Chapter 4 - Joe, Through the Private DoorMature

The door marked Private opened into blue light, falling from the wounded moon behind the ship in the bare window at the top of the stairs before him. Joe gripped the doorknob. He started to pull the door shut.

"You're my best master. Ever. I like it here." The dog lounged on its side behind the deli counter. But it was obviously and intently watching him. Appraising him, even.

Joe huffed, to clear his dry throat. It didn't help. "Cummon. It'll be more comfortable upstairs."

"I like it...here," said the dog, unblinking, unmoving on the floor.

Joe clicked a mental snapshot of him losing to the dog. Blood rushed hotly to his face. "Okay. Suit yourself." He let go the doorknob. He started up the stairs. Unsteadily. Climbing in blue light.

There was a light switch, behind him, just inside the stairwell, he'd seen it. But the dog would notice if he turned around now. Joe felt ridiculous.

Then the dog was by his side, shaggy and blue, though not unpleasantly blue, and climbing the stairs with him. Joe's feet suddenly didn't feel so heavy. He let his dangling hand...unintentionally brush the mutt's ear. The stairwell was narrow, framed pictures hung both sides, Joe could deny intention, if the dog commented.

The dog said nothing.

At the top of the stairs, Joe hurried from the blue window. He switched on light after light. Every light incandescent yellow, and reassuringly familiar. A many-roomed apartment formed. The deli man, and family that went on for three rooms and adjoining hallway, watched him. From hall-table picture frames. From living-room side-tables. From the dining-room wall, tastefully crowding Leonardo's Last Supper, which overlooked the big table. One silver-framed snapshot stood by the bathroom sink, Toscanini and wife in cruise ship party hats and kissing.

Joe had no family. The nuns and succession of fosters didn't rate. He hadn't anyone to weep over. No one to weep over him. No impediments.

Joe relieved himself at the toilet. He washed his hands, dried them on the green thick towel hanging by the bathroom door.

The dog appeared in the wallpapered hall. "We're safe, master. The cat's dead, I checked." He slipped from view.

Joe returned to the hallway, wallpapered like a Tuscan gardener's dream. The long rug felt springy under his shoes. Joe wondered about the ancient console tv he'd glimpsed in the living room. He wondered if Discovery Channel might still be broadcasting. Imagined himself watching, and falling asleep on the overstuffed sofa.

Then he registered the dog's report about the cat. The hairs prickled up Joe's neck. The dog slunk through the dark doorway at the far end of the hall. Joe started after him. Floorboards creaked underfoot. He swept by a pair of shut doors, left and right. He smelled death now, sour as the meat gone bad downstairs.

He found the wall switch, flicked on the light. It was a kitchen. White dishes and shining cutlery waited in a drying rack by the sink. A towel lay over the edge of the open oven door. A dead cat lay by the fridge.

"Still dead." The dog sat watch, from the far side of the kitchen.

Joe saw the milky stain in the cat's flowery bowl. He remembered the milk carton, left out, souring downstairs.

He returned to the hallway, went to the shut doors. Floorboards creaked again. He decided on the right-side door first, pushed through it, the door of the closet or room which fronted on the street. The noisy side of the apartment, one week ago.

Streetlight from a single curtained window yellowed the small room. The room packed with boxes.

Joe swallowed. The lump in his throat wouldn't go away. His heart tapped out morse code. His hand steady, he opened the other door.

Blue moonlight blazed through the bedroom windows, outlining the occupied bed. A pair of shapes lay close as spoons under the bedsheets. Two stained glasses and an empty pill bottle stood on the bedside table.

Joe pulled the door shut.

"Dead, too. Like the cat." The dog stretched itself on the hall rug.

Joe frowned. "You knew?"

"I smelled dead people." The dog's tail popped up like a flag.

"You smell...more dead people?"

The dog yawned. "Not here."

"Wh...where?"

The dog's brushy tail fell flat on the rug. Its grey eyes widened. It stared at Joe. "By the big park, master. By the sea. The tall houses. A lot of people fell from high windows, I was scared."

Joe leaned back, steadied himself against the wall.

The dog blinked at him. "I...I can show you, if you say I have to."

"No. No." Joe lurched away.

The dog called after him. "I don't smell the people in the sea. They're very deep."

Joe put one foot after the other, compelled himself along the hallway.

The ancient console tv in the living room, after Joe switched it on and the tubes warmed up, not surprisingly showed him only static. The rushing noise of it started the dog creeping away, tail between its legs. Joe switched off the tv. He sat on one end of the overstuffed sofa. Rested his arm on the overstuffed armrest. He tipped back his head, shut his eyes a moment, to think through the steps required for bedding downstairs. He fell asleep.

The End

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