Lessons and Life
Leroy was an average young red Draik. He was just like any other student at his neoschool. He spent his time in school doing homework, chores, and playing with other pets his age. In the summertime, he would play alone most days, do chores when his mother asked, and sometimes explore the neighborhood. He never imagined that anything in his life would ever change drastically.
This assumption is typical for an innocent child, and when the time comes for them to realize how untrue this assumption is, it can bring with it great shock, and oftentimes despair.
It began shortly after his tenth birthday one summer.
Leroy was a generally well-behaved young neopet, despite being perhaps slightly spoiled. He liked to play outside, especially during the warm summer months, but still had a small handful of chores to do. He did them without much complaint, and was rewarded by his mother with nearly whatever he wanted, so long as they could afford it. The only thing he was never given, to his deep disappointment, was a paint brush.
He longed more than anything to be painted fire, but his mother simply could not afford it. He was one of the few pets his age in Shenkuu that was still basic. He knew better than to complain, and he tried to avoid asking his mother too much, as he knew it would only result in having to wait longer for it.
"I'm sorry, Leroy, but we just don't have the neopoints for something that expensive right now," his mother said to him one particular morning. "Maybe in a few years, but I can't promise to buy one anytime soon."
Leroy sighed, disappointed, but not surprised by his mother's response.
"Okay," he said dejectedly, turning slowly to exit the kitchen.
The older purple Draik glanced up from the sink where she was washing dishes to look at the window in front of her. She squinted, struggling to see across the yard. Her eyes landed on the neighbor's yard, where an elderly yellow Gnorbu was working in the garden in her front yard. The mother's expression softened sympathetically, and she turned to her son, who was settling on the living room couch to watch neovision.
"Leroy, come here for a moment," his mother called.
The younger Draik stood up and walked back into the kitchen.
"Why don't you go next door to our neighbor Ms. Elson's, and offer to help her weed her garden? She's very old, and I'm sure she will appreciate the help," the woman said.
Leroy's shoulders drooped. It was summertime; he didn't want to do more chores!
"Why? Does she want my help?" he asked.
"It's a nice thing to do, and she does look like she could use help. Go on, you did say last night that you get bored sometimes in the summer, right? This will keep you busy," she explained.
"But I'm not bored now! I don't want to garden!" he argued, hoping to get out of it.
Instead, his mother's expression turned stern.
"No, I want you to go outside and help Ms. Elson. And I want you to insist on helping, even if she refuses, understand? No more neovision today."
Leroy groaned inwardly, but obeyed his mother and walked next door. He had never really spoken to the old woman before, but she often would say hello when she was outside when he walked home from neoschool.
As he approached her, he noticed that she seemed to be struggling every time she had to stand up and move to another spot to pull weeds. Leroy offered to help, and the woman seemed overjoyed by his kind offer, and accepted his help.
"Leroy, right?" she asked after he retrieved a basket to begin collecting the dead weeds in.
He nodded, and Ms. Elson beamed.
"It's so nice to officially meet you! I haven't really seen you since you were a little baby," she commented, and Leroy nodded politely, though he had no recollection of those days.
The two spent nearly an hour and a half pulling as many weeds as possible from the flower garden. Leroy was amazed by how many there were. Ms. Elson did not weed often, it appeared. When they finished, Ms. Elson was so grateful for Leroy's help, she invited him inside for lunch. Leroy accepted, and she prepared sandwiches and lemonade for the both of them.
"I really appreciate your help, young man. As you can tell, I don't do yard work too often, it hurts my back to lift things and bend over," she explained.
Leroy no longer felt like he was doing a chore, but rather a kind-hearted favor for this pleasant old woman. He was suddenly extremely happy that his mother had him do this.
"It's no problem, I was happy to help," he replied, taking a sip of lemonade.
The two continued their conversation for another hour, and Leroy found he was enjoying Ms. Elson's company more than he would ever have expected; and she clearly enjoyed having somebody to talk to for once.
Leroy learned that Ms. Elson had been living alone for nearly ten years since her husband had passed, and that she was very lonely in her large neohome by herself. She was quite wealthy, but not enough to afford to hire maids to take care of her house as she got older.
He didn't leave until late afternoon, when it was getting close to dinnertime. Ms. Elson had baked sugar cookies coated with icing- they were the most amazing cookies he'd ever eaten, better than his mother's- and she let him take the rest of the batch home that evening to further express her appreciation of his kind act earlier that day.
"It was very nice having you as company today, Leroy. I do hope you come by and visit again soon!" Ms. Elson bid him goodbye that afternoon.
"Oh, I will! I promise!" Leroy replied, and he walked out the door.
That evening Leroy could not stop thinking about his neighbor. He felt incredibly selfish for his initial reaction to his mother making him offer to help their elderly neighbor, and he was glad she had done so. Ms. Elson was very nice, and he felt good for making her day brighter and easier. He went to bed that night with his mind at ease.
Two days later, while Leroy was playing in his own front yard, he couldn't help but notice Ms. Elson's flowers. The potted ones on her porch were beautiful and healthy, but the others, planted in the yard, were all drooping and looked as though they desperately needed water.
Ms. Elson clearly could water the potted plants, but she rarely watered the flowers in her garden. Perhaps it was too difficult for her, Leroy thought, and, forgetting all about playing with his action figures, walked next door to Ms. Elson's yard and offered to water her garden for her.
The old Gnorbu seemed just as surprised as the day before by his selfless offer, but accepted his help gratefully, and the young Draik spent the afternoon watering all of Ms. Elson's wilting flowers, and trimming them so they could hopefully begin growing again.
Just as she had the day he'd helped her weed, Ms. Elson made lunch for the two of them, and they ate together on the porch, conversing like two old friends.
Leroy wasn't used to having long conversations with grown-ups, and certainly not interesting ones, but he found he enjoyed listening to Ms. Elson talk about her days as a youngster. She talked about her childhood, her teen years, her marriage, and even her weekly Kacheekers games with her friends her age.
"It may be hard to believe, but I wasn't always so old and dull. Nope, I used to be young and energetic, just like you. My yellow mane used to be as vibrant as the sun, and I never used to need reading glasses at all! And my back certainly never gave out no matter what I did! I could hike mountains, surf the rivers, and I could easily pull more than a few weeds! You probably think of me as a boring old lady, but I can assure you I was quite the opposite back in the day," she said that afternoon.
"You're not that boring! You're fun to talk to, you have good stories. And you make wonderful cookies!" Leroy replied with a large grin.
Ms. Elson could not have smiled brighter, Leroy thought. It sure didn't take a lot to cheer her up; all she really wanted was some company once in a while.
At the end of the day, Ms. Elson gave Leroy some more cookies- this time chocolate chip- before he left, and he felt as content as ever.
Leroy continued to visit Ms. Elson a few days a week, usually two or three. He tried to help her with as much yard work as she would allow him to do. They ate lunch together, and most of the time she had some dessert for him to take home. Leroy's mother was extremely proud of her son for being so kindhearted; she couldn't believe her previously spoilt, whiny ten-year-old son had made this unlikely friendship with their lonely old neighbor.
Summer passed quickly for the young Draik, and soon enough autumn came and it was time for neoschool to start. This didn't stop Leroy from visiting and helping out Ms. Elson- who, after a while, even asked him to start calling her Josie- after school on weekdays.
They would often have tea and cookies in the kitchen, and Leroy would tell her about his day in school, and though not much happened in Ms. Elson's day, she would occasionally have some news to share. Leroy insisted on helping her with outdoor chores, despite the fact his mother still gave him chores of his own. He raked the fallen leaves from her lawn when needed, and Ms. Elson would try to help for a bit, until her back started hurting and she was forced to retreat to the porch to sit while Leroy finished.
When winter arrived, Leroy volunteered to shovel snow off Ms. Elson's walkway, as well as his own, whenever it snowed. The Draik's responsibilities were stacking up with homework, chores, and friends on top of his visits with his neighbor, but he always made time.
In the spring, Ms. Elson and Leroy planted new flowers in her garden together, and Leroy did the best he could to water them every few days. End-of-the-year schoolwork was piling up, and his visits became less frequent for a while, but eventually neoschool came to a close as summer rolled around again.
With neoschool out, eleven-year-old Leroy could visit Ms. Elson more often, and continued to help her whenever she needed him.
That summer the two friends grew closer than ever before. Leroy went to Ms. Elson for advice whenever he needed it, and the old Gnorbu was filled with wisdom that she was more than happy to share.
Ms. Elson helped the young boy grow mentally; she shared with him many lessons from her life that may or may not help him, and he listened intently to everything she told him. He, in return, was making the old woman's lonely days as a widow joyful and serene.
The last time Leroy saw Ms. Elson was at the end of that wonderful summer.
Less than a month before summer ended, Leroy's mother received a letter in the mail from his neoschool, offering him the opportunity to spend a semester of his first year in junior high as an exchange student in Brightvale. Leroy had been one of the smartest pets in his class, and it was an honor to be offered the opportunity, so as expected, his mother was overjoyed.
Leroy was surprised too, but also unsure. He had never travelled away from Shenkuu before, and felt nervous about living with a strange family in an unfamiliar land.
So, as usual, the Draik went to Ms. Elson for advice on what to do. If he had known her words that day would be that last he'd ever hear, perhaps he would have stayed. But nobody can predict what lies ahead of them, and if there's one thing the old woman had taught the young boy, it's to always take every opportunity life hands you, no matter what.
"I know it's a big honor, and I should be excited, but I just don't know that I want to stay an entire semester in a strange land, even if I may never get to again," Leroy admitted to her, and the Gnorbu shook her head in disapproval.
"Now listen to me young man," Ms. Elson said seriously, placing a hand on the child's shoulder.
"You do not want to pass a chance like this up. If there's one thing I've learned in my lifetime, it's that it is important to take every opportunity that is given to you. Never pass on something you want to do because of discouragement from others, fear it may not go perfectly, or ideas that it may not be worth it. If something wonderful comes along, the worst mistake you can make is not taking a chance. I want you to remember to always do whatever it is that makes you happy. Be exciting, be adventurous, take control of your life and make sure you decide where it takes you. Don't let anybody but you decide what you will do or what you will be. You can control who you are, and what will happen. If you want your life to have its own rewards, make sure you make it happen. Don't ever forget that," she said.
Ms. Elson's voice had become less stern and more emotional, and Leroy only nodded. The old Gnorbu smiled gently, taking the boy's hand in her own with a wistful sigh.
"You have been more than wonderful to me, Leroy. You are a wonderful young neopet with so much potential. You go on that trip and don't you worry about me here. I'll manage for a few months and when you get back you can tell me all about it, and we'll have lemon cookies with Ummagine Tea," she said, and Leroy brightened.
"Okay! I'll tell my mom I want to go, then. After all, it's only until December!" he remarked.
Ms. Elson grinned widely, but didn't let him see the sadness in her dull lavender eyes at watching him go.
* * *
Ms. Elson's last words to him lingered in his mind during his entire stay in Brightvale. Leroy knew she had not simply meant this particular trip in her words, and he knew that he would never forget them. They had inspired him, and filled him with newborn confidence he never had felt before as he travelled halfway across Neopia, and he never let them slip from his mind.
The journey felt long, but was exciting, and Leroy did not regret for a single moment his choice to spend a semester at Brightvale Junior High Neoschool. The months passed slowly but surely for him. Despite the excitement, it didn't take too long for the young Draik to become homesick. Leroy couldn't wait to get back to Shenkuu come the Month of Giving. The last thing he would have expected to come home to was anything but terrible news.
Unfortunately, life has its happy endings, and its tragedies. Though Leroy was aware that sometimes 'happily ever after' doesn't always work out, nothing could have ever prepared him for what awaited him at home that winter.
Excited, he arrived at his neohome and rushed into his mother's arms, and immediately wanted to tell her all about his stay in Brightvale. Though he outlined it for his mother, he was even more anxious to visit Ms. Elson and spend a long-awaited afternoon of conversations, tea, and cookies.
Before his mother could stop him, Leroy was out the door and rushed next door to ring the doorbell and see Ms. Elson. His mother barely caught up to him when the door opened, and Leroy was taken aback to see not an elderly yellow Gnorbu, but a tall white Zafara, who looked to be in his thirties.
The young Draik blinked, confused, and said, "Who are you?"
Before the man could respond, however, Leroy's mother pulled him away, apologizing to the Zafara, and gave her son the sad news.
"Ms. Elson... she passed away, Leroy, almost three weeks ago. I'm so, so sorry. She was very old, you know, and..." the purple Draik trailed off when she saw her words weren't helping, and the child's eyes were swelling with thick tears.
"Josie's... gone?" he squeaked, hardly controlling his cracking voice.
His mother nodded solemnly, and apologized again and again, but it wouldn't stop the uncontrollable flow of tears that poured from the distraught child's eyes. All she could do was stand there in the snow, holding her son as he cried his heart out for his friend, gone forever from his life.
* * *
Years later, Leroy would never forget the words Ms. Elson said to him that day, so long ago. No matter what happened to him, he would still keep his promise. He would live life to its fullest. He'd take chances, he'd be kind, generous, and never let life bring him down.
As the eleven-year-old Draik walks through the front door after his first day back at Shenkuu Junior High, the first thing that catches his eye is a small brown package resting on the kitchen table. Curious, he drops his backpack and wanders over to it.
On the top is a tag with his name written on it. His mother is not yet home from work, so he opens it without bothering to wait and ask who it's from.
As he pulls away the string and tears off the paper, his eyes land on the object inside- a fire paint brush. Beside it is a small note. He lifts it out and unfolds it, eyes wide.
I leave this paint brush to my neighbor and dear friend, Leroy, as a gift for when I'm gone, for him to remember me by. I want him to look at himself every day and know that life goals can be achieved as long as you dream big and work hard. I contemplated long and hard over whether this was the right thing to leave him in my will, however I have decided that a neopet as kindhearted, intelligent, and determined as him deserves a gift like this every now and again. Therefore, this brush is for you, Leroy. Do with it what you will. Promise you will never forget what is truly important.
- Josephine Elson
"Oh, Josie..." he whispers aloud, awestruck.
For a moment he hesitates, pondering whether he deserves a gift such as this. Clearly, Ms. Elson had thought he did.
Finally, he lifts the brush over his head, closes his eyes, and paints himself.