Later, they find him innocent, but that’s not the most important part. He’s wearing his same brown suit with the ochre tie on the last day and when they finally read out the verdict, he doesn’t look at his lawyer or at the empty seats where his family ought to be or even at the gathered Adamses and Kennedys still glowering in the gallery. Instead, his eyes go straight to the old man and his wife sitting in the back row, still dressed in their shabby finest, thin tweed and worn leather, both watching him like hawks from behind thick lenses. Their expressions convey no surprise or relief or joy, only the satisfaction of met expectations. The noise in the courtroom feeds on itself, men and women rise to their feet, and he loses the two of them behind unfamiliar bodies.
He turns back to the judge and listens to his words, but doesn’t really hear them. Mr Panzram; the commonwealth of Massachusetts; this day, April the 25th, the year of our Lord 1910; immediately released; go in good health. He plans to. The police see him to the front of the courthouse and unlock his chains, give him the hairy eyeball as he flexes his newly loosed hands, big as hardcover books. He gives them a smile each, then turns and walks into the bright blue morning beyond, a free man once again. The cops try to stare holes in his back until the heavy wooden doors slam shut in their damn faces. Hell with ’em. All cops are bastards, anyway.
Dr Bloom and Ronnie are waiting for him on the courthouse’s front steps, uncomfortable out in the cold and bright. More bundled up now than they were before, which is more than Carl can say for himself. When the bulls finally came to clap him in irons that night, he’d been only in shirtsleeves and bandages and the commonwealth has seen fit to return him to the world more or less as once it found him—they made him change out of his suit and bag it up for some damn reason. The wind cuts through the thin fabric and he has to clench his teeth against the late winter to keep them from chattering, but even though it hurts, it’s a good kind of hurt. He smiles wide at the Blooms and they offer him a nod of careful regard each.
“What now?” he chokes out. Each word is a lump of ice in his throat. Ronnie smiles politely at his question and Dr Bloom raps the tip of his cane against the stone underfoot.
“Now, we start over. Now we go back to work,” the old man says.
After the prison school back home, and the fire, he almost goes west, but he knows that west just means more of the same: more violence, more chaos, more rage, more awfulness. He’s sick of awfulness; he’s been steeping in it ever since he can remember. It would be an easy thing to credit his family for that—the rest of the Panzrams are all cut from the same cloth, after all: just dumb enough to get consigned to a life of miserable, backbreaking farmwork tempered by the occasional whiskey oblivion, just smart enough to be angry about it forever. They never really understood Carl’s natural intellect, saw it as a problem instead of potential, but he can’t really blame them. People always ave a way of hating what they don’t understand. They were too busy dealing with the farm in those cold Minnesota winters and his father stumbling home drunk every night and his brother finally getting his badge. And after all, it’s not like he made it any easier on them, either. Youngest and brightest of five kids, acting out was always going to be the natural path.
Yeah, he earned the hell out of his trip to that prison school.
First it’s theft, then that turns into fighting and robbery. It’s not long after that that he gets scooped up by some of his big brother’s colleagues and shipped off to the Minnesota State Training School for the foreseeable future. Inside, it’s more of the same. Fighting. Stealing. Revenge. He puts another student’s eye out with his thumb, he takes teeth with his knuckles and shoes, leaves boys bleeding in the snow, weeping for the mothers that abandoned them inside those cold walls.
His family had taught him loneliness and rebellion, but the Training School, the prison school, teaches him fury, kindles it in his heart like the flames of all hell’s engines. Hot enough to keep him warm in the freeze, bright enough that he can nearly see in the dark.
Then, one day, all that fire just spills over.
It’s the Painting House that gets it. The place the teachers take the boys to beat the fear into them. Gas bomb. Crude, but effective. He has his reasons for doing it, mostly good, some bad. Enough of both to do it without regrets. It’s beautiful, watching it burn against the falling snow and the dark of the night, a fireball the size of God’s fist. As if god were an idea he even entertained anymore. He stands there, watching the Painting House burn like that with all the other boys until the screws drag them away.
Laying in his bed closer to the next morning than to the sunset, Carl feels like he might start crying and screaming at the same time but because nobody knows what clinical depression is yet the only thing he can do is twist his knuckles into his thighs until the physical hurt eclipses the mental hurt and then he can sleep for a little while. The next morning, he cracks the bones around another kid’s eye with a bowl in the breakfast line and they put him in solitary with a drain in the floor and a bible and a bucket and leave him there for a week.
When they let him out, the bible’s gone but for the leather cover, all the pages ripped out and vanished. When they question him about it, he tells them he doesn’t know what happened but none of them believe that. They hose him down with ice water, drop him in a new set of stiff woolen clothes, then send him to work his penance in the school library, telling him he’ll learn respect for books come Hell or high water.
The prison school library is an ugly block-tumor of a building, cast in concrete and steel like the rest of the compound, but lacking in its distinct charm. The inside is lined with sparse wooden shelves, splintered and rotting and tended by a thin, mawkish man named Winslow. He watches Carl’s every movement behind owl-eyes glasses, unfriendly, unamused. Carl goes about his work and they don’t talk. Why would they? He’s here to shelve books and not set anything on fire, and Winslow is here to make sure he does just that, a job he does without complaint. He’s not as cruel as the other adults, but that doesn’t mean that he’s sweet. He simply doesn’t seem to care about Carl’s existence one way or another, and that’s just fine with Carl. They go about their days independent of one another, doing their work, pretending to themselves that things aren’t half as shitty as they really are.
Then, one day, Carl finds it.
He’s not sure how it got here, not sure who would log it into the library’s stacks thinking it would ever get checked out, but it’s here all the same: a thin volume titled The Eight Classical Universities of These United States. Carl doesn’t know what they mean by classical, but he’s heard about university, and slips the book off the shelf and secrets it away to a quiet corner of the library, spending a quiet afternoon leafing through its pages. He reads through it like most kids read about fairy tales, far away lands with hidden treasures and royalty and adventure. He likes Harvard the best – there’s a drawing of the campus itself on one of the pages, and Carl thinks it looks like a castle, all big and regal and perfect. His heart flutters a little bit just thinking of going, and he hides the thrill of it away, not wanting to have to stamp it out like a cigarette butt. He’d never be able to go to a place like Harvard.
When Winslow steps out for a smoke, Carl tears the illustration clean from the book, folding it up and hiding it in his pocket. Then he puts the book back and gets to work in case anyone’s watching.
After that, Carl learns to lie. Like, really lie. He swallows all their shit about their lord and his ways, regurgitates it on command, over and over until they’re happy, smiling like we really accomplished something with this one. They don’t make it hard to do, they’re not exactly cagey with what they want him to say, anyway. Still, some of it must take hold, some little part of that thing they call morality. Not all the ghost stories and the nonsense, but the essential truth of what they preach about. It’s not nothing. It’s not much, either, but it’s enough. because after the prison school, and the fire, he almost goes west, but he sees that path laid out in front of him clear as day. he sees monsters and hate and fear and chaos, always chaos.
He sees all that, and he chooses different.
Because he finally has a choice.
But sitting there in that drafty, miserable boxcar rattling its way out of Minnesota and into Wisconsin, staring at the torn-out picture of that far-away school, he still feels the fury, can’t help but wonder if he’ll feel that all the rest of his life.
The path takes him four years.
He rides the rails all the way down to Chicago, working odd jobs as he hoes, taking small rooms where he can find them and sleeping in the cold when he can’t. He runs into his fair share of hobos and cops, mean old leathers each who see him and just see a kid, some pinkbelly rube ripe for the taking. Mostly he finds himself able to talk his way out of whatever troubles, keeps his rage in check, but sometimes he’s not. Sometimes he can’t, and more often than not when that happens he has to leave town in a hurry. It’s not like he means for it to be like this, it just is. He’s still Johann Panzram’s boy, and Johann Panzram never ran from a fight, win, lose or draw. He’s more like his father than he likes to admit, notices it more as the years play on. Sees it in the mirror, in the way his shadow moves when he walks, in the sound of his laugh, hard and mirthless. He hates that part of himself, but it’s not like he can pay a doctor to cut it out of his chest, so he gets on living with it, trying to make his peace inwardly, resigned to living like a tramp until he finally makes it all the way east or something does him in on the way, a fight or a bottle or an overeager cop.
When he sleeps, he dreams of it. When he’s awake, he tries not to think about it. Doesn’t let himself pull the torn scrap of paper from his wallet too much anymore—the creases are starting to go soft and blurry, cutting the auspicious white-and-brick buildings into neat sections. He keeps pulling it out and unfolding then refolding like he’s been, it’s gonna fall apart, and that can’t happen. Not now, not ever. He keeps it hidden away most of the time, close to his heart and as safe as any of the rest of him ever is.
Chicago gives way to Gary, and Gary to Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. He spends the nights in parks, under bridges, huddled close to fires set by kind souls in the bum towns he finds, warming his hands in their glow. He feels his clothes wearing thin, same as his body, eroded by abuse and neglect and the perils of the path. He has to fight for food, for shelter, for anything he can lay hands on. The going gets savage. He begins to think of his fury as an animal, some enormous, prehistoric wolf he keeps caged within himself, wrapped in teeth and claws and rough, bristled fur. When he closes his eyes at night he imagines he can feeling snapping and snarling and drooling and pressing its hideous bulk against the bard, daring the bold and the stupid to step too close, bet one of their hands that when they draw their arm back again, it’ll still be there. When he unlocks the cage, people get hurt, get bloody, get grim. He tries to forget the faces of the men he leaves collapsed and spilling into the snow but finds himself unable, their pain written into him like the pink ribbons that band his knuckles, more and more every week.
Life on the path is cruel and desperate, full of people like him, lost souls seeking their own sorts of purpose, who more often than not insist on measuring their wills against Carl’s. He hopes that none of them end up dead but never stays long enough to know for sure. The Wolf, capital-W, demands forward motion. It’s just about the only thing that keeps it quiet.
Something better. He has to believe that he’s moving toward something better. That hope is the only thing that makes all the ugliness he finds (And causes, the Wolf whispers) make sense. If he doesn’t walk the path, the path will walk him. The guiding rule of his journey.
From Baltimore it’s Philadelphia and it’s Trenton and some time later, it’s New York. The city is sprawling and indifferent and standing in the middle of its organized chaos, the Wolf slavers to be set loose but Carl refuses its demands, tries to make it sleep or quiet down at the very least. It doesn’t work, keeping him up nights with promises of blood and mayhem and destruction the likes of which he’s never even imagined, but despite the insomnia, Carl still refuses. He stays in New York for three months, just long enough to get his bearings and swindle a little bit of scratch, enough to keep moving north, toward Massachusetts. As the train slips into the woods beyond the city, Carl feels the Wolf unclench and slink back into the darkness.
The east is cruel during the winter months, even bundled up in the back of a closed boxcar, and Carl is grateful that it doesn’t take that long after New York for him to finally arrive. The air is worse up here, stone-hard and filled with knives. Boston isn’t a large town, especially having just come from New York, but it’s close together, which makes it relatively easy to hide from the wind. Carl sticks to the walls and keeps his eyes open and waits until the sun comes up to go clothes shopping, instead of doing what the Wolf says and breaking into a store or worse, relieving some poor sad sucker of his attire after rendering him un-needing. He picks one called Clayton’s, strolls in as soon as the doors unlock, and even though the shop boy gives him the eye, he doesn’t say anything about it once Carl produces his hard-won roll of bills. He makes sure to give the kid ones spotted with the most red fingerprints.
He walks about of the shop in a sharp brown suit and ochre tie and new shoes and a heavy black wool coat, with enough in his pocket still for a week’s worth of hot meals and a room to boot. It’s not a bad life, today.
Carl shuffles around Boston for a few hours, then hangs a streetcar over the river to Cambridge once the sun’s good and high in the iron blue sky. He expects it to take longer than it does, and he expects Cambridge to feel the same as Boston, but he’s wrong on both counts. Where Boston is old, coarse, working class and dirty, Cambridge feels new and polished and upper-class. Carl doesn’t know offhand how long each town’s been around, but they can’t be that far apart from each other, right? That makes the differences all the more pronounced. Cambridge feels like the future.
Boston is the Wolf, but Cambridge is Carl.
He stops in at a tiny restaurant off Hampshire Street for a modest lunch and a cup of coffee before heading out again to follow the arrowed signs on the street that all say, in big proud type, HARVARD. Carl’s heart leaps a little bit every time he sees another one. Closer and closer and closer. He can feel the excitement stirring behind his ribs, the Wolf stalking back and forth behind his eyes, but lacking all that boiling hunger he’s come to associate with it. Less starved and ready to hunt, more restless and desperate to run, for a kind of clear freedom neither of them have ever really had.
He follows the signs, he quickens his feet, then he passes through the gates, and he’s there, and he can’t even feel the wind and the cold anymore.
The school is huge, but maybe not as huge as Carl was expecting. He cycles out from the center of campus in lazy circles, all the buildings whitewashed and facing inward, toward each other, a meeting circle of wise old bastards too proud to show their cracks just yet. Their windows, dark and frost-kissed, regard the young man with a kind of heady, stoic indifference, as if they know already why he’s arrived and remain unimpressed. But fuck them anyway. He’s here. He made it. That’s what matters. His breaths effuse from his throat in great heaving clouds of vapor that hang in the air before his face until he fans them away and follows the signs for ADMISSIONS OFFICE across the crispy frozen grass.
Of course it’s closed by the time he gets there. Of course. Why wouldn’t it be? There’s a placard posted near the window with the days and hours of operation listed clearly, but since Carl doesn’t really know what day it is offhand, that’s only so much help. Still, he can tell time, can’t he? He’ll just come back the next day, and the next, and the next until someone’s here to greet him. It’s not an issue of time, he’s got all that he’ll ever need. The money will last, too, at least for a while, and if it runs out? No problem, really. Money’s always been relatively easy to get a hold of. He can make this work. He can last this out. He’s dealt with plenty worse than these soft easterners anyhow.
Carl spins on the ball of one foot and heads back out into the cold once again, big hands thrust deep in the lined pockets of his new coat. The winter sunlight drives dull needles into his eyes as the wind teases razors across his unguarded cheeks. He doubletimes his pace, meaning to head back into Cambridge proper so to find the kind of lodging that’ll board the likes of him.
Stop it, the Wolf hisses from a dark corner of his skull. The rage of it stops him like a punch, the smell of the Wolf’s hot breath like sour old blood. Carl stops. Carl listens.
You have as much right to be here as any of these rich, fortunate bastards. more, even, because you know that in the end, you’ll have to fucking bleed for it when not a one of them has ever shed even a drop of sweat they didn’t choose to. You can smell it in the air, don’t act like you can’t. But you made it here. We made it here. You’d do well to remember that you wanted this, boy. And now, after all that time and pain and blood, we’re here. So to hell with the likes of. You and me, we earned it. So let’s fucking act like it.
It’s the only time the Wolf has ever talked anything even resembling sense. Carl stands there, looking out across the simple, unassuming architecture of his secretest dreams and feels the scars braided across his knuckles and that brightness, that ambition glowing at the base of his skull like it always has, and he nods to himself, just once.
You’re goddamn right.
He’s halfway across campus when he first sees the jackals running the old man down. They’re wearing snowboots and jackets and ties in blood red and navy stripes, but Carl recognizes them as the scavengers they really are all the same. He’s gotten plenty used to smelling other predators, and to not letting them notice him until it’s too late. Especially lazy scavengers like these.
Three of them, all told. Typical arrangement: one blond, one redhead, one brunet. All young, handsome, savage. Soft with delusions of hardness. Perfect teeth, white and straight and all intact and snapping-wet. Their prey: a weak, weary old man, threadbare and half-grizzled, hiding behind fogged-up cokebottles, Carl can nearly see the wiry gray tufts sprouting out his ears from across the yard. He watches the three young jackals stalk him down ’til he trips over his own feet and goes bellyfirst into a freezing puddle, splashing brown slush out in every direction. The dirty spray slashes across the jackals’ trousers, and that’s reason enough so they circle up and rip his briefcase away, rearing back fists and feet, and when the redhead tosses the case over his shoulder, Carl’s there to catch it like it’s nothing. He sets it down in the stiff gray grass and dusts off his hands and asks
“Everything alright here, gentlemen?”
The jackals turn in unison to leer at him. They all have blue eyes and they all take their sweet time looking him over. He smiles as they do it, relishing the sensation, the malevolent gravity of their attention. They’re older than him all, up close he can see that now, by a year or two at the least. But that doesn’t mean anything. Just numbers. He slips his hands back into his pockets and waits for them to finish. It doesn’t take long.
“No, we’re all good here,” the brunet says. “And besides, I don’t see what business it is of yours, anyway.”
Carl widens his smile, showing them his teeth and all the no warmth he has inside of him.
“No business. Just passing by.”
The redhead glowers.
“So pass on by already.”
Carl stays standing where he is, makes a show of looking past the three to the old man rising to his knees in the icy muck.
“Sir?” he asks. “You alright there?”
“He’s fine,” hisses the brunet. Carl turns his smile back on and points it at him, real slow, real deliberate. An open challenge.
“I think I’ll let him tell me that, thanks.”
The old man wheezes, coughs, spits a mouthful of grime, shakes his head to clear some cobwebs. “I’m fine, sir, thank you,” he gasps. The brunet and his pals all grow smiles of their own, malignant.
“There, you see? Just as we said. Now be on your way.”
Carl stays still as stone, save for his eyes, which jump from jackal to jackal, doing some sizing up of his own. All around them, the still of winter shivers with the breeze, a glass gallery just aching to be shattered.
“Help him up,” Carl says.
“I beg your fucking pardon?”
He leans in close to the brunet, still smiling like the older boy is slow or hard of hearing. “Help him up, I said.”
And they laugh at him. They three all actually rear back and laugh to the sky, and behind young Carl Panzram’s face, he can feel-hear-feel the Wolf laughing too, oily black fur hackled up around butcher knife teeth and arrowhead eyes. Starving. Frothing. Vibrating with rage.
The cage door falls wide like a broken jaw and then it’s already all over.
Even though he wants to, he doesn’t kill them. And he really, really wants to.
Instead, he just dismantles them.
The brunet only takes one punch to the soft of his throat before he crumples to the ground, trying to get enough breath to weep. After him it’s the blonde. Carl rakes his eyes, then puts a knee so hard in his solar plexus that he pukes. The redhead gets ballsy and actually composes himself enough to take a swing, but that’s just as stupid as standing there doing nothing. Carl catches the punch in one hand and twists with both—the redhead’s wrist snaps like kindling. He screams like a woman.
Carl turns back to the brunet and waits for him to look up and notice. When he finally does, Carl flashes him one last smile, then drills him in the ribs hard enough that he hears one crack. Then he stands back and waits for the three of them to collect themselves enough to retreat, tails between their legs, which they do in short order. When they’re out of sight, he turns back to the old man and helps him to his feet.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” the old man says.
“Why not?” Carl holds the old man’s hat while he uses his bare hands to slake cold mud off his clothes and it only works so well, but still Carl stands there waiting patiently.
“Because they aren’t the type to be trifled with,” he tells Carl. “They and their kind.” He finishes his dirty work, looks up. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
The Wolf slinks back to its cage, locks itself in.
“It wasn’t a fair fight,” Carl says, apropos of nothing.
“No, I can see that,” says the old man.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“But it’s what you said. When did you arrive in our fair little burg, young man?”
Carl’s face burns red and puffy. “Just today.”
“And making friends already, I see.”
“I didn’t like them.”
“That part was overwhelmingly obvious, thank you.”
“Do you teach here? At Harvard?”
The old man nods, somewhere between exhausted and incredulous.
“I do. I do at that. Dr Max Bloom, at your service. And you are?”
“Nice to meet you, Carl Panzram. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat, sure. Thank you.”
Carl looks down at his shoes, awkwardly hands the old man his hat and briefcase back.
“Well, you might as well come by for dinner,” the old man says. “What with you sparing any further indignities and whatnot.”
“Thank you so much,” Carl proffers.
The old man offers him a small, wan smile.
“Don’t thank me yet, you haven’t even tried my wife’s cooking. Still, best we get going. Rather not be late if we can help it. Come on then, if you’re coming.”
The Blooms’ home is a stooped little one-story back in a hunched part of the local neighborhood filled with crumbling brick houses and cracked fence posts. A far cry from the pristine newness of Harvard’s immediate environs, they haven’t been walking but ten minutes and it already feels like they’ve gone back in time thirty years. Carl follows Dr Bloom down the snowblown streets, shoulders hunched tightly against the windchill, trying not to notice the eyes set in suspicious faces behind plate glass home-fronts that follow them as they go. He gets it. He’s a stranger, and in a neighborhood like this, strangers are at best a curiosity, at worse cause for alarm. Carl knows neighborhoods like this one, where cops don’t come ’round unless they have to. He tries to smile at the worried, glass-shielded faces, but gets nervous that it’s the same wretched animal mangle it always is and puts it away just as quickly.
Dr Bloom leads him around one final corner and points at one of the ramshackle homes, lit yellow and warm from the inside, says “That’s the one.”
Carl has to admit, it’s not without its charms. Despite the general dereliction, it looks like a real home, like the kind you read about in storybooks: a well-tended yard, smoke puffing steadily from the chimney, a warm, inviting glow that seems to radiate out from its every brick and stone and pane of glass. Even standing here across the street, Carl feels it. Up until this point he thought it was imaginary, this feeling, some construct of hack writers and bullshit fabulists. But he’s here, and it’s real, and so immediate, so imminent that behind its bars, even the Wolf is subdued. Overhead, the sky crowds and darkens and more snow starts to fall around them, a crystalline pointillist flood from reverse. Dr Bloom doesn’t even turn around to make sure Carl’s following, he just crosses over and pushes the front door open, stomping the ice from his shoes and legs as he goes. Carl follows suit, and as he does, the old man calls out,
“Ronnie? We have company for dinner!”
They go down a hallway to the left into the kitchen, where a beautiful older woman is bustling around in an apron, cooking what looks like five or six dishes all at once—the smell isn’t just heavenly, it’s orgasmic. Brisket and potatoes and vegetables and something Carl can’t place, but makes him think of the few happy memories he’s got of back home. She—Ronnie?—turns around, and Carl has to amend his previous thought—she’s not beautiful, she’s gorgeous. Black hair shot through with bolts of silver, a sharp jaw and piercing, steel-gray eyes. She smiles warmly at her husband, leans in to kiss him on his scruffy neck, then turns to regard Carl with a single raised eyebrow.
“Good evening,” she says, perfectly cordial. “I’m Veronica Bloom. Who are you?”
Carl normally doesn’t feel awkward. He’s tasted blood too many times, split too many heads to feel susceptible to that kind of nonsense anymore. But standing in this kitchen, under this woman’s impassive, razor-keen gaze, Carl feels the same way he did in the long moments before his very first fistfight: feverish, dumped with adrenaline, and in far, far over his head. His face shines pink, and all of a sudden, and perhaps for the first time ever, Carl feels like the nineteen years he’s spent breaking bastards open and leaving them where they fall have left him woefully underprepared.
Under any other circumstance, he’d just throw the cage wide open and let the Wolf tear this whole place apart—shit, he can feel the thing panting, steadily thumping its Christmas ham-sized head against the bars, ready to do damage, but that’s not how it works here. He knows that. Blanket over the cage. Blanket over the cage. Breathe. Fucking breathe, now. He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing under Veronica’s—Ronnie’s—stare, but he gets the feeling it’s already been too long, so he just sticks his hand out into the negative space between them and introduces himself.
“I’m Carl Panzram from Minnesota. Nice to meet you.”
Her appraising look shifts just the tiniest bit, the barest hint of a smile pricks the corners of her mouth, but it’s her eyes that tell the story, like she’s reading him from the tension in his shoulders, the expression on his face, the scars scribbled on his hands.
“It’s nice to meet you, Carl Panzram from Minnesota. How the hell do you know my husband?”
He tells them—her—everything, even though he can see in Dr Bloom’s eyes that the old man doesn’t want him to. Everything. Even the things he means to leave out. He tells her everything: the broken bones, the powdered ribs, the shattered trachea, the Wolf. He doesn’t mean to do it, it just happens, and once he starts talking about today, he can’t help but talk about yesterday and the day before yesterday and the day before that and the years before that. It pours out of him like blood, like they—he?—opened a vein in his soul, his very history. It all comes spilling out in one astonishing, messy rush, in no order in particular, it’s just all of it all at once, but the Blooms don’t interrupt him or ever ask him to clarify—they just sit and listen and piece it all together themselves: the fires, the prison school, the books, the bodies and the dreams. He even pulls the picture out and unfolds it for them, lays it in the middle of the table so they can see, maybe so they know it’s not all bullshit. He knows objectively that at some point during the evening they eat dinner, but he can’t taste it past the words that keep falling off his tongue. He feels bad for that. He was looking forward to Ronnie’s cooking. Sitting at their kitchen table, confessing everything like this, Carl feels bad for a lot of things. He’s not used to that. He’s not really used to
Feeling like a human being?
The words come muttered through saliva-slick bared fangs and thin, serrated black lips. Voice still a rotten, throaty gargle. Internally, Carl clangs the cage door a few times: shut up shut up shut up.
He finally runs out of things to say, and then the three of them are just sitting there in the warm kitchen that feels way, way too small all of a sudden, and he finds he can’t do anything but stare down at his crumb-littered plate and listen to the blunt idiot sound of his breathing. Every impulse in his body, ever urge toward survival, is telling him to get out of here immediately, he’s too exposed, too vulnerable. He might as well have pulled his shirt up to show his belly and handed them each a butcher’s knife. Shit. Stupid. Shit. Foolish, weak, trusting, silly little boy. He’s seconds away from heaving himself up to his feet and running as fast as he can out the front door, he’s going to do it, he’s got to do it—
Then a cool, slender hand half the size of his own closes around his wrist, gently anchoring him in place. He doesn’t recoil from the touch, it more feels like an icy salve on his burning skin. When he looks up, Ronnie’s eyes are overflowing with fat tears.
“You poor man,” she says, choking back a sob. “You poor, poor man.”
Carl spends that night at the Blooms’, and a number of nights subsequent. There’s no conversation about it, they don’t have to goad or cajole him into staying, they simply make up the spare bed and that’s that. In the morning, Ronnie makes coffee and Carl dresses to find that they’ve laid out five small stacks of paper on the kitchen table, all in a neat row. When they catch his confused expression, Dr Bloom (Carl has and forever will have a problem with calling him Max) claps him on the back and Ronnie leans in conspiratorially:
“If you really want to go to Harvard, we have to make sure that you’re of the right material, don’t we?”
They test him all day and well into the evening. All sorts of subjects, all different kinds of tests—Dr Bloom administers some, Ronnie others. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern or clear rule as to who does what, the older couple instead just seems to know what to do, some quiet emotional algebra between them guiding their actions. He watches them when he’s not answering questions, or assembling cut-out shapes into other shapes, shit like that—he soaks in them, their behavior, this way they communicate without spoken language. They observe him, and he observes them back: Dr Bloom is smart, educated, but Ronnie is brilliant. What’s more, Carl thinks her husband knows it, too. He doesn’t ask if she went to college, he doesn’t want to pry, but in the way she speaks and conducts herself, in the way she constructs questions and listens to the answers, it’s overwhelmingly clear that he and the old man are intellectual dwarves next to her. Carl thinks that it must be a special kind of hell, to be such a natural titan so limited by society’s idiot rules.
The Blooms test Carl until well after sunset, and when they’re finished, they seem exhausted, but Carl isn’t. Quite the contrary, he feels alive, bathed in fire, eager for more. He searches their faces for anything, any little sign of how he did, but they offer him nothing, at least, at first. After a couple of quiet, pregnant moments though, they start to smile, first at each other, then at Carl.
It doesn’t take him too long to figure out what that means.
Turns out, it was too late for him to enroll in classes anyway—the Blooms tell him the semester’s already half over as it is. He’ll have to wait until the new year, but that’s no reason to be lazy. Dr Bloom brings him into his home office and scrawls out a list of locations and corresponding times, his handwriting a hurried, smeary mess across the thick, grainy paper. He holds it up and blows until the ink’s dried, then passes it over to the younger man.
“There. That’s your life for the next couple of months. Follow it daily and please do remember to keep your ears open. You have a great natural intellect, but great natural intellect is useless without awareness of your own ignorance and a willingness to rectify that at any cost. Understand?”
“But I’m not enrolled. They’re not going to let me through the door.”
Dr Bloom gives him a look like he’s being stupid, which, maybe he is.
“How will they know if you’re enrolled or not? It’s not as if students walk around wearing signs advertising their status. As long as you look and act the part, no one will question you, or whether you’re supposed to be there. Blend in a bit and it’ll be smooth sailing. You’re auditing. This is about getting you up to speed until we can officially get you on the books. Understand?”
Carl does, or at least thinks he does. After the last few days, he’s starting to realize just how little he actually really knows. The blooms tell him that’s a good thing, but he’s still not sure. Still, he gives Dr Bloom a nod and that seems to be enough for the old man, for the time being.
“Good. You start Monday. Dress nice, play nice with the other kids. You’ll do fine.”
And that’s that.
Carl’s first week of school, he’s actually sort of amazed by how boring it is. Not the learning, not the classes—he looks forward to each and every one of those like any other kid not named Panzram looks forward to Christmas morning—but the routine of it all. Is this what being a true-blue civilian feels like all the time? Every day, exactly the same? Carl can’t tell if that’s security or if it’s death. A couple of days here and there, he feels himself getting antsy, getting itchy, like he needs to get the hell out of town. Too long. He’s been here too long already. He wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes, feeling the Wolf crash its enormous cruel body against the cage bars, restless and starving and half-mad from neglect. He wants to go barechested out into the freeze and throw the cage door wide open, surrender to the animal and tear some stranger to shreds in the thin Massachusetts snow, just to know that he still can.
This civilization, it’s not for him. Not for them.
Every time he sits in one of those lecture halls and listens to the professors speak, it’s like they’ve jammed a lightning rod into the soft meat of his brain and sent him out into the middle of a thunderstorm. It’s explosive, better than any drug or rush he’s felt before. It’s better than splitting any head, picking any pocket, setting any fire. It ignites him from the inside, and at the end of every day he feels like the glow from his eyes could light his way home.
In the face of that, even the Wolf shrinks back into the shadows. It stays there longer and longer these days, all of the space it used to fill up replaced by the fires his lessons set daily.
He hardly ever hears its voice anymore.
Some nights, Ronnie and Dr Bloom quiz Carl on what he learned during the day, ask him to explain his lessons in depth. At first, he has to consult his handwritten notes, reading from them whole share, but as the weeks and months roll on, he doesn’t need to so much, his explanations less recitation and more discussion, conversation. It gets easier, more natural. The Blooms tell him it’s a good start. He thinks it’s a damn sight more than just a start but he keeps his mouth shut. The rational part of his mind knows that they’re both usually right about this sort of thing, even when it stings a bit.
It’s a good sting. Objectively, he knows that. Sometimes learning stings. Important to remember that. Crucial.
Winter wears on, brutal to the point of oppression. The air turns to knives, the snow so bad some days that Carl can barely see his hands stretched out in front of him, ice-hard and numb from the cold. Gloves. Buy gloves. He reminds himself this almost daily, but never follows through. He’s too busy running from one building to the next, protecting his secondhand books from the elements, finding a good seat for each lecture, doing the coursework until he knows it’s right.
After a while, he stops feeling like an impostor. He stops imagining strangers scowling at him or recoiling away as he crosses campus from class to class. He stops thinking he sticks out like a sore thumb, like everyone knows who and what he was before he was here. No one knows. No one cares. And to Carl, that’s beautiful. That feels, he admits only to himself in the dead moments before sleep, maybe a little bit like salvation. Carl hides these feelings, most of the time. Tries to tell himself that it’s stupid, useless, weak. He does it in a voice that sounds suspiciously like old Johann’s drink-slurred broken English, clear as it was when Carl was six.
Still, he finds out, hope is a hard thing to beat to death. And that’s better than nothing. It’s better than a lot.
He still sees the jackals around campus, and they see him. They’re in none of the same classes (Dr Bloom’s design?) but it’s not too hard for all of them to pick each other out. All Carl has to do is look for the casts and bandages—not that hard at all. Most of these lily kiddies wouldn’t know a real fight unless it came up from out of nowhere and snapped their wrist clean in half. Three less, now. They keep their distance, but Carl still sees them staring, muttering amongst themselves, hate burning in their eyes like fire. He knows that fire, and greets it as an old friend.
Carl learns that their names are Adams, Kennedy and Voorhees. He doesn’t bother clarifying which name belongs to whom. It’s not particularly important. He doesn’t think about them at all, if he can help it. They’re petty, and they’re small. Insects. Mere pests.
But sometimes pests have a way of following you home.
It’s only a couple of weeks into the new year when they make their move. They’ve gotten a little better at hunting since Carl’s first encounter with them. Seems like they’ve been practicing. It’s almost admirable, but it isn’t going to save them.
The sun sets early and Carl turns his thoughts toward home—Dr Bloom and Ronnie told him this morning that they want to talk writers tonight, specifically some new Irishman named Joyce. They’re having meatloaf and onions for dinner. They’re making it special, to celebrate Carl’s official enrollment. He was nervous about how he was going to pay the tuition, but Dr Bloom told the registrar that Carl was his nephew and that seemed to be enough to drop the cost down to, if not exactly affordable, not unreasonable. It was a good day, and when Carl turns the snowy corner onto the Blooms’ street and sees the three jackals standing there hiding their faces in spiked-high bedsheets with eyeholes cut in them, knives in their hands, he feels all the good drain out of it like a pig strung up and bled dry into the dirt. The one in the middle has a pistol too, holds it away from himself like some would a poison snake. Carl can tell he’s never fired it a once. For all that practice, for all their theatrics, they’re still just fucking amateurs.
The Blooms are there too, shivering in no coats at the tips of the jackals’ blades. Dr Bloom looks like he’s been crying. Ronnie just looks angry, inconvenienced and tired. Not scared at all. Even though Carl can’t see the jackals’ smiles, he knows they’re there, soft little grins that crinkle their eyes up inside their hoods. He remembers grinning at them the last time they met, maybe they just think that’s what mean motherfuckers do before they do some nasty shit. Some kind of intimidation tactic. They don’t understand why Carl was smiling that day. If they’re lucky, they never will.
Carl clears a swipe of snow away from the ground with one foot and sets his bookbag down, never taking his eyes off the five of them. He stands back up to his full height, cracking his entire spine as he rises like a tower of rage and scars and knitted bone. Inside the walls of his skull, he feels a hot gust of stagnant breath, a hackling of thick black fur still clotted with soil and old blood. Carl regards the jackals with two pairs of eyes—one blue, one muddy yellow and frenzied.
He doesn’t bother asking what these three fools are doing here, because it’s obvious. He doesn’t tell them to let the Blooms go, because they won’t. He doesn’t explain how monumentally stupid a decision this was, because if they don’t know by now, they’ll never figure it out. Instead, he just waits to say what they’ve come here to say. Assholes like them always want you to listen to their shitty feelings before they try and kill you.
After a second, the middle one sticks the gun out at Carl like he’s going to do something with it.
“Bet you didn’t see this coming, huh? Did you, big man? Did you?”
Carl shakes his head no once, real slow.
“I didn’t think so. You know this is your fault, right? All of this. Should of just let us be. Shouldn’t of touched us. Nobody touches us. Not here, not anywhere, understand? Not unless we say so. Do you even know who my father is? Huh?”
Carl doesn’t care about him, or his father. He starts closing the distance between them, savoring the looks in their eyes when they realize what he’s doing. Middle shakes his gun like a talisman, does a shit job of hiding the scared little quake in his voice.
“No, no, no, no, you big fuck, you stay back there! You hear me? I said you stay back there!”
But Carl doesn’t stay back there, he advances on him until the revolver’s muzzle is no more than an arm’s length away and he can see the idiot amateur tremors ruffling their sheets. Inside its cage, the Wolf laps its huge, slavering tongue against the rusty bars, impatient for what comes next. More than anything, Carl hates that the Wolf is right about this.
He looks to Ronnie and Dr Bloom, offers them his best smile, tries to somehow let them know that it’s going to be okay. It’s not clear if they get it or not, but at least he tried. A moment later, he turns his attention back on the three scared little jackals.
“Leave now,” he tells them. “We can all just forget this happened. We can all go home again. I don’t want this, and I don’t think you do, either.”
None of them say anything. None of them move, give any sign they heard him.
“I won’t say it again.”
The jackal on the left, the one with his knife to Ronnie’s throat, makes a nervous little noise then squeaks out a weak
And Carl isn’t sure if he means to or not, but the jackal’s blade dips just a little too low against Ronnie’s bare neck and bites in, drawing a single drop of red that rolls down her throat and seems into the collar of her blouse and in the stark cold, Carl can smell it, thick and coppery, and it was always going to end this way anyway so fuck it all. These morons don’t deserve better and he suddenly feels stupid for ever thinking otherwise.
Carl kicks the cage door off its hinges and when the Wolf takes over, it’s like he’s sliding into a favorite set of clothes he hasn’t worn for months or more. A monster wearing a man suit. Maybe he was always this.
He gets the Blooms out of the way first. Ronnie hits a snowbank on her hands and knees and cries out but crawls away, so it can’t be that bad. Free of the jackal’s grasp, Dr Bloom stumbles back but stays upright, watching the melee wideeyed and frozen. The part of Carl that’s still Carl is so sorry they have to see this happen.
He starts with the one on the right. Chops him once in the face, right across the nose, then takes his knife away and buries it to the hilt behind his kneecap and twists. There’s a wet popping and he drops shrieking.
Carl wheels around and there’s a sound like lightning striking the earth and he feels like someone punched him real good in the shoulder. When he looks, he finds he’s leaking red, and the middle jackal holding the pistol, a snake tongue of smoke floating out from the muzzle. Fucker grew some balls. Not that it matters now. Carl pulls the gun out of his hands and smashes him in the mouth with it. Hears teeth breaking. Throws him down into the snow and stomps on one of his ankles until it’s little more than a wet bag of rocks. Then he does the same to the other ankle, just because he likes the sound it makes. Leaves him there mewling into the slush, turns toward the third idiot.
His knife’s still spotted with blood from where he cut Ronnie, and it’s shaking in his hand now something terrible. Carl takes it away and casts it off to the side, into a snowbank, and standing there, the guy just pisses himself, a dark ammoniacal stain spreading across his crotch and down his pant legs. Maybe he thinks Carl’s going to take pity on him for that, like he can just walk away from this, carried in the arms of shame.
Doesn’t work like that. Not anymore.
Carl gets one enormous hand around the bastard’s throat, balls the other one up into a fist and drives it into his breadbasket. Does it over and over until he feels something rupture inside the jackal, a hard and abrupt snap like overworked rubber. Then he lets him drop.
Heat spreading in his shoulder, pulsing outward from his new hole, making him feel feverish, drowsy. Pressure drop. But he has a few minutes yet.
He scoops the gun up from where it fell and kneels over the middle jackal, still trying to drag himself away despite his pulped ankles. Carl rolls him over and kneels on his arms, holding him in place. Animal fear in the eyes behind the hood. Child fear. He’ll make a fine meal.
“Priss…” the jackal moans. “Priss… nuh…”
Please, please no.
“Shoulda listened,” the Wolf vomits through Carl’s mouth.
He doesn’t pull the sheet up to look at his face, find out which one he is, because it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same anyway. He just stuffs the gun up under the sheet, shoves the barrel into the swamp of blood and shattered bone that used to be the jackal’s mouth and pulls the trigger. The gun makes a pop and an explosion of yellow light goes off behind those scared eyes, then there’s a hot burbling as the sheet fills with red and everything turns quiet again. Carl doesn’t feel anything about it.
The Wolf withdraws into its cage, pulls the broken door to lean against the opening, then disappears once more into the dark. Sirens, soon. Carl can hear Dr Bloom on the verge of tears again, trying desperately to make sense of what he just saw. Carl just sits down in the icy slush, feeling cored to empty. He stays like that until Ronnie’s thin, cold hands grace his broad shoulders, as motherly as anything Carl’s ever felt, and she says to him
“Come on. Let’s get you patched up.”
He goes inside with her, and a little while later, Dr Bloom follows, trying and failing to swallow back his sobs.
When the bulls do finally come for him, the come rough, with guns out and little sympathy afforded. He’s actually a bit surprised he makes it to the jailhouse alive. They clap him in a cell and throw the lock and leave him there for a week and a half with just bread and water and when one of the stone-faced screws finally deigns to speak to him, it’s only to say that there’s going to be a trial so he’ll need a lawyer. That’s fine.
They keep him in the box for weeks, when they’re not parading him in front of the court and the judge and jury. Everyone there thinks they know how it’s going to go, all expecting to see Carl kicking at the end of a rope out in front of the courthouse by the time spring rolls around.
Except then, something changes.
And they find him innocent.
But that’s not the most important part.
Back at home, Carl’s bed is so much better than that fucking jailhouse slab that he thinks he might cry. Turns out there’s some life yet left in his life, and he cocoons himself in the blankets and hides his face and the sad, thankful sounds he makes echo throughout the house but the Blooms have the decency to pretend they don’t hear a thing. He eats his homecooked meals, has his civilized conversations, says please and thank you, gets back to class as soon as he’s able. Back to work, just like the old man said. He has to fight for it, but the fight is worth it.
Except there’s no denying that something—maybe a lot of things—have changed. It’s hard to put a name to it, but it’s there in the corners of the Blooms’ eyes when they don’t think he’s looking, it’s in how people make way on campus when he passes by.
They all see the all of him, now, or worse, just think that they do. They heard about it from someone or other, some warped newspaper version of what happened that night in the snow. He feels it from everyone, they treat him like a wolf got loose in the house during dinner. A couple of years ago, he would have enjoyed their fear, sponged it up, forged it into a weapon. But now all it does is make him feel sad. Sad, and alone.
It’s the way that the Blooms do it that hurts the most, though. The way they’re guarded all the time, now, even when they’re going out of their way to be kind. He’s never sure if they’re doing it because they mean it or because they’re afraid of him. That he might lash out, rip them to bloody shreds like he did the others. He’s made hostages of them. The distance is an ocean, impossible to cross on his own. Bitter cold and deep and dark and filled with creatures better left unseen. It’s there the day he comes home from the trial, and years later it’s still there, even as he graduates with honors. Even though he never again lets the Wolf out of the cage. Seeing it just the once was enough for Ronnie, twice too many for Dr Bloom. That unease, distrust, whatever, it stays in their eyes until the day he leaves them. Carl never again sees them completely unguarded, and that just about crushes his whole heart. But he never lets them see, because they’ve seen too much of him already, so he plays dumb and deaf and blind, and if the Blooms notice the lie, they hardly let on, they just pretend back and it’s better than the truth because the truth might just kill them all.
They barely say goodbye the day he leaves for good. They just nod in his direction and keep a safe distance away so he won’t touch either of them and they let him go and then it’s all over. He’s gone. He isn’t there to see how much his absence breaks them, doesn’t hear Ronnie crying at night, isn’t privy to the broken, stuttering resignation Dr Bloom tenders some months later. He never understands that the empty space he leaves behind does as much harm as anything else he’s done to people.
The sun is shining bright the morning he goes. He packs up his things, two suitcases’ worth, makes up the Blooms’ spare bed (because it’s not yours anymore, he has to remind himself), double checks that he’s got all that he needs. Seems like.
He turns, and he walks out the door, and he doesn’t look back even though he wants more than anything in the world to do just that. He just walks away, because he thinks he needs that, he thinks they do, too.
The only thing he leaves behind is a faded scrap of paper, worn soft from being folded too many times. He can barely make out the illustration that was there originally, the ink faded and eroded by sweat and time. He uncreases and flattens the page out the best he can and leaves it on top of the pillow. Maybe they’ll understand what he’s trying to say with it, maybe they’ll just throw it in the fireplace. He doesn’t think they’d be wrong if they wanted to.
They watch him go, bundled up in each other, and when he disappears for the last time around that corner he’s turned for years, the world goes a little gray, a little empty. He makes his way to the train station with his luggage and chooses a train heading south, down Florida way. This time he buys a ticket instead of hopping a boxcar and he’s shocked at how unnatural that still feels.
He never sees them again.
In the years to come, he doesn’t marry, nor fathers any children. His only constant companion, for the rest of his life, is the Wolf, muttering to him from the shadows, begging to be released for one more bloody day in the sun. It’s there when he wakes up, and just as loud when he goes to sleep, all eyes and teeth and suicide hunger. A bottomless pit, an inexhaustible resource. The only thing he was ever a natural at.
He’d be a liar if he ever said he wasn’t tempted to go back. It would be so easy to regress, even just the tiniest bit. Because Carl, not the Wolf, but Carl, misses the mayhem and the hell. He understands now that he always will.
But he’s better than that, now.
He tells himself that over and over because he has to believe it.
The train clatters on and on and on and the frozen edges of the north melt and give way to a kind of humid lushness Carl’s never felt before, the southern states welcoming him with open, loving arms. It’s as if he can feel the layers of ice and blood-speckled frost sloughing off all his limbs in sheets, melting on the ground beneath him, and he breathes deep, as if that was enough to begin his new life. Deep in the soft boil and the kudzu, he tries to imagine himself as a different person. A better person. Someone new, without scars or memories, or some hideous, jabbering fucking monster locked up behind his eyes. That’s all he wants, anymore. Just to be a person again.
Wanting it this bad has to be enough.
Please, let that be enough.
One Reply to “Yard Dog – by Matthew Lyons”
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