The station is empty.
Vimbo helped Mhumhi carry Telipa’s body to the shore. He needed almost no prompting at all to do so- in fact, Mhumhi had been going to pick her up himself when Vimbo nudged by him and grasped her by the back of the neck. She was already stiff, her legs curled, so that when he raised her up it seemed as though she were only a sleeping puppy held by the scruff.
They walked side by side down to where the waves lapped over the trash-strewn sand. Vimbo walked out into the surf until it was up to his chest and let go of Telipa. Her body bobbed, half-floating and half-sinking.
Mhumhi looked at her rounded stomach and felt a pain in his gut.
Tareq had been strangely calm after it was all over. Mhumhi had expected him to shut down again, but he spoke when answered to, ate when food was given to him. He asked only a few questions.
“Was she gonna hurt the mama dog?”
“Yes,” Mhumhi had said, “I think so.”
“Red dog too?” When Mhumhi hadn’t answered, Tareq pressed, “She was a bad dog, right, Mhumhi?”
“No,” Mhumhi wanted to say, because it was the truth. “No, she wasn’t, and I am.”
He didn’t say it. There was a certain need in Tareq’s eyes. The need for Mhumhi to justify what he had done. For Tareq’s sake, he needed to lie, to settle the matter for his childish sense of morality. If Mhumhi had to kill a dog, it would only be a bad dog.
“She might have hurt the puppies,” he said, the words themselves feeling like filth he was smearing over Telipa’s body. The salt water wouldn’t clean her. “I had to do it.”
Tareq seemed satisfied.
Mhumhi wished he could lie so to himself.
Vimbo was calm, watching the body gradually disappear under the water. Mhumhi wondered if a new skull wouldn’t be joining his collection soon. Skulls. Vimbo always managed to get them so clean. Maybe there was a reason he’d been so eager to take the body down to the water.
He suddenly flung himself down, shoulder-first, onto the damp sand, and wriggled on his back. What was the point? What was the point of thinking it over, anyway? He’d done what he’d done. It almost calmed him. He now knew what he was capable of. His decision to leave Kutta and Tareq had been right after all.
Vimbo went over to him, grunting and flicking his tail, and flopped down beside him. Mhumhi rolled so that he leaned into the hyena.
“Sorry I haven’t learned better,” he said aloud.
Vimbo drew a line in the sand with his nose, then looked at Mhumhi.
Mhumhi closed his eyes for a moment, then got up, and used his paw to cross it.
Vimbo gave a satisfied-sounding grunt and rose to his feet as well. This time he drew a clumsy arc with his nose.
Mhumhi recalled the shape- Vimbo drew it a lot- and completed it.
They practiced writing for a while, in the relative quiet next to the sea. Having done this several times, Mhumhi was beginning to recognize much of what Vimbo drew in the sand. He just couldn’t fathom what it meant. And there was no way for Vimbo to tell him.
He paused, and Vimbo grunted, his nose hovering over a shape he had started.
Tareq could talk to Vimbo, though. If Tareq said things… and then Vimbo wrote them…
But that would require getting Tareq to the sand, not an easy task with his broken leg. Was it worth it?
Mhumhi felt his heart sink a little. He glanced at the sun, then called Vimbo. It was time to start walking back.
Hlolwa had the puppies out on the dirt when they returned, lolling on her side as they crawled and tumbled over top of her. Much to Mhumhi’s surprise, Tareq was holding one in his lap, stroking its little head as it sleepily mouthed his thumb. Mhumhi caught Hlolwa’s eye and decided not to say anything about it.
“I have meat, if you’re hungry,” he said, trotting forward to sniff noses with her.
“I’m not,” said Hlolwa, and did not deign to raise her head. A puppy hopped onto her neck and made a grab for her ear. Mhumhi redirected it with his nose so it tumbled backwards and licked between its legs.
“They never do get clean,” Hlolwa muttered, yawning against the dirt. The puppy squirmed and whined under Mhumhi’s ministrations, but when he raised his head, it folded its forepaws and looked up at him rather beseechingly.
The others came towards him, tails waving, squeaking, and licked his chin. He brought up meat for them and they mouthed at it clumsily.
“They’re almost eating it,” said Mhumhi, waving his tail a little. It was a bittersweet feeling. “That little one, the female, lost a tooth the other day…”
“We’ll leave tonight,” said Hlolwa.
“You heard me,” said Hlolwa, yawning again. She stretched her paws out and rolled partially on her back, the very picture of a relaxed dog. “At twilight, we’ll start moving them. I’ve decided to allow the hyena’s assistance.”
Hlolwa gave him a lazy smile, and he swallowed.
“Because those little dogs are still frightened,” she said. “And because you killed their breeding female. Well, one of them. They will be fighting to regroup. I wouldn’t be surprised if they all split apart because of this.”
“And was that part of your plan all along?” Mhumhi gave her a hard stare, but she was as ever unaffected.
“It was my intent to disturb them, though this is beyond what I had hoped,” she said, looking up at him, until he was forced to look away. “They will be disorganized. They won’t expect us to flee while we have the upper hand. I am willing to bet that they are expecting an attack, instead. We are vicious creatures, after all.”
Mhumhi moved away from her and paced back and forth, stepping over one of the puppies.
“Did you really catch a coyote eating another dog? Was that the truth?”
Hlolwa did raise her head at this, a rare flicker of surprise entering her gaze. Then she stretched again.
“It wasn’t a coyote.”
Another question was on the tip of Mhumhi’s tongue, but he decided he didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Are you sure you want to move at twilight? The screamers…”
“Their movements will cover ours,” said Hlolwa, lying back down. “And we shall never leave the puppies unattended, if I have my way. But you will have to move quickly.”
“You are going to be our courier, Mhumhi,” Hlolwa told him.
That day, the sun seemed to sink quickly and slowly at the same time. Quickly, because every moment that passed brought Mhumhi closer to the frightening prospect of the task ahead of him, but slowly, because every moment dragged, stretching his worried nerves, pushing and pulling him between hoping the time would not come and wishing it were over.
Tareq caught his anxiety, and grasped at Mhumhi with every chance he got, fisting his hands in the thicker fur around Mhumhi’s chest.
“They’re leaving?” was all he kept saying. “Leaving? The puppies are leaving?”
“Yes,” said Mhumhi. “Yes, they have to. It’s safer for them to go back to the city.”
“But…” Tareq looked miserably over at the puppies, wrestling inside one of the tires. “But…”
Mhumhi licked his forehead, and he quieted, though he still emanated unhappiness.
“We’ll stay here, just you and me and Vimbo,” he said, in a low voice. “No more scary dogs.”
Hlolwa looked over at him, but said nothing.
The sun fell lower, lower… A light rain began to fall, sometime late in the afternoon, and Mhumhi thought Hlolwa would take the puppies back into the den. But she kept them outside, so that they splashed and tussled in the mud.
“I want them tired,” was her explanation to Mhumhi, though he hadn’t asked.
Tareq stayed in the mud, too, though that was because he couldn’t move.
The bottom of the sun finally touched the horizon. The cloudy sky was highlighted in brilliant, beautiful colors. Hlolwa got to her feet.
“It’s time to go,” she said, shaking off the rain.
This was Hlolwa’s plan: She would move ahead to the train and stay there, guarding the puppies that Mhumhi brought her. Mhumhi would be the one to move back and forth between the den and the station, carrying each puppy. Vimbo would be stationed back at the den, with Tareq there to talk to him and tell him what to do.
Mhumhi felt that it was shaky, all told. “You don’t realize how many screamers are in the station,” he pointed out. “They can overwhelm you. If they see the puppies, I don’t know…”
“As long as I have a space behind me to protect, I won’t worry,” said Hlolwa. “We can make more meat to distract them with, if it comes to that.”
Mhumhi swallowed, more at her calm tone than anything else.
Vimbo seemed surprised to be allowed near the den- Hlolwa had been quite adamant at keeping him as far away as possible the past few days- but at Tareq’s cajoling he came forward and lowered his rump by the entrance.
Mhumhi and Hlolwa each already had a puppy dangling from their jaws. Mhumhi’s puppy was the female with the folded ears. She squirmed, whimpering softly. Hlolwa’s puppy curled his tongue and yawned.
Hlolwa gave a jerk of her head. The soft hoots and cries of the screamers were already audible, distorted by the humid air. Mhumhi felt her urgency and stepped forward.
“You’ll come back, right?” That was Tareq, behind them. Mhumhi heard the tears in his voice. “You won’t leave me, right?”
Mhumhi looked back at him and tried to wag his tail reassuringly, though he couldn’t speak with the puppy hanging from his jaws. Hlolwa touched shoulders with him and jerked her head again.
They trotted forwards, though Mhumhi couldn’t resist glancing back a few times. Tareq was crying a little, and Vimbo was sniffing his face.
A hazy fog was forming, as the rain sputtered into a light drizzle. Mhumhi led the way towards the station entrance, though his memory was starting to feel as vague and dreamy as the mist. It was in the direction away from the sea- a huge concrete all- they would have to run into it sooner rather than later…
They ran past screamers, hooting and calling. Some picked at the garbage, squatting and shuffling around with their hands, their eyes gleaming a little when they looked up at Mhumhi and Hlolwa. They nearly ran into a pair that were mating- or attempting to, for they were face-to-face, rutting clumsily. Mhumhi would have laughed if it weren’t for the stark sight of the male’s ribs over his straining stomach.
They went around them. Mhumhi was glad for the mist and the rain, because it might have obscured what they were carrying. Some of the screamers drifted after them, but only for a short time.
Mhumhi’s jaws were already starting to feel tired, carrying the puppy, and her discordant whines made the mist even more mournful. They were in the densest piles of trash now, the hills of plastic and pulpy wet cardboard that sank down under their feet with every step. Glass bottles skidded and rolled as they disturbed the wet heaps.
Hlolwa kept in step behind him, and stopped when Mhumhi stopped at the top of a hill. He could dimly make out the long concrete wall in front of them. The sight did not really thrill him; he shuddered to think of what awaited them inside.
They went down to the wall and walked alongside it for a little while before they came to the entrance. It was the first entrance they had come out of. Mhumhi knew this, because he saw a pile of the things Mini had called phones beside it- a pile that Tareq had made once, a long time ago.
Hlolwa caught up and came alongside him here, sending him an odious look over the puppy in her mouth. Mhumhi shared the sentiment, looking into the dark, gaping entrance, it’s rusted gate hanging menacingly. It was almost closed. Mhumhi thought it had been open wider before.
They went into the tunnel. Mhumhi was first again, eyes wide, ears cupped forward in the darkness. The low rushing sound of air and the scrape of his own paws on the concrete were all he heard. It reminded him of the time he had looked for his mother in the ruined subway.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he beheld something strange: nothing.
There were no screamers in sight. The crowds that had once amassed around the train tracks had entirely disappeared, leaving behind not even a single scat or splash of urine. Mhumhi felt deeply unnerved.
Hlolwa put her puppy down on the concrete for a moment. “Nothing here,” she murmured.
Mhumhi tensed, for her voice echoed from the arched gray ceiling, and he half-expected screamers to come pouring out at them from every orifice. But nothing happened.
He set down his puppy as well. “I don’t know where they are,” he whispered back. There had been hundreds of them… Where had they all left to?
Hlolwa gave a soft snort and picked up her puppy again, moving towards the train, which was still parked where they had left it months ago. The puppy with the folded ears followed her, ducking away when Mhumhi tried to grab her again. He supposed it would be safe enough to let her walk.
Hlolwa jumped up through the open door to the cab, then turned to lift the other puppy inside with her.
“It’s going better than I thought,” she told Mhumhi. “Only three more. Go, hurry.”
The abruptness stung, but she was right. The empty station felt more ominous than comforting, and Mhumhi’s tail was tucked as he turned around to leave.
When he got outside again, it was dark. It had taken them over an hour to find the station entrance. He hoped it would be faster now. The mist had soaked his fur, and he shook himself, trying not to think too hard about Hlolwa alone there in the station with her two puppies.
He broke into a run, legs chewing up the distance. Screamers scrambled out of his way, blinking, huddling together. At least the darkness would make them sluggish. If everything could just be all right…
He reached the den, and Tareq shouted out at the sight of him.
Mhumhi went to greet him, wagging. Vimbo rose with a squeal, shaking his wet mass out, and Mhumhi turned to lick him as well.
Tareq had a puppy in his lap, sleeping, his paws twitching. When Mhumhi reached for him, Tareq tightened his arms around the puppy for a moment, than sighed and looked away.
Mhumhi licked Tareq one more time on the forehead, then took the drowsy puppy and started running again.
He was nearly back to the concrete tunnel when he received the first attack. It was something large and heavy, like a stone, and it hit him on the head. He dropped the puppy with a yelp.
A large screamer came crawling up over the garbage, uncharacteristically silent. It picked up something else and threw it at Mhumhi, who crouched.
No time to think. He threw himself at the screamer’s throat, but his teeth didn’t sink in quick enough, and the screamer howled and shoved him away and down, swinging its hard fists at him. Mhumhi tore a red line across its knuckles before springing up again, biting and biting- arm, shoulder, cheek; his teeth drawing red and redder as the screamer screamed. It fell forward. Mhumhi tore out is throat.
He stepped back, panting, as the screamer twitched and bled out on the ground, then whirled. The little puppy had vanished. Before he could dash out and look for it he was jerked to a stop. Something clamped on his bad leg like a vise.
The screamer had closed its mouth around his leg, even as it bled out from its gaping throat. Its jaws worked over his flesh, not enough to break through, but still painful. Still hungry, even right before it died.
Mhumhi jerked out of the grip, thoroughly unnerved, and put his nose down to find the puppy.
He was lucky. It had not wandered far, and he caught up with it crouched shivering and whining under a drooping steel beam. He licked it to soothe it and then picked it up with his bloody muzzle.
He got this puppy to Hlolwa without incident, rearing up to place it within the train cab. Hlolwa herself seemed distracted, leaning out of the doorway with her ears turning this way and that. Behind her, the other puppies were curled up and sleeping together.
“Can you go faster?” she asked.
“I can try,” said Mhumhi. Something in his voice made her start and stare at him, taking in his blood-matted state.
“You had some trouble?”
“Not anymore,” said Mhumhi, and turned to start running back again.
When he lifted the next puppy at the den, he heard something dreadful: the yap-howl of a coyote.
“Is that a bad dog?” Tareq cried, grabbing for Vimbo, who was just out of his reach. “Are they gonna come after the puppies?”
“Vimbo will protect them,” Mhumhi reassured him, though his heart was sinking. It sounded like a rallying howl, like a howl that preceded a hunt.
He could do nothing but run forward again, his jaws aching. He heard more howls- from jackals and other coyotes. They were moving towards him, towards the concrete tunnel.
He smelled the blood from the dead screamer as he came to the tunnel entrance and realized why. They were scavenging. They had smelled the kill he had made. And he’d made it right in front of the entrance.
He could change nothing. He took the puppy to Hlolwa. This time she was actually standing outside the cab, and jumped as he got close. Her eyes were wide.
“I think there’s something down in the tunnel,” she said.
Mhumhi put the puppy down inside the cab, where it toddled over to the pile of its siblings. “You hear something?”
“I smell something,” Hlolwa said. “Hear… maybe.”
Mhumhi flared his nostrils. He could smell the unforgettable stench of rotting garbage, of screamers, of old meat. Perhaps it was stronger than it had been before in the tunnel, but it was hard for him to remember.
“I don’t like this place,” Hlolwa said.
It was rare for her to seem frightened, and Mhumhi went up and licked her face.
“Just one more,” he said.
She looked at him, her eyes wide and pale.
He decided not to say anything about the howling. Not now, when she was already so unsettled. He licked her again and returned to the entrance.
The rain was coming down harder, dampening the smells. Mhumhi hoped it would dampen the blood scent coming from the corpse, but it was a futile hope. They would be coming. They would be hungry. And if they saw Mhumhi carrying a puppy…
There was still nothing- nothing at all that he could do. He ran back to the den.
Tareq had dragged himself into the relative shelter underneath some overhanging tires, his arms wrapped around himself and his hair slicked to his forehead. The puppy on his lap looked equally miserable. Vimbo was lying beside the den entrance, and didn’t bother to get up when Mhumhi approached.
“It’s last one,” said Tareq, trembling from cold. Mhumhi brushed up against him, though the gesture was ruined with his wet fur, and made Tareq wrinkle his nose.
“You’ll come back, right?”
“I promise I’ll come back,” Mhumhi told him. “You wait with Vimbo.”