You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station — Chapter 19

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.

“She didn’t want to miss this wedding — it was a once in a lifetime experience, and she wanted to be there.”

Anno had traveled across star systems, spending weeks away from her chosen homeworld, to make it to Am-lei and Jeko’s wedding.  The whole trip, fundamentally, was about going to a wedding.  And now that the morning of the wedding had come, her family was running late.  There was nothing to be done about it.  The kits were always a whirlwind of chaos and disasters whenever she and Drathur needed them to be ready for something at a specific time.  There was nothing like a deadline to cause one of the kits to lose track of their favorite toy or put their clothes on backwards or get gum stuck in their fur, even though Anno couldn’t remember ever giving her kits gum.

And then Clori had shown up with a matron, throwing normal chaos into emotionally charged chaos, leaving Anno less effective at helping manage all the minutiae of juggling a litter of three kits and all their needs.  Drathur had done his best, but it really took two adults to effectively manage three kits.

In her distress, Anno almost forgot to bring the wedding present she’d so carefully crafted and packed — a hand-framed photo she’d taken of Jeko and Am-lei when they were just kids together, before Am-lei had even metamorphosed.  Just a pudgy green caterpillar and a wrinkly gray elephant who’d only met days before.  Anno didn’t think they’d remember the photo, and she knew they’d love it.  The wood for the frame had come from branches trimmed from a tree in her own backyard.  Even so, turning back to dig through her suitcase and find the gift — after she’d finally got her family out the door — cost time.

By the time Anno’s family had made it out the door of their rented quarters for real, Anno was seething on the inside.  It felt like her insides had turned into a frantic beast, trying to claw its way out of her insides in the form of sharp, sarcastic, angry words that wouldn’t help anyone.  She didn’t want to miss this wedding — it was a once in a lifetime experience, and she wanted to be there.  Not a couple floors away, arriving just as it ended.  But if she missed it… making her family feel bad about that wouldn’t help.  So she held her tongue.

Of course, it didn’t help that Anno was burning to talk to Drathur about her plan to invite Kya to move back to New Heffe with them… and knew there wouldn’t be time for hours, and the clock was ticking on that too, because they were going home day after tomorrow.

Anno and Drathur led their fancily dressed kits across Crossroads Station at a rapid clip, just short of all out running, because running was just as likely to lead to collisions and slowdowns as to actually speeding things up.  Let the kits run full speed and they’d take off in every direction like shrapnel from an explosion, and Anno would never get them under control again.  At least, not in time.

The Crossroads Station arboretum wasn’t in any of the concentric rings; it was in a spinning sphere in the middle of all of them.  So, the trip up to the arboretum involved two elevator rides.  When the final elevator ride opened up, revealing a beautifully curated, carefully manicured, fusion of jungle greenery, the kits shrieked in delight.  They were used to forests and fields and wide open, wild spaces on New Heffe.  Sure, there were cities and small gardens, vegetable gardens, and also farmland, but nothing like this.  No botanical gardens where everything was arranged perfectly, simulating the wild while being somehow ephemerally more perfect and precise than a truly wild place would ever be.

Anno stepped out of the elevator and felt the springy, textured grass under her paws.  It was such a relief after all these days walking on hard, smooth, metal surfaces.  Soft and complicated.  It felt real, even if there was something inherently fake about a garden growing around the inside of a spinning sphere, floating in the depths of outer space.

“Look!” Loi shrieked, staring and pointing straight up.  “Instead of sky, there’s more garden.”

Both the other kits’ muzzles fell open in astonishment as they gaped at the greenery above them — between the branches of the trees around them, they could spy the tops of other trees, upside down, growing on the other side of the sphere.  All of it was lit by regularly spaced, extremely tall lamp posts, meaning the middle of the sphere looked like it was dotted with hundreds of mini yellow suns.

“If you could climb high enough,” Drathur said, “the middle of this sphere has no gravity, before it flips over to pulling you the other way toward the ground above us.”

“No way!” Mei exclaimed.

Darsy was clearly already looking around for something to climb.  The lamp posts, being the tallest things around, were looking like the best bet.  Anno needed to put a stop to this before her kits were all twelve feet in the air.

“We need to find the wedding,” Anno said in a tone of voice she’d carefully learned to calibrate over the years, especially designed to make the kits think she was about to tell them about something exciting.  Something they’d like.  Something they’d want.  “Can you help me find it?”  They liked feeling helpful.  Even more, they liked feeling more competent than their silly adults who couldn’t do anything right.  Sometimes, pretending to not be able to do anything herself was the best way to get the kits interested in trying to do something by themselves.  Then they could prove how clever they were.

Anno didn’t want to be playing games like this.  She wanted to be charging across the arboretum, straight to the wedding, not wasting another minute.  But it wouldn’t do any good to arrive at the wedding with riled up, stressed out kits who would immediately need to be taken aside and calmed down.  No matter how much she wanted to just abandon her family and charge off on her own right now, it was better to do this right.  Sure, she could just leave the kits with Drathur and try not to care if the rest of them didn’t manage to show… but she wouldn’t really be happy that way.  It wasn’t what she wanted.  She wanted to be with her family.  She also wanted to make it to the wedding on time.

Besides, in the rush to get out the door, Anno had genuinely forgotten to check the map, and she didn’t know where to look for the wedding.

“Ooh, Kya said it was in the Karillow Glade yesterday!” Loi said, piping up.  Mei started describing what karillow trees looked like in detail, just in case any of them were looking at one and hadn’t realized it yet, and Darsy was already busying herself looking for a map.

In hushed tones, Drathur said to Anno, “It’s that way.”  He subtly pointed in the opposite direction of what the kits seemed to be settling on.  “I checked the station map earlier.”

Anno’s body flooded with relief.  Thank goodness one of them knew where they were going.

“Hey, guys,” Anno said, “what’s that over there?”  She pointed in the direction Drathur had just suggested.  “Is it a big tree with drooping branches?”  She peered off in that direction, as if she could just make out a karillow tree — but not recognize it, because she wasn’t that clever — between the other trees.

Drathur and Anno started moving in the right direction, and after a quick conference, the kits convinced themselves it was actually their idea and took the lead again.  Well, they ran up ahead of their parents, but they were actually being led from behind and not realizing it.  Even terribly clever five-year-olds aren’t all that clever.

The group wended their way between trees with striped trunks and fan-like leaves; then past a copse of fruit trees, burgeoning with gem-colored orbs.  Finally, along a cute red-brick path laid into the grassy ground, Anno caught sight of a group up ahead — a group dressed in fancy clothes, like her own family.  A group dressed for a wedding.  They continued to approach, and Anno’s hopes rose — she recognized some of the people, relatives of the two brides, and the way they were milling about suggested they were still getting ready for the wedding.  It hadn’t happened yet.  Anno wasn’t too late.

Anno slowed down, gathering the kits around her, and checking they all still looked presentable, in spite of their mad rush across the station.  Loi had loosened her tie in a rakish way, and one of the straps on Darsy’s yellow dress had fallen down her shoulder.  But overall, the effect was cute, not disheveled.  They looked like kids, wearing fancy clothes, sure, but still just kids.  And kids run around and play, so you can’t expect them to look perfect like some doll on a shelf that’s too precious to take down and muss up.

As they got closer, Anno realized the wedding party must be taking pictures.  Some aliens approximately her own age and assorted mammals, who she didn’t recognize, were mostly standing to the side, out of the way.  They were probably Am-lei’s visiting college friends.

Arranged photogenically in a curve together, however, stood Am-lei’s mother, human grandmother, and then Am-lei herself beside Jeko, with Jeko’s parents together beside her.  One of the unfamiliar mammals was taking the pictures.  They made a funny group — two wingless butterflies, a human, and three elephants all in fancy dresses and tuxedoes.  Though, not any more funny than Anno’s family pictures had always looked, she supposed… except, maybe a little more unbalanced.

There was something so perfect and therefore unnatural about the way the myrmecoidal matrons arranged for each Xeno-Native family to never, ever have any overlap of species — at most one of each species per family was the rule, and it was an ironclad rule.  Am-lei’s family in its lopsided mix of elephants, insects, and one human was oddly more natural-looking — some alike, some different.  They had the haphazard quality of a family chosen by the people within it, based on love, and not some arcane ideal of what a bunch of insects thought peace among vaguely mammalian species should look like.

Taking a few steps closer, finally, Anno’s family came close enough for the wedding party to notice them.  Am-lei’s glittering faceted eyes sparkled, and her antennae waved in a welcoming way.  Jeko’s trunk had been curled affectionately around one of Am-lei’s stick-like arms, but she raised the tip of it to wave as well.  They both wore white gowns, but very different ones.

The gauzy fabric of Jeko’s gown gathered tightly around her plump body in pleasing pleats, accented with flourishes of gold; Am-lei’s dress fell over her narrow shoulders like a waterfall, but when her uppermost arms moved, the cascades of white followed them like a cape.  Or wings.  Her dress had been designed to mimic the wings she’d cut off so long ago, but lighter, paler, and more flowing.  These wings made her look less like a butterfly than her biological wings had with their riotous colors like a stained-glass window.  These draping folds of shimmering fabric looked more like the iridescent wings of a dragonfly.

Anno had never seen either of her friends look so fancy, and she suddenly felt self-conscious about the wrapped gift tucked under her arm.  Would these sophisticated adults on their wedding day really be charmed by seeing pictures of themselves as awkward, gawky children?  Anno wasn’t sure.  She wasn’t even sure if her own family — complete with three awkward gawky five-year-old fox kits, ready to tumble and carouse their way all through this garden — really belonged here, surrounded by all these composed, well-dressed adults.

But then Am-lei and Jeko finished having their picture taken with their parents and both gestured enthusiastically for Anno and her whole family to come forward.

“We need a picture with Anno,” Am-lei fluted to the photographer.

“Come and get in front,” Jeko said, beckoning the kits toward her with her trunk.  “Yeah, right here, in front of me.”  She held out her plump, sturdy arms, and Darsy, who was usually more shy than this, crawled right into her embrace.  Jeko held her up, grinning widely beneath her trunk.  Darsy snuggled close to Jeko, leaned against her trunk like it was a hammock, and her two sisters, Mei and Loi, struck a dramatic pose in the front of the group.  Am-lei grabbed ahold of Anno’s shoulders with her two left arms and pulled her into a stickly side-hug, while Drathur stood somberly on Anno’s other side.

The photograph snapped, crystallizing a single moment of stillness in a way that could be remembered forever, but in real time, the moment passed away quickly, and the kits were back to carousing before Anno could blink twice.  Anno and Drathur were moved firmly but gently aside, and then Am-lei and Jeko were busy arranging themselves with different mixes of their college friends.  It was dizzying, being right in the middle of the event for a single moment and then being back to the sides, while Am-lei and Jeko’s ministrations continued without them.

Anno felt warm and important, knowing Am-lei and Jeko had wanted a photo with her.  Not only her, even.  Also her children, who they didn’t even know.  It meant she really belonged here.  She was really a part of this.

…but only a small part.

For the first time, Anno realized just how much she was a minor side character in the story of this wedding.  For weeks, her life had been all about getting herself and her family here.  But… if they hadn’t come, or simply hadn’t made it, overslept or otherwise failed to arrive at all… the wedding would have gone on without them.  Anno had been a big part of Am-lei and Jeko’s life a long time ago, and it felt truly special to be included in their wedding now.  But they didn’t need her here.  They were busy with a bigger, more intricate part of their own story now.  They were the main characters here, and their families were the side characters.  Anno was, at best, a minor walk-on cameo.  And that was okay.

Anno was used to feeling like something of a side character, even in her own life, ever since she’d had kits.  When they were awake, and even sometimes while they were asleep, the kits were the stars of the show.  Anno had to fit herself into the space between.  This didn’t feel like that.  She’d simply walked into someone else’s life for a day, and she could watch the edges of Am-lei and Jeko’s story.  But she couldn’t see all of it.  Just this piece they’d decided to share.

Anno didn’t mind being the side character at a wedding.  It felt like a privilege, and she was so glad she’d come.

Continue on to Chapter 20

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