Even after three vodkas and an Ambien, it had taken Bob Wells two hours to fall asleep. Now he lay in his bed dreaming that he was running through a maze of dark city streets, while sharp little stilettos of ice stuck in his chest. Somewhere ahead of him in the gathering dark, a voice screamed, "Terrorists. Terrorists... they're coming! The terrorists!" He knew that panicky voice so well, knew it nearly as well as he knew his own. He turned a dream corner and saw the screamer laying there, near a battered old phone booth, his sore-covered head hanging in the gutter.
Bob Wells woke up with a start. There it was again. The panic dream of ice rain. A lethal injection that fell from the night sky, accompanied by a high-pitched scream, the same scream he could hear for real now, somewhere out there on the wet city streets.
He got out of bed, went to his bedroom window, and with some effort pushed it up. The cold wind and sleet blew in from the harbor. Bob stuck his head out into the night and looked down the far end of Aliceanna Street. The homeless guy was there, just as he'd been the night before, the guy everybody called 911, lying in the gutter, right next to the battered and windowless telephone booth. Loaded on rotgut and crack, he held his wine bottle in the air and screamed: "Here they come! The terrorists! They're in the air! They're here! Terrorists! Terrorists!"
He listened to 911 rave, his hysterical voice cutting through Bob's rapidly beating heart. Finally, he shut the window, sighed, took off his sweat-soaked pajama top, quickly threw on his old wool crewneck sweater, and reached for his black Levi's.
Bob buttoned his old navy Pea Jacket against the sleet as he headed down the slippery street. He was ten feet away when the terrified, wide-eyed, filthy man looked up at him.
"I know you," he said. "The f****** terrorist."
"Nah, Nine," Bob said. "No terrorists, man. It's just me. Bob." The drunken, panicked wreck looked at him through rheumy eyes.
"Dr. Bobby?" he said. "Dr. Bobby, that you?"
"Yeah," Bob said. "That's me. What's up, Nine?"
"They're coming," 911 whispered. "They're coming. I heard it from my people."
"Right," Bob said. "So, if they are coming, maybe the smart thing to do would be to get off the street?"
911 bit his scabby lower lip and looked at Bob in a cagey way.
"So you might think," he said. "But then again, maybe that's exactly what they want me to do. After I get to the shelter, boom, the death strike hits there."
"I don't think so," Bob said, moving even closer. "You know why?"
"'Cause I talked to your people just a few minutes ago and they told me that tonight is just a street action. Anybody in the shelter is safe, Nine. Okay?"
911 looked frantically around like a frightened gerbil.
"Also it's cold and wet out here," Bob said, looking up at the sky. "You could get real sick and then you'd be playing right into their hands."
From beneath the street grime, 911 assumed a thoughtful stare.
"You're right," he said, "They would just love that, bro."
"Of course they would," Bob said. "Hey, the thing is, I gotta go to St. Mary's shelter right down on Broadway, so maybe you'd like to keep me company, huh?"
"Like riding shotgun on the stagecoach to Dodge," 911 said.
"Just like that," Bob said.
"Maybe we should go now, before they come," 911 said. Like he'd just thought of it. Like he was taking care of Bob.
"Let's do it," Bob said.
As 911 tried to unfold his bones from the street, Bob gently took his arm, a mistake he wouldn't have made earlier in the night, when he was less wasted.
911 pulled away quickly and kicked Bob squarely in the balls. Stunned, Bob went down on his knees, groaning and holding his crotch, as the homeless man scuttled away.
"Oh no, man. You can't fool me," 911 screamed. "You almost had me, dude, but I saw through you! You f****** terrorist son of a bitch!"
Bob fell over on his side as the pain shot through his stomach and lodged somewhere near his Adam's apple. He lay there and it occurred to him, for maybe the hundredth time that day, that he seriously needed out of this s***. Up, up and away, like forever, for good. No more, baby. No more friend of the friendless. No more poor folks. No more 911s.
As the burning pain subsided, Bob Wells entertained a small, almost funny thought. If any of his neighbors looked out their windows just now, they'd see him there and think, Look at the poor, homeless son of a bitch out in this s***. Pathetic.
From Four Kinds of Rain by Robert Ward. Copyright (c) 2006 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Minotaur.