When Taïga is not meeting with her friends at the pool, she spends a lot of time with her little brother. She really enjoys the affection he shows her, putting his chubby arms around her and telling her he loves Tagga.
His parents are too busy to play with him and they have hired Ellen for that. But even Ellen is thankful to let his sister take over as much as possible. Taïga reads to him from his magnitude of books and has taught him several songs and rhymes. His favorite story is “The Brave Little Taylor” and Taïga has read the book so many times she knows the story by heart.
‘Once upon a time, in a country far, faaar away…’ she reads and Rowan listens with huge eyes, turning the pages and pouring over the pictures as if each time was the first.
Before the day gets too warm, they play catch or hide-and-seek. Rowan loves when she chases after him. He runs as fast as he can trying to escape her, screaming with terrified glee.
But when Taïga one day decided to surprise him by jumping out in front of him from her hiding place behind a pillar, poor Rowan got so scared he fell over and started crying.
She rapidly picked him up to try to calm him before their mother wondered about the commotion and decided to check on them. Rowan just laughed and kissed her cheek. It was a strange feeling, she felt all warm inside and at that moment she could have done anything for him. Even read the “Brave Little Taylor” story again.
They play with his trains, with puzzles and Play-Doh. But most of all Rowan loves to build castles with his construction blocks. Or rather – Taïga builds with angelic patience only to have Rowan destroy her creations…
‘Look, Rowan. Just one more over here. Put it up here… No I said – here! … Nooo…’
Taïga sighs, looking at the mess. ‘You’re hopeless, Rowan… You’re supposed to help me build something, you know that.’
Rowan is incredibly spoilt, his parents shower him in gifts. Whereas his mother is more into educational toys, his father sees to it he has everything else. That means he has a Brio wooden train but also a state of the art model railway. He has tons of multicolored books, soft cuddly toys, a xylophone and a little drum. There’s no need to point out that he prefers the drum. Leonardo stops on the threshold covering his ears.
‘Who on earth bought him the blasted toy?’ he asks, watching Ellen jump to attention and try to take away the offending instrument.
‘You did, Signore,’ she answers, obtaining a noncommittal hum for an answer.
‘Andiamo, Rowan. I’ll read you a story if you stop mistreating the drum,’ Leonardo cajoles his son, kneeling in front of him.
Taïga rolls her eyes. It’s cool that Leonardo wants to spend some quality time with his son. She has to change before going to the park for her art lesson anyway
Shasta is thrilled about her daughter being admitted to the prestigious St. Simon’s Art School in France. Leonardo has pulled some strings to please his wife and succeeded in getting Taïga private art lessons by Monte Aquila’s Signore Da Vinci. Twice a week, she goes to the park to learn the basics in painting nature. Signore Da Vinci’s real name is Pantalone, but he doesn’t believe in the percentage of success with a name like that.
‘But doesn’t your artsy name, err… Imply very high expectations?’ Taïga says. ‘I mean, with Mona Lisa and stuff.’
‘Cara bambina, what do you know about expectations? Or about fama in general?’ Signore Da Vinci gesticulates and starts on a monologue about early Hollywood stars who had their names changed to become famous.
Taïga shrugs. She’s not very sure she understands everything Signore Da Vinci is talking about, but she’s definitely sure she’s not supposed to contradict the passionate painter anymore. He is usually kind and funny, and she likes his lessons. Better not upset him further. She concentrates on rending the array of flowers on the canvas.
Cipriana and Goopy arrive to the park on Goopy’s bike. They are on their way to buy some ice cream when they catch sight of Taïga painting in a quiet corner.
Well, not so quiet. Signore Da Vinci is walking to and fro, gesticulating and talking. He has reverted completely to Italian now, feeling more at ease using his mother language. The fact that Taïga doesn’t understand a word is secondary. Like a session on YouTube, he has strayed from the initial subject of fame to the importance of keeping Mozzarella-making traditional.
Goopy stops his bike and Cipriana jumps off running the last meters. She stops next to Taïga and clears her throat. ‘Ahem.’
Taïga is busy painting, and doesn’t notice her friends approaching.
Cipriana tries again. ‘Ahem…’
‘Hey! I didn’t see you coming!’ Taïga pushes up her hat with the back of her hand holding the paintbrush.
‘You didn’t hear us either! Cosa stai dipingendo? What are you painting?’ Goopy stands on his toes, trying to see.
Signore Da Vinci stops mid-sentence, and turns around with a dramatic swirl.
‘How dare you interrupt a lesson of great art?’ he says theatrically and Taïga returns to her painting glancing at her teacher.
‘Buongiorno, Signore Pantalone,’ the two kids say in unison.
Signore Da Vinci’s astonished expression makes Taïga stifle a laugh.
He twirls his moustache and looks down his nose at the girl. Recognizing the daughter of infamous Mafioso Dante Costa and his wife Giovanna, he holds his tongue. He must think of his artistic future, which could be only a comment away from vanishing. Together with his life if he isn’t careful.
‘Cipriana Costa.’ He clears his throat. ‘Che piacere – such a pleasure.’
‘Guilhermo and I would like Taïga to meet our friends, and we thought-’
‘Ah, si. Such a good idea.’ He interrupts Cipriana. ‘Splendido!’ He kisses his fingers. The faster he gets rid of this little maffiosa, the better he will feel. ‘Our lesson is over anyway. Go and have fun.’
‘Are you sure, Signore Da Vinci?’ Taïga asks. ‘I have barely been here twenty minutes.’
‘Si, si. Run away now. I will put away all the “stuff”. Sbrigati!’
Drying his brow, he watches the girls laughing and dancing run off in Goopy’s wake towards the swings. That was a close call. Cipriana’s father, the head of the Tuscan branch of the Familia, has definitely some unfinished business with him. A few years ago he made a copy of a Vermeer painting, that personally he was very proud of accomplishing. Unfortunately it didn’t go undetected by the art experts it was supposed to lure. He sighs. Since the Girl with a Pearl Earring episode, he’s been living in constant fear of retaliation. But maybe Don Carlo has forgotten all about it? It happened way before Cipriana was born, after all. He shakes his head. No. Cosa Nostra never forgets.
Cipriana and Goopy have something exciting to tell Taïga. Talking at the same time they succeed in telling her about the Circus coming to town.
‘I’m not sure I understand.’ Taïga hesitates. She doesn’t understand why the kids are so excited to visit the circus. ‘I went there with Granny before she left, and it was in ruins since the Romans…’
Goopy interrupts her. ‘No, no! Non Anfiteatro dell’Aquila. Un circo.’ He mimes jugglers and clowns and suddenly Taïga understands.
‘Si, si! Un circo! Domani!’
Cipriana tells her that the huge striped tent is already installed, and the first performance will be given tomorrow afternoon. All the kids in Monte Aquila will be there, at least according to her.
‘Will you come?’
‘To the Circus? That’s it? Sure! But I’ll have to ask my mom first.’
The Di Grisogno mansion is situated high up in the rolling hills and Taïga loves to ride her bike downhill to the beach or the swimming pool. But today the whole family is going to the Circus in her stepfather’s limousine. It’s very luxurious, and she’s feeling special when she sees people turn their head as they pass. She’s even allowed to drink as much ice-cold soda from a little fridge as she can.
As soon as they arrive, Leonardo and Shasta send Ellen to buy tickets for the different merriments. They hold a giggling Rowan’s hands and hoist him between them up the stairs where a beautiful old carousel is installed. Taïga walks a few steps behind and watches them. It seems they have forgotten all about her…
She’s supposed to meet up not only with Cipriana and Goopy, but all their friends, too. She’s excited, and not a little nervous. What if they only speak Italian? She understands more now than in the beginning of the holidays, but still…
Suddenly she can hear her name being called out. Goopy is waving from his vantage point on one of the artistically painted wooden horses and he’s beckoning for her to come. Smiling she follows her mother up the stairs. Maybe she’ll get a ticket to ride, too.
‘Look, Taïga! I will ride the lion next!’ Goopy shouts.
Taïga laughs as Leonardo puts a wand of tickets in her hand.
‘Go and have fun with your friends. Just don’t forget to join us when the show starts, huh?’
A few minutes later she is sitting on a grey painted wooden horse. It is mounted on a golden post and when the circus music starts, the horse slowly starts moving up and down in a fluid, gallop like movement. She slides around a little on the red saddle, trying to see if her mother is watching her, but Shasta’s big designer sunglasses effectively hides her eyes.
Leonardo puts an arm around his wife’s shoulders. They are sitting on a bench where they can keep an eye on Rowan. Ellen rides the carousel too, standing next to the little boy if ever he should lose his balance and fall of the “roaring” lion he so proudly rides.
Taïga doesn’t have to worry about understanding. Cipriana and Goopy’s friends all learn English at school, and they are so excited to show Taïga their prowess with the language. An extra bonus is Laura Perry who is spending her vacation at her grandparents’ summer residence just outside Monte Aquila. She is British and she makes Taïga laugh when she fills her in on everybody who’s attending. Cipriana is a little jealous. She is the one who discovered the American girl at the pool, so she is supposed to have some privileges.
The Circus ground is swarming with children and their parents. Everybody wants to talk to and play with Taïga. Goopy keeps the boys at bay by telling everybody she’s his girlfriend.
‘… siccome sono il suo ragazzo.’
Taïga is having fun, too. She is eating gelado, watching the jugglers and magicians and learning new Italian words. And the evening show has not even started yet!
Suddenly a sturdy girl arrives. She is aiming straight for Taïga, making the other girls whisper nervously.
‘Guarda chi sta arrivando! Look who’s coming!’
‘Tanto peggio! Too bad!’
‘It’s Constanza. She’s bad news, that one. Always looking for trouble,’ Laura says. ‘Let’s go. Maybe we can see the lions from over there.’
But Constanza is too fast and they don’t have a chance to get away. Taïga freezes with her ice cream halfway to her mouth as Constanza stops a few inches from her, hands on her hips.
‘Guglielmo è mio! Non toccare! Capisce? Non toccare!’
Taïga doesn’t understand every word, but she gets the hint. She looks nervously around her, hating being the center of attention. Ice cream is melting and running down her fingers. She itches to lick it up, but she seems frozen in place, unable to do anything but blink stupidly. Toccare. Toccare. What the heck is toccare?
The girl gesticulates violently in Taïga’s face. Taken by surprise, the ice cream slips out of her hand and falls to the ground, splattering her naked toes. Cold. Sticky.
She looks up at the snickering girl, but has to stagger backwards to avoid Constanza who advances, pointing an accusing finger in her chest.
‘Ma chi credi di essere?’ A hard finger pushes her chest. Pick. ‘Ti odio!’ Pick. ‘Sono la sua futura moglie!’ Pick-pick-pick.
Like an angry woodpecker Constanza forces Taïga backwards, one step at a time, towards the edge of the fountain with the huge smiling clown in the middle.
Moglie… Moglie… What does that mean again? It’s a word she has heard Leonardo say to Shasta several times. Wife! But why is this girl talking about a wife? ‘What’s going on? I-’
‘Brutta! Ugly!’ The fat girl suddenly pushes Taïga hard in the chest, and she tumbles backwards into the fountain.
It is not very deep, more a wading surface for children, but she goes under completely anyway. Spluttering she tries to sit up, but the bottom is slippery and she falls backwards again and again.
Goopy comes running followed by his best friend Orlando and he’s furious.
‘Constanza! Adesso basta! Non avresti dovuto farlo! (You shouldn’t have done that!) Taïga è davvero simpatico.’
Constanza answers petulantly, ‘Volevo solo scherzare. (I meant it as a joke.)’
Goopy snorts and turns his back on Constanza. He jumps into the pool and reaches for Taïga. ‘Come va?’
She seizes his hand and lets him pull her out of the shallow pool. ‘I’m OK.’ She smiles a little, throwing a worried glance over his shoulder at the fuming girl who just pushed her into the water.
Goopy scrutinizes her face. ’Are you sure?’ Deciding that she’s OK, he turns back to Constanza.
Cipriana and the other girls are taking Taïga’s defense. ‘Hai fatto una cosa stupido.’
‘Va’ a quel paese!’
Constanza raises her eyebrows, looking at them in surprise. ‘Dici a me?’
Goopy pushes his way to the front. ‘Si. Lasciami in pace!’
‘Non parli sul serio, vero?’ Constanza squints at him.
‘Si. Parli sul serio… Arrivederci!’
Constanza leaves, proffering insults. ‘Stronzo! Capisci? Bastardo!’
Taïga grimaces. She swears that she’ll never make a scene like that over a boy. Not even over Derek… Everybody is watching her, waiting for her reaction. She forces a tight smile. ’Wow… Goopy’s future wife is really something!’
The other children start laughing, but a nervous silence falls on the little group when Shasta suddenly towers over them.
‘What happened? No. Don’t tell me. I can’t let you out of my sight five minutes before you do something stupid to make yourself interesting.’ She grabs Taïga’s arm and steers her away. ‘Lucky for you that Leonardo’s limousine hasn’t left yet…’
Ashamed, she lets her mother tug her along, dragging her away from her friends. From the fun.
They pass in front of Constanza who crosses her arms, a triumphant little smile playing with the corners of her thin lips. She glances over her shoulder at Goopy and Cipriana who are standing clustered together with the others, watching her disappear into the sleek car. She can’t read their expressions from this distance. Awe? Regret? Pity?
With a last instruction to the driver, Shasta walks away. Taïga leans back towards the soft calfskin, letting herself sink deep down into the plush seat. Angrily she dries water dripping from her hair onto her cheeks. Or are they tears?
Taïga prepares some bread and jam, taking the sandwich with her upstairs where she takes a shower and changes into pajamas. She’s all alone at home. Ellen is still at the Circus with the Di Grisogno’s and James is watching a movie in town as he has been given the evening off. From the bathroom window she can see the dome of the circus tent lighting up the sky. She feels a little like Cinderella. It must have been like this to watch the castle from afar…
Suddenly something catches her eye, and she stops. Fireworks! They said there would be fireworks later. The view must certainly be better from the second floor terrace. She grabs her sandwich and rushes outside. She’s not supposed to be out after nightfall, but this isn’t really outside, is it?
She settles on the railing, watching the sparkling colors on the night sky. But there’s not the usual booming. In fact, there’s no sound at all, even the crickets are silent. She watches the starry sky, but the strange lights are only to be seen in one place. Could it be what Granny calls an Aurora Borealis? When she looks closer, the lights don’t seem to be as far away as she first thought. Glittering and glimmering in the spectrum of a rainbow, they seem to hover over a point in the valley. It’s a pity she doesn’t have any binoculars. But she does have a camera. Or Ellen does. She runs back downstairs, across the Atrium and upstairs again, into Ellen’s room. She doesn’t have to search long, it is lying around on the unmade bed, waiting for her. Ellen is something of a slob, Taïga thinks, taking in the unmade bed and the clothes and underwear strewn all over the place.
She grabs the camera and rushes back to her vantage point, but to her disappointment, the beautiful lights are gone. She munches on her sandwich, inspecting the camera. It seems easy enough to use – on/off and the camera whirrs open. There’s even a zoom. Swallowing the last bite, she dries her hands on her pajamas and leans over the railing, watching the scenery on the little screen.
That’s when she sees it again. A tiny flicker, so brief she almost missed it. Without thinking, she pushes down the shutter, keeping her index finger on it. Click-click-click-click. And then silence. After a few seconds the cicadas start their rhythmical screeching, at the same time the first palm shaped firework is seen, followed by a loud bang, similar to a gunshot. The next half hour is interspersed with humming, whistling, crackling, whizzing and loud booming.
The night sky is lit up by the magic of a big firework, but Taïga isn’t watching. Her eyes are glued to the tiny screen as she scrolls through the pictures using the scroll wheel. There is definitely something, but she can’t define what. If only she had a larger screen…
Two minutes later she’s plugging in a USB cord to Leonardo’s laptop, transferring the ten pictures she has just taken.
Eight of them are blurry beyond recognition, one is really pretty -a shower of colors over one of the larger mansions in the valley.
‘Wow… this picture is good. I’ll keep it for Granny! She likes the Aurora Borealis, and this is Monte Aquila Borealis, hihi!’
But it’s the last one that has her gaping.
She enlarges it as much as she can, staring wide-eyed at the colorful blur of what seems to be a vehicle straight out of a “Star Wars” film. With a pilot.
She leans in closer and tries to distinguish the pale dark eyed figure. It’s an alien! Yes. She fiddles with the light and there it is. An alien piloting a UFO. And who seems to be looking straight at her.
Maybe Derek didn’t make up the story about his sister, after all. What if his dad really got abducted by aliens? What if they had abducted someone again? Right now? What if this is the beginning of a freaking invasion?
She must call the police. With trembling fingers, she calls 911, only to listen to a mechanical voice saying something about not attributed numbers. ‘Per favore riprova…’
The rumbling outside reaches a crescendo as the final bouquet of fireworks lights up the sky. Taïga paces back and forth. Maybe the invasion has already started? She must tell her mom. But will she believe her? She will probably think she has invented the whole thing because she was sent home… But there are the pictures! They are proof of what she saw. But she wasn’t supposed to touch Ellen’s camera. And not the laptop either… She rushes up to Ellen’s room, erasing the pictures from the camera. Without wanting to, she erases all of them – even Ellen’s pretty selfies and pictures from some beach party. She hopes Ellen won’t notice…
Derek. She must send him the pictures. His dad most certainly knows what to make out of them. If she’s lucky, they’re awake. She runs back downstairs, counting backwards on her fingers but losing track of the time zones. She imagines it must be morning on the Pacific West Coast. How stupid of her – it doesn’t matter anyway. It’s just a mail, he can open it anytime.
Quickly she opens her mail, types in Derek’s name and adds the zipped folder before pushing the send button. There. It’s done. She closes the laptop as if it burns. She has just the time to put it back before Leonardo’s Limousine slows to a halt in front of the residence…
Part I – End of Chapter 37