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 gapes. 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 have a housekeeper, but then again I…‘ She disappears towards the house, happily chatting and carrying the umbrella Granny had handed her.
Granny sighs. ‘Here, Taïga, your rucksack. Take your bike inside the garden, and come back and help me with the rest…’
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, ominously nicknamed “School of Hard Knocks”…
After nervously pacing the waiting room, Granny has taken a seat and is now impatiently waiting for the headmaster to show up. She reads the school’s words of wisdom nicely framed on the wall opposite her.
“Learn from your mistakes”
“You can learn more common sense from the School of Hard Knocks, than from any university”
“Streetwise is smart”
“Learn your lesson the hard way”
Geez… I hope it’s just someone joking… But Missy said they’ve nicknamed the school “School of Hard Knocks”… She shakes her head, refusing to judge before she’s met the headmaster. Talking about whom. Already 3:15… If the headmaster isn’t on time, how can he expect the pupils to be? He’d better hurry, these wallpapers are so hideous I’m starting to get a migraine…
Finally the headmaster comes out of his office to greet her.
‘… 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…’ 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?
‘Let me introduce you to Miss Hasdeu. 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.’
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? Is it considered a foreign language, or are you teaching it as a core subject, like English?’
Miss Hasdeu nods in agreement. 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.’
‘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 reach his eyes. ‘You’ll excuse Miss Holden, she has some important things to attend to before classes. Haven’t you, Sanda?’
With her eyes downcast, she turns around and vanishes down the corridor.
‘Now, where were we? Yes, we believe in multi-tasking. Karl Stoica who’s teaching Physical Education also initiates our primary students in “Introduction to Computers”,’ Mr. Synapse adds proudly and rubs his hands, ‘Shall we tour the facilities, Mrs. Grey?’
‘Yes, please. If you don’t mind, I’d like to meet the other teachers.’
‘Certainly. After you, Mrs. Grey…’
The first teacher Granny meets is another extremely pale man, with long copper hair and a top hat.
‘Cristi Vladimirescu… It will be a pleasure to have your granddaughter in Geography, Civic Education and Religion, Mrs. Grey.’
She shakes his gloved hand, ‘Could you please develop, Mr. Vladimirescu ?’
‘Of course. Civic Education covers everything from personal hygiene to the Constitution and manners in society and err… just about everything in between.’
Granny blinks. ‘Err… 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. We will give you the application form for this class, it’s highly recommended that your granddaughter attends.’ She listens to him explain about the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Patron Saint Andrew and thus the school’s policy.
Granny 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-’
‘Err… It is highly recommended that she attends. I must insist,’ Mr. Synapse adds, steering her 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.
‘Iulian, this is Mrs. Grey from America. Her granddaughter will be a student of yours, shortly.’
‘Ahm Iulian Poirot, and Ah teach Musique, Aarr and also French!’
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. Is my French really that bad?
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… Or why not boarding school…
After going through some tests, Taïga starts in Clasa III, even though she’s only eight and the other pupils 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. Taïga’s ankle hurts like hell and the teacher’s glasses are broken. A disaster. It doesn’t get any better when he starts yelling at her, accusing her for not listening and not making an effort.
Blushing, 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…
A young boy she recognizes from her class stops at her table. ‘I’m Mitchell. I’m from Boston, but I live with my uncle. Can I sit here?’
Taïga looks around at the almost empty canteen. ‘Yeah. Sure.’
‘Just don’t ask – my parents passed away. Why don’t you eat? Don’t you like the food?’
Taïga is a little surprised, but doesn’t insist on Mitchell’s origins. ‘Err… I think it’s cool being out of electricity, but cold mashed potatoes are disgusting!’ Taïga grimaces.
‘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 light, 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.
‘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. She’s seething with anger, ranting the whole way back 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 250 lines about not pushing her teachers and being polite.
‘… 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. ‘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 to her sister’s home. She really must spend more time with the girl, build up her confidence again. First moving around with her mother since she was born and then being abandoned by her, finding a certain amount of normality and friends only to get uprooted and being sent away far abroad is not a perfect receipt for happiness and security.
When they finally get home, they find a stray dog sleeping on the porch.
‘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 him. 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.
‘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…
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 where they don’t only have books but also a couple of computers. She logs in and before starting on her homework, checks if someone she knows is online. By someone she means Derek, and it’s usually safe as he loathes Social Medias.
Wonder if he’s online… YES!!! No! What shall I do? Log out!… C’mon… Uh-oh… Too late.
Derek: ‘Hi Taïga! What’s up? You haven’t answered my texts.’
Texts? He’s written to me? Taïga: ‘Haven’t got them. 😮 Too many mountains I guess. And my iPad was totally wrecked in the fire. 😦 Granny’s promised me a new one for X-mas though.’
Derek: ‘Yeah, you lost a lot in the fire. 😦 So what are you doing?’
Taïga: ‘I’m in the library right now, I’m supposed to do some research on the founders of Vulturu.’
Derek: ‘So how’s school? Any new friends?’
Taïga: ‘This town sucks, but school is OK, I guess. Granny keeps talking about boarding school. You know what? I’ve got a dog! His name is Tramp, and I found him sleeping on the porch!’
Derek: ‘Lucky you! ☺ I got news too – I’m receiver on the team!!’
Taïga: ‘Wow! Raah team go!’
Derek: ‘You’d make a fantastic cheerleader!’
Taïga: ‘You bet!’
Derek: ‘BTW, talking about cheerleaders – Serena fell and sprained her ankle on our last match.’
Ha! Serves her good! Taïga: ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
Derek: ‘Yeah. So she can’t make the tryouts for flyer.’
The ice is finally broken, and even though they avoid talking about the last time they saw each other, they continue chatting for quite a while, promising to keep in touch…
After finishing her web quest, she hurries to meet up with Mitchell, Jen and Leann 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 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…
‘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?’
‘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 comes back outside, Taïga and her friends are busy having a snowball fight. Missy checks if someone is looking…
… then she completely destroys the snowman Taïga just made.
No one seems to pay attention to the grumpy old woman, who grumbling leaves the library…
When Taïga gets 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’s completely hidden under the shape of the snowman.
This one is for Missy! Ha! Go ahead and kick it…
Part I – End of Chapter 16