The hotel bar was agreeably quiet. A handful of solo drinkers occupied stools at the bar, while two couples and a group of five had staked claims to a few tables. Cat selected a small table, set back against a windowless wall. She wanted quiet and as few distractions as possible. Alder sat across from her, bemused, as they waited for the lone waitress to bring them their orders.
The bubbly human returned with the drinks quickly. She was tall for her kind and the three inches added by the heels of her shoes did nothing to help that. The hem of her miniskirt stopped two inches below her crotch and three inches above the tabletop. She was all cleavage and smiles, but no amount of garish Aussie charisma was going to pull up the mood at the table. She glanced between the two of them, gaudy hoop earrings jostling and flashing beneath a blonde coiffure that looked to be more hairspray than hair. Seeing that they were immune to her effervescence, she told them to call for her if they needed anything and swished off to try to infect others with her giggles and winks.
Alder sipped at his bourbon and watched the rabbit over the rim of his glass. She knocked back her scotch with the delicacy of someone taking the antidote to some lethal poison. Her empty glass made a sharp thwock on the polished wood of the table. Before the residue in the glass could slide down its walls to puddle at the bottom, she had downed half a pint of ale. The puma set his drink down and folded his paws on the table before him.
“A’right,” began Cat, “Lissenup. First, do let’s go slow on this ‘love’ business, ‘kay?”
“Okay…” he said. He leaned back in his chair and cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”
The bunny rested her weight on her elbows and ran her paws over her face. “Just, y’know, go slow. That word carries a lot of weight and some uncomfortable history for me.”
Alder nodded. “All right. I look forward to hearing that story.”
“Thank you. Next, that bit about your fishing pals. Blokes casually telling other blokes they love ‘em…” Cat shook her head. “Let’s just say that where I’m from that’s…a bit rare. You, like, bi or poly or something?”
The puma laughed. “It’s a bit less rare in the States. Even less rare when you’re on a river bank, too drunk to stand. I’m not polyamorous, though. My head’s not wired to handle more than one romantic or physical relationship at a time.”
Her body relaxed a bit more and she took another swig of ale. “Thank fuck. Neither am I, but I am also not strong enough to share with someone else. Not with out some serious insecurity. But…wait…you skipped the bi part. You are?”
“Depends on who you ask. Pansexual probably fits better. Somewhere on that spectrum, at least. Let’s just say that I’ve had a couple of girlfriends whose tender bits were outies instead of innies. I’m attracted to feminine characteristics, and I’ve never been terribly picky about what sort of plumbing I run into ‘downstairs’.”
“Huh!” Cat finished her ale and retorted, “How very European of you. Sounds like there are some fun stories I need to coax out of you.”
“So,” he asked, spreading his paws, palms up, over the tabletop, “What’s going on, here? Are we good?”
“Not entirely. There’s one thing more,” the rabbit said, just above a whisper. She took a deep breath and forced her ears forward for the response to her next question. “You said that you tell your kids that you love them.”
“Yeah…?” he said, reaching for his drink. His tone of voice suggested that he couldn’t grasp why that was important.
Frustrated, she managed only barely to keep her voice down when she demanded, “And how the fuck has the fact that you are a dad somehow failed to come up in conversation until now?”
It was Alder’s turn to be flummoxed. He overreached his drink, nearly knocking it over. “The hell….” He paused in realization, then laughed. “Oh! Oh, shit. No, no, a thousand times no. I’m not. Definitely. Not. I made damn sure of it in college after a close call.”
“What the fuck are are you babbling about, Al?”
“Okay, whoa!” He took a deep breath and continued, “One, please don’t call me ‘Al’. As uncomfortable as you might be with the L-word, I can guarantee you I am worse with ‘Al’. You can keep calling me ‘tree’, or ‘Alder’, or ‘Hey, Cunt!’ if you want. Just not ‘Al’. All right? Pretty please, whipped cream and a cherry on top and all that jazz?” He raised his eyebrows and pressed his paws together in a melodramatic pantomime of prayer.
That got the desired result, mostly. Cat smirked and said, “All right, tree. What’s number two?”
“Thanks, bun,” he sighed. “Two, my ‘kids’ are my students.”
“You’re a teacher? I thought you worked in forestry, as an interpreter or whatever.”
He nodded. “Yep, I do.”
“Doesn’t that mean, like, axes and saws and flannel shirts? Tim-berrrr! Y’know? Figured you must be a liaison between Yank foremen and Mexican workers.”
The big cat laughed so hard that the patrons and staff of the little bar all turned their heads. He ignored them, trying to catch his breath. “Sorry, bun! No, I work as a park interpreter. I lead tours for park goers and explain the park’s resources and wildlife. Though, naturally, I tend to lean more toward flora than fauna.”
“Well, fuck me sideways!” She coughed and fidgeted with her earrings in embarrassment, mumbling, “I couldn’t have had that much more wrong. Your field is a whole lot closer to mine than I thought. Maybe I need to have you put in a good word for me.” She flashed a smile to show that she meant that in jest.
“I wouldn’t mind doin’ that for real, though.”
Cat cleared her throat and tried to get the conversation back on track. “So then, who are the kids?”
Alder took a sip of his drink and settled back in his chair. “Well, every summer there are these groups of children—human and voxiped, both—that get bussed out on field trips and summer camps. School groups, church groups, that sort of thing.”
“Okay…” she said, her voice echoing in the bottle just before draining it and signaling Bubbles McCheerleader for another round.
“So the camps have the kids sticking around in the park, in tents and cabins, for weeks at a time. Some of the interpreters, including me, volunteer as counselors during these camps and lead the kids on nature walks, or run them through activities; like, building birdhouses and squirrel feeders, or orienteering and wilderness survival. Some of ‘em come round every year for most of their childhood. I’ve watched a fair few of them grow up.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“Usually. Some of the kids can be assholes, but most of the ‘em are fine.”
Their drinks arrived and they ordered some light food. The waitress fairly glowed when she saw how the mood at the table had changed for the better. She winked and grinned at both of them and bounced off to the kitchen. Cat watched the jiggling ball of energy flap through the swinging doors and shook her head. Then something clicked from earlier in the conversation.
“Hang on. What was that a minute ago about making sure you couldn’t have kids?”
“Mmm,” he grunted into his glass, finishing his first bourbon. His eyes closed as the sting flirted with his trachea. Clearing his throat, he replied, “Yeah. My, uh…” Holding his paw up, he pointed toward his lap and whistled in time with two short, downward jabs of his outstretched finger. “…has been vivisected, rearranged, cauterized, stitched up, and officially stamped ‘none shall pass’.”
She frowned. “In college? Alder, what the fuck? Most folks do that in middle age, don’t they?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, like I said there was a close call and I made the decision for my own good.”
“Is it the kind of story you don’t feel like telling?”
Alder shook his head and swirled his new drink, left ear flicking involuntarily. “It’s nothing scandalous, just—” He was cut off by the sudden return of their server. A plate of onion rings, fried cheese, and a trio of nameless sauces clunked on the table between them.
“If you two need anything from the bar or the kitchen in the next fifteen minutes, just yell, a’right?” The pair nodded politely. “It’ll be the end of my shift then, so if you need anything else just let me know.”
Her odd emphasis on the word “else” was punctuated by a folded cocktail napkin, held between two green-nailed fingers, sliding across the tabletop to rest near the food; then she was off to her other tables. The aura of perfume and stale cigarette smoke that hovered in the air next to their table seemed to watch them in her stead. The puma folded his ears back and turning to watch her go. Cat, meanwhile, reached for the napkin and unfolded it. Her chuckle brought Alder’s attention back to her.
“‘Either or both, if you’re up to it,’ it says and this is probably her mobile number below it,” the bunny whispered, showing him the note.
“Flattering,” he muttered. “Love to say that was a tempting offer.”
Cat snickered, catching his sarcasm. “Silly bugger. You’ve got a girl right across from you.”
“No, I wish I could say it was tempting.” He inclined his head in the direction of the waitress, who appeared to be repeating her offer to the group of five. “Aside from the fact that she’s probably carrying bacteria and viruses from twelve different species, fucking her’d be like trying to find an anchovy in a half-empty sack of old potpourri and dry twigs, using only your dick.”
The rabbit snorted and buried her face in her arms on the table, fighting to keep her laughter quiet. After catching her breath she said, “Jesus, Alder!”
“That might have been a little unfair.” he replied, popping a bit of fried cheese in his mouth.
She rose back up and wiped her eyes. “Ye’d fit in back home, talking like that.”
“Maybe I oughta visit some time.”
“Maybe, aye,” she said with a grin. “Anyhow, you were explaining how your frogs can’t skoosh out tadpoles anymore.”
“Right,” The big cat snickered at the analogy. “It was in my second year of college. The astronomy club would throw these ‘Full Moon Follies’—big fucking parties on the night of each full moon. They had this observatory shed on the campus, up on a hill., where they’d push all of their gear off to the sides to make room for dancing and drinking. You’d think a group like them would be these dry, boring nerds—and they were—but, man, they could put on a bash!
“So, there’s this girl—a puma like me but, y’know, innie rather than outtie—and we meet and talk at a few of these parties. Hot little pussy cat, named Dusk. Yeah, I see that look in your eyes. It was her actual fucking name. Here, I thought my mom had fucked up taste.
“About the third time we meet, we’re drunk as skunks and all horned up, and we go down the hill into the woods on the outskirts of the campus. You familiar with the phrase ‘wild cat’ regarding a woman’s sexual performance? Imagine how much more apt that is when applied an actually wild actual cat. One of the trees there still has our claw marks in it, mostly hers. Looks like a bear with OCD spent two hours marking his territory there. Fast forward a few weeks, we meet at the next party and she says she’s preggers.”
Cat set her bottle down with a thud and said, “Well, there’s you fucked.”
“Exactly what I thought. Now, I’m out of my fucking head. I make a huge fucking scene. Some moderately expensive optical equipment may have gotten damaged…or…thrown through a window, and they may have told me that I should avoid showing my face at future shindigs. But, I’m not the sort of asshole that knocks a girl up and disappears, right? So, I take care of her and make sure she gets to doctor appointments and shit. There’s no love or anything between us. We can hardly tolerate each other when we aren’t lit and horny. It’s just me being responsible for my actions.”
While he gobbled down another cheese bite, she nodded. “Right honorable of you.”
“Oh, yeah! Fuckin’ saint material. Anyway, time comes for her to squirt the bastard out”—he paused to let the rabbit recover from choking on her drink, grinned and continued—“and we’re at the hospital: me, Dusk, and her mom, who came because ooh-grandkits. I’m fucking right there, next to the bed, holding her paw and saying whatever encouraging shit I can think of, like they tell you in the classes. The doc goes, ‘There’s the head!’ and sort of pauses. He looks at Dusk, then at me, then kinda shrugs and keeps doing his business. He gets the kitten out and asks if I want to cut the cord. I figure, sure, why not?
“I walk over, take the scissors, and I look down at this bloody, goopy, little fur ball.” Alder shook his head. “Cat, you’re a wildlife biologist. You ever seen a puma-lynx hybrid?”
The rabbit leaned forward with a gasp and whispered, “No!”
“No shit,” he said. “The poor, little, grey-brown fucker’s got her nose and her muzzle markings, and these hilarious fucking tufts sticking up off its ears. Spots all over, like kittens from either species, really, and this tiny little stub of a tail.”
“What’d ye do?”
“I laughed my ass off. I guess I should have been pissed, but I was relieved. I snipped the cord, booped the little shit’s nose, and let the doctor and nurse finish up. Then, I took the little wrapped up fluff over to its mom and set it in her arms. Her eyes go fuckin’ huge and she’s stuttering ‘Oh my god!’ over and over. The look on the new grandma’s face was priceless, too. I patted her on the shoulder, wished her luck, and left the hospital. Not proud of that. In hindsight, it was a dick move.
“Two weeks later I went to my doc and got a referral for a urogenital surgeon. A week after that, I’m fucked up on valium, laying on a table without my pants, while a nurse shaves a patch off of my sheath and balls. The doc, an old guy from Pakistan, slices and dices my plumbing to keep the little soldiers from charging into battle, and my sister drives me home. Not my highest point. Sleeping off valium on a couch, with a bag of frozen peas on your junk, and your mom and sister futzing about in the kitchen is not anyone’s highest point. For the next month and a half, I had to go to the clinic and crank out samples every Thursday, so they could check my counts and make sure nothing was getting through.” He tossed the last chunk of fried cheese into his mouth and chased it with a swig of bourbon. “That’s that. Shootin’ blanks, now. My epididymis-es-es are on lock-down.”
Cat laughed. “At least you kept your humor. A situation like that might have ruined other blokes.”
“Eh,” he said, shrugging dismissively. “I’ve had a long time to let go of the negative stuff. Even the guilt that I eventually felt for just walking away. Helps that the real dad did the right thing: he stepped up and took care of them from there. He and Dusk didn’t get hitched or anything, but he did the dad thing and helped out with the expenses. She and the kit ended up doing ok. She’s got some cushy desk job at a bank and the kid took his basketball team to regionals last year.
“A lot of us fuck up when we’re young. She and I just got lucky. If that kitten had been mine, I’d probably be stuck working for minimum wage in the stockroom of some discount store, trying to save up enough between minivan payments and buying school clothes to buy a pistol and a single bullet. Instead, I work in a field I enjoy, I’ve got a cabin full of plants, and I’m an ocean away from home getting drunk off mid-grade liquor and high-grade bunny.”
“Silver linings,” she said, raising her bottle and receiving a satisfying clink in response.
The plate now sat bare between them and their respective glasses and bottles were all drained. They decided that some fresh air would do them both a world of good. Alder stood and dropped an appropriate amount of cash on the table, leaving the napkin with their server’s phone number. He and Cat waved to her, sitting at the table with the party of five, as they walked out of the bar. They walked through the hotel lobby and stopped on the sidewalk just outside the revolving doors.
“Quarter after twelve,” the puma said, looking at the lock screen on his phone. “Won’t be much going on, except more of the same. Care for one of them ‘long walks on the beach’, bun?”
“I got nothing better tae do. Sure,” she replied.
“Great! That’ll give you plenty of time.”
“Eh? Time for what?”
He poked her playfully in the side and said, “I’ve spilled my beans. Now it’s your turn. You get to regale me with the tale of why the L-word has such ‘weight’ and ‘uncomfortable history’ for you.”
“Fuuuuck,” she groaned. Her ears and torso drooped as they strolled down the footpath to the beach.