A Welcome Release
Alder woke to the head-splitting sound of the camp’s morning alarm. The crisp, clear chime pierced the tent fabric and his eardrums, lodging somewhere behind his sinuses. It stopped after thirty seconds, but the damage was done. He licked his lips. Morning whiskey breath and dehydration, bud? Aside from the headache and dry mouth, he was in head-to-toe pain. Nothing a few anti-inflammatories wouldn’t fail miserably to fix.
The puma took stock of his surroundings while his eyes were closed. No sense encouraging this headache. Scent reminded him that he was not in his tent. Uh oh. He caught the scent of the rabbit, strong in the enclosed space. The extraneous odors of her soap had faded to the edge of perception overnight, laying bare the rich, earthy aroma of the rabbit herself. Nope, not at all unpleasant, he thought. Flicking his ears, he listened to the sounds of grumbling and movement in the camp around him. Closer by, he recognized the sound of slow, steady breathing. He moved to stretch his aching limbs and froze. He was laying on his right side and brushed against something soft when he moved. As he parsed together the sensations, he noticed that his arms, chest, stomach, and thighs were warmer than his back and tail. Something moved against him.
Alders eyes snapped open. Fuuuuuck! Mistake! The pain in his head tripled with the crash of light against his retinas. The tents all had translucent panels in the roofs to reduce the need for artificial light. This meant that the interior of the tent was awash in the pink sunlight of early morning. Ok, slower this time. The cat’s eyes opened gradually to reveal a hazy glow. Within a few moments, his situation became clear.
At some point during the night, Caird had joined him on his cot. The rabbit was snuggled against him with his arm thrown over her. Her laid-back ears pressed against his chest and her hip wiggled slightly against his pants, greeting the only throbbing head of his that didn’t hurt. Good morning to you too, little guy. Glad to see one of us is happy to be awake. He failed to suppress a yawn and Cat pressed her back harder against him. Clearly, she woke up with the racket, too. She took his left paw with a gentle squeeze, drawing his arm tighter around her chest. She giggled when an involuntary purr began to rattle against her back.
“G’ morning,” she sighed. “Not sure how I ended up over here, but it seems like neither of us is complaining.”
Alder chuckled. “Speak for yourself, bun. I can’t feel my right arm.”
“Oh! Sorry!” She shifted, trying to move her weight off of the arm that was tucked beneath her head. His left arm prevented her from moving though and he pulled her back to him again.
“Hey, now! Don’t go giving me something else to fuss about.” He gave the top of her head a trio of short, soft licks. “I’m sure my arm is still there. Stay.”
They lay smiling together for a few moments until the second alarm forced them, groaning, into action. Cat sat up in the cot and brushed her paws back over her down-cast ears. She rubbed her face a few times and stood, unsteadily. Alder rose as well, morning erection vanished, thanks to the clamor outside and the increasing pain in his head. He thanked her for the drink and the bed, hugged her, then made his way to his tent to get ready for the day. Humans and voxipeds moving about the surrounding tents watched him with raised eyebrows, of which he was blissfully unaware.
When he arrived at his tent, his tentmate was awake and shirtless, doing push-ups with his legs propped on the cot. The ferret was half his age, twice his energy, and a source of near-constant annoyance. Even his scent was a claw upon the chalkboard of Alder’s nose. Craig Philips hopped up when the puma walked in.
“Look what the cat dragged in!” He chuckled when Alder winced at his loud, nasally voice. “Fuckin’ hell, mate, you look like you need a few dozen pills and a week off.”
Alder flopped onto his cot and rifled trough his luggage. Pulling out a medicine bottle, he rattled it in the air toward the ferret and retorted, “One down, Philips. Think you can swing the second?”
“Shit,” the prick threw a shirt on and slipped into his boots. “You want out of this fuckin’ place; you walk out the gate. Cunts won’t stop you.”
The puma grunted at that. “Tempting.”
“Mind a change of topic, Al?”
“Philips, do we genuinely have to have the ‘Al’ conversation again? I’m not some fat, fuckin’ hick with a beer-stained tank top and goddamned tractor-pull cap.” He planted his elbows on his knees and rested his face in his hands. “But, yeah. A change of topic would be great.”
Philips shot him a lop-sided grin. “You smell more like rabbit than lion.”
“Dude,” the big cat groaned, muffled by his paws, “first off: not a lion. Don’t look or smell like one, not even a little. Some racist, speciesist, whatthefuckever, shit right there. It’s like someone calling you an otter or an ermine. ‘B’, whether or not I smell like rabbit, or bear, or salamander, or Jello-fucking-pudding-pops isn’t any of your goddamned business. If you’re done in here, why not fuck off and harass the servers in the mess tent.”
The ferret just laughed and walked through the doorway, hollering, “Good morning to you, too, sunshine!”
Medicated and dressed, Alder stopped at the latrine tent to brush his teeth and splash water on his face. He dried off with a handful of paper towels and returned his toothbrush to his tent. Cat arrived at the mess tent a minute after he did. She looked almost as bad as he felt, though she carried it a little better. Her ears, sensitive to the sounds of the bustling common area, drooped down her back to fall over a yellow-trimmed, white t-shirt bearing a round logo. Partick Thistle Football Club? Probably a soccer team, he guessed. The worn denim of her trousers was loose enough for comfort out on the rubble, but hugged the lines of her hips nicely. She was a more-than-welcome sight. The puma rolled his eyes when Philips jogged past them with a wolf-whistle and an unsubtle “Rawr!”. The rabbit winced and watched after him as he went.
“Who’s the cunt?” she grumbled to him, massaging her temple, as they stood in line for breakfast.
Alder’s quick bark of laughter made him reach up to hold his own throbbing head. “That was Philips, my asshat tentmate.”
“Well, if you’re in the market for new accommodation, I know a tent with an empty cot.”
He looked down at her. “Oh? That so?”
“Aye,” she answered with a smile, “and the current resident is probably a step up in terms of mates. Eh, tent…mates. Tentmates.” She nodded, satisfied that she had salvaged that slip.
Alder, for his part, didn’t mind the thought. They grabbed their respective meals at the makeshift counter; bacon, sausage, and reconstituted eggs for him, assorted fruits and diced melons for her. They ate together at a vacant table; though, they skipped conversation in favor of speed. Most folks had already finished eating and gone to the briefing yard to assemble with their teams. When they finished, they dumped their trash, returned their trays, and made their way to the yard with the other stragglers.
When they got to the edge of the yard, they stopped. There was usually chatter all through the crowd in the mornings. Today, a hush was over the assembled volunteers.
“…want to thank everyone for their hard work and dedication these past weeks,” echoed the voice of the woman who oversaw the volunteers. “You all have made a remarkable difference here and Newcastle thanks you. However, like the mayor said, it just isn’t safe to continue volunteer activities right now. We don’t yet know the full extent of the spill, but it appears that it will take days, maybe longer, to contain. Until then, only certified individuals with the proper protective equipment will be allowed in the area. We would encourage anyone with hazardous materials training to stay behind and discuss remaining on for the clean-up. The rest of you are welcome to leave your contact details with your team coordinator. You’ll be called back when it is safe to resume search and recovery operations. You’re dismissed.”
The crowd erupted into cacophony as the speaker walked away from the microphone. Humans and voxipeds made their way, chattering, back to their tents to secure their belongings and begin checkout proceedings. Alder and Cat approached a small group of people who stood talking at one side of the yard.
“Uh…hey, guys,” the big cat said with a weak wave. “We walked up late and missed the first bit. Y’all mind helping us fill the gaps?”
“Yeah,” a chipper, young, Aussie woman replied. “Safety team on the regular morning sweep ran across something in grid D-5 that triggered their chemical sensors. Turns out there was a private storage facility smack in the middle of the fuckin’ search area. Some ignorant fuck apparently stored chemical shit in there, like, for weeds or something, right, Jackie?”
The guy next to her, an oryx, nodded. Before the antelope could talk, though, a gangly teen with them cut in.
“Bullshit! There was probably a government storehouse down there. Chemical and biological weapons, man. They got that kind of shit hid all over, just in case the people ever rise up!”
“You’ll have to excuse my brother,” the woman told Alder and Cat with a roll of her eyes. “He’s, uh, sick.”
“Yes, he has caught ‘being a moron’ from internet videos,” added the oryx in a strong accent that Alder could not quite place. The guy’s English was perfect, but the syllables were pitched and stressed in an unusual way.
Central African, probably, the puma thought to himself. Of course, central Africa, genius. He’s an oryx. He’s probably not from fucking Norway.
The oryx went on, “The spill was weed killer, lawn fertilizer, things like that. Multiple chemicals leaked and mixed together at some point after the tremors, and the fumes are toxic to the point that they could very seriously harm people if they are exposed for too long. They have to keep volunteers out until a hazmat unit can clear it.”
The puma and rabbit thanked them and turned to go.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Alder murmured as they walked away. “Guess I’m getting that week off after all.”
He looked down to the rabbit walking beside him. “Sorry. Just thinking out loud.”
“So,” Cat said as they wound their way between tents, “what are ye gonnae do?”
The puma scratched at his neck as he thought. He finally answered, “Well, I’ve barely spent any money over the past week, so I’ve got plenty to spend on a new hotel room with a huge, soft bed and one of those big-ass jacuzzi bathtubs. Maybe see a beach before I have to go back to the States. You?”
Cataría remained quiet for a while. “Not a clue,” she eventually grumped.
“What’s on your mind, Caird?”
“I guess,” she sighed, “I was hoping we’d have more time together. Fuck, we just met and seemed tae hit it off pretty well. Would have been nice to have seen where things between us might go.”
Alder smiled. “Plus, you never got into my pants.”
“I know; don’t rub it in.”
“I dunno, I might like to.”
She scowled at him. “Can it, Yank. You’re going to fuck off back to the Land of the Fried and I’m gonna do…whatever the fuck I’m going to do.”
“Well, hell,” he pouted. “My flight out isn’t for another several days. In the meantime, I was kinda hoping I might be able to ogle a beach bunny or two.”
“Remember what I said about sending you to the hospital, tree?”
Alder stopped and looked her in the face with a smirk. “Yeah….”
“Keep teasing and I might still do it.” Her face was stern and serious, but her eyes were sad. He was trying not to admit that he was taking it every bit as hard as she was. Love at first sight was a load of shit, but there was the potential for something between them, and both of them wanted to chase that potential with whatever little time they had.
“Cat, come here.” He wrapped her in a hug, pressing her head softly to his chest. “I’m sorry, bun.”
Her paws clutched at his sides. “God! I feel like a fucking idiot. One night talking over drinks and waking up to a warm body, and I don’t want…,” she trailed off with a sniff.
He stroked her head, pressing his muzzle between her ears and whispering, “Me either.”
They stood for few minutes, each holding on to the other as if some current might pull them apart and carry them each away. The milling of other volunteers around them could have been miles away.
“You’ve got no plans and nowhere to stay, right?”
She nodded against his chest and said, “Mmhmm. I mean, not really. I have options; friends an’ that. I’m not completely fucked.”
“How about I turn your offer around on you?”
“Well, hmm. How would you like to share a hotel room? I’ll even let you use the jacuzzi, if I get tired of it.”
“Promise not to eat me?” There was that mischievous grin he remembered from the night before.
He laughed. “No promises. Let’s get our shit together and get out of here.”