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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

Dani the Hero - 1. Chapter 1

Greetings, returning readers! Back in the summer I said that, if I wrote another entry in the Ravello series, I would want to tell a different sort of story.

That’s what I’ve tried to do here. As such, let me be honest about one thing right from the start: this is not a love story! Daniele is only twelve, and he has other things on his mind. However, I hope his eventful story will capture your imagination in other ways.

Daniele Ferrero crept along the narrow concrete wall beside the little road, his arms thrown out for balance. He kept his eyes forward, doing his best to ignore the drop of several metres to the terraced lemon plantations below.

A hero wouldn’t fall, he thought.

A slight young boy of twelve (but almost thirteen), Daniele wasn’t that tall, but he would have told you that he wasn’t that small either. To his own eyes, he was totally average.

Others might have told you differently. With his inquisitive blue eyes and soft mop of light blond hair, both so unusual in southern Italy, Daniele already stood out from the crowd. If you added his fondness for tie-dye t-shirts in all manner of pastel colours (today, he had chosen his favourite light pink one), Daniele’s look was anything but ordinary, and the other kids around him knew it and marked him out for it. Some of the girls at school had already started to notice him, but Daniele was happily oblivious to their interest.

Daniele glanced out to sea, and the late April sun dazzled him for a moment. In that instant he wobbled, and he made the mistake of looking down. A sprawl of netted lemon trees swam into view, trained to an unforgiving framework of rustic chestnut poles. He froze for a moment, temporarily paralysed, but then he screwed up his eyes and tore his gaze away.

A hero wouldn’t be scared.

Last summer, he had fallen from a cliff while exploring alone at the nearby Torre dello Ziro. If it hadn’t been for a few straggly little trees growing out of the rockface that had broken his fall, he would have fallen to his death. Instead, he had tumbled down into a little cleft in the rock and become trapped there, and it had been hours before his disappearance had been noticed. It was lucky for Daniele that he had made a couple of friends around then, and that Toto and Michele had got to know him well enough to guess where he might have gone: that night, they had become his heroes as they rode to his rescue.

Since that horribly memorable day, Daniele had often found himself playing balancing games and doing other slightly dangerous things: pushing the boundaries of safety just a little, but for what purpose…? He didn’t really know.

A hero takes chances.

Okay, so maybe he wasn’t totally average. His two closest friends were four years older than him, for one thing. While the other boys at school built their lives around football, girls and videogames and talked of little else, Daniele was a dreamer, more interested in stories and human emotions than in following the latest trending crazes. At home, there was a pile of handwritten adventure stories, in which Daniele himself starred as a young superhero with a variety of emerging powers; these exciting tales also charted his real-life move, nearly three years ago now, from the bustling streets of Milan to the quiet and airy surrounds of Ravello, high up among the tree-crowned mountains of the Amalfi coast.

That coast enveloped him now. Daniele’s street zig-zagged down the side of a steep hillside scattered with small houses, each one reaching out towards the sea. Below him, an intricate landscape of terraced, cultivated slopes tumbled steeply down to an abrupt end at the water’s edge hundreds of metres below. Beyond the coast road, all that could be seen was a blanket of endless blue. Rocky, tree-crowned peaks stretched off into the distance to either side, interrupted by the occasional grey sandy beach or small seaside town. Above him, one last steep slope criss-crossed with ancient footpaths and steps led up through gardens and prestigious villas to a ridge where the centre of Ravello stood, scattered with old churches, faded palazzi, tall cypress trees and umbrella pines.

It had been another fresh spring weekend. The full heat of summer had yet to arrive, but the April sun was already beginning to punch its weight; Daniele could feel it now, warming his face and his bare arms. His beloved cicadas, whose joyous scraping song reverberated around the olive groves and pine trees of Ravello each summer, were still lying dormant, but the swifts had already started to return: Daniele could hear a few of them now, flying somewhere overhead, uttering their shrill hunting cries. They reminded him of Toto and Michele, who always wore their matching swift pendants when they were out together.

Daniele was proud to be part of their lives. Toto and Michele had been best friends for as long as anyone could remember but, over the course of last summer, Daniele had watched them progress to something… more. He had even played his own small part in helping that to happen, and now they could sometimes be seen walking about town, hand in hand. Some of the other boys at school whispered or laughed about them behind their backs, but Daniele ignored it. Seeing Toto and Michele together gave Daniele a warm, happy glow deep inside; when he was with them, it seemed like almost anything was possible.

Proud as he was, though, Daniele still wished he had some friends his own age. During the school term, Toto and Michele were usually too busy to spend much time with him; Daniele regularly spotted other kids from school going round in twos, threes or even fours, but he always seemed to be on the outside somehow.

A hero isn’t afraid to be lonely.

That was definitely true. How else could a superhero maintain their secret identity?

Daniele came back to reality as he realised he had nearly run out of wall: ahead of him there was just a narrow set of railings. Carefully, he shuffled round, placing the sea view behind him for just a moment as he turned on the spot. He began to make his way back down the wall, but then he halted as he realised that he was being watched; he stood there, arms still outstretched, staring across the street at the onlooker.

“I wish you wouldn’t do dangerous things like that, Dani.”

Michele Romano had emerged onto the sun terrace of the small villa where he lived with his parents, Chiara and Davide. A fit, good-looking boy who had just recently turned seventeen – he was a month older than his boyfriend Toto – he stood at the railings of the sun terrace wearing a navy shirt and blue jeans. He ran a hand anxiously through his mid-length chestnut-brown hair. Michele, Daniele remembered, had a thing about heights.

Daniele smiled and hopped down onto the road. “I was waiting for you.”

Michele shook his head despairingly. “I’d have thought what happened last summer would have made you more careful, not less.”

Daniele shrugged his shoulders. “I’ll be fine.”

Michele rolled his eyes. “I’ll be sure to tell your parents you said that when we’re scraping you off the floor of that lemon grove.”

“Are you still taking me for lunch?” Daniele asked.

Michele winced in mock dismay. “Oh, was that today…? I completely forgot. Toto and I, we’re, ah, going surfing…” he stopped at the sight of Daniele’s patient, disbelieving expression. “You’re totally not buying this, are you?”

Daniele shook his head. “Not for a second,” he grinned.

Michele laughed. “Of course we are, Dani. Do you mind if we walk up, though? My Vespa’s at the garage for repairs. Enzo’s fixing the alternator, or something.” He shrugged, as if to indicate that the details of this were quite beyond him.

Daniele nodded. “Sure.”

Michele stepped down off the sun terrace, letting himself out through a gate onto the street, and they set off together up a narrow flight of concrete steps that snaked up between the houses, the sounds of their footsteps bouncing off the whitewashed walls as they climbed.

“How are your parents?” Michele asked as they went. “I haven’t seen them for a while.”

They passed under some overhanging grapevines, where the new spring leaves were unfurling in a vibrant yellow-green, then they crossed the zig-zagging road again. Soon they were climbing an older stone staircase as they gradually drew closer to town.

“Mamma says the hotel is just starting to get busy again,” Daniele replied. “My dad’s been flat out since Easter… he says it’s like the summer season has started early this year.”

Michele scratched his head. “Who wants taxi rides in Ravello anyway? You can’t even get to half this town by road. Where do they all go?”

“Tourists mostly,” Daniele smiled. “He says the British will go to the beach at any time of year.”

Michele seemed to shiver at the thought. “Really? I’ve only just stopped wearing scarves.”

“And yeah,” Daniele went on, “sometimes my dad says he wishes his car had caterpillar tracks so he could drive it up all the steps.”

Michele snorted. “Now that I’d like to see.”

The hidden villas became grander and the gardens they glimpsed grew larger as Daniele and Michele climbed slowly between the high stone walls of the lane. At last, the steps began to slacken off, and they turned through an archway onto a little street lined with gift shops, where a handful of visitors were browsing the displays of colourful local ceramics and tourist trinkets. Before long, they had stepped out into the main cathedral square.

The square was not as busy as Daniele knew it would become in a couple of months, but there was still a lively buzz to the place as the April sun reached its more modest zenith. At the head of the large, stone-paved space, the simple whitewashed façade of the town’s ancient cathedral stood proud at the top of a short flight of steps. On the raised terrace outside the heavy bronze doors, visitors leaned on the low walls, surveying the scene below.

Backed by picturesquely scruffy buildings adorned with rusting ironwork, the outdoor tables of the square’s four bars had been laid out neatly for the season, surrounded by pots of fresh spring bedding plants that were just starting to grow. The giant parasols that would provide much-needed shade in the summer were folded up for now, but the bars had already attracted a healthy scattering of customers who were talking quietly over coffees and snacks. Pigeons puttered around between their smart trousers and stylish shoes, scavenging for crumbs.

On the far side of the square stood a row of eight handsome pine trees, their umbrella canopies framing a dramatic view over the Valle del Dragone to the neighbouring village of Scala, whose scattered houses lined a single road that snaked its way determinedly up the terraced mountainside. Above the village, the rocky peak of the mountain receded towards the scattered clouds dotted across the blue spring sky.

Daniele took all this in, looking forward to the return of the hotter weather. It would be quieter in the square come the cool of an April night, but for now the summer scene was almost complete… all it needed was the return of the cicadas.

“Where are we meeting Toto?” Daniele asked.

“At his father’s shop,” Michele replied. “We’ll pick him up on the way to the restaurant.”

They strolled past the cathedral steps and turned down Via Roma, a narrow alley that also served as the town’s main shopping street. The alley, dotted here and there with overhanging trees and creepers, meandered between little old shops and houses and even passed under some of the buildings. Toto’s father’s store was just around the first corner.

Daniele and Michele crossed the threshold together. Salvatore’s store was a treasure trove of groceries. A long, narrow shop with a wooden counter running down one side, dimly lit in a chilly blue by the overhead fluorescent lights. The shelves were piled high from floor to ceiling with dry goods and preserved ingredients in cans and jars. Pasta shapes, olives, fresh bread and staple vegetables like garlic, chillies and tomatoes dotted the shelves in abundance. A refrigerator cabinet whirred gently, laden with cold drinks for the tourists and a selection of chilled goods such as salami and mozzarella cheese.

The proprietor and his son were both behind the counter. Salvatore Friuli, a slim man in his forties with a receding hairline and a thin moustache, awaited them patiently at the cash register. His son Toto, sixteen years old with tousled, dark hair and lively, intelligent eyes, grinned at them from a stepladder behind the counter where he had apparently been helping with a stock-take.

Buongiorno, signore,” Michele addressed Toto’s father. Salvatore returned the greeting, while Toto winked at Daniele.

“Ciao, Dani,” Toto said. “Long time, no see.”

“Ciao, Toto,” Daniele replied. “Where’ve you been all week?”

“Papà lets me do a few more shifts now I’ve agreed to stay in school. I could use the money. I’m helping… I think?” he glanced questioningly at his father.

Salvatore nodded with a faint smile. “It’s true. It turns out the boy has a head for numbers as well as languages.”

Merci beaucoup,” Toto replied, slipping effortlessly into French. “Do you mind if we go out for lunch now?”

Salvatore gestured towards the door. “Be my guest.”

“Thanks, Papà.” He let himself out from behind the counter before enveloping Daniele in a playful hug, ruffling his soft hair. “Gotcha!”

Daniele half protested, half giggled. “Gerroff,” he said, pulling himself free.

The three boys tumbled out into the street together.

“Where’s my hug, Toto?” Michele asked teasingly. “Why does the blond kid get all the attention?”

Toto fixed him with a playful look from his intense brown eyes. “Jealous, Michele?” he challenged him.

“Always,” Michele replied, moving in for a kiss, which he duly received. Daniele glanced away, stifling another giggle.

Toto pulled back with the slightest smirk. “I think we’re making Daniele blush,” he commented.

“Are not,” Daniele replied automatically.

“Sure thing, Dani,” Toto said airily, clapping an arm around his shoulders for a moment. “Let’s go.”

Daniele shoved his hands into his pockets and followed the other two boys down the narrow street, passing the town’s handful of clothes shops, where the few quite nice things they sold jockeyed for position with racks of tasteless tourist merchandise. Ravello wasn’t the best place for real shopping, Daniele thought; for real choice you had to go down to Amalfi, or even further away to Salerno. Still, he liked it here.

They came out from among the shops at a tiny square containing an ancient church with barrel roofs and a round cupola. Daniele knew the place well; they were only a few steps away from the school that he attended. For once, though, he was here for a more satisfying reason.

Their destination was Da Rossi, a restaurant that faced out onto the little square. It was only a small frontage, with room for just a couple of outside tables, but inside was a long space that receded into an inviting semi-gloom.

The three boys passed through the doors into the main part of the restaurant, which seemed much brighter and more cheerful now that they had stepped in out of the spring sunlight. A vaulted ceiling divided the room into separate bays with colourful feature walls, which were adorned with black and white photos of old Italian movie stars and an eclectic variety of lamps. Banks of pot plants separated the tables, at which a handful of early customers had already gathered.

The owners, Pietro and Anna Rossi, were an attractive young couple in their thirties. They were talking quietly at the bar; Daniele caught a few words as they approached.

“…I sent him packing, of course,” Pietro was saying. “He had no right…”

Anna frowned anxiously, flicking a stray lock of her long dark hair out of her eyes. “Don’t you think there’ll be consequences?”

“He’s just a jumped-up teenager, Anna,” Pietro replied. “We can’t allow ourselves to be intimidated.”

“I know that; it’s the people he represents that I’m worried about. I hope you’re right about this.”

Pietro nodded. “We’ll see, I guess.”

Anna must have noticed Daniele and his friends approaching at that point. She looked up and beamed at the sight of them, all traces of her earlier anxiety apparently forgotten.

“Ciao,” she cried happily. “How nice to see you all!”

“Ciao, Anna,” Toto replied with a smile. “What was that all about?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it, Toto,” Anna said, brushing her hair back over her ears. “What can we do for you?”

While Toto and Michele ordered some take-away food, Daniele observed Pietro thoughtfully. Despite the apparent confidence with which he had spoken to his wife, he seemed troubled, his brow ever so slightly knotted. After a while, he seemed to notice he was being watched, and he offered Daniele a distracted smile.

“How are you doing, Daniele?” he asked.

“I’m good, thanks,” Daniele replied. He wanted to ask more but, at twelve, he was used to grownups not taking him as seriously as they should, so he kept his peace.

Toto and Michele, meanwhile, were bantering with Anna.

“So, the other day, Michele said you’re more attractive than most boys we know,” Toto was saying. “Should I be worried, do you think?”

Michele flushed. “Toto!”

Anna laughed. “I’m flattered…” she glanced at Michele. “Unless you’re saying I look like a boy?” she teased.

“No, I…” Michele floundered. “Aah!” He settled for punching Toto on the arm. “You’ll pay for that later, Toto.”

Toto grinned mercilessly. “That normally works out pretty well for me,” he whispered to Pietro and Anna.

Daniele bit his lip in amusement. Nobody was really playing attention to him; it was funny what you could overhear when people forgot you were around.

“How’s Claudia, Pietro?” Michele asked. “We haven’t seen her for weeks.”

“Hard at work on her final year art project in Salerno,” Pietro replied, “but she’s good. I expect she’ll catch up with you as soon as she can.”

Claudia was Pietro’s younger sister; she was a couple of years older than Toto and Michele. Daniele had met her the previous summer, and had an embarrassing memory of having to dance with her at their friend Gianni’s twenty-fourth birthday party. She was due to go off to University in the autumn; Daniele knew that Toto had spent much of the previous summer wrestling with the dilemma of whether he should be aiming to do the same when he was old enough.

A few minutes later, the kitchen doors swung open and Pietro’s mother emerged. An older woman in her late fifties, her long black hair streaked gracefully with grey, she was wearing a dark green dress and a spotless white kitchen apron. She carried a bag containing three cardboard street food trays.

Buongiorno, Marta,” Toto chimed as she approached. She smiled, passing him the carrier bag.

“Ciao, Toto,” she replied. “How’s your father?”

“Keen for us to have lunch together again soon,” Toto replied, “if you’re free.”

“I’d like that,” she nodded. “I’ll get in touch with him later on.”

“We’ll look forward to it.”

“Enjoy your meals, boys,” she said. “I’d better get back to the kitchen.”

They bade their farewells to the Da Rossi team and stepped back out into the spring sunshine, turning down a side street so they reached the top of the single road that led down into the valley and eventually to the coast. Passing a workshop with a colourful display of handmade ceramics, they turned up a tree-lined, crazy-paved little street that led back up to the square. Halfway along, the crumbling stone arch of a ruined palazzo welcomed them back to the heart of the town; Daniele cast his eyes skywards, watching the pigeons that had perched in the gaps in the stonework.

They emerged under the umbrella pines overlooking the valley and sat down on a stone bench, Daniele in the middle, looking back into the square so they could watch the world go by. Daniele scuffed his trainers through a few of last year’s long pine needles that had collected under the seat, kicking up a pleasant, earthy scent.

Daniele was dimly aware that three kids his own age had gathered around the next bench over, but for the moment he was too distracted to pay them much attention: Toto was handing out the food boxes, releasing an appetising savoury smell that got Daniele’s stomach rumbling at once.

Wielding a paper napkin and a wooden fork, Daniele tucked into his tagliatelle with king prawns, garlic and cherry tomatoes while Michele worked his way through a freshly made spaghetti carbonara. Toto had chosen penne alla norma, a traditional recipe with tomatoes, basil and aubergines.

“How’s school, Dani?” Toto asked as he ate.

“It’s all right,” Daniele replied, “but, you know…”

“Still going it alone, huh?” Michele chipped in.

“Pretty much,” Daniele agreed. Automatically, he glanced towards the group of kids at the next bench, and realised they were all from his class at school: Giacomo Agnello, and his friends Emilia and Marco. They were eating pizza slices, and were chatting cheerfully about nothing in particular. With a pang of loneliness, Daniele looked away and concentrated on eating his own lunch.

“We’ll try to keep you company as much as we can, won’t we, Michele?” Toto said; the other boy nodded. “Although, saying that, I can’t do much this afternoon. I’m in the shop for the rest of the day, and then I have some schoolwork to do.”

“And I’m helping Mamma with some DIY before she goes down to Amalfi for the evening shift in the bar,” Michele said apologetically.

Daniele slumped slightly on the bench. “It’s okay,” he said glumly. “I’ll be fine.”

Toto slung an arm back around Daniele’s shoulders for a moment. “Don’t get us wrong, Dani,” he said, “we still love hanging out with you. Are you still good for my birthday party on Wednesday?”

Daniele’s spirits lifted considerably at the thought. “Totally!” he said, much more brightly. “Mamma said I have to do my homework first, but then I can come.”

“That’s great,” Toto smiled. “Villa Cimbrone, six o’clock.”

“I’ll be there,” Daniele replied.

“How are the superhero stories going, Dani?” Michele asked.

“Good, thanks,” Daniele said. He hesitated, glancing at the other two boys a little shyly. “I’ve just started a new one… Foul Filippo and the Swifts.

Michele choked for a moment on a piece of pancetta he was eating. “The Swifts?” he repeated, fiddling automatically with the pendant that hung around his neck.

“Yeah, they’re these two guys who can fly… at the end, they pick the bad guy up and drop him in the sea.”

Toto laughed. “I like the sound of that.” He narrowed his eyes a little. “Are these Swifts a couple, by any chance…?”

Daniele grinned sheepishly. “Maybe.”

“Well, that’s fine with me,” Toto said. “Just make sure we each get a share of the royalties when you make a fortune, okay?”

Daniele smiled. “I will.”

They finished their meals and, one by one, Michele and Toto made their excuses. Toto took Daniele’s empty food box to a bin as he left, leaving Daniele sitting alone on the bench, unsure what to do next.

Idly, he glanced over at the other kids again. None of them paid him any attention. They had finished their pizza slices and had moved onto ice creams. Giacomo was still seated at the bench, while the other two were standing.

Giacomo had caught Daniele’s eye from the very first moment Daniele had been introduced to his new classmates after moving to Ravello. He was about Daniele’s own size, with dark eyes and short black hair that was slightly spiked. He had an alert, watchful air about him and somehow managed to look both mischievous and soulful at the same time. His friend Marco was a small, mousy sort of boy with shaggy hair and a pointy nose, while Emilia was a tomboyish girl, slightly taller than the others with shoulder-length brown hair. Today, Emilia had turned out in a scruffy white blouse and blue jeans; both boys were wearing shorts with t-shirts and fashionable jackets, but, under closer inspection, Marco’s clothes seemed older and more faded, as if they were second-hand.

“Are you serious, Marco?” Emilia was saying.

The smaller boy nodded fervently. “They had their windows smashed and everything.”

“Wow,” Emilia replied. “What do you think, Giacomo?”

Whatever they were talking about, the seated boy didn’t seem that interested in discussing it. He shrugged his shoulders and carried on eating his double ice cream, which looked to Daniele like black cherry and blue raspberry.

“Do you guys still want to hang out after school tomorrow?” Giacomo asked his friends after a while. “We could pitch some stones in the valley, or something.”

“’course,” Emilia replied.

“Why not?” Marco said. “I like hanging out with other kids,” he added, flicking his grey eyes in Daniele’s direction and raising his voice slightly to make sure Daniele could hear, “not like signor no-mates over there.”

Emilia snickered; even Giacomo smiled slightly. Humiliated, Daniele looked away and studiously examined his trainers for a while.

Swinging his feet, Daniele listened as the three friends talked about everyday stuff, like who was dating who in the year above and whether their maths teacher signorina Amitrano was pregnant, seeing as how she had been putting on weight lately. This seemed to be the cause of some excitement, since she was young and unmarried.

After a while, Daniele heard the crunching of wafers as they finished their ice cream cones. Daniele ventured another look in their direction.

“We were going to go to Emilia’s house for a while,” Marco told Giacomo. “Wanna come?”

Giacomo shook his head. “Can’t, sorry. See you tomorrow, guys.”

Marco looked crestfallen. “Okay. See you later, Giaco.”

“Ciao,” Emilia said.

Emilia and Marco set off across the square in the direction of Via Roma, leaving Giacomo alone on the bench. After a while, the dark-eyed boy sniffed and rolled up one sleeve of his jacket, inspecting a blemish on the soft olive skin of his lower arm which Daniele couldn’t remember ever seeing before. He dabbed at it tentatively with his other hand. Daniele’s eyes widened in surprise as he realised it was a series of bruises.

Giacomo looked up at that moment and caught Daniele watching. Their eyes connected for a couple of awkward seconds, and then Daniele looked away, blushing in embarrassment. When he dared to glance back again, wondering if he should say something, the other boy had gone.

* * *

Unsure what else to do, Daniele decided to walk a long route home. He set off across the square, hands in his pockets, ignoring the quiet buzz of life around him as he passed the bars and shops.

At first, he wandered back along the little shopping street and through the archway as if to head back down the hill, but then he walked past his usual turning and began to climb instead, following the winding stairway that eventually led to the Villa Cimbrone gardens, where Toto would be holding his birthday party in a few days’ time. Tall oleanders, carefully pruned to look like small trees, lined the path here and there; in the favourable climate, they were already starting to produce the sprays of pink, white and magenta flowers that would define Ravello throughout the summer. He ran a hand through the long, glossy leaves as he climbed, remembering how they looked on summer nights during the festival season with fairy lights shining out through the foliage.

The path was quiet and almost deserted. Without the summer sound of the cicadas, all Daniele could hear was the sound of his trainers rapping against the stone steps as he climbed. As he passed through the arched porch of the Convent of San Francesco, his footsteps temporarily took on a strange, echoing quality. Somewhere nearby, a pair of cracked-sounding church bells broke the silence as they chimed a quarter past one.

He passed through a grove of pine trees and then arrived outside a little café at the top of the hill, where there was a small public garden that was often full of feral cats, and today was no exception. Daniele paused in the narrow little street, listening to the tinny sound of the music that was playing on the radio inside the café, and tried to make friends with a tabby kitten that was sitting on the wall. The little cat sniffed hopefully at his hand, looking for food, but was disappointed; it accepted a quick stroke on the head instead.

Daniele moved on, and a minute later he fetched up at the top of a vegetable garden that rolled down the hill towards the Valle del Dragone. This had long been one of his favourite spots to pause for breath when he was out with Toto and Michele, and he did so now, leaning on the wall and staring down into the valley. The vegetable garden had been planted with neat rows of fresh young plants, and the clusters of small yellow flowers on the nearest ones told Daniele that he would soon start to see tomatoes growing there.

On the far side of the valley, the quiet village of Pontone sat at the head of a rocky crag covered in pine and cypress trees. Just out of sight, Daniele knew, was the ancient stone watchtower known as the Torre dello Ziro, which stared out to sea from a cliff high above the seaside towns of Amalfi and Atrani. Gazing down on the tree-crowned rocks, Daniele shuddered slightly at the memory of his fall there the previous summer.

In the distance, the mountainous coast plunged down into the sea. He could see it now, a shimmering blue even in April, a handful of boats leaving thin white wakes as they moved up and down the coast.

Daniele thought of Giacomo, and the bruises on his arm. He wondered what had happened to the other boy, and what had gone through his head when he caught Daniele watching. Had he been angry, or had he been scared?

There was something else. Those bruises… hadn’t they looked like the impression of a grown man’s hand? Daniele thought perhaps they had.

It was all too difficult to understand. Daniele scratched his head, frowning, and moved on again, descending a stairway that swept round past the vegetable garden as it approached the entrance to the Villa Cimbrone gardens. At the last second, he turned off the main path, following a twisting flight of concrete steps down into the chestnut woods on the side of the valley, walking a route he had trodden many times before.

Daniele’s feet knew where they were going, and they led him along an earthen path that skirted the bottom of the great rocky cliff on which the Villa Cimbrone stood. To begin with, the path followed the valley itself; the land to either side of the path was divided up into small plots, some of which were being actively farmed while others looked overgrown and abandoned. He passed a handful of lemon trees, where large yellow fruit would soon begin to grow. A latticework of chestnut poles supported a few young squash vines, their spring growth striving up towards the sunlight.

Eventually, he rounded the corner where the valley opened out over the coast and found himself in a grove of gnarled old olive trees. This, Daniele knew, was one of Toto and Michele’s favourite spots to hang out together where they would not normally be disturbed. Occasionally, Daniele had even been invited to join them; he wondered if he would ever have the chance to bring a friend of his own here.

He mooched on along the path, heading for home. He wondered whether anyone would be there when he arrived; his parents worked long hours, and their movements were sometimes hard to predict.

The earthen path had now given way to a pale concrete strip that hugged the base of the cliff, and Daniele wandered vaguely along it, gazing out to sea, absently running one hand along the rough coping stones of the low boundary wall as he went. A couple of swifts flew by, calling shrilly, sweeping dextrously over the steep terraced slopes in their endless search for insects.

When he reached the little square at the hamlet of San Cosma, Daniele knew he was almost home. He stepped out onto the zig-zagging road that ran down the hill, passing Michele’s house once again. His own home was just a few doors further down the street.

Daniele and his parents lived in a small villa on the seaward side of the road. At street level there was a cosy sun terrace with a dining table and pot plants that overlooked the coast. He stepped through the gate, passing his mountain bike, which was leaning against the wall of the house in its usual spot. Heading down a couple of steps, he let himself inside, stepping into the main hallway on the lower ground floor.

“Mamma? Papà?” he called as he closed the front door behind him.

He heard footsteps, and then his mother Patrizia appeared from the kitchen, a tea towel hanging over her shoulder. A petite woman in her late thirties, she had Daniele’s bright blue eyes and a long mane of blond hair. Often to be found in her smart hotel uniform, today she was dressed more casually in a comfortable blouse and navy blue trousers. She smiled when she saw him.

“Ciao, tesoro,” she said, embracing Daniele tenderly. “Paolo’s still out in his taxi. Did you have a nice lunch with Toto and Michele?”

Daniele nodded. “Yes, but they couldn’t stop for long.”

She smiled sadly. “That’s a shame. If only you could find a few more friends your own age… maybe they’d be a bit less busy.”

Daniele scuffed at the tiled floor with one foot. “Tell me about it.” He paused, wondering whether to continue. “Giacomo was there…” he began.

“Giacomo?” Patrizia asked.

“You know, that boy in my class with the spiky black hair? He hangs around with Emilia and Marco.”

Patrizia’s eyes wandered thoughtfully for a moment. “Oh, yes, I think I remember…” she replied. “What about him?”

Daniele wanted to tell her about the other boy’s bruises, but now it came to it, he didn’t really know what to say. He wasn’t even totally certain that was what he had seen. Instead, he improvised.

“All three of them were there, hanging out together, having fun. It just… made me a bit sad.”

Patrizia sighed. “Come here, caro,” she said, and they hugged again. “Would you like a drink? I’ll see what we have in the fridge.”

* * *

Later that evening, Daniele was winding down in his bedroom, getting ready to put his lights out. His parents had a larger suite upstairs, but Daniele’s room was on the lower ground floor, and he could just about hear the reassuring murmur of his parents talking in the kitchen diner a couple of rooms away.

Daniele’s room wasn’t a bad size. His parents had even managed to squeeze in a double bed, which Daniele enjoyed sprawling in at night. On one side of the room there was a bedside table with an alarm clock and a row of fitted cupboards and wardrobes. His bedside lamp was lit now, bathing the room in a gentle, soothing glow. Opposite, Daniele had a large desk area and several shelves loaded with books. Boxes containing a few toys were stacked up neatly underneath the desk, but piles of Daniele’s drawings and handwritten adventure stories littered every available surface.

To either side of the bed, there were two small windows that looked out to sea. Outside, the sun was setting, turning the scattered clouds shades of pink and orange.

Dressed for bed in nothing but a pair of trunks and a sleeveless vest top, Daniele lay back on top of the covers, hands behind his head, staring at the roughly plastered, whitewashed ceiling. He found his thoughts returning to Giacomo and his bruises.

Did someone hurt him on purpose? Why?

He realised he knew hardly anything about the other boy’s home life. He vaguely recalled seeing Giacomo’s mother at school; but he wasn’t sure about his father. He thought he knew where they lived, though; he was pretty sure Giacomo’s mother kept a small ceramics shop up in the Toro, and that they had an apartment above it.

A hero would help a friend in need.

But Giacomo wasn’t his friend, was he? Much as Daniele might like him to be.

A hero would help anyone in need.

That was true. Daniele thought he might walk past Giacomo’s home on the way to school tomorrow… just to see what he could see.

It felt better to have a plan, and Daniele began to feel ready to get some sleep. He decided to grab a glass of water first, and he padded out into the hallway, the ceramic tiles cool against his bare feet. The door to the kitchen diner, in which they spent most of their family time, was ajar; he paused as he overheard his parents’ conversation.

“A protection racket…?” his father was saying; the tone of his voice was relaxed but disbelieving.

“That’s what they’re saying at work,” came his mother’s softer voice. “A couple of my colleagues are starting to wonder whether we’ll be next.”

Daniele heard the familiar chinking sound of his father uncapping a beer, then he spoke again. “Really, though…? I mean, I know we’re in the south, but isn’t that a bit of a cliché?”

“You might not be saying that if we were in Naples, Paolo.”

“Perhaps, but Naples is Naples, isn’t it?”

“How else do you explain the attacks on local businesses?” Patrizia said. “You remember old Giancarlo, who runs that little refreshment stand just down from my hotel? They smashed the doors, wiped out half his stock… the poor man almost had a heart attack.”

“It could just have been vandalism,” Paolo said doubtfully.

“Here, though? And why target a poor old man like Giancarlo?”

“Well, maybe you’re right. It just seems so cowardly. I’m struggling to picture a bunch of slick mafiosi stalking the streets of Ravello, somehow.”

Daniele pushed the door aside and stepped into the kitchen diner, blinking in the bright light of the overheads. Paolo was sitting at the dining table, relaxing in casual evening clothes with a Peroni; he looked up and put the bottle down as Daniele entered.

“Hey there, champ,” he smiled, “I thought you’d gone to bed?”

“I just came for a glass of water,” Daniele replied. “How was work, Papà?”

“Oh, you know,” Paolo replied, running a distracted hand through his short brown hair. “Busy as usual. No sooner have I brought a fare up the hill from Amalfi, then I pick up another who wants to go straight back down there again. Today, I had to take someone all the way to Positano.”

Daniele briefly contemplated the meaninglessness of it all. “That sounds annoying, Papà.”

Paolo shrugged good-naturedly. “It’s what I signed up for. The fares pay me decently for it, at least.”

“What’s a protection racket?” Daniele asked, addressing them both.

Paolo raised an eyebrow. “Listening in, were you?” he said.

Daniele smiled sheepishly. “Just for a moment.”

Patrizia looked up from a comfy chair by the window, where she was darning a hole in one of Daniele’s colourful t-shirts. “It’s when someone asks a business to give them money in return for their ‘protection’. If the business refuses to pay, they take reprisals.”

Daniele frowned. “That’s lousy. Why would anyone do that?”

“You’re a sweet boy, Daniele,” Paolo said. “Sadly, not everyone in the world is as kind to other people as you are.”

Daniele nodded. “That’s true, I guess.”

“Go and get some sleep, caro,” Patrizia said. “It’s school tomorrow.”

Daniele nodded and helped himself to a clean glass from one of the kitchen cupboards. He topped it up with some chilled water from a jug in the fridge.

Buonanotte,” he said. Paolo rose from his chair, beckoning Daniele for a hug; they embraced briefly.

“Sleep well, champ,” Paolo said.

Patrizia blew Daniele a kiss, which he returned, then he headed back to the comfortable gloom of his bedroom, taking a few sips of his water as he closed the door behind him. The sunset had lost most of its colour now, so he closed the shutters, turned off his bedside lamp and settled down under his covers.

He stared into the shadows of his darkened room for a moment, reflecting on everything he had seen and heard during the last few hours; Giacomo and his bruises, and talk of protection rackets and businesses being attacked. It was still too much to take in for the moment, so he closed his eyes.

Tomorrow was another day.

Copyright © 2021 James Carnarvon; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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@Summerabbacat Thank you for your very kind words. No, I don’t think I’ve heard from you before, but I’m very glad you enjoyed my previous stories on those terms.

”The mundane activities of life”… I guess that’s the point of departure this time round. There will be plenty of those, of course, but there is also more of an ongoing dramatic storyline that is not born solely out of the main characters’ relationships as they go through their daily lives. I’ll leave you to decide whether it works as a contribution to the world I have created before.

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10 hours ago, Ivor Slipper said:

It is good to be back in a Ravello that is currently quiet without the cicadas. I suspect though that the quietness will soon be disturbed - and not by them. :) 

I thought I'd go for a different time of year this time, at least to start with!

Chapter 2 will drop tomorrow. It's just been through its third pass of editing.

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1 hour ago, redwood said:

James, I'm so happy to see a new story from you. So happy! Thanks for your comment above on the challenges of writing this one. I appreciate the transparency on your writing process. On the descriptions of Ravello's setting, they don't get old for me, especially with the change of season to early spring. I could honestly read a whole story of yours with no characterization, just a travelogue by someone wandering the valley. But it's more dynamic, of course, with some characters too.

Dani's situation as a lonely boy who lives a sort of vicarious social life by listening in his classmates is also compelling. Kids that age are often cruel and indifferent when it comes to classmates who don't conform. It can also be hard to fit in when moving to a new school with existing social cliques, even though Dani's been in town a few years. I hope the little moment with Giacomo foreshadows a change here.

Thanks Redwood, it's great to have you back on board.

There are certainly changes ahead for Dani, which will become clearer within the next two or three chapters. I'm glad his situation rings true to you. Dani is clearly an 'odd fish' compared to his classmates, even though anyone who takes the time to notice would see what he has to offer as a friend.

Your enthusiasm for my descriptive writing is flattering and it's certainly consistent. These, I believe, were your words after finishing The Summer of the Firefly:

"Please continue writing and posting your work. I don't care if it's nature writing or romance, I'd read it!"

I'm still chuckling over that one.

Thanks again.

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23 minutes ago, James Carnarvon said:

Thanks Redwood, it's great to have you back on board.

There are certainly changes ahead for Dani, which will become clearer within the next two or three chapters. I'm glad his situation rings true to you. Dani is clearly an 'odd fish' compared to his classmates, even though anyone who takes the time to notice would see what he has to offer as a friend.

Your enthusiasm for my descriptive writing is flattering and it's certainly consistent. These, I believe, were your words after finishing The Summer of the Firefly:

"Please continue writing and posting your work. I don't care if it's nature writing or romance, I'd read it!"

I'm still chuckling over that one.

Thanks again.

You're welcome! Now that you jogged my memory, I do recall writing that. What I've seen of coastal Italy (not the Amalfi coast, unfortunately) is beautiful, and it's satisfying to see a writer do justice to the landscape. And good writing is good writing, whether gay-themed or not.

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58 minutes ago, Howzat said:

I've only been to Venice - just a very short visit as the final destination of a 2 week school cruise on the SS Uganda, way back in late October 1979, before we flew home from Marco Polo Airport - so I don't really know Italy at all; but I love your superb descriptions of Ravello and the Amalfi coastal area. I can almost smell the lemons as they grow on the trees.

Dani is going to be a great "hero" in whatever way it happens - you've left a couple of future plot lines open in this chapter which I'm sure you'll develop as we go forward with Dani on his adventures.

I'm very much looking forward to the next chapter.

Thank you! I haven't quite finished posting the chapters for this one yet, but it'll all be done within the next 2-3 days.

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Dani is still the delightful youth with seemly unlimited energy and curiosity he was in Together We Can Fly.  You have set the story up for a great adventure with Dani as the hero he has always wanted to become.  The village still remains in our hearts as a beautiful and safe place, but now it is threatened by insidious criminals.  Everything is set up for another great story.  Glad you have again visited the community and people of Ravello. 

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