The Wealthiest Family in Neopia
"Turn to page 166, and... Sharada, read out paragraph one," said a large white Techo, pointing towards a red Shoyru who was sitting at her desk by the window and flicking furiously through her textbook.
"Um," the Shoyru stood up and began reading, "the general consensus among Neopians regarding the Tax Beast, is one of great disgust and disappro-"
"Are you sure you're on the right page, Sharada? You should be at the section discussing the Wheel of Extravagance."
"My edition doesn't seem to have that section in it..."
The Techo sighed. "Luke, you read paragraph one. Sharada, you can do the reading next time, when you have the NEWEST edition of the textbook."
Sharada sank down back into her seat. She could hear muffled snickers coming from her classmates, and she buried her face into her tattered textbook, wishing that she was painted invisible so nobody could see how embarrassed she was.
Sharada went to an elite Neoschool, where all the pets were painted elegant colours, wore all the fanciest clothes, and had brand spanking new textbooks that were so brand spanking new that they could eat their Everlasting Apples and Draik Eggs right off of them.
But Sharada was different.
Sharada's family didn't have a lot of money, and the only reason that she went to such an elite Neoschool was because she had received a scholarship. This covered all her tutorial expenses, but she still had to fork out the money for her textbooks, and her older brother had decided that a five year-old book would work just as well as a new one. Sharada cursed her fate and jotted down notes for the bits that were not written in her old textbook, as her classmates read them out.
When the bell rang to signal the end of class, Sharada sighed, picked up her books, and walked straight to the corridor. The other pets were busy talking about the newest items and wearables, but those were conversations Sharada could never have a part in, and either way the other pets didn't want to talk to her. She was nicknamed "the poor kid", and the other pets spread rumours about her, not making much effort to conceal their voices as they talked about how "all her furniture is made of dung" and how "she plays with toy sail boats and bottles of sand" and how "she goes to the soup kitchen for dinner every day" (which is not true because she only goes on weekends).
When Sharada got home she slammed the door open and walked in as angrily as she could. Unfortunately the effect was lost in that there was nobody there to marvel at how angrily she came in, so she tried stomping up the stairs to her room instead. This time her younger brother, a blue Xweetok named Hiemal, came walking down the steps with a baby's bottle in his hands.
"What was that noise?" asked Hiemal.
"Oh, just me being angry,"
"Well could you keep it down? You'll wake Summer up."
Summer was their younger sister, a baby Wocky. Since Hiemal was two years younger than Sharada, and wasn't quite old enough for Neoschool yet, it was his job to look after her while Sharada and their older brother were out of the house.
Sharada went straight to her room without saying another word, and throwing her bag into the corner, collapsed onto her bed. It was typical of Hiemal to pass off anything she said without even the slightest hint of concern. Right now Sharada was angry, and she needed some way to vent that anger. However, being the smart girl that she was, she knew that sleeping was also a grand way of calming oneself down, and it would pass the time until Haru came home so that she could ask him for a new textbook. With the intent of waking up once he came back, Sharada drifted off into sleep.
Sharada awoke to the sound of knocking on her door. The room was covered in shadow, and looking out the window she could see the sky had grown dark, with just the fringes near the horizon lit up in vibrant oranges and reds like an Eventide Paint Brush. She was busy staring in her half-awaken state at its beauty when she heard the knocking again.
"Sharada, dinner's ready!" called Hiemal.
"Coming!" Sharada rubbed her eyes and got out of bed. Still somewhat dazed from her overly long nap, she left her room and made her way down the stairs.
"Hey Sharada, we're having cheese and bacon omelette tonight," said a large green Zafara wearing an apron and standing in the kitchen. This was Haru, the oldest of the family who also earned all the family's Neopoints. Because he had to work he came home later than Sharada, but he was always there in time to cook something up. While he could have just bought takeaway on the way home, it was cheaper if he bought the raw ingredients and cooked it himself, and since they don't pay graduates all that well down at the Plushie Factory (plus the fickle managers keep firing the workers after only one hour for some reason) he needed to save money any way he could.
Sharada sat down in her seat next to Summer, who was sitting in her high-chair and googooing and gaagaaing. Before long Haru placed four plates of omelette on the table, and they sat down to eat.
Hiemal dug his face into the omelette like the little boy he was, while Haru took turns taking bites and feeding Summer. Sharada sat and fiddled with her omelette, still a bit dazed because she had only just woken up. It took Haru's voice to snap her out of it.
"So how was school today, Sharada?"
Slowly the anger that had made Sharada slam the door open and stomp up the stairs came back to her.
"It was horrible."
"Wha..? Horrible? Why's that?"
"I was told to stand up and read in class today, but my old edition of the textbook didn't have the section in it. The teacher said I need to hurry up and buy the newest one."
"I don't think we can afford that... Can't the teacher let you borrow someone else's to read the sections your book doesn't have?"
"No..." Sharada's voice dropped to a whisper, "nobody wants to let someone poor like me touch their book..."
"There must be one of your friends who'd be willing..."
"I don't have any friends!" Sharada's voice rang out through the room, "I've told you I need a new textbook so many times before but you never buy it! All the other kids at school call me the 'poor kid' and laugh at me because I can't even afford one simple book, and thanks to that and thanks to you I'm an outcast because everyone knows I don't have any money and my family's poor and..."
"QUIET DOWN!!" Haru bellowed, then letting it sink in for a moment, continued in a quieter, but still angry tone, "I'm trying the best I can with a measly wage at the Plushie Factory, but it's not easy and there's some things that we just can't afford. "
"Why not?! Why can't I be painted Maraquan or Plushie or Gold or..."
"Actually Golden Paint Brushes are relatively cheap compared to Maraquan or Plushie," said Hiemal with undue calmness.
"That's not the point! Why do we have to be so poor? It's embarrassing and I hate it! I mean, we have omelette pretty much every day and it's always jelly for dessert! When is it going to change?!"
"I always make sure that there's a different filling," said Haru.
"I don't want omelette anymore! I want to have gourmet food like all the other pets at school! I'm sick of omelette I'm sick of it!" Sharada pushed the plate off the table, which made a 'splosh!' sound as it splattered all over the carpet.
That was it. Sharada could see that Haru had lost his temper.
"I'VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS, SHARADA!! YOU WILL CLEAN THAT UP RIGHT THIS INSTANT!!"
Summer began crying, and even Hiemal looked a bit teary-eyed, but Sharada just stood up and looked straight into Haru's eyes.
"I don't want to!! I'm sick of being part of this poor family!! I'm leaving and I'm never going to come back!!" With that Sharada burst through the door and flew off into the darkness, ignoring Haru's voice telling her to come back.
Tears welled up in the poor Shoyru's eyes as she continued flying through the darkness. It was all because she was poor, Sharada thought. Because she was poor and because Haru was too stingy to buy her anything she had to be singled out and made fun of by all the kids at school. If only she had been born into a richer family. Then everything would have been so much better.
Sharada continued to fly on aimlessly, cursing her fate and feeling nothing but anger throughout her body, when suddenly that anger was replaced by immense pain as she flew face-first into a tree.
She slid down the trunk, hit a branch, bounced off to the right, hit another branch, bounced off to the left, and realising this must be what the pinball feels like in Legends of Pinball, bounced off several more branches until she hit the ground.
Her first thought was to send her score, but then realising that this wasn't a game, she looked around instead. She was sitting on the edge of a small patch of open field surrounded by a dark forest, with tall, scary trees , many of which were twisted and bent like they were reaching out to grab something. The field was mostly dirt with small patches of grass, a few old fallen logs, rocks and withered flowers, and the sky above was completely dark save for the countless stars and Kreludor that cast enough light to be able to see things fairly well on the ground below. She carefully picked herself up and walked towards the centre of the field, thinking that since it was slightly elevated it might prove to be a good vantage point.
When she got to the top she began surveying the sky, looking for several stars that she knew well. Being the smart girl that she was, she had a basic understanding of stargazing techniques and how to determine her position on Neopia based on the positioning of the stars... Or so she thought, but after several minutes of trying she couldn't remember if the formula she had just used was to find north or south.
"I should've read more books!" shouted Sharada in an agitated tone, despite the fact that she only knew anything about determining her position through stargazing in the first place because she once read an advanced scientific journal that a Lunar Temple apprentice had left at the library.
She was busy trying to remember where Kreludor should be relative to Neopia Central, when there was a rustling noise behind her. Slowly she turned around towards a large bush at the edge of the field. "It was just a Snowbunny, my shouting must have startled it, poor thing" thought Sharada to herself, but she quickly realised that Snowbunnies lived in much colder habitats, and if it was not a Snowbunny it could only be one thing—something evil.
Sharada tried to turn and run, but her legs wouldn't listen to her. All she could do was stare at the thick bush as it rustled again and again, like the thing was playing with her, prolonging the tension in a heinous act of twisted cruelty. It was horrible. It was terrifying. It was downright mean.
Finally a small dark figure, probably only 40% of Sharada's height, waddled out from behind the bush and looked at her. It had thick, green, unkempt fur, small yellow horns, razor-sharp teeth, and was carrying a small sack, probably filled with the bones of the pets it had eaten.
"AAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!" screamed Sharada.
"AAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!" screamed the creature.
"AAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!" screamed Sharada.
"AAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH!!!!" screamed the creature.
"AAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH?" screamed Sharada.
"AAAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH?" screamed the creature.
"AAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH," screamed Sharada.
"AAAAAARRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH," screamed the creature.
"Well, now that that's settled," said Sharada, "I think I'll be going on my way now." She turned and began walking away.
"Wait! That way goes straight into the Haunted Woods!"
Sharada looked back at the creature. "You can talk?"
"Of course." The creature motioned in the direction of a fallen log with his bag, which, despite the fact that it was filled with the bones of pets, clanged rather than rattled. "Have a seat. I'm here to help."
"I'm the Tax Beast. Nice to meet you." The creature sat to the left of Sharada, and she saw that up close he actually looked sort of fluffy and cute, so long as you didn't look at his razor-sharp teeth.
"I-I'm Sharada. Nice to meet you."
"Don't be scared."
"B-but... You screamed at me."
"Of course! I was greeting you. And you greeted me with a scream too."
"I screamed because I was scared," said Sharada.
"Huh? I thought all Neopets greet each other by screaming? That's how they greet me!"
"They scream because they're scared. You're a beast, after all, and screaming back at them doesn't help."
"Wow, so THAT'S why everyone is afraid of me..."
"So, anyway, um... How are you going to help me?"
"Oh yeah." The Tax Beast looked up and grinned at Sharada (which made her feel like running away again). "Why is a young Shoyru like you all the way in the Haunted Woods?"
"I..." Sharada looked down to hide the tears in her eyes, "I ran away from home."
"RAN AWAY FROM HOME!?!?!?" The Tax Beast jumped up, the bag in his hand clinking wildly (it was probably just filled with neopoints). "BUT WHY!?"
"I had a fight with my brother. You see, I need the newest addition of the textbook for my Neoschool, but my brother said we can't afford it so I have to make do with a FIVE year-old textbook... But because my textbook is old everyone knows I'm poor and won't play with me. I'm an outcast and I hate it. I wish I was born into a richer family, then I'd be happy for sure."
"Oh my," said the Tax Beast.
"Right? If only I was rich my life would be so much better!"
The Tax Beast got up and motioned for Sharada to follow him.
"There's something I think you should see. Come with me."
The Tax Beast began waddling off into the forest, not wanting to be left alone, Sharada followed him.
"So where are we going?" asked Sharada again after about forty minutes of walking.
They had just made it out of the forest, and were standing on the edge of a slight elevation that lead down into an open field. Beyond the field, there was the silhouette of a large castle, towards which the Tax Beast was pointing. Kreludor gleamed luminously in the night sky, and the imposing size of the castle would've made Sharada feel very scared, were it not for the artificial light coming from several of the windows, telling her that it was probably a residential castle.
"Why thank you, Tax Beast!" said Sharada happily. "You've led me out of the woods! Now I just have to go and ask whoever lives in that castle to help me."
"Ah, not quite. I want you to accompany me as I work."
"Yes, and then you'll see something very important."
Sharada followed the Tax Beast as he went into the castle. He entered the home without even knocking, walked through the long halls, and came upon a large room with an elongated table surrounded by many high-backed chairs. The table was adorned with a glorious feast of all kinds of expensive food, and at the head of the table sat a young Jelly Usul who was arguing with a Maractite Eyrie.
"But why can't you at least stay for dinner?" said the Usul, turning his head around to look at the Eyrie, who was getting ready to go out.
"I'm sorry, darling, but now is one of the best times to restock, and I still have some dailies to do."
"Why do you always have to do that stuff every day?"
"It's thanks to my doing it every day that you get to live in a nice castle and have such delicious—ARRRRGHHHH!!!!" The Eyrie had turned around and saw the Tax Beast waddling towards her, so naturally she screamed.
"ARR—I mean, howdy, how do you do? I'm the Tax Beast."
The Eyrie groaned, but looking as if she wanted to get it over with quickly, took a bag of Neopoints out from her pocket and handed it to him.
"Now you don't have any money to restock and stuff, so you can stay here, can't you?" said the Usul eagerly.
"Oh, don't you worry, darling," the Eyrie fixed up her tie in the mirror, "I can just go to the bank and get some more."
The Usul slumped down in his chair.
"This was just a minor setback—ooh! Maybe I can get a tax beast trophy! I'll have to check that too. I'll be home late tonight, remember to put yourself to bed. Love you!"
In a flurry the Eyrie whirred about the room making last-second preparations, exiting so quickly that her last words were almost lost in the deep, booming halls of the castle. In the meantime Sharada was staring at the banquet laid out upon the table, barely able to control her urge to snap up all the wonderful food and stuff it in her mouth.
"Um... are you sure you can eat all that..?" Sharada asked the Jelly Usul, who had his head on the table and his arms dangling by his sides, like he was unbelievably bored.
"I don't want to eat any of it!" he said, pushing away a Bag of Peanuts.
"Well then I gueff vyou von't maind iv I haf sum." Sharada was mostly unintelligible because she had already begun gulping food down.
It was the most delicious food that Sharada had ever tasted, even tastier than how it smelled when she sat alone in the cafeteria at school and watched all the other pets eating it. This must be what being rich tastes like, she thought to herself, and concluded that being rich tasted amazing. She stuffed her face like a Snorkle, and it was only when she realised the Usul still wasn't eating anything, that she became concerned.
"Why aren't you eating anything?" she asked between mouthfuls.
"I don't want it."
"Why? It's so delicious!"
"It's not delicious when you eat it alone."
"Huh?" Sharada stopped stuffing her face and looked at the Usul. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I'd rather have a plain omelette with my mother than a gourmet banquet without her!"
Although the Usul's face was hidden on the table, somehow she could tell he was crying.
"B... But the reason why you can eat such tasty food is because she works so hard! She sacrifices her time to make sure you get to-"
"I'd rather she sacrificed the time she spends getting rich to spend time with me!"
Sharada was speechless. She imagined what it would be like if Haru worked every day to keep them rich. Sure, at first the perks of wealth would be great, but eventually they would wear off, and then she'd find that there was something missing. Even with Hiemal and Summer there, without Haru the family would be incomplete. All the time they spent together—eating cheap omelettes and jellies, talking and bickering and laughing—she realised she cherished these moments more than anything in Neopia. These moments that money could not buy.
Sharada put down the Negg in her hand and looked at the Tax Beast, who was busy at the other end of the table stuffing his face with food.
"I think I understand why you wanted me to accompany you," she said.
"You do? Well, let's get going then."
The Tax Beast jumped down from his chair and waddled off down the hallway. Sharada followed suit, turning around just before leaving to speak to the Usul.
"I think, if you tell your mother what you told me... if you tell her you don't mind losing all the luxuries of being rich if it means you get to spend more time together... I think she'll understand. Sometimes people get so caught up in their own ideas that they forget to think about what the other person's feeling—but if you're family, you can work through that."
When Sharada came out into the crisp, night-time air, the Tax Beast was already outside waiting for her.
"Well, have you figured out what I was trying to tell you?"
"Yes," Sharada replied, "you wanted to show me that being rich doesn't equate to being happy."
"Family is something you should cherish, because there's nothing more important in the world."
The Tax Beast walked up to Sharada, and began in a slighty hushed voice:
"I'll let you in on a little secret. I don't actually tax people out of the darkness of my heart. I'm trying to help them, when I take away some of their money."
"What about when you're the Angry Tax Beast?"
"Sometimes I've just had a bad day," said the Tax Beast quickly, "anyway, everyone thinks they'll be happy if they're rich, but in the quest for money they lose sight of what really matters. They become so obsessed with making money, that they forget that true wealth isn't measured by how many Neopoints or trophies or avatars they have, but by what they feel—in their heart."
To this heart-warming and poignant speech, Sharada screwed up her face like she was chewing on some Alien Aisha food.
"Wow, that is so cheesy!" she said
"Oi! I help you get out of the woods, teach you a valuable lesson, and even get you a meal, and this is what I get in repayment?"
"Okay, okay, I was kidding, I'm sorry," she said, "thank you, you were really helpful. But could you tell me which way Neopia Central is, so I can go home and apologise to my brother?"
"Yeah, just keep going North-East and you'll see it before long."
"Okay, thanks again!" Sharada gave the Tax Beast a big hug, then took off into the night sky.
Sharada saw the figure of Haru pacing back and forth before the house. She was somewhat apprehensive about being yelled at for running away (especially since Zafaras can't fly so they was no way Haru could've caught her), but she knew she deserved it. However, when she landed before him, she was surprised to find that instead of getting angry, Haru hugged her so tightly that her eyes bulged like a Spardel.
"I was so worried about you!" he said.
"I'm sorry Haru, I shouldn't have run away... I'm sorry," Sharada couldn't stop the tears from flowing from her eyes.
"It's okay, Sharada. I was wrong too. From tomorrow I'll look for the newest edition of your textbook. I'll keep searching until I find it at a price we can afford. Don't you worry."
Sharada shook her head.
"I don't care if I don't have the newest edition of the text book. I don't care if we don't have expensive foods or colours or clothes. So long as I have you, and Hiemal and Summer, we'll be the wealthiest family in Neopia!"