The Lost Toy Collector
Swihart handled the toy carefully. She turned it over in her hands, rotated it until she was satisfied, and put it back on the ground. It was a small thing, no bigger than the palm of her hand. One could have easily mistaken it for a rock with its off-gray tone and smooth surface. The toy was recognizable by its eye color and the spindly hairs on its head– this was a Doctor Sloth Toy Soldier, and it wasn't supposed to be here.
Sloth, she wrote in her notepad. Missing black jacket, abrasions on the torso, fragment from the right arm missing. Arms, neck, and legs function properly.
Swihart had once liked knowing about the lives of toys. Stories once mattered, but now this toy was a specimen. She hated that and herself for becoming so detached. Swihart photographed the toy from different angles, placed it into a bag, and labeled it Sloth, Doctor 011-C. She classified the toys based on how many of them she had found and then graded them on their quality. This wasn't the first Doctor Sloth she had ever seen, and it wouldn't be the last.
Two years earlier, after completing her apprenticeship on Terror Mountain fixing broken toys, Swihart became dissatisfied with her life and considered becoming a medical examiner at the hospital in Neopia Central. Maybe if she was adept at her job in the medical field, she could move her practice and start up her own clinic in somewhere like Tyrannia or Kiko Lake. Swihart wanted to see every continent out there. She finished her apprenticeship, denied the hardworking Bori's offer about a permanent job at his toy shop, and moved to the city. She was a simple yellow Acara, and she wanted excitement. Not to be locked away in a snowy shop on Terror Mountain with a desk of Mynci puppets. Swihart was going to have a real job with a real salary in a real city, but being a medical examiner was not what she imagined.
Whenever a sick pet was admitted to the emergency ward, a receptionist hit a big red button on the wall that made a dull, clicking sound and then added a number to the digital counter. 47, 123, 215. So it went. Swihart's job was to examine the patients before the doctor arrived and then write her diagnosis on a tablet by the door. Symptoms included sore throat, swelling of the ears, electric sparks at contact, phobias, lack of enthusiasm, etc. Swihart wrote down the words "Floppy Tongue" more in one day than she would have cared to in her entire life. During her first week on the job, she caught NeoPox, not knowing that the red blotches were highly contagious and wondering why no one had bothered to tell her otherwise. It was a bad sign, and Swihart was bed-ridden for a week.
Another worker at the hospital, Nurse Kami, pulled Swihart aside one day and told her that he had stayed a medical examiner for almost four years before being promoted to nurse. The thought of promotion had never crossed Swihart's mind. She felt embarrassed.
"Problem was that I stayed hidden during my time on the job," Nurse Kami said. "You have to fight to get noticed around here."
But Swihart didn't want to fight, and she didn't want to be noticed either. This realization came to her during the night commute back to her apartment, Swihart watched two young Neopets trading crayons. Then, in the dark, at the base of another store, she saw a glimmer of light and come to find out, it was the bottom half of a Space Faerie Pull Along Toy, not that she knew what it was at the time. Space Faerie toys were rare on Terror Mountain. The stars were still shiny. This toy was new when someone had broken it. Swihart picked up the piece of the toy and took it back to her apartment. This was when her collection began.
Swihart missed toys.
On the way back to her apartment with the Doctor Sloth toy in her leather bag, Swihart stopped by the Health Food Shop and bought two sprout wraps, sliced strawberries, baked apples with custard, and tropical trail mix. She turned a glass jar of Blumaroo Gummy Vitamins in her hands and pondered how much they looked like toys. She liked the idea of edible toys.
Swihart had invited Nurse Vance over to her apartment for dinner. Nurse Vance was an aged Grundo who had been at the hospital since it opened. His dark eyes looked like black holes, and his ears were unusually short for a Grundo. His quick movements and straightforward nature reminded Swihart of her old boss, Donny, back at Terror Mountain. Sometimes, she even imagined Nurse Vance with a trailing white beard and wearing a blue hat. Nurse Vance was well-liked at the hospital, and many questioned why he never chose to become a doctor. The patients adored him, and the hospital employees respected him. Though a bit old, Nurse Vance was a wonderful candidate for med school.
Nurse Vance was the only worker at the hospital who knew about Swihart's toy collection.
He found out her secret a few months ago in spring. It had been a long week for Swihart. She was working overtime at the hospital due to the allergy season and toy collecting when her shift ended. This was before she began bagging and labeling the toys she found. During an embarrassing incident at the hospital where she accidentally stepped in the saliva of a Uni with one of the worst cases of Floppy Tongue she had ever seen, her bag went flying. Swihart landed awkwardly on the ground, barely able to catch herself in time, and the contents of her bag scattered across the tile floor. Nurse Vance, the only hospital employee in the hallway, helped her gather her belongings and then accused her of stealing from the children's lost-and-found department.
Unable to defend herself or come up with a good lie, Swihart told him the truth and begged him not to say anything. To her knowledge, he never had.
Back at the apartment, Swihart put her grocery bag on the counter and changed into more comfortable clothing. She began arranging the food on two plates in her cramped kitchen and looked at the Gallion Wall Clock by the bookshelf, which was mostly filled with mismatched toy parts. Nurse Vance would be there soon. He showed up everywhere at least fifteen minutes early.
Swihart could hear Nurse Vance's footsteps on her porch. She could picture him– his charcoal eyes and plain clothes– standing by the door and checking his wristwatch.
"Have you eaten yet?" Swihart asked.
"Not in a while," Nurse Vance said. "I had lunch at the marketplace today."
"How was that?"
Nurse Vance loved how foods from other Neopian lands were popping up all over the marketplace. He believed in supporting these small restaurants over the food shops in the heart of Neopia Central. To Nurse Vance, the marketplace was just as important, if not more important, than the larger businesses. He said eating in the marketplace was "facilitating culture" and "encouraging growth." Earlier that day, he had eaten in a small shop with colorful lanterns, tea lights, and tin cups. He said the atmosphere made up for the second-rate grilled tofu he had eaten. Nurse Vance commented that the chokato dumplings were pretty good and the green tea was served at a perfect temperature.
His constant food criticism made Swihart feel uneasy about the plate she had placed in front of him, and when she sipped from her glass of lemonade, she noticed that it tasted more sour than she would have liked. She hoped Nurse Vance wouldn't mind or say anything about her purchasing their dinner at the Health Food Shop.
"I sat next to this pop-art rendition of a ceremonial Shenkuu warrior helmet," Nurse Vance said. He never ate until his story was finished. He didn't believe in it. "I actually asked about the helmet. The waitress said it was authentic, but I knew better. I just wish I knew who made the thing."
At this, Nurse Vance leaned forward in his chair and took a bite from his wrap. His story was over.
This was the second time he and Swihart had eaten dinner together at her home, and Nurse Vance knew by now that Swihart could not cook. Everything she ate was prepared by other hands at the store. Swihart preferred simple, healthy meals. The climate of Neopia made hot meals borderline unbearable for her.
"How are the strays today?" he asked. Nurse Vance always called the toys she picked up strays as if they were petpets she had brought home to care for instead of inanimate objects.
"Not bad." Swihart shrugged. "I found Doctor Sloth and some Skeith marbles."
"A Sloth toy?"
Nurse Vance scoffed at the idea of calling Sloth a doctor. He didn't believe he deserved the title.
"Look." Swihart picked up her leather messenger bag from the floor and pulled out the toy. "It's missing a jacket."
"You found that in the Marketplace?"
"No," said Swihart. "I found it near Pizzaroo in the plaza."
Nurse Vance's eyes narrowed. Sloth toys were considered highly taboo in Neopia. Children were supposed to honor the heroes, not the villains. What kind of parent would purchase this toy? What kind of shop would sell it? With the treachery so far away in space, it was easy to forget Sloth's evil works, but Grundos never forgot. Especially not Nurse Vance. As Swihart put the toy back in her bag, she thought she saw Nurse Vance shiver from the corner of her eye.
For the moment, the pair ate quietly together. The Gallion Wall Clock ticked, and Nurse Vance's fork scraped against his plate.
"I brought you something today," Nurse Vance said. He stuck his hand into his pocket and took an unusual amount of time to produce the item. It was a small draw-string bag, worn with a slight tear on its side, and heavy.
"A Bag of Broken Neopoints."
"Correct," Nurse Vance said. He smiled at the bag and twirled it in the air, admiring his discovery. "After I found out about your collection, I thought to fact check you. I hope you don't mind. I did some reading in the Neopian Times on this Donny fellow you worked for in Terror Mountain. It seems broken neopoints are his specialty."
"They are." Swihart nodded.
"I thought you might have seen a few of these before." Nurse Vance sighed and put the bag in the center of the table. "I thought it might remind you of home."
Swihart popped some trail mix in her mouth and said, "It does. Thank you."
"Can you fix it?" Nurse Vance asked.
Swihart wondered if Nurse Vance had ulterior motives. He had never seemed like the greedy type before, but Swihart could have been wrong about him.
"No. Unfortunately, I can't," Swihart admitted. "My forte was toys. I worked only with toys. I never touched neopoints, but the items were around a lot in the shop. They were Donny's most popular product. Neopoints are easily broken."
"And lost." Nurse Vance grinned.
Swihart picked up the bag from the table and studied it.
"I haven't fixed anything in so long," she said. "I wouldn't know where to start. I don't have the tools for it."
"Hmm," Nurse Vance looked down at his plate and then leaned back in his chair. "Maybe you could bring the bag to Donny and have him take a look."
"You know if I return to Terror Mountain, I won't want to come back."
But this was not entirely true. Secretly, Swihart feared that Donny hated her for leaving Terror Mountain. She was his best student and one of his closest friends. He admired her work and would spend hours talking to her about toys and the world after the shop closed. Even though Donny always wore the same blue striped hat and talked mostly about toys or business, Swihart enjoyed their friendship and sharing hot tea with him during their evening conversations. On some level, Swihart felt like she had betrayed Donny by leaving.
"Is something wrong?" Nurse Vance asked. He ate small bites of the apple on his plate. Cheese custard was smeared just above his lip.
"No." Swihart shook her head. "Nothing's wrong. I was just thinking about the similarities and differences between my jobs."
Nurse Vance was silent. He ate and waited for Swihart to speak. He waited for her to gather her thoughts, and this is exactly what she needed. She needed the affirmation that Neopets could still wait, too.
At the hospital, pets were impatient. They wanted answers. They wanted to be better as soon as possible. Swihart was often treated like she was cause of their illnesses. Pets were demanding and rude. At the toy repair shop, toys waited. They trusted Swihart to fix them. Toys valued her. They behaved like they were her friends.
She explained this to Nurse Vance and stumbled over her words. She felt silly admitting her love for toys so openly to someone from a different profession and kept giving examples to explain exactly what she meant. Swihart talked about stitching plushies and fuzzy bears, temperamental fuzzles and their shenanigans, putting new wheels on rollerblades, and her favorite, adding snow to snowglobes.
"I don't have any snowglobes anymore," Swihart said. "I thought having one might make me miss Terror Mountain too much."
"And having toys doesn't make you miss it?" Nurse Vance laughed.
The toys didn't make Swihart miss home. They made her feel like she was back there.
Slowly, Nurse Vance pulled a rolled sheet of paper from his back pocket and smoothed it against the edge of the kitchen table. He looked at his work, content with it, and then turned the paper to where Swihart could read it. He pushed it to her, silently, and picked up a strawberry slice from his plate. At the top of the page, Swihart read "Two-Week Voluntary Resignation Form – Medical Examiner" and saw, where at the bottom, her signature belonged.