Thin Air



I was lying on something cold and wet, and I was naked and shivering. Afraid. Something was very, very wrong with me.

I reflexively curled in on myself, protecting as much of my body as I could, as awareness of the world washed over me in hot, pulsing waves.

Biting, frigid wind. Ice-cold sleet trailing languid fingers over my bare skin. I forced my eyes open and saw my arm lying on the ground in front of me, hand outstretched, and my skin was a pallid, blue-tinged white, red at the fingertips. Frostbite.

I ached all over, so fiercely that I felt tears well up in my eyes. And I felt empty, cored and thrown out like an old orange peel.

I forced myself to look beyond my own hand and saw that I was lying in a mound of cold, slimy leaf litter. Overhead, bare trees swayed and scratched the sky, and what little could be seen between the skeletal branches was gray, flocked with low clouds. The air tasted thin in my mouth.

I tried to think where I was, how I'd gotten here, but it was a blank. Worse, it terrified me to even try to think of it. I shuddered with more than the cold, gasping, and squeezed my eyes shut again.

Get up, I told myself. Up. I'd die if I stayed here, naked and freezing. But when I tried to uncurl myself from the embryonic position I'd assumed, I couldn't get anything to work right. My muscles jittered and spasmed and protested wildly, and the best I managed was to roll myself up to my hands and knees and not quite fall flat on my face again.

I heard a voice yelling somewhere off in the woods. Sticks cracking as something large moved through the underbrush. Run! something told me, and I was immediately drenched in cold terror. I lunged up to my feet, biting back a shriek of agony as muscles trembled and threatened to tear. I fell against the rough bark of a tree and clung to it as cramps rippled through my back and legs, like giant hands giving me the worst massage in the world. I saw sparks and stars, bit my lip until I tasted blood. My hair was blowing wildly in the wind where it wasn't stuck to my damp, cold skin or matted with mud and leaves.

I let go of the tree and lurched away. My legs didn't want to move, but I forced them, one step at a time. My arms were wrapped around my breasts to preserve a warmth that I couldn't find, either within me or without.

My feet were too cold to feel pain, but when I looked back I saw I was leaving smears of blood behind on the fallen leaves. Cuts had already opened on the soles.

I kept moving. It was more of a lurching not-quite-falling than running, but I was too frightened to wait for any kind of improvement. Had to keep going.

More shouting behind me. Voices, more than one. The hammer of blood in my ears kept me from focusing on the words. Someone did this to me, I thought. Put me out here to die. I didn't want them to find that they'd failed.

Not that they really had failed, yet.

Up ahead was a tangle of underbrush. My body was already covered with whip scratches and a lacework of blood against cold white skin. I needed a way around... I turned right, holding to a massive tree trunk for support, and clambered up a short rise.

Just as I reached the summit, a shadow appeared at the top of it. I gasped and started to fall backward, but the shadow reached down and grabbed my forearm, pulling me up the rest of the way and then wrapping me in sudden warmth as his arms closed around me.

I fought, startled and scared, but he was a big man, tall, and he managed to pin my arms to my sides in a bear hug. "Jo!" he shouted in my ear. "Joanne, stop! It's me! It's Lewis!"

He smelled like wood smoke and sweat, leaves and nylon, but he was warm, oh, God, warm as heaven itself, and against my own will I felt myself go limp and stop fighting. For the moment.

"Jo?" He slowly let his arms loosen and pulled back to look down at me. He was taller than I was by half a head, with shaggy-cut brown hair and a long patrician face with big, dark eyes. A three-day