Life, Death, Friendship: Part Two
Life and death are two very different things; yet each are similar. One means to end, the other, to begin. Things are compared to life more often than to death. Death is usually a sign of warning or danger.
Ruben's death came too soon, while Gina lives on. Death and life are rarely intertwined...
Gina didn't even see him until he was standing right in front of her. A ghost Xweetok leaped over her head to stand protectively between her and the Buzzers. He hissed and swiped his paw at the swarm threateningly. The Buzzers dispersed. The Xweetok turned to look at her.
"Wow. You're really tough..." Gina said, a little quieter than normal.
Ruben cocked his head at her and replied, "Please don't pass out..."
Gina shook her head a little to clear it and said, "I'm not. Don't worry about that. What's your name? And who's your owner?" Ruben couldn't remember a time when somebody had asked him what this speckled Xweetok was asking him now.
"I'm Ruben," he said a little slowly, "I don't have an owner."
Gina widened her eyes and said a little weakly, "But you're ghost painted. You need to have an owner to get ghost-painted. Gina's my name, by the way." Ruben felt a little bashful, something he hadn't felt or even needed to feel in too long.
He was being very slow, trying not to scare her, as he said, "I'm not painted..." It was Gina's turn to cock her head. She looked at Ruben's fur and eyes. She even reached out a paw to touch his fur.
It felt different. Almost misty and cool. She looked back up at his face and said, "Then, you're dead..." Ruben nodded tentatively. He hadn't expected her to say it outright like that. It was almost a relief to hear someone try not to hurt his feelings and just tell him the obvious.
To his surprise she smiled and said, "That's really cool! Its like you were given another chance to live your life. Nifty..."
Ruben blinked after a moment and said, "You're not scared of me?"
Gina looked at him skeptically for a moment and then said, "Would I still be standing here if I was? You're not scary, you're just different. Different is good. I wouldn't go near my sister till I've explained it to her, though." Ruben smiled as he remembered Polly's scream when the Meepits attacked.
"Yeah," he agreed, "I could hear her reaction all the way from my meadow."
Gina seemed fascinated for a moment and then asked, "Your meadow? Where is that? Can I see it?" Ruben nodded quietly and slowly floated past her toward the east. Gina followed closely, watching him float all the while.
After a minute she spoke, "Why do you think Ghosts can float, but they couldn't when they were alive?" Ruben had understood this for years and was almost relieved to finally tell someone.
"Ghosts are shadows or echoes of their former selves." He continued with a little more ease than before, "They can float because they shed all their matter when they pass on."
Gina nodded like she understood and then reached out to touch him again. Her paw didn't go through him, which caused another bout of questions. "But I can touch you. I thought ghosts can move through things and can't touch anything."
Ruben actually smiled for the first time. "We can move through things when we want to, but it gives one an eerie feeling; like we're made of air and have no substance." Ruben explained and glanced at Gina.
She was staring at him and then said, "Can you walk on the ground? I noticed you're floating to where you're going..." Ruben smiled again and then slowly lowered himself to the ground.
Gina stared at his paws touching the ground and then looked forward. Her eyes lit up and she said in an awe-hushed voice, "Is that your meadow?" Ruben glanced forward and nodded. Gina stepped quietly into the clearing and whispered, "It's beautiful..."
Ruben looked at the meadow. He hadn't noticed before how right she was. Or had he just grown tired of seeing it and stopped? He thought now that he must have been losing his mind.
The meadow was covered in greenish grey grass with a moon-like sheen about it. Around the trees were tiny little glow worms that gave the meadow a mystical look. There were toadstools, mushrooms and small glowing flowers dotted throughout the clearing. In the very center of the clearing there was a place where the grass was bent down and flattened. A book was sitting in the patch, waiting.
Gina stepped carefully through the flowers and things while Ruben floated over them. She picked up the book and read the cover. It had a picture of a Spyder with purple stripes sitting in the middle of the grey cover. The title was, 'Webs of Death'.
"'Webs of Death', huh?" Gina said thoughtfully.
Ruben nodded and said sheepishly, "Yeah. It's kind of hard to find cheery books here." Gina nodded thoughtfully and set the book down gently.
A scream burst from the trees behind causing both pets to jump. Ruben later kicked himself for jumping like an idiot, but he was very focused at the time.
"Is it always like that? Screaming people and such?" Gina asked, gesturing at the echoing sound.
Ruben replied, "If you're not careful. Some folks just scream for the heck of it."
Gina grinned and continued, "Where do pets go to scream for the heck of it? And why?" Ruben was taken aback by Gina's sudden enthusiasm.
Soon they were standing at a wrought-iron gate peering into a ghastly-looking circus. There were ripped and stained tents dotted all over the place. Flags suspiciously moved in the still air. In the background was a stormy-looking castle.
Gina looked at Ruben and asked, "Is this the Deserted Fairground?" Ruben glanced over at her and nodded. Gina grinned widely and muttered something that sounded like, 'Cool'.
Ruben looked straight ahead and said nothing. Gina was perhaps the bravest Xweetok he had ever met. A sudden screaming sound caught his attention.
Several normal pets were racing toward the gate with a Clown Chia running after them wielding a banana creme pie. Ruben didn't flinch, but looked at Gina to gauge her reaction. She grinned and ducked as the pie came flying toward her head. Her eyes were shining with excitement.
Ruben found himself staring at her when she looked at him and asked, "Do you want to try some of the games?"
He blinked and replied, "Huh?"
She waved her paw toward the booths and tents in the fair and repeated, "The games. I hear they're all unfair and rigged, but it's an experience I need to have. To officially say I've been here I have to get totally humiliated in the Haunted Faire... Plus we might get lucky." She smiled at him with hopeful eyes.
Ruben couldn't remember a time when he had just had fun and not worried about anything. He wasn't sure if it would be healthy for him to indulge in games, when he would have to go back to normal after Gina left. It would depress him later, but a voice in his head said quietly, 'One should enjoy things while they are here and who knows? You may not lose it.' Gina was looking at him confusedly now.
He smiled hesitantly and said, "Sure. It might be fun." Gina squealed then lead the way through the gates toward the first booth.
Ruben found himself enjoying Gina's company as they bobbed for apples together, tested their strength against a broken machine, and threw balls at coconuts.
By the end of their day, when Kreludor had passed the middle of the sky, Gina counted their prizes. They had gotten unbelievably lucky during a scratchcard game winning both an avatar and a bag of NP. Gina had fallen over when it was her turn to throw, causing her ball to go crashing through several of the coconuts, and winning two plushies that they both got to pick out. Ruben had broken the strength-test machine further as he slammed the hammer down. All in all they got 3000 NP and 2 plushies, a bag of pumpkin cookies, and some pie.
Gina carried the pie and the bag of pumpkin cookies while Ruben carried the rest.
After a while Gina asked, "Why do you not have an owner?"
Ruben shrugged and replied, "I guess I just never got adopted. Where's your owner and sister?"
Gina stopped and looked at him as she said,"She's in Neopia Central resting. I never got to ask you this before. How did you know about my sister?" Ruben gulped. His throat felt a little strange. Not that he was embarrassed about having to spy on her, but worried about what she would think.
"Umm..." he began, stalling as long as he could.
Gina looked at him calmly and continued,"Were you spying on us because you were too shy to talk to me?" Ruben jumped as she said it and wondered for a moment if this was true. Then he sheepishly nodded. Gina didn't look mad, or even annoyed.
She smiled at him and said, "You don't have to be shy about asking me things anymore. I'll listen and try to understand everything you tell me. And I'll answer whatever you ask me.... within reason."
Ruben smiled happily, and then asked cheekily, "What do you not want me to ask?"
Gina rolled her eyes and said, "Probably something I'll tell you anyways." By then they had continued walking and were in front of the hotel. Gina walked in confidently and then looked back to see Ruben waiting confusedly behind her. She beckoned for him to follow her inside. He slowly floated toward her and then landed.
Gina did something then that no one had ever wanted or even dared to do. She handed the pie to the first guest coming out, and took his paw. Ruben looked down at their paws intertwined and then up at Gina. She smiled and led him in.
Polly was done with her nap by now and was deeply embedded in a book entitled A History of The Lost Desert.
"Polly, I'm back and I want you to meet someone," Gina called from the doorway. Ruben ducked behind the wall, but she tugged him back out as Polly came around the corner.
"Don't tell me, you found the perfect Petpet and now you want to take it home," Polly said as she came down the hall and appraised her sister's appearance. She glanced all along the hall, right through Ruben and continued, "Who is it? And where are they?" Gina looked at Ruben confusedly.
He shrugged quietly and whispered, "You said she might not react well."
Gina sighed as his words sank in and said to Polly, "He's shy. He also doesn't want to scare you." Polly took several steps back looking nervously back and forth. "He's not scary though, really. Just wait a second and don't freak out," Gina begged. Polly visibly gulped and her knees started to shiver. But she trusted her sister and nodded.
Ruben recognized Polly's reaction to his presence much easier than Gina. He wasn't sure that this was a good idea. But she would have to know about him sooner or later and it couldn't be later. He slowly let his guard down and waited for Polly to explode.
As he faded into sight, Gina said, "Polly? I'd like you to meet Ruben."
Polly stared at him for a full minute and then took a deep breath.
Walking past him toward Gina she said quietly, "Can I talk to you for a minute? Alone?" She stressed on the last word. Gina looked over at Ruben to smile encouragingly and then followed her sister to the bedroom.
When they were standing between the beds, Polly turned to Gina and said, "There's a ghost-painted Neopet down the hall that you just introduced to me as your new friend." Gina nodded cheerfully. Polly began to breathe slowly for a moment before saying in a calm voice, "Have you absorbed nothing from those scary books you're always reading? Ghosts aren't trustworthy, they cheat living creatures, and they steal life-forces to eat!"
Gina rolled her eyes as she said, "Yes, I have. This one isn't a ghost-painted Neopet. Yes they have been known to do that. I never thought you'd open that book I got you last year." She stopped to take a deep breath and continued, "Anyway, its all lies. He's really nice. And it's fun being around him-"
Polly held up her paw and said, a little less-calmly now, "Stop! You're saying he's dead!? This is insane! What if he takes you somewhere for his friends to eat you up?! Do you think I want to explain to our owner why you haven't come home?! I just want you to be safe..."
Gina broke in quietly, "Polly? I know you don't like creepy things and dead pets go right into that category. Just listen to me very carefully for a moment. He has no friends. I saw his life back there and it's empty. He told me a few minutes ago that this was the best day he's had in years. He's got nobody to be with. I want to help him anyway I can."
Polly scoffed as Gina's sentence drew to a pause and said, "So what, you're a ghost-whisperer now? Death and life don't mix for a reason, Gina. I know it's all excitement and happiness now, but it won't be that way forever. I-"
Gina put her paw over her sister's mouth, and replied, "No, I didn't say that. You know why? Nobody's ever tried! He saved my life back there. Don't roll your eyes. I was almost attacked by a Buzzer swarm."
Fear filled Polly's eyes as she slowly understood what Gina was saying. Her sister had been in terrible danger, and this stranger just popped in and rescued her. This wasn't what she had previously thought. Polly took a deep breath and stepped back into the hall to approach Ruben.
Ruben was nervously looking at the wallpaper, not really seeing it, when Polly came bustling down the hall toward him. He jumped to attention and waited quietly for her to speak.
"Ruben," Polly began, rubbing her mane as she spoke, "it seems that I've misjudged you. I'm sorry for reacting the way I did. I'm also glad that my sister has found such a nice friend to hang out with while we're here." Ruben stared at her for a very long time. Gina came racing down the hall, hugged her sister tightly, and then raced out the door dragging Ruben along after her.
Gina continued to drag him down the stairs and out into the Haunted Woods. As she ran, she called over her shoulder, "Isn't this great? Polly likes you now. Can we go to the Games Graveyard? I've heard that place is cool... Ruben?"
Ruben was blankly staring at nothing. Gina stopped walking and turned fully around to face her companion. She snapped her paw in front of his face and he blinked.
"Huh?" He jumped to attention, "Sorry, what?" She smiled and repeated her question. Ruben seemed to be a little slower than usual as he mused, "Game Graveyard? Yeah... I guess we could go there."
Gina grinned wider and took his paw again. "Which way Ruben?"
Soon they were both standing before several dozen gravestones. Each stone had a name and a picture on it.
Gina looked at Ruben and asked, "So, how does this work?" Ruben was still looking a little slow. Gina snapped her paw in front of his face again.
"What?" he asked apologetically.
Gina looked him in the eyes and asked, "What's up? You've been acting a little strange ever since Polly thanked you for saving me."
Ruben looked away for a minute then replied, "Um... I guess I'm a little stunned. I've never hung out so much with a live pet before. And its usually without the older siblings or owner's knowledge."
Gina smiled gently and said, "Don't be nervous. Enjoy yourself. I'm having fun with you. So, how does this graveyard work?"
Ruben answered normally, "Well it depends. You can try standing on the grass in front of it. Or hopping up and down in front of it. Or even just floating down.... Never mind." Gina blinked and then stepped onto the grass in front of a gravestone. Nothing happened. She cocked her head and started bouncing up and down. Still nothing.
In the meantime, Ruben snuck up behind her and then tapped her shoulder.
She looked at him and said, "What do you do if none of those work?" He took her paw and concentrated. They slowly floated down into the planet.
After a few minutes Ruben reappeared dragging Gina after him. After he had pulled her out of the ground he slumped into the grass.
"Ruben? Are you OK?" Gina asked worriedly, falling to the ground beside him.
He sighed and replied, "I'm not used to carrying other pets with me. Hang on..." After a few minutes of slumping against the ground, Ruben straightened up and said, "Better. Do you want to sleep as well?"
Gina raised her eyebrows and said, "That was called sleeping?"
Ruben shrugged and replied, "Or resting, whichever one you want to call it."
Gina continued a little confusedly, "And that little amount of time was enough for you to recharge?"
Ruben shook his head slowly and said, "Nah... I wasn't very tired. It was more of a strain on my mind than physical weariness. If I had been really tired, I would have needed an hour or two to recover."
Gina nodded and then asked, "If I wasn't here," she paused as Ruben's face fell slightly. "If I wasn't, what would you be doing right now?"
Ruben shrugged and answered, "Probably reading my book. Why?"
Gina's face changed as she asked, "How many times have you read that book from lack of things to do or anyone to be with?" Ruben watched her face change and wondered what was coming up.
He met Gina's gaze evenly as he said, "More times than can be remembered. Why?" Gina ignored his last question as smoothly as she had the first.
She gulped and asked, "How long?"
Ruben glanced off into the forest as he replied, "20 years..." He hadn't had to discuss this sort of thing in his entire life, both alive and dead. He wondered why Gina wanted to know so badly. Whatever he was thinking went straight out the window when something unexpected happened.
Ruben was staring into the forest wondering, when he felt something warm and furry hug him tightly. His head snapped around to the front and there was Gina's face buried in his mane. For a split second he wondered what was wrong with her. Was he supposed to be comforting, or was he being comforted? Either way he put his paws around Gina's neck and hugged her back. Again he wondered about the reason.
Then Gina looked up at him with teary eyes and said shakily, "I'm not going to leave you ever, Ruben. You never have to be alone again." He was the one being comforted. Ruben wondered for a moment why she wanted to comfort him so badly. After another moment though he didn't really care anymore.
Suddenly he heard something, just out of range, but closing fast on their position.
Ruben, a little reluctantly, broke their embrace, then said calmly, "Hold on. Something's coming. And it doesn't sound friendly." Gina wiped her face and stood with him bravely facing the unknown.
After a minute she said, "I hear it now. What do you think it is?"
Ruben shrugged and answered, "I don't know. I've been putting the sound through my memories for the past minute. Nothing fits..." Gina continued to stare ahead bravely, but then suddenly something clicked. She remembered her sister's worries about Ruben.
"Ruben?" Her voice sounded strangely strangled. She cleared her throat and said louder, "Ruben?"
He answered her without taking his eyes off the treeline, "Yes, Gina?"
She continued slowly, "If you're not the type of ghost that eats Neopets' souls for breakfast and such, then is there a possibility that there are others that do that?" Ruben didn't say anything as Gina's words sank in. "I mean, if you didn't start those rumors," she said quietly, "who did?"
"I did," a crackly voice said.
To be continued...