Taïga usually has lunch in the kitchen with Ellen and Rowan. Shasta doesn’t believe in having her peace and quiet disturbed by children, even if they are her own. Lunch is for gossiping with her friends, and when she stays at home, her cell is never far. The gossip doesn’t stop because she has decided to have her Ceasar salad at home for once.
As usual Ellen brings Rowan for a kiss before he is put to bed for the afternoon siesta. She hugs her son, and kisses his cheek, being careful he doesn’t grab her pearls. She sends him yet another kiss, and waves, before turning her attention towards her daughter.
‘So, are you going to meet with your…’ Shasta frowns, reading a text she just received before putting her cell back. ‘Err, friends?’
‘Yes. I’ll meet them at the fountain.’
‘In town? Don’t take your bike, it will probably get stolen. Then again not, if you’re hanging with your usual bunch…’
‘Maybe you should wait for Rowan to wake up and go with him and Ellen to the beach this afternoon.’
‘But I have already promised Giovanna and Goopy. I can go to the beach with Ellen and Rowan tomorrow.’
‘Nonono… It’s just that Goopy character. His parents are… Well, never mind. Go ahead. Have fun…’ She picks at the salad the Butler just put in front of her and checks her cell again. ‘We’re having dinner at Pizza del Monty tonight! Don’t be late.’
Taïga sets out on the trek uphill to the old city. It doesn’t take long before she is high enough to see the roof of the Di Grisogno mansion. She stops in the shade of some pines and takes in the view. The blue, glittering surface of the Mediterranean stretches as far as she can see. She regrets not having brought a bottle of water. She hopes her friends have brought some money so they can buy something to drink. She licks her dry lips. The air is hot and still. It smells of dry grass and something else… Thyme, maybe. And of pine needles. She can hear the hum of cars in the distance through the noise of the cicadas. A faint rustle in the parched grass makes her hurry up. With this hot weather there are lots of lizards but also snakes.
She follows the path winding upwards until she comes to the old graveyard. Granny has told her there is always water at a cemetery for the flowers people bring there. She pushes the wrought iron gates and follows the path of newly raked gravel deeper into the peaceful resting place. She looks around her and sees a tap mounted on a wall, with a green garden hose attached to it. She fiddles a little with the joint, and the hose disengages, a thin trickle of water splashing her feet. She drinks directly from the tap, first in her cupped hands, then she bends forward and lets the fresh water splash over her face.
Refreshed, she arrives at one of the lesser gates. It is huge and old, the large opening gives shelter from the sun and it is relatively cool under the massive arch. Her eyes are blinded from the sunlight and the darkness under the archway seems almost impenetrable at first. It is cool, and smells of stones and dust and the peculiar smell she will always associate with Italian towns – gasoline, flowers and newly baked bread.
Her friends are waiting for her at the fountain. Goopy explains excitedly, ‘It’s actually a wishing-well.’
Taïga doesn’t believe him. ‘A wishing well? A real wishing well?’
Goopy nods. ‘Si! É vero! It’s true! Mi stai dando del bugiardo?’
‘What?’ Taïga doesn’t understand.
‘Are you calling me a liar?’ he translates.
‘Of course not!’
‘Forza! Come on. I’ll show you!’
They walk up the stairs and stops in front of the basin. Water is jetted from the center towards the corners in a modern artful way. In the middle is a square, empty surface that looks like something is missing. Taïga doesn’t think the fountain looks like as a wishing well at all.
‘What am I supposed to do now?’
‘Just throw in some money and make a wish. Buona fortuna! Good luck!’
‘I don’t have any money.’
‘Giovanna fishes out fifty cents from her pocket. ‘Here.’
‘Eh… You must close your eyes,’ Goopy says.
Taïga does as she’s been told. Nothing happens. She opens her eyes again. Goopy looks expectantly at her. ‘Well?’
‘Non importa – It doesn’t matter… You know, sometimes you have to wait a while for the wish to come true…‘
‘Sure…’ They stand a while staring at the pouring water.
‘Are you sure it is a wishing well?’ Taïga asks. ‘There is no money in it.’
Goopy nods. ‘Of course it is. But it has to be cleaned sometimes…’
He squats at the edge of the basin, scrutinizing the fond. The girls sit next to him. Taïga takes off a flip-flop and dips her foot in the fresh water. She could sit like this forever with the water caressing her toes. She glances at Giovanna who is unusually silent. She is lying on her side, not caring about her beautiful silk dress. Dipping her hand into the water she makes handprints on the warm limestone, watching them dry almost instantly.
Suddenly Goopy breaks the silence. ‘Guardare! Lì!’ He points to something glimmering on the bottom.
Taïga squints, but the nearby jets of water makes it difficult to see anything. She is just about to take off her second shoe when an angry voice followed by clattering heels make her startle.
‘Che stai facendo!?! What are you doing!?!’
A middle aged woman with a severe bun and glasses is looking at them from the other side of the fountain. They scramble to their feet. Taïga almost loses her shoes in the water in her haste to stand up.
‘Niente, Signorina Esposito! We were just showing our American friend the wishing well,’ Goopy answers. Turning to Taïga he adds, ‘Signorina Esposito is our teacher, you see.’
‘Well. You are not supposed to play in the fountain anyway. Off you go.’
Taïga doesn’t understand what she is saying, but the gestures are clear. The strict lady wants them to leave.
She watches them hurry down the stairs with her arms crossed. The three of them set off in a run across the piazza, Goopy leading. He runs backwards a few paces.
‘The park or the… park?’
‘The park!’ the girls shout in unison.
There are lots of kids in the park. Small kids. Toddlers. Accompanied by their parents and grandparents who help them up the old slide they glide down screaming and laughing only to rush back to the steep stairs to start all over again and again.
The small kids don’t deter Goopy. He patiently queues and when it is his turn, he slides down on his stomach.
Taïga and Cipriana prefer watching Goopy do his thing– sliding down that rusty device would surely finish off Giovanna’s dress…
It is too funny just watching the little kids’ expressions when Goopy slides down on his stomach, backwards, on his knees. But when he decides to run up the slide in the wrong direction, an angry dad chases him from there.
‘Ma perchè? Tocca a me! It’s my turn!’
‘Si, but you are supposed to use the ladder.’ The father insists.
Goopy shrugs. ‘Scusa.’
They continue to the swings. The girls prefer the old swings that seem as antique as the columns but at least the seats aren’t rusty!
‘Tocca a me! It’s my turn!’ Goopy beats Cipriana to the first swing that is free.
‘No! Tocca a me!’ Cipriana lisps, shaking the chain.
‘OK.’ He stands back, watching Cipriana swing higher and higher. The child using the other swing jumps off and Taïga looks at Goopy who shrugs, letting her take it. ‘Go ahead…’
A few minutes later he is fed up. ‘Che barba. I’m bored…’ He stifles a yawn. ‘E ho fame – I’m hungry!’
‘Si… Ho sete,’ Taïga says in hesitating Italian. ‘I’m thirsty,’ she points out in case they didn’t understand.
‘Dove ti piacerebbe andare? Where would you like to go?’ Goopy asks.
‘Home,’ Giovanna lisps. Taïga and Goopy stares at her.
‘What? It hurts too much.’ Still swinging high she grins, showing off her teeth.
Taïga is awed. Giovanna has braces. ‘When did you get these?’ she asks.
‘This morning. And it hurts real much.’
‘My Granny always says you have to suffer to be beautiful,’ Taïga says.
‘Yeah. Mine, too.’ Goopy adds and the girls look at him. ‘I mean, she’s always saying stuff like that.’ He shrugs.
‘Che ora fai?’ Taïga suddenly remembers that she is supposed to be somewhere at seven.
‘Faccio le sette,’ Goopy says, checking his watch.
‘Sette what?’ Taïga asks, a little irritated at not having learnt the numbers yet.
Taïga pales. ‘I’m supposed to meet up with my family at a restaurant at seven…’
‘Pizzeria Spera? Santa Lucia? Monty? Di Valle? Da-’
‘Monty! I’m sure Mom said Monty. But I don’t know how to get there…’
‘I’ll take you. They have the best pizza in town!’
Taïga jumps off the swing and starts running. ‘Last man to the pizza place is a nerd!’
‘A domani!’ Cipriana shouts after them.
‘Ciao!’ Goopy catches up with her. ‘Che cosa? What is a nerd?’
‘Never mind! Andiamo!’
They run through the streets bathed in the golden evening sunshine. Pizza del Monty is situated on the piazza with overcrowded tables surrounding an old-fashioned fountain.
‘Can you see them?’
‘No… I guess they’re eating inside.’
Goopy doesn’t hesitate. He weaves his way around the tables, closely followed by Taïga.
The Di Grisogno’s are seated just inside one of the archways, in front of the counter. Her mother sees her immediately and a slight frown creases her impeccably made up face.
‘Uh-oh.’ Taïga stops. What if her mother is really angry, like at the circus the other day. She advances cautiously towards the table. Leonardo is seated with his back to the door, so are Ellen and Rowan.
‘You are late.’ The words both sound and feel like a whip.
‘I’m sorry, mom.’
‘We didn’t get a table outside because we waited for you…’ She looks at her daughter with reproach in her grey eyes.
Taïga squirms. She hates this guilty feeling. Her mother’s cool glare washes over her, taking in her crumpled clothes and dusty legs. Her eyes wander to Goopy, giving him the same head-to-toe and back up to his head treatment.
‘I’m Giovanni GilsCarbo, Signora Di Grisogno.’ He reaches out his hand but Shasta just looks at it, dismissing the poor boy.
‘Can Goopy stay for dinner?’ Taïga blurts out. She doesn’t know where that came from and she almost slaps her hand over her mouth.
‘Can he? We were at the park and he showed me how to get here and I would never have found the restaurant if he hadn’t helped me-’
Shasta raises a hand to stop her daughter’s blabbering. She glances at her husband for help, but he is busy on the phone.
‘All right.’ To Taïga’s astonishment, she gives in. ‘But go and wash your hands first. Both of you… With soap!’ she adds after them.
A waiter quickly adds a place setting for Goopy, taking their order for drinks. Taïga can’t read Italian so she just looks at the pictures and orders a red fruit cocktail.
Goopy scans the menu. ‘Can I order what I want?’
‘Yes. But nothing with alcohol, of course,’ Ellen says drily.
He stares at her across the table as if she was crazy, not getting her sense of humor. ‘Avrò un ice tea, per favore. Pesca e molto ghiaccio. An ice tea peach with lots of ice,’ he explains.
‘Pesca! Pesca!’ Rowan shouts with glee, clapping his hands.
‘What? Tuo fratello parla italiano?’
‘Well. He doesn’t really talk – yet. But I guess he understands Italian as well as English. His dad is Italian after all,’ Taïga volunteers, secretly jealous of Rowan who will grow up bilingual.
The waiter brings them their drinks and big pizza plates. Goopy reaches out with his to Rowan who drinks from the straw and frowns.
‘What? Is it not good?’
But Rowan is looking at something behind them with huge astonished eyes. Ellen is looking, too, but she is blushing.
Taïga turns around, but there is only the pizzaiolo preparing the dough. He smiles and winks at Ellen who turns a deeper shade of beetroot and squirms in her new designer dress, courtesy of the Di Grisognos’s.
‘Is he flirting with Ellen?’ she whispers to Goopy, who turns his head without letting go of his straw.
‘Gabriele is flirting with all the pretty girls. I will, too, when I grow up.’
Taïga chuckles, sipping at her drink. ‘It won’t surprise me,’ she says.
Then her eyes widen as the young man starts tossing the dough from one hand to the other. She taps her mother’s arm to get her attention,
‘Mom! Can we go and watch the pizza chef? Please…’
Shasta throws her daughter a quick irritated glance before returning her attention to her husband who is in a romantic mood.
‘Si, si. Go and watch,’ Leonardo says. ‘And you can order at the counter if you want.’ He returns his attention to his beautiful wife, leaning forward and whispering something.
Goopy is already waiting for her in front of the counter, gesturing towards the pizza chef as if it was his place.
‘Cosa desideri?’ the pizzaiolo asks and Goopy answers immediately.
‘Una Margherita e la mia amica vuole un Marinara con molti gamberetti.’
‘A Marinara with extra shrimp?’ the pizzaiolo asks in English and Taïga nods.
‘Yes, please. And could you toss it in the air?’
‘Naturalmente!’ He winks at her and starts flatten the dough, slapping it with the flat of his hand, pressing it outward all the while rotating it on the marble surface. He looks up at her and smiles, his brown eyes laughing at her rapt attention. He lifts the now circular dough and slaps it from one muscular forearm to the other before suddenly lifting it and tossing it in the air.
‘Ta da!’ Goopy singsongs like a master of ceremony but Taïga doesn’t notice him, she is mesmerized by the dexterity of the pizzaiolo.
Shading her eyes against the string of multicolored lights she watches the dough spin high in the air, almost touching the white stucco ceiling.
The pizzaiolo catches the dough on his fingertips, sending it spinning again. He throws a glance at Ellen who rearranges her hair self-consciously.
Posing the dough, he quickly spreads some tomato sauce on it with a spoon and then sprinkles the toppings all over the surface.
‘Is she your sorella – sister?’ he asks Taïga, nodding towards their table.
‘No, she’s our au pair. Her name is Ellen and she’s from Denmark.’
Gabriele glances at their table again, catching Ellen’s eye. Then he starts all over again with Goopy’s pizza. Kneading, slapping, tossing and spinning. The pizzas are then shoved into the wood fired oven with the help of a wooden shovel with a long handle.
Taïga sighs. She didn’t know it could be so much fun baking a pizza. She can’t wait to tell Granny. She doubts her grandmother will let her try the tossing part, though.
The setting sun colors the sky a pale pink, painting the whole town in a rosy glow. When the Di Grisogno’s leave the restaurant, it is already dark outside. They walk through the lively streets to where their car is parked and Leonardo drives slowly out through the old gates.
He takes a detour home, passing the famous Roman amphitheater.
‘…so I guess you didn’t know that Tuscany was known as Etruria? The city walls of Monte Aquila are Medieval, but the foundations date from Etruscan times, around the 6th century B.C.E., when the first city was built high on the cliff. Then it became Roman, and Anfiteatro dell’Aquila was built to copy the famous Colosseum in Rome. It was funded by Marcus Hortensius Aquila who was also a Senator in Rome and my ancestor. It held around 10,000 spectators, not even half as much as the Colosseum, but the entertainment was probably good because the whole region came for the gladiator games and public executions…’
Taïga listens to Leonardo in awe, watching the boring ruins suddenly come alive in her mind. That night she has nightmares of gladiators and exotic animals being put to death in the amphitheater.
The next day the whole family goes to the beach. Not the usual one, but the posh private beach with a wonderful view over the antique Aqueduct. Taïga is happy to find Cipriana who is there with her parents and younger siblings. To their surprise Goopy arrives in a run.
‘Who are you here with?’ she asks, knowing children are not allowed alone.
He doesn’t answer, just points his finger at a girl just coming out from the changing cubicles.
‘Constanza?’ Taïga looks at the chubby girl who had pushed her in the fountain.
‘Sì. Her parents payed for me so I guess we’re stuck with her today,’ he mutters, half in Italian, half in English. Taïga gets the gist of what he is meaning. Whatever. As long as Constanza is acting in a civilized manner…
Suddenly he pushes her and sets off. ‘Last in the water!’ Taïga and Cipriana rushes after him.
‘Look!’ Taïga hollers and Goopy stops. ‘It’s the pizza chef!’ she hollers again, jumping up on Goopy’s back. The poor boy is taken by surprise and almost tumbles and falls before he regains his balance.
She waves to Gabriele who is looking their way. ‘I’m sure he’s looking for Ellen,’ she says over her shoulder to Cipriana who comes running behind them. ‘They are falling in love, you see.’
‘They are not,’ Goopy says indignantly. ‘Gabriele ha la parola così facile. Conosce tutte le battute da rimorchio.’
‘Sì. He is a smooth operator – he knows all the pick-up lines,’ Cipriana translates.
‘And now I am taking you into the sea!’ Goopy says and sets off in a stuttering run with Taïga still on his back.
Gabriele waves to the boisterous children. If the little green eyed girl is here, the au pair girl can’t be far.
True enough, the extremely pale Danish au pair is lying on her back supported on her elbows watching her protégé a bit further away. The little boy is playing in the sand, examining a really nice sandcastle. There is no doubt what the little one’s intentions are and he wonders how long the sandcastle has left before getting completely destroyed…
‘Ciao, Ellen. Come vai?’
Startled Ellen looks up at the muscular young man shading her. How come he knows her name? She draws in her breath when she recognizes the flirty pizzaiolo from the night before.
‘Ciao,’ she gasps.
‘Mi chiamo Gabriele. I saw you in my grandfather’s restaurant yesterday.’
She just nods.
‘Smoke?’ he asks her, waving with a cigarette and making the gesture of lighting it with his other hand.
‘No. I mean yes. At least I have a lighter in here somewhere.’
She turns onto her stomach and fumbles in her bag for a lighter, throwing a quick glance at her employers installed in comfortable lounge chairs on the deck. That is all the encouragement Gabriele needs. He sits down next to her on her towel and lights his cigarette. He draws in the smoke and keeps it a little while, scrutinizing the pretty Danish au pair behind his dark glasses.
She’s is rather short, and very slender, bordering on boyish. Not at all his usual, curvy type. She looks very young, but if she is an au pair she must be at least eighteen. And her eyes are incredible. Slightly slanted and blue. Or grey? He looks at her over the rim of his sunglasses. Blue they are.
‘Hai degli occhi belli,’ he says and she blushes, batting her eyelashes self-consciously. He raises an eyebrow. ‘Parli Italiano?’
‘Sì, un po’. I took Italian instead of French at high school.’
‘Che tipo di musica ti piace? What kind of music do you like?’ He nods to her iPod and she hands him an earplug.
They are soon chatting animatedly. Ellen is blushing and giggling at his jokes and almost forgets about Rowan.
Shasta is watching them from her prime position on the deck. Ellen has made sure Rowan is coated in sun lotion and she has kept him by her side since they arrived at the beach, being very professional. But now she is being chatted up by some beach bum and Shasta is fuming. They are not paying her to flirt with the locals.
Why doesn’t Leonardo say something? She glances at her husband but he seems to be sleeping.
She returns her attention to the happenings on the beach. What could she do to make the thick Italian leave? Her gaze moves to Taïga and her band of friends. They seem to have the time of their life. Just as Ellen. And even Rowan is busy, circling the sand castle and carefully removing the small flags, one by one with his chubby hands.
‘Ellen!’ she calls out.
‘Take some pictures of Rowan. Please.’ She adds a polite “please”, but it isn’t a request as much as a direct order. Satisfied she watches Ellen roam around for the camera.
‘I’m sorry, my employer is a little…’
Ellen smiles. ‘I think you’ve got it!’
‘Let me take the pictures, bella.’ Gabriele says, smoothly standing up and reaching out his hand. With her hand firmly in his, they pick up Rowan before he destroys the sand castle.
‘Dov’è tua sorella?’ he asks the little boy who looks around him and points at a group of children that comes running.
Gabriele stops them holding his hand up.
‘Time for pictures!’
‘Try to stand a little closer, prego!’ he directs Ellen, Taïga and Rowan. Goopy is making funny faces, making it almost impossible for Taïga and Rowan not to look at him.
‘What do you think?’ Gabriele holds out the camera for them to check. The picture has turned out really well, even though Rowan was too busy watching Goopy to look into the camera.
Gabriele then continues taking lots of pictures of them all – of Taïga and her friends, of Rowan and Ellen, of Rowan alone and then some selfies of himself and Ellen.
As soon as the photo shooting is done, the children rush back to the water. The Mediterranean Sea is not as cold as the North Pacific or even the Red Lake in Romania, but when you have spent some time in the sun on the beach, it feels like it’s frozen nevertheless. Laura Perry has joined them and her grandmother resolutely walks out into the water as if it was her usual hot tub.
‘She’s so British,’ Laura says. ‘She starts swimming as soon as the ice breaks.’
‘There’s no ice in our sea,’ Cipriana says, splashing some water on the pale redheaded girl.
That is the signal to a regular splashing contest.
Constanza keeps her distance, urging them to stop.
Goopy looks at her, then he walks back a few paces and rushes into the water in the middle of the girls and jumps high, splashing them all. Constanza, too. Satisfied he struggles to his feet, intending to start all over again.
Laura backs a few paces to give way to Gabriele who suddenly walks out into the water and picks Goopy up. She is surprised to see how easily he hauls their surprised friend up over his shoulder.
Gabriele turns the protesting boy upside down and tickles him until he screams for mercy.
‘Lasciame andare! Let me go! Per piacere! Fammi scendere! Smettila!’
But Gabriele holds him in a steel grip. ‘What shall we do with him?’ he asks Ellen.
‘Promise you won’t splash the girls again?’ she demands.
‘Sì! Sí! Promesso!’
Gabriele laughs and tickles Goopy a little more. ‘Your turn next!’ he jokes, smiling broadly at Ellen who answers something inaudible. He walks out a little deeper and throws Goopy into the sea.
‘Mio turno! Mio! Mio!’ Rowan shouts. The little boy is jumping up and down, clapping his hands excitedly. Goopy splutters, and joins him in claiming Gabriele’s attention.
‘Di nouvo! Prego! Again!’
‘I think it is Rowan’s turn,’ Gabriele says and bends down in front of the little boy. ‘Are you ready to fly?’ he asks in Italian and Rowan nods wide-eyed at him.
Shasta is annoyed. She had hoped that the young man would have understood the hint and left Ellen alone, but instead she watches him join them all in fun water games. Even Rowan seems to like being thrust into the air and caught again by Gabriele’s strong arms. Ellen looks like she wouldn’t mind being held either…
Goopy is also jumping up and down, wanting Gabriele to throw him into the water again. The girls want to play, too, and it is a chorus of eager voices begging Gabriele to play with them.
‘Prego, è il mio turno!
Gabriele finally poses a protesting Rowan on the ground for Ellen to take over, and she tries to make him join her in the shallow water. He stops as soon as the first lazy wave hits his feet, going up on tiptoes and gasping at the surprise of the cold water.
Gabriele is caught up in the games. One after the other he picks the kids up and swirls them round in an arc before letting go and sending them flying into the water.
Even the stout Constanza finds herself airborne and screaming with glee. Laura’s grandmother, Mrs. Russo, is watching from a distance, looking a little worried.
Gabriele smiles at her. ‘Stai aspettando il tuo turno, Signora?’
‘Goodness, no. I think the charming young lady over there is a rather better prospect…’ She nods towards Ellen.
Gabriele turns towards her. ‘Now it is your turn, bella! Finalmente!’
He sets after her, catching her after only a few meters. He scoops her up in his arms and carries her screaming into the water…
They stay at the beach until late afternoon. Leonardo has to meet someone over drinks to discuss a business matter so they have to leave. Shasta would like to join him, but she is a mess after the day at the seaside, and has to clean up first. Leonardo firmly tells her it would be too late and drops them off at home.
James, the butler, is busy in the kitchen preparing an Osso Bucco with handmade linguine for dinner. He has a message from Granny. She wants Taïga to call her back as soon as she can.
Taïga uses the telephone in the living room. The number is programmed, so it is easy to place an international call.
‘Granny! … I miss you, too, but it’s great here! I think I want to stay forever! … Do I really have to go to boarding school? I could go to school here… But the school here is good… No. Mom told me so… No, she didn’t exactly say I could go to school here. But she said it’s good… And I have nice friends, and the food is the best ever! … What? … Explain again… Yes… Yes… Cowplant? … Yes, I remember what it looks like. It was on the mantelpiece at the Cove, and you sent it to Missy’s so I wouldn’t touch it, right? A little black metal cow on a rod… OK. A stem… At the museum? … I can’t hear you! … Hello? … Darn it!’
The communication is cut off but the phone buzzes again almost immediately. If Granny calls back so fast this cowplant thing must be important.
‘… and it’s vital that you look it up closely so you can describe it, dear. There is a test…’ Taïga listens carefully to Granny’s explanations and after a little small talk her grandmother asks to talk to Shasta.
‘Mom! Granny wants to talk to you! She’s asking where you hung my ballet portrait…’
Shasta was just trying on a new dress and is not happy to be disturbed. She finishes the conversation with her mother more than a little annoyed. Granny is at least a thousand kilometers away and she still finds a way to meddle with her life, even if this time it is something as trivial as decoration. She takes the huge black and white photo of Taïga dancing the tooth fairy in Seattle that has been stored against the bookshelf since she unwrapped it and puts it against the wall behind a door. At least like this it is not ostensible and in everyone’s sight. Maybe everybody will stop talking about it now…
She decides to ask Leonardo if they could go for late drinks and maybe to the movies tonight. It is really a pity not to have the opportunity to show off her new Erdem dress. But maybe it is too early to wear it? It might look a little autumnal with its ¾ sleeves and beautiful flower applications in musty fall colors. She passes her hand on the intricate black lace covering her slender hips. Definitely something to keep in store for late September, early October. They could still go, she has the yellow Adam Lippes to wear. Nobody saw it last night as they ate indoors…
She leaves the room, closing the door behind her. The soft swishing of the painting sliding to the floor follows her.
Gaah. She returns and secures it behind a flower pot instead of the door. Leonardo will surely comment on it. Again. He has been buggering her about it, wondering where to hang it. Hmm… Maybe she should just go ahead and do it. Or rather let James do it. Make a surprise…
She sends Taïga to the DIY shop in town before it closes, to buy some screws or whatever you use to fix a painting to the wall. She decides the best place for the painting would be on one of the walls in the shaded passageways surrounding the atrium and gives James the instructions needed. Anyway, he must also fix Rowan’s new swing to the ceiling by the entrance gate.
Taïga and Ellen give James a hand with the swing and soon the little boy is safely installed. Taïga pushes him gently, making faces that Rown immediately imitates. Ellen’s cell buzzes and she is soon absorbed in texting. Taïga supposes it is Gabriele, as Ellen is blushing furiously and smiling stupidly as her fingers flow over the screen.
When Leonardo arrives, the surprise is ready and the children are excitedly waiting for him. James has hung up the painting and returned to finalize his famous Osso Bucco. Shasta covers Leonardo’s eyes, making a big fuss about him discovering the painting she secretly dislikes because it makes her feel guilty. At least she hardly ever passes through this part of the mansion, so she won’t have to see her abandoned daughter on a daily basis. Nor will Leonardo, so he won’t be reminded of her either.
One of the things Taïga loves with Monte Aquila, is the television. Granny is an inveterate technophobe who hardly stands a telephone at home, and even though Missy has a little flat screen in the den, Taïga doesn’t dare watch it as much as she would like to. But here in Monte Aquila, she can lounge in front of the TV the whole day without any comments. In the evening, after taking a shower or a bath, she settles in front of the big, modern screen with Rowan and Ellen to watch some kiddies program. She loves Disney channel and so does her brother. Tonight everyone is tired after a day at the beach. Rowan is lying on his knees on the thick rug, his fingers in his mouth and a vacant look in his eyes. The family’s spoilt Persan cat, Egon, is sitting just out of reach of the little boy, grooming himself.
Ellen is half asleep, comfortably installed to the left of the couch while Taïga is sprawling on the right side, taking up the other half. Her head is propped in her left hand, one leg on the couch, the other dangling freely. She is deeply absorbed in an episode about some kids on a cruising ship when suddenly her mother’s cold voice makes her start.
‘What on earth is this? Ellen! Take your feet of the sofa. Immediately! Sitting with dirty shoes on a 8,000 $ piece of furniture!?! Jesus! I should withdraw the price of the dry-cleaning from your salary.’ Her furious eyes turn towards her daughter. ‘Sit up straight for goodness sake. You slouch like a… a… a slouch.’
‘Andiamo, cara mia. We will be late for the movie.’ Leonardo calls from the doorway.
‘I’ll be right there, darling.’ She stops and turns around. ‘And pick up Rowan from the floor. He’s not an animal. There’s enough room for him on the couch if you just sit as normal people do…’ She lets the sentence trail, watching Ellen lift up a protesting Rowan and install him between herself and Taïga.
Ellen and Taïga both sit up straight, mumbling excuses. They watch Shasta leave the room in a wake of expensive perfume and clattering of designer heels.
As soon as they hear the car start, they both slump again, more at ease. Ellen avoids putting her feet back up on the sofa but she lets go of Rowan who scuttles over to his sister, forcing his way behind her back. She tucks her legs under her, sitting comfortably cross-legged and tries to concentrate on the fun episode.
Rowan is totally awake now, making it difficult for Taïga to follow the happenings on the screen and giving Ellen a taste of how hard, if not impossible, it will be to put him to bed later.
The following day, she goes to the museum after lunch. Alone. After searching a while and asking an old woman for directions, she enters a hall dedicated to cats. She likes the paintings of black cats by Andre Penovác because they all make her think of Miezul Noptii. The object she is looking for is on a pedestal surrounded by other pedestals – with cats. She approaches, looking at her own reflection in the large muzzle of the miniature cowplant. This should be it… Now let’s see if it’s “the real thing”…
Quickly Taïga checks to see if anybody’s watching her. She gets even closer to the gleaming statue, sniffing the air. The only thing she can smell is the particular museum smell, of old stone and other old things.
Ten minutes later she is on her way out again. Her friends are waiting to say goodbye in the park.
She jumps on her bike and rides on the winding road through the countryside. She expects her friends to meet her at their usual place, by the swings, so she pedals fast, focusing on the road.
‘Hey! Taïga! Fermare! Siamo qui! We’re here!’ Goopy shouts. He waves his arms and jumps down from the railing of the small gazebo where he has been waiting.
Cipriana turns on the bench, joining Goopy in calling after the already vanishing Taïga. She stops and pedals back.
‘Ciao! I thought you were at the swings, as usual,’ she points out.
‘Sì. But there are so many bambini – small kids – today so we went over here. Usually there are only anziani here-’
‘-really old-’ Cipriana intervenes.
‘-e donne incinte… Women with babies in their stomach!’ Goopy precises.
‘But mostly it was because my mother will pick me up here in a half hour,’ Cipriana says, looking sad.
Taïga looks at the calm surroundings. This part of the park is shaded by huge chestnut trees and elms, and the bushes and flowers are buzzing with bees and butterflies. It is a very appropriate place to say goodbye, Taïga thinks. She will always remember her friends in this setting.
She takes a seat next to Cipriana on the bench facing the little pond and they chat about what they will do after the summer.
Goopy doesn’t participate in the conversation. He is squatting at the edge of the murky green water, throwing stones into it and scaring whatever small fishes there might be.
Cipriana looks at Goopy and Taïga. ‘È una giornata speciale per noi… So I think we should do something “speciale”.’
Goopy agrees. ‘Si! Sei veramente speciale, Taïga – You’re extra special!’
Taïga blushes. ‘Something special like what?’
Goopy scratches his hair. ‘Cipriana, hai in mente una qualcosa particolare? Do you have something special in mind?’
‘Non lo so… A pact or something…’
‘Si. Mi sembra una buona idea!’
They stand up and hold hands, not sure about what to do next. Goopy remembers a movie he has seen. ‘Siamo proprio come “I tre moschettieri”’
‘Vero! He is right! We are just like the three moschettieri,’ Cipriana says.
Taïga knows about the famous French soldiers, too, from a book Granny has read to her. ‘But they were four,’ she protests.
‘Non è importante – it is not important,’ Cipriana says. ‘It is what they meant for each other that is important, not the… err, quantity.’
‘Tutto per uno, uno per tutti!’
‘All for one – one for all!’
The insistent honking of a car interrupts them.
Sobbing Cipriana hugs Taïga. ‘Devo andare adesso. I have to go now.’
‘I’ll miss you, Cipriana.’
‘Si, anche io! Buon viaggio, Taïga! Per piacere mi chiami…’
‘Of course I’ll call you! Bye, Cipriana!’
They hug again and Taïga fights the tears. She watches her newfound friend board the car and fasten her seatbelt. Cipriana peeks out the window, but the seat is so low Taïga can only see the top of her head.
Goopy is happy he is finally alone with Taïga. He looks at her with a huge grin, but she just covers her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking from her efforts not to sob. He puts an arm around her shoulder and leans in, consoling her as best he can.
The car turns out onto the road and disappears in a cloud of dust. They both wink until they can’t see it anymore.
Taïga sighs and takes a step back.
‘Cosa c’è? What’s wrong?’ Come è bella. How beautiful she is.
‘It’s just… I’m just sorry I have to leave…’
Goopy swallows. He has thought over and rehearsed a thousand times what to say to Taïga before she leaves. He has even learnt a poem, but now his head is terribly empty and he will have to improvise.
‘Va bene, here goes…’ He reaches out and takes both her hands in his. ‘Ahem… Ti penso sempre. I always think of you…’
Taïga doesn’t say anything so he continues, searching for something romantic and clever.
‘Tu sei una stella… La mia stella. You are a star… My star.’
Taïga thinks Italian is the loveliest language on earth. ‘Oh Goopy, that was so… beautiful! I’ll miss you terribly…’
Spontaneously she pecks a kiss on his cheek. ‘Arrivederci!’
Goopy is stunned. He just stands there with a stupid grin on his face.
Taïga turns on her heels and runs to her bike.
‘I’ll miss you so much. Mi mancherai tanto,’ Goopy murmurs to himself. She didn’t say that to Cipriana, did she?
Suddenly he snaps out of his inertia.
‘Taïga! Aspettami! Wait! Per piacere! Aspettami! Voglio vederti stasera! I want to see you tonight!’
But Taïga is already too far away to hear him.
‘Buon viaggio! Penserà a te – I’ll think about you!’ He shouts after her, devastated.
Taïga pedals straight home, blinded by tears. Why does she always have to leave her friends? Riding her bike on the now familiar roads calms her a little. They had promised to meet again next summer, and like Granny used to say; like that she had something to look forward to.
She prepares a hot bath, using some of her mother’s expensive bath salts. Then she soaks in the hot water for a long time thinking about the holidays…
She has had a wonderful time, but some things were more amazing than others. She can’t wait to tell her friends back in Vulturu all about her stay in Italy. So much has happened, not only having her hair cut. She is getting extensions tomorrow morning so nobody in Vulturu will notice anyway. Her sighting of the UFO makes top of the list, but after having been laughed at by her mother and Leonardo when she told them about the visiting Aliens, she had decided to keep the event to herself. Better not even tell Granny, she has already got her opinion on the subject. She will get her revenge when Mr. Vargas confirms her story. How surprised they all will be…
Talking of which – why hasn’t Derek answered her mail? Or maybe he has. She can’t check her mails on her cell, as her mother has only arranged for a basic cell phone plan for the duration of her vacation, and it does not include access to the Internet or outgoing international calls. Maybe she should just call him before she leaves, or ask Ellen to help her. She has all options on her phone and all the applications available. She must not forget to ask her or it would have to wait until she gets back to the library in Vulturu again. They don’t have Internet anymore as Granny unsubscribed after she learnt about the involuntary party that happened when she was gone looking for a suitable boardingschool.*
So, what else have been memorable? Probably the circus – if she had seen the show, that is. Unfortunately she had not, so what qualifies as next best?
The horse, of course!
Her friends had taken her to see one of the many olive tree groves that had once been in Goopy’s family and they had played catch among the century old trees. Some of them were 2,000 years old, Goopy had said, but Taïga didn’t believe him. That is way too old for a tree…
Goopy’s grandfather had not been much of a farmer, nor of a businessman. He had sold off acres after acres of the Gils Carbo inheritance over the years until there was nothing left.
‘He must have got an awful lot of money,’ Taïga says.
‘Vino e donne,’ Goopy says, shrugging as if it was an achievement.
‘Wine and women?’
‘Sì… He spent it all.’ He kicks up some dirt with the toe of his sneakers. ‘At least he had fun.’
Taïga starts to say that she could think of lots of more fun ways to spend money on but stops when she sees something silvery glimmer in the shadows a bit further away behind her friends’ backs.
They retrace their steps, pass under some branches and stop. There is a grey horse grazing in the shadow of an olive tree.
‘We have to catch it,’ Taïga exclaims happily. She has always dreamt of a horse, and here is one. Just like in a dream come true.
‘I don’t know?’ Goopy says hesitantly. The horse is huge, and there are big teeth in its mouth and the hooves are as big as his own feet and much harder.
‘If it is wild it might be pericoloso – dangerous,’ Cipriana peeps. She is terribly scared of horses, and even though her parents have proposed to sign her up for riding lessons at the Monte Aquila Poney Club, she has refused.
‘It’s not wild. It has a halter,’ Taïga says.
‘Che cosa es “a halter”?’ Goppy scratches his head.
‘Look. It’s the thing it has on its head.’
‘È possibile. I guess we can do it… There’s even a rope attached to it.’
At the sound of the bickering children, the horse lifts its head and looks straight at them. They immediately stop talking, not daring to move. The ears twist and turn, then the horse returns to grazing again.
‘See? It’s not afraid of us. Let’s go, Goopy.’
They advance slowly, talking to the horse and it doesn’t budge. When they arrive it buffs them with its head and searches their pockets with its velvety muzzle. Taïga is in heaven. She leans her cheek against the horse’s forehead and they stand like that, stock still, for a while.
Goopy clears his throat. He has grabbed hold of the rope and wants to move on.
‘Do you think we can ride it?’
‘Ride… Err… Get on its back.’ She tries to mime the action and he lights up.
‘Ah. Si vuole cavalcare.’
‘Yes. That sounds like it.’ She nods eagerly.
‘I want to ride, too. But you first,’ he says gallantly. He lets go of the rope and laces his hands together to give her a leg up.
‘Sbrigati! Hurry up!’
Goopy can’t hold his hands up higher, but Taïga isn’t yet on the horse’s back. She scrambles badly and Goopy maneuvers his shoulder under her left foot.
She pushes hard and succeeds in swinging her right leg over the large back. Goopy steps back and picks up the rope. Taïga glides back down, almost falling off the horse.
‘Help! Why did you step away?’
‘Mi dispiace – sorry.’ He quickly pushes her back up.
Panting a little she sits still and takes in what she is doing. She’s riding a real horse. It is really huge. Goopy seems tiny and she can see so far.
‘Let’s walk a little,’ she says, feeling brave and afraid at the same time.
Goopy tugs on the rope and she smacks her tongue. The horse surges forward into a lumbering trot and she has to grab onto the mane to regain her balance. Soon she has got the gist of the rhythm and she tries to relax. Closing her eyes, she raises her arms as if she were flying, or floating.
Cipriana backs towards the safety of the low branches of an olive tree as the horse lumbers past.
‘Attento! Keep it away from me!’ She hollers and the horse shies away a little. Taïga grabs the mane for a few paces, then she lets go again.
‘E cosa stai facendo? And what are you doing?’ The horse neighs and stops so abruptly Taïga hits her nose on its neck.
She holds onto her nose checking if it is bleeding or not. But the throbbing pain is already disappearing. Goopy is talking to a young woman in riding gear who is standing in front of them with her hands on her hips. Taïga thinks that it must be her horse she is riding. She can’t do much except just sit where she is, patting the horse’s neck.
‘This is Rosaria Stefani,’ Cipriana says. ‘It is her horse.’
Taïga nods, she has understood as much. The young woman doesn’t seem to be angry. She walks up to her horse and hugs it.
‘Her name is Argento – Silver,’ she says to Taïga and the horse nods, rolling its eyes and nudging Rosaria’s hair. ‘She is very old and dolce. How do you say?’
‘Sweet!’ Goopy says.
‘Kind,’ Cipriana volunteers.
‘Gentle?’ Taïga says.
‘Sì. Gentle. But you must be careful with animals you don’t know. Promise you will never play with a horse you find in the woods.’
‘I promise,’ Taïga says, crossing her fingers. There is not much chance she will stumble on another runaway horse ever again, but you never know.
Goopy, Cipriana and Rosaria discuss again and Taïga can’t understand a word.
Rosaria lifts Goopy up on Silver’s back, behind Taïga. She holds her arms out for Cipriana, but the little girl shakes her head vigorously.
‘No grazie. I prefer walking.’
‘As you wish,’ Rosaria says. ‘It is quite far on foot. It might take a while.’
‘I doesn’t matter,’ Cipriana answers. ‘I’m on vacation!’
They all laugh at her quick answer.
The ride to the pony club took almost an hour, but it was too quick in Taïga’s taste. Rosaria explained that she lives in Florence but that there had been a showjumping competition at the pony club that day. Silver hates the van, so she ran away when they had tried to load her for the journey back home.
She cried a little that night because she wanted a horse so badly. She still does. But there is no pony club in Vulturu. She is absolutely sure of that. And Missy’s garden is definitely too small to house such a big pet. She has to stop thinking about horses or she will start crying again. She has to find something amusing… It doesn’t take long before her swim in the fountain comes to mind.
One day when it was unusually hot, Shasta had told them to fill Rowan’s little pool with water so he could stay fresh. Ellen and Taïga stripped down to bikinis, too, but the pool was really too small for them. Rowan splashed around happily all naked while Taïga jealous watched him.
‘Why can’t they buy a bigger pool?’ Taïga whines.
‘I guess because the sea is so close, and then there’s the municipal pool,’ Ellen answers.
They sit in silence a while longer.
‘Where is mom?’
‘Did she say when she would be back?’
‘No. But usually she stays to have a drink with her friends, so she probably won’t be home before I put Rowan to bed,’ Ellen says.
‘And Leonardo is in Lombardia for two days,’ Taïga says thoughtfully.
‘And it is James day off…’ Ellen adds.
‘So we’re all alone-‘
She looks thoughtfully down at the Atrium. Ellen follows her gaze. Then they look at each other.
Taïga rushes down the stairs to the ancient fountain. She dips her fingers into the water. The water jetted from its center is cool, but the hot sun quickly warms up the water in the shallow pool to a tepid, alluring bath. She jumps up high into the air and lands with a tremendous splash. The water sloshing onto the sun warmed terracotta tiles dries while she is looking at it. She lies back, letting the fountain shower her face.
A few minutes later Ellen joins her with Rowan geared up in his swimming trunks, inflatable swimming cuffs and most important, a special “Little Swimmers” diaper.
Ellen jumps into the water and then starts an exhausting merry-go-round. Rowan wants to jump repeatedly, and as soon as Ellen puts him back onto the edge of the pool, he throws himself into her waiting arms. Again and again and again. Then he wants to play under the sprinkling water…
Taïga giggles at the memory. Then her expression darkens. Her mother came home early, and Taïga was grounded a whole week…
Best of all was her friendship with Goopy and Cipriana. And also Laura, even though she spent most of her time with her grandmother, they met up once in a while. Usually in the park or on the beach. She remembers when they went to the maze. They were a whole bunch of kids playing tag, and she paired up with Goopy, Cipriana and Laura. Goopy took her hand to guide her to the best hiding places. And she let him! He could be so sweet…
Goopy and Cipriana liked to show her everything that is special in Monte Aquila, so of course they took her to the ancient Roman “piscina”, a big pool with green water so deep you couldn’t see the bottom.
Taïga remembers the sign over the entrance of the Municipal swimming pool – Piscina Communale di Monte Aquila di Valle.
‘Why isn’t there any people swimming here?’ Taïga asks, looking at the huge expansion of water.
‘A “piscina” was a fish pool, not a swimming pool. You weren’t supposed to swim in it.’ Goopy explains.
‘Were – what about today? I’d love to jump in.’
‘It is proibito – forbidden – anyway. It is a cultural thing, like a museum,’ Cipriana adds.
They lie down on the paved walkway in the sun, staring at their reflections in the still water.
‘Why is an old fish pond a cultural thing?’ Taïga asks.
‘Because of the murenas, of course,’ Cipriana answers.
‘Murenas? What is that?’ Taïga looks inquiringly at her friends.
‘Creature marine come serpenti con molti denti come aghi-’
‘Snakelike sea creatures with lots of needle like teeth-’ Cipriana translates.
‘-and a seconda bocca – mouth – inside the first one. Like Alien!’ Goopy interrupts her, illustrating with his hands.
‘Dai, Goopy, come on. You’re lying.’ Cipriana rolls her eyes at Taïga.
‘No, non sto. I saw that on National Geographic.’
Taïga listens to their excited explanations in half Italian, half English. ‘Moray eels?’
‘Bene, if you say so.’
‘The Romans kept them as animali domestici. How do you say? Pets?’
‘There was even una donna who had a favorite murena, with real gold earrings.’
‘But fish don’t have ears,’ Taïga interrupts.
Cipriana and Goopy thinks about it.
‘It probably wore them on the wings,’ Cipriana ventures and Taïga tries to keep a straight face.
‘Sì. On the fins.’
‘Yeah. That seems logical…’ Taïga and Goopy nods in agreement.
‘Just like some persone riche have diamond collars on their dogs,’ Cipriana states. ‘Signora Russo’s poodle has one with lots of diamonds.’
‘Sono falsi. They are fake. Laura told me,’ Goopy says.
‘Anyway, people are buying cose ridicole for their animali domestici… Coats and stuff…’ she continues.
‘Bene. Eccetto che – except that – the Romans ate their pet murenas and they were fed blood to taste better. Human blood.’
Taïga stares at Goopy. ‘No way!’
‘Sì, sì. They fed slaves to them-’
‘-pushed them in the piscina, just like that, if they had done something bad. My dad told me all about it, he loves how the Romans innovarono punizioni strane – strange punishments. He has told me lots about it!’ Cipriana gesticulates with her free hand.
‘Tell me,’ Taïga urges.
‘Well. This “piscina” held up to 6,000, 3 meter long, murenas! You can imagine being pushed in…’
‘Just like this!’ Goopy nudges Taïga and she screams.
‘Don’t you ever do that again!’ She pushes him back and he laughs.
‘There are no more murenas now… At least I don’t think there is,’ Goopy says ominously, installing some doubt in the girls.
‘You’re right,’ Cipriana says, looking a little worried and retiring her hand from the water.
‘Mah… Think about it. Perché is it proibito to swim if there are no more murenas in the piscina?’ Goopy insists.
‘Because it’s a cultural thing,’ Taïga says tartly.
They all go quiet, scrutinizing the impenetrable water, shuddering at what could possibly live down there… Taïga visualizes the terrifying monster appear from the depths, its powerful jaws open and shut to show off the sharp teeth…
Her eyes pop open. What was that? Something slithers against her leg in the bubble bath. Kicking with her legs, she grabs the borders of the tub and jumps out of it, sloshing water all over the floor. Heart beating fast she covers the distance back to the tub and peeks inside. Rowan’s blue whale is bobbing on the surface among what is left of the foam and she feels a little stupid having taken it for a moray eel…
She tiptoes into her room so she doesn’t wake Rowan, and slides into her bed for the last time. Tomorrow morning she has an appointment at the beauty salon to add extensions to her hair, then she flies out to Vulturu early in the evening. She’s sad to leave her mother and at the same time she is happy to see Granny again. Most of all she is nervous to fly alone, but she will be taken care of by a hostess and she will have a little purse hanging around her neck with her passport and ticket and things. She looks at her suitcases. There are four of them, bulging with all her new clothes and shoes.
Her sleep is filled with strange dreams, filled with her family and friends, a mixture of Bigwood Falls, Vulturu and Monte Aquila.
Mrs. Brown is in her dream, too, and as in many nightmares before Taïga watches her repair the dishwasher. When she draws closer to warn her, she realizes it is not the old housekeeper, but Ellen, who is on her knees in a dangerous puddle of water…
She can hear the au pair’s thoughts in her head; The dishwasher broke down last night but I saw James repair it the other day so I’m pretty sure I can do it, too…
A prickling sensation overcomes her. She realizes that she is now Ellen, and that she is on the verge of being electrocuted just like Mrs. Brown.
With an extreme sense of panic she fights to break free of the restraints of Ellen’s form before it is too late. Finally she is lying next to the au pair’s astral body, exhausted after the effort.
‘Oh no…’ She opens her eyes and staggers to her feet.
‘Meow… She wants you to help her.’
Taïga swirls around towards the voice and finds herself looking at the Di Grisogno’s extremely spoilt Persan cat. Stunned she looks at the fluffy feline. So Egon is talking now? She knows black cats can talk, at least some of them, and only in particular circumstances. So Egon talking must be proof that this is a dream.
‘She wants you to help her,’ he says again, looking expectantly at her.
‘I can’t help Ellen if she is dead.’
‘Hurry, Taïga… He’s behind the door…’
‘Who? Who’s behind what door?’
She stares at the cat. She is talking to Egon. About what? Or who? A she or a he? It is so confusing. The only thing she knows is that there can be nothing good behind whatever door Egon is referring to.
When she looks back at Ellen, her body is gone. So is the kitchen. She is standing on the same kind of tiles that cover the Atrium together with the cat, but there is no sign of the house. They start walking. After a while they find themselves facing green grass sloping away into emptiness. They stop. The ground trembles and a huge portal is dressing its marble columns towards the star studded night sky. In the middle is a door, engraved with skulls and hellish faces. Two statues of the Grim Reaper are standing guard on each side, their stone scythes forming an arc over the ominous door.
‘Meow… He’s here now…’
The door creaks slowly open. Egon shies away from the void it reveals, leaving room to a black, familiar figure. Taïga stares into the utter darkness where his face should be, had he had one. The heavy door slams shut behind him.
‘Bewaaaare…’ The warning comes from all around her. It reverberates and trembles, echoes and fills her with dread. She covers her ears with her hands but she can’t shut it out.
The dark force is whispering, cajoling, pulling at her… Against her will she starts to move in the direction of the door.
Please! I don’t want to go out there! Help me! No sound escapes her mouth but she wills away the threatening figure, his black shape fading until there is no trace of him.
Suddenly the middle of the door starts dissolving itself, like rings on water. A pale hand is pushed through, followed by a head and the upper body of a ghoul. A crown of dry flowers circles dark, braided hair. The ghoul looks up and fixes its black rimmed staring eyes at her. Pale bluish skin, thin arms jerking forward, dry lips moving. A ghoul in the shape of her mother. She forces her way out, inch after struggling inch. Stretching out a thin arm with a claw like hand, she grabs for Taïga.
The terrorized girl turns and runs, feeling the incredible chill of the dead follow her into the looming darkness. Suddenly the ghoul’s icy claw-like hands trap her legs. She can feel them already ripping through the thin fabric of her pj’s.
She awakes from the nightmare drenched in sweat, screaming with terror. She is sitting at the edge of the bed, her legs caught in the steel railing that is supposed to keep a small child from falling onto the floor.
She quickly pulls back and scrambles into the corner, breathing hard. After a while, she ventures out of the bed to turn on the lamp a few feet away. Then she sits on her bed for a long time, hugging her knees and rocking back and forth. She tries hard not to think about the nightmare, to no awail. Her mother’s face stares at her as soon as she closes her eyes. Rowan’s steady breathing finally calms her enough to lie down again.
She rolls into a tight little ball and pulls the blanket over her head even though it is stifling hot in the room. She tries to follow Mrs. Brown’s advice and focus on happy thoughts. It’s funny how the image of her brother is the first thing to pop up behind her closed eyelids. Rowan reaching for her, Rowan crying, Rowan imitating her… Rowan… Her eyes begin to burn. She won’t see him, nor her mother, before Christmas. Her mother never asked her to stay, and seemed utterly surprised when Taïga asked her.
‘What? Stay here? Of course not. You will start in a fancy boarding school anyway, so what’s the purpose living here?’
Her mother doesn’t want her to stay… Her mother doesn’t want her. Period.
What’s wrong with her? She has tried so hard the whole summer, just to be pushed aside. She can’t bring herself to hate her brother, though. He’s too young to understand and it’s not his fault everybody dotes on him.
Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts. Because she has been happy here. She really has. Playing with Cipriana, Laura and goofy Goopy. Images of sunny days at the beach and at the pool flash through her head. Special days like when they found the horse… She will miss them so much, but will they miss her as well? Laura has left, too, by the way. Returned to England. But she lives with both her parents and spends all her vacations here. Sometimes even the weekends. Not at all like herself who won’t be back until next year.
She sighs, her eyelids heavy with sleep.
Taïga is up early the next morning, but not as early as Ellen. She stops on the threshold to the kitchen, watching Ellen grumpily do the dishes after hers and Rowan’s breakfast. Her cell is on the counter next to her and she is frequently checking it. Probably waiting for Gabriele to text… She can do anything with her telephone. Except the dishes. Taïgga thinks. She giggles to herself.
‘Good morning! How do you feel? Last day and all,’ Ellen says, drying her hands on a towel and picking up her phone.
‘So-so,’ Taïga answers, sitting down at the counter and reaching for the cereals. ‘Why are you doing the dishes?’
‘Gaah. The dishwasher broke down last night but I saw James repair it the other day so I’m pretty sure I can do it, too…’ she says thoughtfully.
‘Please, don’t,’ Taïga exclaims so fast Ellen looks up from her cell with an astonished look on her face. ‘It’s dangerous. Our housekeeper died when she was repairing the dishwasher…’ She doesn’t precise that she has had a very vivid dream the very same night about Ellen dying, too.
‘Oh. I’m sorry about your loss. Promise we won’t touch it. James called for service so I guess someone will show up sometime today. At least I hope so.’
‘Can I ask you something, Ellen?’
‘I sent an email to a friend and I can’t see if he has answered.’
As she had hoped, Ellen comes to her rescue, letting her use her cell. Taïga looks through her messages, mostly old ones.
‘What is a mail daemon, Ellen?’
‘What? Let me see.’
Taïga shows her the screen.
‘Err… You message has bounced. It says the email address doesn’t exist.’
‘Bounced? Does that mean Derek didn’t get it?’
‘Yes. But you can try again. Just check the address first.’
‘It says I can’t,’ Taïga exclaims after fiddling a little.
‘Let me see.’ Ellen takes her cell out of Taïga’s hands. ‘The address doesn’t exist. Are you sure you entered it correctly? Dots and dashes and stuff?’
‘We’ll try again later when you’re back from the hairdresser. I’ll see if I can get any information. Just leave your mail open…’
Shasta comes into the kitchen, followed by James. She opens the fridge and takes out the cream all the while talking on her cell.
‘I’m calling to make sure Alitalia flight 7506 to Bucharest is on time.’ She listens, pouring cream into her coffee. ‘No, you can’t put me on hold. I need the information right away… Yes… Yes… Grazie.’ She swipes off her cell and looks at Taïga who is still in her pajamas. ‘Aren’t you dressed yet? Hurry up, our appointment is at 9 sharp.’
Taïga scoops some more cereal into her mouth and slides off her chair. She’ll take a quick shower and wash her hair, then, for the journey, she has prepared her blue striped dress.
Four hours later, they are back. Taïga rushes upstairs to put on her new blue striped cotton dress and her converse. She admires her new, long hair in the mirror. The hairdresser has put it up in a huge ponytail high on her head. She shakes her head slowly from side to side, recovering the familiar sensation of her hair brushing her nude shoulders. She is eager to show everyone how fantastic it looks, so he laces her not-so-white Converse and rushes downstairs. She literally flies across the Atrium towards the kitchen where she just saw her mother enter. But then she stops dead. Shasta and Leonardo are talking about a vacation.
‘…so I thought it would be nice if the four of us could go on a vacation somewhere warm and sunny.’
‘It’s the grape-picking season, so I can’t make time before October, and not for very long. Have you somewhere special in mind, cara mia?’
‘Oh, yes. Cuba would be lovely, or Isla Paradiso. It’s the place to go, not many tourists yet and quite authentic.’
Leonardo frowns. ‘I’ll have to check with my assistant, but a fortnight sounds good, cara.’
‘I’ll make the reservations when we get back from the airport, then,’ Shasta says, already planning her new outfits.
‘Bene. One room for Rowan and Ellen. And a suite for us, mi amore.’
Taïga’s heart had almost stopped with happiness, until she understands that she is not included in their plans. She backs away before they can see her and leans against the sun warmed wall. She closes her eyes fiercely, rejoicing in the burning sensation. As if Monte Aquila wasn’t sunny enough for her mother…
After lunch, it is time to leave. James loads the suitcases in the trunk of Leonardo’s black BMW535d and bends so Taïga can peck him on the cheek.
Ellen has already strapped Rowan into his seat, now she is holding the door and waiting for Taïga to get in the car. Shasta checks her make-up and smothers down her Etro silk dress, wondering if it will be much creased after the long ride.
Leonardo honks the horn impatiently. ‘Sbrigati! You will miss your flight!’
‘Goodbye, James!’ Taïga waves and disappears into the posh car.
‘Goodbye!’ James dries a tear. He has gotten quite fond of the little whirlwind of a girl. Standing on the porch, he waves until the car disappears in a bend of the road.
The family is back again in time for a late supper. Rowan is full of mischief, and suddenly a pot with a flower crashes to the floor. Shasta calls for Ellen, who of course has disappeared to the bathroom when she was needed here.
Rowan seems to be talking to somebody, gesticulating in a very Italian manner, but he is the only one who can see Peaches, his ragdoll who has become his imaginary friend. She is the one who has pushed down the flower pot. As little as he is, he reads expressions pretty well and Ellen looks grim.
Screaming, he quickly rushes to his mother and hides in her skirts.
Shasta throws him a glance, secretly proud that he came to her for shelter. She continues giving James instructions for the dinner party tomorrow evening while he prepares a Pandoro di Verona – a traditional tall and fluffy cake that Leonardo loves for breakfast.
While Ellen tries to convince Rowan to let go if his mother’s leg, Leonardo finishes his espresso. Time to get things moving. He resolutely pries Rowan loose, hands him to Ellen with the instructions to do whatever is needed to be done, and put the bambino to bed.
He pulls Shasta close, letting his hand roam over her slender hips.
‘I think I really like this dress,’ he murmurs in her ear. ‘So smooth…’
Shasta squirms a little. ‘It is Etro.’
‘Whatever…’ he kisses her neck.
James pours the batter into a long form, studiously avoiding watching his employers. He can’t help but think that Leonardo is a very lucky man, indeed.
‘Goodnight, James.’ Leonardo steers his wife towards the stairs that lead to their private balcony – and bedroom.
Shasta tries to keep the annoyance from showing on her face. Sometimes she doesn’t feel lucky at all…
Part I – End of Chapter 39
As usual, my thanks goes to the pose creators of this chapter, especially Jessesue and k2m1too for their wonderful poses! Links to their sites here