Six Names, Six Lives, Six Owners, One Terrible Tale: Part Six
In some ways, that particular visit to the pound was worse than any others, and in some ways it was better.
First and foremost, I wasn't in the corner. That was a plus. I also wasn't alone. That was also a plus.
However, the plusses just seemed to help emphasize the negatives even more. First of all, I hadn't been abandoned. I had chosen to come, and somehow, knowing that I could still be at home, with Annie, Oliver, and Marilyn, made it even worse. Each time, however, I started feeling sorry for myself, I reminded myself that I had done it for them. They would be better off now.
Surprisingly, the pound seemed to have no effect on Reijo, who was content to nibble the keychain Magenta gave him. Not even his giggle disappeared, let alone his smile or his trust. Sometimes, he would play peek-a-boo with the Chia in the next cage over. I guess his happiness was contagious, because everyone near us seemed to be a little less depressed. I actually saw smiles flickering here and there, and those were a rarity inside the pound.
I don't know, I guess Reijo was like Bhima. He was happy where he was. Nothing displeased him; he would rather be pleased by a greater or lesser degree. He loved life, he loved me, he loved everyone. All that love just showed behind his shining eyes, and sometimes I expected it to flow over and fill everyone in the pound with it, filling them up. Man, I'd like to see Dr. Death's reaction to that. Chances are he'd unlock all of our cages, feed us a gourmet meal, and release us to do as we pleased.
Sometimes, though, I actually think Reijo's love did spill over, just a little bit. Tense or sad faces would relax a little, and broken hearts wouldn't exactly be healed, but they would be taped up a bit, at least. Pets would share their food with others when before they would hoard it like starving petpets.
Once, on a particularly good day (for the pound at least) Reijo kind of smiled at me, and I kind of smiled back. Reijo couldn't really talk, but his eyes said it all. He was saying, “Even someone little, like me, can make a big difference.” Then he laughed and grabbed his own feet, toppled over backward, and actually caused a few of the smiles that were so rare.
Every day, some Neopian would come in and exclaim over Reijo's cuteness, but then they would either see the price tag or I would insist we be adopted together. Sure, everyone wanted a baby Ruki, but no one wanted a grown Xweetok dragged along.
However, about a week after our arrival, someone came who seemed to want the exact opposite.
She flipped her black hair over her shoulder as she entered the room, looking around.
“What do you think, Magenta?” she asked casually. “My last time it was a Lupe, the time before that, a Kougra, and the two times before that, Chias.”
Magenta shrugged as she led a pet into a cage. Several pets turned green with envy. The Lupe who had just entered was smiling like she just won the lottery, and big purple wings sprouted from her lavender fur. Magenta let her into the cage next to me.
“Oh, hi, Xander,” she said cheerily.
“Do I know you?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“It's me,” she said, looking confused. “You know, Filly!”
“But... but you've been adopted! And painted! Who was crazy enough to abandon a painted pet?” I asked.
“Riley,” Filly said, gesturing towards the girl. “That's what she does. She adopts pets, levels them up, raises their stats, paints them, and then returns them.”
“Why?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“To help pets like us,” Filly explained, still flashing her teeth as if she had won a beauty pageant. “Pets who keep getting stuck in the pound and can't get out.”
“Who's your buddy, Filly?” Riley asked.
“Just an old friend.”
“Hey, buddy,” Riley said. “Maybe I could do the same with you as I did with Filly. Would you like that?”
“I'd prefer not to be a faerie, thank you very much.” I pulled Reijo close to me.
Riley giggled. “Come on, you'd get adopted much faster! You could be plushie, or rainbow, or even baby.”
I glanced at Reijo, who was happily gnawing on the keyring. If I was painted, we would be more likely to be adopted together. I took a deep breath.
“Okay, but we have to come right back,” I said. “My little brother doesn't like to be left alone.”
“I think we can deal with that,” Riley said, motioning for Magenta to unlock the cage. “We'll just take a quick trip to the Rainbow Pool, and back we come, all right?”
“Sure,” I said, then turned to Reijo. “I'll be right back.” I promised reassuringly. “Stay here, okay?”
He chittered happily and resumed his attempt at making a hole in his keychain. I hugged him tightly, for luck, and bounded into Riley's arms. “I'll be back soon!” I called one last time as Riley carried me away.
Riley carried me out the door and right into an expensive looking neohome, where she placed me on the ground.
“I thought you said we were going to the Rainbow Pool!” I protested, but I didn't get to hear Riley's retort, as I was suddenly jumped on and knocked over by a furry something.
“Oh boy! Oh boy! Oh boy oh boy ohboyohboyohboyohboy!” I felt something hot and sticky rubbing my face right away, and the air suddenly smelled strongly of half-digested food. I gagged as the furry something was removed.
My 'attacker' was nothing more sinister than a big Lupe, painted checkered, giving him a lopsided look. He was bounding happily in circles.
“This is Hamlet,” Riely explained, vainly attempting to calm the pet.
“Oh boy!” Hamlet barked again. “A new friend! I have a new friend! Oh boy oh boy!”
“Calm down, Hamlet,” Riley said. “Xweetie won't be staying long.”
Ha ha, Riley. Nice play on words. Xweetok + Sweetie = Xweetie, we get it. Hurk hurk.
“Are we going to the Rainbow Pool now?” I asked. “I need to get back to the pound as soon as possible, or my brother will miss me.”
“Don't you at least want something to eat first?” Riley asked, crossing the room and opening her fridge. “We have, oh, let's see...Elephante Chicken Nuggets, Gelert Sticky Rice Cake, Hot Meerca Tea...”
“I'm really not hungry,” I insisted. “Can we go now?”
Riley sighed. “Oh, very well,” she said. “but have a snack anyway, and I'll run upstairs to get a paintbrush.” Leaving me alone with Hamlet, she jogged upstairs an out of sight.
“Xweetie will stay and be my friend?” Hamlet asked, his tongue lolling.
“I can't, Hamlet,” I insisted. “I have a little brother waiting for me at the pound, so I can't just hang around.” Hamlet's tail drooped as Riley came down the stairs holding four paintbrushes.
“I'm afraid I'm running a bit low on paintbrushes lately,” she said. “Hamlet, let's you and I go into town tomorrow and see if we can get some more.” She held the paintbrushes up to my face. “Which one do you want? It's your choice.”
I eyed the four paintbrushes critically, and then pointed to a black and orange paintbrush. “What's that one?”
“Fire,” she explained. “And the others are plushie, snow, rainbow and invisible.”
“I don't see any invisible...”
“That's because it's invisible!”
I raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I wouldn't want to be invisible anyway. No one would know I was there.”
Riley placed the invisible paintbrush on the ground. I think.
“How about the others then?” she asked. “Snow would look cute on you.”
“Wouldn't that make me look, uh... meltable?”
“Well, that leaves plushie, fire, and rainbow.”
I shrugged. “Uh... rainbow.”
“Are you sure? Rainbow is pretty boring.”
“You said it was my choice.”
“Okay, okay.” Riley angrily placed the other paintbrushes on the ground. “Let's go.”
Feeling that time was of essence, I half-dragged Riley out the door, down the street, and up to the Rainbow Pool, where a few scattered pets were splashing in the water while their owners painted them a variety of colors.
“What's your hurry?” Riley asked as she attempted to keep Hamlet away from a group of Chias painted to resemble various fruits and vegetables. I tested the water with one paw. It sure didn't feel magic. It felt like plain old water.
“Oh well,” I thought, sitting knee-deep in the colorful water. Riley picked up her paintbrush and began to run it over the top of my head. I shivered as it seeped into my fur, not only because the paint was cold, but because I could feel my fur and even my skin changing color.
“Okay, you're done,” Riley said, pulling me out of the pool. “Take a look.” I peered into a puddle some overenthusiastic pet had pulled out of the pool, probably contained in their pelt.
My face was no longer brown and blue, but blue, green, yellow, red, orange, and all the colors in between.
“Awesome!” I said. “Let's get back to the pound so I can show my brother!”
“Are you sure?” Riley said. “You could stay the night ay my place-”
“I don't want to delay!” I insisted. “Reijo is bound to get worried about me if I'm not back soon!”
“Who Reijo?” Hamlet asked, looking incredibly unintelligent.
“He's my brother, and he's waiting for me at the pound!” I insisted, actually waving my rainbow arms now.
“All right, all right,” Riley said, rolling her eyes as if I was being ridiculous. “Don't get your quiggles in a quagmire.” She grabbed Hamlet with one hand, and me with the other, and started walking away from the Rainbow Pool.
I got several stares as we started walking back towards the pound, due to my flashy pelt. A group of unpainted Usuls looked almost sick with envy. The entire way, my pelt felt a bit itchy, but I didn't mention it. I fact, I hardly noticed, as I was so focused on getting back to the pound.
I chuckled to myself. Almost every time I'd been sent to the pound before, I'd been wishing I could turn around, go home, go somewhere, go anywhere but inside that place, really. This time, however, was different, and I would have given anything for Riley to walk a little faster, a goal she and I did not share, and neither did Hamlet, who preferred to stop and sniff a bush or tree every few paces, slowing us even more.
Once we finally reached the door of the pound, I, for once, was eager to get inside. Magenta waved to Riley.
“Hi, back so soon?” she asked as I charged past her and through a door. Inside, the all-too-familiar cages were stacked along both walls, and I hurried frantically down the aisle, yelling.
“Reijo?” I called. Once I reached the opposite end of the room, I skidded to a halt. I decided that I must have missed Reijo's cage, and started back, slower this time.
It wasn't until I had crossed the room seven times, calling loudly all the way, that I accepted the awful truth.
My brother was gone. He had left without me, leaving a gaping hole in my heart, and leaving the pound a little more miserable.
To be continued...