The Monster in the Pound
The Neopian Pound. A truly terrible place, for those poor souls who have the misfortune to enter via the tatty, cobweb-strung door marked "Abandon."
The stone walls decorated only with mold and moss, the air always chill even at the height of summer, the ground puddled by the leaking ceiling and the tears of abandoned Neopets, sunlight and cheer a precious rarity.
And on one particular gloomy day, that particularly gloomy Techo carelessly flung a particularly gloomy abandonné into the particularly gloomy cell-like halls before shuffling away, without a second glance.
Once their infamous gaoler was out of sight, the other Pound inmates crowded around their new arrival, who lay in a collapsed heap in the darkness, motionless.
"Hello? Are you okay?" asked a yellow Kacheek, tentatively approaching the Neopet. Still the Neopet did not respond. This was common enough behaviour; newly abandoned pets were often frightened, sometimes hysterical.
"Come now," said the Kacheek, laying his hand kindly on the new arrival's shoulder. "Cheer up, we're all quite friendly here. Come and say hello to everyone!"
"Okay," came a husky reply. The Neopet slowly pulled itself up to face the others, sniffing quietly.
"EEEEW! What ARE you?" screeched a striped Uni in horror.
"Hush, Felicity! Don't be mean!" snapped the green Kacheek, despite the fact that he couldn't help but recoil a little himself.
It was such a dreadfully ugly thing. A huge, tangled mass of hair and dirt covered every inch of the poor little creature, so much so that its shape and face were completely unrecognisable. It smelled so terrible it made your nose itch, and if you looked carefully, you could see little spots of a foul sludgy substance seeping out from under the layers of matted hair.
"So... uhm, I'm 2QW4F8_39DNSK," said the Kacheek, trying not to breathe through his nose, "but everyone calls me Ned. That rather rude Uni over there is Felicity, but she's not so bad once you get to know her, she's really quite nice if you ignore her personality."
"I'm Lavender." The creature's voice was horrible, cracked and scratchy-sounding, punctuated by the occasional rattling cough.
"Ha! You don't look like a Lavender! You look like a-"
"Hush, Felicity! Pleased to meet you, Lavender." Ned grinned, shaking what he could only hope was her hand. "Please excuse the question, but... well... what kind of Neopet are you?"
"I don't know," sighed Lavender sadly.
"How can you not even know what you are?" asked Felicity, wrinkling her nose.
"Well... it's been a long time since I thought about it, and I have trouble remembering things sometimes. My owner made me battle a lot, even though I'm not very strong so I always lost, and I've hurt my head quite a few times, and I always had to sleep outside so I've had a few feverish sicknesses... and... and... oh, I just can't remember anything else! Everything's such a blur!"
Lavender put her head in her hands and started to cry again. "Oh, I'm going to be stuck in here forever! My owner might not have been the best, but at least I had one!"
"Chin up, little one." Ned smiled encouragingly, ignoring the squelching sound as he put his arm around Lavender's shoulders. "It's not so bad in here. You get to meet lots of different Neopets from all kinds of interesting places, and you get used to the damp, and the food isn't so bad if you hold your nose and don't chew, and we play fun games like 'Guess the Infectious Disease' and-"
"The bell from the front desk!" Ned squeaked excitedly. "That means someone's coming in to look for a pet to adopt! Put on your best smile, Lavender! You never know, you might just get lucky."
A young boy with untied shoelaces and freckles walked in. He surveyed the pets, one after the other.
"Bad name... unpainted... no stats..." he muttered to himself, barely glancing at the desperately grinning faces pointed up at him.
"I am a fantastically loyal and fun pet!" shouted Felicity as the boy paused to look at her, "but you have to groom me every single day! And I don't eat omelette! And I want my own room in your Neoho-"
"Hush, Felicity!" hissed Ned, but it was too late.
"Too high maintenance," said the boy, rolling his eyes and continuing on. "Eurgh! What's that?" He pointed to Lavender, who stared at her feet and blushed under her matted hair.
The pink Uni from the adoption desk peered over.
"Oh! That's... uhm... a... mutant Chia?"
"No, I've seen mutant Chias before." The boy squinted and cocked his head to one side. "They're much bigger than that. Whatever it is, it's ugly."
Eventually the boy left with a Tyrannian Scorchio dragging its knuckles behind him. "Maybe I'll be able to trade it for something better," he said with a half-hearted sigh.
"Them's the breaks," shrugged Ned after they had left. "It's always the way; nobody wants me because of my name, Felicity ruins her own chances the minute she opens her mouth, nobody ever looks twice at Pierre, even though he's painted-"
"He's painted?" Lavender looked quizzically at the plain green Nimmo sat in the corner, staring wistfully out the tiny barred window.
"Christmas. But without his clothes, who's to know? He looks just like a plain green Nimmo."
Lavender nodded. It didn't seem very fair, but then again, if the world was fair, none of them would be in the pound in the first place.
As dependable as the ever-growing mould, the days passed, and a never ending stream of Neopets came and went like ghosts as the lucky ones were adopted.
Lavender found it difficult to make friends, not only because her appearance tended to put other pets off, but also because every time she got close to someone, they were adopted before they really had the chance to become firm friends.
Gregory, the mild-mannered cloud Gnorbu was given a home by a young lady who promised never to sheer his lovely hair.
Pierre, the Christmas Nimmo who spent his days playing naughts and crosses with himself, was adopted by a Roodoku enthusiast.
A surly Skeith who answered only to "The Faerie-Eater" found a perfect owner in a very sinister-looking Neopian with an 'I Love Sloth' T-shirt and a mask covering his face.
A baby Flotsam came in once, but didn't even have time to introduce herself before she was swept up by an extremely excited young girl.
Felicity was adopted by an elderly lady, who seemed to love her for her spoiled princess ways.
And even Ned, badly-named as he was, found hope in the arms of a small girl with a ribbon in her hair and warmth in her smile.
Lavender tried to be happy for them all, but sometimes it's heartbreaking to always be left behind. After Ned left, she became despondent, spending her days lying on the hard, cold floor, watching the shafts of light that peeked through the barred windows shift across the ground. She no longer perked up her ears to the tinkling of the adoption desk bell, or scurried to meet the prospective adopter with the other pounded Neopets. What was the point? There's only so many times a pet can stand to get her hopes dashed.
Another day, another misery, and Lavender again ignored the bell and the rush to meet the potential adopter, opting instead to stare at the wall and count the bricks for the hundredth time. There were two hundred and seventy eight. Two hundred and seventy eight boring but dependable bricks that would never let you down or leave you.
One... two... three... four...
"Hello there. Who are you?"
Seven... eight... nine...
Thirteen... fourteen... fifteen...
"Hello-o? You up against the wall?"
Nineteen... twent- wait? Someone's talking to me? Me?
Lavender slowly turned around. A young girl stood by the door, surrounded by the other Neopets, but looking directly at Lavender, and waving.
"Yes, you!" The girl beamed, making her way over. "I am Wendy, how do you do?" She thrust out her hand.
"Lavender," she replied, taking the girl's hand uncertainly. Nobody had ever paid her so much attention before, at least not the nice kind of attention.
"Pleased to meet you, Lavender," said Wendy, crouching down next to the scruffy little Neopet. She wore wellington boots and a daisy-chain necklace, with flowers stuck at odd angles into her unruly mass of curly hair. Lavender thought she was the prettiest girl she had ever seen.
"You smell like apples," stammered Lavender, and instantly felt silly for saying such a daft thing.
"Thank you!" giggled Wendy. "I like you a lot."
Lavender shuffled her feet shyly. No one had ever said they liked her before, but it felt so nice to hear it.
"Hmmm... uhm..." Wendy looked thoughtful for a moment, then her face brightened. "Yes, I have quite decided. Lavender, I should very much like for you to be my Neopet. I can't promise you great wealth or heroic adventures; but I can promise you home-made muffins, hot Borovan, a never-ending supply of hugs and warm fuzzy feelings in your tummy that feel kind of like you've swallowed a Fuzzle. How does that sound?"
Lavender had never felt so happy. She barely noticed the look of surprise on the pink Uni's face as Wendy told her that she planned to adopt the ugliest, longest-standing resident of the Neopian Pound. She held tightly onto the girl's hand as she led her out of those long depressing corridors and towards the sweet air outside.
It was behind her, that awful place, and as she stepped out onto the lush grass she hadn't laid eyes on in what seemed like an eternity, she felt as though she was so full of joy she must be leaving a trail of sunshine footprints as she went.
"Wait here," said Wendy, stopping under a tree and handing Lavender a book called Faerie Tales. "I need to do some shopping. Read this while I'm gone; it's really good. And don't look so alarmed. I'll be right back."
Lavender couldn't help but be a little worried about being left alone, but with one turn of the page her concerns blew away like dandelion seeds as she became hooked on the first thrilling tale. Books! Books were wonderful! She'd never read a story before, and now she couldn't believe what she'd been missing all this time.
So engrossed was she in her faerie tales, she didn't even notice Wendy return, laden with full shopping bags.
"How many books are there in Neopia?" she exclaimed, as she turned the last page, "I want to read them all!"
"All in good time," Wendy smiled, "but first we have to clean you up!"
Wendy took Lavender back to the loveliest Neohome she had ever seen. It was in Brightvale, a thrilling land full of greenery and castles and her newest love, books.
Once inside, Wendy ran a nice warm bubble bath for Lavender.
"Here, take this," she said, after scrubbing Lavender with several rinses of Corn Silk Shampoo, "two spoonfuls."
Lavender took the bottle marked Kikoughela Syrup off her new owner, and gulped down two spoonfuls. It didn't taste particularly nice, but almost instantly, she began to feel better than she had in as long as she could remember. It was as though a Prickly Merato that had been permanently lodged in her throat had suddenly been washed away.
"Hey, tha- Oh!" Lavender covered her mouth with her hands in shock. Her voice! It was different. It sounded high and clear, and not raspy at all.
"I thought as much as soon as I heard you speak back in the pound," Wendy laughed. "You had Kikoughela! And look." She pulled up sections of Lavender's hair. "No more goo! It washed right out."
Lavender sat and smiled to herself as Wendy massaged vast amounts of Corn Silk Conditioner into her hair. She felt like a new Neopet already!
Twenty minutes later, Lavender was sat on the comfy sofa, reading a very interesting book about growing carrots, while Wendy set to work on her hair with a Detangle Comb.
"Oh, my! Lavender, look at yourself!" gasped Wendy, looking at her cleaned, combed, healed little Neopet with pride.
She stood Lavender in front of a long mirror, and the little Neopet's jaw dropped in shock.
Her hair, no longer caked in dirt, was a beautiful shade of purple with green highlights. No longer a tangled mess wrapped around her body, it was long and shiny, and fell behind her all the way to the floor. And her tail! Oh, it was so fluffy and soft! And her face; at the risk of seeming vain, she couldn't help but notice that she was actually very pretty indeed.
"I'm an Usuki Usul!" gasped Lavender. "Who could've known?"
"Anyone who cared enough to look past first appearances, and get to know the real Neopet deep down inside... even when it's deep down under several layers of smelly hair."
And what's the moral of the story? All stories must have morals, mustn't they?
Never to judge a book by its cover?
To treat others as you would wish to be treated?
To take good care of your Neopets?
That a little love and care can reveal someone's true beauty?
No, my dears; it is never to underestimate the power of lather, rinse, repeat.