The Mysteries of Mr. Cuddles: Part One
This is a stand-alone series, but for more about how Mr. Cuddles came to his family, see the short story Mr. Cuddles.
"MEEPIT! MEEPIT! AAAAAH!"
Katrina looked up from her desk, crammed into a corner of her little house's living room. She'd brought papers from work home today, hoping for a quieter spot to read.
The gold Kyrii went to the front door. She opened it to see two letters and a parcel left on her doorstep and the mailman fleeing down the cul-de-sac she lived on, sprinting desperately toward the main road. She sighed and called, "Mr. Cuddles?"
A small pink figure wandered onto the porch, blinking large eyes at her. She looked down at it. "Mr. Cuddles, haven't I told you that you can't let delivery people see you?"
Her little sister Zillie swore that the Meepit understood every word they said. Of course, Zillie ought to have known that understanding wasn't the same as obeying – Zillie did that all the time.
If anything, the Meepit looked a little abashed, which was more than Zillie ever managed. "Meep."
Even though Katrina couldn't understand Mr. Cuddles as clearly as Zillie could, it wasn't hard to get the gist of what he was trying to say. "I know you always wait for Zillie to get home from school. But if you let anyone else see you we'll have the Petpet Protection League out here again, and that'll be a headache for all of us."
"If you want to stay out here, get behind a bush. And then come straight in with Zillie. Do you understand me?"
She sighed. "There's no need to get sassy with me."
As she walked back into the warmth of the house, she remembered that it had only been three months since Halloween afternoon, when Mr. Cuddles had been left on their doorstep in a basket with a fuzzy pink blanket and a note in childish handwriting.
This is Mr. Cuddles. Please take care of him.
Katrina had been all for turning him over to the PPL at once, but Zillie had begged, and Katrina had caved, allowing Mr. Cuddles to stay for just one night.
But that night, a Werelupe had somehow gotten onto their street, trapping Katrina, Zillie, Mr. Cuddles, and a handful of trick-or-treaters in their house. Mr. Cuddles had driven off the Werelupe, and Katrina had had to admit that that was well worth giving him a home. And he did make a good pet – he was smart, and so far he'd been loyal, and he'd grown significantly larger on vegetables and Zillie's table scraps.
But he was a Meepit, and Katrina had never been able to decide whether she thought he was as innocent as he appeared, or whether he was merely biding his time, waiting for whatever plans he had laid to come to fruition.
She shook her head. The time to worry about that had been three months ago. She couldn't deprive Zillie of Mr. Cuddles now. And she had to admit that she liked having him around. Plenty of people had Petpets who would fetch the newspaper in the morning. But Mr. Cuddles could fetch the paper, put toast in the toaster for Zillie, and start Katrina's coffee. And old Mr. Thompson's nasty Werhond never growled at anyone anymore after Mr. Cuddles had attempted to bite his face.
Then she remembered that she'd forgotten the mail. She picked up the two envelopes and the package, but her mind was already on her reading for work again – she stopped by the coffeepot to refill her cup, left the packages on the counter, and she went back to her work.
A few hours later, the front door slammed open. "Hey, Katrina!"
Zillie was home, as boldly present as only a purple Kyrii with a skull-patterned bow in her bubblegum-pink hair could be. She was wearing a pink-and-black plaid skirt with her ever-present combat boots today, and underneath her unzipped pink coat with its black furry trim she wore a black thermal shirt with a skull emblazoned on it. To complete the ensemble, she cradled Mr. Cuddles in her arms.
Katrina was wearing a white knitted turtleneck and jeans, and her black hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Someone in the family had to be the boring one.
Zillie said, "We're going to take a trip to the Defenders of Neopia next week – I need to get you to sign a permission form."
Katrina raised an eyebrow at her. "You know not to..."
Zillie cut her off. "Not to distract them while they're working. Not to try and get to any of the villains they have in custody. Not to go anywhere without the group. Especially not to go anywhere we're not supposed to go. Not touch anything they don't tell us we can touch. Mrs. Springfield told us that if we put a toe out of line, she's leaving us there – in a cell. Oh – mail! Can I open the box?"
Katrina turned back to her coffee – it had long since gotten cold. She made a face, and began to mark a few notes on her papers as she said, "Sure."
Zillie narrated as she went through the mail. "Someone used a lot of tape on this box – but it's just office supplies. Do you need that many pens? And this envelope is the neighborhood association again – they want us to put up a sign that we have a dangerous pet. But Mr. Cuddles isn't dangerous! They never made grumpy old Mr. Thompson put up a sign about Claw, and Claw almost ate me once! And this letter... oh."
Zillie was never lost for words. Katrina looked up. "What is it?"
"Come look at this."
Katrina got up and took the sheet of paper out of Zillie's hands.
There was no salutation, no name signed at the bottom. Only a short message in a childish hand that Katrina had only seen once before.
If you want to know who Mr. Cuddles is, come to Castle Nox at midnight.
Zillie said, "We can find out who gave him to us!"
Katrina looked at her sister askance. "We can get eaten by whatever is haunting those ruins ever since Nox got killed by some crazy sorceress."
"But Mr. Cuddles deserves to know where he came from!"
"But wandering around the Haunted Woods at midnight is a really good way to disappear!"
Zillie pouted. Katrina tried not to look. "But, Katrina, we still don't know anything about Mr. Cuddles. And I don't think he does either. He's grown so much that I think he must have been really young when he got left here."
And, even as a young Meepit, Mr. Cuddles had attacked and driven off a Werelupe. So the Haunted Woods were full of older, even more aggressive Meepits with no reason to show any mercy to Katrina or to her younger sister.
Mr. Cuddles was gnawing on a stick of celery in the corner. Katrina looked over at him, and a treacherous voice whispered that it would be good to know just what he was – whether he was their friend or their enemy, a loyal companion or a ticking time bomb.
Zillie said, "It's not like no one else skips school this time of year. Rilly and Cam are both going to Mystery Island, and Nikolai is going to the Lost Desert! At least the Haunted Woods are close."
They were close. Not far from this quiet Neopia Central neighborhood, the houses disappeared to be replaced by the foreboding borderlands, which grew gradually thicker and wilder until they became the lawless reaches of the Haunted Woods. No sane person took the road that led there.
So why in Fyora's name was Katrina considering it?
Zillie continued, "I'll tell my teacher we're taking a hiking trip. She'll love that idea. I'll probably even get extra credit!"
Zillie thought Katrina was worried about school? School was fairly low on Katrina's list of concerns – being eaten or turned into something unnatural occupied the higher spots rather well.
Something nudged up against her ankle – Mr. Cuddles was looking up at her, his oddly blank eyes wide. On a whim, she held the letter out to him. He sniffed at it and nibbled a corner delicately, and his eyes widened yet further. He made an anxious little "Meep!" and trembled.
Zillie knelt. "Mr. Cuddles, do you want to go? Katrina's worried about the danger, but I think you could protect us."
Mr. Cuddles trembled less, and he gave an unmistakable little nod. Zillie looked up at Katrina. "See?"
She did. And that was true. Mr. Cuddles sniffed at the letter once more, and rubbed his nose over the writing. And even Katrina could see the pathos in the little pink figure.
But she hesitated. Going into the Haunted Woods – into the very darkest, deepest, worst part of it, at midnight – that was so reckless that Katrina could hardly even get her mind around it.
And yet, to not have to have second thoughts about Mr. Cuddles every time she looked over at him – except when he made her coffee, she never had doubts about him then – that had to be worth something. If they packed well, prepared, and had Mr. Cuddles as their guard, could it be so dangerous? All the tales of doom Katrina had heard had come of overconfident people who didn't prepare. If they didn't fall into that trap, they'd be fine. Right?
She wasn't entirely sure. But Mr. Cuddles and Zillie both looked up at her with pleading eyes, and Katrina sighed. "We'll try. But the moment something looks fishy, we're headed back here as fast as our legs can carry us."
Zillie jumped up and hugged Katrina. "Oh, yes! Thank you, Katrina! You're the best big sister ever!" Mr. Cuddles rubbed up against their legs, meeping joyfully.
But even as much as she liked being the best big sister ever, Katrina could only hope that they weren't celebrating an impending disaster.
To be continued...