The Bag: Part One
Every window of every shop sparkles with red and green lights, candy canes and artificial snow. There's a Christmas tree in the doorway of every business building I pass, and even big box stores are hung with lights; large inflatable holiday characters on the roofs of many of them, waving at shoppers in the month of Celebrating wind, sending them subliminal messages to come in and buy. Neopians young and old line the sidewalks and fill the streets, some carrying gift boxes and shopping bags, some still on the hunt for that perfect gift. Some neopets are smiling, enjoying this most joyous and festive season.
Other neopets are glowering, frowning and cursing, appearing to be in downright hysteria that they've yet to finish their shopping list. This is a picture of Neopia Central one week before the Day of Giving.
It's incredible, really. I think to myself as I wander up and down these streets, having a Jhudora of a time trying to find something that apparently cannot be found. If the Haunted Woods had this size of a shopping district, we would be much more financially successful a land.
Not that the Haunted Woods are not financially successful. But a bigger shopping district would definitely generate more money to the economy, and we could always use more money in the economy. Though I suppose this is a rather stupid thing to say. Money makes the world go 'round, as hard a truth as it is for some individuals to come to grips with, and every land and its inhabitants could always use more of it. It's one of the unwritten rules that governs the universe.
Of course, I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself here. My name is Jonathan Stoke, and I am a Halloween Lupe. I'm a businessman, a seller of Spooky Foods, a type of cuisine that is not at all popular in Neopia Central, or really any part of Neopia besides the Haunted Woods. However, if I am successful today, all of that may very well change. Today I'm to meet with the staff of the Neopian Food Shop, and present them with the idea of selling Spooky Foods in their stores. If they accept my proposal, Spooky Foods will surely become mainstream. Here's how the concept works:
They say Neopia Central is the shopping capital of Neopia, and with good reason. If a product is any good, it'll appear for sale in Neopia Central, and neopets from all over the world will flock to the great city to see the new and exciting product before it's sold on the worldwide market. If Spooky Foods make it onto the Neopia Central market, let's just say I know they will make it onto the worldwide market as well. Neopets from far and wide will adore our delicious, scary treats, I'm sure of it. If this meeting goes as planned, Spooky Foods will hit the shelves of the Neopian Food Shop in the new year. ...If I can even get to the meeting, that is.
The streets are practically packed to the brim with carriages, but locating a taxi cab is proving to be nearly impossible. If the business district wasn't such a ways away, I would walk there. But it's at least a forty-five minute journey by carriage, and the weather report, as well as the dark clouds hanging over the city today, gives warning of heavy snow.
I stop for a moment at a street corner in front of a shop window that's shining particularly bright with white lights and silver and gold ornaments; a thick strand of golden tinsel around the window's perimeter. I find myself gazing into that window for a moment, wondering how it will look in a few hours when it's dark out, and the lights will shine for all they're worth without being overshadowed by the sun. Suddenly a woman, a split Xweetok comes up behind me. She opens the door adjacent to the window and goes inside the little shop. I glance over my shoulder in the direction the Xweetok came from, and see a taxi cab, unoccupied save the driver sitting idly at the curb.
"Excuse me, sir!" I call to the orange Acara on the stand. "I need to get to the business district, 1254 Sandway street. The, uh..." I take a folded piece of paper out of my pocket and squint at the tiny printed address it contains. "The Keatons building." I finish. How come I can never remember that name?
About ten feet away, standing on the corner in the shadow of the building is a little girl, a plushie Kacheek with long, fair hair, carrying something large — a shopping bag maybe, in both arms. The little girl looks at me, and steps out of the shadows, as if she wants to say something but instead chooses to remain silent.
"That's a long trip." says the carriage driver. "You sure you need to get there? We're supposed to be in for some snow." The Acara puts extra emphasis on the word 'some'.
"Oh yes, I'm sure I need to get there. I have an appointment for six o'clock sharp. As long as we can get there by then, I should be fine."
I give the driver my neopoints and get into the backseat of the carriage. As we start to drive away, I see the plushie Kacheek on the side of the road, and I can now see that what she is carrying is not a shopping bag, but a large, brown paper bag; the kind of bag you might bring home sweets in from a bakery, but much larger — almost a third of the size of the small plushie Kacheek.
That's very strange. I think to myself, and I watch as the small neopet gets smaller and smaller as we drive away, keeping my eyes fixed on the bag she carries until she disappears into the crowd.
We pass a sea of faces as we make our way through the traffic. Some are happy, some are not so. Parents hold on tightly to the hands of their children as they cross the street, often parents and children holding onto a box or a bag, or some other wrapped package in their free hand. For some reason this makes me chuckle inwardly. Neopia's shopping capital is indeed deserving of its title. If I can just convince those big shot product managers to sell Spooky Foods in their stores...That would practically generate enough profit for the Haunted Woods to have their own shopping district the size of Neopia Central's! I smile as thoughts of huge billboards advertising our product dance through my head. The publicity that will come to the Haunted Woods, the money... Well, naturally the money.
The carriage stops momentarily to let a legion of shoppers cross. In the crowd on the sidewalk, I see the Kacheek girl again, and I wonder how she could possibly have made it all this way on foot in such a short time. She must have been sprinting.
Before my mind can even comprehend what's going on, the little Kacheek bursts out of the throng, and comes running into the road. "What does she think she's doing?" I wonder aloud. The shoppers pass, and the carriage driver tells his Whinnies to move again. To my complete horror, the Kacheek starts to chase after us down the street. I holler for the driver to pull over. "Stop! There's a little girl trying to catch up with us!"
The driver pulls over to the side of the road, and the Kacheek approaches the carriage, the huge paper bag still in both her arms. She sets the bag down by her feet on the pavement and takes a piece of paper out of her coat pocket, showing it to the driver.
At least I'm not the only one who can't remember addresses. I think to myself. Can't she see this taxi is occupied though?
It comes as a total surprise to me when the little Kacheek climbs into the carriage with me. "Oh. Um, Mr. Driver, what is the meaning of this...?"
"She said she needed to get to the business district too." replies the orange Acara from the stand.
"I see. How did you know I was going to the business district?" I ask the young Kacheek. "And if you heard me back there, why didn't you get in then? Don't you know it was extremely dangerous what you just did? Where are your parents? Aren't you a little young to be travelling by yourself?"
The little girl does not answer me. She puts the bag down on the seat beside her, and motions to her mouth, moving her hand in a circular motion as if to signify something coming out, or not coming out.
"Are you mute?" I ask her, letting my mouth go before I even realize that this may have sounded terribly rude.
The plushie Kacheek nods, picking up the bag again and sitting it on her lap.
"I'm sorry." I apologize. "I didn't realize." I hope I have not offended her in any way. I would like to change the subject, but what can I possibly say to a little girl who can't answer me back? I can't ask her where she's going, so I decide to tell her what my business is in Neopia Central.
"I hope the snow holds out for a while. I have an appointment for six o'clock at the Keatons building... It's a meeting, actually, with the staff of the Neopian Food Shop. I'm a sales representative of Spooky Foods, from the Haunted Woods. It seems the Food Shop is interested in selling our product right here in Neopia Central. It's a huge opportunity, for everyone in the Haunted Woods, really, and it's my job to convince them that selling Spooky Foods in their stores is indeed the right decision. So if I don't get there on time, well, I won't be a happy camper."
There's something about having a conversation with someone who you know cannot answer you. Or if the other party cannot answer, can it really be considered a conversation at all? The girl looks at me and smiles, and I suppose she's interested. Of course she can't ask questions, or contribute anything other than a smile or another facial expression, or gesture. I can't imagine how it must be, being so restricted in ways of communication. Suddenly something occurs to me. "Do you speak sign language?"
The plushie Kacheek nods, and smiles bigger than before, as if she is delighted that someone actually thought to ask.
"I know a bit of sign language." I tell the silent neopet. "I had a friend who was deaf, back in university. Unfortunately I forget a lot of it by now."
The plushie Kacheek starts to sign to me, her hands moving very quickly, all the while trying to balance the bag between her arms. I'm embarrassed to say I have no idea what she's saying. "I... I don't understand you." I tell her abashedly.
She points to me, and my hands, and starts to sign again, more slowly. I don't know why, but I get the feeling she's asking me what I do remember.
"I don't remember a lot." I answer, acting upon my first instinct. "I know the sign for flower." I press my thumb to my index finger and hold it up to my nose like I'm smelling a flower. "And book, and rain." I go through each of the signs, and the plushie Kacheek claps her hands. I laugh. "I know it's not much, but I admire Neopians who can memorize all those signs. There's so much to know; it must be a thousand times more difficult than learning spoken language."
The little girl shrugs her shoulders and tilts her head to the side, and I suppress laughter at the endearing gesture. A very pressing question is still yet to be answered: why is such a young girl travelling alone? She can't be more than ten, or maybe twelve years old. Her long blonde hair is draped over her petite shoulders, and it encircles her tiny face, her cheeks and nose a rosy pink colour from the cold. The purple hat she wears is too big for her, and it sits on top of her wide blue eyes, sometimes half covering them when she moves certain ways. She is indeed a very sweet child, and the thought of her running around Neopia Central by herself is a bit unsettling. The great city, after all, is no small Meridellian town, so to speak. I would like to ask her these things, but I don't know if it's physically possible for her to answer.
So for the next portion of our journey there's little interaction between the Kacheek and I. I'm not a quiet man by nature, and it's difficult to keep my mouth shut knowing there's an animate being across from me, and there's little else to do at this point in time but to talk to it... Of course, I could easily gab about myself, the city, the weather, the carriage, or the fast approaching Day of Giving if I wanted to fill the empty silence that's tearing away at our ears. But I know this girl can't answer me, and one can only smile and nod a given number of times before the smiles become forced, and the nods start to mean anything but 'Yes sir, I agree with you. Keep talking.'
But as we bump along the jam-packed street, confined in stop-and-go traffic once again, my wandering mind begins to fill with questions regarding the Kacheek and the large paper bag she holds in her lap. It is a very large bag...
The Kacheek notices me eyeing her, and she shifts uncomfortably.
"I'm sorry." I say weakly. "I was just thinking, I haven't even told you my name. I'm Mr. Stoke. I apologize, that was rude of me not to properly introduce myself."
The girl carefully unfolds the rolled up paper bag in her lap, and removes a tiny pink mitten with the name 'Alice' stitched in purple thread up the side.
"Alice." I read aloud. "Is that your name? It's very pretty."
The plushie Kacheek smiles and raises her right hand to her face, touching her fingertips to her mouth, and then bringing her hand down in my direction — the sign I recognize to mean thank you.
"You're welcome." I reply, wishing I remembered the sign for this phrase. "So Alice, what is it that you're carrying in that big bag of yours? It must be awkward to carry. It's almost half as big as you!"
I lean forward to peek through the slight opening of the bag, and Alice shakes her head, pulling it away from my view. "Uh, terribly sorry." I say, a bit taken aback, realizing this is the fourth time I've apologized to this girl. I obviously don't know how to talk to mute people. "I guess that isn't my business. I-- I won't ask again."
Yet, as the traffic starts to move again, and we are about to pass out of the shopping district and into a less populated area of town, I find myself becoming increasingly curious about the bag. I'm like a kid before the Day of Giving, who knows they have a present under the tree, but are told they can't unwrap it until the 25th. Telling me I can't unwrap its secrets only makes me want to know all the more. I know it's childish of me, but I just can't help but wonder.
And then the snow picks up, and the roads start to become slippery. I don't know if something spooked the Whinnies, or if it was ice under the wheels, but when the carriage skids out of control, practically tipping over on its side, Alice and I are slammed up against the inside wall of the carriage, falling in a pile on the floor when the carriage tips back flat onto its wheels.
"Are you all right?" I ask Alice urgently. The little girl nods, and scrambles to pick up her bag, which has landed on the floor beside her.
I get up to see if the driver is all right. To my alarm, I can no longer see him on the stand.
To be continued…