Chapter 19: Homesickening

Not the final version. Book version may vary.


Ropak, Top, Alden, and Duval fled south through the snowy tundra, Top hanging onto Duval’s shoulders to the kudeso’s discomfort. He tried to persuade Top to let go and Ropak and Alden to not return home. They had to focus on finding a ship to leave Zhop, he said. Besides which, the Guard certainly searched for and maybe even tracked them, so visiting their homes put their families at risk.

“All the more reason to return,” Alden said. “They did background checks on us. The Guard has my cell phone. They must know of my family. I have to make sure they’re okay. I couldn’t sleep without knowing they’re safe from the Zhopian Guard. We might have to take them with us.”

“What about Spenk and Jamal?” Ropak asked. “You can’t even be sure where they are.”

“I’ve spoken with them since they reached their destinations,” Alden said, “so I have a pretty good idea. Still, if I can’t be sure, the Zhopian Guard can’t, either. If we have time we can get them, but Orville and Xavier are my main concern.”

Of course, Ropak couldn’t take his whole village with them.

“I doubt they’d be attacked,” Ropak said. “They couldn’t keep tabs on every single wrallot village. How would they know which one I’m from?”

At night they slept at the bottom of hills or in clusters of trees, hidden from view. They swapped guard duty and remained in the dark—a fire would reveal their location. They cleared the snow and stayed warm with blankets Top had eaten a while ago.

They traveled several days, eating what they could find along the way. As kudesos couldn’t digest plants Ropak caught Duval small rodents. The kudeso’s look of disgust at the raw wild meat was all the thanks Ropak needed.

 

Duth_Olec

They also ate the onions they’d stored in Top!

Wally_Plotch

Onions?

Duth_Olec

Yeah, Top doesn’t like onions, so they could store onions in Top without them eating them. Wasn’t that established earlier?

Wally_Plotch

No.

Duth_Olec

Oh. Well now it is. Half-heartedly. As a half-joke.

Wally_Plotch

All right, then.

 

Ropak suggested they find Nolan’s farm to stay a night and refresh themselves and their supplies, but Alden disagreed—it could put Nolan’s family in danger.

At their hurried pace it took half as long as last time to reach the familiar ashen forest that Ropak had once called home. He still did, really. They were safer among the trees, and there Top released Duval.

“What, do you trust me now?” Duval asked, rolling his eyes.

Ropak shrugged. “We’re like halfway there. At this point we’re probably closer to our destination than wherever you wanted–” Duval flew to the tree tops. Ropak stared after him. “We should’ve stuffed him in Top until we got–” Duval flew back down.

“Oh yeah, feels good to stretch my wings again. I looked across the tundra, nobody around for kilometers. Can’t see through the forest of course, but at the very least we haven’t been directly followed.”

“Are you sure?” Alden asked.

Duval’s feathers rose and he chuckled. “I could spy a sharl halfway across New Zhopolis from atop a building. Kudeso sight ain’t nothing to sneeze at.”

Ropak raised a hand. “But wouldn’t it be easier to notice someone sneezing through hearing?”

“It’s just an expression,” Duval said.

“Oh, I know.”

“Then why did you–”

Ropak put an arm around Duval and walked him into the woods. “Because that’s just the kind of guy I am.” He pushed Duval away. “Okay, now seriously, let’s get going before everything we know and love dies.”

The first night that they slept among the trees—a campsite safer than the open tundra—Ropak hugged Alden in the darkness.

“Hey. I know this probably isn’t the best time, but we have like four or five hundred days before I can say it again, so, Happy Birthday.”

Alden shifted under Ropak’s arm. “What?”

“Happy Birthday. I’d wanted to have a big party for you but obviously–”

“Oh Gourd, it’s my birthday,” Alden gasped as if someone told him his family died.

“So what?” Duval said, lying back. “We’re not going to celebrate or anything, just stay quiet–”

“No, you don’t understand,” Alden said, rushing about the area, “that means it was Jamal’s birthday just five days ago. I never had a chance to call him, what with everything, he probably called me and the Zhopian Guard has my phone and they answered and they know, wherever he is, who knows what they told him, and everyone else, they, they—I need to get to them!” He ran but Ropak grabbed him.

“Alden, calm down, listen,” Ropak said. “We’re not going to get there any faster running off into the night where we can’t even see where we’re going.”

“I need—I need to get home,” Alden gasped—“I need to—”

“We’ll get there faster if we aren’t exhausted.”

Alden panted. He lay on the ground. “You’re right. It’s no good if I just panic and get lost. I’ll—I’ll just—”

Ropak knelt and rubbed Alden. “It’ll be okay. Get some rest tonight. I’ll take your watch. I’m sorry I worried you.”

“It—It’s okay.” Alden exhaled. “You didn’t realize.”

During Ropak’s first watch he heard Alden whimper and sob in his sleep. He didn’t blame him. They neared their destination, and then what? What would he say to his village? Would he say anything to them or just say goodbye? Alden would have to tell his family something. If the Zhopian Guard knew of Alden’s home, were they heading into a trap?

Ropak was sure the Guard didn’t know which village he was from, though. Maybe Duval is right. Maybe I shouldn’t go home. Then the Zhopian Guard couldn’t find it. I could just let them all assume I died or something.

As usual, Top didn’t seem to have a care in the world, joking and eating and singing and dancing as if on a stroll through a park. Duval didn’t have many more cares—he seemed to have few connections, just himself to worry about. He had parents, but they were estranged. Ropak shook his head. He felt sorry for the kudeso.

They traveled another half a week through the forest, their progress faster without Top on Duval’s back. The nervous pit in Ropak’s stomach grew until they reached the snowy river where Alden said he had found Top. The sun shone overhead, an unseasonably bright and warm day. Ropak looked around the area, the snow glinting in the sunlight.

“Okay,” he said, “from here the village should be . . .”

“Weren’t you lost when you first met us?” Top asked.

“Shut up.” Ropak pointed north. “That way.”

Alden pointed up. “What’s that?”

Smoke trailed above the trees in the direction of the village, blanketing the sky with its last threads. The pit in Ropak’s stomach split. Something was wrong. He ran towards the smoke.

“Wait, Ropak,” Alden shouted. “We don’t actually know where your village is.”

Ropak raced through the forest, side-stepping past trees without breaking his stride. The snow became slush then glazed frost. Musty smoke choked the area. Ropak’s mind raced. Was he wrong about the Guard not finding the village? There was so much smoke. Was this a warning? Maybe he shouldn’t be rushing home. But he had to. He had to see it was okay—

Ropak saw the clearing ahead, and his mouth hung agape. His legs locked up and he stumbled to the ground. He crawled to his village. No, where I thought the village was. I must have gotten lost again. It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten where . . .

Scorched logs littered the vacant clearing. The charred ground looked dark as night. Toppled stone was scattered throughout, the remains of any buildings burnt or collapsed. Ropak choked, the smoke rising around him. There had been a fire. A big one. Ropak stared at the scene for a minute before he adjusted to the destruction. The pit in his stomach exploded and he screamed and flumped to the ground. It wasn’t just black—it was yellow. He crawled to the dried, crusty patches of musty yellow.

It was wrallot blood.

Ropak shook as his tears showered the charred ground. His body clenched like a spring wound too tight, and he shoved his head into the ashy dirt horn-first. His village, his home, was destroyed. Ruined. Murdered. The world silenced. Ropak felt as if his heart stopped. As if time stopped. The universe stopped.

 

Duth_Olec

Eh? Wally? You stopped, too.

Wally_Plotch

II’m sorry. GGive me a moment.

Duth_Olec

We don’t have moments!

Wally_Plotch

I NEED A MOMENT!

Duth_Olec

Wally_Plotch

I’m sorry. I just.

Duth_Olec

I hope you’re not growing a spine, Wally, or who knows what’ll happen to me.

Wally_Plotch

I’m sorry. I’m okay now. I can continue.

 

Behind Ropak came a voice, familiar but far away and hoarse. “He’s—oh, Gourd—” The voice choked. “I didn’t—Sorry,” Duval shouted, “he’s over here!”

“Ropak! R . . .” That R trailed off for a solid minute before Alden squeaked out, “Oh my.”

Silence burnt away at the world.

“Psst,” Top whispered, “is this place a dump or what?”

“Shut up, Top.” Ropak jammed his head deeper into the charred soil. “Your naive and silly remarks aren’t funny here.”

Duval inhaled. “I—guess you were right. They did—the Zhopian Guard—without you even—” He wheezed.

Ropak heard footsteps near him. Alden put a hand on his shoulder. “Ropak, listen, I’m so sorry . . .”

Ropak opened his eyes. “Sorry?” He stood up. “You’re sorry?” He turned to Alden. Nothing meant anything anymore. “That’s right. You’re sorry.” He grabbed Alden’s shoulders, his glare smoldering into the scalago. “You’re the reason this happened.”

Alden shook his head, eyes wide. “No, wait, I– Ropak, I never—It was an accident–”

“You went snooping too far and got us in trouble,” Ropak shouted, shaking Alden. “You got my village destroyed! This is all your fault!”

“I’m sorry!” Alden cried, tears in his eyes. “Please, Ropak, I couldn’t do anything. What about my–”

“What about yours?” Ropak asked. Alden didn’t care. Nobody cared about wrallots. People just saw them as off to the side until they got in the way. “These were the only people I knew my entire life!”

“Listen.” Duval approached. “Now is not the time to–”

“Shut up!” Ropak threw Alden into Duval. “You’re not important.” Who were they to think they could come here, so far from anything they knew? Ropak turned away. “They were the closest thing I ever had to a family. They were never a real family, but it was as close as I could get, and now they’re all gone. All of them! They’re probably dead! And now—” He wrenched the ends of his head until they burned. “—now I have nothing!”

Something rubbery poked Ropak’s foot. He glared at Top, who looked up and frowned. “You still have us, Ropak,” the ball said in a tiny voice.

Ropak opened his mouth. He lifted his foot. He raised an arm. His body clenched, ready to erupt.

He collapsed onto Top sobbing. He was a mess. Nothing made sense anymore. Nothing had made sense since he’d left his village. He never should have left. It wasn’t right.

“Hey! They’re here.”

Ropak looked up. Through his bleary vision he saw a splotch of white. He wiped away his tears to see a kudeso in Zhopian Guard uniform hopping in one place, feathers like dirty snow. A cappipoto in like uniform followed, looking at Ropak and the others in turn.

“Guess they were right about you showing up here,” the cappipoto said. They held a shotgun, while the kudeso holstered a pistol against his thigh.

Ropak stood up. The world flashed, his vision dark like a bloody cave. “You! You did this. You completely destroyed my village.” The cappipoto’s nostrils expanded, slowly shaking his head.

The kudeso flapped his wings in a shrug. “Apparently they wouldn’t cooperate, so they had to–”

Ropak kicked Top at the kudeso. The cappipoto fired on the screaming ball as the kudeso flew aside. Ropak hurtled at the cappipoto and rammed into his gut. As the giant stumbled Ropak grabbed the shotgun and bashed it against the kudeso. After the fifth smash the shotgun shattered and he kicked the kudeso to the ground.

The cappipoto bellowed and charged at the wrallot. The world spun around Ropak as he kicked the cappipoto in the head and the giant collapsed to the ground. Ropak turned to the kudeso, who reached for his pistol with a foot. Before the bird could aim Ropak kicked him into a charred log. He rammed his head into the bird, jamming his horn into the torso. Cyan blood spurted out over the wrallot’s head.

Shakily the cappipoto stood up, but Ropak kicked him back down. He punched the guard’s head like a piston and musty yellow blood sprayed over him.

“Ropak! Ropak, stop!” Somebody pulled Ropak off the cappipoto but he threw punches all around him.

Ropak froze when he saw Alden staring at him on the ground, mouth agape, tears flowing, a black eye. The wrallot panted, his head stuffy, eyes puckered. He screamed and stumbled back. He’d punched Alden! His mind shouted, What, but everything past that felt blank. The world shook and blurred as if splitting apart.

“Ropak . . . Please, stop,” Alden said.

“I was . . .” Ropak wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure what he said. “They—Payback . . .”

Alden shook his head. “Please, don’t. This isn’t going to solve anything.” He looked at the kudeso and sobbed. “Dead. He’s dead.” He looked at Ropak. “More deaths will only cause pain. These people have families too. They’re sons, maybe spouses or fathers. How will they feel when they’ve lost someone they love?”

Ropak fell to the ground bawling and shoved his face into the dirt. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry, everybody! I’m sorry for leaving you, my village. I’m sorry for blaming you, Alden. I’m sorry to the families of these guards.” His wails trailed into whimpers. “They were probably just under orders. I’m sorry. I’m sorry . . . Please—I didn’t mean . . . I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing . . . Everything’s over.”

Alden pulled Ropak up and hugged him. “It’s okay. I forgive you. We’re all upset, we’re all scared, but we can get through this.” He looked Ropak in the eyes, his own wide and wobbly. “But listen, Ropak, you know I have a family, too. I’m worried . . .”

Ropak’s eyes widened. He hadn’t thought about Alden’s family. He was selfishly brooding over the dead. He grabbed Alden’s shoulders.

“You’re right. They’re in danger. There’s nothing to do here. We can only try and prevent more of this. We need to get to your home. Make sure they’re safe.”

“We . . .” Duval cleared his throat. “We need to hurry. The Zhopian Guard was already here. They could return any moment.”

Alden nodded. “Yes. We need to go. Let’s just hope the cappipoto isn’t too injured, that he’ll live until someone shows up. We’ll leave the kudeso here. His family should at least have a . . . body.” He looked around. “Where is the body?”

“I don’t know!” Top screamed, eyes wide, standing near the log with cyan stains on their mouth.

Ropak, Alden, and Duval stared at Top. Alden gagged and ran behind a tree to vomit.

The wrallot sighed and picked Top up. “You are one disturbing, weird little dude, Top.” He followed Alden into the forest. Top wiggled in Ropak’s grasp towards the gooey vomit. The wrallot looked back; Duval followed, but he paused every few steps to stare at them and rub his head.

At that point, Ropak didn’t blame him.

 

Duth_Olec

Okay you can take a break, Wally.

Wally_Plotch

zx.,cmv

Duth_Olec

ALFALFA, can you go make sure Wally doesn’t get his keyboard all wet?


Chapter 20: To the Ends of Zhop | Table of Contents

%d bloggers like this: