After a week at Easter Camp, Taïga and her class get back to Vulturu just in time for the annual Spring Fest.
After putting off the decision for far too long, Granny has finally made up her mind about Taïga’s education – her granddaughter is going to boarding school next fall. But to choose which school would suit her granddaughter best, she would have to visit them in person. So while Taïga is at school, watching the preparations for the Spring Fest, Granny calls to book her flight.
‘Yes, please. … Err… Is it because I’m flying with Aeroflot that there’s a stopover in Moskow? Because-’
The salesperson cuts her off and Granny listens while she explains the shortest route.
‘Hmpff. Well. I’d like to sit alone… What do you mean by window or aisle? I’d like window and aisle, if possible. … Nono. … Alone. What? Do I have to pay for the seat next to mine to make sure to be seated alone? … Well, then. Window. … I’d prefer midweek. … Yes, Wednesday will be fine. … I already told you – one way. … No luggage, just a little suitcase I’ll keep in the cabin. I won’t have to pay extra for it, I hope. …. Nonono, I’m not done yet. I also need a one way flight from Beijing to Cairo on Friday. … Oh, so I will arrive the day after, on Saturday morning. Early, I hope, because I’m actually going to a private school not far from Isna- … Yes, the Pyramids. … Oh. So you think Luxor will be better? Closer you say? … Uh-huh… Saturday. … Yes, that will be perfect. … Wait a minute. I will go to Paris, too. Monday will be impeccable. … Just one more thing, I have to go back to Bucharest next Wednesday. … Yes. … Yes. … Well, no I don’t. Is it stipulated somewhere that you must have the Internet? … Well, I thought so. … I don’t care what most people do. I’ll just pick up the tickets at the airport counter. … What? … But that’s certainly not my problem, Miss. I told you my circuit and you are the one who booked me on Aeroflot, Air France, Egypt Air, Nile Air and China Eastern whatnot. I’m certainly not going around to each and every counter to pick up my tickets. Do you know how to put them in an envelope? … Well then. Just do it. Thank you, goodbye.’
She hangs up, irritated at the stubborn woman. Better go and check her passport, maybe she will need visas and stuff…
After a week at Easter Camp, Taïga and her class get back to Vulturu just in time for the annual Spring Fest. The schoolyard is bustling with activity since early the same morning and the children in Clasa IV have had a hard time concentrating. They spend most time trying to get a glimpse of the happenings through the windows, until their teachers resolutely pull the blinds. It doesn’t shut out the noise of the carpenters making the finishing touches to a wooden dancefloor, though. Their hammering, shouting and even swearing make it nearly impossible to hear the teachers, so what’s the point in staying in class? They can see the Clasa IX students who are helping with the decorations and don’t have class at all. The kids in primary school are jealous of them and think it’s unfair, protesting lamely.
Finally the bell rings. Today the canteen in closed as the large building will be used for the upcoming weekend’s indoor activities. All the pupils in “Clasa pregătitoare” are free to go home at 11:30. But most of the kids stay anyway to check out the flashy installations in pink and pastel green. There’s a game area with a horse shoe court and a mechanical bull. This year there is also a trampoline that Taïga is eager to try. Jen points out the kissing booth and makes a gagging noise immediately imitated by Leann. Taïga laughs. Who in their right mind would pay for a kiss? Ugh! She joins in the gagging.
Mitchell has asked Taïga if he could talk to her about something important, so they take a seat on one of the benches. After a long awkward silence he finally blurts out that he’s interested in someone and now he is clumsily fishing for information.
Taïga can understand how he is feeling. Her heart still flutters when she thinks about Derek, just like Mitchell’s is probably fluttering when he thinks about- Who? She wonders who it might be. Could be Jen or Leann. Nah, Jen is to strong-willed for Mitch who doesn’t like to have his authority questioned, so it’s probably Leann.
She follows his gaze and suddenly she knows who it is. Teofila! Teofila from Easter Camp. Teofila with the long silver hair and nice smile. Yes. It must be Teofila…
‘So what should I do?’ he asks.
‘Do you want me to pass on a message?’
‘But Mitch! You have to ask her somehow! You’ll never know if she likes you if you don’t ask.’
‘But what if I ask her out, and, you know, she says no.’
Taïga ponders the question. ‘Well… That’s a risk I guess you’ll have to take…’
‘That’s not much of a help… I know! I could write a poem. Or sing something nice under her window.’ He starts on his favorite song, but Taïga interrupts him.
‘Err… I think just asking her might be the best option, Mitch.’
Mitchell is silent for a few seconds. Then he takes his courage in his hands and asks, ‘Ahem… And how do you… Err… Kiss?’
Taïga smiles at him. ‘Easy! Just close your eyes and pucker your mouth, like this…’ Taïga quickly mimes the action.
‘Wow, I could do that… Like this?’ Mitch mimes an elaborate movie kiss with his arms outstretched to hold an invisible partner. Taïga can’t help but giggle.
‘You’re too extra, Mitch. I guess a quick peck is safer,’ she chortles and Mitch joins in her merriment, his ears glowing fiery red.
Suddenly he stops laughing. ‘But what if she doesn’t want to kiss me?’
Taïga thinks about it. ‘Well… I guess you’ll feel it. If she wants to. Or not. But you know, I don’t think you have to worry about it. I think she’ll be happy to hold hands.’
They are silent for a while, lost in thoughts.
Suddenly Mitchell blurts out. ‘Have you ever kissed a boy?’
‘Yes, I have… I mean NO! He kind of kissed me, and…’* she lets the sentence trail.
She smiles at the memory and Mitchell feels his heart sink… Hmm… Must be that guy from Bigwood Falls she’s always rambling about…
The carpenters have finished and are laughing at Jen and Leann who happily bounce about on the nicely smelling wooden planks.
‘Taïga! Mitch! C’mon, let’s try the dance floor!’
‘Coming!’ Taïga jumps down from the bench and gestures for Mitchell to join her.
‘-but we’re not finished! I have more questions,’ Mitch says, but he follows her nevertheless.
They know they are not supposed to play there with the opening of the festivities only a couple of hours away, but the empty floor is so tempting. Taïga and Mitchell join their friends, and soon they are having fun with their classmates on the new laid flooring.
At first Taïga is rather self-conscious, copying the other kids’ simplest movements but soon the music takes over and she lets loose. She adapts what she had once learnt in her old dance class with what she can see around her, smiling with joy.
A well-dressed, extremely pale man enters the schoolyard. He stops for a little while at the edge of the dancefloor. Silently he watches the children play and dance, then he leaves without drawing attention to himself. He glances over his shoulder a last time and takes in Taïga doing a perfect pirouette in her sneakers before he enters the school building.
Toma is one of the teens helping out with the decorations and stuff. He fastens some balloons and walks over to the dancefloor.
‘Hey! Show me, Taïga!’
Taïga stops dancing and a little out of breath she asks, ‘Show you what?’
Toma looks at her from under his bangs. ‘How you just did that dancing thing!’
‘No, the hip-hop thing. I want to impress the girls tonight!’
Taïga shuffles and Toma tries his best to do the same. ‘Like this?’
Somehow he can’t seem to get in rhythm and Taïga can’t help but laugh at him. He’s so… Stiff. ‘Yeah! You’ve got it!’ she lies, not wanting to hurt his feelings.
‘Toma! Can you give us a hand over here?’
‘Sure, comin!’ Toma raises his hands above his head, and with a perfect Michael Jackson grunt, he does a toe stand, finishing with a combination swirl and pirouette. All the kids gape and laugh and clap their hands in awe.
With a wave he hurries over to his friends by the horseshoe court.
Taïga looks after his vanishing silhouette. So he can dance like Michael Jackson, but he can’t shuffle? She wonders if he did it on purpose.
‘GET OFF THE DANCE FLOOR, OR I’LL GIVE YOU ALL DETENTION!!!’
Miss Hasdeu has stepped outside and is outraged to see the brand new dance floor getting soiled. The children quickly obey their angry teacher. Scurrying away they shatter in all directions. Some kids decide to go home, but Taïga and her friends want to explore more. Tonight is reserved for the High School Ball and the festivities for the other classes and the public won’t start until the next day but most attractions are already installed and beckoning.
After walking around indoors for a while, watching their canteen take on a festive appearance, they adventure outdoors again.
‘Look!’ Leann points excitedly ahead of them.
They follow her gaze towards the dancefloor where Teofila and Alexa are holding on to each other and spinning round and round.
‘They aren’t supposed to do that,’ Jen says with a point of envy in her voice.
‘Yeah… But Miss Hasdeu is busy upstairs. We saw her,’ Mitchell adds. He can’t tear his eyes away from the two girls who laughing are grabbing each other’s arms as they turn faster and faster.
One of the carpenters is measuring and marking the edges of the dancefloor. He chuckles at the sight of the swirling girls, ‘Be careful not to fall! But you’ll have to go and play somewhere else. We’re setting up the tent now.’
Leann tugs at Jen’s arm. ‘No! Over there!’ she stabs the air with her finger towards the far corner of the schoolyard and now they all see what she is pointing at.
Some boys have succeeded in starting the bull ride. A blond and a dark haired boy are laughing and screaming while they try to stay on the back of the bucking bull. The brown-haired boy gets thrown off as they watch.
‘Poor Stefan,’ Leann says. ‘Who’s the guy still riding?’
‘It’s Mihai!’ Mitchell exclaims. ‘He’s always up to no good. Maybe we shouldn’t-’
‘C’mon, let’s check it out!’ Leann sets off in a run across the dancefloor.
Jen grabs Mitchell’s hand and drags him off in Leann’s wake, not listening to his protests at all. Taïga trails after them but stops short at the horseshoe court.
Toma and some older teens are arguing and she tries to understand what the fuss is about. She grasps that they don’t agree about the distance that should be marked out. A tall dark boy with glasses puts the steel bar they will use as mark on the ground and judges the distance.
‘It is too far, nobody will get a chance at winning.’
‘There are rules, you know. Look-’ A burly girl waves a piece of paper under his nose, ‘-it says 8 meters or 27 feet.’
‘I know there are rules, Leta.’
‘Good for you. It is not supposed to be easy or we can give away the prizes for nothing.’
‘OK. I get your point, but we are also supposed to sell tickets, and if it is too difficult nobody will buy them-’
‘-equals goodbye school trip to London…’ Adriana adds morosely. Her best friend nods in agreement.
‘I agree with Leta,’ Toma says.
Adam looks glumly at him.
‘Yeah, it’s easy!’ Toma boasts. ‘You can’t miss the target from that distance.’
‘Oh, yeah? I’m not so sure…’ Adam answers. He looks from Toma to the two horseshoe courts they have just set up.
‘Give me a horseshoe. I’ll show you the distance is doable,’ Toma says cockily, eager to impress Adriana. She hands him three heavy U-shaped objects. Weighing them in his hands he walks over to the line they’ve just etched out. He puts his right foot on the metal bar, securing it firmly into the ground with his heel. ‘I’ll just try to hit the target – like this…’
Taïga is getting bored by the discussion that she only understands bits and pieces of, but when Toma gives the game a try she decides to stay and watch. He pitches the first horseshoe, but misses.
‘Easy? Yeah. Sure…’ Adriana’s best friend scowls.
‘Shhh… I’m sure he can do this,’ Adriana says, crossing her arms and looking pointedly at Toma. She has accepted to go to the ball with him even though he’s a year younger than her and he mustn’t let her down in front of her classmates.
Toma doesn’t answer, just pitches and the horseshoe sails through the air, hitting the iron stake with a loud clink and bouncing off.
He aims… throws again… ‘Darn it! I missed again!’
‘I told you it’s too far. C’mon, Leta, lets retrace the distance,’ the dark guy says, starting to pick up the steel bar.
‘Wait a second, Adam. I’ve got one left. I’ll just try again.’ Toma makes a big show out of shaking the iron stake to confirm it’s secured.
‘Why are you doing that? You won’t get anywhere near it anyway,’ Adam sneers, glancing at the girls for approval.
Taïga has been watching, feeling sorry for him. She thinks she’ll better help him a little before he loses his face in front of his classmates…
Toma aims carefully and throws the horseshoe. Taïga concentrates on the flying object, swiftly guiding it with her hands…
The ring of metal hitting metal resonates and the horseshoe lays perfectly still in a cloud of dust.
‘Beginner’s luck. Here, try again.’ Adam hands him the two horseshoes he has been holding in his hands.
Toma throws the second one. Another hit.
He doesn’t dare look at his friends. He stares a moment at the third and last horseshoe, dries his sweating hands on his jeans and then he throws it. It sails through the air, twirls around the stake and lands with a heavy clang on top of the other two.
‘YAY! Did you see that!?!’ Toma punches the air with his fist.
Adriana’s classmates are duly impressed.
‘Wow, Toma! A perfect ringer.’
‘You’re the best!’ Proud of her boyfriend, Adriana throws herself around his neck and kisses his cheek.
Taïga tries her best to look innocent but nobody is paying her any attention.
Toma’s cell starts ringing right when Adriana hugs him. Reluctantly he lets go of her. ‘I’ll catch up with you guys later, I have to take this.’ he fishes out his cell and ambles off to get some privacy.
Taïga smiles to herself and whistling a happy tune she goes in search of her friends.
They are all gathered around the trampoline and Taïga stands in line to try. Finally it is her turn, and she walks a little hesitantly out onto the black, soft surface. The material gives way under her feet, and she bounces a little. She’s perfectly happy doing some basic up and down jumps. She lands on her bottom and is sent bouncing right back up on her feet, which makes her more confident and she tries to jump a little higher. She doesn’t see Mihai get onto the trampoline behind her. He jumps hard and sends her flying. Flailing her arms desperately to regain her balance she knows she won’t fall back onto the trampoline.
The other kids scatter when she screaming crashes to the ground. Her ankle hurts when she tries to stand up and she fights the tears. She doesn’t want to cry in front of all her schoolmates who are standing around her asking her if she is all right. Toma arrives, alerted by her scream. He picks Taïga up and carries her to a bench followed by Adriana and the other worried teens.
Leta hands him the first aid kit. ‘What happened?’ she asks kindly.
Taïga blinks and tries to answer with a normal voice, but she can’t help yelping when Toma touches her ankle.
‘Does it hurt when I do this?’ he asks, bending her foot slightly to the side.
‘I saw her,’ Jen volunteers. ‘She fell off the trampoline because of that moron Mihai-’
‘Really? Where is he?’ Adam asks, adding, ‘I’ll take care of him.’ He walks off in search for the boy.
‘I saw her ankle roll to the side when she landed, she was completely off balance,’ Jen continues in Romanian. ‘Is it broken?’
‘No. I don’t think so. But it is probably sprained.’
‘I want to go home,’ Taïga sniffles.
‘Can you stand up?’ Toma asks.
‘I think so…’ Carefully she rises from the bench, putting some weight on her foot. It hurts, but she can walk.
Adam doesn’t know what Mihai looks like, so he rounds up the only boys in sight; Stefan, Iosua and Florin, the school’s notorious blabbermouth.
‘Who pushed her?’
‘It wasn’t me! It was-’ Florin says seriously.
‘Nobody,’ Stefan interrupts quickly.
‘It was an accident!’ The other boy, Iosua adds, glaring at Florin and willing him to shut his mouth.
Florin looks at them. ‘But you were there. You saw it was Mihai who jumped onto the trampoline even though it is forbidden to be two or more. It says so on the note plastered on the wall.’
‘It was an accident,’ Stefan insists lowering his face into his palm in despair at Florins big mouth.
‘Da, he just wanted to give her some extra propulsion!’ Iosua says vehemently. ‘To make her jump higher.’
‘OK. So where is he?’ Adam says.
Stefan and Iosua look at each other and shrug. Florin points towards the trampoline where Mihai and Mitchell are animatedly discussing. ‘It’s the blond-’
But Adam is already on his way.
‘You’re so incredibly stupid!’ Mitchell says. ‘C’mon Anna, let’s go.’
‘I can beat you with my hands tied! Look! No hands!’ Mihai teases, making sure Anna is watching.
Mitchell balls his fists. ‘I don’t know what’s holding me back!’
Mihai grins. ‘My dad says it’s OK as long as I don’t start a fight, so go ahead. Hit me first.’
A strong hand grabs his shoulder. ‘I think you will have a lot to explain to your father. And to the little girl’s parents, too.’
‘She doesn’t have any parents! She lives with the crazy old lady in-’
Mitchell’s fist lands square on Mihai’s nose. Adam grabs him with his other hand and tries to keep the two boys apart. ‘Can I get some help here?’ he shouts.
Taïga is limping towards her bike when Toma catches up with her.
‘You have a cell, don’t you? Let me show you something. But you mustn’t tell anyone, OK?’
Taïga nods solemnly and follows Toma to the far side of the schoolyard where the bike rack is and where the fence is broken. The access to – or from – the forest is effectively hindered by some thorn bushes.
‘This is the only place at school where you can access the web on your cell,’ he confides. ‘Promise you won’t tell.’
‘I promise. Can I send my mom a mail?’
‘Sure. I’ll wait for you; I have something to check on the web anyway.’
Toma finishes before Taïga. He waits a little while, watching her struggle with her message. ‘Why does it take so long? Are you writing a book!?!’
‘It doesn’t work…’
‘Well, hurry up. We can’t stand around here for too long – if someone finds out about this, the place will be crowded and impossible to access.’
Taïga clicks the send button in vain. ‘I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work.’
‘It’s OK.’ Toma looks over her shoulder. ‘Can I see?’ She hands him her cell. A few seconds later he returns it to her. ‘You don’t have access to the Internet. It’s probably not included in your package. Ask your grandmother to be sure.’ He walks over to his old scooter and unlocks the padlock.
Taïga looks disillusioned at her cell and slides it into her back pocket. ‘Thanks anyway. Bye.’
Toma starts up his old scooter. ‘You shouldn’t ride your bike before you’ve seen a doctor about your ankle. I could give you a ride home, you know.’
Taïga lights up. ‘On your scooter?’
‘Yeah, I answered your Aunt’s ad in the grocery about a job. I haven’t heard anything yet, but maybe she can see me tonight?’
‘Probably. Is that why you’ve been so nice to me?’
‘Err… No. Maybe a little,’ he teases, pushing her playfully. ‘Here. Take my helmet.
It’s the first time Taïga rides a scooter, and she loves it. Toma takes a detour to please the young girl, enjoying her merry laughter behind him. She would have loved to spend hours just riding around the neighborhood, but finally Toma drives up in front of her great aunt’s house and cuts the engine.
Missy is eager to find someone to help her out with the jumble in her garden and agrees to see him immediately. They vanish into the sitting room while Taïga settles in front of her homework.
A half hour later Toma stops by the dining room, knocking on the doorjamb.
‘Wanna hear a secret?’
‘You got the job?’
‘Yeah.’ Toma grins. ‘But I’ve got another one.’
Taïga blushes when he leans in close and whispers to her, ‘I think Mitchell would like you to be his girlfriend.’
‘Nonono. You’ve got it all wrong. He’s not interested in me but in-’ She slaps her hand before her mouth. ‘Sorry. It’s a secret.’
‘I understand. Secrets must be kept,’ he says trying to stay serious. ‘I have to get ready for the ball. See you around.’
Taïga quickly puts away her homework. If she hurries, she’ll have the time to go out and play with Tramp before nightfall. She glances at her foot. The ankle is bluish and still hurts. Maybe she should wait for Granny to heal her first. She grabs her schoolbag and limps upstairs.
Granny parks the car and almost runs over Toma’s scooter. She frowns. What is a scooter doing on their parking slot? She crosses the owner at the door. A young blond man with much too long hair. He holds out his hand to introduce himself, but Granny is in a hurry and just nods curtly. She slams the door, mumbling about rude teenagers.
She intercepts her granddaughter on her way upstairs. She quickly recapitulates in her no-nonsense way, ‘… and so I’m leaving next Thursday. What do you think, Taïga?’ she asks, but does not expect to hear any objections. ‘You are unusually silent.’
Taïga crosses her arms. ‘Granny… I don’t think I want to go to boarding school anymore.’
‘That’s not for you to decide, darling child. The school here has got a reputation, and not a good one. I just want you to get a decent – No, perfect– start in life. You see, good school equals good marks.’
‘But I’m an A student, Granny! And I want to stay with you,’ she adds in a whisper.
‘I’ve already made up my mind, young lady. End of discussion.’ Granny softens a little when she sees Taïga’s expression. ‘What happened to your foot?’
She steers Taïga towards her bed and rapidly examines her ankle. ‘It is nothing some of my special elixir can’t heal. Just stay put.’ In a whirl of long skirts, she hurries downstairs.
Granny massages and bandages Taïga’s foot. The camphor smelling lotion penetrates quickly, leaving a warm sensation.
‘Is it magic, Granny?’
‘Not exactly. Just herbs and some camphor. But it will surely take care of the swelling.’ She sits down next to her granddaughter. ‘Let’s have a look on that Internet of yours…’
Taïga quickly gets her iPad and sitting close to Granny on the bed, she turns it on and hands it to her grandmother.
Granny fumbles a little with the device. ‘Can you get a map on it? A world map?’
‘Sure.’ Taïga is happy to show how it works, and deftly she pulls up a map.
Granny takes the tablet and points to where they live. ‘This is Transylvania.’ She squints a little, ‘Vulturu is so small you can’t see it, but it’s here… Somewhere… Well, China is far, far away from Romania. As I’m flying with Aeroflot, it will take me about fifteen hours to get there, with a four hour stop in Moscow.’ She shows where Moscow in Russia is on the map.
‘Will you take pictures, Granny?’
‘Of course I will. Lots of pictures. Now, let’s see… I will then fly to Egypt, to Luxor…’
Part I – End of Chapter 28