|Joe walked nervously into Neopia Central. He had only stopped
living within walking distance of this place a week ago, but he felt as if he
had been gone forever. He had been living in relative seclusion save a few trips
to the Giant Omelette and Giant Jelly, and even those trips had been made when
only a trickle of Neopets were flocking to get free food. Now, the crowded marketplace
had Joe a bit overwhelmed.
He looked around, trying to see if any Neopian
Policemen were among the crowd, but he saw none. The red Shoyru was bumped this
way and that, but no one seemed to take any notice of him, and he started to
relax a bit. He walked towards the Money Tree, crossing his fingers.
"Please have a tent, please have a tent, please
have a tent," he chanted under his breath, approaching the crowd. Joe had been
living in a makeshift lean-to in the woods, and it was falling apart. His shelter
was also near a beach and the gusts of sea air weren't good for the shelter
-- or for Joe. He took a deep breath, and darted into the crowd.
The red Shoyru rushed towards the piles of junk
under the tree and sorted through, rejecting all piled of Neopoints and grabbing
at anything that looked good. He grabbed an apple, a utility backpack, and a
pile of sludge. He looked at the sludge and tossed it back, and put the apple
in the backpack. He raced back and forth, trying to keep up with the other Neopian
as more and more unusable items were handed out. He was amazed that people were
taking such useless junk, but nothing stayed in place for long.
Finally, he found it. A collapsible tent in
a box. He snatched it up flew up and out of the crowd. Joe put the tent into
his new backpack, found a place to it, and nibbled at the apple. He let his
mind wander in thought, keeping one eye open for any ghosts that might want
to steal from him. He finished the apple and went back to the Money Tree to
drop off the core -- somebody would want it, but Joe didn't. He was about to
leave when he heard someone shout,
"Heads up!" Joe automatically turned and caught
a large white box that was whizzing towards him. He flew over the crowd, looking
for the source of the box, but was unable to find anyone who looked like a probable
source. He landed back of the crowd again and opened the box carefully. Inside
was a green top hat and a note.
Wear me, the note said. Joe looked at
the hat and tried to figure out what it's hidden purpose was. "Oh well, in for
one Neopoint, in for a thousand," he said. He had taken a huge risk by coming
here. This hat seemed to be another piece to the puzzle, and Joe knew he would
always wonder what might have happened if he didn't try it on. Anyway, he reasoned,
whoever was doing all this could turn him into the Neopian Police anytime they
wanted, so it was best to play along. He took a deep breath and placed the green
hat on his head.
He felt a weird chill and his skin crawled for
a moment, then nothing unusual. He stood up and walked around a bit, wondering
what he was supposed to do now. He thought he must look ridiculous. The Shoyru
walked around for a few minutes, self-consciously hunched over, until he heard
a miserable wail from a little ways off. He hurried over, and saw a small Draik
trying to wrestle half of a chocolate-chip cookie from a Skeith.
"But you said that we could each have half,"
the Draik was protesting, refusing to let go of the cookie. Joe guessed from
this that the Skeith was her big brother- and a bully.
"Yeah. You had this half, now it's my turn to
have it," the Skeith said, and jerked his arm backward, hard enough that the
Draik lost her grip. The Skeith laughed and teased the Draik, holding the cookie
high above her head. Joe rolled his eyes. Bullies were so unoriginal in their
taunts. It was as if they all had a handbook that they read from and quoted.
He jumped forward, forgetting about the green
hat for a moment, and grabbed the Skeith's wrist. The Skeith jumped, and looked
"Who's there?" he asked.
"Drop the cookie," Joe said. "You sure don't
look like you need the extra calories." The Skeith dropped the cookie and the
Draik, looking confused, snatched it up and crammed it into her mouth. "Thank
you," Joe said, surprised the Skeith hadn't put up more of a fight. He thought
of saying something to the Draik and decided that he'd better get lost before
they had a chance to get a good look at him. As he walked off, he heard the
Skeith start to cry in a weird low whine.
"Ghosts!" he sobbed. "A ghost stole my cookie!"
Joe whirled around. Why did the Skeith think he was a ghost? Joe looked down
at himself, or where he should have been.
He was invisible. Joe was amazed, then filled
with a sudden understanding. The hat wasn't a top hat. It was an invisihat.
Joe's knowledge of invihats was buried in his
former years as a Battledome champion- his early BattlerJoe years. He tried
to remember how long these hats lasted, and was not quite sure, but he knew
it wasn't very long. He must have been given this hat for a reason. He had to
make the best of it while it lasted.
Joe looked around, wondering where to go. The
Money Tree was too crowded; his hat would get knocked off. He thought about
going into a shop, but he didn't have any Neopoints and didn't want to start
a life of crime now. Besides, this could still be a trap set by the Neopian
Police, although it seemed like a lot of trouble when they could have busted
him on the spot anyway. Joe finally decided on the Art Center. It was be a nice
place to relax and wasn't usually very crowded, anyway. He walked in and looked
at the painting on the walls as he passed, and heard snippets of campfire stories
and poetry. Nothing seemed to peak his interest until he saw a group of Quiggles
laughing at the art-tutoring center. Joe looked at them and felt another wave
of memory come back to him.
* * *
Little BattlerJoe sat in Art class in Neoschool, staring at the blank page
miserably. He had to draw a self-portrait. He had a mirror to refer to but was
still drawing a blank. He knew how to draw, but he didn't want to commit to
memory his own tired, sad face, which currently had a black eye on top of its
usual unhappy expression. He hesitantly drew a circle, then a pair of large,
sad eyes. He shaded the underside of one eye, then drew in a frowning mouth.
He leaned back and studied the mirror and the picture critically.
"No, no, no. You don't look anything like that,"
a voice said behind him.
"Bart Mint Bar!" the little Shoyru whispered
happily. "How did you get in here?"
"I had to arm-wrestle the security guard, and
then foot-wrestle the hall monitor," Bart Mint Bar replied. BattlerJoe giggled.
"I was watching through the window and you looked like you needed a little help.
Now, I don't think you're doing that shiner justice," Bart Mint Bar said, and
put his hand over the red Shoyru's, guiding the pencil up and down.
Slowly a face began to form on the paper. Either
Joe Mint Bar was no artist or he was purposely drawing poorly, but the face
looked nothing like any neopet that BattlerJoe had ever seen. It had one eye
squinted almost entirely shut and surrounded by electric blue and black stripes.
The other eye was wild, the eyebrow wiggling at an impossible angle. The teeth
were jagged and full of cavities, and there was something green between two
of them. BattlerJoe watched delightedly as the picture formed, laughing into
his other hand as quietly as he could.
"There," Bart Mint Bar said finally. "I have
captured your essence." The red Shoyru was unable to control himself anymore
and he burst out laughing. The teacher walked over to him curiously, wondering
what could have made this morose little neopet burst out laughing in the middle
of class. She studied his picture, unable to find a proper response.
"It's very… uh…" the teacher stammered. "Very
creative. I'll give you an A for… uh… creativity," she said, and wrote a large
red A at the top of BattlerJoe's drawing. The red Shoyru looked at his friend
delightedly. He had never gotten an A before that he could remember. He gave
Bart Mint Bar a high five.
* * *
Joe frowned. He was able to remember everything clearly except for Bart Mint
Bar. He still couldn't picture him. He always seemed to be sitting or standing
behind Joe or that old memory of a bad singer and a lullaby when he was crying,
making him laugh with a crackly false soprano. He couldn't quite unfog his memory,
but he sense that it would come back completely very soon, because whatever
was happening now was related to his past, and his old friend.
The group of Quiggles continued to laugh, and
Joe realized that they were looking in his direction. He squinted towards the
picture they were all looking at. It showed a Shoyru in a backpack, wearing
a top hat. Joe pulled the hat off and looked at it. It was ragged now, and already
the magic in it was used up. He sighed and tossed it in a trashcan, then shuffled
out self-consciously. It was time to go.
Back at his campsite he started up a new fire,
and went to his lean-to to clear out a place for his new tent. He froze as he
saw another strange object on the pile of pine needles he slept on. It was a
piece of paper weighted down by a rock.
You passed the test, it said on one side. Meet
us tonight at the Rainbow Pool for initiation, it said on the other.
To be continued...