One afternoon Taïga finishes unexpectedly early and decides to walk home from school instead of waiting for the bus.
Taking a shortcut through the woods, she finds some intriguing footprints in the snow, and when she follows them she sees a wild horse by the Water Tower.
She gets really near the beautiful animal, but not near enough to touch it. It runs away in a cloud of snow and Taïga sets off home in a hurry. She hadn’t given it a thought before, but the idea grows in her mind as she approaches home. She wants a pony! Or at least riding lessons. But trying to convince her grandmother will not be easy.
She finds her grandmother upstairs, adding rags to her magical chest.
‘Please, please, please, Granny? Can I have a horse?’
Granny stares at Taïga. ‘A horse?’
‘Yes! Or a pony.’
‘Well, keeping a horse is very expensive. It needs food and-’
‘There’s lots off grass in the garden.’
‘But we don’t have a garden big enough to feed a horse!’
Taïga doesn’t understand. ‘Our garden is huge, Granny. And we don’t have any neighbors who will complain about the smell.’
‘It still isn’t big enough to keep a horse… And it would need a stable.’
‘We can fix the garage. You never park your car in there anyways.’
‘Anyway,’ Granny corrects, adding, ‘A horse is very expensive.’
‘But can’t we try to capture the one I saw in the forest?’
‘It’s against the law to catch wild Mustangs. And if it’s wild you can’t ride it anyway.’
‘That’s why it would be a good idea if I could take riding lessons! Carla does.’
‘Carla’s parents own the riding center,’ Granny points out. Better try to stop this conversation before her granddaughter talks her into something she doesn’t want to. ‘What about your sleepover? Have you decided who you want to invite?’
‘Oh, yes! I’ve made a list. It’s upstairs in my bag, I’ll get it!’
After Granny has given her consent, Taïga starts on the invitations, drawing them herself, and each one is different.
She counts inviting all her friends from school, even Derek. But maybe he won’t come to such a girly thing as a sleepover? She’ll better invite some boys too.
Derek and some of the boys on his team are having a snowball fight with their coach, and Taïga doesn’t dare call him over.
It’s finally Felicity who yells, ‘Hey! Der! Taïga wants to ask you something.’
Taïga shushes at her bigmouthed friend to be quiet, and is surprised to see Derek amble over.
He grins at her. ‘I hope you’re not asking me to be your boyfriend or something stupid like that?’ he jokes.
Taïga blushes. ‘Of course not! I just wanted to give you this.’ She hands him the invitation but someone else snaps it out her hands. Serena spins on her skates, staying just out of reach of Taïga who doesn’t even try to get it back. It’s no use, she’s too clumsy.
Serena’s friends flock around her, reading Taïga’s invitation.
She has forgotten to mention the number to the Cove on the invitation, as Serena willingly points out. ‘So very unprofessional. How do you confirm?’
Taïga feels stupid. Taïga can’t see why you have to make an invitation to a Slumber Party professional anyway. So far everyone has said yes immediately, and those who haven’t will answer tomorrow in person. So what’s the problem if the stupid number is missing?
She doesn’t have the time to answer before Serena bats her eyelashes at Derek. ‘What do you think, Derek?’
She leaves the snotty girl with Derek and skates away to where Zoe and Felicity are waiting for her.
‘How did it go? Will he come? I saw Serena took the invitation.’
‘I don’t know. I just hope Serena won’t come.’
‘I doubt it,’ Felicity says, skating past them backwards.
But no such luck. ‘We’ll be there!’ Serena calls. ‘Is it fancy dress?’
‘Err… Yes.’ Taïga hasn’t thought about it, thinking they’d all wear PJ’s, but fancy dress sounds like a good idea. She searches for Derek, but he’s back with his friends, bombarding their coach with snow balls.
She doesn’t really get the opportunity to ask him until the day before the party. She treks down to the river where she’s sure to find him playing hockey with his friends after school. She sits on her jacket, hoping he’ll notice her and come over, but as usual Serena and the Pinkies are there.
He waves at her and she signals him to come closer. But Serena has something else in mind. She swirls onto the ice right onto Derek and they both fall.
Taïga watches Derek get to his feet in a smooth movement, holding his hand out to Serena who’s crying, massaging her leg. Comedy, Taïga thinks. Pulling her beanie low on her head, she grabs her jacket she was sitting on and shakes off the snow before pulling it on. Serena is holding on to Derek as if she didn’t know how to skate. She snorts and turns on her heels.
‘Hey! Wait!’ She stops and turns around, seeing him come skating so fast he has to jump up onto the snow clad beach where she’s standing. She staggers backwards and he laughs.
‘Heard about your party. Am I supposed to be jealous of Teddy or am I invited, too?’
‘Of course you are. I just didn’t get around to invite you.’ Not since Serena grabbed your invitation, she adds to herself.
‘Cool. Serena said it’s fancy dress. I think I’ll come as a werewolf.’
‘A werewolf? That’s a cool idea!’
‘And what about you?’
‘I might dress up like a witch!’
‘Oh, yeah – you’ll look good with a wart on your big nose!’
‘My nose isn’t big!’
‘It should be, if you’re disguised as a witch!’
‘And you’re a pain!’
‘Maybe I won’t let you in!’
‘Maybe I won’t come!’ …
Taïga bites her lip, looking at her feet. Why does it feel like the whole world is about to crumble if he doesn’t come? ‘Seriously? You really don’t wanna come?’ She searches his face.
Derek looks contrite. ‘Err… sorry. Of course I do.’ He looks up at her with a rare wolfish smile. ‘Just to have a look at the wart on your big nose!’
She lashes out at him, but he dodges and laughing she chases after him.
Mrs. Brown is so happy to have a child in the house. For Taïga’s sleepover, she goes all out, preparing everything Taïga loves and then some. There’s a chocolate fountain and an ice-cream machine, cheeseburgers and fries, cookies, cupcakes, muffins and doughnuts. She has prepared sodas, homemade strawberry juice and fruit cocktails to wash it all down.
Against her will, Granny gets a little carried away, too. While Mrs. Brown busies herself in the kitchen, she takes care of the decorating together with her granddaughter. They blow balloons until their heads turn, push around furniture to liberate some space in the living room for the kids to sleep in, and finally they test the old popcorn machine Granny has had delivered as an extra surprise.
Finally everything is ready, but Taïga lingers. She’s still hesitating about which costume to wear.
‘A red princess or a flower fairy? I love the dress but I want to wear the flower crown…’
‘Why not both,’ Granny mutters, attaching a string of lights above the tables laden with goodies with a swirl of her wand. ‘You should hurry, dear. The first guess will soon get here.’ She shoos her granddaughter out of the dining room, nervously peeking through the frosty window. ‘And don’t forget to shower!’ She calls after her.
Taïga is so excited. She dances around her room, looking down at the front yard from her window, but there are no sign of any cars yet. What if no one is coming? She fights off the insisting thought, knowing that at least Teddy and Derek will come. And Zoe and Chloé Durwood, Mara, Felicity and Wilhemina – her new besties from school. She sighs. If she could only banish the sinking feeling in her stomach… Granny said Yoga takes away stress, and she has seen her grandmother sitting in what she calls the “Lotus” position. But she also said that the more difficult the position is, the better liberating the spirit works. She lets herself fall backwards, standing on her hands and feet in a backstretch. But the nervous butterflies are still there. The towel falls off her hair, dripping water onto her new princess carpet at the same time as the sound of an approaching car. Quickly she gets back onto her feet, and hurries to retrieve her dress from the magic chest.
Looking out the window, she’s disappointed. There’s no sign of a car. She holds the flower crown made of red rose hybrids from Granny’s winter garden and breathes in the heavy scent.
Granny’s words ring in her ears, ‘A flower without a scent is like a beautiful person without personality. Sometimes the tiniest and most insignificant flowers are the ones with the most wonderful smell. Just look at the lily of the valley…’
‘Wanna play tag, Princess?’
Taïga swirls around, putting her crown on her head and making her long dress spin prettily around her feet. She is face to face with a familiar Roman soldier.
‘Hey, was it your car? Your disguise is terrific, Derek, but weren’t you supposed to be a werewolf?’
‘Sorry to disappoint you, Serena,’ Derek insists on the name, teasing Taïga.
‘But I’m not Serena, stupid!’ She waves a lock of her dark hair in front of her face.
‘Oh, then you must be… Taïga? But she’s not as pretty as you are, my princess. And she was supposed to be an ugly warty witch!’
‘What?’ Taïga clenches her fists and her mouth tightens to a thin line as she angrily tries to stare him down.
I hate him! Why does he always have to tease me? He can go to hell! I don’t want to play his stupid games anyway. I hate him!
He just grins at her, looking aggravatingly smug.
‘Not as pretty, huh!?!’ Taïga reaches for a pillow and smacks him with it. Hard.
‘Ouch! That hurts!’
‘Take it back, you brat!’
She swings the pillow again, hitting his shoulder and making him sway.
‘But I… I was just saying-’ Derek backs around the room, trying to avoid a furious Taïga, until he can grab a pillow too, and counterattack.
‘I heard what you were saying!’ She ducks, striking sideways and almost making him fall.
‘No! Ouch! I mean you’re pretty dressed like that… Like a princess!’
He tries hitting her pillow out of her hands but to no avail. He’s got a fury in front of him, and she doesn’t hold back when she swings her pillow again and again.
‘But I’m NOT pretty otherwise!?!’ Her pillow comes at him again, making his head spin. ‘Huh!?!’
‘I never said that!’
‘You did!’ She swings her pillow low, trying to destabilize his knees, but he jumps over it.
They don’t stop fighting until the pillows are broken and feathers are whirling all around them, imitating the snowflakes outside.
‘Oups!’ Derek looks from his slack pillowcase at her, an expression of dismay on his face.
Out of breath they look at each other and soon a bubbling laughter erupts.
To his surprise she doesn’t fight back when he pulls her into his arms in a fierce hug.
Taïga is stunned but she doesn’t want him to let go. She would never have thought that it could feel so incredibly good to have him close. How come she changes her opinion like that? In her mind he sways from stupid brat to funny friend. And why is her heart beating so fast when he’s around? She feels tingly all over and jittery and warm and special and she simply can’t stop smiling.
But of course the moment doesn’t last. A loud knock on the open door, followed by a snickering makes them fly apart. It’s cowplant Jordan who’s on Derek’s team. Now he’s looking at them with a glint in his eyes that makes Taïga blush a deep red.
‘If you’re finished making out, your Grams is waiting for you downstairs – with about a hundred kids!’
‘We were not making out!’ they both protest.
‘Well, I saw what I saw. And so did they!’ He gestures to some kids on the landing Taïga doesn’t recognize, but who are all snickering.
‘Oh, shit,’ Derek mutters.
‘Hail to the Princess! Give way!’ Jordan howls, making Derek do a mock salut. Taïga lifts her chin and strides out from her room.
The blond girl grabs the alien’s arm and drags him towards the stairs without even saying hi.
The scientist, XXX, hugs her quickly. ‘Don’t mind Caryn, she’s a bitch. Probably off telling Serena all about your hug. It’s gonna be a great party, kids are queuing outside!’
‘Yeah. Go ahead, I’ll be right down.’ Taïga hurries off towards the bathroom. If Serena and the Pinkies are downstairs, she has to make sure her appearance is flawless…
She throws a glance over the railing at the crowd downstairs. Fancy dress had seemed to be such a great idea, but now she almost regrets it. She hardly recognizes anyone.
Aliens, fairies, superheroes, cowboys and Indians are milling about, laughing and showing off their costumes. Nobody seems to pay attention to her.
A little nervous, she hesitates at the top of the stairs. Derek and a blond doll who probably is Serena are talking. Serena is smiling coyly, drawing attention as usual. Taïga is willing Derek to raise his head, but he’s busy listening to that simpering- Gaah. She gathers her skirts and starts downstairs.
Vampire Ryan and hotdog Wilhelmina’s arrival draws everybody’s attention, even Derek and Serena turn their heads towards the commotion at the door.
‘Hey! Pretty Princess!’ Ryan shouts, raising both hands in the sign of the horns.
‘I’m a doll, duh!’ Serena answers, rolling her eyes.
‘I wasn’t talking to you, duh,’ Ryan says, looking at the stairs. ‘Pretty Princess Taïga!’
Serena’s face falls and Taïga grins back at Ryan. It suddenly feels like this is going to be a great party after all.
While the kids are having fun, Granny takes refuge in the kitchen where Mrs. Brown is starting on the cheeseburgers, trying to have a quiet cup of tea and one of her favorite chocolate chip cookies. But there’s soon a ruckus in the hall as a fiendish alien chases a cowboy and a plantsim into the kitchen, spilling Minuit’s water all over the floor before Granny shoos them out.
Teddy wants to show Granny his superhero costume with muscles and Granny is duly impressed. She searches Mrs. Brown’s eyes for help but the old housekeeper just calmly finishes preparing the hamburgers, or fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches or whatever kiddy stuff she’s preparing. Granny sighs, tuning out Teddy’s rambling and the intergalactic war between different Alien species that is taking place in the hall…
Mrs. Brown has finally finished and tries to calm everyone down, explaining how to use the ice-cream machine.
Granny is rather happy about the turn of the events. The kids are hanging on Mrs. Brown’s words, worshipping the old maid, and thus leaving her alone. She finishes her cup of tea, deciding to retire to her study when she catches one of the kids talking about Mrs. Brown calling her Taïga’s grams. Granny turns on her heels and stomps back into the kitchen.
‘Where’s the ingredients to the chocolate fountain?’ she asks, tapping her feet.
Mrs. Brown flips over a new set of hamburgers, nodding towards the fridge, ‘The fruit bouquets are all set and the chocolate mixture is in the cupboard. Take the milk chocolate one, the kids prefer-’
‘I know what the kids prefer,’ Granny says curtly, stapling everything onto a tray and carrying it into the dining room.
It feels quite good to have all the kids gather around her to watch her start the fountain. The ooh’ and aah’s are curiously gratifying. Granny even inaugurates the fountain herself, taking the biggest stick with strawberries and marshmallows.
Taïga waits politely for everyone to be served before trying it herself. It’s easily the best thing she has ever tasted.
Later that night, they install their sleeping bags haphazardly on the floor of the living room. Taïga can’t sleep. She lies awake, listening to the soft breathing of the children all around her. If she turns her head, she can see Derek’s dark hair emerging from his orange sleeping bag, and next to him there’s Teddy. She finally falls asleep with a smile on her face.
Granny and Mrs. Brown clean up a little before retiring. They stop on the stairs, looking at the multicolored sleeping bags strewn all over the floor.
‘It was a great party,’ Mrs. Brown murmurs.
‘Uh-huh,’ Granny mutters back. ‘Very noisy, though,’ she adds, continuing upstairs.
After midnight, when all the kids are all partied out and soundly asleep in their sleeping bags on the floor, a threatening silhouette approaches the Cove. The burglar stops and looks through the misty window, surprised to see the floor littered with sleeping kids. It wasn’t part of his plans. He had staked out the Cove this summer, making sure there were only two old ladies living there. This should have been a zero risk operation, but with all these kids…
The stakes are too important…
The valuable painting on the opposite wall draws his eyes and he decides to go through with it.
Granny’s eyes pop open. ‘Strange… I thought I heard something…’
She swings her legs over the edge of the bed and shivers a little. ‘Now where are my slippers?’ she mumbles, looking at the little nutcracker with the broken wing. It seems to be asleep too, so what was the noise waking her up?
‘I better check on the kids downstairs. Probably one of them sleepwalking or trying to prank us in the morning,’ she mutters, sliding her feet into the warmth of the fur lined slippers.
Tightening her robe around her waist, she starts out onto the landing, but freezes when she catches sight of a movement by the staircase. She presses her back against the wall, holding her hand against her hammering heart.
OMG, a burglar!
She quickly backs into her room and silently closes the door before the burglar catches sight of her. For the first time in her life, she regrets not having a cell phone. She wonders if Mrs. Brown is awake, but no such luck. The old housekeeper is snoring loudly in her room across the landing. Granny wrings her hands. She can’t just stay here, hiding in her room while there’s an intruder in her home. She has to do something before he gets downstairs again. Before he hurts the children…
Maybe it’s already too late? Maybe he has killed them all and she will walk down right into something out of a scary movie. She takes a deep breath, and peeks through the keyhole. No sight of the burglar, but she can hear the floorboards creek upstairs. She knows exactly what to do. If only she could get into her study where the palantìr is…
‘I’ve hit jackpot tonight! Just look at those pictures on the wall, they must be worth a fortune…’ The burglar mumbles to himself, looking around the room. He opens his sack and starts throwing in various valuables, when there’s a creaking sound behind him. He spins around, but there is no one…
‘Phew… I’m getting nervous. Better hurry up…’ Suddenly he freezes. ‘What the hell is that!?!’
Something is coming out of the wall…
The burglar is scared out of his mind, thinking the old lady is some kind of ghost or evil spirit. The sack slides out of his grip and he backs away from Granny.
‘Nonono, don’t come near me!’
He turns and runs, but the old house is a maze and he dashes through Granny’s study with all her supernatural paraphernalia, scaring him even more. He jumps through the window and slides down the snow-covered roofs. Faster and faster, he loses his balance and tumbles down straight into the arms of the police officer who just got there. Granny hurries back inside and downstairs before the police officer has the time to ring the bell.
Out of breath she closes the door behind her, watching the police officer cuff the burglar who’s mumbling incoherently about ghosts and demons.
‘We’re so lucky you came here so fast, officer,’ she stammers.
The officer opens the door to the police cruiser. ‘I’ll have to take your statement, ma’am. I thought it was a prank, you see. A kid calling in a burglar alert. Luckily I decided to check it out… Watch your head.’
‘Would you mind awfully coming back tomorrow around noon? Or I could maybe drop by the station? My granddaughter has a slumber party and I don’t want to upset the parents…’
The officer nods. ‘I can’t see why not. We’ve got the perpetrator red-handed, so to say. We’ll give you a call, ma’am… Watch your head.’ He protects the burglar’s head as he ushers him into the backseat.
The police officer wipes some snow away from the windshield with his hand. ‘Darn weather, the car’s already covered in snow and I’ve been here for five minutes… Goodnight, ma’am.’
She watches the car back away and turn around, disappearing in a cloud of snow. She tiptoes back upstairs. Thank the Goddess the kids didn’t wake up…
The next morning Granny is first up. She has a quiet cup of tea, waiting for the kids to wake up and the parents to start dropping by to pick them up. Quietly she discusses the events with Mrs. Brown who agrees that they must somehow find out who called in the burglar.
Taïga is happy, her party was a success and all the kids want to come back and play again. The Vargas brothers are the last ones to leave. Derek hugs Taïga, whispering in her ear to be careful see to it the doors are properly closed at night.
She follows his advice, turning the key twice after him, making Granny raise an eyebrow in surprise.=.
‘Derek told me to be careful,’ she explains before hugging first her grandmother, then Mrs. Brown. ‘Thanks! This was the best party ever!’
The two old ladies throw each other a meaningful glance. Granny frowns and the three of them watch Derek’s silhouette disappear in the falling snow.
So it was him…
After a busy day, depositing a statement at the police station and running some errands in town, Granny settles on Taïga’s bed to read from the old spell book.
‘… and you must cut the frog’s tongue out while it’s still alive…’
‘Yuk! Does it have to be alive?’
‘Well, if you want the full power of the potion – yes. It has to be alive.’
‘I don’t need to learn that recipe, then. Because I’ll never make that if I have to hurt a poor animal!’
‘As you wish, Taïga. We’ll try it tomorrow, without that ingredient, and see how it works.’
She continues reading for a while longer, until she notices that her granddaughter is already asleep. She marks the page. ‘Goodnight now,’ she whispers to the sleeping child.
‘Goodnight, Granny,’ Taïga murmurs back.
She tries to exit the room silently, but the old floorboards are treacherous and creaky.
‘Granny… Have you ever been in love, Granny?’
Her grandmother stops at the door. ‘Err…’
‘What does it feel like?’
Granny sits down on the bed again. ‘That’s a lot of questions, Taïga…’ She lets the sentence trail, seemingly lost in distant memories.
‘Tell me. Please.’
A slow smile lights up her old face, and for a fleeting moment Taïga can imagine the young woman her grandmother once was.
‘Ahem… When you see the person you love, or just thinking about them… Err… I guess it feels like you have butterflies in your stomach. You feel like you always want to be around that other person and talk to them…’
‘… the mere sight of them makes it all better and you can’t wipe the smile off your face…’
‘… and then -when he finally kisses you- it’s like fireworks on the 4th of July-’
‘Yuk! That’s gross! Does he have to kiss you?’
Granny’s eyes pops open. ‘Err… no. Of course not. Ahem… The day you fall in love, Taïga, you’ll know. But you’re still too young. Goodnight.’
Granny leaves the door ajar.
She’s not in love, is she? She mustn’t be. That young boy isn’t suitable, they can never be allowed to unite. It’s far too soon… What am I thinking? The wretched girl is only a child. Of course she’s not in love. Hmpff… But I will have to talk to Missy anyway…
Taïga sleeps fitfully, dreaming about her prince…
… and about her Mom…
As soon as she’s had breakfast, Taïga joins her grandmother in the attic. Granny has already started on the potion, taking care of the basics before the arrival of her grandchild.
‘Promise there aren’t any frog’s tongues?’
Granny avoids looking at her grandchild. ‘I told you last night we’d give it a try, didn’t I?’
‘Yes, but look at the color, Granny! Should it be that blue?’
‘Err… No… But it’s not heated yet. Let me see…’
Taïga stares at the bizarre blue mixture. ‘Maybe we should put something else in the potion? To replace the frog’s tongues.’
‘Like what? Have you got an Idea?’
‘Granny… You’re the one who knows how to make a good potion!’
‘Yes, but you’re the one who didn’t want the frogs’ tongues! Let’s stir it some.’ Granny is peeking down the huge cauldron when suddenly a frog leaps out of it, bounces off Taïga and disappears into the corner, hiding under some scrolls and ancient tomes.
Taïga’s face falls. ‘Granny. You promised!’
Granny has the decency to look abashed. ‘I know. But sometimes you have to follow the instructions to the letter…’ Especially when it comes to letting the frog into the cold water and slowly heat it…
Part I – End of Chapter 05