Niki had turned four over half a year ago. Ross was nine. Her parents acted the same as they did before she was born. Nothing ever changed.
The strange silence that she had had when she was a baby had never really left her, nor had her small size. In school, teachers often worried for the little yellow Kougra who barely talked. All the other kids had formed their little groups of friends while she sat on the sidelines, watching. Then, as everyone noticed the friendless girl who didn't talk to anyone, she became desirable for every group there was. She was bombarded suddenly with offers to play and hang out by everyone in her class. She would squeak out replies and get dragged off somewhere by a bunch of other kids that she didn't even know.
She was liked by her classmates, even if she didn't say much. She was liked by her teachers, who were impressed by her ability to learn quickly. She was liked by her parents since she wasn't needy and she didn't get in the way.
Her brother was another story. Ross turned into a different person every day. There were days when he hated her and called her names, and there were days when he regarded her as his little sister that he loved more than anything else in the world. But the worst days were when he didn't even look at her, not seeming to care if she existed or not. She was already more or less ignored by her parents, and it hurt when Ross decided that she wasn't worth his time either. She even preferred being hated by him rather than just being there, another person he didn't care for.
Niki lacked physical strength. She was slow and she was weak. She didn't notice this yet, still being so young, but she was aware of a difference between her and the other kids, a difference that had nothing to do with the fact that she could read at a higher level than any of the others, or that she learned her alphabet and numbers faster than everyone else.
Niki was smart and observant, well liked and quiet. But she was unhappy, and she didn't even know it.
There was one place that did make her smile whenever she went there. She always waited impatiently until the day her mum would say, "Niki? Dear, could you help me in the kitchen for a second? I have something to give to that family down the road." Those words were music to her ears. Magic, even.
Niki hated cooking. It was messy and confusing, and everything was timed, and if one thing went wrong, the whole thing was ruined. But whenever her mum mentioned the family down the road, Niki was there in a flash.
On one bright, sunny day, Emmie was busy making cookies. Niki hovered by the doorway of the kitchen. She had noticed that her mum had taken out twice the amount of ingredients as usual, and was hoping that those words would come up again.
"Niki? Could you help me, please? I'm making cookies and there'll be enough for that family-"
Niki slid into the kitchen immediately. Her mum smiled at her.
Niki thought her mum was beautiful. Her hair was a pure snowy white and her eyes were wide and indigo blue. Her smile was kind and her eyes crinkled at the edges when she was happy. She was tall and elegant, and Niki felt small and simple next to her. Niki compared her mother to all of those princesses in those stories that they read to them in school, and she was more like a serving girl that helped her along.
"Come on, sweetie. Here, help Mummy make the batter," Emmie said, lifting her daughter up to the sink so she could wash her hands. When she put Niki down, the Kougra waited as her mother got out her step-stool and placed it next to the counter. Niki climbed up and helped her mum measure flour, sugar and salt. She added cinnamon and chocolate chips, and helped crack the eggs. Her mother mixed the batter and Niki watched, since she was still too weak and small to handle the large bowl and wooden spoon. They both made little dough balls and put them on the cookie sheet, and when the cookies were baking, Niki and her mum licked the bowl and spoon, which was their favorite part of making cookies.
Niki stared almost desperately at the timer on the oven, and waited impatiently as her mother took the cookies out of the oven, off of the cookie sheet and onto little cooling racks so that they wouldn't fall apart as Niki took them down the road.
But finally, Emmie took out a box and filled it with some of the bigger cookies they had made. Niki fidgeted from foot to foot as she watched her mother filling up the box ever so slowly. Emmie glanced at her daughter staring at her intently and smiled. Once she finished, she gave the box to Niki, reminding her to be careful and not to stay too late. Niki promised and rushed out the door and down the road.
Down the road, a family had spent almost all of their savings on a little house. They were dirt-poor, and they were Niki's favorite people in the world. Niki's mother often made them sweets and pastries, hoping that they would fill them up enough on the rich food so that they could focus their money on other things like clothing and hygiene. They were always so grateful for the food, and received Niki with open arms.
Down the road and up the little wooden porch, Niki shifted the box under one arm and knocked on the door. A purple Xweetok opened up and smiled brightly as she saw the little Kougra. "Well hello there, Niki," she greeted warmly.
"Hello May," Niki returned, smiling in turn. "Mum made some cookies."
"She shouldn't have!" May exclaimed. "She spoils us, you know."
Niki doubted this. May lived with her husband and three children with almost no money to get by with. May's hair was messy and greasy, and she had a few patches and dirty spots on her simple black dress. Niki had never seen her wear anything else.
"Would you like to come inside?" May asked. Niki nodded and handed her the box of cookies.
Inside the small, dusty house, they walked through the one little hall to the kitchen, where May put the cookies on a plate for the kids. "Niki's here!" May called out, then she told the little Kougra, "My husband's out looking for work, but he should be home soon."
May's husband was an orange Lenny named Li. He was very skinny, like his wife and kids, but he still tried his hardest to care for his family. Intelligent and friendly, Niki liked listening to him talk, unless he was feeling pessimistic. Unfortunately, he was pessimistic most days, but he tried his hardest to act hopeful whenever Niki was around.
May took a cookie and bit into it. Her eyes widened, her smile grew bigger and she wolfed it down like a child. "These are amazing," she said while licking her fingers. Niki smiled again. She liked helping May and her family out. The childish Xweetok was always so fun and bubbly, so it was a shame to see her in such a depressing state in a house that was too small and that she couldn't keep clean, no matter how hard she tried.
Footsteps sounded and three children lumbered in the room. A yellow Wocky walked in followed by a green Gelert helping a blue Shoyru along. Andi, Oake and Nola. Six, five and two years old respectively. All of them as skinny and dirty as their mother.
Andi smiled at Niki, greeted and thanked her, but there was no real friendliness or warmth in their exchange. Andi and Niki weren't very close. A few years later, Niki would come to realise that it was because they were too alike. Andi was quiet and smart like her. They were even the same shade of yellow. The main difference between the two girls was that Niki wasn't poor and Andi was.
Andi took a few cookies and handed one to her brother, Oake, who snapped his in half and gave some to his little sister.
"Can she have sugar now?" Niki asked.
Oake half-smiled. "Ever since yesterday."
Nola took her piece of cookie and gobbled it down as May had done a few minutes ago. Then she let go of her brother's hand and beamed at Niki. Ever since Niki had began going to her home to bring food, Nola regarded her as her other sister. Nola was a sweet young girl who couldn't talk much yet, still being two years old. Instead, she was still in the process of mimicking and repeating any word she heard to the best of her ability. Niki looked forward to seeing Nola. They would sit down by a window, and Niki would take out a picture book and would read it to Nola, who would snuggle up next to her and eventually the little Shoyru would fall asleep with her thumb in her mouth.
Her brother nudged her forward. "Go say hi to Niki," he suggested to her.
"Hi Niki!" Nola repeated happily, running over to the Kougra as fast as her little legs could carry her and hugging her waist. Niki knew that it wouldn't be long before Nola could start having her own conversations.
Oake grabbed another cookie and bit into it hungrily. Oake was a little over one year older than Niki, and one of her few true friends. The kids at school were nice enough to her, but Niki felt best around Oake and Nola. Oake had been the first person from the family that Niki had met. As she was walking home from school one day, she saw a bunch of boxes outside their house and knew that someone had moved there. Oake had come back outside to grab another one of the smaller boxes and saw Niki with her mother. He greeted them kindly, and they waved back. May had come out of the house next, and that's when the friendship began.
"Niki Niki Niki," Nola sang over and over again, trying to reach up to play with the Kougra's hair. Niki sat down and allowed the little Shoyru to pick up a few yellow locks with her clumsy fingers. Nola brushed a clump of hair with her hand and it fell in front of Niki's eyes. She blew it away from her face, and Nola laughed at the floating hair. She then flicked it back in front of Niki's face, and Niki obligingly blew it away again.
Nola was obviously delighted by their little game, but pretty soon Niki became breathless and lightheaded. Oake offered her a cookie, keeping one for himself and a half for Nola. The three children sat side by side on the dusty floor, snacking on their treats.
Oake and Nola ate similarly. They wolfed down their food as soon as they got it, as if they were afraid that if they didn't eat it, it would disappear or be taken away. Neither of them knew how to savor food. Niki, on the other hand, with a mother like Emmie, ate slowly, trying to taste and identify every ingredient that she helped put into the cookie.
When Oake had finished his cookie, he wondered aloud, "Where's Dad?"
"Your mum said that he's looking for a job," Niki replied, allowing Nola to rest her head on her lap. She stroked the little girls soft blue hair while Oake kept talking.
"Dad's always looking for a job," Oake grumbled. "But I think he's gonna do it one day. One day, he's gonna have the best job in the world, and we'll have lots of money. We'll get another house, and lots of food, and a swimming pool, and a back yard with swings and slides, and we'll all have our own room." He sighed dreamily, visions of his dream house swimming in his mind. Then he glanced at Niki guiltily and said, "And you could come and see us all the time, Niki. And your mum and dad and brother too."
"And if Dad can't get a job, I'll get one instead," Oake declared. "Or we'll both get jobs and make tons of money."
"We can't get jobs unless we're grown up," Niki pointed out mildly.
Oake looked crushed for a moment, but then he grinned and said, "I'll find a job anyways. Maybe I can be on TV or something."
"Maybe," Niki replied, neither affirming nor denying anything. Oake was a dreamer, and a bit of a goofball. He always could imagine ways around any problem, even though these problems were normally a part of his imagination. But the fact that he had mentioned being on TV saddened Niki. Oake's family didn't own a TV, but Niki's did. Once, Andi, Oake and Nola were invited to Niki's house, and Niki remembered the awe and delight that all three children had when they had come across the television set. They had to watch what Ross was watching, since the Techo was unwilling to give up ownership of the remote control, but it hadn't mattered. It was their first experience in front of a TV screen. Even Nola was mesmerised by the colours and sounds that came from it.
Oake was still in deep thought, and Nola was napping quietly. "Maybe," Oake continued, "I could finish school early and get a job instead."
"But we need to go to school," Niki said.
"But I don't like school!" Oake argued. "We need money, and I'm not gonna get any by singing my ABC's." He crossed his arms stubbornly.
"I guess so," Niki replied evenly. She knew that once Oake got an idea, he relayed it to whoever would listen. All one had to do was let him know that they were listening to him, and he was happy.
But this time, Oake's speech was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening and closing. "I'm home!" called out a tired voice.
Oake jumped up as Niki gently roused Nola, and they all made their way to the front door where, sure enough, Li was standing, just as skinny and filthy as the rest of them.
May ran forward and gave her husband a hug. Niki gently smiled at this. At her house, her parents rarely saw each other, let alone hugged. Niki liked seeing that other families, even if they were worse off than her, still managed to stick together. It made her happy.
Li noticed her when May let him go. He knelt down and hugged his three children when they ran over to him, and he invited her along with a nod of his head. As Niki joined in on their group hug, she felt so happy. She didn't get this sort of attention back home. It was nice.
"Any luck?" May asked once the kids let go.
Li smiled faintly and said, "There's one place that's considering me."
"YAY DAD!" Oake cheered. Nola laughed at her brother's joy. She grabbed his hand and they did a funny little dance together.
"They might prefer someone else," Li mumbled aloud, but then a glance in Niki's direction made him smile. But Niki could tell that it wasn't a real smile. It was one of those smiles that grown-ups made when they tried to cheer themselves up. "But it's still good, isn't it? It means that there could be other people that'll consider me for a job, if this chance doesn't work out."
"That's the spirit!" May said with a bright smile. Her eyes widened suddenly and she disappeared quickly from the room. She came back with a cookie in her hand. "Congratulations, honey," she said, extending her arm and holding the treat over to her husband.
As Li gratefully took the cookie, Niki glanced out the window and saw with dismay that the sun was setting. Oake stopped his little game with his sister and saw where his friend was looking. "Guess you gotta go soon, huh?" he asked.
Niki nodded sadly. She didn't want to leave. Even if everything was untidy and the place was not as nice as hers, it was happier. It actually felt like a home.
But she promised her mother, so she gave everyone a small hug goodbye. As she walked up the road, the family stood waving on the unpainted porch.
As Niki arrived at her house, she looked back toward the horizon. There was the sunset. Niki's experiences with the sunset were different than what she would have imagined. Whenever she heard a description of one, it was always a beautiful, breathtaking sight that painted the skies and clouds a rainbow of colours. But all Niki could see was a really bright light. The sky turned red and orange, but it unnerved her instead of inspiring her. Whenever she failed to enjoy a sunset, she wondered if there was something wrong with her.
Instead she looked at her fur. The last of the suns rays lit up the yellow until it became just as blinding as the sun itself. Suddenly, Niki didn't like the colour yellow anymore. Her fur was like a reminder of how she was weird to not like sunsets.
Of course, she didn't realise this. She didn't think this. She just came to the conclusion that she didn't want to be yellow anymore. Maybe, once she turned five, her parents would let her get painted like they did with Ross. She would ask her mother, if she wasn't too busy, or her father, if he was home yet.
As the sun disappeared and everything was covered in shadow, Niki pushed the door to her house open and walked inside, feeling particularly deflated.
Echo Note: Finally managed to finish this chapter. It's nice to know that I'm not at a complete standstill.