The Meaning of Family
“Are we there yet?”
I groaned. That was the twenty-fourth time Maya had asked. Honest, I was keeping track.
“Almost,” my owner, Anna, answered. “Just a few more minutes.”
“My hoof hurts!” cried Maya, holding up her little pink leg. “Can someone carry me?”
“Jump off a cliff.” I smirked, turning my back on the Uni.
Anna shot me a look. “We’re almost there, Maya; you’ll make it. And Rain, be nice to your sister.”
Maya looked at me pointedly. I rolled my eyes. It wasn’t like I was trying to be mean to her. It’s just hard being a Lupe in a home with a Uni. Especially Maya. She was such a baby.
“I can’t walk anymore!” Maya wailed, swaying, tears forming around her large, pink eyes. “I’m going to die!” (See what I mean?)
“Okay,” Anna reassured her. “We can stop again.” She sat down on a rock next to the path, and Maya collapsed beside her in an annoyingly dramatic fashion.
“Now?” I scoffed. “We just stopped ten minutes ago!”
“Maya has less stamina than you,” Anna answered.
I sighed and looked away. The scenery around us was breathtaking. The rocky path we were on curved around a cliff which terminated far below us in an impossibly crystalline lake that stretched like a blanket across the landscape. There was forest everywhere, the tall evergreen trees that clung to the rocky cliffs seemed to touch the sky. I stood near the edge of the cliff and let the breeze tussle my light blue fur. This was where I belonged, out in the wilderness without some Uni trailing after me.
“Don’t stand too close to the edge of the cliff, Rain,” Anna warned, interrupting my thoughts. “Why don’t you set the pack down?”
I sighed and flopped onto my side, letting the backpack I was carrying slide off my back and onto the path. Then I slid a paw under the left strap, picked up the pack, and dumped it in front of Maya.
“It’s your turn to carry it,” I said.
“I’m tired,” Maya sniffed.
“Well, the thing’s just going to sit here if you don’t pick it up,” I growled.
“But I can’t!” Maya wailed. “My hoof hurts!”
“Quit whining!” I snapped. “You’ve been driving me mad!”
“I’ll carry the pack!” Anna cut in grabbing a strap and hoisting the bag over her shoulder. “Besides, we’re almost to the campsite.”
“Thank goodness!” Maya sighed. She got up and limped after Anna.
I groaned again. For the twentieth time. Seriously. I was keeping track.
After about fifteen more nearly unbearable minutes of Maya complaining as we hiked up the rocky terrain (during which I groaned another seventeen times), we finally arrived at a rocky outcropping, which then, in turn, led to a path that opened up into a clearing in the evergreens. We’d arrived at our campsite.
The first thing Maya did was sigh with fake relief, and flop herself down on a small patch of grass. I rolled my eyes, then turned to Anna, who was unzipping our large backpack.
“Rain, would you and Maya set up the tent?”
“Sure!” I answered, happy to have something to keep me busy. Putting up the tent was my favorite part of camping.
“No!” screamed Maya. “I’m too tired!”
“Oh, will you shut your trap?!” I snarled at her.
“Rain!” Anna chastised. “I told you to be nice to your sister! If you can’t, we’re all going to go home and we won’t get to camp at all!”
“No buts! Rain, you’re grounded until you learn some manners. You can’t leave the campsite for the whole trip.”
“You heard me,” Anna said, turning to me and placing her hands on her hips. “You have to stop giving your sister such a hard time. Hopefully your behavior will change after this trip. I’m not going to discuss it anymore.”
Shaking with rage, I turned back to the tent and roughly finished the assembly. My behavior was the least of my owner’s problems! What about Maya? Wasn’t she the one who was always antagonizing me? Why did I have to be perfect and why did she have the privilege to be such a spoiled baby? Why, why, why? Anna wasn’t being fair. She just didn’t understand. I hated her and Maya with all my soul, and more than anything now wanted to leave.
After simmering in anger for several minutes, I made up my mind. I could not stand for such injustice and antagonism. I was running away. Tonight.
After what seemed like years of setting up, collecting firewood, struggling to start a fire in the damp wood that Maya brainlessly collected, listening to Maya complain about the taste of fire-cooked Nerkin, and finally laying out the sleeping bags, night fell.
I waited until Maya stopped whining about the hard ground and the cold, and heard her breathing steadily. Then, quietly, I unzipped my sleeping bag and silently got to my feet. Maya stirred in her sleep, and I froze, holding my breath. When she quieted down again, I exited the tent, taking with me a small pack of food and water, as well as the flint and steel and a small blanket. It would be enough to sustain me until I could catch or find, or make my own things in the woods.
Stepping out into the cold clear night, I hoisted my pack up and, without looking back into the tent, ran off into the looming evergreens and down the plateau.
I ran hard, and fast, feeling the joy of freedom with the wind in my fur and the soil under my paws. I felt wonderful, like a fleeting shadow in the night. As I ran, though, the joy and thrill began to disperse as I tired, and got further and further from the campsite. I wasn’t keeping track of where I was going, in case I wanted to turn back. I was getting myself lost. Had I really made the right decision? Yes, I had. I reminded myself of Anna’s injustice and Maya’s complaining, and, with a renewed spirit continued my mad dash through the woods for all it was worth. I didn’t want my life back with Anna and Maya. I wanted a new one. A free one.
More than once, I thought I saw shadows following me through the dense thicket of trees. But whenever I turned, the shadows disappeared. So I simply kept running, thinking that, perhaps my mind was playing tricks on me.
Eventually, I tired and, coming to a mossy patch among the roots of a great spruce tree, decided to take a rest. Lying down on the soft moss and closing my eyes, I relaxed, and quickly fell into a deep sleep.
That night, I had a nightmare.
Maya and Anna had discovered I was not there and were calling to me. I heard them in the woods, and I tried to find them, but I couldn’t. I ran around, desperately dashing through the trees, but I couldn’t find them, and their voices echoed in the forest, seeming to come from everywhere at once. I cried and cried, but I couldn’t find them. Then, all of a sudden, a pair of big hands grabbed me and started pulling me away from my family’s cries.
“HELP!!” I screamed.
And then I woke up.
My furry face was wet with tears and, as if still in the dream, I felt a pair of big hands around me. With a jolt I leapt up and opened my eyes to find a huge red Lupe with a jagged scar running down his nose sitting where I had been sleeping a moment before.
“Hello,” he said. “Don’t be scared, I won’t hurt you.”
For a moment I just looked at him, shocked. Then I spoke.
“What are you doing here?” I squeaked.
“I live here,” he answered, calmly motioning to a small hump of earth, covered in moss next to the tree. I noticed, now looking at it more closely, that the moss hung loose in a small semi circle near the base, and from here, a faint glow emanated. “I haven’t seen you here before.”
“I... I...” I stuttered. “I... ran... I’m running away.”
To my surprise, a smile spread across the Lupe’s face.
“Really?” he asked me. “Why?”
“I...” I wasn’t quite sure how to explain to this stranger my need for freedom. He seemed so sagely and old that my answer might seem wrong or strange to him.
To my relief, he didn’t press me for an answer.
“What’s your name, little one?” he asked, standing up.
“Rain,” I answered laconically, unwilling to volunteer much more information.
“My name is Soren,” he said, holding a paw out, which I shook hesitantly. “Do you have an owner?”
“Yes... That is to say, not anymore. Well, I guess she might be looking for me... I...”
Just then, an eerie howl sounded somewhere off in the woods, sending a shiver up my spine. Suddenly, I was afraid. The scarred Lupe heard it too, and slowly headed back to the moss covered hut.
“Do you have shelter?” Soren asked, turning to me.
“N-no,” I answered.
“Then you’d best come with me,” Soren said, parting the hanging moss to reveal the hidden entrance to his hut. “These woods are dangerous at night.”
Quickly, I ducked into the small hut.
Inside, a few sparsely positioned candles illuminated the bare earthen walls. There were four chairs along a table in one corner, and in the other, a lone desk stood with a few dusty looking books placed on top. A fire burned in a small hearth, over which a spit with slowly cooking meat was, that filled the hut with good smells.
“Please, take a seat,” Soren said, pulling out one of the four chairs at the quaint wooden table. “It’s not often that I have visitors.”
I nodded and did as I was told.
“I live alone out here you see. You’re the first tame one I’ve seen in years.”
“Tame?” I asked.
“Ones who have owners,” Soren said, turning to the fire. “Like you.”
“But, I don’t have one anymore,” I said, sitting up straighter.
Soren chuckled. “You, Rain, do not know the first thing about being wild.”
“What makes you so sure?” I huffed.
“You’re well fed, well groomed, and fell asleep smack in the middle of another’s territory,” he answered matter of factly. “If you’d ended up wandering into the Pack’s territory, you wouldn’t have been so lucky.” He paused. “Where did you come from?”
“The... camping grounds. By the lake.”
“Blue cliffs...” Soren muttered. “That’s miles away, though; how did you get all the way out here?”
“I ran,” I said.
“And,” he asked, “did you have the slightest clue that you most likely ran through part of the Pack’s territory on the way here?”
“What’s this Pack you keep talking about?”
“Oh,” he said, startled. “I forgot that you’re an outsider. The Pack is the group of nearly thirty wild Lupes that dominates this section of the forest. They’re lethal hunters and deadly enemies to any that stand in the way of them getting what they want. If indeed you did end up crossing their lines then...”
“What?” I asked, my fear building.
There was another howl, this time closer.
“Then I’m surprised you got here at all.”
I shivered, and not out of cold.
“Why did you run away?” Soren asked me again.
“I...” I tried to think of an answer that wouldn’t sound selfish and hasty of me. In truth, there wasn’t one. Now, I was filled with a sudden longing for home, the security of Anna’s hugs and the familiarity of Maya’s sweet little whinnies. I remembered how Anna had treated my wound when I’d hurt myself at a game of racing, and how Maya had helped me search when I’d lost my paper for school. I thought of how worried they would be right now, thinking I might be lost or hurt in the wilderness, and I missed them. I loved my family, I realized, and there was really no reason to trade it all for a lonely life in the woods like the one I saw Soren had. “I don’t know.”
All at once, a tear slipped out of my eye and was soon followed by many more.
“I want to go home.”
“Shh...” Soren shushed me gently and handed me a scrap of cloth that I guessed was meant to be a hanky. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you home.”
There was another howl, this time, a bit further away.
“Good, they’ve lost your scent. We must act quickly.”
In a flurry of motion, Soren got up from where he had been sitting at the table and began rushing about the hut, gathering what looked like old maps and a few provisions and stuffing them into a bag. “Gather your things. We need to leave now.”
I hoisted my small bag over my shoulder and followed Soren to the door. He parted the moss and stepped outside the hut.
“Follow me,” Soren whispered.
Soren began to run, into the trees, and I followed close behind.
We ran at a steady pace through the trees for most of the night, stopping only to catch our breath every now and then. Occasionally we would hear a howl, but never very close. I followed as best I could, but Soren’s strides were so long that they left me rushing to keep up. The sky began to lighten as we ran, and dawn eventually broke over the forest, and by this time, to my relief, the howls had finally died off into the distance.
“Are they gone?” I asked, panting as we stopped.
“Yes,” Soren answered. “We left their area about an hour ago.”
The red Lupe sat down and leaned back against a tree. For the first time, I looked at him clearly, a magnificent red Lupe with a rich pelt, the only things obscuring his appearance being his thinness and the scar running down his nose.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, motioning to his scar.
Soren turned to me. “I’d rather not say...”
We sat for a few moments, and I ate a bit of the roasted Nerkin that I’d saved in my pack. Then Soren spoke.
“I’m glad you missed your home and wanted to return, young one. If only I’d been so lucky...”
He trailed off, and a pained look crossed his withdrawn face, as though he were remembering a time that he’d tried very hard to forget. At once I was filled, with a pity for him, and a sense of my own luckiness. I was glad that Anna was my owner. Obviously, a Neopet could do much, much worse.
“Are we almost back?” I asked, trying to distract him from his troubles.
Soren smiled. “It’s just over that ridge.”
“RAIN!!!!” Anna screamed as I shyly reentered the clearing where she and Maya were huddled by the fire, looking as pitiful as I’d ever seen them. As soon as she saw me, she leapt up and threw her arms around me.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I’ve been a bad owner! I shouldn’t have been so harsh! It’s just that you were...” She sobbed into my thick blue fur.
“Don’t apologize!” I cried. “It was my fault to run away.”
“Just promise you won’t ever do that again!” Anna whispered, releasing me, gently from the embrace.
“Promise!” I answered.
As she stepped away, I walked over to Maya who was sniffling over by the smoldering fire.
“I’m sorry I was so mean to you,” I said to her.
“I’m sorry for being such a... baby.” Maya sobbed.
We gave each other an understanding hug.
“And thank you, Soren, for getting me back,” I said to the Lupe, who was standing off in the trees watching. “I owe you so much.”
“Thank you, little one,” he said, smiling. “I hope that you may visit again.”
With that, he bounded off into the woods.
“Who was that?” Anna asked. “A friend of yours?”
“Yes,” I answered, tears still stinging my eyes. “A friend.”
“I’m glad you’re back,” Maya said to me, giving me another hug.
I hugged her back.
“So am I.”