The hulker puppies had made good use of the new comforter. It was big enough to spread out over the entire floor of the little room, making it soft and puffy, and there was still enough left over to wrap Tareq up in in the corner. Mhumhi almost felt sorry to bleed on it, but Maha didn’t seem to care. She watched him lie down with that same sad, frightened look.
“It’s here, Maha,” said Kutta, limping over to nose Mhumhi’s injury. “Do you see the wire?”
“Yes,” said Maha, though she seemed hesitant to look that closely. Mhumhi didn’t blame her- every time he looked at the swollen pink mess the area was it made it hurt even more.
“Try to get it off,” Kutta said, swishing her tail gently, and walked over the lumpy fabric to stand by Mhumhi’s head. “You’re so clever with your hands, I know you can do it.”
Maha did seem a little cheered by this compliment. She knelt down and tucked her tangled hair behind one of her rounded ears.
“It looks really tight,” she said. “I can’t see the other end…” She went to touch Mhumhi’s leg and hesitated, looking over at him.
“It’s all right,” said Mhumhi, who was trying not to pant openly. Her nervousness was catching. “Just get it off.”
Maha gingerly lifted up his leg so she could look at it more closely. Mhumhi gave a little grunt and licked his lips. Kutta licked his face and ear, soothing him.
“I see the other end!” Maha said triumphantly. “It’s wrapped under, but I can unwrap it- I think-” She reached for the cut-off end and gave it an experimental tug. Mhumhi yelped, raising his head, as the wire pressed against his sore flesh.
“I’m sorry,” said Maha, and she tried to move it again. Each movement brought fresh pain to Mhumhi, and he whined and shook. Kutta went to lay down with her head on his neck, trying to hold him still.
“It’s not working,” said Maha, dismayed. “It’s hurting him too much- wait!” She suddenly bounced to her hind legs and ran around to one of the high shelves. She returned to Mhumhi’s side with something skinny and black in her paw.
“What’s that?” asked Mhumhi, trying to raise his head again, though Kutta was blocking him with her body. He could see flecks of his blood on Maha’s hands.
“It’s a clipper,” said Maha. “I think it’s little enough. i want to try.”
She knelt down again and lifted his leg, and he put his head back down, mystified by what she had just tried to explain to him.
He felt a sharp pain, and tensed and whimpered, and she said, “I almost got it, Mhumhi!” and Kutta licked his ears more. The pain intensified, and he gave a sudden thrash and a wail.
“You must hold still, Mhumhi, you’re making it worse!” Kutta urged, biting lightly on his ear, and he tried, though his whole body shuddered from the effort.
“I got it!” Maha suddenly crowed, and there was a very loud snick and suddenly the pressure around Mhumhi’s leg was gone.
He whined and Kutta got off of him so he could sit up. Maha showed him the circular wire, covered in blood and fur and broken in the center.
“I cut it off,” she said, sounding proud, and went to put it on the shelf with the black things.
Mhumhi looked at his leg, which was aching, a pins-and-needles sensation filling his paw. The area where the wire had been was just a pink and red gash, bleeding freely and almost too tender to lick, but he curled to do so anyway, whimpering with pain and relief. He could feel his paw again.
“Do you feel better, Mhumhi?” Maha had returned, and she went to sit next to him, looking shy. He looked up from his ministrations and licked her forehead, making her giggle. Kutta’s tail was wagging madly.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re all right,” she said, and went to give him a fierce nuzzle, nearly knocking him over. “I thought- I thought you’d lose the leg, or something!”
“Yes, well,” said Mhumhi, not really wanting to think about his leg anymore, “how is your shoulder?”
“It’s all right,” said Kutta. “It’s closing. It makes my whole leg hurt a little, though.”
“And your- and your muzzle?”
“That never really hurt,” said Kutta. “Don’t worry about it.”
Mhumhi hesitated a moment, then went back to licking his leg.
“Kutta,” said Maha, “what happened? How did you both get so hurt?”
“Hm, well,” said Kutta, looking away uneasily, “we just got in a fight with someone. Oh, and Mhumhi got his leg caught in a wire.”
“Who did you fight with?” asked Maha.
“Just a big, mean dog,” said Kutta.
“It wasn’t a dog,” Mhumhi. “It was a monster. Two of them. Actually, there are more than two.”
“Mhumhi, I don’t want to scare them!”
“They should know, so they don’t try to- don’t try to run up and talk to them,” Mhumhi said, feeling a different sort of pain than that in his leg. “You have to stay away from them. Big gray monsters. Little tiny tails. They laugh like hulkers.”
“Oh!” said Maha. “A hyena?”
“You know what it is?” said Mhumhi, startled. “What did you call it?”
“A hyena,” said Maha, looking a bit abashed. “Tareq’s mother told me about them. Big lumpy gray animals that laugh. She said if I saw one I should run away, same as if I saw a dog.”
“Did she say anything else?”
“No,” said Maha, and she shook her head from side to side. “Only that they were dumber than dogs. So it wasn’t a big deal if one saw me, cause it wouldn’t be able to tell anyone about it.”
“Oh,” said Kutta, and she and Mhumhi exchanged a look. “A hyena, was it? I think that’s what they must have been. How come we haven’t heard of them before?”
Maha had no answer for them; she merely blinked. In the corner Tareq snuffled.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“Sorry, little one, we have no food tonight,” said Kutta. “But we’ll sleep here with you.”
“What are you sleeping here?” asked Maha. “Why don’t you have food?”
“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” said Kutta, and Maha pulled her lips down. “We will, really. Mhumhi and I just need to sleep now, understand? We’re very tired.”
Maha seemed displeased, but she nodded, and crawled over to pull half of the comforter up off the floor to drape over them.
“It gets cold,” she explained, as Mhumhi and Kutta ferreted their heads out over the edge, Mhumhi in particular recovering from the sight of the white fabric suddenly flying over him. She went over to the wall and flicked the light switch, blanketing them all in darkness.
“Goodnight,” she said, which was a word Mhumhi wasn’t familiar with. They heard her rustling around near Tareq.
In the dimness Mhumhi got up and felt Kutta do the same, sniffing. They walked together over to where the hulker puppies lay.
Maha sat up in the darkness when Mhumhi brushed her cheek with his cold nose.
“We’re supposed to sleep together, puppy,” said Mhumhi. “Aren’t you a dog? Don’t you know the proper way to do things?”
He was teasing, but she sniffed a little and put her forelegs around his neck when he lay down. Where he had been less certain about it at first, Mhumhi was suddenly glad for it. Her bare hulker skin radiated heat, and the cold of the sewer was starting to settle in his bones.
Kutta huddled on his other side, and Mhumhi felt unusually cosy, almost too warm, especially when Maha pulled the comforter over top of them. He heard Tareq shifting and whimpering on her other side for a little while before he finally went quiet with sleep.
Mhumhi did not know if it was really morning when they all woke up, as there were no windows in the sewer, but he did feel a great deal more rested. The pain in his leg had dulled to an aching soreness, certainly more manageable. Maha’s arms were no longer around him- he could feel her hard back on one side and Kutta’s paws on the other.
He was still debating whether or not he should wake Kutta or just let her sleep when Maha sat up, the comforter falling back as she did so.
“Mhumhi?” she whispered, in the darkness.
Mhumhi gave a little whuff of acknowledgement. Beside him Kutta coughed.
An answering cough came from Tareq, and he began to whimper himself into awakeness.
“I’m hungry, Maha…”
“Mhumhi, will you go get us meat today?” Maha asked, sounding hopeful. Mhumhi swallowed.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We might not be able to get to the dispensary.”
He was feeling very nervous abut the whole thing; they might be more or less safe from the police at the moment, but going to the dispensary was a sure-fire way to get caught. They’d stick out in the Oldtown dogs like a sore thumb, and the police would be on alert for them. He turned and licked the side of Kutta’s muzzle.
“Kutta, wake up!”
Kutta coughed again, and when she spoke, her voice sounded raspy. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing’s the matter, only we should figure out what w’re going to do,” Mhumhi said to her, softly. “Should we go to get the meat, or…”
Kutta coughed again. It was a dry, hacking sound.
“I’m not sure, Mhumhi… I’m very tired. Perhaps we should rest some more.”
“Come on, Kutta,” said Mhumhi, impatient, and pulled out from under the comforter to shake himself. Maha got up too and he heard her fumbling around in the darkness.
“I don’t know,” said Kutta. She did not try to get up; Mhumhi only heard her slow breathing. “Meat… I don’t know. They’ll see us, surely, or we’ll get tracked back here… and to get out, we’d have to go by those things again…”
It was unfortunate timing that it was then that Maha found the light switch and turned it on. Mhumhi jumped about a foot into the air from fright and came down hard on his injured leg. Maha was giggling at him, and he gave her a dark look, mainly because her laughter did nothing to dispel the memory of the beasts- the hyenas- from his mind.
“That’s true,” he said to Kutta, and then stopped. In the light he could see that she looked absolutely wretched. Fluid was leaking from her eyes and black gunk had made trails down her scarred muzzle. Her nose, when he touched it to his, was bone-dry.
“Kutta, you’re sick,” he said, shocked to even hear himself saying it.
“I’m not sick,” she said, but the words were feeble in and of themselves. Maha came running back over the blanket.
“She’s sick? Like Tareq?”
Mhumhi looked over at the other little hulker, at his red-rimmed eyes, at the way he shrank back into his nest against his gaze. “Tareq got her sick!”
“No he didn’t, it isn’t his fault,” said Kutta, trying to rise, but Mhumhi stood over her to stop her.
“Don’t get up,” he said. “Unless… are you thirsty?” He felt at an awful loss. If Kutta was sick, what then? What was he going to do? What if she died? What if… what if he was left all alone?
He got the shakes then, briefly, and Kutta whined and tried to tell him she wasn’t sick again. He ignored her.
“You should drink some water,” he said, latching on to the only suggestion he could think of. “Your nose is so dry… if you can stand, and get to the sink-”
“I can bring the water to her,” said Maha, and she ran again up to one of the shelves and took something down from it, something yellow and rounded. She padded on two legs over to the sink in the adjacent bathroom.
“She’s bringing you the water, Kutta,” said Mhumhi, just to have something to say, because he was really not sure how someone could carry water, unless hulkers could regurgitate it like dogs regurgitated meat. Except if they did that, how would one lap it up again?
“I’m not sick,” said Kutta. Her head was lolling slightly to one side where it was laying on her paws, her eyes half-closed. Mhumhi whined and licked at the gunk on her face, trying to clean her.
Maha returned with the yellow thing between her hands and knelt down in front of Kutta. Mhumhi realized it was full of water. So that was how she could do it.
“Kutta, lift up your head, there’s water,” he said, pawing at her shoulder until her eyes opened all the way.
Maha set the bowl down in front of her and she raised her head just enough to drink, sloppily, getting half the water on the comforter. Mhumhi found himself exchanging an anxious look with Maha, of all things, as Kutta lifted her dripping muzzle away from the bowl and laid it back down on her paws.
“I’ll just rest now,” she said, sounding groggy, licking her lips. “That’s all I need, some rest.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, licking around her ears. Maha picked up the bowl again and offered some to Mhumhi, who took a few mouthfuls before backing away. Maha raised it to her mouth and drank the rest herself, in a queer fashion, tilting it directly through her lips.
Mhumhi, watching her, rose from his sitting position and said, “Come with me a moment, Maha.”
Maha looked surprised, the small hairy parts over her eyes rising up, but she stood to put the bowl on a shelf and followed Mhumhi just outside the door.
Outside in the cold concrete corridor, Mhumhi turned to face her, feeling very nervous, and not a little bit helpless. He was down to his last threads of hope now; if he could not keep this strange and fragmented pack together, he’d be entirely lost.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to get meat from our dispensary today,” he told Maha. “The police are looking for us- we don’t know why, exactly-” he did have a fairly good idea, though, with Bii and Kebero missing “-and it’s better for us not to be seen in this district. I think if I can make it to another district’s dispensary, though, I might be able to blend in the crowd and at least get my meat. We can try to divide it between us.”
He felt a bit hopeless as he said it, thinking of the meager portions it would yield, even if he saved none of it for himself.
“Kutta and Tareq should get most of it,” said Maha. “They’re sick.”
Kutta should get all of it, thought Mhumhi, then chastened himself. He needed to treat Tareq like he was part of the family, though he had practically no bond at all with the little hulker.
“The problem is, I only know two ways out of this place,” he told her. “And both of them are bad. If we were starving I would risk swimming through our old way, but…” His leg seemed to twinge at the thought. “The other way is surrounded by those hyena monsters. So I’m asking you- you’ve explored these tunnels, haven’t you? Is there any other way out?”
“Oh yes,” Maha said at once, then paused. “Oh. Maybe not.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I can get out in lots of places, but maybe not you. You can’t climb ladders, right? Like the rungs going up to the manhole cover by our room?”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, thinking of the vertical climb. “I don’t think I could do that, no.”
“Then there’s not many ways. There’s lots of ways I can get out, but… I don’t know how you’d do it.” She chewed on her lip, which Mhumhi found weird and distracting. “There might be one way, but it leads to a scary district. Lots of police.”
“That’s perfect,” said Mhumhi, and when she gave him a startled look, added, “The police around here know me, Maha, and have smelled my home, but the police in a big district like that won’t have any idea who I am. And if they feed from the local dispensary, I’ll blend right into the crowd.”
He thought he sounded very confident, saying it, and wished he felt that sure in reality. Maha was paying rapt attention to his words.
“That’s a good idea!” she said. “I didn’t think of that. And the grate isn’t very far from here.”
“Yes,” she said, scratching her scalp with her blunt nails. “It’s a storm drain. You have to crawl up through a little pipe, but the drain has a lot of trash and things in it, so you can climb out of it if you lift the grate.”
“Lift the grate?” The sound of that made Mhumhi nervous, but he pressed on. “All right, then. All you should do is tell me how to get there, and I can be off.” If he was lucky, it’d still be early enough for him to catch the morning distribution.
“Tell you how to get there?” She pulled her lips down. “I can show you, can’t I?”
“No, Maha, it’s too dangerous-”
“But hardly any dogs go down that way! And how will you lift the grate without me? I don’t think you can get it up just by pushing on it yourself.” She flashed her teeth at him in a swift grin.
Mhumhi’s tail twitched in annoyance. “I can’t risk bringing you with me-“
“I go down that way all the time without you,” she said, daringly.
Mhumhi breathed a sharp sigh through his nose, but she had a point.
“Fine. But you’ll stay behind me and keep quiet, understand?”
She bobbed her head up and down, which he couldn’t make head or tail of, but her face looked pleased. He took it as an affirmative.
“I’ll tell Kutta where we’re going,” he said, “and you can talk to Tareq, if you want. But we must be quick now.”
She bobbed her head again and ran for the door, taking his words a little too literally, but she was a puppy. He followed her more sedately and went to nose Kutta.
“Kutta,” he said, nosing her ear. She was asleep. He hated to wake her, but he more hated the thought of her waking up while they were gone and not knowing where they went.
Her eyelids fluttered open. “Sacha?”
He froze, a jolt going straight through his heart, and swallowed.
“It’s Mhumhi,” he said. She tilted her head to the side a little to look up at him blearily.
“Maha and I are going for a walk,” he said. “We’re going to get some meat. We’ll be back in a little while. You understand? Don’t you or Tareq leave this room.”
She looked at him for a long moment, and he was afraid she was too delirious to comprehend, but then she said, “You are talking very rudely to your older sister.”
He gave her a swift lick on the ear. “We’ll be back soon.”
He turned to look back at her, for he’d already been padding to the door. “What is it?”
“She’s not really dead, is she?”
He was silent for a long moment, feeling like he was teetering on the brink of a terrible precipice, a terrible yawning chasm on each side.
“I keep falling asleep and waking up,” said Kutta, “and sometimes she’s dead, and sometimes she’s alive. I don’t know which one is real. I can never find her.”
“She’s…” Mhumhi struggled with his choice of words. “Right now, she’s not here, Kutta. Go back to sleep. You’ll feel better.”
“All right,” said Kutta, in the peaceable way of the delirious, and closed her eyes.