When his daughter said 'ghost', he had thought she was joking. She had a dry sense of humour like that: ironic, sarcastic, which was hilarious for a nine-year-old. Avery was a live-wire, a quick-wit, a loaded Virtupets blaster. She was a character, an incredible spirit, and the way her words to him, "A ghost," had been spoken without her feisty energy and deadpan humour, and even more so the empty pause that had followed, disconcerted him. And he knew she wasn't joking.
Something, Damien Larkin didn't know what, had frightened his daughter enough for her to see fit to tell her parents she was frightened. Avery was usually too proud to admit her fears — too tough, or so she tried to be. She was too mature to be scared solely by something a younger child had said. She claimed someone had been standing at the foot of her bed this morning. It could have been a dream, or a trick of the eyes.
Five minutes ago, however, she had come running into the house crying that the swing on their property — the hundred and fifty-four-year-old swing that had been put there by the house's first owners — had moved completely on its own. She said it was the second time it had happened.
Damien had seen the swing himself on the day the Larkins had moved in, and so had Carleigh. It hadn't moved. He doubted it even could move, the chains were so rusty they looked like stiff wooden poles. The notion of this piqued his curiosity all the more.
According to Carleigh, the woman at Merimart said that Ballindalloch's last owners had left because there was 'something in the house'. It could have been Urchulls, or Drackonacks, or Slorgs; but people generally didn't up and leave a house in the middle of a renovation simply because they were being plagued by Petpets.
When he'd first inquired into the Ballindalloch estate, the realtor had told him that the house had sat empty for a year because it was in need of repairs and updates. It was a little too out of the way for many Neopians to commute, and a little too far out of many Neopians' price range, considering the house was only a house and not a mansion, despite the connotations of the word 'estate'.
A history enthusiast by nature and an archaeologist by trade, Ballindalloch was Damien Larkin's dream home. They'd bought it with the intention of returning it, yet again, to its original splendour — yes, Damien admit, only to find that it was not as far gone as they were initially led to believe. The roof leaked, the floors creaked, and the stairs squeaked so badly that most of them needed to be replaced. In regards to the exterior, the leftmost and rightmost lintels over the second-story windows were missing, there were numerous cracks in the entrance portico, and now, thanks to himself and his couch, the top of the front doorway needed to be painted...
Other than that, the house was fine. Except that it might have been haunted.
The speckled Bori decided that the only thing he could do was examine the 'haunted' swing himself, bring his report back to his daughter — provided, you know, that it wasn't really haunted.
Stepping painstakingly down the hill — Fyora, it was steep — and finding himself amazed all over again by how large his backyard was, Damien entered the flora-protected area where the old swing stood. Sure enough, it swung; all by itself, back and forth, its chains emitting a cry so horrible it sounded like nails on a blackboard multiplied by infinity.
His ears stung.
The wind howled through the embracing trees, producing an eerie noise like hoarse whispers, lending the entire space an almost... bewitched feel.
It was no wonder his little girl had been so frightened. Damien found it all a little disquieting himself...
Leaving the moaning swing and the whispering words in the trees behind him, the father Bori went to tell his child there was nothing to be afraid of.
Of course it was just the wind.
Avery's cookie dough ice cream was melting. Shame, since it wasn't always easy to find in stores.
"It was not the wind!" she hollered over the blaring Neovosion. Her father picked up the remote from the glass-top table and tried to turn it down. It didn't work. "It's been like that since I turned it on," Avery frowned. "Is the battery dead in the clicker?"
The speckled Bori fiddled with the dial on the side of the NV. The volume grew softer. "If that ever happens again, just turn this dial here," he pointed to a practically invisible black nob that Avery could never find. "You shouldn't be watching Neovision like that. You'll go deaf."
"The ghost probably turned it up," Avery muttered darkly.
"Avery, for the last time, there is no ghost!" If the top of the table had been wooden, Damien would have pounded it. He was starting to lose his patience. He had told Avery it was the wind. He had been to see the swing, and it had moved. But it was the wind! The Fyora-forsaken swing was being blown by the wind!
"There are no such things as ghosts — you know this, Avery! Is this even my daughter I'm talking to right now..." His exclamation fizzled out, and it seemed as though he'd resorted to staring the child down until she cracked under his gaze and decided to believe him. It wasn't happening. "I know this house is old," he sighed. "I understand that it freaks you out. But do you have any idea how many old houses I've been in? How many historic sites I've been to, dig sites? I work with ancient artifacts, Avery. Skeletons, real Neopian skeletons! I've never seen a ghost!
I've been around history all my life!"
The little girl was silent, unwavering, adamant that what she saw, or what she thought she saw, was what she saw. And what she saw was a ghost.
"But you didn't see anything! All you saw was the swing move!"
"I saw it this morning, Dad."
"What did it look like?"
"I don't know." Silence, on the part of both parties. Then, "We need to leave," Avery said calmly, matter-of-factly, Avery-ly. "Ask your friends in the archaeology department if they want to buy a haunted house."
"Oh!" Giving up, the speckled Bori shook his head several times, and turned to leave the room.
"They might not believe you at first when you tell them it's haunted, but boy will they be in for a surprise," she talked after him. Then she returned to her liquified ice cream. She would have to drink it with a straw now. Such a shame.
Damien Larkin, having departed from the family room to the living room (Oh, how they'd moved up in the world that they now had both!), sought out his wife. He found the small-framed Xweetok in the process of dragging chairs around the floor, with no apparent objective.
"Uh," the Bori watched in confusion. "Do you want me to do that?"
"Listen to the floor creaking," said Carleigh, not hearing or disregarding his offer. "It's like it can't withstand their weight. It sounds like it could fall through."
"If it does they won't have anywhere to go," Damien observed. "This house doesn't have a basement."
The Xweetok shrugged. He had a point.
"So," Damien began.
"So, what are we going to do about Avery?"
Carleigh strolled around to the front of the chair she'd been pushing, and sat down. She crossed her legs."I don't know."
"Well, she's scared to death," Carleigh continued for him. "She insists this house is haunted, and you know there's no changing Avery's mind. All we can do is try and distract her."
"What do you mean, distract her?" Damien rolled doleful eyes to the ceiling. "Distract her with what?"
"I would have thought the novelty of the new town would have lasted longer. But you know there isn't a lot for her to do. We've been busy unpacking, and Noah isn't much company for her -- I mean, he's just a baby, and..." Her thought trailed off. She pursed her lips, her countenance suddenly grieved. "She walks up and down the street every day, looking for other kids to play with." A pause. "She must be so bored. Maybe if she had something else to think about, she would forget about... 'the ghost'."
Carleigh stood up abruptly, and commenced dragging the chair back to its original spot. "Let's have a party," she declared then and there.
"I've been wanting to meet our new neighbours, anyway! Let's have a moving-in party. It can be like a 'welcome-to-the-neighbourhood' open house."
"We're going to throw a welcome-to-the-neighbourhood party for ourselves?"
"Why not?" the Xweetok beamed. "We'll put it in the paper like you did for your dad's seventieth birthday open house. I thought that was weird, but it worked to get the word out! We can barbecue in the backyard, or if it rains we can have it in here. This room alone is big enough to host the whole neighbourhood! And it's so nice with the fireplace..."
The speckled Bori reflexively looked over his shoulder at the grandiose stone fireplace built into the right wall. He nodded. "This is for Avery?" ("You're sure this isn't for you?" he really meant, but didn't dare say it.) Do you really think it'll help her forget about all this ghost crap?"
"It will," the Xweetok contended, her expression dead serious. "I bet it will. All she needs is to get her mind off it. A party's as good a distraction as any."
And so a party it was.
It was but a day after Samuel started to cough that the illness began to spread. Aunt Florence caught it first, Samuel's dear mother who had spent time in his room, wiping his forehead and bringing him drinks of water and sitting in a chair at his bedside.
A day and an evening later Margret-Rose, who could not bear to be without her mother, in spite of her family's best efforts, exhibited first signs of having contracted the disease when she came down with a terrible chill. That a three-year-old angel, as precious as the breath of life itself, should soon find herself fighting to breathe seemed the end of the world to her. Until Margret-Rose's sister, Hattie — kind, docile, hardworking Cousin Hattie, developed the same sputtering, shivering symptoms. And then she knew the world had not ended yet.
Once her aunt and three cousins were stricken, it was Albert, the older boarding boy, to contract the illness next. The scenario was strikingly similar to that of Margret-Rose and her mother. As Albert was closest in age to Hattie, the two had always been the dearest of friends and companions. Albert had gone in to see her, just for the briefest visit, and later that day the Lutari was coughing, too.
Uncle Richard suffered from headache, which had apparently endured for a week, though he had not admit it until this very morning (He insisted that it was extraneous, though they assumed he only said it so they would not worry). At this point in time, it was only she and Daniel who had not yet been touched by the disease. Uncle Richard said it was because their smiles scared off all evil spirits.
As the only souls in the household still unscathed and in health, she and the custard Lupe spent every waking moment in each other's company. It had progressed to a point where they had grown so accustomed to togetherness that should one be out of the other's sight for even the briefest instant, it induced the greatest fear and discomfort, as if they thought they would never see one another again.
He pushed her in the swing presently. They often did this, even before the crisis had begun; but now the swing had become a retreat to them, a symbol of normality in a time of tumult, a place of respite. In the swing they would sail into the sky, whether it was blue or grey or yellow or pink or purple (by now they had journeyed into every coloured sky), and pretend that they were flying, though neither had wings. They soared with the wind on their face and neck, and streaming through her hair. It gave them goosebumps, made their fur stand on end, caught their breath, turned their stomachs, made them laugh.
At the top of the swing, the highest that the chains could take them, all they could see for one blissful second was sky. And they never looked down. Neither dared nor cared, for at the top of the swing they were above the world, and for that blissful, beautiful second the tribulations of the world seemed below them, or in a different existence entirely, and they could not harm them.
"It has been a good day. Very bright and clear, and cheerful. I don't believe I saw a single cloud all day long," she said as the seat of the swing beneath her coasted. "I wonder," she stopped thoughtfully, and the swing's gentle creaks and squeals appeared to grow louder in the absence of a voice. Daniel waited attentively for her to continue. "I wonder if they could see the sun today. It has been so long since we've seen them..."
"Albert had the curtains open this morning," Daniel told her as brightly and cheerfully as the day. "I took a walk past our bedroom window to see if I could see him. I didn't, but the curtains were indeed open. It was nice to see them open."
She supposed she must have been asleep when Daniel had taken this walk, for she had not been with him. "Did you look at Hattie and Margret-Rose's window?"
"Yes, but their curtains were closed."
Daniel and she had both been sleeping in the family room, on two respective couches. They saw only Uncle Richard and the nurses who came twice a day to tend to the patients, and the doctor, when he came round. Except one of the nurses had fallen ill as well.
Just as it had swept over the house as a silent exhale, a pestilent vapour, the disease had come quietly through the town, infecting individuals, who would in turn infect their families. It was not rampant in Whittaker, but a shadow, a shy ghost, isolated to only a handful of dolorous houses. It was, of course, a fervent prayer that things remained this way.
"Daniel, would you like to swing now?" she offered, when the coasting swing had coasted to a stop.
"No no, stay there! I like to push just as much." Daniel gripped the steel chains in either of his pale fists, and with a small tug started her swinging slowly again. "What do you think about moving house?" he inquired upon a sudden. The silver chains glimmered when they caught the light of the sinking sun. "Mr. Richard mentioned to me earlier that he was thinking that, once all of this is over with, it might be nice to leave this house behind and move out to the country."
A look of acute distress, practically terror, painted her fair features. "We can't!" she near-shouted. "This is our home. We've made so many fond memories here! You more so than I, I'm sure! And Hattie, and Samuel, and Margret-Rose, why, they have lived here their entire lives."
"No need to panic, now!" The custard Lupe held up a hand, all the time trying his hardest to repress a grin. "Most likely Mr. Richard was just fantasizing, what with all the stress we're all under. He said the town of Pankhurst has some nice properties for sale..."
For a moment there was silence, as Daniel appeared to be deeply engrossed in thought. He said at length, thoughtfully and delicately, "If we were to move to a new house, you could have a real bedroom."
"Oh." She waved a hand in self-effacing insouciance. "You mustn't worry about me. I like my bedroom. It's really all I need... Daniel," she said then, her voice suddenly thin, nigh inaudible. "I wish I had my uncle's optimism."
The boy said nothing. He tipped his head to the side and looked at her imploringly, as if he were trying to read her, timid to come out and ask what she meant.
"He says 'when this is all over', as if it is all going to pass, and things will go back to normal. How do we know that things will ever be the same again?"
"It will," Daniel assured with a sanguine nod. The doctor said many people in town are recovering, and that only a few have--" He cut himself short. The words, he decided (albeit quite late), he simply would not say. It was a sensitive topic for both of them, naturally, but especially for her.
She initiated the topic herself. "And what will we do if they should die?" she demanded, without warning, and with an uncharacteristic sharpness in her tone that he was not expecting.
"Samuel is starting to feel better, already," he offered, as if to say that this was unlikely, without explicitly saying it.
Her eyes seemed to stare into nowhere, and she lowered her pretty head. She remained sitting on the swing, although it had come to a complete stop, and had been stopped for some minutes. "I lost my parents last year," she stated softly, as if Daniel did not know this. But he did know, and she knew that he knew, though it was a subject no one ever spoke of. "I thought then that it was the end. I thought I would never again be... happy, I suppose." She gave a sad laugh when she said this, and her downcast eyes lifted to meet his. "I--I didn't believe I would... belong anywhere again."
She didn't know why — she had not thought she would ever do this, ever again — her smiling eyes began to well up with tears. They spilled over so immediately that Daniel could never have been prepared.
"Don't cry!" the little Lupe wailed. "They'll be alright! Nothing is going to change!" Cautiously, timidly, he took both her hands, which had let go of the swing and were folded in her lap, in his own. "Until things are back to normal," he said, "back to the way they should be, we both belong right here, in this swing."
Knowing this to be true, they stayed there until nightfall, when it became too cool and too dark to stay outside.
To Be Continued...