She hated it. She hated having to stay in that stupid room and wear the stupid dresses and petticoats. She hated the pointy shoes that made her feel like she only had one toe and not being able to see anybody besides the maids and Padrone, with Padrone sometimes not coming for long amounts of time. The maids pretty much never talked to her, except to ask her if she needed anything or to tell her something was ready.
That was how she found Echo.
Well, she hadn't really found him so much as he popped into her room one day. She had just finished being measured for a new gown when she decided to sit in one of her stiff, uncomfortable chairs and mope, angry at being prodded and poked with pins for what she felt was far too long a time, when he showed up. There was a little 'pop' and there he was, standing in the middle of her room looking curious, frightened, confused, and excited at the same time.
"Erm, hello…" she began hesitantly.
He glanced her way as if noticing her for the first time. "Oh, hullo there!" he called jovially. "How do you do?"
"Not so well," she admitted. She realized that it was odd to be talking about her problems to a strange person she didn't know, but, for whatever reason, she found it strangely easy to talk to him.
"Well, we'll have to fix that then, won't we? Where are we, do you know?"
"We're in the Grossa Casa. That's all I know."
"The Big House, huh? So there are little houses too?"
She shrugged. "I'm not sure. All I know is that the maids call this the Grossa Casa and that Padrone tells me that's what it is."
"Who's this Padrone guy?" the boy asked as he sat down on top of her bed.
"The maids will get angry if the sheets get wrinkled," she said automatically. As he stood up, she began straightening the sheets, saying as she did so. "Padrone is master here. He's the 'big man,' so to speak."
"Big Man of the Big House…is that right? You think he'll be fine with me staying here?"
She shrugged. "Probably. Padrone gets odd like that sometimes."
"How do you mean?" asked the boy.
"He always asks me if anything strange ever happens or if I have any dreams. Once I told him yes just to see how he reacted. He gripped me about the shoulders and got real excited, asking me what strange thing had happened. I thought fast and said that I had actually thought I'd seen one of the maids smile one time and he seemed disappointed, but I didn't care. He was so scary when he was excited that one time. I thought he was going to eat me." She shuddered. "I've decided I'll never tell him even if something strange does happen to me."
"I'm glad you're so smart," said the boy. "I've met the most insufferably stupid people on some of these trips."
"What?" the girl perked up. "You mean you go on these 'trips' on purpose?"
The boy nodded, looking at her like she was crazy. "Of course," he told her. "Since I was six. Can't you?"
She shook her head. "Nothing extraordinary has ever happened to me. I've been in here my whole life."
"Your whole life?" he asked, astonished. "Inside this little itty-bitty room?"
"Well, for as long as I can remember," she amended. "Every day it's the same thing. I get up, the maids give me breakfast, they clean me up, put on my exercising outfit, I exercise for awhile, they clean me up some more and put me in my regular outfit, I do some reading and arithmetic, have lunch, get cleaned up again, and then I get play time until I have to take a bath and go to bed." She sighed. "Then, on certain days, Padrone comes and asks me if anything strange has happened, I say no, he reminds me to send for him if anything happens, I promise I will, with my fingers crossed, of course, he tells me what a good girl I am, sometimes gives me a sweet, and then has me read a passage from a book to him. Then, he pats me on the head and leaves. That is my life," she concluded.
The boy looked horrified. "Oh, but that's terrible! Is he your da?"
"Da?" she asked, confused.
"Your father," the boy explained.
She shook her head. "I don't think so. You'd have a better chance of being his child than I would. I imagine he'd look like you if he was younger, happier, and not nearly as boring or strict. He's got black hair and tan skin like you, but he oils his back so it's straight, and, obviously, he's a bit taller than you."
"You don't say."
She nodded. "I do say. It's rather uncanny, to tell you the truth."
"So, you have never, ever, ever been outside?"
"Sometimes I look out the window and catch a glimpse of the people who live on the Outside, and every once in awhile Padrone brings me a pretty picture for my room like that one," she said, gesturing to a painting on the wall. "I got that for my twelfth birthday."
The painting was of an apple orchard, with little workers here and there picking the bright red apples off of the full green trees. Sometimes she wanted to just step into the picture, throw off her pointy shoes, and run barefooted through that orchard until she became exhausted and collapsed in the lush green grass.
"It's not bad," the boy told her, "but the real world is much better. Seeing it's not bad, but it's feeling things, smelling things, hearing them…you've got to be there to really experience things."
"Don't I know it," she muttered.
He looked at her oddly.
"What?" she asked. "What is it?"
"I really think you could do what I can do," he told her with conviction.
"Well, you've never told me what you can do except go on these trips to different places," she answered.
"Here, I'll show you." He grabbed her hand and pulled her over to her wardrobe. "I'll change in here," he said. "Everybody tells me it's gross to watch because I just now learned and it takes me a few seconds to do it." He stepped inside her wardrobe, shutting the door on himself.
She waited a few minutes before she heard a small bark from inside her wardrobe. Cautiously, she opened the door to find a small black terrier standing inside her wardrobe, wagging its tail. "Is that you?" she asked it.
The dog gave a little bark and nodded happily.
"Change back now, please," she told it, closing the door partly and waiting for him to come back out.
The thing that stepped out after a moment or two was definitely him, and she was confused.
"But how?" she asked him.
He smiled. "You practice long enough, you'll get it. Sometimes things just happen because you feel a certain way, but when you learn to control your thoughts and feelings, you learn to control you gifts. I really think you can do it," he said again.
"No, I assure you that I can't," she insisted.
He crossed his arms. "Well, not with that attitude. I should have known you were a quitter. No—not even a quitter—a non-trier!"
"That's not even a word," she shot back.
"It's what you are, though, you non-trier!"
Now she was getting angry. "I can't do it!" she shouted.
"Of course you can't, because you don't even try!!! You're too scared to try."
"Why? Now you're too scared to—"
His words were cut off as a pillow from the bed came at him and hit him in the head, knocking backwards onto his bottom. She rushed to help him up.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
She was surprised to find that he was laughing as he stood up. "Did you touch the pillow?" he asked.
She thought for a moment. "No," she said slowly.
"How do you think the pillow hit me?"
"But, surely it was you!" she exclaimed.
"Why on Earth would I brain myself with a pillow?" he demanded. "And even if I did, it wouldn't have been so hard." He rubbed his head as he said this last part.
Now it was her turn to smile. "Sorry," she apologized. "So, it really wasn't you? It was me?"
"Unless your clock has the gift," he informed her.
"Oh, you were right!" she exclaimed, hugging him.
"I've never known myself to be wrong," he declared, crossing his fingers in front of her.
She pulled out of the hug. "But this isn't right."
"I don't even know who you are, and you have no idea who I am!" She stuck out a hand. "Mikkelerena," she introduced herself.
He made a face. "That's some name. Mind if I call you something, oh…not awful?"
She laughed. "Yes, that's fine."
"I dub thee Mikki," he declared. "Now, I'm Echo."
"I like that name," she told him, and then continued her hug.
And that was how Mikki met Echo.
Red Glass's head shot up and he left his window seat, rushing to his little sister's aid. He found her sitting in the middle of the floor, her face tear-streaked. "What is it?" he asked urgently, fearing the worst.
"Ash took my doll and he says he's going to tear her head off!" Alyx wailed.
Red smiled, relieved.
"Don't smile!" she snapped at him. "He said he'd really do it this time."
"She's not lying," Auster volunteered.
Red found Ash exactly where Alyx and Auster had said he would be: just about to pull the head off of a little doll. The doll had tight golden curls, bright blue eyes, and rosy cheeks, made in the image of Alyx. Red grabbed Ash around his waist, tugging the eight-year-old off of the chair he had been using as his stage for the mutilation of Alyx's doll.
"Put me down, Red!" the little boy bellowed.
Red laughed and set his brother down, holding him by his collar before he could get away. "Give Alyx her doll back, Ash," he commanded.
Pouting, Ash handed his triplet back her doll. "There. Happy now?"
Red nodded. "Very," he answered.
Ash crossed his arms in front of his chest. "I wasn't really going to do it."
"That's not what Alyx and Auster told me."
"Well, did you ever think they might be lying?" Ash demanded.
Trying extremely hard not to laugh, Red knelt down and stared into the startlingly blue eyes of his younger brother. "Ash. Think about it. Think about who you are and who Auster is. Think about your differences."
Ash looked at the floor.
"Did you find a difference?" Red prodded.
"Auster never lies to you," Ash admitted.
Red nodded. "That's right. Now, I'm not angry at you, but just don't try to tear Alyx's doll apart again, please. May I have a hug now?" he asked, wanting to reconcile with Ash.
Ash gave a small nod and, grudgingly hugged his big brother.
Red smiled. "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
"No," Ash admitted.
"Go on and play with Marco or somebody."
Ash obeyed, running to join his fellow eight-year old in a game of tag. Eventually, Kayleigh-Anne, Marco, Reese, Fable, and the triplets were all running around the playroom, squealing and giggling. Red noticed Kismet watching in a corner and went to join her.
They sat in silence until Kismet said, "You're so wonderful to them, Red. Like a father."
Red marveled at how soft-spoken she was, even after knowing her for all of these years. Her comment caught him off guard. "Yeah, I guess. I mean, they really need somebody. They're just kids. I could never replace our real father, though," Red told her.
"He was a pretty great guy, huh?" she asked even softer than before, sensing how sensitive this topic was for him.
"Yeah, he was…" Red suddenly felt tears coming and decided to make a quick getaway. "I'm going to go check on Gardener," he mumbled, not waiting for her response before leaving.
She didn't even bother giving a response because she understood.
Gardener sat in a window seat, listening to the rain. He gave no response when Red approached him and sighed. "She said I was like a father to them."
Gardener replied without turning his head away from the wall. "The triplets?"
"Well, you are."
Red's head snapped up.
"Whether you accept it or not, you're the father of this group and Kismet's the mom. You both take care of everybody."
"If I'm the dad and Kismet's the mom, who are you?"
Gardener actually turned to look at Red, his sightless eyes sending a chill down Red's spine. Gardener cracked a crooked smile. "I'm the half-crazed blind uncle that spews useless advice."
"Full-crazed," Red corrected, making them both smile. "And your advice isn't useless; it's just eccentric. And you keep life interesting," he added.
They both laughed.
"All the same, I feel pretty useless," Gardener admitted.
"Useless for what?" Red demanded. "I'm not sure any of us are useful. How can we be anything in this place?"
Gardener nodded thoughtfully. "You ever feel like the house is alive, but in a bad way? Like it's sucking the energy out of you?"
"Sometimes," Red agreed. "But it's not as if it saps everything out of me; it just makes me feel a little more tired than I think I should be, but then again, I can hardly remember the way anything outside this place is."
"So, you don't have any memories of where you used to live or what your family was like?"
Red shook his head. "Only a very little bit. I remember the way our parents were, but I can never really remember what they look like. I know my mom was a fantastic singer and my dad like to go fishing and take us with him. Mom loved to cook and make pretty dresses for Alyx, and Dad liked reading us stories and teaching us how to do things. They were great parents. I don't ever remember anything sad from when I was with them. I think the only thing sad that ever happened to me back then was that this one bird that used to live in a tree out back died, but then its babies grew up and sang even more than the one before. The other thing I remember is that we had a dog. Oh, and my mom's eyes were blue and my dad's crinkled at the corners. Not much, after having spent eleven years with them. Of course, the triplets don't remember them much, them being about two when we left."
"You didn't leave, you were taken," Gardener corrected calmly as he waited a moment to give Red a chance to make his voice sound normal. Even though he was blind, Gardener knew that Red was crying. He leaned closer to where he knew Red was sitting and whispered in his ear, "You were taken, but you're going to get out; I know you are."
Red shook his head again. "You don't know that."
Gardener nodded. "I do," he whispered urgently. "You don't believe me, but I do. You will leave this place someday, and the day is coming soon."