"We’re doomed!” Sulvi wailed.
The baby Aisha rocked back and forth in the darkest corner of the lounge, unable to meet her brother’s apprehensive gaze.
“Doomed is a pretty strong word,” Zypea the pea Chia observed her distress calmly from his position on the sofa. “We’re just in a bit of a pickle. A spot of bother, if you will. A temporary setback.”
“Enough with the synonyms,” Sulvi groaned, holding up one paw in a half-hearted attempt to silence him. “No amount of wordplay can fix this mess. It’s a disaster! A catastrophe! It could spell the ruin of us all!”
“It might even be bad.”
Sulvi groaned again. “This isn’t the time for jokes, Zypea.”
The pea Chia deflated almost instantly. His jesting was usually enough to cheer Sulvi up, but her current demeanour suggested it was now achieving the exact opposite. Besides, he knew she was right; they were in serious trouble.
“Look, there’s got to be a way to fix this,” he insisted seriously. “We just have to think.”
Sulvi shook her head sadly. “It’s no use. Sky worked so hard on her story for the special 750th issue of the Neopian Times. And now, thanks to us, it was all for nothing.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” Zypea tried again to reassure her. “We just wanted to help. Who would have thought that starting a five-part series in Issue 745 would make it end in Issue 749? It’s not our fault the math didn’t want to cooperate.”
Sulvi managed to choke out a laugh through her tears. “That’s a stretch, even for you. Everyone knows that you would have had to start the series in Issue 746.”
“Not everyone, apparently,” Zypea sighed. “If there’s anyone Sky should be mad at, it’s me. I was the one who submitted it too early.”
“But it was my idea to submit it for her in the first place,” Sulvi argued despondently. “We’re both in hot water.”
They sat in silence for a moment, stewing in their thoughts. Not for the first time, Sulvi wished that Sky had never decided to attend Brightvale University. Then she could have submitted her own story and they wouldn’t have gotten themselves into this mess. More than that though, Sulvi missed her other flatmate. It hurt to think that their ill-fated scheme might drive a wedge between them.
“At least she already has the avatar,” Zypea mused optimistically.
“Yeah, but what about the prize?” Sulvi reminded him. “We’re flat broke again, and it would have helped us to get the neopoints we need. Unless you want to eat omelettes for the rest of your life?”
“We really are doomed,” Zypea shivered with revulsion at the idea. “Sky could show up any minute and then she’ll find out I lost...”
A lump formed in his throat and he trailed off, unable to continue.
“What did you lose?” Sky’s cheerful voice floated down the hallway.
The front door slammed shut, and the two ‘pets eyed each other with barely constrained panic.
“Uh... nothing,” Sulvi covered for her brother quickly. “We were just playing cards, and he’s upset because I won.”
The lie earned them a chuckle. “What am I going to do with you two? Every time I turn my back, you seem to be getting into trouble.”
You don’t know half of it, Sulvi thought miserably.
Sky bustled into the lounge carrying a large duffel bag in one hand and a thin cardboard box in the other. She set them both on the table, then reached up to remove her scarf.
“It’s good to be home at last,” the eventide Kacheek declared emphatically. “Brightvale is a nice place, but I’d rather be here in Meridell.”
“We’ve really missed having you around,” Sulvi admitted, doing her best to hide her jitters.
“That’s for sure,” Zypea agreed. “What’s in the box?”
“Omelette,” Sky answered unenthusiastically. “I thought I should pick some up on my way here. Are you two hungry?”
The pained expression on Zypea’s face spoke volumes, and Sulvi had to struggle against her own desire to grimace. Fortunately, Sky didn’t seem to notice.
“A little,” she shrugged.
“We might as well have an early dinner then,” Sky announced, flipping open the box. “Help yourselves.”
The diverging aromas of butter, cheese and herbs wafted towards them, so Sulvi plucked up the courage to scoop out a serving. The eggy glob fell limply on her plate, and she quickly stifled her disgust. Zypea followed suit, albeit less successfully.
“So,” he began tentatively as they ate, “how did your exams go, Sky?”
“Great!” the Kacheek enthused. “I’m getting my results tomorrow, but I’m pretty sure I aced them all. And now that they’re over, I can dedicate my entire summer break to writing.”
Sulvi and Zypea exchanged glances. Sky had only just arrived home, and their conversation was already slipping into dangerous territory.
“That’s awesome,” Sulvi pasted a fake smile on her face.
“Yeah, it’s pretty exciting,” Sky agreed. “But enough about me. What did you two get up to today?”
Unbidden, images of the day’s activities raced through Sulvi’s mind. Finding Sky’s acceptance letter in the mailbox. Jumping around the house with excitement. Sobbing inconsolably because of their mistake. Frantically shoving the additional five trophies into the bottomless pit of Zypea’s closet...
She hastily blinked the memories away before Sky could notice her lapse in concentration.
“Nothing much,” she answered casually. “We went for a walk this morning and played cards all afternoon.”
“You weren’t playing poker, were you?” Sky peered at them suspiciously.
Sulvi sucked in a breath. Gambling was surely a lesser crime in their household than messing with the Neopian Times – or so she hoped. Maybe they could use Sky’s conjecture to their advantage.
“Yeah, you got us,” she laughed nervously. “But it was just a friendly game. We played with rocks instead of neopoints.”
“We’re not in trouble, are we?” Zypea asked, obviously catching on to his sister’s ploy.
Sky shook her head and sighed. “No, you’re not in trouble. If you say it was just a friendly game, then I believe you. I just thought it was strange that Zypea was so upset over losing. Not to mention how guilty you were acting.”
“We were?” Sulvi risked glancing at her. The plan was working.
“Very,” Sky chuckled. “I’m majoring in psychology, remember? It’s easy to pick up on these things with a bit of training.”
“Anyway, I’m really proud of you for owning up,” Sky continued as she set her empty plate down on the table. “Honesty isn’t always easy, but it shows a great deal of maturity.”
Her speech was mercifully short, but it was still enough to send waves of trepidation down their spines. Not only had they told another outright lie, but they had taken credit for a virtue they certainly weren’t displaying at the moment. It was only when Sky retired to bed that Sulvi and Zypea dared to make eye contact again.
“What do we do?” the baby Aisha hissed despairingly. “We can’t own up now.”
“Relax,” Zypea cajoled. “Thanks to your quick thinking, she doesn’t suspect a thing.”
“But now we’re in an even deeper hole,” Sulvi pointed out, shaking her head sadly. “I hope you have another one of your brilliant ideas to bail us out.”
Zypea was silent for a span of seconds, then nodded slowly. “I have a plan. Just leave it to me.”***
As it turned out, Zypea’s “plan” was more of a vague inkling. Sulvi was on tenterhooks all morning until Sky finally went into town to collect her exam results.
“Covering our tracks should be the easy part,” the pea Chia explained as he intercepted the delivery Weewoo . “All we have to do is stop Sky from reading the Neopian Times for a few weeks, and then deliver the acceptance letter and trophies at the right moment.”
“And what about the 750th issue?” Sulvi prompted. “She’s going to notice something’s wrong when she doesn’t get the prize.”
“That’s the tricky part,” Zypea acknowledged seriously. “We’re going to have to write another story.”
Sulvi froze in shock.
“But we don’t know the first thing about writing!” she protested.
“No one said this was going to be easy,” Zypea reminded her. “But we don’t have a lot of options here; it’s either write or confess. And I think I know which one you prefer.”
Sulvi nodded numbly. They may have dug themselves a hole, but they weren’t prepared to lie down in it just yet. Not if there was a way to climb out by themselves.
“We should start brainstorming right away,” Zypea continued. “After all, we don’t want a repeat of yesterday.”
As soon as he uttered the last syllable, the front door squeaked open to herald their flatmate’s return.
So much for brainstorming, Sulvi shifted her weight uneasily as Sky walked into the room.
“Hey Sky,” Sulvi greeted her tentatively. “How were your exam results?”
“A+ across the board,” the Kacheek answered, but her voice sounded far away.
“Congratulations!” Zypea beamed up at her. “You must be thrilled!”
“I was,” Sky exhaled heavily. “Until I saw this.”
The Kacheek fished a copy of the latest Neopian Times from her bag and slapped it on the table for emphasis. Sulvi’s heart thudded painfully against her ribs. She hadn’t even considered that her friend might simply buy another paper in town. The baby Aisha risked a glance at Zypea, who continued staring straight ahead. They were both in real trouble now.
“I wrote this series for the special 750th issue,” Sky explained quietly. “I don’t remember actually submitting it, but the critics are having a field day. This one guy called me a Jay McKyriiney wannabe just because I wrote from a second-person perspective.”
“Don’t listen to them!” Sulvi blurted out before she could stop herself. “The second-person perspective is cool.”
Sky’s brow crinkled in confusion. “But you haven’t even read my series. How would you know if it was right for the story or not?”
Sulvi mentally kicked herself for the slip-up. If only she had held her tongue! Her resolve was already starting to crumble under her friend’s curious stare, and it was only a matter of time before the dreadful truth would be revealed. She exhaled shakily. It was now or never.
“Because we did read your series.”
Sky’s mouth fell open. “You did? But when–?”
“We found it on your desk,” Sulvi admitted, not daring to meet her friend’s eyes. “I know you don’t like it when we read things before you finish writing them, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I wanted to see what would happen next. And you were away for so long, we were afraid you would miss the deadline. So I told Zypea...”
She swallowed hard.
“She told me to send it in,” Zypea reluctantly took up the narrative. “I’m so sorry, Sky. I... I got the dates wrong.”
Silence stretched for what seemed like an eternity, even though it was only a few seconds. Sulvi stared at the floor, choking back tears.
“You liked my story?”
Sulvi’s head shot up. Sky didn’t sound angry; in fact, her voice seemed to be saturated with jubilance.
“Of course I did,” the baby Aisha nodded vigorously. “I wouldn’t have pushed Zypea to submit it otherwise.”
“Does... does this mean you aren’t mad?” Zypea cut in hesitantly.
“Mad? How could I be mad?” Sky shook her head happily. “Hearing that someone actually enjoys my work is the best feeling in the world!”
Relief flooded through Sulvi when she heard her friend’s words of appreciation.
She doesn’t hate us, the baby Aisha couldn’t suppress a sigh of relief. It’s all going to be okay now.
“What about the prize though?” Zypea queried. Obviously, he was still concerned about the omelette situation.
“Yeah, that might be a bit problematic,” Sky admitted with a shrug. “But you know what?”
Sulvi and Zypea shook their heads in unison, curious to hear what she had to say.
“We can just write a new story for the 750th issue,” Sky grinned. “Together.”