"Da-da-dee-dee-doo-doo! Don't step on a crack, or you'll fall and break your back!"
— Ducky, The Land Before Time
Chapter 2: Odd One Out
"Slow down, Pellie!"
Pellie giggled, sprinting even faster as she heard the exasperated order while leaving a frustrated Penny behind in the dust.
"Gragh!" Her brother grumbled as he began to grunt from the exhaustion which inevitably came with constant sprinting. "How are you somehow even faster than Dribble in a game of Swimmer and Sharptooth!? You're so infuriating, Pellie!"
Pellie stuck her tongue out at Penny as he fell further behind. "Guess you're just too slow for me, Penny," she teased her increasingly exasperated brother. "I'm the fastest swimmer to walk this land! None can compare to the amazing Pellie!"
"Not funny, sis!" Penny barked back, heaving as he appeared to gain a second wind after hearing her taunt. "Oh, when I get you, I'm gonna—"
"Can't catch me, can't catch me~!" Pellie sang, weaving in and out of the surrounding trees to slow her pursuer down. Sensing her brother's frustration, she turned her head back mid-run just so she could stick her tongue out at Penny.
That arrogance proved to be her downfall.
In the brief moment that she wasn't paying attention to the vicinity, her moving foot caught onto a large obtrusion. With a startled yell, Pellie found herself being launched towards the ground, her body propelled forward due to the momentum and causing her to land on the rough terrain in a spreadeagled mess.
Pain shot through Pellie's lower half as she clutched her ankle in agony. Gritting her teeth to stave off the pain, she glanced back at her sprawled legs only to come to the grim conclusion that they were most definitely broken.
"Well, well, well… where's your confident demeanor now?"
With an enormous effort—considering that pain was coursing through her body and superseding all other thoughts—Pellie turned her head towards the bemused voice only to see Penny standing over her. "Wouldn't you call it ironic? You're nothing more than a cripple now after cockily strutting your swift speed around with zero restraint," he gestured with his hands, the corners of his beak curled slightly upwards in amusement.
Her jaw fell open at what she was hearing. "Penny…" she grimaced.
Penny waved off her warning, almost as if her brother didn't hear her words. "Well, gotta say that it serves you right for teasing me like that. I mean, you were definitely asking for it," he pointed out, "What can I even say, sis? You brought this on yourself with all of your bragging. And now this will be your life, Pellie," he sneered at her, "a life where all your speed and mobility is robbed from you!"
She could feel tears welling up at the callous remark striking at her, at least until something peculiar about the situation crossed her mind.
Wait a moment… something's wrong. Penny would never say something like that to me!
Almost at once, it clicked. Just like that, the pain that she thought she felt vanished instantaneously, almost like the morning fog clearing up as the Bright Circle peeked from the horizon.
…and very much in a similar way to how her sleep story proceeded to dissipate as well.
A groggy Pellie nervously glanced down to look at her legs, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw the distinct lack of a scarred bloody wound on her thigh.
It had been nothing more than a bad dream.
And really, she should have known.
There was something else about the whole thing which had made no sense in hindsight and was subconsciously nagging at her as the situation played out, and the two oddities combined helped Pellie make sense of everything. Although Penny's uncharacteristic cruelty towards her had been the cincher, what should have tipped Pellie off was the fact that she was running rings around her siblings.
Her, sluggish and handicapped Pellie, comfortably outrunning her siblings in a game of Sharptooth and Swimmer?
Leaning back against the tree stump that she used as support whenever she rested, Pellie brought her large tail around to her front, stroking the appendage as she glowered at it.
As she felt her eyes dropping, her mind managed to fumble together a coherent thought before she dozed off again.
Being able to outspeed my older siblings? Hah, what a joke! As if that'll ever happen as long as I have this thing!
"Rise and shine! The Bright Circle waits for no swimmer, and the early hatchlings are the ones who get the freshest treestars!
Pellie was roused—properly this time—from her slumber as a chirpy morning call greeted her ears. Blearily squinting her eyes open to see her mother relentlessly trying to force her up, she then let out an exhausted yawn.
While she had thankfully managed to fall into a dreamless sleep after having her initial nightmare, Pellie now had to face the worst nightmare of all — reality itself.
"Good morning, mom," she murmured, looking up from her sitting position as Ruddy gently stroked her daughter's head.
"Morning, Pellie," she returned. "Tired, aren't you?" the adult observed as she saw Pellie's exhaustion literally radiating from her body through her slumped posture.
Pellie jerked her head away from her mother's grasp, clearly unenthusiastic about being the recipient of an embarrassing and intimate gesture. "Had a rough night." She didn't elaborate further, folding her arms to highlight her displeasure and overall frustration.
"Oh dear…" Creased lines of worry could be spotted forming on Ruddy's forehead. "Let's hope that the rest of your day will go better to compensate," she tried to reassure her ruffled daughter. "Anyway, Dribble and Penny have already been up for a while. I chose to let you sleep in when I saw how soundly you were slumbering, but your dad told me to get you out before you sleep the entire day away."
Pellie stretched her arms in response, letting out a yawn. "Well, it doesn't matter. Looks like I am up now," she deadpanned.
Instead of receiving the exasperated expression from her mom that Pellie had grown to expect whenever she exhibited her defiant attitude, Ruddy simply smiled at her daughter fondly, causing a confused Pellie to quirk her head.
"Mom… what's with that smile?" she asked, unnerved.
"Oh, Pellie. Don't you know what day it is today?"
Pellie shrugged. She hadn't a clue, and vocalized it to her mom. "Um… it's a new day?" she tried to fumble a response.
Sensing from her mom's body language that it was actually meant to be a serious question, she then became flustered, losing her cool façade she always kept up on a superficial level. "I-I mean, how should I know!? They are all the same to me with the exception of how much food there is or what sort of weather we have! The days all blend together for me! S-stop looking at me like I know!"
Ruddy chortled when her daughter started to ramble in panic. It was something that was intrinsically Pellie — putting up a façade to disguise her insecurity. Deciding to put her out of her misery, Ruddy cut off Pellie's word vomit with the answer. "Oh, Pellie. You're overthinking things. Today is the anniversary of your hatch day."
"My… h-hatch day?" she stuttered, instinctively glancing pensively at her tail. The movement did not go unnoticed by Ruddy, who could only look solemnly at Pellie when she saw her daughter's face contort at the realization, the expressions gracing Pellie's beak going through a variety of emotions.
Pellie scowled when she saw her mom making that face at her again. That look of pity that she perpetually saw being sent her way from swimmers young and old, male and female.
Oh, how she utterly despised seeing that expression.
Why did she have to be looked at differently from everyone else just because of her darn tail?! Her overly large tail defined her life, foiling her plans of being a perfectly normal swimmer from the moment she had hatched from her egg — an egg which was probably as big as her tail, she was willing to bet.
Due to how conspicuous her tail was that part of her ended up being her key defining characteristic, and it drove Pellie up a tree. When others saw her, their minds simply jumped to 'oh, what a poor swimmer', 'she's toast', 'the swimmer with the stupidly large tail'…
Not to mention the most frustrating one of all, an implicit thought that Pellie could tell was running through their heads solely based on observing their unspoken body language.
'Man, I'm glad that's not me'.
If it wasn't a look of pity which they expressed upon seeing her condition, it was one of scorn and disgust. Pellie might not be able to walk on her own two feet, but she could very well see with her own two eyes as well as hear with her own two ears. She wasn't able to shake the feeling that her peers held some perceived slight against her because of the disability she was born with.
Even her own blood kin weren't exempt from this.
For as long as Pellie could remember, she had always felt different, even around her own family. Her mother pampered her and her father tended to be more cautious around her presence. Heck, even Penny doted on her out of a sense of brotherly concern — to the extent that the difference in behavior between how her brother behaved in her sleep story compared to how he acted towards her in reality was how Pellie quickly surmised she was in a nightmare earlier that night.
Pellie made a face as she reflected at all the attention she had garnered since young. She then folded her arms and made a concerted effort to avoid her mother's eyes, ignoring the shattered expression of concern falling over her mother's features out of the corner of her vision.
While she did feel a pane of guilt in her heart for making her mother upset, Pellie felt justified in expressing her frustration at her helplessness in preventing others from needlessly doting on her by treating her as if she was some fragile treestar who could be shredded to pieces by the slightest gale.
Bah, she could take care of herself! She wasn't completely helpless, alright?!
Perhaps her mom reminding Pellie of her hatch day anniversary frustrated her because it was yet another subtle reminder of how she was one star day older and yet still the same stagnated swimmer that she was from the day she'd first hatched. Through the passage of time her brother and sister ended up growing leaps and bounds ahead of her in both skill and abilities, while she was left behind in the dust to try and grasp ahold of the bare basics of survival.
There were certainly moments where Pellie pondered on why she had to be the unlucky chosen one. Why did she have to be the one hatched with such a detriment? It drove her nuts with agitation to imagine what her life would be if she happened to be "normal"… whatever that entailed.
Because as far back as Pellie could remember, this frustrating and constant struggle with her overgrown tail was her "normal".
Most others would have consigned her to be a lost cause—a good-for-nothing handicapped swimmer would be nothing more than a nuisance to the well-being of the herd, their leader would have argued—but even as a hatchling the feisty female was staunchly determined to supplant the overwhelming odds against her.
As a result, Pellie tended to get on all fours to get around, occasionally leaping or crawling forward whenever her tail inevitably impeded her way again. It was her very own style of transporting herself around which she'd learnt as an infant while observing hoppers jumping about. Launching herself up and forward prevented the bulky tail by her back from hitting the ground and actually allowed her to utilize her underdeveloped limbs, though it came at the cost of being very energy and time consuming.
Frankly, it was amazing that a crippled swimmer like Pellie could even amble her way around with her large tail constantly getting in the way, even if it came at the cost of sluggish movements as the swimmer usually had to hunch unnaturally forward to counterbalance the large and heavy tail that she constantly needed to drag behind her.
"Pellie! You're up!"
Her concentration was broken by a familiar voice coming from her side. Pellie swung her head, looking past her mother to see her older brother standing by the side with an overly sappy face gracing his beak.
"Finally! I've been waiting to wish you well since the Bright Circle went up. Happy hatch day, sis!"
Despite her frustration with the occasion, she allowed herself a smile. "Well if that's the case, why didn't you greet me the moment I woke up? A little late, aren't you?" Pellie teased.
Penny was caught off guard by her response, nervously gazing away as he tried to formulate a comeback. "I-I mean… you slept far longer than I expected, so I hung out with Dribble, y'know," he stumbled over his words, rather taken aback by his younger sister's reaction. "I mean, it's our hatch day as well!"
She chuckled at his mess of an explanation. "Eh, I'm just messin' with you, Penny," Pellie assured.
The swimmer felt the tension in his shoulders slacken when he realized he was the victim of one of his sister's verbal spars once again. "No hard feelings," he shot her a shaky thumbs-up.
Pellie just smiled. Penny really was a dork of a swimmer sometimes. But hey, he was her dorky tender brother, and she wouldn't have him any other way. It helped that he had harbored no ill will towards her from young as well.
That wasn't quite the case for the swimmer who was lingering behind him.
"Happy hatch day, I guess…" her elder sister Dribble murmured, hands hanging by her hips as her green eyes shone with disapproval at the frivolous way Pellie had trifled with Penny.
"Sorry, Dribble." Sensing her sister's annoyance with her actions, Pellie quickly tried to diffuse things. She did this by pulling her nearby brother forward into a stunned hug without so much as getting off the ground. "Penny's just too fun to mess with! Hee hee! Aren't you, brother?"
"If you say so," Dribble muttered, not quite convinced by Pellie's faux apology.
"So in all seriousness, what took you so long, anyway?" Pellie questioned, letting go of Penny and letting her brother straighten himself back up. "I literally played a guessing game with Mom in the time it took you two to get here."
Penny sheepishly scratched the back of his head as Pellie stared him down while awaiting his response, the swimmer in front of her a far cry from the 'Penny' who'd cruelly decried her in her sleep story. Considering that she was sitting down and casually leaning back against her favorite tree stump while Penny was standing at full height, it really was a hilarious sight to see him looking so uneasy.
"Uh, Dribble and I did end up talking with a few others in the herd, but that happened to be when we met a special someone who asked whether they could celebrate your hatch day with you…"
Right on cue, an excitable high-pitched voice cut in.
"Heya, Pell! Congrats on making it through another cold time, you resilient rascal!"
Pellie perked her head up, a contagious smile slowly spreading across her beak as her mind processed the greeting. She knew only one swimmer who would refer to her using that specific moniker, and said female swimmer's green skin currently stood out amidst a sea of uniformly colored light gray swimmers.
"Hukai!" Pellie exclaimed, ecstatically wagging her tail at the sight of her best friend making her appearance from behind a tree.
Sweet. Maybe her hatch day wouldn't be so bad after all if she lived it to the fullest.
Whoops, this chapter ended up coming out way later than I would've liked. I know I didn't quite go over Pellie's physical struggles quite just yet, but this chapter instead focuses on the mental struggle within her headspace that someone like Pellie would have to face in a society not quite used to someone of her stature. The real question, however, is whether her mindset can continue to get her through the trying times.
Anagnos: The reason I'd conceptualized Pellie for the Swimmer Trials OC submission contest in the first place was to see how someone who is disadvantaged would tackle life around them, so I'm glad the worry translated over to the parents, who certainly have a lot on their hands should they commit to the challenge of raising a child like that.
Keijo6: I certainly hope no one expected or predicted for me to write a story based on my own OC submission. I always strive to be unpredictable with my plans! :P
Rhombus: You don't really have to read The Swimmer Trials to understand this story, this works as a standalone story even if I might tie it together at some point. Certain references to how swimmer culture and traditionalist herds work are an added bonus if you do have foreknowledge of The Swimmer Trials, however, as well as adding a bit more depth and context behind the decision to join a less traditional herd in the previous chapter.