When Visiting Mrs. Maya

1) Always knock before entering.

2) Once inside, don't make too much noise.

3) Only a maximum of three guests may enter the household at a time.

4) Take off your shoes.

5) You may hear the hooting of an owl once in a while when you're inside. Don't be afraid, he gets excited meeting new people.

6) Treat every single item in the household with care and respect.

7) When opening cupboards or drawers, remember to close them gently.

8) If you feel like there is 'something' out of the corner of your eye, ignore it. Pretend as if you didn't see anything in the first place.

9) Talk to Mrs. Maya in a gentle, kind tone. It is wise to not raise the volume of your voice when talking - she does not like it. Profanity is strongly prohibited.

10) Leave a good impression on her and she may return the favour. Sometimes, it happens surprisingly.

11) Visitors aren't welcome past 9 p.m.

. . .

I stared at the words printed on the paper carefully before folding and slipping it in my pocket. Dhani and Laura told me plenty of times that everything will be okay and as long as I follow the rules, nothing bad can happen.

Yet I still have a bad feeling about this.

I've had my fair share of horror stories and scary movies so I know where this is going. Even the instruction sheet reeks of bad news, figuratively, of course.

I am terrified.

They told me it's easy - just fetch the groceries, deliver it and get the reward. Laura's words echoed in my head telling me how nobody wanted to do the request at first. Weird things happen there and weird means bad if it's involving the lonely house in the meadows. But as the years go by, running the errand is a simple job as long as you follow the rules, and let's just say that whoever broke them will never be the same again.

At least, that's what happened to Illan.

Oh, that's why he left.

The air was cold and the trees shedding their leaves meant that Fall was near. Another crackle could be heard as I stepped on the crunchy brown leaves and it felt satisfying every time I've done it. But I still feel spooked out about what's going to happen. Realizing my scarf was coming loose, I adjusted it around my neck and wrapped it properly before stopping in front of the house.

I'm here, seeing it in person, the lonely house in the meadows.

All the scary stories I've heard - legends, myths and rumours about this place flooded my mind in an instant, and I wanted to run away. For some reason, I didn't.

I took a deep breath before exhaling and checked the paper bags one last time to be sure.

Wet wipes? Check.

Oatmeal? Check.

Bread, canned tuna, cheese slices and lettuce? Check.

Oh, I almost forgot, strawberry-flavoured pudding cups? Check.

Well, that's everything on the list...

I looked back at the view behind me - from the lightest yellow to the richest brown, dried leaves scattered over the ground. The sun should be at its highest point soon and the rust on the lamp posts got more noticeable at this point. I turned back around and looked at the house.

Actually, it's more like a cottage.

It's nothing too special - a quick search on 'Bubble Search' and the image of cottages in the woodlands that looked like they're owned by fairies pops out. That might give you a rough idea on how it looked.

Wait, why am I breaking the fourth wall? I don't want to end up like Sonagi's story...

I walked closer to the wooden door and saw the white paint on the walls was worn out. Before I let myself in, I remembered the rules in an instant - 'Always knock before entering.'

I placed the back of my knuckle before giving a few firm knocks and waited.

Honestly, I thought an old witch with long white hair reaching the floor would come out in a second and get me for disturbing her witching hour or something but there was no response.

Usually, the owner opens the door in less than a minute, right?

Or if they're taking more time, they'd yell something like, 'Hold on, give me five minutes!'

But there was still no response.

No yelling, no sound of a person getting up and approaching the door - nothing. Just silence.

I took out the paper and re-read the words printed on it again.

That's weird, all it said was to knock and take off my shoes before entering. Nothing else after that.

Does that mean that I can let myself in?

But I'm still scared of what will happen. Could they forget to put it in the rules?

No, wait, is this some sort of elaborate prank - like a test of courage?

Did they send me to an abandoned cottage in the meadows to drop off some items for possibly someone that doesn't even exist in the first place?

Or am I overreacting?

I took a deep breath and recollected my thoughts. If this is a prank, how come no one back at the association laughed, teased or even gave me a smirk? If this is something to freak the newbie out, they must've taunted me first, right?

If that's true then maybe they are really good actors...

But Dhani of all people wouldn't joke about this kind of thing. He gives me 'caring older brother' vibes and when it comes to quests, he doesn't play around like this. I could say the same for Laura too, yes, she fools around a lot and would laugh the loudest when it comes to pranks but she looked serious about this too.

She looked the sorriest for me after figuring out what my first real quest is.

I looked back at the wooden door before slipping the paper in my pocket.

My arms are getting tired now and I just want to get this over with.

If this is a prank then that means I won't get eaten by whatever's inside the house, right?

I took off my shoes like the rules stated before letting myself inside. The door let out a high-pitched creak the whole time I opened it as well as I closed it too.

"Hello?" I greeted, just in case I would shock anyone that happens to be living here.

To my surprise, the inside of the house doesn't look too creepy like how I'd imagined it to be. I was thinking of knives and cutlasses hanging around the walls, and bones scattering everywhere on the floor but again, it looked like a typical home you'd find on 'Bubble Search' - though, you could tell this house is owned by an elderly lady.

The inside was warm like a freshly baked pumpkin pie. Ugh, now I'm hungry for some pumpkin pie. The lighting was pretty bad though, I couldn't even see the furniture clearly. I'd turn the lights on but I don't want to risk breaking some unwritten parts of the rule or seeing something I'm not supposed to see. In this kind of situation, everything is risky. Next thing you know, some hairy demon would come out from the walls and eat my forehead for the appetizer or worse, use my eye sockets as bottle openers.

So I left the entire house in semi-darkness with the sunlight beaming through the windows as the only sources of light.

In fact, one of the rules did say - 'Once inside, don't make too much noise.' Did I break one of 'em when I said hello? Demons won't get pissed off over something like that, right?

Man, I need to stop reading those scary stories on 'Ryttem' every night...

I made my way past the living room and placed the paper bags on the dining table in the kitchen as slowly as I could. As long as I treat every item in this house gently, I would be okay. Well now that I think about it, most of the rules are basic decency on how to behave when you're at someone's house. Which means, as long as I get it together, I'll get out of here without a scratch.

My chest feels lighter now and the weight on my shoulder was lifted - not that there was any in the first place.

I'm feeling hopeful all of a sudden but I'm still aware that I have to play it safe.

My heart almost, I repeat, almost jumped out of my throat when I heard hooting out of nowhere.

Hoot, hoot, hoot...

Well, this is going bad now. I jinxed it.

I looked everywhere in the kitchen, eyeing every corner carefully to see where the sound came from - the cabinets, drawers, kitchen counter and even the sink but nothing could be seen. No owls or any animals whatsoever.

I expected glowing eyes in the dimly-lit kitchen staring me down for existing but I couldn't find those either.

Okay, relax...

The little feathered guy is just excited to see me and that's good, I think. Owls are just cats with wings so this shouldn't creep me out too much. Plus, the rules did say I have nothing to worry about when it comes to him.

I took out the groceries from the bags and laid them all out on the table. Everyone has a different way of organizing things in their home so I left the bread, canned tuna, oatmeal and wet wipes on the kitchen counter so it's easier for her to see them.

I grabbed the pudding cups, cheese slices and lettuce, and placed them in the fridge without making too much noise. I even closed the fridge's door as slowly as I could.

Hoot, hoot, hoot...

There goes the 'hooting' again. I hope he's telling me I'm doing well so far.

Now, there's only one thing left to do and that's claiming my reward. And to do that, I have to talk to Mrs. Maya first.

Okay, I can do this.

I've stuck by the rules and I didn't mess anything up. As long as I speak to her politely, I can get out of here and treat myself to a box of warm dumplings. I walked out of the kitchen and made my way to the living room again because that's where the stairs were.

As I made my way up, I couldn't help but feel every single hair on my body stood up. You know those sudden chills that you get when you enter a room that you're not supposed to go anywhere near?

Yeah, this is exactly how it felt.

I looked behind me, hand still on the railing but only the dark greeted me back, not literally though. I expected to hear more hooting but that didn't happen too. I couldn't shake off the feeling like I was being watched... by something.

Thinking back on the words printed on that paper - 'If you feel like there is 'something' out of the corner of your eye, ignore it. Pretend as if you didn't see anything in the first place.'

Is it implying what's happening now?

I didn't see anything out of the corner of my eye but I assume this rule can be applied here as well, right? Just ignore it like how my schoolmates ignored me back in high school.

I gulped hard before reaching the second floor and the goosebumps began to fade. The feeling of being watched died down too. The walk through the narrow corridor to the only room on the level was over as I stood right in front of her door. I gave it a few knocks and waited.

Again, no reply.

No sound of someone rushing to open the door or anything like that.

Only silence.

Whatever is in the room - someone or no one at all, the real deal or a prank, I'll know it once I open this door. I placed my hand on the cold doorknob before letting myself in.

I opened the door slowly as I greeted,

"Hello, Mrs. Maya?"

I thought I won't see anything inside, just an empty room. Well, I even thought I'd see Laura and Dhani trying to spook me out and laugh at me for falling for their prank.

I was wrong.

A figure of someone laid up in bed was clear. I looked at the dimly-lit room and saw that an elderly lady was lying in bed covered in a blanket.

This... is real.

This is the real deal.

I swallowed hard, thoughts racing anxiously but grateful that I've stuck by the rules in the end. Nothing should be going wrong, right?

I walked closer to the bed and I could see the old lady's features clearer. She was wearing a white nightgown and her grey hair tied in a bun. Her puffy face bore wrinkles and the dark circles under her eyes were large. I'd feel sorry for her if she didn't freak me out.

This lady wasn't even asleep.

Her bloodshot eyes stared straight ahead like she was in a trance.

Everything in her room was quiet. This feels surreal like I was in a different plane of reality or something. I just wanted to get out of here fast.

I put up a smile before greeting her again, "Excuse me, Mrs. Maya?"

I don't know how I managed to not wet my pants when she turned my way in a split second. Her bloodshot eyes pierced my way before she puts up what could be considered a smile.

Not sure how I did it but I maintained what was left of my composure before speaking to her again. I made sure to address her politely and spoke in a low volume,

"I've put your groceries in the kitchen."

She looked at me, possibly through me and handed me a brown envelope. I think I know that this must be the reward she's giving so I made sure to not overstay my welcome.

It's probably the paranoia but the atmosphere in the room is starting to feel more sinister now.

I grabbed the envelope and slipped it in my back pocket as I thanked her in a cheery tone.

As I turned and headed for the door, she murmured, "You remind me of a cygnet."

I froze in my tracks before facing her again slowly, I could've sworn her smile was growing bigger than humanly possible.

"Um, excuse me?" I spoke, still trying to keep it polite.

"Thank you for respecting my rules, boy," She spoke out before staring back at the wall in front of her, "Not all new kids do that."

I faked a laugh and not a good one at that, "Uh, no problem, Mrs. Maya. I have to get going now."

"I hope I can see you again."

The goosebumps appeared again and I'm not liking it. Walking out of her bedroom, I closed the door gently before bolting out downstairs and out of that house.

The thought of having to go back there again is horrifying but that's another day yet to come. I didn't make too much noise as I left and ran so fast that I didn't even wear my shoes properly.

I think I get why mom and dad are worried about me leaving...

But that doesn't mean I'm regretting this choice now. It's my choice and I'm planning to stay. As I ran through the meadow, dried leaves crackling beneath my feet, I joined Bow's Association with hopes and dreams to go far.

And right now, I think this is a unique start.

. . .

"Cygnets have so much potential for more," The old lady spoke as she lovingly pets her owl, "I think that new boy will grow up as a fine swan, one day."

The owl - feathers as black as night with shining eyes that seemed like it's filled with stars, hooted as if it understood what she's saying.

"And I can't wait for that day to come."