Alex Reynard's Online Books
"Huh? Caught somethin'?"
"No, dad! Look! Right down there! I think that one's alive!!"
A patient but disbelieving smirk. He remembered all the times he'd wanted to believe the same thing when he'd been young. "I don't think so, squirt."
"Dad, will you just LOOK!?" The smaller, more eager voice pointed vigorously over the side of the boat. "Right down there! The skinny one with the blue shorts!"
The deeper voice sighed and figured he might as well humor the little megaphone. If nothing else, he'd been sitting on his ass so long it had started to go numb. He really didn't need to do much more than steer. The kid could handle the arm all by himself, and was more than willing to do so.
The father pulled the brake, heaved himself up, then stumbled for a moment as feeling came prickling back into his thighs. His son was at the prow of the boat, bent ninety degrees over the rail. He reached out to yank the lad's tail.
"Hey, c'mon. You present me a lever, I gotta pull it to see what it does. In this case, it makes a 'daaaaaad' noise."
The kid snickered. "I'm serious though. He's right down there. We almost ran over him."
The father yawned. He braced a hand on the rail and peered over the side.
At least the kid's description was apt. There was definitely a skinny one below, with blue shorts and a vest. But the scrawny mouse sure as hell wasn't jitterbugging any more than the rest of the deaddies. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"
"Look at his hand, Dad. Fingers?"
"Okay, so they're missing. And?"
The kid gesticulated all over the place. "And none of the others got anything chopped off, do they!?"
The father put his paw on the back of the boy's neck and bade him take a closer look. "Son, those weren't chopped off. See? No blood. He's not an amputee, he was born that way."
The kid pursed his lips, still unconvinced. "Okay, but look at his mouth. And his eyes. They're all dried out from the sun. None of the others are like that."
The father was about to dismiss that as well, but then stopped himself. The kid had a point. The other corpses had always looked like soft and floppy store mannequins. They stank a bit like someone who needed a shower, but they never decomposed. And they didn't dry out in the sun either. "You may be onto something."
A boundless grin of triumph. "I told you so!! You didn't believe me! But I was right! I was right!!" He jumped up and down on the deck.
The father chuckled at the display of sheer exuberance. "Don't celebrate your victories till after the whistle blows. You wanna haul him up and take a closer inspection?"
Instant response: "Of COURSE!"
A laugh. "Allright then, you're the crane master. Get to it."
The boy saluted and leapt for the controls. He handled the levers like he'd been born behind them. The father tried to remember if he'd ever been so graceful with the arm back in his day.
In no time flat, the kid had swung the claw around and scooped their enigma up onto the deck, sweet as you please. Both males knelt somberly over their discovery.
The kid reached down to pry the mouse's eyelids open wider.
"Must you?" the father asked, cringing.
"Well, look at 'em. They're all... blasted out. I think he's blind."
"Or..." The father was starting to take his son's hunch seriously. "...like he laid there staring into the sun until he went blind. This doesn't look like a birth defect or an old injury." He rubbed his chin. "Holy shrimp bucket, squirt, I think you were right all along."
More intense grinning at being vindicated. "So now the big question is, how're we gonna wake him up?"
A shrug. "Might as well try the simplest solution first." He stood back up, winced at the twinge in his knees, and walked over to the catch-pole.
The kid wrung his hands together in gruesome glee at getting to see some blood 'n guts.
The father walked back to their mystery guest. He raised the pole above the mouse's throat, pointy side down. "I really hope you don't feel this, whoever you are."
The son stepped back to avoid backspatter.
The father brought down the pole in a killing blow.
The pain was already gone, but it resonated like a doppler effect. He was definitely aware he'd had a big, heavy metal hook shoved right through his neckmeat. Arms flailed reflexively to ward off any more attacks, then he twisted himself onto all fours, coughing. His head pulsed like a drum. He could barely get his lungs to inflate. Waves of 'red alert' were coming from his heart as it struggled to sync a beat.
There was a jackhammer pounding beside his head. THOOM THOOM THOOM. Or maybe it was just the small feet of a young boy jumping up and down in celebration.
"It worked! It worked! I actually rescued someone! This is WAY better than what Reggie found last week!"
A swirl of nausea sucker-punched the mouse and he toppled sideways to land with a bang on his shoulder. A flaking hand reached out for him. He saw it in his peripheral vision and swung at it reflexively, meager claws extended. He flipped himself sideways to land on his butt, then started pinwheeling his legs to scoot away as fast as possible.
"Hey! Hey, calm down! I was just trying to help!" said a man's voice.
He couldn't yet make sense of anything he was seeing. All the images were funhouse mirror shapes. Drunken colors. "WHO ARE YOU!? WHERE AM I!?"
The boy ran over and skidded down beside the mouse. "You're fine! Just look at me. You're on a boat! We rescued you! You're totally okay."
The mouse clapped his hands to the side of his head, trying to stop the ringing. He shut his eyes tight. He bit his tongue to give himself something to focus on. 'Okay, okay. You're having a panic attack. Calm down. Panic doesn't help anything. Get yourself clear and maybe you can figure this out.' He pulled in a long, slow breath, then let it go.
"Hey, are you-"
"Just give me a second," the mouse interrupted.
The father came over. "Move back, kiddo. Let him breathe." He skootched the boy away, looking somberly down at their salvage. "He's been through something bad."
The kid hugged himself to his father's arm. "I want him to be okay, Dad."
"Me too. First, we give him some time."
The voices sounded kind. Concerned. Not evil and hungry and out to get him. That was good. He made himself focus on that. 'You're not in danger. You're okay. So, heart, you can stop freaking out. Lungs, you can breathe just fine. Brain, you can turn that effing siren off now, I get the point.'
He drew in another deep, cleansing breath. It didn't smell so great, but that wasn't anything to go pukey over. He held the air inside of him, just feeling his lungs inflate for a moment, then exhaled, nice and slow.
He opened his eyes, much calmer now.
In a very short time, he became significantly less calm. He clamped his hands over his muzzle to avoid offending his guests by screaming at their appearance.
They were indeed a father and son, but different species. Though it was hard to tell at first what species. The kid was a feline: that was deducible enough from his swishing tail and triangle ears. The dad was... a sea lion? No, a seal. Streamlined shape, flipper tail, and the webbing on the paws clinched it. Seal.
The reason it was difficult to tell at first, was that they were both entirely devoid of fur. Instead they were bare, tanned skin from head to toe. Not to imply they were naked. The father wore a tank top and jeans, while the boy was in shorts and a tentlike T-shirt with a cartoon gorilla in sunglasses on it. But their faces, tails, and limbs were completely barren. No more than a few scraggly tufts of random, bristly hair here and there.
And the skin itself was... wrong. Diseased. Literal cracks pervaded it like a dry lake bed. Dandruff enough to fill a few snowglobes. This pair was in dire need of moisturizing lotion.
As if that wasn't bad enough, when the mouse's gaze resolved the rest of the scene, he realized there was a six-foot stack of bodies at the back of the boat.
He screamed really, really loud.
The father and son looked at each other with twin expressions of aggravation.
The kid rolled his eyes. "Whoopty-doodoo, pop. You get to do The Tourist Lecture again."
"My faaaavorite thing in the whole wide world," he said with miles of sarcasm.
Despite the electric current of raw terror pulsing all the way down his nervous system, the mouse managed to cut off his latest scream before it could emerge. Something was familiar about this. He knew he'd never been on a boat full of death with two guys who looked like beef jerky before, but still, he had been in a situation like this at some point. Often enough for it to be familiar, actually. He had no idea how he knew, but his 'muscle memory' said so. And it was telling him that the correct reaction now was to be polite and push down his disgust long enough to wait for an explanation. 'Then, I guess, if they really do plan to murder me, I can jump over the edge and swim like crazy.'
The father felt intense relief when he saw rationality return to the mouse's albino eyes. It was always worse when newcomers kept yowling and he'd have to wait out their panic before he could get a word in edgewise. "You okay now? I'm sure we don't look too much like movie stars, but there's nothing to worry about. We're not contagious, is what I mean."
"It is if you live here a while," the kid corrected.
The father lightly whacked him with his tail.
The mouse tried to speak, needed to cough again first, then fiddled with his larynx until he thought it'd cooperate. "I'm sorry. I got scared. I'm kind of phobic about disease. Skin conditions included." He blinked. The words had come out of his mouth, and they were true, yet he had no idea why they were true. He couldn't remember ever being scared of sickness before. It was just something his gut knew as instinctively as his... species?
An icy finger of dread stabbed into his spine. 'I have no idea what I am,' he realized.
The father and son were puzzled to see their guest suddenly look down and frantically examine himself all over.
"We didn't go through your pockets yet, I promise," the kid said.
The mouse hadn't even considered that. He was so busy checking his feet, tail, paws, and ears that his clothing had utterly escaped his notice. He patted around his vest and shorts. 'At least the colors are nice.' He really liked the yellow stripes. 'Looks like a mailman's uniform.' Was that his job? No, he was too young for a job. At least he felt like it. He looked down again. Yes, definitely a kid's body. Okay. 'So I know I'm small and that I'm a mouse, and that- Holy crap, I can see all my ribs! Euchh! I really need to eat something!'
That was when he got his first good look at his right hand. So far he'd been seeing it without fully registering it, but now he stared in shocked disbelief. Most of his fingers were missing. Only a chunk of each proximal knuckle remained. He wiggled his stumps. There was no pain or scars, and at least he still had his thumb. But he had no doubt this had happened recently. If he'd been born like this, it would have felt natural. It definitely didn't.
And what the hell was that slit on his palm? Was it glowing!? What in the...
The father took a step forward, holding his palms up to show no ill intent. "Hey, kid, what's wrong? Anything we can help with?"
The mouse stared down at the boat's floorboards for a moment, seeing nothing. His mind was racing. He managed to gesture that he was fine, though of course that was a big fat lie. "You've never met me before, have you?" he asked absently, already knowing the answer.
The seal father shook his head. "Nope. My son fished you out a couple minutes ago."
"I saved you!" the kid added cheerfully.
The mouse looked up. "...From what?"
"Well, you were just lyin' there like this-" He made a dead-eyed zombie face. "But I rekkanized you weren't a stiff and told pops."
The mouse took another deep breath, barely hearing what was said. He tried to think of his own name and brought back nothing but a blank smudge. Poking at it even pushed him away, like a magnet repelling. 'Dammit, I'm not completely gone, am I? I feel normal. I'm not, like, babbling gibberish with the mind of a toddler. I can still speak and think. I know the words 'mouse' and 'vest' and 'shorts'. I know I'm hungry, and I know I'd like some soup and a sandwich. So okay, that means...' What did it mean? He tried to think logically about this. 'I've got amnesia, obviously. But it's not total. I'm not incapacitated. I've got basic knowledge, but not any personal knowledge. Okay. Okay. That's really horrifying, but it could be worse. I've got a place to start from, at least.'
One thing was for sure, he wasn't about to try and force his memories to come back. He knew from past experience (even if he didn't know which experience) that memories hated being chased. The harder you tried to grab a slippery one, the farther away they'd squirm. 'What I need to do for now is stop trying. Maybe it'll be temporary. Maybe I'll be talking about something else later and it'll all come back to me in a snap.' It had worked before. He had no concrete examples, but he knew he remembered the feeling of an elusive answer jumping suddenly to mind out of nowhere.
'That's something else in my favor. I might not be able to remember any specifics, but I still know what certain memories used to feel like. Maybe that'll help me track them down.' He managed a smile. He was in a bad situation but he was handling it okay.
And it also seemed that, whoever he was, he was fairly smart. He blushed a bit in modesty.
He realized the other two furs were staring at him, wondering what the strange parade of facial expressions he'd just displayed were all about.
"Sorry about that. I just figured out that I don't have any idea who I am. Amnesia. But I'm not gonna let myself get too worried about it. It might work itself out after a while." Plus, there were other things to figure out first. Like, 'where am I?' Just 'on a boat' wasn't good enough.
The father was honestly amazed at how quickly this mouse had gotten himself under control. In about thirty seconds, their passenger had gone from a thrashing, feral animal to someone wounded but sensible. "I'm sorry to hear that, kiddo. We'll help you out if we can."
The mouse nodded. "Thank you. Since I don't know mine, what are your names?"
The cat kid immediately interrupted and zoomed to the mouse's side with his paw held out. "I'm Skeeto! They call me that 'cuz I buzz around bein' a nuisance. I rescued you! This is my dad, Tak. He's great!"
The father smiled warmly at that.
Skeeto patted the deck. "This is our boat, the-"
"The Jenny May?" the mouse guessed on impulse.
Skeeto tilted his head. "Nope. It's called the Summer Vacation."
Interesting name. The mouse had no flippin' idea why that other one had come to mind so quickly. Maybe it just sounded like a good ship name. Or maybe, he hoped, he'd heard it somewhere before. "Why's it called that?" he asked Skeeto.
Tak answered. "What else you gonna name a hollowed-out, upside-down school bus?"
The mouse burst out laughing at the concept. Though looking around, it had been right in front of him the whole time.
The boat was roomy, banged up, scratchbuilt, and very yellow. The deck was made of worn timber but the sides were a familiar diamond plate metal he remembered from trips to school. ('So I've been to school. One more thing about me. Good.') At the front of the boat rose a dinged-up crane arm. It looked like the dragon's head on a Viking ship. At the stern was a canopy made from the bus' roof. Below were a few green vinyl seats and a cooler.
...And that pile of dead bodies. He'd forgotten about those for the moment.
'Nah. Those have gotta be mannequins or crash test dummies or something. These people are too nice to be maniacs.'
Okay, so he was on a bus-boat. His rescuers must have fished him out of the ocean. He had no idea why his clothes weren't wet. Maybe he'd been lying on a rock? He looked up at the sky. No seagulls. Everything was a dull, overcast white. He sniffed the air. Ugh! It stank like B.O.! He thought the ocean was supposed to smell salty and clean.
He started to stand. Skeeto popped up like toast to offer assistance, but the mouse rebuffed him. "Thanks. No. I think I'm fine." His body did feel better now. He was creaky and stiff, and he hurt a lot from inactivity he didn't remember, but for the most pa"AAAAAAAAAAIIIGGHH!!!!"
Tak had just been coming back from the cooler with a glass of lemonade. He was really glad he hadn't given it to the mouse beforehand, otherwise it would have spilled all over the place (and this stuff was in short supply). He also wished he'd thought to give the kid a warning about the ocean.
The mouse flailed and tripped backwards, landing flat on the deck, still screaming. What he'd seen had been beyond horrific. Unimaginably awful.
An infinite vista of death, all the way out to the horizon and beyond.
Skeeto was at his side, holding the other boy's shoulders down gently and looking heartbroken with concern. "It's okay! Don't freak out! It's normal! I know it looks like Halloween, but it's normal!"
"CORPSES!!! IT'S ALL CORPSES!!!" the mouse shrieked.
"Well, yeah," Skeeto said.
The mouse shut his eyes tight. Oh god, that horrible sight persisted. An afterimage he couldn't force away. Endless bodies, all piled on top of each other by the billions. Impossible numbers of bodies. Men, women, children. There were even babies. Some of them had their eyes open, staring at the sky unblinking. Their limbs were all twisted around like someone had carelessly unloaded them from the back of a dumptruck, or a garbage truck, throwing them anyplace convenient. It was a mass grave wide enough to contain an entire genocide. A dozen genocides. A thousand.
Tak knelt down beside the mouse and touched the cold glass to his forehead. "There. Nice and cool, okay? Relax. I'm sorry I didn't prepare you for that. Are you listening? No one killed them, allright? They just appear here. Like rain. No one knows why. But they're not normal dead bodies. They're just... there. They were probably never alive. They're like, replicas of bodies. Counterfeits."
The moisture on the mouse's forehead actually was pretty soothing. He tried to recall that feeling from before: being in a scary situation but waiting calmly for an explanation. "It's always like this? It's normal?"
"Always has been, so long as anyone can remember," Tak reassured in a lullaby voice. "It's nothing to get upset over. Looks bad, yeah, but we all get used to it in time."
The mouse did his best not to hyperventilate. He tried to take Tak's explanation at face value. And oddly, it wasn't difficult. Somehow there was a part of him that was saying, 'Okay, sure. That makes sense.' But of course it didn't. Nowhere on Earth could-
'I'm not on Earth,' he realized.
He felt it before it consciously came to him, and when it did, it hit him so strongly it was undeniable. He was somewhere fucking else. The name ran away when he tried to say it, but some subconscious part of him already knew where he was. He had traveled to a land where it was totally the norm to have buttloads of dead folks just laying around all over. He had no memory of how he'd come to be here or when, but he recognized the emotional state of irritated disgust. Of encountering repulsive stuff like this so many times, over and over and over, he was more sick of it than frightened.
Horrible as the sight of all those dead people had been, it had given him another clue to his identity. A huge one. He had to admit some gratitude for that.
He realized he had his hands sandwiched over his muzzle again and was cutting off his own air. Sucking in a breath, he sat up.
"Careful!" Tak fumbled to keep the lemonade glass from sailing over the edge. A few drops spilled anyway and it made him grimace. "Here, pal. Better drink this before you send it overboard."
The cool glass was slipped into his hands. He sniffed it first, just to be sure. It smelled... odd. But odd in a foodsy way, not poison. He sipped at the pink straw. His eyebrows went up. Definitely lemonade, but with something spicy in it. He tried another mouthful. Garlic? And jalapenos? Jeez, that was weird! But he kept drinking it anyway. It was bizarrely refreshing.
Skeeto watched the mouse drink and squirmed in obvious distress.
Tak rolled his eyes. "Yes, I know that was yours. You can have mine."
The kid lit up. "Cool! Thanks! We'll share it then."
He skritched behind his son's ear. "You're a good kitten, you know that?"
The mouse saw this bit of familial affection and felt an inexplicable bolt of sadness. He didn't know why, but he envied what he saw. Ached for it. Maybe that was another clue. He tried to focus on that small, sweet gesture to keep his mind away from death.
...Though now that the thought had reoccurred, it was all he could think about. Dammit.
Oddly, a purely logistical question popped into his mind. "If this is a boat, and bodies are solid, then how are we sailing over them?"
"Anti-flesh electromagnets," Tak said, as if that should have been elementary.
"Oh, sure," said the mouse.
Skeeto flung himself into explanation mode. "Yeah! We just scoot over top like a breeze! And the crane over there's what we scoop 'em up with. The good ones we pile over there in the back and take 'em home for the clothes and wallets and..." He trailed off, realizing their guest might be revolted by the idea.
He was. The mouse stuck his tongue out. "You guys scavenge corpses!?"
Tak shrugged. "We live right next to an abundant natural resource, so... You make do with what life gives you."
"Vomit city," the mouse assessed.
"Vomitrocious," Skeeto agreed. "I only got here a coupla years ago and I had nightmares for weeks. But Mom 'n Dad helped! And the other kids did too. So I'm over it now." He smiled proudly. Then he leaned in for a conspiratorial whisper. "So don't feel bad. One time I even wet the bed, but it was only once and it never happened again so that's okay."
The mouse nodded, indicating he'd keep the secret. "Where did you come from before?" he asked.
The kitten looked somber for a moment. "Well... y'know. When I fell asleep." Then his eyes opened wide with a horrible revelation. "Dad! He doesn't know! I mean, where he is!"
The mouse put up a hand to stop the forthcoming explanation. "I can guess," he said simply. "Either I'm dreaming or I'm dead, aren't I?"
Tak kneaded the edge of his tanktop. "Could be either," he admitted. "You're taking this awfully well."
"I went through this before. I don't remember when, but I must have. I even almost know the name of this place."
"Phobiopolis," Skeeto supplied. "Our village is called Scarlatina. It's nice."
The first name felt incredibly familiar, though the second one not at all. 'If I keep up this pace, I'll know who I am by dinnertime,' he thought, trying to find a silver lining.
"So you got amnesia'd after you showed up here, huh? Fascinating." Skeeto stroked his chin thoughtfully.
The mouse chuckled at the kid's studious face.
"We gotta call you something."
He shrugged. "One thing I definitely don't know is my name. I keep trying and it's blocked. In my mind it looks like an eraser mark."
Skeeto studied the other boy closely. "Your eyes are pink. How 'bout Coral?"
"That's not really a name, son," Tak said.
"Is 'Skeeto'?" the boy counterargued, crossing his arms.
Tak made a 'not bad' face. "Point."
The mouse let the word roll back and forth in his mind. It did not spark any recognition, so it definitely wasn't his original. But it had a nice sound regardless. "I like it."
Skeeto thrust his paw out for a shake. "Then pleased to meet you, Coral!"
The mouse hesitated a moment before taking it. He could see the skin flaking all over those fingers.
"Oh right, the Dry. We tried tellin' you about it before. It happens after a while 'cuz there's no water out here. Or maybe it's something in the air? Who knows! Anyways, it doesn't hurt. And you'll catch it eventually anyways."
The mouse did not like the sound of that. But... there were worse fates. He shook Skeeto's paw. "I guess we'll see. And I'm pleased to meet you too." As it turned out, the worst part of the handshake was expecting his own fingers to participate, then remembering they'd gone AWOL. He looked over to the father. "You too, Tak. Thanks for the lemonade. I've never had that kind before."
"It's plant juice," he said. "Made from one of the few things that'll grow here. And not very often, so it's a special treat. That's why I was so worried about you spilling it." He reached down for a handshake as well. "You ready to stand up again?"
Coral shook his head. "Probably not. But it isn't like I can spend the rest of my life sitting on my butt on a boat, right? And at least I'm prepared this time." Bracing himself for the view, he held onto Tak's webbed hand as the seal pulled him up. Coral looked out past the edge of the ship to the surrounding ocean.
He wobbled over to the edge and held tight to the railing. He wanted neither to fall in or puke. The sight of all those corpses was absolutely stomach-churning. But if he tried, he could make himself think of them as mere inanimate objects. 'They're piles of clothes, that's all.' He knew he couldn't keep up that lie very long, but hopefully his stomach would be ready for reality by then.
He looked around to the back of the boat. "You guys really do harvest them? Like fishing?"
"Absolutely," Tak said.
A really rancid thought came to mind. "You eat them too, don't you?"
Skeeto grinned with a young boy's boundless love of grossness. "AbsoLUTEly! Steaks and chops and ribs and hamburgers!" He licked his lips and rubbed his tummy.
Coral put a hand over his mouth.
For the next few hours, Coral sat on the cooler and relaxed in the shade. It felt good to be out of the sun. All the while, Skeeto explained in endless detail about the fine art of body scavenging. Tak mostly lounged in his seat and occasionally flicked the steering rig to and fro. But the kitten was a ricocheting bullet. Back and forth, stem to stern, checking the ocean in all directions and working the crane whenever he spotted something interesting.
The main thing, he said, was to look for bodies without a mark. Villagers from Scarlatina had been sailing these 'waters' for generations. To ensure that fellow fishermen could tell a searched body from a fresh one, they always stamped a blue ink circle on the cheek. Aside from that, it was simply a matter of keeping an eye out for the good ones. Coral hesitated, but couldn't stop himself from asking what exactly constituted a 'good one'. Skeeto listed off a few dozen indicators that the deceased might be carrying valuable possessions. Jewelry was obvious. Ditto personal electronics, paperback books, and wallets. The villagers had all the clothing they could ever possibly need, but certain fabrics were useful for crafting. Leather goods were highly sought after. Likewise denim, corduroy, silk, and certain other types that could be unraveled for thread. But the biggest scores were always backpacks and purses. Any kind of bag that might have unusual items inside. Whenever someone found one of those, it was like landing a trophy marlin.
Coral sat listening in fascination. It made his brain wobble to hear something as gruesome as corpse-robbing described with such banality. 'I suppose a furson can get used to anything,' he thought. He made it clear he wasn't comfortable enough to help out yet, but Skeeto didn't mind. He was full of youthful industriousness, happy and proud to do everything by himself. Coral sat and watched in mixed revulsion/admiration for how skillfully the little cat could flop a corpse up on the deck, search every inch of it for treasure, then stamp it, lift it, and cast it back in. Catch and release. Coral asked about the pile of bodies they were keeping. Skeeto said those were ones with solid muscle tone that'd make for good eatin'. Coral thought he'd very likely be sticking to fruits and vegetables at dinner.
It seemed a foregone conclusion from their attitudes, but Coral still made sure to ask whether they were inviting him home for the night. Tak was surprised. Obviously the mouse was welcome. In fact, Tak was willing to let him stay on for the next few days until he regained his memory, or decided to find someone else in town to settle with. Coral was touched, and a little stunned. Tak's generosity was so immediate. No hesitation. Just, 'of course we'll help'. It almost made the mouse cry. He shook the seal's hand and thanked him again and again. He even leaned in for a hug, and did not cringe too much at the dandruff.
Tak remembered the mouse's germophobia and realized how much of an effort the hug had taken. He patted him on the head (noting how long it had been since he'd last felt living fur), and said that his house was now Coral's too.
"Maybe Skeeto will even end up with a new brother?"
The mouse was speechless. He looked across the deck at the busy kitten running back and forth between port and starboard. Coral realized something else about himself then. He'd never had a brother before. Or any kind of sibling. He wasn't even sure he'd had a father. When he searched into that feeling, the results were muddy. But one thing he did know, the idea of being gifted a brand new family felt wonderful. This time he hugged Tak without hesitation.
The Summer Vacation sailed on and on across the afterlife's strangest sea. Coral eventually got tired of sitting and pitched in with the work. Folding clothes and sorting through wallets wasn't too distasteful. And he found he could still grasp things allright with his mutilated hand by pinching bits between thumb and palm. He'd need further practice, but he was relieved to find he wasn't crippled completely. Actually, the hardest part turned out to be looking at the faces on all the ID cards and realizing that this furson was now just a pile of meat on the deck.
Tak reassured him about that. While no one in Scarlatina knew for certain, their best guess was that, as he'd said, these dead bodies had never actually been living. Phobiopolis seemed to create them. It was often speculated that whenever someone died on Earth, Phobiopolis would take a 'snapshot', and here they would appear. Coral felt a little better about that. The idea felt plausible. The longer he'd observed the bodies, the less real they seemed. Like big floppy theater props. The fact that they didn't stink of decomposition was a big factor. He thought that maybe, if he stayed here a while, he'd eventually get to a point where the sight of them would just be like looking at a deli window.
Skeeto began screaming bloody murder and Coral rushed to help him. But they were screams of excitement, not pain. Skeeto reeled in a plump, rich-looking female panda whose hands were wrapped around a pink leather purse. Plus she had earrings, a brooch, and a gold wedding band. Skeeto snatched up the purse and poured the contents out on the deck like he was dumping out Halloween candy. He gaped in elation at the plethora of cosmetics. A haul like this would have the village ladies banging on his door with cash in hand. And if he held onto the jewelry, he could trade it with that peddler who came 'round once a month with his cart. Skeeto whooped at his good fortune and ran circles around the boat, finally crashing into his father and asking him at a hundred words per second if he could sell it all himself or did it have to go into the family account. Tak smiled. "Hey, you've done all the work today. It's yours." Skeeto practically crawled up his shoulders showing his affection. Then he fired himself like a torpedo across the deck and pummeled Coral in a pile-driver of a hug. Coral found he was laughing just as hard.
They continued to scavenge a few hours more, but no prize they scored was as big as the ritzy panda. Skeeto found a guy whose fanny pack still had some trail mix in it and he offered to share. Coral turned a bit green at the idea. "More for me," the kitten said and chowed down. Skeeto also showed some interest when he came upon a woman's passport, but grunted in disappointment when it was from a country he already had. Local kids traded them like game cards, he explained.
Together they found several nice pairs of shoes, some hair accessories, several watches, a hearing aid, a cane, two novels, dozens of wallets, dozens of pens, dozens of phones, and piles upon piles of utterly useless money. Coral was surprised that Skeeto chucked most of the expensive-looking electronics overboard. "Just junk," the cat said. They'd sometimes save the very best ones for trading with outsiders, but most were useless. No signals out here to make them work after all, and no salvageable parts inside. Game systems were a different story though. They definitely kept those. And obviously, batteries were worth quintuple their weight in gold.
Coral was starting to think that Scarlatina was stuck in the dark ages. "No, we've got electricity," Skeeto said. There was more than enough wind along the coastline to power generators. And some of the houses' engines still worked. Coral was puzzled by that remark, but Skeeto said he'd see for himself when they got home.
Tak took the sunset's overture as his cue to head to port. He grinned in a 'Wait'll you get a load of this' way and told Coral to brace himself. The mouse leapt for one of the vinyl seats and held on. Good thing too, as the Summer Vacation, which had been crawling along at a pace no faster than brisk walking, suddenly took off like a hydroplane racer.
The electromagnet thrummed beneath their feet, sending a vibration through the deck that numbed Coral's toes right through his sandals. Tak steered them home by dead reckoning, smiling unconcernedly the whole time. He told Coral that, since the boat was hovering over the surface, there was almost no friction to slow them down. He could go even faster than this if he really had to. Coral assured him he didn't need a demonstration. He also asked if it was safe for Skeeto to be climbing up on the crane arm to lean out and let the wind blow his lips back. Tak acknowledged the danger, but said that even if the kitten fell, he'd die too quickly to feel any pain. Coral was absolutely horrified by the callousness of that until Tak reminded him of earlier, the whole 'hook through the throat' routine. Coral calmed down again as he remembered this place's rule of impermanent death. That was one more thing to add to his list of clues. If he still feared death in a place like this, he hadn't been around for long.
At their thunderous pace, Coral soon spotted a megalithic orange tidal wave on the horizon. It was a sheer cliff of ruddy rock, a hundred feet high or more. It stretched out in both directions, far past the limits of his vision. As the boat drew closer, Coral could make out structures built all up and down the cliff's face. When they were finally close enough for details, Tak slowed their craft to a nice, easy crawl to give Coral plenty of time to take it all in.
It was a sight that should have been straight out of a horror film, yet it wasn't. A vertical city made of cars and clothes and bone. Dozens upon dozens of wrecked camper vans, panel trucks, buses, trailers, and other large conveyances were all stacked up like building blocks. And people were living in them! While most of the city's visible activity was happening below on the beach, Coral could see all sorts of things going on up above. Kids sat in doorways with their legs dangling down. Women leaned out of windows to hold conversations with the next 'apartment' over. Ladders were everywhere. People were shinnying up and down them like flies on a wall. There were elevators too, kept in constant motion by pulleys made from buckled-together belts. At the base of the city were innumerable tents and other portable structures. Skins of clothing and twine stretched across structures of metal and bone. Femurs were the most common, but there were plenty of fibulas, tibias, humeruses, ribs, even skulls. The bustling villagers were all as bald as naked mole rats, but also dressed in whatever they felt suited them best. Vivid personal expression was the norm here. Coral specifically noted a lot of decorated piercings, with strings, feathers or ribbons running through them. This seemed to indicate status, or maybe profession. Until now it hadn't clicked, but both Tak and Skeeto had them too.
Despite his lack of concrete memories, Coral felt sure that this was one of the most colorful places he'd ever seen. It was like a redneck Shangri-La mixed with La Dia De Los Muertos. Absolutely amazing.
When he turned to ask about some of the things he was seeing, Tak and Skeeto were busy loading the day's loot into mesh nets and laundry bags (though Skeeto secreted the purse deep inside his backpack, and swore Coral to secrecy about it). Coral avoided touching the actual bodies, but he did help with packing in the clothing and other items.
They passed a harbor. Most of the other boats had also started life as something land-based. Lots more buses, a tanker truck, even an airplane fuselage. Coral read the names as they passed by. Beulah. Silver Sunshine. Studfinder. Kathy's Revenge. Wowgler's Hop. That last one made him giggle. Soon he and Skeeto were saying it repeatedly and snickering themselves insensible.
Tak pulled into the dock as smooth as butter. Several muscley fellows jumped on to unload cargo. Tak talked business with a fat guy in a fancy hat while Coral and Skeeto waited patiently. The fat hat guy paid in measured strips of velvet, then they both performed a secret tradesman's handshake. Tak slung some clothes and meat over his shoulder and called the boys to follow him.
Then it was off through the scurry of the city. The sights and smells were dizzying. Tak held Coral's paw to prevent him getting lost, which he knew might be easy. They passed through an open-air market where everyone was shouting and walking barefoot through the sand. Food carts zoomed to and fro with people weaving out of the way. Most of what was being sold was clothes and jewelry, but Coral saw all sorts of other stuff that had been harvested from pockets. Plus things that definitely hadn't been. Strange vegetables were on display. Potted plants and pets. Squiggly things that meeped and howled. Art, too. Sculptures and paintings, gorgeous and shocking. Coral wondered if the merchants had to pack everything in whenever it started raining, but immediately felt foolish about that idea. The speckled, shingled skin of all the residents testified to the unlikeliness of any shift in the weather. Coral wondered if everyone in town was constantly thirsty, or if they just stopped caring after a while.
They hadn't traveled far before Tak directed them to an elevator. Coral was hesitant. The open platforms traveled slowly up and down the side of the cliff like a vertical ski lift. Coral asked if they were safe. Tak said they were called paternosters, and gestured to a man and woman getting on the same platform nearby, with all five of their children accompanying. That looked sturdy enough.
Still, the ride was rickety and heart-stopping. Coral couldn't bear to look down as they ascended. He instead looked at the derelict vehicles they passed, all converted into homes. Brittle ivy twined around door handles and side view mirrors. Many of the vans were painted with murals. And the cliff itself was colorful, its rock as orange as a carrot smoothie. Even craning his neck, Coral couldn't see the edge where it turned into darkening sky.
The elevator was similar to an escalator, in that it never actually stopped moving. Everyone had to hop off quickly when their tier came close. Tak held onto Coral's vest just in case. Alongside the vehicles were narrow walkways made of bare boards sticking out like straws. Skeeto raced across them fearlessly. Coral chose his steps with care, worrying about stumbling, falling, and splinters.
Finally they reached a brown-striped RV that Skeeto proudly introduced before bounding inside. Coral was a bit concerned about how much sleeping space he'd have, but this worry vanished as he realized that each vehicle was only the entrance. The RV hid a hollowed-out cave carved into the cliff. He gawked as he stepped through. It wasn't the most spacious apartment, but it was immediately cozy. Like a bunny burrow in a storybook. Soft rugs covered the floor, repurposed from sweaters and winter coats. Bookshelves, photos, scattered toys. Light from salt lamps provided a calming glow.
"HOME, MOM!!!" Skeeto blared.
Into the livingroom emerged a slender fennec. Furless as anyone else, but her ears were unmistakable. Her paws were dirty like she'd just been gardening or working with clay. She wiped them on her shirt. "So, what've my two fearless necronauts brought home to me this evening?"
Skeeto rammed into her in a hug, then pointed out Coral. "I caught a mouse!" he declared with pride.
Coral waved shyly. "Hi, ma'am."
"One of your school friends, or-" She stopped. "No. He's still got his fur... Wait! Did you actually-!?"
Tak nodded and patted Skeeto's head. "Eagle-eyes here spotted him laying right out in the open with the other deaddies, or so we thought. He doesn't know who he is or how he got here, so I was thinking we could put him up for a few nights till he's back on his feet."
The fennec looked at Coral with such intense concern it almost stung. She opened her arms. "Come here, sweetheart. Come here."
The mouse crossed the room in mild disbelief. Something about this felt nigh-impossible. Skeeto stepped aside to let him take his place for a hug.
Coral tucked his face against the fennec's muddy blouse and felt warm arms surround him.
"That must have been terrifying for you," she said.
"And you're so thin! Barely more than skin and bone. We'll have to get some food in you, won't we? And what's these lines around your eyes?" She tried to rub them away but the pink marks seemed to be burned in.
"Don't overwhelm him, mom," Skeeto kidded.
She patted between Coral's ears. "Sorry. Instincts. I'm Kat, by the way."
Coral glanced at Tak.
"Yup. Spelled the same, but reversed," he confirmed. "We named each other for the ceremony."
Coral wasn't sure what ceremony he meant, but context implied a marriage of some sort.
"You really don't know your own name?" Kat asked. She checked the boy's vest in search of a tag. "I see a double KB here, but that might be a brand."
"Skeeto's been calling me Coral," he shrugged. "I'm fine with that for now."
She smiled and brushed his face. "Because of your eyes, I bet. They're very beautiful."
There was something about that small touch, her fingers soft against his cheek. An overwhelming wave of emotion crashed into the small mouse. He suddenly grabbed hold of the gentle fennec and began to cry intensely. He tucked his head down and pressed close to her. Chest-wracking sobs came from within him, all perfectly silent.
"I... I'm sorry! Did I say something wrong?" she asked.
He shook his head, trying to convey that he didn't know why he was feeling this way. But it wasn't a bad feeling, not at all. This was a heartquake caused by regaining something he had no idea he'd ever lost. Something so precious it seemed impossible he could ever attain it again. This was grief for having never truly known this moment before, and joy at finally being here now.
A simple, caring touch. To be held while he cried.
Was there any better feeling in all the world?
Dinner that night was delicious. Coral didn't ask a single question about where or who it had come from. He ate everything that was put in front of him heartily and with gratitude. He literally couldn't remember the last time he'd had a meal this good.
Skeeto talked the whole time, often with his mouth full. Quick to answer any question his new friend could ask, and just as quick to supply bonus information. Kat and Tak filled in whatever they could as well. The more Coral learned, the more he kept track of what felt familiar, what didn't, and what emotions sparked within him. Even if his name and history were still out of reach, he was discovering a lot about what kind of furson he was at his core.
After everyone was nicely full and the dishes were cleaned up, Skeeto showed Coral a game system and they took turns annihilating enemy seafoods till moonbeams crept down through their windows. Kat suggested that maybe the boys should get to bed eventually. 'Eventually' was mom code for 'ASAP'. She let them have one more cookie each, then lights out. Skeeto offered to share his toothbrush with Coral. Coral paled and just used his finger. Skeeto realized there was a lot of teasing potential with this new mouse.
Skeeto offered to share his bedroom as well, not wanting Coral to have to sleep alone on the couch. This, Coral was fine with. They pulled Skeeto's camping bed out from his closet: a squashy beanbag pouch that felt like sliding into a big soft mouth. Tak and Kat came in to say goodnight, and both pledged in the days ahead to help Coral regain his memory. But that was for tomorrow. For now, all they could do was wish him sweet dreams. That was plenty.
The small bedroom went dark. Skeeto wanted to whisper more about kids at school and favorite foods, but eventually, after four yawns in a row from Coral, he got the hint.
"How can you be tired? You slept all morning until we found you," he kidded.
Coral laughed, then thanked Skeeto again for saving him. He rolled over into the comforting squashiness of his bed.
He felt... whole. Like without even knowing what to search for, he had found it.
As sleep tugged insistently at his eyelids, he found himself thinking that, even if he never recovered the story of his past, maybe that wouldn't be so bad.