"I fear I am writing a requiem for myself."
–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
New York 1996
The being I had been waiting for first entered my world when I was five. It was on one of those hot summer afternoons in New York when the heat hung in the air like thick invisible clouds. Still the streets bustled with people, cars purring like large cats as they rolled by.
The sunlight that washed the lively city streets in gold did not reach the heavy gloom that hung within the walls of my home. Relatives came and went. Their faces were always tense, fear lurking in the shadows behind their eyes. Whilst the sound of weeping reached me from my mother’s room along with snippets of whispered conversations.
One of my family members had gone missing and everyone feared the worst. And in the gloom that had descended I was, as always, forgotten and simply left to the nanny.
The nanny, Alessandra, was a short, slim girl in her early twenties who had only been working for my parents a week. She dragged me out into the wilting heat that afternoon and when we came to the entrance of a bank, I came to a stop, forcing her to face me. I pulled my hand out of hers.
“I want ice cream. You said you were taking me to the park for ice cream.”
The tension that reigned at home had stretched my nerves to a brittle thread, making me act up a little bit more than usual. And perhaps even then I was already aware of the Other; could already hear its sepulchral footsteps drawing ever closer.
“Quiet!” Alessandra snapped in her heavy Italian accent. She wore thick black eye make-up and bright red lipstick. Her eyes were like black stones. “I did not tell you I was taking you to the park. I said I would think about it.”
She took hold of my arm once more in a painful grip and dragged me with her into the cool bank.
“Aw, that hurts. I want ice cream.” A few people were already starting to stare at us.
“If you behave yourself, then I will take you. If you do not behave, you get no ice cream. It is hard to believe everyone at that house—from your mother to the servants—are scared of you. You are just a child and it is time everyone began treating you like one!”
We were now by a row of seats opposite the tellers. She picked me up and sat me down.
“I’m not waiting.” I scrambled off the chair and stamped my foot. “I want ice cream and I want it now!”
She leaned over me, her mouth pinched, her eyes narrowed to black slits.
“You will sit here until I have finished my business, do you understand?”
I felt hot, petulant anger rise and spill over in a childish flow of malice. “You’re stupid!” I said.
“What did you just say to me?”
“You’re stupid!” I repeated, letting a spark of something I did not understand let alone know how to control spill from my lips. “He’s married. He takes the money you send him and laughs because you’re stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
The colour completely drained from her face until it appeared to be a white mask with slashes of heavy black eyeliner and vermillion lipstick. Her mouth twisted in anguish and her voice was little more than a ragged whisper when she spoke.
“He’s married? What do you mean? Why did you say that?”
I just looked up at her, having no idea where those words, the knowledge that had affected her so, came from. She grabbed me by the arm and dragged me back to the chair. She leaned over me. Anger, and perhaps even a little fear, passed behind her eyes like shadows beneath murky water.
“You little brat.” Everyone in the bank was staring at us now. “You sit down and if you move from that chair, you will not have any ice cream ever again. Now sit!”
She straightened, took a shaky breath, and moved to join the queue. She reached into her bag, her gaze completely absorbed with its contents, her face deathly white, her hands trembling.
It was all the time I needed. I slipped off the chair and darted out of the bank doors as a young woman was entering, and into the warm arms of the sunlit afternoon.
She wasn’t going to stop me getting my ice cream. Central Park was a short walk away. I moved down the street in the direction of the park.
When I got there, the park—an ocean of green amidst the noisy concrete world—which had always seemed as familiar and as welcoming as my very own back yard, seemed vast and foreign. The throngs of people, distant giants to someone my size, moved to and fro in the bright sunshine. A band was playing somewhere in the distance, the jangly sounds adding to the disorientation I felt. When I entered the park I walked in the direction I believed my favourite ice cream stand to be. It was a while before I realised I did not know how to find it.
I came to a stop then, the heat making me feel lightheaded, little streams of sweat running down my back. I turned around to try and make my way out of the park only to realise I recognised nothing which would point the way to the exit. The air around me suddenly seemed too thick and humid and my breath hitched in my throat as I struggled to draw it in. I realised that for the first time in my short life I was completely and utterly alone. Suddenly the mean nanny, who had gripped my arm so spitefully, was a sight I would have given all my dolls to see. But she was not to be found amongst the throngs of adults I could see moving through the park.
“Hey, are you okay?”
I whirled around to see a young coffee-coloured teenager in green shorts and a white T-shirt. She was focused completely on me, but her eyes were blank, as if the light behind them had been dimmed.
“No, you’re lost. Don’t be scared, baby. You can sit with us.” She paused, then spoke as if she were reading words from a page. “Alessandra will be here in a little while.”
Relief washed over me like a cool breeze and I nodded, reaching for the hand she held out to me.
Then, almost like a burst of radiance lighting up an obscure, stormy sky, I felt an intense flush of emotion thrill through me. I spun around, my sixth sense tingling with an intensity that made my hands tremble.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
The words of the teenager faded away as I searched the park, not even sure of what it was I was looking for.
And then I saw him.
He stood with his back to me some distance away, a tall, white male dressed in jeans and a blue jacket despite the heat.
The moment my gaze fell on him he began to move away, walking at a slow, leisurely pace. My entire world seemed to narrow to just this moment—the stranger moving steadily away from me.
I couldn’t speak. The two girls behind me, and the noise and chaos of the park, disappeared.
I snapped myself out of my fugue and looked around the park, frantic as the stranger moved farther away. Then I walked away from the two girls who now had identical frowns upon their brows, the dimness behind their eyes beginning to lighten like dawn breaking across a night sky. I kept my gaze on the white male as I ran in the other direction from the one he was headed in. I knew now I wasn’t that far from one of the entrances because I could hear cars roaring past. If I ran toward the road he would have to...
He came to an abrupt stop.
For a few moments I just stood there staring at his back, my stomach tied in knots. Knowing this would be my only chance, I ran toward him.
I reached him and moved to stand by his side, peering up into his face.
I had known before I saw him that he would be beautiful, but beautiful didn’t seem adequate to describe a face that was perhaps only seen in dreams or bestowed upon angels. He had a noble profile, aquiline nose and full lips. His hair was dark brown and curled just at the nape of his neck.
I knew instantly he was not quite like the rest of us but seemed to live behind a veil in this world, not fully a part of it. And my young mind could only conceive he was an angel come to brighten my very existence with his presence. The tension, along with the pangs of dread that had followed me that day, lifted.
I tentatively reached out and grasped his hand.
He stared ahead for a few moments, his demeanour aloof as if he didn’t even know I was there. Then he looked down at me.
I stared up into haunting, vivid blue eyes framed by thick dark lashes and everything seemed to disappear. The people milling all around us, the wilting heat of the afternoon sunshine. The sounds of laughter drifted away along with that of the grinding traffic churning in the distance.
All that remained was him.
A heartbreaking smile touched his lips.
“I should have known I wouldn’t be able to hide from you, Dallas.” He paused and I was breathless. Everything hung on his next words. “Come on, let’s get you that ice cream.”
I smiled for the first time that morning and let him lead me away to the ice cream stand.
We sat by the side of a fountain whilst I ate my cup of ice cream. My legs dangled over the side of the fountain, my expensive, shiny blue shoes gleamed in the afternoon sun. I wore jeans and a blue T-shirt and my hair was in four bunches tied at the end with blue baubles. Although it was blisteringly hot, he wore his jacket zipped up and appeared unaffected by the heat. He was also very still, watching me with sad, deep eyes whilst I talked about everything that mattered in the world of a five year old. The only time he moved was when he brought a hand up to lazily push a stray lock of hair that kept falling into his eyes, away from his face.
When he peered into the distance and once more brought his hand up to push his hair out of his eyes, I put my ice cream down on the side of the fountain and pulled one of the bright blue baubles out of my hair. Eager to please, I stood so I could reach his hair and gather the unruly lock of hair into the bauble. I secured it and then sat back down. His eyebrows came together and he stared upward as if to peer at the bauble in his hair, his expression one of almost comic perplexity. I grinned when he gazed at me, proud of my handiwork. He gave me one of his sad smiles and handed the ice cream to me.
“Thank you, Dallas.”
“You’re welcome, Avery.”
His smile widened, although it did not reach the desolation in his eyes, desolation as enduring and fluid as the water gushing from the fountain behind us.
“I don’t recall telling you my name, Dallas.”
“You’re Avery. We all know that. And,” I added, trying to mimic his accent and deep voice. “I don’t recall telling you my name.”
He chuckled softly. “No, I don’t suppose you did.”
It was a few moments before he spoke again, his voice gentle but hesitant.
“Do you want to talk about what happened with your nanny at the bank?”
I froze with a spoonful of ice cream halfway toward my open mouth, my eyes locked on him.
His gaze was gentle as he peered down at me. “It is all right, Dallas.”
I was able to breathe again and let the spoonful of ice cream continue to my open mouth. His expression grew serious, his gaze earnest as he spoke.
“Do you understand what happened and why what you said upset Alessandra?”
I brought the ice cream down to my lap and lowered my gaze. Tears pricked my eyes. I so desperately needed him to like me.
“What you can do, it is a gift, one that must not be misused. It is a very big gift for a child to have, a burden in some ways. Your grandmother tried to take that burden away from you for a while, but she was not able to take all of it away. What I am trying to tell you is that you must not use it to hurt people like Alessandra, okay?”
I nodded. He smiled at me and the moment of misery was swept away.
He reached a hand absentmindedly toward his hair, but stopped when he remembered the hairband holding the unruly lock of hair in place. He glanced at me and a small smile touched his lips before he looked off into the distance. The smile melted away and his expression soon resembled that of someone weeping silently, completely unaware of the tears cutting a glistening trail down their cheeks. Misery welled up within at the sight of his sorrow and I spoke without knowing what it was I meant to say.
“Luna? What’s Luna?”
He looked at me, his eyebrows raised in surprise. “You can read my mind, Dallas?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It just came into my head.”
“I think you can.”
There was another of those long, thoughtful pauses. His voice was heavy when he spoke.
“Luna was one of your ancestors. I was thinking that she would have adored you.”
He looked away again and suddenly appeared smaller, as if he were shrinking inside his clothes. His misery and yearning, along with pain so raw and intense, smothered me. Desperate to say something to make him feel better, I said the first thing that came to my mind.
“She’s not dead.”
He looked up, his attention focused entirely on me for the first time that afternoon.
“What...what did you say?”
His voice was low, his expression blank. I wouldn’t have known how affected he was by my words if it wasn’t for the powerful emotion I could feel rolling off him and the intensity in his haunting blue eyes. I faltered for a second or two, the ice cream forgotten.
For the first time in my life, I was frightened of this power, this knowledge that always came unbidden, terrified I was about to say something that would wound him as much as it had wounded Alessandra.
“Um...she’s not dead. She changed,” was all I said in the end.
He studied me in silence for a few moments, and it felt as if someone was brushing feathers along the insides of my skull.
“Stop that,” I said, giggling and bringing my hands up to my forehead. “It tickles.”
He reached for my ice cream and extracted the cherry at the bottom I had been trying to reach. It seemed he had completely forgotten what I had said, so I continued to tell him about my world, my dolls, and even the mean nanny.
When the ice cream was finished, I scrambled off the side of the fountain. He took the empty cup from me and tossed it in a trash can.
“Thank you for buying me ice cream, Mr Avery.”
“It was a pleasure, Dallas.”
“I just need you to take me home so I can get my teddy, and then I can come and live with you.”
He appeared completely speechless, and for the second time that afternoon, pulled himself away from his thoughts and focused on me completely. I thought I saw blind panic in his eyes.
“Dallas, I...you.... I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
I felt my chest clench with anxiety for the second time that afternoon. I stared up at him in bewilderment, wrenching anguish at his words, making it difficult to breathe.
“But...but...I promise I’ll be good.”
“It’s not because of that, Dallas. I would if I could, but you belong at home with your parents.”
Tears rolled down my cheeks. “But I don’t want to be with them. I want to be with you. I’ve been w—”
“Hush, Dallas.” He knelt and pulled out a white handkerchief. He gently wiped away my tears. “You belong at home with your mother and nanny. She’ll be here any minute now to take you home.”
Panic fluttered in my chest. He was right. I could already sense her getting closer. I grabbed his arm, the waves of anguish cresting.
“Please. I’ll be sad if you don’t take me with you.”
He smiled a weary smile that told of unrelenting sorrow. “You won’t remember me, Dallas.”
He bent and kissed me on the forehead.
I was alone.
I looked around me for the teenager in the green shorts who had been standing behind me only moments ago. Not only was she gone, I was now by the fountain. I looked about me, that anxiety about to overwhelm me again when I heard someone scream out my name.
I turned to the sound of the voice and saw Alessandra running through the throngs of people toward me. Her perfect black eyeliner now ran in jagged tracks down blotchy, red cheeks, the black and red making her face look even paler by comparison. Her hair stuck out at crazy angles as if she had grabbed fistfuls of it while in a frenzy. She reached me and pulled me to her. She held me tight for what seemed to be the longest time before she pulled away to peer at me. Her eyes flashed with anger even as they filled with tears.
“You are a naughty, naughty girl. Do you know that? Mama mia! Why did I ever agree to be your nanny?”
She pulled me into a tight hug once more.
Filled with a sadness that seemed as deep as the widest chasm, one I could not even understand or explain, I could only cry silently into her shoulder.
After a few moments she was able to let me go. She smiled through her tears and pulled out a grubby tissue.
“You silly girl. Look at you.” She wiped at my face. “Next time, you listen to me, okay? Now let me buy you this ice cream and we can go home.”
At the mention of ice cream, the sadness rose to an agonising peak and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of debilitating loss, but I did not know why. At the fresh onslaught of tears, Alessandra picked me up, stroking my hair.
“Okay, I’ll take you straight home,” she said.
She carried me home, holding onto me tightly the entire way.
My mother was waiting for us when we returned. She’d had to leave an important family meeting at my grandmother’s when she received a call from the bank about what had taken place there. Alessandra was sacked. I was too miserable to pay attention, the tears that streamed down my face continuing long into the evening and even as sleep stole over me that night.
I awoke the following morning to my sixth sense tingling. I peered sleepily around the spacious, sugary pink bedroom at the white shelving units heaving with toys—dolls, teddy bears and assorted pink hat boxes filled with more toys. I sat up when my gaze fell on a pretty pink dress with ruffles along its edges hanging by the window. I got out of bed and reached for it, knowing instinctively that it came from a little shop in London, just like another blue and yellow dress I had found by the window a few months ago.
I could not understand why the sight of the dress made hot, thick tears well up and roll down my cheeks, or why the churning misery that had been with me since the trip to the park intensified. But it did, and once the dam of tears burst forth, it was difficult to contain.
It was how my mother found me a short time later, sitting on my bed clutching the pink dress, engulfed in tears.
She came to an abrupt stop in the doorway. Her large brown eyes, ringed in red, had dark circles beneath them. Her hair, which was usually pulled back into a neat bun, hung in stringy, uncombed tendrils around her shoulders. She squeezed her eyes shut, the same way she did whenever I threw a tantrum, and a shuddery sigh escaped her. She turned and left the room without another glance at me.
One of the maids entered the room minutes later, clearly having been sent by my mother to “see to Dallas.” Her face was tight with tension, her eyes alight with the fear that none of the staff were able to hide.
Alessandra returned later that day.
She took me to the park that afternoon and was probably unaware of how tight the grip on my hand was throughout the walk. She didn’t release my hand, or loosen her grip on it, even when she bought me ice cream and then led us to a bench overlooking the fountain.
Again, I did not know why, but that misery overwhelmed me again. The ice cream in my hand, rather than abating it, brought forth fresh despair. Tears filled my eyes and slid down my cheeks.
Alessandra glanced at me carefully for a few moments.
“You don’t want it, do you?” she said, her tone gentle.
For some reason her words sparked some unknown reminiscence from a well too deep and murky for me to see through. The tears flowed faster. She took the ice cream out of my hand and rose, pulling me with her. She deposited the ice cream in a waste bin as we moved away from the bench. As we walked away from the fountain, the anguish clutching at my chest eased.
We wandered aimlessly through the park. It was a long while before she spoke again.
“Look at you. You are so scary with your tantrums. But behind it all, you are just a lonely little girl.”
The too-tight grip on my hand increased as we turned to go back the way we had come.
She took a deep breath before she spoke again.
“You were right. He was only using me. He is not married, but he may as well be. I do not know how you knew, but you have saved me a lot of money, not to mention heartache.” She seemed to be talking to herself now. “Yesterday I asked myself why I ever agreed to take this job. When your mother offered it to me along with so much money, I was happy. Things have been difficult in America and I know nobody here. And so I thought this job would mean I would have a little friend. How could I know you would be such a little... How headstrong you would be.”
She stopped and knelt before me, watching me wipe away tears with my arm.
“To you, I’m just another nanny—well, I’m not even a real nanny, just someone your mother saw handing out leaflets and hired because you scared the last one away. This job is the only good thing that’s happened to me since I came to America. I don’t know how long I’ll work for your parents, but I’ll be your friend if you let me. And neither of us has to be lonely; at least for a little while.”
I merely stared at her, confused at this approach from a woman I had hated since she came and whom I had been determined to be rid of. I was unsure how to respond when, out of the blue, like a memory rising to the surface unbidden, I saw an image in my mind’s eye: A brief glimpse of a woman’s face. Her skin was like warm honey, her eyes golden brown, her smile a soft caress.
The image stunned me and I was lost for a few minutes in the beauty of that face and the kindness I could feel behind the woman’s eyes and smile. It brought an odd comfort along with a strange, bittersweet yearning.
I had never seen this woman before, but I knew it was my sixth sense letting me know I could trust Alessandra. And that my loneliness would be eased if only for a little while.
“Okay,” I said.
Alessandra’s gaze snapped back to me in surprise. Then genuine joy warmed her face. She wiped away my tears before she rose and we moved on.
“What should we do tomorrow? Should we come back here or go somewhere else?”
Although misery still sat heavily against me, I smiled up at her. “You can choose.”
As we made our way to the entrance, my gaze was drawn to the fountain. The anguish spiked once more and the tears threatened, but I did my best not to succumb to them.
Alessandra was true to her word and the antagonism that marked her first week was soon forgotten. In fact she soon began to dote on and spoil me to such an extent that even my grandmother, who herself spoiled me shamelessly, thought excessive.
But even with Alessandra around, I found myself experiencing moments of crippling misery. That loneliness, although pushed to the background, never really left me. Every once in a while I would wake up to see a dress hanging by the window. For some reason it always made my heart clench and tears spring to my eyes. The gifts ceased a few years later when I was too old for such little girl dresses. I kept them all, although even looking at them made my heart fill with longing.
It was many years before I saw him again, the mysterious being whose pain was like a living thing growing steadily wider and deeper with every year that passed. On each occasion he sent me away, not allowing me to have even the blessing of the memory of his face. And I was cast adrift once more in a world of the ordinary. The existence of so many. With only an inkling of the other world of supernatural beings moving amongst us like shadows behind a veil. All while those monstrous footsteps drew steadily closer.
And then everything changed for me.