I held my bag with both hands as I stood at the door of Elli's small, honey-coloured cottage. As I waited, I listened to the symphony of an invisible orchestra of birds hidden away in the trees nearby. The shadows on the ground appeared and disappeared as clouds passed over the sun, while a pleasantly warm wind caused my hair to float about.
My eyes returned sharply to the door as I heard the knob turn. The wooden door creaked open, and Elli greeted me with a big smile.
"Morning, Mary darling, how lovely it is to see you!" She wore a form-fitting white shirt with a lace-ornamented collar and cuffs, and a long blue skirt. In her hair was a hairband laced with blue flowers. She put her arms around me and gave me a tight squeeze.
"Good morning, Elli," I replied.
Elli gasped. "Oh heavens, Mary!" she exclaimed. "Your dress is adorable, you look like one of those red poppies in Ally's garden!"
"Y-yeah, yeah," I said, smiling sheepishly.
Elli grinned and narrowed her eyes. "Now your face matches it," she said.
"Shut up!" I said. "Are we going or not?"
Elli laughed. "I must finish preparing my tea," she said. "Come in, won't you?" She took my hand and began to lead me inside. "I won't be long."
We stepped inside the threshold and into the kitchen, where Elli's mother Julia was cutting up some carrots.
"Mama, Mary's here," said Elli. Her mother looked up.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Good to see you, Mary. You are like ray of sunshine, you come over more often, yes?" She put her knife down and came closer. "Look at you," she said, pinching my cheeks. "You are too thin. You should eat something. We have more than we need, and Elli will get fat if she keeps eating it all."
"No I won't!" said Elli. Her back was turned to me, but it sounded like her mouth was full.
"N-no, thank you," I said, smiling. Julia sighed and returned to her cutting board.
Elli returned to me, holding a cup of tea. "Shall we be off?" she asked.
"Let's go!" I said. I skipped out into the bright summer sun, with Elli following close behind.
"Have you been to Nadia's before?" I asked.
"Once," Elli replied. "I've never been inside, but I've met her father."
"Oh," I said. My eyebrows raised for a moment as my pace slowed. I felt a little nervous. "What is he like?" I asked, quickening my pace to walk beside Elli.
"You'll see," she replied with a grin.
"Come on now, tell me!" I said, taking her hand.
Her grin only widened. "Their cottage is right here," she said.
We approached a little cottage near the end of the path, identical in colour to the others in the neighborhood. Some potted grass plants decorated the porch. I felt my anticipation rise.
Elli knocked loudly on the door. We waited in silence for a moment.
"Do you suppose anyone's home?" I asked.
Just then, I heard the latch come undone, and the door was opened. Nadia stood at the entrance, wearing a plain white dress with blue trimmings. Her eyebrows went up, and a dimple formed at her left cheek as a smile formed.
"Mary!" she cried.
My anxiety left me immediately. "Nadia!" I replied. "Elli and I came to ask if you could play today."
"You want to play with me?" Nadia asked. I nodded and hopped in place.
"L-let me ask my father!" she said. She closed the door, and I could hear footsteps running down the hall.
"Isn't she the most precious thing you've ever seen?" asked Elli. She sighed loudly. Her head was cocked to one side, and her hand was at her cheek. She glanced at me, and her eyes narrowed. "She's almost cuter than you, darling."
"Stop that," I said, looking to the side to hide my face inconspicuously.
The door opened again, this time by a tall, thin man. He was dressed impeccably in a dark grey suit, which had no sign of any wrinkles. His head was scattered with dull ash-brown hair, most of which was on the sides of his head. His facial features were sharp and pointed, accompanied by bushy eyebrows and a thick moustache. Through his small, round glasses, cold blue eyes stared at me very seriously.
"What is your name?" he asked, in a voice softer than I had expected.
"M-Mary," I replied. "Mary Ann Bennet." I straightened my back.
"She's a friend of mine," said Elli. "She and Nadia met a week ago. We wanted to know if Nadia was around to play at Mary's — she lives across town."
"My name is Elliot Borchard," said the man. "Are you the girl Nadia told me taught her to skim stones?" He spoke with an accent like Elli's, quite unlike his daughter's.
"Y-yes," I replied, putting my fingers together.
"Nadia showed me. You aren't so very bad." Mr. Borchard thought for a moment, looking me over. "Nadia," he called. The door opened a little further as his daughter came to his side. He put his hand on her shoulder.
"You are to obey every word Ms. Eldridge says, do you understand?" The girl nodded. The man looked at Elli. "She must be back by four o'clock."
"Right-o!" said Elli, saluting.
Mr. Borchard gently pushed his daughter towards us. "Be safe, Nadia," he said.
"I will," said Nadia. "Please do not worry about me, father. I love you."
The man nodded and closed the door.
"Come along!" said Elli. She began to skip down the path, beckoning for us to follow.
❀ ❀ ❀
We passed by the outskirts of town, turning northwest on our way to the McCrae villa. Nadia walked between Elli and I, holding her hands in front of her. She said very little. For the past few moments, she had been studying Elli very carefully, though Elli had been talking too much to notice. Nadia turned in my direction and began scrutinising me. I felt a bit uncomfortable.
"It's rude to stare, you know," I said. Nadia looked up at me, her eyebrows raised slightly. She said nothing, just turned her attention to Elli once more.
"Elli?" Nadia asked, interrupting her.
"How's that?" Elli replied.
"How old are you?" Nadia asked.
"I am sixteen years old," said Elli.
Nadia looked at me. "Why is Elli so much bigger than you?" she asked. I felt a wave of embarrassment wash over me.
"Because I ate my vegetables," said Elli, before I had a chance to respond.
My head whipped round to look at Elli. "But you hate vegetables!" I said. "Yesterday, Alice told you if you wouldn't eat your celery, she wouldn't—"
"That never happened," said Elli, crossing her arms.
"If I eat my vegetables, will I grow big like you?" asked Nadia.
"Of course!" said Elli cheerfully, ruffling Nadia's hair. Elli glared at me for a split second.
Nadia looked at me. "You should eat more vegetables," she said plainly.
I looked down and crossed my arms.
"My father sometimes leaves his celery on his plate," said Nadia. "I have to remind him to eat it." She turned to me. "Mary? What's your father like?"
"My father?" I said. "He's been in the military for most of my life, so I don't see him very often."
"Like yours?" Nadia asked Elli.
"Yeah," Elli replied.
"I get letters and parcels from him now and then," I said. "When he's home, he's rather cheerful. We play cards every night, and he tells me stories that make me laugh."
"I see," said Nadia.
We approached a grove of trees, and the now dirt path split to lead into it.
"This way, darlings! We're almost at Alice's," Elli said.
We walked through the grove and emerged at the entrance to the McCrae villa, in all its grandeur. Birds flew about from tree to tree singing gleefully, while a few bathed in the fountain from which water flowed softly. Poppies, larkspur, and sunflowers were in full bloom, lining the pathways through the garden.
Nadia gasped. I turned to look at her. Her eyes were wide. She walked very slowly, looking all around her. Elli opened the gate and we walked alongside Nadia. Nadia reached out carefully and touched a poppy's petals lightly, and continued walking, letting her fingertips linger on it until her motion carried them away.
"This... This is where Alice lives?" Nadia asked.
"Isn't it wonderful?" I said, twirling round in a circle.
We reached the door, and Elli knocked on it. The door opened, and Alice greeted us.
"Oh, Nadia!" she said, with her hand over her heart. "It's such a pleasure to see you. Please, come in!" She was wearing her blue summer dress, decorated with subtle floral patterns.
"I don't even get an 'alright'?" asked Elli, stepping inside the threshold.
"Good morning, Elli," Alice said, giving her a hug. "Seeing you puts my restless heart at ease."
"Why is it restless, my dear?" Elli asked, holding her hands together around Alice's shoulders.
"Because of how much it missed you," Alice replied, tilting her head to one side.
"... I'll be in the kitchen," said Elli, leaving promptly.
I looked back at Nadia. Her eyes were cast downwards, and she was wringing her hands together.
"Nadia?" I asked. "What's the matter?"
"I... can't..." she said, her voice breaking. She lowered her head.
"No no, it's okay!" I said, taking her gently by the arm. I lead her inside and sat her down on one of the red sofas in the sitting room. Alice stood by the sofa, her eyebrows knitted together in concern. I sat beside Nadia and held her close. "It's okay," I repeated, stroking her soft brown hair.
"I'm sorry," Nadia began. "I've never seen a place so beautiful; it was like I was dreaming, and I—"
"You don't have to apologise," I said. "It's okay to cry."
She shook her head and dried her tears with her hands. "But my father said I—"
"I don't care," I interrupted. I continued to hold her.
Alice came to the front of the sofa and knelt down in front of us. "I brought you some water, Nadia," she said. "You came all the way across town, you must be thirsty."
Nadia took the water and drank some. She looked up at the high ceiling in the parlour.
"Your home is very large," she said.
"Yes it is," said Alice. "The Lord has blessed us generously."
"Does the girl need anything else, Ms. McCrae?" Sebastian asked, appearing beside us.
"No," Alice replied. "I believe she is alright." Sebastian nodded and excused himself from the room.
Nadia's eyes widened. "McCrae?" she asked. "You're the McCrae family?"
Alice blushed. "Yes," she replied.
"I've heard stories of a rich family in town by that name," Nadia said. She looked round again. "Your home doesn't look scary."
"What?" asked Alice.
"I heard it was hidden away in a dark forest, where bats and things lived. So you're not a vampire?"
"What? No!" Alice replied, putting her hands over her mouth.
"Yes she is!" I heard Elli shout from the other room. Nadia moved a little closer to me.
"Elli's only joking," I said, standing. I held her hand, gesturing for her to stand as well. She did so. "You're safe here," I said. "I've lived with Alice for the past month."
"She's just biding her time—" Elli began.
"Elli!" said Alice. She looked at us. "Elli needs company," she said quietly. She began to make her way to the kitchen. Nadia and I followed.
"Elli, dear, what are you up to?" Alice asked. Elli was pouring tea into a cup.
"I made tea to go with my sandwich," she said.
Alice sat at the counter. "I would have been happy to make some for you," she said.
"Nah," Elli replied. "You don't have to do that."
"How is your apprenticeship coming?" Alice asked. She turned to Nadia. "Elli works at a tea shop in town, now. She started last week."
"We saw each other on my first day of work," said Elli. Nadia nodded. Elli looked back at Alice. "It's been lovely, my dear. I'm around tea all day, and I've even learned something. You should come visit me sometime."
"I shall," Alice replied. She looked at Nadia. "Are you hungry?" she asked. Nadia shook her head.
"Nadia," I said, "you should see Alice's study! There are all sorts of books and music and paintings there!"
Nadia smiled. "Are there really?" she asked excitedly.
"I'll show you!" I said. I hopped down from my seat and gestured for her to follow me.
"Hey," said Elli. She walked up to Nadia and put an apple in her hand. Nadia looked at Elli in confusion.
"If you want 'em, you've got to eat 'em," Elli said, winking.
Nadia's confused look remained. Elli leant over and said something I couldn't hear, then took off up the spiral staircase. Nadia looked at the apple for a moment, and then handed it to me.
"You need this more than I do," she said.
"H-hey!" I scowled after her as Alice lead her up the staircase.
I took a bite.
❀ ❀ ❀
The four of us were gathered in Alice's study, listening to a recording of a small chamber orchestra. Violins and woodwinds danced together; sometimes playing in sync, sometimes going their separate ways. As the song drew to a close, they grew further and further apart; until finally, when my ears could hardly take it, they were reunited in a final exclamation mark.
"That was brilliant!" I cried, half-standing from my seat. Nadia was seated next to me, still happily mesmerised by the lingering effects of the music. Elli stood on one foot, leaning with her back to one of the bookshelves, sipping her tea.
"How did you like it, Nadia?" Alice asked. She took the record off the phonograph and stowed it away.
"The music..." Nadia began. She started to make a circular motion with her fingers. "It was spiraling round and round like — like flower petals... I could smell it."
"You could?" I asked. "What did it smell like?"
"Like — like a rose, I think," she replied.
"Nadia, do you know anything about botany?" asked Alice.
Nadia looked up. "What is that?" she asked.
Alice stood and pulled a book from one of the shelves. She placed it on the table in front of Nadia. I craned my neck to read the words written on the spine: Sowerby's English Botany: Volume I.
"Botany is the study of plant life," said Alice. "If you like flowers, perhaps you might be interested in reading this."
Nadia opened the book to a random page, upon which a tall purple flax flower was depicted, with a detailed description of it on the opposite page. Her eyes scanned every detail with absolute focus, and quite a serious expression on her face.
"If you'd like, you may take it with you to read at home," said Alice.
Nadia looked up. "Huh? — Oh, no, I couldn't!" She closed the book hurriedly and began to stand.
Alice put her hands over Nadia's. "I insist," she said.
Nadia stopped, and slowly lowered herself back into the chair. "Th-thank you," she replied. "It's a very nice book."
"So it is," Alice said, smiling.
I stood and walked to the window, and watched the garden below. I spotted a little rabbit hop stealthily from one bush to another.
"I found a rabbit!" I said. "Come, Nadia, let's try to catch it!"
"What? No!" Alice said, standing.
"They're too slow to catch one anyways," said Elli.
"No we're not!" I said. I took Nadia's hand and hurried out the door.
❀ ❀ ❀
The rabbit was hidden by the time we reached the garden. We decided to play in the garden anyways.
"Watch this," I said, jumping up and grabbing hold of one of the branches of the old oak tree that sat at the west side of the garden. "You can see the top of the villa if you climb high enough!" I pulled myself up and put one foot on a little knob on the tree to get above the branch. I looked down to see Nadia watching me with concern, wringing her hands together.
"Are you coming?" I asked. Nadia shook her head and stepped backwards. "But it's fun!" I said. She shook her head again. I hopped down from the tree.
"What's the matter, have you never climbed a tree before?" I asked, removing a leaf from my hair.
"I haven't," said Nadia.
"Now's the time to learn, then!" I said.
"Mary, why don't you show Nadia around the garden?" asked Alice, who had just shown up with Elli. "Would you like that, Nadia?"
"Alright, fine," I said. Elli and Alice sat on one of the benches by the oak tree. I took Nadia's hand. "I'll show you the different flower patches first," I said. "They're sorted by colour." I lead her through the winding pathways lined by the flowerbeds, which were bordered by short reddish stones. I explained what I knew of the ones that were growing now, and how the villa gardeners staggered the planting of the flowers and their varieties, so that there would always be something in bloom. Nadia listened very carefully, and examined each type of flower as we passed them by. As I explained the poppies, she reached out to feel one's petals with her fingers.
"They're never lonely, are they?" she asked.
"Nope!" I replied. "They have lots of friends."
"I see," she replied. "Do you have many friends?"
"I... have a few," I said. Did I have as many friends as I thought? After meeting Alice and Elli, I wasn't so sure anymore. "How do you find Alice?" I asked.
"She's too beautiful to be a vampire," said Nadia.
I laughed. "She is."
"Do you suppose I will be beautiful when I'm grown-up?" she asked.
How do I answer that...? "Of course!" I replied.
Nadia looked in Alice's direction. "I heard stories that this family had a girl who went to school near me, and that she was a scary vampire who always carried a parasol to hide from the sun... She's very kind."
Nadia smiled faintly, causing her dimple to appear. She wrung her hands together for a moment. Looking back up, she took a step towards me, hesitated, and then continued, and put her arms around me lightly. I returned the attempt at a hug, pulling her closer. She released me quickly, and looked down.
"Thank you for being my friend," she said.
"Thank you for being mine," I replied, with a curtsey.
"I'm hungry," said Nadia.
"Me too," I said. "Can I get you something?"
"Y-yes, please," said Nadia.
I smiled. "Alright! I'll be right back" I skipped down the path towards the villa entrance. I had never felt this way around someone before. I felt bigger, and stronger, and more friendly around Nadia. I was ready to help her with anything she asked. Was this how Alice felt around me? It was sort of a nice feeling... The sort of pride I felt was almost like when I watched the first flower I cared for starting to bloom.
I hoped I could watch Nadia do the same.