Authors: Teresa Hill
The women had recoiled in horror at the dirt, the spider webs, the evidence of small, furry animals scurrying around inside when no one was there, and maybe even when people were actually there. Then there were the snakes, the heat, the cold, the animals that dug through the trash if it wasn't secured properly, plus the things that howled and fussed and scurried about in the night. One trip, right after they got the place, and Grace had never gone back. Her mother and sister had never gone back. Her good friend and sister-in-law, Julie, hadn't either, as far as Grace knew. Her nieces at some point had given it a try and rejected it, too.
So it had become solely the property of the men. They went every now and then for a few days of fishing, they said, though the women suspected it was more drinking beer, eating burgers and the occasional fish on the grill, maybe playing a game of poker. The women thought it was fine; they were happy to have a night to themselves. They truly enjoyed each other's company, had good food, good wine and good conversation, all with the comfort of air conditioning, their own beds and no bugs or snakes.
Grace had forgotten all about the cabin until she saw that road sign. It was like fate had delivered her right here at this moment.
Had Luc ever taken a woman there? He'd never been that enthusiastic about the place, but he'd gone from time to time with the other men. And it probably wasn't such a dump anymore. Grace had always suspected the men had taken the women right away, when the cabin was at its worst, so the women wouldn't want to come back.
Plus, it was both on the way to the college and perfectly out of the way, down what eventually became a gravel road in the midst of woods so thick that you couldn't even see the lake until you were right on top of it.
If Grace could find the cabin, she was going to tear it apart.
* * *
Aidan Shaw was doing a pathetic half-walk, half-jog—all he was capable of at the moment—halfway through his second lap around the lake, when the wind gusted suddenly. It had rained like hell overnight, rained still off and on, but with less intensity. He hadn't been able to stay inside any longer.
A moment later, Aidan heard a tree branch—maybe a whole tree—snap and crash to the ground. He tensed at the sound. No doubt, the soil was wet and loose from all the rain. Sometimes a gust of wind was all it took to send one toppling over.
Which meant he wasn't doing the smartest thing right now, running on the narrow gravel road through what might as well have been a forest. But he had trouble being still sometimes. Admittedly, he had trouble running, too, due to injuries that were still healing, but his need to move usually won out over the pain.
A moment later, he heard the frantic barking of a dog. Through the trees, he thought he caught a glimpse of the animal, and then a tree that had fallen on the cabin of one of his neighbors. He could see a hole in the roof. Had he heard, during a brief break in the barking, a cry for help?
A feeling of inescapable dread moved through him, flooding every cell of his body, as if something truly awful were coming. Aidan started to sweat. His vision shrank, narrowed in that weird, tunnel-like way. Just the thought of pulling a body from the wreckage, even if the victim was alive... But he'd never walked away from a cry for help. He wasn't about to now.
Aidan took off at a dead run for maybe three steps, before he remembered he couldn't move that fast anymore. Not just because it hurt, but because a fall could really set him back, and he was actually trying not to be stupid about his recovery. The road at the best of times was loose gravel, and at its worst, part mud, part standing water, and he wasn't as steady on his feet as usual. Plus, he'd be no good to the victim if he went down. So he slowed down as much as he had to.
The dog spotted him, barking and running back and forth between Aidan and the damaged cabin. He recognized the giant, goofy-looking thing. It belonged to Maeve, a gruff older woman he'd seen when they'd ended up walking along the road at the same time.
"Maeve? I'm coming. Just stay still until I get there," he called out.
Another neighbor, Mr. Walker, who was eighty if he was a day, got to the cabin at the same time Aidan did, saying he'd already phoned 911, and together they tried to quiet the dog and get to Maeve.
Peering through the wreckage, Aidan found her still in her bed, which had collapsed onto the floor. She was pinned by the tree, which was lying across her legs. Aidan wasn't sure, but he feared he saw the jagged end of a thighbone protruding through her skin. Obviously in a lot of pain, she struggled to no avail to free herself.
, so she wasn't dead.
Which meant, so far, this was going much better than the last rescue he'd attempted. He worked hard to put the sights, sounds and smells of that nightmare from his mind.
Aidan and the old man cleared debris until they could get to Maeve's side. A quick assessment told Aidan that yes, she had a compound fracture of the femur, dangerously close to the femoral artery, he suspected. Cut that the wrong way, and a person could bleed out in minutes.
Lucky for Maeve, she was bleeding, but not that badly, all things considered. At least, from what Aidan could see through the dim light with the tree on top of her. Her vitals were weak, but not awful. He even found a faint pulse in the ankle of her injured leg, which meant blood was circulating even there.
Mr. Walker wanted to move the tree right away, but Aidan wasn't so sure. What he could see of the break was below the tree, which was clearly exerting a lot of pressure on her leg—and maybe on the artery—helping to keep the bleeding down. They really needed to keep that bleeding down. Of course, that was just what he could see. No way to know exactly what other injuries she might have that he couldn't see.
Still, she was conscious, talking, oriented to time and place. In a lot of pain, too, but people could live with a shit-load of pain. Aidan knew that.
He explained things to Maeve as best he could and tried not to freak her out too badly. Then he peeled off his jacket and the long-sleeved knit shirt he was wearing, to get to his white undershirt. He used that to carefully cover the open fracture as best he could. He wrapped his jacket and then a blanket he dug out of a drawer around the woman.
Mr. Walker came back with a chainsaw from his house, and a tarp they positioned to keep the rain off Maeve. Then Aidan sent the man to the road to flag down the paramedics.
It was shortly after eight in the morning, but it was storming and the trees were thick, so the light sucked. He found a flashlight and a kerosene lantern, which he used to look at Maeve's legs and the tree from every angle possible, so he knew what they had to do to free her, once they had medical help standing by.
Finally, there wasn't anything to do but sit with Maeve, hold her hand and try to get the dog to shut up. That was the hardest part—when there was nothing to do but wait.
Adrenaline still coursed through his veins. It left him jittery and weak at the same time, shaking almost as much as Maeve. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the crash. Not this one. One months ago, high in the mountains in Afghanistan. He still heard the sounds of it, felt the heat of the explosion, the smell of it. Worst of all, he remembered the feeling.
Absolute worst thing in the world.
He'd done all he could do, and it hadn't been enough. Not then. It might be now, for Maeve, but it might not.
Aidan wasn't sure he could watch one more person die.
* * *
Time under extreme stress became distorted, Aidan knew. It felt like it took forever from the time the tree snapped until they loaded Maeve into the ambulance, but it was under an hour and fifteen minutes.
The leg was a mess, but appeared salvageable, although a compound fracture of the femur in a person of Maeve's age was a critical injury. The paramedics told Aidan he'd done the right thing, waiting for them before trying to move the tree. A sick feeling of dread had flooded through Aidan's whole body when the incident began, but finally started to ease, although it would likely be a long time before it was gone entirely.
Maeve's last words, before the ambulance doors closed behind her, were to beg Aidan to take care of her dog. She claimed he wasn't much trouble, just deathly afraid of thunderstorms. And she called him Tink, short for Tinker Bell, which had to be some great cosmic joke.
Aidan swore softly as the paramedic tried not to laugh in Aidan's face. The dog had been a giant pain in the ass the whole time. He whimpered. He howled. He cried and cried, hadn't wanted to leave Maeve's side.
At that moment, he stood right behind the closed door of the ambulance, still crying. As the vehicle pulled away, the dog chased after it. But a huge clap of thunder came along. Tink scurried back, getting somewhere inside the wreckage of the cabin before Aidan could stop him. Then, from inside the mess, the dog howled some more.
Mr. Walker was still there, and he and Aidan found a ladder so they could tack the tarp in place over the damaged cabin, hoping to keep more rain and maybe wild animals out of it. Then the older man left, faster than Aidan would have thought possible, and it was just Aidan and the dog.
He was stuck with the mutt.
Scavenging for supplies, he found a big bag of dog food, but no collar, no leash. In what little he'd seen of the beast previously, Maeve had seemed to have him under good voice control, but Aidan wasn't Maeve, and the dog didn't know him. He could have used a rope to fashion both collar and leash, but this was a big dog. No way Aidan would be able to wrestle the thing all the way back to the cabin where he was staying.
He shook the bag of dog food, hoping the dog was hungry and would come out on his own. No such luck. He put a bit of food on the cabin floor and pushed it into the darkness toward a mostly collapsed coffee table and the crying sound. That got him a furry paw and a snout, reaching out of the gloom to eat what he'd offered, but the dog retreated just as quickly back into his hiding place.
"I'm not going to crawl in there and drag you out," Aidan told the dog, who just kept on crying. It was the most pathetic sound. "And I have never met a dog who cried as much as you do."
Aidan killed some time searching what he could get to of the cabin. The emergency crew had already cut the power, worried damaged wiring might spark a fire, so he cleared the refrigerator of perishables, then took the garbage out, not wanting it to draw animals.
Still nothing but noise from the dog.
"You can't stay here. You'll starve," he told the dog.
Obviously, Tink disagreed.
Aidan's shoulder ached. The hip that had been partially rebuilt with titanium and cadaver bone hurt like a son of a bitch, and he was both wet and cold.
Finally, he pulled a soup bone out of the trash, one he'd just taken from the refrigerator, and tried coaxing the dog out with it.
Okay, coax was probably not the right word.
Soon he had one end of the bone, and the dog had the other, neither one of them letting go. But the dog was kind of wet, and the floor was wet, too, and Aidan had rubber-soled boots on that gave him some traction.
Aidan pulled, and the dog slid out from under the table, yelping and fussing. When Tink finally realized he'd been tricked, he scrambled to get back inside. But Aidan blocked his way, quickly pulling the tarp into place and securing it with a rope. Tink looked completely taken aback, staring, pawing and howling. He would probably chew and dig his way back inside, given enough time.
"It's gone," Aidan yelled. "Your house is gone. Maeve's gone, and you're stuck with me. It's not a bad bargain for you, all things considered. I won't let you starve, and you can be dry, at least. Believe me, I'm getting the worst end of the deal."
And then he took a moment to really look at the stupid creature.
It was huge, more like a small horse than a dog, a hundred pounds easily. If they played tug of war on an equal playing field, even with Aidan whole and healthy, he wasn't sure he'd win.
Its fur might be cream colored, but that was just a guess, because the dog was filthy. The dog's fur was not straight, not curly, more kind of kinky, or just really confused, as if the animal had no idea what it was supposed to be. It looked like some kind of joke on the animal kingdom, with its huge head, bigger than Aidan's, looking like a clown head with fur.
"You look ridiculous," Aidan told the thing.
Tink whined, like he might be offended, but at least it seemed they'd achieved some sort of communication.
Aidan held out a pillowcase he'd taken from Maeve's bed earlier and let the dog sniff it. Tink whined mightily and tried to bury his silly head in the material, but Aidan took it away and kept talking.
"She wanted me to take care of you, okay? I am much more disgusted by the whole idea than you are, but she's not coming back anytime soon. So you can come with me or go to the animal shelter. That's it. No other options available. If you know what's good for you, you'll follow me."
Aidan started walking, the big bag of food hoisted over one shoulder. The dog cried some more, the sound getting fainter the farther away Aidan got. As luck would have it, thunder rumbled across the sky a moment later. With a yelp, the dog came bounding along, almost knocking Aidan down in his eagerness to get as close as possible as the wind and rain kicked up once again.