I

Amarilla Sarah Weathersby was not one to have her feathers ruffled. The grown-ups in her life said this time and again and so most of them steered clear of her feathers. The girls, however, did not—those dreadful girls at The Preakney School, Julianna Mattheson, Gwendolyn Goddfrey and the rest, with their whispers and giggles and sideways glances at the lunch table. Worse still, with their poorly planned, impossibly dimwitted pranks. The worst prank of all coming just yesterday, the day before Amarilla returned home for winter holiday. Just the thought of it, the terrible thought of it, made her cheeks flush warm and her head throb. Yes, the girls at The Preakney School ruffled Amarilla a great deal, and she looked forward more than ever to her winter holiday reprieve. A break from those wicked girls and four whole weeks to plan her revenge! And Amarilla was an expert in revenge.

It came easy to her, the whole vengeance thing. She enjoyed the plotting and the planning almost as much as she enjoyed the prank itself. Seeing one of those haughty Preakney girls exposed, humiliated, getting exactly what she deserved, made her heart practically hurtle out of her chest. Shortly after, she’d experience a kind of calm satisfaction, not unlike the feeling some people get from eating chocolate.

“One day they will call for you,” warned Ilsa, the Weathersbys’ long-suffering housekeeper. “You’ll see, Miss Amarilla. They gobble up the nasty children. And you are just the kind of nasty child they want.”

“Pshaw,” was Amarilla’s frequent reply to the old woman’s ramblings. “Barmy old bat.”

Then, the morning after her return from school, the letter arrived, like a rock through a glass window, shattering the best laid of Amarilla’s plans.

“A letter for you, Miss,” Ilsa said, raising an eyebrow. She made no attempt to hide her shock at the mysterious missive, frowning and holding up the small envelope as though it were a soiled bit of linen.

“Give me that.” Amarilla snatched the envelope, causing Ilsa to jump back a step in her black, thick-heeled shoes. How effortlessly she could startle the old woman!

“Very well,” Ilsa said, still frowning. She smoothed out her apron and pressed down a few stray hairs that resisted the confines of her bun.

Amarilla’s heart went up-tempo as she studied the envelope. She couldn’t recall the last time (or even the first time!) she’d received a letter. But who was it from? There was no return address, and oddly, no postage. The handwriting was exceptionally neat, each letter of her address perfectly formed, with lovely little swirls. Elegant, even.

Miss Amarilla Sarah Weathersby
Grandmeadow
Old Woodsman Road
East Cheshire

“Something you were expecting, Miss?” Ilsa peered down at Amarilla over her spectacles and craned her neck towards the envelope.

“As if I’d tell you.” She twisted away from Ilsa’s prying eyes. Ilsa was as nosy as she was noiseless, padding about the house like an interfering ghost.

Amarilla stuffed the envelope into her dress pocket. “I’ll be in my room,” she said, hurrying towards the grand staircase. “And I don’t want to be disturbed!” She raced up the stairs, the sound of her footsteps lost in the antique Persian runner.

Once in her room, her real room, that is, not the sterile, threadbare room she suffered in the Preakney dorm, Amarilla shut the door. She locked it from the inside and pulled the door to make sure it locked. It was a necessary habit she’d developed at school, ever since the headmistress had relented and given Amarilla her own room. Five roommates in two years was one achievement about which the stuffy Preakney administration was not interested in boasting. And the fact that her roommates left, panicked, plush dolls in hand, in the middle of the night, hadn’t hurt her cause.

Amarilla stretched out onto her deliciously pink bedding and propped herself up on her elbows. She examined the envelope. It crinkled like tissue paper at her touch, as though it were very old. How silly—it had only just arrived! She carefully lifted the letter from inside the envelope. It read:

Your presence is cordially requested at the White House.

Amarilla turned the page over, but it was blank. One line? One that made no sense either! Cordially requested? Amarilla knew enough from sneaking peeks at her parents’ numerous party invitations that no one ever said cordially requested. She gnawed on her lip. Who had sent this? And where was this White House? Certainly one existed several states away in Washington D.C. Amarilla knew all about that one, where President Hoover presided over the “depressed masses,” as her mother called them. But clearly this was not the place in her letter. And why hadn’t it been signed? Who sends a letter and doesn’t sign it?

Worm, worm, look at her squirm! The voices came over Amarilla like a fever, buzzing inside her head. Weathersby, Weathersby, pudding and pie, kissed the boys and made them die! Andshe was there once again—just as she had been two days before. Outside the dining hall, surrounded by Preakney girls. Their voices chanted over and over and over…Amarilla, Amarilla, the hairy gorilla!

Amarilla covered her ears. Stop! She shook her head as hard as she could, knocking all the voices, the voices of those horrid girls, onto the floor. She stomped on them, smashing them to shrieking pieces on her pink carpet. Blood pulsed in her ears, pounding, pounding, until finally, all was quiet.

“What is going on in there?” Ilsa fumbled with the doorknob. “All that stomping, Miss, you’ll wake the dead!”

“Oh, go stuff a turkey!” Amarilla gasped.

Ilsa twisted the knob back and forth. Then she spoke quietly, as though her mouth were right up against the keyhole. “It’s the letter isn’t it, Miss?” she said, her Bavarian lilt chopping up the words. “They’ve called for you, haven’t they?”  She gave the door one more jab, then marched her thick-heeled shoes back down the hall.

Crazy old bird! Amarilla dismissed Ilsa’s nonsensical prattle, and turned her attention back to the letter. It was a joke, of course! Not even a clever one! Just your run-of-the-mill poor attempt at torture from quite average, overly impressed with themselves third-year girls at The Preakney School. The letter was clearly an extension of the torture from two days earlier, although she wasn’t sure yet how it fit. The more she studied the letter with its fancy penmanship, its mysterious message, the more she was certain its writer was one Julianna Mattheson, or perhaps Gwendolyn Goddfrey, or any number of the horrid girls looking for a laugh. Yet, wasn’t it odd that the letter was addressed to her full, given name and not something juvenile like, “Amarilla the Armadillo?”

“I will discover who you are,” she said, “and when I do, you terrible girl, you will be very, very sorry.”

Amarilla ran her hand over the perfect penmanship and then—ouch!—she dropped the letter.

A warmth spread from her fingers, up her arms until it prickled the hair on her neck. “Why, you naughty thing!” she said, because, well, had the letter just bitten her? Amarilla examined her hand. There, in the plump tender part of her pointer finger was a tiny red mark. She rubbed it, the pain strangely potent for such a small injury.

Amarilla’s head throbbed as it did whenever she wolfed down her ice cream. This was no ordinary joke! Julianna or Gwendolyn or whomever, had gone too far. She stared at the letter lying face up on her bed. But how, really? How on Earth could one of those silly, stupid girls been clever enough to mail her a predatory piece of post? Amarilla pursed her lips and sighed. The letter could not be from one of the Preakney girls, a fact that both relieved her and rekindled her plan for revenge.

But what of the letter? Her finger still sore, Amarilla placed the letter into a small change purse. She stashed the change purse in her dress pocket. “There you go,” she said. “You’ll be safe here until I figure you out.”

 

II

It came as quite a surprise to Amarilla when, upon her return downstairs, her mother informed her she’d be spending her winter holiday from The Preakney School, at her Great-Auntie May’s in the northern part of the state.

“Just for the holiday, darling,” her mother said. “I know how dreadfully dull it can be around here.”

“Sorry,” said Amarilla, “but I have other plans.”

“Really,” said her mother, fastening a string of pearls around her thin neck. “What plans are those?”

“I plan to be home, in my house, with my books and my bear, sipping hot chocolate by the fire.” And plotting my revenge, she added silently. Mr. B., her matted, no-eyed polar bear was the only company she’d need, or want, after four months living amongst those ridiculous girls at The Preakney School.

“A lovely plan,” her mother said. “But you’re unaware of an important detail.”

“What’s that?” Amarilla stood up straight and folded her arms across her chest. Her battle pose.

Her mother turned towards the mirror and fluffed her stiff helmet of blonde hair.“Your father and I will be wintering with the Cranes in Heather Valley, and I’ve given Ilsa all four weeks off.” She turned towards Amarilla and shrugged. “I’m afraid there’ll be no one here to stay with you.”

As if on cue, Ilsa walked in with two large suitcases and placed them by the door. She shot Amarilla a lopsided, toothy grin. The old crocodile!

“But I won’t go,” said Amarilla, eyeing the suitcases, her stomach twisting around itself. “You can’t make me.” That was usually enough. Grown-ups didn’t like to see the ruffled Amarilla. The Amarilla who once kicked a hole straight through the living room wall. The Amarilla who hurled dinner vegetables at antique statues.

“Oh, Amarilla,” her mother said, applying her nauseatingly favorite “Regal Rose” shade of lipstick to puckered lips. “It wasn’t so simple finding someone to—well, you’re not the easiest, oh, for goodness sakes, Auntie May’s been gracious enough to take you in. And that’s just that.” She left the room, after planting a hasty pat on Amarilla’s cheek.

Amarilla raced up the grand staircase. She ran down the upstairs hallway, digging her heels in deep in the hope of nicking the finely polished floors. Her mother prattled on from downstairs, about irritating things such as, “learning how to be less selfish and get on better with others.” Blah blah blabbiddy blah. Amarilla slammed the door to her room.

After several long minutes, Amarilla burst from her room. “Here’s what I think of your plan, mother,” she called from the top of the staircase. She dumped a large cardboard box over the balcony and showered the grand foyer with a torrent of notebook paper, clean linens and empty gum wrappers (the large lump of gum now being chewed vigorously).

But the suitcases were no longer in the foyer. Her parents were gone.

Amarilla melted back against the wall, and watched as Ilsa cleaned up her mess.

 

III

“I won’t go!” Amarilla shouted to Ilsa, (because, well, there was nobody else home.) She raced down the stairs, grabbed her coat and muffler, gave the front door a swift kick, opened it, and then ran outside. She’d show them—let them come after her!

“Turn back, Miss!” Ilsa said, and Amarilla almost did at the first shock of cold air, but for the fact that even as Ilsa croaked out the words, she was closing the door right in her face. Ilsa’s crocodile grin peeked out through the crack in the door, before it disappeared completely.

“Old nag!” Amarilla said, buttoning her coat. “My parents will hear about this!”

She sighed. “In four weeks, that is.”

Amarilla slunk into the chilly air, down the stone pathway that led from her house into the woods. Perhaps a brisk walk would help her think. Maybe Ilsa would worry if she were gone too long, maybe enough to call her parents and send them back home. Tiny specks of snow fell silently around her. Amarilla blinked a few icy flakes off of her eyelashes and rubbed her chilled nose with her muffler.

She thought of Mr. B. tucked safely into her pink comforter, a nice fire crackling in her room. What was she doing out here? She’d wasted a perfectly good tantrum on Ilsa, who hadn’t even appreciated it, and now she was stuck in the snow on a terribly frosty late afternoon. And it would be dark soon. The cold crept in through her coat and slithered down her back. Amarilla pulled the coat tightly around her.

Then, she remembered the letter. She reached under her coat and pulled out the change purse from her dress pocket. She carefully removed the letter, holding it between her thumb and forefinger.

“You strange little thing,” she said. “You did bite me, didn’t you?” She studied the fancy print again. “I don’t care who sent you. I won’t tolerate biting. And to invite someone to a place they can’t even find is rather rude, don’t you think?” The letter didn’t answer, of course, only sat there quietly in her palm. Or did it? Perhaps it was only the chill wind that lifted the letter ever so slightly from her hand.

She stuffed it back into the change purse and into her dress pocket. Then, just ahead, behind a grouping of snow-dusted pine trees, she spied a large house. Amarilla’s heart thumped against her chest. Georgian in manner, the house’s white painted brick blended with the soft, newly fallen snow. The White House?

“I’m sure I’ve never seen this house before,” she said to herself. “Am I lost?” In the distance stood the large maple tree she’d climbed as a child. And she could still see the tips of the wall of pines that lined the back end of her property. But the house, the large white house, where had it come from?

Something fluttered in her pocket. She reached into it, then pulled her hand away. Inside the change purse, the letter was moving. Up and down, up and down, almost, almost as though it were breathing!

Amarilla’s own breath swirled in front of her in the cold air. “I think you led me here,” she said slowly. “Yes, and I think you want me to go into the house, don’t you?” How absurd it was for her to be speaking to a piece of crinkly paper! But then, regular, average paper didn’t move by itself, and it certainly didn’t bite.

“Perhaps you want to help me?” Amarilla said. She nodded slowly. “Perhaps you want to help me get even with those awful girls at school. That’s why you invited me, isn’t it?” The letter pulsed as if in response.

“How extraordinary,” Amarilla said. “Let’s go, then,” she said, smiling. “I am ‘cordially requested,’ after all, and I mustn’t be late.”

Up close, the house was grand, as grand as it appeared from afar. Even more so than her own house, the thought of which tickled her. Wouldn’t her mother be horrified to learn that an even grander house than theirs had been built just a pinecone’s throw from where they lived?

Amarilla walked along the brick path up to the door. A large, brass knocker stared back at her. Stared was the right word. It had a face, not quite animal, but not quite human, with a large, bulbous nose and two tiny horns on it head. It was the eyes, something about the way they gazed back at her, that made Amarilla twice pull away her hand before gingerly knocking on the door.

The door swung open. Amarilla jumped back, but then regained her composure and poked her head inside. Where was the butler? Surely a house of this size must have a staff! But, there was no one. Not even a sound, save those of her footsteps.

“Hello,” she called out in her most polite voice. “I’ve arrived. I hope I’m not late, although there was no time indicated on your letter. Next time, you see, you should list a time and then you wouldn’t have to worry about your guests arriving late.”

“You’re not late,” said a voice. Amarilla turned towards the door. A girl stood in the doorway, as though she had also just arrived.

Amarilla prickled. “Were you invited, too?” she asked. She should’ve realized others would be invited. Whoever heard of a one-person party? Still, the girl’s presence bothered Amarilla and she began to think of ways she could get rid of her.

The girl giggled. “Invited? No. Not me.” She smiled. “I do the inviting.”

“Oh!” said Amarilla. “You’re the hostess?”

“You could say that.”

Amarilla’s stomach dropped like a fallen bird. “So, you’ll be staying?” The girl was a bit of an odd duck, with long, unkempt hair, mismatched stockings and a worn, faded, clearly out-of style knee length dress. Stranger still, she wore a silver party tiara, as if to enliven her drab garments.

The girl nodded. “As long as you are,” she paused, “comfortable.”

What a peculiar egg! But harmless, that was for certain. Amarilla could spot a horrid Preakney-type girl from yards away. She’d had plenty of time to hone that skill and this girl, oddly dressed, in ill-fitted, poorly matched second hand clothing, with a cheap party tiara on her mousy head, was not that type of girl.

Amarilla sighed, resigned to her unexpected company. “Well, you have lovely handwriting,” she said. The poor girl was probably quite unused to compliments and Amarilla wasn’t above giving one when she felt superior to its beneficiary.

The girl stared at Amarilla too much like Ilsa’s cat, Friedrich, when he’d cornered a wayward rodent. Amarilla’s ears grew warm.

“I’m Patience,” she finally said.

“Patience?” said Amarilla. Ignoring her desperately dull Preakney etiquette, she said, “What kind of a name is Patience?”

“It is the name my mother and father gave me.” The girl smiled, but there was something about her smile. Her mouth moved, but her eyes, her eyes stayed the same, round and immobile, like large gray marbles.

“Come, Amarilla,” said Patience. “I will introduce you to the Others.”

Amarilla squeezed her fists. “The others?” she said. “There are others?”

“There are many Others,” Patience said. “It is…a big house.”

Amarilla sniffed loudly. “I can see it’s a big house,” she said. “It’s almost as large as mine. I have one of the biggest houses of all the girls in The Preakney School.”

“Is that so?” said Patience. Again, the smile.

“Yes,” Amarilla said, still thorny. She grew suddenly aware that she’d neither seen nor heard an adult since she’d entered the house. “Where are your parents?”

“Where are your parents?” Patience said, licking her lips.

Amarilla’s stomach knotted up like a badly tied ribbon. “My parents are wintering with the Cranes in Heather Valley,” she said. “They’ll be back in four weeks. They want me to stay with my Auntie May, but I am not going and they can’t make me.”

Patience nodded. “I’m certain they cannot.”

Amarilla raised an eyebrow. Did the girl understand? “The horrid girls at The Preakney School played a dirty prank on me,” she said. “I plan to spend the holiday coming up with the perfect revenge.” She straightened her back. “I’m going to fix them.”

“I’m sure,” said Patience. Her eyes seemed larger than before, almost as if they’d devoured her eyelids.

Amarilla folded her arms and rubbed the goosebumps that sprouted up all over her arms. “Are your parents away, too?” Amarilla asked.

“Yes,” Patience said, “my parents are also…away. Come, Amarilla, follow me to the ballroom. The Others are eager to meet you.”

Amarilla was not eager to meet the others. She was cold, too. The goosebumps on her arms had popped right back up. Her nose throbbed and she dug her stiff, chilled fingers into the pockets of her coat, smoothing them against the lining. She was even colder inside the house than she’d been outside. Why hadn’t she warmed up?

“I could use a cup of tea,” Amarilla said. She was the guest, after all, and a hostess had certain obligations.

Patience turned and stared, the same cold, gray marble stare with the funny smile.

“What?” Amarilla said, affronted. “You invited me here and you’ve not even offered me hot tea. It’s frigid outside and I walked all the way.”

Patience nodded, but then turned back around. “The ballroom is this way.”

What kind of a party was this? Amarilla ran her fingers over the change purse. The letter was quite active now, almost pushing itself through the soft fabric of the purse. Was it trying to tell her something? Why had she been brought to this place? Worse still, to this odd girl, who clearly knew very little about entertaining? And what did any of this have to do with her revenge against the Preakney girls? Perhaps, well—she didn’t often admit it—but perhaps she’d made a mistake.

The ballroom was filled with children speaking in loud whispers, their voices like the sound of air being let out of many bicycle tires at once (a sound Amarilla knew well and recalled fondly). There were all kinds of children: Older children, younger children, boys, girls, some dressed exquisitely, others in tattered clothes. Some seemed as though they’d forgotten which century it was. The children stopped their chatter and stared, unblinking, at her.

“These are the Others,” said Patience.

 

IV

“Is it her?” said a young boy, with a large cowlick and very white teeth.

“Does she know?” said an older girl in even older clothing, with long red braids wrapped around her head.

“Know what?” said Amarilla. “Is this some sort of a prank, because I have had quite enough of pranks.”

“Not a prank,” Patience said, her eyes widening.

A tall girl with long blond hair approached Amarilla. “Tell me, dear, how rare was the painting you soiled with mustard at the Phipps gallery?”

“The Phipps gallery?” said Amarilla. “But—”

“I think it was brilliant the way you switched those street signs,” called a boy in short pants and suspenders. “Pity it wasn’t a main road.”

“But, how—”

“And your poor, poor third semester roommate,” said a chubby girl with black curls, “what was her name?” She smiled, revealing a mouthful of round, pebble teeth.

“Stop it!” said Amarilla. A large sour lump filled her throat. “How do you know such things about me?”

“We know,” Patience said slowly, “because we watch. We watch and we wait.”

“I’m hungry!” said a small boy, who barely reached Patience’s waist. He tugged on her dress.

“Well,” said Amarilla. “That is the first thing I’ve heard all day that makes any sense. I’m hungry, too. What are you serving at this party?”

The children enclosed her more tightly into their circle. “Don’t worry,” Patience said, moving in. “It will only hurt for a moment.”

“Hurt?” said Amarilla, her voice shaking slightly. “What do you mean?”

Patience carried a slight musty odor. “We are all hungry, Amarilla,” she said, showing her teeth, “and we are so pleased you could join us for dinner.”

At once, arms grabbed hold of Amarilla, pinching her. She twisted hard against them, and freed one of her hands. She dug the hand into her pocket and found the letter practically bursting out of the change purse! With some effort, she managed to free the letter, too.

“Letter,” she said, “let’s see those teeth, now!” She hurled the letter at Patience and squeezed her eyes shut. What followed was something like the crunching of gravel, trailed by a slurping noise, as when one sips the last bit of a chocolate malted.

Amarilla opened her eyes. The Others stared at the floor. There the letter lay, still, the party tiara beside it.

 

V

“I’m very glad we cleared things up,” said Amarilla, fluffing her hair underneath the party tiara. “I thought for certain my winter holiday had been ruined.” She smiled at the group of children. “You’ll have to fill me in on the details of this very interesting operation, but I believe we have more letters to write.”

“I’m still hungry,” said the boy with the cowlick.

“And you shall eat soon,” said Amarilla. “Now,” she said. “Who has the neatest handwriting?”

The tall girl with the long blonde hair stepped forward.

“Have you a pen and stationary?” asked Amarilla.

The girl nodded, producing both from a front pocket in her dress.

“Lovely,” said Amarilla. “Listen closely. We’ll be sending the first letter to Julianna Mattheson, care of The Preakney School….”