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The Golden Pet


by nativsis

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124 Morrison Street, apartment 9B, quarter to six in the morning on a cold, cold day.

     I rested in bed, arms folded, eyes staring at the cracks in the ceiling. Another day lay ahead—it was intimidating, almost, to think of all I had planned out the night before. Restocking at magic, repricing my shop, rechecking my trades, rewriting this or that column for the Neopian Times—but it was worth it, wasn't it? To become a "golden pet", that ideal I've sought since I was ten years old, I had to work hard, day after day. I had to do this and that—but it was worth it. At that moment, I had about fifteen million NP. Some of it went to food and rent, naturally, but a hefty fraction paid for books, gourmet food, avatars, and the other necessary makings of a golden pet.

     With a yawn I rolled onto my side and reached towards the shelf by the window. My paws brushed against some soft fabric; I gave it a tug and the whole thing came loose, floating above me for just a moment before descending onto the bed. Nostalgia tinted every facet of my thoughts just then, and I was tempted to grab the scarf and just rub it against my face.

     It was such a lovely scarf. The violet fabric shimmered in the early morning glow, catching the light that now flooded the apartment. Lavender thread formed swirls, curls, almost like bubbles, crawling like ivy at the edges. Though frayed at the edges and losing its glamor with every passing day, it had a certain quality. Beauty? Something evoking wanderlust, or perhaps not—because it was not another place I yearned for, but another time. Another existence, another state of being. In an instant it reminded me of an era.

     It reminded me of how quiet I once was, as a young brown Kacheek. How I went from owner to owner, pleasing none of them with my nervousness, my introversion—until at last I could no longer bear that life, until at last I resolved to live by and for myself. At the age of fourteen, I would sneak inside the high school, into the cafeteria, and curl up under a table—all just before it closed. Wrapped in a thick quilt, I ate quietly and slept quietly, drifting off to sleep with Neopian Times series spinning around in my head. I could have stayed with my younger sister Mica, but truth be told, I was afraid of the family that adopted her. They would be fine for her, a spry, creative little Kacheek, but I—well, I cannot lie. I was not necessarily afraid of them. I was afraid of depending on other people for my wellbeing. In any case, I was happy there, and they never caught me. Moreover, I could study much more easily, as I had every book at my disposal.

     It reminded me of that day, back when I was ten, back when I was just a stuttering, pint-sized scrap of fur. A cloudy Saturday that yielded no rain, it had me wandering around Neopian Central from shop to shop, café to café, sitting squeamishly in their soft chairs and hoping they would not notice that I had not purchased anything. They did, of course, and with a stream of profuse apologies behind me, I fled the shops. I had no interest in returning to my owner so soon, and so I continued my stroll through town.

     Sometime during that afternoon, I bumped into her. A beautiful striped Koi with a snug violet scarf, the sort of scarf I wanted to wrap myself in, rub my face against—it looked so warm, so comfortable.

     "U-um, oh—F-Fyora, I—I'm sorry, s-so-sorry, I—"

     "You needn't apologize so much," said the Koi curtly, picking up her fallen purse; some cards had slipped out when she dropped it. As she stared intently at a silver card, my gaze went there as well. Noticing me, the Koi explained, "It's a Gourmet Club card. Gets you into fancy restaurants free with a decent service, yes, it does. Carrying it around apparently makes you look more important to other neopets. Fyora knows why, but that it does, it does." She rolled her eyes, as if taking such things for granted. Stunned as I was, I couldn't help but look at the other cards—Neopian Book Award Pin, Mutant Pet Support Network, Beauty Contest Society, Neopian Times Appreciation Society—before she slid them back into her bag. The Koi glanced to the side with unease, then zipped up the purse and clapped a fin on my shoulder, cheerfully whispering, "Goodbye, don't get lost now."

     Biting down on my tongue, I walked over to the nearest bench and sat down soundly, feeling dazed. The Koi had class. Skill, talent, altruism. How many neopets had she left such impressions on? She'd left one on me, after all. It felt like hours in seconds as I sat on that bench, my head spinning in a blizzard of thoughts—a blizzard that caught me eleven years later, washing over me as I lay in bed.

     I sat up and looked out the window, taking in the scenery. A dusting of snow graced the lawns below and roofs above, from the Neopian Times building blocks away to the coffee shop next door.

     It was oddly bright out for a winter's day.

     ***

     Half past nine.

     All of the shop was silent amid the familiar clip, clip of Kauvara's hooves. Donning a standard witch's hat and bearing a look of pride, the Kau appeared behind the counter. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the stock: the usual bottled faeries, the obscenely overpriced slippery potion, and—most important of all, one can never underestimate this—a quartet of morphing potions. Red, green, violet, blue, all kept inside that carefully cut glass. Devoted to the increasingly enigmatic arts of alchemy and glass-making, Kauvara strove to make her products as effective and attractive as she could manage. So she toiled from dusk to dawn. In the end, it was she who dealt with the most rubbish, not us restockers. Yet in that moment, seeing her near-mocking smile, I could not help but feel offended. But enough of that thorn in my paw; she was stocking the shelves. And there it was: a Maractite Draik Morphing Potion. The tail tightly coiled around the base, the gleaming cyan markings almost randomly scattered across the glass—it was plain to see.

     The gleaming, syrupy blue elixir sloshed about in its container as Kauvara set it on the hard wood. Given the call to arms, I swiftly reached into my bag, grabbing the appropriate sum; 85,858 NP would do it. In the past my heart would have beaten, a thunderous beat, beat, beat in my chest—but I was a veteran by then. I had no reason to worry.

     It all happened within seconds. Neopoints poured out onto the counter, unleashing a loud pitter-patter that cued a mad outstretch of paws, hands, wings, what have you—and then they were gone. Pitter-patter, slam, clink—and amid the mayhem, two brown paws reached out and carried away the potion. And they were not my own.

     Immediately I was embarrassed—why, I did not know for sure—and was quick to shovel my neopoints back into my sack. The shop began to clear out, though some still aimed for the cheaper potions. Slowly I turned around, staring incredulously at the one who had taken the potion: a Gelert. As if sensing my gaze, he looked over his shoulder in amusement, then gave a snide look to the brown Kacheek whom he knew all too well.

     "A-dri-elle Sar-kis!" exclaimed the Gelert, enunciating my name as if he were an elementary teacher, showing his students an unfamiliar word. His Brightvalian accent coated every syllable with a brogue. "What a sight you are today!"

     "Klaus," I said icily. As ever, the young merchant carried an air of elitism. By all means, he had every reason to be proud of himself: bearing both quick wit and heavy pockets, he had graduated at the top of his class and had gone on to become one of the most financially accomplished people in Neopia Central. At our first meeting some months prior—a Neopian Times gala, most likely—he announced the publication of his sixth book. Shortly after, his fortune reached five-hundred million NP. Six books and five-hundred million, all at the age of twenty-five! For him, my realm of restocking and column-writing—well, it was child's play. He was an avid reseller and investor, making far more by the day than most could in a lifetime.

     He had every right to be arrogant, I suppose. But I could not stand him. With every meeting, he pressed another button of mine.

     "Didn't think I'd run into you here," said the Gelert, beaming. "Wouldn't you know it, I was just reading your latest column—in the Neopian Times, of course. Eleventh trophy, yes? Very nice. Everyone expected you to stop at ten."

     "Well!" I said, my tone mimicking his. "Surprise surprise. People aren't as simple as you think."

     With a shrug, Klaus slipped the potion into a velvet sack. "Never implied that. I would recommend you work on your prose, though. It's clipped, often sterile. If you'd only stayed at the university past the first semester—well, perhaps your columns would read better." A fiery feeling surged in my stomach—that of unbearable regret, failure, and anger, all carefully ignored in months past. But to what end?

     "I'd rather not have your pompous style," I snapped.

     Klaus narrowed his eyes. "I don't think you've read any of my work, Sarkis."

     "And what makes you think that?" I put my paws on my hips, staring directly into his bright black eyes.

     "Well," admitted the Gelert, "it just doesn't strike me as something you'd be interested in. It's more analytical. Philosophical. In-depth."

     "Really. Really, Klaus. You know what?" I snarled. Klaus glanced over at Kauvara, who only looked away. "I read your book. That trainwreck of a book. What a shock, an uneducated kid like me, reading such high literature! Get over yourself. It's garbage." Seething, the Gelert set his bag down on the counter and put his face inches from mine.

     "I don't think you're in any position to say that," said Klaus icily. "I—"

     "Cut it out, will you?" Kauvara interrupted, her hooves plodding against the wooden floor as she barged in between us. The young sorceress scowled, looking at both Klaus and me with disdain. "You know what? I don't want to know what this is about. I don't care. Just keep your quarrels out of my shop. Next time this happens, I'm putting you both on the blacklist."

     With a deep, exasperated sigh, Klaus composed himself and grabbed his bag, then exited the shop without another word. I looked over at Kauvara, then at my early-morning haul of morphing potions: Maraquan Ixi, Strawberry Meerca, Red Mynci. Not bad by any means—and yet the absence of the Maractite Draik soured it all. That sounded shallow, all too shallow. But it was not the potion itself that I wanted so much as what it represented. It was another step above what I used to be, after all.

     Was that shallow, too?

     "Kauvara," I said carefully, slinging my bag over my shoulder. Its contents clinked and rustled, the morphing potions huddled inside a forest of packing peanuts and bubble wrap. "I'm sorry. I really am. I shouldn't have snapped like that. It was just... childish of me."

     "Adri," sighed Kauvara, not sparing even a glance over her shoulder. "Have you considered taking a break from the whole restocking business?" Confused and still fuming on the inside, I stared at her. "Going by all the potions you take home, you probably have the points to take a vacation. A good, long vacation." She enunciated the last three words with great vigor, pushing a drawer shut at the last syllable. "Think about it. And maybe do something more with your life. Set some big, lovely goals that don't involve neopoints."

     "I mean, don't get me wrong," I said, taken aback by her suggestion. "I've been meaning to do that. I just... never got around to it. Something always comes up, you know?"

     "Yes, I know," muttered Kauvara. I imagined the Kau's eyes rolling. "Look. I've known you for what, three years? And you're exactly where you were then. Except maybe richer." She shook her head, then turned back to me. "Find something you actually enjoy. I've seen people who like restocking, and you know, I think they're crazy. And you? I don't know what your deal is, but—well." I glanced over my shoulder at the rest of the shop. One pet, a Christmas Peophin, rested a hoof on the windowsill, staring at the two of us.

     "Looks like we've attracted an eavesdropper!" I chuckled. At this the Peophin flinched, then rushed to the door. "Anyway! I should probably head out. I'll think it over, you know?" I grabbed the door handle, gesturing for the Peophin to go first. A flustered look ran across his face as he fled the scene.

     "Yup, sure," replied Kauvara, peering over her cauldron. "And don't come back here for another eight months, 'kay?"

     "Sure, s—wait, what?"

     ***

     Who does she think she is?

     I stormed away from Kauvara's shop, fuming. All of my thoughts ran about in disarray, bouncing off one another like in a game of pool, in that terrible mess triggered by a single shot. It was too much, the way Kauvara postured herself as so mature, so all-knowing, so high and mighty, as if she knew what was good for everyone. But did she even want what was good for everyone? In the end, wasn't it all about her? Her bank account, her craft, her customers, her blacklist. And she did not want me in her shop. She couldn't stand me, with my restocking columns that flooded her shop with rowdy greenhorns.

     "Good on her, I guess," I muttered. Ice-coated snow crunched under my boots as I trudged onward. The potions clinked inside the bag—Maraquan, Strawberry, Red. I could sell them for a fair sum, but would that matter, in the long run? I was never adept at planning from a distance.

     What would I say to the rest of the guild? How would they take the inevitable news, knowing that I had disgraced myself in the heat of the moment,? In all likelihood they would kick me out: none of them would want to be tainted by such an association. It was inevitable, and then—well, what would I do? What could I do—?

     My pace quickened. As I stormed through an alleyway—the usual shortcut to Morrison Apartments—my feet brushed against unsalted ground, a sheet of snow-turned-ice. And so surprised I was, when my boots skidded, when my balance failed, when the bag leapt out of my embrace—

     Just like that, the bag collided with the ground, with every potion breaking into large, curved shards of glass that scraped through the fabric. Blue and crimson ran together, staining the snow with violet. With sore elbows I propped myself up and brought myself to my feet, nearly slipping again in the process.

     Everything was in pieces. My own ears and eyes had confirmed it, but it seemed unnatural. It didn't make sense for everything to coincide so inconveniently, for the events to play out in such a crude manner. My thoughts raced from one theme to another: wasted neopoints, disappearing profits, opportunities passing me by, and so, so many years devoted to that ideal—

     I steadied myself against the brick wall, rubbing my eyes. The snow glistened in the sunlight, tinted with a familiar shade of purple. Purple like the scarf I adored, back in my room, purple like that very scarf of that very Koi. I wondered then: was she happy? Why was she happy, and I not? And Klaus, him too. He was everything I envied, for I could only envy him—though it had no real impact on him. He was happy. And why not me? Obviously I had done something wrong. But that "something"—

     Could that "something" have been everything?

     ***

     Eleven in the morning.

     "She banned you for eight months?" asked the blue Kacheek before me, her tone incredulous.

     "Yeah, sorry to say, Mica," I sighed, propping my chin up on my paws. "But I'm—well, I'm probably gonna have to rethink a lot of things."

     Right then, a red Mynci popped into the kitchen, ogling me suspiciously as he demanded, "What'd you do this time, Adri?"

     "Joey!" hissed Mica, sending her brother a glare worthy of Jhudora. This did not deter the Mynci, who folded his arms, flicked his bright crimson tail, and sent his own death glare at Mica.

     "Yeah?" sneered Joey. In annoyance I tapped my foot against the slick vinyl floor, then winced at a twinge of pain. Mica continued staring deep into his eyes, as if to find the innermost depths of his childish soul, until at last she stuck out her tongue. The Mynci clapped a hand to his chest, as if mortally wounded, and ran out of the kitchen with a trail of dirty footprints behind him. "Mom, Mom, MOM! Mikey did the thing!"

     With eyebrows raised and smile crooked, I asked, "What's this 'thing', now?"

     "Oh, that," said Mica with a congested sniff. "So Mom took Joey with her to work, right? In walks Mr. Boss Dude, this beanpole of a Kyrii, and Joey starts blowing raspberries at him, making weird faces at him. Boss Dude's furious, like he's never seen a four-year-old before. Anyway, stuff happened, and Mom gave Joey a big lecture about how he should never, ever, ever" — she assumed a grave expression — "ever stick your tongue out at someone. But! But, but, but. Joey doesn't know that I— the all-powerful older sister—get to do it." With a look of immense pride, I put a paw on her shoulder.

     "Mica," I said dramatically, bringing her into an embrace. "You have grown into a splendid young Kacheek. I am so proud of you."

     "Haha! Thanks." She beamed as I released her. "So what's actually going on with Kauvara?"

     Biting down on my tongue, I looked over the kitchen, my gaze dancing between the potted plants that hung from the ceiling, wandering around the glass table by the window. It was so hard to find the best combination of words, the most appropriate way to describe how one Kau demanded that I reconsider what had, for almost a dozen years, settled in the very fiber of my being. How could I explain it to her? Would she really understand? Intellectually, for sure—she was a smart child, having begun her first year of high school on a good footing. But on an emotional level, would it even make sense to her?

     "Kauvara gave me a word of advice," I said, feeling a tightness in my throat. "About the whole 'golden pet' thing. So I thought it over on my way here, the wind in my face and everything. And I realized, well..." Mica leaned forward, thin blue arms folded tightly as she peered over at the sack of potions behind me. Blue stains spattered the fabric; near the top of the bag there was a light tear. "I wasn't doing something that made me happy. I feel like I've wasted everything." The blue Kacheek shifted in her chair. "So granted, when Kauvara kicked me out, I was mad first and foremost at her, because—ugh, no, that was so stupid." I rubbed my eyes with the back of my paw.

     "That's cool, though," insisted Mica, leaning forward. She then hesitated, as if regretting her words. "I mean, I guess it doesn't feel great, but I mean..." I nodded, silently urging her to continue. "If this was really bad for you, which it looks like it was, isn't it good that you, well... you know it's bad now. Ugh, I'm probably not making sense here."

     "No worries." I flicked my paw. The tightness in my stomach subsided. "And it was going to happen sooner or later. I just needed some tough love from Kauvara and the universe." With a sigh I closed my eyes and tapped a paw against my chin, relating all that had transpired between then and now.

     ***

     Half past eight in the evening in a poorly-heated apartment. The violet scarf rested on my windowsill, untouched since that morning.

     After leaving Mica's place, I had trudged through blankets of snow untouched by shovels, at last arriving at my apartment. My restocking bag lay in soggy rags near the foot of my bed. Truth be told, I had devoted the bulk of my afternoon to rummaging through cardboard boxes, searching for something I could sell. I thought of alternate sources of income. I thought of Mica, of Joey, of Kauvara, of Klaus. At one point I unrolled a few issues of the Neopian Times, peering over my columns with a red pen at the ready. As much as it hurts my pride to say it, Klaus was right about my prose.

     If you'd only stayed at the university past the first semester—well, perhaps your columns would read better.

     But I really didn't have a choice back then. My funds were low, and with every attempt to make ends meet, my grades had suffered. It had been only a matter of time before the scholarship would slip out of my paws.

     Pensive, I cradled my face in my paws. How much did my bank account hold back then? It couldn't have exceeded a million neopoints. It was probably a paltry 750k. Tuition at the university was around 500k; unmanageable then, but pocket change now.

     A wide grin spread across my face, and in a moment of fervor, I found myself jumping up and, nearly driven to shout, squeaked out: "Yes!"

     It wasn't for nothing, was it? Never mind how long it took me to realize this—those years of scrounging, then gaming, and at last restocking and reselling had brought me to this. And I had made so many mistakes, too many to count, but they mattered little, in the end. Musing over the past was good only if there was something to be gained from it, some new understanding. The future was still foggy, no doubt, and yet something had dissipated. Because I had something I had before refused to acknowledge: I had options.

     After all those years, I was ready to go back to university.

The End

 
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