A Sister's Business
Casey and Norman were quite the ordinary sort of siblings, for the most part. Casey, as the elder of the two, was responsible, reliable, and not prone to discomposure. Norman was young, energetic, and perhaps a little too naive for his age. They did the sort of things that ordinary Neopets do. They lived in an ordinary house in Neopia Central and went to an ordinary school. Nothing about them could really be called extraordinary.
Besides the obvious, of course.
It was a Friday, and Casey was sitting in front of the playground, tail wrapped primly around her paws and holding her head up as proud as any Lupe could. She was not unaware of the awkward glances she received from passing students, but one sharp look from her intimidating, bright eyes was enough to keep them silent. One of her ears twitched impatiently. Norman did not understand the meaning of the word "punctual," nor did he care to learn it. She had been waiting there for a full four-and-a-half minutes before she caught sight of his pale, bouncy ears bobbing up and down in a sea of dispersing students.
A high-pitched shriek suddenly ripped through the usual noises of departing school pets, and Casey saw Norman’s ears drop from their upright position.
"Not again..." she groaned, shouldering her backpack and shoving her way through the mob of confused and frightened Neopets. She found her brother in a sort of oasis made by the crowd of students all hurriedly backing away from him in a wide circle. In the middle, a Ghost Blumaroo was attempting to apologize to a rather stunned Wocky, whose fur was bristled up like a cactus and sticking out every which way.
"I’m so sorry!" he was saying. "I wasn’t looking where I was going. Are you okay?" He tried to lay a comforting paw on the trembling girl’s shoulder, but she shied away from him with a hiss.
"Don’t touch me, you dunce!" she said spitefully. "That’s where you went wrong in the first place!"
"Excuse me." Casey’s low, authoritative voice overpowered all other noise, and summoned all eyes to rest on her as she emerged from the crowd to stand by her brother. "Is something wrong?" The young Wocky’s gaze rested on her for a mere moment before it fell to the ground.
"...Nothing," she said meekly.
"I...I accidentally walked through her," Norman put in when Casey looked to him for an explanation. She sighed, and murmured, "Again, Norman?" under her breath. As much as she wanted to defend her brother, Casey knew that having a Ghost walk through your body, even if it was by accident, felt like having a bucket of ice water poured down the back of your shirt. All things considered, the poor girl’s reaction to the situation was perfectly natural. Even so, Casey shot the still-recovering Wocky a displeased glare before wordlessly shepherding her brother away from the group of gawking students.
"You need to be more careful, Norman," she said once they were out of earshot. "Even I would’ve shrieked like that, and I live with you."
"I know," he sighed, floating droopily beside her. "I got distracted by the clouds." As if to prove his point, he tilted his head back and stared up at the sky as they went. "That one looks like a Cybunny," he said absentmindedly. Casey cleared her throat loudly, and he let his gaze fall back to the ground at their feet.
"Norman, I’m going to graduate Neoschool two years before you. I’m not always going to be there to keep people off your back. You need to learn to watch out for yourself. You know you’re not like other Neopets."
"I know," he repeated, a little more impatiently. "It wouldn’t be so hard if people would just stop acting so weird." Casey waited until they had crossed the street before answering him.
"Norman, you are weird," she said as gently as she knew how. "You’re dead."
"It’s not that weird," he argued stiffly. "Lots of Neopets are Ghosts."
"Most Ghosts aren’t still in school," Casey deadpanned. "And even if they were, all they’d do there is haunt the desks and make the books fly into other students’ heads."
"That doesn’t sound very nice."
"Well, most Ghosts aren’t very nice. That’s why you’re so weird."
"I just want the others to treat me like I’m normal," Norman mumbled, kicking glumly at a rock on the sidewalk. Casey felt her heart soften at his downtrodden demeanor. She would have put a paw around him if she could have. Still, she walked a bit closer to his side the rest of the way home, hoping to give him some form of reassurance.
"Look," she said as they went through the front gate (or in Norman’s case, over it). "Don’t worry so much about what other Neopets think. Just do your best not to accidentally scare anyone, and you’ll be fine."
"I’d be fine either way," he grumbled as he floated through the closed door. Casey had to open it behind him and come in the proper way. "It’s not like anyone can do anything to me." As true as the statement was, Casey doubted it was helping him any. She hung up her backpack by the door and shrugged off her jacket. Then she followed Norman into the kitchen, where their mum was busy frying Omelettes for lunch. Casey and Norman’s mother Dalia was a beautiful Lupe, with shiny periwinkle fur and large golden eyes. She had a stately bearing and a stern face, but her pups knew she was the kindest soul they could ever find in Neopia. When she found Norman haunting the attic of their new Neohome all those years ago, the first thing she did was make him a sandwich. A few months later, Norman officially became Casey’s brother. All it took was a little kindness, and suddenly, their world was one Neopet bigger.
"How was school today?" Dalia asked as they sat down at the kitchen table.
"Fine," Norman said airily, diving into his Omelette with gusto. Sensing that he was leaving something out, Dalia looked pointedly at Casey, who sighed and recounted the events that took place in the school playground.
"It’s the fifth time this month," Casey said with a hint of exasperation. "It’s starting to get embarrassing." Norman reproachfully flicked a bit of sausage at her from across the table.
"Accidents happen all the time," Dalia said calmly. "You can’t get angry over them when they’re not anyone’s fault."
"I’m not...angry..." Casey fumbled. It was not a complete lie. She was not sure how she felt about Norman’s peculiarity. If she was being perfectly honest, she had not thought much of it until they started attending the same school together, and the other students began shooting her weird looks because of him. "I just...wish he’d be more careful."
"Do you honestly think I’m not trying?" Norman snapped around a mouthful of food. Dalia shot him a silent look, and he swallowed before trying to speak again. "It’s not like I mean to upset people!"
"Peace, Norman," Dalia said in her low, matronly voice. "Casey knows that. We all know it. It doesn’t matter how often it happens. What matters is that you always try your best." She spoke with finality, and glanced sternly at Casey, whose response died on the tip of her tongue. When Dalia looked at you like that, it meant you needed to drop it, no matter what it was.
Norman finished lunch first, and seemed to feel much better for it. He bounced out of the kitchen shortly after to play with his Warf. Casey stayed behind, fixed to her seat beneath her mother’s gaze. After a moment of silence, Dalia spoke again, her voice gentle, but firm.
"Norman needs your patience, Casey. We’re the only ones who will truly accept him for what he is. We can’t and shouldn’t ever try to change him."
"I know," Casey sighed, folding her ears back. This was not the first time Dalia had given her this talk. Her mum reached across the table and laid a soft paw on her shoulder.
"I know it’s difficult, but you need to be there for him, even if it’s at the cost of your own image. Vanity is Vira’s business. Ours is loyalty. And one day, I know Norman will find a way to return the favor. There will come a time when you will have to rely on his strength."
What strength? Casey wanted to say, but she held her tongue. Dalia never took snark very well, especially from her. Instead, she nodded, pushed her chair away from the table, gave her mother a kiss on the cheek, and went to her room to puzzle through her homework.
Little did she realize that said day would come sooner than she or Dalia expected.
"I hate research reports..." Norman moaned, laying his head against the desk. Casey looked up from her book.
"But you’re really good at them," she remarked, looking back down and turning a page.
"Doesn’t mean I like ‘em," he grumbled, picking his head up and resting it against his paw. He was staring woefully at a blank sheet of paper beside a thick stack of dusty old books. "I mean, The Development of Neovian Architecture? It’s like Professor Crumb intentionally picked the most boring subject for my report."
"Didn’t you say you were originally from Neovia?" Casey asked, closing her book with an irritated sigh. It did not look like she was going to get much reading done with Norman moaning on the other side of the living room. She got to her paws and crossed the room to examine the texts he was supposed to be studying.
"Yeah, but I don’t remember much," he admitted. "That was before I crossed over into the spiritual realm. Anytime I try to remember, all I get is this....vague image of grey floors and faded wallpaper. It doesn’t sound like anything these books are talking about." Casey picked up one of the books and flipped through it absentmindedly, sneezing as a cloud of dust flew up from between the yellowed pages. There were no pictures.
"Ah, so that’s the problem," Casey groaned. "Norman, you need to learn to construct a visual image from the words. It’s an important part of studying old books."
"When will that skill ever be useful outside of History class?" he argued. "Why don’t they just put in one picture instead of writing down twenty-five hundred words trying to describe it?" His head fell against the desk again and he let out a doleful moan.
"Well, I’ll admit, these aren’t the most colorful descriptions," Casey conceded hesitantly. Truth be told, it sounded like whoever wrote the book was about as interested in Neovian architecture as Norman was. The descriptions weren’t exactly vague, but they were bland. Casey knew the way Norman’s brain worked. He needed to be excited about something if he was going to learn it. Her brow furrowed thoughtfully. Norman needed to get a good grade in this class. Not just because he was really very good at it, but because it would reflect poorly on her image as his sister if he failed. There was no way she would be able to endure the peculiar stares from her fellow students if Norman was both a ghost and a failure.
"How about this," she said suddenly, as a lightbulb went off in her head. "I’ve already finished my homework for the weekend. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and we don’t have anything scheduled. Why don’t I take you down to Neovia for a little research trip?" Norman peeked up at her, his crimson eyes sparkling hopefully.
"You’d do that for me?" he squeaked in awe. Casey rolled her eyes and scuffed her paw against the floor in embarrassment.
"Yeah, yeah, I would. Don’t get all dramatic about it." Her advice was ignored, and Norman promptly jumped to his feet and threw his paws around her neck exuberantly.
"You’re the best big sister in the whole world!" he exclaimed.
"N-Norman!" she gasped, trying to lean away from him. "C-c-cold!" He immediately released her from his icy grip, chuckling nervously.
"Right, right, sorry..." He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly as Casey tried to smooth down her bristling fur. "I guess we should go tell Mum first."
To be continued…