The void felt less powerful to Dan, waning in the field it once terrorized. Even the beasts had returned, although not quite the same as before. They stared into the vortex as if part of them remained swirling inside.
Dan approached on the balls of his feet. The slightest unrest could yield a black hole capable of rending minds from souls, yet he was unafraid.
Chapter 14: Open Palm
The final motel had been overtaken. Dan helped Cassie drag the remaining bodies into the bathroom, stacking them in the tub like Gator did back at the apartment in Warren. They stripped the bodies of their clothing, ensuring none of the Sangradores would ever walk naked again.
Dan sat exhausted on the bloodied couch, watching each child carry out their orders with the precision of soldiers. It was the third settlement hit in as many weeks. Although Dan had helped with the planning stages and execution, this was Noah’s victory. The young chief orchestrated the attacks and assigned each Sangradore a responsibility–a skill set Dan had once believed unattainable for Marcelo’s son.
In the end, all Noah needed was an opportunity to push himself. Dan studied the warrior from across the room–his henna tattoos were sharp and clean across his back and shoulders. New glyphs had been added, and seeing them brought about a pride in Dan he was certain Marcelo would have felt had he still walked this earth.
Wood and Erica walked past Dan, carrying a giant trunk. Wood carried his end one-handed while Erica struggled to lift her side with both arms stiffened.
“Are you just going to sit there?” said Cassie from the bathroom. It was unclear to Dan if Cassie was joking.
Dan stood up and ordered Wood and Erica to put the trunk down. He approached the leather bound luggage with a simple question.
“Did either of you check what’s inside?” said Dan.
They shook their heads. “It looked like a treasure chest,” said Erica. “It’s locked, so there must be something good inside.”
Dan pulled out a knife he had looted from one of the motel guests. He gripped the padlock on the trunk and twisted it until it snapped apart, startling Erica and Wood. A foul smell escaped as Dan inspected the contents with the tip of his blade. He found remnants of what Noah had described–an amalgamation of wolf limbs and pelts. Judging by their proportions, they had once belonged to children.
“Why would someone do this?” said Erica.
“Because they are cowards,” said Noah before slamming the lid of the trunk closed. “Tomorrow morning we will bury this trunk with the respect it deserves. The cowards will be rolled naked into the lake.”
There was no argument among them or case to be made to do otherwise. Wood and Erica returned to their scavenging while Cassie waited to be alone with Dan. “I could get done moving the bodies quicker with another set of hands,” said Cassie.
Dan nodded and followed her to the first floor rooms. Our time together has been grueling, thought Dan, but we finally seem to function like a team. Dan recalled the day he told everyone that Fettel was alive, and thought that would be the end of the Sangradores.
Three weeks earlier, Dan stood before them in the recesses of the forest, watching the pained expressions wash over the Sangradores. The silence lingered with the sunlight that burned Dan’s neck and back. Noah sat cross-legged in front of Dan with Wood and Erica at his flanks. None of them made eye contact as Dan waited for some kind of response. They’re in shock, thought Dan. After all they’ve been through they’re still capable of being shocked.
“I wanted to tell you all about Fettel earlier.” said Dan. “I shouldn’t have kept it from you.”
Noah looked down at his hands. The symbols he had painted on with mud had smeared away, caking the crevices of his muscles with dirt.
Dan gazed up at Cassie. She stood behind all three children with her arms crossed, leaning her back against a tree. Although she had not forced Dan to reveal the truth about Fettel, her outrage had prevented him from thinking about anything else.
“I can’t begin to tell you all how sorry I am,” said Dan.
“You said that already,” said Erica as she stared blankly into the forest’s maw. Her whimpering face on the brink of outburst.
“Had I known what we were up against I wouldn’t have kept everyone in the complex.”
“But Mr. Fettel told you everyone should leave,” said Erica.
“Fettel said a lot of things, Erica. You know he’s not to be trusted.”
“All those people died. Maybe if they weren’t there–.”
“And where would they go?” said Noah. “We all knew what was waiting for us outside.”
“At least it would have been better than–.”
“Than what!?” shouted Noah. “Staying together gave us a chance! Do you know what people do to girls like you out here!?”
“That’s enough!” said Cassie. “It’s not about staying or leaving–it’s about having a choice. Isn’t that right, Danny?”
“She’s right,” said Danny. “Other people can’t decide what’s best for you. I should have given you all the chance to choose what was right for you.”
“In all my father’s stories, I never heard of anything like what we saw that night,” said Noah. “Did Fettel say what they were?”
“No. He only said he wouldn’t be able to hold back what was coming. It was foolish of me to think I could.”
“It was all my fault,” said Erica. “I saw Mel…do things. Things I knew were wrong.”
“What kind of things?” said Cassie.
“I…I saw her talk to herself…screaming sometimes… for more time. It scared me, and I didn’t know what she was talking about. I see people talk to themselves all the time, so I didn’t tell Danny, but you told me to tell you everything she did and I didn’t and now everybody’s gone.”
“No no no,” said Dan as he knelt down before Erica. “Nothing is your fault. Mel fooled everyone–even Mr. Fettel.”
Erica’s sobbing had grown uncontrollable. Danny wrapped his arms around her tiny body and rocked back and forth trying to ease her mind. “You did an awesome job back there for someone so little,” said Dan. “You did nothing wrong.” Dan heard Wood shuffle across the grass. Soon Wood’s arms hugged them both. Dan looked up to find Cassie watching them with a different kind of pain in her eyes. She walked off past the trees close to the highway.
“We’ll figure out the next steps together,” said Dan. “But for now, I need to have a word with Cassie.”
Dan caught up to Cassie. He closed in behind her until it was impossible for her not to notice him. “Is that what you wanted?” said Dan as he traversed over dead logs and thickets. Cassie said nothing as she moved forward.
“Now everyone gets to feel shitier.”
Cassie whipped around and cracked Dan across the face with an open hand. When she gained her footing she struck him again and again. “You listen to me!” said Cassie. “This is about accountability! We both know you fucked up, and you need to be held accountable!”
“Really? Because that sure looked like regret on your face before you slinked away back there.”
“If there’s a god, that little girl should never have to suffer another day in her life. So, no, I didn’t want that.”
“Then what do you want?”
“TO BE ANGRY AT YOU!! For five fucking minutes before you start trying to solve everyone’s problems again.”
Dan lowered himself to the ground with the help of a nearby tree. He sat there listless, waiting for Cassie to stop being angry.
“Everyone I should be mad at is dead,” said Cassie. “You drew the small straw.”
“Fettel is alive,” said Dan.
“He might as well be dead. We’ll never get to that commune alive.”
Dan had already decided he would get there somehow before Char gave birth, but he did not want to correct Cassie. “Had I told you what Fettel said…what would you have done?”
Cassie leaned her shoulder against a tree before taking a deep breath. “Part of me wants to say I’d leave, but there were days when Fettel was gone that I felt so scared. There was peace in knowing what everyday looked like. The world made sense. I got to pretend I was a daughter, a sister, without the horrible freedom to decide what comes next. Yeah, I’d want to leave, but I know I would have stayed with The Bedlam and took the lie as far as it could go.”
“Wood isn’t my brother, Danny, he’s my son.”
He’s your what!? Danny looked up at her in disbelief.
“My father helped me raise him, and we told everyone we were siblings. It was all part of passing as full-bloods. When Wood was old enough to understand, Daddy wanted me to tell him the truth. I begged him not to, but he said life doesn’t work like that. ‘It’s about accountability,’ he said, even though we’d all have been happier without the truth.”
“I never apologized to you about Benny.”
“I lived with that man for seventeen years and the only image I have of him now is him leveling that shotgun against Viejo’s chest and firing. He died because he listened to that bitch’s lies about a ‘better future’ and got what he deserved.”
They sat for a moment, letting the breeze rustle through the leaves.
“I’m sorry for what I said about not getting to the Leek Denaa alive,” said Cassie. “I know that’s where you’re heading next.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I attended every one of your classes. You never struck me as someone who would abandon his kids.”
“They’re all we have when it’s all said and done, right?”
“Right…You’re planning on going alone, aren’t you.”
“Not until I get you guys on your feet–I swear.”
“Of course you’d say that.”
The trees rustled louder than before. Dan turned around to find Noah parting branches with his hands.
“It’s time to get back on the road,” said Noah.
“Any idea where we’re headed?” said Dan.
“I’ve made my decision,” said Noah. “It won’t be easy, but the path to the Sangradore’s former glory had been made clear to me years ago.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My mother told me stories of a group in Michigan that stole children from their parents and sold them to Fettel. I thought it was meant to scare me until I discovered new children walking the courtyard. I spoke to them, asking who had brought them there. They told me what names they remembered, and my father tracked them down.”
“Wolves?” said Cassie.
“No–cowards. They hid at three different motels stocked with guns and supplies. Me and my father had planned to attack them the night after the movie, but…but how could we have known what would come.”
“You have a plan of attack?” said Dan.
“Burned into my brain,” said Noah. “Will you help me finish what my father started?”
Noah dropped another body on the bathroom floor before Dan. The throat had been ripped out, and several fingers were missing.
“Fucking coward,” muttered Noah. The coward did not appear much older than Dan’s father.
“That the last one?” said Dan.
Noah walked about the room with his arms akimbo, admiring the work he had accomplished in taking the final motel. “I have decided this room will be my mine,” said Noah. “I’ll let you decide which room you want next, Danny.”
Is he paying attention to me? “Thanks,” said Dan. “Have you thought about the next step?”
“How do you plan to keep this place going? How will you defend it? How long before a group like ours discovers this place? A few months? Weeks?”
“No one will take this place from me!”
Dan detected a break in Noah’s voice. “Do you even know where to hide the bodies?”
“These are things you need to have answers for, Noah.”
Noah began to pace the floor. “I can do this! I captured three motels in the name of the Sangradores, didn’t I!?”
“There could be men waiting outside to retake this place as we speak,” said Dan.
Noah rushed to the window and parted the blinks with his fingers. He turned around, pointing accusingly at Dan. “This is some kind of test. This motel is like The Bedlam Complex.”
“I didn’t run that place very long, but I’ll share with you everything I learned.”
“Then you need to tell me these things every day. Never let me forget.”
“No. You have to learn to think about these things yourself. I won’t always be here.”
Noah’s eyes widened at the thought. “What do you mean? You’re leaving!?”
“I have to find Char and our children. I can’t walk away from them.”
“But you’ll walk away from us—after all we’ve done!?”
“You don’t need me anymore,” said Dan. “Look at what you’ve achieved already. For someone who never attended my class you’re a fast learner.”
“You can’t go to Leek Denaa. No one survives the checkpoints!”
“Fettel survived,” said Cassie from the doorway, “along with his pregnant daughter, and The Warg.”
“So he says!” said Noah pointing at Dan. “We all know what waits for us at the border!”
“I said I was going alone, remember?” said Dan. “Unless you’ve changed your mind?”
Erica and Wood entered the motel room. “What is everyone yelling about?” said Erica.
“I have decided to give everyone a choice,” said Noah. “Do you want to stay here with me, or do you want to get killed in Alaska with Danny?”
Erica turned to Dan. “Do you really think you’ll make it to Leek Denaa?” said Erica.
“I won’t stop ‘til I do,” said Dan.
“And you’re going alone?”
“Wood and I are going with him,” said Cassie.
“There’s a good chance The Warg is there, too,” said Dan. “Do you want to go see him?”
Erica walked away from Noah and hugged Dan’s leg. “You don’t have to be scared, Noah,” said Erica.
“I’m not a coward,” said Noah. He looked at Dan dead in his eyes. “You just better have a plan.” Noah walked to the doorway of his master bedroom. “We leave tomorrow morning after the treasure is buried. I have decided.”