Dead Man’s Party (part 1/?, ch 1-5)
Disclaimers: This is an original piece of work. I own
the characters, the plot, the words, the flaws and get the thrill of feeling
completely naked but for the tiny tea towel born of encouragement from a few
folks who nudged me. No one can lay claim to any of this but me.
Lyrics in Ch. 4 are from Melanie’s: Christopher Robin (Is Saying His Prayers).
Dedications: That said, thanks to Inspector Boxer and beurre blanc for patting me on the head when I needed it, and to Geonn for just being him. Thanks especially to beurre blanc for the feedback and beta.
Copyright © 2008 by C. R. Johnson. All Rights Reserved.
The rig rolled…
…not the stomach lifting roll off center you can get when your partner corners too fast and you have to compensate with loose knees and a light touch to keep from missing a vein, or pitching face first into your patient, but a roll that had the dualies off the roadway, riding the inside rims in a way no ambulance is designed.
A roll that made Rae’s lizard brain take note and her center of gravity shift on the soles of her boots.
All the weight in a rig rides the inside line. All that weight now seeking a place to rest…
“Fuck!” the invective from her partner at the wheel as much a prayer as derision. Out of the corner of her eye, as Rae made a grab for one of the bars along the top of the module, she saw Tim’s arm snap as the wheel spun and she knew the cab was off the ground.
The cot, locked down in its cradle, shifted just enough to slam her shins. With her free hand, she snugged down one of the waist straps around her patient, reached for the other, and then gravity claimed its due. The rig waltzed the calamitous geometry of death, and Rae met her patient’s eyes.
They were going to die now.
At 84 years, both eyes lightly clouded with cataracts and a life lived as best he was able, the knowledge was clear. He’d suffered a coronary, was on his way to Methodist for surgery, regaling her with stories of his Army days while she shot back with Naval anecdotes of her own. His heart was old, his body worn and weighted. Now he was going to die in a shiny expensive box filled with everything Rae needed to keep him alive but for ground beneath the wheels.
Neither smiled, neither spoke. The rig, a graceless hippo, relinquished its hold on the earth and launched itself into the air as it flipped in a slow queasy death roll. For a second they were weightless, the diesel clattering in oblivion as the frame flexed and groaned. In that second, two arms shot out from the cot, two fists buried themselves into the front of her starched white uniform shirt and wrenched her from her braced position, pulling her down, wrapping her against an old barrel chest in which a failing but very human heart yet beat, and held on with a will that dared defy both age and physics.
Her hands gripped the frame of the cot a sound like a guttural squeal left her throat as he crushed the air from her lungs…
Fate has no feelings. It cares nothing for the frail body yet victorious human spirit of an old man whose wife had sat pale and afraid in the waiting room, seeing decades evaporate in a morning. This defiant act of protection, held out to a virtual stranger meant nothing in the balance of the scales. The children he’d sired, the earth he had worked, the quiet joy he found in walking his dog in the early morning… all nothing, removed from the moment of happenstance to no longer fit the equation of the now.
So too did Tim’s three children and pregnant wife have no bearing.
Nor Rae’s own life, her loves, her hopes for the future.
Fate was a crap shoot.
And this was going to hurt like hell…
The rig hit the ground with all the force of its 6 tons and the 65 mph at which they had been traveling. The silence of the rolls beginning shattered into screaming metal, shearing bolts and the crystalline song of safety glass. The module hit on the driver’s side seam between bulkhead and overhead, popping open like a stepped-on box, the Plexiglas cabinet fronts popped from their glides and the compartment became a chaos of rending sounds, projectiles, and pain.
Something drove through Rae’s lower back. Something else sheared across the side of her face to turn her neck and tug once at the back of her head. She could feel the wild irregular beat of her patient’s heart beneath her, his arms holding tight even as she clung to the cot frame. Her body shielded him as he anchored her in bizarre human unity as their world twisted and torqued and disintegrated around them.
The roll continued. Another revolution, another silence as again they were airborne, but this one brief, the angle steepening, and Rae knew in a horrible instant they were leaving the road, and she wondered how deep they had traveled into the valley before they had been hit. She would have asked Tim, but the cacophony of sound returned and something blunt and heavy pressed into her ribs and didn’t stop. It stole her breath, cracked and ground sharp rib ends against one another in a way that was purely unnatural. The pain was crushing, inexorable, and it carried her into darkness as the rig slid down the winter grey abyss and began to cartwheel.
If she opened her eyes, she’d be in her own bed, warm beneath the down comforter and quilt, Elsa’s back pressed up against her face, the cat in the space above her head.
Sooner or later the alarm would go off, and Elsa would stretch and breathe deeply and roll to pull her close, still far from awake and fighting it all the way. Neither of them morning people; it was a toss up which of them hated the alarm clock more.
Was she on shift today? She couldn’t remember.
The thought didn’t seem to be front and center, however, when Elsa’s hands smoothed over her back and settled on her ass. Rae smiled and pressed a kiss to one of the breasts now perfectly placed against her face as she tightened her own grasp around Elsa’s hips.
“Morning.” How Rae loved that voice, deep and thick with sleep, rich with promise. In the 8 years they had been together, that voice and this body had not once failed to excite her.
Pressing themselves to one another, Rae straightened her back and nuzzled against Elsa’s slender throat, the graceful arch of it her favorite hunting ground, her teeth pulling a purr from the blonde. She had the most intriguing scent, and the taste of the skin behind her ears drove Rae crazy…
“Mmmm, I love that…” Elsa whispered, “But we have to get up now baby… come on, open those green eyes and look at me…”
Rae woke with her face in slush. Bubbles rose around her lips and left nostril as she stared strait into the damp snow in front of her, seeing none of it. When she blinked, there was a thin coating of ice on her eyeballs, opaque and persistent. She had lain here in limbo, unmoving, for a very long time, her eyes open. It took effort to close them now, to feel the small melt that burned as the lenses relaxed. Once closed, however, they wanted to stay that way.
It was peaceful.
She had no desire to move. That did not, however, stop a cough. Her autonomic reflexes demanding a cleared airway, it rattled out of her, a bloody expectorant, washing into the puddle of melting snow her body had created, followed by a paroxysmal wave of gagging coughs that racked through her, the pain forcing her into movement, her arms pistoned into the ground and lifting her shakily up to vomit out a long string of bubbling black and red mucous where her face had been pillowed.
Tears flowed down her face, as she tried to spit, but she needed air, and gasping began another coughing jag that collapsed her onto her right side, where she lay desperately trying to gain some control of her body.
The pristine white of the snow before her was flecked in red. She could taste blood in her mouth: blood and bile and something thick that blocked her airway. Struggling onto her elbow, pulling herself again to face the earth and snow beneath her, she opened her mouth and gagged. Gravity and her left hand finally pulling the clot from her throat, she flung it away and rested on her elbows, forehead drooped into the cold. For a time she just breathed.
There is a smell to snow, a clean, light, crisp scent that always made her think of linens on the line. She missed that smell. Instead the world seemed filled with the smells of diesel and oil and burning rubber. Lifting her head on a neck that was now screaming pain signals to her brain, she blinked a few times, working to focus.
She was in a deep ditch… no, those were railroad tracks to her right, and trees… she was at the valley bottom. That meant the roadway was above and to her left. What the hell was she doing here, Laying in snow and slush and her own emesis?
Blinking again, she cleared her throat and lifted herself once more onto her hands. They were encased in Nitrile gloves, torn and dark with damp inside as well as out. Why was she lying in the snow, wearing gloves from the rig?
When she tried to bring herself to her knees, she screamed.
“Damn it! This isn’t right Els! Don’t you care?” she was screaming. She hated it when she screamed. It was so out of control, so …
Elsa remained cool, untainted by emotion, and maybe that was what always got to her, Rae decided. That calm, ‘whatever’ attitude the blonde adopted when all Rae could do was seethe.
“Of course I care.” That cool, measured tone that drove Rae crazy, was literally driving her crazy right now. “but I don’t measure our relationship by what they think and I want my whole family with me for Christmas. That starts with you, ends with them…”
“They spent all Christmas last year trying to set you up with some putz doctor son of Mr and Mrs Country Club, and your dad actually asked me when I was going to grow up and try living on my own and get a real job!” Why these people got to her, Rae didn’t know. But they did. This argument was an annual ritual now. Eight years of comfort and joy for Christmas.
Maybe if she was lucky, this year she’d have an aneurism and not have to go.
“It’s once a year, baby. Just once a year…”
“It’s a fiasco. If I dipped myself in chocolate and threatened to hang myself from the tree, your mom would hand me a noose from Gucci and point out the strongest branch.”
“I don’t think Gucci makes hangman’s nooses.”
“Bet she’s checked,” Rae grumbled.
“Oh that is just sad, love.” Elsa was ready to laugh, but knew better than to dare. It was going to take some TLC to get Rae to wind down.
“Would you enjoy spending every year hated just for being?” Rae asked. She was being petulant now. Elsa was right, this was sad.
“Okay.” Elsa looked thoughtful. Rae knew what was coming. “We won’t go.”
Same as every year. God, Rae just wanted to scream. “Just to shut me up! Then at the last second, you’ll pout and we’ll be in the car and we’ll go because I’ll feel like a shit.”
“No, we won’t go. Maybe it’s time we had a holiday for just us.”
“You won, Rae, no need to be an ass.”
She felt her jaw drop at that. “This isn’t some stupid contest!” Did Elsa really not get this? After all these years? “I’d never tolerate anyone treating you like dirt. But me, it’s okay. I’m not the debutante with the trust fund and the servants.”
Elsa’s back stiffened. Not good. “No. You’re the one who lives the honorable life of a pauper, being a glorified Labrador retriever and getting puked on by drunks. Lucky me, you know how to bathe.”
Yup, this argument was familiar, and getting nastier every time. Rae just closed her eyes and wished she were dead…
…if she were dead, this wouldn’t hurt so much. The question was, how did she want to view this, as a good thing, or bad?
She hated it when they fought. She hated this damned couch, and the fact the cat decided she was her personal body warmer. She hated how she felt… alone and guilty and less worthy of loving than a rock.
And this was getting her precisely nowhere.
It was her own pride that had her on this couch. Both of their prides, if she were honest about it. What was the big deal about Elsa’s mom wanting them there for Christmas anyway. Who cared what the old bitch thought of her or what they had.
Gulping pathetically shallow breaths, she pulled herself another few inches through the slush, her legs and hips useless but following. She supposed there was something positive in that. She didn’t want to examine reality much further at the moment.
A fine spray of something washed over her, startling her head up out of the slush and snapping her eyes forward. Spinning off a dirty wash of road grime, one of the dualies howled on a worn set of bearings, the entire rear wheel housing only inches from Rae’s head. She stared at it, not sure at first what she was seeing.
Bracing her hands in the icy slush, she tried again to place her weight on her palms and rock back onto her knees.
She never felt the slicing of her face as it dropped into the filthy crusts and water beneath her.
“I love your ass.”
Rae snorted into the pillow and tried not to tense up. Lips caressed the curve of her hip and she forgot about the non sequitur and concentrated on where those lips were going.
Cool fingertips skated over the arch of her back before gripping tight against the weight pressing into her from behind. The shaft slid deeper and she moaned, willing herself to open further as she bore down.
“That’s my girl… more?” Elsa twigged the plug, getting a gasp in response.
Grinning, Elsa slipped her fingers into her, and Rae snapped her head back.
She gulped air, coughed on crap that was dragged along into her lungs, and tried to deny the wave of heat regurgitated into the narrow space between her face and the ice. A shudder ran through her as she fought for breath and she lunged forward on a spasm, pulling her arm closer to her ribs.
Straining to keep her head up Rae brought the world into slender focus, and wondered where her peripheral vision had gone. She figured there must be something positive in knowing she should have the ability to see panoramically, but for some reason that little victory seemed tainted by concern.
She knew it all meant something, but what?
Turning her head a few painful degrees at a time, she looked to her right.
Was that a flash of maroon and yellow? She took a breath, more feeling than hearing the rattle inside her ribs. Tilting her head and blinking brought the scrap of world ahead of her into focus. Maroon cot wrap, yellow Stryker cot, a hand with pale blue veins…
Rae was pulling herself toward the cot long before she recognized the fact she was moving. Of course, snails moved faster, but she was moving, and for some reason it was important that she get where she was going.
The snow disappeared under her right elbow and she flailed for a moment, thinking she was falling until her weight shifted enough into the brief abyss and she was.
Fog was yellow and yellow cats die.
Rae watched her lover cradle the pathetic bundle of bedraggled fur in her arms and could see the words of the vet breaking her heart. Fatty liver disease, yellow mucous membranes and sclera, yellow skin beneath brown and black fur, plus the sudden weight loss and seizures, the poor thing was at death’s door.
Rae felt defeated, useless. She’d had a love-hate relationship with the beast since day one, when it had rolled in ant poison and she’d had to bathe it as a kitten. Elsa hadn’t been home. There was no one else.
Deep channels still marked the basement faucet where claws had gone into battle with anything and everything.
She’d dug up the peonies after she finished putting iodine on her arms and moved them further from the house. Ant problem solved.
Cat problem started. What followed had been years of litterbox duty, wet hairballs on her side of the bed and carefully engineered fishing string supports for every Christmas tree to follow. Something about that ending felt heavy and hard in Rae’s chest.
She looked from Elsa and the cat to Glen in his coveralls. He’d just come in from one of the farms where he’d probably had his arm somewhere unnatural. “What can we do?” she asked and was pleased to see him think.
He disappeared into another room for a moment and came back with a handful of needled syringes, a vial of B vitamins, a bottle of diuretic and two tubes of something Rae didn’t recognize. “You’re going to have to hand feed her and force water,” he began.
Elsa’s gaze lifted, a tiny ray of hope taking up residence as she looked from Glen to Rae. The weight in Rae’s chest doubled in size, but she offered up a smile of reassurance anyway.
“We’ll do everything we can.” Rae said, reaching out to smooth a tear away from Elsa’s cheek, falling in love all over again.
His hand was warm.
Warmer than hers, and it gripped tight to her knuckles as though she was the life line that would haul his ass out of high seas. But he’d reached out to grasp her before she knew she was so close, and it was his strength that was reeling her in.
She screamed, the wrenching to her back and legs felt like burning metal and broken glass, but she flexed her arm to pull as best she could and before she passed out she felt strong arms wrap around her. The zipper of the cot cover tore at her raw face and she knew she was bleeding into the tuft of exposed crisp chest hairs that tickled her forehead, but she was so damned exhausted, she didn’t care.
“I c...” She heard herself gasp out, voice bubbling in her chest and throat. Where had all the air gone? Why couldn’t she catch her breath? He was hurt. he was her patient…
Something patted her back and it jarred her ribs, causing her to cough red splotches onto his chest. She tried to lift her left hand to pull herself closer to his heat, feeling like a thief and yet unable to do otherwise, her body shivering. Her shoulder seemed to have lost its ability to lever, and she had to walk her hand up with her fingers until she found the frame of the cot and pulled.
“Rest girl. They’ll be here soon.” His voice was reed thin, and she wondered who he was and why they were both there.
From somewhere above, Rae heard a cat scream…
She levered open the too fragile jaws and shot a squirt of the diuretic past the yellow tongue, massaging Fog’s throat to make her swallow. The cat didn’t resist, not when she followed it up with a few squirts of water and the protein paste that looked amazingly like the cat’s stool, now that they had her bowls working again.
Later, she’d make a few balls of food and shove those down Fog’s throat too. Rewrapping the fresh towel, she lifted the bag of bones back under the side of her sweater and tucked her close against her ribs so she’d take heat and comfort from the working of her own body.
Scratching the cat’s head, Rae lie her own back on the couch and closed her eyes against the night.
She woke to lips on her forehead and the smell of Elsa’s hair tickling along her throat.
“Man, this isn’t good.” The voice was male, young, and she knew it but couldn’t place it.
Something warm was against her side, and she was cold. Hot hands held her head and jaw, and someone was leaning over her, ripping off her clothes.
“Rae, open your eyes for me!” She thought they were open, but he shouted again, directly into her face and they snapped wide. Christ, the kid didn’t have a single filling! “Good girl! Look at me Rae.”
Bossy little prick. William Hoover. She placed him with a groan. Just her luck to have to wake up to Hoover in her face. What the hell was he doing in the women’s bunk room? And if he didn’t start chewing something other than sour apple gum…
She coughed and she swore her heart skipped a beat. Blood spattered Hoover’s crisp white shirt and eyegear. Something loose was rattling around in her chest and it had spikes on it. It was drilling through her ribs. Where did all the blood come from?
“Don’t move Rae.” Terry? Rae’s brows drew down in confusion and she tried to look up but it hurt her head to roll her eyes that far and she wasn’t seeing well anyway. Why was Terry here? He hardly ever crewed at night. He was the manager, after all. Between his privilege and the Terrets, they figured they were lucky…
Someone was parting her legs, and she tried to pull her knees up, protect herself, but the pain washed through her like fire and she gagged instead as voices became fuzzy and strained and oddly mechanical around her. When her world tilted, she slid off into yellow, then red, then black…
“Beautiful.” Rae whispered, moving a strand of errant blonde off of Elsa’s forehead. Smiling in her sleep, Elsa sighed.
From the shelter of the sweater and Elsa’s arms, a wide brown- and black-striped head emerged, golden eyes clear and focused, offering an imperious greeting and accepting the quick scratch along the chin that Fog so loved.
“Hey cat, how’s life?” It had been 5 months, and Fog, though still unsteady on her feet, was rapidly gaining weight and character, her fur become lustrous and soft and her carousing skills were on the wax. “Says on the schedule your mom already gave you your shots and fed you, but how about a snack?”
Reaching in to lift the cat into her arms, she continued scratching her chin as she walked into the kitchen. “I’m thinking avocado and tomato, how ‘bout you?”
Working quietly, she wandered around the kitchen, humming a stray tune by Garbage, hanging her pressed shirt on a chair back to avoid cat hairs and spillage. It smelled like stale smokes and beer. The fights had gone on for hours and the near riot in the hall outside the locker rooms when they’d tooled out with the new champ on the gurney had pissed her off to the point of violence herself. Idiots, trying to take pictures of her patient.
The guy had gotten his bell rung alright.
“You want dry, or wet tonight?” Rae asked the fuzzball perched on her shoulder. Choosing dry, she filled a small bowl, watching the cat take sudden sharp interest. Smiling at the health of the response, she grabbed her sandwich and strolled back into the living room to drop onto the floor and watch Elsa sleep.
It was one of her many guilty pleasures, coming home from a standby or a shift to catch Elsa sprawled in their bed or curled on the couch. The view never got old, even as age added its own patina of flaws. A few laugh lines around Elsa’s mouth and in the corners of her warm eyes, the barest effects of gravity at her breasts, all merely softened the edges that had been there in the beginning.
She knew the same visited her own body, had been less than pleased when she’d noted the first of many grey hairs and had to take tweezers to her chin. It was a trade off. They were both stronger now than they’d been in their early 20’s, physically and emotionally. They were tighter in some ways, and had formed boundaries to maintain distance in others. They’d never lost the tension and thrill of touch or view, and Rae was still hopelessly falling for Elsa more every day.
El called her a hopeless romantic, but in Rae’s view, it was El who kept things cooking. She never knew what was next, letting Elsa lead and following along in a mist of befuddlement that El found oddly endearing. Except when she got her back up and Rae stepped in to take the brunt of something unpleasant. El didn’t always appreciate being watched over and had made it clear that though the alpha bitch routine was sexy most of the time, sometimes it was just embarrassing.
Rae just tried to stay off the couch, and for the most part, she managed just fine.
The cat had finished plundering the small chunks of food and jumped back into Elsa’s lap, eyes snapping open and blonde head lifting to take in the cat, then the room, settling at last on Rae. “Hey.”
Smiling indulgently, Elsa lifted a hand. Recognizing the gesture, Rae joined her on the couch and opened her arms for the blonde to cuddle in against her.
“How was the fight?” El’s voice had that dreamy, not quite all here quality to it that Rae equated with happiness and home.
She smiled and pressed a kiss to El’s head, breathing in the warm scents of shampoo and soap and that soft note that was distinctly Elsa. “Dumb.” She hated prize fights. They made as little sense to her as did rodeo or stock car racing. “I’ve seen more originality on school playgrounds.
A soft snort was El’s answer. “My mom called.”
“I’m in the will?” Rae deadpanned.
“I’m going to be an aunt again.”
Rae blinked. “That brother of yours works fast. What is this, number 23?” A sharp poke in the ribs changed the expression on her face from self-satisfied to pained. “What?” she protested. “They’re like bunnies! Big old house where they never see one another and somehow they have babies popping out all over!”
“Rae!” The tone was warning, but amused.
That was Rae’s cue to needle away. “Seriously, either the man has a penis as long as an on-ramp, or they pollinate,” she grumbled. “Maybe he just sprays the car seat and she…”
The poke this time was less playful. “Jealous?”
Shifting uncomfortably and watching El’s hands suspiciously, Rae huffed. “Of what. Our sex life is a b’zillion times better than theirs and neither of us is so loose we can swallow a Toyota by accident.”
“Rae!” Elsa sat up to glare at her.
Uh oh, the couch was looming in those eyes but she was on a roll and sometimes – sometimes ya just gotta go with it and roll over to beg mercy after. “You know he has to ask if he’s in yet!”
“Eww!” Slipping upright to cross her arms, Elsa’s regard was less than appreciative, though a bit wicked. Turning away just slightly, she sank back against Rae’s chest and looked up at her with quiet understanding. “Sorry.”
Bending her head to place a kiss between El’s eyes, Rae tightened her arms and wiggled a bit, giving the cat time to reposition herself along the axis of El’s torso and pillow her bemaned head on El’s left breast. Lucky damned cat.
A hand smoothed along Rae’s jaw, raising to run through her dark hair. “You know I’d give you children if I could,” El said quietly. This was one of their deepest secrets. Not that El was walking around without a uterus, or even that they had lost their daughter in the same moments, but that they still spoke of it, that they licked their wounds together in the dark of quiet nights like this.
“Aren’t I a big enough baby for you to deal with?” Rae asked from behind a melancholy smile. She knew what the admission and the topic cost Elsa, knew how deep this ran and what traps and resentments still lay like landmines between and around them.
“Such a dichotomy you are.” Elsa answered. “One minute my hero, the next a spoiled child.”
Rae watched the play of sorrows and joys parade across El’s face, waited for that place where she was once more welcomed, needed. “I love you,” she said simply.
For a long moment Elsa let her eyes wander Rae’s countenance. “Then promise you’ll never leave me.”
“I promise.” Rae swore.
“Promise to fight for me.”
Rae smiled, letting what she felt show clear in her eyes. That one was easy. “Without question, I will fight for you. Beowulf wouldn’t stand a chance against me.” After puffing out her chest, she grew more introspective, letting her eyes wander El’s face less to see than to understand; to feel. “Violence is wrong. It’s…” she searched for a word and wound up settling on the first that came to mind. “…foolish. But ,” Rae touched Elsa’s cheek, traced the arch as it formed the orbit of those incredible eyes. “I can do foolish.” She said.
Elsa chuckled at that, kissing the hand that smoothed through her hair. “My hero.”
“Rae, don’t move, don’t fight now.” Rich in his damned brown scull cap and old spice. Oh shit, What the hell was twitchy Richy doing holding c-spine on her? Any minute now he’ll have to itch something or sniffle and wipe at his nose and her head will fall off. The image of him chasing after as it rolled into the ditches alongside the tracks was briefly amusing, but it was kinda disturbing too and her stomach didn’t feel so good.
Hands on either side of her face and something in gloves prising open her mouth… She gagged, arms curling toward her face, teeth locking down on whatever they were trying to shove into her mouth.
She tried to turn her head, but something inside her seemed to drift away from her control. She settled for locking her jaws and tightening her lips.
“Open up bitch!” his voice was shrill and his hands were rough on her face, forcing her jaw and pinching her nose.
“Jesus, she’s strong!” This voice was gruff, strained, and she could feel the scratch of wool from his letterman’s jacket against her skin. The leather smelled of cigarettes and armpits.
She didn’t know about strong, but she was not going to be staying here much longer. The harder they squeezed, the sweatier they got. And the easier it was to wriggle. She twisted at just the right time and heard an oath as she squirted out between their legs and started running.
She tripped over her bike because her eyes were closed, grabbed it up as she kept her feet and was on it and pedaling as fast as she could, hearing their shouts fall away as she rounded the school and hit the streets.
“Okay, Lido’s in. Succ’s Hoover sounded strained. “Be ready with that bag Terry.”
She was dead, her chest no longer rose and fell, her body didn’t move… but she was still here. The lid of her left eye was lifted and a purple thumb appeared then overwhelmed her sight. Something scratched across her eyeball. “No reaction.”
Nothing worked. She couldn’t breath, couldn’t move… Someone levered open her teeth, a curled finger clamping her tongue to her jaw as a thumb hooked under the mandible and lifted up and away.
“Cricoid pressure.” Hoover called. Fingers pressed down on her larynx. “Time?” he asked.
“7 seconds.” Terry responded.
She was being intubated! She could feel the cold blades of the mac, then the less than gentle glide and fish of the tube and trocar… Her eyes were open and she could see sweat roll off Hoover’s chin.
“Okay, inflate.” The cuff seated inside her trachea, locking off her airway and replacing it with a fucking soda straw!
Air, she needed air…
“Listen.” Hoover ordered, hooking up the bag and squeezing, air rushing into Rae’s lungs, taking some blood and trash with it, and without a cough, she couldn’t clear it away. A cold disc touched first to her belly, then each side of her chest and she realized she was naked - or close to it.
“Good,” Terry pronounced.
The air had left her lungs, and now something choked her off, then it was gone and air came rushing back…
“Keeper.” Something snapped between her teeth. She blinked. The succinylcholine was wearing off. “Okay, Etomidate and let’s give her some Atropine and wait ‘til we hit the rig for Versed if we need it. Sorry Rae, it’s gonna be one hell of a headache when you wake up.”
She blinked at him, seeing only half his face because he fell outside the limited line of her sight. She was moving… she could feel them strain to lift her…
The last thing she thought was that she wanted to go home.
She had to go home…
“Babe, I don’t think the plumbing…” Elsa stopped halfway down the stairs into the basement, eyes gone round. “What happened?” she finally whispered.
Blinking, trying to wipe her face on the shoulder of her T-shirt, Rae coughed and watched more of the black soot billow around her and settle onto the wide tan shoulders of the furnace in front of her. “I’m surprised this place hasn’t blown up.” She lifted the hem of her shirt to better clean her face when she noted its soiled condition. She put it back over the white of her belly and looked to her barely pregnant partner. Readying to speak, she sneezed instead.
Elsa carefully made her way down the last of the stairs and into the basement proper. “What did you roll in?”
“I believe this particular antique.” Rae waved a hand toward the furnace and silently dubbed it Fester. Yes, she named things. It was one of her more endearing traits, Elsa told her, and though the truck was Herman and the car was Eloise, this son of a bitch was going to be a boil on her backside for the foreseeable future and Fester fit it just fine. “Was at one time,” she continued, “a coal burner, then converted to fuel oil and again to the natural gas it now guzzles happily.” She glared at it, and at the obviously never ever once cleaned ductwork above the firebox. “It’s as efficient as burning a taper in the garage.”
Careful where she placed her feet, Elsa ran a single finger over Rae’s cheek. It came away black and El made a face.
Noting all the dust billowing in the room, and uncertain what it might carry, Rae worried. “Maybe you shouldn’t be down here in this. I’ll set up the fan and…” she wasn’t expecting El’s hands on her face, or to be pulled nearly off her feet, but she welcomed the kiss, and growled when it became clear Elsa was purposely pressing into the grime that covered her. Wrapping her arms around her, feeling the small baby bump between them, Rae gave as good as she got.
She giggled when Elsa pulled back, large cockeyed slashes covering her mouth.
Bright eyes brimming with laughter, Elsa made her way back to the stairs. “At least you taste the same.”
Rae shuddered and waved an arm toward the stairs to cover. “Get you and the baby up and out of here. ‘Tain’t safe woman!”
“Uh huh. Only thing unsafe I see is a horny woman in a toolbelt.” With a squeak that followed the look Rae gave in return, she scooted out of sight up the stairs.
Humming to herself, she propped open the window and set the fan to exhaust. They’d bought a money pit. They were now slaves to a building and a plot of earth. Three bedrooms and a finished attic, living room, dining room, den, kitchen and sunroom… 90 yrs old and counting.
They were doomed.
But they were doomed together.
An hour later, hacking and coughing her way up the narrow stairs, she found a pathway of papers laid out on the floor, leading through the kitchen and out the sunroom to the backdoor. “Hon?” Waiting for directions while still on the steps, she tried not to touch the newly-painted walls.
“I’m out back!” Elsa’s voice came through the open window toward the back yard. “Come on out., and don’t touch the walls.”
Following the papers carefully, a frown on her face, Rae made it to the door and outside to the step, then followed sounds around the corner to the back patio where she found Elsa waiting by the grill with a huge pot of something and a makeshift set of sheets as curtains strung between the house and the garage. On the table was soap and GoJo and towels. “The plumbing isn’t working very well.” Elsa explained. “And I just painted, so…”
The hose was visible, snaking its way into the ‘shower’. Rae groaned. “That’s gonna be awful cold.”
“Hence, this.” Elsa pointed out the pot, now beginning to steam.
“No dear, soap.” Elsa put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to the side, regarding Rae with a careful eye. “Did you have to lose?”
“You look like you were wrestling a coal mine - and lost.” Handing over the GoJo, Elsa leaned against the table and waited. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to guess what would happen next.
Stepping between the sheets, Rae stripped. “You know, we bought a perfectly fine house with indoor plumbing I could be using.” She groused.
“Didn’t you hear me when I was talking about the plumbing?”
Pulling her fingers out of her ear where she’d wandered with the grease cutting goop, she stuck her head around the fabric and blinked. “Huh?”
Exasperation was clear on Elsa’s face. “The plumbing.” She said with significance, as though Rae might suddenly gain awareness. When it was obviously not forthcoming, El rolled her eyes. “Do you ever listen to me? The plumbing is out! The water in the tub won’t go down and the toilet isn’t flushing.”
Smeared in green gunk that was meant to dissolve the black gunk, Rae just stared. “Did you call a plumber?”
A line of puzzlement appeared between Elsa’s brows. “Why would I do that?”
The familiar clatter of an idling diesel.
The turbo roar of Air3 as the rotors started to spin up for lift off.
“Rae, relax, don’t fight pumpkin, you’re safe, but we’ve gotta tap your lung. It’s pushing your heart and trach to the side…”
Tension pneumothorax. Seriously ungood.
The world was floating. Was she on a boat? Why couldn’t she open her eyes?
Chopper… she was on Air3…
That meant she was going to the cities. She needed to call El and tell her she was headed to the cities…
In the chopper?
She was a ground medic!
“Sat’s are down to 70%.” The voice was unfamiliar. That meant one of the nurses that drove in from God knows where.
The snap-pop of a disposable ditch vent being powered by O2 vibrated near her head. Something punched her in the side and she grimaced.
“She felt that.” Ryan? What the hell was Ryan’s name?
El would know. She needed to call El…
Elsa was singing that damned Winnie the Pooh song… the one by the folk singer with the awful voice…
Rae tried to smile. Whenever she felt needy, El sang that song. It always led to cuddling and Rae being able to make it all better. She reached for the blonde, then frowned when she couldn’t move her arms.
“…droops on his little hands, little gold head. Shh, whisper. Who dares? Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.”
There were tears in El’s voice. Why was she crying?
It’d been her idea, this ‘getting away’ thing, hoping nature would soothe the rough edges of grief and blame. She shouldn’t have been surprised that the spectacular firmament above or the soft sussing unquiet of the forest around them didn’t really change the gulf gaping between them.
She could smell pine and black earth, worm ends and the cinnamon-laced cocoa she’d made, now cooling on the rock nearby. Water flickered in the starlight, golden highlights of their camp lights dancing on the mirror surface of the lake.
Beside her on a camp pad, Elsa was watching the water.
A few weeks before, Rae would have leaned across the mere inches that separated them and smoothed a hand along El’s body. Now she wasn’t sure the gesture, or her presence, would be welcome.
“Stop looking at me like I’m going to snap in two.” Elsa sighed. Her posture registered a defeat her tone underscored..
Rae didn’t answer. She didn’t know how to anymore. There were no guidelines, no parameters for her to follow to make this right or ease these wounds. It hurt to talk, hurt worse not to… They should be happy right now, in the life they’d built with such assiduous care. Instead they were in a place more nightmare than dream.
Something passed in the silence that stretched between them, and Elsa levered to her feet, not bothering to look as she got to her feet. Rae listened to the soft sound of El’s boots on the ground, the snag of the zipper opening and closing. Nylon brushed against denim. El was undressing. Rae turned out the last of the lanterns and lay back on the pad to watch the sky and wonder if she still had a place beneath it.
Her chest hurt, but she didn’t care to examine it much. Seems her body was wiser than her head. She willed her heart to stop dead in her chest, but for the hundredth time it ignored her.
Stars wheeled above and she traced them with her eyes. For all their beauty, they were cold, distant. They had less to do with her than the air that brushed her skin, or the stirrings of night animals coming out to forage. Her skin grew cold as she lay there and something flew overhead.
“Come to bed Rae.” El’s voice was closer than Rae had expected, making her jump.
Had she been asleep? A hand took hers and Rae blinked, Elsa kneeling at her side. “Come to bed.”
Like a little kid, Rae followed as she was led toward the tent. “Boots off.” Elsa commanded. “Now jeans.” The blonde gathered them up and pressed Rae into the tent and down onto the sleeping bags. A moment of putting things away, and then a body pressed close, gathering her in.
“What are you doing?” Rae asked, a hand slipping beneath her t-shirt as Elsa pulled her nearer.
“Holding you.” Elsa answered. “You’re cold.”
“I’m fine.” Rae rolled onto her back, that single hand like a coal on her belly.
“No, you’re not. Neither of us is.” El said, snuggling in against Rae’s shoulder. “I can’t do this alone Rae.”
“You’re not alone.” What was wrong with her throat? Why did it hurt to swallow? She nudged El’s hand away and smoothed her hand over the fabric of her t-shirt.
“I shouldn’t be, but I am.” Elsa sat up, scrubbing at her face, her voice tight in a way that pulled at Rae’s guts. Without thinking, she reached out to pull El back, smoothing her hair as she felt tears gather on the skin of her shoulder. “Don’t cry baby. Please.”
“I’m not like you Rae,” El managed. “I can’t do this.”
“Just breathe hon, it’s okay,” Rae whispered.
“No, it’s not. We’re not!” El rolled against her, pressing up onto Rae’s torso, laying her head to Rae’s chest and listening. “You won’t even touch me.”
“I…” Rae fell silent, wrapping her arms around El, desperate to banish the trembling of her too slim body. “Hon, you’re freezing.” And El had been worried that she’d been cold? She pulled the bag over them, pressing El back onto the other one and covering her with her own frame.
She wasn’t ready for El’s mouth on her own, or the demand of the kiss. It had been so long.
She felt like she was being pulled into a fire head first. Her body recognized what El wanted, recognized her own need, and moved on its own, finding that place where they fit together, legs tangling. She moved on to El’s neck, hearing the soft urging of El’s voice, feeling the way her body begged her on. God, she’d missed this. There was nothing like the taste of El’s skin, the texture of it on her tongue…
“Come back to me baby…” El whispered as Rae ringed a nipple with her tongue, teasing before sucking it between her lips and suckling, her tongue stroking… A drop, sweet, then a small stream slipped onto Rae’s tongue.
“Stay here baby… don’t go away again.” El said softly, holding tight. “Stay.” There were tears in her voice…
And Rae realized the sobbing she heard was her own.
“No baby, don’t fight. It’s okay.” El’s voice, close, soft. The same voice she used when they were trying something rough in bed. “It’s okay.” She relaxed, hands taking her own, a kiss whispering over her temple. “That’s right. that’s my girl, relax.” Another kiss. “I love you. I’m here, and we’re gonna be okay. Just stay with me and rest.”
Rae sank into the words. She wanted to tell Elsa she was sorry, that she hadn’t meant to be gone when she needed her most - or after. She wanted to turn back time and make it all better.
But El wanted her to rest. Stay and rest.
El loved her. She could do that.
Elsa was shivering and Rae cuddled her closer.
Pulling another quilt over them, Rae smoothed sweaty blonde hair off El’s forehead as the blonde had another coughing fit.
“You’re gonna catch this,” El wheezed.
Surreptitiously taking El’s pulse and laying her head to El’s back,so she couldlisten to her lungs, Rae lay a kiss to an available arm. “You know me.”
“Biblically,” El deadpanned.
“Smart ass. You know I’ve got an immune system that strangles small animals in the backyard,” bragged Rae.
“So long as you don’t get the shot., El croaked, then went into a coughing jag that rattled and wheezed and barked loud enough to be heard outside. Every year Rae got a ‘flu shot, She’d been taken down by the bug. Two years ago, she’d stopped accepting the shots altogether, and she’d been healthy ever since. El, however, caught something every year.
Rae sat up in the bed, pulling El’s hips over her lap. “C’mon, assume the position.”
Still trying to calm her cough, El slipped further over and allowed a pillow to support her hips even higher as Rae smoothed the camisole El wore.
Cupping her right hand, fingers together, thumb tucked close, Rae started by rubbing along the fabric that covered El’s back, feeling with the pads of her fingers where the wheezes and crackles stopped and no air moved, though it should. Finding the fields she wanted to deal with first, she asked El to roll just slightly onto her right side.
To an outsider it would look like she was patting El’s torso, even slapping her, but the high pitched clear pops each cupped hand drew were testimony to a strange though effective therapy. For the next half hour, repositioning El as she went, Rae pummeled El’s lung fields, loosening secretions that had taken up homesteading and moving them toward the larger airways where El could cough them out.
From outside the room it would sound obscene.
Neither woman particularly cared how it sounded. It worked, and afterwards El would be able to sleep, Rae curled around her like a quilt.
Rae started to cough, and realized she was choking. A paired tone like a weak bike horn sounded twice, she coughed again, trying to clear her throat, panic close at hand as the tones became a 5 instead of 2 and increased in urgency.
Her lizard brain took over, hands lifting towards her face and stopped by restraints, tongue searching out what was blocking her throat and working at it as teeth began to chew.
“No love, don’t bite the tube.” El’s voice broke quietly into the struggle, soothing simply by being. “Relax. You can breathe, just relax and let the machine help.”
Warm hands held her own, and she could smell El’s skin and hair.
“Please Rae, I’m here and you’re safe. Don’t fight.”
The alarms still sounded as she continued to cough, and the hands left her own. She tried to open her eyes. ‘Don’t leave me…’
Something scraped deep in her throat and she felt suction: a sucking, hissing sound accompanied the alarms. The fight to breathe began again in earnest, and then, when she wasn’t ready for it, air was physically forced into her lungs.
She was coughing, drowning, and she reached out for help.
A hand took hers, El was here.
Rae stopped fighting as El took her in her arms.
Working backward, her knees less-than-pleased, and her back aching, Rae lifted another. Granite tiles – 12 x 12 – weighing enough for her to groan, stretched out to her front and left as she worked her way across the heavily-reinforced bathroom floor. Placing another set of spacers, she ran cement across the back of the slab and set it in place where more waited.
When did this room get so damned big?
A glance overhead at where she’d suspended the cast iron tub from the rafters and she shuddered, smearing more mud across the plywood and its never-ending rows of heavy screws. Below the ply was concrete board, and below that the reinforced bracing of the floor over the entryway. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered if she wasn’t overbuilding. Her forebrain, however, just prayed the house would hold the weight of the tub when she and El set it back on its clawed feet.
If it didn’t come free of its cradle and crush her while she set tile…
Setting her jaw, she gathered up another slab and readied it, pressing it firmly into place and wiggling it hard against the surface while her shoulders flattened under the strain.
One more row and she’d be out from under the tub…
“Rae...” a sharp jab in her ribs and Rae rolled over with a grunt. “Hush, I heard something!” Elsa hissed.
Blinking open her eyes, Rae stared into darkness and tried to make sense of what El was saying. “Hmm?”
El rolled her eyes and fixed her her with ‘that look’, the one that meant she was supposed to be doing something ‘right fucking now’!
“What?” Rae levered herself onto her elbows and looked around. No fire. No asteroids had fallen through the ceiling and no little grey men were standing beside the bed. She was at a loss.
“I heard a noise,” Elsa prodded. “Downstairs!”
Putting the words together, Rae sifted them through the cotton in her head and came up with ‘noise’ and ‘downstairs’. That meant she had to go look. Swinging her feet out onto the rug they’d bought just last week, she managed to get to her feet, scrubbing at her face as she dredged at the bottom of her skull for something resembling awareness.
With all the grace of an armadillo, she stumbled through the door and down the hallway, a hushed ‘be careful’ scattering off the plaster walls to remind her she was doing the guard dog thing. It brought her to a standstill.
Okay, now she was awake, and standing in the hallway of a house she was still unfamiliar with, in a pair of knit boxers and a camisole, with nothing to defend herself but a sneer and chilled erect nipples. This was how every victim in slasher pics wandered happily off to slaughter!
Mindful of the fact there was no history of slashers in Deep Falls, she nonetheless backed up and closed the bedroom door.
“What are you doing?” Elsa hissed, kneeling in the center of the bed, one hand over the still small baby bump, the other holding the sheet high against her growing breasts.
Rae reached for her jeans, pulling them on over boxers with a grimace. She’d never really gotten the hang of wearing both together. “What did it sound like?” she asked, snatching up a polo shirt and dragging it over her head. Apparently, seeing Rae dress had shocked El into functionality and she slid from her bed to don a heavy duty sweatshirt and arm herself with a brush. “Breaking glass - in the kitchen.”
“What are you going to do? Groom someone into submission? Grab the phone!” Rae suggested sharply. At the hurt look on El’s face, Rae immediately felt like a heel and mumbled an apology. Elsa pulled the phone from its cradle and held it to her chest.
Crossing back to the door and slipping it open, she glanced down the hall. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.” Still barefoot, she skinned down the hall and contemplated the problem of the stairs. Open casement with two landings and two right angle turns, they creaked like an old boat and would leave her completely exposed, as she descended feet first.
Listening for anything below, she was beginning to think maybe that hair brush might not have been such a bad idea. At least she could throw it at someone.
Something smashed on the granite of the counter tops in the kitchen, ringing as it clattered into the cast iron sink. Unthinking, she took a step back.
Okay, El wasn’t dreaming.
Biting her bottom lip, Rae took a side trip into the bedroom on her right and moved to the hook where she kept her climbing gear. Unclipping a prussic, she made a quick half-hitch through the back eye of her rescue 8 and gave it a test swing. Assuming she didn’t brain herself, it might be enough to keep someone at bay until she threw it and ran.
“What are you doing?” El spat from behind her, nearly making her jump out of her skin.
“Christ! Don’t do that!”
“I don’t want to be left alone!” El said defensively. “You always wind up with a huge knife pinning you to a wall when you stay behind alone!” They were going to have to edit their movie viewing.
“Just…” the idea of El pinned to a wall gave her pause and she rethought what she was about to say. “Just stay behind me okay?”
Elsa nodded and punched the talk button on the cordless phone, the numbers lighting up as the unit beeped. Long, slim fingers glowed as she punched in three numbers and transferred the handset to her ear.
The soft, dry rattle of a box and its contents could be heard hitting the kitchen floor and something heavy followed, scrabbling sounds and a squeak bounced off the hard surfaces of the rooms below.
“Where’s the cat?” Rae asked suddenly.
El just looked at her, a voice coming from the phone pressed to her ear.
Taking the opportunity to move, Rae slipped down the stairs with a minimum of creaks and swept the entry, living room and what she could see of the dining and kitchen with eyes still adjusted to the darkness.
A second later she spied the cat sitting in the space between dining room and kitchen, looking at her as though she’d been up to something satisfying. Moving forward, her makeshift sling at the ready, Rae saw nothing amiss in the dining room either, and the den beyond the living room looked empty.
Narrowing her eyes, she realized Fog looked more than satisfied… he looked lightly floured.
“What the fuck?” Rae leaned forward and smacked the dimmer for the light. The old fixture above the table that had come from her great aunt’s estate gave off a soft yellow glow, but it was enough to see the cat was sitting hunched in an unnatural posture, and yes, that was flour, or… cereal!
“Fog!” Rae barked, the cat straightened, and something dark and small skittering out from beneath her, straight toward Rae across the maple floor. “Fuck!”
It was a reflex. Something small and furry and bearing a tail… Rae saw it head for her leg and went on the offensive. She stomped the damned thing between the boards and her bare foot, hearing a soft crunch and a soul-rending screech as she did so. Oh God, it was warm and wet!
“What! What?” El was running up down the stairs, terror on her face, ready to do battle to save Rae, even though all she had to use was a cordless phone that squawked and demanded she hold on, that help was on the way. She came to a stop as she saw the look on Rae’s face and no apparent danger near. “What is it? Are you okay?”
Examining the bottom of her foot, Rae felt like she was going to barf. “Is that dispatch?” She nodded towards the phone.
Concerned and not sure what was going on, Elsa ran a hand over Rae’s face, growing even more concerned at the clammy chill she found there. “Babe, what happened?”
Hearing alarm in the tone on the phone, Rae took it from El’s hand and placed it against her ear. “Hi, this is Rae, who’m I talking to?”
“It’s Deb, Rae. What’s happening? Are you two okay?”
“Yeah Deb, we’re fine,” she said mechanically. “Call off the guys. It was the cat.”
“Fog?” Elsa slipped around Rae and went to scoop up the brown and black ball of fuzz. “Baby, what have you been doing? You’re filthy!”
Rae could hear a soft chuckle from Deb, the amazingly competent, chain smoking, scarf-knitting dispatcher who’d countless times saved Rae’s crew’s butt with cool efficiency and quiet instinct, would be teasing her to the end of time. Right now, though, the woman was cancelling the responding officers, letting them know it was a false alarm. “Thanks Deb.”
Elsa had made it into the kitchen, the light on and once clean dishes and a box of corn meal spread out on the floor. “What on earth?”
“Okay Rae, I called off the dogs, let’s hear it.” Deb said over the phone.
Rae wiggled her toes and shot the cat a glance where it was watching her over El’s shoulder with disgust and disappointment. Curling a lip at the animal, Rae swallowed her pride. “We have mice,” she deadpanned.
“What?” Elsa spun on her heels and stared at her, appalled. “Where?” she demanded, and Rae imagined she could see actual flames of horror coming out her ears.
With a wince, Rae lifted her foot, the body beneath undeniably lifeless
El’s eyes went round, and the flames reached her eyes. “You killed it?” she screeched.
The tiny voice on the phone was laughing so hard Rae was sure Deb would need to change her pants.
“You stomped on a defenseless mouse?!” El was nearly apoplectic with emotion and Rae wondered absently if she were going to have a stroke. “We have MICE? How many more are there? I want them all gone! NOW! And no more stomping! Use a bucket or something!”
Rae watched as El and the cat passed by at speed, El making for the stairs as fast as she was able. Looking over her shoulder as they disappeared toward the stairs; Fog, her feral, suffocating, tooth-and-claw mouse police face registering complete disdain, looked once at the mess on Rae’s foot, and yawned.
Tbc in part 2
TBC in ch. 6…
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