It's Only the Moon
In a world where anything from a band of anarchist meepits to living parasitic shadows might attack anyone without warning at any given point in time, fear—not the fleeting fear one might encounter before a tough exam but the real, visceral kind—wasn't typically something to be ashamed of. There was any number of things to be afraid of in Neopia. If someone really wanted to, they could pick a different thing to be afraid of for every day of the week.
Henry Gevauden was afraid of the moon.
He hadn't always been. Growing up, the moon had been little more than a distant, unknowable celestial body, of as little interest to a young Lupe as anything else in the night sky. The moon might as well not have existed at all. But now?
Now he knew it more intimately than most people knew their best friends.
Its habits, the degree of its waxing and waning, were his monthly calendar. Most neopets planned important events around their work schedules or their kids' sports practice, but Henry lived his life according to the phases of the moon. The few neopets he called his friends—an eccentric bunch of misfits into whose midst Henry fit perfectly—assumed it to be one of his quirks, and since Henry had several, nobody could fault them for it. For instance, he never seemed to stop being hungry. He also had an unusual aversion to petpets, likely because apart from the stalwart pet rock, most species of petpet reacted to him as if he were the living embodiment of all their worst fears. He was allergic to jewelry. So what if he was obsessed with the moon? It wasn't like his keen interest in the thing did anyone harm.
If they knew, Henry thought, they wouldn't shrug it off. They'd run.
It began rather like most evenings; he was working. Henry had the kind of job where he sat at a desk all day long and stamped important papers for important people who were, presumably, doing important things. Exactly what he 'APPROVED' or 'DENIED', he didn't know. Nor did he care. Most of the papers that landed on his desk were covered in extremely fine print that nobody in their right mind would ever read, which, he guessed was probably the point. It was a lot easier to get people to sign for something if they had no idea what they were really signing for.
The work was dull, but the job had its bright points. For one thing, nobody ever bothered him. His monthly work assessments always read 'ADEQUATE' because he never strived for more or less, and so his supervisors rarely had anything to say. None of the higher-ups ever turned to him for anything and none of his coworkers expected much of him. He blended right in. Were it not for his orange coloration, he might have been mistaken for part of his desk.
There was also Cynthia. She was a blue Cybunny with perfect hair and perfect eyes and perfect everything else. She was also the company receptionist. Henry saw her every single day as he walked calmly but purposefully past her when he got there in the morning, and again when he left at night. Despite her good looks and resultant popularity, she never failed to greet him with a smile and a wave. Those simple, ordinary gestures meant the world to Henry. They were enough to carry him through every day and get him through every night, even the bad ones.
He never meant for her to notice him, not really. A pretty young woman like her was far, far out of his league and he'd accepted that.
To say that he was shocked when she stopped by his desk one morning would be a gross understatement. For Henry, it was like the moon he feared had fallen out of the sky and onto his desk, and before he could hurriedly stamp 'DENIED' on it and send it on its way, it had begun speaking to him as if he were an old friend.
"Hi Henry," she said, her voice melodious, "how are you today?"
The fact that she knew his name did not even register. He was still having a hard time processing her being at his desk.
"M'fine," he squeaked back.
She grinned. "I'm happy to hear it. Look, I'm having a little party—a small thing, just a couple of people from work—and I'd really love it if you came."
"I shouldn't," he said automatically, not quite remembering why.
"Oh, but you wouldn't have to stay long! Just stop by and grab a little candy. You don't even have to come in costume if you don't want, but it IS a Halloween party, so..."
A Halloween party? He supposed he could do that. There weren't many other occasions that would allow him to hide his social anxiety behind a mask.
"Well, I guess I could stop by for a few-"
"Terrific!" Cynthia said, beaming. "I'll expect you at half-past eight tonight."
And so Henry found himself hastily preparing a costume for a party he hadn't known he'd be attending until that very morning. His job didn't pay that well, so he couldn't afford a fancy costume, but using what little he'd been able to save up in the last few weeks and a few reconfigured objects from around the house, he scraped something together last-minute.
It was a sad sight to behold. His creation was, essentially, a pair of baggy blue-jeans, a flannel shirt and a mask that might've been the tax beast at some point (he'd bought it used). He added a couple of stick-on bandages for additional flair and didn't bother to comb his hair for once. No, he thought sadly, it wasn't much of a costume, but it was better than cutting eye-holes in his sheets and calling himself a ghost.
For a couple of hours, Henry came out of his shell. He forgot to be himself and, once at the party, actually spoke to his coworkers. There were more people present than Cynthia had let him believe, and he strongly suspected she'd invited everyone, but that didn't matter. Nobody knew who he was beneath that mask and nobody really cared. Tonight he was the secondhand tax beast, not Henry.
The conversations he had weren't too stimulating, and most of the time he just nodded his head and listened to what his coworkers had to say, but it was far and away the most social interaction he'd had in a long, long time. More importantly, it gave him a chance to see Cynthia outside of work.
She was just as lively and friendly as she always was, maybe even more so. He couldn't have said more than two words to her the whole night, but that was fine by him. Just being around her while she was playing the happy hostess was enough. While he watched her, he could forget about how boring work was and how shy he was.
He even forgot about the moon.
The significance of his forgetfulness didn't hit him until late into the party, but when it did, it hit hard. One moment he'd been cheerfully observing Cynthia telling a scary story to her guests and the next...
He felt it first in his head. His head burned as intensely as if he'd dipped his head in the magma pools of Moltara. Then the burning spread to his chest, then his limbs. His vision blurred red as the pain overwhelmed him. He wanted to scream, but he couldn't. The agony stole the cry from his throat right as it formed. His body doubled, then tripled in size. His claws, which had previously been neatly trimmed, grew to extraordinary lengths. His orange fur darkened and lengthened. Most of his clothing ripped apart.
Why, oh why, had he forgotten?
When his vision cleared, he did not see a party, did not see the confused faces of his coworkers, did not hear Cynthia's concerned voice as she asked him if he was all right. All the faces, all the voices around him belonged to strangers.
And he was hungry. So very, very hungry. He longed to be full like the moon.