DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 33

“When the bravest have all fallen

And courage starts to fold,

I’ll keep my silver near my heart;

And you may keep your gold.

 

When your windows have all shattered

And doors no longer hold,

I’ll keep my silver near my heart;

And you may keep your gold.”

Michael Chwedyk, “Heart of Silver”

 

Chapter 33:

Connection Lost

Nicole lied in bed with her daughter curled close. Tara’s shampoo filled the room with the scent of strawberries—a welcome change from the usual odors that wafted through the house. Like every night, her bath was followed by a story. Tara stopped Nicole often for not using the same voices Jake did.

Nights like these were typical during full moons. Attacks had become nonexistent due largely in part to Jake and the Finishers. Nicole’s biggest worry these nights had become losing her place in Tara’s storybook. Still, the thought of Andy haunted her on these nights, and she held their daughter closer than normal.

She brushed the hair from Tara’s forehead as she continued to read aloud. She was distracted by the caged panel mounted to the wall. It housed a red button Jake had installed many years ago as an emergency measure against the infected. She wondered if the sirens still worked after all this time, and if she would need them tonight. At least it’s not complicated, thought Nicole. Just lift the cage and press it.

Harry knocked on the doorframe. Nicole folded the corner of the page before acknowledging him.

“It’s ready,” said Harry. “You’ll only have a few minutes, but it’s something.”

“What about Marcy and Quentin?” said Nicole.

“I’ve got them circling the block until morning. You’ll have total privacy.” Harry stepped into the bedroom and held out his hand. “I’ll take over ‘til you get back, if that’s okay with you?”

There was softness in his eyes. Nicole had not noticed how lovely they could be when they weren’t narrowed and nihilistic. She handed him the book before turning to Tara. “Play nice, baby.” Nicole kissed her on the forehead before heading downstairs.

A laptop had been setup in the living room on the coffee table next to Tara’s paint supplies. Nicole took a seat on the couch. She had hoped for video of her husband’s face. All she saw was a thin horizontal line, jumping to the sound his voice.

“Are you there, Jake?” said Nicole.

“I’m here, Baby,” said Jake. The line bobbed into a tiny hill. “They’re telling me to keep it brief. Before we get started I want to go down the checklist. Are the main doors triple bolted?”

“Yes, Jake.”

“All the windows locked and shuttered?”

“Yes, Jake.”

“And you tested the sirens?”

“We need to get to my questions,” said Nicole. “I don’t even know where to begin.”

“A lot of it’s still classified.”

“What are you allowed to tell me?”

“That I’ve been away from my girls too long. Is Tara with you?”

“She’s asleep. But she wants to know when you’re coming home too.”

Jake hesitated. “My involvement here has run its course. I should be home in a few days.”

“But?”

“But…they told me about a second den up north—a wound in need of maggots. Needless to say, I won’t be home for long.”

“Whatever’s out there can be handled by someone else.”

“I know you’re scared—”

“Tired, Jake—exhausted. I hate this; so does Tara.”

“The agents will be gone soon enough.”

“It’s not just them. I hate the ‘double shifts’ and the messages and The Finishers. I hate the way our neighbors look at us. I hate having to just ‘suck it up ‘one more time.  I hate that our home smells like death, and that I was so deep in this bullshit that I just blocked it out. That smell is on you, on me, on our daughter.”

“It will all end there. I promise.”

“It can end now, Jake.”

“I’m going to that den, Nicole. I love you, and I love our daughter.”

The screen cut to black before she could say goodbye. Jake’s time was up, and she sat at the table staring at a “lost connection” error message. I hope we were worth it, Jake.

Nicole returned upstairs to the sound of familiar words.

“‘I’ll keep my silver near my heart,’” said Harry, “’and you may keep your gold.’”

Tara watched Harry the same way she watched Jake—her eyes bright and captivated.

“That one?” said Nicole. “Of all the nursery rhymes you choose that one?”

“Would you believe that’s the only one I know?” said Harry. “My kids are usually asleep by the time I get home—“

“Stick to the book next time,” interrupted Nicole.

“Maybe it is a little inappropriate.”

“Can I speak with you—out here?”

Harry turned to Tara. “Maybe I’ll come back with something more crowd pleasing.” Harry stood up and met with Nicole out in the hallway. He closed the door partially behind him.

“How’d it go down there?” said Harry.

“What else do you know about my husband?”

“I’m sorry?”

“You were right about the trophies. I want to see him for what he is.”

“Listen, I didn’t mean to get into a whole thing with that. I was upset and said some things I shouldn’t have.”

“Is this just what my life is now? Is it too late for Tara and me?”

“I’ve been in this line of work for some time, and I’ve learned that hunters fall into two groups. The first sees the infection as something to be stopped for reasons that are bigger than themselves. These hunters operate clean doing only what is necessary to keep their loved ones safe. The other is a serial killer hiding behind delusions of duty—they get off on the hunt.”

“And you think Jake is the latter?”

“Not exactly. No one stays in the same group forever. One leads into the other, but your husband is…different.” Harry ran his fingers through his hair as he fought to speak his mind. “There’s something I didn’t share with you—something I discovered when checking up on Luke and Ron. What does the name ‘Judith Klove’ mean to you?”

“Their mother? Jake never talks about her. He said she was losing her mind. The boys say the same.”

“She was my partner—right up before I took this job.”

“She’s the same Judith you were talking about on the phone, wasn’t she.”

“There are holes in Jake’s history, but Judith’s records help fill in some of the blanks. I found divorce papers and a restraining order that sync with a long gap of nothing for Jake. There was an incident—something bad that cost Judith custody of both children and forced her away from her family for years. I don’t have all the facts yet, but I believe Judith may have tried to murder Jake almost twenty years ago.”

“That’s insane, Harry.”

“How do you think he got all those scars?”

“They come with the job. You’d be hard pressed to find any Finisher without a scar or two. Let’s say you’re right. There’d be hospital bills and police reports. Why would Jake go so far to protect her after an attack like that?”

“I don’t know yet, but the question you should be asking is why she tried to kill him in the first place? Maybe she was tired of what being married to Jake Reto brings.”

“Whatever she told you was a lie.”

“It’s not too late for you and Tara. I can get you someplace safe.”

“Goodnight, Agent Montang.”

Harry shook his head as he approached the staircase. “You asked to see him for what he is, Mrs. Reto. I doubt the picture will get much better.”

*****

Nicole rolled over in her sleep. She felt a warm part of the mattress where Tara should have been. She raised her head from her pillow and saw she was alone. She stretched across her bed and grabbed the walkie-talkie.

“Harry, wake up. Tara’s not with me.” She released the button.

“Meet me downstairs,” said Harry

Nicole grabbed her Glock from the nightstand and hurried downstairs. She found Harry standing at the base of the stairs, watching Tara finger paint in the living room.

This is a shit time for painting, but she’s safe, thought Nicole.

She took a step forward to pick up Tara, but she was cut off by Harry.

“Leave your paint and get upstairs now!” said Harry.

Tara began to cry and wrapped her arms around her mother’s hips.

“Don’t you EVER talk to her like that!” said Nicole. “I’m her mother, you come to me!”

“No one leaves their room until I give the all clear!”

Is he just mad about earlier? “Now’s not the time for a power trip, okay?”

“There’s worse shit than crying.”

“Just relax, alright? Everyone’s safe and there’s nothing even out there.”

Harry lifted his radio to his face and pressed the call button. “Marcy, what’s your status?” He released the button to the sound of static. He changed the channel and pressed the button again. “Hey Quentin, check on Marcy, over.” A crackling sound came over the radio. “Do you read? Respond.”

Nicole held her daughter tight. “You made your point; knock it off.”

“Maybe it’s broken,” said Tara.

Harry reattached the radio to his belt. “You two should wait in the basement until I hear back.”

“LET ME IN!” screamed Marcy as she frantically pounded the front door.

“Goddamn it,” said Harry. He pulled out his handgun and unbolted the door.

Marcy ran into the house and sealed the door behind her. Harry shouted at her for the whereabouts of Quentin.

“Dead!” said Marcy as she struggled to catch her breath.

“You left him out there to die!? Why didn’t you help him!?”

“Didn’t work!” said Marcy. “The bullets didn’t work!”

Harry checked the bullets in her revolver. He then checked the rounds in his gun. “Mother Hampton issued us regular bullets. These are worthless.”

“I have silver downstairs,” said Nicole. “Jake has a whole arsenal.”

“Call for back-up!” said Marcy.

“No one’s coming,” said Harry. “Hampton wanted it this way.”

“You’re full of shit!” said Marcy.

“We also have a siren system,” said Nicole, “but it’s not meant for—“

“WHERE IS IT?” said Marcy.

“You can activate it upstairs, but it might not work. Jake said that loud noises can scare away younger packs, but they might just irritate older wolves.”

“It’ll fucking work!” Marcy bolted for the stairs.”

“Bullets are more important right now, Marcy!” said Harry.

She ignored him as she climbed the staircase. She ascended half-way before the window shutter tore open. Something ripped her from the house with such force that her entire body fed through the tiny opening, leaving behind blood splattering along the steps and handrail.

*****

                They raced down to the basement. Nicole entered the code on the padlock and opened the gun safe. She placed the firearms on the washer and dryer—each one cleaned and loaded with silver bullets. Some had notches chiseled into the side to denote their kill count. She prayed their experience would compensate for her own.

Nicole kneeled down to Tara’s eyelevel and grabbed her by the shoulders.

“Tara, sweetie, look at me. I need you to stay down here until we get back. Don’t make a sound, okay? Do you understand?”

“It’s going to eat us,” whimpered Tara.

Nicole’s heart sunk as she tried to keep her voice level and cool. “I’ll come back for you. I swear.” She hugged her daughter, shielding her from all that was awful. Nicole wanted only to stay by her side.

Harry held a rifle against Nicole’s arm, waiting for her to take it from him. “You’ll need something bigger than that Glock if we’re heading upstairs.”

Nicole let Tara slip away from her as she tightened her grip on the weapon. She tucked her handgun down the front of her pajama pants to handle the rifle better.

“We’ll be back soon, Tara,” said Harry. “You’ll be perfectly safe down here.”

Nicole caught a glimpse of his eyes before he headed up the basement steps. The dread had returned, and she wondered if Tara believed a word he said.

They emerged from the basement with their weapons drawn. Harry took point towards the living room stairs as Nicole followed. She watched cracks in the ceiling deepen and spread down the walls. Plaster and paint crumbled with each movement of the beast.

Jesus Christ it’s on the roof! “I don’t know how long it’ll hold,” said Nicole.

Harry pressed his back against the wall as he climbed the staircase. He reached the window where Agent Marcy had been killed. He lifted the broken shutter delicately with the tip of his rifle. He waved Nicole over with his handgun and pointed both weapons at the window.

“Go under my arms,” whispered Harry.

Nicole did not argue, despite her misgivings. She inched up the carpeted steps trying not to think about Marcy. Each step yielded creaking. Nicole thought about which step would alert the beast, and where they would find her body in the morning. She reached the second floor only to envision another gruesome scene.

“The window at the end of the hall isn’t shuttered,” said Nicole.

Harry sighed as he hung the rifle over his shoulder. “Stay where you are; I’m on it.”

Nicole let Harry pass by her. Moonlight poured in as he slowly placed one foot in front of the other. He reached the shutter handle and yanked it down, but it would not close.  He holstered his sidearm and pressed down on the handle with both hands.

“It’s not closing!” said Harry.

Nicole dropped her rifle and ran to him. She grabbed the handle and pulled down with her entire weight. The shutter clicked in place before they were knocked to the ground. Nicole looked up to find the shutter buckle and twist with each strike. Soon the air grew still, and Nicole and Harry lied on the floor for a moment’s respite.

“Is it over?” said Nicole breathing heavy.

“It’ll look for another way in,” said Harry as he rolled over to get back on his feet. He helped Nicole up from the floor. “We need to hit that siren.”

They entered her bedroom and flipped on the lights. The alarm button waited for Nicole on the wall in its glass enclosure. Nicole lifted the shell and reached for the button.

Harry stopped her hand. “Your husband wasn’t lying. This could go bad.”

“We don’t have a choice,” said Nicole.

“I know, I just…once you hit it, things are gonna happen fast—faster than you can imagine. If it goes bad for me, don’t give it another thought. Barricade yourselves in the basement and hold up there until morning.”

“When morning comes, Tara and I are leaving with you. All three of us are going to walk out the front door and never step foot in this house again. Deal?”

Harry nodded.

“Now cover your ears.”

Nicole pounded the button with her fist. The sirens blasted from every corner, ripping through the house and shaking it to the foundation. The piercing din escalated to an unbearable pitch—exceeded only by the vile shriek of the beast. She could hear the man trapped inside the animal—driven made by his horrible affliction. Nicole prayed for both to cease.

The sirens were all silenced at once, and the lights in the house flickered before dying out completely.

“It cut the fucking power,” said Harry.

Nicole felt like her body was moving independently of her will. These events had been decided long before this point. Not with the death of Andy, but with her vows to Jake. Her fate was to run—always. Such was the life of a Finisher spouse. Had Judith realized this all those years ago? Had she discovered a way to stop running? Nicole thought of Tara curled helpless and scared in the basement among the stench of rotten trophies. Judith did not seem crazy to her anymore, not after this.

Nicole lowered herself to the floor and reached under the bed for a flashlight. She tapped it until the beam powered on. They made their way down into the living room. Nicole heard squeaking near the front door. She pointed the light to find the remains swinging on its hinges. The metal bolts lay mangled at the threshold.

“Is it already inside?” said Nicole.

Harry stayed quiet as he aimed his rifle at the door. The laptop and paint jars crashed against the floor as he flipped the coffee table onto its side for cover. “Move to the basement! GO!”

Nicole stood trapped in the moment. The echo of Harry’s voice faded into the eruption overhead. The ceiling caved in with dust and debris coating the room. The beast landed on top of Harry, pinning him on a bed of glass shards and paint.

She struggled to keep both flashlight and gun aimed at the wolf. The beast clutched Harry’s head in its jaws and snapped his neck with a violent contortion, trampling Harry’s lifeless body underneath its monstrous feet. It carried the corpse in its teeth as it thrashed about the room, proud of its latest kill.

Nicole opened fire on the wolf. It darted behind furniture and up the stairs and back again, its coarse black fur billowed with each leap. Her Glock clicked empty. She backed up with her weapon still leveled, but the beast vaulted in front of her. The wolf panted as it crept closer. Its nails clicked against the hardwood as each step shook the ground.

At this distance, Nicole could no longer see beyond the wolf. Its blood-soaked snout glistened while its lower canines protruded out of its mouth like a boar. The reflection from the flashlight lit its eyes into two merciless stars.

It snapped at Nicole’s feet as if playing with her. She screamed with each bite, kicking her legs up to avoid the fangs. She hurled the flashlight in its mouth and ran for the basement door.

Nicole slid the bolts in place and raced down the steps. She seized the biggest hunting rifle from atop the washing machine.

Tara hugged Nicole’s leg. “Where’s Harry?” said Tara.

Nicole looked about the basement. There’s nowhere for Tara to hide except… “Over here, Baby!” Nicole shoved the tool rack out of the way to reveal the grated hole in the wall.

“Crawl in and don’t leave until I tell you!”

When Tara was inside Nicole refastened the grate. “I love you, Tara. Never forget that.”

Nicole rolled the tool rack to seal her in. The basement door rattled with each attack. She looked through the mounted scope and aimed dead center at the door. She fired. The blast knocked her off her feet. The bullet blew open a chunk of the door. The attack had come to an end.

Nicole climbed to her feet and looked through the scope. She watched blood seep under the door and cascade from step to step.

Did I kill it?

The beast crashed through the cellar door behind her and held Nicole to the cold stone floor. The rifle slid away as the wolf began to crush her.  It clamped down on her arm, mauling her until it came loose at the elbow. Nicole was lifted into the air and hurled against a brick wall.

Her ears rang as she tried to roll onto her stomach, wading through a puddle of her blood. She gazed ahead to see the beast knock the tool rack to the ground. It reached its head into the hole for Tara. Nicole reached out to her child with what remained of her mangled arm. Soon her vision blurred, and all her strength seeped from her body.

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