Frankie followed the moving van down the short driveway and watched it head off down the road; then she turned to look at the house. The difference between the half-gutted structure that had stood there when she bought the place and what was there now was phenomenal. In the bright sunlight of a perfect day in late May, the site of all her childhood nightmares had been transformed into the house of her dreams. A little smaller, perhaps, but cozy enough for her and Ali.
There was still a lot of work to be done. The workmen had left their typical battlefield of litter and debris behind them, but Frankie was looking forward to doing some work around the place with her own two hands. If anyone had told her that she’d be here now, even a day before the Wintario draw…
She found herself grinning foolishly. It was still hard to believe that she’d won. $200,000. Even after the $26,000 she’d paid for what was left of the house and its land, and the $60,000 or so she’d had to put out for renovations, she still had over $100,000 in the bank. Any day she expected someone to come up to her and tell her it was all a mistake, that she had to give it all back, but it wasn’t going to happen. She wouldn’t allow it to happen. Not now.
She made her way slowly back to the house. Opening the front door, she almost ran into her daughter who was carrying a stack of empty boxes down the stairs.
“Watch where you’re going, kiddo,” she said.
Ali poked her head around the boxes. “Are the movers gone?”
“Yup. We’re on our own now—out in the backwoods of Lanark County where few men dare to go.”
Frankie laughed and took the boxes from her. Ali had her curly blonde hair but wore it short instead of in a long spill down her back as Frankie did. She also had Frankie’s strong Teutonic features—the broad nose and brow, the wide mouth—and eyes such a dark blue that the pupils sometimes got lost in them. They were often taken for sisters, which delighted Frankie who was thirty-four, at the same time as it embarrassed her fourteen-year-old daughter.
“Are you finished with your room?” Frankie asked.
“For now. I thought I’d give you a hand in the kitchen and then maybe we could explore a bit.”
Frankie tossed the boxes into the big screened-in porch that led off from the kitchen’s back door. “Tell you what,” she said. “Why don’t you let me finish up in here and you go ahead exploring. Then when I’m done, we can have a bite to eat and you can show me all the hot spots.”
“You sure you don’t mind?” Ali asked, obviously torn between wanting to get out into the sun and feeling it unfair to leave her mother working alone.
“Okay.” She gave Frankie a quick kiss, then scurried out the back door befoe either of them could change their minds.
Frankie leaned against the sink and watched her daughter go swinging through the knee-high weeds in the backyard. She’d found a stick and was whacking the heads off of dandelions, stirring up clouds of parachuting seeds in her wake. She looked happy. Frankie just hoped it would last.
When they’d driven out for the first time, Ali’s only comment about the house had been “Gross-o.” But she seemed to enjoy sitting in when Frankie went over the blueprints with the contractor and it wasn’t as though she wasn’t used to moving. Poor kid. They’d been in a different apartment for almost every one of Ali’s years. They were both looking forward to some stability.
When Ali moved out of sight behind a screen of trees, Frankie turned back to the kitchen, chose a box and began to arrange its contents in a cupboard.
* * *
Ali was happy, just walking along and swinging her stick. Whack. She watched the seeds explode at the impact, then slowly drift toward the ground. Some made it. Some got tangled up in the weeds and grass. Some caught the wind just right and went floating off. Whack. She knew her mother was worrying and she wished she wouldn’t. Moving out here was the first good thing to happen to them in a long time.
Not that the fourteen years of her life had been bad. It was just that living out here, away from other kids her own age, she didn’t have to go on pretending that she was into all the things that they were. Whack. If her mother knew how she really felt, she’d have some justification to worry, but Ali wasn’t about to let that cat out of the bag.
How was she supposed to explain that she didn’t like her peers, that she wasn’t into hanging around, drinking, smoking cigarettes or dope, running after boys, groping in some backseat or on a living room couch when the parents were out…Who needed that stuff? Whack. Maybe she couldn’t yet put into words what it was she did find important, but at least she knew what wasn’t.
Out here she could do what she wanted. Go for walks. Read. Find out who she wanted to be without the pressure of other kids, or the pressure of her mother desperately hoping that her daughter was fitting in, that all the moving around from neighborhood to neighborhood wasn’t messing up her underdeveloped psyche.
Ali grinned and whacked another weed. Underdeveloped. That was something else the other kids liked to rag her about. The fact that she was still skinny as a beanpole, not filling out like the rest of them. Whack. Who needed that? She’d seen what a good figure had done for her mother.
She lifted her stick to hit a tall weed—that was one thing she was going to have to do right off: learn the names of all the plants and trees and stuff around her—when she paused, stick frozen high in the air. Looking at her from the side of the road was a rabbit.
Ali didn’t dare breathe. It watched her with liquid brown eyes, nose twitching. Jeez, it was cute. She lowered the stick slowly, not wanting to appear threatening, but as soon as she moved, the rabbit turned and bounded off into the woods. Wow. There were probably all kinds of animals right in their backyard. Rabbits and raccoons, deer…maybe even foxes.
She had a couple of Tom Brown Jr. wilderness guides back in her room and she could hardly wait to get them out of whatever box they were in and put them to some use. This was going to be a great summer.
Whack, whack. She hit a couple more weeds and started to hum as she followed the road again, wondering where it led. It took her around a bend and she could see buildings about three-quarters of a mile further on. The road seemed to go on into the woods beyond them and she decided to go that far and maybe have a peek at the buildings. She wouldn’t go too close—she didn’t want to end off her first day by having some cranky old farmer getting pissed off at her because she was trespassing—but she did want to see what the place was like. Please don’t let them have any kids.
The road just sort of piddled out as it got to the forest. It looked as though it had continued once, but now it was overgrown and only a footpath went on through the trees. It’d be fun to see where it went to, she thought as she turned her attention to the buildings.
The set-up was much like what she and her mom had—a renovated farmhouse with an old gray-timbered relic of a barn towering up behind it and a few out-buildings. But unlike their own place, here the grounds were neatly tended with a hedge running alongside the road, some apple trees up by the barn and flowerbeds in front of the house, filled with multi-colored blossoms. The forest closed in around the landscaped lot on three sides, dense and darkly mysterious to Ali’s city-wise eyes. The smell of cut grass hung in the air. She moved a little closer, her stick scraping in the dirt by her sneakers.
“What can I do for you, kid?”
The voice startled her, lifting goosebumps on her skin. She turned to see a man standing up on the other side of the short hedge and she wondered where he’d popped up from. She hadn’t seen him as she’d walked up. He was dressed in jeans, with a red bandana around his head like a sweatband. His hair was thick and black and his muscular body was darkly tanned except for a number of white puckers and lines that stood out against the dark skin. His eyes were a pale blue and reminded her of Paul Newman’s. She’d just seen Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the umpteenth time on the late show last week. As he moved closer towards her, favoring his right leg, she realized the marks on his body were scars. Lots of them.
“I said, what can I do for you?”
“Uh…nothing,” Ali stammered. “I’m just, uh, walking—you know?”
“This is private property,” he said. “Maybe you better go hiking somewhere else instead—okay?”
Ali nodded quickly. “Sure. I’m sorry. I just…that is my mom and I just moved in down the road. I was just checking out the neighborhood.…”
Something changed in his eyes as she spoke and he didn’t look quite so menacing anymore. “What? The place they were working on this spring?”
Ali nodded again. He studied her for a long moment, then smiled. “I was just gonna have some lemonade, kid. You want some?”
Ali didn’t like the idea of going off into some strange guy’s house, but he was going to be their neighbor and she didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot with him right away. With that bad leg, she thought, she could always outrun him.
“Sure,” she said at last.
“C’mon.” He led off, limping, and she fell in beside him. “So what’s your name, kid?”
Ali glanced at him. “How come you keep calling me ‘kid’?”
“I don’t know.” They’d reached his front steps. “Take a seat. I’ll bring the lemonade out. You want it on the rocks?”
“Hey, wait’ll you taste the lemonade first. Betty Crocker I’m not.”
He disappeared into the house and Ali sat down on the steps. What a weird thing to say, she thought. But it was a good line. She’d have to try it out on mom the next time she made dinner. She was still trying to remember the little swagger he’d put into his shoulders as he’d said it when the screen door banged open and he was back.
He’d put on a white shirt while he was inside. It made his tan seem darker. The ice clinked in the glasses as he handed her one. She was about to thank him when she remembered what he’d said and decided to taste the drink first. He grinned, as though reading her mind, and then she had to giggle. She covered it up by taking a sip.
“Thanks,” she said then. “It’s good.”
He took a sip himself and set his glass down on the steps between them. “Yeah, it’s not so bad. So what’s your name?”
“Alice Treasure—but everyone calls me Ali.”
“You don’t like Alice?”
“They might as well’ve called me Airhead, don’t you think?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I kinda like Alice. My name’s Tony Garonne.”
“Have you lived here for a long time, Mr. Garonne?”
“Tony. Call me Tony, okay? And I’ll call you Ali. Yeah, I’ve lived here for awhile. Not steady, you understand, but I’ve owned the place maybe fifteen years.”
“My mom grew up in the place we just moved into.”
“No kidding? What happened? Did she inherit the place from her old man or something?”
“No. She didn’t get along too well with her parents. She took off when she was pretty young, but her mom had already left her dad by then and…well, we just got some money so she bought the old place and had it fixed up.” Why am I babbling like this? she asked herself.
“Yeah, well, they did a good job.” There was a moment’s silence and they both worked at their lemonades. “So it’s just you and your momma living there?”
Ali nodded. “Yeah. My dad…we don’t talk much about him.”
“Hey. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. I don’t really remember him. He took off when I was just a kid. But he was…pretty rough on my mom.”
“Guy like that…” Tony began, a frown creasing his face, then he paused and found a smile. “So where’d you move from?”
“It’s gonna be different for you up here. I mean, it’s not that far from the city, but it’s quiet—you know? Evenings, it’s just really quiet. And dark. Takes some getting used to for some people.”
“I think I’m going to like it.” She finished her drink and set the glass down. “I’ve got to be going, Mr…ah…Tony.”
“Mr. a-Tony. I like that. It’s got a ring to it, don’t you think?”
“Listen,” he added. “You’re welcome to come round here any time you want. The reason I wasn’t so friendly earlier is I get kids joyriding up this road all the time. I mean, who needs it? And sometimes they want to meess around in my yard and I don’t like it. I just want some quiet. But you’re a neighbor and you seem okay. Bring your momma up sometime and I’ll cook you up some pasta. I make a mean spaghetti. What do you say?”
“I’ll ask her.”
“Good. I’ll walk you to the road.”
“You don’t have to,” Ali said, thinking about his limp.
He caught the glance she gave it. “No, it’s okay. I gotta give it a lot of exercise. I don’t move so quick like I used to, but I can still get around.”
Ali wanted to ask him how he’d hurt it but she decided to wait for another time. She’d already been pushing her luck as it was. He seemed friendly enough now, but she was sure he’d be happier without some gawky teenager like her hanging around.
“You come back for another visit now,” he said as though reading her mind again. “And if you or your momma need anything, you just give me a call, okay?”
“Ciao,” he replied.
“What’s that mean?”
“It’s like ‘so long’ or ‘take care.’ But it means ‘hello,’ too.”
Ali smiled. “Ciao,” she said and headed off down the road.
She looked back as she neared the curve to see him still standing at the end of his lane, so she gave him a wave. When he waved back, she continued on her way.
* * *
“And he’s got a limp,” Ali said over a supper of hamburgers, “and he talks a little funny, like…oh, I don’t know. As if he doesn’t know his grammar all that well.”
“Ali, that’s not nice.”
“Well, it’s true. But I’m not saying it to make fun of him. I like him.”
“Make sure you don’t bother him too much.”
“He wants us to come for dinner sometime. He’s going to make spaghetti.”
“What else?” Frankie asked with a laugh. Then she put her half-eaten burger on her plate and leaned closer to her daughter. “Ali,” she began. “He didn’t seem the kind to…you know…make trouble for you?”
“Well, you never can tell, can you?”
“Okay, okay. No, he seems all right. And besides, I had my trusty stick with me.”
“And besides that, I could outrun him any day of the week!”
Frankie shook her head. “You’re incorrigible.”
They cleaned up the dishes together, then spent the evening arranging and rearranging the furniture in the living and dining rooms. By the time it was ten-thirty, they were both so tired they could hardly keep their eyes open.
“G’night,” Ali mumbled as she shuffled off to her bedroom.
Frankie tousled her hair and kissed her on the brow. “See you in the morning, kiddo.”
It’s going to be okay, Frankie thought as she undressed in her own room and got into bed. Thank God, it was going to be okay. She had the feeling that everything was finally going to work out for them. She looked around at the unfamiliar shadows in her new bedroom, then rolled over and fell asleep with a smile on her face.
* * *
As the last light went out, a figure stirred in the woods behind the house. It lifted its head as though to test the wind for scents and slowly crept forward. When it reached the house, it ran its fingers along the paneling of the porch door, its nails making a slight rasping sound, then it backed away.
Starlight glinted on what might have been tiny horns pushing up from amidst its hair, or it might just have been reflecting from bone ornaments that the figure wore in its dark curls. An observer, had there been one present, would have been hard put to tell in that poor light.
Nodding to itself, the figure pulled a hat from its belt and pushed it down over its hair. It returned to the forest where it put the house behind it and bounded away through the trees, as graceful and quick as a deer.
Copyright © 1988 by Charles de Lint