La Fuente De Alegria

light above ship porthole, view of sea
View At Sea

As far as Keisha could tell, she was somewhere north of the Keys. Her inflatable was near enough to land that she could hear the wash of waves over the sandbars. The stench of burning plastics made her grab her breath for a moment. There was a ghost in the night sky, a hulk looming slantwise against the tidal mud and sand of some anonymous islet. Keisha rested, and let the current pull her closer until she could see the name across the stern; “La Fuente De La Alegría.”

The Calleres yacht lying dead, heeled over in the shallows.

She bent to push one-handed at the single oar at the back, and brought herself around to the low side, tied her flabby orange craft to a dangling chain. She rehearsed the movements in her head; get a jump start, grab the chain with her left hand first, keep the momentum going through the pain of her burned right hand and she ought to be able to grab hold of the scupper railing with her left before the pain made her stop. The whole idea was a nightmare, and if she failed in her first attempt, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t try it again.

Her plan worked, though it left her dizzy with the pain. Whining high in her throat, she crouched against the railing, cradling her blistered hand against her chest. The sour smell of quenched burnt wood filled her nostrils, wasted fuel, melted plastics. The tendrils of smoke, seeming solid in the nightmare dark, made her flinch.

Once the vertigo passed, she pushed herself up the deck. The fire had pretty much destroyed the helm, as on her own craft. But the Fuentes’ pilot had been caught in the fire. The sight and smell of burnt flesh made her back out, retching. She felt a scream, a howl, form in her throat, all those unshed tears crowding her eyes. A song formed in her mind, unheard since childhood;

Sometimes I feel … Like a motherless child …

She stepped carefully along the promenade deck, quick in and out along the four luxe cabins mid-deck. The fire left scorch marks looped along the walls in strange arcs. There were splatters of thick dark blood, reeking, lots of things flung around. Keisha scrabbled with her one hand and got a first aid kit out and open, tore open a packet of antiseptic cream with her teeth and slathered the burned hand with it, then clumsily wrapped a roll of gauze around it. Once she could no longer see the ruined flesh she was able to manage the tape to close it down, feeling the sweat prickle over her face and neck with the relief.

Valuables lay scattered in front of open safes. She threw dazzle into sweaters, tied them into clumsy bundles, and tossed it all out the portholes onto the main deck before she stepped into the crazily tilted gangway. Oddly enough, the emergency lights were working. Keisha moved carefully downhill, sliding sideways at the same time, but at least she wasn’t doing it in the dark.

She found the galley, and entered it cautiously. The lash of fire had left its mark down here too, and the doors were singed, or burnt, or twisted off of their hinges. Cans had exploded, splattering the walls and appliances with their contents. The room was humid, redolent with tomato sauce, sending Keisha’s nausea rocketing to the fore once again. She held her breath, and tried to search for undamaged food. A bag of catfood lay open on the galley counter, scattered over a canned ham that was burst open; Keisha brushed away the kibble, dug a chunk out of the meat with the knife from her pocket, and ate it despite the saltiness. She found a loaf of bread, and bottles of water, and took them out into the gangway where the reek was of burnt wood and scorched paint rather than spoiled food.

The yacht settled a bit, with a squeal of keel on sand that made her jump, and the gangway floor tilted and canted. Keisha could rest a hand on the wall that now sloped over her head as she went down. There were splatters of dark stuff sprayed on the gangways. Some of it looked like blood; some of it looked greenish, oily. There was another smell beyond the cooked-meat, burnt-plastic, fuel-spill symphony; a sweetish scent like rusting iron and rotting honey. The smell of fuel and fire got stronger and she turned back before she went all the way down to the engine room. Whatever had happened, it hadn’t left much for the scavengers. The money stuff was all on the upper decks, anyway.

She poked her head into the lounge deck, higher up, darker than the other decks, fewer lights. Stronger stench of rot. Oily smoke stronger up here, even though no air was moving from the vents.

There–noise.

Something breathing.

Quick little rustle of something moving, a clink of chain.

Two huge greenish lamps blinked on in the darkest corner. Huge, slanted, feline reflections stared up at her. From the size, they sat in a head the the size of a leopard, or a cougar.

“Hi Kitty,” Keisha said softly, and the eyes blinked. “I got some ham for you, you hungry, hey kitty kitty kitty?”

Nothing like poking around in the dark, reeking of cooked ham, with a hungry cat chained in the lounge.

The eyes squinted not quite shut, and a tiny little voice spoke to her. A high, soft, frightened voice, pleading.

Mmmmeeew.

Keisha took a step downward, went back for the ham, thought about the cat food, left it in favor of a flashlight from a galley cabinet. She climbed back up again. No way was she leaving a cat chained up in this boat. Might take a fire ax to chop the chain, and how she’d get it off the cat’s neck, she had no idea. Not doing it any favors to chop it free and let it run the woods to strangle itself.

What the flashlight showed her was nothing she’d ever seen before. It wasn’t a cat. It wasn’t a leopard. It looked like a monkey, but it wasn’t any gibbon or howler, or any primate she’d ever seen. It was sprawled on the floor, and the four legs were shaped like human arms and legs. The face was not human. It flashed bright blue eyes, in a big gray-furred skull with stripes and swirls, its chin almost on the carpeting.

It opened its mouth, white fangs flashing, crying in soft little groans.

Keisha flipped the light out of its eyes, splashed the light along the wall. There was a body in there, at the back. It was bloated, pink skin stretched tight and shining. But it wasn’t human either, not with those whitish crablike claws fallen on either side of it, and weird jointed legs sticking out of the belly, dead and reeking. Keisha stumbled away, retching. She got out into the gangway, pointed herself downhill and vomited the ham, the water, the last of yesterday’s rum, until there was nothing left in her but a sense of unreality.

She forced herself up and back to the room, facing the weirdness, of the cat and the… bug.

The cat thing turned its head, hissed at the body with a sound like a waterfall, smacked at one of the remaining human-looking legs.

“You killed it, huh, kitty? Good for you,” Keisha said dazedly.

Another hiss at the dead thing. Then the creature started moving towards Keisha, crawling on long forearms, elbows sticking out, the fur coming up in stiff spiky bunches. The cat thing looked up at her, ears twitching. It raised a paw, which opened up into fingers and an opposing thumb. Pink-skinned palm open, pleading. Her stomach lurched again, but there was nowhere for it to go.

Meeewww.

For a heartbeat, two.

Then the hand went down on the carpet, the head drooped down onto the forearm, and it rested, breathing hard.

“You gonna let me touch you?” Keisha slid the ham over, then cautiously extended her hand towards the creature. It sniffed the ham first, sneezed, and then leaned its head over toward her hand. Pulled itself forward, rested its head heavily on her fingers, sighed.

“Easy there, easy now,” Keisha murmured, and moved her fingers slightly, stroking the fur. It turned its head, bumping her hand. Big round cranium, big as her own. She stroked the cheek, along the ears. She expected the fur to be coarse but it was soft, and the whiskers were a fan of stiff silk. It nudged her hand with a dry, hot nose. “All right, we’re getting you off this boat, we’re getting you some water, don’t you worry.”

A chain close on the neck, yes, too heavy to be just decorative, some kind of fancy combination lock. But any decent pair of pliers would pull those unwelded links apart, thank god. She patted it, tried to trace the chain with the light. It was looped around a fancy chrome bar in the middle of lounge. The thing had crawled as far as it could.

Keisha took a deep breath, dizzy. “All right, you wait, okay? I’ll be back with some water, get you out of that chain, and then we’ll get out of here.”

Let’s see what use a one-handed sailor can be, Keisha told herself. She had to stop and take a breather every gangway, but she tracked down a long screwdriver and a pair of cheap pliers in a galley drawer that she stuffed awkwardly into her big ghetto-pants pockets. Then she carried a plastic bottle of water, leaning on railings as she climbed back up.

“Hey, you still there?”

Cat Thing was resting on its side where she’d left it, a harsh panting sound. It rolled over, blinked at her.

“Okay, you’re gonna have to help me here–” Keisha dared get a little closer, patted the forearm, and it looked at her steadily. “All right, have the water first.” She opened the bottle, and held it out.

It took the bottle from her in one of those hands, and tilted it neatly into its mouth between the fangs. The red tongue curled up inside the open jaws and it drank steadily. It held the empty bottle for a moment while its breath slowed down. Then it twisted the cap on, and dropped the bottle, causing another bout of nausea for Keisha at the sight.

“Okay, maybe you can help me here,” Keisha said. She held up the screwdriver, put it through a link on the chain, braced it with her foot. Then she pulled out the pliers, and tried to bend the link open against the shaft of the screwdriver. Her hand was too wobbly, and the screwdriver skittered out from under her foot.

Cat Thing watched her, eyes wide.

Keisha retrieved the screwdriver, and took Cat Thing’s hand, folded it around the handle, and placed it where she wanted it. She said, “Hold it still right there, okay?” and brought up the pliers to pull against the screwdriver. Cat Thing relaxed its grip, and the link slid off prematurely.

Keisha was about to swear when Cat Thing shoved her aside, lifted the screwdriver, and drove the tip of it upward into the middle of a hurtling dark shape. Then there were snarls, shrill whistling shrieks, raking hands, and one furry foot kicking upward. The shape catapulted overhead, and landed with a squishy melon-crushing noise on the other body.

The gust of rotting honey was intense.

Keisha rolled away, her stomach knotting painfully.

It was awhile before Keisha could pull herself up on her knees again, retrieve the flashlight. More crab parts, falling apart in her light, but not quite as decrepit as the first one. “Where the fuck did that come from–”

Cat Thing gave a squeak of mew, and touched Keisha’s arm, patting at her.

“I’m good, I’m fine–are you okay? You killed that thing with a screwdriver!”

Another mew, more patting touches.

“Are there any more of them on this boat?” Keisha demanded. No answer to that. Cat Thing just blinked up at her.

Keisha jerked up the flashlight at movement. A plume of smoke–dark, stinking, diesel-type smoke–was coming up out of a floor vent in the carpet. Then another. And another.

Cat Thing mewed softly. There was a raking open wound on the thigh that it hadn’t had before.

“Shit,” Keisha said. “Screwdriver.”

Cat Thing had a good firm grip on the screwdriver. It wasn’t letting go of it.

“Good,” Keisha said, approving of this. “You hang onto that. Hang on really good. Now, let’s get this damn thing open.”

Cat Thing tilted its head, let Keisha guide the screwdriver into a link half buried in soft fur. It added a thumb to the rather shaky pressure of Keisha’s hand on the pliers, and the link bent right open. There was a rattle as it fell to the floor.

“Okay, get you up on deck–”

girl in cheetah makeup, photo by Franco Rubartelli
photo by Franco Rubartelli

But Cat Thing was already gone, scrabbling down the gangway on a hand and a leg-and-a-half and holding the screwdriver ready as a weapon.

Another unbelievably shrill steam-blast whistle, a panther-sized howl, thumps, and the windows in the lounge rattled with the force of whatever had hit the deck right above her head.

“Shit,” Keisha said, and stuffed everything into pockets while she ran. She was gasping when she came down on the maindeck.

Cat Thing was sitting sprawled on one hip by Keisha’s supplies, its growl rising and falling like a siren. The mess strewn along the deck showed what it had killed. Another of those nightmares, taller and thinner than the others, with some kind of unfolded, broken superstructure like a crazy gun platform. Thin wisps of acrid yellow smoke came up out of the deck beneath the bug’s body.

“Oh my god, poor kitty–” Keisha said, dropping things clumsily, and getting the water bottle out. “Drink some more. C’mon, please drink some more.” Cat Thing drank, still growling. It tried to get up, fell, tried again, her attention fixed on something on the deck; a dark flat thing near the broken pieces of the bug thing. Keisha scrambled up the slope and saw that it was a laptop, gashed and scarred. She kicked it down towards the Cat Thing, who reached out and skated it neatly into the nearest little pile of salvage. Keisha figured it was worth taking along; could have something important on it.

Getting the loot down quickly was a matter of grabbing down some cabin drapes, knotting the folds together, and tossing it gently into the lifeboat. Longer drapes got wrapped around Cat Thing, and the knot looped with some spare rope, and the entire ungainly burden belayed, one-handed, with loops dangerously secured around her own waist, lowered off one of the davits that had already lowered a life boat. She had to wait for exactly the right moment to release it, as the lifeboat came up in the swell at the right angle.

Then she had to use that overworked hand to belay herself down, falling a good three feet with an awkward thump against the bundle, rolling over onto her shoulders before she could get herself righted and start untying her companion out of the drapes.

Cat Thing didn’t struggle, just lay there in the blood-stained fabric. Good thing it seemed to be docile toward her–one good panicky rake of those hind claws and it could have ripped through the lifeboat’s bottom. Or hers.

“Here, kitty, drink some more. Here’s some ham. We’ll get you some help.” Keisha heard herself talking, continuously, and realized how weird it was. If there were more bugs around, they could just follow the sound of her voice–but she didn’t care.

Cat Thing needed to hear her talking, it reached out and patted her, mewed at her, whenever she fell silent, as if to be sure she was still there.

She started knotting up an oarlock loop that could secure the single oar at the back of the lifeboat, have her push them along like a gondolier or a tiny little Hong Kong ferry. She hadn’t got the good luck of an outboard motor on this. But the dark bulk of the Everglades mainland was gaining color in the false dawn light. Keisha got the line untangled from the ship’s chain, unshipped her one oar, and kicked off with the push of the swell to help her.

She’d waggled the oar back and forth hard and fast enough, for about fifteen minutes, when she felt the rip current grab them and start shifting the boat for her. In another ten minutes they’d tripled the distance from the yacht, heading in toward the first fingers of the mangroves.

Behind them, a plume of dark smoke trailed upward from an open porthole like a flare. Then another one. If it wasn’t burning outright, it sure as hell was smoldering.

“That’s gonna draw– company–” Keisha groaned, pushing on the oarloom again. She had blisters already, on a calloused hand.

Then she just leaned her weight clumsily back and forth, not watching ahead. She stared back.

The yacht swelled upward in an odd slow motion explosion, the fiberglass seams coming apart in soft, muffled crumping noises. The parted seams glared with green-lit flames. The decks collapsed on themselves again, until the upper decks had fallen inward into a broken-backed shell melting onto the beach. Spilled oil and diesel fuel spread out, burning sullenly across the surface of the water. The end of the Fountain Of Joy. She had been Eduardo Calleres’s pride, all lit up on the water at night. That might have been his corpse slumped over the helm, cut halfway in two.

Cat Thing shifted, with a little weeping cry of pain, and lay down in the bottom of the lifeboat. Kiesha began steering, working her way across the rip. Keep both of them alive, and moving.

Sometimes I feel… Like a motherless child… Whispering the song as she rowed.

 

dark turquoise wavelets
In Their Wake

Cat Thing

blue boat with oars
At the Dock

Keisha pulled the orange life raft up onto the beach. The… thing… huddled in it, stirred at the change in movement, head coming up. It had upstanding ears, that flickered and twitched.

They were on muddy embankments surrounded by swamp growth, the plop of falling water, and once in a while the hoot of a crane. Keisha looked for gator tracks, was relieved to find none, and no subtle imperfections in the mirror of the water.

The… thing.. made a small noise. It turned toward her, and the small noise got a little louder, as if a cat had squalled some distance away. Brilliant blue eyes surrounded by white rings and Egyptian lines, opened wide. On the forehead the classic “M” markings of a tabby cat. The snouted mouth opened, displaying a red, ribbed roof, leaf tongue, white canines. Keisha stared, transfixed. Then the thing collapsed, and looking down, Keisha saw the blood welling up from its not-human thigh.

Something had torn it up real bad.

The thing rolled onto its back, displaying a pale spotted belly with two small humanoid breasts. Between the furred thighs, an unmistakably female set of genitalia. The furred labia gaped carmine for a flashing second, before it drew itself up into a ball once more, the eyes closing. There was a tail coming off the base of its spine, and Keisha felt sick cold horror at the burnt, shredded ruin that began about halfway along its length. The tail tucked up against its thighs, and the ruined half dragged behind, smearing a fan of blood on the raft floor.

Okay.

“Hey, mama,” Keisha said, and both of them jumped at the sound of her voice. “Mama, you hurt, can I help?” Hesitant now, despite the way she’d manhandled it before getting off the Fuente, she touched the knee, flattened her palm to stroke dense, silky fur. “What are you?”

She cracked a precious bottle of water to rinse out the torn flesh. She didn’t know what to do about the tail, but the thigh needed help too. Ruby blood soaked into matted grey fur. Like an anatomy illustration, the pained shifting moved the meat in the thigh. White tendons, in the muck. A long, long tear, with a hook at the top, the skin a loose flap, pale and shimmery on the underside. Just like in those stupid movies, torn strips of Keisha’s shirt to try to keep all that meat inside the skin, where it belonged. No sound but for the creature’s bellows-heave of breath. And a silent meow. The thing wasn’t going to get out of the fucking boat, into the mud of the swamp.

Keisha wrapped her burnt hand again, and pulled the life raft back into the water. Upstream? No. Downstream, and along the shoreline. Bound to be a dock somewhere.

She found a little boat that tocked against its mooring post. The outboard wasn’t aboard, which made sense after all. Someone just like her might try to steal it. And a voice came at her from the shore.

“You stop right there.”

Hands up. “Okay mister.” So tired. “Mister, can… You got any water?”

“My heck, what happen to you?” The man was black, small, wrinkled, straw-hatted. He advanced to the water’s edge. “Come on to shore, you all banged up.”

“My boat burned…” Keisha paddled one-handed. The other hand was nothing but screaming pain.

“Yeah? Where was you?” He reached out to pull her in. “What the heck is that?”

“It’s.. I dunno. It’s real bad hurt. I was off Marathon…”

“Can you walk? You wait here, Ma’am, I’m gon’ get Willy.”

Keisha sank back, sun on her face. She felt tears welling up, forced them back. Her hand felt for the Cat Thing, to assure herself of the rapid heave of ribs, under the silk surround her fingers.

“Ma’am?” Her new friend had two other people with him, a woman who looked like him, and a big white guy. “My friend Willy here, he gone get you out the boat. That thing, is it fierce?”

“Not.. I don’t know, it ain’t been yet.” Willy took her under the armpits, got her on her feet. Cat Thing made one of those noises. “It’s okay, mama, these are friends,” Keisha said.

Willy steadied Keisha and she put her feet on solid land, staggered, right into the arms of the lady. “Oh my lands, look at your poor hand! You come on with me, child.”

Behind her, Cat Thing’s noise was getting louder. Willy grunted. “Mama, it’s okay,” Keisha repeated, and got herself turned around. Cat Thing’s ears were flattened right back against its head, mouth kinda open. Willy was staying back. “Shit, I gotta get her,” Keisha said.

“Now child, we don’t use that language.” the lady said reprovingly, and helped her back to the raft. Cat Thing flicked an ear forward, looking wild-eyed at Keisha, before turning attention back to the big man.

“Shh, shh…” Keisha reached a hand forward, careful. “I helped you, remember? Remember me? I ain’t gonna hurt you, remember?” Cat Thing’s whiskers twitched forward, and some of the scared went out of the blue eyes at Keisha’s touch. “Good girl, come on…” Keisha stroked down its arm, Cat Thing moved closer to let her pet its side. “See Willy? Yeah, that’s Willy. He’s gonna pick you up, mama, okay? I’ll be right here, you just remember I helped you, okay?” The lady’s grip on her arm tightened suddenly; Keisha realized she was reeling.

“Willy, hold on a minute,” the lady said. “You take my apron, get it around the poor creature, get its tail cotched up for it.”

Willy advanced. Cat Thing’s ears went back, but it wasn’t making that noise any more. Willy touched the creature’s furry side, right next to Keisha’s hand. He made a noise of his own, pleased surprise. “Come here, missy, ain’t gonna hurt you,” he said softly, like you do with any hurt animal. “Come on, now, come on.”

Slowly, he scooped his big hands around the body and lifted. Cat Thing squalled when the hurt leg moved. Keisha put out her hands to support the leg, slowly moving it until Willy could cradle the creature against his chest. “My lands,” he said in wonder. “Ain’t that something!”

“Thank you,” Keisha kept saying, stumbling along the path, held up by the hands of two little people. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” she said again, sitting in the shed-roofed kitchen, shivering under the blanket the old lady Myrna had draped over her, cradling her freshly-bandaged hand. Willy waited till the brother and sister finished spreading newspaper over the scrubbed table, then laid the creature in his arms gently down on it. Blood stained his shirt; “Poor li’l thing,” he said sorrowfully.

The smaller man leaned near. “That’s just sinful, hurt a critter like this. What we gone do for that tail you think?”

“it gotta come off, seems to me,” Myrna said. She put water in a big pan on the little stove.

“We c’n call on Prosser,” her brother said doubtfully. The suggestion was met with no enthusiasm, and the small man opened a box and selected a knife from it, and a whetstone.

Keisha heaved a breath, and stood up. “This thing is like a cat, sir, and they kinda delicate.”

“Got nine lives, missy, I always heard.”

“No sir, they… you hurt ’em once too much and they’ll just die. Go into shock. I dunno how she made it, really.” Keisha looked down at the form on the table; Cat Thing was watching her, its mouth half open, its speaking ears twitching forward and back. There was no doubt in her mind that the thing relied on her. Myrna grimaced, and went to the telephone; it was incongruously clear plastic, with LEDs highlighting various parts of its insides.

“Mind, this man ain’t much for charitable thoughts,” she warned. ‘He’s what we got around here for a horse doctor an’ such… Prosser, it’s Myrna. We got us a hound here with a dreadful banged up tail, and i see nothin’ to do but take it off. C’n you bring your doctorin’ kit round, quicklike?” She listened for a moment, anxious. “What do you mean, you forwarded your phone? We need–all right. Yes, we can do that. All right.” She hung up. “We got to go over and get the key under his mat and find the lidocaine and call him back. He’ll walk us through. He’s out of town.”

“Just as well,” Willy said. “Prosser ain’t a kindly sort. We take good care of you, sweetie, don’t you worry none.” He petted Cat Thing’s shoulder, gently untangling the rumpled fur. The woman and her brother looked at each other anxiously, and then the man nodded and ran out the kitchen door.

“What’s worrying you?” Keisha asked.

“Oh, Prosser ain’t never done nothin’ for free, not in his whole life,” said Willy.

“I’ll cover it, you just gimme the word,” Keisha said. “I got some–I’d need to go get it. But I’m good for it.”

Myrna nodded, took a deep breath, rested her hand lightly on Keisha’s arm. “We ain’t got much bank money left from the sale when my Dad’s land got auctioned off.”
“Good lord,” Willie said once more, his gentle, thick fingers rubbing behind the satiny ears. Cat Thing’s staring foil blue eyes relaxed a little, and she breathed easier. “That’s something, that is. Never seen nothin’ like it! You say you was offa Marathon?”

“My boat…” Keisha said thickly. “Someone burnt me.. my crew was all shot dead and this fire… And when I got to shore there was another boat, burnin’ too. And she was on it.”

“Never heard the like,” Myrna said.

“Lotta strange things offa Marathon these days,” Willie said, nodding.

upright driftwood, stormy clouds, light sea
Squall Line

Needle and Thread


2 figures at far end of boardwalk
Keep Walking

Myrna puttered, adjusting the gas on the stove, checking the water. She got out a stack of clean towels, a box of powdered laundry soap, brought out a huge bottle of rubbing alcohol from the back of the house, a sewing basket, and a reel of thin clear fishing line. A hank of some strange dark thread, too. She washed her hands with the laundry soap, got out a bowl and put the reel of fishing line in it, and dropped a pair of scissors into the pot of boiling water. After awhile she fished the scissors out, put them steaming in the bowl away from the fishing line, and poured a lot of the alcohol over them. She pulled out a needle and seared the tip in the gas flame under the pot, swished it in the bowl of alcohol, and threaded a length of fishing line through it, with a knot at the end, dropped it in the bowl of alcohol. Then she prepared another needle with the dark thread, and another one. She got out a box of sterile cotton bandaging, and old-fashioned self-stick surgical tape. They’d used up their first box of bandages on Keisha’s hand.

Myrna smiled, pulling out a box of latex gloves. “Get all kinds of cuts and scrapes, jabbed with fish hooks, get your hands spined, when you go fishing to feed y’self all day long. Well, you saw, the laundry powder’s easier than tryin’ to lather with hand soap. That self-dissolving thread, it only holds up a little while in the straight alcohol. We be ready here all the time, except for the numbing. I’m sorry we got nothing for that hand of yours, ‘cept rum or my arthritis pills. Got no idea if we can give those to this critter, either. She’s bein’ so good.” Myrna spoke to her, murmuring nonsense words, petting her too. “We get you all cleaned up and stop it hurting, lil Peach darlin, we get you all fixed up.” Her dark eyes met Keisha’s. “How you holdin’ up there, gal?”

“Maybe some rum later,” Keisha said.

“I put you on the phone with Prosser, he’ll stay more respectful of you, bein’ a stranger an all. Remember we got us a hound dog hurt here.” Myrna started dialing as her brother Minton hurried back inside, slamming the door.

“Yessir, hold on a minute,” Keisha said into the phone. Minton was poised, the syringe ready in his fingers. Keisha put her finger down on Cat Thing’s hip, feeling for the joint, as Prosser told her. Then she ran along the line of the joint, trying to figure out where, exactly, might be halfway between the bone and the tail.

“Sir, I think I might got it, it’s like a dip in the meat there? Yessir, I don’t feel no other low spots like that… yessir, I got it.” She slid her finger onto the mound of muscle towards the spine, and nodded at Minton. Held her breath, feeling the steel slip past her nail, smoothly into Cat Thing’s flesh. Minton depressed the handle, and drew the syringe back out. Finding the same spot on the other side was easier.

“We got about fifteen minutes to wait, now,” Keisha reported. “Yesser, thank you. We’ll check if it’s numbed okay. The tailbones look.. broken up, right there. Like maybe she got shot at? It’s–” she gulped back her nausea, “–it’s all just hanging on by some.. some meat, and skin. We was thinking just cut that part off? Okay. Right.” She turned to the little family, waiting by. “He– he says we gotta make sure the verterbra that’s busted up comes off, or it could just die in there and make it worse. We got about ten minutes, he thinks.”

The clock’s tick was the loudest thing in the room.

Willie pressed on the thigh, down the hindquarters, and there was no twitch of pain that it would have got before. “Think she’s good,” he said.

Myrna’s gloved hand dipped into the rubbing alcohol to get the scissors. Snip. It was done in a second, one smooth movement of the seamstress’s hand. She rinsed the tool off under the tap water–bumped on and off again with her forearm–and put them back into the alcohol, while Minton’s gloved fingers feel their way along the raw tissue. He held up a bit of bone to the scissors, and Myrna snipped, snipped again.

“Yeah,” Minton said. His hands moved. “There, that’s the last bit of it.”

“Now we got to sew– any bleeding veins shut. Arteries.”

“Child, can you find me one of them brown threads?”

Keisha took her time, concentrating on the task, and got a dark-threaded needle out of the alcohol. Myrna’s hands moved in quick, sharp tugs, and then she cut the thread free. Another needle, a shorter series of knotting gestures; “Find me one with line on it now.” She used the fishing line to pull the skin together over everything. Keisha held the box of bandaging open, and Minton swished his gloved fingers in the alcohol just before he picked up the end and lifted it out for Myrna to cut it. Then the tape.

“How you doing, Missie?” Willie had been standing this whole time keeping his fingers moving on Cat Thing’s head. “She’s doing good, really good.”

“That’s done,” Keisha told the phone. “She’s breathing okay. Willie says her pulse is the same. Okay… She’s gonna be getting feeling in there in a while, and she still got that leg. Mister Prosser says one more shot.”

“Myrna, you go take a rest,” Willie said.

Myrna folded up suddenly into a chair, gloved hands dangling, and breathed in deep, hard breaths. “Oh, my.”

Minton stripped off his gloves, washed his hands, dried them, set aside the towel, got out another pair of gloves. “I can’t do as fine a stitch as Myrna,” he confided to Keisha.

“I’m mighty grateful to you folks,” Keisha said earnestly. She began finger-tracing the route over Cat Thing’s thigh to the place to put the shot into.

Myrna primmed her mouth, pulled herself up, swished her gloves in the alcohol, pulled up a dark-threaded needle, and stood ready over the long jagged tear in the front of Cat Thing’s thigh. “Now you ask him what we should get for her for after, to help her sleep without putting her too far down. And antibiotics, too.”

Keisha nodded, and listened through another earful. “Yeah, I heard that about ketamine, yes sir,” she said. Some vet he was, advising a client to track down cheap smuggled Mexican drugs.

But Myrna didn’t even seem surprised, when she was told. “We’ll get some from Missus Angullo, she got a large family, they always getting hurt on the shrimp trawlers. Coming home a mess, goodness knows I helped her sew up a coupla three of her boys in my time.”

“‘Sides, she can always use the money,” Minton said.

Burnt Out

reflected clouds boat on land
Beached

Ain’tcha got a smile, mama?” some guy hollered, but Keisha hadn’t smiled much since the day she woke up hurting in a drifting boat that used to be hers. Smile all burnt out. The twine handles of the shopping bag cut into tender barely healed flesh of her palm, but her left hand needed to be free. Little gun clamped under her arm, knife at her hip. Keisha didn’t feel any safer. Spiders crawled up and down her arms, a snake of fear wrapped around her chest.

A lot of change bought her a little rum in a yellow-lit bottle store. “Can’t drink in here,” the cashier said. Keisha curled her lip, swigged defiantly from the paper bag, twisted the cap back on. The burnt-sugar-sunshine got her a little warmer. Just enough to get her moving again, out onto the Brooklyn street. That boa constrictor squeezed her lungs; some kind of fool, dragging around a bomb in a shopping bag.

“He wasn’t there,” Keisha said, as she unlocked the hotel door. “Gonna try tomorrow, and if I can’t find him, we’ll take off anyways, okay?”

There was no answer, but she wasn’t expecting one anyway. “Where you at, girl?” She advanced slowly into the room. “Peach?” She opened the bathroom door. “What you been doing?” Keisha said in exasperation. “Look, you got yourself bleeding again, I told you to leave them wrappings alone. Come on, get your butt back to bed, and I got you a hamburger.”

A flick of the ears and a slow blink of brilliant blue eyes was the only answer she got. The catlike creature sat on the john as if she planned to stay put, fingering the bandage on her right arm. “Leave it alone, I said.” Keisha advanced slow and gentle. “You finished peeing? Wanna get your legs warm, get them pants back on? Come on Peach, you gotta lie down.” Peach stood too quickly, and her leg buckled. Keisha darted forward to steady her, and helped her hobble into the hotel bedroom.

“Wish I knew what’s your name really,” Keisha mused aloud. The wish went unanswered as usual. The girl stopped tugging away and leaned on Keisha for support instead, and crawled under the covers when they were held up. Keisha rolled her onto her side, to look at the horribly torn thigh. Seemed like it was healing fast, but the girl kept scratching at one area and had reopened it yet again. Okay.

“Peach, listen,” Keisha said, and wondered if her words even got through. “I want to get us a towel, okay? Get it under you, we gonna see what’s bothering you in there. Okay? You stay put like a good girl, while I go get us a towel? Good girl, you stay.” She moved as fast as she could without making a fuss and spooking the damn cat thing once more, and got back in time to gently push her charge back down. She lifted one thigh, and slid the towel between, and heard a murmuring sound, almost inaudible, of complaint.

“Hurts, baby?” Keisha soothed her. “Yeah… gonna find out why, you be brave.” She pulled out her knife, and the bottle of rum, looked at it ruefully, and dripped some over the blade. “Damn. Please don’t bite me, that’s all…” She put her arm down heavy on the girl’s hip, and laid the tip of the knife at the puckered seam’s open edge. Peach stiffened, and twisted half around, but settled when Keisha crowded her down again. Delicately, the knife went on its mission of discovery.

single cat claw pulling green fabric
cat claw

There was a full-throated yowl of protest at the same time Keisha’s knife grated against something hard. Keisha got her open palm up against the girl’s face just in time to turn away that mouth full of sharp teeth. She worked doggedly, ignoring the Peach’s struggles, and breathed a sigh of relief when she’d flicked out the foreign object. A gush of red blood followed; she wrapped the towel around and pressed gently. If there were anything else in there, the girl was sure to let her know, but she seemed to be feeling much less discomfort now, and let her head sag into the pillows while Keisha rewrapped the leg.

Keisha laid her hand on the other’s hip, stroking the sleek browny-black fur. Each hair had its own white tip, like tiny stars. She mourned for the poor mutilated leg, where the fur had shed all around each wound, showing an odd pinky-grey color. Peach yawned, showing her white canines and red palate, curling tongue like a leaf. Keisha fished a wrapped hamburger out of the pocket. “I betcha hungry, huh, mama?”

She watched as the woman disassembled her meal; she salvaged the discarded pickles for herself, sucking on the sourness. Lettuce seemed to be all right, but onions gave Peach the heaves. A hamburger for this creature meant two patties that would disappear instantly, and a bun that would be picked apart and left half-uneaten. She was picking at the seeds in the top of the bun. “Gonna eat that?” Keisha asked her. “You need to eat, mama. Just one bite… okay, another one? I guess you just only like the meat, huh?” and in this way, coaxed the whole of the bread down her charge’s throat. Peach picked every last crumb out of the bedclothes and got herself up. And looked startled when that leg of hers faltered. Keisha got ahold of her arm. She’d given up arguing over the cat-creature’s obsessive hygiene; Peach simply had to wash her face and hands. “Bad as a raccoon,” Keisha told her, helping her back across the floor.

Keisha retrieved the splinter. It looked wierd; she left the bedside to rinse it under the bathroom tap, and found she was holding a something like a thorn, or a claw, about a half-inch long. The thing had a spooky, glassy surface, and was bone white, and was hollow, rather like a shell of some kind. Huh. She pulled the plastic wrapping off of one of the plastic cups on the counter, and dropped the thing into it. Then she dropped that into the shopping bag alongside the half-melted laptop.

Keisha looked at her long skulled self in the mirror. The hair was just growing in. She missed the weight of her dreads, almost sixteen inches, but they had been half burned off in that ambush, so she’d shaved off the rest. Quicker, easier. Her tired eyes stared back at her, white showing all under her brown irises. The skin of her face was darker and greyer every day. Looking like a old bag lady. She turned off the lights and got under the covers along with her companion, who sighed and pushed herself into Keisha’s stomach, grabbing her hand and pulling it forward. Keisha gratefully tucked the warm presence in tighter, curled them up together, and felt the vibration of Peach’s sleepy purr slow and soften. But Keisha couldn’t sleep.

Laying in the dark, watching those flames over her head. Her boat, her crew– gone. Burned to the waterline. Over and over again, Keisha pulled alongside the sloop “Fuentes De Alegria,” caught the rope out of the air to tie off. A good client, always had cash on hand for Havana cigars, Jamaican weed, and the small-still rum. But not this time. Instead, bullets, fire. Bullets. Brubaker’s head, oh god, blowing half away, his body twisting around in a single flashing second, the red blood splashing over the cabin wall. Hank, running up on deck, his mouth an “O” of shock, and then he was over the rail, one shoe laying upside down where he’d just stood. Alicia, her big hands reaching into her armpit for her Luger– never got to draw it.

In the din and smoke Keisha caught barely a glimpse of who was moving on the sloop, but it was enough for her to take aim and get off a shot just before she saw that flash, ringed by the barrel of a gun. Her shoulder felt the kickback. Keisha dropped, got knocked back by something that jolted the entire ship. The memory made her groan aloud, flickering fire running down her boat’s beautiful deck, and the engine and tanks blowing, while she huddled under the cabin superstructure. The wooden staybeam came crashing down, flames right in her face; she beat the thing away with one hand, weeping with fear and pain.

b/w sunken dinghy with oars
sunken boat

Keisha flexed her burnt hand gently. The healing skin was strong enough now, but she couldn’t make herself believe it. It took an effort of will to hold anything in that hand. Like an oar that just got redder and more slippery while she worked her way against the wind towards an invisible shoreline, in an orange lifeboat that hadn’t completely inflated. She whimpered, and pressed her face into fragrant deep fur. Peach rumbled a surprised little spurt of purring, and subsided again.

Keisha stared into the dark, that boa constrictor heavy on her chest.

The Rescuin’ Sort

The engine died at almost one hundred miles an hour. Peach sat up, ears flattened, and Keisha was suddenly fighting an unresponsive steering and bad brakes.

“Shit, shit, shit shit shit…” her stomach heaved, throwing bile into her mouth. She wrestled the Mustang into the roadside rest stop, hand hovering over the emergency brake. There was a grassy uphill slope, and the curb, as far as she could see in her headlights, was low and broken and wouldn’t– she hoped– stop them dead. She hit the curb at easily thirty miles per, with a bang and a bounce, and Peach growled, but the car did slow down almost immediately– Keisha could hear the wet squelch of mud under the tires– and continued to slow until she pulled the emergency brake and juddered to a stop. Then she sat still, watching her hands shake. “Fuck.” Heat in her eyes. “Baby, you okay?” Peach was just fine, tilting her head questioningly. She pulled free from the seatbelt and climbed over the gearshift into Keisha’s lap, who received the weight and warmth gratefully, burying her nose into the soft fur. “God, pussycat. Don’t matter to you, we almost… oh, baby.”

After a while her breathing slowed down. She opened her door, letting the night smells come swirling in, and Peach went swirling out. Keisha followed. She squatted to peer under the chassis at the ruin of the drive train and groaned. Boa constrictor, her old friend, came wrapping around her again.

Peach was poking around in the grass looking at bits of mylar wrapping fallen from the picnic tables, her fur catching stray light in soft gleams. Keisha scanned the surroundings, wondering just how they could hide in the scrubby open land beyond. The sound of an engine made her heart jump; as the car sped past on the freeway outside the stop, she felt a combination of relief that they were still unseen, and panic that they would remain here until the blue car found them. The thought made her dive over the passenger’s seat and retrieve the Luger. She struggled out of her windbreaker and put the shoulder holster on properly this time. With its bulk against her arm, she felt marginally better.

The big sound of diesel engine filled the air. The truck hissed to a stop at the other end of the parking lot, just as Peach went racing across the grass and right through its lights. Keisha swore; the driver had to have seen that. While she stood there like an idiot, the cab door opened, and someone jumped out.

“Hello?” someone called. “Y’all okay?” Boots rang across the asphalt. “Damn, look like you got yourself in a jam. Hello?”

Keisha backed away into the meager shadow of a skinny tree while someone climbed the hill.

“Oh man, that is messed up,” the voice said to itself. “Y’all? Anyone hurt?”

He got his answer; Peach had finished her circuit of the fields and had loped up to the car, only to be surprised by the stranger. Her low rumble was one Keisha had never heard from her; the trucker whipped his head around, and Peach’s growl increased in volume. “Oh, shit,” he said.

Keisha ran forward. “Peach, c’mere!” she called, with little hope of success.

The driver was stepping backward down the hill, his head turned sharply to the side. “Easy, little missy, easy now. I’m moving away, now, see?” His voice was remarkably calm, and Peach was not following him, Keisha noted. Keisha came up wide, letting Peach see her before she got into the cat’s range.

“You want to be careful, mister.” She sidled closer to the cat, who was still facing the stranger with her ears flattened and a quiet rolling growl coming from her that went on and on. Keisha wondered if she could touch the woman safely herself. “Peach? Mama? come on, now. That’s my girl.” Peach gave her a glancing look from the corner of one eye, and her rumble began to abate. With profound relief, Keisha slid her hand over the tense shoulders.

“I’ll be damned, a bagheera! What y’all doing out this long east-aways?” The trucker grinned, his smile a crescent in a dark face.

“What you saying?” Keisha demanded. “You seen anything like her before?”

“Seen ’em? M’am, I got a set of little six-year-old cousins look just like your friend there.”

“Cousins, you shittin’ me,” Keisha said. Peach made a quick ducking motion, rubbing her head along Keisha’s collarbone, and stopped making that noise.

“I swear it. Cute as buttons. Sure do tear through the meat, though. She hungry?”

“Dunno. We ate a while ago, though, hamburgers.”

“Oh, m’am, that ain’t gonna be enough at all,” the trucker said earnestly. “Our three eat venison, mutton, catfish. Gotta have that gamey taste, and y’ought to see em fight over the bones, it’s a treat.”

Keisha felt a sudden pang; was she starving her friend, inadvertently? “Maybe,” she said cautiously. “I don’t know so much about her, truth to tell. We only met a couple weeks ago.”

“Look, I need to catch some breakfast, there’s a decent joint just down the road, and looks like your car needs some serious help there.”

“Mister, the car ain’t gonna ever get help,” Keisha said harshly.

“Then maybe y’all need a ride away, huh?” The trucker went on talking, using that same gentle voice; “I ain’t looking for nothing special from you or yours, lady, but I got the helping hand, if’n you can use it. You look like the rescuin’ sort, too, you know what I’m saying.” He jingled his keys.

“Against company rules, of course,” Keisha said, nodding at the big battered old Kenilworth radiator behind him.

“Oh no, not this company, thank God,” he chuckled. “You be surprised, gal, it’s prolly against the company rules if I leave you and your friend without making sure you know where to get some help for her. I think I am gonna have to tell you about this company a little more. Over a nice big plate of breakfast steak, how’s that sound?”

Peach tucked herself under Keisha’s arm and rubbed her face into Keisha’s shirt, hugging her.

“You hungry, baby?” Keisha asked. Peach made a rough growly purry noise in her throat, and Keisha stroked along her ears and back of the neck. They couldn’t stay out here in the open, more traffic would be coming any time now as the daylight grew. Keisha holstered the gun again. “I’m Keisha, and this is Peach, and I am glad to meet you, Mister.”

He gripped her hand gently in his big rough mechanic’s paw. “I’m Dan. Ain’t got time on this run to stop and try to check your car there for you, but if you don’t mind leaving it here for a bit, we’ll get everybody fed. I can call and get it sorted on with the boss and his insurance to let me haul you as far as Baton Rouge. You just don’t worry, it’s on my tab. My boss’d kill me if I didn’t let him help out a sweet lil kitty gal like Peach. I swear–”

“My auntie lives in Louisiana, that’s where we was going.”

“Now what do you know? ” Dan said, unlocking the truck’s passenger door. “She gonna have any trouble climbing– well, I guess not. You get your gear, Ma’am, and we’ll be on our way.”

Big Truck, photo by Laurent Nivalle

Keisha dragged her backpack and the shopping bag up into the sleeper, where Peach had already gotten herself settled, making that purring noise, with her hands kneading happily on the end of the mattress.

“You look like you know your way around this old pit in here,” Dan said while she strapped in. “You ever drive one of these rigs?”

“Not so much. But my boat had an old Mercedes diesel engine. Eight gears… Can’t be too much difference.”

“Nope, not so much,” Dan agreed. “Now, this pit stop, the restaurant is run by someone you can trust, you know what I mean, and your gal can walk in there safe.”

“Huh! Peach, you hear that? wanna sit in a restaurant, baby? I don’t know how she’ll do, mister,” Keisha continued. “We ain’t ever tried, I’ve gone out and brought stuff back for her.”

“Well,” the trucker said comfortably, “Let’s find out.”

“How do your cousins handle it?” Keisha asked.

“Oh, if they know food’s involved, they’ll sit still for purt’ near everything. Which is kind of a handy thing, when they’re six.”

“Peach don’t talk much, I’m never sure if she understands.”

“Sounds like she grew up without people talkin’ to her much. She may come out of it a little bit if you work with her. We see it down there, people come up to us out of the woods, poor lost things run away from all kindsa bad business, we surely do. Folks like Peach, she can smell them kitty cousins on me, ya know. Same as a strange dog knows whether you keep critters or not. Smell horses on your jeans when you work in the stables, that kinda thing.”

Keisha looked upward. Peach was gazing forward out the upper window, hands gripping tight into the ragged cushions. A rough noise emanated from down in her throat, like a kitten that’s halfway forgot how to purr. “How you doin’up there?” Keisha asked.

Peach made that rough noise in her throat, and let her eyes smile.

Dan braked gently, like a kiss, and spun the wheel into a turn, and they jolted upward into a parking lot. “How you doin’?”

“We’re good,” Keisha told him. “We’re doing good.”

“Okay, hang on, we’re stopping. Gotta watch that second trailer, running empty like that.”

Keisha opened the door. Peach weaved her head, sniffing the air, but she just sat up there, as if she knew she’d have to wait for her food.

“Hey, baby, you get to come too, this time.” Peach looked down at her, blinking those foil-blue eyes. Keisha beckoned. “Come on down, mama.”

One foot groped out, gingerly. Just like a cat, get themselves up there, and can’t quite work out how to back down the tree again. She twitched at Keisha’s touch, but allowed herself to be picked up off the rungs and put on the ground.

“Okay?” Keisha asked.

“Looks like she’s healing up real well,” Dan commented. “Bug wound, looks like.”

“What kind of thing do you mean, bug wound? What kinda bug leaves a hollow claw in a person’s leg?”

“The kind what used to be people themselves, before some godawful military black market goddamn lab got hold of them, stuck ’em full of command modules make ’em do things they can’t disobey from doing, and insect arms and extra cyborg-type crap that’ll make you sick if you see it by daylight. I swear to God, I am not making any of this up, I wish to God I was.” He nodded, dreadlocks bouncing. “Yeah, they got bad infestations of them things back home in the bayou, fightin’ ’em all the time.”

He led them in through the kitchen door around back. It was funny, watching the girl investigate this new place. Her ears were incredibly expressive, swiveling forward, then flattening against her head, then one cocked up a little. They slid into a booth in an otherwise empty room that was probably used for local meetings most of the time. “Pierre says we only got it for like forty-five minutes before the Kiwanis show up to drink their lunch,” Dan said, amused, “but that’s plenty, by my watch. And them steaks is coming in no time. They do good fries and steaks here, they keep that grill hot. I bet she’d love some pan-fry trout, too.” He held up both hands. “Don’t you worry, bossman will cover me on this.”

Peach’s nose twitched madly, seconds before the owner set their plates in front of them. “Ma’am, I got me out some of that deer meat for the little lady,” the cook said in a high, breathless voice that sat at odds with his burly chest. “It’s been froze, but I know them morphs like it,” and it seemed he was right; Peach growled and lunged out of her seat to reach the plate.

“Hey!” the man yelped, and whipped his hands away with a laugh. Peach pulled back, ears flattened– but Pierre pushed the plate closer to her, and the ears twitched forward, her eyes intent on her prize.

“Get it, mama!” Keisha urged her. There was a soft sensation, something in her relaxing, watching her cat girl tear apart what looked like a half of a leg, holding the bone end in her hands and those white canines flashing.

Dan however, had a sad expression. “Man, that’s fucked up. No one taught her to eat.”

“What do you mean?” Keisha demanded. “She’s eating, ain’t she?”

“Yeah, but I can tell she never got to have big pieces like this all for herself,” Dan said. “They kept her hungry all the time, stunted her. She never got to gnaw on bones. They need them bones. She oughta be bigger, ya know? She’s trying to bite with her back teeth, ‘stead of lettin’ those big ol’ fangs do the work. Well… Prolly won’t take her so long to get the hang of it. We gotta get y’all home quick.” He picked up his knife and fork and attacked the T-bone in front of him. “You get eatin’ too, ma’am,” he nodded to Keisha. “You know how, don’t ya?” Handsome guy with white teeth, his eyes crinkling at the corners. Keisha smiled back at him over her cup of coffee. “Gotta be done with yours by the time she wants to gnaw on your bone too!”

Peach had that white venison legbone before her completely denuded already.  With a happy little growl, she accepted the bone from Dan’s steak. But she was clearly sated, licking at it rather than trying to devour it. She drank all three glasses of water that stood on the table, and yawned.

“Somethin’ nice about feeding folks who appreciate it, ain’t there?” Dan stretched.

Keisha considered the thought. This taking care of someone– a new thing for her, and the thought that she’d been underfeeding the creature in her care was daunting. “He said deer meat, do you think he could sell us some to take with us? I got some money, I could buy one of those coolers in the corner for it.”

“Sure, we can ask,” Dan replied. “That’s a fine idea.”

Keisha oofed as Peach butted her head into Keisha’s side. “Looks like I need to get her into the ladies’ room and up into the cab before she falls asleep right on the table,” she said.

“Good idea,” Dan nodded. “I’ll call my boss, and ask Pierre ’bout the meat, while y’all in there. Then I let you back into the cab, and we’ll be gone before we upset any Kiwanis.”

“I can pay for it, mister,” Keisha repeated.

“I hear ya,” Dan assured her. “But you let me dicker huh? Get you the best price an’ all.”

He was lugging a cooler to the truck when they came around from the back. “You got thirty bucks?” he called out.

“That all? I thought fifty, sixty, ” Keisha said suspiciously.

“Oh, that’s just your share,” Dan said, grinning at her. “You smell my barbecue sauce, you gonna want a piece of that too. Besides, ol’ Pierre owes bossman, so you get the family discount.” Dan stood up and put his hands on his hips, comically. “Just accept it, Miss Thing, and don’t you be sassing! What would I do if your auntie finds out I didn’t make sure y’all get fed right? Huh? They all know each other down there, ya know. Ain’t no excuses, one gramma talk to another in church, they won’t be havin’ with that kinda stuff, no sirree.”

“Yessir,” Keisha said, grinning back at him. He handed the cooler up, and it was heavier than it looked when he carried it.

“Say, you really don’t care about that car?”

“I stole it, really,” Keisha admitted. “Naw, I don’t care.”

“And the guys who did that to your friend wouldn’t mind getting another whack at her? Or you?” They were pulling back into the rest stop, the Mustang barely visible in the streaky light.

“Oh, shit,” Keisha breathed. “If they find it, they gonna know we was coming this way, huh.”

“That’s what I was wondering,” Dan agreed. “Let’s make it a little bit harder for ’em, huh?” He jumped down from the cab. “You got everything you want outta there, right?”

“Yeah, we sure do,” Keisha followed him has he opened a side compartment. She took the long metal tube he handed her, and watched him assemble a standing structure.

“Oh, shit,” she said, in a mixture of dread and giddy glee. “I don’t believe it!”

Dan took the barrel and fitted it into the stand; “Shame to kill off an old ‘Stang, though,” he said sorrowfully. “Don’t be stealing classics no more, huh? Not ‘less you gonna take care of em. Well, last rites. Here, shove this latch.”

The contraption poured white fire over the stranded car with a crackle and scream of outraged metal. Keisha began laughing helplessly, adrenaline surging through her arms and legs. She and Dan had the flamethrower disassembled and back in its place before the conflagration had really taken hold, they’d swung back into the truck and were on their way. There was an orange glow streaming from behind them, and chaos in Keisha’s head. She felt the thump of Peach’s weight landing in her lap and clung tight to the cat, shivering with laughter, until Peach squeaked in protest.

Peach’s hands dabbed at Kesha’s arms and shoulders, distressed, and then Peach leaned in and licked her cheek, pulling back when it tickled enough to make Kesha shiver. Peach looked up at her, spooked, worried, and Kesha couldn’t help but smile at her. Solemnly, Kesha leaned in and licked back, licked the side of Peach’s face and up onto her ear. She felt the heave of breath as Peach sighed, and sniffed at Kesha’s face, and then shifted in her lap.

Kesha petted the back of her neck, while Peach butted her head into Kesha’s shoulder and then curled up in her lap, leaning against her. Peach closed her eyes and purred in little rough interrupted bits, startling awake now and again, and dozing off. “Guess her tummy is so full she can’t stay awake now,” Kesha said softly as Dan looked over at them.

“You gonna be okay,” Dan promised. “You and your lady, y’all on your way home. Me an’ my boys, we been on that long road…” Dan trailed off, humming deep in his chest as the Kenilworth pulled onto the freeway.