The leaves were changing colour already. Sure, it was October now, but the leaves seemed to be changing too quickly this year. Abigail Sinclair happily noted that while the leaves had turned red and gold, none had fallen in her front lawn. Her eighteenth birthday would not be marred with the raking of leaves.
“Happy Birthday, dear,” her mother called from the kitchen window. “I'm making your favourite: spaghetti!”
“Mm, I can't wait!” Abigail called back as she came up the stairs. Truth was, she much preferred pizza, but she would never admit it to her mother.
Abigail kicked off her shoes in the porch, dropped her bag in the living room, and headed upstairs. Her room was a mess, unusual for her, though not unexpected as it had been a mess when she left that morning. She flopped down on her bed and dragged her laptop closer.
Twenty minutes later, she heard her mother call “Abi dear, supper is ready!” Abigail wasted no time running down the stairs. The kitchen table wasn't set. That was weird. Peeking into the dining room, she found her parents waiting with her older brother.
“Alexander! I didn't know you were home for a visit!”
“Happy Birthday little sis. Sit! I'm starving!”
“Alex! Be nice to your sister!”
“She knows I'm joking, Dad. Besides, I drove six hours to see her!”
“Well let's get eating then. There is a delicious looking cake waiting!”
“Of course it's delicious, I baked it myself! Not every day our daughter turns eighteen!”
The conversation died as they all dug into the spaghetti. There was also salad and toasted cheesy garlic bread, making the meal even better. But before the cake could be brought in, her father ruined the evening.
“Mr. Stanson has invited us to his estate for the weekend.”
“You told him we would be there, I hope!”
“Of course, dear! It will be quite the to-do, I believe.”
“That's great news Dad! I happen to have taken the weekend off too, you know.”
“You'll have to come with us then!” Her father paused. “Why so quiet, Abi?”
Something fishy was going on. The whole conversation had been a bit Stepford Wives, almost like it was staged for her benefit. She went with part of the truth: “I have a math test on Monday. I had booked my tutor for Saturday and Sunday to prepare.”
“Oh. That is a bit of a snag. But not too difficult to deal with; we shall just have to bring him along!”
“Dad! He's not ... one of us. It could be dangerous bringing him there.”
“Nonsense! The Stansons have several employees just like young Brian. He will be perfectly safe.”
“But he may not agree to come! Then I may fail! You know I won't have time to study at one of Mr. Stanson's parties! Can't I stay home? Please?”
“My daughter, spend the weekend alone with a college pretty-boy? Instead of attending one of Mr. Stanson's parties? That would be scandalous! We can't have that! No, you're coming. If Brian cannot attend, we shall find you another tutor.”
“Dad! I –”
“It's settled Abigail. Dear, would you bring the cake? I fear my announcement has ruined the festivities.”
“Don't worry, little sis. I'll make sure you enjoy your birthday.”
Abigail smiled despite herself. She knew if anyone could cheer her up, it would be her brother. The cake really was delicious, which turned out to be depressing as she couldn't enjoy it in her current mood. Her father's phone call to Brian didn't help; Brian seemed all too eager and enthusiastic. Abigail was now even more suspicious.
But then the presents came out.
Her father's gift was his standard: a gift card for her favourite bookstore. Her mother pulled out a pretty purple dress, with a promise to have it altered by the weekend. But her brother knew her too well. He also spent too much. The box he handed her contained a mid-range DSLR.
“Alexander! You shouldn't have!”
“To make up for all those birthdays I forgot! Besides ... I might not be here for Christmas. I've applied for a field research position. If I get it, the expedition leaves November 18th.”
“That's great Alex! I hope you get it. Though I'll miss you Christmas.”
“I know, little sis. But this is your day! Let's try that out!”
There was no more mention of Mr. Stanson's party.
But it wasn't forgotten.
The next day seemed to drag on for Abigail. Everything was just so boring. Nothing fun occurred at all. And she hadn't dared bring her camera to class.
There was one embarrassing moment, though. A classmate with a sleazy looking attempt at growing a moustache figured out that she was eighteen now – and asked if she wanted to be in a movie. It wasn't hard to figure out what he meant. She just stood there frozen until a girl who happened to be nearby slapped him. Then Abigail found herself running for the girls room.
As she was leaving the school to begin her walk home, Abigail felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to find the girl from earlier, easily recognizable due to her piercings and the tattoo peeking from her sleeve. Abigail remembered seeing her around but didn't know her. Today her hair was turquoise.
“That creep asked me the same thing when I turned eighteen. I don't think we've met. Elizabeth Strang. You can call me Ellie.” Abigail shook the proffered hand.
“Abigail Sinclair. Nice to meet you, Ellie.”
“You like comic books, Abigail?”
“Not the superhero ones. My cousin got me hooked on a Manga once. It wasn't pretty. But I kinda miss reading it now.”
“Well, I've got quite a few Manga in my collection. Want to come take a look?”
“I'd love to, but I have to get home. We're going away for the weekend, some lame event with Dad's boss. Rain cheque? Maybe Monday?”
“You mean Thanksgiving? Probably not, but we'll talk Tuesday, okay?”
“Sure. Bye Ellie! Nice to meet you.”
Abigail arrived home to find her father already packing up the car. “You're behind schedule, Abigail. We leave in twenty-five minutes. Best get packed!”
It only took Abigail five minutes to pack. She kept a toiletries bag packed in her closet and was never one to fuss over clothes. There were only a few other things that she would want that weren't already n her schoolbag.
“Packed already? You would think you knew magic or something”
Abigail rolled her eyes and handed her father her two bags.
Fifteen minutes later she was sitting between her mother and her brother while Brian rode in the front seat next to her father. She pulled on her earphones and stuck her nose in a book – she couldn't bear the conversation she feared.
Abigail's father brought the car to a stop at a gate. It opened of its own accord. A short drive through gardens and they were in front of what looked like an over-grown farm house. Three stories tall, it stretched to either side in a series of obvious additions. Previous stays had revealed it was a villa more than a farmhouse; it had an inner courtyard with a man-made pond large enough for swimming.
Several of Mr. Stanson's staff promptly appeared to take their baggage inside. Abigail still found it weird that people still had servants. But then, Mr. Stanson came from old money. Very old money.
“Miss Abigail? Might I show you to your room that you may freshen up from your journey?” She couldn't help it, she just stared at him. The poor servant looked uncomfortable, as if he were afraid he had offended her. She tried to smile.
“I would be grateful. I always find the Stanson Estate confusing.” She had no idea what the proper response to his archaic query was, so she chose to pretend he had spoken in a more contemporary manner. “Which room am I in this time?”
“It's a third floor room of the North wing, on the inner court.”
Abigail nearly stopped following him. The inner rooms were reserved for the Stansons and guests of honour. Definitely something fishy going on with this weekend. “Are you sure? I've always stayed on the outer part of the West wing.”
“Quite certain, Miss Abigail. We will cut through the courtyard. If the room is not to your liking, we may be able to find something more suitable.”
“I am sure it will be wonderful,” she blurted out quickly. “I was merely surprised.”
On the North side of the courtyard, they went through two sets of double doors and up a grand staircase. It seemed a foolish thing by the time they reached the top; a more practical design would have gotten her up much faster.
“Your servant has been quartered across the hall. Is this room to your liking?” The man opened a door to reveal a spacious room with a queen sized bed and antique free standing full length mirror. Through a door to her left she could see an en-suite bathroom complete with claw-foot tub.
“Dinner is in an hour. Make yourself at home, freshen up. Here are your things.” He turned and left, closing the door behind him. Abigail started looking around. She hadn't noticed the wardrobe, vanity, or table laden with fruit and candy.
She was getting very suspicious. Why was she being treated like royalty all of a sudden.?
There was nothing Abigail could do about it at the moment, so she went into the bathroom and filled the tub with warm water. Might as well take advantage of it while she could, she thought to herself.
A knock at her door came as she finished buttoning up her blouse. She had a skirt on, rare for her, and even heels. Only small heels, but still heels. She had totally skimped on the makeup though.
“Yes?” She called out.
“I am here to show you to dinner, Miss Abigail.” It was the same man as earlier, she thought. He sounded the same, anyway.
“Just a moment,” she said. She found a shawl in the wardrobe and swung it over her shoulders.
“This way, Miss Abigail,” he said when she opened the door. If it wasn't the same man, it was his twin. “You look lovely tonight. Most appropriate.”
Most appropriate for what? Why would it matter that she look lovely? She started to get that suspicious feeling yet again. The way to the dining hall seemed overly convoluted. They went downstairs, of course, not once but twice. They also went up stairs. Just as she was going to ask if she were getting the grand tour on the way, they stopped at an immense set of double doors she recognized. They were carved from top to bottom with fantastical beasts.
The man knocked. Why did he knock? The doors swung open. They seemed to take forever. Then a voice boomed, echoing in the dining hall.
“Miss Abigail Sinclair.”
There was polite applause. Everyone was staring. She could see her parents sitting at the head table with Mr. Stanson himself. As she walked down the aisle left clear of tables, Abigail couldn't help but feel self-conscious as there were so many eyes on her. She felt as if she were on display. Or that she were a lamb being led to the slaughter. She wished she knew what was going on.
Her mother offered a weak explanation when she reached her seat.
“I'm sorry, Abi, but we knew if we told you we would never get you here. You're being presented to the society as an adult. Your suitors will be introducing themselves after we eat.”
Great. Just great, she thought to herself. Every eligible bachelor in this bizarre society of her parents world would be chasing her all weekend. To think she had been worried about Monday's math test.
“Enjoy it while it lasts, Abi. The next time you'll have a weekend all about you will be your wedding, and we hope that will be years away. Besides, you get to keep the gifts no matter what you think of the suitor!”
“And you let Brian attend this? What sort of stories will he tell about us?”
“It will be fine, Abigail.”
“Hey little sis! Just think of it as a big birthday party!”
“Your brother has a point Abi. That's all it really is.”
The family conversation died off suddenly when food began appearing.
The meal started with bread and salad. Boring and normal enough. Then out came a soup, which Abigail politely tasted but didn't eat much of as she was suspicious of the ingredients.
The next course wasn't just suspicious, it was disturbing. Turtles baked in their own shells. She couldn't even manage a single bite. She fought the urge to vomit from the second she saw what was being served until a confused servant took hers away untouched.
At least what came next was normal as far as she could tell. Red meat with potatoes. It was delicious and brought back her appetite.
Then something curious happened.
Abigail had looked towards Brian and noticed a gremlin on the table making faces at him. The other guests knew to ignore gremlins, especially the young ones like the one taken with Brian. But he wasn't. He was chuckling. He even went to feed it a scrap of meat, but what Abigail had mistaken for an ugly old dog stood on its hind legs and picked up the little gremlin and scurried off on all fours. The Stansons actually had an ancient gremlin living with them! There must be an entire clan present.
Feeding a gremlin could turn out disastrous. Abigail knew that, but not why. She was only relieved for a moment.
“Umm ... Dad? Why could Brian see the gremlin? I thought they could only be seen by those who were fairly powerful.”
“True. Brian has been under observation for years. He doesn't know his real father. This is his first contact with his own kind.”
“Were you not going to tell me?”
“We weren't even planning on telling him. I suppose there is no avoiding it now; the gremlin confirmed the council's suspicions. Don't worry, Abigail. Brian will be fine. Just get yourself through this weekend without changing too much, okay?”
“I promise not to change. But you promise Brian will be fine.”
“I promise, Abigail. He will be fine. Honest.”
“Thank you, Daddy.”
The next course was some sort of stir-fry. Abigail only picked at it, having gorged herself on the previous one. It appeared the food wasn't to be the main event tonight; cakes and pies came next. She couldn't help herself. She tried a bit of everything.
Considering what came next, she didn't even feel bad about it.
The tables were cleared away and she was led to a throne. A bloody up-on-a-dais throne! Her brother sat on a step below her with a sword in his lap – a sword, of all things! Her parents stood behind her, her mother with a clipboard and her father muttering a constant stream of facts that Abigail couldn't process.
And twenty-seven men aged eighteen to fifty lined up to present themselves. They spouted their names and titles and accomplishments. They gave her small gifts. Her mother scribbled furiously and her father didn't shut up.
Abigail was astonished when it was over. She had managed not to offend anyone by some miracle. “I don't feel so well,” she said. She had to repeat herself twice before her parents acknowledged her.
“Alexander, take your sister back to her room,” her mother said absently. “Oh, and do take the kitten with you, it shouldn't be lumped in with the other gifts like that!”
Kitten? Which suitor had given her a kitten? She almost asked, but felt like she would be sick if she opened her mouth. Her brother handed her the kitten, a little thing of white fur and mossy eyes. It helped. Before she knew it, they were standing in her room, her brother turning slowly, sword in hand.
“Need me to stick around little sis? You don't look like yourself.”
“No, I should be fine in a bit.”
“If you say so. I'll make sure someone checks in on you if I don't myself.”
Then he was gone.
Abigail pulled off her shoes and lay down on the bed. She felt better now that she was out of the crowd. She dozed off.