by Mary E. Lowd
An excerpt from Otters In Space: The Search for Cat Haven. If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead.
After a quick sweep of the alleys surrounding the bar, Kipper thankfully concluded that Petra wasn’t lying, bleeding to death in any of them. Though, even with a big black dog tailing her, watching her back, Kipper still felt like jumping at every shadow. And her heart stopped when she saw a crumpled bag beside some trash bins — in the dark, it could have been her sister. But Trudith was very reassuring and convinced Kipper that if anything had happened to Petra — if thugs had dragged her out of the bar or caught up with her outside — she would still be pretty close. Close enough that they would have found her.
The obvious next step was to check Petra’s apartment. Kipper didn’t think she would have gone home without telling her, but she had been pretty drunk. Besides, it was the best scenario Kipper could think of, so she held onto that hope and directed Trudith on how to drive there.
Petra’s apartment was on the fifth floor, and the elevator ride felt like it took forever. The hallway was eerily silent. When Kipper tried the door, it was unlocked. But, that didn’t necessarily mean anything… Petra could be careless sometimes… She opened the door and stepped in.
The room was a wreck. Clothes, belongings strewn everywhere. Kipper froze. Horrible images flashed before her, and there was no telling how long she would have stood there, panic-stricken and stupefied, if Trudith hadn’t come along.
“This doesn’t look like a professional job,” Trudith said. She was going through the things on the floor. She kept glancing at Kipper, clearly gauging her reaction. “If I didn’t know any better,” Trudith said, “I’d think your sister was just a very messy cat.”
“Well… she is,” Kipper admitted. “But…”
“Hey, I found something,” Trudith said, displaying a slightly crumpled (Trudith had stepped on it with her big paws) piece of paper. It had scrawled on it, in Petra’s paw: GONE TO ECUADOR! BACK SOON.
Kipper reached for it: this note was a connection — cryptic and tenuous though it might be — with her missing sister. “That’s for me. It’s got to be.”
Maps ran through Kipper’s head: she envisioned the Pacific coast of California, flowing down to Mexico, trailing, finally, into South America. And, yes, right there, at the top of the continent was where Petra had gone. Where she needed to go to find her. Roads could take her there; she didn’t need planes that would leave a trail, like the trail Violet had left. The trail Petra was following. “I wonder how Petra is getting there…” Kipper said to herself. She hoped Petra was safe. Then, turning to Trudith, “I’m going to Ecuador. I have to find her.”
Trudith shifted her paws; an excited whine threatened to leak from her mouth. “How will you find her?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll meet her in Ecuador,” Kipper said. “That’s what the note implies, right? And it’s not like I know how to find her anywhere along the way…” Though Kipper realized that she was harboring a secret hope that as soon as she set off, she’d find herself traveling right behind Petra. And, then, right alongside her. “Will you drive me?”
Trudith looked at Kipper like she’d asked her how to build a rocket ship while doing brain surgery. Completely overwhelmed.
“I mean,” Kipper said, “Drive me. Okay?”
“Right…” Trudith started to recompose herself. “Okay.” With another moment for it to sink in, Trudith started to get excited. “We’re going to Ecuador!” In bizarre contrast to her confusion of only moments before, Trudith suddenly became extremely competent and practical.
If the two road-trippers had any hope of catching Petra, they’d have to move fast. Furthermore, Trudith pointed out that whoever messed up Petra’s apartment could be over at Kipper’s right now. So, as much as Kipper wanted to stop by and pick up a change of her own clothes before skipping town, she had to agree it was too dangerous. In fact, they were already back in Trudith’s car and blocks down the street before she pulled herself together enough to think of grabbing some clothes of Petra’s. They’d already lost their edge, but maybe they could regain it by moving fast. Kipper felt like she’d be holding her breath until they made it across the Mexican border.
So, Trudith put the car in gear; they turned onto the freeway; and cruised out of New LA.
The ten lanes of concrete were dead in the dark of night, and Trudith’s headlights were the only light around. It was rumored that the freeways in the area had remained unchanged since the time of humans, except for normal maintenance and repainting the white, yellow, and dotted lines. It was also rumored that the freeway was only six lanes wide, total, back then.
Corroded, rust orange skeletons of human cars had been found in junk yards and among the ruined human cities. The dinosaur cars were monsters compared to today’s vehicles. Just like human buildings. Just like humans themselves. Kipper couldn’t understand why dogs worshipped them, waiting for them to return. If humans had been so great, they wouldn’t have left cats — that is, the world — in the condition it was in. They wouldn’t have taken off into space and just abandoned everyone. Kipper could feel the darkness making her thoughts morbid.
Kipper drowsed off, finally, fatigued from the fight and from fighting the pain. She was greeted in her sleep by strange visions of the hairless race that came before them and threaded the world with concrete. Gibbering monkeys handed her toy rockets and pressed around her, scaring her, telling her she had to get into space — though, Kipper didn’t know how she understood their gibbering language — until she frightened herself awake.
“We’re ten miles from the border,” Trudith said. She exuded a calm, steadiness with her driving. Kipper decided that she liked having a chauffer.
“Is there a town?” Kipper asked, rubbing the sleepers from her eyes, and gingerly stretching the stiffness from her limbs. She immediately regretted the latter when it fired up all the pain from her bruises again.
“Actually, we’re driving through Saniego,” Trudith said. “Would you like to stop?”
Kipper looked out the car window, but the early morning darkness and the sound-absorbent concrete walls lining the freeway kept her from seeing any city. She would have to take Trudith’s word for it. “We need maps,” Kipper said. “I don’t know how long it’ll take us to drive all the way through Mexico.”
To Kipper’s utter surprise, Trudith already knew the answer. Score two for this dog’s competence. “It’ll take four or five days of solid driving to get to Ecuador,” Trudith answered. “You can drive, right?”
“I didn’t realize Mexico was so long…” Kipper said, wondering how Petra was traveling. At the same time, she was eyeing Trudith sidewise, trying to figure out if she could really expect this dog to stick by her the whole way. “We’ll need supplies,” Kipper said. “Though, we might be better off stopping for them on the other side of the border.”
Trudith was quiet for awhile, and Kipper began to fear that this was where she would bow out. You can’t rely on dogs. But, when Trudith spoke, all she said was “Let’s stop here. I need to charge up the car.” Trudith began changing lanes as soon as she saw an exit sign that advertised enough fast food places and car-charge stations to imply a hub of non-suburbia civilization.
“What confuses me,” Kipper said, trying to rekindle a neutral, friendly conversation, “is why you know, off the top of your head, how far it is to Ecuador.”
“Easy,” Trudith replied, slowing the car down as they eased back onto city streets. “I drove there a couple years ago for the winter holidays. It was a great road trip.”
“Really? But, why Ecuador? What’s so special there?”
Trudith let her eyes stray from the road to give Kipper a searching look. “You really don’t know? The Space Elevator is off the coast of Ecuador, between Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”
“Holy catnip… Violet did go into space.” Kipper had thought that was one of Petra’s wilder theories.
Kipper pulled the scribbled note out of her tunic pocket. Sure enough, the first instruction was “@ SE, ask for Chip.” SE meant Space Elevator! And if Violet went into space… And Petra was following Violet… And Kipper was following Petra… Maybe, just maybe, this paranoid nightmare would end up turning into a dream come true. She’d meet up with Petra in Ecuador, and the two of them would swash a buckle right through otter land.
“Who’s Violet?” Trudith asked, maneuvering the car into a charging berth.
Kipper explained to Trudith about Violet and the scribbled notes. “If Petra is following Violet’s directions, she’ll head straight for the space elevator. So, that’s where I’ll find her.” Simply saying those words made Kipper feel tingly all over.
“I need to call my brother,” Kipper realized, “and tell him what’s happened.”
So, while Trudith parked the car in the charging berth, Kipper found a payphone on the street corner. She punched in Alistair’s number on the sticky keypad. Three rings, maybe four, and Alistair’s machine would pick up. Kipper was preparing herself to leave a message, but halfway through the first ring, Alistair picked up.
“Kipper?” he said. His grainy image on the payphone screen looked worried and harried.
“You’re back from your night shift early,” Kipper said.
“I got a weird call from Petra,” he said. “I figured she was drunk somewhere, so I went looking for you. Thought we’d find her and straighten her out together. But you weren’t home, and when I got to Petra’s, her place was a wreck. But no sign of her.”
“I’m so sorry,” Kipper said. “I should have left a note for you.”
“You were there?”
“I went looking for her too. There was this incident with this big black dog…” Kipper glanced over her shoulder and saw Trudith still charging the car. “But we don’t need to get into that now. There was a note for me at Petra’s. She’s going to Ecuador.”
“Yes, Ali. She’s following the tracks of that cat I was temping for — Violet.”
“Why in dognation would she want to do that?”
Alistair looked really worried and frustrated. His first impulse was to fly down and meet them in Ecuador. Short of that, he wanted to involve the police. Kipper wasn’t so sure that was a good idea. But, clearly, Alistair needed something to do. He had to feel like he was helping out his sisters. So, she convinced him that the best thing he could do was to take over Petra’s campaign. He was a better fit for district representative anyway. Oh, and wire them some money.
Kipper promised to call him again when she could.
Trying not to dwell on her conversation with Alistair, Kipper started thinking about the next leg of their trip. The car was almost done charging, and Trudith was rummaging around in the trunk. Kipper walked up around her and leaned against the bumper, under the looming door to the trunk. “Do you think they’ll be looking for me at the border?” she asked.
Trudith stopped rummaging; she looked worried. “I hadn’t thought of that,” she said. “Maybe we should hide you in the trunk?”
“They might check the trunk,” Kipper said, but her real concern was that Trudith would forget her there. Or she would get buried under all of Trudith’s luggage. “Do you keep all your stuff in here?”
“You never know when a job will take you out of town. So, I’m always prepared.” Trudith looked Kipper up and down. “I don’t think my clothes will fit you though. So, we’ll have to buy you some changes of your own.”
Kipper tried to imagine herself wearing clothes built big enough for Trudith. At best, she would look like a clown. At worst, the clothes would drag and snag and trip her up. And she’d look like a clown. A cat clown. The latter was more likely. “But, seriously,” Kipper said, “I’m not hiding in the trunk.”
Trudith found the suitcase she’d been looking for and, after waiting for Kipper to stand back, swung the trunk shut. “Then you’ll have to dye your fur.”
Kipper coughed as if the idea of dyed fur literally caught in her throat, like a psychological hairball. What was it today with dogs suggesting that she dye her fur?
“Seriously,” Trudith said, “if they’re looking for you, they’re looking for a tabby cat. They won’t check your ID, since you’re with me.” It was true that cats didn’t have to show ID when an accompanying dog vouched for them — an outdated, demeaning, but, in this case, doggarned convenient law. “Unless you look like a cat they’re looking for. So, bleach your fur white and put in some blue contacts. The border guards will barely look at you if you do that. Deaf cats make us nervous.”
“That’s strange. Why?”
“You can yell at ’em all you want, and it won’t do any good. How are you supposed to handle them?”
Kipper flinched at Trudith’s reasoning but decided to let it pass. Similarly, despite strong aesthetic reservations, Kipper agreed to bleach her fur. They got back in Trudith’s car and began the search for an all-night drugstore or a similar kind of establishment. Anywhere that sold contacts and dye. Ideally, it would be nice to find a place that sold food for the road and a change of clothes to replace Kipper’s dirtied and torn up vest and pants too. Still, they would take what they could get, since it was barely even morning. Dawn had not yet cracked the sky.
The two adventurers lucked out. There was a 24-hour McFriskers open. McFriskers would have everything the two of them needed. Kipper wanted to be involved in picking out the snacks and her change of clothes, but the instructions on the box of Persian Silver she picked up claimed that she had to leave the dye in her fur for a full hour. She didn’t think she’d leave it in that long, but, either way, she’d better get started.
“Pick out something with long sleeves, if you can,” Kipper said. “I don’t know how well I’ll be able to dye my arms and legs.” Kipper and Trudith parted ways at the cash register, and Kipper disappeared into the McFriskers bathroom with her box of fur dye.
Ten minutes later, Kipper had the gooey gel worked into the fur on her face, head, neck, and paws. She even rolled up her pants legs and lathered the goo up to her knees; on her arms, she had it past her elbows. She looked a fright, but she tried not to think about it. She tried not to think about how long it would take for her fur to shed and regrow…
The Persian Silver box said the chemicals in the dye worked better with heat, so she kept the wall-mounted blow-dryer running. Every time it stopped, she pushed in the big silver button again. It was only meant for drying paws, so Kipper had to keep contorting herself to get the blast of heat all over her body. She kept worrying that another cat — or a dog, but that would be less petrifying — would come in and see her awkward acrobatics. It was a miserable half hour. The results weren’t much better.
When Kipper couldn’t take it anymore, she did her best to rinse the dye out in the sink. Getting the back of her head and her lower paws under the stream of water from the faucet turned out to be much more challenging than heating those parts of her body with the blow-dryer. When she gave up, her fur still felt greasy with the gel.
Kipper was staring at herself, numbly, in the bathroom mirror when Trudith came in, holding a bundle of clothes.
“I put the food and some more clothes in the car,” she said. “But, I thought you might like to change in here.”
“Thanks,” Kipper said. She couldn’t believe what she’d just done to herself. She looked like a ghost. Or the victim of an industrial accident. “I don’t think this is going to work.”
Trudith looked puzzled. “Why not? You’re white, when you put the contacts in, no one will know the difference if you’re stripey under your clothes. Here,” Trudith shoved the clothes toward her, “put these on.”
Kipper continued to be amazed by the obtuseness of dogs. Her fur looked ashen and streaky. The corners of her old gray showed through like scorch marks.
But the guards at the border would be dogs. If Trudith couldn’t tell the difference between her and a real white cat, then she guessed they had a chance. Kipper sighed at her washed out image in the mirror — nothing like Persian Silver, more like dirty, day old, tread upon snow — and took the bundle of clothes into one of the bathroom stalls to change.
Miraculously, Trudith had chosen clothes that fit. They were too loose, but that was better than too tight. And the pants had a drawstring, so they did stay on. At least, once Kipper cinched the drawstring as tight as it would go. Had they been designed for a Pug, perhaps? Or some other kind of solid, stout, barrel-chested dog with short legs? Well, they would do. It was just lucky Kipper had got her arms and legs dyed as much as she had. Trudith may have picked her out a long-sleeved tunic, but the arms still only made it halfway past her elbows.
Trudith did seem to have a decent sense of color, and that was something. The trousers were muted shades of somber brown, and the tunic was a blue to match her eyes. Well, it was a blue to match her contacts anyway. They were not colors she would look good in usually, but it was the perfect completion of her blue-eyed, white-cat costume.
Back in the car, on the freeway, the sun was tipping the horizon in gold. Trudith drummed her paws on the steering wheel and kept glancing over at Kipper. “I just can’t get over it,” she said, her voice louder than usual. “It’s hard to believe you’re not really, you know, deaf.”
Kipper rolled her eyes and flattened her ears. Maybe if she ignored Trudith for long enough, Trudith would start believing it. And stop talking to her.
“Just pretend you can’t hear me, okay?”
Kipper wondered whether it would help with the illusion if Trudith didn’t act like she expected Kipper to hear her. However, she decided that Trudith would probably talk to a real deaf cat anyway. No worries. If Kipper played her part, the dogs wouldn’t be thrown by Trudith. So, Kipper stared out the window and held her ears straight forward, as if there wasn’t a sound in the world for them to turn and detect. Trudith prattled on.
Continue on to Chapter 5…