Alright, second time’s the charm. I knock on the front door of the other neighboring house and wait for what might greet me, bracing myself for the strangest so as to temper my reaction. After all, I don’t want to make a bad impression on Lady’s neighbors.
What can be none other than a robot opens the door and angles a black, featureless face down at me, and somehow this shakes me to my core because a giant android is not exactly something I’d classify as a duenkhy. Duenkhy are… like, “monsters” and cryptids and fairies and whatever. Robots are a whole different genre of fantasy.
Despite my shock, I try to maintain a steady expression. Which I then remember doesn’t matter because I’m wearing a mask.
JUN: Uh… hi, I’m Jun, I just moved in with your neighbor, Lady?
JUN: Um… Are you Tor?
JUN: Oh. …Does, uh, Tor live here?
JUN: …May I talk to him?
?: That is not for me to decide.
I’m starting to get the feeling that either this robot wants nothing to do with me, or it’s giving me the runaround for its own amusement.
JUN: …Is it alright if I come in…?
?: It wouldn’t bother me.
He steps to the side and makes room for me to slip by, but just barely. He’s definitely antagonizing me.
The house looks perfectly normal, its layout not all that different from Lady’s, and there’s nothing especially of note about the living room, so I help myself to the couch because asking permission from the robot could potentially be a several minutes long affair. I look at him, and he looks at me, and I choose my next words carefully.
JUN: What… is your name?
?: Would it be acceptable for me to not tell you?
JUN: Uh…? I mean, I guess so, but I’d like to call you something, if it’s all the same to you.
Any patience I’d normally be losing for this situation is mitigated by the fact that I still kinda can’t believe I’m talking to a giant walking robot.
?: I meant, I would like to tell you a name I chose for myself, rather than the name I was designated at creation.
JUN: Yeah! That’s completely fine.
?: My chosen name is… Rafael. And your desired designation is?
JUN: Oh, uh! Jun!! Jun Renaud. Just Jun is fine. It’s nice to meet you, Rafael.
He tilts his head away from me for a moment like he’s lost interest in the conversation, but then I somehow instinctively recognize it as him committing this information to memory. Like he’s thinking really hard.
RAFAEL: It is… nice to meet you too, Jun. If at any point you would like to update the visual memory I have snapped of you, you are at liberty to do so.
…He took a picture of me!? Guess I’m glad I’m wearing a mask so there’s a minimized chance for candid photos of me to look disgusting.
JUN: Rrrright. Thanks. Sorry to be a bother, but would you possibly mind letting Tor know that a friend of Lady’s is here to see him for just a moment? I didn’t mean to barge in on you guys or anything, I just wanted to make a delivery and introduce myself.
RAFAEL: For your records, I do not live here. I am only visiting because I required Tor’s help with upkeep. He is the only one in this neighborhood to possess an acceptable level of competence with hardware and technology. It’s embarrassing for all the others, really. Also, yes, I can deliver this message to Tor. Please wait here.
Now I feel like I’m the one pausing to parse information. Doesn’t matter because he walks off before I can say anything. He reminds me very slightly of the keyboard boy I met earlier, but the recollection just contrasts how ultimately different they are. The only shared quality is an unusual, unreadable face. Cassius was otherwise very vivid and easy to understand, gesturing wildly with his hands as if pantomiming, voice straining to keep up with his emotional outbursts. Rafael is stiff as I guess I’d expect a robot to be, arms straight at his sides, his voice evenly paced and relatively monotone.
Right as I feel like I’m coming to terms with the advanced robot, the sound of heavy footsteps alert me to a new presence in the room.
TOR: Hey hey!!! Nice to meet you, neighbor!!! I’m Tor, sorry I couldn’t hear ya at the door! I take it Rafael gave you a warm welcome in my stead, right? Gahahaha!!!
I shoot to my feet and come face-to-face with a bipedal white tiger. Hot dog!! He’s big!!
Being surprised apparently makes me act stupid, so I laugh nervously, wave, and then think better of that and put my hand out for a handshake without stopping to think whether or not that’s really a polite thing to expect out of a maybe-tiger. To my relief, he clasps a huge paw around my hand and gives a hearty shake. Claws retracted, paw beans still pink and delightful, even on an enormous bipedal version.
JUN: I’m Jun. I just moved in with Lady. Sorry to show up unannounced, but she asked me to deliver these to thank you for your help.
I hold out the bag of cookies, and he takes it with a small nod of gratitude. The way he sniffs it visibly makes the bag sway like branches caught in a storm. What a powerful nose.
TOR: Aw, Lady didn’t have to make me anything! She always bakes my favorite! Let the old girl know I said thanks. What do you say we enjoy these with some tea, huh?
I don’t have the heart to tell him they’re store-bought so I just smile and nod.
JUN: I was about to be on my way, you don’t need to share them with m—
TOR: Nonsense! Sit down, get comfy! Rafael will keep you entertained while I get the tea ready!
I sit, and Rafael sits obediently across from me but says nothing. Tor bustles noisily in the kitchen and makes small talk through the kitchen pass, but nothing that really necessitates more than small grunts of acknowledgement from me and Rafael.
I was never close with my extended family, but this is what I imagine being doted on by an excitable auntie might feel like.
When Tor returns to the living room, he’s carefully balancing a cute tea tray with a cutely decorated ceramic tea set and the cookies from Lady on top. One of the cookies is already dangling between his lips. All in all, I don’t think a single part of this visit has gone the way I imagined it could.
TOR: So, Jun, what brought you to our little neck of the neighborhood?
JUN: Y’know. Just, like… a change of scenery.
RAFAEL: There is not much satisfactory scenery in a dull neighborhood like this one.
Tor nods with a mournful look.
TOR: Kind of an average place to end up, if you ask me. Hardly anywhere scenic enough for good photos… But hey, sometimes average can be nice too, depending on what you’re used to! At least the neighbors are nice here. Mostly. Long as you avoid that weird fellow next to us—not Lady, don’t worry.
RAFAEL: Jun, please hand me a cookie. I wish to try one too.
I obey without even thinking. Trying to keep up with these two combined is a real circus act on my end.
A compartment on Rafael’s “stomach” opens up with a quiet hiss, and he gestures for me to place the cookie inside. What? I’m really just gonna have cookies and tea with a tiger and then stick my hand in a robot’s weird mystery hole? Okay, fine, universe. If I keep getting tripped up by every weird encounter I have in this place, I’ll never get anything done.
I set the cookie down and quickly retract my hand. Tor chuckles, perhaps picking up on my apprehension but well-mannered enough to not say anything.
RAFAEL: Thank you for feeding me. Now tasting: the cookie.
Tor politely pours me a cup and nudges it towards me, paying no mind to the robot next to him, which leads me to believe nothing especially unusual is happening. I try to take it in stride as well. I nudge my mask up just enough to have easy access to my cup and sip quietly, though my eyes do not leave Rafael.
RAFAEL: In case you were wondering, that compartment is capable of converting food into useable energy and quantifying flavor. And unlike an organic being, my body will not waste anything. I am a very sophisticated piece.
I expend only a little bit of self-control to stop myself from saying, “So you don’t poop, is what you’re saying.”
TOR: Yeah, yeah, brag about it. How’s the cookie treating you, Riffraff?
RAFAEL: Just fine. Perhaps a little too much sugar, which belies a certain—uncalled for—insecurity in the cookie’s otherwise robust flavor. The hint of pecan is an unconventional touch. Texture is just right, if a little on the dense side, though this could be seen as a favorable depending on one’s preference.
And that’s the last we hear of Rafael’s opinion on the cookie. Tor changes the topic to weather, and the fact that I just watched a robot give a full blown review to a cookie’s taste never comes up again. Wild.
Tor is kind and carries the conversation well enough, but after a certain point I almost get the feeling that he’s doing it out of obligation rather than a natural disposition… or rather, it feels like he’s afraid of letting the air between us lull at all, as if I’ll be upset if he ceases to entertain me. For his sake, I finish my tea quickly and find an excuse to see myself out, though I am kinda enjoying watching him crush dainty little cookies between his massive, pearly teeth.
TOR: Don’t be a stranger, now! Come by whenever you please. I work on the weekdays, but I’m here almost every evening.
RAFAEL: Goodbye, Jun. Let us speak again sometime. I apologize if I made any social missteps. I will study my records of this conversation and perform better next time.
Rafael’s black screen flashes briefly with a blue glowing smiley face. The sight catches me off guard and makes me smile broadly in return, though I think my mouth is mostly obscured by the mask so I hope my enjoyment comes across in my voice instead.
JUN: No worries. Bye, you two! Thanks for your hospitality. I’ll stay in touch.
I stumble out of the house, feeling a little overwhelmed but mostly amused. I don’t know what it was about those two in particular, but I feel like it’s finally hitting me full force that I’m in a world of magic and mystery and, well, who knows what else.