Like Falling Asleep
"Is she coming back?” Marya asked.
“Of course she is,” Caden said. “She loves us.”
“Then where is she?”
“I don’t know. But she’ll be back.”
The home was quiet and dusty, the cheap furniture arranged haphazardly. They were not allowed to rearrange it. Only she could move the furniture. Sometimes they played together in the garden, a bare green expanse of lawn with a single lonely swing. It had been four hundred and seventeen days since they’d last seen her, and four hundred and twenty days since they’d last been fed.
“Can’t we go to Tyrannia and get some omelette? It’s free,” Marya said. She lay sprawled on the couch, tail twitching slightly in boredom.
“And what if she comes back while we’re gone?”
“Marya rolled over. “But I’m so hungry,” she whined.
There were books, but they couldn’t read them without her. There were toys, but they weren’t allowed to play. They sang songs and made up entire books off the top of their heads. They couldn’t write them down. There wasn’t any paper, and even if there was, they couldn’t use it.
“What if,” Marya said, “one of us goes to get food and the other one waits here for her.”
“I don’t want to split up,” Caden said. “And Tyrannia is too far to go alone.”
When she was there, Marya and Caden used to travel from one land to the next in the blink of an eye.
“It’s magic!” Caden had exclaimed, and she had laughed at his delight. She’d been very young then, short and freckled with pigtails someone else had braided.
“That’s right,” she’d said. “I’m magic. I’m your magical, wonderful owner. Where shall we go next?”
Without her around, Caden and Marya got to other lands the normal way: walking. He could catch a boat up north to Tyrannia from Meridell, but even getting that far woud take days and days of walking. Anything could happen to him along the way, and then Marya would be alone.
“How about the soup faerie?” Marya said. “She’s close by. Please, Caden, please.”
Soup did sound wonderfully appealing. The first few weeks of his life, before Marya, they’d eaten at the soup kitchen every day. That was back when she came to see him daily. Back when she still cared.
“If I go, you have to stay in the home. Don’t go out into the garden even,” Caden warned. “Do you promise?”
“If you bring back soup I’ll promise you anything,” Marya said.
He hadn’t left the home in over a year. He’d forgotten how crowded the streets of Neopia Central were. He bumped into other pets, apologized, and was bumped into himself. The colors were so bright everywhere he looked. There, the money tree, smiling dapperly as broken sailboats and piles of dung dropped gracefully from its branches. There the bookstore, there the clothing emporium. He hurried on, down to the marketplace teeming with stalls and stores and huge malls decorated with glittering lights.
Just outside the marketplace lay the soup kitchen. And just beside the soup kitchen was the line, which wrapped around the border of the marketplace for at least half a mile. Caden took his place at the end and waited. He was good at waiting. After all, he’d had plenty of practice.
The sun hung low in the sky by the time Caden made it to the front of the line. Marya had been home alone for hours. Caden bounced from one foot to the other as the soup faerie ladled soup into the bowl of a Green Shoryu. The Shoryu’s owner thanked the soup faerie and moved away.
“Soup, please,” Caden said to the soup faerie. “And some for my sister, too.”
“I’m sorry,” the soup faerie said. “But you have too many neopoints in your account. I can only help those who are too poor to afford food.”
“But we can’t touch the neopoints without our owner, and she’s been gone for ages and ages!”
“Rules are rules,” the soup faerie said. “If I bend them for you, everyone will be asking me. There’s a system in place for a reason, dear.” She looked on to the next customer.
“We haven’t eaten in over a year,” Caden insisted, grabbing the soup faerie’s sleeve. “We’re starving. Please help us.”
“Why don’t you talk to your owner?” the soup faerie said. “Here you go,” she said to the next pet in line. She filled a bowl with soup and passed it to the pet. The aroma almost made Caden faint.
“How can I talk to her if she’s never here?!” Caden screamed.
“Just move on!” someone in line shouted.
“Stop holding the line up!” another yelled.
The soup faerie continued to serve her soup, a beatific smile gracing her thin face. She did not look at Caden again.
He turned away. Night was falling fast. Desperate, he headed for the money tree. He waited as junk and garbage descended until, finally—
2/3 of a plain omelette. Better than nothing. He also snatched up a half-eaten jelly. It wouldn’t fill him and Marya up, but at least it would help.
The lights were on when he got back, which was probably a good sign. He wedged the omelette under his arm to free up a hand and opened the door.
“Caden!” Marya cried. “Look who’s here!”
Sitting beside Marya on the couch, grinning in a slightly embarrassed way, was Nava.
Nava’s hair was short now, and there were two more earrings in her left ear than last time, which made a total of five. There was a nose ring, too. The thin black glasses were also new.
“Caden!” Nava said. “How about a hug?”
Marya had flung her paws around Nava’s neck, and Nava carefully peeled her off and stood. Caden did not say anything. The jelly was moist and sticky in his hand.
“Marya was telling me about how you’d gone out to get food. Always looking after things, that’s my Caden.”
Caden set the omelette and jelly down on the table. There was a pie there, and a wedge of cheese.
“Nava and I ate already,” Marya said, “but we saved some for you.”
“Where were you?” Caden said quietly. He sat down at the table. Nava joined him. There were only two chairs, and Marya was two big for Nava’s lap. She settled for leaning against Nava’s side. Caden hated to see her sitting on the floor like that.
Nava shrugged. “Oh, you know, just been busy and all. I started college, and you wouldn’t believe the workload. I have four classes, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is.” She babbled on about new friends and a statistics professor who hated her and the time she tried to make pasta and almost burned her building down.
“And then the firefighters got there—they’re these people that put out fires—and they found the pot I’d been using, and it was completely melted. I still have it. It’s a keepsake, you know?”
“Yeah.” Caden tried to smile and failed.
The next day Nava took them to the Lost Desert. She let Marya buy a scratchcard and they visited Coltzan’s Shrine. They climbed to the top of a dune and rolled all the way down. Marya clung tightly to Nava, always reading for her arm or hand or leg, even.
“I missed you so much, Nava. I’m so glad you’re here,” she kept saying.
“I missed you too, Marya-boo,” Nava said, poking Marya on the nose. “I don’t know if Caden missed me, though. He’d got such a looong face.” Caden, trudging behind them, did not say anything.
“Caden missed you too,” Marya insisted. “He’s just weird.”
Then to Faerieland, where they bathed in the cool, sweet waters of the Healing Springs and watched the Poogle Races.
“Everything looks so different,” Nava said. “I can’t believe now much it’s all changed.”
“Can we play a game?” Marya asked.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Nava said. “I’m feeling a bit tired. Let’s head back.”
During dinner—dinner!—Marya fell asleep with her head in Nava’s lap.
“Looks like I’m not the only tired one,” Nava said with a laugh.
“We need to talk,” Caden said.
“Why were you gone so long?” Caden said.
“I told you, I got busy,” Nava said breezily. She stroked Marya’s fur gently. “Life happens, Caden. Priorities change.”
“You do know that if you don’t come back after two years, we get taken away,” Caden said softly.
“Well I’m here,” Nava said. “That’s what matters.”
“For how long?” Caden said. “A week? A month? We have to wait while you’re gone. We can’t do anything, We can’t even feed ourselves. It’s horrible. And after two years, we just disappear. We don’t even die. Just poof—gone.”
“Caden, I came back. It wasn’t two years this time.”
“But what about next time.” He wasn’t going to cry, not in front of her. “And even if you do come back, waiting around for you for months and years—it’s worse than being dead.” He took a deep breath. “If you aren’t going to be around, you should just put us up for adoption and be done with it.”
Nava’s jaw dropped. “Caden! You and Marya would get separated. You’d never see each other again.”
“It’s better than living like this. It’s better than disappearing.”
“But I do come back. Maybe not very often, but enough. I’m not a great owner. I know that. I’m probably not even a good owner. But I do care about you and Marya, and I want you to be my pets.”
“Please, Nava. Either stay or let us go.”
In the morning, Nava was gone.
“Do you think she’ll be back soon?” Marya asked.
“She’ll be back,” Caden said. “Eventually.” He couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of his voice.
“What do you think will happen to us when we disappear?” said Marya.
“She’s coming back,” Caden repeated. “We won’t disappear.”
“I think it’ll be nice. It’ll be like floating in a cloud, only with less thinking.”
“It’ll be like falling asleep,” Caden said quietly.
“It won’t hurt, I think. Just one minute we’re there, and then fwuh!” She blew out, her cheeks ballooning. “We’re gone.”
“Just like that.”
“Nava will be sad.” Marya hummed softly. “She’s not coming back again, is she?”
“I don’t know,” Caden said honestly. “I don’t know if I want her to come back.”
“Let’s make up a story today,” Marya said. “It can be about a brave Usul who rescues a prince from a tower made out of marmalade.”
Somewhere far away a computer logged off.