“Blueberry or cranberry?” Keira carefully removes the tray of steaming muffins from the oven and places it on the counter. The pink Gelert turns around and faces me. Her hands are covered with oven mitts, and she puts them on her hips. “Ayre, what do you want? Blueberry or cranberry?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I mumble, leaning my elbow on the table and resting my head in the palm of my hand.
“Well, just pick one,” says Keira. She takes one muffin of each flavor and puts them on a plate. She walks across the kitchen and waves it in front of my nose. Both of them smell good, fresh and warm, but neither one really seems better than the other.
“I don’t know,” I say after a pause. I give my shoulders a weak shrug.
Keira rolls her eyes. “Ayre-bear,” she says, using her special nickname for her only brother, “it doesn’t matter. Just take a muffin.”
I hesitate. One of them must be better than the other, surely. They can’t be exactly the same, can they? But which one to pick? I don’t want to take one and then wish I’d chosen the other.
“You’re ridiculous,” says Keira, putting the plate down on the kitchen table and returning to the rest of the batch. “Just have both.”
She takes the muffins out of the tray one by one and sets them on two plates – one with blueberry, one with cranberry. Then, she goes about washing up and putting her baking supplies away.
The two muffins are still sitting in front of me on that plain blue plate.
I stare at them, trying to decide which one to eat. How is a Neopet to know which is better? The choice is before me, and I’m certain that one side is right and the other is wrong... I just can’t tell which is which.
Keira finishes what she’s doing and glances at me. The pink Gelert notices that I still haven’t touched either of the muffins. “You know,” she says, “choosing not to make a decision is still a choice.”
I don’t look up from the plate, and she rolls her eyes and walks out of the kitchen.
Finally, I decide to just spin the plate and see which muffin lands closer to me. If I can’t figure it out through reason, I may as well use luck.
The blueberry muffin wins. I pick it up and take a bite.
It has already gone cold.
* * * * *
“Come on, Ayre!” Cindy waves at me from the top of the snow-covered hill. Our Terror Mountain village is already far behind us, nearly lost in the curtains of large snowflakes that fall from the sky, but Cindy and the others have strayed even further. “You’re going to get lost,” the Usul warns, and she’s probably right. Being a spotted Gelert in Terror Mountain gives me quite a lot of camouflage—the rest of the group might never find me if I fall down and get covered in a layer of white snow.
I hurry to catch up with them. Cindy waits at the top of the hill, but I can tell she’s impatient. She may as well have gone on with the others. I don’t really care if she waits or not. Or maybe I do—I’m not sure. I guess it does feel sort of nice to know that someone is waiting for me.
As soon as I meet up with her, Cindy sets off again. Her heavy pink coat is easy to follow, and her yellow hat and mittens act like little candles lighting the way through the snow. I can see some of my other friends up further ahead, dots of color on the blurry, steep slope.
“Why are we going this way?” I have to shout, because Cindy is pulling away from me again. I can tell she wants to be with everyone else. I probably shouldn’t have even bothered coming. I don’t really like these adventures.
“Gary saw a wagon up on the high road earlier,” calls Cindy. “Hannah said she thinks that it’s gypsies! They might be selling magical items and stuff. We want to be the first ones there and see for ourselves.”
So that was why we had all been in such a rush to get outside after school. Nobody had bothered to tell me. Maybe they would’ve if I’d asked, but I didn’t really care about all that whispering and gossiping.
Cindy is starting to fade away in the whiteness, and I try to run and keep up. I can see the high road now, the one that winds through the mountains. It’s gravelly and dangerous, and we’re not usually supposed to go that way. Keira will probably be mad if she hears that I’m up here with the rest of the kids.
I turn around to look behind me. Not a sign of anyone else. In fact, I can barely even make out the lights of the town anymore. We’re pretty high up, and the snowfall is getting thicker.
I peer back up toward the road, but Cindy isn’t waiting for me anymore. She’s gone with everyone else, and they seem to have formed a group close to a bend in the road. Maybe they’re all waiting? No, they couldn’t be—not for me.
But they’re waiting for something, so I use the last bit of energy I have to scramble up the mountain and join them. Everyone is very excited, and Gary is pointing around the corner of the high road. “It’s just around there,” the Lupe says, and I can see everyone’s cold faces flush with excitement.
Hannah and Cindy are holding each other’s mittened hands. “I’m positive it’s gypsies,” says Hannah. The Uni waits until all eyes are on her before continuing. “My older sister said they travel around selling mysterious items. I bet they’re only going to stay for a day or two.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” says someone else, and everyone nods. “Yeah, let’s go!” Energized by the dynamic of the group, all of the Neopets begin marching up toward the grey road.
I don’t follow them. I don’t really want to go up there. I don’t care if there are gypsies or not. All that’s going to happen is that Gary will probably throw a rock at the caravan and Hannah will make up some silly story about how she met a gypsy on a vacation one time. I don’t see why Cindy is going with them.
The Usul glances back at me for a second. I wonder if I should go tell them to stop. That’s what Keira would do. She’d tell those kids to stay off the high road and come home right now, that their parents are wondering why they didn’t come home from school. Keira is a girl but she’s tougher than me.
I watch the Neopets as they approach the corner. I can’t stop them, can I? They’d just laugh at me anyway. It’s their own fault if something happens to them. They can do whatever they want.
I see their colorful coats through the snow for a few more seconds, and then they’re gone. The sound of their excited voices vanishes as quickly as they do. And now I’m alone.
The mountains are silent. All I can hear is the sound of my own boots as I trudge down toward the village through the thick snow.
It’s almost a blizzard now. By the time I catch a glimpse of the lights of the town again, it’s like I’m blind. I can hardly see in any direction. All I have to go by is that yellow glow. I wonder how everyone at the high road is doing. They’re going to have a tough journey back.
Then I hear something. I freeze in my tracks, and I start to realize how cold I am.
There it is again... a voice? It’s hard to tell. Everything is muffled by the snow. But, for a second, I’m almost sure that I hear someone calling my name, off to the left.
I wonder if I should turn and follow the sound. Or maybe I should just go home. Maybe I’m just imagining things. I mean, who would call my name?
I hesitate for a brief moment. I can’t hear anything anymore. Whatever it was is gone now, swallowed up by the heavy snow.
So I start walking again, and finally get back to my house. The door is unlocked, and there’s a fire in the fireplace when I step inside.
“Keira?” I call her name as I remove my boots and heavy clothes. “I’m home.”
But she doesn’t answer. I wander around the house, and she isn’t there.
Keira is always at home when I come back from school.
I wonder if I should go out and look for her. Maybe she went to school to pick me up? But she never does that. She trusts me to walk to the house on my own.
So where is she?
I sit down in front of the fire and warm up. The clock on the wall is all I can hear besides the crackling flames. Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
With every minute that goes by, I get more worried. This must be how the other kids’ parents are feeling right now. They’re wondering where Gary and Hannah and Cindy are, and why they aren’t home, and what they’re doing right now.
Where is Keira? I look out the window. It’s gotten dark without me even noticing.
Tick-tock, tick-tock. Should I go outside? Should I search for my sister? I don’t know what to do.
Then somebody knocks at the door, and I realize that I have fallen asleep in front of the fire. It’s pitch black outside now.
I open the door and let in a blast of chilly air. Cindy’s mom is standing on the front step. Am I in trouble? Did someone tell her that I was with Cindy this afternoon?
“Ayre,” she says, and the tone of her voice scares me. “Were you with the other kids when they went up to the high road after school?”
I hesitate. “Yes.”
“Your sister and some others went out to look for you all,” said Cindy’s mom. “There was a terrible blizzard.”
So that’s where Keira was. But why was Cindy’s mom telling me this now? Where was Keira?
The Usul stared into my eyes. “Everyone made it back safely,” she said. “Except Keira. No one knows where she is.”
Every part of my body goes cold, far colder than the wind that’s blowing in my face.
“Ayre, I’m so sorry.” Cindy’s mom is crying. Why is she crying? It’s not her sister who’s lost. “There’s a search party looking for her right now. But it’s been hours, and it’s freezing out there...” Her voice fades away.
Does she think she’s helping this at all? Stupid Cindy’s mom. I’m angry now, but I realize that I’m not angry at her. This is my fault. If I had just made a decision, maybe I could have persuaded everyone to come back. If I had just said something, there was a chance that none of this would have happened.
Then I remember the voice. Someone had been calling my name.
I had paused. I had done nothing, and by doing so I had made a choice—I ignored the voice and walked away.
“Do you want me to sit and wait with you?”
I look at Cindy’s mom, as if I had forgotten that she was still standing on the front porch step.
I close the door in her face.
The fire is still burning, but the house doesn’t feel warm as I walk through the hallway. I arrive in the kitchen, and the first thing I see is a blue plate on the table.
The two muffins are still there, cold as ice.