Many Russians live in big American cities. They have their communities; they even have their newspapers and TV stations. But in this small town, which proudly called itself «city,» a siren still sounded every Saturday morning at ten o’clock, reminding the residents of the Cold War.
Six people, who arrived at one time, were the first Russians to ever come to this place. This is why the townspeople were curious, and the town hall was full, when the mayor welcomed the new citizens.
There was a couple without kids: a tall, athletic, broad-shouldered man about forty years old and a woman, who looked to be substantially younger than her husband. Her plain pale face with small, refined features reminded one of a marble mask, and a long, thick chestnut braid adorned her head.
«Vera Grach and Oleg Merkulov,» the mayor introduced the couple, and they waved their hands.
Next was a young family: a slim blonde man, his wife, a stout short woman with doe eyes and curly black hair, and a five-year-old girl.
«Vlad Lapin…» The mayor faltered for a second, seeing the last names of the females written a little bit differently from Vlad’s, with the additional «a» at the end. The mayor thought his secretary had made a mistake. He did not know that it is typical for Russian family names. «Please, greet Nina and Larisa Lapina.»
«Larisa, say „Hello!“» The woman gently pushed her daughter forward, but the shy girl with pigtails and big pretty bows stayed close to her parents, even when the mayor gave her a teddy bear as a welcoming gift from the people of the town.
Last in the queue of people introduced was a slender single girl in her mid twenties.
Like a cloud, fluffy blonde hair framed her sad face. Her name was Marina Aleksandrova, and she took up a guitar and all the Russians sang the traditional «Kalinka,» the song that is played at every hockey game.
That was how the Russians came here.
Chapter 1: The Babysitter
In the students’ laboratory, professor David VanStein was speaking on his cell phone with his wife Megan. «Honey, I bought these tickets almost a month ago! Is it so difficult to find a babysitter? What about Ashley?»
«She can’t today; they’ve some special meeting to attend. She told me about a week ago. I just forgot. Sorry…»
David closed his eyes. «How stupid,» he thought. «She’s sitting all day long at home, and can’t even find a babysitter.»
«Why don’t you ask some student?» Megan suggested.
«Yes, why didn’t I think about it?» The advice of his wife surprised David.
«Okay, I’ll try,» he said coldly and hung up.
He looked around the laboratory, thinking about a possible candidate, and the first person who caught his eye was Marina Aleksandrova.
The teaching assistant was patiently explaining a task to a student. It happened frequently during laboratory work. Lazy or light-minded students did not prepare for the lab, and did not know what was required or how to go about it.
Sometimes the students asked such senseless questions that they astonished David, but Marina listened to them without irritation and peacefully answered.
The professor came close and addressed the student. «You should have read it at home!»
The student made a plaintive face and started making excuses.
«It’s okay.» Marina glanced at David, and turned to the student again. «Did you understand? If you have any questions, I’ll be glad to help.»
The student walked to the lab table, and David shook his head. «I’m simply amazed that you have the patience to explain the same things again and again.»
«I was the oldest child in my family,» Marina answered calmly looking at him. «I’m used to being patient.»
Her odd gaze mixed up his thoughts.
«What strange eyes she has.» For the first time in their communication David noticed it.
Transparent gray-blue, they looked like pieces of frozen water screening her emotions, hiding her thoughts. It was impossible to determine what she felt or what she was thinking about.
«It’s not a girl, but a puzzle,» thought David.
«I’ve never seen you smiling,» he wondered. «Why?»
She didn’t reply.
«I have a problem,» a student interjected, and David forgot what he wanted to ask.
Only at the end of the day did David remember that he had not found a babysitter, but all the students had already left.
«Great!» David thought with bitter sarcasm. «Just great! What am I gonna do now?»
His eyes mechanically took in the empty laboratory, and halted at Marina.
The teaching assistant wrote something in the laboratory book, closed it, and started to pick up her stuff, ready to go home.
«How strange that this idea came to me only now.» he thought.
«Do you have any plans this evening?»
Marina tossed her head and gazed over at him. She came close.
«Why do you ask?» She said tenderly and with such open hope that David was amazed. «I did not plan anything special…»
«Could you baby-sit my kids tonight?» David asked. He saw she was disappointed, and, confounded, he added: «I’ll pay you…»
She snorted; her eyes were as cold as ice.
«No way,» she answered sharply. «I mean, I’ll be happy to do it. But without payment.»
Not a grin, but a ghostly smile flashed from her lips. «Have you ever heard, „Russians have their own pride?“» Marina went back to her desk and got her purse. «If you want me to baby-sit your kids don’t even try to offer me money.»
Fully confused, David nodded.
«Thank God!» Megan smiled, seeing her husband enter with the girl. Megan addressed her. «Have you ever babysat anyone?»
«I had a younger sister and two brothers,» Marina explained calmly. «My mom often left me with them. Sometimes we spent a few days all alone.»
Her accent surprised Megan, and she recalled that David had told her his teaching assistant was Russian. Deep instinctive fears and worry about her children stirred in Megan’s soul, but she pressed it down with her mind.
«Don’t be stupid,» Megan ordered herself. «Why should we be afraid of her?» And she started to explain to Marina what to do with the kids.
Hannah VanStein hated it when her parents left her at home, like she was a baby. She was seven, almost eight years old, and did not think of herself as a child. She hated all babysitters, and when Megan and Marina entered her room, she started wailing.
«Honey,» Megan pleadingly addressed her. «Marina is a kind lady. Please be a good girl.»
«Don’t worry Mrs. VanStein.» Marina sat down near Hannah’s dollhouse. «We’ll be fine.»
«What did she say?» Hannah did not understand a word. Amazed, she even forgot to cry.
«I said,» Marina carefully pronounced every sound. «I really like the vest on this Barbie.» She pointed to the doll.
It was Hannah’s favorite toy. Very old, with thinning hair, it was still first in the girl’s heart. Hannah was glad that this unknown lady who was talking so strange liked her doll, and noticed its new and really elegant vest.
«I made it myself.» Hannah said proudly, taking the doll out and trustfully handing it to Marina.
«Wow!» Marina took the toy.
Megan smiled. «Honey? We’re going, okay?»
«Bye, mom!» Hannah did not even look at her mother. She addressed Marina excitedly. «Have you ever seen such a beauty? Her name is Lola. She’s a princess.»
«Then we shell made a crown for her,» suggested Marina, and Megan quietly left.
David would have not thought about Marina, but Megan talked about her all the way to the city, and even during the play. The image of Marina involuntarily appeared in his mind, disturbing and worrying him.
He recalled how she flung herself towards him, there in the laboratory. «Why?» he thought, and was afraid to allow himself honestly to admit the reason.
Two weeks later when the VanSteins organized a picnic, David, as an adviser of Vlad Lapin, invited him, with his wife Nina and daughter Larisa.
With delight Hannah looked at the big beautiful bows that decorated Larisa’s pigtails. Nina Lapina brought the same for her, but Hannah did not like to tie her hair, so she refused. Seeing how Nina got upset about that, Megan VanStein took the bows and said thanks.
«I’ll try later,» she assured Nina, and the girls moved aside, still assessing each other.
Larisa was five and younger than Hannah, so Hannah looked down on her. But Larisa’s timidity touched her young hostess, and Hannah recalled that her parents had told her to be polite.
«My Lola is a princess.» Hannah showed Larisa her doll with the crown that Marina helped to make.
«My Margarita is a police officer.» Larisa held up her Barbie.
After her time talking with Marina, Hannah had accustomed herself to understanding Russian people, but Larisa spoke with barely an accent anyway. Hannah looked at the Barbie with skepticism. «If she’s a policewoman why is she not wearing a uniform?»
«She’s not on duty,» retorted Larisa. «She’s a guest.»
Hannah accepted the explanation, and the girls started to play together. They seated the dolls around the toy table and put candy on their plates.
«It will be a tea party,» suggested Hannah. Larisa did not argue.
Nina Lapina did not speak English well, so she could not keep up conversation for long, and when more guests arrived she moved close to Marina Aleksandrova.
Seated on a plastic chair with her elbows on the molded arms, the teaching assistant propped her chin up with her fists and kept her eyes on the people in the yard.
«Hi,» Nina smiled, and sat next to her. «I think we should get to know each other a little better.»
«I’ll be happy to,» Marina replied with sincere gladness. «Why does your daughter speak English so well?»
«It’s a touching story.» Nina smiled. «Our neighbor in Russia was American. My mom once saved her doggie, and they became friends. She spent a lot of time with Larisa and taught her English without any charge.»
«Wow.» Marina sighed.
The women kept silent for a while, pensively looking around. This day there was no sun; the sky was hidden behind an unbroken cover of grayish blue clouds. The warm and humid air was still, casting a drowsiness over everyone and arousing in their souls odd, various, and bizarre fantasies.
«What do you think about Vlad’s adviser?» Marina suddenly asked.
«About David?» wondered Nina, looking at the host.
«Yes, about David…»
Marina’s dreamy voice surprised Nina. She shrugged her shoulders. «I don’t know him well yet.»
«Don’t you think he looks like a pirate?» continued Marina, still staring at David. «Have you ever seen a professor with a beard and mustache?»
«Yes.» Nina laughed. «You’re right, he looks like some buccaneer! I don’t like brunettes, but… It would have been so romantic. Imagine a pirate ship, they captured us…»
«Yeah.» Marina breathed out a slight moan. «Captured…»
While the adult guests were talking, Dylon, Hannah’s baby brother, crept closer and sat next to Larisa. Laughing, he stretched his arm out towards the toy table.
«Mom!» Hannah called with displeasure. «Dylon is disturbing us!»
«Play nice!» Megan glanced at them, and turned to the adults again.
Hannah pursed her lips, but Larisa cheered her up, «It’s even better. He can play with us.»
She addressed the boy, «Would you like a cup of tea?» She gave him an empty plastic cup. The child took it, looked at it all over, and made a motion that he was drinking.
«You see!» exclaimed Larisa. «He understood.»
Merriment returned to Hannah, and, smiling, she moved a plate with sweets to Dylon. The boy grabbed a handful of the candy and stuffed his mouth.
«No!» Hannah angrily shouted at him. «You should take just one.»
The boy coughed, and candy fell from his mouth.
Feeling that something was amiss, the girls stared at Dylon. He choked, his face went purple, and he tumbled.
«Mommy!» the girls squealed at once, and ran to the adults.
The women rushed to their children. Nina Lapina quickly checked Larisa out, and sighed with relief, seeing she was fine. But Megan saw her son suffocating and convulsing, and she screamed with horror.
«Call an ambulance!» she yelled at her husband. Perplexed, David ran to his son, then back to the house.
Suddenly Marina flew to Dylon and grabbed his feet. Holding the boy upside down, she started to shake him, and Megan watched them with bewilderment.
«What is she doing?» Megan thought. «She’s killing my son!» But as in a nightmare, she could not move a limb.
Dylon coughed, a candy fell from his mouth, and he cried. It was the best music that his parents had ever heard. The voice of the boy rang loud and clear. He was all right now, and Marina passed him to his mother.
«Marina,» mumbled David. «You saved his life!»
He opened his arms to the girl. Marina came close and hugged him, pressing herself to him. She put her head on his shoulder, and he sensed her trembling.
Suddenly, he noticed that everybody was silent, staring at them. David saw the baffled gaze of his wife, and he felt embarrassed.
«Marina,» he said very carefully. «It’s over. Thank you. Thank you so much!»
The girl slowly raised her head, looked around, and her face went red.
«Excuse me,» she mumbled, and almost ran away.
Everybody exchanged glances. This episode ended well, but the picnic was irretrievably spoiled, and soon, one by one, all the guests left.
Late in the evening, when the VanSteins were in bed, Megan spoke to her husband with irritation in her voice. «When Marina hugged you, it looked as if you liked it.»
«I couldn’t push her away when she had just saved the life of our son, could I?» David tenderly retorted. «Don’t be jealous. She saved our Dylon. She saved him.»
Megan wept and hugged her husband. Soon she fell asleep, but David just lay there for a long time thinking about Marina. His wife was right, when he sensed her so close he felt excited.
«But it was just a natural male reaction,» he whispered, looking at the calm face of his sleeping wife. «Marina’s just a young, pretty girl…»
«Pretty, eh?» a mocking inner voice sounded so loudly in his mind that David got scared, and he carefully smoothed Megan’s messed locks, admiring his wife. But this revived his memories of Marina’s hair smelling like fresh grain and tickling his face when she put her face on his shoulder. Damn! The same shoulder upon which Megan’s head was reposed right now.
«It’s okay.» Shaken, David suddenly felt sick. «I just have to be more careful and colder when communicating with Marina.»
This thought calmed him, and he was able to sleep.
The next day Nina Lapina visited Marina. She came alone, and Marina wondered, «Where is your daughter?» as it was evening already.
«I left Larisa with Vera Grach,» Nina explained, looking around the apartment with curiosity.
It was a studio, and at first sight one was able to guess that here lived a single teacher or scientist. Papers were piled everywhere. A desk with a computer took the central position in the room. Some tables against the walls and a couch instead of a bed finished this picture.
«How long have you known Vera?» asked Marina, walking to the kitchen with Nina following her.
«Since we were kids,» Nina replied, taking a cup of tea from her hostess. «She lived a few floors above in the same apartment building. She’s our best friend. When Vlad got the position in the U.S., he told Vera how to apply for study here. She sent samples of her work, and the University invited her, and, moreover, they gave her a grant.» Tasting the tea, Nina sat on the couch and took a cookie from the plate on the coffee table.
«Really? Is she so gifted?»
«I’m sure she will be the next Picasso!» exclaimed Nina emotionally.
«And who is her husband?» Marina moved an office chair from the computer and sat next to Nina.
«Oleg?» Nina shrugged her shoulders. «A businessman. Selling, reselling cars, apartments. It’s all that I heard. I bet even Vera doesn’t know for sure. They got married just before they moved to the States. They barely had time to finish all the formalities. What was he doing in Moscow? Some Russian business, I suppose.»
«A crook, eh?» Marina snorted.
«It’s none of our business, is it?» Nina smiled. «Nah, he’s a good person, he’s teaching Vlad how to drive a car, he helped us when we moved. No, he’s not bad. Vera told me she doesn’t like his greediness for money, but I don’t know… Vlad, for example, is a very niggardly man, but I think it’s better than if he was a squanderer.»
«Vlad told me you were studying in the same group in the University, right?» asked Marina, as a new idea came to her.
«Yes,» confirmed Nina. «But I did not graduate.»
«No matter. Could you help me to finish checking the students’ tests? I have a lot of work left, but I’m babysitting tonight.»
«Of course, I’ll be happy to help. But how did you find a client? Most of the people in town are still afraid of Russians.»
«Maybe,» Marina answered calmly, and held out a bunch of papers. «But I’m sitting with the children of the VanSteins.»
«Ah.» Nina nodded. «Yesterday when you helped Dylon, you so impressed all of us. You are a hero. It’s a shame, but if something similar happened to Larisa, I would be only able to faint or sob, not act in such a resolute manner.»
Looking at the first test, Nina did not notice the face of Marina flush. Thinking about David, she closed her eyes for a second, recalling his hug. The memories of his tender strong arms around her body filled the girl with hot sweet emotion and her breathing became panting with thrill and excitation.
«My God!» Nina gasped with great surprise. «This student classified oxygen as a poison gas.» She checked the next paper. «The molecular mass of water is sixteen tons? What the hell is this?»
«Cool down, buddy.» Marina smiled at her reaction. «Just count the numbers of mistakes, okay?»
«Deal.» Nina shook her head, still murmuring with amazement.
The woman silently helped with the grading, then Marina said thanks and drove her home.
Nina opened the door, and Marina heard Larisa screaming happily: «Mommy, Mommy! Aunt Vera taught me how to draw a horsie.»
A huge feeling of loneliness fell heavily on Marina, and she quickly drove away, dreaming about David. When she finally saw him standing on the porch of his house, like a captain on the bridge of a ship, the painful, ashamed joy jammed her heart.
He icily nodded to her and got into his car, and Marina entered the house.
Seeing her, Megan VanStein compelled herself to smile. «Thank you for coming.» It was all that she was capable of saying, and she silently went outside.
Marina heard the VanSteins’ car pull away. She sighed, then sat down with the kids. Soon the merry bustle with them cheered her up, and the pain of loneliness hid deep in her soul, but the girl knew it would be back when she would have to leave.
Chapter 2: Meeting True Love
Whites are wrong if they think that every African man reacts like Othello.
Thirty-two-year-old Jeff Menard was under control when his wife… Well, it was his girlfriend to be accurate with titles. When his girlfriend informed him that she was leaving, Jeff created neither scandal nor scene. He felt offended but did not show this. He calmly helped his ex to pack her belongings, and even waved his hand while she drove away.
After she left, he returned to the house and thoughtfully removed everything that reminded him of her.
He took a shower, and that evening he went to bed a little earlier than usual. A police officer, he wanted to be in a good shape for tomorrow’s shift.
Vera Grach parked her car on the riverbank. She had discovered this rest area and wanted to show it to her friend, Nina Lapina, because they both loved nature.
«Look how beautiful the view is from here.» Vera smiled, seeing that Nina was impressed. The autumn forest displayed a whole range of hues and tints from a very light yellow to brownish red and dark purple.
The women got out of the car. Nina took the bag of snacks; Vera carried the box with her painting equipment and her easel. They chose a table and started their picnic.
«It looks like Russia,» Nina said sadly, observing the river. Vera sighed. They silently ate, thinking about their motherland.
«Why don’t you get together with Marina?» Nina asked suddenly. «We are the only Russians around. I think we should stay together.»
«I don’t like her,» Vera answered slowly. «I don’t like gloomy people.»
«She has gone through so many ordeals.» Nina was talking, keeping her eyes on the river. «Her father was an alcoholic, as was her mother. One day her parents got so drunk that when the fire started, they didn’t wake up. Both her brothers were gone, too. Her sister was sent to a different orphanage. They lost each other forever. Oh, she’s a real heroine. She was able to find strength and fight her fate. She graduated from the University. She worked and studied. No one supported or helped her; she did it all alone.»
«Gosh.» Vera shook her head. «I didn’t know that. But I don’t feel that she needs my friendship.»
«No, she does!» Nina exclaimed emotionally. «I visit her often. She feels so alone.» She stopped short. «Look, I’ve been watching that for a few minutes, but I can’t figure it out. Is it an animal or just a plastic jug or something?»
Vera turned her head. The women looked hard at a white spot moving in the water not far from the riverbank.
«It’s a cat!» Vera gasped. Forgetting about everything, they ran to the river.
When they got close they saw a white cat. The current carried it, and the animal uttered plaintive meows. Despite their disgust for water, cats can swim well, and the women were surprised that this animal could not get out of the river.
Struggling through bushes on the bank, they ran along the water’s edge.
Nina noticed a few rocks led almost to the middle of the river, and she started to walk upon them carefully.
But her foot slipped. She lost her balance and fell into the water. Now, she was not afraid to get wet, so she just waded through the waist deep water towards the cat and grabbed it.
When she pulled the cat out, she saw its back leg was tangled in a net. This was why the animal was so helpless.
Nina struggled out of the water, and Vera helped her. She gave Nina her jacket, and the women ran back to the car.
Jeff Menard parked his police cruiser near an apartment building and checked the address. He got out and knocked. The door was opened immediately, and he went in.
He saw two young women and recalled that they were Russian. Then he looked around the apartment with curiosity. One woman started to talk, but he only understood the word «cat». Another woman was painting, and she put down the brush with visible displeasure.
Jeff’s eyes involuntarily stopped at her braid. It impressed the young policeman. He had never seen a white woman with hair so thick. The long chestnut braid went all the way down to her waist. Like some fantastic snake, it stirred with any movement of her body, emphasizing every curve.
The woman turned toward him, and her braid fell onto her chest, between her breasts. Jeff was afraid she would misunderstand his gaze and lifted his eyes. Her paleness and strange, severe beauty struck him like a gangster’s bullet. Jeff just stared at her face, barely realizing that the first woman was trying to explain something to him.
«We catch a cat!» she said.
«Found,» the woman with the braid corrected her. «Nina, you should say, „We found a cat.“»
Her tender voice sounded very soft and a little tired. Jeff forced himself to look at the other woman.
«We found a cat,» Nina Lapina repeated obediently. She pointed to the couch, and the policeman saw the fluffy white cat.
«Are you sure it’s not one of your neighbors cats?» Jeff took out his notebook.
«I’m sure.» The woman nodded. «I already know all the cats around here.» She got worried that she had violated some law, and looked at her friend for support.
«Yes, officer.» Vera addressed Jeff. «We found this poor animal when it was struggling out of the river.» She smiled. «I’m almost finished this picture. Wanna look?»
Jeff stepped closer and gazed at her work. It was a sketch, showing two women rescuing a cat from the water, and an impressed Jeff only shook his head. He saw her signature on the paper. Vera Grach, and he was surprised; as he knew an African-American girl with the same name.
«My God!» Vera glanced at her watch. «Sorry, officer, I’ve gotta run. Nina will explain everything.» She took the picture, closed the box with her painting paraphernalia, and, waving her hand, she left.
Jeff stood still, trying to understand what he felt in his soul. But his sense of duty compelled him to go back to business, and he addressed Nina Lapina. «Okay, ma’am, could you tell me exactly where you found the cat?»
Vlad Lapin had driven home and saw a police car in the parking lot. Thinking about his family, he hastily got out of the car, rushed into the apartment, and almost collided with the police officer.
«What happened?» Vlad saw his wife and calmed down a little. «Is Larisa okay?»
He spoke English so the policeman would understand.
«Don’t worry, honey.» Nina smiled. «I just found a cat.»
Vlad sighed with relief. Then he demonstratively frowned, «It’s very typical of you.»
His job was over here, so Jeff Menard picked up the box with the cat inside and left. Nina followed his car with her eyes, then hugged her husband, «I’m sorry. But the poor kitty almost drowned!»
Vlad laughed, grabbed Nina in his arms, and spun her around a few times.
«Thank God you are all right!» he exclaimed happily. «One day your jokes will give me a heart attack.»
«You already took my heart away,» whispered Nina, bringing her lips close to his.
«I love you, my wonderful little girl.» Vlad panted with adoration, kissing her, and Lapina smiled, recalling the first day she had seen her future husband.
It had happened eight years ago, when Nina was seventeen, and it was her first day in the University. Shyly, the girl had peeped into the classroom, then gone inside. The other students had looked at her, and Nina asked, «Is this group P-16?»
«Yes,» a girl replied. She took out a notebook, and Nina understood that this girl was the monitor of the group, so Nina came close to register her attendance.
«You’ve missed two days,» the monitor said. «The government gives us free education, so you must not be late or skip school.»
«I was sick,» murmured Nina. «I have a certificate from the doctor.»
«Okay.» The girl made a note. «Just remember in future.» She surveyed Nina and grinned. «You’re Jewish, aren’t you?»
«I’m Russian,» Nina retorted. «You can check my papers.»
«Give me a break.» The girl snorted. «You are too ugly to be a Russian.»
Oh! This hurt Nina more than anything, and she silently went deep into the room and sat down at a free place.
«Don’t mind her.» A plain girl sat next to Nina and sighed. «Just five guys for twenty of us. We have no chance, buddy. But we are here for study, not looking for a man, eh?»
Nina nodded. «Ugly,» she thought with bitterness. «I’m ugly…»
«Victor!» the girls screamed, and Nina looked at the young man just entering. Athletic and tall, he waved to the auditorium, casually sat at his place, and struck a pose.
Nina sighed, watching some of the girls move closer to Victor. But a new guy entered the room and her heart jumped like a frightened bunny. Very slender, this blue-eyed blonde was cute as a cherub. His slightly curly hair emphasized the affection in his tender face. Bashful and shy, he looked like the Little Prince of Saint-Exupery.
«It’s an angel.» Nina only could stare at him. ' How could this creature walk on Earth? He should fly…»
«The right man for an ugly girl,» a mocking voice sounded in her mind, and she thought with vexation: «Who cares about him? What kind of man could he be?»
But her heart did not want to hear her mind.
A technician came into the room. She pulled a wagon carrying a big gas cylinder. Nearing the central table, she tried to put the cylinder on it, and she could not, as it was too heavy. Then the thin «angel» hoisted the cylinder with one of his hands, and put it in its place on the table. A whisper of delight ran over the hall.
«Thank you, Vlad,» the technician said.
«Vlad!» Adoring the sound of his name, Nina exclaimed impulsively. «You are a real noble knight.»
His long gold-colored eyelashes flapped like wings of a butterfly as he glimpsed her.