Ballindalloch: Part Four
"Albert, my good friend, tell me; could I ask you a question?"
Albert, the green Lutari, struggled infinitely to loosen his necktie. He always had the utmost difficulty removing this particular one before bed. "A question?" he parroted, his face wry, his tone distracted. "What is your question, Daniel?"
Daniel only smiled. "Ah, I see now," discerned Albert. "It's concerning her, is it not?"
Daniel's smile shone brighter than the amalgamated force of the stars and Kreludor above their safe house. "It is." His breath seemed to get stuck in his throat, and he forced the words out in a diffident little cough.
"What is your question, my good friend?" the teenager inquired.
"Well, I suppose it is just..." And his custard-coloured cheeks took on the colour of roses. "What do you think of her, I suppose. She's nice, isn't she?"
"Very nice," Albert concurred. "Pretty, too."
Daniel looked as though something in his bosom was making him physically ill, or exceedingly elated. "She is very pretty, Albert. And what do you suppose she thinks of me?"
"I think she thinks that you're a silly boy." He held him fast by the shoulder, doubled him over and ruffled his hair. The Lupe recoiled. "I think you may be right," he said. "She worries so much, you know. When I climbed to the top of the birch tree today, she cried for me to get down. I didn't at first, and she kept asking. Soon she looked as if she would burst into tears at any moment, and so I got down. Do you think she thinks me the careless sort?"
"I think she's a delicate heart," Albert mused. "You know what she has been through. You shouldn't frighten her the way you do. You needn't try so hard to impress her." There was a tugging at the corners of Albert's lips now, and he said, "Everyone knows you are the most yourself when you're around her."
From his sitting position, Daniel allowed himself to fall backwards onto his bed. "Do you really think so, Albert?"
"I know so," Albert assured his good friend. "Everyone does."
The most contented sigh escaped the custard Lupe's lips as he lay on top of his bed sheets, his enraptured head upon his blissful pillow. As slumber came to him he could not help but think about how wonderful the world was, and how profusely blessed, that she, his dear friend, abided in it. He smiled his smile to the ceiling.
It was official: Ballindalloch was the tallest house in Meridell. They could have fit another floor in the space they used to make the ceilings look like King Skarl's castle. The ceilings, Carleigh thought, were only practical in the kitchen, where the cupboards started three quarters of the way up the walls and went all the way to the ceiling. Of course, since Carleigh Larkin was far from the tallest pet in Meridell, she needed to stand on a kitchen chair to be able to reach the top rows of shelves. Or the top two rows of shelves. Then there was that half cupboard above the refrigerator that she couldn't reach at all. That one would be used for seasonal dishes — that is, the ones that had survived Damien's Grand Fall.
"Dad? Dad? Hey, Dad? Dad, can I ask you something?" Avery chased the grocery-bag-laden speckled Bori in question around the kitchen. "Yes Avery?" he responded at last, dropping the bags on the counter and climbing onto a chair himself. Man these cupboards were high.
"What time did you go to work this morning?"
Her father paused in his stretching and cursing briefly, to think. "Five-thirty," he recalled. "Why do you ask?"
At five-thirty a.m. it would still have been dark out. It was bright in the room when Avery had started to wake up this morning. Very bright. "And you didn't come into my room at all before you left, right?"
"No, why? What've you got in there, a monster?" her father teased.
The speckled Bori stopped for real now. He held onto the cupboard — he needed that extra balance — and got down from the chair to face his daughter. "A ghost?"
At first, Avery said nothing. She stood looking up at her dad, perhaps waiting for him to say more, perhaps wishing she'd said nothing herself. She didn't know why — she hadn't thought she would do this — her eyes began to well up with tears.
"Avery, what's wrong?"
The little girl's eyes and words spilled over at once. "Someone was in my room today and it wasn't you and it wasn't Mom and it wasn't Noah." Her sentence came out as if it was a single long word. "I thought it was a dream..." she sobbed, "but then a girl at the grocery store said that our house was haunted."
Damien Larkin cast his wife a concerned glance. "We ran into a woman and her daughter today," Carleigh began to explain. "They live a block away from us, and they knew a bit about the house. Supposedly the last owners left because they said there was something in the house."
"It's a ghost," Avery sniveled. "Emma said everyone says Ballindalloch's haunted."
"Avery, she was younger than you!" her mother interjected. "You're not gonna believe something a little kid said, are you? Especially not something like that!"
"I do believe her," Avery asserted, first despondently, then aggressively. "I do believe her, I do believe her, I do believe her!" And the tears just came and came. She clenched her fists into tight balls. "Remember... when I told you about... the swing? The artifact swing?" They nodded they did. "On the day we came here... the first time I saw it, it... it moved on its own!" The Bori had to fight to rein in her sobs, as her irritated diaphragm forced every word to come out in gasps and sniffs and coughs.
"Mom and I both went to see that swing," Avery's father said calmly. "It didn't move for either of us. It was probably just the wind."
"It wasn't the wind, guys. It was a ghost. Our house is haunted. We have to leave!"
"Avery, I thought you loved this house." Her mother spoke softly. She tilted her chin down slightly to look her daughter directly in her teary eyes. There was no calming Avery Patricia down.
"That was before it was haunted, Mom. Before I knew it was haunted." Avery met her mother's gaze with one just as resolute, just as firm. "We have to go back to our old house."
"The old house has already been sold."
"We have to buy a new house, then! Let's go live with Grandma! Fyora on High, let's live in a tent for all I care!" Carleigh now served her husband a look. There was no point in asking where she'd learned that kind of language from.
"We're not moving, Avery." Her father was the one, the very brave one, to break it to her. "Our house is not haunted. There are no such thing as ghosts."
Avery turned pleading eyes toward her mother. She could always trust Mom, even when Dad was against her...
"Why don't you go outside?" the Xweetok suggested. "It's a beautiful day. Why don't you and Noah go out and play something? I'll be out in a few minutes."
She had lost her battle. They didn't believe her. With nothing else to say, Avery turned on her heel and ran out of the kitchen.
Her lilies of the valley were in full bloom, a fragile beauty transcending all Neopia's beauty, just as she had envisioned them to be when they were but dormant bulbs. It was midsummer and hot, but the flowers flourished. In their own circle of stones, next to Samuel's stone spiral interspersed with tiny flowers nobody but Uncle Richard could pronounce, but that were orange and red and yellow and very pretty, the green stalks were verdant and the faerie-winged bells seemed to emanate mirth and gaiety in their honey scent.
She had come here with the fervid hope that the Something in their scent was contagious, for the same Samuel who had planted the long-named flowers weeks ago had fallen ill through the night; and she was in dire need of mirth and gaiety, and encouragement.
Only yesterday Samuel had gone on an excursion to the market with his mother — her own Aunt Florence, the gentle woman was. They came back with some bread and some cheese and some vegetables, some yarn for Hattie's little knitting business, and Samuel had come back with some candy and a terrible cough. He coughed through lunch and through dinner, when he played outside he coughed, and when it was time to go to sleep he was coughing still. In the morning when they had awakened, the children had been informed that during the night Samuel had come down with a terrible fever.
The doctor had been called; he said he didn't know what was wrong with the small spotted Kacheek, that there was no name for what he had. The usually exuberant boy was exhausted from spasmodic, violent coughing fits, and he had a headache from the strain, which he spoke of in a very small voice — or so she could only imagine, as none of the children were allowed in to see him. The doctor could not say for certain whether the sickness was contagious, but there had been four other cases in Whittaker of Neopians who suffered from the same symptoms over the past week. For this reason, he ordered that Samuel stay behind closed doors.
Not a soul knew how long the sickness would last, how long the house would feel enveloped in silence and uncertainty as if they were walking on pins and needles, or as if they were surrounded by pins and needles so that they did not know where to step, and they had no choice but to remain still and wait for Fyora-only-knows-what. It would not be forever, but it felt an eternity.
To avert their weary and restless minds, she and Hattie had decided to knit a blanket for Samuel. He said that he was cold, and basic blankets were simple to make, and quick.
She sighed over her lilies of the valley, the multitude of white teardrops they continually cried. Why, she wondered, did it have to be Samuel to fall ill? She could not attempt to fathom more chiasmic a contrast than the one between her cousin and all that he was, and the ailing state which he was in now.
Samuel, dear loud Samuel! Energetic, perpetually busy, sometimes troublesome but never troubled. He disliked school because he vehemently despised being made to sit still, and yet he graciously wiped the blackboard for the teacher and stayed to clean up after class. He had once told his sister, Margret-Rose, to pluck berries from an artificial plant and eat them, and she did so and was sick, and he felt so sinful he wept. He liked to eat cream puffs, mostly because he liked when the cream got all over his nose and everyone would laugh. And he had never been ill before. He was too strong.
She and Hattie must begin their blanket soon, she thought, or Samuel's health would be returned to him before it was finished!
Then, footsteps, she sensed, on the grass; nearing her ever so slowly, conscientious not to startle. Soon she realized a soft presence behind her.
"I thought I would find you here." Hattie's voice was light, and careful. The purple Acara's gaze fell to the foot of her dress when met with the hopeful eyes of her cousin. "It's my mother," Hattie said. "She has started to cough, too."
Outside there was a well. Not a wishing well with a fancy roof, but more like a hole in the ground where there used to be water, surrounded by flat little bricks that you would either see from far away, thus decreasing your chance of falling in the hole, or not see and wind up tripping over, wedging your leg in the hole and breaking your ankle. Avery herself hadn't seen it until her third day in the house, the bricks were so flat and little and inconspicuous. She must not have walked across the left side of the lawn.
When she had discovered it she had been ecstatic, perhaps happier than anyone has ever been over the discovery of a hole. She thought it must have been dug by the original family, but then her father had told her that many houses didn't have plumbing up until about seventy years ago, which meant it could have been dug by anyone during the house's first eighty-four years. And that had let the air out of her balloon a bit. No matter what though, the well was old — so old that it was another treasured artifact, and none of the house's recent owners had wanted to have it filled in.
Avery kicked at a pebble with her sandalled foot. It skittered into the brick, and she decided she would try to lift it with the part of her shoe where her toes didn't quite reach and toss it into the hole. It took a few tries, but when she finally did it the pebble didn't make a splash sound or a plop sound, but rather a practically inaudible thump when it hit the invisible bottom, which was how Avery knew for a fact that there was no longer any water in the well. If it had been a wishing well, she could have tossed a coin. She knew what her wish would have been... But the well didn't have any water in it, anyway, so it wouldn't have come true.
Avery knew she couldn't be angry with her parents. She had no right to, no reason. They weren't angry with her. They weren't teamed up against her, like it so often seemed to children that parents did. They didn't think she was lying. Worst case scenario, her mother thought she was being immature for believing the outlandish story of a younger child. The idea frustrated Avery, though she knew it did not merit anger. Her parents simply thought she was scared, which was true. They thought she had heard something that had upset her, which was true, and had worked herself up over nothing — ha! If only that were true!
Their house was haunted, and they needed to get out. Avery knew it, and she supposed she had known it ever since the day her family had moved in, when the swing had started to swing on its own; somewhere in the recesses of her innermost, least visited and most hated heart, she knew it. Their house was haunted, their house was haunted, their house was haunted. What could she do to convince them?
A Beekadoodle flew overhead, and Avery watched it as it swooped into the sweetgum tree. Hadn't her mother said she would be out in a few minutes, with Noah? They still weren't out. Noah must have made some calamitous mess in the house, or something. Unless Mom had discovered more boxes that needed to be unpacked, or decided to rearrange the furniture, again. Any or all were highly feasible.
And so Avery wandered the grounds by herself, quietly resenting the fact that she was alone. That she was alone meant she could clear her thoughts, cool off from the events of the kitchen. But she had already done that. She could be using this time to devise a plan of action for getting her family out of the house, but if she was being truly honest, she didn't really feel like it; not right at this moment. She didn't know why. Maybe she was in a limbo mood again: not bored but not busy, having things, good things, to do but not wanting to do them. Or perhaps she was a little lower than limbo, in too sour or too dejected a mood to care — about anything, really.
There was no one around to play with. She'd been keeping an eye out for children on her street, but there didn't seem to be any. She supposed she would have no friends nearby until she started at her new school in the month of Gathering. But the month of Gathering felt so far away, and just as grocery shopping was no fun with nothing new to see, moving to a new town wasn't all it was cracked up to be if there was no one new and interesting to talk to.
Blah blah blah... That's what was wrong with her. Avery Larkin had The Blahs. It was more solid a feeling than limbo, more certain. But with The Blahs came melancholy, lethargy, an inexplicable desire to spring from your skin and assume somebody else's...
Before she even realized, the red Bori had made her way to the backyard. She found herself strolling down the hill, manoeuvring through the tree stumps, and approaching the secret nook: the trees and shrubs that constituted the outdoor room, and hid Ballindalloch's Artifact.
How could the swing have stood for so long?
As Avery drew near the ancient swing, coloured like wood from rust, she suddenly realized that she had been avoiding it, though not consciously. She hadn't wanted to go back — in fact, the thought had been so far from her mind that it hadn't even crossed it again since the day she'd moved in. But now here she was, magnetically lured to it, perhaps seeking an escape from her case of The Blahs, perhaps hoping to prove something: either that the swing wasn't haunted and she really was worked up over nothing, or that her parents were wrong...
The swing hung perfectly still, innocuous, unintimidating. She reached out her hand and touched its leather seat, which still looked like leather but felt to her tingling fingertips like concrete. It was then that she saw it, stretching from end to end length and wid-wise, the name Maybelline, the top of the A and the bottoms of the B and the second L carved so deeply you could see the light shining through.
Avery stepped back, drawing in a slow, astonished breath.
Then a voice became perceptible to her ears, and she panicked, because she didn't know who the voice belonged to.
The voice spoke words, and she could hear each sound and syllable as if she should have known what it was saying — as if she did know — but she didn't. She could not make out a word. The voice was horridly raspy and terribly weak, and Avery couldn't tell whether it was male or female.
She gagged. Her legs almost buckled beneath her.
As unemphatically as it had started, the voice then died out. Avery blinked. Had...
Had she even heard it in the first place...?
And then the swing, as blatantly as if there were someone on it, began to sway back and forth on its own, its rust-covered chains screaming louder than the traumatized child herself.
To be continued…