Lucy Lost: Part One
“Hey guys, how was school?” I asked as my four baby pets filed one by one out of Miss Ellie's nursery school that afternoon.
Shasta, my little Ogrin, smiled as he padded along. “Great, look at the painting I did, Papa,” he mumbled, thrusting the rolled up piece of poster paper clenched in his teeth up for me to see.
Obligingly I took it and unrolled it to reveal a swirling mess of colours jumbled together to form a reddish-brown paste the colour and consistency of Scamander syrup.
“It's beautiful.” I smiled. “Why don't we hang it on the fridge when we get home?”
“I helped 'im, see?” Tyto said as he latched onto my leg mid-stride, almost tripping me up. I picked him up and he pointed to the ring of tiny Grarrl handprints ringing the outside of the brown mess in red, blue, and green.
I squeezed him and smiled. “They're very nice, Tyto. Look how big your paws are getting; one day you're going to be the biggest Grarrl in Neopia!”
Tyto laughed and wrapped his admittedly very small arms around my neck.
I felt a tugging on my trousers and looked down. Danby, my little Shoyru, was bouncing up and down, eager to share his news. “Papa, guess what?” he asked excitedly, flapping his tiny green wings eagerly as he ran to keep up with me.
“What?” I asked, rolling Shasta and Tyto's painting back up.
“Me an' Edwin both wanted to play on the rocking Uni, only I let him go first an' Miss Ellie said I was good at sharing!”
“Hey, that's great!” I said, feeling as pleased as I sounded. “I'm proud of you, Danby.” Danby beamed at my praise and I continued, “How about you, Luce? How was your day?”
My little Kacheek, who had been silent up until now, glanced up at me and shrugged. “It was fine,” she said softly, before returning to examining the pavement.
“Really?” I asked. “Just fine?” Something wasn't right; it wasn't like Lucy to be so quiet. As a matter of fact, she was usually the one I had difficulty getting to stop talking, so I knew something was up.
Lucy shrugged again. “Yeah,” she sighed. “Just fine.”
That night after dinner, during which Lucy had said all of three words, I brought her brothers together on the sofa and asked, “Hey guys, have you noticed anything going on at school with Lucy? She seems kind of quiet.”
Danby and Tyto exchanged confused glances, and Tyto put his thumb in his mouth, shaking his head.
“Uh-uh,” Shasta said definitely. “I didn't see nothin', only I don't play with Lucy much at school. Maybe Miss Ellie knows somethin'.”
I nodded and scowled thoughtfully. I'd give it one more day; maybe Luce was just having an off-afternoon. She'd probably be fine tomorrow.
Despite my convictions that this was to be a one-time occurrence, I couldn't help worrying about it in bed that night. What if she'd seen or heard something unsettling? What if she was being bullied or couldn't find any friends? I knew Lucy was usually very outgoing and made friends easily, but that didn't change the fact that at its core, nursery school was still school, and school was notorious for fostering feelings of loneliness and isolation if you didn't belong to the right groups, even as babies.
It was almost midnight when my swirling thoughts finally quieted, but just as I was about to close my eyes, I heard a piercing howl come from the room next door. It was enough to startle poor Norman, Shasta's Boween, clear out of his bed in the corner of my room and send him scuttling for safety behind the curtain.
I got out of bed quickly and made my way down to the kids' room. Pushing the door open, I was surprised at what I found: Shasta, Tyto, and Danby were all peering through the bars of their cots, looking anxious and afraid. They were all staring at Lucy, who sat in the middle of her mattress, clutching Twinkle, her baby Uni plushie, and sobbing, wailing like I'd never heard before.
Frightened, I scooped her up and cradled her against my chest, resting my hand firmly on her head. With one paw she grasped at my pyjama shirt as if afraid I'd let her go, with the other, she held Twinkle firmly around the neck, as if trying to squeeze the comfort out of her.
Between Lucy's blood-curdling howls, I slipped a few soothing words to my boys, trying to put them back to sleep before I stepped into the hall with my little Kacheek. Carrying her back to my room, I sat back on my bed, propping myself up on my bedstead and holding her until she stopped wailing.
Eventually she quieted enough for me to ask, “What's the matter, Luce? Are you sick? Did you get hurt?” thinking these were the only things that could explain the unnatural volume and duration of her crying.
But Lucy shook her head no. Eyes still closed, she nuzzled deeper into my chest and hid her face in Twinkle before half whispering half sobbing, “I-I had a bad dream, Papa. I-it was awful.”
I paused, taken aback. Lucy didn't get bad dreams, and when she did, they were never frightening enough to cause this level of emotion. Again that fear that something was very wrong returned, and I asked quietly as I stroked her fuzzy ears, “What was it about, Luce? What did you see?”
But she just began to tremble and cry again as she shook her head vehemently and wailed, “No, Papa, no, don't make me tell, I don't wanna remember it!”
Very afraid now, I squeezed her and said firmly, “No, Luce, I have to know. It's important. Tell Daddy what you saw. I know you're scared, little one. I know you don't want to think about it, but it's important. Don't be scared, Luce. It was only a dream and I'm right here. Nothing can hurt you now.”
It took a moment, but eventually she sighed with a long, drawn-out, shuddering breath and whispered, “I-I was at school, a-an' I was playin' outside. I-it was sunny an' warm an' I was playin' catch with my friend Annie. We was playin' with her new Sproing bouncy ball, when all of a sudden somebody threw a pink toy block at my head. I turned around an' it was that new girl, the baby Uni, Cassie, an' her friends Mojo the Mynci an' Kiki, he's the JubJub who's always got that silly green dummy in 'is mouth. Anyways, I was just getting' ready to ask Cassie why she threw a block at me when she said something weird I coul'n't understand, that wasn't even words really, like magic almost, an' all of a sudden all the baby pets on the playground turned into – they turned into... into...” She almost couldn't bring herself to say it, but when she did it was so quiet I almost missed it. “Zombie pets.” She burst into hysterical sobs again and clung to me tighter than before. “Papa,” she sobbed. “Papa, it was so scary!”
Feeling a lump form in my throat at my baby girl's pain, I cradled her and choked, “Oh Luce, I'm so sorry, sweetheart, that sounds terrible. Just remember, though, it was just a dream. Nothing like that could ever really happen. You're perfectly safe at school. Is Cassie giving you a hard time? Should I talk to Miss Ellie about it?”
But I got no reply. All that crying had worn Lucy out, and she'd fallen asleep, still latched onto my shirt, a worried, frightened look on her face as she unconsciously shifted Twinkle closer to her mouth and proceeded to suck gently on her plush woollen mane.
As I slid slowly down onto my mattress, trying not to wake Lucy as I shifted into a position more conducive to sleep, I made a mental note to have Ellie keep an eye on Cassie and my daughter in case there was anything going on that needed nipping at the bud.
Early the next morning at breakfast, Lucy's brothers were naturally concerned about their sister. They were old enough now that they didn't just cry in the middle of the night for crying's sake, but that there actually had to be something wrong, and whatever went on last night was obviously very wrong. It wasn't a hunger cry, it wasn't a wet nappy or a too hot/too cold cry, it was even too much to be a bad dream cry, so they were confused.
Lucy didn't speak, refused to remember last night, so I assuaged their fears with a simple, “Luce had a little trouble last night, but she's fine now.”
Unfortunately my fake smile didn't fool any of them in the least, especially not Tyto, who had a knack for that sort of thing, and they all proceeded to share anxious glances with one another all through breakfast, saying very little of anything to anyone and hoping I wouldn't notice. Needless to say I was worried when I ushered my foursome out the door for school that morning, and more than a little preoccupied at what I was going to say to Ellie when we arrived.
To be continued...