Dogsbody peered from behind the corner of the brick building. The coast was clear, so he exited the alley and made his way south on Fourteenth Street.Every now and then someone passed him walking in the opposite direction, but he covered the scars around his mouth well enough with his coat collar that they didn’t notice.
It was forty minutes before he arrived at his destination: a brick building disappearing into the sky above his head. A building that appeared identical to the one which he had spent the past six nights sleeping behind. While the two were built from the same blueprints, the differences were made clear by the contents within. Dogsbody pushed the revolving glass door open and entered the main lobby, cringing in apprehension.
He worried for nothing, however. The receptionist gave him a warm smile as he stepped onto the carpet in front of her desk.
“Who are you looking for, sir?” she asked without the slightest tinge of disdain for the poor sot slouching in front of her as he tried to hide his face with his dirty coat collar.
“Mr. Walker,” Dogsbody answered, speaking directly into his collar.
The receptionist was well-versed enough in her duties and practiced enough in providing them to unusual clientele that she easily understood what Dogsbody said and directed him to the seventeenth floor. Her eyes followed him shamble toward the elevator bank before she reluctantly returned to the phone ringing to her left.
Dogsbody pressed the up button to call the elevator, and noticing the smudge his finger had left upon it, rummaged through his coat pockets for a clean bit of fabric. Finding none, he swiped at the button with the side of his fist, enlarging the smear. He quickly glanced around to make sure no one had seen him. The receptionist was the only other person in the lobby, and she was busily answering her phone, so he relaxed a bit, looking down at the tips of his worn leather shoes.
The dinging of the elevator’s arrival called him back to the here and now, and he took a step backwards in case any bigwigs were exiting the elevator, but the doors opened on no one. He stepped in, turned to face front, and pushed the button for seventeen, this time without leaving any residue behind. His hand crept back up to his collar, tugging it over the scars out of habit, even though the elevator walls were a matte finish, and he couldn’t see himself in them.
No one else called an elevator between the lobby and seventeen, so the ride only lasted a few seconds. Dogsbody’s stomach grumbled angrily as the doors opened on seventeen. He winced in pain and embarrassment, but again, not a soul witnessed his predicament.
He was standing in the middle of a great hall, but only a single door led from the hall to anywhere else. A discreet sign placed on the wall at eye level read simply Mr Walker. Dogsbody shifted his weight from foot to foot as he stood in front of the door, unsure of whether to knock or simply walk in. He ultimately chose the former, and his knuckles landed on the wood with the mildest of raps, the sound absorbed by the thick, solid wooden door.
It was enough. The door eased open as if of its own volition, and Dogsbody entered. He half-expected another receptionist, perhaps the twin to the one who had greeted him so warmly downstairs, but that was not the case. The entire floor was one large open space, with a modest desk placed not far from the door, a single chair waiting in front of his for a single guest to be seated.
“Have a seat, Dogsbody. I’m going to make you an offer,” Mr. Walker gestured at the empty chair with his open hand.
Without a word, Dogsbody approached and took a seat in the chair. He listened ever so carefully to what Mr. Walker told him over the next six and a half minutes, and when Mr. Walker was done speaking and staring expectantly, one eyebrow raised, Dogsbody nodded once, slowly.
“Yes, sir. I’ll do it. I’d do anything to be a person again,” he said.
Mr. Walker clapped his hands together and interlaced his fingers. “Very good, Dogsbody. I’ll see you again when the job is done.”
Dogsbody knew his time was up. He stood without another word and brushed the dandruff of the back of the chair as he left. He planned to finish this job for Mr. Walker or die trying. He was so tired of trying to make his life worth living when it never was.
Links to parts 1-5 can be found here.
“I’ll take care of dinner, so you keep that twenty in your pocket, young man,” Betty mock-sternly admonished Ben, pulling her wallet from her purse. “I know you need it more than I do.”
“Thanks,” Ben offered, reassured once again by her genuine tone.
After the bill was settled, they walked together to Betty’s car. When they got in, Ben spoke up. “You know, you don’t have to explain anything to me, Betty. I understand that you’ve been through some hard times yourself, or know someone who has. You don’t have to tell me anything.”
“I know that, Ben,” she answered. “But it’s just–have you ever had a story that you never told anybody, and then you finally met someone who you knew would understand if you told them? This is that story for me, and you’re that person. I mean, I’m not going to force you to suffer through it if you don’t want to hear it, but I’d really like to just explain to you.”
“I do know what you mean, and I’d be honored to hear your story. I wasn’t trying to make you think I didn’t want to, but we’re still virtually strangers, is all. Even though…” Ben trailed off into silence.
“Yes, exactly! Even though. I knew you felt the same way! The three of us have this connection, and it isn’t just Mr. Robinson and his crazy will. I can’t explain it, but it’s there. I’m glad that you feel it too.”
Ben didn’t know how to answer; Betty was absolutely right. It was so strange. He had never had any brush with the paranormal, supernatural, or whatever you want to call it before, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to come up with any kind of logical, rational explanation. It was hard to let it go, and he was like a dog with a bone, constantly, in the back of his mind.
Betty took Ben’s silence for agreement, and focused on the drive home. After about twenty minutes, she turned into the driveway of a tidy little house that somehow exactly matched her bubbly personality. From the neat beds of wildflowers to the ample floral wreath on the front door, it just screamed Betty.
Ben got out and followed her to the side door, and he heard barking from within.
“Um, what kind of dog is Oscar, anyway?”
“He’s an English bulldog, but don’t worry. He loves everybody, I promise, in spite of any threats I made about him” Betty laughed.
Ben breathed a quiet sigh of relief, and Betty unlocked and opened the door. Oscar came merrily bounding out, obviously ecstatic to see her after a long day of dogdom all by himself. Betty rubbed his head before he scooted off to enthusiastically sniff Ben’s feet and legs. Nose inspection done, he trotted back inside behind Betty.
“Well, come on in, Ben, Oscar says you’ll do fine,” said Betty, stepping into the kitchen.
Ben followed her in, feeling mildly uncomfortable, the usual discomfort people feel when visiting the home of someone they barely know.
“You can put your backpack on the table if you want, or in there on the couch.”
“Thanks,” said Ben, continuing to follow Betty into the living room, where he took off his backpack and set it on one end of the couch. He sat on the other end. Betty lowered herself into a recliner and kicked the footrest up, then patted her lap to invite Oscar up. Ben was surprised to see that he fit on Betty’s lap–she was so small.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ben, did you want some water or anything? I just made myself comfortable like I usually do without even thinking about you!” Betty was a bit ashamed of her manners, but Ben declined any refreshment for now. “Okay. Well, I don’t have a spare bed, but you can sleep on my couch for as long as you need to, Ben. I’ll get you some blankets in a little bit.”
“Thank you again, Betty, so much. I really appreciate your generosity. Really.”
Betty smiled at Ben’s gratitude. “Really, it’s okay. I’m happy to help. Let me tell you about the reason I understand, okay? And just, please let me talk, especially during the hard parts, or I won’t be able to talk at all, I’ll cry.” Ben nodded, settling himself a little more deeply into the couch cushions, and Betty began her story.
“When I was fifteen, my dad had a heart attack. My mom was at work, and I was at cheerleading practice. When I got home, he was on the kitchen floor. I called 911, but it was far too late. He was gone. They took him to the hospital, I guess procedures, and that’s where I called my mom. I was crying, and I just told her Dad was at the hospital, but somehow she knew. And she never showed up. The last I saw of her was that morning before school, when I kissed her goodbye.
“I don’t know if she just lost it and couldn’t handle coming back to her life without Dad, or what. for all I know she was kidnapped on her way to her car to come to the hospital.
“I didn’t file a missing persons report. One of my best friends grew up in foster care because her mom was a drug addict, and I knew that with no other family, I’d end up in the system. I took care of all of my father’s funeral arrangements by myself, at fifteen years old. I had to tell everyone that my mom had a breakdown and couldn’t handle anything, and that’s why she couldn’t pick out his casket or come to the funeral. Fifteen years old. I even quit my mom’s job for her, so they wouldn’t find out. If they did, that would mean she was back, and my troubles would have been over.
“But I did it. I took care of everything, and nobody ever knew any better. Even the insurance company. But it turned out that my dad had canceled his life insurance the year before. I don’t know if my mom knew about that, but I didn’t. And without my parents’ incomes, without my dad’s life insurance, I didn’t have more than two thousand dollars to live the next three years of my life. I knew I would lose the house I grew up in eventually, so I never made a single mortgage payment. I mean, I couldn’t even get a real job yet, since I didn’t have any parents to fill out the forms.
“So I waited for foreclosure. I kept the other monthly bills as low as I could so the money would last longer, and I quit cheerleading so I could work under the table at this crap diner, Sue’s, close enough that I could walk to it. But it was a crap diner, I didn’t make much money. And eventually, the bank foreclosed and auctioned off the house. It probably would have taken longer if they had been able to get in touch with my mom, but I always put them off when they called or came by. I had two bags that I packed, and I left.
“The only person who knew that my mom was gone was my friend Kay, the one in foster care. Her foster parents let me sleep over sometimes, but mostly, I was on the street. In my hometown. I was sixteen by then, and I really, really wanted to be able to at least finish high school. I didn’t know what else to do, so I started working nights at Sue’s and sleeping after school in public restrooms at gas stations. I don’t know how I made it two years living like that. But I did it. I graduated high school. I even got into some colleges.
“Two days after I graduated, I turned eighteen, and I thought about going to the police to report my mother missing. But I was scared. I didn’t know how much trouble I would be in for waiting so long, I didn’t know how much trouble I’d be in for not having an address or phone number to give them aside from Sue’s. Mostly, I didn’t want to have to admit that she’d abandoned me, and I didn’t know how much trouble she’d get in for that, if and when they found her.
“See? I still say when. I can’t help it. I still believe she’s out there somewhere.” Betty finally paused to shake her head, and she looked up to meet Ben’s gaze.
“Betty, I’m so sorry. I don’t know what else to say, but I truly am sorry.”
Inspired by TBP.