Kenneth, Avery's Knowledgeable Shorter Mover White Scorchio Friend who'd Once Choked, lived in Albat Court. It shouldn't have surprised her, really, as Whittaker was a very small town. As she stood on the front porch waiting for him to answer his door, Emma Simpson waved at her from her balcony.
"Hiii, Eemmaa!" Avery called back, giving her best zombie impression. It sounded remarkably like the Gelert. "Zombies..." Avery shuddered. "No."
Kenneth soon came to the door to greet her, and she followed him around to the back of the house, where they sat in mismatched green lawn chairs, and conversed.
"So your mom said you wanna know more about Ballindalloch's original family, eh?"
Avery sat in the chair with her legs crossed and a notebook and pencil in her hand. "Yes, please."
"What do you want to know?"
"Everything, Mr. Kenneth. I want you to start from the very beginning."
The Scorchio silently wondered if Cross Examination was a game the Larkins regularly played at home. The missus was a lawyer, wasn't she? "Alright," Kenneth stretched his legs and shifted in his chair. "I'll start from the beginning."
And Avery nodded for him to go on.
"The house was built for a botanist, that's somebody who studies plants, named Dr. Richard Carin. He was a pretty famous botanist at the time." Kenneth shifted again. His chair didn't look like it was as comfortable as the one he'd offered Avery. "Richard Carin had a wife and three kids, and they took in two other boys from town. They also had a niece who lived with them for about a year, after she'd lost her parents in an accident."
Avery scribbled something down in her notebook. She was creating a mind map to help her visualize the connections, but she hardly needed to. The connections drew themselves.
"The Carins lived in the house for thirteen years. Then--" the Scorchio paused. "Have you heard about the Whittaker Kikoughela endemic?"
Avery shook her head no.
"No, I guess you wouldn't have. About a hundred and forty years ago, there was a terrible Kikoughela outbreak in this town. Kikoughela is a disease that affects the lungs."
That much Avery did know.
"Almost everyone in the family got sick with it, to some degree. In the end, though, the only one who lost their life to it was their little niece. Poor thing was only eleven at the time."
Avery put down her pencil. Her heart had started to beat faster, and she could feel her eyes growing watery, again. She blinked it back.
"The family was so upset over the loss of their niece that they left the house. It was said that nobody loved Ballindalloch as much as she did. They just couldn't stay in it with all the memories, you know? The house sat empty for seven years. Nobody wanted to buy it, afraid that they would contract the virus. People didn't know a lot about diseases back then, and what they didn't know terrified them." Another pause, which served to emphasize this statement well, whether it had been the intention or not.
"Anyway, ironically enough, that's pretty much been the story of Ballindalloch's life. People buy the house, restore it, then sell it — and most of the time it sits empty until someone comes along and buys it again. They've been talking about tearing it down for years, but no one really wants to see a famous heritage building go." Kenneth waited for the little girl to finish writing in her notebook, and then he continued, "You're pretty smitten with the idea of that house, aren't'cha?" He chuckled. "I am, too. You guys are lucky to be the owners of that cool old building. I hope yous stick around."
She was going to ask why none of Ballindalloch's previous owners had stayed in the house for long, but she was already beyond that.
In fact, maybe she had gotten farther, in regards to the ghost, than anyone else who had lived there so far. "Mr. Kenneth?"
"Just Kenneth, can I ask you a question?"
"Uh, sure," the Scorchio said with the natural reluctance one typically responds with when asked such a question.
"Do you believe the rumours, that Ballindalloch is haunted?"
"Ah," Kenneth waved a flippant hand and shook his head slowly, as if shaking off a crazy idea. "People just like to talk. That kind of thing just goes with the territory of old houses. Don't worry, hon, your house isn't haunted." And he laughed.
So he didn't know. Avery supposed it made sense. Kenneth was the one who initially started her on her quest to learn about the house's first family, three long weeks ago. He thought she would enjoy it, because she was a kid, and kids got a kick out of 'treasure hunts'. He wouldn't have done it if he had known, Avery knew. No one in their right mind would deliberately entangle a child with the spirit world — especially not someone as nice as Kenneth.
In retrospect, even Mr. Konishi probably hadn't taken the ghost to heart. He'd just thought she was a kid who needed to 'face her fears', or something like that. Sure it was a cliche thing adults said, but hey, they were right. Avery had, and it had worked.
"I just have one more question," the Bori said, tapping her pencil against her notes. "You said the original family moved away because they couldn't bear to stay in the house anymore," Avery recapped. "Did they move to Pankhurst?"
"Yes they did." Registering the question, the Scorchio gave her a strange look. "How do you know that?"
"I just thought I heard someone say that," Avery said simply. At that moment, it occurred to her to ask something that, for some reason, she hadn't thought to ask before. "How do you know so much about Ballindalloch, anyway?"
"My great grandfather was one of the first residents of the house," the Scorchio replied proudly. "He was one of the two boarders — Albert Wate was his name. His dad, my great, great grandfather, was a colleague of Richard Carin. He went on a research expedition around Neopia, and left his son in his care. Took 'em three years back then! Can you imagine?"
Avery's mind went back to the photograph of the family of eight Neopets. She did not know who Albert Wate was in the photo, or if she had even seen the photo at all. She would never know if the room truly existed, or if it was a hallucination; a figment of her imagination, or an apparition put there by the spirits for her, and only her, to see.
It had been two days since the attic, and Avery had not seen or heard from the ghost since. There were no more early morning visits, no more voices rasping pleas, begging desperately for an audience. She had been to the swing several times; not wanting, not trying to contact the ghost again... but needing to know. She needed, needed, to know whether the different, empty feeling in the house was a product of wishful thinking, or not. The swing always sat still and lifeless, like a hundred-and-fifty-four-year-old artifact should.
Avery would never know the complete story of Ballindalloch's first family. No matter how much investigating she did, no matter how much she picked Kenneth's brain, their lives would remain greatly a mystery to her, their memory buried too deeply in the past. Avery Larkin could do nothing but hope that the tormented little soul who had reached out to her was now at peace, and had finally been set free from her limbo between Life and After, from the house she had so cherished when her family was there.
She hoped that she was with them now.
She would never go up to the attic again, and perhaps no one would believe her if she told them of her extraordinary encounter. All Avery Larkin knew for certain was that a hundred and some-odd years ago, a little girl lived, loved, and was loved in the Meridellian estate, Ballindalloch. And if she never recounted to anyone the story of her uncanny experiences that day, so be it. It could eternally be kept a secret, between she and Maybelline.
On the second day of the month of Gathering, as the noonday sun spilled through the little windows, an ethereal warmth imbued the room as every one of her family members came in to see her.
In the past her room was seldom visited. As the last resident to move in to Ballindalloch, there were no other sleeping quarters available than the room in the attic, which could only be accessed through Albert and Daniel's bedroom, and the stairs Uncle Richard had had built were so rickety and steep that even brave Samuel was hesitant to tread them. The only one to use the stairs regularly, apart from herself, was Daniel, who habitually came on two or three occasions daily. These past three days, however, Daniel had not visited at all. As the house's sole resident to not have contracted the illness, he had been prohibited by the doctor, and everyone, from coming near.
For this reason, her face lit up like it had not in days when she lifted her tired eyes to see him standing at her bedside. She could not speak, but her smile, which matched perfectly his own, betokened that she knew that he was there.
And he spoke to her. He spoke about the way the leaves had changed so early, and of how her absence changed the house so profoundly, and he told her he had taken up whittling, displaying a palm-sized carving knife Uncle Richard had given him. In truth, he only planned to take up whittling in the future. For the present, all he knew how to carve was her name. He said that he missed her, and he said that she could not have even known how much he missed her.
And then Samuel came up and said it too, followed by Albert, and Hattie, and Aunt Florence with Margret-Rose in her arms. Uncle Richard kept a vigil outside her door all the while, muttering and pacing back and forth.
Hattie laid the blanket over her, the one Maybelline herself had knitted a millennia ago, and everyone agreed that it should rightfully belong to her. The blanket was an emblem of tribulation and resilience, suffering and strength, fear and overcoming, loneliness and laughter and patience and devotedness and joy — and at the height of her heart she was pleased to know that her family felt this way about something she had done.
Before her parents' passing, Uncle Richard had been no more to her than a father's distant brother. Having only come to the house a year ago, and having had no prior acquaintance to the Carins before that time, she had often felt as if her existence there was superfluous; insignificant, as if she were imposing on their hospitality, their goodness, their kindness, their substantiation and love. This thought had never made her bitter; on the contrary, it helped her to appreciate more her time at Ballindalloch, and everything its family had done for her.
She could not dream of repaying them, for what could she possibly do? They had given her everything. They had bequeathed on her another chance of happiness and hope, and thus they had given her the world. To know how truly and completely they loved her back... it was life at its fulfillment. It was more than she could ever have asked for.
Her chest moved up and down, up and down, up an down. The sun moved, the light in the room gradually, gently, grew dim. She was happy. In her bedroom she was surrounded by all but everything she held dearest, and she thought, over and over she thought, how she did not want to leave... Never...
If there was only something she could do... Someway she could stay... She would not leave the people who gathered round her bedside. So long as they were there, she would not leave Ballindalloch. She tried... She tried to will herself. She promised.
Her chest moved up and down, up and down, up...