Most nights, I walk the city streets alone. I say nothing, move like the wind. Of those that see me, perhaps only two or three have truly registered my presence. Their immediate reaction was to run. In their place, I would have done the same. I’m not saying that I blame them. It’s just that for a long time now, I’ve wished things could have been different. Two centuries have passed me by, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s this: I can wish forever, but this alone does not improve my situation.
Over the years, I have learned to watch, listen and feel. The memories, emotions and experiences of those around me are like open books waiting to be read. It’s something no mortal could possibly imagine: beautiful, yet horrific beyond the power of words to describe. If any mortal being could know what I know, they would not survive, at least not with their mind intact. I have seen the inner lives of so many that I can view even the darkest of nightmares with utter detachment.
This detachment is a blessing and a curse.
A white Shoyru sits in the branches of an old oak tree. The Shoyru does not listen, does not want to hear. She is lost in the past, remembering a day that turned her blood cold with regret. The day she had forced her guardian to not only abandon her, but to leave her world forever.
An avalanche had stranded them on the steep wall of Terror Mountain, a journey they had made many times without the slightest difficulty. They both knew the dangers, but had no reason to suspect that they would be living them first-hand. One terrible moment had changed everything, blocking every path with a colossal wall of compressed mud and snow. It had been less than a year after her hatching. Her one brother, two years older than her, had been left at their home to tend the youngest member of the family.
Icy flakes drifted down from the sky, forming soft drifts over the permafrost and rugged rock.
“Ash, where are you... I can’t see you...”
“Right here.” Reaching out, she had placed one hand on Jodie’s shoulder. Her human visibility so often failed her. Ash remembered wondering how anyone could stand being so short-sighted.
“Sorain will be worried... we’d better hurry back. Hold onto me and I’ll fly you over.”
“I don’t think we’re going to make it back,” Jodie had whispered. “It’s too high...”
The gravity of the situation had crashed down upon the young Shoyru. Fear of an intensity she was too young to fully understand had dominated her senses. Powerless to do otherwise, she had obeyed her instincts.
“I’ll get help,” she had cried, leaping against the distant sky with all her might, fighting the fierce wind. Ever upwards, towards a hard won freedom... never once looking back, nor even thinking of her owner—only of escape from her terrible situation.
She had beaten the winds, emerged over the wall of ice, and turned towards the only helpful place she knew: home.
Landing on the doorstep she had collapsed with exhaustion. She was barely aware of the door opening, of arms wrapping around her midsection and carrying her into the warmth...
For two hours, she had slept without dreaming. When she awoke her owner had still not returned.
“Sorain,” she had gasped, her voice trembling with terror and desperation. “Jodie is... still...”
“Hush,” Sorain, had said, curling up beside her. “Don’t try to speak. You’re obviously still suffering from shock...”
“Sor, you don’t understand... I did something... something terrible...”
“I said, hush. Tell me about it later.”
There was nothing to be done. Her Kougra brother was training to be a doctor and had her best interests at heart, so it was probably best to follow his advice. All the same, she was aware of a faint twinge of shame...
“Ash. Wake up.” She was aware of a paw shaking her shoulder. An unfamiliar tone rang through Sorain’s familiar voice. It sounded like panic, and that was the first warning sign: something had gone horribly wrong.
“What is it?”
“Jodie,” he breathed. “She’s back, and... well, not sick exactly, but... come on!” Turning tail, he had bolted from the room, leaving Ash to regain control of her breathing.
Words had failed her eloquent brother, another indicator that the situation was out of control. Worst of all, the events of the previous day replayed across her mind in colours much too sharp and bright, as though seen through the lens of a nightmare. Whatever was wrong, it was her fault. Her fault and her responsibility.
Jodie was in the kitchen, chin resting on folded arms, staring into space. Her face was the colour of ash. Red rimmed her bloodshot eyes.
“Jodie!” Running the rest of the way down the stairs she gripped her owner tightly, as though the contact would break the trance. “Jodie! MOM!”
“No,” was all Jodie could say in response. Her voice was laden with something bitter... disappointment, resentment, maybe just shock. “Back off.”
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, fervent with the desire to make up for what she had done. She could not stop the tears from pouring down her face. “I’m so sorry I left you... I wanted to get help, but I didn’t know where to go...”
“You left me, Ashleykin...”
“I...” Ash gasped, stricken. “No!”
“Yes, you did.”
“Ash, tell me what happened.” Her brother stepped in, and Ash was conscious of a great relief. Sorain had always been a first-class mediator, the voice of reason in a world of madness. “Start from the beginning. Take as long as you like.”
“What you did is perfectly understandable. You were scared.” Sorain smiled, sympathetic. “I know you must feel guilty, but please don’t. It’s not your fault this happened.”
“No,” Ash replied, her voice still quavering under the pressure.
“Get some rest. I think we all need it.”
Ash returned to her room but it was impossible to sleep. In her nightmares, all she saw was her own failure. She had destroyed Jodie, her creator and carer, the one she had always been able to depend on. For once, Jodie had needed her—and all she had been able to do was run. When it came to the crunch all she had cared about was her own survival. Harsh, she told herself, but true.
Three days later, no progress had been made. Each morning they made breakfast for their owner (which she refused to eat) and spoke in soft tones, neither of them daring to approach her. She never responded, never even moved. Then, on the fourth day, the communication barrier was broken. Ash was alone in the kitchen when her owner turned towards her, smiling, as though she had reached a decision.
“I’ve got to leave Neopia, Ash. I don’t belong here any more.”
Ash felt her stomach twist in knots as she tried to formulate a reply, but no words came. She could not answer the questions which had never been asked, nor even ask a question of her own. Nothing seemed right, and when she tried to speak, it felt as though her tongue had dried in her mouth. There was no one to turn to: Sorain was out gathering supplies.
The muscles in her legs seemed frozen. Her mouth dropped into an ‘o’ of horrified disbelief as her owner walked out of the door and out of her life forever.
The thought of facing Sorain was unbearable. He had been patient with her so far, but Ash had no doubt that he secretly hated her for what she had done, and this would be the final straw. She pictured his expression as he realised just how far she had gone.
No. Her only option was to leave. If it made her a coward, a failure, a runaway... then so be it. Nothing seemed to matter any more. A pet without an owner was nothing. Scrawling a note explaining what had happened, she gathered up all of her savings. Not much, but enough to get by on. Wiping the tears from her aching eyes she left, heading for nowhere—which turned out to be Neopia Central.
Ashleykin, the name she was born with... now a distant obscenity. It brought her nothing but misery. It is a word she cannot bear to imagine, let alone speak. A drifter without a home, she refers to herself as Shaye. It’s as good a name as any, but it holds no importance to her, and maybe that’s for the best.
A blue Yurble calls from the foot of the tree. Gomez, a friend of sorts. She has told him nothing of her true self. Not even her name.
“Shaye, come down!”
“Fine,” she calls back, gliding towards the earth in a wide arc.
“You look... pensive. Is something troubling you?”
“No. Nothing. It’s nothing.”
“Oh, okay.” An amiable pause passes between them. “Fancy a drink?”
I watch them walk away, one ignorant of the other's pain, and wonder how they can remain friends in such a closed relationship. I have been a ghost for so long now that I have forgotten many of the nuances of living, and such things puzzle me. I see two pets playing like the best of friends, and only I know that each one secretly hates the other. Yet each day the same two pets meet and play as though nothing is wrong. How can a thing built on lies and false promises be so unbreakable?
I believe that a bond, once formed, is essentially permanent. In learning to care for another being, and be cared for in return, we create a link with that other being. Whatever happens in the future, even if the friendship later disintegrates, the link remains.
It is one of few things strong enough to tie the spirit of a sentient being to a physical reality. I do not remember my life, but is it not possible that I once had friends... perhaps even an owner?
No. I cannot afford to dwell on such things. It can lead only into madness. I may once have walked these streets, but that is past. Though I now exist outside of time I cannot go back and live my life again. I live through others instead, and that is enough.
An Usul darts through the alleyways, worn out but too scared to stop running. Her red ribbon in tatters, her tail caked with mud, she has no dignity left.
When she hatched she was given a number, rather than a name. 56_72. She has no memories of her owner, who left her in the pound the same day she was hatched. The following morning, as they opened the door of her cage to offer her breakfast, she darted from her prison and into the rain outside.
For weeks she has been running—bruised, battered and utterly alone. The cold air seems to cut her up every time she draws breath, and yet she is happy. For the first time in her short life, 56_72 has a purpose.
“You look lost.” A cloaked figure towered over her. All she could see of his face was a twitchy red nose and the tip of a maroon Kyrii mane. Desperate to be polite, 56_72 summoned up what little she knew of the Neopian language.
“I have no where to go,” she said, not without difficulty.
“I see. Well, why don’t you come with me? I can give you food and shelter, at least for a while.”
“What is,” she began. The Kyrii paused, one ear twitching beneath the silky hood. “Your... name?”
“Ah, yes. How rude... you may call me Litwick. What is your name?”
She paused, considering this.
“I do not have a name.”
“Then I shall give you one. From this moment forward, you shall be Merry.”
Merry smiled politely. For some reason she could not explain, even to herself, she felt that Litwick was trustworthy. He had offered her kindness where others had turned away in disgust.
Litwick turned down a dark alley, paused before a tall arched door. It was covered in cobwebs and peeling black paint. Producing a rusty key from one of his pockets, the Kyrii opened the door, stepped inside and motioned for her to follow.
The first thing she noticed about the place was the scent of dry rot. The carpets were grey and worn from decades of wear and neglect. Faded, moth-eaten curtains covered every window. A staircase before them led upwards to darkness.
“I know it doesn’t seem like much,” he said. “But this is my home, and it’s all I have to give. The others are waiting upstairs.” The Kyrii handed her a flickering lantern. She turned to face the mountain of steps, and resolutely began the climb.
Halfway up, the sound of cheery voices drifted through the ceiling. She paused, momentarily unwilling to continue. What if they didn’t like her? What if she was too scared to speak, and they threw her out? What if—
“Hey! Are you coming up, or what?” A Lenny appeared at the top of the stairs. His feathers were tattered, but underneath the dirt and damage they still shone a brilliant blue, and one or two stars were visible.
“Y-yes,” she stammered, doubling her pace. The Lenny laughed, though not unkindly.
“Lots of new people are like you. Some don’t know any language at all. You have no reason to be afraid. I’m known as Lor, by the way.”
Reaching the top of the stairs she set the lantern down to catch her breath. A door had been left ajar, and from within wonderful smells drifted. Shyly, Merry edged into the room, trying not to attract attention. She counted at least ten faces—some young, some old, some curious, but none remotely threatening.
“Fellows, we have a new resident!”
“Come on, sit down!”
They gathered in a semicircle around a roaring fire. Plates of a strange, yellow food were being passed around. From what she could gather, it was called ‘omelette’, but Merry cared nothing for its name or taste. She was simply grateful to be fed, sheltered and in the company of others with whom she could sympathize.
“I am now Merry,” she laughed, and might have burst into song, had she known any joyful enough for such an occasion.
The following day, she woke to find breakfast on the table—eggs and bacon. No one spoke until the meal was over. At this point, they turned towards the head of the table, where Litwick sat. He alone was well-groomed and clothed, and it was to him they all looked for guidance. Merry decided to follow suit.
“My friends,” he said, beaming down upon them. Merry could not resist smiling back at him. “Today I am asking you to gather weapons. I need as many as you can get. The type doesn’t matter. I just need weapons!”
“Of course, sir,” the other pets said. “Right away!”
Litwick had little to give—barely enough for himself—and yet he gave it freely. In return, all he wanted was their loyalty. Surely, she thought, that was more than fair?
Not once did Merry question her actions. To do so could have meant a return to the streets, a fate she could not countenance. Anyway, it was a victimless crime. The pets she stole from were far too rich and spoiled. She was doing them a favour, teaching them a lesson, and in the process ensuring the survival of herself and her new friends. It was a purpose, she reflected, and she was hardly in any position to ask moral questions!
Before long, she was more than adept at her job. Her slender frame and cushioned paws allowed her to dart around in crowds, plucking valuables here and there. Those which were of no use, she sold on and returned the money to Litwick. She never dreamed that she might get caught. She was too good. Except that, inevitably, her confidence betrayed her.
Slipping through the throngs near the Rainbow Pool, she waited for her chance. Then she saw it—a Faerie Wocky, carrying a nerkmid-stuffed pouch. Her paw closed around one of the glimmering trinkets, but before she could slip away, it tumbled to the floor with an ominous clattering. Like lightning, the Wocky’s owner had pinned her to the ground.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?”
“No,” she cried. “No!” The crowd was parting. All eyes were on her. She had failed. “Please, I’m sorry, please let me go,” she blurted. “Please let me go!”
“I don’t think so. Scum,” the Wocky hissed. However, Merry felt the grip loosen and she was allowed to stand. The human afforded her a cold glare.
“Go,” he snarled. “But if you ever let me see you here again...”
Terrified, the Usul had run for the safety of her home. When she arrived, she found an empty house. Litwick was out during the day, of course. No one knew what he did for a living, and no one liked to spread rumours. It would have been ungrateful.
Merry had a decision to make. In a way it had been made for her by the falling nerkmid and the scene that had followed. Following the familiar corridors to the one door in the house she had never opened, she now pushed through into the forbidden room beyond.
Movement danced in the corner of her eye. Her heart leapt into her mouth and her mind began to form half-truths into an acceptable excuse before she realised it was just a candle, forgotten on the bedside table, casting an unsteady glow over the tiny room. On the pillow of the bed was a battered brown leather-bound notebook.
Merry grasped this in one paw, feeling the cool fabric on her paws. It was old, but it had been kept in good condition. Curiosity overcame her and she flicked the book open at the last page. Litwick’s untidy script covered the whole surface of the page.
1st: It has been a while since my master and I last spoke. We have much to discuss...
A twinge of doubt filtered through the wall of gratitude. Master? What exactly did that mean? He had never mentioned an employer!
3rd: He is displeased with my efforts. I need to step up the game...
8th: The invasion force is almost ready. We need at least fifty recruits for the next payment. Just three more!
What followed was a list of names and statistics, no doubt relating to neopets just like her, who had been chosen against their will to serve a cause that meant nothing to them. Merry knew little about the real implications of what the diary contained, but she did know one thing: she wanted no part of it.
From downstairs: a faint thud, signalling the closing of a door.
Cursing her carelessness, Merry pattered over to the window, peered out: it was behind the house, and a pipe ran from the roof to the earth on the left side. Grasping this, she gripped the wall and moved with speed and stealth towards the safety of the concrete path.
The bedroom door crashed open, cursing came from inside. Litwick’s face appeared in the window, but there was no sign of the thief.
Hidden in the bushes half a street away, Merry was aware of nothing but the cold earth between her toes and the pain of her heart pumping like an express train fuelled on adrenaline. She had been just moments away from discovery.
Merry remained in the safety of her hiding place until after sundown. Only at dusk, when the light was gone from the sky, did she feel safe enough to come out. The air was damp and cold but completely still, and suffused with the familiar scent of decay. Nothing about the streets had changed, and yet they no longer felt like home. She had found security, friends, a purpose, and now... now it was back to square one, as if her meeting with Litwick had never happened. Stupid! Why had she been so quick to trust, so slow to doubt? Where were the instincts that had served her so well, and for so long?
Shocked by the unfamiliar sensation of tears rolling down her face, Merry raised a paw and swiped them away, snarling at her own pathetic show of emotion. Evidently the experience had turned her soft. She had started to forget what it was like, fighting every moment just to stay alive. She had forgotten the ways of the streets. Cardinal amongst those unspoken rules, and one of the first she had learned, was a harsh truth:
Only fools wore their hearts on their sleeves.
56_72 left the neighbourhood, but remained in Neopia Central, existing in much the same way she always had. 56_72 needed no one, trusted no one, spoke to no one. But from that moment on, there would always be a shadow of doubt, another voice in her mind that answered to the name Merry. That version of her worried often about the friends she had left behind, but 56_72 could not afford to care. 56_72 cared about nothing but her own survival.
Winter has arrived. Snow covers every surface in sight, broken only by the footsteps of shadows like 56_72: those who have fallen through the cracks of society and into the realm of the forgotten. Hers is not an isolated case. I see many similar pets, all of whom followed different paths yet somehow ended up in the same miserable place.
In fact, Merry is one of the luckier ones. Her experiences have given her hope, however much she struggles to deny any such emotion, and when the chance comes she will be happy again. 56_72 will be forgotten, forever consigned to a place beyond memory.
It is possible to be two different people. It is not a trait reserved exclusively for the insane. In fact, just about everyone does it, to a degree. You can be one person all day at work or school, then come home and be someone completely different. Just like everything else, the problems appear when your other aspects grow stronger than you and start to take control.
I do not see or communicate with other spirits. If there was another me, who spoke and lived in a different way, perhaps his perception of the afterlife will be different. If I met the other me, perhaps I could be whole again. All I remember of my former self is a vague imprint, the gaunt face of a Zafara who once occupied these streets. Time works differently for me, but the more passes the more I recall.
One day, it will come back to me. One day, I will live again.