It was an Autumnal Affair, that autumn night.
It was a night that existed after a week’s preparation, a night that was the result of several shopping excursions, hours of crafting and decorating, and outstanding social suavity, a night that culminated from a desire to give the seasonally affected a reason to celebrate this otherwise possibly depressing impending winter. Ned Theodore Ed and Margaret Hadfield worked diligently on this party, fashioning every detail with eager attentiveness.
If you don’t know by now, then you should really get in the loop, because N.T. is our skeleton protagonist who just doesn’t speak because of personal reasons that I’ve gone into before but are really none of your business, and so this gentle-skeleton uses writing to communicate. Recently, he was speaking to Margaret about his anticipated winter blues, and so Margaret decided to host an autumn party with him, to help keep his spirits lifted. You should read about it here if none of this is ringing a bell.
N.T. had been very adamant—-and Margaret had dutifully respected—-that this autumnal affair was to be, in no way, a Halloween party, and strictly just a party of changing seasons. That so, they had decorated Margaret’s large, hardwood living room with red, orange, and brown glittery leaves sprinkled about, wreaths of fall-time potpourri, plumpy pumpkins gathered in small patches, strands of decaying leaves draped across the fireplace mantel, and a cornucopia elegantly arranged on the dining room table, a large squash pervasively extruding. Scents of hot cocoa, caramel, and apple cinnamon wafted and mingled throughout her first floor, the log interior of the kitchen opening widely to the living room, which had tall ceilings all the way up to the top of the house. The staircase, laced with bare branches like harvest season vines, led from the front entrance towards the back of the house, with a half-hallway second-story balcony that overlooked the living room. With the low lighting of lamps and a chandelier, the soft-stained wood of Margaret’s house glowed warmly and drowsily, the coziest of cabins nestled in the pines on the mountain that overlooked Spinesville.
The kitchen spread was breathtaking, offering every autumn delight: cinnamon rolls, caramel-coated apples, candy corn, pumpkin roll, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin pie, apple pie, chocolate-covered pretzels, hot cocoa, and spiced chai. They had prepared several activities, like bobbing for apples, pin-the-flannel-on-the-scarecrow, pumpkin carving, and a small library of classic board games and favored card games. For music, Margaret had began playing a “Sounds of Fall” playlist on the Bluetooth speakers set up around her living room, but before the party began, N.T. asked her to change it because it was getting too spooky for him, so she switched it to jazz music.
Before guests began arriving, N.T. and Margaret stood back and looked around her house at their preparations and nodded to themselves, Good job. They had thrown together quite a lot in just a week, and they were both excited for this evening of festivities, and N.T. was excited to drink a lot of apple cider.
Friends began trickling in, and N.T. started nervously snacking on candy corn as he acclimated to the social setting. (He was very excited to be with all his friends, but a small bit of anxiety stirred him, the way it does when one is much looking forward to a party and then it is finally about to transpire.) Talia, N.T.’s butterfly companion, was the first to arrive—-but then again, she had only been fluttering around the backyard while Margaret and N.T. were setting up; she had come up with N.T. earlier. Reid and his lady friend showed up next, and he introduced her as Sheila, and she politely complimented the decor. Soon after, Carli the sprite and many of her sprite neighbors arrived, bringing with them an excitable energy that made N.T. feel a little dance-y as they flittered about, and Sheila watched incredulously. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you about our medley of friends,” Reid whispered into her ear with a loving grin, and then almost as if the Jack of Tricks was waiting for this cue, the pumpkinite himself waltzed into Margaret’s house, who froze when she saw him.
“N.T.?” Margaret uttered, her eyes on the pumpkin-headed creature with a jack o’lantern’s grin, who had entered the party with his arms spread out in grandeur.
Scribbling on his notepad, N.T. answered the question he knew was on her mind, I RAN INTO HIM THE OTHER DAY IN THE PINES. HE SAID AFTER I CHASTISED HIM LAST YEAR, HE’S DECIDED TO ABSTAIN FROM THE PUMPKINITE TRADITION OF TORMENTING ONE CHOSEN SUBJECT. N.T. remembered how last Halloweentime, the Jack of Tricks had dedicated his season to pranking N.T., and how after he confronted Jack, N.T. had given him a piece of his mind about this tomfoolery. Apparently now, Jack had a change of heart and was doing random acts of kindness in the spirit of Halloween this year, rather than his usual acts of mischief.
After Jack, some of Margaret’s human friends streamed in, and they looked about the party a little bewildered. Although N.T. had been so strict about the fact that this wasn’t to be a Halloween party, you have to admit—-a lot of his friends made it seem like one! A skeleton, a pumpkin-person, a butterfly, and sprites? This was certainly a magical bunch, but then again, that’s just who they were on a regular day-to-day basis.
N.T. found himself standing in the kitchen as the evening outside quickly grew dark through the kitchen and living room windows. He snacked on yet another handful of candy corn—-he was sure to feel sick from all the sugar later—-and Jack, who was nearby in the kitchen sipping on a mug of chai, looked down at the pumpkin pie and shook his head.
“Not cool, man,” he said, and looked at N.T. with his hollow, carved-out pumpkin eyes.
N.T. looked at the pumpkin pie and then at Jack, and felt very awkward—-speechless, actually.
Then Jack burst out laughing. “I’m kidding, dude! There’s a difference between a pumpkinite and a pumpkin. Enjoy your party!” Jack lifted his cup to N.T. with a chuckle and then wandered into the living room to mingle with the sprites.
N.T. stared after him, then noticed his own thirst. He had a hankering for some apple cider now, his favorite fall-time beverage. It had been at the top of his list for party refreshments, and he scanned the drinks area for that familiar jug of orangey-brown sweetness. He kept looking, but he didn’t see it laid out, so he went over to Margaret’s refrigerator and searched inside, still coming up with nothing. There was milk, condiments, leftovers from Tuesday, some orange juice, pears, broccoli, yogurt… But no apple cider.
It’s not that N.T. was totally freaking out, but N.T. was freaking out a little. He loved apple cider, and he cherished it every autumn, as one of the few things that he was always able to enjoy in the fall. This year, he had abstained from drinking it so that this party would be even more special, his yearly induction of apple cider. However, as he frantically searched Margaret’s kitchen for the apple cider, his chest felt the sinking sensation of what he finally sort of accepted: there was no apple cider.
But it wasn’t that there just wasn’t apple cider, it was that somebody stole the apple cider. Or, excuse me, drank all the apple cider, because stole is sort of a heavy accusation. N.T. had specifically seen the apple cider in Margaret’s refrigerator earlier when they were setting up the party, two whole gallons of it! He had underlined it twice on their shopping list, and drew a little heart next to it so no one could forget. And now, it was nowhere to be seen, not even the empty jugs of it, and so N.T. did what only felt like the most natural response in the moment, and that was to stop the whole party.
Everyone in the living room looked over to the kitchen as N.T. began flailing his arms from behind the kitchen bar. Since he couldn’t shout, he just waved his bones rapidly in every direction, and eventually caught the party’s attention as conversations quieted to see what he was all in a frenzy about.
Once he had their attention, he held up a sign he had scribbled that read, DOES ANYONE KNOW WHERE THE CIDER WENT?
After most folks read this, squinting to see the faint pencil marks, they looked questioningly around at one another and shook their heads, then more or less returned to their previous social engagements. N.T. stood there holding his sign, eyeing all the attendees of the party suspiciously: everyone was a suspect. If no one would own up to it, he would just have to investigate personally.
His first interrogation was with Jack. He was the last person in the kitchen before N.T. realized the apple cider was gone, and while Jack claimed he changed his way of life, he still had the sketchiest track record.
N.T. approached Jack as he was having a lively conversation with Carli.
“Wow! You really did that?” Jack was asking, laughing in amazement as the two of them stood near the fireplace, which was cackling with wood.
Carli flipped her green hair over her shoulder and fluttered at eye-level with Jack. “I sure did,” she said, crossing her arms and grinning confidently. “And that’s not even the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”
As Jack took a sip from his cup, he noticed N.T. standing beside them. Turning to N.T., Jack asked, “What’s up, man?”
He showed Jack his notepad: CAN I ASK YOU SOMETHING?
Jack nodded to Carli, who had also seen N.T.’s message, and Jack told her he’d catch up with her later to find out what the coolest thing she’s ever done was. Carli flitted away to rejoin her sprite girlfriends, and N.T. showed Jack another message.
WHAT’S IN YOUR CUP?
Jack read the message and his pumpkin face creased a little bit. “Uh, it’s the spiced chai Margaret made. If you’re wondering if I slipped anything in the punch bowl, I promise you I didn’t. I’ve been sober for years.”
N.T. shook his head and scribbled his response. YOU WERE THE LAST PERSON IN THE KITCHEN… DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE APPLE CIDER WENT?
“No, I have no idea where the apple cider went, my dude. I haven’t even seen it.” He eyed N.T., who eyed Jack, who realized what N.T. might be thinking. “Okay, listen. I’m very honored you invited me here and I’m having a lot of fun, but I’m not about to stick around if you’re going to question my character. I told you, I’m not doing the tormenting thing anymore. I had fun pranking you last Halloween, but I swear—”
N.T. cut off Jack by waving his hand for him to stop. I’M SORRY, he wrote back, beginning to trust that Jack truly had a change of heart. I DIDN’T MEAN TO OFFEND YOU. I’M JUST TRYING TO FIND MY CIDER. He thought for a second, and added, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US TONIGHT… I’M REALLY GLAD YOU’RE HERE.
Jack appreciated N.T. saying this, and switched his drink to his left hand so that he could shake N.T.’s skeletal hand. “Thanks, bro. I’m glad you invited me.”
Having reached the end of this awkward interaction, N.T. shuffled away. If Jack didn’t take—-or drink—-the cider, who did?
Regrouping, N.T. approached Reid and Sheila, who were standing by the bobbing-for-apples station near the entrance. Neither of them were actually bobbing for apples, but they were standing over the tub full of floating red apples, and Sheila was discussing how much she loved apples.
“Apples are definitely my favorite fruit, but I don’t think I want to bob for them,” she was saying as N.T. grew near. “Although it’s really fun that they have this here as an activity!”
“Hey, N.T.,” Reid said, watching him walk up to them. Sheila smiled kindly at him and waved her fingers.
N.T. waved back, then wrote, APPLES ARE ALSO MY FAVORITE, showing the message more to Sheila than Reid.
Sheila continued to smile and nodded, looking around. “Yeah, this is a really nice party you and Margaret have put together. It smells amazing in here!”
THANK YOU, N.T. wrote.
“It’s a great idea to have a party like this,” Reid added. “I’m glad Sheila could finally meet all of you.”
N.T. smiled at him, and noted how much he liked Reid’s Afro, which had grown a lot since the start of the summer. Sheila’s hair was actually shorter than Reid’s, and her hair had a really sleek wave to it, pressed against her head. They were really cute together, and Reid’s green and black flannel even matched Sheila’s green pant-suit. N.T. was really happy for the two of them, and they seemed to complement each other well.
But back to business, N.T. reminded himself. SO, LET ME GET TO KNOW YOU, SHEILA. WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE FORM TO CONSUME APPLES?
Sheila thought the question a little random, but she politely considered it while tilting her head, then answered, “Probably caramel-coated apples. I had one when I first got here, and it was amazing!”
N.T. nodded, and noticed Reid looking at him funny. N.T. shook his head at Reid, as if nonverbally asking, “What?” Reid shrugged and looked away, leaving N.T. be.
COOL, DID YOU HAVE ANY OF THE CIDER? N.T. followed up, and Reid caught a glimpse of his message and frowned at N.T. as Sheila was answering.
“Cider? I actually didn’t see any over ther—-”
“Okay, N.T., Sheila and I are actually going to see if Margaret needs any help, so we’ll see you around the party to answer more of your weirdly apple-cider-focused questions later,” Reid urged, placing a hand on Sheila’s back and gently guiding her away from N.T.
“See you around!” Sheila said, waving at N.T. as they stepped around the bucket of buoying apples, towards the dining room.
So it wasn’t Sheila, N.T. concluded, believing that she was just too sweet and innocent to consume all of a skeleton’s apple cider without admitting it forthright, but he had needed to check just in case, and now he knew: not Sheila. N.T. groaned internally as he struggled to imagine who else may have chugged so much apple cider before N.T. could even get his bony hands on it.
N.T. continued his “Whodunnit?” investigation throughout the party. He approached the sprites and individually spoke to each one, testing to see if one of the sprites would accidentally spill clues about another’s cider-greedy behavior. But unfortunately, their stories all checked out—-unless they were all in on it together, but N.T. had exhausted all his interrogation techniques and decided to give up on the sprites. They were just too good at lying.
Next, he eyed Talia for a good minute as she happily fluttered around him, before he finally shook his head dejectedly, thinking to himself, No, there’s no way it could have been Talia.
Finally, N.T. tapped Margaret gently on the shoulder to ask her if all of her friends could be trusted in the presence of apple cider, and she excused herself from her conversation with a man her own age to privately deal with N.T.’s persistence.
“I hear through the grape vine that you’re the cider sheriff tonight,” Margaret said giggling, feeling loosened up by the warm atmosphere and joyous socializing.
N.T. smiled, but wrote, DO YOU THINK ANY OF THE PEOPLE YOU INVITED WOULD HAVE DRANK IT ALL AND NOT SAID ANYTHING?
Margaret shrugged her shoulders and put up her hands as though she didn’t know what to say. “You know,” she started, “One really can’t know for sure. Who’s to say?”
BUT I’M ASKING, IS THERE ANYONE SPECIFICALLY YOU THINK WOULD BE MOST LIKELY TO DRINK CIDER? ANY APPLE FANATICS AMONG YOUR FRIENDS? N.T. pressed the matter, hoping Margaret would help him out a little bit despite her weirdly cavalier attitude towards it. She knew how much he loved cider!
Pursing her lips in thought, she opened her mouth, then paused. “Well…” she mused. “I…”
SO THERE IS SOMEONE! WHO IS IT? N.T. asked, growing impatient.
Suddenly Reid and Sheila joined them, Sheila saying, “Margaret, I just can’t get over how beautiful your home is!” She affectionately leaned into Reid a little as she said it.
Reid added, “I’ve pointed out your house a couple times to Sheila when we go for walks in the Pines, but it’s really so much more astonishing from inside.”
“Thank you!” Margaret gushed, clasping her hands together in front of her chest. Her cheeks glowed a rosy red, and she tucked some gray hair that had fallen from her braid behind her ear.
I WAS JUST ASKING MARGARET WHICH FRIEND OF HERS DRANK THE CIDER, N.T. explained, interrupting their conversation, which had interrupted his conversation.
Reid and Margaret exchanged a glance while Sheila looked questioningly at N.T.’s note. Noticing Reid and Margaret’s body language, N.T. grew even more impatient.
WHAT? WHAT DO YOU KNOW?
Margaret sighed, then said, “Awwww, I’m so sorry, N.T.” She put her hands to her face and shook her head, then rested a hand on his shoulder. Reid looked down at his shoes, and Sheila and N.T. watched Margaret intently.
“I should have said something right away, but…” Margaret’s fingers nervously squirmed as she clenched her hands together. “I didn’t think you would be this disappointed. I mean, I knew you would be, but I thought with the party, you’d forget about it, uh—-I forgot to buy the apple cider.”
N.T. stared blankly at Margaret.
The silence between the four of them felt even more uncomfortable because of the background laughter and discussions that filled the room, which seemed to emphasize the quiet among them.
Because N.T. made no movement to write anything, Margaret went on, “When I went to the store, they didn’t have any, and so I told myself I’d stop at one of the orchards on the drive home and get some, but I had so much on my mind trying to make this whole party perfect for you and our vision, that it totally slipped my mind! And then when I realized I had forgotten, it was too late because we were rushing to finish everything today, so I texted Reid and asked him to pick some up—-”
“But I hadn’t checked my phone all day, so I didn’t see it until we were already here…” Reid finished, guilt in his voice, looking apologetically at N.T.
“And so, I’m sorry,” Margaret said, frowning her creased forehead.
“Me, too,” Reid added, and Sheila put her hand on Reid’s arm to comfort him.
N.T. looked between the two of them, processing their apologies, and then hung his head. He thought for a moment, then looked back up.
BUT I SAW THE CIDER IN THE FRIDGE EARLIER.
Margaret tilted her head and frowned. “Oh! Uhh, maybe that was my homemade vegetable juice. I juice carrots and squash into a sort of smoothie blend and put them in jugs… That must have been it. Right before the party I moved those to the fridge in my garage.”
Well, drat, thought N.T.
“I’m sorry. Again, I didn’t think you’d be so… persistent about it,” Margaret said, removing her hand from N.T.’s shoulder.
He nodded at her, and then wrote, IT’S OKAY, and wandered away towards the kitchen again to grab another handful of candy corn, but by now, the bowl was empty and all that was left was one candy corn nub. Not even a whole kernel.
N.T. sat down in the corner of the kitchen on the tile floor, leaning against the wall. He just wanted to be by himself to think about how he was feeling. Talia found him and fluttered about him, but he waved at her a little and she fluttered away, leaving N.T. alone.
He had been so excited for this party—-for this autumnal affair—-because it was supposed to be something to lift his spirits. He had been feeling so totally glum, and this party was a sort of beacon of happiness. All week, he had been looking forward to it, imagining all the fun he would have, the friends he would see, the cider he would drink, and now it was here, and nearly the whole time he had been fixated on the one thing that the party didn’t have: the cider. True, he was disappointed that there was no apple cider to enjoy, but more so, now, he was just upset with himself for obsessing over it all night rather than just enjoying himself with his friends. Now, hindsight made him see clearly: he had spent too much time hyping up this event in his imagination, and then he had sabotaged it for himself. He sighed and put his head in his hands.
Then he heard the front door open and a little bit of commotion, meaning someone had just arrived, late. He processed the sounds, but it wasn’t until he heard a voice that his curiosity perked up.
“Hello! Is N.T. anywhere?”
The voice was a woman’s, and it sounded familiar, although he couldn’t remember why. Slowly, he stood up, feeling a little achy from being on the hard ground, and, looking over the kitchen bar, noticed in the other room a face he hadn’t seen for a year—-Emilia!
It was the woman from Millie’s Hardware! Last autumn, he and Margaret had gone to the hardware store in Spinesville so that N.T. could pick up a part for his broken paper-making machine, and he had run into Emilia there; she had recognized him from when they went to high school together, and she had excitedly told him that a paper he had written inspired her to start a school club dedicated to the values and ideas of N.T.’s paper, which had been called Slanted Spines! He had lost the card she had given him, but ever since they ran into each other, N.T. wondered now and then what she was up to, but he had mostly forgotten about his chance encounter with her, and hadn’t expected her to be here at all!
Emilia caught sight of N.T. from across Margaret’s house and hastily approached him, immediately going in for a large hug. “Hey Ned!” she greeted, beaming. Her hug felt nice, and instantly lifted his sour spirit.
She was wearing a red jacket and her dark brown hair was covered by her blue knit hat, which she quickly pulled off her head and stuck in her large tote bag. The tip of her nose was red from the cool air, and she sighed happily, a little out of breath. “How are you, Ned?”
N.T. fumbled with his notepad and wrote, I’M GOOD! YOU? HOW DID YOU KNOW I WOULD BE HERE?
“I’m great!” Emilia said. “I ran into Margaret while she was shopping the other day, and she invited me—-I had a dinner earlier, so sorry I’m late! It looks awesome in here!” She looked around, eyeing all the different decorations.
THANK YOU, N.T. responded. He still couldn’t believe she was here. What a great surprise!
“Oh!” she said, heaving her large tote bag on the counter and beginning to dig through it. “I almost forgot. I didn’t have time to bake anything to bring, so I just bought some apple cider—-I hope that’s okay.”
N.T. actually began jumping from excitement as she pulled out a gallon of cider and set it on the counter, her giggling at N.T.’s glee. Margaret, Reid, Sheila, Jack, Talia, and Carli all drew near them in the kitchen to see what N.T. was so excited about.
“Oh, you brought cider!” Margaret practically sang, and she hugged Emilia as she laughed, Emilia looking around a little hesitantly, not sure why it was so grand that she brought cider. Margaret took the jug and cracked it open, pouring a full cup for N.T., and a few smaller cups for everyone else in their group. By the time Margaret had poured some for everyone, N.T. had already finished his cup and Margaret poured the last of it for him. They all began to share their perspectives of the Great Who-Dun-It Missing Cider Mystery of the Autumnal Affair, pointing fingers at each other for why each attendee may have seemed suspicious to N.T.. Emilia was certainly entertained by this delightful coincidence.
The party continued for another couple hours before all the guests began to stream out. One by one, the guests began to depart, starting with Margaret’s friends, then Reid and Sheila, then the sprites, then Jack, and then Talia fluttered upstairs for some peace and rest. Emilia was one of the last people to leave because she and N.T. had been involved in an intense game of Sorry! Margaret had wandered off to bed by then, but not before hugging N.T. and insisting that he crash in her spare bedroom, which he hesitated to accept (because the last time he did, he wound up in a dream adventure) but as the yawns began to sneak up on him, it sounded better and better. Margaret had apologized quickly once again for forgetting the apple cider, and N.T. thanked her dearly for being such an amazing friend of his to make this beautiful evening possible at all, and for a moment he felt very sentimental as he realized all the trouble she went through just to help his glum spirits. He gave her a hug, and then Margaret wished Emilia and N.T. goodnight and went off to bed.
Soon after, Emilia won their game of Sorry! and decided to go out on a winning note. N.T. didn’t push her for a rematch because he was very tired by then. She gathered her tote bag and pulled on her blue hat.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR COMING. YOU MADE MY NIGHT! he wrote, as they stood near the front door, saying their goodbyes.
“Oh, I’m glad I could! If I would have known you liked apple cider that much, I would have brought even more!” Emilia replied, smiling tiredly, then breaking out into a yawn, which caused N.T. to yawn.
Giggling, she said, “Well, I’ll be hitting the road now. Maybe we’ll be in touch sooner than a year!” Emilia gave N.T. a quick hug and reached for the door knob.
GET HOME SAFE! N.T. wrote back. He showed her the message, then quickly added, I’M ALWAYS AROUND THE PINES SOMEWHERE IF YOU’RE EVER PASSING THROUGH!
She gave another friendly smile and assured him she would visit again sometime, then left Margaret’s house and walked out to her car.
Five minutes later, N.T. had blown out all the candles, checked on the embers in the fireplace, shut off all the lights, and fell into Margaret’s guest bed. Talia was already nestled on the pillow next to N.T., and she shuffled and fluttered slightly as his impact awoke her, then she settled back down. The last thought that meandered through N.T.’s head before he drifted off was that he was thankful to have such kind and loving friends who didn’t judge him for loving apple cider almost to a fault, and that in the future, he would try not to be such a bad sport when things didn’t go his way. He felt really good about how the second half of the night went, and he could still taste the sticky, sweet tartness of the apple cider in his mouth, having intentionally not brushed his teeth before bed so as to savor the taste.
Thanks for reading! Enjoy more of N.T.’s adventures by browsing the Tales of N.T. Ed page!
Slanted Spines is participating in Inktober! Follow @slantedspines on Twitter and Instagram and like the Slanted Spines Blog Facebook page to keep up with all the latest Slanted Spines doings!
This summer, I wrote a poem called “Eyes and Mirrors” for my friend and colleague Max Nobis’s poetry collection. He put the whole thing together and now it’s available on Amazon for $5, and all the proceeds go to IBH Addiction Recovery Center in Akron, Ohio. The poetry collection is called dona nobis pacem (grant us peace) and features a variety of local poets! Check it out at this link!