I guess I have to say what actually happened.
I don’t have to but maybe if I do it’ll start to feel real.
Remember all last week when we were driving steadily towards this caravan of dudes who’d kidnapped Julian? Remember how we didn’t know why they did it, but we’d packed our local super-strength masked vigilante and all around good-guy into the car and brought him along for the chase?
I don’t think, in all those days of driving, I genuinely paused to consider what we were going to do when we caught up. I don’t know what I was expecting for this confrontation. Maybe a car chase or something. We were all set up to intercept them at various points on the road, maybe we’d have a show down at one of those points.
But that’s not how it happened, so I still have no concrete conception of what our plan was.
Instead, they dodged us twice. And you know what’s fucked up? It was boring. It wasn’t a show down at all. They took a couple turns that we weren’t expecting, and we felt a horrible squeeze of mounting frustration and fear, and that was it.
They made it into Reno without incident. It all feels so painfully irrelevant now. I honestly barely remember the details — I think at one point we thought we had them before they got into town, but it turned out they knew we were following them and switched up the cars so we followed the wrong caravan for like an hour in the wrong direction.
I remember at one point Beverly was on the phone, practically begging us not to go into the city on our own.
“Please,” she said. “Please, they’ll be ready for you, they’ll have you outnumbered, just wait until more backup is there. It’ll be an hour maximum, Knock and Daryl and the Kellihers are all on their way.”
But Cooper said he’d do whatever Neal wanted to do, and if it hadn’t been for Bass calling we’d have stormed right into the city. But Bass did call, and he sounded frantic.
“They’re on the move again,” he said. “I’m so sorry — they’re in different cars, they’re headed out into the desert —”
We already knew what that meant I think. I remember feeling really cold, and that strange combination of over-awareness of where all my limbs were, and total disassociation.
I’ve never seen the rabbit go this fast. We were catching up to them and we knew it, I could feel the anticipation mounting.
The trouble was this:
We missed them get off the highway. They got off at a total random exit, a truck stop, the kind of road that veered off into the desert and went off to nowhere, and Bass didn’t catch it until too late. And instead of driving the extra several miles to the next exit, and turning around Neal swerved off the road and drove like 200 yards through the fucking desert before we hit the road.
And the wild thing is that Cooper followed us — he’s a fucking ride or die, that one.
After that it was a long drive down an empty highway.
Neal stopped picking up the phone, which was when I got a phone call from Beverly — like, she called my phone specifically. She was absolutely frantic.
“Listen, Shiloh,” she paused and the background sounds got quieter. “When Neal gets like this he can get…” she trailed off, but I knew what she meant, could see it in the set of Neal’s jaw. He was a thousand miles away, and he was capable of anything. “If you can, if there’s anything you could do um — fuck.” She took a deep breath. “Stay in the rabbit, okay? Whatever happens, stay in the rabbit. We’re gonna get to you as quickly as we can.”
I told her I would, knowing I wouldn’t. Beverly was talking to me like I was scared, trapped alone with no control, but that’s not how I felt. I was with Neal. I’ve lost enough people in the last 12 or so months.
We took a right onto a private road. There was a chain across it announcing it was private, and beyond it, just the rise and fall of desert.
We blew right by the chain. It made a horrible clatter as it skittered across the hood of the rabbit. I remember distinctly watching it twitch and jerk and land in the dirt with a strange sense of disconnected finality.
When we finally caught up to them, they weren’t as many as we expected them to be. I recognized the Allens at once because they were keeping watch. The rest were some ten yards off the road. They were digging, and a long way down I knew what that meant.
By the time Neal was slamming on the breaks, I was already grabbing the hand guns from the glove compartment. I handed one to him as he got out of the car. I kept one myself. The fact that Neal didn’t suggest I stay in the car is evidence of how absolutely distracted he was.
“Merl!” he shouted, tucking the gun into the back of his denim. Already, they were turning towards us. Merl had a rifle and he pulled it closer to him. “Where the fuck is my brother?”
“Hello Neal,” Merl drawled. “There a reason you’re all the way out here?”
“Where is he,” Neal said, footsteps crunching in the dirt as he strode across the space. He shoved Merl hard, and he fell back against the hood of his car. “Where the fuck is my brother?”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” a stranger said, attempting to step between them, but Neal stomped on his foot and then elbowed him in the face and he recoiled, grasping at his nose. I saw blood begin to leak through his fingers.
“Where is he, Merl?” Neal said.
“Alright,” another stranger, a rough looking guy with a scruffy beard, intervened, pushed Neal back with a firm hand on his chest, and I saw the fire turn on in Neal’s face and realized he might get us both killed here.
People had been telling me this all year: Neal crosses over sometimes and becomes dangerous to himself and everyone with him. He’s not allowed to hunt with Jasper for that exact reason — they push each other further than they should go.
“Where the fuck is he, Merl?” Neal repeated, and pulled the gun out of his waistband. It hung loose and easy in his hand, glinting in the afternoon sun.
“Hey,” Merl said, but I could see a smile playing around his mouth. “Easy son, we’ve got you a bit outnumbered here.”
“I’ll risk it,” he said as we heard Cooper’s car crunch to a halt behind us. A door opened and closed behind us and I risked a glance. He was unarmed and deceptively calm as he approached us. There was absolutely no fear in his expression — which I guess shouldn’t surprise me, considering he deals with dangerous ass situations all the time, and also has super strength.
I saw a flicker of uncertainty in Merl Allen’s expression.
“Now Neal —”
“Where the fuck is he,” Neal said.
“Bro, what’s your problem?” said another stranger, a kid only a few years older than me in a trucker hat and cargo pants. “He was a blood thirsty fuckin monster —” but he stopped there because Rudy Allen cuffed him on the back of the head. “What?”
“That what you told them?” Neal said just to the Allens. “Blood thirsty monster? That what you’re telling all your oblivious new recruits? You explain anything else to them?”
But he stopped because Neal raised the gun and rested it right between Merl’s eyes.
“He was a blood thirsty monster?” Neal said and I saw some resignation harden Merl’s expression.
“Is he alive?” Neal demanded.
“Let’s take a minute —“
“Is Julian alive?”
The other hunters were all closing in around us, scrambling for weapons, shouting frantically. I held up my little gun, hands shaking, fully aware that if I pulled the trigger I’d likely land on my butt in the dirt.
“Did he even change?” Neal asked, and I heard the agony at the back of this throat now.
Merl began to open his mouth, and Neal cut him off. “Don’t answer — I know he didn’t. You’d all be dead if he had. They’re all still pretty much buying the he’s a monster though, huh? You guys still buying it?”
Neal didn’t look away from the Merl, just gestured idly with his gun, but I saw a couple of the new hunters exchange uncertain glances.
No one dared say a word. Neal took a moment and a deep breath. He even closed his eyes for a moment. When he spoke again, his voice deadly calm and he was speaking directly to Merl.
“Did you kill him?”
And Merl finally answered: “No.”
I saw pain twist Neal’s expression.
“Liar,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
I think I screamed. I definitely pulled the trigger of my gun (and also my eyes closed at the same time ILL ADVISED) but I missed everyone (thank god) and the recoil bucked the gun back into my forehead. I think my shot bought us a little bit of time because the rest of the hunters dove for cover behind cars, which gave Cooper time to get his superhero on lmfao.
Superhero-ing btw that began with him disarming Neal. Which was probably good, because Rudy had howled with rage and launched himself at Neal, and if Neal had been armed, Rudy would probably be dead, too.
Which was why it was me, not Neal, that crawled out to where they were digging. They’d wrapped his tall body in a sheet, but his curls were poking out the top in the dust.
I reached out to touch. I couldn’t bring myself to pull back the sheet, I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. There was a dark pool of what I knew, very distantly, was blood a few yards away in the dirt.
Behind me I could hear Neal’s dragging footsteps. He dropped onto his knees in the dirt beside me, pressed his forehead to Julian’s under the sheet and screamed into the ground. And then, with a grunt of effort, he hoisted Julian up and started dragging him towards the car.
“Neal —” I began, but I didn’t know what to say.
“Hey!” Cooper called. He had finished zip-tying the other hunters — yes, zip-tying, our resident super hero never goes anywhere without a few apparently. They were on their knees lined up in front of the cars. Rudy Allen was snarling and blustering, and Merl Allen was laying in the dirt. His blood was smeared on the hood of the car and splattered on the windshield.
“Hey,” Cooper said, jogging over. “He alive?”
“No,” Neal said. He was disturbingly calm. Cooper came to help Neal, and he was strong enough to pick Julian up outright.
“Where?” he asked.
“The rabbit,” Neal said, briskly, leading the way. He opened the back door and Cooper helped him get Julian’s shoulders into the back seat. We had to bend his knees to get him in properly.
He wasn’t stiff. He wasn’t even cold yet.
The moment the doors were closed, Neal was already opening the driver side door.
“Hey man,” Cooper began, moving to intervene, but Neal dodged under his arm and slid inside. “Is there someone I can call or —”
“Nope,” Neal said.
“Neal where are we —”
“Shiloh get in or you’re with Captain Fantastic,” he said. His voice was like a stranger’s voice.
“…Is there a plan? For when a hunter dies?” Cooper caught the car door as Neal tried to slam it. “I can’t let you drive away with a body in your back seat.”
Neal didn’t respond, and let the quiet welcome Cooper to try and stop him.
“What do we do with them?” Cooper gestured at the lineup of zip-tied hunters and Neal shrugged.
Cooper didn’t exactly back off but I saw him shift away. Maybe he was disappointed.
“You murdered my brother!” Rudy Allen was howling from where he was kneeling with the others. “In cold blood, you murdered him, you murdered —”
On and on, wailing.
Cooper glanced from them to Neal, hesitating, because Cooper didn’t know Neal knew Merl had lied when he said he hadn’t killed Julian.
“Shiloh, you wanna stay?” Neal said.
I was in shock. I got into the passenger seat without even thinking about it.
“Follow us or don’t,” he added to Cooper, threw the rabbit in reverse, and drove away.
I twisted to see if Cooper was coming but he was just standing there, watching us go, and I couldn’t look long without my eyes falling onto the backseat. And I just can’t look into the back seat. I can’t do it.
Now it’s two days later.
We’re still driving.
Our phones ring and we don’t pick them up.
I don’t know what happened to Cooper, or anyone we left zip tied in the desert, or Rudy Allen.
Neal isn’t speaking, or eating, or looking at me. He won’t let me drive, and he’s only stopped to sleep for like maybe 6 hours total all weekend. He won’t tell me where we’re going. I don’t think he knows. He just stares straight forward at the road and grinds his teeth.
We’re spiraling folks. I feel like I’m watching everything happen in a smoky room through a gauzy curtain. I lean my head against car window to feel the road vibrate my eardrums.