Jeff opened his eyes to pain.
And a dog.
The horrific pain held his attention for the first few minutes of his renewed consciousness. It seemed to come from everywhere, every limb, organ, nerve. There didn't used to be pain. He knew that, somewhere in his shocked mind. Pain was new. Horrible.
The dog, also, was new. Jeff did not so much focus on the dog, as half see it with the parts of his mind trying to flee the horror within him. It was brown, with floppy ears. Some sort of lab. It looked at him at an odd angle. As if ... as if...
Jeff was on the ground. That was it. He was on the ground, the dog standing on his left, head over his body as it panted in the cold morning air. Cold. Morning. More data points. Ground. Snow. Snow was falling on him, under him, around him...
A warm, wet tongue licked Jeff's face. He did not feel it, through the pain, but rather noticed the slobbering kiss. The dog was whining, tongue frantically coating his skin with warm water. It cooled quickly, threatening to freeze once the dog abandoned its effort.
He closed his eyes. Pain. So much pain. What had happened. Beyond the darkness the strange dog whined. Behind the creature, wind blew. Snow ... snow...
He had been snowmobiling.
Jeff had left the cleared trail. Tried to beat the blizzard back to his truck. A ... tree? Log? Something. Thrown. He was now in the middle of the woods, invisible to anyone who could help, life slowly soaking into the snow.
The dog licked his face again.
Jeff had never owned a dog. Cats, yes. Ever since he was a child. Never a dog. They had never seemed worth it. Dogs were too needy. Too ... demanding, of love and attention. Now, at the end of his life, he understood. Dogs only demanded a fraction of what they gave.
A shape appeared beyond the furry nose and slobbering tongue. Among the trees. Blurry. Red. It was slim, and red, had legs ... a head...
Jeff's friend and companion in his dying moments whirled, fluffy tail whacking him the face. He heard the beast growl, a low, dangerous sound. It was ... a comforting sound. The dog ... he thought he'd call him Rover ... was growling to protect him. That was nice of him. Protecting the injured stranger. It didn't matter what from. Jeff was going to die regardless. It was just nice to be loved.
"Good boy," he whispered. Maybe he whispered it. He thought it, at least. Thought his thanks to this noble animal, protecting him from dangers unknown...
The red thing moved away from the tree.
Tiredness was replacing pain. Tired. Jeff just wanted to sleep. Pain would vanish in sleep. He could dream. Dream...
The red thing came closer, it's form becoming clear in the swirling snow.
It was a girl.
Her skin was red, the red of the sun at sunset. That was all he could say for certain, his eyes blinking half aware at the upside-down figure slowly walking towards them. He thought her arms and legs were bare, a simple white dress, almost a toga, her only garment. That was foolish. So, too, the white eyes on that face, under long hair not blonde, but the purest yellow of the noonday sun. Rover was barking furiously now, pausing occasionally to growl.
"Good boy, Rover," he thought/said again. Rover turned his head, whining, giving his icy face a few licks. The red girl came a few steps closer in those moments, her pace never changing. Rover whirled again. He leapt forward a few feet, strong jaws snapping at the stranger.
Jeff felt his entire being focus on her. Her face ... it was beautiful. Inhuman. There was no sense of humanity in the creature. Rover was more human, the dog's emotions plain, honest. Rover lowered his head, growling. Yes. He loved this dog.
"Thank you, Rover..."
The red creature began to move its leg. Rover snapped again. The bare leg lowered. The girl's head tilted. For the first time, Jeff thought he saw something.
The red girl dropped down into a crouch. Her bare arms went to the ground, as if the snow wasn't even there. In fact...
Jeff's tired eyes blinked. He could see the snow undisturbed behind her. She had walked ... through the snow. Like a ghost.
His eyes closed. So tired.
Jeff heard the wind. Heard the panting of his only friend.
Heard, in the distance, the yelling of a female voice.
Menolly looked out through the dark mid-day storm.
Why, pray tell, had she let Canth out of the cabin on a night like this? Why, pray tell, had the dumb dog decided to go chasing after some poor bunny or whatever, instead of just doing his bathroom business and coming back inside? Why the hell was she out here, in a blizzard, calling for a pet too stupid to stay near home?
"Why does it happen? Because it happens. Roll the bones."
Great. Now she was going to have the Rush song in her head for the rest of the evening.
Her thoughts turned away from the here and now. Menolly had seen Rush. Once with her father, once without. Much of the family had gone, too. A family tradition she had only been old enough to experience once the way it should be. The second time ... had not been the same.
Would she go again?
Probably. If her brother Freddy was going.
Menolly's gaze again swept the forest. This was stupid. If the dumb dog wanted to come inside, he could make his way back to the cabin like any sane creature. She was cold, she wasn't wearing any boots. Menolly was going to turn around, head back, open a can of clam chowder and have some nice hot soup...
Menolly began moving. Now that her attention was drawn, she saw shapes in the snow at the bottom of the hill. Dark shapes, not trees or rocks. Canth was standing next to something. Nearby, something large, blue, covered by snow.
It was overturned. She walked faster. Canth stood his ground, looking back at her. A person. A person, half covered with snow, lay at her friend's feet. Oh, god. She ran.
"You should have come and got me, Canth!" Menolly practically threw herself onto her knees beside the man, body protesting her treatment of it. The man was on his back, eyes closed. Face white. She tried to think.
First, was he alive? She put her ear to his mouth, eyes closed.Warm air, faintly, flowed against her skin. Alive. Good. Well, she thought, sitting up again, good in that he wasn't dead, bad in that she'd probably kill him in trying to save him. Menolly looked around. She couldn't just leave him. Even going back to the cabin and checking to see if her cell phone had a signal was out, because, one, she doubted it did, and two, it would take forever for help to get there. Especially if the road wasn't plowed. She had to get him inside, for all you weren't supposed to move anyone injured.
Her eyes went to his face. She didn't know him. That was good. Not that she would know anyone here, apart from that rather cute guy down at the store in town she had talked to for a bit. God, she was glad this wasn't him! She wished he was here, though. He probably would would have some idea what to do...
Canth barked again. He wasn't facing her, or the man. Her friend had his butt to her, tail up high, fur bristled. Menolly followed his gaze.
There was nothing there.
Canth lunged forward, jaws snapping. His head suddenly whipped around, eyes wide with concern. Menolly could only blink in confusion as he anxiously licked the dying man's face for a moment before again whirling to growl at some unknown danger.
A coldness unrelated to weather fell on the twenty year old, an inkling of what the unseen danger might be slowly coming to her. She stood.
"God. Fuck this. I'm sorry, whoever you are, but this is probably going to kill you."
Setting her feet, she bent down, grabbing the man under his armpits. With a groan, cursing the gods of chemo, she wrenched his body until it pointed towards home. She began to pull.
Menolly didn't know why the guy wasn't dead.
She had killed him. She knew that. Hastened his death, at least. The dark trail in the snow his body had left, let alone the huge stain in the snow where he had been, clearly showed he had bled quite a bit. The fact that said trail stopped not long after she began her dragging, about the time her panicked mind realized a bandage might be good, also seemed to indicate just about all the blood in him ... well, no longer was.
Yet, he was alive.
Menolly was not comforted.
Once in the cabin, after giving her exhausted body a rest, she stripped him, finding the gash in his back. It was not clotted. Trying not to think, she dried and warmed the well built man, washing and bandaging his wound. The rest of him seemed fine, if cold and white. He still breathed when she finished, a pulse still beating.
Menolly put him in her bed, piling quilts on top. Standing in the doorway, Canth at her side, she stared at him. The man looked ... peaceful. Like any other man in her bed. Her eyes flicked upward, towards the heavens.
"He'd better not be from you, Mommy Lisa. He's not my type."
Which, strictly speaking, wasn't true. He was handsome, in a rugged twenty year old way. The guy was built, all muscle. True, it wasn't the type of guy she usually DATED, but that was more due to who hit on her and the circles she found herself in. If, on waking, the guy proved to not only be alive, but also intelligent and not a dick, Menolly could see herself having a serious thing for him.
Which could be bad news, if this wasn't a pairing made by the family ghost. Dark haired Adonises rarely associated with her.
Menolly frowned. She had to call Violet. She'd know what to do. Or Mommy Rachel. No. Violet first. Her wife Cynthia was the one to really bring into this.
"Come on, Canth."
Turning, Menolly walked through the living room. It was small, like most cabins. Room enough for a couch in front of the fireplace, a large comfy chair. About mid cabin it became the dining room, table and chairs for six set up. Her older brother often brought friends here for a guys weekend, doing what she had no idea. He had loaned it to her so she could get away during the semester break. Do some thinking. Maybe some writing not school related. Hell, maybe even think about ditching school altogether and just focus on writing. Her family would understand. She knew that. Hell, the fact they'd be saving on the last two years of college would probably be a big relief...
She found her phone where she had left it, on the small kitchen counter. It wasn't plugged in, her mind not wanting to waste the power from the gas generator on something as frivolous as a phone. Menolly flicked it on.
There was no landline, naturally. She wasn't even sure if this place did normally have cell phone access, or if it was the storm knocking out communications. Didn't matter. They were out.
It was just her and undead naked guy there.
"Undead Naked Guy". Good band name.
Jeff opened his eyes.
That surprised him. He had expected to be dead. Whatever that meant. Philosophically, he tended to think death was the end, an unending sleep. Realistically, he had been prepared for some sort of afterlife, be it pleasure, punishment, or just hanging around.
A rustic wooden cabin was none of those.
He sat up. That, too, surprised him. Jeff looked down at himself, pulling off the blankets. He was nude. Often the case when waking in a strange bed, so not an issue. His body had some bruises, it looked like. Running a hand over himself, a few points were painful to touch. But, nothing was broken. White bandages were wrapped around his chest. Reaching behind, he felt a pad just below his left shoulder blade.
He had been dying. He KNEW that. His life had been flowing out of him. That was a fact.
Yet so was this.
His eyes lifted.
What about her?
The red skinned girl knelt on the end of the bed, bare knees straddling his left leg. He thought he had dreamed her. Obviously not. Unless he was dreaming this. Maybe life WAS a dream.
Damned philosophy class.
The girl was looking at him, those white, pupil-less eyes wide, staring. They were too big for her face, cartoon like, but the rest of her was definitely human. Human with body paint and dyed hair, but human. Young. Younger than him, definitely. He'd be asking for ID if he was drunk enough to be hitting on her at some Halloween party.
Jeff blinked. Maybe he was drunk. He could see ... through her. Somewhat. The image of the rough stained dresser against the far wall was faintly visible through her sleeveless tunic. So, too, her weight left no impression on the mattress.
She said nothing. Made no movement. Just ... sat there.
Should he touch her?
He could. Easily. Just move his leg. He'd have to touch her, if he tried to stand. What would it feel like? Would he feel anything? To touch a ghost ... nothing bad could come of that.
He whirled. The red girl leapt back, off of the bed, his leg missing hers by inches. A dog, a short furred brown lab, bounded into the room, barking furiously at the ghost. She clamored backwards, hugging the wall beside the dresser, alien face now full of fright. Jeff definitely felt sorry for her.
Behind the growling dog, in the doorway, stood a woman. Girl. College age female, if his senses in this area were correct. Old enough for everything except probably buying a drink. She was thin, body hidden under a knit sweater. It had what looked like baby dragons on it, flying around the head of a young teen girl on a sea shore. What drew his attention was not the body, because, again, he couldn't get a good sense of it, but her head.
She was bald.
Jeff had seen good looking bald girls. College girls, punk or goth, who shaved to be different like everyone else. This was not one. Her head was a bit irregularly shaped in the back, brain case a bit bigger than you'd expect. Probably not a bad thing, brain wise, but just going by looks she could use hair. He liked her eyes, though. They ... well, spoke to him. He decided to speak back.
Her eyes went from the wall where the red ghost was to him, then down into his lap. Ah. Right. Jeff was sitting on the side of the bed, her bed, naked, legs open and his soft dick all exposed. Again, apart from the soft part, not an unusual situation. Her face now a little red, the woman's eyes came back up to his.
"So. You're alive and..." Her eyes dropped again. "Somewhat healthy. What's your name?"
"Jeff." He gave a short laugh. You had to. After what he remembered of that morning, assuming it was still the same day, you had to laugh. "Where did you find me?"
"Snow, next to an overturned snowmobile." The woman let her body settle against the door frame. "I'm Menolly. My furry friend is Canth."
Jeff reached a hand out, petting the dog.
"Hello Canth." The friendly animal responded by turning to lick his hand. "Good dog." Jeff's eyes went back to Menolly. "Is that other girl your friend, too?"
Her words were not needed. All hope that he was sane vanished at her expression, her eyes darting over the small room questioningly. He didn't even let her speak.
"You can't see her, can you?"
Her eyes returned to his face, stopping at the dog on the way.
" ... no. But, I assume Canth can." Her eyes closed, a sigh escaping her. "Great. I was afraid of this."
She was? Well, that was of some comfort to him. His rescuer wasn't calling him delusional. Always a good sign. Her gaze warily going back to the wall, Menolly gestured.
"What color is it?"
"Um..." He blinked, looking at the translucent girl again. Actually, she looked relatively solid now, standing against the dark wooden wall, white eyes on him. "She's red, wi-"
"Jesus fucking Christ!" Menolly pushed off of the doorframe, fear in her brown eyes. She stepped into the room, putting the dog (and Jeff) between her and the ghost. "And what is it doing?"
"It's ... just standing there. Afraid."
"Good. Very good. Glad to hear it."
"I assume you know what the hell she is?"
"Nope! Not a clue! I know just enough to be fucking terrified, and glad I can't see her."
The phone still didn't work.
The storm seemed to be, if not past its peak, at least peaking. The darkness was beginning to be the darkness of evening, replacing the dark of nature's fury. That was good.
The darkness Menolly now felt in her very soul, not so good.
A Red Thing. Here. Gods above and below, why could this man see it? No one should see them. Seeing the reality beyond reality led to madness. KNOWING that reality was bad enough. Knowing there was a beyond, unseen, in the air all around...
OK. It wasn't much different than the idea of germs and microbes floating around, living on your skin. It's all how you framed the situation.
The guy, no longer naked, sat at the table, eating a sandwich. Canth, seemingly taking quite the liking to the guy, sat at his feet. His attention was evenly divided between the crumbs dropping down, and a point back inside the bedroom.
Menolly settled into the stuffed chair farthest from said bedroom.
"How's the sandwich?"
"Good. Thank you." He answered with his mouth full. Menolly smiled. Mommy Anita would have yelled at him across the table for that. Her eyes closed. Gods, she missed home. Why was she doing this? Yes, they were smothering her, but that's what family was for. To circle the wagons when one of their own was hurt. Being treated like a fragile doll was a small price to pay to be able to lean on them.
Tomorrow. She'd head home tomorrow. As soon as the roads were at all passable.
"You still," Jeff's voice said, "haven't told me what the hell that girl is."
"No." Menolly looked over at the man. "I haven't."
And she wouldn't. Not until she had evidence a Red Thing was actually there. And even then. Answers would lead to questions. Questions would lead to knowledge. To secrets. Secrets that this stranger, no matter WHAT he was seeing, could never be a part of. No. She had to be protected. THEY had to be protected. Nothing could be allowed to endanger her friends...
"Can you at least tell me why I'm still alive?"
His plate was empty, wooden chair half turned to face her. Jeff was still shirtless, her bad bandaging job crossing over his flat chest. She was glad he now had his jeans on, at least, even if the underwear was still in the pile with his shirt and socks.
"Why are any of us alive?"
A glint of recognition seemed to appear in his eyes. She smiled. Shrugged.
"No, I don't want to talk about it." Which was another reason she was up here in a cabin. She didn't have to talk to anyone. Tell her story. Hear their sympathy. She could just...
Canth stood. Metal tags jingling slightly, he padded across the bare wood floor to Menolly. Coming to a stop before her, he placed his head on her lap. Menolly smiled.
"Hello." She scratched the top of his head, moving her fingers down between his ears, moving down the back of his neck. Canth sat, tail wagging.
"Have him long?" Jeff asked. Menolly shook her head.
"No. My sister gave him to me a few months ago. He's one of a special litter. Very special. Aren't you, Boy?" She moved her other hand into play, rubbing the side of his face. Canth gave a whimper of pleasure.
"Where's the bathroom?"
"Outside. Out the kitchen door. Turn left."
She looked up, grinning.
"Nope. However, if it's just a piss you need to take, there's a bedpan back in the bedroom, under the bed. You can empty it in the sink."
"Or I could just piss in the sink."
"I'm sure it has been done here, but my rules. Bedpan, or go outside."
She followed his eyes to the bedroom doorway. Jeff stood, Canth's head turning to look at the bedroom as well. The man let out a sigh.
"Outside it is, then."
Menolly nodded. She didn't blame him.