Order of Four: Part Two
There is very little to say about our journey except that it was long, uncomfortable and, as predicted, used up nearly all of my mother's scant savings. Apart from that it was uneventful. We took one of the coaches that ran from the Haunted Woods to Kiko Lake, and then to Neopia Central. Having gotten over the first shock of leaving the place where I had spent all of my life, I was quite excited. Neovia, though large enough by now to be classified as a small city, was beginning to feel stifling; the quietness, and the dark somber colors, seemed to accentuate the fact that nothing ever happened there. But Neopia Central was a big city – the largest in Neopia. There would be life there, and excitement, and opportunity. Even as we crossed the mostly uninhabited lands between the Woods and Kiko Lake, I saw things that were totally new to me – fields, flowers, and (perhaps most incredible of all) unfiltered sunlight, bright and strong.
At one point it occurred to me to ask my mother something, and the circumstance was remarkable in that she answered me. "Mother," I began (it was the second day after leaving the Haunted Woods), "why are we going to Neopia Central? There are so many other, closer places."
She sighed. "Because it is very big, and it will be very hard for anyone to find us there. I would have preferred to stay in Neovia, or to go almost anywhere else. But..."
Feeling that she was being unusually communicative on the subject of mysteries I had long wondered about, I eagerly pressed her for more information. "Why would you have preferred to go anywhere else?"
"Well, because... because, you see, your father used to live there once. Neopia Central was his home. I never liked it, and now it has associations that I would rather forget. But I don't think we have any other choice."
I could tell by the end that she was speaking more to herself than to me. Nevertheless, I was burning with curiosity – she had never told me anything about my father before. My questions were always met with a weary, plaintive, "I wish you wouldn't ask me that, Felix. You know I can't answer and it only tortures both of us." Once, just once, she had smiled at me and told me that I looked very much like him. That, however, had been the beginning and end of her communication. I knew better than to expect a different result now, but I filed this information away in the back of my mind as something valuable.
We reached Neopia Central on a grey, rainy day in March. Even from a distance, I could see the shining metropolis outlined against the sky, buildings taller and more numerous than I had ever seen. And, as we drew nearer I became aware of the sheer volume of people in the streets. They were everywhere, as far as the eye could see, moving quickly and in currents like some sort of gargantuan colorful river. It was nothing like Neovia, where men and women in their dark clothes moved slowly down sidewalks, coming from and going nowhere. Here everything was alive and bustling. I felt the excitement rise higher as I thought about what awaited us here. Surely, among so many people, there would be no point in our hiding any longer! I would be able to leave the house, to explore the streets, perhaps even to work. (It seemed very grand to me then, the idea of going out on my own and earning money.)
Even my mother's low spirits could not check mine. We had traveled for seven days with rests of only a few hours each, and I was heartily ready to have reached our destination, and to see what Neopia Central had in store for me.
We were let out on the very outskirts of the city; each of us held two rather tattered suitcases, which contained everything we had managed to bring from Neovia. I also realized for the first time that I had no idea where we were going. "Where are we going to stay?" I asked my mother, as we stood in the wet street with puddles sloshing around our ankles and rain pouring down our necks.
"It's been such a long time since I was here," she said uncertainly, looking around her with dismay in her faded blue eyes. "I think we are supposed to head in that direction." She nodded toward the northeast, where I could see tall glittering buildings on the dreary horizon. "That should take us to the main center of the city. It may be too expensive to stay anywhere near there – I'm not sure how much things have changed in fifteen years. If it is, we will have to continue on to the area nearest the sea."
I knew from my readings that Neopia Central was a port city, and the idea of the sea appealed to me; I had never seen it before. Then again, so did the idea of seeing that glittering center of the city. So we trudged onward through the rain, sticking close together in the crowd. I noticed that everybody here seemed to walk quickly and with their heads down, but I decided that perhaps this was merely due to the rain.
As we walked, I could see our surroundings beginning to change. The outskirts, though sufficiently large and busy enough to impress me, had had a certain dingy quality to them, with greyish buildings no more than two or three stories tall. And the people, though certainly not poor, were far from well-to-do. Now, as we approached the center, everything grew taller and brighter and cleaner. The crowds were even bigger, but in them I saw men and women richly dressed and smiling, walking at a leisurely pace under the shelter of umbrellas. Everywhere, signs and dazzling colors caught my attention. The city was green here; great care had obviously been taken with the landscaping, and everything was bright and picturesque. Even through the rain, two enormous spotlights moved through the sky, and I could see the arc of a gargantuan rainbow somewhere up ahead. I gazed in wonder at a giant building shaped like a wizard's hat.
"Look!" my mother exclaimed, pointing. Some of her gloominess seemed to have passed, in the wonder of all the sights around us. "Over there, I believe that is a hotel. Yes – the Neolodge, it's called. We may as well go there and inquire."
Struggling at a right angle against the tide of people, we made our way to the Neolodge. It was the most impressive hotel I had ever seen, and I experienced a certain sinking sensation as I wondered whether we would be able to stay in it for more than a night or two. We would have to find a more permanent living situation, and quickly.
Still, I was cheered a little by the building's interior. It was spacious and modern, with comfortable sofas and almost suspiciously thriving potted plants. As we waited in line at the reception desk, I leafed through a brochure and realized that the Neolodge was, in fact, the proprietary company of a large chain of hotels. The idea was quite foreign to me, but it did seem that perhaps we might be able to stay in one of the more modest options at low cost.
It was our turn at the desk; I hastily replaced the brochure and listened to the exchange between my mother and the receptionist, a tall and graceful Faerie Lenny in a lacy blue dress. "Welcome to the Neolodge," she said. "How can we help you?"
"We're looking for a room, please," my mother replied, exchanging a hesitant glance with me.
"In which of our hotels?" The receptionist looked us over briefly, obviously taking in our clothes and shabby suitcases. "Perhaps the Cheap Hotel?"
That, I thought, did not sound very appealing. It was evident that my mother felt the same. "Well, perhaps. What are the rates?"
"Only twenty neopoints a night, and very comfortable. Our guarantee. Or," she continued smoothly, "if you would prefer something in a similar price range, we have the Mountain Lodge for thirty a night, and the Fleapit Motel for ten."
Twenty neopoints a night! It was all I could do to stop myself from staring at her stupidly. In the Haunted Woods, we could have stayed in a luxurious inn for that price; here, it appeared, we were limited to the extreme low end of the selections.
"We will take a room in the Cheap Hotel," my mother replied after a moment's silence.
"Very well. And what name should I put down for the reservation?"
I wondered what name she would give – Allen, perhaps? That had been our most recent one. But instead she said, "Richardson, please."
The Lenny reached under the desk for something, then handed her a key and a brochure similar to the one I had been reading. "You've been booked for Room 277. Here's your key. The map is in the brochure – it's fairly close by, you should have no trouble finding it."
"We also have various amenities available for just five extra neopoints a night. Restaurant, burger bar, fitness center –"
"Oh, no, no thank you," my mother said hastily. We were given another slip of paper and then we hurried out onto the street, rejoining the endless crowds.
When we were clear of the Neolodge, my mother poured out her worries in an agitated voice. "Oh, Felix, I had forgotten how much more expensive everything is here. Even this is too expensive, but Fleapit Motel sounded so horrible. Well," she added hopefully, "perhaps the wages will be higher here as well."
"Perhaps," I agreed. I was mildly concerned as well, but we had always managed before and I trusted my mother to arrange everything now. Instead I studied the map – I was dearly in need of a hot bath and a rest after so many days on the road. "If we follow this main street through the center and then continue a little to the area near the sea, it ought to be on our right."
I noticed that all of the Neolodge hotels were arranged in order along the street, beginning with something called the AstroVilla (presumably the most expensive, although to my mind the Presidential Palace and the Royal Neopian sounded more attractive) and ending with the unfortunately named Cockroach Towers. I was not pleased to see that our destination was third from the end.
As we continued down the main road, our surroundings – like the hotels – became progressively more run-down. Colors faded, and the elaborate shrubbery dwindled down to the occasional lackluster shrub. (Farther in, there was not even that.) Still, when we did reach the Cheap Hotel, it was at least passable. We were shown to a small but clean room, overlooking a back alley, and we began to unpack.
Overall, if I studiously allowed myself to forget the cost, it was really quite nice. I was disappointed, however, that we had not yet had a view of the sea, and said so.
My mother sighed, smiled, and shook her head. "We are still very far. I believe there are a great many settlements between here and the docks, although I've never been to that part of the city. Anyway, we have other things to worry about. I think you had better wash and go to bed, and so had I – tomorrow I will have to look for work."
I did as she advised. I was exhausted, and in some ways disillusioned; but I was also eagerly anticipating what lay ahead. Whatever happened, I thought as I drifted off to sleep, at the very least they would certainly be unable to find us among all these people. Whoever they were.
To be continued...