"They're pretty adamant about it, aren't they?"
"S-sorry?" Star stutters, rising her muzzle from the sand. I tilt my head to point across the claw-thin beach, beyond the narrow branch of blue sea, to the small rocky island in the distance. The splashing waves echo from Krawk Island's shore cliffs.
"You'd think they'd attract more attention this way. Those letters must be tens of meters wide," I comment, as Star can't help but chuckle. "And the bones. The only thing more likely to attract pirates than a skull and crossbones flag: a giant skull and crossbows flag held by giant crossbones. On a pirate island."
Rustling, the coins we'd found fall back in the sand as Star shakes with laughter. The book she'd been carrying in her bag, follows with a thump. She only shakes harder as she sees the look on my face. Star always takes her books with her. But I am glad she is enjoying the day. On days like this, it almost seems I'd been her little brother forever. By now, I'd even grown used to her unsettling way of laughing, the soundless shaking and curling up with her belly to the ground, covering her muzzle with her paws and her eyes with the tip of her tail. For a Kougra, Star is frighteningly shy.
I poke the blue ball of fur with my nose. A star twinkles on my forehead, as it sometimes happens with Eventides.
"We should come here more often," I plead. My eldest sister would barely get out of the house unless hunting for bargain book sales. "It's warm and sunny, and there is treasure!" My claws clink on the fallen neopoints. Barely half an hour passed this morning without us finding something shiny in the sand, be it a 1-neopoint coin or a 500-neopoint coin, or even a strange, blue-veined half coin that Star said might be maractite. Star knows things. She said it's probably the currents bringing all these things ashore.
The blue Kougra growls softly and gets up, shaking off the sand.
"Maybe," she mutters. I'm satisfied. A maybe from Star is worth more than a yes from most Neopets. Besides, it seems we could be on this island for some time. At the Swashbuckling Academy, Laura, our other sibling, is studying how to become a Pirate. She got the jargon down, all right. Our owner doesn't quite understand why all three of us have to be on the same island, but then, she'd never lived in the Pound.
I know it's stupid. But I imagine that if I cling to my sisters, I won't be taken away from them.
I reach out to pick up her open book. Carefully, I brush away the sand off the pages. And I freeze. As if in a daze, my eyes race over the words:
The Tuskaninny tried to slow down his throbbing heart, as night fell on Treasure ilsand and he was nowhere near safety.
The title is The Secret of Treasure Island. I must have seen this book dozens of times in the pile near Star's bed. Nowadays her collection has grown so high that she has to leap over it when she goes to sleep. And yet, somehow, it didn't... sink in.
I remember this typo, I realize. I feel sick. My heart jumps up in terror, and gets stuck in my throat.
Star doesn't notice. She's sniffing the sand, recovering our day's bounty.
"I'm sorry," I cough out miserably.
Star often doesn't notice things. I guess it seems only natural for the Kougra who doesn't realize she could move her books a tad to the side, to have been created by the girl who didn't realize she should build a home for said Kougra until she had to deal with two other adoptees. Star has been living in an attic above the library in Roo Island for nearly her whole life. When I asked why she put up with it, she just mumbled 'I didn't want to bother...'.
"Cy, what's wrong?"
"This is the book... Star, I'm sorry."
My ears fall down in shame. The stars in my fur flicker, and extinguish. I shouldn't have brought this up. Heat rushes in my cheeks. Star looks at me attentively, and silent.
"This is the book I broke. One of them."
I see a shiver twitching down her spine, to the tip of her tail. When I and Laura joined her family, things weren't quite so smooth and peaceful. It was hard, very hard. You see, what a Neopet in the Pound yearns for above all else isn't a large home or expensive meals. It's love. And Yomiko didn't love us. That made relationships a bit tense, although Laura and I were cared for just as much as our new sister.
What made things positively difficult was the laboratory. Once every two days, one of us would be taken to a freezing, dark place on an unknown island, greeted by the mad grin of a Scorchio scientist, and there'll be a blinding ray and we'd walk out of there different. Stronger, or weaker, faster or slower, painted differently. I recall gazing into the scientist's hypnotic goggles, to distract my mind from the inevitable. Yomiko said she did that so we could be adopted quicker. We called her the Voidberry Heart Witch.
I thought I was all right with that. Back at the Pound, I would often scratch letters on cardboard to Dr Sloth. There was plenty of cardboard left over from pets being brought in. I'd heard stories about Commander Gormos, the Kougra who became a hero after betraying Dr Sloth's orders to kill two escaping Resistance members.
Get me out of here, I thought, and I'll do anything. I'll be your loyal minion, unlike Gormos, I'll listen to all you say, even if somebody as weak as me will probably just end up cleaning the floors.
I never sent those letters. I could never gather the courage to ask Dr Death for a stamp, when I saw how hard he struggled to keep us all fed.
I thought I was perfectly fine with being experimented on. Yet, halfway through, I broke down. I would no longer leave my bed except for the dreaded every other day. Yomiko being Yomiko, she never noticed.
What's the point, I thought obsessively. If someone adopts me only because I have pretty lavender Faerie feathers, then what would that make me? A Trophy Pet, to be shoved in neighbors' faces? Perhaps a piece in a set, an actor forced to go along with the owner's idea of how a Faerie should behave, with a perfect Faerie room and perfect Faerie friends. I kept thinking of the Tyrannian Aisha I've known for a while, a runaway from her owner who'd refused to cure her of Ugga-Ugga because 'it's cute, it fits your theme'.
Try living with a permanent sore throat, genius.
Do you understand?
I was desperate. So was Laura. And seeing Star silently reading in a corner, day by day, as we were dragged for our games of life-roulette, drove us mad. We bullied her. Why was it all right for her to be a mere Blue, but not for me to be Red or Laura, Yellow?
We did many things. Many ugly things. One day, in which a disgusted Laura returned from the lab far stronger, we ganged up on Star. Laura held her. I carefully ripped her books to shreds and paper flakes in front of her face, page by page, using my fangs on the covers. We held her eyes open. We shouted at her.
"I'm sorry," Star mumbles hoarsely, waking me up from my thoughts. Her ears were lopped. She is blinking rapidly, as if fighting back tears. "If only I'd been less awkward around you two, you wouldn't have felt so isolated. I'm sorry, I'm..."
At this point, I feel something in my chest break, and I couldn't stop myself from jumping on Star, pinning her down in a hug and repeating over and over again what an intelligent and wonderful sister she is.