The Stranger on Tigermouse Terrace
Special thanks to all of those who made me feel unwelcome when I moved, and inevitably inspired this story.
There is a small town about twenty minutes outside of Neopia Central. With a population of merely two hundred, it is a close-knit community. Everyone knows everyone else. Gossip spreads fast. And strangers are not welcome.
It is this place where she has chosen to make her home. She takes a breath, taking her first steps onto the main road. As she walks, she keeps her blank stare straight ahead. Heads are already turning; she ignores the burning glares, her eyes only darting out of their locked position long enough to read the street signs.
She turns onto Tigermouse Terrace, a one-way road. Her neohome is at the end of this road, so she walks slowly, her head held high. A group of young children, playing in the road, scatter as she passes. She pays no attention, but slows her pace even more, letting their mothers cast distrustful gazes as she passes each neohome in turn.
When she reaches her own neohome, she unlocks and pushes open the door, walking just as slowly inside. She closes the door behind her; twenty minutes later, she emerges again, and takes a casual seat on her front step. The children have again come out to play; they don't notice her as she watches them vaguely, continuing with their careless game of Gormball.
She doesn't watch them for long, though; nervous mothers start to emerge from their neohomes again, once again beckoning their children home. She doesn't move, but continues to watch the empty road for at least another half hour before going back inside.
“Her name is Suzanne.” Liz sneers over her Iced Caramel Coffee. She inhales deeply the scent of the drink before taking a slight sip. “She’s from Neovia. Apparently, she used to have family who lived around here.”
“Neovia?” Janine laughs haughtily. “No wonder she looks like a freak!“
“She looks like she’s the lead singer of Twisted Roses or something!” Annette agrees.
I join in the laughter of my friends as we crowd around a small table in the corner of the only coffee shop in town. It’s been two days since the Zafara came to town and already word is flying about her every which way. Word about her watching the children on the first day was the first to get out, followed not long after by rumours about who she is and where she comes from.
“What colour is she, anyway? You can't even tell, with all that makeup.” Janine rolled her eyes, blowing on her freshly coloured hooves. The Uni slips her Purple Nail Varnish into her bag, and turns to me. “Why did you order that?” she asks, referring to my Candy Corn Latte. “Do you have any idea how bad that is for you?”
I shrug. “Just getting ready for Halloween, I guess.”
Just as I say this, Suzanne enters the coffee shop. It is the first time that I have seen her around town. We all glance furtively at her; when she turns her back, Liz mumbles just loud enough for us to hear, “I think she started getting ready during the Month of Running;” at which, we snicker much louder than had been intended. I catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye as she turns slightly to look over her shoulder. Beyond that, though, she ignores us, and proceeds to get in line for coffee.
“Speaking of Halloween.” Janine shakes her left hoof, hoping to dry the varnish quicker. “What is everyone else going to the Halloween get-together as?”
Almost everyone at the table shrugs, and we dive headfirst into a conversation about the get-together tomorrow. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice again that Suzanne is looking at us over her shoulder; she seems to be more intent on listening more than anything else, though.
She stands there for several moments, clutching her Decaf Darigan Coffee, before she pays and leaves. I sigh under my breath, relieved that she is gone. The gossip is right for once---she is a freak.
I walk down Tigermouse Terrace later that day, wanting to return a borrowed book from Mrs Murphy. Seeing she isn’t home, I quietly slip through her unlocked door and leave the book on a table in the front hall, along with a note apologising that I’d missed her. I close the door carefully behind me, avoiding the loud slam characteristic of Mrs Murphy’s front door, and I turn to make my way back to my own neohome, when a faint piano tune catches my ear. It is lovely, and crisp, and clear---and coming from the neohome belonging to the stranger, Suzanne.
I bite my lip, unsure of whether or not I should venture closer to listen; it is absolutely beautiful, but if the rumours are true, she isn’t the kind of Neopet to welcome unwanted company. After several moments of staying still, I realise what tune she is playing---one unique to our town, a well-kept secret that no true stranger could possibly know. My eyes widen with shock. Taking a deep breath, I decide to venture closer to see if she has somehow acquired the sheet music for the song.
I approach the house with the greatest of cautions, watching her play from the window. Out of habit, I try her front door---unlocked. I shake my head in utter disbelief; she’s definitely not a stranger. I turn to leave, when suddenly the music stops. I take only two steps before the door opens behind me, and I hear Suzanne say to me, “Did you want to come in?”
I turn slowly until I’m looking her straight in the eye. She’s watching me intently, her gaze locked into mine. I hesitate slightly, but nod once, stepping forward again. “I heard you playing piano,” I explain quietly.
Suzanne shrugs slightly. “Did you want to come in?” she asks again, opening the door wider. I hesitate a little longer before deciding to take her up on the offer and go inside.
The inside of her neohome isn’t much like I’d imagined it to be. There is, as expected, the Twisted Roses poster and the dark furniture characteristic of the Haunted Woods, but there is also a lot of Neovian furniture, as well as a lot of Neopian Philharmonic paraphernalia lying around. She crosses quickly to the piano, and again begins to play. “I suppose you don’t remember me,” she muses, closing her eyes. “But then, it’s been so long. One would almost expect it.” She opens her eyes again to glance over to me. I’m still standing in front of the doorway, tilting my head in confusion. She chuckles. “You and I were never close anyway...” She takes a deep breath. “You know you can come in, yes? I’m not going to bite you.”
I laugh slightly, a little nervous, and walk further inside. She nods toward a Gothic Valentine Sofa in one corner, and I nod back and sit. “So... I don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”
Suzanne laughs. “My mum used to teach music here. You were one of her students. You remember?”
My eyes open wide. “No!”
“Yes.” Her smile widens as she hears me remembering. “She went on to be invited to join the Neopian Philharmonic. Which is when we had to leave, because she was travelling so much.” She purses her lips. “Eventually, we settled in Neovia. Never quite was my town. That’s why I came back. This is the house we used to live in; that's why I bought it.” She pauses slightly. “I didn’t expect anyone to remember me. I was always the shy one, you know. Never did have many friends. And now that I dress like this... well, you know how cruel Neopets can be.”
I smile slightly. “Yeah...”
“I’ve heard the rumours going around,” she goes on. “Don’t think I didn’t hear you and your friends talking about me today. Not that I really give a flying faellie, but you know how it is.” I nod slightly, suddenly feeling badly about the way we have treated her. She laughs again. “I almost feel bad for you all. You need to open up more, you know? New faces aren’t always a bad thing to have around.”
I smile again, and glance at the clock. It’s starting to get late. “I need to be getting home,” I tell her, heading again for the door.
She nods quietly. “Feel free to stop by any time, okay, Leslie?”
I nod, but stop. “How do you know my name?”
Suzanne laughs again. “You were one of my mum’s favourite students. How could I forget it?”
I smile again, and quickly make my way to the door. The sound of her music follows me down the street as I make my way slowly toward home.
The annual Halloween get-together, held in the town’s only park, is the biggest event of the year. Everyone in town goes; it’s a terrible social faux-pas to miss it. Everyone dresses up, plays games, and has a great time. As I do every year, this year I go with Janine, Liz, and Annette. And this year, we’ve dressed up as Neopia’s monsters; that is, our respective species’ Halloween alter-egos.
Everyone is having a great time. We can hardly hear each other over the noise of everyone else, when suddenly all grows quiet. Every head in the park turns in unison as a Zafara in gothic clothing steps onto the lawn.
“What’s she doing here!”
Suzanne looks around until she catches sight of me. She smiles and waves, and hustles over toward our group. “Hey, Leslie! Great---” she stops, noticing my friends’ hostile glares. “Great get-together, huh?”
“Why are you here?” Janine demands rudely. “You know you’re not welcome.”
Suzanne frowns. “Leslie’s my friend, she knows who I am.” She looks to me for defence. “Isn’t that right?”
I bite my lip. All four of them are watching me, waiting for a response. After several moments, I shake my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The last flicker of light in Suzanne’s eyes quickly fades to black. Her hopeful smile falls. “You can’t at least give me a chance?” She is now speaking to the entire group, but she never gets a response. The other girls are glaring at her, and, shaking her head, she turns and leaves the park.
Three days later, word gets out that the neohome at the end of Tigermouse Terrace is for sale. The stranger is long gone. And life goes on in a small town twenty minutes outside of Neopia Central.