Too Many Words
It was the first meeting of the new marching season, and our new freshman was excited. Very excited. It was obvious from everything about him: he practically vibrated in his seat, giving off excess energy, and bounced around when standing.
“I llllooooovvvveeee bbbbaaannndddd,” he told me seriously while hopping up and down on the balls of his back feet. (It didn’t add much to his height. He was a green Xweetok with a short stubbiness that was unusual for someone of his species.)
“I know,” I said, forcibly calm. “You told me twice already.”
“Did I tell you my name?” he asked, pausing his jumping for a moment, causing his speech to regain a semblance of normality.
I mentally reviewed our (mostly one-sided) conversation. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Oh! It’s Alfie.”
“Nice to meet you, Al—”
“That’s short for Alfonzo Jamal Johnson. Johnson is my dad’s last name. Well, he’s not really my dad. I mean, I’m a Neopet. I have an owner. She’s a girl. None of my name comes from her. But my last name comes from Mr. Johnson, so I call him my dad even though he really isn’t. You see?”
My head was spinning from trying to follow his thought process. “No... I mean, kind of. Uh... Alfonzo Jamal Johnson is a pretty big name.”
“And I’m a pretty small guy, right? It’s funny. Ironic, maybe. I have such a big name because my owner’s section named me.”
“Your owner’s... section?” I asked. I couldn’t think of anything that phrase could possibly mean, except...
“The trumpet section of her marching band. They all named me. Together.”
“Oh, cool, your owner is in marching band?” I perked up. I love talking to people in marching bands other than ours.
“Yeah, she loves it! She plays trumpet. I do too. I love trumpet. It’s the best instrument! But not the loudest. Unless you try really hard. Which I can’t. My lungs aren’t big enough.”
Oh, Fyora, he’s in my section, I groaned inwardly. “Well... okay,” I interrupted his endless praise of the trumpet. “I have to go help Ellen with... something. So, bye—”
“Who’s Ellen?” he asked excitedly. “Can I come?”
“Uh, no, bye!” I dashed off, leaving the Xweetok still jabbering away. In my haste, I bumped into Ellen the pink Gelert, who was chatting with Aiwa, my island Ixi ex-best friend.
“In some sort of hurry?” Aiwa sneered.
“Yeah. Have to get away from Alfie,” I replied calmly, refusing to stoop to her level.
“Who’s Alfie?” she laughed. “That sounds like a Puppyblew’s name. Here, Alfie! Good boy, Alfie!”
“Alfie is one of our new members. Remember, you guys are sophomores now. All the freshmen have no idea what to do yet. NO HARASSING THEM.” Ellen fixed us both with a stern glare.
“I was having some trouble trying to squash my urge to throw him off a cliff,” I admitted. “He talks... so... much!”
“Yeah,” Ellen agreed, “but we need all the trumpets we can get, okay? If he goes mysteriously missing, I’ll know who to blame.”
“Yeah—anybody who’s ever had to listen to him!” I retorted.
Ellen laughed and Aiwa looked annoyed at being left out of the discussion. I could understand a bit; I had hijacked her conversation with Ellen.
“I bet he’s not that bad,” Aiwa proclaimed. “You guys are just bad with kids.”
“Kids? We were that age last year,” I protested.
She answered that by stomping off in Alfie’s direction.
“Good luck!” I called after her.
After our initial conversation, Alfie seemed to think we were fast friends. At our two band practices a week, he stood, sat, or walked next to me as much as he could. And when he couldn’t, Aiwa or Ellen served as his substitute. I learned more about his owner’s marching band, but that was just about his only topic of conversation I was interested in.
He seemed incapable of standing at attention or parade rest, due to his natural inability to stay still period. Marching-wise, he was no better or worse than the other freshmen; at least, as far as I could tell from two weeks of learning and re-learning commands.
Our fifth practice, I was putting my trumpet away and joking with Wandol (Werelupe, drummer) and Yew (cloud Grundo, drummer) when Alfie came up to me and said, “Hi Juneau, can I ask you a question?”
My usual (sarcastic) response to that jumped out of my mouth before I could stop it. “You just did.”
“What?” Alfie said, looking very confused and very vulnerable. I realized for the first time just how young he acted.
I shook my head. “Uh, nothing. Never mind. What did you want to ask me?”
Yew and Wandol were staring with wide eyes, speculating if this was going to be something worthy of a story. Stories, to a drummer, are knee-slappingly hilarious, no matter how many times they’re told, and must be able to withstand thousands of retellings to every member of the section.
“I was wondering if you wanted to come over tomorrow,” he mumbled, ducking his head. I was flabbergasted. Alfie, the talk-till-the-Kaus-come-home Alfie, was being shy and embarrassed!
Then what he had just said sank in. I was invited over to his Neohome. Invited over—like a little kid! I didn’t even like him that much! Would people think we were friends?
I drew in a sharp breath, acutely aware of the growing crowd behind my back. Apparently Yew had motioned some other pets over to watch the circus. I was going to have to yell at him later.
“Um... ” I said, stalling for time, until I realized that the longer I stalled, the more people who would witness this scene. The gawking group behind me was growing by the minute.
I distinctly heard Aiwa’s unmistakable voice cut through the murmurs of the crowd. “Watch her break the poor little boy’s heart!” she crowed. I clenched my teeth and ran my hand angrily over my speckled Cybunny ears.
“Sure, I’ll come, Alfie,” I said, loudly enough for everyone in the room to hear me. The whispers cut off like I had hit an on/off switch, and then started up again, with more wide eyes and disbelief than before.
Alfie looked almost pale. How long had I debated, making the poor kid wait for his answer? I patted him on the shoulder and offered up a weak smile. “Can’t wait.”
He attempted a grin in return and ran off without looking back.
Oh, Fyora. I’d probably be talked to death. But at least maybe I could talk to his owner about marching band...
The next day, I found myself on Alfie’s doorstep, nervously combing through my fur. I forced my paws to be still for a moment and pushed the button for the doorbell.
Alfie’s owner opened the door. She was about average height for a human, I guess, with brown eyes and brown hair pulled into a ponytail. She was wearing jeans and a black T-shirt that read TRUMPET NINJA.
“I love your shirt,” I blurted out, and then looked down, mentally kicking myself for opening my mouth.
The girl looked surprised and glanced down at her shirt as if she had forgotten what she was wearing. “Oh, thanks!” she said after a minute. “I have matching jewelry too—see?” She pointed to her dangly trumpet earrings. “Do you play?”
“Yeah. I, uh—I’m Juneau, Alfie invited me—”
“Oh, of course! Stupid me, I totally forgot he’d invited someone over. Come on in,” she said, opening the door wider. I stepped inside.
“I think Alfie’s in the library,” she mused. “This way—and try not to step on anything.”
I watched my step carefully as we ascended the stairs. There obviously quite a few pets in the house. In our short trip up the staircase, I saw a Halloween Zafara with angel wings and a halo, a regal-looking shadow Lupess, and a desert Lupe who was fixing his eyeshadow.
“How many pets do you have?” I asked Alfie’s owner when we got to the top of the stairs.
“I have ten or so permanent pets, and then a few who are just staying here for a while,” she replied. “Oh! Here’s the library.”
Sure enough, Alfie was in there. So was a Darigan Eyrie whose red eyes gleamed with malice. The Eyrie gave us a condescending glance and pushed past us, out the door.
“Fhoboz, come back!” Alfie cried after him. “No, wait—oh. He’s gone.” He looked upset for a minute, and then realized who was standing in front of him. “Juneau! I didn’t think you’d actually—”
His words broke off and he was quiet. He didn’t think I’d actually... come? My heart ached for the poor kid. He was so annoying that he must not have too many friends.
“Well, I’m here now,” I said cheerily. “What do you want to do?”
“Do you want to play Key Quest?” he asked, perking up. “The Moltara board is my favorite!”
“Sure,” I said, smiling. We sat down on the carpet and began to play. I was vaguely aware of Alfie’s owner watching us. She’d taken a seat on the couch and appeared to be reading a book, but I felt her eyes on my back every so often.
Alfie ended up winning the game. I felt myself smiling despite the constant annoyance of his super-sped-up speech. After a while of listening to it, it became background noise anyway. I found it easier to actually hear what he was saying.
“What do you want to do now?” he asked, putting the board away on a shelf.
I looked around the library. It was quite a magnificent one, crowded with a ton of books. “How about you tell me about your family?” I suggested. “I’m curious.”
His owner looked up, an expression of slight wariness on her face. I could almost read her thoughts. This girl is encouraging Alfie to talk, not telling him to shut up? Does she have some sort of ulterior motive?
“Well, that’s Laura, she’s my owner. She has three accounts, which gives me a ton of brothers and sisters to play with! Fhoboz is the Eyrie, you saw him earlier. He reads to me sometimes. But he doesn’t like strangers. My favorite sister is probably Sahiba. She's a yellow Gelert. She’s not one of Laura’s permanent pets, though, so I don’t know when she’ll be leaving. Thinking of her leaving makes me sad, though. And my second-favorite...”
He kept talking, but I didn’t tune out for once. I caught his owner’s—Laura’s—eye and smiled at her. She smiled back.
He was still annoying, of course; I didn’t think anything would ever fix that. But I didn’t mind having him around as much. I could tune him out when his words got to be too much, but sometimes he was interesting. He was even getting pretty decent at marching.
Until one day, when I was standing next to him in our basics block. “Relax,” the drum major called out. I put my trumpet down and flopped onto the grass. Alfie sat down next to me. His head was drooping and he hadn’t said a word for hours, as far as I could remember.
“What’s wrong, Alfie?” I asked.
He looked up with brimming eyes. “Sahiba’s leaving.”
“Yeah. Laura says she wasn’t very attached to Sahiba, and she’s going to need the space, so she’s going to pound her and hope somebody nice picks her up.”
I bit my lip. I was never very good at consoling people. Alfie needed help from me, and I didn’t know how to give it.
“Did you try asking Laura to keep Sahiba?” I asked.
“Yeah... she said she understood that I liked her, but she’s the one who makes the ultimate decision.” Alfie sniffled and fell silent. I had gotten used to his constant barrage of speech; this sudden quiet was jarring and strange.
“I’m sorry, Alfie.” I put one arm around him and hugged him. I closed my eyes.
“Yeah.” That one word was his only response.
We sat there in silence until the drum major called us to attention again.
Alfie’s marching and playing suffered—he now marched and played about as badly as someone who had just picked up an instrument—but that wasn’t as important as the emotional misery it was obvious he was going through. He walked with a permanent slump; he no longer bounced or ran anywhere; and he didn’t talk much, which was the most disturbing change of all.
I ran into his owner at Hubert’s Hot Dogs one day, and she asked me why I hadn’t come over in a while. I couldn’t bear to tell her that Alfie had stopped talking to me, or anyone else, to the point where he was nonexistent. Invisible. Not even there.
That’s why I almost wasn’t surprised when he went missing.
I heard at band, of course, because band geeks are quick to jump on gossip when it involves one of their own. There was a tightly-packed group whispering on one side of the band room. I tapped one of the less-central pets on the shoulder and asked him what was going on. His mouth dropped open, revealing his Hissi fangs.
“You’re going to stab some Flightning Bugs if you keep that up,” I muttered. “Come on, tell me what’s up?”
“That kid you hang around with—the annoying one—”
“Alfie.” I scowled at him. “It’s not a hard name. Six little letters.”
“Whatever. Alfalfa, anyway, he ran away.”
My heart dropped away, leaving an empty hole that ached. Alfie ran away? “Don’t be silly,” I snapped, “he’s not a Lutari. He wouldn’t do that.”
“This is why I didn’t want to tell you,” he moaned, rolling his eyes. “Fine, don’t believe me.”
I ran right out of the room, ignoring the calls after me, and didn’t stop running until I got to Alfie’s house.
I strode right up to the door and knocked. I waited just two seconds before I knocked again, more insistently.
“Keep your tail on!” a voice shouted from the other side of the door. “I’m coming!”
The door opened to reveal a Tyrannian Uni. She kicked the door open wider. “Oh. Alfie’s friend. Go ahead in. Hopefully you can close the door yourself. I curse my lack of opposable thumbs.” With that sarcastic pronouncement, she trotted back into the halls of the house.
I let myself inside and closed the door quietly. I thought quickly about where Laura might be. After a moment, I decided to check Alfie’s room, which he shared with the Darigan Eyrie.
Laura was in there, as well as Fhoboz, the Darigan Eyrie from my first visit. He gave me an annoyed look and jumped out the window, unfurling his huge purple wings before he hit the ground.
Laura smiled weakly at me. Her eyes were rimmed with red. “Hi, Juneau. I guess you heard.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded. “I had to hear from some stupid Hissi who couldn’t even get Alfie’s name right!”
“I didn’t think about it. I’m sorry.” She looked down at Alfie’s bed, which was unmade, the covers mussed.
“No, I’m sorry! I know you have a lot to deal with.” I sat down on the edge of the bed, gingerly, to keep the covers from being moved.
“Where do you think he went?” I asked.
“There are only a few places in Neopia where he could truly lose himself. He always talked about going to the Haunted Woods someday. I figure we should check there first.” Laura sighed. “After all this, I’m going to have to keep Sahiba for a while. For Alfie.”
“Yeah, that would probably be a good idea,” I muttered.
We started our search in the Haunted Woods. Our group consisted of me, Laura, and just about all of Laura’s pets. We spread out, each on our own path.
The Woods were really creeping me out. Each tree was slimed with some sort of white fungus, and I kept tripping over roots that I didn’t see on the ground. After a while, I could no longer see any hint of daylight, not even the entrance I had come through.
“Alfie?” I called over and over again. I couldn’t stand to think of Alfie, so small and vulnerable, alone in this forest.
I imagined—or was it really there?—heavy footfalls and ominous laughter from all sides. The crumbling trees were sentinels, it seemed, to a darker world; where anything could happen to small green Xweetoks. Even...
But no. I would not think of that.
I tripped, yet again, over something I hadn’t seen. I grumbled, looking for the root that had upended my foot; but there was no root there. Instead, I saw a shivering ball of fur.
“Oh, Fyora, no—Alfie!” I whispered, prying the ball of fur free from the soil. It was almost like the forest had grown over top of it, though it couldn’t have been there for more than twelve hours. Stems and leaves clung to it, not willing to give up their prize.
His paws were cold, so very cold.
“Alfie, wake up, wake up!” I set him down upright—for it was definitely my lost friend—and shook him.
“Jun—” he mumbled, his eyes unfocused and hazy.
“Wake up, you idiot, stop it,” I cried, feeling tears start to cascade down my face. Well, here I was, crying like a baby—but I wasn’t embarrassed. I had been genuinely scared for Alfie. I realized I actually cared for him, more than I had expected. “Alfie. Wake up, kid, listen to me. Laura says she’s going to keep Sahiba—at least for a while—as a favor to you. Alfie, can you hear me? Wake up!”
“Juneau,” he managed, blinking hard. I waited for him to say something else, hoping for a sudden rush of words like he used to do. His mouth opened, and two words came out—
I didn't need a monologue after all; that was all I needed to hear him say. I yelled for the others that I had found him, and then I hugged that stupid Xweetok close so he couldn’t get away again.
“Oh, you’re back.” I could hear Aiwa’s taunting voice from all the way across the room.
“Yeah, I am.” Alfie had the good sense to give a noncommittal reply. I listened hard to see if I needed to intervene.
“Why couldn’t you have stayed in the Haunted Woods? You know nobody likes you. You’re the most annoying kid on the planet. You don’t even have any friends.”
My face tightened in anger, and I started to march over to where they were standing, but Alfie’s reply stopped me in my tracks:
“That’s not true. I have one friend: Juneau. And that’s one more friend than you will ever have.”
He turned on his heel and walked away from Aiwa, who was slack jawed with surprise.
Alfie spotted me and skipped over. “You okay?” I asked. I didn’t have to explain what I meant.
“I’m fine,” he answered, giving Aiwa a blank look over his shoulder. Then he turned back around and smiled at me. “I’m so excited for band camp. I’ve heard it’s horrible, like as hot as Moltara. But I don’t believe that. Do you? You were in it last year, right? How was it? Was it as bad as I heard? I don’t think it can be. Moltara’s pretty awesome. But they’re bad at Yooyuball. I don’t root for them unless they’re playing Faerieland. I don’t like Faerieland very much.”
I laughed. “Yes, band camp is exactly that bad. But it’s also a ton of fun.” I started walking towards the door. “C’mon, I think we’re starting up a basics block.”
“Why do they call it a basics block? Is it because it’s ‘marching basics’? But if that’s true, then everything about marching is a marching basic. Can I say that? ‘It’s a marching basic’? It doesn’t sound right...”
He kept right on talking.
And I honestly didn’t mind.