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The Crusties

Wülf woke to a shoe pulverizing his face, another dive-bombing the top of his head, and still other shoes in his neck and his chest and his groin and his legs—a swarm of shoes attached to feet attached to the Crusties, who loomed above Wülf, their unfinished mugs peering down in the firelight of Wülf’s all-time spacious, impregnable squat, the best one Wülf had ever had, which he knew, even now, he would not give up easy.

Wülf observed with a suffering and curious distance that the shoes the Crusties kicked him with were something like off-brand, department store Vans. Or prison slip-ons, dull and black. The Crusties weren’t big but their legs had some force. He felt his nose bust then a tickling warmth as blood collected in his sternum.

“What fuck you little fucks I said get the fuck off me THEFUCKISYOURPROBLEM!” Wülf intended to say in a threatening way. But he just sounded drunk.

Where was No Face Chase right now? No Face Chase was a mutt who hung back in the shadows, apparently afraid to help him. One of the Crusties stomped Wülf’s stomach and then it was this chain reaction, the other ones—maybe five or six—clearing out around Wülf in a loose semicircle. Now No Face Chase did loose a growl. Wülf could see him way off on the living room’s margins, lurching forward, coiling back.

So weird yet so cute with his squat, tidy body the color and shape of an old, balled-up sock! A pit mixed with a Labrador mixed with maybe a collie. Whoever had owned him before Wülf had found him, nosing some tangleweeds down by the river, had thrown this acid on his face. More directly this patch on the top of his head, which had burned down all gnar-gnar, exposing the skull surrounded by ragged scraps of fur that were constantly in danger of getting infected—so really he should’ve been called No Scalp Chase, but No Face Chase sounded better. And it finally just made him love No Face Chase more. He was different than any other dog. Every week Wülf dropped easily thirty-five bucks on antibiotics and gel disinfectant so the dog’s exposed skull didn’t get too fucked up.

The Crusties kept their semicircle while the one with its foot in Wülf’s gut just kept hovering. It seemed to Wülf administrative. Its shoe pressed on Wülf’s stomach every so often and it seemed to be waiting for Wülf to give in. It looked just like the other Crusties, with their pale and expressionless undercooked faces like raw pastry dough molded over a shell—their noses just nostrils, no eyebrows to speak of, too much space between their eyeballs and the corners of their eyes. They were also child-sized, like raw-faced, nasty orphans.

This one was communicating: it was pointing Wülf out of his very own squat.

But these Crusties? Hell no, they were not going to get it, Wülf’s all-time, impregnable squat—a boarded-up rotting Victorian house where Wülf had the run of three whole floors and all the copper he could salvage. Plus a fucking fireplace, which was more like a hearth, where Wülf had badass raging fires.

Wülf spit copious blood. Wobbled onto his feet. The room uncoupled, smeared and swaying. Who the fuck was Wülf kidding? He limped out the door.

The Crusties watched him walk away with these glassy and deadened expressions of wonder. Like garden gnomes. Or shabby druids.

“No Face,” Wülf yelled. No Face Chase whimpered. “NO FACE, COME HERE!” But No Face didn’t.

He loped from the shadows and went to The Crusties —sniffing, whining, nuzzling in. Some of them petted him, listless and feeble, but most were just focused on Wülf getting lost.

Wülf had first started seeing The Crusties last month, which marked half a year since he’d come to this city.

He generally just saw them at night, though surely they came out in the daytime. They weren’t actual vampires, after all. Just some fugly-ass clones in off-brand canvas shoes and these weird patchwork getups that looked like pajamas, which might’ve applied to any crust punk squatting in the city limits, except The Crusties wore no merch.

No Magrudergrind butt-flaps or Grief battle-jackets. No Assück skirt-shirts with the sleeves scissored down. Just generic-ass shirts and generic-ass pants were it not for the fact that the clothes were homemade, lovingly and neatly stitched.

The Crusties were different from regular crust punks. Crust punks were often just kids from bad homes. They busked and panhandled in order to drink or occasionally eat a Subway footlong or get through the door at a death metal show where they tore through the pit trailing waves of Patchouli and the dollar-store weaponry sewn to their clothes. They’d come here by bus and they’d come here by thumb. Their existences were their own dominion. Whereas The Crusties just showed up in their druid PJs and began causing havoc.

Rumor was they all had the same meth-addict mama.

Rumor was they never spoke.

Wülf could corroborate not a word of it. He tried to never get that close. Sometimes it felt like they had always been there, even if he’d only just decided to see them. Along the industrial corridor, maybe, trucks thundering past as they walked in a line. Maybe perched on the steps that led down to the river. And even when Wülf didn’t see them, he still sensed them watching—huddled off in some drainpipe, their ragged eyes flapping, or perched up in the trees like opossums. The little clone psychos! So deeply unchill.

If Wülf hadn’t hated them when he’d first seen them, he sure as shit hated them now.

“Go see the Crust Lord, man. He’ll get you sorted.”

Wade smoked a Swisher Sweet, sloshed a big beer.

He was letting Wülf crash in his squat for the night, just your standard rowhouse with its tenants evicted. Wade’s place had the bedrolls and coffee can fires. Even had the nice salt buckets set up for pooping and a seemingly endless supply of proof beer.

“Nobody just goes to the Crust Lord,” said Wülf.

The Crusties were different from regular crust punks. Crust punks were just kids. The Crusties only came out at night. Rumor was they had the same mama. Rumor was they never spoke.

“What, you need to be summoned? You need an appointment?” Wade blew grape-scented smoke at the ceiling. “Shit, Wülf.”

They were set up in one of the house’s far rooms where in autumn it stayed a little warmer; it had probably used to be a den where some family, now homeless, watched Friday night movies, pizza on the coffee table. But now it was just Wade and Wülf in their bedrolls, leaning on adjacent walls.

“At the end of the day,” Wade said, “dude’s just a crusty. Showers in the water fountain and duct tapes his shoes on one leg at a time. Man, Raw Balls the Sequel, you got some ideas.” The nickname wasn’t one Wülf relished—it honestly kind of embarrassed him. He meant to give a look to Wade, but Wade was peering hard at Wülf. “Man,” Wade marveled, “looking rough. They really did a number on you.”

Wülf held his beer can to the bridge of his nose, which he was pretty sure was broken. Plus, something fucked up in his side, with his ribs. While Wülf had been pissing before in the alley he’d committed the error of lifting his shirt and the bruising there was continental, a puffy patched vista of yellow and purple.

“Where’s No Face Chase?” asked Wade.

“They got him.”

“Them Crusties took him?”

“He ain’t here.” Wülf remembered his own dog not coming to help him while he’d gotten the daylights kicked out of his head. “They got him kidnapped off somewhere.”

Wade ruefully whistled through gaps in his teeth. “Man, Raw Balls the Sequel, that’s tragic and harsh.”

The event that preceded the hated nickname had happened just weeks after Wülf came to town. He’d been fresh-off-the-bus with no more to his life than an old sleeping bag, a QP of dirt-weed, a jammer boombox, and a bag of CDs that Wülf had picked up at the Goodwill (the boombox and CDs) as a treat to himself, someone’s weird misconceived former music collection—shit like Cannibal Corpse mixed with shit like Rod Stewart. Wülf hadn’t had a busking scheme. He hadn’t even had a squat. But the weed and the jammer and weird CDs had helped him make a few friends, including Wade, an older drunk who’d been kind enough to let Wülf share his block. Wülf found the three-story Victorian house fresh off of its last occupant, who had died there, a junky that Wade and the others called Waffles, whose blackened, damp mattress was still in the living room and still had the stink of a live human being. Wülf pushed it, flinching, to the curb. Everything was going decent, and then came the night of the Grave Smegma show.

That night, Wülf had just enough cash for the door. Pounded tallboys with Wade, then some bowls with L.T. Then some more beers with Charla and Crabstack and Kelby. By the time that Grave Smegma was set to go on, this pornogrind outfit from somewhere upstate, sure, Wülf was feeling pretty gauzy. Plus, Grave Smegma fucking ripped! Their sound was like diving into a woodchipper.

Wülf was raving through the pit when a curious feeling began in his groin. The sensation was tingling, like pain without heat, clawing its way up to his stomach, and when he looked down at his jeans they were soaking, their fabric ripped along the butt-seam. Wülf assumed he had just pissed himself from the beer. He minced away to find a bathroom. In the stall, he unzipped and his hand slammed the wall to keep himself from passing out when he saw, in the mess of his flopped open jeans, a pearlescent, blue nub in a web of pink blood that he realized was actually one of his nuts poking out through a tear in the base of his scrotum. Wülf must’ve caught someone’s key chain when he was flying through the pit, but that night in the stall there was only his hand raised in front of his face with that sticky blood on it, the horrific, blue mystery of what lived inside him.

Wade had found him—ah, Wade!—and, along with Crabstack, had gotten him to the urgent care. There they dosed him with painkillers, stitched up his sack, slapped a jockstrap with bandages over his loins, and released him still beer-tipsy into the dawn. Seemed only fitting to wander the river. It was then that Wülf saw No Face Chase, tearing viciously into a wet Arby’s sack. The sunlight glinted off his skull in a way that, improbably, looked like hope.

When Wülf first recounted the story to Wade, Wade had said, “Yo, want to know something nuts? You’re not even the first guy who’s told me that story! We called him Raw Balls. So we’ll call you that too.”

Wülf never knew whether to punch Wade or hug him. But it wasn’t Wade’s fault. Wülf had never told Wade of the intimate terror, the profound loneliness of the three-by-five stall with the death metal shaking the laminate panels. To Wade, it was just a gnarly story that had happened, somehow, to not one guy but two. Wülf had to laugh himself—sometimes.

“So how’s the Crust Lord going to help?”

“He rules the turf, he makes the rules. That’s why they call him the Crust Lord,” said Wade. “Someone’s got it in him to reign in them Crusties, trust me, man, that someone’s him.”

“But what do I call him?”

“Uh—what do you mean?”

“When I go in to see him,” said Wülf. “What’s his name?” 

Wade shook his head. “Raw Balls, you’re funny.” He grinned at Wülf. “You crack me up.”

He stayed in the old naval complex, Wade said, along the canal lock, right there on the river, which had been so tore up by the powerful storms that had passed through the city throughout the past decade that its sky bridge-connected four stories sat empty, its sub-levels crumbling and partially flooded, its car lot packed with creeper vines and tall grasses and local wildlife. Every square foot of the front was graffitied—ALL AMERICAN ENEMA, FUCK LIFE CHOOSE DEATH. All of the street-facing windows were broken. Wülf hopped the fence, parted the weeds and started to go up the echoing stairwell.

There were creatures here too. Possums, rats. Armadillos! Wülf could hear their sharp feet scrabbling on the stone. Wade hadn’t been sure what floor Wülf should climb to, though he’d been relatively certain it wasn’t the first one: “When you get to the floor that he lives on, you’ll know.” Predictably, maybe, that floor was the top. Wülf knew from the overgrowth cleared from the door, the goblin glow of trash can fires.

Wülf hadn’t come here empty-handed. You needed an offering, some kind of tribute. So on his way there Wülf had picked up a forty, plus the least scratched to shit of the Goodwill CDs—Butchered at Birth by Cannibal Corpse and Need to Control by Brutal Truth—and he carried it all in a grocery store tote that swung at his side as he came through the door.

There were two Crusties guarding the other side of it. They approached at his entrance, but then ranged away, as though someone had told them that Wülf would be coming. It was all Wülf could do not to lay right into them, swinging and screaming about No Face Chase, but somehow he controlled himself and The Crusties fell back in the shadows.

The trash fires seemed strategically spaced through the room, which was more than a thousand feet square at a glance. Formerly some reception room: busted circular desk, mold-encased watercooler. Crap coils on the concrete, some human, some dog. The typical desperate junky slew of needles and tinfoil and blackened, cracked lightbulbs. There were more Crusties guarding the rest of the room. Every trash fire Wülf passed a new pair mustered out, approaching Wülf as though to sniff him.

His gait grew more confident crossing the room before he heard a wet, clicking, burbling scatting that came from the back of the room, lost in shadow. It sounded like a busted wet vac backfiring its contents into a steel drum.

He stopped midway across the room, his tributes hanging on his arm.

The Crust Lord was waiting for Wülf in the shadows.

Wülf had never told Wade of the intimate terror, the profound loneliness of the three-by-five stall with the death metal shaking the laminate panels.

He was flanked by four Crusties, two in front and two behind, their features as lifeless as Halloween pumpkins. The way that the Crust Lord sat and waited seemed to Wülf distinctly odd; from Wülf’s perspective, walking toward him, he looked to be gliding toward Wülf, gliding back, as though he were balanced on some kind of spindle. Plus, man oh man, this dude was huge! Seated, he looked at least five feet, and was wearing what looked like a rough, leather cowl with the pointy-tipped hood part obscuring his features. The back of the cowl draped the place where he sat, which Wülf could now see was a large wooden palette on castors for moving large pieces of freight, something dredged from the boatyards that bordered the river, and the Crust Lord was using his towering stature to scoot the palette back and forth with a long, hollow sound on the room’s concrete floor. “I’m Wülf,” called out Wülf. “They said you was a Crust Lord. Said you could solve my problems for me.”

“Who said?”

“Wade said.”

“D-d-don’t know Waaaade.” The Crust Lord said Wade with a low moaning drawl, as though he were trick-or-treating with it. “Please to meet you, k-k-kiddo. Had a feeling you’d c-c-come here. They t-t-told me you might.”

Before Wülf could ask who had said he was coming—the Crusties themselves or goddamned Wade—Wülf realized the wet clicking, burbling scatting was actually the Crust Lord’s voice. Burbling and wet because something dripped in it, as though he had phlegm at the back of his throat, and clicking because of the consonant sounds, which the Crust Lord appeared to have trouble pronouncing. It was a multidimensional voice, Wülf thought—a voice unto itself, a voice crawling with bugs. “What you g-g-got in the bag, k-k-kiddo?” asked the Crust Lord.

Wülf advanced a few feet closer. “Little something,” said Wülf. “Little kickback, you know. For taking the time to hear me out.” He set the tote bag in the floor with the forty inside it upright and stepped back.

The Crust Lord stayed there for a moment, watching Wülf from the blackened abyss of his cowl, and then he was suddenly shuttling toward him, pushing forward on his hands. The Crust Lord reached the grocery tote and, hunched over the top, he began to root through it.

It was more than just that he was tall; there was something in back of him, some kind of humpback that rose slightly above his shoulders, forming a sort of flesh mantle behind him—something the cowl had been tailored to cover. He took out the CDs one after another. Grunted, tossed them on the floor; the jewel case for Cannibal Corpse broke in half. The forty he captured beneath his cowl’s folds before shuttling back toward the shadows again yet not before Wülf could catch sight of his face: he was wearing a Little Rascals mask for the boy character with the cowlick, Alfalfa. Wülf could see by the firelight the mask was cheap plastic, an imitation-porcelain white secured to the head by a band of elastic—and though Wülf tried to see the eyes that looked out from Alfalfa’s eye-holes, there were only two depthless and almond-shaped voids.

Now the Crust Lord was back on his weird rolling throne. “Thanks, k-k-kiddo. Sure d-d-do love a snort.” He cracked open the forty and started to chug it through the quarter-sized hole in the Alfalfa mask and only as Wülf watched him drink did he finally notice No Face Chase, lying low in the shadows next to the Crust Lord with his sweet, ravaged head cradled onto his forelegs.

He seemed to be peering at Wülf through one eye, the other hidden in his paws.

Wülf’s heart slammed inside his chest. The Crusties had taken No Face Chase, and here the dog was in the Crust Lord’s possession. “No Face Chase, baby boy, my sweet baby,” crooned Wülf. He dropped to his haunches. “You doing okay? They treating you okay in here?”

The Crust Lord hurled the forty bottle, and it shattered somewhere in the darkness. When the burp finally came it engulfed Wülf in foulness—rotting shrimp tails mixed with burned Tupperware.

“I feel like you got some explaining to do.”

D-d-didn’t t-t-take your dog, k-k-kiddo. C-c-crusties brought him here.” The Crust Lord pet No Face Chase on the part of his head burned away by the acid. Wülf was seized with anxiety; he hoped the Crust Lord’s hands were clean. Later, when Wülf left this place with his dog—and he was going to do it too—he’d have to apply some antiseptic while No Face Chase whined with his head in Wülf’s hands. “T-t-took him in. B-b-been c-c-caring for him. How’s about a lit-t-tle thanks.”

“Wade sent me to see you because you could help me. Get them Crusties in line. Get my squat back. My dog. But here you got him all along.”

Clearly bored by Wülf’s appeals, the Crust Lord was focused on something in his lap. His hands flitted dexterously, crossing and clashing. The dog rested down on his forelegs again. Was No Face Chase dazzled by some sort of spell? “C-c-crusties rule themselves, k-k-kiddo. C-c-can’t control them all the t-t-time.”

That’s when Wülf recognized what the Crust Lord was doing: he was sewing a pair of those patchwork pajamas the Crusties wore to go campaigning, this urban-knight chainmail of leather and denim—though Wülf knew from experience that leather was a bitch to sew. Then abruptly he stopped as his whole body twitched, his humpback shuddering like hackles. Still gripping the sewing needle, one of his hands traveled up to his head and he worked the big needle beneath the cowl’s hood, scraping it around in there. A powdery, white substance fell on his shoulders.

“Think of the C-c-crusties as sort of like op-p-possums,” the Crust Lord told him sewing, scratching. “T-t-tough like op-p-possums, hard to k-k-kill. G-g-good climbers. G-g-good scavengers—eat what they f-f-find. Adaptable t-t-too. To the city, I m-m-mean. Which isn’t where the C-c-crusties c-c-come from.”

“So where do they come from?” said Wülf.

“Somewhere else.” 

“Where’s somewhere else?”

“A p-p-place b-b-beyond.”

Man, watching that needle had Wülf straight up tripping! Punch in, then figure-eight, then out—in, then figure-eight, then out. Wülf felt like he’d eaten some bad dumpster pizza, a mold vision-quest seeping into his brain.

Op-p-possums also p-p-plenty smart. B-b-beneficial to humans. There’s studies on that. Eat up t-t-trash in the street that the humans d-d-don’t want. Help m-m-maintain the n-n-natural order. I was a op-p-possum—if I was a op-p-possum—I’d set up here and n-n-never leave.”

“Gonna ask you to give me my dog back,” Wülf managed before he was struck with a terrible thought: No Face Chase didn’t come not because he was dazzled.

He no longer belonged to Wülf.

“Like I said,” said the Crust Lord, with zero impatience, “d-d-don’t c-c-control the d-d-dog one bit—n-n-no more than I c-c-control the C-c-crusties. M-m-might have a way to c-c-coax him, though.”

Wülf was furiously blinking his eyes. “Okay.” He felt like, any moment, he was going to pass out. The Crust Lord scratched his head again and more of the white stuff fell onto his shoulders. Then, putting down the sewing project, he rooted around in the folds of his cowl. Wülf was seriously considering gathering his dog and charging headfirst through the door when he heard Crustie footsteps patrolling behind him, this nasty scraping pitter patter. From this far away their half-formed facial features were more disconcerting than they’d been up close, and they stopped their patrol in a martial formation (there were maybe twelve of them) to show egress was pointless. “Sort your shit out, this right here. M-m-make you p-p-powerful. Strong—like the C-c-crusties are strong.”

The Crust Lord scooted back a little, revealing two parallel lines of white powder.

“Hey, what is that, coke?” said Wülf. “Ice?” said Wülf. “Horse? If it’s fentanyl—hey.”

N-n-none of that,” said the Crust Lord. “My own special stuff.”

Wülf wasn’t averse to bad decisions if it meant saving No Face Chase. “If I don’t walk out of here,” Wülf told the Crust Lord, “just promise you won’t do bad shit to my dog.”

D-d-don’t w-w-worry, you’ll b-b-e fine. G-g-good things only happen if you p-p-put it in you. Maybe your d-d-dog here will even g-g-go with you.”

“You talking some crazy shit, Crust Lord,” said Wülf.

T-t-take it or d-d-don’t,” said the Crust Lord. “You’ll see.” A pause in which the Crust Lord watched him through the false innocence of the Alfalfa mask. “M-m-makes you f-f-feel b-b-better I’ll g-g-go, t-t-too.”

“Ah, fuck it,” said Wülf and approached the wood palette.

Wülf cleared the line in a single long snort.

The Crust Lord was waiting for Wülf in the shadows.

Something flamed in his sinuses, singeing his brain. His view of the room crinkled into black ash, only to be replaced by pixels that gradually sharpened to show somewhere else. Wülf—or the eyes Wülf was seeing through now, because Wülf felt decidedly outside his body—was under the bright fluorescent lights of a grab-n’-go store somewhere in the city, facing down the center aisle with candy on one side and chips on the other. Suddenly Crusties were flooding around him, bashing end-cap displays, knocking goods off the shelves, the proprietor rushing out screaming among them with a baseball bat above his head. The Crusties were on him like cats on a tree—Wülf was on him, tearing, smothering, the proprietor’s terrified, bloodshot eyes vanishing one by one underneath piling bodies when that scene, too, crinkled to ash.

Then Wülf was standing in some sort of campground. It was dark but for trash fires that burned among pop tents and malformed, freestanding collections of junk, a hobo encampment somewhere in the city where the dispossessed hunkered, avoiding the cops, and here were the Crusties again, charging in, overrunning the camp in a tide of clone bodies—overturning the pop tents and smashing the junk hoards and leaping upon the groggy humans, and Wülf was leaping on them too, he was tearing their paper-thin flesh with his hands.

And then Wülf was out on the banks of the river just outside the naval complex: some guy shielding his face as the Crusties poured on him, knocking him down before trouncing his head, and Wülf couldn’t hold back from joining the fray even after he realized the poor guy was Wade. But that scene, too, crinkled to ash.

Wülf was back once again in the Crust Lord’s throne-room, yet now at a strange, unfamiliar angle. He was watching himself, real-time Wülf, from behind, the Crust Lord looming just beyond him. And just when Wülf felt like he might understand where The Crusties had come from (somewhere else) and what they wanted (total bedlam), he was back in his own body, facing the Crust Lord.

But the Crust Lord looked different. The Crust Lord was changing.

“Always loooooove a lit-t-tle snort!” He reared back from the powder stuff with the Alfalfa mask gone askew on his face—though it wasn’t, Wülf saw, a face at all. It was rather instead a whorled expanse with blotchy Rorschach shapes for eyes that the plastic white mask had obscured only partly, the rest of it hidden beneath the thick cowl, but the hood was pushed back and the Crust Lord was splitting. Not into two halves, but like a banana, four channels of the Crust Lord’s head peeling back in a sputtering cloud of white powder and draping his figure like limp party streamers. Meanwhile, the humpback, whatever it was, had started to go through some kind of contraction, the hump flattening and then rising again in an effortful, stomach-clenching spasm, like a python throwing up its dinner. The hump seemed to be migrating up from the shoulders and pushing its way through the weird orifice that had recently formed at the top of the head. 

The enormous cowled body vibrated with frenzy, and the wet, clicking, burbling scat sound was deafening. Yes, something was pushing from out of the hole.

It looked dry in the firelight, but coated with white stuff—the same stuff that flaked from beneath the cowl’s hood and the same stuff that Wülf had apparently snorted—which seemed to lubricate its passage. The Crustie’s head emerged first, but its shoulders got caught so the Crust Lord had to lift it out, the Crust Lord’s hands clutching its sides, and when its feet had cleared the edge Wülf saw it was a brand-new Crustie. It had the same raw, indistinct facial features, its form without any distinguishing marks: nipples, belly button. Junk.

The Crust Lord set it mewling silently on the floor, but Wülf was already halfway to the door. He was shocked to discover his dog at his side—just like the Crust Lord had promised he would be. No Face Chase seemed newly friendly. He licked under Wülf’s wrist and the feel of his tongue made Wülf want to weep, but all that could come later. The Crusties were blocking the door to the stairs.

They milled and jostled, fixed on Wülf, their baggy eye holes narrowed slightly. One (who wasn’t not the one who had stood in Wülf’s squat with his foot on Wülf’s stomach) came up to Wülf, nosed him, and cradled his face. It seemed to detect in Wülf some kinship. Wülf felt a jolt of something for it that even he could not describe—not affection, exactly, or pity but tenderness, just like Wülf imagined a sibling might feel for some unloved, deformed-looking brother or sister. Wülf could’ve stayed there, honestly.

He just didn’t know what the fuck else to do.

It was still nighttime when Wülf got to the river.

The cool dark was calming. The lights of the canal lock flashed, casting an eerie red glow on the concrete footpath that, if Wülf remained on it, led back to the city—yet no Crusties crept through the glowing red rushes.

No Crusties squatted on the banks or watched Wülf depart from the tops of the trees.

Wülf expected to feel the abject terror of the thing that he’d seen in the complex receding, but oddly enough it wasn’t there. Not the terror itself, nor the flood of relief.

Instead, Wülf just felt blank and itchy. In particular, there, on the top of his head, beneath the casing of his scalp, where a new orifice was imprinting itself, dividing and plumping beneath the dead skin. Wülf scratched at the thing, at the new part of Wülf. Above the plump newness, it felt almost crusty, like the eczema Wülf sometimes got as a kid.

His hand came back covered in powdery whiteness. He let No Face Chase lick the stuff from his fingers as they kept along the river footpath. And as he stepped over Wade’s lifeless, bruised body on the part of the path where the Crusties had left him, he remembered that night in the vibrating stall with the pearlescent, blue nub poking out of his jeans, that inside part of him exposed to the world, and he knew that, for better or worse, he was changing.

It was only a question of when, into what.

He already had a place picked out: not back in the city but here, by the river. It was the same place he’d first seen No Face Chase, nosing that wet Arby’s bag in the weeds. There, Wülf would sit, legs crossed beneath him. Wülf would sit and wait to change. Right now he was one, but in time he’d be many. And with No Face Chase herding them all down the footpath, he’d lead his family home to sleep.