George hated his job.
One morning, he awoke to a loud, obnoxious ringing noise that ran in circles through his brain, denying any possibility of sleep. Turning over with a groan, he opened his light green eyes to a day still dark, where the sun had not yet risen over the horizon. Willing himself out from under his warm blankets, the blue Scorchio switched the lamp on his nightstand, flooding the bedroom with new light, and switched off the still ringing alarm clock. Its analog face read “4:30”. Flexing his wings experimentally, George let out a big, long yawn and made his way out the door and to the kitchen.
Still half-asleep, he pushed the button on a small machine to brew himself a pot of coffee on his way to the fridge, which he pulled open with a yank. He grimaced. The shelves were completely bare except for a loaf of yeasty bread and some cheese. Making a mental note to stop by the soup kitchen on his way to work, George shut the door with a sigh, ignoring the growling in his stomach. There was not enough; there was never enough.
Walking over to the machine, which had finished brewing his coffee, he poured it out into his favorite mug and was about to pull out a chair when he spotted someone in the doorway. In the darkness, he could see the vague silhouette of a skin-and-bones thin red Aisha. Shaking his head, he said, “What are you doing up, Lia? You should be in bed.”
His sister came into the dim light of the kitchen and ambled into a chair at the table. A rainbow reject Cybunny plushie was clutched under one of her arms to the point of suffocation. “I dunno, George. I saw your light on, an’ I wanted to know why you were up so early, that’s all.”
He set the coffee mug back down on the counter. “Work,” he said shortly.
“Oh, okay. But why so early?”
“Because Sam slacks off at work, and I don’t want to get fired because of him, that’s why.”
Lia’s beady black eyes narrowed. “But why—”
To change the subject, George hastily lifted her up off the chair and carried her out the kitchen, down the hallway. “No more questions. You should be back in bed.” Pushing open her slightly ajar bedroom door, he set her down in the bed that was too big for her and pulled the thick woolen quilt over her, up to her chin. “You’re sick, Lia. You need to get some rest, okay?”
She made a face, snuggling her Cybunny plushie closer to herself. “Okay, George.” A smile made its way to her face. “Can you tell me a story, George?”
“No. I’m late enough as it is.”
“Please?” she begged.
Eyeing the wall clock for a moment, George finally nodded. He sat down at the foot of the bed. “All right. What story do you want?”
Lia grinned happily; she always was able to persuade him. Eagerness in her face, she sat up against the mountain of pillows behind her. “Tell me about the farm!”
With a groan, he said, “You’ve already heard that story twenty million times! I’m sure you could tell it much better than me.”
“I know,” she replied, still grinning, “but I like to hear you tell it.”
“All right, if that’s what you want.” He took a deep breath, pulling into his mind exactly how the story went. “You remember Dad, right?”
“Well, Dad used to have a small plot of land in Meridell, a working farm. We grew marrows and potatoes and berries and all sorts of things.”
“Don’t forget the dairy Kaus!” said Lia.
“Right, there were dairy Kaus, and there was grass and hay. Life was good.”
“Until Daddy lost it all at Double or Nothing.”
George nodded gravely. “We lost the farm. All of it.”
“But we’re gonna buy it all back, George, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, exactly. Some day, I’ll earn enough money for us to move back there and get our farm back. We’ll be independent, and there’ll always be enough food to eat, because well, we’ll grow it ourselves.”
“And I’ll get my own bunnies to grow, won’t I, George?”
George did not have the heart to correct her. “Yeah, that’s right, you’ll have your own flock of Eizzils. You can grow it all by yourself.”
“And I’m going to be better then, aren’t I?”
His green eyes flooded with tears. “Yeah. Yeah, you’ll be so much better.” He willed himself to turn away from his little sister and stood up. “I... I have to go to work, Lia. Mrs. Marsh will be here in a few hours, so just go back to sleep, okay?”
“I don’t like Mrs. Marsh,” said Lia, frowning.
“Go to sleep, Lia,” he merely replied as he shut the door behind him and walked hurriedly to the kitchen. Thanks to that story, he had lost fifteen minutes of valuable flying time. Quickly snatching up the mug of coffee, George chugged it hurriedly, slamming it back on the counter as he put on his vest and cap for work. Just before he was out the door, he made a face. “Stupid coffee went cold,” he muttered. Shaking his head to himself, George spread his wings and took off towards Neopia Central.
Checking the watch on his wrist as he walked through the revolving front doors of the Neopian Auction House, George smiled in satisfaction: four fifty-eight, with two minutes to spare until five. Perfect timing. On his way in, he passed by crowds of Neopets waiting until something interesting came up for bid. The excitement of the masses of bidders buoyed up his spirits, bringing him light despite the dark of the early morning.
George remembered again how much he loved this job and wondered how he had ever been lucky enough to get a job here. Out of everyone they could have chosen, they picked the blue Scorchio with no experience, the country boy from Meridell. He recalled his eagerness from years past as he searched for the brown Korbat he was relieving. Taking off above the crowd, he spotted Sam, all dressed up in auctioneer’s garb, in the middle of an auction; he hovered, waiting for the sale to finish.
“15,500 Neopoints, going once... going twice... sold! To the Quiggle in the blue shirt!”
That was his cue. Gently, George floated over the crowd, making his way through the crowd until he had landed by the Korbat’s side. “Hey, Sam. I’m here to relieve you.”
The Korbat turned to him in surprise, flapping his wings agitatedly. “What? George? You weren’t due here until eight! Go back home and get some sleep.”
“Sam, you know I get paid an hourly wage.”
“So do I, but you don’t see me complaining.”
“Yeah, I know, but I’m worried about all the hours I’ve been missing because of Lia. You know what her fits are like.”
Sam tilted his head to one side. “Actually, all I know is that I get called here at the weirdest hours during the day. I don’t know why I put up with it, really.”
“I know, I’m only joking.” He sent George an apologetic grin. “You know, you should come over for dinner some time, George. Mary keeps asking about you, and I have to keep saying that you’re busy. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“You know I can’t.”
“Yeah, I know. Worth a try, though.” Sam shrugged. “Have fun with the next lot. It’s a doozy.” Spreading his wings, the Korbat flew into the air and glided across the long hall to the door.
Shaking his head a little, George stepped up onto the auctioneer’s podium and grasped the mallet in his hand. “All right, everyone!” he called out into the hall. He instantly had everyone’s attention. “This next lot up for bid is number seven-hundred-eighty-seven of the day, a Potion of Containment. Let’s start the bidding at sixty thousand Neopoi—”
Suddenly, a cry sounded through the hall, echoing as it went: “Wait!” A Skeith mother pushed her way through the crowd, holding a small baby Skeith close in her arms. “Please, wait!”
George frowned; so this was what Sam meant by ‘doozy.’ “What do you mean by this interruption? It is breaching protocol! I would like to start the bidding, if you don’t mind.”
The Skeith panted for a moment, catching her breath, before managing to say, “Please, sir. My little boy is sick with the Jitters. He won’t eat or sleep, and I don’t know what else to do!”
“Do you wish to open the bidding at sixty thousand?” Maybe this mother just didn’t know how things worked around here.
She shook her head. “Please, I brought everything I have. Will you take it?” The Skeith pushed forward a small bag of Neopoints that had, at most, five thousand in it.
For a moment, just a moment, George’s mind strayed back to his sister at home under several feet of blankets and quilts, sick with an unknown ailment. If it were him selling the medicine, at that moment, he would have taken the five thousand in a heartbeat.
But it wasn’t him; it was an unknown person somewhere who wanted sixty thousand Neopoints. His mind returned as fast as it had left. “Sorry, ma’am, but we only accept bids at or above sixty thousand. If you would, please step back and allow other bidders a chance.”
The Skeith’s eyes showed clear heartbreak—but she understood, nodding. “Oh. Okay. Sorry for wasting your time, sir,” she said quietly, receding back into the crowd.
George’s eyes returned to the crowd. He didn’t hate his job—not really; he never loved it either, though. It was just a job, and it was all he had. “All right, everyone. Sixty thousand. Do I hear sixty thousand?”
“I hear sixty thousand. Do I hear sixty-one thousand?”
“I hear sixty-one thousand! Anyone for sixty-two thousand? Going once... going twice... sold, for sixty-one thousand Neopoints!”