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The Gallant Return of Kathryn and Tobin: Part One

by fields_of_gold


     "No no no no no no no no no no no noooooooooooo!”

     Passers-by slowed down and turned surreptitiously to get a look at the blue Ogrin in the bright yellow rain hat lying in the middle of the cobblestone street screaming bloody murder as if the world had come to an end.

     “Tobin calm down!” I cried over the noise, covering my ears as I tried to avoid the stares, “It's okay, we'll just go somewhere else!” I looked helplessly at my mother and our friend David as we stood outside the Neopia Central petpet shop, which stood darkened with a large red “closed” sign in the window.

     My brother Tobin has always been... different. He never does the things you'd expect, and has an extremely individual nature, one trait of which being his obsessive need for rigid structure and routine. Today's meltdown was due to the fact that the petpet shop where he always went to buy food for his beloved nuranna, Gil, was closed, and as far as Tobin was concerned, it was the absolute end of the world. He'd never be able to buy nuranna flakes again, and subsequently his best friend in the whole world would starve to death. Tobin's mind is very black and white.

     I sighed and moved away, my hands still over my ears as Tobin continued screaming. I studied my reflection in the window of the darkened shop and saw a very tired red Zafara looking back at me. Life with a brother like mine wasn't easy.

     “Kathryn!” I heard someone call my name. I turned around and found my mother looking pleadingly at me as she knelt beside my distraught brother, “Kathryn, you know how to calm him, come and give us a hand.”

     I sighed and shot our friend David, who stood several feet away shifting anxiously from foot to foot, a pitying look. He'd been close with our family for a little less than a year, but basic training for living in Tobin's world had come on his first day, when my petpet-obsessed brother had given him a three-hour long monologue lecture on the history of the nuranna, the feeding habits of the doglefox and the best grooming regimen for puppyblews, along with every other tiny irrelevant detail about every stupid petpet in Neopia, by way of introduction.

     Taking a deep breath, I knelt down next to Tobin, whose blue face was turning bluer by the second as his inconsolable wailing continued, accompanied by all four paws thrumming the cobblestone bricks mercilessly. I couldn't believe the kid was ten years old; he certainly didn't look two years my junior, not right now at least.

     “Tobin,” I said, trying to be loud enough to be heard while simultaneously sounding soothing, “Tobe, it's alright, they'll have Gil's food in another shop I promise.”

     “H-how do you know?” Tobin sobbed, “Besides it doesn't matter, we always get his food from here! It won't be the same and it'll be all wrong!”

     “No it won't,” I said, thinking fast, “The shopkeeper told me he sells some of his nuranna flakes to the market across the street sometimes, it's the exact same food, I promise.”

     Tobin stopped beating the ground and quieted long enough to study me, his large wet yellow eyes flicking over my face without ever meeting my gaze. “Really?” he sniffled, “He really said that?”

     “Yep,” I nodded, lying through my teeth, “I asked him a while ago, just in case something like this were to happen, and that's what he told me, you wanna go see?”

     Tobin looked thoughtful for a moment, then finally took a deep breath and sighed. “Okay,” he said quietly, rubbing both forepaws over his damp face as he readjusted his yellow rain hat and picked himself up off the ground.

     I let him lead the way, and Mom gave me a grateful squeeze round the shoulders as we walked. “Well done,” she murmured.

     I sighed, just another day with the kid from Kreludor.

     The bell jangled as we entered the general store, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw that there in the corner stood sacks of nuranna flakes identical to the ones my brother fed his petpet.

     Tobin, his previous upset now entirely forgotten, approached the corner and grasped three bags in his teeth, trotting up to our mother and holding them out for her.

     “Gee Tobin,” Mom said, “I really don't think Gil needs that much food, it'll go off before you have time to use it.”

     “Not if I keep the bags sealed until I'm ready to use them,” Tobin mumbled through the sacks, “Besides, they're cured with preservatives that ensure sustained freshness.”

     Mom sighed, having had enough of battling with Tobin for one day. “Alright,” she said, taking the food to the counter.

     The yellow Kacheek behind the register peered over his half-moon glasses at Tobin, “Find everything you were after sonny?”

     Tobin didn't respond; he was busy examining a spinning rack of key chains, seemingly mesmerised by the light glinting off the metal as he spun it round and round.

     I elbowed him, which earned me a hard glare; Tobin hated being touched. “That man is talking to you,” I murmured.

     “No he's not,” Tobin said in a normal volume, “He's talking to someone named Sonny.”

     I grit my teeth, trying to ignore another of my brother's charming pervasive quirks, his difficulty understanding non-literal language and figures of speech. “That's just a nickname,” I whispered, “He doesn't know your name so he used that instead, but he's definitely talking to you!”

     At that, Tobin turned around as if nothing had happened and glanced at the shopkeeper, “Yes, I found everything I needed, if I hadn't I would have told you, and by the way, my name is Tobin, not Sonny.”

     Mom, David and I all cringed; Tobin wasn't trying to be rude, he was simply matter-of-fact, and sometimes he came across as more brusque than he meant because of it.

     Mom muttered a hurried apology to the shopkeeper and ushered my brother out the door quickly before he could make anything worse.

     David and I walked slowly behind Mom and Tobin, and I listened in half-heartedly to Mom's attempt at teaching my brother what he'd done wrong and what to say next time. These social lessons were never-ending, and they never stuck for very long.

     “Well that was an adventure,” David said, smiling at me.

     I rolled my eyes, “Are you kidding? This was nothing, trust me, you'll know a real adventure with Tobin when you see one.”

     We got home and Tobin burst through the door, running up the stairs to check on his friend. He returned moments later with Gil bobbing beside him, hovering in the air at his shoulder.

     “Look Gil, I got you some food,” Tobin said, opening one of the bags Mom had left on the kitchen counter and tipping its contents into the blue plastic bowl on the floor. “I hope you don't mind, we had to go to a different place to get it, but it's the same stuff our regular guy sells, it should be alright,” he said, sounding like a connoisseur.

     Gil just blinked his large red eyes unconcernedly, his gills snapping open and closed as he eyed up the food bowl.

     I sat in the living room watching my brother, feeling very sad, not for the first time, that his only friend in the world should be a glorified floating fish. I had tried I didn't know how many times to persuade Tobin to play with the other kids at school, but he was just never interested. Every time he had tried to talk to them in the past, they ignored him or teased him, and so now he avoided them like the plague, preferring to play by himself on the swings or stay inside and help his teacher grade her papers.

     For all his difficulty with people, Tobin was crazy smart; he was in the grade below mine, having skipped first grade, and was doing maths two levels above me. There was no denying the kid was bright, it was just too bad some of those book smarts didn't translate to social skills in any way.

     I sighed and turned around to face the back of the sofa, sitting up on my knees as I stared out the window, pressing my forehead against the cool glass. What we needed was a change of pace; if I could get my brother out of his stupid fixed routines for a few days and take him somewhere fun, maybe Roo Island or Kiko Lake, then maybe he'd lighten up, meet some new people, make some new friends. The more I thought about it, the more I came to like the idea; spring break was coming, and we'd have a whole week off. I'd talk to Mom about it and see what she said.

     I brought it up casually that evening at dinner, carefully judging Mom's mood to ensure I chose my moment well, and when it felt right, I plunged in. “Say Mom,” I prodded my baked potato absently.


     “Y'know, I've been thinking, it's been a long time since we went on vacation, and, well, spring break is coming up, you think we could, I dunno, go somewhere?” I tried to sound non-committal, like it didn't matter to me either way.

     “No,” came Tobin's prompt flat reply from the other side of the table. He didn't look up from his macaroni.

     “How come?” I asked, trying to quell a wave of frustration.

     “Because we don't go on vacation,” he said, still not looking at me, “We spend spring break swimming and playing in the park and going into town to visit the petpet shop. We can't do that if we go on vacation.”

     “Exactly,” I replied insistently, “We've been doing the same boring things for years and I want to do something different.”

     Tobin's head snapped up at that; he hated that word.

     At that point Mom interjected, “You know Kathryn, that doesn't actually sound like a bad idea, it would be nice to have a change of pace.”

     Tobin started to get anxious; his eyes clouded with fear and he flapped his left paw under the table. “No it wouldn't,” he said, sounding more urgent, “A change of pace is a bad idea, we have no idea what'll happen if we do that, it could be a complete disaster, we can't go, we can't!”

     Mom smiled at Tobin. “Relax honey,” she murmured, “You don't even know where we're going yet, you never know, you might have fun.”

     Suddenly an idea lit up in my brain as I remembered something. “You know Tobe, I heard Kiko Lake has a really great petpet shop, and you know what else? It's in the middle of the woods next to this giant lake, so there'll be plenty of space and fresh air, and there will be hardly anyone there, so no one will bother us, doesn't that sound fun?”

     Tobin looked at me and his flapping slowed. “Really?” he asked guardedly, “They really have a petpet shop?”

     I nodded, “Yeah, we can go into the travel office in town tomorrow where they keep all the brochures of vacation spots and I'll show you.”

     Tobin gave this some consideration; he was weighing the uncertainty of breaking his routine against the possibility of indulging his special interest. Finally he took a deep breath and nodded, “Alright,” he said slowly, “I'll go down to the travel office with you tomorrow, but I still don't think this vacation thing is a very good idea.”

     I glanced at Mom and we shot each other surreptitious grins; once Tobin was on board, there was no going back.

     The next afternoon after school, just as I'd promised, I took Tobin into town to visit the travel office and examine their brochures on Kiko Lake. We pushed open the heavy glass doors and the woman behind the counter looked up. “Can I help you?” she asked.

     Tobin ignored her, marching past the desk as he headed for the racks of pamphlets on the other side of the room.

     I smiled apologetically, “No thanks,” I said, “We're just looking at travel brochures for Kiko Lake.”

     The woman smiled, “Oh, I've been there before, it's lovely, are you going to go on the glass bottom boat tours?”

     I said, “Yes,” at the exact moment that Tobin responded, “No,” not looking up from the pamphlet he was leafing through.

     I forced a smile, trying to draw the woman's curious gaze away from my brother. “We haven't really settled the details yet,” I murmured.

     “Yes we have,” Tobin said, scanning the racks for another brochure, “We're going to visit the petpet shop in town and go to the beach, they probably have turdles living in burrows in the sand. Did you know the turdle lays its eggs in holes along the beach, then when they hatch, the babies dig their way out and crawl toward the water? You have to be careful because if you get too close to a turdle nest and the parents are still close by, they'll attack you, they have very sharp, microscopic razor teeth all along their beaks.”

     The woman stared at Tobin.

     “He um, likes petpets,” I mumbled lamely. Turning to my brother, I said, “Why don't we bring the pamphlets home with us and look at them there? That way Mom can see them too.” At that moment I was looking for anything that would get us out of there before he could say something else weird.

     “Okay,” Tobin said, pulling out every pamphlet he could find with 'Kiko Lake' written on it. He handed them to me then turned tail and walked out, not acknowledging the woman, who had since retreated back behind her desk.

     “Um, thanks,” I smiled, trying to cover for my brother's lack of social graces.

     We got home and Tobin immediately disappeared off to his room, leaving me to examine the pamphlets with Mom.

     “The woman at the travel office said the glass bottom boat tours are fun,” I told her, pointing out a picture on one of the glossy covers.

     “She's right,” Mom replied, “I went to Kiko Lake once years ago before you and Tobin came along, I always told myself one day I'd go back. You know, I was thinking, I'll bet David would love to come with us, and he might be able to handle Tobin duty on occasion.”

     I smiled; I liked the sound of that. I was about to reply when the pitter patter of familiar feet could be heard on the stair, and a moment later, Tobin came into the kitchen, a piece of folded paper in his mouth. He dropped it on the table and sat down beside us, unfolding the page. “I have the beginning of our vacation all planned out,” he said.

     Mom and I shot each other wary glances, but we let Tobin continue.

     “We'll fly out by Eyrie on the Friday evening before spring break is due to start, that way we'll be checked into our cabin and ready to get things started the next morning without wasting any time. Saturday morning we'll go to the beach from precisely nine to twelve, then we'll go back to the cabin for lunch. At one o'clock, we'll go and visit the petpet shop and stay there til three, when we'll be just in time to join the nature tour through the woods, I'm bringing my binoculars in case we see any petpets. By the time that's done it'll be five o'clock, so we'll have just enough time go back to the beach before we have to be back at the cabin by seven so I have time to feed Gil. Then we can do it all over again on Sunday. I haven't quite got the details of the remaining five days worked out yet.”

     I stared at him. “Alright hotshot,” I said, “Let's get one thing straight, this is my vacation too, and I'm not wasting all of it wandering around looking at stupid petpets.”

     “I know,” Tobin said, “That's why I allocated plenty of beach time, so you wouldn't have to spend the whole time at the petpet shop.”

     I blinked, suddenly feeling a little abashed; my brother had made a concerted effort to consider what I wanted, and I had to give him credit, because thinking of other peoples' needs did not come easily to him.

     Mom smiled and put a hand on Tobin's shoulder, but drew back as he flinched. “I think that sounds like fun honey, but there are a lot of other things to do besides just going to the beach and looking at petpets, why don't we look at the pamphlets together and see if we can find something everyone will enjoy?”

     Tobin looked forlornly at his list, then back at Mom, but he sighed and nodded reluctantly, “Alright, I suppose,” he said, “But I thought I had everything worked out.”

     “I know,” Mom said, “And it was a good effort.” She paused as something else Tobin had said dawned on her, “Oh, and sweetie, I don't think we'll be able to take Gil with us, he wouldn't like travelling much.”

     I held my breath as I watched my brother's reaction.

     He stiffened as his eyes locked on to Mom's face. “What-what do you mean?” he asked anxiously, “Who's going to look after him? How do you know he's not going to like travelling? How do you know the person you hire to look after him will do a good job? What if I come back in a week and he's starving to death? What if they don't play with him? What if he misses me and runs away?” Tears brimmed in his eyes as he bombarded her with one desperate question after another, giving her no time to answer.

     Finally Mom cut in, trying to cut the brewing meltdown short. “Don't worry,” she said, “You've met our next door neighbour Gina before, right? Well I already asked and she said she'd be willing to look after Gil for us while we're gone, she's kept plenty of petpets before so she knows how to look after them, and she'll make sure to play with him so much he won't have time to miss you, you'll see, he'll be fine.”

     Tobin's hyperventilating slowed a little as he pondered this. Finally he jumped from his chair and ran up the stairs, saying, “I'd better make her a list of instructions so she doesn't forget anything!”

     I watched my brother disappear and glanced at Mom. “I feel sorry for Gina,” I smirked. The mildly worried look on Mom's face said she did too.

     Tobin was gone for nearly forty minutes, but when he returned, he did so with five sheets of paper stapled to one another. From where I sat, I could see that his writing covered both sides of each page.

     “There,” Tobin said, dropping his list in front of Mom, “Check it to make sure I didn't miss anything.”

     I rose from my chair and went to stand behind Mom, peering over her shoulder to see what my brother had written. The first page was formatted like a legal document, and Tobin had printed in large block capitals at the top, “Rules and Ramifications of Tobin's Temporary Discharge of Ownership over Gil the Nuranna.” I glanced at my brother, once again impressed, but not surprised, by his vocabulary. I looked back at the page and kept reading, “This document outlines and specifies the rules and instructions for care regarding temporary acquisition of ownership by Gina, here and after known as “the petpet sitter” over Gil the nuranna, here and after known as “the petpet”. All rules and instructions must be followed precisely, and discovery of any violation of said rules by Tobin, here and after known as “the owner” will immediately render the petpet sitter's temporary rights of ownership null and void, along with incurring any fine or reimbursement for physical or emotional damage to the petpet that the owner deems appropriate and necessary.”

     At the bottom of the page, Tobin had drawn two lines, on one of which he had signed his name. Under the blank line, it read, “I have read and understand the rules and instructions that must be followed upon my acceptance of temporary ownership over Gil the nuranna, and I understand and accept the punishments for breaking or in any way ignoring said rules and instructions.”

     I bit my lip and tried hard not to laugh. “Tobe, are you sure you're not going a bit overboard? It's just for a week, and Gina knows what she's doing.”

     “You can never be too careful,” Tobin replied seriously.

     “But you have five pages here!” I cried, “Surely all you have to know about taking care of a petpet is what to feed it, where to lock it up for the night and where it likes to go on walks!”

     Tobin stared at me as if that were the dumbest thing he'd ever heard. He opened his mouth to reply, then seemingly thought better of it, and merely sighed and walked off, shaking his head as if he pitied me.

     As soon as Tobin was out of earshot, Mom and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

     “I have no idea where he gets this stuff!” Mom cried, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes as she flipped through Tobin's extensive list.

     “All I know is that I'd hate to be Gina when she realises the enormity of her undertaking!” I laughed.

To Be Continued...

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