I just realized that I’m too late. You’re already in flight and won’t get this message until you land.
These last few months have been hard for both of us. Maybe you deserved what I gave you, maybe you didn’t, but I want you to know that you’re a good man. I never say it, but you are, Eustace.
No matter what happens in that place…I love you for trying.
Chapter 24: Mother’s Eyes
Eustace watched the clouds below him give way to the crater. Finishers had referred to it as a ‘gouged eye’–a cavity in search of worth. Seeing it now, Eustace believed it was diseased, bustling with maggots trying their damndest to clean the wound. Is that what Danny is now? thought Eustace. He deserved better than this. His search for Danny would end here, as all other leads were cold.
The cessna jostled and buoyed against the wind. Kalvin and Bernie had found a way to sleep aboard during most of the five hour flight, but Eustace wrapped his arms around his thick parka and closed his eyes only to mitigate his migraine. The rest of his time would be used to keep an eye on their treacherous pilot. Before Kalvin and Bernie had nodded off, the three of them formed a plan.
They determined that Danny, Char, and Gator were most likely still traveling together under the watchful eye of her father Howard Fettel. Fettel would be a guest of honor–a bigwig among the simple wolves. As such, only the finest venue would be used to accommodate him and his family. They would find them at the largest, most palatial building in the settlement.
As an infected, Bernie would act as a scout, infiltrating the most regal structures and reporting back what she found. Eustace’s mind turned to betrayal–that Bernie would only look for her niece and leave Dan to die. She would have left you in The Bedlam’s rubble, you fool, thought Eustace. Bernie had proven herself a godsend in a time when so much had already been taken away, yet Eustace found his old prejudices hard to ignore even now.
Gunther Smiles came in fuzzy over the headset. “We’ll be descending in about ten minutes…cloudy night… but good to land.”
It all ends tonight, thought Eustace. He stifled his hope once more to focus at the task at hand.
“Did you sleep?” said Kalvin from the seat across the aisle from Eustace.
Eustace turned to him–rolling over in his crunchy parka. “I’ll sleep on the way back maybe.”
“What will you say to Danny when we find him?”
“Somethin’ good,” said Eustace, “and convincin’.”
“No matter what, he’s still a part of you,” said Kalvin. “That’s what my dad told me whenever mom would have an episode.”
“He won’t be the Dan you remember,” said Eustace. “He may never be again. But I know he wouldn’t hurt a soul without a good reason. I didn’t raise him to be a doormat, but he knows dignity and mercy.”
“I’m hoping for the best,” said Kalvin, “but you might want to get some words ready.”
“He’ll hear what he wants to hear–like his mother.”
“Just tell him you love him and you want him to come home,” said Kalvin.
“He won’t believe me.”
“You’re overthinking this. Just let him know things have changed.”
“They haven’t,” said Eustace. “You’ve seen this country–the people we’ve had to deal with just to get to this point. He doesn’t stand a chance.”
“He has you and Claire,” said Kalvin. “Maybe that’s all he needs.”
“He has that girl and Gator now,” said Eustace. “I love him, Kalvin–.”
“Then stop making excuses,” interrupted Kalvin, “We came all this way for a shot at bringing him home. If you believed any of your own bullshit, we would have turned around months ago. What you say to him matters.”
“I guess I really need to be convincin’, huh?”
Kalvin adjusted himself in his seat to face Eustace comfortably. “Okay. How about we role-play? I’ll be Danny. You guys found me; what do you say?”
Eustace stared back at Kalvin with his mouth stuck in a wince.
“You have to say something to him,” said Kalvin. “Now come on. I’m Danny. You said you were going to kill me the last time we spoke.”
“I never said I was going to kill him,” said Eustace. “I told him to run.”
“Well, I listened,” said Kalvin in a vaguely Dan-like voice. “Why should I go with you?”
“Your mother misses you.”
“Was that a bad answer?”
“It’s only half the truth,” said Kalvin. “It’s all or nothing now.”
He’s right. “We both miss you and want you to come home.”
“This place offers me protection and freedom. I’ll lose both if I leave with you.”
“You’re not safe here,” said Eustace. “You’re not safe anywhere. People like me made sure of that. One day they’ll want this place destroyed again, and they’ll do it right. There are things in life you can’t run from. You think you can, but they’ll catch up to you. I sure did. Come back with me, and you can stop runnin’ and spend your life with people that will travel through hell for you.”
“That sounds…convincing.” Kalvin’s voice returned to normal.
“Kalvin, Claire offered you a home with us until you got back on your feet. I want you to know that you can stay with us as long as you like. We can pay for you to finish school, whatever you need.”
Kalvin sat quiet for a moment. “You’re not responsible for my parents,” said Kalvin.
“I know, I just…I just want you to know you have a place in this world.”
“Thank you, Eustace.”
The cessna began its rocky plunge towards the coastal runway. The impact of the wheels colliding against the icey tarmac was enough to wake Bernie. She shot up from her seat near the exit.
“Welcome to Prudhoe Bay,” said Smiles. “I believe our transaction is complete.”
“You’re not going to see us off?” said Bernie as she dragged the rest of their baggage to the steps.
“I never want to see any of you again,” said Smiles. “If you thought Black Belly was a deathtrap wait ‘til you see Leek Denaa.”
After they left the plane, Smiles began taxiing the runway for takeoff.
He doesn’t waste time does he? thought Eustace.
They reached the airport to find one restaurant and one car rental shop operated by the same attendant. They argued over truck rental pricing, as Smiles had tipped off management of where Eustace and his party were heading. As Eustace lost his patience, he felt Kalvin tap him on the shoulder.
“Not now, Kalvin!”
“What’s that in the sky?”
Eustace turned around to find a rocket trailing behind the cessna. The explosion lit up the sky with red-hot wreckage raining down into the Arctic Ocean.
“What the fuck!?” said Eustace. He turned to Bernie. “You didn’t say they had rockets!”
“They don’t,” said Bernie.
The car rental attendant flipped its “open” sign to “closed” and receded to the backroom.
“Looks like we’re walking,” said Bernie.
The arctic air bludgeoned Eustace moments into their hike—it’s grip aggravated his wounds from The Bedlam along with his arthritic knees and elbows. Kalvin and Bernie appeared to struggle with the elements as well, though they still marched through the snowy tundra and bramble, unaware of what waited for them at the crater.
Eustace had once believed Leek Denaa to be a ruse—propaganda to bolster Finisher recruitment numbers and remind men of what hell could grow in the mainland. Now, he left footprints at its doorstep, trying to separate myth from truth.
The stories of skinned women and children hung in trees by their hair seem to be an exaggeration, thought Eustace as he passed small thickets with caribou hide stretched over them.
“There!” shouted Kalvin with his arm outstretched. “Cabin!”
“Keep your voice down,” said Bernie. “We don’t know what’s in there.”
Smoke billowed from the thin tin roof, the windows aglow in an orange haze.
“It looks warm,” said Kalvin.
We’ll find out soon enough, thought Eustace.
“Hang back, Kal, and let Eustace and me move in,” said Bernie. “Hunker down and don’t draw your weapon until we know what we’re dealing with.”
The small band scurried along east of the cabin, keeping eyes on the windows. Eustace saw movement within. He signaled Bernie to find cover on the northwest side of the cabin while he secured the east. As Eustace approached he heard little details of obfuscated conversation. At least they aren’t feral, thought Eustace.
From behind the cabin loomed a swarm of glowing green eyes. Countless dogs emerged with hideous snarls and barks under the radiance of the northern lights. Eustace drew his gun and aimed, but he saw that chains prevented them from approaching any further. The commotion, however, had already alerted the residents.
“WHO’S OUT THERE!?” roared from inside the cabin. The voice was deeper than a normal man, and it carried far into the forest.
Eustace looked at Bernie and Kalvin for a plan.
“ANSWER ME OR WE’LL OPEN FIRE!!”
A puppy husky had escaped the ranks of its siblings and wandered close to Eustace’s leg. It nibbled on the trim of his parka in the hopes of removing a button.
Maybe these folks are reasonable, thought Eustace. “We’re not here to hurt anyone! We’re just passin’ through on our way to Leek Denaa!”
The puppy flinched at the sound of the cabin door being kicked open. The three were greeted by a giant with a hunter’s rifle peering out from the doorway.
“Bad night for a visit!” said the hunter. “Turn back!”
“That’s not an option!” said Eustace.
“Are you from there?” said Kalvin. “Do you know Dan Bully?”
We told you to stay back, Kalvin!
“No!” said the hunter. “No Dan Bully!”
“How about Gator?” said Kalvin.
“No!” said the hunter. “I’d of remembered that one!”
Bernie emerged from cover on the opposite end of the cabin. “Charlene Fettel!?” said Bernie.
The hunter leveled his rifle at Bernie before lowering it to his side. “What of her!?”
“I’m her aunt. We’re here to see her.”
“I know this one.”
“‘Dan Bully’–you swear you’ve never heard that name?” said Eustace.
“I have,” said a girl. She was diminutive, pushing her way past the giant. Her long ginger braids blended with the fox fur tunic wrapped around her body. “My name is Trisha. I was one of Char’s maids and confidants. If you lower your weapons, we can discuss this in the warmth of the cabin.”
Trisha proved more inviting than the giant’s rifle. The cabin was filled beyond its intended capacity. Trisha introduced her sisters Emilie and Constance along with their bodyguard and musher Mesa. At the other end of the cabin were two others much different than the wolves. One was a young man with a familiar face. He kneeled by a body laid on the only bed with just a pair of boots jutting out from under the covers.
“And who might you be?” said Kalvin.
The young man’s eyes darted between the three new guests. “I’m Luke and this is my wife…Felicity.”
“Is she injured?” said Bernie.
“Her ribs are cracked from a bad fall,” said Luke. “A medical helicopter is coming soon. These good people let us stay here while we wait.”
“They were here when we arrived,” said Mesa. “Odd for non-Lek to be out this far alone. Now we have five.”
You’re tellin’ me, thought Eustace. Those boots are military issue.
“You should know that our plane was shot down by a missile about an hour ago,” said Kalvin. “Your helicopter might be in danger.”
“Best we can do is hope, right?” said Luke.
“Where are you from?” said Eustace.
“Mainland’s a big place. Where in mainland?”
“Illinois, just south of Chicago…what are you doing?”
Eustace took hold of a corner of the blanket covering Luke’s wife. “Just want to assess the damage,” said Eustace. He pulled up the blanket to find that Felicity’s skin was stained blueish gray—the telltale sign of The Dust Unit. His eyes met Luke’s.
“It looks worse than it really is,” said Luke with his eyes pleading for mercy.
If I blow the whistle about who she is, the big fella will tear them both apart, thought Eustace.
“There’s space on the helicopter for all of you,” said Luke desperately. “I’ll get you all out of here.”
Eustace accepted his offer and lowered the cover back onto Felicity’s face. “Much obliged,” said Eustace. He turned his attention to Trisha. “You said you heard the name Dan Bully?”
Trisha nodded. “Char spoke of him often. He’s not in Leek Denaa, although she wished he was. She lost track of him before her arrival. I’m sorry. I would have loved to meet the father of her children.”
“Children!?” said Eustace. “What do you mean children?”
“I was her wet nurse,” said Trisha, “along with my sisters. That’s why Char was brought here.”
“Dan Bully is my son,” said Eustace still in disbelief.
“Then that makes you the grandfather,” said Trisha. She approached Eustace and hugged him. Soon her sisters did the same.
This can’t be right. Grandfather?
“You gals are sweet and all, but I need to know where Charlene is now.”
“Her father faced tribunal for crimes against our people,” said Mesa. “The outcome led to chaos.”
“You left her behind?” said Kalvin.
“She ordered us to leave her!” said Mesa standing as upright as he could. “If she abandoned her father’s side it would have guaranteed his death!”
“We need to find her,” said Bernie.
“We will search for her in the morning,” said Trisha. “It’s too dangerous to go at night.”
“Something is out there,” said Mesa. “Something louder than a chorus of wolves, its shrieks shake the earth.”
“There’s no full moon tonight,” said Eustace.
“We are aware,” said Mesa. “Whatever it is, it is unnatural.”
“We can’t wait here ‘til mornin’,” said Eustace. “What’s the quickest route?”
“I will take you by sled,” said Mesa, “but I will not fight. I have my own to protect.”
“Fair enough,” said Bernie. “Let’s move.”
The sled was pulled by twenty-four dogs, each one powerful and fleet-footed. Mesa controlled the reigns with ease, cutting through the forest path and up the ridge of the crater. The ridge was far too narrow for sleds, and Eustace recognized the risk Mesa took in favor of speed.
They stopped at the ridge’s precipice. Below was Leek Denaa frozen still like a photograph.
“Where was the last place you saw Charlene?” said Eustace.
Mesa pointed at rubble. “The cathedral courtyard is where the tribunal took place. It was also the emergency sanctuary.”
Eustace, Kalvin, and Bernie disembarked and took their supplies with them. They climbed down the ridge under the eerie green glow of the aurora borealis above. The only howls came from the wind, and not a single wolf could be found.
“What do you think happened here?” said Kalvin.
“If The Dust made it here before us, think The Bedlam Complex,” said Eustace, “but on a bigger scale.”
The ground began to tremor beneath them. Eustace held out his arms to balance himself as the quakes grew in severity. He gazed into the distance to find a hill covered in the black fur of a werewolf. The hill began to move between the remaining buildings.
“Did you see that?” said Bernie as softly as possible.
“Yeah I did,” said Eustace. “Very slowly inch your way to that building across the market.”
They did as Eustace instructed. Every crunch of his parka was enough to stop his heart. Just a few more steps.
Gunfire rang out in the streets. The beast leapt into the market square, crushing the road beneath its weight. Its throat splintered into two malformed heads.
Eustace and the others ran into the building and barred the door with and Iron rod. Bernie dropped their bags and rummaged out additional firearms and ammunition.
“Do you think it saw us!?” said Kalvin.
“Assume it did!,” said Eustace. “Pick up another gun and get ready!”
Eustace peeked out the window to find two people firing upon the beast. Their weapons impotent against a monster so immense.
“Looks like we have survivors!” said Bernie.
Kalvin meekly glanced out the window. “It’s Gator!” said Kalvin. “I don’t know the other person, but that’s Gator!”
“They’re heading this way!” said Bernie. “Unbar the door, Kal!”
Kalvin unlocked the door and waved for Gator to come in. Eustace and Bernie opened fire at the beast to distract it. “Aim for its eyes and feet!!” said Eustace. “It’ll slow it down!!”
The two survivors made it into the building. They breathed heavily as they rested their hands on their knees. Gator managed to cough out his thanks.
“Where’s Char!?” said Bernie.
“Can’t. Find her,” said Gator between gasps. “We need. To kill that thing!”
“It regenerates,” said Gator’s partner. “We need to concentrate everything we got at it. One strong volley of silver bullets should do it!”
“Listen to Judith!” said Gator. “She knows what she’s doing!”
“We’ve got your strong volley,” said Bernie as she handed them automatic rifles.
The beast rammed the side of the building, forming a widening crack with each strike. Its twin roars shook the contents of the pantry from the shelves.
The team of five escaped through a back door and bolted down crooked streets and alleyways until they found themselves positioned along the flank of the beast. Together they opened fire. The beast fell to its side after the initial impact, but it quickly regained its footing. It charged at the group, causing all but one to scatter.
Kalvin’s body was scooped up into the beast’s maw as it retreated into the alley.
“KALVIN!!” screamed Eustace. He fell to his knees as he seized his chest. Everything around him blurred and slowed. All he could do was watch as the beast thrashed about with Kalvin’s corpse before pouncing on Bernie. Gator and Judith raced towards Eustace as the beast fed upon Eustace’s family.
“We need to fall back!!” said Gator as he and Judith hauled Eustace to his feet.
“LET GO OF ME GODDAMMIT!!” Eustace leveled his revolver at the beast. He fired each shot at precise targets. Six bullets penetrated the beast’s body, ricocheting off bones and tearing it apart from the inside. The beast staggered back on its hind legs.
Judith grabbed her head as if it were cracking open. “Dear God, not again!!”
“What do you see!?” said Gator.
“There’s…two of them!?”
Fangs emerged from underground, locking onto the shared throat of the beast. The two heads shrieked in pain, distorted by the stretching of its vocal chords. A geyser of blood flooded the market square as the heads dangled lifelessly by threads of skin and fur.
A greater monstrosity towered above all others, standing on two legs with its bones jutting out of its skin. Its long black fur billowed in the wind, drowning in the glow of the northern lights. Its blooded fangs appeared to smile, gazing down at the remaining survivors.
“We need to run!” said Gator. “We’re out of ammo!!” He pulled Judith away as she screamed the name “Jessup.”
Eustace was left alone. With his revolver empty, he stood tall against the devil.
“DO IT!!” taunted Eustace. “DO IT!!!”
Soon the monstrosity buckled and fell to its knees. It became enveloped by five tiny wolves, each hungrily devouring whatever meat filled their jaws. The monstrosity stopped wailing after all the flesh had been torn from its corpse.
What…what are these? thought Eustace. The five wolves circled him, weighed down by their prey. Their eyes never left him, until their father arrived.
A haggard man stepped forward and called the wolves to his side with a whistle.
Eustace examined the old man’s face in disbelief.
“Daniel?” said Eustace. His son’s visage had deteriorated heavily in only a few months. His skin cracked with deep wrinkles stretching down around his throat. Parts of his jugular were burned and punctured.
Talk to him, Eustace.
Dan approached and circled Eustace as the wolves had done. Eustace looked Dan in the eyes. They held no joy or anger, not even surprise. It was a look of disappointment—whether it was for Eustace, Leek Denaa, or something else, Eustace was not sure. They were his mother’s eyes—melancholy and listless.
“Can you ever forgive me?” said Eustace. “We want you to come home. We don’t care what you’ve done. We’ll get through this together.”
Father and son embraced one another at the bottom of the crater. Dan pressed his forehead against Eustace’s, and they stood there, holding up each other’s exhausted bodies.
The five wolves left Dan’s side and stood beside their grandfather.