The auction house echoed with life, its high stone walls and wood floors reverberating with the sounds of arguing people. Auctioneers shouted over one another as lots rose in price and bidding times ran out.
Amongst all the chaos stood a scruffy yellow Yurble, seemingly oblivious to the activity around him. In one paw he absently fingered a bag full of Neopoints, and he stared longingly at something on one of the long wooden auction tables.
A heavyset blue Scorchio wearing a rather bright red and green visor and matching vest approached from the other side of the table. “Can I help you sonny?” he asked jovially.
The Yurble looked up, startled out of his reverie, “Oh, no, thank you, I'm just looking.” His eyes wandered back to the baby paint brush sitting on the table in front of him, and he looked at the high price tag sadly.
Suddenly a voice, barely heard over the noise in the hall, called his name. “Timmett! Come on, we're leaving!”
Sighing, Timmett turned and headed in the direction of the voice. A tall, thinly built blonde woman, surrounded by three other pets, stood waiting in front of the large oak doors. “Come on Tim,” she said kindly, resting a hand on his head as she guided the four pets out of the auction house and into the bright sunlight.
“What were you looking at over there?” Timmett's mother, Julie, asked.
Timmett's brother, a green Shoyru who stood almost half a head above Timmett, pushed his way forward and smirked, “Same thing he's always looking at,” he said, “That dopey baby paint brush.”
“It's not dopey, Sam, leave me alone,” Timmett snapped, kicking at a stone in his path.
“I hate to break it to ya Tim, but it kind of is,” Timmett's sister Rosemarie said, loping along beside him. The Cybunny fluffed up her red fur collar and asked, “Why are you so obsessed with being painted baby anyway? Wouldn't it get annoying, having everyone do everything for you all the time?”
Before Timmett could speak, a voice behind them interrupted, “Of course not, that's what the old lazy bones wants! He should be painted royal instead, he'd still get people waiting on him hand and foot, but he wouldn't have to deal with the humiliation of having other people feed 'im and change his diapers!”
Timmett looked over his shoulder and glowered at the blue Bori lumbering along behind him, “Shut up Dweedle, leave me alone!” he said hotly, his thumb making its well-worn path to his mouth before he could stop it.
Sam spotted Timmett's engagement in his infantile habit immediately and laughed, “He wants to look like a baby so he can act like one an' get away with it!”
Timmett's cheeks burned as he slid his thumb from his mouth and balled it into his fist at his side.
“Kids, stop picking on your brother,” Julie said sternly, quieting Sam's laughter, “There's no need to tease him because he wants something you don't understand.”
That afternoon when they got home, Timmett made a beeline for his room and closed the door. He had turned his bunk bed into a fortress by hanging a sheet over the side of the top bunk, creating a fourth wall that enclosed his bottom bunk snugly, and it was here, into the soft and cosy darkness, that he retreated on bad days, as he did today, pulling back the bedsheet curtain and crawling into his cave.
Sighing heavily, Timmett flopped back on his bed, staring at the wooden slats that held up the mattress above him. He had never stated the reason to anyone why his strongest desire was to be painted baby for fear that they would ridicule him more than they already did. He wanted to become a baby for the simple reason that they looked so happy, so completely content with the world and everyone around them. It seemed that for them, nothing could ever go wrong, and he wanted that, that feeling of complete contentment and total security, the sense of assuredness that nothing could possibly go wrong and that he would always be surrounded by people who loved him and would take care of him.
Sitting up slowly, Timmett put his thumb in his mouth and reached behind the curtain for his bag of neopoints that sat on his bedside table. He jangled them in his free paw, but didn't tip them out; he knew exactly how much was there.
For the past five months – ever since the idea of being painted baby had occurred to him after watching how happy the neighbour's babies seemed – Timmett had been saving his pocket money in the hope of affording the paint brush he was after. Unfortunately, as he only received a thousand neopoints every week, he calculated that it would take him 9.6 years to reach the 500,000 he would need.
Tossing the bag to the end of his bed with despair, Timmett flopped back on his pillow and sighed again, his thumb bringing little solace from the bleakness of such a long wait as that.
That night at supper, Timmett sat quietly, dripping his tomato soup absently from his spoon.
Sam interrupted his thoughts, “Why so quiet? You hoping that if you concentrate you can make Boochi appear?” he snickered.
“No,” Timmett said distractedly, missing the teasing as he continued watching his soup drip into his bowl. He'd given up waiting for Boochi a long time ago, having spent the first two months of his baby campaign standing in the garden, making himself as obvious as he could in the hope that the baby Bruce would appear and grant his wish.
That night as Timmett lay in his cave, reading, he heard a knock on his door. He stuck his head out the flap and called, “Come in,” really preferring to be left alone.
Julia appeared, smiling; she seemed to be holding something, though Timmett couldn't see what it was from where he lay.
Holding out her hand, Julia said, “Come on out of there my little cave-dweller, I have something for you.”
His interest piqued, Timmett pulled back the bedsheet and slid off his bed. He stood in front of his mother expectantly as she pulled out his desk chair and sat on it, lowering herself to his eye level.
“I was going to save this for your birthday,” she said, “But you looked like you could use some cheering up tonight.” Julia produced a small white shoebox from behind her back and handed it to him.
Timmett took it slowly and pulled off the lid. He was so shocked when he saw its contents that he almost dropped it. There, nestled in a bed of white tissue paper, lay a baby paint brush. Timmett stared at his mother, speechless.
“Do you like it?” Julia asked.
Timmett nodded dumbly, lifting it gently from the box and running a paw along the silky pastel blue ribbon tied to its handle.
Seeing that it was really real and not just a figment of his imagination, Timmett's face split into the widest grin Julia had ever seen. “Oh thank you!” he cried, throwing his arms around his mother's neck, “Thank you! Come on!” he cried, tugging her out of her seat, “Let's go to the rainbow pool right now!”
Julia laughed, “Hold your horses, it's too late to go now, but we can do it first thing tomorrow, how's that?”
“Yes!” Timmett cried, leaping into the air with unbridled joy, “Oh, I have to go tell the others!” he cried breathlessly as he dashed from the room and ran yelling down the hall, “Sam! Rosemarie! Dweedle! Come see what I got!”
Timmett couldn't sleep at all that night, he tossed and turned in his cave, turning on his bedside lamp every five minutes to look at his paint brush, grinning with delight from behind his thumb every time he saw it lying there.
At seven o'clock the next morning, long before anyone else was up, Timmett jumped from his bed and grabbed his brush, throwing open his door and running down the hallway. “Wake up everyone!” he shouted at the top of his lungs, “Time to go to the rainbow pool!” He did this over and over again until eventually, one by one, his siblings emerged from their rooms, looking tired and cross.
“Can it you weirdo,” Sam snapped, “Some of us are trying to sleep.”
“Not anymore!” Timmett cried, “It's time to get up so we can go to the rainbow pool and I can get painted baby!”
After considerable poking, prodding and general harassing, Timmett successfully got his family out the door.
As he watched his brother skipping gleefully ahead of them, Dweedle asked his mother derisively, “So if I mope around and stop talking and look miserable all the time, will you buy me a Halloween paint brush?”
“Dweedle don't be like that,” Julia said crossly, “This was more than just an early birthday present for your brother, he felt wrong the way he was, like part of him was missing, a part that he could get back by becoming a baby.”
“So does that mean if I say I feel like I'm missing a part of who I am because I don't have an awesome skull face and ribs sticking out of my shell, you'll buy me a Halloween paint brush?” Dweedle asked, half in scorn, half with mildly hopeful curiosity.
“No,” came his mother's terse reply, “You want a Halloween paint brush, start saving your money like Timmett did, or have it out with Santa Claus.”
Sam sidled up beside his brother as Julia quickened her pace to keep up with Timmett, “Boy she sure told you,” he smirked.
“Shut up,” Dweedle muttered.
Finally, after what felt like ages, they reached the rainbow pool. Timmett ran toward it and leapt off the bank, cannonballing into the shimmering water. It felt warm and velvety, not like ordinary water at all. It made Timmett immensely happy, and for a moment, he was reluctant to surface until he remembered that he wanted to see his transformation.
As he kicked toward the surface, he realised that his legs were suddenly considerably shorter than they had been, and the fuzzy paws that now stretched in front of him, pulling him toward the light, were a pale teal colour instead of their usual yellow, and they were tiny.
Timmett finally broke the surface of the glittering pool and swam to shore, struggling under the weight of his waterlogged fur as his shrunken limbs fought to keep him from submerging.
Finally he reached the edge of the pool and grasped at the grass, hauling himself out. He shook out his fur until it fluffed up, making him look like a teal fuzzle.
Julia grinned and approached him, and Timmett noticed how enormous his family now looked. Where he had once stood almost at his mother's chest, now he came barely halfway up her calf, and Sam, before a mere half-head taller than Timmett, now looked big enough to flatten him.
Julia scooped the still-damp Yurble into her arms, “You're so cute!” she cried, carrying him to the pool so he could see his reflection.
Timmett looked down at the tiny form shimmering below him and beamed; it was just like he'd imagined a thousand times over. He reached up and squeezed his mother round the neck, “Thank you,” he murmured, mercifully finding his powers of speech still intact.
Given that Timmet's legs were now far too short to walk long distances, Julia carried him home, and he did what he'd wanted to do for a very long time; he nestled himself in her arms, put his thumb in his mouth, and closed his eyes.
From below him, Timmett heard Rosemarie's voice, “Y'know, that thumb sucking business is a lot cuter now he's that size.”
Timmett grinned to himself; five minutes of being a baby, and already things were looking up.
They arrived home and immediately Timmett ran to his room to get a look at himself in his floor-length mirror, feeling more giddy and alive than he'd done in ages.
Julia followed him and found him with his nose and paws pressed up against the glass as he smiled at his new reflection, examining every inch of his new frame. She smiled, then suddenly noticed his bed. “Hmm,” she said, “Looks like we're going to have to go shopping, your motor skills might not be what they used to, we don't need you rolling out of bed every night, better replace it with a crib.”
Timmett looked up at her, “But what about my cave?” he asked.
Julia smiled, “Don't worry,” she said, “I know just how to make you a brand new cave with your new bed, you'll see.”
Timmett wasn't sure what she meant, but he trusted her. “Okay,” he said.
They set out once again, this time on the way to the shops, having dismantled Timmett's bed and put the pieces in the shed for later use.
Julia led them all to a large department store and made a beeline for the furniture section, her three ambulatory kids following somewhat begrudgingly behind; they hated shopping when it wasn't about them.
Eventually Julia located an employee and said, “I'm looking for a crib, do you know where they might be?”
The Kacheek glanced at Timmett nestled in his mother's arms and smiled, “Sure,” he said, “Just follow me.” As they navigated the aisles, he asked, “New family member or new paint job?”
“New paint job,” Timmett replied in his equally new high squeaky voice.
“Lucky kid,” the Kacheek said approvingly, “Ah, here we are, as you can see, we have a number of different styles to choose from, though I wouldn't recommend the bubble one; they look nice, but they don't last long.” He left Julia to her perusing, and she put Timmett down, “Take a look at what they've got and tell me which one you like,” she said.
Immediately Timmett made a beeline for the plain wooden one on the end that best matched the colour of his old bed, “That one,” he said, pointing at it.
“Alright,” Julia replied, “You kids stay here and I'll find someone to help with this,” she gestured at the large cardboard box that she'd never be able to lift by herself. She disappeared, and Timmett wandered down the next aisle to explore. His siblings sighed with boredom, hoping it would all be over soon.
Eventually Julia returned with the same Kacheek who had helped them earlier, and he hefted the box onto a large flat trolley, pushing it to the cashier's for them.
Timmett returned moments later with a fuzzy yellow blanket draped over his head like a hood as he clutched two corners in his paws.
Julia smiled, “That's adorable,” she chuckled, “You like that blanket?”
“Alright then, I suppose – ”
“Hey, no fair,” Sam interjected, “How come he gets new toys just 'cause he's a baby?”
Julia glanced from Timmett to her other three kids, then nodded, “Alright, you three can pick out one toy each, something small though!” she called as they scattered before she'd finished her sentence.
Alone with his mother, Timmett nuzzled his new blanket as he wrapped his arm around her leg and pressed his cheek into her shin.
It wasn't long before Sam, Dweedle and Rosemarie returned, each clutching their new toys excitedly. Sam and Dweedle fought with their Galgarroth and Captain Scarblade action figures, and Rosemarie looked proudly at the box containing her Tyrannian usuki as they made their way to the register.
When they got home, Julia set up Timmett's crib where his bed used to be, and put him in it to see what he thought. His first question was, “How do I turn it into a cave?”
Julia smiled, “Wait here, I have just the thing.” She disappeared and returned moments later with the old bedsheet Timmett had used to create the fourth wall of his old cave, and draped it over the crib. “How's that?” she asked.
Timmett looked around at his dark, cosy surroundings, “It's perfect,” he smiled, lying back with his thumb in his mouth as he used to do before, “There's only one problem, how do I get out?”
“I have a solution for that too,” Julia said.
Timmett could hear her footsteps disappearing, and a moment later she returned and handed him an old wooden towel rod, “I found it in the shed, I kept it after we replaced the rod in the bathroom in case we ever needed it again. See? You just reach up to this corner and unhook the latch,” she said.
Timmett stood up, wielding the large towel bar as he reached up to the far corner of his side rail and nudged the latch holding it up. It came crashing down with a loud bang and he jumped back, startled. “Hmm,” he looked at it appraisingly, “Gonna have to work on that.”
That evening, they established that dinner was going to pose rather a problem given Timmett's newly diminished size, but eventually rectified the problem by stacking several volumes of the Encyclopaedia Neopia on top of one another, atop which Timmett perched somewhat precariously. He was far more lively and animated than he had been the night before, and indeed, than he had been in a considerably long time, and one by one, his siblings began to suspect that their mother had it right when she said Timmett had felt that part of him was missing before he was painted. None of them would ever admit it, but they were pleased to see their brother so happy; it had been a dreadfully long time since they'd seen so much as a smile on his face.
That night as Julia came to put Timmett to bed, she pulled the quilt up to his chin as he buried his face in his blanket. “Here,” she murmured, “I figured you wouldn't really be able to use glasses for your water any more so I got you this.”
Timmett looked up as his mother tucked a bottle into the corner of his crib. He smiled at its little yellow Bruce face and blinked at Julia sleepily, “Thanks,” he murmured, sliding his thumb into his mouth as he closed his eyes.
That night, Timmett's dreams became dark. He found himself in the haunted woods surrounded by eerie shapes and chilling noises. Everywhere he turned, he saw fleeting images of gruesome pets, some ghosts, some zombies, some too frightening to determine. He was trapped. Eventually Timmett heard a low snarling behind him, “Run baby Yurble, run before I catch you,” it whispered.
Timmett whipped around and saw the blood-red eyes of a Darigan Lupe glowing from the darkness. It crouched to pounce, and was almost on top of him when Timmett awoke in a cold sweat.
He sat up slowly, sucking his thumb and clutching his blanket as he peered around the darkened room, his nerves frazzled, leaving him trembling. Timmett couldn't remember the last time he'd been this afraid of a dream. Maybe it was his paint job; babies felt joy and happiness more strongly than anyone else, it stood to reason that they felt fear and sorrow in the same way.
Finally getting up the courage to move, Timmett reached for the towel bar that lay at the end of his bed and probed at the latch on his crib until he felt it click. He grabbed the heavy wooden gate by the bars to keep it from crashing to the ground as it had done earlier, and lowered it gently until it touched the floor.
Not giving himself time to chicken out, Timmett jumped to the ground and scuttled to his mother's room. He tiptoed inside and stood at the side of her bed, tugging on her duvet until he heard her stir.
Mumbling something incoherent, Julia switched on her bedside lamp, blinding them both. Squinting in the light, she peered over the side of the bed, “Timmett, are you alright?” she asked.
Timmett wrung his blanket through his paws anxiously and murmured, “I had a bad dream.”
Julia smiled softly and reached down, picking him up. “Come here baby,” she said, lifting him into bed beside her, “Tell me what it was about.”
Timmett relayed his dream, and as he did so he found himself becoming less afraid, until all he felt was the warmth of his mother's presence and the heavy drowsiness of sleep. He nestled into the crook of her arm and breathed in the warm cottony scent of his blanket.
As he closed his eyes, he imagined the days to come, the fact that he would get to spend the rest of his life in this blissful state where the happiness was sweet and pure, and the fears and sorrows were simple enough to be driven away by a mother's touch. Timmett knew then, that he had a phenomenal future ahead of him.