For me, it all began with the presents. Not exactly the beginning of a sad story, you'd think. The day that my owner, Nikki, walked in the door, her face glowing, and a potion bottle clutched tightly in her hands.
"Laila!" she called, and I rushed to the front hall from my bedroom, thrilled she was back from a day at the games room, where she'd begun spending more time than usual. She smiled at me, and it lit up all of her features. "I have a surprise for you!"
"What is it? What is it??" I shared in her excitement, my blue Aisha ears bobbing as I tried to guess. "A magic potion? Will it make me stronger? Or taller?"
"It's a surprise, silly!" she laughed, uncorking the bottle and handing it to me. Practically shivering with anticipation, I tilted my head back and swallowed the potion in one gulp.
The strangest sensation overtook me. I felt my limbs stretch and bend in unnatural ways, my long ears shrink and pull back into my head, and protrusions began to erupt out of my back. I fell to the floor and when it was over, I realized what the potion had been.
"A morphing potion?? Wow, Nikki! How did you get it? What am I now?" I almost fell over as I tried to rush to the full length mirror across the hall. When I arrived, I saw a green Draik staring back at me. "Wow."
"Do you like it?" asked Nikki, who looked completely blissful. "I've been playing games and stocks for months, and I've finally found someone selling a Draik morphing potion. I'm so excited to finally have a Draik!!"
I wasn't sure that being a Draik was my first choice – I'd been perfectly happy as an Aisha – but I was Nikki's only pet, and I knew how hard she'd been working to make her dream come true. I definitely didn't want to be ungrateful. Besides, I really loved my owner, and I knew that she loved me back. "I'm so happy, Nikki! I can't believe it!"
With a smile as wide as the Lost Desert, she swept me into her arms for a hug.
After that, things at home began to change, little by little. Later that week, Nikki got home even later than usual. "Sorry I'm late, sweetie!" she called as she opened the door. "But I brought you something special for dinner."
Still getting used to my new Draik body, I stumbled into the kitchen. "Oh, what is it?"
Nikki opened a box to reveal all sorts of delicious goodies, including a water pizza, negg noodles, steamed vegetable dumplings, a stuffed olive salad, and even a gold gem negg. My mouth watered just from looking at the enormous feast before me. We sat down at the table, and Nikki watched eagerly as I practically inhaled one of everything. Everything, that is, except the onion cola.
"Sweetie, you've forgotten the onion cola!" Nikki reminded me. "Don't you want to eat all of your dinner?"
"It smells funny, though," I complained. "And I'm getting pretty full."
A frown played around the corners of Nikki's mouth. "You need to finish your dinner if you want dessert." She pulled out some dark chocolate covered toffee, and my mouth began to water again – but I still couldn't make myself swallow the disgusting drink.
Nikki looked disappointed, but she allowed me dessert anyway.
As time went on, the strange foods continued. In addition, every time she returned to the house, Nikki came bearing gifts of books. Not all of them were terribly interesting, but I read them to please her, as each time one vanished in a puff of colored smoke, a look of triumph and pride crossed her face.
One afternoon, yawning, I set down my copy of 101 Stale Bread Recipes, (who cared, really?) and went to find Nikki in the kitchen. "Hey Nikki! I'm bored, can we go get a smoothie maybe?"
"Have you finished your book?" she asked. I shook my head, and she looked slightly displeased. "Maybe once you finish."
"Please?" I begged. "I'll never need to know how to cook stale bread. I'm so bored, please."
Nikki relented. "We can go, I guess... Do you promise to finish it tonight?"
I nodded fiercely, and the owner I loved so well and I went off for a day's adventures.
I sat in the living room on our bright blue couch, flipping through Techo in Love. Nikki walked in, and caught sight of my drooping eyelids.
"Bored?" she asked, a small smile playing on her lips.
"A little," I admitted. "It's a good book, but I've just been reading so much lately..."
"How about we go out for a bit? Just you and me," she said. "I've had an idea."
I shot up from my seat. "Yes! What do you want to do?"
"Well, you really are a pretty Draik, you know," she said. I smiled at the praise. "I thought maybe we could enter you into the beauty contest."
"I don't know..." I said. I wasn't really into that sort of thing. I didn't fancy standing around and putting on makeup and frilly dresses to impress some silly judges, to be honest.
"Please?" she begged. "It'll be really fun. And I'd really, really love for you to have a trophy!"
I relented. After all, it was an outing with my owner, and that alone was enough to get me to agree. Plus, wasn't making Nikki happy worth it?
The Beauty Contest wasn't bad, really. It wasn't the most fun, but it wasn't horrible, and of course I smiled through it for Nikki. As we waited for the announcements of the winners, however, I was almost as nervous as Nikki. I really want to win, since I knew it meant a lot to her.
In the seat next to me, Nikki bit her nails, and I nervously picked at the varnish on my claws.
"Don't worry," I whispered as they announced Cybunny winners. "It'll be fine."
She started to reply, but was cut off by the large purple Elephante announcer.
"And now, for third place in Draik..." Not me. "And in second place..." Not me. Beside me, Nikki looked about ready to have a fit. "And in first place, Laila the green Draik!"
"Yes!" I cried, and Nikki screamed with joy. We chattered happily throughout the rest of the species announcements, until it came time for overall winners to be announced.
The purple Elephante cleared her throat and adjusted the wide pink feather boa around her neck. "We had a lot of good competition this week, but only one can win, you know. In third place, we have Cassidy the faerie Kacheek. In second place, we have Starra the eventide Aisha. And in first place, we have Laila the green Draik."
The audience exploded into applause as I yelled with happiness. Nikki promptly burst into tears at this announcement. "Your first trophy, Laila! I'm so happy!!"
Finally, after all of the photos and congratulations, Nikki and I were able to collect my two new shiny gold trophies and leave. As we walked home, however, I realized we were taking a different path than usual. When I asked Nikki where we were going, she said, "I didn't want to say anything in case I jinxed it... but I got you a congratulations gift! Wait and see!" She grabbed my claw and proceeded to lead the way, dark brown ponytail bouncing.
Eventually, I realized we were headed to the middle of town in Neopia Central. I figured we were probably stopping for a treat, so I was extremely surprised when we came to a halt right next to the Rainbow Pool.
"The Rainbow Pool? Am I getting painted??"
Nikki nodded excitedly, and handed me a thin box from inside her bag. "Open it!"
I quickly undid the golden bow around the box and tore off the lid. Inside was a golden paint brush. "Wow, Nikki, I don't know what to say... Thank you so much! I love you!"
"You earned it, sweetie! It's gold, like your trophy," she said with a smile that could light the Haunted Woods. She pulled the brush from the box. "Climb in."
I waded into the pool, and Nikki dipped in the brush, stroking it over my green scales. As the brush moved over me, it turned the dull green into a gorgeous, sparkling gold.
"Wow," Nikki breathed. "So beautiful."
After the first Beauty Contest, I wasn't eligible to compete again for a few months, but Nikki promised we'd enter again as soon as it was allowed. In the meantime, we'd work on other trophies, she assured me with a grin.
The boxes of unusual foods continued. One day, the onion cola from the first box reappeared.
"I don't want this, but thank you," I said, handing her the can.
She frowned. "You need to eat it. It's a gourmet food."
"It's terrible, though!" I protested. "Please, Nikki, can I just eat another gourmet food instead?"
This time, Nikki held firm. "No! You need to eat all of them! I'm trying to get another trophy, and this is a pretty cheap gourmet food. You're not leaving the table until you finish all of this."
Unlike last time, she didn't relent, slamming a hand on the table in anger when I protested further, and I fell asleep at the table that night. Eventually, however, I gave in and choked down the onion cola, along with many unappetizing 'gourmet' foods to come.
Nikki began spending less time at home, and more time earning neopoints. She opened a petpetpet habitarium, and spent hours checking their progress for improvement so she could sell the eggs. Sometimes, I got lonely.
When she got home once night, I asked, "Nikki, do you think I could have a petpet? It's just, you're not always home..."
"I don't know, that sounds like a lot of work..." she said.
"Please? I'll take care of it myself, and I'll feed it and walk it and everything!" I begged.
A triumphant look crossed her face. "Fine, under one condition."
"Anything," I promised.
"I'll buy you a petpet tomorrow if you promise to write an entry for the petpet spotlight."
I nodded emphatically. "I'll finish it this week, I swear!"
And the next day, as promised, Nikki came home with a majestic royal Mauket.
And as promised, soon enough, Nikki had a petpet spotlight trophy to add to our cabinet.
I continued to be entered in the Beauty Contest as often as I was allowed, and I continued to win. Nikki continued to feed me all sorts of gourmet food, whether I wanted it or not, and kept me awake at night sometimes reading as many books as I could. I was exhausted.
"Laila!" Nikki snapped, and I pulled my head up from where it was lying on a book. I'd fallen asleep trying to finish it at the kitchen table. Remnants of a spooky flying doughnut littered the table around me.
"Sorry," I murmured.
"You need to concentrate!" she said angrily. "You need to be faster, or we'll never get these trophies!"
"I'm sorry," I repeated. "Please, Nikki... could we take a break, maybe? I'm so tired, and I miss spending time with you."
For a second, I thought she was going to relent, that the owner I loved was going to break through, but she looked away.
Eventually, we got those trophies. We got all of the trophies that Nikki dreamed about. She started to concentrate more on game trophies, and I could finally rest. We had so many trophies that we couldn't put them in just one cabinet anymore. Nikki had dedicated a room in our house to them. Shelves lined the walls, and almost all of them were full to the brim with trophy after trophy. Mostly gold. Nikki's favorite color, I thought.
I sat in the corner of the room, looking around at all of the trophies that lined the room. I hated it. I hated all of it, how I'd lost my owner and my lifestyle to this gold fever. I missed playing games with Nikki in the backyard. I missed being able to enjoy reading a book or a new piece of food. I missed being a soft, cuddly Aisha. But most of all, I missed when Nikki loved me.
I looked down at the hard, metallic surfaces of my golden scales. I belonged here, I thought, in the trophy room, seeing how my reflective gold scales matched the cups and medals.
As I sat in the corner, Nikki walked into the room, looking around proudly at the fruits of her labor. A dazed smile played on her face as she stood in the middle and gazed around. And as she spun, childlike, she looked dimly from the trophies to me, and I wasn't sure that she could see a difference.