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.
Read Part 2 here.