Chapter Two: Dusty

Nora's face was almost instantly soaked. Rain made it difficult to see anything, dripping from her brows and into her eyes, but she pulled up her sweatshirt hood and looked all around and under the van.

"Hello? Is anyone hurt?" she yelled. "I have a phone, I can call 911. I just... is anyone there?"

For a moment, all she heard was rain and the dull rev of the van; it was still running, with its headlights casting crooked beams into the cornfield beside her. Lightning flashed and thunder sounded in the distance, and Nora heard a high-pitched noise in the cornfield. It wasn't a human scream but a canine whimper.

Nora scrambled back up the muddy embankment. She found a flashlight, a slip lead, and a towel in the back of the van. Bundling all but the flashlight under her sweatshirt, Nora slammed the van door and examined the mud around her.

She found three sets of footprints: her own, some smudged ones she couldn't identify, and large dog pawprints. They ran toward the road and then wove away to her right. Nora clicked on the flashlight and approached cautiously.

"Hey boy, how are you?" she called. She kept her tone sweet, though the dog probably heard the tremble in her voice. "Or girl, I guess. Please don't attack me or anything, baby, I just want to check on you." Nora heard the whining closer now but still couldn't see where it was coming from. "Hey you," she sing-songed into the eerie darkness. "Come here, puppy, and let me see you. I have treats."

She came upon a grey pile of fur and mud sprawled a few lines over. The dog's eyes glowed yellow for a second in the flashlight glare before soft but distressed blue eyes met hers.

It scrabbled in the mud for a second, getting up onto three legs and eying her warily. It was a large mutt, perhaps a shepherd and husky mixed with something bigger like a Pyrenees, and it had cuts across its mottled grey-and-white face. Nora wasn't sure the extent of its wounds because its long fur was plastered down with mud from the field. Tags jingled lightly on its leather collar as it trembled and then hobbled toward her.

"Easy, boy," she cooed to him - for it was a him - and carefully slipped the lead over his head; he accepted it with pained indifference. Up close, she saw the dog refused to walk on his left hind leg and she saw red streaking the mud and fur there. "Come with me, now. Let's get you someplace warm and dry."

Nora was thankful, then, that the van had its own ramp for loading. It was difficult to extend with the van crooked as it was, but she soon managed to get the dog inside and drying on a pile of towels and blankets in one of the vacant crates.

She then set about getting back onto the road. It was not an easy task since the rain still came down in heavy sheets and the sodden grass slid under her wheels, but the van eventually heaved its way up the rise. Nora turned it around, back toward town.

"Alright, boy, I'm going to get you someplace that can help," she assured the dog. It probably didn't understand her but she thought it might make it feel better; it certainly helped calm her down.

The shelter was the only place she knew in town, so Nora made a beeline that way. The woman from before gave her a strange look when she walked in, soaked and covered in mud.

"I thought you'd be long gone by now," she laughed. "Did you forget something?"

"I hit a dog with my van, is there someplace I can take him, he's right out here and I don't know what to do with him because I don't know anything around here and-" The words all came out in a jumble but the woman jumped up from her chair behind the welcome desk and followed Nora out into the parking lot.

The shelter's on-call veterinarian stopped by within twenty minutes. Nora waited around in the lobby as she heard the workers moving around the injured dog. Water from her drenched sweatshirt puddled on the tile floor but she stood rooted there out of a depressed sense of duty. She needed to see this through, since she was the supposed animal lover who had just run a dog down with a massive van and what if she'd cost the poor thing its life, all because she was a terrible driver and there was a storm and she couldn't stop for shit and-

"Hey, do you work here?" A tall young man with dark, wet hair hurried into the lobby, dripping rain unheeded onto the floor. A vague voice in Nora's head observed they were a matched pair, which made all the more sense to her when he said, "I got a call someone brought Dusty here, that he got hit by a car?"

"I, uh..." Nora felt like her stomach was going to drop out of her body with the way it sank when she realized this conversation was happening now. "No, I'm the one who brought him in. The vet was in there checking on him. I'll... I'll cover any expenses you need," she volunteered at last, wanting to vanish into the wall.

A look of shock crossed the man's face for a long moment, and he crossed his arms over his chest. "So what happened?"

Nora stammered her way through the accident. The rain, braking at the last minute, the horrible thump and going out to get the scared dog. "I feel terrible about this whole thing. Seriously, if you need anything-"

"Was he still chasing the deer? Is that why he ran across the road?" Blue eyes stared hard into hers.

"Deer? Is that what that thing was?" Nora picked at a suddenly fascinating speck of mud on her sleeve. "I wondered. It all happened so fast but yeah, he was chasing something..."

She trailed off when she realized he wasn't paying attention to her anymore because a vet tech in yellow scrubs had just emerged from the exam room. Nora edged away from them but kept her ears perked for news. She heard "Doing fine" and "Great dog" before the two vanished into a back room and she was left to flop down on a hard plastic chair.

Rain still battered the roof, occasionally coming down in wind-driven sheets that turned the sound into a dull roar. The clock on the wall told her it was nearly five in the afternoon, time for the shelter to close; she hoped it wasn't too late to get a room at the motel for the night.

"Maybe you deserve to sleep in the van again after the crap you pulled today," she muttered to herself.

"What?" The young man's sudden reappearance nearly made her fall off the chair in surprise.

"Oh, I was just, uh, talking to myself," Nora said, blushing. "How's Dusty?"

The dog hobbled up to her, wagging his tail. His snout had been stitched up and he sported a bandage on his hind leg, but otherwise seemed in good spirits. "Hello! Doing well, I see."

"Yeah, doc says he'll be fine," the young man said. He opened his mouth to say something else but Dusty began pulling at the leash and he risked falling on his face on the wet floor if he didn't follow. "It was nice meeting you, I guess."

Nora waved and stood in place until she was sure the two had driven away. She didn't even know the man's name or his address to send an 'I'm sorry for almost killing your dog' fruit basket or something.

Bedraggled and feeling like the most pathetic person on the planet, she found the motel at the edge of the county. There was indeed a room available for the night and what a room it was: greyed carpeting, cigarette-scented curtains, and sticky everything. All Nora cared was that it had a shower, albeit one she sprayed with bleach before using. After stripping the comforter off the bed and tossing her sleeping bag on top, she flopped down for a much needed rest.

Her eyelids were just beginning to droop when her cell phone vibrated on the bedside table. "Mark? It's 10:37 at night," she said, glaring at the bright red numbers on the alarm clock.

"Yeah, sorry, Nora," he said, laughing in a way she assumed was meant to be apologetic but just made him sound like the asshole he was for calling as she was falling asleep. "I just wanted to make sure you checked in okay, weathered the storm. Seeing if you wanted to chat. You know, you can talk to me anytime."

Nora blinked and stood to look out the window. It was much more interesting than this conversation. "Yeah, I'll keep that in mind. I was just going to bed, actually."

"Right, right," he said, again with the stupid laugh. "But if you ever need anything..."

Outside, the parking lot was one giant puddle, but the storm had subsided to light rain. A flash of yellow caught her eye but she thought it was just a passing car playing tricks on her tired brain. "I'm going to go, Mark. Big day of driving and all tomorrow."

"Oh yes, of course, right." Her boss almost sounded disappointed; Nora made a note in her head to find a new job as soon as she got back. "I'll see you tomorrow, or the day after that, I suppose. No rush getting that van back here."

"Right." Nora closed the curtain and sat down on her bed. "Thanks for the concern, I guess," she said by way of goodbye and was about to hang up the phone when something massive collided with the door, crushing it inward and raining splinters of wood into her room. She dove behind the bed, phone forgotten, as the big yellow-eyed somethingpushed through the doorway and snarled at her.

Disbelief warred with terror for a split second as Nora fumbled for a weapon. Her things were all in the closet and the alarm clock was on the other side of the bed; all she found was one tennis shoe which she brandished ineffectually at the eight-foot-tall thing.

As the beast leapt over the bed and wrapped its giant, clawed hand around her throat, Nora heard the distant alarmed voice of Mark still on the line, before it smashed her into the wall and everything went black.

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Revised 5-14-2013