PART 18 - A DASH AND TWO DOTS
The brown-furred tabby crossed the sandy stretch of land to the sleeping hut. Loretta sat hunched forward on the steps, her arms crossed on her knees and her tail wrapped around, its false tip in her lap, as she watched Dorothy approach. Inside, a hushed yet animated conversation in Spontoonie was going on between Gwen and the trio of native girls.
The raccoon stirred and shifted aside as the feline approached, looking at her with searching grey eyes in her natural facemask. "So... how's everything going over there?"
Dorothy smiled and gave her a nod. "Good. We patched everything up. How about over here?"
Loretta sighted. "Gwen's talking to 'em. She's got the gift of gab, no matter what language she's speaking. They should be calmed down enough when she's through."
The feline adjusted her sarong and sat down next to the young raccoon, curling her tail across her lap as well. Her eyes glimmered a bit in the darkness as she looked Loretta over. "You still seem a bit ruffled, though. Is there anything I can do or say to set your mind at ease?"
The raccoon looked over at her with a wry expression on her face. "Not unless you and your friend can promise me you'll quit turning the rational world on it's ear every chance you get..."
Dorothy shook her head sadly and shrugged. "Sorry, Miss Pike, I'm afraid Miss Early and I haven't had the pleasure of the rational world's company for quite some time."
Loretta became let out a wistful sigh. "I suppose I don't have a lot of room to talk. I'd never have imagined that I'd be flying a glass-bottomed seaplane on tropical mermaid- watching tours when I left Brothersberg all those years ago."
She cocked her head toward the door behind her. "I guess you can lay some of that at Gwen's feet, but even accounting for windage and eccentric vixens, my life has definitely taken a lot of turns that were never on the original flight plan."
Dorothy nodded with a gentle smile. "I'm positive you and Miss Riley are well equipped to handle anything that comes your way, including peculiar cases like myself and Miss Early. You compliment one another nicely."
Loretta chuckled, leaning back and resting her elbows on the step behind her as she gazed out over the stillness of the lagoon."I could never have predicted that either. I hated her guts almost from the moment I met her at Songmark."
She let out a rueful sigh. "It didn't take long before the feeling was mutual, and soon enough the two of us had started a vendetta that made the Montagues and Capulets look like a happy kindergarten by comparison. All through our first and second years we never passed up a chance to prank, humiliate, or get each other in trouble." A grim smile settled on her muzzle. "I'm convinced that the instructors had a betting pool on which of us was gonna kill the other one, with strong odds on mutual homicide."
A wistful look settled on Loretta's features as she fingered the dull fur on the prosthetic length of her striped tail. "All that changed after... well... after the accident."
Dorothy glanced at the doorway and back at the raccoon. "Was... was it
really an accident, what happened to your tail?"
Loretta nodded gravely, a serious expression settling on her features.
"Absolutely. It was entirely my fault too. I was in the machine shop
working on a metal lathe, when I feel something on on my back. I turn my
head to look, and see Gwen walking down the aisle with her tail waving,
grinning like the griffet that's eaten the canary."
The raccoon sighed. "Normally, just the sight of her was enough to set my tail lashing, but all that week she'd been sneaking up behind me and sticking little signs to my back when I wasn't looking." She let out a chuckle. "'Kick Me' in Kanji, 'Tug My Tail' in Tundric, 'Hot to Trot' in Spontoonie. Got me with that last one on a water taxi over to Casino Island. Stupid, juvenile stuff, but I think the instructors let it go on 'cos it wasn't really harming anything and we were both getting practice translating foreign languages, not to mention stealth training for her and situational awareness for me."
Loretta shrugged and shifted on the plank step. "Normally, I'd have just let it slide and drawn up a plan to slip Brass Kingdom Chili Oil into her fur wash or something later, but I was concentrating really hard on the part I was machining and I really resented the intrusion, so I kind of blew up at her." She shook her head, looking ruefully down at the tip of her tail. "I spun around and started to yell at her for violating shop safety procedures, which was ironic since I'd completely forgotten to shut off the lathe."
Loretta let out a shudder. "Then I felt a sharp tug and heard the snap, which I found out later was the skin and cartilage between my seventh and eighth caudal vertebrae giving way, followed by what sounded for all the world like a drum roll. When I turned around I saw that it was the bottom half of my tail, wrapped around the spinning lathe shaft and banging on the armature. It was shooting blood like one of those big pinwheel fireworks from the Eight Kingdoms. I think I even got splashed in the face a couple of times. I can't be sure, because that was about when I fainted."
She absently stroked the dull fur on her prosthetic. "I woke up on my belly in the infirmary a short time later, naked from the waist down with my tail shaved bare and up in a sling. First thing I saw was Gwen, sitting across from me on a stool. From the look of her, I thought she'd been stabbed or something." A regretful look crossed her face. "Well, at the time I kinda hoped that was what had happened, I'm sorry to say. She was pale as a ghost under her fur, and the front of her uniform was covered in blood, all of it mine, as it turned out. She'd applied a tourniquet and carried me to the infirmary all by herself."
The raccoon let out a rueful chuckle. "You can probably imagine I didn't have anything particularly nice to say to her when I saw her, but I suppose it was offset by the fact that I wasn't exactly speaking coherently. I think I called her a folding cauliflower or something."
She shook her head. "Well, as soon as she saw I was awake she started
shaking all over, and the next thing I know she's on her knees in front
of me, crying like a cub and begging me to forgive her. The look on her
face..." Loretta's grey eyes grew a bit moist as she looked over at
Dorothy with a sad smile. "Two years worth of venom and resentment just
drained right out of me. Just like that. I don't remember saying
anything, but I remember reaching up and stroking her cheek as best I
could manage with a hand that was about as coordinated as a glove full
of poi on the end of a yardstick. I'll never forget the little sound she made when she took my hand and kissed it."
Her expression became pensive. "That's when Miss Devinski came in,
looking about as pale as Gwen. I don't think she'd even managed to let
go of the doorknob before I started blathering at her, begging her not
to expel either of us. Poor Gwen didn't get a chance to say anything
'cos I was clamped on to her head so tight Missus Oleabe, our nurse, had
to struggle to pry me loose, and that's saying a lot 'cos she had arms
like tree trunks." The raccoon let out a weary breath. "Well, the
Headmistress just stood there, poker faced, while the nurse extracted
Gwen and pinned me to the table. Gwen snapped to attention as soon as
she got loose, and stood there like she was in front of a firing squad
armed with flame throwers. I think I'd lost too much blood to know when
to shut up, 'cos I just kept babbling until the nurse clamped my big
mouth shut. I don't think I was even using entire words toward the end."
She let out a chuckle and shook her head. "Then silence, for what seemed like forever. I don't know if I was hallucinating or what, but while Miss Devinski stood there looking at us, it seemed like she'd suddenly aged ten years. Then she spoke and she was back to normal. She informed me that an emergency boat was on it's way to pick me up and take me over to the hospital on Meeting Island for observation. She fixed poor Gwen with those eyes of hers and told her to come to the office as soon as she'd cleaned both herself and the machine shop up, then told Missus Oleabe to send me that way once I was back and in her opinion fit to return to classes. Then she left, and Gwen was gone a split second later, moving so fast her brush was like a bottle rocket flare."
Loretta shifted in her seat as the breeze blew in from the ocean, ruffling both her and Dorothy's fur. "About three days later I was back on my feet and on my way to Miss Devinski's office, groomed and combed and in my dress uniform, with only my poor ruined tail showing anything was wrong. It looked like a striped snake had crawled out of the taillet of my skirt and gotten its head chopped off. I was mortified to even walk across the campus with that thing trailing behind me. I could feel everybody's eyes all over it as I walked past. It was terrible."
The raccoon fidgeted with her tail as she continued. "Soon I was standing in the office wishing I could just shrink down to the size of a bug and crawl away while Miss Devinski read me the riot act. She didn't even have to yell, she just went on and on in that dry voice of hers about how she was going to have to write my parents and explain why they wouldn't be getting their daughter back in one piece, how the school's reputation would suffer, how many negative marks my dorm would accrue from my carelessness, even how much damage I'd done to the lathe and how much repairs would cost. Then she looked me dead in the eye and asked me who I thought should bear the brunt of responsibility in all this."
She took a deep breath, her eyes gleaming in the darkness. "I held my head up high and said it was all my fault, and I'd accept full responsibility for what happened. Then she asked me if I thought Gwen should take any of the blame for maiming me for life. I could have broken down and cried right then and there when she put it that way, but I held it together. I looked her straight in the eyes and said no. I was the one that lost my temper, I was the one that got careless, and I'd take whatever punishment the instructors had in mind with a smile on my face and a song in my heart, but I would not accept Gwen Riley suffering even a second for my actions."
A gentle smile spread across her features. "And to think just a week earlier the idea of Gwen suffering would have been music to my ears. Well, as soon as I'd given my answer it was like someone had switched off the icebox, and there was Miss Devinski smiling at me with the warmest smile I'd ever seen on her face. She told me she was very proud of me, and next thing I knew Gwen was standing in the room next to me. She looked like she'd been having a rough couple of days. She gave me such a sweet smile when she saw me that I wondered how I could have ever disliked her even a little."
Loretta's face became grave. "Later I found out that she'd put Gwen through the same ordeal, offering her every opportunity to deny any culpability and walk away unscathed, but bless her heart she never did. She claimed to be completely at fault for what happened to me, and was willing to pack her bags and go back to Fort Mudge if that was what they wanted." She sighed thoughtfully. "I think we both were a little wobbly in the knees after being raked over the coals, but we kept ourselves steady while Miss Devinski told us what the faculty had decided would be our fates. Neither of us were gonna be expelled, or even disciplined very severely beyond the usual extensive written report we were constantly being told to do whenever anything noteworthy happened around the school."
The raccoon leaned forward and rested her hand on her chin as the
breeze rustled the palms overhead. "We were, however, going to be placed
in the same dorm together, effective immediately. In Miss Devinski's
words it was only proper for 'two girls who were so willing to dive atop
grenades for one another to share a trench'. It would be up to us and
our current dorm mates to decide which two among them would join us and
which room we would take." She let out a chuckle. "At the start of the
week I think both of us would have looked on it as the worst, most
draconian punishment ever, but right then and there I had a feeling
things were different. I knew for sure when Oksana and I moved into
Gwen's dorm with her and Celeste. Gwen had a little housewarming present
Loretta sat up and grasped the tip of her tail, looking at it in the
moonlight with a fond smile on her face. "A couple of days after we'd
gotten settled in she gives me this box, wrapped up in gorgeous handmade
paper. Inside there's this carved wooden case, covered in beautiful
little hand painted birds, and inside that is the tip of my tail, laid
on a bed of velvet. I'll admit I was more than a little shocked at
first, but then she explained to me what it was and what it was for, and
I understood how much more I'd gotten back for the few inches I'd
She unhooked it and held it up to admire, its gold clasp glinting faintly in the twilight. "Celeste filled me in on the details later. Gwen had dismantled that lathe piece by piece and retrieved every scrap of my tail, and then begged Miss Devinski to allow her to take custody of it. Once she spelled out what she'd planned to do, Miss Devinski agreed, but as usual any agreement with the headmistress comes with a test built into it. That hound left standing orders for the poor girl to be frisked thoroughly whenever she passed through the front gate, with anything 'unusual' to be confiscated immediately and taken to the headmistress' office, which is the same as it being in a bank vault at the peak of Mount Halcyon. No getting it back..."
The raccoon smiled pensively at the flowers tooled into the leather band. "I'm still not a hundred percent sure how she managed to smuggle this thing out and back in along with that box, but she did. Spent all of her mad money for the term, and had to write her father to beg for more, bless her heart."
She sighed happily and reattached it. "Not that she'd ever have to go without anything as long as I'm around. She's my best friend now, I'd go to Hades and back for her, and she'd do the same for me. We were inseparable by the middle of our third year. Everybody started calling us the D Tails, even Ox and Celeste."
Dorothy cocked an eyebrow. "Telegraph code, right? A dash and two dots."
Loretta nodded. "Yeah. Gwen used to get so upset about that, but I thought it was clever, and so that's what I put down on the forms when we went into business together."
The raccoon and feline gave a mild start at the sound of a voice behind them accompanied by the rustle of cloth and the soft pad of bare feet on wood. "I thought 'Clear Skies' excursions would have been a better name, but once Lori's committed to an idea, she rides it all the way down."
Both females turned to see the vixen leaning against the door frame behind them. Loretta twisted in her seat and leaned on the step behind her, gazing up at her partner with searching grey eyes. "How long were you back there listening to us?" Gwen gave them a wry smile. "Long enough. Telling stories out of school again, huh?"
Loretta grinned back at her as the vixen climbed down onto the step
behind her and wrapped her arms around her neck in a warm hug.
The raccoon looked over at Dorothy with a shy smile on her face. "Well, watching Missus Pearl and Miss Early earlier today had me thinking about it, back when we were at each other's throats. I was really hoping it was gonna work out between you two. You're both scary enough when you're getting along."
Gwen looked over at the feline expectantly. "Did it work out okay?"
The brown furred tabby nodded, closing and opening her eyes languidly as a warm breeze washed in from the ocean. "It did, thank goodness. The funny thing was I was simultaneously afraid I'd lose her and taking her for granted. That's the way Jane is, I guess. Things always seem to go both ways with her..."
The vixen smiled and nodded. "I'm glad you patched things up. And how about Junko?"
Dorothy smiled, glancing over at the meeting hut. "She understood, once I explained things to her. I think she and Jane are going to become very good friends indeed, and truth be told I couldn't be happier for them both."
Gwen let out a soft chuckle and smiled knowingly while Loretta looked puzzled. "I didn't think you spoke Usagineko, Missus Pearl."
The tabby smiled cryptically and flicked an ear. "I don't, but I've got some friends I can call on to help me out."
The raccoon opened her mouth to ask another question, but shrugged and settled back in the vixen's embrace with a sigh. "It's good to have friends like that."
She reached out and patted Dorothy on the knee.
The feline gave her a fond look and leaned back on the steps with her hands behind her head, purring softly. "Indeed it is, Miss Pike. Indeed it is."
A gentle sighing wind rustled the trees over their heads in agreement
to the accompaniment of the rolling surf that spread before them under
the twinkling stars.