Way Better than Hot Cocoa
Neopia Central is a grand place, especially during Christmas. Snow is falling lightly from the sky, blanketing the ground with white. You're bound to be hit by a couple of snowballs thrown by rambunctious children, and nearly run into Neopets doing last-minute gift shopping. Multicoloured lights are hanging from the roofs of shops and houses alike. There's also a chance that you will encounter some carolers, belting out merry tunes as they skip down the streets.
At least, that's what most people think.
There's also a small spot in Neopia Central where the homeless live; the Pound escapees, the poor, the abandoned. The luckier ones have connections around town, which means stores to stay in when their rugged jackets wear down and it's unbearably cold. But not everybody's lucky. Most of these Neopets have to find a way to stay warm and keep their bellies full, when just getting shelter is a feat in itself. Some of them even have to resort to begging.
Nathan was one of those desperate pets. Every day leading up to the Day of Giving, he'd quietly pad his way through the shin-deep snow to the edge of the streets, a rusty mug in one hand as well as a notebook and pencil in the other. He was a plain red Zafara with curly chocolate locks, and didn't appear to be any more special than the rest. In truth, he really wasn't. However, he had one little talent that he used often to gain neopoints: He could draw, and quite well, too. He had practiced long and hard for many years to finally master that talent. Sure, other people had bigger and better skills, but for someone with so little, it was a priceless gift.
Nathan began his tedious morning routine: dust the dirt off his grubby fur, get dressed, and head to the street once more. As he walked through the dingy alley, an elderly green Quiggle smiled at him, showing off his slightly yellowed teeth. "Happy Day of Giving, Nathan."
He paused in his tracks, though he wished he wouldn't, as the snow was freezing his feet the more he stood. Was it already the Day of Giving? He stared hard at his surroundings. Yes, it had to be, because no one would ever splurge on lights when they could use the neopoints for something else.
Still, he beamed back at him. "To you too, Mister Abraham." He continued down the alley, deep in thought.
Day of Giving... he mused, pausing to admire a lush wreath hanging on the back door of a store, I wish I had known! Maybe if I had bought a calendar instead of a new set of pencils, I'd have remembered to get something for Sissy and her husband. So much for that Berry Zafara Scarf she wanted. His ears fell along with his expression. I'm such a horrible brother.
Nathan arrived at the side of the road quickly. In the corner of his bright green eye, he saw a pair of giggling children accompanied by their mother treading along the sidewalk; the parent was having a hard time controlling the boys. He opened his mouth to ask them if they would like their portrait done.
Suddenly, one of the kids caught his gaze. Turning to his mom, he asked, "Mama, what's wrong with that guy over there?"
She glanced over in Nathan's direction, and her eyes immediately softened. Grabbing her children's paws, she tried to lead them away. "Come on, George. It's not polite to stare at people."
"But Mama," the other one said, "It's Christmas! Can't we do something for him?"
"Yeah, he looks so... down," his twin agreed.
The mother looked from the boys to Nathan. "If he can earn it, I suppose I can do something for him."
The Zafara felt his heart lift up a little in his chest. Looking up, he said, "I can draw your portrait if you'd like. I mean, they're great for Christmas cards and such."
The mother nodded, and when asked to pose with her children, obeyed without hesitation. There she trained her eyes on Nathan's ever-moving paw, which was swiping the pencil all over the paper.
It was two minutes before Nathan said they were free to move around, and another eight before the drawing was finished.
"I wanna see, I wanna see!" the twins yelled, breaking away from their mom and rushing to look at the Zafara's creation.
The adult finally caught up to her kids, and then stared at the picture. It was... flawless, or if there was no such thing as flawless, then as close as you could get. She could spot every detail, from the freckles on her sons to the buckles on her shoes.
"Is-is it alright?" Nathan asked worriedly. "I tried, I really did. I'm sorry, it must have been a waste of your time, I apologize--"
She cut him off. "No, it's wonderful," she sighed contently, "I'm sure Uncle Pete will like this. Thank you so very much." She reached into the pocket of her thick coat, dropped a generous amount of Neopoints in the tin mug, and left.
Nathan waited until she was out of sight to leap at the coins, dump them into his hands, and count them. Two hundred, two hundred two, two hundred four, he thought to himself. His final result was over three hundred. That was more than he had ever carried in his entire lifetime.
Hope surged through his chest like a flame. Maybe it was enough to buy Sissy something for Christmas. Of course, with prices rocketing towards the stars, it would have to be relatively cheap, but he was sure that whatever he bought for his sister, she would appreciate. Her family didn't have very much either, though her husband, Alex, did happen to have a job as a janitor. The girl herself didn't have a job; taking care of six children was a feat.
A noise similar to a petpet's growl erupted from Nathan's stomach. Suddenly aware of how ravenously hungry he was, he gritted his teeth in regret that he hadn't eaten earlier. However, there was a nice bakery down the street. Maybe he could take a few – just a few, nothing more – neopoints from the "Sissy's Christmas Present Fund" to get a cupcake. It was the Day of Giving, after all. He certainly deserved something from putting up with such a year.
The coins jingled merrily in his pockets like they were bells, chiming in harmony with each other. The sound made Nathan's ever-growing smile turn into a foolish grin. Christmas was turning out swell so far.
He was only one more block away from the bakery when he heard a voice behind him, scratchy and rough: "Hey, you!"
His smile washed off his face like a wave destroying a sand castle. Oh no, he thought, No, this can't be happening. Not after I just got this money! He didn't want to look around. He already knew what he would see. Instead, he picked up his pace and hoped that he would be left alone.
Normal neopets knew that there were homeless ones in this section of Neopia Central, but most didn't have a clue about the robbers. Every neopet on the streets knew their names, what they sounded like, basically what to look for; however, they recognized the mostly by experience. Nathan had never encountered any, but it seemed like his lucky day was abruptly coming to an end.
"Hey!" He heard footsteps behind him and it took all the willpower he could muster not to break out into a run. "I was talking to you, Zafara!"
Nathan gritted his teeth. The street was deserted. He was the only Zafara, let alone neopet within sight. Don't run. Don't run. It'll only make them more aggressive, he told himself.
He felt a hard palm clamp down on his shoulder like the hook in the Wonderclaw machine. Tentatively, he looked behind him.
A yellow Acara with five o'clock shadow was glowering at him, the tip of his nose pink with the cold. "Who do you think you are, huh? Think you're too good to ignore me, huh? Well, whaddya say I fix that for ya, huh?" His face loomed just centimeters away from Nathan's own.
Oh dear. Not the Shades. There were only a couple of groups that liked to pick on other neopets, but this one was by far the worst. They didn't just steal your neopoints, they gave you a good bruise, too.
Nathan recognized the Acara as Sven, the leader. He had a big problem with overusing the word 'huh'. "Um, I – I didn't know if you were talking to me, I don't have eyes on the back of my head, you know, I wasn't exactly sure--"
"Shut up!" Sven snarled. "You're smart, but not smart enough to fool me with your lies, huh?" The rest of the Shades emerged from behind him, all wearing sneers and arrogant grins.
His fate was now clear; he was going to get robbed, and if he was lucky, run away with all limbs untouched. It didn't seem to matter what he said, now that the group had made up their minds to rob him. "At least one of us is smart around here."
That did it. One of Sven's friends, Mario, pushed Nathan up against a wall, while another Shade dug her hand into his raggedy coat pockets. It emerged full of golden neopoints, glinting in the dull morning light.
She grinned. "We heard these little kids singing like musicians from a block away. How did you get three hundred? I've seen you around, and you don't really do much."
"Give those back!" Nathan growled in rage. He struggled to twist free of the hands pinning him against the brick, but it was no use. "I earned them!"
The Shade laughed mercilessly. "Not today. We have to have a happy Day of Giving too, you know."
Sven chuckled as well, a noise that was so annoying it made Nathan want to kick him. "You'll probably have a good Christmas. It just won't be this year, huh?" Suddenly and without warning, his brawny fist went flying at Nathan's ribcage. "Come on, guys, let's get out of here."
"Merry Christmas!" Mario jeered as the Shades walked off, chortling at the unfortunate luck of their victim.
Nathan's torso throbbed from the hit he had just taken, but that wasn't what made tears come to his eyes. He had promised Sissy that he'd get her something great for Christmas, and he was one to keep promises. And that wasn't it; his stomach ached with hunger, and it seemed as if the snow had seeped through his jacket and into his bones. Miserable, he thought sullenly. Absolutely miserable.
Now that he wouldn't be able to fulfill the oath he had given his sister, all he wanted to do was curl up in a corner and let the chill of December numb his feelings, to drive the guilt away and replace it with bitter cold.
Well, he did part of that. He huddled against the wall and buried his face in his knees, letting the wind bite at his ears.
It had been several minutes of silence, and the feminine voice made Nathan jump. He was worried at first that it was a Shade, but this person was much too polite.
He didn't mean to sound so exasperated, but instead of a cheery "Yes?" it came out more like a sigh. Looking up, he saw a red Xweetok, only about ten years old, looming over him with a concerned look on her face. Her long red hair was tucked neatly in a warm cap, and she looked quite snug in the puffy winter jacket she was wearing. She also had a pair of mittens on that he envied greatly.
She fidgeted with a lock of her hair. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay. You look... sad."
"You guessed right."
"Where's your family?" she blurted out. "What's a man like you to be alone on Christmas Day?"
He laughed humorlessly. "Oh, my sister is about twenty minutes away from here. I was going to buy her a gift and go to her house, but I got robbed."
The girl's paws flew to her mouth, which was agape in shock. "That's... that's terrible! Is there anything I can do for you?" she pleaded desperately. She wanted to help the poor man as much as she could. Her owner was waiting for her back at the house, but she was sure Zoey wouldn't mind if she was a few minutes late.
Nathan shook his head and replied, "Not unless you want to give up a few thousand neopoints, but I'm not that low to stoop to begging for money without service." Sighing, he went on: "No, there's nothing you can do. You just go along home and open your presents." He didn't mean to sound so spiteful, but his tone was as frigid as the weather.
However, the girl was unfazed. "Well, I don't have any money with me, but... " She wrestled her mittens off of her paws, knelt down, and placed them gently on Nathan's lap. "It's not much, I know, and I'm sorry." Her expression was so pained and apologetic that Nathan almost laughed.
His spirits lifted slightly. Grinning gratefully at the Xweetok, he thanked her with such enthusiasm it sounded like he was given the whole domain of Altador to rule.
The girl smiled and continued on her way. However, before she was out of sight, she called back over her shoulder, "My name is Alex, by the way. Our house is 912 South Maple Street. You should stop by sometime if you ever feel lonely."
"I will!" Nathan shouted back as she rounded a corner and disappeared from view. He looked down at the mittens on his lap. They were a deep color of mauve, and made of soft wool. As soon as he put them on, the cogs in his head spun. He suddenly knew what to get for Sissy, but if he wanted to make it on time before the kids opened their presents, he realized he'd have to hurry.
He'd almost forgotten that in his excitement over cupcakes, he'd tucked his pad and pencil in his jacket and then zipped it up so nothing could drop out unexpectedly. Grateful that the Shades hadn't taken those as well, he took his coat off. Sure enough, his possessions spilled to the sidewalk. He hastily picked them up before they got covered with snow.
Since there was no one around to model for him, it would take his brain a lot of work to imagine the family, arms around each other and laughing, but he'd do it. At this point, he was ready to do anything.
After half an hour or so, it was done. The page was covered in graphite from his pencil, and so were his hands. However, it was finished, and looked nice.
Now he was faced with another problem; surely the kids would be up and gushing over their presents already. Sissy's house was half a mile away. Will I make it in time? He worried.
...If I run, sure. That's exactly what he did. Even with the snow up to his ankles, he sprinted like a madman trying to escape a giant petpetpet. He paused every once in a while to catch his breath, then take off running again. It was agony. He hated running because he had a mild case of asthma, which grew worse with every flying step he took. By the time the run-down house was in sight, he could hardly breathe.
"Sihhh... Sihh... " He tried calling her name, but he found that he was panting too hard. He ended up throwing his shoe at the door.
It opened promptly, and the small face of a brown Zafara peeked out. The child nearly jumped with excitement before shouting behind him, "Hey, guys! Uncle Nate's here!" He leapt from the door and charged at his relative, while the other five siblings followed.
If Nathan thought he couldn't breathe before, he certainly couldn't now, considering the fact that he was now being crushed with hugs from his nephews and nieces.
"Oh, gosh!" he gasped happily, trying to embrace all of them at the same time. "Alright, kiddos, I need you to get off of me. You're cutting off my air." They all did as they were told, but that didn't stop them from crowding around him in a very rambunctious semicircle. "Okay, let's see here." He began to name the children. "Mhm, we have Robbie, Sarah, Matthias, Todd, Tim – wow, you've grown, kid, and a lot – and Catherine. How are you guys? Where's your mom and dad?"
"Inside," the oldest, Catherine, exclaimed. "Here's your shoe. Come on in, you look cold."
"And I am. I won't pass up your offer, then, if your parents don't mind. And even if they did, I'd still go in. I swear, it's in the single digits out here!" He took his nephews and nieces in the house and prepared himself for the oncoming burst of Christmas cheer that was sure to greet her.
To his relief, the kids had not opened their presents yet. The brightly decorated pine tree that stood in the corner of the room had not been relieved of the boxes under it. The smell of cinnamon rolls, the household's favorite, wafted in from the small kitchen.
The brown Zafara, Robbie, grabbed a hold of his paw. "Uncle Nate, Mommy's waiting for you!" He dragged him to the kitchen, where a tall green Lupe was putting the finishing touches on a sugar cookie that his wife had made.
Alex's ears perked up at the sound of Nathan softly entering the room. He turned to greet his brother-in-law, his joyous grin showing off his teeth. "Nate!" his deep voice boomed as he clapped the Zafara on the back. "I'm so glad you could make it! You should have heard the kids. 'When is Uncle Nate coming, Daddy? Think he fell into a river? Will he get me that toy train I wanted this year?'" He chuckled. "Anyway, Sissy will be right out in a second. Grab a seat and take something to eat. You look hungry."
As Nathan devoured a cinnamon roll and a few sugar cookies, he told stories of the past few weeks to his nephews and niece, starting with how the woman across the street had gotten a job and ending at his encounter with Alex.
Finally, Sissy entered the room. Her mouth fell open in shock at the sight of her brother, then smiled in delight. "Nathan! I'm so glad you could come!" she squealed, flinging her arms around his torso. "Did you have any trouble getting here? Oh my gosh, it was so cold outside I could hardly poke my head out from the doorway to call the kids in."
He rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah. The Shades. I was going to get you guys something nice, but... well, you know how they work."
The corner of her lips twitched slightly. "Yup. They can cause quite a bit of trouble, especially Sven, huh?"
Nathan laughed. "How's everything been since I last came here?"
She smiled gleefully. "Not that bad, actually. Me and this guy over here will have our tenth anniversary in a couple of days! Of course, he won't get the hint that he should take us all out for dinner... " She nudged Alex, who rolled his eyes.
"Oh, fine," he sighed in defeat. "But for the record, your cooking is way better than any restaurant's."
"You're just saying that so you'll know what I got you for Christmas this year," she replied, "Speaking of which... I don't mean to sound rude or anything, but did you happen to bring something, Nathan?"
Nathan almost forgot about the drawing. Nodding, he pulled it out from behind his back and showed it to his sister.
To say that she was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. In fact, Sissy began to jump around squealing in delight, while her children just looked at the paper in awe. Alex was set the task of calming his wife down.
A few minutes later, the drawing was hanging on the refrigerator, where it would remain until they framed it. It showed the six kids laughing and wrestling their parents into a giant group hug, much like real life. Everyone looked perfect, if not for the lack of color. Nathan felt it was his best work he'd ever done; every detail just seemed to be right, from the smudge on Todd's glasses to the slightly-crooked tooth on his sister. It wasn't just drawn with a pencil, it was drawn from his heart.
However, he had a job interview at a supermarket later. He stayed only for the kids to be done opening their presents, then bid his family goodbye.
"Come back on New Year's!" Alex offered. "You're welcome to stay anytime."
Sissy embraced her brother once more. "Merry Christmas, Nathan!"
"I promise I'll be back soon!" he answered as he walked out of the doorway.
Neopia Central's population knew about this part of town, and mostly stayed away from it. It was rough as sandpaper, certainly. There were hardly any spots that a normal Neopian would feel sincerely comfortable in, if they weren't already robbed by the Shades or some other group of thugs. And today it was bitingly cold.
However this may be, Nathan felt a strange warmth coursing through his veins, more pleasant a feeling than drinking hot cocoa.
Merry Christmas, he thought as he looked back at his sister's house, where six enthusiastic little faces were waving from the window. And it really was this year.
Thank you to my best friend EVER, zoey_20555, for letting me use Alex in this story! Merry Christmas, Neopia! :D