A Sister's Business:Part Two
And with those words, Casey saw her brother visibly deflate. His ears fell back and he floated a little lower to the ground. Unphased, Dalia continued. "The Haunted Woods are extremely dangerous during the Month of Storing. Two pups are hardly fit to explore them unchaperoned even in the calmest of times, let alone just after Halloween."
"But...Dad goes there all the time," Casey fumbled, stalling for time to come up with a convincing argument.
"Don’t feign ignorance, Casey. You know your father is a trained Battledome Veteran and monster slayer. You, on the other hand, have barely just finished memorizing the times tables."
"It’s not my fault they’re so easy to forget," she grumbled. She glanced at Norman, who was glancing pleadingly between his mother and sister. He had been so excited, too. She could not let this one go, no matter how Dalia glared at her. "Mum, Norman needs to do well on this assignment. It’ll affect his end-of-semester grade. And you know he never learns things from books."
"I said no, Casey," Dalia said, raising her voice just a bit. "You may be willing to risk your own demise for the sake of academic excellence, but I am not."
"What if we went with Dad?" Norman piped up in desperation.
"I’m afraid that’s not possible at this point. He’ll be patrolling the perimeter of the Woods until after the yearly Zombie uprisings have settled., and he won’t have time to come home before then."
"We could meet him there," Casey suggested hastily. "He can spare one day away from the perimeter to take us on a field trip, right?" Before Dalia could answer, Norman dove in for one final attempt.
"Please, Mum?" he said, gazing up at her with his large, sparkling red eyes. "I’ve always wanted to go there. I can’t remember anything from before I changed, and I feel like going to Neovia might help me remember who I was."
Ooh, brilliant tactic! Casey thought, swelling with pride. Norman really knew how to get what he wanted. Even Dalia, who had plenty of experience with saying no to the Puppyblew Eyes, would not be able to resist the added pressure of his thirst for self-discovery. Indeed, Casey could already see her mother beginning to cave, though to the unknowing eye, she looked as composed and self-assured as ever. A few tense moments passed, as Dalia struggled to hold Norman’s soulful gaze. Finally, after what seemed like ages, she heaved an exasperated sigh, folded her ears back in defeat, and reluctantly murmured her consent.
It was like Norman was a bomb that exploded all over the kitchen. He seemed to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. Casey had trouble keeping track of him as he bounced ecstatically around the room. It seemed this trip was more important to him than she had initially thought. He would certainly never get this worked up over something for school, even if it did mean getting a field trip. Come to think of it, Casey had never really asked Norman about his past life. She assumed it never really bothered him, because he never talked much about it. But as she watched him zooming around the room like a Ghostkerchief on a sugar rush, she realized that it would be perfectly natural for him to want to know more about it.
That night, Dalia wrote a note to the inn where Aaron was staying, and had it delivered by Weewoo. If all went according to plan, he would meet them on the outskirts of the woods and take them straight to Neovia.
"And only Neovia," Dalia warned as they bustled to get packed the next morning. "You are to go no further into those woods, understand? And if your father tells you to do something, you do it immediately, no questions asked. You’ll only be safe as long as you’re with him, so don’t go wandering off by yourselves. Casey, keep a close eye on Norman. Your dad will have enough to worry about without constantly trying to keep tabs on him besides. And make absolutely certain he does the actual report. I’m not going to all this trouble just so you can sight-see. You are to be home no later than seven-thirty. Do I make myself absolutely, one-hundred percent, crystal clear?"
"Yes, ma’am," both Neopets said solemnly. "We’ll be okay, Mum," Casey added.
"Just...just make sure that you are," Dalia faltered. "Fyora knows it’s hard enough to worry about your dad while he’s out there hunting. I’m going to lose my mind if something happens to any of you."
"Hey, Mum, don’t worry!" Norman said brightly. "Nothing can happen to me." He gestured to himself with a ghostly paw.
"Norman..." Dalia’s face took on an uncharacteristically gentle look. "If...if you do find anything about yourself, you need to understand that it won’t matter to us. We’ll always be here for you, no matter what you find out." Norman blinked a few times, before giving a cheery, if somewhat uncertain, "Okay!"
"What was that about?" he wondered as they walked down the road leading South of Neopia Central.
"I’m not sure," Casey admitted. "Probably just a Mum thing."
Meanwhile, high above the gnarled grey branches that clawed the sky above the Haunted Woods, a Weewoo was flitting around in hopeless circles, a letter clutched tightly in its beak. The wind had carried it too far West, and it had become terribly disoriented. The sea of wood seemed to stretch on for endless miles, and a thick fog hung over the landscape like a shroud. Panting from exhaustion, the poor creature wearily floated down to the nearest branch and rested on it, hoping to catch its breath and regain its bearings.
Suddenly, it gave a terrified peep as a shadowy hand darted up from beneath and coiled around it in an icy death-grip. Still clinging desperately to the letter, the Weewoo was dragged down between the branches, into the gloom below, where an unfortunate demise surely awaited. But then, the freezing clutches fell away, and the little Petpet was free-falling through the misty air, confused and gasping for breath. There was a high-pitched screech, and then a warm, gentle paw reached up and snatched the Weewoo right out of the air.
"Woah, little guy," a friendly voice said. "What are you doing all the way out here?" Shaking its head to get rid of a sudden onslaught of dizziness, the tiny postal carrier looked up to find a Spotted Lupe looking down at it quizzically. He was wearing a dark grey hunting tunic and carried a scabbard at his side. Looking around, the Weewoo saw its savior’s sword planted in the ground a few feet away, surrounded by dark wisps of black smoke. A monster hunter! Thank Fyora! The Petpet peeped gratefully and tried to offer a salute, only to find that its wing was badly sprained. "You must’ve hit a branch on the way down," the hunter said, clicking his tongue sympathetically. "Sorry I didn’t get here sooner. Wait, is that a letter? Are you a Postal Weewoo?" The little bird nodded and allowed him to take the letter from between its beak. "This is from Dalia?" he asked in surprised. The Weewoo nodded again. The Lupe chuckled a little, then said, "Well, you’re in luck. I’m Aaron, the guy who was supposed to get this. Fancy meeting in a place like this."
Aaron gently set the injured creature down before tearing open the envelope with a smile on his face. That smile quickly dimmed, however, as he hastily scanned the contents. "Oh no..." he muttered. "I was supposed to get this yesterday." The Postal Weewoo chirped apologetically, but Aaron shook his head. "No, it’s okay. It’s not your fault. But I really need to get out of here. What do you say you ride along in my pocket until we can get you to a vet?" His companion whistled in agreement, and allowed itself to be picked up again and placed carefully in Aaron’s breast pocket. "Alright, sorry if this gets a little bumpy," he said, pulling his sword out of the ground and sheathing it.
The Lupe gave a mighty leap forward and took off sprinting, his paws thudding softly as they pounded against the leaf-littered ground.
"Where is he?"
Casey started as Norman made his soft inquiry. They had been waiting in complete silence at the treeline for almost forty minutes now, and their father had yet to appear.
"Maybe he got hung up rescuing some villagers from a wild beast or something," she said hopefully, trying to deny the nervous twisting of her heart.
"What if he doesn’t show up?"
"This is Dad we’re talking about. He always shows up," Casey answered fiercely.
"But we’re running out of time!" Norman fretted. "We’re supposed to be home at seven-thirty. It’s already one-fifteen, and we haven’t so much as glanced at any Neovian architecture, let alone learned anything."
"He’ll be here, Norman. Just be patient."
"I can’t!" He began to pace back and forth, his feet just barely touching the ground. "I...I feel something out here. Like...a calling. I want to learn about who I was before, and I know there are answers in there!" He threw out his paw in a vague gesture towards the woods.
"This is really bothering you?" Casey asked quietly, her eyes narrowing in concern. "Norman, that’s never been an issue before."
"I know, but..." He trailed off, letting out a little, anxious huff of frustration. "You told me I’m different. And all this time I’ve been trying to pretend I’m not, but it’s not working!" It all came out in a rush, and Casey had trouble keeping up as he continued, his voice going up an octave and trembling. "And if I’m not like everybody else, then I don’t belong here. So maybe, if I find out who I was before, I can find out where I’m supposed to be now, because it sure as heck isn’t here!" He stopped pacing and sat down quite suddenly, wrapping his arms around his knees and resting his chin on top of them.
"Norman, I..." Casey began, searching for the adequate words. "I never meant...You are different, but that doesn’t mean you don’t belong with us. We’re your family. Me, Mum, and Dad, we...we love you, Norman. Just the way you are."
"Is that why you’re embarrassed to be seen with me?"
The words shot out and stung her like a dart. He had hit the nail right on the head. Frantically, she searched for a response, but her jaw hung open and useless as she found none. He was looking at her desperately, waiting for her to deny it, but she could not. Casey was many things, but she was not a liar. After a moment, Norman put his head back down on his arms and mumbled, "That’s what I thought."
"Norman..." she gasped, but he cut her off as he stood up quickly and shouldered his backpack. There was a disquieting gleam in his normally friendly eyes. He stared into the woods curiously, almost hungrily. After a moment, he took a step forward. Casey sprang to her feet and leapt in front of him, blocking his path. "Where are you going?!"
"There are answers in there," he said softly, walking right through her as though he had not seen her. Casey shivered and gritted her teeth to keep from gasping. That would only hurt him more. He needed her to pretend he was normal, and she had failed. She had failed so many times. And now the Woods were calling to him, beckoning to him with a force she could not counter, and he was helpless to resist because of her. She was going to lose him.
She stood stock still, breathless from fear and shock and self-loathing. She shook herself together and turned just in time to see Norman disappear into the woods, casting an eerie glow over the shadows around him. He would have looked perfectly at home to anyone else. A weary ghost returning to the dark woods from whence he came. It made for a spooky and eerily picturesque scene. But all Casey could think was, I have to stop him. I can’t lose him!
So, without wasting even enough time to pick up her backpack from the ground, she chased after him.
To be continued…