The Greatest Gift
A silver spoon dropped onto the wooden table with a loud clattering noise. Across from it, two determined-looking Xweetoks faced their daughter.
“No way!” she continued. “I’m not doing it! Not tomorrow, especially!”
“It wouldn’t be a bad thing,” said the mother as she leaned forward slightly. “Helping the poor, lost pets in the Pound could be good for you, Katie.”
The sixteen-year-old shadow Xweetok opened her mouth to say something, but her father cut her off.
“You’re going to do it and that’s final. No ifs, ands, or buts.”
Katie closed her mouth and angry tears brimmed in her eyes. She gave her parents the dirtiest look she could muster as she wracked her brains for a way to wiggle out of this.
In a pleading, almost desperate voice she asked, “Could I at least not go tomorrow? Give me a day to get used to it.”
The shadow Xweetok looked to her dad, knowing her mother would do the same.
“I told you, Katie, you’re going tomorrow at one.”
Seeing no other options, Katie leapt off her chair and ran to her room, leaving her soup untouched. Her mother looked down at the floor. Several minutes passed while Katie’s loud, dramatic sobs filled the air.
The pink Xweetok, wincing at the sound of her daughter’s cries, whispered, “Should I cancel her job for tomorrow? Just so she can get used to the idea?” Katie’s sobs stopped immediately.
He looked at his dinner, growing colder by the minute. “No. She’s going tomorrow.”
Katie flung herself on her neatly made bed, hating her parents. She’d just gotten off Neoschool a few hours ago and was looking forward to the three wonderful weeks ahead. Weeks that could have been spent sleeping in, shopping... Preparing for Christmas, which was only a week away.
But now, she thought despairingly, I have to spend my vacation in the Pound.
She sat up and hugged her knees to her chest, looking out the window at the grass not yet covered in snow. A chilly wind raked through the branches of the bare tree outside her window, and it seemed to shiver. The sun’s last rays of purple light were barely showing above the horizon as darkness spread across the sky.
Katie closed the blinds and stretched out on her bed. The shadow Xweetok stared at the ceiling for a moment. With a sigh she closed her eyes and ran a paw through her unusual blonde hair.
She rolled over onto her stomach with a creak and turned out the light. Suddenly the room was drowned in darkness, save for the sliver of light creeping out from under her door.
Katie crawled under her covers and fell asleep as warmth slowly washed over her.
Katie walked into the doors of the Pound, nervously looking around. A pink Uni with friendly eyes looked in her direction and smiled. The yellow Techo next to her continued staring down at his paperwork, not even registering Katie’s presence. The Uni held up a hoof as if to say, “one moment, please.” She leafed through a notebook filled with names, dates and times, trailing her hoof down a page filled with the current date.
“Katie?” she asked, looking up.
“Yes.” Nervously Katie shifted her weight, the red-and-green clip in her hair sparkling from the ceiling light.
The Uni smiled. “You’re right on time. Welcome to the Pound.”
Katie smiled back, hiding her anxiety.
As the Uni went through the hallways, showing her newest employee where everything was, Katie couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing here. She hadn’t even tried to persuade her parents out of it this morning before she went.
“And finally, Katie, you will be taking care of a new resident. Her name is Amanda and she has just arrived here.”
Katie swallowed. “Okay,” she mumbled, her voice lower than usual.
“Amanda is in room 232, which is just down this hallway. I want you to make her feel welcome here, even though she’s been in the Pound a few times before. She may be a little brisk, but that’s just the result of being shuttled around so much,” the Uni rambled on, not even noticing that Katie’s nervousness was growing with every word she spoke.
“That’s it, then,” she finished cheerfully, stopping at the entrance to the hallway holding Amanda. “Have a nice time.”
As she flounced away, Katie cautiously treaded down the hall. Several eyes turned to meet hers, saddened by days of neglect and memories of the past. Others turned their face to the wall, hiding their emotions. Katie turned away, but their stares stayed on her back. She looked at the numbers painted in a faded pink color. Eventually she reached number 232.
“Amanda?” Suddenly Katie realized how quiet it was.
The red Acara turned her head slightly. “What?”
“I’m Katie. I’m supposed to...” She couldn’t say welcome you. “Help you adjust.”
Amanda turned around fully. “That’s a new one.” From under a curtain of long, straight hair and black bangs two blue eyes made contact with Katie’s, shooting through her like an arrow.
Unsure of what to say, Katie stood there as Amanda stared. Then the Acara looked away quickly, never letting her guard down.
“Just bring me something to eat,” she said.
“What would you like, Princess?” sneered Katie. She had always hated being bossed around and that was her standard reply to anyone who told her to do something. But this time she regretted saying the word.
“I’m the princess?” Amanda looked Katie up and down, her lip curled up in distaste. Suddenly Katie felt incredibly self-conscious of the planned outfit. The clip in her hair felt heavy and unnecessary and she tugged at it uncertainly.
Amanda turned away, but before she did Katie looked her in the eye and saw a flash of emotion that she couldn’t place.
Slowly she backed out of the doorway and shut the door. With a click the lock slid into its hole as Amanda locked Katie out. The shadow Xweetok walked down the hallway, her shoes padding softly on the floor.
That night Katie lay in bed again, staring at the ceiling.
Slowly an idea started to hatch in her head.
I wouldn’t do that right away, of course, she thought. Maybe on Christmas. If I can convince Mom and Dad to let me go in the morning or something, maybe I can pull it off.
Her excitement was growing with every second she thought about it. Somehow Katie knew she wasn’t going to get any sleep tonight. She turned off the light and closed her eyes anyway, but her plan bounced around in her head.
One week, she thought. Only one week until Christmas.
Over the next few days, Katie threw herself into her job at the Pound. The pink Uni who had once assigned her to help Amanda took her off the job. Katie suspected the Acara had said something to her. She had expected it, though, and it hardly put a dent in her increasingly cheerful mood.
The other pets in the Pound took almost no notice of it, however. They all seemed to become even more depressed as the hours rolled by. The little hope they had that someone would want a new pet for Christmas waned quickly. There was one face that never changed, though: Amanda’s.
Day after day she had the same guarded expression she always had. When she spoke caution that hung over every word like a thick blanket, suffocating anyone’s hope of getting closer to her. The only time she ever talked with a pleasant air was when a potential adopter was striking up a conversation.
Well, thought Katie as she went home on Christmas Eve, I’m going to change all that.
The next day she showed up early with snowflakes in her loose, curly blonde hair and a present behind her back. She walked up to the Uni at the desk. She looked up in surprise from her reading and squinted a little.
“Katie! You had Christmas off. I thought I told you that.” She frowned as if trying to remember a conversation they might’ve had.
“No, I know,” Katie said, and the Uni relaxed.
“Then what are you here for?”
“I, uh—” Katie cleared her throat. “I wanted to visit Amanda.”
The Uni’s face changed immediately. “She still is very upset with you. It would be smart to stay away from her.”
Katie’s face turned red under her fur. “I wanted to give her something, though.”
The pink pet examined her employee carefully as Katie held her breath. Finally she said, “Go ahead.”
“Thank you,” Katie said, letting out a breath of air. She perambulated down the hallways, clutching the brightly wrapped present behind her back. The item inside rattled as she scanned the hall looking for a number.
Katie didn’t knock. She knew that as soon as Amanda saw her the door would lock and she would be out of luck. Instead, she opened it and stepped inside.
Amanda wheeled around faster than Katie had seen anyone in the Pound move. When it was only the shadow Xweetok that met her eyes, she turned around.
Katie approached her, sitting next to her on the dirty bed she rested on. A short pause ensued as Amanda looked the other way.
She said nothing.
“Amanda, I came here to say something.”
The shadow Xweetok thought she saw her companion’s head turn towards her. Even though it was a slight movement, it gave her to courage to press on.
“I’m... I’m sorry for calling you a princess. I know that it really hurt you. It was really uncalled for and a stupid thing to say, and I guess that it should’ve been you calling names.”
Amanda turned her head and stared impassively at the floor.
“So...” said Katie, willing herself not to stop now, “I brought you something.”
The light blue eyes widened a little, and Amanda looked at Katie with questions in her eyes.
Katie handed Amanda the present. Slowly her red fingers ran over the ribbon and wrapping paper as if she had never touched anything like it. Katie’s heart rose in her chest and she twirled her hair self-consciously.
Suddenly the paper began ripping at the paper, tearing it to shreds as if it was everyone who had hurt her. Underneath it was a pearly white box, shining with the lights from above.
She took the lid off and gasped. Inside lay a hair clip, glittering red and green. She grabbed it with dull red paws and handled it carefully.
“You want me to have it? It’s so expensive, though...”
Katie nodded. A smile that she was unable to contain spread across her face.
“Thank you!” Amanda smiled for the first time since she’d arrived, displaying a brilliant row of white teeth.
“Here,” said Katie for the second time that day. She took it from Amanda’s hand and began pulling her beautiful black hair up, brushing her bangs to the side. Amanda winced a little, unaccustomed to the tugging. Finally it stopped.
Amanda lifted her head. The weight of her hair was all balanced in the middle and she swayed a little, not used to a ponytail. Katie took a mirror out of her coat pocket and put it in front of the red Acara.
She touched her bangs, brushing them to the side, forward, and back to the side again. Finally she left it cleared away from her eyes and cocked her head. The hair in her ponytail fell over to the side. She straightened her head again and turned to Katie, who put the mirror down and smiled.
“Thank you,” she breathed.
“You’re welcome,” said Katie in a voice almost as joyful.
Then, out of the blue, Amanda gave her a hug, and Katie squeezed back just as tightly.
It was the greatest Christmas present the two pets could have received.