In Other Words: Part One
Chai gripped the microphone stand in front of him, sweat beading on his brow. He opened his mouth from his place atop the stone stage and lyrics poured out, lyrics that the dark crowd sang along with him, their voices loud and carefree as they watched the show with wide eyes.
Bright colored lights flickered on him from above, painting the Darigan Zafara’s fur an even deeper crimson. Rayze strummed away to his left, the Fire Kyrii’s nimble fingers plucking his electric guitar with ease, while Sed played the drums with all his might near the rear, his head shaking in rhythm as he twirled drumsticks and dashed cymbals.
Finally, with a loud crescendo of rock, Chai hit the final note and threw his fist up in the air. The crowd erupted cheers, their applause echoing in his ears like a chorus of angels.
“Thank you,” he breathed into the mic, his eyes flickering to his band mates who were both breathing heavily, but grinning. “We’re Stut, and we’re out. Goodnight, Altador!”
It didn’t take very long to clear the stage. The lights and special effects all belonged to the Altador Coliseum, and it only took a few minutes to drag their own instruments and Virtu-mics across the street to the hotel they were staying at.
“Awesome show, guys!” Sed exclaimed as the three band members strolled down the dark Altador streets. The Speckled Bori grinned widely and shoved his mass of black hair back, a golden ring glinting in his left ear.
“You said it,” Rayze agreed. The Kyrii petted his fiery mane fondly. “Altador was a pretty sweet gig. Though it’ll be nice to move on. Two weeks here was pretty brutal.”
“Tell me about it.” Chai’s hands were in his dark denim jeans and his black and red and wings were folded behind him. “Which is why,” he said casually, his eyes sparkling, “tonight we celebrate.”
Rayze and Sed grinned. “The Speckled Negg!”
Had anyone stared closely enough at a map of Altador, they would notice that nestled beside the aqueduct wall in the southern city quadrant was a small round building painted green with white polka dots: the Speckled Negg. However, despite its casual appearance, the Speckled Negg wasn’t a place for tea parties and crumpets. The obscure building was a hardcore restaurant always bustling with Altador’s biggest music fans and upcoming artists. And since it was their final night in town, the members of Stut decided it was time to pay it one last visit before they set out for the Haunted Woods the next morning.
Chai held the door open for his friends as they made their way inside the restaurant. The floors were dark hard wood, music was blasting from a speaker somewhere nearby, and on the walls were hundreds of signed posters of Neopian musicians. Chai glanced up at the familiar faces, hoping that he and his band mates would one day have their pictures and signatures up there too.
“Man, this place is packed,” Rayze mumbled as he was jostled from behind by a few potential customers. But then his eyes fells upon a pink Aisha and a grin slipped on his face. “Hey, Matti! A little help here?”
The Aisha waitress turned her head, her curly hair bouncing on her shoulders, and she smiled, her eyes lighting up. “Well, if it isn’t Stut, my favorite upcoming band. Just finish a gig, you guys?”
“A half hour ago.” Chai nodded. He grinned, his bright teeth showing as he turned on the charm. “Hey Matti, you wouldn’t happen to have a spare table for us somewhere?”
“Actually,” she smiled, her pink lips showcasing a set of perfect teeth, “I managed to save you guys the best spot. Follow me.”
“Nice!” Sed exclaimed, pumping his fist. With grins all around, the three followed Matti through the thick crowd of neopets. Chai marveled at how packed the place was; there were tables as far as the eye could see, and each and every chair was occupied. It was insane.
“Hurry up, you slowpokes,” Matti teased, making her way to the stairs that led to the second floor.
Chai paused before he reached the first step. Upstairs? he thought uneasily, but as Sed and Rayze plowed along, he shook his head and followed.
The upper section of the restaurant was just as packed as the lower, but Matti skillfully weaved her way among the tables until she reached a single area where the table and the three chairs that surrounded it were bare: the balcony.
Chai’s eyes widened, and his stomach sank to the floor.
Rayze caught the Zafara’s uneasy expression and turned towards to the pink Aisha. “Um, Matti? You wouldn’t happen to have any other tables? One that’s not on the balcony?”
“Sorry, guys. This is the only one left.” She frowned. “Is something wrong? I thought you’d like the view.”
Chai closed his eyes. The view outside of the lush Altadorian landscape was breathtaking. The green lawns were dotted with stone fountains and the grand Hall of Heroes in the distance was a true marvel. But his heart still fluttered anxiously, begging him to leave the restaurant and put his feet back down on the soil.
Of course, Chai tried to shove those feeling away as he gave Matti a weak smile. “That’s all right. We’re fine, Matti.” Controlling his shaking paw, he pulled out a chair and sat in it. A breeze whistled by and he flinched.
“Um, all right,” Matti said slowly, a curious frown on her face. Sed and Rayze sat down with Chai, looking at him with concern, while she passed out menus and pulled out a small notebook. “So, what’ll you have to drink?”
“Neocola,” Rayze said, while Sed asked for Achyfi.
“Water,” Chai said quickly, his eyes glued shut.
“All right.” The Aisha nodded. “Perfect. I’ll be back in a second.” Swirling around gracefully, she strode off.
As soon as she was gone, Rayze grabbed hold of his friend’s wrist. “Chai, are you crazy? You know you’ve been afraid of heights ever since—”
“I’m trying to get over it,” Chai muttered sharply, shoving the Fire Kyrii away. He opened his eyes and tried to convince him with his stare, but he wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Why don’t we go back to the hotel?” Sed suggested casually, putting down his menu. “I’m not really hungry anyone.”
“Haha, funny,” Chai grumbled, shoving the menu back in the Speckled Bori’s paws. “Listen, I’m sick of always getting in you guys’ way. Just let us have a good time for once without me ruining it with my stupid phobia.”
Rayze eyed him carefully, and then shook his head. “Fine,” the Fire Kyrii murmured, glancing down at the menu.
Chai nodded, forcing himself to grab hold of the menu and scan the list. But the print scattered before his eyes; he couldn’t focus. All he could feel was the wind hitting his back, threatening to throw him off balance even though he was seated firmly in his chair. And in his mind’s eye, all he could see was a graceful Faerie Pteri, flying, soaring through the bright blue sky... and then falling, falling downwards faster and faster and faster...
“Chai!” Rayze barked, and Chai snapped back to life. His paw was clenched on the table, shaking, and he could feel warm sweat beading his forehead, plastering his hair to his pale face. He felt sick.
“Let’s go,” Rayze said, standing up abruptly. “Chai, you need to get to the hotel. And now.”
“N-no,” Chai argued, but his voice held the trace of a stutter; he felt horrible, and he was sure he would never be able to make it through dinner. He sighed, massaged his face, and then stood up. “Fine, I’ll go. But you two are going to stay here.”
“No,” the Darigan Zafara said, more firmly. “I’m sick of making you guys leave all the time. So just lay off.” By now he could hear blood rushing past his ears, and his hands were getting all cold and clammy. He needed to leave. Now. “Order me some Three Layer Hummus,” he muttered pathetically, hoping that a false order would keep his friends in the restaurant. “I’ve always wanted to try some.” Then, turning on his heels, he swerved around the crowded tables, jumped down the stairs two at time, and finally made his way onto the dimly lit streets.
Chai’s feet tapped on the stone-work roads, his strides long as he made his way quickly towards the hotel. Good, he thought when he didn’t hear anyone following him. At least Rayze and Sed can still enjoy themselves without me.
The sky was bright, filled with hundreds of dazzling stars, and Kreludor was smiling its crescent grin down at him from above. But Chai didn’t look upwards; he never did. He kept his eyes on the horizon, and forced his feet to move one step in front of the other, breathing in the cool air with the hope of slowing down his frantically beating heart.
But his heart wouldn’t be still. Being up on the balcony had thrown him more than he’d realized, and the windy night air wasn’t helping. It pulled at his clothes, shoving him with its invisible hands, and tugged at the pair of wings at his back, red and veined with black. Wings that he refused to unfurl, would never unfurl, again.
There was sharp pain in his chest, but Chai ignored it, trying to drown out the world until he spotted the hotel in the distance. The building was small and shoddy, but Stut was merely an upcoming band; until they made it big, the band mates would have to stay in dumpy little motels to conserve neopoints.
Rayze had made sure to reserve a room on the first floor, and Chai couldn’t help but silently thank him as he wove his way down the narrow hall to room 56. The Darigan Zafara pulled out the key from his jacket pocket, fumbling with it until it slid into the lock, and then blindly felt for the light switch. Harsh yellow light flooded the room as he shut the door behind him with shaking hands.
The room looked just like the three had left it a mere hour ago. There were two beds draped with outdated green comforters, a lumpy white cot that Sed had the misfortune of sleeping on after losing a coin toss, and a small folding table that was cluttered with leftover food from the night before.
Chai ignored the food, even though his stomach was growling fiercely from skipping out on dinner, and made his way towards his bed. But he didn’t lie on top of it. Instead, his arms still trembling like the legs of a newborn Ruki, he went to the small space under the bed and pulled out his suitcase.
The red travelling bag was small and square, containing only a few choice pieces of clothing that Chai wore on tour. But Chai wasn’t looking for a new outfit. Hooking a claw in the zipper, he opened it up and felt his heart relax slightly.
Littered on top of his folded clothes were envelopes, roughly one hundred of them lying there as crisp and as white as fallen snow. Each of them was sealed and numbered, and they all bore the same word on the front, written in Chai’s shaky handwriting in black ink: Mom.
Chai dug through his bag until he found a neat stack of empty envelopes, along with a blank sheet of paper and a pen. Then, lying down on the bed, he grasped the pen in his sweaty paw and began to write.
Dear Mom, he addressed, and then the words started flowing, rushing out onto the paper as easily as they did every other day. He wrote about his day, about the sound check at the coliseum and Stut’s final Altadorian performance. He wrote about the Speckled Negg with its postered walls and the beautiful waitress named Matti.
He wrote about the balcony, and how he had stormed out of the restaurant, ditching his friends.
With each word, his heart resumed its steady rhythm, and his handwriting changed from erratic to sane. By time he was signing it with his sloppy signature, he was back to normal.
Rubbing his face wearily, Chai folded his letter, stuffed it in the envelope, and licked it shut. Then, with his pen poised, he wrote “Mom” clearly on the front along with the number 93 in the top right corner where the stamp would normally be. Once the deed was done, he tossed the envelope on top of all the other letters. Letters that were addressed to someone who’d never be able to read them.
“Wow, 93 days,” he murmured, staring up at the popcorn ceiling. “Who knew it’s already been that long.”
No one knew the exact details of what had happened, or even how for that matter, but the memory was engraved in Chai’s mind, forever taunting him when he closed his eyes or felt the wind on his face. A beautiful Faerie Pteri soaring in the sky, high above the trees with her face aglow, as free as could be... And then something happened. Her wings failed and she was falling, tumbling downwards, and she was too far away for Chai to get there in time. His wings had failed him when he had needed them the most, and had left him with a paralyzing fear at the same time.
Chai winced, a shiver running down his spine. Sitting upwards, he closed up his suitcase and shoved it back underneath his bed, away from prying eyes. Then he crawled under the covers. He didn’t care that he was still in his stage clothes and that the light was still on. He just needed to escape.
Chai closed his eyes, letting sleep overtake him as he slowly drifted into oblivion. Goodnight, he thought with his last bit of consciousness. I miss you, Mom.
To be continued...