How Howard Found His Smile
Inspired by the "Gorunda the Wise" collectable card.
Howard walked upstairs with remarkable vigilance, afraid of repeating the embarrassing (and painful) tripping incident from earlier that morning. He tiptoed into the room he shared with three others and, being terribly afraid of them, was relieved to find the room empty.
Stepping in front of a blurry old mirror hanging in his corner of the room, Howard adjusted his drab bowtie and sighed. He examined himself closely. He was a grey Bruce, seemingly ordinary, though all his fellows at the Neopian Pound agreed that he was the greyest neopet they had ever met.
He had lived in the Pound for countless years, being ordered around by that vile old Techo who ran the place, and being bullied by the other abandoned pets. Some say he was the first pet to ever live in the pound, for no Neopian who entered the place could remember a time when Howard was not there. For years, Howard had wished for a kind owner to find him, but with each passing day he had abandoned hope.
The mirror in front of him was in such poor condition that he almost mistook himself for a grey Fuzzle. Still, some of his features stuck out clearly. He couldn’t help but feel sad as he noticed, for the umpteenth time, his many imperfections: the crooked beak, the unruly tuft of hair, and the tired eyes. He looked permanently ill, and wore his signature expression of misery as if it were a uniform.
Walking out of the room to find his favorite item of clothing, an ancient grey linen cloak, Howard noticed something strange out of the corner of his eyes. An eerie green glow was coming through one of the rooms on his floor. He walked towards it, full of curiosity, and soon discovered its source. Sitting in this room was the happiest Bruce he had ever seen; so happy, in fact, she was glowing!
Howard stood transfixed by this bizarrely happy neopet. She turned around, noticed him and smiled.
“Hi! My name’s Bonny, what’s yours?” she asked loudly, sounding so cheerful that the Ruki next door dropped his bowl of petunias in disbelief. Nobody had ever sounded so happy while in the Pound!
“It’s Howard,” he murmured in reply, “but I’ll go now. I wouldn’t want to bother you like I do everyone else in this place,” he sighed, and was gone sooner than you could say ‘pie’.
That night, Howard stayed up till late, unable to think about anything except for Bonny’s impossible joy. He was incredibly jealous. Why couldn’t he, just once, be like her? Why was it that he could never smile? Howard tossed and turned all night, trying to think of a solution to his perpetual misery. Then it came to him.
Years and years ago, when Howard was just a young Bruce, he had overheard his old roommates talking about the secrets of the Haunted Woods. While he listened intently to discussions of Edna and the Esophagor, neither of those creatures had interested young Howard as much as the whispered story of Gorunda the Wise.
According to legend, Gorunda the Wise was an old crone who lived deep within the western reaches of the Spooky Woods. Though traps and an unfathomably deep swamp protected her, it was said that this wise Nimmo held secrets from the beginning of Neopia itself. Howard, feeling unusually impulsive, decided that he had to see her. If she couldn’t help him to find happiness, nobody could.
During the early hours of the day, Howard wrapped himself in his grey cloak and set off, certain that Gorunda the Wise would help him to find his smile.
It was a long walk from the Neopian Plaza to the Haunted Woods. Howard had half a mind to take a quick detour and spend some time in Kiko Lake; he had heard it was beautiful this time of year. The trip would have wasted precious time, however, and Howard had to give himself a firm “NO” when approaching the entrance, scaring a group of nearby Peophins in the process.
As he got closer to the Woods, Howard couldn’t help but feel a little paranoid. He’d heard rumors of bandits and rogue neopets patrolling those grounds. Sure enough, on the fourth day of his journey, Howard noticed an assortment of mean looking pets. A Tonu who seemed to be in charge of the group flashed Howard a disconcerting smile.
“Just my luck,” Howard groaned.
Though they began to jeer at him and came steadily closer, Howard decided that the best thing to do would be to ignore them and continue on his way. This angered the Tonu in charge.
“Where are you going that’s so important you can’t stop?” the Tonu called mockingly, waiting for an excuse to call his gang into action.
Howard quietly replied, “I’m trying to find Gorunda the Wise.”
The effect Howard’s words had on the group was startling. The Tonu gasped, two elderly Elephantes clutched each other in fright and a creature that looked suspiciously like a Werelupe sank to the ground, clutching his heart.
“You... you have enough troubles without us interfering, Mr., uh, sir,” the Tonu stammered, and promptly lead his group away with a run.
Howard gritted his teeth and continued on his path, feeling worse now than ever.
Surprisingly enough, following this encounter, Howard’s journey went uninterrupted. Talk of his mission had apparently spread to the residents of the Woods, and Howard was allowed to enter the western reaches without opposition.
Howard eventually reached an isolated path, with a corroded old sign reading “Gorunda the Wise” at its entrance. Feeling tired, Howard walked along the path for what seemed like an eternity when, on the side of the road, a building appeared as if out of thin air.
He approached it cautiously, and saw a notice on the door that told him the place was a lodge for tired travelers. While Howard longed for a comfortable bed, he didn’t dare enter and impose himself on the people inside. His long journey left him feeling more miserable than he’d ever been, and as with Bonny in the pound, he didn’t want to bother the people inside. He continued along the path.
Soon enough he came across another unusual sight. This time, a cauldron full of gold and riches had materialized in Howard’s path. Howard took one look at it, felt terrified at the prospect of carrying such a heavy load all the way to Gorunda’s home, and continued on his path without once looking back.
Just as Howard was beginning to wonder if the rumors of Gorunda’s traps were really true, he saw it: a great castle; undoubtedly the old crone’s home. At the same time, he saw the vast swap that lay between the castle and him.
While Howard stood scratching his head and wondering what to do next, a blue Nimmo hopped out at him, looking positively incredulous.
“HOW DID YOU GET PAST THE TRAPS I LAID?” the Nimmo roared.
“Wh... what traps?” was Howard’s feeble response.
“My Lamentable Lodge for travelers should have finished you! If not, my Cruel Cauldron of riches was sure to swallow you whole!” the exasperated woman screamed. “No creature has managed to reach this swamp in years! How did you get this far?” she asked, now scrutinizing Howard with a terrifying gaze.
Howard looked at her apologetically, and told her that he resisted the temptation to rest, and had no need for riches. With a sigh, he explained that he was interested in naught but an audience with the wise crone, and that nothing would deter him from that goal.
After a pause, the Nimmo reluctantly said, “I am Gorunda the Wise, and you have earned your audience with me. What is it that you seek?”
Howard, startled by this revelation, stumbled with his words.
“I, uh, happy. Not, happy, that is. I mean, could you tell me how to be that, uh, not...”
Gorunda clicked her tongue impatiently, as Howard regained his nerve.
“I want to be happy!” he finally said, and Gorunda’s expression softened.
“I am old as Neopia itself, child,” Gorunda began, “but not even I hold the secret to something as powerful as happiness.”
Howard, flabbergasted, tuned to leave.
Though he was no stranger to disappointment, the grief that Howard felt as he began his long journey back home was overwhelming. As he backtracked out of the wretched Woods, Howard felt that if even Gorunda the Wise couldn’t help him, then he was surely doomed to a lifetime without happiness.
He was so distracted by his own misfortune that he made it all the way back the pound in record time, not pausing to do anything else.
As he entered the pound, the first person to notice him was Bonny, and she bounced over to him, bubbling with joy, and asking him where he’d been.
Howard couldn’t help himself. He was so sad that, for the first time, he broke down and told Bonny all of his troubles. He talked to her about being left in the pound, about being bullied, about being ignored, about his exhausting journey and the futility of it all.
He talked and complained till he had nothing left to complain about, and when he got it all off his chest and noticed Bonny’s concerned expression, he was stunned.
She had listened to him without interrupting or throwing shoes at him like everybody else. She had given him time and attention, almost as if she were a friend...
“But I am your friend, Howard,” Bonny said, when Howard spoke this thought out loud.
And suddenly, Howard smiled.