“Why can’t Mama and Papa come to visit, Grandpa?” the little girl asked, in French. Her eyes were wide and sad, but she’d clenched her small pudgy hands into tight fists. She was the eldest. She had to be strong. She had to be adult.
Her grandfather, a kindly old man with a groomed white beard, stood awkwardly in the doorway.
“Felicia, darling… Your parents have had an accident. They can’t visit, no matter how much they want to.”
“Then why can’ t I visit them!?” she said, slowly gearing up for a tantrum. She’d been having them more and more lately. She’d always been the good child, a little porcelain doll in a quail egg blue dress, while her little brother had torn about like a rabid dog. But she was losing her self control. Emotions she’d never known before were starting to boil over.
Her grandfather kneeled down to her, the pain clear in his eyes.
“We have, my love. We visited them last week.”
“My parents aren’t clumps of stone!!!” she screamed, tears blinding her. She remembered that place, the dewy green field, the slabs of granite, the pile of flowers. The cloying sickness of the place. The buzzing sense of wrongness when Grandpa pointed to the stones and said they were Mama and Papa.
“NO! MY PARENTS ARE NOT STONES!!!” she howled, her knuckles white. She raged and wailed, an untameable tempest. Grandpa pulled her in and hugged her tightly. She hammered her little fists ineffectually against his back, thrashing about within his grip. Eventually she ran out of breath and was forced to stop. She had raged for such a time that her face had transitioned from a flushed red to an exhausted white. Grandpa held her for a few seconds more, letting her feel his warmth and realise his presence. Finally he released her, now sullen and heaving for breath.
“My rose,’ he began, using his affectionate nickname for his grandchild, “I cannot bring back your parents. Do you understand that? All I can offer you is myself.”
Piece by piece, she was recovering herself. “What if that’s not enough?” she asked, stumbling upon those poignant and thoughtlessly cruel statements young children sometimes tend to find.
Grandpa reached out and stroked the braid of her beautiful blonde hair. “Then I’ll have to give you even more.” He stood up, his old knees cracking as he did so, and went to the door. “Go to bed now, my rose. Please.” He left.
Felicia unclenched her fist. Her nails had punched through the skin and small arcs of blood were beading on her pale palms.
The next morning, she awoke from a fitful sleep. She padded down the long hall in her nightgown, passing a row of boarded up windows with ornate frames. She entered another bedroom, this one lacking a door. Her brother lay there, sleeping soundly. His hair was splayed out on the bed looking like an angelic halo. She woke him firmly but affectionately. She had to be strong.
“Florence. It’s time for breakfast.”
He awoke with a low groan. His eyes were red-rimmed. He’d been crying a lot lately. Quietly, to himself. He barely spoke at all now. For him, silence had been his comfort blanket. For her, rage. She lead him down the grand staircase, its red carpet now threadbare and torn. They had their cereal together. Grandpa was nowhere to be seen. He would be awake, as he always was by dawn. He must have been in his study, planning. He had some grand idea, he’d told them. Every night he told them stories of the riches and hope that lay out in the world to be found. Felicia liked these stories. When they had both finished their breakfast, she lead Florence back upstairs and helped him change. He’d been able to change alone before, but he’d regressed in many ways since the accident. His speech had gone. He had to be urged to eat. Twice, she’d seen him wet himself while crying silently. But she had a silver bullet.
“Want to play in the garden, Florence?”
His face changed in an instant, to one of unfettered joy. Squealing with delight he scurried off unguided towards the garden.
Felicia followed afterwards. She had to be strong.
Pierre de Foix watched as his grandchildren, his roses, blossomed within the beautiful environment of the garden to play with a childish glee that was so rare to see in them now. The garden was a rarity, one of only a few seventeenth century styled gardens left. It had maze-like gravel paths, interesting hidden statues and beautiful hedgerows. It was overgrown and weed-stricken, but the children knew not of such things. He turned back to the man in the suit.
“You cannot possibly take my grandchildren from me,” he said, “I’m all they have left, and they’re all I have left.”
The man in the suit shrugged. “You’re broke. You cannot feed them properly. You cannot clothe them. To leave them like this is inhumane.”
“To take them from their only family is inhumane.”
“I know. But their lives take priority. This is all so unnecessary. Just sell the house. The location alone must make it worth a million. The history will double that. Live in a nice cheap flat, spend the money on the kids.”
“This land, this house, has been in my family since the fourteenth century! It has been passed down from my father, and his father before him. To sell it would be to end that line, it is unthinkable to watch it die with me. And what of the children? This is their home, their last oasis in the desert. This garden is the only place I see them smile. And you tell me to leave?”
“Look at the house. It’s a rotten dump. You want a garden, every city has a public park or two. You worry about the end of the line? These kids get taken and adopted, then that is the true end of your line. Life is change. Life is flux. Your grandchildren are sad. One day they will be happy. They love this garden. One day they will love a public park. You know what is permanent? Death and loss. You have already suffered the former. Do not make me impose the second upon you.”
Pierre let these words wash over him. The words of a silver-tongued demon. This man wished to rob him of his home, and his grandchildren. “Just tell me. What do I need to do to solve this?”
“You need money Mr. de Foix. Sell the house.”
Pierre had one last niggle of doubt. For one moment he considered the suggestion rationally. He watched his grandchildren tumble in a grassy square.
“Never,” he said.
He went back into his study and redoubled his efforts. There had to be a way. People had struck it rich before by discovering lucrative extracts of oil, gold or gems. Gaia would provide. Pierre knew in his heart of hearts she would. The treasure was there, just waiting for him to unearth it. It would save both his ancestral keep and his grandchildren. He searched online until his eyes swam. He became increasingly desperate. He began to think Mother Earth had failed him, that she had closed off her bosom, concealed his rightful prize. Then, in a shock of realisation, he saw that there were two planets nurturing man now. Terra Desert, otherwise called the Desert Land. Hands shaking, he typed ‘Desert Land topographical map’ into the search bar. This was it, he knew it. He’d never been so sure of anything in his life. This must be what it feels like when at last you stumble upon your true path of fate. He pressed enter. The first image to load was a topographical map of the Eastern Gobi Desert in Mongolia; there existed no topographical maps of Terra Deserta itself yet. Pierre’s eyes were blind to this. His mind and heart saw Terra Deserta, with gold in the curves and peaks of the map. He printed it out, his hands tearing the paper from the printer, still wet with ink. An unnatural thirst raged within him. His mind spun with ideas. He needed mining equipment, and defences, for he knew Terra Deserta was unsafe. Too unsafe. He needed some way of ensuring his roses’ safety. A digger, but a tank as well? The primordial embryo of an idea planted itself in his mind. He sat down, and began to draw.
That night, he sat the two children together and told them a story. The story of a grandpa, eccentric, but a genius and beloved of the Mother Earth. Of a great adventure, the grandfather and his grandchildren exploring a new and fascinating world, making lots of new friends. And at the climax, of a trove of gold found just below the surface. He even had a little poem prepared. He had a page drawn for each quartet he rhymed, done in crayon by a shaky hand that had mashed the waxy coloured tips into the paper:
Look at the Grandpa, so withered and old,
He took up a quest and found lots of gold,
Look at his children, his two little roses,
Cute as a button from headses to toeses.
He showed them a picture of three smiling figures, the two smaller with heads of golden twine. A hole where the crayon had punched through looked like the gaping maw of a black hole. Felicia, too young to know of such things, was nevertheless put off by the drawing. She tried to strangle the thought. She had to be strong.
Off they go, to the vast desert land,
A wonderful place with gold in the sand,
Along they roll, safe in their digger,
How to get in, no one can figure.
He showed them a box with a claw, and three smiling faces peering through a square opening. The ground was a blinding yellow.
Here they dig, here they know,
A vein of gold the ground does stow,
Bring it up, carry it away,
Now they are rich today.
The page showed a mountain of gold bricks, the three smiling figures standing on top. The pressure he’d put on the crayon had warped the paper and perverted the smiles. They looked wrong.
Back they come, back they roam,
All the way back to their home,
What a fun time, all together,
Never to be apart, forever.
The same smiling figures. The same sick, twisted smiles. Bound together now, trapped together claustrophobically. Felicia looked up at her Grandpa. She saw that he was crying.
A month later, Grandpa had modified a digger with steel plating and an extension to the cabin, and filled it with petrol and rations. He’d mortgaged the house to pay for it all. He called the two children inside from the garden, sat them down, and told them about all the gold they were going to find. Hugged them and told them he loved them. Then he loaded them into the digger, and they portalled away to the strange land. Felicia looked outside through the slit. The land was barren and scorched. There were no gardens here. And just like that, she could no longer be strong.