Fall has arrived in France, coloring the trees a golden brown and red, and the temperature has suddenly fallen from almost summerlike to almost freezing.
The girls are queuing for the inscriptions to the ballet contest, and Louis, who had used the computer, has to leave, letting Mademoiselle Béjart fill in the necessary forms and print them. He tries to catch Taïga’s eye as he leaves but as she doesn’t look at him he turns back and pretends to search for a book right in front of her. She just smiles a little and steps back a pace to leave him enough room to get to the one he wants.
Louise strains to listen in, but their conversation is too hushed for her to make out what is said. Agnés, who is standing between Taïga and Louise, rolls her eyes and sighs to make it even more difficult for the blonde girl to hear.
‘Err… I thought, as you’re playing the piano now, maybe you’d like some help.’
She looks at him as if she just discovered he was still there.
‘I mean, you probably don’t need any help. It’s not as if I was saying you’re not good or something. I just thought-’
‘Sure. I’d love to. And I need help. Really, I do.’
‘Right then. See you at practice then.’ He smiles broadly and hurries out, forgetting the book.
‘Mademoiselle Grey!’ Taïga walks over to their hometeacher, followed by Louise’s whispers, ‘I don’t understand why she is trying out?’
‘Because everyone has to, of course. All students in ballet class have always participated in the national selections. You know that,’ Clotilde says.
‘Don’t talk down to me,’ Louise sneers, crossing her arms. ‘Eveline never does.’
Clotilde bites her tongue, glaring over Louise’s shoulder at her rival over by their ballet teacher’s desk. She can hear the girl’s high pitched voice as she complains over something.
Clotilde doesn’t miss the smile on Louis’s face as he walks out the door and she quickly fills Louise in on what she just saw, feeling secretly satisfied to hurt her best friend a little.
Louis has dragged Henri away from the other boys.
‘What’s so important?’
Louis looks uneasy. ‘I just wanted to know if you’re… Well, if you like Taïga?’
Henri laughes. ‘Of course I do! She’s… She’s a great friend!’
‘So it’s OK if I ask her then? Thanks, buddy! I thought you liked her a lot, you know what I mean?’
Louis gives him a friendly tap on the shoulder. ‘C’mon, let’s find the others.’ He winks to Henri and sets off.
Ask her what? Henri shrugs and runs after his friend. Neither boy saw Clotilde hiding behind the wall – out of sight but certainly not out of earshot.
Following the rules established by Louise last year, Taïga usually waits until everyone is done in the bathroom before taking a shower. But since they don’t sleep in the same dorm it is difficult to keep track of everyone. Tonight she stumbles on Jeanne and Agnès, who are finishing up when she enters.
They answer her unspoken question in choir, ‘They have finished.’
‘It’s just us left.’
They chat a little as Taïga hangs up her towel next to the shower closest to the exit and turns it on. She has learned her lesson the hard way and sees to it never to get stuck in a corner, not only when Clotilde and Louise are in the vicinity. The water is hot and even though she would like to just stand under it for a while, she quickly finishes and towels off. She never bothers with the fluffy white bathrobe they all have, but gets into her pajamas straight away. She dries her hair on a towel and quickly braids it, sticking a clip into the hair that falls into her face.
She is brushing her teeth when Louise and her followers come into the bathroom and start taunting her. Her room mates, Charlotte and Eveline makes silly faces to underline Louise and Clotilde’s vicious comments.
Taïga is relieved they didn’t catch her in the shower. Last year they had made her walk the corridors naked. Nobody saw her but the experience had been traumatizing never the less. She decides to ignore them as best she can, closing out their angry voices by not looking at them. Maybe they will just go away if they find she doesn’t care?
But Clotilde gives the footstool a vicious kick and Taïga falls backwards. Her toothbrush flies through the room as she desperately waves for something to hold on to but the girls step away, letting her tumble backwards into the opposite corner where the walls finally stops her.
Panting she leans against the cold, smooth, beige tiling. She wipes toothpaste from her mouth with the back of her hand all the while carefully watching the four girls. Charlotte picks up the tooth brush and starts to put it back into her toilet bag but Eveline snatches it out if her hand. She looks at Clotilde and all of a sudden she starts brushing the floor with it. Louise and Clotilde snickers, their attention drawn from Taïga.
‘We should clean the toilet with it,’ Eveline says, encouraged by the girls’ approval. ‘So it fits her filthy mouth.’
‘Oui, and then we should make her use it!’ Louise claps her hands. ‘You are so smart, Eveline.’
Eveline basks in the short moment of glory but Taïga can see how Clotilde’s face darkens. Eveline is smart, but she is under Louise’s protection, hence out of Clotilde’s reach. The tension between the two girls is palpable, and it is Taïga who will suffer their rivalry…
She swallows. She knows they are capable of doing just what Eveline proposed. She has to make a run for it. Now, when Louise and Clotilde are turning their backs to her, looking at Eveline. She pushes off the wall but is stopped by Louise’s arm swinging out right in front of her face. She falls backwards, tasting blood in her mouth.
‘Ouch! The bitch tried to bite me! Look! There’s blood all over…’ Louise stares at the red stains on the white terry cloth. ‘I… I think I’m going to faint,’ she adds melodramatically.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ Clotilde hisses, towering over Taïga.
‘But I didn’t-’ Taïga holds her hands up in front of her to ward the furious girl off, but Clotilde is not intending to hit her. She grabs Taïga’s hair on top of her head in a vicious grip. ‘Shut up! Menteuse! Liar!’ She pulls brutishly, using the excruciating pain to get Taïga on her feet.
Charlotte and Eveline group around Louise, pulling the sleeve of the thick bathrobe up to inspect her outstretched arm.
‘Because of you Louise will surely have to get a rabies shot,’ Clotilde says. ‘Or at least tetanus.’
‘I didn’t bite her-’ Taïga wimpers.
‘She’s right.’ Charlotte and Eveline looks up from Louise’s immaculate arm.
Louise stops wailing and pulls away her arm to check it, too. ‘But the blood?’ she asks.
‘Must be Taïga’s. I think you smacked her pretty bad,’ Eveline says.
‘Ah, oui. Maybe her teeth are loose,’ Charlotte adds, looking a little panicked.
Taïga runs her tongue over her teeth. They all seem firmly in place. But now the four girls’ attention is focused on her again.
‘We’ll teach you a lesson!’
‘It’ll be the last time you steal anybody’s boyfriend!’
‘But I haven’t-‘
Taïga puts her hands over her ears to shut out the yelling. She can feel the fright turn into red hot anger. It is filling her chest and somehow she knows she has to stay calm. She mustn’t let her anger overwhelm her or she might really hurt someone.
Clotilde pushes her finger into her solar plexus, hard, making Taïga wince. She smiles cruelly and forms her fist into a tight ball. Then she hits her exactly where she just pushed her.
The anger explodes into pain, again, and Taïga doubles over, retching. Oh, yes. She wants to hurt someone.
Clotilde grabs her hair and is just about to punch her again when the door to the bathroom opens on Agnès and Jeanne who had forgot her dirty laundry. Both girls stop on the threshold, their happy chatter dying on their lips.
‘What are you doing!?!’
Clotilde lets go of Taïga’s hair and the four girls turn towards the unwelcome interruption.
‘Get out!’ Louise points her finger towards the door.
But instead of obeying, both girls rush over to where Taïga is covering on the floor, her body shaking and a horrible mixture of sobs and dry retching coming from her mouth. They kneel next to her, stroking her shoulders and back. ‘Are you OK?’
Taïga nods, shivering.
‘Come with us, Taïga.’
With the help of both girls, she staggers to her feet and lets them guide her towards the door.
‘It’s not over, gypsy!’ Clotilde hisses the words but Taïga can hear them perfectly and she winces as for a blow.
Jeanne turns on her heels. ‘She. Is. NOT. A gypsy.’
‘C’mon, Jeanne. Don’t bother with them.’ Agnès tugs on her arm and unwillingly the tall girl follows them out of the bathroom.
‘Clotilde is a bitch-’ Jeanne mutters as they step out into the corridor. ‘-and so is Louise,’ she adds just loud enough for the blond girl to hear.
‘I’m not!’ Louise screeches. ‘Stay here! I command you to stay!’
Jeanne turns on her heels and strides back, her face livid and her fists clenched. ‘Here I am. Now what?’
Agnès puts her arm around Taïga’s shoulder and closes the door with her foot.
‘We can’t leave Jeanne!’ Taïga protests, her mouth feeling sore. She touches her split lip with her fingers.
‘Don’t worry about Jeanne. They won’t dare touch her. Cowards,’ she adds. ‘Do you want me to call Mademoiselle Florence?’
‘No.’ Taïga licks blood from her lip. ‘I’ll be OK. They’ll just call me a snitch if we do. I’ll be OK.’
‘This is the last time you’ve hurt her.’
Jeanne is furious, and even though the girls are four against one they are intimidated and back down.
‘She won’t say anything,’ Louise mutters, crossing her arms over her chest. Her gesture is immediately followed by Clotilde and Charlotte who hum their approval.
‘Maybe she won’t, but we will. We caught you red handed!’ Jeanne looks triumphantly at them, one after the other.
‘C’est vrai. She can’t cover for your doings anymore because they saw you!’ Eveline states, trying to get a feel of how the wind blows. Or will blow from now on.
‘Our doings,’ Clotilde rectifies glaring at her.
‘So you admit you’ve been bullying her,’ Jeanne says.
‘Bien sûr que non. The stupid gypsy tried to bite me!’ Louise cradles her arm against her chest, making sure Jeanne can see the blood on her sleeve.
‘Oui. It was self-defense,’ Clotilde sneers triumphantly.
‘Uh-huh.’ Both Eveline and Charlotte nods.
Agnés tries to convince Taïga to tell Mademoiselle Florence about what Louise and Clotilde are doing to her, but Taïga refuses stubbornly and insists on going back to her room.
‘You can’t let them continue – we can’t let them,’ she says, insisting on “we”, which makes Taïga smile a little as she dabs on her mouth with a Kleenex.
‘You know I can’t say anything, it will only get worse if they think I’ve snitched.’
‘Don’t you see it is already getting worse? They’ll grab any excuse to hurt you. Last year they just called you names and talked about you behind your back and you never complained, not even to your grandmother if I have got things right-’
Taïga nods miserably and Agnès continues, ‘-and have it stopped?’
Taïga shakes her head.
‘Right. It has become worse. Without you telling on them.’
Taïga doesn’t say anything. She knows Agnès is right, but she just doesn’t dare go up against Clotilde. Having suffered the evil girl’s comments and threats for a whole schoolyear has undermined Taïga’s self-confidence and she is ashamed of what she has become.
What has she become? Really? She is still the same girl who came here a whole year ago. A girl who has people who love her for what she is. So why is it so hard to say “stop”?
She sees Agnès is waiting for her to say something, but she is saved from answering by Jeanne bursting through the door.
‘I can’t believe I didn’t smack their heads in!’ she rages, walking over to inspect Taïga’s mouth. ‘Did you really bite her? I wish I had done it myself.’
Taïga lovers the Kleenex. ‘Nah. But I wish I would have, too.’
She is rewarded by a smile from Agnès. ‘I don’t believe in violence, but that’s a step in the right direction.’
The door is thrown up on Louise and Clotilde, who with Charlotte and Eveline in tow, purposefully stride into the bedroom.
‘Get out of here!’ Agnès says vehemently gesturing for them to leave.
‘It’s Eveline and Charlotte’s room-’ Clotilde points out, ‘-and they have invited us. N’est-pas?’
Charlotte and Eveline nod.
‘Que se passe-t-il? What’s going on?’ Marie-France catches up with them and squeezes into the room, eager to be part of whatever is going to happen. She settles cross-legged on Eveline’s bed, ready for the show down.
‘That stupid gypsy girl has stolen Louise’s boyfriend,’ Clotilde hisses while she continues staring at Taïga. ‘It’s about time she learns to stay in her place.’
‘In her place!’ Agnès mimicks. ‘She’s as much in her place as anyone else here – you included. And if this is some reference to your old aristocracy, know that the plebe did a good job cutting of heads during the revolution and since then your titles are just bla-bla!’
‘Exactement.’ Jeanne is looking straight at Louise. ‘And I completely understand Louis. If I was a boy I’d fall in love with Taïga myself!’
Louise’s clique gasp. Nobody has ever talked to her like that before.
Louise looks at Clotilde, but the weasel faced girl is busy staring at Taïga. Louise hesitates but she can’t back down in front of her clique. Resolutely she takes a step forward and spits at Jeanne. She misses her face but the gesture is so vile everyone gasps.
Taïga is appalled. She has never seen such a behavior before. Jeanne balls her fists and tears free of Agnès restraining hands.
But it’s too late. Jeanne hesitates, then she slaps Louise on the cheek – hard. Louise yelps at the violence of the blow and, to Jeanne’s surprise, slaps immediately back. Soon they are rolling on the floor, fighting for real.
Taïga is first at a loss, then she grabs the pillow on her bed and takes a deep breath.
Eveline decides it would be best to fetch Mademoiselle Florence before it’s too late. Jeanne is strong and so furious she will surely kill Louise. And then Clotilde. And her. She sneaks out of the room without being seen.
On her way downstairs she runs into Tristan who is on his way back from the showers. He draws his breath as I to say something about her being on the boy’s floor at bedtime, but thinks better of it and politely steps aside, not wanting to start up a conversation with the boring girl.
‘Have you seen Mademoiselle Florence?’ she squeeks.
Eveline watches him continue down the hall. She never has anything interesting to say to Tristan. ‘Jeanne and Louise are fighting and it’s all Taïga’s fault!’ she blurts out without thinking.
Tristan stops in his tracks.
‘Wow. A fight! I’ll get Louis, he won’t let anybody hurt his new girlfriend!’
‘She’s not his girlfriend!’
‘Says who? Louise?’
Tristan runs back towards the boys rooms and Eveline continues downstairs, satisfied to have provoked at least a reaction from him. A few moments later the boys are running barefoot in the corridors in the direction of the girl’s dorm.
But when they arrive, the battle has transformed into a pillow fight. They rapidly grab a pillow each and rush into the heart of the fight!
Taïga is soon cornered by Louis and Tristan.
‘Take this! Prends ça!’
‘Pas touche, Tristan! Hands off.’
‘You’re not allowed to pillow fight!’ Philippe primly shouts from the doorway. ‘C’est interdit!’
Louis stops for a second. ‘Arrête, Philippe! Stop being such a bore!’
‘Yeah…’ Taïga gasps for breath. ‘C’mon! Join us!’
But Philippe turns on his heels and leaves. He’s soon back, though, with a heap of pillows that makes the others cheer and grab new ones. Philippe jumps ferociously into the fight, smacking and whacking as if he had never done this kind of thing in his life before, and now has to compensate for eleven years of well-mannered restraint.
The arrival of Eveline with Mademoiselle Florence and Fahd’s bodyguard puts an abrupt ending to the pillow fight.
In the ensuing silence the feathers fall with a whisper to the floor. Nobody moves, but everybody’s eyes are not on Mademoiselle Florence, but on Eveline.
‘Eveline thought you were fighting,’ Mademoiselle Florence says severely. ‘But this is just as bad. You do understand that I must write a report on this? And that your parents will be notified.’
‘Lucky for Taïga she doesn’t have any parents, then,’ Louise mutters.
They had had so fun for the last minutes, all of them, but now her comment is a real throwback.
‘Do you have anything to add, Mademoiselle de Lautrec?’
After having cleaned up and gone to bed with now rather flat pillows, the children settle and the academy grows quiet.
The evenings are getting darker and a little colder. There are fireplaces all over the château, but they are all blocked. I would have loved sitting by the fire, cozy, like we used to back in Bigwood Falls. But I guess it is too dangerous with all the kids. The other night one of the lamps short-circuited and the table in the hall on our floor caught fire! But Mademoiselle Florence put it out so quickly we didn’t even have the time to get scared.
When the firefighters got here it was all over. There are electricians all over the place now, checking the circuits. I heard Monsieur Lambert talking about suing EDF because the electricity is all new or something…”
With the police and electricians taking over the premises, the children aren’t allowed inside. The other classes leave on improvised outings, but Taïga and her friends are punished for the pillow fight last night and have to rake leaves in the park surrounding the château.
Clotilde is last out. She had tried to hide in the library, but an electrician found her and brought her downstairs to Monsieur Lambert’s office. Luckily for Clotilde, he was busy with the Captain of the fire brigade and the chief of police concerning the possibility the fire was intentional. Clotilde grabs her coat and hurries outside to find Louise, but the first person she sets eye on is Taïga, all alone raking the leaves in front of the stairs.
Both girls freeze. Clotilde waves her over, and reluctantly Taïga approaches. She holds her rake like a shield in front of her and knows she will use it to defend herself. Clotilde seems to realize it, too. She changes her aggressive posture, trying a smile that looks fake to Taïga. Clotilde never smiles at her. She swallows, unsure of what will happen next but keeping her head high and forcing herself to look into Clotilde’s small beady eyes.
‘Where’s everyone?’ Clotilde asks.
‘On the backside. And over there.’ Taïga nods towards the sunny south side of the old edifice where she knows Marie-France and Agnès are raking. Clotilde hurries away without a word. So does Taïga, but in the opposite direction. Better have a lot of people around if Clotilde is trying something.
But she hasn’t walked far when Clotilde falls into step with her. Taïga can’t really stop walking, but her eyes dart from side to side, trying to make out Jeanne or at least Henri. She changes the rake from her right hand to her left, it feels somehow safer to have it between herself and the weasel faced girl.
Clotilde tries a friendly smile for the benefit of the teachers watching them pass and asks her sweetly if she could help her find Louise.
Taïga frowns. What’s up now?
‘Better. Take me to her,’ Clotilde commands.
‘She’s just over there…’ Taïga points towards the far corner of the park where they can see Louise sitting on the old horse cart, watching Charlotte slave away while listening attentively to Eveline.
‘… with Eveline,’ she adds just for the pleasure to see Clotilde’s expression. To her satisfaction Clotilde frowns with irritation and accelerates into a run.
So Clotilde is jealous of Eveline. She’s afraid the intelligent girl will take her place… Taïga smiles grimly. It won’t change a thing for her, though. Eveline seems just as inventive as Clotilde when it comes to find ways to torture Taïga to please Louise. And if Clotilde is angry, she will direct it at Taïga, not at Eveline.
Louis, Tristan and Fahd are watching something on the ground behind some bushes a few yards away. Fahd calls her over, and curious she approaches. They have found a little grey squirrel which terrified crouches at their feet.
‘It hid in the leaves and I must have hurt it with my rake,’ Louis says.
‘It’s not dead,’ Fahd says.
‘It might be hurt though,’ Louis says thoughtfully. ‘It looks paralyzed to me.’
‘Paralyzed with fear, yeah,’ Tristan says. ‘Like an opossum!’
Taïga listens to the boys with one ear, admitting Tristan might be right. She kneels and calls the squirrel softly. The little animal turns its head and looks at her with black moist eyes. She approaches her hand and it hesitates for a split second before it climbs onto her hand, turning in a circle, ready to jump off again.
She stands up slowly, holding it carefully with both hands.
‘Wow… how did you do that?’
‘I don’t know… Critters seem to like me.’
‘Can I hold it?’ Fahd asks.
‘Sure. Here, take it.’
She holds out the tiny animal and Fahd takes it with precaution in his gloved hands. He holds the little animal and strokes its soft fur with a gloved finger. Louis and Tristan hover envious around him.
‘Is it smooth?’
‘It looks smooth.’
‘How would I know?’ Fahd answers their inquiries. ‘I have gloves on. I want to take them off,’ he adds holding his hand out for someone to help him.
But the squirrel decides enough is enough. It wriggles around and suddenly bites his finger. Even with gloves on, the sharp teeth pinches hard and with a scream the boy lets go of it. They all drop to their knees to try to catch it, but Tristan is the fastest. He succeeds in blocking the frightened little animal against the ground, holding it down with his hand over its back.
‘You should let it go,’ Taïga says. ‘It is terrified now.’
‘Wait, I just want to touch it with my hand.’ Fahd is already pulling his gloves off, checking his finger for a bite mark.
‘Allons les enfants, au travail! Il y a encore des feuilles à ramasser!’ Monsieur Lefebvre is calling for them to get back to raking.
‘Tout de suite Monsieur Lefebvre!’ But nobody is moving.
‘Yeah. What are you doing?’ An impetuous voice from above make them startle and Tristan loses his grip on the tiny animal who seizes its chance and scurries away. With a common sigh they watch the little fur ball disappear into the bushes and up a tree where it stops just out of reach as if to taunt them.
‘Taïga caught a squirrel,’ Louis says.
Clotilde snorts and Louise brushes back a strand of golden hair from her pink cheeks. ‘Don’t you know they are overcome with fleas?’
‘Oh, que oui,’ Eveline nods in agreement. ‘And now Taïga is probably full of them.’
‘Better stand away so you don’t get infested, too,’ Clotilde adds, making a grimace and taking a step away for good measure.
‘Then we’re already infested,’ Tristan says. ‘We all touched the little critter – with our gloves!’
‘I was going to touch it with my hand!’ Fahd adds vehemently, glaring at Clotilde. ‘If you hadn’t showed up and spoilt it.’
‘Maybe it’s best if you get some distance away from us,’ Louis says, reaching his hand out to help Taïga to her feet.
Monsieur Lefebvre is approaching and they all grab their rakes to continue the tedious work. All of them except Louise, whose rake is still by the horse cart. Without hesitation she snatches Taïga’s out of her hands.
‘Here, take mine.’ Louis offers her his. ‘I’ll head back to the shed to pick up another one, no problem.’
Louis is soon back again. He keeps close to Taïga, chatting amiably while they rake. He asks her lots of questions about Bigwood Falls, Vulturu and Monte Aquila. He has travelled a lot himself, spending most vacations with his parents somewhere fancy. They have an apartment on the avenue Foch in Paris and a family residence that Taïga thinks sounds suspiciously like a castle even though he tries to keep his descriptions low key.
As soon as they have gathered a mound of leaves, Fahd’s bodyguard loads the leaves in a wheelbarrow. There is soon a gigantic mound far off in the park where they will burn it later in the afternoon. Monsieur Lefebvre and Mademoiselle Béjart hang around the giant mound, drinking steaming hot coffee from mugs and making sure to secure the area.
Taïga’s little group soon has a mound of their own, but before the bodyguard has the time to show up with his wheelbarrow, Tristan and Fahd get a splendid idea… Why work so hard if they can’t have a little fun, too? Jeanny is not hard to convince and soon they are all playing around in the leaves, kicking and throwing them high in the air. Fahd and Tristan come running fast, jumping straight in.
Eveline hurries over, shouting something about it not being allowed to thrash the pile. Charlotte is scurrying after her, hoping Eveline won’t stop the fun before she herself gets a chance at rushing through the thick layer of leaves. They both stop a few yards away and stare.
So do Louise, Clotilde and Marie-France. The kids playing around in the leaves are demoted to second plan when they catch sight of Taïga and Louis.
Everyone seems to be staring at them, but for once Taïga doesn’t mind. In fact, she can only think of Louis’s arm nonchalantly slung over her shoulder just like she has seen him do with Tristan, or Fahd or even Henri. But still not the same. It feels like finally she is out of reach of her tormentors, like the sun finally breaks through the dark clouds that has so far been her existence at school. A silver lining. His arm is like a protective shield, effectively making a statement that burns in Louise and Clotilde’s eyes.
Taïga avoids looking their way, knowing they are staring at her, following her every movement without being able to do anything to stop her from being the one Louis likes.
Agnès glances towards Taïga and does a double take when he sees how Louis looks at her. Oh no! She is happy that Louis likes Taïga but this will only infuriate Louise and Clotilde further. She makes a heart with her fingers, making Taïga blush and Louise seethe. Louis just laughs. He lets go of Taïga’s shoulders and grabs her hand instead. She can feel her heart beat faster when their gloved fingers clumsily entwine. Taïga stiffens, but she doesn’t withdraw her hand. She doesn’t put in much resistance neither when he drags her towards the now almost scattered heap.
Soon they’re all playing around. Louis throws a whole bunch of leaves over Taïga, making her scream with delight.
Louise’s clique is fulminating.
‘I can’t believe her guts.’
‘Oui. She’s incredible – just look at her!’
‘She’s so clingy…’
‘Louis won’t take it for long-’
‘-he’s probably just trying out the plebs…’
‘She will bore him after a while.’
Louise sniffles, throwing back her hair with an impatient gesture of her head. ‘Of course he will be bored…’ Her eyes bury into Taïga’s back. ‘But it should have been me…’ she adds so low not even Clotilde hears her.
Part I – End of Chapter 46