Note that this is not the final version and may change when the book comes out
Alden watched the ground as he rose, crouched in a wicker basket big enough for him to sit in several times over. A rope tied to the handle was slung over a high branch of a black tree used for a pulley. Far below Alden’s older brother pulled the rope down to lift the basket up. The end of the rope had been tied to the tree in case Alden’s brother lost his grip.
Alden had read about the pulley design in a book. It sure made it easier to access the best fruit in tall trees.
Duth_Olec: And it sure made it easier to choose a scene from his life to show off aspects of him so we don’t just have several pages of him reading books.
Wally_Plotch: I guess readers don’t usually read books about others reading books.
Duth_Olec: Unless they get to read the story that’s being read.
Wally_Plotch: But what if the story being read is about someone reading another story?
Duth_Olec: Then they wouldn’t be reading it in the first place, of course.
Alden was a bright green scalago. He adjusted his square, black-rimmed glasses, clasped on a snout slightly elongated that spanned the width of his head. A mouth stretched across his snout as if split open and hollowed out. Alden looked to the forest floor with tall, round eyes just above the nostrils. On the ground a blue dot, his older brother Xavier, pulled the rope.
A tree branch rubbed against Alden’s shoulder. He pushed the branch away and rubbed his smooth, rubbery skin. The green scalago bent his slender body in the basket, legs half the length of his arms crouched underneath. In the basket lay his tail, longer than half the length of his body and which narrowed to a point. His black hair fell over his eyes and he brushed it away. He needed a haircut.
Alden pushed the long sleeves of his soft, fuzzy sweater up to the shoulders and shook the collar. The sweater hugged him close down to just above his legs. He’d expected it to be cooler out. It was time to start wearing thinner clothes. They were only in the sixth month, Nattikle, and the year was less than a third through.
The basket reached the top, and Alden tied the rope around a branch. He flashed a thumbs-up to his brother below and then crawled along the black branches with slightly webbed fingers and stubbier toes, the ashen-red leaves brushing against him.
Alden picked some impents, hard, round, pink fruit with an expanded top as if covered with a cap. He tossed them into the basket. Most of the fruits were twice the size of his fist, and the bright ripe ones clashed against the pale colors of pretty much the rest of Zhop.
Once Alden gathered twenty of the fruits, he crawled back to the basket and untied the rope. Now for the hard part. Alden looked at his brother. Pulling the rope just needed strength and grip, but now he needed finesse to make the basket drop slowly and smoothly. Alden trusted him all the way.
Xavier grew and became clearer as the basket dropped a smooth few feet at a time. He wore a sweater, the sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, and a pair of rubber gloves to grip the rope. Xavier also wore a pair of leather boots, with Alden’s waiting below.
The world blurred. Everything jerked up as a weightless feeling filled Alden.
The basket is falling.
Just as Alden thought this he fell to the basket’s bottom as gravity returned. Below his brother repeated apologies. He’d lost his grip for a moment.
With a wobble Alden stood up in the basket. He peered over the edge and shouted down, “It’s okay! I’m okay. Everything’s fine. Keep going, we’re almost there.”
That pulley system made ascending a tree easier than descending one. Alden wiped the thin mucus from his brow.
Duth_Olec: Yeah, that’s right, scalagos produce mucus in place of sweat. What’s it to you?
Wally_Plotch: Not much.
Duth_Olec: Why don’t you ever want to fight, Wally?
Wally_Plotch: You’re my boss. I should probably pick my fights.
Once the basket settled onto the ground, Xavier helped Alden out. “You sure you’re fine?”
“Yes, I’m fine,” Alden said. “Maybe a little jittery from the surprise, but that’s it.”
“I really don’t like us going up there like this,” Xavier said.
“It saves us so much money,” Alden said. “You never know when we might really need it. We wouldn’t even have enough as it is if the cabin needed to be rebuilt.”
“Or even decent repairs,” Xavier said. He sighed. “Right. It just worries me that you’ll fall.”
“We do it together,” Alden said. “We’ll always make sure nothing bad happens to each other.” They pulled the rope down from the tree and tied it to the basket.
“We always will,” Xavier said. “Do you want me to help you pull the baskets back home?”
Another basket of fruit was waiting near the waterfall. “No, I’ve got it,” Alden said. “You can head on home.”
“Are you sure?” Xavier asked. “There are two baskets, after all.”
“All the fruit goes into one,” Alden said. “It doesn’t need two cleeple.”
“But all that fruit is in it,” Xavier said.
“It’s not that heavy,” Alden said.
“I don’t want you to do more than you can,” Xavier said. “Let me help.”
Alden put a hand on Xavier’s shoulder and smiled. “Come on, bro, it’s just pulling some fruit. It’s fine. You don’t have to do everything for us.”
“And you’re sure you’re okay from the drop?” Xavier asked.
“I’m fine. Both feet on the ground. Everything’s okay.”
“And you’re not tired from climbing in the tree?”
“I’m good. If you have any more concerns to voice the fruit might go bad before I get to it.”
Xavier smiled. “Okay, all right, yeah, I’ll let you get on with it. But if you’re not back within ten minutes of me I’m coming out to look for you.”
Alden laughed. “I’ll be back before you know it.” Alden watched Xavier leave. Actually, I imagine you’ll be highly aware of my absence every single minute.
Alden pulled the basket by the rope to the waterfall. The big surge of water roared in the distance as Alden neared it. He saw the other basket, and he cried out—it was empty. He ran to it and found only a beach ball inside. He’d gathered upwards of sixty fruits that morning. Alden pounded the edge of the basket. “Who took my fruit?” he asked, aware he was unlikely to get an answer.
“It wasn’t me!” The beach ball turned around to face Alden, because somehow it had a face. It held a green fruit in a stubby gray arm and ate it in one bite.
Alden jumped back and yelped. “Who are you? Do you know how long it took to pick all those?”
“Nope! Do you know how long it took to eat them?” the sharp-toothed beach ball asked.
Alden opened his mouth and stammered. The question was just too stupid to answer. The ball watched him. Finally, Alden yelled, “No! I don’t– That doesn’t even matter. You ate the fruit I spent all morning picking.”
“You’re welcome,” the ball said, and it hugged Alden around the shoulders, just barely reaching halfway around him. The ball was nearly twice as big as his head. “Wait, or am I supposed to say ‘thank you’? I’m bad at etiquette.”
Alden sighed and scratched his head. “I guess there’s nothing for it now. But when you find a basket of food, you shouldn’t eat it. It probably belongs to somebody. That’s good etiquette–”
“Hey, more food.” The ball jumped to the basket with impents. The scalago grabbed them by the feet.
“Did you even listen to what I said?”
“Find a basket of food and eat it.”
Alden threw the ball into the empty basket. “You’re not getting these impents.”
“But I’m hungry,” the ball whined, hanging onto the edge of the empty basket.
“You just ate something like sixty fruits,” Alden yelled. “There was enough for five cleeple for a week.”
The ball nibbled on the empty basket.
Alden stared at the ball and then pulled away the basket that still had fruit. The sooner he left an eating monster like that and got the remaining fruit home the better.
As Alden pulled the basket, the ball followed, walking on the empty basket and rolling it like a wheel. “Come on. Fruit, please?” the ball asked. “I’m a lost and hungry puppy.” They frowned and whimpered.
Wally_Plotch: Wait, they have dogs there?
Duth_Olec: Wait, you had dogs where you’re from?
Wally_Plotch: Well, no. There just happened to be a bizarrely large number of court cases related to dogs.
Duth_Olec: Huh. Well, in this case, puppy is actually a term used for young odges, which, while is an animal used as a pet throughout Zhop, is much more aquatic.
Wally_Plotch: Duly noted.
“You are not a puppy,” Alden said. “You are a”—Alden stopped walking—“beach ball. With teeth.” He stared, frozen for a moment, and then slumped and glared at Top. “Why are you a beach ball with teeth? How is that even a real thing? What are you?”
“A beach ball. With teeth,” the ball said.
“I already said that.”
“I’m Top.” The ball held out a stubby arm. Alden wouldn’t have shook Top’s arm even if they hadn’t continued to roll the basket around him.
“Whoops!” Top tripped and fell off the basket, and it landed over them upside-down.
Alden resumed pulling the other basket. He’d rather get the fruit home and then figure out what Top was.
Behind him Top said, “Hello!” followed by silence.
Alden looked back. The empty basket, still upside-down, slid towards him. The scalago didn’t care if the beach ball followed him, but he’d have to keep an eye on his fruit.
After a couple minutes, Alden heard Top cry out. The ball had crawled into a tree and toppled the basket over. Alden kept walking; maybe he could leave the beach ball behind.
“Hey, wait for me,” Top shouted. Alden turned back. Top ran to him and jumped into the basket. The scalago grabbed Top before they landed and placed them on the ground.
“Would you stop that? I’m not letting you have these fruits.”
“What if I do tricks for them?” Top rolled around on the ground like—well, a ball. The ball stood on the tips of their feet and lifted their arms forward. Just like a puppy, Top whimpered.
“I already said you aren’t a puppy,” Alden said.
“Oh yeah? Could a puppy do this?” Top grabbed a few rocks and juggled them while humming tunelessly.
Alden stared at Top. At least they didn’t just take the fruit, but this was getting ridiculous. “You must really want some–” Alden winced as the rocks fell onto Top’s head.
“Ow,” the ball said. The rocks left a pit on their head like a valley, but it straightened back into its round shape after a moment.
“You really want some fruit, don’t you?” Alden asked.
“How about a trade?” Top asked. They jumped into the nearby dark blue river.
Oh, great. Alden denied him the fruit, Top entered bargaining, and they acted like a clown, which were well-known for being depressed. This was like the five stages of grief. Alden really didn’t want to be around for anger with those sharp teeth of Top’s. The scalago pulled the basket along again.
Before Alden pulled the basket a full meter, Top jumped out of the river holding a thwibble in their mouth. “How about this?” As Top spoke, the fish fell out of their mouth, bitten in half. “Oops. Guess I don’t know my own bite power.”
“Look,” Alden said, “how–”
“I know.” Top pulled out from their mouth a ukulele, and they played and sang.
“I want fruit, yes I do.
“I don’t know where I got this U-
“-kulele…” They drew out the last syllable and spun in place on one foot.
“I want food, and fruit is food.
“I ate half the fish but it’s all good.
“Ukulele… Seriously, where did this thing come from?”
Alden smirked. Top was acting even sillier. Maybe they did need food, and the lack of it made them crazy. That or this was a heretofore unknown stage of grief: musical.
“I see that smirk, do I make you laugh?
“Just give me a fruit, no need to pay in cash.
“Electric guitar…” Top twanged the ukulele as if trying to start a fire, shouting “meedley” and “squeedley” repeatedly. They leapt about, shredding on the ukulele so hard the strings broke. Finally they screamed, “Yeeeeaaaah!” and smashed the ukulele against their head, breaking the instrument in half. They fell backwards, mouth open.
Alden plopped an impent into Top’s mouth. The ball jumped up. “More! More!”
“You can have another one if you help me pull this basket,” Alden said.
Top frowned. “Physical labor? But my specialty is jokes, jokes, jokes.”
“You want a fruit?”
“I need energy.”
Alden leaned on the basket. “You have more than enough energy, I should think.”
Top ate the other half of the thwibble. “Okay, I’m energized.” The ball grabbed the end of the rope, and they and Alden pulled the basket alongside the river.
It wasn’t really a shack, but it still looked a little homely.
After walking along the river for a while, Alden and Top turned and pulled the basket into the forest. About fifteen minutes later they arrived at a faded green-gray wooden house, aged over the years, but still livable.
Alden knew this well. He’d lived there all his life.
Sure, the sagging window at the front looked like a black eye, the peaked roof appeared to have been dropped onto the house, while most of the floorboards were crooked, the paint was so chipped the remaining paint probably wouldn’t cover an outhouse, and most of the planks in the walls were so old they stayed in place through sheer habit despite not a single one being even, but it was still more homey than homely.
On the wooden front porch (which, admittedly, was a few years away from being a pile of wood) below a mini-roof, a leathery-skinned dark bronze scalago sat on a wooden chair, the back open at the bottom where his tail hung out, what remained of his gray hair clinging to the back of his head. His bright green shirt, ending at the top of his legs, could blind anyone from the contrast to both his skin and the dim colors of Zhop. This scalago, Alden’s Uncle Orville, adjusted his bottle cap glasses. “Ooh! You’re back.”
“Alden’s back with the fruit?” From the side of the house ran up a dark mossy-colored scalago, Alden’s younger sister Spenk. She wore tightly-laced sneakers, and her hair hung level with her mouth and remained quite still as she ran, as did her close-fitting jacket. She skidded to a stop next to the basket. “Hey! Where’s all the fruit?”
“In here.” Top jumped onto the edge of the basket and pointed into their wide-open mouth.
“Whoa.” Spenk peered into Top’s mouth. “Looks bigger on the inside.” Top teetered, cried out, and fell to the ground.
Alden grabbed an impent. “Top? Here you go.” He tossed an impent to the ball. Top jumped up and grabbed it in their mouth.
“You’re giving it more?” Spenk asked.
“Them,” Top said.
“Well, I did say they could have it if they helped me pull this basket.”
“Thanks, Alden,” Top said. “Wait, did you ever tell me your name was Alden?”
“Yeah, while we were pulling the basket,” Alden said. “How else would you have known it?”
Alden’s uncle laughed. “Now, Alden, you know we can’t keep a puppy here.”
“They’s not a puppy,” Alden said.
“They is a cute little fella, though,” Orville said, rubbing Top’s head. Top bobbed up and down and chomped his grinning teeth.
Orville adjusted his glasses. “Yep, a cute little fella.”
Wally_Plotch: He’s not senile, is he?
Duth_Olec: He may be old enough for his skin to have darkened years ago, but that doesn’t mean he’s senile yet. Probably. Maybe. Okay, so, readers, you’re all just going to have to make that call yourself.
Wally_Plotch: Maybe he just needs new glasses.
A red scalago, Jamal, looked into the basket, his brown-tinted hair tied in a ponytail down to his shoulders. Alden’s youngest sibling voiced the exact same complaint as Spenk; word-for-word, even. He added, “I can’t cook up much variety with just impents.”
“You can cook them,” Alden said, pointing to Top.
“You can cook for me,” Top said. “You can cook forty me. You can cook for forty me! You can cook fortified forty me! That’s bad grammar!”
Alden’s older brother Xavier also looked into the basket. “Where did you find this ball?”
“They was in the fruit basket,” Alden said. “They ate all the fruits while I was gathering these.”
“Well then, we can’t let them stay here,” Xavier said. “If they can eat all that, they’ll eat the rest of our food.”
“No one ever suggested they would stay here,” Alden said.
“Why not?” Spenk asked. “They’s fun.” She kicked Top into the air as the ball squealed like a happy puppy. “Hey, Jamal, think fast.” She punted Top to her younger brother, who caught the ball front and center.
“Be careful,” Xavier said. “Just look at those teeth.”
“Aw, don’t worry. I don’t bite,” Top said. “Unless you’re a big meanie like that Micagox was.”
“Micagox?” everyone asked at once.
“Yeah! You guys are a lot more fun than those Micagox what made me.”
Everyone yelped and jumped back; Jamal dropped Top as if he held a poison-tipped bomb covered in cobwebs.
They all stared at the ball in silence. “Did I say something wrong?” Top asked.
Alden stammered. “You’re from the Micagox?” he asked, as if saying the name would turn him inside-out. They had all heard of the Micagox. Everyone in the nearby town had heard of the Micagox. Who hadn’t heard of the Micagox? Lucky cleeple.
A tribe of mages. Were they real magic? Maybe they were only illusionists. They were dangerous either way, and bothering them was absolute trouble. They were atrocious, devilish beings, they–
Duth_Olec: Of course, you, the reader, know this is false. This is an example of dramatic irony. A stage robot would also be dramatic irony, but ALFALFA is way too dry for that.
ALFALFA: You are more of a dramatic robot than I am.
Duth_Olec: Also, if you’re an English major, hey, good news! This book actually tells you the literary techniques it uses. This one is called breaking the fourth wall. Also, I don’t know if I count as an author surrogate. I’m kind of just the author.
Wally_Plotch: Even though I’m the one writing it.
Duth_Olec: That technique is called unreliable narrator.
Wally_Plotch: Hey! I’m very reliable.
“Yeah, I’m from the Micagox,” Top said. “Why?”
Xavier looked at Alden, eyes wide. “You brought something from the Micagox here?”
“I didn’t realize.” Alden hyperventilated. “They was just in my basket. It was a mistake.” Alden had endangered his whole family. The world wobbled around him.
Spenk pulled down on her hair. “And I kicked something from the Micagox. Alden. You have to get this ball back to them right now.”
Alden stuttered. “Right, you’re right. I have to… Oh no. I have to bring them back.” He leaned over the basket, the world spinning. He didn’t want to think about what the Micagox would do to him. Maybe Top would vouch for him. He hoped beyond all else Top would vouch for him.
Orville patted Top’s head. “Sorry, little guy. I’m afraid you’ve got to go home now.”