Agony wasn’t allowed to enter The Host’s house tonight, and I was instructed to keep the windows shut to ensure he couldn’t sneak in. In fact, the invitation made it abundantly clear that every possible entrance must be closed and locked as soon as it was opened to avoid letting in any uninvited guests. This request was odd, considering that no party that The Host had thrown before ever required us to lock anyone out, but nevertheless, I scribbled multiple notes on my arm as a reminder so that I could avoid being deemed as a lousy houseguest.
I arrived at The Host’s house around ten o'clock at night, exactly on time with the other guests. We were a small group, but we carried three times our weight in good humour and uplifting demeanours as we each stepped out of our vehicles in unison. The fresh and humid forest air carried crisp cricket chirps and frog croaks from a creek hidden in the lightless woodland surrounding us. Ignoring the quiet laughter and light conversation between the undistinguishable figures dressed in an assortment of dark colours and gothic attire, I leaned against my car and gazed at the lopsided, Victorian-styled house ahead.
“Briar,” a deep, throaty cry came from beside me. “I didn’t know you were invited tonight!”
“Well, of course I was invited, Silas.” I sniffed, “I’m the only consistent guest that’s attended every one of The Host’s parties for the past three years.”
Silas’s tall, rotund figure stumbled towards me through indistinct shadows and the illumination of car headlights. With at least a few feet still between us, I caught the scent of red wine in a light breeze and took in the deep, moonlit stain on the collar of his white dress shirt.
“Thank goodness for that!” He staggered over shoes that were clearly too large for his feet, “everyone else I’ve seen so far seems to be the stuck-up sort. Speaking of stuck-up, The Host invited Mr. Gooney on the one night that we’re told not to open any windows. You think ‘e wants to punish us or somethin’? I think I’ll open the windows anyways—yes, I will.”
“Mr. Gooney was invited?” I crinkled my nose, “you can’t be serious, that man reeks of sewage water and raw garlic sandwiches… regardless, Silas, you better make sure to follow The Host’s instructions this time. Don’t even think about opening any windows”
Silas shrugged and turned towards the house, “fine, I’ll be hangin’ around the refreshments allllll night then. I’m going to be trying to drown out that oaf’s odour with the sweet aroma of Cabernet Sauvignon—I’ll even sniff at a bottle Merlot if it’ll relieve me of my misery! No sweet escape in the outdoor air for me…”
“As if Mr. Gooney’s presence is the only reason you’ll have to hang around the drinks…” I mumbled to myself.
Onyx, one of the house staff, silently waited for us under an eery pale yellow porchlight with a pair of binoculars hung around her neck. Silas was the first to enter, or rather, collapse in the doorway, and had the mahogany door shut immediately behind him as Onyx stood still, facing the direction of the trees and their suspicious silhouettes.
Mr. Gooney was the next to enter, and Onyx put a hand over her nose and mouth until the door was shut once again behind him. Reluctantly, a young girl that I recognized as one of my neighbours’ children followed and inhaled until her cheeks were filled with fresh air. As the door closed behind her, the rest of the guests let out amused chuckles and began doing the same, each taking a deep breath to hold before going inside. Eventually, I was the last one left outside with Onyx, and both of us stood frozen towards the wavering treeline. I stared at her, pondering how to open the conversation.
“Why are you still out here? You should go in now.” Onyx lifted the binoculars to her colourless eyes and held them towards our parked cars. I stepped back in surprise, wondering how she knew that I was standing nearby, and if the binoculars somehow had some way of enabling her to see.
“In a moment I will, I just wanted to ask you a question first.” I shivered in the warm breeze.
“Okay. I’m instructed not to answer certain questions, but you can ask anyway.”
“Why can’t Agony come in? He’s been allowed in every party before this one and there’s never been a problem. And really, is all this surveillance and precaution necessary for a little crow?”
Onyx lowered her binoculars but kept her pale lips tightly pressed together. A scuffle in a nearby bush caused both of us to turn our heads, but a lack of further movement diminished our interest.
“I'm only supposed to say that this isn’t just about not letting Agony in. But between you and I, there are...ghosts... or something wandering the forest lately, lonely spectres looking for someone who remembers them. Agony's been terrible for attracting them. The Host is worried that if they get let in, they'll never leave.” Onyx pressed herself against the door and grabbed at me with a soft hand. “We should go in now.”
I nodded, upset that I could only get a smidgeon of an answer from Onyx, but followed her through the door and jumped as she slammed it shut and locked it behind us. As expected, Mr. Gooney’s pungent odours overwhelmed the tight hallways and tiny rooms, but the tears that stung my eyes disappeared as I got used to the stench and tried to ignore it. As I adjusted, Onyx promptly disappeared into the house and left me alone in the foyer with the company of the other guests.
“Briar, finally you’ve come inside! My daughter Martha and I were just talking about how great your garden is growing this season.” My neighbour, Ms. North, beckoned me over, but I shook my head.
“I’ll come chat in a minute, I want to grab a drink first.” I smiled gently and headed towards the refreshment table, curious to see what mischief Silas might have gotten into.
I stepped carefully along the edges of each room, avoiding eye contact with other guests so that I wouldn’t risk getting held up in conversation. Most guests resided in the emerald-coloured walls of the parlour and the sitting room, separated into small groups, and laughing amongst themselves. I passed them by with relative ease and went unnoticed, with little effort on my part. At the back of the sitting room were two tables, one covered with an assortment of fancy dishes, and the other with drinks and glasses. Much to my surprise, Silas was nowhere to be found.
As I scanned the room for any sign of Silas, Mr. Gooney’s mouldering stench began to grow until my tongue was assaulted with a sulphurous taste and I was hastily wiping my watering eyes once again. I glanced at the doorway that I had just entered from and groaned as I watched the dreadful Mr. Gooney exit the bathroom and saunter into the sitting room. The other guests began complaining and gagging, causing Mr. Gooney to blush and apologize.
I lifted the collar of my dress over my nose and slipped out of the room in a rush, wondering where Silas could have possibly run off to. The stench subsided as I found myself wandering into the dimly lit, rich atmosphere of the study room. I sighed with relief and leaned myself against the nearest wall.
“Sureeee, of course I remember you, sir! You're an old friend of mine, aren't ya? Don’t be sad that you’re locked out, I can let you in here. You just gotta promise that you won’t open anyyyy more windows or doors, okay? Though I can’t see why you want to get in here… smells like a skunk suffering indigestion in the other rooms.”
“Silas!” I exclaimed as I noticed Silas slouched against a partially opened window on the other side of the room. “Don’t you dare open that window!”
“Smells awful, you can’t stop me!” Silas sneered as he began lifting the window up further. “Besides, my poor friend here got locked out and he’s stuck outside with that horrible crow! The rules just say I can’t let Agony in, there's no rule against letting friends in.”
“No, Silas, the rules say not to let any uninvited guests in!” I began walking towards him but was too late, as a bleached-white figure emerged from a bush at the base of the window and flopped onto the rosewood floor.
I froze in a panic, switching between looking at the smudged rules written in pen ink on my arm and at the strange, ashen man before me. Silas laughed and stumbled backwards, causing him to trip over his feet and land beside the stranger. The stranger didn’t make any sound as he pushed himself up and looked around the room.
“Ay, pal, close the window before Agon—” Silas laughed.
As he laughed, a dark blur streaked past the window and fluttered onto a side table in the middle of the room. I gasped in horror, finally done being frozen in shock.
“Silas you half-wit, you just let Agony into The Host’s house!” I whispered sharply, trying to avoid letting the other guests hear me.
“Agony? Who’s in agony?” The stranger kicked at the floor and lowered his head. “It isn’t me, I’m not in agony at all. Not anymore, anyways. I think.”
“No, not that agony, friend! We’re talking about Agony the crow. That crow.” Silas shakily got onto his feet and pointed at the crow that just swooped in.
I crossed my arms and stared at Agony, who was picking at the table and looking rather pleased with himself for getting in. The stranger began humming a melancholy tune to himself and continued to stare at the floor. Odd as he was, I decided that it was more important to deal with Agony before handling him.
“Now we have to shoo him back outside before the other guests notice.” I sighed.
“Simple enough, it’s just a silly crow.” Silas clapped his hands together, and Agony flicked his head up to look at him.
“Agony’s a cruel name for a crow—they’re very bright creatures, you know.” The stranger looked up, “this one even copies what you say. He was copying me outside earlier.”
Silas and I shared a perplexed glance before staring at the stranger. I was about to suggest a plan of action to get the crow out of the house when Agony began shifting on his feet and crouching down to prepare for flight.
“Don’t you dare!” Silas exclaimed.
“Don’t, don’t.” Agony repeated.
“Hey, he does repeat our words!” Silas laughed as Agony leapt off the small table and darted past my head with a loud swoop.
Ms. North let out a shriek in the next room, trailed by the horrified screams of other guests. I internally hoped that the shrieks were because Mr. Gooney had taken another trip to the bathroom, and not because somebody had broken the only house rule of the night and let the crow inside.
“Agony! It’s Agony!” Someone wailed.
“Someone let Agony in the house! The Host will be so mad, who let Agony inside?” Another cried. “Come here, sweet Agony, come here.”
“Agony, Agony, Agony!” Agony let out a caw that was followed by the sound of glass breaking and more wailing from the guests.
I cringed at the noise in the next room, debating whether I could slip in unnoticed and pretend that I was just as oblivious to how Agony got in as the rest of the guests. Meanwhile, Silas continued laughing at the erupting mayhem and patted the stranger’s shoulder.
"I'm such a lousy house guest!" Silas wheezed.
"Don't be too hard on yourself," the stranger grinned, "you've probably just made this place much more interesting. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got matters to attend to."
The stranger drifted gracefully past me out of the room, but I was too overwhelmed to stop him. Silas and I were left stunned as the guests continued shrieking and bumping against furniture as they tried to catch Agony.
"Do you remember me?" I heard the stranger ask someone in the other room.
"Who are you?" The guest replied.
I thought about the stranger's pale complexion and woeful demeanour and pondered the conversation that Onyx and I had had earlier. Impossible...
"You know something, Briar?" Silas finally said, "I don't think I even know that guy. It just felt too awkward to say that I didn't know him when he asked if I remembered who he was."
"Oh, Silas you fool." I groaned, "I told you not to open the window."