Burnt Out

reflected clouds boat on land

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.

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