If it was a nice day, they would barbecue outside. If it was a rainy day they would either barbecue outside the night before and cart it all in the house to be reheated in the microwave the day of the party — didn't really sound all that appetizing — or they would order a pizza or six, depending on how many RSVP'd.
The twentieth day of the month of Hiding marked two weeks and four days since the Larkins had moved into the Meridellian estate, Ballindalloch. It was also the day of their 'welcome-to-the-neighbourhood' party, and, thank Fyora on High, it was sunny. Wieners tasted much better fresh off the barbecue, and in all honesty, Avery had no more desire to stay in the house all afternoon than she did to eat a a thrice-microwaved ballpark frank. Blessedly, she wouldn't have to do either.
It was her parents' idea for them to throw a party for themselves. It wasn't a bad idea, necessarily, though the thought of them putting a classified ad in the newspaper inviting everyone in the neighbourhood to share a meal at their house... sounded pretty bizarre, to say the least. Her mother said it was a local newspaper, and she stressed the fact that it was local, and said that only Neopians in the area would see it, and that it was a very small town. The exact population figure Avery didn't know, but she could have counted if she wanted, for all of Whittaker, Meridell was currently in her backyard.
"Avery, will you go inside and get some more lemonade?"
"Only if the Dearharts promise to stop drinking it."
"What? They're not saving any for the other guests! All four of them have been guzzling it like they just ran a marathon in the Lost Desert--"
"--and they're about to go back and aren't gonna have another chance to drink for, like, two years. ...I'm going, Mom."
Oh, there were Acaras and Gnorbu and Wockies and Kougras! There were Lennies and Cybunnies and a thirsty family of Blumaroos, and two Gelerts Avery and her mother had met on an earlier occasion at the grocery store, who were now accompanied by a third Gelert who had recovered nicely from his cold. Emma Simpson and her voice spent their time at the party following Avery around like a loud, whiny shadow that seemed to speak even more slowly than Avery remembered, prolonging every vowel sound as if she had a southern drawl and causing the Bori to question exactly which part of Neopia the Simpsons were initially from; or if this was an Albat Court accent reserved exclusively for children, as neither of Emma's parents seemed to have it.
"Aaaveryy, come ooon! Let's do caartwheeels in the graaass!"
There were Mr. and Mrs. Bagshaw the Ogrins, who were also from Albat Court but didn't have any children, so Avery couldn't tell about the accent thing; and there was Ginny the Shoyru who wore a flowing skirt and lots of jewelry and had brought her Puppyblew, much to Noah's delight; and Sheldon Mansly the Gnorbu, who had an elongated nose. There was a Lenny with little round-framed glasses that we can only refer to as 'spectacles', which kept sliding down his beak every time he sipped his coffee.
There was a Quiggle who slurped everything: beverage, food, and conversation; and a Grundo who did all the talking for his pretty Wocky wife. There was a water Kyrii who ironically smelled of smoke, as if she had fallen into a fireplace, and a Uni who smiled and nodded at everything everyone else was talking about, whether it was the weather, the Tax Beast, or the robbery that had taken place at the Bagshaws' house last fall.
The nine-year-old Bori observed all these things throughout the course of the day, between lemonade runs and through Emma's incessant chattering — if one could refer to such drawn out speech as chattering. All in all, Avery Larkin was having a wonderful afternoon. She couldn't imagine a better party. The only way it could have been improved upon was if Kenneth, the Scorchio Mover, had been able to attend. He lived in town, but unfortunately he was stuck at home with a bad cold. Whatever Mr. Simpson had had must have been going around.
Nevertheless, it was exhilarating to have so many people together in her own backyard. And what interesting people they were! Interesting to talk to, listen to, and observe when no one was talking to her. And so far not a one of them had breathed a word about the house being haunted — not even Emma. Perhaps they all knew, but they hoped as Avery did that a ghost wouldn't dare approach such a large crowd of people. Strength in numbers and all that good stuff.
It had been a while since there had been any ghostly sightings, anyway; thirteen days, to be exact. It wasn't that Avery was beginning to doubt there was a ghost — no, she was quite positive there was one. During the past thirteen days, she had done her best to spend as little time in the house as possible. She had even gone back to the old town to stay with her grandmother for a few days, after her parents had discovered her trying to have a campout on the neighbour's front lawn. (To be fair, she didn't know the property belonged to the neighbours at the time...)
She could not let her guard completely down so long as her family remained at Ballindalloch, but she had to admit she was enjoying herself at this welcome-to-the-neighbourhood party. She felt singularly special as the daughter of the hosts of such a terrific gathering. A grin had been fixed on her face since the first guests had arrived, and she silently wished every day could be like this. She liked the hundred and fifty-four-year-old house thrumming, teeming, brimming with humanity!
"Avery, I think this is the best lemonade I've ever had!"
"Squeezed the lemons myself, Mr. Dearhart!"
"Did you really!" the portly Blumaroo exclaimed jovially.
"No, it's from Merimart. I would have though, if we'd had lemons. Can you believe Merimart doesn't seem to carry them? I mean, what grocery store doesn't sell lemons!"
Socializing was a mirthful diversion indeed.
At the head of the big patio table — instead of Avery's father or mother, for this wasn't a formal occasion — a pink Aisha sat with a full, cold mug of coffee. He was an elderly gentleman, in his seventies Avery supposed, and he was a gentleman. He wore a casual white suit jacket, white pants and a yellow tie that contrasted handsomely with his soft pink fur, and made him look at once like the the epitome of summer relaxation and class — or so thought nine-year-old Avery Larkin. He had an air of dignity to him (Avery didn't actually know what this was, but she'd heard adults say it, and she reckoned it suited him well). He did not speak often, but he listened intently to everything the others had to say, and when he did speak he always replied with something thoughtful or witty or wise.
"Our Tasu has chosen one chair in the living room to sharpen his claws on," Mrs. Simpson had complained. "Only one chair! The others look like they're brand new, and then there's this one chair that's completely destroyed."
"That's alright," the pink had Aisha chuckled. "It just draws attention to the fact that the other chairs look brand new."
When the Tax Beast was the hot topic of patio conversation, he remarked that tax collectors needed to eat just like decent Neopians did. When somebody made a cheeky comment about going grey, he said it was called 'pastel' and that all the kids were wearing it. He even showed a picture. "Everything old is new again," he laughed.
He had not finished his coffee, though it had sat in the same place on the table in front of him for over an hour. When Avery had asked if it wasn't to his liking, he'd whispered to her, and only to her, that he honestly didn't like coffee; he'd just accepted it to be polite. He confided that he planned to guzzle it down at the end of the party, before anyone else noticed he hadn't drank it yet. His name was Mr. Konishi, and Avery liked him very much.
"Aaaveryy, I haave to leeave noow. Soooorryy!"
Emma had a baseball game at six o'clock, so the Simpson family left the party early. With the younger girl no longer there to cling to her and be annoying, and the festivities beginning to wind down, Avery sat at the table kitty-corner to Mr. Konishi, and listened to him talk. He talked a great deal more now that there were fewer people around, fewer voices filling the air. He told her that he was born in Shenkuu, which was a beautiful place, and that he lived there until he was thirty-one, at which time he immigrated to Neopia Central to seek his fortune as a business man. He later wound up moving to Meridell where he had relatives from the Old Country.
He never married or had children, but he had a lovely Ukali at home named Lua, and he was born pink. Avery had never met a male pink pet before, but she supposed if a man wanted to be pink there was no reason why he should not be. She said she thought he must have been a handsome man when he was younger, and he laughed. "I look the same now as I did back then, only a few years wrinklier, and maybe happier."
Perhaps it was because he had shared his whole life story with her over the past forty-five minutes, and she wanted to share something with him. Or perhaps she had been squelching it inside herself for so long, she couldn't bear to hold it in any longer, and Mr. Konishi seemed like a good person to tell. He was intelligent, kind, a great listener...
"Mr. Konishi," Avery leaned across the table to be closer to the old man, in order to ensure no one else heard. "You told me a secret," she discreetly-as-possible motioned to his full mug of coffee. He chuckled again. "Now I want to tell you one. Can I trust you?" She knew she could. He said she could. Avery leaned closer still. "There's a ghost in this house," she intoned quietly.
"A ghost?" he echoed, though he honestly didn't look that surprised. Apparently everyone did know. "So the rumours are true." Now Mr. Konishi leaned in to her. "Have you seen it before?"
"Yes, but I don't know what it looks like. It was too dark-- er, the ghost was too dark. The room was really bright. I was just waking up at the time, and I saw someone standing by my bed, but it wasn't anyone in my family. There are carvings all over the house, and I think it's the ghost. I mean, I think the ghost is carving them..." She hadn't considered how she would organize her thoughts before she spilled them all to her confidant.
Her confidant didn't seem to mind. "What do you mean by 'carvings'? The ghost has been carving things around your house?"
"There's one in the kitchen and one in my bedroom, and also one in the swing out here. They say Maybelline, and I think it's the name of the ghost."
"Hm." The Aisha's gaze turned to the table cloth, and he wrapped his fingers around the handle of his coffee mug as if he was going to drink it, but didn't. "Hm-mm," he said again, extending the sound a little for effect. "And you're sure Maybelline isn't the name of someone who lived here in the past? This house is a hundred and fifty years old."
"That's just it," Avery concurred. "I'm sure it is the name of someone who lived here in the past, a hundred and fifty-some-odd years ago! I think someone from Ballindalloch's original family was Maybelline, and that Maybelline is the ghost!"
That was when it happened. Mr. Konishi took a sip of his coffee. Both he and Avery grimaced. "And you don't like this ghost?" the Aisha clarified. "Maybelline? You don't want her around?"
It sounded like a silly question, a question to which the answer should have been obvious. Why would anyone want a ghost in their house? Ghosts were... scary, in their purest definition. They belonged in Halloween houses; tacky sheets hanging from trees, draped over fence posts and young children's heads. They were evil beings... were they not? For whatever reason, Mr. Konishi's odd question sparked another question, one that had been at the back of Avery's mind for a long time, but never consciously considered:
When a ghost finally catches up with you, when they move beyond the faze of looming in your peripheral vision, setting inanimate objects in motion and making spectral sounds to stop your heart, what do they do? What do they do if your heart hasn't yet stopped beating?
"I think Maybelline wants me here." Avery realized it just as the words came out. "I mean I think she's trying to talk to me. She's been hanging around only me, and then at the swing..."
"What happened with the swing?" Mr. Konishi pressed, trying his best to keep up with her agitated gabbling.
Avery hated to have to relay the story yet again. "The first time I saw it, on the day I moved in, it moved. Then the second time I saw it, it moved again, and I heard a voice. No, I don't know what it was saying. I couldn't tell."
Mr. Konishi got up from his chair, coffee mug in hand. He then walked out from under the gazebo the Larkins had rented for the day, and poured the beverage onto the grass. Avery watched the frostbitten brown stream until it was only brown drips that the Aisha had to shake out of the cup. "Maybelline wants to talk to me," she uttered when the elderly gentleman said no more. "What should I do?"
"Well, the only way to overcome a ghost is to face it," Mr. Konishi said simply. "I think you should confront Maybelline. Once you confront her, there will be no need to run."
"But how do I confront a ghost!" Avery cried, louder than she had meant to. "It sneaks up on me! I've never been looking for it when it's found me. When I went to the swing, I definitely wasn't looking for it — Fyora, I didn't even see it! I just heard it, and saw the swing move, but I didn't see--" Mr. Konishi's expression was as easy to read as one of Noah's toddler books. It said, 'Confront her. Confront her, confront her, confront her.'
Avery pouted. "Where do you think I can find her?"
"Well, where do ghosts live?" the pink Aisha asked, but she could tell it was a rhetorical question. "Basements, attics; maybe you should check either of them."
"This house doesn't have a basement," Avery frowned. "I don't know why nobody ever dug one. If they were to dig a pit under it now, the house would probably fall in, it's so old."
Mr. Konishi smirked. "Do you have an attic?"
"Yes, yes we do. The hatch is in my room, I think."
"Do you have a ladder?"
"We do have a ladder."
"You should go up and poke around a bit, then. You never know what you'll find in the attic of a house this old."
The red Bori chewed this over for a moment. She suddenly remembered that there were still guests sitting at the table. Her dad was looking at her. "Would you like to come with me, Mr. Konishi?" Avery asked.
"It would be rude to leave the party right now." Mr. Konishi appeared to look down at his feet. The brown coffee stream had formed a brown coffee puddle on the grass. He'd thought it would soak in. "I have to keep my manners somewhat in check," he grinned impishly.
Of course it would be rude to leave the party, and it wouldn't be fair to make a seventy-something-year-old man climb a ladder, anyway. She would have to go by herself. It was, after all, she whom the ghost supposedly wanted to see. Whom Maybelline wanted to see.
Funny. She had never referred to the ghost by name before today.
As the sun went down, and shadows of the gazebo and the lawn chairs and even the stumps stretched over the backyard, an impromptu soccer game took place. There were nine other children at the party, ranging from Noah's age to high school, and they all joined in the fun, kicking the ball around in a helter-skelter skirmish. Avery ran and shouted and laughed, and Carleigh and Damien watched and smiled and nodded. Avery didn't know why they smiled and nodded.
"Next time I suggest we have a party, love, just go with it."
Soon the party ended, and everyone went home. Ballindalloch no longer thrummed, or teemed, or brimmed with humanity. All that was left were her parents, Noah, and Avery herself, and the mess.
Why did the party have to end? Why did everyone have to go home?
Lithe green stalks grew yellow, white tears tainted brown. The faerie-winged bells of her lilies of the valley withered, and when the wind came they would break from their stalks and fall to the soil, dead.
They had reached the last days of the month of Hiding. Summer had come to its end. In the rock garden the perennials closed, dormant until next year, while the annuals bade their first and last goodbye. The leaves of the trees turned early, yellow, brown and red, for the summer had been hot. And the grasses went grey, succumbed to the effects of the sun's light after three months under its searing eye. Even as the world made prearrangements for winter, and a sentiment of finality and life lost pervaded the air, hope was budding at Ballindalloch as Samuel and Margret-Rose made an escapade outside, on a picnic.
"Margret-Rose, Mama said we shouldn't run!" Samuel did his best to shout, his raspy voice only recently returned to his newly recovered throat.
Daniel and she, his constant companion, giggled as the tiny purple Mynci paid no heed and skipped on ahead, her dress fluttering in the breeze she created, the mittens she was meant to wear bouncing on the ends of their strings. Samuel himself had vowed during his incapacitation that the first chance he was given, he was going to run and run and run. Presently, however, the boy's better judgement took precedence, and he trotted along beside she and Daniel, gingerly but briskly, swinging the picnic basket as he walked.
There was not a chill in the air yet. A sweltering summer had rolled into a warm early fall, and the day was quite comfortable; though Aunt Florence still insisted upon bundling her children up in thick sweaters and autumn jackets, along with mittens for her baby daughter.
This was their first time outside in many weeks. Today was an epochal occasion, the threshold of health restored to the family, a worthy cause for celebration. Aunt Florence had filled a wicker basket with food — cold meat sandwiches and green grapes and shortbread cookies —and sent them out to the back of the house, where the children decided they would dine under the ash tree. The ash tree's leaves were honey-gold.
"The blanket!" Margret-Rose held out her angel hands for the blanket they would spread on which to eat their feast.
"Yes dear, this seems like a good place to lay the blanket! Oh, if someone will please pick up these pinecones?" She was overjoyed to witness Samuel, full of energy and alacrity, kick the pinecones, just as he always did. Daniel smiled.
She unfolded the woollen blanket she carried in both arms, and Samuel and Daniel each took a corner, and they spread it delicately on the ground. The blanket was special. It was broadly striped, with one stripe mauve, one stripe blue, one yellow and one pink; and it was originally made for Samuel, who had fallen ill first. Hattie and she had begun knitting it that fateful midsummer day, and when Hattie had fallen ill as well, she had continued. The blanket had been her project these weeks: something to busy herself, something to dedicate her time to. She hadn't the foggiest notion of whom she would give it to once it was completed, since one by one they had all been stricken, except for Daniel and herself.
She supposed in a way the blanket had become magic to her, as she and Daniel's swing had; a symbol of hope and constancy and familial devotion. It was as if she believed that when the blanket was finished, everything would return... to the way it was meant to be.
But there was no need for magic now. Samuel and Margret-Rose had recovered. Aunt Florence was quickly on the mend, Hattie and Albert were well enough to be journeying back and forth to each other's rooms, and Uncle Richard, though he had developed minor symptoms, never was so severely stricken as the others. Daniel was correct. Nothing was going to change. Even if they were to move house, to a home in Pankhurst out in the country, as Uncle Richard continued to envisage, nothing was going to change. Nothing. Nothing...
"Grapes?" Daniel held out a bushel to her. He sucked one clean off the vine, and swished it around his mouth with his tongue. She wondered if he was wishing they were cherries.
"These are so sweet!" Margret-Rose shrilled, squinting her eyes, scrunching her nose, and puckering her lips as if they were instead sour.
"Why can you eat cookies but not grapes?" Samuel asked accusingly. "Myself, I like to squish them and drink the juice."
Daniel was about to try this too, when he noticed the strange look that had come suddenly over his best friend's face. "Maybelline, are you alright?"
Her throat felt as though it was closing. She tried to speak, tried to answer Daniel, but she could not. She wheezed.
"Maybelline, are you choking?"
She turned her eyes to the sky — it was a fair, clear day — and tried to take in breath. She did, and she held it briefly, and then it came sputtering back out and she coughed. She coughed, and puffed, and doubled over.
To be continued…