This story is the sequel to Shoes.
I got the test back and I stared long, hard, forcefully, as if to scare the grade off the paper. In the upper-right corner stood a bright red C+, proud and spiteful, leering at me, me, me, that pink Poogle picking anxiously at her scarf for reasons the class would never understand. C, C, C. Completely unbelievable, given my other midterm triumphs—an A+ in math here, an A in science there. Not to mention the perfect grade in history, and the excusable A- in Ancient Meridellian. A perfect record put in tatters. There I squirmed in my seat, fully in denial, until at long last I released the grotesque blend between a cough and a sob. No one seemed to notice, and I was unsure whether to be thankful or offended. I opted for thankful and retreated to my diary, a cheap marbled notebook sticking out of my backpack. Hastily I shoved my gaze beneath my desk and began writing out of my classmates' sight. In the bubbly scrawl the Xweetok used to tease me over, so friendly and so rude, I penned my thoughts with no end to the entry in sight. Until, at least, I found that very neopet tapping on my shoulder, her expression neutral.
"How'd you do, Oona?" She was dressed nicely—par for the course, anyway. Deep blue skirt, ruffled at the edges. White cotton jacket with buttons on the cuffs. I didn't look at her shoes.
"Terrible," I muttered.
"What was that?" The faerie Xweetok tilted her head to the side, antennae waving.
"I did badly, okay?" I snapped, slamming my journal shut. I bit down on my tongue and steadied my paws. The journal tilted open, the wisps of paper fluttering. "Um."
"We got a problem over here?" The red Usul behind me leaned forward, a sunny look across her face that soon fell flat. "Hey, Oona, hey," she stammered. "How've you been?"
"Fine," I said hastily.
"That's—that's good." Tapping her paws on her desk, she glanced back over at the Xweetok sheepishly, as if to personally apologize for my existence. Felt that way, at least. I barely knew the Usul—even her name escapes me—so I defaulted to my usual assumptions: that everyone in the class regretted my presence, on the occasion that they acknowledged it. It made sense, given past experiences, so surely it would save me from future encounters. "How'd you do, Perri?" The Xweetok's expression stiffened, and her teal eyes shifted to the left. Turning sideways in her chair and tilting over to the Usul—Rachel?—she lowered her voice and, discreet as could be, whispered the grade. Luckily my insatiable curiosity was satisfied, as she was not used to being quiet. Being familiar with her own sensitivity—her hypocritical, over-the-top sensitivity to any sort of praise, any sort of success—I kept silent. I could only look off in frustration as the two exchanged a high-five. The Usul muttered about her failure (many, they were), prompting the Xweetok to shake her head with an aura of frankness.
It's okay, she insisted, it's totally okay.
But really, really—it's not, is it?
She still wore her painted wellies, day after day.
I doubted Mom would take the C+ well.
The hours slushed on by, as if pushed forward on a plate slicked with olive oil. So of course I slipped around in the mess, forgetting my work and abandoning my lunch in the corner of a classroom. Bells rang and rang and by the end of it all I found myself leaning on the fence outside, staring at the students passing on by. That poorly-dressed Kacheek Monica stopped by, as usual, to greet to the Xweetok's sister. She was late, but by the look on the faerie Wocky's face there was no love lost. Wings fluttered and tails twitched as they ran off, tote bags flipping back and forth with momentum.
Maybe I followed them. Maybe my place was in the other direction, a dingy apartment in the tired part of Neopia Central. But I didn't have a choice. I had no interest in presenting the C to my mom and entertaining her lectures. I remember saying I didn't care about college. I had lied. I had lied for the sake of expensive shoes. And I had just managed to prove to her how little I really cared. C, C, C. Clothes and shoes in my barren closet. Still I cared about the shoes. Did they mean anything to me beyond the superficial? Beyond the fact that I wanted the attention. Perhaps they were symbolic, somehow, representing the inmost depths of my subconscious. Truly I was a profound creature. Truly.
I imagined my mother's reaction. "This what you want, Oona?" she would sigh in resignation, recognizing that her daughter's perfect education was going downhill. "How d'you expect us to get a scholarship if you pull stuff like this? Tell me, d'you even want a proper education?" I would sit still at the dinner table, utensils wrapped in spaghetti and canned tomatoes, the food just lying there in an unappetizing clump. "You got so much pent-up jealousy you can't even achieve anything. Shame on you." There would be no sibling to defend me from her scoldings.
Gusts of wind threw the scarf in my face and I wrapped it back around my neck, walking a little faster, listening in on their conversation for lack of a better thing to do.
"—so there's the main girl, Lisbeth. She's sarcastic, determined, real grumpy, yeah, but what else?" Monica began gingerly buttoning up her coat. Her shoes, shiny black ones with worn-down bows, kicked up a clutter of leaves. "Gotta be more than that, you know? Keep the reader interested." The faerie Wocky gazed at the park a block off, giving a mock glower to the Kacheek as she stuffed her notebook into her bag.
"Lisbeth has this thing going on, though? I thought I told you," she said. "This whole identity mess over whether she could ever"—she clapped her pink paws together and emitted a sigh of great anguish—"attain the status of a perfect pet. Trophies everywhere, but it doesn't matter to her, though? And she's still waiting for her little brother to come back from the pound, since her owner abandoned him out of spite and boredom and stuff. And she's never going to be good enough." Her tail flicking, she cupped her face in her paws. "So tragic. But it's satire, which makes everything different."
As silent as could be, I snorted a Pooglish snort. What a mediocre story. I could only imagine her and the Xweetok waxing rhapsodic over one another's writing, gushing over their Neopian Times-worthiness. Two identically boring sisters.
The Wocky shot a glance over her shoulder and swiftly turned back to her friend, falling silent as soon as she saw that pink Poogle, that stubby-tailed Poogle, and awakening in me a new burst of anxiety. Blood rushing to my face, deepening the light pink hue of my cheeks. Fyora, how could I be so stupid? I shouldn't have followed them like that. Why did I even follow them? No, no, no. I didn't want to know what they took me for. As if on cue with the rush of energy to my head, the two turned to the right and walked into a coffee shop. Biting down on my lip, I turned around and fled to the park, kicking up leaves in my wake.
Upon finally collapsing on a green wooden bench, I wrapped my arms around my knees and looked down at the pavement. With little better to do, I defaulted to an angsty teenage state and retrieved my journal from my bag. No, that was no good. Nothing of remote interest to write of. Perhaps I had better go to the coffee shop. Monica and the Wocky would be gone by now.
That's fine. Strap your baggage over your shoulders, keep that heavy stuff on your back until it at long last breaks through the cheap fabric and comes tumbling out, tumbling into the dirt. Stroll on to the coffee shop that reeks of brown seeds, and find yourself disappointed.
It did reek of brown seeds. And with pats of caramel and blocks of chocolate on the side. The Xweetok and I used to go there together, she to feign maturity (always took her coffee black) and I to sip a sugary drink. Out of pure, unanticipated kindness, she would always pay for our drinks. It was a nice thing for her to do, if excessive; I wasn't so poor that I couldn't cough up a few hundred neopoints. Strange, though, drinking black coffee in the sixth grade. Must have been part of her "character". Who was she trying to impress? Her sister?
Depositing my backpack on the floor, I sat down in a small chair. I rubbed my paws together and stared up at the paneled ceiling, then sharply switched my gaze over to the rose and cream shape in the corner of the room. Wings twitching and fur sopping dark and wet, there sat the Wocky with no Kacheek in sight. Perhaps the two had been fed up with each other? Or maybe I was projecting. On the opposite end of the table was a bulging muffin, cold after sitting untouched for some time.
The moment I directed my gaze to the floor, it occurred to me that she was the only neopet in the café unable to wear clothing. I had not noticed it before, somehow, assuming that it was laundry day. But I could see it in the curve of her chin, the tips of her ears, the size of her tail. I could see it in how her bag would fall off her shoulder every time she put it on, and, in irritation, found herself having to put it back on over and over again because, by some odd magic or poor sewing, it just could not fit her. It was something I couldn't figure out but I knew it was there. I looked at her again, then looked away. An unconverted pet. That was something. Apart from the Eyrie in my class, I had never seen one before. Out of a blend of curiosity and empathy, I left my bag on the seat and walked over.
"I'm fine," she said flatly before I opened my mouth. With an air of confusion, she glanced over her shoulder and stared at me blankly. "Why in Fyora's name did you follow me here?"
Almost on cue, I began picking at my scarf nervously and helplessly. The shreds of fabric floated to the ground. "It's—it's kind of complicated—"
"I don't care how complicated it is. You don't get to follow me and Mica like that," she said, looking startled. "You were friends with Perri back in elementary, weren't you?" Elementary, of course. Elementary it was. "If you wanted to know how she's doing, you could have asked her. She'd love the attention," she added sorely.
"She barely talks to me anymore," I snapped. "She's got all the friends she'd ever want."
With a groan, the Wocky laid her head on the table. "That's not it. Tell me why you were following me."
I remained silent, squirming in place, on the verge of running out of the café. But that wouldn't work, would it? I would only make myself look more suspicious to her. Finally I stammered out, "I just wanted to talk to you. Because I thought—well—I don't know what I thought." The Wocky turned her head to the side, now looking at me. She didn't know how honest I was. I didn't know how honest I was.
"Can you at least apologize?" she mumbled. "That was weird of you." I bit my tongue.
"Yeah—Fyora, I'm sorry. I'm such an idiot, sorry, sorry—"
"That'll do." Releasing a great yawn, the Wocky lifted her head and lowered it onto the table with a light thud. "Don't mind me. I'm an idiot, too." Cautiously, I sat down beside her and looked her in the eyes. Pink eyes. "Doesn't matter what I do. Mica still gets mad at me when I talk about how fat I am." I frowned and rubbed my chin. I had expected her to push me away in a rage. And suddenly she was confessional. And suddenly I found my paws shaking, imagining everywhere this conversation could go. "I get why it bothers her, but on the one hand, she wants me to tell her what's going on, and on the other—she can't stand what I say. I dunno. Throwing coffee is really extreme. But... well. At least it was cold. But I guess that wasn't what really happened. I did more dumb stuff."
"So... do more smart stuff," I said with a nervous chuckle. "Make up for it or something."
"Mica's weird, though," she sighed, swatting a paw at a passing petpetpet. "I'm weird too, but we try to compromise, usually. But she's sensitive about things, and I can't blame her."
"What things?" I blinked.
"You wouldn't get it."
"Oh." I tilted my head to the side, my paws no longer tempted to pull and tug at the scarf. Instead they sat patiently on my lap. "Why would you call yourself fat? You're not fat at all." The Wocky's fur stood on end, twitching hairs of pink stained brown. "Sorry, I—" Her fur flattened and she lifted her head. "You're a UC, though. You're gorgeous. Do you know how many people would want to be you? And you have everything you'd ever want."
"You're joking, right?" she snapped. "No. UC's nothing special anymore. It's a commodity to owners and an eyesore to everyone else."
"You're not an eyesore," I said sternly.
"To you, sure," she sighed. "Everybody wants clothes. Clothes, clothes, clothes. If you go to school with nothing, you look like you're not even trying. Like you think you're superior to everyone else, like you're above such basic stuff like clothes. It's like, they admire you at first. And then it turns around and they think you're poor, you're shameless, you're all holier-than-thou solely because you don't have a good pair of shoes." My stomach churned. "My sister thinks it's pretentious and Nat should just convert me already. It'll be easy magic, Perri says, and I won't have to walk through town with all my fat bouncing around." She shrugged. "Nat's cool about it, though, so I really don't care." With a clump of napkins in her paw, she began drying herself off a bit. I found myself blushing as a multitude of thoughts rushed through my head.
Like a lightbulb flicking on, the Xweetok popped into my head, her sleek fur and delicate wings blurred by my subconscious. Because I didn't want to think about that friendship anymore. It was done and over with, the moment I snapped at her over a midterm I could easily make up for. We were friends in neither her eyes nor mine. To her, I was a sobbing, hateful mess of jealous; to me, she was finally how I should have seen her. She was a decent person to all but the one closest to her: her sister. The Wocky. The Wocky whose name escaped me, whose name I was afraid to ask for fear of seeming rude. But perhaps she wasn't so decent. Perhaps she was in the middle, some atrocious blend of hypocritical kindness and bullying, like a gardener happily watering the perennials while neglecting the most valuable of flowers. The flowers who would, if given a chance, release a beautiful aroma and never prick her with their thorns. Our parody of a friendship didn't matter one bit. All that mattered was that I forget it—no, forgive it—no, just get over it and move on with my life, find someone else to be friends with.
Wherever my safe haven was, it was not with her.
Looking over at me and brushing water off her wings, the Wocky muttered about leaving. Nice talking to me, she said, nice having someone to listen, please don't go to Perri about it because it just isn't worth the trouble. You know her. She thinks everything is her business. You can just ask if you want to talk or something, but really, don't make such a hassle about it. Yeah, Mica'll be fine, I think. I'll be fine too. You can have the muffin if you want. She wouldn't have eaten it anyway. Don't worry about it.
The door squealed shut behind her.
Ellie was her name, apparently.