The Family Doctor
8th of Eating, Year 3
The crying would not stop. Zaf watched helplessly as his human mother darted around their apartment, looking for toys and pillows and milk and baby food, offering each to the tiny blue Shoyru in the crib. Tashni had been trying for the past half hour to calm the infant, and Zaf couldn’t do so much as think of a toy to help.
“Zaf,” the brunette cried in desperation. “Go next door and ask Janie how to get a baby to stop crying! She’s got four; she ought to know.”
The Spotted Zafara leapt to his feet and out the door. “Miss Janie, Miss Janie!” he yelled as he knocked on the door.
The human answered with a perturbed brow. “Zaf, what’s going on? Is that crying coming from your apartment?”
He nodded. “Mom adopted a Shoyru today and she won’t stop crying. What do we do?”
She sighed and massaged the bridge of her nose. “Is she hungry? Wet? Tired?”
He shook his head in answer to all.
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know, a few weeks?”
“She might be teething. I have no idea when Shoyrus start. If she is, her mouth is hurtin’ like the dickens. Boil some water, drop in some Tcheas, when they’re soft, take ‘em out, peel ‘em, mash ‘em and rub ‘em on her gums.”
She raised her voice in an annoyed tone. “It soothes the pain. Now I’ve got to get to sleep. G’night.” She closed the door.
Zaf stared at the door in silence a moment. He knocked again.
“Sorry, Miss Janie, but what are Techeas?”
She sighed. “Tchea fruit. I guess you don’t have any.” She paused, listening to young Nokura crying next door. “I’ll give you some. Hold on.”
He walked back into their apartment with a pair of the blue and yellow fruits in hand. “I got it, Mom, don’t worry,” he said.
Tashni did little more than nod at him as she staged a battle between Sloth and Number Six plushies for Nokura’s amusement. Nokura wailed on.
Zaf dug a pot out of the pantry and darted around the kitchenette, his eyes growing redder and redder as the night tore on. At last, the blue mush was complete, and he dared approach the crib.
Tashni wordlessly retreated and fell on the couch.
He winced as his sensitive ears picked up the full spectrum of Nokura’s screaming. Scooping some of the Tchea paste onto a finger, Zaf carefully held Nokura’s head and wiped it on her gums. She squirmed and tried to close her mouth, but he gently continued. After a moment, the baby blinked, and beautiful silence fell on the room. Tashni sat up from the couch and stared at Zaf.
His eyes were on Nokura. The baby looked just as tired as Tashni and him, and she looked up at him with appreciation. “Does that feel better, Nokura?” he whispered.
The Shoyru almost immediately laid down and closed her eyes. He pet her arm tenderly as she slept. “I promise, baby sister, I will always be here for you.”
Five Years Later...
Zaf was finishing their dinner, stirring a liquid, flipping a fish in a pan. Nokura fluttered about him, sticking her nose just above the pan and sticking a finger in the soup. He shooed her away, but the newly-painted Royal Shoyru persisted. It made Tashni sick to think he’d be breaking Nokura’s heart tonight. Tashni sat at the dinner table, silently watching her family going about their dinnertime routine, totally unaware of what Zaf was about to do to them. She was angry at him, angry at her other three pets for depending on him so much. Zaf flashed a smile at her, but she avoided his gaze. She wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily.
Zaf put the food out on the table, and she looked sharply into his eyes. His ears twitched back and he nodded slightly. She would not help him tell them. She had given him her permission, but this was his decision; he would have to bear the consequences. He sat at the opposite end of the table, and while his brothers and sisters ate, he did little other than rearrange the food on his plate.
“What’s wrong with you, Zaf?” Nokura asked. “You’re awful quiet.”
He grinned at her. “Oh, just a lot on my mind, I guess.”
“Like what?” asked a Faerie Grundo.
“I’ll tell you after dinner, Shoonie,” Zaf said to his brother.
Tashni would hold him to that.
Zaf served dessert afterwards, a sure sign he was buttering his siblings up. They didn’t seem to notice, or maybe they were too busy wallowing in custard to care.
“Hey guys,” Zaf said in a forced upbeat voice.
“—and girls!” shot Nokura.
He sighed. “And girls. I have something I need to tell you all. It’s not that big a deal—well, it sorta is, actually.” He rubbed the back of his head.
That caught the three’s attention. They ran for the couch in the den and gave him their rapt attention.
Tashni sat down in the lazy chair and watched Zaf pace back and forth in front of the couch.
“Nobody died or anything; it’s not like I’ll never see you again.”
‘Oh, yeah, Zaf, that’ll put them at ease,’ thought Tashni. Nokura, Shoonie and Nar’s faces had just paled a few shades.
“But, well, you guys know that I’ve been trying to volunteer at the hospital a lot but it’s hard to really get anything accomplished here since the doctors are really too busy to train someone like me, so, I was looking into schools for learning medicine, but they’re really aren’t any, so then I looked at apprenticeships and there’s really only one option other than that creepy apothecary in the Haunted Woods, and that’s Leondra; the only thing that’s kept me from learning from her for the last several months is that she lives in the Lost Desert, and obviously I couldn’t commute, so I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve decided that there are too many Neopians who need medical help for me to put it off any longer, so guys—and girls—I’m moving to the Lost Desert.”
The Cloud Krawk frowned in confusion. “We’re moving to the Lost Desert?”
Zaf looked at Tashni with desperation. She looked away.
“No, Nar,” Zaf whispered in reply to his youngest brother. “We aren’t moving to the Lost Desert. I am.”
Nokura laughed. “You can’t be serious! Zaf, you wouldn’t survive a week without us!”
Shoonie saw he wasn’t joking. “Zaf, are you sure you know what you’re doing? I was up on the Space Station for over a year helping my Grundo brothers find homes, if you’ll recall, and it is not fun to be by yourself. It’s harder than you can imagine.”
Zaf was about to reply when Nokura interjected. “Shoonie, c’mon, Zaf’s not gonna move! He’s been part of the family longer than any of us, no way he can move even if he wanted to!”
Nar’s voice was weak. “Zaf, you... you can’t go. We need you. You feed us and, and...” he waved his hands, motioning to the uncountable things Zaf did.
“Nar, I know you all depend on me, but really, what do I do here? I cook and clean. Any of you can do that, despite what you say, and there are hundreds of Neopians that truly need medical help that isn’t always available. I can’t just stick around here doing house work when I know how many people I could help—if I move to the Lost Desert and learn medicine from Leondra.”
“Tash!” Nokura’s laugh was nervous now. “Tell him he’s not moving!”
“I’m sorry, Nokura,” Tashni said. “It’s his decision and he does have good reasons for what he’s doing.” She looked to the ceiling, trying to hold back the hot tears threatening to pour out.
“Zaf, you... ” she dug into her brother’s eyes. “Oh... how could you?” Tears burst out of the Shoyru’s eyes and she fled the room.
Zaf looked like he’d been punched in the gut. He ran after her down the hallway.
Tashni looked at Nar and Shoonie. They were silent, exchanging worried looks. Tonight was only the beginning.
* * *
Zaf gently knocked on her door. “Nokura, are you alright? Please let me in.” He heard nothing. What had he done? Nokura meant everything to him, she was more daughter than sister. How could he do this to her? “Please Nokura, I want to talk to you.”
“Go away!” she screamed, her voice thick with tears.
“Nokura,” he said just loud enough to get through the door, “the reason I didn’t leave months ago is because I love you. Please let me explain to you...”
“Shut up! You don’t care at all!”
His heart ached, like a great weight was thrown onto his chest. He started to try again when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw Tashni looking at him.
“Let her have her cry, Zaf,” she whispered. “She’ll feel better in the morning and you can talk to her then.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but looked back at Nokura’s door and heard her crying. Resigned, he walked down the hall to his door. Nar was just going into his room, and the Krawk could not look Zaf in the eye. Zaf went in his room and dropped on the bed. ‘What have I done?’ he thought. ‘Is it fair for me to do this? To all of them?’ He closed his eyes and massaged his temples. He felt... dirty; all over, dirty and guilty. His heart was heavy with it. He tried to sleep. Things always felt better after sleep. But he didn’t want to feel better, and sleep was impossible to his mind that night. Long after the family must have gone to sleep, he got up and quietly went to the kitchen. He felt like it wasn’t his kitchen anymore; he had betrayed it along with them. He took a cup of hot tea to his room to sip the night away.
The next morning Nokura would not come out for breakfast, and the boys’ appetites were lacking. The usual breakfast banter was replaced by the loudest silence Zaf had ever heard. As they were clearing away the table, Nokura darted past them towards the front door.
“Bye, Mom, I’ll get breakfast at the Bakery.” She bolted out the door, and Zaf felt robbed. She obviously didn’t want to talk to him. That was a first in her life. It killed him.
“Zaf,” Tashni said while wiping off the table, “if you’re moving to the Lost Desert you had better get down there and go neohome scouting. For that matter, you ought to go meet Leondra and make sure she’ll accept you.”
“Well, yeah,” he said with some surprise. “But I was going to wait a few days to give everyone time to get used to the idea first.”
“You should go today,” she said. Narcissus and Shoonie looked up at her with surprise. “Nokura is angry, if anyone hadn’t noticed,” she snapped. “She needs more time to cool off, and you leaving for the day will give her that. And you had better make sure Leondra will let you in before you start making serious plans to move. All of this might be for nothing if she’s not taking students.”
Zaf was silent. She had a point. “Okay, I’ll go. I’ll be gone all day; can you guys handle dinner?”
Tashni spouted his full name. “Zafi Two Thousand! In case you’ve forgotten, I’m the one who taught you to cook in the first place!”
He had to laugh at her. “Alright, Mom, sorry I questioned you.”
A soft, sad look spread on her face. “Zaf, you haven’t called me Mom in years.”
“Aw,” Narcissus wrapped his big Krawk paws around Zaf. “He still loves us!”
Zaf was about to be insulted at the remark, but Shoonie spoke before he could get it out. “Of course he does,” the Grundo said. “We’re the reason he’s still here.”
Smiling wide, Zaf wrapped his arms around his shortest brother. “Thanks, Shoonie,” he whispered.
Shoonie decided to go with Zaf to the Lost Desert to help him look for a neohome. Zaf was grateful for the company. They swam up to Mystery Island and took the next ship to the Lost Desert, arriving for a late lunch on the sweltering sand. They bought some fruits and bread in the open marketplace and ate in the shade of a tall sand-colored building.
“I can’t believe how hot it is here,” Shoonie said, wiping his brow. “Are you sure you can stand living here?”
“It’s definitely warmer than Maraqua, but I do have a few advantages over you. You’re dark-skinned, and I have light fur, so I don’t absorb as much heat as you. Also you’re from outer space, which is cold. I have these giant ears which help me vent some heat.”
“Well, aren’t you special.” Shoonie swallowed the last of a Tchea fruit. “Gosh, it’s got to be two or three already! We better get to it.”
Zaf nodded. “Yeah, let’s go see Leondra first.”
They wove their way through the spicy air of the marketplace. Storekeepers lifted exotic goods up to their eyes, tempting them with prices too good to be true. Zaf was too apprehensive to stop, and the brothers arrived at Leondra’s Emergency Medicine tent. It was much smaller than Zaf had imagined. The circular, white tent housed two cots and a few chairs. Row after row of jars, cloths, ointments and herbs lined the walls. Zaf saw Leondra, an abnormally large desert Cybunny, wrapping up a desert Blumaroo’s arm. The Blumaroo winced slightly as she tightened the wrap, but the doctor paid him no mind.
“Now don’t go foolin’ around with it, ya hear?” she said as she put his arm in a sling over his shoulder. “I don’t want to have to see you again until next week.”
The Blumaroo nodded, paid her a few neopoints, and left the tent. Leondra scurried to the second cot and peered down the throat of a Lupe pup. Looking to its hovering mother, she said, “He’s just got a sore throat. Make him some tea from Tchea leaves and it’ll go away soon enough on its own.” Leondra grabbed a small bag of dried leaves and handed them to the Lupess. “That’ll be three hundred neopoints for the leaves,” she said.
The Lupess handed her the payment, picked up her cub, and headed out.
Leondra saw Zaf and Shoonie standing in the doorway. She wrinkled her button nose into a sour expression. “Neither of you look sick and I don’t have any extra medicine to sell right now. Try back at the end of the month.” She turned her back to them before a reply could be given and she started cleaning up the wrapping materials she had used with the Blumaroo.
Shoonie and Zaf glanced at each other, unsure of what to do next. Zaf swallowed hard and took a step toward the domineering Cybunny. “Excuse me, Doctor Leondra,” he began.
“Speak up, kid, I can’t hear ya,” she called without looking at him.
He swallowed again and started over, this time louder. “Doctor Leondra, my name is Zaf and I’ve come from Maraqua because I’d like to learn herbal medicine from you. I’m considering moving here if you’ll accept me as a student.”
This apparently warranted a glance from her. “Oh really? Well, Zaf from Maraqua, it’s a big responsibility to be a healer, and I don’t particularly want to go through the trouble of taking on a student if he isn’t even sure he’ll be living here to learn. Come back when you know what you want to do. Or try that hospital in Neopia Central; I hear they’ll take anybody.”
“I beg your pardon, Doctor Leondra—”
“I’m not a doctor,” she snapped. “I’m an apothecary, meanin’ I use natural stuff and not that fabricated mumbo jumbo you’ll find in Central. If ya learn from me, you’ll be an apothecary, too.”
“Beg your pardon, uh, Miss, Leondra, I didn’t want to sound cocky. I have already begun the process of moving here and only wanted to make sure you would accept me as a student before putting down Neopoints on a place to live.”
Leondra chuckled. It was a dry sound. “If real healers are one thing, Zaf from Maraqua, it’s cocky. We have to be; we play with people’s lives every day.” She looked him in the eye, as if judging his soul. It made him want to squirm, but he looked straight back. “Clean up that mess,” she said, nodding at the other cot. It was cluttered with jars and smeared with oils.
Zaf was startled, but jumped to the assignment and started throwing bits of trash away. If there was one thing he could do, it was clean.
“You there,” said Leondra, pointing her finger at Shoonie, “Grundo, are you looking to learn medicine too?”
He shook his head.
“Then get out; there’s bound to be more sick and klutzy Neopians coming in any minute.”
Shoonie nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. Uh, Zaf, I’m going to go neomail Mom and tell her we’ll be back tomorrow.”
Zaf nodded, not wanting to get distracted from his work. Working as Leondra’s apprentice would be hard work.
* * *
Zaf and Shoonie returned to Maraqua late the next day. The exhausted travels relished the cool swim down to their home, with the familiar taste of an oxygen pellet on each one’s tongue. They stepped into the outer room of their neohome, where the water lowered around them until the room was dry. They toweled off before walking inside to greet their family.
Zaf could see Tashni’s cheerfulness was forced. She smiled, but no sparkle lit her eyes. He appreciated the gesture and returned it, then told her of his day at Leondra’s.
“I even found an apartment!” Zaf said.
“—You mean I found you an apartment,” Shoonie corrected.
“Sorry, Shoonie found it and, yeah I’m leaving in less than two weeks.”
“So soon?” asked Tashni.
Zaf shrugged. “I know. But that’s the way it goes, I guess.” He held up a satchel full of food stuff. “I thought I’d make you all a Lost Desert dinner!’
Tashni smiled. “Sounds nice. Nar will be home any minute, and Nokura’s in her room.”
The forced brightness in Zaf’s eyes left. “How is she?”
“She won’t talk to me, if that’s what you’re asking,” she said.
Zaf nodded and dropped the bag of food on the kitchen table. He walked down the hallway towards Nokura’s room. Once again he felt his stomach knot as he knocked on Nokura’s door. “Nok, I’m home. Can I come in?” He heard no reply, so he tried again. No response. “I’m coming in,” he warned. A moment later he opened the door and walked into Nokura’s room. Lying on her bed, Nokura read her comic books without so much as glancing up at Zaf. He sat down on a beanbag and looked at her. He wasn’t sure what to say, and hoped she’d start. He hoped in vain.
A moment’s silence passed before he had the courage to speak. “I just got back from the Lost Desert.” He paused, but she volunteered nothing. “I met Leondra; she’s tough but she’s good. She said I... I can start in two weeks.”
His little sister choked, diving her face into her comic book as her shoulders shook with the violence of her sobs.
“Oh, Nokura!” Zaf jumped up and ran to her side, wrapping his arms around her. She buried her face in his chest fur, tears steaming down her face. “I am so sorry,” he whispered. “I never want to hurt you, Nokura, but this is for the best. I promise. You can come visit me, and—”
“Shut up!” she croaked, not looking up at him. “Just shut up.”
He did, and with some quiet tears of his own, rocked her gently in his arms until her sobs quieted.
After a sniffle, she looked up at him with red eyes. “Why do you have to go?”
“There are a lot of Neopets in the world, Nokura. Most don’t have anyone to take care of them when they’re sick. I want to help at least some of them.”
“But I need you! Stay and take care of me!”
“Nokura, you’re a big girl now. You don’t need me anymore, and if you ever do get sick, Tash and Shoonie can look after you.”
“You can’t go, Zaf! I’ll... I’ll help you study! I know when I practice my fighting in the house, it’s hard for you to study, so I’ll stop. I’ll help you go over your notes—”
He ran his hand over her head. “Nokura, I’m not moving because of that. I want to learn real medicine and practice it. I can’t do that at home.”
She opened her mouth to protest again, but nothing came out and she buried her face in her hands again. A moment of quiet passed before she could look up at him again. “I guess that’s a good reason. But, oh, Zaf, I really do need you!”
He squeezed her. “You have Tashni and Shoonie to look after you. But it’s not like I won’t be looking out for you anymore. I will write to you every day, and you can tell me all about everything you do, and I’ll lecture you to be more careful.”
She did not laugh, but her lips quivered, caught between a smile and fresh sobs.
“Hey, you wanna help me make dinner?”
“No, I don’t like to cook.”
“Alright, but I’ll make you a good dinner, okay?”
She nodded, keeping her chin up. “I’ll be there when it’s ready.”
Zaf nodded and stood up. She wasn’t happy with him, but at least she would talk now. He left her room and started dinner.
The family, including Nokura, came into the kitchen when it was ready. Zaf had really outdone himself. Pan-fried Ummagine and pasta, caramelized Tchea fruit, and a roasted bird. Nokura sat down; though her eyes were still red and puffy, she wore a little smile and breathed in the aroma. Suddenly her eyes got big. “Omigosh!” she cried. “Who’s going to feed us?”
Tashni looked very cross.