His crippled body rose into the sky with the others. Dan gazed upon them and realized that he had been the only wolf to survive. Soon all he could see was death. Thousands of wolves were manipulated by some force lurking inside the abyss. One by one they were skinned, their pelts, eyes, and entrails launched into the far reaches of the void, leaving only chunks of viscous meat on bones.
What remained was lowered into a caustic liquid that left the skeletons pure white. The bones were then compressed together until no space existed between them and they erupted into splinters. The splinters crumbled into pieces, the pieces dissolved into dust. There was a reason Dan had lived to witness the fate of the others, but he had no idea why.
There were two of them; one full-blooded, the other bitten. Dan knew their pedigrees from the way they walked. Roy staggered as if he were still growing into his feet while Benny had entered the cage with a confident gait, informing his onetime humanity as well as Dan’s impending ruin.
Dan crashed against the chain link fence with every strike; his torso drenched in blood from the barbed wire woven throughout. I deserve this, thought Dan as the assault tore him down.
Their orders came from above. Howard leaned forward in his arm chair atop a third-story balcony, overlooking what had once been a basketball court. “Don’t let up!” said Howard. “Those sharpshooters aren’t for show; they will fire on my signal!”
Benny wrapped Dan in a headlock as Roy hurled uppercuts into his stomach. Dan broke free only to grind his face into the pavement. Roy kicked him onto his back and they stomped him like he was on fire. Dan shielded his face with his hands, each finger breaking under the weight of their treads. Don’t you fucking black out, thought Dan. You have a message to deliver.
Roy stumbled away and rested his hands on his knees, but Benny remained focused. He hoisted Dan back onto his feet, then several feet higher, balling his fists against Dan’s spine. The blood had made Dan hard to hold, and he slid back down to the court before Benny could finish his bear hug.
With his arms pinned back, Dan wrenched his body from side to side as Benny compressed him against his brutal frame. Use your head, goddammit! He buried his skull repeatedly into Benny’s jaw, his vision blurring with each hit. He refused to stop until he was free. It was unclear whose blood ran down his face.
“That’s enough!” said Howard.
Benny let Dan crumple onto the ground and spat his loose teeth at Roy’s feet. Roy hung his head as if scolded and they took their cues to leave.
When he was alone, Dan stared into the sky. The morning appeared ripe for a storm or two. He closed his eyes, anticipating rain to wash away the remnants of battle. Instead the dark clouds drifted by, serene and spiteful.
The silence broke with the thump of cane against concrete. From the ground, Fettel looked like a locomotive, billowing smoke before coming to a stop. He studied Dan over with a narrow leer, seemingly disappointed that the wounds were healing before his eyes. Dan saw Howard’s lips move, but could only hear his bones snapping back into place.
“Answer me when I’m talking to you,” said Howard. “I said, ‘what do you do in the afternoon?’”
“Rest, if there’s nothing to count.” But there’s always something to count after a raid.
“Start taking inventory at midnight. We need you to train in the afternoon in addition to your morning and evening sessions. Making you dangerous is a greater challenge than I thought.”
It’s already too much, thought Dan, but why should I be comfortable? He rolled onto his stomach to leverage himself upright. “Did your scouts find Gator?”
“I’d have said something if they did.” Howard handed him a towel. “I’ll send another party tonight.”
Dan wiped his face and draped the towel over his neck. “Can I see her?”
“You’ll see her when the litter’s born, not a moment sooner. The Warg is prepping her for the ride north and they are not to be disturbed.”
She needs to know, thought Dan. He pulled a note from his jeans. “If you can’t deliver it in person, maybe you can leave it in her room.”
Howard scowled at the note before turning away.
“I should be able to see the mother of my children!”
Howard stopped. He turned around and held out his hand.
Holy shit, he’s actually going to take it to her. Dan handed him the note with his thanks.
Howard held the tip of his cigar against it, forming a black hole that devoured every word. He spat to put out the flame, blowing ashes into the wind. “Be here at four o’clock. I believe you have a class to go teach.” He put his cigar back in his mouth and dusted his hands clean before leaving Dan alone in his cage.
You can’t hide her away forever, you miserable fuck. The note had taken days to write, an inadequate prayer for forgiveness. Dan was uncertain of how many days exactly, losing track after nonstop cycles of beatings and counting supplies. He knew he would be counting more tonight as he watched the Bedlam gather beyond the fences on their bikes, Benny and Roy among them. They erupted in a plume of dust and gravel as they rode south towards the city.
Gator had ridden off as well the night the Warg arrived. Dan hoped he would return on a mission of revenge to reclaim what had been stolen from him. He welcomed whatever retribution Gator had planned, but that scenario faded with each passing day—however many had passed. Maybe he’s done with us, thought Dan. Maybe he’s done with all of it. Until then, Dan would have to settle for Howard’s “sessions” to purge his guilt.
He grabbed his shirt from a bench before heading through the main courtyard of the complex where the bodies had hung. The motorcycles were a distant roar now, specks of chrome vanishing into the horizon. “Never come back,” said Dan, forgetting that there was always someone listening. A pack of full-bloods had been stalking him only to get distracted by food left out in the sun. He looked up to find sharpshooters watching his every move as well. Some nodded at him, one even blew a kiss. They know I’m going to die here.
The bitten were not nearly as fascinated by Dan. Although they were “his kind,” they made no effort to acknowledge him, except when getting ripped apart during the evening sessions. They spent much of their time at the makeshift bar built in the lobby of the West Building. “The Water Dish” was scrawled across a bed sheet above its entrance. Not now, you have work to do. Across the yard, he watched his students file into the South Building for today’s lesson.
The children waited in the lobby, forming a semicircle around a latch door protruding from the middle of the floor. It was impossible to tell their real ages just by looking at them. Most could pass for high school freshmen despite having the minds of eight-year olds. Those bitten recently hovered closest to their actual time on earth, but the full-bloods looked older than Dan.
He weaved passed them to enter the door code to the isolation chamber. It became their designated classroom with enough space for fifty people. Eight had shown up today, a record high.
They descended the ladder into the sparsely furnished chamber; each cell divided by prison bars. Manacles adorned the brick walls and bare light bulbs dotted along the center of the submarine-shaped structure. They sat on the floor as Dan took roll. He added the names “Cassie” and “Wood” to his dry erase board.
“Cassie’s a pretty name,” said Dan. “Are you and Wood brother and sister?”
Cassie whispered a shy “yes.”
Other than their sepia skin, they looked nothing alike. Her scrawny limbs made her brother look all the more rotund. “We’re happy you two can join us. Is ‘Wood’ short for ‘Woodrow?’”
Her brother shrugged without looking up from the floor.
With Cassie and Wood, the class had become half bitten and half full-bloods, forming two groups at Dan’s sides. “Okay, everyone, let’s get started.”
A student raised their hand.
“Have you ever won a fight?”
“Your parents shouldn’t let you watch those.”
“You don’t even get a punch in some nights.”
“Let’s focus on what we covered last time. Who can tell me what that was?”
Another student raised their hand.
“I like movie nights more than the fights. We haven’t seen one since you came.”
“I don’t want any of you watching those.”
“What’s wrong with movies?”
“Not the movies, Erica. Those fights are for grown-ups. In fact, I don’t want your parents watching those either. “
“Why do you fight? You don’t seem very good.”
I’m fighting two people at once, what do they expect? “I’ll be staying here for awhile and Howard thought it would be a good idea to learn how to defend myself. He also thought it would be a good idea for me to teach you all as much as possible. So, I believe we were still working on small words…”
“We already know how to read and write,” said Connor.
“What did I say about raising your hand?”
Connor raised his hand.
“We already know how to read and write!”
Maybe we should speed things up a bit. “Show of hands–who knows how to read and write?” said Dan.
All four bitten raised their hands. Wood’s hand crept into the air before Cassie yanked it down.
“We should have two classes,” said Connor, “One for us and one for dumb people.”
“They’re not dumb, and you’re lucky you’re getting this!” said Dan. “Okay, how about everyone pair up. One who can read with one who cannot. We’ll work together to get everyone on the same page—literally.”
The children groaned as they slid on the floor to pair up. Dan walked to a crate with over 20 copies of Green Eggs and Ham and passed them out.
One of Howard’s kids raised his hand.
“Will you teach us to count?”
“We’ll get to math eventually. It depends on how long reading takes us. It would be nice if someone could keep track of supplies besides me.”
“Do you know how much food we have?”
“Yes. And for everyone’s sake, I hope today’s raid goes well.”
“Are we going to run out soon?”
“We shouldn’t. I mean, we’re low on as few things, but money’s coming in.” Although it never looks like it’s being spent on anything. “What happened to raising your hands, guys? Now, where did we leave off?”
The afternoon session had drawn the largest audience yet, bathing the alleyways in leather and smoke. They looked like buzzards to Dan, waiting for the carrion to cool. He scanned the crowd to see who had listened to him during class. Why do they come to see me suffer? He spotted Cassie and Wood, but they were not watching him. Cassie tapped Wood’s shoulder and pointed to the other side of the cage.
Three opponents entered the arena. Benny and Roy were joined by an equally large woman. She wore a butcher’s apron and PVC gloves that stretched across her thick forearms. It was unclear whether she was bitten or full-blood. I can barely tell her from man or woman. She exposed her rotten teeth with a grin before she pulled down her welding helmet. He was grateful for the mask.
Dan found Howard sitting at his perch above everyone else. He smiled as he always did for his people, raising his cane in the air as if parting the Red Sea. And the Bedlam cheered for their royal. He is their king, thought Dan. Their wretched, lizard-brained fuck of a king.
Armed guards stood by Howard. He whispered to them and they rummaged through a storage locker on the balcony. They emerged with toys for his children—a machete, riot baton, and a baseball bat—each tossed down before the combatants below.
He wouldn’t leave me here unarmed, but all Dan received was a stare as Howard took a long sip from his amber liquor. There were no instructions given, only the sound of chains sealing the exits and the clamor for blood.
Roy seemed unfamiliar with baseball, gripping the bat with one-hand. He leapt at Dan first, cracking the bat against the pavement. Dan grabbed the middle of the bat with both hands and crushed it into Roy’s face until he let go of the weapon. He choked up on the bat and swung for the woman’s head, shattering the glass panel around her eyes. She countered his next swing and drove the machete deep into the sweet spot of the bat. Dan struggled to free his weapon, but the woman twisted her blade and split the bat down the middle.
Dan had lost track of Benny until the baton popped his kneecap. As he dropped to one knee the woman planted the machete into Dan’s shoulder. His screams were overtaken by the cries of the Bedlam, and he felt like his head would soon rupture. Char could end this if she wanted to, thought Dan. She wants this to happen.
Removing the blade from Dan proved more difficult than separating it from the bat. She dislocated his shoulder, twisting the blade with both hands. She placed her foot against his chest and pulled. When it came loose, she landed on her back.
Benny swung his baton against Dan’s skull. The blow rung his ears and he collapsed to the ground. He looked up to Howard for mercy, but he was too busy ordering his guard to dig inside the locker. When the guard turned around, he was handing down a chainsaw for Roy to the delight of the crowd.
Dan got to his feet and bolted for the cage door. I don’t care if I rip all the skin off my arms; I’m tearing this cage apart! He ducked under another slash from the machete and almost passed Benny before being locked in a sleeper hold.
“They won’t stop ‘til you’re down,” said Benny. “Just go to sleep.”
Did I really hear that? Dan listened again for the sweet lullaby.
“Just go to sleep.”
Dan closed his eyes and went limp. He listened to the revving of the chainsaw die down as the crowd booed the outcome. Dan’s blood was washed away in a storm of drinks. Benny released him to the ground as he had done earlier that day. When Dan laid there motionless, he heard the crowd fade away into the courtyard.
Dan kept his eyes closed while two people dragged him out of the cage. They pulled him by his arms and moved him into a building. His feet banged against the steps as they climbed to the top. He sprung to life after being doused with ice water. When he wiped his eyes, he saw Howard staring out over the balcony, his guards stationed near the entrance.
“You’re getting quicker, I’ll give you that,” said Howard.
“How about giving me a chainsaw instead!? Give me a heads up!? Give me something!”
“I’ve given you enough!!” Howard turned and threw his empty glass at the wall. His words came out raspy and sharp. “I gave you a place in the world! You begged me to stay, and you repay me with slander!”
“You’ve been telling people about the inventory!”
“I…I may have mentioned to my students how’d I’d like to teach them math someday. The inventory came up once or twice.”
“And how we’re low on food and we’ll run out soon?”
He’s going to put hooks in my ribs for this. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“Those cretins left your class telling everyone that the food supplies are nearly gone. These people are fickle, Mr. Bully. If they think for a second that I can’t provide for them, things can get …out-of-hand.”
“I never meant to discredit you,” said Dan. “If I’ve learned anything from my time here, it’s that you’re the king of Bedlam.”
Howard faced the window again and fixed another drink. “I hated Gator, but at least he was something. I could have died in peace knowing Char and Gator would take over what I’ve built, but now… What are you, Dan? A babysitter—or worse?”
At least I stayed. “I’ll leave if that’s what you want.”
Howard chuckled. “My grandchildren deserve better than you, but I suppose you’re their only option for the time being. Continue your training. Let’s see if you turn into something worth keeping by the time we return from Leek Denaa, but I want you to know that I’d have put the hooks to you had Char not opposed it so.”
After all I’ve done, she’s still watching out for me? “So we’ll meet back here at ten?”
“We’ll scale back to two opponents. I want to make sure you stay awake this time.”
Dan spent what little free time he had at the Water Dish. The other patrons were too drunk to notice or care, and he could be alone with his thoughts. His tongue dug into the spaces where his teeth had been. He climbed onto a barstool and ordered bourbon. The bartender asked if he wanted regular or super-sized and Dan pointed at the stack of slurpee cups brought back from the raids. He decided to drink the pain away and wait for the clock to turn ten.
“This will help you feel better.” A young woman dropped a crazy straw into his cup. “It kinda looks like you.” She hopped onto the seat next him and smiled. “Why do you keep flinching?”
“You look like you’re going to stab me with something.”
“Would it help if I put both hands on the bar?”
“It would help more if you told me who you are.”
“Look. Nothing up my sleeves.” The girl pretended to loosen the cuffs on an imaginary shirt. She wore a black tank top, revealing the lean muscles along her pale skin.
“Still looking for a name,” said Dan.
“Why do you think I’ll hurt you?”
“Everyone else here does. After what I did to Fettel’s daughter it’s no wonder why I’m hated.”
“They don’t hate you. Howard hates you, but everyone else couldn’t care less. They’re just going along with him.”
“They cheer when I get stabbed.”
“They cheer when Howard smiles, he smiles when you get stabbed.”
“That makes me feel better.”
“The good thing is that the Warg doesn’t seem to hate you. That goes a long way with the people here.”
“I take it you’re not one of Howard’s?”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t take you that long to notice.” She started curling her long red hair around her fingers. “No, I was bitten.”
“And you’re here to buy me a drink?”
“I bought you a…straw. That’s got to be worth something.”
“Spit it out already.”
“I understand you keep track of the inventory.”
“Did Howard put you up to this? I’m not saying another word about the supplies.”
“You don’t have to say anything, but if one night you find yourself all alone in storage maybe you could leave the door unlocked…”
“What are you after?”
“People have been on edge since the all the coke was destroyed. Rumor has it that there are a few kilos left in storage. That’s the only place in the whole complex I can’t break into.”
“And what do I get out of this?”
“I was hoping it wouldn’t take you that long to notice.” She uncrossed her legs and smiled.
“There is something you can do for me.”
“I’m trying to get a message to Char. Is the East Building a place you can get into?”
“Her again? Didn’t you get enough of her the last time?”
“I think we’re done here.”
Dan walked back to the South Building. He reached the second floor stairwell and gazed at the mural and its cryptic order to ‘Love the Warg.’
“It’s missing a comma,” said the red-headed girl. “He had this building built with his own money. That was to remind everyone living here of his generous donation. It’s supposed to read like the end of a letter…’Love, the Warg.’”
“What is he?”
“He’s your best chance of getting to Char. He offers an open door to anyone in the Bedlam. The Warg might be a little more understanding than Howard. You can find him in the North Building in one of the suites.”
“The name’s Mel.”
“That shouldn’t be hard to remember.”
On his way to see the Warg, Dan found Benny dangling in the courtyard. A message was written in blood on his shirt. “NO ONE LIKES A BULLY.”