Dogsbody returned to the great brick building and reentered the revolving glass doors. The same receptionist sat at the same front desk, and she greeted him with the same warmth.
“Mr. Walker, right? Seventeen, sir.”
He nodded sheepishly in her general direction and tugged the collar of his coat up the tiniest bit. The smudge on the up button from his previous visit had been carefully wiped away, and Dogsbody stared at the button for a moment before touching it, wondering at how quickly even an entire person could also be wiped away, as if that person had never existed.
Again as before, Dogsbody was the only person in the elevator, but this time he appreciated the matte finish of the interior, dropping his coat collar for a brief moment of normalcy. He watched the numbers light up sequentially.
The elevator dinged, and Dogsbody exited to the hallway with the lone door and the sign calmly and quietly declaring Mr Walker. When Dogsbody stepped up to the door, it fell open before him before he had a chance to knock his raised knuckles against it, and there sat Mr. Walker himself, in the same position at the same desk, in the same suit of clothes.
Fora moment Dogsbody wondered if Mr. Walker were human at all, or instead a robot or maybe even a cleverly designed hologram.
“Sit down, my good man, sit down. You have satisfactorily completed the assignment that I have given you, and that’s good. That’s very good. It would have been quite the disappointment had you not done so, and when I’m disappointed, well, sometimes bad things happen.” Mr. Walker made the same gesture at the empty chair before his desk, and Dogsbody slid to it as thought magnetized.
“Yes sir.” The only words Dogsbody could manage to scrounge up from his blankly frenzied mind dropped from his scarred lips like rocks.
“No need to talk. You have one step left before we can reinstate you into the human race. But as I told you before, it isn’t a quick sort of thing; it’ll take you several months of surgery and rehabilitation. Once again, are you up to the task? You can nod.”
“Very good. I have three more letters that must be mailed for a very important client. A very important client. As before, they must all be mailed from different zip codes, but that shouldn’t be a problem for you, should it? It’s not like you have anything better to do with your time.” Mr. Walker laughed, and the harsh sound echoed against the plain walls of the warehouse-sized office.
Dogsbody didn’t move a muscle.
“Well then.” Mr. Walked opened the top right-hand drawer of his desk and removed three innocuous enough letters. “Here is your precious cargo.” He slid the envelopes across the desk toward Dogsbody. “Go ahead. Get up and take them and be on your way. I’ll be in touch.”
Dogsbody blinked twice, slowly, and rose from the chair, pressing down on the arms with such force that his fingers turned white. He took the three steps forward to Mr. Walker’s desk and tentatively reached out a hand to pick up the letters. He looked as though he was afraid that Mr. Walker would suddenly snap at him and take a hand off, leaving him to bleed out on the floor.
In fact, this was exactly what Dogsbody was afraid of, in the visceral depths of his mind, those places that he wasn’t fond of going but was somehow forced to visit far too often.
Mr. Walker regarded him expressionlessly. Dogsbody slid his fingers across the paper and picked them up, reflexively reaching to his breast pocket to tuck them safely away. Mr. Walker nodded his approval and looked down at the papers he shuffled across his desk, dismissing Dogsbody without another word.
Dogsbody didn’t realize that he had been holding his breath until the elevator doors slid closed behind him and he staggered, nearly falling. He took great, heaving breaths of the air untainted by Mr. Walker’s aura, and thought he felt a tear slip from his eye. He reached up to wipe his face, but felt nothing.
When the elevator reached the ground floor, Dogsbody exited, nodding a goodbye to the receptionist, whose smile remained bright as ever. Fifteen blocks away, he came to the nearest post office. He pulled out the first letter his questing fingers came to, and glanced at it before dropping it into the box. It was addressed to Shepard Strom. The name didn’t ring a bell.
Dogsbody snapped awake, breathing heavily, a scream trapped in his throat. He blinked madly, trying to focus his eyes and struggling to remember just what it was that had frightened him so badly.
Two things: a faint smell of licorice, and the soft murmur of Mr Walker’s voice. That was all Dogsbody could recall.
He shivered under his cover of discarded newspapers and rotting sandwich buns, and his hand crept to his coat pocket to make sure that the letters entrusted to him by Mr Walker still rested, safe and dry, in his possession. The plastic wrapping the bundle crinkled, and Dogsbody felt a modicum of relief. But what if someone had taken the letters and left the plastic? He threw his coverlet of garbage to the side and struggled a moment with his coat, trying to pull the packet from his pocket. A quick count revealed that the letters were all still there.
Dogsbody leaned back into the only comfort he could remember, his pulse finally slowing to normal. That dream, though; that dream. He clenched his jaw, fighting against the blankness in his memory. Fighting to no avail.
The clock at the Methodist church chimed six. Dogsbody knew that it was nearly time for him to be on his way to complete his assignment. For far from the first time and far from the last, he wished that he had never woken up.
But he was awake, and he had a job to do. The reward would be well worthwhile. Mr Walker had promised that much. Dogsbody rose and patted his pockets down once more to make sure he had the valuable letters and abandoned his sewage-scented nest.
The nearest post office lay fourteen blocks north of Dogsbody’s home; he chose to head there first. Sixteen letters, twelve post offices. He trudged down the echoing streets, nearly empty this early in the morning, but they would be filled soon enough with the hustle and bustle of the city that left Dogsbody to his own devices.
He spent a few moments musing how he had come to this, hating the city and its inhabitants, but not hating any of the specific people who were surely more to blame than any innocent resident who’d never even heard of Dogsbody.
The fourth post office had a line out the door. Dogsbody dropped the letter in the out-of-town box as Mr Walker instructed and moved on. Around eighteen more miles to go, but the next three stops were very close to each other, and in between them were places Dogsbody knew he could find a bite to eat.
Ten stops in. Nearly there. and the dream slapped Dogsbody in the face out of nowhere. As quickly, it was gone, leaving him gasping for breath just as he did a few hours earlier. Licorice. And Mr Walker. Dogsbody shook his head, trying to loosen the memories lodged somewhere in his cerebral cortex. He wondered how many other people could shake so easily while still covering their faces with their coat collar. Not many, he supposed.
But it isn’t a necessary skill for many. Not for many at all.
The final mailbox at the final post office; the final two letters. Dogsbody double checked and dropped them in. He pulled his collar a little higher and readied himself for the long walk back home, where he would wait for Mr Walker to contact him. As he neared his alley, the first flakes of snow began to fall.
Dogsbody blinked slowly in the elevator as the doors closed again in front of him. His collar lay limply against his shoulder, his hand not even reaching for its comfort and safety. Perhaps Mr. Walker could change things for him, after all.
The receptionist smiled at him as he strode from the elevator bank to the revolving glass door, but Dogsbody didn’t even notice her. This was quite unusual; Dogsbody had a sixth sense for knowing when anyone was looking at him, and he would automatically cover his face in shame and embarrassment. This only caused the receptionist to broaden her smile with pride that she worked for an employer who could enact such drastic personality changes so quickly.
Dogsbody froze before he reached the exit and spun to study the painting just to the left of the receptionist’s desk. The man depicted stared so boldly back at him that Dogsbody’s hand began fumbling at his lapel before his brain could register that it was simply a painting, and not a judgmental fellow human being. He kept his hand up just in case, and backed through the door behind him. Fortunately no one was in his path.
He took a sharp right and tried not to think about the sixty-one block walk ahead of him. The weather had abruptly changed for the chillier, and he could see his breath puff into wisps ahead of his face as he walked. Dogsbody tugged his collar securely in front of his scars and carried on.
The minutes dragged by, piling on top of each other, but soon enough, Dogsbody was in front of the post office. He climbed the seven steps to the front door and pulled the door that said pull. He let his collar slip down a bit as he clumsily dug through his front pocket for the small key Mr. Walker had given him. The key slipped easily into its hole on post office box 716. Dogsbody turned it, and opened the door to a medium-sized bundle of letters. He pulled the stack of letters out and closed the door, re-locking it before returning the key to his pocket.
Dogsbody flipped quickly through the mail and threw the two obvious pieces of junk mail-from phone companies-into the nearby trashcan before stuffing the remainder into an inside pocket of his trench coat. Hands free once again, he pulled his collar to its preferred place in front of his mouth and turned to leave the post office.
AS he headed for the door, a large woman who seemed to be in a hurry shoved the door open and ran straight into him. The two of them went sprawling on the floor, and Dogsbody frantically tried to gather up the mail that had fallen from his pocket before she could touch any of it. She kept apologizing, and managed to grab one small letter that Dogsbody snatched out of her hands before running from the post office in a panic.
The woman never knew the reason for the nightmares that plagued her for the rest of her life, but it was that single glimpse of Dogsbody’s ravaged face.
It was nearly two hours before Dogsbody was able to calm himself enough to return home to the alley off Fourteenth Street where he had been sleeping for the past month. The sewage lines had burst here too many times, and none of the other homeless people of the city enjoyed waking up to the smell of dirty water in their hair and clothing, but Dogsbody didn’t care; he’d lost his sense of smell, and had yet to become sick from the waste that often overflowed the alleyway. He valued the privacy that was his only luxury.
After wrapping Mr. Walker’s letters carefully in plastic, Dogsbody lay down to sleep, heedless of the sharp drill bit poking into his upper thigh. Nothing could hurt him more than he already hurt, and that was a fact, Jack.