A Christmas Gift
"Your turn, Timmy. Spell 'brochure.'"
"I hate the spelling bee," whispered Kaz behind his cupped paw as Jimmy reeled off the spelling of his word. "Why call it a spelling bee? Why not 'direct public humiliation'?"
His sister, Kizzy, shrugged. "It's shorter."
"Rhyko, your word is 'elementary.'"
As the blue Bruce struggled through the word "elementary," Kaz twiddled his shadow paws and let his eyes wander around the room. Some pets had their chins rested in their palms. Others were alternately gazing from the speller at the front of the room to the snow gently descending from the heavens outside. One boy, Kaz noted, was drooling into his desk, his snores puncturing the stillness of the atmosphere.
"Jonny, please spell 'dark.'"
"D... A... R... K," Jonny fumbled, looking hopeful.
"Very good, Jonny. Kaz, your turn."
The Shadow Cybunny skirted around Jonny as the Kougra bolted for his seat. Kaz nervously took his place at the front of the room, doing his best to project an air of defiance as he gazed into Miss Bates' piercing yellow eyes. The Aisha's lip curled, and her eyes scanned the list of words before her, to the very bottom, where Kaz was sure the longest of words were listed, the ones that defied the "I before E" rule and had multiple silent Rs. He felt thirty pairs of eyes take him in and size him up. He sighed, hoping for the best, fearing the worst.
"Kaz, your word is 'sesquipedalophobia.'"
The entire class snapped to attention. Kaz, mouth agape, indicated Jonny. "You gave him dark!"
"Correct. And I'm giving you 'sesquipedalophobia.'"
Kizzy half-rose in her seat, indignant. "But that's not--"
"Kaz," rumbled Miss Bates, "please spell the word."
Kaz blanched. "Miss Bates, could you repeat the word for me?"
"Certainly. Sesquipedalophobia," she replied very quickly, barely moving her lips.
"Err... could you give me the definition?"
"Yes," she said, leering at him. "It is a fear of long words."
Oh, the irony.
"Could you repeat it one more time?"
"Sesquipedalophobia." Miss Bates smiled sweetly at him this time, a smile that just barely concealed the smirk he knew was there. Kaz was sure she was altering the pronunciation every time she said it.
"Er..." He stumbled over his words. "Could you spell it for me?"
Miss Bates jerked her thumb in the direction of Kaz's empty desk. "Take a seat, Kaz."
The Shadow Cybunny kicked at a chunk of ice on the sidewalk. Far from relieving his frustrations, he now had a large pain in his toe. "Miss Bates!" he seethed. "She hates me!"
Kizzy gripped the shoulder strap of her bag and rolled her eyes skyward. "Kaz..."
Kaz pounced on this. "You know?"
"It's not like she hides it." Kizzy snickered. "Sesquipedalophobia."
The sky was a churning mass of gray and white, snowflakes crisscrossing from above. The street was littered with kids as they trickled out of school, backpacks slung over their shoulders as they wrapped scarves around their necks and buttoned their coats. Kizzy rubbed her gloved hands together and shivered. She and Kaz were identical to the last shadow-colored piece of fur; they shared the same lilac eyes, the same devilish grin, the same tendency to question authority, but their personalities could not have more different. While Kaz was a sarcastic, in-your-face know-it-all, Kizzy was merely an outspoken rebel.
"I wish I could get back at her," Kaz grumbled.
Kizzy laughed. "How? Steal her glasses? That'd be doing her a favor, I guess. Then she'll only look like half the oversized Whoot she looks like now."
"No, I mean... Negg her house. Toilet paper her tree. Break all her Christmas lights."
Kizzy scoffed. "You've got to be kidding. You're bordering on vandalism." She smirked and threw in a bit of sarcasm for good measure. "Why don't you just break into her house on Christmas Eve and steal all her presents, too?"
Kaz's eyes were alight. "Kizzy! You're brilliant!"
Kizzy blinked. "Kaz, I was kidding."
But her twin brother was already formulating a plan.
The enticing scents of Christmas cookies wafted through the Neohome. Ornaments twinkled and lights glimmered, snaking around the branches of a Christmas tree that had been placed in the corner of the living room as a fire crackled merrily, sparks flying as embers became flames and licked the logs. Outside, Cairn Close looked as if it had been carved out of frosting. Snow sprinkled from above, coating the heads and shoulders of a group of carolers as they trudged through the frosty night, singing and rejoicing in a winter wonderland. Kizzy was sipping a cup of hot cocoa. Their older sister, a green Xweetok called Asha, was checking her reflection in a Christmas ornament. The youngest of the bunch was a Rainbow Lupe, Redsy. When nobody was looking, he commenced with shoveling armloads of cookies into his mouth and then found that the challenge was not in the theft of the cookies, but in the swallowing.
Kaz was oblivious to this Christmas Eve cheer. His owner, Taylor, was reclining on the sofa, tossing aside her dark hair and taking in his form, slumped over a mess of blueprints, through narrowed eyes.
"Kaz, you got out of school last week," she said suspiciously. "You can't still be..."
"Lots of homework," he insisted. "You wouldn't believe it."
Asha took a moment to stop obsessing with her reflection and rounded on Kizzy. "Why aren't you doing work, then?"
The Cybunny's eyes locked on her brother for the briefest of moments. "I finished it."
Redsy made a noise of disbelief in his throat. Kizzy elbowed him in the ribs and he choked on his mouthful of cookies, but Taylor's eyes were on the twins. "You finished it," she repeated, disbelief written all over her face.
Kizzy nodded. "Yep." She nudged Kaz with her foot. "Slacker."
Kaz scrambled to pack his blueprints together in a cluttered mess. "If nobody minds, I think I'll... er... finish up in my room."
Taylor's eyes said she knew this was a lie, but Kaz's statement went unchallenged. He gathered his things and bolted for the stairs. He managed to collapse in a heap on his bed when the door slammed shut. Whirling around, Kaz felt his heart pounding in his throat as he threw himself onto his blueprints. The new arrival glared at him.
"Look, Kaz..." Kizzy sighed and crossed the room to his bed. "I'm all for getting revenge on people who deserve it..."
"Miss Bates," he said with a shudder, "definitely deserves it."
Kizzy tried to get back on topic. "Look, Kaz... I'm not saying that isn't true..."
"Then what are you saying?"
Kizzy seemed to struggle with herself for a minute. "I mean, sure, she's a... she's the worst, craziest, meanest, cruelest, unfair, put-you-on-the-spot teacher -- "
Kaz hefted a large burlap sack. "You're right. Maybe I should Negg her house, too. Just in case."
"No, Kaz, that's -- that's not what I meant." Kizzy took a deep breath. "You know me... I'm usually the one who's doing the crazy stuff against authority that gets us all in trouble, and usually I'm the one who winds up the principal's office or in front of the Chia Police... but, well -- "
Kaz clucked his tongue impatiently. "Do you want to come with me?"
Kizzy looked, for a moment, like she was going to argue. Then she said, resigned, "Let's go."
The pair of Cybunnies managed to sneak out of their bedroom window using a formation of bed sheets tied together. Dressed in a dark clothing, Kizzy waited impatiently on the snow-covered ground, shivering, while Kaz struggled to maneuver down the rope while clutching his blueprints. The rope eventually gave out, and Kaz landed in a heap of rolls of paper and bedsheets.
Kizzy snatched up a piece of paper and unrolled it. "This is your plan?"
Kaz was on all fours, rubbing his head and groaning in agony. "What's wrong with it?"
Kizzy stared at Kaz, and then at his blueprint. There was a crude drawing of what looked like a Cybunny with a sack, and a square beneath a triangle labelled "Miss Bates' house." The two were connected by an arrow. "This is what you were working on all night?"
Kizzy snorted. "Surely the mastermind behind such a brilliant plan has some idea of where Miss Bates' house can be found?"
Kaz seemed stumped. "I knew I was forgetting something."
"Kidding." He pulled a slip of paper out of his pocket and scanned it. "If I'm right, she lives on Soup Alley."
They set off together in the bitter cold. "How'd you get that?" Kizzy asked .
"This?" Kaz's teeth were chattering as he held up the slip of paper. "I have my ways."
"I know a guy."
Kizzy regarded him dubiously. "You followed her home one day, didn't you?"
Kaz shrugged. "What would you have done?"
"Clever." Kizzy snorted.
They traipsed in silence for nearly an hour. The snow fell harder and faster. Kizzy, having neglected a heavy coat, her only black one being lightweight, shivered and rounded on Kaz. "The next time you get the stupid idea to break into an old lady's house and steal all of her Christmas presents, you can count me out."
"You wanted to come."
Kizzy bit back the retort she wanted to snap at him. Instead she swallowed and said, "So, any idea what you're going to do once we get there?"
Kaz nodded. "I'm going to take all her Christmas presents and throw them out in the snow."
Kizzy snorted in disgust. "Oh, that's showing her."
"It's not like I'm going to drag them all the way back home! Maybe I'll tip over her Christmas tree or something, I don't know. I'll make it up as I go along."
"And this is all because she gave you sesquipedalophobia."
"No," snapped Kaz, brandishing his blueprints at her. "It's because she gave that one kid an A+ on his project, which was a cup of water, because she said it was scientific, and she gave my project, a working model of Mystery Island, a D!"
"And when I raised my hand and asked her how the Rainbow Pool works, she gave me detention for trying to waste her time!"
"Shame on her."
"And," Kaz persisted, determined to make Kizzy see things his way, "when someone stuck all the calculators to the ceiling on the day of that big math test, she looked right at me and sent me to the principal's office!"
Kizzy looked sympathetic. "So you're mad because you got caught?"
"Kizzy, I didn't do that!"
"Oh. I thought you did."
Kaz, once again steaming in spite of the cold, pointed with his blueprints at a small square house on the corner. An evil grin lit up his face. "There's her house. Let's go."
"She leaves her back door open at night," Kaz explained as he pried the glass door open and stepped inside.
Kizzy was exasperated. "Sheesh, Kaz, how long have you been spying on her?"
But her twin brother didn't answer. As they trudged through the kitchen in the darkness, because it appeared that Miss Bates had gone to bed long ago, they both grinned from the warmth of the house after the bitterness of the outdoors. Kizzy rounded the corner and whispered, "This must be the living room. Do whatever you're going to do and let's get out of here."
It was extremely dark. Kaz could see the faint outline of a mantel over what might have been a fireplace, and he thought he saw the shadow of branches across the wall. He stumbled and his head smacked against the wall with a very loud thud.
"Kaz!" hissed Kizzy.
"Not my fault," grunted Kaz. "It's dark in here."
"No kidding. Where's the light?"
After a few moments of searching, it was Kizzy who finally found the light and switched it on. The burst of light was like a supernova exploding, and the two took a moment to let their eyes adjust. Then Kaz took in the scene.
The Christmas tree was beautiful in its extravagance. The decorations had been arranged to perfection. There were even stockings above the fireplace. The ornaments on the tree were gorgeous, twinkling in the bright light. There was a tiny model of Santa Claus and his Raindorfs on a shelf. There was not a candy cane out of place. Kaz had never once seen such a beautiful display of Christmas merriment.
But something was definitely amiss. Kaz stared for a moment at the Christmas tree, and then his eyes wandered to the space below the lower branches.
There were no presents at all.
Kizzy strayed to the mantel, where a number of Christmas cards were arranged around the stockings. She picked up a single letter that had been left open, and she looked up at Kaz. "Read this."
I'm terribly sorry, but we aren't going to be able to make it this Christmas. Since we moved here to Terror Mountain, the kids have really been looking forward to an all-out Happy Valley Christmas. You know how it is with them. They heard the Snowager can be seen wearing a Santa hat, and there's storytelling with Taelia, and they're all really excited. I know this is short notice, being the day before Christmas Eve and all, and I hope you didn't go to too much trouble.
Enclosed was a photo of a family of four Aishas romping through the snow with mugs of hot cocoa and sleds and huge smiles. Kizzy handed Kaz yet another letter.
I apologize for the short notice, but I'm not going to be able to make it this year. Although I'm going to miss your famous turkey and the Secret Santa gift exchange, I've gotten a job as the Tombola man's assistant and I can't really get away right now. It's insane, the number of people who come every day! I can hardly keep up!
I hope you understand.
Your loving brother,
Letter after letter brought more bad news. Her sister couldn't make it because they were snowed in. Her daughter was volunteering at the Soup Kitchen over the holidays. Slowly Kaz began to understand. Although Miss Bates was a cruel, cold-hearted teacher, Christmas was the one time of year where she put all of that aside and decorated her home as lavishly as was possible to decorate a Neohome. She was a grandmother whose house hosted the annual family gathering every year. All of her family lived far away, but Christmas was the only day of the year where everyone could come together and enjoy the festivities. She'd been decorating in a burst of Christmas spirit and had just put the finishing touches on the tree when the Neomail began to come. Slowly, every bit of Christmas cheer dwindled away, and the holidays no longer seemed like a time to celebrate. Nobody was coming. There would be no presents under the tree this year. No tiny little Aishas to hug and fuss over: "Look how tall you're getting! Have you been eating your vegetables?"
Kizzy's voice, oozing with sorrow, broke into his thoughts. "Let's go home." She placed a letter back on the mantel gently, gazing sadly at the Christmas tree and the bare expanse beneath it. Kaz sighed, collected his blueprints, and together the two turned off the lights and slipped out into the cold winter night.
Nobody spoke as they embarked on the long, solitary walk back to Cairn Close. Kaz stopped at a trash can on the corner and tossed his blueprints inside. They continued on in silence. Kaz's mind was reeling as he struggled to come to terms with what he had just seen. Miss Bates, the irritating, the invincible, the impossible... Kaz had never thought that there was something Miss Bates could not control (and destroy). It was difficult to discover that she did not have that power.
As they turned on their street, and Neopia Central winked into view in the distance, the idea hit Kaz like a bat in Kass Basher. He stopped cold, and Kizzy walked on for a moment before she realized her brother was not following her. Twirling around, Kizzy studied him. "Kaz?"
He grinned. "I have an idea. Follow me."
"I can't believe we're doing this."
Kaz glared at his twin sister as they turned on Soup Alley. "C'mon. It'll be cool. Kind of like being Santa Claus. And she'll never know it was us."
"Yes, that's all very nice, but we just threw away all of our savings for... that?"
She indicated the tiny yellow bundle in Kaz's arms. The bundle blinked and her ears perked up. She tilted her head in Kizzy's direction and then the tiny Faellie looked up at Kaz, who nodded happily.
"So she won't be lonely this Christmas," Kaz explained. "A Petpet is perfect."
"But we almost got killed by that shopkeeper who thought we were burglars just because we came in at nearly eleven o'clock on Christmas Eve," Kizzy insisted, her patience dwindling, "and then we threw away our savings, and that Doglefox bit me, and now I'm freezing my tail off for a teacher you hate."
"All because of sesquipedalophobia," Kaz said with a smile. At this, the Faellie cocked her head slightly and looked up at him with wonder in her eyes.
"Tay's going to kill us, you know," Kizzy mused. It astounded her that they had not thought about the trouble they would be in if they were caught until just now. "If she catches us sneaking back inside."
"We won't let her catch us, then."
"Just out of curiosity," Kizzy said, "can you spell sesquipedalophobia?"
The Faellie looked now at Kizzy, who giggled to see Kaz blushing crimson. "C'mon, can you?"
"S-E-S-Q-U-I-P..." Kaz stopped. "...edalophobia. Happy?"
"Sesquipedalophobia," Kizzy repeated. "Say it with me. You don't even say it right."
"That's because Miss Bates was pronouncing it differently every time she said it!" Kaz seethed. He hefted the Faellie. "Don't make me change my mind about this."
Slipping back into the warmth of Miss Bates' house was quite easy compared to the long walk to Neopia Central and back, and the two Cybunnies managed it without incident. Kaz located a long piece of ribbon in a nearby closet and wrapped it gently around the Faellie's neck. Kizzy placed a cushion under the tree and patted it, glancing at the Faellie. The Faellie gazed back at her with wide eyes.
"Er..." Kizzy looked uncertain. "Come?"
The Faellie did not move.
"This way," Kizzy said, motioning toward the pillow.
"Oh, come on!"
There was sudden movement from upstairs. The Cybunnies froze.
"If we're caught, we're dead," breathed Kaz.
"Grab it and put it on the pillow, then!" Kizzy hissed, patting the cushion forcefully.
Kaz placed the Faellie on the pillow, but as he took a few steps toward the door, the Faellie followed, looking anxious. "No!" Kaz whispered. "You stay there!"
The Faellie trembled at his tone of voice. Sighing, Kaz tried once again to place her gently on the cushion. "Stay!" he ordered.
Footsteps right above them made Kaz jerk backward in astonishment. Miss Bates was awake!
Kizzy, who was sitting on the sofa, legs crossed, her face pale as she gazed upward at the ceiling, grumbled, "This is insane. I blame sesquipedalophobia."
The Faellie perked up at the word, looked to Kizzy, and padded over to the sofa. The realization struck both Cybunnies at the same time.
"Aw, no!" Kizzy whispered.
"You have got to be kidding me," Kaz moaned.
Somewhere a clock chimed twelve. It was Christmas morning.
Miss Bates had heard suspicious noises downstairs, but she had been much too tired to thunder down the stairs and check it out. She had promised herself she would sleep in until the sun was high in the sky. What was there to get up for, after all? Christmas morning had never felt so lonely.
And yet, at six in the morning, before the sun had even made its appearance in a burst of sunrise, Miss Bates could ignore the noises no longer. She heard yet another strange squealing noise. What in Neopia could it be?
She tramped down the stairs grumpily, hardly able to contain her annoyance. She flicked on the lights. There was her Christmas tree, brightly lit and beautifully decorated. The sight was bittersweet.
And there, beneath the lower branches, was a tiny Faellie with a ribbon wrapped around her neck! She was fast asleep. Every time she exhaled, a tiny squeak issued from her just open mouth. There was a note beside her.
Dear Miss Bates,
I hope you like this Faellie. She's here to make sure you're not lonely this Christmas. She enjoys cuddling, squealing, and... oh yeah, she responds to the name Sesquipedalophobia.
The note was signed anonymous, implying that the clever gift-giver wanted to remain so, but Miss Bates was pretty sure she knew who it was.