The giant man was quickly pulled off me by a swarm of robed Betas, pouring through the doorway, a tangled mass of fists and feet, screaming “fuck you!”
“Ram Jam – show ‘em how you got your name!” Hank shouted at me; I squared my shoulders and rushed at the leader, who had gotten back on his feet. I threw a right cross over his incoming fist, a left hook into his liver, and thrust hard head butt in the middle of his hood, my signature “ram jam.” I heard his skull crack, and he went down.
I settled onto the leader’s chest as he landed, pinning his arms with my knees and smashing his face over and over. I crushed his tall purple hood. The gang of torchbearers in the courtyard quickly dispersed with the onslaught of Betas. Some of the guys had grabbed baseball bats, and were smashing at the Penitents, laughing and snorting.
We were a house that liked to fight, and we were good at it. We had a lot of lacrosse, hockey, and rugby players with us. They loved wading into the middle of a crowd and starting shit. I spent a lot of time as fraternity president just bailing guys out and talking the dean out of expulsion.
I’d done some boxing in high school, and I fight dirty as fuck. You get thrown out of enough bars, and you figure out how to win no matter what. Groins, teeth, eyes . . . people got really scared when you went for the face. The face is the center of our personality. Protecting it is powerful; people don’t want to be maimed or crippled for life, and they see getting a facial scar as a sign of that.
The fight didn’t sound right, though. More screams than grunts, and the Penitents were still on their feet. Toby, one of the Seniors, came stumbling back in my direction. “Bro, you OK?” I asked. He looked dazed. A trickle of blood dropped from his lips, then he fell forward. A huge Bowie knife was stuck between his shoulder blades. “Fuck!” I screamed.
Glass shattered, and a Penitent fell with a beer bottle in his back. Two of them tried to pull me off the leader, and some of the Betas pushed them into the bushes. Where the fuck were the cops? I spent so much time trying to get rid of them, now I needed them.
I heard wet coughs around me and saw Betas falling. I ripped the hood off the leader’s head. Staring back at me was the angry face of a horrible looking man. His eyes were narrow slits of hate, his beard was a wreck, and he had an awful looking scar on his forehead. It was a hexagram carved roughly, still oozing and bubbling. My mouth dropped open, and he threw me off him. “Penitents!” He cried out, standing, as the fighters dispersed. “Wail for these dedicated to destruction! Sing the death of the gods! Give them a taste of what’s coming.”
The Penitents began to sing the worst fucking song I’d ever heard. The sound carried throughout the standing Betas, and I felt a crushing weight on my shoulders. Every depressing thought, every hangover, every guilt and shame I’d ever had came to me. I felt like someone puked on my soul. I remembered my mom passed out on the couch, half naked, with a boyfriend cutting drugs on a coffee table. I remembered my Dad raging, spitting on me. I saw myself with a pill bottle and a pint of whiskey. Dimly, I heard sirens.
My feet stood me up and shuffled forward. I moved into single file and dropped to my knees, one white robed beta facing a line of purple robed Penitents, singing and howling together. Most had lost their hoods. They all looked rough, like homeless people. There were women mixed in with the men. Their faces were Indian, black, white, and Asian. They definitely were not the Klan.
The leader stood between two Penitents. One had a fireplace poker in his hand, glowing red and smoking in the evening darkness. Two others carried huge scimitars. It sounded like they were chanting and buzzing, “mark, mark, get the mark on your head or we put it on the ground, mark, mark.” There were whimpers, screams, gurgles. There was a sizzling smell like bacon, and I felt like I was choking. The sounds of wet slicing and hacking gave way to terrible thumps, then silence. The silence were the worst.
I could move enough that I could see Hank next to me. He was defiant at first, sneering and snarling. I cheered him silently, but then crumpled as I watched him bow his proud head. They pushed the hexagram brand into his forehead. He writhed and screeched as he fell to the ground.
Finally my turn came. The wretched face of the leader stared at me. “Robert Beezle, called Ram, who we know as Xarque Ozyeus.” That fucking name, I hadn’t heard it in five years. Goddamn bastards. They did know my fucking Dad. “We give you the mark, a gift. It is their bondage, but your crown. Take it, and ascend to the throne as our king. We will incarnate the kingdom of the drowned god and burn up humanity as an oblation to his unholy name. If you refuse, we will burn you alive in the fires. You will be sent through the flames to honor his ugliness and horror. You will redeem us in his eyes, that we can serve him forever in Tartarus.”
Black fingers of dread and evil clutched at my torn and broken heart, encased in inky nausea. I felt as low as I’d ever been. I wanted to sleep, I wanted to die. I wanted never to have been born, I wanted to erase myself from existence. I wished my suicides has gone through, I wanted the pain to cease, I wanted the noise to end. I wanted to lie down and take the kicks. I wanted the brand.
From my deepest places, something rose. Something strong and angry and alive, who resented being awakened, but who wasn’t about to bow to these ragged fuckers. This dark fire rose in me, despite the black sadness of their dirge. I twisted my head and smiled wide. “You guys know my Dad? Give him a message for me. ‘Fuck you, motherfucker.’ And while you’re at it, every single one of you motherfuckers can go fuck yourselves and fuck each other and whatever the fuck else you want to do, because I’m not doing shit with you. You better kill me now, you piece of fucking shit, because if I ever get the chance, I’m going to put a knife through every single one of your fucking chickenshit lizard dick hearts and piss in your fucking mouths!”
My shit-talking got through the leader’s surly resolve, and he screamed in rage, words unformed, like a yelping seal. He clamped a giant fist around my throat and lifted me from my knees up into the air. He shook me like a rag doll as he crushed my throat. My vision went black.
Things were peaceful. Gradually I became aware of beeping, slow, quiet. My eyes opened, blurry. I couldn’t move my head. My hands were tied. There was something in my mouth; it reminded me of horses. My head felt like cotton. I still smelled the burning flesh and remembered the screams. I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
Over the next few days, I became more and more awake. I was in a hospital, intubated and sedated. I was wearing a cervical collar because of the trauma to my neck and throat. My hands were restrained because I kept trying to pull the tube out of my throat. Whenever the medicine started to wear off, I hurt like fuck, worse than anything I ever knew. Where were the Betas? Where were my friends?
Eventually they extubated me. They let Birdie come see me, but she burst into tears as soon as she saw me. She showed me a mirror. My face was all puffy with the fluids, and one of my eyes was swollen shut. I had a huge cut in one cheek that had been stitched. Worst, I couldn’t speak. Whenever I tried, it hurt like hell, and I only accomplished a high pitched squeak. I wrote some questions out for Birdie, and she told me a little about what had happened.
The police had shot the Penitent leaders seven or eight times while he was choking me. He let me go and fell. The Penitents were arrested. Six Betas were dead. Three had died in the fight, and three had been beheaded.
Birdie pointed to the door. “There’s a cop out there checking all your visitors. They’re watching you really closely because they expect for them to come after you again.”
I wrote her, “did the leader survive?”
She looked away, and her voice broke as she spoke. “Yeah, they kept him alive. Then he disappeared. Right out of a protected ward. The other Penitents never made it to the police station. The whole police transport van disappeared. The cops who were driving it are gone too.”
I heard my heartrate monitor start to beep faster. Fuck. Fuck. I wrote, “what about Hank? What happened to the guys who got marked?”
She looked me in the eye. “They’re gone too. Hank and the other five. Six guys who took the mark were screaming and belligerent when the police came. They got sedated, put into ambulances, and then the ambulances disappeared. Nobody has any answers. They never made it to the hospital. We don’t know if they’re dead or …”
The nurse came in the room and told Birdie she had to leave; my heartrate and blood pressure were off the charts. I was shaking. They gave me blood pressure medicine and sedatives, and I slept. Everything was so fucked. I made numbers in my head. Six dead. Six gone. One left, me.