by Jacinta Zinghini
Image: Aparna Arora
The fire crackled as curtains gently lifted, revealing their bony ribs inside a dark attic. A small room that hadn’t been refurnished for nearly half a century.
There he was, a young boy named Pierre, lying in the centre of a fur rug, looking thoughtful. An oil lamp burning softly beside him. Its bright light twinkled in between his caramel-blonde hair like a large firefly fluttering its wings in front of the moon. Further down, snuggled against Pierre’s unpolished boots, sat a black magician’s hat, a pair of clean white gloves, and a collapsible cane. Some important things he’d need to return soon before le jerk, Monsieur Dragon, found out he’d borrowed them again.
Suddenly, a harsh shriek made Pierre sit up, alert. He turned, searching for the source of the noise, then frowned once he realised what it was.
The bird teetered on the bricks outside his window, blinking rapidly. It stopped then shook itself, sprinkling off its blue feathers before flying above the rooftop and out of sight. Back into the mushroom grey clouds above the Inn, he imagined.
Pierre groaned, dipping his quill back into the inkwell. No more distractions, he promised himself. He needed to focus. Focus, schmokus, he thought.
A few minutes had passed, and once again the black ink was gradually snaking down his parchment.
This was the time of day Pierre enjoyed the most. When the world was in slow motion. When all the small children took naps with their milky moustaches. When all the animals, merchants, farmers, and scallywags would settle back into their cosy nests and burrows. Unlike his beloved brother, Oliver – who, in his case, was sleeping in a puddle of some gooey droppings beneath the scorching sun somewhere. Most likely at the horseraces again, warm as a boulder inside the hot springs. And Pierre knew he’d also be there with him now if it weren’t for that daft feral bird tapping on his window.
Tap, tap, tap – THUMP.
He slammed the windows shut, locking it tight. Let’s see the creature try to do that again, Pierre smirked as the bird glared back at him from the outside. In that moment, footsteps came bouncing up and down the stairs, making his ink-stained ears twist. Like every night, Pierre heard the familiar sound of intruder’s bickering outside of his bedroom door. It was never about anything that interested him, he thought, rotating the quill in his fingers. Although, nothing ever did these days beside his work. And for a boy like him who’d just days ago celebrated his fourteenth birthday; a joyless occasion by which he spent occupying himself in the cellars all day, it made him feel endlessly exhausted.
The children always arrived at the worst time, he sighed. And during the most unusual hours in the night. Somehow, they’d sneak under his boss’s nose without even a courtesy letter or knock to prepare him of their arrival. Very inconsiderate they were. And the mess they left behind made Pierre’s face boil. Even if it were snowing outside, he’d still be releasing steam out of his ears at the thought of them. Those rascals.
The door creaked, and Pierre’s fingers tightened around the feathery pen. As usual, he started to countdown.
As always, he saw the three girls’ heads appear, squeezed inside a bright box beside his feet on the carpet. Like a silhouette of the legendary rocks, The Three Sisters.
Even while standing on the other side of his room, Pierre could tell the smallest with red and green stickers on her cheeks was sulking. So much so that the tallest girl, who shared Einstein’s same fairy floss hair, whispered something in her ear, making the small girl peer down, hurt. To his relief, their mother called them downstairs for supper, and soon the sibling’s scattered.
24…24 it is Pierre mentally jotted down, noticing they’d beaten their previous time.
It always happened so fast. Each of them would leave behind halos of dust despite there being nothing angelic-like about them. Simple-minded children, he thought.
Pierre’s eyes trailed around the room and paused. From the reflection of his oil lamp, he noticed the one with the stickers had remained, startling him. Her arms were crossed, proving she was the boss of herself.
A loud pop drew Frankie’s eyes and attention back to the attic. Her arms were still folded, annoyed at her older sister for telling her to stop making up strange sounds. In response to her mean words, she stayed behind, wanting to show Violet that she didn’t need her or anyone to play with. Frankie always had more fun on her own anyway.
A soft clicking made her refocus. Through watery eyes Frankie caught a glimpse of something very bizarre. Something too unbelievable to explain. Before her a lonesome draw was being pulled open by itself, so slowly that it made her heart race. Her jaw slightly parted at the sight. She wanted to call out to her siblings. Tell them to hurry and run back upstairs, but her lips had fallen off. It was as if the layer of fog before her had melted away, and the attic became much clearer. Brighter and more colourful. Frankie sniffed. She could now see the boy’s hand she’d somehow missed before, gripping onto the cherrywood knob. As well as the face the hand had belonged to, and a shiver crawled up her spine. Soon, when Frankie could get her thoughts to untangle themselves, she realised that it was her grandpére’s cupboard the boy was holding onto. One of the few objects she remembered her dad had chosen to auction off tomorrow morning. Frankie blinked away her tears. Then without waiting any longer, she took a step forward. A little closer…a little less upset…
Pierre waited for his bedroom door to click shut, but it never did. Now he was wondering why it felt like a hundred needles were poking into his chest. He had never experienced one of them entering the room before and staying. Didn’t they read the sign he’d hung earlier? His bandaged hand was still resting around the red knob, and in the other, a fan of papers. He knew he must’ve looked silly. One of his eyebrows was still raised so high he was sure it was about to launch off into the sky. Pierre couldn’t explain how or why but felt as though the girl was staring at him. Judging him.
I don’t like anyone staring at me. Stop it, his thoughts were racing.
“I only stare at nosey people,” the little girl replied, showing no signs of fear.
As opposed to Pierre, whose legs had buckled from fear. He felt weak all over. Could she hear his thoughts too? Or was he speaking aloud and just didn’t know it?
Pierre rubbed his ears once more just in case. He then quickly measured her height against the drawers. Something that he only seemed to do when he panicked.
She was a head shorter than his own, he observed, but appeared more powerful than him. It must’ve been the way she spoke. So self-assured. A sound like it was bigger than her body and like someone at least ten years older than she looked. There were also strange stickers on her cheeks and along the corners of her mouth. Odd.
He looked down, nearly missing her jam donut dripping from her left hand, and rolled his eyes, trying to ignore the mess he’d have to clean later. Pierre couldn’t remember the last time he had spoken to someone with gaps in their teeth. If ever. Especially a little girl who was now playing with a yo-yo.
Where the heck did that come from?
The small girl loosened the string in her hand, letting it flip back and forward. She stepped forward then turned the string into a triangle shape, showing off her special trick.
“Those are my Grandpére’s special things,” she told him. Her forest green eyes still focused on her toy. “…moved up here. Not to be touched,” she paused. “Are you one of the movers?”
“I could be.”
“I thought the auction was tomorrow,” she shrugged, answering herself.
Her toy was swinging forward and back like a pendulum, and Pierre couldn’t tear
himself away. He soon thought of the schoolboy he’d met a long time ago attempting the same trick, but not as smooth as the girl and let out a chuckle.
“What’s funny?” she asked.
The little girl started to pirouette around the room, across the shadowy carpet. “I’m Frankie,” she introduced herself, still twirling. “What’s your name?”
“Can you not do that? My eyes don’t enjoy it,” he pleaded. Her short-attention span was beginning to worry him.
“Nope,” Frankie replied, childishly. “We all tell ghost stories up here, and we spin,” she shared, while also proving his point. “I’ll tell you one if you want. A story. The best one you’ve ever heard. Ever. To infinity and back to my room.” She stopped and looked at him and Pierre sensed she was curious about him. Curious like she wanted to add him to her secret doll collection, and it made him shudder at the thought.
“It won’t take long, pinky-promise?” she asked, wagging her little finger at him. “Also, it’s so weird how you speak. Do you hear yourself?”
Pierre remained quiet.
“You sound like the words in the forms my parent’s sign. Or as if you’re from the ancient zodiac times. No, I’ve got something better.” She clicked her fingers. “You sound more like the people from back when that astronaut dude first stepped on the moon.”
Pierre shifted, resettling himself by the flaring curtains, ignoring her. His body, beaming white from the moon, was now almost completely camouflaged. It wasn’t as if he understood her anyways. And no-one can step on the moon, that’s ridiculous, he rubbed his forehead.
“Oh, I’ll begin my dope story now before I forget it.”
Suddenly, something made Pierre feel dizzy.
“That’s it, sit down, or fall. Make yourself at home while I prepare myself.”
This is my home, Pierre frowned, now sitting on the carpet. But frankly, I ain’t feeling at home. And not with this brat ‘round. He wanted to tell her that this was his room. And only his. And that she needed to leave. Now.
“Yay, story time!” Frankie smiled. “Now wait for me to get ready.”
By the time Frankie deemed herself as ‘ready’ every single star in the sky was shining.
The fire purred. Its warmth gave off a buttery glow that vined its way across the room. Perfect weather for story time, Pierre would have to agree. He looked up at Frankie who was still pacing, instantly regretting whatever this was.
Frankie began moving things she shouldn’t. Then started touching her sticky fingers on his not-so-private-anymore papers, making him open and close his mouth a few times in disapproval.
Pierre suspected this was all for dramatic purposes. Frankie’s way of preparing herself for a one-person play. Possibly choosing to act out every character in her story like it was written by none other than master Shakespeare himself. A man he was sure she’d never even heard of. Sadly, he knew he could have finished editing his final chapter by now. But that would have to wait for another time, he accepted. Pierre’s pale fingers tapped his knee, waiting to hear his story.
Frankie first began her ghost story by reminding him six times that this was totally not her story. It could be his cousin’s, or uncle’s, but it’s totally not mine. And to listen carefully because your life depends on it, buster.
The moment she cleared her throat, Pierre’s oil lamp flickered more forcefully than he’d ever seen it do so before.
“Hem-hem. So, it begins with this messed up school kid named Marco…”