The Fishbowl

by Shrink Laureate

1. Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest

Vinyl Scratch rested her hand on the horizon. It felt rough to the touch, like terracotta. Looking through and beyond it, the landscape appeared to continue on in three dimensions, though much simpler than the real landscape on this side. Plants, dunes and even wildlife were repeated in regular patterns, as if the rolling hills around town were mass-produced.

She felt the warmth of the sun and a pleasant breeze. Glancing up at the sky, she wondered just how much of it was real. Where did reality end and illusion begin?

As a young girl, Vinyl Scratch had a doll. It was a ragged thing, with round stumps for hands and feet, and mismatched buttons for eyes, but Vinyl loved him anyway. She carried him everywhere, talked to him, played with him. She called him Smarty Pants.

Later, of course, she forgot about him and moved on with life.

Until a few years later, when visiting her friend’s house, she found a doll in the cupboard, tucked behind piles of music books and boxes of toys. It had round stumps for hands and feet, and mismatched buttons for eyes.

“Hey, Tavi. Why do you have my doll?”

Octavia poked her head round the door. “Hmm? Oh, you found Smarty Pants. I haven’t seen her in ages.”

Vinyl frowned. “Sure, but what’s he doing here? Last I saw he was in my attic.”

“What would my old doll be doing in your attic?”

She looked closer at it. The two eye buttons were different colours, the thread was pulling out of the left armpit, and there was a smudge of peanut butter grease on the right foot. It was exactly as she remembered it. “Tavi, this is totally my doll.”

“What are you talking about, Vinyl? I’ve had that doll since I was six.”

“And I’ve had Smarty Pants since I was four.”

“Are you...? Ugh. Why do you have to get so competitive over the weirdest things? Now come on, we have eight tubs of ice cream to get rid of before my mum gets home.”

Students would agree that the area around Canterlot High School was not the most exciting, but it was at least set in a pleasant environment. Green hills surrounded the valley, with the orchards of Sweet Apple Acres to the south, and the town was liberally sprinkled with parks.

The high school, too, had a generous allotment of sports fields and semi-wild environments, all to encourage its students into healthy outdoor activities. A motley fleet of motorcycles, four wheelers and other vehicles had been salvaged from neighbouring farms and scrapyards and dragged to the school motor shop. Those that could be repaired were raced, inevitably too fast, around an improvised motocross course.

There was just one place off limits to students: the beehives. For as long as anyone could remember, the bees at Canterlot High had been famously spiteful, and would lash out at any student or staff member foolish enough to get close without the full equipment.

On sunny days, the students would pour out of the cafeteria, trays in hand, and scatter across the grounds in little groups, finding places to eat.

Today, though, the sky was overcast and marred by showers. Rivulets dribbled down the statue out front, and a chilling wind blew through the scaffolding where until recently the school's front doors had been. Students crowded together in the cafeteria, carving out slices of territory.

Trixie preferred to eat alone, but that wasn’t easy in a room this busy. The best she could do was claim a corner of a table and hope to avoid too many questions and elbows.

A tray landed opposite hers.

“Yo, Trix. Can I ask you a question?”

Trixie looked up in surprise. What was Vinyl Scratch, of all people, doing talking to her now?

The canteen was just starting to get busy with students collecting lunch, chatting, playing the daily game of who sits with who. Vinyl slid her tray down and hopped onto the seat opposite Trixie’s, without waiting for a response.

“Certainly you may ask the Great and Pow—”

“Yeah yeah,” Vinyl cut in with a wave. “So, you had toys when you were little, right?”

She replied cautiously. “Of course I did.”

“Ever have any dolls?” asked Vinyl.

“Er, yes,” replied Trixie, unsure where this was going.

“Do you remember any of their names?”

“Um.” Trixie took a moment to think. “If Trixie remembers correctly, there was one called Smarty Pants, one called Philomena, one called Lemon…”

Rainbow Dash, walking past their table with a tray, cut in with, “No way, you too?”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie begs your pardon?”

“Eh, you can have it!” she called out, walking off. Rainbow Dash was intolerable sometimes. Trixie shook off her annoyance and turned her attention back to Vinyl’s odd interrogation.

Behind her big coloured glasses, Vinyl’s eyes were sharp. “Tell me about Smarty Pants.”

“Um. She was a ragged old doll, made of cloth. Full of dry beans, I think. She had buttons for eyes.”

“She? Not he?”

“Definitely a girl, yes,” Trixie replied, still confused.

“Did she have any distinguishing marks? Like, damage or something?”

Trixie looked sheepish. “She had a stain on one foot, from jelly or something. It wouldn’t go away.”

“Do you still have her?”

“Er, sorry, I think she may have been lost somewhere during the divorce.”

Vinyl leaned against the locker, watching students skip, run, slouch, march, and slither past. Her head bobbed to a wordless musical beat. Behind her coloured glasses, her eyes were sharp, focusing on each face that passed.

I need another lead.

I know that at least three of us had the same doll. I found him in Tavi’s cupboard, but that could be something we did years ago and both forgot about. Two is a coincidence.

But three is a trend. I picked Trixie to ask at random. Well, sort of – she was easy to approach on her own. I thought she might give me a better idea what sort of dolls people had. I didn’t expect her to have the exact same Smarty Pants as us.

He wasn’t ever a commercial model, at least not under that name. I checked. So what are the chances anyone else would have him as well?

She surveyed the foot traffic in the school hall: Big Macintosh, walking past carrying a box of supplies for the school kitchen while his little sister provided hindrance. Fleur de Lis and Minuette talking about foreign fashion. Fluttershy being told off by Mr Doodle for releasing some frogs that were due to be dissected in a biology class. Flash Sentry pleading with Rarity for something in which she was clearly not interested.

I can’t just go around asking random people. I’d quickly turn from ‘that chick with the cool shades’ into ‘that girl with the dolls’. Not as cool.

For the same reason I can’t put up a poster saying ‘Is this your doll? Call Vinyl Scratch!’ Or even if I made it anonymous, I’d get prank calls and people would find out eventually. And I’d probably end up having to give away my own Smarty Pants to somebody who’d lost theirs and believed I’d taken it.

I need another lead.

Three weeks after that, Vinyl was working till in the music shop when he walked in.

She didn’t recognise him until he came to the till to buy a depressingly mainstream smooth jazz compilation and a disk of Gregorian chant. Vinyl spied a fancy bottle of wine and a pack of condoms in his bag, making it clear what his priorities for the night were. He had a big embarrassed grin on his face as he fumbled for his wallet. Luckily, Vinyl’s shades disguised her eyes so he didn’t notice her attention.

But it was him. Her ragged old doll, Smarty Pants. Vinyl couldn’t explain why she was so sure. It wasn’t like he was made of cloth and beans, though he did manage to give that impression with the baggy coat, nor were his mismatched eyes made of buttons under those big round glasses he wore. But it was totally him, in every way.

“Mr S. Pants,” it said on the front of his credit card. Vinyl’s hands were shaking a little by the time she handed the card back with a receipt.

As he was leaving the shop, she cast an eye at the bottom of his trousers. He had a familiar stain on the right trouser leg, just above his shoe.

Vinyl kept a safe distance. She avoided any of the stupid things you might do to draw attention to yourself when following somebody, such as hiding behind things, disguising your face, or stopping when the person you’re following stops. She took her brightly coloured glasses off, though, since those tended to stand out.

Smarty Pants led her to Hollow Shades, one of the older parts of town, full of irregular buildings, pretty alleyways and strange shops that couldn’t possibly make any money.

He stopped at a small fountain in one of the old town's many picturesque little squares, all tiles and old bricks. This one also had boxes of flowers and an arched trellis with vines, making it a romantic place to meet. The sun was setting, bathing the square in lovely warm colours. Vinyl watched them through a brick archway, then slipped into a cosy little wedding shop and browsed the knick-knacks by the window, keeping an eye on Smarty Pants in case he left.

He looked nervous as he stood waiting, checking his watch with increasing regularity until his date turned up. It was a girl Vinyl didn’t recognise, with pink skin and green hair, wearing a Crystal Prep uniform. Vinyl was slightly surprised that the girl looked to be about her own age, clearly a few years younger than this version of Smarty Pants, and definitely too young for wine and condoms (to say nothing of Gregorian chant). She was ready to chalk it up as a mistake, but the sultry kiss the couple shared left little doubt.

“Are you having fun playing the spy?” asked a whisper in her ear.

Vinyl jumped back, almost falling into the woman who now stood behind her. She caught Vinyl and set her upright.

“I– I’m sorry, er, what?”

“Looks to me like you’ve taken quite an interest in Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest over there,” said the woman with a grin. She was tall and lean, with black skin, turquoise hair and strikingly big green eyes. She had a strangely deep voice, soothing like melted chocolate.

“Not at all. I was just…”

“Just thinking of buying a bow tie and cufflinks?” the shopkeeper asked sarcastically. “Well, the style might suit you, but I’d recommend something more flamboyant.”

Vinyl looked for the first time at the shelves she’d been browsing, realising she was caught. “Please don’t tell them,” she pleaded.

“Tell who?”

Vinyl indicated the couple who were now walking arm-in-arm down a twisty alleyway filled with charming little shops. “Them. I mean, you clearly know them...”

“I know everypony in this town,” said the black woman dismissively.

Every… pony? What does that mean?

“I know Smarty Pants and Lemon Zest. I know you, Vinyl Scratch. I know your friend Octavia. I know Lyra and Bon Bon and Pinkie Pie and Celestia and Luna. But why would I bother telling any of them anything? After all,” she said with a yawn, “they’re not even real.”

They're not even... what?