Monday, May 21, 2012

Black Dog In The Sun - 1st 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. 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. His stomach twists, bile bubbles up his windpipe, and Saul spends the next hour vomiting into the toilet.
            Saul is sick after eating a late lunch and leaves work three hours early. Between the pain lacerating his stomach and his thoughts about meeting Robbie later, getting anything done at the center is impossible. Robbie tells him he 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 in his room 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 sick, lost, and 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 do 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, wedging his elbow into their spines, and shoving them through 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 power. Saul does not want to remember his eyes. When he sees them in his mind, they are red and yellow, pink rimming the edges, and swell like blood blisters seconds from bursting. Disappointment flattens Saul that night. After talking, listening, pretending not to hear, and extending his hand to Robbie across the wide gulf dividing their lives, his reaching rewarding him with a grip on their common grief, Robbie throws him out of his apartment. He cannot forget him. Even when Robbie stops coming to the community center, Saul hears coughing, slurring voices, and turns his head to look. Even when days pass without thinking of him once, Saul sees thin, stooping men pushing shopping carts or wearing backpacks and thinks it is Robbie. The man is sick and doesn't want my help, he thinks. I can't change that, so why torture myself?
            Saul is alone and dying. There is no wife, girlfriend, son, or daughter pleading to God on his behalf, hovering close by and shepherding him through his last days. There is no mother, father, brother, or sister crying for him and passing on the secret grace of tying his death to his birth and brighter days flush with family. He sees and talks to hundreds of people each day, but has no close friends. He will lose the job, his threadbare tether to other people, if he tells anyone he is sick.
            There is a fat, black spider covering the crown of his kidney. It is burrowing deep into the organ tissue, growing, its purple legs wrapping around his intestines and latching into the stomach wall. When lung cancer is ravaging his mother, Saul is breathless, sleeping little, rushing to feed, bathe, and change her. If he is the one taking care of her, she will get better. If I'm her nurse, she won't die, he thinks. The spider appears on his kidney a month after her death and doubles in size within six months.
            When Saul hears he has Stage 2 kidney cancer, he wants to punch the doctor. He wants to hit him hard enough to shatter his sculpted jaw and knock out his sparkling, ivory teeth.
            "I don't believe you. I'm just forty, it isn't possible. The cramps, fatigue, shortness of breath", he shrugs, "it's from working too hard and eating like crap. That's all." He clinches the chair armrest and crosses his feet.
            "I won't pretend to understand what you're feeling right now. I'd be frightened out of my mind, so I don't blame you if you are. I'm sure it's hard to accept." The doctor folds his hands on his desktop, scoots forward in his chair, and sighs. "However, the tests do not lie. If we have any chance of stopping the cancer and extending your life, now is the time to act. The cancer has spread to your intestines." He pauses, looks down at the desk, and then stares again at Saul. "The sooner you accept what you're facing, the sooner..."
            He's talking to me like I'm a fuckin' five year old! Saul lunges forward and jabs his index finger towards the doctor. "I don't accept your diagnosis and want a second opinion!"
            The doctor holds up a palm and nods like a man falling asleep. "No doctor is going to give you a clean bill of health, Mr. Ivers. You're going to be dead in a year if we don't start acting now. I understand..."
            The pain in his stomach is like the sharp corner of a desk stabbing him in his side and above his pelvis. Saul slams his fist onto an armrest. "You don't understand a thing! I want... a second fucking opinion... now!"
            The doctor stiffens and drums his fingers on the desktop. "Mr. Ivers, if you keep screaming, I will..."
            Saul stands and stomps out of the office. Tremors grip him after a few steps and his legs wobble at the knees. The central air conditioning freezes his sweating skin. A door slams behind him and footsteps are approaching. Saul will not look over his shoulder. He knows that Death, wearing a white coat, sporting a brown tan and gold watch, is stroking his sculpted jaw and striding towards him. Death is rushing to catch him, to run tests, suck blood out of his body, and drug his brain. Saul races past the receptionist and hears her shrill voice crying out his name.
            When he bursts through the waiting room door, it slams into the opposing wall. Everyone jumps. Pale, shivering, elderly cancer patients wearing sagging skullcaps, huddling close to ashen spouses, and younger patients with dry, withering bodies glaring at Saul from black, telescoping eye sockets. Their eyes are tulip-yellow and round pink warts the size of fawcett drains are dotting their orange skin. His heart is racing, but he cannot move or look away. Saul remembers collapsing at the community center. He still sees the staring men and women when the paramedics are loading him into an ambulance. He knows each face. The one he helps with a disability claim. Another one who drinks vodka, rubbing alcohol and mouthwash when he is not rotting in jail and writing Saul letters full of greeting card style poetry about sex, his mom, and hunting. There is the plump, slumping teenage girl pregnant, sleeping on the streets, and snorting methamphetamine. They need his advice and crave his attention. However, when Saul is on his back and gripping his side, they are cringing from him. He thinks they will see him that way forever, a white, moaning animal sprawling across a stretcher.
            "Mr. Ivers, you need to sign some paperwork before you leave."
            Saul spins around when he hears the receptionist's hoarse voice. She is young and her wide blue eyes are blinking fast. Her chest is heaving and one hand is pressing against her hips while the other arm dangles at her side. Saul is staring at her and nibbling on his lower lip. He will not go back there. He knows she will not chase him when he snorts at her, turns towards the door, and rushes outside. The heat hits him like a blazing furnace blast and the sharp temperature change spawns a pounding headache. He is fumbling for his car keys, panting, stumbling through the parking lot like a man lurching forward against hurricane winds. He unlocks the car, falls into the driver's seat, and turns the ignition with shaking hands. The car radio is on and the crushing drumbeat causes Saul to wince. When he opens his eyes and looks through the window, he sees a little boy standing in front of his car. His bright blonde hair ends just above his eyebrows and his twilight-blue eyes shine in the sunlight. He is staring at Saul, eyebrows inching up and down, cocking his chin into the air. His mother is tugging on his hand and telling him to come on. Saul is not looking at her. He is looking at the boy and wrenching his hands tight around the steering wheel. What are you looking at? What do you see? Saul hears the mother telling the boy not to look at him. The smell of urine smothers the air. He is dizzy and pain cuts through his stomach. He turns to his side and vomits onto the passenger seat. Dark ribbons of blood lace the bile and curl around small brown lumps of tissue. When Saul stops vomiting and his breathing slows, he looks up and the boy is gone.
            When Saul walks into Robbie's hospital room, a nurse is cradling him while he vomits into a small plastic tub. His thin gray hair is dangling over his face and a thick white bandage circles the upper half of his head. The bed shifts when Robbie heaves or retches and the small, muscular nurse looping her arms around his shoulders stops him from launching out of the bed and landing on the floor.
            He quits vomiting and gasps for air. The nurse steps back and places a hand on his shoulder. Robbie shivers when she touches him.
            "Ease back, Robbie. You're done now. Let's hope that's the last of it."
            Robbie falls backwards onto his pillow, rubs a hand across his face, and sees Saul standing in the doorway. Pain flares through Saul's stomach when he sees him. Black bruising covers the right side of his face at the temple, swallowing his entire cheek, and rounding off at his jawbone. It looks like he sleeps on his side in an oil puddle. The lumps swelling from his forehead are closing his right eye, but he recognizes Saul and frowns.
            "Surprised to see you here." Robbie says. He scowls when he hears the gurgling in his voice and coughs to clear his throat.
            Saul is standing a few feet inside of the room. He pushes his hands deep into his pockets and scans the surroundings. "Surprised to be here too." Robbie nods at him and tilts his head to the side when he sees Saul peering at his bandages and bruising.
            Saul looks at the window and frowns. "Surprised to see you breathing after the story I've heard," he says.
            Robbie lowers his head. "Yeah." His voice is a flat drawl. He looks up at the nurse. "Can you leave us alone?"
            The nurse nods, pats him on the arm, and smiles. "Of course. I'll come back a little later."
            Robbie nods, leans his head backwards, and closes his eyes. The nurse leaves the room. "Sit down if you want", he says.
            Pain slashes across the right side of his stomach when he bends to sit in the bedside chair. Sweat sprouts from his forehead, his knees buckle, and he clutches his stomach when he slumps into the seat. Robbie stares at him and puckers his lips.
            "Are you sick?"
            Saul coughs and nods. "Yeah, stomach flu. Just now getting over it."
            Robbie nods. "Nasty shit." He turns his head towards the window and looks into the cloud of light flooding the room.
            Why am I lying to him? If I told him I was dying, maybe he'd open up. Maybe he'd let me know more about him. However, Saul freezes inside when he opens his mouth to speak. No one knows he is dying and Robbie will not be the first to hear it.
            He is clinging to the idea that not talking about it drains its power. If he does not see his body or look in a mirror, it will not be staring him in the face. If he wakes and falls asleep at the same time, drives the same streets, eats the same foods, drinks his coffee and tea, and watches the same television shows every day, it will not be living in his stomach, spreading and worming through organs and tissue. If he throws himself headlong into other's lives, dropping his own desires, it will forgive him for living when others do not and spare him for now.
            He lowers his head and looks up at Robbie. "So... what happened, Robbie?"
            Robbie's wide eyes fill with tears. "You heard all about it. You know what happened."
            "I'd rather hear it from you. If you want to tell me."
            Robbie turns his head and gazes at the window again. "The booze and acid made me crazy." He stops talking, but his mouth is still opening and closing. "I wanted to be free. I felt so strong, so powerful, that I thought I could break free of the dog."

            "And putting a penny on a railroad tie while a train is moving is your way of doing that?" Saul hears the shrill, whining frustration in his own voice. Watch it, take it easy. If he feels like you're putting him down, this isn't going to go well.
            "I felt free. Wanted to show that dog and the fucker with me that I wasn't scared anymore." He frowns and stares at the floor. When he raises his head, Robbie glances at Saul and shrugs. "I know it was fucked up. I was fucked up."
            He is whispering and slurring every word. A translucent chemical gleam fills his drooping eyes, but his shifting gaze scans the windows, furniture, ceiling, and walls like a prisoner surveying the dimensions of their cell.
            "My mom came to me in a dream last night," Robbie says. He pauses between the words and turns his head from side to side while speaking.
            Saul sighs and his muscles loosen. He's talking, he's opening up a little. "How long has your mom been dead?" He keeps his voice low and draws each word out, easing him into the question.
            "Ten years."
            "What happened in the dream?"
            Robbie's narrow eyes glare at him. While Saul sees suspicion in his gaze, he sees pleading tension in the twitching corners of each eye and the faint trembling of his eyebrows. Robbie tilts his head back, closes his eyes, and starts speaking.
            He is in his mother's house. He is walking through the rooms, but cannot steer his steps. Instead, invisible hands grip his legs below the hips and above the shins. They swing his legs back and forth, but his feet are not touching the floor. His long steps are treading the air. The biting smell of burning hair is thick and causes his stomach to turn.
            He is in the living room. He sees the dark flecks of dust spotting the white drapes and the light brown shag carpet. The fraying sandstone color couches, black leather recliner, and long walnut coffee table are here. There is a clean, sparkling glass ashtray and pile of envelopes sitting in the middle of the table. Robbie sees the few pictures hanging on the walls. There is one school picture of each son and a small, fading black and white photo of his grandparents. He says the room looks like it does on the day she dies.
            He hears coughing in his mother's bedroom. The door muffles the sound, but the coughing stutters like a sputtering car. When he glides towards the door, the stink of burning hair chokes him. The door swings open and a blast of smoke erupts from within.
            He sees four black figures surrounding his mother. They have a human form, but their fluttering proportions shift whenever they move. They are clutching his mother's hands, holding her ankles together, while she twists and squirms in their grasp. Robbie says she looks like she does on the day she dies.
            They are thrusting her into a long black sack held by a fifth dark figure. Glossy, reptilian skin covers the sack and red ropes dangle from its wide mouth. While the other dark figures pull and tug his mother towards the sack, this figure towers over them and does not move. It is a gaping black cavity with thick, obsidian limbs.
            Cancer withers her arms into gristle and thin, sagging skin, but she is clubbing the dark hands seizing her. Even if cancer strips her voice, Robbie hears her fast, stuttering cough and knows she is screaming. Her eyes are spinning, springing open, narrowing, and, despite the fear gripping her mind, never looks away from her attackers. Robbie says he cannot move or talk. He knows she will not fight them off. No matter how many times she hits them, squeezes screams from her throat, and stares them down, they will kill her again.
            Robbie says the four dark figures stop moving and shatter into thick clouds of smoke. He sees his mother standing, back straight, feet together, and facing the last dark figure. Her arms are round, tan, and light pink freckles cluster near the shoulders. Her clear blue eyes are staring at the dark figure, but they do not spin or close. Her naked body has no surgical scars, bruises, or blisters. There are no wrinkles on her slender, muscular frame. She is young here.
            The dark figure lunges towards her and wraps a black ring around her. The ring tightens, wrenching her waist and stomach, but she does not move. The figure lifts her high into the air before stuffing her into the sack. The figure turns to Robbie, holds the sack high in the air, and disappears.
            Robbie stops talking and looks at the window. He is opening and closing his eyes like someone fighting off sleep. Saul stares at him for a few seconds before leaning back in his chair. "That's it?"
            Robbie turns his head and shrugs. "You need more?" He coughs, rolling onto his side, blood veins creasing his red face. "That's it, the whole thing. I woke up here."
            "And the dog?"
            "There's no dog, man." He swings his head fast from side to side. "I know there's never been a dog."
            When he hears those words, Saul sinks into his chair. He pulls his head back and coughs. What's happened to him? Has he turned some kind of corner because a train hit him? "Really?" He arches an eyebrow. "How'd that happen?"
            "Realizing there's no dog?" Saul nods and sees a large teardrop sliding down Robbie's cheek. Robbie sighs." Man, it was that train, and then that dream... it was Death in that dream... not some dog. A fucking message." Robbie hisses the final words and his chin drops to his chest.
            He's turning the wrong corner, Saul thinks. Instead of smashing through the fear, rage, and delusion blocking his path, the train's impact hurtles him deeper towards death. There is no dog now. Instead, there is black death ballooning around him, rising and swirling, shadowing his life.
            "Maybe it isn't any of that, Robbie," Saul says. His eyes widen when he hears his small, trembling voice. "Maybe you're just not well and need help."
            Robbie's head rolls towards him. He looks Saul in the eyes, frowns, and then turns his gaze towards the floor. "I thought you'd be happy. If anyone would be happy right now, it'd be you." He sighs. "But you don't get it. Not one fuckin' bit." He spits out the final word, turns his head away, and closes his eyes.
            Sweat covers Saul's face and a faint, cool wave of air conditioning from a vent above laps against his tingling skin. The dull, heavy ache in his head feels like a fist grinding into his forehead. The pain is so bad that Saul wants to slump, cup his face in his palms, and cry. He wipes the sweat off his forehead with his shirtsleeve    
            "What's to get? Robbie, I don't mean any disrespect, I know you've been through a lot, but do you get it? Don't you see how crazy it was?" Saul leans forward. "You put your head near the wheels of a moving train. That's crazy enough, but for what? To put a penny on a rail and prove you weren't afraid to die? That you aren't afraid of this dog that you say has been chasing you for years?" When the torrent of words subsides and Saul exhales again, his entire body trembles.
            Robbie stares at him. Even if a chemical sheen glazes his eyes, there is a hair-raising intensity in his gaze. It never wavers and he does not blink. Saul sees his right hand clinching a bed sheet and, when it relaxes and uncoils, his fingers leave an impression on the ball of white fabric.
            "You've finally said what's been on your mind the whole time. That's good. Feel fucking better?" Robbie says. He grits his teeth and hisses out each word. "Fuck it. I don't give a damn what you don't get. My life's almost over and that's fine with me. I understand things that you don't have a clue about." He grunts and shifts his body in the hospital bed. When he looks at Saul again, he puckers his lips before speaking. "I've been scared of death since my mom died. My dad wasn't worth a fuck, my mom was the only thing I had. The nightmares, the dog, it was all just death, and it was gonna come for me just like it came for my mom."
            Saul's temper flares again. I'm fucking dying and listening to a crazy asshole babble about his dead mom and he tells me that I don't get it. Fuck him. Saul leans back in the chair and sneers. "And it's coming for you now, right? You said your life is over. It's coming for you and there's no escape?" Saul shrugs. "Sounds like the dog story to me. Just a little different."
            Robbie presses his lips together, closes his eyes, and whips his head from side to side. "I... said... you don't get it." He stops moving his head and stares at Saul. "My insides are all messed up, it's gonna happen sooner instead of later." Robbie claps his hands, sits up in bed, and jabs a finger in Saul's direction. "This is what it is, motherfucker. When the day comes, when I die, I'm ready to go. I saw that in my mom. In that dream, she was ready to go." He sighs and falls back on the bed. He licks his lips and presses his hand against his heaving chest like a man trying to slow his breathing. "I forgive it. I forgive life for taking my mom and I forgive it for killing me like it will. It can come whenever it wants to," Robbie says. When his voice cracks on those final words, he shudders and turns his face away from Saul.
            Saul cannot talk. His mouth is hanging open and a cold chill ripples across his body. Forgive? You can't forgive death, he thinks. Even if Saul forgives the sharp nudges pumping into his side, the mounting blasts of pain augmenting the nudges, the streams of vomit, and the sudden layers of sweat covering his skin, it has no meaning. Watching his mother die three months before bleeds out Saul's capacity for forgiveness.
            Saul sits by her bedside while lung cancer consumes her one cough at a time. Unlike Robbie's mother, Saul's mom quits smoking when the doctor delivers the news, but it is too late. The cancer moves fast and her breathing is soon shallow, thin, and echoes like she is breathing into a metal can. Each night at her bedside, Saul thinks about being two years old when his father disappears, how his mother raises him alone with no grandparents, uncles, or aunts to extend a hand. Saul spends his first ten years seeing life as him and mom standing against the world.
            He thinks about the cigarettes. The long filters with their perforated rings and billowing gray banks of smoke filling the air with the smell of tobacco, tar, and lighter fluid. He remembers her smoking one after another, stubbing one out as she takes a new one, and the way that she holds her arm up on a table, cigarette between the knuckles of her index and middle fingers. Her fingers on both hands are stiff and never relax. He hates what cigarettes have done to his mother, stripping the muscle from her body, decaying her skin, and choking her while their spawn devours her insides. When he pats her arm while she coughs, Saul hates her too. He hates her for deserting him. She is not standing with him against the world and he hates her for encouraging that coddling lie. Cocking her chin upwards, tilting her head back, and smiling, Saul's mother eyes him with pride all of his life and, by the power of her stare alone, propels him through childhood, school, and into adulthood. He hates her because he needs her. There is no approving stamp of self-affirmation within Saul, no wife to listen, no children of his own, just an apartment, a diploma, and his job. Everything depends on her, but sitting next to her hospital bed and remembering her crumpling millions of empty cigarette packs, smelling the thick cloudbanks of tobacco smoke rising from her frozen fingers, Saul sees himself streaking across the thin ice of her hysteria since birth. The smoking holds her together and he hates her for it.
            It takes four days for her to die. As the silence between each coughing fit grows shorter, as his mother slips in and out of consciousness, mumbling vowel sounds when her eyes are open, wheezing when they close, his hate cools and softens into a breathless sense of pity that keeps him crying hours out of the day. Instead, Saul turns his fury on life. What do I have? I have my job and the idea that I help people. That's it, he thinks. He does not smoke, but when he sees his mother thrashing, babbling, and shivering, he knows that his own death may be as painful, if not more so, and the thought fills him with a hate stronger than anything he feels before. After his mother dies and they bury her, Saul will take a few days off before returning to work. When he goes back, the same ragged parade of the poor and homeless will sit across from him like Robbie does the first time they meet, and Saul will nod and scribble while he pries his heart open again for the lost and hurting men and women asking for his help again. When Saul winces during her coughing fits, grips her hands during the waking moments, and strokes her shriveling skin while she sleeps, he thinks that the reward for his caring is nothing more than dirt in the face and hates life and death alike.
            After the coughing stops and she closes her eyes for the last time, Saul busies himself with her funeral. He stands at the foot of the casket, legs spreading apart as if he will bolt out of the building at any second, shakes hands, nods when he needs to, mutters his thank yous, and buries her next to his father within three days.
            He takes three weeks off from work and drinks for two. During those two weeks, he leaves his apartment only for alcohol and hamburgers and drives through the city in a daze. Even if there is a car seat beneath him, a steering wheel in his hands, and the purr of the engine rattling his body, the physical sensations are not registering and he feels like his consciousness is hovering outside of his body like a sleeve of sunlight clinging to a dark horizon. By the first day of the third week, suicide looms over his thoughts.
            Passing out on his kitchen floor and waking up in a puddle of urine saves his life. This is not the first time he passes out and urinates on himself. Before, when he opens his eyes and the musky odor stings his nose, he frowns, struggles to his feet, strips off the wet clothes, and staggers into the shower. However, this time he opens his eyes, his cheek sticks to the dry whiskey covering the linoleum, and when he rolls over onto his back, a blast of cool air from the ceiling vent sweeps across him and he knows he is wet. He shivers, pain spikes his stomach, and he turns on his side to vomit. When he regains his breath, disgust floods his mind and causes him to shake as he struggles into a kitchen chair. He hunches over and clutches each elbow with his opposing hand. This ends today. I am not heaping misery on top of misery, he thinks. He is screaming inside, shouting down the invisible phantoms pushing him deeper into despair. I'm not going to give up. No matter what life is or isn't, I've got to learn how to live it.
            He sobers up and returns to work the next week, staying late at the community center and filling out paperwork to minimize the time he spends awake and alone in his apartment. The stomach pain he feels that night on the kitchen floor returns as well. He drinks herbal tea, eats rolls of antacid tablets, and gives up coffee, but the pain keeps coming, not just stabbing him anymore, but also radiating around his side and numbing his upper legs for minutes at a time.
            When he flees the doctor's office after hearing the diagnosis, he takes two days off from work and does not leave his apartment. He does not start drinking again or think about killing himself. He closes the window shades, turns his phone off after calling in to work, and crawls into bed. Veering between short bursts of tears, pounding the mattress with his fists, sleeping for a few hours, and staring at the ceiling, he thinks about his mother a great deal. He is afraid to believe, even for a second, that he will see her again. However, in the quiet overnight hours of those two days, Saul thinks that even if he never sees her again, he will die like her, and in those final days he will join her by sharing the same experience. With his side throbbing and his stomach aching, the thought that he will soon know what dying was like for her gives him a cold, brittle sense of happiness.
            Until those days are bearing down on him, he will live his life. He will not drink himself into a stupor, gulp down a handful of pills, or blow his head off. He will not pre-empt death as a way of defying it. Instead, he will grit his teeth when the pain comes and clutch a chair arm or the edge of a desk. He will smile and excuse himself when the nausea rises, locking the bathroom door, and turning on the ceiling fan before filling the toilet with bile and blood. Saul will keep showing up for work, holding it together as long as he can, and he will listen to any pleading voice bending his ear. The alcoholics living in tents will get bags of noodles, powdered milk, and bread. The pregnant women will get referrals, vouchers, and extra groceries. There's no other choice. There's no hope for me, but I've got to keep going. Nothing can save him, but nothing can stop him from living until he dies.
            When Saul cannot see the change sweeping over his life, Robbie tells him to get out. The man does not believe anything he says, so Robbie will not waste his breath straining to convince him otherwise. He spits out the words, turns his head away, and listens to Saul's chair slide across the limestone floor. He says nothing when he leaves, but Robbie fixes his hearing on the hollow snap of his footsteps receding into the hospital. If he doesn't believe me, fuck him. That's not my problem, Robbie thinks.
            Robbie's problem is getting out of this hospital and getting a drink. Unless someone ransacks his apartment during his time in the hospital, he has a half-gallon of vodka waiting for him. He wonders if he can even find his way there. The doctor tells him yesterday that he has a major concussion and is lucky to be alive. Lucky to be alive. The thought makes him chuckle. If this is luck, he wants no part of it. A moving boxcar ladder slamming into his head when he is placing a penny on a rail brings him three inches away from death, according to the doctor, and Robbie wants to leave after a day so he can drink vodka. There is no dog, no snarling demon lurking in the shadows. For the first time, Robbie knows he is physically and mentally sick and not one shiver, frown, or sigh marks this realization. After regaining consciousness in the hospital, piecing his memories together, and grasping that realization for the first time, Robbie's head tilts back, his eyes turn towards the ceiling, and his lips open in a wide smile. When he gets out of the hospital, he will go to his apartment, get the vodka, pack up his tent, and go to the nearby woods. He will set up camp, crawl inside the tent, and drink until his luck runs out.
            When Robbie tells his nurse that he is leaving, she widens her eyes and the color drains from her face. She says nothing, spins on her heel, and strides out of the hospital room. Robbie is sitting on the edge of his bed when the nurse follows the doctor into the room. The doctor pleads with Robbie to stay another day, wagging his finger, slapping his palms together for emphasis. However, when Robbie shouts that he will tear the hospital wing to shreds looking for his clothes if someone doesn't bring them now, the doctor tosses his hands into the air, sighs, and tells the nurse to prepare Robbie's discharge papers.
            As he walks out of the hospital, Robbie crumples the doctor's prescriptions and drops the wads in a trash can. His lungs tighten when he inhales the humid evening air. He braces himself against a stone pillar near the hospital entrance while he regains his breath and looks at everything. The sun is sinking behind a steep ridge of dense clouds the color of soot that lingers near the horizon and stretches parallel across the overcast sky. The shrill glare of yellow streetlights punches bright ovals in the dimming twilight and reminds Robbie of Christmas tree lights. Street traffic is thin and the faint hum of cars driving throughout the city sounds like a ceiling fan spinning at half-speed. It is not raining and Robbie hears no thunder, but the odor of mold blankets his sense of smell and he feels a light, nagging static charge clinging to his skin. He wants to get to his apartment before the rain starts falling.
            The sun seems to drop below the skyline when Robbie crosses the street. He stops on the sidewalk and furrows his brow. His blurry focus makes it difficult to concentrate and he is not sure which way to go. White headlight beams sweep over him, hitting his chest and face, and look like the glowing eyes of hunting animals. A dense ridge of clouds muffles the moonlight like a flashlight shining under a thick blanket and swirling gusts of warm wind tug on rustling tree canopies. When Robbie sees the darkening form of a multi-level parking garage near his apartment, he starts walking in that direction.
            He cuts through a small city park before entering a residential area. The one-floor houses sit on long, narrow lots with tidy green lawns. The tall poles spewing out blazing fluorescent domes of light at each street corner burn with brightness that washes out every color in its reach. The intensity unsettles Robbie and he skirts around the edge of each sphere when he passes.
            When he sees the railroad tracks, he knows he will find his way to the apartment. He walks on the tracks more than the city sidewalks. It is fertile ground for picking up aluminum cans and other scrap metal and, when he drinks too much, hides him from the probing eyes of police patrols. He stumbles across crossties in the scarce light, but follows the tracks north until they end a block from his apartment.
            He sees no one while walking into his apartment and finds the half-gallon of vodka behind his bed. He packs up his tent, a change of clothes, jams the vodka bottle into his backpack, and sees no one when he leaves. After he drops the apartment key into the owner's mailbox, he walks back to the railroad tracks.
            There are tracts of dense wilderness spread throughout the city and flanking its network of intersecting rail lines. Robbie decides to put up his tent near a railroad junction behind a westside city park. As he follows the railroad track, the sharp chemical smell rising from black splatters of creosote on the railroad crossties makes his head ache. His heart flutters when he looks at the gleaming pinholes of distant city lights. They are the watching eyes of faceless animals, shapeless beasts lurking in the night, and despite the fact that he is near the edge of the city, the pinholes are multiplying as he walks and glitter in the surrounding blackness. Robbie stops and drinks vodka in the dark.
            He finds the mouth of the trail to his new campsite and walks into the woods. He slips and falls when he climbs the narrow trail snaking up the steep hillside. The ground is a thick soup beneath his feet. When he reaches the top of the hillside, the trail widens, but the trees are closer together and larger in every way. Robbie stumbles over bulging roots in the ground, but never falls. The clearing is not far and he is walking fast, blundering through the darkness, for a place where he can sit down.
            It cannot be here. Too many eyes are watching him and the dense woods limit his vision. If he sits down on the trail and they decide to come for them, he will not see them coming. If he can reach the clearing, he can stake his tent, build a fire, and drink. Robbie sees hundreds of eyes watching him from the darkness, but he does not know what is watching him. When he sees the trail widening ahead of him, a deep sigh wilts his body and his knees buckle for a second.
            He collapses in the clearing, pulls his backpack and tent off, and gets out his half-gallon of vodka. After he takes a long drink, the alcohol slows his heartbeat, his head slumps to the ground, and he closes his eyes. Everything is okay. I'm here and no one will ever find me. There's nothing out there watching me. A hot splash of wind rolls over his body and Robbie smiles. This is where it ends. I'll get my tent set up and build a fire.
            It starts as a whirling sound. He hears something whirling behind him, spinning faster and faster, and the wind at his back blows harder, hotter, stinging his skin. When Robbie raises his head, the hundreds of eyes he sees earlier in the darkness are gone. He looks up and cannot see the moon. It sounds like an immense threshing machine is tearing the forest apart behind him. He hears the loud cracks of splintering wood, the screeching and scratching of colliding limbs, but he will not turn to look behind him. He is wincing, staring straight ahead, and wrapping his arms around his knees. Sweat is bubbling out of his skin. He wants to get out of here. He tells himself this is not happening. He wipes the sweat off his face with his forearm and sees the black dog moving towards him.
            Saul strides out of the hospital set on forgetting Robbie forever. You are dying, asshole, not him. He just wishes he was. Wanting to help people in your dying days is fine, but that guy is beyond all help. Spare yourself the hassle. He drives home sneering, pictures Robbie in his hospital bed, and hears him babbling about death. If you only knew, Robbie. If you only knew.
            A week passes before he thinks about him again. Saul is at the community center and stepping out of the bathroom when he hears the story. Dave, an overweight man with a graying beard and an American flag bandana covering his balding head, stomps over to him. He tells Saul that both the radio and Internet are reporting that a man matching Robbie's description is blocking train traffic on the city's westside. When police arrive, the man runs and disappears. Even without Dave saying his name, Saul knows it is Robbie. Dave says that the man has blood covering his body and blocks the train by kneeling between the rails.
            "What else?" Saul says.
            Dave shrugs and twists his mouth. "That's it. I guess the cops are still lookin' for the guy." He stares at Saul for a moment, leans his head back, and smiles. "You think you know who it is, don't you? You look like you do."
            Saul frowns and shrugs. "Maybe. Who knows, right?" He pats Dave's shoulder and smiles. "We get all kinds around here, don't we?"
            Dave laughs. "Yeah and they're all fucking nuts like that guy!"
            They both laugh before Dave walks away. Saul sees no need to share his suspicions with Dave. He may not even know Robbie, but Saul smiles, slaps him on the shoulder, and Dave never knows what Saul is thinking.
            Robbie's lost it. That's obvious. Saul wonders about the blood. Has someone hurt him? Has he hurt himself or someone else? He imagines Robbie kneeling between the rails, blood covering him from head to toe, and shivers. Sharp bolts of pain flashing across his midsection cause him to clinch his stomach. When the pain fades, he sees Robbie's face in his mind, the deep rivets in his coarse skin, his blood-shot eyes, and swollen purple lips. He doesn't have anyone. He's all alone out there, dying. I don't have anyone. We're both alone.
            Saul is driving west. The same towering wave of pity that sweeps over him when he sees Robbie fall off the sign, live through a beating, or survive being hit in the head by a train, carries him to his car and has him driving towards the city's edge. He has nothing but a feeling to go on, but believes Robbie's camp is behind a small park on the outskirts of town.
            His stomach is boiling, fluid swishing from side to side, and his hands are clinching the steering wheel. He squeezes the stiff leather hard enough that his hands are throbbing in pain, but he will not loosen. The grinding ache gloving his hands pushes back against the fury raging in his stomach. It sharpens his focus, locks his eyes on the road, and centers his thoughts. During the last week, he has dreams where pain is a living ladder. It is no snake with rungs, but a weaving, breathing web of intersecting eyes. Each eye is different with varying colors, shapes, and sizes, and though each eyelid is a rung, they never blink. Instead, as Saul climbs down the web, a blast of pain devours any part of his body touching the web, buckling his legs, weakening his arms, but he does not fall. He closes his eyes and grits his teeth. I will not hurt, I am going to a better place, I must not fall, I am going to a better place. His heartbeat slows in the dream and he opens his eyes, but just when the pain fades, it comes roaring back. He winces, teeters off the edge of an eyelid, and wakes up each time.
            The dreams reflect the course of his waking life over the last seven days. In that week, the pain pulls him closer to the edge of the abyss forcing Saul to dig in his heels to survive. He grips steering wheels until his hands turn white, grits his teeth until his jawbone aches, and, the day before, slams a desk drawer shut on his left hand to erase his stomach pain, and in the throbbing wake of those moments, the dueling agonies cancel each other out and a sense of balance returns to him. However, just as quick as the throbbing subsides, invisible claws dig into his side, slash through his stomach, and misery fogs his brain again.
            The park is in a poor residential neighborhood and buffers a railroad junction and acres of surrounding trees. After years of dealing with the homeless, Saul knows the dozen or so locations throughout the city drawing the homeless to set up campsites and most choose this wilderness. They choose it for the towering oaks and maples with wide canopies standing alongside short, dense pine trees and the thick underbrush choking off passage between the trees and hiding the jagged network of narrow trails intersecting the land. They pick it because it is walking distance to downtown, near a city bus stop, and the crumbling walking trail ringing the park's borders, two small shelter houses, and a slumping swing set attracts few local residents to spend time there. Saul walks towards the other side of the park where the railroad tracks run behind a line of pine trees.
            He finds a trail leading through the pine trees and stands alongside the railroad tracks. He looks both directions, sees nothing, but spots a trail opening on the other side of the tracks that goes into the woods. When he takes a step towards the railroad tracks, pain tears through his hips and radiates through his legs. He starts to fall when his knees buckle, but throws out a hand to catch his fall. He plants his hand into a triangular rock with a narrow point and cuts his hand open. The slice is short and very shallow, but a trickle of blood ekes out over his hand and the scar stings. Saul licks up the trickle of blood and it has a thick, salty taste. He pushes himself to his feet, brushes his hands together, and steps across the railroad tracks.
            When he walks into the woods, the world darkens by a half. The interweaving trees and underbrush form a natural wall and ceiling that seals the wilderness off from the light. The colors are different. Out of the sun's reach, blossoming fountains of green plants retain their dark luster and sprout in every direction. The smells change. The white, rigid odor of fresh cut grass overwhelms him in the park, but the wilderness air is thick with loud, brawling scents that cause him to swoon.
            Saul is standing at the intersection of two trails. After regaining his composure, he calls out for Robbie and identifies himself by name, but there is no answer. Saul frowns, but the silence does not shake his certainty that Robbie is somewhere out here or nearby. He picks a path to take and walks deeper into the wilderness.
            With each new step, the temperature seems to climb. Humidity covers his face and arms with a thin layer of moisture and mosquitoes as large as thumbnails are hovering around his eyes and buzzing in his ears. Saul wipes the sweat away and focuses on keeping his balance. The narrow trail is little more than a bare thread of earth, never straight, twisting around and between trees, with steep dips and thick tree roots along the way. As Saul walks, the rising heat blurs his surroundings and a dark sapphire tint colors everything he sees.
            Saul sees the trail turning ahead and, when he looks past the turn, sees long tree limbs jutting diagonally out from a green thicket of vines. The trail widens and he sees a small clearing. The vines are roping a trio of tall oaks in a half circle near the edge of the clearing. When Saul steps closer, he sees tent fabric through the thicket of vines and calls out Robbie's name again. He hears the distant hum of the city. Saul is about to call out for him again when seeing Robbie's camp for the first time shocks him and chokes his voice.
            The tent is in shreds and blood covers everything. It slides down the trees and forms glistening crimson pools in the earth. It drips from the tent frame, blackens the loose clothes, and fills any coffee cups, glasses, or containers that are still intact. Though nothing is burning, the smell of smoke floods Saul's nose and he vomits. When he stops, Saul wipes his mouth and backs away from the camp. Oh my god. What the fuck happened? Is he dead? Saul stares at the horror, unable to move, his mind echoing with those words.
            He hears a scream and spins around. The scream comes from behind him, but he sees nothing after scanning the wilderness. He hears another scream. It is a man screaming hundreds of feet away near the railroad tracks. Saul hears nothing else, no talking, and no cries for help or pleas for mercy. When he hears the scream again, it is louder, the anguish deeper, and seems to linger in the air. Once again, Saul cannot move, nor can he summon the courage to call out to the screaming man.
            When the screams grow louder and the silence between each one shrinks, fear overwhelms Saul and he starts racing back the way he came. They're killing him! Someone's killing him! He gasps Robbie's name as he runs, stumbling over tree roots, falling once when he steps in a dip, his clothes tearing on briars as he rushes past. There is just one scream now, continuous, wailing without end at a volume that makes Saul's head ache.
            The volume reaches its peak when Saul reaches the mouth of the trail. He cannot see anything from where he stands, but the man is on the railroad tracks, no more than fifty feet away. The furious pounding of Saul's heartbeat, like the screaming, merges into a single mammoth throb that shakes his body. As he steps closer to the source of the screaming, sweat drips from his eyebrows and rolls down his cheeks, his legs are trembling, and his quaking lips cannot speak. He cranes his head trying to look around the corner of underbrush and trees blocking his view, but he still cannot see.
            The grunting he hears sounds like the legs of a heavy wooden chest sliding across a concrete floor. There is snorting too, coarse and guttural, like a gurgling car exhaust pipe. The roaring subsides and the world slows when he moves. Oh my god, oh my god, he thinks, the words locking into a loop around his brain.
            When Saul steps out of the wilderness onto the railroad tracks again, he sees Robbie. He is fifty feet away, on his knees between the rails, outstretching his arms to the side and turning down his palms. His head is hanging back, his frozen mouth screaming, and the blood smears covering his face do not hide his rust-color skin. His naked body shares the same color, gashes and scars mark his dark skin, and blood is gushing from a gaping wound on his left side. Blood rushes from wide claw marks across his chest and puddles in the gravel below his knees.
            Saul turns his head and sees the dog. It stands five feet in front of Robbie, scraping its triangular front claws through the gravel, tossing its head from side to side, and crackling halo of fire circles its head like a crown. Its black body heaves each time it rakes its claws, the fur rising and falling in waves. The dog's narrow, yellow eyes are not looking at him. Saul does not take another step, but his body is convulsing with fear. His thoughts are syllables, stuttering half-words lacking shape or meaning.
            Saul's knees are shaking and he collapses to the ground in a sitting position. The dog jerks its gaze towards Saul, snorts, and its mouth droops open before curling into a wide, terrifying smile. I'm gonna die! It's gonna kill us both! After staring into the eyes of the dog and seeing its smile, Saul feels like a giant battering ram is swinging through the air and slamming into his sternum. He is gasping for air, his body throbbing from the waist up, and teetering on the brink of cardiac arrest.
            The dog stares at Saul, its smile never leaving its face, cocking its head from side to side. Without warning, the dog flings its head back, rolls its long red tongue out of its mouth, and screams. The shattering immensity of the scream dwarfs all sound and spawns spasms of pain throughout Saul's body. When he moves his hands to cover his ears, the dog whips its head forward, its mouth wide, black drops of saliva dripping from its tongue, and swallows Robbie with one bite. It gulps once before taking two steps back, sitting on its haunches, and raising its head towards the sky. It is not looking at Robbie.
            Saul stares at the black dog in the sun. There is a wide, red lip of sunlight dividing its body. Unlike before, a dark green fire dances across one side of its body while the other side is black. Its eyes glitter in the sunlight, but they do not blink or shift. There is no smile crossing its broad hammerhead and its long tail spools on the ground. When it turns its head from the sun and looks back at Saul, it stretches out its legs and lies down between the rails. It opens its mouth, closes its eyes, and does not move.
            Saul is lame with fear and does not attempt to run away. He stares at the black dog in the sun, shivering, shaking, holding his legs together, wrapping his arms around his knees, and his wide, blood-shot eyes cannot stop blinking. No matter how many times he closes his eyes, the dog is there when they open. It does not move and its mouth is dark. The smell of raw meat fills the air and, despite the bright sun and blue skies around him, the chill clinging to his body is colder than anything he has ever known.
            Time loses its shape for him. The sun and clouds alike do not move and Saul cannot gauge the passage of the minutes and hours. Despite the cold gripping him, the thick humidity is fogging his vision and muddling his thoughts. A growing sense of exhaustion presses down on him, constricting his breathing, tightening his throat, and weighing down his eyes. He is sure the dog will devour him if he falls asleep and sees it happening each time he closes his eyes. It is the only clear thought he has. He sees the slow closing of his eyes, slumping and rolling onto his back, and then the dog rising and plodding across the gravel. The dog will tower over his prostrate body and smile again before its lunges and devours his body. Like Robbie, he will vanish and, like Robbie, no one will ever find him. I can't fall asleep I can't fall asleep I can't fall asleep.
            It is night when Saul opens his eyes again. He is lying on his stomach, his long body sprawling across the gravel and his legs frozen in mid-stride position. A piece of gravel in the shape of a sharp arrowhead stabs his trachea when he rolls over in his sleep. He wakes up coughing and massaging his throat. When he slows his breathing and looks down at his hands and body, he cannot see them. He looks around and sees the distant lights of the city and a scattering of stars above. The gold, yellow, and white bulbs of streetlamps and house lights look like bright drops of paint splattering on slate. Saul's eyes adjust to the darkness and the shapes around him are clearer. He stares at the black swells of fragrant vines, flowers, and plants growing in the wilderness, but when he sees the narrow, rectangular rails curving across the ground, he thinks of the dog.
            When the image of the dog flashes across his mind, it unleashes a flood of memories. He can still hear Robbie's constant screaming and see the dog swallowing him whole. He can still see the fire surrounding the dog's body, its enormous head, and yellow eyes. Anxiety overwhelms him and, when he tries to stand, scrambles and slides in the gravel. The stomach pain doubles him over when he straightens his back.
            He stands like that, draping his right arm over his chest, and biting his lower lip hoping to dull the pain. It hits harder than before and, through the hysteria, Saul wonders if he is bleeding. Did the dog hurt me? There is swelling on his right side, a few inches above his hips, but no bleeding wounds. Please stop hurting please stop hurting, I need to get the fuck out of here! His quivering lips are muttering those words while he stands there, doubling over, and rocking back and forth on his heels.
            His stomach pain does not stop, but it does weaken, like a knife sinking three inches into his skin instead of six. The waves of anxiety washing over him earlier recede, his breathing slows, and he starts walking back to his car. Mounting exhaustion leaves him limp and panting while he walks, but his mind is turning. It was all a dream, some crazy fucking fever dream. I came out here looking for Robbie and I passed out. That's it, nothing more. I'll come back out here and look tomorrow when I feel better.
            The clock in the car reads twelve-thirty and Saul sees no one when he drives home. He wonders if he will drive back to the park tomorrow and look again. All that blood at that camp was no dream. Robbie might be dead by now. I'll call the hospital when I get home, check with them. After today and everything that comes with it, even passing out on the shoulder of the railroad tracks, Saul wants to find Robbie again. He will talk until he runs out of words, plead, flatter, bluster, and beg until Robbie agrees to get help for his problems. At last, Saul will break down and confess he is dying. He will open the door, wave Robbie into his world, and they will forgive death together so they can live a little longer.
            His apartment is small, overflowing with books, and dishes pile in the sink. The faint smell of rotting food hangs in the air and his shade-less lamps turn the nicotine-yellow walls gold. He rinses a glass out, fills it with water from the faucet, and guzzles the contents. When he sits the glass down on the counter, he hears a noise that sounds like the billow of a steam engine. He freezes and hears a low, gurgling moan outside that lasts for a five seconds.
            He wonders if it is Robbie outside. He wonders if someone is hurt or having car trouble outside. When he steps out of the kitchen, he hears another moan, louder this time, harsher, a growl. His heart is beating fast when he stands at his second-floor window overlooking the street below.
            Saul pulls back the thick brown curtain, looks outside, and sees the black dog. It is standing on its haunches under a street light. In the fluorescent glow, the dog's glistening black body looks like it is writhing under a thin layer of fire. It is staring at Saul. He is holding his open hand over his mouth, his eyes wide, gasping, and wishing the dog away. No no no this can't be, he thinks. He cannot form or latch onto another thought. The black dog is here. It is coming to devour him, just like Robbie, just like Robbie's friend all those years ago. The black dog is coming for him from the moment of his birth and the hunt is over. When he sees the black dog spring from its position and gallop towards his apartment, Saul starts screaming.