Harmony Andrews knew what it felt to be unwanted.
She jumped from the bus, battered My Little Pony rucksack clutched to her chest, and felt the mud squelch and suck at her neon yellow shoes.
Small, skinny, fourteen-years old, and a burden – something to be shunted off to the country when she became an inconvenience. She cast her gaze around the bus stop, alighting on a faded, battered sign that announcing: “Welcome to Pelican Town”. No grandparents waiting for her. No surprises there – it would have been a surprise if Melody and Eric Andrews had actually remembered to alert her grandparents to her pending arrival.
“Excuse me,” a stern, scolding voice, as a well-dressed young man wearing a flat-cap dismounted the bus and pushed past her. His harsh gaze softened as they took in her tangled brown mane of hair, her faded pink sweatshirt, and overall scruffiness. “Can I help you?” he asked, rather more kindly. “Are you here to visit someone?”
She blushed a little, embarrassed at the attention. “My grandparents,” she said. “They run Cinder’s Ranch.”
He studied her, his dark eyes penetrating, appraising. “Ah. You must be Harmony.”
“Yes.” She traced shapes in the mud with her toe, peered at him shyly from under her fringe. “How do you know my name?”
He offered her his hand. She took it, rather tentatively, and flinched a little at his firm handshake. “Lewis," he said. “Lewis Barclay. And how do I know your name? Well, let’s just say, I know your grandparents.” He shot her a crooked smile. “I’m the local gopher.”
“Gopher?” Harmony frowned at him, couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of him as a large, plump rodent.
He doffed his cap and gave a small bow. “Gopher – I go-for this, go-for that. Well, you’re in luck – cos I’ve just been to Grampleton to pick up some loot, and I’m headed that way myself.”
“Are you sure?” He looked far too tidily dressed to be slogging through paddocks. But, Harmony realized, she had no idea how to get to the Ranch. Her parents had given her a handful of money, and shoved her onto the bus, with very little in the way of instruction. “Surely you have somewhere more important to be?” Something more important to do than help her.
He nodded. “Absolutely positive.”
With a grinding of gears, and a heavy sigh, the bus drew away from the verge, sending a fine spray of mud in its wake.
“Okay,” she replied. “That’d be rad. Thanks.”
He glanced around. “You got a suitcase?”
“Nope,” she replied, patting her backpack. “Just this.”
He looked at it, shook his head, and hefted his own – rather larger – gym bag over his shoulder. “Well, come on, let’s go.”
They followed a wide cobblestone path away from the bus-stop.
“It’d be quicker if we could cut through Darkhaven,” Lewis commented. “But Mister Alexander fled town in the 70s, and Jenkins is a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kinda fellow.” “Darkhaven? Creepy-as name,” Harmony replied.
“Creepy-as farm,” Lewis replied. “I’d stay away from it, if I were you. Rumor has it, that there’s monsters – and worse – lurking in those fields.” He stopped, studying her. “Do you believe in monsters, Harmony?”
Harmony frowned at him. “You mean, like gremlins?”
“No idea,” Lewis replied. “Probably. Anyway, welcome to the thriving metropolis that is Pelican Town.”
The trees that lined the path parted, revealing an array of quaint, brightly painted shops, clustered together around a large square. In the center of the square, a bustling marketplace, filled with color, noise – and people; more people than Harmony had expected.
“It’s busy,” she said.
He rose his eyebrows at her. “What were you expecting? A tiny backwaters town in the tail-end of nowhere? PT is a thriving mining town. You want gemstones? We’ve got ‘em: topaz, and amethyst and aquamarines.” He shrugged. “And more. Today’s market-day.”
“Wicked.” Harmony grinned at him. She was surrounded by a delicious aura of aromas: fresh baked bread, roasting meat, something sharp and spicy. Four boys, around her age, were gathered in a circle, kicking (and occasionally kneeing) a small cloth ball around. Nearby, a couple of girls feigned disinterest, whilst sneaking peeks at them, and giggling behind their hands.
“The local gang,” Lewis commented, with the cool, slightly disdainful tone of someone who considered himself too grown-up for that kind of carry-on.
“Who’s your friend, Lew?” asked one of the girls, jogging over. Her gaze skipped over Harmony. She was wearing a lime green sweater – which matched the green streaks in her hair – over neon pink leggings, her wrists adorned with an array of equally colorful bracelets. “What’s your name, new girl?”
“Harmony,” she replied shyly.
“Can you sing?”
“Not very well,” Harmony admitted. It appeared some skills were not hereditary, no matter how optimistic you were in naming your child. One of the many ways in which Harmony had disappointed her parents.
“Lame name then,” the girl replied, cracking her gum nosily. “I’m Caroline. And this,” she indicated her somewhat quieter, blonde, friend, “is Jodi.”
“Can you sing?” Harmony asked, blushing a little at her own daring.
“Yes?” Caroline replied, sounding a little hesitant and confused at the question.
“Because carol-Caroline, you know?” Harmony tried to explain. Felt her face burn further as Caroline stared at her as if she’d just said the stupidest thing in the world.
“Whatever.” Caroline popped her gum again, turned on her heel, and marched away.
Lewis regarded them both with raised eyebrows, then gave a small shake of his head. “You wanna grab something to eat? Look around a bit? I’ve got other deliveries to make – could come back for you later.”
“Nah, it’s alright,” Harmony replied. “I think… I’ve seen enough for today.” She felt a little shaken, wasn’t sure what she’d said or done. Hated feeling clever one minute, stupid the next. “Let’s just go.”
Lewis gave her a mock salute. “Your wish is my command.”
Cinder’s Ranch was a brightly colored collection of buildings, the farmhouse as its centerpiece.
“Oooh, sheep!” Harmony exclaimed. “They’re so woolly!”
Lewis smiled at her indulgently. “Have you never seen sheep before?”
“Only in pictures. Can I pat them?” She’d grown up in the city. Had never even had a pet (unless the spider in the corner of her room counted; she’d named it Charlotte, and cried when the housekeeper had killed it).
A throaty laugh. “You’ll need to ask your grandpa that,” he replied, and rapped on the door. Called out, “Special delivery!”
Frenzied barking from within, and the door opened. Out erupted a pair of black and white dogs. They leaped around Harmony, sniffing her enthusiastically – and a little indelicately.
“Whiskey, Scotch! Git down, boys,” came a low, deep voice. With a whimpering whine, the two dogs dropped to their bellies, tails (and bottoms) wagging in barely-restrained excitement. An elderly gentleman stood in the doorway. Wild gray hair, a bristling beard, and gentle eyes, he frowned at Harmony, but it quickly transformed into a smile. “Harmony! We didna expect ye until next week.” He opened his arms and Harmony, grateful at seeing a familiar face – even though she hadn’t seen him in three years – ran into his embrace. He wrapped his arms around her in a massive bear hug and lifted her from the ground. “You’re light as a feather lass, what have ye been eatin’?” He tut-tutted and set her back on the ground. “Never mind, we’ll get some flesh on them bones.”
“Mom won’t like that,” Harmony muttered. Melody Andrews was very, very strict about her weight, jumping from one fad diet to the next, and insisted on taking Harmony on the journey with her.
“I imagine not,” he said. “But we canna have ye wasting away to a shadow, ye ken?” He patted her on the back. “Now, run on inside, and say ‘hello’ to ye grandma, she’s bin lookin’ forward to ye comin’ fer days.”
Harmony nodded, entered the house, the two dogs bounding after her.
Her grandmother, a tiny, plump woman, her mane of hair almost as wild as Harmony’s, stirred a pot in the kitchen, flooding the air with delicious fragrance. “Harmony.” She laid the spoon down and wrapped her arms around her grand-daughter. She smelt faintly of flowers. “We didn’t –”
“– expect me until next week,” Harmony finished. “I know.” She blinked back an unexpected tear, inspired by the warmth of her welcome, given the coldness at home. “There was a cancellation, my parents had their booking pushed forward.” And now, they were off on a tropical cruise around the Gem Isles – a ship filled with beautiful people, where someone plain and ordinary like her would never blend in.
Her grandmother kissed her on the forehead. “Well, we are very happy to have you,” she said. “Your room’s still a wee bit untidy – I keep asking James to tidy it, but ye ken what men are like.”
Harmony didn’t, but she smiled and nodded in agreement anyway. Her grandmother turned the heat on the stove down, barked at the dogs to “git outside” and guided Harmony through the house. Harmony loved it immediately, a delightful clutter of knick-knacks, bookcases overflowing with books, a couch so cluttered with cushions and crocheted blankets, that Harmony almost missed the large ginger cat curled up among them.
“That’s Ginger Tom,” her grandmother informed her. “He doesn’t live here, but he’s fathered more kittens than we can count.” He rose his head, studied her sleepily, gave a ‘mrewp’ of approval and rested his head back on his paws. “Your bedroom’s through here. Sorry about the mess – I’ve been using it as my sewing room.”
Harmony couldn’t help but exclaim in surprise at the room. It was cluttered, yes, but it was, perhaps, the most marvelous room she had ever seen. The bed adorned with a colorful duvet, another cat – this one small, black and fluffy – curled up next to a ridiculously large plush bear. A pile of books rested on the table beside the bed, more clustering on the bookcases that lined two of the walls. The third was dominated by a massive doll house.
“I ken ye’re probably a wee bit old fer dolls,” her grandmother said, seeing her interest in it, “but James made it fer ye mother, and we canna bear to part with it.”
“It’s fantastic.” Harmony studied it, tried to imagine her stern, no-nonsense, thin-as-a-rail mother playing with the beautifully carved family.
“Roland Alexander carved the dolls,” her grandmother said, her lips pursed in disapproval. “Before he scarpered town, with rumors nipping at his heels. I’ll never forgive him for leaving the farm in the hands of that nasty Mister Jenkins.”
Harmony set her backpack down on a wooden chair and wandered over to pat the cat. It yawned at her sleepily, sniffed her hand, then licked it. Its tongue rasping and wet. Harmony giggled. “I think it likes me.”
“She,” her grandmother replied. “Her name is Brenna, and she is a verra good judge of character. Anyway, I had best return to my soup. Make yerself at home.”
“Can I pat the sheep?”
“They’re mostly a wee bit shy, but I’ll introduce ye to Heather later. She’s a sweetheart.” She bustled out of the room, leaving Harmony alone with Brenna and the books.
Harmony opened her backpack, and unpacked her few items: hung her clothes in the tiny closet, nestled in beside a couple of woolen coats. She set her notebook and colorful array of pens on the desk, next to the Singer sewing machine and among the colorful mess of spooled cotton. Finally, beside her pillow, she placed her favorite book in the whole wide world. Her fingers stroked the cover, so worn it was almost as thin as tissue paper.
“Maybe here I’ll find a secret garden of my own,” she whispered her wish into the cat’s silken fur. Then, she scooped up her walkman and popped in one of her mix tapes (‘happy songs for summer’), before collapsing among the cushions, humming along to ‘Walking on Sunshine’. Brenna, after only a moment’s hesitation, padded over, nudged her with a cold nose, and plonked herself down in Harmony’s lap. Harmony couldn’t hear the cat’s purring over Katrina and the Waves, but could feel them vibrating up her belly. This, she thought, felt more like home than the sterile, stark mansion in the city ever had.