Greg couldn’t stop himself from tearing up a little as he watched Adele and Natalya do cartwheels across the park. Yalathanil was watching the girls with a confused expression on his face. “What is meaning, this?”
“Adele…” Greg swallowed. “She hasn’t been able to…” He exhaled. “She was in that chair for six years.” He wiped at his eyes. “She used to dance, before the chair. Now she is free to dance again.”
“To feel her fins…” Yalathanil slowly nodded. “The chair is like a tank, when before she had the sea.”
“Yeah.” Greg gave him a small smile. “I guess you would understand.” He watched Yalathanil step forward, then turn to the side and move a half step. “What are you —” He cut off as Yalathanil attempted a cartwheel, stumbling a little.
“Difficult.” Yalathanil stood, then turned again, lifting his arms above his head before leaning to the side again.
“Okay, um…” Greg exhaled. “It’s been a couple years, but watch. Like this.” He turned sideways into a lunge, then slowly put his hands on the ground. Then he kicked his feet up and over his head one at a time before landing in a lunge again. “See?”
“Yes. I think.” Yalathanil tried to imitate the slow-motion movements, but didn’t get his feet all the way over and instead just sort of half jumped his legs. “They do faster.”
“Yeah, it’s actually a little easier if you have momentum.” He demonstrated again at normal speed.
Yalathanil tried again, this time managing a reasonable cartwheel. Both of them turned at the sound of applause, and saw the girls cheering for them. Greg started laughing, and after a moment Yalathanil did the same. “Come on!” Natalya gestured to them. “Last one to the swings is a rotten egg.” She and Adele started running.
They exchanged a look before taking off after the girls.
“They are looking for a fishman and a woman in a wheelchair…” Natalya grinned again at Adele. “So, unless it’s the folks who have actually seen us before we should be able to walk right past them without them taking a second look.”
“Hide in plain sight.” Greg nodded. “It’s risky, but it does tend to work.” He exhaled. “They might be able to track credit cards if they’ve got a sheriff on their —”
“Thought of that.” Natalya pulled an envelope out of her purse. “I went to the bank and took out a lot of cash. They’ll know what town we are in, but no more and this way we can avoid leaving a trail.” She started to divide the cash into four piles, then frowned a moment before looking up at Yalathanil. “Do you happen to know how money works?”
“This is…” Yalathanil pointed at the bills, then said the word as though tasting it. “Money?”
“Right, uh…” She looked down. “Okay, these numbers are the denominations.” She pointed at the numbers. “That will tell you how many of the bills are needed. So, if you need a twenty, you just give them…” She looked up at him.
“Twenty of those papers?”
“No. You give them a twenty.” She gestured at the bills.
He gave her a confused look. “This is what I said.”
“No, see, cause this is a twenty…” She pointed. “And this is a ten.”
“Yala…” Adele picked up a twenty and pointed at the numbers. “Do you know what these symbols mean?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“Okay, uh…” Natalya sat back. “Yala, maybe we should handle the money until we teach you about numbers and letters?” When he nodded, she gave a sigh of relief, then redivided the money into three piles. “Alright, let’s get something to eat, and figure out a ride. We don’t need ID for bus tickets, and that should get us to a city with more resources.”
“Right. We have a plan.” Greg nodded. “We should also, maybe, uh…” He looked down at himself. “Clean clothes?”
“Oh, yeah, good idea.”
“No, they are called that because you wear them under your regular clothes.” When Yalathanil gave her a blank look, Adele sighed. “It’s for hygiene and comfort and it keeps the moisture away from your skin.”
“Skin should be moist.” Yalathanil frowned.
“Not too moist though or…” She had no idea how to even begin explaining. “Just wear them, alright?” A horrible thought came to her and she leaned forward. “Did Greg explain to you how toilets work?” She saw the shopkeeper giving them a very odd look and sighed. “He’s Dutch. From Amsterdam.” The shopkeeper gave her an understanding smile and went back to folding. Adele turned back toward Yalathanil. “Did he?”
“He had trouble explaining so I asked him to show me.” Yalathanil shrugged. “Did not know humans could also change colors.”
“Yalathanil, my friend…” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Please, please, next time you ask him something like that make sure Nat and I are there to see the look on his face.”
The strange area was filled with people, their outer coverings all widely varied. Some barely had any outer-coverings at all. The outer coverings, clothes as Adele had called them, he’d been given were of different material than he was used to. She called it ‘denim’, and the ‘underwear’ also felt strange. He’d tried to adjust it and Adele had pulled his hand away before he could. It was apparently not polite to do so where others could see.
This place was called a ‘farmer’s market’, and was apparently an area people came to acquire food and other items. He followed his friends as they picked up various foods and asked him his opinion. Most of the meat had clearly been killed days before being offered up, and he wasn’t certain what some of the other items were. A few of the people had morsels available, small bites to be given away to determine quality. Something Natalya called a ‘grape’ was a wonderful treat, but something called a ‘pepper’ set his mouth aflame.
Somewhat to his surprise, he found he was enjoying himself. This was a better way to experience the surface world. Welcomed and among friends. Greg gave him something called a slushie, which appeared to be flavored ice grated into a cup. It tasted of something called a banana, and the flavor was wonderful. Greg laughed at the disappointed look Yalathanil gave his cup when it was empty, and then offered the rest of his.
Halfway through the market, he did find something good to share. Fresh meat, young and tender. They were giving away small ones as they had several other things, and he collected one before rejoining his companions.
Greg smiled as they gathered together again on the other side of the farmer’s market and headed back to the vehicle Adele’s father had rented for them. He set the bags he was carrying into the back of the vehicle, then heard a small mewing sound. “What…”
“Oh my god, look, it’s adorable…” Adele reached out, taking the tiny calico kitten from Yalathanil. “Oh, how precious.”
“Where’d you get that?” Natalya reached a finger out to pet the kitten’s ears.
“They were giving away…” Yalathanil gestured back at the market, then frowned a moment before coming up with the word. “Samples.” He grinned. “These ones are much fresher than the other meats.”
“Yes they…” Adele trailed off. Then her eyes went wide and she jerked back, holding the kitten to her protectively. “No!”
“Uh…” Greg blinked. “What?”
“I am sorry.” Yalathanil shook his head. “I do not know how they are prepared. The fringe does not appear to be edible, so —”
“Oh god, no, no…” Natalya immediately waved her hands. “No. You don’t eat kittens.”
“They must get bigger first?” Yalathanil raised an eyebrow. A couple walking past gave him horrified looks.
“He’s Dutch.” Greg explained quickly. “From Amsterdam?” The couple gave him a wide-eyed glance before hurrying away. “Uh, Yala, I…”
“Listen up, fish boy…” Adele pointed at him, then grabbed an item out of the bag next to her. “I don’t know if you even have testes, but I swear to god if you take one bite out of my kitten I will take this spork and I will fucking go looking for them!”
“I —” Yalathanil gave her a shocked look.
“And once I find them, I will take them and any other organs I happen to find handy and put them in a blender and I will not be removing them from your body first.” She held up the plastic utensil with one hand and cradled the kitten to her protectively. “And then I will take the resulting puree and a funnel and restore your organs to your body anally. Are we clear?”
Yalathanil opened his mouth, then closed it again. Then he nodded. “Yes.”
“Good.” Adele walked over to the other side of the car, followed by Natalya who was comforting her and cooing over the kitten.
For a moment, Yalathanil stood there next to him quietly. Then he turned toward Greg. “I believe I have made a misstep of protocol.”
“Yeah.” Greg nodded. “Yeah.”
“So, you don’t have pets?” Natalya tilted her head at Yalathanil.
“Not like you do.” Yalathanil shook his head.
“Huh.” She slowly nodded. “Okay, then I guess I can see how you might have misunderstood. But seriously…” She held the kitten up and it gave an adorable little mew. “How can you see this face and want to eat it?”
“It is made of meat.” Yalathanil shrugged.
“No.” She sighed. “Greg, I thought you explained it.” Then she shook her head. “Okay, look, while technically it is made of the substance known as meat, some kinds of meat are off limits. I mean…” She gestured at herself. “You wouldn’t eat a person, right?”
“Just the throat and some of the shoulder of one handler. And part of arm of the one with the red fringe. And —”
“Hang on.” She made the time out gesture, then handed the kitten back to Adele. “You ate someone?”
“Only part.” He shook his head.
“You’re a cannibal?” She stared.
“What is a cannibal?” He blinked.
“Uh…” She leaned back a little. “It’s someone who eats their own kind.”
“I see.” He shook his head. “No, I am not a cannibal.”
“Yes, you are.” She frowned.
“No. I did not eat my kind.” He pointed at her. “I ate your kind.” He shrugged. “You do not taste good.”
“That’s…” She swallowed. “Kind of a relief, actually.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, no more eating people, alright?”
He sat up. “Not even Xue?”
“I…” She glanced at the people in the front seat. “Help me out here?”
“I think I’m okay with him eating Xue.” Greg shrugged.
“Yeah, I’m okay with that.” Adele nodded. “Maybe a few of those other guys, too. I mean, they were going to kneecap us and they tortured him.”
“I…” She tilted her head. “Okay, Xue and dickhead torturers are okay for eating.” She narrowed her eyes. “But no more kittens, okay?”
“Adele frightens me.” Yalathanil nodded.
“Good.” Adele grinned down at the purring kitten.
“They took it’s collar off.” Xue leaned on the desk, starring down at the pieces. Two of his men had died at the scene, and third from his injuries. Edward and the other were both going to be crippled for life if he didn’t get that creature back.
And worse, if he didn’t get that creature back he would be dead within six months. He knew it was psychosomatic, but it was as if he could already feel his hands starting up the tremor again. “Sir?”
“Genna?” He turned toward her.
“Sir, Adele’s father is a congressman.” She was looking at her screen. “They clearly can’t take the creature on public transportation, so on a hunch I started calling dealerships and rental places.” She looked up. “Her father rented a van four hours ago.”
“Get our people on that van.” He folded his arms. “It’s a rental. Does it also have tracking and that remote thing?”
“That’s the problem, sir.” She gave him an apologetic look. “Her father is a congressman. They might be willing to accept a bribe or a bit of pressure to get information on some random grad students, but they aren’t going to turn over remote access on a vehicle rented by a congressman without a warrant.”
“Contact Sheriff Ostrowski. Get me that damn warrant. Find…” He exhaled. “The man, Greg. He was under investigation already, and he is ex-military. Tell them he kidnapped the girls and go from there.”
“I’ll tell them he’s armed and dangerous, sir.” She nodded before picking up the phone.
“I need that creature back, Genna.” He exhaled.
“I know.” She gave him a sympathetic smile, and there were tears visible in her eyes. “I know, sir.”