This is After The End: Foster’s Home for Heirs (The Fours Be With You)

 Okay……so maybe coming to Rosebank wasn’t such a good idea after all. My bad. We’d gone quite a few months without any sightings of mutant animals, and I for one was glad about that record. I do not do well when I’m around them at all. I am now frozen still as the rat thing jumps at Traps, and if something as small as that has me startled like this, what more when bigger ones show up? Fortunately for Traps, Tshego has better reflexes than I. Than all of us, apparently. On an almost immediate impulse, she belts toward him and shoves him out of the way. They both roll on the floor and scramble to get back on their feet, as the critter regains its balance and readies itself for another attack.
“Steamer!” Traps shouts. Steamer doesn’t need an invitation. He’s already on the charge, and soon after that, he’s swinging his cricket bat. Let’s just say we don’t call him Mr. Six for nothing. When we’re not calling him Steamer, of course. [For those of you who don’t know, in Cricket terms, hitting a six means you’re KILLING it. As you were.] It flies across the lobby and goes into a wall. It looks like it was only slightly disoriented, though, and in a fleeting moment, with a shake of its head, it’s back on its feet. What stands out most, apart from its piranha-like teeth, is the fact that it has four ears. This doesn’t seem to bother Steamer at all.

“Watch me make a piñata of this rodent,” he says smugly as he starts approaching it.

“Steamer, don’t! It’s going to-” Lace doesn’t have the chance to finish. The mouse-rat thing-I’m calling it a Four (What did I tell you about us and giving names, no matter how bad they may be) – bolts off, up the wall and then back into the vent.

“Guess I showed it, huh?” Steamer says.

“I wouldn’t be so cocky,” Lace tells him. “I think I’m starting to agree with Rimshot. We……….been here too long.”

“CLUNK!”

“What was that?” Mickey asks. Just then, we hear more rumbling coming from the vent the Four went into.

“I’m not sticking around to find out,” I say. But before I can do anything, the Four re-emerges from the vent. With two others. And then they become four (how about that!). And in a second, eight. Then twenty. And then-

“Guys, RUUUUUUN!” Steamer shouts. Yup. Steamer. The irony, though. I start heading for one of the exits ahead of everyone, but the Fours see this happening, and before we know it, all the exits are blocked. The only way to go is back into the tunnel. I am falling onto the floor and scrambling back onto my feet in an attempt to do a complete 180 turn in two seconds. We haven’t had too many encounters with any mutant animals, but in almost all of them, a lot of running was involved.

Because of their size, these Fours are notably slower than normal rodents, but they are still moving pretty damn quick, and if any of us gets caught, sheer number will definitely be the deciding factor. With that having been said, you can now understand the panic that I am going through. In spite of all our running, we’re unable to lose them completely, and by the time we reach the tunnel, I notice I’m falling behind. The hoard of Fours is almost at my heels.

“Spec, step on it!” Tshego shouts. It just doesn’t look like I’m going to keep at it much longer because I’m giving it my best, but my best still isn’t good enough. When I look back, I see one of them leaping through the air coming at my face, and I’m barely able to duck it. But in doing so, I trip over myself and stumble to the ground. Before I’m back on my feet, two more are upon me. I manage to kick one of them away, but I have to hold back the second one from its mouth before it can carve my face out. I can feel the flesh on my fingers being seared as it struggles to get at me, and then it exhales some toxic smelling breath right into my face.

“Eeeeewwwwww!” I exclaim. It stinks so, so bad; enough for me to find the strength to toss the Four clear. It doesn’t help much because the horde that is about to swallow me is right on schedule to take over where the last Four left off. I can do nothing but close my eyes wait for it to be over. It’s over for me. Fini-

“Thud!”

“Thud!”

“Thud!”

I am feeling my body for wounds, but there aren’t any. Instead, I right away feel myself being jerked by my arm back onto my feet, and when I open my eyes, I see Tshego’s hand on my arm, and a hockey stick in her other hand. I can’t believe it…….she just saved my life! Being such a Rambo fourteen-year-old kid with glasses and plasters from paper cuts, who would have thought that I was the one who needed protecting from her? But I don’t know if it will do any good because more Fours are closing in. I’m moving a bit faster with Tshego pulling my arm, all while she’s knocking a few more away, but instead of saving me, she may have just put her name under mine on the dead pool. There are much more of them now, and I’m wondering how long we can keep it up. I look ahead and see everyone entering one of the dormant trains. It’s not too far off and seems like it’s going to be our only fortress because there’s is no way in hell we are outrunning these Fours. Tshego and I keep pushing forward, fending off as many as we can, with a few of them giving my legs some mean scratches because they are literally at my heels. We get closer and closer, and I am just about to get swallowed by the legion of vermin when we reach the train. We have to squeeze between the train and the tunnel walls, and at least this lines down the little devils’ attack front. Tshego lets me go ahead of her while she fights back the Fours as we squeeze through the space between the train and the walls. Steamer was able to force one of the doors open, and we barely make into the car. Tshego helps me in and the Four right behind her slams into the door as it is being shut.

“Oh my gosh!” I exhale, as I lie down on the ground, just glad to be still breathing.

“Are you okay?” Traps asks. I’m only I looking up to him after a few seconds, with a heavy let down feeling in my chest. I’m not even sure what to answer.

“Ummm…..guys……” Minnie interrupts. “I hate to break up the party, but you need to see this. Take a look through the windows.” I get up onto my feet, and what I see has goose bumps springing up all over my body. The Fours are starting to swarm, and they are soon climbing up the tunnel walls as well as the sides of the train. I can see nothing out of the windows. Nothing but rodent bellies.

We are completely surrounded.

This is the end.

Rimshot lets out a scream as it happens. One of the Fours jumps off the tunnel wall straight at the window, which is only like a foot away from the wall. It gives off a thudding sound, but nothing happens. To our horror, another one follows suit, and they are soon all copying the first wise guy. It doesn’t take too long before a fracture appears in one of the glasses and grows into a huge crack. Everyone holds onto the rather rudimentary weapons of sports clubs and sticks we have in anticipation of the imminent breach, but we will certainly be overwhelmed once that glass breaks. There is no point of even trying. I guess want to give up none of them want to give up without a fight. I pick up my baseball bat and join them, ready to go down swinging. What’s there to lose? We’ve already lost before even start-

“Whooooah!!!!!!!” I’m completely dumbfounded as I lose balance and fall to the ground. The train is moving!?!?!?

Tshego!!!” Scrunch and Mickey shout together. I look around and I only now notice that she isn’t with us. I then turn my attention to the front of the train and see her there. She made it into the cab and somehow managed to start the train? But how? Aren’t all these trains supposed to be dead? And what’s even powering it? There isn’t that much time for questions or celebration because even though we are pulling away now, several Fours made it into the car. I still like our odds better when we aren’t up against like a million of them. We have a chance now. And most importantly, we have a Steamer.

He starts cracking his knuckles before he grips tightly onto his cricket bat. No one else even joins in. One by one, those Fours fly out of the same window they came in and disappear behind the now speeding train into the darkness.

Rimshot sits on one of the chairs and gives out a loud sigh. I think it perfectly sums up how we are all feeling. Oh-my-goodness. That was way too close.

Lace takes a look at my hands and legs once we’ve caught our breaths. She’s able to have the cuts disinfected, and after that, she wraps them up with some band aid. There are a thousand questions on my mind while she’s taking care of my wounds. How is this train even able to move? Where is the electricity running it coming from? And where on earth did Tshego learn how to drive one? She just gets more mysterious as we find out more about her, this one.

After a short while, the train starts slowing down. We’re all looking at each other with bemused faces, wondering if something has gone wrong, but everything seems okay.

“Tshego, what’s going on?” Scrunch asks.

“We can’t afford to get too far north, we should start heading back now,” Tshego replies. The train is almost at a full stop.

“Heading back……….where? To the rodents? I thought the whole idea of running away was to run…….away…….” Rimshot says, with just enough sarcasm in her tone and on her face to make her point.

“No, silly!” Tshego replies lightheartedly. “I’ve got to get home,” she responds with a smile. It’s as if she’s clothed with a new cloak of optimism. She’s going to need a cloak of invisibility too if she’s serious.

“Where exactly is home?” Steamer asks.

“In Vanderbijlpark, in the Vaal,” she says. It’s quite a distance south of here.

“Wow,” is all Scrunch can let out. After all, she’s the one who vouched for Tshego, so she should be feeling rather let down.

The train is coming to a full stop now, and Tshego is getting her things together.

“B-But…..” Rimshot stutters, not really sure what to say. I guess we never really talked much about this part right here when she joined us. I for one assumed that it was going to be more or less permanent, and knew nothing about her home.

“I think what they’re trying to say is how do you plan on getting there alone?” Steamer asks.

“Alone?” Tshego says. “I………I thought……” She holds her head. After looking around, she then looks at all of us. “This is my bad. I guess I should have said something sooner. I assumed we were all going back together,” she says as she steps out onto the platform, keeping her glance.

“And just why would we do that?” Traps finally enters the discussion with an air of authority about him and is now stepping up to the train door. “Mash and his guys are gone now. The city is ours. Why would we leave it all behind?”

“I just thought…….” She takes a deep breath. “Okay, maybe I should have told you this earlier. Before I lost contact with my family, they told me they were gonna be leaving for our village in Lesotho. It’s supposed to be safe there in the highlands. They said they wouldn’t leave without me, so I have to find out where they are. I just thought we were going to all go together. We could easily accommodate all of you.” There is stillness all around. Some of these guys had been waiting for the chance for adoption for a pretty long time, and this isn’t going to be the same, but it’s as close to it as anyone could come now, with all that’s happened. I’m sure everyone is giving it some thought. Everyone apart from Traps.

“All go together? Tshego, are you listening to yourself?” He says. “It’s been three years, hasn’t it?” He stops and looks away momentarily while he takes a breath: “I don’t want to be that guy, but here is the truth. Those animals came from the north and completely ravaged the city, and when their food became scarce, they moved on south. I don’t think your family could have waited this long. If they did wait, they are most likely dead now, and even the more reason why you have to stay with us. You’re one of us now, Tshego.” I don’t know if he meant one of us as in part of our family, or one of us meaning she’s also an orphan.

“Look, I really appreciate the gesture, but my mind is made up. I have to find out for myself. You can come with me if you like, but I’m not gonna force you.” She stands still, waiting for a response, but nobody does anything. “Okay then, I guess……thanks for everything, and……and all the best.” She straps up and starts heading for the stairs.

“Wait! I’m coming with you,” I say. Hold up, what?! Did I just say that?! What are you doing, Speccie boy? I rush and grab my backpack, with my mind in a whirlwind of thought.

“Spec, what the hell are you doing?!” Traps shouts.

“I’m not sure, but I just know I have to.” I step out of the train and start heading towards Tshego. Before I reach her, Traps come after me and pulls me back.

“Have you lost your damn mind?!” He says in a hushed tone. “You don’t even know this girl, and you’re just going to choose her over us? After all we’ve been through? We’re family, dude!”

“I told you, I just know I have to do it. Besides, when I was down and out with the Four  the rodents, she’s the only one who came back to help me.”

“Really, Spec? So you’re gonna forget all the times I had to bail you out of your own balls-ups? Just over this one thing?”

“I was never facing death those times you ‘bailed me out.’ When I really needed you, you weren’t there.”

“It’s coal black down here, how was I supposed to see that you were lagging behind? You know what, don’t even answer that: you’re always lagging behind; I should have guessed it. And now you want to go solo. How well do you think you’re gonna fare by yourselves?” I can feel his hurt, even just from his heavy breath I am feeling against my skin (and because his words are hurting me too). But like Tshego, my mind is already made up.

“Look, I don’t expect you to understand-” I say looking down, not quite able to face him.

“Man, forget you!” he says, before shoving me to the ground and walks back to the train. He takes one last look and says, “I only hope you’ll be alive when I say ‘I told you so.’” Tshego rushes to me to make sure I’m okay and then helps me back to my feet. I stand with a heavy heart as I watch the others going back into the train that soon pulls away, with my foster family in it. I’m kind of disappointed that they chose to stick with Traps and his rather vain quest to take the city, but I must respect their decision. Mickey, Minnie, and Lace give me half waves, and their long faces are soon gone, disappearing into the tunnel. Will I ever see them again? I’m not sure. Did I make the right decision? Even less sure. Damn my instincts.

“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Tshego says, as she dusts off my back. “I can’t make any promises, but I really, really appreciate the sacrifice you made.”

“Don’t mention it,” I say with a half-smile. I strap up and then start heading to the stairs.

“So are we gonna do this or not?” She looks up at me and gives me a grin.

“Do let’s.”

Before I go too far up the stairs, I feel itchiness in my chest and I try to cough it out. When I look my palm afterward, I see drops of blood.

“Are you okay?” Tshego asks. I quickly close my fist and then surreptitiously wipe it clean on my jeans.

She doesn’t need to know. At least till I figure out what’s going on.

“Yeah, I’m golden. So, tell me more about your family.”

I’m the first to walk out of the Sandton station into the crisp, frigid air lying above the deserted streets. It’s just like the scene we left in Braamfontein, but it seems a little more mysterious. A little scarier. We didn’t realize it in the tunnel, but it’s getting dark now, and we won’t be going anywhere after sunset.

“Which direction is the Vaal again?” I say sheepishly. Now that the thought has come to mind, I realize what I big call it was to team up with Tshego. The two of us. Alone. Going over fifty miles south with surprises bound to be waiting at every corner, for what may literally be a dead cause. Thumbs up, Spec. You out-did yourself this time. But then Tshego comes and stands next to me, and then puts her hand on my shoulder as we look onwards to the journey that awaits us. “We’ll be strong,” she says, in a very rusty Sotho. We both giggle as a warm feeling starts spreading across my chest, and when I look up to Tshego, it suddenly feels like Eyvon is standing next to me.

“Yeah, we will.”

“Spec, yeah? Tell me, what’s your real name?” What’s my real name? I haven’t heard it in so long, I can barely remember it. But it’s coming back…….it’s right at the tip of my tongue….

“It’s……………yeah. It’s Aleksey.”

….

Jack

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