A Little Help From My Friend
The leaves are cold and itchy under my head. Still, they're certainly more comfortable than the pillows at the Pound, though. They're like Lenny down in comparison.
I do miss the daily meals and the sound of Neopet voices, though. The Haunted Woods doesn't provide much, even to those most befitting the place – like me. Maybe it's my just desserts... maybe I deserve to be somewhere worse than the Pound.
I shift uncomfortably, feeling the remains of my clothes strain against my enlarged muscles. I don't like to remember how it came to this – it's painful to remember – but memories are all I have now. I am this thing, this giant hairy thing with tears running down his evil-looking face, lying on the dirt like a wild Slogmok. I have nothing but my memories.
That's not to say that I had anything before I was bitten. My life wasn't exactly a bed of roses – mostly rose thorns.
The moon is full overhead, highlighting my shaggy brown fur, my torn clothes, my yellow eyes. I can't sleep – I haven't been able to for weeks now – so I'll just close my eyes and let the memories wash over me. Sometimes the pain is cathartic, if only for a little while.
I remember little of my original owner, only that he discarded me the moment I was created, trading me out for a striped Ixi. I spent the majority of my life in the Neopian Pound, shivering in a little concrete cell with only a lumpy mattress and a barred window. Day in and day out, I was fed frozen meals three times a day, allowed two trips to the bathroom and one mid-day outing to the "recreation yard" – essentially a fenced-in square of land scattered with broken toys and old sports equipment.
As much as I needed the daily hour of fresh air, I also dreaded it. Being a new and discarded pet, I was automatically made a target. The other Neopets were mostly trade, abandoned or abused pets, and they weren't the happiest creatures around to say the least. When I came in, they saw me as something in worse shape than they were: a pet despised from the moment he was born.
The bigger and more aggressive pets of the Pound would make me miserable, telling me how worthless I was because I wasn't even with my owner for more than a day. They would laugh at me and throw things at me, telling me what a loser I was. All I could do was sit there and take it, whimpering while no one came to comfort me.
When I wasn't being verbally abused, I would wait at the door of my room, watching the owners that passed by with eager eyes, hoping that one of them would look at me and want to take me home with them. But no one ever did. They were always drawn to the rarer, the prettily painted, the interesting pets – not some basic, boring, yellow Lupe like me.
After enduring years of apathetic humans and bullying Poundmates, I became deeply withdrawn, hardly speaking to anyone. I barely ate unless the frustrated Pound staff force-fed me, and I even begged them to let me skip the hour in the yard, only to find myself dragged outside because it was required that I get fresh air.
I hated my life, hated it with such a passion that I carved the word "Hate" into the wall of my cell with my nail. I wished that I had a friend to talk to, though my abused mind believed that I didn't deserve one. After having hurtful taunts unrelentingly pounded into my head for years, I believed that I was doomed to an eternity of loneliness, that I really was a loser that didn't deserve to be cared for. Maybe they were right, I would think. Maybe I was worthless, maybe I did deserve my fate.
Then a day came when I was awoken by the sound of my cell door opening. At first I thought it was the staff bringing in food for me, but then I realized that it was a human. I sat bolt upright and smiled, and she smiled back at me, telling the Uni who ran the place, "I want him!" I couldn't believe it; she wanted me! I was finally leaving the awfulness of the Pound in the hands of a sweet-faced human. I waved goodbye to my old life, grinning victoriously past the glaring eyes of my Poundmates, ready to face the new day with a happy flame in my heart.
Sadly, that happiness was short-lived. Two days later, I was thrown back into my filthy room at the Pound, abandoned for a baby Blumaroo instead. Déjà vu.
Upon seeing me back after such a short time, my "old friends" from the Pound dealt me harder blows than they had before, their laughter and ridicule ringing in my head. I lay red-eyed on my bed that night, filled with a revulsion of everything. I could trust no one, not even a possible owner.
That very night, I decided that I'd had enough. When most of the staff had gone to sleep for the night, I got off of my bed and walked over to my barred window. The metal bars, though tightly spaced, were old and rusted, built only shallowly in the concrete. I grabbed one of them and tugged experimentally. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. I repeated this long into the night, pulling and pulling on several bars with all my might. Gradually, very gradually, the bars slid across the concrete, widening the gap. By the time I had opened it enough to fit through, I had exhausted myself to the point of collapse. Seeing the green grass and the starlit sky outside, though, was enough to help me squeeze through the bars and tumble out the window.
I ran away from the Pound and dashed into the woods, never looking back, running until I finally collapsed into a hollow beneath a tree stump. I slept peacefully for the first time, breathing in the sweet air of freedom with a smile on my face.
I lived in the woods after that. I ate berries and flowers that grew in the bushes, wandering around for new sleeping places each night to avoid detection by the searching Pound staff. I moved around so much that I eventually left Neopian Central altogether and made my way to the dark trees of the Haunted Woods. I'll tell you, it was pretty creepy the first few weeks in, but I quickly learned the lay of the land: if you don't bother anyone, they won't bother you. Soon, I believed that I could handle anything the Haunted Woods threw at me.
I kept as far away from civilization as I could, even shying away from wild petpets (though this was more of a survival thing). The scars were still too fresh, the jeering from the Pound pets still too loud.
But that was what I wanted most, ironically. A friend. Someone I could talk to and not have to worry about hurting me. In fact, when I wasn't eating or sleeping, I would watch the distant villages and towns, seeing the happy faces talking and laughing jovially. I wanted to be a part of that world – it looked so much better than the Pound and even the lonely, creepy woods – but I was scared. It had been branded into my mind that I didn't deserve anything good in life. What if, when they saw me, they made me go back to the Pound? Or, worse, what if they just hurt me like all the others?
I decided it was safer in the woods. Better to be lonely than hurt again, that's what I believed. At least, until I met Jilli.
I was napping at the base of a tree, dreaming vividly. I was chained to a rock, but I broke free with an almighty leap into the sky. I flew high above the clouds, laughing, soaring forever. I was holding a star in my paw, shining and burning bright. I felt so warm, so free, so good. But then I started to waver, feeling heavier, and the sky became dark, thunderous. I lost my smile as I began to lose altitude. What was happening? I wondered, clutching the star for dear life. Then, in a blinding flash, something cracked against my back, burning like fire. I plummeted to Neopia like a stone, tossing the star into the sky in a panic and screaming so loud that it echoed in my head...
I woke up, my scream stopping a second after I had closed my mouth. I blinked from the sun shining on my face through the trees and saw something duck into a thicket in front of me. Months of surviving in the Haunted Woods made my heart shoot into my throat. I immediately dashed behind the tree for protection, staring nervously at the quivering shrub, thinking it concealed some dangerous forest creature.
"Wh-who's there?" I asked, grabbing a stick from the ground and holding it out threateningly. "Wh-what do you want?"
The bush shivered again, and something stepped out from behind it. I relaxed when I saw that it was only a purple Shoyru girl, little more than six or seven years old in appearance.
"Dear Altador," I said irritably, dropping the stick, "you scared me half to death."
"S-sorry," she said, looking just as nervous as I had been. "I-I saw you lying there and... and thought you were lost or hurt or something."
I sighed in frustration. This wasn't the first time a random forest wanderer found and offered to help me. I used to run in fear when they approached, but eventually I learned to just send them off with – maybe – a smile. I thought this time would be no different.
"Just taking a little nap," I told the bewildered girl, walking out from behind the tree and straightening my ragged clothes. "No big deal."
"Well, you looked like you were having a bad dream," she said shyly. "Your face got all twisted up and you were shivering. I was gonna wake you up to ask if you were okay, but then you screamed, and then I screamed, too, because I didn't expect you to do that."
"Well, sorry I scared you," I said, paws in my holey pockets. "I'll be on my way now." I started to walk away.
"Where're you going?" the girl asked.
"Nowhere," I replied listlessly, hoping that she'd leave with that.
"Can I come?" she asked.
I stopped in my tracks, stunned, and looked back at her.
"What?" I asked.
"Can I come with you?" she repeated.
I stared at her with a raised eyebrow. "Why?"
"It's just..." she said, shrugging timidly. "Well, it is the Haunted Woods, after all – you really shouldn't be out walking alone."
"Then why are you out here alone?" I asked, more sharply than I meant. The Shoyru blushed and hung her head, and I felt guilty for yelling at her. I just felt that this child shouldn't belittle me – I'd lived in these woods for nearly a year, so I thought that I knew more about them than she did. Still, I didn't like being mean all the time – it was like being one of my old Poundmates.
"Sorry," I added quietly.
She nodded. "It's okay," she said. "I'm actually not supposed to be out here, really." She leaned down and picked up a wicker basket from the bush she'd hidden behind. "I came here to pick berries for my owner," she explained. "We're making pies tonight, and she needed a lot of berries, and I wanted to go and get some before nightfall even though she said that she'd get them herself. I... thought there might be some really rare ones here in the Woods, but I can't really find any and I got lost and..." She kicked the dirt, rubbing her eye as if it was itchy, but I saw the tear glistening there.
I bit my lip. I may not have been the nicest guy in the world – experience had taught me to be mean – but I wasn't out to make little girls cry. After all, I knew what it felt like to be hurt.
So, a little awkwardly, I said, "There's a berry thicket some ways away, and I'm heading in that direction, so... I mean, I guess if you wanted..."
She lost her sullen look instantaneously. "I can come with you?" she asked, grinning.
I really wanted to tell her that I had to be on my way, but she made this cute little pleading look with her eyes so that even I couldn't say no.
"Oh, why not?" I said acquiescently. "But only until we reach that thicket." The sooner I could get this kid off my back, the better.
So we walked through the woods for a while. I said little, but the Shoyru girl (whose name, I found out, was Jilli) didn't seem to mind, keeping up much of the conversation herself. She talked about her family, her wonderful owner, all the fun things she got to do, her likes, her dislikes, everything. There seemed to be nothing that she didn't want to talk about, and to a total stranger, no less.
Normally, I would've tuned out a stranger's attempt at conversation with me, but I found myself enjoying listening to the girl ramble on with the contentment of a bubbling Bubblebee. She was so different from the people I was used to – so nice and carefree, wanting, it seemed, only to make others as happy as she was. She seemed too good to be true, too good of a person, especially for someone like me.
Despite the warm feeling I got from listening to this happy child, I still felt that you-don't-deserve-to-be-happy sting planted deep in my heart.
We walked on through the darkening woods until Jilli suddenly exclaimed, "Oh, here we are!" I watched her rush into a little field filled with dozens of berry bushes. Gangees and Marbluks were dotted here and there nibbling on the sweet little fruits, scattering when she came crashing through. I think I smiled a bit as the Shoyru kneeled by a bush and start picking blackberries.
The light changed a bit around us. I glanced up at the sky, which was yellow-orange with twilight. I thought I should find somewhere to sleep for the night.
"Well, I gotta go now," I told the girl, starting to walk away. "Enjoy the berries."
The Shoyru frowned at me and stood up. "But," she said, "can't you stay a little longer?"
"Got places to be," I lied.
"But, it'll be dark soon," Jilli pointed out, biting her lip and looking up at the sky as I had. "And, I don't wanna be all alone in the dark Haunted Woods. Momma would have a fit, and-" She gasped and flinched away when a Batterfly flapped by overhead.
I sighed. All I wanted was to move on and find a place to settle down for the night. I had not time to play babysitter for some kid I just met. But, even as I thought this, I knew that I couldn't just leave a helpless little girl alone in the Woods at night; I knew quite well that she wouldn't stand a chance against the things that lived here.
Besides, I was starting to take a shine to her.
"Alright," I conceded, walking into the berry thicket. "I'll stay."
She perked up. "Great!" she said as I knelt down beside her. "You can help me pick berries!"
So I did. The day waned, and the girl's basket filled quickly. She kept up her previous conversation, and, surprisingly, I found myself paying close attention and even responding at times. I laughed at her jokes and listened to her stories, all with honest curiosity. It made me think back to my want for a friend, a want that had been suppressed by my insecurity for so long. Had I been making a big mistake all this time? Have I been scared for the wrong reasons?
Whatever the case, I was happy. Probably for the first time in my whole life. Who would've thought that it would be picking berries with a little girl I'd just met?
I just wish that happiness could've lasted longer.
Anyone in their right mind would be wary of the Haunted Woods at night – I was no exception. But it was after sunset by the time Jilli's basket was full, and I was having such a good time talking with her that I didn't realize this until it started getting more and more difficult to see the berries in the bushes.
The Shoyru was still talking when I felt the hairs rise on the back on my neck.
"...and so then I tell Gunter, I say-" Jilli was saying.
"Wait," I said, raising my paw. She stopped talking and looked at me curiously. There was something out there, watching us, I could feel it. And it wasn't the usual feeling of being watched that the Haunted Woods naturally harbored. This had a hint of danger to this feeling, a hint of malice even. Whatever it was didn't just mean to scare – it meant to harm.
Jilli, less familiar with the Woods than I, didn't seem to realize that anything was wrong. Funny how she jumped at a harmless Batterfly, and yet she couldn't sense the real threat.
"You know what I just realized?" she said, struggling to hoist her heavy basket. "You never told me your name."
"Th-that's not important right now," I said nervously, trying to determine where the eerie sensation was coming from.
"Why?" she asked. "Is it a funny name? Don't worry, I won't laugh. I got a brother named Pickles and-"
"Shhh!" I hissed. She flinched and closed her mouth.
I listened very hard, but I heard nothing except the wind rustling leaves. A moment later, however, there was a low rumble in the darkness, like a growl, sounding far more menacing than a stray Meowclops.
Apparently, Jilli heard it, too, because her face went white as a sheet. "What was that?" she gasped, pressing close to me. I shook my head, uncertain, my eyes darting everywhere. Whatever it was, judging by that growl, it was not something I wanted to stick around to shake paws with.
"Jilli," I whispered, suddenly very protective of the little girl, "we have to go. Now. Whatever you do, don't make a-"
A shriek erupted from the Shoyru's throat. I turned my head just in time to see a giant mass of fur lunge from the black foliage!
"Look out!" I yelled and pushed Jilli out of the way, taking the full blunt of the beast as it landed on me with the force of a raging Tonu. I slammed to the ground, fought the stars the jumped over my eyes and stared horrified into two hungry yellow eyes hanging over my head. I struggled with all my might, holding back the beefy arms, hearing thick jaws snap just inches from my face. Jilli's screams rang over the creature's snarls.
"Run, Jilli!" I called, my face getting covered with saliva. "Get out of here!"
She stared at me with tears hanging in her terror-struck eyes. "But-"
"GO!" I yelled more forcefully. She flinched, hesitated for a moment and finally dropped her basket as she hightailed it into the woods and (hopefully) to safety.
I dug my nails into the creature's thick fur, but it was much stronger than I was. My arms strained under its immense weight. The night was filled with growls and snaps.
Please, I thought. Just let Jilli get away. Just let her-
Too much. My arms buckled. The creature's full weigh fell on me, and its razor-filled jaws bit my neck. Pain hit me like a sledgehammer, and, before long, I blacked out.
That was about a month ago. I hadn't even been awake for the transformation. By the time I'd regained consciousness, I was all alone in that berry patch, changed into this monstrous, hairy thing with bulging muscles, jagged teeth and glowing eyes.
I curl into a big brown ball and struggle to keep the tears at bay. I had almost beaten the taunts of the Pound pets – I had almost gotten a friend. And now I never will. I've been an outcast all my life, and now I am the very epitome of outcasts: a Werelupe.
The catharsis is gone; now the memories just hurt.
I wonder what happened to Jilli. Maybe the creature went after her when it left me. Maybe she got away. I don't know and probably never will. She'll never come back, not after that night. She's probably forgotten about me anyway, that lost Lupe who took a Werelupe attack for her...
What was that? It sounded like a gasp, but it was probably just the leaves rustling under me. Nothing comes near me now, not even the petpets of the woods. Ironic how I used to avoid them, and now they all avoid me.
A twig snaps. I jump up and look around, nervous. I must look ridiculous – a great big Werelupe looking ready to wet his shredded pants. Well, you can't blame me, I've been through some pretty bad things.
I see a bush rustle. Yelping, I leap behind a tree, quivering. "L-leave me alone," I say to the foliage. "Please, j-just go away!"
"Is that you?" a tiny, familiar voice asks.
My heart stops. "Jilli?"
I peek out from behind the tree and see the little Shoyru step out from the bush, almost exactly as she had the first time I met her. My heart swells.
"You're okay!" I exclaim. "You came back!" As I step forward, the little girl gasps at the sight of me, taking a step back. I stop, see her terrified expression and drop my head. "I'm sorry," I tell her.
She frowns. "W-why?"
"Because I scared you," I say solemnly. "Because of... this." I glance down at my monstrous body. When I look up, she is shaking her head.
"You didn't scare me," she says, taking a brave step towards me. "You saved me."
I stare at her for a moment, confused. Where's the terror I had just seen? "You're... not afraid of me?" I ask.
"Of course not," she says as if it's so obvious. "I was so worried that you'd gotten hurt when that Werelupe attacked, but I was too scared that it would come after me if I went back. So I came back the next day looking for you, but I got lost again and couldn't find you anywhere. The Haunted Woods are a big place, you know."
"But," I say, slowly putting the pieces together, "you kept trying to look for me? Despite the danger? And even though I'm..."
Jilli nods. "Of course," she says. "Only a true friend would've risked his life like that. I mean, you're big, furry and you smell funny now, but you're still my friend."
Then, without warning, Jilli throws her arms around me in a great big hug. I look at the little Shoyru, at first with uncertainty, and then with gratitude. I hug her back, careful not to squeeze her too tightly.
A friend, I think with tears in my eyes. I have a real friend! I guess the Pound pets were wrong after all; I do deserve to be happy.
Then I remember something. "Terrence," I say. She looks up at me questioningly. "That's my name," I add.
She smiles. "Thank you, Terrence."
"No, Jilli. Thank you."