“One card, please.”
The elegantly dressed Cybunny gave me an odd look before pursing her lips and turning to dig around in the card bin for an un-scratched card. I cleared my throat and ran a dirty paw through my unkempt hair. I shouldn’t have been wasting the few neopoints I had left on a scratchcard, especially on a day as unlucky as this.
Today had been the day when I was fired from my job as a petpet-selling kiosk manager’s assistant. Today had been the day when I had been mugged by some thugs. Today had been the day when I would have to go back home and greet my little brother with no food in my paws, no neopoints jingling in my pockets. He would be disappointed but pretend like it was okay. He would try and cheer me up. A pitiful attempt it would be. Another hungry night we would have to go through, another cold, sleepless night it would be in our small makeshift home. The poor little kid. He was only seven years old, so smart, and yet he couldn’t even go to school. And he was alone with me, the twelve-year old Lupe who could barely even sustain herself, much less her sensitive little brother. The scrawny starry Xweetok was so kind and caring, yet so oblivious to the cruelness of Neopia. He found the goodness in everything and everyone. Even his name was gentle and kind: Timothy.
I sighed and eyed the dusty-tan coloured Cybunny as she drew a thin Scorched Treasure scratchcard out of the metal bin and slapped it down on the counter. She stared me down with her aquamarine eyes expectantly.
“Five hundred.” She scowled.
I nodded and dug into my front vest pocket, fishing out a few neopoints to give to her. I paid up by tossing the coins onto the counter, causing them to roll around in half-hearted circles before giving up and falling face-first onto the wooden desk. The Cybunny raised an eyebrow and gave me look before snatching the dim golden coins from the table and trudging to the back of the scratchcard tent. She stared at me with annoyance shining in her eyes as I picked up the card and sat down in an uncomfortable chair made out of reeds. I plucked the only coin that remained in my pocket out and sighed. Why was I even doing this? I wrinkled my nose and stared down at the card. The Draik painted on the front of the card seemed to stare at me as he coiled around his golden treasure, willing me to scratch the little black boxes. I eyed the boxes cautiously. I could only scratch five, right? Only five chances. I wanted to know what was under all of the black covering that coated each image. I would probably end up with a Sand Snowball if I was lucky.
But I wasn’t lucky.
I should probably return the card to the Cybunny. Get a refund. Maybe then I could buy something decent to eat. Five hundred neopoints could probably buy a Grackle Bug, maybe...
I shook my head furiously. If I stood up and demanded a refund, the Cybunny would get angry and probably banish me from her little shop forever. She’d done it before.
“Girl, are you going to scratch that thing or what? The shop’s not open forever, you know.” The thickly accented voice startled me, jolting me into reality. I cleared my throat and glanced up. I hadn’t seen the Cybunny approach from behind the counter and give me a terribly dirty look. I bit the inside of my cheek.
“You actually think I’ll win something?” I narrowed my eyes at her.
She raised an eyebrow and snorted, waving a dismissive paw.
“Eh, there’s a possibility. It has nothing to do with how smart or kind you are, just your luck. By the look on your face, I can tell that you haven’t had much of that today.”
I shrugged. She was right. Today had been a terrible day. I should just scratch off the five boxes I was allowed and get it over with. Of course I wouldn’t win anything.
“My brother might get kind of angry if he knew I was wasting the bit of neopoints we had left on a losing scratchcard,” I muttered.
“You don’t know if it’s losing or not ‘till you scratch it, honey.” The Cybunny suppressed a hiss, pricking her long ears. She scratched her black hair and twitched her nose.
We shared a look for a moment before both turning away to look at the scratchcard. In unspoken agreement, I pressed the neopoint I clutched so tightly in my paw against the top left box. I flicked my tongue over my muzzle as I scraped it carefully along the small square. After brushing the small pieces of grated black covering away, I squinted at the small painted picture.
It was a pair of heavy-looking sand coloured boots. I raised an eyebrow and glanced up at the Cybunny. She shrugged in response.
Stiffening my shoulders and shaking my head, I continued on to my next choice of which box to erase. I dug my fangs into my lip and eyed a box on the bottom row. Deciding that it was better than nothing, I pressed the coin I held against the box and scraped it away. I squinted at the icon portrayed on this one.
“A Geb Bean Bag?” I exclaimed questioningly.
“Yes?” The Cybunny inquired in return. “What about it?”
I frowned and shook my head, scratching the back of my green-coloured neck.
“Nothing, it’s just that I didn’t think that that was a prize,” I murmured. “Hm.”
“Go on, then, next one!” the Cybunny urged, whizzing around and tugging on a thin rope that hung in front of an open, small window. A thick, blue curtain tumbled down and covered the window.
“I have to close up soon, Lupe. So hurry up!”
She went about, clattering things about and adjusting things as she tied up tatters in the tent that made up for doors and windows, which I hadn’t even noticed before.
Sighing, I turned to the next box. I chose one at random, one in the middle row, and closed my eyes as I drove over it with the coin. When I opened my eyes, the unexpected icon that was before me made me frown and smile at the same time.
It was that tan bag; the one that I knew held neopoints. If I got three of these babies, I could get anywhere from between five hundred to five thousand neopoints. I raised both of my eyebrows. I would have to get this right by picking the correct next two boxes to scratch away. I chewed on my lip. The Cybunny that ran the shop was fixing things behind the counter, completely preoccupied. She would offer no help, anyway.
I drew in a deep, shaky breath. My technique of choosing boxes at random seemed to work alright enough. I squeezed my eyes shut and let the coin hover over the card. Not knowing exactly where the un-chosen boxes were, I brought down the neopoint onto the card and scraped it across the surface of the card, being sure to scratch only two away.
I opened my eyes and gasped.
I counted the five different icons that had been scratched away:
The boots, the bean bag, and three tan bags.
“Ms. Cybunny or whatever your name is,” I said loudly, throwing my voice to startle her. She jumped and stood quickly, glaring at me with those piercing blue eyes. I grinned back. She gave me a confused look and bustled around the counter, stumbling over to me and snatching the card out of my green paws. I continued to smile as I dropped the neopoint I had been holding back into my front vest pocket.
She smirked and snorted, staring down at the card as she strolled around her desk and dug around behind it. I smiled as she pulled a small tan bag out from underneath the counter and sighed as she tossed it towards me. I caught it easily and opened it immediately, peeking in curiously.
My face fell as I counted the neopoints inside of the bag.
“Five hundred?” I asked a bit unbelievingly.
“Mm-hm,” the Cybunny grunted, making her way back towards me. I glanced up at her.
“Just five hundred?”
“Stop whining. You got your neopoints back,” she growled.
“I’m not whining.” I scowled back. “But, if I have five hundred neopoints...”
I grinned at her. She simply shook her head.
“Nope, you can’t buy another scratchcard ‘till it’s been four hours from now, got it?” She was already walking towards the front door, keys jingling in her paws.
“Wait, what?” I scurried towards her, forcing a paw onto her shoulder. “Four hours?! Why?”
“Because it’s time for you to go and you’re annoying me, that’s why. So... leave.”
She propped the front wooden door open with one paw, raising one eyebrow at me and pursing her lips expectantly. The cold night air entered the hut, furious as it whipped around the two of us. I gritted my teeth and glared at the Cybunny, stepping past her into the desert sand. I clutched the tan burlap bag in my paws, claws drawn out. I felt my tail thrashing behind me. My jagged, torn pants did nothing to shield me from the wind and the cold.
“Fine, whatever.” I stomped in the direction of my home, hearing the door slam behind me.
“I’ll be back tomorrow...”
I stepped hurriedly down through the dim alleyway, dodging clothes and other cloths hanging from wire overhead. I eyed the large wooden crate near the back end of the alley as I approached it, being sure that it wasn’t moved at all. If anybody had somehow found our home and broken in, I had to be sure to get in there fast. After checking twice that it wasn’t out of place, I crouched down and fastened the tan bag containing the five hundred neopoints I had won in between my teeth. I pushed a shoulder against the crate and grunted as I moved it away, off to the back corner of the alley.
Behind the crate was a small door, painted a chipping shade of yellow. I tugged on the loose wooden doorknob and swung the door open. I crawled swiftly through it, afterwards pulling the crate back to its original position and shutting the door quietly behind me.
I hoped that Timothy was asleep. If he was awake, he was hungry. I willed him to be unconscious as I crawled through the small, sloping entryway to our hidden home. I eventually came to an opening, dug by our own paws, and observed the clearing. It was small, stuffed, and cramped. But Timothy and I were both used to it, having lived there our entire lives.
All that was in our home was two small bed pads, a little lantern that was only occasionally lit, and a tiny wooden bedside table stationed next to the two bed pads. The only book that we owned--History of the Lost Desert--was lying on the ground, closed gingerly. It was quite a large book, and the small bookmark protruding from the top, around the middle, made it seem even smaller. I sighed, relieved as I observed Timothy’s small, gently breathing body on his bed mat.
I bit the inside of my cheek as I stretched my spine, standing. Laying the tan bag with the neopoints inside of it on the bedside table, I rolled my shoulders back and crouched next to Timothy. His face was slightly troubled as he lay there in a curled position on his bed mat. As I smiled weakly and brushed a strand of his striking yellow hair away from his closed eyes, he whimpered in his sleep and rolled onto his other side.
I swallowed groggily and leaned down onto my own bed pad, which was right next to his. We had no blankets, but Timothy was working on sewing one. I had found an old shirt on the side of the road and he had torn the thread from it. After that, I got him a reed and he whittled it down into a needle. He wasn’t too great at sewing, but he certainly was better at it than I was.
Sucking in a deep breath, I lay down and curled up like Timothy was. I wrapped my fluffy green Lupe tail around my body and closed my eyes. I could already feel myself being dragged into sleep. All of my muscles relaxed, and I could sense my breathing become regular.
“I guess you didn’t get any food,” I heard Timothy’s quiet, calm voice say.
I jolted into an upright position and cleared my throat. My heart beating wildly, I turned in his direction. He still had his back turned to me.
“Oh... uh, yeah... I’m really sorry, Timothy.” I tried to sound natural.
“It’s okay, Dinah. We’ll get food eventually.” He was so eerily calm.
“I’ll get some tomorrow, don’t worry.” I tried to sound optimistic. “I earned us five hundred neopoints today.”
I bit my tongue to keep from telling him that I would be spending that on another scratchcard. He might think that I was irresponsible if I told him that.
“Okay,” he said evenly, sitting up and fastening his almost-neon golden eyes on me. That gaze intimidated a lot of neopets, but I was used to it.
“But what about our taxes?”
I drew in a deep breath. Our taxes. Of course.
We would usually get off easy, since we were not officially a family--we had no parents that we knew of, so nobody really noticed that we were just two young siblings living together.
But somebody did find that out. A most unfortunate individual to discover a most unfortunate secret.
The Tax Collector of our district was a tall yellow Ogrin that seemed to always be toting a black briefcase around with him. His dark sunglasses were always on the bridge of his nose, hiding his eyes. And his face was always blank. He was quite the mysterious Neopet. I wasn’t scared of him in the least, but Timothy certainly was. The few times we had seen him he always trembled and hid behind me.
The few encounters we had had with the Tax Collector were not happy ones. The Ogrin had found us when we were out on the street looking for food cheap enough for us to buy. He approached us, walking stiffly in his jet-black suit.
“Excuse me, children.” He had spoken ever-so-calmly. “May I have the location of your parents?”
Timothy and I were both shocked but showed nothing. As we always did when we were asked this question, I pointed in a random direction--usually towards a large crowd, if there was one, and stated naturally, “Sure. Our mother is right over there.”
The Ogrin nodded with a slight smirk and turned away towards the crowd, looking quite out of place in his fancy, expensive-looking tailored suit in the crowd of raggedly-dressed Neopets.
That time, we had been so scared of the Ogrin that we hid in our house without eating for two days. When I had finally chosen to go out, I was greeted by a most terrifying sight as I stood to my full height: the Yellow Ogrin, smirking as he leaned against the wall across from our home. I slammed the yellow door to our house shut and kicked the crate back in front of it, narrowing my golden eyes. He’d have to go through me before he could even lay an eye on Timothy.
“Pay your taxes.” He had rapped the edge of his briefcase against the wall behind him.
Then he walked away.
At first I stood still, dazed and quivering slightly. Then my hand slowly snaked up to my ears, tugging at my ordinary brown hair.
That’s when I realized that Timothy and I were in serious danger. I didn’t want to know what the Ogrin had in his briefcase, but I was certain that it wasn’t anything good.
I decided to go down to the Sakhmet Tax Agency and give all of our neopoints to them. Every last bit.
Before we were moderately wealthy from my job, but after paying taxes we were dirt poor. Read my words: dirt-freaking-poor.
We have to pay our taxes every two months. For what reason? I have no clue. I’m twelve and without parents to teach me what anything is.
But I know that, unless if we do it, we may have to face the Ogrin’s briefcase. And I didn’t want that, not at all--maybe for me, if it was required, but if anyone ever tried anything against Timothy, that somebody is going down to the ground.
The taxes are something we dread more than anything, but we pay them diligently when we can.
I thought about our upcoming taxes as I tugged the burlap sack of neopoints over my shoulder and made my way to the scratchcard tent, its heavy cloths flapping in the wind as the sand surrounding it swirled dangerously near my eyes.
“Let’s hope this one works...” I muttered darkly, pulling my tattered shirt tighter around myself.
It would have to, or else Timothy and I were not going to be able to pay our taxes. I was hoping for five thousand neopoints this time.
I pushed my way through the flaps of the sand-coloured tent, my ears recoiling at a sudden screech. My golden eyes widening, I took in the Red Aisha slamming her losing scratchcard down on the Cybunny’s desk. The Cybunny sat behind the desk, leaning back in a chair as she filed her nails and shrugged.
“Yeah, yeah,” she sighed heavily in that deep accent of hers. “Just get out of my shop and whatever.”
The Aisha gave an angry shout and shoved past me, shoulder-checking me on the way. I stuck my tongue out after her and made a face before turning back to the Cybunny. She glanced up half-heartedly.
“Me again.” I threw the bag of neopoints back on the desk.
She grunted and leaned forward on her toes, plucking a scratchcard out of the pile.
“Scorched Treasure again.” She seemed to be in a much better mood than yesterday. “Good luck to you.”
I nodded and eagerly took the card in my paws, handing her the neopoints, which she counted quite greedily.
Sucking in a deep breath, I sat in the same chair as before, drew the coin from my vest pocket, and slowly moved it down to the card...
Three? No way, that can’t be, there can’t be three.
Three means... three? Three... that would mean... that would mean-!
“Jackpot!” I bellowed, stumbling to my shaking feet. “Jackpot! In the name of Fyora, I got a freaking jackpot!”
“What?” The elegantly-dressed Cybunny’s eyes widened, and she leaned forward over her desk, stunned. “You’re kidding!”
“I’m not!” I screamed, dancing and bouncing excitedly. My head spun with the possibilities. Jackpot! I got a flipping jackpot! We could pay our taxes for years! Jackpot!
The Cybunny snatched the card from my paw, hissing.
She groaned, sighed, and slumped back in her chair, disappointed. I couldn’t care less. Bouncing up and down in the thrill of the moment, I was lost in my own thoughts. It was like my shocked mind was detached from my giddy, dancing body.
I can’t believe it! Our taxes... Timothy... a new house! We’ll be set for years with this! I can’t even begin to believe this...
I must’ve been distracted with myself for a while, because the Cybunny had already handed me the ticket to redeem my money at the Desert Sand Bank.
I shook her hand hurriedly, and a reluctant smile spread across her thin face. I grinned back until my cheeks felt like they were merging with my eyeballs.
Skipping to the bank and getting odd looks from the pedestrians, I felt happier than anyone in Neopia.
The smiling man behind the Bank’s desk forked over the neopoints I had won, which turned out to be three extra-large burlap sacks that jingled when they moved.
I was so excited that I carried the bags all by myself, and trotted bouncily all the way home. Still prancing, I made my way into our miniscule excuse for a home and dropped the sacks loudly on the ground, smirking at Timothy. Probably because I knew that he would never have that sad look on his face ever again.
He slowly looked up from his book, mouth hanging slightly ajar. Without any words, he pounced up and threw his arms around my neck. I swung him around in circles, delighted tears falling from our eyes, and in that single second we were lost in one another. Knowing that we had everything we needed now, seeing that we didn’t even need the money to be happy--it was something I can never forget.
And I never want to.