We have plenty of time to scavenge tonight. The outside world has quietened down early.
There must have been a snowstorm in the outlying Hotapo region. That translates to Joburg's worst cold front of the year The problem being that this year, it arrived late.
We were already in spring way longer than the lack of rain indicated. This cold front has been in the making for the past four days. Forcing the rats to contain themselves longer than their patience allowed.
The downside for me in these temperatures is that my exoskeleton parts start to feel very uncomfortable.
I am no longer able to soak in the sewer water as it has the opposite effect in its near frozen state. It no longer eases my pain, which was beginning to subside considerably through this alternative "hydro treatment". Instead, the coldness makes me stiff and brittle. Leaving me unable to perform basic tasks. So I've had to stop for a few days.
I rely on my rodent friends to blanket me with their fur when it comes sleep time. The warmth they provide me with through the ridiculously cold mornings, allows me to get up and be useful like everyone else.
Opening jammed up manholes to shorten travel times between streets. Chasing away bigger scavengers who stumbled down the wrong pipe. Keeping the homeless from navigating where they shouldn't. All in a days work to earn my place amongst the rats.
But this new found weakness is making my job that much more difficult. I can't wait for this cold front to pass.
I havent yet been able to accept what I am becoming. It seems inevitable at this point. But I hold on to hope regardless. Praying everyday that this is reversible. God help the human population if its permanent.
The more I transform, the greater my appreciation for the curfews and restrictions. I'm a lot slower and feel weaker since the cold came around. So getting spotted now would be a disaster.
I can't run, and I definitely won't be able to chase witnesses down.
I enjoyed the last chase. The rush was incredible. I haven't been able to get him out of my mind. I've never tasted anyone's blood besides my own.
I almost appreciate that he spotted me. Running him down. His pheromones in my nostrils. The fact that I was stronger than him despite his size.
The blood spraying from his throat was like honey in black tea. Every minute of the experience was pure exhilaration.
My deepest emotions are currently fueled by this incident. The need for human interaction, my mother, my friends ... Mary Magdalene. All seem to be replaced by this urge.
I hear a car behind me. It's still in the distance so I have plenty of time to hide. Other intermittent cars whizz past the streets before me. This is a one-way street that stretches for five blocks so I'm not worried about them. Only this one car.
The curfew allows for workers to travel after hours. As long as they have written consent from their employees.
So as long as you carry a consent letter, you can go anywhere at any time of the night. Just tell the police you're from work and you're going home. But make sure you know your environment very well so you don't mess up your lie. That's if you really are lying.
The humming gets closer. I'm not hiding yet. Instead, I'm looking in the car's direction. Numb to the cold and impervious to fear. I stand and wait. It's close enough for my blurry eyes to distinguish the model. A VW Golf 7 or 8.
Only a side view would tell me the exact model. If Sikhakhane and Gabadiya were here, they would probably have known.
They're obsessed with VW Golf’s of all models, ancient and new. They most likely would've placed bets on who was right. The winner would have to buy a cold drink and worship the other as they handed the drink over. Most likely Sikhakhane.
I can almost make out the number plates by now and my heart is racing. The window rolls down as the car comes to a stop.
"Excuse me!" A man's voice hollers from the driver's side. “I think I may be lost.”
I dip my head low to see the unfortunate soul who stopped at the wrong time. “I turned on Soph…”
He must not like what he see's because he tries to roll the window back up and puts the vehicle into gear. I leap at the car door and smash the window.
The car takes off so I'm forced to grab the door's window panel. I use my left leg as an anchor, attempting to stop the vehicle from advancing. It doesn't work very well when the driver revs the car. Almost twisting my normal leg in the process.
Since the multiple gashing of my palms, my hands have transformed into exoskeletons as well. Only my neck, chest, abdomen, and right leg are still human. My now stronger hands rip the door out of place.
But I can feel the effects of the cold. My exoskeleton is beginning to crack at the seams. I'm forced to let go before I lose my hands.
The car screeches off with the passenger door swinging wildly back and forth. My newfound obsession with danger has clouded my judgment. I should not be out just to be reckless like this.
I'm supposed to be scavenging with the rodents. Hiding when alerted, or when I spot danger myself. It's a formula that has worked for close to two full moons without fail. Until I diverted one time.
There was no reason to divert again just because of that one previous good time. I could have been seriously hurt just now, even disabled. Then my chances of survival would've severely decreased.
Injuries can be a death sentence out here. Just look at the countless strays with missing limbs who are bone-thin compared to their fully limbed counterparts.
Maybe ill have the sense to stick to the script from now on. That's exactly what I’m going to do. Otherwise i'll starve to death out here. I hear a commotion in the next street.
I'm careful to observe my surroundings this time. When I finally approach the noise, the rats are fighting with some stray dogs while the stray cats munch away on the side.
"Get away! Waaaah! Waaaah!" I puff myself up and wave my hands to look bigger.
The dogs are the first to flee. The cats follow suit as I jump forward and make a slapping noise with my modified left foot upon landing.
"Waaaah! Waaaaah! Grrrrrr!" They all unite to grimace back at me but do not approach the mound of mish mash that the rats are now laying into.
There is rice, cabbage, potatoes, carrots and other concoctions I’m too excited to count. The smell would have put me off not too long ago. I can hardly smell in that fashion anymore. Since my nose began shrinking into my face, I smell things a lot different than before.
I join the feeding melee with one eye open. You cant trust strays. They're just as desperate as me and my rodent gang so they won't hesitate to nip your ankles or bite a rat to death.
The food tastes surprisingly fresh for garbage. It must have been tossed at the time that I was preoccupied with the golf driver. Not enough time to ferment I guess. Or the cold could have something to do with it.
I haven't had a non-rotting meal in close to a week. Maybe it has been a week. It's difficult to keep time outside of the moon stages. Every day looks the same without a watch and calendar.
We are pigging away while the scavengers watch with silver eyes. Teeth grinning through their clenched jaws. Dripping rabies infested saliva.
This meal will be enough to keep me and my gang filled for at least a couple of days. Well, for me I guess it depends on how often I poo in a day.
I’m just excited to be eating right now so that’s not worrying me in any way whatsoever. I will be carrying the remainder of the food back underground for the mommy rats who have just given birth.
Just like a wedding crasher, there it is. Police sirens. I didn't hear the approaching car over the commotion of squeaking, barking, growling and hissing happening all around.
"PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR. IF YOU MOVE WE WILL SHOOT YOU. THIS IS CURFEW TIME AND YOU ARE UNDER ARREST!"
The loudspeaker blares into my frosted ears. All the critters scatter like cockroaches as the blue and white police lights disco flash the party to an immediate close. I'm the only one with nowhere to run. I could, but I don't trust my body right now.
I have been freezing away for too long. Even if that wasn’t the case, could I outrun a car? I'm not sure at this moment.
I raise my hands in surrender. The officers exit their vehicle. One with their weapon drawn. The other with their hand on the holster.
"What are you doing out here at this time?" says the female officer with a mouth covering.
"Getting food," I reply.
"Whats that costume you're wearing? You look like you were attending a party. Are you drunk? Have you been drinking?"
"No. I don’t drink," I reply. Keeping my head low while eyeing their positions.
I think I could take her, but the other one would shoot me. I can't tell if the other is a man or a woman, they're not close enough to my hidden face yet.
"So why are you eating trash from the streets? With rats nonetheless. We saw you."
"I was hungry. I needed food."
"Hey! Don't mess with me sir. What's going on with you? Turn around so I can see you. I want to see this junkie sharing food with vermin so I can slap you for being an idiot. Are you trying to spread another virus? Turn around now."
"I don't think you'd like that," I reply.
"Ok. You've got five seconds before I take action. Turn around punk," the second officer says. Her female voice is gruff with agitation.
The first officer unclips her holster. "Do as she says. She's not joking. Those dirty bandages on your face will be the least painful thing of your day."
I can’t breathe properly anymore. My heartbeat is breaking my breath patterns. I’m feeling slightly faint. Thinking about whether to run, to turn around and show them what they want to see, or just take the chance and launch an attack.
I've never been shot before. I don't wish it now or ever, so I’m not too sure about finding out.
"This is your final chance," the first officer says. I hear the gun slip out of the holster before she cocks it.
I can smell their fear. They’re really good pretenders. But their odour is giving them away. I feel it on my face. Yes, my face is no longer a face. It's an exoskeleton with bristles and mandibles growing through my teeth. And large bulbous eyes too. My mandibles are sensing what I need to know. I turn around.
"Haaaii!” they both exclaim in unison. "Oh my god Zodwa what is that?" the second officer exclaims. Almost falling backwards as she stumbles over the pavement step.
“What are you? What's wrong with your face? You gremlin!" Zodwa says.
"These are the things of the night. I'm not getting paid for this. Zodwa let's go."
"We have to report it Zhane. What if it goes and hurts people. Call for backup."
I wish my rodent friends were here for moral support right now. I could really use it. These officers are making me upset. My blood pressure is rising.
"I'm not a it, I'm a person. I'm just different now. I don't know how or why but I am. You see, my girlfriend's boyfriend ..."
"Shut up! Shut up Satan! You won't fool me. In the name of God, I know who you are and you will never fool me," the first officer says. She has her 'don't talk to me' hand aimed at me. Grimaced and ready to pump me full of lead with the other.
Her remarks are causing my blood to boil inside. The only visibly human parts of me, my chest and abdomen, are heating up very quickly. The heat is spreading to my other parts. My body is warming up.
The second officer is on the dispatch radio in the police van. Shouting frantically into the line.
"But I'm not Satan. I'm Dosto Thilale. A communications science student at Vaal technikon. Mary Magdalene was with me when ..."
"Hey! You rotten scoundrel. How dare you try to blaspheme the holy mother. You sick, twisted ... Aaargh!" she grimaces. Pointing her gun at my head.
"But I'm talking about me and my lover. Mary Magdalene is my girlfriend. She's so beautiful and fun and smart. I wante..." Gunfire.
I wince with my hands blocking my face. But I feel no impact. Maybe talking saved my life.
I must have said the right thing to bobble my head at just the right time. Rage shoots up my spine and bursts through my crown.
In a split second, I pounce at her. She lets off a second shot. The bullet hits my shoulder blade as I knock her to the ground. Another gunshot. This one whizzes past my hardened pitch black scalp.
I bite her face as I grab the hand with the gun. Twisting it towards her chin.
"Zhane help me! It's trying to eat m..." A fourth gunshot.
Blood intermixed with fickle matter sprays the bottom of the side mirror. Crawling back down in chunks. Enticing me to take another bite of her animated face. It tastes amazing. The officer slumps onto the rimless wheel with half of her face missing. Then another gunshot. But this one is not from her gun.
Four more shots ring out before I collapse on top of her.
“Get off of her you bastard! OFF!”
I try to crawl away but get another bullet for my troubles. As I fall face down on a storm drain, I see tiny little eyes staring from below. It's my furry friends. Their escape route must have landed them here after following the sounds above ground.
They stuck around in case they could help. All of them squeaking at me at the same time.
"My friends. I can't believe you came back. I love you so much. But there's nothing you can do."
"Shut the hell up you scum!" The officer kicks me in my ribs. I hardly feel it. My friends are more important than anything she can do right now.
She turns her attention to the dead officer. Kneeling by her body. "Zodwa. Zodwa my friend. Wake up… Wake up. Zooodwaaa!" She begins to sob uncontrollably.
I'm crying too. Seeing the sadness in the eyes of the only friends I've known for two moons. Now the friendship has come to an end. Thanks to her and her colleague. They could have left me alone but they chose not to. Now we're here.
"Don't worry about it my friends. There was nothing you could have done."
The rats squeak back at me. I can feel her eyes on me. Her silence tells me so. Maybe she's confused at why I'm speaking to rats. And they appear to be answering back. Or she just wants to pump more bullets into my back. At this point, it makes no difference to me.
Her colleague's blood tasted good in my mouth. I swallowed as much as I could before she interrupted me so painfully. So right now, she's just irritating me more than anything.
"If rats go to heaven, ill find you there in a few years." They start squeaking in more frequent tones. Almost as a unionised chorus.
"Don't take it so hard guys. We were never going to make it. Were too different. You're rodents. People pay attention to you when they have to. But me, I'm a freak. I was never going to fit in anywhere. I was always going to be a target of hate for anyone who doesn't like what they understand. Even you guys weren't happy when I arrived the first time. You chased me out remember. I had to earn your trust the hard way."
The tears streamed down my face. Dripping down the metal grates in unison with my blood. My friends didn't care. Even when it got into some of their eyes.
"This is for the better. People won't be happy knowing someone like me exists. They'll burn down the sewer just to get to me. Burn you down in the process. Probably to make a statement. Make ridiculous claims that you were behind my creation in the first place. But its people that did this. And now its people again..." my face winced with pain "...trying to end it.”
My mutating eyes prevent me from wiping them like normal eyes. I am effectively blind right now.
But I can feel my friends. I feel their sorrow and love. In the limited time that I have come to know them, they have been the best friends a freak could ask for.
“We were never going to make it my friends. But I love you guys with all my heart."
I try to stick my fingers through the grates. My friends are too far down for me to touch any of them.
"Ok. I've seen enough you freak. You're under arrest,” the officer says. Grabbing my arm and pulling handcuffs from her belt. “Anything you say can and will be..."
A loud scream fills the air.