“Tanya, I said breakfast is ready! This is the last time I’m going to call you down!”
I groaned and rolled over in bed, rubbing my eyes and blinking against the bright sunlight pouring in through my window. Grumbling at the fact I’d forgotten to draw the drapes the night before, I hopped out onto the plush white carpet and began to trudge towards the door. “Coming,” I replied groggily. “No need to get your plushie in a knot.”
Everything in my bedroom is rainbow, except for the carpet, which Tara, my owner, had stubbornly refused to change. My walls are painted rainbow, my drapes are rainbow, my sheets are rainbow, all my plushies are rainbow (and the ones that aren’t are stored in a special room for collectables downstairs) and even all my books have some sort of rainbow covering I’ve made for them. I’ve asked Tara if she’ll paint ME rainbow, but that’s where she drew the line, unfortunately. (I’m not painted yet, but I will be soon. Bye bye boring red, hel-looo gorgeous fluffly pink fur!) Tara rarely comes in my room; she claims that there’s too many bright colors and it gives her a headache. That’s alright with me, though, if it means privacy.
When I’d finally made my way down to the kitchen, Tara was at the stove hurrying to prepare herself an omelette, her brown hair swept back into a ponytail so she wouldn’t singe it. “Hey,” I said, sliding easily into a chair at our Pine Finish Table. My own omelette, a broccoli-and-bacon flavored one, was already sitting on a plate next to a full glass of orange juice. I watched the erratically swirling steam for second before shoveling it into my mouth, struggling to swallow the huge mouthfuls.
“Took you long enough, anyway.” Tara flipped her finished omelette onto a plate and walked over to join me at the table without even taking her apron off. She glanced up at me, and I could see the bags under her eyes. So she’d been up all night rereading old editorials again. I sighed.
“You need sleep,” I managed to say around the chunk of omelette in my mouth. Tara wrinkled her nose and shook her head disapprovingly.
“Manners, Tanya,” she scolded. “You need to wait till you’re done chewing before you speak.”
My name’s Tanya. Okay, well, it’s actually Atanyalynn, because Tara was on a creativity kick when she adopted me, but I only go by that when I’m in trouble. Which is, like, never. Shortly before she adopted me, Tara won the Neopian lottery, and invested her money so well that it still hasn’t run out. In fact, it’s grown. Tara and I have never even seen the inside of the Employment Agency. I haven’t anyway. I’m an only child and I’m not afraid to admit that I’m spoiled rotten. But I have plenty of friends at Neoschool, so I don’t think I’m mean or anything. Just rich and maybe a little snobby.
I rolled my eyes and made a big deal of swallowing my last bite. “Whatever. Hey, Tara, can we play some Wingoball today? Marren asked me if I could meet him there so we could have a little friendly competition.” I smirked. “Of course, winning is as easy as giving the gnomes a little tip...”
“What have I told you about cheating?” Tara asked me sternly, but I could see she was holding back a smile. I hope it was because she knew the only time I’d cheat at a game would be during, well, Cheat. She shoved another forkful of egg omelette into her mouth and shook her head. “Anyway,” she continued, “I need to be at the auction house today. I have a bunch of codestones we’re not going to use, since you so don’t want to be a Battledome pet.” I stuck my tongue out at her and she chuckled. “While I’m doing that, I have a little project for you, Tanya.”
“What sort of project? Does it involve buying things? I haven’t been to the Faerieland shops in forever, you know!” Tara laughed again and my face fell. I could’ve guessed it wasn’t going to be very pleasing, but I assumed Tara wouldn’t want to put me through too much misery. That’s why I never expected her to say what she did next.
“Remember how I tried volunteering at the Pound over the summer?”
I didn’t like where this was going. I nodded slowly. “Yeah, so what?”
“Well,” Tara said, her excitement building, “I signed you up to volunteer for a couple of hours every weekend for the rest of the month! Isn’t that cool?! It’ll look great on your list of achievements, plus you’ll probably meet a lot of new friends!”
My expression went from apprehensive to confused to horrified in a matter of three seconds. “In the name of Fyora, NO! I am not going to waste away my day running petty errands for that... that – SHELTER!”
“Tanya, mind your tone,” Tara snapped, looking crestfallen. “I really thought you’d be excited about this. You know if you ever want a job, you might want to be able to say impressive things about yourself besides that you can fill ten shopping carts in two minutes,” she added bitterly. I winced. Now that I thought about it, she had a point – but that didn’t even come close to changing my stance on the volunteering.
“I’m not going to go,” I repeated stubbornly, sticking my chin high in the air. “We’ll find some other pet who needs the money, tell ‘em they’re Tanya for a day and send them on their merry way to—”
Tara laughed dryly, and my voice tapered away before I could finish my sentence. “You don’t get paid for volunteer work. Is that what you’ve thought all this time? Do I need to send you back a grade in Neoschool?”
My voice was small when I answered. “No.”
“Atanyalynn—” I made a big deal of flinching at my full name, and Tara just made a nonchalant noise in her throat “—you are volunteering at the Pound today and that is final.”
“No buts,” she said, cutting me off. By the fiery look in her eyes I knew that was the end of the conversation. I surrendered silently, slouching in my seat a little. Tara stood up, threw her bright orange apron aside and smirked at me. “Now go get yourself cleaned up and presentable. We’re leaving in ten.”
My mouth dropped open as she glided out of the room, standing tall and proudly oozing her delight at the victory. I stuck my tongue out at her before she left, almost hoping she’d see me. I couldn’t believe I’d just let myself lose the battle like that. I hit myself mentally, already getting the unpleasant sensation of goose pimples down my back at the thought of working my tail off in the stuffy, smelly Pound all day. With a start, I’d realized I’d actually never been there before. Chasing all thoughts of the task that loomed before me out of my head, I stood in front of the mirror and went to work on my appearance.
Getting ready is one of my two favorite parts of any regular day (not that this day was very normal)—that, and finally going to bed. I was so well-versed in the ways of looking great that I didn’t even need to pay attention anymore; I could just get lost in my head. This, however, was not the time to be letting myself think. I needed to focus. With my end goal in mind, I started with the basics—brushing my teeth, freshening my breath, combing my fur, and filing my nails to perfection (all with rainbow-colored appliances, might I add). After that, I broke out my Lavender-Scented Lotion and Perfume, spraying and rubbing until you couldn’t smell a single other thing but lavender. And last but most definitely not least, I picked my outfit for the day—a Fancy Collared Shirt and Fancy Blue Trousers that I wouldn’t care about if they got ruined. I had several more of each stored in my closet. After a couple of admiring glances in the mirror, I was ready to rumble.
When I made my way back down the stairs, Tara was already waiting for me, holding the door open with that smug smile still plastered on her face. I shot her a dirty look, and her smile just grew wider. It wasn’t often she was the one emerging triumphant from our arguments, and she was milking it for all she was worth. It was sickening.
The walk into Neopia Central was an awkward, silent one. A couple of times Tara tried to make conversation, but every time I would pointedly look away, fix her with a frustrated stare or stick my fingers in my ears. I knew I was acting childish, but I didn’t care.
Thankfully, we only live a short walk away from the town center and we were there before we both knew it. Tara immediately started heading for the Pound, and reluctantly, I followed, dragging my paws on every step.
The Neopian Pound was located in the very farthest corner of the Neopian Plaza. There were a few doors. Two had very long lines of owners waiting with generally sad or confused pets, and although the third door was propped open like the others, it seemed nobody was going through it. That’s the door Tara led me through. We went straight through to a counter with a bored looking pink Uni behind it. Upon our arrival her blank expression turned into a huge smile. She almost blinded me with her mega-white teeth.
“Welcome to the Neopian Pound!” Faked enthusiasm dripped nauseatingly from her words. I could tell this was a script she’d rehearsed one too many times. “Are you here to—” The Uni broke off when she peered over the counter to see me standing at Tara’s side. Her smile faded visibly. “Oh, miss, if you’re looking to abandon your pet, I’m afraid you’ll have to join the other line...”
Oh my Altador, I thought, gulping as if I could swallow the sudden lump of anxiety that had formed in my throat. What if Tara actually brought me here to abandon me? What if she never really liked me and she finally got fed up of pretending? What if—
My worries were cut short when Tara’s blue eyes widened and she shook her head vigorously. “Oh no,” she replied. “I’m not here to do anything of the sort. And I’m not here to adopt either,” she added, before the Uni could continue with her spiel. At the interruption, the Uni looked a little ticked. I suppressed a giggle. “I signed my Acara here, Atanyalynn, up for your weekend volunteer hours a few days ago.”
“Oh, yes.” Much of the excitement had left the Uni’s voice. I thought of some smart remarks on the topic of her sudden change of attitude but decided to keep them to myself. After shuffling awkwardly through a stack of forms and contracts and the like (it can’t be too easy with hooves), she pulled out a form with a dated picture of me and Tara paper-clipped to it. (I looked hideous. It was hard not to reach up and rip it into a thousand tiny pieces.) “Would this be the form you dropped off for her?”
“That’s the one.” Tara smiled pleasantly and ushered me over to her opposite side, where the Uni swung a door attached to the counter inward and gestured for me to come through. Tara crouched down next to me and grinned. “Okay, Tanya, have fun! Be good!” I rolled my eyes and strutted behind the counter, turning to watch as the Uni closed the gate behind me. Tara was already on her way out, waving at me as she left. I felt my face grow hot. Owners.
The Uni clapped her hooves together loudly, startling me so much I jumped straight into the gate, almost killing myself when it bounced back and swung forward with me still grasping on. I squeaked in surprise, letting go and tumbling to the floor. The Uni was trying not to laugh as she latched the door and stretched out a hoof to help me up. I dusted myself off and met her eyes. At least I still had my dignity. “So what now?” I asked in my most polite tone. Inside, I was screaming.
“Well, you can just call me Rosie,” the Uni said, smiling and then pulling a set of keys out of what seemed to be nowhere. For a second I wondered if she was really this mild-tempered with a job like this, or if she was just acting until we were out of the public eye. Without even looking she picked one and stuck it into the key slot on a door I hadn’t even noticed before. In plain black, all-capital letters it read ADOPT. “I’m in charge of the pets who have been left here by their owners. I feed them, take them out for fresh air, and generally make sure they’re comfortable.” The door swung open inward, like the gate had, and Rosie trotted through. After a moment I realized she expected me to follow her. When I did, the sight nearly shocked me out of my fur.
There were dozens of plain grey stone cells. It looked identical to a prison, right down to the metal toilets (I shuddered) and tiny cots with lumpy-looking mattresses. Not like I’ve ever been to a prison, but, oh... never mind. It looked horribly uncomfortable, despite what Rosie had said. As we walked down the aisle that separated the two rows of what were essentially cages, I saw that three pets were assigned to each one. Most of them were plain colored, regular species, with the occasional exception, but they all had one thing in common—the look of ultimate misery on their faces. Rosie was talking to me, but I had tuned her out until now when she set a gentle hoof on my shoulder.
“I’m going to have you help me show the potential new owners around, and help, ahh... entertain some of these pets.” Rosie swept her hoof in a half-circle, gesturing to all the sad pets in their cells. I sighed, but nodded. What else was I supposed to do, anyhow? Refuse? I suppose I could just leave... I thought for a second, but I’d barely considered it before I dismissed the idea. Tara would ground me for life.
“So, uhm, what do I have to do first?” I asked tentatively. If I was being honest, I just wanted to get out of there. The place was giving me the creeps.
Rosie handed me a small brass key from her key ring. “This is one of my master keys; it’ll let you into any door in the Pound. Don’t take your eyes off of it for even a second; there are some pets around here who’d do anything to get one of these. You can pick any sector and get to know the pets inside.” At my confused glance, she lowered her voice and explained, “Around the pets, we call them sectors, not cages. It makes them feel better about it.” I nodded to show I understood, and within a few moments, Rosie was clip-clopping her way back to her post at the front counter, leaving me alone with a bunch of depressed pets.
When Rosie closed the door to leave, I realized up until she was gone, it had been silent. Now, the air was alive with hushed whispers and quiet crying. I took a quivering breath and started scanning for an, uhm, sector that looked alright. If there was any place you’d leave at the end of the day with newly acquired emotional trauma, this was it.
I finally decided that it was pretty much six and one half dozen with the sectors and closed my eyes, held out a paw and spun blindly in a circle. When I stopped and opened my eyes, my paw pointed toward a sector at the very end of the row on the left. That was where I headed. At the sound of the door unlatching, I was greeted by what seemed to be a hyper little brown Kacheek and a much more lethargic yellow Hissi rising from their cots.
Once I was inside, I checked to make sure the door had locked behind me and looked around in confusion. I glanced at the Kacheek, who looked like she was going to explode with excitement at any minute. “Um,” I said awkwardly, “where’s the third pet?”
“It’s only me and Talon,” the Kacheek replied, bouncing closer to me. “They haven’t assigned us a third sector-mate yet. Is Stevie here for me?”
I raised a brow. “Who’s that?”
The Hissi groaned and slithered forward. I tried not to wince. Snakes scare the living dung out of me. “Beri, I told you before, and I’ll say it again. Stevie is not coming back for you. This is the Pound.” He looked up at me and offered a curt nod. “I’m Talon. I’m guessing you’re today’s volunteer.”
“Yeah,” I said. “How long have you two been here?”
“Long as I can remember,” Talon said bitterly. “Beriyella here—she goes by Beri—has only been since two days ago. She’s still convinced that this is some sort of Neolodge and her owner Stevie is going to come back at any time, so sorry about her.”
Beri was busy bouncing around my feet and grumbling about how Talon was being a meany. The fact that the innocent little Kacheek still held onto hope was adorable and heartbreaking at the very same time. With Beri on my heels, I wandered over to the third, unused cot and flopped down on the mattress. It was hard and cold. I shivered, pulling my knees up to my chest. “So... uh... what do you guys usually do for fun round here?”
“Sit,” Talon said blandly. “Wait. Try to show off in front of the potential adopters. But since there’s not many of those on the weekends, especially during this time of day, we mostly just sit and wait.”
“That’s boring,” I said before I could stop myself. Horrified, I looked at Talon to see if he was mad, but he just cracked a small smile.
“No kidding. So where are you from? If I had to guess I’d probably say the richer part of town,” he asked, looking me up and down. I could see that he was taking in my fresh clothes and recently washed fur. The Pound pets were all wearing the same thing; dingy old potato sacks that looked like they hadn’t been washed in a good while.
“You guessed right.” I almost regretted admitting it. What if they got jealous? What if they hated me? Talon didn’t show it if he did, and I’m not even sure if Beri knew what jealousy was. I wondered why I cared what these pets thought of me—they had nothing. They were nothing.
But they weren’t.
As I was talking with the two homeless pets I realized that they weren’t really that different from me. Maybe on the outside, but we liked most of the same things—Jazzmosis, bright colors, any sweet food in all of Neopia... and it didn’t end there, either. And the more I thought about it, the more angry I got. Why should nice, fun pets like Talon and Beri have to live like this? I probably even deserved it more than them, for being a brat and all. Just a couple of hours at the stuffy, smelly Pound changed my whole perspective. I scavenged the whole Pound for books to read to Beri and Talon and toys to use to play with them. I stood by them and comforted them when the only potential adopters left without picking any pet. I got to know them so well it felt like we’d been friends forever. And in the evening, when the Pound was closing up for the night, after I’d said goodbye to my new friends and Rosie and was waiting out front for Tara to come back, I almost vomited at the sudden clichéd turn my life had taken. It was just so cheesy.
Finally, after what had seemed like hours of waiting, I saw Tara making her way back from the auction house, shoulders squared against the weight of the bags of Neopoints that she held in her hands. She was breathless when she reached me, but I was invigorated. I had a ton of energy. She nearly had to physically restrain me so I wouldn’t rocket toward home at light speed.
“Why so jumpy, Tanya?” she asked, setting her bags of cash on the ground with a grunt. “Did ya have a good time?”
“Great,” I said. I meant it. I picked up two of the bags of NP, slinging them over my shoulder. “Now, we’d better start for home. I want to talk to you about getting some new siblings...”