Sometimes your babbies ask if you’re scared to go in the forest alone, since there are so many things out there that want to give fluffies hurties. You’re not sure how to answer them.
When you were still a baby, sure, the forest was very scary. You still sort of remember Mummah never letting you, Big Red or Flower go anywhere near it. She told you some stories about the monsters which lived there but never went into details. Anyway, you could tell the forest scared Mummah, so why wouldn’t it scare you? Those scardies started to go away when Daddeh took you nummie finding, but never went away. That was mostly because Daddeh and his friends never let you forget how dangerous it was.
The more time that went by, though, the less you felt those scardies. Now, you don’t feel them unless you have a reason, like when you near a strange noise somewhere in the distance, find tracks that look like a monster made them or if your smelly place catches something strange. The scardies rush back when those things happen, but seem to go away once the moment passes. You don’t understand why or even how you turned out this way, but you suppose it’s not all bad.
If you felt the scardies all the time instead of when it matters, you couldn’t be a lookie fluffy. The scardies tell you when something bad might happen, sure, but they also distract from searching for nummies and other important things. So that’s a good thing, or at least not bad. The problem is your babbies have trouble understanding, no matter how simple you make it for them. Compared to other problems, though, it’s not a big deal.
Lately, no one’s heard or seen the loud sky monsters. For most of the herd that’s great news; a lot of nummie finders have said how horrible it is when one of them flew over their spot. And, how annoying it was to hide in the middle of finding nummies. So, they’re happy about it. The Smarty and toughies though, they’re not so sure. The sky monsters help humans search for safe places, that much you know. What does it mean now the sky monsters are gone?
Have the humans given up looking for safe places in the forest? Have they found somewhere else to search? Scarier than that, do the humans know you’ve figured out what the sky monsters are for, and they’re searching for safe places some other way? Maybe, something that doesn’t make any noise? They’re scary thoughts, but you try not to worry about them much; it’s distracting, and you have other jobs to do.
Careful not to slip off, you step from one rock to another and cross the long water. Past this, it isn’t far to the three large rocks with the tree growing in the middle. Not far from that, there’s the small hill covered in lots of smaller rocks. You won’t go that way this brighttime; it’s too hard to get up, and a few other lookie fluffies have already been there. If they didn’t find anything important, neither will you. Instead, you think you’ll turn at the three rocks and go to a part of the forest you haven’t been in for a while.
Something you’ve learned about the forest is things don’t change much, but they tend to be big when it happens. Big changes are what the Smarty and toughies want to know about, and somewhere you haven’t been for a while is probably where they would have happened. Turning at the rocks you head for the area, always on the lookout for monsters, bad fluffies and most of all, humans. The last couple of times you saw humans, they talked loud enough to hear from far away, and you hope they do that all the time.
A little while after turning at the rocks, you arrive in the part of the forest. There’s no big change, and you wouldn’t notice without paying attention. There are fewer rocks and more bushies for some reason, not that you worry about why. You’re better at not worrying about questions fluffies can’t answer and things you can’t know. It makes dealing with everything easier. Picking you’re way through the forest, around trees and rocks, through some of the larger bushies, you keep your see places open for signs anything’s happened.
For the most part, not much has changed. Some branches have fallen off trees, one or two so big you wonder why you didn’t hear them from the safe place. So far that’s the only big change here, but you haven’t been searching long; best keep going. Further into this part of the forest, past the broken branches and a long water that’s gone dry, you find something worth telling the smarty about.
‘Twacks,’ Lots of them, and made by a lot of fluffies; like an entire herd. Realising that, your fluff stands up in a few places. There are only a few reasons a whole herd moves, none of them good. You think back over the past few brighttime, trying to remember if any fluffies you know mentioned hearing or seeing a herd move through the forest. You come up with nothing. ‘Hmm,’
These tracks don’t look old; the herd that made them is long gone, but they must have been here a few brighttimes ago. Leaning closer, you try to find any good hoof prints that’ll tell you which way the herd went. It’s not easy, most of the tracks have been stepped on over and over. It takes a while before you find enough to figure out which way the herd went. You step onto the path they’ve made and follow it for a while, paying attention to the forest around you. You need to know if they were moving in the direction of the safe place.
After travelling for a little while, you’re happy this herd wasn’t moving close to the safe place. That makes sense, given no one noticed anything. With that settled, you might as well go the other way for a while, just in case you turn up something important. You don’t really want to know why this herd moved, but the Smarty and toughies would. If you can get a clue, that’ll be very useful. You walk back the way you came, past where you stepped onto the path and further on.
Nothing turns up, other than a few piles of poopies; they look dry but still smell. Yes, this herd definitely came through here recently. Now that you think about it, this path probably takes you right back to their old safe place. If you went there, you’d probably find out for sure why they decided to leave. That’d be worth knowing, but it’d be dangerous; the thing that made them move could still be there, and who knows how scary it would be.
Besides that, you’re running out of brighttime. You always keep an eye on the light that comes through the trees, and it’s starting to look orange. You’re not in the mood to spend a darktime hiding under a bushie or a forever sleepies tree. Turning around, you head back down the path and head back to the safe place.
The darktime nearly beats you; when you get close, the toughies standing guard in the forest are heading back. That was close, and all you want to do is get darktimes nummies and be with your family. Not until you tell the Smarty and toughies about what you’ve found though.
Well, you know what you’re doing next brighttime; exploring that path the herd took and going further back the way they came. Not exactly what you were hoping for.
‘Hewd nee know wai dat hewd move,’ the Smarty told you. ‘Nee knu if it gun cum hewe tuu.’
The Smarty must have seen how scared and worried you looked, because the next thing he said was ‘Twee an oda tuffies gun go tuu.’
It’s not enough to make you feel totally safe, but it’s something at least. ‘Tank yu, Smawty.’ He nodded, then turned back to the toughies, which means it’s time to leave. Stopping by a nummie den on the way back, you can’t help but think about what you might find when you go back out. You’ve heard a few stories about humans from the other fluffies; compared to those, the times you’ve encountered them are nothing. Aside from refusing to go back out next brighttime, all you can do is hope humans don’t hang around safe places they’ve, they’ve…
You shake your head, forcing the scary thinkie places pictures out. There’ll be time to worry about that later. You’ve got better things to focus on at the moment. ‘Daddeh!’ as usual, your babbies get up and run over once they see you approach. Instead of running around and asking you lots and lots of questions like when they were little, they turn and walk with you back to the spot outside your den. Sky’s there, talking to a couple of other fluffies. They’re friends, but you don’t feel like talking right now. You smile at them and settle down not too far away to have your nummies.
Your two fillies hang around for a little while, then leave to play with their friends. Your colt, though, stays where he is. ‘Yes, Babbeh?’
‘Daddeh, Fwuffy wan knu sumtin.’
Your brown baby opens his nummie place to speak, but nothing comes out. He closes it and looks away like he’s not sure what to say or maybe scared to talk. ‘Id am otay, Babbeh. Wat wan knu?’ After another moment, your baby takes a breath and looks back.
‘Daddeh, how be wookie fwuffy?’
‘Fwuffy, wan be wookie fwuffie when am big,’ he says. ‘Bud nu knu how. Oda fwuffies nu say.’ He pauses a moment. ‘How Daddeh be wookie fwuffy? Fwuffy wan knu how be one tuu.’
‘Oh,’ That’s an interesting question, though it shouldn’t be a surprise. ‘Weww, dah wookie fwuffies show oda fwuffies how be wookie fwuffies.’
‘Wike dah tuffies?’
‘Uh-huh. Bud hewd nu nee wotsa of wookie fwuffies wike nee wots of tuffies. So…’ you pause, old thinkie place pictures of all the lookie fluffies who didn’t want to teach you how to be one.
‘Ah, cause hewd nu nee wots of wookie fwuffies, am hawd tu be one.’
Your brown baby’s expression goes a bit sad; he looks down, and his hear places droop, but it changes back really fast. 'Bud, Daddeh am wookie fwuffy. So, Daddeh can show Fwuffy how be wookie fwuffy when am big an stwong.’
‘Yes,’ There’s no reason you couldn’t; you probably know enough now, and you’ll know more by the time your brown baby is big and strong. But, ‘Daddeh nu knu if Smawty wet Daddeh du dat.’
‘Huh? Wai he knu wet Daddeh du dat?’
‘Cause Smawty an tuffies say what fwuffies hewd nee,’ you explain. ‘Wunnie am wookie fwuffy cause Smawty say nee be one.’
Your brown baby thinks for a while, looking around like it’ll help him come up with something better to say. ‘Bud, Fwuffy can stiww be wookie fwuffy. Daddeh can stiww show show Fwuffy how be one.’ He looks at you. ‘Pwease?’
Your first thought is to tell him it’s not that simple, and it really is the Smarty and toughies who’ll decide which fluffies get what jobs. On the other hand, you can’t forget how it felt to be told over and over you wouldn’t be taught how to be a lookie fluffy, no matter how many times you asked. You just can’t find it in you to do the same thing to your brown baby. Not now, anyway. ‘Yes, Babbeh, Daddeh can du dat,’ you tell him. Seeing his face light up, you go on before he can speak. ‘Bud Babbeh nee wait tiww am big an stwong. Nu am safe fow wittwe fwuffies tu go intu fowest.’
Your brown baby’s expression fades, but only by a little. ‘Otay, Daddeh. Fwuffy wait tiww am big an stwong. Den can be wookie fwuffie!’
‘Yes Babbeh.’ He might not be, though, depending on what kind of fluffies the herd needs when he is big and strong. But, you’ll let him have this for now. After all, it’s a scary time for the herd; no one talks about it unless they have to, but you can just feel it. Not to mention, the cold times are coming, and your babbies will need something to help get them through the cold and boring brighttimes.
‘Tank yu, Daddeh!’ Your brown baby rushed forward and gives you a big hug. You hug him back, enjoying the distraction from next brighttime’s job and everything else.
‘Babbeh gun cachew, Sissie!’
‘Nu! Babbeh am wingie babbeh! Am tuu fas!!’ The wingie baby yells, staying just out of her brother’s reach. Neither of them notices you keeping a close watch on them from your spot. Then, the wingie baby turns and heads away from the small trees.
‘Nu! Babbehs stahp!’ The wingie baby skids to a halt and her brother barely avoids running into her. Both turn around as you walk over. ‘Babbehs nu can go out dewe,’ you say, pointing at the open space. ‘Dat nu am safe. Babbehs nee stay hewe.’
‘Bud babbehs wan pway huggie tag!’ The wingie baby says.
‘Babbehs can pway huggie tag,’ you tell her. ‘Bud nee pway here.’
‘Dis pwace am tuu wittwe!’
‘An Babbeh am tuu wittwe tu go oud dewe.’ You tell the wingie baby’s brother. ‘Babbehs stay hewe. Kewwy nu say id gain.’ The two babbies look at you for a while longer, then hang their heads.
‘Yes, nice Kewwy.’
Slowly, they walk back to their friends. With that dealt with, you go for a walk around before returning to your spot. Under the small trees, a few groups of babbies play or sit around talking to each other. Some play the toughie game near where Sky is, and another pair play huggie tag in the space they have. Unlike the other two, these babbies are trotting instead of running. That’s kind of clever; maybe they won’t try to move away from the small trees.
With your check finished, you return to your spot and get back to watching the babbies. A good thing about being under the small trees is how easily you can watch all the babbies you’re taking care of. That’s probably one of the only good things that came out of the branch falling on the safe baby place. Until the herd makes a new one, all the little babbies have to go to a few different spots during the brighttime. The group you’re taking care of uses a spot not far from the newest poopie place, which is good and bad.
Being so close is handy for dealing with babbies who have to do poopies and pee pees, especially the ones who can’t walk far yet. But, every so often a mean breezie monster sends the poopie smells over, which tends to make the babbies cry. Speaking of the poopie place, Flower’s blue baby should be back with those babbies soon. Looking out in that direction, you’re just in time to see her come around a bushie, with two and three babbies following close behind and two more on her back.
Once they’re back under the trees, the babbies rejoin their friends. Flower’s blue baby walks over to a small group and helps the babbies on her back get on the ground. That done, she joins you in keeping watch over everything. For quite a while, the two of you just sit and watch, not talking. Part of that is because you have a job to do, but it’s also because you’re both still shaken. It’s been worse for Flower’s blue baby than for you; she’s been through scary and horrible things before, but not as many as you and other fluffies. So, she’s not as used to dealing with the saddies and bad sleepie pictures which come after.
For a few brighttimes after the branch fell, Flower’s blue baby didn’t talk about what happened at all. Not to you, not to anyone. She just kept did her jobs and hardly ever stopped for things other than nummie times or using the poopie place. Then, Skyball went up one brighttime and asked how she was doing.
You weren’t there to see yourself, but apparently, Flower’s blue baby collapsed on her tummy and started to cry. It took a long time and a lot of work by Skyball and some other fluffies to calm her down and get her to the Smarty’s den. Later on, when you went to see her just after the darktime started, Flower’s blue baby told you exactly what made her scardies and saddies so bad.
‘Fwuffy was pwayin wif one, sob o-one of dah babbehs dat get fowewa sweepies.’ She told you, see places full of sad water. ‘Had wook at oda ting, a-an den sob dah, bwanchie, uuhuhuu.’ You stayed for her for a good part of the darktime until you needed to go back to your den. The next brighttime, before everyone when to do their jobs, Flower’s blue baby found you. She looked better, but you could tell she still had lots of saddies.
‘Mummah mummah, Fwuffy wan knu sumtin.’
‘Wat?’ You were a little confused but wouldn’t turn her down.
‘When du bad tinkie pwace an sweepie pictuwes go way?’ You didn’t answer right away, and Flower’s blue baby went on. ‘Fwuffy… Fwuffy stiww see, scawy tings. Nu wan see dem nu mowe, ow be saddies an scawdies.’ She stared at the ground for a few moments, then back up, letting you see the sad water in her see places.
You wish you had a good answer, that you could tell Flower’s blue baby things would get better, and all the scardies and bad pictures would go away. But that’s not the truth, and you know it. You took a moment to prepare, then told the truth; ‘Sigh Mummah mummah am sowwies, bud day nu go way.’
‘Bad pictuwes nu go way,’ you told her, much as it hurt. ‘Day jus stay.’ Flower’s blue baby was quiet for a while after that, staring forward until her head dropped.
‘Sob Huuuu,’ You stepped forward and gave her a big hug, but it was still a few moments before she could talk. ‘Huu, wan dem go way. Sniff’
‘Mummah mummah knu,’ you told her, finding it hard not to start crying yourself. ‘Mummah mummah hav, t-tings nu wan see gain. B-bud…’ You took a breath to calm down, and went on. ‘Fwuffies jus, nee keep goin.’ That was the best answer you could give, and you worried it wasn’t enough. Flower’s blue baby gave you a hug, then left. For the rest of the brighttime, you wondered if it didn’t work, but you did see her around the safe place doing jobs.
Finally, in the darktime, Flower’s blue baby came up to you again. ‘Fwuffy tink undewstan, Mummah mummah. Tank yu.’ The two of you shared a hug, then she left. Since then, Flower’s blue baby is getting better or seems to be at least. At least she hasn’t broken down crying again.
The little babies keep playing or sitting around, and it’s only a couple of times when some get too far away. You and Flower’s blue baby keep on watching, ready to rush over if any babbies make a run for it. You’re both quiet, and you don’t expect her to talk. So, it’s a bit of a surprise when she asks, ‘Mummah mummah, wat am cowd times wike?’
‘Wat am cowd times wike?’ Flower’s blue baby asks again, turning to look at you. ‘Wots of fwuffies tawkin boud dah cowd times. Wat am day wike?’
You understand why she’s asking, and you’re not mad. But, you do wish she’d pick something easier. ‘Cowd times am,’ you pause, searching for the best answer. ‘Dah cowd times am when dah cowd fwuff cum.’
‘Wat am cowd fwuff?’
‘Id am wike fwuff, bud id am cowdies an cum fwom dah sky.’ You explain. ‘When wawkies in id, hoofies get cowdies.’
There’s a pause while Flower’s blue baby thinks about what you’ve said. ‘Wat hewd du in dah cowd time?’
‘Hewd nee stay in safe pwace. Nu can go intu dah fowest.’
You think, trying to remember if anyone’s ever told you an exact reason. ‘Cause, dewe tuu much cowd fwuff. An dah bwighttimes am tuu wittwe.’ You wait for Flower’s blue baby to say something, maybe being surprised or annoyed about the rules. But like she usually does, she just nods and goes on.
‘So wat hewd du in dah cowd times if nu can go tu fowest?’
‘Hewd make suwe hewd am safe,’ you tell her. ‘Make suwe oda fwuffies am otay an hav nummies. An make ways dat fwuffies can get tu nummie dens, an poopie pwace, an wong wawa.’
Flower’s blue baby nods again and goes on. ‘Am cowd times scawies?’
‘Nu,’ you say, then think about it more. ‘Weww, cowd times am wittwe bit scawies. Bud, dewe am gud tings.’
‘Fwuffies say dat munstah go sweepies in dah cowd times, so day nu cum tu safe pwace,’ When you tell her that, Flower’s blue baby relaxes a little. It feels nice to give her some good news for once. You carry on like that for a while, answering her questions as best you can. All the while, you keep watch in case the little babbies use the opportunity to run. A couple of times, you wonder if one of the other mares will come up and stop you talking, but none do. Maybe because you’re telling Flower’s blue baby important things. You are, however, interrupted by a toughie.
‘Hewwo. Tuffy nee say sumtin.’
‘Wat?’ You ask, feeling a little scared.
‘Dah Smawty say hewd nu can hav mowe babbehs nao. Am tuu cwose tu cowd times.’
The scardies you felt melt away, and you let out a small sigh. ‘Tank yu, nice tuffy.’
‘Tank yu,’ Flower’s blue baby says, softly. You wonder then if she’s disappointed she has to wait a long time to have babbies of her own. She hasn’t said anything about it, though…
‘Dat am otay.’ The toughie turns to go, but something occurs to you as he goes.
‘Wait,’ The toughie stops and looks back at you. ‘Wai Smawty nu teww aww hewd dat.’
‘Dah Smawty, hav tings he nee do.’ The toughie says. The pause before he spoke, and the way he talked makes some of those scardies come back.
‘O-otay. Tank yu.’
The toughie nods and leaves.
‘Mummah mummah, am sumtin wong?’
‘Nu, nu ting am wong,’ you tell her, hoping you sound convincing. Whatever the Smarty’s busy with, you hope it’s not serious.
‘Wookie fwuffy suwe yu hewe dat?’
‘Am Wookie fwuffy suwe?’ You ask, a bit louder this time.
‘Wookie fwuffy nee be suwe,’ the Bestest toughie adds.
‘Am wight; dis am impowtant!’ Leaf says as well.
‘Wookie fwuffy am suwe!’ He says, and turns to Leaf. ‘Wookie fwuffy knu id am impowtant! Weaf tink am onwy fwuffy dat-’
‘Shud up!’ You yell, stopping the fight before it can start. ‘Now, yu teww Smawty wat happen.’
The lookie fluffy stares at Leaf a moment longer, then turns back to you. ‘Yes, Smawty. Wookie fwuffy was oud in dah fowest, wike Smawty an Bestest tuffy say nee be,’ he says. ‘Was cwose tu dah two big wocks with dah huwtie bushies. Dat am when Wookie fwuffy heaw,’ he takes a breath to steady himself, ‘fowewa sweepies sticks.’ The last part he says quietly, so no one who doesn’t need to know hears.
You and all the toughies go quiet, and you think you hear a small noise from somewhere behind. ‘Fowewa sweepies sticks?’
‘Yes, Smawty,’ the Lookie fluffy says. ‘Day am wat hoomins use when, when…’
‘Dah smawty knu wat day am,’ the Bestest toughie says. You don’t actually, but someone can fill you in later. Besides, with a name like that how much do you need to know? ‘How cwose tu safe pwace was dis?’
‘Id was at dah two big wocks wif dah-’
‘Bestest tuffy knu dat,’ he says. ‘bud Bestest tuffy nu knu whewe dat am.’
‘Day am dat way, Bestest tuffy,’ Leaf steps forward and points in the direction of the long water. ‘Nee go wong way tu find dem. Nu am cwose tu safe pwace.’
‘So dat mean hoomins wif scawy tings nu cwose tu safe pwace?’
‘Wookie fwuffy tink so, Smawty,’ The lookie fluffy says.
‘Yes, Smawty,’ Leaf adds. ‘Nu fwuffies in dah safe pwace heaw fowewa sweepies sticks.’ Your first instinct is to ask if he’s sure, but then think better of it; something tells you you’d know if anyone did hear them close by. You nod at Leaf and turn back to the Lookie fluffy.
‘Nu tawkies boud dis tu oda fwuffies,’ you warn.
‘Yes, Smawty. Wookie fwuffy undewstan.’
‘Go back tu fowest aftah yu hav nummies,’ the Bestest toughie says. ‘Go back tu dose wocks. See if anyting am diffawent.’
‘Yes, Bestest tuffy,’ the Lookie fluffy says. Some scardies go over his face, but he looks determined to keep the herd safe. After he leaves, you and the toughies form a circle to talk about what happened.
‘What tuffies tink?’
‘If hoomins wong way way, hewd am stiww safe,’ one of the Next bestest toughies says.
‘Am onwy gun be safe when dah cowd times cum,’ Leaf says to him.
‘Safe fwom dah hoomins,’ someone comments, but you ignore them.
‘Tink dose hoomins gun cum tu safe pwace?’ That question shuts everyone up for a moment until Leaf speaks up.
‘Nu knu, Smawty. Maybe day go way, bud dewe be oda hoomins. Maybe day…’
‘Wots of hoomins cum tu dah fowest when dah cowd times cumin.’ The Bestest toughie says. ‘Wots of dem. Onwy sum hoomins nee find safe pwace.’ True.
‘Wat boud does twacks Wunnie find?’ A Next bestest toughie calls out suddenly. ‘Wat he find?’
‘Nut ting,’ Leaf says. ‘Wunnie an tuffies go wookin wast bwighttime, day nu find anyting befowe dawktime was cumin.’
‘Wai day nu sweepies in fowest an keep goin?’ The other Next bestest toughie asks.
‘Cause day nu nee tu,’ the Bestest toughie says. ‘Dat hewd’s owd safe pwace nu was cwose tu safe pwace. Dat mean if hoomins du id, does hoomins nu am cwose.’
‘Bud day can stiww-’ the Next bestest toughie tries again, but the Bestest toughie cuts him off.
‘Day nu nee tu. Hewd nu gun wose wookie fwuffy an tuffies tu find tings hewd nu nee.’ The Next bestest toughie drops his head a little and steps back. There’s a short pause before talking starts again.
‘So wat am hewd gun du?’ Another Next bestest toughie asks. ‘Hoomins givin hewds fowewa sweepies nao. Wat du?’
‘Keep doin wat hewd duin nao,’ you say, a little annoyed. Surely he’d know that was the answer.
‘Wat mowe am hewd gun du?’ he presses. Sensing the Next bestest toughie’s maddies, you regret speaking the way you did.
‘Nex bestest tuffy am wight, Smawty,’ Leaf says. ‘Hewd can du mowe.’
‘Sigh Yes, Smawty knu.’ You pause for a moment, really pushing your thinkie place to come up with something. It’s not easy, given everything you’ve already told the herd to do. ‘Hmm, maybe can teww nummie findahs nu can go tu fowest nu mowe.’ A few of the toughies nod, and you feel a little relieved.
‘Dat am gud; Smawty can teww hewd boud dat soon,’ Leaf says. ‘Nee make wookie fwuffies go oud mowe.’
‘Wookie fwuffies doin dat aweady,’ a Next bestest toughie says. ‘Day getting sweepies.’
‘So nee make mowe Wookie fwuffies,’ Leaf says. ‘Hewd du id befowe, an nummie findahs can be gud wookie fwuffies.’
‘Bud wat boud getting nummies fow dah cowd times?’
‘Hewd hav wots of nummies,’ the Bestest toughie says. ‘Dewe am nummie dens dat nu can put mowe nummies in nao. Can make sum nummie findahs wookie findahs.’
‘Gud. Bestest tuffy, Weaf, du dat.’ They nod, and you continue on. The talking goes on for a while longer, but no new ideas come up. No good ones, at least. When you feel like you’ve heard everything, you call the meeting to an end. ‘Tuffies nu can tawkies boud dis. Hewd hav nuff scawdies.’ They know it, but it just feels right to repeat. ‘Nee be cawefuw.’
Meeting done, you all go your separate ways.
After the meeting, you dealt with some other jobs and other things that needed attention. That took you past next brighttime nummies, but not quite into the darktime. To use up the time, you walk around the safe place looking for any problems to mention to the toughies and talk with fluffies in the herd. Not many want to, being so busy preparing for the cold times or other things. When they do, though, it goes pretty well. You still remember the brighttimes after Daddeh went forever sleepies.
Even if the Bestest toughie and some of the Next bestest toughies were behind you, you could just feel the herd didn’t feel sure. It felt horrible at the time, but you do your best not to hold it against anyone; the bad fluffy attack was scary, and everyone in the herd lost someone. To lose the smarty as well, no wonder everyone was scared.
You don’t get that feeling anymore. The herd seems happy with what you’re doing, and they’re treating you more and more like Daddeh. You’re feeling more like him, too; you’re not as unsure about things, and you don’t feel intimidated by the Bestest toughie or the Next bestest toughies. Most of the time, anyway. But, you’ve got all the same scardies Daddeh had to deal with now, and you can barely stop thinking about them. At least you understand why he always looked and acted a little mad.
Looking to the side, you see Gred trotting over. ‘Gwed,’ you say as he falls in beside you. ‘Wat am wong?’
‘Nuting am wong, Daddeh,’ he says. ‘Gwed jus wan tawkies.’
‘Otay. Wat Gwed wan tawkies boud?’ It won’t just be talking. Gred’s been asking lots of questions about what’s happening and what you’ve been doing. It’s not worrying or a surprise; Gred will be the smarty one brighttime after all, so of course, he’d start asking all sorts of questions. Obviously, you want Gred to know everything about being a good smarty, especially the things Daddeh never had a chance to teach you.
The problem is, you don’t want to tell him too much, certainly not what you were talking about earlier. With how on edge the herd is, you and the toughies don’t want them thinking about humans unless they absolutely have to. Hopefully, Gred will-
‘Wat Daddeh an tuffies tawkin boud?’
…Great. ‘Boud dah hewd.’
‘Wat boud dah hewd?’ Gred presses, and goes on before you can stop him. ‘Am id boud dah sky munstahs? Ow dah hoomins in dah fowest?’
‘Am Daddeh an tuffies gun go an make hoomins go way? Wat am-’
‘Gwed!’ You say louder, quieting him for a moment. Taking the opportunity, you go on; ‘Gwed, Daddeh an tuffies tawkies boud impowtant tings. Bud nu can tawkies boud dem wif hewd.’
‘Cause hewd nee du oda tings.’ You’d say the herd can’t do their jobs if they’re too scared, but saying “scared” will just make Gred ask more questions you don’t need.
‘Bud, Gwed nu undewstan.’
‘Nu nee undewstan,’ you tell him. ‘Gwed jus nee be gud fwuffy an du wat Daddeh say. Gwed undewstan when am big fwuffy.’
Gred looks at you for a few moments. You wonder if he’ll try to argue further, but he just nods; ‘Otay Daddeh,’ he says.
‘Gud babbeh.’ You walk with Gred for a while longer; he asks you things, but nothing more about what you and the toughies do where the herd can’t see and hear. It’s a nice break from the serious stuff, even if all his questions get annoying after a while. Maybe this Is how Daddeh felt when you wouldn’t stop asking him questions. You’d say sorry if he was still around.
Bradley and his team of six, two regulars and four he had for the season, trudged their way out of the forest. Laden with so much gear, progress was slow; their guns were a given, as was the unused ammo and a variety of other tools they’d needed. In addition to that load, the team also struggled with a cart loaded with cages. True, they’d brought it out with them, but now the cages were full, adding extra weight and other annoyances.
‘Nu wan go wif hoomins!!’
‘Wet fwuffies oud!! Wet oud nao!!’
‘Fwuffies nu du anyting!! Pwease! Jus wan go way!!’
Nearly a dozen adults, plus that and half as many foals captured from the site they’d hit a couple of hours ago occupied the cages. After enduring the creatures’ constant pleading and crying while forcing the loaded cart through the woods, the team’s nerves were starting to fray.
‘Why the fuck are doing this man?!’ One of the seasonal workers spat.
‘I swear to Christ, if these little fuckers don’t shut up-’
‘If you touch any of them, especially the dark orange one,’ Bradley warned, cutting the man off, ‘your girl’s gonna have to ride your face instead of your dick.’ The second man shut up, but the first worker wasn’t so cowed.
‘Y’all can have my fucking nuts if it’ll shut these shit-pigs up!’ He spat on the ground. ‘Or just fucking tell me what we’re doing!’
Bradley let out a breath, slowly through clenched teeth; ‘If you’d fucking listened instead of fucking around with your taci-kid shit, you’d know they’re worth money.’ He paused to help move the cart over an exposed root. ‘Breeders pay good money for forest ferals. Make better breeding stock than urban rats.’
‘That right?’ The first man asked, suddenly thoughtful.
‘Yeah, and you’ll get what you’re owed,’ Bradley said, preempting the inevitable. ‘But only when we get the fuck out of this forest.’ That, mercifully, shut the first man up and the rest of the trip was spent in silence, save the constant crying. Another half-hour of hard travel and the team finally emerged from the trees into an empty lot near the town’s industrial area. Waiting for them by the road were their contacts.
Two trucks were parked by the curb; one was a newer model Tundra EV, a stylised vinyl graphic of a rising sun on the door. The other was a steel grey Ram without any such marks, but more than a few dings and scratches. Three men huddled between the pick-ups, sheltering from a sharp breeze that’d just kicked up.
‘So this is one of the new company rigs, huh?’ Dimitri asked.
‘Yup.’ Bobby patted the hood. ‘Got four of them. Some kind of tax incentive for EVs, at least that’s what the girls in accounting told me.’
‘EV, huh?’ Dimitri gave the truck a look over, scepticism painted on his face. ‘Sure, it looks the business, but I wasn’t sold on these things when they had gas motors.’ Dimitri took a drag on his cigarette and leaned out into the wind, letting it carry the smoke away.
‘Oh, it’s got plenty of power,’ Bobby assured him. ‘Especially off the line. It’ll press you into the seat if you step on it.’
‘Not what I’m getting at,’ Dimitri said. ‘The V8s these things had were great too, for about 20 miles. Then you ran out of fuel.’
Bobby shrugged. ‘Well yeah, there’s that,’ he admitted. ‘Still, the range is fine for what we do. It’s not like we’re driving across the state everyday.’
‘Fair enough,’ Dimitri conceded. ‘Guess they get charged each night too.’
‘Yes sir, all from the roof mounted solar.’ Bobby smiled. ‘No fossil power from the grid to worry about.’
‘Oh, I didn’t think there would be,’ Dimitri said. ‘They don’t do tax incentives for small EV fleets if you’re not charging them off renewables.’
Bobby cocked an eyebrow. ‘How do you know that?’
‘Family back in Texas,’ Dimitri took one last drag and snuffed out the cigarette. ‘They replaced the old farm beaters with electrics last year.’ He shrugged. ‘Dad’s never believed in this greenhouse and climate stuff, but the man never misses a chance to get a little something back from Uncle Sam.’ The two chuckled until Riley spoke up.
‘Indeed,’ Bobby turned and walked towards the approaching hunters, followed by Dimitri and Riley. Bradley walked ahead of his crew and met the three.
‘Bobby, Dimitri,’ he shook each man’s hand and pointed a thumb over his shoulder. ‘We got eleven adults and sixteen foals. Not the biggest haul.’
‘That’s okay, bosses are all about quality,’ Bobby said as the rest of Bradly’s crew arrived with the cart and its load of fluffies. ‘Okay,’ he turned to Riley, ‘let’s go through the adults.’
‘Sure thing.’ Riley approached the cart with Bobby and with the crews’ help unloaded the cages to the ground. The fluffies scrambled around, beating on the walls with their hooves and snapping at the human’s hands. ‘Well, this one looks like a keeper,’ Riley said, grabbing the cage with the dark orange stallion.
‘Wet Fwuffy go!!’ The stallion screamed. ‘Nee go back tu fowest an find famiwy!!’
‘Lemme see,’ Bobby walked over. ‘Hmm, colour’s top notch. Might take a bit of time to break though.’ After a moment, he shrugged. ‘Worth a shot. Take him and that dark grey mare to the truck.’ Bobby pointed at another cage. Inside, the mare pressed her face against the wire wall, calling out to the foals.
‘Nu be scawdies, babbehs! Fwuffies find way get oud, den, s-sabe babbehs an hewp yu find mummahs an daddehs!’ Riley nodded and picked the cage off the ground. ‘Screeeee!! Nu upsies!! Pud Fwuffy down!!!’ The dark grey mare screamed. ‘Wet go! Wet go!!!’
‘Alright,’ Bobby stooped down to look at the others, ‘lets take a look at you guys.’ He examined each fluffy quickly and efficiently with his trained eye, noting colour, physical health and importantly, their behaviour. By the time Riley was back from the truck, Bobby had sorted the remaining cages into two groups. 'We’re taking these,’ he pointed out the five cages on this right. ‘Get them loaded up and I’ll sort out the particulars here.’
‘Got it,’ Riley picked up two cages and carried them back to the truck, while Bobby talked payment with Bradley.
‘Alright, so seven fluffies at our standard rate,’ Bobby said, consulting his notes, ‘usually comes to $5164. That sound acceptable?’
‘Absolutely,’ Bradley nodded. ‘Do your people still have my details?’
‘All on file,’ Bobby assured him. ‘You should have it in your account by Wednesday.’
‘Good. Pleasure doing business with you guys again.’ Bradley held out his hand, and the two men shook. 'We’ve got a couple more sites to hit before we’re done here. Think you’ll interested in anymore stock?’
‘Don’t think so,’ Bobby shook his head. ‘I’ll be in touch, but I don’t see us taking on much more than those seven.’
‘Mind if I interrupt for a moment?’ Dimitri walked over.’
‘Yeah, no problem,’ Bradly said, turning to face the tall shelter worker. ‘You like how those foals look?’
‘All look good to me,’ Dimitri said. ‘They should be fine after we run them through the program.’
‘Alright,’ Bradley nodded and cleared his throat. ‘So, what’s the offer for them?’
‘Well, shelter revenue’s down cause of those new spay laws, so we don’t have the budget we used to.’ Dimitri explained apologetically. ‘Will six hundred cover it?’
Bradley pursed his lips and thought for a moment. ‘Hell, it’s not like anyone else will take them. Deal.’ The men shook on it, and Dimitri turned on heal, going back for the cage full of foals. He picked it gently off the ground and carried it back to his truck. Dimitri secured the cage in the back cargo compartment, with the cages from the other collections he’d performed. Cargo in place, Dimitri went to help Riley load the last cage.
‘Thanks for that.’
‘No problem,’ Dimitri said. ‘You getting on well at Sunnydale?’
‘Yeah, it’s alright.’ Riley closed up the truck’s cargo compartment and leaned against the side. ‘Don’t know if I want to work there long term, but it’s fine for now.’
Dimitri nodded, then asked ‘How’s Grey doing?’
‘The guard fluffy we sent you guys,’ Dimitri said.
‘Oh yeah, I know the one,’ Riley nodded. ‘He’s fine. Does his job, nothing else to say.’
‘That’s fine; just good to know we’ve done our job right.’ Dimitri said. ‘Can’t afford to lose customers with these spay laws.’
‘Okay Riley, we’re good.’ Bobby said, walking over. ‘Let’s get these guys back to the farm.’ Riley nodded and got in the passenger side door. ‘See you Dimitri. Good luck with the foals.’
‘We’ll make our own luck,’ Dimitri grinned. ‘Have to.’
Bobby nodded, climbed into the truck and waved as he pulled away. Dimitri watched them leave; the truck certainly could move, and the lack of noise seemed to make it more impressive. ‘Nah,’ he shook his head, walking to the RAM’s driver side. After keying the ignition and feeling the familiar shudder of the diesel rumble to life, Dimitri fired up his GPS. The next pick up would be from his brother’s crew, and they’d agreed to meet near an old logging road. Dimitri punched in the coordinates and set off, driving carefully, so he didn’t upset his passengers too much.
The drive lasted about forty minutes, half of which was taken up by the dirt section. Rough and rutted, the old road had definitely seen better days. Coming around one last corner, Dimitri saw three trucks parked on the side of the road, about the same time as his GPS chimed the journey was complete. Dimitri parked, shut off the truck and stepped outside. There was no sign of Alex and his crew yet, so Dimitri checked in on the foals and settled in to wait.
About ten minutes after he arrived, Dimitri started to hear noises filter out through the trees. Indistinct at first, they soon resolved into the cries and yells of fluffies being taken somewhere they didn’t want to go, after witnessing something horrifying. Soon after the noises became distinct, Dimitri could see human shapes walking through the trees. He walked forward and enveloped his little brother in a bear hug. Alex returned the hug, and the two parted a moment later.
‘Best one so far,’ Alex said as the first of his team stepped out, carrying his gear and a couple of cages. The fluffies inside scrambled at the walls or lay curled around the few foals in the cage with them. ‘Must have been about forty or fifty.’
‘How many did you bag?’
‘Personally, maybe twelve.’
‘Twelve,’ Dimitri nodded, impressed. ‘You’ve turned into a real dead eye.’ A grin crossed his face. ‘Unless you’re bull-shiting me.’
Alex punched his brother in the arm, but chuckled as he did; ‘Good to see being out of Texas hasn’t changed you too much. Come on, we’ll show you what we got.’ Alex led Dimitri to his team’s trucks, where they’d laid out the cages on the ground. There were eight in total, housing seven adults and about twice that many foals. Unlike urban ferals who tended to cower in place, those adults not protecting foals did everything they could to escape, even trying bite through the wire. ‘So, what do you want to take?’
‘That fella’s too wild to rehabilitate’, Dimitri pointed at a stallion beating on the cage wall and screaming to be let out. ‘Same with that mare, so scratch them.’ He moved on to the other adults. ‘Those right there we can work with,’ he pointed out three cages, and Alex set them aside. ‘Maybe that one too. Hmm,’ Dimitri crouched, looking at the last two adults. They huddled together, crying and doing their best to shut out the world.
‘What are you thinking?’ Alex asked.
‘Looks like a mated pair,’ Dimitri said. ‘Young one too.’
‘Something you can work with?’ Alex asked.
‘Nah, too much trouble. Especially when you’ve got to split them up.’
‘So scratch em?’
‘No, I know someone who can make use of them; local cottage breeder. We do a lot of business with her.’
‘Is this the one you’re sweet on?’
Dimitri turned to face the voice. ‘Hey Steve,’ he nodded. ‘You gotten rid of that neutered Cali-special and picked up a real AR yet?’ Alex and a couple others in the crew laughed.
‘Come on, I was young and stupid.’ Steve protested. ‘Besides, you’re the one with the safe full of wood.’
‘Alright, save it guys,’ Alex stepped in. ‘So, does two thousand for the lot sound reasonable?’
‘Hmm,’ Dimitri thought for a moment. ‘Budgets running a bit tight. Will one and quarter make you happy?’
Now it was Alex’s turn to think. ‘Dunno. It took us an hour and half longer that we planned.’
‘What if I make some extra ribs and pulled pork for the Barbeque?’
‘Take the fucking deal Alex,’ Steve said immediately. A couple others chimed in with similar encouragements.
‘Sigh Alright, one an a quarter it is. So long as it’s cash.’ Dimitri pulled an envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to his little brother. Alex took the envelope, slipped it into his pocket and shook Dimitri’s hand. ‘Alright, let’s get em loaded.’ Working together, Dimitri and Alex’s crew had the cages loaded and organised in a few minutes. The last load of fluffies for the day secured, Dimitri closed up the truck.
‘You guys got any more jobs on today?’
‘No, this ones it.’ Alex said. ‘We’ve got another site in this area tomorrow, then we’ll move on to that zone by the lake. Doesn’t look like there’s many herds there, but they’re pretty far in so might take us a few days.’
‘Okay,’ Dimitri said. A few memories stirred at the mention of the lake, and he was tempted to ask Alex to keep an eye out, but he stamped down on it. It’s been nearly a year now. Poor thing wouldn’t have lasted a week on her own. ‘You and your boys want to grab some beers later?’
‘Yeah, why not.’ Alex said. ‘You know any good bars in town?’
‘There’s a good one just before you hit the interchange,’ Dimitri said. ‘I’ll send you the details.’
‘Cool. I think me and the boys can be there about seven, once we get our gear back to the lock up and clean up.’
‘Sounds like a plan,’ Dimitri nodded. ‘Alright, I gotta get these little guys somewhere nice and quiet so they can cool off in. See you boys tonight.’
‘See you Dimitri,’ Alex waved and walked back to his crew.
Dimitri climbed into his Ram and dialled Kim’s number. She picked up after a few rings. ‘What have you got?’
‘Plenty of foals, plus some adults that might come good.’ Dimitri told. ‘I might have also picked up a mated pair Nancy might be interested in.’
‘Okay.’ Kim didn’t comment on Dimitri’s admission, but he was sure she was smiling on the other end of the line. ‘How long until you’re back here?’
‘Uh, I think maybe an hour. Had to meet my brother out in the sticks.’
‘Good, that’ll give us time to be ready.’ Kim said.
‘Okay, I’ll see you soon boss.’
‘Sure will. Oh, before you hang up,’ Kim said, ‘tell Nancy if she wants that pair, she’ll have to pay for all the work.’
‘I will, don’t worry.’ Dimitri said, then hung up. He debated calling Nancy and telling her right away but decided against. It was definitely about time he got all the new fluffies back to the shelter; they’d need a lot of work after all. Dimitri started his truck and pulled onto the road.
‘Wat Wunnie nee wook fow dis bwighttime?’
‘Mowe nummies, if can find dem,’ the toughie says. ‘Sum fwuffies stiww nee make nesties wawm, so if Wunnie find twee fwuff, dat gud.’
‘Otay.’ You nod. ‘Wat boud oda tings?’ Usually, the toughies tell you what else to do right away or say to get going. This time, though, the toughie pauses. Not for long, but it’s enough to get your attention.
‘Wunnie shud, wisten fow tings.’
‘Tings dat, nu sound wike shud be in fowest.’
Okay… ‘Wunnie nu undewstan. Wat-’
‘Wook,’ the toughie interrupts. ‘Jus wisten fow tings an teww Smawty if heaw funny tings!’
‘Yes Tuffy!’ You say, a little intimidated by his voice.
‘Gud.’ The toughie turns and leaves then, leaving you standing still until you remember it’s time to go into the forest. Not wasting another moment you head out and get the brighttime started, taking a path that runs close to the long water for a while, then turn off in a different direction. On the way out, you keep a close watch for any nummies that haven’t been gathered yet.
There’s nothing close to the safe place, even further out you find almost nothing. You spot some large bushie patches where nummie finders would have gathered around picking off the berries. Journeying further, you spot a few trees with plenty of fluff and make sure to remember where they are. Once you’re sure you can tell others where the tree fluff is, you move on.
Past the tree fluff, almost nothing turns up. You’re still not that far from the safe place, so there’ll probably be nummies out there no one’s found yet. But how far out will the nummie finders go? The nummie dens look very full right now, maybe a little more than before the last cold times started. Maybe it’s about time the nummie finders stop going out. That might help keep the herd safe from humans until the cold times come.
After all, the fewer fluffies out walking in the forest, the fewer chances something has to follow one back to the safe place. Then again, is it worth leaving nummie out there? You can’t figure out a good answer, and you’re just happy it’s not you making that choice. You’re also happy the path that herd took was too long to follow all the way back to where they came from. Even though what happened there might have been important enough for the Smarty to know, you can do without seeing it.
After walking for a while longer, you start to feel hurties in your leggies and hoofies. They’re not enough to stop you just yet, but your thirsty hurties are harder to ignore. Luckily there’s a long water not far from here, so it’s an easy fix. You change direction and head to the long water, arriving not long after. It’s a little lower than usual, but the water’s still going, which means it safe to drink. Carefully, you head down to the edge and drink.
The water is cool and doesn’t taste much like anything, perfect for fixing thirsty hurties. Once they’re gone, you step away from the water and find a place to lie down for a moment. It must be somewhere hidden, but still, let you see out at least a little. It takes some searching, but you find a good spot inside some bushies. Settling down to wait for your leggies and hoofies hurties to go away, you focus on the noises and sounds around you.
You wish the toughie could have told you more about the sounds he wanted you to listen for. Or rather, what the Smarty wanted you to listen for. Now that you think about it, some scardies bubble up from the bottom of your tummy. From the way he paused, the toughie definitely knew more about the strange sounds than he told you. Probably what they sound like, and what makes them. What does make it, whatever sound you’re meant to be listening for?
Could it have something to do with humans? Now that it occurs you can’t get it out of your thinkie place, and it does make sense. The whole herd is worried about humans, the Smarty, Bestest toughie and Next bestest toughies especially. So, you’re listening for a sound that has to do with humans. What exactly? It wouldn’t be talking, because the toughie would say so. Hmm, what other sounds do humans make? You use your thinkie place almost to the point it hurts, but come up with nothing.
As you’re thinking about human sounds, a very familiar sound interrupts you; the sound of a hoofie snapping a small stick. Your hear places go up, and your chest goes tight. It came from the other side of the long water, and you focus on the area. A few moments later, you hear another snap, and the sound of a fluffy moving slowly. You can tell it’s a fluffy who knows about staying hidden and quiet, seeing as you only barely hear them. Could it be another lookie fluffy?
You didn’t see which way the others went when they left the safe place, but you’ve all been sent in different directions lately. In that case, you really don’t think it’s a lookie fluffy from the herd. That leaves a lookie fluffy from another herd. Shivers run down your back, and your fluff stands on end; a strange fluffy anywhere near the safe place is bad news. But what can you do about it?
Fighting is out of the question unless you have to; you’re not that good, and who knows if other strange fluffies are close by? No, the best thing is to sit and wait, stay hidden and get back to the safe place with what you know. The strange lookie fluffy gets closer and closer to the long water; now, you can see a few things moving, ever so slightly. You catch yourself holding your breath, and force yourself to breathe again. A bushie near the long water moves a little, and a moment later the strange lookie fluffy comes into… What?!
‘W-wookie fwuffy!?’ The wordies come out before you stop yourself, and you want to kick yourself in the special lumps! The brown lookie fluffy, the one you thought went forever sleepies, goes really still and slowly looks in your direction.
‘Who am dat?’ His wordies are quiet, but you can sense the scardies and maddies on them. Well, you’ve already given yourself away, so might as well come out. Slowly, you move out of the bushie into view.
‘Id am Wunnie,’ you say. ‘Wunnie, fwom dah-’
‘Wookie fwuffy knu who yu am,’ he says, cutting you off. It makes you feel a little embarrassed, but also more confused.
‘W-wat am wookie fwuffy doin?’
‘Wat dummeh tink Wookie fwuffy doin?’
‘Nu, wat Wookie fwuffy doin hewe!’ You say. ‘Dah Smawty say yu an oda fwuffies go fowewa sweepies! He say munstah get yu! Wai am wookie fwuffy hewe?!’ The lookie fluffy stays quiet for a while after you speak, all sorts of feelings flashing over his face until finally, he answers.
‘Wookie fwuffy nu can say.’
‘Yes yu can!’
‘Wookie fwuffy nu gun say!’ He yells back, staring you down. You feel the urge to turn and run, but you can’t bring yourself to leave with so many questions! Forcing yourself to stay put, you stare him down until the maddies on his face start to fade. ‘Sigh Wunnie nu am goin way.’ He says after a while, dropping his head. Sighing again, he looks back up and fixes you with a glare that sends shivers down your leggies. ‘If Wunnie nu gun go way, den yu wisten.’ Feeling the maddies in his voice, all you can do is nod.
‘Wookie fwuffy nu am gun teww yu wai am hewe, ow wai nu am in hewd,’ he says. ‘Undewstan? Nu gun teww!’ You nod, still too intimidated to speak, and the lookie fluffy goes on. ‘Wookie fwuffy find nyu hewd, gud hewd.’ None of that answers the question you really want answered, but the way his expression changes knocks the thought away. ‘Bud, wast bwighttime…’ His gaze drifts down, and he has to open and close his see places a few times. ‘Hoomins cum tu safe pwace.’
The wordies hit you like a kick, and you even stumble a little. ‘H-hoomins?’
‘Yes,’ the Looky fluffy says quietly. ‘Wots of fwuffies nu get way.’ He shakes his head a couple of times, then looks up; his see places look wetter than before, but he keeps going, not losing pace. ‘Wunnie nee wisten nao; Wookie fwuffy nu can go back, bud nu wan hoomins find owd hewd.’ He looks you right in the see places. ‘When Wunnie see Smawty, yu say he nee stahp fwuffies weavin dah safe pwace. Undewstan?’
‘Du Wunnie undewstan?’ The lookie fluffy takes a step forward.
‘Y-yes wookie fwuffy! Wunnie undewstan!’
He stares you down for a while longer, then relaxes. Only a little, though; ‘Gud. Wunnie nee leave nao,’ he says. ‘Wookie fwuffy nee teww hewd wong wawa am hewe.’
‘Y-yes, Wookie fwuffy.’ You turn to go, but before you can take a step, the lookie fluffy calls out one last time.
‘Teww Smawty dat Wookie fwuffy nu gun take nyu hewd cwose tu safe pwace.’ You nod, then leave in a hurry.
The toughies weren’t especially happy to see you back earlier than you’re meant to. After telling them you needed to talk to the Smarty, over and over, they finally took you to him. You tell him, the Bestest and Next bestest toughies everything that happened. It gets harder near the end, though, because of how they look at you. When you’re done, they just keep staring. Tingles change into shivers, and for the first time in a while, it feels like you might do scardie poopies. Finally, the Bestest toughie speaks.
He, the Smarty and most of the Next bestest toughies leave and head somewhere quite. Some, Leaf included, stay with you. You try to relax, but can’t ignore how they’re ‘Gulp’ boxing you in…
It takes a little while for the others to come back, but it feels much, much longer than that. Finally, they return, with the Smarty in front. He comes over and stands in front of you; ‘Wunnie du gud ting, tewwin Smawty boud dis.’
‘T-tank yu, Smawty.’
‘Bud, yu nu can tawkies boud dis. Ewa.’ The look on the Smarty’s face tells you how serious he is. You’d ask what he’ll do if you did talk, but something tells you you don’t want that answer.
‘Gulp Wunnie undewstan, Smawty.’
‘Wunnie nee pwomise, tuu.’ The Bestest toughie adds. ‘Hewd nu can knu boud dis.’ His voice is even scarier than the Smarty’s. You nod so hard, and so fast it gives you thinkie place sillies.
‘Yes, Wunnie pwomise! Pwomise nu say anyting!’
The Smarty looks at you a while longer, then nods. ‘Wunnie can stay in safe pwace fow west of dah bwighttime. Bud wememba; nu tawkies.’
‘Yes, Smawty.’ Finally, they let you go, and you leave on shaky leggies. Now more than ever you wish you’d stayed quiet at the long water. What have you gotten yourself involved in?
Your head snaps up, and you see your babbies coming over. You must have walked for a while, wrapped up in your thinkie place and scardies. As usual, your babbies crowd around and start asking you questions.
‘Wai am Daddeh back?’
‘Wat see in fowest?’
‘Daddeh find tings? Wat Daddeh find?’
‘Babbehs!’ You yell, quieting them down. ‘Daddeh am, am…’ You use your thinkie place hard, desperately trying to come up with something. ‘Uh, Daddeh am back cause, weggies hav huwties.’
‘Huwties?’ Looks of worry go over your babbies’ faces, and they start giving you huggies. Well, at least they believe it.
‘Babbehs!’ You yell again. ‘Daddeh nu hav big huwties. Jus, nee go be in nestie.’ You try to walk forward, but the babbies come with you.
‘Fwuffy cum tu! Make Daddehs huwties go way!’
‘Fwuffies giv huggies an make Daddeh’s huwties go way!’
The follow you back to the den, and down the tunnel into the nestie. It’s a little annoying, but the distraction helps calm some of your scardies. If you get too distracted though, something might slip. In a while, you’ll tell your babbies to leave, and give you some peace. Not yet, though; might as well enjoy it as long as you can.
Steve took in a breath, slow and steady and adjusted his aim, shifting ever so slightly to the right. Slowly, he emptied his lungs, swung his arm back and drove the pool cue forward. He struck the cue ball with a sharp crack which sent it speeding across the table. A split second later the white orb stuck ball number ten, transferring its energy over and propelling the target towards the corner pocket,
‘What the fuck?!’
where the ten ball hit one edge, then the other and bounced away. Steve slapped the table and frustration and stepped away, followed by peals of laughter from the rest of the crew. One of them, a Kentucky native called Paul, stepped up to the table and proceeded to line up his shot.
Dimitri smirked; ‘I hope he’s not that bad on the job.’
‘Not usually,’ Alex sipped his beer. ‘He drops more fluffies than he misses. Most of the time.’
‘He wasn’t too bad shooting from the back of the truck, either,’ Dimitri shrugged. ‘Guess he’s just a shitty pool player.’
Alex grinned. ‘I’ve got a couple of Franklins in my wallet who’ll speak to that.’ The brothers laughed together, smiling warmly at Steve when he looked over at them; the expression on his face looked like it could strip the varnish off the furniture. ‘Ah well, I don’t pay him to shoot pool.’
‘Good thing.’ Dimitri finished off his beer and set the empty glass on the nearby table. ‘So, how long do you think it’ll take you to clean up the herds living near the lake.’
Alex thought about it, breathing out slowly through his nose as he ran the numbers. ‘Maybe, four days,’ he said after at last. ‘Depending on how accurate these eggheads’ mapping is.’
‘Yeah, how’s that work again?’ Dimitri asked. ‘All I know is they don’t give hunters exact locations anymore. And I’m pretty sure they don’t let you guys charge by the hour.’
Alex grinned. ‘If only, that’d be good. But yeah, flying drones over herds just makes them scatter them these day. So, they do all kinds of mapping and computer voodoo to give you a map of places they might be living.’ He shook his head. ‘Imagine that; bunch of small, talking ponies forcing all these people to work so damn hard.’
‘Pretty easy to imagine, actually,’ Dimitri said. ‘These critters have a way of surprising you. They’re a bit brighter than most give ‘em credit for.’
Alex shook his head. ‘Man, you have changed.’
‘Not that much.’
‘Yeah, but enough.’ Alex said. ‘Makes me wonder what caused it.’
Dimitri shrugged. ‘What do you want? People change.’ For a moment, he considered coming clean about the two fluffies he rescued all those years ago. No one in his family knew, and Dimitri could count the people who did on the one hand.
Alex shook his head again. ‘Whatever. At least you’re still for killing the ones that need killing.’
‘Fucking A.’ Dimitri was reminded of some of the truly horrid little shits he’d encountered over the years, like that little green fucker. Or that she-devil Sunnydale kept hold of for some reason. ‘Well, I can go another beer. How about you?’
‘If you’re buying, sure.’ Alex handed Dimitri his glass, and Dimitri headed back to the bar. Minutes later, he returned, and the two kept watching the pool game edge closer to the end. 'So yeah, should be another four days. That enough time for you to prep everything?’
‘I’ve pulled off good barbeque on shakier notice than that.’ Dimitri said. ‘I’ll have it ready in time.’
‘Can’t wait.’ Alex and crew had found plenty of decent barbeque places working this job, but there was just something Texas-style you couldn’t get anywhere else. Another outburst from the pool table distracted the brothers, and it didn’t take long to figure out what happened.
‘First time you have a good shot at the 8 ball,’ Manny, another of Alex’s crew yelled, ‘and you knock the cue ball right past it into a pocket!’
‘Fuck this shit!’ Steve threw his pool cue on the table and stalked away to the bar, followed by the laughter of the crew. Alex and Dimitri watched him go, then went back to talking.
‘You still coming back home over winter?’ Alex asked, shifting the subject. ‘Harvest doesn’t look much bigger, but with Uncle Pav out of action we’ll need the help.’
‘Sure am,’ Dimitri nodded. ‘I’m looking forward to see how things are doing back home.’
‘It’s all pretty good. Those new electrics are doing well; hell, dad even likes them better than the old beaters.’
‘Now that’s a surprise.’ Dimitri said. There was a pause in the conversation before Dimitri asked the next question. ‘How’s uncle Pavel doing?’
Alex took a moment to answer. ‘Well, they think the tumour’s operable now. That’s something, at least.’
‘Small comfort when the fucking thing’s on his brain,’ Dimitri said flatly.
‘No kidding,’ Alex nodded. ‘But, they think it can be done. Well, this one surgeon thinks so.’
Dimitri looked over at his brother. ‘What surgeon?’
‘He’s this real big shot neurosurgeon who lives up in Virginia.’ Alex said. ‘Dad took Pavel up there to talk in person last month.’
‘He travelled that far with a something eating his damn brain?’
Alex shrugged. ‘Hey, you know how uncle Pav is; doesn’t want to do things over screens.’
Dimitri nodded, and asked ‘What do they think of him?’
‘Well, Dad said the guy kinda creeped him out a little,’ Alex shook his head.
‘What about the guy creeped him out?’ Dimitri asked.
‘Just something about him.’ Alex shrugged again. ‘Dad didn’t go into details.’
‘Well, so long as Pavel’s happy with the guy. And he can do what he says,’ Dimitri said.
‘That’s right.’ Alex agreed. ‘Well, the table’s free’ he said, looking at Dimitri. ‘Up for a one on one?’
‘Sure,’ Dimitri said. ‘Not too late to get you back for nearly busting up my wheel.’ The two men laughed as they walked over and picked up a pool cue each.