Fruits, Shells, and the Sea
Ilana was running on the sunny beach of the Mystery Island. She was collecting seashells near the shore, always making sure she didn't go too near to the water.
Ilana loved seashells. She loved their beautiful shapes and delicate colours, and she already had quite a collection of them at home. Every day she polished them and made sure they were put perfectly on her shelves, so that everyone could admire their beauty. Every night she took her favourite shell, a slightly pink, horn-shaped shell, and put it against her ear. Her sister had told her that she could hear the waves from shells that were shaped in a certain way if she listened carefully enough. She had been right. Every night Ilana fell asleep listening the sounds of the great sea.
However, Ilana had never gotten any of her shells from the bottom of the sea. The small, yellow Kacheek had a little problem; namely, she couldn't swim. No matter how longingly she looked at the blue, marvelous sea, she could never go and dive and see all the amazing colours, fish, kelp and shells below the surface herself. When she had been little, Ilana's owner had been very protective over her and never let her go near the water. Even though Ilana knew now that she would do just fine if she would finally try to learn how to swim, she was quite timid. And the shells she found from the sand were beautiful enough, even though they were shattered more often than not.
The Kacheek thought that the fragile shells got easily broken when the waves threw them to the sand. She also wondered if they shattered or not when the water rubbed the shells against the stones in the bottom of the sea and the sand on the low water near the beach. She was certain she could find most beautiful, biggest shells from the bottom of the deep ocean... if only she would dare to dive.
At the moment, however, Ilana wasn't thinking about her inability to swim. She had heard that there would be some kind of competition, and that Jhuidah herself would be hosting it. Ilana had to admit to herself that she was curious to find out what it would be about. The Kacheek didn't care that much about fame or fortune, but perhaps she would meet the famous Island Faerie now! Ilana had always admired Jhuidah, her never failing kindness, and the way she always seemed to be able to see the best in others.
When Ilana finally arrived at the place, it was already crowded. All kinds of excited pets were guessing what the marvelous prize would be and dreaming of the honour that would come along with it. How would it be?
Finally the Island Faerie began to speak. Her usual small smile was playing on her lips.
“Hello, everyone,” she began. “It looks like you all have heard that I am hosting a little competition for you...” The crowd was now completely silent. “I need as many fruits as possible to serve on the feast I am arranging in a couple of weeks. The one who collects the most fruits for me will get this necklace,” she said, holding a golden seashell-shaped locket from a leathery string that went through the upper part of the shell. It was the most beautiful jewel Ilana had ever seen. “And I will fulfill one wish for the winner.”
Ilana could hear how the pets gasped, and how they were whispering excitedly of what each of them would wish. The Kacheek herself had paled. Her heart was beating like a drum and she was now looking at Jhuidah with utter disbelief. It simply couldn't be! She couldn't be so lucky that there would be such a simple solution to her problem.
“That's all, good neopets,” Jhuidah said and smiled. “The competition starts tomorrow at the sunrise.”
* * *
That night Ilana couldn't sleep. She stared at the ceiling, dreaming of how she would dive to the bottom of the sea and find the most amazing, most brilliant shells ever. She could see how her collection would grow, how the other pets would start to actually like her and tell her how wonderful work she had done. Perhaps even her mom would start to trust her and not always warn her about things. She swallowed... Her mom was always worried about all kinds of things, and like an illness, her habit had infected also the little Kacheek.
Finally the morning sun began to spread its gold from beyond the horizon. At first the rays were nothing more than a vague, red glow over the dark sea, but the Kacheek realised what it meant. Ilana jumped out of her little bed. Her eyes were all swollen and sleepy yet. She run to the kitchen, but she didn't feel tired at all. It was almost like her whole body was even beaming energy; she was more awake than ever before in her life. She grabbed a chokato and tossed it into her mouth, running towards the door at the same time. She simply could not be late for the beginning of the competition. She had to win.
As she arrived, she could see all her competitors gathering around Jhuidah already. Jhuidah was smiling in her usual, soft way and Ilana couldn't help but adore the wise, powerful Faerie. Oh, how much she wanted to talk to her and learn from her; how she wanted to be brave and beautiful like the Faerie was. Slowly she walked closer.
“You want to join the competition,” she suddenly heard Jhuidah asking from her. Ilana couldn't help it – she seemed to have lost her tongue somewhere. Her eyes were all big and round, and she simply nodded.
“That's very nice,” Jhuidah said and smiled at her, and gave her a big basket. “You have time until the dawn; take your time and... good luck,” she said.
Feeling relieved, Ilana smiled brightly at the Faerie who had already moved to inform the pet next to her.
* * *
As everyone had run to the jungle, Ilana included, a frantic search began. Ilana didn't do very well, though. Every time she found a tree or bush or vine that still had some fruits on it, someone seemed to leap out of nowhere and toss all of them to their basket while Ilana simply stood uncertainly watching. She was pushed around more than once. Someone made her fall so that the three purplums she had somehow managed to put in her basket fell to the ground and then were ruined below the feet of two running Unis. As the hours ran, Ilana got dirtier, more tired, and all the time more desperate. She saw pets leaving the forest smiling, their basket full of juicy, beautiful fruits that would have been good enough for a king.
She swallowed and wiped a tear out of her cheek. She couldn't give up yet.
Ilana was not really surprised at the dusk when she arrived to the beach, feeling more than exhausted, when she saw how a triumphant Mynci was holding that golden little necklace in his hands. That necklace Jhuidah had promised to give for the winner.
Ilana had been searching in the woods for hours, and only managed to get one little tigersquash. It looked so dry and spoiled compared to the fruits she saw in the baskets of the other pets. Tears were burning behind her lids, but she didn't want to cry now. She clutched her basket so hard her paws were all white, and it helped. She didn't cry.
Quietly Ilana walked behind the cheering crowd, left her basket next to the other baskets and left the place. Swallowing her tears and disappointment, she went home. And slept.
* * *
A few days after the competition Jhuidah hosted the feast, just like she had promised. All the neopets were feverishly looking forward to that, but not Ilana. Rather unenthusiastically she joined them, though. At least she would get some free food.
The night, however, was much more fun than Ilana could have anticipated. Nobody teased her. She managed to talk with a Chia that was sitting next to her, and instead of her growing despair she began to see some hope in her life. Jhuidah smiled as warmly as ever as she made sure everyone got as many treats as they wanted.
But the night ended eventually. Ilana, however, didn't want to go home yet. She was feeling rather peaceful and just wanted to be alone for a little while more. She walked towards the beach and sat on the shore. She let her eyes rest on the peaceful view and simply enjoyed the beautiful sea. The setting sun dyed the ocean to all shades of red and gold.
Absentmindedly she stroked the hair out of her forehead and walked to the water.
As Ilana was wading in the water, she realised there was nothing for her to be afraid of. She smiled slightly.
A young Flotsam lifted his head from the sea, and smiled as he saw the lonely Kacheek standing there.
“Hello there,” he said.