The Abyss had no need for Dan, tossing him down to the bright light below. The earth opened and swallowed his remains. He reemerged in a desert of crushed bone, letting the brilliant white specks sift through his fingers. The sun had begun to set when he found the strength to stand. In the distance, a bonfire beckoned. He climbed over arid hills until every muscle burned, still no closer to the flame. When he could climb no more, his body crumpled into the sand.
Dan awoke near the fire, its light giving shape to figures close by. They pulled apart the body of a dead wolf and returned to the flame to feed on their morsels. One by one their faces came into view, gleaming with the blood of their catch: his father, Mr. Reto, and the Warg.
It was hard to believe he could blackout at all anymore. Between the blows to the head and the benders, Dan had built up quite the immunity. Soon there’ll be no reason to drink at all. His attempts to forget always ended in vain, and today would be no different. All he could do was wait for the infection to creep back into his brain. Dan opened his bedroom window before lighting a cigarette. He watched the smoke escape through the screen, letting the memories flood back.
Was it about Char? He had filled her with bastards, and they would tear their way free unless Howard and his Warg delivered on their promise. Dan imagined she watched his training in secret, hounding her father for blood. I’d take a thousand beatings to erase that night. It was more than their camaraderie and compassion he missed. His time with Char and Gator had promised him a place in the world, a promise that grew more foolish by the day.
Or was it something to do with Gator? Missing, waiting, plotting—the threat of Char’s husband lingered with every futile search. Dan lay awake most nights, haunted by figures at his window and sounds outside his door. He would suffer for what he did; not knowing when or how was agony in itself. Despite all he had learned from the Bedlam, Dan swore never to lay a finger on the man who protected him when no one else would. And soon, Dan remembered why he drank.
It was enough to drain the Water Dish of all its brown liquors—Benny, his unlikely protector, hanging in the courtyard for granting mercy when Dan needed it most. He remembered the squeak of taut chains and the tips of Benny’s boots, grazing against gravel. How had I hurt so many by simply existing? He repeated the words of his father the night he left, “You’re no longer my son, just a curse on us all.”
Dan raised the window screen and tossed out the butt. He heard the rumbling of a crowd nearby, and decided to wait in the privacy of his only bastion for them to disperse. Sunday meant no classes, training, or inventory. Today he would follow Mel’s suggestion and deliver his rewritten letter to the Warg, but he would do so when the courtyard was clear. Who knows what they’ll make me do if I’m spotted, thought Dan. For now, he would hurt no one from his bed.
Before returning to sleep, he heard those familiar sounds outside his door. It can’t be Gator. He wouldn’t come for you in broad daylight. Dan sat up and examined the front door from his bedroom. Someone’s feet obstructed the light underneath.
Dan slipped his jeans on before tip-toeing to the door. He grabbed the letter from his table on the way and stuffed it down his pocket. He peered into the peephole, finding only a torso in an embroidered dress shirt and a bolo tie like his grandfather used to wear. Dan thought he saw a gun before the rattling of keys grabbed his attention. Jesus Christ, He’s coming in! He staggered backwards as the lock bolts receded with a thud. The door opened to reveal one of Howard’s taller cronies.
“What do you want with me?” said Dan.
The tall man bowed to enter, holding onto his cowboy hat as he ducked under the doorway. His skin was like a vandalized statue with markings long faded into his sinewy bronze shell. I didn’t think wolves could get tattoos.
“We’re not here for you,” said the tall man as he handed a drill to one of his men. He whispered in Spanish, and the underling began to remove the door from its hinges.
“What could you possibly want with an extra door?”
“It is today’s grand prize. Such an impressive trophy, though only gold on one side.”
“Prize for what?”
“The competition, cachorro. Mr. Fettel wishes to teach you new tricks.”
Dan had no choice but to follow the trophy downstairs and into the courtyard. The rumblings he heard from his bedroom betrayed the true immensity of the Bedlam gathering. There are even more people out here than yesterday. The tall man ordered his men to part the crowd and usher Dan and the door to its center. Squeezing through the mob, Dan overheard others speak.
“They finally found him!” said a voice.
“That fucker don’t deserve a trial!” said another.
Did they get their hands on Gator? Dan jumped to see over the crowd. People taunted and threw rocks at the man in the middle of it all. The tall man handed up the door to the guards on the balcony, and one guard handed down a gun with an ivory handle.
Howard was in the midst of a tirade he shouted from his balcony.
“Did you really think I’d let you walk away!?” said Howard.
The prisoner stood shackled next to Benny’s drooping body. His hands and feet were linked, and a muzzle hid much of his face. The dead eyes assured Dan it was not Gator, but someone more terrifying.
“For the crime of cannibalism, you are offered two choices—“
“I know my choices!” said the prisoner. “I choose due process! Let my blood hit their tongues, then we’ll see how many man-eaters you helped create!”
“Your serving suggestions are duly noted,” said Howard, “But after my people kill you, they will spit you out like the repulsive drivel you are. Let it be known that there is no lower form of life than those who eat their neighbor.”
Howard whispered to his guards. They proceeded to the stage and clubbed the cannibal unconscious, much to the joy of the crowd. With the distraction removed, Dan’s eyes rested on six stickmen assembled in the distance with the garbage he had counted after the raids. Each stickman had a bell attached to their heads of varying size and shape.
“Ah, Mr. Bully, I see you’ve met Viejo!” said Howard.
“Why did you take my door?”
“I believe in transparency. I don’t want you making any more secret deals with my men. We already have one conspirator stinking up the yard.”
“There was no deal. I don’t know why he helped me.”
“Wake him up!!” Howard sent his guards to lift Benny from off the hooks. They let him drop onto a puddle of his own blood. He coughed up more blood as his body struggled to repair.
“Since you refuse to fight like a man, we’ll see if you can at least shoot like one. The rules are simple: Viejo will ring a bell by shooting the target. You will need to hit the same one as quickly as possible. Miss and I take a shot at your accomplice.”
“Benny doesn’t deserve this, Howard!”
“Viejo, play us a song!”
The tall man raised his revolver and emptied the chamber, each shot punctuated by a different bell toll. The crowd cheered as Viejo twirled his gun and slid it down his holster, but the cheers were short-lived. Gunfire erupted outside the main gate of the complex. The Bedlam scattered as guards raced to the checkpoint.
“It sounds like we have new contestants,” said Howard. “Okay kids, everyone follow Uncle Danny to the classroom. Bully, no one leaves until you get the all-clear.”
Dan gathered his students as well as any other scared children. Other kids began to cling to his group as he made his way to the South building. By the time he reached the classroom shelter, Dan had amassed a multitude of watery eyes and runny noses. When the last child climbed down, Dan followed and sealed the latch behind him. Looking over the horde, it became clear to Dan that the classroom was never built to hold so many.
They cried for their parents in the overbearing heat and stench of the chamber. Most of the full-bloods made no sound, staring listlessly at the walls. Any reaction would be less disturbing than none. Dan was wrong. Two boys began to punch one another. One hit missed and broke a full-blood’s nose. The child continued to stare blankly, letting the blood drip from his chin. What the hell is wrong with these kids?
Dan threw himself between the fray to break up the fight. He felt nothing, even as they put all their weight behind body blows and haymakers. Maybe I’ll keep drinking after all. He managed to separate them. Before another fight could start, Cassie brought him a book.
“This will work, I promise,” said Cassie.
Dan opened The Giving Tree to page one. He raised his voice over the echoes of crying and cursing. One by one each child fell silent, each urging the next to be quiet. Dan paused to stare out over his audience, their eyes focused and attentive.
Dan’s a tone fell to a suitable level. As he turned each page he glanced up. They had all taken a seat, and not one made a sound. They listened in awe as Dan read slowly and clearly. He could feel the few remaining pages along his fingertip, hoping the all-clear would come soon, or that the next story would be as captivating. Before he could say “The End,” the crate of books was shoved next to his feet.
He rifled through the contents. Underneath piles of magazines and instruction manuals, He uncovered a relic from his old life. He wiped the dirt from the cover, and began the story of a baby named Arthur and his caretaker Merlin. Dan had read for almost an hour when knocks came from the latch overhead. The children groaned.
“Is this what you do always?” asked a full-blood.
“We read stories and discuss them,” said Dan. “I’ll teach you how to read stories by yourself, even write your own, if you all just come to class every weekday.” Dan climbed the ladder to release the hatch. The children emerged from the classroom with smiles on their faces.
Dan returned to the surface, gasping for fresh air. When he had had his fill, he surveyed the complex. People wandered back slowly to the courtyard and their balconies. They still want a show, thought Dan.
“Looks like everyone is accounted for,” said a voice from behind.
Dan turned to find Mel leaning against the South Building with her hands tucked into her leather vest. She smiled at him in her police sunglasses, his reflection caught in their cobalt glow.
“What happened up here?” said Dan.
“What always happens—militia get nosy, freak out, and shoot. They got one of our girls at the checkpoint.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Did they get away?”
“Some did, some didn’t. It wasn’t Gator, if that’s what you’re thinking. Howard’s questioning them now.”
“Will he judge them like he does for wolves?”
“He values hostages. If he can’t trade them for something worthwhile, I suppose he will, though I’ve never actually seen what he does with hunters. And you’re sweating a lot… with blood on your shirt. What happened down there? “
“Nothing I couldn’t pacify, it’s just… seeing them all at once just now. It’s clear that some children are completely detached. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the staring. They look like—“
“They’re missing something,” said Mel. “They weren’t always that way.”
“I’ll add it to my agenda with the Warg.” Maybe he’ll buy them another building.
“I’ll save you a trip; he won’t let you near Char.”
“You talked to him … about me?”
“We talked about a lot of things last night. Some men smoke afterwards, Wargs talk, apparently.”
How can she keep doing this to herself? “I didn’t know you two were….”
“If you weren’t going to sneak out some coke I had to get it from somewhere.”
“Will he deliver?”
“He promised mountains of it, after he returns from the commune next year. A lot of good it does me now.”
“If I’d known how badly you needed it I would have figured something out.”
“Well shit, I was willing to sleep with you. It doesn’t get more desperate than that.” Mel smirked and adjusted her sunglasses. “And it’s not for me, Danny. The little ones aren’t used to going to bed hungry. The sacrament helps with the pain for a little while. If you’re serious about helping my friends out, I’d be more than happy to bump you to the top of my dance card. It gets awfully full in August.”
“I haven’t had much desire to go dancing since…”
“Well, I’m sure you’ll think of something. That’s how it works around here—favors for favors. The trick is finding out what you’re spectacular at and leveraging it. Having access to the inventory should have made you more popular than you are.”
Don’t suppose you have another door lying around? “I’ll keep that in mind. Stay out of trouble, Mel.”
“You’re going to see him anyway, aren’t you?”
“I have to try; she’s family.”
The reflective lenses did nothing to hide Mel’s icy stare. “Make it quick. It looks like they’re setting up again, and Howard doesn’t need more reasons to shoot Benny.” She lifted herself from the wall and sauntered into the crowd.
Favors for favors. Dan approached the Warg’s suite in the North building. Guards were stationed at the entrance, and along the fire escapes. They were unlike Howard’s men. Stoic and disciplined, they waited, ready for their master’s call. They appeared unnatural in biker gear, as if wearing disguises. Every snake sheds its skin, thought Dan. He was unsure what to make of the Warg—part priest, part drug dealer, and not a single drop of infected blood in his body.
The guards seemed to expect Dan’s arrival. Not only did they step aside, but they opened the doors for him also. What did Mel tell him about me? When he reached the suite, Dan was greeted by the sound of a somber melody. He ventured further to find Mr. Mursungacheq seated in a cotton robe, playing a cello. The Warg slid the bow across the strings as his other hand danced along its neck like an agitated spider. His eyes were closed, his brow furrowed in deep concentration or euphoria.
Dan stood there, waiting for the song to end. He looked about the room and found the walls suffocated with photographs. Dan recognized a handful as residents of the complex; each picture looked as if taken by a different camera. When the song concluded, the Warg opened his eyes with a warm smile.
“Thank you for waiting,” said the Warg. “My playing goes unappreciated around here. If you’ve ever wondered what music the Bedlam can’t stand, this is it.”
“Was that The Swan by Saint-Saens?”
“Very good, Daniel, people seldom surprise me these days. I spend so much time tending to other people’s souls that I forget my own.” He placed the bow down on the table and gripped the cello with both hands. “The sound produced is closest to the human voice of any instrument. As the only human voice within the Bedlam, I like to think the cello and I were made for each other.”
Is he calling wolves inhuman? “Did Mel say I was coming?”
The Warg laughed. “I’m sorry. I forget your time here has been brief. I knew you would arrive eventually. I saw it in a dream.”
“How is that possible?”
“Once upon a time, people asked the same thing about your kind. A gift from birth, I suppose. It is believed that Wargs were born to guide wolves. We provide ‘clarity to their darkness’ and so forth.”
“Then you know why I’m here?”
The Warg stretched his fingers and began to lightly pluck the strings as he spoke. “You may see her when she returns safely, children and all. I thought Howard was quite clear on the subject. Please understand that Charlene is in inexorable pain right now. She has limited consciousness and I’d rather not interfere with her rest.”
“I have a letter for her, would that be so terrible?”
He continued to play quietly for a moment. “That depends. Tell me about your dreams. I know you’ve dreamt of the void during the last full moon—the pale, swirling vortex devouring everything below.”
“You can see other people’s dreams during your dreams?”
“I see what they see, conscious or unconscious. You can tell almost everything about someone during the full moon by the way they dream, the way they react, the way they stalk. I know the soul of everyone in the Bedlam. Howard keeps this place running by assimilating the smaller gangs. I vet new recruits, so to speak.”
“I don’t even want to know what you must think of me.”
“Let’s just say, you’re not the most worrisome at the moment. Your lovely new friend, for example—she has seen much in her short life. Do not believe a word she says.”
“You didn’t seem to have a problem letting her into your room last night.”
“I turn away no one, and I can’t help it if she enjoys the songs I play.”
“She does seem to enjoy a good strumming.”
The Warg stopped playing. “Mr. Bully, I believe you have the wrong idea. As a pillar of the Leek Denaa, I’ve taken a vow of celibacy. If you want any hope of delivering your letter, I suggest not spreading such rumors. Now tell me about the void. Can you recall anymore dreams since the last full moon?”
“It might sound crazy…”
“So, the void pulls in everyone. Soon they’re all pulled apart until nothing is left but bones. Then the bones get crushed over and over into a fine powder, and…”
“And then what?”
Dan knew what came next, a white desert, a bonfire, and the blood-drenched face of the man sitting before him. “That’s all I remember.”
“I see.” The Warg held out his hand to accept Dan’s letter. “I’ll bring it to her, but I can’t make her read it.”
“I understand, thank you.” Dan placed the letter in his hand.
“I’ll bring as many letters as you can write. In exchange, I want you to come see me as soon as you have any more dreams pertaining to the void. I don’t care how late it is.”
“What do you think they mean?”
“I’m afraid it’s too early to tell.”
They were interrupted by the toll of bells.
“I believe Howard is ready for you,” said the Warg as he tucked the letter into his robe. “Sweet dreams, Mr. Bully.”
“It’s your shot, cachorro,” said Viejo.
Dan looked up at Howard’s balcony, finding him resting under an awning with a luger at his side. Howard motioned with his hand for one of the guards to give Dan a weapon. A revolver was tossed down to the stage.
Dan picked up a Colt .45 revolver. It was unclear whether an antique-patina finish had been recently applied, or if the gun was really an antique. Find out what you’re spectacular at and leverage it, thought Dan.
“I think I’ll start with his kneecaps,” said Howard. “Then I’ll work my way up to his gut.”
Dan readied his gun and rung his first bell. The cloud of smoke yielded the familiar taste of lead; it reminded him of home. Viejo wasted no time hitting his next target. Dan recalled his father’s instructions before his bullet found the stickman’s head. Viejo answered with two rings.
Loosen your back; keep your knees bent, Dan. He mimicked both notes.
Viejo fired two more shots, and Dan followed suit. They took a moment to reload from a bucket placed between them, and the crowd took the opportunity to applaud their skill.
Before the dust settled, Dan took the lead and added a five note melody to their duet. The crowd mumbled at the challenge. Viejo fired five shots, waiting for a fifth toll that would not come.
The next shot came from Howard’s Luger. The bullet ruptured Viejo’s kneecap, and he fell to the ground in anguish.
Is it over? thought Dan.
“Reload, Mr. Bully,” said Howard. He replaced Viejo and nailed the furthest target.
Dan answered with his own shot, and the two men made the courtyard sound like a church on Sunday morning. Each successful hit was followed by a volley of cheers. They grew louder and louder until Dan thought the walls of the complex would topple. Soon every stickman looked like Dan’s father. You put me here! You caused all of this!! You’re the curse!!
The crowd fell silent after the next shot—Howard had missed.
Dan took his next turn, but Howard refused to shoot. Dan reloaded once again and rung all five bells without fail. The demonstration ended in a plume of smoke, and the crowd dispersed with little fanfare. Dan looked up where Howard had shot from and found no one above.
Two guards approached, one assisted Viejo off the ground while the other came for Dan.
“He would like to have a word with you,” said the guard.
Dan entered Howard’s suite, finding him with his back turned. He was digging amongst crates filled with secondhand merchandise.
“Impressive, Mr. Bully. Your father teach you how to shoot like that?”
“Yeah, I guess. I won fair and square; will you leave Benny alone now?”
“Tell me about him.”
“About who, my dad?”
Howard pulled a Payday candy bar from his pocket and took a bite. He nodded as he chewed.
“He was a stubborn man—made life difficult for my mom and me.”
“Taught you how to hunt wolves did he?”
“He tried, but I wanted no part of it.”
“He also tried to kill you in the house you grew up in. Is that right?”
Char’s been talking about me too. “When he found out I turned he said the honorable thing to do was kill myself, or else he would do it for me while I slept. I decided never to sleep there again.”
“If he were here now, in this very room, would you kill him?”
“Wounds are still kinda fresh—”
“Would you kill him?”
“I would do the honorable thing, and put a bullet through his brain.”
Howard took another bite. “What other secret talents are you hiding from me?”
“I told you before, I’m not hiding anything.”
“Enough is enough!!” Howard threw the candy bar to the ground. “You arrived out of nowhere, fucked my daughter, bested my finest marksman, and you still expect me to believe you’re just some innocent boy looking for a place to stay!?”
“If you can believe one thing I say, believe that I never wanted to hurt Charlene.”
Howard returned to one of his crates and pulled out a machete half his size. He held it up to the light and rubbed his thumb across the blade. “This is your last warning. Whatever you’re trying to accomplish here, it ends today, or I’ll make you wish your father had murdered you in your sleep.” He tossed the weapon onto a table. “Now get out of my sight.”
Dan returned to the South Building. His door was returned in splinters, scattered across the entryway. “What a trophy it is.” He stepped over the debris into his apartment. He crouched down and placed the larger pieces against the wall. He noticed clumps of gravel on the carpet that led around the corner into the living room. He followed the trail to find Benny lounging on his couch with his arms stretch out over the cushions.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Your door was open,” said Benny. He pulled a cigar from his vest and bit the end off. “Got a light?”
Dan handed him a lighter as if he were feeding a lion. “Maybe we should talk outside, in the open?”
“I’ve had enough of the outside, thanks.”
“I’m sorry, about everything.”
“That’s what I get for bein’ a good guy. Before every ‘session’ Howard tells us to pull back after an hour or so. He didn’t say shit last night. I wasn’t sure how far he was going to take it.”
“I don’t even know where to begin repaying you.”
“I do.” Benny lit his cigar and placed the lighter on the table. “My children came to me the other day, talking about what Mr. Bully had taught them. They were smiling. I hadn’t seen them smile since we set foot here. I’ll never be able to give them the future they deserve, but I can give them something to hope for.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I want what’s best for my kids. Right now, that’s you. Keep doin’ what you’re doin’ and we’ll get along just fine.” Benny craned his neck back and blew smoke into the air. “Unfortunately, we’re no longer sparing partners. With Hugo still MIA, who knows who you’ll end up with.”
“Why won’t Howard just kill me?”
“Because he knows you want to die. There was a point when I believed he was trying to make you into a better man, but after last night, I…well, if I knew how his brain worked I wouldn’t have been swinging in the breeze.” Benny stood and shook Dan’s hand. “Good luck, Danny.” He approached the doorway and snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot. I’m not the only one who wants you around. Until we can find you a new door, me and some of the others will take turns keepin’ watch.”
As Benny stood in the doorway, Mel shoved him as she marched towards Dan. “What the fuck were you thinking!?” said Mel.
Benny exchanged glances with Dan, pointing at Mel. Dan shook his head, and Benny left them alone.
“You need to calm down,” said Dan.
“How am I suppose to calm down!? Why would you show off like that!?”
“I was trying to save Benny!”
“He knew what he was getting into! Now that they know you can shoot, they’ll start sending you out on raids!”
“I appreciate your concern, but I’ll be fine. I think I’m more popular around here than I thought.”
“I don’t care what happens to you! If you’re out on raids, they’ll find someone else to take over inventory duty! You fucked up, Dan! You fucked up real bad!”