Tundra sighed softly as he looked around the Pound at the pathetic attempts to make it look festive for the Christmas season. Tacky green tinsel draped high on the walls, with fake-looking berries dangling from every inch. A half-melted Snow Bruce Sculpture sat dripping in its own puddle in the corner. Dying Sprigs of Mistletoe hung over each cell, more gloomy than cheerful. A not-so-decorated tree with only half its needles left drooped near the front desk.
Tundra hated Christmas. All the normal Neopians were happy and merry, while abandoned pets sat lonely in their cells, freezing to death. How could they smile so happily? It just wasn’t fair. Tundra had no reason to ever smile, except when his Gelert cell mate, Black – whose reddish coat was nearly as dark as his name – played tricks on the Pound caretakers. But what was the point of Christmas? To show all these starving creatures how much fun they were missing?
Tundra had been in the Pound almost his whole life. He’d been abandoned soon after he was created, and lived in this dump ever since. Nobody wanted him. Why would they? What was special about a plain old Blue Lupe like him?
Tundra awoke from the same dream again. He had it often, especially around Christmas, and it rarely changed. He was curled up on a hearth by a warm fire, with soothing carols playing in the background. Bulging stockings hung from the mantel, overflowing with goodies. Colored lights were strung everywhere, while boxes in glittery wrapping were piled on the floor. His owner was there, too. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel the undeniable sense of belonging to someone – something he’d never felt before. He just knew – knew that a loving owner was there. Never to abandon him. Ever.
“Leave me alone,” Tundra mumbled groggily to his dream as he awoke. “Don’t you think I’m lonely enough here?” But he didn’t really want it to go away. Dwelling on imaginary longings seemed childish, but it was all he had.
He rolled over, but he’d already woken up Black.
“That dream again?” Black asked, with the intuition that only his closest friend could possess.
Tundra nodded sleepily, but rolled back over. He wanted to return to the dream, and stay, forever. He shut his eyes tightly, trying hard to return to that warm fire, though the chilling cement floor below seemed to anchor him in reality. He shivered, though he could almost feel the warmth of the fireplace.
Sleep came back. But the dream did not.
It was Christmas Eve. Today was always the busiest day of the year at the Pound. Everyone wanted a new pet as a Christmas surprise to their others, and the hustle and bustle of shoppers outside the pound was enough to make anyone nervous. Fifteen pets had been adopted in just one hour. Maybe I can be number sixteen, Tundra thought. He licked his coat, trying to make himself look better for the owners. No one wants a messy pet. And yet in the back of his mind, he didn’t really believe he’d be adopted. So many times had he looked hopefully into the eyes of prospective owners, and all he’d gotten back was a look of pity as the person moved on.
“He’s perfect! I’ll take him!”
A young man was standing eagerly right in front of their cell. Tundra was startled, but he hardly dared to believe it. “Me?” he whispered timidly.
But the excited man didn’t even glance at Tundra. His eyes were locked on Black, as he motioned for the Gelert to follow him. Black appeared hesitant, looking around at Tundra. As their eyes met, Tundra could see how much Black longed to follow the man, and he knew he could never, and would never make Black stay with him. Tundra knew he should be happy for his friend, but sorrow enveloped him. He managed to nod encouragingly to Black, even trying to smile at him. But his eyes welled with tears that had been held back for a long time.
“See, Tundra? Dreams do come true. I promise.” Black followed his new owner out of the cell, finally belonging to someone.
As Tundra watched his only friend leave forever, it felt like a part of him was leaving, too. Without Black, Tundra didn’t know how he could have survived those long years locked in the pound. He was barely a month old when he was dumped into the same bare cell he had lived in all his life. Black had already been there awhile, and he immediately made sure that Tundra was as comfortable was possible, giving up his only blanket before he even knew the name of his new cell mate. They were like brothers, as Black taught Tundra the ways of the Pound. Black always gave up half his meals to Tundra so he could grow up strong and healthy. And he always knew the best pranks to pull to keep themselves entertained. Their favorite memory was when Black had snuck glue on that dreadful Dr. Death’s chair, while Tundra watched in awe from the cell. They even managed to keep straight faces as the Doctor marched around the building (in a fresh set of pants, since his last pair was still stuck to the seat), and screamed that he would turn the thermostat down to freezing level if the pets didn’t spill the name of the perpetrator. Tundra and Black were heroes that night, and Tundra couldn’t ever remember laughing so hard.
The slam of the Pound door brought Tundra back to the present, and through the window he watched as Black trotted up the street with his owner and out of sight. And in that moment, Tundra realized that he would never be adopted. If nobody had wanted him after two long years, why would anyone take him now? As he looked around at his cell, which looked so empty now without Black’s presence, the tiny flame of hope that had burned so long within him flickered and died. And as he curled up on the hard, cold cement, the realization engulfed him like a freezing tidal wave. He was alone – completely alone.
Tundra looked up at the crackling fire in the brick fireplace, and then at the full stockings and bright colored lights. A decorated tree stood behind him, with shining boxes stacked beneath it. He could feel the warmth of the fire, as he listened to the carols playing peacefully.
He lay back down, and watched the fire more. He wished, so hard, that it was real.
As he continued to stare at the dancing flames, he realized how he could really feel the fire tonight. He always felt it in the dream, but this time, it was a little warmer.
He sighed. You can’t keep doing this, Tund. It’s not real. Quit trying to convince yourself it is.
And yet, he had to enjoy it while it lasted. Better than the concrete prison he would wake up to. Closing his eyes, he slowly inhaled the pine scent of the tree, and even smelled fresh cookies.
Cookies? His eyes flew open.
Since when were there cookies in his dream?
In the dream, Tundra never moved. He was always just lying right in front of the hearth. But now, he arose from the rug and looked around. On a small chair by the tree, there were, indeed, cookies. And milk. She must’ve made them, he decided, looking at the girl in the doorway.
This was the first time he had seen his owner in the dream.
“Help yourself to the cookies,” she said kindly. Her voice sounded as sweet as the cookies smelled. Tundra stared.
There was never any talking in the dream.
This was weird. Why was it different now? Unless...
“Is this a dream?” Tundra finally whispered, surprised he could even speak. This was the least dreamlike dream he ever had.
The girl smiled gently. “No, Tundra, this is real. My name’s Kirstin – I’m your new owner. I’m sorry if I startled you; you were sleeping so soundly at the pound, and you didn’t even wake up when I brought you here, so I just carried you over to the hearth...”
Those were the best cookies Tundra ever tasted. It was almost like a dream.
But it wasn’t.