Sanity is forbidden Circulation: 197,167,960 Issue: 969 | 23rd day of Gathering, Y24
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And Time Stood Still - Part 2


by kaitlinhoneybee

--------

Part 2: That unfamiliar melody

“Hey!” a voice called again from the entrance to the fishing cove, “What are you doing here?!”

Penelope froze for a second. What should she do? Maybe she should hide. She did not know to whom the peculiar voice belonged or whether they were friendly. But her momentary pause was too long. There was no more time to hide. The stranger had found her.

“What are you doing?” the stranger was now getting closer. Penelope could see that it was a Green Scorchio.

The way he spoke was almost as jarring as his presence. It was that unfamiliar melody of a stranger's voice that dipped and bent in strange tones and seemed to follow a beat known only to the speaker.

“Go away,” Penelope mumbled into the water.

“Oh, very friendly”, he answered, walking right up to Penelope, “so, what’s your story, sunshine?”

“I don’t have a story”, she answered curtly.

“Oh really? The entirety of Neopia goes missing, and you’re the only other Neopet I’ve seen in a whole year. You’re telling me you don’t have a story? I don’t believe that for a second,” a smirk played on his lips as he unpacked a slice of pizza from his Baabackpack.

The sight of the backpack was somehow amusing to Penelope. The cutesy Baabaa seemed to exist in stark contrast to this gruff stranger. A chuckle caught in her throat. He rolled his eyes.

“Don’t laugh. It was the only one in the stock room,” he sniped at her, but a smile was playing on his lips.

“Are you hungry?” he asked her and pushed the slice of pizza toward her.

Penelope eyed the pizza for a second as she weighed her options. Could she really trust this Scorchio who she had just met? She looked him in the eye. There was a twinkling in them that she had seen once before. She closed her eyes and tried to recall where she had seen that twinkling before. But her memory was a kaleidoscope of all the places she had been. It was impossible to pinpoint that twinkling.

‘When in doubt, she thought, ‘go with your gut’. Her stomach growled as if on cue.

“Yeah, I am,” she admitted and pulled herself back up onto the shore. She accepted the slice of pizza and nibbled on it as she got to know the Scorchio.

--

His name was Benjamin, and he had been asleep in his Neohome in the Haunted Woods. When he woke up, everyone was gone. The weather in the Haunted Woods was not usually pleasant, but on that day, the sun shone brightly. But it was not the happy shimmer of lazy summer days. It was the type of sunshine that threatened to overwhelm one’s body entirely until no thought remained except to escape the heat. It was a silent heat--so thick that nothing could cut through it. And nothing did. There was no one there except for Benjamin.

“It was…” Benjamin started, but he did not have the words to finish the sentence.

“As if time stood still,” Penelope finished his sentence somberly.

Benjamin nodded. His eyes were glazed over, and Penelope could almost see his past playing out in them. But he did not say anything more. He packed up his half-eaten pizza and took out a map.

“I’ve been everywhere in Neopia,” he said and looked at her to confirm if this too was her experience. She nodded.

“I think we should go through them all again. Where are you from?” he asked.

“Brightvale,” she said.

His brown eyes scanned the map with an almost frightening degree of intensity. Benjamin had marked up the map thoroughly and methodically--noting where the most food was left over, the best places to sleep in each land, and the names of all his missing friends. Penelope gazed softly at the list of names, but said nothing. Benjamin marked out their path of travel. It was hard not to notice the obvious omissions in the travel plan--the Haunted Woods and Brightvale.

“What--” Penelope started, but was taken aback when Benjamin lifted his paw up to stop her.

“Too painful,” he answered, “we already know what we won’t find.”

Penelope couldn’t help but agree. And so, with that, they began their journey together.

--

Penelope and Benjamin fell into an easy rhythm. There was no room to question each other’s trustworthiness. When Benjamin snarked at her, Penelope would always respond with a well-placed quip. And then they would look at each other and laugh. In those moments of levity, Penelope felt her heart lift up. But true happiness, true uninhibited happiness--that was an emotion of the past. There is a certain darkness in surviving rather than living.

Some nights, Penelope would wake up with her heart aching. Tears would glide down her face as she stifled sobs. He would never admit it out loud, but she knew Benjamin felt the same pains as her. On nights when everything became too heavy, he would go outside and stargaze. Sometimes she would join him in silence as he sketched out the constellations.

“Sometimes I think that if I just think enough, if I just puzzle and ponder for long enough, I can logic my way back to the way things used to be,” he confessed to her one night.

Penelope chewed on this thought for a moment. She knew exactly what he meant. The longing in his voice resonated with the yearning in her heart. It was moments like these that took Penelope off-guard. She never knew quite what to say to make Benjamin feel better.

As she thought of what to say, Benjamin motioned toward the sky and pointed at the moon. A waning crescent.

“There must be something out there,” Benjamin murmured, “look at the stars. Every once in a while, they burn a bit brighter”

He pulled Penelope closer, and they sat in silence. She breathed a sigh of relief. This was the type of friendship where she really didn’t need to say anything to be understood. Benjamin was cryptic sometimes--she never quite got what he was saying about the stars. But something in the way he spoke soothed her soul. He operated on a different wavelength than anyone she had ever met before. He was eccentric to a ridiculous, sometimes infuriating, degree. Yet he had such quiet confidence in his own intuition. That in itself was enough reassurance for Penelope.

That night, they sat together until the sun broke over the horizon.

---

“Ugh, this place is so sooty,” Penelope half-complained, half-coughed.

“Yeah, I know. No idea how anyone could find this place habitable,” Benjamin responded, sweat dripping down his face.

They were in Moltara now--the final leg in their journey around Neopia together. And like before, there was no one there. Penelope and Benjamin scoured Neohomes and stores, collecting all the food they could carry. They started on the path out of Moltara to their little wooden paddle boat. Once seated, Benjamin scratched “Moltara” off of the list of places they had been together.

Brightvale and the Haunted Woods seemed to jump off the map. A deep frown now occupied Benjamin’s face. Penelope felt her breathing become heavier.

“Benjamin,” she started, “we have to check. We can’t not. We have to.”

She held her breath as she saw him turn her words over in his head.

“Fine,” he said shortly, “You’re right. Brightvale first.” The tone in his voice indicated that the conversation was over.

--

It was a pleasant day to make the stroll into Brightvale, really. The weather was balmy with a light wind blowing. Penelope had started mindlessly picking up flowers along the way, giving each one a hearty sniff.

Soon, they were on the cobblestone path that led to Penelope’s Neohome. Cautiously, she nudged the door open. Nothing had changed. The living room rocking chair was still in the left corner of the room. The Cream Rug still had a cranberry juice stain in the shape of a Greeble. Penelope’s door was ajar. Penelope entered with Benjamin closely behind her. The Warm Amber Ointment was still on the bedside table, undisturbed. Penelope walked out of the room and down the hallway to Lydia’s room. She held her breath as she opened the door.

“Lydia?” she called, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Lydia?” she tried again, this time louder.

“Lydia?” this time, her voice was not a shout but once again a whisper.

Her eyes welled with tears, but they did not spill out. She had long known that there would be no answer. Silently, she placed the flowers from her walk on Lydia’s pillow along with a worn-out photo she had been carrying since the day everyone had disappeared. Penelope walked back to the door, taking one long glance at the picture.

“Time to go,” she said. Benjamin blinked in surprise but followed her out.

--

The journey to the Haunted Woods was tense. Benjamin had taken to muttering things to himself. Penelope’s hooves ached. When they reached the archway that led into the Haunted Woods, she paused. The Haunted Woods was not a place that she liked visiting, but she knew how much Benjamin had loved living there.

Benjamin’s Neohome was surrounded by tall trees. To Penelope, it seemed utterly gloomy. But she saw the look of hope on Benjamin’s face. He stood frozen on the doorstep. Penelope nudged him, but he still did not move. In a split second, Penelope made the decision to open the door. Benjamin walked inside the Neohome like he was in a trance.

The living room was decorated in a classic style with a fireplace and several plush chairs. Benjamin made his way to the second door on the left and pushed it open. There was a candle on the bedside table that had long been snuffed out. The blue bedding lay undisturbed. Next to the candle was a framed photo of Benjamin and his owner.

“Lucas…” he said softly, his paw grazing the photo. Tears flowed down his cheeks.

Penelope realised that this was the first time that Benjamin had said his owner’s name out loud. Benjamin was sobbing now, years of repressed cries ripping themselves from his throat. The screams pierced the air in that terrible, terrible shriek of loss. There was nothing Penelope could say, and she knew this. Some pain knows no antidote. Time does not heal all wounds. She let Benjamin cry until his voice gave out.

“Benjamin,” Penelope said after a while. He looked up, his eyes red and glassy, “...it’s okay to fall apart sometimes.”

She nudged him up from the bed.

“But we have to remember to get back up,” she finished.

“How do you do it?” he asked.

“Do what?” she asked back, puzzled.

“Deal with the pain? I saw you back in Brightvale. You held it together so well.”

“Benjamin, the way I deal with the pain is: I don’t. I let it hurt. Numbing yourself only makes it hurt all at once.”

“I think of Lydia in everything I do. I speak of her often. And in those moments, it hurts. But it also heals.”

Benjamin looked at her like he was seeing her for the first time. Penelope blinked under the intensity of his gaze. He said nothing, but nodded a long, deep nod. He tucked the framed photo under his arm and motioned to leave.

They stood on the doorstep for a long moment. The sun had just begun its journey below the horizon. Penelope realised that the Haunted Woods contained a unique type of beauty. It was not the same clean-cut, sculpted beauty of Brightvale. It was more ethereal--it was the same type of beauty Benjamin looked for in the night sky.

 
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