Homecoming: Part One
Anna sat on the couch in front of the window, leaning her Xweetok ear against the pane. It was cold outside, McCloud knew. He had just come in from building a snow-Eyrie, trying to make it as big and silvery as himself, and his scarf was encrusted with ice. He knew what Anna was "watching" for, though. She was blind, but when she turned her hears in different directions and stared blankly into the space before her unseeing eyes, she could see everything. Everything, of course, except for what she was looking for.
McCloud slowly unwrapped the scarf from around his neck and hung it on the hook by the door before going over to see her. He was once again struck by the incredible cleanliness of the place. Even when Almedha this account as a main account, it wasn't this clean. But, then, Almedha wasn't all that organized herself. Anna, even though she couldn't see a thing, could spot clutter from a mile away.
"Hello, Anna," McCloud said, sitting next to her and looking out the window. He noticed out of the corner of his eye that she was twirling a pawn from an old chess set in her hand. Next to a few old issues of the Neopian Times, it was all Anna had left of her old owner. She kept them like they were her life.
"Hello," she answered. "Did you have fun outside?"
"Yes," McCloud answered. But he didn't get to explain how great his snow-Eyrie in the front yard looked.
They both looked toward the sudden shout of anger or frustration or dismay... or whatever it was. Rushishi was elsewhere in the house, but obviously bouncing toward them on his thick, powerful Jelly Blumaroo tail. "Who took my notebook?" he bellowed. "I left it right between my dresser and McCloud's bed and it's not there anymore!"
Of course, that could have been anywhere. Rushishi slept in the top drawer of the Red Hissi Dresser that kept all of Anna's wearables in the other drawers, and McCloud slept across the room on the biggest pillow imaginable. And then, everywhere between the dresser and the pillow was all the toys, school supplies, and trinkets they owned. Usually. Sometimes, Anna would clean up the place.
"No," Anna agreed. "I cleaned up in there earlier today. It was a total Pinklet sty."
"Then where is it?" Rushishi demanded.
"I put it in the bookshelf with the other books and notebooks," she said defensively, and Rushishi stalked off to get it. "I didn't think it would do any harm!" she called after him. Then she turned one of her ears toward McCloud. "What was that about?" McCloud watched Rushishi rummage through the bookshelf, find his notebook, and then bound away to his room again, holding it close.
"None of you read it, did you?" he checked before disappearing into the room.
"No," McCloud scoffed, and Anna just laughed. Rushishi went away to his room.
"I didn't even think he liked to write," Anna added.
"He doesn't, really," McCloud answered, and looked at Anna. She was still holding her chess piece. "It's a piece of an old life he hasn't quite given up yet."
"What do you mean?" Anna asked, sounding slightly interested. More interested than he had heard her sound since she came to live with them after being abandoned.
"Well, Rushishi was in the pound once, too, you know. But before that, he doesn't remember anything. He... sort of thinks that he's from..." McCloud hesitated to mention it, since it sounded crazy and definitely was crazy. But Anna needed to know who she was living with, didn't she? "He thinks he's from Jelly World."
Anna laughed. "Jelly World? That's ridiculous."
McCloud nodded a little, thinking of all the ways Rushishi himself was a little ridiculous. For one thing, he was made a Jelly. A perfectly strange non-sequitur to add to that was Rushishi's distinctly Meridellian brogue. His lack of fashion might have put him in the lower classes, but he was a gentleman through and through, most of the time when he wasn't being crazy. Believing that Jelly World was real, like one might believe that the sun would come up in the morning, was just another thing on the list to McCloud. But McCloud had lived with Rushishi for a long time now.
"I know," McCloud agreed, "but, to Rushishi, the alternative isn't any more desirable. Crazy for believing in Jelly World? Or he was experimented on. Neither is all that great a choice."
Anna nodded contemplatively and then said, "Well? What happened?"
"What happened? When?" McCloud asked. When Anna just grinned, he smiled, too. "You mean you want me to tell you a story?"
"I love a good story and... well, what else do we have to do?" Anna shrugged.
McCloud settled down on the floor and crossed his paws. "Well. I suppose you're right. Back when we lived on the Space Station, Almedha brought Rushishi home because I was bored and lonely. I didn't have any siblings and Almedha wasn't home most of the day, so I had to entertain myself. Well... let's just say that 'entertaining myself' was no difficulty after Ru came to live with us.
"He'd routinely lecture me on exploring and world-discovering, the chief subject always being Jelly World. I don't know how long Rushishi had been in the pound before Almedha adopted him, but it must have been a long time. Ru doesn't remember much of anything before his life there and was convinced that his memory was erased because he knew deep down in his heart that he must have been from Jelly World..."
Anna shook her head sadly. McCloud looked down at the floor when she did, remembering seeing that same look in Ru's eyes when he'd just been adopted. That look that she wasn't where she belonged. That look only pets who don't have families have. "Well, I wasn't interested in Jelly World," McCloud went on. "But I was interested in exploring. And, one day, Ru took me on the biggest and best adventure I've ever had in my life."
"I am so hungry!" McCloud complained. He thought he had never been so hungry in his short life, in fact. His stomach was rumbling like thunder, his paws hurt from all the walking, and he was tired enough to drop where he stood... and they hadn't even been gone a day. His tongue could almost taste the asteroid candies and packaged foods that he was used to eating on the Virtupets space station. There would be nothing to eat in Meridell. He was hardly interested in eating a fruit that grew more hair that he did. What he wouldn't give to be in Chocolate Land.
"I know," Rushishi grumbled. "So you've said. Over and over and over! I never said you had to come with me, you know." He paused for a moment and then spun to look at McCloud. "In fact, I said that you shouldn't come with me!"
McCloud frowned as his hackles rose. He remembered that argument. He and Rushishi always argued, even though he had only been his brother for about two weeks. Rushishi said that was what brothers did: argue. McCloud was almost positive that wasn't in the adoption papers from the pound. "Warning: brothers and/or sisters must argue with siblings." But Rushishi insisted. He insisted on a lot of things. Which was why McCloud was in the middle of nowhere on a Tuesday morning looking for a Certain Place that didn't exist.
"I know, I know," McCloud mumbled. As many things as Rushishi insisted on, McCloud thought, it was only fair he got to insist on a few things, too. One of them was that, as his new brother, McCloud couldn't let him go looking for a place that didn't exist alone. Family just does that kind of thing for each other. "But I couldn't let you go running off all by yourself!"
It was one of the things that Rushishi insisted. Everyone on Neopia and off knew that Jelly World didn't exist. By Rushishi's logic, though, that meant that Jelly pets come from nowhere and must not exist. McCloud suggested that Jelly pets didn't need a world to come from, like Chocolate pets, Split pets, or Checkered pets didn't need a place to come from. Rushishi explained it away. Then McCloud tried to tell him about the lab ray, but Rushishi had stopped talking to him for a week after that. From then on, McCloud was content to agree that Rushishi didn't exist instead of suggesting he'd been experimented on. It was safer.
"I know," Rushishi muttered, repeating what McCloud had told him many times over. "Because you're my brother. Well, I never asked for that, either."
McCloud halted. It was true, Rushishi had never asked to be adopted, but McCloud couldn't figure out why he didn't want to be. Rushishi was a Blumaroo, mostly ignored, and unfortunately more edible than the ordinary variety of Blumaroo, being made of Jelly. It would have been smart of Rushishi to bring someone along to make sure he wasn't eaten, whether he wanted a family or not. But McCloud wasn't sure if Rushishi was smart or not. In fact, he wasn't even sure he had a brain, since on a sunny day McCloud could see straight through his head.
"Come on," Rushishi sighed.
McCloud followed, despite his hurt feelings, muttering, "I'm hungry," because he could think of nothing else to say. The silence was insufferable.
"For the love of Fyora," Rushishi sighed. "It's good your owner isn't about to abandon you, 'cause you'd never make it on your own. I'll find something to eat when we get to Meridell."
But it wouldn't be like the food at home, McCloud thought. He decided not to say that out loud, though. Rushishi was angry enough with him, and it wasn't as though he would agree to go back home even if the food was better. This led to a brief curiosity of what might happen should McCloud go home without Rushishi and let him sort out this nonexistent place business on his own.
That was ridiculous. He was in too deep. McCloud would have to go all the way back to Neopia Central, board a transport ship all on his own to fly back to the space station... it would just be too long and scary to do by himself. He would have to tough it out, grow up, be adventurous.
"Ru..." McCloud complained. "Are we almost there?"
"You ask if we're almost there one more time," Rushishi yelled, "and I swear to you our next stop will be the Haunted Woods where I will personally see you disappear down the Esophagor's throat!"
McCloud considered the silence and how utterly angry Rushishi sounded. He had never sounded so annoyed before that McCloud could remember. But his tongue burned with an unanswered question, the hairs on his back stood on end with anticipation. "What's an Esophagor?" he whispered.
Rushishi whirled and McCloud found Rushishi's jelly nose only inches from his beak. "It's a monster! It lives in the Haunted Woods; it's big and blue; it's always hungry, and I'm sure it'll have no problem with eating you." He turned and continued walking. "Now," he said, his voice having taken on a semblance of calm, "if you'll just be quiet, we'll be there before you know it. I'll send Almedha a Neomail, and she can come and get you."
"Wait a second!" McCloud objected, but was cut short.
Meridell turned out to be closer than McCloud had first thought. He could see Meri Acres just over the next hill, the Darigan Citadel hovering eerily in the distance, and barely atop the next hill on the horizon was Meridell's castle. McCloud had only read novels and history books about the wonderful country they were entering, and had never thought he might see this place for himself.
McCloud was distracted from his hunger and irritating Rushishi long enough for them to descend into the valley where the farms squatted by the roadside with their bushes, herbs, and trees in neat rows behind them. Rushishi walked the path, one hand sliding over a brown fence, observing a far-off Gelert farmer forking hay from a pile into a basket for a Kau. They chatted pleasantly as neighbors would on such a sunny day.
"Hello, there!" Rushishi called out.
The Gelert looked up and the Kau cast a glance askance at them. "Hello," the Gelert returned, resting on his pitchfork. "Travelers, are ye?"
"We are," Rushishi said with a nod. "I was wondering, as we've been walking all day, you see... is there a place nearby where we could get some food?"
"Vittles?" the Gelert asked, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "I can't say as there's any fancy café here, no." McCloud sighed and looked at the ground. "I don't ken ye'd like it much, anyroad. Imported, ye know," he went on. "I've a better idea. Scrounge about my field, ye'll find many a good thing to eat. Why, even—what do they call it now?—organic. Good and healthy."
McCloud literally flew over the fence and was about to plunge headfirst into the rows of bushes when the handle of the pitchfork was suddenly slapped across his chest.
"It'll cost ye, of course," he added.
Rushishi was immediately at McCloud's side, pushing the pitchfork out of striking range. "Yeah? How much?"
"Hm..." The farmer pondered over this for a while, counted his fingers, puzzled over how many trees he had, and then winked at the Kau. "Four hundred Neopoints ought to do it."
"Four hundred!" Rushishi objected. "You sure you don't want my tail, too?"
The farmer chuckled. "I can't imagine ye'd be in this mess if you were so attached to it. Ye and yer friend could just make a picnic of it."
Rushishi grimaced. "You are disgusting." His tail twitched uncomfortably, but McCloud had to admit for the briefest of moments that jelly sounded quite good right then.
"Or you can go the rest of the way to Meridell, but... I doubt as ye'll find a better price in the big city," the farmer offered. "Four hundred. That's my price and ye can take it or leave it. This is a buffet yer bargaining for." Rushishi made a fuss of it, but as he counted out coins to the prescribed amount, the farmer added, "And you can keep your tail."
"Much obliged. Come on, McCloud." Rushishi tugged on McCloud's wing and pulled him out of sight behind bushes and away. McCloud felt they were going at an unneeded great speed. McCloud could smell and see all those fruit passing him by and he didn't even have time to taste them.
"Here we are," Rushishi said, finally stopping. He picked a hairy blue and yellow fruit from the tree. "You heard the farmer. Pick as much as you want."
McCloud could hardly contain himself. He picked at the bushes and small plants, shook the berries off of small trees and sometimes flew up to the higher limbs to get at the tastiest fruit. Rushishi was eating his third loveberry when McCloud stretched out on the grass for a nap.
"Hey," Rushishi said, lightly kicking him to keep him from falling asleep. "We still have to get to Meridell, remember? Besides, I don't want this farmer charging us rent, too."
McCloud groaned and rose to his feet. "Oh, all right. Let's go."
Rushishi headed off toward Meridell again. It never seemed to get closer, McCloud thought. "Well, that was fun," McCloud said as the farm fell into the horizon behind them. He hoped to never see it again. He looked up at the blue sky and imagined that up there, somewhere, the Virtupets space station was in orbit. Almedha was there. So was home, with his room, books, toys, and familiar food. "Can we go home now?"
"You can go back to the space station if you want," Rushishi snapped. "I'm going to keep looking."
McCloud sighed. He should have expected as much. "Then I guess I'm going with you. Let's face it. If everyone you meet is as nice as that farmer, you're going to need me."
To be continued...