I’m not calling back because I have cold feet, but the deal has changed. My husband will go in my place as we initially arranged. He’s healing remarkably well considering all he’s been through. I know you would have preferred me and Kalvin, but Eustace is a hunter after all, and he’ll be more helpful than I.
There isn’t much more to say about him than that. He can be surly, and quick to anger, but there’s a warmth to him if you give him a chance. The “F” on his palm is taking longer to remove than I thought. I’m sorry if it brings back memories.
Thank you again for all that you’ve done for us. May we never speak again.
Chapter 7: Leave Nothing
Eustace eyeballed Kalvin’s bad leg from the car. The boy hobbled along the walkway in front of the Lucero household with a duffle bag slung over his shoulder. Eustace considered getting out of the car to help, but let the gesture perish under the weight of his own injuries.
Kalvin popped open the trunk. The car shook with a light thud followed by the shock of the door coming down. Kalvin took his seat alongside Eustace on the passenger side.
“Is that all of it?” said Eustace.
“How much were you expecting?” said Kalvin.
“I don’t know how long we’ll be up there. Could be awhile.”
“It’s all the clean clothes I own. I’ll buy what I need later.”
“You lived here a long time. What about the stuff you can’t buy?”
“I thought about it,” said Kalvin. “It just doesn’t feel right. I think about how my dad would feel if he came back here and found the place empty. The funeral director suggested I fill the coffin with things he would have liked to take with him. I buried an empty box. Those things don’t belong in the ground, but they don’t belong with me either. All they do is make me not want to do this.”
“You’ve sacrificed more than me, or Claire, or Danny. I can’t ask any more from you.”
“This is how I want to honor them. Not with things, but with actions.”
Eustace nodded his head. This looks bad, son–like you know you’re not coming back from this one. “I trust you will. I’ll only say this…if this is our last time here, I’d think about bringin’ somethin’ I could pass down to my children.”
The car was silent for a time. Eustace’s fingers rested around the keys lodged in the ignition. Give me some hope here, Kalvin.
“Hold up,” sighed Kalvin as he left the vehicle. He returned to his home for only a minute. Eustace watched Kalvin limp along the walkway, carrying the ugliest owl he had ever seen.
Later that afternoon, Eustace pulled into the gravel lot of a bed and breakfast just before an oasis on route 43. The quaint two-level cabin suggested Eustace had misread the directions. No fence surrounded the property, nor were the windows barred. Eustace understood the Padics’ desire to hide in plain sight given the nature of their work, but his first instinct was to shake his head at their foolishness.
Eustace knocked on the front door as Claire had instructed–two taps, a pause, then a final tap. He wondered if he had paused long enough as he waited alongside Kalvin without a single sign of movement from within.
“Maybe they didn’t hear you,” said Kalvin. The boy leaned toward the window for a peek.
“They heard me,” said Eustace. “You don’t get to be smugglers for this long by bein’ careless.”
Eustace realized the Padics were taking a huge risk getting involved with the wife of a Finisher. The penalty for smuggling infected out of the country would have turned the gravel in front of their home into a mass grave.
“Do the unbarred windows make you nervous too?” said Kalvin.
Eustace looked at Kalvin with a worried glance, but a part of him was proud of the boy for picking up on the detail. Before he could speak, the door swung open.
“Welcome, boys!” said Mr. Padic as he pushed his glasses up along the bridge of his nose. He stood a few inches taller than Eustace–his body made all the larger by the exaggerated motion of his arms. He wrapped them around Kalvin in a bear hug. Eustace braced for his hug next, reminding himself that these people were going to help him find his son.
Mr. Padic’s hands felt around Eustace’s back and midsection. He looked down at Eustace with a grin–the brown hairs in his bushy beard adrift in a squall of gray. “Rhonda made scones.”
I suppose I am a boy compared to these folks, thought Eustace. The embrace lasted longer than he expected, and Eustace tapped his hand on Mr. Padic’s back to break it up. Mr. Padic stretched his arm out to guide Eustace into the inn.
Eustace stepped into the living room to find two angora cats staring at him from their perches, but no Kalvin. The cats appeared accustomed to company, slowing lowering their heads back down to their paws.
The interior of the cabin appeared welcoming, decorated with autumn leaf wreaths and pumpkins to usher in Fall. “Where’s Mrs. Padic?” said Eustace. And where’s Kalvin?
Eustace turned the corner into the kitchen and found Kalvin with his hands spread on the refrigerator above his head. A woman was patting him down at gunpoint.
“You found her,” said Mr. Padic followed by the click of the deadbolt.
Eustace turned around to find Mr. Padic with a revolver aimed from his hip.
“I told Claire ‘no guns,’” said Mr. Padic. “Hands above your head and all that. You know how this goes.”
“It’s not loaded,” said Eustace. “The rounds are in my car.”
“Don’t reach for it, just tell me which pocket.”
“It’s holstered near my right shoulder…so what does your wife bake if you don’t feel a weapon?”
“And the bullets are stowed in your boots?” said Mr. Padic as he relieved Eustace of his gun, “or maybe the boy has them cradled in the nape of his hoody?”
“I told you I left them in the car. You can’t expect us to drive this far north unarmed.”
“This one’s clean,” said Mrs. Padic as she seated Kalvin on a barstool. She approached Eustace with her weapon pointed at his chest.
“You here to make trouble?” said Mrs. Padic with a squint. She kept her long white hair in a loose braid. No makeup covered her withered face other than the shiny gloss of lip balm.
“No, Ma’am,” said Eustace.
“Do I detect a Texas accent?”
“Yes, Ma’am. Most say Oklahoma.”
“You’ve been up North too long,” said Mrs. Padic with a smirk. “Your boy Danny have an accent?”
“A Chicago one…regrettably.”
She tucked her gun down the back of her pants. “And no one was following you?”
“The roads are desolate this far up in Michigan.”
“That they are. In that case, welcome to The Mitten Tip B&B. The name’s Rhonda and this is my husband Silvio.” Her husband handed the revolver back to Eustace. “Make yourselves comfortable in the dining room. Dinner will be served at five.”
Dinner consisted of seared salmon over rice and roasted tomatoes. Silvio let them know more than once that he had caught the fish himself the day before. Eustace pretended to care, and did his best to muddle throughout the meal with small talk. Kalvin helped with conversation when possible. Supper ended with Rhonda pouring coffee for her guests while Silvio retired to his recliner in the sunken living room.
“We were expecting Claire up until yesterday,” said Rhonda, “None of us thought you’d recover so fast.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” said Eustace.
Rhonda chuckled. “I didn’t mean it like that. We just spent so many nights talking with her. If it wasn’t for our policy we would have loved to meet her in person after all this. She’s a remarkable woman.”
“What policy is that?” said Kalvin.
“When a job is done we sever all ties with a client,” said Rhonda. “If someone should ‘hear from us’ afterwards, they’ll know it was from an imposter, or code six had been activated.”
“It’s the emergency button,” said Silvio from the other room. “We send a message to everyone we’ve worked with to let them know we’ve been compromised. In other words, get the hell outta Dodge.”
“I appreciate the kind words,” said Eustace. “What did Claire tell y’all?”
“Just about everything one could possibly know about Daniel Rutherford Bully,” said Rhonda.
“He went to Wayne State for teaching, His favorite food is Mac ‘N Cheese, and he once threw up in the dolphin tank at the Shedd Aquarium.” said Silvio.
“And his favorite Beatle is George,” said Rhonda. “I’m sad to say no young man like that came through here, but that’s not to say he couldn’t have found his own path to Alaska.”
“Why do you believe he went to Alaska?” said Kalvin.
“The end goal of our checkpoints is a commune in the North. The locals there call it Leek Denaa. It has become something of a Mecca for infected. You’ve seen first hand what the mainland has to offer them. If Danny has a good head on his shoulders, he’ll manage to get past the Canadian Wall.”
Eustace did his best not to call attention to the Canadian Wall for Kalvin’s benefit. “What exactly is waitin’ for him on the other side?” said Eustace.
“The best life he can have,” said Silvio.
“Depends on your point of view,” said Rhonda in an attempt to ignore her husband. “The people there have grown detached from modern society. From what I understand, they’ve become progressively unhinged over the last few years. Whatever time your son has left on this planet should be spent with the people he loves most. Is he traveling alone?”
“He’s with two others, a couple,” said Kalvin.
“Some don’t even get that,” said Silvio.
“Are you suggestin’ we should leave Danny out there?” said Eustace.
“I’m not suggesting anything, Mr. Bully,” said Silvio. “Leek Denaa is a one-way trip.”
“You told my wife you could get us there!?”
“We can,” said Rhonda, “but leaving with Danny isn’t something we can guarantee.”
“What the hell kind of operation are you people running!? We don’t even know if Danny made it to the commune, now you’re tellin’ me he might be trapped there forever!?”
“This job provides closure, Eustace,” said Rhonda. “That’s all Claire ever truly wanted. We can get you inside. If he’s there, you can come home knowing your search is done, and that you did everything humanly possible for him.”
“I’m not just gonna let them steal him! We’re bringin’ Dan home!”
“Listen to them, Eustace!” said Kalvin. “We don’t know what he’s become. If he’s in league with the Bedlam, maybe leaving him there is best for everyone.”
Those words did not just come outta his mouth. “You knew about this… didn’t you?”
“The Danny we find might not be the Danny you want,” said Kalvin.
The dining room fell silent as Eustace studied the wince in Kalvin’s eyes. Am I the only one that want’s him back!?
“I haven’t even shown you gentlemen to your rooms yet,” said Silvio. “Can I help you with your bag, son?”
“I can manage,” said Kalvin as he followed Silvio upstairs one hop at a time.
Eustace waited by the car at the end of the gravel driveway. The sun had yet to rise over the trees, so he listened for the crunching of rocks underfoot in anticipation of Kalvin’s arrival. The boy stopped within an arms length.
“I almost thought you forgot the plan,” said Eustace.
“I’m not going to leave Bernie out there if I can help it,” said Kalvin. “Maybe even bring closure to her family.”
“Is that the new goal now–closure?”
“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your handling of this hunt ended in spectacular fashion long ago. It’s over, Eustace. Closure is all we get now.”
“The fuck it is!” said Eustace.
“Lower your voice–.”
“We don’t put our lives on the line for closure! You said yourself that you’ll honor your folks through actions. Don’t you tell me this cuts it!!”
“I GOT NO ONE LEFT TO BURY, EUSTACE!! I DON’T OWE YOU SHIT!!”
Eustace found a shape approaching from the cabin over Kalvin’s shoulder. “Just cool it for a second, okay?”
Rhonda walked up to them in a heavy down jacket. “Early check out for you boys?”
“We’ll be back for breakfast,” said Eustace. “There’s something we need to take care of while we’re here.”
“I know it’s not easy hearing you may never see your son again.” Rhonda pulled out a photo from her purse and handed it to Eustace. “His name was Shelby, they may have forced him to change it. I can’t ask you to rescue him. You’ll barely get out with Danny alive, but if you see him, can you please let him know that we never stopped loving him?”
Eustace looked down at the photo of a teenage boy with auburn hair and knew that would never happen. He scratched his sideburn and nodded.
“Thank you. Thank you both.” Rhonda returned to the dark Autumn shapes.
“Proof, Bully,” whispered Kalvin. “Find me proof at the Bedlam Complex that Danny is worth saving, or I’m done.”