You’re Cordially Invited to Crossroads Station — Chapter 8

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.

“A few minutes into their first reunion in eight years, and she was already baring her claws … bringing up old fights and proving they could still be fresh and new.”

Anno stepped through the open airlock of the freighter ship and laid her hind paws on the floor of Crossroads Station for the first time in eight years.  The light was brighter than it had been on the ship; the gravity subtly stronger; and the air smelled… familiar.  Spices from all the different styles of cuisine and the subtle musk of so many different species mixed with the gentle perfume of the various fruit trees and bushes in the arboretum, coming together into a smell she knew would fade as her nose grew reaccustomed to it.  In her memories, the air on Crossroads Station was almost antiseptically blank of smells, constantly filtered through algae packs that scrubbed and cleaned the infinitely recycled air.

But those memories were only half right — the smell, complex and understated, was always there, underlying everything that happened on the station.  It soaked into the metal of the walls and floor.  It was impossible to scrub it away.

“You stopped,” Loi complained, looking back at her mother, who had made it exactly one step onto Crossroads Station before grinding to a halt, overwhelmed by the sensation of having somersaulted backwards into her own childhood, a time and place where she wasn’t responsible for three children and didn’t have a supportive spouse by her side.

“Give Mama a moment,” Darso said.  “This was her home a long time ago, and it’s a big deal for her that she’s here again.  How do you think you would feel if you didn’t see our house on New Heffe again for yeeeeeears?”  He dragged out the last word until all three kits giggled, breaking the tension and softening their annoyed impatience.

“Sorry,” Anno muttered.  “This is a lot.”

“No worries,” Drathur replied.  “Do you want me to take the kids ahead?  Find our quarters and drop all our luggage there, while you wander around and get your bearings again?”

It was a sweet suggestion, but Anno didn’t want to be left alone here.  She wanted Drathur by her side, a physical reminder that, yes, she had gotten away.  She had built her own life.  Elsewhere.  And it would still be there, waiting for her, when she got back in three weeks.

This was all temporary.

An illusion, like a flashback in a movie.  Not a real part of her story, just a trip down memory lane to flesh out her character before returning to the present day and time.

Because the present day and time were still happening, back on New Heffe — the sun was shining down on their house, or maybe one of the two moons.  It was real and solid and had an entire planet beneath it, unlike the thin metal shell she was standing on — inside of — right now.

“Oh no!” Mei cried, somehow coming up with a new problem, yanking and anchoring Anno back to the present moment.

“What’s wrong?” Anno asked.  It was a reflex at this point — child says ‘oh no’; Mama says ‘what’s wrong?’.  Anno could have done it in her sleep.

“I forgot that I wanted to be holding Bear-Bear when we first stepped on the station.”  Mei started unzipping the side of her suitcase, right there, in front of the airlock of the space freighter where they’d all paused when Anno had become overwhelmed by nostalgia.

Other passengers of the freighter had been stepping around Anno and her family; there’d been enough room for that, even with them arguably standing in the way.  But as soon as Mei’s suitcase fell open, spilling half its contents on the metal ground, suddenly the small group was blocking the whole path.  Passengers behind them had to wait while Anno pulled the suitcase off to the side; Drathur immediately started collecting the various pieces of clothing and toys littering the ground behind it.

In the chaos, Mei managed to grab hold of her rumpled old stuffed animal that she’d named for the Ancient Earth animal it looked vaguely like.  She squeezed it triumphantly.

“Wait,” Loi said, “if Mei has Bear-Bear out, I need one of my stuffed animals too…”  The little canid girl began reaching for the zipper on her own suitcase, but Anno was quicker than her and blocked her little paw.

“Nope, no, definitely not,” Anno said.  “We are not digging through suitcases here in the docking section.”

“Except we are,” Darso commented mildly.  That little boy had a real snarky streak inside him, and he wasn’t even old or aware enough to be doing it on purpose yet.  He would be a real menace when he got old enough to snark on purpose.

Loi began grumbling in her nonsense syllables again, and Darso kept muttering about fairness all while the adults tried to get Mei’s suitcase zipped back shut — without losing anything that had fallen out of it — as quickly as possible.

Anno might have been imagining it, but she thought a number of the passengers navigating their way around the spilled-open suitcase might have been grumbling too.  She hated it when people grumbled about her parenting.  There was nothing to do about it — nothing other than feel embarrassment tinge the inside of her ears as red as the fur on the back of them.  And just keep on doing whatever it was that needed doing — soothing a child or admonishing a child or, in this case, cleaning up after a child.

Whether the grumbles from other passengers were imagined or not, Anno felt quite ruffled by the time she and the suitcase stood back up.  Drathur was already gathering the children back into order and said, “Okay, then, let’s get to our quarters, drop these off, and then go find sweets from one of the food vendors?”

Anno was grateful to have Drathur dealing with the chaos of the kids, but she was still frowning with her ears splayed from all the embarrassment and stress when her gaze fell on a face she’d never seen before but that immediately arrested her attention.  Gray fur with a wide oval nose and fluffy oval ears — “Mom?” Anno exclaimed, before she’d even finished processing what she was seeing.

Anno had seen her mother’s face every day of her life for eighteen years… but she hadn’t seen Clori in eight years now, and she’d never seen this version of her before.

Clori’s face was thinner; the gray fur had lightened from steel to silver; and there were creases and crinkles that showed through in the way her fur lay.  Her fur was no longer thick and glossy enough to smooth every angle of her face.  She looked old, and Anno had never seen her mother look old before.  She’d looked like an adult, seen through the eyes of a child, but adults seen through children’s eyes all have a kind of timeless quality, as if adulthood is a uniform phase of life that lasts forever, rather than yet another part of the arc of life with changes and phases inherent to it.

“Is this Gramma?” Loi’s voice piped querulously as she stared up with bright eyes and tall ears at the koala-like woman.

“Well, I don’t know, sweet little one,” Clori said, leaning down to bring her face closer to all three of the kits.  Their faces were so much longer and pointier than hers.  “It seems to me that who we are to each other depends on what my daughter here wants us to be to each other.”

Clori glanced reproachfully up at Anno who was standing dumbstruck, too unprepared for her mother to come meet her on the docks to know how to react or behave at all.  “You didn’t respond to my message,” she blurted out.

“Well, you didn’t give me much warning that you were coming, now did you?  So, it seemed easier to just come here and see you.”  Clori stood up, and Anno discovered another change — her mother was shorter now.

Anno had been taller than her mother ever since she’d hit her big growth spurt, early in her teen years, but it hadn’t been by this much.  And Anno hadn’t gotten any taller since then, so Clori had shrunk.  The older koala-like woman barely came to the shoulder of her red wolf-like daughter now.

“Lay off Anno, Ma,” a hauntingly familiar and yet utterly unfamiliar voice said.  A gray-striped felinoid stepped up beside Clori; the cat-like person could have been the sister of Anno’s brother Ky.  Except, that didn’t make any sense.  Anno was Ky’s sister — none of Ky’s sisters looked anything like Ky.

But this gray-striped felinoid woman, except for the extra fluffy tufts on her ears and the sides of her face, looked just like Ky.

“Are you—?” Anno couldn’t figure out a full sentence to say or question to ask, but her unfinished utterance definitely had a question mark hanging off the end.

“I go by Kya now.”  The felinoid’s ears skewed, and her eyes glanced away, like she couldn’t stand to risk seeing Anno’s reaction.

“Oh, okay,” Anno said.  “How long—?”  She didn’t finish that question either, but if she’d had any doubt that Kya was the same sibling who used to be her annoying little brother Ky, it was wiped away completely by Kya’s response.

“A few years.”  Kya looked back at Anno, seemingly bolstered by her discomfiture.

Ky always had liked it when he could get his big sister off balance; he’d bought into some human stereotype about cat-like and dog-like species always being at odds and had used it as an excuse for why it was his purpose in life to annoy his one Heffen sibling.  Apparently, that much hadn’t changed.

“My tufts grew in nicely after I started taking hormones, don’t you think?”  Kya ran her claws through the wispy ends of her fluffy face tufts.

“Beautiful,” Anno agreed.  Then she added in a teasing tone, “Though, it does make you look more like Ma.”  The fluffy gray tufts on the sides of Kya’s face were somewhat reminiscent of the silver cloud puffs of Clori’s koala-like ears.

“And what’s wrong with that?” Clori asked huffily, looking up at her two children, both taller than her.

“Hey, my ears are still pointy like yours, Sis,” Kya objected.  “No matter how much extra fluff they have around them.”

Anno ignored Kya’s comeback and said to their mother, “I’m not the one who declared none of your children should look anything like you, Ma.  If you have a problem with that, take it up with the Myrmecoidal Matrons.”

Anno hadn’t meant for so much of her resentment to shine through in her tone, but there it was.  A few minutes into their first reunion in eight years, and she was already baring her claws, metaphorically anyway — bringing up old fights and proving they could still be fresh and new.

Clori looked stunned, her small mouth on her flat muzzle hanging open.  “Well, you didn’t look happy to see me.  And now this.”  She shook her head sadly.  Then she turned away.  And walked away.

It felt like a dagger to Anno’s heart.  Sure, she’d rejected her mother for eight years, and Clori probably felt like Anno had rejected her all over again when she’d been greeted by flattened ears and a flustered frown (even if it had been caused by the kits messing with their suitcases) rather than a big grin and a swishy tail…  But that didn’t mean Anno was prepared for her mother to reject her back.

“This was a bad idea,” Anno muttered to herself, turning away from Drathur and Kya like she needed to mess with the suitcases more.  Except all the suitcases were under control.  There were just three perfectly behaved kits staring up at her with big eyes, trying to figure out what was going on between their mother, this new grandmother they’d just met and who was already walking away, and the aunt who they’d been told would be an uncle.

Couldn’t they pitch a fit over something stupid now?  Why couldn’t they have picked this moment to be a distraction?  Anno could use a distraction, any distraction.

Drathur cleared his throat and said, “You know, we’ve been traveling for a week.  I think everyone could use a bit of a rest—”

“You’re going to suggest going back to your rented quarters,” Kya said, “because you’re trying to salvage some sort of peace here, and that’s great and probably part of why you’re married to my sister who’s never been good at keeping the peace—”

Anno wanted to object to Kya pigeon-holing her like that, but it was the truth.  And more importantly, when she glanced over at Kya, she saw the felinoid had paused, giving her the chance to object…  And somehow, being offered the opportunity to pick a fight with Kya, as if the cat understood it was extremely presumptuous to assume she still knew anything about her big sister after all these years, diffused the sting.

Anno held her tongue, and Kya continued.

“—but a bunch of the other siblings, everyone Ma could wrangle together with such short notice, is already back at the Xeno-Native Enclave right now with snacks and drinks and games all set up, and most of us don’t care if Anno fights with Ma.  We’re used to that, remember?”  Kya shot Anno a coy look that she remembered seeing on Ky’s face all the time when they’d both been little.  “We just want to see her, and meet you all.  So, please?  Come back to the Xeno-Native Enclave with me?”

“Games?” Darso asked quietly, looking up at his parents with hopeful eyes.

“Snacks?” Loi asked, far more insistently.

“Can we go, Mama?  Please?”  Mei clasped her paws together in front of Bear-Bear, who was still clutched against her chest.  “Please, please, please?”

“You could also meet your cousins,” Kya offered, smiling down at the kits.  She clearly liked them already, and that warmed Anno’s heart, which had been shocked cold by Clori walking away.

“Cousins?!?” all three kits squealed.  There’d be no keeping them away from this reunion party now.  Though, Drathur was clearly already gearing up to try — he would offer other kinds of treats or reason with them, and none of it would work.  You can’t reason with five-year-olds, not really.  And he couldn’t possibly offer anything to their kits that would compare to the prospect of meeting cousins.

“Oh gods,” Anno said.  “How many cousins?  Whose are they?  Are they xeno-native?”

“If you want answers to those questions,” Kya said, smiling devilishly, like only a cat can smile, “you have to come to the party.”

“Fine,” Anno huffed.  “But you have to catch me up on the way.  I don’t want to be blind-sided by too many things all at once when we walk into the enclave.”

“Oh, you mean like how you blind-sided all of us by showing up with a husband and three kits after eight years on about eight hours notice?” Kya asked acerbically.  She really hadn’t changed, even if her face was fluffier and more feminine and she was using new pronouns, she was the same annoying little sibling she’d always been.

“Yeah, like that,” Anno agreed, taking hold of her suitcase, preparing to pull it along behind her.  “Only the oldest one gets to pull stunts like that.  The rest of you have to bow down to me.”

Kya laughed.  And for a moment, Anno actually felt happy to be home.

Continue on to Chapter 9

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