DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 28

Dan heard Fettel call forth the next opponent. Roy charged with a spiked bat in hand. He swung through the night air, but Dan stood unfazed. He grabbed Roy’s wrist and snapped off his hand. With his new weapon firmly grasped, Dan struck Roy in the shoulder, shattering him into pieces.

Benny came next, rushing to lift Dan by the waist. Dan sidestepped and batted Benny’s head into the ground. Before the body collapsed, Viejo appeared, leveling his revolver at Dan’s forehead. Dan pulverized the wrinkled hand into a cloud of ash with one swing and wrenched the bat in the other direction to finish him off.

Gator emerged with his disquieting smile. Dan swung low, obliterating his legs from under him. Gator crawled away before Dan planted the bat deep into his spine. The last opponent was Mel. She waited for him to come to come to her, letting the moonlight reflect in her sunglasses. Dan choked up on the bat before delivering his final blow. Fettel stood with applause before the dust settled.  

Chapter 28:

Man and Monster

Dan’s eyes poured over the monitors. The black and white images grew formless through the smoke, their grainy footage viewed between sparse dry blinks. The Water Dish patrons hunched over the bar, and Bedlam children wandered the stairwells of the South and West buildings. Benny and others smashed the basketball court with sledgehammers while the sharpshooters on the fire escapes swayed in the sun. You’re all doomed, thought Dan as he took another drag. But it’s not like you were doing great before I got here.

The screens were a respite from reading hundreds of files housed in Howard’s filing cabinet. Nothing was saved in a computer. Each folder was filed alphabetically with the name and arrival date printed on the tab. Many had come to the Bedlam Complex by way of the MIR, fearing for their safety or losing their loved ones to MIR’s incompetence. Dan thought about Kalvin’s mom and her brief time as a registrant. I’d already be dead if it wasn’t for Kalvin.

Howard’s initials were scribbled in the upper right-hand corner of each refugee’s file, just above their picture, profile, and a series of numbers handwritten in the margins. Some kind of ranking system? Dan had only been there a few weeks, but the bulk of his folder rivaled that of the longest living tenets. Howard knew my father’s name, my mother’s name, where I lived, the school I went to, even my cat! New entries on Dan’s file ceased the day Viejo died.

Footsteps nagged at him from outside the surveillance room. Light flooded in as the door cracked open. He knew the intruder by her smell, and ground his cigarette into the desk. What a coincidence, the one person missing a file comes for a visit. Dan scratched his collarbone where the scar remained.

“I thought you might still be in here,” said Mel. “Benny and the others finished dismantling the basketball court—he wanted me to tell you.”

“I’m aware,” said Dan still facing the screens.

“I’ve also been given a list of things to plant, although none of it seems in season…”

Dan let the hum of the equipment answer for him. My dad is dying somewhere and all you can talk about are crops?

“The children asked about you—if you would read tonight. I told them I would check.”

“Marcelo reads now,” said Dan. If he refuses to fight for me he can do that at least.

“They’re not happy with the change; neither is Marcelo.”

“We all need to adjust. Is there any other new business?”

“I want to find those missing bikes,” said Mel. “Maybe train some new raiders.”

You’re not stepping foot outside this place. “That’s not important.” Dan turned his chair around to face Mel. Her arms were crossed as she leaned back on the door jamb. Her tattoos, like many others’ tattoos, had all but faded away. “If your raiders want something to do, have them clean out the basements.”

“Planning on bringing more people in?”

“No, but I won’t turn anyone away either. This may be the last safe house for infected in the entire continental US. We need to be ready.” I need to be ready. Dan turned back to his screens with the hope of ending their conversation.

“I searched everywhere for him,” said Mel. “You know that.”

“But you went forward with your coup anyway.”

“It was too late to stop! By the time we knew they had your dad, Viejo was practicing his speech. I’m sorry he got caught in all this, Danny.”

“Why do any of it? Viejo wanted to run this place. Would he have been any worse than Fettel?”

“Did you really believe he would hand over your father? Was Eustace even still alive when Viejo showed you his phone? Let’s say your dad was still alive; can you explain why he came here with three armed hunters?”

If he was coming to hurt people he would have brought an army with him. He’s not an idiot. “I would’ve liked to know the answer to any of those questions, but you had other ideas.”

Mel’s head tilted like a python sizing up a rat. “I know you’re upset, but I think you already know what kind of man he was.”

“He was still my dad.”

Mel kneeled down by Dan’s feet and rested her hands and chin on his knee. She gazed up at him. “Look at me, Danny. I still can’t believe how lucky we are to have someone like you living here. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if we ended up with Viejo in charge instead of you. I used everything I had to make this happen.”

“Then why wasn’t I told about any of it? I thought we were partners.”

“You would’ve tried to save Viejo—that’s who you are. That’s why the Bedlam wants you; it’s why I want you. I saw another era of Fettel looming, and I had to do something. You would have been the biggest obstacle to your own happiness.”

“You think this makes me happy!?”

“You wanted a place in the world and I got it for you. Dan Bully was meant to be here.”

“From now on, I need full disclosure from you. No more secrets.”

“How much do you want to know?”

“Enough to fill this.” Dan tapped the top of the filing cabinet and produced a hollow metal thud. “I need details, no matter how insignificant. We’ll start with who you were before The Bedlam.”

Mel rose from the floor and closed the door. She sat on the filing cabinet in the darkness with only light from the monitors highlighting the features of her face. “And this will make you happy?”

“Something like that.”

“My full name is Melody Neris. I grew up in Chicago Heights. My father died when I was seven, and my mom remarried a pedophile. Do I need to provide more details about that, or can you use your imagination?”

“Please continue.”

“I got it in my head to join the Peace Corps as soon as I turned eighteen. I even told the recruiter I’d go anywhere if it meant a shorter wait time. Six months later, I was assigned two years in Swaziland —only a landmine cut my stay in half. When I woke up, my legs were missing just below the knees. They sent me back to my parents, and I had to create a whole new escape plan, so I went out alone into the forest and waited under a full moon.”

“You could’ve been killed.”

“I was leaving one way or the other.  A pup clamped down on my arm and pulled me from my wheelchair. I screamed; it ran off. By morning, my legs were back. I couldn’t hide what I‘d done, so I went to a place where no one would care. I’ve been with the Bedlam for three years now.”

Dan stood up from his chair and wrapped his arms around Mel. Her body trembled slightly as he caressed her back. “Thank you for being straight with me.” Dan stroked the back of her arm. Why don’t I feel any scars? “Come see me tomorrow and we’ll talk about recruiting more raiders.”

*****

Dan’s eyes burned in the daylight of the courtyard. He listened to full-bloods raking chunks of cement from the new plot. He crouched beside it, reaching for a clump of dirt. It crumbled down between his fingers. I have no idea what I’m doing.

A shadow cast over him. Dan turned to find Benny standing behind him, his head set ablaze by the sun.

“I don’t suppose you have a green thumb?” said Dan.

“I just break shit, at least, that’s what you and Fettel think of me.”

Benny’s file had alluded to electrical expertise before his life as a Bedlam member. This facet had already been revealed by Benny owning the only working air conditioner in the complex beside Fettel and the Warg.

“Maybe you would like something a bit more advanced?” said Dan. “How tech-savvy are you?”

Benny began to smirk. “More than most around here.”

“Then I have another job for you. There are two security cameras mounted out in the surrounding brush. I think they were used for monitoring hunters who got too close. I was watching their feed over the last few days, and I think we can find a better use for them than watching wind blow. You think you can set them up for me?”

“That could be tricky. The wiring is bad in most of the buildings. Where did you want them?”

“I want one mounted outside the hatch of my classroom and another one outside the door of the surveillance room. I’ll also need intercoms in there so I don’t have to leave so often.”

“Where am I supposed to get that kind of equipment?”

“There’s an abandoned bank not too far from here. It should have what we’re looking for in their drive-up lanes. Also, I have my eye on their vault door.”

“For what!?”

“The surveillance room is too important to leave unguarded.”

“This is getting really expensive for you,” said Benny. “What kind of payment plan did you have in mind?”

“Private tutoring sessions for Cassie and Wood. No interruptions, no distractions. Think of it like an honors program.”

“Bring me those cameras and I’ll gather some of the boys and visit that bank. No promises it’ll work though.”

“Thanks, Benny. It’s good to hear you’re still willing to ‘fight’ for me.”

“Ha ha. Yeah, Mars is still pissed off about how things went down with Viejo. He told me I was ‘dishonorable’ or something yesterday.”

“Do you think we did the right thing with Viejo?”

“That lanky mother-fucker was sniffing around my Cassie for God knows how long. Between you and me, I’d of been disappointed if I didn’t get to pull the trigger.”

“How long did you know about Mel’s plan?”

“Mel always has something going on. It’s hard to tell what’s just talk and what’s real. She used to follow Fettel and the Warg, saying shit about ‘new management,’ but last week was the first time she actually had steps planned. She can be useful if you keep on her good side.”

*****

The next morning, Dan flew across the abandoned wastes surrounding the complex. His motorcycle bucked over terrain that changed from grass to asphalt and back again. The sun still hid behind what were once buildings, and his engine was the only sound of the predawn.

He recognized the unruly plains from the monitors and rode towards the gas station at the corner of nothing. “How do I stop!?” said Dan over the roar of the engine. Marcelo pointed at Dan’s hands from the sidecar. “Downshift, then apply both brakes!”

The bike rested near the pumps. “Why are we stopping here?” said Marcelo.

Dan rubbed his hands on his jeans. “There’s something here I need to borrow. Dan dismounted and approached the shattered gas station window. Underneath some garbage laid a camera with a waning standby light. Its wires led to a worn out laptop tucked underneath the register. Surprising this thing still works, thought Dan. He reached in and gathered the wires in his fist, yanking the bundle of cords from the wall. “That’s one down, said Dan.” He turned to find an empty sidecar. Marcelo had wandered to where the camera faced, kneeling at the lonely campsite.

“Anything we can use?” said Dan.

“They left only trash. Did you get what you came for?”

“One of them.” Dan held up the camera like wild game. “There’s another two miles west. I figured you’d enjoy teaching me how to ride more than reading to the group.”

“Reading to my child is one thing; reading to the brood is another.” Marcelo stood up and faced Dan. “I see Fettel in their eyes.” He tilted the camera at his face, examining the lens. “You’ll need all the eyes you can get at after what happened to Viejo.”

Dan pulled the camera from his grasp. “That kinda sounds like a threat, Mars.”

“I told my family you were just—now I’m not so sure.”

“I knew as much about this scheme as you did.”

“You still don’t know what you’ve lost.”

“I didn’t want this! Viejo was just at the wrong place at the wrong time!”

“He was my friend, Bully!! Now all I have left of him are stains in the courtyard.”

“Then tell me what you want me to do, Marcelo? You already said you won’t fight for me, so do you want to leave? I won’t keep you here, but you know what’s waiting for you outside.”

“What you did was dishonorable, but I won’t dishonor myself or my family by running away.”

“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” said Dan. “I don’t know how else to say that.”

Marcelo crammed his hulking frame into the sidecar. “Do you need me to start it up again for you?”

“No, I need to be able to do it myself.”

They rode long in silence. Dan found the remaining camera, as well as the meager scraps the hunters left behind. Maybe all they wanted was Fettel, thought Dan. Maybe the hunters will just let us be. As they approached the complex Dan saw people gathered outside. What is it now?

He downshifted into first gear and pushed forward along the gravel with his foot. The Bedlam yelled at him to do something, demanding that he kill the prisoners. Mel shoved her way to him. “Leave the bike; we have a problem.” She led him back to the North building where her raiders stood armed to keep the crowd at bay.

“What happened here?” said Dan.

“From what I could gather, two prisoners were fighting down below—a cannibal awaiting due process and…someone else.”

“Tell me, Mel!”

“His name is Walter. He shot Sera the day your father was captured.”

“How long were you going to keep him from me!? He might know where my dad is!”

“He doesn’t. I’ve already interrogated him. Since he’s not infected, the outside world will eventually come looking for him. I thought we could quietly make a trade for him, but he murdered our prison guard this morning and now everyone wants him dead.”

“I should know about shit like this, Mel! I thought we were square yesterday!”

“Fettel left a lot to keep track of, okay? This is just another loose end, but it blew up in my face.” Mel looked out towards the balcony. “You need to go out there and decide what we do next.”

“I need to talk to him.”

“His safety is important. The longer you keep him out there the more likely someone will take a shot at him.”

“I just have a few questions.”

“I already told you I talked to him—”

“Get away from me.”

Dan walked out onto the balcony to an uproar. Thoughts of Viejo’s last speech flooded his mind, as the Bedlam clapped for their new leader. The sound reminded him of gunfire.

Dan approached the podium and pulled the microphone close to his lips. “Bring them forward!”

Both prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs. They were nudged forward with shotguns—their heads draped in black bags. Dan motioned for the bags to be removed. The cannibal wore a muzzle, while the other man’s face was covered in dark purple bruises.

Looks like Mel already worked him over pretty good. Dan pointed at Walter, and the guards shoved him forward.

“You’ve been accused of murdering our own. For that, you will suffer.”

The crowd thundered with glee and applause.

“But, we’re not animals. We’re fair, just, and honorable people. I understand that you may be more valuable to us alive than dead. If you cooperate, I promise to lessen your sentence. Am I clear?”

Walter squinted in the summer heat and nodded.

“Did you come here with Eustace Bully?”

“No! I came here for Eustace Bully.”

“Explain yourself!”

“He was trying to save his boy. He thought he could escape, but you honorable people filled him with bullets and that was that.”

This isn’t real. It has to be another vision. I’ll just wake up. “Eustace is dead?”

“I watched him die.”

Dan froze, starring deep into the grain of the podium. Goddamnit, Dad. What have you done?

Mel grabbed the mic from Dan’s hand. “What level Finisher are you? What rank?”

Before Walter could answer, the crowd stirred with renewed outrage. “He has the mark on his face!” cried a voice.

“He sold us the rot powder!” said another.

The Bedlam began to hurl rocks and broken slabs of cement at the prisoners.

Mel turned to whisper in Dan’s ear. “He won’t stay alive much longer. You need to do something.”

Dan raised his hands for silence. “I see no difference between you and the monster standing next to you. Fettel decided to judge the cannibal by due process during the next full moon. I have decided the same for you!”

The Bedlam rejoiced as if the heavens opened before them.

“May they leave nothing of you behind!”

As the guards seized Walter, he began to cackle. His laughter soon echoed throughout the courtyard. “You’ll all be dead by then!”

“Get him out of here!” Dan threw the microphone to the floor before returning to his suite. He hung his head as he pressed both hands against the wall. If you can hear me, I want you to know I never wanted any of this, thought Dan. Will you forgive me? Can you forgive me?

“You’re making a mistake!” said Mel.

“I thought I told you to get the FUCK away from me!!”

Dan lingered against the wall as everyone exited his suite. He was interrupted again by a poke. Dan punched a hole though the wall. “I said—” Dan stopped when he found Erica retreating.

“I…I’m sorry, Erica. I thought you were someone else, sweetie.” Dan knelt on the hardwood and bits of plaster from the wall. “Come back. What did you want to say?”

Erica stepped cautiously forward. “You said you would bring back movie nights. Will you?”

“You came all the way up here to ask me that?”

“I like movies.”

Dan combed her tangled hair with his broken fingers. “What’s your favorite?”

Lady and the Tramp.”

“Well, let’s see. Are you willing to work for movie nights to come back?”

“I…yes.”

“Then let’s play a game, Erica. I want you to follow Mel. Everyday you’ll tell me where she’s been, what she’s said, who she’s said it to, and what she’s done. But you can’t let her or anyone else know or you’ll lose the game—and movie nights. Tell me everything, and Lady and the Tramp will be the first movie we watch. You think you can do that for me?”

Her eyes widened at the thought. “When does the game start?”

“Why not now?” said Dan. “Who knows what she’ll be up to next?”

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