Hot Chocolate Morning
Hope glided through the Catacombs in her pale green dress, listening to the darkness. Sparse torches threw their light upon the cavernous walls around her; the stone had the texture of crumpled paper, reminding the strawberry Zafara of the previous evening’s writer’s block. She clutched a thick book at her side as she walked, breathing in the cold, still-sleeping air.
There were a few other early risers wandering the dusty paths like ghosts. Hope saw a Gelert lighting more torches, preparing the underground world for the dawn above. The brightening yellow glow fused with the earthy smell of coffee, warming the Zafara as she approached a small building nestled into a grey grotto.
Hope eased the door open so as not to disturb the slumbering bell tied to it with a piece of red yarn. The morning rush was still about an hour away, but a few Neopets were already sitting in the coffee shop, their hands cupped around space-heating mugs. Books and newspapers spilled silence into the room; the only sounds came from the machines behind the counter and two Aishas talking quietly at a tall table in the back.
The Zafara slid into a seat near the front window. She loved the hours before sunrise, when the world was still dreaming and the only Neopets around were careful to preserve the borrowed hush of the morning. Hope set her book down, watching the light skip across the gold-leaf lettering on the cover: Neopian Storytelling Volume 4. She opened it. A blank landscape of forest green paper greeted her. Hope stared for a moment before turning the page, where the book’s title stared back.
She flipped back to the green emptiness, but the pink bookmark she had slipped inside the front cover earlier did not appear, nor did it surface behind the back cover, or in any of the hundreds of pages that Hope scanned hurriedly, a papery wind blowing in her face.
“Where is it?” she murmured to herself, closing the book.
“Lost something?” A biscuit Kougra was facing her from the opposite table.
“I think so,” she whispered back, standing up. “Just a bookmark.”
He stood as she tucked the book under her arm. “In here?”
She shook her head. “I probably dropped it on my way.” She took a step toward the door.
He scooped up the mug of hot chocolate from his table and gently opened the door for her, leaving the bell undisturbed. “I’ll help you look.”
“Oh,” said Hope, unsure of what to say as she brushed past him. “Thank you.”
“I’m Jesse,” he said when they were both outside, extending his free hand.
Hope had to shift her book to the other side to return the gesture. “I’m Hope.”
“So what does your bookmark look like?” said the Kougra, already scanning the ground.
“It’s just a strip of pink paper,” she said, following his gaze. “Nothing fancy. I wouldn’t care, except that I’ve had it forever, and I’d be sad if I lost it.”
“You read a lot?” he said, glancing at the book under her arm.
“Yeah.” She held it up for him to see, watching a flash of gold cross his face as the title reflected the torchlight.
“Volume Four,” he said. “That’s got the 400th Storytelling in it, then?”
“Yes, it’s the first one,” she said, drumming her fingers lightly on the cover.
“I love that story.” He raised his mug of hot chocolate, then took a sip.
“I haven’t read it yet. That’s why I lost the bookmark—I just slipped it inside the front cover. It must have fallen out while I was walking here.”
“Ah.” Jesse smiled. “Where did you come from? We’ll retrace your steps.”
“The Poetry cave,” said Hope. Her pale green dress fluttered behind her as she started walking. “Hopefully nobody picked it up or threw it away.”
“You’re a poet?” Jesse fell into step beside her, both of them watching the ground as they made their way down the path. “Or were you just there to see the new poems?”
“I write a little bit.” Hope didn’t want to admit that she considered poetry her actual job; working mornings at the coffee shop was just to maintain a steady income. The truth was, words and images were always on her mind, brimming inside of her at all times, waiting to find an outlet. Not a day passed that she didn’t write a few lines down, and sometimes she would spend hours on a single poem, scratching the inside of her brain in search of the elusive word, like a missing puzzle piece, that would complete the picture in her mind.
“That’s really cool,” said Jesse, lifting the mug to his lips.
“Have you ever tried writing?”
“Hey, look.” He was pointing toward the nearby campfire that marked the Storytelling site. “I think I’ve seen that guy before.”
Hope glanced over to see a slim, grey Lupe sitting, statuesque, in a chair silhouetted by the flames. “Is he a storyteller?” she said.
“I think so. I can’t remember his name, though.” Jesse frowned. The two Neopets had stopped walking, and they stood quietly for a moment as the Kougra furrowed his brow. “I can’t remember,” he said with a shrug. They kept walking.
“Do you come down to the coffee shop often?” said Hope. “I work there from six to two every day, but I don’t recognize you.”
“I go there every once in a while. Not regularly, though, and not usually this early.”
“Where do you work?”
“I work for the National Neopian. Marketing and PR, specifically. I wander down here some evenings to listen to the storytellers.”
“I should do that more often.” Hope switched the heavy book to her other hand. “I tend to just read the stories after they’re published.”
“It’s great to hear them live,” said Jesse as they passed the Neopian Times headquarters. An Ogrin was loading stacks of newspapers into the basket of his bicycle outside the main doors. A few white Weewoos were flying back and forth between two windows, carrying scraps of paper. Hope wondered if one of the Petpets may have snatched her bookmark from the ground. “Have you ever read your poetry for an audience?” said Jesse, drawing her from her thoughts.
“Oh,” said the Zafara, blushing beneath her red fur. “Um, sometimes I do, yeah. With the better poems.”
“That must be exciting.”
She smiled self-consciously. “Yeah, I guess. I’m glad I’m able to do it.”
They were close to the Poetry Cave, and Hope had still not seen even a glimmer of pink on the path. Jesse took another sip of hot chocolate. “I hope we find your bookmark,” he said. “That’d be too bad if it was lost forever. All those books you shared with it, and stuff. Tragic.”
“It’s okay,” said Hope, but she kept her eyes trained on the ground.
When they arrived at the cave, Jesse grabbed her elbow. “Is that it?” He motioned toward a nearby chair. On the ground next to it was a faded strip of pink paper.
“That’s it,” said Hope, breaking out into a smile as she bent down to pick up her bookmark. She dropped it between two pages near the middle of the book. “Thank you so much for coming with me to find it. I would’ve been sad if I’d lost it.”
“No problem,” said Jesse. “There are few friends better than a good bookmark.”
“If you’re going back to the coffee shop, I’ll buy you another hot chocolate,” she said. “It’s the least I can do.”
Jesse looked down at the dregs in his mug. “Really, it was my pleasure,” he said, turning to glance over his shoulder. “And I’m staying here, actually, so it all turned out rather well.”
“Oh, you’re staying?”
He nodded and reached into his pocket. “That’s actually the reason I’m down here so early,” he said, unfolding a piece of paper. “I have a submission.”
“No way,” said Hope, her mouth dropping open in a smile. “You’re submitting a poem?”
“I’m not a poet or anything,” he said quickly, setting down his mug on the empty chair. “This was just for fun, but I thought I’d bring it in anyway and see what happens.”
“Jesse,” she said, shaking her head. “You should have said something.”
He shrugged and looked down sheepishly. “Don’t get all excited, now. Your poet’s ear will probably find a dozen things wrong with it. Maybe you’d better wait and see whether it gets published before you read it.”
“If it gets in, please find me and let me know,” she said. “I’m in the coffee shop every morning. In fact, I’d better be heading back, because my shift starts soon.”
“Sure,” he said, looking a bit relieved that she hadn’t demanded he hand over the poem. “But don’t hold your breath or anything.”
“If it doesn’t get in, I’d be happy to look over it for you.” Hope clutched the Storytelling book in front of her with both hands. “Really, I’d love to help you anytime.”
“Alright,” said Jesse with a smile. “Thanks.”
“Thank you for helping me find my bookmark,” she said, backing out of the cave. She watched as he nodded and gave her a wave.
When she returned to the coffee shop, Hope made herself a hot chocolate. All morning, as she worked, the aroma surrounded her, wrapping her up in its embrace, warming her from head to toe.