DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 31

Dan awakened on his parents’ couch. It was before dawn when he rolled on his side. Dan’s eyes had not adjusted to the dark, but he recognized the shape of his father sitting in his recliner. He held a glass in one hand and dangled his revolver in the other.

“She told you, didn’t she?” said Dan.

“Did you ever listen?” said Eustace. “Did you think there’d be no consequences?”

The alcohol was strong on his breath.

“Disappear. Leave before your mother wakes up. If I can find you, so can the others, and they will revel in it.”

“I never asked to get sick.”

“It makes no difference—you’re a curse on us all.” Eustace poured himself another drink. “Make sure I never find you.”

Chapter 31:

Movie Night

 

The projector jolted to life as it did during the dry runs. Light filled the fresh white paint across the side of the south building. Lady and the Tramp played to an audience of over two-hundred in the courtyard. The image was faded and the sound squeaked from cheap speakers, but it made no difference to The Bedlam.

Families nestled in tribes under a near perfect moon. The children met their friends in the front row. Erica had arrived before anyone, holding spots for Connor and Jaime. Benny put out his cigar on the pavement as Wood found the other full-bloods a few rows down. Cassie stayed with her father, laying her head against Benny’s shoulder.

Dan made a final adjustment to the projector before returning to the blanket laid out on the balcony. The easy part’s over, thought Dan. Just waiting for the hard part to arrive. He heard Mel step through his bedroom to reach him.

She had a busy week, based on Erica’s accounts. Mel trained over two dozen new raiders in a room free of Dan’s cameras. Erica described the room as “haunted,” but a quick check revealed a repurposed basement with an abundance of wailing vents. Dan asked Erica if the training was similar to what he went through with Howard. She shook her head, saying the new raiders were dragged away each night, unable to walk out on their own.

Dan had hoped for more information from his little spy. If his father was on the premises, Mel would have led her there. Instead, Dan learned yet another talent of his disciplined, if not domineering, lieutenant. She’ll run this place exceptionally when I’m gone.

Mel huddled next to Dan and guided his arm around her.

Dan looked out over the crowd.

“Do you think they’re happy?” said Dan.

“Absolutely,” said Mel. “It’s an inspired movie choice—a story about talking dogs that make out.”

“I meant overall. It’s only been a couple weeks, but I’d like to know if their lives have improved some.”

“I think we’re all better off without men like Fettel, but you’re right—it’s too early to tell. I do know that I’m optimistic for the future. You give them options for something resembling a normal life. I believed that when you first arrived and I believe it now.” She leaned toward the projector. “I wonder what would happen if I did this?” Mel waved her hand in front of the lens, and the film stuttered on the wall. The crowd shouted at them to focus.

Mel laughed.

Dan thought of what those options included. He was already spread too thin. What would be the odds of finding more teachers, engineers, and doctors willing to come here? Could he make this a place people wanted to come to instead of a last resort?

“What’s wrong?” said Mel. “Are you cold? You’re shaking.”

“There’s something I need to ask you—something big.”

Mel sighed. “Let’s hear it, Bully.”

“You’ve done so much already for me and The Bedlam. If there’s a limit to your patience, I’m about to cross it.”

Mel stifled a smile. “Tell me already.”

“I’ve been thinking about the future of the complex and what I want it to become. You gave me a place in the world to call my own, and I’m grateful, but it’s still not complete.”

“These things take time,” said Mel. “Imagine where we’ll be a year from now.”

“I dreamt of my father again. It feels like it won’t stop until I tell my mother he’s dead. I can’t let her go on wondering all alone in that house.” Dan took Mel’s hand in his. Her eyes devoured him, and he could not look away. “Mel, I want to bring her back here.”

“You want her to live here?”

“She may want nothing to do with me, but I need to know.”

“This isn’t the place for her.”

“Not yet, but soon. You said it yourself—imagine where we’ll be.”

“And then…then will it be complete?”

Dan said nothing as guilt filled his face. She already knows.

“Char abandoned you!” said Mel.

“Char was kidnapped! I watched those tapes until they fell apart. Those are my children, Mel. You know better than anyone that they need to get away from Howard.”

“You’re unbelievably selfish. I gave you so much already, but it’s never enough. Some people don’t get a fraction of what you got.”

“I tried to ignore them. When everyone told me to move on, I couldn’t. The thought of my kids never knowing their father, my mother never knowing her grandchildren—I just can’t let it happen. My life isn’t in Chicago or in Alaska; it’s here. I want you to be a part of this, but I’m leaving the morning after the full moon no matter what.”

Mel looked out over the families who had come together under Dan’s leadership. She took a moment to wipe the tears from her face before answering with a whisper.

“Okay,” said Mel.

“Okay?”

“We’ll figure it out. If this is what you truly want, we’ll figure it out—just not tonight. Tonight, we’ll enjoy what we have, Danny.”

He kissed her deeply above the laughter of the crowd. As their lips parted, Dan whispered his unending thanks.

Mel nestled her forehead against his, and she lingered there. “I’ve missed this.” She ran her fingers down his chest. “This is kind of our first date.”

Dan laughed—relieved he did not lose her.

Mel brushed her hair back as she glanced back at the movie.

“My favorite part is coming up,” said Mel.

Dan caught view of something big fall just beyond Mel’s face. He realized what it was before the lookout’s body made a hideous thud.

Did I just see that? “Mel, hit the alarm!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Just do it!”

The building shook with countless bursts. The projector was smashed into pieces as screams accompanied sirens. Dan climbed to his feet to look over the balcony. The Bedlam disappeared under plumes of shimmering ash. Parents reached into the clouds for their children only to come away with limbs.

Those that could move retreated to their apartments to follow the siege plan. Dan raced to his nightstand and pulled the pistol from the drawer. Gunfire echoed behind him as he descended the stairs into the courtyard.

The hunters were like none Dan had seen—hulking, malformed shapes with an air of decay. Infected evaporated at their feet as rounds emptied methodically. The courtyard had filled with dust and bones, and carcasses snapped under the invaders’ boots. Dan leveled his gun and fired into their glowing goggles. He took solace in knowing they still died as men do.

The Bedlam returned to their windows and opened fire on the hunters. They peppered all that moved. Dan prayed they would recognize him as he bolted to the classroom. With any luck, the children would have hid themselves beneath the reinforced hatch of the chamber. Mel would be there too if the last volleys had not stopped her.

The smoke reached his nostrils, and he collapsed from the burn. He coughed up blood with the seared tissue of his lungs. He rolled onto his back and clenched his chest.  A hunter leaped onto his waist and strangled Dan with his bare hands. They melted into his neck. What are they!? Dan fired his gun repeatedly up the middle of the soldier, and shoved the body beside him.

The Bedlam continued to fight while carrying their maimed kin indoors. An arm grabbed the collar of Dan’s shirt and lifted him to his feet. Benny’s flesh bubbled on his face and shoulders. His grim visage was illuminated by flashes from the emergency lights. He pulled Dan close and wheezed “keep them safe” through clenched teeth. Benny staggered back into the fray, firing a shotgun from his hip.

Dan watched as hunters ran to the west building entrance. Andora met them at the doorway. She powered her chainsaw and  plunged it screeching across three men. Bullets ricocheted off her welding mask as an ungodly howl bellowed from underneath.

With the doorway cleared, Dan entered and descended to the basement. He heard a boy whimper for help. That sounds like Connor. Dan found the boy crawling across the floor in the next room with a soldier walking at his side. Connor’s lower half had disintegrated with only viscera trailing behind him. The soldier chuckled as he poked Connor in the head with his rifle barrel.

“Thought you could get away?” said the soldier as he adjusted something on his shoulder. “Let’s get a good shot of this.”

Dan fired through the soldier’s temple, and watched him crumple to the ground. He kneeled by Connor’s barely raised head.

“Oh God, Connor!” Dan’s voice stumbled out hoarse and vile.

“Please, Mr. Bully…help me.”

Dan picked up the soldier’s rifle and aimed it at the sobbing boy’s forehead. The trigger would not move. Dan checked the gun’s safety, but the weapon refused to fire.

Connor pointed to the corner of the room where a silver fire poker laid against the wall. It was the same tool Howard had used to execute infected. Dan removed his shirt and wrapped it around the handle. He drove it down quick to spare Connor another second of suffering.

The hatch door to the classroom was still sealed, but the intercom blared static. Dan pressed the button to respond. “Is anyone inside!? Answer me!”

He dialed in the pass code and a buzzer sounded.

What!? Why isn’t it opening?

He heard footsteps and raised his gun at the doorway. Cassie cowered from him with her brother in her arms. Dan lowered his weapon.

“We’re locked out.” said Dan. He entered the code again, and the same buzzer responded.

“Can you fix it?” said Cassie.

“Back at the surveillance room there’s and override. Come with me. It’s not safe to wait here.”

They ascended the stairs. Dan looked up to find the mural still intact. “Love the Warg” repeated in his head as he made his way to the surface.

More soldiers funneled in from the fence. As they headed back to the North Building, they found Marcelo smashing a man’s skull against the concrete. His son Noah was behind him, struggling to aim his father’s rifle at the swarm of hunters.

Dan emptied his gun at the surrounding forces. “Come with us, Noah!”

“I’m not leaving him!” said Noah. He turned around to find a hail of bullets ripple through his father’s tattooed body—the history of his people erased from record. Noah shouted at the sky as Dan pulled him into the cover of the north building.

Bodies littered the hallways. The group followed behind Dan as he led them to the surveillance room. A soldier’s corpse jostled as Dan rotated the combination dial on the vault door.

“You came back!” said Erica as she slid from under the soldier.

The five of them piled into the surveillance room. Dan discovered several of the screens had gone dark. He scanned the displays for the classroom camera and found every student piled lifeless on the floor.

“They’re all dead?” said Cassie.

This isn’t possible! Dan stopped the recording and rewound the footage. He watched the students hop down into the chamber. The last child waited at the top of the ladder as a lookout for any survivors nearby.

Dan fast-forwarded the tape. The lookout began to wave at something. The tiny body soon went limp and fell to the chamber floor. The other children raced to seal the hatch door, but it did not stay closed. Soldiers opened the hatch and dropped grenades into the classroom.

How did they get the hatch open!?

Banging from the vault door broke Dan’s concentration. Mel screamed for him from the other side. Dan viewed the display feed from the camera mounted outside his door to find her drenched in blood.

“Danny! Danny, please open the door!!” said Mel.

“Mel!”

Cassie screamed as she watched the classroom surveillance feed continue to play.

“Mr. Bully, Wait!” said Cassie. She pointed at the screen.

Dan watched footage of Mel climbing down the ladder into a writhing pile of children. She was followed by two soldiers. Together they surveyed the classroom for survivors—wherever she pointed; they fired.

“They’re coming!” said Mel as she slammed her fists against the door. “Open the door!”

Dan fell back into his chair, staring at both screens. The slaughter continued on the classroom feed. When every child lay still, Mel covered her body with handfuls of their blood.

“What have you done?” whispered Dan.

The banging grew louder.

“Don’t let her in,” said Cassie.

“Put Wood down and come with me by the door,” said Dan. He gripped the fire poker so it pointed at his feet. “I want you to open it as fast as you can and then shut it even faster. Do you understand me?”

Cassie nodded and turned the crank of the vault door. She pulled it open to reveal Mel. Her eyes looked relieved to see him—unaffected by the horror she had orchestrated only a few minutes earlier. Dan impaled the spike through her skull, pinning her to the wall across the hallway. Nearby soldiers opened fire as Dan retracted back into the surveillance room.

“What do we do now, Mr. Bully?” said Cassie.

Dan looked down at his trembling hands. “I just need to think.”

The vault door spewed sparks into the air.

“They’re coming in!” said Noah.

Dan watched as the blowtorch cut slowly down the door hinge. He heard another sound, rattling from under the monitoring station. Wood had unscrewed the bolts on the vent cover.

“That will take us to the sewer,” said Erica.

“That’s brilliant, Wood!” said Dan. “Everyone file down the vent shaft!”

Cassie, Wood, and Connor crawled in, but Erica froze.

“Erica, we need to leave!”

“We won’t leave the sewer,” said Erica. “No one does.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s haunted.”

Dan kneeled down and grabbed Erica by the shoulders. “I know you’re scared, sweetie, but we need to stay together. I promise you, there is nothing more terrifying in that sewer than what those men will do to us.” He wiped away her tears. “Let’s make sure they never find us.”

They entered the vent with nothing to call home.

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