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Two dung beetles leaned back on their hindquarters atop a napping tortoise, a fine place from which to relish the view of their good luck. On the other side of the riverbed, next to the rock that was ridged and sloped like a hyena’s back, sat a perfectly formed dunghill, still steaming in the sagging African sun.
“Giraffe?” Ralph asked.
Steve sniffed the warm air, then sniffed again. “Nah … Rhino.”
“Well ho-ly shit.”
As Ralph and Steve prepared to dismount and dig in, the tiny hairs on the backs of their legs tingled with the slight quake of the tortoise’s shell. Seconds later, a warthog lumbered past, an inebriated dung beetle barely latched to the back of her bristled, grey mohawk.
“Now that’s something you don’t see everyday,” Ralph said.
“No,” Steve said. “No you don’t.”
“Ed!” Ralph called out to the beetle riding the warthog like a miniature, armored jockey. The warthog took a hard left at Hyena Rock then disappeared back into the thicket.
Ralph called out again, but their buddy never looked back—either he couldn’t hear over the beast’s arthritic snorts, or he was still recovering from last night.
Last night was a bit of a shit show.
The previous evening, Ralph and Steve caught word from a pair of secretary birds that Elephant Herd Six had come across a bad batch of kiwano. Folks were down at the watering hole stuffing themselves like dry season had just let up.
They took the Zebra Route.
By the time they got there, the red sun was sinking under the crispy tips of the high grass, a few muted stars dangled in the sky. Herd Six was gone, but it’d left behind quivering mountains of evidence. The entire colony had turned up. They hadn’t seen this big a crowd since the great buffalo migration of ’99.
Down past the bulk of it, a ring of spectators had formed around two beetles, each standing atop a formidable dung ball.
Ed and Todd.
Ralph and Steve shot each other a look. They knew this was coming. Everyone knew. Ed’s mate Tina had been none too subtle about putting her feelers out for a new mate.
Ralph and Steve pushed their way through the swarm. Ed and Todd were still evenly matched at this point, but Ed already looked spent.
Tina was standing off to the side, her eyes darting between the two males.
Steve broke the circle and approached Ed’s ball.
Ed exhaled and stretched his spurs. “Thought he’d give up by now.”
Todd snickered and dismounted to load up again.
“Don’t worry about him,” Steve said. “You’re looking good.”
Ed was not looking good. Between the extra weight he’d put on around his abdomen, the unrepaired chip in his horn, and the thick crust of dung he’d let accumulate on his plates, Ed had really let himself go. His rapid descent into middle age was unspooling before the colony. Ed wheezed as he made his way to the mound where one elephant had really let it fly. He broke a small piece loose and rolled it back to his ball with his hind legs.
“Looking strong, buddy,” Ralph cheered.
Tina shot Ralph a look.
Ed began to hyperventilate.
Todd, on the other hand, was just getting started. His dung ball steadily eclipsed Ed’s as he skipped back and forth to the pile.
This went on for some time. The moon had risen and most folks had gone home.
“Ready to give up?” Todd goaded.
“No way,” Ed said. “You?”
Todd smirked. Ed was more than ready to give up.
Steve turned to Tina. “Why don’t you just call it?”
Ed looked at his mate like a spanked lion cub. Tina held his gaze, then slowly shook her head. “No.”
When it was all over, Tina trailed Todd as he rolled his winning ball away. Ed climbed down and the three friends started home.
“You can crash with me,” Ralph offered.
Halfway home, they came across a piece of rotting kiwano left behind by Herd Six. Ed sniffed the fermented fruit. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said and took a bite.
Steve turned to leave.
“Not gonna join?”
“It’s late.” Steve thought of his mate Mia and his warm nest and just wanted to get back.
“Just had my ass handed to me,” Ed said. “My girl’s gone.”
“You’ll find someone …” He was about to say better, but left it at that.
“Come on, man,” Ed said, his mouth full. “Just stay for a little while.”
“All right,” Steve said. “But not too late.”
Ed took another bite. Melon juice dripped from his mandible. “I’m too old for this shit.”
He was probably right.
A former ghost writer for politicians, Lara Prescott writes fiction as her penance. Her work is published or forthcoming from Cheap Pop, Day One, Buzzfeed Books, and The 2014 Twitter Fiction Festival. She lives in New Orleans.
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