Only if you've experienced a similar situation or feeling as mine, will you understand this story. It may seem "blasé" on my part to start off a story like this; it's very likely some of you will be put off; however, I think you're all entitled to a fair warning at the start of a new story. I wasn't entitled. Nobody told me what it would be like to embark upon a new adventure. Had I known, I probably would have pulled my tail in and stayed safely in my own home.
It started about ten years ago, with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. Rather hard to describe, never could put my finger on it, but in retrospect I could label it as "unease", which would still be a euphemism. My unease was deep, going far beyond my stomach. It was as if it shot up from my feet, through my head, made a swerve in my brain and settled itself in my stomach. I stopped eating for a day or two, thinking I was experiencing a simple temporary discomfort. After a while I started eating again, small bits, nibbling carefully at first, then engulfing huge chunks of food as if I were starving. No matter what I ate, didn't eat, drank, didn't drink, I still had this funny unsettling feeling in my abdominal region. This feeling seemed to spread throughout my whole body until it indefinitely took up residence in my mind. Sadness. Sadness such as I had never felt encompassed me and tethered me to my bed. I could not bring myself to move, I was so unhappy with simply breathing in the same air, seeing the same things, the same people, day in day out. I made a rash decision.
I decided to leave. Goodbye Qasala, hello new life. It was going to be brilliant! New people, other cultures, maybe even some volunteer work, new foods... a fresh start for a young Neopet. A chance for a better life, a life tailor-made for me. Not this ridiculous life I was leading then, trying to please everyone in my family, following traditions, but being miserable myself.
In the middle of the night. Carrying a small bundle containing some dry foods and a change of clothes. I was confident it would only take me a week or two to get myself settled. I went to the docks and waited in the dark, near to where the seafarers would take their break and discuss the trading routes they were about to take. Deciding quickly, I embarked upon the Merry Gadgad and hid myself in a corner of the ship, my bundle of clothes and food pressed to my chest. I breathed heavily. I'd never been a stowaway. Worse, I'd never left my village without the company of my family.
I was terrified.
The boat rocked incessantly, the waves washed over deck as a wild beast frothing at the mouth and I didn't eat or drink for the whole duration of the voyage. Two weeks. When the ship docked, I felt tears well up at the salt-incrusted corners of my eyes. For the first time in fourteen days I stood on my legs. I waited until after dark to quietly slip of the ship. My wobbly steps carried me towards the harbor. I looked back on the now dingy looking ship that brought me here and silently thanked it. Next, I broke into a run, trying to put distance between me and the sea. When my knees stopped shaking, I took a first glance at the place I would from now on call "home". I took a deep breath. It was the most beautiful fish smelling and algae rotting breath I ever took. It smelled of "new".
At daybreak I felt confident enough to engage myself into the crowded streets, intent upon blending in and adapting myself to the daily customs of this "new world". After a while of staring up at the houses and their pretty facades, I lowered my gaze to the locals and noticed I was the object of much pointing, whispering and prompt eye-averting. When first I was walking in the middle of the street with confident strides, I now found myself shying along the walls of houses or buildings, covering my face with my scarf. Even though I walked in the shadows and the Neopets crossing me in the street looked straight ahead of them, they found a way to (not) see me and make a loop of a few yards around me, as if touching me by mistake would infect them with some horrible disease.
I walked all day in the shadow until darkness fell and the streets emptied. Then alone did I allow myself to sit down on a public bench. You might think I would have been inclined to cry my soul out. I didn't. I didn't feel anything. I felt numb. And especially dumb. If ever I doubted my place in the world, it was in that precise instant, sitting on that bench, in the dark, raindrops falling on my hat, and my poor heart left to rot in Qasala.
I was of course young and impressionable, uneducated in the ways of the world and the subtle cruelty of cold harsh loneliness. I inwardly fell apart over the next few days, living in a haze, walking here and there, keeping my eyes fixedly on the ground. I had never felt this intimately close to my feet before.
After a month in the same place, which turned out to be Neopia Central, I started feeling hungry again. I needed food, but soon the little Neopoints I had would be gone and I would be left with nothing but the clothes on my back. I entered a baker's shop, ignored the frightened look of the blue Kacheek standing behind the counter, and pointed at the things I wished to buy. It wasn't smart, but I bought tons of sugary pastries. I missed sugar. In Qasala we eat so many sweets and put three spoons of sugar in our tea. The baker looked relieved when I tipped the right amount of Neopoints into his outstretched hand palm. I made to turn but reconsidered and asked him if he had a job for me. He didn't answer. I asked again, enunciating every word and speaking slowly. He shrugged and answered in a strange accent that could barely be understood. I tried to mimic his accent and reiterated my question. He first frowned and then raised his eyebrows shaking his head. "No job," he added. I sighed, thanked him and left.
I asked the same question, over and over again, in many shops. I even tried a public library, but everywhere I was turned away with a shake of the head and a smile. One day I met someone in a similar situation such as mine, who told me about the Soup Faerie's Kitchen. I marveled at this institution, but also felt shame, to go and beg for free food. I had always, always, paid for my food until then. Hunger got the better of me, and lucky it did! After two months of loneliness I finally had a chance to meet a great number of people. The Neopets helping out the Soup Faerie were friendly and had genuine smiles. There were five long tables where people could sit down and enjoy their food. some people sat alone, or huddled in their clothes, clearly indicating they wanted to be left alone. Others however were sitting in small or large groups, talking and above all laughing. Laughter! How I had missed the sound of it, how I had missed laughing myself. I wondered if I still knew how to laugh. I hovered uncertainly at the third table, holding my bowl of soup, looking longingly towards the group making the most noise.
"You seem lost," said a voice behind me. I turned around and took a few steps back. A shadow Lupe was standing in front of me, his eyes boring deep into mine.
"Come and sit with us." He gently prodded me in the back and escorted me to the group of Neopets I'd been staring at. They all turned to look at me, but instantly smiled when they saw the Shadow Lupe standing next to me. I shyly returned their smile and sat down next to a green Meerca and across from the Shadow Lupe. They picked up their conversation again and I felt huge surge of relief. I couldn't have bared to have to introduce myself in front of all those strangers. I returned the next day, and the day after that. Two weeks later I had made ten friends. Ten! And I laughed, I started off by smiling, first with my mouth closed, then gradually I revealed my teeth and finally I dared to burst out into laughter. Of course, like me, they all came from another part of the Neopian World. We stayed in our safe circle of outcasts and knew nothing or very little of the local people.
I forgot all about trying to get a job and immersing myself in Neopia Central's culture. Don't get me wrong, I didn't pass all hours of the day buried in a hovel or at the Soup Faerie's, but I sort of floated through the streets and shops without seeing all the other Neopets. I had only eyes and sympathy for my friends. The way people had shunned and ignored me, I chose to not see them. One day my luck turned. It was during the Month of Eating. Another one of my daily habits was going to the Money Tree. For those who have never been there, it's quite an impressive sight. Every minute, about fifty Neopets run like mad towards the tall majestic tree and start grabbing at branches, clawing away at the bark of the tree, trying to get one of the magical prizes that appear out of nowhere nearly every second. If you're in bad luck, a pack of grinning, laughing ghosts will swoop down on the tree and steal all the gifted items. After a month or three of practice, I became quite agile at climbing the tree, finding the right spots and branches to pull myself up and recognizing where the top donations were located.
This particular day of luck had started off with a splendid sunrise and a soft springy breeze. After months of cold and harsh winter, I became aware again of my body. My muscles, my nerves, my limbs and how stiff I had let everything become. I flexed and stretched as much as I could, jumped into a pair of trousers and shirt and headed off into the sun. I broke into a run, clearing my mind, a feeling of exhilaration taking over. Suddenly I found myself in front of the Money Tree, amongst a frantic crowd trampling one another to get to the tree. I sprinted towards the tree, knocking a few Neopets aside in the process, bent through my legs, jumped, grabbed a thick branch, and another, and then a week branch which almost caused me to fall, I kept going until I was near the top and, yes!, grabbed a bag of Neopoints. Congratulations, 10.000 NP! I heard a dozen people moan in agony somewhere in the lower branches, but I had won it, fair and square. 10.000 NP. I headed straight for the bank. The Bank manager eyed me suspiciously when he heard my Qasalan accent, until he noticed the stamp "Money Tree Donation" on the side of the bag. The Skeith then smiled, or attempted to do so, and thus I had my very first bank account in Neopia Central.
I kept some Neopoints in my pocket of course, about 500, who knew what I could buy now. I hadn't bought anything since I'd left Qasala. Subconsciously I headed straight for the place most likely to cost me those 500 NP: the shopping streets. I passed window after colorful window, each stuffed with new shiny items, be they books, clothes, potions or food. After an hour my head literally started spinning. I vaguely distinguished the words "café" and "chocolate muffins" to my left, and decided to collapse on a chair. I closed my eyes and softly pressed them with my fingers.
"What can I get you," said a young, girly voice.
I opened my eyes and had to blink a few times before the girl standing in front of me took a more precise and definite shape. I cleared my throat, hesitated and pointed at the "chocolate muffin" written on the chalk board. The blue Gelert frowned at first, closed her green eyes and shook her long brown hair out of her face, then wrote down the order. "And something to drink with that?" I panicked. I would have liked to ask for a sugary lemonade but I didn't want anyone to hear my horrible accent. They would all frown, turn and then avert their eyes. Today, on Money Tree Victory Day, I could not bear this. I settled for the next best thing: shrugging.
The Gelert smiled and whipped out a menu from her apron's pocket. "See anything you like there?" I quickly scanned the menu and pointed at "Lemon Iced Tea". She nodded, said: "Very nice talking to you", and turned to tend to the other new arrivals on the terrace.
She brought me my drink and a chocolate muffin. I had never seen such a strange pastry in my life, and it most probably showed. "So, chatty, is something wrong?" the waitress asked with a quirked eyebrow.
"No," I croaked, cringing internally.
"Are you sure?" she insisted, smiling.
"My name is Naomi."
I nodded. She waited. Why didn't she move on? What did she want from me?
"Traditionally, this is the moment you tell me your name."
"Oh," I hesitated, swallowed and decided to throw myself to Dr. Sloth's mercy. "Nasso."
"Nasso," she repeated slowly. "Pretty." Naomi smiled again, turned around and walked off.
There, now you know, my name is Nasso. I come from Qasala. I'm a Desert Lupe. I now live in Neopia Central and am completely lost.
Back to my story, however.
I mentally laid out a battle plan on how to attack this muffin-thing most efficiently and actually get to eat some of it, before it all fell on the floor. The muffin, surprisingly, allowed itself to be eaten. Only half of it fell on the floor, which I hastily picked up with a napkin. When Naomi came to clear the table, she spotted the napkin filled with chocolate but cleared the table without saying anything. I paid. She said goodbye. I said nothing.
A week later I returned to the place I now knew to be the Artist's Café. The small tables were crowded with groups of colorful Neopets, closely huddled together, chatting animatedly, hurriedly scribbling things down on a notepad or a piece of paper. The room was filled with a strange yet intoxicating kind of energy. A feverish frantic frenzy. I loved it. I longed for it. I came back every day, sometimes during the afternoon, sometimes in the evenings. I would only order one glass of lemonade, and parsimoniously sip it from time to time. Never did I have the nerve to introduce myself to someone or start up a conversation. I stayed in the shadow wishing I was a part of their groups, wishing I were someone else.
The Gelert waitress would sometimes be working, sometimes be joining a group of very excited Neopets who scribbled away madly all evening, as if they were planning to rob a bank. I smiled shyly when she was on duty or waved at me from afar. I would have liked to integrate her group, of what I later discovered to be poets, and chat and write and laugh all evening. Apparently they were a group of close-knit friends who were all trying to get published in the local paper called "The Neopian Times". It was the first time I heard of it. A newspaper filled with articles, but also stories and comics. The only way to become friends with these people, I said to myself, is to be one of them, to be a writer. It was decided, I would be a writer.
I wrote. A lot. Sent in my stories. Got published.
I was completely blindsided. Me. Published. In The Neopian Times. After getting published I felt a reticence to go back to the café. There were all those Neopets laboring to get published yet never succeeded, while I got in on the first try. Later I would be told I'm a natural. Anything I write is apparently brilliant. I don't mind, really. I just like writing. It makes me calm. I didn't go back to the Café and returned to wandering the streets aimlessly. Months went by.
It was the month of Swimming when I saw a familiar face reflected in a shop window across the street. I turned and saw Naomi standing in front of a bookshop, scanning the books in the shop's window. She didn't see me. I could have vanished easily. But I was tired of walking around my head bent and only talking to my friends from the Soup Faerie's. I tapped her on the shoulder. She was wearing sunglasses, she pushed them up over her head and smiled.
"Nasso," she said in earnest surprise. "How are you? Haven't seen you at the Café anymore. I was worried." I shrugged and mumbled that I was fine.
"Mh, anyway, I've been reading your stories in the Neopian Times." I cringed. "I loved reading them. Congratulations."
Our second conversation ever was mainly carried on by Naomi, naturally. I discovered she wanted to write, but was terrified of doing so, was world's greatest procrastinator and was addicted to strange accents which she found "colorful". When I was sure she wasn't jealous or angry of my success, I realized I had made the best friend I will ever have.
After all those years living in Neopia Central and writing for the Neopian Times, I still find it difficult to be here sometimes. Only sunshine, good food and true friends can temporarily relieve this feeling. I will always remain in exile, whilst I live here. But I am not alone.
So to you, dear stranger, I say: Open your heart.
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|The Way to Be Grey|
Grey Day: the saddest day in all of Neopia. A day set aside to honor the heartbroken, the lonely, and the pets that are, well, just Grey.