The writer’s fingers quivered as he pulled the last paper out of the typewriter’s grip, chuckling from deep within his throat. The ceiling lamp swayed with the upstairs tenant’s clatter, casting its triangle of light back and forth across the apartment. He caught the green lamp shade, steadying it over the envelope and pen. These he took and addressed:
23142 Stalagmite Ct.
Catacombs, NC 883-G
He picked up the papers, scrutinizing the hypnotic words once more before sliding them into an envelope. He wet his finger and moistened the envelope’s glue, sealing its paper mouth.
The writer dropped his hat on his head, laid his coat over his arm, and strolled out the apartment door. He smiled to his neighbor as they passed on the stairwell, nodded to doorman at the base of the stairs, and pushed through the rotating glass door onto the sidewalk. In front of the brick building, the metal door of the mailbox squealed and snapped, swallowing the envelope. The writer chuckled quietly to himself.
The children on the stairwell across the street frowned at the writer as he stood over the mailbox, his shoulders shuddering as he laughed. They looked to each other and ran down the street, scouring the gutter for coins.
* * *
Charles Tracy slouched in his chair while his feet rested beside the brass nameplate on his desk. His tusks stuck out from underneath the brim of his lowered hat.
The door rushed open just as the blue Moehog sprang forward in his chair.
A petite Kougress rolled her eyes at the sight of him. “What’s the deal, Tracy? The NT issue hits the press tonight, and you’re napping?”
“Don’t worry about it, Darby, I was just taking a wink.”
“Right.” She pushed her square glasses up her nose and swung the door against the wall. “Walk with me.” She charged out of his office, folder in hand.
Tracy kicked off his desk and ran after her, notepad in hand. The editor of the Neopian Times was not what one might expect—baby in color, but a little over five feet tall and always in a pencil skirt and silk shirt.
She smirked at him as he met her stride. “I’ve just got the best article I’ve ever seen, Tracy, and I want it on the front page of this week’s issue.”
“What other ‘this week’ is there? Really, Tracy, is your brain still asleep?”
“But they’ve already assembled the layout; it’s headed for the press in half an hour.”
“They’ll have to change it. I’m telling you, my boy, this article’s a scream. You should read it, but first, take it down to proofreading—ASAP. Oh, and will you let the printing room know that they’re going to have to rework the layout and all? Thanks, I knew you’d take care of it.” She pressed an envelope against his chest and stepped into her office, shutting the glazed glass door in his face.
Tracy let the envelope drop into his hands and slid the contents out. Typewritten letters on the cover page read, “Poogles of Neopia.”
“Poogles?” he whispered in puzzlement, turning toward the stairwell. The floor below was quiet, as all of the proofreaders, fact-checkers, and other NT employees had left for the day, assuming that a complete issue had already been sent downstairs to the printers. It had been complete, until Darby decided she had to have an article about Poogles on the front page of the issue that was scheduled to hit the newsstands in twelve hours. Not that he had anything against Poogles, it just seemed odd.
His eyes skimmed the dark wood desks laden in paper for any remaining proofreaders. A brown Xweetok with blond hair tightly curled against her face smiled at him from the coffee maker.
“Hey Nora,” he said as he leaned against the counter. “You’re dolled up.”
Holding the cup in her hand up in the air, she looked down at her silver dress with a blush; the movement stirred the tassels on her hem into a dance. “Yeah, I came dressed for the party. Sandy wanted a proofreader to stick around just in case. No time to go home and change. Want some coffee, Tracy?”
“No thanks, but Darby wants this proofread right away—she’s actually going to put it on the cover of 500.”
He shook his head and handed her the envelope. “And they’re going to have to rework the layout tonight, so can you hurry?”
“Sure. It’s not like I’ve got anything else I’m keen on doing.” She took the envelope and headed back to her desk. “Want me to take it up to Darby after I’m done, or you going to stick around?”
“I’ve got to go tell the print room that the front page is going to be changed, and then I’ll be right back.”
Nora laughed. “I’m sure they’ll love that.” She slipped the envelope’s contents out onto her desk and gasped. “Poogles?”
“I know, weird, right?”
“Yeah, that too. It’s just . . . I’m not wild about Poogles. It’s silly, I know,” she said with a forced smile. “It’s just . . . there was an accident when I was growing up, is all.”
Tracy frowned. “Are you going to be okay? I can ask Darby to have someone else do it if you want.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine,” she said, but there was decided fear in her brown eyes.
Tracy patted her shoulder. “I’ll hightail it back, don’t worry about it.”
She smiled and pulled her chair closer to her desk.
The blue Moehog was jogging up the stairwell when he heard a choked scream. He jumped around to see Nora clasping her hands over her mouth, her face flushed, and her eyes toward the door beside the staircase. “Nora, what’s wrong?” he cried, running down to her. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, his eyes turned to the doorway, where a plushie Poogle stood.
Tracy glanced back at Nora, whose cheeks were pink and her eyes embarrassed. He turned his attention to the Poogle. It looked as though it had been overstuffed in youth, but its cotton had since settled into sagging cheeks and hands. “Excuse me Sir, can I help you?”
The Poogle looked from Nora to Tracy with uncertain, black-blue eyes. “Yes, I received a telegram from the editor, a Miss Darby. How may I find her?” The Poogle took a card out of his trench coat and placed it in Tracy’s hand. It was a telegram from Darby, asking a “Mehocho” to come to her office in the NT building as soon as possible.
“Are you Mehocho, Sir?”
The plushie Poogle smiled and bowed. “At your service.”
Tracy squirmed at the Poogle’s display. “Erm, okay, Sir, if you’ll just follow me, I’ll take you to Darby’s office.” He glanced back at Nora as they walked up the stairs, and she smiled weakly at him, eyeing the back of the Poogle with trepidation.
The Poogle’s padded feet made no noise as they walked up the stairs, and Tracy glanced over to check that the apparition was still with him. The Poogle stretched its stitched mouth in a smile at him, and Tracy turned his eyes away. But out of the corner of his eye, Tracy thought he saw a glimmer of red in the Poogle’s eye, and he look back at him. “Are you alright, Sir?”
The Poogle nodded. “I am most curious to meet Miss Darby—I haven’t the vaguest idea why she would send for me.”
“Are you a distributor or something?”
“No. I’m a writer. Have you read my article, Mr. Tracy?”
Tracy’s head jerked slightly toward him. “Did you write ‘Poogles of Neopia?’”
“Why yes! You have read it, then?”
“N-o-o,” he said carefully, “but I just took it down to proofreading.”
“You should read it, Mr. Tracy. It is my best work yet, and I hope only the start of my Neopian Times career.”
Tracy nodded and stopped in front of Darby’s office. “Here we are, Sir. If you’ll wait just a moment, I’ll tell Darby you’re here.” He turned the doorknob when he froze. “How did you know my name?”
“I beg your pardon?”
Tracy released the doorknob and turned his full attention to the plushie Poogle. “You called me Mr. Tracy, but I never gave you my name. How did you know?”
The Poogle’s stitches stretched as he smiled.
Behind Tracy, the office door clicked open and Darby stepped out. “What’s going on, Tracy?”
The Moehog paused for a moment before responding. “This is Mr. Mehocho, Ma’am. You sent for him.”
“Oh, yes!” The petite Kougress opened her arms and hugged the towering Poogle’s chest. “I just wanted to tell you in person what a remarkable article you have written,” she said, beckoning him into her office. “I am making sure it’s on the front page of Issue 500 so that as many people as possible will read it. Oh, I have an idea! Tracy, have you told the printers about the layout change yet?”
“No, I was on my way when Mr. Mehocho arrived.”
“It’s just as well. Come, Mr. Mehocho, I’ll show you the print room. It’s really quite fascinating.” She took the plushie Poogle by the arm and led him down the hall.
Mehocho glanced behind at Tracy with a queer smile, and once more he caught a brief glint of red in those blue-black eyes. The Moehog frowned and jogged back downstairs to get the article from Nora.
He found her at her desk, fully engrossed in her reading. “Nora, have you ever known Darby to give a tour of the print room to a guest before?”
“Huh? I don’t know. Tracy, this article is amazing,” she said, never lifting her eyes off the paper. “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s just the neatest thing I’ve ever read in my life! And I can tell you, I’ve done a lot of reading.”
Tracy frowned again. “But I thought you were afraid of Poogles.”
“Not anymore.” She looked up at him with glistening eyes. “This article has cured me—Poogles are extraordinary creatures, Tracy. I had no idea. I’m rather ashamed that I’ve been afraid of them all these years. Poogles are our friends.” She handed him the papers.
He felt a chill down his spine. “Well, you know that plushie Poogle that just walked in? He wrote that article.”
The Xweetok jumped out of her chair. “Wow, really? I have to go meet him. Is he the one Darby’s giving a tour of the print room to?” Her high heels clacked against the steps as she ran down the stairs, leaving Tracy staring after her.
“What is going on?” he whispered to the empty room. A few moments later he followed Nora down the stairs, his mind brimming with disquieting thoughts.
The Moehog found Darby and Nora with the plushie Poogle standing over the layout table. The layout man looked perturbed, having thought only moments ago that his task was finally finished. Tracy nodded as he entered.
“Tracy,” said Darby, “you look positively strange.”
He chuckled. “Yeah. How’s the tour going?”
“Wonderful,” said Nora as she looked to Mehocho with admiration. “He is just so gifted. It’s an honor to have him here.”
“Absolutely,” said Darby. “But if we don’t hurry, we’ll miss our own party.” She turned to Mehocho. “We’re having a shindig in the Catacombs; it should be starting about now. And seeing as I’m the editor and all, I’m expected to be there.”
The Poogle bowed. “Of course, Miss Darby. I thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing you in the future.”
“Oh don’t be silly, man! You just have to come with us. The more the merrier, you know.”
“Why thank you, I will come.”
“Come now, let’s be going.” Darby looped her arm through Mehocho’s, and Nora did the same.
“Come now, Tracy,” said Darby as they passed him on their way out. “Don’t want to keep the people waiting and all.”
Tracy nodded and followed behind them. Something about this Poogle was eating at him—and more than just the fact that he knew his name. He watched carefully for any sign of what bothered him so. And then he finally recognized what his gut had seen all along: Mehocho had a patch of blue cloth on his right leg, a patch that no plushie Poogle wore. Tracy felt his chest turn cold.
Only one creature bore that mark; only one creature’s eyes could flash red.
“Oh, Darby, I’ve got a swell idea,” he blurted.
“Seeing as this is Mr. Mehocho’s first visit to the NT HQ, I thought he might like one of our complimentary baseball caps. As a souvenir, you know?”
“What a capital idea! Would you like that, Mehocho?”
The Poogle nodded.
“Why don’t you go on ahead with Nora, Darby,” continued Tracy, “and Mehocho and I will follow in a jiff.”
Darby shrugged. “Well, I hate to leave Mehocho alone, but I will have to take care of a couple things when I first get there.”
“It’s settled then.” Tracy took the Poogle’s arm and steered him into a nearby room.
Mehocho bowed to the two ladies before going into the room.
Tracy shut and bolted the door behind him. “You never answered my question, Mr. Mehocho.”
“How did you know my name?”
His mouth smiled again, but his bead eyes were cold. “I read it.”
“I do not remember. Where are the baseball caps? I would like one very much.”
Tracy set his jaw. “We’re out. Perhaps you can explain something to me.” He took a step away from the door. “Where is the patch on your arm?”
The Poogle was silent.
“You know. All plushie Poogles have a patch of blue on their left arm. Where’s yours?”
“I am afraid I do not know what you’re talking about.”
“Well maybe you’ll know the answer to this: What plushie Poogle has red eyes and a blue patch on its right leg?”
The Poogle’s eyes remained lifeless, but there was no trace of a smile on his stitched mouth. “You know Mr. Tracy, you seem rather tightly wound.” He pulled a case out of his trench coat pocket.
“I’m tightly wound? Your article is brainwashing people. I don’t know how, I don’t even know why, but it is! Darby’s behavior after she read it was odd, but Nora? It was downright miraculous. How do you explain that, Malevolent Sentient Plushie Poogle?”
The MSPP did not appear disturbed. He placed the case on a desk and stroked it. “I never did understand pets made out of meat. So rigid. So loud.”
Tracy felt his stomach drop into a cold pit. “What are you doing?”
Mehocho opened the case, and Tracy strained to see its contents.
“Being a plushie is so very calming; everything is easier, quieter.” He picked up a thin black needle out of the case, strung with thread of a color Tracy could not quite place.
“What is that?”
The MSPP smiled, his eyes glowing red. “Just a needle and thread from a very special source.”
Tracy suddenly felt himself enveloped by those red eyes—entranced, unable to move his own legs.
“Just be still,” reassured Mehocho, “and you’ll feel good as new in a few minutes.” His plush body blocked out the lamp’s light.
* * *
The morning janitor grumbled to himself as he picked another paper cup up off the floor. Last night’s party had ended up in the NT building itself. Cleaning up after wild parties was not covered by his salary.
Finding the key on his ring, the green Wocky unlocked the break room door. He pushed the mop and bucket into the room and flipped on the light. He jumped at the unexpected sight of a Moehog in the room—no, not a Moehog. Only a giant plushie of one. Must have been part of last night’s bash. It looked rather like that Charles Tracy person. Maybe a fan had made it.
A stray copy of Issue 500 rested on the counter beside the plushie, and the janitor stuck it in his pocket, noting an article about Poogles on the front cover. He remembered hearing something about a Poogle being invited to join the Defenders of Neopia at the party last night, but stranger things had happened, he supposed.
The janitor mopped around the giant plushie, feeling uneasy at its lifeless gaze. He glanced at it from time to time, impressed by its lifelike construction. Finished, the janitor turned off the light and moved on to the next room, never noticing the single tear seeping out of the plushie’s eye.