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.”
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.