Vanity: Part Two
“Ready?” asked Chastings. He had arrived at the house just minutes after Sarah had left. Andrea was glad she wouldn’t have to deal with that encounter.
“Ready.” He offered his arm and she placed hers lightly on top. She knew from living with Sarah that this was the customary way beauty contestants of opposite genders in the area traveled in public. She also knew from having a brain that it was going to be hard to keep her arm up very long.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, as if he had read her mind. “It’s only for walking through town. Once we get inside the stores, you’ll be able to put your arm down.”
“That rhymed!” she exclaimed. Chastings gave her an odd look and she blushed, once again ashamed of her outburst. “Sorry,” she almost whispered.
Unexpectedly, he let out a loud laugh. “Andrea, I think you’ll handle this just fine.”
She was afraid of that comment, but before she could ask what he meant they stopped in front of the food shop. He lowered his arm and motioned for her to step inside.
“Hello!” he called out cheerily to the shopkeeper.
“Chastings!” the Chia called. “What a surprise! And who’s that with you?”
“This is Andrea.”
“Hello, Andrea,” the Chia said politely with a little nod.
“What do you say, old friend? Can we both count on your vote for the beauty contest?”
“I don’t know,” said the shopkeeper slowly. “I’m not selling as much today as I would like to and may need to stay here instead of going to vote...” Andrea noticed that the shop was pretty empty, but also knew that was just because it wasn’t quite dinner time yet.
“What luck!” Chastings cried in mock surprise. “Andrea and I are starving. We’d like some of whatever you’ve got ready.”
With a flash of a smile, the shopkeeper hurried to the back room.
“Chastings, I don’t have any money,” Andrea said urgently, a sinking feeling pulling her stomach to her knees.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Two Buzz Bread Salads all right?” the shopkeeper asked as he bundled them up. He already knew the answer.
Chastings handed over some neopoints and took the food. “These look extra tasty today.” He grinned.
“Good luck to you both!” the Chia called as they left the shop.
That night, Andrea fell into bed exhausted. Sarah still wasn’t home, and Andrea was glad to be free of her taunting. She had talked to a few people who said they would vote for her in the Acara division, but she didn’t know if that was enough to give her a good head. And she knew those votes were only because she had been walking with Chastings that evening. She didn’t expect to win; she just didn’t want to come in last place.
* * *
Tiny flowers seemed to have popped up on the side of the road overnight. Andrea stopped walking to study them. She thought she would take a stroll through town and buy some paper and pens to make fliers. The materials wouldn’t cost much, but she would have to use the neopoints she saved for food. She sat in the grass next to a little patch of flowers and fingered the clasp on the coin purse she carried in her pocket, trying to convince herself to part with her neopoints.
And if she did buy the paper and pens, what would she write? “Please vote for Andrea even though she’s only in the beauty contest to make a point?” “I’m not really pretty, but please vote for me?” She opened and closed the clasp on her coin purse, perplexed.
Andrea looked up for the source of the voice.
“Help! My shop! It’s burning down!”
From where she was sitting behind the post office, Andrea could just see the shopkeeper of the food shop jumping up and down, trying to catch someone’s attention. Before she knew it, Andrea had jumped up and was running faster than she ever had before. Pushing through the perpetual crowd of pets gathered around the Money Tree, she ran across to the food shop.
“Where’s the fire?” she asked as she ran inside.
“Oh, thank you!” cried the shopkeeper. “It’s in the back. The stove is in blazes!”
Andrea ran to the back and yanked open the door to the kitchen. In the corner of the hot room, a small stove was consumed in flames.
Without thinking, Andrea grabbed an apron from the wall and dipped it in a bucket of water next to the door. She approached the fire with the apron held out in front of her and threw it on top of the stove to smother the flames.
The fire licked at the apron for some seconds, but it was quickly reduced to a few flames which Andrea smashed to death with a rolling pin.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The shopkeeper was almost in tears as he took Andrea by the shoulders. “What a courageous act. You could have been--” He cut himself off with a gasp. “You’re the girl who came in with Chastings yesterday! The one I voted for in the beauty contest! Are you crazy?!”
“Probably,” Andrea muttered, examining her blistered paws and realizing the awful smell in the air was her singed fur.
“If that fire had ruined your appearance, even temporarily, you wouldn’t have had a chance at the beauty contest,” the shopkeeper prodded, looking at her curiously.
His words surprised her. Looking back at the events that had taken place over the last several minutes, she didn’t feel as if she’d had a say in the matter. Her body had taken over and her mind hadn’t had a whole lot to do with it.
“Someone had to help,” she answered.
“You risked your own future and life for my shop.” The shopkeeper was beaming now. “I don’t know how to thank you. This shop represents my entire life. If it was gone...” The Chia shook his head, as if the thought was too much to dwell on. Then, without warning, he grabbed Andrea’s paw and pulled her out the front door of his shop and onto the street.
“This young lady saved my store!” he called to everyone nearby. “My stove caught on fire and my whole life’s work might have ended up in ashes if it hadn’t been for Andrea here.” He was attracting a large crowd. “And get this,” he told them with a smirk on his face. “She’s a contestant in the beauty competition.”
This drew an even larger crowd. Andrea gave them all her best smile and endured the looks of praise and pats on the back. All the while, though, she wondered who wouldn’t have done the same. And she didn’t have the heart to tell anyone, especially the Chia shopkeeper, that the beauty contest was not her highest aspiration in life.
* * *
“What is this all about?” Sarah asked the next morning at breakfast, half a purple doughnut hanging out of her mouth.
“What is what about?” Andrea was slightly repulsed at the chewed-up doughnut crumbs dangling from her sister’s lips.
Sarah shoved the newspaper at her sister. “That.”
“Beauty Contestant Saves Food Shop From Fire,” Andrea read aloud. “Wow.”
A loud knocking at the front door prevented either of them from saying anything else. Sarah got up to answer it, wiping the doughnut crumbs from her lips hastily.
Sarah led Chastings into the kitchen, scowling.
“Andrea! This is incredible!” He took the seat next to her at the table. “I have it on good authority that your votes skyrocketed this morning. You may have set a record for number of votes on the second day of the competition.” He was grinning ear to ear.
Andrea smiled faintly, not believing what she was hearing.
“Everyone in the streets is talking about how you saved the food shop yesterday.”
“I don’t see how that has much to do with a beauty contest,” Sarah snapped.
Ignoring her, Chastings scooted closer to Andrea to whisper. “There’s a rumor going around that all the other Acaras will have to look for votes outside of Neopia Central; that you’ve taken almost all the votes around here. The Acaras from other parts of Neopia are leaving Neopia Central because so many votes have already been cast.”
A shattering sound interrupted his news. Sarah had dropped her glass of water. Andrea hurried over to help her pick up the pieces of broken glass, but Sarah grabbed her paw before she could reach for the first one. She held it up for Chastings to see.
“Does this look like a beauty queen’s paw?” she asked him. “All blistered.”
“No,” Chastings replied. “It looks like a heroine’s paw.”
Andrea gave him a gratified smile, but Sarah dropped her sister’s paw like it was poison jelly.
“Come on, Andrea,” Chastings said, beckoning with one hoof. “People are waiting to see you.”
* * *
A large crowd was gathered around the food shop when the two got there, and the Chia was standing just outside his door, retelling the story to the crowd with animated gestures and facial expressions.
“And here she is now!” he exclaimed, spotting Andrea and beckoning her over. The crowd applauded wildly as she made her way to the Chia’s side.
“People really like their food,” she joked. As soon as she said it, she covered her mouth with her paw, embarrassed by her outburst. She was amazed when everyone laughed.
“Speech! Speech! Speech!” the crowd chanted.
Andrea felt her cheeks get very warm. “Oh, I wouldn’t know what to say,” she mumbled.
But the crowd just grew more persistent. Now even the Chia shopkeeper and Chastings had gotten into it. “Speech! Speech! Speech!”
“Well,” Andrea tried to say in a loud, clear voice. The crowd settled down and she mustered the best speech she could. “Thank you for your recognition. But I really think anyone would have done the same. This man’s shop was on fire, his whole livelihood at stake. I just happened to be nearby when it happened.”
Murmurings came from the crowd. Andrea was filled with the fear that her speech had disappointed them until she heard individual words float toward her. “Modest... Doesn’t act like a beauty queen... Selfless... Bruno, keep your jacket on, sweetheart...” The last came from right in front of Andrea where a young Bruce was trying to keep her son warm. Andrea smiled as the mother put the jacket back on her obstinate son every time he took it off.
“And don’t forget, folks--” Andrea jumped about a mile. Chastings was suddenly at her side, addressing the crowd in a loud, booming voice. “Andrea is doing her best to win the Beauty Contest this week. I’m sure she would appreciate your votes if you decided to give them to her.”
“I already voted for you!” came a voice from somewhere in the crowd.
“Me too!” came another.
“Time to make an exit,” Chastings murmured to Andrea, who barely heard him above the noise of the crowd and the excited pounding of her own heart.
They walked through the parting crowd, arm on arm in the traditional fashion. When they were out of earshot, Andrea whispered, “You shouldn’t have made that plug for the Beauty Contest. That’s not why I saved that man’s shop.”
“They know that,” he replied in a low voice. “Besides, you’re smiling. That’s not something you do often.”
Before he could answer, a deafening roll of thunder interrupted their conversation.
“That’s funny,” Andrea said, almost to herself. “The sun was shining just--” Large rain drops fell from the sky; each felt like a small sword stabbing into her skin. As she and Chastings began to run for shelter, another roll of thunder sounded, so loud it made the ground under them tremble. They ran past the food shop where the crowd had moved inside to get out of the rain, and had almost reached the bank when a bolt of lightning struck down right in front of them, so close it caused them to jump back. Andrea screeched and Chastings let out a yell.
Andrea made a run for the auction house, with Chastings following close behind. The rain was falling faster now and the two could barely see where they were going. Another bolt of lightning struck, looking as though it was perfectly aimed to hit Andrea. Gasping with fear, she dodged the lightning by mere centimeters and forced her feet to move faster toward the auction house. A few seconds before she reached her shelter, dozens of lightning bolts came down in front of the auction house.
Andrea turned and headed toward petpet shop. Now the lightning bolts followed her, striking the ground right behind her every few steps.
“Get out of here! Run for the bazaar!” Chastings’ scream was just audible over the cracks of lightning and the drumming rain.
With the lightning coming down just steps behind her all the while, Andrea ran as fast as she could for the bazaar. She didn’t know why it would be safe there, but it was obvious the lightning was after her and she was willing to try anything.
The path to the bazaar wasn’t very long, especially when run at full speed, but to Andrea it seemed to stretch on forever. She could smell the awful stench of singed fur and once again knew it was her own. The lightning had come too close for comfort more than a couple times.
But finally, the bazaar was in sight. She noticed with wonder that it seemed the storm clouds stopped exactly above the sign that announced the beginning of the bazaar. She shook the thought from her head, knowing her fear and hope had driven her half crazy. But as she drew closer, she could see that the clouds did indeed stop just at the border of the bazaar. “Now, that’s just weird,” she said out loud between panting breaths.
Five more steps. Four more. Three. Two. One--just before she took her last two steps toward safety, an enormous bolt of lightning struck down right in front of her. But this one did not go back to the sky nor did it go down into the earth. It stayed there, almost as wide as the path, pulsating with electricity.
Andrea felt the tears slide down her cheeks. What wanted to get her so badly? If she went around the mutant bolt, she would only face another, she was sure. Ready to admit defeat and let her end come quickly, she slumped to her knees in front of the lightning bolt, head down and tears rolling.
“Sand for sale! Bottles of sand!” She heard the peddler’s cry, even though she couldn’t see his cart. Jumping to her feet, she tried to warn him.
“Sir! Sir! Don’t come any closer!”
She could hear the wheels on his creaky old cart. “Sand for sale!”
The cart creaked to a stop. “What the--what is this?” Andrea could tell the man had stopped, puzzled and disconcerted by the oddity in front of him.
“My cart!” he cried.
Andrea could hear the cart creaking, slowly at first, then faster and faster toward the stationary lightning bolt. She did her best by ear to calculate where the cart would hit. To the left, she figured. Quickly, she scurried backward and to the right. Another lightning bolt of the same variety came down right behind her. She only gulped and waited.
The cart traveled a faster speed than it had probably ever gone in its long life just before it hit the lightning bolt. Andrea hit her knees again, scooting a few feet away from the second bolt, and covered her head. She felt a immense heat and a horrible noise as the cart hit. Then all fell silent. Enough courage was left in her frazzled nerves to look up, and the sight she beheld when she did bewildered her. In front of her, instead of a frightening, pulsating bolt of lightning, was a wall of solid glass.
It was beautiful, more like a sculpture than a wall. Its fragile, crystalline edges curved like so many hands reaching for the sun. It stood just slightly above her head. Remembering the danger she was still in and the peddler on the other side of the magnificent sculpture, she gathered what strength she had left and made a dash up the hill for the Neopian Bazaar sign. Bolts of lightning followed her, but they fizzled and died before nearing her fur. Their energy seemed to be drained.
She reached the sign and turned around, hoping herself sick that this boundary was her safe haven. So relieved she felt dizzy, she watched all the clouds, rain, and the remaining leviathan of a lightning bolt leave the sky as fast as they had come. Only the beautiful glass sculpture remained.
“Eeeegh,” came the sound from behind her.
She spun around, still wary of any danger. But all she saw was the poor peddler, lying on his back and holding his head. He was a green Bori and she could see from his ragged appearance that his whole life had been in that cart.
“I’m here to help,” she said, rushing toward him.
She didn’t see any blood, much to her relief, but she could see that he had been knocked down pretty hard and was having trouble breathing. He kept clutching his head like it was bothering him.
What to do? To get to the hospital, she would have to go back the way she came and she definitely had no interest in confronting another storm or something worse that morning. Plus, she would never be able to carry him and she couldn’t drag him any distance in the state he was in. She tried to think what was in the bazaar that could be useful. Wasn’t the smoothie shop there? She thought of asking the peddler, but he looked to be in no shape to answer questions. She would just have to go ahead, hoping she could find some help or at least a cold smoothie to help his head.
“Stay here,” she directed. “If you feel well enough, sit up. I’ll be back in a little bit.”
“Eeeeegh,” was the only reply she got.
Too tired to run, she started off on the short path to the marketplace.
To be continued...