DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 2

 

The wolves hovered in the air like derelict satellites caught in the pull of an unknown planet.  They were anchored to trees by ropes, leashes, and chains. Many were tangled together across the great sprawl of pale hills, forming chimerical pillars of teeth and fur. The creatures unlucky enough to be free thrashed and yelped helplessly before being drawn into the brilliant gray sun by some ethereal wind.

                The currents droned like the yawns of giants, waking Dan with their eerie lullaby. The young man lay lifeless in the field; blood pooled around his shoulder while the tall grass poked up between his skinny limbs. He peeled himself from the crater and stood, dusting the dirt from his clothes. The debris levitated and joined the shrieking beasts circling in the light overhead.  Impossible, thought Dan as he watched the animals maul one another some thirty feet above, the blood from his wounds and theirs inhaled by the void.

Chapter 2:

Monster Mash

                Dan kept his eyes closed as her fingernails grazed past the nap of his neck, rippling through his golden hair from back to front. Charlene had knocked on the door frame before entering the guest bedroom, but if she was trying to get Dan out of bed, she was doing a terrible job of it. With each rhythmic pass Dan fell deeper into the early morning trance, her hand dictating his calm. He was afraid he would startle her if he moved; he was more afraid she would stop.

                “Char!” called Gator from downstairs. Her hand slid away with a sigh and the mattress creaked as she left. Dan lay in the cool sheets a moment longer, letting the sunlight stream across his bare back. He lifted his feet up from the edge of the mattress and rolled over to his side. His fingers traced the teeth marks along his collar bone. He still had nightmares of the attack, how he went limp like a dead rabbit before blacking out in its jaws. The wolf was a girl he knew from high school. She was put down outside a grocery store a week later.

                The sky blue walls were decorated with religious paintings and tapestries of famous ball parks. Charlene’s aunt Bernie owned the palatial beach house just outside of Saugatuck. She had left the property vacant for the week to follow the Tigers in Milwaukee. The trio had let themselves in after they had to abandon their apartment in Warren. So much of that night had withered in Dan’s mind that he had trouble sorting out the memories from fever dreams. The screams, however, had endured.

                He wiped his eyes and grabbed Char’s lighter from the nightstand. A garish “B” had been etched into its side. He lit up on his way to the bathroom across the hall. Charlene had gotten him addicted during their departure from Warren. Chain smoking had snuffed more than a few of Dan’s relatives, but it couldn’t hurt him now and they kept him on the level. He was anxious to learn what really happened that night in the apartment, and without a steady supply of cigarettes he would have gnawed off all ten of his fingernails by now.

                Dan stood on the balls of his feet, puffing towards the slotted window above the toilet as he relieved himself. He could hear Gator and Charlene arguing in the kitchen below, although their words were muffled by the trickle. They had become more brazen in their quarrels as they grew more comfortable with Dan’s company, but the fighting downstairs reminded him all too well of his parents the night he left home. His mother sobbed “no”s into a couch cushion while his father wished him dead. He feared he had overstayed his welcome here as well.

                The cigarette fell from his mouth and singed the back of his hand. He kneeled and reached behind the toilet to retrieve his smoke. Dan gave it a cursory blow and popped it back in his mouth. By the time he flushed the toilet his hand had healed from the burn. He changed into his jeans and buttoned up his orange short-sleeve. He made one last mental check before heading downstairs. Wallet…check… phone… check… lighter…still in pajamas.

                When he entered the kitchen the sausage meat was sizzling and the last bit of pancake batter was scrapped onto the skillet. “Eat something,” she whispered to her husband. Char returned to the stove top to adjust the sausage links with a wooden spoon. She caught a glimpse of Dan when she looked over her shoulder. “Mornin’, Danny. Help yourself.” Her smile was the sun with a magnanimity, warmth and radiance, peeking out from her shoulder. She bunched her curly, dirty-blonde locks into a high ponytail whenever she cooked. If she was the sun, then Gator was the moon—full, oppressive, and pale.

                Gator had his head down, sitting at the head of the table. His hands were folded like he was awaiting sentencing. His dark hair matted to his skull as if he slept with a helmet on. His usually piercing eyes lay holstered in a gaze of despair, frozen in their search for better options. Gator appeared younger than his wife despite being six years her senior. He stared at his hands as Charlene scrapped more food onto his plate.

                Dan took a seat next to Gator, a large oval platter filled with silver-dollar pancakes between them.

                “You okay, Gator?” asked Dan.

                “We have some news, Danny,” said Char before he could answer.

                Dan watched Gator close his eyes and wondered if he was saying grace. The thought of Gator thanking anyone made him want to laugh, but he didn’t dare. “What kind of news?”

                 “Well, I had Gator go into town early and pick up a few things: milk, smokes… pregnancy test,” said Char with an impish grin.

                “Gator’s pregnant? It’s a miracle!” said Dan. Charlene’s eyes turned into crescents when she smiled big, but they practically vanished when she laughed. Gator stayed stone quiet.

                “Did you hear what Danny said?” asked Char.

                “No,” said Gator.

                Char’s smile faded into playful agitation. “Where’s my husband?”

                “He has a lot on his mind,” said Gator.

                Char moved from the table to the kitchen window to view the beach.

                “That’s wonderful,” said Dan. “I mean… that’s good news, isn’t it?”

                “Get away from the window,” said Gator, ignoring Dan.

                “A seagull just landed on the patio, come take a look.”

                “I said get away from the window!”

                Char turned and faced Dan. “Enjoy your breakfast, Danny, I’m going to go lie down on the couch…it’s not as dangerous as standing near a window, but you may want to check on me in a few minutes to be safe.” She left the room in a huff.

                The men were alone. The only sound came from Dan’s fork and knife clanking against the stoneware. Gator leaned into the table and whispered. “While she was upstairs pissin’ on a stick I did some research on Aunt Bernie’s Mac. Let me get one of those.” Gator pointed at Dan’s pack next to his plate. When he asked for a light, Dan handed him the lighter with the “B.” “Does she know you have this?” his eyes had found their intensity.

                Dan didn’t see the harm in using someone else’s lighter. “She told me I could use it.”

                “Jesus Christ. She should know better than that!” Gator stuffed the lighter in his pocket after lighting. “The computer said that women infected with Were give birth in about two months’ time.”

                Dan had read that a long time ago while researching an argumentative paper assignment. It had been the impetus for some states to propose laws ordering infected to undergo surgical birth control. Egregious offenders faced chemical castration. “Two months? That’s not a lot of time.”

                “Yeah, no shit. She was already showin’ two nights ago. She said she’s been feeling sick ever since we left the apartment. If that’s the case, her due date has a very good chance of falling on a fucking full moon.”

                “What happens if she goes into labor after she turns?”

                “Don’t know. I couldn’t find anything about it ever happening. I’m thinking her family might have some first-hand experience with that. Speaking of which, we need to talk to you about new…arrangements.” Gator took a drag.

                I knew I couldn’t stay with them forever, but just two weeks? “What’s there to talk about, Gator?”

                “Finish up what you have there and meet me in the basement.”

                 This is it. This is my last meal with them. Dan carved the pancakes into progressively tinier squares. He’ll be even more pissed if you keep stalling. He didn’t remember eating, but somehow the plate was cleaned. He placed the dish in the sink on his way to the basement while a seagull pecked at the window.

                The basement was illuminated by stubby widows over head. Dust swirled through the sunlight above furniture wrapped in garbage bags. “You need to know something,” said Gator. “Char’s family isn’t as sweet and bubbly as she is. They’re a bunch of fuckers, actually—mostly wolves. The only thing they hate more than me is outsiders, and they hate me pretty hard. I won’t be able to look out for you the way I used to. Between getting ready for the baby and keeping an eye on her brothers and cousins, you’ll be on your own.”

                Gator had never looked that worried before. Dan was morbidly curious to see what could put doubt in those eyes. “I get that.”

                “I don’t think you do. Look. You don’t have to come with us, Dan. Part of me thinks you might be better off. These people have done some shit. I need you to understand that.”

                Dan wasn’t sure what to think. He had come to Gator and Charlene for help when he had no one and they made sure he would never need anyone again, instilling a mixture of bravery and arrogance. How quickly a baby could erase all that self-reliance and strength. Dan was surprised Gator had even given him the choice of staying. Had Gator truly felt Dan was better off without them, he would have driven off before the sun rose. Dan remembered what his father had told him the night he left and knew he was no one’s son.

                “I’m coming with.”

                “Then get ready, we leave in an hour.”

*****

                Dan ventured out into the yard where he heard Gator struggling. He was attempting to lift a gigantic black trunk onto his truck bed. It was the only piece of luggage the couple had taken with them from the apartment in Warren.

                “Let me grab the other handle,” said Dan.

                “Fuck it!” Gator let the trunk fall to the ground. He was breathing heavy and he used the trunk as a chair. “If you’re all packed I want you to help Char with the stuff she’s taking from the house. The faster we hit the road the better. You’ll have to sit with that crap in the back seat by the way.”

                “I need to ask you something.”

                “Changed your mind?”

                “Not that,” said Dan. “You’re the only one who knows what happened that night at the apartment. You said you would tell me what happened when we found a place to rest.”

                “There’s nothing to talk about.”

                “People were killed.”

                “And?” Gator rubbed the back of his neck with his sweaty, calloused hand.

                “And I need to know how they died.”

                Gator chuckled. “Let me ask you this, what do you remember from that night? I want you to really concentrate and tell me what you see.”

                Dan paused a moment, but he didn’t need it. “I remember the manacles, how cold they felt around my arms. They were so huge I thought they would slip right off, but I knew I’d fill them.  Then came the burning, like all my hair was getting pulled out at once. I usually pass out during that, but I was able to stay awake until…until my bones started to stretch and snap,” said Dan. He lit another cigarette. “When I came to I was on your bed and you two were packing. I think I killed somebody that night. You told me I didn’t but I think I did.”

                “You saying you know better than me?”

                “There was so much blood, Gator.”

                “Why are you so fucking concerned about it?”

                Dan tossed his cigarette into the dirt and mashed it with his shoe. “A week ago I never thought I’d smoke a cigarette and now I smoke constantly,” said Dan. “What if I start killing and don’t stop?” He was embarrassed by how childish his concern sounded out loud.

                “You’re precious,” said Gator with a smile.

                “I don’t want to kill people, Gator. I’m not a monster.” Dan regretted it the moment it left his mouth.

                Gator stood up. “Is that what you think of me?”

                “That’s not what I meant.” Dan had forgotten why people called him Gator; he smiled before he attacked.

                Gator stepped closer to Dan. “When you woke up that morning in my bed, did you taste blood in your mouth?” he asked with a grin.

                “I don’t think so, no.” Dan began walking backwards. He didn’t want to take his eyes off Gator.

                Gator snapped Dan’s hand from his pocket and shoved it in his face. “Did you find shit under your fingernails?”

                “No.”

                Gator let Dan’s hand fall to his side.

                “I didn’t mean it like that, Gator, I swear!”

                “You need to get something through your fucking skull. I murdered those people to protect you and my wife. If you have a problem with how we do things then do your own fucking killing!”

                “I just had to know for sure.”

                “There were three of them. I recognized one from the hardware store. He must have gotten suspicious and convinced his buddies to follow me back to the apartment. The first one came in through the fire escape, but he didn’t see me behind the couch. I shot him through the neck. The other two made a bunch of fucking noise at the front door breaking the door knob with a sledgehammer. I had my shot fixed on the door by the time the second one entered. After he went down, I planted a hatchet in the last fucker’s neck before he could aim his rifle. Hacking a man’s head off can get pretty messy, hence the mess. I hope that helps you sleep better.”

                Dan felt rushes of relief and shame. Relief for not becoming what his father predicted, shame for thinking like his father.“I never meant to insult you.”

                “I don’t do these things because I want to, Dan. It’s just unavoidable sometimes. I’ve been protecting Char for the last three years and I just happened to get real good at what I do. I lost a lot that night, but I plan on making up for it.”

                “What do you mean?”

                “Don’t tell Char.” Gator opened the truck he had been trying to load into the truck. He pulled back a cream-colored blanket to reveal an arsenal of guns. They had been wiped down to remove the blood and they glistened like crystals. “These are what I pulled off of our friends in Warren. See the engraving on some of these—the craftsmanship? Each one could go for a few thousand.”

                “Why don’t you want Char to know?”

                “Cause they’re made with silver. She wanted me to toss them in the lake, but we need the money.” Gator covered them with the blanket and shut the trunk. “It’s important that you and Char stay away from these. Don’t even look at this trunk until I get those weapons sold. If you see Char fussin’ with it you stop her, okay?”

                Dan had counted nearly twelve guns in that trunk, too many for just three men. “It’ll be our secret,” said Dan.

*****

                The truck bounced along the ruined road. They had been driving for two hours, but they were almost at the outskirts of Flint. Char’s family was close and she promised Dan food when they arrived. Dan repeated his conversations with Gator in his head over and again. He didn’t foster much of an appetite and tried to rest his head on the bags he helped Char load into the backseat.

                Char had a pad of paper and a pen. She had been writing since they left Bernie’s. “How many beers did you take from the fridge last night, baby?”

                “I don’t know…five?”

                “Five beers!? We were only there for a night.

                “What difference does it make?”

                “I’m making a list of things we took from Bernie’s place. I want to send her an email when we get to Daddy’s place and let her know we will pay her back for everything.”

                “I remember now. I had two beers.”

                “A six pack it is.” Char had borrowed a robust assortment of toiletries from her Aunt’s pantry. Each item was accounted for on her list. “We’re not thieves, Gator.”

                “I know, baby.” He caressed her inner thigh. “Don’t forget the ingredients for the pancakes.”

                “Already got ‘em.”

                “How’s Dan doing back there?”

                “Let’s find out.”

                Char poked Dan in the knee and pointed out the apartment complex with three buildings. The tenets had been cleared out and Char’s family repurposed it into a fortress. The fences were tangled with barbed wire. Dan spotted several security cameras and sniper outposts along the sandbagged balconies. Even more alarming were their numbers. Hundreds of vagrants made their way from floor to floor. A crowd had convened in the courtyard where man, woman, and child could eat, drink, dance, and vomit. A line of motorcycles and cars lined up around the entire block.

                “Are all these people family, Char?” asked Dan.

                “Well, about a quarter of them are. The complex is owned and operated by my dad. It’s kind of the unofficial clubhouse for the Michigan chapter.”

                “Michigan Chapter?”

                “Of the Detroit Bedlam Motorcycle Club.”

                They called themselves The Bedlam for short. The words were embroidered on their jackets; their insignia consisted of a silver skeleton covering its ears with red percussion lines emanating from it. Their faces were sunken and withered— their skin translucent and spotted. Danny had remembered their human age from the stories Char told him. When he multiplied it by six he couldn’t believe they were still upright. Each member had a grotesque scar left by their first attack. Their wounds made Dan’s teeth marks look like a love bite. Some were missing entire limbs that had been chewed off under a full moon sky.

                Char appeared like royalty, waving at her people and occasionally being scooped up into the air by her bulkier relatives. “Where’s daddy?” she asked. The crowd was a creature unto itself, pulling Char to her father’s tent and shoving Dan and Gator away from its heart. They too were engulfed, but with considerably less fanfare. The bikers paid little attention to Dan in favor of glaring at Gator. It didn’t take long for them to recognize Char’s husband.

                “Well, if it isn’t the Dog Catcher!” called a man from the horde. His voice was deep and booming. “You gonna take us to the pound, you little Watch fuck!?” The man stood up and towered over the masses. His bald head glistened in the afternoon sun as sweat wicked down his goatee. He entered the circle that had formed around Dan and Gator.

                Dan was shocked by Gator’s poise. He walked up behind him. “Why does he call you the Dog Catcher?”

                “Because he thinks I work for the Watch,” said Gator. “I told you, Hugo, I was a prison guard.”

                “And what did you guard, Dog Catcher!? Maybe we can find a small enough cage for you—make you feel right at home! If you can’t fit, I’ll just rip parts off of you until you can!”

                Dan could only stand there, replaying the opportunity he had to leave Gator and Char behind in Saugatuck.

                “ENOUGH!” shrieked an emaciated old man, his voice hoarse with bile. He shuffled forward with a cane. His body riddled with tremors, his hair slicked back and gray. He wore black pants and a silver dress shirt with red suspenders running up his torso. “Leave them, all of you…except for Hugo.”

                The giant spoke almost at a whisper. “I was just making noise, that’s all.”

                “You embarrassed me in front of guests. You know what must be done, Hugo.”

                The lumbering giant approached the old man with agony on his face. He kneeled down and laid his head on the concrete. The old man placed a foot on Hugo’s neck and rammed his cane straight through his cheek. A geyser of blood shot from the giant’s mouth and his scream rang throughout the complex.

                “You may spit your teeth out now, Hugo. A wolf does more that bear its fangs. If you ever talk to my son-in-law like that again I’ll make you swallow each one!” The old man wiped his cane on the giant’s shirt. “Welcome back, Gator. You and I have much to discuss. Charlene waits for us in my tent. You may bring the boy.”

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