by Judith Shantz, 1940 words
Delia was pacing the chipped linoleum floor in her dad’s cheap rental, her stiletto heels clicking the drumbeat of her impatience. “Dad, are you losing your edge? Fifty thousand for a construction project? Hell, we’ve blown nearly that much just getting set up out here. Even so, our standard of living, my standard of living, has bottomed out. You’re always talking about half a mil. Even with this construction funding and even if this animal joint miraculously raises 10K in donations, how am I gonna push half a mil through any of that?”
“Well, what brilliant ideas do you have, Chicklet? This sodden burb has almost no enterprise. And so far, the billionaires aren’t exactly beating down the door.”
Tom really wanted to tell her about his big plan, his really big plan, bigger than anything he’d come up with before, but he was losing his trust in her. She was just too impetuous these days. She wanted things and she wanted them now. That made her a dangerous partner. He couldn’t believe she was hiring this ex-con just because he was a hunk. That was just hormones talking and that guy wasn’t born yesterday. He would probably smell a rat pretty quick. Tom thought he might try to pay Delia off and send her back to Manhattan, but he didn’t have enough liquidity at the moment.
Delia pivoted on one skinny heel and leaned on the table, hissing at her father, “Then, you gotta get back out on the interstate and find another, bigger burb.”
Tom grumbled, “I ain’t going near Seattle – it’s….it’s crime infested!”
Delia snorted laughter, spraying vodka across the table. “Dad, can you even hear yourself? What’s big in this neck of the soggy woods, Dad? Casinos! Think about casinos, Dad. We could use some of those yahoos at the Farm as mules. They would never catch on.”
Delia’s laugh was high, brittle and mean.
There’s more than one way to skip town. Perhaps “town” is a bit grandiose in this case. Let’s say “community.” Rufi’s community was a small tract of land, only a couple of acres, in the parched Sonoran Desert just east of the California border. He knew no other home and his only teacher, his mother, had not mentioned geography or biology. But he had natural instincts and a quick intellect and he had been taught hunting and survival skills.
Rufi certainly had very different needs from Tom and Delia—and they were a lot more urgent. Like all living things, the first was water—something Tom and Delia never thought about. They just turned on the tap or bought some fancy flavored beverage in a plastic bottle. But his second need was very different from theirs—mice! Or the occasional jackrabbit. That was all he really needed.
Rufi was of the family Felidae, the same family as the pretty house cats waiting in cages at the Animal Farm shelter. But the family name and a love of mice was about all they had in common.
He was raised, along with his two litter mates, by a ferociously devoted mother who taught them everything she knew and saw to it that they grew into healthy, skilled animals. At that point, she led them to the edge of her territory, nudged them over an invisible boundary and said, in effect, “so long—don’t come back.”
Skilled or not, the next round of seasons was very rough. Those cycles on the desert were bracketed by polar nights and hellish days. Many creatures could not survive this wasteland, including some of the thousands of human migrantes who trekked through it each day. Even within the lifetime of one generation of his kind, the rains had almost vanished, the land had dried and cracked and even the tough plant life had withered and died. There was no water and there was no prey.
But like many living creatures who survive on instinct, he was tuned into a genetic memory; the myths of his ancestors. That memory told him that there were other lands, lands with towering forests and fat squirrels. It told him, not in words but in instinct, in feelings. Go now and go with the sun behind you. And so, he did.
For a while he managed to survive, slinking around the edges of the migrant camps, picking up the odd pieces of tortillas de maíz or frijoles. Hard on his digestive track and bad for his teeth. He really needed some bones.
One night he came up to a road that was packed with the roaring machines of humans, the largest that he had ever seen. Their size, the smell of burning diesel, the noise, should have sent him running. But he was desperate for some edible scraps and he crept closer. Most of the machines had more machines on their backs, but one was loaded with dozens of bales of alfalfa. Rufi’s nose twitched. Where there was hay, there were mice. He leapt onto the back of the machine and tried tearing into the nearest bale. They were in there. He could hear them. Then suddenly the machine was moving but Rufi was unwilling to give up his dinner. He flattened himself on the top of the load and kept trying to dig his way down. The machine picked up speed. There was no getting off now.
The little burner phone in Pino’s pocket set off a tinny rendition of O Sole Mio. “Merda,” he muttered, as he hurried to silence it. “Yeh?” he whispered into the phone. “I told you not to call me. I’m expecting the guy any minute. Yeh, I’ll call you back later.” He hung up and muted his phone. He was sitting on the tailgate of his truck and he went back to eating the fat carnitas burrito he had picked up back in Salinas. It was old and cold but it would have to do.
He liked this life. Hauling watermelons, and sometimes other stuff, up and down the country. He could be from anywhere: Mexico, Italy, Noo Yawk, as he liked to say. He played whichever identity he needed at the moment.
On the edge of the gravel pull-off he noticed the eyes watching him. Some kind of animal. Maybe a skunk or raccoon. He sat very still and the animal slowly approached. A cat. A very large cat. “Hungry?” Pino unrolled the burrito and pulled out a piece of pork. He stood down from the tailgate and walked slowly toward the creature. Rufi darted away. Pino put the pork down in the gravel and backed off. After a couple of minutes, the cat returned and grabbed the pork.
A van came screeching around the corner and into the pull-off, leaving the engine running. One guy got out and said “watermelons” into the dark. The other guy got out, watching the proceedings. “Refreshing” answered Pino, as he turned on his headlamp so he could see what he was doing. The van guy pulled out a huge wad of bills and fanned it for Pino to see. Pino sorted through the watermelons until he found the right one and, using his penknife, pried out the plug. Pushing up his sleeve, he reached into the hole and pulled out the packet. The two men approached each other warily, each holding out what the other wanted. Pino handed over the packet, stuffed the cash into his pocket and hurried around to the driver’s side. All of a sudden, shots rang out. The two van guys were shooting at him or at each other. Pino couldn’t tell which but one of the men fell. Pino jumped into his truck, head down, and screamed out of the pull-off. He didn’t look back.
Rufi’s ride on the alfalfa truck lasted all night and into the dawn. When it finally stopped, the topography had changed but the air was foul with smoke and fires burned on the nearby hills. He jumped off as soon as he could, and ran into the scrub on the side of the road. His hunger had become a painful, living thing. He moved forward all day and at nightfall spotted another human, a small truck, and something that smelled wonderful. If this guy would feed him, he might try taking another ride.
When Pino had driven a hundred miles and his heart was no longer trying to break through his chest wall, he pulled off to call Tom. “Yeh,” he said, “it all came off just as planned.” He could hear Tom give a loud “yahoo” to someone in the background. “But,” added Pino, “there was one little glitch.”
“Yeh, I think someone might of gotten murdered.”
There was silence for a moment and then Tom said, “You’re going to have to destroy the truck.”
“Like hell,” yelled Pino and hung up.
Tom tried calling Pino back but he didn’t pick up. Then he called Delia. “Look, Honey. Remember my cousin Pino from Newark? Well, he’s coming for a visit. I think he’ll come straight to the Farm cuz that’s the only address he’s got. If anyone asks any questions, just say that you adore fresh watermelons and that your dad orders them for you special.”
“Watermelons,” she practically screamed into her phone. “You’re really losing it, Dad. I should have you committed.”
“Just do as I say,” he roared back at her and hung up.
Pino pulled to a stop in the gravel yard in front of the barn and turned off the engine. Checking his mirrors, he saw his cat passenger slip over the side of the truck and dash for the barn door.
The cacophony of howls and shrieks started immediately as the hungry cat went searching for food. Rufi could smell something edible but odd. The smell was coming from a large bag that he dug into with clawed fury. He gobbled mouths full of the dried kibble, swallowing and growling and choking in his desperate need to eat. The caged animals kept up their loud chorus of fear.
Over the din, Delia was trying to talk to Pino about what the hell the deal was with the watermelons. Tim slipped away to the barn to calm the animals and Bull stepped back to watch this weird scene unfold.
As Tim’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he spotted the cat practically inside the huge bag of kibble. “Oh, you beautiful thing,” he said softly. “Don’t be afraid.”
For a moment, Rufi believed in this human. Believed he wouldn’t be harmed.
Then Delia stormed into the barn, shrieking her anger about the noise. Rufi rose up out of the bag of food, terrified by this creature. The feeling was mutual. Delia ran from the barn screaming, “Cougar! Cougar! Run for your life.”
Tim tried in vain to be heard above the din. “It’s not a cougar. It’s a bobcat. He doesn’t want to hurt you.”
Rufi bolted for the gate and into the thicket of blackberries outside. He needed to get away from humans. They were so unpredictable. At least that hard, dry kibble had done a number on his teeth. Dental hygiene in a bag.
He started down the hill toward a little valley. Maybe that would be a place full of those squirrels that grew fat each fall on the acorns and pine cone seeds. Maybe he would find a female. Maybe, maybe.
Then he smelled it—something from a distant past. The wind shifted and it smelled stronger. The memory! The pure joy! He could really smell them now. Chickens! Hundreds of chickens!