And She Never Returned
Art by nut862
Her memories of that island floated in and out, bound to appear and disappear like the silhouettes of the island’s own palm trees in the mist, always coming and going and never floating within reach. She clung only to the feeling that they gave her, the warmth she felt in her heart when she thought of her childhood days spent wandering through the alternating haze and sunshine, and for love of that sweet nostalgia she devoted her daily thoughts to embellishing what little she could remember. In her imagination brilliant flowers bloomed large and bright deep in the dense jungles, and she felt the stripes of sunlight on her face and the damp earth between her claws as she wandered past them. Though in her memories she could barely call to mind what the island looked like, in her fantasies she felt that something within her directed her imagination; if she ever saw it again, she was sure it would look just as she imagined.
She knew she would never see it again.
That was why she dedicated so much time to thinking of it, for its memory was her happiness in the place where she now lived. She thought of the island and pictured its rainbows of fruits and flowers on her solitary journeys down the gray streets of Neopia Central, and the image of their colors filled her with joy even when it rained. She would pass the crowd by, eyes downcast and water streaming down her striped coat, with a secret smile on her bowed head. No one looked at the lone Rainbow Lutari lost in thought. Even if they ever wondered what she was thinking that made her smile to herself, she wouldn’t have told them. They wouldn’t have understood.
Not even Adrian would have understood, not yet; but she meant to make him understand someday. She could never find the words to explain how much the island meant to her, though she saw it only in her imagination. She could never explain the warmth that filled her heart if anyone so much as mentioned the island to her. They would think her mad to care so much for a place that no one else had ever seen; they would never believe in the memories whose origins she did not even remember. As far back as she could trace her life, she had always lived in this city; and yet she had always known what it was like to be on that island.
She had had friends there. She had played and laughed with them, and they had shared in her interests and supported her when she had been uncertain, and she remembered what it was like for someone to care about and share in the dreams closest to her heart. It filled her with joy to remember that feeling as she went walking through the lonesome crowds, past the customers that screeched at shopkeepers and young pets that sneered at each other. Her thoughts buoyed her up all the way to the store and back to the house; she hardly noticed the weight of the groceries she carried home. And at home, there was Adrian for company.
She saw him twice a day, at breakfast and dinner, each time a precious hour. He was her best and only friend. All day long the White Kacheek worked in his study with the door shut, toiling away at the projects he took on to earn their daily bread. He had never been able to turn down a job, and his work as an editor was in high demand due to the influx of creativity down at the Catacombs. When he left his study to eat, he talked about the stories he was reviewing and the decisions he had to make, and she tried to listen and respond as helpfully as she could without having read the material herself. When he left, she would go back to daydreaming about Lutari Island, fantasizing a thousand different ways of going there and a thousand different things she would do first when she reached it. Adrian would come, of course; he would see at once why she loved it so much, and take a well-deserved break to let her show him the sights. She would know the way around, having dreamed it so many times.
That night she made dinner with the groceries she had bought earlier in the morning, and she and Adrian sat down to eat it as they always did. The White Kacheek dove into his meal, looking at the food without seeming to see it, his eyes haggard. “I barely slept last night,” he said. “And I’ve got six more articles to review before bed.”
“I hope you can finish them quickly,” she said sympathetically.
“I’m stuck on one; it’s by that one writer who has so many good points to make, but can’t write comprehensibly to save his life; it’s all a jumble of scientific garbling. Can’t they leave that style to the academies, and keep it out of our literary journals? It makes me feel like I’m reading about a page an hour, and it’s worse to edit. But I’ve finished most of the urgent things and sent them off, so now it’s just waiting to see the response.” He paused to swallow an enormous bite of bread he had just taken, which had momentarily stopped up his mouth. “And what about you, Sailena? How was your day?”
“Oh, I only went to the market, the same as always. I didn’t do anything,” the Lutari said. She had passed the day thinking of her island, the same as always, but she couldn’t say that. She saw in his eyes that his thoughts were focused on his work -- when were they not? -- and if she mentioned the island, she knew he wouldn’t even notice. It was better not to mention it at all than to bring up something so dear to her, only to have it ignored.
“But was it a good day?” Adrian asked.
“Oh yes, I’m happy.”
He smiled, looking up from his empty plate. “Thanks for dinner. I’m sorry I can’t stay longer, but I’m so busy.” He got up from the table and walked out; she heard the sound of his door closing.
She sat back to eat the rest of her own meal alone, and dreamed of the day when she would be able to talk about the island she loved so much, with someone who cared.
* * * * *
It was a day just like all the others when she discovered the bead seller; she was as lost in thought as usual, and would have passed him by if not for the spark of recognition that ran through her at the sight of the Gelert’s brightly colored garb. Nobody dressed like that in Neopia Central.
She went up to the booth that he had set up deep in the market, a flimsy wooden table hidden behind the larger shops, and it thrilled her to see the colorful paint running up and down his body, marking him as what might have been some old friend from a memory lost long ago. “Where are you from?” she asked. She knew the answer.
“Lutari Island,” he said. He smiled and held out a box filled with shiny, brightly painted beads. “Buy some, ma’am? Make yourself a necklace?”
“Are you staying in Neopia Central?” she asked.
He shook his head, his long blue ears wagging. “I’m a traveling merchant. Just here to sell these, and then I’m going back.”
“In my boat.”
Her heart was racing, and she thought she might not be able to ask. But he would understand; he wouldn’t think she was crazy. “Does your boat carry passengers?”
“Sure, it could. Would they pay?”
“Well, I don’t know; it’s up to them, isn’t it? My boat never carried passengers before. How many of ‘em?”
“Maybe if they bought this box of beads, it’d be square. It’s my last box.”
“I’ll buy it.”
He grinned and pushed it across the desk at her. “Get those passengers to the dock tomorrow by sunup; my boat’ll be waiting.”
* * * * *
Sailena was beaming across the table as soon as they sat down for dinner; even Adrian couldn’t avoid noticing. He also noticed the wooden chest that she was resting her free arm on, almost cradling it. “Did you buy that today? What is it?”
Her face lit up; she had been hoping he’d ask. “I got it in the market, for cheap. Look!” She threw open the lid and looked to his face, eager to see his reaction to the rows and rows of beautiful beads that she had been admiring all afternoon.
He stared at them, his expression unchanging. “Beads?”
“Lutari Island beads,” she said, still beaming. “Look how many there are. I can’t believe I got them!”
He smiled to see her so happy. “I’m glad you got them.”
“They remind me of Lutari Island.” Now was her chance; now she would finally be able to broach the subject she had been dreaming of for so long. She rushed on breathlessly, “They’re colored like the plants on Lutari Island. All the flowers there are so big and beautiful. The best ones bloom in the summer, I think -- at least I imagine, I don’t know why I think it -- but there are always some, even in winter, and some you can eat right off the branch, though others are poison -- usually the prettiest ones are. Wouldn’t you like to see them? What would you think -- if you could go -- if there was a way to go to Lutari Island, would you like to go?”
“No,” he said in a tone that expressed complete disinterest in the idea, one that told her at once that he had hardly been listening to her rambling about flowers. “I love Neopia Central and its Catacombs too much. I’ll never leave here.”
Her face fell all in that instant, the glow gone.
Oblivious, Adrian smiled at her and said, “But the beads are very nice.”
Sailena put the box back on the table and let the lid fall. What had she been thinking? She should have known he wouldn’t leave, certainly not at once, not when he had so much work left to do here, so much work that would never end. She should have known that the beads would mean nothing to him. He didn’t even understand how much she cared about the island; he had probably heard her mention it a few times in passing and knew she found it interesting, but he could never understand how she cared about it.
Seeing her face, he grew concerned and hurried to say something that would bring the smile back. “They’re beautiful beads. High-quality too. Are you going to make a necklace out of them?”
She didn’t care about the beads; she cared about the island they represented. She cared about the island that she had built out of daydreams to fill the longing within her. She knew it was a fantasy, one that no one else would care about. Sensible pets like Adrian didn’t care. She was a fool to care, a fool to pass her years in a dream world that she could never share.
A memory floated through her mind, and the mist around it cleared. She remembered happiness. Perhaps she could not share it, but she would not let it go.
* * * * *
“My boat was expecting two passengers, ma’am. Should we keep waiting?”
“No, there are already two; one more would make three. Let’s go.” She climbed into the far end of the small boat bobbing on the water that was lit golden by the rising sun. The Gelert shrugged and climbed in after her. The boat began to move; the dock vanished into an endless horizon under the pink sky.
She should have woken him up and explained; he would have understood if she had explained. Perhaps he would have changed his mind, but she knew that was unlikely; he had too many obligations in Neopia Central. It would have been unfair to ask him to make such a decision on the spot. Even if he had agreed to come, it would have been because she’d given him almost no other choice, and not because he cared about the island. She couldn’t have shown him the flowers in her beloved jungles then, not with the knowledge that she had forced him into it and that he really didn’t care at all. To not care at all was almost worse than thinking her mad.
* * * * *
The sunset over Lutari Island was brilliant, the sky blazing red and purple above the great empty sea. A Rainbow Lutari walked along the beach, fingering the string of beads around her neck as she left behind a single trail of footprints in the sand. The mist on the waves rose and fell, and she looked out over the vast pane of water beyond which nothing could be seen, and she dreamed of Neopia Central.
She had had a friend there.