Natalie sat with her hands clenched, staring at the ground, trying to hold back the tears that threatened to well forth. After a moment she unclenched them, pressing her face to her palms. The fur on the back of her neck stood on end. The mere thought of being rejected raising a confusing welter of emotions: fear, anger, sorrow...It was almost too much to bear, especially for a simple corgi. She tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the hiccups that had overcome her even as she fought back the tears.
After holding her breath for a minute didn’t work, she forced herself to uncurl from the miserable ball of fur she’d turned into and pulled herself back up on her bed. Her head drooped toward her lap as she finally made it into sitting position. God, I’m so worthless, she thought, I haven’t even tried to ask him out, and just thinking of him saying ‘no’ makes me have a break down. She sighed, hiccuping again, then grabbed her pillow in frustration and screamed into it.
The dreams that tormented her that night were the same thing that she’d envisioned earlier.
The word echoed through her head as she bolted upright, panting for breath. “God damn it!” she screamed, “Why do I keep having these dreams?”
As she pulled the covers off, the old alarm clock caught her eyes and she grabbed it, staring at it a moment as the time registered. “Fuck!” she yelled again, throwing the alarm clock back from where she’d picked it up. “I’m late for class.” As the clock bounced, falling behind the nightstand, she jumped off the bed in a rush to get dressed.
After pulling on her rumpled clothing from the day before, still smelling of stale tears, she grabbed her bookbag and keys as she ran out the door. She almost forgot to lock the door behind her in her rush, turning at the last moment and fumbling with the keys before locking it and running over to the moped parked at the curb.
Luckily the moped started up without any problems and she twisted the handle, making the scooter lurch before it shot forward, nearly dumping her off the seat. Horns blared as she weaved in and out of the residential traffic, breaking the speed limit in her hurry to make it to her second class...since she’d already missed the first.
She clenched the brake as her cherry red moped drifted into her normal parking spot before cutting the power and pulling the chain out from under the seat. Swearing under her breath, she ran the chain between the spokes of the front tire and around the post in front of it, and clamped the cheap master lock shut. As she ran up to the front doors of the big building, she slowed. Something wasn’t right. The halls that should have been packed with students were deserted.
Her eyes spying not a face she knew as her mind raced “ what day is is ? Did something happen that I missed?.... what happened?”
The fur on her back stood again on end as a voice suddenly spoke “Didn’t you hear that classes were canceled for today due to a minor explosion in one of the labs ?”
Natalie Jumped nearly out of her skin as she turned around to see Corey standing behind her .
Her chest hurt as her heart raced seeing the one fur she wanted to not run into at all cost.
“Corey, What are you ….” she trailed off as the panic set in .
“Hey Natalie. Are you ok? You didn’t look good pulling in to park, like you were stressed or something.”
All went black……
“Fuck! HEY! Somebody get me a paramedic here! Call 911!” Corey leaned down and checked the corgi’s vitals. She was breathing ok, she was just totally out.. with tears streaking the fur on her muzzle. At least two students were talking on their cellphones so Corey concentrated on the fallen girl, stripping off his jacket to lay it over her and keep her warm. It wasn’t long before everybody could hear an approaching siren.
Natalie slowly opened her eyes and her heart was again in her mouth
“What the fuck ! Where am i?”
“You’re in the hospital. You ran into class and collapsed..”
The voice wasn't the same as the last one she heard, it was deeper, more resonant. She couldn’t identify it at first.
She cocked her head looking around trying to find its source .
Her eyes still blurry from before . she made out the vague shape of a Mastiff, his shoulders perched awkwardly on the back of the hospital standard chair because of his height.
Her mind slow to put the name to the shape.
“Yeah. Corey had to get home, but he’s the one called the ambulance.”
Her heart settled down knowing that she was not near him at all now.
“How are you feeling? we’re going to need to call your folks “
“I am fine now , I just don't know what happened .
I was saying something next thing i know i am here “
“Girl, you folded like a paper crane. We need to call your folks because every time a kid has health issues we gotta do that. Looks like you’re going to be stuck here a while as they work out what made you go down like that. Sorry.”
Natalie hated hospitals so being here made her very jumpy . Her fear of needles unknown to anyone but her parents.
“Professor I hate being here, I just want to leave”
The Fear in her eyes now evident. The tiny Corgi girl Laid in her bed shaking.
“I can’t sign you out. I can only stay here until one of your parents gets here or one of them grants power of attorney for me to stand in their stead. Problem is, with them both being on a business trip to India, it's proving a little hard to contact them.”
Natalie looked over to her professor
“How did you know that they are in India ?”
“You know most parents file emergency contact details with the school, right? We are just having problems contacting them directly, but you can stop worrying on one score at least… your mom notified the school that you’re needle-phobic. No needles without your explicit consent unless they are needed to save your life and that’s not looking like it’s in the cards.”
“Yes, but they never leave any detail of where they are with anyone but me…. “
“So can you tell me how to contact them more reliably?”
“I have an emergency phone number for me and to get a hold of them only, and I call this an emergency “
“I do too, so might I suggest?... “ The mastiff handed over his own phone, pointedly looking away so he couldn’t see the number she dialed.
“No, If you can hand me my bag from the chair, i have a dedicated phone just for this “
“Ok, here it is. Just don’t try to sit up, the nurses have warned that it could make you pass out again. Your blood pressure is way low right now, like you’re in shock”
“Thank you for being here for me Rusty. Shit, i am sorry Professor. i don’t mean to come off so informal with you “
“You’re good Natalie. we’re just fine. Just call your folks so I can get us both out of here, ok? I fuckng hate hospitals”
Natalie giggled under her breath as she took the phone in hand and placed the call getting a quick answer
“Yes I need your power of attorney mom, I need out of here, you know how i hate hospitals.
Yes, I am fine, just passed out at school. Professor Rusty tried to contact you “
She sat on the phone for a few minutes before handing the phone to Rusty
“Mrs Stewart. Natalie passed out at school today. She’s ok but before I can sign her out of the hospital I need your authorization to do so. I think she hates hospitals almost as much as I do so perhaps we could expedite this?.... No, my dislike of hospitals comes from watching my wife die in one… no, unfortunately. It was cancer and not detected early enough to be curable…. Thank you, Mrs Stewart. Yes, that’s the correct fax number. I’ll wait for the staff to let us know.”
The big mastiff was staring at the paperwork with his eyes red-rimmed as he barked at the murine nurse that had handed him the papers...“What the fuck?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Andersen. We can’t release her without somebody able to monitor these things. Her syncope could recur at any time and we need her to be constantly monitored.”
“Fine. I’ll take her to my place until I can make alternative arrangements. That will be 944 Ridge Highway West.”
“That works, Sir.”
Looking down at the scared Corgi in the bed the mastiff smiled. “Looks like you need to swing by your place to pack some stuff for a couple weeks in my spare room…. that is, if you really want to get out of here tonight”
Natalie had only one reply. “Yes”
The Professor pulled up to Natalie’s door, the beaten up old Land Rover sputtered as he turned it off and hopped out of the drivers side door rushing over to the passengers side to make sure that she would be fine on her feet.
“Thanks, Rusty” she giggled
“Well the nurse did say I had to watch you particularly closely the first couple of days. Fortunately, it’s Friday and neither of us has classes to worry about in that time.”.
“Ya its the weekend and most of us only have mid week classes “
“I have a tutorial group monday afternoon, but no actual classes to teach, I’m pretty well booked through to Friday midday after that though. If it hadn’t been for that idiot toasting the lab next to mine. Your biochem class would have been my last lecture of the week.”
“Still was so confusing seeing nearly no one on that side of campus because of that”
She dug her paw into her jacket pocket pulling out her keys as she got to her door unlocking it so they could head inside.
“Somebody needs to remind that sloth what chemicals not to mix in the wrong order. It wasn’t really an explosion, but a violent exothermic reaction can do almost as much damage. Thankfully he’s Professor Mayweather’s student and her problem, not mine. You’d think that as a postgrad he’d have retained at least a little more basic chemistry than that.”
Natalie giggled even more hearing this and thinking about how a sloth could have done all this considering that they are mostly always sleeping, from what she has seen of the few sloths in town.
The house was cold and dark as she flipped on the hallway light and started to make her way upstairs not waiting for Rusty to follow her up knowing that he would be hot on her heels anyway to watch over her like a hawk.
She opened the door to her room feeling the warm air flow out of it from leaving her computer on like she always did. She sat down in her big backed chair at her desk turning on her Pc screen seeing if there were any emails from her parents and how the trip was going .
No email from her parents but three unread messages.
Subject: Are you ok, girl?
You scared the crap out of me! Let me know when you get this, ok? I need to fill you in on what we got from the cancelled classes.
Subject: Are you home yet?
I have to go out in a half hour and might not be back til late. I’ll ping you again before I leave.
Subject: I’m out of time.
Gotta go, sorry Nat. Whatever time you get this drop me a reply. A few of us are worried about you.
Rusty coughed, leaning in the doorway.
“If any of that needs a reply, better do it. I live way out of town on Ridge Highway and my internet sucks.”
Natalie nearly jumped out of her skin forgetting that rusty was even here.
“Shit , you nearly startled me half to death.”
Natalie looked back at her monitor , her anxiety now becoming apparent again.
She started to shake and whimper trying to ignore the feeling welling up in her head.
Stepping away from the doorway, Rusty took two quick steps and was standing behind Natalie’s chair. She felt his paws rest on her shoulders as she heard him say “Natalie? Are you alright? Are you having a panic attack?”
She was far too long gone to hear anything that rusty had just asked her. Her mind was a mess of all of the thoughts about Corey and how much she must look a fool to him now, how she would never have a chance at dating him. Her eyes filled with tears and she gave in to the rush of feelings .
“Natalie!” Rusty was putting the depth and power of a mastiffs voice into this one and it penetrated the fog surrounding her mind. In a softer voice, he continued. “I don’t pretend to know what is bothering you but I’m guessing it’s something to do with Corey? You don’t have to tell me, and I’m not asking. But if it’s something personal you were hoping to have happen, you know he’s gay, right?”
Everything stopped in that moment
“Yep. He’s dating one of my PhD students. They seem to be quite serious.”
Her heart shattered .
She felt like someone had just hit her with a truck.
She turned her chair around and flung herself out of it, burying her face in the mastiffs chest and sobbing her heart out. Slowly, tentatively, she felt him reach out to place his paws on her shoulders again. Not holding her exactly, just comforting.
“Natalie, you’re going to need a couple of changes of clothing, your toothbrush and any particular fur care stuff you use. We’ve about a half hour drive out of town to make. Can you do that?”
She tried to pull herself back together.
“Yes” she said weakly
Natalie pulled her face away from the warm touch of the mastiff trying to console her.
She gathered her brushes and clothing quickly stuffing them in to her small gym bag.
“I have all I need “
“Are you up for this yet or do you need another minute?”
“Lets get the fuck out of here , I dont need to be here”
He walked backwards down the stairs watching her in case he needed to catch her. They were almost half way to the car when he stopped.
“Natalie, you didn’t lock up.”
“Shit! Thank you.”
Ridge Highway climbed into the foothills of the mountains almost as soon as it passed the city limits. True to its name it ran along a glacial ridge, sometimes called an “arete” with steep cliffs on either side. About twenty minutes out of town the ridge petered out and gave way to mountains to the right and left. Natalie looked up, interested, as the vehicle turned into a dirt road off to the right. By the side of the dirt track was a pillar of stone with “944” carved into the face towards the main road. Next to it, a post with a mailbox perched on top.
“Just a sec, I need to collect my mail. The house is a quarter mile in so it would be a fair walk to do it after we parked.”
Rusty hopped out of the car and gathered a handful of mail out of the box. Tossing it into the back seat he resumed driving, the track getting progressively rougher and steeper until at last it leveled out in front of a stone-built house overlooking the steep drop-off into the valley.
“I bet you can tell why my internet sucks now, huh? I’m pretty much off the grid here. The water tank is fed from the falls you see behind the house, up on the ridge I’ve got half a dozen wind turbines that can almost turn out a megawatt if they are all operating and there’s a huge-ass propane tank set into a cave next to the falls. Internet, phone and TV are all via a sat dish on the top of the ridge. My dad was a bit of a survival nut and he built the place. I’ve a microcell box inside from the local phone service but that goes over the satellite too.”
Natalie Sat there wide eyed in the passenger's seat.
She never thought that anyone really lived like this around here.
“It’s kinda peaceful up here so I never moved out after I inherited the place. Dad was trying to extend the cave where the propane tank is three years ago and he misconnected the blasting cap. Managed to transfer title to the land to me and transfer title to his ass to the land all at the same time.”
Natalie couldn't help but giggle at Rusty and his story.
She felt more calm now, more free, away from her lonely home and the emails of the shepherd that she had loved.
“Come on in, Lass. I’ll show you where the spare room is and we can dump your bag in there before I fix supper.”
Rusty opened the front door, led Natalie up a short flight of stairs to where four doors opened off a short landing.
“This one to the right is mine, there’s a guest room at the end, one to our left and the door in the middle is the guest bathroom. Take your pick which bedroom you want.”
Natalie wandered in the big house looking at Rusty’s bedroom and picking the one to her left closest to his.
She fumbled a bit looking for the light switch in the room before locating it and flicking it on then having a look around in it. A simple log bed dominated the far wall, with an equally rustic-styled dresser off to one side. The third wall was mostly taken up with a huge window , a sliding door leading out onto a balcony with a view down over the cliff, the lights of the city being visible in the valley below.
Natalie tossed down her bag at the foot of the bed before exiting the room finding Rusty still standing in the hall waiting for her.
“I like this one.”
“Fair enough. There’s sheets and pillowcases in the closet here, but let’s at least get supper on before we make up your bed. Do you like Italian? I’m kinda in the mood to cook tonight.”