"Hey, stank breath!"
"What's up, smelly?"
Though Charlie had heard these insults his whole life, he never got used to them. Every word was like a punch in the gut, but his mother had taught him to be strong and pretend they didn't bother him. He continued to eat the lunch she lovingly packed for him, staring blankly at the tabletop. Lunchtime always went this way: Charlie sitting alone, trying and failing to convince himself he wanted it that way.
When he was just a young Chia, he would ask his parents why all the neighborhood kids teased him. Had he done something wrong? Was there something wrong with him? But his parents, loving and sweet and wanting to protect him, only said, "There's nothing wrong with you, Charlie. Those other kids don't understand; they're just bullies." But on his first day Neoschool, even the teachers treated him differently: they grimaced when he walked into the classroom, sat him in a desk in the back, and avoided him in the hallways. Charlie knew that teachers shouldn't do that. He knew it must be him.
He got home that day and had asked his parents why others treated him so poorly. His mother seemed reluctant to tell him, dodging the question and telling him sweet nothings, but his father put his foot down. "He's not a child anymore!" he had said. "It's time for him to grow up." Teary, his mother held Charlie's shoulders and bit her lip.
"Charlie," she choked. "You're a Durian."
Charlie didn't understand at the time. That night, he had a long talk with his parents about what it meant to be a Durian Chia: about his smell; about how others might not like it; about how his parents loved him, smell and all. He felt special afterwards, having such a unique characteristic; he returned almost proudly to school the next day, feeling like he finally understood himself.
But it was just the same as the previous day and every day before that, Charlie thought bitterly as he ignored the bullies. It was his third year in school now, and though most of his classmates had matured a little or had been scolded by their parents, some still called him names. All of them still avoided sitting with him at lunch. He chewed angrily on his sandwich, faintly registering the footsteps behind him. Oh boy, he thought, more bullies.
"Hey, Charlie," said a soft voice—definitely not the voice of a bully. Charlie turned around to see his classmate Annie, a quiet Aisha.
"Oh. Hi, Annie." Charlie didn't think she had ever called him names. Actually, as he sat and chewed, he wasn't sure he'd ever heard her speak except to answer a question in class. Still, instinctively distrustful, he turned back around and continued eating. He felt the bench he was sitting on shift under another weight—to his surprise, Annie was sitting next to him.
"Charlie, it really stinks how they treat you. I mean..." she gasped as she realized her slip, but smiled sheepishly when she saw shock rather than anger on Charlie's face: he wasn't accustomed to others being so close to him without pulling faces. Annie continued. "It's terrible how they call you names, especially that Louis. When he's not teasing you, he's bragging about how Balthazar is his uncle, but I bet he's never even met him before. He's the worst. In this day and age, you'd think Chias and Lupes would get along."
He finished chewing and swallowed slowly. "Annie," he said, "you know there's more to it than that. I'm not just a Chia, I'm a smelly Chia. But you don't seem to mind?"
Annie smiled again. "No, I'm used to it. My cousin is a durian, too." She shifted her weight and looked down at her feet. "Anyway... do you mind if I sit here? Some Acaras took my spot."
"Sure, I guess." Charlie quickly looked at her out of the corner of his eye while continuing to face forward as if she weren't there. How strange! After all the years of trying to eat with company only to have them leave as soon as he sat down, somebody was asking him if she could sit there! Charlie wasn't sure how he was feeling, but it might have been something like camaraderie. But it was an awkward pairing; they sat in mutual silence until neither had any left to eat.
Annie was the one to break the ice after a few tense moments. "So, today is Petpet Day, right? What kind of petpet did you bring?"
"I don't have one," grumbled Charlie. "My parents tried all different kinds but none of them liked me. We ended up having to take them all back. But I'm sure yours is cute and perfect and loves you very much, which is just great."
"Oh." Annie folded her hands in her lap and shuffled her feet, glancing at Charlie and then back at the ground. "Um... I'm sorry, I have to go." Before he could turn around, Annie had scampered off and was halfway across the playground.
Charlie kicked himself under the table. Why was he so gruff when she was just trying to be nice! He had blown the one opportunity he ever had to make a friend because he was bitter about not having a petpet and fitting in with the rest of the class. As if you'd fit in even if you had one, he thought to himself. He knew he'd have to find Annie and apologize, but he wasn't sure how to do that. He'd never hurt anybody's feelings before. How could bullies hurt feelings all the time when it made him feel so... guilty?
When the bell rang and ended lunch, Charlie remained seated. The courtyard cleared of the last-minute runners who always had to race to their seats and Charlie found a quiet corner to hide himself in. He wasn't done beating himself up yet, and he definitely didn't want to go to a class full of happy pets presenting their petpets when he had nothing to show. He thought bitterly of the class laughing and playing with their friends as he drew lines in the dirt. With his back turned to the school, he didn't see the giant Lupe stealthily prowl into the building.
A few moments after hearing the front doors open and shut, Charlie heard shrieks coming from indoors. Listen to how much fun they're having without me, he thought. They're all so glad I'm gone. But the laughter had stopped, and he only heard one booming voice now—he didn't recognize it. He stood up and peeked into the window to see what was going on.
At one end of the classroom, the pets and their petpets were lined up against the wall, silent and shaking. What in Neopia? Craning his neck to see the other side of the classroom, his eyes widened in shock: there, by the door, was the largest Lupe he had ever seen. Could it be... Balthazar? No, no. He's probably in the Haunted Woods hunting faeries. At least, that's what the books say. Why would he be here? But as soon as he asked himself, he made the connection: it was Petpet Day, and Louis was always bragging about his terrifying uncle. Charlie had seen Extreme Herder, and he knew that Balthazar had an appetite for petpets. With so many in one room... how could he resist his nephew's invitation?
Charlie watched Balthazar slowly and deliberately making his way towards his classmates, a fiendish smile splitting his grizzled snout. He saw Annie and her Angelpuss huddled in a corner, trying to make themselves appear small, and something in Charlie took over. Without thinking, he dropped down from the window and ran along the side of the school toward the doors.
From halfway down the corridor, he could hear Balthazar's booming voice. "So... which of you should I eat first? Who volunteers to be my appetizer? Come on, now, don't be shy. I don't bite." Charlie raced down the slippery floors, feet hitting the ground in time with the menacing laughter, conscious not to trip. Never before had this hallway seemed so long, the classroom doors so far away. Hoping Balthazar had not yet chosen his starter course, he burst through the doors.
The great Lupe's head swiveled, his eyes narrowing and meeting Charlie's. Charlie panted, realized he didn't have a plan, and started to panic. The sweat dropped down his face as he watched Balthazar's threatening smile turn into a grimace.
"Holy Kau," Balthazar spit out. "What is that smell? Is that you?"
Charlie remained motionless, incredulous. Could his smell, for the first time in his life, be an advantage?
He took a step closer to Balthazar.
"Hey, kid, you reek. How about you go back outside so I can enjoy a nice meal in peace."
Charlie took another step forward.
"I mean it. Wow, that is just rank."
One more step. Then, just as Balthazar opened his mouth, ready to hurl another insult, Charlie jumped right in front of the Lupe, pressing his stomach into the snarling jowls and grabbing the matted ears. As the Lupe began to thrash, Charlie closed his eyes and put all his might into holding on. He could hear the muffled voice spew out, "My appetite... lost... can't... even... breathe...", felt the thud of the wall against the side of his body, and succumbed to unconsciousness when he felt the cool tile against his face, reverberating with the fall of heavy paws.
* * *
Charlie awoke in Nurse Keely's office, the rough but caring Kougra tending to his scratches and scrapes. When she saw his eyes open and blink a few times, she exclaimed, "Oh, there you are, dear! You gave us quite a spell." Charlie dimly attempted to sit up, but didn't make it past forty-five degrees before she pushed him back into a lying position. "Not yet, dear, I'm worried about your head. So are some of your classmates." She turned. "It's okay to talk to him now, but please be delicate."
As soon as she left his frame of vision she was replaced by a jumble his classmates' faces, peering at him as if he were an exhibit on display. He almost didn't recognize them from so close. He did not see Louis, whom he imagined was skulking around the principal's office.
"Hey, Charlie..." one of them ventured. It took his eyes some time to adjust, but he recognized Annie's voice before his they could focus. "That was very brave. Thank you."
"Thank you," the rest of the faces echoed, their voices slightly shaky and still in shock.
Charlie managed to say, "No big deal..." before falling asleep once again, only faintly seeing Nurse Keely shoo everybody back out of the room.
* * *
Charlie awoke in his own bed to the smell of cooking. Stumbling out of his room, rubbing his bleary eyes, his mother guided him to the table stacked high with pancakes, waffles, and bacon.
"We are just so proud of you, dear!" she piped cheerily, bringing him a glass of orange juice.
"You showed real bravery yesterday, son. Real courage," his father added, voice flushed with pride.
Charlie smiled, not at his parents' praise or the breakfast feast in front of him. He smiled because today was the first day he felt excited to go to school. He was a hero, even if he stank—and maybe, just maybe, he could make a friend.