Through The Bars
"Leave me to die!" I cried angrily, pointing at my owner's - no, wait, ex-owner's - face.
"Don't be such a drama llama, Angus." Sandra laughed, patting my starry head and pulling gently on my long ears. "You're painted. You'll be snapped up in no time!" She grinned, flicked her short brown hair to one side, and left.
"Great." I sighed, turning to the Techo who was waiting patiently for me to follow him.
"For what it's worth, she's right," he said, his voice rough, like gravel, "and who knows? Your new owner might actually appreciate you."
I followed Dr. Death down halls lined with - there was no other word for it - cells. Each housed between one and three neopets and had their names, species, colour and stats written on cards next to the bars - probably to make choosing easier for potential new owners.
"For your first night, you'll be in a room on your own," Dr. Death explained as we walked. "By tomorrow your paperwork will have gone through and your card will be put on the wall."
"Why will I be on my own?" I asked, struggling to keep the quiver from my voice. I didn't want to cry in front of the doctor.
"Well, the first night is always the hardest." He groaned. "And would you want to be kept awake by your new roommate crying all night?"
He led me into the cell and slammed the door behind me, twisting the key in the lock and whistling as he walked away.
Dr. Death was right. That night I cried and cried, the loneliness eating away at my very soul. I'd have hated having to share the cold room.
"A starry Aisha, eh?"
These were the words I heard as I woke up, my neck stiff from lying on the stone floor all night.
"Helloooo? Starry Aisha? Uhh-" the voice, unnaturally jolly for this time of day, paused for a moment, "Angustiante? Hey, man, it's time to get up."
I groaned and opened my eyes, spotting the source of this persistence. It came from a blue Gelert, his long ears gripping the bars and his head tilted to one side. His brow was furrowed in curiosity, but still he grinned.
"There we go! Welcome back. Unfortunately all of this-" he motioned to our surroundings, "is not a stupid dream, and yes, I am your new cell-mate."
"Who are you?" I asked, my voice quiet.
"Ah- oh yes!" he said, bringing an ear to his face in embarrassment. He quickly went off to the right before returning to view. He had his own little card in his paw.
"Sparker__26?" I asked, eyebrows raised, "Why the underscores?"
"Why not?" He chuckled. He let himself into the cell, using his tail to close the door behind him, and sat opposite me. "Now tell me, why did your owner abandon you?"
I felt my insides run cold and tears threatened to spill from my eyes.
"Oh, hey - look - I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to strike a nerve," he said quickly, raising his front paws up, as though not quite sure what to do. "Come on, Angus, please don't do this to me. What was their name?"
I took a few deep breaths and wiped my eyes before speaking. "S-Sandra." I gulped.
"Sandra? Hm. Remarkable how that rhymes with Xandra, yes? Must be a despicable distant relative. Daft as a brush too, to go and abandoned a nice fellow like yourself. Truth be told, you're probably better off without her. She was bad news and you - you're excellent news. Please don't cry."
Strangely the Gelert's rambling seemed to work, and I cracked a smile. "Yeah. Sandra was wrong to put me in here. I've been told I'll be snapped up quickly, anyway."
"Of course you will!" Sparker grinned. "A nice paint job like that! I'd give it a day or two - tops!"
Sparker and I chatted for the next couple of hours. Discussing my old owner, his old owner, the pound... anything really. It turns out he'd been in the pound a long time - so long he could barely remember his last owner anymore! The shock on my face sent him into fits of giggles and he told me to relax. He didn't care, so why should I?
After a while, an army of pink Unis walked down the halls, announcing it was about opening time and that breakfast would be coming around shortly. Breakfast was boiled eggs, which I only managed one of - but Sparker managed three!
A little time later a few people began to wander down our hallway. I sat right next to the bars, beaming through at the prospective owners. Sparker, however, stayed towards the back, only looking up when people had passed.
He joined me when I was watching a particularly curious human. She had long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, freckles, and a note pad in her hand. She was muttering to herself as she walked through, copying names and stats every so often.
"Quick!" Sparker hissed, "Duck!" Quick as a flash, he grabbed me by an ear and yanked me towards the bunk beds, forcing me to duck behind them alongside him.
"Spark - what?"
"Shh!" he hissed, putting a paw over my mouth. I glared at him from behind his paw. The girl passed and he let go.
"What is wrong with you?" I snapped.
"Didn't you see the notebook?" he asked "She was writing down names! She wasn't going to adopt you for love and a family! She was probably a trader looking for a lab rat!"
I blinked. "What?"
"A trader! You know? Someone who trades pets for other pets. Your name is capped and has no underscores. You're painted. You're probably an excellent candidate! And if they can't trade you for someone 'more valuable', they'd probably stick you right back in here anyway."
I still maintained my glare. "What makes you think that? A little notebook? Seriously?!"
"Okay, kid, tell me this: when did she stop to actually talk to anyone she made notes of?"
He had a point. A very valid one.
"Look, you have to keep an eye out. I don't want you to be adopted but not be happy. You have to look out for certain types of adopters: Traders, Zappers, Fosters and Abandoners.
"Traders, I just explained. They'll trade the living daylight out of you to get a 'better' pet. Don't give me that look! Their words, not mine. Zappers are people who'll constantly take you to the lab ray and zap you. It's scary, man. It can change your colour, species, stats, gender." He shuddered. "Nobody should be put through that. If someone wants a Cybunny, they should adopt one or use a very safe morphing potion."
"Fosters aren't so bad. They usually adopt you and then buy you a paintbrush. If you're unlucky, you'll find one with access to the lab ray. After you're painted, they usually adopt you out themselves to someone who'll want you. The only real downside is that they're not forever, and like everyone else, can make mistakes. They might give you to a trader or something."
"Lastly, abandoners. As you probably know, owners aren't completely bound to their pets. They can disappear from time to time. Some adopt a pet as a last-ditch effort to find something to keep them here. Then they leave. Honestly, I'd rather be in here for the rest of my life than an empty neohome all by myself."
Sparker looked at me, expecting some kind of reaction when he finished talking. I just sat there with my jaw practically hitting the floor.
"How do you know all this?" I asked, eyes clearly showing my surprise. He chuckled, but didn't answer. Instead, he walked over to the bars and sat by them.
"It doesn't matter. You're a good guy, I don't want you to go through all that. My name's not all that great, and I'm as basic as you get colour-wise. You'd be a target, my friend."
We sat and watched people all day. For each one Sparker would mutter which they seemed like, and after watching them for a short time I readily agreed with him. Those lives he'd described had sounded terrible, and I most certainly didn't want to be adopted into one of them. I wanted a loving home, with a loving owner, brothers and sisters, and enough neopoints to not have to worry about anything. That's not too much to ask, right?
That evening the pound closed up as usual. The pink Unis came around, delivering tin tubs full of hot water to each room.
"Time to make sure you don't scare away potential owners!" our pink Uni chirped happily. "I'm pretty sure they'd rather see you before they smell you." She grinned, trotting away.
"You go first," I said to Starker, "I don't feel dirty."
Sparker smiled gratefully and headed to his bunk. He pulled something out from beneath his pillow and headed to the tub.
I chatted to him while he bathed, with my back to the tub of course. I seemed to be talking none-stop since I came to the pound. I'd been relatively quiet at home, with my siblings shouting over one another.
"Uh, Angus? Could you help me?" Sparker asked. I turned to him. He was out of the tub but his fur was still wet. His long ears fell over his face with the weight of the water and as he walked over tiny drops trailed behind him from his tail.
Oh, and he'd also changed colour to electric. My jaw dropped.
"Sparker!" I yelled, "What happened to you?!"
"Alright, alright. Calm down - just... deep breaths, okay?" he asked, smiling nervously, his ears perking slightly. "I've always been electric. I just... hide it. It stops me from gaining too much attention, you see?" He laughed, still slightly nervous.
"But your card on the wall - that says blue, too!" I insisted.
"Yeah. You see, I lied," he confessed. "I've been using this-" He held up a blue bottle - the item he'd retrieved from under his pillow, "to cover up my lighter blue bits. Could you help me apply it? Before my fur gets too dry for it to stick properly?"
I hesitated, but soon agreed. It wasn't really my place to tell him to show off his true colour. Not if he wanted to stay hidden from the scary adopters. The blue bottle turned out to be blue sand. It stuck in clumps to his electric blue fur, but blended in with the darker blue bits. Soon enough all of his lighter markings were gone, and he looked just like your average blue Gelert.
"Thanks." He smiled. "I really appreciate it."
Days passed. Then weeks. Months. During this time Sparker taught me how to spot the troublesome owners - the fake ones who greeted you with a smile, but secretly didn't want to keep you for more than a day or two. Together we worked up a routine. We'd pretend to be sick, or bad tempered or just flat-out rude to people who tried to talk to us. We looked out for each other, and kept one another company. Every night I helped him apply his sand, and once in a while I tried it too.
Then, after a long while, a charismatic guy called Red walked up to our cell.
"Hey guys! How goes it today?" he greeted cheerily.
"We're in the pound. What do you think?" I snapped, glaring at him. Sparker issued a warning growl from the back of the room.
"Huh. Well, I'm Red, and was kinda hoping to adopt one of you." He grinned. "Would that make your day better?"
I looked at Sparker, who joined me by the bars, "Go on then, Red," he said. "Impress us."
Red blinked, clearly confused. "What?"
"Why should we want you to adopt us?" he snapped. "Go."
"Well... I really like you guys, you've both got rich, clean coats and seem to be in good health. I particularly like your names. On my part, I'm not rich, but not poor either. I already have a yellow Usul who's desperate for some siblings. I earn money by restocking and playing Key Quest. I'll try really hard to look after you. You'll never go hungry or be bored, and I could even save up to paint you new colours, if that's what you wished."
He stopped, looking from me to Sparker and back. "What do you say?" he asked hopefully.
"Move along, human," Sparker muttered, turning tail and heading back to the bunk. I shrugged at him and followed suit.
Red was nothing if not persistent. He came back day after day, trying to convince us to be his pets. Each day he'd have a new point and each time Sparker would shut him down. However, I was beginning to wonder if turning this owner away was really a good idea. He didn't seem like he wanted to harm or upset us. He openly admitted has didn't have access to the secret lab, and he only really wanted the best for us.
Sparker disagreed when I brought this up to him, but I was determined to get Red to adopt me.
"If he shows up tomorrow, I'm going with him," I said sharply. "He really wants to adopt us - both of us! Why don't you trust him?"
"Fine! Go!" Sparker snapped, "Go with Red! Have a happy couple of weeks and then see what happens!"
Sparker didn't talk to me after that. He didn't even let me help apply his sand. He just poured it on the ground and rolled in it instead.
The next day I saw Red, but it wasn't at my door. It was the one across the hall, and he was speaking to a red Kacheek.
"You see, they don't want to be adopted. You could adopt us! We already really like you, and your Usul must be getting so lonely."
Needless to say, Red left with the red Kacheek and her roommate a yellow Zafara. He never came back for me, and I never saw those pets in the pound ever again.
It took a few days, but I got Sparker to talk to me again. We're still in the pound, but I've convinced him to lower his defences around owners. He's agreed to be less picky and nicer to visitors, so long as I don't tell people he's secretly electric. So if you're ever in the neighbourhood pop on by and say hello! The pink Uni knows us by name, so you'll have no trouble finding us.
I hope to see you soon!