The Changed -- Chapter Six -- by Dee Caples
Her brain was telling her to wake up. Thoughts of the day before scurried, of David stealing the motorcycle, riding up to get her. “Bring your shit and get on! We got to go now!” Danna hurried inside the tent, grabbed her pitiful belongings in a makeshift pack and got on behind him.
They rode into the desert with her hanging on, hiding her face from the wind behind his back, the vibration of the racing engine coming up her legs to settle in her rump and the base of her spine. After while she quit smelling the stink of fuel made from shit and compost.
This was stupid. No one stole from Dancy and got away with it. The engine bucked and sputtered, the gas tank as empty as the scenery around them. David hit a rock and the bike tumped over, out of gas. She knew he wasn’t very brave but she’d been so eager to leave Dirty Town she had taken the first chance to get away. Bad idea.
Her legs quivered with the effort to stand, much less run, but run she did. Drawing her knife, she tried to outdistance JoJo. As her mind was attempting to draw her out of sleep, she heard again the hiss of booted feet on the sand, his grunting exertion. Laughing, he turned his head to avoid her clawing fingers then punched her face. Putrid breath from rotting teeth made her gag. Rough hands ripped her shirt open, cupping and kneading bare breasts. Opening, his mouth came down, aiming for her skin. He was going to eat her alive...
Danna cried out and sat up, hands lashing out at nothing. It took a few seconds to remember she was relatively safe, whatever that meant. She’d survived being raped and killed by a loathsome pig of a man only to find herself in a situation only marginally less fucked up but considerably more preferable. Panting, she looked about her and saw one or two of the genetically altered cats and dogs pacing over to see why she’d yelled. Now that they knew nothing was really wrong they turned back and resumed doing whatever they had been.
She was thirsty and hungry but reluctant to venture out of the nest of wooden crates. Sooner or later she’d have to get up the guts to see what was going on. Maybe they’d give her some means of storing water and food then she could set out and trouble them no more.
On second thought...
No telling how far the next settlement or abandoned town was. She was in unfamiliar country and had lost her scarf to the wind. Oh, why hadn’t she hung onto it better? Maybe someone here had a hat that wasn’t being used.
Her head drooped and she angrily raised it again, tightening her jaw and determination. This was no time to lose hope. Mama raised her to believe there was always hope. Sometimes she’d traded a piece of ass for what she needed. Not an option here. Trading a song or two? Yeah, sure. She’d think of something. There had to be something!
Claws scrabbled on wood and she looked up to see a small face peering down with naked curiosity. Another head popped up then another. “Hi,” she said and they ducked back down. In a minute they came around the corner of the boxes slowly, creeping forward on two legs only to squat down from a safe distance, sitting on their haunches.
“You’re a people,” one of them said.
“Yes, I am.”
The very smallest of them didn’t wear anything. Probably it made toilet training easier. She was disturbed to see one, obviously a boy, had the genital ridge of a dog. Pattering feet preceded the arrival of yet another and this sight was the most heartbreaking thing Danna had ever seen. Atop a puppy’s body sat the head of a toddler. Unaware of its defect, the little one grinned and made incoherent noises as it came nearer Danna. It sat down, tongue lolling, and grinned.
Tears came to her eyes. No one she’d met had knowledge of such hideous science. What insanity spurred men and women to create such beings as she saw now? Had they known what would happen? The older ones were bizarre enough but half human, at least. These youngest ones were far less so and it sickened her that her own species had intentionally made monsters from viable humans and animals.
It’s not their fault, she told herself. Who’d want to be this? They had no choice. Making gestures with her hands, smiling, she began to sing a song. “This old man, he played one.” She held up a forefinger and put it on top of her opposite thumb. “He played knickknack on my thumb.” Tapped left shoulder then right shoulder. “With a knickknack.” Slapped her head on the left, right. “Paddywhack.” Made a tossing motion. “Give the dog a bone.” She bent her elbows and made a rolling motion with her hands. “This old man came rolling home.”
The dog-baby squealed and the children laughed. Danna’s voice got a little louder with the next verse, happy to enchant these odd children. “This old man, he played two,” Patted her foot. “He played knickknack on my shoe.” Shoulder, shoulder. “With a knickknack.” Head slap. “Paddywhack.” Toss. Roll. “Give the dog a bone. This old man came rolling home.”
Screaming with delight, the children bounced on their knees and this time gabbled along, imitating her hand moves. “This old man, he played three. He played--”
“Knickknack!” they yelled lustily.
“--knickknack on my knee. With a knickknack--”
“Paddyyack! Gib a dog a bo’!”
Danna laughed out loud for some damned reason. “This old man came rolling home.” She was so enthralled by the children’s pleasure she didn’t see a few grown ones creep up to watch in bewilderment. “This old man. He played four. He played knickknack on my door.” When she knocked on one of the crates a little girl thing reached out to belatedly pat the wood, too. “With a knickknack paddywhack, give the dog a bone. This old man came rolling home.”
Her song was interrupted by the arrival of the baby’s mother. Glaring at Danna, she snatched up her child and marched off. Te brought a cup of water and a handful of something. She set them down and gestured for the other adults to step back. “Leave them alone. They’re having fun.”
Regardless, the children melted away to take the hand of their parents, looking back to give Danna shy smiles. Te handed her the water and a handful of roots. “You sing!” That white, sharp smile. “We’ve heard of such but have no songs with words.”
Danna pinched the trailing hairs from the roots and bit in with relish. They were red and sharp-tasting but better than starvation. “My mother taught it to me.”
“You’re not with her now. Did your mother die?” Te asked without hesitation. Danna thought it a bit unfeeling but she didn’t know if they grasped the concept of rudeness.
“I don’t know. My father sold me several years ago.”
Te sat back in shock, hands on folded knees. “Sold you!”
Her surprise made Danna feel strange. It was a common practice for parents to trade their children. Te’s obvious disgust revealed a greater reverence for their young, hitting Danna right on her jealous bone. Was it possible a bunch of semi-animals had more love than humans? “For a goat and a pair of boots.” She flushed with shame.
Te leaned forward, her lips twisted in distaste. “To a man.”
“Yes. A man.” The last thing she wanted to talk about was Don or what had happened after she’d left him lying with his throat cut, how long it had taken her broken arm to heal.
She heard Pericles’s voice and that of another. He called for someone to go to the butte and stand watch with the two already there. Bare feet slapped the cement floor. Te gave him a look, nodded, and rose to leave. Pericles sat down with his own root vegetables and water. Danna jerked her head toward the others. “Did they eat David?”
Pericles made a sound of exasperation and looked away before locking eyes with her. “You must understand. They’re meat eaters more than anything else. Hunger makes us accept any kind of food we can get.”
“You ate him, too?” Her stomach roiled in a cramping wave. Poor, poor David.
“No. I don’t eat people. Neither do we eat each other.”
“I should hope not.” Danna polished off her water.
She watched him chew, his strong jaw muscles bunching. Now and then she got a glimpse of overgrown canines. He had a regular head of dark hair that grew long from his sloping forehead, skin like a white man’s. His chest and arms were not much hairier than Don’s had been. She shuddered at the memory of the crisp, scratchy feel of it on her naked self as he’d climbed on and painfully taken her virginity. She’d been fourteen.
“Do you find the sight of me revolting?” Pericles snapped.
Danna shook her head. “I wasn’t thinking of you.” Again, he looked away. So as to not offend, she kept her voice soft. “You can’t expect me to find all this--” she waved her hand about to indicate the whole shebang, trying to think of a less insulting word “--commonplace after just one day. Who’d ever dreamed any of you were possible? Not me.”
He shrugged. “Almost no one outside knew about us.” He eyed her for long enough to make her uncomfortable. “Tell me why those men chased you and David.”
She told him the story, leaving out the hard years, beginning with the days she’d sang for her supper and a tent to sleep in. It was none of his business how she elected to go with men sometimes if the trade was too good to pass up or that Ralph, who ran the bar, sometimes forced himself on her. All he needed to know was that a kind, young man came in and couldn’t take his eyes off her. For days he hung around, secretly meeting with her after work, getting his courage up to ask her to leave with him. The idea was to steal a motorcycle from Mayor Dancy and get the hell out as fast as possible.
“I should have known better but I was sick of having to put out for that freak, JoJo.”
“Have sex with.”
She swallowed down the acid that rose in her throat just thinking of his black smile and the stench of his breath. “He was a cannibal and even in Dirty Town that’s not widely accepted. Only, he was Dancy’s brother so he got away with anything, including murder.”
“JoJo was the man in the desert who attacked you?”
“And the brother of the man who runs Dirty Town?” Pericles fingered the beard on his jawline, thinking and frowning. “This Dancy will come looking for his brother, then.”
“He will. Dancy’s the only one that could possibly love that asshole.” Danna dropped her head into her hand. What was the chance of him and his crew finding this small group of peaceable...whatever-they-weres? Pretty good, she imagined. Dancy was smart and driven and didn’t take any slight lying down. He couldn’t. Any weakness was immediately pounced on and exploited by the strong in Dirty Town. Dancy was far from weak.
Pericles stood but didn’t smile. His eyes twinkled beneath the narrow shelf of his brow line. The ridge of his nose was strong but wide and his nostrils flared a few times. He dug in one of the boxes and came out with a whitish-gray cake of something and he took up a bucket. “Would you like to wash? I’ll show you where.”
He led her a short distance from the warehouse to a stub of rock that opened into a cave. She sighed as cool, moist air touched her skin. Taking her hand, he guided her down a sloping bed of rock where she heard the drip of water. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust and see the faint shimmer of light reflected off a dark pool of water from a small hole in the roof. Pericles set the bucket down. “Rinse off outside. We drink this water.”
“Outside?” The thought of going into the light, naked as the day she was born, was not appealing. “What if someone sees me?”
Once more she saw that twinkle in his dark eyes and he fingered his beard in speculation. “Do humans equate visuals with sexual excitement? Huh.” His eyes scanned her in a long but quick sweep. “Our noses give us the incentive.” That said, he left her in private.
Danna used the cake of stinging stuff on her hair and skin and hurried to wash it off, no longer caring that anyone might see. She spread it over her clothes and rinsed them, watching the soap (presumably) flake off and crumble. Too bad she couldn’t get into the water altogether but quashed that desire, seeing as it was drinking water. Trudging back to the warehouse, her clothes sloshed with every step. The blanket was pasted to her chest now that she’d used her ripped shirt to bathe with. Screw it. She couldn’t help her pronounced nipples. A good time to test the theory of what Pericles had told her.
Te saw her and grinned, her nostrils flaring in and out. “Did you enjoy your wash?”
Danna inclined her head. “I did.” She’d also filled her belly with water, unsure of when the next meal would come and what it would be.
Te called out and then sat, patting the spot on the concrete next to her. Another cat-woman appeared. “What?” she asked, eyeing Danna doubtfully.
“Help me comb out her hair.” Te’s fingers were suddenly sprouting claws and Danna forced herself to sit while she raked them through her snarls and tangles.
The other cat-woman made those silent gestures and a lively, quiet discussion passed before the second one huffed and sat down and plied her own claws less delicately than Te. The other cat-woman had claws at the end of only one hand. As she lent herself to their ministrations she watched a group of children performing This Old Man. They slapped their knees, feet and heads with gusto but the only words they seemed to remember consistently were knickknack, paddywhack and give the dog a bone.
Te saw where her attention had wandered. “They learn quickly,” she said.
Danna agreed. “They certainly do.” She wondered something. The Changed were bound to be resentful of what had been done to them. Should she ask? Her inquisitiveness demanded it. “If you could choose, would you rather be human or cats?”
The second cat-woman’s claws stuck in a particularly stubborn snarl. Her tugging brought Danna’s ear to her mouth. Speaking in a clipped tone, she said, “We’ll be what we are. Wishing anything else won’t make it so.”