Robert Gwinner was exactly how Mike Ohl pictured a fraternity president.
When the blonde-haired, stout-shouldered young man took the podium at the front of the auditorium, the other chapter members stood aside, as if paying mute reverence to royalty. The chrome microphone was already adjusted to Gwinner's height, level with the knot on his glaring-red tie.
"Welcome to Sigma Kappa Beta, gentlemen!" His voice was placid, almost hypnotic, but carried with it a definite tone of authority that seemed to convey a different message: I am king, lowly scum. Remember this.
Mike shifted in his seat as the buzzing of voices died around him. The auditorium was huge; for that matter, so was the house. It was a stately memorial to spoiled rich kids; the nouveau riche image portrayed young go-getters in ivy-league suits grown up before their time, spending parent-earned greenbacks on cheap whores and expensive brandy.
"Think this guy's a candidate for the Young Billionaire's Club?" Vern Grissom asked, though not at all in distaste. He had come here with Mike to hunt out possible fraternity houses after a disappointing tour of the campus dormitories. Though the large, institutional residence halls made Vern sick, Mike knew he could never pledge a frat house. It just wasn't his style.
Vern was a pencil-thin pre-law major who wore chinos and a heavily starched, almost insultingly white shirt. Mike had first met him when his father dropped him on campus earlier that day in a Bentley with plates that read: GRIS-ONE. With a snake doing a tango in his stomach, Mike realized Vern was absolutely mesmerized with the squeaky-clean image of the Sigma Kap president.
The spanning hardwood walls carried with it the thin whisper of dying chatter, but Gwinner was obviously waiting for all seventy some-odd students to hush-up.
"Just look at him," Vern said. "Christ, the guy's wearing a cardigan!"
"Yeah," Mike said flatly, and could muster no more conversation. The dinner he had eaten at the Student Union was bubbling in his stomach with acidic fervor. He and Vern had visited other frats that evening, and he had found nearly all of them to be what he expected: unbridled, irresponsible fun. Kegs of beer lined the walls, and shapely sorority girls pranced around the prospective pledges like models advertising the advantages of fraternity brotherhood. Empty hands always found beer bottles or whiskey shots, and the air was filled with the whinny of careless banter. It was all the beginning to the new era of college…the calm before the storm. No, he could never actually pledge, but it was all fun anyway. A good start. This was just a waste of time.
When the room was silent and all eyes were focused on Gwinner, the president seemed to grow more powerful with the attention; more godlike.
"I know you all must have many questions, which is why we've opted for this informal gathering." Gwinner's voice had deepened, and the thick reverberations from the walls became ethereal. "Once we've filled you in on our history and answered any questions you have, you'll be welcome to join the other pledges upstairs for food and drink, and those waiting outside will replace you here. It's tedious, but this is our first year at this college, and we Sigma Kaps find this mini-lecture necessary to fully educate you on our function."
Mike looked around and smiled. Several freshmen were already fidgeting nervously in their seats, eyeing the heavy oak door at the far end of the large room. This clearly wasn't what they were hoping for, and he felt resolved knowing he wasn't the only one who got sick with the pretentious snobbery of these surroundings.
True, he had seen the line snaked outside, and had himself been curious about it; now it all made sense. As big as the auditorium was, there was little chance of it housing all pledges for one big orientation. Gwinner was bringing them in chunk by chunk, giving his little spiel and then setting them free for "food and drink," which Mike knew were probably along the lines of tea and crumpets.
"Shoot," he hissed softly. "I didn't come here to listen to Fred Rogers. C'mon, let's get outta here."
He started to rise off his seat, but seeing Vern's refusal to follow, he hesitated. Then Gwinner's voice again boomed through the air, and he slumped back down in his chair to listen. Fine. He would leave this stuffy crap later, with or without Vern. Maybe he could hit some of the other fraternities, and slowly skip along the dirt road to Drunkedom before the fraternity rush ended at one o'clock. He checked his watch, and was mildly irritated to find it was already ten-thirty, with precious seconds ticking away. That was another thing that bothered him: Sigma Kappa was the only frat that opened for rush at night.
"There are many things a pledge should know about us," the president continued, "but let's begin with some preliminaries. You are now seated in the one-hundred and sixtieth Sigma Kappa house in the United States, and thankfully we're still growing."
Mike crossed his legs and mocked a yawn. Hell, couldn't they just hand out a flyer? He looked out at the blackness outside that squeezed against the picture windows lining the auditorium. In this section of campus there were no lights, save for that of the sickly-yellow floods that washed a somber glow over the glass. The dogwood trees that were just outside had an odd, segmented look. Probably outdoor shutters, he thought. Just what the doctor ordered to complete this narcissistic kingdom. Somewhere off toward the front of the building the milling excitement of the waiting freshmen could be heard floating through the air.
"Better save your time," Mike whispered to answer the
voices. "This one's a dry ride." He uncrossed his legs and re-shifted in his seat, vaguely wondering how the hell he was going to survive hour-long lectures in classes to come.
Gwinner was speaking again, now gesticulating with peach-colored hands that spoke of pristine upbringing. "Rest assured we'll be there to help you get acquainted. Now as they say on Wall Street: down to business!"
Sporadic bursts of laughter rose up. It was PR laughter, tailor-made to impress the pompous soldiers of chivalry that stood at the podium like wax sculptures of gentlemen in ages past. Mike glanced at his side, and his stomach did another half-gainer when he realized that Vern was still enraptured, and smiling as if he had just heard the funniest joke ever told.
Gwinner went on with a voice that cut through the rising clamor
a surgeon's scalpel.
"Sigma Kappa Beta began as a men's social club in 1624 on the campus of Great Britain's Hamshire University. Its founder, Roderick Windsor, was a Knight of the Order of the Garter and a wealthy nobleman who attempted to start many philanthropic organizations and bring about awareness to the problems of the poor…"
Gwinner's voice had changed; it no longer held the soft-spoken undertone of authority. Now, speaking of his organization's past, there was a definite ring of admiration in his delivery. For the next ten minutes he spoke of Sigma Kappa's beginnings, and the history and traditions that seemed to Mike par for the course.
Mike looked around again, doing his best to skirt his gaze over Vern, who had suddenly transformed into a pawn of this haughty nonsense and had therefore become, in the last few moments, utterly detestable. Okay, fine. As soon as Mr. Prim and Pampered finished his sales pitch, Vern could sit and drool all he wanted. Mike would head out for a beer.
"…and so most of our interests lie with people." Something in Gwinner's eyes flashed like licks of fire off polished chrome, and he smiled.
"You will have many rewarding experiences as a brother," he continued, and Mike didn't miss that some of the mysterious serenity had once again crept back into his deep voice, "but they are too numerous to mention here. All I can promise is that as a Sigma Kap, your life will take on new qualities; a transformation, if you will, to aid you in your new role as college students."
Some of the other students were nodding now, as if Gwinner's promise was all they needed to sell them on the idea of pledging this crap-frat. Mike noticed that some of these people had been the same ones eyeing the door earlier.
"Christ," he whispered. It was the guise-the opulent air of wealth and aristocracy-that sprung the trap on these freshmen. Maybe Gwinner deserved more credit. His sales pitch was working.
"Alright!" the president said suddenly, and clapped his neat hands together in an amplified crack! that had more than one student jump in his seat. "Now I'll take questions from the floor, if there are any."
A few hands shot upward, thwarting Mike's ideas of leaving early. Again he settled in his chair, his hands thrumming impatiently on his lap.
A red-haired, freckled boy with an angry crop of acne had been addressed, and the other outstretched arms folded back like sea-worms.
"What are the requirements of pledging?" he asked, doing his best to keep his voice low and invulnerable. It was an obvious and ineffective mask, and Gwinner's placating smile proved it.
"For now, there aren't any."
The room momentarily filled with gasps of disbelief and muttering conversation edged with fire-fed excitement. Gwinner held his hands up, hushing the outburst.
"This organization is a new addition to campus. We're installing the first three-hundred pledges as immediate brothers."
The hushed conversation now exploded into full-blown talk; all of it the same. Everyone wanted to pledge.
"Are there any other questions?"
Another group of hands sprouted, and Gwinner picked out a burly jock who's silk tie was improperly knotted at his bull-neck.
"How many more openings are available of the three-hundred?" His thick voice seemed to have difficulty annunciating the sentence.
Gwinner looked up and tittered for a moment. "Oh, three-hundred is a loose figure. I'd say-" and his mouth sprouted a bright grin, "-we have over two hundred positions open…for anyone interested, that is."
Mike clenched his fists by his side, the itch to leave now an inner conflagration that threatened to consume him. He wanted nothing more than to put his hands around Gwinner's precious neck and throttle him. The entire room seemed to be under the blonde blue-blood's thumb, and the feeling of being supported in his hatred for this pompous garbage was now gone. He was alone.
The question had been answered, and obviously it was the same as many more had on their minds, because when Gwinner once again called for questions, Mike was the only one with his hand raised.
Vern looked condescendingly at him. "You have a question?"
"Yes?" Gwinner asked, and flashed a big, fat, patronizing smile directly at Mike.
The cheesy smile was all he needed to muster up the bestial hate simmering like a cauldron in his stomach. The question left his lips perfectly.
"Some people call you guys 'Scab House.' Why's that?"
All conversation died. A sea of heads turned his way-faces that first held the waxen glaze of astonishment, then melted into the savage expressions of anger and impatience. Vern turned away from him, visibly embarrassed.
Mike was still smiling, his arms folded at his chest.
"Where did you hear that?" Gwinner asked, the blue-steel edge of contempt carrying on his calm voice.
"From a few guys on campus," Mike said, shrugging. "It's a rumor going around."
"What's your name?"
Mike was suddenly taken off-guard. The magic carpet that had lifted him out of this boring humdrum had been pulled out from under him.
"Mike," he said uneasily. "Mike Ohl."
"Well, Mr. Ohl, I believe you might benefit from Sigma Kappa." He smiled again, the odd light in his eyes coming back to a newer, higher wattage. "The first thing you learn is how to ignore small-talk and conduct yourself more like a gentleman. There are far more important things in life than idle gossip."
The room's acoustics echoed the following laughter in Mike's ears, and he bowed his head, his cheeks flushing red.
"Any other questions?" Gwinner asked, his own voice hitching slightly with chuckles.
This time, no one responded.
"Well, then!" Gwinner said, his face beaming. "Before we retire to the festivities upstairs, gentlemen, I give you some of the newly-initiated members of Sigma Kappa Beta!" He held his hand toward the wooden door, and the raucous staccato of applause bounced off the walls.
Mike turned with the others to see the door open and a platoon of clean-cut, jacket-and-tie clad freshmen file out from the darkness. They all had paper stickers on their lapels with last names inked neatly across them. Twenty in all, each took a position against the walls, and Mike noticed with a grain of discomfort that they soon surrounded the room.
The applause continued, but above the clamor Mike heard-or thought he heard-a muted metallic click from behind the door.
Gwinner was also clapping his hands, and he stepped down off the podium donning a new look. One that Mike thought resembled that of-
Uh uh…no way Mikey…
Mike looked around the room at the members of Scab House. They held the same look. The look of a starving man before a full dinner plate.
And the crystal chandelier hanging at the high-ceiling didn't even flicker when it went out.
The applause stopped. Cut off dead. And in its place nervous giggling and jeers erupted.
"Oh, jeez, just what we-"
And then the first scream.
It wasn't all that loud at first, just a quick cry of surprise. Then it escalated into a long whine that whooped upwards in volume and pitch. Before it totally drowned out, no one missed the words that found its way into the jumble of terror and pain.
"Oh God git it…oh, Jesus help git it offa meeeeee!"
Someone was running around the room, kicking at metal chairs and fighting off something unseen. When the voice finally expired, there was a new sound…and Mike's blood froze in his veins.
No one spoke. Or moved.
The yellow floodlights outside silhouetted the shadowy brothers, but their figures weren't totally dark. Two pinpoints of red light beamed from each head.
Mike was up. He broke into a sprint across the room, and that's when odd, shifting movements erupted from all around him. Papery rustling sounds; the sounds of dark things taking flight. Then the clatter of chairs being up-ended filled the room, mingled with the sounds of loafers scuffing on carpet in frantic attempts at battle. And the screaming. The high-pitched electric screaming of the damned.
He was at the door, and doom settled over him like a black cloak. He knew before the brass handled slipped through his hands in the sheen of palm-sweat that the door would be locked. Of course it would. He rammed it with his shoulder, but the thick wood didn't so much as budge from the jamb. He ran to one of the windows, ready to dive through--but stopped short when he realized the odd shutters just outside the glass were really iron bars.
He turned around, his eyes now more adjusted to the darkness, and what he saw made his legs buckle.
The new brothers of Scab House were gone, and now giant things hovered and swooped in the large room, circling the mass of students like vultures. A few of the flying things cowered over fallen bodies, twitching in orgasmic pleasure, their large, membranous wings enveloping their victims.
Some of the students were lying prone, glistening moisture trickling from their necks. Others were still up, swatting at the circling doom. Mike saw-without meaning to-one particular student, still on his feet but not fighting the thing at his shoulder which flapped like a giant moth trying to catch hold of a light-bulb. There was a spreading dark stain at the collar of his heavily starched shirt.
And Mike knew he was trapped. When the options of escape finally dwindled down to zero, he thought of all those unsuspecting freshmen outside, waiting for their initiation to Scab House.
An inner voice countered: So? Is that so bad?
They wanted change, all of them. They wanted acceptance, and Robert Gwinner had promised a new life. A transformation. Surely there was good in that, wasn't there?
And when one of the gargantuan bats headed his way, its eyes glowing like fire, Mike Ohl started to laugh.
After all, there would be refreshments later.