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.