Excerpt: Changing Loyalties

Wolves needed to run. For that, they needed wide open spaces.

Al and Luca had invited Dahlia on this particular trip when she’d shown up at the pack house just as they were getting themselves into the four wheel drive. Now, less than half an hour later, they were riding fast along the M8 Western Freeway, around about halfway between Bacchus Marsh and Ballarat, when Al swore under his breath.

Luca was in the passenger seat, up front with Al. Luca switched from talking to Dahlia to giving his full attention to his da. “What’s wrong?”

Al was already slowing down the car.

Dahlia looked out the window behind her. There weren’t any other cars coming up behind them. The road was pretty quiet. Given that it was just after midday in the middle of a week that was nowhere near a public holiday weekend, that wasn’t surprising. Not a lot of traffic went up this way apart from trucks and people going on holiday, especially outside of work commute hours.

The tension in the car rose when Al didn’t reply to Luca’s question. He answered it with his silence.

They slowed to a stop without another word being breathed between them.

The sound of Al pushing open the driver’s side door was stark after the silence. Dahlia clicked her seatbelt undone. Al’s head snapped around to her, then to Luca, before he spoke for the first time. “Don’t let her out of the car.”

He was out of the car before Dahlia could voice her objection. But Luca wasn’t.

Dahlia pinned him with a steely glare. “I hope you don’t think I’m gonna put up with that,” she told him, already moving to the backseat door on Al’s side so Luca couldn’t hope to physically stop her in time.

He wasn’t stupid enough to try to physically stop her. He wasn’t, however, above attempting to use family loyalty against her. “Dahlia… If Al said it, it was for a reason.”

“Are you going out after him?” Dahlia asked, hand still poised on the car door.

Luca hesitated half a moment then, reluctantly, “Yes.”

“Then I’m going too.” She pushed open the door before Luca could muster another complaint.

The wind hit her hard, whipping her brown hair around her face and making her wish she’d brought a hair tie. This was exactly why she didn’t have a fringe. It was futile trying to keep brushing her hair from in front of her. She stopped after the first few tries, then looked around quickly to see what direction Al had gone in.

Luca was around the car and by her side as she crossed the road, having looked both ways. Only one car had come in the opposite direction since they’d stopped at the side of the road.

Al’s red hair was clearly visible amidst the burnt out colours of the brush. Dahlia advanced cautiously, because she wasn’t completely stupid, but Al was crouched down, looking at something on the ground, just to the side of the road. Something that wasn’t moving.

Dahlia tilted her head to the side as she tried to make out what that thing was, even as she trod carefully over clumps of overgrown weeds trying to trip her up.

She was vaguely aware of Luca to her left, walking maybe a step and a half ahead of her, but no longer trying to keep her back. She didn’t look at him, though. She was too busy trying to work out what Al was crouched over.

The moment she recognised what it was, she wished she hadn’t.

It was a human body. Naked. Bloody.

If that wasn’t enough to make her gag into the nearby scrub, there was the head, tilted at an unnatural angle so that the face was turned towards her. She recognised that face. It was the one she’d seen in her dreams for years after he left her at Annabelle’s.

The sounds of the wind and the movement in the weeds around them faded away. She forgot about Al and Luca until it was just her and her bloody, broken and dead father.

She couldn’t help it. She vomited.

“Let it out.” Luca was right by her side, touching her back lightly as a parent might to a child. She had reverted to being a child again, eight years old and abandoned, but now it was so much worse. Now there was the vacant expression of death replacing his living face.

She gasped, breathed in the smell of her own sour bile. This whole place was conspiring to make her vomit all over again. She couldn’t remember what she’d had for breakfast. Was there much more in her stomach to expel?

Al was in front of her, standing up now, gazing at her warily. His hands, she noticed, were red with her father’s blood. Not bright red though. Dahlia squinted, her mind pulling away from the whole of the tragedy by focusing on a detail. Did the lack of brightness mean that it was mostly dried? That this wasn’t recent?

How long had her dad been lying here, discarded and dead on the side of the road?

“Oh, God,” she uttered aloud.

It seemed to break a spell that was holding Luca and Al in place.

Al glanced towards his son again. “Take her back to the car.” Not an order this time. There was concern in his voice. No matter what she’d done, disobeying him back in the car, he wanted to protect her from this.

“No, I…” There was no protecting her from this now that she’d seen it. She shook her head, trying to drag her eyes away from the body—it wasn’t her dad, not anymore—and focus on Al. Now that she’d seen it, she might as well stay here. “I can stay.”

Luca’s hand was around her upper arm, whether in support in case her legs gave out on her, or readiness to obey his father’s most recent request.

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