“Hello. Is anyone from the army listening to this?”
Prospero leaned into the microphone in front of him, and swallowed past the lump in his throat. He had snuck into the radio station he used to work at, and picking his way around toppled chairs and over splintered tables, he had gone into one of the studios to throw another of his weekly pleas out into the ether.
“Please if someone from the army hears this. We need help. We are a group of seven, and we’re staying at Rock City mall. We are running out food, and we need you to come rescue us,” he said.
Prospero pulled back from the mike, and looked around. The entire newsroom that looked in on the studio was silent. He couldn’t help wondering how many of his colleagues had survived the invasion. It had been so sudden that he feared not many did. After a beat he left the studio and took a peek at the area outside.
He spotted a few shapes flying far off, and guessed from their size that they were the flying reptiles that been identified as Kongamato. Assuring himself that they were too far off to spot him, he crawled out of the window and headed for a small passenger gate built into the compound’s fence.
Prospero ran while hunched over, feeling ridiculous but too afraid that if stretched to his full height he might be spotted by any of the dilalome that were nearby. He did have to hide once, taking shelter under a small bridge spanning a culvert, after spotting a grootslang slither past. Its massive shadow had cast the culvert into darkness, and its tusks ripped up concrete as it passed.
Forty-five minutes later Prospero finally made it back to the mall, but he circled it once, and even crossed the road to check if he was being followed. He wondered if today was the day he told the others the truth. That they were on their own, that they had always been on their own. Realising that he was stalling Prospero entered the mall through a side entrance, and was seized immediately, and thrown against a wall.
“Ow,” he said, as he hit his head.
When his eyes cleared and he could focus on the face in front of him he saw Katlego scowling at him, and felt him tighten the grip he had on Prospero’s shirt.
“What the hell man?” Prospero said.
“Where were you?” Katlego asked.
Prospero tried to pull Katlego’s arm back but it wouldn’t budge.
“I went out. What are you, my warden?” he asked.
“Boy,” Katlego leaned in until Prospero could smell cheese powder on his breath. “You jeopardise our home every time you go on one of your little trips outside.”
Prospero shoved Katlego, shocking him enough that he let go of Prospero’s shirt, though it barely made him rock back on his heels.
“Man, I was the one who suggested settling in our new home so you don’t get to tell me that,” Prospero said.
“That’s enough,” Nadia said, emerging from a nearby shop and holding young Wame’s hand. “All your shouting is scaring the kids.”
Prospero and Katlego hung their heads, and looked away from each other.
“Come on, the others are waiting,” she said.
Much later when Wame and the other kids had crawled into their sleeping bags inside a small pizzeria Nadia pulled Prospero aside.
“So where did you go?” she asked, giving Prospero a stern look.
Over the past eight weeks they had spent at the mall, and the two before that when the little group had found each other and had moved from location to location to avoid the dilalome Nadia had taken to mothering them all. She even mothered him and Katlego, despite the fact that they were both at least two years older than her.
“I..,” Prospero cleared his throat, “I went to scout the area for the army. You know to make sure they don’t face huge resistance when they come to get us.”
He felt awful when he saw his words bring a smile to Nadia’s face. Still, what could he do? It had been his idea to return to the city, and his idea to try and broadcast a message to the military from the radio station where he had worked as an intern. He had been so convinced it would work, and that confidence had become their hope.
“Really? It’s been so long. I was starting to worry they’d never contact you again,” she said.
“Me too, but when I went to the radio station I managed to reach them. They asked me to scout the area, and that they’d be coming soon,” he said.
Nadia hugged him.
“Oh Pros, that’s so great.” She stepped back and pushed a strand of her long black hair back behind her ear. “Why didn’t you tell Katlego then when he confronted you earlier?”
“Yeah, like I’d tell that jerk anything,” Prospero said.
“Prospero!” one of the little kids called out to him.
Prospero turned to see 10-year-old Ketumile’s face poking out of his sleeping bag.
“Whatsup little man?” Prospero said.
“Tell us about the army camp. You know the one with the soldiers that are coming to get us,” Ketumile said.
Nadia put her arm around Prospero’s shoulder.
“It’s their favourite bedtime story,” she laughed.
Prospero tried to smile, but the muscles in his face seemed frozen so he faked a laugh.
“Hell why not,” he said, approaching the kids. He squatted beside them, and began, “There’s this huge camp in Francistown, Donga, where they have these tough commandos, okay. These guys are so tough they eat cereal without milk!”
The kids laughed at that, and even Katlego who had come over to sit at one of the shop’s straight backed black chairs snickered.
“Tell us more,” the younger Tlhabo said, from his spot between Wame and Ketumile.
“These commandos also have these huge fighter jets with missiles, and there is nothing that can stand up to them,” Prospero said.
He kept them awake long into the night telling stories about the commandos’ accomplishments, the time they had run off insurgents during a peacekeeping mission in Mali, the time they had fought Namibian troops over a group of islands the two nations had argued over, and trounced them. All the while he noticed that it wasn’t just the kids’ eyes that had grown large at the tales he spun as they all settled in to swallow his lie.
“Stop, stop, what’re you doing?” he asked, as Nadia shook him.
“Wake up damnit. Ketumile and Tlhabo are gone,” she said.
“What?” Prospero said.
He had both eyes open now, and was shoved aside the blankets he’d been using to cover himself. He got up to see Wame in a corner with her head between her legs loudly crying.
“What happened?” Prospero asked.
“Well,” Katlego said, kneeling next to Wame and hugging her close. “Wame says the boys ran off to go show the army where we are.”
Prospero stumbled a bit.
“Pros?” Nadia said.
“I’m okay. I need to go find them,” Prospero said. He pulled on his sneakers and a blue denim jacket, and grabbed a baseball bat off a gym bag next to his blankets.
“Okay,” Nadia said. “Katlego you stay with Wame.”
“Where are you going?” Prospero asked her.
“I’m going with you of course,” she said.
“No you’re not. It’s too dangerous out there,” Prospero told her.
Nadia picked a dark blue metal bat off the ground, and resting it against her shoulder walked past Prospero.
“Are you coming or not?” she said.
Prospero thought about arguing further, but realised he’d just be wasting his time so he walked ahead of her, and ignored her rushing to match his pace.
The two of them decided to follow the A1 highway in the hopes that the boys would know that it was the main route leading to Francistown. They had yet to encounter any dilalome, but had held their silence as they searched.
They were passing a filling station when they heard the boys’ screams. They took off running at the same time, and rounding a curve they saw four kongamato reptiles dive bombing the boys in the parking lot of a shopping complex. Prospero saw one of the kongamatos get a claw around Ketumile’s arm and start lifting him off the ground.
“Hey! Hey!” Prospero said.
He picked a stone up off the ground and threw it at the kongamato that was trying to fly off with Ketumile. The stone flew wide off the reptile but surprised it enough that it released the boy.
“Run boys!” Nadia said.
She took Tlhabo’s hand and Prospero snatched up Ketumile. They ran for the biggest store in the complex. The doors were chained shut.
“What the hell?” Nadia said.
Behind them the kongamatos let out a shrill cry.
“Oh no, they are calling more of them,” she said.
“Yeah that’s not all they’re calling. Every monster in the area is going to answer that call,” Prospero said.
Prospero swung his bat at the padlock holding the chain together and watched it bounce off. He cursed then an idea struck him. He turned to Nadia.
“I need your bat,” he said.
Nadia looked at her bat and realised his intent. She handed it to him and he gave her his. Prospero struck the padlock’s shackle and saw it bend.
“Yes, it’s working,” he said.
“Ah Pros, you need to hurry,” Nadia said.
Prospero turned around and saw that the four kongamatos and expanded to eight, and they were eyeing their group. Prospero yelled and swung the bat at the shackle with all his strength. The shackle snapped, and he dropping the bat he yanked the padlock off and let the chain fall to the ground.
“Get in, get in,” he said.
Nadia and the boys ran inside the store, and Prospero dragged in the chain and bat. He was quickly taken aback by the store’s full shelves. He didn’t know how it had escaped the looting that had been so common in the early days of the invasion but he thanked whatever gods may be for his luck.
“Try to find the biggest items you can, I’m thinking sacks of dog food would work best, so we can block this door,” he told them.
Nadia and the boys ran around the store looking. While they did that Prospero took one last look outside and a knot formed in his gut as he saw the sky fill with more kongamotos, and coming on behind them were tokoloshes, hairy gremlins with ape like faces and ninki nankas with their crocodile bodies and long necks. Prospero closed the doors on them.
Working together the three of them piled sacks of dogfood in front of the entrance, but there were only around thirteen, and Prospero doubted that they would last long against the dilalome outside. He could tell from the way Nadia hugged herself that she probably agreed with him.
“Come on, let’s go find more weapons,” he said.
‘No, no. You need to go to the radio station, and tell the army they need to come now. Maybe they can send their jets,” she said.
“Nadia,” Prospero said.
“What? What? It’s the only way. We’ll sneak you out the back,” she said, seizing his arm and dragging him towards the other end of the store.
“Stop it,” he said, setting his feet and ripping his arm out of her grip. “That’s not going to help.”
“Why not?” she asked.
Prospero took a deep breath.
“It won’t help because I never managed to reach the army,” he said.
“What?” she said.
“I lied Nadia,” Prospero.
Nadia stared at him, her eyes blinking rapidly.
“They never replied to my messages. I don’t even think there’s an army left out there.”
She just kept looking at him.
She punched him in the mouth.
“Jeez,” Prospero said, as blood leaked into his mouth.
Nadia shook her wrist and glared at him.
“I could kill you right now,” she said.
“Yeah well I think those things out there might object to you depriving them of a meal,” Prospero said.
He spit out some of the blood.
“But if we go with my idea we might survive long enough for you to kill me,” he said.
Still glaring at him, she asked, “What’s your idea?”
“I know this store, been here a few times, and I know it has alcohol,” he said.
“You want to get drunk?” she said.
“No. I already told you we need weapons, and the ones that I’m thinking of might get us out of here.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Cmon, it’s not like you have a choice here. It’s my idea or you try and fight those things.”
“Fine,” she said.
Prospero walked her over to the store’s liquor section.
“Take only the spirits. Whiskey, rum, vodka and brandy,” Prospero said.
She picked bottles of the shelves and put them into two baskets on a shopping trolley. Prospero had his own trolley and loaded it up as well. They rolled the trolleys up to the entrance. Prospero set them at the tills and ripped his shirt.
“What are you doing?” Nadia asked.
Prospero opened a bottle and swallowed at least an eighth of the liquor. He stuffed the bit of his t-shirt inside the mouth of the bottle. The boys ran up to them carrying boxes of matches.
“What I’m doing is making a Molotov cocktail, and so will you,” he said.
The door was shoved, moving the sacks back, but they still managed to keep the door closed.
“Oh what the hell,” Nadia said.
She tore at her own shirt, and followed Prospero’s lead. Together they managed to stuff at least nine bottles before their sacks collapsed to the floor.
“Light me up,” Prospero said to the boys.
Tlhabo struck a match and used the flame to light one of the scraps of cloth. The first thing through the door was a tokoloshe and Prospero threw the flaming bottle at it. The bottle broke against it and flames rapidly consumed its body, causing it cry out in pain, and flee outside. However more of the monsters were entering and Prospero and Nadia threw their bottles together. The bottles broke on the floor and on the monsters setting them writhing in pain and screaming creating a night mare of sound and a stench off liquor and burnt flesh. The other monsters watched their fellows burn and withdrew a few paces.
“Cmon,” Prospero said hefting a burning bottle in each hand.
He approached the entrance, and Nadia followed.
“Boys, bring those trollies,” he said.
They hadn’t stuffed the bottles in the trollies but he figured they could quickly do so, or at least the sight of them give the monsters pause. As they exited the store they saw a large crowd of monsters waiting in a semi-circle, growling and baring their teeth. Prospero held one of his bottles aloft and the crowd flinched.
“That’s right. You’re not going to do anything to us while we have these,” he said.
The crowd of monsters parted as Prospero continued walking towards them, and once they did, he knew they were home free. Even the kongamatos wouldn’t approach them. They were almost past the monsters when the biggest grootslang Prospero had ever seen appeared.
“Prospero,” Nadia said.
Her voice was low but Prospero still heard her. He knew why she was scared. Grootslangs had a thick hide, and the fire created by the Molotov cocktails would do no more than lightly singe one. However just as he lost all hope, he heard a whoosh in the sky behind and then a roar. When he looked up, he saw a jet fly by and saw it launch missiles at the grootslang. The giant snake exploded. Up the road where the snake had come from army trucks came driving up, and even before they had parked soldiers in the back fired at their rifles at the monsters, causing many of them to flee. The few that were too surprised or dumb to do so died in seconds.
A truck pulled in front of Prospero and his group. A large man wearing a camouflage cap with two silver bars and a camo uniform swung down from the truck.
“Are you people alright?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Prospero said. He looked over his shoulder at the boys. “Take these out.”
The boys pulled the burning scraps carefully out of the bottles and crushed them beneath their shoes.
“Ah sir did you get my messages?” Prospero said.
“Hmm?” the officer said, as more soldiers drew up to them.
“I sent weekly messages on the radio,” Prospero said.
The officer tilted his head in confusion.
“We didn’t get any messages. We scout most major cities and towns for survivors out of our base at Donga. You’re just lucky one of our jets happened to spot that grootslang headed over here, and we decided to come bloody these monsters’ noses,” he said.
Prospero couldn’t work his mouth to respond, but when he saw Nadia take both boys’ hands, he decided it didn’t matter how the soldiers happened to be there, what mattered was that they had survived. They would survive.