Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
“Orville! Are you up here, uncle?”
“Yes, I’m up in my workshop.”
Xavier entered Orville’s workshop, also known as the attic. The dusty room was cluttered with stuff Orville amassed over the years and parts of abandoned projects piled on the rough, uneven wood floor, such as boxing gloves, maps of Zhop, political campaign posters, a loom, a glass container filled with dirt, and a round, orange, artificial insect hive.
Top sat on the floor, pulling over their head a football helmet about five sizes too small.
Xavier pointed at Top. “What are they doing in here?”
“Hm? Oh, don’t worry,” Orville said, “they’re just been playing with some old junk.”
Orville wore goggles over his glasses and a nigh tie-dye coat that had probably once been white, and both he and Xavier wore thin sandals. Orville examined bottles and beakers filled with liquids of all colors. The bottles sat on a black, plastic table that stood against a wall below the only window in the room, though the window frame appeared to be slumping.
“Uncle,” Xavier said, holding a paper out to him, “you have to stop signing these documents with an acronym. They aren’t recognizing it as your signature.”
Orville turned to Xavier and pulled his goggles to his forehead; the movement knocked his glasses off, but he caught them and put them back on. “I don’t recall ever signing a document with an acronym,” he said, frowning. “What would it even be? Liverol? Loverli?”
“Those are anagrams,” Xavier said. “You keep signing them as O-M-G.”
“Oh, right, right,” Orville said. “Orville Melendez Gray. Of course I sign it O-M-G; that is my name. Cleeple the world over speak my name when surprised.”
Xavier sighed and held his forehead. “But the acronym is O-N-G. ‘Oh Neigh Gourd.’ And it’s not like they’re referring to you. When you sign it like that, cleeple just think you’re playing a joke on them.”
With one last shove, Top pushed the football helmet over their now-squished head. It wasn’t a good hat, and it was painful, and Top could hardly open their mouth, but it was a hat nonetheless.
Top walked to the table of chemicals, which smelled like someone had set fire to some soap. Top was hungry again. Or rather they continued to be hungry with no break in regards to that. The ball wondered if they could mix up some concoction of tastiness with the chemical stuff. They grabbed containers with red, yellow, and blue liquids. Those colors were on their skin. They’d use those. Top dumped them together.
“What is Top doing?” Xavier shouted. The brown mixture Top made fizzled like a soda post-earthquake.
Top smiled. “I made a bubble bath.” It smelled like dead flowers.
Orville leaned close to the mixture. “Ooh, that’s an interesting reaction.”
“It could be dangerous,” Xavier said. He grabbed the bottle and ran down the stairs. Just as he ran off the front porch outside the liquid made a plonk sound and engulfed Xavier in a fizzy explosion of bubbles.
“Bubble bath!” Top shouted. He jumped out the attic’s window. The ball landed in the soft suds outside as the football helmet popped off. Xavier walked out of the mess, Top hanging on his back.
“I’m all clean now,” Top said, the sweet though bitter fizz seeping out of their mouth.
It had been one week since Top joined the family. The ball knew one thing for certain: they were definitely getting along very well.
The world moved up and down and up and down and up and down.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
The world moved up and down, and Alden and Xavier moved up and down.
Outside Orville’s home, Spenk kicked Top into the air. “I can’t quit now,” she said without missing a kick. “I’m almost to a hundred.”
“But doesn’t that hurt Top?” Alden asked, moving his head up and down with the ball.
“Not at all,” Top said. “I am a ball, after all. It’s fun. Wee!”
“Just be careful,” Xavier said. “I don’t want you to get hurt, Spenk.”
“You’re like a broken record sometimes, Xavier,” Spenk said. She kicked air and fell on her tail. “Although not without reason, I guess.”
Top held onto a tree branch above. “Bird!” the ball screamed. A fuzzy little yellow bird sat on a branch above them. “You’re mine.” Top jumped and snapped their teeth at the bird. It flew away, and Top instead chomped through the branch. It dropped onto the house with Top and crashed through the roof into the attic.
Orville coughed as dust scattered into the air. He looked at the hole in the roof and then down at Top, who lay on the branch in the attic’s clutter.
Top grinned and gave a fake chuckle. Even they knew that wasn’t good.
“Why, thank you, Top,” Orville said. “I’ve been meaning to add a second window in here.”
“Yay!” Top said. “I’m not in trouble.”
Xavier, Alden, and Spenk ran into the attic. “Uncle! Are you okay?” Xavier asked.
“I’m ecstatic,” Orville said. “Do we have any extra glass? Wood for the panes? It’s time to build a window.” He headed downstairs.
Spenk shrugged. “Hey, that worked out.”
Alden rubbed his face. “Thanks goodness for that.”
Xavier grabbed the branch. “And what if that branch had landed on our uncle?”
“Come on, like I would let that happen?” Top said. They stood up. “I calculated for wind speed and… gravity neutrinos.” Top chomped up the branch like it was a giant churro. “Needs more sugar. Do we have any sugar? Sugar!” The ball ran downstairs.
“Like they need to be anymore hyper?” Xavier asked.
“Actually,” Alden said, “I’ve read that recent studies show sugar doesn’t actually cause hyperactivity, although other studies are inconclusive.”
Top leapt down the rickety stairs, each step a little too short for their feet. They reached the hallway and jumped onto a ragged carpet.
The wood of the first floor was slightly more even than the attic. One end of the hallway led to five bedrooms, and the other end led to a den where a sofa, a couple wood chairs, and a padded armchair with a hole in the back surrounded a softer rug still in one piece. Against the wall stood a television set not much bigger than Top, but Top only knew it as a dark mirror—Alden had said the antenna was broken. At one end stood the front door, with the kitchen at the opposite end.
Orville looked through a closet near the kitchen. He rubbed his head. “I thought we had some extra window panes stored away.”
“Whatever is missing, I didn’t eat it,” Top said.
“I should hope not.” Orville smiled. “It would be very thin and sharp and hard to eat.”
“Oh, wait, then I did eat it.”
“Not a problem.” Orville picked up a telephone next to the sofa, the coiled cord barely long enough to reach the kitchen. He dialed a number while Top ran around the room like a hyper child. “Hello, Thole Imports? Yes, it’s me, Orville. You don’t happen to have some glass panes available, do you? Great. I’ll be coming by shortly to purchase some. Yes, see you soon.”
Jamal entered the room from the hallway. “A shopping trip to Thole? Count me in. There’s some stuff I want to get, too.”
“Ooh, what kind of stuff?” Orville asked.
Top jumped onto Jamal’s head. “Yeah, pepper, what kind of stuff?”
Jamal looked at Top and then back at Orville. “I think at the moment we should keep that a secret.”
Spenk grabbed Jamal’s shoulders from behind, and he and Top stumbled forward onto the sofa. “It’s food, isn’t it?” she asked.
Top shouted, “Food!” repeatedly and ran throughout the entire house until Alden picked the ball up. He and Xavier entered the den.
“I don’t think anyone should ever mention that word around Top,” Xavier said.
Top said, “That word,” repeatedly.
“Come on, everyone, let’s make a trip over to Thole,” Orville said.
“I’ll stay here and look after Top,” Xavier said.
“Okay,” Top quickly said, “bye, have fun; to Thole!” They jumped out of Alden’s grip and ran out the front door.
Xavier reached forward. “Wait, no.” He groaned. “I don’t think it’s such a good idea to bring Top to Thole.”
“Whatever’s the worst that could happen?” Orville asked.
“We could be minus one little town,” Xavier said.
“Top’s not that chaotic,” Alden said. “It’ll be fine if we just keep an eye on them.”
Really, Thole was just a clearing in the middle of the forest, but it was a thriving village, for a certain definition of “thriving” and perhaps “village”. It was at least five times as big as the Micagox village, so it was pretty impressive to Top, who ran around the town like a hyper lunatic (well, not much of a “like” about that).
About twenty-five shacks stood along the outskirts, most of which made Orville’s house look like a mansion, if one in need of refurbishing. At the center of town stood a gray stone brick building a little bigger than Orville’s house, the seat of government for the village. Around it wooden stalls made up the village market, where crafted items of all types were sold, from tools to food to things that only existed to be pretty. A shop about the size of the government building past the market sold items imported from outside Thole, often mass-produced ones.
Top ran back to Alden and his family. “Okay, this place is a dump, and I was born in the pathetic empty village of the Mica–” Alden clamped Top’s mouth shut as some scalagos walked by.
“Okay, here’s a rule you should know,” Alden said. “Never let anyone know who made you. It won’t go well with anybody.”
“Got it,” Top said. “I’ll be sure to almost tell cleeple just before you stop me at least three more times.”
“I hope you’re joking.”
While Jamal looked through the market, Alden carried Top into the imports store since less food was there.
Top scoffed. “I’m just gonna eat all the stuff in this improv store anyway.”
The store’s walls were a smooth, crisp wood that made the wood of Orville’s home look practically gnarly. Wooden shelves throughout the store held products from across Zhop, some simple like bowls or chairs, others more advanced like mirrors or bigger chairs. Some even more advanced like television sets or robots.
“Am I a robot?” Top asked.
“I think technically no,” Alden said. “To be fair, I don’t think the stuff here can be thought of as robots in the common sense, either. I mean, that one’s just a coffee machine. Most cleeple hear ‘robot’ and think the autonomous, communicative machines in the big cities. The signs are probably just inflated advertising.”
Alden carried Top to Orville, who was testing out a pair of tongs. Top bit down every time Orville snapped the tongs together.
“Didn’t you come here for window panes?” Alden asked.
“Oh, yes,” Orville said. “Still, tongs. They’re an incredibly useful tool.”
“Come on, let’s get the window panes,” Alden said.
Top jumped to the cold stone floor. “I’ll find them.” The ball ran through the store, bumping into scalagos and knocking over merchandise.
“Gotcha.” Spenk leapt forward and grabbed Top. “Not really supposed to run in here, dude.”
“Can I roll?” Top coughed up the branch they’d eaten earlier at Spenk, and she lost her grip. The deranged beach ball rolled through the aisles. Spenk chased after Top, but she slowed down as she laughed at the ball.
Xavier sprinted behind Spenk. “We really need to stop them before we get thrown out.”
Top halted instantly and stared at a tambourine with a wire mesh covering. Alden, Xavier, and Spenk walked to Top.
“What are you doing now?” Xavier asked.
Top shushed him. “I’m trying to solve the mystery of this riddle.” The ball stared at the round sieve.
“I think we might be safe for now,” Alden said. “It looks like Top’s really into”—he looked at the riddle tool—“solving that riddle?”
“It’s a mystery,” Top said.
“You’re a mystery,” Xavier said.
With Top preoccupied, not only did Orville buy the window panes, but Jamal finished his food shopping, and they didn’t bring Top home until evening. Top spent six hours in total staring at the riddle, a full third of the day.
“Boy, that was one tough riddle,” Top said. They coughed out a piece of wire mesh.
Upon Top’s return home the ball noticed a change in the air: something smelled up. A smell of spicy- no, sweet- no, zesty- no, fresh, fruity, tangy, savory- no, a smell of good! Top ran into the kitchen and forgot everything else. They had found a great treasure hoard. A treasure hoard of food, of course, since it was the kitchen, but that was the only treasure Top needed.
Dishes covered the kitchen table, but more importantly, food filled the dishes. Crispy golden, flaky dark, shiny and moist, food of all kinds. Top couldn’t name them all. The ball only knew the food smelled good and was therefore most likely tasty.
“Hey, Top.” Jamal stirred the contents of a pot on the stove while he placed some type of rubbery, sauce-drenched meat on a plate. He wore an apron down to his knees. “I was wondering how long it would take you to notice this. I figured since you like to eat, I’d make some dishes for you to try–”
Top leapt face-first into the food. From alfalfa salad to broasted thwibble to chocolate chili, Top devoured a whole alphabet of food. Anything they couldn’t shove into their mouth whole they cleaved with their teeth. Top ate at once éclairs and jambalaya; did the ball even taste it as they swallowed? It all blurred into one delicious mess of sweet, zesty, sour, savory, crunchy, soft, smooth, silky, rubbery, mushy, gloppy food.
Wally_Plotch: I’m surprised Jamal even had enough stuff to make all that. Hey, Duth, can I go on a lunch break?
Duth_Olec: No. You must continue to write about a ball gobbling down more food than makes sense in this scene without eating food.
Wally_Plotch: I’m starving over here. Even though Top is devouring it so ravenously that it should make me sick, all that food is– Wait.
Wally_Plotch: I smell pizza. Do you have pizza on the bridge?
Duth_Olec: No. I didn’t order any pizza. It’s my pizza! I mean no pizza.
Wally_Plotch: I want pizza.
Duth_Olec: Keep writing.
Wally_Plotch: I’m coming over there.
Duth_Olec: No! Wait. I’ll bring some over to you. Just keep writing.
Top continued the frenzied eating. Soon they ate the plastic and ceramic dishes with the meal. Top swallowed anything between them and food, along with a few things to the side and behind.
“Stop!” Xavier pulled Top away. The ball wiggled their stubby arms and legs at the food.
“Foooood!” Top cried.
“Eating us out of house and home is one thing–”
“I told them they could,” Jamal said. “Well, not those exact words.”
“–but eating our dishes too?” Xavier continued over Jamal.
Top looked at Xavier. “Huh? Whoops.” Top reached into their mouth and pulled out a clean, intact bowl. They tossed it onto the table.
“That’s kind of gross,” Xavier said.
Top jumped onto the table and removed all the dishes from their mouth, placing each back onto the table. Most of them were as clean as if food had never touched them. “I guess I get a little carried away, but I only eat stuff I mean to. I store the other stuff. Oh, that reminds me.” They pulled out from their mouth a black and white staff, cold and rough to the touch, the tip carved to look like a spiral galaxy. Top tossed it to Xavier.
“What’s this?” the scalago asked, catching the staff.
“Here you go. Happy present,” Top said. “You like stuff like that, right? I saw some wizard figures and stuffs in your room and thought, ‘Hey, maybe he’d like this.’”
“Where did you get it?” Xavier asked. He stared at the staff and rubbed it. “The craftsmanship on it is incredible.”
“One of the Micagox made it for me,” Top said. Xavier stared at the ball. “Really, it’s fine. I went back over and asked them to the other day. It’s just a sculpture; it’s not going to blow up the sky or anything.”
“Well, I… Thank you,” Xavier said. He examined the staff again. “Thank you, Top.”
Top grinned. Actually, though, the ball had stolen it, but what Xavier nor the Micagox nor anyone else nor even Top knew wouldn’t hurt anyone. The ball made a mental note to hit themself with a hammer so they would forget stealing it.
Jamal lifted Top onto his back and carried the ball into the den. “So what did you think of the food?”
“It was tasty pastry,” Top said. “And that was just the pastries. The other stuff was even better.”
Xavier followed them into the den, where Orville sat on the armchair, his tail bunched to one side despite the hole for the tail. Alden and Spenk sat on the couch. Xavier sighed and smiled.
“All right, Top. You may be a bit of a loose cannon, but Spenk and Jamal have been, too. You just need some calming down, but you’re all right.”
Top jumped onto Xavier’s chest and hung by his shoulders. “Does that mean you accept me into the family, and we can move on with the story?”
“Yeah, I… What do you mean ‘the story’?”
“Of our lives, of course,” Top said.
Xavier sat on the couch. “Yes, Top. I think you’ll do all right here with us.”
“Hooray!” Top jumped onto a chair and held up their arms. “And they all lived happily ever after, the end.”
Wally_Plotch: By the way, Duth, you never brought me any pizza.
Duth_Olec: No. You can’t have any pizza. You can’t handle the pizza! The only pizza we have to fear is pizza self! The pizza is a lie!
Wally_Plotch: That does it. I’m coming over there for pizza.
Duth_Olec: You’ll have to pry it from my pizza stomach!