Stachetastic: the Hair-Raising Origin - Part Four
Norman and the Jelly Chia were completely still, but neither of them was content. The sticky heat clutched everything in Tyrannia, squeezing away energy and the will to move in its tight grip. Norman groaned and wished he was back in Neopia Central. The coming day back home was cool and light, with breezes aplenty to ruffle his fur.
The Lupe would have been panting, but the instinct was shut down by a necessity to keep the moisture inside of him instead of being released into the air, where it would sizzle and dissipate instantly. Talking took less effort.
"Remind me again... why you brought me here?" The Lupe gave in at last and panted, his fur making him dizzy with heat.
The Jelly Chia burbled a response and pointed to the moustache, then to the beads of moisture forming across his gelatinous surface.
"You thought that you would melt yourself a little bit so I could get my moustache out?" Norman was legitimately surprised at this truth.
The Chia nodded, his head bouncing on his seamless neck. He had tried pulling, throwing the poor Lupe into the sea, even going so far as to freeze the Lupe off in Happy Valley—
It was almost as if he didn't want to hurt Norman or anyone at all.
The Chia moaned and wiped his brow. "Well," Norman began, panting heavily. "I don't think it's working." He was even dizzier with the increasing heat which forced his vision to blur into hazy lines. Norman shook his head, tendrils of thought flying around like his moustache in front of a fan, before his mind latched onto one thought at last.
"Why did you come to the dance in the first place?" Norman asked, figuring that he could understand the Chia's reasoning and somehow get himself unstuck from the Chia's hand and belly.
The Chia stood up, moaning sadly, sounds trickling like the magic-dry Rainbow Fountain. He wobbled, but there was a certain voluntary motion to his wobbling. His body swayed left, then right, and he raised his arm that wasn't carrying the Lupe in a circle, spinning himself around afterward.
"Is that... a dance?" Norman asked uncertainly.
The Chia nodded smugly—though how Norman could tell was beyond even his capabilities.
"Oh. You weren't attacking anyone, then?" Norman was utterly bewildered.
The giant Chia shook his head and bubbled in protest.
"Oh. Erm... it certainly is a very unique style." Norman settled back in the sparse shade of the Chia's hand, letting his whirling thoughts overtake him until he was able to grab another.
"But why at the Defender Dance?" Norman asked, a little more timidly, for fear of upsetting the Chia.
In response, the Jelly Chia clasped Norman with his other arm and held him close to his running side of jelly, rocking him back and forth.
"Um... that's a little tight--!" Norman gasped, too scared to fight him off. But he did understand. "You wanted to make friends, didn't you?"
The Jelly Chia flopped onto the dusty ground, sending Norman bouncing upward before landing in the Chia's hand once again. Norman winced at the sharp pull on his upper lip. Even gravity wouldn't let his moustache go.
Norman thought for a moment. In his true form, moustache and all, no one would be able to understand him or would even want to come near him. It was the same thing with the Jelly Chia, only he wouldn't be able to hide the fact that he was enormous, unable to speak the common language, and was completely made of jelly. And I thought I had it bad, Norman thought miserably.
"So that's why you took me, out of everyone at the party. You like my moustache, don't you?" The Chia nodded vigorously, evidently forgetting his misery.
A small smile spread across the Lupe's muzzle and he patted the soft jelly arm. "It's hard for me, too. Without a mask, I really can't go anywhere without attracting too much attention, I mean, not that I have, but I just can't risk it. The only one who ever sees me as I truly am is Lenora, and she—"
A loud and unhappy roar boomed from the Jelly Chia. "Someone I know," Norman quickly amended. A long and awkward pause ensued.
"I suppose," the Lupe said slowly, feeling as though the notion was ridiculous while he said it, "I could come and visit you sometime, and you could come to another dance when you're ready for it."
In response, the Chia hugged the Lupe even tighter than the first time. "Wait—I need to breathe!—" he choked. Luckily, the Chia got the message and set him gently into his hand again. "Thanks," Norman panted gratefully. "But I don't think I can go anywhere right now, not with my moustache stuck in your... belly. You need to be more careful around those who are smaller than you!" Norman gently reprimanded.
The Chia sighed a very wet sigh, then hesitantly held up a pointed rock in Norman's direction.
"You... you didn't want to cut off my moustache—that's what you were afraid of doing this whole time." A grin spread rapidly across Norman's face. "That's one thing you don't have to learn!" he laughed, feeling relief rush through him. "You're a very considerate Chia, you know that?" He patted the moist, jelly hide. "But yes, you can cut it off. It'll grow back in about fifteen minutes. To tell you the truth, I don't know why it does, but it happens every time."
Before the Lupe could even blink, the Chia thrust the pointed rock through both furry tendrils of his moustache, severing them both very close to his face. Instinctively, Norman reached up to touch his face. It was just as it was before Ms. Wyndham's experiment: stubby and ordinary. Perfect.
"Thanks!" The Lupe leaped off the Jelly Chia's hand, elation bubbling up inside of him. The Chia held out a hand to him, and Norman took it, gazing lovingly up at the creature. He was doubly amused to find that the strands of moustache left on the Chia's body looked very much like he was wearing a scarf. "You can keep that," he said, grinning.
The Chia purred, then reached behind him and took out a piece of bread, handing it to the Lupe. "What's this now?" he asked, looking at the bread on his paw.
It was an ordinary piece of bread in all respects, save for the fact that several lines of multicolored jam were drawn on it. "Oh," Norman laughed, noting the X near what vaguely resembled a map's interpretation of Tyrannia. "Thank you." Norman studied the map, following the trail of blue jelly on the bread to a land that no one had thought to discover in all of Neopian History. "Jelly World? But that place doesn't exist."
The Jelly Chia roared with laughter, the sound pouring out like the rushing rivers of Shenkuu. His belly shook with glee for several seconds before he put what resembled a finger to his nonexistent mouth.
Norman laughed, too. "I'll eat the evidence. You can trust me." He said, grinning as he waved to the Jelly Chia and took a bite of his new sandwich.
It wasn't difficult for Norman to get home unnoticed with a clean shaven face. It was a strange feeling, though, like one leaving her Kadoatie in the Kadoatery and then noticing the difference without her precious petpet by her side. The moustache had gotten him into trouble a few times, but it had meant no harm. It certainly didn't like to be chopped off, as it went limp every time that happened. It was as if the moustache had a mind of its own, and loved to simply exist.
Norman sprinted into his Neohome and shut the door as soon as he ran in, taking great care to draw the curtains on every one of his windows to make sure no one saw... it was happening again. The gentle prickling on his cheeks, the elongation of each hair, the simultaneous pain and pleasure—and there were the semi-sentient tendrils of fur right in front of him, almost waving at him in greeting.
Norman sighed. "Welcome back," he greeted without enthusiasm.
The Lupe pulled on a ski mask, fed his Kadoatie ("Good old Amaryllis."), put a pair of scissors in his pocket (in case of emergency), and left the Neohome to go to the Grooming Parlour.
Right. Everything will have gone back to normal by now. Everything's okay. Norman thought, his muzzle growing hot with the woolen ski mask.
The Lupe pushed open the door to the Grooming Parlour and saw Ms. Wyndham, beside herself, screaming at a Kougra Defender, more commonly known as the Masked Intruder. It didn't take a detective to guess that the Intruder wasn't intruding at all, but had been invited to investigate the experiment. "I'm telling you, the culprit was here! I found a bottle of Supersize! at the scene!" The smaller Kougra in a business suit held up the bottle. "It had to be a sorcerer! Or a rival! Or a time mage!"
"Calm yourself, Ms. Wyndham. There's no use in rushing to conclusions just yet." The Masked Intruder stared hard at the Lupe, who suddenly grew interested in his paws. "I'd better get to work now," he said to nobody in particular, and attended a female blue Lupe who had just come in for a daunting, modern haircut.
"Hi, I'm Norman, and I'll be your hairdresser for today." His voice shook and was muffled by the ski mask. The Lupe glanced up at him. "Um..." she began, but decided not to question the strangeness of her hairdresser. "I'm Lili," she finished, albeit uneasily.
Norman pulled the scissors out of his pocket and was just about to get started on her hair when an idea shot through his mind. "I'll be right back. I forgot... the special scissors. It's the only way anyone can pull off the haircut you want on such luscious locks like yours."
Subdued by the flattery, Lili nodded. "I'll be waiting."
The words were barely out of her mouth when Norman darted into the restroom and began to snip off his moustache, not caring about the form or shape his smaller moustache would take. The two tendrils coiled neatly on the bathroom floor. Norman panted anxiously. He'd gotten rid of the evidence on his face, but it was still right in front of him! There was only one way to make it look like he wasn't strange.
Norman began to cut the long remnants of his moustache into tiny pieces, then, once he'd finished, he carried them to his station and dropped them on the floor, taking great care to hide it from the customer's field of vision in the mirror. Norman began to snip away at her hair. "Did you find the scissors?" Lili asked him.
The hairdresser tried not to look nervous. "Oh, yeah, sure I did. These are high-caliber scissors that make very clean cuts."
Lili raised an eyebrow, but did not object as Norman continued to cut her hair.
"And that should do it," Norman finished, giving her hair one final snap of the scissors while he glanced at the storage room to see how Ms. Wyndham and the suspicious Defender were faring.
"My, that's lovel—AAH!" The Lupe stood rigid and stared at the floor, covered in blue Lupe fur. "I had no idea I had so much hair!" she exclaimed.
Norman's ears tilted backwards. He'd tried so hard to avoid a scene.
The door of the storage room burst open with a loud bang. "What's going on here?" demanded Ms. Wyndham.
Norman thought quickly. "I took care of some of her undercoat so... she could keep cool in the summer. That's why there's so much fur on the floor. It's nothing embarrassing or secret, really. It's a Lupe thing." Norman's own undercoat was growing hot with tension.
"Oh." Lili and Ms. Wyndham chorused simultaneously, satisfied with his response. "Keep up the good work," Ms. Wyndham said curtly. The door to the storage room closed once more.
"Thank you for the concern. I never thought about that before—and thanks to you I'll be taking much better care of my fur from now on!" Lili brightened and handed him several thousand Neopoints before strutting out of the Grooming Parlour with her new hairdo. "Thanks again!"
Norman sighed in relief, then rushed to the restroom once more to cut off his now-growing moustache. He looked around the dingy room and was grateful to find a miraculously placed wastebasket and window. Every so often, he could come back here and dispose of the fur in the wastebasket, and then, when that was full, he would scatter it all in the wind! Nobody would have to know!
Norman exited the restroom, relieved, and rubbing his cheek. "Yes, thank you. Send me a Neomail if anything develops. I want to be the first to know," Ms. Wyndham requested sternly. "Very good, ma'am." The Masked Intruder gave a stiff chuckle before winking at Norman. The Lupe gulped and began to sweep the floor, paying the Defender no mind.
The larger of the two Kougras walked out of the Grooming Parlour, chuckling to himself.
"And you." Ms. Wyndham pointed a finger in Norman's direction.
Norman felt his entrails turn to ice. "Yes, Ms. Wyndham?" he asked, trying to keep the fear out of his voice.
"You've been in and out of the restroom a lot during your shift. Are you sure you're healthy enough to work?" The Kougra raised an eyebrow, but not out of concern, the Lupe realized, but out of suspicion. "Is there anything you need to tell me?"
"No, ma'am. Nothing at all." Norman made every effort to stare into her eyes. Liars always looked away, or trembled, or had their tails between their legs. The Lupe made a conscious effort not to do any of those things.
"You were the last one in the room, besides that meddling Aisha friend of yours, when my experiment went awry. And she didn't change." The Kougra no longer had any pretense of gentleness in her voice. "I need details, Norman."
"All I did was fetch the super conditioner, and then... I got sick from the fumes. I guess I didn't really recover from them yet," he said hopefully.
"Indeed. Let me make a deal with you, Norman." Ms. Wyndham began to pace in circles around the Lupe, her high heels clicking ominously on the tile floor.
It took every ounce of Norman's new moustache power to not scream in dismay. This is how she usually fires people! The thought struck Norman like a honey potion, with the aftereffects oozing across his mind.
"You've always been a loyal and hard worker, Norman. But these days you've simply become... different. You're late more often, 'sick' more often, and the details you provided about my experiment are rather flimsy. As such, I can't keep a worker like that anymore."
Norman's heart sank. "But... I've never complained—"
Ms. Wyndham looked bewildered. "I'm not firing you! You look like you need time to yourself to recover from whatever it is you've got! What kind of manager do you think I am?!" Norman's heart raised itself ever so slightly. "I will give you two weeks, and you can come in here and work at any time, ONLY if you're up to it, but after that, you owe me an explanation. And if I don't get one, you know what will happen. That is all I can do for you."
Even the stubby remnants of the Lupe's moustache drooped with the ultimatum.
To be continued...