The sun had set long ago. A chilly winter breeze whirled
flakes of downy snow into spirals as it whistled past. Silver moonlight shone
on the now-deserted sidewalks, making the ice-covered concrete glitter like
a slow-moving river.
The cheerful holiday noise of the crowded Neopian
Marketplace had died away, to be replaced by that serene, impenetrable silence
that always accompanies falling snow. Every bush, every tree was dusted with
a layer of white; it was indeed a stunning sight.
Inside a home at the edge of Neopia Central,
a fire blazed merrily in a red brick fireplace, casting a quivering circle of
light to illuminate the small room: a colourful Christmas tree, fuzzy red stockings
hanging from the mantle, a group of Neopets fast asleep upon the floor, and
one owner who couldn't sleep.
The newest issue of The Neopian Times lay open
on the carpet, but for once, Jan wasn't interested in reading the newest conspiracy
theory on Ryshu the Nimmo or tips on how to find a cheap Combo Battle Mirror.
She was not especially looking at anything at the moment, but just thinking
and reflecting, as is the habit of many people around the holidays.
By her side, MakiKai snored softly; Jan reached
over and adjusted his blanket more snugly about his sleeping form. An old memory
rose to her mind: their first day together in Neopia.
The sleeping form of the Zafara stirred in
her arms; Jan looked down at her new pet. “Hey there, little guy,” she breathed.
The blue-furred creature gazed back at her; she was struck by those shining
eyes that seemed to take in the entire world at a glance and somehow smile at
what they saw before them.
“My name is Jan. I'm your new owner,” the
girl said, feeling a bit silly: there was no way such a young pet could understand
her. Or could he? The little Neopet called MakiKai regarded her calmly, but
there was something in his quiet manner that made him seem to hang onto her
every word, each movement. Jan pushed that thought out of her head - speculating
like that was just silly. She knew from experience that there could be only
one thought on the Zafara's mind right now: that essential need of a child to
know if he could trust her or not.
The noise and bustle of the Neopian Marketplace
surrounded her; Jan lifted her head and looked around, truly seeing her surroundings
for the first time. In front of the Chocolate Shop, a young Aisha shrieked at
her owner, demanding to go inside. “I wanna candeee!” The owner finally gave
up her losing battle with the spoiled pet in despair and bought the sweet on
A Jetsam bared its sharp white teeth in a
fierce grin as it shoved smaller pets out of the way and seized a shining sword
from the shelf of the Battle Weapons Shop; its owner cheered loudly from the
back as it brought back its prize. “Atta boy, DeathFangz! With this weapon,
we'll be the strongest fighters around. Nobody will beat us - nobody!”
To her left, an Usul emerged from the waters
of the Rainbow Pool, sporting a delicate pair of pink faerie wings. “You look
beautiful!” the owner gushed. “You're sure to win the Beauty Contest now!”
Jan looked back at the plain blue Zafara in
her arms, who still seemed to be waiting for something. For a moment, it seemed
the cobblestone Marketplace paths shifted beneath the pair's feet; no longer
simple streets, the paths now appeared to be a crossroads. She could follow
in the footsteps of the crowds to the Battledome, the stores, or walk away from
it all, but Jan knew that whatever decision she made would affect both her and
the Neopet's lives forever.
Neopia is not so different from my real
world, the girl thought. The same decisions, the same contests for popularity.
The same search to be an individual. “My MakiKai,” she whispered. “You may
never be the strongest fighter or the most beautiful faerie, but I'll be proud
of you anyway. Be yourself and be happy.”
The little Zafara smiled and reached for a
strand of her hair, burbling something unintelligible to her. Jan smiled back
and turned her back on the Marketplace, walking down the path that led away
from it all. The future was uncertain, but there was one thing Jan knew: whatever
came next, the two of them would face it together.
So much had happened since then, Jan thought.
Paralleling events in her real life at the time, she had walked out into the
unknown world, ready to face its challenges. She'd felt a special thrill every
time she logged on, re-entering a huge world that was constantly changing, evolving
– it was amazing how a simple bunch of pixels could take on new life and character
in your imagination.
Yet as entertaining as the idea of taking care
of virtual pets and playing games had been, it was the people she'd met that
had probably made the most effect on her during her time here. Jan smiled at
the sight of a blue towel lying on the couch; she'd discovered that more than
a few players here actually knew what it meant to her, saw it as something more
than just a plain grooming item. This cup of tea, that slice of cheese, all
brought back thousands of memories: conversations on the message boards, chatfights,
entire personalities of people miles and even continents away that, somehow,
came across through nothing more than words.
That turning point, the realisation that there
were people here who were just like her, who shared the same interests and the
same struggle to discover their own identities, prevented her from leaving;
she'd come to know them too well to just walk away and never look back. They
supported each other through the hard times, shared sympathies and shoulders
to cry on. They had laughed together during the happy times – Jan knew she'd
never forget them, ever.
One part of her mind wondered how she could have
been on Neopets for such a long time: she had witnessed so many horrible things
and learned about sides of people she desperately wished she could forget; sometimes
it seemed there was no reason to come back anymore. Yet another part of her
mind reminded her that she wasn't being truthful to herself: that every time
she had walked away swearing never to return, something pulled her back. In
the end, it wasn't the games or the pets that did that – it was the people.
There was something truly magical in the fact
that bonds so close could be forged with people miles and even continents away,
friendships formed not through appearances and reputations, but through nothing
more than simple words. As long as there were people like them, Neopia would
live on - not in the real world advertising and merchandising sense, but in
the hearts of its users.
And so, despite herself, Jan found herself doing
something she hadn't done in years; she walked to the window and found the Neopian
first star, the North Star, the star she used to wish on every Christmas as
a child. It was to this star she sent her wish, knowing that it was nothing
more than thought but still feeling it was only right. It was her way of paying
respects to the people in her life.
May you all follow your own paths, and may
the friends you find be just as wonderful as mine.
And even she looked at the stars, Jan imagined
them shifting before her, just as the paths in the Marketplace had done so long
ago. Each star represented a crossroad in someone's life, a streetmap plotted
out on an infinite playing field. So many paths were there, waiting to be taken
- yet if you looked closely, they all connected to each other. So many... so
Outside, the snow swirled, piling up in ever-increasing
white drifts. Inside, the fire shed its last light on a scene forever frozen
in time: fuzzy red stockings hanging from the mantle of the red brick fireplace,
the ornaments quietly twisting and gleaming on the Christmas tree, and a group
of Neopets with their owner, all fast asleep upon the floor. The flames burned
lower, licking the wood a final time before going out altogether. But the warmth
lingered... Merry Christmas.