What Am I?: Part Four
Food. Blast it all, the one thing she hadn’t really thought of seemed likely to turn out to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks in this whole operation. How the blazes was she going to provide Kitron with a steady supply of food?
The question rolled around in Kelenria’s mind as she lay in bed, staring at the ceiling in the gray light of early morning. She couldn’t just keep bringing her meals to him, could she? Well, come to think of it, it was possible- after all, if the grapevine spoke true, Sally had pulled it off for months when she’d been taking care of ‘Mr. Scary’. The comparison brought a smile to Kelenria’s face, and rolling out of bed the Xweetok shivered in the morning cold. She didn’t usually wake up this early, and as far as her sensitive ears could tell she was the only one awake. Maybe she could bring some food to Kitron now.
But then, if Jack caught her at it, he would probably catch on instantly. Better to play it safe. After all, Kelenria had always been the quietest one in the family; hopefully it wouldn’t seem too implausible for her to ask to eat her meals in solitude.
She could always give it a shot. For now, there was other work to do. Grabbing a pen and paper, Kelenria began to jot down a list of jobs. Surely, she thought, there has to be something here that Kitron can do.
She had been at it for several minutes and was beginning to run out of steam when Jack’s voice came drifting up from the kitchen. “Tex! Kel! Tornado One and Tornado Two! Breakfast time!”
Kelenria chuckled at the familiar string of names as she popped her list into the Neoschool backpack she’d left sitting by her bed. With all the strangeness that had ploughed its way into her life, it felt good to momentarily take refuge in something comfortable and familiar.
Kelenria padded out of her bedroom; then, on second thought, she ducked back into the room, grabbed the backpack and hurried down the stairs. She might as well give Kitron the list while she was bringing him breakfast. When she reached the table, the usual first-thing-in-the-morning name debate was already up and running. “I told you not to call me ‘Tex’,” Texra was grumbling. “It makes me sound like a boy.”
“Jack,” Kyle asked for probably the thousandth time, “who’s Tomato One and who’s Tomato Two?”
“I call Number One!” Talrin yelled, and Kyle instantly contested the claim.
“No fair! I wanna be Number One!”
“STOP!” Jack yelled, trying not to laugh as he attempted to dam up the two-canine river of noise, and Kelenria smiled to herself. This would be a perfect excuse to make a break for the treehouse.
“Jack?” she began meekly, and the boy turned to face her with an expression of mock misery.
“I take it there’s a problem with ‘Kel’?”
Kelenria shook her head, grinning. “No, it’s fine. But I was wondering... can I keep on eating my meals in the treehouse? It’s kind of nice not having to worry that I might go deaf or end up having to pry a Lupe’s foot out of my food.”
“Eww,” Texra muttered, then went on pouring milk into her cereal.
Jack paused, then shrugged. “Sure. I don’t see why not. Although I’ll miss having more than one sane Neopet at the table.”
Talrin tugged on Jack’s shirt. “Jack? What does ‘sane’ mean?”
“Exactly what you’re not.”
“What am I not?”
“It means you’re not smarter than me,” Kyle interjected with a malicious grin, and Talrin whirled on him, eyes blazing.
“Nuh-uh!” Kyle repeated, talking right over his owner.
“Stop it!” Jack looked like he was beginning to get mad.
Every mouth fell silent and all heads turned to face Texra, who had put a nuclear explosion to shame with her attempt to end the mayhem. The two puppies stared at the red-faced Zafara in a rare and blessed moment of stupefied silence, and Kelenria used the distraction to sneak out of the house with her backpack and three times her normal amount of breakfast. Even as she closed the front door she could hear Talrin shake free of his shock and ask in a voice brimming with awe and admiration, “Can you teach me to yell like that?”
“NO!” Jack’s voice was halfway between a laugh and a shout of alarm, and Kelenria raced for the treehouse with a two-puppy chorus of “Aw, why not?”s echoing in the background.
By the time she got there Kitron was already leaning out of the open window, his black eyes round with concern. “There is a disturbance transpiring in your home,” he stated in a worried tone, and Kelenria tried not to laugh.
“No, that’s just a normal, chaotic breakfast-time. With brothers like mine, there’s no such thing as peace and quiet. Anyway, I brought some breakfast.”
Kitron frowned. “Jack does not suspect?”
“I asked him if I could eat all my meals in here- that way I’ll have an excuse to keep on bringing food. With the way Talrin and Kyle- my little brothers- behave, Jack had no problem believing that I’d want to spend some time out of the house.”
Kitron’s face darkened in a way Kelenria wasn’t sure she liked. “Their misbehavior disturbs you? It has not been dealt with?”
“It’s OK,” Kelenria said hastily. “I’m used to it. You don’t need to go and ‘deal with them’ or anything.”
Kitron blinked, seeming slightly taken aback. “My inquiries alarmed you.”
“You’d, um... you looked like you were going to... overreact. It did have me kind of worried.”
The darkness passed from Kitron’s eyes and his face softened. He seemed almost bothered- was hurt too strong a word?- by the way Kelenria had interpreted his question. “I would not have damaged your siblings.”
Kelenria relaxed. “That’s good. So, anyway, I’ve got a few Cheops Plants here, and a couple Tchea Fruits, and... well, you probably already know what most of this stuff is.”
Kitron nodded, and the two of them settled down to eat. As he smoothly and mechanically transferred food from plate to mouth, the Zafara contemplated the tiny creature that crouched on the opposite side of the table from him. Was she always so paranoid? he wondered. If not, then why just with him? And why was it bothering him?
He was different. He knew that, and accepted it. He had been modified somehow, why and by whom he wasn’t certain; but he had been given power for a purpose, and he was supposed to find out what that purpose was. That was his main focus, his reason for being.
Wasn’t it? It should be; some instinct- real and natural, or had that been programmed into him, too?- told him that. But was it supposed to bring with it the consequence of being feared by some, and, his status as a fugitive led him to assume, hated by others? Did it matter if it did? Would that affect his chances of achieving his objective, whatever that was?
And was that the only thing that mattered? Where could he find out? Where did he come from? Whoever had modified him might be there, and would no doubt be able to answer his questions; but would he like the answers? And why wasn’t he with that person right now? Somebody should have been waiting for him when his holding cycle ended, somebody other than helpful but uninformed Kelenria. Had they been forced to leave before he awakened?
Or had they noted the malfunction that cost him his memory and simply abandoned him?
His musings turned from himself to Kelenria again. She was unaware of the nature of his function, and one of the first things she had learned about him was that something was wrong with him. Why, then, her peculiar readiness to help him? Surely it could have no relevance to her own role, whose nature Kitron was surprised to realize he had yet to ask her about. So if aiding him obviously offered no real benefit to her, and was equally obviously an inconvenience, was her compliance purely out of fear?
For no good reason that he could think of, in the core of his being he truly hoped not.
“Well, I’d better get going,” the Xweetok suddenly said, glancing outside and pointing. “There goes Merrin; he’s always really punctual, so usually I watch for him and head for school when he walks past my house.”
Distracted from his ponderings by the bizarre phenomenon that was occurring outside his hideout, Kitron furrowed his brow. “His cranial appendages appear to be directing an excess of unpleasant discourse toward each other.”
Kelenria grinned. She hadn’t understood all the words Kitron used, but knowing Merrin, she could guess. “You mean he’s arguing with himself? I’m not surprised. Merrin’s always doing that. But anyway, I’d better go or I’ll miss the ferry. I’ll see you at suppertime.”
“Indeed.” Kitron inwardly searched himself, and catalogued the strange intangible weight within him as dismay, faint but disquieting. Was he supposed to be feeling that?
A more disturbing question still: was the feeling stemming from the loss of an opportunity to seek his designated function, or from the realization that he was going to spend the rest of the day alone with his troubling questions?
* * * * *
“Kelenria, are you STILL not paying attention?”
The young Xweetok jumped, then blushed. “Er- sorry. I didn’t sleep much last night after...”
Kelenria’s math teacher sighed. “I know yesterday was rather alarming for you, but please, try to keep your mind on your work.”
By a titanic effort of will, Kelenria managed to get through the rest of the school day without bolting for her treehouse. She had known that harbouring Kitron would be interesting, but she hadn’t fully anticipated the way every cell in her body was screaming for her to run home and check on him, make sure he was OK, ascertain that nobody had found him, see how he was doing. She’d given him the list of jobs she’d compiled before leaving to catch the school ferry, and she wondered if he’d found anything workable.
It seemed as if the bell would never ring; but finally it did, and Kelenria almost burst a hole in the back of her locker in her eagerness to shove her things into it and get going. The locker seemed equally eager to get revenge for the Xweetok’s rough treatment, spitting things out almost as fast as she put them in; but Kelenria’s flying paws eventually won the battle, and she went hurtling onto the ferry almost before it could dock.
Despite the ferry’s impressive speed, the ride from Neopia Central to Tyrannia took no less than an infuriating one and a half hours; and Kelenria, as was her habit, attempted to get her homework done in that time, forcing herself to try despite the knowledge that she was failing miserably to concentrate. She was almost certain that she’d gotten the better part of it wrong, but only a quiet back corner of her mind could be bothered to worry about that.
Jack, in his typical thoughtfulness, had already gotten her supper ready. He had also displayed a rather unsettling keenness of observation, which was denoted by the fact that the plate he handed her contained three times the normal amount of food that a Xweetok her size could eat. “I’m almost beginning to wonder if you’re storing it away for the winter,” he laughed as she thanked him for the food; but Kelenria couldn’t help but notice the knowing glint in his eyes as she began to turn away.
“You shouldn’t eat that much. You’re already overweight,” Texra informed her younger sister tactlessly as Kelenria passed her, and Jack’s sharp exclamation of disapproval inspired nothing more than a rebellious glare.
Kelenria felt her tail droop slightly as she left the house and the beginnings of a heated argument behind. It had started three months ago: Texra had begun to show the classic signs of stereotypical teenage rebellion, and the warm, fun sister of Kelenria’s early childhood had swiftly deteriorated into a bossy, stuck-up snob with a tendency to do what she wanted with little or no regard for who was hurt in the process. She had begun to hang out with similar Neopets at school: people whom she and Kelenria had used to joke about and swear to each other that they would never join.
Now, Kelenria felt like she was losing her sister even while living in the same house with her.
As she carefully ascended the ladder to the treehouse, Kelenria did her best to mask the pain in her eyes. There was no need for Kitron to trouble himself with her family problems.
But the moment she laid eyes on the towering Zafara, she saw only too clearly that he was already troubled. And a mixture of observation, intuition and basic common sense told Kelenria that whatever was bothering him was significantly more serious than a rebellious teenage girl.
To be continued...