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.
“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.