The Abandonment Crisis
As dawn broke over the horizon of Neopia, Shadow had to face a hard truth. His owner hadn't been around in two weeks. He needed to consider that perhaps she wouldn't be coming back. The hunger in the pit of his stomach burned worse than anything, and though he knew he wouldn't die - as if something as awful as death could occur in Neopia! - the sensation hurt.
So the Wocky made a decision. He fluffed up his gray neck fur and flicked his tail from side to side. Being a shadow pet made it much easier to hide, which was excellent considering he wasn't the most forthcoming of neopets. The color was how he'd earned his nickname - his real name had far too many dashes and numbers to be of any use. What a mouthful.
He made his way out into the morning. Though pets weren't supposed to leave their homes when their owners weren't there, who was around to stop him? His paws padded against the grass. When times were hard, inflation rising and Neopoints scarce, his owner Leah had always taken him to the Soup Kitchen. Maybe that would be the best place to stay.
Checking into the Neolodge might also be a good idea, but he didn't know how to access Leah's bank account and didn't have nearly enough Neopoints on hand to pay for an extended stay. Not to mention a neopet wandering around without their owner would look a mite suspicious! So that was out.
The Soup Kitchen it was. He joined the long line of pets waiting for a morsel, doing his best to be patient. Many of them were just as hungry as him, and it wouldn't be fair if he cut, no matter how much he might want the gratification.
"Psst," whispered the Xweetok in front of him. Her fur was surprisingly matted. He flicked his tail over it to sort of smooth it down. "What's a pet like you doing in a place like this? You're painted and all. What's the big idea?"
"I don't know where my owner is. She's disappeared."
"Aw. That's rough. Hope she comes back soon, buddy. And hey, if she doesn't..." The Xweetok lowered her voice confidentially. "Just make sure you don't get caught and sent to the pound! I hear it's awful there."
Shadow shivered. He'd never been to the pound, but he'd gotten a glimpse of the Techo who ran the place. If it was up to him, he'd never end up in that place.
"That probably won't be too hard for you, though! I mean, with your shadow thing, you can camouflage and stuff. Maybe not as well as a camouflage-painted pet, but still!" She laughed at her own joke.
"Yeah. I'll be fine. What's your name, anyway?"
"Oh, um, officially it's roseamethyst3918. But that's obviously a mouthful, so people just call me Rose. What about you?"
"Ha! Fits you!"
The two continued making small conversation until they reached the Soup Faerie and her team of volunteers, who kindly gave the famished pets heaping helpings of stew. Shadow thought it was the best thing he'd ever tasted. After he'd had his fill, he bade his farewell to Rose and retired to his Neohome for a nice nap.
A week later, Leah still hadn't returned. Worry prickled in his fur, but he could take care of it. He just had to go back to the Soup Kitchen. And maybe see if he could do odd jobs somewhere to pick up spare Neopoints and items. He would be fine. Totally fine. It didn't matter that the lack of grooming and playing and battling and reading was making him so unhappy he couldn't muster a smile. Everything would be totally fine.
Food was the first priority, anyway.
He slipped out of the Neohome and out to the Soup Kitchen. The line was shorter this time, and he ate quickly and left. What he wouldn't give for someone to brush his fur or read him a story! He was so lonely it ached. Three weeks without talking to anybody was terrible. But still, being alone like this was better than the unknown horrors of the pound.
Another week passed, and another, and another. Shadow hadn't spoken to another Neopet or to Leah in ages, and now...
He was almost certain Leah had forgotten him.
The realization hurt more than anything yet. No more playful conversations, no more brushing or exploring together or beating dumb games. If possible, he found himself becoming even more unhappy. Miserable, dejected - almost ready to turn himself into the pound. People liked painted pets, right? Maybe a new owner would pick him up soon.
But no. He couldn't do that. Leah might still come back, and what would she think when she saw he'd run off?
He considered all of these options as he sat in the middle of Neopia Central, near the Money Tree. He'd been absently watching the items appear beneath the branches and be snatched by greedy claws for so long that he hardly noticed the presence sneak up behind him.
"Well, what do we have here? A Neopet all on his own? Why isn't he in the Neolodge? Or the pound, I wonder?"
Shadow whirled around, his fur fluffing up so he looked twice his size. There stood the very Techo who ran the pound. He took a step backward, growling. Somehow he didn't think the Techo ever left - it was sort of like he was a monster chained in the depths of the pound.
"My - my owner just went to buy some food!" he protested. "She'll be back soon!"
"You've been sssitting here for hoursss." A low hiss crept into the Techo's voice.
"She's buying a lot of food?"
He pulled an object from behind his back - a net. Oh no. Oh no no no.
Shadow turned and ran, his paws pounding the ground, his tail waving wildly back and forth, ears flat against his head. He did his very best to melt into the shadows, but the camouflage still wasn't perfect, especially considering what a sunny day it is. Neopia Central was far too open - the only places to hide were in or behind shops. He pressed himself against the wall of the food shop, hoping against hope that the Techo wouldn't find him here -
But his hope was in vain. A small slithering sound reached his ears, and he turned to see the Techo looming on him. "Here, Wocky Wocky Wocky."
He closed his eyes.
The voice was familiar, but he couldn't immediately place it. His eyes snapped open.
"He's with me!"
How she'd found him he had no idea, but here she was, throwing herself between him and the Techo. "I'm so sorry," she said. "Shadow likes to take walks on his own. Believe me, everyone's always all, 'Wow, are you an abandoned pet?' and he has to explain himself. It's a pain. But he's with me. I'm sure glad I found you guys! Marcie's waiting for us, Shadow! You must be getting hungry."
Shadow forced his surprise not to show on his face, nodding coolly. "That's right. I told you." He wrinkled his nose at the Techo.
"You sssaid your owner went into the food ssshop."
"I was nervous! I'm sorry for lying." He did his very best to look ashamed.
"Fine. Don't let it happen again."
And the Techo was gone.
Shadow sagged in relief. "Thanks! You're a lifesaver. And think really fast, too. Your owner's name is Marcie?"
"Nah, that's just the first name that popped into my head." Rose's eyes sparkled.
"So where is your owner?"
"Dunno! I've been on my own for so long I forgot what it's like to have an owner."
"What? You didn't tell me that in the Soup Kitchen."
"Well, it's not exactly the kinda thing a pet wants to advertise. But say, you and I could make a pretty good team. What do you say we become friends? I bet your owner will come back eventually."
"I hope so."
"If she does, you still gotta be friends with me. It's the rules."
"Oh, there are rules now?" Shadow grinned.
"Yeah. I make 'em up as I go along."
"Well, I'll be sure to follow your friendship rules. I owe you for getting me out of that scrape, anyway."
"Yeah, no kidding. What do you say we go back to your Neohome and play a couple games of cards? I'm pretty attention starved."
And as friends - and miraculously still not pounded pets - they left the shadows of the food shop.