Tuesday, January 31, 2012

How To Drive In The Dark

          The long black car streaks through the darkness and slams into Adam's small pickup truck. The impact pushes the truck into a front yard and flings you into the passenger's side door. The engine sputters as the truck inches through the grass. You see the black car sitting in the middle of the street. A slow, slumping shadow cuts across the headlights and lurches towards you. You shove Adam towards the steering wheel.

            "Drive, man, just drive!"

            Adam nods and stomps the gas pedal. The back tires blubber in the mud, digging for traction, before the truck jumps onto the street. You are leaving the city with no truck hood, no headlights, and waves of rain are whipping the windshield. The engine roars and, when the lightning flashes, you see Adam hunching over the steering wheel.

            You are sixteen, full of beer, and racing to make your eleven o'clock curfew. You have friends with later curfews, or none at all, but your father says ten o'clock on weeknights, eleven on weekends. He says if someone is out at two in the morning, the chances are they're doing something they shouldn't be. You are doing something you shouldn't be doing at ten-twenty and fourteen wet miles away from home.

            "Anyone behind us, Karl?" Adam says.

            You look out the rear window and see nothing but pinhole blurs of house lights receding into the night. "No, there's no one there." Thunder explodes and lightning floods the truck cab. "How the fuck are we going to stay on the road, man? It gets curvy as hell."

            "Maybe the lightning will help me see."

            Fear and adrenaline make you shake. The crunch of colliding cars echoes in your ears and you wonder if the other driver is okay. Looking behind you again, you hear handcuffs snapping around your wrists and expect to see spinning red and blue lights pop over the horizon. You stare into the night and imagine the truck veering off the road during a lightning flash, tumbling end over end into a ravine. You cannot stop shaking.

            "Hey, I think there's a flashlight in the glove box!" Adam says. "Check!"

            You open the glove box and a flashlight falls out into your hands. "I'll shine the flashlight down at the road and tell you when you're too close to the white line."

            Adam looks at you and nods. You roll down the window and brace your feet against the floorboard. The truck is swaying, rain soaks your skin, and you grip the window frame to keep from tumbling out onto the road. You hang outside the window for ten miles, peering through the wind and rain, clinching down on the flashlight. You are not dying in a flaming wreck or riding to jail. There are four miles to go, but you will make curfew.

            The truck sputters and dies at a highway junction four miles from home. Adam slams his palm into the steering wheel. Deserting the truck, you walk down the highway with him hoping someone picks you up. You look for oncoming headlights, but see nothing. You are not making curfew. Adam tires of walking in the rain and goes up to the first house he sees. You will not go. Even if they will give you a ride home, it will take too long. You think you can get home quicker out here, in the storm, alone and waiting for a car to drive by. You throw up and start walking.

            It is five minutes later when headlights appear behind you. They weave fast through the rain, inches above the ground, and swell as they come closer. You are standing by the road when the car curls around a sharp corner, slows, and stops next to you. It is a silver sports car with dark window tinting and a purring engine. When you look into the open window, you see a short man in his mid-twenties with a thin brown mustache wearing a light purple shirt. His long black hair is in a ponytail and dark stubble covers his face. He will give you a ride home.

            You will make it home by eleven. Bursting with relief, you tell the driver everything. You tell him about going to the lake and drinking seven beers. The truck didn't have a hood, but it wasn't raining then. You tell him how the headlights went out on the west side of the city, just before the car hit them, but Adam got them working again. They are out within a minute, but you are not stopping. Adam keeps driving and you think the lightning will guide you home.

            The driver holds his hand up. "Wait, really?" He pauses. "I think you better slow down."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Black Dog in the Sun - (unfinished rough first draft)

           He wakes up each morning hoping something bad happens to him. He sprawls out in his small bed, stares at the ceiling, and pictures a car hitting him. It propels him over the top and he breaks his neck, snaps his spine, and cracks his skull when he lands on the street. He looks out his apartment window and sees himself dying on the toilet. It is a cold December morning like today when claws colder than a thousand Decembers tear open his arteries. He clutches his chest and tumbles to the floor. Most people live with a simple hope for clear skies and sunny days, but he does not. Robbie wakes up each morning hoping to die.

            When Saul sees him the first time, Robbie is climbing a restaurant sign at six o'clock in the morning. He shouts at two men standing below. He says college students drinking at the bar next-door toss change onto the top of the sign. He says there is enough money for a half gallon of vodka or more. Both men laugh at him. Robbie is drunk, but his hands are trembling, and sweat squeezes from his skin. He needs more.

            Saul watches Robbie pull himself onto the top of the sign and start filling his pockets with change. Saul says nothing, but he cannot look away. The two men standing at the base of the sign cannot look away. It is a vertical tight ropewalk across a fraying rope for an audience of three. They are waiting for the cord to snap. He drops six feet to the sidewalk below when his foot misses a letter on the sign. It sounds like a box of books landing on a wooden floor when his back slams into the pavement. His head smacks the stone and fire flashes through his skull. Pennies bursting from his pockets roll across the concrete. Robbie has four dollars and three cents. Not even enough for a pint of vodka.

            When Saul sees Robbie the second time, he is puking at a downtown street corner. Saul is eating his lunch in a city park on a hot August afternoon. Robbie follows a trio of loud, sneering drunks into the park. They hear his vomiting, turn around, and explode with laughter. Robbie wipes his mouth on his arm and straightens his back. They laugh louder. Fuckin' pussy! What's wrong, can't handle it? Robbie curses and stumbles towards them.

            The trio mixes with teenager sitting and standing around the chess tables. Robbie sits next to a muscular black teenager named Louis. Louis wears a sleeveless white t-shirt and khaki pants reaching to his shins. Saul is taking a bite from his sandwich when it starts. A short, swollen drunk screams at Louis. Get outta this park, you fuckin' nigger! Louis springs to his feet. He towers over the drunk.

            If you don't shut your mouth, alky, I'm not going to fuck you up. You're a fuckin' midget bitch. If you say that shit again, I'll fuck him up! Go on, try me. Robbie is in a half-conscious daze and totters back and forth at a chess table. The drunk steps towards Louis. You ain't gonna do shit! Fuck you, nigger! Louis whips around and punches Robbie in the side of the head Saul loses sight of him when he topples backwards. The drunks run out of the park. Louis straddles Robbie, pinning him to the ground, and hits him six times in the face. Saul calls the police and tells the dispatcher to send help. A female voice screams at Louis. Stop hurting him! Louis freezes when he hears the faint shriek of a police siren. He scrambles to his feet and sprints out of the park. Saul rushes to Robbie and kneels at his side. When Robbie sees him, he tries to speak, but blood bubbles from his mouth. It is the second time in a week that Saul watches paramedics load him into an ambulance.

            A week passes before Saul sees him again. Saul is director of a low-income community center that hands out free groceries. When Robbie applies for food, Saul handles his intake interview. It is seven days since the attack, but Robbie is still in a daze.

            "How long have you been in town?"

            Robbie shrugs and closes his eyes. "This time? I don't know, maybe a couple of months."
His right leg bounces fast, but his voice is soft and slow.

            "So you've lived here before. Are you from here originally?"

            "No, I was born in a town up north."

            "So why are you back this time?"

            Robbie raises his head and looks at Saul. "I've come back here to die. I want to die." He inhales and blows out a long sigh. "A black dog, some kind of demon, killed my best friend here five years ago. It's been huntin' me ever since." He squeezes his eyes shut and puckers his lips. "I want it to end here. I want to die."

            Saul stops writing, leans back in his chair, and chews on his pen. He cocks his head to the right and stares at Robbie. He stares at the bare white wall behind Saul. When he sighs, his eyes flutter and he spits out a burst of air. He slurs, but Saul does not smell alcohol. He shuffles and stumbles when he walks, but he says he is okay. He says he is fine. The words slide from his mouth like steam hissing from a pipe crack.

            Believing a demonic dog kills your friend, eats his corpse, and follows you the rest of your life can be concussions talking, but Saul pushes that thought out of his mind. Falling six feet and slamming your skull into concrete bruises your brain, eating six stiff right jabs to the face smashes noses, blackens eyes, and bloodies lips, but it never stuns you enough to see demons snapping at your heels. An acid stew of nerves and rage is bubbling in Robbie's stomach and filling his mind. Wave after wave splashes into him harder than any landing or punch and knocks him down. Black dogs crawl out of the rubble.

            He talks to people like Robbie every day. A twenty-year-old burn victim walks into the community center that morning. He needs a place to sleep. Fire turns his apartment into ashes and melts the left side of his neck. The skin is the color of dry chewing gum. Skin grafts scar his neck with jagged lines, ridges, and deep pockets. His left arm is a narrow shaft of pink putty dangling at his side and the twisting blue veins bulging against his thin skin are dark strands of twine tying the arm to his body. He says his stove burst into flames while frying a salisbury steak. Saul nods, lowers his head, arches his eyebrows, and whispers he's lucky to be alive.

            However, Saul reads the newspaper. He knows the truth.  Two weeks ago, he sees an article about a twenty-year old calling the police to complain about the voices in his head. God and Satan are whispering, screaming, pointing out his enemies, prodding his fear, and rattling his brain. They will not shut up. The dispatcher stutters and starts speaking when the twenty year old breaks off the call. He paces in his living room, screaming and clutching his head with both hands. Police trace the call, but it is too late. He will not wait. He will shut them up himself. He pours gasoline over his head and sets himself on fire with a pocket lighter. When police see him for the first time, he is flailing in his front yard, flames blooming across his body and hoarse, piercing screams crackling within the fire. He hears no other voice.

            "That's quite the story, Robbie. Tell me more about it?"

            When Robbie sees the black dog for the first time, it is straddling his friend's limp, mangled corpse and chewing deep into his neck. Flames swirling around its long, narrow skull lash the air with short commas of fire. The dog's black, bulging shoulders jerk when it bites into his friend's stomach and its gulping echoes like a mallet thumping a bass drum. A thick, fecal smell stings Robbie's nose and causes his eyes to water. He vomits and falls backwards into a concrete wall. He shudders and slides to the floor.

            "What was your friend's name?"

            "Mike Jensen." His voice is a flat mumble.

            "Where were you guys at?"

            Tornado sirens wail, sheets of rain splatter the city, and lightning slices across the charcoal sky. Robbie and Mike are looking for somewhere dry when they climb through the window of an abandoned house. The house is large, a sagging porch winds around its face, and gray soot covers two bay windows flanking the front door. It looks like a dense layer of cobwebs clouding two open eyes.

            "The place was empty and looked like it had been for a long time. Lots of busted up furniture, trash, old clothes. The house stank bad. Smelled like rotten eggs."

            He speaks in short bursts, the words spitting from his mouth as each memory flashes into his mind. He stares at the floor when he tells the story, sets his elbows on his legs, and presses his palms together.

            Robbie keeps talking. Two narrow staircases on each side of the first floor lead to the second floor. When they walk upstairs, a cold breeze hisses through the house and brushes against their backs. Mike says it is a broken window letting the storm in. Robbie senses something is wrong and trembles. They see dark splotches of soot marking the white walls of a large room. The marks look like black stars. The wind blows harder again his back. Mike feels it too, but neither man speaks.

            "I don't remember much after that. Just patches. Everything was fuzzy, like a dream, and I couldn't think straight."

            "Why didn't you just leave if you were so afraid? You could have found somewhere else to go."

            Robbie raises his hand. He is pale and retches twice. Saul thinks Robbie will vomit and the muscles in his stomach tighten.

            "Are you alright?" Saul reaches under his desk and pulls a wastebasket in front of Robbie. "You need something?"

            Robbie coughs and throws his head back. "Yeah, I'm okay." He looks at Saul and clears his throat. "We couldn't find our way out."

            The house darkens and there is no light except flashes of lightning blasting through the windows. Robbie feels like a sheet of ice clings to his body. They walk into a room with a large picture window set high on one wall. There is no wind here. There is heat, a sour tasting cloud of moisture washing across his face and stinging his skin. The lightning snarls and fills the room with white fire. Robbie staggers backwards and sees the dog landing on Mike. He cannot move.

            "If you couldn't move, how'd you escape?"

            "You ever feel trapped? Like you can't get out or don't know how?" He raises his voices and glares at Saul.

            Saul wants to calm Robbie and whispers. "Sure, I know what that feels like. Everyone does."

            "My heart was beating so hard that I was in pain. It felt like a heart attack. I looked like crazy for the door, but I didn't see one. I ran across the room and jumped through the window. It cut me up pretty bad, but I got out."

            He remembers crashing through the window and glass briars slicing his skin. He does not remember landing. He is wedging his body between two fence posts when he wakes. The rain pelts his face and jagged bursts of lightning streak across the sky. He turns his head to the right and his cheek sinks into the mud. He sees the house. The picture window is intact. When the bursts of lightning tear open the sky, flashes swallow the glass and the white-hot glare blinds him. When the lightning stops, he does not see or hear another living thing. The power is out and shadows are shrouding the buildings.

            He staggers through the yard and finds the street. He runs, swinging his legs in full stride, and does not slow for half a mile. His chest throbs with pain and his head is on fire. The houses around him are dark and he is alone in the middle of the street.

            "I was living on the streets that summer. Me and Mike had a camp behind a city park. I went there 'cause I couldn't think of anywhere else to go."

            "Why do you think the dog let you go?" Saul shrugs. "It's just hard to imagine." He smiles hoping it dulls his disbelief.

            Robbie straightens in his chair and tilts his head towards the ceiling. "You mean hard to believe."

            Saul pauses before answering. "Yeah, I won't lie, Robbie. That too."

            Without warning, Robbie jerks his shirt up to his neck. His ribs bulge against his skin like bedsprings in a broken down mattress. Saul leans back when he sees the scars. Two wide grooves crisscross his chest. The scars are a few inches deep with thick scabbing at the edges.

            "The dog did that to you?"

            "Do you believe me now?"

            Saul believes a human hand carves scars like this. The hand belongs to Robbie or someone else, but they are not the claw marks of a demonic dog. "Something happened to you, Robbie. I'm sorry for you. Whatever it was."

            Robbie stares at him. "It was waiting for me in my tent. It jumped on top of me and clawed my chest. I thought I was goin' die, but it crawled off and walked away. The scars never healed. Ever since then..." He stops speaking and sneers. "You'll believe me soon. I want it to finish what it started that day. I want to die."

            Before Robbie picks up two bags of groceries and leaves, Saul asks him if he wants to meet for coffee at eight o'clock tonight. Robbie narrows his eyes and cocks his head to the side. He steps back.


            "I want to hear about the rest of it, Robbie. I know there's more you wanted to tell me." Saul lowers his voice and takes a step towards Robbie.

            He smirks. "But you don't believe me, Mr. Ivers. So why?"

            The fluorescent lighting covers Robbie's face with a dull glow. Saul sees the scars marking his face. Parallel grooves slant across his cheek and a wide wrinkle of skin reaches from under his left ear to his chin. The scars are like war paint in the white wave of light falling from the ceiling.

            "I want to understand, Robbie. That's all."


            He has one dream. It swells from the bottom of his brain once a week and he wakes crying each time. He stands near the shore of a blue river. It snakes through a narrow valley where tall cedars and slate rock formations cover the steep hillsides. The thick spikes of grass are purple, stiff, and reach Saul's knees. He cannot see the sun and clots of sapphire clouds blanket the sky. He watches hundreds of upturned black umbrellas creeping across the surface of the silent river.

            They are drifting north into a distant blue mist. The umbrella spines are rigid, silver stems of scentless flowers. The umbrellas are breathing. Their black, vinyl canopies of skin are rising and falling. They slide with the rippling current, spinning from side to side, and their arching limbs brush against each other like hands caressing in the dark.

            The dream changes after meeting Robbie for the first time. Upturned black umbrellas choke the blue river, sapphire clouds hide the sun, and a mist glitters in the distance, but something is coming for him this time. A hoarse roar blasts out of the mist and hundreds of black umbrellas burst into flames. The black dog steps out of the mist and glares at Saul. Its loud pig snorts and gurgling breaths cause him to wince and cover his ears. It walks over the umbrellas, striding through the air, a carpet of fire flaring below him, and holding his head high. It is coming for him.

            Saul cannot move. He cowers and his hands rise to block the dog's red, diamond-shaped claws and teeth. Fear flashes through his body, blinding his brain, searing his nerves, and scorching his tongue. A knot of pain tightens around his stomach. He is choking, bending over, and coughing up clumps of dry dirt. He cannot stop. He cannot wake up.

            He stops coughing when a stinging chill grips his body. A claw slams down on his shoulder and spins him around. The dog is standing inches away. It is squatting on its thick horse legs and extending its head towards Saul. His back is straight and his hands are flat against his legs. The dog's narrow face dissolves into a blinking soup of swirling black, white, and red pinholes. The blinking slows and greens, browns, and blues spill into its face. The colors bleed into each other and a pair of eyes breaks through the checkered static. They are his mother's eyes and her face fills in around the familiar gaze.

            Saul cries when he sees her sinking cheeks, pale marble eyes, and violet skin. She is dead, but her soul plunges like a drop of water, picking up speed and rushing past death, splashing and pooling into a void, an absence beyond the reach of life and death alike. There is a body buried in a graveyard. There are pictures and words on paper. She lives through ink and rock in the waking world. However, he knows now that is not her true face. For the first time, he sees her true face and knows that he, like her, does not exist.

            Saul closes his eyes tight. He wants to wake up, but when he opens his eyes, the dog is staring at him. It is smirking and its three eyes are crimson triangles of lava bubbling in the sockets. Auburn plumes of flame erupt from a halo of fire surrounding its head. The dog leans forward and stretches its head towards Saul. Its cold breath smells like mildew and rotten meat. His muscles knot up and his skin is numb. Fear cuts into his body and hollows him out. It has come for him.

            The dog stops moving. It lowers it heads and six long, glistening tongues slide out of its mouth. The tongues are thick tentacles and blood smears stain their black skin. Pink bulbs as large as a softball are at the end of each tentacle and the deep pucker in their leathery skin is a smaller mouth that never stops opening and closing.

            The tentacles are rising. They are swaying, spinning in small circles, and rustling against each other. It sounds like a strong wind buffeting a tent. They are weaving around each other, clinching and merging, a swelling thread spiraling towards the sky. Saul wants it to end, but he cannot wake up. He will never wake up. He knows he is going to die.

            When the thick black tentacle snaps backwards and lashes Saul, darkness swallows him. He is screaming and the bed sheets are damp with sweat when he wakes up.


            Robbie will not meet in public places. He picks up scrap metal and free food, buys plastic half-gallon bottles of vodka, and talks to people when he has no other choice. He guzzles the vodka alone and stares at his television. No one needs him. If he drinks coffee in a restaurant, the black dog will find him and kill everyone there. If Saul wants him to keep talking, they have to be alone.

            They are at Robbie's apartment the next night. He rents a single room in a wilting A-frame house two blocks north from the courthouse square. A short, fat old woman in a purple nylon gown waves from the front porch. She is slumping deep into an iron-frame lawn chair with thick yellow cushions. It looks like she is melting into the seat. Robbie says she sucks down cigarettes and never gets his name right. When she sees a television documentary about killer germs, she pays Robbie to staple visqueen strips over the windows. Robbie says she thinks it will keep the air pure inside. They are gray plastic sheets covering cold eyes.

            There is a small bed, a silent television, and a short wooden table in his room. Stains spot the bed's thin white sheets and Saul sees an empty pint bottle of vodka on top of the television. A fraying hardcover dictionary props up one table leg and a thick layer of duct tape cuffs the leg inches above the floor. There is a small window open above his bed and the smooth concrete walls and floor gleam under the ceiling light.

            "I don't have a chair." Robbie flings a hand towards the bed. "Sit there. I'll sit on the floor."

            Robbie crosses his legs when he sits. He pulls his legs tight against his thin body, plants his elbows on each leg, and rocks back and forth. He stares at his lap.

            Saul frowns. "I'm glad you want to keep telling me your story, Robbie. I'm here to listen and help if I can."
            Robbie snorts and looks at Saul. "It's okay that you think I'm crazy. I don't give a fuck. But don't treat me like a moron..."

            Saul raises his palm and his eyes widen. "Hey, I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

            Robbie leans forward and shakes his head. "Fuck what you meant." He leans back and sighs. "We both know you think I'm nuts, but you'll listen. That's why I want to tell you. Someone needs to know."

            "Know what?"

            "What happened to me." He whispers and lowers his head.

            He cannot leave his tent for two days. Whenever he unzips the flap and starts pulling it back, the black dog charges the tent. Robbie screams, closes the flap, and scrambles away from the door. He curls into a ball and waits to die, but death never comes. No one hears his throat-scarring screams for help. He guzzles a gallon of vodka in thirty-six hours but does not sleep. He hears it pacing outside.

            The pacing stops on the third day. The sun is setting and the tent is a gray, humid dome in the dwindling light. The stink of sweat, urine, feces, and rotting food burns his nostrils. He is deep in the stomach of a beast, digestive smells swirling around him, and heat soaking and spoiling his body.

            The black dog is gone. The trees near the tent are not moving and the world is silent. Robbie opens the door and crawls out of the tent. There are no footprints or claw marks in the dirt. The dog is not here, but a static charge hangs in the air and causes the hair on his arms to rise.

            "I don't understand, Robbie. Why would it keep letting you go if it wants to kill you?"

            "It's playing with me. Like a cat with a fucking mouse." He shivers and looks under his bed. "Mind moving for a second? I gotta get my backpack from under the bed."

            "No problem."

            Saul scoots to the foot of the bed and Robbie pulls his backpack out. He unzips it, takes out a quart of vodka, and breaks the bottle's seal. When he tilts the bottle up, his eyes are staring at the ceiling and blinking like someone falling asleep. He chokes with each gulp.

            "Do you drink like that all of the time?" Saul lowers his voice and cocks his head to the side.

            Robbie's moist eyes bulge out of their sockets. He licks his lips and sneers. "Fuck you, man. I drink when I want to."
            Saul's shoulders with a deep sigh and his head drops when he exhales. He wants to listen, he wants to smash the walls of alcohol and clouds of hallucination cutting Robbie off from the world, but every word is a frantic, white-knuckled slur and his glancing blows leave no mark. The humming frustration building inside of Saul sparks the urge to grab Robbie's shoulders and shake him, pleading with him to stop drinking, begging him to believe that there is no dog stalking him. You need help, Robbie! Please listen to me! I just want to help you.

            Saul sighs and raises his head. "How long ago did this start?"

            "It'll be a year in four days." He lunges forward coughing. His body thrashes and a knot of phlegm shoots out of his mouth. It hits the floor and a small glob creeps down his chin. Saul moves and none lands on him. Robbie rubs his hand across his chin and wipes it off on his pants.

            "Where's the bathroom? I'll get something to clean that up."

            Robbie shrugs and clears his throat. "To the left, by the kitchen."

            The bathroom is small. The yellowing sink slumps on the wall, dark stains freckle the corners of a small circular mirror, and the floor around the toilet is rotting and damp. Saul tears a short strip of toilet paper from a half-used roll and, as he turns to leave, sees his reflection. He stops, puts his hands on the sink, and leans forward. There is a hairline crack in the glass extending from one corner to another. It segments his face into disjointed halves and the grime on the glass blurs his image. Who do you think you are and what are you doing here? I am lost and I am here to help this man. He wants to die and someone has to care. Someone has to stop him.

            Robbie cannot stop. When Saul comes back to his room, Robbie cannot stop moving. He massages his hands and pops his knuckles. He rubs his neck and taps his legs. Robbie cannot stop talking about the dog. It keeps coming.

            It finds his new camp the next morning. The black dog tears open the tent and bites into Robbie's leg. He screams for help, pushing his voice out of his body so hard it feels like someone pinching his tonsils, and digs his fingers into the ground. There is no escape. The dog drags Robbie out of the tent and releases his leg. He clutches the gushing wound, his hands vanishing in a bloody tide, and pleads for his life. The black dog stands over him and blocks out the morning sun. Its head weaves towards him. Robbie crawls across the ground and, when he looks behind him, sees its long mouth curling into a smile. It takes slow, long steps towards him.

            When Robbie staggers to his feet, the dog lashes his back with its thick claws. They hook into his body and strip off a layer of skin. Pain inflames every nerve and muscle. He drops to his knees, rolls onto his side, and cannot stop screaming.

            The pain is gone. He is not screaming, he is not bleeding, and there is no scar on his leg. He is sitting in the center of the clearing, crossing his legs, the morning sun warming his face. He hears the dog walking behind him. Its crunching footsteps are coming closer. Its breathing sounds like a drain spitting up a fountain of fluid and coats the back of his head and neck with a mist.

            Robbie lunges forward, but the dog claws into his shoulder and jerks him to the ground. His back slams into the dirt and the impact knocks the wind out of him. He opens his eyes and sees the dog staring down at him. He opens his eyes and sees the dog staring down at him. It is panting, snarling, and the flames surround its head unite in a bright halo. When Robbie opens his mouth to scream, a tide of blood explodes from the dog's mouth, pours over his face, and fills his mouth. It tastes like vinegar and gasoline.

            "Blood?" Saul's voice cracks when he asks the question. He is wading in dark water and cannot measure the depth.

            "It hit my face forever and made me choke. And I could hear the dog breathing the whole time." He clinches his fists tight and they look like knots of bone. "I couldn't move for a long time after it stopped."

            "Where was the dog?"

            "Gone." Robbie drinks more vodka and grits his teeth. "Gone and there wasn't a drop of blood around."

            Saul wrings his hands and looks at the floor. Robbie is spinning in a short cycle, sinking into depression, exploding with anger, and trembling in fear within minutes of each other. He is pouring a stream of vodka down his throat that spins the cycle faster. Saul gulps when a hot swell of pity rises from his stomach and burns his throat. He cannot look at Robbie. If he raises his head, he will see the faint tinge of yellow coloring Robbie's tense, fluttering eyes. If he holds his gaze, Saul will cry. The tears will flood over his cheeks, his body will shake, and Robbie will not silence his sobbing. Saul is alone. Robbie is not here. It is Saul and the black dog, invisible, watching and taking form through a story told by a dying man.

            "I know what you're thinking." Robbie's voice gurgles and, when he coughs, he spits out lime-colored phlegm. "He's a fucking crazy drunk. He's dangerous to himself. He's dangerous to other people. I'd be thinking that too."

            Robbie's eyes are wet and his right cheek quivers. The hot swell of pity rises again and Saul reaches out to Robbie. He pats his shoulder twice, but Robbie pulls out of his reach and stares at him.

            "You told me you were from a town up north. What town?"

            Robbie frowns and slides further away from Saul. He lights a cigarette. "Why? Ain't gonna tell you anything."

            Saul is digging, not backing off, and sifting through the stories, gestures, and decisions for the root causes or conditions. He is spinning in his own cycle and, while the shifts are slower, he wavers between probing, listening, or leaving. He smiles at Robbie and shrugs.

            "Just wondering. I'm from Indianapolis." He shrugs again. "Just trying to get to know you, that's all. You don't have to tell me, okay?"

            Robbie opens his mouth to speak, but pauses and sighs. "Martinsville. There you go. What's that tell you about me?" His voice grows louder and his shoulders rise. "Huh?"

            The sharp edge of anger in his voice quickens Saul's heartbeat and causes him to squirm. "I'm sorry, Robbie, I didn't mean to offend you, I..."

            Robbie stabs out his cigarette on the concrete floor, throws his hands through the air, and swings his head from side to side. "My family's gone. That's what you're gonna ask now, right? Well, save it, 'cause now you know!" He whips himself to the right, grabs his vodka bottle, tilts it up, and drinks three long gulps.

            Saul lowers his head, puckers his lips, and nods. He knows they are orphans. They are motherless, childless, and graying men dissolving in liquor, fading into swivel chairs and sleeping bags, weeping in apartments and tents. Saul knows why he is here.

            "It's tough, Robbie. I lost my mom just three months ago."

            Robbie glares at him. Blood rushes to his face and his wide eyes twitch. He throws his head back, screams, and staggers to his feet. He points at Saul.

            "I'm sick of your shit! Get the fuck out of here now, you motherfucker, now!"

            Saul jumps from the bed, holds up a hand, and nods. "Whatever I've done, Robbie, I'm sorry, just calm down, alright? I'm really sorry."

            Robbie lurches a step closer to him and spits on the floor. "You're always sorry! I'm the one who's sorry, motherfucker!" He closes his eyes, sighs, and drops his head. Saul is tense, but he cannot look away. Robbie's long breaths rattle and wheeze from congestion. Saul sees him tighten his hands into fists and shake his head. He whips his head back and Saul gasps. Robbie rushes towards Saul and grabs him by the shirt. Their faces are inches apart and the smell of vodka causes him to retch.

            "Why are you still here? Go!" Robbie opens the door and jerks Saul towards it. "Get the fuck out!"

            Saul pushes and pulls Robbie's arms, but cannot free himself. The vodka makes Robbie stronger, infusing his body with frantic, angry power. "Let go of me, goddammit!"

            When they reach the open doorway, Robbie shoves him and Saul tumbles backwards into the hallway. He lands hard against the opposing wall. When he looks up, Robbie is standing in the doorway. His skin is the color of a power blue bruise and thin red rings surround his dark eyes. He is not screaming, smiling, pointing, speaking, or shouting. He says nothing to Saul and slams the door shut.


            Robbie watches his mother choke every morning. She wants a cigarette as soon as her legs are dangling over the edge of her bed. Robbie gives it to her and lights his own. Before she slides on her oxygen mask, before she eats or drinks, before he helps her walk to the bathroom, she sucks down a long filtered cigarette. The coughing and choking start before she can finish. At first, the coughing is a dry hack, the choking just something caught in the throat, but it flares into crippling explosions of air and hoarse gasping for breath that doubles her over. Robbie puts his own cigarette out and braces her shoulders to keep her from falling. She keeps the cigarette between her fingers and her thrashing leaves wide gray halos in the air that ring their bodies in smoke.

            Throughout childhood and his twenties, Robbie's mother Abby crackles with energy. Jumping from job to job, wrestling with three sons while dad is drinking somewhere, or else rotting in a jail cell, she is talking, always talking, and the words burst out of her mouth. She moves through life the same way. Her legs bounce after sitting for ten minutes and her hands jitter when she speaks. In his mind, Robbie sees her pacing, pointing fingers, stomping, barking orders, asking questions. Abby is slender, muscular, and the cloud of smoke shrouding her face billows from fires no one can put out.

            It takes six months for lung cancer to do what no one else can. Robbie cradles her on a long December night while she crouches over the toilet and heaves up thick, black clots of blood. By late June, she weighs ninety pounds, gasps for air, and needs help walking to the bathroom. When she sleeps, Robbie drinks. He is thirty, the youngest of three brothers, and a year out of prison. It is not his first time locked up or lives with his mother after release. Abby's oldest son, Kevin, sells cars and the middle son, Terry, owns a gas station, but it does not matter. Robbie is her favorite, her blind, arms open wide concession to love. He looks like his dead father. It doesn't matter when he snatches hundreds of dollars from her purse. She never calls the police or turns her back on him. It doesn't matter that he drinks every dime he has and leeches off her. She blinks twice and says he can't help it.

            His brothers hate him. They grit their teeth when Abby brushes off the arrests. Robbie isn't drunk, some asshole cop has it out for him, or it's the crowd Robbie runs with landing him in trouble. Who or whatever the cause, it is never Robbie's fault, but when Kevin has a pregnant girlfriend three months after his sixteenth birthday, Abby gives him a week to find a job and get out. Who or whatever the cause, it is never Robbie's fault, but when the police pull Terry over on his eighteenth birthday and haul him in for drunk driving, the first and only time Terry lands in trouble, Abby throws his belongings into the front yard and kicks him out of the house. Eighteen years later, whenever people ask about their brother, they say he is dead.

             Even now, with their mother dying, they will not speak or stand in the same room with him. When they visit Abby for two hours each afternoon, Robbie leaves the house. The brothers raises their voices, pleading, threatening, reeling off Robbie's misdeeds, but Abby wheezes and waves their words away. She will never make Robbie leave, he needs her, and there's nothing else to say. The brothers bristle when she talks about Robbie's hard life. They have the same mom, the same dad who slaps them around just as hard and as much as their little brother and neither of them drink, do drugs, or serve prison time. Abby breaks their hearts. They make the best of a difficult situation, go further in life than Abby, but it isn't enough for her. They never have it as bad as their little brother. They can never be Robbie.

            Abby dreams about Robbie on the day she dies. She is floating inches above a thick sea of smoke and gliding over its surface. Long streaks of red, like splashes of paint, stain the powder-blue ocean and the sky is dark. When Abby turns her head from side to side, she sees green flares of light illuminating the distant horizon. The light does not reach her. Nothing can touch her here. There is no coughing, there are no cancers, and though the world is gray, Abby is whole once again, drifting in an invisible vessel of heat.

            The sea surface parts and Robbie rises out of the ocean. His naked body is moving alongside Abby. She stares at him. She sees he has the body of a thirty year old, but his face is eight years old with its plump cheeks, small mouth, and clear, pink skin. I have my son again, he is here with me, she thinks. He is whole once again.

            Robbie turns his head towards Abby and smiles. She wants to touch his face, but when she extends her hand, the smoke rises and pulls him out of reach. He screams as he moves away and his body begins turning into ashes. When Abby screams, red tentacles erupt from the sea and tighten around her throat. She cannot breathe. The tentacles are pulling her under when she wakes up, rolls out of the bed, and falls coughing to the floor.

            Robbie hears her fall. He is standing over the toilet and, despite her steep weight loss, the impact rattles the bathroom mirror. When he rushes into her bedroom, he spots her beside the bed, curling into a fetal position, coughing and shaking. Her fingers are clawing at her mouth and blood spilling off her hands puddles on the floor. She tries to speak and scream, but spits and gasps instead. Robbie scoops her up and places her on the bed.

            When the paramedics wheel her into the emergency room, she is vomiting streams of blood and draining her bowels onto the hospital floor. Robbie stands in a corner, watching his mother die, mouth gaping and fingers digging into the walls on each side of him. His brothers are on the other side of the room. Terry is watching from a chair, his hands covering his mouth. Kevin is on his knees, crying, face staring at the ceiling and hands tight in prayer.

            Roaring voices surround the brothers. There are doctors barking directions, nurses shouting numbers, and orderlies with huge eyes begging the brothers to leave the room. Everyone is glaring at tall, beeping monitors, but the brothers are not scanning the digital screens or listening to the voices. Robbie does not feel the pain slicing through his fingers, Terry cannot move, and Kevin's prayer is an open mouth that cannot speak. All senses save sight short circuit and they are staring at their mother. Their mother, a sagging coat of skin. Their mother, thrashing and flailing, clutching at the air, heaving and hissing out fading gasps of breath. Their mother, pain pinning her eyes open, her short, scattered plumes of gray hair waving side to side like thick wisps of smoke rising off her head. A loud beep fills the room and Abby stops moving.
            The doctors and nurses step back from the bed, glance at each other, and frown. A young doctor with a blonde crew cut, dark tan, and trim frame is standing near Robbie. He turns to face him.

            "I'm sorry." He whispers and extends his hand to Robbie.

            Robbie slumps to the floor without looking at the doctor. He is looking at the hospital bed. All he sees of his mother is the chalk-white sole of her foot jutting over the side of the bed. Her foot calluses look like fat gray worms burrowing under the skin.


            Someone, or something, is always hitting Robbie in the head. It is a week after his attack when Saul hears that he is hurt. The same two men who see Robbie fall off the restaurant sign are at the community center. Saul is standing near their table when he hears that Robbie is in the hospital. He has a concussion after a boxcar ladder on a moving train smacks his head.

            "What the fuck? How'd he manage that shit?"

            The second man chuckles and shakes his head. He is older than the first man is. Pockmarks spot his banana-yellow skin and when his eyes narrow, the blue teardrop tattoo looping from the corner of his right eye disappears into a skin crease. "Dumbass tryin' to put a penny on the rail while the train was going by."

            The first man jerks his head back. "What? Why's he want to put a penny on a railroad tie?" He cannot stop stroking the thin patches of facial hair curling around his jaw line.

            The second man smirks and shrugs. "Well, you know..."

            "Um, no, I don't know. What?"

            "He wanted to flatten the penny, that's what. Jackie told me that shit was crazy."

            "Jackie? Who's that?"

            The second man furrows his brow and bobs his head from side to side. "You know, Jackie, that fat motherfucker who hangs out..."

            The first man laughs and leans sideways in his chair. "Oh, never mind, I know that guy. Anyway..."

            "Anyway, Jackie said Robbie was shouting crazy shit about how he didn't care about death and even if the train hit him, it couldn't kill him. Crazy shit."

            "Hah. Someone should ask him how he feels now." They snicker. "Jackie told you what happened, huh?"

            After two hits of blotter acid dissolve on his tongue, Robbie feels stronger than death. Even when a week passes without seeing the dog, rustling trees, slamming doors, exhaust backfires, and roaring engines jolt him. He is looking over his shoulder, sniffing the air, and peering around corners. When he is too afraid to leave his room, Robbie chugs vodka, stares at the door, and pictures the dog on the other side, silent and waiting.

            However, when the crackling rush of acid surges through his nerves and swallows his mind, everything changes. His shoulders fall, his muscles loosen. A thick, static cloud of humidity surrounds him, but the swirling currents of heat carry him forward. He looks down and sees his feet hovering centimeters above the ground. Let the dog come for me, he thinks. Let it drop from the trees, slam into his door, or charge out of the darkness. He will not run. He will face the demon, strangle it with his hands, and spit in its dead eye. It cannot kill me, he thinks. I will outlive death.

            He does not know Jackie well. Jackie is homeless and the smell of vodka, sweat, and mildew clings to him. A few years younger than Robbie, the deep half-ovals below his eyes, sagging jowls, and maroon skin add ten years to his appearance. He talks a lot, always about stealing, sex, drugs, or booze. Robbie drinks his vodka, eats his acid, and nods.

            They are sitting on a short gravel ridge running parallel to a railroad line. The railroad line loops behind a city park before splitting into two separate tracks. The track is a few feet away from them and on the other side is a steep hillside. Oil and grease stains splatter the wooden crossties and the sharp chemical smell of creosote causes their eyes to water. The constant scalding from train wheels burns the rails silver and they gleam in the summer sun. When Robbie stares at the rails, he sees them swell and fall like the earth is heaving. Jackie is blabbering about his latest women. There is a dip in the gravel between them cradling a half-empty half-gallon of vodka.

            "You tell me what you think, tell me if I'm wrong. Susie's hanging out with these three biker lookin' motherfuckers. One of them has booze and dope and she's rubbin' up against him, strokin' his arm, all that shit. When these guys leave, she hops in their van and leaves with 'em."

            Robbie shrugs and looks at Jackie. His huge eyes are red and a thick purple vein stretches from his scalp to just above his nose. The vein weaves under his rippling skin like a tadpole swimming in place. The vein swells from his forehead, straining against his white skin until it breaks open. A small snakehead slithers out of Jackie's skull and hovers above his eyes. Robbie gasps and turns his head away.

            "You know what I think. Should be obvious." Robbie says. His throat is tight and he struggles to speak.

            Each time Jackie nods, he whips his head forward like a man flinging something out of his hair. He stares at the hill on the other side.

            "It is obvious. Crystal fucking clear. I waited around and, what do you know, the whore came back. I see them pull up, open the door, push her outta the van, and drive off. She walks up to me, asks for a kiss, but not only is she stoned out of her mind, she stinks of vodka and there's white stuff smeared in her hair. Guess what that is." He kicks the gravel hard and sends rocks flying towards the tracks. "I had to walk away. I wanted to kill that fucking whore!"

            Jackie's booming voice makes Robbie flinch. When he looks at Jackie again, there is no snake sticking out of his forehead. Jackie is still kicking the gravel, tugging at his shirt with both hands like a man trying to crawl out of a sack. He is spitting out blurry slurs that Robbie does not understand. Robbie's tongue is dry and large beads of sweat are streaming down his face. Robbie lies down on the rocks listening to Jackie talk, mumble, hiss, and shout, but he does not speak.

            The heat, acid, and alcohol knock Robbie out. When he opens his eyes thirty minutes later, he feels the sharp point of a rock stabbing deep into his cheek. He does not hear Jackie. He rolls his head away from the rock and looks for him.

            Jackie is staring straight ahead, hugging his legs, and rocking back and forth. He is mumbling, but Robbie cannot understand him. Glistening teardrops the shape of fingertips are sliding down his face and a jagged grimace twists his lips.

            "Are you alright, man?" Robbie asks. His tongue is dry and stumbles over the words.

            Jackie jerks his head around to look at Robbie. The sun's red glare surrounds his fluttering eyes. They are small, gaping wounds bleeding tears onto his face.

            "I've seen it. I've seen how it'll end for me."

            Robbie sits up and his stomach churns. "What is it? What are you talking about?"

            "I've seen how I'm goin' die. And it's gonna happen soon."

            Jackie's lips are trembling when he turns his face towards the sky. Robbie sees his lips moving in a silent prayer. The color drains out of Jackie's face when he looks at him again. He leans to the side and vomits. Long, thick clots of blood splash onto the gravel and Robbie shifts to dodge any splatter. Each time Jackie heaves, Robbie clutches his hand tighter over his pounding heart.

            After the vomiting stops, Jackie starts talking. He is taking a drink when a vision appears in front of him. Everything he sees is so real, like a high definition projection on the tapestry of heat. He sees himself living again with his parents, but he is no child. He is five years older, red and swollen, drinking when and whatever he can. He locks himself in his room for days at a time and only leaves when he runs out and needs to scavenge for more. They are whispering about no one taking care of him when they are gone. They are waiting for him to die.

            It happens at three twenty-four in the morning. A thunderstorm crackles and whipping rain lashes the house. Jackie is on the floor. Jackie is bleeding from his nose, mouth, and anus. When the blood spreads across the floor and mixes with puddles of vodka, it looks like acrylic paint. His face is darker than any blood, twice its normal size, oval, and black veins are bulging against his maroon skin. He is trying to cry out, but vomiting strangles his screams. Shreds and chunks of body tissue are tumbling out of his mouth. When the television beeps with a tornado warning at three twenty-eight, Jackie is not moving.

            Jackie sees his father pounding on his door. His father wakes up certain that something is wrong. After not seeing Jackie for two days, fear like freezing water is rushing across him. His puffy eyes are squinting and he pounds the door hard enough to splinter its frame. His thin white hair jumps each time his fist hits the wood. He is certain that Jackie is dead.

            When his father bursts through the door and sees Jackie's body, the vision dissolves. The next thing Jackie sees are two paramedics standing in his doorway. A police officer and his parents are standing behind them. The paramedics disappear into his bedroom. When Jackie sees them again, they are carrying separate ends of a long white stretcher. Jackie sees his body on the stretcher. Jackie sees the crimson splotches of blood staining the white sheet covering his body. He cannot see his face, hands, or feet, but he sees the steep rise of his gut and the outline of his large, long nose. The paramedics are grunting, bracing their hips against the walls, steering his three hundred and sixty pound dead corpse through a narrow hallway. The paramedic walking backwards steps on his foot and tilts to one side. When he does, Jackie watches his dead body slide across the stretcher, slip out from under the sheet, and fall to the floor. He sees his gray skin, fading blue eyes, gaping mouth, and the gashes and teeth marks on his tongue.

            Robbie says nothing while Jackie is talking. He is laying on his back, spreading his legs apart, the acid and alcohol slowing every syllable he hears. His clothes are sticking to his skin. However, when Jackie describes seeing his own dead body tumbling onto the hallway floor, Robbie stiffens in anger. He glares at Jackie and thinks, You don't really want to die. You just want someone to pay attention to you and your bullshit visions. You spit on life with your bullshit. The dog should be chasin' you, not me.

            Jackie pulls back from him. "Is somethin' wrong, man?"

            Robbie crawls across the gravel, snatches the vodka, and takes a long drink. It has no taste, but his heart races when it hits his stomach. His tongue is lighter, limber, and rolls across his lips. He never stops looking at Jackie. Jackie's head is drooping, his eyes are bobbing up and down, his shoulders are sagging, and Robbie hears a snoring wheeze in his heavy breathing. Shoulda been someone like you, not me.

            "You don't deserve to die. You deserve to live a long time so you can lose everything." His skin burns and sweat stings his eyes. His slow, slurring voice does not stumble over any words. "Maybe if you make it long enough to see your parents die, you might learn somethin' and deserve to live 'cause you aren't living right now. You piss all over life."

            Jackie narrows his eyes and straightens his back. He jabs his index finger towards Robbie and kicks the gravel. "Who the fuck do you think you are? I'll shut that fucking mouth if you wanna keep running it."

            A throbbing ache punctuates the tingling Robbie feels in his hands and feet. The blanketing heat scalding his skin causes him to squirm. He shrugs and smirks.

            "You can't take the truth. You piss on it like you do everything else. Fuck you."

            Robbie hears the loud, mounting whine of a train. He thinks, I want the dog to come right now. I want to see this fat motherfucker stare death in the face and act all tough. I want to see the dog tear this fucker limb from limb.

            Jackie lunges forward, grabs a rock, and throws it at Robbie's head. Robbie sees it coming in time to lean sideways. When the rock zips past his head and lands several feet behind him, Robbie turns to look at it. It has a pear-like shape and a long, jagged shaft with a trio of sharp corners at one end.

            His fading surprise twists into a stream of rage flowing through him. He grits his teeth and starts shaking. That motherfucker, he thinks, and whips his head around to look at Jackie. Robbie sees him leaning forward and bracing his palms against the ground. His eyes are wide open and unblinking.

            "Next time, I won't miss." Jackie says in a low, droning voice.

            Robbie scrambles to his feet and charges him. Before Jackie can stand or cover up, Robbie punches him twice in the face. Jackie lands on his back and Robbie hovers above him. When he swings his leg back to kick Jackie, the train whistle stops him. He looks north and sees a silver head bulging towards them through the blurring heat.

            "What about you, you motherfucker? Huh? Who the fuck do you think you are?" He clutches his head while shouting. "You don't think you piss on life?" Jackie snorts and coughs out a knot of blood. "You're just another wacko drunk with a big fucking mouth."

            Robbie steps back and smirks. The rage propelling him across the gravel when he attacks Jackie is still pumping through him and, when he inhales, his back straightens, his chest lurches forward, and his hands flex, moving one finger at a time.

            "I don't want to live. I'm trapped beyond life and death." When Robbie says the words, a cold breeze sweeps in, washes over him, and sinks into each pore of his skin. He feels the freezing air funnel inside of him and it seems to lift him inches off the ground. "I don't care about either one. I can't live and I can't die."

            Jackie scoots away from Robbie and rubs a bump rising above his right eye. "You can't fucking die?" He arches an eyebrow and snorts. "I think you're crazy and the acid is makin' you crazier."

            The train is moving closer. It is simmering, surging through the haze, short plumes of smoke whispering from its body and breaking apart when they curl towards the sky. Robbie stares at the train, cocks his head upwards, and sucks in a lungful of air. The dog will never kill me, he thinks. It keeps coming, keeps tryin' to kill me, but it can't. Nothing can touch me. Not some fat fuck on acid, not any demon. I can stand in front of that train if I want to and it would just go right through me.

            A cloud of smoke from Jackie's cigarette washes over his face. Robbie wants a cigarette and shakes one out of his pack. He sticks his hand into his pocket looking for a lighter and pulls it out with a handful of change. He stares at the lighter and change. I'll show this asshole that I'm not lying, he thinks. He plucks a penny from the pile with his empty hand, stuffs the lighter and remaining coins back into his pocket, and looks at Jackie.

            "I'm going to prove it to you." Robbie says with a whisper.

            Jackie gulps down a mouthful of vodka and wipes his mouth. "Prove what?"

            "That I can't die."

            Jackie looks at him with wide eyes, slaps his knee, and laughs. "How are you going to do that?"

            Robbie holds the penny up between his fingertips. "I'm gonna put this penny on a rail while the train is goin' by."

            Jackie snorts. "You're fucked up, man." He spits the words out and waves his hand at Robbie. "The train will hit your ass and kill you."

            "Nothing's gonna happen to me. You'll see."

            The train is passing them. Jackie scurries up a gravel embankment to get away from the railroad tracks, kicking rocks behind him, gripping the vodka bottle in one hand. The train's length gives Robbie time to reach the tracks. The acid and alcohol short-circuit his balance and he slides across the rocks. Boxcars are blasting past him and blowing his hair back. The hot wind soaking his face stinks of grease and forces him to squint. He lies on his stomach and crawls towards the rail. Instead of fear shattering his mind, anticipation is swelling up from his stomach and filling his mouth with a tart, syrupy taste. Instead of death, he is thinking about life and how, chest heaving and heart racing, he is more alive now than ever before. He is inches from the rushing train and its rumbling wake shakes the ground under him. He clutches the penny between his fingertips and turns his head to look at the oncoming boxcars.

            I want to do it at the right time, he thinks. I wanna do it when he thinks its gonna hit me for sure. The wheels are spinning guillotine blades, the height of a small car, slicing grooves into the steel. At the rear of each boxcar are long ladders with latticed steel steps leading to the roof of the boxcar. Robbie is watching the passing wheels and ladders. Now.

            He lunges forward and drops the penny on the rail. It bounces once and stops. When Robbie pulls back, the flat edge of a ladder steps slams into the back of his head. The impact knocks him unconsciousness and spins him around ninety degrees. He lands face down in the gravel and does not move.

            He sees the black dog in a dream. It is standing in front of him on the shore of a vast, black sea of rippling ashes. Steam hisses as it rises from the surface. The dog is larger, immense, the size of an elephant. Robbie is on his knees and cannot close his eyes or move his head. The dog wants him to see its face. The dog wants him to see the toothpick bodies of his father, mother, and friend moving between its teeth. They are flailing, screaming, and their blood is spilling onto the ground. He is holding his breath, clinching his fists, and narrowing his eyes trying to squeeze out one tear, but he cannot cry.

            The dog stops chewing and spits their bodies into the sea. When the crimson glow radiating from the dog strikes them, they are mangled, burning embers sailing through the air. There is no splash when they land and the black, swaying waves of ash swallow them. The dog tosses its mammoth head back and snarls. It is lunging towards Robbie's throat when it dissolves in a white flash that opens his eyes. He is awake and on his back in a hospital bed. A web of thick white bandages criss-cross his head.

            "Jackie was trippin' and talked to the cops?" the young man says.

            The older man shakes his head and chuckles. "Nah, you fuckin' kidding me? He told me he wrapped his t-shirt around his head to stop the bleeding, then left him layin' there while he ran to a pay phone."

            The young man curls his upper lips, glances at the floor, and shrugs when he raises his head. "You know, fuck Robbie. He's a crazy asshole anyway."

            When both men laugh, Saul tightens his grip on his plastic cup until hot coffee spills over the rim and splashes onto the floor. He soaks up the coffee and pictures grabbing both men by their necks, driving his elbow into their spines, and shoving them out the door.

            Saul does not want to remember Robbie. It is not the first time someone attacks him, but Robbie's screaming, pushing, and clutching explodes with shocking force. Saul does not want to remember his eyes. When he sees them in his mind, they are the size of golf balls, red, and bulging out of his face like blood blisters inches from bursting. However, he is not looking at Saul when he charges him. Robbie is staring over his shoulder.