Antagonism: Part Two
The sofa ripped a little when he flung himself down on it, but Golem didn't care. Zafaras had spikes--and Darigan Zafaras such as himself no shortage of fangs and claws and other pointy bits--so his furniture was just going to have to get used to that.
"I can't do it anymore, Momoko," he whined, running his clawed hands through his furry red mohawk and leaving them to rest over his large red eyes. "I just can't. It's been four weeks! No one will take me."
"Give up, then," his twin sister replied with a shrug. He opened his eyes and looked over at her, a bright splash of pink against an otherwise dull wall. She was standing in front of an ironing board, folding clothes. To one side of her were a wooden washboard and a petpet bath bucket; behind her, through the window, Golem could see dozens of winter blechy hats hanging out on the balcony to dry.
"What kind of advice is that?!"
"Advice that'll get you to stop whining to me, maybe." Golem would have been hurt if he didn't know better; if he couldn't recognize the friendly glint in his sister's fuchsia eyes.
"I can't just give up--we have rent to pay. Bills. I mean, it's not cheap to live in a clean, new, three-bedroom apartment right smack dab in the middle of Neopia Central."
"Nope." There was a pause. Momoko folded three tombola T-shirts in a row. Golem sighed. After turning nine pairs of woolen socks right side out, Momoko continued. "It's also not cheap to buy transmogrification potions from the trading post and feed them to patrons of the restaurant you work at."
Golem scowled, standing and unfurling his wings for good measure. "That Kougra was evil incarnate, I'm telling you..."
Momoko moved on to a set of blue towels without even looking up, completely unfazed. "Then you might have wanted to make sure she actually drank the thing, hmm? You don't seem to have a problem with that Gelert who actually ended up transforming."
"He was an accomplice."
Momoko looked up, a moehog sweat towel clutched in her pink hands. "All right, fine. An accomplice. Evil incarnate and her accomplice. You sure taught him a lesson, eh? You taught everyone a lesson: 'Don't mess with me.' Well, no one will mess with you. Is that what you wanted?"
"It's not like I expected to get a job in another restaurant or anything. But I can't even get a job sweeping the street! I even went to the Haunted Woods; no luck. I neomailed places in Terror Mountain, Altador, Meridell--but nobody has a single opening!"
Momoko rolled her eyes and returned to her folding. "Your story got in the Neopian Times. 'Waiter Goes Insane, Attacks Innocent Gelert.' Everybody reads the Times."
"Yeah, well. I'm glad you got this laundry job, but it's not enough. Not if we want to keep eating and keep living here."
"I'll look for another one."
"Another job? I couldn't ask you to do that." Golem relaxed and sat back down on their fire-patterned sofa. "I'll find a job. Eventually."
Momoko continued, as if she hadn't heard him speak. "I was thinking of a job involving small, shiny objects. Or snowglobes."
"What?" Golem raised an eyebrow. "Snowglobes?" he repeated incredulously.
"Yeah. And cool clothes, but I don't want to be the one cleaning them. Maybe a few big things, too. Something pretty. And also I want to sit around all day with no one yelling at me for being lazy."
Golem should have been used to her eccentricities by now. He wasn't. Nearly speechless, he managed, "Well, uh, okay."
"I'll go off looking tomorrow."
Inspired by his sister's determination, Golem clenched his fists. "And so will I. Again."
Three more weeks; still no luck. Golem had talked to every shop owner in Neopia Central, it had seemed, begging for jobs stocking shelves or sweeping up. He'd gone to the Neolodge, saying he'd wash windows and scrub floors. Even the Cockroach Towers and turned him away. He'd crawled on his knees to the privately owned businesses that spiraled out around the Shop Wizard's building, saying he'd mow lawns, he'd replace paving-stones, he'd clean their grout--no, please, hear me out, don't close the door--SLAM.
Every single place. The exact same thing.
Golem was positively disheartened as he trudged home on his fiftieth day of fruitless searching. He didn't have the energy to fly; all the spunk and confidence had gone out of his hop. And he couldn't even help Momoko with the laundry when he got home: she'd been instructed not to let him so much as touch it or her supplies. Just one mistake, one big misunderstanding, and his whole life was ruined. Money was trickling out of their bank account steadily; he was forced to liquidate investments left and right. They wouldn't last much longer where they were living. Even cutting back on food costs, sticking to simple meals and omelets for breakfast, wasn't helping. There were two of them trying to live off enough money for one.
Golem sighed when he got home, immediately plopping back down on his couch. It seemed he'd been doing a lot of sighing lately. And he'd been basically living on that couch; scouring classifieds as soon as the NT arrived, writing neomails on the coffee table, signing checks, filling out applications...
"I GOT IT!" Momoko burst through the door just as Golem finished his sigh, bouncing up and down on the black carpet, twirling in the air, moving so fast she was merely a pink blur. "My dream job! I got it!" She threw a contract down on Golem's brown-furred chest and crossed her arms, looking smug.
He looked down at it. She'd been hired by some Lozami Tanami as a Gallery Keeper--certainly a respectable position. There were big, expensive galleries that lined the streets by the richest housing districts, standing outside the mansions, giving the rich who fancied themselves as artsy something to do. And then there were the novelty galleries, in downtown Neopia Central, showing off collections of items with interesting themes or origins. On a warm, sunny, languid day, going to a gallery was a fun diversion, and he and Momoko had been to quite a few.
But this one... was size six. The size of his living room. And by the look of it, it was on the outer fringes of the marketplace, out where no one ever ventured unless they happened to work there or own a shop there, out where the poor scratched out a living in shoddy, cramped buildings, out where--
"Isn't it just the coolest place? I went to visit it today. There's seven snowglobes there, on their own cute little pedestals, and shirts and jackets and hats hanging on the walls--and this beautiful, beautiful grand piano! You should have seen it, Gol."
"Uh, Momoko, it says here you'll only get 260 neopoints a day."
"I know. Ten neopoints per item in stock. And an extra hundred for every customer who comes in."
"I doubt you'll get any customers at all."
"Well, I never said I wanted to share the snowglobes with people, did I? I'm getting paid just to sit there for a few hours a day. I can bring all my laundry stuff and work on it there anyway. Miss Tanami said I could do whatever I wanted on duty so long as I helped any hapless newb who happened to stumble in on accident. You know what that means?"
"I can eat ice cream at work!" That statement earned a smug look all of its own.
"But, Momoko..." Golem looked up at Momoko's gleaming eyes, down at the contract in his claws, and back up at Momoko. "For a proper ice cream it usually costs more than 400 neopoints! This salary is awful."
"I rake in several thousand a day from the laundry, Gol, which by the way I'm going to be getting from Miss Tanami, too. And you never know when I might earn a raise."
"But this still doesn't solve our initial problem. We can't afford this apartment anymore. I still haven't found a job--260 extra neopoints isn't going to cut it."
Momoko took the contract back from her brother. "Well, that's your problem now. I get a free apartment above the gallery to live in. No more rent, Gol. No more utilities. And when did we ever use that third bedroom, anyway? I'll take my bed and my beanbag chairs and my other things over there next week. Miss Tanami's four neopets are going to help me move in. Isn't that nice of them?"
Golem's eyes widened. "Free apartment?"
"Yes! One bedroom, one bathroom, and a balcony. That's all I really need, anyway. I'll keep doing people's laundry; that seems to be working thus far. No more of me being lazy and mooching off your salary; no more sitting around all day reading and eating ice cream while you're off at work--now I'm going to be sitting around all day reading and eating ice cream and getting paid to do it. That's a nice step up, if I do say so myself." Momoko grinned.
"Free--free apartment?" Golem was quite overwhelmed by it all, to say the least. They hadn't separated from each other ever since they were newborns, holding hands and crying in the same bassinet. Two balls of red fluff with tiny wings and budding spikes. Their parents, pacifist Darigan Zafaras, had moved from the Darigan Citadel to Neopia Central during the Meridell War, their ultimate dream to raise a family in peace and prosperity... And now Momoko was going to leave her twin brother to work for some poor human for a worthless salary? And now Momoko was going to leave him for snowglobes?!
A waiter. That's all Golem had wanted to be, growing up: a waiter. He'd even had a bit of a pipe dream, when Momoko had gone and painted herself pink, to transform into a Maraquan and go work undersea at Kelp, the most famous (and expensive) restaurant in Neopia. Even though that never panned out, he did have a great job at Marc's, until... one mistake. That's all it takes to ruin everything.
"I'll show it to you tomorrow, how about that?" Momoko said, her head tilted. "Gol?"
"Uh... yeah. Sure. I'd like that," he lied.
It was kind of pretty, considering that it was nothing more than a spruced-up living room.
The location wasn't that bad, either. It was about a half hour walk from the housing district where Miss Tanami lived, and forty minutes from the part of the marketplace with the big shops and the shop wizard and the soup kitchen. Flying would have taken half the time, but Momoko had given up her wings when she turned pink. A loss of freedom for a gain in independence--for not looking exactly like her brother anymore. That was the first sign that they would not be together forever. Golem should have seen it.
The grand piano was in the center of the room, and right next to it was a tenor saxophone on a saxophone stand. Neither looked as though they had ever been played. In the front of the room were six pedestals, each one holding a different, collectible snowglobe. On each side of the room there were scarves and hats and coats on the walls, and in the back there were shelves with sand sculptures on them. The most expensive item there was only worth about 2,000 neopoints. The floors and walls and ceiling were all unpainted, undecorated, unvarnished wood. In the very back was a curtained doorway, behind which Golem assumed was the staircase that led to his sister's new apartment. Her new home.
Not theirs. Hers.
Golem knew that he shouldn't be so selfish, so affected by the change--after all, they were both adults now. But they were siblings--they were twins. They had always--no, no. None of that. There was no time for that. But--
"I said, isn't it pretty, Golem?" Momoko touched her brother on the shoulder, breaking him out of a loop of self-pity.
"Yes, rather pretty!" he acknowledged automatically, before his eyes refocused on what he was actually talking about. "The wood could use a coat of... something, though. Anything, for that matter."
"You're right. I might end up convincing Miss Tanami to renovate, but this place doesn't exactly turn a profit, so I don't know how much work she's willing to put into it."
"Yeah." A free apartment. No utilities.
"Speaking of turning a profit... Miss Tanami has another job opening, actually... Golem, are you listening to me?"
"I said that Miss Tanami has another job opening." Momoko glowered at Golem for a little while, just to see if he was still paying attention, before moving on. "For a shopkeeper. Size seven, two hundred neopoints an hour, plus a commission of ten percent for every item you sell. The shop's only about a ten minute walk from here, and it's got an apartment above it, too. I mean, it's nothing like what you're used to, and I know the money isn't much, but it's certainly something. Especially when all you have to do is say 'welcome' and 'are you sure you want to buy that item?' and 'can I interest you in anything else?' whenever someone comes in."
It was all moving too fast for him. "Ten minutes away? You mean you found me a job and an apartment just ten minutes away?"
"Yeah. I recommended you to her. If you want to live closer to the city center, though, I would completely understand..."
"No, that's great!" Golem couldn't help himself; he reached out and gripped Momoko in a hug. Even though she did not return the embrace, it was enough that she accepted it. "But..." he pulled away. "Hasn't she, I mean, doesn't she know about what I did to that Gelert?"
"Oh, yeah. She totally knows."
"Then what makes you think that she'd take me?"
"She thinks it was cool."
"She agrees with what you did. She thinks it was cool. I don't know. Why don't you ask her sometime? You can go talk to her and see her shop today, even. I bet she'd even help you move in right after me. And speaking of moving in, look! There's Miss Tanami's neopets now!" Momoko hopped out the door to meet a spotted Zafara and a purple Shoyru, who were pulling a rather large, empty wagon behind them. On the other side of the wagon were--
Golem couldn't believe his eyes. He even rubbed them twice, for good measure. But they were still there: a Christmas Kougra and a mutant Gelert; evil incarnate and her accomplice. His sister was leaving their comfortable apartment, their way of life, their bond as twins, for them?! He couldn't believe it. He shouldn't have to believe it. It shouldn't be happening in the first place.
When the Kougra saw him, she tensed, muscles rippling under her gray-striped white fur, her holly-tipped tail twitching back and forth. She stared hard at the ground with her gray eyes. In the heat of the summer, she had taken off her hat and shoulder wrap, but it was unmistakably the same oversized Kougra; he would recognize her anywhere. And she recognized him, Golem knew; recognized him as the one who almost turned her into the red-eyed, ragged, lopsided monster she really was.
Her brother, however, the one who actually ended up mutant, bounded over to Golem happily. He didn't know what a grudge was, much less how to hold one. "Hey, it's you!" he shouted, bounding forward, thick rat's tail wagging in excitement. His similarly thick gray-green ears were perked (which in this case meant that they weren't actually dragging on the ground). He was huge, and ugly, but his demeanor was all happiness and energy. Golem was surprised. Mutation usually turned pets into cynics.
"You're the waiter dude, right? How have you been? Find a job yet?"
Golem actually found within himself a smile for the Gelert. After their new start, Golem found that he had forgiven the poor brute. How could you not find a soft spot in your heart for that creature, with his lolling tongue and ever-wagging tail?
"I'm still alive," Golem replied. "That's all I can say for myself right now." He glanced over at the Kougra, Lion, who hung back in the shadow of the wagon. She had not come to apologize. In fact, he had not seen her since, and had hoped to never see her again in his life. She was the one who had driven him over the edge, who had come and antagonized him to the point where he couldn't bear it anymore and had been forced to retaliate. She was the one who had ruined his life, and now she was taking Momoko away from him, too. He hated her.
"Golem! Are you deaf or what?"
"Eh? Momoko? What is it?"
"I want to introduce you to my new friends. This is Buggiele," she pointed to the spotted Zafara, a tall, lanky one a little taller than Golem, "and this is Tofubow," she finished, pointing to a petite purple Shoyru. They both seemed friendly enough, what with being the siblings of pure evil and all. A glance at the Zafara's blue eyes revealed nothing but a hint of a smirk, and the Shoyru's large violet eyes were all quiet shyness.
"I'm Golem, Momoko's twin brother," Golem said, reaching out to shake their hands, wondering if they could sense his hidden contempt for adoptive families. Buggiele had a firm grip and good eye contact; businesslike, but not coldly so. Tofubow barely brushed his claws with her hand and stared at the ground the whole time. No trouble there, either.
"Well, I'm looking forward to seeing you around more," Buggiele commented, smiling. "We've been in need of a shopkeeper for a while now. We just can't seem to keep them around for very long."
I wonder why, Golem thought, rather sarcastically, biting his tongue to keep from saying it. "I haven't actually accepted the position, yet, actually."
"Well, I hope you do. Mama would be thrilled if you would. Neither she nor Zerlantn hold what you did against you."
Golem thought he caught a subtle and I wish you'd done it to Lion too vibe in his voice when he said it. There was something about the way he had just flicked his eyes in the Kougra's direction. Perhaps he was an ally? It couldn't be easy, being Lion's brother, not with that easily-picked-on-able exterior Golem was detecting from him.
"Are you guys ready to go fetch Momoko's furniture or not?" Lion called out to them from beside the wagon, getting a little impatient with the niceties, or so Golem thought. She was already strapped into the harnesses attached to the wagon for the two four-legged neopets. He looked over at her and couldn't imagine being employed by her human mother. It would be just like his last month at Marc's--only ten thousand times worse, with her coming in every day bugging him and complaining about him to her mother and--and--
He still needed a job.
Nobody would take him, and he still needed a job; that wasn't going to go away. He had to at least give this Lozami woman a chance. It was possible that she wouldn't put up with Lion's bellyaching. After all, she had paid him the full value of a Gelert transmogrification potion, after she had learned the true story of what had happened. She was in the position to be the most offended of anybody else; she had the right to call for his blood--but instead, she had offered him a job.
Maybe... it wouldn't be so bad, after all. Maybe he could play them off each other; take advantage of the subtle tensions between Buggiele and Lion, worm his way into the hearts of jovial Zerlantn and soft-spoken Tofubow. It would be like living right under Lion's skin: she could scratch all she wanted, but he wasn't going anywhere.
"We're coming, Lion," he called as the three Zafaras hopped over, Tofubow went airborne, and Zerlantn bounded to the lead. "And I hope you have enough room in that wagon for all my things, too!"
Golem looked around at the shop, his shop, and smiled a fang-filled smile. There was one set of shelves and pegs right before the windows in the front of the shop; utterly empty. The walls and floors were unpainted and crumbling. It wasn't much bigger than Momoko's place, but it was certainly more decrepit. Old shoes and rusty cans littered the floor, cobwebs covered the ceiling in layers, and some buckets of smelly sludge had claimed one moldy corner of the place for their own. At least his apartment was clean and spacious: one room, one bathroom, and a balcony, furnished with drab but functional furniture and fixtures, and now his ratty fire-patterned sofa.
He sat back with the smile on his face as Lion approached the shop with a codestone in her mouth, hesitating slightly before walking in. "Fffffounth thith on the grounth," she grumbled before plopping it down in a drool puddle on the shelf.
"Thank you, Lion," Golem replied, still smiling.
She flashed him a look. He returned it. He didn't have to serve her anymore: now he was working for her mother; now he was on her level.
"Truce?" she asked, gray eyes sizing him up.
"We'll see," he replied, red eyes glittering.
As she left, he wrote out a tag for one thousand neopoints below the current market value of the item, displaying it prominently in the freshly scrubbed windows (it had taken him hours to clean the dirt off them). Nine hundred neopoints commission wasn't too bad for a start. If nobody came by and noticed this gem, it was a hopeless case. But Lozami had given him permission to mark things however he liked--to give them away free, even, if he wanted; she had used those exact words. Just come to work on time and sweep the floor every once in a while. Nothing special.
Oh, it was nothing special, all right... but now--now it was home.