The house is old and empty. Edmund’s father lives alone.
His name is Mr. Domel.
Mr. Domel has no wife. Edmund’s mother was young and beautiful but she left him in the sunshine of three summers past.
He has no servants. Mr. Edgars used to dust his grandfather clock and prepare his meals and wash the wooden floors. But Mr. Edgars is gone.
Edmund’s father sent him away.
Servants can’t be trusted.
He might have freed the wolf.
And, finally, Mr. Domel has no son. Edmund is far away. He attends boarding school. He studies at the Lethal Magnet School for Wayward Youth.
“Why do I have to go?” Edmund asked, back when he was first sent off. “I’m not wayward! I’m quite well-behaved. Everyone comments on my decorum.”
“The school is my weapon,” Mr. Domel said.
This is a decision that Edmund’s father now regrets. Edmund still calls him, now and again, but he is distant and strange and has a wall around his heart.
“I eat people now,” says the Edmund-beast, on the phone.
Also, he eats people.
“That is a novel interpretation of decorum,” says Mr. Domel.
“It is a consuming hunger. I don’t think I should come home for the winter break. I might eat you.”
Edmund’s father thinks about how to broach the question that is nagging at his mind. Finally, he chides himself. Honesty, my good man. Honesty.
“. . . Was it me?” he asks.
“Was I a bad father? Is that why you’re eating people?”
The Edmund-beast snorts.
“Better to blame the video games,” the Edmund-beast says. “The loose women. The ginger nuts. Oh, father, why would you think you’re important enough to make me an anthropophage?”
It is cutting and it is meant to be.
“One day,” says Mr. Domel, “the wolf will eat everyone. That’s why I didn’t have time for you as a child.”
“I know,” says the Edmund-beast.
The Edmund-beast makes spasmodic faces at the phone. It isn’t sure how to carry on this kind of conversation.
“It’s okay,” says the beast. “You can’t hurt me. There’s a wall around my heart.”
Long ago, the wall around Edmund’s heart was made of straw. Then the wolf huffed and he puffed and he blew it all away.
There was straw everywhere in the house for weeks.
Now the wall is made of wood.
“Thanks for calling,” says Mr. Domel.
“I love you, Dad,” says the Edmund-beast.
There’s a long, awkward moment. Then Mr. Domel fumbles the phone back onto the hook.
He goes to check on Edmund’s heart.
There’s a small altar in the Edmund-beast’s room. On it is a heart, and the heart is surrounded by a short wooden wall.
There is a howling from below.
Mr. Domel pats the wall. It is sound. It is solid. It is still standing.
So he goes, and he sits in his easy chair, and he remembers.
“Is that a cat?” asked the dwarf, long ago.
The dwarf lived under the ornamental bridge in Mr. Domel’s back yard.
“Yes,” said Mr. Domel. “I bought her for my son.”
“Does it have footfalls?” asked the dwarf. Its craggy face had a kind of avid look on it.
“No,” said Mr. Domel
“Because I could make footfalls for it,” said the dwarf.
Mr. Domel put the cat down. The cat jogged a few steps and then vigorously licked her hind leg. This entire procedure transpired in silence.
“Tell you what,” said the dwarf. “I’ll make it some footfalls, and trade them for your son’s heart. You know the cat’s footfalls in the wolf’s chain are fraying.”
Mr. Domel never really understood why the wolf’s chain was made of things like cat footfalls and mountain roots, but he accepted it as the kind of reification that dwarven smiths were prone to do.
“Fine,” said Mr. Domel.
Later the police arrested the dwarf and gave the heart back to Mr. Domel, but by then it was too late to put the heart back in.
“Stupid dwarves,” says Mr. Domel.
He can hear the distant clicking and clanking of the cat padding through the house. The cat miaos plaintively.
A few days pass.
“How is school?” Mr. Domel asks.
“I’m still not allowed to eat Peter,” says the Edmund-beast. “It’s very disappointing.”
“I bought a muzzle,” says Mr. Domel. “Like they used on Hannibal Lecter. If you wanted to come home for the holidays.”
“It wouldn’t contain me,” says the Edmund-beast.
“I could have Lethal bodyguards standing by,” says Mr. Domel.
“They wouldn’t stop me,” says the Edmund-beast.
“I could coat them in Lethal barbecue sauce,” says Mr. Domel.
The Edmund-beast clicks its teeth.
“Hey, Dad,” he says. “What have I become?”
“Lethal,” Mr. Domel says.
That’s the brand of Edmund’s school. That’s the brand of everything around him. It’s the brand of the things that in a million subtle ways have steered the affairs of Edmund’s life.
It was a long time ago that Mr. Domel had named the brand. He’d been talking to Ms. Cullers, his marketing VP.
“I want one of those abstract brand names like Pepsi,” Mr. Domel said.
Ms. Cullers blinked.
“Abstract? Pepsi?” she asked.
“It isn’t?” Mr. Domel said.
“It’s the name of a forbidden god,” Ms. Cullers said. “A chthonic god of human sacrifice and the bubbly caverns beneath the earth. I’m pretty sure they drilled into her arteries to develop the delicious taste of Pepsi One.”
Mr. Domel waved his hand vaguely.
“Or Levi’s, then,” he said.
“Short for Leviticus.”
“. . . oh.”
Ms. Cullers looked at him intently. “Listen, Ed,” she said. “Marketing has to be honest. It has to start with a rational consideration of the product’s purpose, boiled down into a simple form. Otherwise the customer will recognize that you’re using the label to impose meaning on the product that it otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s the kiss of death! So, what’s the point of all these diversified products?”
“It’s to kill the wolf,” said Mr. Domel. “It’s all to kill the wolf.”
“‘Lethal,'” Ms. Cullers said.
The Edmund-beast’s voice is icy. “I did not ask to be part of your branding efforts, father.”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Domel says.
But Mr. Domel is too tired to continue this conversation. He hangs up the phone.
Mr. Domel walks downstairs. He goes down into the basement. He looks at the wolf. It is flopped there, larger than a lion, wiser than an owl, clean, lean, and sleek.
“I am working on a boot,” says Mr. Domel.
He takes it out. It is a very large boot. It is made from scraps of many other boots. It is heavy.
“Like the one that’s supposed to stomp you some day.”
“That one would not suffice to stomp me,” says the wolf. “Perhaps if it were one thousand times as large. Or,” and here the wolf is nonchalant, “Not.”
Mr. Domel throws the boot up in the air. It comes down. It lands on the wolf. Its force is insufficient to consider it stomping.
The wolf flicks an ear.
“Alas,” says Mr. Domel, who had legitimately and desperately hoped that some unlikely magic would transpire.
“I’ll get out,” the wolf says. “Then I’ll kill everything, like I told your father and your father’s father and his.”
“But not Junior,” says Mr. Domel. “You never say that to him.”
The wolf lolls out its tongue. “Young Edmund will live to see it,” says the wolf. “That’s why I don’t have to tell him.”
The next day Mr. Domel goes to pick up the mail and the Edmund-beast is there outside his door.
The Edmund-beast’s posture is animalistic. Its hunger is a physical force. And all around the house there are students in yellow hats, watching.
Mr. Domel backs up into the house.
The Edmund-beast follows.
“I’ve decided that I don’t care about your stupid wolf,” says the Edmund-beast.
Mr. Domel bolts for the stairs. He makes it there a bit ahead of the Edmund-beast. He is tumbling down the stairs into the basement when the Edmund-beast grabs his wrist and starts to pull him back.
The wolf stands up.
The wolf howls.
The wolf’s breath is hot and it washes through the room. The sheer sound of it makes the Edmund-beast stagger back. Mr. Domel falls to the basement floor; and at the top of the stairs, the Edmund-beast wobbles back and forth in uncertainty.
The wolf huffs. The wolf puffs. The wolf blows down the wall around Edmund’s heart. For one long moment, the beast’s grip breaks. Edmund stares full into an understanding of what he has become.
“Oh!” he cries.
It is more a wail than a scream. And with it flows away the morale of the Edmund-beast, so that when the beast comes to the fore again it does not follow Mr. Domel down the stairs but instead it flees.
Mr. Domel looks at the wolf. The wolf looks back. It is sitting again.
“Thank you,” says Mr. Domel. “Unless you’re about to break free and raven through the house and eat me, in which case, get bent.”
The wolf laughs, quietly, to itself. It is a cheerful whuffling noise.
“What?” asks Mr. Domel.
“I do not like you either, much,” says the wolf. “But you are company worth preserving in these long last hours of my chains.”