Her dreams last night consisted of soccer, a thousand people thronging her backyard, cold lemonade and colder coffee, and Mr. Konishi. All the events of the previous day seemed to play over and over in Avery's head, as if they were a Neovision movie being rewound, fast-forwarded and rewound, and started over again. Throughout her dreams, a single theme was constant. Although the sleep stories changed, a sole aspect remained, and even in slumber Avery knew she could not escape it.
She was sitting at the table under the gazebo with Mr. Konishi, who looked decidedly younger than he had yesterday. There were no other guests at the table, or anywhere in the yard from what she could tell. She and the not-elderly pink Aisha were chatting and laughing, drinking iced coffee with straws and having a grand old time. Then Mr. Konishi asked if she had confronted the ghost yet. When she said no, a look of panic came to his withered face. "You have to talk to her, now!" he roared.
Despite the urgency of his demand, Avery leaned back in her chair and raised her iced coffee to her lips. She was having such an enjoyable visit with her new friend! She didn't want to end it yet.
But the visit ended against her will. All of a sudden she was playing soccer in an enormous open field. There were many children in the field, and Avery recognized some of them from her old school. Emma was there in a red baseball jersey, and Noah was there as well. The next thing she knew they were back at Ballindalloch, and all of the children were running away.
Only Noah and herself remained. Their father was at a dig site, their mother was in court, and they were home all alone. They didn't know whether to be conscientious and quiet, or to run around screaming with reckless abandon, and so they straddled the line between the two, kicking the soccer ball with as little noise as possible, cheering loud enough to wake the neighbours and the dead when either of them got a goal.
It was late at night, and the neighbours were certainly all asleep, but in the distance they could see someone watching them. They both knew that if the Someone caught them, they would be in trouble. They weren't supposed to be home by themselves. Why had their parents left them alone?
Then the people returned to the backyard, and it was daytime again. The backyard, however, wasn't her own, and she didn't recognize any of the people in it. The nameless Neopians drank lemonade with ice that sparkled in the glass, even though it was a chilly day and Avery could have used a jacket. Feeling out of place at the party, not being acquainted with any of the guests, she decided to take the soccer ball she and Noah had been playing with (though Noah was now nowhere in sight) and kick it down the hill. The hill was higher than any she had ever seen before, or so she began to realize as the ball rolled and rolled and rolled, and no matter how far she ran, she couldn't catch up with it.
She was starting to think that the hill would never end when it materialized before her: the familiar trees and shrubs of the secret nook, the fortress, the outdoor room. Terror gripped her by the throat, but her legs kept moving. She tried — oh she tried! — to stop, but her momentum was too immense. The voice, the whispers, she could hear them all around her. They sunk into her skin, and she collided headlong with the swing.
The impact woke her up.
It was six a.m. when Avery awakened. The sun wasn't up yet, and it was dark in her bedroom. She would have liked to have gone back to sleep, but she couldn't. She tried, but she couldn't. Thoughts of the ghost kept her awake — but that went without saying, didn't it?
She suddenly remembered all over again that its name was carved into her wall, right beside her bedpost (They still hadn't painted over it), and she couldn't keep herself from imagining that the name was glowing, or emitting a strange scent, or oozing liquid, or otherwise acting creepy and demonic and drawing attention to itself.
She wondered how she had even managed to sleep in this room for two weeks after the discovery of the profane writing on the wall. And now that Mr. Konishi had talked about the attic, her bedroom had become even more uncomfortable and impossible to sleep in, knowing that the hatch to the attic was right there, on the ceiling in the far right corner by her closet.
She didn't want to go up. Fyora on the highest she's ever been, she didn't want to go up! It was four p.m. now— four p.m.! That meant she had spent ten freakin' hours telling herself she should go up, and arguing with herself that she didn't want to! (She could only imagine what kind of toll this whole thing was taking on her sanity...)
But what would happen if she didn't? If she didn't 'confront the ghost' like Mr. Konishi had told her to?
She had no idea how she was going to confront it. What power did she have to overcome a ghost? Avery honestly had no idea what power the ghost had either, but it was definitely more than she, a little Neopian kid, possessed. With no power, she figured there was no point in trying to make a plan to defeat it, for she wouldn't be able to carry it out, anyway. All she could do was try to find it, and maybe... talk to it? If Neopians from the land of the living could in fact talk to ghosts. That is, without crossing 'the line'...
She should go up.
But she didn't want to go up! She had spent two weeks trying to avoid the ghost. Now she was going to go looking for it? Was she insane?!
Or... brave. Would it be brave? Would that be a brave thing to do? If she didn't confront it now, she would spend the next how many hours, days, weeks, months dreading the attic. She would be spending the rest of her time in the house trying not to spend time in the house. She would be living in fear. Agony. And what kind of an existence would that be?
Here was the question again, the one Mr. Konishi had aroused from her suppressed thoughts yesterday: what did ghosts do? They haunted people, sure. They scared them, drove them out of houses... But what would happen if the people didn't run away when they got scared? What would have happened to any of Ballindalloch's residents if they had stayed in the house after they realized it was haunted? Perhaps some of them had. How could she know? Maybelline's presence threatened. But what if her threats were empty?
Avery didn't want to go up to the attic.
But she reckoned she had no choice.
The ladder was on the landing. Her diminutive mother had been using it to hang pictures. She wished she could have asked for her mother or father to go up with her, but the idea just didn't sit right. Her parents had arranged the whole welcome-to-the-neighbourhood party for her, just to give her something to think about besides the ghost — or so she inferred from the conversation she'd overheard in the kitchen last night, when her parents had thought she was in bed (Avery had had almost as hard a time trying to fall asleep last night as she'd had trying to fall back to sleep this morning, and had gone downstairs for a midnight granola bar and chocolate milk).
If her parents found out she was still worried about the ghost, they would probably be really upset... Plus, she didn't want to get Mr. Konishi in trouble if she slipped up that it was he who had put the attic thought in her head.
And so, Avery dragged the ladder from the landing up eight stairs, down four stairs (She'd second-guessed her decision for a minute there), and up those four stairs again, through the hallway and into her bedroom by herself. She had never set up a ladder before, but she'd seen her parents do it. With each step she put her weight on, she prayed that she had set it up right and that it wouldn't collapse with her on it. This really was starting to feel more and more like a suicide attempt...
The ladder just reached. With one hand on the wall for balance, Avery used the other to grip the hatch's handle, and slide the passage open. If the ghost was the one to overcome her, at least she wouldn't have to live her whole life in fear.
Her head poked through first, and then she nervously swung a knee up, and then the other. She crawled on her hands and knees until she was a safe distance away from what was now a gaping hole in the floor, keeping her head down and her eyes on the unvarnished wood all the while. When she lifted her head, she was surprised to find that it was brighter than she'd thought it would be. The attic was illuminated by the sunlight that filtered through the two small windows at the front of the room.
"Oh yeah!" Avery mused aloud. She had seen those windows on the front of the house.
Aside from the reassuring sunlight, the attic was empty. It had finished green-tinged grey walls, indicating that it had been used at some point as a regular room. It was certainly big enough to be furnished, spanning the entire width of the house. Avery giggled an actual giggle. She had discovered a hidden room, a room her family didn't even know about! Better still, the room was empty — empty here having the meaning of not inhabited by a ghost!
The Bori did a little spin around. She skipped over to the windows and double-took when she saw how high up she was. It was as if she was flying over the house instead of inside it. She'd never seen her front yard from this angle before. There was the birch tree, the sweetgum tree, the rock garden which her mother had begun planting her own flowers in, and the well which was shockingly visible to the naked eye from high above. It was the same view as the one from her parents' window, only much cooler and more dizzying. She wondered what the view looked like from the back of the house.
And then she realized there was no back window.
How was that? She had stood in her backyard and seen the attic windows. They were just there yesterday, in fact.
The more Avery looked around, the stranger the attic felt to her, but she couldn't put her finger on what it was. Then she realized that it was small. The attic was too small for Ballindalloch. It was the width of the house, yes, but shouldn't it have been the length of the house, as well?
She stared at the back wall. It was greyed-green. The paint was faded. Avery wondered when it had last been updated, and how many of the house's owners had used this attic as a room. Sun streamed through the little windows, causing the wall to shimmer.
Why did the wall shimmer?
She stared harder. It wasn't the entire wall that shimmered, but rather a small area of it, a tiny glint in the grey. She made her way over to the wall, sought out the shimmer, and found it. It was a doorknob; rusty steel like the swing, but with still enough silver visible for it to catch the light when viewed from a certain angle.
Avery touched the doorknob. It felt rough against her fingers. Then, breath held, she attempted to turn it. With some resistance, it turned, and a door that had all but blended with the wall opened with such a harrowing creak Avery feared it was either going to eat her or fall off its hinges. She jumped back. When it appeared stable, and she had decent faith that it was not going to do either, she exerted force upon the door, pushing her way into the room it sealed off.
Hand still on the doorknob, door slammed against the slanted inner wall, Avery's blood turned cold on the threshold. It was a bedroom. A bedroom full of furniture. A bedroom with a bed with a nightstand beside it, and a table and a small desk by the windows — the windows — on the back wall. A bedroom with a dresser, and a tall armoire, and a vanity with an ornately painted mirror, and a white armchair.
The more Avery looked around the room, the faster her heart beat. Every surface was covered with trinkets, and knickknacks, and ornaments. On the nightstand was a blue, flat, bowl-shaped candle holder, but there was no candle inside.
Avery moved forward, as if entranced. The dresser was nearest, and so she began to examine the things that littered the top. It was lined with little, familiar-looking stones, similar in size and shape to the ones in the rock garden. There were a stack of papers, so yellowed they appeared coffee-stained, and so brittle-looking she dared not touch them, but from what she could see the one on top contained a faded sketch. When the Bori squinted, she could make out what she believed was a plant, a plant with bell-shaped flowers on a tall stem, surrounded by broad leaves.
Avery's hands shook.
There was another yellowed paper, this time displayed atop a metal stand a few inches high. Standing upright it was practically translucent, but again, when Avery squinted hard, she could see what was inked on it. They were music notes. The paper was a piece of sheet music. What a strange place for sheet music...
She scanned the room for an instrument, and found none. Her eyes fell on the bed, wooden and low and flush against the left wall. It was covered by a blanket that looked like wool and was striped four colours: light purple, blue, yellow, and pink.
The furniture was all antique — not the kind of antique you'd find in an antique shop, but the kind her father unearthed on expeditions. The difference was the former were usually restored and wiped and polished and pretentious. The latter were covered in dust, and decaying. This furniture was the latter. It looked as if it hadn't been used in over a hundred years.
And it hadn't been. Avery knew it hadn't been.
Kenneth said there were traces of the original family all throughout Ballindalloch. Was this what he had meant? Was this antiquated room what he had sent her out to look for, two weeks, five days, and a ridiculous amount of emotional tumult ago?
On the small writing desk there was more paper, and it caught the Bori's attention from across the room. She gravitated towards it, floorboards creaking with every step. She tried to remind herself that all the floors in Ballindalloch creaked, but her heartbeat had already risen to her mouth. She felt if she didn't keep her teeth clenched, it would jump right out and splatter on the floor.
The desk had a pull-out stool with what had once been a red leather seat, and now that she stood in front of it, Avery realized that it was minuscule. Child sized.
Her knees were shaking now. Against the background of the wooden desk, the ink on the curling paper was bold and dark and beckoning. She moved closer. Suddenly she was aware that her clothes were wet from sweating. Avery Larkin leaned over to read the handwritten words.
There was perhaps nothing more beautiful, in all Neopia or all the universe, than the lily of the valley: lithe green stalks crying white tears...
A chill of death came over the nine-year-old girl. There was a presence in this room.
It was the voice. The voice from the swing.
The voice was hoarse and weak as Avery remembered, and it sounded as if it were the voice of a departing soul.
It whispered on and on, and tears poured down Avery's cheeks, but she couldn't run, or move, or blink. Her body was numb, her heart had stopped, she was sure, and she imagined her muscles rotting inside of her. The onset of paralysis.
What was Pankhurst? What was Pankhurst? That was the only thought Avery's mind was capable of forming. Pankhurst was a town in Meridell... was it not? A farming town. She had gone there on a school trip a couple years back, to learn about... agriculture. They went on a hayride... It was fun...
"Have they gone...?
Avery covered her eyes with her hands. If she could not escape the room, she didn't want to be looking at it as she...
"Have they all gone?"
The little girl spread two of her fingers on her left hand, in order to allow one eye to peek through. ...What did it say?
"Have they gone to Pankhurst?"
It... seemed to be waiting for some sort of response. Mustering all her courage, Avery spat out a petrified, "Who?"
"Everyone," the voice returned after a moment. A long silence, and then, "Daniel."
Avery wondered if she was dead. She must have been. She must have crossed the line, and that was how she was talking to the ghost now. ...Daniel?
"I'm Avery," she told it. To what purpose, she didn't know. It just slipped, without any premeditation, or consideration for the consequences it may yield. "I-- I live here now."
Silence. Avery waited for a reply. She waited for a reply, she wanted a reply. She wanted to know what... was going to happen now. But the sound of her breathing was all she heard. ...Was the ghost gone?
On top of the writing desk, there were two dull gold-framed pictures Avery had not noticed before. One was a painting; dust-laden, like everything else in the room, but the image was still very clear. It was a portrait of a family: a brown Zafara man and a yellow Zafara woman, each standing with a hand on the respective shoulder of their yellow Zafara daughter. The daughter was around her own age — eight or nine, perhaps.
The other picture was a photograph; black and white, and not as clear as the painting, but the eight Neopians shown were discernible. There was an adult Kacheek who appeared spotted by his markings, and an adult female Mynci. There was a spotted Kacheek boy, and an Acara girl, and what she believed was another Mynci around Noah's age. There was a tall Lutari boy standing beside the three kneeling children, and a small male Lupe with an enormous smile that almost brought a smile to her tear-stained face.
At the smiling Lupe's side, so close to the edge of the photograph that she was nearly not in it at all was a pretty young Zafara girl. She was slightly older than the yellow Zafara in the painting with her parents, but it was clear to Avery that the two girls were one in the same.
The voice spoke again at last, causing Avery's heart to leap in her mouth. It knew her name.
Of course it knew her name, she had told it!
"Thank you, Avery."
The ghost's voice sounded different, somehow — stronger, she believed, and lighter. It lilted, faintly. It was undoubtedly female.
What was she thanking her for?
"Thank you, Avery."
The Zafara in the pictures. The Zafara in the pictures, the furniture, the colourful blanket, the stones, the sketch, the music, the writing... seemed to fly at her. They sprouted wings and flew to her head, to her body, heart, soul. They enveloped her, impaled her, and broke her down in sobs.
"Maybelline," the red Bori cried out. "Please don't bother me ever again!"
With a final glance at the two gold-framed pictures, Avery bolted from the room, fury in her legs, shutting the squealing door behind her. She raced through the empty attic, never slowing and with no desire to look back, and composed herself only for long enough to safely climb down the ladder.
It was then that Avery Patricia Larkin overcame the ghost.
"Thank you, Avery."
To be continued…