DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 20

Dan clenched onto the cello as the waves heaved and crashed. Blue whales battled by breaching into one another, their impact ignited the darkness with lightning and awe. He played a note he had never heard before, and the ocean accepted it as a lullaby. Soon the battles ceased. Dan felt the sand beneath his feet as he was carried to the shore.

Under the moonlight, the cello became Mel. She sifted her fingers through white sand, spelling a message in a language he did not understand. She asked him to finish it, but he did not know what to write.  She straddled him until he took hold of her—their bodies completing the message in the sand.

Chapter 20:

Lucid

                She faded away as Dan rustled the sheets. Mel’s pouty smirk was the first to vanish, followed by sapphire eyes both arrogant and insatiable. Her fingers spread down her neck and teased a button on her vest, holding desperately to keep her decent before giving way.

I won’t be sharing that with the Warg either, thought Dan. The Warg’s cello lay silent that morning. Maybe he’s experiencing it firsthand. He was surprised by how little the thought bothered him. Mel had bedded the entire complex most likely, yet it made no difference. Sex would be a transaction—convenient, quick, and detached. Pageantry would have its place in dreams, not in the piss-soaked hovel they called home.

Over two weeks without release had filled him with frustration, manifesting both consciously and subconsciously. Dan knew that the moment he found release, his guilt over Char would reoccupy that space. Until then, he would stay voracious—waiting for the perfect moment to complete his transaction with Mel.

He felt well-rested for the first time in weeks, and he inched toward the foot of his bed to see who was responsible. It was Marcelo’s turn, standing in the doorway facing outward with his arms crossed like a bouncer. Not as tall as Viejo, his head barely cleared the doorframe. Marcelo did share Viejo’s skin markings, and with his torso exposed, Dan was able to decipher the drawings. They appeared Aztec in nature—leopards and eagles brandishing clubs under an angry sun. A long braided ponytail split the scene in two.

Dan let the creaks of the floorboards announce him. “How was your night?”

Marcelo replied, still facing the stairwell. “Quieter than last. Benny had nothing to report when I relieved him.”

“I appreciate it,” said Dan. “Will Noah be in class today?”

“Don’t know. Howard’s still looking to replace Riley and Sera.” He spit to the side. “Coward should hide behind his own brood.” Marcelo turned to face Dan. “I won’t stand guard if he takes Noah.”

Not one to mince words. “I understand. I hope I see him later.”

Marcelo nodded and left.

With Marcelo gone, Dan started his day with morning training. He fought his shadow in the empty basketball court to warm up. Each punch came off his back foot, rotating and snapping back with precision and speed. With improved form came a better understanding of the dynamics of combat, anticipating his opponents’ patterns and punishing their mistakes. His progress did not go unnoticed, evident in the selection of Benny’s replacement.

Khaleed had been a welterweight boxer before getting infected.  He never tapered off during battle like the others, each punch as biting as the last. Hope came last night when Dan staggered Khaleed with a combination to his breadbasket. He can be stopped, thought Dan. Just like anyone else.

Ten minutes passed; Dan was still alone. He gazed up into the balcony and found only a curtain in the breeze. The other fighters began to arrive, three this time, waiting behind the court fence. Roy and Khaleed were joined by the woman who had sunk a machete into Dan’s shoulder last week. They would do nothing until Howard arrived.

Does Howard mean to repeat his battle royal from Friday night? They too were covered in Aztec markings. These stains were intricate and seemed to wrap around their entire bodies. Roy and Khaleed did not have them yesterday. Dan wondered if Marcelo would explain to him their sudden popularity.

Where the hell is he? Dan surveyed the yard for any sign of the ghoul. Instead he found his dream girl, making her way around the court fence. Her center lock of hair had been styled to fall playfully over the right side of her shaved head, cascading just past her collar bone. Her jeans cut off at the hip, exposing her legs in all their smooth, sun-kissed splendor. She stifled a smile as she came closer.

“I finally get a chance to watch you train and you’re just standing around,” said Mel.

“Don’t blame me, blame Howard.”

Although it seemed much tighter in Dan’s dream, She wore her usual bulky leather vest. A memento from a previous client?

“Your hair looks like bullshit,” said Mel. “It’s driving me crazy.” She ran her fingertips across Dan’s mane. Her nails scratched his scalp with each brush.

“Can I touch your Mohawk?” said Dan.

“Nope. This actually took effort.” She let her hands fall to her sides with a sigh. “Where is Howard, anyway?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing. But now that you’ve answered that, I have another question for you.”

“Oh? How can I be of service, Mr. Bully?”

They were interrupted by the echo of a familiar thud. Now he decides to show, thought Dan. He turned around to find Viejo on crutches. Even at their tallest adjustment, he hunched forward on them. His cowboy hat hid the top of his face. It’s been days since Howard shot him in the knee. Why hasn’t he recovered yet?

“Change of plans,” said Viejo. “You’ll be taking my place on a raid this morning.”

Mel was afraid of this. “I have class in a few hours, then inventory.”

“This takes priority. You’ll be paying the hospital in downtown Flint a visit with these three.” Viejo motioned a crutch towards Dan’s sparing partners. “We have a specific list of items. The sooner you collect them the sooner you come back.”

“And Howard approved this?”

“‘It would be a shame to let such marksmanship go to waste.’ I believe those were his words.”

None of this feels right. “I want to speak with him.”

“Mr. Fettel cannot be disturbed at this time. Anything you need to say to him you will say to me.”

There’s no hospital. They’re taking me out to die. “Just the four of us then?”

“Mars and Vargas will join you soon. We have few men to spare until the search parties return.”

“Benny’s available. We can bring him along as well.”

Viejo tipped his hat up. “Need a hug, Cachorro?” The fighters laughed from behind the fence.

“I’ll go,” said Mel. “If you’re low on men I can do this no problem.”

Viejo looked her up and down, and continued to speak to Dan as if she said nothing. “Meet them at the bikes in five minutes. Do exactly as they tell you.” He turned around and hobbled his way back to the North building.

What did they do with Howard!? “I need to see the Warg.”

                “There’s no time,” said Mel. “You need to focus on the raid.”

“I don’t even know how to ride a motorcycle!”

Mel placed her hands on both sides of his face. “Stop it!” She pressed against his body. Her hands went under his shirt and massaged the small of his back, working up to his shoulders. “Take a deep breath, like me.”

He did as she asked.

“Now loop your shoulders up and back like this. See? Watch me.” Her shoulders moved up and fell with an exhale. Her nails danced over his goose-bumped skin. She leaned in to whisper, “Stay close to Marcelo. If he wanted you dead he would have killed you in your sleep. You can do this, just be alert. Breathe just like this if you have to, okay?”

She eased his burden for the time being. His mind was still filled with questions, but she was right. Now was the time to focus. “Will you check in with the Warg to see what’s going on?”

“I can do that,” said Mel. “You want me to sub for your class?”

Dan had almost forgotten about them. “Are you sure? The class is bigger now.”

“What’s the combination to the latch?”

“42-56-72. We’re reading ‘King Arthur and His Knights.’ Cassie will tell you where we left off.”

She kissed his cheek and backed away. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

Mel’s body was no longer enough, Dan wanted all of her.

*****

                The riders wore their vests with the Bedlam insignia blaring out the back. Viejo called to him from the balcony, sitting in Howard’s chair. “You’ll need this!” He tossed a leather vest down to Dan. He unfurled it to reveal “Bedlam” embroidered across the top rocker, the screaming face long faded and sullied.

“Remember—just what’s on the list, Mars!” said Viejo.

Dan turned around to find Marcelo scanning the tiny sheet of paper. He sat on his bike with only a rifle slung over his back. He folded the list and shoved it in his pocket. When he spotted Dan, he pointed him to a “one-kicker.”

Dan threw his right leg over and took a seat. His feet laid flat on the gravel.

“How do I start it?”

“Raise the kick stand, prime it, turn the ignition and wait,” said Marcelo.

Another rider leaned over and primed Dan’s bike. The rider was stout with a beard that covered most of his body.

Dan turned the key and waited for further instruction.

“Hold the clutch and switch to first gear. Feel that by your left foot? That’s your gear shift. Press down to put it in first, then hit the throttle. And don’t—“

The other riders revved their engines. “Don’t what!?” said Dan. Marcelo peeled out of the runway with the others. Dan had seen enough movies to know that the right handle should be turned. He pressed the gear shift down and wrenched his wrist. The bike erupted forward.

He rocketed past the other riders before careening to the ground. The left side of his body shred across the gravel and glass as the weight of the bike ground him into dust. He dragged himself out from underneath. He felt his face to find a burning crater where his left eye had been. He blacked out to the sound of a struggling engine.

Dan came to in Marcelo’s sidecar. His shirt was missing while the leather vest remained. His vision restored, along with the rest of his body. The blood had dried in rust-colored splatter on his face and chest— his own version of the Aztec glyphs.

“I forget how new you are,” said Marcelo over the roar of engines. “But I’m no teacher.”

No shit, thought Dan. He surveyed the landscape to find his bearings. Each building alternated between foreclosure, abandonment, and rubble. He had heard stories of Flint in school; he now knew they were true. The smart ones left when they had the chance. Those who stayed would never leave, their bones poking up from half-hearted graves.

“How much farther?”

Marcelo pointed to the hospital. “If it’s uninhabited, and the supplies we need are there, this should be an easy one.”

The Bedlam slowed on their approach. They cut the engines and began to dig through their saddlebags. Marcelo pulled out a drawstring bag and backpack. He removed a Magnum next, and shoved it down the back of his jeans. He grabbed the hunting rifle from his back and handed both the weapon and the backpack to Dan.

“You’ll be covering Vargas,” said Marcelo. “He’s about ready to go in.”

Vargas had helped prime Dan’s engine earlier, and was the least imposing figure among the fighters and full-bloods. His skinny limbs and bloated stomach showed how little he engaged in combat. His only impressive feature was his stunning gray beard, robust and wily, reaching down to his belly button.

“You’re sending him in alone?” said Dan. “He doesn’t look very…capable.”

“We send the weakest in first.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“We would have sent you, before Sunday.”

Vargas shook as he fed bullets into his revolver, but his eyes were serene as if he had been waiting for this day. He looked up to find Dan, and gave him the thumbs up before entering the glass door.

“Should I go in with him?” said Dan.

“No, just watch.”

Vargas waddled deep inside, disappearing periodically behind counters and desks. After a minute of exploring, he poked his head out from the doorway and waved the rest inside.

Marcelo leaned to the side and spat. “Listen up. We need painkillers, gauze, bandages, catheters, syringes, antiseptic, and cigarettes. Fill your sacs as best you can. No one leaves until we find everything.”

I get the cigarettes, but why would we need any of that other stuff? Watching Viejo get around on crutches made Dan realize that infected regeneration, like many things, slows with age. What if these items are for Howard? Maybe his body is failing.

Dan stayed behind the group. He had pictured a larger building when Viejo called it a hospital. In actuality, it was a small clinic with an equally tiny drug store annexed near the entrance.

“Khaleed, stay close to Vargas and check the offices in back,” said Marcelo. “Andora and Roy, search the lobby and keep lookout. Dan and me will raid the pharmacy.”

Dan and Marcelo separated near the prescription counter. Dan was curious what would still be left behind on the shelves after all this time. The magazine racks were empty, but the book display had remained full. He spun it to take in the spectrum of health topics. He stopped on “The Fruits of Her Labor: How to Prepare for a Multiple Pregnancy.”  It won’t have a chapter on litters, but it’s close enough. He shoved the book into his backpack.

He checked the next aisle for medications—nothing. The toiletries aisle was just as bare. They had to have known this place was picked clean. The last aisle was meant for beauty products, but it proved just as anemic as the others. Aside from a few toenail clippers, Dan found a comb, brush, and mirror set. They never bring this kind of stuff in. He thought of Mel before sliding the set with his other findings.

With Marcelo taking his time behind the prescription counter, Dan headed for the examination rooms. The cupboards satisfied most of the items on the list. He took a moment to rearrange his backpack to fit everything. After he zipped his bag closed, he heard voices coming from the room next door. He sidled up to the doorway to hear them better.

“I expected you to be more enthusiastic about the return of the Sangradors.  We’ll be over two-hundred strong.”

“Take a good look at your two-hundred—broken elderly and warped children. Face it, boy, the Sangradors died years ago.”

“Viejo has a plan, Vargas. With Howard gone, the wheels can turn.”

“Don’t talk to me. Better yet, don’t talk at all.”

Dan heard footsteps from the opposite end of the hall. He turned to find Marcelo approaching with a limp drawstring bag.

“Anything?” said Marcelo.

“A lot, actually,” said Dan. “The cupboards are virtually untouched, at least the one I—.”

He was interrupted by screams.

They all raced to the waiting room to find Andora choking Roy against the bolted-down seats.

Roy foamed as Andora began to scream.

“How many!?” said Andora. “How many!?”

“He won’t answer you with your hands around his throat!” said Vargas.

It was unclear whether Andora listened to reason, or if she grew exhausted from strangling, but she released Roy to the carpet.

Roy coughed spittle onto the floor as everyone gathered around.

“His bag is full of food!” said Andora. “He emptied a vending machine into it and I caught him tearing through a whole pile of ‘em by himself!”

“SO WHAT!?” said Roy. “The fucking pup filled his bag with books when no one else was watching!”

“I can’t feed my son with books,” said Marcelo.

“I’m sick of taking care of everyone’s family! This is mine! I found it! Why should my food be shared with your nothing of a son or anyone else’s!?

Marcelo stepped forward, and Roy cowered under the chairs.

“You’ll sway for this,” said Vargas. “What were you thinking?”

“We’ll handle it like we used to! We kill him here!!” said Andora.

“That’s not how it works.”

“The Sangradors would kill for less,” said Khaleed. “Andora is right.”

“Give it a rest, Khaleed.”

“Keep your voices down,” said Dan. “I know exactly how much food is in storage. It’s low, but the food Roy found is a drop in the bucket by comparison. He’s a greedy son-of-a-bitch, but he doesn’t deserve to die over bags of chips.”

“So we’re just going to wag our fingers at him and call it a day?” said Khaleed.

“I didn’t say he should go unpunished. Stand up, Roy.” Dan scooped up the bag full of snacks and shoved it into Roy’s chest. “Here. It’s all yours. Good luck. You won’t be coming back with us.”

“You expect me to ride out here alone!?” said Roy.

“No, I expect you to walk. The bikes belong to the Bedlam. I’ll manage to get the one you rode in on back to the complex. God willing. You keep your resources and we’ll keep ours, that is, unless you knock off the finders keepers bullshit.”

“Who the hell are you, Pup!?”

“It’s a good deal, Roy,” said Vargas.

Anticipate and punish, thought Dan.

“Fine!” said Roy. “I’m better off without ya’ll anyway. I’ve wasted enough of my fucking time with the Bedlam. You’ll all be eating each other in a month anyway.”

I wasn’t expecting him to take the chips.

Roy kicked the front door open and headed east on the sidewalk.

Dan chased after him. “Okay, Roy. Enough’s enough.”

As Roy turned the corner the back of his skull spewed onto the street, the gun blast trailing behind.

“I told you he was Bedlam,” said a voice.

“What was he taking?” said another.

“Expired Doritos. Cool Ranch.”

Jesus Christ! Dan backtracked to the clinic as quietly as possible. He reentered the clinic, announcing the hunters.

“Everyone get down!” said Marcelo.

The group took cover behind the counters and reception desk.

“How many did you see?”

“I heard two,” said Dan. “I think they were heading this way.”

“We need to know what we’re up against.”

Dan took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders on the exhale. “I have an idea.” He unzipped his bag and removed the mirror. With his back against the reception desk, he angled the mirror to reflect the outside of the clinic.

Two hunters came into view, then three more, then Dan lost count of the wave of bodies. Their convoy contained no less than three trucks.

Dan looked up at Marcelo, staring at the reflection in disgust.

“Everyone back up slowly,” said Marcelo. “There’s another door past the offices.”

They crept away, keeping low and silent. Dan glimpsed back to see an army of hunters filling the streets.

When they reached the other exit, Marcelo gripped the door handle in one hand and his magnum in the other.

“Wait!” said Dan. He slid the mirror under the door. He angled it up to find the alley clear of hunters. “We’re good to go.”

“Maybe we should hide until they pass,” said Khaleed.

“They’ll know we’re here when they see the bikes,” said Marcelo. “We need to leave while we can.”

“What about the bikes?” said Andora.

“If God is good, they’ll still be here tomorrow. We can escape with our haul on foot. When I open this door we move out and never look back.”

They left the clinic, their bikes, and Roy, behind.

*****

                They arrived at the Bedlam complex at sunset. Sweat glistened off their exhausted bodies as they shambled past the gates. Viejo hobbled out to meet them, hunched forward like a cobra.

“Where are the bikes?” said Viejo.

None answered, either too tired or too ashamed.

“WHERE ARE THE FUCKING BIKES!?”

Dan decided to end his trek at The Water Dish.

“I asked you a question, Cachorro! What the fuck happened!?”

Mr. Bully cannot be disturbed at this time, thought Dan as he walked just out of his reach. Viejo will have to find his answer with Marcelo and the rest.

Dan thought better of visiting The Water Dish and changed course towards his apartment. Once inside he dropped his backpack on the toilet lid and filled his shower with the hottest water it could produce. He leaned forward against the tile, watching the blood stains swirl down the drain.

Did I kill Roy? Thought Dan. If so, why don’t I care?

Dan emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist. He walked to his dresser to find Mel curled asleep on his couch. How long have you been here? He grazed his fingers against the shaved portion of her head and twirled her longer hair gently around his finger. Her eyes opened slowly.

“I saw you wipeout,” said Mel.

“Motorcycles aren’t my thing.”

“I tried to convince them to leave you here.” Mel sat up and wiped her eyes with her palms. “Sit down, let me look at you.” She brushed the hair from his face. “Danny, your eye…”

“What?”

“It’s brown now. You have two different colored eyes. I’ve never seen that happen before.”

Dan returned to the bathroom to examine his new eye in the mirror. The iris took on a reddish-brown hue. It should have come back blue. I don’t understand.

“I think it looks cool,” said Mel.

I guess it doesn’t matter. Dan returned to the couch. “Did the kids give you any trouble?”

“Not at all, they were pretty mellow. I think they were a bit preoccupied. I can’t blame them.”

“Thank you for doing that.”

“I have some bad news though.”

“Me too.”

“Well. Not bad news—inconclusive news. The Warg’s men stopped me from going up to see him. That’s never happened before.”

“So Howard and the Warg are missing?”

“They’re not letting anyone into the infirmary either. Rumor has it the Warg is in there and Howard is by his side.”

“The list they gave us was all medical supplies,” said Dan. “He’s supposed to be taking care of Char.”

“You said you had bad news too?”

“Roy’s dead. And we lost the bikes.”

“Bikes can be replaced. And Roy…Roy was bad for the group. If it were anyone else it’d be bad news.” Mel teased her hair before crossing her legs and placing her hands around her knee.“So. I believe you had a question for me this morning.”

Dan had not forgotten. He could no longer perceive Mel as a faceless sex object. She cared for him, looked out for him, supported him. How could he cheapen that now? How could he dare ask her for another favor? He owed her. And until he could think of a way to properly pay his debt, he would have to change his question.

“I was going to ask how you ended up here.”

“You’re the first person to ask me that in a while, but that story is for later.”

“I won’t push it then.”

Mel stood up and stretched. “Well, I’m ready for bed.”

Dan took one last longing gaze at her legs. “It’s been a long, hard day.” He stood up to escort her to the empty space his door had been.

Mel climbed onto Dan’s bed, arching her back and smirking at him from over her shoulder. “Are you coming or what?”

This isn’t a dream. Think of something clever to say. “I think we both know the answer to that.”

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