You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station — Chapter 10

by Mary E. Lowd

An excerpt from You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station. If you’d prefer, you can start with Chapter 1, return to the previous chapter, or skip ahead to the next chapter.

“There was approximately half a question mark in T’reska’s statement. They both knew she was right.”

The Xeno-Native Enclave was a small section of Crossroads Station — equivalent to a couple city blocks long, taking up most of the wide common corridor that ran down the center of the middle ring, and including all the quarters and other private rooms that could be accessed along one side of that stretch.  The common corridor couldn’t be entirely blocked off for accessibility and safety reasons, so there was a still a narrow path along the other side of the corridor that was kept separate from the enclave, blocked off by a wall of varying height, built from a deep honey-brown-colored substance that seemed vaguely organic, possibly woody, that no one had ever quite identified.  Instead of woodgrain though, it had a vaguely hexagon-like pattern imprinted in it.

The height of the wall ranged from short enough for Anno to see over it near the various arched doorways inside to several feet higher than her head for several long stretches.  It effectively set the enclave apart from the middle ring’s merchant quarter on one side and the generalized residential areas on the other side.

When Anno had been very little, she’d loved those walls and liked tracing her claws along the hexagonal lines ingrained in them, drawing little patterns.  She’d felt like the walls kept her safe.  They surrounded her home like a big warm hug, and everything on the inside was all part of a big family; everything on the outside was uncertain and foreign.

As Anno had gotten older and made friends with Am-lei at school, she’d started to feel weird about the walls — how they sent a message to outsiders to stay out.  Am-lei hadn’t minded, but other kids at school had found it weird when they’d had to pass by those walls to come to her quarters to play.  Suddenly, the walls hadn’t felt like they were protecting her so much as stifling her, trying to keep her small enough to fit inside them forever and never ever get away.

“What are these made of?” Drathur wondered, craning his neck to look down the long stretch of wall before stepping through the open archway to the inside.  Even though the walls sent a strong “stay out unless you belong” message, most of the doorways didn’t have doors in them.  They were left wide open.  The psychological effect of the walls was enough to keep the right people in, and the wrong people out.

Crossroads Station was a peaceful place, and while parents everywhere will always have to be concerned with children wandering off and being hard to find, there was very little cause for worrying about children coming to any real harm.

And fundamentally, the Xeno-Native Enclave was a social bubble on the station concerned with rearing and raising children.  So, as soon as Anno’s group passed through the honey-colored wall, her kits gasped at the sight of all species and ages of children playing and running around everywhere.  The whole space was a giant play area for children with small climbing structures and playground equipment designed for babies and toddlers.

“Cousins?” Darso inquired.

“Kids!” Mei and Loi proclaimed together, both of one mind on the topic.  They didn’t care if the kids were cousins or not; playing with these kids looked like more fun than it had been to walk past stall after stall of treats they couldn’t have, pulling along suitcases.  Drudgery.  Dullness.  Five-year-olds have a short span of patience, and Anno’s kids had just about used all theirs up.

“We’re almost there,” Kya purred.  “Stay strong, little ones, and you can have both snacks and cousins and somewhere to stow those suitcases.  Then you can come back out here with your actual cousins who’ll be able to show you around.”

Anno didn’t point out that according to Xeno-Native philosophy, everyone here was family.  Siblings, cousins, and kin through the great web of interconnectivity that was the gift of xeno-nativity.  It would have been counterproductive and probably led to her children running off, totally out of control.  Still, it was hard to hold back the sharp comments just tickling at the edge of her tongue.

Mei grumbled at the idea of staying with her adults; Loi used her made up language to do something that wasn’t technically swearing, since it didn’t technically involve any actual words, but the intent was very clear.  Darso, still nestled in Kya’s arms, simply sighed, sadly and deeply.  None of them liked it, but they would wait.  They would continue in their parents’ company — at least for a few more minutes, but maybe not much longer — following along like good little cooperative children.

As the group navigated their way through the moving obstacle course of fuzzy, fluffy, feathered, and scaly children, Kya returned to Drathur’s question about the architecture:  “You wanted to know what the walls are made of, right?  I think it’s a biological substance the myrmecoidal matrons produce, perhaps akin to a very hard wax.”

“You don’t know that,” Anno admonished.  “It’s just a wild theory.”

“The hexagons?  The texture?  The fact that the matrons are insectile beings who clearly evolved from hive-dwellers?”  Kya was using her tone that meant Anno was being an utter buffoon; a tone she’d used a lot when they were both younger.

“Right,” Anno said, using her standard my-little-sibling-is-annoying-tone, “or the matrons just want people to think it’s some special substance they created from their own bodies because it gives the whole place a sort of mystical feel, and it’s actually just a simple plastic that they’ve doctored up to look all special.”

“My sister the skeptic,” Kya replied drily with half-flattened ears and a wrinkled nose.

“A title I’m proud to claim.” 

Anno might have quipped more with her feline sister, but suddenly, she found herself facing the door to her childhood home.  A door that held the rooms she’d lived in for eighteen years behind it.  And she couldn’t speak.  She couldn’t think.  She could hardly even breathe.  Something deep inside her still recognized it as the door home.

Anno might have frozen in her tracks — again — but five-year-old-children are a force of nature that stop for almost nothing.  Mei and Loi bounced and skipped right up to the door, as soon as they could tell which one it was.  Darso wriggled and squirmed his way out of Kya’s arms and back to the ground.  And Kya stepped right past her frozen sister and opened the door like doing so was nothing, like it was just the place she lived and not some quasi-mythical location from the complicated golden glow of childhood.

Anno stepped inside her childhood home.

The first thing she noticed was the mural Clori had made from agates each of her children had chosen during a family trip to one of New Jupiter’s lava moons — it was in the exact same spot that it had been in eight years ago when Anno left home.  The pretty rocks nestled next to each other, held together by carefully twisted silver wires cradling them.  Clori had worked on the mosaic for weeks after that trip.

Anno walked right up to the mural and put her paw on the agate she’d chosen — a bright purple rock with ragged edges, almost star-shaped.  It was right next to the pink heart-shaped one T’reska had chosen.  Anno remembered with a flush of shame how she’d complained about their agates being next to each other.  She and T’reska might not have a lot in common — they’d chosen totally different life paths, given that apparently her reptilian sister had stayed home and followed in their mother’s footsteps instead of fleeing at the first opportunity — but that was no excuse for how Anno had treated her like she was less than the others for being cold-blooded.

Anno wasn’t proud of every part of her childhood.  She’d been a complicated, prejudiced, angry little person for a while there, and she just hoped that she could make up for that by having grown out of it.

While Anno stared in wonder at a small, purple, star-shaped rock that was a tiny piece broken off from her childhood and set into a homemade work of art, her own children — still busy living through their childhoods — spilled into the room with happy squeals of greeting as they met their cousins.

As Anno continued to stare at the mural she hadn’t seen in eight years, she felt Drathur take the handle of her suitcase from her paw.  Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kya lead him to one of the bedrooms, between them pulling all five suitcases since the kids were clearly already too busy to worry about such mundanities anymore.  They had cousins to play with!  And five years of having not known each other to make up for as fast as possible.

A familiar presence came up behind Anno, causing her ear to flick.  She could tell it was T’reska.  She didn’t even know how.

“Hi,” T’reska said, her voice exactly the same.

Anno turned to look at her reptilian sister.  T’reska’s green scales had darkened around their edges, making their pattern more pronounced.  Her face had thinned a little, and the frills running down the side and middle of her head were painted with a soft pink makeup she hadn’t been allowed to use when she was still a kid.  She looked very grown up.  Anno supposed she was very grown up.  Like herself, T’reska had three children.  It shouldn’t surprise Anno that she no longer looked like the little girl she’d been eight years ago.

“Hi,” Anno echoed, finally finding her voice.  It was hard in this place where some things were exactly the same, and other parts — pieces of furniture, and even one of the walls — were totally and completely different.  It was like her childhood home had been swallowed by some other set of quarters entirely, and the two places were slugging it out, trying to figure out which one of them was in charge.  But really, it was just one place, and that dissonance confused Anno to her core.

“You managed to upset Ma pretty fast,” T’reska said, and somehow, it didn’t sound like an accusation.  She almost sounded amused.  “How’d you do that?”

“How do you think?” Anno replied.  She might be struggling to find her voice in this place, but something deep in her brain knew how to trade quips with her siblings on some kind of autopilot.

“You complained about the myrmecoidal matrons?”  There was approximately half a question mark in T’reska’s statement.  They both knew she was right.

Anno shrugged, not confirming the statement.  She didn’t have to.

“You always did know how to needle Ma right where it hurt the most.”  T’reska’s forked tongue flicked.

“How does that hurt the most?” Anno asked, bewildered, ears splaying.

“She’s always been terrified that the choices she’d made — like letting the myrmecoidal matrons run her life so much — would lead to losing all of us some day.  And it kind of did.  Well, not all of us.”

“But me.”

“Yeah, you.  Her oldest.”  T’reska had always seemed jealous of the fact that Anno had once — if only briefly while she was still mostly a baby — been the only child.  Just her and Clori, a whole family in two.

“I’m back now.”  Anno couldn’t tell if she was apologizing for having left or just stating a fact.  Part of her was sorry.  But most of her wasn’t.  Most of her knew that she’d done what needed to be done, for herself, for finding her own life.  If she hadn’t, then she wouldn’t be here now with Drathur, Mei, Loi, and Darso.  She wouldn’t even be herself.

And yet, part of her still felt sorry for ever leaving.

“Welcome back,” T’reska said warmly, though a little wistfully.  They both knew Anno wouldn’t be staying.

A moment later, Anno felt strong arms wrap around her from behind and squeeze tight.  The arms were furry, and when she managed to twist around enough to see, she found Iko’s big eyes in her flat primatoid face staring at her, twinkling like they always had.  No one could look happy and mirthful like Iko.

Anno hugged her primatoid sister back; red-furred arms and brown-furred arms wrapped around each other in a complete circuit.  When Iko finally let go and pushed Anno away to look at her, the primatoid shook her head.  “You came back here wearing that?”

Anno looked down at her simple travel clothes.  “I stepped off a space freighter wearing this,” she said.  “I didn’t expect to be whisked off to a family reunion before reaching my rented quarters and getting a chance to change.”

Iko tutted, and T’reska laughed, a sound Anno hadn’t heard in years.  As a child, she’d sneered at the hissing undertones in T’reska’s laugh, because it was something that made her different from all the other warm-blooded siblings in their family.  Now it sounded like music.  It sounded like childhood.  It sounded like home.

All of this was overwhelming.

“You have something better to wear to the wedding, right?”  Iko brushed her hands along her own flowy, rainbowy robes in a way that was clearly designed to draw attention to how much fancier she looked than her canine sister right now.  “Because if not, I can lend you something.”

“Of course I brought something better for the wedding!” Anno exclaimed, sounding more easily needled than she actually felt.  It felt good, actually, to have her sisters teasing her again.  She hadn’t experienced that feeling for a long time.

Although, after a beat, Iko’s needling did get to Anno and made her wonder if she’d brought along clothing fancy enough.  “Wait,” Anno asked, “what will you be wearing?”

If those rainbowy robes were Iko’s everyday clothes now, who knew what her fancy clothes might look like.

“Oh, I’m not going,” Iko said.

Anno’s ears splayed in confusion.

“None of the rest of us were invited,” T’reska said.  “Jeko and Am-lei were your friends, Anno.  Not any of ours.  You guys never played with us when they were over.”

“Also, from what I’ve heard,” Iko added, “they’re keeping the wedding really small.”

“What you’ve heard?” Anno asked.  Her tail had begun swishing behind her.  She felt weird about it… but knowing Am-lei hadn’t invited any of the rest of her family made the invitation she’d received feel even more special.  It meant Am-lei really had invited her, specifically her, because their connection really did mean something, even after all these years.

“Well, I work at the arboretum,” Iko replied.  “So, I saw their wedding on the schedule reserving the Karillow Glade.  You can’t fit very many people under the karillow tree, so it has to be small.”

“None of us would even know about the wedding if it weren’t for that,” T’reska said.  “It’s not like your message mentioned it—“  (Ah, Anno thought, there’s the passive aggression she’d been expecting.)  “—and I don’t think any of us had even known Am-lei had moved back here from Wespirtech.”

“I certainly didn’t,” Iko agreed.  Then her round monkey face broke into the widest grin.  “But oh my goodness, enough about that!  Tell us things!  Tell us everything!  Also, tell me which of your children you’re going to let my daughter steal, because I’ve already heard her making plans to kidnap and keep one of them.  If you get in on the plans early, you still might have a say in which one.”

Anno laughed, and her tail wagged harder.  She couldn’t help it.  She was happy, she was worked up, she was feeling too much and too many things and it all threatened to overflow right out of her.

Fortunately, Kya came back from wherever she’d been with Drathur at that moment and cut in saying, “Come on, guys, you haven’t even let Anno sit down or have a bite to eat.  You’ve cornered her in the entryway for goodness sakes!  Give our big sister some room.  Seriously.”

Continue on to Chapter 11

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