“So, Julia, what are you doing today?”
Neoschool had just gotten out for the weekend, and the late spring air was warm and breezy. Pets flooded the sidewalks as they walked back home.
The Plushie Cybunny prodded her sister. “Julia?”
“I don’t know, Sendrii,” the blue Acara answered. “What about you?”
“We’re going to the bookstore,” Maddie said. The Sponge Peophin shook out her mane. “Sen's promised to show me a book she just finished.”
Julia, suddenly uncomfortable, lowered her head. Sensing something was wrong, Sendrii slowed and reached for Julia's paw, which dropped to her side.
“Want to come?”
“No thanks,” Julia said. She hoisted her bag further up her shoulder. “This is our house, anyway. See you guys later.”
“See you,” the two pets said. Julia watched them until they reached the end of the street and turned the corner.
Julia walked into her Neohome with a sigh and collapsed on the couch. She reached for a Neopian Times on the coffee table.
“Wait, don’t touch that!” Amasaia said. The Island Gelert raced down the stairs and grabbed the copy from her sister. “I need to see if there are any job advertisements.”
Amasaia peered at the paper, and handed it back after a moment.
“Where are you going?”
“Employment Agency Job starts in a couple of minutes. Tell Olivia I left!”
She raced for the front of the house, and the door closed with a slam.
Julia spent the rest of the afternoon reading the paper that Amasaia had left. It was crinkled around the edges and smudged with ink. By the time she reached the comics, Amasaia and Sendrii had come home, and Jaraiya walked down from upstairs.
“What’s up, Jules?” he said.
Julia looked up at his sudden display of interest.
“Nothing much,” she said. “You?”
He smiled secretively, and Julia sat up.
“What?” she said. “What is it?”
Sendrii looked over from her book.
“I bet he’s won again in the Battledome,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Not exactly,” Jaraiya said. “But Mom just let me go to training school for a couple of hours today, and now I’m a lot stronger.”
To prove it, he grabbed the paper from Julia’s hands and made a perfect shot at the trash basket. The paper circled around the rim of the basket before settling at the bottom.
“Hey!” Julia said, indignant. “I was reading that.”
Without waiting for a response, Julia grabbed her backpack and ran upstairs.
Jaraiya looked at Sendrii.
“Did I do something wrong?”
Julia lay on her bed and stared at the sky, which had turned a deep blue. The room was dimly lit and her bed was mussed up from an earlier nap. She heard her siblings making dinner, and then footsteps on the staircase.
Someone knocked on her door, and she buried her head in the pillow.
“Don’t come in,” she called.
The door opened regardless, and her owner stepped inside.
“You okay?” Olivia said. She sat at the foot of Julia’s bed. “Dinner's almost ready, but Jaraiya said you weren't hungry."
“I’m fine,” Julia said, and slowly lifted herself from the sheets. “I just had a bad day, and my teacher got mad at me.”
Olivia frowned, waiting for an explanation.
“Mrs. Small thought I didn’t have enough ‘individuality.’ And... maybe she’s right.”
“That’s not true.”
“It could be. I mean, look at me. Everyone else has a ‘thing.’ Sendrii reads. Ama does jobs at the time. Jaraiya’s a great fighter. And I’m just... Julia.”
“Being just Julia isn’t a bad thing.”
Julia rolled her eyes. "You're just saying that because you're my owner."
"Come to dinner," Olivia said, and left the room.
Once everyone was done with dinner, Sendrii got up to clear the table, but Olivia motioned for her to sit down. She did, confused.
“Now,” Olivia said, “Because Julia isn’t feeling too well today, we’re going to try to cheer her up.”
Julia blushed in her seat.
“I want everyone to say something that they love about Julia,” Olivia said, “and it can be anything that crosses your mind. Ama, how about you start?”
The Island Gelert looked thoughtfully at her sister.
“Well,” she said, “you’re really sweet and you never get stressed over work or school.”
“You make a great apple pie,” Jaraiya said.
“You’re a responsible petpetsitter."
Julia smiled. But her gaze quickly flickered to the empty seat next to her, where she saw a recently arrived notice.
“What’s wrong?” Jaraiya asked.
“I can’t believe I never realized this before!” Julia said. She picked up the paper and pointed at it.
“It’s perfect – I’ll be in the Beauty Contest!”
Her siblings leaned closer to see the advertisement.
ALL PETS WILLING TO PARTICIPATE
MUST BE READY FOR THE CONTEST THIS FRIDAY
“That’s in a week!” Julia said. “I need to get ready.” She flew upstairs, leaving behind the paper. It fluttered in her wake before falling in the gravy dish.
Throughout the next week, Julia began dressing up and walking around town, trying to attract the attention of other Neopians. They admired her outfit and promised to be at the show next week. Some even offered to help put up flyers.
In the afternoon, Julia scattered possible outfits around her room. Sendrii often came in during study breaks to help her sister decide between two possibilities. Julia practiced walking down the stairs in high heels and tripped twice.
She sat down on the bottom step and sighed.
“I’m never going to get this,” she said. “Look at me. The competition is tomorrow.”
Sendrii sat next to her sister and picked up a fallen scarf. Absentmindedly, she began wrapping it around her paw. When it became too tight, she loosened it and watched it roll down the staircase.
“I know you’ll do great,” she said. “I’ve never seen you so motivated about anything. And we’ll be there, supporting you.”
Julia didn’t say anything, but she nodded.
“Now,” Sendrii said, glancing around the messy area. “How about we clean this before everyone else gets home?”
The morning of the pageant, Julia woke with butterflies in her stomach. Olivia served orange juice, and Julia stared at the glass without picking it up.
At school, pets Julia had never talked to wished her good luck. A couple of friends would be coming with her to the pageant, and they were just as nervous as she was.
“What time are we leaving again?” Kirara asked at lunch. Kirara was a Faerie Xweetok, and she’d been in the Beauty Contest numerous times.
“Noon,” Julia said shortly.
As the pets walked outside, Olivia approached them.
“Come on!” she said. She put a hand on Julia’s back. “We’ll get there just in time to get your outfit together. Just be calm, though. You’ll do fine.”
Once they approached the building, Julia was ushered inside and sat in a folding chair. The Kyrii who would be dressing her took Julia to a closet.
“Which one would you like?” she asked, and Julia gasped.
The closet was filled with what seemed to be a hundred dresses – in greens and blues and silvers.
“I’d like this one,” Julia said. She pointed to a sparkly blue dress and slipped it over her head without difficulty.
A red light began flashing.
“That’s the starting bell!” the Kyrii said. She dropped a pencil on the table. “Now hurry up.” She led Julia toward the front stage, where other pets were waiting. An Aisha scowled as Julia bumped into her.
“Sorry!” Julia squealed, and the Aisha grimaced. She was wearing a gold headband, and she turned away quickly.
Julia could hear the announcer’s voice through the curtain. An Eyrie walked off the other side of the stage, looking pleased.
“...and now we have... Julia!” the announcer said. Before walking onstage, Julia could see her family in the front row. Sendrii closed her book and gave a slight smile.
Julia blinked from the bright light, and she regained her footing. She twirled for the audience, who clapped and cheered. Then, as soon as it had begun, it was over. Julia emerged behind the curtain and her family crowded her, beaming.
“You did great, Jules,” Jaraiya said. He punched her arm.
“No kidding?” Julia asked.
“Julia?” someone said, and the Acara turned.
The red Lenny handed Julia a batch of flowers.
“Great job, Julia,” she said. “I like to see that you’re beginning to find your... individuality.” She took a deep breath and continued. “Would you mind talking to the class about your experience tomorrow?”
“Sure,” Julia said. She smiled. “Thanks again for coming.”
Before school the next day, Julia and her siblings gathered around the table for breakfast. Olivia walked in a few minutes late and handed an envelope to Julia. The Acara opened it with shaking hands and skimmed the contents.
"I didn't place," Julia said flatly. Her siblings opened their mouths, ready to comfort her, but she raised her hand.
"It's OK," she said, and repeated it. She looked up at her family, who didn't look too convinced. "You know what? I actually don't mind."
She finished the rest of her breakfast in silence, left the table, and threw the note in the trash. She picked up her backpack and walked to school ahead of her siblings.
A few hours later, the Acara stood in front of her class, clutching her essay in her hands. She’d spent two hours on it the night before, and the paper was dotted with last-minute edits.
She turned to Mrs. Small, who nodded. Julia cleared her throat before speaking.
“This past week, as some of you might know,” Julia began, “I was in the Beauty Contest. It was the first competition I’d ever done, and it was a great experience. Before I entered the contest, I thought that it would help me figure out who I was. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what defined me. Thought I didn't win, I realized that doing well in the pageant doesn’t make me who I am....”
Thanks for reading! I welcome all feedback. Happy rest of the summer. :)