Against the Grain
I bolted out of bed to the sound of my alarm clock, determined to get dressed as quickly as possible. It took all of my efforts to ignore my Sandan, who was staring up at me adorably, wanting to play. Giving her a friendly hug, I promised to be back home soon. Then, I ran downstairs to gobble down some pancakes and hot borovan, dedicated to being on time. When I was done, I practically threw my dishes into the sink (I would have to clean them later). Today was a very big day for me. Wait, I guess that I'd better explain how the family tradition goes. My owner, Jenn, owns a hugely successful bakery in Terror Mountain. Her dream has always been to strive off of baking cakes and pastries. The bakery is the only shop that I’ve seen in Terror Mountain that doesn’t sell ice cream or slushies. Her shop is particularly popular for tourists who would do anything for a bit of warmth. It’s always pretty funny to watch their stunned faces as they come inside and gasp, “I had no idea that snow was this cold!”
The shop became such a staple to the visitors that soon, Jenn realized that she wouldn't get very far without some help. After all, there's only so much multitasking that one person can do without having workers to pitch in. She published a plethora of advertisements in the Neopian Times, on billboards, and even a costly few she aired on Neovision. Pretty soon, the word was spread all around Neopia: Terror Mountain’s only hot food shop was hiring! Jenn’s Neomail box was flooded with job applications in a matter of hours.
Unfortunately, every Neopian who showed up did a half-hearted job and expected a very generous salary in return. None of them were very good at rolling dough; pastries weren’t very habitual for Terror Mountain natives. It just wasn’t working out. Fortunately, that was exactly what made her adopt my siblings and me! She wanted pets of her own, so that she could teach them how to cook with love.
The first pet she adopted was a very levelheaded Kau she named Nyshu. A few months after adopting him, she decided to paint him starry because it matched his personality perfectly. (I have to admit, I couldn't imagine Nyshu with any other color of fur). Nyshu is clumsy and sometimes awkward, but he is very dependable and kind. He wouldn’t harm a living thing.
After a year of working with Nyshu, she adopted Yaz, the shadow Usul. She was painted upon request. Yaz has a great sense of humor, but she hates sappiness and lovely things. She's even designed a few dark pant devil posters that are crookedly taped onto her bedroom walls. When I was younger, I used to be scared of the bloody grins she had added to the Pant Devil's face. Since then, though, Yaz and I have become best friends.
The third pet Jenn adopted was me, Gaze, the cloud Aisha. I’m pretty tight with Nyshu because we both daydream 24/7. We love to lie in a nest of pillows on our wooden deck in the backyard and look at the stars (and especially Kreludor) through a telescope. (Not going to lie, it's amazingly calming and fun).
Anyways, on with the story of our tradition. Jenn lets each of her pets work at the bakery after they've been a part of the family for one year. As today is my 365th day in the family, it's my turn to see if I've got what it takes to make a decent iced cake.
I put on my fluffy coat and my candy cane-patterned scarf, and stepped outside into the snow. I shivered and decided to half-jog to Jenn's bakery. Being an Aisha, my furry coat at least keeps me warmer than some other pets. I buried my face in my scarf as I walked, failing to see another living creature outside in the snow this early (now I knew why!).
I willed myself to walk faster as I saw our shop’s sign protruding from the long line of souvenir shops. It was wooden with red letters and suspended by metal chains. Compared to its neighboring shops, it was very cozy and old-fashioned. When I finally reached the entrance, I fiddled around in my coat pockets for my key, and then used it to open the door; the shop was locked every day until seven o’clock every morning. A wonderful gush of warm, sugary air blew towards me as a little bell jingled overhead. I smiled. If I had my choice, I would totally work here forever. The shop has large windows to the left, but they're covered by light white drapes. Across the walls are bright little strings of Christmas lights with the occasional bundle of ivy. I also counted three borovan makers and two Coffee machines.
To the right of the store, there were glass display cabinets. Walking up to them, I took in the smell of Minty Mocha Cakes, Chocolate Hearts, Strawberry Crumpets and numerous Swiss Rolls. Above the cabinets hung two large blackboards that listed the prices of everything.
"Dani?" said a muffled voice from the kitchen. I knew it was Jenn right away.
"Yeah, I'm here!" I replied.
Jenn stumbled out of the kitchen, brushing some icing sugar off her pink apron. She adjusted her glasses on her nose, smiling and running over to hug me.
"I can't believe that I've only known you for a year! And already, it's your turn to work in the family business! Gaze, I'm so proud of you!"
She broke the embrace and gestured towards the coat rack.
"Now quick, hang up your coat and scarf and come with me to the kitchen! I have so much to explain to you before the rush hour starts."
I hurried to comply, unwilling to fail on my first day. I wanted to do whatever it took to make Jenn proud of me. I paused at the cash register – there was a large platter on which balanced a pyramid of Lime Biscuits. Stealthily, I grabbed one from the top, making sure to finish chewing before Jenn saw me. Grinning and swallowing, I ran into the kitchen.
The kitchen was smaller than I had imagined it. Up until now, it had always been off-limits to me. There were several rows of metallic utensils that hung from the ceiling and wooden shelves that held bowls and pans. To the right, ovens and microwaves of unknown purpose were stacked one above the other. A barely audible Christmas song wafted from the speakers in one corner.
“Like the music?”
I raised one eyebrow. She laughed in turn.
“Cheesy, I know – but the tourists go nuts for it.”
She looked down at the wooden working table that separated us. I noticed she had laid out several spatulas, rolling pins, measuring cups and spoons, and of course, ingredients and a cookbook.
"Okay, Gaze, today's special is Deluxe Chia Cake. It's not our simplest recipe, but I know you can do it."
The trusting way she smiled at me made me scared to let her down. (I know what you're thinking: it's cake! No big deal! But for some reason, I felt like she'd value me less if I were rotten at baking. What with Nyshu and Yaz both being very skilled bakers, there was a lot of pressure on my shoulders, okay?)
I snapped out of my daydream, realizing that I'd missed the first half of Jenn's instructions. Uh oh.
She tucked a stray piece of brown hair behind her ear and looked me in the eyes.
"Did you get that, Gaze?" she asked.
Naturally, I panicked. Before I could think about what I should do, I blurted out, "Yes! I understand." I nodded and smiled, trying to let her know that I wasn't dumb.
"Perfect! Now you understand the safety precautions - those are super important, Gaze-"
Safety Precautions! Super important? I kicked myself mentally. 'Don't worry, you can always improvise,' said the calmer voice in my head. Maybe I was right! It wasn't like I had never baked before - I'd made cookies and banana bread with Jenn before loads of times, no sweat! I assured myself that anyone with half a brain could figure out how to bake using the bakery's technology. I would be fine, just fi-
"And that's how you make basic white chocolate cake batter. That’s all you have to do today! I want you to make three bowls of the stuff, and then just blend it for a few minutes on high in the food processor. Think you can do that?"
Rotten Dung! I'd done it again! It was way too late now to admit that I hadn't paid any attention to her. I glanced up at the clock - there were only ten minutes until the shop would be open and crammed with customers.
"Yup!" I squeaked in a small voice. Jenn didn't notice.
"Great! I'll leave you to it. Meanwhile, I have to make a quick dash to the store to pick up some strawberries. If you need me, just send me a quick Neomail!"
And with that, she was gone. I heard the little jingle of the bell above the door. I remembered how comforting it had been earlier; now, it was like the sound of death. Well, almost.
I covered my face with my paws, not wanting to believe what had happened. I wished with all my might that I could be anywhere else. Why wasn't I with Nyshu, spread out on a pile of warm pillows and blankets under the peaceful expanse of the starry night? I could just feel it-
I shook myself and uncovered my face. No, I wasn't going down without a fight. I decided to look around and see what I could to to improvise. What was I supposed to make, again? A pie filling? Wait, no. A Deluxe Chia Cake! Then I remembered something: the recipe book! I leafed through the pages, frantically looking for something that looked right. Urrghhh, there had to be thousands of recipes! It would take all day just to find the darn recipe- I slapped my forehead. Duh! I just had to read through the table of contents! And sure enough, I found the recipe in a matter of seconds.
Reading the page, I saw that the recipe had three steps to it:
"1. Take 500g of white chocolate and mince it. In a separate bowl, mix some baking soda and cream paste together.
2. Add the white chocolate into the bowl of wet ingredients, and then add 100 mL of water. Pour the mixture into a food processor and blend until smooth and creamy.
3. Pour batter into bowl(s) and add butter. Blend again. Now you're done!"
I gulped. There was no way I knew how to follow this. But what else could I do, other than try and see if I might just get it by fluke? After all, how hard could it be...?
Six minutes later, I had guessed my way through the first few steps. The result was a lumpy, thick mixture of “batter”. Since I had no idea what "mince" meant, I had broken the sticks of white chocolate into two pieces (was that 500 grams? How were grams even measured!?). I gulped, and used a spoon to scrape the goop into what I thought was the food processor. When I was done, the machine was almost completely filled up. Remembering to add the lid, I grabbed it and tried to secure it on top, but one corner just wouldn't secure. I looked up at the clock and- TWO MINUTES! I ONLY HAD TWO MINUTES BEFORE JENN WOULD SEE THAT I HAD COMPLETELY FAILED THE FAMILY BUSINESS!!!
Panicking, I pushed the "On" button, and the food processor came to life.
"Please, please work!" I whispered. I shut my eyes and put my left arm over my eyes, while my right paw pressed the "Blend" button.
Still blinded, I heard a robotic whirr. I could feel the furious vibrations of the machine even from my distance as the blades tried to cut through the pieces of white chocolate that were, undoubtedly, too big. Then, the machine started to make a noise that reminded me of the growling of a hungry Grarrl. I could hear it shake harder and harder, until it suddenly stopped all together. Too curious not to look, I slowly lifted my arm from my eyes. And that's when the processor exploded, vomiting its contents, along with some broken cutting blades, right at my face. The force knocked me to the floor, and my vision faded painfully into white.
I woke up and immediately, feeling stabbing pain above my lip and my right eye. Groaning, I opened my eyes. What had happened!? Where was I? How long was I out? Suddenly, I was aware of a soft bed under my body. The walls were a neutral shade of white. This looked like... The Neo Hospital! I sat up only to feel my head pounding. Something extremely tight was wrapped around my head, triggering a violent headache. I gasped, my reflexes making me lay back down again. Black shapes overpowered my eyes, and before I knew it I was out cold.
I opened my eyes. My head felt a bit fuzzy. I heard muffled voices. I think one of them said something like, 'Dee's lake'.
A few moments later, whoever had said the strange phrase repeated it. It was clearer this time, though:
“She’s awake! She’s awake, come see!”
It sounded like... Nyshu? Nyshu! My brother! I was home!
I sat up in bed, this time feeling no pain anywhere on my face. I was in my own room! A Starry Kau was leaned over me, grinning. Nyshu looked relived. Soon, Yaz and Jenn came to fill the empty spaces that were around my bed.
"Guys!" I tried to yell, but it only came out as a strained whisper. I smiled, but it felt crooked somehow.
"Oh, Gaze! You're actually okay!" exclaimed Jenn, gingerly stroking my forehead.
"Jenn was worried that you'd need surgery," Yaz said quietly. Her gleaming eyes met mine, and then focused on Jenn.
"What happened?" I questioned.
"Well, you scared the living Pant Devil out of me," Jenn started. "I came into the bakery’s kitchen with the strawberries I bought, and saw you had fainted on the ground! Batter and shards of broken glass were all over you, and uhhh... Let’s just say that there was more than a bit of blood. You looked horrible. I screamed and carried you into an Eyrie Cab to rush you to the Neo Hospital.
"When I got there, they rushed you into a bed and forced these gross-looking healing potions down your throat. Still, you were unconscious. When they were done, you slept and didn’t wake for three days. They seemed to take forever! We were so worried about you!"
Jenn's explanation had caused my memories of the horrible day in the bakery to once again come rushing in. While tears came to my eyes, I knew that I'd never have another moment as good as this one to confess what had really happened in the kitchen.
"Jenn? I, uh, have a confession to make. You know when you were telling me the instructions on what to do? Well, I didn’t actually understand them. You went awfully fast, and...” I trailed off.
"Gaze, why didn’t you just tell me!" she returned.
"I thought I'd look like a... like an idiot. I didn't want you to think I was the useless runt of the family, and I didn't want you to be disappointed in me. I wanted to make you proud." I ended in a whisper, biting my lip. Now that she knew the truth, I felt silly. I knew that she loved me for me, no matter how slow of a learner I was.
"Aww, Gaze! You should have known that I would never compare your success to that of anyone else. Everybody's good at different things- that doesn't make you dumb. And I'm sorry that I moved along so fast; it’s hard to remember to slow down when I’ve been baking all my life. I keep on forgetting some of the basics. So what happened is not your fault, Gaze."
I lay still, looking at the family that I was so lucky to be a part of. I would never lie to them again. These people were my life, and nothing came before family.
Two weeks later, I sighed happily as I lay on my back in a makeshift nest of cozy pillows and blankets. It was the middle of the night, and I was out on the deck with Nyshu, gazing at the brilliant stars. The black sky looked so big and endless. There was an easy silence that pressed around us, and extended far past the end of Neopia. It was comforting to think that maybe others looked our way from far away in space, seeing Kreludor through a telescope and wondering what kind of beings could live so far away.
"Hey, Nyshu," I whispered.
"Yeah?" came a hushed voice not far away from me.
"What was your first day at the bakery like?"
I felt small movements through my blanket, and I knew that he was laughing.
"It's kind of a long story."
I spoke up again:
"Well, we've got all the time in the world."
Thanks for reading! Drop me a Neomail. I love talking with other users. =]