Chapter 39

I travelled to a small town that neighboured the park. It was a cosy suburban place that always seemed to shine even on the cruellest winter days. Snow glistened on the ground as the sun's rays hit, creeping through a sea of light-grey cloud, though not warm enough to defeat the cold. The journey over kept my body warm enough, and I barely fussed a shiver as I bounded from a line of trees onto flat Human ground.

My body was able to relax for a minute as I composed and reoriented myself, casting my eyes over the army of Human dwellings in the near-distance. Opening my palm, I made sure that I still had the coins that I had taken from Toby's accounts. I tried to see it as borrowing, but I knew that I wouldn't be giving it back. She didn't have any use for it, anyway.

I hadn't dropped any on the long journey, a fear that I'd had for the entire duration. I jangled the coins, enjoying the sounds that they made, and wrapped my fingers back over them to keep them safe. Knowing my location, I switched to a steady stroll and headed southwards into the Human habitat.

In the late morning, there was plenty of Human activity, but not as much as during rush hour. The weather as it was, most were in their homes, oblivious to what was happening on the outside when I connected with the sidewalks and went about my business as if I were one of them. My toes clipped the flat surface, my tail swished over the thin layer of snow, and apart from my lack of clothes, those were the only differences between myself and them.

Cars drove by. My eyes could pick out the faces of the owners as they passed. They were puzzled, in awe of the extra-terrestrial visitor plodding his way to the nearest convenience store. A couple of them slowed to watch. One of them waved and gave a genuine smile. I waved back and almost dropped my coins.

A female was walking a small dog. It was excessively fluffy, white and permed, barely noticeable against the white of the snow. It saw me quickly and stopped in its tracks, unsure on how to react. The owner, glued to her phone as most Humans usually were, didn't flinch. She snapped out the dog's name and pulled its lead despite its protest.

As we approached on a collision course, that dog became ever more nervous. It began to yelp and bounce backwards into threatening postures, the effect dulled whenever the lead dragged it forward in graceless stumbles.

She didn't even look up when we came ten metres from each other, even as the canine's behaviour became more and more extrovert. I didn't know whether to catch her attention or not.

Then I thought about how she would notice when she passed. How could she miss a 7-foot alien stomping past? Maybe I was underestimating the power of an iPhone…

"Good morning." I greeted when she was about three metres from me. That distance shrank to virtually zero when she lifted her head away from the tiny screen.

The small Human froze, her fingers twitching open to let the phone crash to the ground beside the panicking dog. We stood motionless, both analysing the situation. She was speechless and I didn't know what to say.

But I wouldn't let the situation turn more awkward than it already was. "I'm sorry," I said to the stunned female. I reached down slowly and retrieved the fallen gadget, making sure that it wasn't broken in any way. I held it for her to take. "I didn't mean to startle you."

She was just able to muster the energy to grab the phone as I slipped it back into her hand. She looked at it and then back to me. At last, she brought her lower jaw back up so that her mouth was not agape, swallowed and stuttered out her reply. "Um… Thanks…"

I smiled widely with intent to make it as Human as possible. "If your phone is broken, bring it to the Yellowstone Centre. I will happily have it replaced for you."

"It's… it's fine," She responded, taking her eyes off me long enough to assess the phone. "Thanks."

Neither of us paid any attention to the yapping dog, still causing a stir below us. However, I didn't want to keep them too long. "That's good. Still, I'd love for you to visit the park sometime. We love seeing visitors and we really need support to stop them building a highway over our homes. Have you heard about that?"

Still understandably stunned, her voice was slow and broken. "Yes, I heard about that."

I knew that I wasn't get much more from her. After startling her, she wasn't going to be very talkative not matter how much she potentially agreed with our position. I smiled kindly to her. "I have to go to the store. I hope you have a nice day, um… What is your name?"

Her confidence was slowly coming back, and she answered more convincingly this time. "Rebecca."

"My name is Taku," I said. "I hope you have a nice day, Rebecca."

She managed a smile, and that made me feel so much better. I bowed my head and continued along my path, allowing her to continue on her own.

There were many Humans along the way. Many had the same reactions as Rebecca had. Not used to seeing a Hork-Bajir outside of the park, they were shocked at first (more so the closer I was) but their in-built knowledge told them that I was no threat. I was a friendly visitor who had stumbled out of the park boundaries, as far as they were concerned. A visitor covered in blades perhaps… They still kept some distance.

They became more frequent as I reached my desired location. It was a small convenience store that was barely distinguishable from the homes surrounding it. A blue and red banner stretched over the front was the hint that I needed to tell me I was at the right place. I stepped lightly towards the entrance, leaning my head forward to spot anybody coming around the corner. A fragile, aged female with bunched grey hair was just pulling her large handbag full of items over her shoulder when she turned up to see me. She jumped back, and for a moment I thought that the risk of a heart attack was dangerously close to fruition with the magnitude of the jump and her years. (I considered having just the one-heart to be a huge flaw in Human development for that very reason!)

Alas, she showed no signs of it. She held a hand over her chest in her shock and examined my body from head blade to toe.

"Good morning!" I greeted. It was my usual opener to mixed reactions. This particular old lady was able to push aside her initial fear, but she didn't respond. Instead, she took her handbag in both hands, pressed her body against the opposite frame of the door and squeezed through with as much distance between us as possible. She trotted away, frequently looking back to make sure I wasn't following her.

"Have a good day!" I called to her, unfettered by her fear.

I rolled my shoulders and stretched my neck before having to lower it in order to get through the store door. Catching it before it slowly swung shut, I gently pushed it open and stepped daintily onto the red tiled flooring. My toenails clipped on the surface as I manoeuvred to close the door behind me.

The store was mostly empty. The only Human I could see was behind the counter in the distance, his backed turned to attend to a row of chocolate bars that required refilling. He wore a red polo shirt and had lost the vast majority of his hair. I considered whether to take his attention straight away to avoid potential confrontations. In the end, I decided to approach, preferring not to be suspected of sneaking around, trying not to be seen.

Before I could get there, the tapping of my toes had spilled over his ears. He perked and turned to locate the source of the strange noise as I came halfway towards him. Expectedly, he jumped in place, his eyes bolting open as his mind raced to assess the situation.

It did not stop me. My movements slowed, but I continued towards him, making sure to smile in a way that he could potentially see as friendly. Thankfully, it seemed to diffuse the scenario. Either that or he had concluded by himself that I was no direct threat. He raised a sole eyebrow and cocked his head at me, bringing his self out from behind the counter.

"Hey!" He shouted. "Get out of here! You ain't supposed to be around here!"

The male Human approached to about 3 metres and resorted to shooing me with his hands, explaining bluntly that I was not welcome in his store. I stood my ground and tried to get in a word or two.

"I don't mean to be a problem," I eased to him. "I was hoping to buy something from your store."

This confused him further still. He gawked up at me with suspicious eyes. "You Horks don't buy stuff. You don't even come out this far."

"I know. But I am no ordinary Hork-Bajir." I replied with a grin.

The store owner, whose name badge read "Nigel", mulled over what exactly that meant. "Do I know you? You ain't that one that's been on TV, are you?"

"I've been on the television a few times, yes."

"You're that one who said you hated us Humans." He accused. I had to think fast to divert the conversation away from an undesirable end.

I shook my head lightly. "I have said that, but it was not something that I really meant. I was very upset at the time. If it weren't for you Humans, I would not be standing here with you today. I would likely be a slave to the Yeerk empire, or I would never have been born at all. I have much to thank you for, and I apologise for any offense I caused with what I have said."

Had he bought it? The suspicious gaze didn't drop, but he didn't grow angry or frustrated. Instead, he tried to get to the real issue at hand. "Why are you in my store?"

Relieved that he seemed to accept me, my mouth turned up to a pleased grin and I held out my hand, palm up and fingers unfurled to reveal the coins that they held. The Humans previous expression vanished to be replaced by one of pleasant surprise.

"Well," He huffed with a smile of his own. "I ain't never served a Hork before, but you came to the right place, my friend."

"Yes, I believe I have." I agreed.

He took a step closer. "What are you looking for, Mr…"

"Kelmut," I reminded him. "I'm after something for a friend."

It wasn't hard to find my way from the store to my next destination. It was only a few blocks away, but it required that I moved further into the Human habitat. The closer I strolled, the more attention I began to receive. Eventually, I had to start explaining that I was in a rush when small groups of Humans would try to stop me on the sidewalk to gaze upon me like I was an extravagant and rare tourist attraction. Maybe I was.

Even a police vehicle rolled up. It was only when I gave them my name and explained that I was on my way to a business meeting when they let me on my way. They seemed courteous and polite, though, despite their stern insistence that I shouldn't be walking the streets unsupervised. It was somewhat of an unofficial warning.

Barring such incidents, the trip wasn't problematic. I reached the correct street just as the Sun was coming close to its peak in the winter midday, a pleasant suburban environment with single-story, charming homes lining both sides of the road. There were shining vehicles that stood guard over the sidewalks like the pillars of the Parthenon. One was instantly distinguishable and I jogged in that direction, making sure to look both ways as I crossed the deserted road.

I weaved around the silver-blue car and the carefully trimmed bushes that led to the front door. In position, I took in a deep breath, rolled my shoulders and tapped tree times on the door's white surface.

"Just a sec!" I heard her call faintly from inside. I could just barely make out the sound of a hair dryer in the background. It stopped and footsteps approached.

The front door opened and there stood Clarissa, her long brown hair collected in one hand and a brush in the other. Grooming herself, as usual. She looked up at me and the brushing momentarily came to a stop.

"Oh, it's you." She grumbled. Our time spent apart had apparently not calmed things in her mind.

"Hello, Clarissa," I replied lightly, using my facial expressions to show that I was there on good terms, knowing that she could identify them. "It's been a while."

She leaned up against the door that was still only half open and narrowed her eyes. "What do you want, Taku?"

I was hoping previously that she would be at least a little bit welcoming. She had been my friend for most of my life, short as it was. It was painful knowing how two minutes of lost tempers could destroy what we had built for months. I bowed my head at the thought, letting her question hang for a while. Before she became too impatient, I attempted to win back her favour and pulled up the bouquet of purple flowers that I had bought from the store. I pleaded her silently for forgiveness, offering them to her for peace.

Clarissa looked at them, her brushing hand stopping again as the situation shifted. I was infinitely pleased when I saw those soft Human lips curl into a smile. She started to brush her hair again and her eyes came back to mine.

"I guess you can come inside."

She opened the door fully and with that permission I shuffled beneath the door frame to enter her home. The scents of familiar perfumes ravaged my senses, tickling my throat. Big exaggerated fluffy objects in feminine colours were strewn about the place, perhaps vestiges of Christmas that had still yet to be taken down or just new, extravagant pieces meant to add some kind of flavour to the environment. Just trusting Clarissa's decisions in that department was probably the easiest choice. Nevertheless, I still remembered the house, though it had been a while since I last stood in it.

Clarissa closed the front door and then walked out before me as I stood in the open space wondering which of my senses was most overpowered. She placed herself directly in front of me and folded her arms over her chest expectantly. She said nothing and I knew what she wanted from me.

I held out the flowers again, repeating the routine that I had started outside. "I want to say that I am sorry, Clarissa," I began, lowering my head a little so that we gazed on the same level. "I didn't mean those things that I said back in the hotel."

She sighed, but it was soft and understanding. "You said it like you meant it."

"I know. A lot of it was said because I was angry. Since then, I've learnt a lot about you, even though you haven't been close by. You are a great friend."

My words were genuine, and her facial expression clearly acknowledged that. She took the flowers gently from my claws and pulled them to her chest. "So you remembered how much I like purple flowers," She chuckled. "How did you get these?"

"I went to that local store just a couple blocks away. The owner seemed reluctant to serve me at first, but when I showed him that I had money, he quickly changed his mind," I paused, listening back over what I just said. Then I laughed, "Changed his mind… That's a good joke!"

Clarissa raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, whatever. Don't use it around me. Anyway, you know that that is totally against the rules! You know, going to the store without a supervisor. You could, like, get arrested, Taku!"

I bowed my head. "Yes, that was possible, but I want to make a change. I'm sure you've seen my reputation declining these last few months."

She looked downwards pitiably. "Yeah. You went a bit, you know… psycho. Everyone thinks that you're a bit schizo."

I huffed a laugh. "That's understandable. It's hard to explain really." I looked her in the eyes again and saw her waiting for my reasons. "Well, not hard, I guess. Toby and Cassie left, I got given all of Toby's responsibilities… Relk died. She was killed by Humans. I saw nothing but Human greed and violence suffocating my people. I thought that I hated Humans. Because I thought that, I thought I hated you, too. That couldn't be further from the truth."

Clarissa smiled warmly, a smile that I had so dearly missed over the last torturous months. "Taku, I forgive you," She spoke softly. "And I'm sorry about what I said, too. I missed you, you know. You're my big space lizard kid! You always will be."

"Thank you." I uttered, feeling an emotional clogging in my throat that threatened to bring a tear from my eyes. It was such a relief to be reunited with Clarissa again. She was desperately needed.

"Hey, no problem," She replied melodiously. "So, I'm going to put the flowers in some water, and then you can help me with some chores! I know how much you love vacuuming!"

"Ah, yes. I adore it." I lied, grinning politely to cover it up.

To be perfectly honest, I didn't mind the chores. On that particular day, I was actually very happy to help out. In such a small, clogged space as a Human living room, however, it was incredibly difficult for a Hork-Bajir to perform a task efficiently without knocking things over. I fetched the vacuum cleaner and, remembering how everything worked and where everything was, I got to work, so happy to be back at Clarissa's that I couldn't help but move with extra bounce in my step as I negotiated the large, noisy contraption around the room.

It was always one of my favourite rooms. Between all the fancy fluffy things and the mirrors and the grooming products, there were photographs. It was like Toby's office wall: A place for memories and achievements, things that she was proud of and wanted to hold close.

I was there, which surprised me. I hated to admit to myself that I thought Clarissa would hold a grudge against me and discard any evidence of my existence. She hadn't. In fact, some of my pictures were very central, almost vital to the pattern she had formed on the wall. I saw myself at many ages, the most fascinating being one from a few days after I first met her, the first time I visited her home. I paused from my work and took a closer look at the picture, running my hand under the frame to angle it for a better view.

Clarissa was holding that small Hork-Bajir as they sat side by side on the couch. They both smiled warmly, close friends after only knowing each other for a few days, even after a less-than-perfect start. The Hork-Bajir was just over half her height with immature blades and big innocent eyes.

I had not seen the picture before. It must have been put up recently, despite its age.

"Taku!"

I turned my head. Clarissa was standing at the other side of the living room couch, holding another grooming tool. She averted my attention downwards to the vacuum cleaner. Half of the couch cover had been sucked up through the tube.

Feeling very foolish, I turned off the machinery and began pulling the fabric from it. "Sorry. I was looking at the pictures."

Clarissa silently forgave my mistake with the vacuum and wandered over. She noticed the picture that I had been looking at. "I found that one last month. I thought I needed at least one picture from when you were still, you know, cute. That's definitely changed…"

"I still have my looks." I defended with minimal conviction.

She rolled her eyes and then pulled us both over to another picture. She was sat with another Hork-Bajir. He was even younger, possibly only a few months old. Clarissa was showing him a Human child's toy. Big colourful shapes in the form of a simple puzzle.

"I'm with that group right now," Clarissa informed. "Ain't he just adorable? Really quiet, though. I'm trying to help him learn to speak."

I nodded, not sure how to express my feelings about her focusing her attention elsewhere. Not that I could blame her, because it was I who effectively ended her role as my supervisor. I wanted to reverse that decision. "So you stayed in the park," I muttered whilst trying to find the right words. "With my people."

"Of course I did!" She reacted with a disbelieving laugh. "It was either that going back to hairdressing."

"You are very good with my people. The best," I complimented sincerely as I let my sight rest on the picture. "I wouldn't have you elsewhere."

Clarissa turned to lean back on the wall. "So who's been with you since… you know?"

"Sandy." I answered with a certain expectation.

She didn't fail to deliver. "Sandy?! Oh my god, she is, like, totally evil! How did you get stuck with her?!"

I looked to the ceiling and smiled. "There was nobody else to do the job at the time. To her credit, she helped greatly when Pluk was hit."

"Pluk… Oh, that Hork-Bajir that got run over?"

"Yes. He is my good friend. Now he is hospital, but he is making a good recovery, though he will be lucky if he ever walks like he used to again."

We both took that moment to pause and reflect, our eyes diverging. Clarissa must have known that I was somehow involved, but I knew she wouldn't bring it up. Eventually, after those torturous few seconds, I decided that I should beat my mental obstacles.

"Clarissa, I want you back."

She did not look surprised. She simply grinned and folded her arms over her chest, a cocky expression purveying her lips. "I was waiting for you to say that."