As soon as the walking trail through the sodden, wooded park headed uphill for the first time, Howard Royce's body began to falter.
The incline was only slight, but already Royce had to work to get his breath. A wave of nausea rolled in his stomach and he thought for a moment that he was going to retch. Then the trail leveled out again and he kept going, balding head bent down.
The beige sweatsuit with a red stripe down the pant legs stretched tightly against his blocky body. The damp trail was slippery for his bright white athletic shoes as he plodded ahead.
The regular Saturday morning walk through the Arboretum woods used to be a mild, pleasant exertion for him. Today it was a miserable ordeal. He knew that with every step he was moving farther away from where he had left his car parked, but he refused to turn back. He had to keep going, had to keep to his routine and finish his usual circuit around the trail before he could quit.
It was the only way that Royce could prove to himself that he wasn't really sick.
Never mind the growing symptoms in his body lately. The soaring blood pressure numbers. The shortness of breath. The fist of persistent pressure inside his chest.
Never mind his doctor's advice and his wife's constant harping.
Most of all, never mind that grotesque, threatening letter he got warning him what was going to happen soon to his health.
Royce angrily ignored all of it. He had always been healthy as a plow horse and there was no reason why, at age fifty-two, that couldn't continue. He wasn't sick, damn it! He was just fine and he was determined to prove that this morning.
But his body wasn't listening to his stubborn rationalizations.
His breathing turned into raspy panting as he trudged on. His pulse raced thinly in the left side of his throat. Royce felt the first prickling of actual fear. The farther he went on the trail, the worse he felt. Was his obstinate effort to finish the loop through the park a reckless mistake after all?
The dripping Evergreen trees and dense ferns were silent around him. The soaking drizzle had kept others away from the park. Royce was alone with no one around to help him if he needed it. His cell phone had been left behind in the car. He thought it was a sign of weakness to take it with him, an admission that he was secretly worried about his health after all.
By now, Royce was already too far into the park to turn back. He had to keep going, had to make it back to the car somehow. But the knot of pressure in his chest continued to burn outward. He choked on a clot of something in the base of his throat and spat out a clump of bright red phlegm.
The sight of the blood made him panic. He tasted more of it in his mouth. He had to stop; he wasn't going to make it. He looked wildly around for someplace to rest.
That was when he saw the dogs following behind him.
Two Dobermans were ten yards back on the trail. Royce's first hope was that they were with an owner, but he saw no one else near them. Instead, the pair of dogs seemed to be on their own, tan pointed muzzles and flat black eyes intent on Royce himself. They kept their distance, but followed his faltering steps steadily, pacing him.
Royce turned away from them and saw the stone bench up ahead sitting next to the trail. He staggered toward it with the last of his strength and sank down on the hard seat. But the rest came too late. It didn't stop the grating pant of his breath. His heartbeat was ragged and manic against his ribs as it ran a final, desperate losing race.
A jagged, tearing pain struck the center of Royce's chest, as if something had suddenly torn apart there. Warm fluid surged up into the back of his throat and he retched out a red bloom down the front of his sweatsuit. He choked futilely for air as he began to drown in the sticky thickness swelling up from inside him.
His vision shrank into a circle of grainy dimness. The last thing he saw was the two Dobies sitting on their haunches in front of him, small triangular ears flattened against their heads, still watching him keenly as if they already knew what was going to happen next.