The Smallest Shop
"Alex, honey, can you come here?"
The Yellow Kougra pushed herself off the couch, groaning, and began to trudge unhappily towards her owner's voice. It was barely eight in the morning, she had just gotten dressed, and already she was needed. Alexandria knew why her owner was calling for her. It was the shop. Always the shop, day after boring day of running to the marketplace to try and find bargains, of pricing items, of waiting for someone - anyone - to buy an item. She hated it.
Opening the door of her owner's shop, Alexandria sighed. "Mom, can I go restock today?" She didn't like doing any of the tasks needed to run a shop, but with restocking at least she got to run around. Having to sit in an old folding chair all day, reciting item prices to possible buyers... it drove her crazy, every part of it.
"What? Oh, sure, sweetie." Turning around from where she had been neatly arranging several cupcakes on a shelf, her owner handed Alexandria a ratty brown bag full of Neopoints. The girl looked frazzled and worn-out, with dark bangs under her eyes as though she had not slept in days. Alex sighed.
"Mom, why do we do this? We work so hard and only just break even."
"Now, Alex, you know that's not true. We have enough money to buy you a plushie now and then, or go out to Pizzaroo sometimes..."
"Yeah, once in a blue Kreludor."
Her owner was about to respond when a bell tinkled faintly, indicating that the door of the shop had opened. Now she grinned. "You might want to try the Toy Shop today, honey. I hear some new Usukicon Goodie Bags just came out."
Alex gritted her teeth but said nothing.
The Toy Shop. The Book Shop. The Pharmacy. The Chocolate Factory. The Music Shop. After two hours of running from place to place, Alexandria felt like her paws would drop off. She'd spent, she guessed, somewhere around ten thousand neopoints - emptied the sack and filled it with items. Gloomy after missing several unbuyables, the Kougra dragged her feet slowly back home. The bell tinkled as she pushed open the door.
"Welcome to the -- oh, it's you, Alex." Her owner looked up from where she had been showing one of her neofriends, a teenage girl named Rachel, a set of trading cards. They were rather hard to sell and had sat in the shop for nearly a month now.
"Here's the stuff, Mom." Alexandria dropped her sack on the glass counter. Rachel smiled.
"Is she still your only pet, Lilith?"
"Yeah. She's really helpful with restocking and all," Alex's owner replied, nodding.
"She's so lucky," came a sigh. Until now, Alexandria had not noticed the Striped Shoyru trailing behind Rachel. "I'd love to work in a shop."
"Sweetie, you know that we make most of our money from Key Quest - or the Trading Post." Gently Rachel stroked the back of the Shoyru's head. Catching Alexandria's eye, she smiled. "Oh, right - you two don't know each other, do you? Alex, this is Gemma... Gemma, this is Alexandria."
"Mmm." Alexandria wasn't in the mood to talk. Gemma just nodded.
Lilith looked thoughtful. "You know, Rach, we could use an extra pair of hands here. If Gemma wanted to work with us here, she could. I'm afraid we couldn't pay her much, though... would you be okay with that, Alex?"
Alexandria shrugged. "Whatever."
"Oh, that'd be awesome!" Gemma's eyes shone enthusiastically and she tugged on Rachel's coat. "Can I, Mom? Please, please, PLEASE?"
"Hey, hey, settle down!" Rachel chuckled, pulling her coat out of Gemma's hands. "Lilith, you're sure this would be okay with you?"
"Absolutely." Lilith nodded.
"If it's fine with you... it's fine with me." Rachel nodded. "Okay, Gemma."
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the young Shoyru bounced up, almost hitting her head on the ceiling. "Whoooopeeeeee!"
"Hey, get down from there!" Rachel shouted. In Alexandria and her owner's direction, she murmured, "She's been wanting to work in a shop ever since I adopted her from the Pound..." She pulled her pet down and said firmly, "Listen, if you act like that, there's NO WAY I'll let you work here. If you want to work for Lilith and Alex, you need to be calmer and quieter, okay? Much calmer and quieter."
Lilith smiled. "Well, calmer I could live with, but quieter... with the Usuki Doll Convention coming up, usually it's so noisy in here I can't hear myself think."
"That's why there's so many Usukis on the shelf, right? Because of the convention?" Gemma asked, bouncing on her toes. Alexandria barely nodded.
"Okay then, it's settled." Lilith put her hands on the counter. "Gemma, you can start work here tomorrow."
"Is it tomorrow yet?"
And while everyone laughed at Gemma's question, Alexandria slipped out of the store unnoticed. A knot was pulling tighter and tighter in her stomach.
"Mom, I wish you hadn't told Gemma she could work here," Alexandria said that night as she lay in bed. It was ten o'clock and she was supposed to be asleep, but sleeping right now seemed like an impossible task.
"Why not, Alex?" Lilith asked. "You said you were fine with it."
"I know, but..." Alex sighed. "We went to visit Rachel two weeks ago. Gemma wasn't living with her then, so she must've been adopted pretty recently. How do you know you can trust her?"
"Alex, Rachel is a close friend," Lilith scolded. "Of course I can trust her pets - no matter how long ago she adopted them."
"It's not just that. What about paying Gemma?"
"I told Rach I couldn't pay very much."
"Uh-huh. Implying that you'd pay Gemma something. Mom, we can't afford it."
"I'm not going to discuss this now, Alex. You should be asleep and I should be taking stock. We'll talk about this in the morning. Okay?"
"Mmm," Alex said, feigning a relaxed state of mind.
It took her another hour to get to sleep that night.
Gemma came over the next day at nine. "Do you get up this early all the time?" she asked Alex, yawning.
"Usually," replied Alex, who had been up since six. "So, anyway, we have to go restock in the shops. You know how to restock, right?"
"I've heard how, but I've never tried it," the Shoyru admitted.
"Let's go then, you can learn on the job," Alexandria told her. "Oh, and Mom says you can have twenty-five percent of the profits... did she tell you?"
"Yup." Gemma shrugged. "It's not about the money to me, though. And would you mind if we went to the Plushie Shop? I know some good things to restock there."
"Sure. And what do you mean, it's not about the money?"
Gemma shrugged again. "Well, I mean, money is nice and all, but I always wanted to work in a shop."
"I hate it."
"Well... it's the same thing every day."
"How can it be?"
Alexandria sighed. "Because either I sit behind the counter and tell people the same old prices every day, or I run off to restock. That's the same all the time, too. Wait for the shop to restock, grab an item -- or try to -- and if you got one, haggle with the shop owner and try not to let anyone take the item from you." They had reached the Plushie Shop now, and Alexandria pushed the double doors open. Nothing was on the shelves except for some overpriced, basic-color plushies.
"But it's not the same," Gemma replied. "I mean, sitting behind the counter's kinda boring, but you get to meet lots of new pets and people. And if you restock -- you can try different shops, and there's different stuff in each day, and just think... if you got an unbuyable...!"
"You said it wasn't about the money. Being tricky, now, Gemma?" Alex teased.
"It isn't. But I mean, I made a goal list for myself. You might want to try making one. And it's simple stuff, like get painted and get a petpet... but I always wanted to restock an unbuyable. Not because of the money. Because it's just something I want to do, something I want to feel proud of. You know?"
Alex nodded, a split second before plushies tumbled onto the shelves.
"A restock!" she shouted. The smile fell from her face when she realized that, again, it was just basic-colored plushies.
It came back when she noticed the one plushie that had tumbled out of the bag and fallen out of the floor. One that nobody else had noticed.
"Gemma!" she whispered, pointing to it. And with a squeal of joy, Gemma snatched it up and ran to haggle with the shop owner. It cost seven thousand neopoints.
"Thanks so much, Alex," Gemma whispered as she held the plushie in her hands, tears in her eyes.
Alexandria just nodded. She didn't need words now. All she needed was Gemma -- and her love of working in the shop -- and her compassion -- and...
And the little Baby Xweetok Plushie that Gemma was cradling in her arms.