Helping Keisha’s Crew

It ought to be Dance’s twin curled up in the clinic bed. But this man isn’t identical. Dance says he calls Seung Older Brother in Korean, and it fits. Seung looks older, more weather-beaten, heavier through the shoulders and torso, his hands are scarred up from fights, and his eyes are deadly quiet. He makes Dance look like he’s all bubbles and froth and witty jokes and queer as hell. That’s freaky. Dance hasn’t changed a bit.

Seung just doesn’t talk, not in any language. In the hours since he was brought in here, Dance practically had to pull teeth to get him to admit he needed more painkillers for his back.

So it’d been a shock to see Seung’s face open up like that, to see him hugging the poor skinny gray tabby bagheera girl so close. There– there’s Dance’s twin. Emma feels the all-too-familiar twist of blind anger at the bug labs, the rotten war machine that sacrificed this beautiful creature to the filthy alleys of Earth.

“Smelling the girl stomach is empty,” Seung says, working at it slowly. “Not eat, sick, fall over, yes?”

“Yeah, that wouldn’t help one bit,” Doctor Alexander says briskly. He smiles at Peach. “When did you ladies eat last?”

Peach’s ears go flat against her skull.

“Easy now,” Doctor Alexander says, and takes a step closer to Peach, who growls.

“She wants to rip your guts out,” Emma warns, from across the room.

“Well, of course. You know how bagheeras get twitchy when their people are hurt, just part of the business,” Doctor Alexander says, as if he’s been doing it for years. He looks at Peach, waiting for an answer.

Peach bares her teeth, and nobody takes the slightest notice of it. Seung just clicks his tongue, and Peach looks at him, clearly anxious. Seung strokes the ears back upright, as if he knows exactly how to get her to calm down again.

“How many days since you ate?” Doctor Alexander repeats. He’s far more patient with her than any other adult so far.

Peach just shakes her head. She’s struggling for words, the mute look on her face is just like one of the tiny kids at the library.

“One day?” Seung murmurs into her fur. “Two?  Many? How many?”

Peach shakes her head. Holds up three fingers, puts up a fourth, frowns, puts it down again.

“Okay, you want a bag of glucose?” Emma asks Doctor Alexander.

“Yes,” he grunted. “Peach will need some protein, too.   They run off calories so fast.”

Emma nods, hands him another of the floppy plastic bags of fluid, and walks away. “I’ll bring over some of Dance’s food from the house later.”

“Emma,” Seung says.

She turns, enquiringly.

“Good.”

“You’re welcome,” Emma says, surprised and pleased.

She finds herself smiling again at home in the kitchen as she puts together a baggie of sandwiches and another of plain, cooked bluegill fillet.

She glances into the bedroom, finds Drin is still conked out in bed, exhausted. He sat up most of the night going over every inch of Dance’s parasail skin, obsessively working out every last bubble of extra pooled blood that might leave bruises and damage, muttering to himself sometimes and adjusting the lamp. Dance was asleep under his hands before he got halfway done. When Drin did finally curl up next to Dance, he kept one arm around him possessively. As the Intarwebs might put it, pwned, and who pwns who there? Emma asked herself, wryly. Neither of them had stirred when she pulled a sheet over them both.

Now she adjusts the floor fan to make Drin more comfortable in the warm room, and he gives a little sigh and goes back to sleep.

Then she rummages for paper plates and plastic utensils, and she thinks about where to find mules or flipflops that might fit Peach’s feet comfortably enough. She’s got frequent lectures on it from Doctor Alexander while they’re waiting for things to cook or things to cool or things to arrive, like the other volunteers at the clinic. Alexander insists that cheap flipflops have kept more people worldwide from getting nasty parasites endemic in the mud than anything else they know. He hands them out from a huge box to the children. She’s ordered some more adult-sized ones.

Back at the clinic, she finds none of the ones in the box are Peach’s size. She makes a note on her shopping list, and goes in the back room to ask what else the clinic might need from town. Clothes for the new Trio, certainly.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Emma says, putting things down on a counter and turning, speaking to them. She smiles at the dark woman on the gurney next to Seung. The woman is not quite sitting, propped up on pillows, with the IV taped on her wrist. Peach is leaning into her on the other side from Seung.

“You hold a minute,” the woman growls at Seung. Her face looks so strange and harsh that Emma takes a couple of steps toward her. From the new angle, Emma sees now that woman’s other hand is busy. She’s got a pair of scissors in her fist, and she’s digging the points into Seung’s throat. He’s got his hands down, not stopping her. Just looking at the woman.

Emma stops short. “Alex,” she whispers.

“Ahh,” Alexander says, from the door, and he stands still. “Dance went to get some–”

Peach gives a soft little cry of distress.

“Quiet,” the dark woman says, and Peach is silent. “I want my boy to tell me.”

Seung looks at the woman. Then he says, “I was slow. Bugs fast.”

“Yeah, I know. But you knew those guys.”

Seung looks aside, lowers his eyes, turns his chin up. It’s remarkably doglike.

“Don’t you be belly-uppin’ on me,” the woman growls at him, eyes narrowed.

Seung swallows hard enough to make the scissors move. “Mike surprise me. Not good, I was slow.”

The woman glares. “No shit. So you saw those guys on the road, and–”

“For Peach,” Seung says. “They put you off locked up safe, I get you out later. I hope.”

“Keisha?” It’s the tiniest whimper.

“Hush Peach.”

“First thing is keep you alive, Keisha. Most important. I fight, you be killed, I know this, know.”

“They ain’t after me, they came after you.” Keisha says.

“They don’t kill me. They kill you.” Seung’s eyes go pale.

Emma knows that look, those pale eyes, and she draws in a shallow breath.

“Don’t you say nuthin’,” Keisha growls, one quick glance up at Emma and down again to Seung, just that fast.

Emma knows it was plenty of time for Seung to reach up and disarm her. Keisha probably knows it too. But she’s staring into Seung’s face, leaning close, jaw muscles bulged out.

Seung puts up his hand and rests it on Keisha’s hip, and she growls, and he takes it off again. He lifts it toward her arm instead, and she jerks in place, growling. “Talk to me,” Keisha says.

Seung takes several deep breaths. “Okay,” he says, gulping. He lifts his hand again, frustrated, and puts it down on the pillow next to him instead. “Okay.”

“Tell me how you know those guys.”

“Boss buy them.  Bugs. We get on ship, come here, boss say get cargo, tell me go get Peach and get laptop on the other ship. Not telling why.”

“Sonuvabitch,” Keisha says, and draws in several hard breaths, nostrils snorting wide. Then she turns the scissors away from his throat, and down onto his forearm instead, pressing in a dent. “Doesn’t that even hurt?”

He waves it off with his other hand, which is still bandaged from the claw-marks Dance reports came from an initial tangle with Peach. “Not big hurt. Back is big hurt.”

Keisha looks at him, and nods, and throws the scissors down on the floor, and covers her eyes with her knuckles.

“Boss lady,” Seung says.

Keisha sits up, and gives a yelp of pain. “Damn, my back too. Okay, you tell me where your damn boss found those damn bug things, I swear I’ll kick me some bug ass–”

“Would you like some help?” Emma says, amused. God, she is a fighter!

Keisha glares up at her. “Yeah?” Her tone says, plain as words, What the fuck would you know about bugs? and Emma is surprised at the sting.

Doctor Alexander grunts, carrying in folders, and shoves them into a filing cabinet. “You want to learn how to stop bugs, ask Emma. She goes with her guys on bug raids, they’re the local snipers we call for help. She’s given me a dozen of her kills as bug cadavers to dissect. Stinking worst dissection jobs I ever dealt with, too.”

Keisha narrows her eyes. “What do you shoot those fuckers with?”

“Stuff that leaves a big fucking hole,” Alexander growls, glaring at Emma.

Emma shrugs. “I’m backup with one of our smaller shotguns, for closeup stuff like head shots. Don’t bother with gut shots, it won’t stop ’em. We’re overloading with lots of duck or goose shot pellets. When we’re down to scratch and I’m borrowing a machine pistol from Michel’s crew, those guys use crazy crap like flare guns and stuff, I never know what the hell they’ve got in there. I think a .32 round is about as small as you want to use. Armor-piercing shells make me feel better, but not if you’re trying to hold bugs off somebody’s house. Go right through six walls and somebody’s kid.”

Keisha grunts. “So you musta grew up shooting?  Fox hunts, that kinda crap?”

Emma gives a grim smile. “Not exactly. Dingos and kangaroos and saltwater crocs and rabbits. Lots of rabbits, even the ones getting mangled by myxo disease. Oh, and cane toads. God, I hate cane toads.”

Seung growls. “Toads blow,” he says, when Keisha looks at him.

Emma smiles. “Yeah. So do saltwater crocs.”

Keisha narrows her eyes again. “So you’re Dance’s bitch?”

Emma lifts her hand with a little flourish, bowing. “And Drin’s. No, they never put the toilet seat down. But I forgive that one, because Dance is such a damn fine cook.”

“I cook too,” Seung says, looking at Keisha, and stroking Peach’s ears.

Keisha looks at him. “That’s good, my man, because you’re my bitch.”

“Okay,” Seung says. He knows perfectly well what the slang means. “Pussy-whip me.”

Keisha growls at him.

He just smiles. It is a very wicked, merry smile, and eerily familiar. “Dance tells.”

Keisha glares up at Emma, and Emma just holds up both hands open and flat, chuckling. “You’d have to ask Dance about that one.”

“I do, I ask him,” Seung says. “Younger Brother say to me, oh yes, Keisha say jump, I am asking how high. Want so bad, beg and beg. Screwed six ways from Sunday, no need on wearing stupid dog leash.”

“He said that?” Emma says.

Seung says, “Oh yes.”

“Oh Christ, that probably sounded worse in Korean than it does in English,” Emma says, chewing on her lower lip.

“Yes,” Seung says. “Lots and lots rude. Like man schoolteacher in girl panties, not even sorry.”

Keisha’s eyebrows are a sight to behold.

“No lie, true,” Seung says. He holds up his hand, palm flat. “Worse than wearing dog leash.”

Emma opens her mouth, sees Keisha’s skeptical eye, and shuts her mouth again.

“Okay, my man, that’s enough TMI for today. Peach, give that boy a smack, I gotta wait till my hands aren’t sore.”

Peach reaches over, frowning in concentration, and delivers a open-handed swat that leaves scratch marks on Seung’s shoulder. He flinches, making a face, as if movement in the wound in his back is what hurt him. Peach gives him a worried look, patting him lightly on the forearm, until his face calms down again.

“Okay,” Keisha says firmly.

Peach looks between them, and says, “Okay now?”

Keisha reaches up her hand, the one with the tape and the IV drip in it, and rests it on Peach’s shoulder. “Yeah, mama, we are all right.”

Peach leans in closer, uttering a sigh of relief. So does Seung. Keisha reaches up and grabs a wad of his hair and grips it hard, in spite of how much it must hurt her. She leans her face into his, and kisses his forehead, more like a bite than a caress. He gives another big sigh.

Alexander snorts and starts pulling out folders, muttering. Then he blinks at the three people in the beds. “You folks need anything?”

“Water,” Seung says firmly.

“I got it,” Emma says. She fills glasses, drops straws in them, hands them around. Peach croons at Keisha, nudging the glass in her hand, and Keisha glares, but sips at it.

“If you guys are hungry, I can get some sandwiches from the fridge here–” Emma offers.

Keisha glances away. “S’okay.”

Emma has the suspicion that Keisha doesn’t want to admit she can barely sit up enough to eat. Alexander had said something about muscle cramps, that she needed to get more potassium in her, from sweating so long out in the heat with no food or water.

Emma knows better than to get pushy finding out where Seung’s former boss picked up those bug troops, but it’s hard to control herself. Emma looks at Seung. “If the place where your former boss picked up bug troops isn’t close here, we maybe could pass it along to some friends in that other area to knock ’em down.”

Seung points at his head. “I tell Preacher where, loud.”

“Ah, then he’s dealt with reporting it,” Emma nods. She looks at Keisha then. “Oh yes– Tee Pom tells me Michel’s boys got in touch with Fozzie, they let him know about Mike. I guess Fozzie about blew a gasket.”

“That’s the problem with havin’ too many friends, one of ’em always likes to roll over on the whole party,” Keisha says.

“Fozzie rescues a lot of people,” Emma says quietly.

Keisha grunts. “Hey, everybody needs a hobby.”

Emma aims a pointed look at Seung and Peach, and Keisha glowers back.

“We are not being your hobby,” Seung tells Keisha, to no reaction.  “Is not,” he repeats, crossly, glaring at Keisha, who only glares right back.

“Why not?” Keisha growls.

“You get only me and Peach. We lots work.”

Emma can’t help it. She tilts her head upward, smiling. “You have been talking to Dance.”

“What’s so funny?” Keisha demands. “You think that sounds too much like your snakeman?”

Emma nods. “When those two get to cracking jokes, it’s gonna get tough.”

“You think Seung would be better off stayin’ with you guys, after he heals up.” Keisha is wooden-faced.

Emma shakes her head. “What? No. That’s up to all of you. But you’re all welcome to stay. The whole bayou here is zoomorph families, it’s safe for us to walk around in daylight here.”

“Much as anywhere is safe, huh? Except when guys like Mike start handin’ you over to the Man.”

Emma shrugs. “Nobody expected that.”

Keisha shrugs too, like a sharp little imitation. “Always some damn fool spoils the party.”

“I don’t know how they paid Mike off, if they did. Far as I can poke around, nobody in Mike’s family got new money. Now, I talked to Michel about old-time ways to bribe.  His family are all old-school smuggling, old-style discipline.  Oh lordy, they were pissed off, Tee Pom had quite a job talking them down from just shooting Mike on sight. Now, on tracking down newer ideas, things like internet chats and payments, that kind of thing, that’s where we could use your ideas.”

“I think maybe Fozzie got too many friends.  It’s too easy for some crooked parish guys to use other things.  Get somebody’s dumb kid brother outta jail, no money down.”

Emma blinks. “Thanks. I’ll look into friends and relatives getting off on some criminal or civil charges during the last few weeks.” She makes herself a note to follow up on certain arrest records. “So if you don’t like big groups like Fozzie’s bunch, why would you want to go visit your aunt Lacey?”

“What about my aunt Lacey?” Keisha’s voice sounds flat, spooky.

“Well, she is the one running Fozzie’s horse farm.  Hell, she runs Fozzie, and he’d be the first to say so, she’s his wife from way back, nobody knows how old they are.  The horse ranch is, oh, about sixty miles from here. He’s always out on the road.  Lacey is the one who sorts out zoomorph rescues, keeps the farm and the lab functioning, keeps the trucks running, the whole thing.”

“Aw, shit.” Keisha, for once, is honestly astonished, her dark eyes round. “That’s– shit, man, my auntie? I remember her puttin’ on her gloves for church, man.”

“There’s only one Lacey in the swampland,” Emma says, grinning at the idea of Lacey wearing gloves to church, enjoying some well-deserved peace and quiet while she visited a wandering niece. “We owe her big time.  That horse farm lab of hers helps out patients here all the time, they helped sort out Dance’s changes, so–”

“Just– no.” Keisha holds up her hand, half laughing. “No, that’s just too weird, I get me these zoobabies and the person I was going to see anyway is all over it– Nuh-uh.”

“Oh, I know.  It’s been like that for me as well, all these Odd Coincidences. Well, anyway, I’m running off to the store now and pick up some sandals for Peach. Are there any clothes I could pick up for you guys? Jeans or tees or–”

“No, we’re good,” Keisha goes flat again. “Don’t worry about Peach, we’ll see to her.”

“It’s clinic policy,” Emma says. She feels her backbone stiffening up. Seung looks over to his boss as if he’d like to contradict her. Time to get out, before she snaps back something regrettable.

Fozzie even warned her, once, that some folks weren’t happy about needing help, and they hated admitting it when they got it. Some other folks were sure the world owed them everything, so they took it all for granted, and treated their rescuers like dirty servants. And some people were just too angry to keep a lid on it.

Fozzie just smiled, telling her. It didn’t bother him.  He’s seen too much weird to get ruffled over it.

Doctor Alexander gives Emma a glance, eyebrow raised.

She nods stiffly, and says, “So after I get back from that, I’ll head off to my laptop. Give me a call if you need anything, Doctor.”

Keisha gives one of those grunts that says worlds.

Emma heads for the door, tight-lipped.

File drawers clatter. Alexander’s voice comments, “Busy lady. Works on all kinds of stuff on her computer, tracking things, keeping up on legal cases, running business stuff for folks. No time for visiting like this, most days.”

“Good for her ass,” Keisha’s voice replies.

Then the latch clicks, and their voices are muffled. Emma lifts her head and folds her arms and walks away, disappointed. She was looking forward to talking to another woman about Dance, about Dance’s genetic twin, hoping for some common ground with the fierce black woman. But she’s been living in the South long enough to know that plenty of folks will not respond kindly to innocent West-Coast-style overtures from her.  She’s never cautious enough.

It always makes her so furious.

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