by Tory Hoke
The last day of orientation at New Plymouth University, Work Placement called students up in pairs. Rhonda Morillo took the chair next to a big-boned blond girl–Deirdre, pretty sure–as their peer advisor announced their “exciting cultural opportunity”: stocking shelves at Kiriki Grocery.
“The heart of Craterfox Block,” he said, offering them lime jumpsuits. “The store’s built on their scale, but the city’s on ours. You provide endurance, size, and visual cortex. They provide total immersion.”
This was raw news for Rhonda–slender, Havana-manicured, and so short her kitten heels barely met carpet–but she kept her smile in place. “It was my understanding I’d be teaching.”
“And you will. Your second term. But Kiriki put in an excellent bid, and we like to give them excellent students.”
“That’s kind of you,” said Rhonda, stealing a glance at Deirdre’s broad shoulders and six-foot reach. “But I’m not sure I excel the way they’re looking for.”
“You’ll do fine.”
Equally balked, Deirdre tossed her bangs. “And how does this contribute to our program?”
“Cultural integration,” he said. “As you know, being invited back is,” he made a narrow gap with his hands, “very competitive. We’d hate to see you leave our university.”
Rhonda’s heart sank. I took a twenty-thousand wan loan for this. My chances can’t come down to my upper body strength. “Isn’t there some work that’s less… physical?”
“Look.” The advisor dropped an anchorman’s octave and leaned across his desk. “I’ve been there.
I know it sucks. But you’ll have the tools you need. It’s three months. Just do the time.”
So Rhonda unfolded the jumpsuit. In Tchigu language, the pocket logo read Local Food, Star Service. It was just her size–extra small.
Two weeks later she was wearing it. Armed with trimmed nails, work gloves, and a pamphlet on “ergonomic lifting,” Rhonda watched from the transit-tube window as cold, samey high-rises gave way to grow towers. Teeth-rattlingly fast, the tube plunged underground into the cobwebbed lights of Craterfox Block. Photos hadn’t prepared her for the burrows up close, spiraling like an M.C. Escher, glowing with swaying strings of pear-shaped lanterns. Slim as lemurs, the few early-rising citizens walked the floors on two feet and climbed the walls on four.
Off the tube, Rhonda ducked power lines and curious stares as she followed her map to the passage for Kiriki Grocery. Down its spiral, she walked into a whiff of Mission cologne and adrene vapor. Someone else here? But when she turned, she was alone.
She buzzed the door. The orange Kiriki sign loomed overhead. Standing under Tchigu letters–real language, in the wild–gave her a swarm of butterflies. I’m here. I’m really here. She reached up and touched the shining Ki.
“You touch it, you clean it,” barked a fox voice near her knees. In her own tiny lime jumpsuit, key-coil jingling on her arm, a sable craterfox stalked barefoot through the glass doors and up the wall to stand eye-to-eye. “Rhonda, ah? You came to work, or what?”
“Kind to meet you,” stammered Rhonda.
“I’m Pel, Co-Manager. Come on in.”
The store was the size of a high school gym and smelled like a laundromat. Striding ahead, Pel pointed down the row of check-out stands to a waist-high wooden door. “Let’s put you on the clock.”
Rhonda boggled at the aisles, a forest of shelves soaring to ceiling nets, all loaded with foods she’d only seen on flashcards. Her head spun with questions. How do you tell if a kaso fruit’s ripe? And do you eat the fur or not? Pel hopped from register to register, tidying impulse buys with her tail. “No cursing, no eating in the store, and for salt’s sake don’t touch anyone, ah?”
“I stock the ceiling. You stock the rest. Store opens at nine. Second cashier comes at ten.” She patted toes on the cash register. “No ringing for you, lucky-face. New rules since the cash grab last week.”
“You got robbed?”
“Only a little. But if small robbers get lucky, big ones follow. Big ones turn up with a block gun. Break your ribs. You see anything strange, you tell me.” She reached under the counter for a black button that buzzed. “Twice for manager. Three for emergency. You hear three, get out, dial security. There’s a pad on the truck dock,” she pointed to the back of the store, “and another in the office.”
Pel unlocked the wooden door onto kindergarten-sized table and chairs. “Here’s the break room, not that you’ll be using it.” She unlocked the strictly fox-sized door at her elbow onto a sleek beige office.
Rhonda squatted to reach the keypad on the wall. “Green and star to clock in,” said Pel. “Blue and star for security. Code changes every week.” She ducked under Rhonda’s arm to lead her down an aisle of doll-sized snacks. “You have kids?”
“I have three grown and two at home. Just losing their second teeth. Good kids.”
Rhonda ventured an idiom. “Good as eggs?”
“Sure are.” Pel bared her back teeth with pride. “Salt knows where they get it from.”
Beyond a pair of vinyl flaps, their footsteps boomed on plain cement in the monstrous back room. Plain halogen lamps lit the corridor to the freezer, the wall-mounted box crusher, the roll-up door of the loading dock. Kiriki’s cello-wrapped pallets of groceries looked the same as any pallet of stuff, any city, any planet. Some of the boxes were as big as end tables. Rhonda gave a giggle of dread.
Pel pointed at the chrome freezer door. “That’s you.”
With only the shabby store coat for warmth, Rhonda confronted the pallets waiting in freezer. The custom pick sheet listed items in Tchigu, Roman phonetic, and English translation. Fang-chicken, yolk-cream, cheese pie. The boxes were less helpful–only logos, no hand-holds, and corners so sharp they dug ashy scrapes down her arms. She worked her way through the pallets, groaning with effort, shivering with cold.
She hit a stuck box and yanked it; the cardboard tore and dumped twenty pounds of curd on her feet. She cussed in both languages. At least after this I can get warm.
Pel rapped on the glass display doors. “How’s progress?”
“Very well,” said Rhonda, gathering curd.
Pel’s voice turned gentle. “If something’s jammed, work around. Force is failure.”
Rhonda massaged her foot. “Noted.”
“Good.” Pel pointed to the chrome door at the deep end of the freezer. “Deep freeze is next.”
While Rhonda threw mousse-cakes and fruit cubes, Pel ran office, aisle, and register, ringing up customers in a piping voice, demonstrating “tse gaeri” was the greeting for elders and “e keri” was more casual.
Emboldened, as she stocked the floor cooler, Rhonda tried “tse gaeri” on a sweet, white-faced old fox-man.
His answer was a yodeling laugh.
“It’s your accent,” said Pel on her way past. “Your ‘g’ is too deep and your ‘s’ is too forward. Makes you sound drunk.”
Rhonda clapped a hand on her horrified mouth. “Truly?”
“Only a little.”
The first day their schedules overlapped, Deirdre marched into the back with a ponytail and a scowl. “We interrupt your regularly scheduled suck for this special suck announcement.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“First week of class about killed me. Look at you, though! Getting some muscle on you.”
“Body by Kiriki.” Rhonda heaved open the box crusher door to a ramp still packed with boxes. “Found you a present.”
“Are you kidding?”
“I got ’em last time.”
Muttering, Deirdre clambered inside and kicked the clot loose. From the darkness at the bottom of the ramp, she said, “Don’t you think this a little beneath us?”
“It’s Craterfox Block.” Rhonda demonstrated fox height with her hand. “Everything’s a little beneath us.”
Deirdre’s laugh chimed through the crusher, surprisingly loud. With a sheepish grin, Rhonda looked around to find Pel at the vinyl flaps, watching them with flashing eyes.
After that, Pel said less.
So reviled at work, Rhonda doubled down at school. She rarely saw Deirdre on campus, but she made friends in International Relations and aced an exam in Language Theory. In the East Commissary, her pronunciation impressed Gree Redguard, a soft-spoken craterfox first-year. They started meeting for lunch twice a week–English on Tuesday, Tchigu on Thursday. Rhonda made Gree his first papas rellenas. Gree made Rhonda kaso fruit dumplings–no fur.
When Pel criticized Rhonda’s pronunciation, it was Gree who showed her how to roll a glottal stop. In return, she helped him tell V from F.
When Pel called down Rhonda for her handwriting on the pick sheets–“is that a six or a two?”–it was Gree who explained what order to draw the strokes. In return, Rhonda explained longhand, distinct from print, distinct from type.
When Pel started using heavy idioms to leave Rhonda out of conversations, it was Gree who loaned her a dictionary and explained the two-syllable search technique. In return, she translated “El Amor en Nueva Plymouth,” the year’s best-selling webtoon.
“Pel’s on your trail or nowhere, ah?” asked Gree.
“Only a little. It’s my own fault, anyway.”
He waved a chestnut hand. “Try not to take it in the ribs. Bosses like to be on trails.”
It paid off at midterm stats, when she made nine or better in every class. When Rhonda asked Deirdre about hers, all she said was, “Don’t ask.”
As Syzygy Day rolled closer, Craterfox Block doubled their lanterns and added garlands of yellow fronds.
Customers crushed in. More buyers meant more sales, and Rhonda found herself with twice as many pallets for the same hours. To set the pace, she wore ear buds. To protect her hair, she wore a NoWest scarf in a Chiquita twist. To protect her arms, she wore running sleeves in Smashing Pink. No one else looks this good killing backstock.
One of those frantic days, Rhonda was stocking the floor cooler when she smelled adrene and Mission cologne. Nearby strolled a silver fox, long coat on his back, can of sharmee paste in his hand, searching the store with the pale, staring eyes of a sled dog. As he walked, he leaned strangely to the side.
“Can I be of service?” Rhonda asked in Tchigu.
“No, friend,” he said in a rumbling voice. “Just looking.”
It took her an hour to pluck up the courage to knock on the break room door for Pel. “You said to tell you if I saw something strange.”
Ledger in hand, Pel opened up, never hostile, only chilly. “Report?”
“There was a silver fox stiff-walking in here. Looking a lot. Not buying much.”
“Ah?” Pel’s eyes flashed around the store. “Is he still here?”
“Don’t think so.”
“I’ll make a note. Let me know if you see him again.” Before she closed the door, she added, “Sharp eye.”
Later that night, Rhonda found one lonely can of sharmee paste on a shelf near the door.
The week before finals, three books deep at the library, in a shared kiosk with Gree, Rhonda got the call from Pel: “Can you come in?”
“I’m not on the schedule.”
“Dee called out sick. It’s the day after Syzygy. I’ve got twelve pallets in the back. Food will rot.”
Rhonda shot Gree a look of distress. “It’s my term presentation–”
“I know what’s important to you, Rhonda.” Pel pulled the R like a growl. “This is what’s important to me.
Three hours. That’s all I ask.”
Rhonda made her apologies to Gree, slouched back to the dorm for her jumpsuit, and caught a capsule down.
They came through the truck tunnel. Even with a headlamp Joe bumped his head and, worse, griped like it was any fault but his. It was Joe who brought the cat carrier, which Riga hated, but humans are happier when they think they’re in charge. More predictable. Besides, anything was better than shooting her. Riga checked the beige block gun on his hip, printed just last week.
Riga fell back, whiskers vibrating, while Joe pried the dock gate up. Joe was a young adult, soft through the middle but broad through the shoulders, and deserved watching. Beside Riga, fluffy-faced Tak switched his tail with apprehension, and Riga reached over to ruffle the kid’s scruff–steady, my boy–as Joe wrenched the gate high enough to roll through.
In arrow formation, the three padded through the forest of pallets. A whiff of lard puffs made Riga’s gut rumble. Got to work hungry. Got to stay sharp. A scouting glance through the vinyl flaps, and there she was–Pel, they said–hanging from the store ceiling, stuffing ketchalu fruit in nets. No pleasure like a plan well made.
Riga pointed, but thick-necked, long-footed Joe took too long to notice, to process, to raise his eyes above horizon. Sharpen up, pinkie. Riga bounded up Joe’s arm to stand on his shoulder and point right past the bald cheek, unmistakable, only a blind beast could miss her. Joe caught on, but too slow. Pel sensed their eyes and whirled. Riga and Tak shot up the walls like twin jets, but she slipped their grip and plunged to the floor in a ketchalu shower. She bolted away. They tackled her, pinning her wrists, dodging her slashing feet.
Carrier in hand, Joe reached down and scruffed her. As her body went limp, Pel sent up a hail of panicked pheromones. Tak averted his nose. Riga said, “Careful.”
“I know what I’m doing.” Joe lowered her into the carrier as he fumbled the key-coil off her wrist. The moment he unscruffed her, she sank fangs in his hand. Joe jerked; Pel burst free and grabbed the keys. Riga and Tak chased. Joe drew his block gun and fired. Boxes exploded. In a hail of cereal, Pel rammed the key in the break room door and slammed herself inside.
Banging fists on the wood, Riga wheeled on Joe with contempt. “Too slow.”
Joe yanked off his backpack and took out a screwgun. “We’ll catch up.”
In the deep freeze, Rhonda pulled out her ear buds. How many buzzes was that? She peered through the display case doors. The store’s Syzygy Day garlands were swaying. From the break room came a muffled thump, then two foxes in flak jackets jogged down the aisle–one auburn, one silver, with staring sled dog eyes.
Her muscles lurched to life. She hop-skipped out of the deep freeze, down the main freeze aisle, to ease open the outer door. Through the crack she saw the foxes push through the vinyl flaps and take a right-hand turn toward the cooler.
Hiding behind stacks, one eye on their backs, Rhonda hopped from pallet to pallet to the dock. The gate stood open, scuffed with gray marks. She rolled through into the darkness. The black truck tunnel wound out of sight, and the air was tepid and stale. Head on a swivel, Rhonda ran down the dock to the security keypad. Blue, star, security code. Defiant, the keypad buzzed.
Rhonda tried again. Again. Again. Fear spiraled to panic. She squinted down the tunnel. I could run. I should run. One mile out and a half mile up, right?
Helpless, trembling, she turned to the glowing gap behind her. An eerie draft sucked through the empty truck tunnel and rattled the roll-up door like tin.
Deep in the store, a fox screamed.
I can’t leave her like this.
Rhonda crawled through the gate. She hugged the first cello-wrapped stack, hidden as the silver fox led the red one near. The silver one murmured something, but her pounding heart drowned it out. Pupils dilated, the silver one dropped to all fours. Silently, Rhonda hopped up, perching toes on the hollow pallet, leaving no feet to find, as the sled dog eyes raked back and forth. Her calves trembled. Her arches ached. Cheek damp against cellophane, she peered at the box crusher door; beyond that, the corridor to the freezer; beyond that, the vinyl flaps.
So many nooks and crannies. So many chances.
There’s no way they know this place better than I do.
Riga caught Tak by the shoulder and pointed at the box crusher door, suddenly ajar. So there is someone else. No pain like a plan with problems. Guns up, they padded to the crusher, swung open the door, and peered down the ramp into the black. A few feet down, half-buried in boxes, was a furry figure in a shabby coat.
“Come on out, cousin,” said Riga. The coat didn’t budge. He turned to Tak. “I’ll cover you.”
With a swish of his tail, Tak jumped inside. His feet skidded, and the metal ramp boomed. Hands sliding down the wall, he eased toward the coat. “It’s all right, girl.” He stooped and yanked. The coat sprang up, kaso fruit rolled out, and Tak toppled down the ramp.
A rush of air swept Riga’s whiskers. He growled and spun. Down a corridor, a big chrome door whooshed shut.
Freezer, has to be.
He drew his gun, grabbed the chrome handle, and threw it open in time to see the door at the end of the freezer swing shut. How many doors are in this rancid store?
Far behind him, Tak banged on the box crusher. “Get me out!”
“Hold tight,” said Riga. Gun first, he trotted down the aisle to the inner door. A hard yank, and the door lurched open. Riga bolted in, aiming all directions. Nothing but frozen food. He kicked a crate of yolk-ice. Where in salt’s name did she go?
Crouched outside the display door, gasping for air, Rhonda waited to see the silver fox–fully inside the deep freeze, fully confused–before she shot back down the aisle and through the vinyl flaps.
The fox in the box-crusher called out, “Riga?”
Rhonda seized a pallet jack and rammed it into the freezer door–a barricade. She swerved to the box-crusher. Inside it, halfway up the ramp, spread-eagle for balance, the auburn fox looked up in shock.
Rhonda slammed the crusher and locked the handle.
The red fox let out a howl.
Hunkered at the end of the aisle, Rhonda peeked through the cereal shelves. A third one. There has to be a third one.
Sure enough, summoned by the howl, a man crawled out of the break room and struggled to his feet. Human, not fox, and tall. Best to stay unseen.
“Riga?” he called. “Tak?”
Block gun held high, the man came down the right side of the aisle; Rhonda stooped up the left, eyes on the man, and scrabbled into the break room. Inside, the office was open. The safe was open. A backpack full of craterfox cash sat next to a cat carrier. There was a tiny body inside the carrier, and it didn’t move.
“Ah, Jesus, no.” Rhonda unlatched the carrier and reached for Pel’s wrist. Her pulse was weak. “Steady, Pel. We’re getting out.”
Carrier in hand, huddled on the threshold, Rhonda sized up the distance to the front doors. Fox voices shouted from the back. The man was nowhere to be seen. Watching, listening, Rhonda rose on all fours like a sprinter, took a deep breath, and streaked off. Every stride brought her closer to the glass doors, to freedom… to the familiar figure outside, hooding its eyes to peer in.
“Dee?” whispered Rhonda. “Thank God–”
“I made it.” Deirdre’s smile was square. “Is everything okay?”
“We’re being robbed.”
“Then open up! Let’s get out–”
A clapping sound, and something socked Rhonda in the back. The impact sent her sprawling belly-down on the carrier.
Gun in hand, Joe emerged from the aisles. “Dee?”
“She was leaving, Joe! She was getting out of the way.”
He unbolted the door. “I didn’t know it was you.”
“Who the fuck else would it be?”
Their shapes moved past. Rhonda’s face tingled. Her lungs wouldn’t fill. Above the kidney, it got her. Pain radiated out like fireworks.
“You said there’d be one fox,” said Joe. “One. Fox.”
“What happened to the others?”
“Forget about them. Let’s take Pel.”
Somewhere, the sound of a freezer case popping, a small body toppling out, and Tchigu words hoarse with hate.
“Where’s Tak?” asked Riga.
“You find him,” bellowed Joe. “You’re the one who lost him.”
The fox walked one way, the humans went another, their voices cottony in Rhonda’s ears. “Did you get it open?” asked Deirdre.
“Of course I did.”
Rhonda’s eyesight dimmed and nausea bubbled up. Inside the carrier, Pel lifted glassy eyes. Rhonda braced an arm on it. Don’t pass out, don’t pass out…
“Dee,” Riga called out. “How’s the crusher open?”
“We’re busy,” hissed Joe. “Figure it out.”
Stop them. Someone. Anyone. Rhonda fought for the air to say, “Riga.”
No answer, or none loud enough to hear. But fox feet padded closer.
“Raise the safety,” gasped Rhonda. “Drop the handle.”
Fox feet padded away. The humans re-emerged. Joe had a backpack. He pointed at Pel. “You carry that.”
“Leave her,” said Deirdre. “We take the tunnel.”
“They’ll trap us in a tunnel.”
“Not if we leave now.”
Two foxes came back. Rhonda leaned on the carrier, breathing carefully, battling stars from her vision. Riga gestured to the backpack. “Is that everything?”
“Yeah,” said Joe.
“Then give us the bag. We’ll hide in the city. Meet up later.”
“Like hell. Nobody takes the bag but me.”
They’re watching the money. Slowly, quietly, Rhonda rolled onto her knees.
“Let them take it, Joe.” Deirdre tugged on the backpack. “We’ll change clothes. Catch the tube–”
“Back off, Dee.”
“Joe,” said Riga. “Listen–”
“Be quiet. I’m trying to think.”
They shouted to fast to make sense of. Carrier under her arm, Rhonda crawled for the door.
“Give us the bag.”
“Get off me!”
She lifted a numb hand to the bolt and twisted. It clicked open. Someone heard; a fox voice said, “Stop her.”
“You stop her,” said Joe.
Somewhere, fabric tore. Behind Rhonda came barking, roaring, a big body hitting tile. Deirdre screamed. Something warm and wet spattered Rhonda’s arm as she slid open the door and limped into the night. At the edge of her sight, green lights flashed. Shouting. Running feet. She dragged the carrier toward the lights and shouts until her strength gave out and her vision pinholed to gray.
Overground, at the human hospital, they told Rhonda she had two broken ribs and a punctured lung. She spent a week recuperating–presentation postponed–improving lung capacity and answering investigators.
Pel spent three weeks cooped in rehab after surgery for a broken hip and a ruptured lymphatic. Her children stayed with an aunt in town, and between their visits, Pel passed time complaining about the food and destroying
Rhonda at online poker, saying, “I’m not going easy just because you came back, ah?”
“Coming back was stupid.”
Kiriki Grocery terminated their agreement with New Plymouth University, pending a reorganization of the school’s overly competitive first-year program. City security arrested Joe and Deirdre, but the foxes were gone, and so was the money. Craterfox Block filed suit against the city, and the store filed suit against the Block, but it would take a miracle if any of it fed more than lawyers.
Pel was back at work before the season was out. Rhonda found a clerical job at the embassy–good pay, no uniform–but she missed heavy lifting so much she joined a gym. Gree won his internship, and to celebrate Rhonda took him to Tower Two for dinner: someone else’s cooking, someone else’s food. And every Syzygy or so she headed back to Craterfox Block to meet Pel for lunch, stories, and pictures of the kids, good as eggs.