The droning of the void returned muffled and dying as Dan hunted for its source. He raced down the cold corridors of a dizzying, dark hive. Red lights trailed overhead with each snapping turn. Dan feared his heart would give out as his momentum blurred his vision. Walls ceased to stop him now, and water parted from sheer velocity. He no longer resembled man or beast, just pure, bright energy, tearing through an endless maze. Despite his acceleration, Dan found himself being led by a swifter entity. The droning consumed both lights as they barreled towards the moon.
Chapter 3: Orphan Plague
The attendant dismissed the jangle of the front door bells to read his magazine on the counter. His only movement came with occasional reaches for his coffee cup before returning his hand to prop up his balding head. The extension of his arm revealed holes in the armpits of his uniform. Its colors matched the faded logo on the sign outside which, like the attendant, had fallen into disrepair. He used his name tag as a bookmark, the worn letters spelled something like “Ralph.”
Ralph looked up in the direction of crinkling wrappers. He spotted Wood standing naked in the candy aisle, shoving entire chocolate bars into his mouth. The smears on his face matched the mud and matted leaves stuck to his rotund body. As he finished one, he calmly started the next, letting wrappers litter the floor.
“Motherfucker,” said Ralph under his breath. He kept an eye on the full-blood as his hand dipped below the register to a hidden shelf. His fingers hovered over a rusty hammer. He reconsidered and selected the revolver next to it instead. A flick of his wrist revealed a full chamber, and he locked it back in place before raising the partition of the counter.
“Those candy bars cost more than you and whatever bitch of a mother you fell out of,” said Ralph as he drew his weapon.
Dan slammed the partition against Ralph’s shoulder, knocking him to the floor. Dan seized the gun and pinned Ralph’s hand between the edge of the counter and the partition plank. The wooden plank came down on Ralph’s hand repeatedly until the bones reshaped beneath swollen skin. Each strike was followed by feeble yelps, and the impact tipped the coffee cup onto Ralph’s head.
With the revolver dislodged, Dan began to strangle Ralph on the floor behind the counter. “How much do you cost!?” barked Dan through clenched teeth. The growl seared his jugular, and for a moment Dan thought blood filled his throat again.
Ralph’s eyes bulged as he clawed at Dan’s wrists. He reached up at Dan’s neck with his good hand only to graze the hideous scars left by the Bedlam attackers. Ralph’s face transformed during the struggle, and Dan was unsure whether he was choking Ralph, Howard, Mel, or his father. Regardless, Dan’s hands tightened until his thumbs disappeared. Soon there was no life left, only Ralph’s cold sweat mixed with beads of coffee.
It had to be this way, thought Dan as he whistled for the others. Cassie, Erica, and Noah sprang from their hiding spots, the younger two ripping food from the shelves.
“Danny said to find clothes first!” said Cassie. She helped Erica cover herself with a Michigan t-shirt and a beach towel tied around her waist like a skirt. Dan looted Ralph’s clothes and shoved the revolver in his pocket. They smelled like smoke and coffee, but they made him feel innocuous and safe for the time being.
He handed the old man’s undershirt to Noah and told him to wrap a towel around his waist as Erica had done.
“I’m not a girl!” said Noah. It was hard to tell at times with his slender physique and black hair extending past his shoulders. Despite the accelerated physical maturity of the infected, Noah appeared very much a child.
Dan looked down at him. “Do what I tell you and we’ll survive.” Dan chose his words carefully, as each one felt like swallowing a razor.
“The Bedlam did what you told them. Did they survive?” said Noah.
They stared at one another. Dan saw Marcelo in Noah’s eyes, an honorable mentor, shredded to pieces by gunfire the night of the attack. I won’t let that happen to his son or anyone else, thought Dan.
Cassie pulled Noah away by his arm. “Help me find something to wear,” said Cassie. “More uniforms might be in back.”
Noah stared back at Dan as he was led away. Dan would have argued with the boy if he were wrong, and if it had not hurt like hell. As he zipped up his fly a cold ran up his back at the sound of jingling bells.
Dan turned around to find a middle-aged man shuffling towards him. He looked like Dan’s father, only ten years younger and a foot taller.
“You the manager?” said the customer.
“How…can I help you?” said Dan as he ironed out the creases of his uniform with his hand.
“Your pump is broken. I put eighty-two dollars worth of gas in my truck, only nothing came out.”
Dan scanned the store for the others. He caught Erica’s foot disappear behind the Slushee machine while Wood still gorged himself in the candy aisle. Get out of view, Wood!
“Are you listening to me, boss? I want a refund.”
“I…I can help you.”
The customer handed Dan his credit card. Dan looked at the credit card machine, confused by its archaic display.
“I’ll get you cash,” said Dan.
“Can’t you just put it back on my card?”
“Machine’s broken,” said Dan. “How much again?”
Dan stared down at the register. The button labels had fallen away and not a single one looked like an “open” key. Dan tried to keep level-headed, even with Ralph staring up at him from the floor with a mangled neck.
The customer leaned on the counter and spun the magazine around so he could read it. “You new here…Ralph?”
“Just started,” said Dan.
“Your name tag doesn’t look so new.”
“New to this store. I work elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere? Where elsewhere?”
“Saugatuck,” said Dan as he mashed register keys at random.
“Saugatuck…little odd they’d have you drive all the way here the morning after a full moon. More than odd–dangerous.”
Dan looked him in the eyes, slowly moving his hand onto the revolver in his pocket. No else needs to die this morning. Just drop it.
“You ah…spilled coffee on your shirt,” said the customer.
“Been one of those mornings.” said Dan.
Cassie and Noah stepped out from the back room with uniform shirts on, but neither had found pants. They used the counter to hide their lower halves. Cassie’s shirt was unbuttoned to distract the customer while Noah moved past unnoticed.
“Hello, sir, how may I assist you today?” said Cassie with a beaming smile. Dan had never heard her speak so eloquently.
“Can’t complain, Darlin,’ just trying to get my money back.”
“Absolutely. I’ll take care of that for you right now. Eighty-two fifty-seven?”
Dan watched Noah guide Wood out of sight.
“That’s right.” The customer leaned closer to Cassie with a grin as she typed in a series of keys on the register. “We don’t see many girls with such lovely mocha skin around here.”
“That’s…sweet of you to say,” said Cassie.
“Nice little tits, too.”
The drawer shot open and she scooped cash from the tray.
“Tens okay?” said Cassie.
As she counted the money out loud, Noah returned behind the customer with a phillips screwdriver he had found in the back room. Noah sized the man up before crouching out of view.
What are you doing, Noah? Dan walked around the counter to find Noah on his back ready to plunge the screwdriver into the customer’s crotch.
Wood’s arms reached out from the aisle and grabbed Noah’s ankle. Dan took hold of the other and they dragged Noah back where Wood hid. The customer checked behind him to find Dan with his arms akimbo and candy wrappers stuck to his shoes.
“And fifty-seven is your change,” said Cassie. “You’re all set.”
“Thanks, Darlin’. I see why the boss is a little distracted this morning. I’ll try another pump closer to town.” The customer turned to Dan before he left. “If you’re not careful she might just take your job.”
As soon as he left Cassie called out for Erica. When she came into view Cassie tossed her a set of keys she found in her uniform pocket. “One of those should lock the door! We’re fucking closed!”
Dan looked into Cassie’s nervous almond eyes. He wanted to question her about everything. Why did she lie about being a full-blood? Was Benny really her father? What else was she hiding from him? Instead he whispered “thank you” just before another interruption.
“I said put it on!!” said Noah.
Dan and Cassie walked to the closet to find Noah shoving a package of adult diapers against Wood’s stomach. Wood smacked the package away in disgust.
“Sorry, Wood,” said Dan. “It has to do.”
“Pick it up and put them on!” said Noah. Wood waddled away to the frozen food section. Noah ran after him and grabbed him by the neck. He shoved Wood headfirst against the freezer door over and over, splintering the glass with each ram.
“Stop it!!” screamed Cassie, but Noah refused.
“Enough!!” said Dan as he drew the revolver from his pocket.
Noah turned to find Dan pointing the weapon at him. He let Wood run off to be comforted by Cassie. “Why did you stop me from killing that man!?” said Noah. “We could’ve worn his clothes!”
“With stab holes and bloodstains!?” said Dan. “We can’t leave bodies everywhere!”
“You strangled the clerk!”
“He pulled a gun on Wood!”
“Does that mean I can kill you now!?”
“Things have changed!” said Dan. “We need to be smart!”
“My dad wouldn’t of let that guy talk to Cassie like that!”
No, Mars wouldn’t have let that fly, but he also wouldn’t have stabbed him to death either, thought Dan. He was patient, and fair, and thoughtful, and of all the people lost that day, I wish he were here the most, if only to tell me what to do next.
“He’s gone,” said Dan.
They all stood in silence for a moment, save for Erica sniffling.
Noah stormed off into the back room and kicked open the fire escape door.
“We should go after him,” said Cassie. “Could be hunters in the forest–.”
“Were you ever going to tell me?” interrupted Dan.
“I don’t think that matters now, do you?”
“I can’t take more lies,” said Dan. He looked at Erica and Wood. “Do you all understand?”
“Yes,” said Cassie.
“Yeah,” said Erica.
The scent of petrichor hit Dan as he left the shop. The sun had not yet given light to the gray skies of the migrating storm. He surveyed the forest beyond the highway barriers. The road went on forever, and no cars were visible. No sign of hunters, but that doesn’t mean we’re safe.
Dan lit a cigarette deep into his search. Smoke trails poured from his throat wound before he exhaled, and he promptly flicked the cigarette into a puddle. The uniform Noah had found was nearby, and the undershirt was farther still, tangled in the tree branches above.
Dan discovered Noah sitting under a tree. Noah used the mud beneath him to draw the glyphs on his skin his father and mother had done ritualistically. The pattern was not as intricate as they had drawn, covering the boy from ankle to chest. Noah paused as he reached the top of his left shoulder.
“You can cry if you need,” said Dan.
“Fuck you,” said Noah as his finger hung in the air.
“Those markings are for strength, no?”
“It’s the history of my people. I can’t remember what goes here. My mother did mine hundreds of times and I never paid any attention. Now it’s gone forever.” Noah let his hand fall to his side.
“Mars told me new events replace old symbols,” said Dan. “The blank can be a part of it now.”
“You don’t have to speak if it’s too painful.”
“I need to say this…Marcelo would want you to honor his code rather than symbols.”
“He made it look easy,” said Noah. “Even with Fettel in charge, so many people trusted him to keep them safe. He failed one time–one. Now I’m the last Sangrador, the leader, and I failed before I even began.”
“That’s not true. You have no one to lead yet. The Bedlam no longer exist. Me, Cassie, Wood, and Erica never formed a new gang. That makes us unaffiliated.”
Noah looked up at him curiously. “Do you want to join the Sangradors?”
“That’s up to you. If you accept, your leadership starts today with a clean slate.”
Noah began to smile as he counted his fingers. “You, me, Cassie, Wood, and Erica…that’s five?”
Noah dipped his fingers in the mud and dragged them across the blank space on his shoulder, leaving behind five lines of different lengths.
“The Sangradors have a new symbol,” said Noah.