Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
Wally_Plotch: Gah! That hurt my eyes. This chapter hasn’t even started and you zoomed through so much time the day and night cycles could have given me a seizure.
ALFALFA: I am sure Duth would respond, but he is in a pizza coma.
Duth_Olec: I am not! zzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Wally_Plotch: Okay. So, it looks like about five months have passed, right?
ALFALFA: Correct. We have skipped five Zhop months minus one week, a total one month short of one-third of the planet’s year, bringing us to the month of Nixle.
Wally_Plotch: Whose point of view are we following now?
Gaddfern it, I’m lost. Why’d I leave? It hadn’t been so bad. Sure, I may have been inwardly lost, but at least I had food. So! Foraging for fruit hadn’t gone so well. And I’d swear that yellow bird laughed at me when I fell outta that tree.
Ropak looked at the glittering night sky, most of the stars obscured by trees thick from summer, though even the visible spots were swelled with stars.
At least it’s warm out.
His smooth half-sphere feet walked over the hard soil. With a round hand, the thin fingers bunched on the inner side, he rubbed his back, still sore from the fall. His appendages were like thin rubber tubes connecting the ball extremities to a round core. The arms and hands were half the radius of the legs and feet, and his body was a fairly uniform light gray.
Like all wrallots, his wide head sagged at the sides to points, like a crescent, with only a couple inches of dark brown hair hanging off the ends. Ropak rubbed the top of his head. It curved into a dull point, giving him a third tip, but no other wrallot had such a thing.
Maybe if I’d fallen on my head when I fell from that tree I could’ve smashed that ugly growth into my head and not have to worry about it.
Ropak groaned and rubbed his smooth face. His round, beady eyes peered around the gloom. The round slit of a mouth below stretched half the width of his head.
Ropak leaned against a tree; or rather he tried to, missing by a few feet in the darkness and falling to the rigid ground on his side. He groaned again. Getting rid of that growth wouldn’t remove his forlorn feelings. Probably. That was what the elder said he had, whatever it was. He’d never fit in, but he didn’t fit in out in the woods alone, either.
Ropak heard laughter and stood up. A pale light shone in the distance. Someone was out there. He couldn’t end up in much worse of a shape than he was now, so he crept towards the light. He crouched outside a wooden building, which stood some four or five times bigger than most wrallot houses. A lantern sat out in front, and some clothed lizards sat in front of the building. Ropak tried to remember the species name. Scalagos? There was a green one, a blue one, a red one, and a couple darker-skinned ones.
“And do you see that bright light up there?” the green scalago asked, pointing up.
Ropak leaned closer, but he couldn’t see who said that.
The green scalago wobbled a hand. “It’s over in that area. It’s brighter than the others.”
“That big crescent over there?”
“No, that’s the moon.”
“The other big crescent?”
“No, that’s the other moon.”
“That really thin crescent?
“And that’s the third moon. It’s more to the left of those.”
“Your left or mine?”
“It’s the same… Yours.”
“I think I see it.”
“Yeah. That’s Derantu. It’s the closest planet to ours. I don’t think you can see Mintop in the sky with the naked eye.”
“Why’s the eye in the nude?”
“We don’t have a telescope.”
“I think I have one in the attic somewhere,” a darker scalago said, his voice scrawnier, probably older.
“They’d probably break it,” the blue scalago said. “Just have another cookie.” He tossed a cookie into the air, and a ball jumped up and ate it.
A ball jumped up and ate it? Ropak figured he was seeing things.
The blue scalago laughed. “All right.” He tossed another one, and the ball ate it.
Now Ropak had seen things twice. Why did they feed a ball? Balls didn’t eat. Balls were figgin balls.
The other dark scalago shushed the others—this one sounded female. “I think I heard something in the bushes.”
“It’s probably just a small rodent or something,” the green scalago said.
“Tasty small rodent!” the ball screamed with a wide grin, and it ran into the bush.
Gaddfern it. They noticed me.
Ropak kicked the ball, which was over a third his height, out of the bush. It rolled back to the scalagos.
The red scalago jumped up. “I think it’s more than that.” He ran into the bush and rammed into Ropak. The wrallot and the scalago released a flurry of punches and kicks at each other. The scalago was a bit taller than Ropak, but the wrallot was heftier—his body was built stronger. Ropak felt his fists connect with rubbery skin a few times, though he got knocked in the shoulder and leg.
What is this? I don’t wanna fight them. I have to get out of here!
He shoved the scalago away, but another one kicked him in the side. If they meant to take him down, he wasn’t going without a fight. The wrallot tumbled about and shouted and punched and kicked all around him until he fell into the clearing.
“Hold it, stop, give them some space.”
The scalagos jumped back, and Ropak looked up. The green scalago looked down at him. He seemed to be just about Ropak’s height.
“They’re a wrallot,” Alden said. “They shouldn’t have any reason to not be friendly.”
Ropak leaned up and shouted, “Being attacked is every reason to not be friendly.”
Jamal stepped forward, rubbing his hip. “You kicked our friend.”
Top jumped. “It was fun.”
“I thought it was going to bite me,” Ropak said. Alden helped him up.
“May I ask—” Alden said.
Ropak noticed the green scalago stared at the top of his head. He cocked an eyelid. “You know about wrallots, right?”
“I’ve read about them.”
“I know what you’re going to ask,” Ropak said, “and I can’t answer it. I don’t know why I have this horn.”
“Oh, no,” Alden quickly said, “I was going to ask what you were doing out here. I would never have imagined meeting a wrallot outside of their village.” He paused. “You weren’t banished, were–”
“Of course not,” Ropak said, pulling away from Alden and brushing off his arm. “Wrallots would never abandon one of our own. I left of my own volition.” He bent his arm up. “To seek my fortune, I’ll wander the world.”
“But why?” Alden asked. “Wrallots are so close to their villages, to their families. To see one setting out on their own…”
Spenk raised a hand. “Hey, yo, Alden. Do you mind filling us in here? Not all of us have read about everything on Zhop.”
Alden extended a hand to Ropak. “Would you like to enlighten us on the wrallot?”
Ropak sat on the front step of the porch and put his head on his hands. “All right. You mind getting me something to eat? You give me food, I tell you a story.”
Now, the thing about wrallots was they were a very close-knit species. Throughout the forests of Zhop they had grouped into many villages, each very cohesive. They had a community mentality; everyone helped out in the ways they could. Each wrallot was still their own individual, though, and each family was an individual family. Children were raised by the community nursery, but they were each identified by a colored band that signified whose child they were.
That’s how it normally worked, anyway.
“That’s my mom and dad over there. I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”
“We’re here every day, right? Bye.”
Ropak watched the girl wrallot run to her parents. Or, more accurately, child Ropak watched child girl wrallot run to her not-child parents. Some nine years ago, Ropak was just four years old, six years before maturity hit, a pudgy little hairless wrallot with short arms and legs, with a head big enough for one to wonder how he kept his balance.
Ropak was just one of many wrallot children in the village nursery, which, to be honest, was pretty much just a wide pen. One-by-one the parents of the other wrallot children brought them to their huts for the evening. Eventually only a few kids remained.
“Excuse me, young one.” A wrallot caretaker twice Ropak’s height, the rope-like hair down the tips of her head nearly as long as her arms, approached him and bent over to his level. “Where is your colored band? Like…” She looked around. “Delmar, could you come over here.” Another child walked over. “Thank you. Your band color is green, correct?”
“Yeah.” The child lifted a hand, a tight green band around the wrist.
The caretaker turned back to Ropak. “What did you do with yours?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have one?” the caretaker asked. She smiled. “Don’t be silly. Where did you put it?”
“I don’t know,” Ropak slowly said. “I never had one.”
The caretaker looked at Ropak’s head and gently rubbed it. “Hmm. Did you hurt yourself? You have a bump on your head.”
“Shobel?” the other child asked. “My parents are here.”
“Yes, you can go ahead, Delmar,” the caretaker said. She turned back to Ropak as Delmar left. “What is your name?”
Ropak looked down. He knew a name, but he didn’t know if it was his. He had no other answer, though.
Shobel nodded. “Stay there for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
By the time the caretaker returned with another wrallot, Ropak was the only child left. The new wrallot, wrinkled and with a sagging head, knelt next to Ropak. The gray ropes of hair down her head tips were long enough to touch the ground as she did. “Your name is Ropak, correct?”
Ropak stared at her for a moment, unsure how to answer. “Yes.”
“And you have no band.”
Ropak nodded. “I guess.”
“What are your parents’ names?”
“I don’t know.” Ropak mumbled. “I don’t know them.”
She looked at Shobel and then back at Ropak. “How long have you been here?”
“I dunno. A buncha days.” He looked between them and frowned. “Am I in trouble?”
“No, no, of course not. But I am concerned. You have no parents?”
Ropak shook his head.
This was troubling for the wrallot village. The news spread quickly, but no one came forward to retrieve Ropak. This wasn’t a huge problem, though. The community adopted him in general, and he became a common sight in all the homes. He was raised as any other child, and the caretakers of the nursery gave him the best family home they could.
Many wrallots remained concerned, however—did his parents abandon him? Did they dislike him, dislike what appeared to be a deformity on his head? Surely not—surely a wrallot would never abandon their child. Such an idea disturbed them. Just as disturbing: could his parents have died? Were they attacked? It was a mystery that remained unsolved.
As for Ropak, he always felt distant. He got love and care like all the other children, but it was more spread out. Yes, he was well-adjusted to the wrallot way of life, raised by and accepting of it.
But it wasn’t enough. He never felt like he fully fit in.
Eventually, he made a decision.
“So, I told them I was leaving,” Ropak continued in the present as he ate a few hard, chewy seeds of a sweet jarl fruit. “Simple as that. It wasn’t so simple for them, though; no wrallot had ever left their village to strike out on their own. But I needed to get out. I needed to find my own path, be my own clerpson.”
“So where were you headed?” Jamal asked.
“I’m not sure,” Ropak said. “I guess that only worsened my lostness. All I know is…” He jumped up and pumped a fist into the air. “I’m seein’ the world. I’m making my own way. I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way. I was taking my time, and I kinda got lost. I said goodbye to the cleeple I once knew.”
“See you, me, and Alden together ‘cause we’re cool guards!” Top sang.
Ropak spun around to face Top. “Say what?”
“See you, me, and Alden together ‘cause we’re cool guards!”
“And so what do you plan to do next?” Orville asked.
“First,” Ropak said, tossing the last red jarl seed into his mouth, “thank you for the food.” He pointed a short finger into the air. “Second!” He slumped. “Ask if I can stay here for the night.”
Orville laughed. “Certainly. I’m not about to deny a wrallot a home for the night. They didn’t do that to me years ago.”
“You’ve stayed at a wrallot village before?” Ropak asked.
“I’ve traveled,” Orville said. “The stories I could tell, were I not becoming so tired.”
“You’re tired?” Ropak asked. “I’ve been walking all day. Where do I sleep?”
The next morning, Ropak entered the kitchen where Alden, Spenk, and Top sat at the table. Top sucked on a bottle of syrup they held in both arms and feet, and Jamal stood at the stove pouring a thick, yellowish-white liquid on a pan. A warm, sweet smell drifted from the stove unlike anything Ropak had smelled before. Very little wrallot cuisine was cooked or could even be called cuisine, and a delicious pre-food smell was a nice change of pace.
“Good morning, Ropak,” Alden said.
“Morning, folks. What’s that smell?”
“Pancakes,” Jamal said. “Say, what do wrallots eat, anyway?”
Ropak shrugged. “Whatever we can find out there. Out in the wild, no one’s gonna give you anything.” He sat down at the table and grinned. “I think I like not-wild better.”
“So where are you planning to go to, Ropak?” Alden asked.
“Didn’t you hear me last night?” Ropak asked. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way. I was taking my time, and I kinda got lost. I said goodbye to the cleeple I once knew.”
Everyone looked at Top. The ball shrugged, still sucking on the syrup bottle.
“Well, you could try the southern hemisphere,” Alden said. “The cappipotos that live near the southern pole have quite the farming community. It’s a different environment, though: far more waterlogged, and I’m sure it would take a long time to get there from here. Still, by the time you get there it might be next summer. The seasons are reversed, you see.”
“There wouldn’t happen to be any giant bodies of water I’d have to cross first, would there?” Ropak asked.
“No, actually,” Alden said. “It’s all one big continent. Still, you’d have to traverse just about the entire length of Zhop through so many tiny kingdoms fighting each other that it’s impossible to count them all.”
“How does anyone travel Zhop?” Ropak asked.
“Usually by airplane,” Alden said. “That would cost money, of course.”
“Can I have some money?” Ropak asked.
“You have to earn it,” Jamal said.
“Still,” Alden said, “as a wrallot, living in a community where hard work is prioritized, I’m sure you could find something to make money with. I suppose the best place to get a lot of money quickly would be New Zhopolis, which would also be the easiest place to reach an airport anyway. It’s probably about a couple weeks north by walking.”
“Yeah, that would work out, I’m sure,” Spenk said, rolling her eyes. “He got lost in the forest, his home. He’d get lost in New Zhopolis in an instant. That’s a whole other jungle.”
“Not that we’ve ever been,” Alden said.
“It’d be great to go sometime, though,” Spenk said. “See the sights, see the world. Just think if I could participate in some of the great sporting events—or even just see them.”
“You mean like the Zhopicas?” Alden asked. “Being held in Athaselm this year, in its capital.”
“Oh yeah, that’s east of Terrozona, isn’t it?” Jamal asked.
“Terrozona’s not a real place,” Alden said.
“Okay, Mr. Book-Reader,” Jamal said, smirking as he placed a stack of pancakes on the table, “have you read up on great chefs or culinary schools?”
“I have,” Alden said. “Maricela Sanched, Luigi Luigi, Taren Tate… I’ve read that she’s opening–”
“A new culinary school in Yegalor, I know,” Jamal said, a faraway look in his eyes.
“And then there’s New Zhopolis,” Alden said, breathless as if he could see all the way to the city through the wall, “home of the greatest of our planet.”
The possibilities were endless. Ropak wondered if the journey to those possibilities was also endless. Was he really about to head out to such faraway places alone?
Spenk stood up. “Hex, I’m twenty now.”
“And you guys have tasted my food, you know how good it is,” Jamal said.
“And I’m the greatest of our planet,” Top said, the syrup bottle falling from their mouth. The ball jumped onto the table. “Let’s go on an adventure!” They chucked pancakes into their mouth.
Ropak pumped up a fist. “Yeah!” He couldn’t have doubts when he was the one who started a journey and inspired others. He’d make it and show the world he did belong.
“Are you serious?” Xavier entered the room and looked at his siblings. “You can’t just suddenly decide one day to head out on your own.”
Ropak raised a hand. “I did.”
“It takes planning,” Xavier said. “It’s dangerous out there.”
“Dude, Xavier, we’re adults now,” Spenk said. “We can’t just bum around here with Orville all our lives.”
Xavier’s mouth dropped open. “We… I wasn’t suggesting…” He looked down and slowly whispered, “It’s not bumming around… It’s staying together as a family… All of us…”
Alden placed a hand on Xavier’s shoulder. “I know, bro. You have everything you want here, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” Spenk said. “I didn’t mean it like that. But Jamal and I have always been so active, you know? I know you worry for us, but you knew we would want to get out on our own someday.”
“They say if you love something, set it free,” Alden said. “You love us, and we love you, but you’ve got to let us go.”
Xavier looked up. “But I would…” He hugged Alden, wrapping each arm almost all the way around him. “I would just miss you so much. I would worry about you every hour of every day.”
“I know, Xavier,” Alden said, hugging him back. “I’d think about you guys every day.”
“It’s the call of the outside world, but the call to stay here remains,” Spenk said, joining the hug.
“We thought we’d stick together, but we’ve gotta go our separate ways.” Jamal also hugged them, all four with watery eyes.
“This is what being a family is really about,” Ropak said. He hugged them, though his arms hardly reached around just two of them. “You guys are the luckiest cleeple I’ve ever met, being so close.”
“I wanna join the fun,” Top said. They hugged, too, their reach barely past just one clerpson.
The six of them hugged in the kitchen, the smell of pancakes wafting in the air.
“I won’t stop you, if you all really want to go,” Xavier said. “Please, though, give it some time. Make sure you’re prepared. At least wait a couple months. Make sure you really want to do this.”
“Of course,” Alden said. “We won’t do anything too rash.”
“I might,” Jamal said.
“I will,” Top said.
“I definitely will,” Ropak said.
“You guys are gonna ruin the moment,” Spenk said.
“Jamal?” Orville entered the room. “Are these your pancakes burning?”
Two months passed, though Salu and into Berfle. Ropak stayed with them, helping with work and chores while…
Wally_Plotch: Well, I would have said “eating their food” but Top did that so much that it was negligible.
Over those two months Ropak worked with Alden to plan his best course of action. New Zhopolis, though a whole other realm from the forest, was the closest place someone could make a name for themself. Cleeple from all over Zhop traveled there. In the meantime, Alden, Spenk, and Jamal retained the enthusiasm for going out into the world. There was no turning back from the idea.
Xavier entered Alden’s room, holding a deck of cards. “Hey, Alden, want to play a game of…”
Ropak, Alden, and Top stood together, looking at him. A few leather bags a little smaller than Top sat next to them, and Ropak and Alden wore soft leather backpacks. Soft as it was, the backpack hung rather loosely from Ropak’s arms, and the straps slid down his arms more than once.
“Xavier,” Alden said, nodding.
After a brief silence, Xavier responded, “Alden.”
“I’m sorry to spring it on you,” Alden said, “but we decided telling you in advance would be harder. It would drag out the goodbye. It would make us all feel miserable. We should at least see each other off in a happy mood.”
Alden and Xavier looked at each other for a moment and then jumped into each other’s arms for a hug.
Ropak looked at Top. “See, this is what I was talking about. When I left my village, I didn’t hug anyone. I shook their hands. Maybe a pat on the back.” He extended an arm to the two brothers. “This. This is real family love.”
“Did I pack a hat?” Top asked, looking through a bag. “I should have packed a hat. Is it too late to pack a hat?”
Xavier whispered, “Just please, please be careful out there. If you’re going to New Zhopolis… I just can’t imagine what they might do up there.”
“I’ll be fine,” Alden said. “I have Top and Ropak to help me.”
“I could have gone without you mentioning Top,” Xavier said.
“Top will guard me,” Alden said.
Top looked up from the bag. “I will? Oh, yeah, sure, yeah.”
“And don’t worry,” Alden said. “I’ll see you again. I’ll call you, too. As soon as I get to the city I’ll find a phone to call you.” They ended the hug, and Alden said Spenk and Jamal were waiting for Xavier. “I’ve already talked to them about their route. They’re both heading east, so they’ll be sticking together for most of the journey, but they both have a much further way to go.”
“You’re going now, then?” Xavier asked. Alden nodded.
“Goodbye, bro. Take care of Orville and the shack while I’m gone. I’ll be back to see it, I promise.”
Xavier nodded. He turned to go, but Top grabbed his tail.
“Bye-bye,” Top said. “I’ll help your brother. I know you’ve always wanted to protect him. I’ll do it in your place.”
Xavier smiled and petted Top on the head. “Thank you. I may have my doubts, but I’m sure they’re unfounded.”
Top smiled. “I’m not!”
Ropak walked to Xavier. “Can I have a hug, too?” They stared at each other for a moment and then shook hands. “Yeah, didn’t think so. All right, see ya. Your bro is safe with us.”
Xavier nodded. “I hope you find your place in the world, Ropak. Just remember that you’ll always have a home here with us.”
The brothers hugged one last time, and Xavier left to see Spenk and Jamal. Ropak picked up the bags, and he, Alden, and Top left the room.
“Wait.” Alden stopped. “I almost forgot something.” He ran back and grabbed a framed photo—him, his siblings, his uncle, Ropak, and Top, all together.
“Why do you want that?” Top asked. “You can see us anyway.”
“Well, his siblings are on there,” Ropak said.
Ropak kicked Top down the hallway. “Get going.”
The trio opened the front door and walked onto the porch. The small, distant sun shone in the blue morning sky, brighter than usual as if to light them for the start of their journey. The trees swayed in the breeze as a few leaves fluttered away. Autumn would begin soon. If they waited much longer it would be too cold to travel by foot. The time to leave was now.
Ropak looked at the house behind him. He’d only lived there for a couple months, but it had become a second home to him, even if the craft of the shack was far worse than wrallot buildings. Bigger, though. The family reminded Ropak of the close-knit wrallot families he was always an outsider to. He felt a little bad about them splitting up.
Ropak turned to the forest. It had been over two months since he said goodbye to his village. The world and the future looked bright. It was time to enter both.
“Leaving time, huh?” Ropak spun around to see Orville sitting on a porch chair behind them. He stood up. “I’m gonna miss you boys.”
“I’ll miss you too, uncle,” Alden said, giving him a hug. “Uncle OMG.”
Orville laughed. “That’s Uncle OMG to all three of you.” He rubbed Top’s head. “Have fun out there. Stay safe, but remember to have fun.”
“Can do,” Top said.
Orville turned to Ropak. The wrallot put out a hand to shake. Instead Orville hugged him, wrapping his arms all the way around the wrallot.
Ropak laughed, and he hugged back. “Thanks, Orv… Uncle OMG?”
“That’s me, OMG,” Orville said. “Stick together. I’m sure you three will go far, and you’ll help each other out through thick and thin.”
“Absolutely,” Ropak said. He put an arm around Alden’s shoulders. “We’re doing this together. You guys have been so great to me; I can only return the favor.”
Orville looked at his nephew. “Actually, Alden, I’m not that surprised that you’re going out to see the world.”
Alden’s face brightened, and he pointed a finger up. “That’s right. My parents were explorers, too.”
Orville frowned and blinked harshly. “Yes, that’s right. They were great explorers. You’re following in their footsteps.”
Alden looked at Ropak and Top. “They were lost on a mountain almost twenty years ago. I never knew them; I’ve lived with Orville as long as I can remember.”
Ropak squeezed his arm around Alden. “We’re two of a kind, aren’t we? Never knew our parents.” He looked at Top. “What about you?”
“Oh, I was made by the Micagox about half a year ago,” Top said.
Ropak stared at the ball.
“They were sucky parents.”
Ropak shrugged. “Okay, then.”
With their goodbyes said, the three of them—Top, Alden, and Ropak—set out for New Zhopolis, wondering what fortune their future would hold.