My Brother Tobin: Part Five
Roughly three weeks after the incident at the marketplace, Tobin came downstairs for breakfast and Mom asked him, "Have you given any thought to what you want to do for your birthday this year?"
I sighed; probably the exact same thing he'd done for his birthday the past four years in a row.
"Yes," Tobin said, sitting down in front of his jelly toast. "I want what we did last year, petpet theme, nuranna cake, chocolate with vanilla frosting, I want to go out for dinner at the Neolodge at eight thirty P.M to avoid the crowds, and when we get back, I want to play pin the tail on the babaa... and I want David to come."
Mom and I both looked up at that last part; in his entire life Tobin had never asked for anyone to come to his birthday parties, not even when he was in nursery school; it had only ever been the three of us. I looked at Mom and smiled; she returned it.
"Okay," she said, trying not to put Tobin off by sounding too excited. "I'm sure David would love to come."
"Oh, and make sure to give him a copy of my present list," Tobin said, biting into his toast. "If he's going to get me something, I want it to be something I actually want."
I stifled a laugh, remembering the first and last time anyone had bought Tobin a gift that wasn't on his list of acceptable presents. It was Christmas three years ago, Tobin had been six, and our extended family had come to visit. Tobin was already wound up and uncomfortable with all the extra people invading his space, so by the time Christmas morning came, all the energy he had saved up for social niceties had been drained. Our Aunt Gillian had handed him a box wrapped in bright green paper, and when Tobin had opened it and pulled out the hideous green and red Christmas sweater, he looked at her and said, perfectly deadpan in his high pipsqueaky six-year-old voice, "It's utterly atrocious."
Mom had scolded Tobin, and I was busy dying of laughter in the corner, along with all our cousins, in spite of the fact that none of us actually knew what the word 'atrocious' meant, but that was the first and last time anyone had bought Tobin a gift that wasn't on his meticulously scripted list, and, as a matter of fact, the last time Aunt Gillian had bought Tobin a present at all. Tobin didn't even seem to notice.
Mom looked at Tobin, then at me with a slightly amused expression on her face, as if she and I were remembering the same incident, then said, "Don't worry, Tobin, I'll make sure David gets a copy of your list."
"Good," was all my brother said.
The morning of the party, David came by, his arms laden with boxes of party decorations.
When he saw them, Tobin said nervously, "We already have all the decorations we need."
Putting the box heavily on the kitchen counter, David said, "I think you'll like these, though; come take a look."
Uncertainly my brother inched his way toward the box that was threatening to throw off his meticulously-planned birthday routine and peered inside. I was very surprised to see his eyes light up as all traces of anxiety left his face. "Look at this, Kathryn!" he cried, pulling out a long string of paper petpets linked together with pins, "Where did you find it?" he asked, turning back to David.
David smiled. "Oh, there's a little shop near the outskirts of town I know. It has all kinds of cool stuff like this."
"Really?" Tobin asked excitedly. "Can we go?"
I blinked; my brother very rarely permitted outings to places he'd never visited before, especially on short notice. It seemed like inviting David to the party had been good for Tobin in wheedling him out of his comfort zone, or in his case, comfort stronghold.
David smiled again. "Sure," he said. "Maybe once we've got these hung up we can go take a look."
Tobin grinned. "Great," he said. "Oh, and did Mom give you a copy of my gift list? She said she would."
David pulled a folded piece of paper from his back pocket. "Yep," he said, "Right here. I think you're going to like what I'm getting you."
Tobin raised an eyebrow. "Of course I will," he said as if David were stupid. "I only put things I'll like on my list, so of course I'll like whatever you're getting me."
David laughed. "You're funny, Tobin."
My brother blinked uncertainly. He had been called many things in his life, but funny was certainly never one of them.
I intervened before Tobin could protest. "C'mon, Tobe," I said, reaching into the box and pulling out the string of paper petpets. "Why don't you help me hang these up? We can tape them along the stair rail."
By the time we were finished hanging up decorations, the living room looked like a petpet zoo. A large paper babaa with pin-on tails was stuck to one wall, and thin plastic images of various petpets wearing party hats clung to the windows with static. Tobin's plushies created a ring around the entire room, and everywhere you looked, there were glassy petpet eyes leering at you. A large piñata of the lab ray scientist hung from the ceiling, Tobin's explanation for the out-of-place character being that he couldn't bear to smash the likeness of a poor petpet, but that the scientist deserved it for creating the petpet lab ray. I had to laugh at that; only my brother would turn his birthday piñata into a revenge effigy.
Because of my brother's hatred of noise and crowds, we had to put dinner off til quite late, but by eight o'clock, we were out the door and on our way to the Neolodge, Mom having called ahead to ensure that Bailey, our usual server was there. Tobin only ever went out to eat on his birthday, and he always had to have the same waiter or he couldn't settle down enough to enjoy himself. There was nothing particularly special about Bailey, he had just been the person to serve us the very first time we went, and that fixed into Tobin's mind that eating at the Neolodge was not a possibility unless Bailey was there.
Bailey for his part, knew about Tobin's quirky personality, and was always happy to oblige; he always made sure he was working on the night of Tobin's birthday, and he made sure the cooks didn't let any of my brother's fries touch his macaroni and cheese on the plate, because if it did, it was "contaminated" and he would refuse to eat it. After so many years, Bailey was the closest thing we'd had to a family friend before David.
We reached the large hotel, and Tobin pushed the heavy wooden door open slowly, stepping into the lobby and inspecting the surroundings, checking for crowds and other potential disturbances. Seeing none, he made his way toward the restaurant, staring at the criss-cross pattern of blue stripes on the red carpet as he walked, making sure not to step on any of them.
We reached the podium where the host, a green Shoyru we recognised as Jake, stood scribbling on his laminated mat of table arrangements.
Jake looked up when he saw David's shadow fall across his work, and smiled over the podium at Tobin. "Hello, Tobin, back so soon?" He smiled at his own joke.
Tobin didn't understand. "I haven't been here in a year," he said flatly, staring at the tables beyond the podium.
Jake chuckled. "I know, just... never mind. Follow me, we've got your table ready, and I'll let Bailey know you're here."
We really didn't need Jake's help to find where we were going; just like everything else, the table where we sat had to be the exact same one year after year, the booth in the corner farthest from the kitchen and its conflicting pungent smells, and well away from any potential crowds that might come in and make too much noise.
We had been sitting for less than two minutes before the unmistakable green ears of the Gelert who had been our waiter for seven years appeared around the corner. Bailey smiled at us. "Hey guys, it's great to see you again. Happy birthday, Tobin. How old are you this year?" This was a conversation that went the same way every year.
"Ten," Tobin replied, staring at the wood-grain pattern on the table.
"Ten, wow," Bailey said. "Boy, the time sure fl – goes by quickly, doesn't it?" he corrected himself, knowing he'd just have to listen to Tobin explain that no, time did not in fact fly, it was an abstract mathematical concept, not a djuti. Bailey looked at David and smiled. "Brought a new friend with you, I see," he said.
"Yes," Tobin said, tracing a paw along the edge of the table.
David waited for Tobin to introduce him, but when he didn't, he smiled at Bailey and said, "I'm David."
"Ah, well, nice to meet you, I'm Bailey. You know, in seven years, you're the first friend I've ever seen Tobin bring with him to his birthday dinner."
"Really?" David asked, looking rather pleased.
"Yep," Bailey said, passing out menus to everyone but Tobin, whose order he knew by heart. "Must be something special about you, Tobin doesn't make friends." No 'usually', no 'really', no 'often', just "Tobin doesn't make friends." Sadly, it was true.
As he left us, Bailey turned and smiled at me. "Good to see you, Kathryn. You're certainly growing up fast too."
I smiled and nodded at the patient man kind enough to put up with my crazy brother year after year, and picked up my menu; I for one didn't subsist on the same food every time we came here.
Dinner was quiet, Mom and David chatted idly about the weather and the price of groceries and other boring grownup stuff, and Tobin steadfastly made his way through his macaroni and cheese and crispy, unsalted french fries, saying nothing. To people who didn't know him, Tobin's face would look very sad and withdrawn, as if he'd just received bad news, but Mom and I knew my brother well enough to know that he was perfectly happy and probably off in his own world somewhere in a place inhabited by lots of petpets; he didn't often outwardly express happiness or excitement, unless someone else was getting involved in his conversations regarding his interests, as I had done on the day he made me write the letter to the PPL. Most people would consider such a lack of visible emotion to be disconcerting, but for me and Mom, and now David, it was just a part of living with Tobin.
It was nearly nine o'clock by the time we got home, the time Tobin normally went to bed, but in order to ensure his dinner hour wasn't going to be overwhelmed by other people, my brother allowed his bedtime routine to be pushed back an hour on this one night, giving us time for cake and presents and of course, pin the tail on the babaa.
We lit the ten candles on Mom's homemade chocolate Nuranna cake, iced in vanilla and covered with a layer of white fondant cut and coloured to look like the aquatic petpet, and sang happy birthday while Tobin, on this one night only, allowed his yellow rain hat to be removed, replaced with a conical red cardboard party hat covered in bright yellow polka dots.
Mom cut the cake, and as always, Tobin claimed the tail, insisting on the first bite before anyone else started.
Once the cake was cleared away and Tobin had creamed us all at five rounds of pin the tail on the babaa – a feat we couldn't quite explain given his typically clumsy and dyspraxic sense of balance and coordination – we moved to the middle of the living room and Tobin sat in front of the coffee table which was covered in brightly wrapped presents.
I pushed a thin one wrapped in shiny metallic red paper toward him. "Open this one first, Tobe," I said. "I picked it out myself."
Carefully Tobin peeled away the tape, being sure not to rip the paper; he never ever tore the wrapping off gifts, preferring to fold it up and save it in his closet to use when wrapping other peoples' gifts.
After painstakingly peeling off every piece of tape and folding the paper away from its contents, Tobin withdrew a large hard-backed encyclopedia with the name Petpets of Terror Mountain and a picture of a fat smiling snuffly emblazoned on the cover. He looked at me with a smile that I knew meant he was much more pleased than it appeared. "Thank you, Kathryn," he said. "I think I might actually learn something new from this one." His eyes sparked with excitement at the idea of adding even more knowledge to the petpet storage base in his head.
One by one he went through each of the presents, every one of them petpet themed, as his list requested, and when the table was finally empty, David said, "Wait here, mine's upstairs."
Tobin watched as he rose from the table and disappeared up the stairs, then turned his attention back to the book I'd got him, flipping through it and smiling at all the petpet pictures, rubbing his paws over the smooth glossy pages.
Presently David returned with a large box covered in bright orange paper and done up with a big purple bow. "It's not exactly on your list," he said. "But I have a feeling you're going to like it."
Tobin's eyes snapped from the book to David to the box, uncertainty filling them as he debated the choice between refusing the gift and getting something he didn't want; he didn't trust people to know what he liked unless he told them outright, because he didn't know what they liked unless they told him. Eventually he took a deep breath and reached for the bow, pulling it slowly until it came undone. Tobin lifted the lid off the box and peered inside. In an instant his face split into the widest grin I'd ever seen, and he flapped his forepaws wildly, trembling with uncontrollable excitement. "You got one!" he cried, bounding up to David and uncharacteristically hugging him, squeezing him round the neck. "I can't believe you got one!"
I peered into the box and smiled; there, wrapped snugly in a towel, lay a small fat nuranna, its large eyes blinking at me as it flopped its tail apathetically.
Tobin bounded round the room, looking like he was going to launch himself off the walls until eventually he expended enough excited energy to return to the box and lift the nuranna gently out of its nest. He inspected it tenderly and smiled, tears of joy brimming in his eyes as he ran a paw over its dorsal fin. "It's you, Gil," he whispered, too overjoyed to speak. "It's you."
"How do you know it's the same one from the petpet shop?" I asked.
Tobin showed me a small nick in the nuranna's dorsal fin. "There," he said. "That's the same mark Gil had on him when I played with him in the shop."
David nodded. "You're right," he said. "You two seemed to get along so well that I asked the shopkeeper to hold him for me, told him I had someone special I wanted to give him to."
Tobin beamed, his joyful tears spilling from his eyes and coursing down his cheeks as he looked lovingly at his new friend.
I looked at Mom. "How do you feel about this?" I asked, knowing her reservation with regard to animals in the house.
Mom smiled. "David kind of gave me a heads-up," she said. "I figured Tobin's old enough now, and we won't have to worry about him looking after it." She smiled and glanced at my brother, who had buried his face in the towel still wrapped around his new petpet and was sobbing with overwhelming emotions.
David stood up and moved to Tobin's side of the table. "C'mon, Tobin." He smiled gently at my hysterical brother. "Let's go upstairs, there's a tank and food for him already set up in your room. You wanna take a look?"
Tobin looked up, tears streaming down his face, he clutched Gil in one paw as he rubbed the back of the other over his eyes. "Yeah," he sniffed. "Let's get him settled in." In an unexpected gesture, he put Gil down and wrapped both forepaws around David's leg. "Thank you," he murmured. "He's the best present I could have ever gotten, even if he wasn't on my list."
David smiled and ruffled Tobin's mane, and this time my brother didn't jerk away. "You're welcome, kiddo," he murmured.
Tobin detached himself from David's leg and picked up Gil, who had wormed his way free of the towel and now bobbed in the air above the table. "C'mon, Gil," Tobin said. "Let's go see your new home." As they walked up the stairs together, I could hear Tobin chattering, "Did you know the nuranna isn't just a carnivore? It also needs seaweed to supplement its diet, just like puppyblews, who eat grass to aid in digestion. Most nurannas like grey sea ferns best, but some have been known to eat giant red kelp if there aren't enough ferns growing in their area of the ocean..."
I smiled warmly as I listened to my quirky brother rattle on about his petpets with the man who was undoubtedly his new best friend for life, and I thought about how far he'd come from the days when he didn't even know how to say hello to people and had zero interest in interacting with anyone at all. I knew then that I was very proud of my brother... even if he was from Kreludor.