Author’s note: Vulturu is an existing, real town in Romania, but, of course, it has nothing to do with the town described in this story…
.Vulturu, The Carpatian Mountains in Transylvania, Romania, Europe
“The land beyond The Forest”
After an uneventful flight, Granny and Taïga arrive in Romania in the early morning. They collect their luggage and retrieve Taïga’s bike and the large wooden box from a special fret counter. Hauling everything onto an airport luggage caddy they walk all the way to the furthest parking lot. To Taïga’s surprise, Granny’s vintage car is waiting for them in a dark corner of the underground parking.
The pristine autumn air carries a promise of snow and they are both freezing, riding in the old cabriolet.
‘You should have transformed the car into a limousine, Granny!’
‘But I can’t drive a limousine! And this is the only car I know how to conjure up, so be quiet now and put on your safety belt…’
‘There are no safety belts, Granny… Do we have long to go? I’m hungry.’
‘It’s up in the mountains over there, somewhere.’ Granny points towards the skyline of dark foreboding mountains, and Taïga shudders. ‘It’s not even on the maps… Here, take this apple. We’ll stop for dinner, or rather lunch, along the way…’
The long trip soon takes its toll on the little girl and she falls heavily asleep, not even waking up when Granny steers the car into an old, seemingly abandoned, dirt track leading into the forest…
When Taïga wakes up again, she is surprised to see her grandmother dressed in her usual grey outfit, complete with her corset and long sweeping skirt. She’s even wearing her hat again, and with awe the little girl reaches out and touches her grandmother’s hair.
‘How did you do this, Granny?’
Granny glances at her, winking. ‘Grown-up magic, dear. It is to be used with utmost parsimony, but I just couldn’t show up on my sister’s threshold looking like a… a…’
‘Yes. A scarecrow.’ They both giggle.
‘Can you fix my hair too?’ Taïga touches her long raven braids.
‘Why should I? Your hair is beautiful as it is, and it’s too dangerous to use on a child anyway.’ Granny says curtly.
‘That’s why you didn’t do this earlier?’
‘You remember when I told you about secrecy?’ Taïga nods solemnly. ‘Well, even if I wanted to fix this when I unwrapped my hair at the hospital, I couldn’t reasonably do so without raising suspicions. But here… Nobody knows us.’ Granny looks at her sleepy granddaughter yawning. ‘Go ahead and sleep a little while longer. We’re not arriving in a couple of hours yet.’
Taïga nods, drawing the warm blanket up high and settling more comfortably into the seat. Soon the rhythm and the purring of the car has rocked her to sleep again. Granny glances at her, a little jealous. She wishes she could stop and nap, her eyes are burning from lack of sleep. The flight had seemed to last forever but Granny had been kept awake by the burning pain and even though the fresh air helps cooling her face some, the skin is still itching uncomfortably.
Taïga has slept most of the way through the Romanian countryside, snuggly wrapped up in a warm blanket. Granny wakes her when they enter the small town of Vulturu.
‘Look at the houses, Taïga. Aren’t they beautiful?’
Taïga nods sleepily. ‘But it’s so dark, Granny. Where’s the sun? What time is it?’
‘Soon two p.m. But it’s only four a.m. back in Bigwood Falls. That’s why you are so tired…’
‘Watch out, Granny!’
Granny has strayed too far over to the left side and the car coming from the other direction honks his horn angrily.
The driver glares at them, slowing his car down and shouting something unintelligible to them as they pass.
Granny is unfazed. ‘I just hope the rude man is not our future neighbor…’
Taïga turns around in her seat and watches the car vanish around a bend in the road. ‘Do you think we’ll learn the language soon? “Du-te dracu! Boule”*…’
‘I’m sure that’s not something you should add to your vocabulary, Taïga!’
She turns back in her seat, ‘Tell me about your sister, Granny’
*Go to Hell, you idiot!
What is there to say…’ As a teenager Missy fell madly in love with my boyfriend, Magnus Darkling, and since then our relations have been sparse and cold. Her relations in general are sparse and cold. Her mean streak has permitted her to specialize in ghost hunting and she also practices black magic and voodoo. She’s horribly clumsy, and a terrible blunderer! I’m more than a little worried about us all living together under the same roof…
But of course she doesn’t tell her grandchild all this.
She clears her throat. ‘Ahem… Missy is my younger sister – I was thirteen when she was born… Err… She’s not married – at least not that I know of – and she has a cat…’
Taïga’s eyes grow misty. She misses Minuit terribly… The firemen found the scorched body of the old cat when they cleared out the charred remains of the house, and Granny buried her in her favorite spot in the garden before leaving Bigwood Falls. Taïga, who thought she didn’t have any tears left after Mrs. Brown passed away, found that she was horribly wrong…
‘Look! That seems to be a post office of some kind.’
Granny parks the car and jumps out. ‘Stretch your legs a little while I go and ask for directions. But don’t stray too far!’
Taïga doesn’t move. It’s too cold to let go of the warm blanket.
Granny is soon back, waving a slip of paper. ‘We’re not far!’
Taïga yawns, but straightens up at the sight of an ominous edifice.
‘What is that, Granny?’
‘I think it must be the church the woman at the post office mentioned. We should turn right soon…’
‘It looks like something out of a scary movie… I bet there are vampires living in the crypt, Granny!’
‘There are no such things as vampires, Taïga.’
‘I’ve read Dracula. And Mom told me not to mess with them.’
‘Have you seen one?’
‘Well. Normal. They don’t exist.’ But she doesn’t sound convinced.
Taïga doesn’t let go. ‘I’ve never seen a platypus either, and they exist.’
‘You’ve seen photos haven’t you?’
‘Yes, of course I have!’
‘Have you ever seen a photo of a vampire?’
‘No! But you can’t photograph them and they have no reflection in mirrors neither!’
Granny glances at her grandchild. ‘Says who?’
‘Well… Books and stuff…’
Granny just snorts and turns right, into Breach Bend…
‘There it is!’ Taïga hollers, ‘Number 46!’
Granny screeches to a halt, backing to verify. ‘You seem to be right, dear.’
Taïga leans over and actions the horn. ‘Tuuut! Tuuuut-tuuuuut-tuuuut!’
The door opens on a feisty redheaded woman. Taïga gawks. She had expected someone a little more like Granny. In fact, she had expected a kind of Granny-clone with lesser wrinkles…
‘Park over there! I’m coming!’
They park next to the house and starts unloading. Missy soon comes out to greet them, a black cat in her arms. She lets go of the purring animal and looks Taïga over.
‘You look exactly like your mother. Except for the eyes…’ She grabs Taïga’s chin and turns her head slightly to the right, exposing her neck. ‘Hmm. She’s even got the grey mark. Even though the Council didn’t approve of her father. Whoever that was,’ she adds under her breath.
‘Why didn’t they approve, Missy?’ Taïga asks, pulling her sweater tighter around her neck.
‘Because they don’t know who he is, of course.’ She bends down, looking the young girl icily into her eyes. ’Do you? Know who he is?’
‘Enough, Missy. Give me a hand, will you.’
Missy walks over to her sister and perfunctorily helps them unpack the car… When the eccentric old lady offered “shelter” to Granny and Taïga, it was more by obligation than because she really felt sorry for them or actually wanted them in her house. But then again, Granny would probably bring her crystal ball, the palantír, along, and Missy has got her eyes on that particular item for as long as she can remember.
Oh yes, I can see it in the backseat… Just beside that ornate red chest… She reaches out for it when a movement in the corner of her eye catches her attention. What is the wretched child doing now? ‘Watch out! Don’t hurt the cat!’
‘I don’t hurt him, Missy. Look, he purrs! I think he likes to be cuddled’ Taïga smiles happily, rubbing her nose against the cat’s.
‘It’s not a he. It’s a she.’
‘What’s her name?’
‘Miezul Nopţii. That’s midnight in Romanian.’
Taïga burrows her nose in the silky fur, blinking away her tears, ‘Minuit…’
‘Could you take this, Missy?’
Missy turns around and seems to really see her sister for the first time since they arrived. Granny has prepared herself for her younger sister’s blunt comments all the way here, playing their conversation over and over again in her head. She touches her hair self-consciously. She will need to make a special shampoo if she wants to maintain the illusion. Meanwhile she will have to endure this magic toupee – even if it’s itching to death. And she must add something to speed up the growth – there’s no way she can wait several years for her hair to grow back as long and luscious as it was before-
‘What happened to your dress?’
‘My dress?’ Granny looks down at her long wrinkled skirt. She had not anticipated this turn of the conversation.
‘Well. It’s nothing a little ironing can’t take care of,’ Missy says. ‘As long as you do it yourself. You see, I don’t really have a housekeeper, only a maid coming in once in a while. But then again I-’ She disappears towards the house, happily chatting and carrying the umbrella Granny had handed her.
Granny sighs. ‘Here, Taïga, your backpack. Take your bike inside the garden, and come back and help me with the rest…’
Missy has never been inclined to do household chores, and her maid doesn’t seem to worry about getting the boring housework done neither. After checking out the bathroom, Granny promptly decides that cleaning up after the journey would have to wait until tomorrow.
There’s only one guest room, which Taïga will have to share with Granny. She’s secretly happy about it – since Mrs. Brown passed away she hasn’t slept well. They unpack and stumble to bed, too exhausted to worry about anything except sleeping.
Granny wakes up early the next morning and yawning she shuffles down to the kitchen. She just hopes her sister has changed her habits over the years, but by the look of the kitchen, she hasn’t. Granny stops on the threshold, staring in disbelief at the horrible colors. A cast iron contraption from the late 40’s catches her eye. A stove that, from the look of it, never has served…
She goes through the cupboards in search of something edible. We’ll just have to make the best out of it… First of all I’ll fix us some breakfast, then I’ll have to contact the school here…
Granny and Taïga hardly have time to settle in before it’s already the little girl’s birthday. It’s early November, but just like in Bigwood Falls, winter is already coming to Vulturu and the day dawns on big snowflakes leisurely falling, covering the hard frozen ground in a light wisp of snow…
It’s so cold… and misty… and dark here. Some snow will really lighten the atmosphere up a little… Ah, there she is! Granny picks up the giftwrapped box from the table next to the window, holding it out like a shield in front of her.
‘Happy Birthday, Taïga! Here, the postman just dropped this off. It comes all the way from Italy!’
‘It’s from Mom!’ Taïga’s face lights up even more and eagerly she pulls at the ribbon discovering a sleek smartphone.
Granny sighs. Her present will absolutely fade next to the gleaming device. She watches her granddaughter turn it on, looking for an output to charge it.
‘Can I go on the Internet?’
‘I’m not sure, with all these mountains around…’ Granny lets her sentence trail. She had thought about buying a cell for her granddaughter, and now she’s jealously regretting she never did. She shouldn’t have told Shasta when she called her to tell her about the fire…
Taïga is happily unaware of her grandmother’s thoughts, wrestling with her own problems.
Can’t wait to talk to Derek again… I wonder what he’s doing. And will he speak to me? Probably not… But I can call Teddy!
‘Can I call err… Teddy?’
Granny counts in her head, 8 o’clock minus 10 hours. ‘Yes, it’s late – 10p.m, but go ahead. I need to talk to you afterwards, I’ll wait for you in the study upstairs…’
‘OK’… Taïga types in the Vargas’ number on her brand new cell, her finger hesitating for a second before saving it. What if Derek answers? She almost hangs up when their mother answers on the third ring.
‘Hello Mrs. Vargas. It’s Taïga Grey. I’m sorry to call this late but is Teddy there?’ She waits nervously while Mrs. Vargas checks. And then there he is, his voice sounding like he’s just around the corner and not halfway across the globe – 5,795 miles (9 326 km) away…
‘Teddy! Err… Hi! It’s me.’ She feels stupid. Of course he knows it’s her calling, his mom must have told him. ‘I got a cell for my birthday! Cool isn’t it?’ She rambles nervously on, ‘Thanks… But it is the 5th today, you know! …Where? Err… In Romania.’ She giggles. ‘It’s in Europe, you dork. Across the globe, yes. We flew here! … What? … Yeah… Yeah… Sure! …. Who? With Serena? … Are you kidding me? Flyer!?! … Yeah, I know she’s training with him… No, not with him. At the same time… The same time as the football team. Uh-huh… I know. … Yeah, I can picture that… NO! Of course not! He can hang with whoever he wants… Uh-huh… Soon… I’ll start school after this weekend, on Monday… Yeah… Bye… Oh, Teddy? Are you still there? … Hug everyone from me will you? I miss you all sooo much! Bye!’
Gah! Taïga sticks out her tongue to the telephone and grimaces. He can talk about Serena all day if he wants… Serena flyer on the squad. Serena training right now. With Derek. Really? Oh, how I hate her! Training at the same time as Derek’s team, no less. I already knew that, so why did he have to rub it in?
Angrily she stomps up to the study where Granny is waiting for her.
Granny has prepared her speech since they left Bigwood Falls.
‘… so you’re about to become a big sister!’
‘Wow…’ Taïga doesn’t know if she’s happy or not. She has always wanted a sister, but… ‘Will I go to Italy now, and live with Mom?’
Granny swallows. She was afraid Taïga would ask that… ‘Well… We’ll have to talk about that with your mother first. For the moment you have to stay here in Vulturu with me and your great aunt…’
Granny can see how her grandchild is struggling not to show her disappointment, but her green eyes are getting unmistakably misty.
‘It’s not that I don’t want to be with you, Granny. I love you! It’s just… just…’
Granny reaches out to Taïga and hugs her. ‘I know you’re not 15 yet, but I’d like to show you something special for your birthday. Let’s have a look into the future – or the past…’
Taïga lights up. ‘The crystal ball?’
‘The Palantír, Taïga. The Palantír…’
Școala primară și gimnaziul St Andrew
St Andrew’s Primary School and Gymnasium
Right after WWII, the country found itself behind the Iron wall and became a socialist republic, part of the great communist community. A lot of people fled the countryside for the more enticing life in the larger cities, but the Duke of Vulturu stayed put. After first having fought side by side with the Nazis against the Soviet Union, and then in 1944 having switched sides, joining the Allied forces, but still not having succeeded in avoiding his domain being occupied by the Red Army, he was a fierce opponent to the Warsaw Pact. Out of necessity, he faked allegiance and gave away most of his huge estate to the government. But his influence in Vulturu remained.
He had fought alongside foreigners, mainly Englishmen, during the last part of the Great War and his love of the Anglo-Saxon culture and language persisted through what he called the Dark Ages. In the 60’s, the town of Vulturu became a haven for artists, writers and other “misfits” of the country. One of the Duke’s projects was to prepare his people for what he felt inevitable – the end of communism and the opening to the rest of Europe and the world. That’s why he insisted on having a European section teaching in English in the town school.
When the Duke passed away just before the 1989 Revolution, the end of the communist era, he donated his immense fortune to his nephew so he could continue his Uncle’s ambitious work. But as soon as the greedy nephew saw an opportunity to leave, he did, taking the money with him.
The art galleries are still thriving and so is the only school in Vulturu. Granny didn’t have much of a choice but to sign Taïga up for classes at Saint Andrew’s. She stops outside the high wall circling the forbidding building, watching the old bell tower stretch and merge with the grey sky. As on clue, it starts snowing. Granny resolutely pushes the heavy massive wood gate open.
She nervously paces the waiting room, brushing snow from her shoulders and rearranging her hair. Finally she sits on one of the comfortable armchairs, noting they only seem comfortable from afar.
Impatiently she waits for the headmaster to show up. She pulls on the too short skirt, trying to cover her wool clad knees, regretting having let Missy convince her to dress in one of her discarded suits. She should have taken the time to lengthen it some more, but she was too tired after changing the flashy color into grey tweed. She studies her surroundings. The black and white wallpaper is dreadful; she must avoid staring at it for too long or it would probably cause an epileptic seizure. Not that she has any epileptic tendencies, she’s perfectly healthy. Apart from getting abnormally tired when she uses magic, but that’s probably just a side effect from her intoxication during the fire. She shudders at the memory…
There are no paintings, but Granny can easily see why. There’s no use in hanging something pretty up that would be all but hidden in the maze of black and white curls and bends. She distinguishes a few black and white photos of the school, though, nicely framed on the wall opposite her. There’s something written in Romanian, of course, but if she squints hard enough she can see the translation beneath. Or not.
She stands up and walks over to the wall.
“Learn from your mistakes”
“Streetwise is smart”
“Learn your lesson the hard way”
“You can learn more common sense from the School of Hard Knocks, than from any university”
‘Geez… If these are the school’s words of wisdom I hope it’s just someone joking…’
But deep down she knows it isn’t. Missy has already told her the school is ominously nicknamed “School of Hard Knocks”, which Granny had trusted was just an error of translation from her sister’s part.
She shakes her head, refusing to judge before she has met the headmaster. Talking about whom. She checks the clock on the wall. Already 3:15…
‘If the headmaster isn’t on time, how can he expect the pupils to be?’ she muses, slumping back on the armchair. She thinks he’d better hurry, these wallpapers are so hideous she’s already starting to feel the beginnings of a migraine…
Finally the headmaster comes out of his office to greet her himself, ‘… Your reputation has preceded you, Mrs. Grey. Welcome to Vulturu! I hope you and your granddaughter will find our facilities to your convenience.’
‘Mr. Synapse…’ She takes in the thin bald man with the intense gaze behind steel rimmed glasses. As most people in Vulturu, he’s wearing extravagant clothes. A great coat of some sort, with an upstanding collar like in the mediaeval times. The color appeals to her, it’s grey after all, but it merges unsettlingly with the color of his skin. She retrieves her hand from his gloved one, clearing her throat and mumbling something polite. Hmm… Strange people in this town. Why doesn’t he take off his gloves? So pale… but we haven’t seen the sun since we got here, so why not?
‘My office is a mess, I think we’ll be better off in the library. If I recall correctly, Miss Hasdeu should be there…’ Mr. Synapse precedes Granny down a long corridor. ‘She has studied at Oxford, so naturally she’s our English teacher, but she also teaches Romanian Language and Literature, maths and science as well as being your granddaughter’s main teacher.’
A door opens on a dark-haired woman in a dress more suited for ball dancing in the fifties than for teaching. A tiny velvet something covers her bare shoulders, but Granny shudders with the impression of cold the woman irradiates.
‘Ah, there she is. Let me introduce you to Miss Hasdeu. This is Mrs. Grey from America.’
Granny tries not to stare at the pretty teacher who smiles politely, starting on a quick resumé. I’ve seen dolls with a healthier complexion… And what strange eyes! So pale…
‘… and I absolutely believe History of Arts is complementary with the English language, and shouldn’t be separated. What is your opinion, Mrs. Grey?’
‘Oh… I agree, Miss Hasdeu. But what about Romanian?’
Miss Hasdeu nods in agreement.
Granny can see that Miss Hasdeu has not understood what she meant, so she starts again, ‘Is it considered a foreign language, or are you teaching it as a core subject, like English?’
‘Oh, I see. We don’t have many foreign students – at the moment – so your granddaughter will follow the same classes as all Romanian children of her age. English is EFL – foreign language.’
‘Hmm…’ Granny bites the inside of her cheek, looking intently at Miss Hasdeu. ‘And what about her grades? Don’t they risk to decrease?’
‘Her grades? I don’t understand? You seem wealthy enough to-’
‘Miss Hasdeu!’ The headmaster interrupts her, and throws her a deadly glance. Then he turns to Granny with a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. ‘You’ll excuse Miss Hasdeu, she has some important things to attend to before classes. Don’t you, Sanda?’
With her eyes downcast, Miss Hasdeu turns around and vanishes down the corridor, but Granny isn’t fooled. Are they supposed to pay for higher grades? No, it can’t be…
‘Now, where were we?’ Mr. Synapse takes Granny’s elbow, steering her down the hall in the opposite direction. ‘Right, we believe in multi-tasking. Karl Stoica, who you can see over there-’ he gestures out the window at a man with a long ponytail running past with a net filled with basketballs in his arms, ‘-who’s teaching Physical Education also initiates our primary students in “Introduction to Computers”. Now, shall we tour the facilities, Mrs. Grey?’ he adds proudly and rubs his hands.
‘Yes, please. If you don’t mind, I’d like to meet the other teachers.’
‘Certainly. After you, Mrs. Grey…’
They stop by the teacher’s room, which is empty a part from another extremely pale man, with long copper hair and a white top hat assorted to his immaculate smoking. White calfskin gloves and a tiny white bowtie on a black shirt with- Err… skulls? – make his look complete.
‘Cristi Vladimirescu… It will be a pleasure to have your granddaughter in Geography, Civic Education and Religion, Mrs. Grey.’
She shakes his gloved hand, forcing herself to maintain a straight face at the sight of his made up features.
Blue eyeshadow and blush. Even his full lips are covered in matte blue lipstick. Old-fashioned Granny thinks he might be gay, what with his beautiful appearance and extravagant make-up. ‘Could you please develop, Mr. Vladimirescu?’
‘Of course.’ Mr. Vladimirescu sits elegantly down on the sofa, crossing his long legs. ‘Civic Education covers everything from personal hygiene to the Constitution and manners in society and… Err… Just about everything in between.’
Granny blinks. Even his hair is more glamourous and glossier than hers have ever been, even in her glory days. ‘Ahem… I meant about religion. We are not Catholic, as I mentioned in my letter, and I would like to consider opting out of-’
‘But your child will not be enrolled automatically. Religion is now optional – a stupid law of some years ago. But do not worry, we will give you the application form for this class, it’s highly recommended that your granddaughter attends.’
Granny listens to him explain about the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Patron Saint Andrew and thus the school’s policy. She clears her throat. ‘Ahem… If I have understood correctly – it means that if she’s not enrolled automatically, she doesn’t need to opt out of-’
‘-I don’t understand why you even consider the option-’
‘It is highly recommended that she attends. I must insist,’ Mr. Synapse adds, cutting off the obsessive teacher and steering Granny out of the teacher’s room and away down the corridor. ‘Mr. Winchester is passionate about his subjects and your granddaughter will love attending his classes – all of them…’
They knock on the last door in the corridor, and a man looking uncannily like the French mime Marcel Marceau opens. All dressed in white with black details, his face assorted to the white wool of his costume, and his features accentuated in black as dark as the collar and buttons of the coat. And wearing black gloves. Of course.
‘Iulian, this is Mrs. Grey from America. Her granddaughter will be a student of yours, shortly.’
‘Bienvenue.’ Mr. Poirot exaggerates a French shrug, opening his arms and air kissing Granny on both her cheeks, making sure they don’t really touch. ‘Ahm Iulian Poirot, and Ah teach Musique, Aarr and also Frrench! Bien sûr.’
Iulian Poirot has a heavy French accent and Granny lights up. ‘Oh, art? How accurate! Je suis ravi de faire votre connaissance, Monsieur Poirot. Vous êtes français ou belge?’ (I’m so pleased to meet you. Are you French or Belgian?)
Iulian Poirot scratches his head at a loss for words. ‘Ahem… eh…’
Granny just looks at him. Surely her French can’t be that bad? She doesn’t want to consider the fact that the Marcel Marceau lookalike doesn’t really master his subject…
The tour doesn’t really get any better. Granny meets the rest of the staff, visits the classrooms, signs the paperwork and leaves with a thick folder with still more paperwork. She walks briskly to her car, carefully tripping over the iced patches on the parking lot.
‘Home schooling is definitely an option…’ she mutters to herself, throwing the folder on the seat next to her. ‘Or why not boarding school? Gaah…’
After going through some tests, Taïga starts in a class where the other students are a year older than herself. It isn’t easy to integrate class midterm like this, but Taïga is tough. She tries her best to understand what is said during the long and boring lessons, which are always followed by a lot of homework. You don’t seem to learn much at “The School of Hard Knocks”, and her new classmates are quite distant. She misses Teddy and Zoe enormously, especially on occasions like today, when her class is skating during PE. She seems to be the only one at the skating rink that afternoon who knows how to skate.
Derek… Her thoughts of him are bittersweet, knowing he’s angry with her and at the same time she’s missing him so much it almost hurts physically. How he would have laughed if he could see her now…
Karl Stoica, the PE teacher, is the only teacher who seems normal – or at least he’s the only one with a healthy complexion and standard clothing. Taïga can’t help being worried about all her extremely pale glove-wearing teachers being vampires, but Granny doesn’t seem to think so, and she knows best, doesn’t she?
‘But I know how to skate, Mr. Stoica. I can even skate backwards!’ Taïga protests when Mr. Stoica wants to help her.
The PE teacher doesn’t listen to Taïga’s protests. He says something in Romanian and just takes her hands, starting skating with her in a circle. He is supposed to teach Taïga some techniques after all, but it is he who frantically holds on to her hands.
Taïga rolls her eyes, checking surreptitiously if her classmates are watching.
OMG. It’s like dancing with a llama… She looks up at her teacher, trying to keep the bubbling laughter from erupting.
It ends up with Mr. Stoica making them both fall. Staggering to his feet, he swears under his breath. Taïga’s ankle hurts like hell and the teacher’s glasses are broken. A disaster. Her classmates are giggling, behind the teacher’s back, making Taïga blush with shame. It doesn’t get any better when Mr. Stoica starts yelling at her, accusing her for not listening and not making an effort.
Still blushing furiously, Taïga tries to say that she’s sorry but she can’t hold back the fact that it wasn’t her fault, a comment which rewards her with her first detention the very same afternoon.
Because of the heavy snow the school has run out of electricity and the canteen is lit by small flash lights. Unfortunately the stoves aren’t battery driven and the food served is cold. Taïga sits at her usual table in the corner, pushing her cold food around her plate. Self-consciously, she avoids meeting the other kids’ eyes, the episode of the ice rink still fresh in her memory. She doesn’t understand that her classmates’ glee was directed at the clumsy teacher, not at her.
A nerdy boy she recognizes from her class stops at her table. His glasses slide down his nose a bit, making him scrunch his face to push them back up again. ‘I’m Mitchell. I’m from Boston, but I live with my uncle. Can I sit here?’
She looks around at the almost empty canteen. ‘Yeah. Sure.’
‘Don’t worry about this morning. Stoica is an ass, he had it coming. Always bossing us kids around – do this, do that, run faster, jump higher…’ He stuffs a slice of cold turkey into his mouth, glancing at her. ‘Just don’t ask – my parents passed away.’ He pushes his glasses up with the back of his hand holding the fork. ‘Why don’t you eat? Don’t you like the food?’
Taïga is a little surprised on him changing the subject like that, but she doesn’t insist on Mitchell’s origins, even though she thought he was British at first. ‘Err… I think it’s cool being out of electricity, but cold mashed potatoes are disgusting!’ She wrinkles her nose.
‘You’ll get used to it. It happens all the time-’ Mitchell wolfs down his serving of mashed potatoes and gravy. ‘-and sometimes we don’t even have lights, the Head always forgets to stock batteries,’ he says between bites. ‘Good thing is you don’t have to go to school if it’s snowing too much!’
Taïga giggles, Mitchell is really talkative and his accent is new to her.
‘Hey? Why don’t we go to the winter fair together next weekend? There’s lots of stuff to do there!’
‘Just you and me?’
‘No, we’ll go with Jen and Leann too. Jen’s the blond girl right behind you.’
He rolls his paper napkin into a ball and throws it at a girl in pink, who turns around and sticks out her tongue at him.
Taïga smiles to herself. Finally she seems to have got at least one possible friend here. She pushes her cold food around with her fork, and Mitchell tut-tut’s.
‘If you’re not gonna eat, just give it to him,’ the girl in pink says with just a hint of an accent, pulling out a chair. ‘I’m Jen, I think you’re in my class, but I’ve been ill so I guess I’m new to you, too. Here, Mitchell, you can have my gravy.’
Taïga is more than happy to oblige, pushing her plate towards Mitchell who hungrily digs in, reminding her of Teddy, and thus of Derek.
She shakes her head, concentrating on Jen who’s chatting away.
Granny picks her up after detention and a talk with the teacher and the headmaster. The old witch is seething with anger, ranting the whole way back to her sister’s place about the unfairness of the whole history.
‘Can you imagine? I even had to pay for the broken glasses and they’re supposed to have insurance!’
Taïga doesn’t say much. At least she got her homework done after writing the 250 lines about not pushing her teachers and being polite. And she has finally got friends! She has to tell Granny about Mitchell from Boston, Leann from Leeds in Britain and Jen who speaks better English than their ESL teacher!
‘… so I’ve given it some thought, and I think it’s the only option really. We can’t continue like this until the end of the school year.’
‘What? We can’t do what?’
I think the best option for you is boarding school. A serious boarding school where you can get an international education, or at least an American one, so you can continue your studies at home. Eventually.’ Granny looks at her hopefully.
‘Boarding school? Does that mean I will sleep at school?’
‘Err… Yes. But you’ll make so many friends, and you’ll get back home for every vacation.’
Taïga nods to herself, fighting the tears that threaten to burst forth. ‘Granny… It’s not because you want to get rid of me, is it?
‘Of course not! How can you think I would do such a thing?’ She pulls over and stops the car, pulling her granddaughter into her arms. ‘I just don’t want to waste another year of your education, that’s all.’
They stay in the car until Taïga has calmed down enough for Granny to risk driving the short distance left home. She really must spend more time with the girl, build up her confidence again. Moving around with her mother since she was born and then being abandoned, then finding a certain amount of normality, and hopefully some new friends, only to get uprooted and being sent away far abroad is perhaps not the advised receipt for happiness and security.
When they finally get home, they find a big stray dog sleeping on the porch. Granny walks past, grumbling about people and their pets.
‘Oh, Granny, please – can I keep it?’ Taïga approaches carefully, waking the dog which jumps around her, waving the tail and trying to lick her face.
‘Well…’ Granny wrinkles her nose. ‘Ouch, what an awful smell…’ She clears her throat, keeping a safe distance. ‘First: “it” seems to like you, but that’s not reason enough to keep it. We have to try to find the owner.’
‘I’m sure he belongs to no one.’ Taïga says confidently, trying to keep the dog away from her face.
‘It wears a collar. We can always take him in for the night and call the owner in the morning. Secundo: You really shouldn’t let him lick your face like that. God knows what he’s been at. Err… I believe “it” is a “he”-’ She draws her breath. ‘-and tertio: we, I mean you, have to bathe him first. He really smells like an overflowing bin and, on top of that, I’m sure he’s got fleas.’
Taïga looks up at her grandmother, her face shining like a sun with happiness. ‘Oh, thank you, Granny! I knew you love him, too.’
‘Of course not. But we can’t just let him freeze to death on our porch, now, can we?’
The dog follows Taïga into the house, but when it comes to bathing him, things get complicated. After watching Taïga struggling and cajoling, Granny finally gets the stray into the tub with the help of coercion, a hint of magic and sheer force…
‘Check the collar for a name, please.’
Taïga picks up the discarded blue leather collar, but there is no identification whatsoever on it.
Taïga watches in silence Granny pour shampoo over the whining dog and start massaging. She’s soon just as wet as the stray, and the floor is inundated. After a while Taïga can’t hold back any more. ‘But why can’t you just get him clean with a brush of your wand?’
Granny finishes rinsing the foam off, sitting back on her heels.
‘Because this is part of his education, Taïga. He needs to learn to obey and also to trust us, to know we won’t hurt him. Look, I think he’s enjoying himself!’
Taïga isn’t so sure about that. She steps back a pace when the tetanized dog suddenly bursts into life and jumps out of the tub. He stops in a corner and vigorously shakes the water out of his fur, leaving the wall tiles wet and strewn with dog hair. Trembling and whining he turns around Taïga and Granny who with difficulty gets back onto her feet.
‘Here, take this and dry him off. I think he needs to be brushed, too.’ Granny hands Taïga one of the towels hanging on the rack, carefully closing the door after her. She stops and leans against the door. That was extenuating, even without magic… Now, she’ll just get into a dry change of clothes before starting calling around about the dog…
While Granny is in the study, trying to find the stray’s owner, Taïga takes the now clean and almost dry dog downstairs into the living room to finish grooming him in front of the warm fireplace.
‘I think I’ll call you Tramp – it suits you well… Now stay still so I can brush you, Auntie Missy will throw a fit if you run off shaking water out of your fur on her furniture!…’
‘That’s a good boy…’ The dog finally stops licking her face. Panting he seems to enjoy the warmth and getting brushed, and stays stock still, listening to the little girl talking.
But as soon as Taïga leaves the room to change into dry clothes, he gets into Tramp mod again.
When Taïga comes back, she finds a bashful dog and a furious great aunt who’s mopping the floor.
‘Uh-oh. There’s been an accident?’
Missy glares at her. ‘That dog as much as sneezes indoors and he’s out. Out. Do you understand?’
Taïga nods. ‘I’ll take him for a walk.’
‘Too late… Wait! You’re right. Maybe you should take him for a walk before he decides to poop indoors as well!’
Granny watches Taïga grow closer to the dog over the days. The gloomy house is suddenly filled with laughter and against her better judgment, she hopes that the messages she left at the vet’s and the police won’t lead to them finding the owner…
Missy, on the other hand, dislikes the stray with all her heart, but her sister persuades her to let Tramp stay until they find the owner. But the days go past without any news, and the dog settles in. Even Miezul Nopţii accepts the newcomer, which Missy takes as an utter betrayal.
Taïga loves the big scraggy stray. He’s always eagerly waiting for her, wanting to play or be hugged and rubbed. He lays at her feet when she does her homework, and listens and even seems to understand her sadness when she talks about Bigwood Falls and the friends she left there.
Wherever Taïga goes, the stray is not far behind. Like a shadow, he follows his new little mistress around. He quickly gets a hang on her schedule, waiting for her to come home and whining in front of the door several minutes before she shows up.
But having a dog is not only about playing, there are a lot of responsibilities also. Like walking him early in the morning before going to school, and then again before going to bed at night… It takes an eternity to walk around the block as Tramp stops to pee at every lamppost and every bush along the way…
Once a week Taïga goes to the library with her class. They don’t only have books but also DVD’s and computers. The Internet connection is not very reliable, depending on the weather, but it’s better than nothing. Especially as she doesn’t have any other way to access the Internet. Before starting on her assignment she wants to do something personal. She has opened a Facebook account to keep in touch with her friends back in Bigwood Falls, but her cell subscription doesn’t cover the Internet.
She knows that she’s not supposed to, they are here with her class to work after all, but she logs in anyway. It won’t take a minute to check if someone is online. By someone she means Derek, and it’s usually safe as he loathes Social Medias. Well. He doesn’t even have an account. But his brother Teddy does, even if he’s not very active…
She’s happy to see that he’s changed his profile picture, he’s grinning into the camera, taking a selfie with Derek. Or not. Derek seems to be passing behind him just when he takes the picture, giving the camera a finger. What does the caption say? Oh. They’ve been taking the yearbook pics! So that’s why Derek is all dressed up and in a bad mood. She chuckles. He hates taking pics… She likes the picture and adds lots of smileys.
There are more pictures in his album. One from a fishing trip to the falls. She tries to enlarge the picture to get a better look at Derek, but it becomes too pixelated…
The next is a selfie with both Vargas brothers. They seem so happy. Even Derek is playing around, sticking out his tongue. And what about his hair? It’s so long… but it suits him.
She frowns. But when is the picture taken? The grass is so green. Ah, they spent Thanksgiving in Florida with family…
Eagerly she goes on to the next and laughs silently at the image of Teddy striking an innocent pose – such an awful comedian! She remembers the way he used to entertain the whole class with his antics. How she misses him…
Next is Mr. Vargas, not so casually, strolling through the combined dining/living/kitchen. It says that it’s Mrs. Vargas who has taken the picture with Teddy’s new cell. Something hurts in her throat, just like before you start crying. She has spent many afternoons in that kitchen, eating the results of Mrs. Vargas sorry attempts at cooking. She would give anything for frozen fish sticks and Idahoan mashed potatoes again just to sit with the others around that table. She quickly clicks for the next picture.
She looks carefully at them all together. A real family. They are posing on the rug in front of the sofa in their small living room. She takes in the bright, warm colors Mrs. Vargas so fancied, remembering watching TV on the orange couch. They have probably propped the cell in front of the TV to be able to get them all on the picture. Mr. Vargas is crouching, holding his arm around his wife and youngest son who are smiling into the camera, patiently waiting. Mr. Vargas himself was apparently talking when the flash went off. She chuckles. He was always talking, and when he didn’t talk he hummed a tune from some old musical. Derek is standing behind them with his hands behind his back. He looks bored, posing just because he has to. She tries to blink away the burning feeling in her eyes and the image gets blurred. Better move on…
The next picture is of her and Derek crouching close together on the beach an evening in October. They had been collecting shells for an assignment at school and Teddy must have taken the picture without them knowing. The cold, autumn wind was blowing in from the Ocean chasing the clouds away and liberating the sky that the setting sun colored a warm, golden glow.
She had been shivering with cold and her wet, sandy fingers were numb from brushing sand off the shells, but there were so many nice ones so the boys had humored her and they had stayed way longer than they had intended to.
She closes her eyes for a brief moment, reveling in the warm, cuddly sensation that overwhelmed her when Derek put his arm around her shoulders and pointed to the rising moon.
She swallows. She must get a grip on herself and get to work on her assignment, but there are still a few pics left. Sniffling, she clicks to the next picture and draws her breath.
She is staring into Derek’s impossibly blue eyes. His face fills the screen and her first movement is of panic, thinking he’s on the webcam, live. But then she sees the caption; “Big bro setting up the-”
Suddenly her computer pings alive with a message, taking her off guard. Guiltily she sits up straight, her first thought of flight.
OMG! What shall I do? Log out! … C’mon C’mon C’mon… Uh-oh… Too late.
Texts? Derek has texted me?
Her first thought is of pure schadenfreude. Ha! Serves her good! Then she feels a little guilty.
‘OMG! NO! Nononono…’
‘Need some help?’ Jen inquires, peeking out from behind her screen.
Flustered, Taïga shakes her head. ‘No, I’m good…’
She quickly disconnects. Pushing back her chair, she lets out a heavy breath. Then she smiles. Derek has texted her! That must mean they are good…
‘Haven’t you got started yet, Taïga? Maybe Jen can come over and help you out?’
Startled, Taïga looks up at Miss Hasdeu. ‘Err… No, I’m good. I just have to find the site.’
Miss Hasdeu pulls out a chair and settles next to her. ‘It’s normal to be a little lost in the beginning. Let’s see… You know how to log in, don’t you? Good. Then we shall just…’
After finishing her web quest, she hurries outside with Mitchell, Jen and Leann, to play in the library gardens. They fool around in the snow for a while, making snow angels and building snowmen. Old Missy is on her way to the library to return a book and stops to check out what the boisterous kids are up to. Taïga isn’t overjoyed at the sudden appearance of her great aunt. She’s always nagging about something…
As expected Missy stops, frowning. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Uh, a snowman! You can help me if you like.’
‘Help you? Don’t you know you shouldn’t make snowmen here? In the middle of the entranceway, no less.’
‘And why not? There are lots of them over there.’
‘Don’t answer back, young lady! Or…’ Her great aunt walks into the library with a last menacing look over her shoulder.
Or what? Taïga rolls her eyes and continues the decoration of her snowman.
When Missy has returned the recipe book Granny had borrowed to learn how to cook some regional dishes, Taïga and her friends are busy having a snowball fight. Missy checks if someone is looking, then she gives her great niece’s snowman a furtive little kick.
No-one in sight, the kids are howling running off into the woods. Another kick and suddenly the snowman is completely destroyed. Panting, Missy straightens her hat and whistling softly heads home.
When Taïga returns home, she makes another snowman in the backyard. Painstakingly she dresses snow around the leftover trunk of a tree that was sawed down last fall, until it is completely hidden under the shape of the snowman.
‘This one is for Missy!’ she tells Tramp. ‘Mitch saw her demolish my snowman, you see…’ She brushes snow from her mittens.’ Ha! She can go ahead and kick this one, she’ll be surprised…’
Part I – End of Chapter 19