Ballindalloch: Part Three
"Mom, guess what? I found another carving in my room today!"
"Yeah, like the one in the kitchen! Remember last night?"
"I remember. What does it say?"
As her mother sat with a cup of tea on the infamous couch in the Catchall Room, which was beginning to look more and more like a living room — Carleigh Larkin must have been busy this morning — it took all of Avery's physical and emotional resolve to keep her feet firmly planted on the ground. "Do you want to see it?" she beamed, excitement pulsing through her ever-escalating voice.
"I'll come see it after I finish my tea. What does it say?" her mother repeated the question.
"It says Maybelline! M-a-y-b..." A short pause. "...e-l-i-n-e. May-buh-leen. Unless it's line, like a straight line. I like to say it May-buh-leen."
"Maybelline," the red Xweetok tried the word out. She seemed to like it. "It's pretty." She smiled. "I wonder what it means."
"It's a name, Mom!" Avery chortled. "The name of a kid — a girl!"
Carleigh's smile faded a bit, and her face turned quizzical. "How do you know it's the name of a kid?"
Avery narrowed her eyes in a noble attempt at a sarcastic expression. "Mom, would you or Dad carve your name into a wall?"
"Don't be smart, Avery," her mother rebuked.
"You always say that. Do you want me to be dumb?"
Carleigh scrunched up her nose and blew out through her mouth. "You are so going to be in for it one day, missy." We should take the time to note that that 'one day' Avery was going to be 'in for it' had been coming for a long, long time.
Suddenly a thought came over the little smart-aleck: a thought that had breezed into her mind for a brief moment before she had been fully conscious, and had breezed out just as quickly. "Were you in my room this morning?"
Her mother shook her head. "Uh, no, I wasn't in your room."
"Was Dad in my room? Or was Noah?"
"Noah wouldn't have been in your room without one of us, and Dad went to work early this morning."
"Early, like what time?"
"Earlier than you've seen since school ended," the Xweetok laughed.
When she was finished her tea, Carleigh Larkin went upstairs to see the mysterious carving in her daughter's bedroom wall. And there it was, as plain as the grin on Avery's face, Maybelline.
"The last people who lived here probably carved it when they stripped the wallpaper," Carleigh remarked.
Ballindalloch's last owners had apparently been in the middle of renovating when they'd decided to sell their home. The realtor had told Avery's parents this, but Avery could have deduced as much herself. Some parts of the house were gorgeous, while others were in a hideous, crying need of an update. Her bedroom still had pieces of flowered yellow wallpaper clinging to it, and as far as Avery was concerned, this was as good a reason as any to assume that her room was the last to have been worked on before the family had left.
"What colour would you... hmm... like your room to be?" her mother asked absentmindedly as her fingers skimmed choppily over the name. "We could get some paint today, and Dad could do it over the weekend. ...My gosh, it'll probably take six coats to mask this..."
As Avery ate breakfast that morning, she couldn't help but wonder if what her mother said was true. Did the carving have to be from the most recent owners of the hundred-and-fifty-four-year-old house? Couldn't it have been from at least two owners ago, or ten owners ago? She didn't know why she wanted it to be older than newer. Older fascinated her more, she supposed. There was nothing fascinating about the Neopians who'd lived in Ballindalloch a year ago.
Well, no, that wasn't fair to say. There could have been plenty of fascinating things about the people themselves; there was just nothing particularly awe-inspiring about the idea of a modern family living there. Yes, that sounded better. Much less uppity.
But the original family! Oh, to daydream about the original family! They must have sat in this very same room eating their cereal, which would probably have been more like porridge, but they would have called it cereal. They would sit in their layers and layers of clothing, even in the summertime, and indulge in dainty plates of flapjacks with fruit, and homemade muffins and scones, and toast with hard-boiled eggs and bacon. Either that or they would have eaten porridge every day, depending on their social standing. It would have been beautiful...
For as long as Avery could have remained in her daydream, her cereal was starting to go soggy. And anyway, she was going to run errands with her mom today. She couldn't afford to dance in the past any longer.
When Aunt Florence played the baby grand, everyone would listen. Uncle Richard would set down his work, his pressed flowers and books with sketches of flowers, and listen to the jocund notes as they rose from soundboard and strings into the familial air. Hattie would cease her busy knitting; Samuel would stand beside the great instrument and turn the pages of the music book for his mother, occasionally stretching out an impish finger to depress an unneeded key or two; Margret-Rose would sit on the bench beside the larger purple Mynci and attentively observe every move her nimble hands made. Albert would nod to the music, Daniel would sit in his favourite armchair and smile.
She herself liked to walk about when Aunt Florence played the piano. One could say the melodies moved her, body and soul, in such a curious, furious way that she could not force herself to sit still. The crescendos and diminuendos excited her so that she needed to be moving with them, ebbing and flowing with the changing tune, completely immersed in their joyful noise. Only then could she feel the music's heart beating against her own.
She was not good at dancing, and felt silly trying, but by this time everyone was quite used to the way she would pace about the room. She would walk among each member of her family of friends, and take pleasure in the knowledge that they visibly were enjoying the piano's empyrean song as much as she was.
"Your fingers are gold, Aunt Florence!"
"Such a talent, Mrs. Florence."
"They are purple," Margret-Rose would say, eyeing closely her mother's fingers.
And when the song ended, somebody would always request another one.
"Could you play the one about the mountain, by the man with the funny name?" It was assumed by all that Samuel did, in fact, know the name of the funnily-named man, but preferred not to say it.
"Could you please play 'River Queen', Mother?" Hattie would ask pleasantly.
"She played that one yesterday!" Samuel would unerringly complain.
"It is such a lovely song..."
"A boring song is what it is! It makes me fall asleep! Mother, can you please play something lively and quick?"
"If everyone is having their say," Albert would pipe up with his hand in the air, "could you please play 'The Begonias' by Draik Sudan?" And Uncle Richard would say, "Here, here," most likely because begonias were flowers, only to be met with Samuel's bold whines of protest: "Too slow!"
It was moments such as these, she thought, that were the most splendid moments of all. The placid harmony of the music contrasted with the discord of the family as they argued over which piece to hear next. She would rarely speak during these mock-fights, as it mattered little to her which song Aunt Florence played, for she liked them all equally; and besides, she thought her voice hardly necessary to render these moments complete.
In truth, she would have hated to spoil the perfect air with her own words. If she spoke, she would not be able to hear what her family was saying as clearly, as she would be too focused on what she herself was trying to say — an occupation which regularly impeded people from truly listening.
Sometimes she found she enjoyed herself better merely sitting and listening. She did not need to be a contributory part of the conversation, so long as she was there with them, a member of the moment.
She wondered if the reason why they continually performed this mid-song ritual was because they enjoyed these moments as much as she did. For when a new song was chosen, not a soul would complain; no, they would allow themselves to become enveloped by the melody as they always did, as if it were a faerie's spell over them all. The low flames in the stone fireplace would flicker, and Aunt Florence would suggest a slow, sweet composition such as "Let Us Hold Life Dear" by Athinia Marzen. By this time Margaret-Rose would be asleep on the piano bench.
All of these, she thought, were the components of utter happiness.
Avery Larkin had never particularly liked grocery shopping. Sure, it sounded like a stupid thing to say, as who truly and honestly liked grocery shopping? According to her mother, some people did, though Avery believed some people did not include the Xweetok herself, as she looked as deathly bored as Avery did as she pushed the cart up and down the — dimly lit, to add insult to injury — aisles and aisles and aisles of pre-packaged food.
Perhaps what truly irked her was the fact that Whittaker's Merimart was laid out exactly the same way as the Merimart in their old town. The baked goods were to the right of the store near the entrance, so that you would experience a moment of stimulation upon coming through the door when you caught sight, and smell, of the freshly baked bread and cake and pie and muffins and cookies, all wrapped in paper or divided into clear plastic containers so that you could actually see what you were buying, and not just see pictures of the food on the box, which were probably more like 'artist renditions' of the food... And mmm, what a sight it was!
As you progressed through the store, your excitement would wane, for you were now faced with the aforementioned aisles and aisles and aisles of pre-packaged food. The adrenaline from the baked goods section would never return, unless you derived the same euphoria from dairy products, which were located at the left side of the store; or meat, which could be found anywhere along the back wall. Sometimes you would have to go back to the baked goods section just to ensure you had enough energy, enough spirit and grit and zeal for life, to make it through the rest of the store!
Such was Merimart, evidently no matter where the Sloth you went. And so Carleigh could walk along methodically, picking up everything her family would need for the next two weeks without thought or deviation from her regular shopping regime. It was so boring. Avery could see it in her drooping form. Where was the fun in moving to a new town if everything in the grocery store looked infuriatingly identical to the old one?
Avery's smaller, Bori form was as droopy as her mother's, but her form wore a skort: a pleated beige skirt with integral beige shorts hidden underneath — more comfortable than a skirt, but definitely still a pain. Her mother had wanted her to wear it for her first time out in town. Avery's grandmother had bought it for her birthday last year, and Avery had had absolutely no desire to wear it before today, and so she hadn't.
The double layers were ridiculously hot for summer, but it was clearly an article of summer clothing, and it felt so tight and clingy and itchy and gross, and she kept having to pull it down at the back because she was paranoid that her underwear were showing.
Then she would remember she had shorts underneath — but people might not know they were shorts underneath, and think she was just wearing a skirt and that her boxer-style underwear were showing...
Did girls wear boxers?
"Oh, hi there!" Avery was interrupted from her miserable musing by a chocolate-coloured Gelert and her orange daughter. "You're the ones who just moved into Ballindalloch, right?" Avery's mother said yes. "We live about a block away from you guys! Albat Court!"
"Forty-two Albat Court, number three," the daughter enunciated slowly, clearly proud to demonstrate to a stranger that she knew her home address.
"Well, it's nice to meet a neighbour!" Carleigh beamed genuinely. "We haven't met anyone in town yet. We've just been so busy moving in, trying to get everything cleaned up..."
"I'm sure, I'm sure!" said the Gelert woman, nodding energetically. "How's everything going? It's such a beautiful house. I'm glad someone finally moved in."
Over the next half hour, Avery learned that the woman's name was something Simpson — she didn't quite get the first name — and that her daughter's name was Emma, and that Emma had a whiny, high-pitched voice that sounded like a whimpering infant Doglefox, but not as cute. Emma was a few years younger than she was — maybe six or seven. They had a Tasu named Matt, which was a very strange name for a Tasu, and Emma told her enthusiastically that he liked to sleep on the welcome mat, which she apparently thought was the funniest thing in the world. Mrs. Simpson knew a great recipe for broccoli and cheese casserole, and her husband Mr. Simpson had had a cold two weeks ago, and they had a swimming pool in their backyard. They were so lucky.
"The kids would love a pool," (The kids. Her mother always talked about the kids when she really just meant Avery. Noah, who had been asleep in the shopping cart this whole time, was obviously too young to swim in a swimming pool. But mothers like to refer to their children collectively. Can't leave anyone out; it may look like she loves them less.) "...but our backyard is on a hill, so they would have to level it off first."
If Avery had been droopy before, she was gelatin now, or a pulp. Her back actually hurt from standing so long, and she was so tired. Her lack of proper sleep the previous night must have been starting to catch up with her. She'd tried to drop her mother countless hints that she wanted to get a move on but, another observation about mothers: mothers are oblivious to the world when they're talking to other mothers.
"...We were going to take the groceries home and go get some paint for Avery's bedroom. Her walls are marked up pretty badly. We think the last owners had wanted to repaint before they sold, but I guess they changed their minds for some reason."
"Yes, they were right in the middle of renovating when they left--" Mrs. Simpson stopped shortly.
The news was nothing new to Carleigh Larkin, but the woman's almost panicked expression when reporting it — or rather, the panicked expression that followed after she had reported it — combined with the way she seemed to cut her own words off, struck her as unusual. Avery could tell.
"They must have left suddenly..." the red Xweetok inferred, her tone now saturated with curiosity. "Did you know the people personally?"
"Do you know why they left the house so quickly?" the attorney pressed on, curiosity starting to blossom into something that sounded like... suspicion. "It sat empty for a year. It couldn't have been that they needed to get out for the next people."
Mrs. Simpson was quiet. Emma Simpson was not. "The house is haunted!" the little Gelert squeaked, and Avery's gelatin ears stood on end.
"Emma!" Mrs. Simpson's eyes shot daggers. "That's not true."
"That's what everyone says," the ignorant Emma Simpson persisted.
"They said they thought something was in the house. It was probably Petpets — Urchulls or something," Mrs. Simpson flailed to repudiate her daughter's claim. It was like a non-swimmer flailing around in the ocean. "Have you noticed anything unusual in there?"
"No," Avery's mother shook her head. "We haven't seen anything."
But the damage had been done.
To be continued…