((Setting the scene for my Senior Thesis, to begin writing this semester; also a part of my attempt to write a complete short story or scene or drabble for every day of 2011. Your comments and critiques are appreciated. My degree is in your hands.))

“Mr. Morse? Your prescription is ready.”

Freya nearly cracked a smile as the dour man stood to his feet and made his way toward the counter. However, as he was frowning spectacularly, she figured it might see it as a touch rude if she grinned at him like an idiot. She settled for a neutral stare as she nudged the orange pill bottles toward the edge of the counter, and he mumbled graciously as he plucked them up and nodded to her.

Always such a serious man. Many of the men who came to this clinic were, in fact, quite serious, but the fact that she caught a glimpse into his wooden shopping basket and immediately saw the chocolate in every shape and size within she couldn’t help but assume there was more than met the eye. Freya shook her head with a soft chuckle and leaned back against the counter as she cast a glance toward the clock.

It seemed Mr. Morse would be the last customer of the day. Freya reached behind her head on instinct and made sure her braids were still in place in her bun before clearing her throat and bustling toward the back closet.

Strange, really. She had no idea that little towns like this still existed in the United States. In fact, everything felt like it was around one hundred years or so behind its time. St. Luke’s Clinic was made entirely out of wood, as if it was a general store in an Old Western town, and divided into three separate rooms: the waiting area, the doctor’s room, and the bathroom. The little desk she stood behind had a wall built around it after a time and, really, it suited her fine this way. It gave her plenty of visibility into the waiting area.

She looked around inside the closet, built into the wall as well shortly before she arrived, until she uttered a soft “Ah-HA!” With a broom snagged off of the wall, Freya wasted no time in making her way into the waiting area instead.

“Good God, Miss Lyfield, what are you still doing here?” She emerged out of the closet to find the elderly Dr. Hammond straightening up a few chairs. “You should be home, enjoying the warmth of a fire!”

“Dr. Hammond, if you have to stay here and clean up, then I’m going to help you.” Freya smiled brightly at the man as he adjusted his glasses and huffed out a little sigh. The man must be nearing eighty now. Why he insisted on continuing to take care of the townspeople when he didn’t have time to look after himself, she didn’t know. “It’ll cut things down to half the time, and-”

He held up a hand, stalling her protest, and plucked the broom out of her hands with a smile. “I’m old, not dead. Can take care of this myself, thank you.”

“Dr. Hammond-”

“Go home,” he said, quirking a bushy eyebrow with a mischievous old smile. “Or you’re fired.”

Freya was on the doorstep of the clinic around thirty seconds later.

She shivered, looking around at the salted sidewalks with caution before she descended the steps and tucked her scarf a little closer to her. No place should be this cold, she mused. Ever. Even as she tucked her hands into her armpits, she still felt her teeth chattering. Obviously her first paycheck was going to have to go toward paying for a new coat. This jacket wasn’t cutting it.

She tucked her hoodie over her head as well and studied the buildings around her as she walked. Each were made of wood, one right after the other, and she couldn’t imagine that they’d be very warm. She was bundled up under about five quilts every night herself, if only because she was too scared to leave her fireplace burning like she suspected everyone else did to avoid freezing to death. But with so much wood? Seriously? Not worth the risk.

One house…two house…It was a long procedure, but she was careful to count each house that she passed. Now that they all looked so similar, covered like a gingerbread house post icing, she couldn’t risk getting lost and wandering around the town for a few hours, especially in this jacket. If her bearings were correct, she had another six houses to go, a turn down the next side street, and three more after that before she had to cross the street and then end up basically in her house’s lap. She ducked her head against the cold and pushed.

Still strange being here, what with Peter being over one hundred miles away now and being without a car. There was no place to park it on the streets and the locals assured her she wouldn’t need it, what with everything being within an easy walk of her house. If all else failed, they had a bus station that she could grab a ride on back home. But so far? So far she’d been pretty set. No panic attacks, no illnesses, none of that. If anything, Dr. Hammond really seemed to enjoy having her around to help him. His wife, too, now that he didn’t have to do everything himself. ”Less chance of a heart attack, I say,” Mrs. Hammond had chirped when she delivered a basket of cookies three weeks ago.

So the weather might be trying to murder her. So she was one hundred miles away from anything she’d ever known and was absolutely alone. So what? How else was she going to make a life for herself?

When she ducked down the side street, she squeaked and stepped over a pool of ice. Apparently whoever scattered the salt decided only to do it around the main roads? Freya shook her head and very nearly stepped on a hand. “Christ!” She stumbled backward and caught herself on a rickety trashcan, staring in horror at the pale body on the ground. “Oh my God! Are you okay?”

There wasn’t any blood that she could see, not on the person’s back or on their clothes, though she couldn’t tell at all if it was a man or a woman. Long black hair, but broad shoulders and narrow hips. Freya gulped and steadily stepped toward them, trembling so much that she thought she might fall over at any second. When she knelt beside them, however, she saw them take a deep breath and speak. “Help.”

A distinctively masculine voice. Freya reached out tentatively and touched his shoulder, bare as it was. God, why was this man out here in just a tank top and jeans? Didn’t he know how cold it was?! She looked around frantically, searching for a window he might have fallen out of or something, but when she looked down at him her heart froze in her chest.

He was staring at her now, deep and vacant blue eyes flicking over her face in some sort of bizarre dance, but his face – God, his face! – was so coated with blood she didn’t know whether to scream or to cry. “God, what happened?!”

He rolled onto his side, wincing as he did so, and stared at her so intently that she knew he had to be conscious beneath that, no concussion. “Are you…” He reached toward her, and she recoiled with a gasp when she saw the way his nails were lined with blood. “…are you real?”

He collapsed into her lap as soon as he whispered his words, his fingertips trailing down her cheek, and Freya jolted away from him and scrambled back until she hit a wall and curled into an immediate ball. It was a childish reaction, perhaps, but she buried her face in her knees and trembled, little murmuring sounds dragged out of her without her willing them.

When she dragged her eyes toward him again, she realized just how emaciated he was. His eyes looked almost sunken into his head and his arms were so slender that she thought they might break if they tried to support him. She drew in a shaky breath before she whispered her next words, tears pouring down her cheeks. “I’ve g-got to get you to the clinic.”

“No.” His voice was surprisingly strong for a man collapsed on the ground, and he rolled his head to look at hers grotesquely. “No clinic.”

“I can’t take care of you. Dr. Hammond can.” Freya forced herself to her feet and stumbled over toward the man, nearly slipping on the ice in the process. “We have to go. Can you stand?” She touched his arm and did shriek this time when he lashed out to grab her wrist and yank her toward him. “Please, let me go!”

“No clinic,” he hissed, glaring at her.

“Help, somebody help me!” And the other hand flew up and covered her mouth, leaving her with the copper scent of blood around her nose as she struggled against him just before he gave up the ghost and collapsed on the icy road again.

Freya shuddered uncontrollably, staring down at the man, before she tucked an arm under his back and lifted him to a sitting position. He was frighteningly light to heave to his feet, even as she stumbled when she wrapped an arm around his waist. But she didn’t go to the clinic. Her house was closer, and she could seek Dr. Hammond from there. Freya hobbled away, panting and weeping all at the same time and praying to God that this man wouldn’t die in her arms.