The Gallant Return of Kathryn and Tobin: Part Three
We had been walking for no more than ten minutes before we came across a stream covered in felled logs.
“Look!” Tobin hissed excitedly, pulling out his camera, “It's an urchull!”
I looked in the direction he indicated and there, standing on top of one of the logs was a furry-looking creature with a broad flat tail and four long ears. It was gnawing its way through a branch on the log with a pair of very large incisors, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
At the head of the group, the yellow Mynci was saying, “If you look to your left, you'll see a very common sight in these parts, the urchull. Urchulls live in and around lakes and streams, using their sharp teeth to fell trees and build dams. Urchulls use their powerful tails for swimming, and can reach speeds of up to fifteen kilometres an hour.”
Tobin's ears twitched as he looked up from his camera to the guide. Before I could stop him, he pushed his way forward until he stood at the front of the crowd and addressed them. “That's wrong,” he said, “The study that determined the urchull's swimming speed at fifteen kilometres an hour was flawed; the scientist clocked the urchull in a flowing stream and forgot to take into account the extra speed the current provided. It is widely acknowledged today that the urchull only has a maximum swimming speed of ten kilometres an hour, and,” he turned to the guide, “You forgot to mention that the primary purpose of the tail is not swimming, it's balancing. If you look at the urchull on that log,” he gestured toward the stream, “You'll see that it's using its tail to support itself as it gnaws its way through the tree branch.”
Impressed murmurs rippled through the crowd, and the guide's face flushed. He cleared his throat uncomfortably, “Um, yes, well, it seems you know quite a bit about petpets,” he said.
“Yes,” Tobin replied matter-of-factly.
I wanted to crawl under a rock and die.
“Well um, would you like to help with the rest of the tour?” the Mynci asked my brother, “You know, make sure I keep all my facts straight?” he smiled, and his remark earned a titter of laughter from the crowd.
Tobin smiled broadly, “Really?” he asked, “Great! Alright everyone, follow me!” he said firmly, taking easily to his new leadership role.
“Why do things like this always happen to me?” I groaned, burying my face in my hands.
David chuckled, “Well, at least the people here actually want to hear about petpets, that makes a nice change from Tobin's usual captive audience.”
I had to admit the truth in that.
We walked for another fifteen minutes or more, until Tobin and the guide stopped again. Not giving the Mynci time to speak, Tobin turned to the crowd and said quietly, “Look over there, in that tree.”
We did so, and I saw a tiny green rodent-looking creature with enormous ears.
“That's a miamouse,” Tobin explained, “They used to live exclusively in Faerieland, but when it crashed to the ground, they scattered, looking for new homes. Many relocated to regions of dense forest so they could build their nests high off the ground, the way they used to do in Faerieland, so this is prime territory for them. That one up there is a male, it has larger ears than the female, and only the males come out during the day to hunt for nuts and berries in spring; the females usually stay in their nests with their young.”
We watched as the miamouse lifted its head, its little nose twitching as if it smelled us. It froze for a moment, then turned and scampered up the tree trunk and out of sight. Tobin took a few shots of it disappearing into the foliage, then turned back to the trail to continue the march.
We walked for over an hour, and saw an impressive array of petpets from a pair of beekadoodles hovering over a cluster of snap draiks, to a mother doglefox bringing food back to its den followed by three small kits, to a pond covered in lilypads that had half a dozen greebles hopping from plant to plant and catching swarming moquots with their enormously long tongues.
We were nearing the end of the loop and were almost back where we started, when Tobin suddenly stopped. He pricked his ears up and listened. “Shhh!” he said quickly, “Do you hear that?”
The chattering crowd fell silent and listened. In the distance, we could hear scuffling through the leaves and deep bellows that got louder as whatever it was approached.
The guide looked at Tobin, “What is it?” he asked.
Tobin turned to the crowd with a look of great excitement on his face, “It's a pair of fighting hornsbies!” he cried, “Look, here they come!”
Indeed, moments after he spoke, two heavy animals about half my size crashed through the undergrowth. They were bellowing loudly and butting heads, interlocking their small horns as each fought for the upper hand.
“Hornsbies live in large herds of up to a hundred, one male leads a herd made up entirely of females and young. When the male calves are a year old, they leave their mother's herd to try and start their own. See that big one?” Tobin pointed toward the larger bull who was rearing up on his hind legs, “He's trying to defend his herd from the younger male, who's invaded his territory. The winner gets the females.” He took out his camera and peered through the viewfinder, getting as many shots of the dramatic scene as he could.
We all watched the struggle until eventually the younger one broke free and bolted, the older bull chasing after him as if to scare him away.
When the tour finally ended, and we all found ourselves back where we started, Tobin returned to us. “That was so cool!” he exclaimed, “I got to lead the whole thing, and I saw my hornsbies! This was the best day ever!”
A young man who had been on the walk with us approached Tobin. “Say, what's your name?” he asked.
“Tobin,” Tobin replied uncertainly.
“My name's Joe, and I just wanted to say, you were amazing Tobin, I've never met anyone who knew as much about petpets as you, you even knew more than the guide!”
“Yes,” Tobin said, not sure of how to respond.
I nudged him and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Tobin's eyes widened in understanding, “Oh, right, um, thank you,” he said, “I'm glad you enjoyed it. You know, I know a lot more about petpets than just the ones that live here, if you like, perhaps one day before I leave, I can tell you about the petpets in the rest of Neopia. Just come by my cabin, it's number 227, it's right on the beach, you can't miss it.”
Joe chuckled, “That sounds like fun,” he said, “Maybe I will.”
I had to hand it to Tobin, when he decided to start being friendly to people, he got really friendly. He'd gone from effectively ignoring the man to inviting him home in less than a minute.
We ended up staying almost half an hour longer than anticipated as virtually every guest who had been on the walk wanted to come up and talk to Tobin, tell him how amazed they were by his knowledge or thank him for making things so interesting. I could hardly believe it; the kid who didn't have a single friend at home was suddenly a celebrity out here.
Tobin, far from being exhausted by the prolonged human contact, was positively elated: he had extended the same invitation he'd given Joe to every person he met, and I imagined him holding petpet seminars on the beach for a crowd of forty strangers. So much for my relaxing vacation.
We walked back to the cabin along the beach that evening and Mom said, “You know, on the way up here I saw a cute little restaurant on the pier, it's almost supper time, what do you say we go and take a look?”
“We have to go home first so I can fetch my macaroni and cheese,” Tobin said promptly.
“Why?” I asked, “It's a restaurant, they feed you, you don't have to bring your own food.”
Tobin sighed as if it were obvious, “In case they don't have anything I like,” he said, “I'm very skeptical of new things.”
I snorted; that was the understatement of the year.
David said, “C'mon, it'll be fun, we're on vacation, live a little, try something new.”
“That's a false equivalency,” Tobin said flatly, “Experiencing the fullness of life does not have to be equated with trying new things. My life is perfectly fine the way it is, indeed, trying something new and discovering I don't like it will only detract from my enjoyment of things.”
David had no response for that. We went back for the macaroni.
We arrived at the restaurant just as the sun was beginning to glow faintly orange above the horizon, Tobin rattling the whole way as he trotted along with his box of macaroni in his mouth.
We went in through the front door, and the host, a green Draik, greeted us. “Hello everyone,” he smiled, “How are we this evening?”
“I'm fine, but I can't tell you how you are,” Tobin mumbled through his box.
The Draik laughed as if Tobin had made a joke and stepped from behind his podium, “I can seat you on the terrace if you like,” he said, “It's got a great view of the lake.” He turned to lead us out the door, then looked at Tobin, “What do you have there fella?” he asked.
“Macaroni and cheese,” Tobin replied, “In case I – ”
Mom cut him off quickly before he could say something inadvertently rude again, “He um, he can be picky, we just brought it along as a backup.”
“Oh, well, we have a great kids' menu,” the Draik smiled, “I'm sure you'll find something to your liking.” Fortunately my brother said no more as we were led onto the terrace.
The very first thing I did upon sitting down was flip to the back of the menu where all the kids' choices were and scanned it. I sighed with relief when I saw macaroni and cheese third on the list. We'd be spared any embarrassing requests from my brother asking the chef to cook his instant pasta for him.
I moved to show Tobin what I'd found, but my brother spotted something on the lake and jumped from his chair. “Look!” he cried, “Mallards! A male and a female! And look there, they have five babies with them!”
I stood up and peered over his shoulder, and there they were, swimming along in the middle of the lake, quite undisturbed by their spectators along the edge of the pier. I spotted the fuzzy yellow babies swimming in a line behind their parents and had to admit, they were pretty cute.
“Mallards can't fly,” Tobin said, “This means they very rarely migrate, the farthest they'll go is from one pond to another, but wherever in Neopia they're born, that's where they'll stay; these hatchlings will never leave Kiko Lake, though one day, if mates are scarce, some of them might make their way up to the stream in the forest we saw earlier. Mallards eat mostly lake weed and grasses that grow along the edge of the pond, they can dive a depth of up to seven metres to reach food, and their feathers are streamlined and waterproof to keep them warm. They usually make nests of dried weeds, twigs and mud, and if there's a secluded island in the middle of the lake, they'll nest there rather than on the lake shore, where they'd be easy prey for doglefoxes and other regional predators.”
I tuned him out, hoping no one from the tour was here to notice us.
“Why do you like petpets so much Tobin?” David asked suddenly, interrupting my thoughts and my brother's monologue.
Tobin blinked as if taken aback by the question, “I-I don't know,” he said, “I just do. They're interesting, not to mention a lot easier to understand than people. Why?”
“No reason,” David said nonchalantly, “I was just curious, you know so much about them, and I was just wondering if there was a reason why.”
Tobin shook his head, “No,” he said, “They chose me, I didn't choose them, I never really intended to get interested in them, there was just... something, about that first nuranna I saw in the petpet shop when I was five that made me want to know more, so I learned, but I never really thought about why.”
“Hmm,” David said, leaning back in his chair as if the inquiry were over, but he still looked curious.
Tobin turned back to the lake and rested his chin and forepaws on the pier's wooden rail. “When startled, mallards will make a high-pitched wail, a lot like a Wocky,” he said, picking up where he left off as if nothing had happened.
To be continued…