Surprisingly, I didn't scream, yelp or collapse into a quivering heap when I was confronted by an intruder in my home. I reeled back as my heart lurched to a stop; I stared at her with wide, shocked eyes, but I didn't scream.
It was early on a Saturday morning. I'd just stepped out of the shower and had been about to dash across my flat to the bedroom to get dressed when I'd found the intruder—intruders, actually—standing in the area outside the bathroom, staring at me. The intruder who spoke to me was about three feet tall, six years old with green eyes that were as dark and glossy as eucalyptus leaves, and shoulder-length black hair—one side bunched with a red elastic band, the other falling in waves to her shoulder. Beside her stood her male mirror image—he had shorter dark hair but was the same height, the same age and had the same green eyes.
The pair of them weren't dressed so much as "ensembled." Her pink skirt with ruffles at the bottom she wore over striped blue and white tights, and with a white, long-sleeved T-shirt under a faded orange vest. She had yellow socks bunched like legwarmers around her ankles, while red shoes with big yellow flowers on the front adorned her feet. He wore long blue trousers, one leg of which was tucked into one of his green socks. His white T-shirt was decorated with avant-garde artwork of felt-tip pen marks and grubby fingerprint streaks; one collar of his blue fleece zip-up jacket was folded inwards, hugging his shoulder.
Both of them wore clothes that were crumpled and creased, as though they'd slept in them.
As well asthe dishevelled clothes, the twins also shared grey-white complexions with dark, blue-purple circles smoothed like smudges of dirt under their eyes. They looked like a pair of street urchins, battered and worn by the February cold, who'd wandered into the warmth of my flat. But they weren't street kids, I was pretty certain of that. They were my landlord's children. I'd only just moved into this flat and had yet to meet my landlord and his family because they'd been away overseas when I'd arrived from Australia. Obviously they were back.
The children openly explored me with their eyes, took in the clear plastic shower cap that covered my black hair, my cleansed and moisturized face, my damp neck and shoulders, the towel I'd wrapped around my torso and was currently clutching closed in a death grip, my knees peeking out from beneath my towel, and my water-spotted calves. Their gazes lingered on my feet, probably fascinated by my fluffy white slippers.
"You're black," the girl stated again, her voice clear and firm; she spoke with the honesty of a child and the confidence of an adult. She knew how to address people no matter how old they were. In her arms she carried a blue, floppy toy rabbit.
"So I'm told," I replied.
"I'm Summer," she said, confirming she was my landlord's daughter. She jerked a thumb at the boy. "He's Jaxon. We're twins." She looked me over again—from my shower cap to my feet—then whipped her eyes up to mine. Our gazes locked. She had me hypnotized, had my undivided attention for as long as she wanted. Her face, framed in that unusual way by her hair, was innocent and open, yet wise and private. A million insignificant and profound thoughts went on behind that face.
Summer shrugged her small, bony shoulders, breaking eye contact as she gave a slight nod of her head. "You're quite pretty," she said.
"Erm . . . Thank you, I think," I said.
Jaxon leaned across to Summer, cupped his hand around his mouth and began whispering in her ear. He talked for a few seconds and when he stopped, she nodded. Jaxon straightened up. "You're not as pretty as my mumma," Summer informed me.
Guessing this was his contribution, I glanced at Jaxon. He stared defiantly back at me, daring me to argue. He obviously wasn't much of a talker, but he knew how to get his point across. "Oh, OK," I said.
"Summer! Jaxon!" a male adult voice shouted from the bottom of the stairs, near the front door of my flat, causing my heart to lurch again.
"What are you doing up there?" the voice continued as footsteps began up the stairs. This was probably my landlord, Kyle Gadsborough, running up to join his children as they watched me with no clothes on. Before I could plan an escape, could work out if I'd be able to fling myself back into the bathroom, Mr. Gadsborough appeared.
He took up the area at the top of the stairs because he was a tall man, over six foot at a guess. He was slightly older than me, thirty-six, maybe thirty-seven, with a solid but trim body. He was dressed in loose, navy-blue jeans and a creased white T-shirt under a gun-metal-grey jacket. His black hair was cropped close to his head; his eyes were as large as his children's but brown. He had a shadow of stubble on his face and, like his children, he was the kind of pale that looked like he was fighting off sleep.
My landlord came to a halt at the top of the stairs, heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes at his children. "I told you," he said, "she's not here—probably out shopping or something." When they didn't respond to him and instead continued to stare at me, he obviously wondered what they were looking at and glanced in the direction they were focused on. He gave me a brief "hello" nod before turning back to the kids. He stopped. I saw the moment his brain registered that he'd seen a person in that quick glance to his right. He turned back towards me, surprise and confusion on his face. "Oh, you are here," he said. "Sorry, we—" His voice halted as he realized he was in the presence of a virtually naked woman. One who wasn't his wife. His grey-white, sleep-deprived face exploded with color and two bright stripes of red burned a scarlet trail across his face.
"Oh-h-h," he stammered. "Oh, um, I, um . . ." He started to back away, forgot he was standing at the top of the stairs, missed the top step, and slip-tripped backwards. For a moment, a fraction of a second, Mr. Gadsborough seemed to hover midair, then his body began its fall down the wooden staircase. My already racing heart went to my throat as I watched him, waited for him to tumble out of sight, but at the last moment his hand snapped out and caught hold of the white banister railing and managed to keep himself upright. Once steady on his feet, he ran down a few more steps until all we could see from where we stood were the soft bristles that sat in uneven swirls on the top of his head. He faced the wall so he wasn't even vaguely looking in my direction.
"Come on, kids, we've got to go," he said to the wall. "Now. NOW!" And his footsteps pelted down the rest of the stairs and out the door as though the devil was on his heels.
Summer, who, like Jaxon and I, had been watching Mr. Gadsborough, turned back to me. "We've got to go," she said seriously, her tone adding, But we'll be back.
"OK," I replied to both the spoken and the unspoken statements.
Summer started down the stairs first; through the gaps in the banisters I saw her move carefully down each step until she disappeared from view. Jaxon started down after her, but before putting his foot onto the second step, he stopped, turned and threw a look at me. You don't fool me, that look said. I can see right through you.
I drew back a little at its intensity.
Only one other person had looked at me like that in all my life. And that was an age ago. The look had unsettled me then, but now it almost knocked me over. How could a six-year-old boy look at me as if I were an open book?
I blinked at him, wondering if he was going to say something. But no. His work done, his look thrown, Jaxon turned and trooped down the stairs after his sister and father.
OK, I thought, as the door clicked shut behind Jaxon, I have to get out of here. Right now.