Inch by inch, the sun rose above the horizon, prepared to illuminate every wizened tree and foreboding path of the Haunted Woods. Sinister gray clouds rose with it, and by the time the first citizens began to stir, the Woods were, as usual, already shrouded in darkness. As the large clock atop the town hall chimed eight times and a few lone shopkeepers made their way to their stores, lights flickered on in several of the residences in Neovia.
When the clock read eight thirty in the morning, a blue Lupe was bustling around in the kitchen of a stately house on Crescent Street, grumbling to himself. When it was nine o'clock, the Lupe set two plates of scrambled eggs on the kitchen table with a flourish, standing back as if to admire his culinary handiwork.
"Morning, Grandfather," he said to an aged grey Lupe who was sitting there at the table, squinting at an old book through the rectangular spectacles perched on his nose.
For as long as anyone could remember, Weldon J. Bancroft had lived in the middle of Neovia, and for as long as anyone could remember, he almost never came out of his house. It was extremely rare for him to even enter the town anymore, though in decades past, he used to trudge down to Main Street every month or so to buy huge amounts of food, then disappear back into his home. But when Krawley's curse had swept the town, old Weldon, never truly a citizen of Neovia in the first place, found himself the only remaining inhabitant of that entire section of the Haunted Woods.
Weldon Bancroft had not wasted the past ten or so years, however; the outlandish conspiracy theories he was infamous for amongst the townspeople were still thriving in his anti-social brain. Weldon was perpetually convinced that there was danger lurking everywhere, and his suspicions fell on everyone around him.
Everyone save for his grandson, that is. Jules Bancroft had been taken in by the lonely old Lupe when, years ago, he'd lost his parents. Though Weldon would never admit it, the boy had grown on him quite a lot over the years, probably because of how willing Jules was to leave him alone when he didn't want to be bothered. He knew that it had been a solitary existence for him in the Bancroft home — wandering the manor's halls like a little periwinkle and cream-colored ghost, while the town of Neovia lay in a twisted slumber for ten years — and truly did appreciate the fact that he never complained. Frankly, Jules was all that Weldon Bancroft had left in the world.
An orphaned teenage Lupe with an attitude problem was all he had left in the world. Oh, how far he had fallen.
"Morning," Weldon grumbled, taking a sip of his tea. Jules seemed unperturbed by the older Lupe’s less-than-welcoming tone, sitting down at the table as well and digging into his scrambled eggs despite Weldon's disapproving look. Having lived in the Bancroft household for years now, he didn't even flinch when his grandfather jolted back from the table, staring at the eggs as if they had just grown eyes and stared back at him.
"Do you see that?" he exclaimed, flailing a paw at the offending breakfast foods.
Jules glanced at the plate, then shook his head. "What's wrong, Grandfather?" he asked, his tone flat. Overall, his affect suggested that he’d dealt with this kind of behavior from the elderly Lupe many times.
Weldon pointed with great fervor at a certain section of the scrambled eggs. "The way they're arranged right here! Like some sort of sinister constellation!" he shouted, sounding like he was suffering from a case of Obsessive Altador Plot Disorder. An astronomer in his youth, Weldon frequently saw terrible omens in the sky, and apparently, he had now progressed to observing these omens in places other than the sky. Nothing had ever actually happened after one of his Predictions of Doom (except for that one time when the toaster exploded), but Weldon continued to stress the importance of constant preparation for the apocalyptic event that he knew had to occur sooner or later.
"That's nice, Grandfather," Jules said. He got up to put his empty plate in the sink. In the face of this nonchalance, Weldon calmed down slightly and coughed in a halfhearted attempt to regain some of his dignity.
"Yes, well," he said, "scoff all you want, but I'll be prepared! It ended up paying off last time, didn't it?"
Jules had to admit that he was right. Due to his paranoia and the constant drills he forced everyone living in the house to take part in, Weldon hadn't skipped a beat when the entire population of Neovia disappeared overnight. In spite of all his skepticism when it came to his "omens," Jules was, in an odd way, grateful for his grandfather's lunacy. Without his anti-social behavior or his conviction that the world would soon end, he wouldn't be the cantankerous old Lupe that the boy knew and loved (even if both of them had trouble expressing that love sometimes).
All love aside, Jules couldn’t deny that he and his grandfather had radically opposite goals in life. Weldon was content to be left alone — the farther away he was from other Neopets, the better. Even after years of living with the old Lupe, this cynicism was still difficult for Jules to comprehend, dissimilar as it was to his own attitude.
Jules Bancroft was an inventor, and Jules Bancroft was a dreamer, an idealist, a philanthropist. He had high hopes for Neovia, and while his grandfather stayed safe inside their house, he himself had helped to rebuild the town. Whenever a problem cropped up, the young Lupe had spent sleepless nights painstakingly working out the best solution he could come up with, refusing to rest until he was satisfied with his progress. These townspeople had spent ten years under a terrible curse, and the least Jules could do was try to give them back a few slivers of hope.
And it had all been worth it. Neovia was as good as new; the signs of disuse had been erased from the town's shops and houses, and the cobblestone streets were once again lovingly worn by the footsteps of citizens going about their daily work.
Weldon, on the other hand, watched his grandson's enthusiasm with some reservations. He noticed the way some of the neighbors looked at Jules — as if he were maybe a little strange in the head, didn't belong in this town — and, even worse, Jules himself seemed completely oblivious to it. He'd spent the majority of his childhood so isolated from other creatures that his social skills had emerged a little lacking, and nothing could convince him that those around him were not always as willing as he was to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
The old Lupe just couldn't bring himself to tell Jules that the world wasn't what he thought it was. The boy probably wouldn't believe him anyway, Weldon told himself as his grandson left on his morning paper rounds with a wave. He shook his head and sighed, then adjusted his spectacles and returned to his book.
Jules Bancroft was what some would consider too ambitious to still be making newspaper rounds, but actually, his questionably suitable job was probably the most practical aspect of his life. He spent the mornings delivering papers to all the subscribers in town and the afternoons trying to sell more on busy street corners. Though he approached this job with his usual zeal, Jules was never unhappy to head home for the day. It was at night, after all, that he was able to do what he really wanted to do — work on his inventions.
His dearly-held dream of one day becoming a professional inventor had begun early in his life. Even when he was very small, Jules was fascinated by the idea that he could put seemingly useless parts together to make something that would improve lives all over Neopia. It was a well-known fact that Jules' influence was probably the one thing keeping the old Bancroft house from falling to pieces; it wasn't unusual to hear the young Lupe humming cheerfully as he replaced broken tiles on the roof with new ones of his own design.
As he walked through the streets of Neovia, dropping off a newspaper at every house on his route, he thought about his next home improvement project: installing new and improved lighting fixtures at key points throughout the house. Due to the tendency of the Haunted Woods to get dark quite early, Weldon's impaired eyesight was even more troublesome than it would have been had they lived elsewhere. Jules had therefore taken it upon himself to better illuminate the house (and not have to help his elderly relative off the floor nearly so often).
Time passed quickly for Jules Bancroft, and today was no exception. It seemed like just minutes later, the town clock was proclaiming it one in the afternoon, and he was eating a Rosemary Bacon Scone in the street outside the Crumpetmonger's shop. Children ran past, paws and hooves and feet slapping the ground, and businessmen walked briskly by on their way to and from their offices. Many of the passersby stopped to visit the Crumpetmonger, emerging from the store with small bags that gave off the strong aroma of pie or pastries.
Another Lupe, some years younger than him, passed with his nose in a book and an apple strudel in his free paw. Jules smiled slightly when the brown-furred Lupe, absorbed in his book, was almost taken down by the uneven cobblestones; he stumbled but quickly righted himself, blushing and glancing around in hopes that no one had noticed. After a moment, he grinned sheepishly to himself and moved on.
Always good to see today's youth reading, Jules thought proudly. Neither the fact that the passerby had no relation to him nor the fact that he himself wasn't yet eighteen years old seemed to cross his mind.
Popping the last of his scone into his mouth, the blue Lupe brushed off his paws and reached into his knapsack, taking out a stack of newspapers. Lunch break was over, and it was time to get back to work. Which he did, of course, with every ounce of his usual enthusiasm.
"Get your papers here! All the latest news, fresh off the press!" But no matter how determinedly he waved the paper he was holding, Jules couldn't seem to convince any of the Neopets walking past to purchase it. He never really sold any papers in the afternoons, but every day he kept trying, waiting for that one customer who would someday succumb to his advertising ploys and hand him fifty Neopoints. See, the papers weren't even expensive!
He supposed that maybe the news was too grim for some readers' tastes. He'd found some of the issues a little depressing himself, but that was probably to be expected when one lived in the Haunted Woods.
Jules sighed quietly, letting his arm drop back to his side. He could take a short break now. Business was slower than slow, and if anyone wanted to buy a paper, they could always come up and ask him for one. In the meantime, he'd watch the activity in Neovia. Townsfolk were milling about, some entering shops with bags of Neopoints and leaving with food, books, or clothing. The town seemed to be at peace...
"Hey, nerd!" The shout came from behind him — Jules turned, ears perking up, to find the source of the noise. Down the street, three Neopets, two Bruces and a Yurble, were snickering at a fourth as he passed. Upon closer inspection, Jules recognized him as the Lupe from earlier. The four appeared to be a few years younger than Jules, and the Lupe they had called out to was carrying several rather thick books in his arms; given the boy's scrawny appearance, the heavy tomes actually looked liable to tip him over.
"Good afternoon, Albert," the young Lupe said to the Bruce who had spoken. He seemed frozen in place, and his eyes were fixed on the cobblestones beneath him.
The three turned to each other and laughed again. Finally, the Bruce called Albert took a few steps towards the Lupe. "You shouldn't read while you walk, it's dangerous," he advised, obviously feigning concern. With that, he reached out a flipper and knocked the other boy's books into the street.
Although Jules Bancroft went to great lengths to believe the best of others, this was something he couldn't possibly ignore. "Hey, now," he called out, dashing down the street to intervene. The three bullying Neopets stared blankly at him as he cleared his throat and frowned at them, trying his best to look intimidating and (to be honest) failing miserably. "Um... that was very disrespectful, and I, uh, I think you should apologize." There was silence. "Uh... now would be a good time to apologize," he added. This time, his statement was greeted by a burst of derisive laughter. Jules frowned more deeply, frustrated by this lack of communication. The younger Lupe was now staring at him like he was an escaped patient from Meepit Oaks Sanitorium.
"It's not that hard!" Jules went on, his voice growing more than a little childish. "Just say you're sorry!"
The bullies exchanged glances. "Whatever," Albert said. "See you around, nerd." With a final group scowl at the younger Lupe, who was now cringing from sheer embarrassment on Jules' behalf, they turned and stalked off.
Jules gave a satisfied nod. "Justice has been served," he declared dramatically. "Hey wait, where'd you go?" He looked around for the other Lupe and soon found him kneeling on the ground, gathering the books strewn across the street. Without the slightest hesitation, Jules got down on his knees next to him. "Need some help?" he asked cheerily.
"Ah... well, if it's not too much to ask," the Lupe answered. "My thanks for stepping in; I'm very grateful for your assistance... I think."
"Don't mention it!" Jules said, grinning more widely than was really necessary as he handed the Lupe a large book. "I just hope you're alright! So you like reading, huh? My grandfather has lots of books in his library. I haven't read nearly all of them, but—"
A shriek came from across the street, and seconds later, a pretty middle-aged Zafara hurtled towards them and, pulling the young brown Lupe to his feet, flung her arms around him. He gave a muffled "ack!" as he was nearly smothered by her hug. In her panic, the Zafara was basically unintelligible, but Jules managed to pick out the phrases "why didn't you tell me," "don't ever leave my sight again," and "for Fyora's sake, Reginald!"
Reginald, for his part, simply looked uncomfortable. "I'm fine, Mother, really," he insisted. "Don't worry..." She looked at him skeptically, raising an eyebrow.
"Don't you try to tell me you won't be writing poetry about your tortured heart later tonight, young man," she said. "I know you better than that." Dismissing Reginald's answering groan, the Zafara finally noticed Jules, standing awkwardly a couple feet away with the books held in his outstretched paws.
"Oh!" A smile lit up her features. "Thank you so much for helping my son. I'm Alice, and you are...?"
"Jules Bancroft, ma'am, pleased to meet you," he said, smiling back and handing Reginald his books. Hearing Jules' surname, Reginald affected an expression of sudden understanding. Weldon Bancroft's grandson? Well, that explains his peculiar behavior, the brown Lupe was thinking (Jules, of course, assumed it was something more positive).
Alice, unsurprisingly, was more tactful than her son. "I'm happy to see that children today still have some morality," she responded, placing a paw on Reginald's shoulder. "Well, we should be on our way — again, thank you."
"It was no trouble at all!" Jules beamed. "Nice to meet you both!"
With a last wave to the two, he headed back to work. And even though no one bought a paper that day, he went home with more faith than ever that, someday, he could change the world for the better.
My second NT story and further evidence of my obsession with Neovia. ^_^;; Comments are loved!