Antagonism: Part One
"Waiter? Waiter! WAAAAAAITER! Where'd you get off to?!"
Golem the Darigan Zafara leaned against a wall in the kitchens, trying (and failing) to calm himself down. He looked at his reflection in the stainless steel countertops: six feet of blood red fur, spikes, red eyes, fangs, claws, and horned wings. Yet no matter how much he growled or tried to look intimidating, that Kougra didn't even flinch. She knew she had him right where she wanted him; she knew she had the upper hand. Golem hated her, but he was her waiter, and his only choices were to serve her or get fired.
"Coming!" Golem called, trying again for a deep, calm breath. He took up a tray in his lanky arms and hopped carefully out to their table, which stood right in the center of the restaurant. The oversized Christmas Kougra--she must have been at least twice his size--was there waiting for him, a smug look on her tigrine face. Her bell-tipped Christmas hat, the reds and greens and fluffy whites of her shoulder wrap--they didn't fool Golem: she was evil incarnate, no matter how pretty a package it was wrapped in. Her holly-tipped tail flicked back and forth with annoyance. She managed to keep a straight face through the charade, but the rainbow Gelert beside her could barely hold his giggles in.
"Took you long enough," she growled. Her brother snorted in her support, half laughing, half serious and condescending.
"Here you are, sir, madam," Golem replied, putting as much sarcastic emphasis on the honorifics as he could. "Two bowls of toe nail soup, extra crunchy. Please, enjoy your meal." With the niceties out of the way, Golem gritted his sharp teeth and tried to make his escape.
"Excuse me," came the Kougra's voice, shattering Golem's hopes of a peaceful getaway and causing him to freeze in his tracks. "This soup... is cold."
Golem turned around slowly, forcing a grin on his face, even as he could feel his cheek begin to twitch. "Just a minute ago you were asking me if I could put ice cubes in it to make it colder, madam," he replied, curling his clawed hands into fists, trembling.
"Need I remind you who's always right, again? Say it. Who's always right?"
"The customer," Golem replied through his clenched teeth.
"That's right," the Kougra said, settling back down on her haunches. "I don't know how they do things at the Citadel, but here in Neopia Central we treat our customers with a little more respect."
"I'm NOT from the Citadel--I'm from Neopia Central, just like you." Golem got tired of people mistaking him for a native of a place he'd never even been to. There was such a thing as genetics: his Zafara parents had moved to Neopia Central before he was even born, during the Meridell war. "I--"
"Yes, well, whatever, I don't really care." The Kougra waved a forepaw at her soup. "I want this hot. Piping hot. The food in this place is disgusting enough without me having to swallow it down cold and slimy, all right? Run along now."
Golem stared hard into her gray eyes, focusing all his hate and frustration into his red ones. He hoped she got the message. "Yes, madam," he forced himself to say, sweeping the two bowls of soup back onto his tray and turning around. He started off toward the kitchen when a white blur--his right foot hit something solid--he tripped! He started to lose his balance; his arms flailed in an attempt to regain it, his black and red wings fanned out to catch the air. The two bowls he was carrying went flying, unloading soup onto the floor and Golem's fur, and he faceplanted right into his tray.
Shaking with indignation and rage, Golem righted himself and flew into the Kougra's face, his claws outstretched and teeth bared. "You tripped me!"
The Kougra, unfazed, kept her straight face, her arrogant façade. "I most certainly did not."
"Yes, you did! You tripped me! I ought to have your pretty striped hide for my carpet!" Golem flexed his claws inches from her face. She didn't move. Golem backed off a little, and her eyes flicked quickly to the right.
"You, sir, are busted." She grinned.
"Huh?" Golem turned his head to see his boss, a uniformed brown Yurble, hurrying toward him as fast as he could on his short legs.
"What seems to be the problem here?" he asked as soon as he arrived, smiling sheepishly at the others in the restaurant, who were staring quite openly at the four of them. "Golem, what have you done?"
"I didn't do anything, boss! This Kougra, she tripped me!"
"With all due respect, sir--he's a liar. I did no such thing. He probably tripped on that thick tail of his."
"No, I tripped on one of your huge paws, that's what happened--"
"Golem, shut up," his boss hissed. Golem went quiet. Turning to address the Kougra, he said, "I'm the owner of this here restaurant. The name's Marcus. I'm sure that Golem doesn't mean to--"
"I don't care what he means, Mr. Marcus. He's a terrible waiter. He never brings my food out properly the first time, he never responds when I hail him, and it's quite obvious that he takes pleasure in antagonizing me and my brother Zerlantn." Golem looked over at her poor, antagonized brother--he was laughing, soundlessly, jerking so hard that the colors on his rainbow coat blurred together. Apparently they thought this funny, annoying him and getting him into trouble with his boss. What jerks.
"I'm sorry if you're not satisfied with our service here--I'll be sure to give Golem a thorough talking-to. But don't give up on us yet. Here, why don't you take these..." Marcus fished around in his apron pocket, pulling out two coupons for free meals. The same two coupons that Golem's manager had given them last week, and that the assistant manager had given them the week before that--the same two coupons they bought their food with every day they came.
The Kougra looked at them somewhat disdainfully, taking one in a forepaw and giving it a once-over. "Two free meals? Well, I suppose, if that's the best you can do. Perhaps we'll come back some other time. But for now, adieu." With that, she took both coupons in her mouth and left the restaurant with her giggling brother in tow.
"I can't believe you just did that, boss," Golem whined as soon as they were gone. "Those two have been--"
"I don't want to hear it," Marcus interrupted, holding up one hand. His ordinarily jovial face was drawn up in anger. "Here at Marc's, the customers are always right, even when they're wrong."
"I'm done talking about this, Golem. If you can't grin and bear it like everyone else, then you shouldn't be working here. I don't care about your side of the story--I pay you, you don't pay me. You are irrelevant, in the long run, to this business. After you clean up this mess, take the rest of the day off and come back on Monday with a smile, okay?"
"Good boy." With that, Marcus stomped off, leaving Golem staring at the retreating shape of his wild brown mane.
After fetching a mop and a bucket of soapy water from a supply closet, Golem went over to the mess and began to clean it up, fuming the entire time. He didn't have much to do, though, because apparently that Gelert didn't mind the coldness of the soup and had licked most of it up while Golem and his sister were arguing. It was quite obvious that they did all these things just to get under Golem's skin--and they were darned good at it, too. Why did they hate him so much? It was so frustrating! When Golem finished with the mop, he knew exactly what he needed to do--find someone who would listen to him complain.
* * *
"They've been at Marc's every day for the past three weeks!" Golem shouted. He was pacing back and forth in his spacious apartment, only vaguely directing his comments at his sister, a pink Zafara who sat sprawled on a fire-patterned sofa nearby. "They thrive on my misery. I can never get there fast enough. I can never get their orders right. They're impossible to please--and today, today that evil Kougra tripped me! Sent that disgusting stuff they order all over the place, too. Marcus didn't believe me, of course. He didn't even listen to my side of the story. Everyone just keeps giving them food coupons, and they keep coming back, and every single time they come and sit in my section!"
"Golem, sit down. You're making me nervous."
Golem complied, collapsing on a maroon chair and burying his head in his clawed hands. "I can't take it anymore, Momoko, I really can't. I'll go crazy. If they're there tomorrow, someone's gonna end up carting me off to jail, I swear."
"Look at me, Golem," Momoko said. Golem looked up into her fuchsia eyes. They were dead serious, as always. She was sweet and lovely in her pink coat, the coat she'd been saving up for ever since they'd moved away from their parents' house. Golem guessed she had just gotten tired of being his identical twin. "Golem, you're not paying attention to me." She held her bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream out at him. "Do you want some?"
"No, no thanks."
"You really need to learn how to relax, Gol. The reason they do this to you is because you react like they want you to. And also, they get free food. Free food is good. If I got free food for annoying you, I'd probably be up there all the time, too."
"That's different, Momoko. You're my sister."
"How would it be different, huh?"
"Well... it would be like a joke. It would be funny even for me."
"Why can't it be a joke when they do it, hmm?" Momoko finished her sentence with a big bite of ice cream.
"Because they're strangers and they're annoying and I hate them?"
"Well, they think it's funny. Let them have a laugh and their free food. It's no big deal, Gol, really. In the long run, who cares? They'll get sick of Marc's eventually and go somewhere else, and you'll get paid for all your troubles, and you'll come home to me and we'll buy ice cream and furniture and everything will be all right."
"No, it won't. I'll be in jail, that's what'll happen if I ever see another Christmas Kougra in my restaurant again! I'll beat up the next rainbow Gelert I see, I swear. I'll go nuts. You'll have to lock me up, Momoko, if I don't figure out how to solve this problem of mine. If I can't get Marcus to keep those ridiculous swirly ears of his open for one blasted minute." Golem got up and started pacing again, hopping the length of the living room, back and forth, back and forth.
"I hate it when you do that, Gol."
"It helps me think."
"You know what helps me think? Shopping. ‘Do I want chocolate or strawberry? How about red or blue? Plushie or keyring?' Maybe you should stop thinking and go do something fun to take your mind off work."
Golem froze in the middle of the rug. "...Momoko, that's it!"
Momoko smiled, getting up off the couch and finishing her ice cream with a flourish. "So you're listening to me for once! Where do you want to go?"
"No, I'm not taking you with me, Momoko... it'll take me all weekend to get to the trading post and back. But I thought of something brilliant."
"Why do I get the feeling that it's not so brilliant after all?" Momoko gave her twin brother a rather dubious look.
"Don't worry! It's swell! It's great! I'll be back as soon as I can!" And with that, Golem was out the window and into the sky, flying as fast as he could in the direction of Mystery Island.
Golem couldn't help but grin when he showed up to work and his two favorite neopets, the Christmas Kougra and her brother the rainbow Gelert, were waiting in his section to greet him. He couldn't help but grin as he took their coupons and their orders and their abuse. He couldn't help but grin as he hopped into the kitchens, gave the cooks their ticket, and waited for their soup to stew. Because now, for the measly price of 900,000 neopoints (a giant chunk of his life savings), he had the upper hand, and no one was going to take that from him.
"You're in a good mood today, Golem," a yellow Ruki remarked, stirring the toe nail soup up for him with two of his six legs. They chose him to cook the stuff because he didn't have a nose. "But aren't those two evil pets out there?"
"Oh, they don't bother me anymore, Ruuk," Golem replied, leaning on his elbow near the pot, not even minding the horrid, cheesy smell. "It's just a bit of fun for them, that's all."
"Don't seem that fun for you, though," Ruuk replied, his antennae perked up on his head in curiosity. "I mean, those guys, they're... well, overboard, that's it. You sure you ain't gone crazy yet?"
"Quite sure, Ruuk, quite sure."
"All right, then. Here's your soup. Extra crunch, piping hot, just like you asked." Ruuk shrugged, filling two bowls and placing them on Golem's tray.
Still grinning, Golem sneaked a look around the kitchen and hopped behind some shelves, bags of grain and rice and fruit blocking him from sight. It was perfect--just perfect. He reached into his bag, pulling out two large bottles: one striped blue and green, the other mottled brown and spiky. Nine hundred thousand neopoints worth of revenge. He poured each one into its own bowl of soup, stirring it in well. They both were disgustingly fetid, but the toe nail soup was even smellier, so no one would notice--until it was too late. When he was done, he buried the two empty bottles in the trash and hopped out to the center table, where they were waiting.
"Took you long enough," the Gelert snorted when he arrived.
"Here you are, sir, madam," Golem said pleasantly, without a hint of sarcasm. "Two bowls of toe nail soup, extra crunchy, piping hot. Please, enjoy your meal." He laid the bowls in front of them, making sure each neopet received the proper potion.
"I believe you forgot my drink... Golem," the Kougra responded, looking up at him and making a big show out of reading his nametag.
"A bowl of apple juice. I ordered it first thing when you got here."
"I apologize. I mustn't have been paying attention. Please, allow me to get it for you." With a bow, Golem turned and hopped away. As soon as he was in the kitchens, he stood on his tiptoes and stared through the glass circle of window at the two of them. The Gelert was messily slurping at his soup, his whole muzzle covered in the stuff, his tail wagging furiously. The Kougra, however, sat with her nose up, aloof, stately, annoying. Well, even if she didn't drink it, it would be worth it to see the look on that Gelert's face when he realized what was happening. Golem looked out at him, at his impossibly long ears and tail, fishing-line thin at the tips; at his broad shoulders and deep chest; at his chaotically multicolored coat, colored like he'd gotten in a fight with a painter and lost. Golem memorized the look of his noble canine body. He wouldn't be seeing that again for a very long time.
"Need something, Golem? Who you watchin' out there?"
"Oh, Ruuk!" Golem spun around, whacking his tail on the door as he did so. "A bowl of apple juice! And a cup of ice cubes in case she asks for them. That's what I need, yes."
"All right, I'll go get it."
"No! Allow me!" Golem rushed to the back of the kitchen where the drinks were in a big stone cabinet ringed with ice motes, grabbed what he needed, and rushed back out to his customers, giving the Kougra what she wanted. When she opened her mouth to ask for ice, he plopped a cup of it on the table, effectively silencing her. But he wasn't paying attention to her anymore; his eyes were on her brother, Zerlantn. "Can I get you anything else, madam? A barf bag, perhaps?"
"Lion, I don't feel so good..." Zerlantn gurgled. The Gelert's ears drooped, his head resting in his empty bowl. Golem thought his face had a greenish tinge to it.
"Zerl, you okay? You shouldn't eat that stuff so fast! Are you--going to be all right?" Lion stood, stepping close to her brother, shedding the pretense Golem knew so well and actually showing real concern for once. Kindness, even. "Zerl?"
"I think... I need... a doctor..." Zerlantn fell to the floor, his multicolored coat coming out in huge chunks, his ears and tail swelling, huge lumps beginning to grow on his back and neck. Lion grabbed the scruff of his neck in her mouth and started to drag him toward the door. Golem, still grinning, lifted his feet and assisted her, taking him out to the curb, away from the other restaurant patrons who were staring at them. The Gelert was growing bigger, fast. Eventually all his fur fell out, and new fur, mottled brownish green, began to grow in. His tail grew thick and remained hairless, pinkish, and his ears grew similarly thick and fleshy, turning somewhat grayish green. As he writhed and moaned on the ground, the lumps on his back and neck and eyebrows burst, revealing thick, dark spikes, crusted with blood. When it was over, he lay there panting, Lion licking his wounds for him, Golem watching, trying to hide his grin with mock alarm.
Maybe twenty minutes after the transformation, he managed to stand, ending up taller than his sister but not quite as long. When he finally opened his eyes they were a dark, nasty yellow, with green-brown irises.
"Zerl, are you all right?"
He nodded slowly, not yet used to the weight of his ears, which dragged on the ground. "I'll be all right." Even his voice had changed, growing deep and huskier.
Lion turned and growled at Golem. "You did this," she accused, eyes narrowed, teeth bared, hackles raised.
Golem shook his head. "I don't know what you're talking about," he lied.
"C'mon, Zerl," Lion said, glaring at Golem one last time. "Let's go home."
Those words were music to Golem's ears.
* * *
"Care to explain yourself, Golem?" Marcus asked, his arms crossed, his expression flat. "Why don't you tell me what happened to that rainbow Gelert? I'm all ears."
"I don't know, sir," Golem said, feigning innocence. "Ruuk made the soup--I watched him make it. Then I brought it to them. Then he ate it while I was getting that Kougra her drink. Then--he got all sick and started transforming. That's all I know."
"Oh? Then you don't know where these came from?" Marcus proceeded to produce the two empty bottles Golem thought he had hidden fairly well.
"Don't lie to me, Golem. Your sister Momoko told me that you went to the trading post last weekend, and that when you came back your bank account was 500,000 neopoints poorer. I know what you did to that poor Gelert, and I am NOT happy with you."
"No, Golem. I don't want excuses. You're fired, you hear me? FIRED. I don't ever want to see you around here again. You've served me well and it pains me to do this, but I can't have you turning my customers into mutants willy-nilly like that! You're fired. Your last paycheck has been deposited in your bank account as of yesterday. Hand me your nametag, please, and don't make a fuss. I don't want to put up with you anymore."
Golem's face fell. Fired? But finding jobs that paid so well in Neopia Central was nigh impossible! With a long, drawn out sigh, Golem handed over his nametag, his floppy ears drooping. Marcus took it and slammed his office door in the Zafara's face.
Out on the curb, Golem sat down and buried his face in his hands, wondering if he had done the right thing. He certainly felt no remorse over the incident--in fact, the only thing he regretted was that he couldn't get the Kougra to drink hers as well! But he had loved his job before Lion and Zerlantn had come along, and he'd have a very tough time breaking the news to Momoko, who he supported with his paycheck. They'd both have to get jobs somewhere, probably. And--
The Zafara looked up upon hearing his name, and there was that Gelert, Zerlantn, sitting just a few feet away. "What do you want?" he asked angrily. "Come to get me back?"
"I deserved that."
"...What?" That jerk, that ultimate pain in the butt--admitting he was wrong?
"Lion and I were both first-class jerks to you, huh? I totally deserved what you did. I'm... I'm going to keep this shape. Maybe it'll make me a better person, I dunno. My mama wanted me to give you this." He reached behind him and picked up a heavy bag of neopoints in his mouth, tossing them so that they landed right in front of Golem. "It's 600,000 neopoints, the current price of Gelert transmogrification potions. You can count it, if you want. Lion and I... well, we were just having some fun, you know? You were so funny when you got mad. You took everything so seriously. We didn't mean to hurt you that bad, honest. Lion... well, she's, she's sorry, even if she's too ashamed or proud or something to come up here and say it to you herself. We're both sorry."
Golem stood up, completely in shock. "Yeah, well--you were jerks. For three weeks. Almost drove me nuts. And now, now you two got me fired!"
"We didn't mean to. But you got me good, I have to admit that."
"I'm not sorry I did that to you."
"You don't have to be."
"Maybe... we could start over? Blank slate? Fresh start?" Golem scratched his head sheepishly, glancing at the bag of neopoints. There was no way he could refuse them, not when he had to go home later and explain to Momoko that they both needed to go job hunting soon. This Gelert had caught him totally off guard by coming over to apologize--he thought they'd be more likely to spend the 200,000 neopoints it would take to get him back!
"A fresh start sounds great!" Zerlantn barked.
"...Hi, my name is Golem. I was born and raised here in Neopia Central. What's your name?"
The mutant Gelert before him stuck out one forepaw. "My name's Zerlantn! Nice to meet you!"
Golem accepted the paw, shaking it. "Nice to meet you, too."
To be continued...