Six Names, Six Lives, Six Owners, One Terrible Tale: Part Four
I don't know what was worse, being stuck in the pound (again), or hearing Litchen crying on the other side of the room, along with several other pets. Somehow, though, it gave me hope. They hadn't lost their tears yet. There was hope for those wailing pets.
My hope, however, was slowly trickling away.
Time passed. Litchen and I rarely spoke, though I became more and more worried about my little brother. First, his smile disappeared. Then went trust. Magenta would open his cage and offer him a blanket, and he would shy away. Finally... his words melted away. He said little, and then nothing. A friendly Neopian would ask his name gently, and then walk away, disappointed that he would not answer.
The only thing that comforted me were his nighttime tears. Every night, the tears went on. It gave me a bit of optimism that maybe, just maybe, my little brother would get through this and be adopted by another kind Neopian.
Another few weeks passed. I didn't bother keeping track of the days. Both people and neopets came and went. I looked outside the only window in the room sadly, and then sat up suddenly. The ground was blanketed in snow, and lights hung from neohomes. Inside the neohome closest to the pound, I caught a glimpse of an Acara and her owner placing the star on a tree.
I think it's almost Christmas! I mentally gasped. That explained the heavy influx of humans hoping to adopt over the past few days. Christmas!
I almost laughed bitterly remembering Christmas the year before, when Mavis had entered, and then ruined, my life. Had it really been only a year? It felt like centuries.
Just then, several other pets sat up as the door opened. A few, those still possessing trust, ran to the front of their cage and made noise to attract attention. Even Litchen moved forward a little, almost as a reflex, but Filly, who still remained in the cage next to me, didn't even flinch or twitch.
The girl who entered the pound looked very kind. She was dressed in a bright red coat with green trimming and a faux fur muff. She glanced into every cage, regardless of the species, age, attitude or level of the pet inside. Occasionally she would reach out to grasp a shivering paw or talon, or speak a kind word to a quivering pet. Magenta, who had donned a Santa hat, followed her in.
“So, Marilyn,” Magenta said. “Which one would you like to take home?”
“Oh, I don't know,” Marilyn said, patting a young Cybunny. “My two pets back home can't wait for their new brother or sister, but now I may come home empty handed simply because I couldn't decide.”
She came to Litchen's cage. She considered him a moment, and gave him a small smile before moving on. When she reached the end of the row, she came to the corner.
“Why are these pets way over here?” she asked.
“They've lost their trust,” Magenta explained. “Most of them can't be re-homed.”
“How sad,” Marilyn said, looking down at us. As if her kind presence was magic, Filly and a few other pets actually looked up, a rarity on that side of the room. When Marilyn came to my cage, she reached between the bars and gently tickled my nose. She turned to Magenta.
“What's his name?” she asked.
I can talk, you know! I thought, but I didn't say anything out loud.
Magenta shrugged. “He's been called lots of names.”
“How many times has he been abandoned?” Marilyn asked.
“Let's see,” Magenta said. “I suppose it would be three times now.”
“Him,” Marilyn said.
“If you're sure...” Magenta came over to my cage.
“Very sure,” Marilyn promised. As my cage door opened, Marilyn gently stroked the blue fur on the top of my head and picked me up. Yeah, it was kind of humiliating, but I doubt I could have walked at all after weeks of lying in a cramped cage. As she stroked my head, it also felt kind of... nice.
Marilyn handed Magenta a bag of neopoints as she left, and set me on the ground as we walked out the door. The snow felt cold under my paws, but it was better than being stuck in a cage all day. A few snowflakes danced in the air, and the cold wind ruffled my fur.
“So, what's your name?” Marilyn asked.
“It doesn't matter,” I said glumly. “I've had lots of different names.”
“Well, I have to call you something,” Marilyn said with a smile. When I did not reply, she went on. “Would you be okay with me calling you Conner?” I shrugged nonchalantly.
“That's my neohome, right over there,” Marilyn said, pointing. Following her gaze, I laid my eyes on a blue cottage. The lights were off inside, save a few candles around the Christmas tree inside. Lights were strung on the gutter, and I almost thought I could smell cookies.
As we entered the neohome, I found that I was correct. A platter of gingerbread cookies sat on a small table, and a few presents were set beneath the tree.
“Help yourself to a cookie,” Marilyn said quietly, shaking some snow off of her coat. “Just try to stay quiet. My other two neopets are in bed already.”
“In bed?” I asked. “Isn't it a little early?”
“Well, don't all pets go to bed early on Christmas Eve?” Marilyn asked.
“Christmas Eve?” I gasped. “It's Christmas Eve?”
“Well, sure. I got you as a surprise for my other neopets. They've been wanting a new brother or sister for a while now.”
Is that what Laura thought when she adopted Mavis? I wondered. I could only hope that, unlike Laura, Marilyn was correct.
Marilyn produced a comb from her pocket. “Now,” she said. “Is it okay if I groom your fur?”
“Uh, sure,” I said, sitting on the couch as she ran the comb through my blue stripe, down to my tail.
“You're such a pretty pet,” she said kindly. “It's a pity that no one ever brushed you when you were in the pound. Or fed you, by the look of it.” She glanced at the nearly empty cookie plate.
“Sorry,” I mumbled around a mouthful of gingerbread.
“It's all right,” she said. “We've got more in the cookie jar anyway. So, Conner, tell me about yourself. Who were your other owners?”
“It's kind of a long story...”
“I've got all the time in the world.”
I took a deep breath. “Last year, on Christmas morning, my owner Laura pulled a box from behind the couch...” Telling my story felt great, as if something had been lifted off of my chest. As I spoke, Marilyn's comb strokes became slower and slower, until they stopped altogether. She was silent the entire time I talked, and when I finished, it remained silent a moment longer before Marilyn grabbed my shoulders and turned me to face her.
“I want you to know something,” she said. “I want you to know that I will never ever send you to the pound again, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, my voice breaking slightly. Marilyn pulled me to her and hugged me tightly.
“You're safe now,” she said. “You'll never see the inside of that place again.”
For the first time in a long time, my spirits lifted, and I thought my heart might just grow wings and fly. I thought that life would be perfect again, and this time it would be forever.
Too bad I was wrong.
That night, I slept in Marilyn's room. In the morning, I heard two sets of feet charging down the stairs, and happy squeals as they unwrapped their gifts. Finally, I heard a voice.
“Mommy, where's our special present you promised us?”
“It's in my room,” Marilyn replied. “Why don't you go take a look?”
A few moments later, the door was flung open. A yellow Aisha girl and a yellow Ogrin boy peered inside. The Ogrin looked to be about the same age as I was, and the Aisha was perhaps a little younger.
Both of them froze when they saw me, their mouths open and their eyes unblinking. Jut as I was starting to get kind of weirded out, the Aisha squealed, flew across the room, and hugged me happily around the neck.
“Thank you, Mommy!” she shouted. “Thank you soooooooo much!” I pried her paws off of my neck and gasped, trying to get my breath back.
The Ogrin smiled and held out a paw, which I did as well. He grabbed it firmly and shook violently. As he released me, I flexed my fingers to insure that nothing was broken.
“I'm Oliver,” he said.
“I'm Annie!” the Aisha said happily. “What's your name?”
“Xa... Conner,” I corrected myself.
“Zaconner?” Annie asked, looking confused.
“No, no, just Conner,” I explained.
“Yay!” Annie said. “You're my new brother! Where did you live before this? How old are you? Do you want a cookie? Do you want to see my usuki collection? Do you?” She took a breath.
“Uh...” I attempted to answer all four questions at once, but Marilyn saved me.
“Remember, Annie,” she said. “This is Conner's new home, and you have to make him feel welcome, okay?”
“Sure, Mom,” Oliver said, nodding. Annie also nodded, if a bit more violently.
“Where is he going to sleep?” Oliver asked.
“He can sleep in my room!” Annie declared.
“I'm afraid your room is two small for two, Annie.” Marilyn laid a hand on her pet's shoulder. “If it's okay with Oliver, I thought that Conner could sleep in his room.”
“Okay,” Oliver said. “but he'll have to use a sleeping bag until we can get a new bed and stuff. Want to see my room?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, following my new brother out of the room and up a set of stairs.
“I was pretty sure Mom would get us a new sibling for Christmas,” Oliver explained. “Annie's been wanting someone new to play with ever since she got bored of her mauket, Millie. Oh, and here's my room.”
I followed Oliver through a simple door, which opened to reveal a room not all that different from the room I used to share (unwillingly) with Mavis.
In the far corner was an unmade bed, blankets thrown askew from when Oliver had leaped out of bed, eager to open his gifts, and a plushie lay among the sheets. Aside from that, the room was clean. A small model castle that looked as if it might have been hand-made by oliver himself sat in another corner. It was surrounded by toy soldiers which also looked hand-crafted. A small shelf sat above the bed, with a few books leaning against one another. A dresser, with a backpack leaning against it, sat at the end of the bed, one drawer slightly open, revealing toys placed in orderly rows inside.
“It's not much,” Oliver said with a shrug.
“It's nice,” I said, picking up one of the Lupe soldiers. “Did you make these? They're really good.”
“Thanks,” Oliver said. “I carved them, and Annie helped me paint them. That explains the lopsided eyes.” He reached into his top dresser drawer. “Here, I've got a sleeping bag in here somewhere.”
Producing a green padded bag, Oliver smiled triumphantly. “Here it is,” he said. “It'll do until Mom can get you a bed.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking it from him as the door opened, revealing two long ears and two big eyes. “Hi, Annie,” I said. She waved.
“What 'cha doin'?” she asked. Before I could answer, she went on. “Wanna' see my usuki collection?”
“Sure,” I said, following her out. She led me to a door opposite of Oliver's. It was covered in her stickers and artwork. Opening the colorful door, she revealed a room that was twice as vibrant. Scattered across the floor were usuki dolls and accessories, set up in various scenes. Books, while thinner that those in Oliver's room, were more numerous.
“This is my usuki toy hoop,” Annie explained, picking up a toy.
I just nodded and listened, and that seemed to be enough for Annie, who continued talking.
“And this is beautiful bride usuki, and bat thing usuki, and bruno usuki, and the boating usuki playset! And this is...” I don't know how long she wanted to go on like that. Probably until she had named every single doll and playset in the entire room. “and this is the new one I got from Oliver this morning! And this is...”
Finally, though, I was saved by Marilyn, who peered around the side of the door and invited us downstairs for a Christmas lunch.
As we ate, I felt like I was part of a family again.
Life went on. I don't know how long, and I didn't bother keeping track. I got my own bed, and eventually my own room. Oliver shared his books, and sometimes I would play with Annie. I was happy again. We were all happy.
After a long time, summer rolled around again, and one day, Marilyn came back with a big box.
“Guess what's in here,” she said in a sing-song voice.
“Is it... a new book?” Oliver asked.
“Is it a usuki doll?” Annie guessed.
“Is it food?” I queried.
“Is it a toy?”
“Is it a space ship?”
“Is it a negg?”
“Is it a petpet?”
“Nope,” Marilyn said, shaking her head. She removed the lid and a small head popped out nervously.
“He's adorable!” Annie said as Marilyn placed the box on the ground. A baby Ruki climbed out and looked around in confusion.
“Yeah, he is!” Oliver declared, picking up the small pet.
“His name is Reijo,” Marilyn said. “I found him at the pound. Can you believe someone had just given him away?”
“No!” Annie said, holding her new brother. “I love him.”
“He's great,” I muttered, going up the stairs and into my new room. Bookshelves lined the walls, and a Shoyru plushie lay haphazardly on the bedsheet.
Great, I thought. Now that Reijo's here, it'll be just like before. The others will forget about me, and back to the pound I'll go.
Marilyn opened the door. “Conner?” she asked. “Conner, what's wrong?”
“Reijo,” I said. “Now that he's here, you won't want me anymore, right? Then I guess it's back to the pound for me.”
Marilyn looked surprised. “Is that what this is about?” she asked. “No, Conner, you don't understand! Reijo is a new member of the family, not a replacement. I remember, on Christmas eve, I promised you that I'd never send you to the pound, and I keep that promise.”
“Really, Conner. I can't believe that you thought I would brush you aside so lightly. Now, would you like to meet your new brother?”
“I... I'd like that a lot.”
Now I know what you're thinking, you're thinking, “Yay! Xander won't ever be cast aside again, and he'll live the rest of his days with Marilyn and her other pets, as happy as can be!” Not. I'm very sorry to tell you this, but the story does not end here by any means. I wish it did, but it doesn't.
Deal with it.
Downstairs, Reijo happily tottered over to me and cooed happily. He really was very sweet, and over the next few weeks we became very close. The only drawback was Reijo's lack of words due to being painted baby, but it didn't matter. I could usually understand what he meant anyway, sometimes better than Marilyn.
At first, Marilyn wanted Reijo to sleep in a crib in Annie's room, but that didn't work out so hot, seeing as Annie kept finding headless usuki dolls or outfits with bite marks on the buttons. Poor Reijo was stuck in a permanent chewing stage.
When Annie started complaining, Oliver (like a good big brother) offered to let Reijo stay in his room. It worked out fine until Oliver started finding ripped books and gnawed wooden soldiers.
By then, Reijo and I were becoming very friendly, and I told Marilyn that I would put all of my stuff up high, where Reijo couldn't get it, and he could move into my room.
That was when we really began to understand each other. Reijo was just... happy. There was no other way to explain him. He just enjoyed life and went with the flow. His hobbies included biting stuff, waking up up to play at two a.m, biting stuff, 'reading' (a.k.a ripping up) books, biting stuff and biting stuff. Despite these rather odd pastimes, however, I really learned to love Reijo. Maybe it was his giant eyes. Maybe it was that sweet way he bit stuff. Maybe it was his joyful attitude. Whatever it was, Reijo became more and more like a brother to me.
A lot of the time, I would be the one to run errands, and Reijo would go with me sometimes. Like I had when I was a baby, Reijo learned about glue, and burritos, and apples, and socks, and Dr. Sloth, and white weewoos, and he learned that the neighbor's snorkle's tail is not for pulling, and that the neomail is not for ripping. He learned that usukis are for playing, and books are for reading.
Again, I started to think that life might be like this forever, but as I stated before, I was wrong.
One day, during Reijo's nap, Marilyn asked me to run to the store and get some milk. I shrugged.
“Sure,” I said, opening the door. Later, it came back to haunt me that I hadn't said “I love you,” or even “Good-bye.”
So I ran into Neopia Central, got the milk, and suddenly remembered a new book I'd been wanting. That was how I got stuck in the bookstore for half an hour, reading. Eventually, though, I was forced to leave before the milk got rotten sitting in the sun.
On my way home, I had this annoying smell stuck in my nose. At first, I thought that this might be some kind of becomes-rotten-really-fast milk, but then the air seemed to become thicker, and I recognized the scent as smoke. I decided to hurry home to warn Marilyn of the nearby fire, but as I rounded the last corner, I stopped short, and the milk carton spilled on the ground as I dropped it in horror.
Where our cozy neohome used to be was now a mess of flames and smoke, with dozens of people standing nearby spraying hoses, tossing watering cans, and dumping cold drinks on the fire in an attempt to put it out.
I ran toward the crowd.
“Oliver!” I screamed. “Annie! Reijo! Marilyn!” I felt a neighbor grab my arm and shout my name, but I ripped away. “Marilyn! Reijo!” I continued to shout. Then, it dawned on me. They weren't in the crowd. They were inside. As sirens sounded in the distance, I imagined Reijo inside, screaming as the flames tickled, and then consumed him.
I shoved through the crowd and through the only standing door left. “Reijo! Annie!” I shouted. All around me, smoke filled the air, and I coughed loudly, attempting to remain breathing. Flames surrounded me, and a ceiling lamp loosened and almost fell on me. Suddenly, I heard a scream from upstairs.
“Reijo!” I shouted. “Come here, Reijo! It's me!” Another scream as the inferno intensified. I ran up the stairs, despite my burning paws, and into my room, where Reijo was sitting in his crib, half coughing and half screaming.
I grabbed him under his arms and pulled him out of his crib, slinging him over my shoulder. Racing back down the stairs, I looked for the door, but the smoke was blinding, and sweat was rolling down my face as the fire consumed more and more of the house. Reijo was screaming, and I couldn't see a thing. I heard a crack, and was just able to escape being crushed by falling debris.
Suddenly, I felt a strong hand on my shoulder, and a moment later I was outside the house again, coughing like crazy. I felt Reijo taken from my arms, but really didn't have the strength to protest. Even if I had, they would not have understood me through my coughing.
When I finally stopped barking like an angry Lupe long enough to look around, I discovered that the paw on my shoulder was that of a green firefighting Shoyru who offered me a drink of cold water. We were now on the other side of the street, where it was safest, and I saw a few hospital Eyries, white with red painted crosses on their sides. Among them were a scattering of Gnorbus and Gelerts, dressed in white hospital coats.
“Have you seen my siblings?” I asked between coughs.
“Just calm down,” the Shoyru said. “Running into the house was a stupid thing to do, and you need to let us pros take care of it.”
“I just need to know where they are,” I insisted. Suddenly, I heard another scream, this one of irritation rather than fear. Reijo was angrily shouting at a Gnorbu nurse as she tried to calm him down.
“Give him to me,” I said, standing up and taking the Ruki from her arms. He calmed down slightly, but continued to cough.
Suddenly, I noticed a commotion near the house. A few more firefighters were emerging from the house carrying something. With a gasp, I realized that the something was my brother, one of his legs twisted at an odd angle.
“Oliver!” I screamed as the nurses crowded around the group. I tried to run over, but the Shoyru grabbed me again.
“You'll just get in their way,” he said.
“He'll be okay, won't he?” I asked worriedly, holding a panicky Reijo close to me.
The Shoyru didn't say anything, and I felt that that was the worst answer I could get.
To be continued...