DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 6

The void grew belligerent with each creature consumed. Dan searched for a tree to grab onto, but the hills were left bare by the insatiable abyss. He dug frantically until he discovered hidden roots beneath the pale wasteland. When he grabbed hold they clamped down on his hands like bear traps and the pain shot throughout his arms.

The droning grew thunderous as his feet lifted. His clothing tore from his body and he was left naked and bloody. His skin was the next layer to rupture, revealing patches of gray fur. Before each hair could be ripped from his body, the roots mercifully released what was left of him and he ascended, like the rest, in agony. 

Chapter 6:

The Warg

The tent looked as if it were used for termite fumigation, jutting out from the front doors of the North Building with streaks of gray and gold. Smells like death too, thought Dan as he entered behind Gator and let the tent fabric roll off his shoulder.  Charlene stood with her arms crossed and her back against a support rod. She gazed at them through the corners of her eyes, weary and vexed.

“Where is he?” asked Gator.

“He went to wash his hands,” said Char.

“They get so dirty sometimes” wheezed a voice from the back.  His cane thumped as he made his way from building to tent. The tiny old man surfaced with a towel, scrubbing his hands dry before tossing the rag onto the table.

“You shouldn’t have attacked Hugo,” said Char. “He wouldn’t have done anything.”

“He made us look simple,” he said. Her father slid his suspenders off his shoulders and rubbed the crevices they left behind.

“He’s seven!”

“He’s a big boy— takes a lot to slow that big body once it gets moving. It was best to stop him quick, and if he learned a lesson all the better.” He turned his attention to Gator. “It’s been a while, Fredrick, or Gator, or whatever the hell you call yourself.”

“It’s just ‘Gator,’” said Char. “You know that.”

“Such a frightening moniker—it almost makes me forget what a coward he is.” The old man approached Gator in three thumps. He looked up into his son-in-law’s face, defiant and trembling.  “She was half your age when she turned, but if you want to walk around pretending you’re an animal than go right ahead.”

Gator glanced at his wife before addressing him as Howard.

Finding no fight in Gator, the old man locked eyes with Dan. “And this one… my daughter can’t go long without bringing up your name—‘Dan’ is it? Just ‘Dan?’ Not ‘Shark’ or ‘Velociraptor?’”

“No, Sir. Just ‘Dan.’” He was unable to tell if Howard was nodding in approval or if his tremors had become more severe.

“As Freddy so eloquently mumbled, my name is Howard, Howard Fettel. You were fortunate not to get blasted by our sharpshooters. I ordered them to put down anyone they didn’t recognize. I guess you just have one of those faces.”

Howard’s tone made it difficult for Dan to tell if he was joking.

“So… is anyone going to tell me why you’re all here or should I?”

 Dan watched Char and Gator’s faces grow blank.

The old man walked to Char and took her hand in his. “I’m sorry about Hugo, but if he were to injure the father of my grandchildren I’d have hung him in the courtyard.”

Char ripped her hand away. “Your Warg is coming in handy, isn’t he?”

Dan had never heard such a word. It was uttered with so much bile that he thought it was a slur.

“Worth every penny.” said Howard as his mouth trembled. “There’s little you can keep from me these days.”

“You don’t look happy to become a grandfather again,” said Gator.

“There are complications to this birth that I don’t believe you knew, or cared to think about. I know a great deal now thanks to the Warg. He told me what happened at the apartment as well, although he didn’t go into great detail.  Suffice it to say, you two are prime targets now and as long as you are in my protection, you will sleep in the bomb shelter under the East Building. This one will have to sleep elsewhere.”

Dan wondered how this Warg could know what happened at a place he had never been. If he was clairvoyant, just how much detail could he provide? He also hoped that ‘elsewhere’ included a roof.

“You don’t think that’s a tad excessive?” said Char.

“They don’t call ahead, my dear. They strike at all hours. Some are even stupid enough to attack during a full moon as I’m sure you are now well aware.  Besides, you two have enough to worry about as it is. You’ve no doubt realized the error of your breeding by now?”

“We figured if anyone knew what to do during a moon birth it would be you.”

Howard took a seat and rested his cane against the table. He looked up with a grin. “I have done my share of breeding, that mob out there can attest. If you time the conception correctly, the process can go by without incident. Pups grow strong, albeit incredibly fast. Childhood is a blur and you end up with things like Hugo out there.” Howard glanced at Dan. “Bet you’ve never seen a seven-year-old that fucking big before, have you? “

“Hugo is your son?” said Dan.

“More than half of the Bedlam is my brood. The rest are scrawny little stragglers with no place else to hide.”

“Tell us about the moon births,” said Gator.

 “They’re rare. Even after building up the Bedlam for the last decade I’ve only come across it twice.” Howard pulled a flask from his pants pocket and drank. They waited for him while he shook out the last drops. He cleared his throat after screwing the cap back on.

“There is a place called ‘Leek Denaa,’ a cruel structure encrusted in ice all year round in the Koyukon region of Alaska. It’s a commune, among other things, where the Warg spends most months. When one of my girls needed help, he brought us there. I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to slow the girl’s transformation long enough for the birth to finish safely. The Warg will tell you more when he arrives tomorrow. I would listen to every word he tells you.”

“And the other girl?” said Gator.

“Eaten…from the inside out.” Howard pulled a cigar from his pocket and lit up with the same lighter Char had lent to Dan. After a few puffs the tent filled with smoke. “I still think about that every day, the screams and the blood. It was the first thing that came to mind when the Warg told me Char was pregnant.  I’ve spent all my time since thinking of what I’d do to you if anything should happen to my little girl.” Howard sat there with his eyes focused on Gator, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement, but Gator stood silent, refusing to let Howard in.

“But enough about that, you all must be tired. Please enjoy my food and my drinks, and be sure to take part in the sacrament later tonight. Have the boys unload your things into the shelter. No one leaves the property after sundown and everyone is to be locked in their rooms by nine. Now leave me.”

Gator took Char by the hand and he motioned for Dan to come with.

“Not him,” said Howard. “Dan and I need to talk in private.”

“I’m not leaving him alone with you,” said Char.

“I promise I’ll return him with all his teeth intact. Dan, will you sit with an old man for a spell?”

Dan was not brave enough to keep his mouth shut. “I wouldn’t want to be a bad guest.” He pulled out a chair from the table and sat.

 Charlene leaned in close. “He won’t hurt you. He wouldn’t dare.”

Dan and Howard were soon alone. Char had spoken little about her family and Dan realized why, looking across the table at the shriveled gang leader.

“How many moons?” said Howard.

“Excuse me?”

“You know what I’m asking. Now how many?”

“Six.”

“I see.” Howard tapped the ash off his cigar. “I lost count somewhere after 300.”

“Does it get easier?”

“It gets worse, I’m sorry to say. As we age our bodies take a toll from the broken bones and crooked limbs.  I’ve forgotten what I used to look like. Obviously you won’t be unfortunate enough to live as long as me, but you may not recognize yourself after a year or so.”

Dan had not considered his life a year from now. He was thankful to make it through the day.

“I’m not always like this,” said Howard. “What you must think of me—knocking out teeth and locking my children away. Charlene is my favorite you know, and I’m not talking about those abominations skulking about getting drunk and high. She’s been my favorite since before the Bedlam. Her mother wanted nothing to do with me after I turned so I asked my three daughters to choose; who would turn and be like their old man. Charlene was the only one who said yes.”

 “I’m lucky to know her,” said Dan. “She’s always been good to me.”

“I’ve noticed.” Howard gave his cigar another tap. “My daughter won’t have time to coddle both you and her new family. I don’t know how you managed to inject yourself into her favor, but there won’t be room for Uncle Danny soon enough. I think the time has come for you and my favorite to part ways.”

 Dan had known this for some time, but he never pictured Char’s father being involved in the decision. “Mr. Fettel, I needed a lot of help figuring out what came next when I turned. I don’t know how much she’s told you about me, but like your daughters, I was asked by my dad to make a choice. When I didn’t like my options I found Char and Gator. They’ve done more for me in these last few weeks than any family I’ve ever known. I still don’t know what’s next for me and I wasn’t planning on staying with them forever, but I still want to be a part of their lives.”

“You won’t be leaving with them, Dan. This birth has too much risk involved and the fewer distractions the better.”

“Then would the Bedlam have room for one more straggler?”

Howard laughed until he choked and spat on the floor. “You’re practically a fetus! If you were to stay here you’d be the weakest member. Do you know what wolf packs do to the weakest pup? They bite at its heels and send it out to die. Whatever free ride you had with Charlene and Fred is over.”

“I’m more useful than you think. I was studying to be a teacher in my old life. I could work with the children here. It’d be a lot safer than sneaking them into town or bringing tutors in.”

Howard was quiet for a moment. “If you can’t keep up; you will be dragged.”

“I’d rather be dragged in here than alone out there.”

Howard grabbed his cane and pulled himself upright. He disappeared into the back with only the thumps indicating his presence. When he returned he tossed a set of keys to Dan. “I’ll make an exception, seeing as how you’re Char’s pet and all. You’ll stay in the South Building with the other whelps. Maybe you can teach them to eat with utensils. When the Warg comes to take Char and Fred away you’ll say your goodbyes. If you tell them anything that I’ve said here today, I’ll make you swallow you teeth.”

*****

It was much later in the afternoon when Dan emerged from the tent. He stepped passed the rank bodies until he spotted Charlene sitting on one of the many park tables that lined the courtyard. She was next to Hugo, gripping his face with both hands and examining his wounds.

“The old man hasn’t struck anyone in some time,” said a rat-faced man close by.

“He’s not himself, Tobey,” said Char. “It’d be best to stay away from Daddy until the Warg arrives. If you’re not busy I have job for you. It’ll get you out of here for a few days…and it pays fifty bucks.”

“What do you need?”

“Shit went down at our apartment in Warren and we left bodies. We haven’t heard anything about them yet, but they’ll start to smell in this heat. Dump them somewhere if the police haven’t already gotten involved. And take Hugo with you, he can carry two at a time.”

“Jesus Christ. How many bodies did you leave back there?”

Char covered her mouth before answering. When she slipped money into Tobey’s jacket he pulled it out and left it on the table before walking away with the giant. Dan took a seat next to her with his back to the table.

“Well?” said Char as she lit up two cigarettes.

“It was nothing. Your father asked me a few questions. That’s all.”

She handed him one of the lit cigarettes. “What kind of questions?”

“Just about me and how I know you guys .Then he gave me a room.” Dan dangled the set of keys. Char swiped them from his hands and read the apartment number.

“South Building? Danny, look at me. What did he say to you?”

“Nothing!”

Char shook her head. “This isn’t how I wanted you to meet my family. He should have treated you better, but this pregnancy’s made him edgy. I’m sorry you had to be a part of this, Danny.”

He took her in slowly, knowing that their time was precious. “Don’t be sorry. He treats me better than my dad.”

Char smiled.“I’ll find you a decent father eventually. Don’t you worry.”

“Where’s Gator?”

“He’s unloading the car—said something about not letting the others get their hands on the trunk. He can be such a dickhead sometimes.”

They sat there for a time, smoking and watching the crowd.

“Char, why did you guys take me in?”

She watched the ash crumble against the concrete. “I have no clue.” She blew a puff of smoke in his face. “You know, Gator and I tried to have kids ever since we were married. Time and time again we were left with nothing. I was starting to think it wouldn’t happen, and then you came along. I’m not one to toss out a perfectly good son. You would think that Gator would have been happy when he found out I was pregnant.”

“He’s not happy?”

“I meant ‘happier.’ I know he’s happy.”

They rested a moment longer, letting the smoke lift away their stress.

“The real question is why do you want to hang around with us?” said Char. “You’re a fugitive now with no money, no job. You could have gone out on your own. You’d a been just fine.”

“I wouldn’t have made it past my first full moon.” He reminded himself of all the nights he had spent at their apartment, chained up and safe. Dan wondered if they would still be there had the hunters not come for them that night.

“How many bodies did we leave behind?”

“Gator told you how many.”

“Refresh my memory.”

“Why are you still going on about this?”

“It used to be a big deal when someone died, but now no one seems to give a fuck that a lot of people are never going to walk out of that apartment.”

“Calm down! What we experienced was a common, run-of-the-mill bloodbath. Do you have any idea how many bloodbaths I’ve seen in my life? I wish I could say you’ll never be part of something that horrible again, but I can’t. We’re not going to hold your hand every time life gets messy. It’s bad enough that we lost our home, we don’t need you bringing it up every day.” Char bent forward and grinded her cigarette into the cement. “I can’t tell you what happened that night, but I do know that you’re still Danny and I’m still Char.”

They heard laughter emanating from the East Building.

“They’re going to start the party soon,” said Char. “They say blow helps people remember what they did in their other form. The ‘sacrament’ is a kind of meditation that’s supposed to bring the two forms together…are you nervous?”

“I’m fine, it’s just…I’ve never done this before.”

“No one expects you start brushing your teeth with it; just go slow, and try not to shove anyone.”

“Are you coming?”

“There’re some things I don’t want to remember.”

Dan hugged her before he stood and she stole a kiss against his cheek. “You’re braver than you know.”

 The laughter grew with each step towards the East Building. He spotted a familiar face waiting near the front doors. “You sure you want to go in there?” said Gator.

“Char told me what’s up. I think I should.”

“Well don’t come crying to us when they start to play rough.” Gator left to get settled in the shelter with Char, and Dan entered alone.

He found the room on the first floor, four doors to his right. Three piles of cocaine had been poured on the table. Some paced back and forth while others sat still, admiring the haul. One by one they grabbed handfuls of powder, spilling onto the floor and speedily snorted off the ground. Dan waited in back and let everyone go ahead of him. As the crowd became too dense at one pile they moved on to the next, their eyes glistening and manic. They hollered with each hit and punched the walls, seemingly unfazed by the blood dripping from their fists. The last pile had yet to be touched. Dan stared into the fresh powder and wondered if it was too much to remember that night in the apartment. Char and Gator lied, but they would only lie to protect him. Perhaps they thought he wasn’t ready. Perhaps they were right.

“Get the fuck out of the way! That shits not for starin’ at!”

Dan was shoved by one of Char’s relatives. He tried to gauge his age, but Dan had lost trust of his eyes since he arrived.

The rude relative sat at the table as if he were ready for supper and planted his face in the pile. When he came back up, his eyes were missing. The man seized Dan by the wrist and squeezed until it snapped. When Dan yelped the others watched in horror as chunks of the man’s face and throat fell into the pile and melted into the coke. He gargled as his head and neck shriveled like a burnt match, snapping off its hinge and onto the floor with a thud.

The room erupted with screams. Some whaled for their mothers and they crushed one another piling through the exits. Dan froze, staring at what was left of the man still clinging to his broken wrist. The room spun as Dan fell to his knees. He thought he saw Gator grab him by the shoulders and shake him. Dan couldn’t understand what he was saying, and then the darkness came.

*****

Dan woke in a dark room. The street lights peered through the blinds of the single window and streaked against the floor. He realized his wrist had healed when he sat up in bed. The little light he did have revealed crude drawings on the walls. One area looked like the three buildings lined up next to one another while more marks resembled Mr. Fettel, his suspenders denoted by red crayon. Dan followed the drawings out of the room and down the illuminated stairway; they ended with a large figure covered in scribbles of gray and gold with the words “Love the Warg” carved below.

When he reached the outside he could barely see the North Building across the way. The courtyard was filled with garbage. Paper cups rolled in circles in the wind and food remnants were infested with flies. In the middle of it all, Dan found three bodies dangling on hooks in the courtyard. They swayed in the breeze along with the paper cups and plates. Dan was alone with the wind and the sound of a cane on concrete.

“We’ll have answers soon, Danny. Don’t you worry.”

Dan turned around to find a drop of fire lighting the tip of Howard’s cigar. “A night on these hooks will make them talk. They always do… like truth serum inserted through their ribcages.”

Dan had not realized how stunned he was until he spoke. “His face melted off.”

“I know,” said Howard. “He was my twenty-seventh son.”

“No one ever grabbed my arm so hard. He needed help, but I didn’t know what to do.”

“There was nothing to be done. Someone pulled a fast one on us. And these three here bought the stuff. Each one said they got it from a different source. We’ll see if they agree on one tomorrow.”

The next day the three men were brought down one by one and surrounded by the crowd and fettered with chains. Their stories had changed slightly, claiming that the seller was a fat man with a tattoo across his face, although none could agree what the tattoo was.

“You three have brought unaccounted silver into the complex,” said Howard. “Our law states that you may choose execution or due process. Which do you choose?”

Two men chose execution as if it were the only option while the third asked what due process entailed.

“You will be hung by a hook, as you were last night, during a full moon. If you are not torn apart by our members, you may leave the complex a free man without repercussion.”

The third man chose death as well.

They were hauled away to the basement of the North Building were a holding cell had been erected.

“Glad that’s settled,” said Howard. “I want this taken care of before the Warg arrives.”

“How will you kill them?” asked Dan.

“Silver fire pokers will be lodged into the crown of their skulls. It goes in quick. Better than they deserve, I assure you.”

Dan had been reunited with Char and Gator after the executions and they stayed by his side long into the afternoon. They watched the Bedlam wash away the debris from the festivities the night before. Members had exchanged their leather and denim for robes the same colors as the drawings. So much had been in honor of the Warg thought Dan, even though he had yet to hear a name. They couldn’t possible call him ‘Warg’ all the time, could they? When the Warg failed to arrive at five o’ clock for the feast, the Bedlam did not eat.

“Is this normal?” said Dan to Char.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

As the sun set over the western woods, the sound of a lone vehicle rumbled over the gravel. A limousine came into view and one by one the Bedlam began to cheer and applaud. The limo parked in the courtyard where the three men had hung the night before.

The driver opened the passenger door and assisted the Warg out. He was almost as tall as Hugo, with a broad body and curly brown hair. His eyes were hidden behind black sunglasses and he was dressed in an expensive-looking gray suit with something that looked like a wide gold scarf draped about his neck and shoulders. The Warg touched his heart at the sound of the applause and he thanked them humbly.

Howard walked to him and the two embraced. “They must really like you,” said Howard. “They never wait for me when dinner’s ready.”

“Forgive me, everyone,” said the Warg in a booming voice. “Please don’t wait another minute. Eat!”

With dinner underway, the Warg spoke casually to Howard as all five traveled to the tent. “I’m sorry, Mr. Fettel. I had to make a stop. There’s a problem with the latest shipment.”

“We noticed,” said Howard. “One died last night during the sacrament. Three more were put to death as a result.”

“And the seller?”

“Fat guy with a facial tattoo—doesn’t sound like any of your people, but we’ll talk later. I’d like you meet my first daughter Charlene, her husband Freddy, and their friend Dan.”

“A pleasure to meet you all.” The Warg shook their hands. “I am Khasawneh Mursungacheq, but everyone just calls me ‘The Warg.’ Let me congratulate you on your pure breeding. Children from two wolves make for hearty disciples.”

“Actually, Mr. Mursungacheq, my husband isn’t a wolf,” said Char. “But thank you all the same.”

“I wasn’t referring to your husband. I was talking about the father.”

“What did you say?”

“I received very clear visions from you and Daniel during the night of the last full moon. Your children will be near perfection.”

The silence was broken by Char’s retching.

 “That’s not my child!” said Dan. “The child is Gator’s! “

“Child?” said Khasawneh. “Wolves have litters, Mr. Bully.”

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