"Katya! Wait up!"
I turned around and sighed. "Go HOME, Mercy. Jane doesn't want you wandering around in the Marketplace. It's too dangerous for you."
"Jane said I could go with you," Mercy beamed up at me. "As long as you keep an eye on me, she said I'd be safe."
I groaned. I did NOT want to drag my much-younger sister around the Marketplace with me to look for a stamp for my collection. Mercy is the most clingy, annoying Zafara that ever walked Neopia. I still couldn't see why Jane had ruined our peaceful, quiet household in Neopia Central with Mercy, and it had been nearly three months.
"I don't see why I have to watch you," I growled. "I never get to spend time with my friends anymore because of you!"
Mercy's bottom lip trembled. "Katya, why are you mad?" she whimpered. "I just want to be like you."
I sighed again. I'd been doing a lot more of that recently. "Fine," I snapped. "Come along. But you'd better keep up. And NO WHINING!"
"Yay!" Mercy cried, all smiles again. "Thank you, Katya! I'll be super-good! Just wait and see!"
"Katya, my feet hurt," Mercy whined. "Can we sit down now, please?"
I gritted my teeth and kept walking. Mercy had started whining almost immediately after we arrived at the Marketplace. I still hadn't found Tanya, my best friend, and the whining was driving me crazy.
"Not now, Mercy," I said for what felt like the ten thousandth time. "We have to find Tanya first."
"I don't like Tanya," Mercy mumbled, kicking a rock. "She's always mean."
Tanya did have a tendency to be a little snobby, but I managed to overlook that a lot of the time. We had always been pushed together at school, the two smartest Neopets in our grade. Even though I was a Kougra and she was a Kacheek, we'd always gotten along pretty well. Until Mercy came along, anyway.
"Too bad," I said, stopping suddenly. Mercy crashed into me, and knocked me to the ground. I scowled and stood up, reluctantly offering a paw to help her to her feet. "There she is."
"Katya!" Tanya said, dashing up. "THERE you are. I've been looking for you all over. You missed the BIGGEST sale at that shop over there. They had the cutest clothes, but now they're all sold out."
I ground my teeth together. Late again, thanks to Mercy.
"I see you brought the kid along," Tanya said, wrinkling her nose.
"Yeah," I mumbled, feeling awkward and stupid. "Jane needed me to watch Mercy."
"Oh my goodness!" Tanya cried, looking over my shoulder. "Look! A sale! Is that a pink sun hat?"
She rushed over to the store, where a large crowd had already gathered, fighting over adorable clothes. I spotted a case full of stamps, and turned to Mercy.
"Stay here, okay?" I said, pointing to the bench behind us. "I'm going to go look at something over there. Don't move, got it?"
"Yes, Katya," Mercy said dully.
I ignored the twinge of guilt I felt at leaving her there, overriding it with the thought of a new stamp. I dashed in, and found a stamp I didn’t have, and I haggled over it for a few minutes. I left the shop maybe five minutes after entering it, after buying a candy cane for Mercy. I walked back over to where I'd left her, pushing my way through the crowd. I reached the bench after several minutes of shoving, and my heart dropped into my stomach, which swiftly plummeted to my feet.
Mercy was gone.
"Mercy? Mercy? Mercy!" I called, starting to panic. She wasn't anywhere near the bench. I forced my way into the surrounding shops: no Mercy. I scanned the crowd anxiously--still no Mercy.
"Oh no," I whispered. "Oh no, oh no, oh no. Mercy!"
Mercy was nowhere in sight. I felt sick inside. Jane had wanted me to keep an eye on Mercy, and I'd failed. My little sister was missing, and she could be anywhere.
"What am I going to do?" I asked myself softly.
"Can you find her?" Jane asked, touching the arm of the Defenders of Neopia member who'd been sent to our Neohome. He was standing, one foot out the door, ready to leave after questioning both Jane and I on everything about Mercy: what she looked like, how tall she was, where we'd--I'd--last seen her.
"I don't know, ma'am," he replied. "I certainly hope so."
Jane let go of his arm, and he swiftly left. She collapsed in one of the plain wooden chairs that sat around the table. We didn't have a ton of money, but the three of us were fairly well off.
"I'm so sorry," I said again, miserably. "I should have--"
Jane held up a hand. "It's not your fault," she said, shaking her head. "You may have made a bad choice by leaving her by that bench, but either she made the choice to wander off, or someone else chose to take her. I'm not sure if there's much you could have done either way."
Her reassurances didn't help. I knew it was all my fault that Mercy was missing. Jane was a kind and loving owner, but she wasn't very good with crises or comforting people.
"I feel so useless," I said, slumping down in the chair across from Jane. "I wish there was something I could DO..." I trailed off as an idea hit me. Maybe there was something I could do.
"Can I use the Neomail?" I asked. "Please?"
"Sure, go ahead," Jane said, waving a hand towards the bulky machine, an older model. She stared listlessly at the ceiling.
I turned the machine on, and as soon as it warmed up, I typed in a message.
My sister Mercy is missing. She is a blue Zafara, young, very small for her age. She was last seen earlier today in the Marketplace. If you see her, or have heard anything, please let Neomail me. Send this on to all your Neofriends, and spread the word about Mercy.
I sent it to all of my Neofriends, and crossed my fingers that they would send it on, and someone would have seen Mercy. I sat at the Neomail machine for a minute, and then thought of something else I could do.
"Do we have any paper?" I asked Jane.
"Yes," she said, looking away from the ceiling. "There's a notepad in Mercy's room that I got for her today. Some crayons, too."
"Thanks," I said, turning to go. "They'll find her," I added over my shoulder. "They will."
I grabbed the notepad and crayons, and headed to my room. Mercy's room was too quiet, and I couldn't stand being in the dining room with Jane. The dull look in her eyes scared me.
I dropped the notepad and crayons on my desk, and walked down the hall to storage closet. I dug around in the back behind all the athletic equipment and board games until I found the box I was looking for.
PICTURES OF MERCY, it said in all caps on the side.
"Perfect," I said, smiling.
I put the second part of my plan into action the next day. I had stayed up most of the night making flyers to put up around town.
MISSING MERCY!! was written in large letters across the top. Underneath was a picture of Mercy, different ones on different posters. I'd used all the extra shots that Jane obsessively took of every picture, saving one of each for Jane's collection. I'd also listed a description of Mercy, our Neohome address, and how we could be contacted at the bottom.
I put the flyers in my schoolbag, and walked into town after grabbing a muffin from the pantry. I ate the muffin on the way, more because I hadn't eaten since breakfast the day before than because I really wanted to. It tasted like sawdust in my mouth. I choked it down anyway.
I reached Neopia Central, and began posting flyers everywhere: the bank, the auction house, the Neolodge, and the Money Tree. After I'd plastered just about every available surface with pictures of Mercy, I moved on to the Neopian Bazaar, and posted flyers in a similar manner. I went back to the Neopian Plaza and repeated the process. Lastly, I went to the Marketplace, and posted flyers every few shops. I walked past the bench where I'd last seen Mercy, and looked away, knowing that I'd cry if I looked at it now.
The Marketplace wasn't quite so crowded this early in the morning. I could move easily through the small crowd, and I handed out flyers to people there. A lot of them seemed concerned, and promised to keep an eye out for Mercy. I thanked them all.
I didn't head home until I ran out of flyers. By then, my paws were killing me.
I remembered with a stab of guilt that Mercy's feet had hurt yesterday before she disappeared. She'd asked to sit down, but I'd been selfish and insisted that she keep walking.
"If she could do it, so can I," I muttered to myself, gritting my teeth. I plodded on home, feeling a grim satisfaction with every stab of pain. It served me right for not taking better care of Mercy.
I passed the Wishing Well in the Plaza, and stopped for a moment. I looked over the edge down into the deep water, and acted on an impulse. I dropped in a coin, and squeezed my eyes shut. "I just want Mercy home again," I thought. "All I want to do is find Mercy."
I opened my eyes, and looked around me. There was nothing, and even though I'd known I was expecting too much, I felt disappointed. I walked towards home once more.
I missed Mercy more than I'd ever thought possible. I remembered how her tagging along used to annoy me so much. I remembered yesterday, when she'd looked at me with such hurt in her eyes.
"I just want to be like you," she'd said. I smiled a little at the memory. Mercy looked up to me. That was why she always tagged along. I'd been mean to her. Horribly mean. I felt guilty now.
I let myself in the door, and Jane ran in the room, and hugged me tight.
"There you are," she said, relief radiating from her. "I thought you were lost, too."
"I was putting up flyers," I said, sliding away. "With pictures of Mercy on them."
"You were gone almost all day," Jane said, shaking her head. "Where did you put those flyers? The Lost Desert?"
"No, just all over Neopia Central," I said, smiling hesitantly. Jane had made a joke. That was a good sign. "The Bazaar, Plaza, and Marketplace, too."
Jane smiled back, and even though it wasn't as bright as usual, I was relieved.
"Hopefully they'll help," she said.
"Hopefully," I echoed.
The next morning, the second day since Mercy had gone missing, I woke up late. The lack of sleep had caught up to me. I yawned and stretched, and got out of bed. I wandered into the living room, and turned on the Neomail machine. Nothing. I sighed, and headed into the kitchen.
"Morning," Jane said. She sat in her chair, staring at the still-full coffee cup in her hands.
"Any word on Mercy?" I asked, knowing the answer already.
"No, Katya. No word yet." Jane smiled a little bleakly. "I think people are starting to give up. She’s been gone two days.”
I squeezed my eyes shut.
“I’m not giving up,” I said. “I’m going to go look for her again.”
Jane waved listlessly as I walked out the door. I almost tripped over something on the doorstep before I caught myself. I jumped off the step and turned around to look. My throat got tight.
“Mercy!” I screamed, jumping on her, hugging her tight.
She squirmed in my arms and giggled a little. “Katya, you’re squishing me!”
Jane ran outside and joined the happy reunion. We were overjoyed.
Mercy was back.
Later that night, with Mercy freshly bathed and fed and tucked into her bed, I sat down by her and read her a story. It wasn’t much, but it helped me feel slightly better for trying.
“I’m sorry, Mercy,” I said softly before I left.
“For what?” she asked, popping back up.
“For being so mean to you,” I said.
“That’s okay, Katya,” she said, smiling brightly. “I know you didn’t mean it. That’s why I came home.”
“So where did you go?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Lots of places. But I missed you and Jane. That’s why I came home when I saw the posters of me.”
I hugged her again. “I’m really glad you did.”
“Oh, Katya, I have something for you,” she said, jumping out of bed and opening the drawer in her nightstand. “Here you go!”
It was the stamp I’d been looking for the day she went missing.
“Oh, Mercy,” I said.