The day the world broke down.

It all started on a beautiful day in the middle of summer. The sky was cloudless, the sun shone happily and everyone was practically singing as they walked the streets. Sunlight came from every direction, reflected by the many windows of the giant sky scrapers on both sides of the street. The trees lining the streets filtered the light in such a way that the pavement was a spectacle of dappled yellow and green light. Cats could be seen chasing birds and sun beams both, although neither was ever caught. Dogs were gaily barking, children were laughing, not a single grumpy face marred the picture. Everybody was as bright as the sun itself.

Although it turned out that the sun wasn't as happy as it seemed. Either that or it was too happy. No matter what the case, the sun was about to belch out some major solar flames. So major in fact that severe disruptions in the electricity network were feared. The eruptions had been predicted weeks earlier and everybody had already stockpiled their bottles of water, gas stoves, extra blankets, candles and all other items that people thought might come in handy. Extra aggregates had been installed in hospitals and other facilities that would not be able to function without electricity. Despite all these preparations nobody could have foreseen the actual chaos that would result from this event.

The one thing that everybody overlooked was the tiny chip that every child got at birth. Nobody suspected that such a tiny thing that didn't even have batteries could break down from severe exposure to radiation. After all, people had gotten medical treatments with all kinds of radiation, and their chips were still functioning, right? As it turned out, the solar flame gave off more radiation than any medical treatment ever tried. It also gave off several kinds of radiation at once, also something nobody had considered for medical treatments. And even if some people had considered the fact that the little thing might break down, I don't think they would have thought it could cause so much trouble. After all, crime no longer existed, pollution didn't happen any more, and all those other problems troubling people a hundred years ago were also solved. Or so they thought.

But let's get back to that beautiful summer day. I was walking along Howell Street on my way to school. I bought a sandwich with cheese and bacon from the new European store, where they didn't put mayonnaise on everything slightly resembling bread and where they used all kinds of exciting new bread species. I loved that store, I came there every day and I had a different sandwich on each and every one of them. Some I didn't like, but most were delicious. Especially the one with salmon and capers. If I hadn't decided that I'd try all their sandwiches once, I'd have bought that one many times already. I wonder how long it will take before I have it again. After all, how many different kinds of sandwiches can you make? One day, they will have to run out of ideas.

Anyway, here I was happily munching my sandwich and about to enter the park, when suddenly one of my friends came after me, yelling something. I recognized the voice, but couldn't hear what she was saying, so I turned around to wait for her. It turned out that that had been what she had been yelling, for me to wait for her. So I obliged her and we walked on together, enjoying our time in the park. Basking in the sun and the smell of flowers and trees for as long as it would last. That is, until we reached the end of the park. Of course we talked about the solar eruption and about how much effect it would have on everything. I didn't really believe there would be much chaos. Everybody was well prepared and all the major services, like hospitals and police and stuff like that had been taken care of. Sure, it would be an inconvenience, but nothing more. How wrong can you be, eh? She on the other hand loved fantasizing about everything, and this was no exception. She imagined how half the buildings in the city would go up in flames due to short circuiting devices and how the firemen wouldn't be able to get there in time, because of the water shortage that would result from pumps not working. And how we would have to live off biscuits and bottled water, since all the food would spoil in the supermarkets. Even though I didn't believe any of that would happen, after a little while her wild imagination rubbed off on me, and I started tossing in some ideas of my own. Like how the toilets wouldn't work anymore and we'd have to dig latrines like in the army movies. She found that idea so hilarious that she couldn't stop laughing until we reached our class. Even then, she could hardly contain herself. Luckily for her we didn't have a teacher who minded people being happy. Unfortunately for me, the teacher did inquire what was so funny that she couldn't stop laughing, and she had me repeat the story in front of the whole class. So then I had the whole class laughing at me. Well mostly with me, but at the time I was afraid I'd be hearing that story for years to come. In that respect I got lucky with the solar flames. But that was one of the very, very few lucky things about the eruption.

Other than that my school day passed uneventful and I walked back home with my friend. We were still discussing all the wild things that might happen. Not all of them came true, but enough to have creeped us out under normal condition, although the conditions were far from normal and the events that would shortly transpire would exceed even our wildest imaginings.

I came home and had diner with my parents and siblings, whom I had chosen to ignore since nothing worthwhile came out of them. Diner was good and with all our wild ideas still fresh in mind I think I enjoyed it more than I would have otherwise. I went upstairs and just as I turned on my computer, it happened. All of a sudden the world seemed to go black for a split second. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that it suddenly looked as if the whole world was a movie and my eyes were the tv and a thunderstorm was passing between the transmitter and the receiver. Blacking out the movie with small white dots and lines all over the place. It was over before I really realized how weird it was. I even started doubting myself, thinking I must have imagined it. But then I heard my sister yelling to my mother and realized from her frantic shouts that she must have experienced the same. In my head a war was raging over the decision on whether to go to my mother for reinsurance, or to be cool about it, pretend nothing had happened and just do my homework. I decided on the homework, since the weirdness had passed and I was feeling fine now. But then I saw that the computer I had just turned on was now back off again. I pushed the button again, but nothing happened. I switched on the lights and nothing happened either. Since I now wasn't able to do homework anyway, I went down for comfort by my mother. Deciding that for some things you are never too old.

Downstairs I found that none of the other electrical devices was working either. It started dawning on me that the solar flare must have happened and that not only had it indeed effected the power grid, it must have also caused the weird tv-like noise I saw. I told my mother and she agreed that it was a little too much of a coincidence not to be connected to the event. My sister by now had decided nothing was wrong with her after all and had ceased her wailing. That evening we spent playing a board game, the last part of which by candle light. We had a piece of ice pie to go with it, since the freezer wasn't working anymore either, and my mother thought it would be a waste not to eat it.

The next morning I overslept, since none of the alarm clocks in the house were working. Even though I didn't really think there'd be class today, I decided to go to school anyway, figuring most of my friends would be there too. On my way too school, at first I didn't notice anything much. Sure the neon-signs weren't working anymore and the garbage of the last day hadn't been collected. But after a while I started noticing that there seemed to be more small niches than I remembered. And all of them seemed to be filled with garbage. In some of those garbage piles I even thought I saw something move. At first I thought they might be rats, although I had only heard of such creatures from stories and seen them in old movies. But after seeing several piles move I decided that whatever moved was too big for rats. I started walking a bit faster. Then finally I saw something that resembled a dirty arm sticking out from underneath a pile. At that point I started running. I suddenly desperately didn't want to be alone anymore. This was beginning to look like a horror movie. I ran so fast that I didn't even notice that I had already passed my bread shop without fetching breakfast. As I reached the park, I stopped abruptly. In stead of the normal serene calmness, there seemed to be whole throngs of people in there. And not just everyday people either. These people were filthy and made raucous comments to each other. They didn't seem to notice me, though. And since I was still alone and the shortest way to school was through the park, I decided to take the chance and cross despite the people. As I walked through I was stunned by the life that filled it. Here were all kinds of people who didn't even notice me, but who took all the more notice of each other. Some people were making out in public, others were having a fight. Yet others were openly urinating as if nobody could see. There were so many strange sights that I didn't even think to run. Some people even seemed to live there. I was literally stunned. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. I pinched myself just to see if I was actually awake. When I found out it hurt, I started running again. Everywhere I looked the horror continued.

Finally I came to the school yard, where I found most of my friends and the other kids just as stunned as I was. Some were even openly crying, even some kids who were normally among the toughest kids around. Some teachers were trying to console them, others were just as stunned and just sat on the floor somewhere. As I got closer to the entrance, and my circle of friends where I was heading, I noticed that a small group of teachers were arguing with the 'intellectual' clique. I ignored my friends for a while and headed for the entrance, wanting to hear what the argument was about. Of course it was about what was happening, but it was also about the people like those in the park. The ones that didn't see us, the ones we had never seen before in our life. Some argued that they had arrived there overnight, frightened away from their villages by the solar flare. Others argued that they must have already been there. As I listened to the arguments on both sides, I found that I had to agree with the latter group. If they had come here overnight, they wouldn't have been living in the park. They were behaving as if they belonged there. And if they had arrived overnight, they wouldn't ignore us the way they did. After having made up my mind, I lost interest in the debate as nothing structural was going on and everybody was just repeating their previous statements. I returned to my friends and discussed the event with them. Although the only one willing to discuss anything was my closest friend who had had the wild ideas the day before. The others were just waiting for it all to end or something. Waiting for the teachers to come and take control, or to arrange for it all to go away. I can't really say what they were thinking.

I asked my friend if she'd experienced the same tv-noise as me and my family had. It turned out that she had, and her whole family as well. So we started asking around. First our friends, and they'd had it too. Then random kids in the school yard. And each and every one of them had experienced the same. Sure the descriptions might be slightly different, but the effect was the same. Somehow we started thinking that that event was linked to the sudden appearance of all the weird people who didn't seem to see us. We even tried telling that to the intellectuals debating, but of course we weren't part of their clique and therefore nowhere near smart enough for them to take us serious. My friend had lots of wild theories about the link, but none of them made sense. We never thought about the chip in our head. Nobody ever talked about that, and we had certainly never been told what that was about. Really the only reason we knew about it at all, was that we had smaller siblings who had them implanted. I still remember asking about it and not getting a real answer. Either my parents didn't know either, or they thought I was too young then. And since I never brought the subject up again they still hadn't told me. So as I said, it never occurred to us, that might be the problem.

What she did come up with were aliens brainwashing us by having their brainwash waves come at us at the exact same time as the solar flames. The government trying the same, although we discarded that idea quickly, because we didn't believe for a second our government was capable of that. Not on moral grounds, but on technical grounds. No operation they undertook ever went as perfectly smooth as this one had. We came up with a new kind of radiation that affected the human brain in a new and unexpected way. A kind of radiation that caused all people to hallucinate. It was a nice theory, since nobody we knew of had actually touched the weird people. We even tried to question some people, but they all stared at us as if we were weird. And we probably were, considering the fact that nobody else was spawning the kind of wild ideas we were. After about an hour in which nothing happened and nobody wanted to talk to us, we decided to go out on the streets and try to find some other people who might want to conjecture with us, or at least to find some proof of what was really happening. And besides, it was a good way to spend our way home. Better than being scared shitless so bad that we wouldn't dare to go home. I didn't fancy spending an entire day doing nothing on a crowded school yard. It didn't offer a lot of comfort to this many people and the school doors, being automatic wouldn't open due to the power black out.

So we went out into the street and tried to figure out how it was possible that there were whole bunches of people there that we never saw before, and how it was possible that they seemed to be not seeing us. Naturally it wasn't too hard to spot the 'normal' people today. They all seemed to be on edge and looking around as if they were being followed. But none of them were behaving like the normally were. So we started looking at the weird people instead, who presumably were still acting like they always did. When we started looking carefully we noticed that most of them had a deficiency of some kind. Some had horrible scars, others lacked a limb. Most were terribly dirty, as if they didn't care about hygiene. When we stepped into their path they seemed to avoid our looks on purpose and they would turn another way. Once we even went out of our way to block somebody completely. She seemed to panic and started running, but still didn't seem to see us. It was the weirdest experience of my life. It was as if they felt our presence, without actually visually registering we were there. We wondered if we had the same mechanism to keep us from bumping into them as well. So my friend closed her eyes and started walking, hands outstretched to keep from bumping into solid non-living objects. I observed her for a while and quickly established that she wasn't avoiding the weird people, they were avoiding her. At times she would have walked right into them if they hadn't turned away first. So I told her and we stopped the experiment. Since the streets weren't exactly crowded with weird people, or normal either. We had by now spent quite a few hours on the streets due to the search for possible guinea pigs. It was getting dark and we decided to go home and continue our research the next day. We said goodbye and went our separate ways.

Back home, the rest of the family had found out about the weird people too. My mother and siblings were shocked and my father was so upset, he was almost shouting. He kept repeating that someone should remove them from the city, and how appalling their appearance was. How he couldn't understand how so many people could enter the city by night and why they would have done so. I tried to tell him about my theory on how they must have always been there, but he discarded it without a second thought. Of course it made him mad at me, that I had such foolish notions. He even started up his usual speech about how I should stop fantasizing weird stuff and should grow up. As usual my mother somehow distracted him to prevent it coming to the point where I'd be yelling back at him. I took use of the distraction and escaped to my room. I didn't have much to do due to not having a computer there anymore, well at least not an operating one, since the power was still off. I took a notepad and started jotting down all the thoughts I could remember I'd had that day. I tried arranging them in a way that would make sense, but there wasn't much sense to be found no matter how hard I tried. After staring at it for over an hour, I put the notepad down and went to sleep.

I woke up early the next day. The first thing I noticed was that the power was still off. Which was very weird. We'd had power failures before but never, ever longer that half a day. And this time the power had already been out for way over twenty four hours. Thinking of the apathy I had seen in so many people, I started wondering if anybody was working on the problem at all. I went downstairs and found that the rest of the family was still in bed. I got dressed, found myself some kind of breakfast of dry cereals and went out to find my friend. Being up really early, I decided to go to her house, figuring she might be there still. As usual I was right about her. I know her pretty well. She wasn't even dressed yet, so I waited until she was. She was as confused about the power still not being back on as me, so we decided to go to the power station nearby. We took our bikes, because it was too far away to walk. By the time we got there, some people had gathered there. Most people were such slaves to habit, that they gathered there. But as we had feared they weren't doing anything, but discussing the fact that the weird people should leave. We spent the next hour trying to find someone who was willing to listen to us. Finally we found someone, and for a change he actually thought we made sense. He went to his foreman and spent quite some time trying to get the message through. When he finally did get it through, the foreman rounded up the crew and they all got back to work. Well almost all of them anyway. Some refused, saying there were bigger problems to solve first. Yeah, right, as if they were doing anything to solve them. Grown ups, they sometimes make you wonder if you really do want to become one of them. Having done something about that problem, we went back to the problem of the weird people.

We cycled back to the center of town, all the while observing the weird people we met. By the time we got back there, it was almost midday. We went by the bread shop and were surprised to find it open. The stock of bread was only slightly smaller. They told us that they bake all their bread themselves and all they were lacking were things like milk, which had gone sour pretty much everywhere. So we stuffed ourselves with a whole two sandwiches and I finally caved for the salmon and capers again. Along with trying out something new of course. There's no reason to break a perfectly good habit.

With our bellies full, we left the bread shop and headed for the park to continue our observation of the weird people. It never occurred to us that our different behavior might attract their attention and fortunately it didn't occur to the weird people either. Maybe it was because we just strolled through the park while taking notes. I was a lot less bewildered by their presence now. Especially because I wasn't alone this time. Because of that, I noticed a lot of things I hadn't noticed before. Like the fact that in some of the dense bushes were hut-like structures and how there were blankets beneath the cupolas. All in all we guessed that there must be about a hundred people living in the park. There were old ladies who were wearing about a dozen layers of clothing, and young women, practically girls still, who were wearing hardly anything at all. We noticed small boys who were trying to steal anything that wasn't tied down, and hard faced men who fondled the young girls, clouted the boys if they got too close to them, and yelled at the old ladies. For some reason there weren't very many old men. After observing all these people for a while, we noticed why. Two of the men had gotten too close together and were arguing about who got to fondle one of the girls. When shouting didn't chase either one away, knives flashed and after a few minutes of slashing and feinting one of the men grunted and fell down, blood blossoming on his chest. The killer took the dead mans knife from his hands as a reward. The man was barely dead when the boys rushed in and stripped him bare, fighting over the spoils of the fight. Hurrying off to present their treasure to one hard faced man or another. The ones that weren't quick or strong enough got another clout for not bringing anything.

The incident left us speechless. It had all happened so quickly. Already everything was back to the way it as before the fight. We didn't see any more killings that day, but we both agreed that this must be part of the every day life of these people. We were just about to go home when a commotion of some kind arose. We followed the weird people who seemed to be flocking around a single person. My friend joked that it might even be their king. It turned out to be someone even more important to them: a peddler. He had shoddy clothes, second hand blankets and other commodities for sale. He also bought stuff, to sell it to others probably. He even had some food, which was the first thing to leave his hands. Every person in the park was there. But the only people that actually approached the peddler were the men of course. They bartered fervently. Selling what they had got from the dead man and probably some other sources, and buying the things they needed. It all took a long time and it was getting dark. We would have loved to stay and see how they spent the night, but we didn't actually have the guts. Of course we told each other that we couldn't stay because our parents would be worried and would get angry with us if we got home after dark. Which was all true of course. But the real reason we went home was that we were afraid. Suddenly we felt as if we had stayed too long. We got worried that they might suddenly notice us. As far as we knew no normal person ever got in the park after sunset, since it was officially closed then. so we hurried to the exit and ran all the way home.

At home I found out that apparently our visit to the power station had helped. Either that or the people at the other stations had gotten to their senses on their own. But I liked the idea of having accomplished something important. Anyway, we had power again. My parents seemed immensely cheered by that fact. We had a simple meal of canned food, but it still beat the cold meal we had the day before. After diner my father turned on the television, but none of the channels was actually broadcasting anything yet. Either the power hadn't been restored for them, or their personnel still wasn't working. I couldn't really believe the last option. My guess was that the reporters must be eating their hats over not being able to air their scoops. when we turned on the radio we found out that those channels were broadcasting, but they could probably just take their equipment to any place that already had power. All kinds of weird theories were aired. Some even resembled some of those my friend and I had come up with, before the actual power failure. It was highly amusing to listen to, especially since anyone with a tiny shred of common sense could see that these ideas had gaping holes in them and could only have sprung from the imagination of fools and publicity hungry people. My mother loved the extraterrestrial explanation, about how all these people had been abducted by aliens over the years, and now had suddenly been returned. And that was even one of the most plausible explanations. My father still believed that these people came from the countryside and wanted the police to round them up and drive them out of the city, back to where they came from. I tried telling him that I didn't think the police had enough man power to do that, but he wouldn't listen. He thought that being police men, they didn't need force, they'd have enough authority that these people would just do what they'd been told. I then tried telling him that these people didn't even seem to see the police, but he discarded that as a figment of my imagination. I got tired of the discussion and went up to my room. I turned on my computer and browsed the news sites. Most were reporting the same kind of crap as the radio stations, so I quickly turned to my favorite haunt, a forum of an internationally famous author. over there I found that all of the world had been hit by the same problem. I found a discussion of the possible causes and dropped my own theories and experimental results there. They were quickly picked up and embedded in the other theories. Although most of these were still wild speculation.

Soon after that my friend logged on and joined the discussion with her own wild theories. Other people told they were planning to repeat our experiments. When we told about the peddler, it was quickly agreed that we had to find out more about him. He would have to get his goods somewhere and that most likely meant he would have to have contact with our kind of people. Since ours was the only town where a peddler had been sighted, a meet was decided on to gather people here to find out more about him. It would start the very next day and would last about a week. There was one other person on the boards that lived in our town and we decided to stay with her, since she was an adult and therefore had no nagging parents. At least not living in the same house with her. Some other people from nearby places would come over too.

I went downstairs and told my parents about the meet, not the part about the experiments we planned on doing of course. At first my father didn't agree, but my mother convinced him that it would be a nice distraction. Apparently the school had called telling her that there wouldn't be classes for the rest of the week. I was really glad of that, since I had completely forgotten about school. So I got their permission, although my father didn't like it one bit. I was really glad the person we were staying with was female, cause there was no way I had been allowed if it had been a guy I wanted to stay with. I went back upstairs to report I could come. We chatted some more until it was time to go to bed. I decided not to tempt fate by staying up late, getting me grounded. I said goodnight to my parents and went to bed.

I slept soundly and woke early again. I cleaned my room a bit, mostly removing the papers with my theories, most of which I packed anyway. I packed some clothes and other things I thought might be useful. I left a bit early and picked up my friend, who had barely needed to ask her parents. We walked to the address the girl from the boards had given us and were the first to arrive. Which wasn't strange if you consider that most of the others wouldn't come till that afternoon. And we spent the morning getting the sleeping places ready. She had one guest bed, a comfortable couch and an extra mattress. We had brought camping mattresses and sleeping bags, since we lived closest. There was one other guy who arrived early, and we all introduced ourselves. We discussed what we were going to need and set out to shop for the items, leaving the girl at her place to receive the others when they came. We decided to buy some baseball gear, most importantly bats, so we wouldn't be completely unarmed. And we could always use them as an excuse to be in the park, just wanting to play a late game. We also bought a ton of food and drinks, including stuff that could be easily packed for a lunch en route. We deliberately didn't buy alcohol as some of the group, my friend and I mostly, were too young anyway and the others would need their heads clear to deal with whatever came our way. We did buy a lot of candy, as no meet is complete without it. After we paid for the stuff, we drove back to the girl's place. I was really happy that one of us had a license. It would have been a royal pain in the ass if we'd had to walk back. I don't even think we would have managed it in one go. Although we probably would have simply bought less if we'd have to carry it all.

But we made it back, safe and sound, and fully packed. We unloaded everything and stowed it where we were told. I was pleased to know where everything was, since that made me a lot less dependent. By the time we got to the living room, two others had come in. We introduced ourselves, again, and had some giggles over how everyone was so different from what we expected. Before we knew it, it was diner time and the last person to come had arrived. It was a redheaded boy, who was slightly older than I was. When I was introduced he had me stammering and tripping over my own name. I couldn't come near him without my heart skipping a beat. He seemed to sorta like me, at least no less than he did the others, so I was in heaven and hell at the same time. I tried acting as normal as I could, but I guess it wasn't working, since I saw my friend giving me the odd glance every now and then. I smiled apologetically at her and shrugged. There's just no fighting nature. I'd had so many crushes on boys who'd never taken a second glance at me that the pain of it soon became bearable and a sort of permanent companion.

Two of the group started preparing diner, while the rest of us started making plans. My first task was to make a map of the park with my friend. We took some paper and pencils we had just bought and started sketching. A lot of trial and errors later, we had a pretty decent sketch. I couldn't help thinking I saw an admiring look in the eyes of the redheaded hunk. I didn't really believe it, but the idea was nice.

The next half hour was spent eating and memorizing the map. My friend and I explained some of the details in between bites. After diner and cleaning the dishes, we discussed the plans the rest of the group had come up with. We couldn't really agree on any one of them, as they all relied on one piece of information or another that we just didn't have. The final decision was made just about the time we had spotted the peddler the day before. We decided to just go out there and see what happened. We brought the baseball bats, some cheap gloves and a ball. The last items were included because we would look a lot less aggressive with them, than without them. We went to the park tossing the ball back and forth, to enhance the look of a group of teenagers out to play a game. Once inside the park the others were stunned by what they saw. The question of how we all could have missed such things all these years was repeated by everyone at least once during the first few minutes. we started with a short circuit of the park to have everyone match their maps to the actual layout.

We then went to the corner where we had seen the peddler before, although my friend and I had already become convinced he wouldn't be there. The weird people were spread out all over the park, whereas every one of them had gathered around the peddler the night before. There wasn't a trace of the peddler when we got to the gate he'd been at before, of course.

So we just walked around quietly talking and taking notes about how the weird people prepared for the night. The smallest boys and girls had gone to their places beneath the bushes. Everyone seemed to have their own place, since none of the sleepers claimed the best spots beneath the gazebos. We assumed those were reserved for the hard faced men, and would be proved right before we went home. Shortly after the old ladies took blankets out of the bags they carried and found themselves a place to sleep. The men and the other girls went to their sleeping places in couples, sometimes even triplets. We didn't have to follow them to know what they would be doing.

When the last ones had gone to their sleeping places, it was quite late and we decided to go to our own beds. We walked home in silence, each one of us weary to the bone. We divided the sleeping quarters and quickly went to sleep, knowing there would be another long day tomorrow. We woke up late the next day and had a lazy breakfast. Television was working again and we watched the crazy speculation that the news channels and talk shows spouted. When the last crumbs were consumed we started tossing our theories around. I tried summarizing the facts. There had been a huge solar flare, the power grid went out, there was this weird flash of static noise and suddenly we could see people we had never seen before in our lives. Those people for some reason still did not see us, they also had as different a lifestyle from ours as was possible. Redhead suggested going to the library to investigate. I liked the idea, but the other local girl said we didn't know where to start looking. Redhead said he'd give it a try anyway, there wasn't much we could do till evening anyway. And nobody really believed the peddler would come tonight. we were guessing that his was a weekly visit. But just in case he came every two or three or whatever many nights, we'd go there every night. I volunteered going with redhead of course. My friend shot me a quick wink. Apparently she approved of this one, which was a first too. She usually loathed all the guys I fell for, and I'd come to think that it was out of jealousy. Maybe I'd been wrong after all.

In the library we looked for the oldest librarian we could find. which turned out to be easy, since there was only one. A gray headed friendly old geezer, to our relief. Redhead was of the opinion that the older the librarian, the more he'd be able to help you with history questions. I'd never been in the library before, so I quickly agreed. We told the man what we were looking for and either he'd helped looking into conspiracy theories before or he actually thought we had a point, because he helped us looking without questioning. We looked into medical encyclopedia, physical treaties about solar flares, astronomical charts and even books about other dimensions. we spent the entire day there, but didn't find anything. The old geezer asked us to come back the next day to comb out the newspapers. He actually seemed interested in our search. Redhead promised and we went back to the local girl's place.

The others had spent their day scouring the net for info, but hadn't actually found anything either. We had a wonderful early diner, especially since redhead came to sit beside me. After that we went straight to the park, but there still wasn't a peddler there. Back home we discussed trying to find him at other places, but decided that it was pretty useless in a city this size to just go traipsing around hoping to find a single person. Since we didn't wait around for the weird people to go to bed, it was still early when we went to bed.

The next day we all went back to our research. We scoured the papers of the last fifty years, but by diner time we still hadn't found anything. Diner was a quiet affair, since everybody was dispirited and feeling this had begun to be a futile search. Some didn't even want to go to the park anymore, but we convinced them to come anyway.

And a good thing we did too, because we'd only just arrived when the weird people started flocking towards the peddlers corner, as we'd begun calling the place. And there he was: the peddler. He seemed to have more goods than the last time. We had to wait quite a long time for him to finish his business. To me it seemed like hours and hours, but it can't have been more than an hour and a half. When the peddler left again, we followed him a short while before trying to talk to him, just in case we would frighten him. we didn't want the whole mob of weird people on our backs just because our appearance frightened a single man. When the peddler was a few hundred meters from the park entrance we called after him. We were pleased to know that he did in fact hear us, but upset to find that upon seeing us he ran. We tried catching up with him, but the distance was already too great.

We walked home even more disheartened than we were before coming to the park this evening. We talked about how we still didn't know where the peddler came from and I suggested we put up a sentry. The idea was quickly discarded as too obvious, but it kept nagging at me. As I looked at the map an idea struck me. I stopped and called to the others. I told them we could be art students. Nobody ever pays attention to those. This time redhead definitely had a look of admiration in his eyes, and so had the others. The rest of the way home was spent discussing what materials we would need. I was fervently hoping the peddler would show up again, and that he would come soon. Apparently god, or faith or whatever is that rules this petty world, decided he had something to make up to me, because my prayer was heard. The next day we bought our art supplies and set up a sentry schedule. We made sure that there were always at least two of us there and sort of randomized the group size.

During lunch we had a picknick with the entire group. That was also the only time we were all in one place, the rest of the time the painters were spread out across the part of the park that could oversee the peddlers corner. The hours I wasn't painting, I spent in the library. If the librarian was surprised to see me all splattered with paint, and redhead too for that matter, he didn't mention it. we dug back another twenty five years and still found nothing. But the disappointment I felt because of that quickly disappeared during the painting sessions. I doubt anybody would have recognized what I was painting, but it was a lot of fun to do. so much fun in fact that I constantly had to remind myself of the real reason I was there. We had posted the most people, namely all of us, during the hours the peddler had been there on his previous visits. And sure enough, there he was, lugging his cart of goods along. We had already decided we'd block the route he had taken the night before so he couldn't escape. At least not in the same direction. Two of our group, the local girl and one of the others were painting outside the park on the spot where we had hailed him the day before. One other was sitting just outside the gate and the rest of us were spread out around the site of the peddler, where we would be outside the ring of weird people, so they'd block the peddlers view on us. When we saw he was almost done, we hurriedly packed our stuff and redhead who was closest to the gate strolled out to warn those outside the park. As the peddler left we strolled after him, without seeming to pay him any attention. In truth we were closing the net surrounding him. It closed just about where we had wanted to talk to him the day before. The boy we had been shopping with on the first day of the meet, put a hand on the man's shoulder and asked him in the politest voice he could muster why the man had ran from us. The peddler who saw that he couldn't escape kept his mouth shut. I asked him what he was afraid of and he looked at me surprised. Apparently he hadn't given us a good look the day before and he hadn't expected to find young girls in this company. He said he had thought we were the police the day before. We assured him that we weren't and he loosened up a bit. We asked him why the weird people could see him, while they didn't see us. This time he wasn't just surprised, he was shocked. Somehow he hadn't realized that all the rest of the world could now see the weird people too. He explained that he'd always been able to see them, and how at first they couldn't see him, but as he'd become more and more of an outcast in normal civilization, how they'd gradually began to notice him. Until he became a part of their society. since he could fix them up with things, he was elevated to a peddler and had grown in status among them. Suddenly he became an important and respected person, albeit among outcasts. His circle of clients grew with his status and soon he peddled throughout the entire city. He mostly dealt with second hand stores, but also got goods from his new people. Whenever he got his hands on some money, either by selling to a second hand store or by trading for it with a man who'd found some, he could buy food. It wasn't much, but there was enough of it for him to live on. He could also trade some of it, if he had enough and some of this people were also growing food to trade. And so he and his people survived. Our coming the previous day had scared him and made him change his schedule. Why he came back the next day when he thought the police was after him, he wasn't really sure. Maybe he unconsciously knew that it wasn't the police after all when we gave up the chase so easily. We asked him if he knew why he had always been able to see them, while we had never been able to. He didn't know, he said his parents had mostly taken him to shrinks and when that didn't work to hypnotherapists and other alternative healers. They had never had him physically examined, because nobody believed that the weird people were actually there.

That's when he suddenly declared that he had more things to do. He took us by surprise and I hurriedly asked him if he would talk to us again. He agreed and we made an agreement that we would meet here outside the park, the same time tomorrow. We all went our own ways, meaning he went wherever he went, and we went to the local girl's place. Everybody was babbling excitedly, but I was quiet, thinking about how I'd have to go home tomorrow, it now being Saturday and all that. Back at the local girls place they asked me what was wrong and I told them it was Saturday and how I'd have to leave before we could speak to the peddler again. In all the excitement and concentration we had completely forgotten the time. I wasn't the only one who had to leave either. The rest of that night the group was a lot more subdued. Our last decision of the day was to spend our last day together making up questions for the peddler. The local girl and one other guy who didn't have to go back home yet would go interview the peddler and record his answers for the rest of us. My friend and I could at least come by every now and then during the week. The others would keep in touch by e-mail. We stayed up late that night and held a party to get rid of the awful feeling my suggestion had awoken in everyone of us. We hadn't actually accomplished much, but we had had some small success and a lot of fun. Not to mention an entire collection of paintings. I collected them all to take them home so I could scan them and put them online for the rest of the boards to see.

After the party we fell down on our beds exhausted. we woke up near noon and spent the day cleaning up the mess from the party the day before. during the cleaning every once in a while someone would shout a question and we'd quickly vote on whether we though it was a good one or not. The day flew by and we all had a last diner together before splitting up. And despite the fact that I am usually pretty aloof, I hugged everyone on parting, taking this one chance I had to hug my redhead. My friend and I walked home together and she didn't make a single joke about the hugs and my crush. I even asked her about it, just before our roads parted. She merely said she thought he was cute and despite my urgings she would say no more. I suddenly wondered if she might have a crush on him too. I decided to wait asking that question till later, right now I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer.

Back home I showed my paintings to my parents and told them about the party and some other small fun things that had happened. I didn't tell them about our investigation, the peddler or the redhead. It was almost strange to be in such a different place again. Where I was ordered around again, where I wasn't listened to anymore and where there were people who tried to make my life miserable, namely my siblings. I hadn't even been home for an hour and already I missed my friends and the time we spent together. I took a quick shower and went to bed, trying to catch up some sleep I missed the night before.

At school, the next day, the main discussion was about why the government, local or otherwise, hadn't done anything about the intruders yet, as people called them here. And here I had been thinking that our term for them was unfriendly. My friend and I didn't join the discussion. There was simply nothing we could add to it. They'd never see it our way, and we'd never agree with their ideas. It turned out that most of them had done nothing else the whole week, but come to the schoolyard and repeating the same arguments over and over. My friend and I were stunned, how could they stand it to do such things? Sure our little group had gone over the same facts over and over again too, but at least we had done other things and we'd tried to gather more facts. Despite the small amount of results, I was still proud of how much we'd accomplished in such short notice. So we didn't tell anybody anything. Which of course they noticed. Making them label us as weird. How could we have spent our week painting, when such serious things were afoot? We must be shallow little children who did nothing but chase their own little pleasures. We did our best to ignore them. That night we scoured the net for last week's news, trying to catch up with the others. It was probably too late, but we could always try to make them believe we had been kidding. It turned out that we had missed all about the political debate that was raging about the weird people. the ideas were ranging from forcing them out of the country to killing them all, to forcibly adopting them into our society. Although nobody knew how to force the weird people to do anything. They were almost like ghosts, nobody had been able to trap one, not even the so called patriotic kids. There were just too many hidden alleys and other hiding places that nobody knew about. A committee had been formed to come up with a solution, but so far no executable plan had been formed.

I took some time off from my search for information to scan the pictures and put them online. I posted about it on the boards and our little exposition got a lot of nice comments. Some other person from our little group posted some preliminary results. I really liked the word preliminary in his post. It made it sound so official. Everybody had already reported that they had gotten home safely. The local girl had sent an email with the taped interview, so I put on my headphones and listened to it. It turned out that the weird people didn't have a sixth sense to avoid us, they could actually see us. They just believed that we were ghosts and were to be ignored at all costs. Whoever tried contacting the ghosts ran the risk of dying and becoming one of them. That was also the reason they never directly looked at us, looking at a ghost might attract it's attention. On very rare occasions ghosts got a second chance and turned alive again. Usually in the shape of an abandoned infant, but on extremely rare occasions a ghost slowly solidified, which was what had happened to the peddler. He didn't know where their beliefs came from either and they had never wanted to listen to his claims that they were people too, after all they went through life as ghosts, never seeing, walking right through you if you didn't avoid them. And since nobody ever looked at the peddler either, he adopted their beliefs as he adopted their lifestyle. Making him their spiritual man as well as their peddler. when I looked up again after the interview had ended, it was time to go to bed, so I hurriedly locked all the evidence in password locked files, so my siblings couldn't play or tamper with them. And went to bed.

After yet another boring day at school among dull students and teachers who were boringly still discussing the same things, even during class, my friend and I went to the library again to continue our research. I missed the calm presence of redhead. I decided that this was as good a time as any to interrogate my friend about him and asked her straight out. Her eyes almost fell out of her head and she clapped her hand over her mouth to stop her laughing from disturbing anyone. She told me I was being silly and confessed that she had indeed fallen in love, but not with my boy. When I asked her who was the lucky one, she told me it was the local girl. That stunned me for a while, since she had never told me she fell for girls. But I might have known, since she had never ever had a crush on a boy before. Although that doesn't have to mean anything, I decided when I reconsidered. I asked her if she knew how the local girl felt. She sighed and said that she didn't have a clue. I volunteered to ask the local girl about her sexual preference, and my friend looked at me all grateful and called me her best friend in the whole world. Now it was my turn to clap my hand before my mouth to stifle a bout of giggling, telling her that we had already known that for years. She joined in the stifled giggling, apparently relieved that I hadn't dumped her after her confession. We continued our research, trying not to look at each other in fear of another loud fit of giggles. We went back another fifteen years of newspaper history, but still didn't find anything.

The next day at school we heard there would be a debate about the things that had happened and that everyone had to prepare for it, since it would be fore a grade. My friend and I looked at each other exasperated, since we knew we'd be the only ones with completely different opinions from the rest of the class. And despite the fact that logic dictates that if you have a different opinion from the majority in a debate and had good, original facts to support such an opinion, you should get a good grade, our teacher simply didn't like it if you disagreed with him. After school my friend and I discussed what to do, mimic the rest without much enthusiasm and get a low grade or have our own opinion and get a low grade. We decided on the latter, figuring that if we had to go down anyway, we could at least go down being our own original selves.

The debate would be the next day since everybody had been discussing it for ages already and we didn't need much time to prepare it. At least that's what our teacher believed. Which meant that only the popular kids would get a good grade, since they always spout their opinions first, leaving the slower kids nothing but mumbling something to say that they agree with what has already been said. So I put all the facts we had found together and selected those that I thought people would find hard to discredit. Knowing full well that they'd just ignore those facts if they didn't like them. But I was hoping against all odds, that the teacher might just realize their worth.

On our way to school the next day, we discussed the arguments we had come up with to make sure we wouldn't be repeating each other too obviously. The time for the debate came and when it was our turn we totally stunned everyone by having an opinion and having good arguments to back it up. When we'd finished our speech, debates in our class are always just speeches that try to convince everyone else since nobody ever asks questions, we got a hearty round of applause. Our teacher was apparently impressed too, because for the first time ever we got good grades, despite having a differing opinion. After class some of our fellow students came to us asking where we had gotten our facts, since most of them hadn't been in the news at all. I don't think they believed us when we told them we had done the experiments ourselves. We put the happy news on the forum to share our success with the others of the group, without whom we'd never have been this successful. The local girl was at home and to celebrate we went to her place. I did have to promise my parents that I'd be home in time, but I didn't let that spoil the party.

Over a bag of chips and a giant glass of soda I suggested to play truth or dare. My friend shot me a nervous glance, thinking I'd force her to spill the big secret. Consequently she chose dare the entire game. I hadn't been planning to embarrass her and let the local girl choose most of the dares. Somewhere along the game the local girl chose truth and I asked her about her sexual orientation. Unfortunately for my friend she was heterosexual. We stopped playing the game shortly after that. We watched some chick flick and went home right after that.

I put my arm around my friend to comfort her and didn't say anything, knowing that was the best way to deal with a lovesick person. At least it was the best thing for me when I was lovesick. She didn't say anything either until we split. Then she thanked me for finding out for her. I tried comforting her with the cliché that somewhere out there was the right girl for her. I squeezed her hand and we both went home. I felt horrible for her. I knew exactly how she felt, but unlike me who had experienced the feeling at least a hundred times, it was a first for her. At least as far as I knew. I sent her a cute consolation card by email as soon as I got home.

The next day at school some of the elite clique wanted to hang out with us, but not with the rest of our friends, of course. So we refused, saying that if they wanted to hang out with us, they were free to join us at our table during lunch. Nobody came. So our fame from the debate was short living.

Which was a good thing, since it left us plenty of time to go to the library to do some more research. By now it had become tempting to just read the newspaper articles we found. When a headline was particularly intriguing, we read the article out loud to each other. Not too loud of course, but the library was almost deserted so we didn't bother anyone anyway. But all this meant that our pace slowed down considerably. Not that I really minded, I enjoyed reading all that history. The afternoon flew by and we both went home again.

And then it was weekend again. We had planned a mini meet in the bread shop just before lunch. The peddler had been invited too. We discussed all our theories with him while treating him to a sandwich. He told us he'd been asking around about the beliefs and stories among his people, but even the eldest women hadn't been able to tell him anything but that it had always been like that. That got us thinking that we hadn't thought about asking our own old people about the incident. And since we hadn't seen any old people on tv or on the net, it might well be that nobody had thought of it. We decided that we'd all visit the homes for the elderly in our own towns during the next week. When we said goodbye to the peddler most of the group had to go home again, but redhead was staying with local girl to go to the library again. I was horribly jealous, until he asked me to join him in the library. It suddenly dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, he had really come for me and not for her. In that case he would have been forced to stay with her, since staying with me was out of the question. That made my jealousy turn down a notch. I told him I'd be there and we set a time to meet each other. I asked the other two if they would come too, but they declined. The local girl had to visit her parents or something like that and my friend claimed she had homework to do, with a secretive wink in my direction. My heart leapt sky high. I'd be spending a whole day alone with him. We stayed a little longer to discuss which local homes would be visited by whom with local girl and then went home again.

I asked my friend if she really did have homework to do, and she replied that she always had homework to do, with a wide grin. I thanked her, but she said that she merely owed me one. that this was just to even out the score. We split up and I went home, practically skipping. My mother even noticed it and asked me for the reason of my happiness. I evaded her by saying that it had just been a great day and hurriedly went to do my homework so I really could spend the entire day in the library tomorrow.

The moment we entered the library, the librarian came rushing our way. he literally dragged us to one of the computers used to access the database with the archive of news articles. He opened a file for us and just pointed at it. The headline read: children no longer exposed to violence. it was an article about a small chip that could be implanted in the brain of small children and that could be programmed to filter out unwanted images, mostly violence and sex, but other images could be programmatically removed too. We were stunned, could this be the answer to our questions? After reading the article I hugged the librarian. The poor man actually started blushing. Redhead thanked him too and we started searching among the news database for the chip. Only one small article came up and that one was a few years younger than the original article the librarian had found for us. This other article mentioned that people were camping outside the stores to buy the new standardized chip. It didn't come with the programming interface, but it was much cheaper. Cheap enough for the common man to protect his children.

After that find we scoured the net for more info, but either there had never been much online about it, or it had already been removed again. All we could find was the name of the manufacturer and an address. Some more searching revealed that the manufacturer was still in business on that same address. Unfortunately the address was on the other side of the country, so we couldn't go rushing off to find it.

So redhead went to the local girls place to tell her the big news and I went to my friends place to tell her. we all met online again and tried to find someone who could find out more about the manufacturer. A volunteer was quickly found and he promised to try and call the company during the next week. We also told everybody on the boards of our plan to visit old people to interview them and a lot of people promised to do the same. And now that we had a lead, we expected to get much better results from those interviews.

Two days after that, my friend and I had enough time left over after doing our homework to visit such a home for the elderly. We went to the reception and asked if there were some people who might be willing to help us with a school project. that last bit wasn't quite true of course, but we figured it might open doors that would otherwise stay closed. Curious children are annoying, but children doing their homework are cute. At least that's what most grown ups seem to be thinking. Besides we might still turn it into a school project after all. The lady from the reception fell for it, and brought us to the lounge, as she called it. It was a big room with large windows and lots of chairs that must have been comfortable once. It was meant to be a gathering place for the old people to stare out the windows and talk to each other. We were introduced to a small group of old men and women who had been gossiping when we came in. When we told them that we were doing a school project they were all too eager to help us out. We told them it was about the cause of the recent events and that we had found out that the chip in our head might be the problem. They practically all started chattering at the same time and all tried to be the one who was heard. Which resulted in an unintelligible cacophony. Until one man took charge and shushed the others.

They told us how they had seen each generation of kids become less interested in the chip, until it had come to the point where kids didn't even know they had one anymore. They also told us that nowadays every kid got the standardized chip we had seen mentioned in the article. It was so cheap, that the insurance companies paid for it, since it had dramatically decreased violence and sexually transferable diseases and thus saved them a lot of money in the long run. They weren't too sure that the chip was causing the present trouble though. The chip used heat from the human body as a power source and had never failed before. They didn't see how such a massive failure could occur all of a sudden. We mentioned the solar flare, but they dismissed it. Medical radiation had never done the chips any damage either, so why should radiation from space harm them all of a sudden. Besides there had been solar flares before. We didn't tell them, but from our research in the library I knew that this had been the most massive eruption in over 200 years.

When they started repeating things we'd already heard from them, we told them we had to go. We thanked them profusely and they assured us that if there was anything else we needed to know, we'd just have to come and ask. During our walk home we decided they'd be talking about us for weeks.

Back home we reported our findings to our friends. Some of them had just reported on similar stories as well. We discussed the findings for a while and decided that no matter what the old people thought, we were sure the chips had malfunctioned because of the solar flare and that they had blocked the weird people from our vision before malfunctioning. We were convinced, but we realized it would take more than our speculations to convince the rest of the world. The guy who had promised to contact the chip manufacturer told us he had not had time yet. Or rather, he'd tried once, in the evening, and found out that their opening hours didn't include evenings. And he hadn't had time at work yet. He assured us that he had the phone number at work, so as soon as his work left him a little time, he'd be right on it. We asked him if he could try getting the blueprint, or maybe even a demo model, so we could test it. In the mean time I urged the rest of the people, we should try to get our hands on some radiation measurements. Just so we would know how much we'd gotten and to compare it to how much these things could take. Immediately everybody searched for sites of NASA, ESA and every amateur who measured radiation from space. We found some contradicting measurements, but most were comparable. We filled in the details on the most complete map we could find and determined the average amount of radiation everyone had gotten. Of course people on the poles, insofar as there are any people over there, had gotten less than those on the equator and people on the dark side of the planet hadn't gotten as much as those on the sun side, but we found out that the eruption hadn't really been one event as we'd thought, but that it had been a chain of eruptions. Which might also explain the long duration of the power grid failure. So in the end everybody got it. And as we'd guessed the readings were much higher than during medical treatments, and as we already knew they were also three times higher than those of any eruption in the past two hundred years. We knew this last piece of information because that figure was stated on one of the sites. Some other board member put all the findings in a brief report, he put it online and we all reviewed it to take out spelling and grammar errors and to check for typo's in the tables. He'd done his work excellently and we found only a few. He corrected them and put the document online once again. Satisfied we all downloaded it so it couldn't get lost. I even printed a copy to be absolutely sure.

The rest of the week crawled by on boring classes and even more boring homework. When we had the time we visited more old people, but we didn't get any new information. And then it was finally weekend again, it almost came as a surprise that the week could actually end after all. Nothing new happened in the weekend either, none of the reports brought in by others told us anything new and we still didn't have the proof we needed to get our theory accepted. The manufacturers phone was constantly either busy or they simply didn't pick it up. The wait was agonizing. The peddler didn't have time for us either. so after spending Friday night and Saturday morning doing nothing and being bored, I suggested we'd go back to the park to paint. It would at least kill us some time. My friend agreed and we invited the local girl along too. She didn't have anything better to do either and she came along. Which was a good thing, since most of the equipment we had used before was hers. We probably could have borrowed it, but this way I felt less guilty about using it.

We went to the park again, by now feeling almost at home there. We hardly even noticed the weirdness of the people there anymore. To us they were simply part of the park. We probably were the only one who felt that, cause since the weird people had seemingly appeared out of nowhere, we hadn't seen another soul besides those in our little group and them.

My friend didn't want us to see her painting but by looking up from my painting every now and then, and studying her, I guessed she was painting local girl. And I wasn't sure, but my best guess was that she simply painted her as she stood painting a little further away. I believed that she would have had more of a wild gleam in her eyes if she'd painted her any other way. The kind of gleam her eyes always showed when she was cooking up some of her ideas. Right that moment she was merely concentrating, squinting every now and then, trying to get it right.

Myself, I was painting the weird people and their lives. Maybe I'd had some inkling of what the future would bring, but I wanted to record their lives for posterity so they wouldn't be forgotten again. At the end of the day my painting was done. It wasn't very good, but the others were impressed. It showed two men fighting, with a couple of younger boys looking in anticipation of the loot, a couple of girls yelling at them encouragingly and an older woman scrambling past with a couple of bags in the background. I thought it was rather crude, but my friends understood what I had painted, so it can't have been all bad.

We returned to the park on Sunday and continued our work. I finished another painting and my friend finished hers. The local girl still wasn't finished, but she was working on something with a lot of details. She was painting the nature of the park. The squirrels, the flowers, the bees and the birds. It was very beautiful and lifelike. We agreed to go back the next weekend if nothing else came up in the mean time.

Unfortunately, something did happen in the mean time. And it wasn't new results of our search. No, my mother had decided that the park wasn't safe. And despite my protests that until now the weird people hadn't hurt any of our people, that they didn't even see us, she forbade me to go there again. She reasoned that the only reason the intruders hadn't hurt anyone was that all decent folks stayed away from them. I tried telling her that not even the patriots had been hurt. and they were actively seeking the weird people out, trying to hurt them. But as usual, she had made up her mind and had simply stopped listening. I was forced to promise her not to go to the park anymore. I stormed upstairs and informed my friends on the board that I wouldn't be able to join them after all. My friend tried to convince me to lie to my mother, that I should tell her that I was going to my friend instead of to the park. I refused, saying it was pointless and that my mother would see through it immediately. We'd been pulling that prank since we were in kindergarten together. By now she almost expected me to try that. That's when local girl asked me if my mother knew that she had been in the park as well. I replied that I hadn't told about the last time, but that I had shown the paintings of the park I had made when staying with her. So I didn't dare saying I was at her place when I wouldn't be. We then decided not to go to the park, but that we really would stay at her house to paint. I asked my parents if I could go, repeating my promise that we really wouldn't go to the park. When my mother started questioning me again, I irritatedly replied that I wasn't a small child anymore who played childish tricks. If she didn't believe me, she should come and check for herself. She had no plans whatsoever to cross half the town for that of course, so she said she trusted me. I knew she didn't and was expecting her to call instead. Which of course she did. I really hated her for her small-mindedness. And so we painted fruit and baseball gear and each other. My baseball glove looked like a fruit basket and the fruit basket looked more like a bowl filled with colors. I was just no good at this. Or maybe my heart wasn't in it. My friend did a painting of me with a thundercloud over my head. That had me laughing again. We stopped painting after that and watched some movies.

Another week went by without any new result, but then in the weekend, the guy who had tried calling the manufacturer reported back in. He said he had arranged a tour for the next week. He could bring a total of ten people. My friend and I doubted, should we go or not? We'd have to skip school for it and travel across half the country to get there. The local girl gave us the answer. She'd rent a car for a day and we'd be back late that same night. I knew I'd probably get grounded for the rest of my life over this, but I couldn't resist. We decided that my friend would simply skip school, but that I'd go home sick the afternoon before we went. That way school wouldn't call my parents. Not that I thought they wouldn't find out, but maybe, just maybe they'd think I merely spent the afternoon away and wouldn't inquire at school.

And so I went home on the day before our trip, looking really miserable. I didn't even have any trouble to make myself look positively sick, I just thought of the consequences this trip would have for me and voila, one green face. The teachers bought it and sent me home. I'd played my trick during the last hour, so my parents wouldn't notice the difference. On my way home, I was thinking of an excuse to be out of the house early and invented an extra class for some help on math. I made up that it started at seven thirty, knowing that my father would have left the house at six and that my mother wouldn't come out of bed till eight. I packed everything I wanted to bring and put it in my backpack in stead of my books. I set my alarm for five forty five, so I could get dressed before my father left and leave just after he left. My friends had agreed to pick me up just after six at the end of the street. The next morning, everything went smooth. My father left at the stroke of six and I waited two minutes, so he'd really be gone. Then I hurried out and ran to the end of the street. My friends were already waiting and we drove off. We hardly stopped during the whole ride. Only once for gas, some sandwiches and a visit to the toilet. So we arrived just before one o'clock. which was perfect timing, since the tour started only minutes after we got there.

They showed us the entire complex, from where the blank silicon chips came in, to where they were packed for shipping. So of course we asked them what they prevented us from seeing exactly and if they ever stopped working. They told us the chips were supposed to wear out after twenty years. We asked them what happened to the chip after that period and got the reply that they simply stayed in our heads without doing anything. At the testing facility we asked if they were also tested for their ability to withstand radiation. And when told they were, asked for the doses with which they were tested. These were of course much lower than those of the solar flare, but higher than those for medical treatments. We asked if they could test them with a doses of radiation like that of the solar flare. Without actually mentioning the solar flare of course. Seemingly just seeking a bit of sensation. They told us that they could and we begged them to show us. I even gave them the old puppy eyed look, which worked for the male assistant giving us the tour. He went down to the techs operating the lab to ask them. And being true technicians, they couldn't resist showing off. They even handed us the test results afterwards, without even looking at them apparently. Which we found out later as we studied the results. After such a dose of radiation the chips reset themselves... In the lab we didn't check them though, but tucked them away into one of our backpacks, afraid that some manager type would come by and take them away again upon seeing them, company secret and all that. The tour lasted only about an hour and then we went away again. We had a quick cup of coffee while copying the test results for everyone. After that we went straight home since we still had a five hour drive ahead of us. We came home just after seven. My parents were upset that I was late, but I lied and told them we'd been hanging around in the library doing some research and that we'd forgotten what time it was. All my time in the library now paid off a second time, cause they believed me. They gave me a stern warning not to let it happen again, but other than that I got off the hook easily. I could only hope they wouldn't still find out somehow, but I shrugged of that worry. I'd deal with that situation when and if it arose.

After diner I tried studying the test results, but they were pretty much meaningless to me. Somebody else had already posted them online and the lab rats among us were already poring over them, so I let it rest and hurriedly went to do some real homework. The next day I found out what the test results signified. We had finally found the proof we were looking for! Some of the lab rats had already put together a report and had put it up for review. We took out the last errors and sent the report to all the reporters we could think of. The next day it was all over the place. On tv, radio, in the newspapers, on online channels, everybody talked about it.

During class everybody marveled at how we had been right all along. They never even suspected the truth about our involvement in the press release and we kept it that way. They'd never believe us anyway and if we kept silent now, it might never come out that I hadn't been sick, but had actually skipped class.

That night reports came in on how the governmental debate had taken a new direction. It still was about the weird people, but now the question of how it all could have happened also came into the picture. People thought of sueing the chip manufacturer, but couldn't quite agree on what for. Some wanted to sue them for neglecting to take solar flares into account. Others wanted to sue them for erasing the weird people in the first place.

Most people now agreed that we couldn't just do away with the weird people, since they now knew they had always been there. Although there was still a small group who believed getting rid of them was the only way to solve this problem, the patriots among them. So the only solution according to the general public was to get them to join our civilization. I even heard of some preacher trying to bring them to join his church. Of course he was preaching to no one else but himself, since the weird people never listened to what the ghosts said. The louder he preached, the harder he had to run to get near them. At least that was my guess. The image had me smiling and I tried painting it. My friend got it right away when I showed it to her and laughed so hard that everyone who was near looked at her as if she had gone mad.

Weeks went by and the debate kept on raging. Finally the government decided that the weird people had to be educated. They ordered the army to round them up in every city and herd them to certain appointed shelters. For the weird people in our park it was a nearby sports hall. The army came and formed an unbreachable cordon and just surrounded everyone in the park. When they had them completely encircled they herded them to the hall. It was a pretty good way, there was no violence and nobody was hurt. I can only hope it went the same way everywhere else. It was amazing to see how natural the weird people still looked. They looked for all the world as if they would have walked that way if the soldiers hadn't been there. When I trailed the soldiers I heard lots of people murmur that this was the right thing to do and that all these people understood was a show of force. And that now that we showed it to them they would listen to us. I knew they were wrong. I knew these people were scared shitless alright. They didn't see the soldiers, they saw a cordon of ghosts and they were trying very hard not to see them. I wasn't allowed to enter the shelter so I went back and walked through the park with my friend. I wasn't even thinking about the order to stay away from it, but in retrospect I think my mother wouldn't have minded me being there now that the weird people were gone. It was so weird that the park was empty again now. Everywhere the remains of the weird people could be seen. The whole park felt like a ghost town.

Suddenly we heard crying. We followed the sound to the source and found a little boy crying desperately. It was one of the weird people's young boys and this one was extremely young. He probably wasn't even ten years old. He was all alone and crying his heart out.

Maybe it was because we had been hanging around in the park so much, or maybe he was just desperate, but he saw us and after a while came hesitantly our way. He asked us if we were really ghosts. We told him were were not and assured him we wouldn't hurt him. He told us how one of the old ladies had pushed him beneath a cupola and ordered him to stay there. He had obeyed, but now he was all alone and scared. We just didn't know what to do. We asked him what he was scared of and he answered he was afraid of the ghosts and how they would take him away now that the others were also taken by them. He was also afraid of dying from hunger. We tried comforting him as best as we could and tried to decide what to do. We didn't really feel like bringing him to the shelter, since we had no clue as to what was happening there. For all we knew they'd resort to torture when nothing else worked. Suddenly my friend asked him if he knew when the next visit of the peddler would be. I gave here a questioning look and suddenly I knew what she planned: put him in the care of the peddler! The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. He'd know what to do. The boy said he'd just been there and would probably be back two days from now. That's when we asked him if he could survive on his own until then. He looked as if he would start crying again, but merely swallowed hard and nodded. We promised him we'd come by at least twice every day and would bring him some food when we did. That brought out a smile and he bragged that in that case he would live an easy life. We told him to hide from anyone else but the peddler and us, especially from the ghosts. If they saw him they would take him away too. He promised and we left to buy him some food. We bought a small carton of milk, some sandwiches and some cookies. We hurried back to the park where he scared us by hiding. We simply couldn't find him anymore. We were already thinking they'd found him already, when he came calmly walking our way. We were very relieved that he'd taken our order about hiding serious. We gave him the bread and milk which he gobbled down. Then we gave him the cookies and suggested he'd save them. Just in case we wouldn't be able to visit him one time. He looked at them longingly for a while, then nodded and stowed them away somewhere. It was Sunday then and we had all day. So we played hide and seek with the boy, which he won every time, and tag and all kinds of games we used to play ourselves. My friend went bought some take-away diner for the kid and some marshmallows for him to roast over a fire that night. He asked if he shouldn't be saving these too, and she made him promise to at least eat a few of them tonight. Then it was time for us to head home for a diner of our own. We repeated our promise to come back the next morning and gave the poor kid another hug.

I didn't eat much at diner, because of being too worried about our refugee kid. But just before going to bed, I realized that the kid actually had a lot less to fear without the men being there. I hoped he was wise enough to steal some of their blankets now that he lacked the body heat from his fellows.

I slept restlessly that night, I kept waking up thinking I'd heard him cry out. It must have been in my dreams of course, since the distance to the park was too great for me to hear him even if he did cry out. In the morning I woke early and looked around, trying to figure out something for the kid to do all day, because I imagined he must get bored without his friends to play with. My eye fell on the drawer beneath my bed that contained old toys I didn't play with anymore. I opened it and found a jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces. I tucked it in my backpack along with my books and hurried down for breakfast. I wolfed down my breakfast since the restless night and the halfhearted diner the night before had left me hungry. I hurried to the supermarket where I had agreed to meet my friend. We bought the kid some cereals, a bottle of milk and a bowl and spoon to eat them with. We also bought a small loaf of bread and a chunk of cheese for his lunch.

It looked like his eyes would fall out of his head when he saw all the food we'd bought him. He even asked us if we were ghosts after all, trying to fatten him for our own diner. But he laughed when he said it and gave us both a hug to thank us. He quite seemed to like hugs. He'd been shy about them before, but was definitely warming to them. When I thought about it, I realized I'd never seen any of the weird people hug each other. I also gave him the puzzle and explained how it worked. He actually jumped from glee and as soon as we said goodbye, he ran off to find some cardboard to use for an even surface. My guess was that he wouldn't miss us until it was finished.

We went to school feeling great about ourselves. School was over before we knew it and we hurried back to the park. On our way there we fetched a small take away meal from the Chinese restaurant. The meal came with chop sticks, but the kid used his new spoon instead. He seemed really happy with it. He wolfed down his food, burped loudly and told us he'd never had food as good as ours before. He asked us if our guardian couldn't take him in as well. It took us a while to realize he thought we belonged to a hard faced man like all the weird people in the park. We only twisted the truth a little bit by telling him our guardian would be very angry with us if he found out about us helping him. He looked at us in awe and asked us if we weren't afraid of his wrath. We told him, again being almost truthful, that we'd faced his wrath before and still lived to tell the tale. That made the boy admire us even more. We spent some more time with him before heading home again.

It was hard not telling everyone on the boards about the kid we had found, but it was just too risky. If anybody who agreed with the government's policy saw such a message, we'd be in huge trouble. The next day went pretty much the same. After diner I said I was going to my friend to work on a project. My parents must have assumed it was for school, cause they let me go. Of course I went straight to the park, meeting my friend on the way. We wanted to be early so we wouldn't miss the peddler. He did indeed come a little early, but not as early as we did. We sat playing word games with the boy in the peddlers corner when he came. He looked around with a sad look in his eyes. We introduced him to the boy and asked him if he could take him into his care. He looked surprised to see that the boy was one of his own people. He then asked the kid if he wanted to be a spirit talker too. The boy started looking frightened and the peddler nodded our way while looking at him. We hurried to apologize to the boy for lying, and his eyes got as big as saucers. He started stammering a question and we tried to explain when the peddler intervened. He explained that the ghosts weren't really ghosts at all, but normal people like everyone else, and how they didn't kill you. Not normally anyway. The kid then agreed to become a spirit talker and peddler if the peddler would teach him. The peddler smiled at him and opened his arms wide in a welcoming gesture. He had a look of utter surprise on his face when the boy jumped up and flung himself in his arms. We shrugged apologetically when he looked at us. We then told him the entire story of how we came here and found him alone. He thanked us and said he'd wanted a kid to follow in his footsteps for a long time now, but had never been able to find one who wanted to be his protégé. We made an appointment at the bread shop for that weekend to meet them both again and to discuss the current situation of his people. We promised to invite some of the others as well, but warned him that most lived far away and might not be able to come. We said goodbye to them and hurried home.

I went upstairs straight away, to put the peddlers request online. Redhead and local girl replied right away that they'd come, but I didn't see any of the others respond that night.

Over the next few days one or two others said they'd try to come too, but they couldn't promise. And when I came to the bread shop, there was indeed one other person. He hadn't been in the original group, so we all introduced ourselves. And again when the peddler and the kid came in. Old habits die hard and the boy still felt a bit uncomfortable among so many of our people. But he was young and flexible and after an hour when nobody had tried to steal his life he relaxed a bit. We discussed what we had seen in the news about their people. So far it seemed that they were treated all right, but our people started getting nervous around them, because they still didn't respond. On tv it seemed as if the people had settled down in their new environments and had picked up their lives again. Which made our people even more nervous. We talked about possible solutions for the problem, but couldn't really come up with one either. It would simply take lots and lots of time to weld the two groups of people back together again, but our people were an impatient lot and would want results within weeks. They still didn't seem to understand the problem. The new guy of the group suggested doing a documentary on the weird people. Everybody liked that idea, but there were two major problems. How to get near the weird people and how to convince the tv stations to broadcast it. I suggested that we could sell the idea to a tv station, they'd solve the other problem for us. But that posed the problem of them maybe not including any of us in the team who made the documentary. And we didn't have the illusion that without us there would be even a shred of truth in the film. The peddler suggested jokingly that we might pose as weird people ourselves and simply show up near a shelter. It was a good idea, but we didn't think we could pull it off. And once inside you probably couldn't get out anymore. Trying to get out by explaining you didn't belong to the intruders would probably make their situation worse too and the goal was to help them. The day flew by and I had to get home again for diner. I said goodbye to the others and suggested we post the problem on the boards to see if there was perhaps a journalist or something like it among them who could help us out. The others went on discussing that idea as I left them.

Late that evening I found out that that was indeed the best idea they could come up with, cause I found their message on the boards. There were already some responses, but none offering the sought after help. After one week, there still hadn't been any people who were journalists or even people who knew one personally. My friend suggested that if somebody simply helped us with the equipment, we could try to arrange it for a school project. We'd need cameras and microphones and stuff like that and also someone with the equipment to put together a professional looking documentary. That kind of help was easier to come by and was quickly offered.

And so we went to the shelter Monday afternoon, after school. We found someone at the door and told him what we wanted. He told us he couldn't help us and wanted to send us away again. We didn't just leave though and asked him if he knew who could help us. He said he didn't know and we put up an act saying that this was the last idea we had for our school project and how we'd have to do something boring about old people's homes otherwise, which would surely get us a bad grade. We looked totally disappointed and beaten. Which of course worked, no grumpy man can stand two pouting girls who want to do something good for school. He said that he supposed it would all have to happen this day, expecting us to have waited for the last day, so he could turn us down again. But to his dismay we told him we still had three weeks until the deadline, so he went inside to ask around for a name for us. He kept us waiting for twenty minutes, possibly in the hopes we'd leave again. But we didn't and he came back saying we'd have to ask the mayor. We delightedly thanked him and left half skipping, just to show him how happy we were. When I looked around I saw him smile and shake his head. As soon as we were out of sight we started laughing and congratulating each other over how we'd pulled it off again. We immediately went to my friends house to ring the city hall and the mayor. We got a secretary of course who claimed the mayor wasn't in the office. We asked her when he'd be back, but she didn't know. She didn't know if he'd be back that day or the next either. We hung up saying we'd call again. Half an hour later we called again, asking if the mayor had already returned. We didn't trust her, thinking she was merely trying to get rid of us so we wouldn't disturb such an important and busy person. Accordingly we planned to call her so often that she'd put us through just to get rid of us. She reported that he still wasn't in and said she didn't expect him until the next day. We decided to stay polite and not to anger her openly. We didn't have class early on Tuesday so I went to my friend early to call again. We got the same secretary, who was already getting annoyed with us. She again repeated that he wasn't in and we asked her if she could check his schedule to see when he was supposed to be in. She sighed, but realized she couldn't just get rid of us and reported a time in the middle of the day, guessing correctly that we'd be at school at that time. That didn't scare us away though and we thanked her politely for her time. We looked at each other and each knew exactly what the other was thinking. We'd simply make the call from school. And evil grin spread out from the corners of our mouth.

At school we kept checking the time. At the appointed time we went to the toilet, or at least that's what we said we'd do. Instead we went to the concierge, asking him if we could use the phone for a minute, explaining it was for a school project and that we had to call the mayor who wasn't available at any other time. he was convinced and let us make the call. The secretary was ever so surprised that we called, but put us through to the mayor. He said he was kind of busy now and we agreed that this wasn't the best of times to call, but said we were willing to make an appointment for another time to discuss our request. We very briefly stated that it was for a school project and that we'd need only maybe fifteen minutes of his time. he relented, ordering his secretary to make an appointment for us. She was much more willing to help us now and scheduled and appointment late in the afternoon. We thanked her and hurried back to class. It had all taken so little time that we hadn't even been missed.

The rest of the day and the next crawled by. Until finally the last bell rang and we could hurry to the city hall. We practically ran all the way, not wanting to be late and consequently were there way too early. We reported ourselves with the secretary and patiently sat down. We didn't talk or giggle but just waited. Every now and then the secretary looked at us as if we were the oddest creatures she had ever seen. Serious teenagers, I'm betting she told all her friends about this rare sight. It didn't even take me an effort to stay serious. I merely had to think about our poor little lonely kid and the possible treatments his people might undergo and every thought of smiling vanished. At the exact time of our appointment the secretary let us into the mayor's office. She even asked us if we would like a drink. We declined, saying we hoped not to take that much time from a man who's schedule was so filled already.

The mayor offered us a couple of chairs and we explained our request. Our calm behavior might have helped, because he seriously considered it and gave us permission. he called in his secretary and dictated a letter to her. She typed it out and he signed it. He then put it in an official looking envelope and gave it to us, saying we had merely to show it to the people at the shelter to be let in. He asked us which shelter we were going to so he could call ahead and notify them. We told him it was the sports hall near the park and thanked him for his time and permission. We assured him he'd get a copy of the documentary when it was finished. We left in a jubilant mood and ran all the way home again. We put the good news online and made arrangements for the shooting. We scheduled the shootings in the weekend and local girl offered her place for the meet again. Redhead had a relative with a professional camera and would arrange it so he could use it. Another guy who lived pretty near offered his studio for the weekend after the shooting to put the film together. We contacted the peddler again to ask for his help on a script so we would know exactly what to shoot and what texts to put behind it. All in all it promised to be a relatively professional thing. We decided to take only redhead to the shelter, since an entire film crew would look suspicious for a school project. The week flew by on hurried preparations and the weekend of the shoot arrived almost too early. We had arranged to meet at the shelter and found redhead already waiting for us with the equipment. I was nervous as hell, this was one project I just couldn't fail on. I didn't even want to think about the consequences of failure. We went in, showed our letter from the mayor and set up for filming. At first we merely walked around, identifying the areas the peddler had said we would find. And as he predicted, they were all there: the arena where the hard men challenged each other, the love nests where the hard men slept with the girls, the niches for the smaller boys, the haunts of the old ladies and several other areas. We had put together a schedule for filming that had taken into account which areas would have activities at what time. We had decided to start with the arena as there was likely the most activity there at this time of day. We got lucky, just as we set up the camera and the microphone, two hard men got into a brawl over one of the girls. We filmed the entire thing, including how the boys took possession of the dead mans clothes and other belongings. We followed one of the boys to where he delivered his loot, and after that one of the boys who had been lagging in the arena, because he hadn't gotten anything. We filmed the men courting the women and the old women scuttling around. Later in the day we filmed the distribution of the food when they got it. We took care to show that the point where the food was put was a revered place. Kind of like the peddlers corner had been. We made sure to film it all, so we could give an objective point of view. That night at local girls place we watched the footage we had with the entire group, including the peddler and his boy. We discussed what we had missed and what we would have to shoot again. We adapted the script we had already written and went to bed. The next day we got up early to shoot the rest of the film. All went successful and we went back satisfied. We left the tapes with local girl and everybody went home again.

Just like before, the week flew by again and we all gathered at local girl's place, except for redhead who would be at the studio, since that was easier for him. The peddler had spent all his days watching the footage at local girl's place and had devised a screenplay, since there was nobody to peddle his wares to. He hurried to explain that it was just a suggestion, but none of us could see anything wrong with it. So we drove to the studio and set to work. Redhead went with the studio guy from the forum to put the footage in the right order and my friend and I went with local girl and another man from the studio to record the sound track. With the script from the peddler in hand, work progressed swiftly. Although we still had to do everything over and over again to get it right.

By the end of the day we had recorded all the text. We took the tape and went over to the other team. They were still putting in the last few pieces and we ordered some pizza for us all while they were working. The pizza arrived just as they entered the last frames. We attacked on the pizza while listening to the sound track and watching the film. They were both put on at the same time so we could see what parts still needed work. We found out that quite a few pieces of voice were either too slow or too fast. My friend and I almost sunk below the table when we heard that practically all of those had to be done over again. That night we timed all the pieces of voice that had to be recorded again, which was quite a bit of work in itself. When that was done we spent a little while chatting before they produced some sleeping bags for us. We all slept in the studio so we could make an early start again.

The alarm clock went off at six thirty and a lot of groans could be heard, but everybody got up. We splashed some water in our faces, brushed our teeth and poured in some coffee. Or coke for those who, like me, didn't like coffee. Local girl got some instructions on where to find some breakfast and was sent off while the rest of us went back to work. This time we had to do the pieces of text even more often, since now they had to be timed exactly right. In the mean time the other team was putting in the pieces of spoken text that were already correctly timed, or those where timing didn't matter as much.

Local girl came back with our breakfast and we ate while working. Which for us meant having bites in between recordings. Late in the afternoon we were almost hoarse, but the recordings were finished. While we had been recording, the studio man had sent local girl to the other team with the finished bits of recording, so they could continue working as well. We ordered some Chinese while they put in our last bit of recording and waited. This time they were finished before the food arrived and we waited some more. We were all too tired to talk much.

When the food arrived they put on the film and we were all impressed. While we had been recording they had also created the credits and a title screen. It all looked very professional. They had also done a great job on the mixing of visual and sound. All that was left to do was to make several copies of it. They were going to make those on the same night and give them to redhead who could stay. He'd bring them with him the next weekend, when we'd visit some television stations to see if they wanted to air them. He'd also bring the copy we had promised to the mayor.

The next week simply crawled by, we were so nervous that we spent every minute checking the time and sharing half-nervous smiles. I think we must have irritated quite a few people with our behavior, but after five nerve wracking days the weekend arrived. We were out of bed way too early and were gone before our parents even knew we were up. We were lucky to find local girl just as nervous. She was already up and about too. We spent the time nervously chattering about nothing. Afterwards I didn't even have a clue what we had said all that time anymore. And then redhead came. He had borrowed the car from his father and we all got in. He had gotten several addresses we could try from our friends at the studio and we were planning to try them all if necessary.

The first one never took us serious and didn't even want to take a look. The second took a quick glance and said they'd have some time to fill in the middle of the night. We told them we'd think about it. The third one was our jackpot. They watched the entire film and were very enthusiastic. They wanted to buy the rights, but we told them they weren't for sale. They could air it, or leave it. they took what we offered and we discussed at what time they would air it. We told them that if they'd air it only once, we'd go to their competitors with our offer as well and they hurried to say that they'd show it again as a repetition the next week at another time if we promised them the scoop. A contract was set up and when everybody has signed it, we gave them a copy of the tape in exchange for our copy of the contract. The film would be aired in the middle of the week, right after the six o'clock news.

I waited till the day of the airing before dropping off the film at the mayor. I also told his secretary that it would be broadcasted the same day. Back home I put on the television on the right channel and sat down to watch the show. I wasn't too sure I wanted my family to see it, but if I put it on I could at least claim it was a surprise. Besides the film was made for people just like them and I wanted to know their reaction. They sat down beside me and asked me what it was that I wanted to see and I told them it was a documentary for school. I'd used that lie so often that I almost believed in it myself. That sparked their curiosity and they staid to watch.

In the documentary we showed how the weird people lived, but we also told about their culture. How they thought we were ghosts and how they feared any contact with us so much that they wouldn't even look at us. We even demonstrated that last bit by getting in their way and calling to them.

At first my mother was livid that I had gone anywhere near them, but at the end of the documentary she merely wanted to know how I could know so much about them when nobody else, most notably the committee who went about dealing with the weird people, knew anything at all. I told her it was through observation and through a contact person who dealt with both peoples. My father was rather proud of me. I'm not sure he believed a word of it all, but he was impressed with the fact that there weren't any holes in the logic.

The next day before school, I found another letter from the mayor on the door mat. He congratulated me on the quality of the film and was impressed by the fact that we had gotten it aired on such a short notice. He thanked me heartily for his copy and claimed to be honored by it. I showed the letter to my parents and my mother almost confiscated it, saying she wanted to show it to all her friends. I suggested using a copy for that purpose so we could put the actual letter in a frame to put on the wall. Hanging the frame in the living room where her friends could see it, sealed the deal. I rushed upstairs to copy the thing and find a frame before she changed her mind. After that I ran to school, because I was late. I ran in just as the bell sounded and the doorkeeper winked at me. I hurried to my class and sat down beside my friend, putting a copy of the letter on her desk. She quickly put it away, without reading it, since the teacher might confiscate it otherwise.

During lunch we found out how many people had seen the documentary. We got jealous looks, congratulations and declarations of lunacy. But most of all the weird people were the talk of the town again. And I didn't hear a single 'intruders' any more. Of course I did take care not to come too close to those so called patriots. I'm not a complete idiot who believes everybody will change their minds after a good speech. Some people never change, no matter what has been proven wrong or right. So they probably still called them intruders.

Back home behind my computer, I received the congratulations of the entire board, along with the rest of the people who had helped to create it. Everybody had loved it and for those who couldn't see it due to living abroad, redhead had digitized the film and put it online. A day later we heard that his site was down because so many people had downloaded it. Several other people of the boards put it up on their sites too and the film spread out across the net. Soon we got e-mails from foreign countries asking if they could have a copy to broadcast it in their country. some even offered money, but we didn't accept it, asking that they give it to the weird people shelters instead. Well we didn't use the words weird people to them of course, but you get what I mean. The documentary became an international hit. My friend and I even received invitations from cinematographic colleges to become a student there after our graduation. We had become instantly famous. I didn't really believe it would last long, so I enjoyed it while I could. We received and email from the studio who had first aired it, thanking us again for giving them the scoop. They had gained considerable prestige from those rights.

In a matter of two weeks we had changed the view of the world on the weird people. There was now talk of giving them land of their own, while others objected to that, saying that it reminded them too much of the Indians so many ages ago, and see how that had gone. Yet another group said we should simply set them free again to let them live their own lives again, but the objection to that was that people might get angered by their way of life and that it would lead to violence against the weird people. Again the debate raged and raged without a conclusion. Some people still wanted to forcibly integrate them into our society, but they were quickly silenced by the huge majority who now understood that such a thing would take ages. Another solution to deal with them had to be thought up for the shorter term, before such a thing could even be tried.

One weekend we held a meet at the bread shop again. The peddler and his boy were there as well as local girl and redhead. My friend and I completed the group. The peddler was very happy about the results we had booked. We asked him if he knew the answer to the problems, but he didn't. He thought that reservations might be the right solution for the short term, but feared that such a solution would get in the way of a longterm solution. Because when the immediate problem was no longer visible, nobody would care about it anymore. And somewhere far off in the future, people would want that land back. And looking at history, they'd probably take it back violently. We all fell silent for a while. Then suddenly the boy piped up that everything would be back to normal for everybody if we just couldn't see his people anymore. His people would be happy and free again and so would ours. We discussed that idea for a while and couldn't come up with major reasons against it. Sure the weird people would still be poor, but they didn't know any other life. And we wouldn't have really solved the actual problem, just like the chips hadn't actually solved the problem all those years ago, but everybody would be happy again, and wasn't that the most important thing in life? We decided to start a whisper campaign, just tell the idea to as many people as possible and see where the ship would land. We started on the forum and continued with our families and friends. And soon enough we heard our idea in the news out of the mouth of a politician as if it was his own. The idea soon spread to other countries. And while in our country the debate got another fuel injection, soon after the first countries started writing laws already about undergoing surgery to have a new chip. Quite a few people died in those countries, because the chip had been too tightly grown into their brains.

And then the chip manufacturer came with a small device that would reprogram the chips without surgery. They had delved in their archives, blueprints and databases and found that it was possible. The chip's programmable interface had not been completely removed in the migration from programmable to standard chips. The devices were quickly shipped to those countries where the reprogramming of the chip had already been made law.

Other countries like ours, were still debating over the matter. What would be the repercussions of reprogramming the chip. People would stop seeing the weird people, but the memories would remain. It was feared that madness might be the result. But when madness didn't occur more often than usual in the countries that had already reprogrammed, more and more countries followed their example. I was jubilant, but at the same time fearful. I didn't want to be forced to have my chip reprogrammed. I didn't want to stop seeing them, nor did I want to forget them. They had brought me adventure and a sense of usefulness and even pride. I was grateful for that and certainly didn't want to lose such wonderful things. My friend and I were already cooking up plans to overexpose out chips to radiation again. We even came up with a wild plan to hijack the testing facilities of the manufacturer for that purpose.

But fortunately for us, more people felt that way and it became a part of the ongoing debate about solving the problem. After weeks and weeks it was finally decided that the government would fund the devices and that the procedure would be completed in the hospitals with merely a small charge for the administration costs. Which meant that you would have to make an appointment, but weren't forced to make one. Of course my mother made one for me when the time came. I felt very grateful that I had kept my desire a secret to my parents, because if they had known about it, they would have gone with me to see to it that it was done. Now they sent me to the hospital alone, which meant I could simply stay away from it. I even called the hospital from a phone booth to cancel the appointment. Just so they wouldn't call my parents about it. It turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, because they were so swamped with patients they were grateful I wasn't coming.

In the mean time, all the weird people had been set free again. Or rather, they had been herded out of their new homes and dumped out on the streets. The peddler told us he had lead quite a number of people back to their old homes.

And about one month after the legislation had been passed, the weird people had been all but forgotten again.

I took up painting again. I spent most of my free hours in the park drawing the weird people. To my parents I kept it a secret mostly, and once when my mother asked me about my paintings and wanted to see them I told her I painted them form memory and fantasy, to keep up the appearance that my chip had indeed been reprogrammed. My friend liked to accompany me, mostly just talking with me, but when the mood struck her she'd pick up a brush too. Sometimes even local girl or redhead joined us. I even organized a painting meet once. All the people form our original painting sentry joined and some others who couldn't join us then were there this time.

Now that everything was back to normal, our own people came back to the park too. I started putting them in my paintings too and drew them ethereal, ghostlike. Some of them came by to see what I was drawing. Their reactions were mixed. Some had to laugh, others were disturbed. One day a man came by in a camel suit. He carried a real leather brief case and looked every bit the rich business man. He looked at my painting and studied it for a while. As always I ignored him and kept on painting. After a while he asked me if I had more of such paintings. I replied that I did and he asked me if he could see them. I said I had them at home and that my parents would flip if I took him there. He said he'd be willing to come back the next day if that was convenient to me. I let go of the cold attitude and told him he'd be welcome to and that I'd bring some more paintings with me then. He promised he'd be there and left me alone again. It was one of the rare days that my friend wasn't there and the next day at school I asked her if she could join me again. I wanted her opinion on the guy.

Before going to the park I selected some of my work and included some of the older ones as well. The man was as good as his word and actually came back. He looked at my paintings and told me he wanted to buy some, for his office he said. I looked at him incredulously, but he looked as if he meant it. He even asked me what price I wanted for them. I told him I didn't have a clue, and my friend just shrugged at me when I looked her way. She didn't know either. He offered me a thousand for four of my paintings. I was too stunned to speak, but finally managed to mumble something about not having a bank account and being too young to open one for myself. He said he'd take care of it and gave me his business card. I was to call him a week from now to make an appointment for the transaction. I was just too flabbergasted to refuse. My friend who hadn't said a word throughout the entire thing, just looked at me when he was gone. I looked back and just shrugged. I didn't mind parting with the paintings too much. I had already begun wondering what I was going to do with them, and this guy honestly seemed to like them. There was no way I could tell my parents about this. They'd explode and would forbid the whole thing, with a reason something like it would be too much money to be handled by such a young girl, or I'd be cheating this man out of his money or something equally stupid. I decided then that I'd keep it a secret and would see just what happened.

One week later I got stage fright and didn't dare call the business man. My friend forced me by dialing the number and pushing the phone in my hand just as someone picked up. It was a woman and I asked after the name on the card. The lady was very friendly and explained that she was his secretary, so I told her I was the girl of the paintings and she put me through. The man remembered me and told me he had arranged a bank account for me. He asked me if I could come by his office and I said I could. I asked my friend along, because you never know what a stranger is up to, but this guy turned out to be honorable. When I arrived he had a pile of papers on his desk and a visitor sitting beside it. He introduced me to his visitor as the promising young paintress and told me that this was his banker. We shook hands and I introduced my friend as well. I had almost introduced her as my manager, but thought these guys might be too serious to understand the joke and stuck with friend. They told me that the account would also be on the business mans name until I turned eighteen, then his name would be automatically removed. I didn't have any objections so I just nodded. After all, I would probably have given the paintings for free had he asked, and he wouldn't go through all this trouble to cheat me out of a few worthless paintings. At least I couldn't believe he would and he never proved me wrong.

They also asked me if I had ever thought of giving an exposition. I started laughing and told them that I didn't have enough money for such things and my parents would never agree to it even if I did. He suggested he could organize it all, subtract the cost price from what the sale brought and ten percent for his own efforts, and deposit what was left on my bank account. I told him that I'd have to think about such a decision and he understood. We shook hands again and my friend and I left. On the way back we discussed the idea. On the one hand he could seriously earn money over my back if he cheated me, but on the other hand, my paintings didn't have any monetary value to me. I'd love to have them hanging in offices and living rooms so other people would remember the weird people too.

I decided to take the gamble and go for it. My friend suggested I'd need an artist name, otherwise my parents were sure to find out. Lately I hadn't shown my paintings to my parents, since they'd lost interest pretty soon and my guess was they'd forgotten all about the subject of my paintings. We tried mixing up my name and had a lot of fun making them, but none that we could come up with sounded like a proper name. Then we tried mixing up my online name with my real name and when we left out a few letters came up with a reasonable name. Back home I decided to do a background check on the business man and his company, but all I could find was that they were legit. It was a very old firm with a good name that he'd taken over from his father. He was also very rich. So rich in fact that I couldn't image he'd want to earn a few extra bucks over my back. Just in case I wasted two weeks before I rang him to say I'd go along. He sounded pleased, but not overeager, although I doubt that if he had been a conman I would have spotted it, no matter how hard I tried. He totally understood about the artist name and said he'd take care of it.

We made an agreement that I'd drop by his office two weeks from now to drop off the paintings I wanted to hang in the gallery. I simply put everything I had in my drawing folder, with the exception of two paintings that I wanted to keep.
As I thought he'd hired an expert on exposition, who selected the painting that would do best for an exposition in a gallery. We also agreed that I would select four friends to come to the opening with me. I couldn't possibly be there in the role of paintress, so we'd come once again as students invited because of a school project. If all these so called school projects would have actually been part of my education, school would be a lot more interesting.
The opening night of the exposition was a month from that day. Back home I told redhead, local girl and my friend that they had been invited and asked them if they knew the fourth person. They told me to ask if any of the original group of painters on watch would like to come. Luckily only one of those could come on the date of the opening. Although I think if I had asked, the businessman would have let me invite one or two others without a fuss.
The next month was almost boring. School went okay, and I was too nervous to paint, so I mostly spent my time online and gaming. My parents who were used to me changing my hobbies every once in a while, probably thought I had simply had enough of painting. They granted me permission to go to the exposition, but only because I claimed it was for school and my friend's parents confirmed it when they called them. For once my friend had lied to her parents, even though she didn't know the truth about the identity of the paintress either. The less who knew, the less likely it was that the secret got out. That reminded me of the fact that a lot of people had seen me painting in the park. I suddenly got afraid of recognition and hoped that no one would actually recognize me. But then I figured I could always claim to be an admirer of the painter of the exhibition and that I was merely inspired by her work. I wasn't sure how long the ruse would work, but then I also wasn't sure I'd be recognized at all. My friend offered to do my hair and to lend me some clothes. We needed to be formally dressed anyway.
It took us an hour to get ready. but in that hour we showered, got dressed, put on make up and chose our jewelry. So all in all it wasn't such a long time at all. We got picked up by local girl and met redhead and the other guy in front of the gallery. We were welcomed by the businessman and his wife. After that we made a tour of the exposition room to have a quick look at the paintings and then settled back in a corner to look at all the other guests. Most of them looked rich enough to buy the whole collection without thinking twice. Whenever one or more of of them came near our group we pretended to be discussing the merits of the paintings. We had a great evening keeping up appearances. When all the guests had left, the businessman came to discuss the evening with me and said that it had been a success. Nothing had actually been sold yet, but the guests had been very enthusiastic about this mystery paintress. He told me he would have been surprised if anything had been ordered yet and that the mystery identity of the paintress might actually stimulate sales. In these circles it was apparently not done to order something at a sale like this. You were supposed to merely show your face and then just have something of the painter in question later. Haggling in public over the price was considered very vulgar. Most of the rich folks would have a servant order the painting, probably by fax or e-mail. It was an amusing story to listen to. 
He also told me he had heard some people talk about wanting special orders. Something custom drawn for them. I wasn't too sure, since I usually just drew what I saw, but he assured me that if I thought something couldn't be done I could always just turn down such a request. Painters with a strong opinion about what they would and would not draw were very chic at the moment. I said I'd think about it and we said goodbye and went home.
The next day the exposition was in all the major newspapers that had an art section. And wonder of all wonders, most of the critics were pretty positive about it. And so I had yet another bit of fame that most people didn't know about. I couldn't help but wonder what people some years from now would think if they'd read my biography. I could see them all awestruck, and wondering how one girl could do all that, and how I must be an amazingly special girl to have come so far so young. I had to laugh at the image. I didn't feel very special at all. Most people who knew me, well except for that special group, would call me plain or even dull.
After that time life went on as it had before. I went to school, I painted, I talked to my friends and got scolded by my parents. Then one day we had another mini meet at the bread shop with the peddler and his boy. It was just the usual group and we had no plans to do anything other than just chatting with friends, cause the peddler was definitely one of our friends now too. And indeed we had a lot of fun just discussing what had happened since last we met. When most of the things that had happened had been told, the peddler asked us if he could once again call upon our friendship for aid. He explained that he planned to start moving his people towards our people once more. He thought it would take more than just his lifetime and probably more than the boys lifetime as well, so the sooner he started the better. He'd gotten the idea when he had started teaching his boy to read and write. He had borrowed some books from the library with the help of local girl and had come across quite some stories that he had forgotten about, including fairy tales about kobolds. He told us he thought his people had quite a few similarities with kobolds, except for the doing chores for payment thing. He figured that if he taught his people to maintain the parks, woods and streets that sooner or later our people might come to accept them again. 
We totally loved the idea, cause it would mean that the next time a solar flare disrupted the chips, people might indeed find the streets and parks as clean as they thought them to be. And my guess was that by then the culture of the weird people might have changed sufficiently to be acceptable to our own people. The peddler told us that he had already spread the story amongst his people that he had had a vision in which he had seen the ghosts liberate them from the shackles of poverty. he had also told them that he had seen that in order for that day to come somewhere far of in the future, they would have to change their ways now. That they would need to take care of the city of wherever they lived and that they would have to become one people, who didn't fight amongst themselves so much. He'd told them that it wouldn't happen for generations to come, which was only logical considering the lifespans of the weird people, but that they would have to start changing now. The hard men weren't expected to stop their fighting right away, the peddler had told them, he understood that you couldn't just change your ways overnight. It was just that until their people were united, the vision wouldn't come to pass. but if the young boys and the small girls could help him clean the city, he'd make sure they were rewarded for it. The men had believed his prophecy and had agreed that the boys and girls could help the peddler. And that's where he needed our help, he concluded. He needed means to reward those kids and tools for them to work with. he hurried to add that he didn't expect us to just give him money, but that he hoped we could help him come up with ways to generate money. Or goods for that matter, the hard men wouldn't mind getting paid in stuff like food and clothing. I told him that a first batch of tools wouldn't be a problem. My paintings of his people had earned me quite a bit of money, so I thought it was only right to pay them back for being my models and inspiration. All of a sudden I added that I could offer him a percentage of each painting I sold. That way I didn't promise more than I had and could still offer some help. We settled for ten percent, so I could still save enough money to go to university after I graduated. The peddler was speechless for a moment and his boy was hanging around my neck before I knew it. Local girl offered to go to the mayor to ask him if he was willing to donate some money for cleaning his city. None of us really believed he'd be willing, but if we didn't ask we could never be certain he would really refuse. Redhead suggested to ask around for donations of clothes and food for the good cause. We agreed that it might work, but that we couldn't go around lying about what exactly the good cause was and that people might not want to donate for the weird people. I suggested he'd visit the mayor together with local girl to ask permission for that as well. I wasn't too sure how that kind of thing worked, but it was better to stay on the safe side. We could always start a website or some other national initiative I added lightheartedly. Everybody looked at me stunned. I looked back and I must have had a very stupid look on my face, due to not understanding what they were stunned about, because they all burst out laughing. Redhead punched me in the shoulder and said that that was exactly the kind of idea they had been looking for. Nationwide there must be enough people who care to want to donate to our cause. So we agreed that local girl would go to the mayor, redhead would put together a website and my friend and I would go with the peddler to buy tools for the workers.
When I got home, I figured that the tools would need a place to be stored too. I looked around on the internet for solutions and found lots of storage facilities, but they all cost a lot of money. Then I thought that we really needed was a shed in a garden. So I looked around to see if I could find a garden for rent, and found an association of gardeners in our city who rented out gardens for people who didn't have one and who wanted to grow their own vegetables. I immediately liked that idea and called them to see if they had vacant allotments. They did and they weren't too pricey, so I asked if a minor could rent one too. He probably had quite a few allotments vacant, because he agreed on the condition that I paid a year up front. I agreed and he wrote down my name and all that stuff and said that as soon as the payment was in, the allotment would be mine. I thanked him, hung up and went to the site of my new bank account to transfer the money immediately.
A garden would be perfect for the peddler. That way he could also have the kids grow the food that would be their reward. The next weekend I got the papers that I had now officially rented a garden. My parents were curious about what the letter contained, and I lied that I had requested some info on gardening from them for a school project. School project had by now really become my new magical word and so far it still worked.
I hurried to the bookstore before my meeting with the peddler and my friend, to buy a book on gardening. I bought one that had a lot of info about growing vegetables, in stead of the more popular books on herbs. I then ran on to the bread shop which was our meeting place. I was almost breathless when I arrived and just shoved the book at the peddler. He looked at it without understanding what it signified and looked at me with a questioning look. When I had regained my breath I told him that the book was for his new garden and showed him the papers. He was immediately in love with the idea. And instead of going straight to the store as we had planned we made a detour to the gardening club instead. We looked for the allotment and were pointed in the direction of a bare piece of land. Well bare, it was more accurate to say that it was overgrown with weeds. And so we made yet another detour to the park to fetch the peddlers boy and some other boys who had offered to work for the peddler on cleaning duty. We delivered them at the garden with the order to pull out as many weeds as possible. We pointed out exactly which allotment was ours and told them to only pull out weeds on that piece of land and not on the others. We left the peddlers boy in charge and went to the store.
In the store we went absolutely wild in buying vegetable seeds, seedlings and plants. We also bought all the tools that the book suggested a proper gardener should have and of the most common tools we bought several. My friend suggested that as we'd be working from a book, it might be a good idea if the apprentices, as we started calling the boys and girls who would be helping, could at least read. The peddler liked the idea, but suggested we'd leave that for later as they'd have enough to learn for now and we had already bought more than we could carry. But here the wheel barrow we'd just bought came in handy. We could stuff the most heavy tools in there, so we wouldn't have to carry them. 
When we came back to the garden, the apprentices had pulled out most of the weeds and were very proud of the neat heap they had made in the corner. They had cleverly copied that idea from the gardens they saw around them, though I guess ours was the highest compost heap of all. We praised them for their hard work and the peddler gave them all a small reward that they proudly ran off with. We were kind of surprised that he already let them go, but he assured us that it was wiser to start slowly, so their interest wouldn't burn away. Besides we didn't know all that much about gardening ourselves yet, and it wasn't a good idea to show that to our apprentices just yet. Right now all they respected was power and knowledge, it would be a while yet before we could teach them to think for themselves. And so we stored the seeds and tools in the shed, and the peddler set off to read the book to find out which vegetables could be planted right now, and which would have to wait, as we simply randomly bought the seeds. We left him there and went home to do our homework.
As the weeks went by the garden started to flourish. My new series of paintings was mostly centered on the apprentices working and was titled 'trying to fit back in'. I made sure the surroundings of the garden in my painting were modified a bit from painting to painting so it would become very hard to recognize the location, as I didn't want people to come gawking at them. I didn't think that it would encourage them to continue their work if there were 'ghosts' staring at them. After a couple of months the first vegetables could be harvested and were divided equally among the apprentices. And you should have seen them, they were actually dancing for joy about having made food on their own. As soon as they held their allotted piece they ran off, skipping, jumping and dancing. I'd never seen them that happy and rapidly made some sketches, as this was a nice conclusion to my series. The rich guy who had set me up with a bank account and who had organized my first exposition, was eager to do another, as our customers were clamoring for one. In my head I was already calling him my manager, though I suspect he thought of me more as his protégé, so I might as well call him my patron. My friend had a good laugh about that when I told her my thoughts. And I felt glad about it, cause recently she had been moping a bit too much. Not that she didn't laugh anymore, just that she laughed a lot less than she usually did.
It took me another few weeks, but then the series was done and we had another flurry of activity to get ready for the exposition again. This time I merely invited local girl, redhead and my friend, as I didn't want to run the risk of getting too many people from the boards who wanted to join. This time I didn't call it a school project either, but simply begged my parents to let me go, because I loved the painting of this paintress so much. My father surprised me by allowing me to go on the condition that he accompanied me. I hadn't counted on that, but figured it wouldn't hurt much, seeing nobody there knew they were mine anyway, and I'd be out of place already. Might as well pretend my father was interested as well. I told him he'd had to dress up for it and he even rented a tux for it. On the way to the exposition he told me with a twinkle in his eyes that he'd pretend to be a rich dandy who had just inherited his money from his father. When I asked him if he wasn't afraid of getting caught as nobody knew him, he laughed and told me he'd just pretend to come from a small foreign nation as well. I was very surprised, was this the father I thought I knew? I'd never known him as a mischievous man. I told him I loved his plan and would love to go along in it. 
At the gallery I introduced my father to my patron, and when my father put on a foreign accent, I winked at my patron to try and let him know that it was a ruse. I'm not sure he got it, but he treated my father no different from any of the other guests. My father's accent sounded really fake to me, and I was worried that the other guests might see right through it, but for some reason everybody wanted to talk to him and they all kept on treating him like a kind. And for some reason I couldn't imagine them doing that if they'd seen through his ruse. And so we enjoyed our evening again, watching all the rich people suck up to my dad. It was so much fun that I considered making a painting of it. I'd love to give it to my dad, but I wasn't sure if doing so wouldn't betray me. Just because my dad apparently loved pranks didn't mean I believed he'd love to hear about my own prank. When I told it to my friend, she claimed it was a good idea anyway. It would totally have everybody talking if they ever did see it. I rushed to tell her that none of the clients was ever to see it, as my dad might want to come to more of the expositions and they'd treat him like dirt if they ever saw the painting I had in mind. To which she hurried to assure me that that wasn't what she had meant. What she had meant was that it would have all the rich people speculating about which of them was the mystery paintress, as she would obviously have had to have been there to create such a painting. This had me laughing as I could see what she meant. So I created the painting after all, and then went to my patron to show it to him and ask him if he could have it delivered to my father, courtesy of the paintress. He liked the joke and said he'd be happy to oblige. And so, a couple of days later my father suddenly received a package and was quite surprised at the content. It took quite a bit of willpower to keep my face neutral and act just as surprised as everybody else. But once I was at my friend's place I couldn't stop laughing. I was happy to report that he loved the painting and had decided to hang it in the living room, despite my mother's urgent request not to do so as it would be so embarrassing. But my father called her arguments nonsense and that she should be as honored as he was. This paintress was the talk of the town and she had both seen through and loved his joke, so it was a source of pride to him and should be to her as well. And that ended the discussion, though I could see in my mother's eyes that she'd bring it back up later.
Then one day we had a meeting with the peddler again and he brought up our idea of teach the apprentices to read and write. He said they were now at a level where he could barely teach them anything anymore, and it would be convenient if they could learn to read for themselves so they could find out more on their own. We brainstormed a bit about what would be needed, and decided on ordinary pen and paper and some books for illiterate adults, as most of them wouldn't appreciate the books for six year olds anymore. My friend and I promised to take care of the supplies, and we left for home again to scour the net for the best prices. While searching, we decided that it might be a good idea to have some chairs and tables as well. But they'd have to be ultra-portable as we didn't have much storage space. I had a look in my books, as I'd set up a simple bookkeeping balance ever since I'd promised the peddler ten percent and found that he still had plenty of credit left. As my own balance was starting to become more than large enough to pay for whatever education I might like, I decided that I would donate the chairs and tables, and buy the promised supplies from the peddler's money.
After a few days we'd found the perfect suppliers and purchased our goods. My friend deemed it necessary to haggle over them, claiming that we bought in sufficient quantities to warrant a discount. In the end we got ten percent, and I smacked her as soon as we left the store with the supplies, saying that it wasn't necessary. But she claimed that you never knew what we'd need the money for later and how long my paintings would keep on selling. I decided she was right and apologized. After the books, pens and paper we went to the store where they sold folding seats and portable writing desks and this time I joined in the haggling. The amount of money we were talking about was even larger this time, and consequently we could also get a higher discount. As there were too many chairs and tables for us to carry, we had them delivered to the garden on the same afternoon. Meaning we had to hurry there, to beat the courier. We made it with time to spare and handed over the office supplies to the peddler while telling him about a surprise we had arranged.
When the chairs and desks arrived, he was thrilled and thanked us over and over again. He asked us if we could help him out in the weekend on the writing classes as he had decided to expand the group of apprentices. We discussed the timetables we would set and then went on to the topic of how to keep people busy. I suggested that it might be a good idea for the peddler to at least rejoin society partially, so he could have a bank account again and could rent more gardens all over town on his own. The current apprentices were by now advanced enough to do some simple delegation on their own. And to set them on the right path we could have several garden, with each garden being worked at on a different day, so that at first the peddler could keep an eye on them to see that the former apprentices, or as my friend started calling them, the journeymen, wouldn't abuse their power. He loved the idea and I promised to set him up with my patron as I believed he would have the power to make the whole process a lot easier by pulling some strings here and there. I gave the peddler some money to buy a proper suit, or at least some decent looking clothes and we split company again, as my friend and I had to rush home to finish homework.
I don't think I've ever been as good about homework as during that time. The fear of my parents forbidding me to go out and thereby preventing me from helping all those people kept me very focused and my grades were better than ever. And though my friend was a bit more relaxed about it, as her parents didn't push and punish her as much as mine, her grades didn't suffer either. 
Back in school it was starting to be time to think about what we wanted to do with our future and I got really confused. On the one hand I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my future, but on the other hand I didn't have a clue how to fit some kind of school in there. I loved painting and they were still selling good, so I might consider art school. My portfolio was certainly big enough, but then the secret would be out about who the mystery paintress was. For I didn't doubt for a second that the teachers would keep it a secret. I might try to set up a second portfolio, but I had no idea what to do for that. On the other hand I wasn't so sure that I wanted to be a painter forever. But I was a bit afraid to truly toss around ideas with my teachers, as I didn't know what they might let slip to my parents. In the end my friend came up with the idea to consult my patron, he was always willing to help me out and listen to my ideas, so maybe he could offer some ideas of his own as well. I thought it was a great idea and as I still needed to speak to him about the peddler, I set up a meeting. He said he was very busy, but as he made it a point to always have time for me, he invited my friend and me over to lunch with him in a posh restaurant that he liked. And so my friend and I had to go to school all dressed up and there were quite a few whispers behind our back. The day we had set the meeting on was one where we had an easy class right after lunch. During the first break we went to the teacher and explained to him we were going on a business lunch to discuss our potential future careers with a professional and as the teacher could enjoy a good joke, he gave us permission to skip his class for once. 
And that's how we found ourselves in a posh restaurant, all dressed up, and discussing our futures, as we included my friend's future as well. Halfway through the conversation my patron suddenly wondered if we shouldn't be in school and my friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. We told him that we had actually told the truth at school and had gotten the time off. I'm not quite sure he believed us, but if he didn't that's his loss. During the discussion he tossed around some ideas like social worker, a general management degree, art college of course, and some other ideas. But nothing seemed quite like what we wanted right away, so he advised us to keep our eyes and ears open during the discussions at school and to go to some school presentations for that kind of schools anyway. And as we still had almost two years to go, we still had some time to make up our minds. Finally I brought up the subject of the peddler and my patron said he'd think about what he could do to help the man and that he'd get back to us. After that we finished lunch and hurried back to school, arriving just as the last bell for the next lesson rang. All our class mates were obviously curious about where we'd been and why the teacher hadn't complained about us not being there. But as the lesson had already begun they couldn't ask and we couldn't answer either. Straight after class the questions burst loose and we explained truthfully that we'd had a business lunch. They were seriously doubting us, but the fancy clothing and the timing did lend some credence to our outrageous story. When we didn't change our story, they left us alone. Some shaking their heads, half-believing, others outraged over our obvious lies. As we had long lost any normal contact with our fellow students, we didn't mind either response.
That weekend we started our first class. Each of us had five pupils who were eager to learn. We had decided to start out with the letters of the alphabet. During the week I had prepared pretty cards with all the letters on it and a picture of a flower whose name started with that letter and the kids loved it, as they already knew most of those plants. They started copying the letters one by one, and after the first lesson everybody had a passable alphabet written down. The last thing we did was help everybody spell out their names to write them down above the alphabet on the first page of the notepad. After the lessons we collected the notepads again and stacked them in a locked container in the shed. The boys and girls ran off, happily chattering and we discussed what we would do in the next class. I thought it would be nice to do a memory of the flowers and the letters, and my friend said we could have them start to spell out the names of some tools. The peddler thought they were both wonderful ideas and we wrote down the ideas and put them in the box with the notepads. I looked round the shed and admired our work. On one side the walls were covered in shelves with lots and lots of jars and boxes on them, all filled with seeds and dirt and other useful stuff. The other side of the shed was covered in a huge tool rack, with all the shovels and spades and other tools hanging in neat rows. And the far wall was blocked from sight by a huge workbench and more shelves. All in all it was a bit cramped in the shed, but orderly none the less.
Outside, the garden was a picture book example of what a vegetable garden should look like. Neat rows of lettuce, cucumbers, cabbages, potatoes and carrots, alternated with berry bushes and a grape vine. In one corner there was even a small greenhouse with tomatoes in it. The peddler was especially proud of that one, as he had made it himself.
Despite the apprentices still being slightly afraid of ghosts, we had told them that the other gardeners wouldn't harm them and slowly over time the apprentices had started returning their greetings. Nothing more was ever said though as that would have gone too far, but we were very proud over this small beginning. To the other gardeners we had explained that the kids were very shy and they'd taken that as sufficient explanation for their slightly weird behavior. After all the kids weren't the only gardeners who were seclusive. Most gardeners loved to have a chat, but some had even put up fences around their gardens, afraid that somebody else would glean their great gardening secrets. Those were of course also the gardeners who were most jealous of our pretty garden, though they claimed not to be. You could simply see it in their eyes and the way they kept hanging about as we instructed the apprentices. We didn't overly mind, as our knowledge was only gotten from books anyway. They sometimes made the apprentices a bit nervous though. But we didn't dare make them hostile by trying to send them away. Fortunately they felt guilty enough to try and hide their attention. 
Of course at first the reading and writing lessons made the others a bit curious, but soon that too was ignored as something that had always been around. The kids made good progress and soon we had them reading out loud from gardening books. Of course the Latin names were hell at first, but they bravely struggled on. And after a few months they could more or less read on their own. They still needed help every once in a while, but they were always willing to help each other as well and nine times out of ten could figure it out. And if they still pronounced the Latin names wrong or mixed them up every once in a while, I still think they knew a lot more about them than the average person did.
In the mean time the peddler had met up with my patron and was once again a member of our society again. It turned out not to be overly hard as he had started out as one too, and so he was already in the birth registry. So a passport was soon arranged, as well as a postbox for mail. In the rare case that he would have to use a real address, like for his bank account and credit card, my patron had graciously offered him a room in his house. The peddler was never actually in it, of course, but it sufficed. So as soon as he had a bank account, I transferred the money that we had agreed was his and I handed him over the books I had been keeping about his money. 
A little while later he decided a small house or flat of his own might be nice, so he'd have some storage space. He confided in me that he'd never had this much goods in his life. I suggested he might even open up a second hand store of his own, as that might be another nice opportunity for the kids to learn a trade. The gardens were more or less running themselves now, as the journeymen had proven themselves to be capable. He liked the idea and so a search was begun for a nice little store.
We looked at quite a few buildings, but none seemed to please the peddler. This one didn't have an apartment above it, that one didn't have a store room. A third was way to decrepit and needed much too much work. But finally we found a cozy little store in the shopping district that was just about perfect. It would only need a lick of paint, but we had many hands to help us, though they had never painted before. But it's a task easily learned and the store was fixed up in no time. The peddler went round the second hand stores for furniture and gathered himself a nice set. It was all a mishmash of stuff, but put together it looked really nice. He'd also found some racks to put clothes on and some tables for jewelry and stuff. My friend and I had put a notice on the boards that we were looking for second hand clothing and had gotten tons of replies of people pledging an item or two.
When it was all done, the new store apprentices beamed proudly. On opening day the store gleamed, but looked rather empty without the supplies. Soon our friends started pouring in though and clothes were hung and jewelry laid out. The store apprentices went round with trays filled with drinks and bites and everybody had a good time. That same day quite a few items changed hands, and money started rolling in, despite the fact that we hadn't even had time to set prices yet. Everybody just paid what they thought the item in question was worth, and it seemed to work out all right. That night the peddler beamed almost as much as his new apprentices and said he'd soon have to go looking for a real till as his wallet wouldn't be able to hold all the money. Of course after that first day it got a bit more quiet, though every once in a while somebody from the boards who hadn't been able to make it to the opening came by. But word of mouth is a wonderful thing and after a few weeks business picked up.
Our worst fear about the store had been that working with ghosts might scare the apprentices off, despite the fact that we had been honest with them from the start and they had all known what they'd gotten in to. And indeed a few walked out, but most stayed and every once in a while another brave soul tried his luck. And when nobody got eaten they soon all eased up. It seemed like all our plans were working. On a small scale, but working still. That is, right until inspection showed up and informed us that the apprentices were underage and couldn't work for us any longer. I informed them that I was the store manager and underage as well, but that wouldn't sway them. Either all underage personnel would cease working or the store would have to be closed. We were of course wise enough not to mention the gardens and as no money was made there, no inspection ever came by either.
We decided to sent the apprentices away for now, despite their protests. It was hard to explain to them that although the inspector hadn't had a knife on him and that they could easily take him out, he did in fact have the power to close us down and that killing him wouldn't solve the problem. The store wasn't all that much work and the peddler could keep it open until we figured out whether there was any possibility of making it work as intended again. I went to my patron straight away to explain our problem to him. But his secretary told me he was in an important meeting with his lawyer. As I liked the sound of the word lawyer, I decided to stick around and wait for the meeting to be over. If there was any possibility, a lawyer would know of it. When my patron and the lawyer came out of the room again they were still busy talking. They looked up and were surprised to see me. My patron introduced me to his lawyer as his protegee and asked me what was wrong as I was obviously distressed. I outlined my problem to him and he said that that was a serious problem. His lawyer frowned and agreed that it was. I asked them if they knew of any way to circumvent the age restrictions and even if they could provide me with the exact rules. They told me they'd think about it and that they would email me a text with both the legal text and a translation of it to normal language. As they were clearly still busy, I thanked them and went back to the store to tell the peddler about the results. My friend had gone home to do some homework, so I found the peddler alone. We discussed what our options were, besides waiting for the lawyer to come up with a solution for us, over a cup of tea. But we couldn't think of anything and so after the tea was gone, I went home to do my homework as well. Of course I couldn't really concentrate, as my mind kept drifting to the problem of most of us still being underage.
That night I didn't sleep very well and kept tossing and turning, while all kinds of horrors strolled through my dreams. I think at one point the inspector even had claws and insect like eyes, but fortunately I couldn't remember all that much of my dreams the next day. As I checked my email before going to school I found the texts the lawyer had promised me and hurriedly printed them out to take to school with me, as I didn't think I'd be going home after classes. 
I scanned the papers during lunch, but decided that the actual legal texts were indeed too hard to read and stuck with the translation, though I felt that in order to tackle this problem you'd need to understand the other document, as any loopholes would probably not be in any translation. It turned out that contrary to what the inspector had said most of our apprentices could do some work for us. Only they could only work a few hours a week and only do very light chores. After school we went straight to the peddler's store and went over the text a bit more thorough. We decided that working the store in shifts might be feasible, but we'd need a lot more volunteers for that. The peddler said that his boy could go out to see if he could find more people to join them from other places, but that he first wanted to wait for what the lawyer could come up with.
A couple of days went by and my mind was distracted by school, my choice of education that still had to be made, the writing classes and painting.. Out of frustration I had started a painting where a ghostlike man chases some children out of a store. The first attempt I made was of the ghost looking like a businessman, but somehow the painting just didn't work. Then I drew the man shouting, with needle sharp teeth, holding a document shaped like an old fashioned rolled up contract that was dripping blood. This image worked a lot better and it was more natural to draw the non-ghosts in the picture cringing in fear. 
Then the long awaited email came, and it turned out that the lawyer had come up with the same idea of having the apprentices working in shifts, but he had specified more clearly what kind of duties they could and could not fulfill. They couldn't work the till and they couldn't move any furniture around, but accepting the clothes and jewelry and putting them on the racks would be fine. As soon as I got the news, I rushed off to the peddler's store, despite having to go to class. I dropped the papers off with a promise of coming by again right after school and sprinted to school, where I was of course late. My teacher was surprised at my being late, but as it was the first time ever, didn't report it. Due to being late I restrained myself and didn't tell my friend about the email I'd gotten. After that first class on our way to the next one, I hurriedly told her about it and during the next class we wrote notes to each other about the repercussions. Just as I'd written my friend another note, the teacher came by and intercepted it. Asking us in a loud voice what this was all about. We mumbled something unintelligible, but she wasn't really interested in hearing it anyway. She gave us a stern lecture about paying attention in class and respect and the rest of the lesson we behaved exemplary. 
When the bell ending the last lesson had sounded we rushed off to the store and were surprised to find redhead there, listening to the peddler telling him all about the latest developments. He pointed at us accusingly over forgetting our friends and not keeping them up to date, but I had the feeling he was actually berating me over neglecting him. As soon as the peddler was done with his story we hurriedly filled him in on the latest details. When I mentioned that the apprentices wouldn't be able to handle the till and that that might hamper future growth he suggested that as we used a system where everybody paid what he wanted anyway, we might replace the till by a big jar where people could leave their money. I replied that it was a nice idea, but we'd still need someone old enough to be in the store at all times to 'guard' the jar as the inspection would never accept it otherwise. So we stuck to the peddler handling the till and the apprentices handling the goods. Because, as the peddler said, future growth was a problem for the future, and they might just find somebody of the right age to do it by then. With redhead there, I spent a lot more time in the store than I might have otherwise and only just hurried home in time for diner.
And then all of a sudden the end of the year exams were there. What with all our jobs besides school, I had almost forgotten about them until they were almost on us. I wasn't overly worried, as I'd kept up pretty well all year. And it's not as if I would have started learning for them really early if I'd not been busy, could I would have just found some less important reasons to keep myself doing other things. But nonetheless the peddler sent my friend and me away, telling us to study and leave all the rest to him. And so we studied and studied, and though I sometimes cheated by working on my paintings when my head felt like bursting, we really did spend most of our time working towards the exams. Some of the exams were truly horrible, but then there always were some of those. In general it went pretty smoothly. And after the exams there was the summer holiday. In my head I already envisioned inviting some people from our little group over to show them what we had done and to make plans for more improvements and new projects. But my parents decided otherwise. One day as I came home from a particularly tough exam they dropped the bomb. We were going to go on a three week holiday to some far off destination. I must say it didn't even register at first what the destination was, just that it would be a long way from home and all my work. I was too stunned to even properly respond at first and my father got angry when I didn't say I liked the idea. I apologized, claiming the exam had been really heavy, and that my head still wasn't quite there. And once again a school excuse saved me. I went up to my room and turned on my computer, to ask the others for advice. At the boards, some claimed I should just go and enjoy it, I'd been working hard enough to have earned a holiday. Others understood that my work right now was infinitely more fun than a holiday with my family. Those people hatched ideas, from contriving to missing my plane to more serious ideas of asking to stay home. Staying home, staying with my friend, going on a holiday on my own, all ideas passed muster, but I didn't really think my parents would buy any of them. But as they said, I could always ask. Except for angry remarks, what was the worst thing that could happen? I decided to think on it for a little while longer, so I could drop my own bomb with the option that was most feasible. If I asked for one thing and it was rejected, coming up with a better idea later would be a shame, as once my parents had made up their mind, no reasoning on earth would make them change it. The next day I discussed it further with my friend, but we couldn't really come up with any better ideas. Staying at home sounded like something my parents would dismiss out of hand. They thought I was much to young to stay home alone without anyone to guide me. So staying at my friend's place whose parents wouldn't be going on holiday, or rather not until my parents had come back again, was a bit better. But I'd still need a good excuse to not want to go. Of course I knew what the reason was, but that wouldn't go down very well with my parents as they didn't know anything about the whole thing, and would be horrified if they knew I'd spent so much time in the company of what they would think was a dirty old man. No painting exhibitions would be reason enough either. Even making up a concert or some such wouldn't do the trick, as they would consider such things nonsense. But then school came to the rescue again. My parents had planned their trip early on in the holidays and had already booked and everything. And then came the reports. I had pretty much aced most of my classes, except for one. I had horribly failed one of the really hard exams, and as that was already one of the harder classes, I had a very low grade for that one class. I would still pass to the next year, but they gave me the chance to redo the exam for it. Only it would have to be in the holidays. And there was my good excuse for staying home. As my parents had booked with a cheap holiday broker, they couldn't reschedule the trip anymore. So I begged them to let me stay with my friend to redo the exam. My mother didn't like it, but my father understood and gave me permission. He then called the travel agency to see if he could get the money of my ticket back, and wonder of wonders, he could. That settled it, and as they started packing their bags to leave for the sunny shores of a far away island, I packed some clothes and my books. Of course I also sneaked in some painting implements, as there wasn't a day nowadays when I didn't spend at least half an hour painting. My friend always claimed it was a wonder I wasn't covered in paint all the time. I left for her place a day before my parents actually left, so they wouldn't have to worry about me, while also worrying about catching the plain and whether they had truly packed everything. At my friend's place I was put on a mattress in her room, as they didn't have any guest rooms. I wondered how much studying I would be able to get done while being around her, as she didn't have to redo any exams. I was very glad I had brought a key from home, so I could sneak out some afternoons to go back and study. Of course the first evening we didn't do anything but chat, eat chips and watch a movie. The next day, we started out to make a planning, so I could actually get a good grade this time, besides getting our jobs done and having fun. We decided that I'd go home every morning to do some studying, and then we'd spend the afternoon working and the evening on fun. Since the first morning was almost spent, I didn't go home, but took the time to make a planning. I'd have two weeks for studying and divided the things I'd have to cover over the days I had left. Of course I had already started studying back at home, as I had started right away when it was decided I could take the exam again.
For the second afternoon of that first week we had already planned a meeting at the local girl's place to brainstorm about what we could do to further our cause. Several startup businesses were suggested, but I countered with the fact that only the underage kids were going to be helping us and that we'd already found out that it was very hard to run a business with them. Not to mention the fact that most businesses needed dealings with the 'ghosts' and I didn't think we'd get any more volunteers for that. Spending a few hours a week in the store was the most the apprentices were able or willing to take so far. Then somebody suggested cleaning away the dirt from the allies, but somebody else countered that other people lived in that rubbish. I still liked the idea and wondered out loud if we couldn't come up with better homes for those living in the dirty allies. We came up with cardboard houses, houses of plywood and all other kinds of easy to come by materials, but then we couldn't imagine where we'd leave those houses, as we all imagined them bigger than just a sleeping bag. Then redhead suggested we should go out to make an inventory of how big the problem was. We should find out which rubbish we could just clean up without a problem, and which places were inhabited. And so we set off to divide the city into small parts that could be patrolled. I suggested we'd enlist the apprentices for the task too, so we could do the entire city instead of just a small part of it. But first we borrowed some topographical maps and made enlarged copies of them, then we decided on some colors we'd use. Green for a clean street, yellow for a street with some scattered dirt in it, orange for a dump, and red for an inhabited dump. This task took us the first two afternoons already. Some people could stay over at the local girl's place, redhead included, my friend and I were tempted to stay with her as well, but I knew that if I did, my studying wouldn't happen anymore and so we staid at her place. We did however spend almost every evening at her place, chatting, eating and generally having fun. I made some painting of everybody there, just so I would have a good reason to paint my redhead. Of course my friend saw right through me, and when she posed for me to draw her, she kept making funny faces, so I drew her as a pixie, with pointy ears and spiky hair. She had to laugh when she saw it and asked me if she could have it. So of course I gave it to her. Hoping fervently that redhead wouldn't also ask for his picture, as I really wanted to keep it for myself. But instead one night he came with a mirror and demanded that I painted myself as well. I blushed furiously, but did as he wished and then blushing even more handed him the picture when it was done. He promised to hang it where he'd see it every day.
On the third day we went to the store to get some tools for the cleaning tasks. We bought large plastic sacks for putting the garbage in, gloves in a variety of sizes, and we even bought those tools that have a grabber on a stick, so you wouldn't have to bend down and pick up the trash with your hands. Next we bought some cheap crayons to color the maps with. The whole of this job also took an entire afternoon. 
In the mean time the peddler had sent his boy out to do some recruiting for us and had asked him to send them to the garden on the fourth day of our preparations. We had already split the city up into chunks, according to the copies we had made, we didn't know how much everybody could do in one day, so we gave everybody a block of a square kilometer. Telling them that if they weren't finished by six in the evening they were to return to the peddler's store with what they had anyway. And so everybody left at two in the afternoon. We had divided everybody up into teams, as we wanted to have more than one opinion on each street. About twenty five boys and girls showed up, so in total we made ten groups. We had made sure that the smallest children were walking with larger children, and if the child in question was very small, we had put him or her in a group of three.
Some groups must have been running as they returned after only two hours. Either that or they'd split up their group to go faster. But as the last groups came back in by six we had ten colored maps of a square kilometer. All in all quite a chunk of the city around our garden. Not everybody was equally good at coloring, but it was usually clear what they'd meant. The next day we wouldn't go out again, as some of the kids had already walked quite a distance, and we didn't want to strain them too much. Although the truth of it might have been that we were tired and had sore feet, as the kids themselves didn't seem any the worse for wear. We used that day to send the peddler's boy out again, but this time in a different part of town, so the recruits wouldn't have to walk a long way to where were wanted the search to begin. Roughly in the middle or our next search area there was a church, so we used that as the gathering point, the peddler's store wasn't too far away, so we used that as the end point again, as he would be there all day and could better retrieve the maps and crayons. 
The day we didn't go out, we spent at local girl's home. We taped all the maps together on a wall and looked at the picture of that part of town. Of course all the major roads were clean, with only a small spot of yellow here and there, which we all knew would be taken away soon. But most of the smaller alleys and cul-de-sacs were cluttered with orange and red splotches. And this was, as we knew, one of the cleaner parts in town. We tried to come up with a plan to clean it up, but as most orange areas were very close to red areas, we feared that cleaning up the rubbish would invoke the wrath of the inhabitants. And so we were still not much further than we had been before we had begun. We decided to finish as much of the map as we could anyway, and so each day we gathered in a different place and in this way we covered almost a hundred square kilometers every day. 
Of course we weren't even halfway through the city after the first two weeks, since we'd now only effectively covered about seventy square kilometers. And then my exam came round. I'd studied hard every morning, but I was still nervous, as I hadn't been able to focus properly every day. Still I'd struggled on bravely every day and I thought I knew the matter now. My exam didn't exactly go smoothly, but it didn't look hopeless either. At least now I could spend all my time on other stuff. Redhead had already gone back home, as had the other guy staying at local girl's place. After one week they had to go home again, as their parents wouldn't like it much if they staid away for more than one week. A forum meet of more than one week simply wasn't very likely. I missed him a lot, but at least I had my painting of him. As I also still had the painting of the local girl, I asked my friend if she wanted it. She looked tempted for a moment, but then decided against it, saying that it would only further her agony. 
As the local girl, my friend and I kept up our schedule of going out to explore the city every other afternoon, I took up painting in the mornings. In the evenings we went to movies, or spent the evening at one place or another. Once we even went to a concert. My patron even invited us all to the opening of a new gallery that he'd helped finance, saying that we might want to visit some more exhibitions as we might learn something of it. I'm still not exactly sure what he meant by that, but maybe he just liked our reactions to paintings and the crowds that visited such events more than he did the actual paintings and crowds themselves.
And then after three weeks my parents came back from their holiday, with tons of badly shot, boring pictures of sunny beaches and a few shots of some town or other, and equally boring stories to accompany them about how some guy or other had forgotten his sun lotion and had burnt scarlet red, and how they had almost lost their camera by leaving it in a cab, but how the cabby had ran after them to return it. How the prices of diner in the restaurants were horribly expensive, but that they'd found a small local restaurant that was a lot cheaper than all those touristic traps. And more of those stories that are only interesting if you are in them. On the evening of their return I listened patiently at them all and oohed and aahed at the pictures as required. Despite the fact that the country they had been to looked pretty, I can't say I regretted staying at home. My friend had come along to lend moral support and to share the burden of listening to their stories and I was very thankful for it. Her being there made it just a little bit easier to mask the fact that I wasn't really interested at all. 
Shortly after my parents had returned and I had returned back home, my grade came in. It wasn't a very good grade, but at least it let me pass the course, so I was happy enough. My parents were satisfied that I had passed the test and therefor hadn't wasted my holiday for nothing. I continued my days in the same rhythm, painting, running around the city and doing fun stuff, although on some nights I was required to stay at home and watch some movie with my parents. And then came the moment we had finished our map of the city. All the colored maps together formed a monstrous painting, which was very fiery in color. It was actually stunning how few green streets there were. When viewed all together we noticed that the red spots were concentrated more in some area's of the town. One conclusion that could be drawn was that the older part of town was the most heavily blotted red, as it had the most alleys and corners where the rubbish could pile up. But surprisingly the very rich and open parts of town had large concentrations of red as well. All the little parks and every little piece of scrub land had at least one splotch of red in it. 
We brooded on these conclusions for a while, staring at the map, trying to come up with a solution, but no feasible option presented itself to us. We kept going over the same arguments, but we still couldn't come up with a place where to build the houses that were to replace the rubbish heaps. The peddler even brought up that even if we did clean up the rubbish heaps, his people would probably gather new ones, as those that were currently living on them were used to living that way. And so he took the maps away for later use, when we'd changed the lifestyles of his people for the better and they were ready to begin cleaning up. And so we found ourselves with another two weeks of holiday left and no more project to fill them. The gardens were running themselves and the store was doing fine too. As we couldn't come up with any new ideas, I started spending more time painting. I had one or two commissions still lying around that needed finishing, and as commissions took a lot more time than my regular paintings did, as I had to find the right place and time to see the requested subject, the weeks started flying by again. And all too soon the holidays were over again and it was back to life as usual. Deciding on what school to go to got more important than ever as I now only had one year left, and I couldn't leave the decision till the end of the year as plenty of schools required that you submitted your application long before the new school year started. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted and I came up with a list of things I would like to learn. My main priority in life was going to be to try and find ways to start the integration of the weird people back into our society. I knew it probably wouldn't happen in my lifetime, as they hadn't just grown apart from us in one lifetime either. But it seemed a good purpose in life and I loved the small results we'd already booked. The few times we'd been thwarted it was usually by the law, so learning about legislation would be a good thing, though I had no intention of being a lawyer. I would also like to learn about the psychology of groups, as we were dealing with a large group of people who would be reacting to the changes in certain ways. And then there was the subject of change management, which didn't sound all too far off the mark either. With these ideas I went back to my patron as I still didn't dare confess such stuff to my teachers, though of course I hinted at them by choosing the right answers in the aptitude tests. Unfortunately it seemed like what I wanted were very diverse studies and I'd have to choose one of them. My patron didn't know of a single study I could take up to fulfill all those wishes, but told me that I could always do a major in one field, like psychology, and a minor in another, like law. I liked the idea of doing a minor in law, but still didn't know what I'd want for a major. And so the search went on. When the time came around to visit open days for the schools I tried to choose them so that I could visit as much schools as possible, and I think my parents were getting rather desperate, as they had to drive me all over the place to visit them. Of course I couldn't visit all the schools that I wanted, as some of them were simply too far away for a short visit. My friend had more or less the same problem and hers was even a bit bigger, as she wasn't sure that she was as devoted to the cause as I was. It occurred to me that I'd never asked redhead what he was doing and I sent him an email to ask him about it. He told me he was studying information technology and that he was almost sorry he wasn't doing whatever it was I was going to do. After much deliberation, I finally picked sociology, figuring I could always do a course on change management later. My friend however didn't like the idea of studying sociology and still hadn't made up her mind. 
So we played around some ideas on what she did like to do. But as we usually ran along together, there wasn't any specific thing she knew of that could be studied. So we started out general, did she want to do something with her hands that yielded physical results, or would she like to work with people, managing or some such. But even this didn't lead to anything. So we looked at the things we usually did. There was painting, but she wasn't very good at it. Then there was gardening, but she couldn't imagine herself doing that all day either. Working in a store, listening to customers whine wasn't her thing either. In fact the whiny people thing was a good indication that working with people might not be a very good idea. As a joke, I even added that she might as well become a computer nerd as they were allowed to not be able to deal with people. But she took it serious and replied that she only knew how to turn on a computer. Which had me thinking and reply that that might not be a hindrance. At least she wouldn't have any preconceived notions about how stuff should work. All they required for you to know for information technology was some math and English, and she was pretty good at both. In the end she sighed and said in desperation that she might as well give it a try. With these decisions out of the way we could focus on coming up with more hare brained schemes for the weird people. We tried to come up with all kinds of weird manual labor that they could do, like cleaning windows and scrubbing the walls of the buildings clean from the graffiti that for now most people didn't see again. But cleaning the windows was already done by others, and we had no idea how to get graffiti off the walls and couldn't really find anything on the net either. Then we even came up with cleaning the sewer, but as far as we knew it didn't need any cleaning, and I was guessing that the tools to do such things would go above even my budget. My friend said at one point that it was a shame we couldn't link up with other people like us, as too many people were not to know that we still saw the weird people. But her remark did set me thinking and we went to the library to see if we could find places on the net where other people gathered who felt the same as we did, because even on our own home forum most people had turned their chips back on and were pointedly ignoring what remarks we made about them. It wasn't easy, but in the end we found a few sites who were also pondering about a solution. We spent quite a while reading through their forums and the articles some of their regulars had written. It turned out there were quite a few sociologists and psychologists who hadn't turned their chips back on as the weird people or the gypsies as some people had taken to calling them formed a nice study subject, even though it was hard to get articles about them published. After some deliberation we decided to wait a little longer before joining, next year we would most likely be living on our own and wouldn't need to fear the reaction of our parents anymore. 
In the mean time I still hadn't told my parents about the money I owned which would pay for my education and it was starting to bother me, how would I even begin to explain all that. I talked to my patron about it and he told me we could pretend I had gotten a scholarship, he could even fake me some letters if I wanted to. Of course, he could also come along with me and explain the whole thing to my parents. I decided to think on it for a while and thanked him for his offers. I didn't really like either idea very much, but couldn't see any other options either. In the end I decided to go for honesty. I decided we'd do another exhibition of my paintings, just so we could invite my father along. Figuring that if he was in a playful mood he might be more likely willing to hear about a joke being played on him as well. I even decided to do a self portrait of myself painting in the park with my friends. This might spoil my mysterious cover, but it was wearing thin anyway. So maybe blowing the cover might boost sales as well. I drew an entire series of all I'd been up to since the whole thing started. I even drew a quite different painting of a bright sun with flares shooting off and roasting a small planet that was in orbit around it. For the exhibition I gave strict orders on the order of the paintings so people would be guided by them in a way that would allow them to get the story. My patron told me he was glad I was going for the truth, as it would probably have gotten out some day anyway and would only have bitten me worse than it might now.
The evening of the exhibition my father rented a tuxedo again, and I wore a new dress I had bought especially for the occasion. My friend was to meet us at the exhibition, together with redhead and local girl, but they were to stay back until  I had told my father everything. Arm in arm with my father I entered the gallery and saw the surprise in his eyes as he saw the sun, as it was quite different from what we usually saw at the exhibitions I had taken him to. It was very bright and colorful and the little planet was almost cartoon-like. And slowly as  I took him past all the paintings I could see disbelief warring with a preliminary trace of pride as he started guessing at the truth. In the end he looked at me and still not quite believing he asked me if I'd really painted all these. I nodded slightly afraid of his reaction, but not really able to feel truly ashamed, as I was too proud of what I'd accomplished. His next question surprised me a bit, as he asked about the painting that had been sent to him. Just as I told him that I had indeed sent it to him, my patron walked in on the conversation and added that I'd had a bit of help from him. He guided my father to a room in the back where he gave him a seat and a glass of champagne and started to explain how it had all started. In the end my father told me he was glad I had chosen to tell him after all and that he was very proud of what I'd done. He also added that it was quite a relief to hear that I planned to spend it on a good college education instead of just having wasted it all. He now also understood why I wanted to do sociology and gave me his blessing. I was almost moved to tears and rushed over to give him a hug. And hugged him even harder when he said he'd tell my mother. When we went back to the gallery the other guests had also arrived, as the official opening time had crept upon us as we were talking. We had invited my father a bit early so we could get the explanations out of the way before the crowds came in. Just in case we'd have some great scene from a historical drama reenacted. With a wink my father slipped back into his role as a very rich foreigner who enjoyed art. Slowly and one by one, people came over to ask my patron if these painting were some kind of joke or actually as they seemed to be a confession. As my patron told everyone the truth, it was fun to see the different reactions. Some people rushed out in an offended huff that they had been wasting their time on the scribbling of a child, others came up to congratulate me on this wonderful ruse, and yet others came over to shake my hand claiming they'd always wanted to do that. Each and every person had a rather unique approach to reacting to the show, but in general everybody seemed to be enjoying themselves.
When we came home again, my father asked my mother if she knew that we had a famous painter in the family. She looked really surprised and asked him who that might be, to which my father said casually that it was their daughter. My mother started laughing, not believing him. My father said that it was true and said that they even had a painting in the living room of me and pointed to the much debated painting that still had a prominent place opposite the couch. The laugh on my mother's face slowly vanished to be replaced by a question in her eyes, which slowly made way for pride warring with a hint of anger as I nodded at her. Still not quite believing she asked me it if was really true, so I showed her my portfolio, which was still quite full of unsold pictures. She slowly looked at each and every one, still shaking her head in disbelief. When she finally spoke again it was to tell me she couldn't believe I had managed to keep silent on this all this time. My father interjected that if he ever had doubted that I was his child, he had proof now, with a huge grin on his face. When my mother saw him like that she couldn't help but laughing and my heart eased up. I apologized to both of them of keeping quiet like I had, but I couldn't leave to add that it was all because they'd been so suspicious of the gypsies. Of course my mother had to quip that seeing all those pictures she hadn't been quite wrong, but I hurried to add that most of the gypsies still didn't see me and that those that did weren't violent. Torn between her mother's instinct and her pride, she grudgingly told me that since I seemed to be an authority on the gypsies she'd take my word for it. And that's when my father deemed it time to tell about the income the paintings had given me and how I would pay my college tuition from them. And at that point my mother's mouth simply fell over and she asked me who I was and what I'd done to her daughter. I grinned and just hugged her. I might complain a lot about my parents, but I think that is my right as I'm officially still a teenager, I do love them to pieces. And yes, I do even love my siblings, though I hardly ever admit that even to myself. After that it was like a block had been removed from my shoulders and I felt happier than I'd been in quite a while, though I never even knew I could be. Afterwards I called my friend from my room to tell her that I'd told the whole story to my parents and she was glad for me that they took it so well. It would make everything a lot easier and I couldn't do more than agree with her.
The next day was a sunday and I took my parents over to the peddler's store and introduced them. The peddler could be quite a charmer when he wanted to, and my mother obviously liked him. But I was still glad she hadn't met him before he had the store as his shabby clothes would have certainly colored her opinion of him. During our visit the peddler's boy came by as well and got introduced too. My mother asked the peddler if he'd never thought of adopting the boy, so he could go to school and everything. The peddler honestly replied that he had never thought about it, but that now that she had brought it up, he would certainly think about it. The boy obviously got a bit nervous at the idea of having to go to school. He was more comfortable around us now, but the idea of going into a building filled with 'ghosts' still didn't appeal very much to him, I could see. Fortunately my mother could not and he didn't mention it. After we had finished our tea, I took my parents to see the first garden as it was nearest. They admired the neat rows and the tidiness of the shed. My mother even asked what happened to the vegetables after they were ripe, whether they were sold or simply eaten. I told her that the kids working for them got a share of the produce as reward. I even added that some of them had visibly gained a bit of fat, as most of them had been barely more than a sack of bones when they came to us. 
That evening my parents decided we should go out to eat, and so we all dressed up, though not as much as for an exhibition as that would have been overkill. The five of us went to a nice, but not overly posh restaurant. My siblings wanted to know what the occasion was, but my parents told them that it was because they felt like it. The both of them simply had a children's menu with a hamburger, but I decided to go for a nice juicy set of lamb chops. My father had a big steak and my mother had a healthy salad, which looked tasteful despite the blue cheese they had put in it.. And despite my siblings acting childish, we had a wonderful evening. After diner we all had desert My brother wanted the biggest ice cream there was, but my mother said he would not be able to finish it without getting sick and forbade him. Which had him sulking all evening, especially as I was allowed to have a grand dessert. In the end my father joined me, my mother had a plate of fresh fruit, my little sister had the children's ice cream and my brother took a banana split. And even that he didn't finish. I was almost tempted to point out that I had finished my grand dessert but as I was stuffed almost to nausea, I decided not to rub it in.
The last few months were a blur of trying to find the right college, finding a place to stay during college and doing exams. It was a very hectic period and together with the writing classes we still gave every saturday morning and trying to get some painting done, I hardly had a moment to sit down. But by the end of the year, I had passed my exams with exemplary grades, filled in my application for college, gotten word back that I was allowed in, and had found a place of my own on campus. And that's how I found myself packing my clothes, my books and my painting supplies during the summer. It was really scare to leave town for college, as I'd be leaving all my friends behind. I also felt really guilty about breaking off the writing classes, but the peddler had assured me that he'd be able to manage on his own. But the person I would miss the most was my friend who had found a college in our home town and was staying at home for the duration of college. We had a tearful goodbye in which we promised to write each other and that we'd try to visit each other during the weekends as often as we could. 
And then it was time to get on the bus for college. My bags were put in the hold and I went up into the bus with a book to keep me busy during the trip. But I couldn't really focus, I'd only been out of town during the holidays and never on my own before. I stared out the window and noticed the decrepit hovels that were found out in the fields. I knew better than to try and discuss them with my fellow passengers, as most wouldn't see them anyhow.  When I arrived on campus it took me a while to locate somebody who could tell me where to go, but as soon as I found the reception they were very helpful. They even sent another student with me to show me around. I was appointed a second year student with gorgeous raven black curls. She was civil yet not overly warm. To her showing me around was a duty to be fulfilled and nothing more. But she did show me the dorm building where each of us had a small room and the dining room where we had our communal meals. She showed me where to pick up my books later on and where I could find the schedule of classes I was going to follow. And then she left me again, glad to have done with it. I walked back to my own room and wasn't very happy about it. It had only a tiny window facing north west, so I didn't have all that much light. So painting in my room was more or less impossible. But other than that and being very small the room was all right. The furniture was used, but still solid and decent looking. I had a bed with a good mattress and a warm blanket, a desk with a decent chair behind it and a shelf for my books above it and a large cupboard that pretty much took up the rest of the room. I put my clothes in the cupboard, stacked my books on the shelf, and put my painting supplies in one of the drawers of the desk. My easel went in between the desk and the cupboard. Then I closed the door behind me and found out that the lock was only a simple thing. I didn't like that one bit, and went off to find a concierge or janitor to ask if it was alright if I would have it replaced. The janitor, when I finally found him turned out to be a grumpy old man, but when I told him I'd pay for the lock myself he told me it would be all right. He even showed me to a pay phone where I could call a lock smith. And wonder of wonders the pay phone even had a telephone book to find the number I needed. I called the first number I found and told them my request. They replied that they didn't service our part of town, so I dialed the next number. They seemed surprised by my request, but told me they could do it. I made an appointment with them for the next day, as my classes wouldn't start for another few days. After the phone call I made another tour of the campus. At the dining hall I found that there was a menu in a corner telling what the meals would be. It didn't seem to promise much, but I decided that I would first give it a go before renouncing it and finding some other place to eat. Then I went to the place where I was supposed to be able to get my schedule, but couldn't find any clue about when and how to get it. There was a big bulletin board, but it was empty. My next stop was the book store, thinking that they might know more, but they were still closed and a sign said that they would remain that way for two more days. I thought this was a silly arrangement, as it would force pretty much all students to come and fetch their books at the same time, a guarantee for chaos. And so I went to the reception again, to ask about the schedule. They almost seemed surprised to see me again and asked me if my guide hadn't told me all about it. I explained that she had told me where to pick it up, but that either she forgot to mention when to do so, or that it must have slipped my mind. They gave me a withering glance proclaiming that I must be very stupid to have forgotten such an important thing and then to have the audacity to claim that it wouldn't have been mentioned. But with a sigh they patiently explained that it would be open at the same time as the book store, two days from now, in a tone that suggested I had better not forget it again. In my most innocent, sweet voice I asked them if it wouldn't become a bit of a chaos if all students would have to fetch their schedule and books at the same time, in stead of spreading it out over the days they came in. This earned me another withering glance and in the same fake patient voice she explained to me that it was much more efficient this way, as they wouldn't have people sitting around uselessly all day waiting for some student to come by. I took care not to mention that they wouldn't have to be around all day and that a single hour in the evening would have sufficed, but thanked them and left again. I wasn't feeling very optimistic about this whole thing anymore, and I had no clue how to spend my time until I could do something useful. So I did what I always did when I had time to kill, I took out my easel and paint and set up under a big tree on the lawn to paint. As there were no people around I started out with a sketch of the building. I started out with the majestic gate and went on to draw the rest of the facade, with the Gothic windows, the gargoyles up on the roof and the weathered stones. Due to my mood it all looked rather grim, and despite the fact that it was a beautiful day, I drew grim clouds that blocked out the sun, as that seemed to match the mood of the building as I'd drawn it better. 
By the time the sketch was done, it was nearly diner time and I went back to my room to put away my painting kit and to clean up for diner. In the dining hall there were few other students, apparently most people had been informed that it would not be of much use to come early and had stayed at home. The few people who were there all seemed to have teamed up into small groups and after I had gotten my food I looked around where I should sit down, debating whether to join one of the groups or to sit alone. Just after I had decided to sit alone rather than break into any of the ongoing conversations, a girl in one of the groups looked up and called out to me to join them. I gratefully accepted and introduced myself. The group I joined was a group of four, consisting of two girls and two boys. One of the boys had seen me out on the lawn and asked me what I'd been painting. I laughed and said that as there was little else out there, he should be able to guess it from the direction he had seen me facing. He smiled back at me and agreed that if I had been painting what I was seeing then it must have been the building, but that I might have been drawing something else entirely. One of the girls asked me what I was going to study, as they didn't have any studies that was remotely linked to art. I replied that painting was merely a hobby that allowed me to kill the time and that I was going to study sociology. The other girl exclaimed happily that she was going to start on that as well and that we might share the same classes. As they all seemed nice enough, I replied that I hoped so as I didn't know anybody around here. The two boys were both doing psychology and the first girl was going to do anthropology. They had all been here since yesterday and had grouped together as there was nobody else. All the other groups in the dining hall were apparently second years or older as they had all seemed to know each other. We chatted some more about our backgrounds and interests and after diner we all went to the cinema nearby together, as there was nothing to do on campus. We all lamented the fact that we couldn't get our books or schedule yet, as we all had come early in the hopes of getting a bit of a head start. Instead we'd just have to wait around aimlessly for the classes to start. 
The movie we went to see wasn't great, but nice enough to kill some time with. Afterwards they showed me that we also had a communal room, another thing my guide had obviously forgotten to tell or didn't think was important enough to waste her time on. One of the guys had a nice game called Carcassonne that we all enjoyed playing. We only played one game that first night, as I wanted to go to bed on time, being a bit tired from the journey. As I walked out of the communal room, I realized I hadn't called my parents yet, and decided that it was not too late to do so. So instead of heading for my room, I went to the pay phone. My mother was very happy that I called to tell them I had arrived safely. I told her that I had already made some friends and that we couldn't get our books yet and she was both happy for me and angry about the books. After some more chitchat I said goodbye and went to bed.
The next morning I got up early and spent some time walking around the campus. I located every building and memorized their names so I would be able to find my way around later on. At ten AM I was back in my room to wait for the locksmith. I spent some time doodling in my notepad with a pencil and was very glad when the man showed up early. He had brought several locks and told me about the benefits of each of them. I picked out a reasonably good lock that had a cylinder, so it couldn't be as easily picked. The locksmith pointed out that my window might need some better lock as well, but as he hadn't brought any, I told him I'd contact him about that later. As I was on the second floor and the wall was reasonably well lit at night, I didn't worry about thieves coming through my window all that much. After about an hour the man was done and I payed him in cash. He gave me a set of keys and I put one of them in my pocket, wondering what to do with the spare keys. I could hardly leave them in the room, but taking them with me all the time didn't seem like a very good idea either. I could leave one at my parent's place, but that wouldn't be very convenient when I lost my key in the middle of the week as it was a several hours drive there and back. As soon as the locksmith was gone again, I took a piece of string and hung a second key around my neck. The third and final key I put in my suitcase to take back to my parents.
When all that was done I went down to the communal room to see if my new friends were there. Three of them were and I heard from them that the fourth was supposedly still in bed. I wondered briefly if I couldn't leave my third key with one of them, but I didn't know them well enough to trust them that far. We chatted for a while until the fifth member of our new gang woke up and then decided to spend the day exploring our new surroundings. All of us had already seen most of the campus, so we walked into town. On our walk I saw some weird people and wondered if there would be a figure like the peddler here as well. The others saw me watching and it turned out that none of us had our chip turned back on. We all exclaimed what a coincidence that was, as most people must have had it turned on again. I told them all about my projects and my paintings and I had to promise them to bring some paintings from my collection one day. I guaranteed them that they'd see some of my work sooner or later. Even if it would just be because I made some new ones. 
They were also almost envious of the things I'd accomplished. None of them had ever done anything remotely like that. So I told them that it wasn't too late to start doing them now. And we promised each other that we'd spend every spare minute we had walking around exploring the options to help out the gypsies. That evening we ate in the dining hall again. One of my new friends mentioned when we had gotten our food and were safely out of earshot at the table that we might as well be calling it the mess, since the food can't have been any better than in an army mess hall. Of course we all had to laugh about that and we drew some strange looks from the other people in the hall. Today there were even a few more people than yesterday, but there was no single first years that need our help, so we remained a group of five. After diner we played Carcassonne again, and I even accidentally won a game. This time we all went to bed early, as the next day we would be able to get our books and schedule and we'd decided to be there when they opened, hoping that there wouldn't be too many students yet to avoid the worst of the chaos. So we put away the game and said goodnight. Back at my room I stopped for a while to admire the shiny new lock and then took out my key and went inside.
The next day I was awoken by the birds singing outside my window and got up quickly. I got dressed, dug around in my suitcase until I found my old backpack and dumped it on my bed. Then I went off to find some breakfast. Breakfast turned out to consist of black pudding, sausages, scrambled eggs and fried bread. I had some eggs and was determined to have a proper lunch instead. When I'd finished my scrambled eggs I went to the communal lounge to see if I could kill some time and to wait for my friends to wake up. As I got quite bored after a couple of minutes, I went back up to my room to fetch a book to kill some time. Back in the communal lounge, I had to wait for at least another half an hour before the rest showed up. We chatted away the last hour before stuff opened up, and then went to fetch our bags to carry the books in. When we had our bags we walked over to the place where our schedules would be, but there was nobody there yet. After waiting around for half an hour, one of the guys suggested that they might have informed us wrongly for some reason and that the schedules might just be handed out in the bookstore. He volunteered to go and have a look while we waited around. After a couple of minutes he returned to report that the book store wasn't open yet either. And so we sat around waiting, wondering if they always told first years that the store would open at some time to have them wait for at least an hour, as we were still the only ones there. And indeed about an hour later, a couple of second years showed up, smirking when they saw us waiting. But then one of them informed us that they never opened up when they said they would, and they waited with us. Slowly more and more students came in and we all hung around. It was a full two hours after they had said they were supposed to open when finally somebody came along who had a key. It was a very old man with a hunched back, who fumbled with the lock for a while before finally getting it open. We all looked at each other with a sense of dread. This might just turn out to be even more chaotic than we had thought. After the old man went in, he opened up a hatch, sat down behind his computer, fumbled some more to get it on and then called for us to come forward. We each had to say our name that he slowly typed into his computer and when after a minute or two he had found the person in question, printed out the schedule for the first three months. I dreaded having to come back here in three months time. After about fifteen more minutes, all five of us had our schedules and we hurried to the bookstore, only to find that still locked up as well. We joked among ourselves that we'd have to wait around until everybody had their schedule so that old man could come around and do the books as well. But then a young lady came hurrying along, mumbling apologies about being late and something about a flat tire. We let out a relieved sigh and told her that it was all right, as we'd only been here for a few minutes. While we were waiting we had figured out what books we'd need, so we rattled off all that we needed and were quickly done. We hurried back to the communal lounge to see what our schedule was like and which classes we'd be doing together. It turned out that the two boys, or the psycho twins as we had started calling them, had all their classes together. The girl who did sociology as well and I had all our classes together too. And so the anthropology girl was pretty much alone in her classes. We did have a few classes in common here and there, like some class about the psychology of large groups of people and some other class and some socio-cultural class. Classes wouldn't start until the beginning of next week, which was still three days away. In one of the readers we had received we saw that there was a website about the course which contained the assignments we'd be doing, so we set off to dump our books in our room and to find the computer room to get a head start, as we figured we'd soon be swamped with work anyway. But the computer room turned out to be locked. I left my friends there and went off in search of the janitor again to see if he could open it up for us. He was a bit suspicious of us wanting to do homework, but opened the door anyway with exclamations that we'd better not be using them for pleasure and told us to bring the key back to him when we were done. We assured him that we wouldn't abuse his confidence and that we'd lock the room up and return the key immediately after we were done. We fired up some computers to use and started searching for information about our classes. It turned out that every class had it's own site and though some were very scarce on information, most had the course all laid out so we could start working. We printed out what information we could find, locked up the room again, and gave the key back to the janitor, thanking him profusely. Afterwards we went to the communal lounge where we found several more people sitting behind stacks of books, complaining about their schedules. We greeted them and sat down at a table by ourselves. The psycho twins took the first class they had on monday and set off reading for that one. I decided to make a bit of a schedule, so I'd have a head start on all my courses, as I had no idea which one would be toughest. The girls liked my idea and followed suit. But soon after we were all submerged in our books. That first day of studying flew by. At diner time we wondered whether we should stay and go to the dining hall, or if we should try out some of the joints we had seen around off campus. As there were quite a few new faces we decided to brave the local food and stay for another night. When we saw our food, we very much regretted our choice. There was some greenish goop that vaguely resembled spinach, some yellow clay that was supposed to resemble mashed potatoes and some fatty burnt sausages left over from breakfast. We took a few bites and shoved our plates aside. We spent another half an hour watching our fellow students in mute agreement, and then with a few looks at each other stood up and left the campus. We waited until we were well out of earshot from the main gate before we started discussing how utterly gross that meal had been. We weren't even sure why we hadn't said anything on campus, but it just didn't feel right for some reason. It wasn't for another few weeks that we found out that such precautions were very wise indeed. But that day we were still blissfully unaware and merely silently dumped our meals in the trash cans before handing in our plates again. We went to a snack bar not too far from campus and had some french fries and a burger, followed by a milkshake. After diner we debated going back and studying some more or walking around the area finding more places with good, cheap food. We decided we'd studied enough for one day and just walked around exploring. We found a supermarket nearby and lamented the fact that we couldn't prepare our own meals on campus. The rules even specified that you couldn't have any cooking gear in your room or even on the communal room. We guessed there had been a few accidents in the past. Unfortunately there were very few cafeterias or other places in the area that sold affordable food, and while it wasn't too much a of a problem for me to pay a bit more for good food, my friends didn't have that luxury. What we did also notice was that there were quite a few houses for rent or for sale in the area, and it set me to thinking. It would depend on how much they would cost, but maybe the five of us could rent a place together. After all, living on campus wasn't all that cheap either. When I mentioned it to my friends they looked at me like I was crazy to even come up with such a thing, clearly there would be no way to afford a house, seeing how campus already cost so much. And besides, we had all already payed for a full year living on campus. While I agreed with the reason for not moving out of campus this year, I wasn't so sure about the cost of living off campus. In fact the idea kept nagging me and I decided to see if I could find some time to find out what the costs would be and if they were really as insurmountable as my friends seemed to think. But that evening was not the time for it anyway, as the real estate agents would be closed anyway. 
The next morning I went off on my own to find the real estate agent, as I knew my curiosity wouldn't let me focus on my studies anyway. First I went down to the pay phone to look up some addresses, then I went to the computer room that was open this time and looked up where the addresses were, as I still wasn't all that familiar in town. I wrote the instructions down and headed off to the nearest address. In their window they had several houses, but none that were in the streets where we had seen the houses. I went in anyway and explained what I was looking for. They looked a bit incredulous when I told them, that I not only wanted to see rental houses, but also houses that were for sale. I could see from their faces that they were already doubting that I could rent a place, no matter that I wanted to bring along some friends to pay the rent. Being a student, they thought I didn't have an income. But while my income wasn't very steady, it did keep trickling in and I'd already built up quite a substantial sum. After a while I got annoyed with the agent, he kept showing me decrepit tiny houses and single or double room flats. In my head I multiplied the rent we were already paying by five and told him that that would be our starting point on a yearly basis. He took out his calculator and divided it by twelve for the rental places, and did some harder calculations for the places that were for sale, as we'd be able to take a mortgage for that. The amounts he came up with still weren't very high, but at least he showed me some places that were a bit closer to what I was looking for. After about a half an hour I thanked him for his time and went looking for the next agent on my list. I didn't even bother to bring any information from the first agent, knowing I probably wouldn't go back to him anyway. The second agent was a bit further away from campus and he took me a lot more serious, he actually made me feel like a valued potential customer. When I came into his office I saw to my surprise that he had one of my paintings opposite his desk. I didn't mention it, but he must have seen me looking. I didn't recognize him from any of the exhibitions, so I don't think he knew me either. He started off by asking me for the amount we'd be able to pay and immediately started showing me interesting houses. He told me that for the amount we'd be willing to pay, we might have to share bedrooms. I told him that that would be all right, as long as the rooms were big enough. He showed me quite a few places, and then he suddenly showed me this beautiful mansion, warning me that it might be a little above what we could afford, but that it might just be perfect for our needs. It was a gorgeous house, with a nice garden. It had five bedrooms, though they weren't all that big, a large living room and a wonderfully cozy kitchen. And to top it off, it had a sun room overlooking the garden. And it was indeed more than we could afford, as it was on sale and not for rent, and we probably wouldn't be able to get much of a mortgage, as none of us had a stable income. Not to mention the fact that it was such a perfect house, there was no way it would still be available next year. I did bring the brochure however, as it would be nice to dream over and fantasize about how we'd live in it. I decided not to visit the other agents, as I'd pretty much seen what we'd be able to afford and we wouldn't start looking properly until next year anyway. I walked back to the campus half daydreaming about the house and who would get which room and in my head we were mock arguing about it. Fortunately it was a quiet stretch of road, so I didn't have to pay much attention to my surroundings. As I came past the supermarket I decide it would be nice to bring some bread for lunch, and perhaps for breakfast the next morning. Of course my choice of toppings was limited as I didn't have a fridge to store any of it. So I took some peanut butter and bought a simple knife to spread the peanut butter on the bread as well. Back on campus I brought the brochure to my room, and made myself a couple of sandwiches, which I brought down to the communal room. My friends were already down there hard at work in their new books. One of the psycho twins was jealous of my sandwiches and I gave him the one I hadn't eaten from yet. And I was glad that I did, cause the look of bliss on his face as he ate it was priceless and I hurriedly grabbed a pencil and some paper to sketch it. When the others saw it, they were amazed at how real it looked and as they'd been too busy on their work to have seen the actual look on his face itself, they were laughing out loud and teased him about it. He mumbled a bit embarrassed that he'd always loved peanut butter, but was never allowed to have any at home, as it made his father fart too much. I promised him that he could share my jar with me if he wanted and was surprised by the spontaneous hug this declaration delivered me.  It was truly a golden moment, and I could only wish it had been redhead instead. Thinking of redhead made me a little sad and instead of doing my homework I wrote a letter to him, telling him all about my new life at university. When it was done I attacked my homework with fervor and had almost forgotten the leaflet lying in my room. A couple of hours later I got up from my homework with a parched throat and suggested we'd go out to find a meal. This evening we went to a bar where they also served simple meals. I enjoyed a good stew, the psycho twins both had a burger, my sister sociopath, as the psycho twins had dubbed us, had fish and chips, and the anthropologist had a club sandwich. During diner I remembered the houses I'd seen and told the others about them and how they might just be affordable. Especially if we all found a job of some kind. The others sighed longingly and my sister sociopath said that it was easy for me to say, as I was already making money with my paintings. I countered that by saying that that didn't count for a steady income and was therefor almost useless to me. Except for the fact that I had a decent sum on my bank account. But to buy or rent a house, you'd need a steady source of income. And so we discussed what kind of jobs we could take that would allow us a nice place of our own. We went from working in a restaurant, through standing behind the counter in a supermarket, to bar keeping and selling books. We decided to wait a little longer before starting the actual job hunt as it might be too heavy to work beside our classes and homework. The next day was spent completely on homework and chatter. And then the actual classes started. I was very glad we had tried to get a headstart as it turned out the pace was furious. The preparations we'd done were barely enough to keep us afloat the first week, but after that we found our rhythm. The third day after I'd sent my letter to my redhead, I found a letter back from redhead in the mail, telling me he missed me and how he hoped I missed him too. And too my big surprise I also found a silver locket on a chain in the envelope, about which he had written that it might help me miss him a little less. When I opened the locket I found a tiny picture of him inside. I immediately removed the piece of string with my key from my neck, hung the key on the chain with the locket and put the locket around my neck. Right after that I sent a long letter back and went for a walk to mail it.
Two weeks after classes had started I came down to the common room one evening to read a book, when the anthropologist came down nearly crying. They had broken into her room, and though they hadn't taken anything, they'd thrown her clothes on the floor and had clearly been through everything seeing if they could find anything. I hurried back up to her room with her and helped her clean everything up. I gave her the phone number of the lock smith and promised her that if she couldn't afford a decent lock on her own, I'd lend her the money. She gave me a hug of gratitude and promised to pay it back as soon as possible. After cleaning up and her calming down a bit we went back down to the common room again, only to find out that the same stunt had been pulled on several others as well. But all the victims were first years. I urged the others to replace their locks as well, cause you never knew when this sort of stunt stopped being harmless. They promised to look into it straight away. Later that evening, when I went up to my own room, I found out that as I had guessed they hadn't been able to break into my room, but apparently this had pissed them off, as I found chewing gum stuffed into my lock. Angry I went down to the janitor for a complaint and a request for help. He muttered something about this always happening in the first few weeks and that if he ever got those culprits in his hands, he'd know what to do. Fortunately he knew a few tricks and was able to get the gum out again with a sharp pin. I thanked him and went into my room. That night I had strange dreams about people breaking down the door, just to get inside, only to leave once they were inside. Shortly after that, several more locks were replaced with proper locks, and the pranks weren't repeated.
Slowly as the weeks went by, we got into a rhythm and found some free time again. I sent a letter to my parents and my patron telling them all about life at university. I told them about the pranks, the bad meal and the horrible overall organization. I also went back outside to paint again. At first I staid on the campus grounds, but soon I went off into town to paint the life of the gypsies again, as that kept drawing me. I found a nice little quiet park where there was a group of gypsies, not unlike the ones living in the park at home. Of course I only had time to draw on the weekends, as during the week my evenings were filled with homework. Some times one of my friends accompanied me, but usually I was alone. I'd received some commissions, and one of them wanted a big painting of an all-out brawl. I'd warned the client that it might take a while as I'd never seen such a situation before and it had been lying around for months. The other commission was easier, as it was a request for a small painting of playing gypsy children. And in the little park there were a couple of four to five year old children, still clutching their mother's skirts whenever they let them. Which wasn't very often and so they were left with each other. I drew a couple of sketches of them playing with knives and tossing stones, and even one of them playing knights with sticks. Before starting on the actual work, I sent the sketches to my patron, to show them to the client so they could pick one out. I had a feeling they might not be ready for the reality of the sticks and knives, and that they might pick the stones, but I wasn't sure. Soon after I'd sent that letter, I received a letter back in reply to the first letter I'd sent him, in which he said that if I wanted to he could arrange for the lease on our first year to be ended, so we could find a place of our own right away, he was even willing to buy a house for us that we could then rent from him. When I read that, which was in my room as I always took my mail up to my room to read, not wishing to tempt them to steal my mail, I ran straight down to the communal room with the letter and had my friends read it. Their eyes started to shine and they asked me if my patron was as good as his word. I replied that he was even better than that and that he always kept his promises. On the next weekend we rushed to the real estate agent to find out if that gorgeous mansion was still available. And to our great joy it was. Just to be sure I asked the agent if there was any rule against renting out the house after buying it, but he claimed that there wasn't. I called my patron and had him call the agent and the campus to make the arrangements. One week after that we could move into our own house, or rather we could start decorating it. We had agreed with my patron that we would pay the same amount of money as we would on campus and that we wouldn't have to pay for the first year, as he'd take that up with the campus. I had a feeling that he wouldn't be getting any money back from the campus, but he wouldn't let me pay anything for that first year, despite my urging. So I used my money for the furnishing. First we bought a couple of buckets of paint to do the walls and the ceilings. It took us quite a few weeks, since classes and homework didn't allow us much room. But as there were five of us, we could do a lot of things at once. The next task was putting new carpet on the floor, but this was something we left to the pros as none of us believed we could quite manage that in a way to make the result look good. As there was nothing in the house worth stealing we just gave the key to the carpet guy and told him to drop it in the mailbox when he was done. In the mean time we had also had some spare keys made, as the house came with only three keys, and we'd already need five. And then we also wanted to send a spare key to my patron. As soon as the walls and the floor were done, we went to some stores to get some furniture. We started out in the second hand and thrift stores, where we picked up five beds. We dumped the mattresses they came with, as we didn't quite trust them. We also found a nice old dining room set made of massif wood. And finally we ougt a large fridge with a freezing compartment. Fortunately the house came with a nice big stove, so we didn't need to buy that as well. As we couldn't find a nice couch or book cases, we went to Ikea for those, where I bought a lot of Billy book cases, some mattresses and we also found a big couch. We had chosen pretty much the cheapest furniture possible, but my bank account was still set back quite a bit. I didn't tell the others of course, as they felt guilty enough already. They asked me to keep count of how much each of them owed me, so they could pay it all back as soon as they found a job. 
It was also quite a job to get the furniture into place, as the stairways were quite narrow. But we got each bed to a room, put a book case there as well and lugged the rest of the book cases up to the attic. And then after four months our pretty new house was done. It was still a bit bare as we'd only bought the stuff we really needed, but it was good living none the less. That weekend we threw a party for a select group of our fellow students. Everybody who attended was jealous of our new living space. As soon as we lived there I made up a schedule for the cleaning duties as we wouldn't be able to pay for somebody to come cleaning for us. We divided the chores evenly and rotated them so we all did the same things over time. 
Over the next couple of weeks there wasn't a day when we didn't enjoy the piece and quiet of our own house, but most especially the food. It turned out that the psycho twins were quite good cooks and we all looked forward to the nights when they had cooking duty. Despite the extra chores in addition to our homework, we managed fine, as we didn't have quite as much distractions as we did in the common room on campus, where it was never quiet. So our grades only improved. And shortly after we had left campus we started hearing stories of a new series of pranks that seemed to be aimed at students who had been complaining about some thing or other. It started out with small things, but over time it gradually became worse and we could only be glad that they couldn't bother us anymore.
I took up painting once more and my friends went off looking for jobs to start earning some money. And soon enough the girls found a job as waitresses in a cheap restaurant nearby. One of the psycho twins ended up filling the shelves in the supermarket and the other landed the jackpot with a job as bartender. And so each of them was one or more nights out, but the money came trickling in. My sociopath sister wanted to hand over her entire wages when they came in, but I insisted that she only gave me half and keep the rest for the other expenses, as our groceries needed to be paid as well. She argued about wanting to pay more for a little while longer, but in the end she gave in. 
And then one day as I was in the park, I got lucky. The gypsies living there were living their lives as they always did, but suddenly a whole gang of hard faced men that I'd never seen there before came onto the scene. I was actually painting, but put away the paint and took out some pencils and a notebook instead, pretty much expecting what was to come. At first they merely shouted at each others, as the newcomers weren't welcome when they claimed sanctuary. The words got uglier and soon the knives were drawn and the fists were flying. I rapidly sketched what I saw, but had to pick up my stuff and retreat a bit as for once they were almost bumping into me, which didn't seem like a very good idea with the wildly swinging knives. After about half an hour, there were about ten men lying on the ground unmoving and the few remaining newcomers that were left, slunk off with their metaphorical tail between their legs. I sketched the dead men as well and then left for home. After that it took me a couple of months to finish the painting of the brawl as I still had to do quite a bit from memory and it was a large painting. But when it was finally done, it was one of my best pieces. I called my patron to tell him I'd finished the commission after all and he sent a courier round to pick it up. This brought in some serious cash, and I organized a big diner to celebrate. 
But all in all, I still hadn't made contact with the gypsies here, and hadn't picked up my tasks of bettering their lives. As all four others were slowly paying me back for the furniture, I hardly needed to work to find the cash to pay for our living and I spent entire weekends walking around the town trying to find an entry. Hoping to find either somebody like the peddler or one lost boy who was lonely enough to see me. But nothing like that ever happened. It was a shame that I didn't have time to observe the gypsies in the park to find out where they got their supplies. 
Then one evening I got a call from my friend, asking me if I would be home the next weekend as she'd organized a little meet and redhead would be there too. Of course  I told her I'd be there, feeling a little guilty over not having gone back sooner. I told my friends I'd be gone the next weekend and packed my bag. Two days later,  I took the bus home and arrived late on friday night. My mother was delighted that I came home and she had me talking all night about all that had happened. So I told her all about the new house and invented on the spot that we'd be organizing a parent day one weekend soon. I was really hoping the others would agree, but I had a feeling that their parents would want to see it as much as mine. My mother immediately offered to bring some snacks, but I declined, saying we had two marvelous cooks in the house and that we'd organize the snacks on our own. 
The next day I set of for my friend's place to pick her up on the way to the local girl's place. On my way through the park there were quite a few of the gypsy people who waved at me, and one or two who had been apprentices when I was still there even walked with me for a short while telling me they'd missed me and chattering about all the things they'd accomplished. They went back to whatever they'd been doing as soon as I left the park. I had to loop back a bit to reach my friends place, but I just couldn't help wanting to go through the park and see how everybody was. By now they almost felt like my own people. When I reached my friend she was already waiting for me. Together we hopped on a bus, as it was a bit too far to walk if we wanted to be there on time. At the local girl's place we met redhead and local girl of course, and some more people, some of whom I hadn't met before, but there were also some from our original painting crew. We all greeted each other and reported on how life had been in the time since we had last seen each other. Everybody complained that I spent so little time on the boards, as I'd been so busy with school and the house. I lamented the fact that I didn't have more time and regretted to tell them that I still wouldn't be able to be around more, as we didn't have a computer in the house, never mind broadband access. We were happy just to have a telephone. And even if we had a computer, I'd still have to share it with my friends and with five of us, that wouldn't leave much more online time for me anyway. They agreed that my situation made it hard to come play with them. My friend told a similar story of being generally busy, only in her case it was on classes only. She still spent quite some time online, as she didn't have to share her computer and didn't have as many household chores either, still living with her parents. She also still spent time on the reading classes and in a way I was jealous of her. She of course was jealous of me and my house. Once again we spent our time on general chitchat, eating, drinking and devising wild plans for the gypsy people. Nothing much happened, but then nothing much had to happen, as we were just spending time with friends. That evening, some people staid the night, but I went home again, saying it wouldn't be fair on my mother to come home for a weekend and then be gone all weekend as well. So I made sure not to leave too late either. I gave everybody a hug as I left and redhead seemed almost reluctant to let go. My friend followed my example and I saw her whisper something in redhead's ear. When somebody asked her why she was hugging everybody goodbye when she wasn't leaving, she exclaimed that she just liked a good hug like everybody else with a wink in redhead's direction. For some reason he blushed scarlet and I really wondered what she had told him. The next day I slept in and had a lazy breakfast with my parents. By the time I was ready to do something, I knew almost everybody would have left the local girl's place already. But then to my surprise my friend and redhead were suddenly in front of our door to pick me up. They claimed that they wanted to go painting in the park and wondered if I would like to join them. I suspected some ulterior motives, but didn't want to mention them before my parents. I told them I'd love to join them and grabbed my painting kit. And so the three of us left for the park. In the park we took our places on our old haunt again. Only now there were children swarming around us asking questions and looking at what we were painting. I liked the interaction, but it also distracted me a bit and the painting wasn't even halfway done when we had to go home. On the way home my friend suddenly announced that she was in a hurry and had to go straight for home, but redhead offered to walk me home. We walked mostly in silence as I couldn't come up with anything to say, and apparently neither could redhead. But then just before we reached my own street, when there was nobody around he stopped and when I turned round to see what was a matter, he blurted out that he really liked me and didn't like it that we only saw each other a couple of times a year. I replied that I didn't like it very much either. Not mentioning what we both knew, that it would be pretty much impossible to spend more time together. Yet despite that, after a short silence in which he was obviously gathering courage he suddenly asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend. I told him I'd be delighted to and suddenly hung around his neck, giving him a fierce hug. We clung to each other for a while longer and then he said in a hurt voice that we'd have to go on, as I'd miss my bus otherwise. I reluctantly let go and grabbed his hand as we walked back. It wasn't easy, carrying our paintings and paint kits in one hand to have the other one available to hold each other, but somehow we managed. When we reached my door I asked him if he wanted to come in for a last drink. As his bus left after mine he could walk me to the bus station if he liked. But I guess going before my parents without the excuse of another friend around was still a bridge too far right now. He said that he still had to collect his own stuff from the local girl's house and for a minute it looked as if he might kiss me, but something moved behind the window and he didn't. I silently cursed whoever or whatever had caused that curtain to move and said goodbye as I turned my key in the lock. I only slowly opened the door and stepped through, saying goodbye again just before I finally closed the door. I hurriedly packed my stuff, drank a last glass of tea with my parents and then almost ran to the bus to make it.
I didn't see much on my ride home, as I kept daydreaming all the way. I dreamt about how he'd find himself a different school that was closer to mine so we'd see more of each other. I even imagined how he'd come to live in the same house as I did. Of course my dreams were a bit vague about how that was possible, with there only being five bedrooms in the house, but that's what dreams are for, aren't they, to make the impossible possible.
Back home everything went on as normal. I'd swapped some cleaning duties to be able to get away for the weekend, so now I had a double dose of them along with my homework. But as soon as I found time again, I was back in the park, painting. Then one day I notice a group of young kids staring at me, but trying to make it look as if they weren't. When I caught one looking, I waves at him, causing him to shriek. I couldn't quite make out whether it was of fear or of laughter, but then maybe it was a little bit of both. At least I knew, they could see me now. The group of kids kept following me around, always playing in my neighborhood and daring each other to ever wilder stunts. And then one day I saw them standing really close to each other and they were daring the youngest of the boys to do something. He didn't seem to want to do it, but from their looks it was clear that if he wanted to be a part of their group, he'd have to do it. And after a few days of harassment he finally relented. What the dare had been became clearly very soon as he walked at me, swallowed hard and in a very timid voice asked me if I was truly a ghost. I got down to get my head on the same level as his, and told him that I wasn't. I asked him if he believed that you could touch ghosts and to my relief he shook his head. I stuck out my arm, gently so as not to startle him and offered him that he could pinch it to prove that I wasn't a ghost. Hesitantly his little hand came forward, and instead of pinching he merely brushed my hand with his. As soon as we made contact, he retracted his hand so fast that it almost looked like he had stung it. He stared at me a little longer and then ran off to his friends calling goodbye almost as an afterthought. I followed him with my eyes, a smile on my mouth. As he returned to the group, I saw their eyes wide in shock and respect. He had actually dared to talk to a ghost and what was more, even touch it. I could hear his shrill little voice proclaiming that I wasn't a ghost at all, as everybody knew you couldn't touch a ghost, they could only abduct you if they controlled your mind. It was almost touching to hear the faulty child logic at work. In the days to follow I could see all the others gathering their courage to speak to me as well. In order to taunt the others, the little one had taken up shouting a greeting whenever he passed me. And they passed me quite a lot. I made it a point to always answer him. He never came within five meters of me again, but at least it was a start. Finally after two weeks of having been taunted like this, the oldest of the group approached me as well, asking me the exact same question. Once again I replied that I wasn't. I decided not to offer him to pinch me, as he seemed quite a bit more afraid than the little one had been. Instead I told him that real ghosts couldn't see him and I dared him to try it out on the street, to just wave at a random person. Everybody who didn't see him would be a ghost and everybody who saw him wasn't. He thought it was a good idea and he ran off to tell the others about it. As soon as he'd explained it, they all ran off and I didn't see them again that day. The next time I came back to the park however they came running at me as soon as they spotted me. They stopped about ten meters away, cause no matter that I might not be a ghost, I still hadn't earned their trust. The youngest started chattering at me that indeed there had been many, many ghosts out there who didn't see them. To him I had proven beyond a doubt that I was not a ghost. The others still hesitated, as I was obviously dressed as a ghost. As soon as one of them told me this, I replied that I dressed like that not to attract their notion. After all if I looked like them, I would probably already be one of them, at least in their minds. Some of them still looked doubtful, but others nodded as if this was very wise. 
And so, day by day, I won their trust. I brought them sandwiches and candy. Not every day of course, as that would certainly have aroused their suspicions all over again, but often enough to have them respect me even more. As only strong or clever people could have so much food and be so generous with it. 
When I told about my accomplishment over diner one day, the others were surprised and wanted to see the kids as well. I told them that we would probably chase them all away if we came in such a large group. One of the psycho twins suggested that each of them might accompany me on separate days, so they'd only be exposed to one other person at a time. My sociopath sister suggested that we could even set up a garden project like I had told about in our back garden. We all liked the idea, but I told them it would take time. I was too afraid to loose their trust right now. They understood, but were excited about the idea anyway. We drew straws to decide who could accompany me first and who would be last. The psycho twins drew the shortest straws, and my sister sociopath drew the longest. 
The next weekend I took her to the park and set her up with an easel of her own. She had already told me she was horribly bad at painting, but I reassured her that it was only a ruse anyway. As there was somebody else around, the kids were very shy and in the end it was the little one who came up to me, eying my friend, asking me if she was a ghost. I told him that she was not and that she was a friend of mine who lived in the same place as I did. He nodded, reassured and went up to her to have a look at her painting. Of course he told her in all childish honesty that her paintings were not as pretty as mine, and she answered him that he was quite right. This broke the ice for the others and they all came to look at her painting and to offer her advice. She listened to all of them and even tried out some of their advice, which made them very proud. The end result wasn't great, but the kids proclaimed it passable. And they all beamed with pride, including my sociopath sister. The kids asked me if she would accompany me again the next time, as she clearly could use some more of their advice. I told them that I'd probably bring another friend, but as soon as she'd have time again, she would definitely come to visit them again. They waved at us when we left and we both waved back.
As we walked back to the house, she was brimming with enthusiasm, chattering about how cute the kids were and how old for their ages, and all kinds of other things. Back home the others were all eager to listen to her every story and she told it very vivid. As a joke I told her that she should consider taking up writing, as she was much better at story telling than at painting, and this had all of them laughing.
And so I took them to the park one after the other to meet the kids. They were all approved, though the psycho twins had to resort to telling horror stories before they got some respect. Later on, each of them went to the park on their own, or sometimes in groups, depending on when everybody had time. My sociopath sister had indeed taken up making up stories for them and writing them down. I loved that she was writing when amongst them, as it might prepare them for writing lessons. And then one day in winter, we notice that the kids were looking gaunt. When we asked them about it, it turned out that they were no longer under the protection of the hard faced men, partly due to their seeing us, but partly also because they claimed no longer to need their protection. That's when we decided to invite them over to our garden for gardening lessons. We told them that we'd teach them to grow food on their own, and in return all we asked was that they took care of our garden and kept it looking trim. They promised eagerly that they would and followed us to our house. They were amazed at all the space we had to ourselves and loved our small garden. Even the shed seemed like a haven to them. I wasn't used to really cold winters and therefore had never considered how they gypsies came through winter, but I'd already heard it could get a lot colder here. We promised the children that we'd leave the shed open in winter so they could spend the night there. At first I worried about what the neighbors might think, but then I realized that they either wouldn't be able to see the little rascals, or they wouldn't care as they had purposefully left the chip turned off. Not to mention the fact that our little garden was surrounded by thick trees and that hardly anybody ever went round the back. When I thought on it for a little while, I was surprised that there weren't already some gypsies living in the alley. All through winter we fed our kids who had by now adopted us as guardians and taught them how to take care of a garden and what vegetables and fruits could be planted when. We also told them about gardening in summer, but that was a bit harder, as we couldn't actually show how to do it. 
And then Christmas approached and I suddenly remembered my promise to my mother how we'd invite all the parents to come over and see our new house. I suggested to my friends that we might give a big Christmas diner for our families. They immediately took to the idea as their parents had, as I had guessed, indeed asked about seeing the house. So we made and sent invitations, made green Christmas decorations with the help of the kids, cooked a huge diner, large enough to even feed the kids and gave the house another good cleaning. And so on the first day of Christmas all was ready when the first parents came. As most had to travel quite a distance, the first ones came in around eleven AM and the last ones came an hour after lunch. All the parents had booked an overnight hotel so they could spend all night with us. Everybody was guided round the house by their own parents, and the parents were duly impressed by it. And most especially by how clean the house was. My mother even asked if it was always this clean or if we'd had spent the last couple of days cleaning. I confessed that we had given the house a thorough cleaning, but that I wouldn't be ashamed if she'd come by unannounced somewhere during the week. I even showed her our cleaning schedule. My father jokingly told her that she'd raised her little girl to be a proper lady.
The house was full to the brim as all siblings had been brought along as well, and we were glad we had asked everybody to bring along chairs, as they would have had to sit on the floor otherwise. Just before diner I sneaked out with several large containers filled to the brim with food and left them in the shed for the kids to find. As I came back in the others had just covered our large diner table with plates, cutlery and huge trays of food of all kinds. There was plenty for everybody and we spent the entire evening eating. And afterwards there was still food left over. All through diner everybody talked to everybody and we got to know each other's parents, or at least the surface of them. I was really sorry redhead wasn't there.
The next day everybody went back home with their parents to spend the rest of the holiday there. Before leaving I put the rest of the food in the shed as well, where we had installed a fridge a couple of weeks before. We had already warned the kids that we'd be gone for a week and that they'd have to fend for themselves for a while, but I still left them a little drawing of the five of us waving at them.
With my packed suitcase I was picked up by my parents who had come by car, so we got to their place a little faster than if I'd traveled by bus. I had already written to redhead to tell him that I'd be in town and that he'd be welcome to drop by if he wanted to. He had actually called me back to say that he'd love to come over to my parents, but only on condition that I'd come back with him to his parents as well. And so I had prepared my parents for the fact that I had a boyfriend and that he was coming over for diner and would like to spend the night so we could go to his parents in the morning. I hurried to add that he'd be happy to sleep on the couch as we'd have to leave early in the morning. But my father surprised me by saying that he trusted me to be old enough to handle a boy in my bed room, after all, I'd been living in the same house as two of them, and so a spare mattress was put on the floor of my bedroom. Which, in a way, was delightful, but on the other hand scared me shitless.
Shortly after we got home, redhead arrived and I introduced him to my parents. My siblings hadn't gotten over the shock of me having a boyfriend yet and so didn't even tease us all that much. That evening was almost heaven, to spend so much time with my boyfriend and my parents knowing and if not openly approving yet, at least not protesting or disapproving either. Due to all the festivities we didn't get to spend any time alone, and so in the evening I showed him my room and told me he'd be sharing it with me. When we were alone in my room he told me that this was actually a bit scary and I told him I couldn't agree more. And so we just sat on my bed holding hands, saying nothing more. After a while he suddenly turned around, looked me in the eyes and after proclaiming that if he ever did something I didn't like, I'd only have to say so, he suddenly kissed me. At first it was only a simple kiss on the cheek, but then he kissed the other cheek as well and finally my lips. First a short peck, but then I suddenly bent over to him slightly and we kissed a lot longer. Then he suddenly drew away and said we'd better get to bed as it was already late and we should leave early in the morning. I was almost disappointed, but knew he was right and didn't protest. We went to the bathroom separately to change into our pajamas. He went first and when I came back from the bathroom he was already under his blankets. I turned off the lights and headed over to my own bed, but then I changed my mind and slipped under his blanket. He quietly asked me what I was doing and I told him I wanted a kiss goodnight before I went to sleep. I pressed myself close to him and kissed him. And then I suddenly got bold and slipped my tong out and between his lips. He moaned softly and I could feel him getting hard against me. He felt it as well and drew back a little. When I told him not to worry, he told me he wasn't quite ready for this yet and I gave him another kiss before getting out from under his blankets and slipping into my own bed, whispering at him that his promise to me was valid the other way round as well. He seemed relieved that I understood and didn't press the matter further. That night I slept like a rose and woke up feeling wonderful. When I told him so he replied that he'd had a good night as well and gave me a kiss.
My mother was already awake and prepared our breakfast while we packed our suitcases again. When redhead went upstairs to pick up the last bits and pieces, my mother told me that he seemed like a very nice boy and that she wished us all the best. I gave her a quick hug and thanked her. As soon as all our luggage was in the car, we hurriedly ate our breakfast and left. It was a five hour drive, so we only just got there around noon. Redheads father was the one to open the door. He didn't look like redhead at all, he had raven black curls and a grave face. He kindly invited us in and helped us carry our suitcases inside. We found his mother in the living room and now I could see where redhead got his looks. He'd gotten the red locks and smiling eyes from his mother, who was a perfect female copy of him. Of course actually he was the copy of her and not the other way round. She immediately gave me a hug and made me feel welcome. She showed me to the guest room and told me to make myself at home. Then she left me alone to freshen up a bit after our trip. When I had washed and put on a clean shirt, redhead came into the room and asked me how I liked his parents so far. I told him that what little I had seen from them suggested they were wonderful people. He told me that they truly were, and gave me a quick kiss before we went down again. We talked all afternoon to get to know each other and then his mother proclaimed that I was the daughter she had always wanted. 
After diner they pulled out some games and we had a wonderful evening playing one game after the other. I don't think I'd ever played that much games in my life, as my own family wasn't into games so much. 
That night redhead came into my room to kiss me goodnight again and I can tell you that it was quite a goodnight kiss. In the end he left me and I hurried under the blankets. 
I spent two more days at his place before going to my parents again, to spend the rest of the week there. They asked me all about his parents and I obliged and told them everything I could remember about how wonderful they were. When I got the idea that my mother got a bit jealous of my adoration of them, I hastened to add that I thought they were wonderful too. My siblings got it into their heads that they'd like to play games too, so we played a few games of checkers as we didn't really have any other games in the house. And contrary to what I remembered of the past, they no longer threw the board through the room when they lost. I guess they were growing up too. And so I had another two wonderful days with my parents before it was time to take the bus home again. Just before I left my mother told me how splendid it had been to have had me back home again, and I promised her to come visit during the next holiday again. 
Back home the psycho twins had already returned and could be found in the shed with the kids who seemed to have missed us. All the food we had left them had gone, but they looked fine. So I had them tell me of their week without us all over again, as they had already told the psycho twins. When the other two girls came back, they had to tell their story yet again as they too wanted to hear all about it. It turned out that they had managed just fine and had rationed the food to last them for the entire week. I was very proud of them, as I didn't think they would have behaved like that before they met us. The picture I had left them had been crudely nailed to the wall of the shed in a corner where it couldn't be seen from either the window or the door opening. They told me it was so nobody would see it and take it away. I felt honored and told them that they were very wise to have put it there. 
As we didn't have much to do for them in the garden they started feeling guilty about taking our food, so we challenged them to work for their food by learning to read and write. This had their eyes almost bulging out of their head, reading was almost something mystical to them, only really wise people could do it, and that was even more true for writing. Though not all of them believed it when we told them they could learn, they were all willing to try anyway. We told them it would be hard work, hard enough to earn their food with. And so I started another reading class. This time we did buy books for kids just starting to learn to read and write, as they were a lot younger than my old apprentices had been. Some of this lot were actually too young to go to school yet, but we thought they were all old enough to learn. It was hard work indeed, but unlike the old apprentices, these kids had all day to practice and were so enthralled by the idea of actually learning to write that they spent hours on end practicing. In the end we had to chase them away from their books to tell them to go play. And even then they played word games, calling out the letters and stringing them into words. This was a new game they had invented of their own and they could be at it for hours, they loved it so much. Within weeks they knew the entire alphabet and could all write their name, albeit shakily. Within months they could read some simple books, and we had to get a library membership to keep supplying them with new ones. And when they had finished all the simple books, they went on to books that were a little harder and devoured all of those too. And so on. And then one day they told us they had some friends who wanted to learn as well and as there were five of us, we thought we'd have plenty of time to give the lessons. But the groups of kids wanting to learn grew and grew, until in the end we had to refuse some kids as we couldn't fit them into the garden anymore. We had started teach our kids grammar and the like and we discussed whether to keep on teaching them that or if we should send them out on their own to teach themselves so we could accept new kids to teach them to read and write too. In the end we solved the problem by giving the advanced classes in our garden and the beginners classes in the park. There were still more children than we could handle and we ran through paper like it was water. In the end we resorted to buying old fashioned little chalkboards so we could erase them again, and so not have to spend so much money on paper. As the classes were only on sunday at one point we even discussed giving more classes on saturday as well, but decided against it as we all had to work on saturdays to earn enough money to pay the rent on our house, or at least put away some money for the day we would have to start paying for that, as the first school year still wasn't over.
And then suddenly the summer had arrived again. My sociopath sister had stopped participating in the reading classes in order to help our own kids with the garden again, as it now needed a lot of work again. That summer the kids could start harvesting the first fruits of their labor and were enthralled by it. We had to prevent them from picking the fruits and vegetables too soon and teach them about when they were ripe. We were glad that the garden would be yielding produce before we actually had to pay any rent, as the kids were eating quite a dent into our wages every week. That summer I bought a large freezer to store all the vegetables that we couldn't eat right away, and we also bought some glass jars to preserve other foods. At first we thought of storing the food in the shed, but the kids pointed out to us that we left it open all the time, which was nice for them, but if ever anybody found out we'd store the food there, it would all be gone before we even knew it. So instead we stored them all in the house. Soon we had jars tucked away everywhere. 
All these jars inspired me to start another series of paintings called preservation. The first ones were simply jars of preserved fruits and vegetables, but soon I started drawing other things, like my family inside the jars, and after that I drew all the other good things in the world that I'd like to preserver like innocent children playing, lovers holding hands, a green park, smiling faces. It was soon quite a large collection of small painting and as they were all crammed in my own room, I decided that a new exhibition might be a good thing and I called my patron about it. Despite the fact that my sales had gone due to both less time on my side and loss of interest on the public side, he thought it had been long enough since the last exhibition that we might sell some paintings again and agreed to arrange the whole thing during the summer holidays. He called me back a few days later to tell me that there would be an art festival at the end of the summer and to ask me if I liked to have my exhibition during that week. I agreed that it was great idea and he promised to make the arrangements. I called my parents as well to let them know, I'd be in town that week and to ask if it was alright to stay with them that week. They told me they had planned their holiday for the beginning of the summer holidays and so it was all right. In the month before the holidays we had exams and we had to work really hard to learn all the required material so we could pass them. Our hard work paid off and we all made it through the first year, none the worse for wear. But then the anthropologist girl suddenly dropped a bomb. She was dropping out of school. We couldn't really believe it, or rather we did, but didn't understand it. She explained that her mother had become very ill during the year and that her father was taking care of her, but he'd taken up all his vacation to do so. She was going back home to help take care of her mother and her younger brother, so her father could get back to work and earn the money for the treatments her mother needed. We all gave her a hug and wished her all the best and said we hoped she'd be able to come back to us soon. She then went on to explain that her mother would probably remain an invalid for life and that she didn't think she was ever coming back and we shouldn't count on her to. We should at least find another tenant for the next year. I immediately thought of redhead, but was tactful enough not to mention it. One by one all the others went home for a couple of weeks, depending on the holidays of their parents. Some even went along on holiday with their parents. 
One week before I went to my parents when everybody else was gone, it was very lonely in the house. I called redhead to tell him that I was lonely and he offered that I could come over to his place. I told him that as the house was empty he could come over to stay with me as well. At first he hesitated, but when I told him we had a spare room that he could use, his curiosity won out. After all he'd never been over to my place before. The next day he drove his car into the street and I welcomed him at the door. I gave him a tour of the house and the garden and I could see he was impressed. When we got to the room of the anthropologist girl I told him what had happened and why the room was empty now. I had already cleaned her bed and aired the room, so he could move in for the week right away. 
As it was then noon and a beautiful day, we went outside and ate in the garden. When the kids came back from wherever they had been I introduced them to each other. When the little one approached him, he was asked if he could read and write as well, because otherwise I was sure to help him out. Redhead laughed and told them that he could already read and write and asked them about their own abilities. Proud as they were they asked him to bring them a book to show how good they were. He brought them a children's book and one by one they read a few lines. He applauded and told them that they were very good indeed. He especially congratulated the little one, telling him that he didn't know many kids of that age who could read so well. And with that he earned their undying loyalty or at least I thought so. 
That afternoon we both helped with the gardening chores and the kids showed him all that they had learned. When the chores were done it was diner time and we had diner with the kids as well. After diner they all disappeared again to wherever they went at night now that the nights were warm again. We went back inside and we spent the night with me drawing a portrait of him. At first I teased him that I wanted to make it on a huge panel, but when he protested that, I pretended to settle for his wishes and to make it a small panel to hang beside the door of my room. But all I did that night were sketches. When it was almost time for bed we brushed our teeth together and we kept touching each other as if by accident. When he reached for the cup, he brushed his hand against my arm. When I reached for the soap my hand bumped into his elbow. When he reached for the towel that hung on the door beside me, he brushed his arm against my back. When I 'accidentally' splashed some water over him, he started tickling me as punishment. I shrieked and ran off to my room. He chased me, but I had already shut my door and was hiding under my blankets. He came into the room and pulled off the blanket and continued tickling me. When trying to catch his hands didn't work, I started tickling back and found out that he was just as ticklish as I was. Somewhere along the way the tickling changed into stroking and when we had regained our breath a bit we started kissing as well. When my hands started to stray too low, he stopped me, and I went back to his chest instead. Though I couldn't leave it when stroking his back to pinch his bottom. He gave the most delightful little squeal. 
Somewhere along the line I must have fallen asleep, as I woke up to find myself alone in the rays of the morning sun. When I went down I found that redhead had already woken up and was baking some eggs. During the week that followed we went to see romantic movies, visited museums, went for long walks, and I finished my painting. And then all too soon it was time to leave for my parent's place. Redhead offered to drive me there, claiming that it was on his way home anyway. I replied that he was a lier, but accepted the offer anyway. Anything to make our time together last a bit longer. We left early so he'd have enough time to get home and drop me off. At my parent's place I invited him in for a cup of coffee, but he declined, perhaps still afraid of facing my parents and having to tell them he'd spent an entire week at my house with just the two of us there. I let him go and walked the last few meters home. My mother was ecstatic to have me back, but was kind of surprised by the good time I had made, I honestly told her that it was because I had had a lift from redhead, and she merely smiled.
The week with my parents flew by as well, with the exhibition going splendid and me spending almost all my time with my friend. It seemed that what with the art week going on, my audience had spread out to the normal people too. Where normal of course means the people with an income that couldn't feed an entire third world country, but merely their own family. As this series of paintings was rather small, they could afford them and some paintings were even sold during the exhibition. As normal people wouldn't know about the silly customs of the elite. And it seemed that the little signs saying that a painting was sold made even more people buy them. Before the week was over, almost all the paintings were sold. My patron took me out to his favorite restaurant to celebrate. Over diner he asked me how my projects were going, and I told him about our garden and the illiteracy program. He told me how he loved the fact that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I always found a way to help people out. He promised me he'd give some thought on scaling the projects up. And I couldn't help but wonder what he would have up his sleeve later.
The next day I was back on the bus heading for home. The ride went pretty quickly as somebody on the bus recognized me from the exhibition and started up a discussion about my work. Despite her being a bit groveling in front of what she thought was a master of art, she offered some pretty good insights into my work and it was a pleasant conversation. When I got off the bus, she had to stay on as she lived a couple hundred kilometers further on. We said goodbye and I walked home. Back home the others had returned as well and we organized a welcome home diner for us all. We tried to invite the kids in as well, but they didn't feel all that comfortable under a roof and therefor declined. We talked about who would get to replace the anthropologist girl, as we needed a fifth person to pay for the rent. I'd talked it over with redhead and he'd said he'd love to live with me, but it would take some time to arrange for the transfer, so he wouldn't be able to take up the offer soon if at all. When none of the others had any idea about who we could ask to fill out our group I suggested redhead anyway and added that he wouldn't be able to make it for a couple of months, but if they agreed, I could cover the rent for the first couple of months. They were certainly interested, especially after I told them some more about him, and so I sent him a letter to ask him to consider it properly as my friends would like to meet him. That next saturday he was standing on our door step with a small suit case. Telling me right away that he was only there for one night to meet my friends, so he would know what it was that he would have to consider. My friends all liked him and he seemed to like them too. Especially the psycho twins were going wild about how they'd finally be a majority in the house. At the end of the weekend, all were curious about what redhead's decision would be, but he told them that he wouldn't make it straight away as he really wanted to think about this. The four of us were disappointed, but understood as well, we were asking the poor guy to just uproot himself in the middle of the school year and change universities like that. And so, with a last kiss for me, he went home again. He had promised to let us know his decision in two weeks time and if we wouldn't have been so busy, they would have been nerve wracking. And then after two weeks we got the liberating phone call, he was going to try and make the move and would keep us updated about the progress. I'm glad to say I wasn't the only one to feel cheered over this news. The others were really glad that we had found somebody we all liked who was willing to take up the room. That night we held a small party again, and raised our glasses to both redhead and the anthropologist girl. And as if she felt we'd been wondering how she was, the next day we received a letter from her telling how her mother was doing a bit better and her father had gone to work. It was a long letter with lots of details and we all wrote her a letter back. I wrote her that the kids missed her and that I'd asked my boyfriend to join us to fill up her room and how he wouldn't be there for another few months. And finally I added that I would miss her too and that our group wouldn't be the same without her.
As the days went by, every once in a while we would get a letter from the anthropologist girl of from redhead. Both telling us they missed us, with the difference that redhead was telling about how he was making progress on rejoining us and that the anthropologist girl was telling us how her mother was doing. And so the weeks dragged by, slowly towards Christmas again. As more and more fruits and veggies were harvested, the house was filled to the brim with jars. We'd taken to stacking them in the empty room, as it wasn't used for now anyway. I crammed my days with homework, lessons and gardening and when there was any time left, I painted. All until we finally got a letter from my redhead saying that he had wrapped up most of the preparations and had been accepted into a new school near our house. The agreements he had made were for him to start there right after Christmas, so he would arrive with us on the first day of the holidays. Soon we were feverishly decorating the house, both inside and out. The kids were helping us by making wreaths and garlands form holly and spruce. Part of the decorating process was also finding a place for all the jars of vegetables that had been stuffed in redheads future bedroom. As we really had no other place to put them, we came up with the idea of having shelves in the stairways. But this was voted down again, as the stairs were already very narrow, and what with us going up and down with loads of stuff all the time, having shelves filled with glass jars there, didn't seem like a good idea. The kitchen didn't really have any room left, so in the end we hung the shelves in the living room. It looked kinda weird at first to have all these colorful jars in the living room, but we got used to it quickly and in a way it had something artistic as well. We spent hours rearranging the jars into some color scheme that we liked. Not all at once of course, but slowly over time it turned into a kind of game to move the jars around and see if anyone noticed. We got quite good at it too, which may be even more disturbing. In the end we could even spot it if a single jar got moved around, unless of course two jars with the same contents were swapped. We were not that good. But as winter progresses the food got slowly eaten and the number of jars in the living room dwindled. As we rather liked our game, we swapped the empty pots with the full ones that were still floating around the house and thus we could keep the game going for quite a while. That first year we didn't sell any of our produce as we had no idea how much of it we'd need to feed the kids and ourselves. Of course it turned out that we needn't have worried, but still.
And then Christmas came around. We had already decided to make the Christmas family party an annual event, so the invitations had been sent out. Without letting him know, we'd already sent one out to his parents as well. Although I must admit I was worried about how he'd take it. The others told me not to worry so much, but I didn't like keeping secrets from him. I'd never kept anything from him before, even if that never hadn't been such a long time yet. Redhead arrived early in the morning the day before Christmas. He brought gifts for all of us to put under the tree. We were all dying to see what they were, but he told us we couldn't open them until tomorrow, as it wasn't quite Christmas yet. Of course I had to tell him that it must be, because I'd already gotten my present. This put a grin on his face and had the others laughing too. He admired the tree we had put out in the garden that the kids had decorated by themselves with apples and little figures made of straw. He told me it was the most perfect tree to put the lights in he had brought and as soon as he had put away his stuff, we spent the next couple of hours getting the lights into the tree without accidentally throwing out all the other decorations. But when it was done it looked wonderful. Later on, when our neighbors saw the tree and asked us who'd decorated it, we told them that we'd only put in lights and that maybe the goblins had put in the other decorations. They didn't believe us of course, but we stuck to our story nevertheless. 
The next  day the parents came. And when the psycho twin's parents arrived, both couples that is, and we told redhead we'd invited our families I could see his face sag at the thought of his parents not being there. As he obviously didn't guess and would apparently love the surprise I didn't spoil it. So when his parents arrived just after lunch I could sweetly ask him if he'd really believed that we wouldn't invite his parents when we knew he'd be there too. He jumped around my neck and gave me a bear hug. As soon as I had air enough to talk, I told him that it hadn't even been my idea and that I'd hated keeping it a secret from him. But I knew that the look on his face had been worth it. 
The psycho twins had once again made sure that we had a wonderful diner and this year, quite a few of the ingredients came from our own garden. After diner we unpacked the gifts, as many parents had put some gifts underneath the tree. Despite the fact that not everybody had brought gifts for everybody, there were still gifts for everyone in the room and it was quite late again before all the presents were unwrapped and the parents could go to their hotels. Everybody fell into their beds exhausted and the next morning we faced a mountain of dishes to be done and paper to be cleaned up. This year none of us went to our parents afterwards as we had agreed that it would be friendlier to redhead as he had only just arrived. Instead we set up a picnic in the garden for which we all got dressed up in our winter garments. We had bought some pretty scarves for all the kids and wrapped them up to put underneath their tree with their names on it. So after lunch we had them find and open up their own presents and they all put on the scarves immediately. They all had their own color and pattern, so they could easily tell them apart. After they had thanked us they ran off and we were a bit surprised. But just after we had finished cleaning up the remains of the picnic, they came running back. With huge grins on their faces they offered something that was crudely wrapped in the paper that had only minutes before held their own presents. It seemed rather lumpy and quite heavy and we were proven right on both accounts. It turned out to be a big rock that they had painted all our names on in a vivid blue paint. They said they were sorry they couldn't have gotten us a better present, but they hadn't known they'd needed a present for us and so they'd only had a half an hour. The little one explained that they'd traded some food for some paint, as one of the old ladies in the park knew how to make blue paint from some plants. We thanked them and told them that you didn't always need to give a present back when you got one. Almost confused they asked us why everybody had brought gifts then the day before. Everybody who had gotten some, had also brought something. We laughed and said that it was indeed a custom to give each other gifts for Christmas and that we loved the rock. We asked them what they would prefer, for the rock to get an honorary place in our living room or for us to put it beside the front door where everybody could see it. After some deliberation they chose the living room and we put the rock on the coffee table, hoping the table would hold. It did and so the rock sat there for many years afterward.
Just after Christmas my friend came over as well and it felt like old times. My friend told me how she had subscribed to the forum of people who could see the gypsies. I had to confess that with everything going on I had never thought about that anymore. So we all subscribed to the biggest forum my friend knew about and saw that they had ideas about rebuilding centers for homeless people, like they had in the old days. But one of the big issues they ran up against for this idea was funding. As most people had turned on their chip again and had worked hard at forgetting the whole incident with the solar flare, donations were scarce. My friend had already contributed that we might need a cover for them that was visible to the outside world. But even this, though they had come up with ideas like art centre, children's day care, and a wide variety of other options. I kinda liked the arts centre and told my patron about the idea. He rather liked it as well and told me he'd put some of his people on it to investigate the idea, saying that he didn't mind investing in such a venture as long as would be self supporting in the long run. Some months later he reported that it would indeed be a viable idea and that he had found the perfect location for it. He had found an old school building in the same town as where we all lived and told us he could offer us all jobs if we wanted to. Because it was an old school building, it also had a school yard, that we planned to turn into a great big garden. The building itself had six large rooms, one of which could become a store room for all the food we'd grow, two or three rooms could be the exhibition and working rooms, and the other two could be school rooms to teach everybody who joined to read and write. And in winter we could offer a roof to sleep under. He told me it would be quite a bit of work to get the rooms in order, but that the structural stuff was sound, so we could do it all ourselves if we wanted. Redhead came up with the idea of asking the gypsies to do the work themselves, so they'd have more of a bond with the building. We all loved the idea, but so far the only gypsies we were in communication with either lived in the wrong town, like the peddler, or were in no position to negotiate with the rest, like the kids. In the end we decided to ask the peddler to join us in our effort for a while. My friend could take over his reading classes and his boy could take over the store while he was gone. At first he hesitated, saying that he could only go as a peddler, but he didn't have all that much wares to peddle at the moment. We suggested he bring some clothes from the second hand store and we'd supply him with some preserved food we still had left over from the winter and some fresh food straight from the garden.
And so he brought out his old cart, packed some clothes and hopped on the bus. Which was of course easier said than done, seeing how none of the bus companies like to transport his cart for him. In the end he called my patron who had the cart sent by a courier instead. The cart in fact arrived at our place a little while before the peddler did. As soon as he arrived we took the peddler to have a look at the new building and he joined us in discussing the options the building offered. He liked our ideas and added the idea of a second hand store that also sold the food we had grown, saying that by day we could open to the regular public and then in the evening to the gypsies. This seemed like a wonderful idea and we added it to our plans. That evening the peddler loaded his cart with the clothes and some jars of food and went out to find the groups of gypsies. He told us it would be a while before he would bring up the building and the work that needed to be done, as he first had to win their trust. We were right in the middle of a busy period ourselves and told him that that would be fine. The building wouldn't run away.
Three months later he told us that he had found some volunteers that were willing to help out with the painting and decorating. So we got ourselves some supplies and started the work. There were quite a few volunteers actually, so we had to spend most of our time delegating the duties. Most of them were still adolescents, but there were a few older ladies and hard faced men as well. We didn't ask the peddler how he had gotten them there and we certainly didn't ask them. The peddler had explained to them that the building and it's ground would be neutral ground that nobody could claim as his own and that any and all fights would have to be taken elsewhere. They agreed and took orders from us about what to do and where. Sometimes they complained, saying they wouldn't work with certain other people and we always made sure that they never had to be in the same room. Overall the work progressed rapidly. During the week we couldn't be there to supervise, but the peddler could and when we came back the next weekend, all the walls had been painted. The two gallery rooms had been painted in a neutral off white, but all other rooms had been painted in bright colors, as the gypsies seemed to favor those. Next up was the wood work. All the doors and window styles needed a new layer of paint as well, both on the inside and on the outside. This too was finished in a week, what with all the hands at work. After that we let the paint dry and set to work on the yard. We had all the tiles taken out and used some of them to make a new path to the door. Then we set out planting trees near the fence, and even made a little orchard filled with fruit trees in one corner. Before the entrance we sowed some grass seeds so we'd have a little meadow for outside events. It wasn't very big, but large enough to hold a few trestle tables. The rest of the grounds was used to plant all kinds of vegetables, herbs and fruits. Though we also used holly and spruce to separate the garden into different sections, with an idea to make wreaths and garlands for Christmas in the back of our heads. We asked all our volunteers if they could come up with building materials for shelves for the store rooms and the shop. And when one of them promised he'd bring enough materials to make a couple of shelves the others didn't want to be left behind and in the end we had a huge pile of junk that was slowly transformed into an interior. And when all was done the men lugged all the left over junk away again too, without having to be asked. We had made the interior for four of the rooms, leaving the decoration of the two gallery rooms to the professionals paid for by my patron. The shop was on the ground floor in the leftmost room as seen from the outside when facing the entrance. The other two rooms on the ground floor held the two exhibition rooms. The room above the shop held the store room and the other two rooms were the class rooms. When it came to the decoration, the shop was painted in cozy oranges and reds and had walls covered in shelves. In the middle of the room were some tables that could hold goods and a couple of racks for clothes. And finally the desk that would hold the till was made from gorgeously crafted crooked wood. Almost everything was made from weathered wood and even though it was still empty it already had it's own atmosphere. The store room also had it's bright green walls covered in shelves and was otherwise filled with racks to store more goods on. Some of the gypsy women had already started hunting through town to find glass jars that would hold the preserved vegetables. On my recommendation they had left one corner free or shelves so we'd have enough room to put a freezer in later. The two classrooms were painted in greens and blues, as I had voted down colors like red and orange. I didn't want the pupils to be too distracted by the walls during class. After all it had been a long known fact that red was a very violent color and affected people's moods. The benches and tables looked a bit crude, but I had made sure they were solid and had been sanded till there were no more rough edges or splinters on them. My patron  had arranged for two old fashioned chalkboards to be hung in front of the class. He had also donated quite a few educational posters to decorate the walls with. And then a couple of months after we had started working, the building itself was finished. The peddler had sent out word that everybody who wanted to learn could enroll themselves for classes in reading, writing and painting, and my friends and I had put word out on the boards that we needed teachers, artists, salesmen and gardeners to help out with the project. We also asked people to come round for the opening to donate stuff for the store. I had worked quite hard to fill the gallery with paintings from all the gypsies at work on the building. I made sure to ask all of them for permission, but each and every one of them was proud to see their faces hanging there. And then the opening day came round. My patron had invited the mayor to open the building to the general public and I had asked the peddler to open it for the gypsies later on that evening. We had hung enrollment lists on the bulletin board in the hallway (another donation by my patron), and quite a few people that came by left their name to be asked for help. We also received quite a few clothes and other stuff for the second hand store. To break the pattern of regular exhibitions, we had decided to auction off some art and some of the second hand goods we had received. The auction brought in a nice amount of money, especially as some of my paintings were sold at rather more than their regular price. All in all we earned more than enough money to get ourselves schoolbooks and gardening tools. 
Later, when we went through the list of volunteers we found that there were a couple of teachers, quite a few artists, one or two people willing to help out with the store and three or four gardeners. We picked a couple of nights to do interviews and asked all of them when they could make it. It was quite a bit of work to arrange for the interviews to be nicely spread out, but finally we had all the arrangements in place. We had set up a questionnaire to be filled out in advance and had sent them along with the invitations. One of the first questions was whether the person in question had had his or her chip turned back on after the solar flares. We were guessing that quite a few people would be confused about that question, but felt it was the only way to truly pick out the useful candidates. On the first day of interviewing we had two gardeners, three artists and a teacher. First came the teacher and we asked her for her credentials. It turned out she had been teaching most of her adult life. She was also one of the people who had left the chip off and we asked her about the reason for this decision. She told us that she had always wanted to help people and turning her back on a large group of people who could obviously use some help to improve their lives simply seemed to go against all her dreams. So despite the fact that she saw no way to actually help them, as none of them could see her, she hadn't turned it back on. Relieved we quickly told her about our goal for this centre and she told us she'd be glad to help us out. As the time for the interview was almost over, we told her we'd contact her as soon as possible to go over the details. The next two people were artists, but they were way to egocentric to be of any use to us. We told them we'd let them know if we ever had an exhibition that had a subject that seemed appropriate for their art. Despite the fact that we didn't actually mean to contact them and merely said so to be polite about our rejection, they seemed to be certain we'd contact them within a month or so. We didn't put them out of their dreams but wished them luck and sent them on their way. Next came the two gardeners. Of them one had his chip turned back on, so we quickly sent him on his way, but the other turned out to be quite willing to teach the gypsies his trade and once again we told him that we'd contact him soon. The final candidate of the evening was another artist, but once again it was someone who had their chip turned back on and we sent him away with a vague promise as well.
Quite exhausted we went back home and went right to sleep. The next day we had to drag ourselves through our classes. That evening we had both the potential shopkeepers, another three artists and a teacher. Of these, both shopkeepers were game, as well as the teacher, but once again all the artists were useless for our purpose. On the third night we had two more teachers, a gardener and two artist. This time the teacher and one artist wouldn't be able to help us, but the gardener and the other artist might. The artist was well known for his pottery and was one of the alternative people who hadn't turned his chip back on. When we told him of our little project he was quite enthusiastic, saying that pottery was probably quite a useful skill for the gypsies. The gardener was a gruff man, but claimed to be willing to teach the gypsies to take care of our garden. On the fourth and final night we had one more teacher and four artists coming by. The teacher and three of the artists were useless to us, but the fourth artist seemed willing to help out. She was a painter and though she claimed not to be very good, her works sold well and she had already done some part time work as a teacher in art classes. We told her we didn't need perfection, and that her teaching experiences would be invaluable to us. And so in all we had found two teachers, two shopkeepers, three gardeners and two artists. Which wasn't a bad score if you considered that the figures said that ninety five percent of all people had had their chip turned back on.
The next friday we had a staff meeting, where everybody could get to know each other and where we explained the goals of this centre and our ideas on how to accomplish them. We explained that we wanted to start teaching the gypsies useful things so that a couple of generations from now they would be able to reenter society. One of the teachers wondered if we couldn't just take their children from them, have them adopted and send them to school. Redhead replied that that would be a very cruel thing to do, taking children away just because they had other values than we did. He told her that he had seen plenty of signs that the gypsies did indeed value their children, they merely expected them to contribute to the group a bit sooner than we did. He said that our goal was merely to give them a bit more equipment to add to their society, equipment that would later on also become important to be able to blend in with our own society. We told them that for now our plan had four pillars, first the growing of food to be able to better sustain themselves, secondly to sell the surplus food and to trade other goods, thirdly learning crafts and arts that would allow them to earn a bit of money and finally to educate them. The first pillar was relatively easy and had already been set in motion, the gardeners would simply support us and the gypsies by offering us more knowledgeable man power to man the gardens. The second pillar was also set in motion and the shopkeepers would simply relieve us in the shop, giving us more time for other things. The third pillar was a bit harder, as it involved a new kind of project where we would teach the gypsies crafts and arts. So far we could only offer pottery and painting, but we'd like to offer more and would be looking for more tutors. The potter then suggested that we might look to people at renaissance fairs who gave demonstrations of old crafts. Old fashioned shoe making or some such might also be a useful craft and we'd be able to sell the shoes for quite a sum of money to further support our plans. The final pillar was harder still as it would require convincing the gypsies that education was a good idea. We had come quite a way with our reading and writing classes, but we wanted to go further still, so that maybe some years from now the first gypsy children might be able to blend in with the crowds and go to a proper school and get secondary education. One of the teachers suggested that we might work towards a proper school where we'd reintroduce school uniforms. If all the children looked the same, they'd probably be able to see each other. She added that she knew this would take time, as the gypsies had to be convinced that our people weren't ghosts, but we were making quite some progress already and who knew when this might be possible. A gardener suggested that we might look for sponsors for the gypsies to be able to attend school somewhere in the future. We treated all ideas equally, no matter how far fetched they were. After all we were trying to do the impossible, the brightest minds in the world hadn't been able to solve this problem in a couple of months. Who knew what foolish idea might work if we just gave it some thought. We also discussed the possibilities of recruiting more volunteers and what we'd do with the money that would come in. The decisions were that more volunteers had best be sought as soon as we had proven that our concept would work and that the money would at first be used for supplies and maintenance. We could always consider paying small wages later. And then the night was over. Further details on the exact schedules were delayed until later meetings, when only the people involved would attend, as it wasn't very useful for the shopkeepers to listen to a discussion about the hours the gardeners would keep. The last decision of the night was to have a general meeting once every two months to keep each other updated on the progress that was being made and to decide on the future course that we would take.
And so the next few weeks were spent in yet more meetings with all parties involved. The psycho twins took charge of the store and rotated shifts with the other two shopkeepers. Redhead took charge of the gardeners and made all the arrangements with them. My sociopath sister arranged everything with the teachers and I was in charge of the artists. I also sent in frequent reports to our patron, as I could no longer claim him for just myself. For the gardeners it was decided that they would at first work together during the weekends and on wednesday night, so there wouldn't be any big conflicts between the things each told the gardening apprentices. The shopkeepers managed to keep the store open during the weekends and most of the evenings every week. The teachers set up a schedule of classes, at first only during the weekend, as we had two classrooms and two teachers, who also both had a job, but with plans to expand as soon as more teachers were found. With the artists I agreed that the potter could have the workroom on wednesday evening and the painter on friday evening. I would give workshops on saturday. All this gave us plenty of room for expansion later. With all the schedules complete we sent out the peddler to find us the people to fill the classes and workshops and also some people to help out in the store. We also spread the word about our endeavor on the bulletin boards for people who could see the gypsies, where we could the idea that we might include some of them in our workshops to let the gypsies get used to working with 'normal' people. We thought about this, but left the idea to simmer for a while as this might still be one bridge too far for many of our pupils.
It took the peddler a few weeks, but after a while we had gardening apprentices of all ages, we even had a few toothless bag ladies joining in. We welcomed everybody with open arms. Our classes soon filled with the younger children who loved to learn. The workshops were also quickly filled up and we soon decided to keep them limited to a few weeks only, so we could accept more people. The immense popularity of the workshops also had me decide to sell or trade art supplies in the second hand store for the gypsies, so they could make art outside of the centre as well. We also bought their art if we thought it was good enough to sell and hung it in the galleries. Finding people for the shop was a bit harder, as this also required contact with 'normal' people and that was still a hard thing for the gypsies to do. Working with a select group of people who taught you things was one thing, but seeing people come in who didn't see you if they passed you on the street was quite another. Fortunately the store didn't require much work, and we could always help out if necessary.
Soon after things started taking off, redhead created a website for the store with the public opening hours. This was soon also expanded to include the galleries with their opening hours and pictures of the work on display. He used an easy to use interface that allowed the rest of us to help him maintain it, and I quickly added a photo gallery with pictures of the gardens, the store and the galleries themselves.
Things ran pretty smoothly and time simply flew by. It was hard work especially as all of us had either a full time job or had to go to school beside our work at the centre. But we all loved it and soon the first year had passed and I entered my final year at college. Redhead had already graduated and had found himself a job as a programmer at a small company nearby. Fortunately they did most of their work in town, so it wasn't all too often that he had to leave town for his work and it didn't interfere with his work for the centre. The psycho twins were in their final year as well. My sociopath sister had failed some classes and in whatever spare time we could find I tried to help her studying so she wouldn't get too far behind. Soon the psycho twins and myself had to find a subject for our graduation research. Of course the subject wasn't all that hard for us, what was harder was to find the right teacher to evaluate it, as it had to be someone who could see the gypsies. Then we had to find the proper thesis that we could do the research for, as it had to meet the requirements of our respective fields, but would also have to be done during our work for the centre. And finally it couldn't be about a thesis that had been done before. But when the time came that we had to start on the research, each of us had a thesis that complemented those of the other two, so we could do our research together and write a single paper to cover all three. It turned out that nobody had dared discuss the gypsies before us. And so we decided to find out what had went wrong when the chip had been introduced, how the separation had become so complete and we'd include our findings on how to reverse the separation. All in all it was a daunting piece of research, but we felt we had already done quite a bit of preliminary work and would be well equipped to complete it. For our research we also spent a lot of time in old people's homes. We dug around about research papers that were written in the time of the introduction of the chip and we interviewed the oldest gypsies we could find. It took us more than six months to get all our research done and after that it took another two months to get the paper written. After we handed our paper in we had to wait a few weeks for it to be read before we could defend it, but defend it we did and we got a stunning full score and a request to have the article published. Of course we liked to have it published and so we spent another few weeks editing the article to prepare it for publication with the help of our teachers. And then some months later we had the actual magazine in our hands with our article in it. They had even put the subject on the cover and had made it the main article. We were absolutely thrilled. But all this had kept us so busy, that none of us had even wondered what we would do next. And once again the decision was more or less made for us, some weeks after the article came out we received an invitation to attend a seminar about sociology and psychology to talk about our findings. By now we had noticed the decline of our bank accounts as I had been able to make very many paintings during our research and though they had had jobs too, they had had to cancel them as well what with our workload. We invited our patron over to lunch at our place to discuss the future once again. He agreed with us that this was important and that scientific awareness might lead to solutions. So we made a deal that we'd pay as much of our rent as was possible while this lasted. Our patron added that this might all well lead to a good job somewhere at a scientific research institute. We all agreed that this would be a nice dream to cling to. We finished our lunch and our patron headed back to his office again.
After two months of furious preparations, in which we put together a presentation, for which I selected a couple of paintings to illustrate our point while the other two selected pictures of the centre and such, delegated our duties at the centre to others, packed our bags and said our goodbyes, we finally hopped on the bus to the airport where we'd take a flight to the other side of the country where the seminar would be held. At the seminar we turned out to be the youngest contributors, which wasn't very surprising when you thought of it. Most of the time newly graduates wouldn't get a chance such as this, as you had to prove yourself in your field first. A little more surprising was the fact that we were also the youngest visitors. It seemed as if there was a gap of about fifteen years between us and everybody else. And so we had to contend with stares and whispers as those who hadn't heard of the 'miracle children', in other words those that stared, were informed by the others, the whisperers, about who we were and why we were there. Our first day at the seminar was pretty lonely, and I was very glad we were there together. We visited quite a few interesting presentations, though none were about the gypsies. Our presentation was scheduled on the second day and we were glad of it, as after a whole day the stares got on our nerves a bit. And our nerves were already a bit fried as all the presentations we had seen were of quite a different caliber than ours. But we had made a promise and would see it through. If they didn't like it, we would likely never be asked again and wouldn't have to deal with this kind of thing anymore. Just after lunch we had to bite the bullet and stand in front of the audience. It seemed as if everybody in the seminar had turned up for our presentation as the room was absolutely crammed with people, with many of them standing at the back or the sides as there weren't enough chairs to hold them. We almost felt sorry for the other people giving a presentation at the same time, but we later heard that they had rescheduled their talks so they could attend ours as well. Literally everybody at the seminar had crammed himself into the room to hear these kids speak, curious about the subject or curious about whether they could form a coherent sentence at all. As soon as the lights dimmed the room became absolutely quiet. The psycho twins had insisted I kick the presentation off. We had decided to show a couple of pictures and paintings first to set the mood. I clicked through the images one by one from the sidelines. When the images were done and our introductory slide appeared we entered the stage and I introduced the three of us, telling a little of our backgrounds. I told a summary of the story of all that I had done and seen since the solar flare and the reason for my interest in this field. And all of that in ten minutes, as we only had one hour to tell the entire story. I then went on to the sociological aspects of our research and after that I handed the microphone to one of the psycho twin who told about the psychological aspects that he had investigated, followed by his twin and his part of the research. Finally I ended the presentation with our conclusions and the things we had already accomplished. Throughout the talk it had been so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. But now there was some time left for questions and they fired question after question at us. How did we find our contact, how did we convince the gypsies we were not ghosts, how many gypsies came to our classes, how fast did they learn, had they really taught themselves not to take notice of us, and on and on, way past our preset hour, we tried to cut them off after the hour was up, but nobody wanted to listen and when we tried to walk away, we were simply surrounded by the other scientists, and though some might have walked away to go to another presentation, most people stuck around and clamored for us to use a microphone and to repeat the questions as they couldn't hear anything. We cast a helpless glance at the people behind the scenes, but they just shrugged and pointed at the microphone as if to say that we had better answer their questions. It took us another hour to answer all the questions they could come up with and we had to be brutal in turning down questions that had already been asked. It seemed as if they wanted to hear all the answers again and again. After that second hour I started developing a headache and I took the mike and simply referred them to our paper and that they could submit their questions to us by email and that this really was the end as I was getting a dry throat from all the talking. This got a chuckle and seemed to quiet them down a bit and we could finally flee the room to the bar. But once in there we were barraged with questions again and with a glance at each other we fled to our hotel rooms. In my room we gathered as we didn't dare sit in the lobby of the hotel. At first we could only stare at each other, too baffled by what had happened. Then I couldn't help but giggle and soon all three of us were roaring with laughter. I called redhead and our patron to let them know what had happened and they were just as stunned as we were. The next day we found out that there had also been a journalist in the room as we had made it to the paper. Which we found out because we got a paper thrust into our hands at breakfast. It wasn't on the front page, which would have been ridiculous, but we did make the main article on the science page. School kids stun scientific world, said the title. Which wasn't very accurate of course, as we weren't in school anymore, but it wasn't all that far from the truth either. Over breakfast we discussed our course of action, would we go back to the seminar and face whatever was waiting for us there, or would we run back home and see if we could find a bit of anonymity again. I was almost willing to run back home with my tail tucked between my legs, but the psycho twins convinced me that it wouldn't solve anything and besides, who knew what kind of job offers we'd get if we stuck around. But it wasn't until they mentioned that we had better be around to nurture the seeds we had sown, lest they grown into monstrous proportions that might smother they gypsy people that they convinced me. Of course I couldn't let such a phrase pass by me without mentioning that they watched too many horror movies. And with their reply that they didn't watch nearly enough the discussion was over. 
Before going through the doors of the seminar I had to swallow hard and we wished each other luck with a promise that we'd try to stick close together. That day we spent every minute we weren't at some lecture talking to other scientists about what could be researched next, how our methods could be improved and in some cases even the importance of our research, as some of the scientists had turned their chips back on thinking the gypsies weren't interesting, relevant or simply too inferior to us to keep them in sight. Fortunately the scientists who thought so also though us beneath their notice, so we didn't have to defend ourselves to them all that often. The seminar lasted two more days and we kept on talking and talking for so long that we often missed a lecture as we didn't get away quick enough to be able to enter the room before they had started. Finally we were able to go home again and get some rest. For a few days all we could do was sleep, relax and work at the centre. But soon enough our rest there was over too, as the scientists found us. It wasn't long before we got requests to come by the centre to study what was being done there. We waited with our replies until after the next general meeting at the centre as we wanted to discuss this first. I had put it on the agenda as the last point, knowing that it would probably take up the entire evening otherwise. And it did indeed issue a heated discussion. The conclusion of which was that we'd interview the scientists on their intentions before letting them in, as we didn't want them to do anything that might crush the trust we had built with the gypsies. As the three of us still didn't have a job and we'd probably need most of our time to keep the scientists in check, we decided to ask for a donation in return for our help. We'd take a certain part of that per hour as wages, and all the rest would go to the centre. Just so we'd earn a minimum wage to live off.
And thus we started a new round of interviews. Letters were sent out to the scientists telling they could come over, but only on our terms and part of those terms was that their research had to be approved by us first. A whole list of research requests were sent in and we invited only the scientists whose research didn't seem to blatantly disregard the safety of our personnel and the gypsies, and which also seemed to allow us to maintain our bond of trust. Quite a few rejection letters were sent, but the list of people to be interviewed was still quite long. It took us quite a few days to work through all the interviews. Some interviewees still got sent away, as they betrayed their intentions in their answers to our questions. Each had also been asked for the timespan he or she would need to conduct their research and what they would like to see, so we could make a schedule for when the research could be conducted, as we didn't want to have more than one of them around. Some researchers wanted to bring in an entire team, but we objected saying that they had the choice to limit themselves to one researcher or not to be let in at all. Of course the donation also met with some resistance, and this we countered with the argument that they were using our facilities and they didn't come for free. In the end we had ten candidates left who agreed to our terms. These we invited all at the same time to show them the schedule we had come up with. Everybody grumbled, even those that got to go first, and so in the end we got desperate and had them draw straws to determine the new order. We sent them home telling them we'd make a new schedule and send it to them to inform them of when they'd be welcome. We warned them that we'd be very strict and so they had better be there at the appointed time and day, as research that wasn't finished in time would have to wait until all the others had had their time first. This would mean a delay of at least a year. The first researcher to come up was a man who simply wanted to see everything we did with the gypsies and how they responded to that. He behaved every bit the ghost, by staying almost invisible in the background, and the gypsies got a bit  nervous of him. We told him to come to a picnic we'd be organizing and to socialize with his research subjects, or otherwise we might cut his research short by sending him home. If our pupils got nervous they were distracted and this interfered with out work. And our work would always have priority. He grumbled a bit about it interfering with his research if he got friendly with the subject, but came anyway. He even had a good time of it and told some stories and shared a few jokes with the gypsies. He explained what he was doing and why he was so quiet and never said anything. After that the gypsies accepted him. 
Shortly after we had started, another guy came waltzing in claiming to have an appointment made with the manager. He found me intercepting him and when hearing his story, I merely raised my eyebrows. I took on a tone that was every bit as haughty as his own and informed him that I was the manager and that he had just gotten himself on our blacklist, as we didn't tolerate such behavior of the scientists who did their research with us. In the end I had to ask for assistance from one of the gardeners to remove the raving man from our premises. As he stalked off, I warned him not to come back as the next time I'd call the police to have him removed.
After two months our first researcher's time ran out. He announced that he had enough material to write a paper and determine what his next piece of research would be. He bought a painting that one of the gypsies had made of him during his observations and said goodbye to all of us. He was followed by a woman who was mostly interested in the kind of art the gypsies made. We had warned her in advance that art wasn't something the gypsies did before we taught them, but she wanted to see anyway, saying that whatever they did now must reflect their culture, as art always reflects a culture. And she was of course partially right. The gypsies who partook in the art classes did have their own preferences, like bright colors, but other than that they usually painted whatever we taught them, with a few exceptions. And so her research became the predicted fiasco, with her complaining in the end that we held the reigns to tightly and didn't allow them to express themselves. When her two months were up, we simply told her that we had warned her in advance and that she might go looking in other places to see if she could find art forms there.
The third researcher had only asked for one month and he had devised a questionnaire that he wanted all our pupils to fill in. We told him that not everybody could read or write, so he would either get a very skewed image, or he would have to actually interview the people he needed. In the end he was forced to ask for our help in interviewing the gypsies as most of those who could read and write were the children who were in our writing classes and they were not really his intended target group. When he came to me with his request, I arched my eyebrows and asked him what was in it for us. At first he simply stormed off, but two days later when his deadline starting pressing on him, he came back telling us there would be another donation based on the number of people who could help him. He mentioned a number and I told him that I at least would help him and I'd ask around if there were any more people who were willing. Upon hearing the amount he offered, all the volunteers were in, especially as we offered them all half of the amount as a personal reward. Thus, at the end of the month the man had about a hundred interviews filled out. But when I mentioned that he didn't really have a control group to check his findings against, he shot me a murderous glare saying that he knew he didn't, but that he didn't have an entrance to those people. I had already asked the peddler if he would like to take care of that for a fee, and so I could now suggest to the researcher that I knew somebody who might be able to help him and gave him the name and address of the peddler. This certainly changed the look on his face and he thanked me kindly, even buying a couple of the cheaper paintings. I could tell he merely picked them by price to do us a favor, but accepted the money he offered. Secretly I was glad that he had only bought them for their price, as one of the paintings was done by a gypsy who hadn't sold any art yet so far, despite all his best efforts.
And then came number four, as we called him ever afterwards. First of all, the person who came wasn't the person we had interviewed. Instead of the friendly woman we had interviewed they had sent a senior researcher who seemed a lot more arrogant. Secondly, the research he tried to do was quite something else from the research request they had submitted. The submitted request was about interviewing people, but this man actually had the nerve to ask us to shuffle the gypsies around to expose them to other stimuli as he called it. Of course we simply refused, saying that all courses were on a voluntary basis and we had nothing to say over who went where. In the end he spent his entire allotted three months trying to convince us and when that didn't work, trying to rearrange the gypsies himself. But the gypsies quickly discovered, as in within five minutes, that we didn't agree with the guy and that they were free to ignore him and soon treated him as a ghost. The man fumed at us the entire time and heatedly demanded his money back, to which we calmly replied that he had had his three months of research time to do the research he had submitted. It was his own fault that he had wasted them on something else. If he still wanted to do the original research he could try and get another time slot. In the end we called the two gardeners to remove him from the premises. And either the threat was enough, or he decided that we were right after all, because he left. 
The fifth researcher came in and once again held some interviews. His views were highly distorted and no matter what the subjects answered, he twisted their words until they fit with his ideas. To counter this, one of the psycho twins wrote a short paper on his research and asked him if he could mention the man's name. He kind of forgot to mention that it would put him in a bad light, but the man was vain enough to allow it and not interested enough in what a child, as we all were in his eyes, would write to actually read what was written about him. We never did find out where his paper was published, but as it wasn't in all the big magazines he had claimed it would appear in, we figured the little paper had done it's job. 
And then another year had gone by. We didn't make much money, but it was enough to pay the rent and to keep the centre open. In the general meeting it was decided that we should go looking for more people to set up classes as there was more demand than we could fill. Redhead was put in charge of human resources, as everybody else was busy already. In this meeting it was also decided that I was officially in charge of directing the researchers and all my other tasks were permanently delegated to others. The first person we would attract was an artist to take over my art classes. My sociopath sister was put in charge of finances as our simple balance was becoming quite a bit of work. It was also decided that her first task would be to find out if we could pay minimum wages to our volunteers and to make them official employees, so that maybe they could extend the number of hours they worked for us.
That evening when we came home, I found a small romantic wrought iron table with two matching chairs in my room. The room itself had been decorated by candles and on the table was a vase with a huge bouquet of red roses. Just as I was looking intently at the flowers to see if there was a card in there, redhead came in with a bottle of champagne and a little gift. He asked me to sit down and after putting down the champaign held my chair for me. When I was seated he took the chair opposite me and took my hand. He turned the palm up and put the present in it. I looked at him partially bewildered, not quite ready to believe what this meant. But when I opened the present I found a little jewelry box that I opened without speaking. Where others might have gotten a ring with a huge diamond, my redhead knew me well enough to put in a plain silver ring with a few inlaid tiny stones. Inside the ring was an inscription of our names and the date. He shyly added that he had wondered if he should put a question mark behind it, but that he had decided against it. I told him it was beautiful and that the answer would be yes if he were to ask me. He then dutifully asked me if I would marry him and I almost knocked over the flowers in my hurry to kiss him. While he caught the flowers I told him once again that I would love to. As soon as the kiss ended I told him that despite the fact that he might not be ready to go further now, I did expect him to be ready on our wedding night and he promised that he would be. All the rest of that night was spent drinking champaign and eating chocolates that he conjured from somewhere and discussing what might be the best time to hold the actual wedding. By the time we remembered that it might be polite to inform our parents and the others it was long past bed time and we delayed the big news until the next day. 
As a wedding would take a lot of organizing and we never had much time we decided to wait until the current batch of ten researchers had all finished their work and to plan in a break of a couple of months in the research then to find the time to organize it. This would also allow redhead time enough to attract a few more people to expand our resources and to plan a breather of a few months for himself as well.
The next day we broke the news of our engagement to the others and when asked for the date, we told them that we'd discuss that at the next general meeting, but that it would be at least another year. We both also immediately called our parents and received all the same questions again. With the addition of the question when we'd be coming by again to show them the engagement ring. We promised them that we'd make a quick visit the next weekend. And finally I called my patron as he was almost a second father to me. He demanded to be included in next week's tour and we promised him a few minutes of our time as well. Redhead told me that we'd better get up really early next week if we wanted to let everybody admire the ring. This reminded me that I would have to call my friend as well and that she'd demand a visit as well. Which elicited a groan from redhead. I made the call and promised to visit her briefly as well. Next up, I checked whether there were any early morning or late evening flights that would take us to my parents so we'd have a little more time. Unfortunately everything was already booked. But redhead liked the idea of leaving the night before and we decided to drive as far as we could and then to simply take a motel if we didn't make it all the way. 
After that we had to hurry to make it to the centre in time to open up for the new researcher. This time it was an older man who was trying to bend our rules by bringing an assistant. We told him that either his assistant went home or they both did. Our rules had been made clear from the beginning and everybody had to comply to them. He tried to plead that we had only disallowed several researchers and how he normally had at least three assistants for his research but had already downsized his staff to oblige us. We firmly repeated our threat and in the end the researcher sighed and told his assistant that he could take the car as long as he would come back for him in the evening. We courteously allowed the assistant to help him unload the car and bring all the equipment inside, but drew the line there. If we hadn't been so busy being firm with the researcher we might have marveled at his cartload of equipment. It was truly amazing what he had brought over. Most of it we couldn't even recognize. It turned out that his firm wanted not only a psychological essay, but also quite a bit of other data about the gypsies. He had brought eye measurement tools, hearing tests, thermometers, silly looking contraptions that did who knew what, forms that had to be filled out and lots and lots more. Because we didn't really trust him, as he'd already tried to bend our rules, we insisted that he explain each and every test to us and to perform them all on us first. We also decided without talking about it that one of us would be present during his tests at all times. He discarded quite a few bits of his equipment then, saying that it was because his assistant was supposed to operate them. We had a feeling that this was only partially true and that he simply didn't dare use them under our scrutiny. We kindly asked him why he had taken them along if he couldn't operate them on his own, and followed this up with the question if he would be so kind as to take them back home again, as room was scarce in our building. We offered the use of a couple of metal closets that could be locked up, which he gratefully accepted when he heard that our doors wouldn't be locked. We promised him that the door of the room would be locked as well, but he still decided to take a few of the more expensive pieces of equipment home with him at night.
We could never be quite certain that our suspicions were true, but he did nothing to assuage them either. Every once in a while he kept trying to send us on little errands that would leave him alone with one of the gypsies, but we always managed to prevent it. I think those three months were the heaviest of all the research months we had been through so far. 
That friday night we hurried home after work. Redhead picked up our bags and put them in the trunk, while I made some sandwiches we could eat on the road. I also made a thermos of coffee for him and grabbed a bottle of soda for myself. As soon as we were finished we hopped in the car and headed for my parent's place. We made nice progress and at ten we started wondering if we'd keep going and arrive at my parents' place around midnight or if we should find a motel to continue in the morning. I called my parents to let them decide and they assured us it would be fine to come by that night, but only if we weren't too tired to continue. Redhead assured them he was fine as the coffee I had made was nice and strong and would definitely keep him awake. And we did indeed arrive just before midnight, sore, tired, but happy we had made it safely. My parents ushered us to my room immediately where they had already prepared beds for us. As soon as my ear touched the pillow I was asleep instantly.
The next morning, just as I was about to inform them that we wouldn't have all that much time, my friend came over, telling us that our patron would come this way as well, so they could all have a bit more of our time. She had only just finished saying this when the doorbell rang again and our patron was standing there with a box and some flowers in his hands. As my mother was standing behind me, he shoved the box in her hands and gave me the flowers. The box turned out to contain some delicious small cakes that we could eat over coffee. I thanked him and went to the kitchen to put the flowers in a vase. My mother followed me and I told her we'd probably leave the flowers here, as they wouldn't survive our trip. For lunch my mother had planned some delicious sandwiches with salmon and cream cheese, and various other fillings. We spent that entire day talking, mostly about the wedding, but also about our work at the centre and how we might soon receive actual wages for it and how we would also attract more people to help us in our work. Our patron was very proud of us and wondered out loud if we couldn't open up another centre elsewhere. We told him that we weren't quite ready for that, as we still had to put the current centre on the right track. He replied that we should keep it in mind nonetheless. We promised that we would of course, and the talk drifted back to what we would and would not like for our wedding. I bet that if we had let him, our patron would have paid for the whole thing, but we said that it was our wedding and that we would pay for it as well. When we said this he looked at my parents and exclaimed that children grew up so quickly, which had everybody laughing. That evening we went out for diner and after diner we went straight to bed. 
The next morning we left before breakfast as we wanted to get to redhead's parents in time, as we would have to leave them shortly after diner already. It was of course a lot more quiet at his place, and we had to answer all the same questions about the wedding again, but it was a pleasant visit nonetheless. Shortly after diner we hit the road again and arrived home late that night.
At the general staff meeting that occurred during the three months that our sixth researcher was there, we asked permission for a couple of research free months so we could spend our time preparing for our wedding. Everybody loved the idea and quickly agreed on the condition that we'd have the party at the centre. This would of course take a bit of work, but we loved the idea and agreed. 
My sociopath sister continued the meeting by saying that there might be a possibility to start paying our staff but that she'd know more at the next meeting, she had arranged with my patron to receive a crash course in bookkeeping from his financial staff. This was greeted by a loud cheer and was the last point of the meeting.
Researcher number seven had asked for two months to conduct interviews and didn't offer us any trouble. My sociopath sister had found a way to pay us all minimum wages and redhead found some artists and a teacher from some place. They were very happy to be informed that it would be completely voluntary after all, but that we'd be able to pay them, even if it was only a little. The teacher replaced my sociopath sister in her teaching duties, as bookkeeping and planning now took up most of her time. One of the artist was a female painter and though she taught quite differently from me, and different techniques as well, the gypsies loved her. The other artist was a rather abstract artist who sculpted beaten metal. His class had to be scheduled on a day with no other major activities, as the noise was deafening. But once again, the gypsies loved it and quickly adapted the techniques to make utility objects instead of abstract art. I had a feeling the artist didn't exactly like this, but he put up with it as the gypsies practically venerated him. Some of the artist gypsies also offered to help out with the permanent exhibitions we offered. They made some small flyers that they spread door to door, posters that they hung all over the city, though we warned them that they would only be seen if they were put in the places that were meant for such posters. Going through town I spotted a few posters in the wrong places, but mostly the posters hung on the billboards that were meant to hold them. A brave couple of tough guys also offered to actually work in the gallery and we gave them a crash course in treating potential customers nicely, so they wouldn't take out their knives. We made sure that they were never left alone with customers, as you could never tell when they felt insulted. In all those years I had worked with them they had never attacked anybody but their own, but as we were slowly convincing them that the ghosts were people just like themselves, we deemed it a wise precaution. 
We were very glad when all their effort seemed to be rewarded and sales picked up. In fact the tough guys turned out to be very good salesmen who seemed to know just what to tell the customers to entice them to buy a painting. It was truly a marvel to behold and one of the best moments of the day was when I could just listen to them sweet talking the customers. The best theory we could come up with to explain this was that they had all learned to sweet talk as kids to stay in the good graces of their protectors and were now merely applying those same techniques. After all, among them a kid who couldn't talk himself out of all the situations they got into didn't live very long as nobody would feed him. We also felt that some customers came in just to hear them talk other customers into buying something, and some of them probably even came to be charmed themselves. In the end it didn't matter, most customers came in bought something, even if it was just a small trinket. The idea of small trinkets led me to ask redhead to hunt for a jewelry artist. I told him that it didn't matter if it was probably even better if it was somebody who worked with beads instead of actual jewels and silver, as beads were relatively cheap and I felt that we'd be able to sell lots of cheap jewelry to make a profit off. He promised me he'd go looking and see what he could find.
It seemed as if time flew, because before I knew it we had another artist who worked with beads, another gardener who specialized in flower bulbs that we could sell, and a fourth teacher as well. It even seemed like we might make a profit at the end of the year. And suddenly the first batch of researchers were gone, the next set of applications was waiting for me to approve them and we had to start the preparations and set an actual date for the wedding. I hurried through the applications to get them out of the way and informed all applicants that I deemed worthy of an interview that we'd be doing interviews for research spots in four months time. 
The first task redhead and I set out to fulfill was to go to the town hall to set a date. We discussed all the reasons we wanted to get married and finally set the date on April the fourth. This allowed us to go on honeymoon for a couple of weeks before having to get back to work. After the town hall we went to all kinds of shops that sold wedding dresses and anything else related to weddings to look around to see what we liked and to get an idea of the prices. Everything was horribly expensive of course, but with our wages supplemented with the vegetables from our garden and the revenue we got from my paintings and the occasional website redhead made, it wasn't all that much of a problem. But there really wasn't much that I liked. Most dresses were either too bare for the beginning of april, which could be a very cold time, or had too long a train to be comfortable. In the end I decided to find some nice fabric and make my own dress. Redhead didn't much like the idea of a tuxedo either and so we decided to go in matching home made costumes. This put some strain on our timetable of course, but I figured we could manage if my mom helped out a bit. She would be thrilled to be asked anyway. Redhead came up with the idea for a gypsy themed party, but then a bit more like the gypsies of old with brightly colored clothes in clashing colors and large gold ear rings. I loved it, as it also allowed us to buy some stuff instead of having to make it all. For a cake we wanted an old fashioned gypsy trailer colored red, blue, green and yellow with large spoke wheels and a gently sloping, arched roof. I planned on drawing a picture of it as a model and to go on the invitations as well, but first we went shopping for the rings. We chose a set of simple golden rings that were basically a plain band with some grooves like scratches running lengthwise along the ring. As we already had the location, this saved us some time. All we needed was music to brighten up the party. If I'd known any gypsies who could play instruments I would have asked them, but what I'd seen of them so far didn't involve any music, so we went hunting for a group who played festive old fashioned gypsy music. As we couldn't find anything running through town we went home to scour the internet instead. The first thing we did when we came home was call both our moms to ask them if they would be willing to get together and make our cake if we delivered them a design. Both of them protested that they had never made wedding cake before and we promised them enough time to practice and that if they wanted they could do a course on novelty cake making that we'd pay for them. Redhead's mom took us up on the offer, but my mom said she'd practice on some smaller cakes on her own. 
While I went to the attic to paint, redhead went searching for a band. That evening as I came down with some sketches, he had a small list of potential candidates. He also mentioned that we hadn't thought about the catering yet. I suggested that we might ask the psycho twins to coordinate, we'd probably have volunteers enough to help them prepare the food when we asked our gypsy kids. The twins, when asked, claimed that they loved a good challenge, and the kids always loved to help and were ecstatic about the responsibility. From the minute we asked them the twins and the kids spent every free minute in the kitchen practicing making treats for our guests. They went all the way through easy cookies to get the kids used to some simple utensils and hygiene, to complete salads where they had to split eggs and use the food processor. 
That night we spent some time going through the sketches I had made and selected one that I would expand on. For our mothers we'd need a couple more sketches than the one that we'd select for the card. As it was getting late, I didn't continue the sketches that evening.
In the morning we went clothes hunting. We started out at the second hand store at the centre and found a shiny blue blouse for redhead that fitted him reasonably well. I picked a pretty yellow scarf to tie around my hair and a bright green long skirt. From there we went on to other second hand stores in town. I found a red skirt with a cinched waist and wide sleeves in another store, and redhead found a pair of purple trousers with wide, flaring legs. He also bought a pair of yellow sneakers and a red bandanna. After roaming through all the second hand shops we still lacked a few attributes and went through all the regular clothing stores, where I found a pair of cute red boots, that made me decide to shorten the skirt a bit to show them off, and redhead selected a green vest without sleeves. With this we considered our outfits complete and we went home again for the rest of the preparations. As we needed to send out the cards soon, I went back to sketching as redhead continued searching for a nice band.  The psycho twins asked us if we had any preferences for the catering, but we told them that they'd have a free reign and that we'd let them know the approximate number of guests as soon as possible. We spent the evening listening to samples of the bands redhead had found, giving each band twenty seconds per number for three numbers. We quickly whittled the list down to five possibilities and then went to bed exhausted.
On the third day I went up to the attic to start painting as redhead started compiling a list of people we should invite. During lunch he showed me the list as I scarfed down some sandwiches, eager to continue the painting I had on my easel. In between bites I added some mutual friends that weren't on the list yet, and some people I knew from university, telling him to add some of his former friends as well. As soon as I put the last bite in my mouth I quickly gave him a peck on the cheek and hurried back upstairs again to finish the first painting. Later on, redhead came up to abduct me for diner and to have a peak at the painting. The trailer was almost finished and I had just begun outlining the background. He told me it looked beautiful, and I replied that it should as this was meant to go on the invitations. We went down to diner, during which we once again went over the list. By now we had about fifty people on it, but we hadn't put on the people at the centre yet. We were wondering whether to invite the gypsies as well, but couldn't really make up our minds. We had started our diner early, as a joint diner always took much longer than if we had our own quick diner by ourselves. So we waited a little while for the others to arrive in the kitchen to prepare their diner and put the question before them. They told us that it would probably be better to organize a second party the day afterwards, as it might become awkward for the guests otherwise, as some would see the gypsies and others would not. This dilemma solved, I was once again able to immerse myself in my painting. That evening I finished the background. Just before going to bed, redhead came in for another peak and said that it might be nice if we'd be in it as well. I hesitated, as it would spoil the surprise of our costumes if I did so. In the end we compromised by having a second painting that would contain the both of us, that would be the goodbye gift. My psychopath sister had said we might hand out gold coins, right before she burst out laughing. But this had sparked the idea that we might hand out chocolate coins instead. Not all that glimmers is gold after all, some might be chocolate. We decided to order a few kilos of chocolate coins at a bakery on the following morning, just to make sure we'd have enough.
The next day we ordered the chocolate and took the painting to a printer to make a card off. They were looking kinda funny when I arrived with an actual painting, but didn't comment on it. They merely scanned the picture and discussed the text on the cards with us. We decided on a folding card with the picture on the front with the word invitation above it, and the actual text of the invitation on the inside. Afterwards the told us the cards would be ready in a week and that they'd call us when they were done. 
Back home we went and listened to some more songs of the five bands we had left until lunch and then decided on one of them. After lunch I started painting again, as we'd need a couple more. Redhead went to try and book the band for the wedding party. I had only just put a new canvas on the easel and taken out my paints when he came up to tell me that he hadn't booked them yet, but that they were giving a concert tonight in a nearby town and that there were still tickets available. I agreed that it was a good idea to go and see them first and he went off again to get us some tickets. I wondered whether I should start on the painting for the thank you notes or those that were needed for the cake, but decided that the thank you notes could wait a little longer and that it was more important that our moms had the design for the cake. I had already selected a smaller canvas and went to put on the outlines of the side of the trailer. I was completely immersed and lost track of time when redhead came up to fetch me for diner, after vainly having tried to get my attention by calling up the stairs. I kissed him to make up for it and we quickly went down for diner so we'd be able to leave in time for the concert. 
The concert turned out to be great fun. It was indeed the kind of band that would liven up a wedding. As we were there already and the band came out for some drinks afterwards we staid a bit longer and went to talk to them to ask if they had any preferences for a stage. They told us that they didn't really need a stage, as those were really expensive to hire and homemade stages were rarely strong enough to take all the equipment. Our next question was if they'd mind playing outside, as long as it wasn't raining of course. They told us that being outside if it wasn't too cold or wet was fine, but added that it might be wise to have a backup plan, as tents usually didn't suffice. We thanked them and told them we'd make the booking through their website and they replied that they were looking forward to it. When we came home redhead went and booked the band straight away, as we didn't want to run the risk of either forgetting or them already being booked by somebody else.
The next morning we discussed what remained to be done. The catering had been taken care of, or was at least in the process of being so. The invitation were at the printer and all we had to do was wait for them, and the list of people we wanted to invite was finished as well. We had bought the clothes we wanted to wear and also had rings already. The location and the ceremony were planned, and we had plans for the cakes. The band was booked and as far as could see all the remained to be done was finish the paintings and get them out to our mothers and the printer for the caked and the thank you notes. My sociopath sister overheard the discussion and asked us if we'd already arranged a master of ceremony. We told her we didn't and already asked her if she wanted to do so. She seemed a bit uncomfortable being asked in such a way, but as the psycho twins were already too busy with the catering, she agreed anyway.
And so the next couple of days were spent painting, while redhead went and made the final arrangements. When the cards were ready he picked them up and I changed my brush for a pen to write the addresses on the envelopes of the cards. This took us a few hours and then redhead went to buy stamps, as we'd completely forgotten about them. He took the cards wit him and put them in the mail straight away. I picked up the brush again and put the last few splashed of paint on the last painting. I now had a series of four paintings. One of the trailer as it would be on the card. One very similar painting with us in our gypsy clothes waving goodbye at the viewer, one of the side of the trailer and one of the back. 
We took the pictures to the printer again and ordered thank you notes on thick paper. They only printed them by the hundred, so we decided to hand them out to everybody, including the gypsies on the second party. We also had some copies of the other paintings made so we could send them to our moms. 
And then all the preparations were taken care of, except for maybe the decorations a the centre, but we didn't plan much for that anyway, as it was perfect for what we wanted as it was. And so we simply went back to work at the centre, as we'd be bored otherwise. There wasn't much to do for us at the moment, so redhead went to work on the website and I simply used the time to paint some more. I wondered if we should send invitations to the gypsies as well, but figured that most of them couldn't read anyway and by now everybody who had anything to do with the centre must have had word of the upcoming party. 
When the invitation reached all the invited people, we got a few phone calls about who would be master of ceremony, what we'd like for a wedding present and what they should wear. The first question was easily answered, to the second we'd reply that we'd think on it and the third answer was that it should all be as bright and clashing as possible. Just as long as they didn't wear any black suits, they'd be fine.
And then all of a sudden the days started flying. The weekend before the wedding our parents came over and our moms started on the cake in our kitchen. The psycho twins started preparing the snacks that would keep a little longer on the dining table, as they'd been chased out of the kitchen to their dismay. In between the preparations my father suddenly asked where we'd go on our honeymoon and we looked at each other in alarm. We'd never thought of that after mentioning going on a honeymoon. So we were forced to reply that we had no idea. This answer was repeated for all those who hadn't heard it in the first place and soon everybody in the house was roaring with laughter. At first we looked a bit embarrassed, but soon the laughter became contagious and we joined in. We decided on the spot that we'd do a tour around the country, as that would allow us to simply dump our suitcases in the trunk and leave, with no preparations necessary. 
Two days before the wedding the cake was finished and the mother's tried to find something to carry it in, as it had become quite large and we didn't have anything in the house that could hold it. Just before they actually started bickering, I sent them out to find something in the store. I gave them a tape measure to find out how large the box should be and as soon as they had the measures written down, chased them out of the house. The psycho twin immediately commandeered the kitchen again, and in order not to seduce any of the kids, I moved the cake to the dining room table. When they came back they carried a huge cake box and a cake platter. They gently moved the cake from the cutting board they had made it on, onto the cake platter and then put the cake platter in the box. Once that was done all we could do was wait. We spent the time bringing up stories from the past, or rather our parents dug up the stories, the person who they were about endured them with much embarrassment and the other person roared with laughter. We didn't see much of my sociopath sister as she spent most of her time at the centre and we didn't see much of the psycho twins either, as they spent all their time in the kitchen. All we heard from them was the occasional request for some ingredient or other, either because they ran out, or because something had gone wrong. And then the morning of the wedding had arrived. When I woke up I found redhead was gone, nobody could tell me where he had gone, only that he'd be back any minute now. His wedding clothes weren't where we had put them the night before, so that combined with the reassurances of the others made me certain he'd be back in time, but I'll admit I was nervous. When he came back it turned out he had been picking some wild flowers for my bridal bouquet. In the mean time I had gotten dressed as well and so had the rest of the family. Just after redhead returned our parents showed up at the door in their wedding outfits and they were a lovely clashing ensemble. The psycho twins were still running around in their normal outfits trying to finish the last of the snacks. The kids were already running to and fro between our house and the centre to deliver all the snacks. A few of them staid there after the first run to guard what was left there, as they were afraid it might get stolen otherwise. We doubted it, but encouraged them in their responsible behavior as they were very solemn. It turned out that each of them had traded their clothes at second hand stores and they now all wore the same mismatched outfits as we did, and it even looked as if they had taken a bath and scrubbed their nails for the occasion somewhere. I had no doubt the psycho twins had something to do with this, but didn't mention it. It was a beautiful day and we decided to walk to the town hall.
Just as we were about to leave for the town hall we got a surprise. Our patron came driving into the street, only he hadn't brought his usual car with driver, but had arranged for a trailer just like the one on the invitation, pulled by a span of horses. On the box was a driver in a colorful gypsy outfit, and when our patron jumped out he was wearing the most magnificently clashing outfit with a dashing hat, complete with feather. He invited us into the back and said we'd go to the town hall in style. Our parents took a car and were therefor waiting for us when we arrived. It turned out that the psycho twins had also found the time to finish up, get changed and be there in time. In fact everybody we had invited was there and they all were the most colorful clothes they could think of, so we were literally a colorful group. It turned out that my sociopath sister had even informed the registrar, as he was wearing an outfit that I highly doubted was his regular attire as well. The kids were there as well and when I passed them on my way in, they whispered that they had found some other gypsies at the centre to take over their guarding duties, as they didn't want to miss this. I loved to see that all the girls wore a wreath of flowers on their hair and wished I had thought of it. 
After the ceremony was complete we walked outside and were covered in rice thrown by everybody who had trouped out before us, which was the biggest part of the group. We took the trailer to the centre and were once again preceded by everybody else, though I did wonder how the people on foot had managed it. At the centre everybody was waiting in a line and we had to shake the hand and receive congratulations of everybody we passed. My sociopath sister had set up a long table over some of the flower beds that the presents could be put on, she informed us that the bakery had already delivered the chocolate coins, and that she had set the kids to work on bundling them with the thank you notes. We nodded our thanks and went to mingle with the crowd as everybody logically wanted to talk to us. Soon the psycho twins and the kids were running around with snacks and drinks and we sampled everything they had made. After a little while my sociopath sister, as master of ceremony, announced that there would be some speeches and sketches and people started grabbing chairs to see it all.
My father had written a letter that he nearly declaimed when reading it. Our friends from the boards acted out our first meeting and of course exaggerated grossly, pretending we hadn't looked at anything else but each other, no matter what we did. It was highly amusing to see nevertheless. Then some relatives of redhead had a song about us, and despite not knowing them, they knew an awful lot about me.
For diner they had arranged huge platters of salad in different flavors and also big piles of bread. And as everybody had been eating their snacks all afternoon, this was more than enough. Around eight the band came in and started setting up their instruments. The tables with all the presents and food were put inside and as soon as they started playing, people started dancing and clapping along. All in all the party was every bit as perfect as we had imagined it. The music went on until eleven, as we didn't want any trouble from the neighbors, but people stayed chatting and drinking until past midnight. Everybody who left got a card and some chocolate coins pressed into their hands by the kids, so we didn't have to worry about those either. The last guests to leave were our parents and friends, who went home with us around two at night. 
The next morning we slept in, as the party for the gypsies wouldn't start until the afternoon anyway. We woke up, got dressed, had brunch and then headed for the centre again. We cleaned up the mess that had been left behind the day before and got everything ready for the party later on. Soon the kids started arriving with the dishes again, followed by the psycho twins. Soon the first gypsies started arriving. At first it was all a bit awkward as they weren't used to having parties, but my sociopath sister surprised us again. She had organized some music lessons with simple instruments with a couple of the gypsies. They played with more vigor than talent, but it soon became a raucous party with lots of wild dancing and singing. The snacks were highly praised and when word got out that the kids had been involved you could actually see the appreciation of them rise in the eyes of the others. Some girls even tentatively asked if they could learn as well. The psycho twins were delighted when they heard it and proclaimed that they would set up a cooking course, as soon as they could get the equipment for it. The food ran out a bit faster than before as there were a lot more guests running around. As soon as it did, the guests slowly disappeared again, not all at once, but gradually. The musicians were the ones to stay the longest and my sociopath sister finally thanked them and gave them all some chocolate coins as a reward. She did warn them not to eat the aluminum foil, and showed them how to remove it. They ran off, treating the coins as a true treasure, and they probably were. We didn't think they'd get much chocolate, living the way they did. 
After sleeping in yet again, we packed our bags, wondering all the while what to bring as we had no idea where we'd be going or what we'd do there once we arrived. Our friends offered some ideas on the things we could look at and the stuff we could do. They said we should definitely go and see the falls, skiing in the mountains might also be fun, or hiking in the forest. They offered us one suggestion after the other, mostly what they would have liked to do if they got the chance. We just told them we'd see if we went by there. Once our bags were packed, we said goodbye and just left. Our first stop was the gas station to fill up the tank and to by a road map. We picked a little town a couple of hundred kilometers away from home that seemed as if it was in a lovely area and drove there, stopping along the way every once in a while to eat or drink something. We searched for a hotel but found only a decrepit motel, we thought about it, but decided we wanted a bit more luxury and drove on. The area wasn't as pretty as we had thought it would be either, so we just followed the road until the area became a bit better. At the next town we found we stopped again to ask about a hotel and were told that there were three, but for a honeymoon we should definitely take the one that was a bit more expensive than the others. We thanked the people who told us and went in search of the mentioned hotel. It was indeed a lovely hotel, at least on the outside and we went inside. The lounge was filled with plush sofas and a friendly receptionist told us that they had a honeymoon suite that was affordable, or rather she told us the price and we decided that it was affordable.
The suite was lovely. It had a wonderful kingsize bed, a gorgeous bath, candles all around, fluffy towels and bathrobes in the bathroom and lush carpet on the floor. On the bed stand was a wine cooler with a bottle of champagne in it. And in the corner of the room was a small table with two huge chairs beside it that looked wonderful for reading. 
We sat down on the bed and I poured two glasses of champagne, not caring if it was included in the room or would show up on the bill later. I had a hunch that the painting of the trailer that I had painted first, the one that didn't have us on it, might just be sold by the time we came back as I had hung it in the gallery before we left. I offered one to my redhead and he took it without speaking. We could both use a little liquid courage. When he had finished the drink he resolutely put it aside and though I was still sipping, he started unbuttoning my shirt. In between the sips I kissed him long and deep, and every time we came up for breath I took another sip. As soon as I finished the drink he took the glass from me and put it away as well. We slowly continued undresssing each other and drank the sights of each other. Slowly we started stroking and finally after all this time our hands found the parts of each other that had remained hidden before. Slowly ever so slowly, we went further and further, until redhead froze again. I immediately stopped, sensing that something was wrong. When I asked him about it, at first he insisted that nothing was wrong, but when I nagged a bit he confessed that he had been abused by an older man as a child. He didn't tell me who it was, just that his parents had nothing to do with it and that when they found out about it broke all relations with the man. He had been afraid of sex ever after. I stroked his hair and back and held him close, murmuring that despite my earlier demands I would never force him to do something that he didn't want to and we spent the rest of the night just lying in each others arms, stroking and kissing. 
During the day we went for long walks, read the books we had brought and enjoyed the sights the town had to offer. At night we played around with each other. On the second night I suggested we take a bath and redhead said he'd love to. We filled the bath with hot water and added lots of bubbles to it. And despite my intentions, we merely played around with the foam as little children. Afterwards we dried each other with the huge towels and told stories of when we were little as we lay in each others arms. And so slowly night after night, we continued to go a little further until he finally let his guards down and found out that having sex was supposed to be fun and that it could actually be that way for him as well. After two weeks in that hotel we went home again, glowing and happy. During those weeks we had talked about having kids and what we'd like to do with our lives and had decided that we'd pursue our career of world changers for a little while longer.
Back at home they were stunned when we told them that we'd spent the entire two weeks in the same hotel, but when they heard about the room and the sights we'd seen and the hikes we'd taken, they agreed that it must have been a wonderful vacation. And despite my vague fears, nobody made any lewd suggestions about what we'd have done there. But maybe that was because we were a married couple now. As soon as we were done telling about our holiday they told us that they were thinking about finding a new room for the gallery, as we could really use the space to start cooking courses and more art workshops. We both agreed that it was a good idea, and they replied that they had already been out looking for a room, thinking that if we agreed they had already started on the work. We assured them that we'd probably have done the same, with me admitting that I might not even have thought of waiting. They had seen one or two places taht might fit the bill as gallery and they showed us the brochures. The locations looked promising indeed, right in the fashionable centre of town. We might even attract quite a few more customers there and perhaps even some more chique ones who migh pay more as well. Our patron would probably have the connections to get the right people to be host there as well, beside our own salesmen of course.
Soon after, we went to visit both locations to see how much work we'd have to do and what the locations were actually like. Both places seemed fine, the stores that were in them now looked in good condition and we asked them why they were leaving. for one it was going on a pension, as the lady running the store was seventy already and hadn't been able to find a successor to take over the store. The other store was simply moving to a bigger place as they had grown out of the current one. Both stories seemed to inidcate that nothing was wrong, but to be sure we also asked the neighbors. They seemed like nice people and responded well to the idea of an art gallery beside them. They also confirmed the story that both places had been doing fine. We went back home again and I tried to contact our patron. His secretary told me he was on a business trip and wouldn't be back for several days. She asked me if I wanted the number of his hotel, but I told her it could wait. I informed the others and they were disappointed, but agreed that it could wait a few days.
In the mean time, redhead and I were thinking about what we'd do. Stay with our friends, or find a place of our own. The thing that bothered us most was that neither of our rooms were big enough to hold a double bed and so we were forced to sleep apart. When we discussed it with our friends they told us that we might also consider swapping rooms and just breaking out a wall between two adjacent rooms to create a bigger bed room. We considered it and tried to figure out which two rooms could best be made into one, but no two really seemed to form one whole and the two rooms that best seemed to fit, looked to have a supporting wall in between them. We even considered confiscating the attic, but it wasn't so big that it could easily hold a bedroom and still function as my work room for painting. I didn't really like the idea of paint splatters all over the bed covers. As we couldn't really think of a solution for the current house, we started looking for a small house of our own. But everything we saw was either too large, too expensive, too small or too decrepit. We visited every real estate agent in town, but they didn't offer anything we liked.
Then our patron came back and we gave him a call about the gallery. He promised to come over to ahve a look as soon as his work permitted and asked his secretary to see if she could make an appointment with us. She looked into it right away and told us that he was always the most busy just after a trip. In the end she rescheduled some other appointments to create a hole that was big enough to come visit us. Three days later we had put our plans to paper just in time for his visit. He seemed every bit as enthusiastic as we were and immediately approved. When we told him taht we couldn't choose between the two locations, he said he'd pull some strings to have a few of his befriended gallery holders come over to have a look and give some advice over which of the two might work better. We had diner together and then he left again.
And then it was time for the next round of interviews with the researchers. So when three weeks later our patron called us to tell us he had bought one of the locations for a gallery, it almost caught us by surprise. And so while I kept busy with the researchers, the other four spent most of their time redecorating the new gallery with the help of our patron's people and our gypsy salesmen. They gypsies wanted bright colours, but the gallery people quickly showed them with a few examples that a neutral color was a better idea as it didn't clash with the paintings. Despite the fact that we had expected them to soon be at war, it turned out that the gypsies accepted their authority and soon behaved as pupils, which in turn flattered the gallery people and so they got along just fine.
The interviews proceeded fine, thought they cost a lot of energy. I had to turn down quite a few researchers again as we stuck to our rule of only one person at a time and allowed nothing that would or could harm the gypsies. It was amazing what people thought they could get away with just because most people couldn't see the test subjects. I even had one researcher who wanted to take out their brains to see if there were any differences with a normal brain. When I sarcastically asked what they'd do with the rest of the body the man didn't even notice the sarcasm that was almost literally dripping on the floor. He replied that they'd put them on ice until they had come up with some good research for those too. That's when I exploded and yelled at him to get out or I'd take out his brain to use as a study object for one of my paintings. At first he was outraged by my attitude, but as he finally saw the pure rage shooting from my eyes, he paled. He left without another word, clearly shaken. Fortunately for both me and those that followed, I had a few more minutes to compose myself before the nxt interview. 
This round of interviews we had six researchers who were allowed to spend some time with us, of whom two were old acquaintances. I simply gave all of them random time slots of the length they had requested, with the order being determined by picking little notes with their names on them from a cookie jar. And then simply told every researcher who complained, which was pretty much all of them, that there was no way the slots could be rearranged anymore as all the other researchers had already agreed. This quietened the protests to a mere grumbling and saved me a lot of hassle.
Just as the first researcher came round, we could open up the new gallery. Most of the paintings had been transferred there already and the psycho twins were already working out how they could turn one of the now empty rooms into a huge kitchen. They had found a huge oven with gas stove on it that they loved, but my sociopath sister informed them that the centre's resources wouldn't be sufficient to purchase it. Especially not after refurbishing the gallery. At first they were disappointed and moped around a bit, but soon they were thinking of fundraisers. They spent hours brainstorming about lotteries, cooking marathons, giving parties with an entrance fee that they would cook for and all other possible wyas of raising enough money. I think I even heard them mentioning robbing a bank as an option somewhere. In the end they decided on a garden sale where they'd sell their delicacies, in combination with a raffle where people could win other delicacies with the main prize being a place in a cooking workshop. Cooking workshops could also be preordered, to be given when the new kitchen was complete. They had spent some time on selecting the recipes they wanted to use for the first round of workshops and had printed the schedule on some large posters that would be hung around the centre. As soon as they were finished planning, which was surprisingly quick, they discussed a date at a specially scheduled general meeting and got started on the posters that would announce all their plans to the general populace. At the meeting the gardeners had promised some more ingredients, like apples, mushrooms, potatoes and onions, that could be sold or raffled off. The shopkeepers also had some goods left taht they were about to toss out anyway and I offered a painting. The other artists quickly followed suit and all offered bits and pieces of art as well. This really pleased the psycho twins of course and they offered to prepare the snacks for the opening of the gallery. Not that they wouldn't have done so otherwise, but we all knew we were in for a treat now.
The opening of the gallery was a great succes. The high and mighty mingled with our loyal customers and seemed to be just as charmed by our salesmen as our regulars were. They'd probably call them rustic when they got back to their mansions. The snacks were also a huge succes as expected and when it was announced that the cooks were present, they got a hearty round of applause.
For the garden sale the psycho twins had sent the gypsies out to hang their posters all over town. As the big day approached they spent every minute of their waking hours in the kitchen assisted by the kids. Redhead was sent out to find a large assortment of plastic containers to hold all the food. When he came back with them he had also bought a large amount of small stickers to hold the prices and some larger stickers for the labels. As soon as the first dishes were finished, the kids were put to work writing labels and price tags. And instead of racing each other to get the work done, they were challenging each other to create the most beautifully written labels, cheered on by the twins whenever they came in to bring more containers and to take back the containers that were done. Soon enough our fridge was full to bursting and as the kids were still busy, redhead was recruited again to take some of the containers to the centre to be stored there.
And then the day of the garden sale dawned. it promised to be a beautiful day, so I put large tressle tabels outside with the help of some gypsies. The current researcher wasn't all that happy with all this abnormal activity, but I told him this was an excellent opportunity to observe the interactions between the gypsies and socalled normal people. This made his attitude towards the even turn like a leaf in the wind. he still wasn't very helpful, but at least he didnt'get in my way anymore, tyring to claim my attention. Instead he grabbed a chair and sat back to watch the proceedings. though when it got a bit more crowded he went inside and upstairs to get a better overview. And it did get crowded pretty soon. the gardeners soon ran around with police tape to save their gardens as the thoughtless visitors were on the verge of trampling them. It was made clear on the posters, but we still got asked what the cause of the event was quite a few times. both the sale and the raffle were going very well. Just after lunch all the tickets for the raffle were sold and the twins shuffled the vault with tickets and drew the winning tickets one by one until all the prizes were gone. The main prize was won by a small kid who had gotten a ticket from his mother. His mother tried protesting that he was too young and that the workshop would probably be way too late for him anyway, but the psycho twins assured him that neither was he too young, nor would it be too late in the evening. He could even choose between wednesday afternoon and saturday morning. hearing this his mother relented and said he could go to the saturday workshop.

At the end of the day they sat dwon to count the day's revenue. After deducting the costs they had made, they had almost enough money to buy the furnace. The last couple of hundreds they were lackign could be supplied by the centre. the twins were ecstatic and were ready to run to the store right that moment. Of course it was late in the evening and the store was closed, but that didn’t put them down in the least. 
Soon afterwards they had their furncace installed and after putting in some solid work surfaces and a double sink instead of the small one that had been there, they could start the workshops. Thye had several in fact, one on wednesday afternoon for paying people, one in the evening for the gypsies and one on saturday morning, for people with money again. The workshops were a great succes and after the first round they started differentiating between a beginners class and an advanced class. The gypsies didn’t have to pay for the classes of course, but they had heard of the fact that the other people did have to pay and so they started bringing stuff they thought we could use instead. Some brought food they had grown, others brought in clothes they had traded for the store. One gypsy even brought an apron every week that she had made from all kidns of little bits and pieces of fabric. And surprisingly this didn’t make them look shoddy, but merely colorful. Thus after the workshop ended we had aprons for all people who joined in the workshop, to protect their clothes during the cooking.
Life went on, the researchers came and went, one class followed another, and redhead and I kept looking for a place of our own.
And then came the day when one the first gypsy asked us about entering normal society, having a house and a job. It was one of the hard faces men who todl us he had grown tired of all the violence and the cold nights and that he no longer believed all those other people were ghosts. He had seen too many of us at the centre and had seen that we didn't differ all that much, except for the violence. I told him that our life wasn't all roses either and he said that he had already seen that. We told him that it would take quite a while before we could help him into our society as he had been born a gypsy and wasn't in any of our registers. We promised him we'd do anything we could to get it arranged as soon as possible and called our patron while he was there to show him we meant it. Our patron promised to ask his lawyers and we suggested we could go visit the mayor. Our patron agreed that this might be a good idea.
So we dressed the gypsy up in a suit and took him along. At first we were treated like a joke, but when we had finally gotten through to them that this man really was one of the invisible people, they got quiet. After a long silence they asked us what we wanted and we explained that we wanted to talk to the mayor about reintegration. They told us they'd put the message through, but that the mayor wasn't in today. The day after there would be a town hall meeting and as it was open to the public we could come back then if we wanted. We thanked them for their help and told them we'd be there. At first we were a bit disappointed, thinking that they hadn't been too much of a help, but when we got back for the meeting the next day, we found out that they had even put us on the agenda. And despite the short notice the city council had alredy given it some thought. With one exception they all thought it wonderful that we had found a lost sheep wou'd come back to the fold. Unfortunately they had no idea how to accomplish this task. Nowadays everybody was in the system and they had no idea how to get somebody into it who wasn't a newly born infant. There was simply no option to put in a date of birth taht was more than two weeks in the past. All they could suggest was taht we'd take it up higher to the people who ruled the country. They did give the man permission to inhabit a house if somebody would arrange it for him. At the end of the meeting they decided to have the mayor write and sign a letter to proclaim him a citizen of this town. Thim might help him, or it might not, but at this point there was no more they could do. the gypsy thanked them all and to their surprise shook everyone's hand.
On the following day he could go to collect his letter and of course he showed it to all of us as soon as he had it. Just after he got back fom his visit to the mayor, our patron called to tell us that his lawyers had figured that the would probably have to be treated as an immigrant. This was an approach we hadn't thought of and we wondered how such a thing would work. Fortunately the lawyers had figured as much and could tell us that  usually somebody would go to the consulate or embassy of their own country, but if there wasn't one, which was clearly the case for the gypsies, they would have to send an application form to immigration. Such a form could be easily found on the immigration web site and could simply be filled in and either sent by fax or by mail to the right address, which was also on the site. We in turn told him of what we had accomplished and he advised us to send a copy of the letter along with the form. We thanked him and hung up to go search for said form. This was indeed quickly found and we rpinted a few copies so we wouldn't have to do it again if we made a mistake somewhere. It wasn't all that easy to fill in the form as the man had no papers at all, but we filled it in as best we could and sent it along with a copy of the letter. We warned the gypsy not to get his hopes up just yet. The institution we had to send the form to was notorious for it's bureaucracy and might turn him down. We also promised him taht if they did reject him, we'd contact the lawyers again.
We had to wait for two weeks and in that time we tried to figure out what the gypsy would like to do with his life. He had been one of the students in our reading class, so he already had some use of the written language. We encouraged him to read as many books as he could and fed him book after book. he was also part of our gardening crew and though he liked it, it wasn't something he'd want to do forever. He tried his hand at thelping out in the store, all our art workshops, the cooking workshop and helping out in the gallery, but nothing seemed to fit. In the end we just looked up some tests on the internet, but quite a few of the questions were useless as they were meaningless to someone who hadn't been raised in our culture. So at last we decided to wait with the decision until he had integrated a bit more in our culture.
And then the reply to his application finally came in and as we had feared it was a rejection. Apparently the person treating his application had succeeded very well in forgetting all about the gypsy affaire, as he treated the application with scorn, as if it was some sort of bad joke. We sent a copy of the  request and a copy of the rejection letter to the lawyers and once again had to wait.
As we waited, we went in search of an integration course and some evening classes to get him a little more up to date on all his missed education. There were no integration courses in out town, so we scoured the internet for one that would either be taught online or at a distance. It took a while, but we finally found one that only asked for a mail address and money, and not the usual credentials. we did ask our patron to check it out, as it was a bit strange taht they were the only ones who didn't ask for them, no matter how convenient that might be to us. But it was in fact an approved institution, so there didn't seem to be a problem. So we enrolled him and had the materials sent to our place. finding an evening school turned out to be a lot harder, as all of them wanted to know stuff like a social security number. And as he was vehement in his wish to go to school under his own name, schooling would have to wait. The same went for jobs, and so we simply hired him as a gardener with the strict instructions not to tell any of the others as we didn't have the money to pay everybody. His pay was minimal and we kept a tally for him as he didn't have a bank account yet and would keep on living as before until allt this was resolved. Or rather, he would spend his days at the centre getting in his hours as gardener, in the evening he'd dine with us and did his homework and when there was time left he'd read a bit and afterwards he'd go back to the centre to sleep there, as his cupola in the park had been claimed by another.
Weeks went by before we heard from the lawyers again. When they finally did contact us, it was to report that we'd have to go to cours as immigration didn't want to go back on their decision. we told them that we'd do it as we had no other options. Agreeing wit hthe decision would make illegals out of all the gypsies and that seemed highly unfair to us. We spent some more time discussing how to approach this, whether the gypsy should come in his old clothes or his new suit, whether he'd have to stand in there alone, or if we could join him. We decided on his old clothes to get our point across. Of course we'd bring the suit along, just in case it was needed. We were also told that the gypsy would have to stand in front of the judge alone, although they would be right behind him. We would be in the room, and we might be called forward as witnesses if necessary.
Of course it was weeks before we could actually go to court as the court system hadn't gotten any faster over the years. And then it was finally time to go defend our gypsy. We had put him in his most scruffy outfit so taht if people couldn't see the gypsies we'd know about it. As we entered the court room we had to sit with the crowd, waiting for the time when we would be called in as witnesses. The gypsy took place with his lawyers in the bench for the defendant. quite a few people in the room looked up, confused as they could only see the lawyers. The judge looked disturbed as well, and even more so when the lawyers responded to his questions by telling him that their client was in their midst. He repeated the question and again got the same answer. some people in the audience sniggered, but others were just as confused as the judge. The judge called the lawyers forward and asked them what was going on. They patiently explained the whole situation in hushed voices and he sent them back to their places again. he told everyone in the room that this case was adjourned until a fit judge could be found to preside it. We all trouped out of the room again and wondered how long it would take. We were still in the hall discussing things with the lawyers when the judge came out after having taken off his robes to reveal his everyday clothes. He came over to our little group and asked us more questions. Amongst others about if we expected more of these cases. Our lawyers replied taht it depended on the outcome and whatever new legislation on the subject of immigration might arise from it. But if immigration kept balking at every gypsy aplication they received, there would definitely be more cases. And likely in this court house as well, as our little action group seemed to have gotten the best results at reintegration so far. The judge seemed to think on this reply for a while and then announced, mostly to himself, that he had better have his chip turend off again then. When I asked him what had made him decide to turn it back on after it had failed in the first place, he replied sheepishly that at the time nobody knew a solution and to him the gypsies had only been a nuisance who marred his otherwise perfect world. he then asked rather lamely why we hadn't had our chips turned back on. I only looked him in the eye and told him that this case was exactly why. I too had seen the blemish on our world and instead of turning a blind eye, I had wanted to fix it. The others nodded their agreement and the judge muttered something about wisdom coming out of the mouths of children. He then asked out loud for the address of the centre, so he could come visit it when he was fixed again. Redhead gave him one of the homemade business cards he always carried on him everywhere and we said goodbye.
It took them a few days to find a judge who could see the gypsies and the lawyers said they had probably done a bit of rescheduling to be able to get the case over with as soon as possible.
Back in court we saw that the judge was a regular of our art gallery, which made us hopefull, but then as redhead added in a whisper, probably every judge with their chips turned back on would be a hopeful sign. As the session proceeded, the judge listened to the lawyers, had a look at both the application and the rejection and ruled that the rejection was unlawful as the person had been born here and though he didn't have the records to prove it, recent events had shown that his application for the status of citizen was just. As the immigration services hadn't sent anybody to attend the case, they would receive a summons to approve the application immediately. A small cheer went up as soon as the judge announced that the case was closed and we wanted to go out to celebrate immediately, but the lawyers warned us not to cheer to early, as they might still go to a higher court to fight the decision. They figured that perhaps immigrations had thought that no judge would go against them in their decision and had therefor neglected to send someone. But that didn't mean they would just approve the application now. So we merely had a cup of coffee at our house to celebrate this one victory, hoping no others would be needed.
Maybe it was because we never made the news to publicly disgrace them, but they simply approved the application on the court's order and sent the papers to us. And that made the first civilian gypsy. The first thing we did was to give a big party and after that we started the jobhunt anew and also enrolled him for some evening classes. As soon as he found a job as bouncer for a bar, we went looking for a place for him to live, as he would now have enough income to support himself. Of course he didn't earn much and could only afford a tiny appartment, but to him it was heaven anyway, being used to nothing more than a cupola in the park. Everything he had earned with us in the past few months made a nice start towards buying some furniture and clothes. Not a great start, but certainly better than nothing.
After that it took a couple of months, but when others saw how great he was doing, despite the struggle he still had to go trhough, others came to us telling us they wanted to join our society as well. Not many, as their beliefs were deeply ingrained, but maybe once or twice a year somebody came to us. And it remained a steady trickle after that. Shortly after the bouncere had found himself a home, our patron called to say that he had found the perfect location for a second centre if we could find some people to man it. In my old time, where he still lived, he had found an old factory compound. As so far nobody had wanted to buy it, they were about to demolish it to sell the land instead. If we hurried we might just buy it, before they tore it down. he had had some independent testing done to see if the land was good enough to farm on and nothing harmful had been found, so it would be just perfect. It had several large halls, with walkways on the wall that had probably been used to inspect the large machines that had been in there. Some of those might be split up into several levels by building floors in them, and others might stay in tact to become galleries. Around the factory was a large terrain that was mostly paved, but the stones could be taken out so the ground could be farmed. We told him we'd call him back the next day, as we needed to discuss this first with the rest of the group. We immediately called everybody from the centre to see if they were available for an emergency meeting and surprisingly most of them were. We all hurried to the centre and we informed everybody else of the offer we had received. The first thing they wanted to know was if this project could work in that town, as we needed contacts with the gypsies to get it started. On this point we could reassure everyone, as the smaller projects we had started all those years ago were still running and doing great. In fact there was more demand than could be supplied, so a centre would be great. The second issue was taht the people who'd work there would have to move, as the distance was too great to commute. Unless, as one of the psycho twins mentioned, you had an airplane of your own. As we didn't, we would have to move. I really liked the idea of going back there, as I would be closer to my parents and old friends, though I didn't like the idea of leaving my new friends. Redhead announced that he wouldn't mind going either, as we couldn't find a house here anyway, we might just as well try there. The psycho twins and my sociopath sister announced that they wanted to stay, as this centre needed management as well and they liked our house too much to leave it behind. Not to mention that if we all left, we'd just abandon the kids who all but lived in our garden. Of the artists one was willing to move as he didn't really have any roots here anyway. The others wanted to stay, as did the gardeners as they still had other jobs here as well. One of the teachers who we had long suspected to have a crush on the artist who wanted to come, announced that she would come as well, to which my sociopath sister announced that she might as well just ask the artist if he would like to live in the same house with her. Before the teacher could say anything the artist announced taht he wouldn't mind that at all and we were all stunned speachless. The teacher beamed and timidly asked if he wasn't kidding her. He announced that he wasn't and on the spot asked her to marry him. She blushed fiercely, but disappointed us all by saying that she'd have to think on that, but that she would definitely agree to being his girlfriend. The artist said that that was enough for him, and said that we should get back to the issue at hand, namely the new centre. As there were now four of us, and I had a feeling that my friend would be willing to join us as well, it was decided, we would go and open up a new centre. The rest of the meeting was spent discussing what needed to be done in the old centre to make the transition as smoothless as possible.
At the end of the evening, we were nowhere near the end of the meeting and so we decided to have another meeting the next week. On the next day I first called our patron to tell him we had a small team to get started and taht we'd come over soon to have a look at the location to see what would have to be done. He told me he had already set everything in motion as my friend, whom he had also asked, had told him that she would drag in people off the streets if necessary, but that she would get together a team to get the whole thing on the rails. So my next call was to her to ask her if my people would be allowed on her team. She was exhilerated that I had already found an artist and a teacher and told me that if I brought in so many people then it was my team and not hers. I told her I had been joking and that in our current centre there was no real leader, only equals. And though the meetings could get tedious sometimes, it usually worked out fine. My third call was to my parents to tell them I'd come back to town to live there. My mother was immensely happy and told us we could stay with them for as long as we didn't have a house yet. I thanked her and told her that it would be a while before we could get started yet, as the building needed some work that needed to be done by real builders before we could get started on it, but we'd let her know if we wanted to take her up on her offer.
The next thing we did, well right after redhead had called his parents as well, was to get onto the internet to see if there were any interesting houses there. If we were going there soon, we might as well visit some houses too. In the afternoon we spent some time on posters for the centre to announce our goodbye party, as the best way to breach bad news is with a party. This took us all afternoon and in the evening we could show several ideas to the others when they came back from their work at the centre. We picked one of them as the best option and then brought on some changes with pen that the psycho twins would work on the next day when we had duties at the centre.
The weekend after the next general meeting, the artist, the teacher, redhead and I got in a car together and drove off to my old town to see the new centre. Our patron had offered to pay for our hotel rooms and we had accepted. I hadn't even informed my parents we would be there, thinking that if we had a bit of time left, we'd surprise them with a visit, rather than call them now and disappoint them with our busy schedule. We had a list of addresses taht we could visit, but hadn't mande any appointments as we had no idea how much time we would have. I had informed my friend taht my paretns didn't know we were coming, so she wouldn't accidentally tell them. We had agreed to meet at my friend's place to pick her up on the way to the new location. It would be a bit of a tight fit, as the car wasn't that big, but we dropped off our bags and suitcases in the hotel first, so we wouldn't be hindered by those. When we picked her up she was probably even more excited than we were. For her all of this was new, while we'd been through a similar thing before. At least redhead and I had been. I think the other couple were simply too busy with their feeling for each other to feel much of anything else. We met our patron at the new site and he gave us a tour of the building and the grounds.
The building was indeed magnificent. It had three big halls, and several smaller offices that were perfect for smaller workshops. My friend started trying to figure out which of the rooms would go where, but when she began about a large kitchen for cooking workshops I gently reminded her that it was wiser to wait with such decisions and the accompanying investments until we knew there was both a teacher and an interest in cooking. When she looked disappointed I hurriedly added taht I didn't doubt much that there would be an interest, but we'd really ahve to wait to see what kind of volunteers we could attract first. Redhead added that we would at first create simple general rooms that could be used for anything and would later on figure out what we'd do with them. We decided to have two of the large halls split up into two floors and keep one of them for a gallery, as that would offer more than enough exhibition room. Our patron made notes of all our decisions that would require builders to do the work for us. Outside we had a look at the layout of the grounds around the building. In the front of the building there was a small parking lot that looked as if it was used by executives. We decided that we might want to keep that to have some parking space for our clients, as the centre would be a bit isolated and there wasn't much room to park in the area. At the back there was a much bigger parking lot. This we wanted taken out to create a small meadow like we had at the old centre with gardens around it. Our patron agreed to have all the bricks from the paving taken away, as it would probably break a few backs if we tried to do that on our own. We had a drink from the bottle of champagne he had brought, with a very small glass for redhead as he still had to drive, and then we left again. We dropped my friend of at her place and drove around to see which houses we wanted to visit. When a house looked nice on the outside we simply rang the bell and asked them if we could have a look. Even when we were refused and asked to make an appointment we kindly thanked them. In the end we got to see three houses that day, as a few didn't want to show us their house without the real estate agent, and a few others simply weren't at home. Two of those were rather small and would hold only one couple, but the third was big enough for all four of us and would perhaps also allow for our friend to live there if she decided she wanted to join us. On the way to the hotel in the evening we discussed what we had seen so far. The two small houses weren't really what we liked, but the large house might be an option. The artist and the teacher were hesitating as they had been used to living alone for most of their lives. Redhead and I said that we didn't mind either way. We were pretty used to sharing a house by now, as we hadn't really known aother way of living. As none of us had any urgent business that would require us to be back on monday or tuesday, we decided to stay a couple more days and make appointments to visit more houses. As the next day was a sunday and the real estate agents wouldn't be in anyway, we decided to take a day off. The teacher and the artist decided to walk around a bit more to get to know the area, and redhead and I decided to sleep in before visiting my parents. 
On monday and tuesday we visited some more houses before going back home again. The next few weeks were spent discussing the places we had seen and making plans for the goodbye party. Our patron had called to say that construction would take another few months, so we had set the date for the party accordingly and had hung the posters trhoughout the centre so people could get used to it.  A decision was made on which houses we would buy, as the teacher really didn't like the idea of so many people in one house, because as she said it would take enough getting used to to share the house with one other person. As soon as the decisions were made the finances had to be taken care of. Our patron had to help us out again, as for the time being we wouldn't have much of an income and certainly not enough to get the proper mortgage.
And then finally after months of preparations the centre was finished and our houses were handed over to us. It was an insanely busy time and I can't even remember how we got through it. I think the peddler and my friend did most of the work. As soon as the peddler had heard of our plans he immediately agreed to move his store to the new centre as well, as he didn't want to be left behind. He even suggested taht if we could find a builder who was willing, we might even train some gypsies while building a small cottage for himself and his boy. And then when the dust settled a bit, with our houses being decorated as well as the new centre, we could finally open up the centre. Most of our old apprentices came to work for us as gardeners, so we didn't have to look for those. With myself and the other artist, art workshops could be started up right away as well. Redhead volunteered for the store again and my friend decided that she'd do the cooking workshops herself, at least until we found somebody who was a better cook than she was. At the opening we revealed a name plate that our patron didn't know about. We had deliberately kept it a secret as we knew he would protest otherwise, because the plate carried his name. With him having donated so much to our cause, we had decided to name the centre after him. 
The start of this centre went much more smoothly than that of the first centre and we were soon running at full speed. And as soon as some of the apprentices heard of the gypsies who had become civilians at the first centre, they sent in application forms as well. And after a few years redhead and i decided that we had actually succeeded in making the world a better place. Everywhere around the world centres like ours were springing up and gypsies were reentering civilisation. And more and more people had their chips turned off again. Not everybody did of course, and not all gypsies changed their ways, but we had made a good beginning at mending the world again.