Thick and Thin and Yooyuball
Thin, a Tyrannian Lupe, led his newfound twin, Thick, a mutant Lupe, stealthily through the back alleys of Neopia Central. Ever since he had rescued Thick from the Grey Faerie's prison in Tyrannia (see Grey Daze, Issue #439), Thin had been trying to help his brother recover his faded memory with stories from their childhood and trips to familiar locations. Although he had private reasons for avoiding the bright lights and large crowds of the city, Thin knew he had to take a chance and bring Thick there, to their beloved uncle's home. When they arrived at the uncle's small, trim house, the brothers were surprised to find no one at home. With a hesitant shove against the door that their uncle never locked, they gained entry to a living room that stood cold, empty, and apparently long-abandoned.***
"This uncle," Thick asked as he paced around the dusty floor. "You say we visited him often?" With a testing sniff of his sensitive nostrils, he added, "This place doesn't ring any bells at all."
Thin sighed and said, "Yes, we came here all the time. Try to concentrate." The Lupe looked around until his eye was caught by faded markings on the doorframe. With excitement, he motioned for his brother to join him. "See here, Thick? This is where Uncle used to record how much we had grown each time we came to see him. Do you remember? Do you remember how you always stretched out your neck to try to look taller than me?"
The brothers laughed together, and Thick approached the markings for a closer inspection.
"Maybe?" Thick said noncommittally. "There's something about this, I guess." The Lupe closed his eyes, imagining the scene: he and his brother excitedly rushing to the doorway, pushing each other to be the first to get measured. There he was, he now saw, raising himself on tiptoe to be the taller of the twins. With a secret smile he wondered: How much of this is memory, how much is imagination? How much of everyone's early memories is filled in by the frequent retelling of stories from childhood? Do we remember the events themselves or just the stories? Is one more real than the other? Opening his eyes, Thick could see the eagerness on his brother's face and knew that recapturing their shared childhood was at least as important to Thin as it was to himself. He smiled broadly and began to nod. "Yes, yes, I do believe I remember this place now."
"Then you'll remember where Uncle kept all of his best things," Thin taunted jovially. "They're in..."
"...the attic!" Thick's eyes widened with the surprise memory. "Oh, how we loved to sneak up to the attic." With a surreptitious look over his shoulder, just as he imagined he must have done as a pup, Thick asked, "Do we dare go up there even now without permission?"
"I don't see anyone who might object," Thin replied with a wink. The brothers stood, eyes locked, until each suddenly broke into a run, lunging for the stairway to the attic. They jostled and bumped each other all the way up the stairs, laughing and nipping at each other playfully, exactly as they had done countless times before.
When they reached the opening at the top of the stairs, they stopped, out of breath from racing and laughing, and turned together to survey the once forbidden attic. Much looked as it always had: against the sloped walls stood old furniture draped in loose white sheets that gave the impression that an army of ghosts had been abandoned to this garret long ago; several trunks stood gaping, overflowing with the old-fashioned clothes that the brothers had loved to dress up in as adventurous pups; and stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes, filled with unknown contents, overwhelmed the small space with their imposing presence, their ominous ability to crowd the attic and rob it of its light and space and air.
Before one of them could move, a slight rustling noise reached the brothers, causing four astute Lupe ears to twitch and turn, zeroing in on the sudden sound. Thick opened his mouth to speak but snapped it shut again as Thin shot him a warning glare. The rustle became a rumble, then became a thumping that shook dust loose from the rafters overhead, a sound that demanded investigation.
Thin tilted his head quizzically and crouched his powerful Lupe body into a careful and stealthy position, following the thumping sound across the crowded room on his silent paws. His head hovering just above the worn wooden floorboards, the Lupe cautiously nosed a cardboard box that jumped and jolted as though it held a thing alive. His first thought was of his missing uncle, but he dismissed the notion as ridiculous. As he nudged at the box with one sharp and pointed tusk, the flaps on top of the box opened, and a grey blur whizzed above his head. As Thin spun to watch its streaking course, he was astonished to see Thick dive far to his right and catch the object, an achievement of athleticism to which he would not have suspected his brother equal.
The Tyrannian Lupe raised himself to a standing position and held his jaws agape. "What is that thing?"
The mutant Lupe stood, examined the grey sphere he had caught, and replied, "It looks like a Yooyu. Or, like a Yooyuball."
"Well, which is it?" Thin approached his brother with eyes narrowed in suspicion. "It certainly acted alive. But how could a Yooyu have survived in a cardboard box? Who knows how long it's been in there?"
Thick lobbed the ball into the air, and as it fell back to the floor, he jumped and kicked at it, sending it flying in a straight line between two of the stacks of cardboard boxes that rose unsteadily to the low ceiling. Jumping quickly back to his feet and jogging after the ball, the Lupe called over his shoulder, "I don't know why it flew out of the box like that, but it's acting like a regular old ball now."
Thin shook his head with disbelief. "Since when have you been able to play like that? Last summer during the Altador Cup you would never even help me practise Yooyuball. You told me you'd never been good at it before and couldn't see yourself improving now."
"I'll have to take your word on that," Thick responded, reappearing from behind a pile of dusty old clothes. "I don't know why, but something about this ball just makes me want to play. Come on, let's take it outside." The Lupe sprinted toward the door, dribbling the grey ball in front of him as he went.
Thin watched his brother exit and turned to search the piles once more. When he found the cardboard box that had contained the ball, he sniffed apprehensively before turning it upside down with a hesitant nudge of his long muzzle, squeezing shut his eyes against the possibility of more surprises flying at him at high velocity. When the air was not split anew with the rapid departure of possibly enchanted playthings, Thin released the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding and opened his eyes. Nothing looked out of the ordinary.
Thin sniffed more forcefully at the worn cardboard, but could not detect what it was about the box that made him so uneasy. He stalked around its edges, examining it from every angle, and that was when he noticed the faded handwriting on the hanging flap: Please do not open. Return to Chelo Binay, Haunted Woods.
"Huh," Thin said to himself. "I wish I had read that earlier. Who's Chelo Binay? Why does that name sound so familiar?" The Lupe's thoughts were interrupted by voices coming from the yard, and he trotted down the stairs and out the front door to investigate.
When he reached the small square of grass that his uncle had tended with such care, he was surprised to see that Thick was playing Yooyuball with the aged Scorchio who lived next door. And Thick was playing extremely well. The Lupe dove and feinted and punted and scored, his body a fluid force that anticipated and reacted before the Scorchio could move the ball past him.
Thin watched in mute amazement for some minutes before interrupting. "I think I have some information about that ball."
Thick stopped in mid-stride and turned his head, gazing at his brother with surprise, and looking around himself, blinking slowly as though confused.
The Tyrannian Lupe noted his brother's puzzling reaction but continued, "The box that ball was in said it needed to be returned to Chelo Binay."
The Scorchio tilted his head with surprise and approached, asking, "Did you say 'Chelo Binay'? I told your uncle he was going to get into trouble some day."
Thick joined the other two in a tight huddle and asked, "Who is Chelo Binay, Mr. Plefter?"
"Well," the Scorchio replied, "for one thing she was a starting Yooyuball player for the Haunted Woods in the first season of the Altador Cup..."
"That's where I know that name from!" Thin interrupted. His face broke into a satisfied grin; a grin that faded as he saw the grim look the Scorchio had trained on him.
"That's not all," the Scorchio intoned. "Chelo Binay is also a witch. A witch who was forced to leave her team under, shall we say, a bit of a dark cloud."
Thick and Thin exchanged curious glances before asking together, "How do you mean?"
"Well, I'm not sure if your uncle ever told you this, but when we were younger, long before the first Altador Cup, he and I and Chelo all played Yooyuball together."
"No, he never did tell us that," Thin explained.
"I didn't think so. Your uncle has always been very competitive, and the fact is that he was never a very good player." The Scorchio began to laugh at some private memory and said, "How he would stomp off the field whenever Chelo or I scored against him! Now, I was a decent player, but Chelo was something else entirely -- she showed real potential. If there had been professional teams back then, she would have been a star. But, like I said, this was long before the Altador Cup, and like the rest of us, she stopped playing the game as she got older. So, imagine our surprise when, in the first Altador Cup, there she was, as old as we were, white hair and all, and a starting player for the Haunted Woods! And how she played! The diving and the passing and the scoring. Her tactics are now legendary; she just completely rewrote the book on strategy. Thanks to her, as you must know, the Haunted Woods team took the Cup that first year. And then, for some reason, she retired."
"That sounds like a happy story, Mr. Plefter," said Thick with confusion. "You said something about a dark cloud."
"Well," the Scorchio replied carefully, "I'm not one for gossip, but at the time there were rumours that Chelo had used... enchantment."
"What?" Thin asked in surprise. "Enchantment is totally illegal in Yooyuball."
"As it should be," agreed the Scorchio. "But, really, how else could you explain her talent, her skills, even her endurance after all these years? Once the rumour began, Chelo Binay retired rather than submit to testing, a fact your uncle took as evidence of her guilt, I should add. He became obsessed; he thought that he could find the proof to expose her as a cheat. I think he wanted to prove that she had been using enchantment even when we were young. Not being an excellent Yooyuball player, not being able to beat me or Chelo at a game, was probably the only regret of your uncle's life. I begged him to leave it alone, but... well, if you found something of Chelo's in your uncle's attic, I think I have an idea where your uncle has disappeared to."
Thick and Thin looked each other in the eye and said together, "The Haunted Woods."***
"There he is," Thin whispered, gesturing toward the aged Darigan Techo. From their vantage in the shadows of the monstrous trees of the Haunted Woods, the twins could easily watch their uncle unnoticed as he practised hurling a Yooyuball into an empty net in the yard beside Chelo's modest forest home. The pair marvelled as he dove and ran and punted the ball with great speed and accuracy.
"Uncle Acrodion!" Thick said in a voice husky with emotion. One look at the Techo's familiar form brought back a flood of happy memories: the shared jokes and meals; the long walks with the uncle who could both patiently listen to nonsensical ramblings and also identify all the unfamiliar flora that Thick pointed out; the long hours spent in fruitless attempts to improve the young Thick's Yooyuball skills. "I do remember him, Thin." The mutant Lupe turned to his brother with tears standing in his amber eyes.
"Let's go get him."
The pair rose from their hiding spot and crossed the dim clearing, catching the Techo by surprise.
"What's this?" Uncle Acrodion exclaimed. "What young pups are these come to join me in a game of Yooyuball?" The Techo threw wide his arms, and the Lupes loped toward him, Thick not quite able to stop himself from rising up on the pads of his feet to appear just slightly taller than his brother.
"Uncle Acrodion," Thin said in a serious tone. "We've come to take you home."
"Nonsense!" Acrodion said with an emphatic shake of his head. "I make my home here now."
A voice, thin and reedy with age, broke in. "Who have we here?"
The Lupes turned to see an old Chia, stooped and crooked, with flowing white hair beneath her pointed witch's hat. They winced in empathy as they watched her hobble across the yard, but were shocked when their uncle hurled his Yooyuball at her with great force. They were more shocked when they saw the Chia leap and drill the ball into the net with a swift throw of her own.
"Well done, Chelo!" Acrodion laughed. Turning to his nephews, the Techo asked, "Do you see why I might want to remain here?"
"Uncle," Thin said urgently, "I'm afraid you've been... enchanted."
He tried to say this last quietly, beneath the hearing of the Chia witch, but it was futile when the Techo boomed, "Enchanted? What nonsense! I have simply been practising, with my friend Chelo's amazingly bouncy Yooyuballs, and you wouldn't believe how I have improved. I am stronger than I have been in my entire life." Uncle Acrodion tossed a ball toward Thick, and the Lupe leapt to knock it into the net with his head.
Thin was dismayed to notice that his brother's eyes seemed to glaze over, just as they had when he was playing with one of Chelo's Yooyuballs back at their uncle's house, and an alarming thought occurred to him. What if these Yooyuballs are, indeed, enchanted? Has Uncle Acrodion been hypnotised, as Thick appears to be? Is he not actually here of his own free will?
Thin's thoughts were interrupted by a polite cough. He turned and stood face to face with Chelo Binay and blurted out, "You've enchanted my uncle!"
The Chia giggled and said, "I did no such thing. Perhaps I've enchanted a few Yooyuballs, but I can't see the harm in that."
The Lupe stood mute with shock at the witch's admission. Shaking it off, Thin asked, "So is it true? Did you use enchantment to cheat? To unfairly lead the Haunted Woods to the winning of the first Altador Cup?"
Chelo narrowed her eyes, displaying a frightening level of spite and malice. "It is not cheating when everyone uses enchantment."
"I don't believe that."
"You think that Faerieland doesn't use enchantment? You think that Darigan Citadel would refuse to? Or Krawk Island? You scratch beneath the shining surface of any team and you will find the rot of truth... every team uses enchantment to some degree. I was made the scapegoat, the one who could be safely sacrificed for the good of the whole sport. But I'll tell you something true." Chelo leaned close and whispered straight into Thin's ear. "I may have enchanted a few Yooyuballs since then, but that first year of the Altador Cup? That was all me, fair and square."
"But my uncle," Thin protested. "I don't think he's in control of himself."
"What's the harm?" Chelo challenged. "When he first came here, all full of boisterous accusations, he behaved like a crabby old Techo, ready for the retirement home. And look at him now. He's happy, he's active, he's playing the game he loves at a level he could never have dreamed of."
Thin shook his head, too confused to offer an argument to the Chia, and strode toward where Thick and Acrodion were playing an impromptu game. He grabbed his brother by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back to the tree line, much to Thick's dismay.
"What are you doing?" Thick wailed.
Thin explained his concerns to his brother, ending with, "We need to get Uncle Acrodion out of here."
Thick tilted his head in thought and replied, "Wait a minute. Didn't Mr. Plefter say that the only regret our uncle ever had was his inability to excel at Yooyuball?"
"Then perhaps Chelo has a point. What's the harm in letting him stay here, playing and excelling at the game he has always loved?"
"But... but it's not real," Thin protested weakly.
The pair turned and watched as the Techo and Chia took turns passing the ball to each other, their uncle laughing and pumping his arms in the air with mock bravado each time he scored a goal. Finally, Thick turned and said, "It's all perception, isn't it? Losing my memories in the Grey Faerie's prison means that much of my childhood, much of my entire life, has been lost to me. But, does having these memories make you more real?"
"No," Thin replied carefully. "But just as I freed you from that prison of stone and iron bars, shouldn't we free Uncle Acrodion from this prison of mental enchantment?"
"He looks so happy. If we were to drag him away from here, he would learn that the fulfillment of his lifelong desires, his mastery of Yooyuball was, in the end, a trick, an illusion. Enchantment. If we bring him back to his home in Neopia Central, we may as well stick him in the attic like..."
"...an old piece of furniture," Thin finished. After some thought, the Lupe looked at his brother with curiosity and asked, "And what about you? You seem to be happy under the enchantment. Would you want to stay with these two, spend your days playing Yooyuball? You're really quite spectacular, you know, when you're under a spell."
Thick met his brother's eye and said, "These two are rewriting their past, and I think that's fine for them. As for me? I need to recover my past, our past. More importantly, I need to meet the future, and to do that, I need to go with you. So, where to next?"
Merging with the shadows cast by the grasping branches of the Haunted Woods, Thin called over his shoulder, "What do you remember about our cousin Cavillace?"