Same Old Story
The wall, like the room, was plain and drab. The only decoration was a slightly ripped Dr. Sloth poster, and even that wasn't particularly colourful. Swhi, a small blue Poogle, leant against it, feeling sorry for himself.
So, he thought. A new home. It was shaping up to be just like the last. At least it was better than the pound, but he'd probably end up back there, soon enough. And even in his dreams, he was still haunted by that terrible, cruel Techo.
"Swhi?" came a friendly voice, under the door. "Swhi, are you in there?"
"Who's asking?" Swhi said roughly. Okay, so they'd acknowledged him. That was something new. At his last home, they hadn't said a word before dragging him off to the lab and aiming the ray in his face. Without so much as an “excuse me, are you happy with your current species?”
"I'm Clohofe," said the voice. "Your new brother."
"Brother?" said Swhi, dropping his guard for a moment. But only for a moment. "Go away. I'm busy."
"I just wanted - "
"I said I'm busy!" Swhi said, as angrily as he could. He'd learnt a long time ago that it was easier to be brash from the beginning. Saved disappointment later on. It was easier as a Jetsam, or even as an Eyrie. With them, a certain toughness was expected. Poogles? Well, most people expected him to be meek and agreeable.
He surveyed the room. Just what you'd expect for an unwanted lab rat. Only the cheapest. Grundo-inspired dresser, orange Kreludan bed, and an Altador rug on the floor. At least the last place had a heart toast sculpture; it added some kind of interest to the room, and could be useful, too, when they forgot to feed him. They often did.
The window was nice and large, even if the curtains were mouldy and cobwebbed. He figured if he ever turned into a Buzz again, or another flying species, he should be able to fit through it, with any luck. And living in Meridell, there would be some nice places to fly to. The castle would be pretty from above, and he’d be able to watch all the goings-on in the courtyard. And in the meantime, while he was ground-bound, he could at least go and spend time on the farms. There might be friends to be made.
Feeling a little more positive, he got up from the wall, and went over to the dresser. Surprisingly, the drawers weren’t empty, but were filled with lovely soft clothes. He pulled out a beautiful white scarf. But it probably belonged to the other pets, and he might get in trouble if caught with it, so he carefully folded it back in, and shut the drawer.
"You can try them on, if you like?" said a voice behind them. "They're Poogle sizes."
Swhi whirled around. "What are you doing? I said not to come in."
"Yep," said a handsome faerie Ixi, lolling against the door. "But it's dinnertime. I figured you might want something to eat. Plus, you've gotta meet Roiniy and Sobai."
"I don't want to meet anyone," Swhi retorted. "I have things to do."
The Ixi raised an eyebrow. "Like what?"
Swhi couldn't think of anything to say.
The Ixi grinned. "Yeah. That's what I thought. I'm Clohofe, by the way."
"I figured," said Swhi. He turned away. “I’m not hungry.”
Clohofe trotted over, and put a wing on Swhi's shoulder. "You seem a little angry. What's up?"
"Nothing," Swhi said. "Everything. I don't know. I'm a lab rat, it doesn't matter how I feel."
Clohofe looked at him thoughtfully. "That's not true. Maybe you should tell me what's wrong."
The concern in Clohofe’s eyes almost moved Swhi to tears. Fine, he thought. What have I got to lose?
The words came out in a rush. “I hate the pound, and I don’t want to go back. I just want to live somewhere for more than a couple of months, before they get bored of me and find someplace else to zap. I think it’s my fault. Why haven’t I zapped into anything anyone wants before now? I’m the worst lab rat ever.”
Clohofe gently pulled Swhi down to sit on the bed. “Swhi, kiddo. I have news for you.”
Swhi looked at him blankly. “News?”
“You’re not going back to the pound,”Clohofe said. “Ever. Okay? You’re staying right here, with us. And if you don’t want to be labbed, well, that’s fine too. It’s completely your choice.”
Swhi stared at him, his eyes going wet. “You say that. But I bet your owner won’t feel the same way.”
Clohofe smiled. “My owner’s taken pets to the laboratory before. I know how she treats them. And you have nothing to worry about. We don’t call them rats, either.”
Swhi shook his head. “It’s going to be just like it always is. I can tell. Just look at the room. It’s classic lab rat. Zap ‘em and pound ‘em. Or maybe I’ll be traded. I’ve been traded before. Mainly for my name. Owners seem to like it.”
“I’ll be right back,” Clohofe said. “Okay? You just wait there.”
So Swhi waited. He still had a bit of a lump in his throat; the last time he told anyone about how he felt was with his first owner. Before he even got zapped, back when he was still a yellow Acara. He could barely remember what that had felt like. Life had been good at first, even though they were poor. They went to the soup kitchen together every day. Then she’d started playing the stock market, and gotten richer, and before he knew it she had a Draik and a Krawk. Better pets. They were constantly given treats—chocolates, Tiki tours, beautiful clothes to wear.
Swhi told her he was unhappy, and he didn’t think it was fair that he was stuck in his potato sack and had to eat omelette every day.
“You aren’t happy?” she’d said. “Fine. Find a new owner.”
And that was it, Swhi was in the pound, sleeping on a hard cold dormitory bed and waiting to be chosen by someone who would love him more. He’d decided that very night that he would never make the same mistake again, no siree. Owners didn’t care how you felt. Only about getting better and better pets. And if he didn’t turn into something good quick enough, well, that was it for him, and he’d be back in the pound. Till someone else wanted to try their luck.
Clohofe bounded into the room. “Close your eyes, Swhi!” he said, cheerily.
Swhi did as he was told. He heard banging and clattering and rustling. And, for some bizarre reason, the smell of cheese wafted into his nose. Then the noise quietened.
“Swhi? You can look now.”
Swhi opened his eyes to see—a mass of wood? As his eyes adjusted, he realised it was wooden furniture. Chairs and a desk and a bed frame, piled high. And paint cans, and a mattress, and rolled up wallpaper. Deep blue curtains, and flowers, and all manner of beautiful room decorations.
He couldn’t speak.
“I wanted to surprise you,” Clohofe admitted. “But perhaps you’re not ready for surprises just yet.”
“How did you bring all this up here by yourself?” Swhi said finally.
“He had some help,” said a voice from behind the furniture. A tiny skunk Usul peeked out. “I’m Roiniy.”
“And I’m Sobai,” said a cream-maned chocolate Gnorbu, trotting in, a lampshade on his back.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Swhi said weakly. He was glad he was sitting down, even if the cheap bed wasn’t exactly comfortable. “So. I don’t have to go back to the pound?”
“Nope!” said Roiniy. She bounded over and hugged him. “You’re here for good. Now, shall we have dinner?” She pulled a big box out from behind her. “I went out and got some pizza!”
“I thought I smelled cheese,” said Swhi, amused.
“Oh,” Sobai said, dismayed. “I’m lactose intolerant, Roiniy, you know that.”
“I’ve got tortillas for you, Sob,” said Roiniy, passing him a plastic bag.
Swhi stared at the chocolate Gnorbu. He thought: I’ll ask one day.
Later, as they laughed and talked, arranging and rearranging the furniture, Clohofe lent over to Swhi. “There’s one more thing you have to know.”
“I’m not sure I can take any more surprises,” Swhi joked.
Clohofe laughed. “It’s not much of a surprise. Only that—we were all lab pets, too, okay? And I happen to know that it’s optional. And if you’re happy as you are, then you’re going to stay that way.”
Swhi smiled. “You know, I don’t think I mind the lab too much. As long as I don’t have to go back to the pound.”
“That,” said Clohofe, firmly, “is a promise.”
And, with pizza and laughter, they lived happily ever after.