Endings and Beginnings
“Hi, Dad!” I ran through the gate into the garden and hugged Mark around the waist.
“Amber.” His response was unnaturally solemn. “How was school?”
“Oh, it was great! Jinjer said that she’s entering the Beauty Contest. She’s the Faerie Cybunny, remember...” My voice trailed off as I realized that he was no longer listening.
“Dad.” I shook his arm. “Did you hear what I said?”
“It doesn’t matter, Amber.” Mark bent down to my height, which of course was a pretty long way, as I was only a Kacheek, and a short one at that.
“But-but you asked about-”
“I know. But there’s a much more pressing matter at hand.”
“Do you want my help or something?”
“Sort of.” His face clouded over. “You lost the Beauty Contest.”
“Uh-huh,” I said slowly. “That’s okay, I mean, there’s other ones, and I’ve won everything else...”
“I can’t keep you if you’ve failed.”
My mouth dropped open. He was giving me up?!
“Your sisters will stay. THEY haven’t been defeated by amateurs.” He rose to his full height. “So get packed. Much as I’d love to continue the Gem Quartet, it can’t be tarnished by you.”
The Gem Quartet was the Neopian Times’s affectionate name for us, the family that always won the Beauty Contest. There was me, Amber, a yellow Kacheek, Jade, a green Aisha, Sapphire, a blue Uni, and Ruby, a red Shoyru. Mark had always been proud of us and frequently pulled us out of school so we could go to the Grooming Parlor.
“No! I won’t leave--you can’t--no!” I began to cry, but all it did was harden Dad’s expression.
“Tears are a sign of weakness. So quit and go pack up your stuff. We leave for the pound in five minutes.”
I wiped my eyes and slowly trudged into the house. Sapphire was waiting for me.
“He’s throwing you out?” A somber nod. “Good. We can’t have losers in the Quartet,” she sneered.
Needless to say, I was speechless. My sisters had always been a little catty, but never like this.
“Pack!” she snapped. “Dad’ll probably let me have your closet, so hurry up!”
With a heavy heart, I headed to my room and grabbed a small suitcase. In went my favorite dress, a journal, and a brush. Celeste, my Angelpuss, floated alongside me with a questioning look.
“I have to leave, Celeste!” My tears flowed faster and faster until I was all-out sobbing. “Dad’s being so mean!”
“So I’m mean, am I?” He lounged against the door frame. “Tell you what--if you stop being such a baby--”
“You’ll let me stay?” I asked eagerly.
“Not a chance, Amber. If you stop being a baby, you can take Celeste with you.” He rolled his eyes. “How I hate that name.”
“I named her that ‘cos it’s short for celestial and since she’s an angel--”
“Quiet. Let’s go.”
I dragged my suitcase along behind me as I struggled to catch up. My blue backpack was left behind. Chances were, I wouldn’t need it in the pound.
We were there relatively quickly. Ruby and Jade met us at the door.
“Bye, Amber!” they chorused.
“Thanks for your support,” I muttered. “Such sisterly love.”
“Daaaaad,” Jade complained. “Do something about her!”
“Can’t. She’s not mine anymore. But maybe we’ll make another sister for you three.” They walked out, leaving me with Dr. Death.
“Let’s get you a room,” he sighed. The Techo seemed sick of his job. I followed him down a long hallway to a small bedroom with two beds and ugly, peeling pink wallpaper. A dark blue Lupe lay sprawled out on the bed nearest the door, reading a book. Even if I craned my neck, I couldn’t see the title.
“Shiion, this is your new roommate, Amber.” The Lupe glanced up. His expression was one of immense boredom.
“A girl,” he spat. “One of the Gem Quartet. What are you in for?”
He made it sound as if we were in prison. In a way, I suppose, we were. Dr. Death quietly showed himself out and closed the door.
“I--I lost a Beauty Contest.”
“Oh, you had one of those owners who hates to lose.” Shiion nodded wisely. “Seen plenty of those. Well, here, take the bed by the window.”
I almost spoke up and told him that Mark wasn’t my owner, he was my dad, but now he wasn’t. Now he was just someone to forget about.
“What are you reading?”
“Eh, just the Neopedia.”
“So you’re a scholar?” I joked. His glare that he shot me was so angry and so fierce that I recoiled.
“Never, EVER say that,” he hissed through gritted teeth. “My owner was smart. Really, really smart. So smart, in fact that she gave me up to save money. I’m not smart.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
“Glad we got that all cleared up,” he said calmly and returned to his book.
I suppressed a groan and hugged Celeste. She squirmed in my arms, so finally I let her go. She flew over to Shiion and sat on his head with a tiny grin.
My eyes squeezed shut, I waited for the explosion.
When I opened my eyes, Shiion was tossing Celeste up and down.
“Awesome, an Angelpuss! I haven’t seen anyone with one of these in a while! There’s Slorgs and Donksaurs, but this is cool. What’s its name?”
“Her name’s Celeste.”
“Short for celestial?”
“How did you know?”
He shrugged and caught my Petpet. “Figured as much. That’s prob’ly what I’d name mine.”
I smiled. At least we had a little in common.
Finally, he let her fly back to me.
“Do you know when it’s time for dinner?” I asked, holding Celeste close.
“5:30 on weekends, 6 anytime else,” he rattled off.
“Wait, how in the name of Neopia did you know that so quickly?”
“I’ve been here half my life,” he grunted. “Seven years.”
“Wow... so you would have been in Neopia Central High this year?”
“I don’t know. Things changed while I was in here. And besides, we lived in Meridell, not Neopia Central. Of course,” his voice took on a mocking tone, “Miss Gem would live in the center of the action.”
“Hey, I didn’t choose where to live. Mark did. I’m only thirteen.”
“Whatever.” He picked up the Neopedia again and I got the hint that our conversation was over.
“Hey.” A shake. “HEY.” A more violent shake. “Jeez, Amber, wake up!”
Shiion’s face gradually came into focus.
“What time is it?”
“Dinner time. Time to meet everyone else.” He began to walk and I scampered out beside him. “There’s about a hundred of us here now. We’re all separated into our own little cliques.” He studied me for a moment, then continued to the dining hall. “You’ll get singled out right away in those clothes.”
“What’s wrong with them? This is my favorite shirt!”
“Nobody came from a family with as much money as you. Who else do you know that wears a shirt with 'BEAUTY CONTEST' on the front?”
Seeing his point, I fell silent and followed him to a small table for four in the mess hall, as it was informally called. Immediately after I sat down, a motherly-looking Scorchio handed me a steaming bowl of soup and departed for the kitchen.
“Soup Faerie likes us today,” Shiion noted. “This is good.”
“We get food from the Soup Faerie?”
“Obviously.” A Baby Bruce sat across from us and grabbed her soup bowl. “Hey, Zanchon. This is Amber.”
“Nice to meet you.” He smiled at me. While his social etiquette was impeccable, he ate as if he was on the brink of starvation.
“Just wait until he’s done to look up.” Shiion nudged me.
A very pretty Xweetok took the seat next to Zanchon.
“Hello. Who’s this?”
“I’m Amber. You are?”
“Marianamay. Amber of the Gem Quartet, am I correct?”
“Correct.” I was a little embarrassed to be recognized so easily.
She said no more but started to spoon her soup into her mouth.
Shiion finished first and wiped his mouth with the back of his paw. While we ate, Neopets kept coming up to our table and chattering on about the oddest things. (Jelly World? Really?) It became very clear to me that Shiion was the most popular person here. My reputation at Neopia Central Middle School was nothing compared to this.
“Amber, how long have you been here?”
“Just since this afternoon.”
“Really?” Marianamay and Zanchon spoke the word together. “And Shiion is your roomie?”
“Is that the slang term around here?”
“What else could it be? By the way...” All of us, including Shiion, leaned in closer to the table. Zanchon had the privilege of telling us the news.
“I heard that there’s a girl coming to adopt tomorrow. No pets at all--how great is that?”
“Amber, the ones that get adopted are the ones with the nicest appearances. You really have to spiff yourself up if you want even a breath of a chance, okay?” That was Marianamay.
“Got it.” I nodded once in a determined way. No matter what it took, I wanted and needed to get out of this place.
“Well, we’ve got to go before lock-up. See you later!” Shiion and I waved and headed away.
“They seem nice. How long have they been here?”
“Zanchon and Marianamay?” He thought for a moment. “Five months and eight months, respectively.”
“That’s a really long time.”
“Aw, that’s nothin'. The average time is seven months. It’s mostly the flashier pets that get snapped up fastest. You, for instance--a week at most. Can you wait here for a minute while I go say hi to someone?” Without waiting for an answer, he clapped me on the shoulder and walked off.
This was great.
Two Usuls sneered at me and stopped in the hall.
“Whatcha doin’ here, Prissypants?”
“Just waiting for my friend.” I ignored the insult.
“Ooh, her FRIEND... I would have thought her too mean to have friends...”
“You know what, Miss Priss? We need to teach you a lesson. No snobs get by in our halls.”
“I haven’t even done anything to you! Will you just go?! And quit calling me a priss! I could call you two ugly. How would you like that?”
They went inarticulate with rage.
“Why, you little--”
“Hey, hey, hey, what’s going on here?” Shiion to the rescue. “She’s with me, come on, move along...”
The Usuls had no choice but to listen. As they stormed off, one growled, “Don’t forget this, Snob! You’re gonna pay!”
“Who were they?” We had resumed our walk.
“Laina and Raina, the bully twins. Steer clear. They’re mostly harmless.” By now, we had arrived at our room and gone inside. “Oh, and bedtime comes early here. But as long as you’re in your room by eight, you can keep the lights on and do what you feel like.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’m going to get some sleep.”
“Fair enough.” He shrugged and flicked the light switch downwards.
I sank into dreamland almost as soon as my head hit the not-so-soft pillow.
The next morning, I woke up early and ran into the bathroom to get ready for the adopter. After brushing my fur until it shone, I affixed a blue bow on my head to go with my dress. Shiion did nothing except brush his teeth.
“After all,” he observed, “I’ve been here for seven years already. What difference will a few more make?”
We met up with Zanchon and Marianamay right outside their rooms.
“Oh my goodness, Amber, you look so adorable!” the Xweetok gushed. “I’ll be shocked if you don’t get adopted for sure!”
“Yeah,” Zanchon said gruffly. He wasn’t much for doting.
“Amber, we’re going to go check if the adopter’s here yet. Just wait here and try not to get into too much trouble, okay?” They left, laughing and talking among themselves.
I leaned against a wall, trying not to get dirty. That would prove to be a hopeless effort, as the floors were kind of dusty. Just as I was fretting over my dress’s condition, who should round the corner but Laina and Raina.
“Miss Priss is all dolled up for the adopter! Fancy that!” One elbowed her sister conspiratorially. “Think we should get her back for last night?”
“No!” I began to sprint down the hallway, but a pair of paws caught me by the sash and tore it off.
“Look, Laina, she’s not so cute now!”
“I’ve got a better idea.” Raina untied my hairbow. The cry that issued from my mouth was a mixture of fury and anguish, for it had taken me half an hour to position it just right.
For their last trick, one held me in place while the other took mud from a flowerbox and rubbed it into my fur. They ran away, laughing their heads off.
My friends came back and stared with dismay at my drastically altered look.
“What HAPPENED to you?”
“The bullies,” I choked out. “Laina and Raina happened.”
Unfortunately for me, the motherly Scorchio came by with a girl, who must have been the adopter. She pushed her glasses up higher on her nose and considered Shiion, Marianamay, and Zanchon before her eyes fell on me.
“Her!” she exclaimed with delight. “That one!”
I came forward, keeping my head low.
“What’s your name? I’m Lissy.”
“Why are you looking down? Is it just because you’re dirty?”
“Yeah, ‘cos I wanted to be pretty today, but--”
“But that’s why I picked you! I didn’t want some clean-cut pet. I wanted one that was a little more rough-and tumble.”
I stared into Lissy’s kind brown eyes in amazement. She took my paw. “Let’s go.”
“Wait, my stuff! And...” I whispered into her ear for a minute.
“That’s not a problem. Miss?” she called after the retreating Scorchio. “I’d like these three also.”
Marianamay and Zanchon were excited, but none could compare to Shiion. He wore a grin so big that it threatened to fly off his face.
“I’m gonna get out of here!” he shouted.
“Of course, you are. Now pack your stuff.”
Once again, I hurried to my room to gather my belongings. But this time, it wasn’t an ending.
It was a beginning.