“Two threes,” Lemondrop said defiantly, placing her two cards facedown atop the growing pile. Her round skunk Aisha face was smooth and set in a blank expression with not even a wrinkle of guilt or doubt to give her away.
“Slide,” Candy, my pretty faerie Lenny, said without a moment’s hesitation. She was the youngest of my four pets, and very mischievous one at that... although ironically enough, she was a very tentative Cheat! player.
“Yeah, me too,” I agreed, glancing down at the three of spades in my hand. With only six cards to discard, I wasn’t planning on taking any risks. I preferred to play it safe. “What about you, Sugardrop?”
“Cheat,” the island Ixi said sharply. She was perhaps the most experienced player of Cheat! sitting before me and she had several lovely trophies stowed away in her closet to prove it. With the tip of her brown hoof, she lightly pushed the heap of cards towards her Aisha sister, who frowned and added them all to her hand with great difficulty.
“Is it my turn?” Candy asked excitedly. She buried her head behind her wide fan of cards, and subsequently drew four out. “Four--”
Suddenly, there was a noisy slamming of the front door, some scuffling, and then heavy stomps down the hall, and I knew the oldest of my four pets, Gumdrop, had come home. Judging by his entrance, I figured he wasn’t very happy at the moment.
“How did it go?” I asked, as he appeared at the den’s threshold.
“Did you win this time?” Candy perked up.
“What do you think?”
Gumdrop glared at no one in particular, his stubby fingers balled tight into fists. There was something in his tone that told me not to probe any further into the matter, but there was no doubt in my mind as to what had happened. He had lost a game of Cheat! to Spectre.
“That’s eleven losses in a row now,” he complained, plopping himself down beside me on a cushion. I was obliged to cradle him like a baby, something he would have resisted had he been in his usual state of mind.
“Maybe you’re just not Cheat! material,” Sugardrop offered her theory. I immediately sent an evil-eye glare in her direction, which she responded to by blowing a raspberry.
“Spectre’s a gifted player, you know,” I said, ignoring Sugardrop as I gently ruffled my Christmas Kyrii’s poofy hair. “Nobody said beating him was a piece of cake. And besides, you’re well beyond stressed-out right now. Why don’t you give your little Cheat! endeavor a rest for a few weeks?”
Gumdrop frowned and didn’t respond.
“Think it over, alright?” I said, patting him on the shoulder. “And meanwhile, we can all go get a cup of coffee. Who’s up for it?”
My enthusiastic offer was met with an uncomfortable silence.
“I’ll come,” Gumdrop said rather drily and followed me slowly and slightly reluctantly to the front door.
The door chimes tinkled softly as Gumdrop and I entered the Coffee Cave. It was a warm, cozy cafe-like store, despite its heavy stone walls, dimly lit with an array of candles. The yellow Shoyru greeted us with a smile, her blue eye shadow glittering in the candlelight.
“A Golden Juppie Delight please,” I said.
“Of course. Coming right up. And for you, sweetie?”
“I guess I’ll take a Pinanna Cappucino.” Gumdrop shrugged and moodily shuffled away towards a table, where he slumped into a mass of red and green hair on one of the wooden chairs.
“What’s wrong with the dear?” The Shoyru inclined her head in the Gumdrop’s direction, as she busied herself over the coffees.
“Cheat!,” I explained. “He’s struggling to defeat that Spectre character.”
“Ahh.” The Shoyru nodded her head, understanding. “Well, I’m not going to lie. There’s a reason they have him in the last round.”
She paused as she moved to fetch another cup for Gumdrop’s cappucino.
“Perhaps, then, may I recommend a book? It’s called Cheat by Capara and if I’m not mistaken, I hear it received several lovely reviews from the critics. Either way, it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.”
“That sounds excellent,” I said pleasantly. “Many thanks, ma’am.”
I handed her a bulbous bag of neopoints, and maneuvered my way towards Gumdrop. I explained the storekeeper’s kind suggestion, and I had no more than put my lips to my cup when Gumdrop leaped to his feet and began hauling me across Neopia Central towards the book shop.
The week passed rather uneventfully save for the one morning I found Gumdrop with Cheat by Capara in one hand and a dying flashlight in the other. He had become so obsessed, I felt as if I was clearly steering him down the wrong path.
That Saturday, he was up and ready for another round with Spectre. After guzzling a carton of Kau Kau Farm Milk and squeezing in a last-minute reading (or skimming, rather) of Cheat by Capara, Gumdrop was set to leave.
“Now listen closely, Gumdrop, whether you win that trophy or not, you don’t have my permission to be depressed or sulky anymore, you hear?” I told him as I unlocked the front door. “You have the rest of your life to beat Spectre. This is just another game.”
“Mmhmm.” Gumdrop nodded, his blue eyes fixed unmoving on something outside in the yard. I knew everything I had just said had gone in one ear and stampeded out the other. He was dying to go.
“Yes, well, good luck,” I called, watching him traipse out onto the sidewalk, a noticeable spring in each of his steps, and a soft whistling upon his lips.
I spent the rest of the day reading a thick, leather-bound novel about neopet psychology, although I was quite distracted a good portion of the time as my mind endlessly wandered to Gumdrop and his seemingly hopeless Cheat! endeavor. Perhaps Sugardrop was right. Perhaps Gumdrop just wasn’t Cheat! material. It was after all, a reasonable explanation.
“He isn’t home yet?” Candy asked, interrupting my lengthy train of thought.
Slightly startled, I shook my head no.
“He just doesn’t give up, does he?” Lemondrop remarked.
“Admirable, isn’t it?” I said.
“Crazy,” Sugardrop replied.
Several minutes later, we heard the creaking of the front door hinges and the soft pattering of feet of a Kyrii we knew so well. Elated to finally have him home, I rushed to the hall, the three girls close behind.
“Gumdrop!” I called. “Hey, Gumdrop!”
By the time I had reached the foyer, he was already halfway up the first flight of stairs.
“How did you do? Did you win?” I asked excitedly. His back was turned toward me, and I pushed my glasses farther up the bridge of my nose to search for a glint of gold among his bulk of Christmas Kyrii fur.
Gumdrop turned on the spot to face me,
“No, I didn’t. I actually lost rather pathetically with thirty-eight cards in the end. You should have seen the look on Spectre’s face. It was horrible.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” I said quietly. “I guess Capara’s tactics and strategies weren’t very useful, huh?”
“No... they weren’t,” Gumdrop said, looking thoughtful, and then his voice dropped to a soft whisper laced with evident solemnity, “but it did make me stop wondering why she’s in the first round.”