“What kind of relationship do you hope to reach with your parents within the next five years?”
“I feel whatever I build with them at this point will just crumble away eventually.”
“Have you talked to your brother about feeling this way?”
“We don’t talk about things like that.”
“Do you feel your relationship with your brother could crumble as well?”
“It already has. That’s why I come to you.”
Chapter 15: What’s Stopping You
Luke ignored Jessup’s counting, staring into the dying campfire wrapped in layers of wool with a parka shell. The blistering wind tore across the flesh of his face. He did not reach for his nose for fear that it would break off in his hand.
With each number, Jessup’s strength grew insurmountable, and the hope of escape even bleaker. How did it get to this? thought Luke. This should have ended at the border checkpoints. Jessup’s network of hunters had stretched farther than Luke realized, and his influence had allowed three men in a bloodstained car to drive through Canada without so much as a showing a library card.
Luke gazed up at the clearest sky he had ever seen, illuminated by thousands of stars. Judith had told him long ago that those were spirits awaiting passage to the unknown. How many have we made since this rampage began? The “mission,” as Jessup called it, led them to the base of an enormous crater in Northern Alaska. What business they had within had yet to be explained.
His brother Ron approached in identical clothing. His body shook with something other than cold. Luke had assumed fear, given their captor’s unpredictable and vicious behavior, but another possibility crossed Luke’s mind. He hasn’t had a drink in over three weeks.
“How are you holdin’ up?” said Ron as he tossed a collection of sticks into the fire.
“I was going to ask you same thing,” said Luke.
“Jessup put me in charge of keeping the fire going. I guess all I can do now is try to be helpful. He says he’ll make dinner when he’s…you know…done.”
“I refilled the canteen, too,” said Ron. He removed the canteen from his shoulder and handed it to Luke. Luke drank deeply. Its contents sloshed about with chunks of ice. It tastes like the inside of a water gun.
“What does he have you doing?” said Ron.
“Well, you drove the last stretch, so he’s probably just giving you a breather.”
“Are you sure you’re okay, Ron?”
“Yeah. Yeah I am. It’s just…Jessup told me there’s a small village inside the crater. It’s all wolves. I’ve never been some place where they were…everywhere.”
The campsite was still under construction. Jessup had laid out cooking supplies to Luke’s left. Metal pots and utensils laid strewn across a blue blanket. One among the assortment caught Luke’ attention. A twelve-inch chef’s knife stabbed into the ground, pinning the blanket in place. Is he taunting me with this? Luke wondered how Judith would have handled a wolf like Jessup. Did he fall outside her “save everyone” philosophy, or would she have tried to take him in alive?
“Do you remember when dad took us out to see our first wolf?” said Ron.
There was no question what dad would have done.
“No,” said Luke as he took another deep drink from the canteen. The irony wasn’t lost on him— twenty years later wrapped in an over-sized parka, frozen in fear to cut a wolf.
“Is he done yet?” said Luke. Both brothers looked up to find Jessup with his legs planted atop two Sitka spruce trees, gripping the antlers of a bull moose. Its corpse dangled bloody below him. The head had been wrenched full circle, leaving a grotesquely thin throat. Jessup’s biceps pulsated with tendons and veins as he curled the mangled animal in the moonlight. The heat of his torso mixed with the cold to form an aura wisping off his skin.
“When Dad arrives he’ll come from the south with a regiment of Finishers,” said Ron as he pointed to the sloping ridge below. A nearby stream created a natural funnel leading into the crater’s base.
“He’s not coming, Ron.”
“Sure he is! Jessup has this all planned out. You’ll see.”
“Jessup is a fucking psychopath.”
“Keep your voice down or he’ll hear you.”
“He’s all the way up there.”
“Wolves have super hearing.”
“Is that real, or something you think is real?”
“It’s real. Dad told us about it. Didn’t you ever listen to his stories? He’s going to get us out of this.”
“Dad’s not the man he once was,” said Luke. “What do you think he’ll do against that?”
”He got him in a cage once, he’ll do it again.”
“Do you see cages out here!?” called Jessup from above.
Shit–Ron was right! thought Luke.
Jessup released the moose carcass unceremoniously–its massive frame snapping every branch before colliding with the frozen earth. Jessup panted heavily with a crooked smile beneath his matted beard. He gazed back at the brothers twenty feet below before leaping down to meet them.
“The simpleton is correct,” said Jessup as he gathered the broken branches. “If Reto arrives he will do so from that ridge, but he’ll come alone. After our public statement no Finisher in Illinois will follow him, that is, if they haven’t torn him asunder by now.”
“You don’t believe that,” said Luke. “Why set up an ambush if you don’t think he’ll show up?”
Jessup focused his attention on Luke. “Obviously, Reto will show himself because I have willed it. He is guilty of many crimes against man and monster. Who more fitting to judge him than The Furies?” said Jessup as he raised his hands in the air to make “The Furies” sound grander than psycho babble. He narrowed his stare on Ron. “The stories he told you were gross exaggerations–a collection of other men’s work he didn’t hesitate to take credit for. If he taught you anything, it was how to live with lies, yes? He sure as hell didn’t teach you how to keep a fire going.”
Jessup cracked the branches he had gathered and fed the fire. “You have no reason to be thirsty,” said Jessup as he ripped the canteen from Luke. He threw back the canteen and chugged. Ice water spilled from the sides of his mouth as he walked away.
“What did he mean by that?” said Luke, “about ‘living with lies?’”
Ron’s body shuttered at the question. “I should gather more wood.”
Jessup followed Ron across the camp grounds after unloading the last of the munitions crates into a nearby cave. Ron did his best to avoid him as he picked up loose branches from the ground, but the hulking presence would not be ignored. As Ron reached for a dry branch, Jessup placed his boot upon it slowly.
Ron froze with his hand extended towards the ground. He looked up to find Jessup with his arms crossed.
“I believe your brother asked you a question,” said Jessup. “Don’t you think it’s time you shared your secret?”
Ron looked at Luke with confusion before throwing his branches in the snow. “I did everything you asked since day one! Can’t you just leave it alone!?”
“I just think Luke has a right to know exactly why we’re here, don’t you?”
Ron’s breathing quickened as the burden wormed its way to the surface.
“I can’t help you if I don’t know what’s wrong,” said Luke.
Ron unzipped the front of his parka and pulled the hood back. “This would be a lot easier with a drink or two.”
“What is this about?”
“The village inside this crater is called Leek Denaa. It’s a high level target for every Finisher group in the country. It’s so well fortified that few people actually make it inside alive. Some believe it might just be the last bastion for wolves on the planet.”
“And you two are planning on attacking it after Dad gets here?” said Luke. “Accomplish what Jake Reto could never do?”
“That’s a part of it,” said Ron, “but there’s more to it than that. A man named Howard Fettel is hiding out here with his daughter Charlene. There’s a sizable bounty on his head and…I don’t know how to say this, but… Howard Fettel is our father.”
Luke looked over at Jessup to find him grinning under his beard. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Jessup told me everything, Luke. Mom knew Fettel long before she met Jake. She kept us a secret from him to keep us safe.”
“Jessup told you this?” said Luke.
“I was trying to tell you earlier back at the house. We have another half-sister–this Charlene woman–.”
“What Ronald here is trying to say is that he would like to meet his real father before we lay waste to the village,” interrupted Jessup. “I think it would be good for your personal growth.”
“Ron, listen very carefully to what I’m going to tell you. Jessup is a liar. He’s been lying to you since the start! What proof did he provide!? Birth certificates!? Blood samples!? Anything!? No! Of course not, because he is full of shit!” Luke pointed his finger at Jessup. “Don’t place any more of your trust in this fraud!!”
“Where do you get off?” said Jessup. “Of everyone here, I’d say you benefitted the most from having me around. You wanted the Wolfsbane killed for torchin’ your girl–I did it. You wanted the Illinois Finishers shut down–I did it! What have you done for me!? Answer that!”
“You killed those people because you’re sick!” said Luke. “I won’t be a part of this anymore, but I’m not so delusional to think I’m walking out of here alive! We’re dead, Ron, whether we do what Jessup says or not!” Luke turned to Jessup. “I have nothing left to lose in your demented game!!”
“Then take your swing!!” Jessup swooped down and pulled the chef’s knife from the blanket. “How fitting–the weapon of your ancestors! Go ahead! Lodge this in my brain! It’ll buy you enough time to run into the woods, maybe even find a hiding spot until Reto shows up! Look! I’ll even put in my fucking mouth!!”
Jessup placed the tip of the blade in his teeth and guided Luke’s fingers onto the handle. “TAKE A PIECE, LUKE!!” shouted Jessup through gritted teeth.
Luke’s hands trembled as he looked Jessup in the eyes. All he could see was the mass of black fur Jake had forced him to rip apart all those years ago. He pulled the knife out slowly just as he had done with the fang of the dead wolf. The beast came back to life to reclaim the trophy Luke had no right to take, and the shock knocked him backwards into the snow.
Jessup spat the blade to the ground and stood over Luke. “That’s all the proof I need! There ain’t no Reto in you! You’re just a snivelling coward that fell outta your whore mother! I’m no fraud, boy! I am the truth!! I am the FIRE!! AND YOU WILL DIE WHEN I SAY YOU CAN DIE!!”
Luke beheld the face of the frothing beast. He laid in the snow with his life playing before him. Had it all been a lie?
Ron stood trembling next to Jessup. He placed his head in his hands and broke down sobbing.
Jessup placed his arm around Ron’s shoulder to comfort him. “Now now,” said Jessup. “Let’s just pull it back together. Maybe Uncle Jessup was a little too harsh on you boys. Hell, you told Luke here the truth about your dad. I’m proud of you.”
Luke sat up slowly as he watched Ron, unable to recognize what his brother had become.
“Now, Ronald,” said Jessup. “How about you tell Luke the other secret?”
Ron looked up at Jessup with no color in his face. He shook his head back and forth muttering “no.”
“This is a big one, I know, but he had to learn about it some…”
Jessup’s face pointed south. He released Ron and ran to the trees. Soon the rumble of helicopters rattled the night air. Three came into view before descending onto a landing zone farther down the bend of the stream.
Jessup doused the campfire with snow before digging through his cache of munitions. “The man of the hour has arrived, and he’s not alone! Do exactly what I say when I say it, and you boys might just live long enough to meet your real daddy!”