The everything shop.
The next morning, while he was giving Kutta his excess meat, he informed her of his idea.
“I told the little hulker girl to mark the entrance at the top,” he said, “and we can go and search for it aboveground and drop things down in there for them.”
Kutta finished gobbling up the last of the meat, licking her lips, digesting his words. Mhumhi had led her outside, out of paranoia of being overheard by Bii, and they were standing behind the house on the sidewalk in the bright sunlight. It looked to be another warm, sunny day, and if Mhumhi had his way, he’d be outside to enjoy it.
“I never thought about that,” she said, at length. “It’s a good idea. But I’d have no idea where to start looking.”
“We start by the entrance, and trace our steps underground,” Mhumhi explained. “If we go roughly in the same directions, I bet we’ll be able to smell it out.”
Kutta tilted her head. “Maybe we would.”
“You don’t seem very interested in it,” said Mhumhi, his tail drooping a bit. “Don’t you think it’ll help them?”
“Oh, I do, Mhumhi, it’s just…” Kutta hesitated, rotating her ears, and leaned closer. “I have to tell you something.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve adopted more puppies! What are they this time, fly maggots? I’ll feed them to Bii!”
Kutta laughed, her teeth flashing. “No! No, it’s just something I’ve been wanting to do. It’s sort of the reason I told you about them.”
Mhumhi had a feeling he wasn’t going to like what she was about to say. “Well, what is it?”
“You know the little one is sick,” said Kutta. “And it’s bad down there… bad water, bad air, no sunlight… I know they’ll die if they stay down there much longer, Mhumhi, I know it. They’ll get sicker and sicker.” She paused to cough herself, perhaps in sympathy. “I want to move them.”
“Move them?” Mhumhi gave her a wide-eyed look. “Move then where? How? Where is there that they can even go? And why should we risk getting caught, anyway?”
“Because Sacha’s right, I think, that there’ll be more dogs down in the sewers soon,” said Kutta. “And anyway, f the police go in there and kill them, they’re sure to smell us, too, and then what will happen? You think they won’t go investigating?”
Mhumhi hadn’t thought of that, and put his ears back. She could’ve mentioned that before taking him down there in the first place.
“If I can figure out a safe place to take them, I think we can do it,” said Kutta. “I just haven’t figured out a safe spot yet. But Mhumhi, you’ll like this part-”
“Yes, because it means we won’t have to see them again. If we can find an adult hulker that’ll take them in.”
Mhumhi blinked. “An adult hulker? If we can find one? How will we get it to take them in, even?”
“Well, I suppose we’d ask it…”
“Ask it!” Mhumhi laughed, incredulous. “Of course, we’ll ask it!”
Kutta shouldered him. “I haven’t got any other ideas. And the meat really is getting too low. I don’t know how much farther we can stretch it out. I don’t think we have a choice.”
Mhumhi made a disgruntled sound- there seemed, to him, to be an easy choice.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll be moving them today,” he said. “So let’s go and see if we can give them more blankets. And candles. Whatever those are.”
Kutta wagged her tail and came over to wash his ears. “What a strong, smart big brother you are,” she cooed, until he went to nip her and she boxed him back, laughing. They fell to rolling and mock-biting there in the street for a few minutes, until Mhumhi was panting and laughing.
“Come on, come on then!” he said, bounding on his front paws. “Let’s search it out, let’s go have a race!”
Kutta gave a sharp bark of agreement, and Mhumhi pressed his ears back and ran, using his lanky legs to their full effort. Behind him Kutta scrambled to catch up, her spine arcing. Together they dashed down the warm streets, leaping over startled foxes, turning tight corners in clouds of scrabbling paws and dust. Mhumhi’s longer legs gave him greater speed, and he quickly outstripped his sister, but whenever he paused to wait for her she would give an extra sprint and leap right over him, whistling and laughing.
It seemed merely seconds before they reached the bridge, and Mhumhi skidded to a stop and was bowled over by his sister in another fierce bout of mock-fighting until he whimpered and wagged and licked her, conceding his defeat.
She sprang off of him and he twisted to his feet, panting, smiling broadly.
“We go that way, then?” He trotted to the top of the bridge, peering down at the water flowing inwards through the grate. “Follow the water?”
“I think so,” said Kutta, also panting, rather heavier than he was. She came by the bridge and gave a deep sniff. “Perhaps we shouldn’t have done that right after eating.”
“Come on, Kutta, don’t get lazy,” said Mhumhi, wagging his tail. “If it’s this way, let’s go this way!” He came off the bridge and galloped onward, nose to the ground. Kutta followed him at a more sedate pace until he slowed down enough for her to catch up.
“Look,” she said, nudging him. There was a storm drain embedded in the sidewalk, like the one the fennec fox liked to hide in. “That leads down to the sewer, I bet. We must be going the right way.”
“‘Course we are,” said Mhumhi, trotting over to sniff loudly at the drain. “Smells like scat.”
“Well, I hope it’s the right scat, and we haven’t missed the turn or anything.”
“Oh,” said Mhumhi, who had forgotten to consider that the sewer branched out. “Well, it doesn’t feel like we should’ve turned yet, does it?”
Kutta made no response, just circled the storm drain briefly, sniffing, then looked straight ahead. “Let’s keep going this way.”
“All right,” said Mhumhi, and they went on, down through the dusty lower streets, which were silent and empty now that it was approaching midday. Mhumhi felt like he was starting to recognize some of the old buildings.
“Isn’t this near where the subway entrance is?”
“Oh,” said Kutta, glancing up briefly. “I guess so.”
She returned her nose to the ground, sniffing, but Mhumhi looked up a moment, tongue hanging out. A place where he had smelled his mother… The subway was underground, too, like the sewers. Perhaps he had found Maha’s ‘other entrance.’
Something was living in it, she had said. Was it the something he had heard calling out the day before? He recalled the scent of it easily- it had made quite an impression on him.
“Mhumhi,” Kutta called. He shook himself, breaking away from his thoughts, and followed her.
They went up past where the subway had been, towards the northernmost part of Oldtown. Here they hit the broad edge of Wide Street where it swung in a curve before separating into branches and high concrete ramps. Streetlights swung slowly here too. Mhumhi looked up at them, as the light blinked from the topmost to the bottom slot, signaling for nothing. His eyes could not differentiate the colors.
The dispensary was a long ways down Wide Street here, and instead on the other side they could see more buildings, much taller than those in Oldtown, with many blocks of stories. There was a large parking garage just alongside the concrete ramp, and Mhumhi and Kutta trotted over to it, sniffing curiously as they entered its shaded interior. It was full of empty cars, parked neatly side-by-side.
Mhumhi could tell that many dogs had come and left their marks here, perhaps for years, as the place stank strongly of urine. He wrinkled his nose. It was difficult to discern individual scents here.
Kutta seemed to think so to, and with a glance at him she hopped over a low concrete barrier and out of the parking garage. There was a little kiosk with a lowered wooden barrier, striped yellow and black, and she leapt over it playfully.
“I think we’re getting closer,” she called back. Mhumhi could hear the excitement and nervousness in her voice. He felt it too. Past Wide Street and the parking garage, they were leaving Oldtown.
There were no strict rules about dogs leaving their districts, of course, as there’d be no way to enforce it, but dogs still rarely left their places of birth, unless it was to look for a new pack to make a family with. Mhumhi knew most of the types of foxes in Oldtown only lived in Oldtown, anyway, so they had no reason to leave.
He himself had never thought of seeking out a new pack or a mate, of course, at least not yet. He did not think Kutta had either. He couldn’t imagine Sacha leaving; with his mother gone she was their lynchpin, the source of their strength.
“Let’s go,” said Kutta, whistling encouragingly, and Mhumhi followed her, up the concrete ramp and into a new part of the city.
Here quite suddenly it took on a shift in mood, like a living thing. From Oldtown’s pale apartments it went to stretch upwards, blocks and blocks of windows, dark glass, high metal struts, building after building after building. The street ahead of them seemed to narrow off into the distance, buildings growing closer on either side, though never touching. The skyline was jagged.
They trotted across the sidewalk here, as Kutta sniffed out the next storm drain, and then a metal manhole cover on one side of the street. There was a little fenced-in set of chairs and tables here, by what must have been a restaurant. Most of them had been blown over by the wind, but Mhumhi could see a couple of them standing, with bright blue umbrellas tilted but not overtaken just yet.
“Here,” said Kutta suddenly, and turned and took them down a street where the bottoms of the buildings were marked with awnings and glass doors; “Here,” she said again, and took him on another turn, where they ran across tattered plastic siding barely hiding an unfinished building that was just a mass of metal struts and ugly gray concrete; “This way,” she said, and they ran across a broad intersection, gaping and empty, marked with white and yellow lines everywhere with no sense of order that Mhumhi could grasp. Kutta stopped to sniff at another manhole.
Mhumhi looked up, and gave a jerk of shock. Suspended on the building above him was a huge rectangular board, and printed upon it was a lifelike image of a hulker’s face, only magnified a thousand times its size. It stared down at him with its wide pale mad eyes, hundred-foot smile stretching white and menacing.
Mhumhi knew it could not be alive, that it was flat, and yet he tucked his tail. How could an image of a hulker be there like that, grinning down at the city? It was too unnerving, as if a hulker had taken his pale, watery urine and pissed a high mark for all to smell.
“Kutta, look at this,” he called.
“Wait, Mhumhi,” she said, and he could hear her sniffing deeply. “I think… I think that this is it!” She laughed, letting her tongue hang out. “Look, come over here, look at this!”
He turned nervously away from the mocking image and joined her at the manhole. By one edge something dirty-white stuck out. When he sniffed it he got a strong whiff of Tareq- Tareq’s urine, to be exact.
“This must be it!” he exclaimed, excited in spite of himself. They had done it- they had found the other entrance!
Kutta began scratching at the manhole in excitement. “Maha!” she barked. “Tareq!”
Mhumhi glanced around a bit nervously, but the street was completely deserted. “Don’t be too loud,” he warned her anyway.
Kutta twitched her ears but otherwise ignored him, concentrating on scratching away at the cover of the manhole, scraping all of its strange ridges. Finally it seemed to twitch underneath her, and she leapt off.
The manhole cover jerked and twitched and then slid to one side. Maha’s fingers curled around the edge of the hole.
“Look, Maha, we found you!” said Kutta, falling into a play-bow, as if it had all been a wonderful game. “Come up!”
Maha pushed the manhole a little further to one side, forelegs shaking from the strain, so she could poke her head out. Her eyes rolled nervously from side to side.
“Come out, come out,” said Kutta, raising one foot to paw eagerly at the air. “There’s no one around!”
“That’s not a good idea, Kutta,” Mhumhi warned her, glancing around furtively. The street may have been empty, but that giant picture of the hulker’s face still made him rather anxious from where it was grinning behind Kutta.
“Oh come on, Mhumhi, she can come out for a little bit,” said Kutta, wagging, but Maha looked around and shook her head silently. Mhumhi could smell how frightened she was. He licked his lips.
“Let’s leave her be. We found where the hoe is, now we can find the things to put into it.”
“All right,” said Kutta, sounding disappointed, and went over and licked at Maha’s dense hair. “Take the meat now then, little puppy.”
Maha did so, stroking Kutta’s chin as she had done Mhumhi’s, still queerly silent the whole time. She put the handful of meat in her mouth so she could use both hands to start tugging the manhole cover back over.
“We’ll be back soon,” Kutta said, but Maha said nothing as the cover bumped and rattled its way back closed.
Kutta wrinkled her brow, looking at Mhumhi. “What do you think is the matter with her?”
Mhumhi was surprised. “She’s frightened, isn’t she? Of being on the outside? A dog could catch her here.”
“But there’s no one around,” Kutta protested, almost childishly. Mhumhi gave her an odd look, and she sighed through her nose.
“You’re right, of course. Let’s look around these shops for some clothes and things. I think I know what a candle smells like, so I can tell you what it is if we see one.”
Mhumhi agreed, glad to be leaving the giant grinning face behind. They wandered up and down the street for a bit, poking at doors, but none of them looked to be enterable, aside from the food shops, which had broken windows and long-emptied shelves.
Finally Kutta turned the corner and came across a building with a large set of wide clear windows, through which they could see tall shelves stretching gray and endless. As they passed the doors, they slid open like magic. Mhumhi jumped, and Kutta laughed.
“Let’s look in here, there are a lot of things,” she said, sniffing eagerly.
Mhumhi followed her, warily, jumping again when the doors slid shut again behind them. It felt like a seal had closed, for the air in the store was very still and silent.
Both Mhumhi and Kutta began sniffing at once, for at some point or another there had been dogs in this place.
“Probably just exploring,” said Kutta, tone falsely bright. Mhumhi knew why she was nervous- the dogs smelled strong and large. “Let’s start down there, where there’s light.”
Mhumhi followed her, feeling uneasy again. The store’s artificial light had sputtered out in some places, so that there were patches of abrupt darkness amongst the shelves; in other places, the lights sputtered and flickered like they did on Food Strip Street.
The shelves Kutta took them along were lined with strange objects: coiled black hoses, small carts with wheels, large cans of strong-smelling stuff, and a whole bank of reddish clay pots. Some had been knocked over and smashed on the linoleum. Mhumhi stepped gingerly around the fragments.
“What do you think?” he asked. Kutta glanced back at him.
“Not here, probably,” she said. “I think the things are arranged somehow here. There must be an area for bedding. We could split up and search for it.”
Mhumhi trotted around the edge of a shelf to look down another aisle, where a few feet away the lights cut off, leaving it in darkness.
“All right,” he said, as his tail tucked down.
“Are you frightened, Mhumhi?” Kutta asked. “We don’t have to.”
Mhumhi glanced back at her, said, rather sulkily, “It will be faster,” and slunk down the aisle.
He stepped through the dark part, hearing Kutta’s nails clicking away in the other direction behind him. Here it smelled strange, artificial, though it had gotten hard to discern shapes in the dimness. He gingerly nosed what was on the bottom shelves. His nose bumped against something smooth and yielding- cardboard. It just seemed to be a shelf full of cardboard boxes.
Mhumhi went on a little further, nosing every few feet, and discovered something smooth and metallic. When he put his head in it it tipped off the self and landed on its side with a deafening clang. Mhumhi froze instinctively.
From somewhere far in the distance he heard Kutta give an inquiring whistle, and breathed a slow sigh of relief. He gave a little chirp to let her know he was all right.
He sniffed whatever he’d knocked over- it seemed to be a large metal pot. He left it where it was on the ground.
The aisle he was in was yielding little in the way of bedding, so he broke into a brief run and circled around to the next one. At least here there was more light, though it showed him nothing, as the shelves were empty. Only bits of cardboard and plastic remained. Mhumhi surmised that they had once held food.
He went on to the next aisle, skipped it when it held much the same thing, and went trotting down the next. This one looked more promising- it widened out, and there were metal racks with cloth hanging on them. It looked like the same sort of cloth wrappings the hulkers wore. Mhumhi couldn’t recall the name Maha had used for them.
They looked too small to be used as blankets, though Mhumhi supposed if you were to drag a whole bunch of them you could make a nice nest for a den. Indeed it looked as if some dogs had done just that, for there were plastic and wire hangers scattered on the floor in places where they’d been torn off the racks. The smell of large dog was stronger here. Mhumhi sniffed it in a worried way. It smelled as if whatever had been here had been here quite recently. There was new scent layered over old scent. They seemed to visit quite frequently, whoever they were.
He trotted on and found another shelf full of cardboard boxes. The smell intrigued him, so he reared up and dug at one with his paws until it tipped off the shelf, spilling out… something. Something made of cloth and rubber. He sniffed on it, gnawed briefly, and decided to leave it.
At the end of this aisle there was an open little corridor. Mhumhi went in curiously and found that it branched into two. On one side there was a carpeted floor and what looked like several empty stalls; on the other, a half-open door from which came the unmistakeable smell of toilets.
Mhumhi went towards the toilet side, thinking he might be able to get a drink of water. Where there were toilets, there were sinks, after all.
He squeezed through the door and found that the bathroom was quite dark, with only one or two lights above the row of sinks still working. He leapt up onto the counter and got the shock of his life- there was a huge dog standing right there beside him–
No, it was only his reflection. Mhumhi let his tongue hang out in relief. He’d seen mirrors before, but none so big as these. He admired himself for a moment, winking his eyes and tilting his head, before lowering his head so he could use one of his paws to nudge a tap for some water.
He looked at himself while he lapped, twitching his ears, putting them up and down. In the dimness behind him one of the stall doors moved slightly.
Mhumhi blinked. The door moved again. There came a loud flushing noise, so loud he jumped, paws sliding on the smooth porcelain, one of his back feet slipping completely over the edge.
He was eye to eye with his reflection in this pose, so he had a good view of behind himself when the stall door opened all the way and something huge with yellow eyes leapt down from the toilet.