Chekhov’s Arrow

Peter sent me a text. “I really want to shoot a bow and arrow.” One day out of the blue he wants to shoot a bow.

This text of course was in Chinese although lately we have taken to using English more and more. I’m hoping to improve his English via osmosis. He’s an ex-boxer/ ex-thug for Russian mob/ex-fence for Africans illegally staying in China/ ex-bouncer/ex-armored car security guard and now, finally, he is just a plain humdrum cell phone salesguy and cell phone fixer-upper. Yeah, he still has nefarious contacts and every once in a while he gets a windfall of stolen iPhones.

From the foregoing, you can assume he’s had little schooling. He spent way too much time getting into fights. A big shit-eating grin plastered on his big moon-pie boyish face, “Even sometimes fight with teachers!”

I told him I was not impressed by that statement. “You do recall that I am a teacher.”

“No problem. I never have fight with foreign teachers.”

The communist party in their infinite wisdom realized this kid was never destined for the hallowed halls of upper academia or even lower academia and in eighth grade removed him from the gen-pop to train permanently as a boxer in the municipal sports center.

I asked him what happened after that, you know, why didn’t you go pro, but he would look away and say something I could not understand. I suspect he was muttering vaguely on purpose to dodge the question rather than saying something I could not understand. Since all he knew how to do was to beat people up, he found a job doing that.

You might also assume little education, therefore he’s a dummy, but you’d be wrong. He has a brain—he figured out how to take cell phones apart on his own and he was smart enough to realize he wasn’t tough enough for a life of hard crime. Soft crime was more in his wheelhouse. Moreover, he has a moral compass (although it does oscillate wildly when distracted by the powerful magnet of his id or libido). He loves animals, especially dogs. He champions animal rights in China, participating in a watchdog group, no pun intended. Stalin may have loved babies, but dog-lovers can never be all bad.

Patronizingly, I might say I took him up as a kind of socio-linguistic experiment. What could a guy like me, master’s degree in bullshit, umpteen years in secondary education, current assassin and torturer of high school students for the Horrifyingly Egregiously Cruel and Inhuman Education department, do with this bold block of unselfconscious and unhindered humanity. He was two hundred plus pounds of dangerous and hey, I needed a playmate.

He, I am sure, felt that he was in fact taking me up as an experiment. Always pushing my boundaries, trying to get me to join in on his other-moral shenanigans. Typical male bullshit for the most part. I am no tyro or Victorian prude when it comes to catting around or getting into trouble, but I am more than twice his age. I just can’t be bothered any more. I get tired earlier and earlier. One day I’ll wake up, sit up in bed, break wind, and just go back to sleep. That will be the extent of my day.

I earned Peter’s respect the usual way, heh, the way dullard comic book superheroes earn each other’s respect: by fighting each other. Soon after we met I invited him to come work out at my apartment. I am a dwarf, it’s true, and I am not even a particularly powerful dwarf, but I am a dwarf with not a little training in the martial arts. Plus I manage to stay pretty fit. My age and uncomely spare tire belie my strength and endurance.

I asked him to take a swing at me. He did. I slipped, blocked, stunned in one smooth motion, then swept his leg, pinned him to the floor, and applied a painful elbow-wrist lock. Deftly. Neatly.

When I tried to help him up, his weight pulled me down on top of him. Awkwardly we disentangled our limbs. Huge mass differential between the two of us. He shook out his wrist.

“Can you do that again?”

I did. And again and again.

He looked at me like the man who realizes he had been playing with a viper he thought was a common garden snake. Okay, I exaggerate, but he looked at me funny. I for my part learned to respect his power, and how could I not?

We’d square off, him shuffling, me dancing on tiptoes like the poor man’s Mohammad Ali. I would pepper him mercilessly with half-pulled punches, tapping him with roundhouse kicks and spinning back-kicks, and suddenly—just to keep it real—he would tornado with a vicious hook-uppercut combo. My head would fly up—just like the Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots—and I would have to stop to count the wondrous and myriad beautiful constellations of Northeast China.

“Please don’t kill me, Peter. It’s bad for my health.”

We were totally mismatched for sparring, but here’s the truth: we were both lonely and in great need of companionship, and so we became friends.

The truth about my friends is that rarely did we share professional interests: he could care less about language teaching and I certainly did not care about fixing cheap cell phones. It was interesting to hear about the batches of stolen iPhones, but—as I reminded him—I was a victim of petty theft in the Xida Zhijie KFC where my treasured iPhone 3GS (long time ago amirite?) was spirited away.

I was curious to learn about the Chinese otherworld, but didn’t want to become a part of it. I say “otherworld” because he wasn’t really underworld. He and his buddies were not organized gangsters (look no further than the CP for that). They were citizens who fell through the cracks and had to find a way to feed themselves. If he and his felonious pals seemed insensitive to the suffering of others, then that was an environmentally conditioned adaptation for survival in China.

Stupidly, I prompted him to heed the words of Jesus Christ and the Dalai Lama. A bit like trying to teach a lion how to be a lamb, but I emphasized to him that there were different ways of interacting with the world and not all of them piratical. He actually took my words to heart. This is not surprising. The male figures in his life included an alcoholic abusive father, surrogate fathers in the form of sadistic coaches and callous teachers, and ruthless government officials. I may have been the first man to have acted kindly towards him without an ulterior motive.

It was not easy either. There was not much we could ever talk about. There were no scintillating dialogs about Finnegan’s Wake being a waste of literary genius or the state of Feminism in post-capitalist America since he spoke Mandarin with a heavy local accent and my Mandarin was barbarous, heavily inflected with a Taiwanese accent. But, being the ever-efficient educator, I planned our time well: we always met and did exercise, and then afterward we might go out for a bite to eat or a couple of German lagers at the Golden Hans Restaurant. Getting drunk and flirting with the pretty Chinese fräulein replete with blond double ponytail wigs is always a happy pastime for a prototypically horny young man and a middle-aged lecher. To my credit when I realized that his father was an alcoholic, I stopped inviting him out for a beer. I told him I needed to lose weight. Anyway, he didn’t need me to get in trouble. On his own, he got into plenty whenever he drank. Meaning, he inevitably got into some kind of altercation. I chided him for using his vastly superior strength and boxing knowledge against unsuspecting and inebriated victims, deserving though they might have been.

My words were starting to seep into his brain, though I think he gave it the same amount of weight he gave the Christian cross he wore around his neck: it was more bling-bling than religious icon. All of this is preamble to our story. A kind of narratological disclaimer. Whether it will exculpate me is I suppose another matter.

When I got Peter’s text I thought he was making fun of me.

In America I owned a compound bow and practiced archery off and on as time allowed. I loved shooting. Not hunting of course. I had no stomach for killing animals, but I enjoyed the whole ZEN activity of focusing on a target, slowing the breath, and releasing the arrow. For me, it was like sex without all of the hot psychological mess. I even dreamed about shooting. Often in fact.

During my entire stay in China, I have had anxiety dreams related to archery—which I could imagine could have all sorts of real world analogs like lack of success in romantical and financial endeavors and thus be the source for the dream material. Who’s to say? What I took away from those dreams was my obvious need for peace and desire to shoot. When I asked my ice hockey pals if they knew where I could find an archery range, they all laughed and made crude sexual references. “Heh heh, he wants to shoot his arrow! Heh heh!” They couldn’t believe I was being serious. When I had asked Peter, he shrugged his shoulders and looked at me funny. I imagine I perplex him, but I am a foreigner, so there’s that.

Now suddenly, Peter was all hot to practice archery. He could not remember my asking him about archery in Harbin a year ago. As proof, I even showed him my WeChat ID: the Green Arrow, just like the popular TV show. (WeChat is the Chinese FB for those who don’t know.) I brought my laptop to his small shop and showed him photos of me shooting in America. I did this because I wanted him to listen to me and not go off on a tear as he normally did without too much forethought.

Life is funny. I have always felt that writers very easily find symbolic webs in life and naturally graft them onto their fiction. At that exact same time, at the gym in LinDa where worked out, someone had put up a sign for a new (expensive) archery club. One day I saw an incongruous sight in the foyer to the uni health club: a man in mirrorshades and camo gear holding a gorgeous compound-hunting bow. He had all the right gear: back quiver, finger glove, forearm guard. I started salivating. I tried to talk to him to ask him about the archery club, but he was on the phone and only returned my smile. I waved goodbye and went in to lift weights.

I figured Peter had seen the same sign and perhaps even had met this guy (Peter was very sociable and garrulous, hence his many, many awesome-looking gal-pals). But no, he knew nothing about the club. Later we met at the gym and I showed him the sign about the archery club. We couldn’t afford it, but he still wanted to go ahead and purchase a bow and arrows on TaoBao (China’s ebay). I told him to wait. We should do some research, find the best price, not to mention that we needed to find someplace to actually shoot. He was fine with just shooting the bow in a street alley. I told him he was nuts. We would get arrested, not to mention it was dangerous. He didn’t think so.

“In China you can’t have guns, swords, or big knives, but bow is okay.”

In a week’s time, despite my protests, he bought a recurve bow online. It was delivered within a week. He texted me photos and said, “Let’s go man!”

I texted back, “Did you get a target?”

Cyber silence.

“DID you get a target?”

“No. Too expensive.”

I let loose a barrage of vitriol. Okay, again I exaggerate: I remonstrated with him. We settled on doing some research, seeing if we could find something cheap online or perhaps make our own.

“But it would have to be very well constructed. We don’t want to lose arrows or worse, have the arrow fly through and hit someone accidentally.”

“Won’t happen. It’s fine. Don’t worry.”

I worried.

I went to his shop a few days later and he showed me his acquisition. It was not a sixty-pound bow. It looked like something…it looked like…okay, I am Latino, and fuck it, I have to say this, but it looked the cheap-ass gewgaws that lower class Mexicans would have hanging on their walls. You know, the velvet picture of Bleeding Christ, the garish tin sabers, ubiquitous candles of la Virgen de Guadalupe, or the ‘roided-out Aztec warrior carrying the curvaceous swooning suspiciously Anglo Pocahontas-looking babe. His bow was even tricolor imitation leather wrapped around both upper and lower shafts.

“Where are the arrows?”

He handed me two. “All you got was two?”

“The others broke.”

“The others broke? How?”

Shit eating grin.

“Peter, what did you do?”

He explained to me that he took his bow outside and decided to shoot it in the neighborhood. He even hit the window of a bank across the street, cracking the window. Amazingly, they didn’t do anything, he said. The guy in the bank laughed it off, he said. I found this hard to believe. But, this is China. He had two arrows left. I told him to stop fucking around. It wasn’t a great bow and probably just decorative, but it did have some heft, and the string, definitely not Kevlar or something similarly modern, seemed strong enough. The arrows were cheap target arrows, but they were target arrows. Perhaps this was what passed for archery here in the Northeast nowadays. Genghis Khan must be spinning in his tomb.

I nagged him and begged him to be patient. A couple of days later we met for a workout and afterwards we took a walk around LinDa. It is the Forestry University after all and there are plots of forests all around. Perhaps we could find somewhere safe to practice. I was concerned with harming a passerby. Without a dedicated area, anyone walking by could potentially get hurt. Peter was not concerned whatsoever. I suggested that we shoot next to the culvert. Far enough away from the bridge, no one would see us, and the slopes were high enough to form a natural backstop.

The ice and snow had not yet completely melted away when I suggested this and when they did, the ducts quickly filled with black, brackish, most likely toxic water. To confirm this, on the day of our walk we saw the bloated gray carcass of a cat or maybe a dog.

“That’s why I don’t want to shoot down there.”

“Yeah, disgusting.”

In the experimental forest behind the new building that housed the Olympic swimming pool, we came across a large area cordoned off in square or rectangular plots and crisscrossed with numerous dirt and stone pathways. It was a runner’s dream. Or an archer’s haven. I was miffed that Hobbit had not introduced me to this natural verdant wonderland. I mean WTF! My life would have improved substantially if I could have taken walks or jogs in this green haven, not to mention practice archery. There were the were the usual old people hugging trees, practicing qigong, and we did see one young couple hiding themselves in a tree stand mooning over each other. Still, it looked promising. And then….

Oh my. We reached one end of this area filled with tall thin pine trees where the undergrowth was cleared away and formed a kind of tree park. We began to head back when we saw them. There were two guys shooting in the middle of this manmade tree park. They had three homemade targets backstopped by some thin plywood. When the portly guy stopped to retrieve his arrows, we politely interrupted them, or I did. Before I said Peter was garrulous. That was wrong. He’s gregarious. He’s got lots of acquaintances and contacts, but he’s not a chatty kind of guy. He’s a flirt, but tight-lipped around anyone perceived to have a higher social status. I told him to go ask these guys what was up, but he just stood there saying nothing. So I opened my mouth and asked them what they were doing. A stupid obvious question, but how else do you initiate a conversation?

Ended up, they were like us: two fools who came into the forest to look for a place to practice archery. The fat guy had a lightweight black metal recurve bow. He was shooting instinctively without sights. He did okay too, never missed the target while we were looking on although they did tell us that they had lost a few arrows. The arrows had penetrated their target and disappeared into leaf strewn forest floor. I looked at Peter meaningfully and he looked back at me un-meaningfully.

Regardless, this was a triumph. I was mad at myself for having taken no for an answer a year ago. Always the universe provides, which is really new age bullshit, but the take-home point is simple: if you want something in your life, go get it. I always wanted to play ice hockey and waited until I was forty-something to start playing. What the hell? How dumb is that! I should have been playing back in high school. I found ice hockey in the most unlikely of places (well not really—it is northern China on the border with Russia for crying out loud) and it could not be much of a stretch to find archery as well. A billion point five people: someone has got to share my interest in archery.

I needed archery. I needed hockey and archery and meditation and yoga. Yes, I admit it. I needed these things. I needed the peace it gave me because…because without it I felt that obsidian electric abyss yawning open inside me and I could hear, dimly, that preternatural wolf call. I needed this. GODDAM! Finally I would get to shoot!

It took a little over a week, but I convinced Hobbit to relinquish some of her bizarre collection of old clothes that no one would ever wear or need, but which she stashed all about our tiny apartment in neat piles and bags as tall as herself. I gave Peter a bag full of old clothes and sent him diagrams (in English but still useful) on how to make your own arrow target. I printed out some paper targets I downloaded online from an archery store and we were good to go. As a measure of caution and privacy I bought some large thin green plastic bags to conceal the bow and arrows and target. I didn’t want anyone to know that we were in the woods shooting arrows. After all, this was a part of the university and although no one seemed to be watching too carefully we did have to walk past a guardhouse and cross a gate barrier to enter the forest. Best not to give them a reason to detain us, correct?

I felt nervous the first time out, but it was all for naught. The old wizened guard didn’t even lift his eyes from his knock-off iPad on which he was watching some kind of tele-drama. There seemed to be more old people walking about and communing with the trees than our previous visit, but undaunted we pressed onward and finally found a pretty secluded spot.

I set up the target at the foot of a tree. Peter wanted to hang it up from a branch.

As an educator, you spend a significant portion of your time trying to preempt problems. You spin through your mind what might happen to derail a lesson and try to predict thorny questions or hard to understand concepts. You don’t want the class to veer wildly off-task because of some stupid logistical problem you should have had the forethought to avoid.

I tried to do the same with Peter and gave him a short stern talk about what to do and not to do. Maybe he would never have done it if I had not suggested that he not do it. Maybe the idea would never have entered his knobby tonsured pate. Maybe. In other words, maybe I caused it to happen. But how can anyone know that? Shouldn’t you tell children who are about to play with a potentially lethal weapon the rules? But, didn’t I know what Peter was like from the very beginning? He’s a proverbial naughty kid. Tell him not to do something and he’s just as likely to do it. Two hundred pounds of naughty. And dangerous. Don’t forget that.

Double fuckmefucksticks.

In America, many archery ranges will kick you out if you incline your bow up as you pull back on the string. The obvious reason being that if you accidentally slip, your arrow will soar into the air and even bows with a low weight can sail an arrow into the stratosphere and potentially hit a neighbor.

Peter kept doing it and doing it on purpose to get a rise out of me. I had to stamp my foot and stutter in frustrated Chinese to stop doing that.

“I won’t let go. Don’t worry.”

I threatened to leave, then and there. “It’s not funny mother fucker.”

He stopped and we finally could settle into just shooting. The whole thing was about disappearing into the target, vanishing the ego and riding the arrow from bow to target. That’s what I was about and after a while, when Peter saw that it wasn’t as easy as it looked, and he saw that I was hitting the center circle consistently, he quieted down and tried to do his best, forehead wimpled in concentration.

Such a release! I think I lost a half-ton of metaphysical stress. I felt so good I began to imagine a future. I imagined Hobbit and I would find rapprochement and rebuild our lives. I imagined that I would stop with my self-destructive tendencies: quit drinking and chasing skirts and fighting. I imagined that I stopped fighting, stopped fighting with…with everything, with everyone, with LIFE. God I was so exhausted from fighting life. Life was kicking my ass and had been for so long.

Fine. Take it all away. I surrender.

Surrender.

Leave me peace. That’s all I want. Peace.

In those woods of elm and willow and oak and maple, in the experimental forest of the Forestry University, between the shafts of late afternoon cold spring sunlight I felt something I hadn’t felt in so damn long. Peter couldn’t understand why my eyes were tearing up. I told him it was the wind, it was allergies, it was…it was happiness. Been so long since I felt that. I felt so good I wanted to go home and make love to my wife. Of course, that didn’t happen, but, hey, give me credit: I did feel it.

The next time we met up to shoot I had everything ready. I photocopied a new paper target and taped it up with what passes here for heavy duty packing tape. Recently Peter had been having bouts of dizziness while lifting weights and though I told him to take it easy, he didn’t listen. He’s a young guy in his twenties, but anyone can suffer from dizziness while lifting if they breathe wrong or haven’t had ample rest, or God forbid have a heart condition.

His girlfriend made him go to the doctor, but then he refused the EKG the doctor recommended. This made me go ballistic and I gave him an earful when we met. He just grinned his big shit-eating grin. Fine.

We walked past the gaggle of octogenarian walkers, past the mystical spot where most of the tree-huggers gathered to soak up the qi of the forest, and made our way near where we saw those other guys had set up their target in the tree park area. When we got there, there were a bunch of tree-huggers and tai ji practitioners doing their thing. We turned around to head back and skirt the plot of Korean oak trees to the east. A skinny old geezer in a tatty blue jacket approached us and mumbled something, holding out his hands as if he were showing me how big the fish was that he had caught that morning. He had a mouth like a hockey player, maybe two and a half teeth left on his lower jaw and none on the top. Even Peter could not understand him. He repeated himself and motioned again with his hands. About that big. Peter got it. He was looking for a lost dog. Nope, we hadn’t seen any dog. We went on.

We found a nice deserted spot that was far enough away from the path that we should be able to avoid onlookers. The sun was bright but the wind was cold, so we were both shivering in our light windbreakers. Moreover, since Peter had just gotten out of the gym, the sweat had dried on his body and dropped his core temp. I went over some research that I had looked up online about archery, how important it was to be consistent. You had to draw back the same way every time and anchor on the same spot every time. Consistency. That was key. Shivering did not help.

But you have to walk the walk and I was in the zone, baby. I was hitting the center mark and even hitting near the smaller circles around the center spot, at will. I was in it. Peter on the other hand was not doing so well. The cold was really affecting him and I could see that he didn’t’ have too much patience today. I felt his eyes watching me. He snapped off some photos on his iPhone 6. Nothing bothered me. Even when two old biddies surprised us and came down the path from seemingly out of nowhere, I stayed calm and steady, released my arrow smooth as oiled silk, riding that arrow into the bull’s eye. The old biddies paid us no mind whatsoever, so we kept on shooting.

Peter was complaining that we should raise the target off the forest floor to make it easier to hit. I told him no. We needed to slant our aim downward. Just in case.

“You worry too much.”

Then he wanged the arrow over the target. It disappeared into the sticks.

“Dammit Peter. We only got two arrows.”

We didn’t chase the arrow right away and we should have.

I told him to stand closer. He wasn’t ready to shoot from as far back as I was. This wasn’t a competition, but he was taking it as such, the silly git. He grinned his shit-eating grin and leaned back and up.

“Stop it Peter! Don’t—”

His smile vanished. Just like the arrow. He shot our last arrow into the air, not at a high angle, but high enough. We lost it immediately.

“Dammit Peter! You could have hit someone. Now, what are we going to do?”

“In one week we’ll can get new ones. I’ll get better ones.”

“We don’t need better ones. We ain’t pros. We need to be careful.”

We tried to find the other arrow and realized that it was stupid not to track it immediately.

“Let’s go try to find that other arrow. Maybe by some miracle we’ll find it.”

We packed up and walked in the general direction the arrow flew. The path rose and then fell and we found the arrow.

It was lodged in that old geezer’s eye.

I ran to the old man. He was lying on his side, and he was breathing hard like he was running a race, wheezing in and out, in and out. There was blood, but it wasn’t a ton of blood. It looked scary though.

“Give me that rag, Peter. Peter!”

He looked like he was about to faint. But then he got it in gear.

I couldn’t see where the point of the arrow was lodged, and I was afraid to pull it out, but…I also was afraid to leave it in. Peter gave me the rag and I encircled the arrow tip and yanked it out. Smoothly, as gently as I could. The old man gave a low moan. I pressed the rag to his head. He was in a daze.

I started running scenarios through my mind. None of them ended well.

“Peter, come here.” I pulled him close to me and whispered into his ear.

“No.”

“Goddamn it, yes. Just do it. Go. Quickly, mother-fucker. I have to get him to the hospital.”

Peter did as I told him. One half of the problem solved.

The Red Cross Hospital was north of the Swimming Center, north of the gas station on Wenchang Bridge Road. I could do this. From here, I could walk through the vegetable gardens and no one would see. He wasn’t bleeding too badly. I mean it wasn’t pouring out. In fact, it wasn’t leaking, it just kind of looked messy because his face was half-covered in blood and most of it was dry. It was less than two kilometers. Not even. I could do this. But I had to get this guy up and walking.

I spoke to him as I would a small child or a small scared animal. A small scared wounded animal. I snaked my arm under his torso and lifted. He didn’t weigh anything. He was all skin an bones. I could have carried him if I had to. I would have if he didn’t smell so damn bad. My God. I hadn’t noticed it, but he reeked like a bowery bum. Sweet Jesus. Time for me to pay my dues. Dusk was gathering quickly.

I avoided seeing anyone until we hit the end of the research gardens, at the edge of the gas station parking lot. Then, I got stares from everyone. I ignored them all and kept my stink partner walking. By now he was okay enough to help me hold the rag over his eye. It wasn’t much further to the hospital entrance. I half-carried him in a big push to get inside and yelled at the nurse to come help me.

The girls at the info desk gave me nasty looks and didn’t budge. Typical. What do you have to do to get a reaction from someone around here? I sat my stinky bloody friend in a cracked plastic chair. Not a top tier facility. I rushed to the info desk.

“Can you please help me? Please. I don’t speak a lot of Chinese.”

“What happened?” Her voice was gruff and her eyes were half-closed and noncommittal.

“I found this guy in the woods. His eye is bleeding. It looks serious. Please. He needs a doctor. It’s an emergency. Do you understand? Emergency. A very serious emergency.”

She looked unconvinced, but picked up the phone and began barking out something. I went back to the old man and told him that I found a doctor and he would be okay. He muttered indecipherably. I prayed it wasn’t condemnation.

A nurse in a lab coat with a stethoscope around her neck came over followed by another woman pushing a wheel chair. She pulled the man’s hand away from his eye. She peered into the wound and puckered her lips.

She looked at me and snapped something. I asked her to speak more slowly. “I am not Chinese,” I said pointing at my face.

“How did this happen?”

“I don’t know. I found him like this. In the woods. By LinDa. Like this. He was like this.” I mimed how I found him lying on his side. I mentioned nothing about arrows or bows or two idiots in the woods.

She turned back to the old man and spoke to him. I was sweating now. The old man mumbled and slurred something and again motioned with his hands. About that big. I felt my stomach turn. I was pretty sure what that meant.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“Something about a dog.”

“Uhhh, I don’t know anything about a dog. I didn’t see a dog. Maybe he was looking for his dog?”

The old geezer moaned pathetically.

Another nurse came over with a bottle of water. Not antiseptic. Just a plain bottle of water you can buy in the local cangmai. They splashed a little water over the wound and wiped away the blood. He complained and moaned, but the nurses told him to hush up. They fussed over him, cleaning the wound, wiping away the dried blood. At least it wasn’t still bleeding. I moved closer and looked carefully at his injury, my heart in throat.

I wasn’t the only one. Anyone who wasn’t dying gathered around to watch the nurses work on the old guy. His eyelid was torn and the very edge of the inside of his eye socket was punctured, but his eye was untouched. Miraculously untouched. I felt queasy like someone had socked me in the nutbag when I saw the skin ripped and the white flesh exposed underneath, but his eye was rolling around and looking around just fine. And as ugly as it was, it wasn’t bleeding. I mean hardly.

He moaned and muttered again.

“Is he in pain?”

“No, he keeps talking about a dog. He needs stitches on his eyelid. You have to pay over there.”

“Uh, I don’t know this guy. I don’t mind paying. At all. I’m just telling you so that you know, you know.” She looked at me very unimpressed. “You know. We’re whatchacallit, strangers. Complete. I don’t even know his name.”

“If you don’t pay, we can’t—”

I didn’t get the rest of it, but I got the gist: pay or no treatment. She filled out something on a piece of paper as thin as gossamer and handed it to me. She pointed that way.

“Well, is it okay if I leave money for the stitches? I have to go. You see—”

Moaning and muttering again. A pang of conscience and guilt. Poor old guy. The nurse pointed to the cashier’s box. Fine. That was fine. I’ll get the bill and hopefully they’ll hop to it. Give the poor bastard some morphine or whatever.

When I got in the line there was a slight commotion at the entrance. Peter strode into the antechamber. What the hell? He had ignored what I told him to do. He wasn’t carrying the archery gear, though. He was toting a ratty little chestnut-colored dog in his arms. About that big.

The old geezer looked up with one good eye and one bloody eye. He made a queer noise, something between a yelp and a pip. The smile was as ugly as it was unmistakable, however.

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