Stormy Weather

Story by Digitaltf on SoFurry

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Spooky happenings during a heavy storm at Keeper's farm.

The following day dawned dark with heavy looking clouds, if one could say it dawned at all. Cleo was snuggled around her cubs at the foot of the bed, and Julie was snuggled to me IN the bed. I looked out the window for a time, thinking about the events of the previous day and pondering the potential events to come at the Zoo. Julie, for her part, must have felt me wriggling around a bit as she slowly woke and caressed across my chest beneath the covers.

"Morning honey. Sleep well?" I asked.

She stretched and groaned a little. "I must have because I don't really remember much of the night after we got back home."

I chuckled softly and relayed the events of parking the equipment, feeding the cats, grabbing a quick snack, and then collapsing into bed together without even watching much of anything on the TV. "Did you enjoy yesterday's activities?" I asked her again.

"It was fun. Now that I think about it more, it was really sweet what you did and I really liked being a part of it. Except...." her face got a little wrinkled as she seemingly was searching for the words she wanted.

"Except?" I inquired.

"Well.... when Zack and us were coming back here, after Chet passed through the woods... Did I dream that we saw something just at the trees when coming back, or did that really happen?" she asked with a worried expression.

I smiled. "It really happened. Zack saw our ghost-dog." At that, Julie shuddered. "I really wish he wasn't haunting you..."

I chuckled softly. "He's not _haunting_ me, hon. At least, not in the manner that word usually conjures up in one's imagination. Though..." I furrowed my brow in thought, "... I suppose that IS a reasonable term for it. His spirit IS hanging out here with us, though in a seemingly positive manner rather than as something ominous or demonic."

I caressed Julie's back a bit as she shuddered again and snuggled close, her head on my chest. "I just wish he wouldn't."

Looking curious, this time I asked. "Why? Does he frighten you?"

She shook her head some, then probably thought better of it. "Well... it's not exactly frightens. It... like... _bothers_ me that he's about. Just hanging around."

I thought about it a bit. "Would it bother you less if he were a real flesh-and-blood dog that we'd have to feed and was crapping in the yard?" That earned me a smack for phrasing things in that manner. "You know exactly what I mean, Jim," she retorted, though with no real vengeance in her voice.

I chuckled. "Yes, I admit it's strange but... I don't find it so bothersome. Many societies believe in an afterlife, and a lot of them believe in spirits as guardians as well as those of nefarious nature. Personally, I'd much rather have Max hanging around in any form compared to some of the folks we have to deal with every day. Like Herr Direktor."

That brought a smile and a bit of a giggle from Julie as she snuggled in, her tension easing. "I guess. So long as he stays out there," came her response.

I didn't know whether or not to tell her that I'd felt his presence in the house a time or two since that Halloween night. She didn't know how he used to curl up on the bed behind my legs in a specific way, which I'd not felt in decades, but had indeed felt a time or two since his first visit, and there was still the question of what his third gift was going to be, if anything at all. Or maybe the two wolves WERE his second and third gifts, since all three were supposed to be on Halloween night. I sighed a bit and guessed we'd find that one out in due course, and hoped Julie could accept whatever it would be.

With the clouds getting heavier, I skipped the little breakfast I ever ate to get the old Case settled back into the shed. As I was working on that, Paul pulled back up to deal with his hogs for the day, and seeing that I was working about figured he'd chatter with me a bit. "Thanks for showing Ritchie a good time the other day, Bud was oblivious and didn't even notice he was gone until we got back and he got hungry." Paul started out with as I was setting up the compressor fitting once again.

"No worries, Paul. Ritchie's a good kid and you know I don't mind having folks about so long as they aren't idiots or make trouble for everyone." I smirked, "Or whine about everything." At that, Paul rolled his eyes and laughed heartily. "Yeah, sorry about that... but you know how Mary Jean is. I can't change her no matter how hard I've wanted to. She's just gonna bitch and moan about whatever crosses her mind."

I simply shrugged and stepped down from the fireman's side of the engine, having fitted the coupling and the air hose. "Doesn't bother me so very much. YOU'RE the one that has to LIVE with her." I winked and he groaned.

"Don't I know it. But.... she's a good wife, deals with my habits fairly well, and doesn't spend the bank account on froo-froo crap each month, so... I keep her around." We both laughed at that, knowing that they did truly care for each other, even if he was far more practical than she'd ever be.

"Say, I've been meaning to ask ya...." Paul commented, seemingly remembering something. "Have you gotten any dogs recently? Or has Liz and Jack down the lane? I know old Irma Steele hasn't or half the world would know about it by now."

I shook my head. "Not that I know about. Why? Something been after your chickens again?"

Paul shook his head. "No... no. Nothing like that. I just... Well, maybe it's just my imagination playing tricks on me..." His brow furrowed as I climbed up to the deck to check that the throttle valve was shut and set the reverse gear and clutch.

"Let me guess.... you've seen a white dog up along my treeline or around by the front yard of the house when it's either twilight or dark, huh?" I leaned on the drivers' seatbox as I inquired, smiling broadly.

"Oh, so that IS your dog! Ok. I figured something like that. What kind is it?" Paul's face broke to a smile.

"Well..." it was my turn for my jaw to cant and my face to contort. "Mind if I ask you a question first?" I inquired. Paul simply nodded. "Do you believe in ghosts?"

Paul's face now screwed up a bit. "You mean like Poltergheist crap, or ... what?" he asked, apparently wondering what I was aiming at.

"I mean like spirits of the dead wandering the earth for whatever purpose they do." I replied.

Paul studied my face for a long time, probably trying to figure out just what joke I had in mind. "I... hadn't but... you're being serious with me, aren't you?"

I nodded. "Dead serious, if you'll pardon the pun. That WAS my dog... better than 15 years ago. He WAS a white German Shepherd before he was shot by the police. And... apparently... now he's back to give me some gifts, as he sees it, and protect me from something. What his final gift is, I don't know. Nor do I know what he's protecting me from, but........ I guess I'll find out sooner or later."

Paul studied my face all the more. "You're shittin' me..... right?" his face confused, clearly not knowing what to make of it. I just shook my head. "Straight-up truth, Paul. If you want to, just ask old Curt Snelling downtown. He'd remember as he was on the force at the time. Lew might know or remember or had heard about it happening. Just about anyone else... I wouldn't know since a lot of the old-timers have passed on and younger folks wouldn't have paid much attention to a little police hiccup like that."

Paul scratched his head. "So you've got a ghost dog wandering your land to give you gifts, huh?" I smiled broadly and nodded. "Yep... turn around and you'll meet one of them."

Paul spun about on his heel in time to see the two wolves out from their hiding spot beneath the porch. The female standing in the drive and the male "anointing" the rear tire on Paul's truck. "Holy shit!" He took two steps back to stand against the wheel of the Case, then turned his head to look up to me. "Wolves?" I nodded mutely. He turned back to watch them and asked, "They ain't gonna bother...." He cut his sentence short as he looked up to me shaking my head.

"They haven't so far, so I seriously doubt it. They showed up on Halloween, when Max came back to visit. They seem friendly enough, though I wouldn't be saying anything to other folks about it as I don't have them on my permits." I replied without much concern.

Paul just nodded some then shook his head. "Ghost dog, wolves... Hell, Jim, I wouldn't believe it if I didn't see it with my own eyes. But I've not known you to bullshit to that degree so... I'm gonna have to believe you're telling it to me straight, even though.... a ghost dog?" He was still clearly incredulous about it.

"Now don't be telling Mary Jean about that or the wolves. She'd have the sheriff out here visiting. I don't mind Butch visiting socially, but you know how he gets to be when it's not just a social call." I suggested. Paul laughed. "You'd know more about that than I would, Jim. But... hell... Mary Jean wouldn't believe me if I told her I'd seen a ghost dog in the first place. She'd say I musta been up here drinking instead of working!"

At that we both laughed and I fired up the compressor to start moving the old Case back to her typical resting place in the shed, and Paul strode off to check the feed hoppers and water troughs for the hogs.

* * * *

When I finally got back to the house it was near noon and the heavy overcast seemed even heavier and the wind started picking up a fair bit. Now, mind you, where my farm is the wind is nearly always blowing just a little, which suited the original settlers fine with the windmill providing the water for the whole farmstead, but sometimes it gets a little dreary to downright worrisome when a late-fall storm brews up. With older sheds and trees, a person never knows when one will crash into the other causing even more problems than you had before. Thankfully I'd been pretty good at keeping up with things so it wasn't so terribly likely a limb would fall on the cage runs and let Jasmine or the lions loose, the old burr oak out front was in stable soil so there was little to worry from that, and even if the power lines got clobbered by a falling tree it wouldn't be hard to power the place for a short time independently when absolutely necessary.

Those thoughts wandering through my mind, and my concern about the weather, clearly caused me a degree of inattention as I stepped into the house. Peaches was pushing against my legs as I shut the front door, and Cleo was down from the bedroom. This caused me a bit of confusion and I looked about seeing Julie at the kitchen table. "Lunch, dear?" she inquired cheerily.

I chuckled. "Sure. What's on the menu?" I asked in return.

"How about some chicken nuggets?" she asked as she drew the pans out of the oven. "With some french fries and a soda?"

"Works for me." I commented as I sat down at the kitchen table and sighed. "Looks like we might be in for a bit of heavy weather later or tonight." I frowned a bit.

She looked at me as she served me and then sat down with her own plate. "Worried? I've never really thought about how things were like on a farm during storms."

I chuckled a bit. "Oh... it's not so much that as other things..." a sound grabbed my attention and I kicked my chair back and moved swiftly across the kitchen and out into the mudroom, pulling the mudroom screen door shut tight to latch it before returning. "Wind must have caught it." I smiled a bit. "But yeah... sometimes storms upset the cats... and I don't know how the wolves are about things... and there's other stuff too. Paul's seen Max about, so it's not just us. I told him about Max and maybe he thinks I'm nuts or maybe he'll check out what I told him, I don't know." I popped a chicken nugget in my mouth after dipping it in some barbecue sauce.

"You... really worry about how it bothers me and others, don't you?" Julie looked concerned.

I chuckled softly and smiled at her. "You, yes. I.... worry about how it all affects you. Others, not so terribly much. I just... I don't know." I chuckled again. "Bet you never thought you'd hear that phrase from me, huh?" I winked and smiled broadly as I grabbed a couple fries.

Julie looked at me for a time. "Max really meant a lot to you, didn't he?" she finally asked.

I smiled, reminiscing, and nodded. "All my animals do, hon. Even the ones I don't own outright like at the Zoo. True, there's some there that I value more than others simply because of their species, and some I don't rightly care for much at all, personally, but that's why they have keepers who DO care for them as much as I care for the cats, and the wolves, and the bears and like that." I smiled tenderly. "It must seem odd that I'm not the least bit scared of Max's ghost hanging around, huh?"

Julie nodded and I smiled broadly. "I... can't really see anything bad happening because. Well, perhaps you'd have had to know him in life to understand just what it'd mean, what happened between us three that Halloween night. I can't really see his coming back as something bad as... 1). It'd have to be something quite profound to be able to return to this plane of existence, and 2). To let me enjoy him like that, and you to enjoy him too...." I just smiled broadly and sighed. "That was one of his gifts to me, hon. To be able to enjoy his body like I wasn't able to when he was alive. The wolves apparently were his second gift. The third gift he mentioned... that I don't know yet. Perhaps he doesn't either, which is why he's hanging around." I was pondering aloud but Julie seemed to be soaking it all up. "Or perhaps he's guarding us from something we're oblivious to. Something... profound. Again, I have no idea but... he was a good dog, and apparently still is." I got a wistful look and Julie just smiled, seeming more at ease.

"Well, with hearing that, and knowing just how logical you are and how logical that sounds... I guess... I still don't know but perhaps I've been a bit squeamish about it all." Julie blushed and I laughed.

"You didn't know him so you couldn't know. I'm sure it was all strange to you any which way, and quite odd. Flipside, too, is...." and at this point I grinned impishly "... you DID seem to enjoy knot a lot." I winked and Julie stuck her tongue out at me as she sat there blushing.

"It's true, I did like it... though perhaps next time I could try a dog that isn't an apparition?" She was smiling as she spoke so I was fairly certain her apprehension had passed, at the very least for the time being.

* * * * *

With the wind picking up, and it already being November, I set about changing out the panels in the screen doors for their winter storm glass, attached the exterior wind-flap on Peaches' oversized doggy door, and generally started setting things up for the winter chill which seemed about to descend upon the valley in a short time. Of course, the wind itself didn't help me move about the plywood structure for Peaches, nor the glass panels. At least not in a productive way, as it certainly tried flinging both the objects and me this way and that as I set about moving them from the single bay's storage area to the house and re-installing them.

No sooner than I had finished than the skies opened up, as they had threatened to all day. So much so that the wolves came out from under the porch and the male "knocked" on the storm door with his paw. I got up and let them in, the male leading and the female following close behind. They weren't so terribly wet or dirty so I didn't think much of letting them into the living room. They seemed to have house manners and curled up at the far end by my rolltop desk, watching us with amber eyes peeking out from curled balls of fur.

Later that evening as we watched TV, Julie asked "Are you sure it's alright with them inside, Jim?" I had shoved my recliner closer to the sofa so Pickles could have her rump against Julie, Cleo could lounge with me while she took a break from her cubs, and Julie and I could sit closer together.

I shrugged a bit. "They seem placid enough. The male didn't try scent-marking everything yet, the female seems to scared to do much of anything, which might be a problem for some stuff but for this it's actually something good as she won't act without him. Peaches hasn't done much more than hiss a couple times at them, and Cleo hasn't bothered with them at all, so....." I shrugged again. "Seems they're alright."

Peaches, hearing her name, lifted her head from the other arm of the couch, scrunched her nose a bit, then rolled over to observe the world from an inverted position, thumping Julie in the ribs with a hindfoot in the process.

Julie blushed "I guess I'm still not completely used to all the kinds of animals you're used to."

I laughed a bit. "Well, like I said... it takes time. My life is generally boring but things seemed to have picked up a bit lately since we've started seeing each other." At that, Julie stuck her tongue out again as she blushed.

I pondered things as we watched the TV... it WAS true that things had certainly expanded in my life quite a bit since becoming involved with her. Though it really wasn't her that was the catalyst. Cleo was the first happening and that brought Julie into my life. And then the other cats, the cubs... I didn't really know how Max and the wolves fit in but they seemed to fit in just fine. There was still Jeff, on the run with his bag of tricks, that was a loose end, Jack Benin who was a loose cannon and perhaps to shoot himself in the foot... I closed my eyes and just listened to the program as I inwardly contemplated.

The next thing I was aware of was me waking to a huge clap of thunder, enough to shake the whole farmhouse. Julie must have dozed off too as she dug her nails into my arm at her waking with a start. The living room was pitch black, as was the rest of the house. The only sound to be heard was the beating of the rain on the big picture window. Another flash and resounding boom sounded through the valley, rattling the windows on the old farmhouse. The wolves were still curled up by my desk, seemingly oblivious. Cleo and Peaches were nowhere to be seen so I just sat up and stepped through the space and over the footrest of the reclined recliner to go check. "Jim..." Julie called out, uncertainty plain in her voice.

"I'm just going to check where Peaches is. Cleo's probably up with her cubs. It'll be alright." I called back to her as the wind battered the rain against the big window. She just curled up tighter on the sofa as I wobbled down the hall, not completely awake. With the lightning flashing every now and again I could see down the hall and when I stuck my head in, Peaches was curled up under her loafing shelf. "That's a good place for her to sleep tonight." I thought as I shut her door to lock her in.

Just then I heard Julie scream and I raced down the hall to the front rooms. My heart was pounding and Julie pointed. There, in the kitchen, was Max. Clear as day. Well... as clear as ever.

"They need you. I'm to guide you. Must hurry, before it's too late." His voice was just as clear as before but... different somehow. Choppy.

"Who are "they" and guide me where?" I asked. Julie looked at me confusedly as she huddled where she was at on the sofa. Max turned to the mudroom door and I followed.

"I think I'm... gonna stay here... Jim." I looked to Julie and then to Max, then back to Julie.

"We'll need her help too. Time is very short. Must hurry before it's too late." Urgency was clear in his voice. "Julie, c'mon... grab your coat. He says it's important." I called back to her from the other side of the kitchen.

I was already at the mudroom door letting Max through and out. I grabbed my grandfather's old WWII winter greatcoat from its place on the hook, swung it on, and headed out into the monsoon. Max was at the door to the garage and I opened it, then hit the button for the overhead but nothing happened. "Duh, the power is out." I inwardly chided myself as I could see in the illumination of another lightning bolt Max moved around the Blazer to the other door. "Truck. We'll need the truck." I made my way around by feel and unlocked the other door and heading through just as Julie stepped in. "He says we need the truck. It's in the machine shed." I called out as Julie stumbled her way around the Blazer in the darkness. Together Max and I dashed through the shop, the hall, out into the machine shed. The cats paced but didn't growl or act terribly agitated even amidst the blustering storm, which was somewhat unusual in and of itself. Either that or I didn't really notice their agitation. I rushed to, then unbolted the door for the machine shed and gave it a heavy shove, it rolling open to make way for my old 1977 Ford pickup that was stored off to the side. I hadn't used it in months, so I didn't know whether or not it would even start. The moment I opened the door Max jumped in, to the center of the seat and I hoisted my ass up into the driver's seat. Pulling the choke knob I tapped the gas pedal three times and tried it. Surprisingly, the old truck burped to life with little complaint just as Julie reached the other door.

"Jim! What's all this about?" she nearly cried out as she had a little trouble getting into the truck. "Why are we running off in the middle of a rainstorm?"

"Because he said it's urgent, and I trust him. Please trust me and him too... he wouldn't have appeared in our house without good reason." I yanked the knob, causing the lights cut through the darkness of the shed like a knife and, throwing it into gear, off we went, whipping it easily along my own farm yard paths and out onto the drive.

It's true, I bounced along the rutted drive much faster than I really probably should have at that point, but Max kept whining and I sensed the need of urgency. "Right. Turn right." That was what I heard when I neared the end of my drive. I didn't even touch the brake as I turned the wheel hard to the right as my old truck bounded out onto the road, which was absent of any vehicles or any light from the farm at the end nor any of the neighbors.

"The power must be out for quite a ways... probably a...." I then realized it just as I was about to say it, and Julie flashed me a worried look visible in the dim glow of the dash lights. There had to be power lines down somewhere. Just where, I wouldn't know. "Scootch this way on the seat, hon. Hug Max if you have to but keep at least a foot between you and the door handle." I knew I wouldn't be able to drive like that so I just remained where I was unless I needed to navigate around a downed line.

"Why, Jim?" Julie asked but did as I instructed nonetheless, wrapping an arm around Max as she did so.

"This truck is old, Julie... all-metal construction. If we were to arc a downed line, the truck _should_ stay running, but us occupants could possibly get a fair jolt if we were touching or perhaps even near to metal parts, like the door handle or window winder." I responded. Max just whined.

I could see water sluicing down the drainage ditches to the sides of the road and backing up lower down the slopes in some of the lower parts here and there. "Hurry... must hurry." Max whined.

I could barely see through the rain coursing across the windshield like a firehose being sprayed on it, even with the wipers whapping back and forth once a second at their full speed I could only see about a foot in front of the hood of my old truck. I knew the road enough I could drive it one-eyed and half asleep, which I had done once or twice, so I wasn't too overly concerned about our safety in that respect, and there weren't any bridges to wash out in any close range either.

I crested the hill just before the country church. "Church. Drain under road. Hurry." His whine was more urgent than ever. As I slowed to a stop near the old church I could see why... there was debris clotted against the grating for the drainage culvert there, and when I stepped out there was something else whining. As I neared the ditch I could tell there was a dog... no TWO dogs stuck in the water surging through the culvert, and the water was rising rapidly from the drainage from the three hillsides.

"Julie!" I hollered from the ditch. "Swing the truck back around but keep it on the road. Don't worry about other traffic right now..." I waded back out and fished around under the seat until I found my tow chain. "Just back it up until I wave and then pull forward. I'll do the rest."

"Where's Max?" Julie questioned, at which I quickly glanced around in the storm's occasional flashes of illumination.

"I'm sure he can take care of himself... we gotta hurry or they'll drown." I shut the passenger door and Julie slid over to the driver's seat. I waded back into the water, now well up past my knees, and hooked the slip hook of the chain through the grating, then tossed the chain around a nearby "narrow bridge" painted guard post and scrambled up to the road surface in time for Julie to get close with the rear bumper of the truck.

Swiftly I hooked up the cinch-hook of the chain and hollered forward "First gear, and tromp on it. When it all lets go, don't slam on the brakes but just stop easy!"

I could see her nod through the cap and rear window as the truck clicked into gear and heard her trod on the gas. It took a couple yanks but then the grating came off, and flying in my general direction. It missed me by a fair bit because Julie did as I'd instructed and it dragged only a little up the bank. The moment she stopped she got out of the truck but I was already down in the drainage ditch, nearly up to my waist in water, the culvert having disgorged its debris and the dogs the moment the grating came loose. "Lift the topper lid a bit and drop the gate. Don't lift it all the way or it'll jam." I hollered up to her as I fished about in the swirling mire for the first dog. Up came a moderate-sized white-furred form, thoroughly drenched and I set the shaking being up as high on the bank as I could. Julie came over and lifted the shivering form onto the tailgate and it wobbled further into the dry space of the truck bed.

I was still wading around, trying to find the other dog when I felt something heavy bump into me, but not heavily bump into me. I reached down and hoisted out another sodden white form, though this one was completely limp. I flumped it up onto the bank and, using the chain still attached to the truck, hoisted myself out of the swirling surge. No movement graced this being as I lifted it to the tailgate.

"Is it.....?" Julie asked. I quickly ran my hand over the chest and could feel a heartbeat but no respiration. I leaned its head over the edge and pushed its chest a couple times, causing it to disgorge what seemed like a lot of water onto my boots and pantlegs. Still no breathing. Another couple presses with still more water. A shudder. I leaned down and cupped my hand to its snout and gave a firm breath into its nose.

Coughing and spluttering a bit it took a few breaths, then a few more. More water disgorged from its nose and mouth. Regular breathing, though shallow... "Not tonight, it seems... or at least not right now." I replied to Julie, who was now thoroughly soaked herself without having a "monsoon" coat like mine. I scooted the other dog further back into the truck bed and shut the tailgate, leaning on the drivers' side edge of the bed a bit so it would latch correctly, since my old truck was indeed old and not in the greatest condition.

As I gathered the chain, then climbed back into the cab and shut the door I looked around for Max, who was nowhere to be seen. I looked in the back and through the flickering lightning of the storm I could see both dogs snuggled to each other. The one that had me worried now hadn't moved, but the other had moved to be next to it.

"I guess Max was right... another minute and they'd both have been goners." I said as I put the truck back in gear and headed for home... expecting to find my ghost dog padding along the road somewhere, but he wasn't anywhere to be seen.

I took it much easier up the farm drive this time, lest I jolt my two guests in the back. I parked in front of the single bay and shut the truck down. Julie was just getting out as I opened the tailgate and noticed that the second dog still hadn't moved, but was breathing... lightly but fairly regularly. I scooted it to the tailgate and picked it up. It's companion followed. "Door, Julie." I called out as my weighty mass was limp in my arms, and there was no way I could manipulate the doorknob holding this much dog. She ran ahead up to the door and opened it and the inner door, neither having been locked in our haste to leave. I inwardly chided myself a bit but reconciled it with the fact that no one would be about on such a night, nor could they have taken anything with two wolves and a lioness loose in the house. I set the limp canine down in front of the sofa and then quickly shed my soaked jacket, tossing it in a heap by the stairs. In the illuminations of lightning I could see the wolves lift their heads at the movement, but laid them back down again without doing a thing as I felt the unconscious dog all over.

Julie reappeared with towels from the bathroom and the companion cowered some until it realized that a fluffy towel held by a pretty girl isn't something to be worried about. "She's a she, Jim." Julie said as I worked through in my head what all could be wrong. No broken ribs so no punctured lung... couldn't tell about internal bleeding but the abdomen wasn't distended or rigid, so that was a good sign. I snapped out of my thought process a moment when Julie spoke. "Huh? Oh..." I looked down and lifted a hindleg. "Male here." I grabbed a towel she'd tossed my direction and began drying him off too.

With the power out, the furnace wouldn't function correctly either and we'd all start getting rather cold soon, especially since we'd all gotten drenched to some degree outside. After my brief checkup of the male dog I set about the process of lighting the oil-burner heater in the living room. Vacuum-pumped a bit to prime the drop-tank, opened the tap and filled the drip-cup, then lit it with a match and watched it burn a bit. The open oil flame showing flickering light down the hall towards Peaches' room. Soon it was joined by another light, which slightly confused me. I then smiled as I saw its source.

"I'd forgotten about this until I saw you light the heater..." Julie smiled as she walked from the Kitchen into the Living Room with the oil lamp that usually sat on the kitchen table.

I chuckled and tapped the oil heater's casing. "Being old-fashioned sometimes pays off. That's also why I left this here, since most people would have torn it out for the space, or their insurance company would have made them remove it as a fire hazard."

As soon as the oil in the cup had burned down enough, I twisted the valve to start the main burner, which whoofed to life without any complaint, and the steel started popping every so often as the fire chamber expanded. I then shut the doors to the burner compartment, adjusted the control a little, and got a cup of water from the kitchen to dump in the top of a little Stirling engine I built into the chimney of the heater to operate a fan to circulate the heat better. The blades of the fan first lazily started spinning, then with a bit more enthusiasm set about sending the warmed air towards the rest of the room.

Julie was petting the male dog while the female lay down near it. "How come your insurance doesn't cost a fortune on this place?" she asked, tilting her head a bit with curiosity.

I just chuckled. "Well... there's a long windbag answer that I won't bother you with, and a shorter one that I just have an "in" with the insurance company since I have... well... " I thumb-pointed in the direction of Peaches room and the pens of the other cats. "Let's just say my policies aren't anywhere near typical."

Julie smiled and laughed a little, at which the girl dog raised her head, but then laid it back down on her forepaws again. "You're such a goof, Jim. Always something unusual turning up."

I shrugged a bit and went over to the heater, opened the outer door and adjusted one control knob. I heard Julie gasp and when I turned there was Max again, which apparently had startled her. He was nuzzling the prone male dog, then looked to me and whined. No voice, just whined. I latched the heater door and knelt down by the dog, whose breathing had become shallower. I canted my jaw, and lifted his rump to stuff a few pillows under him, so as to let any more fluid in his lungs drain out. This eased things a little but his breathing was still way shallow. Not much fluid issued from his nose or mouth.

"What's happening?" Julie asked, and looked at me. I shrugged a little. "I don't quite know, hon. He may have been underwater just too long. I think I got most of the water out of him back there at the church, but... I just don't know." I frowned a bit and she hugged me.

I canted my head and then went to the kitchen. I grabbed the handset of the phone there and put it to my ear, then hung it back up. Julie looked at me with a questioning expression, to which I answered her unasked query. "Phone lines must be out too. I was gonna call Jim Bridger to see if he knew of anything to help, but... if the main's out, that means the nearest cell tower is too, since it's just down Schutzberger road, a little south of the church." I furrowed my brow. "Which reminds me, I don't even remember seeing its marker beacons, so it might have gotten struck by lightning and the backup generator fried for all I know."

Julie slumped a bit and Max whined again. I sat back down and pet both Max and the new male dog. I turned to Max. "Do you know what's wrong?" I asked him. All I got in reply was a whine and a worried look. I yawned huge, the adrenaline surge from everything having ended and the energy expended taken its toll on me. I heard Julie yawn too. "What time is it?" she asked in a half-yawn mumble. I reached for my watch but realized I left it in the truck when I went wading for puppies. I craned my head to see my old regulator clock. "Nearly 3:30 am. No wonder no one was out and about." I yawned again.

Cleo came padding down the stairs and stopped at the bottom step. Her expressionless face all the more etherial in the dim illumination of the oil lamp. She looked at the two dogs, the female of which stood up and took a couple steps towards the front door. Cleo looked at me, then sat down on the stair tread. "We've got guests, Cleo. This one's not doing so well, so I'll have to sleep down here tonight with him. Is that alright with you?" I inquired. A nod was my reply. I looked to Julie, and then to Cleo.

Julie got the hint and smiled. "I'll keep her company. Less scary with a lioness than a ghost dog." She smiled at me so I knew she meant no malice, then she looked down at the other dog with a worried expression. "Hope he gets better...."

"I do too, hon. And you get some sleep. It'd make for some fancy dancing if you don't show up for work tomorrow. I can take a comp day if I need to, even though Jack will bitch like I just had a cat shred his favorite office chair." I smiled, at which Julie stuck out her tongue. "He'll make trouble, that's for sure, even if you DO show up."

Cleo turned and started ascending the stairs with Julie close behind her carrying the oil lamp to light her way. I looked back down at my "patient", and the girl dog came padding around to nuzzle at his head too. I pet her head as she did so and sighed. I really didn't want to be digging a hole tomorrow. Not like this, anyway. I sighed again as I moved to lay down on the sofa. I caught myself before laying out completely, realizing for the first time since coming back in just how soaked my pants were. I undid my boots and put them by the heater to dry, then moved off to the bathroom to change out of my sodden shorts and pants. I grabbed one of my used uniform pants from the pile beneath the sink and wriggled into them after drying myself a bit.

Max and the girldog hadn't really changed positions much, apart from laying down, both noses fractions of an inch from the unconscious male dog's nose. I sighed and pet his still-damp fur some as I lay down on the sofa, near the edge with my hand on him, the whole room dimly lit with the flickering flames showing through the isinglass window of the oil heater.

Sometime shortly thereafter I must have fallen asleep, as my hand was still on his ribcage when I awoke with a start. I looked over and the male was gasping for breath. I shifted him some so he wasn't on the cushion slope any longer and that helped a little, but not much. Then it started. Agonal breathing, it's called. He quietly howled out some, and then was gulping air... though not exactly breathing. I sighed deeply, as I'd seen this so many many times with so many animals. My heart sank as once again it'd be hole-digging time. Then Max stood up from where he was laying. This confused me a bit as he reached over the dying dog to lick my hand. I went to kiss his head and he backed up a foot. Something.... was going on that I couldn't quite understand as even the alive-Max would always let me kiss him on the head. I sat up and watched Max... start to glow a little. Not... like glow but... get fuzzy? Out of focus, perhaps? I rubbed my eyes but it seems it wasn't me as the rest of the room wasn't optically diffuse. At least not any moreso than it typically was without my glasses on. I watched from my seated position as the dog continued gulping, less and less, as Max moved about, then... kinda.... laid down _into_ the other male. Not _onto_ but _into_... their bodies becoming one, or something.

"What you loved of me, you will love of him. What you love of him you remember of me. I am not him. He is not me. I am part of him, and he is part of me." I sat, looking confused as it was the voice I'd come to know, but... fading quieter as it spoke.

The lights flickered and blinked on, leaving me sitting on the sofa, confused. I reached down to pet the new dog and he raised his head and feebly licked my hand. We both turned our heads as we heard a noise at the stairs.

"Oh! He's better!" Julie exclaimed, in her nightshirt and a pair of fuzzy orange "lion" slippers she had acquired at some point since she'd started living with me.

"He... I don't know." I said feebly, my brow furrowed. "I think Max... became him. Or saved him. Or something."

Julie looked at me confusedly. "Wh... How? What happened?"

"He was dying. I mean... stuff shutting down dying. Dig-a-hole time. Max was upset as though trying to figure out what to do, and then he seemed to decide and just... laid down INTO this guy... the lights came back on and he's... better, not dead." My brow was still furrowed and I couldn't really believe what I was saying myself, let alone expecting Julie to either understand it or believe it.

"So now this dog is Max? or... is possessed by him?" Julie looked at me, concernedly.

I pondered that for a bit. "Perhaps... or perhaps whatever force was letting Max come back here was what he gave to this dog. Max said he's part of this guy, but that this guy is not him." I tried to remember the exact wording. "What you loved of me, you will love of him. What you love of him, you will remember of me. I am not him. He is not me. I am part of him, and he is part of me." I gave a bit of a shrug. "Either way... at least this guy's still alive." I smiled and the dog rolled to chest-sit a bit. I chuckled and smiled broader at Julie. "Hey, two white shepherds that aren't spooks isn't necessarily a bad thing, is it?" I asked. "Especially since he's got all his original parts, too."

Julie blushed at that and just shook her head. "You're still a pervert," she murmured as she snuggled into my side on the sofa.

I rubbed my feet along the male dog's side as Julie cuddled to me. The female moved and curled up on the seat of my recliner, and I turned out the table lamp. "What on Earth is going to happen next?" I thought as I closed my eyes to snooze a bit, the rise and fall of canine chest moving my right foot up and down was regular, firm, healthy... alive. I sighed contentedly and succumbed to the demands of sleep.

A Day Off Part 3

"Richard Leslie Mitchell, what ARE you doing up there?!? Get down from there right now!" I heard from behind me. I knew the voice could only be one person, and then I saw Paul come around the front end of the Case. "Honey, it's alright, Jim's here...

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That Place 8: Heaven

Sunshine. Warm sunshine. Bright sunshine. I stirred a bit as I felt the warmth of a sunbeam upon me. Then my brain started thinking... why am I feeling the warmth of a sunbeam? I wriggled a bit and felt soft cushion beneath me and behind my...

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That Place 7: Leaving Together

That day started like every other, but I knew it wasn't going to go that way. How little did I know it wasn't going to go that way. The lights came on, Tom tromped around booting dogs out into the outdoor runs, and that's when it happened. The pitt...

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