Silence draped over the suburban street like a hot and sticky blanket. Heat rippled up from the asphalt in waves. Only the low thrum of air conditioners disturbed the silence.
A neat row of identical brick-clad houses lined each side of the street. Red terra-cotta tiles adorned every roof. Only the layout and upkeep of the front yards and the colours of curtains in the windows hinted at the individual personalities of the occupants.
An intruder disturbed the silence – shattering the stillness of the scene with its sudden noise and movement.
A once-white minivan trundled noisily down the street – its engine labouring in the heat. A thick coating of dirt covered its entire surface except for the distinctive pattern left by the wipers on the front windscreen. It pulled up outside the third house from the end with a toot of its horn and a puff of smoke from its exhaust.
The van doors opened and people of all ages spilled from every available orifice – very much like a disturbed ant nest disgorging ants. Every one of them had the same dark hair, the same distinctively Mediterranean facial features and the same stocky build. Every one of this multitude clearly belonged to the same family. From the youngest child aged four or five up to the elderly grandparents well past their prime, they all looked alike. The clothing of choice was shorts and a t-shirt and a pair of flip-flops on their feet.
They were all clearly of the same family – all except for one.
Ten year old Sally Dunstan obviously did not belong with the rest. Her pale white skin, blue eyes, blond hair and slender form made her stand out like a beacon amongst the others. She was like a single dove in the middle of a flock of pigeons. The chaos and noise around the minivan decreased as one by one each of the crowd wrapped Sally in a warm embrace, kissed her, made some sort of personal farewell and then climbed back into the van. Soon the only ones left standing outside were Sally, her best friend Mona Puretti, and Mona's father who had stood patiently amongst the chaos – all the while holding Sally's bright pink travel bag in one large and meaty paw.
The three of them made their way up the path to the front door of the third house from the end, where Sally pressed the button. Chimes sounded somewhere deep inside the house.
Sally and Mona hugged and kissed again just as the door opened. In the doorway stood an older, taller, more formally dressed version of Sally.
"Hi Mum," said Sally. "I'm home."
She then turned to Mr Puretti.
"Thanks again for having me, Mr Puretti. I had such an awesome time."
Sally wrapped her arms around Mr Puretti and gave him one last hug – a hug which was returned in full.
"You are most welcome," said Mr Puretti as he broke from the hug. He kissed both of her cheeks. Then he handed Sally her bag and stepped back. "We'd love to have you again sometime."
Mrs Dunstan had watched all of the hugging and kissing with a slightly confused expression on her face.
"I hope Sally wasn't any trouble," Mrs Dunstan said to Mr Puretti
"She was quite delightful. I'm already looking forward to her visiting with us again," came the response.
Mr Puretti turned to Sally. "Well, ciao! Don't forget our deal."
"See you at school," said Mona. "Call me sometime. Ciao!"
"Ciao!" said Sally, with a giggle.
Mr Puretti put his arm around his daughter and led her back to the van. Sally stood on the doorstep and waved as the van started up with another puff of smoke and another toot of its horn. Soon enough the van was driving away down the road with what looked like a dozen waving hands barely visible through its grimy windows.
Sally waved until the van was out of sight and then turned to her mother.
"I had such an awesome time. You wouldn't believe how much fun I've had."
"Well, come inside then. You're letting the cool air out," said Sally's mother.
She stepped out of the way so that Sally could come into the house.
"Are you hungry? Dinner won't be for another hour."
"I'll be fine until then, Mum. I could do with a drink though. It was hot in that van."
"You know where the kitchen is. There's water in the tap and there's juice in the fridge. I'll need you to set the table for dinner. Off you go, then."
Sally's mother stood still and watched as Sally grinned cheerfully.
"Hey, Mum. Check this out!"
Sally lifted up the front of her shirt to reveal that her skin was decorated with a string of flowers that looped around her belly-button and then trailed its way up towards the centre of her chest.
"Well! Goodness!" she said – for want of anything better to say.
"Is that a tattoo?"
"No, Mum. It's just temporary – it's drawn on with ink. It will probably only last a couple of days."
"Why would anybody go to so much trouble to do something like that if it's only going to last such a short time?"
Sally shrugged. "Mona's Auntie is an artist. She likes doing stuff like this. Half the fun of it is because it's temporary."
"But it's under your shirt. Nobody is going to see it."
Sally laughed and pulled her shirt back down.
"They will if I don't wear a shirt!" said Sally.
Then she started lugging her bag two-handed down the hallway.
"But..." Mrs Dunstan stopped herself when she realised that Sally had finished the conversation.
"Dinner's ready in an hour!" Mrs Dunstan called out to her rapidly disappearing daughter.
Mrs Dunstan stared down the hallway after Sally for some time. Then she sighed and shook her head. She used her foot to straighten the doormat which Sally had somehow managed to shift out of place and went back to the front room where she resumed reading her magazine.
Sally dropped her bag in the entrance to the spotless kitchen. She went over to the counter and climbed onto it so she could reach the high cupboard where the glasses were stored. She took out a glass, jumped down off the counter and filled her glass at the tap. She tilted the glass and drank the entire contents in one long, continuous series of gulps. When she finished, she stood for a moment with her eyes closed and held the cold but empty glass against her sticky forehead.
"Aaah! That's better!" she said to the empty kitchen.
Sally took the glass over to the dishwasher and placed it inside. Then she opened the door of the cupboard below the sink, took out a cloth that was hanging there and carefully wiped away splashes of water from around the sink. She then hung the cloth back in its place below the sink and closed the cupboard door.
Thirst quenched – at least for the moment – Sally retrieved her bag from the doorway and lugged it down the hallway.
Sally pushed the door of the study open and stood in the doorway.
"Hey Daddy! I'm home!"
Mr Dunstan pushed his glasses up his nose and looked through them at his daughter.
"So I see."
"I had a great time, Daddy," said Sally.
"I'm pleased to hear it. Are you well? Are you injured? Do you still have all your fingers?"
"Yes, Daddy. See?" Sally held up both hands and wiggled her fingers. "I got a cut on my leg but Mrs Puretti put a band-aid on it. See?"
Sally lifted her leg and twisted so she could show her dad the brightly coloured band-aid on the side of her shin.
"What the dickens is that?"
"It's a Donald Duck band-aid. She had all different sorts of Disney band-aids for the little kids. She had normal ones too, but I thought this was more fun."
"Ah! So is this cut serious? Do you need to see a doctor?"
"I shouldn't think so, Daddy. If my leg drops off, I'll let you know and you can take me to a doctor then. Okay?"
Mr Dunstan adjusted his glasses again.
"The point is to see the doctor before your leg falls off. Preventative maintenance is important. It's always cheaper to maintain something properly than it is to repair it once it's broken. I'm quite sure that the same principle holds true for healthcare."
Sally giggled again.
"Yes, Daddy. I'll remember that. I'm going to my room to unpack my bag. Talk to you later. Bye Daddy!"
Sally used both hands to pick up her bag.
"Oof! Mum was right, Daddy. I packed way too much stuff."
"It sounds like you've learnt a valuable lesson. Perhaps, next time you'll listen to your mother."
"I always listen to my mother. I just don't always do what she says."
"Ah! The difference is significant."
"By the way. Mum said that dinner would be ready in an hour. We're having fried lizard brains on toast."
Mr Dunstan blinked at his daughter a couple of times.
"Well! That will be something different. I'll see you at dinner, then."
"Okay, Daddy. See ya later!"
Mr Dunstan stared at the empty doorway for a moment and then shook his head and turned back to his desk so that he could resume working.
Sally used her bum to push her bedroom door closed behind her and dropped her bag on the floor. She looked around the room. It was exactly the way she had left it a week before. Everything was in its place. The entire room was neat and tidy and spotlessly clean. Not a thing was out of place. It was the way her Mum wanted it. It was what Sally was used to. But after a week of living with the organised chaos that was the Puretti household, Sally was seeing her room with fresh eyes.
.... There is more of this story ...