When Jack awoke, he was in a strange bed in a strange house.
This would have worried him more if his head hadn’t felt so fuzzy, but, as it was, all he could focus on was the unbearable ache in his bones, the weakness of his breaths. There would be time to worry when he could remember more than his name.
The bedroom door creaked open and a man peeked inside. “Oh, you’re awake,” he said, so softly Jack could barely hear him. “How’re you feeling?”
“Bad,” Jack grunted, struggling—and failing—to sit up. The man hurried across the room, hands outstretched. Jack watched those hands as they pressed against his chest, easing him back down onto the pillow. They were beautiful hands, tanned and bruised and strong—he could see the muscle in them, the rough strength. Jack let himself be tucked in by this strange man and his lovely hands. “Where am I?” He remembered to ask as the man lightly touched his forehead, checking for fever.
“The Coop,” the man said, voice louder now. “If you mean specifically, you’re just outside Syracuse. We found you tangled up in our fence. Big drinker?” He asked, voice both amused and concerned.
“No,” Jack said, shaking his head. He immediately regretted this as the room began to spin violently. “Been sober two years.”
“Well, something made you wild last night,” the man said matter-of-factly, smoothing down the quilt that covered Jack’s naked torso. “But we’ll worry about that later. Are you hungry? I’ve got breakfast cooking downstairs.”
“No,” Jack said, a little too gruffly. He wasn’t hungry, despite it being late morning, and even felt full, the sickly kind of full that came from eating too much and too richly. “Water?”
“Here, Ransom left a water bottle on the bedside table after they carried you here.” The man grabbed the dented, metal thing off the table and handed it to Jack, who felt thirstier than he ever had in his life. He chugged several mouthfuls before the man said, “Slow down, you’ll be sick.”
Jack did slow down, and after the burn in his throat subsided he asked, “Who are you?”
The man smiled and extended a hand. “Eric Bittle, at your service. The boys call me Bitty. And you are…?”
“Well, Jack, I suppose you aren’t from around here. What brings you to our neck of the woods?”
Jack took another sip of water and thought hard for a moment. “I was visiting a friend. And then I was travelling- Blue .”
Eric looked startled. “Blue?”
“My dog,” Jack hissed. He braced both hands on the lumpy mattress and pushed himself up, grunting in pain as every muscle and joint in his body screamed in protest. “She was in my car- we were driving- I need to find her-”
“Jack, Jack,” Eric gripped Jack’s shoulders and struggled to hold him still. “You are in no state to go looking for Blue. I’ll send the boys out, we’ll find her. Tell me what we’re looking for.”
Jack described his car and his dog, anxiety tightening in his chest like a screw. Everything hurt, everything shook, and all Jack knew was that Blue had probably spent the night trapped in his car alone and afraid and very, very cold.
“You sit here, I’ll round up the troops,” Eric said. “Don’t worry, we’ll find her. Drink water and lie back down, okay? You need rest.”
Jack did as he was told, but only very reluctantly. Eric slipped from the room and Jack could hear voices from downstairs. Then a door opened and slammed somewhere, and outside a car rumbled to life. Jack could hear the crunch of gravel beneath wheels, the soft, sock-padded steps of someone walking up stairs, even the creak and groan of the mattress under his infinitesimal shifts and movements. He took a slow, deep breath and tried to relax, despite the wave of fear now crashing down on him.
Eric came back into the room holding a plate of toast. “Rans and Holster are out looking for Blue now. I’ve texted Shitty and he and Lards’ll go looking after the market. We’ll find your baby girl, don’t you worry about it.”
“Why am I here?” Jack asked, frowning. “Why not just drop me off at the hospital? Where did you even find me?”
Eric shrugged. “Rans is a paramedic, he thought you were fine, apart from the cuts and bruises and dehydration. You didn’t show signs of alcohol poisoning, or any sort of aggressive or self-destructive behavior. Maybe it was a bad call,” he added, toying nervously with a loose thread on the quilt. “But here you get toast and far fewer needles.”
“Okay,” Jack said. “But where-?”
“Like I said, you were tangled up on our fence,” Eric said, face darkening. “You’d tried to crawl under, like the coydogs do, but passed out and got stuck.”
“Eric,” Jack said, voice growing thick. “I don’t- I don’t drink. I haven’t touched anything- anything like that in years. What...why can’t I remember what happened? Why was even here?”
“I don’t know,” Eric said softly, brushing a piece of hair from Jack’s brow. “But we’ll figure it out. Maybe we should take you to the doctor today. That bite on your arm isn’t looking too good, maybe it’s infected.”
“Bite?” Jack frowned. “The little nip I got from Ken- my friend’s neighbor’s dog? I thought that had scabbed over.”
He pulled his arm from the blanket to look at the bite he’d gotten a few days prior. The dog had been scared and it really hadn’t hurt much, so Kent had poured some antiseptic on it and bandaged it up and they’d called it a day. Yesterday, it had been a scab. Today, it looked almost fresh, red and irritated and aching. “Huh,” he said. “Maybe.”
“Try and get some sleep,” Eric said, calloused hand brushing over Jack’s shoulder for a second. “Everything will make more sense when you wake up.”
Jack nodded, weariness coming over him again, and he let himself drift off, the phantom touch of Eric’s hand the last thing on his mind.
Jack was running.
Running, and smelling, and smelling prey, and running, and chasing, and running, and lunging, and tearing, and howling, and-
Jack bolted up in bed, gasping for air. The sheets tangled around his body were soaked through with sweat, cold and damp against his bare skin. His throat hurt, ached, and he shakily reached for the mostly-empty water bottle at his bedside.
“Jack?” Eric rushed into the room, eyes wide with concern. “You were screaming, are you okay?”
“Yeah.” Jack swallowed roughly and ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. “Dream.”
Eric moved to sit on the edge of the bed. He was handsome, now that Jack looked at him again, with boyish features and large, expressive eyes. “Bad one, I reckon.”
“I dreamt I was a wolf,” Jack whispered. “I was howling.”
“Full moon’s got you in her grips, huh?” Eric laughed softly. “She does that. Well, I know something that’ll make you feel better.” When Jack tilted his head in confusion, Eric nodded towards the window. “The boys found Blue, asleep in your car. She’s out there now playing fetch with them and Apple and Peaches. Our dogs,” he added. “They already seem mighty fond of her. And the dogs think she’s okay, too.”
Jack laughed, though it hurt his chest. “I picked her up outside Odessa. Thought she was a coyote, she was so thin and dirty, but the vet thinks she’s mostly Blue Heeler.”
“Good companions,” Eric said with a nod. “Ours are pitbull mixes, so I hope she likes to play all day. They’re useless guard dogs, really, but great at playing.”
Relief flooded Jack’s body, loosening all of the tension he’d been holding. “Was she scared?” He asked, feeling even more comforted as Eric scooted closer to fuss with Jack’s damp pillows.
“Yes,” Eric said softly. “And there’s a bit of a mess that needs to be cleaned up properly in your back seat, but she’s eaten and relieved herself on every tree in the yard and is probably very anxious to see you.”
Jack nodded. “I should get dressed and get out of your hair-” He started, but Eric cut him off with an incredulous scoff.
“Oh, no, you are having at least one meal with us, mister. You are clearly in no state to drive, and Miss Blue has to finish her rousing game of fetch. I brought up one of your bags, so you should shower and change, and then we’ll figure out what happened and if you need to see a doctor.”
Jack sighed and nodded. "If you insist," he said reluctantly.
"I do," Eric said. "And we're having stew tonight," he added as he walked towards the door. "I hope you like beef."
Jack's stomach grumbled in answer for him. "Sounds great," he said, smiling at Eric.
"Good." Eric beamed back. "We'll get you back in tip-top shape, don't you worry, Jack. You'll see."