It was Summer in Summer City. Not summer, but Summer, with a capital "S". No gentle rains, no sweet breezes, nothing but heat and the smell of rank bodies. It was early August, the so-called Dog Days. All week the air had been thick and soupy; thick enough to cut with the proverbial knife. It weighed a person down like a wet sack over the head, making it difficult to move, to breathe, to live. Difficult for some, at least.
To Kenneth McBride the season was liberating. He took the smothering heat and wrapped himself in it, wore it like a king's robes. The stifling heat and choking smog, the sweat and smoke, the blood, fear and the other things Summer is made of were the things he lived on. He absorbed the Summer, and grew strong.
And the Summer loved Ken in return, nourished him gladly. He was its chosen one, and it imbued him with its own ferocious beauty. It tanned his skin and bleached his hair with its glaring, blasting sun until he glowed golden. The sheen of perspiration that covered him reflected in the acidic orange of the city's sunsets, and he shimmered like a pagan idol. His eyes were dull emeralds; his teeth were perfect pearls.
But today there was a change. Ken could not feel the Summer's sweet embrace. Instead of its typical, heavy feeling the air held something abnormal, an electric quality that danced on his skin. The small hairs on his arms were standing up. Large hands with long fingers rubbed them down, annoyed. He swiped at the sweat beading on his brow and wiped his hand off on the front of his already grimy wife-beater t-shirt. This mood called for cigarettes, and he retrieved them from the back pocket of his tight, pale jeans.
His thumb flicked over his lighter, but it only clicked annoyingly, steadfastly refusing to ignite. As he watched it stubbornly throw off sparks, the moment went suddenly still. A chill crept down his spine, and though he didn't shiver he wanted to. The urge was there, under the skin: tightness and a sense of something about to explode. A multitude of thoughts and emotions rushed him in the small space that should have been a shiver: fear, doom, the desire to run, loneliness and a kind of curious heartache. Reality crashed back in with a rush like sucking pressure, and he thought he felt his ears pop. The strange moment had left a sour, clammy sweat all over his body, and a feeling of vague unease. As he blinked, disoriented, he thought he saw the thin shape of a dog in the empty street.
He looked down and realized he had dropped his lighter. It lay in the gutter, cracked and leaking fluid on the dusty sidewalk. He shook his head, and cursed himself a fool. Retrieving it, he held it up to the light, examining the damage, and wondering what was wrong with him.
But his reverie was cut short as a gunshot rang through the streets, echoing and rolling like a clap of thunder. He ducked behind a car, hands over his head. His nerves were shot, frayed nearly to the point of no return. He took a moment to breathe, and to gather himself into something more closely resembling the street-smart tough he was half an hour ago. Another shot cracked through the air, and his whole body jerked with the noise. He got to his feet and scuttled towards a nearby alley on shaky legs and weak knees.
Leaning against the wall of a dirty brick building, Ken tried to regain his composure. His jittering, bouncing hands revealed what kind of shape he was in. He pressed one against his chest: his heart was racing. He reached for his cure-all, the cigarette, but when his hand closed around his lighter he felt the damp of it's fluids in his pocket, paid enough attention now to feel them creeping down his thigh. He had forgotten the crack. Cursing out loud, he felt rage bubbling up within him. He turned to throw the empty shell down the alley, but stopped.
Ken stood, mouth agape, arm in the air, poised for the throw. It was not the blank brick wall of a dead end he was staring at, it was a passage to another street. It was oozing an unnatural twilight glow he hadn't noticed until he had turned to face it. Now, however, its pale blue light was bright enough to have eclipsed the dull orange of the streetlights behind him. Ken made a conscious choice not to turn back around, terrified that the familiar world had disappeared. If it had, he did not want to see, did not want to turn around to find the brick wall he had expected before.
He allowed his arm to drop, and the lighter fell from his limp fingers. A cool breeze blew from the strange world in front of him, tumbling the debris of the filthy alley, and blowing his hair back from his face, out of his line of sight, as if imploring him to look. But when the chill air hit the rank sweat that now covered his body, he experienced the same strange, sickening vertigo, and he had to close his eyes to keep from retching.
When he dared look again, his gaze was locked with that of a dog. Its tall ears stood straight and its bushy tail wagged absently. Its acid green stare bored into him, asking questions Ken didn't understand. It sat at the entrance of the alley, perfectly still, and Ken discovered a new feeling had begun to lace itself through the slippery terror that filled his mind: curiosity.
He staggered forward haltingly, like a drunk. The dog twitched an ear and slowly got to its feet. It backed up one step, then two. Then it turned lightly, and bounded away. Ken let out a small noise, and he noticed his hands had shot out in front of him, as though to grasp the dog, and keep it from leaving. He hesitated only a moment before breaking out into a clumsy run.
He didn't know why, but he had to follow it. He let it lead him through twisting alley after twisting alley, and not once did he consider stopping. The flash of its bushy tail around a corner, the glow of its eyes as it looked back at him kept him moving forward; he doubted that he could stop even if he wanted to.
To Ken, it felt like he had been running forever. He could feel his heart in his neck and it echoed in his head; a steady throb that almost hurt. The staccato of his footsteps haunted him and kept a syncopated rhythm with his pulse. His breath came to him only in short stinging gasps. He ran too long, ran to the point where he thought he would die on his feet, his heart having burst in his chest. He rounded a corner and reached the point where he could genuinely run no more. But it didn't matter; the dog was gone. He knew immediately. He skidded to a stop and slumped against a wall, struggling for air. He crawled to a doorway and collapsed, every breath burning his over-wrought lungs.
Slowly, as his breath came easier, Ken became aware of his surroundings. He could have been anywhere; it was generic slum: decrepit apartments with boarded up windows, garbage and stains on the sidewalk. But the wide street was completely empty, devoid of traffic, or even parked cars. Not a light stood out in a window. There were no noises, nor scents upon the air. There wasn't a single sign of life. The whole scene was lit by that weird, blue-white light which, on the surface, appeared to be coming from the street lamps. However, Ken was aware of the uncomfortable sensation that it was in fact coming from everywhere and nowhere, not cast but floating in the air like dust. And though the light was omnipresent, he could still see the stars in the clear black sky. They stood out, thousands upon thousands in every square inch. The moon was full, and too large above the foreboding buildings; a sinister presence. Ken kept his eyes down as he stumbled up the street, choosing instead to watch building numbers.
"111, 222, 333, 444...What?" He read them out loud in an attempt to comfort himself, to bring life to the dead city around him, but their strange configuration confused him, and his words had no timbre, no echo; they died as soon as they left his lips, and were no comfort at all.
Litter skittered past in the wind, and he bent to inspect a crumpled piece that had become stuck under his toe.
"Blank. It's just a blank piece of paper." He let it blow from his hand, to dash down the street with the rest.
He was chilled to the bone, but not from the cool breeze. This was a cold that rose up from inside him, a cold full of horror and despair. His legs were slowing, shuffling. But just as he was about to stop moving entirely, to give in to the icy feeling that gripped him, something moved in the shadows. For a brief moment he hoped it might be the vanished dog that he had inexplicably chased here. But no, this was human. Small, but human. A small white smudge. He squinted and walked faster. It was a child, a young girl.
She was beautiful. Her hair was cut straight across her forehead and at her chin. It was a deep black, so deep as to be almost blue, and that same blue was in her eyes. They were immense, almost too big for her face. They were wary, and held a touch of surprise. She wore a small white dress, and her thin arms and legs were bare. So were her feet. Curiosity and a strange concern came over him.
"What is she doing here? What is anyone doing here?" he muttered. Internally he added 'What am I doing here?'
He called out to her, but she did nothing, said nothing. He started to fear she was a mirage, another attempt by this bizarre place to seem alive. But when he reached her there was a rustling to his right, and an oily man of uncertain heritage stepped from the shadows. He peered at Kenneth from behind heavy lidded eyes. Ken peered back. He could smell this mans strong cologne, and the undertone of sweat and city grime. This man was real.
"She is a dainty little prize, isn't she?" He said through rubbery lips that parted in an unwholesome smile. "Unfortunately for you, my friend, I don't think you could afford her. She is fresh, you see? Never been used. Only twelve years old."
"How much?" said Kenneth through bared teeth, his sentence brief and labored as he tried hard to keep the disgust from his voice.
"For you? Too much." He chuckled. "I'm waiting for one of those rich suits. They come down from work everyday to indulge in pleasures that the rest of the City can't provide." He ran knobbley fingers down the front of his crisp, deep purple pinstripe suit.
"I have money."
"Let's see it."
Ken reached behind him, but instead of his wallet he grabbed his gun from the holster slung around his hips. In a smooth, graceful movement, with no hesitation, Kenneth shot him twice in the stomach. When their words had fallen like stones just past teeth and tongue, this sound rang out and echoed down the empty streets.
Behind him the girl displayed a wide eyed look of horror. Her small rosebud of a mouth hung open for a sound that hadn't come.
Kenneth shoved the gun back into its holster quickly. He looked around, unsure of what to do. Finally he crouched down, and implored her: "Get on my back, please. This isn't a good place, a natural place. I don't know what you're doing here, or what I'm doing here, but I want out. I'm not going to hurt you, darlin', I just want to get out of here quick."
She closed her mouth and did as she was told, but her eyes retained the look of fear and shock. She wrapped her arms and legs around him tight, and giving her a quick hitch, he ran for the second time that night, once again not knowing where he was going.
In front of him Kenneth saw the flash of a dog. Behind him the girl watched a dark stain thickly creep out from under the prone figure to cover the sidewalk.
Ken didn't know what was happening, or what he was going to do. He didn't even properly understand what he had done. He pushed these issues from his mind, lived in the moment only. Like any animal just trying to survive. All he thought of was the pounding pavement beneath his feet.
The dog was right in front of him now. At this close range he thought it looked less like a dog, more like a fox. It took a sudden hard right, and Ken skidded as he tried to follow, then stumbled to stop.
It was a dead end. The alley terminated in a wooden fence at least seven feet high. The dog-fox sat there calmly, impossibly far ahead of him.
In a sudden moment of clarity Kenneth realized something, felt the beginnings of an answer. A fragment of a story known as a child, perhaps.
"I know you," he said. "You're Coyote."
It stood, and with a canine grin it jumped the fence with unearthly ease. Ken felt the thoughts slip from his mind like water through clutching fingers.
He shook his head as though this would somehow clear it. Reaching the fence, he let the girl down onto one of the boxes which lay scattered about the base of it. He could see her trying to form the questions that he couldn't answer, didn't even dare to even think about. He changed the subject before it could start.
"So, what's your name, darlin'?" he said, piling boxes.
She hesitated a moment, processing the question. Finally she said, "Cordelia."
For a second it seemed she was going to say more. She drew a breath and looked at him. But no words came, only tears, and she sat down on the wooden crate, her face in her hands.
Kenneth could not say he was surprised, as he had wanted to do the same thing since he took his first steps into this dead world. But he was caught off guard nevertheless.
"Hey!" he said, then "Hey. Hey, it's okay. It's okay."
Walking over to her, he gently placed his large hands on her small, shaking back.
"Shh. Shh, its ok." He stroked her hair absentmindedly, and soon her shuddering sobs subsided to mere hiccups.
Ken threw a couple more boxes on his stack before asking her: "Can you climb over? If I help you?"
She nodded.
"Good," he said. "Up you get." He picked her up, hands under her arms, and hoisted her to the top of the boxes. He held them steady as she scrambled over the top of the fence.
He followed after her, landing on the other side with a thump, but she was no where to be seen. The air rushed in on him, all cloying heat and thick humidity, making him stagger. When he managed to stand and turn around he saw, as he expected, that the fence was gone. All he saw was a dirty brick wall.
He allowed himself to feel relief. It was the easiest one of the many emotions trying to express themselves. Slowly he walked to the mouth of the alley, and looking around he recognized it as the one he had ducked down when the gun was fired. At his feet he saw the blue shell of his lighter, where he had let it fall. He kicked at it with his toe, and stepped out into the street.
But his stomach dropped. There, beneath a glaring orange street lamp was Cordelia. It was undoubtedly her; glossy black hair cropped short, white dress limp in the still air. In the shadows behind her Kenneth saw the silhouette of a man shifting his weight.
From behind a parked car a stray dog shambled out, snuffling along the sidewalk. Its limp ears and mangy hide held no hint of Ken's mysterious guide, but when it lifted its head he saw it wink, unmistakably.