Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
With night upon them, Ropak, Top, and Alden inquired cleeple on the street about a cheap place to stay the night.
Most cleeple ignored them. Ropak wasn’t surprised.
Eventually they got word that the cheapest place in the city would be the Crumb District. When they inquired about the Crumb District, some cleeple even sped up to ignore them.
That surprised Ropak a little.
“I don’t know about this,” Alden said. “If it’s the cheapest part of the city, it could also be the most dangerous. It might be filled with shady cleeple.”
Hmm, good point, Ropak thought, but we can’t let that stop us. We need a place to stay and got no money.
“We can take on anyone who might want to hurt us,” said the wrallot.
“Yeah,” Top said, grinning. “If anyone attacks us, you can just kick a computer at them.”
“More like I could just kick you at them,” Ropak said and kicked Top down the street.
“Let’s at least stay together,” Alden said, running after Top.
Ropak reached forward. “That’s not staying together.” He ran after Alden.
The city grew cold—colder than ever back home. After Ropak shivered, Alden gave him a blanket from his backpack for a cloak—none of his coats fit the wrallot. Top seemed unaffected by the chill.
The only light in the sky was the smallest moon, Snycole, full but pale. The only light they could see by was from the endless city streetlamps.
Well, not quite endless. As the trio continued, the lamps grew dimmer and often unlit—in some cases the poles were toppled. As the city darkened, stars lit the sky, as did Lurnta, the biggest moon, though less than half of it was visible. The familiar starlight was the only comfort Ropak had besides his friends.
Many buildings in the area were boarded up or cracked, with a few just rubble. The streets looked like someone had smashed them, with cracked pavement and holes everywhere, some big enough for Ropak to lie in, which he unfortunately did a few times—it was too dark to see them before he fell in. In contrast with most of the city, the lanes were empty of vehicles, so the rough shape of the streets couldn’t have been from regular use. Ropak saw fewer and fewer cleeple. He and his friends were alone.
“I am not getting nervous,” Ropak said out of the blue.
“Good, that makes one of us,” Alden said.
Ropak scratched his head. He’d lied. Though the city’s cacophony in the daytime grated his nerves, it felt right for the city—silence worked in a forest, but in a city it felt empty. With no one around and aging buildings, it felt like the dead part of the city. Ropak supposed that could be why it was the cheapest.
“This place sucks,” Top said. “Let’s go back to The Entire Cake District. Crumbs are for losers.”
“I don’t even think we’re there yet,” Ropak said.
“No, we’re here,” said Alden. He pointed to a washed out sign with a few chunks missing and a piece of cardboard nailed below it. “Crumb District. A.K.A. Hobo District. I guess that would explain it.”
Ropak looked at Alden. What would explain what?
“A hobo is a homeless clerpson,” Alden explained. “They usually travel from place to place and work where they can. I guess this place was set up as a place for hobos to congregate, but…” He looked around.
“There’s no one here,” Ropak said. “What, is everyone in this city so greedy that no one is poor?”
“Wouldn’t that kind of be a good thing?” Alden asked. “Also, a thing that doesn’t make much sense. Maybe the city just has some sort of subsidized housing for cleeple without a home.”
Ropak rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Because anything we’ve seen in this city suggests that anything would ever be made to help anyone else.” New Zhopolis really sucked.
Alden sighed and sat on the cracked sidewalk. “Can I be honest with you guys? Depressingly honest?”
Ropak sat next to Alden on the hard, crumbled stone. “You’re having doubts about making it in this city, aren’t you?”
Alden stammered and looked down. “Yeah.”
“Me too,” Ropak said. “Maybe coming here was a mistake. We’re not cut out for life in a big city like this. I thought it would be different, cleeple working together and not”—he waved his hands, searching for an apt description—“not the exact opposite of that.” He put a hand on Alden’s shoulder. “Maybe we should just go home.”
“Blaargenhaargen!” shouted Top, jumping up and down. “This is just day one. We can’t give up so easily.” The ball jumped onto Ropak’s and Alden’s shoulders. “We’ll make a name for ourselves. We’ll make it in this city. We can do it. We shall do it. We even might do it. We have all the opportunities to make it, and we’ve just got to find them.”
“You’re right,” Alden said and he stood up. “Just because we’re down in the dump district doesn’t mean we should be down in the dumps.”
Ropak jumped up and raised a fist. If Top could make an inspiring speech like that, anyone could. “Yeah, we’ll make it tomorrow. Or at least sometime this year.” He lowered his arm. Okay, not as inspiring as Top, but good enough.
“Wonderful! Excellent! Simply splendid.” A new voice made the trio stumble forward. An arkent approached from behind, light violet with a lumpy, thinly-cracked shell, two blunt spikes on the sides. “Such an inspiring speech. And an inspiring response. I would torsilaudire your teccio, had you one.”
“You don’t know whether I have a tektite,” Top said.
“Who are you?” Ropak asked, stepping between his friends and the arkent. He couldn’t be sure if anyone was on the level in this city.
“Are you a hobo?” Alden asked. “Are there actually hobos here?”
“Oh, my, no,” the arkent said, adjusting his square glasses. “I just come by this lursordo every so often to see if any poor fellows were sent down here.” He extended a tentacle. “My name’s Walter.”
Ropak wondered if he should shake the tentacle but Top already was.
“Hiya, hiya, hiya!” Top said. “I’m a Top. He’s Alden and he’s Ropak.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Walter said. “I’m afraid this place was set up by the city some years ago to root out homeless cleeple and arrest them. They haven’t done that in a long time, but some cleeple still find their way here.”
Ropak shouted. That was the worst yet! He kicked a building and then shouted again as his foot throbbed. He held it and balanced on his other foot.
“This city sucks. Everyone’s a jerk and you’re jailed for being homeless and now it hurt my foot.”
“Yes, New Zhopolis isn’t the most accommodating of places,” Walter said, mouth tentacles limp. “I wasn’t exactly welcomed when I arrived here, either. It can be quite hard to break through, but fortunately not impossible.” He looked up. “If you need a place to stay you can come to my home.”
Ropak leaned against a building and looked at Walter. Either he was crazy or the first nice clerpson they’d met in the city.
“Really? You would invite us to your home, just like that?” Alden asked.
“Years ago I opened my home to those without a place to stay,” Walter said. “I call it the Place for the Placeless, a place for those without a place to call a place they can place themselves.”
“Sounds like some place,” Ropak said.
“I could kiss you,” said Top, “except that would be weird and gross and possibly rude.”
“Just a moment,” Alden said. He pulled Ropak and Top aside. “This seems too good to be true, doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” Ropak asked.
“How do we know this isn’t a trick?” Alden asked. “What if he brings us to an alley or somewhere and some cleeple try to rob us?”
Ropak groaned and rubbed his forehead. “That would be just the sort of thing to happen in this city, wouldn’t it?” He looked up. “On the other hand, our other option is to sleep outside tonight.”
“Well, we’re kind of used to that by now,” Alden said.
“Not in such a cold, hard place, though.” Ropak looked at Top and picked them up. “I mean, do you think anyone could successfully rob this ball?”
“Turn the tables! Rob them of their hands!” Top grinned and wiggled their appendages.
“If there’s any foul play going on here,” Ropak said, “we can handle it. We can get out of a jam.”
“I hope so,” Alden said.
“Excuse me,” Walter said, lifting a tentacle. Ropak and his friends turned to the arkent. “I know it may be a heavy decision—there aren’t many in the city who would do a stranger a kindness. At the very least it would be a good idea to leave this area. I don’t mean to alarm you, but this district is right next to the Schalindra District. That’s the nastiest part of New Zhopolis. We should leave before any of them notice we’re here.”
“Well then, let’s go,” said Ropak. He placed Walter onto his shoulders. “I’m all for a place to stay. Just point the way, and off we’ll go.”
“Wonderful,” Walter said. “I believe I may reach new heights with you three.” Top jumped onto Walter, and Ropak stumbled back from the weight before wobbling forward.
“Go, go, go!” Top said.
Alden walked past Ropak and chuckled. “Just be glad I’m not manic like Top.”
“Gaddfern it, Top,” Ropak said, walking in the direction Walter pointed to, “why do you weigh so much? You’re a figgin beach ball.”
“I eat a lot.”
They walked through the city for about an hour. Walter told them they could have free rein of the Place for the Placeless except for the bedrooms that were occupied. Cleeple from all walks of life lived there—an old street performer, a detective, even a child; what they had in common was nowhere else to call home.
They arrived at a line of apartment buildings, the smooth street before them in one piece unlike the Crumb District. Between two buildings stood a brick house miniscule compared to its neighbors.
“Ah, we’re here,” said Walter. “Welcome to the Place for the Placeless.”
“Who’s that at the door?” Alden asked.
Ropak stared at the figure in front of the house. A better question is what is that?
He didn’t recognize the figure as any species he’d seen in the city. They stood about as tall as Alden and wore a thick coat. In the back just above the legs stuck out some type of bulbous appendage nearly as big as the rest of their body.
That was not something Ropak expected. What are we about to get ourselves into?
Walter strolled up to his house. “Buonalahasi, Arami,” he said, and the figure shrieked. She stumbled into the light of a streetlamp and Ropak saw she had trembling eyes bigger than Alden’s, curved spikes around the back of her head, and black skin. She held her hands and tapped her fingers together and—Ropak rubbed his eyes, because unless he was seeing double she did that with two separate pairs of hands—she had four arms, two on each side with one in front and one in back, and four legs, one pair right behind the other.
“Oh! Dad. It’s you. Yes, Buonalahasi, I was just…” She stammered, her eyes shifting.
“Burning the midnight oil, eh?” Walter asked. “Or at least the seventeen o’clock oil.”
“Yeah, right,” Arami said, one arm rubbing another which rubbed another which rubbed another, “I was just, you know, there was an old lady carrying home groceries, and I offered to help, and she invited me in for some tea.”
“Ah, yes,” Walter said, mouth tentacles curled up. “That’s my Arami; always thinking of others.”
At this point Ropak’s “what the fig” part of his brain sounded an alarm. “Dad?” he shouted. How’s that possible? She couldn’t be an arkent. She’s over twice his height. He’s her father?
Arami jumped back. “Who’s there?”
Top hopped onto Walter, and Arami jumped back further. “Hi, four-arms,” the ball said.
“Don’t worry,” said Walter, “they’re just some fellows who need a place to stay. They’re placeless, so this is the place for them.”
“Oh, right,” Arami said. She gave them a little wave while two hands pulled her coat around her tighter and the fourth fidgeted. “Well, hello and everything, but it is late, so I’ll meet you formally in the morning, all right? All right. Good night, and all that.” She unlocked the door and hurried in.
“Okay, so, what was that?” Ropak asked.
Alden leaned towards Ropak. “Who was that?”
“My daughter, Arami,” Walter said. “Don’t worry; she’s nervous around new cleeple. Well, most cleeple.”
“No, no, no,” Ropak said, shaking his hands. “What was that? She was very clearly not an arkent.”
“Right. She was adopted,” Walter said.
“Right,” Ropak drawled out. “Adopted. That still doesn’t answer my question.”
Walter warbled, his mouth tentacles shaking. “I don’t really know. Years ago I found her as an infant. I took her in and raised her ever since. She’s who inspired me to open the Place for the Placeless, actually. Both youngsters and adults alike are out there with no home…”
That could’ve been me, Ropak thought. If it weren’t for wrallot villages being so close, I wouldn’t have had a home. This is a good thing Walter is doing here.
“Anyway,” Walter said. “You said it’s your first day here, right? I’ll bet you’re tired. Let’s head in, and I can see which rooms are available. We can introduce you to everyone the next morning. Sound good?”
They entered the house, an open closet in the entryway full of coats, a heap of shoes on its floor. Ropak tried to remember how many species regularly wore shoes and wondered just how many cleeple lived there. Remembering that Arami would wear four shoes at a time felt like a brick hitting his head.
The inner walls, covered with green wallpaper, were whole—not a hole or a blemish to be seen. The construction looked sound, unlike Orville’s shack which was a pile of wood in comparison.
To the right beyond the entryway were stairs to the second floor, while the den had a plush carpet, the softest thing Ropak had ever stood on. He shuffled across it a few times. Walter turned on a lamp, illuminating a couple couches and several chairs.
A round wooden table surrounded by six stools took up most of the dining room. The floor was hard but softer and much smoother than the pavement outside. The adjacent kitchen had a fridge and oven and other appliances Ropak was unsure as to the purpose of. Walter asked if they were hungry—
“As always!” Top said. Ropak pushed Top’s mouth shut.
“They’d say that no matter what,” Ropak said. “We ate at a place earlier. I think we’d probably”—Ropak yawned—“just like to head to bed for now.”
Alden yawned. “Yeah, that would be a good idea. Where should we stay?”
Walter led them upstairs to a hallway, four doors on each side. “All the right rooms are occupied, but the three far ones on the left are open.”
“We can stay in one room together,” Ropak said. “Just in case someone else shows up needing a place to stay.”
“Sounds like a fine idea to me,” Walter said.
Ropak and Alden thanked him, Top said some predictable nonsense, and they entered the second room on the left. It was about the size of Alden’s bedroom at Orville’s shack, and with the carpet and thick walls it was almost as warm as Nolan’s farmhouse. Ropak sat on the bed. Its smooth sheets were a bit stiff, but a quick rub over the bed loosened them up.
Although they may have been cramped in the room, they could make it work. They wouldn’t be sleeping out in the cold that night—not physically or emotionally. They had found someone in the city who was nice.
The only thing that could have made it better was if someone in the adjacent room didn’t spend the whole night chatting.
But hey, besides that, things were looking up.