When the phone finally rang, the living room glowed with morning sunlight. After a brief scuffle, Edwin managed to grip the handset and bring it to his ear without opening his eyes or dislodging the stack of books resting on his chest.
“Hello? Blais residence.”
“Yeah, um, I’m callin’ about the cat. I have her.” The voice on the other end was thick with the distinctive Texan drawl common to the area, and Edwin thought he heard a freeway nearby.
As he sat, his smudged glasses fell to the floor along with the books. He’d fallen asleep on the couch, too tipsy to bother with bed. Grunting, he dug the damaged spectacles from under the heavy texts and tried to formulate coherent thoughts.
“Is she safe? Where are you? I’ll come get her immediately. Will you accept a check for the reward? I’m not certain I can acquire cash on a Sunday.” He staggered to his feet before he finished speaking, grabbed the keys from the table, and headed to the car.
“She’s fine, but she got into one of the engines, so she’s real dirty. Don’t worry about money.” There was a moment of silence in which he must’ve heard Edwin’s car start up. “You want the address?”
“Please. I’ll be there right away. I’m leaving now.” Edwin pulled to the end of his driveway. His mouth felt dry, his eyes scratchy, but Francesca was safe. It was all okay.
Words rose from deep within: heartfelt gratitude, renewed hope for the future. He held them back; no stranger needed to hear such self-indulgent foolishness.
The address the man gave wasn’t far—North Lamar—but it was a major thoroughfare. What might’ve happened to Francesca before she was found? What might have happened while she crawled around in an engine? If she was injured, it explained why the man didn’t want compensation.
He’d said she was fine, but what did that mean?
By the time Edwin pulled into the parking lot, he’d worked up a panic. He climbed out of his car at a body shop. It looked among the least friendly places Edwin could imagine for a middle-aged queer to have an emotional breakdown over his cat. As tolerant as Austin was, pockets of ignorance persisted wherever machismo and no-diploma-required employment opportunities collided.
At least the garage was quiet this early on Sunday morning.
Edwin closed his eyes and inhaled. The scent of tires and motor oil took him back to the therapeutic summer he’d spent restoring his Golden Hawk. When he opened his eyes, he brought that comfort with him. Drawing to his full height and squaring his shoulders despite his paranoia, he put one foot in front of the other.
“Hello? Sir?” When he didn’t get an immediate answer, he shouted, “Hey, mister!”
Rather than a man’s voice, a familiar meow answered. Francesca appeared, running ahead of a tall, well-built man wearing a loose T-shirt and jeans. A short, blond ponytail and serious blue eyes stood out against a face smeared with grease along forehead and high cheekbones. Following the pair was a vicious-looking black tomcat with a torn ear and broken tail. His yellow eyes glimmered from the shadows.
The man gestured toward Frannie with a meaty hand. “Hey. So, there she is.”
After all the anguish, it seemed impossible that Edwin could simply bend down and pick her up, but he did. He cradled her against his chest, she rubbed her face against him, and he realized what a mess he was. Clad in yesterday’s pajamas, hair standing straight up, crooked glasses clinging to his face in a way that suggested a man with a less prominent nose would already have lost them. His cheeks flushed as he met the man’s gaze, aware of how ridiculous and ancient he was compared to the mechanic.
Francesca’s claws tightened against Edwin’s skin, drawing his attention back where it belonged. As he gazed into her eyes, he stopped worrying about how anyone else saw him. To Frannie, he was salmon and fluffy blankets and laser-pointer games, everything she loved best, in human form.
Tears welled in his eyes, and though he didn’t shed them, he lowered his head to hide in her fur so the man wouldn’t notice. Francesca smelled like a dirty transmission, but she was warm and close and his. Alive. Healthy.
His shoulders shook with relief.
Francesca twisted in his arms, and he cried out, afraid she’d escape again. Instead, she seemed content to use him as a throne, looking out over his arms at the mechanic and his tom.
Sensing she was waiting for him to do something, Edwin carefully shifted Francesca to one side and freed a hand to shake. He spoke with slow, careful syllables shaped to avoid an excess of emotion. “Edwin Blais. Thank you for finding Francesca.”
Concern graced that handsome face, but the man said nothing of Edwin’s display. He wiped his hand on the front of his jeans to clean it, then took Edwin’s. The handshake was firm and didn’t linger.
“Forrest James. Nice to meet you.”
When Forrest stepped back, the tom asserted itself by leaping to a table and yowling. That blue gaze didn’t leave Edwin’s as Forrest stroked the scruffy animal.
Edwin shifted his weight, edgy with the first flush of unwelcome interest in the mechanic but obligated not to flee. He managed a smile, self-conscious about the deepening of the lines at the corners of his eyes. Cradling Francesca in both arms, he budged her up his chest to reach his glasses with a fingertip and shove them into place.
“A pleasure to meet you, sir. Uh…”
Awkward silence bloomed while Edwin sought something eloquent to say. He was rarely without the correct words, but his frantic arrival and undignified state shamed him. He didn’t owe this man an apology for that, but he did owe him a debt of gratitude. “If you require no reward, please at least accept my most sincere thanks, and if you ever—”
In his fidgeting, Edwin’s gaze fell on something it took a few seconds for his brain to recognize: a familiar 1965 Mustang fastback. The hood was up, showing off the pristine engine. The carburetor reflected the sunlight from the open garage door. He stared at Forrest with new eyes. “You’re the Rangoon Red?”
Forrest’s face lit up as if he too was seeing Edwin afresh. He gave Edwin a slow smile that made Edwin’s stomach flip. “That’s my baby. Just doing a quick oil change. Checkin’ on ol’ Nasty here.”
He scratched the disreputable tom’s head. Nasty closed his eyes and leaned into the attention. Edwin watched Forrest’s capable hand as it glided over the cat until the first stirrings of want made him look away.
Between the lopsided smile, piercing stare, and easy grace, there was something feline to Forrest too. The animal magnetism extended even to that low purr of his. “Saw you drive up in the Golden Hawk. You rebuild that yourself?”
There was something eager and interested in Forrest’s gaze. That look couldn’t possibly be for an old history professor. Probably didn’t see many Golden Hawks.
“You make it sound like I did something worth bragging about. She wasn’t in bad shape when I acquired her.” Fixing his gaze safely on the Hawk, Edwin went on. “I spent the better part of a summer hunting through junkyards and hunched over with a wrench, but she’s all correct parts, no substitutions. It was tough too, with that Packard V-8 she’s sporting. Fifty-six was the only year for those, and Packard closed shop two years later.”
Wistfulness pervaded his tone, but he wasn’t aware of it until he paused for breath. Students had told him he did that when talking about lost civilizations. His cheeks burned.
“I don’t mean to get carried away, but she’s a rare beauty, like my Francesca.”
“You’re in the right place for interest in cars.” Forrest shoved his hands in his pockets. Nasty protested, but the mechanic was already on the move. “Mind if I have a look?”
Before Edwin could answer, Forrest brushed past him into the bright light outside. His hands stayed in his pockets while he peered into the windows and studied the paint job. He squatted next to the rear quarter panel and tilted his head to the side as if checking for seams or rust. “Need to get hooked up with your junkyard. Some good work here.”
Forrest’s golden hair shone in the morning sunlight, making Edwin’s fingers ache to touch. It was hunger for human contact, an electric urging in his skin begging him to reach out. That longing was familiar, though, and he ignored it in favor of scratching Francesca’s head.
“That’s the least I could do to repay you. I’m afraid I don’t have the info on me, but I could drop by tomorrow on my way to class to leave you their card.” Edwin looked back at the Mustang. “I’ve seen your girl over there around the neighborhood. She’s breathtaking, if not quite my style.”
When Forrest stood, his quirky smile broadened into an expression of pride. “Good old Betty. Yeah. Just a GT, but about the best I could afford at the time. Got her in high school. About flunked out putting her together. Labor of love, but I guess you know about that.”
Forrest stepped back from the Golden Hawk with a last, reverent look and then turned that steady gaze on Edwin. Those blue eyes widened as he seemed to take in Edwin’s disheveled appearance for the first time. “Class, huh? Shoulda figured. Definitely got the look of a crazy professor.”
Edwin snorted and ducked his head, folding in on himself to escape the scrutiny. Francesca let out an alarmed meow as he squashed her. Embarrassed, he straightened and kissed her head in apology. “Have to do something to show the arrogant little twits that I mean business. Nothing says ‘shut up and learn’ like a professor who looks like he’d as soon cut you as correct you for mispronouncing Seleucid.”
“I heard of pass-fail, but never pass-die.” Forrest averted his eyes. “A lot of ’em are twits, though, I’ll give you that. Student fender benders keep me in business, man. If you don’t kill ’em, they’re likely to kill themselves driving like maniacs.”
As Forrest stared at the ground, he frowned and shrugged, some inner monologue resolved. “Anyhow, glad you got your kitty back. I’ll hold you to getting me the info for that junkyard. I got your number now. I can be pretty persistent when there’s something I want.”
“My home, cell, fax, and work numbers, plus e-mail.” Edwin laughed with more than a little self-consciousness. “I was very thorough, wasn’t I? Ah, well, best take down all those fliers this afternoon before someone stalks me.”
Edwin hesitated, glancing at Forrest from the corner of his eye. “If you find the junkyard’s not enough of a boon, please don’t hesitate to call upon me should you ever…” Edwin shrugged, realizing how useless anything he could offer such a man had to be. Arching a brow and adopting a wry tone, he finished, “Well, if you ever want anything translated to or from ancient Greek, you know who to call.”
Forrest met Edwin’s eyes, looking confused. Then he shook his head and smiled. He seemed surprised by Edwin’s friendliness.
“I don’t get much call for that around here.” He looked toward the neighborhood Edwin had come from and then stared at his feet, shuffling them. “I’m about done. I can probably take down some of them fliers for you if you want to get home and clean up your girl.”
The offer startled Edwin. It would take well over an hour to take them all down, and surely Forrest had better things to do. He stared at Forrest’s shy expression, trying to figure whether he thought Edwin was just that hapless, but at Francesca’s plaintive meow, he pulled it together.
“That would be…gracious of you, Forrest. May I call you Forrest? I’m Edwin. I think I said that? Oh, anyway.”
Edwin walked to the passenger side of the car and settled Francesca into her cat cabin to avoid further weirdness. “I’ll bring by that card, and if I forget, you know how to find me.”
With Francesca secured, Edwin returned to the driver’s door and stood looking at Forrest, puzzled, intrigued, and grateful. He wanted to take Forrest’s hand, press it between his own, and shake it with the veneration due a president or great philosopher. Then he recalled Forrest’s brief handshake, the way he’d barely allowed contact…
Edwin knew better. As nice as Forrest seemed, he might not take well to gay cooties.
Sighing, Edwin waved off the awkwardness. “Don’t mind me, yeah? I shouldn’t be allowed to talk to strangers. No social skills at all these days. Just…thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You’re a good fellow.”
“I thought you might yell at me for getting your cat dirty.” Forrest punched Edwin’s shoulder gently. “Never know with you tightly wound professor types. You’re all right, Edwin. People like us gotta stick together.”
Forrest bent forward to wave at Francesca in her seat. If he found the cat cabin peculiar, he didn’t show it. “Good-bye, little lady. Take care of him. Think he’s a mess without you.”
Nasty took the opportunity to leap onto Forrest’s back and then bounced onto the hood of the car. He yowled, ears back, expression fierce. Then he jumped off and ran into the garage.
“Oh my. He’s very vocal. Cave felem!” Edwin watched the cat dash off before looking back to Forrest. “Thank you for your help.”
Edwin fidgeted as he waited for Forrest to move and then edged around Forrest and into the driver’s seat. Once Edwin gained that position of relative safety, he smoothed his rumpled hair and pajamas before adjusting his spectacles. “We’ll just get out of your hair now. Later, then.”
“Later.” Forrest looked like he might say something else—Edwin couldn’t imagine what—but instead rapped his knuckles on the hood and stepped away.
After Edwin pulled out of the driveway, he looked back to see Forrest ducking into the garage.
Francesca raked her claws against the front mesh of her cabin as if saying good-bye. The unexpected sound drew Edwin’s attention. As little as she cared for most company, it seemed a miracle that the person who’d found her figured into her rarefied tastes. It was a good thing, he thought. A small sign the universe still cared he existed.
He could allow himself such a foolish thought just this once.
As Edwin finally relaxed, he sucked in a deep breath and nearly retched. In the backseat, forgotten when Francesca had gone missing, was the grocery bag with spoiled fish in it, the dinner that never was.
Though he knew it would do no good, Edwin grumbled at Francesca as they headed home. “You’re cleaning that up.”