Bella looked up. The sky was a beautiful blue with soft, puffy drifting clouds. The sun was shining brightly. She loved the feel of its warmth on her face, her arms. A feeling of pure delight suddenly charged through her small body and she ran towards the play equipment in the park.
‘Bella!’ she heard her Mum call. ‘Always stay where I can see you, sweetheart. Do you hear?’
‘OK, Mum,' she yelled, with excitement coursing through her veins. She continued to run, then to skip, throwing her arms about just for fun. She got to the fence around the play area and pulled up, breathing a little harder. She was tall enough to open the latch which the smaller kids couldn’t do. There weren’t too many kids here, she noticed. And most were babies with their Mums or Dads holding them or pushing them in strollers.
This was great - the stuff for older kids was free so she would be able to get a long turn on everything. She felt another jolt of joy, ran to the swings and threw herself belly down on the bigger one.
The rubber seat curved around her tummy and she drifted back and forth, back and forth, her brown boots pushing her off each time. The heavy chain holding the rubber seat screeched with each movement, despite Bella being a light weight.
Somebody should put oil on that, she thought, imagining her Dad and smiling. For quite a while she swung like this, her hair hanging around her face, enjoying the backward and forward motion. It almost puts you to sleep when you keep your eyes on the ground, she thought. I wonder if I could hypnotise myself?
‘Hey Bella! Is that you?’
The voice pulled her out of her reverie. She dug her boots into the dirt, scuffing the toes. Then she lifted herself to standing, pushed the hair from her face, and stared at the boy who had called to her. There was Gabriel De Luca, feet astride, hands on hips.
‘I thought it was you even though I couldn’t see your face. That witch hair was all around.’
Bella took him in, saying nothing at first. He had a Barcelona team t-shirt on. She noticed it was ripped at the shoulder and the stitching was coming apart around the neck.
‘It’s not witches’ hair, Gabriel. It was all over my face because I was swinging upside down,’ she answered, with more confidence than she felt. You can’t be weak with people like Gabriel, she thought.
Bella didn’t like him very much; she didn't trust him at all. Although he was in her class, she kept away from him and his gang. They were constantly being mean to other kids and getting in trouble, and he was suspended in 3rd class for letting off firecrackers in the art room. He thought it was funny the way everyone was scared, but Mrs Malone said it could have started a fire.
‘Hey, are you here on your own?’ Gabriel asked.
‘Nah. My Mum's over there with my baby brother.’ She pointed to a mother and child sitting in the sunshine on a rug. ‘What about you? Where's your Mum or Dad?’
‘I’m not a baby. I don’t need anyone looking after me. Anyway, I just live over there.’ Gabriel pointed to a brick building of flats which looked worn out and unkept. There were a few dead or dying bushes around the front, and Coke cans, plastic bags and KFC containers strewn here and there. ‘My Mum just yells for me when I have to come in for lunch or dinner and stuff. Otherwise, I can do whatever I want. I’m free.’ He raised his arms up in a sign of victory. ‘Hey, do you want me to show you a secret place that only I know?’
‘Ahh. No, I can’t. My Mum says that I have to stay where she can see me.’
‘I couldn’t stand that. My Mum isn't strict like that. She lets me do whatever I want … go wherever I please. My Mum maybe won't see me for the whole morning, but she doesn’t fuss and worry like other mothers. Come on. It's not far, just over there, look!’ He pointed to the grandstand of the nearby oval.
Bella shielded her eyes from the sun and looked over. It was about 200 metres away.
‘Hang on’, she said. ‘I’ll just go and ask Mum.’
‘Nah. Don’t bother. She’ll just say no, like all the other woosy mothers. Forget it.’ He looked downcast and genuinely disappointed. ‘But if you did take a look, you would be the only other person who knows about it. I haven’t even told Dylan, and you know he’s my best friend.’
Bella stood looking towards the oval, tempted to go with him but also unsure. She would be going against her Mum. But it seemed Gabriel wanted to show a secret place just to her.
She stood there in two minds, not knowing what to do.
‘I’m not going to force you or anything. Come only if you want to.’
He started walking towards the oval and left her standing there. He had walked quite a distance when she suddenly made up her mind and dashed off after him.
When she caught up, slightly puffed but excited, he turned to her and said, ‘You won’t be sorry,’ and smiled. She caught his smile as it faded.
They climbed over the wire fence together and Gabriel ran to the back of the grandstand and stood above steps that led down to a wooden door.
Bella caught up to him and also stood and stared. ‘Is this it? What’s the big deal? It's locked anyway. We can’t get in,’ she said.
‘Oh, yes we can.’ He smiled again and skipped down the stairs. Then he deftly undid the padlock with some wire he produced, placing the lock to the side. He opened the wooden door and invited her in. ‘Come into my secret place,’ he said with theatrical menace. He had that same smile on his face. ‘Only if you want to, though.’
She stared into the musty space. ‘It’s really dark. You can’t see anything. What if there are spiders or rats?’
‘Ahh. You’re such a girl!’ Gabriel smirked and, puffed up by his own self-importance, he got on all fours and crawled into the cavity.
Sitting on the second step, Bella peered in after him.
‘I’ve been here plenty of times,’ he called, ‘Come on. Don’t be such a woose!’
Bella slammed the door shut after him and immediately looped the lock through.
‘Hey. What do you think you’re doing?’ Gabriel banged on the other side. ‘Hey. Let me out.’
‘I am a girl, Gabriel! And who’s the woose now?’