DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 25

Dan found himself back at the grim bonfire. His father, Mr. Reto , and the Warg continued to feast. He scanned the horizon for an escape only to discover figures bolting across the bleached bone sand. The night air gave way to brutal cold, and the figures shattered and crumbled into dust. Without the flame nearby, Dan would surely perish.

He dug his toes into the sand. When they continued to burrow, he panicked, and he was soon trapped up to his chest. Soon the sand piled overhead. His hand reached for rescue—the heat of the campfire licked his fingertips. His hand was seized and pulled. The force wrenched the joints in his arm. The crushing weight of the sand parted, birthing him into darkness. Dan was unsure of which man pulled him from the brink, but he was certain none meant to save him.

Chapter 25:

Take Me Up and Cast Me Away

Sunlight glistened off the cone-shaped bag nestled in Marcelo’s hand. The tip garnished Mel’s bare back with a thick black dye. He drew a sun without a drop straying from her milky skin. The sun joined Aztec warriors on Mel’s shoulder blades—their enemies dripping from jaguar jaws.

Marcelo kneeled to complete the pattern across Mel’s side, shifting his weight across the floorboards as he connected the work to her stomach. He moved as if he had done it a thousand times, his hands deft and steady. Mel was oblivious, gazing out the apartment window with her arms lifted.

What’s got you so distracted? thought Dan.

“I feel like a wedding cake,” said Mel, turning her attention to Marcelo. “How much longer?”

“There’s not much space left on you,” said Dan from the couch. “He’s almost done. Right, Mars?”

Marcelo drew around her naval. “I can fit everything if we shave her head.”

“I’ll settle for the abridged version,” said Mel.

“Raise your arms higher,” said Marcelo. He continued the pattern on her chest, depicting a beast Dan did not recognize. Mel laughed as the cone circled her nipple. It was the first time Dan had seen her blush.

“When’s  Danny’s turn?” said Mel.

“There’s only enough dye for one,” said Marcelo.

“Will you get more?”

“Who’s to say?”

“So…what’ll happen to Danny if he doesn’t have the tattoo?”

Marcelo stayed silent as he finished the beast’s fang. “It’s done. Wait an hour before washing; then you may cover yourself.” Mars tossed his used bag into a bucket before standing. “The Sangradores once used these to preserve the past. The sun is their dawn; the jaguars, their champions.” Marcelo pointed at Mel’s chest. “Do you know what that is?”

“It looks rabid, whatever it is,” said Mel.

“It’s the last entry—our doomsday.”

“Fettel,” said Dan.

Marcelo nodded. “A stain we see every time we hang our heads.”

Mel glanced at the intricate markings on her arms. “Danny’s too close to Howard’s family. The Sangradores wouldn’t care how much dye was on him.”

“That was then,” said Marcelo. “We’re different men now. If I thought Dan were in danger, I’d find more immediately—”

“But I’ll sleep better knowing you’re marked,” said Dan. He turned his attention to Marcelo. “Thank you for doing this. She looks exquisite. Does your wife do yours?”

Marcelo nodded. “And the children. You’ll find more tattoos in your classroom soon enough. Noah wanted a crown and shield added to his skin. He comes home ranting of knights.”

“We’ve been reading about King Arthur. I’m surprised how fascinated the kids are with it.”

“The rants are welcome.” Marcelo picked up his bucket. “I don’t know who I’m more grateful for—you or Viejo.”

“I was so exhausted coming back yesterday I didn’t notice adults guarding the complex,” said Dan. “I have to admit, Viejo did right by those kids.”

“More change is coming. He has an announcement tonight in the courtyard.” Marcelo paused by the apartment threshold before turning around to face Mel. “Perhaps there’ll  be more to add to your tattoo afterwards.”

After Marcelo had left, Mel returned to the window.  “He looks too comfortable,” said Mel. “Viejo should be running raids, not sitting in Howard’s chair with his feet up.” She faced Dan before examining more of Marcelo’s work. “You have your peace-of-mind, how about helping with mine?”

“You heard Marcelo. We’ll be okay.”

“That’s crap, and I know you feel the same.” Mel carefully lowered herself onto the edge of the couch next to Dan. “If Viejo goes into anti-Fettel rhetoric it’ll put most of the children here in danger. We need a plan to keep them safe.”

“What did you have in mind?” said Dan.

“Ever have tornado drills in school? Whenever a siren went off, all the children would run down to the basement and stick their heads between their knees.”

“The most secure spot is my classroom. That latch requires a combination and can practically withstand an atomic blast.”

“Then let’s make that our basement.”

“And our siren?”

“The fire alarms still work, even though they’re no longer connected to the fire department. There are levers on every floor of every building—really easy to spot. If something goes down, that’ll get their attention quick.”

“There won’t be enough space for the parents down there.”

“Until we know who sides with who just focus on the children. Make sure they’re ready.”

“I’ll let them know during class. Viejo wants to see me afterwards. He doesn’t seem to care anymore about the missing bikes or Roy. Maybe he’ll let me see Char if I ask.”

Mel sighed as she shot up from the couch. She leaned forward, placing her hands along the window sill. “If you insist on pressing him about Char, stop being so transparent. If Viejo sees you begging for her he’ll just use it against you. You’re smarter than that, Dan.”

I forgot. She hates the ‘C’ word. “I get it. I’ll be more careful.”

“I need to wash this stuff off.” Mel proceeded to the bathroom before abruptly spinning around. She looked Dan in the eyes with a mischievous half-smile. “I just realized it’s edible. Have you had breakfast this morning?”

*****

“But he was just a boy,” said Jaime. “How could he remove it from the stone?”

“Excalibur was his birthright,” said Dan, “It belonged to the true heir of Uther Pendragon, but I like to think that the sword chose him.”

“I like to think that, too,” said Cassie.

The class size boomed after the attack, filling the shelter to its maximum capacity. Many of the children had followed Marcelo’s suggestion of shaving their heads to fit more tattoos, but their allegiances did not matter here. Bedlam or Sangrador—bitten or full-bloods—they all sat pacified by stories of swordsmanship and heroic quests. Dan had hoped they would enjoy the new books he had found in Flint, but they asked only for knights. Is the Bedlam Complex their Camelot? thought Dan.  If so, who’s their Arthur?

“Wait. So there are two Excaliburs?” said Jaime. “Arthur pulls the sword from the stone and gets it again from the Lady of the Lake.”

“There are several versions of the same legend,” said Dan. “Sometimes they are called two different swords, other times they are the same. That happens to stories over time—details fade away while others get added.”

“Why are your eyes different colors?”

“I think Connor had his hand up for a while, Jaime. Connor, you have a question?”

“Why is your tongue black?” said Connor.

“Any questions about the story?” said Dan.

“Who’s the strongest knight?”

“Well, Lancelot is usually depicted as the most skilled, but not without competition from his son Galahad. Keep in mind that a great knight didn’t need to be the strongest necessarily. Valor was prized above everything else.”

“What’s ‘valor?’” said Wood.

Cassie yanked her brother by the arm. “Don’t interrupt.”

“It’s okay, Cassie.” Dan kneeled down next to Wood. “You’re probably more familiar with words like ‘courage’ or ‘bravery.’ Valor is standing in the face of danger to defend the weak.”

“The weak are meant to die,” said Noah.

“I’m sad to hear you say that,” said Dan. “What would your dad say if he heard you?”

“Great, Noah, you made him sad!” said Erica.

Dan stifled his laugh. “Does anyone want to move on to a new book? I have so many others in this crate.”

“Do you have any pictures of knights?” said Erica.

“I’m afraid I don’t, Erica, but I’ll keep a lookout on future raids for something. There are plenty of films about knights. No promises, but maybe I can get movie nights back.”

The students’ eyes widened. For a brief moment, they had become children again, but their excitement was impeded by the screech of the newly installed intercom.

“Bully? Can you hear me?”

No ‘Cachorro’ today?  Dan stood up and walked to the intercom. He held down a button before answering Viejo. “I thought we were meeting later?”

“I have a message from Fettel.”

How long does he think he can fool people with these ‘messages’?

“I’m coming up.” Dan released the button. “It looks like we’re ending early today, guys, I’m sorry. I’ll see if we can have an extended class tomorrow. And remember what I told you earlier—keep an ear open for the alarm tonight.”

After everyone had filed out, Dan climbed the ladder and shut the latch behind him. He found Viejo waiting with guards. They looked like children by comparison—shaded by the cover of his wide-brimmed hat.

“What is this about?” said Dan.

“Not here,” said Viejo. “We’ll talk in the suite.”

They crossed the courtyard to the North building. Viejo walked without crutches, but his movements were labored and slow. His men traveled beside him, ready to catch the teetering boss. The walk was made longer by Bedlam tenets, throwing themselves at Viejo’s feet in thanks. He helped each one back to their feet; his boney fingers cradled their faces before sending them on their way.

Howard’s suite had been redecorated. A rack of bull horns had been mounted over the mantel—sandwiched between kitschy Southwestern steakhouse paintings. Gone were the crates of refuse. They were replaced by leather furniture and a simple round table set up by the balcony widow. Both men took a seat.

“What does Howard want?” said Dan.

“There’s no point in lying anymore,” said Viejo. “Howard, his daughter, and the Warg are no longer here. He found a way to leave the complex undetected by the surrounding militia. He’s nothing if not opportunistic. You don’t survive for as long as we have without being that way. Patient too—that is where our similarities end.”

“So they left for the commune early?”

“To await the birth of his grandchildren—his real grandchildren. That was Monday night. We have heard nothing from him since. As per his instructions, if we don’t receive word after 48 hours, everyone is to vacate the premises. That is what he expects me to announce this evening.”

“I’ll find them! We can form another tracking party and—”

“He’s not in danger; none of them are. We’ve been abandoned, Bully.”

“That doesn’t make sense!” said Dan.

“Did Howard strike you as a sensible caretaker? You knew better than any of us the extent of his hospitality.”

“Char wouldn’t abandon me.” Dan pushed the chair back as he stood. “She wouldn’t keep me from my kids.”

“There’s more. Sit!”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a dog! Tell me where the commune is!”

“It may as well be in the clouds. You’ll never reach it.”

“I’ll search every inch of Alaska if I have to! Tell me! Just…give me something! Please!” Dan returned to his chair. He slid his fingers through his hair before lowering his forehead onto the table. Don’t do this to me, Char.

Viejo rubbed the nape of Dan’s neck as he whispered in his ear. “There’s life after Fettel; I promise you. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t believe it. No one is leaving the complex. I’ve waited too long for this opportunity. If I’m going to rebuild, it will mean bridging the old with the new—the Sangradores with the Bedlam.”

Dan lifted his head up. “How?”

Viejo’s mouth twisted into a smirk as he placed his cowboy hat on Dan’s head. The top half of Viejo’s face was pitch black in dye. The stains reached below his eyes—some streaks had even passed his lips.

“I can’t do this,” said Dan as he removed the hat. “Get Khaleed to do it. He’s young and will do whatever you tell him.”

“I have dozens of Khaleeds,” said Viejo. “I need a Dan Bully. You’re something of a crowd favorite.”

“You’re giving me too much credit. The children tolerate me, but the adults could care less about me.”

“They adore you for what you offer their children. Why else would they guard your apartment at night? Fickle, yes, but you have become someone they admire—someone they trust.”

“What do you need me to do exactly?”

“Help me usher in the new era of the Sangradores, and you can build your new life here as you see fit.”

Remember what Mel said. This man can’t be trusted. “My life isn’t here. It never was.” Dan stood up from the table again. “I hope you build something worthwhile someday. I really do.”

“I have something else to offer.” Viejo reached into his pocket and held up an old phone. When he flipped it open, the screen revealed a picture of Dan in a graduation cap and gown. His father stood close with his arm around Dan’s shoulders.

“Where did you get that?” said Dan.

“He attacked us on Sunday with a small hunting party.”

“And you said nothing!?”

“Howard forbade it. God knows what he had planned to do with him before heading north.” Viejo snapped the phone shut. “Stand by me tonight and tell the people what they should hear. Tell them Howard Fettel is dead. Help me rebuild my family, and I’ll give you back what’s left of yours.”

*****

Dan listened to the crowd from the stairwell in the North building. Word of Viejo’s announcement drew every member from their homes; their fervor felt through stone and steel. Dan looked over the tattooed guards at the base of the steps. Some wore heavy gauntlets so they could brandish silver pokers. Mel was careful as she weaved through their ranks. Dan hurried down to meet her.

“Did you find out where they’re keeping him?”

“Nothing. Howard has hiding spots all over. Your father might not even be in this complex. But don’t think about that now. All you have to do is one thing and you both can walk away safe.”

“What if Howard comes back? What if my dad’s already dead?”

“Danny, don’t fall apart on me. You have a long night ahead, but it can be done. Just remember ‘Howard is dead.’”

“He’s ready for you,” said Vargas from the top of the stairs.

Mel kissed Dan before he ascended. Dan passed several guards on the steps and recognized Vargas, Marcelo, Andora, Khaleed, and Benny, each equipped with double-barreled shotguns. When Dan reached the balcony, he looked out over an ocean of Bedlam beyond a miked podium. They cheered for him as the sun set over the horizon. How many of you know where my dad is? thought Dan.

Viejo grabbed Dan’s hand and raised it above their heads. The crowd erupted at the gesture, revving their bikes in tandem. Dan looked down on the people closest to the balcony, their faces shiny from weeping.

Viejo approached the podium as his most trusted guards lined up behind him. They rested their weapons against their shoulders like imperial guards. When Viejo raised his hands, the bedlam ceased.

“We have news of Howard Fettel,” said Viejo. “Word came last night as the complex slept—Howard Fettel has died.”

Some shouted “liar” over sounds of applause.

“The message came from his own daughter directly to the father of his grandchildren. Daniel, tell them what she wrote.”

Breathe, Danny. Just say the words. “It’s true,” said Dan. “Howard died in his sleep.”

“We should all wish for such an end,” said Viejo. “This news cuts each of us differently. Do not be ashamed. He was our tormentor and father, our lover and ruler. Mourn how you will, but never forget the leader of the Bedlam. I do this in his honor.”

Viejo stepped back for his armed guards to come forward. They aimed into the air and fired three rounds in unison. The Bedlam recoiled and screamed after each blast. The younger children left puddles of urine.

“I’m pleased to see our history scrawled across most of your bodies,” said Viejo. “I see our journey to this day in your eyes. You know what it is to starve, to fight, to suffer, but do you know what it is to dream, to build, to overcome? As we bury our dead, let us look to what can be salvaged. With the help of the people on this stage, I will shape this complex into an empire. From this moment, you are my Sangradores!”

“WE WANT BULLY!” chanted the crowd. They pulled off their Bedlam vests and tossed them onto the balcony. They soon threw whatever they could find.

I have to stop this! Dan approached the podium as Viejo pulled the mic to his face.

“HAVE I NOT SUFFERED ENOUGH!?” said Viejo. “DO YOU WANT NO OTHER LIFE!?”

The Bedlam rushed the front of the North building, snapping the doors like twigs. Viejo barked orders to his guards downstairs to stab the intruders with the silver pokers. He then instructed the guards on the balcony to fire into the crowd to scare them away. Benny leveled his gun and fired into Viejo’s spine. The force knocked him over the railing and into the swarm below.

Danny watched from the balcony as Viejo was pulled apart and devoured. His blood covered the smiling faces of men and children alike. Soon his long limbs were paraded through the courtyard as they chanted Dan’s name.

Dan turned around to find Benny laughing hysterically.

“She did it! She actually did it!” said Benny. He tossed his gun to the ground and lifted Dan into the air. He hurled him over the railing into the hands of monsters. They did not let him touch the ground.

What just happened!?  Dan saw Viejo’s head skewered on a silver poker. He looked up at the balcony to find Mel, leaning against the railing with a mischievous half-smile.

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