The house was called Ballindalloch, and it was tall and it was brown and it was lovely. Her parents said it had wide overhanging eaves that were supported by ornately carved brackets, and a beautiful entrance portico with sturdy white stone columns. They said it had intricate gold lintels that handsomely accented the tall windows, and they said the house was named a hundred and fifty-four years ago when it was built, in a time when it was fashionable for people to name their houses after things: old books and famous places and flowers.
Nobody seemed to know where the house had got its name from; the story had been lost to the generations. Ballinda like the name Belinda, loch like a lock and key, the house was a famous place in its own right in the little Meridellian town of Whittaker. It was a historical building, a heritage site. It had sat empty for a year, and now the Larkins had bought it. They had moved from their bungalow in the neighbouring town of Cherrydale because Noah was two, and he was just going to keep getting bigger, and eventually they weren't going to be able to share a bedroom anymore. Ballindalloch wasn't a mansion, but it was a big house, and it had enough bedrooms that Avery and her brother and her parents could each have their own — and still have a spare one left over.
Upon arrival Avery had stood on the front lawn, looked up, and gaped. This was her first time seeing the house. Her parents had just up and bought it one day without much consultation with she or her brother. They had been talking about moving, and the next thing Avery knew, they were. They'd said the house was old but nice, and that it came with a lot of property, and that she would love it. And, as far as Avery could tell, they were right about all three.
There were so many details in the house's archaic design that the adults who swarmed the front lawn were content to stare up at it and swoon. Avery was only nine, and she didn't know about such things as architectural terminology, nor did she care to; and so to her Ballindalloch was tall, and it was brown, and it was lovely.
"You could host the Altador Cup in this place... Too bad we don't live in Altador."
The house had a long, large front yard, and a longer, larger back one. In the front yard there was a rock garden, more toward the right side of the house, sheltered in the shade of a birch tree and a sweetgum tree. The red Bori looked over the garden: the weather-worn stones with their sharp edges and smooth sides, arranged in delicate patterns and shapes, circles and spirals; dead flowers all around them, filling the gaps. The lifeless foliage was pallid grey and flaky like plants after the winter. But the house had been empty for over a year, so the flowers must have been dead for longer than a winter...
Avery knelt down to touch the dry leaves. They crumbled between her fingers.
"Avery! Where are you?" her mother's voice shattered the silence. The movers had begun to carry boxes, large cardboard ones with her name neatly printed on them in red marker, into the house. "Can you help them take your stuff up to your room?" the red Xweetok shouted from the portico, where the woman herself struggled with packed-to-bursting boxes and two already-burst bags.
"'Kay." The Bori stood up and brushed the dirt off the cuffs of her overalls. Then she ran to retrieve a box with a big 'A-V-E-R-Y' blue-marker-written in her own childish hand. This was the kind of task that should be overseen by the owner of the room, anyway. (Fyora, it felt good to say that. She hadn't 'owned' her own room in, what? Two years?)
Even after seeing her bedroom, and exploring every inch of the interior of her new home, Avery Larkin was continually drawn back to the rock garden. There was something alluring about the ostensibly timeless stones and long-faded flowers. The last family probably planted the flowers over a year ago, which intrigued her.
Rocks, however, didn't die. That meant the rocks could have been a year old, ten years old, or a hundred years old. Ballindalloch was over a hundred and fifty.
A light summer wind blew through the birch and the sweetgum tree. Imagine if the garden was a hundred and fifty-four years old?
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; faerie-winged bells discharge a honey-sweet scent. They were venomous, or so avouched Uncle Richard, but they were so pretty that she had fixated her heart upon them, and so long as she made it her utmost and diligent duty to keep the bells out of the little one's mouth, Uncle Richard supposed there was no reason whatever why she should not be permitted to have them.
The spring sun was hot, though it was a great deal blocked out by a marble covering of grey and white clouds. The sun's beams were visible, distinct like Faerie Lights, breaking through said cover, and sunlight poured down on herself and the others like a fountain, or like the rain which had only just ended; and she feared that her seedlings would dry up in the heat, for Uncle Richard said they did best in cool climates.
"They will survive in warm climates, too," he told her softly, hearteningly, and trusting in his tender words, the lilies of the valley she made her own.
The stones had been delivered that morning in the back of a bumpity wagon. They had all chosen their favourite flowers, and anon set to work. The air smelled of wet grass and the dripping leaves of trees with mossy trunks; and saturated earth was ideal for digging, and planting. Uncle Richard commenced to dig out a nice round piece of land, and the children watched with eager eyes knowing they were to be given perfect freedom to embellish it however they pleased.
"Samuel, must you fling dirt at us all?"
"You're all standing in my way."
"You got dirt on my dress!"
"Can someone pass a spade, please?"
"Everyone, Uncle Richard says we must work together!"
"Can someone please pass a spade?"
The couch looked smaller being carried by the two movers than it used to look in her old house, though the men were still having a hard time getting it through the door. Her father stood inside the front hall, trying to guide them through the doorway. Searching for the perfect angle, the taller mover lifted the couch too high and wound up scraping the top of the doorway, mingling the couch paint with the house paint, and vice versa. Ballindalloch had stood for over a century and a half, and now it was her family to blemish it.
"I thought I had more room!"
Avery, none-too-subtely amused by this fantastic spectacle, was kindly invited by her mother to explore the rest of the estate's grounds. "Why don't you go see what else you can find? You haven't been in the back yet, right?"
"I don't know, Mom. I doubt I'll find anything more fun to look at. What could be more fun than the circus? It's the greatest show in Neopia, you know!"
The house really did have a lot of property. Her parents said they were very lucky the land hadn't been sold off over the years. The backyard was more than big enough for an in-ground swimming pool; in fact, it would have been big enough for two or three if the yard wasn't on such a slope. The hill would be good for tobogganing down in winter, and maybe some good ol' fashioned rolling down in summer. Today however, as the grass was brown and patchy and looked like a neglected wheat field, and would most definitely hurt to role down, Avery decided she would walk.
There were some large stumps on the hill, remains of the Giants of Old, which were never removed by the last family, most likely because they too had discovered the ground was too sloped for a swimming pool. There were little dirt mounds and holes made by some Petpet or another, and at the bottom of the hill there were trees and shrubs. The way they grew was intriguing to young Avery. They seemed to stretch out their arms to embrace a sort of outdoor room, a secret backyard nook. It was like a fort...
Then came a crash.
"Oh Fyora on High!" her father's cry boomed from the front yard. "Carleigh, I just dropped your mom's dishes!" Grumbled curses were met with the dismayed shriek of Avery's mother, and a small cacophony of discordant voices ensued. "...Well, you shouldn't have piled another box on top of them! Look, some of them are okay. They were bubble wrapped."
Avery frowned. She'd liked those dishes. "I hope I'll have a house to go back to," she smirked. And she continued with her exploration.
There was an enormous bush the length of two bushes put together, and a pretty, small yet mature-looking tree that reminded Avery of her grandmother. The grandmother tree and the long hedge wall encased one object. A swing.
"Where--" the Bori stared at her most peculiar find. "Where did this come from?" At first glance she thought it was wooden, though it was actually steel and covered in rust. It was a single swing, with a red-brown leather seat that at one time had probably been a darker shade, but had faded in the sun. It looked sturdy.
Avery walked slowly up to the swing. She thought about getting on, but the chains were as rusty as the base. It didn't appear brittle, but she wasn't sure if she should take a chance...
"I'll ask Mom first," Avery thought aloud.
An odd feeling crept over the young Bori, like a Spyder's hairy legs or a web in the face — a slight fluttering of the stomach, a tingling sensation of the skin. She decided to put some distance between herself and the swing.
As she was walking away, a soft creak caused her to stop abruptly. She turned around and held her gaze on the dilapidated swing. She held her gaze, held her gaze... And then the seat began to move ever so slightly back and forth.
She ran with the summer breeze in her ears.
A sofa, a chair, a bed — her bed — in the middle of the front lawn. Why was her bed just sitting there on the lawn? There were boxes and plastic bins, and three tote bags containing her mother's clothing. And there was their Neovision set, looking rather funny sitting atop her father's work desk between the coffee pot and a wooden birdhouse Avery had painted in second grade. Why was it apparent to Avery, an infant of the universe, a spirit so green in years, that this job required more than the two movers her parents had hired?
The taller mover was nowhere to be seen, and neither were Avery's parents. The shorter fellow, a white Scorchio, stood on the front porch, leaning against the wall with a glass of something cold in his hand. Avery bounded up to him. "Uh, excuse me?"
"Hi," said the short mover, a smile starting on his face at the appearance of the little girl.
"Do you know where my parents are?"
"Everyone's inside." He pointed with the thumb of his free hand over his shoulder. "I think they're setting up the kitchen table." Absorbing the unsettled look on the child's face, the Scorchio asked, "Is something the matter?"
"I, uh," the little Bori stammered, "I found something that I wanted to show them."
The white Scorchio set his drink down on the wall. The ice cubes chinked in the glass. "What did you find?"
There was a pause. The tingling feeling lingered. "Just a swing," Avery told him then, guardedly.
"Just a swing?" When the child offered nothing else, the man took another sip of his drink. "You know, that swing's as old as this house itself."
This caused the young Bori's eyes to widen. "It can't be," she said. "This house is a hundred and fifty-four years old."
"That's some sturdy material it's built from," the short mover asserted, and then he cleared his throat.
"Did the first people who lived here build it?"
"I don't know if they built it or bought it from somebody, but I'm gonna say bought. No matter. The original family did put it there. It's Ballindalloch's Artifact. Sure, you could say the whole house is an artifact, but the house has been redone and redone. That swing is the original. It's survived outside against all the abuse this Meridellian weather could give it--" He stopped shortly, and his expression contorted to look like that of a man who had stepped on something. Something pointy. "You didn't try to swing on it, did you?"
Avery shook her head quickly. "No."
"Don't try to swing on it. You're a skinny kid, but I don't think it'll hold ya, and it'd be a shame to break it after all this time."
Avery shook her head again. "I won't."
"You know," began the Scorchio once more, after another sip of his drink and a clear of his throat. "You can find traces of the original family all throughout this house's property. You could say they kinda... left their legacy behind."
Avery's wide eyes grew wider still. "What kind of things did they leave?"
Another gulp of his drink. Chug-a-lug. "Well, I could tell you, but seeing as you're young, how about I make it more fun for you and let you find them yourself? They're all around here. It'll be like a treasure hunt, eh?" When he got no response from the girl who eyed him blankly, he continued by saying that he would have loved that when he was her age. "How old are you, six? Seven?"
"Oh, alright!" He threw his head back, which brought on a spurt of violent coughing, half-choking on his drink so that Avery had to wait for him to finish. "I'll tell you what, kid."
"Avery," the Bori corrected him.
"I'll tell you what, Avery. I can show you where they--"
"That's okay, I want to find them," Avery cut him off sharply. She didn't know why she did it, nor did she know, or would ever know, what possessed her to ask the question she would next. "Was the original family nice?"
The Scorchio chuckled — carefully; he didn't want to choke again. "Yes, I believe they were nice."
That was all Avery needed to know.
To be continued…