My foot taps incessantly against the floor of the bus. I was quick to take my seat towards the front of the bus leaving a seat free for Subbi. We separated when she left to re-fill her bottle with water. Staying hydrated especially after such a long flight is always key. She had downed five bottles of water while I was asleep. The evidence was stuffed into the pocket in front of her. Anger flares within me as my parent’s betrayal springs up once more, my digits fly across my phone. Who asks for their child to be drugged? That is not normal! My tapping increases the longer the bus remains immobile, halting briefly when Subbi steps onto the bus. She lowers herself into the seat beside me after stowing her bag on the shelf above. Her purple nails clasped tightly around her phone. She does not push for conversation, but I don’t miss the tinge of agitation that lingers in her eyes.
“Are you okay?” I ask her my eyes fixing on my phone’s screen. The lack of service and Wi-Fi elicits a sigh from me.
“Quit tapping your foot please!” she responds with little energy behind her words.
My brain does not process her request fast enough. Thus her hand shoots out from beside her and firmly clamps down on my thigh.
“I get it… you’re irritated but just stop the tapping.” I nod in understanding and her arm retracts just as fast as it was unleashed. My phone’s screen darkens from lack of activity and my gaze takes in my surrounding. The airport’s doors shut behind the last group to walk out. All pushing their trolleys with suitcases piled high on them. With their backpacks slung over shoulders the conversation seems to flow easily. The group walks over to a bus parked three slots down. A man holds a whiteboard with the name ‘Brazil’ written in red marker. I notice that most kids have the same tattoo either on an arm, thigh and even neck.
“Brazilian packs?” Subbi asks her focus on the chatty bunch as well. I sideline her question with a thought of my own, “They haven’t requested that any of our packs participate in the Moondance in over twenty years. Why now?”
“Amine’s pack has always participated in Moondance,” Subbi speaks. She unlocks her phone and begins to type out messages.
“I’m not surprised, apparently the northern part of Africa seems to be more ‘accessible’ to the masses.” Subbi rolls her eyes at my snippy tone.
“That was one ignorant tourist Sefya. You re-educated her on the topic and now she is a better human being. Let it go!”
“She asked me for directions which I sent her via google maps. And proceeds to ask me how I did that without internet!” I hiss.
“Yoh! I-G-N-O-R-A-N-T! You and Tamika are the same, can’t let anything go!”
I smile at the thought of Tamika. Formerly Tamika Daka before Amine Hamdi waltzed in and swept her off her feet. She moved to Morocco with her Beta husband about two years ago. But it took a lot of talking and experimenting before they could even be together. Most of the problems arose because like me, Tamika did not want a mate. But a conference on safety and tact in war brought Amine to our pack shortly after Tamika turned 20. My parents were elated at the expense of her anger. When time came for the northerners to return, she refused to go with them. Citing her feelings on the matter, Tamika was pleasantly astonished when Amine agreed with her decision and returned to his land without her. I was confused as to why he would support her decision without a second thought. But knowing that he is fifteen years older than her and probably more knowledgeable on mate bonds than she, I knew he had a card up his sleeve. Amine was aware that the mate bond is one not to be tested. It’s vicious nature will always reveal itself when tested. He had ample time to witness its effects on people. So, he chose to dance to Tamika’s tune, whilst playing the marimba.
Genius? Well I think so.
Within two days of Amine’s departure, Tamika was lost to us. Confusion replaced her normal thought process for in the few days they had been together, their wolves had bonded, despite Tamika’s reluctance. I was surprised by how much conviction backed her choice. She lasted two weeks then asked me to send for Amine. The Northern Beta returned with a spring in his step and a hearty ‘I knew this was going to happen’ grin. They were mated by the end of the day. I helped pack up Tamika’s room over the next three days. Shipping all that she could not stuff into her two suitcases. They do visit every six months or so for at least two weeks. My parents had demanded this of Amine before he whisked their eldest away. But we talk every day because Tamika is currently pregnant at twenty-five and in her last trimester, so she is prohibited from flying. She was recently asked to stay off her feet and avoid stressing herself in any way. It did not help that she was asked about her family’s health history which she could not provide because she was adopted by my parents years ago. Just like many Daka’s before her, two days later she was helping organize more pack activities and stressing herself out once more.
I glance out the window as the doors to the baggage deck slide down. Each one clicking into place. The driver signs his name against a series of lines, before handing the clip board back to an airport official. He then collects an orange reflective vest from a nearby box and soon his legs are leading him to his door. He is not quick to take his seat, instead his and another person’s voices float onto the bus when he opens the driver’s door. My ears pick up the jingle of the driver’s keys as he hoists himself into his seat. His black cardigan draped over the headrest of his seat. A hooded figure steps onto the bus as the engine roars to life. His white hood attached to a black blazer giving the illusion that he is wearing a hooded sweatshirt beneath his blazer. The sleeves are pulled up just beneath his elbows, providing a glimpse of a small pattern of ink against his pale pink arms. Black hairs overrun his arms like untamed vines. Such a contemporary style choice for a man who I would like to assume has been around for quite a while.
“Welcome to Russia Everybody!” he speaks causing heads to lift from the depths of their chats. Subbi’s screen blackens due to the lack of activity. Once his back pack has been deposited onto the seat beside his frame, an arm grasps the seam of his hood pulling it back over his buzz cut head. “My name is Alexei Rykov. I will be your ambassador.” His brown eyes scan us individually, taking note of every face on the bus. Neither Subbi nor I miss the small smirk that lifts his lip and the minute twinkle in his eyes as he glances our way. Though, if he expected a warmer reception then we just trampled on his dreams as not a soul reacts to his statement.
“I don’t expect you all to be over the moon about this trip,” he continues, “But we are all looking out for your best interests. I have been put in charge of overseeing that you are comfortable throughout your stay at the academy. I shall be speaking up in meetings on your behalf as well.” My eyebrows jerk as soon as he completes his sentence. And the courage to interrupt him soars through me.
“Pardon my ignorance Alexei-”
My eyes blink rapidly at the interjection, but I quickly regain my composure. “I thought we were to refer to people by their first name?”
“Would you refer to an elder by their first name in Zambezi?”
I know from firsthand experience that my mother would no sooner have me dig a pit than have me use her first name. A chill runs down my spine at the thought of her all-seeing eye.
I throw him a sickly-sweet smile before continuing with interrogation.
“Mr Rykov…,” I enunciate every syllable, “what makes you qualified to speak on our behalf? Unless you were thrust on a plane alongside us 16 hours ago, you know not what life in Zambezi is like.”
Rykov is in no hurry to respond instead he simply holds my stare.
“You come off as quite the bitter goose Miss Daka.”
Subbi beats me with a reply of her own, “Not bitter, simply disgruntled, Mr. Rykov. This is usually the case with her after being confined for such a long time.” Rykov gives a gentle nod of his head in understanding. “Beware Miss Daka who it is you channel that ‘dis-grun-tled’ attitude towards. In Russia, a welcome can last days but most times hours. Then you must bend to the rules of those that welcome you. I would not want that attitude to land in you in the wrong spaces against the wrong persons.”
“As your ambassador it is also important that I set the scene for you. We shall take this bus to the Academy where you shall meet with all the other participants in the Moondance. There are people coming from packs across the world. Be open to sharing your own culture and learning about others. This is a special occasion for every participant, I will brief you more once we reach the Academy.”
The driver cranks the engine which sputters to life. The bus next to us pulls out and we follow suit. I stare out the window and look at the buildings we pass as we make our way further and further from the airport. My phone screen lights up once the Wi-Fi is up and running and I rush to connect. Unread messages flood my screen in a series of pings such that I silence my phone until all the notifications have arrived. My first order of business is to respond to my father’s messages. My ancestors must be working hard because he just so happens to be online as well.
Dad: How was your first time flying?
Sefya: I swear they wanted me to die on that plane.!
Dad: you are as dramatic as a Nyau
Sefya: But I am alive daddy, ALIVE
Dad: Of course, you are my offspring! And I am also sure that neither your mother nor I taught you how to swear! Kill that habit now!
Sefya: Sorry! But daddy it was so life threatening… there was turbulence!
Dad: Your need to dramatize everything is unmatched Sefya. I am sure it was not that bad.
Sefya: I was running on sheer luck!
Dad: If so then I have had it way longer than you. Now tell me offspring, how is Russia?
Sefya: It is a little to nappy. Our ambassador is Mr. Alexei Rykov
Dad: You would not tell me that unless there is a problem. What did you do?
I can picture the furrow of my father’s brows as he waits patiently for a response.
Sefya: I did not say anything!
Dad: So you didn’t do anything but you said something.
Dad: I know you have told him something because you are my daughter. What sort of a maker would I be if I could not tell small things just from a text? Now explain.
I take a deep breath in to prepare my self for the scolding I know is to come.
Dad: I raised you Sefya, thus I know you have a dictionary filled with manners. I just do not understand why you choose not to use them. I teach you how to fight and suddenly that is all you can use!
Sefya: I will tone it down.
Dad: Toning it down does not make the cut in my book. You are a Daka. That says something about you. You can thrive in even the opaquest of situations. This is no different than junior high school. The last thing we need is to have to fly in ahead of Moondance and discipline you. No more attitude Sefya!
Sefya: Yes Sir!
He goes on to ask about Subbi and how she is getting on. I do not refrain from spilling the tea about Subbi texting Sizwe. Dad seems undaunted by this information. But he will call her out on not contacting mum or dad first before her belligerent boyfriend.
Dad: I met Bukata shortly after you had left. By the way. We had a chat by the shed.
My heart rate drops thinking about all the things my father could have done to Bukata All the possibilities seem less gruesome so long as they stayed outside the shed. If not I might as well order a new black dress for a funeral.
Sefya: Daddy…...! Please tell me you did not hurt him. It was a long time ago.
Dad: You will be glad to know that I did not kill the koswe(rat). Though I had every reason to do so. He will be mowing our lawn for the next three months though. As well as helping me with the harvest collection.
Dad: You know I cannot let him off the hook so easily.
I text dad for a while more before he must leave to attend to some pack duties. I then respond to my mother’s messages before dismissing the last message from my phone company. The bus begins to slow down as we approach a turn off. Two wrought iron gates swing open and the bus continues down a dusty yet tared road.
A dense forest surrounds the school with bamboo clusters filling in the occasional gap. That is most definitely a beast’s running dream. The trees make it hard for me to peak at the buildings behind them. But splashes of white paint stream through the forestry filter. The bus drones further into the forest as hushed whispers turn to anxious chatter, filling the bus with conversation. A sharp turn to the right allows the bus to finally break through the trees and I am struck by a view that could rival many. The white and silver buildings arranged in a circular shape surround a large patch of green grass with lounging clusters scattered across as well as fire pits. Each building has a clear wall running up its side, leaving dorm lounges open for a little peek. Pathways connect the dormitories cutting across the green patch. People walk back and forth between the buildings and the row of busses with their baggage deck open and people off loading the luggage.
“There must be over eleven busses parked here,” Subbi comments grasping Alexei’s attention.
“Not everyone has arrived yet! Its only past ten a.m. plenty of time to get various things sorted. And some unpacking done.” The bus slowly pulls into a vacant slot, adding to the long row of busses. Alexei rises swiftly from his seat, turning to address us once again.
“Now! This is when life becomes interesting. I need you to listen and listen well. When you get off the coach, you will all head to the registration desk and confirm your details. There you will be given your Electronic dorm key cards and academy identification tags. Your key card is your child! Without it you cannot enter your room, your dorm, nor the enclosed dorm grounds. You move everywhere with your key card and guard them with your life. Thereafter you are free to mingle and get to know the other participants. Also, to ensure that you do mingle, you all have been scattered across all the dormitories with roommates and dorm mates from all over the globe. Are we clear?”
We murmur as a petite woman makes her way towards our bus. Alexei makes his way off the bus and greets the female with a handshake. Her height no match for Alexei who I assume is no less than six feet. The petite female gets on the bus and takes up the spot Rykov vacated handing papers to either participant seated up front.
“Take one and pass the rest on,” She relays the instruction before looking up to meet the rest of our curious eyes that halted midrise from owaitedur seats.
“I hope all of you get a copy of the rules that are making their way to the back…”
“I swear… if you people put up a dumb rule about staying out of other sexes rooms, then that rule has already been broken.” The woman responds with shock in her eye at our pack member’s murmur before shaking her head, a ghostly smile skating over her lips.
“Well, I see we have smart alecks as usual. It would not be a school without them. Just makes sure you all read the rules. We need to maintain the order and sanity to avoid problems.” I immediately pulled out my phone and sent a quick text.
Tamika: Send Help!
Having found my dorm and unpacked the necessary I items, I embark on a journey to find Tendo. She is in the apartment building next to mine, but my card is unable to gain access to the building. I pick at the cuticle of my unruly nails, chipping away at the red nail polish that I should have wiped off last week. At least there is no dirt stuck beneath my nails like dad. Mum always said if it were not for the size of our hands, she would be unable to tell them apart. I continue to hang around the main door waiting on someone who will exit the building. I do not have to wait very long as a group pushes through, probably on their way to explore the new area. I take the elevator up to Tendo’s floor. The silence in the lonesome space let my mind drift briefly to Bukata. I had yet to respond to his text message asking if I was well and braved the plane ride.
The elevator slows and the doors slide open granting me a view of Tendo as she charms a boy. I smile fondly as Tendo uses every brain cell to produce sentences in Spanish to carry-on a decent conversation. Her victim has short jet-black hair and a light fuzz above his lips which one might call a moustache. But that person has probably never seen my father’s pride and joy. His overall demeanor a copy of Bukata.
I had overslept. My alarms with each ring had been unconsciously and promptly silenced until not even a snooze could surprise me. My mum was the only alarm that could not be silenced and her banging on the door to tell me I was going to be late in the next fifth teen minutes was torture.
That morning I had to battle my sister as she took an hour in the bathroom. To her it was important to keep up appearances. She could be Hyacinth re-incarnated given how concerned she is about presentation. All I needed was two minutes and my life would be in order again. I picked at the bathroom lock and jumped into the shower like a cheetah while my sister screamed my ears off about invading her private time. I dodge her free hand that shoots out to grab my own, but she is a second to late. I tug at the headsets and they dislodge from either ear. I notice her makeup neatly laid across the counter around the sink. But I make no mention about the lipstick she currently wields which is from my collection. I would not be surprised if she were on a phone call with Sizwe as she did her makeup. Despite the hot water pelting me, goosebumps littered my skin. With five minutes to spare I walked down the house stairs with a fresh face devoid of makeup and a uniform I had pressed the night before to rid it of creases. I gave my dad a quick hug and with a wave to my mother I closed the front door behind me and journeyed to school. My distaste for the school bus is the only reason why I opt to walk. It allows me to stretch out my muscles and say hi to a few popular folks in the area.
I decided to take one of the feeder roads into the next street which would lead me to the school gate. I walk past the Kabila’s house, Bukata’s form visible through the diamond mesh fence. He appeared to be stretching his legs in readiness for a run. Older by two years, he had graduated when I was a junior in high school. Even though high school social dynamics forbid it, we had too much history to let our school years define us. We hung out during lunches, after school and even had breaks in our schedules at the same time. Though the breaks were an extreme feat we blamed his parents who thought we were mates and would end up together. We had a beautiful relationship, his parents saw it, the kids at school saw it, our siblings saw it. I even began to see it.
Then Bukata hit a precious milestone. His eighteenth birthday rolled around and with his ceremonial acceptance into the pack complete, he still could not sense his mate. The only requirement to find your mate is the completion of the Moondance. Though his parents did not voice their disappointment, their loss of excitement when it was revealed that I was not his mate was noticeable. IT was like the sun stopped shining behind their eyes when I was in the picture. I never voiced my disgust at the idea of having a mate. I was not purposefully looking for a mate and after seeing how much my parents wanted one for me, I did not want a mate period.
“Good morning Stranger,” I spoke as Bukata’s head rose from his hamstring stretch to meet my gaze. I move closer to the fencing until I wrap a finger around a wire.
“Little Miss Tuffet is around so it seems. Haven’t seen you in a while,” Bukata said walking towards the passenger gate. He lifted the lever and the gate swung open on its own accord. I pulled away from the fence and began to walk slowly as he fell in step beside me. It was mid-November and the sun shone high. The rain clouds accorded an opportunity for the sun to dehydrate the earth and later that evening the water would return with flashes of light and bellows of thunder.
“I’m not the one who is swimming in pack duties and watch shifts.” A small smirk twisted at Bukata’s lips, “Is it that obvious? Has it really been that long?” he asked me with worry in his tone.
“Bukata I last talked to you in October. This is the first time this month that I have managed to even get a salutation. I saw you two weeks ago with Sizwe at your side, but you were on your way to patrol.” Bukata’s smirk dropped leaving behind a firm line. A worrying silence fell between us which was extremely rare. For a pair of friends’ people regarded as inseparable, the gorge between us felt real.
“I guess I have been busy. I recently started my Beta grooming. So, I have paperwork to handle and pack members to meet and things to memorize. I guess I really haven’t had much time.”
“Your priorities have changed; they were bound to change. It’s in your family.” I whisper.
Bukata is in fact Tendo’s elder brother. They are both children of the Zambezi pack’s Beta male and female. The Kabila’s. Just as Lumai is an important name in our community so is Kabila. His parents were so enthralled by the idea of us being mates that syncing our schedules was a small feat in getting us where they wanted us. Mates. But being the Beta’s son meant that you were the next in line to be Beta of the pack when the Alpha was challenged by his eldest and took position. Hence when Sizwe beats his Father in the challenge, Bukata will automatically become the next Beta. A transfer of power complete.
I looked over at Bukata as he gaped endlessly at the road ahead of us. The changes in his body were noticeable, a slight stubble along his jaw, and a toner physique. He had wider shoulders now and his chest was filling out. He appeared more like a rugby player now than he did two years ago. My face cracked into a smile then a fit of giggles that made me less aware of the stare that pinned me.
“What?” He asked me with an expressionless face and curious eyes. The evil result of warrior habits or Beta blood and responsibility as well as extended periods of no interaction between us. He no longer wears his emotions on his sleeve like he used to when around me. He is not the same Bukata I knew at eighteen.
“Please tell me you are not stupid enough to join the whole ‘No Shave November’ gang.” I waited for a response to my statement. Hoping to shatter the chill surrounding our friendship.
“Well, in fact I quite like the idea and I am trying it out. Let the facial hair grow.” I began to clap like a seal. Tears rolled down my cheeks as we stopped along the sided walk of my school’s street.
“Facial Hair!” I let loose another squeal of laughter. A hearty smile breaking apart his hardened features. His hands slip onto his waist, with his feet spread.
“Bukata, let me give you some advice. Your father can grow a forest for a beard. You on the other hand have scanty vegetation for facial hair. As a result, do not insult November by bringing forth the scanty vegetation revolution. You are better off having a face as smooth as sand.”
“Thank you so much, you are a life saver,” Tendo leaves a kiss on his cheek which only inflates his ego further. The Spaniard pulls back from Tendo and strolls down the hallway. I raise an eyebrow in surprise but she makes no attempt to explain her reasons kissing him. “You are quite early; I’m not even done yet!” I roll my eyes as I walk into Tendo’s room. “It’s been three hours. I even gave you an additional thirty minutes.” Half the floor was covered in her belongings with a suitcase flung open and clothes spilling out of it.
“Who’s Mr. Spain?”
“This is not Zambezi Sefya!”
“I didn’t say it was! I just asked who the boy you were kissing so freely was?”
“A peck, on the cheek! You’re treating it like I did something wrong.”
I do not respond noting the rise in her voice’s pitch. She did not have a roommate for the time being. Luckily Tendo wound up in a two-room double whereas I wound up living in a one room double for the next five months. Five months and a whole bunch of days but saying five months gives me enough false hope to believe it.
“I should have guessed it. How could you be done by now when Spanish guy is a more interesting subject?” I take a seat on her bed, the only part of her room she managed to finish. Registration had lived up to Rykov’s words and we had been scattered like jacaranda seeds.
“You know what you need, Zoya?” I lift an eyebrow awaiting expansion.
“You need to get yourself a hunky wolf. You can’t hang on to my brother forever.” Pushing aside the bra Tendo threw beside me, I pull my phone from my back pocket hoping Subbi will text me soon to fetch us for some exploring.
“Bukata and I never crossed the line of possibilities to begin with. So, your train of thought cancels out.” “Oh please, Zoya, we all saw the sneaky looks and the closeness.
“We were friends! We are friends! Why does everyone assume that closeness implies there is a more!” I huff out a breath of air.
“What drew you away from Bukata is the fact that he is not your mate.” I laugh at Tendo as she throws a bunch of shirts into an open drawer, “I do not need a wolf to make me happy! Nor anyone else as a matter of fact. I do not want a mate.”
“How about a buddy then?”
I shake my head vigorously at the thought of a ‘buddy’. Tendo has had several buddies over the years. A warm body to snuggle with at the movies is her description of them. But we are two very different people. My phone ‘dings’ with the arrival of a new message.
“Look Subbi is downstairs let us go and explore. You might even find an Italian smoothie you can drink at the cinema.” Tendo’s smile widens at my remark, her arm swatting my shoulder lightly.
But Subbi’s presence does nothing to quench Tendo’s master plan to find me a mate or whatever it is she is calling them now. She greets everyone we walk past, stopping a couple of Scandinavian guys who are making their way to the fire pit for karaoke. Looking to liven up my mood Subbi leads me to the pit, her hand latched around my arm. But my attention is arrested by a motorcade that makes its way to the opening in the trees heading in the direction through which we came. But just as Subbi looks in the direction of the motorcade, the last car is engulfed by the forest, leaving me as its only witness.