Albert the Kacheek's Birthday
"Where is that darned shopkeeper at?"
The young Kacheek grumbled to himself, holding a lantern high above his head, cradling a (very expensive) Gorerito with his left hand. The night sky was speckled with bright silver stars and the sound of feral Petpets’ growls, hoots, and yips filled the chilly air. As spooky as the scene was, the Kacheek was accustomed to the ambience and was more concerned with finding that darned Bruce.
This was a typical night for Albert. Having been kidnapped by the Esophagor years earlier, the Kacheek spent his days (and evenings) fetching spooky foods for the strange creature. Often on this trips alone, he would imagine what his life would’ve been like if he never wandered into the Haunted Woods that fateful day. What his garden would look like; how many new species of flora were discovered; if the Buzzes that lived in his garden were doing well … he dreamt of a day where he could accomplish the Esophagor’s quest in time, where he could leave the Mutant Graveyard, where he could have his precious flowers.
But that day was not today, especially if he couldn’t find that darned Bruce.
Albert had already finished his daily quota of quests (which is ten), but when he was carving funny depictions of the Esophagor on a gravestone, he heard his name being called. He huffed and made his way towards his master, and gawked when the giant blob had the gall to ask for an eleventh quest. When Albert tried to refuse, the Esophagor threatened him mercilessly. When that didn’t work, the Esophagor began throwing rocks.
"Geeeet meeeee … aaaa Gorrreerrriiitttoooo … aaaannnddd … Tooffffeeee Claaasssiiicccc …" the Esophagor had shouted at Albert, who was already far enough away to mutter rude things about the guy.
He had purchased the Gorerito earlier, but he didn’t have any Toffee Classics on hand. The Bruce had promised to be back later, saying he would go to his supplier to purchase some more of the candy for Albert. However, that was almost two hours ago. Albert’s time was running out. He had only fifteen minutes left.
Time continued to tick by. Frustrated, Albert screamed, "FORGET IT!" to no one in particular, and stormed off, beginning his trek back to the Esophagor’s. He momentarily considered taking a large bite out of the Gorerito, but decided getting pelted by rocks and shouted at wasn’t the best way to spend the night. Instead, he would offer the late Gorerito to the Esophagor, humbly accept his bereavement, then finish his gravestone drawings before going to sleep on the uncomfortable ground. He felt as if the entire world was conspiring against him, even though he ever really only spoke to his captor and that darned shopkeeper.
Albert turned, still fuming, to see the Bruce running after him, pulling the rickety cart with one hand. Items were flopping around, glass jars were clinking together, and the shopkeeper was covered in sweat despite the cold weather. He caught up to Albert, who didn’t go to meet him but instead stood off to the side with a glower on his face.
"Well, gee boy," the Bruce huffed, red from exertion. "I haven’t run that fast in … golly … I didn’t even run that fast when my wife—"
"WHAT DO YOU WANT?" Albert screeched, scaring off a flock of Batterflies. "I’ve been waiting here for two hours! TWO! HOURS! Do you realize that? I could’ve been sleeping, or dreaming about my flowers, or I don’t know, not standing out in the middle of the Haunted Woods, getting stalked by Meepits, waiting for YOU to show up with some dumb piece of candy? The Esophagor doesn’t have to work at all, and he sends me out here at all hours of the night, not caring that it’s not my fault I can’t get everything together in time … I just want to go home. HOME. You don’t understand though, do you? Why would you even care?" Albert threw some Neopoints at the confused Bruce. "Just take this and forget it. I’m leaving." He turned and began to walk.
"Albert, do you know what today is?"
The Kacheek rolled his eyes. Without looking back, he said, "I don’t know."
Albert felt the shopkeeper place his hand on his shoulder. "Albert, I’ll never understand how difficult your life has been. But I think you need to understand that … there’s always something positive. Living under the Esophagor’s thumb can’t be the best of situations, but imagine being one of Sloth’s slaves or brainwashed by Xandra. You can’t expect your life to be perfect, but you can spin your perspective to see it in a nicer light."
"I’m tired," Albert murmured.
"Here, Albert." The Bruce handed the Neopoints back to the young Kacheek. "I’ll go back with you, okay?"
"No need. I’ll just close my eyes and pretend he’s praising me instead of screaming," he answered sarcastically. "I’ll just act like everything’s dandy."
"I’m going with you, Albert." The Bruce raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure you don’t know what today is? Absolutely sure?"
"No, I don’t know what today is, okay?" He stuffed the Neopoints back into his pocket, readjusted the Gorerito under his arm, and placed the lantern on the shopkeeper’s cart. "Do you know how to get to there?"
The Bruce rubbed the side of his head, then stifled a laugh. "I’ve trekked these Woods for most of my life, and I still get lost so easily … why do you think it took two hours to find you?" He laughed loudly, then quickly stopped when the glare from the Kacheek rivaled that of the Werelupe King. Clearing his throat, the Bruce smiled. "Lead the way, young man."
"What’s it like owning your own shop?" Albert asked. He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that his allowed time had elapsed, so he was taking his time on the way back to the Esophagor. He was checking out pointy rocks, on the search for a new carving stone.
"It’s pretty good," the Bruce responded, out of breath. It was obvious he didn’t travel much. "The wife and I have always wanted to own a business. She makes gift baskets and all that good stuff, and I enjoy cooking and baking more than anything. I also think I’m pretty good at customer service, but that’s neither here nor there."
Albert nodded. "Yeah. Sure. You make all these foods yourself?"
"Most of them. I started off doing them all by hand, but you reach a point where you need help, you know?" He shrugged. "I’ve got a supplier who bakes all the food and I just restock every now and then."
"We’re almost there," Albert said, pointing towards a clearing. "The Esophagor will probably start shouting, so just keep your head down, alright? He likes yelling, but really slowly."
The Bruce smirked. "Yes, sir."
Albert ignored the face he made and continued on towards his captor. He was thinking about what today was—the shopkeeper, whose name he didn’t even know—had asked him at least a dozen times, and it had surpassed irritation, reaching rage-inducing. When Albert threatened to break the wheels on his cart, the shopkeeper eagerly changed subjects.
As they reached the Esophagor, Albert quickly noticed a few strange things: the Esophagor wasn’t shouting; there were tables, streamers, and presents; and a myriad of Neopians were all singing unintelligibly (most of these Neopians were Zombies, so he was pretty sure they didn’t even know what they were saying).
"What … what’s going on … ?" Albert stuttered, turning to the Bruce, who was still wearing the smirk. He reached into his cart, pulled out a birthday hat, and handed it to the teenager.
"Happy Birthday Albert," he said.
The Kacheek turned to the Esophagor, mouth agape. The mutated blue blob was swaying in time with the song, a party horn dwarfed by the Esophagor’s large stature. "Haaaappppyyy … Bbbiiirrtthhhhddaaayyyy …"
"W … was the eleventh quest just to get me away so you could … set up this party … ?"
The Esophagor slowly smiled. "IIIIIII … miiigghhhttt bbbbeee yyyooouuurrr … mmmaasssttteerrr … bbuuutttt IIIIIIII … aaammmm nnnnottt … aaagggaaaiiinnssttt pppaaaarrtttiiieeesss …"
Albert put the hat on his head and laughed. "Do you want your Gorerito?"
The Esophagor pointed towards the food table. Albert placed the food down and gaped at the extravagant food. He turned to the Bruce. "Did you bake all this?"
"Mr. Spectre, at your service." He bowed low. "But you can call me Bob."
"Thanks, Bob!" Albert looked at the large six-tiered cake, decorated with fondant, sprinkles, and sixteen candles.
"Mmmaaaakkkeee aaaaa wwwiiissshhhh …" the Esophagor demanded, licking his lips as he stared at the cake.
Albert closed his eyes, dreamt of his garden, and blew out the candles. Bob cut the cake, handing a piece to every attendant, adding, "The birthday boy gets the first bite, otherwise his wish won’t come true!"
The Kacheek smiled and took a big bite of cake. He looked at the presents (five neatly wrapped boxes) and turned to his captor. "Are all these from you?"
The Esophagor nodded slowly. "Ddddoooonnnn’tttt … tttthhhiiinnkkk … IIIIII’mmmmm gggoooiinnngggg sssooofffttt …"
Albert grabbed the presents and ripped them open. He hoped that, if the Esophagor was kind enough to throw him a party, that perhaps he’d give him something he wanted for the longest time … he didn’t want to get his hopes up, so he tried to keep a stoic face as he pulled the gifts from the box.
All Seeing Tree. Gloomacinth. Oozing Tulipc. Spectral Flower. Faux Braintree.
Albert held back tears. He looked around; Bob, the strange shopkeeper with a bad sense of direction and a great sense of humor. Random Zombies, who were eagerly cheering for reasons they didn’t understand. And finally, the Esophagor, a seemingly coldhearted monster that held a young boy hostage, yet threw him a birthday party and gave him five of the best gifts he could ever ask for.
He looked at his hands. Sometimes life is unfair; you don’t deserve to have a good life just because you want it. Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand, but that doesn’t mean you give up. You find the positive.
The Esophagor nodded. "Tttthhhaaannkkk … yyyoooouuu."
That night, Albert dreamt of his garden—not the one in Neopia decorated with bleeding hearts, honeysuckle, orchids, and daisies, no. No. That night, Albert dreamt of his garden in the Mutant Graveyard, illuminating his body with their ghostly aura, planted next to the gravestones with his drawings, reminding him that no matter where you live, how broken your heart is, or what you’re doing, there’s always something that can remind you of home.