My publisher has closed down. Until I self publish this series you can email me:
virginniadeparte[@]gmail.com (without the brackets)
and I will send you this novella - FREE!
virginniadeparte[@]gmail.com (without the brackets)
and I will send you this novella - FREE!
Cobwebs brushed Jill’s face in sticky tendrils, crawly things fell from the leaves above so she swiped her hair and puffs of red dust tickled her nose. She crawled on hands and knees, while looking in and under the bushes, her heart pounding, apprehension flooding her senses. There was no sign of her seven year old niece. Fear tightened her stomach and bile roses in her throat. Dear God, don’t say Stella’s lost.
“Stella. Stella. Where are you honey?” Her voice faltered as dust clogged her throat.
Could the child be lost, or have run away? The heat of the Australian outback sun blazed on the back of her legs, beads of perspiration stung the sunburn on her back and dampness made her fine lawn sleeves cling to her arms. What had started out as a game of hide and seek, a chance to bond and get to know Stella, had become a real search. The fun had gone out of the game. She’d chosen fairly easy places for Stella to find her but now, with Stella’s turn to hide, Jill had to admit defeat.
The thought of telling Siobhan she’d mislaid her precious child only increased her nausea. Her sister in law would be furious. Not the best way to start a holiday with family.. how could a seven year old hide so well or slip past her to hide outside the garden? The faint hope of Stella being back in the house drove Jill to abandon her search. There couldn’t be any other explanation. Her usual exceptional sight, the result of her chameleon genes, hadn’t been quick enough to spot Stella’s movements.
She stood, brushed the dirt from her knees and hurried back to the house. The large porch wrapped around the old sundowners style home and graced her with its shade. She paused to take a couple of deep breathes of cool air, before opening the door and facing her sister-in-law.
“Sigh” she called as she entered “I can’t find Stella.” The note of panic in her voice echoed the thread of fear in her veins. She didn’t dare think of the repercussions of losing a child in the Australian bush. The outback teemed with deadly snakes and dangerous spiders. A merciless place, with extreme heat and cold, blinding sunlight and majestic beauty. Not the place for a child, alone.
In Melbourne her parents’ suburban garden seemed a relatively safe place compared to this red land. The wildest thing you could encounter in suburbia was a nesting magpie, determined to slice your head as it dive-bombed you from the tall gums trees at the end of the yard. The native wildlife fought a losing battle with urban sprawl. Jill’s sympathy lay with the lizards and birds.
She had a particular empathy with the lizards and geckos who spent their entire life hiding from predators. At least she didn’t have to hide. Well not completely, but keeping a low profile certainly helped to make life easier. She had to be careful not to get frightened. Her skin changed when the adrenaline coursed through her body. Mostly she managed to keep herself calm but at moments like this, stressed to the maximum, she knew she must look a mess. Hot, bothered, dusty, her hair every-which- way and now she’d be a lovely combination of red sunburn and pale green-tinged skin.
Calling to Siobhan she hurried up the central hallway in the direction of an answering hail from the front room. As she entered she heard a faint childish giggle. Or did she? She probably imagined it. Siobhan lay stretched out on the sofa, reading a book, looking calm and serene and Jill wished she didn’t have to deliver her news.
The sun streaming through the window highlighted Siobhan’s beautiful features, her cat-like eyes an iridescent green and Jill wondered how Siobhan could stand the heat. Putting off telling her wouldn’t help.
“I’ve lost Stella. Sigh. I’m so sorry. I can’t find her anywhere.”
Siobhan lazily turned her head towards the door, surprise etched on her face at Jill’s comment.
“You haven’t lost her Jill. She’s here, behind the sofa.”
A giggle exploded and Jill moved rapidly to the sofa, quickly leaning over to confirm that her niece’s presence.
“Thank God. I thought she’d run away. How did she get past me?”
Siobhan stood and reached behind the sofa, dragging a giggling Stella out by the back of her dress. Stella, blessed with James blond curls, graceful like her mother, with long legs that promised the height of her father, stood, her chin tucked in, trying to hide a triumphant grin.
“It’s not funny Stella. Apologise to Aunty Jill this minute.” Siobhan’s voice was sharp. Jill noted the firm line Sigh’s mouth had taken. Siobhan’s manner did not match Stella’s amusement.
“For what?” Jill said. “She doesn’t have to apologise. She won the game. I couldn’t find her.”
”Oh yes she does, for two things.” Siobhan raised her hands and ticked off her fingers.. “Firstly she lied to me, telling me you’d finished the game and she’d won.” Another finger tapped “Secondly, she disappeared so she could walk past you. She knows she’s not allowed to do that without telling one of the family first.”
Jill took a mental step back, a little stunned. “I’d heard she could do it, Sigh’ but I guess I didn’t really believe it.” Looking at Stella, Jill raised her eyebrows. “Do you do this often, Stella?”
“I’m sorry Aunty Jill. I’m not supposed to hide behind my rainbow but its fun and I did win the game, didn’t I?” Jill nodded seeing the anxious look on Stella’s face. She remembered that when you’re seven, winning a game over an adult is really important.
“There’s no harm done Stella. I’m just relieved to find you.” She rubbed her fingers through her niece’s curls, tugging them slightly, “even if you did cheat.” Turning to Siobhan, who had reclined once more in the sun, she said over Stella’s giggling.
“Sigh how can you lie in that sun, on a hot day like this?”
“Must be my cat genes I guess. I just love it. Can’t seem to get enough.”
“Best thing I ever did was to bring her to Alice Springs.” Jill swung round as her brother James entered the room carrying a tray with a large pitcher of juice. Floating on top a deep layer of iceblocks clinked, amidst pungent mint leaves. Jill’s mouth watered, her thirst hitting her like a slap.
James set the try down on a small table and began to pour the juice into the four glasses.
“You look a bit of a mess Sis. What’s upset you?” Only a brother would be so brutally honest, but she didn’t rise to the bait. She loved him too much and knew he didn’t have a mean bone in his body.
“I’m just hot. Stella and I have been playing hide and seek. I’m not used to this intense heat.”
James handed her a full glass. Already the beads of condensation trickled down the sides. The chilled liquid flowed like nectar down her throat and her blotchy pink patches faded as she cooled.
“Would you like to come to the Airport with me?” James asked.
“Why? I only flew in yesterday. Are you going to put me on a plane home?” She teased him, knowing full well this couldn’t be the reason for his invitation.
“No, we have an old friend arriving on the 4 o’clock flight and I thought you might like to look at the scenery. You seemed pretty jetlagged yesterday when you arrived from Singapore. I presume you didn’t take in much.”
“That’d be great. I’d love to. I’ll just have to freshen up and change my clothes. Hide and seek can be pretty messy, if you play the Stella way.” She gave Stella a quick hug, placed her glass on the tray and hurried to her bedroom.
She guessed from the silence behind her and the glances James and Siobhan had exchanged, they would be sitting their daughter down for yet another serious talk about the genetic talents they all shared as a family and the correct way to use them.
Learning to live with these genes; when to show them, when to share them and when not to, became a constant when growing up in a g-altered family. Jill recalled her own lessons as she washed hurriedly and changed her clothes. At times she’d felt cursed and then at other times her g-altered state gave her great satisfaction. Somehow the depth of sensitivity helped her with her nursing career. She had empathy for others, could sit quietly beside the terminally ill not feeling the urge to fill the silence with chatter and could cope instantly in a crisis, where ‘normals’ often froze before deciding between fight or flight.
The road to the Airport ran through the Gap on the eastern side of Alice Springs. Jill marvelled at the multicoloured rock strata running in lines of almost 45 degrees upward on each side, where millions of years ago the hillside moved and split. Through the narrow gap a dry river bed ran along on one side of the road. Only after heavy and infrequent rain would there be any water in it and the annual boat race became, in reality, a running race in the river bed.
“Who’s this friend of yours we’re going to collect, James?”
“He’s Stella’s Doctor. At her birth in Wellington he offered to be her personal physician, if we ever needed him. Siobhan and I try and see him every year. He gives Stella a complete physical examination and we know we can talk to him about her disappearing talents. He’s as puzzled as we are as to how she does it, but she’s healthy enough.”
“But Dad can do it as well. He’s fit enough. Why are you worrying, James?”
There was a short silence before James spoke again.
“It’s not just disappearing Jill, it’s all the other genetic traces she may have inherited. For example is Mum still shifting the furniture around?”
“Frequently.” Jill said and laughed. “But usually when Dad’s not there. He gets cross with her. I think it’s because he can’t do it.”
“Yes. Heaven knows why. He can disappear and dimension jump wherever he likes. Often Mother has no idea if he’s walked to the shops or gone off to another time and place in another city.”
James joined in with her amused laughter. “When we were in Melbourne last year I came into the house to find Mother demonstrating her furniture moving skills to Stella. She had the sofa, two chairs and an occasional table, all up near the ceiling, slowly circling. Stella was entranced. Then Mother isolated the small table and sent it out to the kitchen. I can still hear Stella’s squeals of delight. ‘Teach me Grandma. Teach me,’ she begged.”
“Not something you want your six year old to be doing for entertainment is it, James?”
“No, I had to take Mother to one side and ask her nicely not to show off. Stella knows that Siobhan has cat genes but she doesn’t know, yet, that I can stop time. I don’t want her trying that. It’s bad enough she disappears frequently. At least she only does it at home in our garden, - I hope.”
“You have the ideal property for her to grow up on, James, isolated as it is on the edge of town, far enough away to be private, but a short drive to amenities.”
“You have the ideal property for her to grow up on, James, isolated as it is on the edge of town, far enough away to be private, but a short drive to amenities.”
“Yes, it’s worked out well. It was a nightmare when Stella was very small. The slightest noise she hadn’t heard before, or a sudden fright and ‘pooof’, she’d disappear. Now she can control it, and we’ve let her go to school. She shouldn’t have teased you today by disappearing and creeping past you. Using her talent sensibly is what we are working on, still. It’s an ongoing process. ”
James drove into the Airport and parked the four-wheel Overlander wagon. Together he and Jill walked into the terminal, where Jill blessed the air conditioning. Even the short walk from the car to the terminal had her hot and bothered. Looking at James’ calm relaxed appearance she accepted he’d probably acclimatised to the temperatures in the last seven years.
She excused herself to check her complexion in the Restroom mirror. No sign of blotches, red or other colour. Whew, what a relief. She didn’t want to meet this friend of James looking a fright. Why did she still care? Several years ago she’d resigned herself to a single life. Who’d want a part- chameleon wife? Imagine a husband saying: ‘Put my missus in the garden and you’ll never find her. Up in a tree or on the ground, always blending into the background.’ No, she’d just enjoy life and give up on marriage and children. Only when she saw James and Siobhan, their joy in each other and their love of Stella, did her heart ache to share the same pleasure in a home of her own.
Shaking her head, sending her daydream flying, she opened the door and went looking for James. There he was, and looking over James’ shoulder, straight at her with great interest stood the famed Dr. Scott, Stella’s personal physician. Keeping her blushing under control, she walked up with a spring in her step, and enthusiastically introduced herself by taking his hand. It’d taken her hours of practice and a few failures before she perfected this piece of acting. Overcoming her innate shyness made her heart pound and a pounding heart always led to blushes and blotches.
“Hi. I’m Jill, James’ sister. Dr. Scott I presume?”
“Michael,” James said. “This is my multi-talented sister Jillian. She’s staying with us at present.”
James put his arm around her shoulder and her skin tingled from the love and support he poured into her. No hiding anything from her brother.
Did he really have to say ‘multi-talented’. She tapped his ankle with her foot, a gentle reminder to watch his manners. Perhaps he meant to warn the Doctor?
“Great to meet you, Jillian. I’m Michael to my friends.” Dr Scott said. “I notice you have just kicked your brother. I guess you want him to keep his mouth shut. I wouldn’t worry. I’m a little multi talented myself.”
”Ha. That explains everything,” Jill said. She’d wondered at James and Siobhan having a normal Doctor near Stella. She relaxed. “Sorry bro’,” and she bent down pretending to rub his ankle and leg.
“Let’s get your luggage and get home.” James said. They collected Dr. Scott’s bags and made the quick dash through the afternoon heat to the wagon putting up with the enclosed heat until the air conditioning won the battle and cooled the car’s interior down.
Sitting in the back seat, after a silent waltz with the Doctor over who was going to sit in the front with James, Jill had time to study the man. Michael, he said he wanted to be called. Tall, with thick black hair, his olive skin spoke of his Maori heritage. His manner came across as very charming and his strong jaw line spoke of an inborn stubbornness. Only his nose seemed overbroad. Perhaps a racial trait? On the whole he looked very handsome and she wondered what genetically altered talent he had and if he would talk about it.
A strong physical attraction to him tugged at her. A desire to lean forward and inhale his maleness almost overwhelmed her and it made her sad. She thought she’d managed to put her physical desires to sleep by ignoring men. She’d certainly invested many hours mentally convincing herself that love and romance were a waste of time; and now here was a man who had her all stirred up – again. Any moment now she’d burst forth into patches of colour. Green, mauve, soft brown, rust red, the more stirred up she became the more the colours radiated and ran over her skin, like as muted laser display. Most of the time the display left her face untouched and confined itself to her body and limbs. Most of the time, but there were no guarantees.
Her chameleon blushes were the curse of her life. It was better in the winter when she could cover up with long sleeves tops and wear trousers. Alice Springs and the Australian Outback at this time of the year seethed with a heat and made covering up mandatory, but then you became even hotter. She sighed, resigned to the fact Dr. Michael Scott would be bound to see her hot and bothered very shortly. He’d never be attracted to her so she might as well not worry about it.
James pulled into the driveway, parking alongside the veranda, taking advantage of a patch of shade. Fly screens kept the bugs out and the one on the front door banged loudly behind Stella. Arms raised, whooping with glee, she raced out to greet them.
“Doctor Mike. Doctor Mike.” Stella yelled, bouncing up and down on her toes. The moment the Doctor opened his door she climbed in and sat on his lap. Michael reeled back in mock horror and held her at arms length.
“Are you sure your name is Stella? It can’t be.” Looking at James, Michael asked. “Who is this child. Do you know her?”
“I am Stella. I am. I am.” Stella squealed in delight. Jill suspected this was an annual ritual. The Doctor doubting his eyes and Stella trying to convince him she was real. James just grinned, opening the driver’s door to get the bags from the rear.
Jill quietly made her way into the cool of the house and searched out Siobhan who was in the kitchen making drinks.
“You have one very excited daughter there Sigh.”
“I know. It happens every year. She knows Michael is her own special doctor and she looks forward to his visits. Although he gives her a complete physical check over while he’s here, mostly he just has fun with her and spends a few days with us before he goes ‘walk-about” with his Aboriginal friends.”
“He goes walk-about every year?”
“”No, the first couple of visits he didn’t, but he now has a good relationship with one of the local groups and he likes to check out their children’s health. He has a keen interest in their natural bush tucker diet. Michael says it’s because his Maori ancestors and even his whanau, his family today, often use native plants to improve their health and cure minor ailments.”
“That’s an interesting sort of hobby.” Jill said.
“It’s more than a hobby.” Siobhan picked up the tray of drinks and Jill followed. Siobhan spoke over her shoulder. “That way he has funding and an official reason for being here.”
Putting the tray down she called, “Come on you three. Drinks are in here,” and turning to Jill she added, “ Dr. Scott takes flora samples back to New Zealand for comparison with our native plants there. I think his research is privately funded by a Maori Research and Development Trust.”
“I thought those were hard to get funds from,” Jill said.
“He’s descended from the Ngai Tahu, a South Island Tribe, on his mother’s side and the Nga Puhi from the North Island on his father’s side. It’s a good combination for him to use to apply for grants…” Siobhan stopped abruptly, reacting to the sound of footsteps on the polished jarrah floors, watching the doorway. James entered the room first, followed closely by Doctor Scot, with Stella riding on his shoulders. A quick bend of Michael’s knees ensured Stella’s head didn’t hit the top of the door frame. It looked like a well practised move.
Leaving Siobhan and James to talk to Dr. Scott, Jill took her drink and stood by one of the large bay windows. The sun had moved on from where it had been streaming in a few hours ago. A small breeze ruffled the curtains through the fine mesh screens. The murmur of conversation rose and fell behind her, but she wasn’t listening.
The typical Australian scenery beyond the fine mesh, had all her attention. Tall gum trees stood gathered in clumps, their leaves whispering to each other. High above the ground Parrots, the Galahs and ‘Twenty-eights, flitted from branch to branch, squabbling amongst themselves. Several tall ghost gums, their silvery white trunks shedding bark in long strips were grouped nearby. With her keen eyesight she noticed several tiny lizards scurrying among the fallen leaves, hunting for ants and beetles. The vivid backdrop of azure sky was almost unreal. In photographs the sky appeared as if it had been digitally enhanced, until you saw it in real time.
She turned to look at the large framed photograph on the wall. Siobhan had won a major prize several years ago with her photographs of King’s Canyon and the one that graced the lounge was another beauty. It showed the huge clefts in the ground. The sides lined with rock layers stacked like piles of pancakes, with trees hanging from the vertical sides. The colour range of greens and reds seemed artificial, until you looked closely and picked up the small details. Jill could see why Sigh loved this hot red country. At dusk she would go for a walk to watch the sunset and try and catch the moment when the rocks on the range behind them turned mauve for a mere minute. Perhaps she could take a photo and capture the moment.
She heard a movement behind her and realised Dr. Scott had moved to stand beside her, looking out through the fine screen, into the heat haze.
“Do you come here often?” he asked, turning to face her. It tickled Jill’s sense of humour that the Doctor had just delivered a standard pick-up line and she couldn’t restrain the small smile that played at the corners of her mouth. She pursed her lips to prevent the Doctor being offended.
“Siobhan tells me you come out here very year. Is it work or pleasure that keeps bringing you back Doctor Scott?”
“Please call me Michael. Dr. Scott is so formal and as I’m a friend of Siobhan and James, I’d like to be considered a friend of yours as well.” His gaze held hers and she felt locked into his soul. His burnt amber eyes had tiny flecks of gold floating in them. They seemed bottomless and with an effort she wrenched her thoughts back to the present, hearing his voice continuing.
“I think it’s a bit of both really.” She wondered what he was talking about then remembered her question: business or pleasure?
“Of course I love checking on Stella’s progress. She’s a very special, talented little girl and we all need to keep her safe until she can decide how she wants to use her talents in the future.” He looked back at the view. ”Also, I enjoy my research into the Bush Remedies used by the Aborigines.” A wry smile curled up one side of his mouth. “It’s also the valid and true reason for my grant monies, so I need to spend time each year on that.”
In response to Siobhan’s voice calling them to their evening meal they turned away from the window.
“After you,” Michael said. Jill took the chance to check her reflection in the mirror across the room, looking for looming patches. Her heart skipped when she saw Michael’s hand rise behind her as if to stroke her hair. He stopped his hand just inches away from her head, pausing before letting it drop. The movement had taken two seconds. Had she imagined it? No, she hadn’t. Fancy someone wanting to touch her hair. Jill considered it very annoying hair. Yes, it shone as if dressed in oil, although no oil ever touched it and yes, it fell in soft waves to her shoulders because she brushed it vigorously every night, but red hair is simply that: red hair. A magnet for teasing, an excuse to be called ‘carrot top; or ‘ginger’. James once said he could see gold and green highlights in it. She refused to believe him. He was just being a typical brother. Honestly, as if she didn’t have enough problems with her skin without multi coloured hair.
With Michael behind her she hurried down the passage to the dining room and took her place at the large wooden table. A fan in the corner ruffled the white tablecloth, its slight breeze a cool caress against the afternoon heat. Only one end of the table had been set for the meal, the rest of the table’s length shone, lovingly polished by Siobhan. As a result the chandelier’s reflection on the dark-red jarrah cast a warming light to the kitchen.
Michael took the chair beside her. “Could we take a walk this evening, once the heat goes? The sunsets are magnificent. I can’t get enough of them when I’m here.” Michael said.
“ That would be great. I’m hoping to capture the lavender moment with my camera.” Surely the request came from politeness. He probably felt sorry for her. Maybe James had told him she’d hit twenty seven without a hint of marriage prospects. “I’ll see if we can all go. I bet there’s a better view from that small hill to the north of here. James will know.”
Michael Scott’s plans hadn’t included the rest of the family in his suggestion to watch the sun go down, and he strove to control his facial expression, keeping it neutral, holding his mouth still, not moving his gaze from Jill’s face. He’d hoped to get this lovely woman on her own. She fascinated him. Her colouring, her genes, revealed by James in a quick aside, made her a curiosity. But what attracted him even more was the inner stillness she had. A quiet air of solitude surrounded her image, capped off by her unbelievable auburn hair, shining like burnished copper whenever the light caught it.
Ignoring all his self imposed guidelines, and his promise to his beloved Maori grandmother, he desired to softly cover her lips, breathe deeply her inner essence and taste her kiss. But first, he had to get her alone.
This thought caused him to shake his head. The sort of thought a romantic might have, and he certainly wasn’t one of those. No. He suspected he would need to approach this beauty with caution or else she would scamper, quicker than the chameleon whose genes she shared. Better he adopt a steady calm tread rather than the clumsy gait of a young swain, even if, at thirty years of age, his emotions were behaving the same as they had the first time he’d fallen in love. He simply had to get his head in control of his heart this time around. A physical longing to wrap her in his arms made him stretch out over the table so his hands could rearrange the condiments.
He knew he needed to gain Jill’s trust and friendship, to show her how he fitted into this family arrangement. Among these thoughts strayed one of puzzlement. Why did he care so much what she thought? For the first time in years a woman’s opinion of him mattered, more than he’d thought possible. With only two days left before he went walk-about he would aim for sunset tomorrow, hopefully with Jill, alone.