but are you still up for this?” said Eustace.
“Shotgun,” said Kalvin as he made his way to the car.
“I think you’d be more comfortable in the backseat.”
“No, give ME the shotgun. I don’t trust her with it.”
They rested at a motel after dinner. At daybreak, they continued east.
“Why does your car smell like piss?” said Bernie.
“If it bothers you so much roll up the window.”
Bernie turned the lever, but nothing came up.
“Oh, that’s right, some chick shot out my window yesterday.”
Bernie tried to push her seat back to get more legroom. “Kalvin, can I get an inch?”
“Sorry, some chick shot out my leg yesterday,” said Kalvin.
Eustace laughed for the first time in weeks. “Just deal with it, Bernie. We’ll be there soon enough. Speakin’of which, you mentioned ‘magic words’ yesterday. What are they?”
“Festival…,” said Bernie.
“And something else.”
“It’s more of a phrase than a password.”
“You don’t even fuckin’ know it!?”
“Just calm down, Bully, I know the boy who’ll let us in. They know I’m Char’s aunt; just don’t give them a reason to jump us. I promise were good.”
Eustace watched the Bedlam compound come into view. You better keep your promises.
“There’ll be a clearing up ahead on your right,” said Bernie. “Park it there.”
Eustace pulled into the field. It took only seconds before they were discovered. Two children approached. A shirtless boy in jeans walked up to Eustace, while a girl in a tank top and cargo pants examined the trunk. Probably should have hosed that off before we came, thought Eustace.
“Are you here for the festival?” asked the boy.
“We want to speak with Hugo,” said Bernie. “Is he around?”
“Isn’t this the boy!?” said Eustace.
The boy repeated his question to Bernie.
“You don’t understand, sweetie, I’m Bernadette Saunders, Char’s aunt—Howard’s sister-in-law. Take us to her… please.”
The boy’s eyes darted to the trees. “I’m not allowed to ask more than three times.”
“What happens after three?” said Kalvin.
The boy looked as though he would cry. “Are you here for the festival?”
“The festival is not until Tuesday!” said Bernie.
That better be the right fuckin’ bullshit, thought Eustace.
The children exchanged looks. “Leave the car. We go on foot,” said the boy.
Gunshots filled the air.
“That’s coming from inside!” said Eustace.
The children paid no attention to the shots, until the girl caught a bullet through her cheek.
“MILITIAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!” said the boy. He summoned death from all direction.
Gunmen opened fire from the trees, pelting the Buick and blowing out the rest of the windows. Bernie and Kalvin ducked as low as possible. Eustace threw himself over Bernie and pleaded for mercy. “Stop firing, Goddamn you!!”
The bullets ceased, and the boy crawled onto the hood of the car. He slid a berretta from the back of his jeans and pointed it at Eustace with both hands.”
“Eustace put his hands up and shifted back into his seat. “I just want my boy back!”
The child fired into Eustace’s stomach.
He applied pressure to his wound, but the blood soon covered his hands and crotch, pooling under his seat. Everywhere he looked grew dark.