The Christmas holidays are over and Taïga is going to school for the first time in her life. Granny watches her leave, trekking through the forest to the crossroads in the deep snow, her large schoolbag on her back. She had offered to drive her, but the stubborn girl insisted on taking the school bus with the other kids. She checks the time, Taïga should make it to the crossroads largely in time for the bus. What if she gets lost? Maybe she should get dressed and drive after her…
‘She won’t come home any faster because you keep staring out the window,’ Mrs. Brown says drily, passing with the vacuum cleaner.
Granny just snorts, and heads for the stairs. She’ll have a better view from upstairs anyway…
Taïga shyly keeps her gaze averted as the school bus fills with buoying children. Hugging her new schoolbag tight to her chest, she stares out at the pristine landscape and listens to the other kids talking about their Christmas holidays. She has longed for this day as long as she can remember, but now she has second thoughts. Why did she refuse when Granny offered to drive her? It would have been reassuring to have her by her side when they arrive at school, but she wants to be brave. Showing the other kids how scared she truly is, is not an option.
When they arrive at school, it has started snowing again. She stops before getting out of the bus and stares at the huge building. School. Her school.
‘Hey! Are you getting off or not?’
‘Yeah, move it, kiddo!’
Someone pushes her and she stumbles out, almost falling on the slippery ground. Regaining her balance, she steps aside to let the other kids pass.
She’s nervous and excited but also scared. Everybody seem to know each other but she has always been homeschooled as her mother, Shasta, never seemed to be able to settle down for long somewhere. So she can read, and she knows her tables, but that’s about all. She’s terrified she will never melt in, that the other kids will make fun of her…
She takes a deep breath and joins the steady stream of children on their way through the double doors. Granny has briefed her on the procedure, and first she has to find the admissions office, or the principal’s office.
The principal takes her to her new class through endless corridors. Taïga is sure she’ll never be able to find her way back. He knocks on one of the white doors lining the blue wall and a beautiful woman with her blonde hair pulled back in a stylish bun opens. She thanks the principal and smiles at Taïga, taking her backpack.
‘You must be Taïga. I’m Mrs. Hoppcraft. Come on, I’ll introduce you to the class, or a third of it. We’re working on different science projects in groups…’
They walk through a little anteroom with a washbasin and an open door leading to a room with cages. Mrs. Hoppcraft notices her looking and quickly explains about the pets.
She pushes open another door and Taïga steels herself. Her first impression of the brightly lit classroom is that it’s not very big. There’s a lot of activities going on though and the sound level is pretty high.
The walls are hung with brightly colored posters and the children seem to be working on building things. She can’t see a manual anywhere, nor a blackboard with strange formulas. Not that she’s looking around – she’s busy keeping her eyes averted, trying frantically not to blush.
The laughter and talking stops and the kids all stare at her for a brief moment. They quickly revert to their activities, probably thinking it’s uncool to stare, bit she can see them throwing curious glances.
‘Don’t touch that, Peanut. It’s fragile,’ the teacher says to a boy who’s making the planets on a solar system model turn around the sun, faster and faster.
Peanut? What kind of name is that?
‘Listen up, everyone. This is Taïga, she’s coming all the way from Los Aniegos in California and she’s …’
Taïga concentrates on wordly stuff, like counting the chairs and such to keep her mind off the uneasy feeling of being scrutinized. There are only four tables and seating for eight. Her class can’t be as small, can it? What did the teacher say now again? Something about groups…
Two girls with reddish blonde hair glance up at her and smile before returning to their assignment. It looks like they are building some kind of robot. Taïga smiles back, wondering if they are sisters. She later learns that they aren’t, but that one of them has a twin sister in the other grade 1.
Her attention is drawn to the table right next to her. The boys who are making something that looks like a solar system don’t even look up, concentrated on what they are doing. A bubbly girl is leaning on their table, asking for glue. She smiles a broad smile and mouths something to Taïga, who can’t read her lips. She seems nice though, so she returns the smile.
‘… with Teddy. He’ll show you what he’s been doing so far – he’s building a rocket – and don’t worry, you’ll catch up quickly.’
Taïga hesitates, is she supposed to sit next to the boy with the cap over by the window? What did the teacher say his name was? Terry? Teddy?
Mrs. Hoppcraft, her teacher, seems to be kind, but Taïga doesn’t want to start her first day by asking questions that show that she hasn’t been listening. She tries to look cool as she walks over to his table. After staring at her openmouthed since she came into the classroom, he suddenly seems very busy and he doesn’t acknowledge her, but she can see him blushing as he bends over what apparently is going to become a rocket one day.
She didn’t need to be afraid. The kids in her class are a nice bunch and at the end of the first day she’s got invitations from three girls to come play after school. Taïga isn’t alone anymore, she spends the weekends playing outside with her new friends. They build snowmen, have snowball fights or just talk.
Taïga never thought she would love school so much. First because of the friends in her class. Second because of her thirst for knowledge; she loves history, English and especially science… She works with the boy Teddy on their project consisting on building a rocket and while he strives to be a computer engineer, she decides she wants to become a doctor, or even better – a researcher and find the remedies to all known diseases.
And then there are the pets. There’s a little grey squirrel, a black and white rat, a lizard and even a snake. But they are not allowed to touch the reptiles without the teacher present, and Taïga doesn’t want to anyway. The snake scares her more than she would let on.
The kids at school take turns cleaning, feeding and manipulating. Teddy takes her under his wing, volunteering to show her how it’s done. And it’s more fun to do the dirty work together.
But while Taïga is cleaning Herbert the squirrel’s cage, Teddy is playing around with the fat rat.
‘We were supposed to do this together. Could you at least bring me some fresh water?’
Teddy ignores her and continues shaking the pet food behind his back. ‘He’s incredibly smart. Look at him, he knows I’m going to feed him.’
‘It’s not a he, it’s a she.’
‘The sticker on the glass, duh. Mrs. Perrywinkle. If it was a “he” it would surely say Mister Periwinkle.’
Teddy looks at the little rat sitting on its fat hind legs, its little nose quivering. ‘Whatever. He wants me to pick him up. Explain that if you can!’
‘I guess he just- I mean, she probably just wants to get out of her cage.’
Teddy looks doubtful. ‘I wish mom would let me have a rat… or at least a dog.’
‘Yeah. Somehow I don’t think Granny would be overly enthusiastic neither…’
‘But you have a cat. Even if it’s not like having a dog. I mean, you can’t walk it and be best buddies.’
‘Why not? I’m besties with Minuit.’
‘Yeah. But you don’t walk him, do you?’
‘of course not! And “he” is a “she”, by the way.’
‘Here you go again…’
As usual the river ends up frozen, and all the kids from Bigwood Falls meet there to skate and play hockey. Taïga admires them from afar, wanting to learn how to skate so she could join in the fun.
It seems so easy, and she can’t wait for her class to start using the ice rink at school. All the classes take turns during the season, they are either skating or skiing. There are even a couple of resorts in the mountains not too far away and her class will go for a three day trip before the winter break. That doesn’t leave much time to learn how to ski. Granny insists on the fact that she’ll learn during the stay, but Taïga doesn’t share her point of view. She’s persuaded all the kids in her class know how to ski and that she’ll make a fool out of herself if she hasn’t at least tried before.
The following weekend, Granny gives in and takes Taïga up into the mountains. Taïga is all kited out in new skiwear and there’s a brand new snow board on the backseat. Relentlessly Taïga treks up the hill and then dashes down the slopes. She’s falling a lot in her attempts to turn and stop, but apart from being covered in bruises, nothing is broken.
Her grandmother starts and gasps, closing her eyes when the speed seem too reckless. Taïga doesn’t give up until she clumsily knows how to steer and stop.
When the sun is coloring the sky a faded pink, and the snowfall seem to intensify, Granny decides it’s time to drive back home. Her toes and fingers are freezing and her nose is an angry red. She won’t be surprised if she has caught a cold, standing in the snow watching her grandchild tumble down the slopes. She has to admit that the wretched child seem to have got the hang of the whole business, though. It’s a happy but tired little girl that goes to sleep that night. And an extremely exhausted grandmother.
When their teacher finally takes them outdoors for PE, Taïga discovers skating is harder than it seems. After falling and being the laughing stock of some pretty, slightly older, girls, Mrs. Hoppcraft takes her hands and helps her finding her balance. Self-consciously she trips forward, but Mrs. Hoppcraft doesn’t let go. After a while she knows how to place her feet and Mrs. Hoppcraft asks Zoe Durwood if she can take over.
Taïga staggers forward, holding on to Zoe’s hand as if her life depended on it. She can’t help but admire the older girls twirling and she’s ashamed of falling so much. Zoe doesn’t seem to mind staying with Taïga, holding hands they skate keeping close to the rink. Her ankles hurt, but not as much as her butt. The pretty girls kid her, saying she should have brought a pillow attached to her backside. Skating is the most difficult thing she has ever done –apart from learning to master the broom- but she’s learning fast.
Taïga is a clumsy little girl. She loves to play pretend and being a princess, but she’s really more of a tomboy. Granny and Mrs. Brown have it all figured out; even though Taïga wants to join the scouts after school, they roll her up for dance lessons. Gaah.
Taïga is a little late and changes quickly into her sports outfit in the empty locker room -a loose fitting T-shirt, harem pants and sneakers- before following the sound of classical music and girls chatting…
She hesitates at the door. There are fifteen or more girls in the room, all clad in various shades of pastel colored tights and leotards. All of them wear soft ballet shoes. All of them are staring at Taïga. The girls giggle as she advances into the room. She smiles nervously, taking place at the barre. A blond pretty girl steps up to her and looks her over.
‘I’m Serena, and I’m going to play the lead at the spring festival. You will definitely lessen our chances as a team. Come on girls.’
With a malevolent glance over the shoulder she crosses the dancefloor and takes place at the barre on the other side. The other girls follow her and Taïga finds herself alone.
The dance teacher enters. ‘Good afternoon, girls!’ She looks at Taïga. ‘I see you are new here. Welcome. ’
All the girls snickers.
‘Most girls dance since they are tots, but I think you’ll catch up… eventually.’
Taïga just nods, fighting the tears.
‘And next week, put up your hair in a “chignon”.’
Taïga nods again, she doesn’t know what a “chignon” is, but she’ll make a bun like the other girls. And ask Granny for some stupid leotards…
‘Let’s take five!’ The dance teacher claps her hands and all the girls dash away to the lockers to hydrate.
Taïga prefers staying. She is practicing the movements she just has learnt when the door pushes open. Taïga does a double take when she discovers that the intruder is a boy. Who could that be? A boy? In dance class? Bigwood Falls is a conservative little town and she’s surprised. Even more so when she discovers she recognizes him. It’s the boy who saw her when she watched the school from the edge of the forest. Or at least she thinks he saw her…
She observes him out of the corner of her eye as he throws down a heavy sports bag in the corner and grimacing strikes a position.
He seems as happy as I to be here. Blushing, she quickly averts her gaze when he looks her way.
The boy is interrupted by the doors bursting open again, this time on some teenage girls, followed by the “Pinkies”.
‘How’s it going, Der?’
They all giggle, but not in the same way they did at Taïga.
The dance teacher claps her hands. ‘Get back in line girls!’
The giggling girls line up along the barre, pushing Taïga backwards until she’s last. It suits her though, like that nobody can see how clumsy she is.
The dance teacher focuses on the boy tying his laces. ‘I can see Derek has finished his football training and has decided to finally join us. Where are your tights, Derek?’
Taïga can see his jaw tense, but she can’t hear his answer.
‘Hmm… Well, get back in line.’ The teacher claps her hands.
Taïga doesn’t dare look at him as he takes up position behind her.
‘Let’s give the Ballet III and IV some space – it’s time for pair work exercises!’
All the girls quickly pair up with their BFF’s. There’s only Taïga and the boy left.
‘Hi!’ Taïga feels awkward. What if he doesn’t want to work with her?
‘Hi…’ He keeps his eyes fixed on her shoes, ‘Sneakers, huh? And err… What kind of pants are they? Hip-hop?’
‘Err… Honestly I don’t know. They were-’ She almost said they were her mom’s jazz outfit, but stops in time. Suddenly it seems important what he thinks of her. ‘-but I guess I’ll have to squeeze into tights and a leotard… Eventually…’
He snickers and glances up at her, making her gasp. She finds herself drawn in by the bluest eyes she has ever seen, fringed by impossibly long dark eyelashes. She can’t help but stare.
‘Ahem… Err… You’re not in my class, are you?’ Taïga asks just to have something to say.
‘Nope. You seriously think I’m a little kid?’ He grimaces, and says almost accusingly, ‘You’re new here, you live at the Cove.’
‘How did you know that?’
‘Well, I saw you playing in the woods and I followed you.’
‘You stalked me?’
‘No, I followed you. I was curious.’
‘It’s still stalking…’
‘Stop talking over there, and do the exercises! Plié! Plié!’
‘What’s your name?’ the boy whispers, hastily starting on the exercise.
‘Taïga,’ she whispers back.
‘Ta-ee-guh? What kind of name is that?’ She likes the sound of her name rolling of his tongue.
‘Hi Ta-ee-guh. I’m Derek.’
‘I told you – be quiet!’
A snowstorm has prevented the habitants of Bigwood Falls from going outside for several days, and school has been cancelled. Taïga has grown used to playing with her friends every day and is bored.
She’s making cookie dough with Mrs. Brown when it knocks on the door of the Cove. Granny opens, looking malevolently at the young boy standing on the porch. His cheeks are already red from the cold, but gets a shade darker when he meets Granny’s disapproving gaze.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs. Grey. I’m Derek Vargas. A friend of Taïga’s from school.’
Granny takes his outstretched hand, but releases it straight away. ‘What do you want?’
‘Err… Can Taïga come out and play?’
‘In this weather?’
‘It has stopped snowing, ma’am.’
‘The sun is already setting. It will soon be dark.’
Taïga comes rushing from the kitchen. She stops, delighted surprise written all over her face. ‘Oh! Hi, Derek!’ She tugs at her grandmother’s arm. ‘Please, Granny? We’ll stay in the garden.’ She doesn’t wait for her grandmother’s answer, but hugs her. ‘Thanks, Granny!’
Granny looks at Derek over her granddaughter’s shoulder. ‘Only until nightfall.’
She slams the door shut. ‘Don’t you ever do that again, Taïga.’
‘Do what?’ Taïga asks cautiously.
‘Take my answer for granted.’ She looks sternly at her granddaughter. ‘Now tell me who that boy is. Is he in your class? Where does he live? Who are his parents?’
‘No, he’s not in my class, but his little brother Teddy is! And he takes ballet with me… Err… I think they live by the lake. His dad is an inventor and his mom works at the hospital in town…’
Granny scratches her chin. ‘I think they moved here last year or so, to the house down on Lakeside Drive… Little brother you said? How old is this young man? I would rather you play with children your own age…’
‘He’s two years older than me… I think. He helps me with my math, Granny!’
‘At the school library after school. You know I have an hour before the school buses come…’
Granny grudgingly lets Taïga off the hook.
Derek’s face lights up in a rare smile when he sees her. ‘I was almost giving up. I thought she would never let you out!’
They trudge through the snow around to the backyard.
‘Your grandma doesn’t seem to like me a lot.’
‘Don’t judge her, she’s not used to kids.’ Or other people… She changes the subject. ‘Why don’t you like dance class?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? Because of the tights, of course.’
Taïga giggles. ‘Yeah. And I bet you look stupid in pastel colors.’
‘Right!’ He bends down and squeezes the snow. ‘Perfect to build a snowman.’
‘Don’t try to change the subject! Why do you come to the studio when you seem to hate it so much?’
He tells her dance class is a punishment, as his grades dropped catastrophically last semester. ‘Luckily my dad didn’t let mom take me off the team – I mean I just have to do sports and just imagine what the other guys would have thought!’
‘So you don’t think dancing is a sport?’
‘Well. Yeah. It is. But it’s a bit too girly for me…’ He looks slyly at her. ‘But now you’re in the group I’m not the worst dancer anymore!’
Taïga pushes him hard, and surprised he falls backwards.
She picks up a handful of snow and grinds it into his face. ‘Take that back!’
Derek splutters, but being stronger than her, arrives to push her back. ‘Jeez. I like your style kid! Are you punished too?’
Taïga just glares at him. ‘No. Yes. Well, I like the music.’
Derek stares at her with disbelief. ‘Are you telling me you like the way that old harpy is hammering away at the piano?’
Taïga squirms, she doesn’t want Derek to think she’s weird, but she doesn’t want to lie about her taste neither. ‘Granny’s got an old music machine with wonderful piano music. I’ll show you next time. Now, can you get off me so we can make that snowman?’
‘Sure.’ Derek stands up, holding out his hand. ‘Go ask your housekeeper for a carrot for his nose while I fix branches and stones.’
‘There’s some leftover BBQ coal in the garage. We could use it for eyes!’
Taïga lets him pull her up and shuffles away through the snow towards the house.
Derek shouts after her. ‘And bring some new baked cookies!’
Taïga stops in her tracks.
‘Please?’ he adds.
She turns around looking into his eyes. ‘How did you know?’
‘You reek of cookie dough!’
She smiles to herself as she hurries inside…
The snow packs together nicely, and they start rolling three different sized snowballs.
‘That’s too small. If we start out with that, it will be a snow dwarf!’
‘Yeah. Let’s make him really huge!’
They continue rolling the snowball until it gets the right size.
‘If he’s too big, we won’t be able to put the head up there,’ Taïga says thoughtfully.
‘Don’t worry, Taïga.’ Derek groans and hoists the heavy head up on top while Taïga smooths out the sides.
‘Geez. You are strong!’
They pack snow between the layers to make sure they’ll stick together.
‘Where’s the carrot?’
Taïga fishes it out from her pocket, ‘I’ll fix it!’
She places the carrot in the middle of the head to act as a nose. Together they place the eyes and bickers about the mouth – smiling or not.
‘I don’t want to look out at a sad snowman, I’ll feel guilty enough when he’ll melt away without him looking sad!’
So a smiling mouth it is.
‘Now close your eyes, Taïga! And count to fifty!’
Taïga closes her eyes and starts counting, ‘1-2-3…’
‘-6. Of course not! Hurry! 7-8-9…’
She can hear him shuffling about, then suddenly he’s behind her, covering her eyes with his cold wet gloves. She squirms a little, but he hushes, guiding her with covered eyes around the snowman.
‘Are you ready?’
She nods. ‘Yeah.’
‘Tadaa! What do you think?’ He takes away his hands and Taïga gasps, surprised to see his handiwork.
‘Great! He looks a little like Mr. Timbley!’ Taïga giggles. ‘But Granny will throw a fit when she finds out you took her broom! Can’t we go inside? I’m freezing!’
‘Yeah, sure. Has Mrs. Brown finished baking?’
‘Uh-huh. Do I reek of chocolate-chip cookies now?’
Derek’s mouth twitches, ‘Maybe. C’mon!’
But as soon as he turns his back, Taïga gathers a handful of snow, and quickly shapes it into a ball. ‘Hey!’
Derek turns at the sound of her voice, catching the lightly packed snow right in his face!
‘You’ll regret this!’ he lunges for her, wiping snow off his face.
Squealing with laughter, Taiga sets off as fast as she can, Derek sprinting behind her.
‘Just wait till I catch you!’
He stops to gather some snow.
Confident he’s too far behind, Taïga stops and makes a silly face, teasing him. ‘But you won’t! Catch me if you can!’
Derek aims. ‘Oh. Don’t worry! I’ll get ya!’
The hard snowball hits target and explodes on Taïga’s shoulder.
‘OUCH! THAT HURTS! STOP IT!’’
‘Say you’ll give up!’
Derek throws another snow ball, making Taïga back away protecting her face with her hands.
‘Just stop! Please!’
Instead he throws another one that makes her fall backwards. ‘Pretty please!’
‘OK, OK, OK, I surrender…’
Taïga struggles to sit up in the deep snow, but Derek pushes her back again.
‘You can do better – Pretty please, Derek, you’re the best!’
She glares at him.
‘OK, I guess “I surrender” is OK.’ Derek smirks, he knows when to stop pushing her.
She takes his outstretched hands and lets him pull her to her feet.
‘Are you OK?’ He brushes snow from her shoulders and hair.
They smile at each other and let themselves fall backwards into the snow…
‘Hey! What are you doing?’ Teddy’s voice interrupts their making of snow angels.
‘What are you doing here?’ Derek looks up at his brother’s grinning round face.
‘Mom said I could come over as you’re here and bring Taïga our assignments. She’ll pick us up in time for dinner.’
‘Homework? Duh…’ Derek stands up and brushes snow from his pants.
‘Yeah. Internet’s back up and she logged in to the school site…’ Teddy shrugs.
‘Well. I don’t wanna do homework. And we don’t even know when school’s starting again.’
‘Mom said tomorrow.’
‘We can do our homework together,’ Taïga suggests. ‘I’m freezing and I’m sure there’s enough cookies for all of us.’
‘Cookies? I love cookies!’ Teddy starts towards the house grabbing her arm.
Incredulous Derek watches them walk away. What is his dang brother doing? ‘Hey! Wait! I’m the one you promised cookies!’
The kids settle in the dining room and Granny brings a book taking a seat at the end of the table. Just to keep an eye on that Vargas boy. He glances furtively at her and she stares back, making him look down again. He’s nothing like his little brother. Something dark is emanating from him that make Granny’s neck hairs stand on end. She hasn’t had such a negative reaction to anyone since- Since when exactly? She turns the page of her book without having read a single word. She must try to recall who – or what – the Vargas boy reminds her of.
Part I – End of Chapter 04