The next morning I stood halfway down the stairs. Dante was leaving and it had turned into quite the procedure. One suitcase sat at his feet and another one had already been loaded in the car.
“Dante, are you sure you have enough stuff?” I asked. “I thought you were only going away for a week?”
“I am,” Dante said smiling gently.
It was the smile he seemed to reserve only for me. I hadn’t seen him look at Savannah or Dominique like that and it made me a little uncomfortable. I didn’t know if I could be who he wanted me to be. But for now I would pretend if it kept me free.
“You have enough stuff for a month.” I stepped carefully down the stairs and walked past Savannah.
She was clinging to Dominique’s arm, sniffling. She acted like Dante was leaving forever. Dante reached for my hand. I placed mine in his and he brought my fingers to his lips, pressing a kiss to them. I smiled and he smiled back.
“I’ll be back in a week. We’ll talk more than.” Dante looked at his sister and her fiancé. “Dom, look after these two. They’re special to me.”
Dominique pulled himself free from Savannah’s grasp and stepped to Dante’s side. He grasped Dante’s hand. “I’ll look after them. Have a good trip. Say hi to your parents and my father if you see them.”
Dante nodded and then stepped outside. I moved to the front stoop and watched him climb into the black limo. I shivered a little in the chilly December air and wrapped my arms around myself. Dominique and Savannah stood beside me and we waved until the car had disappeared around the corner.
“Ladies, what shall we do?” Dominique asked offering us each an arm.
“I promised Sierra I’d come shopping with her,” Savannah said. “So I’ll be gone most of the day. I should be back in time for dinner. And Dominique, we really must begin working on our wedding. We need to get the invitations out this week.”
Dominique released my arm and followed Savannah into the dining room. I wandered aimlessly after them. They had sat down at the table to finish breakfast. I had already eaten before I left my room. As Dominique and Savannah ate and chatted about meaningless things I studied the room.
The painting on the ceiling was huge. Cherubs flew among the fluffy white clouds above a meadow filled with daisies. A chandelier hung from the centre of a large piece of plaster. The plaster had been molded to look like an opening lily. I shook my head at the opulence. A room like this was unheard of in the slums. Most houses I had been in had plaster missing from the ceiling and to waste paint on a picture was just not done.
I brought my eyes down from the ceiling and studied the walls. Pictures, some painted, some photographs, where placed at regular intervals around the room. Each picture depicted a famous place or monument. The Eifel Tower in London, a picture of the Lady Liberty before she lost her head. They even had a picture of some underwater flowerbed. I had seen the picture before in one of the books Grandpa had but I couldn’t remember what it was called.
Dominique and Savannah were still talking so I went to look out the windows. Red drapes that matched the cushions on the chairs, hung alongside the windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. My shoes tapped the wooden floor with each step I took. Outside the sun bravely shone from between the clouds. I hoped it would stay for awhile. I needed the sun. I was too cold and nothing seemed to warm me.
I looked at my two companions and realized they were too involved in each other to notice me. I slipped out of the room and upstairs.
In my room I opened the wardrobe and found the red cape Dante had draped over my shoulders that day three weeks ago. Had it really been three weeks before? It seemed a lifetime ago. That had been at the beginning of December. So it was getting close to Christmas. I wouldn’t be home. For the first time I wouldn’t be there to help decorate the little tree Peter always managed to find or sing carols around the fire as we roasted chestnuts. My hands froze on the cape. There would be a single present for each of us under the tree only this year there would be one less. Unless I went home.
I shook my head and wrapped the cape around my shoulders. Truscott bounded up from the rug in front of the fire and followed me down the stairs and outside. I stood on the back porch torn between two worlds. Was I meant to be here or home? Where was God calling me to be?
“I could really use an answer here, God. This isn’t what I want but what do you want?”
No lightning bolt hit me on the head and no angel came down to give me the answer. But in my heart I knew it already. God had placed me here for a reason and I had to stop fighting. I may not be home but He was giving me a new home, a new mission. My family would be alright. I trusted God to take care of them. Though I would give anything to see them just one more time.
I stepped off the porch and wandered down the lawn. My skirt brushed along the ground leaving a trail behind me. If anyone was looking for me they would find me. Someone had cleared a path between two rows of trees. I followed it and found myself at the stables. I turned in a circle, taking the wonder around me. The yard was ‘U’ shaped. On the three sides where rows of stalls that all opened out onto the middle. An overhang covered a walk in front of the stalls. I counted five people pushing wheelbarrows and another three brushing horses. And the horses were the best of all.
Each one was sleek and fine. Muscled and shining they peered out from stalls. I walked closer to the stables and reached out to stroke a horse’s light brown nose. The horse snuffled my hand gently then blew its sweet smelling breath in my face. I smiled.
“Miss, can I help you?”
I turned and saw a young man about Dante’s age standing behind me. His brown hair was crammed under a blue toque and his blue eyes sparkled above red cheeks.
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to see the horses. I’ll leave if I’m in the way.” I moved away from the stalls.
“No, it’s okay. Amour here loves company,” the man said, reaching up to pat the horse. “Don’t you, girl? Yes, you love people.”
Amour nodded her sculptured head and then thrust it towards me. I laughed and stroked her nose again.
“I’m Greg.” He held out his hand and I took it.
“I’m Crystal. I live at the big house with Dante and Savannah.”
“Oh, of course. You’re Mr. Dante’s girl. It’s nice to meet you. Do you ride?”
It took me a few minutes before I realized what he had asked. Since when had I become Mr. Dante’s girl? Sure, we’d kissed twice but since when did that qualify us as a couple? I was going to have to have a long talk with Dante when he came back.
“Miss? Are you alright?”
I shook my head and focused on Greg. He was staring at me, one hand reaching out as if to catch me.
“I’m fine. What did you ask?”
“Do you ride? Amour loves to go out and Miss Savannah has taken to riding Jacque lately. Amour’s feeling a little neglected.”
“I’ve never rode, except once at a street fair but I didn’t even touch the reins.” I reached out and let Amour sniff my hand. “But I’d love to try.”
Greg smiled. “Great. I’ll have you riding in no time. Pete, can take over the turn outs for me?”
Another groom looked up from where he was looking at a horse’s hoof. “Sure, Greg. What’s up?”
“I’m going to take Miss Crystal and Amour out for awhile. Is that second side saddle still in good condition?” Greg offered me his arm and led me down the row of stalls.
“Just cleaned it yesterday. It’s hanging above Miss Savannah’s saddle.”
Greg thanked Pete and turned into a small room filled with the smell of leather and horse sweat. I took a deep breath and smiled. This was the smell that I liked, the aroma of hard work and fun.
Greg took down a saddle and handed me a bridle. I studied the pieces of leather and fingered the bit. I wondered what it would feel like to have a piece of steel sitting on your tongue. Horses had always fascinated me and Grandpa had bought a book about them for me. I had poured over the pages under I had memorized every word.
“Let’s go bring Amour to one of the grooming bays and get her ready.”
An hour later when Dominique came to find me I was trotting around the corral on Amour and I had never felt better. The wind brushed my face and Amour’s smooth strides had quelled any fears I may have felt.
“You’re looking good, Crystal,” Dominique called.
I laughed and guided Amour over to where he stood. “I love it. Amour is the best.”
“I’m glad you like her. Savannah thinks she has too much spirit.”
“I don’t. I’m glad she has some spunk. Makes her more exciting to ride.” As I spoke, Amour flung up her head and jingled the bit in her mouth. I laughed and patted her neck. “Calm down, girl. We’ll start again in a few minutes.”
“Actually, I was wondering if I could talk to you for a few minutes.” Dominique leaned over the fence and rubbed Amour’s neck. “Can Greg take her now?”
I bit my lip. I didn’t want to stop but something on Dominique’s face made me pause. I nodded and waited for Greg to help me down. The groom lifted me out of the saddle and I handed him the reins. With one last pat for Amour I took Dominique’s arm and allowed him to lead me away from the stables.
“Crystal, do you want to go visit your family?”
I stared at him. Had I heard him right? Was he offering to take me home?
“Just a quick visit to make sure they are alright. I know Dante doesn’t want you leaving here, but I think it will be good for you. Maybe it will help you settle down here knowing they are okay.”
“Are you serious? You want to take me out to the slums to see my family?” I smiled. “Of course I want to go.”
Dominique laughed. “I thought so. Savannah’s gone for the rest of the day. We’ll be back before she comes home and no one will know the difference.”
“Do we tell Dante?” I asked. For some reason the thought of hiding something from Dante didn’t sit right with me.
“If you want to we can. Maybe he’ll see reason when he gets back.” Dominique motioned to a small blue car I had never seen before. “This is mine. I like to drive so we won’t need a chauffeur.”
I giggled. This was going to be fun. It took a few minutes of coaxing to get Truscott to jump into the back seat but finally he was in. Dominique helped me into the car and then sat down in the driver’s seat. He turned the key in the ignition and the car roared to life.
“What kind of car is this?” I asked running a hand over the leather seats.
“It’s a 3095 Mazda 30. Four wheel drive, turbo booster. It cost me about a million but I love it.”
I looked at him. Was he kidding me? Who was crazy enough to spend that kind of money on a car?
“Don’t look at me like that, Crystal,” Dominique said turning onto the street. “A million is cheap for a car these days. Even the Elites can’t afford more than one vehicle per family. Maybe one day cars will be cheaper to have and to fix. Even getting gas is hard.”
“Where do you get gas?” I asked. I had seen other vehicles on the roads before but I never saw gas stations like they had in the pictures.
“Each family gets an allotted amount per month. And it’s expensive.”
So not even the Elites’ vast fortunes could get them everything. They may have been rich but it couldn’t buy them everything.
It didn’t take long before the opulence of Dante’s neighbourhood fell away and the abandoned buildings loomed around us. I shuddered as we passed the hotel where I had hidden twice now. Truscott panted in the back seat. He poked his head out of the half opened window and barked at a man on the street.
Soon the buildings became familiar and I directed Dominique down the streets. The excitement grew as I got closer to home. Wouldn’t they be surprised when they saw me come up to the house in these clothes? We turned onto my street and I could barely contain the excitement.
But as we pulled up to my house the excitement died, like a fire splashed with water. I sat in the seat just staring. Too stunned to say anything I just looked. The house was gone. The white walls and green shutters had disappeared. Blackened beams and supports reached for the sky.
I shoved opened the door and tumbled out. Once I had my feet under me I raced up the gravel drive. I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them. Nothing had changed. The house was gone. I sank to the ground. What had happened? Where was everyone?