DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 34

This is the last part, Miranda. I won’t get through it if Tim is in the room.

<Have you decided on your wishes?>

Yeah, I still want to be cremated. It feels morbid, but I finally picked out which urn I like. I think you’ll like it too. It has these lovely etchings all over a polished finish—shaped like a little owl.

I have a final message for Kal—I should say final reminder. I’m going to make sure he hears this as often as possible.

Kalvin, you have no idea how proud you’ve made me already. I have only one wish to ask of you—keep the wolves in your heart. Love them as you loved me, and do what you can for them. There’re people that will hate you for it, and I want you to forgive them because I know you’re strong enough to do so.

I love you, and you will never stop being my baby.

Tim, I can’t even imagine my life without you. At no point during all of this did you make me feel unwanted, or tainted, or anything less than your wife. If Kal becomes as good a man as you, I’ll have no regrets.

You’re all I ever wanted, and I love you.

And I’m sorry. I know you said I had nothing to apologize for, but I am.

 

Chapter 34:

Men of Dogs

 

Kalvin pulled his shirt collar over his nose to combat the stench of the sewer. The smell, however, was the only thing distracting him from the hole in his leg.

“We won’t make it through here like this,” Bernie said before ascending the metal ladder back into the belly of the complex. Hours had passed, and Kalvin was unsure of what she was expecting to find. Their first run through the basement levels had yielded few supplies during the escape, although navigating Eustace’s gurney past cameras commanded much of Kalvin’s attention.

He looked down at the stream flowing over his shoelaces. The hue of the lamp light above turned the water into a sanguine sludge. Beyond the spotlight waited darkness as thick as the stink. You know she’s dead, thought Kalvin. You could have stopped her, but you didn’t. She went back up for medicine and food and bandages—she doesn’t need that stuff. He looked down at Eustace—wrapped unconscious in a sleeping bag, seated with his back against the wall. It may have well been a body bag. Neither will he if she doesn’t get here soon.

Kalvin wondered why he bothered trying to keep his leg wound free from filth. His bandages had turned rust colored during his days in confinement.  He feared what he would find when he lifted the cloth. Until Bernie came back, he was left to rot.

He heard tiny thuds dance above him. A grate in the wall tilted slightly to release a deluge of rats. Kalvin imagined his teeth ripping through the fur and meat—the metallic taste coating his tongue with every bite. Solid food had been stale in captivity, but regular. He watched their gaunt forms bound across the walkway. I never thought I’d envy them.

More thuds rattled overhead—bigger thuds.

Bernie’s legs protruded from the manhole dropping into the sewage with a splash. She carried a sack over her shoulder like Santa and brought her find over to Kalvin and Eustace beneath the solitary light.

“I think we’re in good shape,” said Bernie. By now her head wound had completely healed, her severed fingers re-grown.  Easy for her to say, thought Kalvin as he struggled to stand.

Bernie turned her face away to cough. It was deep and dry as if her throat was filled with sand.

“I thought you couldn’t get sick,” said Kalvin.

“We’re always sick,” said Bernie as she dug her hand into the sack. She handed him a loaf of bread and a bottle of water. Next was a crumpled tarp she wrung out in the air and draped over the ground. Kalvin skewed his head to discover a picture of a deer printed on it. He realized it was for dragging carcasses from the woods after a hunt, but the pervasive hatred for the infected had created a new market for much larger game.

Kalvin watched Bernie as he took bites of his bread. Bernie secured Eustace to the tarp with the rope handles jutting out just above his head. She had found three IV bags in the medical ward along with iodine, bandages, and other drip components. “We’ll have to reuse the tubing and needle,” said Bernie. “So try to keep them clean.”

Kalvin only finished half the loaf before she traded the IV bag for the bread. Bernie administered the needle into Eustace’s arm. “You can squeeze it to fill him up faster. That way you’re not holding it up all day.”

Kalvin lowered himself awkwardly onto Eustace’s legs, facing the opposite direction of Bernie. He kept his good leg tucked in and his bad one straight—watching for any would-be pursuers.

“What do think we’ll run into down here?” said Kalvin.

“All sorts of shit,” said Bernie as she took the ropes of the tarp. “This isn’t my first time down here. This place is a puzzle, but I know the solution.” She rolled her shoulders to get ready for the pull. “If you have any more questions spit them out now. I’ll need total concentration if we’re going to make it out of here before…”

“Before what?”

“Just watch my back will ya, Kal?”

Kalvin gazed at the lamp light near the ladder. It grew tinier and tinier as Bernie pulled into the darkness. When she turned the first corner, Kalvin could no longer see in front of him.

The tarp rustled against the walkway as Bernie did her best to keep them dry. Certain paths made it impossible to avoid the slush. She moved with purpose down the corridors, never hesitating at diverging paths.

Kalvin’s arm grew tired from holding the bag up. He squeezed it slightly like Bernie had recommended. His sight began to adjust, and he could barely make out the shapes of Eustace and Bernie. He hoped his vision would improve enough to tell if Eustace was still breathing.

Bernie took several breaks between pulling, never once dipping into their meager rations. Kalvin hoped to comfort her with encouragement, but he was afraid he would ruin her concentration. Instead he thought about what Walter said about his father and Jake Reto. Kalvin could not decide who he wanted dead first—Reto or Howard.

The next break became their final stop for the day. They rested on the ground with their backs against the wall. Kalvin could see the frustration on Bernie’s face as if she were staring at an invisible map.

“I thought I had it,” said Bernie. “Howard must have made changes, or I’m getting stupider.”

“I’d never be able to remember something like that,” said Kalvin.

Bernie turned away and coughed to the side. “How’s the leg?”

“Tender to the touch.”

“We need to be stingy with the dressings and the iodine. I apologize.”

“You have nothing to apologize for. I’m sorry I can’t be any help.”

“Well, for all this pulling I’d say that’s worth some dick. You up for a trade?”

Kalvin laughed. He felt her eyes on him and realized she was serious. He yanked down the shirt from over his nose. “We’re in a sewer.”

“Excuse me for not finding a queen-sized mattress and rose petals,” said Bernie as she brushed her hair back. She leaned in close. “I caught you looking down my shirt on the drive up here, so you can drop the act.”

“This has to be the worst time and place for sex.”

“Kal, we could escape in a few hours, a few days, or not at all. The way I see it this is the perfect time and place for sex, but then again, I’m in heat.”

“I’m not exactly in the best shape right now.”

“It really doesn’t matter, Kalvin, but if you’re not up for it I won’t beg…”

Before Bernie could return her back to the wall, Kalvin reached over and grabbed her arm. He moved his hand up and down until he recognized her elbow. He slid his hand over and filled it with her breast. She stifled a laugh as she mounted him delicately. She pulled her shirt up over her head and tossed it to the side.

Kalvin felt the warmth of her crotch coat his thighs. She brushed her chest into his face, inviting him to put her in his mouth. She reminded Kalvin of a professor he had last semester. Maybe she had caught me staring at her too. The thought made him hard. Bernie noticed, and undid what remained of his tattered jeans. She took him in her hands while he pulled her in close.

“This is a better trade than I thought,” whispered Bernie.

*****

Kalvin did not know how much time had passed. He glanced over and saw Bernie’s shape hunched over Eustace. She stood up and approached him as he lay on the ground.

“I’d say good morning if I knew what time it was,” said Bernie. She turned away and coughed. She had the other half of the bread loaf in her hand. “This is it for food.”

Kalvin took it from her and began tearing pieces off as Bernie listed what remained of their supplies: two bottles of water, two IV bags, three rolls of bandage tape, a pack of gauze, and half a bottle of iodine. At least the load is light.

He heard her take up the handles of the tarp. Kalvin pressed his hands against the wall and gingerly rose from the floor to keep his dressing from splitting. As he walked carefully forward he looked at the mound that was Eustace on the ground. Kalvin lowered himself to all fours to crawl into his usual spot. He inched forward and discovered an owl staring at him from where he had rested. Its face was lit in perfect detail. The beak and eyes had been torn out, and a deluge of dust and insects poured out from them over Eustace.

“Shit!” yelled Kalvin as he rolled back onto his feet. They’re back!?

“What’s wrong?” said Bernie.

Kalvin surveyed the area and found no trace of the owl. He felt the tarp to find only the cool, waterproof lining.

“It’s…just my leg.”

Traveling had become slower without Bernie’s solution to the puzzle, but the journey became less monotonous now that Kalvin could speak to her as she pulled. She interrupted him sparingly only to ask his opinion at forks in the tunnels. There was no question she would not answer.

“How were you able to retire so young?” said Kalvin.

“Well, I never got married and never had children. When I turned I realized my life would be a lot shorter. Also, you’d be surprised how much money you can save when you don’t need to eat or see a doctor. My time is limited—figured I’d enjoy it while I can.”

“Did you ever want to have children?”

“My nieces were enough. I can’t stand other kids to be honest. I’m not the motherly type I guess.”

“Did you see her when you went back to scavenge?”

“Howard and char aren’t here. Their scents are weak.”

“You can tell that just by their scents?”

“Sure can. I also know that Eustace’s piss covered car is still on the premises. It might be worth searching for after…”

The tarp came to a stop. “Bernie?”

“Wait here.”

Her form disappeared as she inspected up ahead. Kalvin waited for her, shifting his weight to prevent cutting Eustace’s circulation. Bernie’s footsteps signaled her return. A clicking sound was followed by a dull flash on the wall. “The batteries are low,” she said as she handed a flashlight to Kalvin. She held something in her other hand. She walked to the wall and struck at it. Sparks flew in the air with each slice of her newfound machete, leaving behind an asterisk carved into the concrete.

Kalvin aimed the light at where Bernie had searched. As the tarp moved passed, Kalvin saw a body lying on its side with its face toward the wall. A bear trap clenched deep into the corpse’s calf.

They traveled long in silence, stopping periodically for Bernie to leave her mark on the walls. They soon came upon another corpse. Kalvin focused his light on the body. This one sat with its back to the wall. It was a woman this time with her head hung over her chest. A revolver lay nearby.

Bernie examined her palms first. “Finisher,” said Bernie as she let the hand drop to the ground. She picked up the revolver and checked the chamber. “All spent.”

“Was she trying to escape too?”

“This one was coming, not going. She’s well equipped except for ammo…bite marks on her neck and shoulders. I’d say she found her own solution to Howard’s puzzle.” Bernie waited there for a moment with her finger against her lips.

“What are you thinking?” said Kalvin.

“She’s been dead for at least a month, but no one came down to loot her. The other fella had stuff on him as well. Someone’s slacking on checking down here.”

“That’s good for us, right?”

Bernie grabbed the ropes and continued on.

They came across others—mangled hunters and infected alike. Many showed signs of decay while others grew bloated in the sewage. Some had fallen into crude pits lined with sharpened, rod-iron and silver-tipped spikes. Kalvin decided to keep his flashlight off.

Hours felt like days due to hunger and a creeping fever. Bernie had gathered what she could find from the dead. She had amassed many guns, but few bullets. She slung all but one rifle over her shoulder. The last one she secured to Kalvin’s injured leg with bandage tape to keep it set. She also gave him an empty revolver. “Sometimes all you have to do is point,” said Bernie. Kalvin doubted he could do even that.

They pressed on until Bernie spotted another body. She approached it, muttering under her breath. She knelt beside the corpse for a moment. When she stood up she began to kick the back of the head and torso—each strike punctuated by a growl.

Kalvin realized it was the same body that carried the flashlight. “Maybe it’s just a similar uniform,” said Kalvin.

“My fucking mark is on the wall!” said Bernie. She wiped her face with both hands and slid down the wall until she sat on the walkway. Kalvin hobbled over to her and slid down beside her. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder.

“I’m not in the mood, Kal.”

He lingered there, and she rested her head against his.

*****

They awoke to violent tremors and gunfire. “Did you feel that?” said Bernie. More explosions rattled the ground as falling debris echoed from all directions. Red emergency lights activated where the bulbs remained intact. The intensity burned Kalvin’s eyes. In his confusion, Bernie gathered the last of their supplies. She knelt down by his leg and pulled away the dirty bandages. The lights made the blood and iodine indistinguishable.

It hurt more when he looked at the wound. Kalvin averted his gaze over Bernie’s head to find another grotesque owl waiting for him. Its head twisted around as if to ignore him.

“That’s the last of it,” said Bernie. “We’re out of IV packs for Eustace too.”

The owl had disappeared before Bernie finished talking. She re-wrapped the rifle splint to his leg, and they started their escape.

“What’s happening up there?” said Kalvin.

“It sounds like grenades, but that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s him isn’t it? It’s Reto.”

“I told you that man’s long dead. Someone slit his throat as he slept.”

“But Walter said—“

“Walter was a fucking liar before he got his head bashed in,” interrupted Bernie. “If you want someone to kill, find Howard.”

The explosions continued to shake the tunnels and destroy lights. Some felt as if they were igniting right above them, their force ravaging the labyrinth.

“If Howard and Char aren’t here, where did they go?”

“You can start with a place Howard spoke about often. I thought it was made up for the longest time—a huge den up in Northern Alaska unreachable by anything other than dogsled. He called it Leek Denaa—Men of the Dog.”

“When we escape from here, will you go there with me?”

“I’d rather die down here than lay one foot in that fucking place.”

The next eruption caused the ceiling to collapse in front of them. Sparks shot out from the light overhead as earth poured from above.

Bernie cursed as she hauled the tarp back to where they came. Every path they turned led them in circles or dead ends. They started to follow waves of rats scurrying across the floor. At last the rats arrived at a blocked tunnel. They leapt and burrowed their bodies in between gaps in the rubble.

Kalvin and Bernie dug through an endless barrier of boulders. Soon Kalvin realized that the only tremors came from the chunks of rocks being tossed to the ground. “Do you hear that?” said Kalvin. “I think it stopped.”

Bernie continued to remove debris from the corridor. Kalvin stood idle and watched her tear through the rubble. With every few boulders removed more debris fell in its place. She was digging out of their tomb in vain. Her coughing fits started up again even louder than before. Dust sprayed from her mouth as she hacked against the newly formed wall. After she regained her composure, she sat on a pile of rubble she had created. She lifted a rock from the pile and hurled it at a red light above them. The light shattered, leaving them in the dark. “I can’t sleep with the light on,” said Bernie.

Kalvin lay exhausted on the ground, but sleep never came. The thought of the ceiling collapsing in on them prodded him alert with every noise overhead. When he did begin to drift off, Bernie’s retching resumed. He was unsure how long he was on his back before he saw Bernie’s silhouette standing over him, her face obscured in the low lit tunnel.

“We need to talk,” said Bernie with a hoarse, raspy voice.

“About what?” said Kalvin.

“It’s Eustace.”

“Did something happen to him?”

“He’s still breathing.” She sounded disappointed. “We need to reassess our plans.”

Kalvin sat up and struggled to stand. “I’m not leaving without him.”

“We have no supplies or food. We’re running out of time.”

“He threw himself in front of you when that child shot at us through the windshield,” said Kalvin as he rested on one knee.  “That hole in his belly was from saving you. Had you been honest with us from the beginning, he might be on two feet right now.”

Bernie retched into her hand and shoved it towards Kalvin’s face. “Do you know what that is? It’s my insides. I’m turning, Kalvin.” She threw the filth at the ground. “We don’t have time to sit around and argue, so I will ask you this once: do you want to leave him behind?”

Kalvin staggered over to what was left of Eustace. He sat in his spot and waited for Bernie to take the ropes.

They spent hours reexamining the damage from the explosions as they traveled up and down the red-bathed sewer. Their options had lessened considerably, and neither spoke of escape.

Bernie began grabbing her throat as she vomited into the sewer streams. Kalvin tried not to stare at her, but her face and hands had wrinkled exponentially under the red glow. If he had any water left he would have given it to her. She looked as if she was wilting.

Echoes came from behind. It sounded like weeping. “There are other people down here,” said Kalvin. The weeping turned into to screaming, and then the screaming thundered down the tunnels greater than any eruption prior.

Bernie fell to her knees. Her body twitched and snapped as her bones found new angles. “Run!” she shrieked as she dragged herself in the direction of their pursuers.

Kalvin gripped the reigns with both hands and pulled with whatever strength the adrenaline afforded him. He did not turn around to see what produced such wretched sounds. The corridor forced him down a single path. The walls were lined with the victims of Howard’s traps. Kalvin felt them stare at him with glee, knowing he would join them shortly.

His trek ended in a three-way passage. He looked at his choices and knew death would come soon. The howls and yelps grew louder from behind. He surveyed his options again, and the light flickered at the end of the right-most tunnel. He saw the tiny owl waiting for him at the end, only this one was different.

Its metallic finish glistened in the light. The mouth was closed and the eyes had returned, preventing its contents from spilling. The light flickered again and the owl vanished. Is it trying to help?   Kalvin pushed forward with Eustace close behind. When he reached the end, the owl appeared again and again. Soon he was rewarded with the sound of dripping water emptying into a ditch outside.

The wolf urine had baked into the interior of the trunk. It wafted through the night air. Nothing smelled sweeter to Kalvin, the putrid stench led him out of the labyrinth.

Kalvin hobbled to the car with Eustace pulling behind him. The rope snapped, so Kalvin tucked his hands under Eustace’s arms and dragged him to the car. “We’re leaving, Eustace.”

As Kalvin approached the car he gazed up at the Bedlam Complex in the distance. A cold traveled up his arms at the sight. Eustace slipped from his grasp as Kalvin stood upright. No building was standing beneath the moon-filled sky.

Tears rolled down his face as he stared at the grim stillness.

The backseat was filled with broken glass and other garbage The Bedlam had tossed inside. Kalvin opted for the passenger seat to rest Eustace, peeling him out of the sleeping bag, and using his last bit of strength to prop him inside. Kalvin used the hood of the car to keep his balance and he walked around to the driver’s seat. He slid the seat back as far as it would go before piling into the car and slamming the door shut.

Kalvin sat there mentally and physically drained. He looked about the car for an extra set of keys. His attention was soon drawn to a dripping sound much closer than the ditch. He looked at his leg and found blood trickling from his wound to a puddle below the seat.

He stared out of the window and found a shimmering trail of blood from the sewer pipe to the car. One by one the wolves stepped out from the sewer, lapping up Kalvin’s blood. He slid down in his seat as low as he could. He counted five beasts in the reflection of the rear view mirror, and wondered if Bernie was among them.

They crept like shadows under the radiance of the moon, their eyes bright and soulless in the night. They surrounded the vehicle before the alpha wolf leapt on top of the car. The roof distended like a hernia, and the pack began to sing to one another in a cacophony of yelps.

Kalvin reached over at Eustace in an attempt to move him out of sight. In an instant a wolf mounted the hood and snarled at Kalvin. Foam spilled from its mouth as its teeth shivered in mid growl.

Kalvin lifted both hands in the air as if the beast would care he was unarmed. The eyes examined him for what felt like eternity—one blue, one red.

Eustace’s body slumped forward, and his forehead collapsed onto the steering wheel. The horn blared uncontrollably. The wolf’s ears twisted back in fear and bolted towards the horizon. The rest of the pack followed swiftly behind.

When the last wolf escaped from view, Kalvin lifted Eustace from the wheel. Eustace reached out and grabbed Kalvin by his shirt. He spoke at a mumbled whisper. “If those c-cubbies come back, j-just hit the h-horn again.” Eustace let go of Kalvin’s shirt and gave him a thumbs up before passing out until morning.

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