Evening had fallen over the town of Puláng Bató, but the streets were still bustling. People were going home to their families or stopping by the sari-sari stores for some last-minute purchases or heading over to the many small eateries to buy dinner or to sit down and eat right there. Children squeezed the last precious minutes of playtime before their mothers yelled at them to come inside, while teenagers lingered on street corners to chat. Later, men would drift toward the semi-hidden joints that stayed open when the ordinary eateries have already closed, where cheap greasy food, alcohol and cigarette smoke would flow and the karaoke machines would blare well into the night.
No one paid any heed to the thin, yellow dog trotting through the streets, head craning this way and that as if trying to take in all the sights. No one noticed how the dog would slow to a stop every now and then to sneeze and lower its head to its paws, whining softly. No one saw how it would be drawn to a random garbage pile or narrow alley or the back area of a food stall or eatery, then stop, shake its head and whirl away, only to double back and dive in anyway. The dog was an inconspicuous stitch in the town's tapestry, a typical, ordinary creature that belonged to that typical, ordinary night.
Oh God, this feels awful…amazing…disgusting…hella weird. I—I think I'm going to be sick.
The dizziness hit Claire again and she halted, panting and leaning against the side of a concrete fence. Ever since she'd accepted Kiko's hand and let him draw her down into an odd sort of darkness—a heavier, more crowded darkness, where the remaining embers of warmth were rapidly being overwhelmed by a creeping chill—and she'd woken up in Yellow's body, she'd been assaulted by the never-ending barrage of new and confusing sensory inputs, and it was taking a while for her to adjust to the difference in perceptions.
For one thing, it had been a shock to discover that she'd lost her ability to discern color, and that the world had been reduced to shades of blue-violet, yellow and gray. It was an even bigger shock to realize that her sense of smell now more than made up for the loss. The smells! Holy shit! The very air was an immersive experience that virtual reality could only dream of. One sniff, and she knew. That the next-door neighbors were cooking something with a splash of vinegar and soy sauce in it, with some stuff that smelled like boiling water and plants on the side. That the house behind her reeked of days-old smoke, charred plastic and wood, scorched chemicals, dirty water, fear and sadness, all overlaying the warm, homey scents of the people who lived here not that long ago. That several stray cats had claimed the ruined vegetable garden as their toilet. That the plastic bag she'd found herself in was given by an elderly female human and once contained green leafy stuff that smelled of earth. Even her own body still bore the scent of heated metal, asphalt and blood, a fresh accounting of the accident that had ended Yellow's life.
And launched Claire's new, temporary life in her borrowed body.
With her human mind, she struggled to comprehend how it was she was learning all these things through her sense of smell alone. Whenever she thought too hard about it, her body reacted by sneezing, to the point where she started to wonder if she'd developed an allergy.
A dog. Developing an allergy. To what? Being alive?
"Don't think about the hows too much," Kiko had counseled as soon as she emerged from the bag. "Your body has its own intelligence. As a dog, you must let instinct guide you, instead of you doing the human thing of letting your mind dominate everything else."
"Easy for you to say," Claire retorted, and her words emerged as kind of doggy huff. She blinked. Oh, good. I can communicate in this body. Sort of.
The scent reached her before the strange gurgling sound did. A familiar scent, beloved even, judging by the way her new heart had begun beating faster and warmth had started to spread throughout her body. A human male. Adolescent. Dressed in old clothes that didn't smell much like him and covered in sweat, with a dash of her own blood and the plastic bag's scent mixed in, which meant he was the one who'd stuffed Yellow's body into that bag and brought it here to his burned-down home. Physically healthy. At that, Claire blushed, or would have if she'd been in her real body. It was decidedly disconcerting to pick up such intimate details about another human being who was a total stranger to her, especially since she was fairly sure he would've died from embarrassment if he ever found out what she'd learned about him from his scent alone.
She turned, and there he was. Yellow's favorite human. Gio. Her body clearly remembered him, responding to the happiness suffusing her entire being by grinning, wagging its tail and tap-tapping its front paws. Her body's opinion aside, Claire had her own reasons to be relieved to find him there. "Boy, am I glad to see you," she barked at him.
Belatedly, the other scents emanating from him registered, as did the utterly stunned, terrified look on his face. He was pressed up against a spindly tree and holding a shovel in front of him as if it were a sword. His sweat had turned sour with fear and disbelief, and with her now much more acute sense of hearing—yet another thing she was having to get used to—she could hear his heart pounding against his ribs from where she was.
What's the matter with him? "Hey, snap out of it already," she said, which again came out as a bark.
"Stay back," Gio had responded sharply. "This can't be happening. You're supposed to be dead. You were bleeding from your mouth, your ribs were crushed, you were completely unresponsive. In short, dead!"
As she stared at him in bemusement, she heard Kiko chuckle from somewhere behind her. "Well, he does have a point," he murmured. "Don't worry. I healed your injuries, so you definitely don't look like a zombie dog right now. You just look like a starving stray."
Gee, thanks. She inspected her body just to be sure, but it certainly seemed as if her spirit companion had done a good job. She looked exactly like Yellow had before, so what was Gio complaining about? "Listen, I don't have time for this," she huffed, and started toward him.
He raised the shovel in the air, shouting, "I said stay back!"
Claire's body reacted instantly. Adrenaline flooded her blood stream as memories of past blows and inflicted pain overrode rational sense, causing Claire's mind to cringe with fear inside her borrowed body. She looked at his weapon, then at the hole in the ground that he'd been digging. He's going to bury me alive! she thought in a panic, retreating from him.
"Calm down. You can't blame him for acting this way, you know," Kiko said gently.
Hell yeah, I can blame him, Claire snapped back. You said he could help me but how am I supposed trust someone who—
The bright, starchy scent of bananas and sugar fried in oil tickled her nose, and she followed it to the small bag that had been tied to a nearby clothesline. Oh God, I'm so hungry, she suddenly realized.
"Are you hungry?"
Great. Is he thick on top of being as jittery as an old lady? she thought sourly as she glanced at Gio. To her surprise, he went to untie the bag, reached in and produced one of those tantalizing bananas. Instead of giving it to her, though, he just stood there and asked, "Wait, do dogs even eat bananas?"
"Oh for the love of—who cares? Just give me that damn banana already," Claire huffed.
"Okay, okay. Here."
Instead of holding it out for her to take it in her mouth, he put the banana down on the ground, where it promptly got covered in dirt. Claire stared down at the banana with horror and revulsion. Is this how I'm supposed to eat from now on? I'm supposed to pick dirt-covered food off of the filthy ground?
"You have to eat, Claire," Kiko reminded her. "You have four puppies to feed."
I know, okay? But this is so disgusting. It's horrible. I can't do this, Kiko. I just can't.
"Ah. Well, you can always turn back, you know."
Claire looked over at him, then noticed Yellow's spirit standing at his feet, watching her with a sad look on her face, as if the dog was commiserating with the turmoil she was going through. Claire again became aware of the hunger that felt like a yawning black hole inside her gut. She thought about Yellow's children waiting for her at the den. She had to go back soon. Every moment that she wasn't there to protect them meant the puppies were in constant danger. And Kiko was right. She was desperately hungry and in the end, food was food. Something that was, in Yellow's life, all too rare and infinitely precious.
No. I'm doing this. She shook her head, then took her first bite of food as a dog. And kept on eating, reveling in the indescribably blissful sensation of food entering her body and giving her strength, even as she knew that one banana could never be enough.
When she'd finished, she gave the bag in Gio's hand a hopeful look, only to have him hold it away from her. "Oh no, you can't have these," he told her. "These are for my grandma and sibs. You already ate all of my share so—"
"Oh, come on. You practically promised Yellow dinner a while ago," she protested.
"What?" he retorted. "I'm sorry, okay? I didn't think you needed food since you were, you know, kinda dead at the time."
"Spare me your excuses." Turning her back on him, she returned to where Kiko and Yellow were standing. So he brought me here to give me—I mean, Yellow, a proper burial, huh? she said to Kiko as she sniffed at the plastic bag she'd come here in. That's nice of him, I guess.
"He's a good kid. You can trust him, Claire," Kiko said, his expression fond as he watched Gio begin to creep toward Claire to study her more closely.
As my helpmeet, you mean? When Kiko remained silent, she went on: I know you said that he's destined to be my helpmeet in the future, but honestly, I can't wait that long. I need his help now if I'm going to find good owners for Yellow's puppies.
"Ah. Yes. That's certainly true. Haha," he agreed with a false little laugh. "Not that this has anything to do with anything at all, but he and I share the same name."
She looked up at him in surprise. Gio doesn't sound much like Kiko, you know. Shit, why is my neck so damn itchy? she grumbled as she scratched at her nape.
"I'm afraid you have scabies," he said apologetically. "But about Gio, his mother named him Giovanni. Which is the name my own mother gave me."
Your name is Giovanni?
"A long time ago, yes," Kiko answered with a small smile.
Claire frowned at him, then decided to leave it be. Where am I, anyway? I don't know how to get back to the den from here.
"Yes, you do. You can smell your way back."
She sniffed the air experimentally, and from the olfactory input, her mind constructed a rough map of the streets she had to traverse to get back to the puppies. Doing this made her sneeze a few more times, to her annoyance. Then Yellow's spirit barked, her tail wagging happily. Claire followed the direction of her gaze to find Gio crouching almost right beside her with a look of wonder on his face.
"Are you really Yellow? You're not demon-possessed or anything?" he asked uncertainly. "I mean, are you really…okay?"
Claire would've laughed at his ridiculous question but Yellow's tail wagged even harder, and she drew closer to Gio and licked his cheek. Of course, Gio sensed nothing, his eyes riveted to the living dog in front of him. You really loved him, huh, Yellow? Claire murmured, and Yellow looked at her and whined in response.
We met maybe a hundred people this afternoon, and Gio is one of only two people who were actually kind to her. Claire felt the heart in her borrowed body begin to race again and a sweet warmth suffused her limbs. She stood up and faced him, filled with an emotion she'd so rarely felt in her past life that it took her a moment to recognize it: gratitude.
Slowly and carefully, conscious of Yellow's spirit beside her, Claire approached Gio and sniffed his hand. His scent filled her—his disbelief and fascination, the tears of sorrow and regret he cried earlier, the scents of his three younger siblings and grandmother who were the people he was closest to, the anger in his blood at the circumstances forced upon him. Whatever he was going through, he wasn't having an easy time of it. And yet, despite everything, he went out of his way to be kind to an insignificant stray like her.
No wonder Yellow loved him, enough to risk death to follow him. Enough that her body still remembered her love for him, even when another soul was animating it now.
Have I ever met anyone like you in my past life? Claire wondered as she touched her nose to his finger. She lifted her head to meet his gaze, and smiled. This one's from Yellow: Thanks for everything until now, Gio.
Then she turned and ran, ignoring the sound of his voice calling for her. She was driven by two urges now—to get back to the puppies and to find and eat as much food as she possibly could along the way. But out in the streets, she was plunged into a bewildering profusion of smells, sights and sounds that her dog-senses absorbed wholesale and her human mind scrambled to weave into a coherent picture of the world. To say that it was giving her a bit of trouble was an understatement.
Even worse, the hunger had come roaring back to life. She knew it; that banana had only been good for a moment. She dreadfully needed to eat and drink—the thirst was every bit as bad as the hunger—and out here in the streets she was assaulted on all sides by the smell of food and humans eating said food. She pushed back the urgent need to return to the puppies to follow the most promising food trails, which inevitably resulted in her nosing through piles of garbage even before she realized what she was doing. She tried to resist but she still ended up surrendering to her body's commands, skulking into narrow alleys in the hope that they would lead to the backyards of houses where some laundry basin or old tire would have a bit of water for her to drink. The food stalls and eateries were simultaneously the best and the worst. These places radiated the most enticing smells like neon signs but they were also the ones that posed the greatest risk to her. She found herself shooed and kicked at so often she'd lost count, but it was worth it for the half-eaten grilled pork skewers she'd manage to run off with and hastily wolf down.
She also became aware of a new threat. With her more acute senses, she detected the slinking presence of other strays—dogs and cats and rats. They left unmistakable scent trails everywhere, many of them scarlet with warning—this is my territory so back off—especially around the richest feeding grounds. What she didn't sense was any feeling of welcome or even apathy from her fellow animals. Claire was quickly realizing that when it came to food, it was every dog or cat or rat for herself.
"You've got to go back now, Claire," Kiko warned after a while. "Something's happening back at the den."
What? She glanced up from the takeout container she'd fished out of another garbage pile and was frantically licking clean. But I'm still so hungry—
"Get to the pups. Go now!" Kiko ordered.
Claire yelped and ran, gripped by a new kind of fear. She tried her best to avoid the humans and especially the vehicles—both her soul and her current body had had enough close encounters of the automotive kind, thank you very much—but she was still too new to quadruped movement to have any kind of grace, stumbling every now and then and bumping into legs, lamp posts, and the occasional shrub. She soon discovered that it wasn't only the strays who regarded her with suspicion and hostility. Dogs who had owners bayed at her from the gates of their homes—Hey, you stinking stray! Stay out of my territory or I'll kill you!—and even cats who were strays themselves hissed at her as she passed them by.
Forget them. Just hurry and get to the pups, she told herself as she ran. She soon found herself back in the quiet street that ended in the high concrete wall. It was dimly lit by the two street lamps and the white fluorescent lights from several small houses. Thanks to her newfound sensory superpowers, she was "seeing" it now in greater detail. She knew now that there were six humans who lived in the last house on the street, and they had just finished eating dinner. From the trees surrounding the house, she could smell multiple tart bulbs, many of them curling with the stench of decay—fruit trees, and the decaying smell was coming from the fruits that had fallen to the ground.
Past that house, tucked away among the lemon-scented grass was the broken-down outpost. It still carried the faint scent of the street it had first been erected in, but it had been nearly erased by months of exposure to wind, sun and rain. The scent that dominated though was a kind of soft, golden scent that Claire now recognized as Yellow's. It lit up the outpost better than any fluorescent light, informing anyone with an educated nose that that outpost was Yellow's territory. A sense of relief filled her, and she picked up her pace.
No, wait. There was something else. Another scent. Cold, mineral-like—bathed in wet soil and rot, with an acidic twist of poison. It was moving toward the soft golden glow of the den in a strange, undulating motion, very clearly on the hunt.
Yellow was there, barking frantically.
A low growl began in Claire's throat as she shot like an arrow into the gap between the earth and the outpost's flank. She had no time to marvel at the fact that she could see pretty well in the murky darkness. All her attention was trained on the long, flat, segmented shape winding its way toward the furry heap inside the den. Both ends of the shape sported vicious-looking V-shaped antenna, and its many jointed legs moved in waves, propelling it forward with shocking speed. It was crawling over Charlie when Claire arrived and her body moved on autopilot, snatching up the creature between her teeth and tossing it away from her den.
Fiery pain exploded in her neck just below her jaw and she howled, scrubbing with her paw at the spot where the thing had stung her. The pain quickly spread through her jaw and to her shoulder, and her body felt as if it was filling up with boiling liquid while the muscles in her jaw and neck began to stiffen.
Fuck, it hurts! It hurts! What is it? Claire cried, unable to stop the wails coming from her mouth.
"A centipede. A scolopendra cataracta," Kiko said grimly, crouching low beside the den while Yellow barked and snarled and pawed at the centipede, hackles standing straight up. Squinting through blazing waves of pain, Claire was surprised to see the centipede react to Yellow. It reared up, attempting to coil around the spirit dog's muzzle and inject her with venom, only to pass right through her and flop onto the ground.
"Stubborn, aggressive creatures—cazzo, it's coming back. Claire!"
Panting, Claire staggered upright. This time, she tamped down hard on her body's instinct to bite and maul and forced herself to think like a human. She turned around and kicked up a clod of dirt with her front paws, aiming at the centipede. The shower of dirt caused the arthropod to hesitate, so she started digging furiously, whining all the while as she pelted the centipede with dirt, while the puppies, awakened by the commotion, whimpered with fear. When the creature had been safely covered with a layer of dirt, Claire jumped on top of the small mound, crushing it underneath her full weight, then proceeded to stomp on it repeatedly. Yellow did her part as well, barking and kicking at the dirt pile. Finally, the centipede, badly rattled and already injured when Claire had bitten it, crawled unsteadily out of the dirt and fled, its undulating movements much less chillingly graceful now.
"Andare con Dio, my mean-tempered little brother," Kiko muttered, watching the centipede limp away. Claire stumbled back into the den and collapsed, shaking all over as the venom's fire consumed the upper half of her body, her face and neck swelling up and turning numb. "Oh little sister. I'm so sorry you had to go through that. Here."
He touched the angry bump in her neck where the centipede had stung her. There was a familiar flash of warmth, and the pain quickly faded as the swelling in her face and neck began to subside. "Most centipedes are harmless, but the venom of the scolopendra variety can cause serious damage. They are also extremely sensitive to vibrations, so that was a clever move you did there," he added with a smile.
Thanks, Claire muttered. Wheezing, she curled up into a ball, overcome with tremors from the aftermath of her first battle.
"Thank heavens that's over. Now you need to—"
I want to be alone now, she said, cutting him short. Raising her head, she looked first at Kiko then at Yellow, who stood nearby with her tail and ears low, looking mournful. Both of you, just leave. Please.
Kiko and Yellow exchanged glances, and Yellow whined. "All right, Claire," Kiko said quietly. "We'll come back later. Get some sleep if you can."
Claire watched the two walk away, heading toward the Suzuki waiting by the curb. Pretty sure that motorbike wasn't there a minute ago, she thought tiredly, lowering her head to her paws and closing her eyes.
Her ears twitched and she lifted her head. Charlie had reached her first, and was touching his tiny nose to her flank and the side of her neck as if checking her for injuries. "Mama, okay?" Charlie asked again in his high-pitched puppy voice.
Before she could respond, the three other puppies swarmed over her, yipping and squeaking as they tumbled over one another to press close to her. "Mama! Mama! Hungry!" the light-colored Junior demanded before she latched onto one of Claire's teats, sucking ferociously. Claire winced at the strange, vaguely distasteful sensation. Ow, that kind of hurts. This feels so weird, she thought, eyeing Junior and her siblings with trepidation.
"Sad, sad. Waited long time. Very sad. Lonely. Hungry now," Blue declaimed, shoving Norris out of the way to latch onto Claire and settle down beside Junior.
Norris rolled to his feet as best he could and yapped at his voluble brother. "Move. My spot. My den. Intruder? Fight back! Grrr!"
Claire raised an eyebrow. Looks like I picked a good name for that one.
Norris eventually got tired of his show of puppy bravado and began to nurse alongside his brother and sister. Finally, all that was left was Charlie, who continued to nuzzle her jaw, his concern for her clear in his scent. "Mama here now. Safe now. Be okay," he mewled.
"I'm not your Mama," Claire said, then wondered if it was a good idea to admit to the pups that their real mother was gone and that she was merely a substitute.
Charlie stared at her, cocking his head to one side then the other. "Hungry," he returned, then proceeded to take his place beside his nursing brothers and sister.
"Ow. Ow! You little—stop clamping down so hard, I'm not made of rubber," Claire grumbled at the puppies, who heeded her for about thirty seconds. Bone-deep exhaustion stole over her, and she let her head sink down to the ground, her eyes half-open and unfocused. The black hole in her gut was back—not that it ever really left—but Claire was too tired to move even if she'd wanted to. She couldn't leave the puppies alone again anyway, not even to search for food. She'd barely managed to return in time as it was. If she'd been half a second late, that centipede would've already had Charlie wrapped up in its deadly embrace.
Don't think about anything too much, her inner voice warned. It won't do any good. For God's sake, idiot, don't think.
But it was too late. Thoughts were sidling in and planting themselves in her mind like unwanted guests, and she was simply too tired to drive them away. As she lay down, she'd caught sight of her school bag still hanging from the outpost's flank. Her phone was in there, and she wished she could take it out and turn it on. Just to check if anything had changed. To see if anyone had come to visit her in the hospital, other than her old nanny who'd been ordered to stay with her or risk getting fired.
I wonder if Mama and Papa have had dinner yet. I wonder what they had for dinner. Shrimp aglio e olio? Shepherd's pie? Spanish callos? Chicken a la kiev? Maybe some tiramisu and black coffee for dessert? Oh God, I'm so hungry. I've never been this hungry before in my life.
That particular train of thought gained steam, dragging Claire along behind it. What about Ate Tess? What did she have for dinner? Hospital food? No, she's not a patient. She must've gone to the cafeteria or to a 7-11 to buy something. Hell, I don't care. Hospital food, leftovers from a convenience store dinner, whatever. I'm so goddamn hungry, I'll take anything.
That's something I've never said before, ever.
Then again, she'd never lain down on cold, bare earth before either, while creepy-crawlies wriggled underneath her body and burrowed in her fur. She'd never gone scavenging through garbage piles before or filched food straight off the dirt floor like a thief with abysmally low standards, just to scrape together a fraction of a decent meal. She'd never felt so scared and disoriented and miserable and hurt that, if it weren't for Kiko's guidance and Yellow's calming presence, her mind would've simply given up within the first five minutes. Her body felt alien to her, and her head throbbed with the effort it took to make sense of a dog's perception of the world from the point of view of a human. There was a persistent itch in the back of her neck that annoyed the hell out of her, but she was too tired to scratch it. And she had four small bodies currently attached to her, their tiny claws digging into her flesh as they sucked away the little nourishment she'd managed to take in that night. At least she wasn't writhing with agony from a centipede's venom anymore, but one plus out of a hundred minuses did not an impressive scorecard make.
What a shitty life. How did Yellow ever survive like this? She thought about the world on the other side of the concrete fence, and wished that she was back in that world. That she was full and safe and clean, lying in her bed in her nice, spacious bedroom, worrying about things like her boyfriend suddenly turning cold on her and her lack of friends at school or really anywhere and whether or not she was going to turn in that college application, instead of how she was going to force her starving body to get up the next day and do this all over again.
But this was her life now, at least until she managed to fulfill Yellow's wish and find good homes for all of her pups somehow. I chose this, Claire reminded herself, fighting the urge to throw a royal tantrum against the vagaries of fate. I chose to do this, so I need to stay at it a little bit longer. And I've got Kiko and Yellow to help me. I've got to stick it out somehow.
"Mama! Mama!" Junior yipped, interrupting her bleak musings. The puppy had stopped nursing and had scaled up Claire's side to sit on her ribcage. From her perch, she continued to cry: "Mama! Mama! Mama!"
Claire's throat tightened with the tears her dog-body couldn't shed. "I want my Mama, too," she whispered.