Once Upon an Attic
"Liesa," Mother called, and the small white Aisha came into the kitchen at once, her short lavender blond hair bouncing up and down.
"Yes, Mother?" she asked, still brimming with energy, almost as if her very presence there was static.
"It's almost time for school," Mother said and pulled a brown paper bag, folded at the top, from the counter. She smiled at Liesa and then handed her the bag.
"Oh, Mother," Liesa said, "I'm so excited! It's been so very long since I went to school last. I cannot wait!"
Mother laughed, but smiled nonetheless with a glimmer in her eyes. "The carriage will be here soon," she said. "Carry along before you miss it."
"Yes, Mother," Liesa said and walked toward the door. She turned back one last time and waved at her mother. She waved back, and moments later, Liesa was through the door, walking toward the pale-covered carriage as it rolled up, pulled by a lone Uni and already full of one or two Neopets heading toward school.
It would be one of the last times she'd see her mother, that she recalled. What she did not recall, however, was her mother standing just inside the door, watching as she went, or moments later, when she invited that dashing blue Krawk from town inside for a spot of tea. No, Liesa would recall none of this, and most probably, all for the best.
* * *
Liesa lifted an old hair brush, found an equally as old and dusted mirror, and started pulling it through the strands of her hair. Her thick locks, as short as when she was a young girl, had turned white over the years, and frail, and brittle, but the comb did little either to help or harm her hair. Wistfully, Liesa sighed and set the comb aside, realising that even though she had imagined it in her hand, she had in truth held nothing.
The Aisha reached for the comb yet again, and again after that, but every time her paw came near it, her paw simply moved through it. It was the strangest feeling, Liesa thought, time and again.
She felt solid to herself--could hold her hands together as if flesh and bones were still there--but as soon as she brought her hands near anything other than herself, strange things happened. Her very cells seemed to dissociate, and though she did not quite go through an object, her ghastly aura seemed to mold itself like rushing water around it until, upon the other side, she reformed as before. No matter how many times she tried to get accustomed to the feeling, it always left a coldness in her that would not leave, an emptiness inside her that ate away at whatever solidness still remained.
Liesa closed her eyes and sat by the bay window. The cushion that curved around the window was old and tattered and she was certain at first that she would simply fall through it in her present state, but surprisingly, she remained whole. She tried to lift one of the pillows half-full of stuffing to make it more comfortable, but again her hands merely melted around it like a small gust of wind around a sapling tree; it could not move through it, so it merely moved around it. Liesa wondered if she did not fall through her house only because it was larger than she (whereas the pillow fell through her for she was larger than it), but not inclined to philosophy, she set the matter aside and merely looked through the graying window.
Neovia was whole again, and had been for some time. She could not rightly recall what had brought her here, or why she felt not the ability to leave, but in her heart, it did not matter: Something was missing from this house, though what, she could not tell. All she knew of it was that, whatever was missing, it had taken more than her life when it had left.
* * *
"You look troubled," said the Krawk when she opened the door. "Perhaps I can be of assistance..."
Joanne smiled and opened the door a little wider. "Please, do come inside," she said. Normally she wouldn't be so inclined to invite strangers inside, but she had heard so much around town that she felt she already knew this man--Edmund and his family spoke wonders of him, and so many others she knew praised him to no end. He seemed almost like an old family friend, standing in his dark trenchcoat, his well-groomed hair, his helpful smile.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said with a terse bow when she showed him to the living room. Before taking his seat, he smiled once more and said, "Allow me to introduce myself, madam. I am one Mr. Alexander Krawley, a pleasure to meet you."
She chuckled, blushing. "Please, call me Joanne."
"Certainly," he said, lifting her paw to kiss it gently before finally taking his seat. "Now," he said, "what is it you seek?"
Joanne sighed. "Oh, heavens, I'm fine, but my daughters..." She shook her head, eyes closed. "My eldest, Lily, has gotten herself mixed with the wrong crowd, I'm afraid. She's become close with a boy named Oscar, a grouch, undignified, cruel almost. Just the other day he trampled young Bruno, Edmund's son... The gossip was everywhere." Again, she shook her head. "And my youngest, poor Liesa... She just can't seem to focus. So much energy! The joys of youth, but with no guidance, could so easily go astray..."
Mr. Krawley nodded, sympathising, feeling truly sorry for her, she thought. Finally, he reached into his briefcase and withdrew a small vial, only a few drops full of a green liquid that seemed to glow in the light. "I have here an elixir, proven to chase away all sorrows and fulfill all desires." He snapped his claws with a grin. "Whatever you want in life, it will grant, I assure you."
Joanne smiled, but sighed. "Mr. Krawley, your elixir sounds promising--and I've heard so many tales of its wonders, I believe you--but what good will it do me if it's my two daughters that I'm most worried for?"
The blue Krawk nodded and took the yellow Aisha's paws in his hands, the small vial set precariously atop the couch-side table. "Miss Joanne," he said softly, "I had a child once myself. I know dearly how you feel. She..." He shook his head. "I just know that, if I were in your position then, with the advent of this elixir before me, I would have taken it, I promise you this." He smiled, at his most sincere since she'd met him.
Mr. Krawley sat back, wiping a tear aside with his foreclaw, and grabbed the vial from the table. "This elixir will calm you, will give you insight and clarity. A gift not soon to be taken granted for, I assure you." He nodded rightly. "A few drops into your daughters' dinners, and by certainty I assure you, they'll be set straight at once."
Joanne smiled as if a tidal wave of relief had crashed upon her and left her hundreds of times better than before. "Oh, Mr. Krawley, your offer is most tempting, but I'm afraid that I simply cannot afford it at the moment. If you'll come by again in just a few more days, I'll be able to pay you, but I'm afraid, right now, I'm simply unable to."
"Hmm," Krawley said, "that is most unfortunate. See, I've got to get going today--as soon as I leave here, see--and I'm afraid I won't be returning this way for some time." He nodded, looking away for a moment with a strange look on his face, then he smiled and winked at the Aisha. "However, Miss Joanne, I've made such a profit here already--past all my previous expectations--that I'll let you have this vial free of charge. If, when I return, it has done all that you wish it to, then you can give me what you think it's worth, but not a Neopoint more than that. Have we a deal?"
Joanne was brimming. "Oh, Mr. Krawley, you're too kind!"
He placed the vial in her paws and wrapped her fingers around it gently. "Just use it well," he said, "and now, I must be on my way."
Joanne was on her feet before he reached the door. "Wouldn't you rather stay for a spot of tea?" she asked.
Mr. Krawley smiled, his lips curled to the side. "Only for a spot," he said, "and if I'm not gone after that, surely I'll be the one to pay."
* * *
Liesa looked up at her mother with an odd look in her eyes. Mother seemed unusually upbeat tonight, and her cooking smelled off. The yellow Aisha set a plate before both her sister and her, and then joined the two with another before herself. They said grace and then began eating at once.
Well, Liesa didn't. She looked at the food sideways, then frontways and backways, and was pondering how she might manage looking at it upside down when they heard a crash from outside. Mother and Lily both dropped their forks with a clatter and a start at the sound, but little Liesa just looked around, slightly frightened.
"Stay here," Mother said, getting to her feet. She rushed down the hall and the two girls heard the door open. Just as soon, the sounds of yelling, downright rioting, reached them and they shuddered.
"Lily," Liesa said, "What's wrong?"
Lily scrunched up her forehead. "I'm not sure. I feel... a little off. Where's Oscar...? I need to... to tell him... something..."
Liesa shook her head. "But what's wrong outside, Lily?"
Lily looked back at her little sister, at first seeming to have not understood what she'd said. Then a moment later, before she ever had the chance to speak, Mother came hurrying back into the kitchen.
"Come along, girls," she said, "time for bed." Neither moved, and Mother pushed at them to do so. "Up you go, to bed, to bed. Right away now, don't dally." After a few moments of stupor, the two girls finally obliged, Liesa a little out of fear and Lily, at least to Liesa, too easily to truly be her sister, but instead of to their bedrooms, Mother led them higher than that, to the attic. Old boxes and knicknacks and who-knows-whats lined the floors, the walls, in some places even the ceiling, and all the clutter, she was sure, helped muffle the sounds from outside.
Mother left Liesa and Lily alone for a moment, and both were quiet until she returned with blankets and pillows for the both of them. Then Mother sat at their sides, running her hands through their hair until Liesa fell soundly asleep and recalled nothing more than that.
* * *
"Citizens of Neovia," the Mayor said to the gathered crowd, "we must remain calm! The time for blame has passed. There will be an opportunity for retribution later. For now, we must work together to if we are to solve this."
Joanne could barely see the mayor from where she stood, but hear him easily she could. Throughout the day, all unaware, those who had taken Mr. Krawley's elixir--nearly everyone in the town--had grown ill in the most varied of ways. She felt a dark pit open in her stomach and feared for her children; not only had she had a drink, she had given a few drops to her children in their meal that night. Lily had hardly eaten a handful of bites, and Liesa barely any of it. Perhaps they had had too little, perhaps they would be spared.... Joanne swallowed unkindly, trying to curb her mind from such wretched thoughts, and focused more intently upon the mayor's proposed solution.
In no time at all, the townspeople were sitting in concentric circles around a small fire in the middle of town to summon the Spirit of Slumber. The mayor proclaimed he was the cure, and Joanne was eager to call him if he would truly save her daughters. The mayor began chanting strange words and syllables (Joanne, absently, wondered where he had learned them and feared for a moment that Mr. Krawley had been involved, but hurriedly shoved the thought aside), and as the night deepened darker around them, the flames grew to a soft grey before a robed Lupe rose from the smoke and stood before them.
The Spirit of Slumber. He said words, the mayor spoke, the townspeople cheered and cried, but Joanne heard none of it. A man as menacing as that--to rise from the fire without being burned--she determined, could do no good. She rose from her spot in the circle and began running, toward home, toward her daughters in need.
Barely inches from the door, the town fell silent, a fluid hush that flowed like a strong wind all around her. She stopped running and turned around, watched in horror as a sphere of light erupted in the center of town and rushed outwards, enveloping her and her house and her daughters deep asleep inside.
* * *
It was like waking from a deep slumber, Liesa recalled of that night some years ago already when time finally seemed to start again. She was alone then, not certain where anyone had gone. Now she could see them, walking the streets, and they were all alive and well. Why was it that she was not?
On occasion she caught glimpses of her sister Lily, or of Mother, but whenever they came this way, they stopped suddenly and covered their faces, turning away and fleeing as fast as they had come. She saw Oscar a few times as well, but even though the burly Kougra had seemed a touch more refined than she recalled him as a child, he, too, would always steal away into Neovia as soon as he realised where he was walking.
The only ones who ever seemed to stay were the new faces she had never recalled seeing in Neovia while still alive. They came in few numbers at first, but now they came all the time, clamoring for this or that, eager to acquire all manner of things. And all manner of things she had, stuffed in this attic, and not a single bit of it she could use.
Liesa walked quietly down the stairs, through her house unchanged in decades, and finally to the door. She wondered if her hands would grip the doorknob or melt around it, wondered if she was destined to be trapped here with all her things if she couldn't touch it, wondered what she'd do if she could open the door. She reached out, held her breath, closed her eyes, and shut her hand.
She felt the doorknob and turned, welcoming in all the guests that had yet to come by.
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A piece of bread lay untouched on the plate in Mrs. Sammlung's kitchen, set aside for the messenger who hadn't come.
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