Afternoon Tea: Part Three
“I can’t believe you would do this to me.”
“It’s not like I had a choice, Gloria!”
“You had a choice, all right. You chose to do what’s best for you.” The Xweetok was standing up at her seat across from Afton at the Morning Sun Coffee Shop. “You put me out of a job.”
Afton bit her lip. “The stock was failing,” she said helplessly. “I had to cut the funding. The Art Department would have been bankrupt in a few years anyway.”
“A lot can happen in a few years,” said Gloria coldly. “You just ruined my chances to become a true artist.”
“I’m sorry,” said Afton softly, looking at Sadie for help. The yellow Acara was just as cold as Gloria, however.
“I can’t believe you’d do this to your own friend,” said Sadie, shaking her head. “You’ve changed, Afton. You’ve changed, and we don’t like it.”
“I haven’t changed,” pleaded Afton. “I’m still the same pet.”
“Oh, please!” cried Gloria, still standing up. “The Afton I’m friends with would never put hundreds of workers out of a job! You are not the friend I knew. You’ve taken over her mind, you career-obsessed, ruthless, thoughtless monster!”
Afton felt tears welling up in her eyes. “Look, we can work through this,” she said. “This doesn’t have to end our friendship.”
“Our friendship ended months ago,” snapped Gloria. “Our friendship ended the day you got that promotion.”
“It’s true,” said Sadie. “You barely ever see us anymore, and whenever you do, all you can do is talk about that ridiculous bank.”
“You have betrayed us in every possible way,” said Gloria. “As far as I’m concerned, you don’t even exist anymore. You’ve been swallowed up by greed.”
Afton made one last plea. “Gloria,” she choked. “Don’t do this.”
Gloria smiled bitterly, and somehow, that was even worse than scowling. “Don’t you see?” she whispered, the words biting Afton like a cold steel blade. “It’s already been done.” The Xweetok turned to Sadie, who stood up and shook her head disdainfully at Afton, and without another word, the two friends walked off down the road.
Afton drowned out her sorrow the only way she knew how: work. Afton worked herself harder than she ever had before, occupying every spare minute with numbers and figures, keeping her mind so busy with work that she blocked out her torn emotions.
As Afton’s friends diminished, her position at the bank flourished. Her increased efforts at the National Neopian swiftly carried her to the highest status; the Gelert was a banking goddess. Business owners both feared and adored her name. Stockholders invested only in Afton-recommended companies, and therefore, every company in Neopia strove to gain her approval. When Afton bought a purse from Uni’s Clothing, the shop’s business tripled. When Afton ordered Faerie Foods to cater her business brunch, the company was immediately commissioned to serve at every other high-class event. Afton’s frown or yawn at an establishment guaranteed its demise within weeks. She was becoming iconic.
Her financial genius soon carried her far beyond Neopia Central. Afton took business trips to Terror Mountain and Brightvale, to Mystery Island and the Haunted Woods. She dined only at the finest restaurants, bought only the finest accessories, and stayed in only the finest hotels. Afton’s trips lasted no more than six days at a time however; her schedule strictly ordered that all Saturdays were spent in Neopia Central, in the parlor of a small cottage on Bracknell Road.
Despite her rapidly increasing status in Neopia, Afton always made time for Saturday tea with Darren. She never told anyone where she was on those Saturdays; she didn’t want Darren to be exposed to the wild frenzy that followed her wherever she went. Indeed, Afton sometimes wondered if Darren even realized how important she had become; he didn’t get out much. But that was how Afton liked it. Darren would always treat her the same way, no matter what happened.
One day, however, something happened that Afton knew would change her relationship with Darren forever.
Afton was working in her new office in Room Sixty-Two when Hubert Hodge came in. Hubert was no longer Afton’s boss; she was far too important to be under anyone’s control. However, Hubert would not sacrifice his figurehead position, so Afton continued to call him “Boss,” even though she knew his skills were limited.
Hubert never bothered to knock; Afton was used to his visits. He often came to her for help or advice. Afton often thought it was funny how things had turned out. Just a few months ago, she had been the one pestering him for help.
“Afton,” he said one day, taking a seat in one of the chairs in her office. “I have wonderful news.”
“What’s that?” Afton had come to learn that Hubert’s idea of wonderful news was normally better news for him than it was for her.
“We’re starting a new company,” he began. “It’s really quite ingenious. I came up with the idea.”
“I based it off of an idea you had a couple weeks ago,” Hubert continued. So it wasn’t quite his idea then, was it? “You suggested that monopolizing certain items would allow us to control prices. I’ve come up with a perfect opportunity to put the plan into action.”
Afton put down the list of stock fluctuations she had been examining. The Gelert remembered the idea now; she had first come up with it when there had been a massive dubloon deflation several weeks ago. “What item were you planning to monopolize?” asked Afton. She could think of a million possibilities.
Hubert grinned. “You’re going to love this,” he said. Then, after a dramatic pause, “Flasks of Rainbow Fountain Water.”
Afton had to think about it for a few seconds before she realized how brilliant the idea actually was. “Of course,” she said slowly. “That would be perfect.”
“We buy all of the flasks on the market,” said Hubert. “Then, we dump them all into a pool in Faerieland and charge Neopets to use it! There are a few kinks in the plan, but I know you can work it all out.”
Afton did not reply at first. Her mind was racing. Yes, it was the perfect plan. Flasks of Rainbow Fountain Water were pretty expensive, but the investment would yield far greater profits. It was every Neopet’s dream to be painted, and the National Neopian was always happy to grant dreams. For a price, of course. “We’d have to buy every flask as soon as it was fished up,” said Afton slowly, working out the situation in her head. “And we’d have to set a reasonable price to use the pool.” Suddenly, she thought of something. “What will this facility be called? There’s already a Rainbow Pool.”
“I thought of that,” said Hubert. “It’s going to be called the ‘Rainbow Bath.’ It sounds luxurious, sophisticated, and there will be no mistaking its purpose.”
Afton nodded. It was the perfect idea. She was surprised that Hubert Hodge had been able to come up with it by himself, even though it was based off of her original idea. “So when will you start it?” she asked. “Where will it be?”
Hubert smiled. “That’s where you come in. We’re going to base the enterprise in Faerieland, but we need someone to keep it going. You, Afton, are going to be the president.”
Afton gasped. “Really?” she asked. “I don’t have any experience running a business.”
“You’re brilliant. You can handle the job of buying the flasks for the lowest possible prices, and you can definitely determine a reasonable charge for use of the bath. This job was made for you, Afton,” said Hubert. “It’s your future.”
The idea was tantalizing. Afton knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She would be the president of a thriving new company, and she would be famous. Afton knew that she could pull it off. It was the perfect challenge. There was only one small speck of doubt in her mind, but this small grain of uncertainty was enough to make Afton pause to think. “Will I have to move to Faerieland?” she asked cautiously.
Hubert laughed. “Of course! Although I wouldn’t say you ‘have to’ move there. It’s more of: you ‘get to.’ I would have thought that Faerieland would be your dream home!”
“It would be,” said Afton, and it was true. She had always wanted to live in Faerieland, and to start a business there would be a dream come true. There was just one thing holding her back. If she moved to Faerieland, she would have to leave Darren behind.
This split Afton in two. On one side, she desperately wanted to move to Faerieland and manage the Rainbow Bath, but on the other side, she didn’t want to part from Darren. He had been the one unchanging force in her life, and she was nervous about not having him by her side. “How long do I have to think about it?” asked Afton.
“I need an answer by tomorrow,” said Hubert. “Although I can’t believe you’re hesitating. This job is the opportunity of a lifetime. If you give this up, you may as well quit. I’ve already bought your ticket to Faerieland. The bank procured the building to house the Rainbow Bath, and even a house for you. I can’t believe you’re even considering passing this up.”
Afton sighed. It really was the opportunity of a lifetime. “I’ll have an answer tomorrow,” she said. “I promise.”
Darren did not answer at first when Afton knocked on his door that evening. She waited impatiently on the porch for a few seconds. The evening air was chilly, and a cool breeze sent shivers down Afton’s spine. She knocked again.
“Afton!” cried Darren, swinging open the door almost immediately after Afton knocked. “I wasn’t expecting you on a Thursday! Please, come in!”
Afton stepped inside and allowed Darren to lead her into the parlor. “I’m sorry for bothering you,” she began.
“Nonsense!” said Darren. “I’m glad you came! It gets quite boring around here nowadays, without you coming by every evening. I look forward to our Saturday tea all week!”
Afton bit her lip. This would be very difficult news to break. “Darren,” she said. “I have something to tell you.”
“Wait! Not yet!” he said, skittering off into the kitchen. “Let me put some water on, for tea.” He filled up his teapot and put it on the stove. “Would you like me to make some muffin batter?”
“No,” said Afton softly, looking wistfully around the room.
“What’s that?” called Darren from the kitchen.
“No thanks,” called Afton. “I’m only going to be here for a little while.”
Darren came back in and sat down. “So what’s up?” he asked.
Afton sighed. “I have some bad news,” she said. “Well, actually it’s good news, sort of.”
“Bad news that’s good, sort of,” said Darren, smiling. “So what is it?”
Afton drew in her breath. “I have to move to Faerieland,” she said quickly, as if the words were painful.
“For what?” asked Darren.
“The National Neopian is starting a new company there, and I’m going to be president,” said Afton. “This is the biggest opportunity I’ve ever received, and I have to take it. This could set me up for life.”
“For life...” Darren repeated slowly. He closed his eyes for a few long seconds, and Afton was sure that he was upset. But then, he opened them and smiled. “Congratulations!” he said with surprising enthusiasm. “Faerieland! President of your own company! Wow! That’s really wonderful.”
Afton smiled. “Yes, I know, but that means that I’ll never see you again.”
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Darren. “We’ll keep in touch. Besides, this will free up my Saturdays. Maybe I can join a bridge club.”
Afton laughed. “I’m really glad that you’re all right with the idea,” she said. “I couldn’t bear it if my leaving made you sad.”
“Sad?” repeated Darren. “No! Never! We’ll write to each other every day, or at least every week. I want to hear everything that happens! I’m sure I’ll see you in the newspaper plenty. Imagine! I’d know a celebrity!”
Afton smiled. “I leave tomorrow,” she said. “This will have to be our last tea together.”
“And you didn’t want muffins,” said Darren, shaking his head. “Speaking of which, that water must be boiling by now.” He ran into the kitchen and came back with the tea. “A toast!” he said, after pouring two steaming cups. “To your new career, your new home, and your new life!”
They touched their teacups together and sipped the hot tea. As evening turned into night, the two friends savored their last moments together. At last, Afton noticed that it was very late, and bid farewell to her lifelong friend. “Wish me the best!” she said as she walked outside into the chilly air.
“Nothing less,” replied Darren, waving as his friend walked home.
Afton was happy. She would be on her way to a new life the very next morning. A new company, a new home... It was really quite exciting. And the only doubt that had held her back was gone. Darren supported her decision, and that was the most important thing of all.
But there was one thing that Afton did not see. When Darren closed the door and turned back to his empty home, he walked quietly into the parlor, sat down at the table that still had two empty teacups sitting on it, and shed a single, lonely tear.
To be continued...