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She and the Spectre


by nativsis

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Get up, you silly Acara.

     She dresses herself in the usual stiff clothing, then drinks a large coffee without a drop of milk. For the sixth day in a row she finds herself going to work--why six? Why today, a Saturday, of all days to work? She shakes her scarlet, seed-spotted head, rubs her green eyes. Why take on so much more than the rest of the team, Emory?

     They never put in the effort she does and she knows it. As she walks out the door, she pictures the office today: she knows she will be one of three neopets, jabbing at the typewriters, click clack clack click. The other five employees? Well, they'll spend time with their children. Throw that football there, catch the baseball there. All those quality family moments.

     But that's enough ranting. She should really go on with her day. Emory crosses the road, smiling at the neighbor's Cybunny twins as the two yawn in unison. After some walking--so much walking, if only she didn't have to walk!--she reaches the office, swinging the door open and finding her way to her desk. After grabbing more coffee, naturally.

     There's this fancy that's been floating around her head, tickling at her wildest whimsies. It says she should do something with her life--something creative, something special. She's always wanted to go off and live apart from everyone else. Stand up to her sisters and insist that they borrow neopoints from someone else. Someone with a doormat for a personality. Someone who will put up with their nonsense. That's how it's gone for the past ten years, at least. Every month she ends up sending money to Kirsten and Abigail. And they have jobs just fine, and they're in good health, but by month's end they always use up their neopoints. And always--always, always, always!--it goes to fancy clothing and private luncheons.

     Why take on so much for their sake, Emory?

     Over time, just so gradually, she has reduced everything. Consuming, purchasing, possessing--everything, everything she has whittled down to the bare minimum. Apart from the bare necessities, all that remains are a baker's dozen of paperbacks. The image is in her head, clear as day: donning overalls over a plaid blouse, she swings a bag over her shoulder and heads out into the woods. A vivid image, if idealized. But she loves nothing better than a rosy tint.

     ***

     Whitney is there on the front steps of the house, arms folded and tail twitching. The pastel Blumaroo gives Emory a short smile, then asks her: hey, is today the day? Whitney expects it to be a vacation. A much-needed break from work, money, all those constraints. Whitney is the only relative she has confided in, the only one who knows of her plan. Half an hour goes by and Emory's in that classic overalls attire. All of her necessities sit in a single duffel bag. Whitney has agreed to lend her the summer cabin for as long as need be.

     They hike through the woods, past the beautiful trees with fruit barely ripe. Flower petals are falling all around them, and it's quite a sight. The moment they reach the cabin near the Haunted Woods border, Whitney gives her farewells, wishing her cousin the best. And so, exhausted from the walk, Emory troops upstairs to the bedroom, drops her bag by the dresser, and collapses onto the bed with a happy sigh.

     So many thoughts go through her mind, everything all at once, because her mind decided not to voice its concerns until it was too late. The Acara curls up in the bed with a grumble, red fur bristling.

     Maybe you didn't think any of this through, Emory. This could end badly--so very, very badly. Maybe you're a fool.

     ***

     When she wakes with eyes all bleary, she sees an Aisha on the floor. The Aisha is leafing through a big blue book, staring with eyes bright red as berries. The Aisha looks more like an apparition than anything, looking to be floating just a pinch off the floor.

     Of course, Emory. That's a ghost.

     How long they've been around, Emory isn't sure, but she's glad to see them. It's been forever since she last saw a ghost. That was years back, when she was in the hospital, all snots and sneezes. Lots of ghosts there. But this one's different: young and small, about the height of one of the Cybunny twins. She thinks about it and it makes her rather sad.

     "How long've you been reading there?" asks Emory, crouching on the wood floor. "Can you talk, kiddo?" Her waving paw makes the ghost flinch and look down at their feet, then mutter something. She raises her eyebrow and smiles all quizzically; the ghost repeats:

     "I'm on my tenth read."

     "Ten times?" Emory chuckles, rolling up her sleeves. "I can't be bothered to read the same thing twice. So many books, so little time--not enough bookshelves," she adds. The Aisha smiles. "So... got a name?"

     The Aisha falters, then whispers:

     "Shi."

     "That a boy's name or a girl's name?"

     With a nervous smile, the Aisha replies, "Neither. It's my name."

     "Fair enough," says Emory.

     ***

     One hundred years ago, a ghost Aisha named Shi crossed the treacherous mountain range between Shenkuu and the Haunted Woods, then arrived at the Library of Forgotten Tomes. They walked through the rickety building aimlessly, and soon ran into a ghost Grarrl.

     "I can't put up with another day of this," grumbled Shi, sticking out their lower lip and folding their arms. "I miss my dad. And my big brothers and--you know what?" The Grarrl gave an inquisitive look. "Give me a week or so, I might just start missing my mom. I might just."

     "The earliest moments of this existence are never easy," said the Grarrl solemnly. "They are only that, compared to the vast expanse of the years to follow." He ran his claws across the bookshelf beside him, then with a knowing look picked out a thick novel. "Do you like to read, little one?" Shi nodded fiercely. Tapping the book's spine, the Grarrl said: "Shame and Admonishment. To read it will take you a week. To understand it will take a lifetime. No living soul wants to shoot the breeze with a ghost — can't blame them, we're not the most riveting lot — so you might as well busy your mind."

     "Sounds lonely," mumbled Shi, their paws weighing down just slightly as the Grarrl handed them the book. "So... is this all I get?"

     "Pardon?"

     "I don't get to grow up, do I?" Shi pressed the book to their chest and stared fearfully at the Grarrl.

     "In essence, no. By virtue of being a ghost, your body will remain a constant." His eyes rolled up to the ceiling; this conversation had long grown tedious to him. "Your mind is—well, it is only as constant as you let it be. You could be a child forever, but there are many ways to be a child." Shi stared blankly. "Surely you've had classmates who seemed wise beyond their years? Ones who preferred the company of adults over children. And others who were brilliant in some respects and downright nightmarish in others."

     Shi's stare remained blank and unfaltering.

     "In any case," added the Grarrl, looking embarrassed, "Your afterlife is what you make of it. I trust you to use that time wisely."

     ***

     Emory remains with the ghost quietly, for what feels like an hour. Her thoughts meander but always end up back at the same subject: why is she here? The Acara abandons her old cross-legged position and straightens her legs, then wraps her crimson arms around them like she's a kid again. Her little white teeth bite down on her lip. The office job doesn't worry her. She has already told Robin in management about the "vacation". Good old Robin knows how to work with people. The Mynci carries all the wisdom and none of the cynicism.

     Of course we can give you time off, Emory. Just be back within two weeks.

     Ideally, she would not need to return within two weeks. Ideally, she would be self-sufficient and living freely, comfortable enough to send a resignation letter. Ideally, her sisters would be off her back—and so on. But she can already imagine everything not going according to her idealism. So perhaps the office job does worry her, alongside so many things. Kirsten and Abigail would eventually complain that they were starving and lonely, so lonely without their beloved big sister!

     Emory has had her share of loneliness. She does not hate other neopets, nor do they hate her. But every now and then, an intense desire for isolation wells up within her. A desire to flee responsibility, social and otherwise, and find a path that was not predetermined by some relative. These only grew stronger over the years as she repressed them further, telling herself: That's for another day, Emory. Only now, at the age of twenty-nine, has she acted on this.

     How frustrating! Emory sighs and returns to her previous position ("pretzel-style", she once called it), then peers over Shi's shoulder and asks, "How long have you been here, haunting and all that jazz?" She chuckles. "Whitney's never mentioned a ghost."

     "Oh, I'm just here for a day or two," Shi says.

     "Where you heading?" Emory rubs a paw against the back of her head. "Somewhere important?" No response. Eventually Shi shakes their head, tugging nervously at their gray hair.

     "Well... I did want to go to Shenkuu," Shi says absentmindedly, flipping through the book. "Maybe I can visit my family or something." They look up at Emory with a questioning look, one masked by hesitation—like they're not sure if it's worth asking—and then for barely a moment it breaks into a forced, sheepish grin: "I, um, I lost track of time... what year is it, anyway?" Emory gives her the answer, unintentionally clipped, as if the Acara hopes that saying it faster will soften the blow. "So... I guess my brothers' grandkids will be around or something," mumbles the Aisha. Then their ears flatten and their tail, previously twitching, falls flat on the floor. "But they won't want to see me. I don't think they'll know who I am..."

     "Um," Emory starts, then falls silent as the ghost bites down on their lower lip, then folds their arms. The little Aisha looks thoughtful, then turns to Emory, then away, muttering something under their breath. No, Emory decides, she can't look so weak in front of a child. Of course, this one had to be wise beyond their years—or within their years, maybe, since the afterlife was awfully long—but enough of that. "Tell me about that book, Shi."

     ***

     About three days have gone by. Those days have taken quite a toll on Emory, who's doing a dreadful job at sleeping. Every morning she wakes at the crack of dawn after roughly three to five hours of sleep. She isn't used to this, just waking up to nothing. But it isn't really nothing, she corrects herself. Every day, the familiar ghostly Aisha floats into the tiny library, book tucked under their arm and eyes wide, wide, wider each day as if they're waking up from a long and lonely sleep. Emory welcomes them in, at first with hesitation, but soon with a friendly smile.

     Shi offers to take her berry-picking that day. It doesn't matter, Shi assures her, that they cannot touch, eat, cook the berries like any living neopet. Warm berries squishing in paws, knees pressing down on the soil, fur caught in thorns and lips smacking together and every other sensation, all that means nothing compared to the memories themselves. The mental imprints of every word and every sight. No problem at all, Shi finishes, folding their arms proudly.

     Situated right on the Haunted Woods border, the forests are dark even at high noon. Shi waves Emory over to one bluish marsh, leaning on their stomach in midair. Their elbows are propped up on an invisible surface, their chin on clasped paws. Stumbling over rocks and roots, Emory comes over and picks a bunch of voidberries. Shi insists on crossing the border, and Emory is too tired to say no.

     "What—" Emory yawns, then continues, "What're we coming here for, anyway?"

     "I want you to see the library!" yells Shi, floating faster than the poor Acara can run. At last they slow, soon to a halt, and Emory has time to catch up. The Aisha is oddly still. Emory whispers, "Something wrong?" and then they turn to her with flattened ears. Both stare at the library, their expressions similarly confused.

     "Looks boarded up," says Emory.

     "It wasn't boarded up when I was there," says Shi, shifting uncomfortably. They look down at the book under their arm, then back at the door. "I don't get it."

     "This is where you got that book?" Emory rubs her seed-specked chin. Energy flares up in her, the sort that only comes when enough sleep is lost. "Maybe we could go in and see if anyone's still 'round." Shi gives her a look that adamantly says "no". Emory sighs, then sits down on a stump with fungus blossoming around the edges. "Shi, I'll be fine. I'm an adult."

     "Yeah, well, you never sound like you want to be," snaps Shi. "You're always—I dunno, you just—you don't seem like you want to do adult things. Like you're running away or something."

     "What?" Emory stands up and folds her arms, looking down at the Aisha. "Shi, where did you get that from?"

     "I saw you talking to that Blumaroo," Shi says. Their tail flicks back and forth angrily. "I'm sorry I eavesdropped, but you know, I—I can't just forget I heard that, okay? You said it's been ten years or something, and you can't stand being an adult for so long, all those responsibilities, and—and—and—" They grit their teeth, then breathe in through the tiny gaps. "Why? Why are you acting like it's some horrible, horrible fate to be an adult?" Shoulders shaking and fists clenched, Shi gives Emory not another word before rushing into the building.

     "Shi!" Emory looks around the house, wildly searching for some sort of entrance. Lucky for her, the front door gives way with a single kick. "Shi?"

     A long hall lies before her, with a few corridors branching off diagonally. Spyders skitter around; a few ghosts peek through the walls and flee when sighted. Emory tiptoes over the creaking, dusty floorboards, then spots a staircase at the end of the hall. So she dashes from room to room, at first opening the doors with special care and eventually slamming them shut in frustration. At last, nearly an hour later and three floors up, she pulls open a ceiling trapdoor, stairs and all. Carefully she walks up to the attic where Shi sits, curled up behind a makeshift fort of cardboard boxes.

     "Shi," says Emory sadly, tiptoeing around the boxes. "I'm sorry. You've been a kid for an awful long time."

     "And I'm never getting older," whispers Shi, resting their head on their knees. "Not in the height and not in the head. Nobody's ever going to see me as anything but a dumb kid looking for attention." Emory begins to say something, then decides against it. "And it goes on and on and on. Why would you want to go back to that?"

     "Well..." Emory sits down next to them, leaning against a stack of boxes. "Maybe I wanted to go back to something that never really existed. If that makes any sense? Am I making sense?" Shi nods. "I like to think everything was better, way back when. I like to pretend there's some beautiful and radically different future I can look forward to if I just get rid of the things I don't care for. I had all these ideas that I'd drawn up from books, and sometimes I'd spend hours lying in bed, not even sleeping, just thinking about what could be. I had everything planned out so meticulously. I read up all these books, subscribed to all those magazines about living off the land. Drinking organic tea out of fruit jars," she adds with a snort.

     "What?" Shi asks.

     "But never mind that," Emory laughs, waving her paw. "Maybe I needed a new perspective? Maybe I could have solved everything with a different look at the situation. I guess I was running away, then." She fiddles with a piece of cardboard. "What's in these boxes, anyway?" Shi shrugs. Emory picks up a lighter box and shakes it; bells jingle inside. After some minutes of picking and peeling at glue and tape, she manages to pry a few open. Maractite Throwing Net, Hard Leather Bracers, Agogo Bells, an oddly sturdy Healing Potion...

     "Wow," gasps Shi dramatically. "Look at all this junk."

     "It's not junk," insists Emory, pulling out a doll. "This Usuki dates back to Y2. Rarity 99. And—and! It comes with two outfits. Or should. Anyway, it would sell for millions at auctions."

     "You're weirding me out, Emory," groans Shi.

     "We can make a lot of money selling this stuff," Emory adds hastily. Her face falls as she corrects herself, "Actually, I... should probably head back."

     "You probably should." Shi bites their lip. "But—"

     "Where are you going to go?" Emory asks, looking over Shi with concern.

     "Nowhere," Shi says, albeit with hesitation. "I think I could sell stuff here, maybe? My dad always said I was good with money. It might be lonely, though."

     "Well, Shi!" Emory puts her paws on her hips. "If there's one thing I've learned about Neopians, it's that they can't resist a good deal. Keep your prices low and they'll come en masse. Look, how about I set some stuff up—" She falls silent as Shi picks up a sword and carries it across the room, eventually resting it on a shelf. "I thought you couldn't do that."

     "I can," Shi says, their face turning a deeper blue. "I've just gotten real lazy."

     ***

     She dresses herself in light, comfortable clothing, then sips a small coffee with a splash of milk. An hour later, she runs into her sister Kirsten on the street. The speckled Eyrie glowers at her and claps a paw on her shoulder, looking deep into Emory's eyes. So many times Emory has let herself be guilted by that gaze, that mix of disgust and desperation. Now, she brushes away her older sister's paw like a fly.

     "Emory!" snaps Kirsten, as if speaking to a misbehaving petpet. She throws back her head, determined to make a scene. "How selfish can you be? Abandoning your sisters like that? Where would you be without us?" She lowers her voice to a hiss: "I know how you get these ideas into your head. I know how impulsive and scatterbrained you can be. You're better than this and you know it!" Emory walks away, waving a paw dismissively. "Emmie!" A small crowd of neopets stop and stare, only to crinkle their noses and shrug it off. Emory strolls over to the Health Food shop and greets the greengrocer with a wide smile.

     "Heard some spat on the street," remarks the Quiggle. "Sounded like your sister, it did. What in sweet Fyora's name happened there?" Emory glances up, shakes her head with a smile, and asks for the usual fruits and vegetables. "Finally got her off your back, huh? Good job. Never liked her gaggle, never..." He bags the produce and then says, "Vacation ended early, huh?"

     "Yes, odd turn of events there," says Emory with a shrug and a sip. "Would you believe I ended up in the Haunted Woods? There's a new shop opening, you know. The owner calls it the Almost Abandoned Attic..."

     Good job, Emory. Good job.

The End

 
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