“Did she go away because of me? Is it all my fault?”
Her shining black eyes say she trusts me one hundred percent. But she shouldn’t. I have too many secrets to be trustworthy.
“There’s no point telling them the truth if I don’t know what it is yet,” I tell her, and I’m pretty sure she agrees. But that’s the problem with dogs, they agree with everything.
I’ve looped my mum’s ring onto a piece of leather string and tied it around my neck. It’s easily hidden under my neckline, even though hiding things is a habit I vowed to quit. The note is safely tucked away where no one will find it. The gift from the dog is sitting on my bed. The gift my brother and sister think is a puzzle like any other.
The puzzle that fits perfectly inside a square wooden box, roughly the size of a pack of cards, made of wood. Beautiful warm wood, that looks like its been polished for a hundred years, inlaid with swirls of mother-of-pearl that seem to glow. The box is familiar because I’ve seen it many times before. But only in my dreams. Dreams that I knew were more than just night-time follies. I chose to ignore them, for a while at least. If only I was more like Ximea. Even though she’s two years younger than me, she’s braver and smarter and generally better than me at everything, which I don’t mind one bit. Even my little brother Bosco, whose nearly twelve, has more decision-making ability than me.
Dinner is fixed, the dog is fed and all the washing is folded. There is nothing left to do. I suppose I could mop the floor, or do the rubbish, even though it’s best done just before bed. I could keep on doing, and doing and doing, just to pretend things are only a little bit weirder than ever before. Pretending again.
My room is the largest, I even have my own bathroom. Tiny, but mine. One of the few perks to being the oldest. My mother chose the smaller room that has sunshine and a balcony. Bosco and Xim share. They share, and hardly ever complain.
It’s hard to believe my mother has gone away again. Especially now when I could actually do with one of our chats. There’s little point being angry with her though, especially if I can’t do it in person. But still.
I guess you could say we have an alternative home. My mother travels for work and since I don’t have a dad, I have to keep an eye on things when she’s gone. She’s been leaving me in charge for ages. Definitely longer than is legal to leave your oldest child to look after her siblings. The first time was just overnight but now it can be a whole week.
Bosco hates it when Mum’s away. He insists on sleeping in my room. Then he convinces Xim to do the same and so we have this whole new way of living whenever she goes. Right now they still think she’s just running late.
I’m not avoiding them exactly. They’re downstairs doing homework. Probably Xim is helping Bosco and he’s itching to go outside and play with the dog. She won’t let him though, not til he’s done every last letter.
I start dragging his mattress into my room and then I go and get Ximea’s. I’m just doing the finishing touches when I look up and they’re both standing in the doorway. Woops.
Then I really stuff things up because I’m hot from all the heavy lifting, so I take my sweat-shirt off and the ring comes off too and drops on the floor in front of them. Double woops.
It’s silent for a bit. It feels like a long while but that’s probably because I hate silence.
Bosco speaks first, “Is that Mum’s ring?”
More silence as Xim picks up the ring and looks at it with the exact same sense of wonder and apprehension as I did. Then she looks at me and shakes her head.
“What?” I say, even though I know exactly what that shake means.
Bosco spins around and flies back down the stairs. We listen to him check that every single window and door is locked. Then he pulls all the curtains. Not just downstairs but every room in the house.
I’m holding the wooden box and Xim is holding Mum’s ring. She is staring at me without blinking, watching me squirm, the silence between us is starting to scream, My mouth opens, and then closes. I want to explain, but don’t know where to start.
“The ring.” Xim says, her voice slow and even, her face a frown from beginning to end. She says it again, quieter, more like a question this time. “Mum’s ring?”
My mind is out of breath and I feel uncomfortably hot. Honesty is supposed to be the best policy, we all know that, but today, I’m not so sure.
Xim is not one for tears, I can’t remember the last time she cried, it just doesn’t happen. But right now, her eyes are filling.
“What’s happened? What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks. It can’t be. Nothings ever as bad as it looks,” I say.
She just lifts her brows and widens her eyes.
“She left it on the bench. I got home and there it was.” She knows the place, right by the fruit bowl. “Just sitting there with her instructions.” I’m trying so hard to smile that it’s hurting my cheeks. “Can you believe she left it behind? I don’t. I think she made a mistake. She didn’t say why, she didn’t mention anything about it, it was just sitting there.”
Then Bosco lurches back into the room, stopping mid doorway, all arms and legs and wide freaked out eyes. There is nothing left to do but give them some truth and comfort. Enough truth to satisfy Xim, and enough comfort to satisfy Bosco.
“Come sit, Boss. I’ll explain.” I say, sudden calm rushing through me.
We all sit on the floor.
“Start at the beginning,” Xim says, “and don’t leave anything out.”
I unwind my curls and twist them back up again, taking as long as I can, hoping the burning surge of blood in my cheeks will subside.
“Okay alright,” My held breath rushes out. “I don’t think Mum’s gone on her usual trip.”
“Obviously,” says Xim.
“Like I said, I came home from school and her ring was on the bench.”
“Just sitting on the bench?” Bosco asks.
“Yes,” I say. “On her note.”
“What did her note say?” asks Xim.
My lie is ready and waiting, “Just the usual. Instructions and stuff.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” says Bosco, “She never took that ring off. Not ever.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me either,” says Ximea.
Once again I can’t look at her, and right now I wouldn’t dare, Xim has this way of holding my gaze and making me spill every thought in my head but that is not what any of us needs right now. My hands go back to the chopstick that holds my hair, I pull it out once more and fight the desire to massage my temples and groan.
“Frankie?” says Xim.
She won’t stop asking, so I may as well show them, “Hold on.”
I stand, looking at my brother and sister, unsure if I’m doing the right thing. I fish the note out of the novel next to my bed and hand it over.
They both begin to read and I suspect Bosco isn’t even breathing. “It’s all connected, only I don’t know how,” I say.
Xim looks up, “Anointed? What the heck?”
“When will she come home?” asks Bosco.
“Where did the puzzle actually come from?” Xim asks.
And suddenly I feel brave, “It’s like something I’ve been waiting for has finally happened. I can’t explain it. It’s just…”
Bosco starts nodding, “Like finally getting something you never knew you always wanted.”
Xim and I both turn to look at Bosco. I don’t know many nearly twelve-year-old boys but I’m pretty sure they’re not like him. For once I’m glad he knows the exact words I’ve been searching for.
Ximea has finally calmed down enough to let her curiosity overcome her annoyance. “We need to have another look. We’re missing something.” She reaches out and takes the box from me. “It is a beautiful old box.” Xim says.
Bosco says what I’m thinking. Again. “It’s more than just a box.”
Xim strokes the lid like a pet then slides it open to reveal the puzzle pieces. Different shapes, different sizes and different colours.
Silence gathers us even closer to the strange but beautiful box that is the key to bringing our mother home.