Order of Four: Part Three
My mother did find work in Neopia Central, though not immediately, and not the work she had hoped for. Before now, she had been a seamstress, a waitress, a drawing teacher, and a great many other things below the level of her former social position. But she had always refused to have anything to do with cleaning – her last shred of pride, I suppose, in humiliating circumstances. Here she found that she had no choice, for her sewing was not nearly fast enough, there were no waitressing jobs available, and nobody was interested in hiring her as a drawing teacher. She discovered that the only choices were to work as a maid, or to work in one of the dangerous, foul-smelling factories along the shore. Choosing the lesser of two evils, she took a job as a dishwasher in a busy restaurant and worked long hours and irregular shifts.
Meanwhile, we found lodgings around the same area as the Cheap Hotel. Our living quarters in Neovia had always been – though small – cozy and picturesque, with a room or two to spare. Here, we could only afford a cramped apartment on the fourth floor, in a building like none I had ever seen: a massive grey concrete slab, seven stories high, with absolutely nothing superfluous at all. Like (as I came to find) many things in Neopia Central, it was minimalist and highly functional. I could tell that my mother disliked it, and I was often tempted to suggest that we simply move back to the Haunted Woods. But she never complained, and so neither did I.
Besides, there were certain benefits to my new life. For one thing, I was finally allowed to leave the house alone. My mother told me, somewhat helplessly, that she supposed she could not stop me now, though she did entreat me to be careful. It was difficult to find people who were both close to my age and willing to be friendly, but I made a few acquaintances. In any case, there was plenty to see in Neopia Central; simply walking around the city was enough to entertain me for hours on end. The sea did not live up to my expectations, as it was dirty and cold and inaccessible, not to mention lined with unattractive industrial buildings. I came to know Neopia Central quite well, however – knowledge that would serve me at a later date.
Life continued on in this way for a little over a year, with little worth mentioning apart from one memorable conversation with my mother, which I will relate here. She came home one evening, later than usual, shaken and out of breath. When I asked her what the matter was, she did not reply; instead she bolted the door and had me close all of the curtains. Puzzled and alarmed, I did as she requested, and after nothing happened for several minutes I repeated my first question.
"Nothing, Felix," she said unhappily, and I wondered why she bothered to tell me this when it was so clearly a lie. "But I want you to promise me something."
I closed my book, sensing something out of the ordinary. "What do you mean?"
She was silent for a moment. "Well, if anything should happen – that is – if they ever find you, and they ask you for something... Let me try to explain this more clearly. If anybody should ever ask you for something that only you have, you may be sorely tempted and they will probably tell you lies to try to persuade you. But you must not do it, Felix. Please promise me that. What they will ask you, it... it has no legitimate purpose, nothing that isn't harmful to everyone involved. Please promise me."
I was wary of entering a promise which I so little understood, but I found it too difficult to resist her plea and eventually I was forced to agree. Naturally, my curiosity was strongly aroused once again, and I wondered who it was that we had spent all my life hiding from, and why. For a time I took to following my mother to work, to see if she would stop anywhere else and reveal something about the mystery. But she never did anything out of the ordinary, and after a month or two I began to lose interest.
One sweltering summer day in early June, I was out walking by the docks, an apple in one hand and a book under my arm. I had come that morning with the intention of reading, which I had done for thirty pages or so, until I felt the restless urge to get up and move. For about an hour I wandered aimlessly from place to place. Soon, however, the afternoon sun became so strong that I felt unbearably thirsty, and I started on my way back home. (Looking back on it, it seems quite curious that I returned home precisely when I did. If I had made this decision a few minutes earlier, or just a few moments later, everything might have turned out very differently.)
I climbed the stairs to our little apartment on the fourth floor, too tired and hot to take two at a time as was my habit. When I reached it, I noticed with surprise that our door was open. My mother was usually very careful about locking doors and windows, though she never could explain what use the latter would be on the fourth story, and it was extremely strange for her to be remiss about it. In any case, I had expected that she would be asleep. She had worked all night and gone to bed in the morning, and it was hours, by my calculation, before she would rise.
Still I was not terribly alarmed. But some instinct of caution made me hesitate in the doorway, not yet stepping into our small living room. The door was at the far end of the room, and I could see very little. Silently I leaned forward, peering inside – and to my shock I saw that everything had been turned upside down. Broken glass covered the floor; lamps were knocked off their tables; chairs had been overturned. It was instantly obvious that something terrible had happened.
I stood frozen for a moment, wondering whether to investigate further myself or run and seek help. Then to my horror, without warning, somebody who was not my mother entered my line of sight. Worst of all, they saw me too. Or rather, she saw me too, for it was a speckled Xweetok, slender and obviously female, and her eyes caught mine in a curiously blank dark gaze.
Without thinking, I dropped my apple and my book and ran as I had never run before. I dashed to the left, raced down the empty hall and almost vaulted over the rail to the stairs. I heard light, fast footsteps behind me, and I thought frantically as I ran, for it was clear to me that I would not be able to outpace my pursuer for very long. My chance, perhaps my only chance, lay in making an unexpected turn or stop somewhere, and disappearing into the crowd. With that aim I burst out the door into the back alley, turned a sharp right at the first fork, then left at the second, and darted into the door of an apartment building much like my own.
I stood there behind the door for a moment, shaking, waiting in dread for it to open. After a moment I collected my wits enough to look around me, and I realized that the building had a front entrance as well, onto one of the main streets. Forcing myself to walk sedately now, so as not to raise anybody's suspicion or catch their notice, I left through that door and rejoined the busy world of Neopia Central.
I retraced my earlier path to the docks, although that walk felt as though it had taken place a century ago. I was utterly in shock, struggling to make sense of what had just happened. To begin with, who was that woman, and what was she looking for? What did she want from us? I racked my brain to think of some secret family heirloom that might be valuable, but I was quite sure we had nothing of the kind. Either way, it seemed very likely that she was one of them, the ones we had always hidden from, the ones who – according to my mother – wished us harm.
My mother... I blinked back tears, ashamed of my unmanly weakness, but I couldn't stop them. They rose painfully in my throat, threatening to overwhelm every other consideration. But no – I had to be rational, I absolutely had to. My life might very well depend on it. It was impossible to say what had happened to my mother; I could not know, and until then, there was no sense in dwelling on it. I would have plenty of time for that later, and I was certain that if she were here to advise me she would want me safe above all else.
As I saw it, my immediate problems were that I had no money and nowhere to go. Even in my current state of shock, it was clear that I couldn't go back to our apartment; whoever wanted to find me would surely be waiting. I dared not go back even for my clothes or books, or my mother's paintings. They had never seemed very precious to me before. But, now that I knew I might never see them or her again, I desperately wished that I had even one in my possession.
The true magnitude of what had happened was finally beginning to dawn on me. I knew that I should plan something, but I couldn't think clearly and at the moment I didn't care. Instead I slumped down against a broken concrete wall and buried my head between my knees.
To be continued...