My ears twitched and I spun the pencil around on the desk, letting it spiral until I grabbed hold of it, sniffed the wood for a moment, then dropped it into the round dip in the desk with a clatter. So I sat there, paws on lap and feet kicking to and fro with the utmost of anxiety.
They itched. Everything itched, from the tips of my long pink ears to the stripes on my head and back to the stub of a tail that was shorter than the norm for Poogles.
I was done with the test. Every question answered; story prompt written. I'd even gone to the trouble of tidying my Lennyscratch of handwriting, I's and T's dotted and crossed to perfection. Not a letter out of line.
As I drummed my fingers against my legs, the clock went tick... tick... tickticktick.
It was often that I'd find myself done, such a shock, done while the rest of the room vigorously scratched against the paper, bearing beads of sweat that dripped down their foreheads while mine remained clean, dry, relaxed. I'd find myself with paws together, eyes focused on the board, and staring at Mrs. Owens, the red-feathered Pteri who sat calmly at her desk and filed papers. They were all I could focus on while all those around me were caught up in hastily filling in bubbles, forming piles of eraser shavings and graphite while I sat there. Just sat. Sat and stared at the colorful rainbow of shoes that dangled beneath the desks.
I like to stare at shoes. It's always been one of my fancies, looking at all of the plastic, the leather, the cotton I could never have. Watching those little clear tips on the shoelaces catch the bright light as their feet jiggled, kicked, stomped and shuffled. I bit my lip and turned my head to scan the walls of the classroom, racking my thoughts—what was it that I always told myself?
If you can't have the pleasure of owning a luxury, then seeing is the second best thing.
What was it that my mom told me, now, whenever I repeated my carefully crafted mantra?
“You, Oona, have some kinda 'ffliction that makes you love everything you can't afford.” And then she continued, “Get your shoes on and let's buy these absurd flats, for Fyora's sake. Unless you rather the ritzy red heels that can be seen from Kreludor?”
Well, of course. Who wouldn't want a cluster of wide-eyed Grundos ogling them from afar?
I took in a breath.
The painted wellies kicked back and forth restlessly as their owner, a yellow Usul, shoved her eraser into her chin and looked up at the ceiling lights as though they held the answers.
I leaned forward on my elbows.
The wellies had no consistent design, no flat, plain color like the generic ones easily found on the market. Brush strokes shot left and right by the toes, in random shades of plum and scarlet with a hint of periwinkle, flowing into a checkerboard that eventually dissolved into pale spots at the very top of the boots. There was a time, once, when I ran up to my mom after school in the midst of her shift and demanded, “Why can't you just let me buy the heels?” Before returning to shelving a potion she clipped, “You know, you'd stop complaining about never having good shoes if you tried making some yourself. Paint 'em. Stick on a couple ribbons. It ain't hard.”
The wellies kicked harder.
I checked over my test for the second time, not bothering to glance over the writing prompt at the very end of the packet. A young Ruki is dancing in a dimly lit room that's crowded with pets, it stated. She has not a care in the world, until suddenly the doors slam open. She gasps. Tell a story about this Ruki and how her conflict is resolved, it ordered.
I had silently bet with myself a million neopoints that the Xweetok a seat over would write a pulpy tale of the Court Dancer's little sister and how she found a morphing potion on the ground and became the Zafara Double Agent. It would be like her to concoct a senseless cliché.
One worn leather boot jiggled.
Across the room, a high-top sneaker did the same.
I wanted that sneaker. Half the feet and paws that graced the school were clad in that brand, that style, that very same color, and no matter what argument I tossed out, those lovely details meant nothing. All that made a difference was the price tag that dangled from their plastic-tipped laces: 14,599 NP. And even on sale, all of my pleas with my mom were in vain: 9,999. We could, as she often countered, use that good money on food and to shove me off to a decent college. It was all too hard not to shriek, “Who the feepit CARES about college?”
I wanted those shoes.
The Xweetok a seat over could afford them. I craned my neck as far it could go, wrapped in a thick woolen purple scarf that was painfully warm and yet as stylish as my wardrobe went. The fibers itched at my skin as I looked her up and down: a fitted T-shirt that must have cost 5,000 NP, regardless of being crafted from plain old cotton; jeans, simple jeans with simple stitchings on the back pockets; a rainbow of bracelets around her wrists; and the shoes. The high-top sneakers.
I hated her. I envied her, I despised her, I hated every strand of hair on her well-groomed faerie Xweetok pelt. It wasn't fair in any sense that she had all the necessities and more—much more—while I hung around the poor house, nibbling week-old jellies and omelettes on the verge of rotting. Even when we were friends, she never cared to invite me to her house.
Why? I wanted to rap myself on the head every time it popped up, the thought too much of a paradox to understand.
It was mind-racking. We were friends. We were. Once upon a time, many years ago (so it felt), long before the friendship was overtaken and suffocated by the powers of awkwardness. We would be the two pets that lurked together at recess, talking and swinging jump ropes as if no one in Neopia existed. She had friends outside of the isolated recess; naturally, of course, she had to, she could strike up a conversation with anyone she met—except for me. Come seventh grade, a year ago, that one Neopet with whom she could no longer converse was a pink Poogle with a stubby tail.
Mind-racking. It made no sense. As though one day, everything suddenly died, then was resurrected to an awkward zombie of a relationship that I was only poking with a stick. While we drifted apart, I began to hate her, I began to envy her—I began to despise her and everything about her. I couldn't find joy in any of my thoughts of the Xweetok, all to the point that I refused to call her by her true name. She would always be “the Xweetok”—or “her”. Or “she”. I couldn't like her. All I could do was hate; hate and look for everything I could that was wrong with her.
My list was long. There were probably repeats.
Two modest, brown-gray high heels shifted across the rug.
A snort ran up my nose. A third of the class froze up for a moment, one or two flipping their pencils back and forth like seesaws. The moment was soon to die down as the gawky Pteri at the front of the room picked up the clock on her desk and pointed at it threateningly—You have nine more minutes. Don't waste it.
As soon as the last head was lowered—that yellow Usul in those painted wellies—I returned to staring at the gloomy court shoes. Mrs. Owens', naturally. Only she had the right to wear high heels in school, it seemed, since if any of us dared to slip one on, it would bring Kreludor to jerk to a halt in the midst of orbit, turn around, and go crashing into Neopia.
Itchy. Itchy, itchy, itchy. I tugged at my scarf, rubbing at the raw skin on my neck that had been abused by the cruel fabric.
A pair of berry-colored shoes lay in a heap next to a desk.
The Zafara at the desk was hunched over. Her spring green arm was hanging from the side, and by squinting hard enough I could see a drop of saliva leaking out of the corner of her mouth. The shoes sent up a smell that, as I could tell by the aura of awkwardness, many were struggling to ignore. Every time that Zafara arrived into class, she pulled off the floppy sneakers and released the stench. And every single time she did so, a chorus of disgusted groans and mock suffocations broke out, to no avail. I'd always wondered whether she was doing it for the plain reason that she felt like it. Maybe she did it as an insult to the world, as if to say, “Ha! I can take off my shoes and make you suffer, and you can't do a thing about it! Ha ha ha! Thanks, Customization!” I always imagined her saying something along those lines. Something stupid.
But in spite of how much her feet reeked of a meepit's behind, scrambled eggs gone bad and durian fruit all mixed into a stinky salad, Mrs. Owens couldn't inflict a pinch of punishment. Even a round of slaps across the paw with a ruler wouldn't be permitted, if only because of the pets that couldn't wear clothes, period. Like the unconverted green Eyrie at the back of the room, who sat alone and without shoes.
Nearly every time I begged and pleaded for decent shoes, shoes that didn't give me the appearance of a pet in the poor house—although I very likely was one—my mom dealt the threat, the same old threat with a snarling expression, “How 'bout I take all your shoes? How 'bout you go 'round on hot pebbles and twigs without your shoes? Maybe then you'd be grateful just having your shoes.”
Whenever she stressed the words, whenever she snapped them, it was enough to send me out of the room in tears. Then, even the clogs I longed to sell at the next yard sale, even the loafers that would bring on a barrage of insults at school, all of a sudden became the most precious item in Neopia. Rarity 200.
I shuffled my paper and looked the sheet up and down. I could already see the A on the top of the page with the words scribbled below: Good job, you're a phenomenal writer! Flawless grammar! Unless... I erased the answer to number thirteen, filling in my second guess.
The ugly, worn blue moccasins stood still.
They were mine.
Fyora, they're so ugly, I buried my face in my arms. And hers are so pretty. The Xweetok a seat over. Naturally. It always ran through my mind how she, on top of never inviting me over to her house (claiming mine was more interesting), never so much as lent me a shirt. Not when I'd forgotten my gym bag at home, not when I was at a loss for clothes to wear to an occasion. We were the same size, even!
How could she have been so selfish?
“You have two minutes. Finish up whatever answer you're on, finish whatever sentence you're on,” Mrs. Owens said then, twirling a long piece of chalk in her grasp.
The Xweetok was done. Her body was slumped back, no longer hunched over a packet of paper as it had been for the past hour or so—I wondered how her posture remained so perfect. Perhaps every time she hunched forward, she made up for it with a slump back. For the heck of it, I let my shoulders fall back and my stomach jut out, leaning in my chair.
A folded piece of paper landed on my desk, so sudden it seemed to be from nowhere. Blatantly obvious who the sender was, of course—the Xweetok. The only one who, if ever, would so much as consider slapping a note onto my desk. I stared at it for a second, then abruptly unwrapped it, reading the words: im done. r u? After barely a moment of thought, I tore the paper in half and began to hastily scrawl onto it, keeping between the blue lines: yes. i hate u, u know. Before I tossed that back, I spotted a wet corner on the paper. I shrugged my shoulders as much as I could with the thick scarf. Now it was scratching my cheeks.
????????, read the message.
I sent my reply.
u hav everything! how is that fair? i like all these shoes that i cant even afford & u hav them all
The faerie Xweetok's wings twitched in annoyance. A pencil-thin braid, bright teal and shining slightly, was brushed to the side by her tan paw. She sighed. She wrote her message, gripped it in that paw, and slapped it onto my desk. Mrs. Owens didn't take notice. Probably thinking that we could get away with about anything at that point, she dragged her chair an inch—and another—and another, until her giant ear was just about touching mine.
“It's just shoes,” she whispered with a crease in her forehead. “What's the big deal?” My heart began to beat rapidly in my chest in outrage, and before I could respond she began to drag herself back to where she'd been.
How could she understand? The same cheeks that had blushed hot at my mom's retorts began flooding with heat. How? She took everything for granted. She could buy whatever she wanted; she wasn't forced to go to cheap stores—and only during sales—while all those around her were clad in clothing to die for. The Xweetok was one of the many who got every last desire. She didn't have to care about money—she could buy whatever she pleased, free of consequences.
What was her owner's bank account? Ultimate Riches?
Whine, whine, whine, I could hear my mom saying, the red Poogle folding her arms and lowering her head to shake it with shame. Would do you good to find something real to whine 'bout. Like sick and starving pets in Tyrannia.
What am I supposed to do, then? I could imagine myself snapping. Feel depressed and mopey over something I can't do anything about? Then I could hear her, head lifted and eyes sharp, coldly saying:
You can't do nothing 'bout the shoes.
“It's just shoes,” the Xweetok a seat over sighed to me with a smile, tapping her pencil in the most annoying of ways. “If it's such a big deal—” Her next words never made it out of her mouth, cut off by Mrs. Owens' sharp voice announcing:
The worn leather of the moccasins squeaked against the floor. The fibers of the scarf entangled around my neck itched and scratched as I turned to squint at the window. Barely reaching the tips of my ears were the soft splashes of the flowing creek, a small way off from the school. Only a short walk. Less than a minute.
Click, click, click—
The school bell burst into peals and, in a rampaging rainbow of colors, the entire class exploded out of the room with the soles of their shoes squeaking against the hallway floor. It was roughly ten minutes before Mrs. Owens, at first glancing at me and then shrugging my sulking self off, threw her tote bag over her wing and walked out of the classroom with clacking high heels in her wake.
I looked at the window again with head tilted to the side.
Either too lazy to take the long route or desperate to get it all over with, to thrust the paining thoughts out of my head, I kicked out my chair, flung open the window high enough for my body to fit, and clambered through; with a single deep breath—then half a dozen short, rapid ones—I sprinted my way to the creek.
The banks of the creek were decked with weeds. They were curled up around me, bright yellow flowers brushing against my sides as I sat there, legs dangling over the edge and paws holding tight to the ground. Quiet.
Get it over with, for Fyora's sake! I squeezed my eyes shut, then forced them open. Come on.
I dropped my gaze down to the gradual flow of the water, sucked in my breath, and slowly eased the shoes off my sweaty feet. My heart seemed to leap in place, dancing with all of the exhilaration in the world for but a second, for but one of its beats—it was pulsing with hope. It believed my desperate self.
All of the jealousy and selfishness, the misery and coveting, all of it would drown with the hideous hunks of fabric, the wads of plastic. They would have to.
The little droplets jumped up from the water and spattered my face, and suddenly the heart collapsed and seemed to cave in on itself, like it had made a single false move in midair and tripped over itself. I wrenched the grassy blades wrapped around my knuckles out of the ground and gasped, inhaling and exhaling over and over again as I watched those shoes take their journey down the stream. Kicking my feet against the dirt and scraping them on stones, digging my teeth into my lower lip because I deserved the pain of that punishment, the pain that came with that one nasty crime of a trait—I was selfish.
Selfish, material, obsessive, envious of everyone and everything around me, never able to be happy for what I had, because I hadn't the slightest clue how to enjoy what I could afford, because I was too busy decimating the only friendship I could have, and no matter how often I ever told myself any of the little motivational mantras, I'd always ruin every gift that came my way—
There it was. Out of the corner of my eye, the moccasin was swaying in the water, darkened by the dampness and frayed ends slopped against the side. Its shape grew smaller, smaller, smaller yet, until it was fully out of sight.
I wanted that shoe.
Yay! (: Finally done with this. Hopefully a prequel to a hopefully upcoming series. Neomail is shiny!