“I understand this will be our last session.”
“I can’t afford you anymore, not after what happened to the store.”
“You’ve entered an emotionally complex state. I don’t recommend ending your therapy so abruptly.”
“Do you work for free?”
“No, Luke, but I can refer you to a colleague–.”
“I don’t feel comfortable going to someone else.”
“Then let me give you something. This isn’t a replacement for professional therapy, but I think it could help you…”
Chapter 21: What Have We Learned
Luke and Ron huddled around a kerosene lamp–the only heat source of the tiny cabin. Jessup had ordered them not to move from those chairs until his return, and so they did, watching the rickety door battle to remain on its hinges as the arctic wind swept through the tundra.
Time is running out, thought Luke, and he knew their window for escape was closing fast.
“How far did he say it was to Leek Denaa?” whispered Luke.
Ron stared into the tiny flame dancing near their palms.
“Ron, are you listening?”
“He didn’t say,” said Ron, “but I know things about that place.”
“What do you mean you know things? What things?”
“Humans are sacrificed up there,” said Ron, “for some kind of ritual. They chain people outside during the full moon–that’s only a few days from now. Jessup’s gonna use us as some kind of peace offering for a way inside.”
“That’s just more dumb bullshit he’s been feeding you, Ron. We just need to stay calm.”
“I took that knife he threw into the snow,” said Ron. “It’s under my coat.”
Luke was interrupted by the floor shaking. He gripped the table to steady himself as the rumble was met with the echo of an eruption.
“We’re running out of time,” said Ron. “The blade is dull and the handle is falling apart, but if I can get just one good stab into his throat it’ll buy you enough time to escape.”
“Don’t do this!” said Luke. “Just give me time to think.”
“I can’t keep letting you suffer for my mistakes.”
The door burst open with Jessup standing in the threshold. He closed the door behind him with a self-satisfied smile emerging from his frozen beard.
“What was that sound?” said Luke.
“That was the sound of one chopper being welcomed,” said Jessup. “The other two will be arriving soon.”
Jessup took a seat across from the two brothers. He leaned back and put his massive boots up on the table, nearly knocking over the lamp. He unholstered his pistol and began to polish it with a rag.
“What’s next?” said Ron.
“After these mercenaries are killed, we can begin with our briefing of Leek Denaa and how you two will be expected to conduct yourselves in the presence of wolf aristocracy–excessive groveling, speak when spoken too, that sort of thing. Kinda like the way things are now.”
Luke felt Ron inch closer to Jessup. Luke’s leg began to shake the table nervously.
“Do you really need us up there?” said Luke. “It sounds like we would only get in your way.”
Jessup pounded his fist down on the table to stop it from shaking. His gaze shifted between the two brothers.
“Nonsense,” said Jessup as his smile returned. “You boys have come a long way since the last full moon; however, I do feel there is a loose end.”
“And what’s that?” said Ron.
“I want you to tell your brother about Jenna, Ron. Tell him about the look in her eye when she watched you seal her inside that store as the flames devoured it. Tell him the horror you and your little cabal of mask-wearing cowards experienced when you realized she wasn’t infected, and that those screams would be her last.”
Ron stared at Jessup as he did with the flame from the lamp. He did not deny the claims against him, he only sat there, unable to look at Luke.
“It was you?” said Luke.
“I’m sorry, Luke,” whispered Ron.
Jessup grabbed Ron’s shoulder, leveled his gun point blank at Ron’s chest and fired. Blood coated the cabin wall behind them, and the knife thudded against the floor.
“Doesn’t it feel good to finally get that off your chest?” said Jessup. He shoved Ron’s body off the chair and onto the floor. “I only need one of you, and you’re Jake’s flesh and blood son–not this delusional bastard.”
Memories of Luke and Ron as children flew through Luke’s head. At no point could he recall a more meaningful relationship with another human being, and now he was alone with Jessup–without a single ounce of fear.
“I know what this is about,” said Luke.
“What was that, little Reto?”
“Everything you’ve done stems from an inferiority complex with my father. All you wanted was to best him, but you knew how a fair fight would end. So like everything else in your life, you cheated. You infected yourself to gain an edge, but your perverse view of honor won’t allow you to kill Jake as he is. You’re leading him to Leek Denaa to infect him. You’ll always lose man to man, but monster to monster you might just come out ahead. But now that you’re approaching the end, you’ve realized two things: You’ll still lose, and the idea of an infected Jake Reto walking the earth terrifies you.”
Jessup was without a sardonic reply or a cheap grin. Instead he stared back at Luke with a curled brow and piercing eyes filled with surprise and agitation. The giant reared back and swung his fist into Luke’s eye.
Luke’s head snapped back and sent him and the chair flat onto the ground. Luke looked over at his brother as the lamp light dimmed with the rest of the world.
Luke felt his body shake violently. He opened his good eye, but all Luke could see were dark shapes above him. During bouts of consciousness, Luke would find himself being dragged across snow with the sound of branches snapping overhead.
Smelling salt brought the world back. Luke’s father knelt over him, wearing gear akin to an astronaut with wires dangling from his back.
“Can you stand?” said Jake.
Luke nodded as he was forced upright. He balanced himself with his arms spread out to his sides. His hands were bare as they absorbed the oppressive cold from the cabin floor. He recognized this place, and the memory of Ron’s death flooded back into his brain near the agonizing pain of his eye.
Behind his father was a woman, alien-like with blue skin and long black hair. She was laid across a bed that once held several cases of Jessup’s ammunition.
Am I not fully awake? thought Luke.
“Get up here quick!” said Jake as he waved Luke over to her body. “Put your hand next to mine and apply pressure.”
Jake removed a first aid kit from his satchel and began to treat the woman’s wounds. Her blood was warm as it pooled around Luke’s fingers.
“Ron was supposed to keep Jessup locked up,” said Jake as he cleaned her with a sterilizing liquid. “Then I see him on TV walking around in a fucking suit.”
Luke gazed up at the bloodstained wall. “Ron did his best–.”
“I TOLD HIM NOT TO GET YOU INVOLVED! Where is he!?”
Jake followed where Luke was staring. He shook his head as he grimaced in pain. His hands trembled slightly as he passed the bandage underneath the woman’s torso.
Jake gazed down at her battered body, and she was still breathing. Jake brushed a bit of hair from her face, painting her forehead red.
“I need you to watch her,” said Jake as he pulled her sidearm from her holster. “I radioed for an Air Evac. They should land south of here in a few hours. Stay close to the lieutenant and they’ll get you both out of here.” Jake handed Luke the gun. “This is a Glock, do you remember what I told you about these?”
Luke nodded as he pulled the barrel back sheepishly. “Where are you going?”
“Jessup is still out there. The rescue chopper can’t land until I secure the landing zone.”
Luke gripped onto Jake’s arm. “Leek Denaa is a set-up.”
“I have to go, Luke.”
“Wait! I have to know something.”
Jake looked back at Luke waiting for his question.
“Did you know Jessup was infected?” said Luke. “Did you know Ron would have been the only one standing in Jessup’s way if he broke loose?”
“I swear on Samantha’s grave that I had no idea Jessup had turned,” said Jake. “It was supposed to be a simple and straightforward mission–something Ron could handle.”
“Then why tell him to keep me out of it? Did you think I’d go to the police?”
Jake seized Luke by the shoulders. “Because you aren’t meant for this work. You never were, I knew that much when you were just a boy.”
“And you’ve been trying to erase me ever since.”
Jake let his hands fall to his sides. “This is all I know,” said Jake. “You outgrew me, and I didn’t know what else to do. I waited for you to struggle, but you never did. I watched you face every challenge in your life head-on without anyone else, and you succeeded every time. I had faith in you, and I still do.”
“I’ve never heard you say that before.”
“Because I failed you like I failed Ron, Nicole, Tarah, and Sammy. I once believed I was put on this earth to wipe out the infection. I now realize that destroying one evil just let another seep in–one more insidious and caustic than I could have ever imagined. It’s taken almost everything from me, but I can make it right…in Leek Denaa.”
“I’ll keep her safe then,” said Luke.
Jake embraced his son. “I know you will.”
Luke sat at the foot of the bed where the lieutenant rested. She showed no signs of awakening, and her odd complexion had not improved. Luke draped a blanket over them in a vain attempt to stay warm.
Time had lost meaning under the gray sky, and Luke had no idea whether it was morning or night. He passed the time thinking about what his father had told him, and how different Ron’s life would have been had Jake told him the same.
His thoughts were interrupted by the door to the cabin being kicked open. A man in a dark parka stood in the threshold with his rifle drawn.
Luke raised his hands above his head. “Are you with the Evac?” said Luke.
“Put your weapon down and step away from the body,” said the gunman.
Luke placed the gun on the floor. “She’s alive, just badly injured.”
“How long has she been like this?” said the gunman pointing at the lieutenant.
“I don’t know. Maybe a few hours.”
“Jesus Christ she’s a Dust unit,” said the gunman. “Blue skin and all. Are you working with The Dust?”
“I don’t know what that is,” said Luke. “I’m just waiting for an Evac.”
“Is it clear, Gator?” said a woman from outside.
“Yeah, it’s clear,” said Gator. “Just keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”
Another person entered the cabin behind him and froze at the sight of Luke.
“Luke?” She lowered her hood to reveal her identity.
“Judith?” said Luke. This isn’t possible!
She removed her gloves as she approached him.“Don’t point your gun at my son, but keep an eye on the girl.” Judith examined Luke’s face with her hands. “What are you doing here!? Who did this to you!?”
“Jessup Murral,” said Luke.
Judith’s eyes widened at the name. “No. No, that’s not right. Jessup Murral is locked up.”
“He was,” said Luke, “until the last full moon.”
“Jessup Murral…a wolf?”
Luke nodded. “Ron and I tried to stop him, but–.”
“Does He know?” said Judith.
Luke knew who she was referring to and was hesitant to confirm her fear.
“Dad is tracking Jessup toward Leek Denaa as we speak.”
“Char’s in danger if those two make it into town,” said Gator.
“So is out bounty,” said Judith. “Luke, you said Ronnie was with you. Where is he now?”
“Ron…didn’t make it.”
Judith looked like she would stumble to the ground. Gator seized her and pulled out a chair for her to sit.
Luke reached out to take her hand. “Jessup got him,” said Luke, “but it was quick. Painless.”
Her eyes welled as she covered her mouth with her free hand. She said nothing.
“Are you still with us?” said Gator.
“I’ll be fine, Ron,” said Judith. “It’s almost time for bed.”
Gator and Luke looked at one another. “She’s been getting worse,” said Gator.
“Let me try something,” said Luke. Okay, just do what the doctor told you to do. “Judith…Judith!”
She looked about the cabin as if she were floating away.
“Mom,” said Luke. The word sank to the bottom of his stomach.
Judith’s gaze focused on him. She appeared confused, but hopeful.
“Mom, I want you to breath in and out slowly, okay? Like this.”
Judith mimicked her son. Fog poured from their mouths with each exhale.
“Good. I’m going to count down from twelve and you’re going to tell me about your earliest childhood memory. Dig deep and describe for me with as much detail as you can, okay? Twelve…eleven…ten…nine…eight…”
“I remember hiking through the dunes in Michigan,” said Judith. “I was with my father. He was such a tall man, but I can’t remember his face. We spent every summer there, before he had to sell the cottage.”
“Three…two…one,” said Luke. “Judith, who is that man behind you?”
“I’m sorry,” said Judith. “I should have introduced you. This is Fred Doogan. He goes by ‘Gator,’ and he’s going to help me kill Jessup Murral.”