I Called Her Claudia
"Welcome to the family!"
I looked around at the friendly smiling faces and knew that this had to be for real. I was finally out of the pound. That's no small feat for a basic Pteri named Snow427. You can just call me Snow, though. Everyone in the pound did, except for the bullies who wanted to make you feel like less than dirt. My new family calls me Snow, too. "Thanks," I said quietly, looking over my shoulder at the enormous disco-pink door behind me. A few doors down was the blue one I had entered what seemed like forever ago.
Most pets like me who go in that door never come out.
"You don't sound too happy..." the big silver Eyrie commented, putting his beak down next to mine. My new owner, Almedha, nodded and leaned on her Eyrie, looking at me for an explanation.
In truth, it didn't make much sense. But after you've lived somewhere so long with so many other pets, it begins to feel like home and those destitute, forgotten pets begin to feel like family. "I just..." I muttered, and then fell silent. "It's nothing... Thank you... for adopting me."
As Almedha tied my new black bandanna around my head and scooped me up in her hands, I looked down the hall at the blue door with the blacked-out window. I'll come back for you, I thought. I swear.
A few weeks later, I hadn't kept my promise. When I was alone on the side account, while all the other pets were playing or reading or bouncing around on the boards with Almedha, I would look for her. It's amazing the luxuries that pets in the outside world get and they take it for granted.
But here's the thing: the search protocol for the pound, if you're looking for a pet... you have to know their whole name.
I used to say names didn't matter, and I still kind of think I'm right. After all, Snow, by any other name, would still be just as cool! And I am. On the other hand, though, names do matter. A lot. See, I call her Claudia. But that isn't her full name. Just part of it. I'm bad with numbers and underscores and I can't remember random numbers. She's just Claudia to me.
Well, I shouldn't say "just" Claudia. She is Claudia. It's just not... her full name. Like Snow isn't mine. Sometimes even I can't remember the numbers at the end of my name, and I only have three.
I fluttered up from my seat when Rushishi, Almedha's jelly Blumaroo came up behind me. "Hey," he said. "What are you doing? Don't you want to play some games or... I have this comic book you can have," he said, shoving it in my face. "It's about Galleons or something. We could go get you a petpet," he suggested rapid-fire.
"No thanks," I grumbled, going back to my search screen, staring. "I'm looking for something."
"What would that be?" Ru asked, sitting beside me and looking at the blank screen in front of me. "You know, it helps if you search for something," he added, pointing to the empty search box.
"I know that," I snapped. "I don't remember what I'm searching for. I mean, I don't remember what it's called—never mind, you wouldn't understand."
"I wouldn't?" Ru asked with a smile. "I'm a jelly pet. I know what it's like to search for something and never find it. Come on, now. I've got some experience with things like this. What are you looking for? Maybe I could be of some help. You never know." I looked up at Ru and regarded him carefully. He seemed nice most of the time, and maybe a little crazy, so I didn't know what to say. "Come on, Snow. What is family for if not to help each other?"
I sighed and explained, "I'm looking for someone that I lost. She's stuck in the pound and... I don't know her whole name."
Ru nodded gravely. "I see. That's a pickle. Then this won't help you. We're going to have to do some foot-work... er, wing-work," he corrected with a smile, and scooped me up in his hands and put me on the rim of his top-hat. "I was once stuck in the pound like you were, you know," he commented as we walked. "I'm one lucky fellow Almedha knew I was there and got me out."
"I wish Claudia had someone like that," I sighed. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I thought maybe she had a chance of finding a home out there... but I knew she didn't have any chance at all. What chance did a badly-named blue Ixi have, stuck in the pound?
Ru chuckled, lifted his hat from his head, and lowered it to look me in the eye. "Oh, but she does, hasn't she? She has you."
Before I knew it, we were in the pound hallway, the blue door with the blacked-out window right in front of us. "I've not been here in a while," Ru muttered, took a deep breath, and pushed it open.
"Ahh-ha-ha-ha." From a dark corner—or, darker corner—a menacing laugh sent a chill down my little spine until I flicked my tail to make it go away. "Welcome to—wait just a cotton-candy minute. Where is your owner? Or, should I say, former-owner?"
"You've got that the wrong way, I'm afraid," Ru said. "We aren't being abandoned."
"Then what in the name of all the faeries are you doing here?" The yellow Techo stepped into the single dangling light hanging from the ceiling, his hands pulling at the strands of gray hair on his head. "No pet that isn't being abandoned comes here. And no pet like that one," he jabbed a finger at me, "ought never to get out of here, either. Those are the rules. They don't call me the Doctor Death for nothing, you know."
"There is no such rule," Ru snapped back. "We're looking for someone and the search won't work so we have to do some foot work. Take a look for ourselves."
"I don't remember the part in the rules that says I have to let you in," Doctor Death snarled.
"I don't remember the part in the rules that says you couldn't," Ru demanded. "One side, sir, we are going in." With that, he strode right past Doctor Death and into the pound.
I, meanwhile, was shaking. That was it. We were never coming out. I stopped myself.
No. We were coming out. I looked down all the deep, dark hallways and heard the cries, the shouting of all the lost and abandoned pets in here... We were going to get out, go home, and everything, then, would truly be perfect. We would have Claudia with us.
"This is the regular pound part," Ru muttered to himself as he moved among the cages. There were not very many, and every last one of them were filled. Then he turned a corner, opened a door, and went down a flight of stairs. What seemed like a million flights of stairs...
This was the pound I knew.
A series of tunnels underneath, it seemed, all of Neopia. The pound above was too small to hold all the pets, so the overflow all came down here and, generally, once they were here, they never left. Some pets were painted pretty colors, most were basic, some had nice names, and others not so much. I had lived in this labyrinth of tunnels for most of my life and so had Claudia. So many of these pets had...
"Here is where we start," Ru said, and looked around. "I remember this place."
"You were stuck, too?" I asked.
"Oh, yes," Ru said with a nod. "For a few months, I was here. Then Almedha got me out. But that was a long time ago."
"I was probably here then, too," I commented. But we had never seen each other. That wasn't unusual. There were thousands of pets down here and, even though there was precious little do to, there was no way anyone could meet everyone. "I was here for a long time."
"I'm glad both of our stories ended the same way, then," Ru sighed. "Now... I wonder if he's still here...?
"Who?" I asked as Ru walked off down one of the dark tunnels.
"His name is Fred73. And old blue Elephante. He's been here for a long time and I doubt he's out. Normally... you could just follow the sounds of sneezing and coughing. He's been sick for as long as I knew him." We traced our way through the tunnels, and I was quiet. There were many corridors I had never been down, and I tended to keep to myself with Claudia and a few other pets that were always around the same tunnels I was in.
Suddenly, Ru stopped and one of his ears perked up. He grinned. "You hear that?"
"What?" I asked, straining to hear. Ru broke into a bounce, flinging me into the darkness beyond. I only barely recovered in time to flap after him without hitting the ground in between. I tried to hear whatever it was he heard, but he was too busy following the sound he heard. As we got closer, I realized that it was a cough. But then there was a sneeze. An enormous, Elephante-sized sneeze.
We rounded another corner to another long, dark stretch of tunnel. A flock of green Eyries huddled together along one side, maybe for warmth or protection. In any case, there was safety in numbers, so it was rare to see any one pet alone. A bit further down I could hear the source of the coughing coming from the middle of a group of pets.
Rushishi bounded to a halt, giving me just enough time to land back on the rim of his top hat again. "Fred!" Rushishi called, and the group parted. In the center was the blue Elephante, noisily blowing his nose with a handkerchief.
He turned his big yellow eyes to the newcomer skeptically, but then he smiled. "Rushishi!" he shouted. "How long's it been now?"
"Oh, maybe three years." Ru shrugged. "I hope you're well as could be expected."
"Well enough," Fred agreed. "What brings you back down here? You weren't abandoned again, were you?"
"Parsnips and pandaphants, no," Ru laughed.
"Same owner this whole time?" Fred asked,
"Actually, yes. I always said I had luck on my side, didn't I?"
Fred nodded contemplatively. "That you did. On the other hand, I haven't heard anything about Jelly World being discovered yet."
"I'm working on it. But the reason I'm here is..." He paused to take his hat off his head and gestured at me. "This is Snow427, and he used to be stuck here, too. He's looking for a friend of his and I figured you were the best place to start."
Fred looked at me with a look in his eyes that I didn't much like. He looked angry, maybe jealous, but his look softened a moment later. "Well, sonny... what's her name, then?" Fred asked me. I was at a loss.
"I... don't remember," I told Fred. "But I'm pretty sure that part of her name is Claudia. And she's an Ixi." There it was. Everything I knew for sure about her. My best friend in all the world, and I didn't even know her whole name. What kind of a friend was I?
Fred flicked his Elephante nose and regarded me quietly. Then he coughed. "Well, only knowing part of her name is 'Claudia' isn't really all that helpful," Fred said. "Do you know how many Ixi there are in here called Claudia, let alone all species?"
"She's blue," I offered.
"Oh, thanks," Fred coughed. "That narrows it down."
"Come on..." Nearby a red Shoyru groaned. She looked like she had also been here for ages, with those pale big eyes that had made a habit of staring at the ground. "Give it up, Snow. Go back to your new home with your owner that loves you." She didn't sound as nice as her words were. "We'll probably see you again in a few months anyway. You can find this Claudia-Ixi then."
"I'm not coming back," I snapped. "And I'm not going home without Claudia."
"Hey, now, Nidra," Ru said to her. "No reason to get snippy."
"Who are you kidding?" Nidra asked Ru before turning back to me. "Your new 'owner' has you for a few months, maybe, if you're lucky. Enjoy the free doughnuts while you can, because when you get back, it's back to soup kitchen left overs like the rest of us. No one knows we're here, and no one cares."
"Al does," Ru corrected, using his nickname for our owner. "I've been out three years, never looked back."
"Yeah, you with the reasonable name like Rushishi and a nice color. Look at me," she said, pointing at herself. "I've been in and out of this place for a long time. At the end, no one wants a red Shoyru named mega_mini_dragon. It just happens. And no one wants a yellow Pteri named Snow427. You just watch."
"I'm not coming back. Almedha loves me," I said, even though for a moment I wasn't sure. No one had ever loved me before. How could Almedha be any different? "And if you guys can't or won't help, then I don't need you. Come on, Ru."
I ruffled up my feathers and jumped up into the pitch blackness above to continue my search elsewhere, even though I knew it was unlikely I'd ever find her.
Before I could get very far, though, something pulled hard on my tail and I was suddenly pulled back down to the ground. I found Fred's huge Elephante nose wrapped around my tail as he narrowed one of his big yellow eyes at me. "You're really serious, then?" Fred asked. "You're going to flap around in here like a maniac looking for something you'll never find."
I brushed myself off indignantly and said, "Other than the fact that I am going to find her, yeah, that's pretty much the plan."
"You're nuts," Nidra grumbled.
Fred sighed. "I really wish I could help you, sonny; really, I do. But you just don't find pets whose names you don't know. It's not possible. Without literally going from tunnel to tunnel looking, there's no way. Not even I know the layout down here. It's a maze and no one's been through it all."
Ru brushed Fred's nose off my tail and scooped me up in his hands again. "We'll find her, Snow. I promise you, we will."
I looked up at him and rearranged my wings on my back. "But how, when there's so many pets down here?"
Ru shrugged and looked around him. I wished he would say something, come up with some kind of idea. But Ru wasn't really known for his ability to come up with ideas. Nidra suddenly sighed and growled. Ru looked at her with one eyebrow raised. "What is it?" he asked.
"Nothing," she snapped.
"If you've got something to say, spit it out," Fred ordered.
"It's nothing!" she said. "Just if more pets down here were adopted, there wouldn't be as much to look through. It's not even a good idea, guys. No one would adopt us. No one, okay? It was a stupid idea."
"It's the best idea we've got so far," Ru said. "You're a mega-genius compared to the rest of us, aren't you? What's your IQ?"
Nidra shrugged. "Fifty or something. Not special."
Ru nodded. "See, that's a lot when you consider most pets stuck in the pound only barely know what a book is. And I think it's a good idea. What about you, Snow?"
It wasn't really, I thought, but what other chance was there at this point? "Well, what are we going to do?" I asked. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was really a fluke I was adopted at all. I still didn't really know why I was adopted. Almedha had never explained herself and I'd never asked. "I think... I think Nidra's right. I shouldn't have been adopted when you really look at it."
"You're wrong," Ru snapped, pointing his mitten-hand at me. "You should have been. You're a great guy. You're the best friend that anyone could ever want—loyal, willing to stop at nothing! Claudia'll be able to tell you that when we find her. With or without you, I'm doing this."
"Well, you're doing this—" I paused. Whatever "this" was... "For me. So I've gotta help. What are you doing?"
"Tell everyone you know, everyone you meet," Ru said. "Fred73, the Elephante mob-boss of the Pound. Mega_mini_dragon, the smart, sarcastic Shoyru. Someone will adopt them." Ru pointed at one of the huddled Eyries. "You! Who are you?" The Eyrie looked around for anyone else Ru might have been talking to, but Ru shouted to him, "Yes, you!"
"My... my name is noe_z," he answered. "But people call me Noe."
"Someone will adopt you, Noe," Ru said. "Someone adopted me; someone adopted Snow. It's possible."
I shook my head. It seemed impossible. But then, I thought I'd never be adopted, and here I was. All the best things really are impossible, aren't they? Everything's impossible until you try.
Note: Fred73, mega_mini_dragon, and noe_z are real pets who are, at the time of this writing, stuck in the pound along with thousands of others like them. They have just as much character potential as any other pet with any other name. The only thing limiting you is your imagination. :)