"The one who merely flees is not yet free. In fleeing he is still conditioned by that from which he flees."
—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Next Friday evening
Anon had booked some space in an art gallery to give them a cover story, and hired a van claiming it was to transport paintings. On the phone, nobody could tell he was human. Lena had picked it up from the rental place an hour ago, since humans weren't allowed to drive.
This would probably send up red flags somewhere—public displays of art weren't well thought of by the National Anthro Workers Party unless the exhibited work glorified NAWP ideals in the most tasteless and overstated way possible—but the pair would be be well and truly gone by the time an investigation started. They planned to leave tomorrow, with the excuse of preparing for Lena's new exhibition, and then make the long trip to the border. With any luck their plot wouldn't be discovered until Monday.
Rain clattered on the roof. It was the evening before their departure. Anon was sitting at the kitchen table, going over the map of their route one more time. They'd be heading towards the gallery, which was on the outskirts of the city, then taking back roads past farms and into the forest, which led right to the border. He'd marked out the known forestry labour camps—they intended to stay the hell away from those—and traffic stops with light pencil dots that wouldn't be too visible to an observer. Lena was out visiting her parents, for what might be the last time in years.
A sharp knock sounded from the front door. Anon rose, made suspicious by the immediacy of their escape. Adrenaline stung his veins, and his body felt floaty and light as he pushed his chair back. The visitor rapped the door again. Anon quickly buckled his collar on and walked dreamily to the front door with a feeling of oddly violent detachment, like he was sleepwalking into a boxing ring. In his mind's eye he could see the heavy iron poker leaning in the hallway, could feel his hand close around the hefty twisted shaft. It would be one quick reach away.
With murder in his heart, he opened the door.
When he saw who it was, his fury drained away and left a confused void. "Arnold? How'd you even get out— No, it doesn't matter. Come in, quick."
Arnold was wrapped in an old oilskin raincoat with the hood raised, and was carrying a bulky bundle underneath it. Anon got a look under the hood as Arnold brushed past. He had clearly been crying, which shocked Anon. The ruddy middle-aged Arnold didn't cry, but here he was with red raw eyes and a scrunched-paper chin.
Anon led him to the couch then put the kettle on to boil, fussing around in the kitchen to give him space. Arnold sat collapsed in on himself like a deflated balloon, and toyed with his bundle for a long minute—it almost seemed to move of its own accord. The silence built. Anon placed two teabags into cups, filled them with boiling water, splashed in some milk, and carried them over. He sat down opposite Arnold and jiggled his teabag expectantly.
"They got her, Anon," stated the beefy man in a flat voice. "They came for her last night, dragged her out, and shot her dead on the street when she took a swing at them."
"Shit." Anon's stomach dropped. "Are—"
"I wasn't home, you see. I was out late looking after— Well. They'd have got me, too, you know. They will get me. Can't run forever."
"What are you holding, Arnold?"
The package in his arms squirmed and gurgled. "Everything. I'm holding everything. She's what I was looking after. Anon, I'm a dead man. A fucking dead man. They're fitting the noose for me right now. Writing my name on the bullet."
"You're leaving. Nobody else knows, but I got you those papers. I know what it means when a couple have a van parked out the front and just bought travel papers from their local black market butcher. You have to take her. Please take her."
Arnold unwrapped part of the bundle. A little grey wolf head peeked out.
"Shit. Okay. Lena gets final say, she's due home soon, but I don't think she'll say no when she sees that face. Shit, Arnold."
"'S funny, never even told you I was seeing a wolf, when I gave you so much grief for dating Lena. Marcy was the sweetest woman I've ever known. Used to take in laundry. We met through our smuggling. Her house backed on to the ghetto, and she'd let us bring goods through her attic. God." Arnold's eyes squeezed closed and he held his head in his hands.
"Come with us. If they search the van, we're all dead anyway."
"No. Every extra body puts you in more danger. Violet is worth it, I'm not."
"Violet, huh? But Arnold, that's—"
"Here, got a present for you." Arnold reached under his coat and pulled out an old bolt-action carbine with the stock cut down and the barrel hacksawed short. "My mother's. Here are some rounds. And here's a packet of baby formula, here are some other bits and pieces, here's her favourite toy. Here's a letter for her when she grows up."
"When you hand it to her yourself, she'll appreciate it," Anon insisted.
They sat in silence for a while.
A key scrabbled at the front door, and it unlocked and opened. Lena walked in, shaking herself dry. "Mum and dad said hi. Hell of a night."
"More than you know. You need to come see this, Lena," Anon said.
"Oh! Arnold!" She saw the little baby wolf in his arms and rushed over to hold her. "What a little sweetie! She has your eyes. What's her name?"
"Violet," said the big old man, his voice catching.
Lena paused in fussing over Violet, and looked at him properly. Her eyes moved as she traced the rivulets of tears down his face.
"Arnold's sleeping here tonight," said Anon, "and he's asked whether we can take Violet."
"Keep her safe for me," pleaded Arnold.
Lena craned her neck over the baby and wiggled a forefinger at her. A tiny paw grasped the fluffy black and white digit. She sat down next to Arnold and put a hand on his shoulder. "We'll all keep her safe together."
Lena took the bed, nestling Violet beside her. Anon laid a pile of blankets on the floor, and insisted the big butcher take the couch.
They woke up well before dawn, and Arnold was gone. In addition to what he'd given Anon the night before, he'd left four items: his oilskin, a stack of money, a photo of him and Marcy sitting at a table, and his child. Marcy turned out to have been a hulking thickset wolf of 50 or 60 with a gap-toothed smile. Anon could imagine her taking a swing at anyone who threatened her home, and could just as easily imagine her turning up to Christmas dinner with a bottle of wine and a tin full of shortbread.
Violet was a strangely silent baby. She didn't cry or scream at being left with two strangers, just looked around with big brown solemn eyes. She seemed to like holding onto anything she was given. Anon amused himself by letting her grasp random household objects with her tiny little paws, and tying a blanket into a makeshift sling to carry her, for when they'd have to leave the van and travel on foot.
Lena powdered her fur and did her hair with the attitude of a knight buckling on a suit of armour. She'd have to look the part today. He fried up a stack of pancakes for all of them while she was getting ready, prepared some baby formula, and left all the dishes in the sink. No need to wash up today. They said maybe twenty words to each other over breakfast, mostly confirmations of route and preparation.
Lena passed Anon's backpack to him. He took hold of it with his left, grabbed her hand with his right, and squeezed it.
"Showtime, love," said Lena. Same thing she'd said a thousand times.
"Knock 'em dead, honey," replied Anon, with the air of a churchgoer saying amen, and buckled on his collar. He picked the map up off the table, rearranged the revolver sitting under his jacket, lifted Violet into her sling, hoisted his pack onto his back, raised his chin for Lena to clip on the leash, and followed her out to the car. The key turned as he carefully locked the door, then ran a thumb over the burnished doorhandle one last time. He turned resolutely away from his warm house and into the cold dark predawn air to stride to the van behind Lena.
His fiance reached a paw under her seat and placed the sawn-off carbine on the floor, ready to be drawn. Her collie ears were perked up with nervous alertness; in fact, her entire body was taut like a stretched rope, held in tension. They had a long drive ahead of them. He hoped she'd unwind a little.
Hand outstretched, he opened the back doors and climbed in. Humans were by law not allowed to sit up front: that spot was reserved for their betters. The van rumbled to life, and Lena reversed out, then accelerated off into the gloom. They left their comfortable little street behind, turning onto bigger and bigger highways, like veins joining and heading back to the heart. Flashes of city life caught his eye: yawning tradesmen getting an early start, staggered files of troops patrolling for saboteurs, the tail of a dark-furred figure disappearing into an alleyway, garbage men and women gripping onto their trucks, a sergeant slamming her rifle butt into a sprawled shape. Most of the streetlights were shut off. Two in three had been disabled, to save valuable sanctioned coal.
They turned back onto side streets, Anon tracking their progress on his map and calling out directions occasionally. Wouldn't do to get too close to the city centre. The concrete and asphalt offices and apartments of the city gave way to warehouses, factories, and little patches of greenery. The sky had turned imperceptibly to navy, but now the approach of dawn sped up and tinged it pink. They sped up too as the van roared along the unrestricted country roads. City fringe faded into fields of barley, bordered in the distance by a forest.
"I prayed for Arnold," said Lena. "I know we never went to church much, but maybe it will help. He deserves it."
Anon sighed and thought about that for a while. "He'd be happy to know you did it, I think. Hopefully he put in a good word for us too. We'll need it if we get stopped."
"It'll be okay, love. We've put in the work. We're resourceful."
"That's what you called me in my last three performance reviews. 'Resourceful and competent, pushing the bounds of what a human can accomplish.' Must be a perk of having your fiance be your boss."
Lena glanced back at him and grinned, then returned her eyes to the road.
They stopped for a quick break in the forest, a couple of hundred metres down an isolated track where they hoped nobody would go. Violet needed to be fed every few hours, which potentially meant burping and changing her, too. Lena took the little ball of fluff in her arms and gave her a bottle of formular to suckle on.
"Is this a bad time to ask how you feel about children?" asked Anon.
Lena laughed like a string of pealing bells. "It's the best time! She's a very cute kid." The collie blew a raspberry on the stomach of the very cute kid, who giggled with delight and kicked her legs back and forth. "I suppose we should make her some brothers and sisters to play with, once we're really married."
"Think about it, honey. Nice cosy house, a nursery with a rocking horse and plenty of books to read, a few pairs of little feet running around, nobody to hit me in the stomach with a baton and check my paperwork—"
"I'm going to remind you of this conversation when you've had two hours of sleep a night for a week and the baby needs to be changed. Most little girls and little boys aren't as considerate of your beauty sleep as Violet has been. Plus I'm told humans are a handful, if we have boys." Children were the species of the parent of the same sex.
"Ahhh, we're resourceful, don't worry about it. My boss even told me so."
Lena chuckled. They set off again, deeper into the forest.