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FOUND: Tattered Journal (2/2) [WIP]

The_FFI_Database Dec 7th, 2019 (edited) 1,307 Never
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  2.  
  3.     I can hardly believe we’ve been on this ship for five days already. Time seems to move so much faster when you’ve got more to do than pushing your feet forward.
  4.  
  5.     The captain wasn’t lying about working us hard, I’ve been doing something backbreaking or simple and repetitive from dawn to dusk. Often both. We’ve all endured a lot of yelling from Kalmon, the captain, on how to do things properly. It probably won’t end anytime soon, given it’s her preferred way to teach. Things are running a little smoother now though, with the basics out of the way. I’ve been mostly tasked with hauling nets and stashing our catches away. I can’t name any of these fish we’re pulling out of the river, but there’s more than enough of them to keep us busy. I’ve been doing the heavy lifting with Heba, who I’ve been continuously encouraging not to say anything that’ll get us thrown off this boat.
  6.  
  7.     I wish Sandra was helping us move all these barrels and equipment, but she was drafted from our menial work after she helped tighten a few bolts. It looks like having virtually any mechanical experience has made her the chief mechanic on our voyage. This rusty hull has something breaking every other hour, so she’s always toying with some metal contraption or just barely holding something together. Sometimes when I’m tasked with filler-work like cleaning the decks, I see her working on something. It’s only happened a few times, but she’s been a lot more interested in talking lately.
  8.  
  9.     Even if she was the most against this idea, it sounds like having a bit of technical work again has her more enthusiastic. I was scrubbing the floor underdeck when I first met up with her on the job. I think it was the third day onboard. The shark was speckled in grease and lugging around a real toolbox when she rounded the corner. She stopped not far from me and hastily flipped open a panel hiding a tangle of pipes, tubes, and hoses all in various states of disrepair. Without the eyes of the demanding fish captain nearby, I took the opportunity to set my rags and bucket aside.
  10.  
  11.     Leaning against the wall I called over to her, “Work keeping you busy Sandra?” She responded with a dry laugh, which was honestly more than I expected from her. “You could say that. Turns out an old boat is sort of like a vintage car.” She looked at me with a thin grin, “They both break down from the stupidest shit.” She didn’t let the moment linger as she stooped down to dig through her toolbox. I was shocked to see her in such a good mood. While bending down to scrub the dirty floor was probably easier on my joints than hiking everyday, it didn’t exactly put a smile on my face. Could her job really be that easy?
  12.  
  13.     I decided to ask her while letting my hands dry out, “Did you really learn that much from working the summers?” As she fished the proper gadgets out of the box, she looked pleased I remembered that much, “Well it’s a lot of guesswork on my part, but pops taught me to have a sense of humor about these things.” I couldn’t help but laugh a little at that, “Oh yeah, you’re a regular stand-up comedian.” She feigned offense while she stuffed an arm through the panel, “Well I’m sorry I can’t be as absolutely hilarious as Heba.”
  14.  
  15.     That wasn’t totally fair though, I was proud the hyena was working without doing much more than whispering something like, “I bet she eats straight from the bait barrel,” while the captain was out of earshot. It shouldn’t, but it makes me feel like a kid again, snickering behind the teacher’s back with a friend. “Give her a break, she’s managed to avoid walking the plank so far.” She answered me without stopping her work, her voice slightly muffled after bringing her head through the opening. “You’re right, and don’t act like I don’t know you’re responsible for that.” Responsible for what exactly? My brain was still attempting to process what she said when she brought her head back out to face me directly.
  16.  
  17.     “Even if you can’t see my ears, I can still hear some things while I’m standing watch for you two dumpster divers.” I looked back at her in stunned silence, even if she kept a casual distance while keeping lookout, I somehow forgot she could overhear us.  “Don’t go getting too worried over it, I’m glad to see you’re helping her calm down a bit.” I muttered the only response I could think of, “Thanks… but any reason you’re admitting to eavesdropping like this?” She puffed out a prolonged sigh in response, “Hey, someone’s gotta be looking out for the group, and I seem to be the leader.” Her sharp smile shrunk into a thin grin after that, even her dark eyes looked somewhere in the distance rather than me or her work.
  18.  
  19.     She wasn’t wrong, most of us thought of her as the unofficial leader of our group. I guess I also never really thanked her for keeping us together… it just never felt right when we never really decided on it… not to mention she’s kept me at a distance most of this time. That was irrelevant though, she was a little cold but she wasn’t actively pushing me away anymore. Thinking about it then, I figured maybe she wasn’t just happy to be working again, but she was happy not to have the responsibility of looking after everyone for a while.
  20.  
  21.     I tried to reassure the aquatic mechanic besides me, “You might have the final-say, but I’d like to think we’re all looking out for each other these days.” She spoke a little lower after that, but she sounded just as genuine, “Yeah, I’d like to think that too…” She got back to her work before she resumed speaking, “Keep talking like that and I’ll have to give you a promotion.” I laughed, “Promote me to what exactly?” She started laughing too, “I don’t know, but something! What good is it being in charge if I can’t?”
  22.  
  23.     Like I said, we’ve only talked like that a few times, but it’s nice to see her more at ease. She’s gushed about her dream vintage cars and shared a couple stories about working with her father. I never realized it before, but a lot of the time she’d keep her tail hanging low, but when she gets really excited about something she raises it high behind her head. I’ve resisted pressing her for more information, because I know well enough none of us will see our past lives again. I think bringing it up more than anyone wants to volunteer is generally a bad idea for now. It’s the same reason I haven’t acknowledged how much our relationship has improved, it’s better to leave that buried. It’s better we leave a lot of our past buried.
  24.  
  25.     Enough about that, I should write about some of our other crewmembers. Skylar and Elizabeth being in smaller stature were put on the miscellaneous work categories around here. Mostly things like cleaning and cooking as far as I can tell. Oh, but calling it “cooking” is a bit generous though. Every meal is fish, breakfast through dinner are a part of our catch. It’s another example of the captain being a cheapskate, but I’m not all that broken up about any steady source of food. Sandra especially is loving the change in diet, but I think me and Elizabeth could do with anything green that isn’t scaled at this point.
  26.  
  27.     Speaking of the little ewe, she’s been doing her best to get along with ship life. I’ve mostly seen her dragging a mop and bucket. She’s even got a little cloth tied like a do-rag around her head to keep the hair out of her eyes. Sadly, it seems like she’ll have to wait even longer for a haircut. It also took a while for her to get over her sea-sickness, but she’s getting by. She’s been talking more with Sandra lately, don’t know what about, but it’s nice to see them gossiping. It’s almost a little comedic seeing how casual they are despite the sheer size difference. I also got an idea watching them talk during our unofficial breaks when the captain isn’t looking. I asked Elizabeth to be my covert agent and figure out if Sandra might be expecting soon.
  28.  
  29.     Sandra is definitely too proud to admit if she was having any kind of trouble, but I thought maybe the puffy girl could coax something out of her. Elizabeth was hesitant when I asked her, but she understood why it was important we figured this out. I may have mentioned something about, “shark eggs,” but she corrected me, “Only s-some sharks lay eggs, others h-have live… uh, births…” That only pressed the issue more for me, seeing as that would make a major difference in when and what to expect. It feels nosey, but like I told Sandra, we’ve got to look out for each other. Actually, thinking about it, the only kind of shark I know Sandra isn’t for sure is a hammerhead. And even then, she might not have been lying about having one somewhere in her family.
  30.  
  31.     When my bright white operative returned to me the next day, she told me Sandra was insistent it wasn’t an issue. While at first I thought this was like her denial the cold had any effect on her, Elizabeth elaborated she grumbled something along the lines of, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll probably take the longest to even have any kids.” Elizabeth says she remembers some of the larger sharks taking even longer than humans, and Sandra is definitely large. I’m often surprised by some of the little facts Elizabeth knows, but I guess she was studying in college before all this... So, it isn’t much, but it’s eased my fears a little. Although, that still leaves Bon to worry about.
  32.  
  33.     I think I wrote before about how sleeping quarters were going to be tight. Well that wasn’t a lie. We’ve got four beds, and each little indent in the wall is barely big enough for a single person. It really shouldn’t have surprised me Bon was the first to volunteer to “take me for the night.” She was more than eager to get me squeezed in with her. For that reason I’ve grown concerningly familiar with how far Bon’s come along. Her stomach has ballooned out noticeably, probably the reason why the captain has actually been a little hesitant to assign her much more than light work. Sometimes I want to say I can feel gentle kicking from deep inside her, but it could be the odd rocking of the boat… I’ll try to talk about it with her later.
  34.  
  35.     I imagine the situation could be more uncomfortable than it already is, but the awkwardness is partially alleviated by how happy the lioness is to pull me into her microscopic den. I can almost feel her whiskers grazing the back of my neck just from writing about it… I envy her ability to accept the situation… and me… so well. It doesn’t take a genius to tell how contentedly she snores against me, it’s like she doesn’t have a care in the world those nights… It almost makes up for being bound in place.
  36.  
  37.     I should probably mention Bon’s nightly claim on me hasn’t gone uncontested. Skylar has intercepted the lion a couple of nights with the twins in hand, insisting the boat isn’t warm enough for her and the little ones. Of course I can’t deny them, I can only guess how hard it is being coldblooded around here. The way she wraps around me for warmth and bobs her antennas excitedly conflicts with her insistence I “keep my hairy head away,” but it’s not like there’s much space for me to move away anyhow.
  38.  
  39.     Even if I put on a show about not liking it, I’m starting to feel like a hypocrite. As strange as it feels to be manhandled by a pregnant lion or aggressively held in a chitinous grip, it’s nice not to be alone at night. I guess it’s not like we haven’t been sleeping in close proximity for a while, but… it’s hard to put into words how much it means to me we’ve built up trust like this. Not just in the safety way where I feel deep-down we’re looking out for each other, but the fact we might even stick around without the threat of capture… even after everything. It’s not like it’s easy to forget, I’ve either got Bon’s stomach or two eggs pressed against me every night.
  40.  
  41.     The twins seem to be coming along well. I’m hardly a doctor, but Skylar showed me how if you hold them up to a light, you can see their shady outline inside. Not enough to make out any details, but enough to assure me they’re still growing. It feels unusual holding these children against the glow of a lamp to say the least, but it’s good news to confirm they’re developing. It also feels odd to leave them on their own wrapped in one of the empty beds during the day, I have to remind myself they don’t need to be in a daycare or anything. Not yet at least. Man, now that I think about it, it’ll be only a week or two until we assume they’ll hatch.
  42.  
  43.     I don’t know if I’m really ready for that yet, but at least this boat may be one of the safest places for when it happens. I’m sure we’ll be riding this for that long, as we’re making slow progress up the river. A lot of time trawling and docking for the captain to haggle off our catch means we’re hardly making a beeline north, but it’s still faster than walking. I was worried about how we’d have to explain not wanting to leave at any port, but she’s already told us to keep low. Sounds like she’s done this before, and she doesn’t want her unpaid workers gathering any suspicion. I don’t think anyone is going to disagree with her.
  44.  
  45.     All and all, I’m getting more confident this bizarre arrangement as her crew will work for us. Oh, I haven’t even written about one of the biggest advantages we’ve gotten out of this work. We’ve actually got some real clothes now, actually meant for the colder weather. Looking like schlubby dockworkers isn’t the most flattering apparel, but it’s keeping the growing chill out. A lot of the pieces of our “uniforms” hardly look like they were made in the same decade as each other. I can easily imagine the captain buying all these clothes in one lump at a flea market years ago.
  46.  
  47.     That doesn’t matter though, it’s nice to have the basics covered. One of the only things we’ve had some interest in was news about the outside world, but it sounds like a life on the water has left the captain about as clueless about current events as us. I’d like to think it’s not a pressing matter though, seeing as I doubt anyone tracking us could predict we’d hop onto a boat like this. Then again, I’ve underestimated the FFI before… but I find it hard to believe we’ve left much of a trail to follow, especially lately.
  48.  
  49.     I never thought I’d see a rinky-dink ship like this as sanctuary, but I haven’t felt this safe in a long time. We’ve even got someone willing to vouch for us not being here if they start asking questions. The atmosphere seems to have put everyone at ease when we should be exhausted. Right now I’m actually sitting by the back of the boat, looking at the stars just barely reflected by the moving water around me. It feels like a luxury just to be able to sit outside like this while staying warm.
  50.  
  51.     I think everyone else is already turned in for the night. I can’t say I’m excited to look for a space to sleep tonight, but unless Bon’s bunked with Elizabeth I think she’ll take me in whether I like it or not. It’s still astounding to me how well I’ve been accepted by these people. It’s all the more reason to keep working forward, and to help any of them I can. I used to feel… violated in ways I couldn’t have imagined… forced to violate others… If I somehow got out of that place alone, I think I would have gladly jumped off this boat months ago. Let myself sink underneath that icy black water if it meant putting things to an end… Having anyone accept me after what happened, it’s really a dream come true.
  52.  
  53.     The thought of waking up, back in that same cell, has slid it’s away across my mind. It’s hard not to think of my life as a bizarre dream lately. I’ve even had the thought of waking back up in my old bed way before all this. It’s just been too long for me to really believe that anymore. Too many days walking forward, too many little conversations for this to all be imaginary. This is my reality. While I’d love to reverse time and pretend none of this ever happened, that’s nothing more than a fantasy. I’ve got people who depend on me for help now, and I depend on them just as much.
  54.  
  55. I can’t stay writing up here like this forever. It’s about time I went back down with them.
  56.  
  57.  
  58.  
  59.  
  60.     It looks like I’ll be sleeping a little later tonight. Everyone’s already sound asleep right now, so I’m crouched awkwardly to write this down. I would have gone straight to bed after writing my last entry, but I feel like I need to preserve what just happened.
  61.  
  62.     While I was walking back down below, I heard a noise from the captain’s cabin nearby. “Cabin” isn’t quite accurate, seeing as she just sleeps in the little booth with the controls, but it’s close enough. I had figured she was asleep like everyone else, but that clearly wasn’t the case. I could see her shovel-nose crack through the door before I could creep down the stairs. I heard a hoarse whisper cut through the quiet night air, “A moment of your time boy?” Seeing the way she placed herself between me and the little sleeping chamber, it didn’t seem like I had much of a choice.
  63.  
  64.     I couldn’t even find the time to answer before she wrapped an arm around my shoulder and walked me back around to where I was sitting earlier. “Now I said I wasn’t going to ask any questions about any of you, but I think I’d like to share a few… observations.” I looked away from her and instead tried to focus my attention on the water around us, “Okay…” I answered her puzzled. Where was she going with this?
  65.  
  66.     She gestured for me to sit down on the railing before she looked up at the night sky. “Now, far be it from me to judge someone else, but your situation is a little strange.” I looked at her confused, but she kept the same neutral expression. “Not very often I find a group of women with a single man like yourself… especially when they all seem to be carrying kids in one way or another.” I thought about questioning how she figured that out, but it couldn’t have been that hard to piece together.
  67.  
  68.     She continued after a short pause, it was unlikely she expected me to answer, “Now if you were all the same species, I might even say you were the one to blame…” I was lucky this had happened at night, otherwise I know it would have been twice as obvious how apprehensive I was to answer her. I shifted my focus to keeping my breathing unsuspicious, but my eyes were locked on her after that.
  69.  
  70.     The silence lingered on for an uncomfortable amount of time before she resumed, “But now I know that can’t be true… no way any of your boys work well enough to get another species pregnant! It just don’t work like that!” She laughed like a hearty sailor, but I remained silent. I was even more baffled what she could possibly be getting at. Once she had caught her breath she slapped me on the back, it was just enough to shake me out of my thoughts, “So my best guess is you must be the friendly sort, who else would stick around so many women if they weren’t even carrying his kids?” I could only laugh nervously after she said… was she really onto me? Or was this some big joke to her?
  71.  
  72.     Well I never got my answer, because with that, she got right back up and made the short walk back to her little cabin. “Now you don’t have to go telling me anything, but I’d be lying if I said I won’t be watching you a little more than the rest of the crew. I bet you’ve got an unusual story.” With that said, she moved inside before saying one last thing, “Goodnight! We’ve got work in the morning!” Just like that, she shut the door and locked it…
  73.  
  74.     I hardly said anything to her that whole time! I managed a weak, “goodnight…” but I didn’t hear any answer back. The whole thing probably lasted only a minute, but it’s got me concerned. She had every right to be suspicious of us, especially me, but was she actually planning on doing something about it? If so, would she just be looking for suspicious behavior, or does she actually intend to look for answers elsewhere? The latter could be disastrous. I have to imagine all our names, but especially mine, are on a list somewhere.
  75.  
  76.     However, she doesn’t seem to have even a cellphone to look us up, and it’s not like we told her any of our names… but I’m sure we’ve used them in conversation around her before. At worst she could hear something while we’re docked to sell our catch, but would they be talking about us? I still have no idea how widely known we are as “criminals.” I might be getting ahead of myself though, as odd as the one-sided exchange was, I don’t think she directly threatened me.
  77.  
  78.     I’m definitely going to try and recap this for everyone tomorrow, but it doesn’t quite seem urgent enough to wake any up for it this second. If I really am going to be watched, my only plan is to remain on my best behavior, after all I’m sure she’d rather not get rid of her cheap labor. Maybe someone will have a better idea tomorrow…
  79.  
  80.     I don’t think I’ll get much sleep repeating this in my head, but at least I can rest a little easier knowing I wrote it down. So, I might as well try and rest up for tomorrow. Although finding a spot to sleep in is going to be difficult…
  81.  
  82. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  83.  
  84.     It’s only been a day since I last wrote in here, but I’ve got a bit more to chew over. Most pressing is the situation with the captain, so I’ll get to that first.
  85.  
  86.     Honestly I’ve got no more or less reason to suspect anything from her, she’s back to barking orders as if nothing ever happened. How do we plan to go about this? Well, there was some mixed feelings this morning when I told everyone about what happened. I got everyone up a little earlier, forming a small huddle in our underclothes.
  87.  
  88.     Elizabeth was the first to speak up, “S-should we get off at the next dock?” While the ewe had listened to me intently, Heba was considerably less enthused while peering from her bed. She interjected quickly, “So what if she wants to keep an eye on us? She probably just wants to make sure we aren’t going to steal her shit and run.” Bon, who looked greatly worried on my behalf as she curled behind me responded, “We are no thieves… but she wants to observe Anon especially. I do not like this.” Heba responded with a little smirk, “Oh, she’s just a lonely sailor, maybe she only wants to ogle him a little!”
  89.  
  90.     I did my best to ignore Heba’s exaggerated winking while the lion wrapped a protective arm around me and whispered, “What does she mean by, ‘ogle him?’” I was saved from an awkward conversation by Sandra voicing her opinion, “No, I think he’s right to worry, but it’s strange she would even call him out like that…” She brought a hand to her chin in thought, “My guess is she’s trying to warn him to stay out of trouble…” Skylar brought her antennae head out of her corner to chime in, “Yeah, but why?”
  91.  
  92.     None of us had an answer for that. But as I watched the reddish ant lift her two pods out with her, I was reminded why we needed to make this work. It’s a long way to Canada, and even if we could walk it, and survive the winter, I don’t think any child could. Even if she backed down on it, I still think about how Heba accused me of prioritizing “my” children… I somehow still feel a little guilty trying to protect them. Is it wrong to look out for lives not yet started? Even if they might be unwanted… I think I’ve got better things to think about than morality these days, but at least in the case of the twins, I know Skylar wants them, so I can justify my logic for now…
  93.  
  94.     Selfless or selfish, however I should look at it, I broke the silence. “I think we should just keep on our best behavior. We can’t afford to give up all the food, clothes, and everything else we’re getting here.” Elizabeth sitting nearby corrected me, “If w-we do make a run for i-it, we can atl-at least keep the clothes…” Sandra thought about it for a moment before she gave her rebuttal. “Well if we do run, there’s going to be a whole lot more reasons for the captain to start asking around about us.” Elizabeth looked almost disappointed after that observation.
  95.  
  96.     Heba threw on her heavy jacket before motioning to leave, “So we’re settled, we can all just act normal until we’ve got a reason to do something.” Sandra sighed, “Yeah, I guess. Just keep an eye out.” I watched the others file out through the tight confines for the day as the all-too familiar commands of the captain came muffled through the walls. The lioness was the last to leave, but she stopped at the last moment to turn around towards me. While I was putting on my wool hat she leaned down to whisper, “If this woman attempts to ‘ogle’ you, just tell me. I am more than a match for her.” She flashed a set of claws to emphasize her point.
  97.  
  98.     I took a second to absorb what she was implying before I shook my head slowly, “Thanks, but I think I’ll be fi-”. I was interrupted when we both turned our heads towards a muffled, “We’ve got a busy day today, and I don’t see my full crew!” echoing down to us. I hurried to get out with Bon after that, pushing our way through the narrow opening. We were trying to look normal after all, so we had to be on our best behavior.
  99.  
  100.     Although I was nervous at first, I relaxed as the day went on. Like I wrote earlier, she didn’t do anything out of the ordinary today. I experienced the average amount of yelling “What do I pay you for?” while Heba hoarsely whispered, “You don’t pay us at all…” It looks like we can hold off on making escape plans for now, but it might not hurt to have a backup one anyway.
  101.  
  102.  
  103.  
  104.     Now that that’s out of the way, I’ve still got a while to write. I’ve got a bed to myself for once while everyone else is eating dinner. I’m not sick or anything, I just think I’ll live without stomaching more of that scaly meat for a little while.
  105.  
  106.     Well, I did talk to Bon more today. She seemed to be checking-up on me more often recently. Peering at me from around corners or walking by to see how things were going. I guess you could say it made me feel safer, but it’s hard not to feel guilty when a noticeably pregnant women feels obligated to look after you. That’s why I stopped her a little before dinner. I had just rolled a drum of who-knows-what back with the rest when I spotted her slinking by. I could see her blue eyes flicker past me, but more noticeably her stealthy check-in was hampered by her added curvature. I waved her over after wiping the sweat from my forehead.
  107.  
  108.     She looked a little surprised by my acknowledgement as she spoke up, “Are you okay?” I responded with the same concern, “I could ask you the same thing.” The lioness stretched her long body as she answered me. “I feel fine, I have recovered a lot recently. Mother always said fish was good for the wounded.” I never heard that particular bit of folk wisdom before, but that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. “No, Bon, I’m not talking about that… I just mean a woman in your… condition… might not be up for working all day.”
  109.  
  110.     I could see the confusion in her face as she looked around, but she followed my gaze to the lump under her coat. Her shoulders slumped in recognition after a moment. “I assure you, it is not a bother.” She tried to strike a more dynamic pose after saying that, but her mobility was a little limited. I had to say something, “Are you sure? I have to imagine your feeling off by now.” She puffed out her chest in response, “I have never been better, and I have you to thank for it.” I guess that was true, I remembered all those times I helped her walk again… But I was just as to blame for her new disability.
  111.  
  112.     She must have noticed I was deep in thought, because she took the opportunity to come closer. The first thing I felt was the pads of her hands against my head before she continued, “A child from you could never burden me. Even more so if you are there to help our children.” Even if she had a limited vocabulary, those words meant a lot to me. What did I do to deserve this kind of acceptance?
  113.  
  114.     I could lie and say my eyes weren’t watering after hearing that, but I don’t think anyone else will be reading this. Acting off     instincts probably instilled in me from many nights with this same lion, I wrapped my arms around her before speaking. “And that’s why I have to look out for you. You don’t have to watch out for me, I can take care of myself.” I could feel her return my hold as she squeezed tightly around me. Thankfully we where alone at the time, but in the moment I couldn’t care less what our surroundings were.
  115.  
  116.     She spoke low now, the backdrop of gray clouds in the sky accentuating the color of her fur and the scar across her face. “You should know by now, I would rather let myself come to harm than you.” I held her tighter to emphasize my point, “But I’d never want that, and besides, you’ve got someone else to look after.” She grinned before lifting an arm to stroke my head, “If you feel as such… then we will have to look out for each other, because nothing you can say will stop me from looking after you.”
  117.  
  118.     I looked at the gentle black curve of her lips after she said that with such confidence. While I contemplated how anyone could be so supportive, I noticed little white specks come down all around us. A peppering of tiny puffs came down from the sky to melt on contact with the water around us. Grey sky and grey water mixing together through the miniscule flurry. I spoke to her after taking the moment in, “Okay, we’ll protect one another… Just please, don’t be afraid to take it easier now. You have to protect them as well.”
  119.  
  120.     I held her a little longer before I broke it off. When I came to my senses I realized we were making a scene for our snooping captain to wander by. Still, watching her eyes softly watching over me, I felt the need to ask something. “How long do you think it’ll take?” She understood what I meant as her gaze shifted downward, cradling her stomach in her arms. “I would say a month, maybe two.” I let that sink in before speaking up, “Well then, we’ll just have to make it out of here in a month or two.” She smiled, “Understood, we will make this our goal.”
  121.  
  122.     The burgeoning snow drifted past while we looked into each other’s eyes for a moment. That is until we heard a familiar insectoid voice call out, “Dinner’s ready, everybody get in here!” Bon gestured for me to follow her, “Come, we both need to eat.” However, I declined her offer. I told her I just wasn’t feeling it right now. She was hesitant to walk away, but she said she understood.
  123.  
  124.     Thinking about it now, maybe I should have gone with her. I guess my appetite sort of faded after our conversation. It’s overwhelming to know she cares about me so much… That’s probably the real reason I chose to skip dinner tonight and write instead. I should be worried about the captain handing us off to the police, but instead I’m acting like a moody teenager and pouring over my diary. I might be able to grab a plate if I leave now, I’m sure Skylar will be happy to see me eating her cooking. Might also look less suspicious if I go o-
  125.  
  126. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  127.  
  128.     I wasn’t able to finish my entry last night, something happened. The captain acted like usual today so I’m not writing about that… I just really need to go over what happened that night.
  129.  
  130.     I was more than ready to get out of bed when I felt a gentle tug at my sleeve. I stopped writing to see a familiar puff of wool. Elizabeth mostly went without the thick coats we all had, seeing as she had grown more than enough of a jacket for herself. I was a little bewildered by the sudden guest, but it was hard to feel startled by the puffy sheep. She looked more nervous than usual after she retracted her hand from my sleeve, “Are y-you b-b-busy right now?” I tucked my notebook into my jacket, my usual hiding place. “No, what’s up?” About as sheepish as a sheep could look, she fumbled for a few seconds before answering me.
  131.  
  132.     “It’s no-not a big deal, really, I uh, I j-just wanted to t-talk about something.” I didn’t hesitate to answer her, “Of course, we can talk about anything.” She looked to the floor before asking me another question, “F-first, could I… could I sit up there with y-you?” A little unusual, but not a problem. “Come right on up!” I told her while patting a spot on the paper-thin mattress. She hesitated for a moment before jumping on the corner.
  133.  
  134.     There wasn’t a lot of space, but she was short enough to sit while I had to lay down below the plastic ceiling. Not the most comfortable arrangement, but it worked. She breathed deeply before continuing, “I didn’t wa-want to bring this up to Sand-Sandra… I think she has m-more than enough to worry a-about.” That was a concerning statement to say the least. But maybe she just didn’t want to spoil Sandra’s good mood, it was already in jeopardy now that we were watching the captain for anything suspicious. I leaned up a bit to get closer to her. “It’s fine, what’s the problem?”
  135.  
  136.     She turned to face me with her unique pupils visible in even the dim light. She looked ready to say something, but stopped herself. She did this again. And again, before I tried to intervene. However, it seems like my attempt to speak made her finally blurt it out, “I feel useless!” She covered her mouth after saying it, likely realizing how loud she was, but I didn’t want her to stop. It was too early to guess exactly what was bothering her, so the worst thing she could do is stop now. I gingerly put a hand on hers, and gently pulled it away from her face. “Come on, I want to know more.” I whispered.
  137.  
  138.     She kept her grasp on my hand, but to my surprise leaned back against me. She was phenomenally warm. Not to mention that layer of wool was softer than anything I had touched in months. She spoke unaware of her sensation against me with a quivering voice, “I’ve al-always just be-been following all of y-you around… It’s only go-gotten worse on this st-stupid boat.” I let her speak as she laid against my chest, looking up at the featureless plastic ceiling not much more than a foot above us. “I c-can’t lift anything, I can’t c-cook fish, I can har-hardly move that mop around… Just the ro-rocking alone makes me want to throw u-up.”
  139.  
  140.     Honestly, I was relieved it wasn’t something worse, but it was clearly a big deal to her. I couldn’t argue she wasn’t built for physical labor, but it hurt to hear her come down so hard on herself. I put a hand on her shoulder for reassurance, “Don’t say that, we’re all glad to have you with us.” She craned her head back to look at me from her position. I could feel her shaking even through all the layers between us. “Like w-what, huh? I was o-only starting to learn what I r-really wanted to do before all this… For god’s s-sake, I’m not a kid anymore… Ev-even if everyone t-treats me like one…”
  141.  
  142.     That last comment didn’t sit well with me. I was definitely guilty of treating her like a child sometimes. How could I not? She seemed so frail in comparison to the rest of us sometimes… It’s astounding she even made it through that godforsaken place. But, it’s cruel to act like she just made it this far by chance. In spite of her position, she was always the first to suggest a compromise or say we should work together. I spoke up more firmly this time, “That’s not true, you’re probably the only reason we left together. You’ve got real courage to even try to stop all the fighting we have.” She rolled around then, bringing her face close to my own.
  143.  
  144.     I could feel her breath as she spoke back to me, “That’s n-not true, you’ve also be-been there to h-help.” I squeezed her hand tighter in response, “Well, I couldn’t do it without you. You’re irreplaceable.” She was far too close to hide the blush that spread across her bright white face. She was still shaking, but she spoke calmer now, “I wish we spent more time t-together… Sandra’s nice but I feel l-like she couldn’t talk about stuff like this. At least not like…y-you.” I was honored to know she felt like she could confide in me. However even if she seemed to have composed herself, I could still feel her breathing concerningly rapidly.
  145.  
  146.     I waited a second for her to calm down more, but she shuffled her arms nervously before she spoke. The fluff on her arms peaking through her sleeves tickled me with the way she moved. I had to steel myself from reacting as she spoke to me, still inches away from my face. “You k-know… I… I…” However, I’m afraid I’ll have to imagine what she was going to say, because I heard a call from the latest arrival after dinner. “It’s snowing out, you see that!?” I recognized the voice as the shadow of wiry antennas moved across the floor. With her back to us she scooped up the twins from the opposite set of beds. “You’re gonna be working overtime tonight to make sure these two don’t get too col-“
  147.  
  148.     She stopped when she noticed my position with the ewe. Elizabeth had only spun around seconds before, the movement likely noticed by the fire ant’s large yellow eyes. I didn’t even get the chance to scramble together an explanation before she addressed the sheep in front of me, “Outta the way, he’s my space heater for the night.” With the sort of dexterity only an insect could manage, she crawled past me and Elizabeth, taking what little space there was between me and the wall. Once she was full situated she whispered in my ear as if Elizabeth wasn’t more than close enough to hear it, “You just make sure none of her fur gets on me, alright?”
  149.  
  150.     The ant spoke up a little louder after that, “You can spend the night here if you want Elizabeth, just don’t shed anywhere.” The sheep in front of me turned back around to awkwardly confront the ant behind me. She sounded flustered, but no longer so sad. “Hey, I-I’d shed if I could, I’ve got more than enough w-wool as is!” Skylar immediately yelled back, “Exactly, so don’t make me regret sleeping with fuzzers for warmth more than I already am!” The way she grabbed onto my back however, seemed to contradict what she was saying. I was being used as a living barrier between the two! I wanted to say something, but the situation was leaving me speechless. Did Skylar really just try to take over my bed?
  151.  
  152.     Only, it wasn’t over yet. Elizabeth was determined to really argue this one through. She wasn’t going to be treated like a kid. Only, we were all distracted by the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps. The speed was more than a little alarming. I think we all tried to lean our heads to see what was happening, but we were all accosted by the same fuzzy arms before we could tell what was happening. The unintentional group hug was followed by the voice of a confident lioness, “You should not be so alone, I came as soon as I had finished eati-” Yet again that night, someone stopped mid-sentence as Bon felt the unusual jumble within the bed.
  153.  
  154.     She looked at the three of us uncertainly for a second, a mutual sense of confusion slowly spreading between everyone. However, Bon seemed to snap out of it the fastest, because she wormed her way like a cat into the tight space, nearly overfilling the tiny compartment four people (and two eggs) were barely lodged into now. She was pressed on top of all of us, but primarily laying her weight on top of me. She whispered something quietly into my ear, but I doubt the others couldn’t hear it. “Well, I do not mind this… Mother always said to look for a man who could attract such attention…” Elizabeth was a stuttering mess while Skylar furiously took the defensive.
  155.  
  156.     “Get you’re stinking hair off me! I can’t breathe!” I felt myself pulled by the ant like a human shield, while the sheep clung onto me desperately to keep from falling out of the bed. Bon ignored her as she kept focused on me. I could feel bullets of primal sweat as I tried to think of a way out of this. Bon, either oblivious or impartial, kept talking like I was the only one here. “We cannot do this every night however, so the next will just be the two of us.” She nuzzled against me affectionately while Elizabeth finally found her voice. “You can’t just tell him what to do, right Anon?” I was starting to feel claustrophobic as I felt pushed and pulled at all sides. I couldn’t even think straight with how rapidly things were happening.
  157.  
  158.     With Bon pressing her full weight down on me, combined with Skylar and Elizabeth pulling on me, I was more than trapped. I couldn’t even move my arms or legs to try and get up. The overwhelming feelings, mental and physical, soon fell into exasperation as I sighed, “You know, we have four beds, we don’t need to share it like this.” I got three responses at once. As far as I can tell Skylar told me, “I can’t even get out if I wanted to now.” Bon spoke proudly, “No, I must keep you under my watch.” Even Elizabeth fought against my suggestion, “I don’t get to spend any time with y-you…”
  159.  
  160.     While I was deciphering what everyone said, I saw Heba looking at the group of us. I was too preoccupied to even notice she had walked in. She was specifically giving me finger guns while saying “You get ‘em tiger!” I tried to ignore Bon’s insistence there was no tigers in the room while I mouthed the words “help me,” to the amused hyena. She laughed uproariously while jumping into the bed above us, “Hey, I’m not going to do anything if I can get a bed to myself tonight!”
  161.  
  162.     So like that, I was entombed in a tangle of limbs for the night. Even with all the little arguments and aggressive pushing that broke out, no one wanted to let go of their territory. So eventually, I was pinned in a chamber of snores. When Sandra finally came in, she seemed to give our over-stuffed quarters a look of disapproval before sleeping with her fin to us. It’s not like I could do anything about it, I was squeezed in place with three women… and who knows how many children.
  163.  
  164.     I really should be worrying about the captain, doing a little investigation or something, but instead I’m still stuck on last night. How could I not be? I’ve never had anything even remotely like that happen to me before. On one hand, I can’t deny it felt nice to have such an embrace… I still struggle with personal contact like that after what happened… but they’re all my friends… I would never say it out loud, but it made me feel accepted, like I have a family again. I suppose that’s partially literal, but I mean in the most sincere sense of the word, that even if we fight, we’re in this together.
  165.  
  166.     The part that has me not feeling so good… Well, I never honestly expected to become friends with any of these people. Now I’m starting to worry… could one of them really see me as more than a friend? I know Bon cares a lot about me, but I’ve sort of looked at is as how good friends want the best for each other… I can’t imagine if Skylar might be harboring similar feelings, but if she is… I don’t know! What can I do?
  167.  
  168.     Get a hold of yourself… Look, this is low priority stuff. We need to make sure we can get the hell out of this country before we end up in someone’s custody. I can worry about this kind of stuff if we ever really make it that far…
  169.  
  170. Still…
  171.  
  172.     Waking up today, I felt a crushing weight on all sides. A horrendous accompaniment to dreaming about what happened to me, to all of us… And yet, the adrenaline faded as I recognized the peaceful faces around me. Skylar no longer able to complain about hair as she coddled the eggs against my back in her sleep, Bon resting her chin on top of my head, even Elizabeth, half-pushed off the bed, was curled like a cloud against my chest. It’s such a stark contrast…
  173.  
  174.     Normally I write to try and sort through all these feelings, but right now, I don’t think writing is doing the trick. The more I think about it, the tighter my chest gets. I’m starting to lose focus. Hell, I might even ask for some extra work around here. It would help keep my mind off this while maybe even getting us on the captain’s good side.
  175.  
  176. I think I’ve got to figure this out a little more before I can continue this right now…
  177.  
  178. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  179.  
  180.     It’s been… five, five whole days I’ve last written in here. The extra work I’ve taken means I’m often too tired to consider writing at night. That’s not even getting into the chaos that makes up my sleeping arrangements lately…
  181.  
  182.     So, about the work, it’s honestly just spending more time lifting even heavier things back and forth. Although the captain was surprised I actually volunteered for some extra duties, it’s not like there’s a whole lot of new things to do on this boat. I guess I can’t complain though, I’m usually kept busy enough I don’t have the time to worry as much. Captain Kalmon seems happy enough to have me working overtime, but it’s not like I’ve really gotten to know her better or anything. She’s certainly started yelling less at me, but that might just be because I’ve gotten better at my job.
  183.  
  184.     Really, the only thing that worries me is that every once in a while she gives me that “I’ve got my eyes on you” gesture with her fingers. I can’t tell if that’s because she’s actually suspicious about me, or she’s afraid I’ll make a mistake while hauling her more expensive equipment. Overall, I’m starting to get less worried, given she hasn’t gone out of her way to have another bizarre midnight talk with me. But, on the other hand, I’ve been heading straight to bed after work lately. I guess that means she couldn’t even if she wanted to.
  185.  
  186.     The only sort of “incident” I think we’ve had was a couple days ago. I was moving some of the bigger nets with Heba when the captain crept her way in. She has an uncanny ability to abruptly enter places. Taking a second to clear her throat, she grabbed both me and Heba’s attention before speaking. “We should’ve just passed into Sully county today, dead center of South Dakota!” While I did my best to look professional, the hyena wore an expression that clearly said, “Why the hell are you telling me this?” Still, she restrained herself from saying anything, so I answered for her. “Are we on schedule?”
  187.  
  188.     She had her snout pointed in the air authoritatively as she answered, “Aye, we’re making good time north.” However, she lowered her face to look at me more directly before continuing. “Now I know all of you were looking for jobs around the Dakotas, but I’m expecting all of you to stay at least until we hit North Dakota.” Her gaze shifted between the two of us until I answered as casually as I could muster, “That won’t be a problem.” Heba however, took the opportunity to add-on tiredly, “Yeah, the further north we can get, the better.”
  189.  
  190.     I wish she hadn’t said that, because the aquatic woman seemed to pick up on the implication instantly, “Oh, so you’re all heading to Canada, is that it?” Despite the accusation in her voice, Heba was unphased. She responded before I could in a sarcastic tone, “Yeah, we’re all draft dodgers.” Heba had held off on responses like that until now, so I watched in tense silence for the captain to react. And react she did, after glaring intensely for a moment she started laughing heartily. “That’s a good one, I’ll give you that.”
  191.  
  192.     My visions of Heba being locked in a closet like a makeshift brig started to fade when the captain spoke genuinely after the boisterous laughter, “Oh, I can’t say I blame all of you if you want to ditch the states. I’ve heard they’ve been giving out a whole lot more handouts in the great white north lately.” She paused a moment before resuming her previous authoritative demeanor, “But you won’t be getting any handouts from me, so get back to work!” I hastily got back to hauling the net with Heba after that, although her face seemed a lot less concerned. With a quick heave-ho, we were back to moving the tangle of thick threads.
  193.  
  194.     Once the pale gleam of the captain’s silver scales disappeared, presumably under-deck to harass someone else, I turned around to see Heba sticking her tongue out at me. “And you’re always telling me to keep my mouth shut when the captain is around!” She resumed her signature cackling after that, but it’s been long enough that laugh has started to grow on me. I found myself involuntarily cracking a smile as I spoke to her, “Hey, if I didn’t hold you back you would have already called her a ‘bait-breathed scale-back.’” Even if it was her own words I was quoting she dropped a hand from the net to shove me playfully before poorly mimicking my voice, “Watch your language! The nasty old captain might be nearby!”
  195.  
  196.     I laughed at that harder than I should have. Either she’s been getting funnier recently, or my standards for comedy have dropped considerably. Maybe a little bit of both. We walked jovially with our cargo messily folded between us for a little while, just laughing like idiots along the way. When we stopped to actually set the thing up, she put an arm around my shoulder while we caught our breath. She spoke a lot quieter than I expected, almost whispering into my ear, “You know, I haven’t been able to get an appointment with my favorite dumpster therapist in a while.”
  197.  
  198.     How could I forget? It had been a while since I talked with Heba like that. I guess this new situation sort of eclipsed it… I whispered back a little more serious, trying to avoid souring the mood, “I heard he has an open schedule, just name the date.” She laughed back, “Okay, I’ll call his office later and see.” After that, it was back to work like usual. We still would chat a little throughout the day, but we both agreed to try and find some place a little more secluded if we were going to resume our more private conversations. I decided to leave out the fact a certain snooping shark was privy to our little tradition. I’m afraid she might stop if she knows anyone else is aware.
  199.  
  200.  
  201.  
  202.     I think I got a bit off track there, but the point was I’m starting to worry less about the captain. Even if she’s uncovered a little more about our goals than I would have wanted, she hasn’t said anything to imply she’ll act on it. Once again I should be more worried about the situation, but it seems like I’ve always got something else on my mind. Like which bed I’ll sleep in…
  203.  
  204.     But more important lately are the twins! In what little free time I have, I’ve been spending more of it with Skylar as the two eggs are getting closer to hatching. Their silhouettes are now taking up most of the space within the pods, a sign Skylar says they’re not going to be staying inside much longer. She thinks it could be anytime from tonight to a few days from now. I’ve been asking her more about what to expect, seeing as I don’t even have that much experience with human babies let alone other species. Luckily, Skylar takes it as a point of pride to lecture more about the superiority of hairless arthropods.
  205.  
  206.     As strange as the situation is, it’s at least been a good opportunity for me to get to bridge the species gap a little. One of the topics I’m still thinking about are the whole life cycle differences. While I might kind of think about humans as having multiple stages sort of like baby to child to teen and all that, the lines are a little more distinct for insects. They’ll be larvae first for about a year, and then eventually they’ll pupate into shells again. It’s sort of like they become eggs again the way they form a shell and go back to changing… Apparently they do that a few times? Growing larger and larger exoskeletons each step until they’re adults.
  207.  
  208.     It’s… such a foreign concept to me. I tell myself I’d gladly help her look after them, and I really want to, but will I actually be able to relate to them? Pupae and larva? Sometimes I feel like she might as well be talking about aliens. I probably learned some of this stuff in high school, but that was just a textbook. I never thought it would apply to me… Yet, Skylar seems so proud while explaining it. I particularly remember her remarking sweetly about the “fat little caterpillars” they’ll be when they hatch. Her antennas curl into little tight swirls as she talks about it… She tries to talk clinically about the whole affair most of the time, but I can tell she has a bit of reserved excitement about the whole thing. Something I wish I shared.
  209.  
  210.     …The more I think about it though, the more I realize how far I’ve come to understand the fire ant. Before I could hardly read her facial expressions, but now I can look for the little signs to tell how she’s really feeling. Whether those feelers on her head are wilted or upright, her mandibles are loose or clenched tightly… Those large yellow eyes of hers… I’m sure I can do it again. I can grow to understand these two, however differently they may grow up to be. I’ll admit though, I’ve avoided discussing how they might turn out to be different than other ants. We already know they have warm blood, who knows what else might be different? Beyond the occasional conversation with the inquisitive Elizabeth, I don’t think anyone wants to openly talk about it.
  211.  
  212.     However, Skylar does seem to have an easier time talking about some subjects than I have. Like baby names. Sophia, Isabella, Scarlett, Madison, and so on. She does it casually, at night or when we’re eating. She says it like she’s testing the whole room, but her attention is always on me. I’d say I was imaging it, but it’s rare anyone else answers her. I always tell her that the name is fine, or it’s a good idea, but my heart isn’t in it. It just, makes it so much more real. Sometimes I can shut my eyes and pretend I’m on a bizarre trip with friends, nothing more, but the names? They remind me so quickly that there are lives at stake with all of us. Real people, who’s lots in life will likely be decided by what we do here. People who will grow up and ask things like “Why am I different from everyone else?”
  213.  
  214. “Who is my father?”         “Why does he look like THAT?”
  215.  
  216.     That’s years from now, really none of my concern. It’s not like I even have custody of these kids or anything. But between Bon and Skylar, I think I’ll be involved in their lives. So I can’t just pretend this will never be an issue, never something I have to face…
  217.  
  218.     Look, there’s a million factors in my life right now I just have to hope go well because they’re out of my control. It’s hard to accept, but I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it. The most I can do is try to stay optimistic about things, like Elizabeth.
  219.  
  220.     For a little sheep, I think she’s been the best about that. Oh, she might worry plenty, but she rarely doubts things will work out in the end. I’ve been trying to spend more time with her recently. I don’t have a lot of time to spare, but she’s a bit easier to see while I’m working in the later hours of the day, when it’s mostly odd jobs left. Sometimes we mop the floors together, or pinch our noses and pickle some of the fish. I don’t even think the captain sells it, I’m pretty sure it’s all for her personal use.
  221.  
  222.     Either way the ball of wool has generally been tagging along whenever I’m below deck. She’s been really talkative lately, whether it be about the twins or some of her ideas for “when we get out of this.” It’s both uplifting to hear such optimism and concerning when things are actually so uncertain. She talks about learning to knit so she can make Sandra something like a scarf, maybe even mittens for me. It was fun imagining her suggestion for something more covering like “a ski mask” for Skylar. Even through her stutters, there’s a little spark in those wide eyes that I wish we all had.
  223.  
  224.     Still, something that happened has me worried she’s not telling me everything. We were cleaning up the variety of junk and fish guts that had collected on the floor that night. Not pretty work, but she was happy to have me around. I took special care to let her lead the effort, I didn’t want her to feel like she wasn’t carrying her own weight. She was telling me something about how, “My m-mother was a Merino, but my father w-was a Ryeland, so I guess I’m somewhere inbe-inbetween…” Even if I have no idea what makes those groups unique, it’s interesting to hear how many divisions there are within species. It can be hard enough to remember all the broad groups in the first place. I was listening quietly while scrubbing a particularly stubborn patch when the jingle jangle of metal tools came close by.
  225.  
  226.     It was the shark mechanic herself of course. I hadn’t really been talking with her lately… It feels sort of childish now, but I was more than a little embarrassed after she saw that bedtime debacle. I was hesitant to say anything, I still couldn’t really explain the incident to myself… but the ewe immediately greeted her as she passed by. “Sandra! What are you doing a-around here?” Sandra was almost cheery as she replied, “Oh, I guess one of the pipes in here is causing trou-” she clearly noticed me as her tone faltered for a second, getting a little quieter, “-ble.”
  227.  
  228.     Things got awkwardly quiet as Sandra avoided looking directly at me while she propped open her toolbox. I tried to break through the uncomfortable atmosphere, working a little pep in my voice, “Work treating you well Sandra?” She answered me considerably less enthusiastically, “Yeah… It’s fine I suppose.” Clearly this shift in her demeanor had to be my fault. Was she really that upset about that night? I needed to know if that really was the reason, so I spoke up again. This time a little more straightforward. “Everything alright?” A glance to Elizabeth confirmed she was likely on the same wavelength as me, nervously tapping one of her hooves on the ground. However, she spoke up for Sandra instead, “Oh it’s f-f-fine, we’re all fr-friendly here!”
  229.  
  230.     Sandra spoke under her breath, but loudly enough she clearly wanted me to hear it. “Maybe a little too friendly lately…” I could feel my face fall after hearing that. There was no way she wasn’t talking about exactly what I was worried about. While I mentally stumbled to find anything to say, I watched Elizabeth gently tap Sandra’s leg for attention. In a second, Sandra was hunched towards the little sheep, her finned back to me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were definitely whispering something to each other. What was all this about? And why was this happening so suddenly? I shouldn’t have, I knew better… But hell, Sandra had been listening into me and Heba… It was only fair I returned the favor.
  231.  
  232.     Given Sandra was purposefully turned away from me, and Elizabeth couldn’t see me through the bulk that was Sandra, I crept a bit closer. With my hand to my ear I could faintly make out Sandra’s slightly louder voice, “-me on. You really haven’t told him?” That was all I could make out before I noticed her start to shift position. I moved as quickly as I could to look naturally busy. Although I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, I don’t think anyone noticed. I slowly turned around to see Elizabeth standing nervously while Sandra quickly twisted her wrench around the offending pipe. Whatever was said, Sandra was in a hurry to finish her job.
  233.  
  234.     What were they talking about, “told him?” There wasn’t exactly a whole of other people “him” could refer to. My mind was flooded with the different bad news it could be. Had something happened? Was she okay? Was the baby okay? Overcome by such thoughts, I was unprepared when Sandra put a hand on my shoulder. Evidently she was already done with her short job, and was now leaning over me like she didn’t want the little sheep across the room to hear.
  235.  
  236.     Thankfully though, she sounded less upset, almost congenial. “Sorry about that… I guess I’m just not feeling my best today. But hey, it’s nice to see you spending time with her. I’m sure she appreciates the company.” While I contemplated the latest sudden tone shift I watched the shark hastily make a break around the corner, “I’ve uh, got another job to get to, good luck with the work.” It was certainly strange to hear her say anything with that hint of uncertainty, but she was already out of sight before I could say anything.
  237.  
  238.     After the whole bizarre affair, Elizabeth looked at me sheepishly, “W-what was that ab-about?” A bit dumbstruck, I answered her honestly, “I don’t really think I know.”  We listened to the constant hum of the ship before Elizabeth spoke up again, “I g-guess it’s n-not a big de-deal…” Her uptick in stuttering was apparent, especially as she added on a little more with a squeak, “S-sh-she didn’t sa-say anyth-thing w-w-weird, did s-she?” An odd question, but at the time I didn’t think much of it more than standard concern. “No, she just said she wasn’t feeling so good.” I could almost see the tension deflate out of her until I remembered the other detail. “Oh, but it’s nice to hear her say we should hang-out more often. I was a little worried what she might think after… you know… that night.”
  239.  
  240.     For a second I thought she was going to start nervously shaking again. Instead, she puffed herself out in an incredibly ineffective display of outrage. “You s-shouldn’t worry about t-that!” I simply sighed in response. As if I could think of any reason not to feel weird about it. She continued unimpeded by my response, “W-we just c-care about you, o-okay? That’s a go-good thing, right?” Looking at her so upset on my behalf, I couldn’t help myself. I don’t care if it bordered on patronizing her, I scooped her up in a hug. If I could lift fishing equipment all day, a sheep half my size wasn’t a problem.
  241.  
  242.     Although she didn’t resist, she did let out a little bleat of shock when I brought her off the ground. I just wanted to feel miserable for myself, but it looks like I had a lot of people who wouldn’t let me. I spoke to her sincerely, pressed against her plush shoulder, “You’re too nice to me, you know that?” When I put her down I expected some kind of answer, but she was too much of a blushing, stuttering mess to say anything. The first thing she said was probably louder than she intended, “W-w-we’re nearly d-done he-here, let’s s-stop for the n-night.” Not what I expected her to say, but it was true. We probably had the room clean enough to leave a while ago.
  243.  
  244.     She was already hastily gathering her things when I remembered there was still a mystery to solve. Still, I’d like to think if it was more serious, things wouldn’t have been quite so odd. So I tried to do it discreetly, “Is everything alright?” She put down her gear for a second and held her hands together tightly. Her face was low to the ground so I couldn’t see it, but I spotted her rocking a tip of her hoof on the ground, “Yeah… I think t-things are alright.”
  245.  
  246.     We could have talked longer, but she was out the door as fast as Sandra. Leaving me alone with my thoughts… and wondering where I’d be sleeping that night.
  247.  
  248.  
  249.  
  250. I’m going to have to write about it, aren’t I? My issues with sleeping arrangements have been… escalating lately.
  251.  
  252.     It was awkward the night after my last entry. The thought of facing anyone after being in an such an awkward pile last time was dawning on me after the extra work. Lucky or unlucky, I didn’t have to make the decision where to sleep though. Shortly after coming in, Skylar approached me as I threw off my jacket. She held an egg in each arm as she got up from her bottom bunk. “You know it’s still snowing out, and I’m sure these two would appreciate a little extra heat.” I sighed, but smiled. I knew fully well who really wanted the extra warmth. I replied through a yawn after a hard day, “Can’t you bunk with Elizabeth or something? She’s plenty warm.” In response the fire ant knotted her feelers in a way that I had associated with pouting, “She’s nice and all, but have you seen all the hair on her? I don’t want… Scarlett and… Sabrina? To touch anymore dirty fur than they have to.”
  253.  
  254.     I wasn’t in any mood to argue, and before I knew it, I was already squeezing in with the copper insect. The abrupt mention of names wasn’t exactly comforting, so I tried to change the subject to something else that had been bothering me. Something I really wanted to understand. Seeing as I was already being shamelessly siphoned for heat by the little specist, I figured I could ask a more personal question. I didn’t check, but as far as I could tell, everyone was asleep so I whispered to her. “Hey, how come… how come you’re so eager to accept the twins like this? Plus you originally told me you weren’t going to bother with names yet…” I watched her large reflective yellow eyes move in thought.
  255.  
  256.     She answered me even more quietly, likely not wanting anyone in the crowded room to hear with only Heba’s snoring as cover. “What do you expect me to do? I’m not going to throw these two in the river… Maybe you can blame it on growing up in a big family or something.” I could feel her chitinous grip tighten around my back before she continued, “I guess I never cared that much about tradition, so it can’t hurt to start naming them early. The chances of a boy are still like one perce-” She stopped a moment to let out a huff. “You need to keep your hair out of my side, come on.” I almost jumped when I felt her dig a hand through my hair, combing across my scalp with her hardened fingers. “If you can’t keep your hair tidy, I’m going to have to do it for you.”
  257.  
  258.     The conversation was derailed as she gently ran her hands through my hair, acting like a rough comb. It took a moment, but once I regained my composure I asked her with a smirk, “I thought you hated my hair?” She forced a sigh against the back of my neck, the air moving softly across my skin. “Yeah…well I do, that’s why I have to make sure it stops sliding over on my side.” I wasn’t given time to worry about the usual, as her scalp massage grew slower and gentler, likely from the drowsiness that she got whenever she warmed up enough. Even if I wanted talk longer, he gentle motions were more than enough to have me asleep quickly and quietly.
  259.  
  260.     The real problem, is that the night didn’t end there. I thought I was dreaming when I felt something in the dead of night. I was rising, slowly levitating into the air. Warm clouds against my skin. I thought at the time I was floating high into a warm summer sky, but instead I abruptly felt the breath squeezed out of me. As my eyes shot open, I recognized the dark interior of our pitiful sleeping quarters. Only, I was higher up than before, and locked in place. I made an attempt to swivel my head, and noticed a familiar whiskered face against me. “I said you would be spending this night with me, and I am an honest woman.”
  261.  
  262.     Feeling considerably less free space now that I was packed against the pregnant belly of a lioness larger than I was, my brain desperately trie to recall how this could have happened. “...Bon? What’s going on?” She shushed me with a squeeze of her arms, holding me tightly as she always does. “You are under my protection for this night, do not trouble yourself.” As calmly as she spoke, I was starting to realize something wasn’t right about this. Did she really abduct me from my bed? I pushed against her grip to glance below us. In the dark Skylar was absentmindedly clutching the twins and her pillow in place of me while she remained asleep.
  263.  
  264.     While it was sweet Bon wanted to liberate me from my chitinous chains (and replace them with her own), I wasn’t exactly in need of saving. Still half asleep I muttered out, “Bon, you know you don’t have to do this…” A deep, soft, chuckle came out of her in response. I could feel every vibration run through her as she did so. “I apologize. But I sleep easier with you near me.” I kept my voice low, “I was like three feet underneath you though.” She only nuzzled her face against me after that, causing me to quiet down. “It is not the same.”
  265.  
  266.     Given that she had just woke me up, her warm embrace reminiscent of a fuzzy blanket soon had me passed out. Honestly, I didn’t even think much of it when I woke up the next morning. It was starting to become commonplace to delicately dislodge myself from someone’s arms at the start of each day. With thoughts of another day’s worth of work ahead of me, it was getting easier not to dwell on the implications. That blissful ignorance however, wouldn’t last.
  267.  
  268.     If I recall, it was actually Elizabeth who ambushed me the next night. She popped out from her spot in the dark room to suggest, “I’ve g-got room for one m-m-more over here.” I can’t remember what I was moving that day, but I was dead-tired. So without another thought, I drifted into the bed with open space. With the ewe’s extra plush, it felt like I had a real blanket for once. It seems like whenever I share a bed with someone, they face towards my back, but she was different. She would face towards me, but with the height difference she had the space to be at chest-level. It could have been strange under different circumstances. I didn’t mind however, her fluff combined with my drowsiness had me asleep in record time.
  269.  
  270.     I awoke next morning well rested. I took in the smell of the crisp air, and the feeling of any kind of mattress underneath me. It’s still fantastic to wake up in anything resembling shelter these days. Even after around two weeks aboard, it’s still wonderful. I peeled the exoskeleton off me, and held the twins for a moment, wondering about what they may grow up to be. When I glanced over, to see Elizabeth sleeping alone in her bed, I started to pick up on something. Wait, was my memory wrong? I glanced over to Skylar, asleep at my side. No, that definitely wasn’t right.
  271.  
  272.     It was rare I ever had to wake someone up these days, it’s not like I had to keep watch recently. Regardless, I instinctively nudged the sleeping ant beside me, watching her antennas jolt to life from their previously limp positions. She was awake with a start, “Hmmm, time to start marching already?” I patted her on the shoulder, “No, everything’s fine… just uh, did something happen last night?” I watched her large eyes go wide before narrowing slyly, “Oh… well let’s just say I learned about the catnapper that took you last night, so I figured… you know… that’s fair game.” I looked at her in disbelief, that for the second time in my life, someone felt the need to pluck me straight out of bed. This time without me even waking up to notice. She evidently picked up on my expression as she added in a low voice, “It was a cold night…”
  273.  
  274.     Oh, but I didn’t want to make anyone unhappy over something so trivial. Seeing her deflate a little I put an arm around her shoulder, “No, it’s fine I guess. I’m just not worth all the effort is all…” She followed suite and put an arm around me. “That’s not true, you’re the best space heater a woman could ask for.” I laughed a little in response… but the idea still had me unsettled. It was starting to dawn on me, this could really become a problem.
  275.  
  276.     Had things really gotten easy enough we could care about little things like that? We still have better things to worry about… Who cares where I end up bunking late at night? Evidently though, they care enough about me to act on it. It’s not a bad thing, really. I just wish we were focusing on the bigger issues. I suppose though, we can only focus on those things for so long. Maybe we all need a break from the major issues. I’d like to think we’ve earned that much. However, it seems like this little group still finds the time to squabble over something insignificant…
  277.  
  278.     The whole thing inspired me to work even later into the night, but the captain’s only got so much work a single guy can do once everything’s done for the day. It’s not like it even makes a dramatic difference. I still have to come back and figure out where I’m going to sleep. And it always seems like there’s someone waiting for me… and someone I’m inadvertently letting down… That’s honestly made me work harder. Such things are easier to ignore when I’m too tired to really think about it.
  279.  
  280.     It’s even worse because I know this new situation isn’t even a secret. It was yesterday while I was working with Heba that she said something. While we were rolling a couple metal drums of bait she leaned over to make a comment, “You got some bags under your eyes, too busy with the ladies at night?” I took a hand off the container to rub my face. She was right about one thing, I wasn’t getting as much sleep between the extra work and the occasional nighttime hijinks. It caught me off-guard, but I did my best to ignore her exaggerated winking. “It’s just been harder getting to sleep, you know?” Her smirk was unimpeded however, only growing larger. “Says the guy going between beds every night.”
  281.  
  282.     While she laughed, I started to crack. I hadn’t really brought this up with anyone yet, so even if Heba wasn’t the best choice for a confessional, I still leaned over to whisper to her. “Look, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t be swapping beds at all.” The hyena’s cackling came to an awkward falter when she heard me. I hadn’t meant to ruin her fun, so I backpedaled immediately. “It’s fine though, really, we should get back to work anyway.” She leaned in closer to me after that, still with a little bit of a sly smile, “Hey, uh, if you don’t want to get taken in the night, maybe I could… Watch over you?”
  283.  
  284.     I gave a weak laugh in response, but she kept her green eyes fixed on me. It took me a second, but the idea she wasn’t joking started to click. The way she said it with uncertainty probably should have tipped me off, but I wasn’t expecting the offer. I replied back with a hushed voice in our sudden huddle, “What exactly are you suggesting?” She abruptly pushed me out of our huddle playfully only to drag me back in to make her remark, “Hey dipshit, I’m just saying I’ll watch your back if you need it.” Heba usually has a smile plastered across her face, but this one felt more genuine. Softer and less forced.
  285.  
  286.     Of course I accepted her offer. “If you really want to, I’d appreciate it. I just feel like the whole situation is trivial.” That wasn’t entirely honest, I knew it had little to do with our survival, but it had been growing to be more than trivial in my mind lately… Anyway, we made our little agreement and went about the day like usual. Heba seemed happier than normal though, we talked a little more and she got a little bolder in her usual remarks about the captain. Actually now that I think about it, it’s been a long time since she made a really crass joke about anyone other than the captain. I can’t tell if she just knows it would upset me, or she’s starting to trust everyone more. Either one is good honestly.
  287.  
  288.     The issue was, when last night finally came. I had talked already talked to Elizabeth for a while, and worked an hour later after the sheep finished up and went to bed. With a sign-off to the captain, I was out to find a place to sleep again. I figured maybe I was lucky and everybody was already asleep, but that never seems to happen. I didn’t get my hopes up, but that made it all the sweeter when I surveyed the room and didn’t hear anyone. Skylar was sharing space with Elizabeth, which was probably the best combination size-wise. That meant I could probably squeeze in with the sleeping lion.
  289.  
  290.     However, I nearly jolted when I heard a whisper from the bunk above her. “Psst, hey, up here!” The hyena perched above on her bed was definitely not asleep. It took a moment, but I remembered what we had talked about, “Thanks for the offer, but you don’t really have to do anything...” She answered me a little haughtily, “Nonsense, I can take on anyone in this room… but if you’ve been courting the bull shark over there, we might have trouble.” Her laughter was suppressed to snickering in the quiet room. “Come on, now get up here.” I stopped in my tracks, already about to flop into the bed below her. I asked her hesitantly, “Get up where?”
  291.  
  292.     Her veneer of confidence started to crumble as she spoke considerably less certain of herself, “Up here? How else am I supposed to keep someone from grabbing you?” I realized then, we had different ideas about what her offer entailed. I feel kind of stupid assuming she would just sort of keep watch at night. Of course she needed to sleep too, which meant staying in the same bed. As Heba’s nervous snickering wavered in volume, I made the decision to hop up with her. A part of me was hesitant to, like she had planted a whoopee cushion or something, a big joke… But she wasn’t acting like this was a joke.
  293.  
  294.     My suspicions were only confirmed by how awkwardly both of us tried to squeeze into the bed. Evidently she wanted me behind her, rather than in front like I usually flop into these beds at night. It took a bit of maneuvering, and a couple odd positions, but I found myself back-to-back with her. The nearly palpable discomfort only emphasized just how odd it was for me to be changing beds so casually every night. Trapped between the plastic wall and the dark spotted fur of her back poking from her undershirt, I realized it would be twice as weird to back out now.
  295.  
  296.     Heba, evidently feeling a bit of the discomfort herself arched her back oddly, trying to minimize the contact area between us. She whispered quietly, “So, uh, get some sleep already. You look like a zombie.” Without anything better to add, I mumbled an inaudible goodnight before trying to get comfortable. Pressed against the inner wall and surrounded by silence, I could hear the water lapping against the hull outside. Not violently or even regularly, but in gentle choppy rocks that refused to keep a steady rhythm. I tried to just shut off my brain and forget about everything for a while, but the discordant noise kept pestering my mind.
  297.  
  298.     It’s difficult to guess how much time went by, but I found myself staring at that blank wall for what felt like a long time. Even the relative comfort of a real bed wasn’t enough to lull me to sleep. I somehow even felt cold despite the sufficient heat in the room... Unable to find any sleep, my mind wandered to all kinds of subjects. The twins could hatch almost anytime now, the captain could dock us at a pier full of police lights before we knew it, we might even make it all the way to Canada only to get turned away, or even worse, locked up.
  299.  
  300.     Even now I still don’t have any answers to a lot of those concerns… I think that like last night, I’ll shift my attention from those thoughts to the sound that stirred me from them. “You awake back there?” I tore myself from the latest potential disaster scenario I had concocted and the ceaseless sounds of the water outside to see the dim reflection of Heba’s eyes next to me. I croaked out an answer, “Yeah?” The silence resumed for a second before she returned with a dull, “I can’t sleep.”  I only responded with a short, “Same…” Once again the quiet filled the air before she resumed with, “Wanna talk?”
  301.  
  302.     It was the dead of night… no one else awake. It seemed private enough for me to ask, “Do you want to tell me a little about yourself again?” I couldn’t read her expression as her face was away from me now, but I could hear the reluctance in her voice. “I… maybe later, we are packed like sardines in here. Who knows if someone’s listening?” She forced a little bit of laughter after the sardines comment, but it didn’t last. Instead she abruptly asked me something I didn’t expect. “You feel like getting anything off your chest?”
  303.  
  304.     I’d never been formally asked that before, but I had definitely asked the same of Heba, even if indirectly. I leaned ungracefully on my side to get a little closer to her and I could see her ears perk up in response. I figured I should break the ice a little, “Oh, time for the patient to analyze the good doctor?” She suppressed a little chortle at that, probably not expecting it. She leaned back to whisper to me, “Yeah sure, I’ll be your therapist for tonight.” Getting into the act she flashed a bit of that confidence again, “So tell me Anon, when did you realize you wanted to sleep with your mother?”
  305.  
  306.     The Freudian view probably wasn’t the best route to take after… what we’ve been through. I wanted to say, “Come on, that’s not funny,” but I felt a different voice inside me. If I was afraid of a few crass jokes I might as well give up now. Fuck it. I pushed aside any past memories and tried to turn the tables on her. “I’ll talk about that when you tell me about your feelings for humans.” She sounded surprised by my audacity, which I couldn’t blame her for. I could hardly believe I said it myself. “Oh yeah, and what proof do you have for that claim?” She asked while flipping around to get a better look at me, smiling mischievously. I said the next bit as matter-of-factly as I could, “You’re in bed with one right now.”
  307.  
  308.     I nearly jumped when she put me in a headlock, just to give me a childish noogie. “You dumbass, I outta throw you out of here myself.” She barely restrained her voice, while I tried to wiggle out of her arms. It’s a miracle no one woke up from it.
  309.  
  310.     Reflecting on it now, I think I can gleam something else from the whole exchange. In that moment, I think I understood Heba a little better. I had literally just deflected the situation by joking about it. Even now, the thought of being… quite so intimate… it’s not pleasant. While I was just trying to hide my feelings, I think the method opened a more genuine connection with her by accident. That’s probably why we kept talking that night, not to mention staying in the same bunk.
  311.  
  312.     Once we had calmed down from the sudden action, Heba remained turned towards me. Though I kept my back to her. I’ve honestly been in that position so much lately, having someone against my back had me instinctively at ease. I could feel her slightly labored breathing against my ear when she spoke up again, giving another question in her fake doctor voice. “Well if you won’t tell me about that, tell me about your hopes and dreams and all that.” She obviously meant it as a joke, but it caused that bit of childish fun to abruptly fade for me. I had been focused on escape for so long, I hadn’t truly given any other ambitions much thought.
  313.  
  314.     I suppose that wasn’t entirely true though. A lot of my ambitions lately have been focused on them, out little group. I want to see them happy, they all deserve it. Especially their… my children. Those thoughts partially leaked out in my response through a contrastingly serious voice. “Right now… I guess I just want to see us make it through this, or at least be happy while we try…” I immediately regretted giving such a genuine answer, it sounded stupid. Instead of laughing however she spoke to me softly. “Hey, you make me happy enough to work on a damn fishing boat, so that’s worth something.”
  315.  
  316.     I felt her push against my back more. The motion reassured me she actually wanted to hear what I had to say. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but it felt good to have someone interested, so I confided an extra detail with her. “Thanks… but I’m afraid I can’t be there for everyone… I can’t make everyone happy.” The idea had been festering for a while, brought to the surface by this whole stupid bed dilemma. I owe so much to these people, and yet it’s impossible I could really repay all of them. The simple fact I couldn’t split myself between all these beds… It’s reminded me I can only spend so much time with everyone I want to.
  317.  
  318.     I guess the tables really were turned that night, because I felt the hyena’s spotted arms wrap around me. She sighed against me before speaking in an almost somber tone, “I’ve been there… I’ve let a lot of people down before.” Her voice picked up after that, sounding impossibly sweet coming from the normally facetious woman. “But if it means anything, I think you’ve got a better shot keeping everyone smiling than I do.” I gently pulled an arm out of her embrace to hold her back. “That’s not true, you’re always the one who can make a joke whenever things look terrible.” I could see her smile uncertainly, “Now you’re the one lying. I bet everyone wishes I would just shut up.”
  319.  
  320.     Seeing her ears pull back as she said that, I couldn’t stop myself from brushing my hand against her arm, feeling the coarse fur underneath. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I think I would have forgotten what fun was without you here. You’ve been especially great this whole trip, it’s hard to imagine they don’t feel the same.” She looked away from me to hide her face, but the sound of an inhale through a runny nose betrayed her feelings. She quivered slightly before speaking again. “You’re definitely a big liar, but I wouldn’t have you any other way.” I squeezed her back tighter, “Well it’s not a lie. I care about you.”
  321.  
  322.     We held each other like that for a long, long time. I could hear every deep shuddering breath she took grow calmer and calmer until she was snoring above me. In that moment of peace, I also found myself drifting off into sleep.
  323.  
  324.     Even with all our problems, things are still somehow working. Despite everything, we’re still together. I hope one day we can figure out how to keep living anywhere like this. Life on this boat isn’t perfect, but it’s proof we might be able to eke out some kind of coexistence after this. I may not be able to do everything I want to for these wonderful people, but I don’t think they’ll hold it against me.
  325.  
  326.     Yet again I’m writing late, nestled in a corner of the ship for some alone time. Well I think I’ve thought about it enough. Who cares what bed I end up in? It doesn’t mean I care any less or more about anyone than I did the day before. We’ve already put each other’s safety in each other’s hands more times than I can count. Looking back has made it clear to me. It doesn’t matter if I’m afraid to actually be valued, it’s their decision to put that faith in me. So I’ll shelf the drama for later. I should be showing my support however I can.
  327.  
  328. Really, if I can make anyone happier by going to bed earlier, I’m just being selfish by staying here any longer.
  329.  
  330. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  331.  
  332.     It’s happened. It’s actually happened. I can’t ignore the fact I’m really a father now.
  333.  
  334. The twins have hatched.
  335.  
  336.     It all happened earlier today. It’s been only a couple days since my last entry. I’ve had enough on my mind, that the tension of their hatching was at the back of my mind. Not gone, but I knew whether I was constantly fretting or not wouldn’t change their due date. Skylar, working indoors, was finding ways to stick around the sleeping quarters more often to keep an eye on them. Maybe I should have as well, but I almost feel like that would be overstepping my bounds. I probably should have at least offered anyway…
  337.  
  338.     Regardless I was working with Heba like usual in the middle of the day. It was grey out, cold winds and a little bit of powdery snow drifting across the deck. If there was one thing I could count on Heba for, it was her ability to not make work awkward and pretend our conversation a couple nights ago never happened. Mostly working in silence, the sounds of water and wind were interrupted by a shout from below deck. It was muffled at first, but Elizabeth popped out from underneath the deck, wavering her arms frantically. “It happened! It h-happened! Get over here!”
  339.  
  340.     My first thought was something bad happened, but my response wouldn’t have changed if I knew. I left a bewildered Heba to dash across the wood with the heavy thumps of my work boots. It was only after seeing the fact the sheep ahead of me was smiling I realized what I was currently frantically stomping towards. So, I lessened my pace to match Elizabeth’s as we drew near the beds. In a hoarse whisper I asked the ewe, “Are they okay?” She turned to answer me, but she was beat to it by the voice just ahead of us.
  341.  
  342.     “They’re a little big for larva, but I really only see one problem.” Skylar was sitting peacefully in one of the beds. Two somethings bundled in one of the thin blankets in her arms. The eggs that previously held them only hollow shells beside her. Her large yellow eyes were focused on the objects slightly moving in her grasp. Antennas arched low, almost draped over the bundles in her arms. I didn’t want to upset the serene scene, but I crept closer to ask her another question. “What’s the problem?” At first she didn’t say anything, she simply unwrapped one of the two snoozing shapes.
  343.  
  344.     I guess I can put any worries about half-human horrors to rest, because I saw exactly what Skylar described in her arms. Sort of like a large chubby white caterpillar… hardly human, but it looked healthy. Nothing strange as far as my limited knowledge could figure. The baby was sleeping, eyes shut and tiny limbs folded in, almost making them look like a neat pale pill. The little face on the fat body was still cute to me though, regardless of the species difference. However, as much as my eyes scanned the area, I couldn’t seem to find the problem she was talking about.
  345.  
  346.     The confusion must have been apparent on my face, because she gently rotated the pale sausage below her. “See? I wasn’t ready for this.” I scrutinized the little one’s sleeping back for a moment. It was perfectly smooth except for the small curve of baby fat. The most I could make out was a couple of evenly spaced dimples on the upper portion. I gingerly spoke up to her, trying to be as delicate as possible, “What, uh, what am I looking for exactly?” She kept her voice low, but her antennas twitched in frustration. “You furbrain, he’s gonna grow wings. He’s a boy. I didn’t come up with any boy names.”
  347.  
  348.     I breathed a sigh in relief. She really had me worried for a second. The problem was, what she said next stopped that same breath in my throat. “Did you have any names in mind?” I looked around the room to confirm she wasn’t talking to the sheep next to me. I caught Heba hesitantly poking her head through the door frame, but she definitely wasn’t being asked the question and the sheep next to me was looking up at me expectantly. Frozen in the spotlight, I mumbled an honest answer, “I’m n-not sure…” Skylar’s eyes trailed up to me before she paused a moment, evidently deep in thought. “Maybe… if you hold the little guy for a second, you’ll get some ideas.”
  349.  
  350.     She kept the girl close to her chest and delicately brought the sleeping boy up to me. Unconsciously I hid my face from everyone else in the room. I could feel a little extra moisture gather under my eyes. Species was irrelevant, I felt myself drawn to the little pill bug the second I cradled him in my arms. His texture was difficult to describe, smooth and soft, yet still a little stiffer than my own skin. I could feel the rise and fall of his sleepy breathing. He was my son.
  351.  
  352.     As I felt the radiant heat of the child in my arms, I couldn’t forget he had a sister. They were “The Twins” after all. Partially to get an idea for the name, but mostly out of curiosity I asked the obvious. “What name did you decide for her?” Expecting that same calm collectedness Skylar was emanating before, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I looked up. Her eyes were already just as watery as mine. It was a stiff contrast from her stoic expression before. “I went with Scarlett. That’s a pretty name, right?” I smiled wide even if tears were trailing their way down my cheeks. “It’s beautiful.”
  353.  
  354.     My mind was a mess in that moment. Feelings of regret for how these children came to be rushing against surges of pride that they were healthy and protected in that moment. A sense of urgency to get them far away from here to the safest place I could find, and contentment to keep him in my arms. The fear of having a life under my care, and the acceptance she had bestowed so much trust upon me.
  355.  
  356.     Through the tempest of emotions I filtered through my mind for a fitting name. John, Will, David, Henry… They didn’t mean much to me, so I kept looking, combing over old memories of obscure classmates and distant cousins to try and remember any interesting names. It was profoundly unsettling to suddenly dredge up as much of my past life as I could after suppressing it for so long, but I wasn’t going to stop. Finn, Matthew, Thomas… Among my mental search I was struck by a seemingly random memory. One of the few I had of my neighbor. He was an old Irish Wolfhound if there ever was, and he was telling me about his life before America. I was watching him tend to the tomatoes in his garden when he held one of the red spheres up to me, already in the middle of a story. “We called ‘im Flynn for his red hair. He was like a tomato, you never did see such a color on a man like him before!” It’s strange what you remember sometimes. I can’t recall if “Flynn” was a good friend or a bitter rival, but I remembered the name.
  357.  
  358.     I turned from my thoughts to the small sheep beside me. My heart was touched when I realized she was sniffling. She looked just as caught up in this whirlwind of emotions as we were. I spoke calmly and quietly, “Does… does the name ‘Flynn’ have anything to do with the color red?” She answered me softly between ragged breaths, “I u-uh, I t-think… t-t-think so? Or m-maybe it has so-something to do with fire?” I thought that might have been just as appropriate, we knew they were quite the little space heaters. It was then I was caught off guard by the ant beside me pulling my head towards her chest with her free arm. She burrowed her face right into my hair before speaking muffled through it. “You’re not very creative… but fine. Flynn it is.” It was only my first suggestion, but if she liked it, I was in no place to argue.
  359.  
  360.     I refrained from acknowledging how deeply entrenched Skylar was in my hair, instead letting both of us catch our breath for a moment. It took a while, feeling that gentle rocking from the river below us and the near silence of muted breathing between everyone there, but we got back a little composure. Once Skylar had tunneled her way out of the top of my head she breathed deeply with a little confidence. She spoke so quietly into my ear, I doubt even Elizabeth could hear her. “You’ll be there for little Flynn and Scarlett, right?” I may have been spinning through mental turmoil to speak before, but I didn’t hesitate for a moment to answer that question. “Yes. I, we… we’ll all be here for you.”
  361.  
  362.     The sheep besides me confirmed my point as she slowly asked a question, concern in her eyes. “Should I get them something to eat? What’s safe for them to eat?” Skylar puffed out her chest a little bit in response, even though she sounded exhausted. “Oh? I forgot mammal babies are such picky eaters. Well, these two look like 100% insects to me, so they won’t be so fussy.” She glanced over to the two discarded shells beside her. “Besides, they’ll be hungry for those when they first wake up.” Elizabeth seemed mildly concerned by the thought, but I was more than happy to hear the new problem was over before it began.
  363.  
  364.     Really, it’s a miracle Skylar’s the first to have kids. I’ve got less reason to argue with her species superiority rants, because the twins are miraculously low maintenance compared to any babies I’ve seen. I really could gush even more about when the two did eventually wake up. They both have big deep black eyes, but Skylar tells me the color will change with age like hers. They’re so small, and they’re not very good at moving around. Evidently larva are not made to get around, because they can only move inches at a time with little grunts and tiny noises… They’re absolutely adorable, I don’t care what species they are. Skylar’s even lifted her fur ban and let Elizabeth and Bon play around with them, even if they’re too young to really be interested in much more than eating and sleeping.
  365.  
  366.     But… I’d be remiss to leave a couple parts of the day out. Even if it’s getting late I don’t think I can skip the rest. It was before the two eventually woke up later today, the part I’m seriously considering writing about instead. I was still holding Flynn when I heard some commotion outside the entrance. Wanting to keep the sleeping boy nice and safe, I propped the little lad up and gestured him towards his mother. “I’ll go check it out. Can you hold him for a moment?” She didn’t need to say anything as she gently took him from me, cradling both her bundled babies once again.
  367.  
  368.     I might have forgotten Heba was there, or assumed that she left, but she must have been nearby the whole time. I would have expected her to say something. Only once I checked the noise I realized she was blocking the doorway, a swish of a fishy tail visible behind her. About as quiet as the loudmouth captain could be, she was arguing with Heba, “Half my crew is doing NOTHING, so why are you all insisting I be quiet when there’s work to be done?” Heba was practically snarling but she kept her voice as low as she could, “Just give ‘em a few more minutes, okay? That too much to ask?” The captain was clearly impatient and nearly at her limit, “You’ve been saying that for the past half hour, what’s my crew up to?”
  369.  
  370.     I could tell Heba was similarly ready to snap, so I pushed myself between them. “What’s going on?” That probably wasn’t the best choice of words as the captain’s feelers on her long nose drew up in indignance. “What’s going on? Yeah, I should be asking all of you that. We’re almost to North Dakota, you should all be getting back to work.” After looking fatherhood in the face like that, an angry sturgeon was manageable, even if she was my boss. I calmly put a finger to my lips and gestured for her to follow me. The captain let out a huff, but she played along and wordlessly trailed behind me. Heba seemed hesitant to let her pass, but she gave us just enough space in the thin hallway.
  371.  
  372.     I knew the captain was ready to smack me for being so tightlipped, but when she saw Skylar sitting in her bed with Elizabeth hovering close by, she let out a silent sight. “I er… forgot the lass was expecting so soon…” Just as quickly she walked with a huff back in the hallway with Heba. “Now, I know you want your tender moment, but the rest of you are going to have to get back to work. I can only afford to have one of you slacking.” I could hear the Hyena behind me let out a huff of frustration. She knew as well as I did that this ship hardly needed six crewman, we could afford to lose a few for a little bit.
  373.  
  374.     It turns out our thoughts were echoed by a pair of shadows coming down to see us. Forming a blockade in the thin hallway were Bon and Sandra. Sandra had her weighty arms crossed and Bon’s tail was swishing angrily. Sandra was the first to speak after their entrance, eyeing the captain with the sort of stare she would give me those first days I met her. “Give us all an hour, otherwise I’m quitting and letting this hunk of junk sink.” Bon let her claws come out before adding on, “You have done enough ‘oggling’, leave us be for a moment.” Even completely surrounded the captain kept her authoritative tone, “This is extortion!” Four pairs of eyes stared her down until she let her shoulders slump and finally relented. “Forty five minutes and not a second more, okay?” She pushed towards the exit, and the two impromptu guards let her slip by. The last thing I heard from her was a grumble, “This is why I never had any children…”
  375.  
  376.     In hindsight, we really shouldn’t have put ourselves on her bad side like that. Yet, I don’t regret it. I was proud to present the little ones to a curious Bon and the reserved Sandra. While Skylar had to gently scold the curious cat away for wanting to get too hands-on with the newborns, I found I was having the exact opposite issue with Sandra. I had to invite her over to even take a look at them, seeing as she refused to intrude “if it bothered her.” Of course Skylar had no problem with it, but she still kept herself to distant glances. It took a lot of coaxing, but I even got Elizabeth to take Flynn in her arms for a second. Just short enough that Skylar wouldn’t wake them up talking about how she doesn’t want them touching too much hair.
  377.  
  378.     The whole thing, it was a lot nicer than I imagined. We could have been caring for these two in the frosted woods or a back alley… It’s even possible none of us could have ever seen these two if things had gone just a little differently when we first met. But as much as I want to appreciate how well things went today, that’s not entirely true.
  379.  
  380.     If I’m being honest the confrontation with Captain Kalmon wasn’t really the bad part. Maybe it should be higher on my list of priorities, but it’s been on my mind less.
  381.  
  382.     Almost everyone else was gone then. We only had a few minutes left of our miniscule maternity leave when Heba left the shadows of the hallway. The way she walked, she was so devoid of her usual confidence. It wasn’t hard to tell it was difficult for her. By that time I was holding Scarlett and Skylar was cradling Flynn again. Heba nearly tiptoed up to me before whispering from a few feet away, “Are you… sure you want me anywhere near them?” I tilted the bundled bug towards her before answering. “Yes, I trust you.” She crept up to me slowly, acting as if there was an invisible barrier between her and the baby in my arms.
  383.  
  384.     She glanced down from a small distance before speaking. “Oh… she’s kind of cute. If you like giant maggots.” I felt my heart sink as she laughed nervously. It was almost as if she was trying to swallow the noises coming from her throat, but they kept spurting out. “No I, I didn’t mean that. I…” Heba looked around the room with wide eyes before darting out to the hallway again, hiding her face. She didn’t even stop there, she just kept moving out of sight without another word.
  385.  
  386.     Standing there with my child in my arms like that, I was hit with a familiar feeling. My stomach twisted as I realized I couldn’t both check on her and cradle Scarlett like this. Once again, the awful feeling of having to choose crept into my veins. Thinking quickly but moving gently, I turned to Skylar to do damage control. “I’m s-sure she didn’t mean that… Heba has some issues with children an-” I was cut-off however, by a gentle chitinous finger to my lips. She took Scarlett from my arms before speaking, “Go on. She’s a real fuzzer sometimes, but I know you need to help her. I’ll be fine” I thanked her profusely, but it didn’t stop me from looking back at her longingly. Was I already a shitty father for leaving them like that? I’d be leaving soon enough to get back to work anyway, but it still felt wrong.
  387.  
  388.     As I headed outside to find the Hyena, it turned out I didn’t have to look far. She was huddled against the wall, just barely out of sight from the sleeping quarters. It looked like she hadn’t actually run that far. Her face was firmly buried in her arms, so I did my best to gently shake her shoulder. She didn’t seem to have the strength to push me away when her hands fell from her head, revealing the dark tear-soaked trails of fur around her eyes. The scene was disturbingly reminiscent of the last time we were in FFI hands.
  389.  
  390.     I didn’t even get the chance to say something before she spoke up in a quivering voice. “I messed it up again, I fucking mess everything up.” I spoke to her gently, as low as I could. “I’m not going to lie, you didn’t do yourself any favors…” My choice of words felt tough, but I needed to get her attention. “But it’s not too late, if you come back in and apologize, everything will be fine.” In response Heba motioned to slam the wall behind her, but stopped last second. I think she knew as well as I did that might wake up the twins not too far away. Instead she simply groaned in frustration, “That’s wrong though, you know as damn well as I do that everything won’t be fine after. I sure as hell will have the same fucking problems I do now.” While I considered what I could possibly say next, I was saved by a familiar face fast approaching.
  391.  
  392.     With a reach of her feline hand, Bon held Heba’s limp hand in her own. The hyena looked up in shock as the lion held her firmly. Bon spoke slowly, “Listen to him, you can only improve yourself one step at a time.” I had to stop myself from marveling at Bon’s labored display of English, doing her best to remove any accent with the deliberately slowed pace. Not wanting Heba to fully flashback, I held her other hand firmly. “We’re here for you. Please… please follow us back to Skylar.” Heba didn’t say anything, but she gripped our hands back and followed our lead. Gingerly, we walked step by step with her back to the little room full of our beds.
  393.  
  394.     Skylar was preoccupied adjusting the makeshift blanket wrapping on Flynn when we came back in. Not even close yet, Heba wasted no time to speak through the silent pauses of sobs. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I d-d-didn’t mean what I said… I just have trouble l-looking at… at…” Skylar was oblivious to what was happening when she started to remark, “Heba? You’re sounding an awful lot like Eliza-” However she stopped midsentence when she looked up to see all of us. I also realized that unlike Me and Bon, she had never seen Heba this broken-up before. She studied the scene for a second before continuing, “It’s uh, it’s okay. I’m sure if both Anon and Bon think you didn’t mean it then it was just a slip of the tongue. Okay? I’m not holding it against you.”
  395.  
  396.     Heba let the faintest bit of restrained laughter squeak out as she let go of our hands. “Thank you, really… thank you. I think I’ll leave you to it now.” I instinctively reached out as Heba fled for real this time, even if she did so more composed than last time. Bon watched my hand grasp uselessly at air before speaking to me quickly. “You can stay, I will comfort her.” I moved in front of her before she could rush off as well. “Are you sure… do you really want to do that with the uh, ‘the spotted one?’” She quickly ran an arm against my back as she answered, “We are together in this, you have taught me this.” Just like that, the lioness was out, leaving me with the bewildered ant.
  397.  
  398.     I did my best to explain the situation a little more thoroughly to Skylar. I briefly recapped what really happened that night we were captured… I don’t think I need to write that down for a second time. Skylar didn’t speak for much of my explanation, she simply nodded thoughtfully while clutching the twins. She only spoke up to make one comment during my summary, “I… I really should have figured out you didn’t get those bandages from the driver.” She seemed to be embarrassed by the realization, slowly rubbing an antenna.
  399.  
  400.     Once I had finished, she told me, “I’ll… try to go easier on her.” Time had dragged on, and I didn’t want the captain hollering her way in here, so I started to say my goodbyes. Skylar wasn’t done however. She moved the sleeping children more into her lap to grab my arm with a free hand. “No really… we’re really lucky to have made it through this as well as we have. I can’t imagine how hard it is for her.” I held her arm for a moment. “We’ve all got problems. But I’m glad you’re doing your best.” She smiled the way she does before yawning. “I might take a quick nap like these two, so don’t worry yourself. Get back to work before we have to walk the plank.”
  401.  
  402.     So, I left. I sneaked back a bit later to have the aforementioned playdate, but I suppose that’s not pressingly important to write down. I really don’t want to spend all night writing like this, I’d love to spend more time with everyone. I think the two new arrivals have actually strengthen group ties a bit. I’m sure even if no one has said it, their apparent health has reduced the tension a little. The only one who might not be feeling this is Heba.
  403.  
  404.     I didn’t see much of Heba for the rest of today. I did see Bon an hour later though. She told me “She is in need of a little time of her own.” And I’ll give her that time, as much as I worry about her. Because just like me, she’s going to have to show up to the crew quarters later tonight.
  405.  
  406. And I’ll be sure to greet her with a smile when she does.
  407.  
  408. We’re all in this together.
  409.  
  410. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  411.  
  412.     It’s been a few days since my last entry. What can I say? I’ve been pretty busy lately. Even if I’ve got plenty on my mind, there’s not enough time to sit down and write about it. I’m still doing extra work around here to make up for strong-arming the captain last time we were all together. The majority of what little time I have left is spent with the twins.
  413.  
  414.     I’ve had my reservations, but Skylar seems more than happy to let me see them. The two still sleep most of the day, but I try to be there when they’re awake. Skylar has been taking longer “breaks” from work to take care of them, and surprisingly she seems to be getting away with them. Especially when, officially, we don’t seem to have any breaks to begin with. Mercifully even if they did wake up unattended, the pill-bugs can’t seem to fight their ways out of a swaddling blanket. So we’ll make do without a crib.
  415.  
  416.     I wasn’t around for it, but Elizabeth says she helped Flynn with his first meal… She didn’t sound jazzed about the idea of feeding him a discarded egg casing, but she managed to keep the smile on while explaining it. It’s incredibly nice to see how eager she is to help with them. Although, it seems like she’s got as much to learn about them as I do. Skylar told me one time that Elizabeth mentioned the possibility of giving them milk. Oh, Skylar looked absolutely disgusted as she told me, “Milk? That gross stuff that oozes out of mammals?” With a whip of her antennas she had her feelers standing proudly as she continued, “No, these two will love a little mashed fish. We’re a flexible people! We’ll make do with what’s available!” Her statement was undercut by the chubby little babies drooling complacently in her arms, but that didn’t stop me from agreeing with her.
  417.  
  418.     True to her word, I’ve helped process some of the catch to make them easier for the little ones to chew on. I can’t say I’d eat the resulting pink paste, but hey, I wouldn’t eat most baby food, so I guess it’s fine. We don’t exactly have real baby supplies, but I’ve taken turns with her spooning a bit of the briny pulp into their hungry mouths with one of the plastic utensils we have. The two can really eat too. Skylar says it’s because “they’ve gotta grow big and strong,” while Elizabeth theorizes it might have something to do with their warm blood. As long as it keeps them healthy, they could eat a whole tuna for all I care. Someone who does care however, is the captain.
  419.  
  420. Like I already touched on, I’m still trying to work a little longer than I have to. I don’t want to force anyone else to put in hours for good favor, so I’m in it alone. Recently, the captain has even started working closer with me in the later hours. She told me it’s to keep a closer eye on me, but a lack of supervision didn’t seem to bother her before.
  421.  
  422.     It was late one night, while I was moving crates of random stuff she had picked up a few days ago, when she brought the baby food issue up. As I hoisted another wooden container in the air, she spoke up from the corner she was leaning against. “You know, I spotted you messing around in the kitchen yesterday.” I may have been caught off guard, but my preoccupation with not dropping the crate kept me from showing it as much. “What did I do?” I gave my response without much thought, a tendency after working long enough.
  423.  
  424.     She gave me a glare with some difficulty through her long snout. “I saw you cutting a bit of my catch into tiny pieces, only to smash ‘em. The damn thing was a mess by the time you were done!” I hadn’t even thought about it until then, but I suppose that technically was stealing. I tried to sound apologetic. “I’m sorry, Skylar’s kids eat it that way.” Her expression changed, but to what exactly, was difficult to read. “You playing nanny for her boy?” With a grunt I dropped the crate in the pile she wanted. “Anything wrong with helping a baby out?” She responded exactly how I expected for that one. “There is when it’s my fish you’re using!”
  425.  
  426.     I moved over the short distance to grab another piece of cargo while she resumed her glare. “And don’t act like I don’t know that same bug friend of yours is taking extra time off of work.” I was weighing whether to make an excuse or not answer at all when she moved from her perch. In an instant she closed the small gap to get closer and lean in. “You got some sway with those girls, right?” Her tone was difficult to interpret. No matter what, I didn’t like the implications. It didn’t help my struggling train of thought when I felt a hard hand against my back, almost causing me to drop what I was holding in surprise.
  427.  
  428.     She had an almost obnoxious grin when I turned around, “Tell ‘em to hold those kids in a little longer! It’s not like they even have pay for me to dock.” I forced a shaky smile. Even if I was a little pleased she had diffused the tension somewhat, I was having trouble processing what was happening. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t worry about it…” The captain wasn’t so convinced by my answer though, “You have seen that cat, right? She looks likes she’s smuggling a beach ball with her wherever she goes!”
  429.  
  430.     Her little joke made me realize I had been ignoring the obvious. I guess I just assumed no one would be having kids nearly as early as Skylar, but it’s easy to forget Bon had a lead on everyone else. Something I’m surprised I could ever forget. In that moment though, I didn’t have to dwell on the subject because she got my attention again. “I can tell by your face I must’ve struck a nerve there.” I tried to salvage the situation while lugging the crate, “No, it’s nothing Kalmon, uh captain.” She turned away from me then, turning to the view outside a tiny porthole. “Please. You can just call me Olivia. Or Liv. I think you’ve earned that much taking on the extra work lately.”
  431.  
  432.     Seeing the captain act the most open she had ever been with me, I could only mumble in surprise, “Oh, okay. I can do that…” She had a more genuine smile tucked underneath her long nose. “Calm down there. You’re working for room and board already, so I think your extra work covers the smashed fish. Just be sure to warn me next time you start massacring the catch.” I laughed a little at that. The way she was always watching us I never expected her to say that. “Thanks capt- … Liv.” I corrected myself as I tried to show how much it meant to me.
  433.  
  434.     It looked like she wanted to say something, but she stopped herself. Instead she brought her volume back to her usual yell, “Now don’t go getting as mushy as your baby food on me, you’ve still got work to do! And I expect you to finish fast enough I can get some sleep!” Just like that, it was back to work like usual. Acting like our little exchange never really happened.
  435.  
  436.     Still, it’s eased one of the troubles on my mind. It’s not like I really know a lot more about her, but I’m more confident she’s not going to turn us over to the police or spread word about us. Now I only have to worry about what the hell we’ll do in the snowy upper reaches of North Dakota, transporting the twins safely, not to mention four pregnant women, and making an entirely new life beyond the border.
  437.  
  438.     It’s overwhelming to say the least, but so has almost everything else we’ve faced so far. Once we get off this boat, it’s just one last push until we’re out of the country. We have to hope that also means being safe from the FFI… Despite the odds, I have to believe we can do it. We’re not just survivors sticking together for safety anymore. The care I’ve seen since the twins have hatched, I have to believe we all want the best for each other. I’d say my recent talk with Heba has helped solidify that idea for me.
  439.  
  440.     It happened the same night I last wrote in here. That night I didn’t work overtime, instead I went straight to bed with the two newborns. Of course they were already asleep by the time I climbed in, and they remained asleep by the time I woke up, but I had to be there for them. It felt like Skylar had been through too much that day to put up a fuss, so she simply let me jump in with her without a word. Even Bon seemed to respect the moment and refrained from another late night abduction. That night was especially peaceful and calm for once, but I still had something bothering me.
  441.  
  442.     Heba was delaying coming down, likely hoping I’d already be asleep by the time she showed up. I knew her plan wouldn’t work though, I’d learned enough from these girls about waiting for someone to arrive. So while Skylar fell into her warmth coma with the twins and me heating her bed, I held the little sleeping ones and waited. I thought about rocking them slowly, but I figured they were already asleep, and the gentle motions of the river below us combined with the rise and fall of my chest were enough. Strange little thoughts like, “Does Skylar’s chest move a little when she breathes, or is it my imagination?” and “If the twins are dreaming, what could newborns have to dream about?” flitted through my head as I stayed awake.
  443.  
  444.     Sometimes I think the only clock on this boat is the captain’s watch, so I can only guess how long I stayed like that. I was on the verge of falling asleep myself when I finally heard creeping footsteps nearby. A glance outside my bunk confirmed it, that was definitely Heba’s shadow tiptoeing her way into the room. Before she could slip into somewhere to sleep, I rose out of bed to greet her. I felt like a stereotypical soap opera mother holding the children while the father came home late. But a bit of discomfort wasn’t going to stop me from talking to her. However, I was so deep in thought about how to go about talking to her, I approached her more silently than I meant to. Heba nearly jumped back in surprise.
  445.  
  446.     She responded in a hoarse whisper, “Woah, woah, I already said I was sorry!” I tried to recover from my abrupt entrance as quickly as I could. “No… it’s not about that. I just wanted to talk.” To my surprise Heba let out a little huff, “You sound like my old parole officer…” Once she realized I was holding the twins neatly bundled in my arms, she looked shaken. “Can’t you like, put them down with Skylar or something?” That was my opportunity. I had a rough idea of what I wanted to do when she came back, and I had to do it before she could back out.
  447.  
  448.     Holding the two in my arms, I pushed them out from my chest a little before speaking as gently as I could. “I want you to hold one of them.” Even in the dim light I could see Heba’s eyes darting around the room as she nervously shifted between a forced smile and a sincere frown. She spoke uncertainly, “You’re joking, r-right?” I remained adamant through the softest voice I could manage, “It was just a little accident… it’s not like these two can hold your words against you.” The hyena anxiously rubbed the back of her head as she responded. “Will it… make things even between the two of us?”
  449.  
  450.     My expression probably faltered once I heard what she said. “This isn’t about getting even. I just think it will do you a lot of good to hold them for a second.” Heba looked away for a moment as she thought about it. She was nervously tapping a foot against the ground. Slowly, she twisted her head back down to what was in my arms. “I only have to hold one of them?” I couldn’t help but stifle a small chuckle at her reluctance. After what we’ve already been through, holding Flynn or Scarlett seemed so easy. I immediately resumed my previous composure however. I wasn’t the one with a baby inside, so I couldn’t belittle her perspective so quickly.
  451.  
  452.     I spoke again as seriously as I could without waking anyone up. “You don’t HAVE to do anything. I’m just asking you to trust me about this.” I think my choice of words worked, because she gingerly stretched out an arm. I delicately lowered one of the bundled babies towards her, nearly expecting her to flinch in response. I was pleasantly proven wrong though, as she let me place the wrapped infant in her grasp. Almost instinctively she pulled the little one closer to her chest.
  453.  
  454.     While she stared down at the life in her arms with wide eyes, I put on my best professional voice. “Now as your therapist, I must ask how this makes you feel.” While I had meant to lighten the mood, I could only hear Heba start to sniffle in response. I waited in near silence until she spoke through a runny nose with a surprisingly steady voice, “Which uh, which one am I holding anyway?” I was happy just to hear her interested, “It’s not that hard to check, just flip the little sausage over to check their back.” Even if she looked like she was holding back tears, the hyena looked straight at me just to give me an incredulous look. “Little sausage? You’re way more into this dad-thing than I thought.”
  455.  
  456.     While she delicately rolled the pale bug over, I answered her honestly. “Hey, I just learned how to even tell these two apart earlier today. You have to check for a couple little dimples on the upper back.” She made her inspection slowly before responding, “I’m not seeing anything.” I looked over myself to confirm her observation, “Well that must be Scarlett then.” She rolled her back upright before speaking up again. “Why exactly did you want me to hold her anyway?”
  457.  
  458.     I had to take a deep breath before answering her, seeing as I wasn’t even fully sure at the time. “I guess I just wanted you to feel it. I didn’t think I was ready to hold a child, let alone a different species, and yet my fear seems to dissolve when I hold them. I figured, maybe, you might feel the same thing.” Heba was intently staring at the baby while I spoke, her expression seemingly having trouble conveying the variety of emotions the situation brought out in her.
  459.  
  460.     I think if I was a real therapist I’d have my license taken away for going out on a limb like that, but it’s not like it was a total shot in the dark. I know Heba, I’ve gotten to be around her on the run, riding in that old van, and now as a coworker. I know she puts on a tough front, but deep down she’s endearingly immature. I think that’s exactly why she’s had the most trouble adapting to what our lives have become. That doesn’t matter though, because I trust her. Enough to let her hold my child… And hopefully let her know even when it comes to children, we have each other for support.
  461.  
  462.     In that long silent moment, in near darkness, I caught the glint of a small toothy smile. She still spoke somewhat uncertain, but with a hint of joy, “It’s uh, it’s not that bad…” She held little Scarlett closer for a moment before pushing her back to me. “I think that’s enough for me…” I was proud she even held her in the first place, so I scooped her back up with a smile. “You’re a natural.” I whispered. She managed a small laugh while sounding disbelieving, "Quit it, that’s not true.” I turned around to place the babies back with their similarly peacefully dozing mother. That’s when I felt something behind me.
  463.  
  464.     I almost thought Bon had woken up, because I felt a strong grip on my back, rough fur against my skin. Even with Heba right by my ear, I could barely hear her. “You know things would be easier if you just gave up on me.” She said it like a joke, but it was obvious there was some genuine sentiment behind her words. I couldn’t just ignore that. “I’d never do that, even after all this time, it means a lot that you would spend any time with me.” She held me tighter after that, simply breathing deeply for a second.
  465.  
  466.     Eventually, she let go. I had put her through enough for the night, so I broke the silence, “It’s getting late, we should get some sleep for tomorrow.” As I slid into the bed with my children, I heard Heba speak up delicately one more time. “…Got any room in there for one more?” Honestly, even with Skylar’s small size, we really didn’t. However, I couldn’t refuse her. I pushed the bundled kids between me and the sleeping Skylar. I knew the ant would resist if she was awake, but I know she wouldn’t want to turn the hyena down deep underneath what she might have said. I answered her softly, “Sure, we’ve got more room.”
  467.  
  468.     She didn’t waste a second. Soon I was awkwardly sandwiched between the two. Despite the initial discomfort, the softness of the twins and… well, Heba’s softness pressed against my back, had me feeling ready to pass out. I was almost sure Heba would crack a joke at the odd situation, but instead she stayed nuzzled against my back, eyes on the small sleeping forms feet away from her. Soft breathing causing the hair on the back of my head to ruffle.
  469.  
  470.     That night, I felt unusually content. That knot of tension I had before, the same one that formed when I desperately wanted to comfort Heba while my own children remained out of reach, the thought I could never truly make everyone happy… it started to fade. Even if things could be rough, maybe I could at least settle a small victory for everyone in the end.
  471.  
  472.     Before I knew it, I was waking up to a new morning. I anticipated a huff from Skylar, but Heba had already gotten up early. I can’t blame her for not wanting to be seen like that. So mercifully there wasn’t any arguments, just a sweet morning with the twins.
  473.  
  474.  
  475.     The more I think about it, those two children have been the center of things lately. Not just for me, Bon likes to make little visits and Sandra always checks in to make sure there’s no problems. It’s hard to say there’s ever an issue, the two don’t even cry as far as I can tell. I suppose that’s a blessing, but it makes it hard to read them sometimes.
  476.  
  477.     It reminds me of a conversation I had with Elizabeth, so I might as well write about it. She’s been so sweet helping Skylar out. At the time we were covering for Skylar, seeing as she couldn’t get off of work all the time or risk putting her in hotter water with the captain. The twins were unwrapped and contently laid back on one of the beds, occasionally peering around curiously at their surroundings. Elizabeth was trying to use some fishing lure she found as a baby toy at the time, but neither seemed very interested. That’s when I absentmindedly commented, “Hard to tell what they’re thinking sometimes, right?”
  478.  
  479.     The puffy sheep sympathized with what I said as she fruitlessly wiggled the bright piece of plastic. They seemed far more interested in the dull blanket underneath them. She finally let out a little puff of air before giving up and lowering the makeshift toy. “I used t-to babysit, and I wa-was sure that would work…” I simply shrugged my shoulders, “Were they insects?” She deflated a little in response, “N-no, I guess not.” I put an arm on her shoulder to reassure her, “I didn’t mean it like that, it’s great you actually want to help. I just think we’re both a little out of our depth here.” She perked up in response, but still seemed uncertain, “I didn’t r-really think they would be tha-that different.”
  480.  
  481.     I couldn’t help but sigh. I know I was writing about how much I love these two babies a little bit ago, but my worries about species differences haven’t totally vanished. In the moment I let a little of that insecurity show, “They’re still babies, just… a little different. Sometimes it makes me wonder if I’m doing this right. I think I could accidentally hold one of them upside down and they wouldn’t even cry if it bothered them. Skylar would probably call it ‘Insect Resilience,’ but it bothers me.” To my surprise, Elizabeth twisted her hand onto mine, still against her shoulder. She was staring in the distance as she spoke surprisingly clearly, “But you still love them, right?”
  482.  
  483.     I gripped her hand tighter. “Of course, of course I love these two.” She answered me with a turn of her head up at me, a bright smile apparent on her face. “Isn’t t-that all that matters?” As the days go by her optimism is one of the things keeping me going. It’s such a sweet way to look at things. I smiled right back at her, “I’ll try to think about it that way.” I expected to keep watch in silence after that, but it looked like the little ewe still had something on her mind. After a pause she spoke up, “Do you lo-love… m… I… all of u-us?” Her smile had fallen into a concerned look, so I bent down to get closer to her.
  484.  
  485.     Her pale face made it impossible to hide her blush, but I tried not to act like I had noticed. “We’ve all been through a lot together. Even if we don’t show it, I like to think we all love each other like some kind of weird family.” It felt like she was gripping my hand with all her might at that point while she looked down in thought. I waited patiently until she looked back up at me again. “W-well, don’t worry ab-about it, because… be-because I love you!” She breathed heavily for a moment before continuing in a rapid-fire pace, “J-Just like ev-everyone else, I’m s-sure, we all l-like you…”
  486.  
  487.     I couldn’t fault her for falling apart like that, I wanted to just hearing her say she cared about me. It’s horrendous that I even ended up kidnapped like these people, but I’m one lucky bastard to have so much acceptance. I lowered my arm to give her a little one armed hug, and it calmed her down. Even if she remained a little antsy until the ant herself came back to relieve her of her post, she seemed content to sit and watch them without speaking for a while.
  488.  
  489. I wasn’t planning on writing this much tonight, but I feel like I need to preserve something Sandra told me that resonated with me. One last thing to jot down before I head back to bed, whichever one it may be.
  490.  
  491.     It was near dusk, tail-end of the workday for most. Although I still a bit longer to go after hours with the captain. Being above deck, it was readily apparent how far winter was progressing. I think it’s technically fall on the calendars, but this far north those rules don’t apply. Light dusty snowfalls were starting to frost the ground enough to give everything a coating of white. Paper-thin chunks of ice could be seen breaking off the river banks and floating alongside the ship. I wasn’t the only one watching however, as I spotted Sandra leaning over the railing. She still had her toolbox, but clearly she wasn’t in any rush to use it at the time.
  492.  
  493.     When I passed by, I tried to strike up conversation with usual like her, but I was distracted by how she looked almost entranced by the river. Still, I managed to speak, “How’s the day treating you Sandra?” She didn’t look up from the water to answer me, “Could be worse I guess.” I responded by leaning over the rail with her, “Something interesting down there?” She kept her gaze fixed on the gently rolling river while she spoke wistfully, “No, I was just thinking.” I followed her line of sight to the little waves of the water beneath us, rippling in the wake of our ship.
  494.  
  495.     She glanced over at me for a brief second before looking back down. She must have noticed my interest, because she kept talking. “Thinking about something my pops told me. I can’t remember it exactly, but he compared life with a river. How it changes and all that, but it’s still the same water, coasting along.” She managed a weak smile that still showcased her sharp teeth, “Sometimes I still find it hard to believe I was the one fixing radiators that summer, feels like an old story I might have overhead now, something someone else did. Not me.”
  496.  
  497.     Even if I related, I had to say something seeing her look so melancholy. “I get that… but those memories are still a part of us. Even if we can’t go back, I feel like forgetting all of it lets them win in a way.” She pondered for a little after I said that, but her wry smile grew a little wider when she responded. “That’s one hell of a way of looking at it, but I can’t fault you. I’m over here sympathizing with water, because just like us, this stuff’s been rolling over miles and miles, but it’s still the same stuff. No matter how choppy the water gets.” She gathered herself before patting me on the back probably as gently as she could. “That’s enough of that, I’ve got work I should be doing.”
  498.  
  499.     What she said has been on the back of my mind lately. At the moment I didn’t think much of it, but it’s grown on me. Even if we’ve all been a little mixed up through all this, we’re still the same people.
  500.  
  501.     I think I might join Bon tonight, she’s been a little lonely looking since I’ve been watching over the twins lately. I’m sure Skylar won’t complain about more bed space for a night.
  502.  
  503. I really do have a lot of catching up to do with everyone. So I think catching up with this wad of crumpled papers can wait.
  504.  
  505. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  506.  
  507.         It’s been a while. For a second I thought I didn’t even bring this notebook with me. It’s nice to be on land again for once though. Even if I remember the dodgy heating of that boat fondly, the warmth of this fire is difficult to beat. It’s been a long time, but I don’t mind being on watch again. So like old times, I’ve got an abundance of time to write while everyone else gets some shut eye. I figure for tonight, I’ll start from the beginning. Really, I should be thankful for how well things went.
  508.  
  509.         It was earlier today we made our departure… So about 4 days since my last entry. We’d been climbing North Dakota for a while, so it wasn’t necessarily a surprise when we left, but it’s also not like we had a map to know exactly when the day would arrive. For once, we had time to get ready for the next leg of our journey. While I was mentally preparing myself to get back to hiking, everyone else was preparing in their own ways.
  510.  
  511.     Bon was trying to get a routine of stretches at night for the return of long days of walking. Even if she had lost a lot of her dexterity she was adamant about doing them. I’d try to join in some nights and keep her from occasionally losing her balance. Elizabeth, working in the kitchen, would pinch her nose and hide away a bit of the food for us in her ever-expanding wool. Skylar was getting creative modifying her previous egg-papoose into something that could hold the twins comfortably. I spotted Sandra frequently toying with that worn plastic compass. And even Heba, despite her recent mellowing has been as bold as ever by trying to pilfer a small item no one would miss here and there. Something I didn’t encourage, but it was nice to see how proud she was presenting the odd utensil or unidentifiable metal object.
  512.  
  513.     As weird as it is to think, it was actually pretty nice during those days. I guess we never really had an opportunity to prepare for the next hurdle, so time went pretty smoothly despite the obvious trial ahead of us. Spirits unusually high for a group blindly wandering into Canada. As it turns out though, we’ve got a little bit more of a plan than our initial one. The idea beforehand was and still might be to cross the border and hope we got lucky enough to hit a small town. One where no would recognize us and hopefully with enough work we could try to survive. However, we had nothing but a whole lot of determination to really make that idea happen. That changed the night before we left.
  514.  
  515.     That night I decided not to work overtime, instead going to bed with everyone else. However, it seems like we were all a little restless. In the cramped space of the sleeping quarters, Bon was happily stretching in ways only a cat can, although noticeably hampered by her changing shape. With nothing better to do, I joined her and attempted to mimic her movements, even if it was hard to tell what was intentional and what was accidental. Elizabeth exhausted what was left of the floorspace by joining in on the impromptu yoga class. I had to move my legs delicately not to push against anyone. Skylar and Sandra seemed content to watch us act like fools. Heba was doing her best not to laugh when I caught the eager lioness from slipping during a particularly deep bow.
  516.  
  517.     That didn’t stop her from calling out, “Careful where you’re grabbing mister!” I was too busy helping her up to acknowledge it, but what did get a reaction out of me was the tail wrapped around my leg. It’s recovering owner spoke back to the Hyena, “Do not scold him for helping an unfortunate woman up.” While at first I thought it might have something to do with her balance, the fact she kept the tail there once she was back on her feet told another story. As I tried to wiggle my leg free, Elizabeth piped up from below, “Could y-you move over a l-little?” I twisted back around to see her fighting for space in the corner, so I awkwardly maneuvered out of the way.
  518.  
  519.     I nearly fell over trying to make space, which even got Sandra laughing from her perch atop one of the bunks. Despite being a good deal smaller, I felt Elizabeth pulling at my back to try and help me right myself. The unexpected motion caused me to twist more than get back upright, nearly taking the tail-tied cat down with me. Sandra called out surprisingly excitedly, “You get him girl!” while we desperately tried to stop looking like we were playing a game of twister. Skylar simply facepalmed while cradling the kids, no doubt a comment about “damn fuzzers” rolling through her mind. Still, it looked like she was having fun watching the commotion. Even I was having fun just seeing everyone so carefree for a change.
  520.  
  521.     Of course, all good things have to end. With a muffled shout from the captain, we all scrambled to look slightly more presentable. It was rare she ever came down to see us like that, and it was never to bring good news. Kalmon looked a little perplexed as she entered, she might have even though we were dancing with the commotion, but that didn’t stop her from trying to sound professional. “Now we’ve gotta talk. We’re nearing as far north as I ever planned on taking this ship, and from what I hear, you’ll all be wanting to leave soon. Is that right?” Sandra flexed her nearly forgotten leadership position by speaking first. “Where exactly would you be dropping all of us off?”
  522.  
  523.     Kalmon didn’t answer right away, rather stroking her chin for a moment before speaking. “We’ve still got some details to figure out, but I don’t want to be speaking to six people at once. So, Sandra and Anon, follow me up deck.” Both the lion and the sheep pressed against me due to space seemed to sigh with disappointment as they let me go. However, Sandra was already back to business. She wiped the grin off her face quickly and grabbed my shoulder. “Come on, no need to keep her waiting.” She told me that in a flat voice, urging me to slip through and follow the two up above.
  524.  
  525.     It was dark outside, little more to see than the drifting snow visible between the dim lights of the boat. Might not have even been that late, seeing that the sun was starting to set earlier and earlier. It was cold too, even with our thick “uniforms,” I could feel the chill breeze against my face and see my breath in front of me. We followed the captain into her normally private section of the ship, the little booth holding the controls. I brushed by her hammock and noticed how deeply Sandra was returning to her stern demeanor. I couldn’t blame her, the time to talk business was now. How we settled things could seriously impact our chances of success.
  526.  
  527.     Once again, Sandra took charge as she broke the ice, “What exactly are we deciding here?” The captain sighed before answering, “Well for one, you’ve got a couple choices on where I let you off. Mainly if you want to be as close to Canada as I can bring you, the middle of nowhere, or further away but at some kind of real port.” Sandra looked to me for my opinion, but it wasn’t a difficult choice. The last thing we wanted was to be found, and the less distance we had to walk, the better. “I think the first option is better.” I added, trying to make it sound like I actually had to think about it. The shark beside me was probably thinking the same thing, “We’ll make do.”
  528.  
  529.     The captain had a small smile under her aquatic whiskers after that. “Well, I suppose I can’t back out of this now….” Sandra reacted quickly, “Back out of what?” The fishy woman took a deep breath, “Look, I’ve done my best not to ask questions, but I’ve been trying to figure out how a group like you ends up where you are.” I could almost feel Sandra tense up next to me as she said that. Knowing her, she must have been seriously considering her old “take over the boat ourselves,” plan. We both listened intently beyond the muffled sound of water breaking beneath us when she continued.
  530.  
  531.     She sounded like a detective listing off her clues, “Now I know all of you had or have kids, and it sure wasn’t your humie boy who did it. It’s none of my business, but all of you have been scared to even set foot off this boat whenever I dock her.” She leaned against her chair now, hand on her chin. “I’d like to imagine all of you ran away from some gang, maybe even the cartel. Would explain why all of you seem to look up the lad as much you do while running as far north as you can get.” I tried to keep my face neutral as she spoke. I was torn whether to encourage her shot in the dark or deny it. Sandra however, was straight to the point. “And what exactly does this have to do with what we were talking about?”
  532.  
  533.     The captain sounded like she had mock-regret as she spoke, “Well if you all are really a bunch of victims working without pay, I really can’t just dump you off in the slopes and snow to die.” Sandra looked ready to interject, but the captain kept talking. “So it looks like I’ll have to give all of you some severance pay.” Sandra watched with a glare while she continued in a disappointed tone. “I’ll have to let you keep your uniforms, even if they cost me a pretty penny. Even a bit of my catch to last you and a map or two. Really, I may not even break even at this rate.” I could feel Sandra’s tail rising as she continued her list, nearly lifting me as well in the tight space.
  534.  
  535.     I could tell just from that she was overjoyed to hear this, but she certainly wasn’t showing it on her face. Sandra simply spoke flatly, “I think that will work in our interests.” I had a harder time hiding it though, “Thank you Liv, it means a lot.” While Sandra gave me a bit of a look for knowing her real name, the captain’s dour façade was starting to crack. “I suppose if you get off before any more of you have to take more maternity leave, I’ll consider it fair.” Sandra took her hand before she could say another word and started shaking it. “You have yourself a deal.” Seems like she was having trouble hiding her excitement as well.
  536.  
  537.     We really lucked out all in all. She told us the furthest north bend of the river would be coming up tomorrow, and that she’d pack us some dried fish as well as some of her personal stash of pickled carp. Sandra was quite enthused, but I’ll admit the news about eating even more fish didn’t seem to excite Elizabeth later that night. She also gave us a small map, and some advice on how to go through the border. Apparently she’s overhead a lot of plans from ferrying minimum wage crews, so she even had some advice on what to do when we got there. She hinted heavily we could apply for something like refugee status in our situation, but I’m hesitant to go through any government checkpoints. Still, she says they don’t ask many questions, so I’ll keep it in mind as a desperate plan B.
  538.  
  539.     Once we headed out of that little booth to spread the good news, I felt like a weight was off my shoulders. We had more of a plan than ever, and even a little help. Sandra walked out behind me keeping her stern veneer on, but once we were out of the captain’s sight it’s like she flipped a switch. As I turned around to face her, I felt the ground separate from my feet. For a moment I thought I had slipped on the wet deck, but I realized as I went higher instead of colliding with the ground, I was being lifted in the air by an unusually excited shark. “Your extra work paid off! We might actually do this.” I responded with disbelief for multiple reasons in that moment, “No, I’m sure that wasn’t the only reason she helped us…”
  540.  
  541.     She cleared her throat before setting me down with a restrained smile, “…I’m sure you’re right, but uh, you definitely helped.” I wasn’t allowed time to linger on the moment as she urged me forward, “Come on, we need to share this information.” Without another word, we pushed back to reconvene with everyone else and share the good news.
  542.  
  543.     When we got in, Sandra let me take the lead and explain what happened. I was nearly bowled over by an overexcited Bon when I finished. “We are so close, thanks you for looking after us!” Skylar was undeterred by the lioness’s wide embrace as she latched onto an untaken arm, “That’s wonderful!” Elizabeth puffed out her wool for a second before jumping on too, only she didn’t get a chance to say anything. I guess she was the straw that broke the camel’s back, because I actually lost my balance after that, taking everyone with me. We were only saved by a quick catch from Sandra behind me.
  544.  
  545.     While I tried to recover in the tangle of limbs, I looked up to see Heba barely containing her laughter with a hand over her mouth. I found myself so happy, I was laughing just like her soon, then Skylar, Bon, Elizabeth, and even Sandra joined in. We had a lot of reason to hope again, and for a moment, any troubles were forgotten. Even if it didn’t last that long, it was unforgettable to laugh like that again. Especially with everyone else I had grown so close to along the way.
  546.  
  547. It was a great note to end our last night aboard on.
  548.  
  549.     The next morning, we were all up bright and early. I spent much of it helping Skylar neatly wedge the twins behind her, serving as both protection for Scarlett and Flynn, but also to make sure Skylar didn’t freeze. The two were asleep like usual, so they didn’t protest while the fire ant took every opportunity to “accidentally” brush against my hair while I fumbled to bind her with the blanket being used as a papoose. In the end, it looked like she was hiding a backpack underneath her coat, with a little window for air. Just good enough to keep everyone warm and happy… hopefully.
  550.  
  551.     Bon had helped Heba pack what makeshift bags we had, while Sandra and Elizabeth were busy looking over our maps to figure out more details about our next hike. It wasn’t going to be fun making this next stretch of our journey, but no one complained as we kept at our work in the dim LED light, hours before the sun would eventually rise.
  552.  
  553.     Once I had helped Skylar, I tried to help with the packing. Bon and Heba were certainly on better terms than ever, but it didn’t stop the cheeky hyena from trying to make a few jokes. While the lion struggled to force another stack of dried fish into a sack she muttered, “I am not sure this will fit here.” Heba responded with the most disappointingly obvious remark, “That’s what she said.” Bon responded without much thought, “Yes, it is I who said that,” while she fought to cram it inside.
  554.  
  555.     Heba simply looked up at me instead, “You appreciate my quality jokes, right?” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as I replied jokingly, “Yes, you’re the light of my life.” She hid her face slightly after I said that, responding noticeably louder, “I know it, but you don’t have to say it like that.” It seemed like she was back to her usual confidence, but it also looked like I wouldn’t be much help with the bags at the moment.
  556.  
  557.     Over on a crate being used as a makeshift desk, Sandra and Elizabeth were pouring over a couple maps underneath a cheap LED flashlight. The large shark hunched over while the ewe had to lean upwards a little to read comfortably.  They made it work though, as their scavenged pencils and pens flew across the charts. They looked busy, so I only risked a passing comment, “How’s it looking?” Elizabeth looked up at me, her concentrated face melting into a smile as she noticed me. “Oh, n-never been b-better, I mean, it’s l-looking okay… Or uh, no-not impossible at l-least…” While her voice faded into uncertainty, Sandra looked up from her painstakingly produced zig-zag along the elevation lines around the map. “It’s not going to be a fun hike by any means, but we should get across the border in about five days. That’s assuming weather holds.”
  558.  
  559.     Elizabeth piped up after the last comment, “We can ma-make it though, I’m sure!” Sandra gently gestured the sheep to come over, and she whispered something quickly. Elizabeth listened intently before turning back to me with a smile so wide it must have been forced, “We can do it, es-esp-especially with your h-help!” I almost ruffled the puff of wool on her head for being so cute, but I didn’t want to treat her like a child. I kept it cool and told her, “Thank you, that means a lot.” I think she wanted to add a little more, but the words weren’t coming out, so instead she abruptly swiveled back to the map and started scribbling in the margins. Sandra watched a moment before answering for her, “You can go help someone else for now, we’ve got it covered.”
  560.  
  561.     Without anything meaningful to add, I left them to it. Although in the confined space of the sleeping quarters, “left them” still meant within arm’s reach. So left without something productive to do, I simply made small talk while waking myself up. The rocking of the river beneath us was nearly unnoticeable at this point, but I could still listen to the water around us in the early darkness. The relative quiet lasted until the captain came calling down once again. “You all better be ready down there, we’re almost to the northernmost point I can take you… absolutely nowhere!” I looked around to see everyone get up and start grabbing what they could. With some deep breaths and as much of our little bag pile as I could carry, I headed up above with everyone else.
  562.  
  563.     Being earlier than the sun, there wasn’t a lot to see. The most I could make out was the vague outline of hills and rugged peaks surrounding us against the slightly lighter hue of blue creeping up on the horizon. The stars were still fully visible, just like my breath in the freezing air. I tried envisioning what our travels were going to look like, but it was difficult in the low light. The captain killed the engine before sauntering back out to talk with us.
  564.  
  565.     She gave her announcement with an air of authority, “I’ll be bringing her close to the shore soon enough,” her voice softened for the next part though, “Your choice still remains unusual in my eyes, but I ain’t going to question it.” She leaned towards Sandra, who was standing attentively. “Now I’ve had my eye on you, and you’re taking this whether you like it or not.” I squinted my eyes to see her force a handful of little orange packets into her hand. I have to assume some of those handwarmers things that heat up with a chemical reaction. Sandra still took them, but the look on her face was difficult to describe as anything other than “grinning and bearing it.” The expression was only more forced as the captain added one more comment while stepping away, “I’m guessing you’re accustomed to warmer waters, so you’ll be needing these more than me.”
  566.  
  567.     After visibly embarrassing the gigantic predator, she returned to a more central spot to speak from. “I think I’ve given you more than enough severance pay, so don’t go complaining to any government officials about compensation.” Elizabeth politely pushed out a small chuckle, but it failed to get a laugh from anyone else. She seemed undaunted though, as she continued, “You’ve been a bit of a handful, but you were all still a decent crew. Shame I’ll have to find a new one so soon. But I think it’s clear none of you intend to stay longer.”
  568.  
  569.     She walked up to me this time to make one last comment. “Good luck out there, I don’t envy this little journey you’ve got ahead of yourselves.” Even if she came off a bit gruff, I could tell this was about as nice as she gets. The last thing I told her was, “Thank you for everything.” She didn’t say anything, but she walked away with a faint grin. That left us to ready the boarding ramp and drop it with a crunch from the snow lining the shore besides us. It felt like walking the plank, but it was our first step onto dry land in a long time.
  570.  
  571.  
  572.     Now I suppose is where I should really start summarizing. A long hike tends to be even more unremarkable than it is difficult. We were a little shaky to get back to trekking like that again, but the familiar monotony of walking returned eventually. Our pace was a little reduced between the cold and getting used to moving like that again, but no major complaints. Even now I have that strange internal rocking sensation deep down, like my body is still in disbelief I’m on firm ground. Or at least firm enough. Our route is taking us up into the slopes, which have a habit of not feeling so firm under the occasional dearth of fallen snow and ice. Mercifully we’ve avoided any serious falls yet, but it’s clear from the horizon the worst is yet to come.
  573.  
  574.     It's not like we’re climbing mountains, but we still have to make it up the inclines around some of these peaks. The snow ranges in depth, but there’s always an inch or two beneath us at all times. The skies have been clear and the weather cold. It does get a little warmer when the sun’s out, but that doesn’t last for very long. So far we’ve overcome our obstacles with branches as walking sticks and a steady pace. Hopefully it won’t take any more than that.
  575.  
  576.     I guess there’s one thing I shouldn’t skip over, and it’s not Bon’s near spill on a slick patch. I’m sure she would appreciate me not recounting that. I’m a little amazed Heba hasn’t yet, SO I figure I can avoid it. No, instead there’s something impressive the same out-of-element cat has accomplished. Even if she’s had very little experience with snow, she’s already had a great idea. It’s certainly not something I’ve thought of trying before. Hunting.
  577.  
  578.     We set down to camp a little earlier than our previous streak of hiking, but from what we could figure using the hills as reference for our maps, it was enough progress for our first day. Given we weren’t worried about being closely followed, there wasn’t any argument about setting up a fire for the night. With our bags roughly piled underneath a scrubby pine, we set to gathering what firewood we could. However, as Bon looked over the bags, she made an observation with a package of fish in hand. “I am not sure this will be enough for the trip. If only I could participate in the hunt like I could before… snow must making tracking so much easier.”
  579.  
  580.     Sandra perked up upon hearing this, “Hunt? I’m sure something lives out here, and we could always use more food…” Heba, dragging a fallen branch into our bourgeoning wood pile, abandoned what she was holding to head towards the bags. She suddenly sounded quite excited, “While I’m sure you could wrestle a moose yourself, I think I’ve got something that can help!” Everyone, especially Sandra, seemed to watch in bewildered amusement as the Hyena pulled out an assortment of pilfered goods. A couple metal knives for cutting fish, a plastic fork, a broken broom handle, and a lot of mismatched tape.
  581.  
  582.     Hunting was a smart idea, now that foraging was out of the question. However, I didn’t like the idea of splitting up, especially in the cold like this. I tried to delicately air my concern with Sandra and break her gaze from the enthusiastic Hyena for a moment. “You don’t have to do that though. We might get separated, and it’s only getting colder everyday-” I didn’t get the chance to finish because she was already glaring down at me. “You don’t think I can handle the cold?” She raised her head to let out a visible puff of air in the cold before speaking again, “Well you don’t have to worry about me, it’s too late to go tonight anyway.” I wanted to say something in return, but I was interrupted when Heba hurried back towards us.
  583.  
  584.     In a flurry of motion, she unveiled her masterpiece. “I call this, my Kill-Stick.” Sandra looked somewhat confused while Heba presented her with the cutlery-on-a-stick as if she was bequeathing an ancient family weapon. Bon was the only one looking with wide eyes in similar amazement to Heba, while the shark took it gingerly. “Uh, thanks…” Sandra spoke while slowly twisting the rod around. Bon on the otherhand walked over and admired the handiwork with twitching whiskers. “You could have made a weapon like this before?” Heba turned her attention to the more impressed woman. “I used most of the silverware I…acquired, on that one.”
  585.  
  586.     I wasn’t prepared for Bon to sling an arm across my shoulder and clear her throat seriously, “Bonolo has agreed to protect him, and he has agreed to protect me. You will need to produce two more.” Heba looked honored, but kept a restrained look of haughty smugness, “I don’t think I can right now, but I’ll keep it in mind for later.” I was strangely honored, but I knew a matching pair of homemade shanks wasn’t necessary. I tried to discourage the lioness, even if her fur was bristling in excitement at the thought. “I appreciate the thought, but I don’t think we need spears.” She pulled me into a tight hug after I said that, squeezing me to the point I couldn’t speak. She spoke up for me instead, “Anon is right. They could bring attention. Give us two of the fish knives instead.”
  587.  
  588.     So now I’ve got a tiny little knife in my pocket now. Bon insisted on taking the larger one, but both of the ones Heba had left were quite small. I feel like I should have fought harder to keep the pregnant woman away from wielding a sharp object, but it’s hard to deny someone holding you so excitedly. I’m sure she can handle it though. Her claws are probably more of a danger anyway…
  589.  
  590.     Speaking of the affectionately clingy lion herself, I’d be remiss to not bring up our latest sleeping conditions. Turns out the captain even let us keep a couple tarps after all this, so we’re able to assemble one cramped tent with the help of some tree branches. For that reason, things are pretty crowded at night. It helps fight against the cold, but it’s not without it’s fair share of awkwardness. That’s mostly why I’m out by the fire now, it gives everyone else a little space to breath while I keep an eye out.
  591.  
  592.     I suppose between our escape on the train and the unexpected boat ride we shouldn’t be quite as paranoid of followers anymore. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be prepared if something happens.
  593.  
  594.     Honestly, I don’t think I want to acknowledge the full possibility of a sudden raid again. What could we even do? Even if I spotted them coming ahead of time, it’s not like we could outrun them, especially if they actually had some kind of vehicle. No, it’s much more comfortable to assume they’ve lost us for now. The trees may be sparse, but we’re hidden away in a little thicket along the slope. So hopefully we’re at least difficult to find.
  595.  
  596. I can’t think about that… I’m sure we’re safe. Safe long enough to make it across the border at least.
  597.  
  598.     I’ve gotten this far through the night staying positive, I can get it going again. Even now I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Bon is as undeservedly loving and caring as always. Heba has been doing better than ever. Sandra is still strong and resolute despite her pregnancy. Skylar is warm and keeping the twins safe at the same time. Even Elizabeth is trudging through the snow with a smile on her face. They’re all wonderful people in their own ways, and we’re all doing our best. So I should refrain from complaining tonight.
  599.  
  600. I think I’ll simply keep a lookout for the rest of the night and stop writing. I’m sure the sunrise will look beautiful from up here anyway.
  601.  
  602. We’re so close to making it now.
  603.  
  604. Four days to go.
  605.  
  606. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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