The Valentine Cure
For my entire life of 5 days and 3 hours, I dreamed of becoming a Neopian Times reporter. I longed to write with the fancy, blue quill and to own a White Weewoo Petpet. Today, that dream was finally in reach.
While I had a slight appearance and a small voice as a Blue Kacheek — and while my name as "Warble" did not instil confidence — I was eager, which was all I truly needed to earn an apprenticeship.
Under the dim sun of the Month of Sleeping, I gazed up at the small studio above a grooming salon in Neopia Central. This was the studio office of one of Neopian Time's legendary reporters: Silver the Island Kougra. He had over 30 trophies for his journalism. Much of his reporting was on the horrible pound situation. Silver himself was adopted from the pound and is an advocate for adoption.
But the pound had only gotten worse since Silver's reporting many years ago. Recently, Neopia had closed the pound due to its bad infrastructure. Adoptions had stopped altogether. Neopets everywhere were suffering more than ever.
Yet Silver had not come back when Neopia needed him most.
My plan was simple — to demand that I work for Silver as an assistant reporter. I could help bring back the hard-hitting journalism that we needed. Plus, I could sweeten the deal by making runs for Borovan at the local cafe.
Behind the grooming salon, I creaked up the wooden, aged steps, lugging my backpack of writing supplies. I rubbed my feet against the welcome mat, which was so stained from dirt that my feet turned black.
With a deep breath, I knocked. "Mr. Silver?" I called.
Nothing. I knocked harder and called louder. Still nothing. But as a spry Kacheek, I was not discouraged. I turned the knob to the front door and discovered it was open.
I crept in. Beams of light streamed through dust and fragmented through the empty Healing Potions scattered on the ground. Faded framed articles of the Neopian Times lined the walls from hundreds of issues ago. A large, hardwood desk was the centrepiece of the room, with a wall of bookshelves behind packed tightly with old tomes. A quill perched on the desk, unused in its holder with an inkwell capped beside it. Dried ink had spilt over and froze in time.
When I nearly thought Silver was absent, I spied a striped tail sticking out from beneath the desk.
"Mr. Silver?" I called one last time.
BANG. The bottom of the desk had been struck. Stumbling out was a groggy Grey Kougra. He rubbed his head, seeming to have just awakened from a nap. But also, grey pets just looked like that.
"Silver?" my mouth gaped open. "I thought you were an Island Kougra."
"I was, but thanks to that stupid Lab Ray-" he grumbled but paused mid-sentence as if suddenly realizing where he was. His droopy, pathetic eyes searched me. "Who are you?" he demanded.
"I'm Warble," I straightened my posture and gave my cheerful, winning smile. "I want to be your assistant reporter." I had practised this exact phrase in front of the mirror countless times, but it felt powerless in the bleak room.
Silver's eyes drooped impossibly lower. The Kougra was not impressed. "I haven't written for over six hundred issues. There are plenty of reporters more relevant than me." His voice was dry and humourless. It was nothing like the passionate energy in his articles.
I shook my head. "I want to be only your apprentice, Mr. Silver. What is happening in the pound right now is-"
"I don't care what is happening," boomed an angry Silver, holding up a paw in a stop gesture. And through the deep well of sadness in his eyes, he obviously had more that he wanted to say. He cared. If anything, he cared too much. He had to if he still languished in his studio with nothing to do but peer at his quill and the stories it could write.
Silver paced down the office, his colossal paws silent and tired. His bloodshot eyes scanned one of the framed newspapers. Silver's eyes lingered on the very same article that inspired me to come here. He had interviewed pets in the pound and surveyed the species and names coming through. It turned Neopia's eye to the pound crisis.
Silver placed a paw on the surface, coating his own black pads with dust.
Was that... longing?
"Warble, was it?" he said.
He remembered my name. My breath hitched with hope.
"Get out," Silver's stern voice reverberated, shaking me to the core. "And don't come back."
Before I knew it, I was back gazing longingly at Silver's rustic office from the Neopia Central streets. Perhaps I was a little too cheerful and plucky, or maybe I didn't know how to interact with grey pets.
I drifted into the local cafe and ordered a hot cup of Borovan. I swirled it idly by its protruding asparagus spears. The Yellow Lenny barista pitied me, so she gave me extra spears.
"What am I going to do?" I said aloud, sitting at the cafe bar. "My dream is to be a Neopian Times reporter."
"Oh, hun," shook the Lenny's head. "Rarely do things work out on the first try."
I knew from experience that the Lenny was right. Just that morning, I had discovered Neopoints on the Forgotten Shore. Every morning of my life, I went to that Forgotten Shore, resenting the journey more each time. For four days, nothing. But just that morning, my journey had paid off.
I would eventually succeed if I extended that perseverance to my dream of being a reporter.
"You want to be an investigative journalist, don't you?" said the Lenny as she delivered a TeaLeef Sandwich to a Chomby nearby. "Why not do investigative journalism on your own?"
I thought about Lenny's suggestion and wanted to reject it. To be a successful reporter, I needed help. As much vibrance as I had, I did not have experience.
But the flash of Silver's sad, defeated face came to my mind's eye. From all of the Neopian Times issues I had devoured, Silver, in particular, had called to me. Meeting him today, there was a story behind his eyes. As his sad eyes lingered in my mind, a realization crystalized: I was not done here.
I bolted from my chair, stricken by my new insight. "Thank you," I called and flew out of the cafe, leaving the Borovan half-drunken and warm.
I had a job to do.
Silver's Neohome was not far from his office. On the outskirts of downtown was a neighbourhood that had seen better days.
This was the state of Neopia at large. Inflation squeezed middle-class Neopians. Many of them gave up. Silver, clearly, was no exception.
I found Silver's home. It was modestly sized, with two floors, and showed the wealth that his family once had. The exterior was cracked with paint, and the plants in front were dead.
I didn't have much hope when I knocked on the front door. The house looked abandoned.
But to my surprise, a green Quiggle opened the door. Though not Grey, he had timid eyes that cautiously peered around the door.
"Is this Silver's residence?" I squeaked without any of the authority I needed to have.
"This is?" said the Quiggle. A question.
I cleared my throat and proceeded with the lie that I had practised: "I'm a reporter for the Times doing a profile on Silver to honour him for his work for pounded pets. I'm here to interview his family."
"Oh," the Quiggle looked down at his floppy feet and fidgeted his toes nervously. "It would have been nice to get a NeoMail notice first." With a hesitation that lasted forever, the Quiggle finally held open the door. "Come on in."
Inside was a modest Neohome. Like Silver's office, dust hung in the stale air. The 20-year-old furniture was worn and dated. I sat on the couch and sagged into a hole in the middle. The Quiggle sat opposite me in a kitchen chair that he had dragged over.
I reached into my backpack and grabbed a pencil and notepad. I always had it on me, just in case.
"Your name, please," I posed my pencil to write.
"Naninhah," said the Quiggle.
My jaw dropped open. "The Naninhah?" I baulked. Silver had profiled Naninhah in multiple articles in the Times. Naninhah had come from the pound traumatized and not speaking. Silver had helped Naninhah work through his trauma about fifteen years ago.
But Naninhah was not a Green Quiggle but a Skunk Usul.
"I know what you're thinking," sighed Naninhah. "Lab Ray."
It seemed many of these pets had bad run-ins with the Lab Ray.
He continued: "This slippery skin feels weird, but what can I do? Usul Morphing Potions are so expensive now. We can't afford to change me back. I thought maybe we could at least get an Eyrie Morphing Potion in the meantime, but I shudder at the thought of being feathered."
On cue, the Quiggle literally shivered. I tried to imagine the Usul that Naninhah once was. Naninhah was sweet and timid but didn't seem right as a Quiggle. A shivering Skunk Usul would have been much more endearing.
"How come you haven't been able to afford to change back?" I asked. I was probably prying, but I reminded myself that I was a reporter. Prying was my job.
"Several years ago, we were robbed," said Naninhah, pulling idly at his bulbous fingers. "Long-time Neopians were targeted. It was a big scandal, but the Times didn't report on it. Silver was bitter about the Times after that."
By the way Naninhah quivered, that event still hurt. I imagined Silver, reading the paper, seeing exposés on Queen Fyora's bedroom furniture while Silver and many other pets suffered from the sharp rise in crime.
"What all did you lose?" I asked.
"Our robber was smart. He was after our oldest siblings, who were unconverted. Our older brother and sister, Misha2856, the Mutant Gelert, and Lavalilly28, the Faerie Pteri, were kidnapped. We have not seen and heard from them since."
I gasped. Silver had profiled both of his siblings in his article, and his love for them was plain.
"So then it's just you and Silver now?" I said.
"That's right, but we hardly talk anymore. Family was everything to Silver. His advocacy for the pound was all in an effort to create loving families. But that very same pound and their transfer system took our family away."
Darkness rolled into me and made itself comfortable in the bottom of my stomach. Grey suited Silver well, I realized. The events of his past earned him that colour.
"There must be something you can do," I broke out in passion, forgetting my role as a journalist. My job was to collect the story, not guide it.
Naninhah shook his head. "I do not know what to do. I can't talk to Silver. He has a far-off look all the time, almost like he's not even there," said Naninhah, looking off himself as if to mimic Silver's despondency. "And then there's me. I can barely get by in this Quiggle body, and I don't have hope that my situation will change."
Hopelessness permeated the room. Mentally, I catalogued the information I uncovered:
Two pets, kidnapped. A family, broken. Two pets remained, one grey and the other not at home in his body.
If I truly was writing a profile celebrating Silver for the Times, this was no celebration. Silver's story was a tragedy.
Love in Neopia was dead to Silver. Somehow, I needed to bring love back.
On Valentine's Day, the streets of Neopia Central lit up with garlands of glowing hearts strung between streetlamps. Festive Valentine-coloured pets strolled the streets with lacey parasols, chatting and laughing to echoes of vibrant music. It was a day full of love and familial friendship — a day, I was sure, that Silver was not celebrating.
On this joyous day, I journeyed from my quaint Neohome in the outskirts back to Silver's office. This time, I knew better than to knock on the door, so I bounded straight in.
The Kougra had made his home under the desk again. But when he heard the door, he skulked out from underneath, chewing a bite from his Bacon Omelette.
"I remember you," said Silver, swallowing. "I had told you to get out."
"Before you do again," I said, steeling myself to stand straight, "There is something I need to show you." I mustered the bravery to speak to Silver. He was intimidating and had only grown more intimidating in my mind in the weeks since I had seen him. Deep down, he was still the legendary Neopian Times reporter and still worthy of my deep respect.
Under the Kougra's hot stare, I fumbled in my backpack and emerged a pink-tinted envelope, sealed shut by a heart.
"This is for you," I said, thrusting the crisp stock paper toward him.
His eyes, normally glazed and far-off, glimmered with life and curiosity. He ambled over, carefully took the Valentine, and turned it over in his paws before unsealing and opening it.
After countless Neomails and scavenging Neopia far and wide, I had done something I had never been more proud of in my life.
Silver read the note. His eyes glistened with tears as he read the short note over and over. Then, at last, he looked up. His grey eyes, which were sad and droopy by default, had a spark of joy just beyond the surface.
"It says she's safe and happy," Silver said through an aching throat.
It was a Valentine from his long-lost sister, Lavalilly the Faerie Pteri.
After reading the note one last time, he exhaled like he had held a breath for fifteen years. "I suppose I underestimated you."
"I'm sorry for what happened to you and your family," I said. "But we can make it right."
He bobbed his head, taking in the sentiment. With the smallest, nearly imperceptible smirk, Silver said, "Perhaps I have room in my roster to take on an apprentice."
"Really?!" I jumped. Joy ignited my springy legs. "Oh, thank you, thank you."
Without thinking, I squealed and barreled forward, squeezing Silver in a hug. He stiffened at first. But then his big paws came up and patted my shoulders.
Journalism was not dead in Neopia after all.
We were so back.