Chapter Three: Bursting with Life!
The door opened several feet above floor level. He would have hurt himself tumbling out had Tara not caught him. For a brief moment he was wrapped in her arms, enveloped in her warmth and swirls of lace, the smell of leather vying with vanilla to inebriate him. “Thanks,” he mouthed, then pulled back, sucking in a deep breath, both relieved and disappointed.
He looked around. He’d expected to be in the Centre, but the cot, the playpen and the dolls scattered across the carpet seemed out of place, although he knew little children were also treated there. He wanted to ask but the girl had already crossed the room. “We can’t stay here,” she said, pulling open the door.
A narrow landing led to steep stairs but the way was blocked by a barrier, presumably to stop toddlers from falling. The girl straddled the barrier and helped Vint clamber over. The more time he spent with her, the less inclined he was to see her as an illusion. Her presence was so strong it almost knocked him over. He couldn’t possibly have conjured her up. What’s more, ever since she’d rescued him, he’d seen none of the telltale swirling colours or the anger that announced the onset of another bout of illness. Despite all the excitement, she seemed to have a calming effect on him.
They were about to sneak down the stairs when shrieks rose to greet them. A door banged and a boy pleaded, “Come off it Sis. I only wanted to borrow it for a mo.”
To Vint’s alarm the girl released his hand and started down the stairs. When he moved to follow, she held up a hand to stop him. Reaching the landing below she strode out and asked, “What seems to be the matter?” The shrieking immediately ceased.
“Who are you?” the boy asked, sounding frightened. “What are you doing in our house?”
“Don’t bother yourself with that.” She waved a hand as if to dismiss the questions. “The important thing is, who are you? Do you know?”
The boy shook his head, looking puzzled, as if he were no longer completely master of his own thoughts.
“Do you want me to show you?”
He nodded, his expression distracted, his eyes glazing over.
“Listen.” She let out a long breath and, as she did, a soft sound escaped her lips, rising and falling like a wordless song. The music was so soothing, Vint was not surprised to see the boy’s eyes falling shut. He felt his own eyelids drooping. Alarm gripped him. How could she do that? Was she some sort of magician? He’d just escaped the grip of one evil sorceress who wanted to section him. He refused to let another hold him in her sway.
Struggling to stay awake, he resorted to sticking fingers in his ears. It was rude, but how else could he avoid succumbing. Both the boy and the girl were already out cold, curled up at her feet.
When the singing finally ceased, Tara startled him into full wakefulness, saying, “Help me carry them to bed,”.
It was mid-afternoon and the boy was clearly too old to be taking a nap, but Vint did as she bid, carrying the little girl up the stairs and laying her limp form in the cot. Tara, who’d followed him up, leant over his shoulder to check on the girl then went in search of a doll which she placed in the girl’s arms.
“Now let’s put the boy to bed,” she said.
Once both children were tucked in and snoring quietly, the two continued down the stairs to the entrance. They had the house to themselves. All was quiet, bar the insistent tick of a grandfather clock in the hall. A faint memory of an almost forgotten meal wafted in from a nearby kitchen. He wondered if he dared go in search of food, he was hungry, but decided against taking the risk.
He was about to open the front door and step out when Tara stopped him. “Look,” she whispered pointing round a curtain at the street outside. He felt a shiver of fear as he spotted an ambulance parked by the Centre with two bouncer-sized nurses lounging against it.
Pulling him back, she pointed to the kitchen. “Let’s try the back,” she whispered in his ear, her scented breath sparking a tingling in his stomach.
Several pieces of pizza lay congealed on a slab of marble on the kitchen table. The cheese looked cold and chewy, but he imagined the taste was delicious. He loved anchovies. Not that he ever got a chance to eat them. Too strong for him, his mother had said. They never had pizza at home. “You want some?” he asked.
She shook her head. Instead, pointing to the fruit bowl, she said, “Grab a couple of apples,” and headed for the back door.
It was locked, but a key hung on a nail high on the wall. Reaching up, she grabbed it and turning it in the lock, the door clicked open. She beckoned and stepped out. He grabbed a couple of apples and followed, pulling the door shut behind him.
Beyond a jumble of dustbins, a garden stretched a good distance before getting lost in an orchard gone wild. A high wall on both sides sheltered them from view but made any attempt at escape impossible. They threaded their way along what must once have been a path. The grass was wet and slippery from the recent rain and Vint slid several times, but Tara managed to shoot out a hand to steady him.
Reaching the trees, they halted. The air was thick with the cloying smell of rotten apples. The ground was littered with them, offering a feast to a swarm of insects. Their buzzing was so strong it set Vint’s senses abuzz with fear. He’d once been stung by a wasp and had been rushed to hospital when his arm began to swell.
“What’s up?” Tara asked, noticing his reticence.
“Allergy,” he replied, waving a hand to discouraged several eager wasps. Or was it bees?
She nodded and led them by a gravel path that skirted the trees. Its narrowness forced them to advance single file, ducking under the occasional branch that reached out over the path. He was so intent watching out for wasps, he bumped into her when she abruptly stopped. Muttering apologies, he looked up to see a door in the wall that marked the end of the garden.