Enter the Cat Ch. 09byMygypsy©
Hi Lit readers
Sorry its been so long since I posted. This is the last chapter on this story, I am now combining it with To Love a Stray.
The atmosphere in the cab of the truck is thick and tense. We have only been on the road for half an hour but even now the tightly leashed anger is almost palatable. Malcolm sits glaring out the side window while Rosy sits between us, staring out the windscreen ignoring both of us.
I had arrived back from my talk with Wade at the main house to find Malcolm and Mitchell close to blows. Malcolm had continuously taunted the younger tom in my absence until Mitchell had been ready to put him in his place. Unfortunately Rosy had decided that since Sam was away she needed to protect Mitchell and she had been furious in her verbal defence of him. What she didn't think of at the time was her defensive actions made Mitchell appear weak in the eyes of the other toms.
I glance across at Rosy and Malcolm, and then reach down to turn the radio off. I am aware of Malcolm looking my way in the sudden silence that fills the cab. I don't have to look to know there is a bruise forming at the corner of his mouth where Mitchell hit him when I dragged Rosy out of harm's way.
"Rosy, ever been down the coast highway before?" I ask. I am not sure who she is mad at - Malcolm for insulting and provoking her brother, or at me for allowing the brief fight. Maybe she is mad at both of us.
"Yes," Rosy's answer is short and to the point. Obviously she doesn't want to talk.
"You've been to the beach before?" I ask curiously. There is silence except for the steady hum of the engine for several minutes and I am starting to think it will be a long day with Rosy sulking.
"A long time ago," her voice is soft and almost wistful. "Almost another lifetime."
"With Harry Caruthers?" I guess.
I know Rosy very rarely talks about the man that raised her as if she were his own child, until his death. I am not surprised when there is no answer this time and I glance at her when the silence starts to stretch out.
"How'd you like to go onto a beach and not have to worry about watching your back every second?" Malcolm asks. "Maybe Micah will be able to fit a small break in."
"I ... no, Wade'll be wanting you to be getting back," Rosy denies but there is longing in her voice.
I move my fingers on the wheel nervously before gripping it tightly; I am surprised at the nervousness welling in my stomach. I swallow hard then let the words out forcing myself to keep my voice even and calm.
"We can take all the time we like. Maybe we could have lunch at one of the beaches, make it our first date," I say lightly and glance at Rosy with a half smile. It isn't how I hoped or planned to ask her out.
Her eyes are narrowed masking her reaction as she looks my way before glancing at Malcolm. He is busy looking out his window, pretending to be paying us no attention, but he is sure to be listening for her reply. I turn my attention back to the road. The longer the silence stretches, the more taunt my nerves become.
"I won't touch you. I won't even try to hold your hand if that makes you feel more comfortable," I say quietly.
"I guess I don't have a choice," Rosy says tightly. "I'm not the one driving."
"We can have lunch in the truck while we travel," I say evenly refusing to let my disappointment and hurt show.
"I'm stuffed from breakfast," Rosy says. "I doubt I'll be hungry."
"You miss a meal voluntarily?" Malcolm laughs and puts his arm along the back of the seat behind Rosy's shoulders. "Mitchell too busy nursing his bruises to slip you a few dollars?"
"Malcolm," I growl in warning and grip the wheel tightly.
I feel stupid; I should have realised it was Rosy's independent streak making her refuse a meal. I have seen Rosy's hesitancy in accepting anything from any of us, other than her own brothers. I am beginning to think she believed our providing food or clothing for her left her indebted to those providing the items.
"Don't you two start fighting," Rosy snaps. "I happen to be stuck in the middle here."
"The thistle in a flower patch, hey?" Malcolm laughs and drops his arm onto the top of her shoulders.
I feel Rosy's flinch through the bench seat we all sit on and grit my teeth as I refuse to snap at Malcolm. I tighten my grip on the steering wheel and hear it groan its complaint. Even after the couple of months she has spent with us Rosy avoids most contact while in human form and sometimes flinches when touched.
"There are a couple of beaches very few people go to," I tell her evenly as I loosen my hold on the wheel and flex my fingers. "I'll stop at one of those so we can stroll along the beach and not worry about a heap of people getting in our way."
"We got an esky in the truck haven't we?" Malcolm asks and continues without waiting for an answer. "We can stop at one of the fishing co-ops and take home a feed of freshly caught ocean fish. You like prawns don't you Rosy? We'll grab some and I'll cook up a big feed of garlic prawns for tea."
"Can you shut up about food?" Rosy asks sounding exasperated and I glance her way to find her frowning as she stares out the windscreen.
"Ah, don't tell me," Malcolm chuckles, "all this talk of food is making you hungry."
He lets out a heavy breath of air with an 'ooph' and moves his arm from around Rosy's shoulders to clutch his ribs along side of her.
"I didn't elbow you that hard," Rosy protests with a nervous glance my way.
"If he can make that much noise about it, you obviously didn't elbow him hard enough," I say with a low chuckle.
"Don't say that!" Malcolm protests with a laugh and then an exaggerated groan. "I'll end up with more than one busted rib."
"Now yous are just making fun of me," Rosy says. Her tone is mild and she doesn't sound upset.
The tension and anger in the cab has nearly vanished. I smile to myself and relax my grip on the steering wheel. This could turn into a pleasant trip after all.
"Where do we have to take the load?" Malcolm asks after a few moments.
"About twenty kilometres south of Coffs Harbour. Jim Tuck's place, the one he's renovating," I say as I look in the side mirror before changing lanes on the highway.
"I hope you don't get truck-sick Rosy," Malcolm says lightly. "It's gonna be a long day."
"Would travel sickness get me out of being cooped up with you two in a small enclosed space for an extended period of time?" Rosy asks, her eyes narrowed as she studies Malcolm then me closely.
"No," I say before she can get any ideas. "You start to get sick and I'll 'Garfield' you to the outside of the cab."
"Garfield?" Rosy queries with a frown as she tilts her head to the left as she looks my way.
"You've seen those Garfield toys with suction cups on their feet?" Malcolm asks with a laugh. The fat orange tabby cat toys had been a favourite car accessory, nearly as popular as fluffy dice.
"Yeah," Rosy's reply is slightly hesitant and reserved in tone.
"They're often put on the inside of the back windows..." I say before reaching across to flip the glove box open and lift one of the suction cups for the windscreen shade out. I smile trying to convey we are teasing her, but from the narrow eyed look she gives me I doubt anyone has teased her before.
"Damn! We should have stopped to grab some superglue or gaffa tape before warning her!" Malcolm laughs and nudges Rosy with his elbow.
"You wouldn't dare!" Rosy says with a nervous laugh.
"Or if you're willing to sit on Micah, I'll gaffa tape the suction cups to all four before we put him on the roof of the truck. Think you can handle the job?" Malcolm laughs. "Or do you think he'd enjoy that too much?"
"What is it with you pair and gluing individuals to the outside of this truck?" Rosy asks uneasily.
"You've never had anyone tease you before?" I ask lightly. "We're only trying to lighten your mood up,"
"Yeah," Malcolm says quickly. "You nearly had steam coming out your ears."
"Sitting in a small enclosed space with two smelly toms is not my idea of a relaxing way to spend most of the day. And a hot day at that," Rosy says angrily and I realise the note beneath her anger is fear. We had unintentionally scared her and her normal reaction to being scared is to become aggressive if she feels cornered.
"Smelly? You saying I'm smelly?" Malcolm asks in a high squeaky voice sounding ridiculous.
"Yeah, very musky!" Rosy answers as I take a deep breath and confirm her remark for myself.
Damn! Malcolm smells musky because Jazzy is on heat and there is rivalry between Mitchell and him. But me? Maybe because I am the boss at the quarters and there has been unrest the last couple of days?
"That rules out air-conditioning for the drive," I state and wind my window down entirely. Recycling the air in the cabin of the truck would only increase the musky odour Rosy is finding distasteful.
"Stopping at the next servo for ice and cold drinks?" Malcolm asks as he takes several cd's from the glove box. "You like that one?"
I glance at him to find him showing Rosy his choice of music before turning my attention back to the road.
"Just make sure whatever you put on isn't heavy metal," I warn remembering Edwin's preference in music.
I hide my surprise when the music that begins to flow from the speakers is from Kenny Chesney. I smile to myself as he starts singing about some girl who thinks his tractor is sexy. Malcolm sings along, his voice slightly off key but Rosy is laughing at him so I don't tell him to shut up. The kilometres begin to slip behind us, the mood in the cab lightens and Rosy chats easily with us as Malcolm and I laugh and tease.
I pull into a highway service station and buy a variety of drinks and a bag of ice for the esky. When I return to the truck both Rosy and Malcolm are silent and I am immediately aware of the tension in the air. I hand Malcolm his preferred lemon squash before offering Rosy a choice between cold water and coke. I catch her glance towards Malcolm after she eyes the offered drinks; she turns her attention back to the drinks and reaches for the coke after a slight hesitation.
"No strings attached, we look after each other," Malcolm says quietly.
I hear the slight grunt that comes from her but allow no reaction as I pack the extra drinks in the esky along with the ice. I pass the esky to Malcolm leaving him to put the esky in the space behind the seat while I walk around the front of the truck to the driver's door. I pause as I open my soda and take a deep drink before climbing into the driver's seat.
"Let's get this show on the road," I say and reach for the key to start the engine.
As we head down the road once again I wonder what Malcolm said to Rosy to get her to accept the drink so easily. I shrug it off and concentrate on the road ahead, trying to ignore Rosy sitting beside me. She has relaxed and occasionally her arm brushes mine as we go around a corner or the truck bumps over the uneven road surface.
We make good time travelling and reach our destination late morning. Rosy is helpful as we unload the heavy wooden gates. She keeps well out of our way as she guides us manoeuvring the gates into place where they will be hung on gateposts. I accept Jim's offer of morning tea and we stand in the shade of an old gum tree sipping sweet black tea accompanied by a packet of ginger biscuits.
I watch with a mixture of pride and envy as Jim flirts with Rosy; he is older than Wade. I tell myself he is no competition but it still angers my inner cat as Rosy laughs at his rusty jokes and blushes prettily at his compliments.
I am relieved when I can use the excuse we need to head back home to make a polite departure. I climb behind the wheel and fasten my seatbelt as Rosy buckles up between Malcolm and I. The air that blows in the open windows is warm and dry as I turn the truck onto the highway and head north.
"I hope we're stopping for an early lunch," Malcolm announces. "Those biscuits only made me hungrier."
As if in agreement, Rosy's stomach makes a loud noise and Malcolm laughs in delight.
"Now after your stomach added its agreement with my sentiment, you can't say you don't want lunch," he tells Rosy with a gentle nudge against her shoulder.
"Ginger doesn't agree with my stomach," Rosy says evenly and I glance towards her but she is looking at Malcolm.
"Why eat the biscuits then?" I ask curious to find out if what she said was true or she was trying to bluff her way out of accepting a meal.
"He is a nice old man who wanted company and a female to flirt with," Rosy says evenly. "Besides, if you were paying attention I only nibbled on one biscuit and most of that ended up as crumbs on the ground."
"Well why eat it if it doesn't agree with you?" Malcolm asks dryly.
"'Cause he's a nice old guy who just wanted company," Rosy says with a shrug.
"Grab us all a cold drink out of the esky," I tell Malcolm. "Lunch will be the other side of Coffs."
We travel in silence until we reach the outer reaches of Coffs Harbour. I hear Rosy fidget in the seat beside me but don't take my attention off the midday traffic. I can't get the question as to why she would flirt with a human male but not one of us out of my mind.
"You're weird, you know that?" Malcolm says.
"You talking to me?" I ask startled.
"No. Miss can't flirt with a tom but can flirt with an old man who smells like mothballs, here," Malcolm says dryly.
I am startled to hear Malcolm voice similar thoughts to my own, but more startled to hear the resentment behind the words. Was Malcolm starting to become interested in Rosy as well or did he simply not like her preferring another species to our own?
"What? Jealous because I smiled and blushed at a harmless old man?" Rosy asks amused.
"Since your brothers aren't here to put you straight I'll do it for them," Malcolm snaps. "We keep it within our own species."
"Oh really?" Rosy shoots back sarcastically as she turns towards him in her seat. "Is that why most of you guys have returned from town or one of the pubs at different times reeking of sex?"
"Tit for tat is it? Pissed off because Chris came back from town smelling of sex the other day? Well if you haven't noticed Chris isn't in the truck,!" Malcolm says angrily.
"It wasn't about Chris," Rosy snaps angrily and straightens to sit back against the backrest with enough force to make the air hiss out of the seat. "It's none of your business anyway!"
"It is when the she-kitt from the clan I belong to starts getting interested in a human!" Malcolm growls back.
"You ever been lonely?" Rosy yells turning to face Malcolm placing her back to me. "Really lonely? Not just a little bit, but so lonely it feels like no one else exists? So lonely you put up with shit you swore you'd never take from anyone, just to be near another living creature?"
There is sudden silence in the truck cab except for the rumble of the engine and the rush of the air in the windows. Rosy's last sentence hangs in the air between the three of us ominously. I can feel and hear my own heart thudding in my chest and know if I listened closely I would be able to hear Malcolm and Rosy's heartbeats as well. I reach for the gear stick to start bringing the truck engine down through the gears as the tension in the air begins to rise fast.
"Stop the truck," Malcolm says levelly from between clenched teeth.
I check the rear-view mirror and notice how Rosy sits tensed with her back to me, one hand gripping the dashboard as the other unbuckles her seatbelt.
"Stop the truck and let me out," Rosy growls low in her throat and I actually hear her heart rate start to speed up. Her right foot comes up onto the seat and a snarl begins to come from her in a continuous rumble.
I switch lanes as a sign comes up for a take-away shop; I slow the truck down before taking the sharp turn. I have to keep my full attention on the road as the truck lurches in loose gravel. Beside me I am aware of sudden movement and I have to control the urge to slam the brakes on.
"Don't!" Malcolm yells and I hear the slap of flesh meeting flesh.
"Open the door and let me out!" Rosy demands in an angry hiss.
"Let me stop the vehicle, let Malcolm get out, then you can get out." I order in a low even tone. "We don't want to cause a scene by you jumping out of a moving vehicle."
"Stop the fucking truck or I start yelling and screaming blue murder," Rosy snarls and I can smell the stress radiating off her.
"We won't be going far," I say as I pull the truck to a halt in front of a bakery, double parking, and turn my head to watch Rosy hastily jump from where she squatted on the seat to the road beside the truck. I hear Malcolm hiss quietly and glimpse a twenty-dollar note in his hand that he must have tried to give to Rosy. but Rosy is already on the sidewalk and moving away.
Malcolm pulls the passenger door shut and I pull into a gap in the traffic. I am aware he is keeping track of Rosy as I drive along the street slowly, watching for a place I can park the truck legally.
"What the hell do we do now?" Malcolm curses quietly.
"Keep a discreet eye on her, find a park and pray she calms down quickly," I say in a low tone as I wait for a few cars to pass from the opposite direction so I can do a U-turn. There are several vacant parking spaces on the far side of the road and I am sure it is just enough space to put the truck in.
"She was perfectly fine one moment, then totally lost it the next," Malcolm says sounding puzzled as I manage to park the truck.
I turn the engine off and sit watching the opposite sidewalk for a few minutes. I recognise Rosy's movements and easily pick her out from the people she is weaving through.
"Loneliness is part of what keeps her around," I murmur softly to myself.
"She regretted that as soon as she said it. I saw it in her eyes. Then she ... well she lost it," Malcolm says quietly.
"Rosy doesn't like letting anything slip about herself. She tells us what she wants us to know, and she keeps a lot of stuff hidden as well. But I'm sure she will get better as she learns to trust us more," I tell him confidently.
"Yeah, think you've got it about right," Malcolm agrees seriously. "Damn I wish she would hurry up and head over here. My stomach thinks my throat has been cut!"
I laugh softly as I think how hungry Rosy must be feeling as well. Surely the lure of food will help get her to calm down quicker.
"Let's go look what food's on offer," I say opening the door and getting out of the vehicle. "It's always been an ice breaker with her."
"Think I'll start with a cup of strong black coffee," Malcolm mutters.
The display of deep fried food looks fresh but I move on to the hot chicken shop and study the menu for a minute or so before heading out of the shop.
"Over by the truck," Malcolm says quietly.
I glance towards the truck and spot Rosy leaning against a building front in the shade, not far from the truck. She is looking towards us and I have no doubt her eyes are watchful behind the curtain of hair that falls over her face.
"I'm going to grab some fish and chips and a few bits an' pieces," I tell Malcolm.
"I'll grab something from here," Malcolm says before heading back into the shop.
In the shop next door I get three large fisherman's baskets for the variety in them and grab some bottles of drink from one of the fridges before heading for the truck. I open the passenger door and put the wrapped food on the seat while I quickly put the drinks in the esky.
"I hope you're hungry," I say with a glance towards Rosy. She shrugs and looks away from me but not before I notice she has calmed down and is nearly back to her normal self.
"Malcolm is getting some things from the chicken shop, so we'll have a variety of stuff to choose from," I say as I walk over to her. "Just about ready to get back in the truck?"