Anthony’s eyes let loose a few traitorous tears in the cab seat next to me, his hand clutching the black drawstring bag between his feet as if it were a lifeline. I’d only known him a few weeks, but he was woefully unaccustomed to the violence of the Circle’s way of life. I saw it in his face when Argus gave us our first charge. He had looked pale as a sheet of paper, which was impressive given his tan. It was a comfort to know I wasn’t the only one they inducted out of desperation.We had been silent while carrying out Argus’ orders. I knew that if I had made a point of how bad Anthony’s hands were shaking it would’ve made everything worse. In the cab, my curiosity overtook me.
“You’ve never killed anything before?”
A concoction of fear and surprise stopped his tears in their tracks. He watched the driver for a reaction as he stammered out a “no.”
“The glass is too thick for him to hear. We’d have to press the button to talk,” my words reassured, but my tone chastised.
“Oh,” he relaxed infinitesimally. After a pause, he realized he hadn’t answered my question, “No, I’ve never killed anything before. I’ve never had to.”
“It’s just squirrels. You could’ve let me do it.”
He raised his hand to his face suddenly, as though just realizing that he should dry the tears on his cheeks, “Well I wanna get used to it. Sacrifice is kind of part of the whole thing.”
He shifted away from me, ever so slightly, pressing his eyes shut. I’d struck a nerve. Pitying him, I tacked on, “You’ll get used to it.”
“Thanks.” He didn’t believe me.
The cab was approaching a truck stop on the highway, complete with a dank highway diner. Pressing the button, I instructed the cab driver to drop us at the diner. Anthony did not look at me as I paid and hopped out of the cab.
“Can you call up a shroud?” I asked under my breath as we approached the diner.
Anthony scoffed, which was the most confident thing I’d ever heard him do. “Of course.”
Together we breathed slow and deep, calming our heart rates, dampening our auras, out of view from anyone who wasn’t paying attention.
As we stepped inside I observed the truck drivers who had stopped in for a meal. They were all men, some with sagging skin and sunken eyes clutching beers in their fists, others thin and emaciated, inhaling burgers and fries. A man at the bar was nodding his head to non-existent music, fighting valiantly against the drunken stupor that was bound to win him over. Anthony and I sat at the bar a few seats down from him. The bartender-slash-waitress did not acknowledge us. I pointed a thumb over my shoulder at the now sleeping truck driver. “Go get his keys.”
Anthony’s shoulders slumped as he slid off of his stool, a strange reaction to the terror that must have gripped him in the moment. I poured myself a beer from the bar as he returned, the keys of our fated vehicle hanging from his pointer finger. He gave me a wan smile. “You oughtta be proud of yourself,” I congratulated.
After 20 minutes of shoving car keys into slots they didn’t belong to, we managed to find the truck that belonged to the sleeping man. I swung up into the driver’s seat as Anthony clambered in, placing the drawstring bag in the back of the cab. The tools inside had already begun to reek of death. I knew we hadn’t washed them properly. I tore the air freshener from the rearview mirror and placed it on top. Anthony laughed at the futility of the action. “Hey, it’s better than nothing.”
Although I had been the one drinking, Anthony passed out after 15 minutes on the highway. I couldn’t blame the kid. We had been hitchhiking for days to get to Kansas. In Kansas City he had seemed ready to have a mental episode at the prospect of another couple hours entertaining the whims of the strangers who picked us up. I had used the last of our funds to grab a cab to somewhere remote and unpoliced so we could jack a rig.
I drove for hours, as if caught in a loop. We kept on passing the same field of corn, over and over. Perhaps Kansas just gave the sensation of motion without progress. At 15 or 50 mph the corn sped past at the same rate. I could’ve sworn I saw a familiar jaggle-toothed scarecrow at least three times within 2 hours. Either way, we resigned to riding it out until Kansas deemed us worthless enough to let go, and hoping it wouldn’t decide to keep us on our return trip.
I didn’t know exactly why the higher-ups chose the northeastern chapter to carry out this charge, but I suspected it. What irritated me was that Argus had decided to send two kin, who had only belonged to the circle for a month, halfway across the country for a charge that he said would “change the fate of the Circle.”
Anthony awoke shortly before we reached our destination, the warehouse of the midwestern chapter. Thinking of our own dinky warehouse, it must’ve been Circle policy to live in and operate out of them.
“How do you feel?” I asked, the falsity of my sympathy ringing in my own ears.
“Okay,” his voice was still muted by exhaustion.
“Will you be alright around the midwestern chapter?”
“I think so,” he sighed, his back cracking as he stretched his arms above his head.
“You should know so. If the head is suspicious at all she’ll take us for insurgents. We don’t want that.”
“I know so,” he declared, fear coloring his face.
Finally, we arrived. The warehouse was rusty, in a word. Every inch seemed to be a tetanus risk. There were old, rotting cars littered about the parking lot. Fittingly, the apocalypse looked as if it had already been here. I put the truck into park, wedging blocks under the wheels to keep it from running away. Argus had strictly instructed us to open the gate of the cargo bed upon arrival and Anthony did so.
With no other instructions, we approached the front door and knocked for entry. A woman with amber eyes and ratty hair opened the door and we stood rigid before her. She noticed the symbol of the circle on both of us, an ouroboros pin that stood in for the tattoos we would one day earn. She flashed a smile and stepped aside, waving to the members who had been safely observing from behind her. They ran to the back of the warehouse and began lugging crates marked with the infamous yellow and black trefoil symbol, underscored by bold black letters that read RADIOACTIVE. With concerning grunts of effort the members of the midwestern chapter piled the stolen materials into our truck. The purpose of our charge clicked into place in my head as the woman took a seat on a lumpy and stained couch.
“You’ll have to transport these materials quickly and carefully. People might be looking for your truck, so drive back a different route than you came. We’re putting on another set of license plates to help you out, but your main goal is to stay under the radar. Nothing brash. Might wanna let him drive if he can,” her eyes indicated Anthony, “he seems more the trucker type.”
“Thanks,” was all I could think to say.
“Once we’ve finished loading the truck we’ll give you some food to tide you over and you can hunt and sacrifice for luck on the next part of your journey. This time I would chose something more appropriate than squirrels.”
I didn’t ask how she knew what we had chosen as our offering. Some things could not be known yet.
“They didn’t tell me of your next location, but you’re not exactly delivering a care package so I would get out there as quickly as you can. Better safe than sorry. I wish you the very best of luck. Don’t get caught and I’ll see you on the other side.”
And with that she sent us on our way.