The Russians Are Comming!

Бесплатный фрагмент - The Russians Are Comming!

14 Months in the Life of the Town

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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.»

«Why not?»

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.

«He looked at me.» Exited, Nina did not even notice gazes from the other girls.

«It’s her job, tubby, to take care of the equipment!» the monitor girl loudly addressed her, for the second time driving Nina into the puddle of painful shame, as she was always concerned about her weight.

«You deserved it,» Nina said to herself. «You’re stupid! If you are ugly, then sit silently

But she could not resist herself.

She tried to catch the attention of this guy, but she could not. A group of girls followed Vlad all day long, in the cafeteria, during the reception, at the next lecture. He did not see her behind those tall blondes, and Nina dared not push someone away, as the others did many times to her.

The only relief for Nina was that Vlad Lapin looked very concentrated on study and was so absorbed that he did not even notice the efforts of those girls.

They accompanied him until he returned after school to the apartment building for male students, where entry of females was prohibited.

«He’s dumb,» the monitor girl said with disappointment. «Third day. I bet he’s gay. Or just sick. I give up. There are other guys here.»

The girls went in different directions.

«Sick?» Nina thought about Vlad. «Gay? No matter, we can be just friends. Oh, God! Just to see him… Just to see

At home, Nina stared at her reflection in the mirror, and watched as her mother, Alla, came close. They lived together, alone. Alla divorced a long time ago, and Nina did not even remember her father.

The woman tenderly caressed her daughter’s black ringlets. «How was your first day, honey?»

«Mom, am I ugly?» Nina asked instead of giving an answer.

Alla sighed. «You are beautiful, it’s just that not everybody likes classic beauty. I’m afraid you’ll never find a man who can appreciate you enough.»

She left, but Nina still searched her own face; she was satisfied with her lips only.

«It’s considered that big eyes are beautiful. Lie! I look like a cow!» Nina took sunglasses and put them on, trying to hide her eyes, but now her long nose made her resemble an owl. She threw the glasses away and cried with despair.

«I am ugly,» she thought again. «Nothing can help


«God Bless America,» thought Nina, smiling with those memories. «So many women around are stout and black-headed. I’m not a social outcast anymore


Jeff Menard finished all the formalities in the local animal shelter and returned to his police cruiser. He got in and hesitated for a while. Deliberately, Jeff turned his computer on and typed: «Vera Grach

He gazed at the screen. Married. This word killed all his hope.

«Of course, she should be,» Jeff muttered inaudibly. A bitter pain pricked his heart. «I’m a fool. Such a woman…» And he turned the computer off.


A few days later, as Jeff Menard was driving his police cruiser along the small road behind an apartment building, he saw a vehicle moving in the opposite direction.

He recognized the car of Vera Grach, and he sighed. To his surprise, the car was moving very erratically, and he thought that Vera might be drunk.

However, when the vehicles neared each other, he saw Nina Lapina was driving and Vera was next to her. Jeff understood that Vera was teaching her friend how to drive. The car passed by the police cruiser, and Jeff continued to watch it in the mirror.

A few hundred yards farther down, the road turned. Nina lost control, and the vehicle, still heading straight, left the road and vanished from Jeff’s view into a ditch.

Jeff gasped and whirled his cruiser around.

He reached the place where the accident had happened, got out, and looked down.

He sighed with relief. The slope of the ditch was not steep. The car just stopped, and both the women, safe and sound, were standing near it looking at each other in confusion. They heard the police officer’s arrival and turned toward him.

Vera waved her hand, and Jeff neared.

«Officer,» she started to talk. «We have a problem.»

«Don’t you remember me?» asked Jeff, and both Russians gazed at him.

«What am I talking about?» He thought trying to take himself under control. «Who am I to her? Just a policeman

«I remember you.» Vera smiled. «You took away the cat that we found.»

Chuckling, Nina gently poked Vera and whispered something into her ear.

«Stop it, Nina.» Vera did not let on, but he understood.

«They noticed my feelings!» Jeff thought, averting his eyes. «I look stupid

«I read somewhere,» Vera was addressing Jeff. «A man put a bouquet of the flowers on the porch of his neighbor. The owner of the house reported it to the police, and the man was arrested.»

«Crazy lady,» Nina giggled. «I wish someone put flowers on my porch.»

«I think you’re right, Nina.» Vera fixed her glare on Jeff, and the embarrassed policeman wanted to change the subject. He looked at her car.

«Your car is much cheaper than your husband’s,» he said with surprise.

«We have separate accounts and budgets,» Vera calmly answered, reviving hope in his heart. «We spend money how we want. I need to pay for my study, and the paints are very expensive. Oleg has his own business in Russia. But my account is all the money that I have. I have to be practical.»

«I don’t understand,» Nina cut in. «Why Vera doesn’t kick her light-headed hubby out and find some good, serious man instead.»

«Oleg loves me,» explained Vera, moving her braid in front of her. Enchanted by the view, Jeff watched her long thin fingers mechanically playing with her chestnut hair. «Immigration is a very difficult process. It would be a dishonest act and a betrayal to divorce him.»

«And this is why…» Jeff felt irritation, and lost his careful manner. «you’re ready to sacrifice your life, and maybe the happiness of some other man?»

«Yes, because I appreciate and value such feelings.»

«Don’t you think another man can have the same or maybe even stronger feelings for you?» He saw Nina walk aside leaving him alone with Vera, and he fell silent.

«You don’t know me.» Squeezing her braid, Vera stared at Jeff. The small, refined features of her dizzyingly white face made her look like a mouse.

«I feel as if I’ve known you all my life,» Jeff replied very quietly, and Vera lowered her eyes thinking about her husband.

Vera had been dating Oleg about two months when she received the invitation from the University.

She was afraid that she had misunderstood. She went to her trusted professor, then to the Embassy of the United States.

Everybody confirmed these papers, and an excited Vera barely believed her luck.

She was sorting her belongings when Oleg entered her apartment, and she felt confused. He was a nice man, he helped her, but Vera had no strong feeling for him. She was happy to have a reason to break up with him in a friendly way, without, she hoped, a scandal.

«Oleg.» She tried to talk calmly. «I’m sorry, but we have to stop seeing each other.»

He gazed at her, and Vera finished quickly. «I’ve got a fellowship to study in the U.S.A. I’m moving there.»

Without a word, Oleg circled the room twice.

It seemed as if he could not decide what to do. Suddenly, he approached Vera, fell on his knees, grabbed her hands, and started erotically kissing them.

«How could you think I’d leave you because of that?» He was talking, with a catch in his voice. «I can’t live without you. You are my sunshine and air. Let’s get married! I’ll go with you to the ends of the world!»

Dazed, Vera could not reply; she just did not know what to say. Oleg caressed her and his skillful touching enchanted her, as usual mixing up her thoughts.

Panting and trembling, they helped each other undress, and, drunk with excitement, they hastily got into bed.

«I’m not a whore, am I?» Vera could barely think. «I probably do love Oleg, as I can feel such pleasure. Oh God.» She lost herself for a moment, but thoughts about moving came back. «It’s so difficult to live alone in a foreign country. Well, the Lapins will be in the same city, but they have their own family. Oleg loves me. God, how he loves me! He can always find an out to any situation. It’s great to have someone beside you. Someone whom you can trust

The deep vortex of enjoyment sucked her in, and she melted into it.

When she finally opened her eyes and saw Oleg’s face close to her, Vera had difficulty recalling what they had been talking about.

«Would you marry me?» She heard his tender voice, and she nodded. Worry lodged in her heart for a second, but he gasped with such sincere gladness that all her concern was gone at once.

«Everything will be fine,» she thought.


«My name is Jeff.»

The sentence dragged Vera back to the present, and she stared with amazement at the black police officer, discerning true and powerful passion glowing in his dark brown eyes.

«Jeff,» she repeated, dreamily. «Jeff.»

Chapter 3: The Last Day of October

«Honey, it’s too cold outside.» Nina hesitated, then looked through the window at the first snowflakes whirling in the air like white bees.

«But I can’t go without a costume!» cried Larisa. «You’re a bad mom. Why didn’t you buy me a costume?»

«You chose this yourself.» Nina pointed at the ballerina’s dress. «At the school party you were the cutest one. It’s not my fault that the weather became so cold.»

«But I need a costume to go out.» Larisa still wept while an upset Nina looked at her with compassion and pain in her heart.

«Sweetie, we have no money to buy another one.» The woman stopped short as an idea came to her. She ran to the closet and took out her white lacy blouse with long sleeves and a brown mini-skirt.

«Put on your clothes,» she told Larisa, and when the girl did, Nina pulled the blouse straight over Larisa’s orange coat. She tied the collar and the sleeves with ribbons, and admired the job that she had done. It seemed now as if the girl was wearing only this blouse.

Then Nina put the skirt on her daughter, and tied the belt so it fit the girl’s waist. Since Nina was very short for an adult woman, the skirt reached Larisa’s calves.

Next Nina took her straw hat and tied it onto Larisa’s head with a pink scarf. Nina decorated her daughter’s shoes with bows, and Larisa looked like a peasant girl. She ran to a mirror checking herself out, and laughed with delight.

«I am a shepherdess!»

«Yep, honey.» Nina gave her a big toy lamb. «And you won’t be cold now.»

«We’re ready!» exclaimed Larisa, seeing her father, along with David VanStein and Hannah, enter the room.

«Are you crazy?» Vlad gasped. «It’s snowing outside and you wanna send Larisa out wearing only that?»

«Not to worry, honey.» Nina smirked, explaining about Larisa’s costume, and Vlad hugged his wife. «You’re the smartest woman ever!» He kissed her, then his daughter. «Good luck, my girls.»

«Where is Megan?» Nina asked David.

«She’s with Dylon. He is too small to go out,» said David, patting Hannah’s head. «Besides, he feels unwell. Maybe next year.»

And they all, except Vlad, left the house.

Vlad looked around the deserted room and sighed. He yearned to go with his family, but he had no driver’s license yet, and he was not familiar with the town. His eyes rested on the plate of candy that Nina had prepared for treating the children who would come to the door, and the thoughts of the young scientist changed.

«Interesting,» he thought. «How many calories in one portion of the treats?»

From the kitchen he brought a scale and plastic cups, and started sorting the candy. Wrapped up in the task, Lapin took his notebook, and did some calculations.

«Don’t forget to count out the weight of the papers,» Vlad told himself, forgetting everything. «Minus the weight of the sticks of the lollipops…»

The knock at the door disturbed him. Vlad jerkily opened the door. «What? What do you want?»

A boy wearing a pirate’s costume looked at Vlad in bewilderment. «Trick or treat.»

Vlad came back to reality.

«Sure.» He held a cup brimming with candy and dropped its contents it into the child’s bag. «Here you go.»

«Wow!» The encouraged boy shook his bag. «Thank you, sir!»

«Happy Halloween.» Vlad closed the door and wanted to go back to his calculations, but he heard a tapping. He threw his notebook and thought angrily, «If I turn off the lights and go to the bedroom, I can count and no one will disturb me.» But, shaking his head, he returned to Earth at once, and taking the plate with candy, Vlad said to himself, «Have I cracked or what? It’s a children’s holiday. Relax, buddy!»

During the next few hours he just opened and closed the door giving candy out, and he was surprised at how many children were in this small town. The process became rote for Vlad, and when the door opened and Nina and Larisa came in, he mechanically held out a plate towards them.

«Daddy, daddy!» exclaimed the girl, showing her bag. «Look how much candy I got!»

«Some people offered candy to me, too.» Nina was talking with a winsome grin. «They said, „Let your sister have some candy, too!“» She burst out laughing. Vlad just smiled at his female family members, deriving joy from their naively happy report.

«And I saw a dog with horns,» Larisa said, piling her candy into the almost empty plate.

«Yeah, Vlad.» Nina’s doe eyes sparkled with emotion. «I thought I was going insane. Picture it. The door opened, and I saw a goat in the house. But it was just a golden retriever.»

«Goldy is her name,» cut in Larisa, rummaging into the candy.

«Yep,» Nina continued. «Her owner put something like a cap with devil’s horns on her head. Oh, he is such a cute old guy. You know, with a walking stick, neat clothes. Very nice man.»

«He asked me,» yawning, Larisa interrupted her. «And others asked me, „Aren’t you cold?“»

«Oh, what time is it?» The woman gasped. «Go to sleep, go to sleep.»

«But the candy…» The tired girl became capricious, and Nina took her in her arms, and brought Larisa into her room.

Vlad looked at the sweets, then at the plastic cups, and took up his notebook and calculator again.

When Nina finally came back to the room, he was asleep, with his head on his arms, half lying on the coffee table, and the plastic caps with candy in them surrounding him.

The woman took his notebook, and shook her head. «Oh, Vlad, Vlad…»

She gently woke him and helped him get in bed. Even falling asleep, Vlad still murmured about the calculation, and Nina lay next to him, pressing his head to her chest. «Sh-sh-sh. Enough, honey,» she whispered with all her tenderness. «Sleep, sleep, my beloved man.»

His closeness revived her memories and Nina thought about their first date.

That day Vlad unexpectedly asked her to marry him and invited her to a soccer game.

It was a great surprise to Nina. Vlad was her true love, the love from the first sight, but Vlad neither courted nor flirted with her before. He only paid attention to study, and the girl was sure Vlad even did not notice her existence.

That day a professor offended her, and Nina was crying in the University’s corridor. Then Vlad came to her and made his proposal.

«Would you marry me?» he asked casually, and the girl could not believe her ears. Vlad hugged her. «I’d like to go out with you. Right now. Would you come?»

She nodded, and did not even think that it was strange. It was her chance, and Nina rushed into this adventure, like jumping into the water.

It was also the last day of October, and the first snowflakes parachuted from the gray sky. It was very cold even for Moscow, but the frost could not cool down the true soccer fans gathered at the stadium. The stormy reactions of Vlad amazed the girl because in most situations he was very reserved.

She did not understand all the details of the game, and only followed her beloved man.

If he was getting upset, she felt tears in her eyes. When he shouted, cheering on their team, she was screaming too.

And when the visitors scored a goal and the stadium fell into a deep gloomy silence, the girl sensed such hatred for the player who did it that it surprised her.

But the host team soon tied the score, and when a player from the host team scored the final goal, the stadium burst into an elated victory ovation.

«We won!» shouted Vlad, grabbing Nina into his arms. Carrying her like she was a child, he spun around a few times.

No one had ever done this to her, and the wowed girl panted, wild with euphoria. It was their first day together, and she prayed that it would not be the last.

When they went downstairs to the metro station, people going from the game were throwing coins making a glittering tapping stream of money running down along the steps.

«Why are they doing this?» wondered Nina. Vlad shrugged his shoulders.

«We won. It’s a tradition.»

She saw him hesitate, but he took out a small coin and threw it too.

«Oh, you’re a tightwad,» the girl thought, but even this only increased her feelings for Vlad.

At home, as Alla opened the door, the giddy Nina gleefully addressed her: «Mom, I’m gonna get married!»

While her daughter was telling her all the details of the day, Alla just stared at her.

When the girl finished, smiling like a drunk, Alla slowly replied, smoothing her daughter’s hair. «It’s okay. Even if he abandons you with a child, I’ll help you raise our baby, don’t worry.»

Nina could not reply, and Alla left the room.

«Abandon me?» This thought made the girl anxious, but another, stronger feeling immediately pushed all her worry aside. «No matter! I was happy today. No matter what happens next. No one can take this day from me. No one.»


Recalling that day, thinking about her family life, Nina thought, «What did I do that God sent me such happiness?»

She was tired after the Halloween walk, but Nina also was glad, as she liked this tradition. It was the first Halloween in their life, due to the fact that this holiday does not exist in Russia.

Asleep, Vlad was next to her, and, feeling his calm breathing tickling her breasts, Nina smiled, losing herself in the thrill of peace and love.

Chapter 4: To Be With Your Loved One

At the same time that Nina and Larisa Lapina were getting home, Vera entered the city supermarket to do her shopping. In spite of the fact that today was Halloween, she knew no kids would be at her door, because she lived in an apartment building.

She was not in a hurry, and at a leisurely pace she walked down aisle after aisle looking for staples.

«Hello!» she heard. Vera saw a black police officer, and she recognized Jeff Menard.

In this small town they often met by chance. They had already had a few short talks, and Vera smiled. Nobody was around them now, and they were free to chat for a while.

«Hi, Jeff,» she whispered, giving him a playful glance. «Ready for trick-or-treat?»

«I’ve already given out a lot of candy,» murmured Jeff, looking at her with adoration. «Many children came into the police station for Halloween.»

«I didn’t know…» Vera stopped short, and turned toward a shelf, pretending to choose a product. Jeff did the same as two women entered the aisle at almost the same time.

Waiting for these outsiders to leave, Jeff, with an impatient sigh, rummaged through boxes of cookies as unnecessary for him now as a package of salt for a person suffering thirst.

The women stood not far away and started a lively discussion, and Jeff saw Vera give him a quick look. They did not need words. Pushing their carts, they left the aisle from different ends.

Passing a few aisles, they walked in parallel until they found one without people, and entered, meeting in the middle. They laughed, enjoying mutual understanding.

«Gosh!» Jeff giggled. «I feel like I’m meeting with a Russian spy.»

Smiling, Vera wanted to reply, but her face clouded again, for another man came into the aisle. He soon left, but Jeff sighed as his playful mood faded. He noticed Vera glancing at her watch, and asked her, «Are you late for something?»

«Almost.» Vera looked at him with an apologetic smile. «Tonight there is a Halloween party on campus — a short play, dancing after, snacks, et cetera. I’m curious to see it.»

«Can I go too?» Jeff asked unexpectedly, even to himself. Vera looked at him with compassion.

«Sorry,» she murmured. «It’s for students only. Bye.»

«I understand,» he sighed watching her go.


In the police station, Jeff sat at his desk and browsed through his papers. His shift was already over, but he just did not want to go yet to his empty home.

Then he overheard a colleague talking with his student son.

«Dad, you promised,» the student whined. «The whole party depends on you. Don’t wreck our Halloween.»

«The students’ party?» Jeff got interested. «What happened?»

«I foolishly promised my boy to take part in the play,» explained Jeff’s colleague. «But the chief gave me a lot of paperwork for tonight. I can’t, I really can’t.»

«Is it a difficult part?» asked Jeff, and they stared at him. «I mean, can I replace your father?»

«Great!» exclaimed the student. «All you need to do is just go on and say one phrase: „Your Majesty! Be ready for anything!“, then stand behind the royal throne. That’s all. It’s almost the last scene of the play. Just a few minutes. But the costume… it’s a knight’s costume, the whole-body armor. Not real, of course. It’s fabric. The helmet is aluminum. Is it okay with you?»

«No problemo.» Jeff laughed. «Let’s go.»


He repeated the phrase all the way to the campus. Not worried about the play, Jeff was only concerned if Vera would be there.

«What if something changed and she could not come?» he thought. «Okay, at least I’ll have some fun.»


In the changing room, the student gave Jeff the one-size-fits-all costume, and the police officer started pulling it on straight over his clothes. While he was donning his armor, some other students led David VanStein into the room.

Tired after the Halloween walk, David had forgotten to put on his costume at home, but the students would not allow him to enter the party wearing casual clothes.

«No-no-no!» objected a female student in the costume of a sea cadet. «You have to change.»

«Yes! Yes! Yes!» the others supported her.

«Marina, please.» The professor smiled seeing Jeff in the room. They nodded to each other and said, «Hi!»

«I know a great costume.» Marina grabbed some clothes and held them out to David. He could do nothing but put them on.

Here were wide Turkish trousers, a redingote and musketeers hat. David tied around his waist a scarf belt fitted with a fake saber. Everybody gasped, as he looked exactly like a pirate captain.

«Are you happy now?» David asked with sarcasm.

«Yes, I am,» Marina murmured inaudibly. She recalled the many books she had read as a teenager. In these stories, females often changed into male costumes to be with their beloved men. Now she did the same, and Marina chuckled to herself seeing her plan work.

Busy with his outfit, Jeff did not notice when everybody left. His colleague’s son helped him with the helmet, then went away also, and only the director of the play was left.

The show had begun.

Hiding behind the curtains, Jeff watched for a while, then grew bored. He peeked through the opening between the panels looking for Vera. He saw her sitting in the fifth row at the edge, and, smiling, he kept his eyes on only her.

«Go, go.» The whisper of the director took Jeff by surprise, and almost running he went to the stage, barely remembering his words.

«Your Majesty!» he pronounced solemnly, as he slowed, walking now toward the twin thrones. «Be ready for anything!»

The helmet severely limited his view, and when he stumbled over something, Jeff did not realize what had happened. He fell, but being a well-trained professional, he skillfully rolled and sprang up at once. The policeman did it automatically, as if avoiding a bullet, but it seemed so showy and spectacular that when he got to his feet he heard a delighted «Wow!» run through the hall.

And no one noticed the comedy of the situation: that real armor would never allow one to move so effortlessly.

But the episode had another fate than to end like this. The stage was not big, and getting up Jeff bumped into something and involuntarily sat… straight onto the lap of the «queen».

The hall fell silent for a second, then a common guffaw shook the walls. Jeff got up, bowed to the «royal couple», and said, «I told you, Your Majesty, to be ready for anything!»

He listened with pleasure as the audience gives him an ovation and whistles of approval.

«I saved the day,» Jeff thought placing himself behind the thrones.

The play took its course and soon finished.

As all of the cast members took their bows, David VanStein picked up a microphone.

«Thank you for your attention,» he said, addressing the audience. «Thank you for your play.» He turned toward the actors. The spectators applauded, and the players bowed.

«Dear friends,» continued David, looking out into the hall. «Happy Halloween. Enjoy the party.»

The music struck up, while everybody talked and moved the chairs aside, placing them along the walls and making a space for dancing.

Remembering his fall, Jeff went into the hall stepping very carefully. The costume hid his entire body, even the hands, and he wanted to put Vera to a test, to check her feelings for him.

In the middle of the hall the people started dancing. It appeared they all danced together, but one who looked with attention could see that almost everybody had separated into couples.

Marina was next to David. As she had correctly guessed, her male costume threw him off, and the professor lost his careful manner.

Forgetting his decision to be cautious when communicating with her, David was talking to Marina with an amicable frisky tone, as if she were a real boy. He was telling open-minded jokes. Sometimes he gave her a friendly push and tapped her shoulders and back. Enjoying his treatment, Marina thought, panting: «God, is it a dream? Yes, yes, a wonderful sweet dream

«So, cadet,» David winked. «Are you ready for adventures?»

«For you, my captain,» she answered, exhilarated and jocund. «I’m ready for anything!»

This phrase reminded them of the play, and they laughed, glancing at Jeff Menard as he slowly passed them. Keeping his eyes on Vera dancing in the group, but without a partner, Jeff joined the dance, and addressed her. «Hi!»

Wearing a simple long dress, she looked like a noblewoman from the Early Middle Ages, and her paleness harmonized with this image. It corresponded with his costume.

«Perfect match,» Jeff thought.

The woman looked at him. «Have we met each other?»

«Yep.» Jeff watched her. She did not give away any emotion.

«Dear Beautiful Lady.» Jeff bowed. «Would you be merciful to me, allowing me to be your gallant servant at this party?»

«Okay,» she replied so coldly that if Jeff did not already have feelings for her, he would have given up all his efforts.

«Was your falling part of the play?» she asked. «Or just an accident?»

«Sometimes when you fall,» Jeff said in a cordial voice, «it’s difficult to know if it was just an accident, or the Hand of your Fate.» He saw Vera did not understand, and he explained. «I mean falling in love. With someone.»

Her features were still showing boredom, and she looked at her watch.

«I have to go soon,» Vera said icily. «My husband is going to pick me up.»

«Soon?» Upset, Jeff suddenly felt stifled inside the helmet, and he opened the visor.

«You!» Grach gasped, and Jeff could not believe his eyes, as a joyful smile lit up her face. «It was not nice to trick me like that.»

«Sorry,» he murmured.

«Why you didn’t tell me about you were going to take part in the play?»

«I wanted to surprise you.»

«You surely have done it.» Throwing frolicsome glances his way, Vera was dancing, curving her body like a snake, and an enchanted Jeff could only stare at her.

«Vera!» they heard, and, seeing how she instantly lost all spirits and became confused, Jeff understood at once who called her even before he slowly turned toward the door and saw Oleg peeping into the hall.

Smiling, Oleg said a few phrases in Russian. Vera lowered her head and quickly whispered, «Bye Jeff.» She, then almost ran to her husband.

Jeff stood still. He had known she was married, but, for the first time, he realized, realized with all his soul, what it meant, and the hopeless horror of the situation struck him.

This cocksure, red-headed white man with the self-satisfied grin took away his darling woman, took her away as was his right. Jeff saw Oleg hug his wife and leave with her. Jeff imagined how at home they would make love, and, suffocating, he tore the helmet off.

He looked over his costume and got embarrassed. This disguise, his acting in the play, seemed to Jeff now as a boyishly stupid deed.

«You looked like a fool,» he said to himself, and left the party.

The cold rain with snow lashed him outside the building, and as he struggled through the raging gusts of the storm, Jeff felt as if he were part of a real black Sabbath, and raving witches were trying to tear him into pieces.

Chapter 5: Lana

The best friend of Vlad, Ruslan Grafinsky, had arrived yesterday, and it was the first time he had visited an American bar. When they entered, he looked around with curiosity.

Vera’s husband remembered Ruslan from Moscow, and he suggested celebrating Ruslan’s arrival, but Vera refused to go with them, as she had to work on a project. So Ruslan, Oleg, and his American pal, Nicholas, went together. Although Oleg had lived in this town for seven months, he always took Nicholas with him for consultation.

«I think we should take Vlad as well,» Ruslan said to Oleg. «But I know he doesn’t like bars.»

«Vlad is not bad, but he’s a dull person, and he’s under the thumb of his wifey.» Oleg snorted. «Relax, pal, welcome to the U.S.A.!»

They ordered their drinks and snacks, and continued talking, speaking English, so Nicholas could take part.

«What a nice girl,» Ruslan said suddenly, watching the people at the counter.

Oleg looked too. On one stool he saw a girl. He had seen her earlier, but, for his taste, she was too plain and stout, and the note of Ruslan surprised him.

Oleg looked closer at her, and noticed that she was not fat at all. Yet she was still not his type of woman, and he shrugged his shoulders. «I don’t think so.»

«No, really.» Ruslan smiled. «She’s a beauty.»

«Forget about it, buddy.» Oleg pointed to a huge young man sitting next to her. «With a boyfriend like that you have no chance.»

«He’s not her boyfriend, but a bodyguard,» Nicholas calmly explained. «What’s the matter?» he asked, as both Russians stared at him.

«Bodyguard?» repeated Ruslan.

«Yes, her daddy is a big cheese, and after dark she’s always under escort.»

«You’re kidding.» Oleg leered at the girl again. «The children of rich people study at Harvard or Oxford, not in a city like this hole.»

«First of all,» Nicholas spoke with irritation, as he felt offended. «Our University is one of the best in America. Second, many men, many minds. I think she’s just bored with her fancy life. You know, this is not the best bar in the city, but Lana, her name is Lana Limpson, comes here almost every evening. It’s stupid. No one will come near her. Everybody knows her father, and nobody wants trouble.»

The Russians glanced at Lana again, and Ruslan sighed. «You’re right, Nick.»

Oleg did not reply. He was thinking. Resolutely getting to his feet, he went to the counter and sat next to Lana Limpson. She looked at him with timid hope.

«Hi,» he said. «Why is such a pretty girl so sad?»

She smiled.

«Wow.» Oleg gasped. «Your eyes are brighter than stars in the summer night sky. What is your name?»

«Lana.» She chuckled. «Lana Limpson.»

«I’m Oleg. Oleg Merkulov,» he said, to her surprise quite casually, and the girl realized he was new here.

«You are Russian, aren’t you?» Lana leered at the man with interest.

He was much older than she, yet he looked great. Very tall and athletic, broad-shouldered, this red-headed man with piercing brown eyes was simply handsome. She thought he looked like some ancient Roman god. All his movements were full of masculine grace, showing off his physical strengths. Though his legs were a little shorter than they should be for someone his height, they were well shaped and toned, and the powerful muscles of his strong thighs were visible even through the fabric of his jeans.

Lana looked at Ruslan and Nicholas. She knew the American, as they had grown up in the same town, and she guessed that the other one was Russian.

He was average, and his appearance did not impress, but surprised her, for Lana discovered that he seemed very similar to her. He also had dark blonde hair, and his eyes were the same olive drab color as hers. It was as if she saw her reflection in a mirror, and an open-eyed Lana inspected him with curiosity.

«He looks tired.» She noticed surveying his exhausted face. «Definitely, he’s had a difficult past and probably went through some grief a short time ago

Suddenly she met his gaze, and was amazed at how odd it was. This young Russian man stared at her with adoration and abhorrence at the same time, as if she was doing something extraordinary. As if she was eating spiders for a bet, for example, or dancing on the table stark naked.

His glare intrigued her, and Lana waved. Ruslan and Nicholas just saluted back, but did not come close. Then, pursing her lips, the girl addressed Oleg again. «Why do people ignore me?»

Oleg demonstratively looked at her bodyguard, and Lana winced.

«I promised Dad that I’d take Tom with me if I go to a bar,» she explained with bitterness in her voice. «Tom’s just a good friend, like an older brother to me.»

«Your daddy is right,» Oleg sighed. «Such a beauty as you are has to be under protection, like a rare, brilliant, sparkling diamond.»

«You call me such funny names.» Lana tried to laugh, but she could not. She liked it. This man was talking with a strange, hard accent, and all these nice words sounded very unusual, with masculine sexual inflection.

«I just said what I thought.» Oleg turned to the bartender. «John, give everybody a drink on me.»

«Why?» asked Lana, astonished.

«I want everybody to be as happy as I am now,» Oleg pronounced, gazing at her. «I met you, and it’s the best day in my life. I just want everybody to be happy.»

«But it’s a lot of money.»

«For happiness money does not matter.» Oleg took out a roll of bills and put it on the counter. «Barman, drinks for everybody!»


Just a few days later he met her again.

Downtown Oleg and Ruslan passed by the central hotel with a restaurant on the ground floor. The rain with snow had just stopped, and the streets were full of dirty water. Oleg Merkulov was wearing a wolf-skin coat. It was a very expensive and very warm fur coat and great for the Moscow frost, but now Oleg was hot and he walked with his coat open.

A car stopped in front of the restaurant. A man opened the door to help a girl get out, and Oleg saw Lana Limpson, wearing evening pumps with high heels.

She looked doubtfully at the wide puddle that was between her car and the sidewalk.

Next Oleg threw his coat on the puddle. Lana gazed at Oleg and recognized him. «It’s you again.» She carefully stepped on the coat, and gained the sidewalk. «Oleg, correct?»

«At your service, Your Highness.» He bowed.

«My God!» She looked at the coat. «I know the price of fur coats. It costs a fortune!»

«Just say the word,» Oleg uttered passionately, «and I’ll throw my life under your feet, as I did with the coat.»

Lana did not smile; she gawked at him.

«I have to go now,» she finally said. «Can we meet tomorrow? About 10 a.m., in the library. Is that okay with you?»

«Any time, any place,» he replied emotionally. «Say it, and I’ll go to the edge of the world!»

She smirked and left. Oleg picked up his coat.

«Oleg,» Ruslan Grafinsky said coldly. «You are a bastard.»

Merkulov grinned. «I’m just a businessman. And I strongly recommend you mind your own business. Maybe I feel real love, how do you know?»

Ruslan didn’t reply.

Chapter 6: A Pointless Waste of Money

Next day, at 9:55 a.m., Lana Limpson went to the city library. Oleg Merkulov was already there. He saw her entering the hall, and he gasped, throwing his arms up.

«Lana,» he addressed her, taking her hand and kissing it. «Milady, you came in, and it was like sunshine lit up this dull boring place.»

Lana smiled at his reaction and looked around. She saw some people were reading and writing nearby, and she felt uncomfortable.

«Let’s go somewhere,» she suggested. Lana liked how Oleg spoke to her, but she was ashamed that someone else might take it as a joke and make fun of her.

«To a restaurant?» Oleg looked at her with concern. «Are you hungry, sweetheart? Just name it and we can go. I’ll pay.»

«I can pay myself.» She smiled.

«No way,» he retorted peering deep into her eyes. «No Russian man could allow the woman next to him to pay for herself. One man, when he found out he couldn’t afford to pay for their dinner, went outside and shot himself. He preferred to die than to live with such a disgracing act.»

«Wow. No, in the United States women often pay for themselves and for their men.»

Oleg demonstratively sighed and shook his head with disapproval, then gallantly gave her his hand.

As they left the library, Lana saw Ruslan Grafinsky. She remembered him next to Oleg, and now she smiled, not noticing Oleg frown and the spite that glinted in his eyes.

«Miss Limpson,» Ruslan started resolutely. «I have to talk with you.»

Unexpectedly, Oleg leapt at Ruslan, pushed him aside, and said something in Russian. The men started wrangling, and Lana watched them with terror. «What was going on?» She wondered about the reason for such emotion.

Suddenly, Oleg punched Ruslan in the face so hard that he sat straight down on the sidewalk. Oleg took the hand of a shocked Lana, and quickly brought her to his car.

«Your friend,» mumbled Lana.

«He will be okay,» Oleg said through clenched teeth. «It’s Russian business, don’t worry.»

«Miss Limpson!» she heard Ruslan scream, but Oleg drove away.

They kept silent for a while. Oleg parked his car in the first parking lot.

«I want make things straight,» he started slowly. «I want to show you that I’m honest with you. I am and I will be. And this is my proof: I’m married.»

Lana gaped at him.

«I told you this, first of all, because I don’t want to lie to you, I didn’t and I won’t. Second, for to know, if I’m married, it means I honestly just want to be your friend, and I’m not looking for your money.» He said it with pain and bitterness in his voice, and Lana was touched.

«Money.» She shook her head. «I couldn’t forget one event from my childhood. My dad took me to a carnival. He was already rich enough, not as rich as he is now, but he was making good money. I wanted him to buy me a toy bird. It was so funny. Purple, with a huge beak. I wanted it so much. I begged dad, but he said it would be a pointless waste of money. And he didn’t buy it. The carnival moved away, and I never saw such a toy again. When I grew up and we started discussing where should I study, I refused his offers. I said, „It would be a pointless waste of money. I want to study here, in my own town.“ He agreed. He probably forgot this, his expression, but I never could.»

She sniffed. Oleg hugged her, and the girl cried on his shoulder.

«Sweetheart.» Oleg carefully kissed her hair. «I know a much more horrible story of how the greediness of parents made the life of their child a misery. She was our neighbor and this is why I know this story is true. Her name was Olga, and her parents were not poor, but they called themselves ’practical’. Olga told me her first memory was of a birthday present given to her by her mother. A plastic teddy bear. It was ugly, scary, hard and had a disgusting smell, but her mother smiled and told her father, „Look, what a practical toy. She can chew it or drop it in a puddle. No matter. It will still be good.“ All the following toys were the same. Very, very practical. And, imagine! Olga started to steal toys from other kids.»

«Really?» Lana Limpson looked at Oleg with surprise. «I very much wanted to have this toy bird, but to steal it? That’s going too far.»

«Well.» Oleg breathed out a sigh. «You’re a powerful girl, and have a strong personality, but the poor Olga couldn’t resist her wish to have nice toys. Her parents caught her, and her father gave her such a belting that the girl couldn’t sit for almost a week.»

«She should’ve reported it to the police!»

«Honey,» said Oleg ruefully. «It was Russia. Police would do nothing about it. How many times my own father beat me.»

Full of compassion, the heart of the girl was beating like a bird in the net of a hunter. Lana looked at his sorrowful face, and lovingly stroked his cheek. She felt his bristle, and this barely sensed pricking stirred her abysmal instinct up, excited her as never had happened to her, and the following kiss only increased her desire.

«Drive to my house,» she whispered intimately, and a surprised Oleg obeyed.


They were lying side by side in the bed in her room. Happily smiling, Lana searched him, and could not admire enough his beautiful face and his strong athletic body.

Oleg wanted to smoke, but he did not know yet how she would react to this.

«Do you always have unprotected sex?» Oleg asked, as thoughts about the chance of getting AIDS from such an emotional girl made him really worried.

«Honestly,» she murmured, quietly kissing him. «This was the first time. You made me crazy. But I trust you.»

«I don’t trust you, girl,» Oleg thought, praying for himself. «God, take mercy on me! Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained

He saw her take a pack of cigarettes, and, sighing with relief, Oleg smoked his own.

«So, what about that girl?» asked Lana.

Oleg bewilderedly gazed at her. «Which girl?»

«The Russian girl, who had penny pincher parents.»

«Oh dear,» uttered Oleg sensually. «You made me forget about everything. Where did I stop?»

«Her parents punished her.»

«Ah, correct. You have a wonderful bright head, my love,» he drawled, massaging Lana’s arm. He saw she liked it. «So, Olga had been punished, but it didn’t change her mind. She only became more careful, and never brought stolen toys home anymore. Olga hid them and played when she had time. Her hobby became her job when she met Sergey. They had been dating about two years. Olga was just fifteen, but her boyfriend got a fake ID for her, and the girl left her home. She was ready to do anything for Sergey.»

«Mmmmmm,» Lana moaned, losing herself in this fantastically pleasant feeling. «I can understand her.»

«Sergey didn’t limit their ’work’ to burglaries,» Oleg continued, still rubbing her skin. His erotic massage became real caressing, and Lana stretched, enjoying it.

«Olga loved him very much,» said Oleg, attentively watching how Lana responded to his touch. «She never refused when he asked her to deliver ’stuff’ for his clients, and usually she did that without any problems. Minute, like a mouse, Olga was not ugly, yet so plain that even for the police it was a difficult task to remember her face. But one day their luck ran out. While the police chased her, Olga dumped the bags with the powder. Then the policemen arrested her and searched her carefully. They found nothing and had to let her go.

«Olga went back to her boyfriend, mad,» continued Oleg. «She didn’t notice she’d been shadowed. Olga was humiliated. She was trembling after such stress, and she needed support, but that fool Sergey started shouting at her. He got angry that she’d failed, and they lost a lot of money. He talked to her the same way as her parents had and that made Olga insane. When she took his gun Sergey didn’t turn a hair. He knew how that girl loved him.»

Oleg paused for effect, then finished. «It was an automatic pistol, honey, and Olga kept firing until the police burst into the apartment and shot her down.»

Oleg did not tell Lana that this guy, Sergey, was one of his closest friends, that they even «worked» together, and this was a real reason he knew all the details of this story.

«Awful.» Lana embraced her lover. «Poor girl. Damn all the money in the world. Long live Love.»

«You bet, my miracle!» exclaimed Oleg, trying to show off all the enthusiasm that he could demonstrate, and they fell onto the bed again.


Oleg impressed Lana as no one had before, and next day she decided to meet Vera Grach.

«I have to talk to her’, she was thinking. «Interesting, did he tell me the truth? I have to find out.»

She parked her car near the apartment building, and knocked on the door. Vera opened it, and smiled. «Did you come to buy a picture?»

Surprised, Lana nodded. «Phew, I don’t have to explain my visit.» She silently went in.

Lana did not understand art. So she just pointed to two pictures, and Vera started packing them. Lana glanced around. «What should I ask?»

«Strange,» she said surprisingly. «Why didn’t you paint your husband?»

«I draw only things that impress me,» Vera answered calmly.

«I thought if you loved someone it means he impresses you.»

«Girl,» Vera shrugged her shoulders. «It’s very difficult to love a man who doesn’t care about the family budget.»

«Money doesn’t make happiness,» Lana said with irritation in her voice. «When dad passes away I’ll give all his money to some charity organization.»

«I’m sorry, Miss…?» Vera looked questionably at Lana.


«I’m sorry, Miss Limpson, but you’re too young for such discourses. Your father spent all his life to make this money, and you want to waste it? It would be a stupid and dishonest act.»

«Oleg is right,» Lana thought, feeling angry. «She’s just a miser

«As I know,» she addressed Vera. «Your husband is making good money in Russia. You have to love him very much, don’t you?»

«I think it’s too personal to discuss.» Vera looked at Lana with surprise, but she thought the girl needed some advice, and she relented. «Life is not as easy as we wish,» she tried to explain.

It was the same phrase that Oleg had said to Lana when she had asked him why he did not divorce Vera if they did not love each other. «Life is not so easy.» He sighed, and a tender compassion for this Russian man rising in her heart.

«Once Oleg came home with his coat so dirty that I was amazed,» Vera continued. «I’m sure he got plastered and fell into some puddle. Like a pig. And I have to love such a man?»

Lana recalled the episode with the wolf-skin coat, and her feelings for Oleg became much stronger. But this phrase made her worry.

«Does he drink a lot?» she asked, trying not to show her concern.

«Honestly, I’ve never seen Oleg drunk,» Vera confessed, sighing. «But that evening he was so strange, I have no other explanation.»

«Oleg loves me!» thought Lana, melting with that feeling. «He loves me! He surely loves me! Stupid woman, how could she not appreciate him?»

Lana took the pictures and gave the money to Vera.

«If you don’t love him,» asked Lana carefully, «why don’t you rent another apartment?»

«It’s okay with me,» Vera answered calmly. «But to rent a separate apartment would be a pointless waste of money.»

Lana shuddered and left without saying goodbye.

Chapter 7: In Love with A Married Person

Lana did not have school today, so she drove home. Not to the house that she rented on campus, but to the Limpsons’ mansion. It was a rare day that her father was home, and she planned to show him those pictures and ask him about an idea that had come to her.

At home she told a servant to call her father, and, while waiting for him, she placed the pictures in a special hall, where she usually kept her new things before she decided which place was best for them.

Lana heard her father come in, and, smiling, she turned toward him. Stubby, but imposing and dignified, he was in great shape for a man in his mid-fifties, and Lana looked at her father with delight and pride.

«How do you like them?» she pointed to the pictures.

Her father went close and gazed at the paintings.

«Where did you get them?» he asked, surprised. «I’m not an expert, but they seem to have been made by a gifted person.»

«Really?» She was obviously ashamed, and her father became immediately worried.

«Honey?» he said tenderly. «What’s on your mind? Why did you buy them? Last time, as I remember, you bought a picture when you were a teenager, and it was some stupid hero from some stupid cartoon. But those works are masterpieces. Where did you get them?»

Suddenly Lana cried and hugged her father.

«It is a student here, Dad. She’s Russian. As her husband…» She did not know how to explain, and could only weep, but her father guessed what was going on, and a storm of feelings raged into his soul.

«Just be careful, my heart,» he whispered, kissing her hair, and Lana felt unlimited gratitude to her father who understood and supported her.

She looked at his face. «You were in the same situation, weren’t you?»

«Yes, honey.» He did not shift his eyes at all. «It’s awful to love a married person. Your mother will never leave her husband. This is why I’m pretending that I am a widower. I don’t want to be a laughing stock.» He sighed. «She doesn’t love me, and she never did.»

«I hate her,» Lana said sniffing.

«You shouldn’t,» retorted her father. «She gave life to you. She gave you to me. After her ’affair’ with me, she could have had an abortion, or she could have pretended you were her husband’s. But, risking her reputation, she gave you to me. Well, a quarter of a century ago it was much easier than it is now. But anyway, I have you. I love you, kitten, and I’ll do anything to make you happy. So, what do you want to ask?»

«Can you organize a party… Darn, Thanksgiving would be better. Okay, Christmas is coming. Can you? I want all the Russians to be invited, and all who work with them. Could you do it?»

«I’m not sure,» he replied, hesitating. «I have a tight schedule. Ah, I know. I’ll do it, sweetheart. I’ll rent a hall downtown and ask the VanSteins to be the hosts. Anything else?»

«Yes.» She timidly smiled. «Don’t be angry at me.»

«I’m not angry,» he answered sadly. «But I’m worried sick about you, and I can do nothing about this feeling.»

«Oh, Daddy.» She embraced him again, and for a long time they just stood there hugging each other, enjoying their closeness and mutual understanding.


The Lapins and Ruslan Grafinsky were the first persons to arrive at the Christmas party, and they were confused seeing the empty hall.

«I told you it was too early,» whispered Vlad to Nina.

However, Hannah was glad to see Larisa, and the girls started playing together.

«I thought Mr. Limpson, as the organizer, would be here,» Ruslan said to the VanSteins.

«He’s very busy, but he promised to come later.» Megan smiled. «Looking for a sponsor, eh?» She winked, but the face of Ruslan was so clouded that the woman felt herself uncomfortable, and she started talking with Nina.

More and more people arrived. Children ran around and were so noisy that Megan sent them to play in another, smaller hall prepared with some toys and games especially for the younger set.

«I’ll watch the kids,» Nina offered.

«Oh, don’t worry.» Megan explained, «There are nannies here to watch them, but thanks anyway.»

Oleg Merkulov came later. He nodded to his wife, yet did not come close.

He gazed at Ruslan Grafinsky and sat next to him.

«Nice evening,» Oleg dropped casually. The young man did not answer.

«I’m warning you, buddy,» keeping a nice smile in place, Oleg hissed to him.

«You don’t scare me,» calmly replied Ruslan.

Lana Limpson quickly entered the hall. She glanced about, saw Oleg and Ruslan, and she smiled. However, she did not go to them. First she addressed David, then the other guests, then went to Oleg only after other people had arrived and the attention of everybody was drawn from her to the newcomers.

«Hi.» she said to the Russians. Ruslan’s gloomy face surprised her. «Is something wrong?» she asked as she sat next to Oleg.

«Everything’s fine,» Ruslan replied sarcastically.

«When you’re beside me, nothing’s wrong,» uttered Oleg emotionally.

Ruslan glanced at him. «Except the situation, eh?»

Lana averted her eyes, and giggled.

«How’s your wife, Mr. Merkulov?» she said loudly, and Ruslan gazed at her. «I bought some of her pictures.»

Surprised, Oleg pointed to a group of guests.

Quietly singing together, Marina Aleksandrova and Nina Lapina were sitting side by side. Marina played her guitar while Vera drew a sketch of them.

«What about they had talked?» Oleg thought, worried. «I hope Vera didn’t say something that could destroy my plans

«Oh.» Ruslan attentively looked at Lana. «Well, it’s good. When will your father arrive?»

«Are you looking for a sponsor?» Lana snorted, but her smile died immediately in view of Ruslan’s face, filled with pain. Not answering, he got up and walked away, and Lana concentrated her attention on the conversation with Oleg.

Vlad Lapin was talking with David VanStein and some other professors from the University. A smiling Megan approached and interrupted them. «Enough talk about work.»

«You’re right, honey,» David said with an apologetic smile. His guests looked at the Russian women.

«Ladies,» called one of the professors. «Why do you hide in the corner? Come here and sing to us. I’ve never heard Russian songs.»

«I can’t sing.» Nina got embarrassed, but Marina calmly went to the middle of the room. Placing her feet on the stool, she took her guitar, and sang.

She was singing in Russian, so the Americans listened without understanding the words. Marina’s voice sounded very emotional, and everybody saw — she put her heart into the singing.

Suddenly Megan VanStein noticed that the other Russians were visibly confused as she intercepted exchanging glances. When Marina finished, and all the people applauded, she asked, «What was this song about?»

«Just a love song,» Vera hastily answered, and Megan did not like the look on her face.

«One girl loves one man,» Marina sighed, walking back to the couch.

«Yeah, one married man,» Nina Lapina said very loudly and laughed.

A deadly silence reigned at once.

Vlad quickly nudged his wife, and she looked at him, then around the room with naive surprise, as she did not expect her phrase to have had such an effect.

David saw Marina glare at him. Framed with the puff of her fluffy straw-colored hair, her face went red, and he was amazed, feeling his own cheeks blush as well. The guests exchanged whispers.

«I see it’s a very frequent situation.» Lana gave Oleg a wink.

«What do you mean?» wondered Oleg.

«I mean when a girl loves a married man,» she answered very quietly, staring at him.

Little by little the party resumed its normal course, and when Lana’s father entered the hall, only a few people noticed.

Lana, Oleg, and Ruslan walked to him very quickly, almost running. Lana glanced at Ruslan, and addressed her father. «Daddy, let me introduce Oleg Merkulov. I showed you his wife’s pictures. And this is…» She forgot Ruslan’s name, and confusedly looked at him.

«Ruslan Grafinsky,» he said. «Mr. Limpson, can I have a talk with you?»

«If it’s about sponsorship,» Mr. Limpson coldly replied taking out a business card, «here is the address to send your query or project. You will get a response within three months.»

«This is more important to you than to me,» Ruslan retorted in the same tone that Mr. Limpson had used. He did not take the card, and the businessman gazed at this Russian youth with interest.

«Very well, Mr. Grafinsky,» Mr. Limpson grinned. «I’ll give you a ride home and we can talk.» He went to greet the guests.

«He won’t believe you,» Oleg said in Russian.

«At least I’ll try,» replied Ruslan.

Lana did not understand, but the spite in Oleg’s voice made her worry.

«What?» she addressed Ruslan. «What are you talking about?»

«I’m afraid, sweetheart,» Oleg answered sadly, «my pal wants to ruin our friendship.»

«Nobody can do that, I swear,» she took his hand, and tenderly squeezed it with all her excessive emotion.

Without another word Ruslan moved aside.


On their way home Vlad stopped at the stop signal, and was set to drive again, when Larisa suddenly gasped, «Look, a baby reindeer!»

«Where?» The surprised adults looked outside and laughed when they saw a golden retriever with toy antlers on its head.

«I bet it’s the same dog that we saw on Halloween!» exclaimed Nina, and they got out of the car. The girl petted the animal, and Nina said «Hello» to the owner. He was an old man with a walking stick, and he politely replied, «Good evening, young ladies.»

«I remember her name is Goldy.» The girl trustfully looked at him. «And my name is Larisa.»

«I’m Bill Thompson.» He slightly bowed to her.

«When Goldy has babies, can I have a puppy?» asked Larisa.

«Absolutely.» Bill saw the mother get anxious with his reply, and smiling, he leaned close to her.

«Not to worry, she’s fixed,» Thompson whispered so quietly that only Nina could hear this. «Just let’s not kill the child’s dream, okay?»

Nodding, Nina laughed and looked around.

There was no wind, and the snowflakes dancing in the still air wove an enchanting lacy display. Lit up with Christmas decorations sparkling from everywhere, the usual buildings looked like fairy houses, and Nina lost the sense of reality.

Her husband in the car seemed to her an elf in a carriage. Bill Thompson was a kind wizard of course. Larisa looked like a little princess. And the dog with antlers on its head completed the impression of being in a fantasy.

Barely back to Earth, Nina said goodbye to Bill Thompson, seated her daughter in the car, and they went home. But even falling asleep, Nina remembered this incredible feeling and a happy smile still played on her lips.


When Oleg and Vera got home, he carefully addressed his wife. «Honey, congratulate me. I’ve got a job.»

Vera looked at him with surprise. «Really?»

«Yes, Mr. Limpson hired me as a bodyguard for his daughter.»

«You’re kidding,» the woman said, amazed. «You have no permission for this kind of work.»

«This is why it’s not an official position.» Oleg gallantly helped his wife take off her coat. «I’ll escort his daughter. Sometimes I would have to stay in her apartment even for a night. I hope, you don’t mind, eh?» He gave her a wink, and giggled. «But maybe you’re jealous?»

«Give me a break.» Vera snorted and yawned, tired. «I know she’s not your type. I’m sure you would prefer to sleep with a crocodile rather than with such a girl.»

«My little wife is right.» Sighing, Oleg thought about Lana. «But I have no choice. What does that damn Ruslan see in her? She’s fat, plain, and primitive! Well, he’s just a stupid boy yet. Her father gave him a ride. Interesting, what would they talk about?»

This thought bothered Oleg until he fell asleep.

Chapter 8: New Year

The Crystal Ball shattered in Time’s Square, and far, far away, in another state, the Russians watched the event on TV, raised their goblets clinking them against each other.

The Lapins were celebrating this New Year with Marina and Ruslan. They drank, ate, and talked for a while, but Nina could not help her yawning, then the smiling Marina got up and started to clean the table of the numerous dishes.

Soon the women, holding stuff for bed, entered Larisa’s bedroom, and put their load on the couch.

«Are you sure?» murmured Nina, barely staying in control. «I feel so impolite…»

«Go to sleep,» Marina whispered, kissing the hostess. «Happy New Year!»

«Happy New Year!» Glancing at her daughter, Nina left the room.

Still smiling, Marina made her bed on the couch, and approached Larisa, checking her out.

The girl was sleeping, holding her teddy bear tight, but this peaceful sight washed out Marina’s grin, and deep wrinkles appeared on her forehead and around her mouth.

She quickly turned away, fell onto the couch, and burying her face into the pillow, she wept with her memories.

She hated New Year, because, fourteen years ago, celebrating this holiday, her parents got drunk as never before, and the awful events of the following night were engraved in her soul forever.

Nobody ever figured out how it had happened, because no one saw how the cord of the old, tattered Christmas lights dropped a spark, and the nearest piece of cotton, imitating snow, caught fire.

Twelve-year-old Marina woke up sensing unusual warmth. Drowsy, she sat up in bed.

Suddenly she smelled smoke and sprang up, looking around with horror; half of the room was enveloped in flames.

Her younger sister, Masha, was still sleeping in her crib and Marina darted to her parents’ chamber. «Daddy! Mom!» she screamed, tossing the door wide open. «Fire!»

Cursing, the drunken man threw a bottle at her and put down his head again. Marina heard her sister’s cry and she ran back.

Glancing at the little black-headed girl standing in the crib holding the bars, Marina knocked at the door of her brothers’ room. It was locked, and no one answered.

Vainly Marina pounded, kicked, thumped the door, trying to get in. She was only twelve. She could not break the lock, and feeling increasing heat, she realized she had not much time.

She screamed again dispiritedly calling her brothers, then rushed to Masha and hoisted her out of the crib. Squealing like a piglet, her sister wriggled in her arms. Marina could barely hold her.

Marina turned toward the exit door, but a big burning piece fell from the ceiling blocking the way. Hugging crying Masha, Marina slowly retreated from the advancing fire.

The smoke filled the room and irritated their eyes, asphyxiating the girls, and a panicking Marina could scarcely see the things around her. She grabbed a chair and threw it at the window, smashing the pane. Coughing, forcing herself to stay in control, Marina climbed up onto the windowsill.

Her blouse caught fire, but the girl did not notice. She looked outside. They were on the third floor, and Marina clearly understood that a jump down would be suicide.

«Help!» she cried with all the power in her lungs. «Fire! Please, in the name of God, somebody help us!»

With hope Marina stared at the flashing lights of oncoming fire-trucks and police cars, but the heat became intolerable, and she realized her time was up. There was nothing for it, and crazy with pain and terror, still embracing her sister, Marina leapt out as far as she could.

Despair increased her strength. She reached the bushes near the building and, in the last second, she spun in the air like a cat, trying to avoid the branches that would hurt Masha in her arms. The sticks and thorns thrust into her own back, and, choking with exquisite agony, Marina slid down onto the ground, and could barely breathe.

A policeman grabbed Masha, and a stunned Marina did not protest, seeing her sister was okay. A fireman took Marina to an ambulance, and only now the girl felt all her pain, and sobbed with suffering.


It was Jeff’s day off and he saw Vera in the grocery store. Hoping to talk to her, he tried to catch her alone. Jeff had a good subject in mind for a conversation. It was January 1, and he wanted to wish her a happy New Year.

But people were around her all the time, and a vexed Jeff had no chance to speak privately. He dared not call out.

Waiting for his chance, he pretended that he was only doing his shopping. He stayed behind her, keeping his eyes on her gracious figure. Wearing a fox fur coat, the elegant woman with brownish red hair looked like a real vixen, moving quickly and smoothly, and the delighted Jeff could not tear his stare from his adored one.

He saw the Lapins meet her and start talking. Jeff quickly went into the next aisle, hoping to intercept Vera when she had finished and moved on herself.

He waited and waited, but only other people passed him.


«How was your New Year?» asked the smiling Nina. Larisa and Vlad, wearing identical bored expressions, stood next to the women. Vera was looking around and did not reply. She had seen Jeff appear a few times and she dearly wanted to talk with him.

«Where is he?» she thought, upset, as she did not notice where he had gone.

«Are you searching for someone?» Vlad’s deep calm voice startled Vera.

«No.» She sighed, pushing her cart again. «Sorry, what did you ask? I just didn’t get enough sleep. We went to bed at 5 a.m.»

«Cool.» Nina laughed. «No, I can’t stay awake for so long. I barely waited till twelve. I’m an early bird.»

«Yeah,» Vlad gently teased his wife. «But it doesn’t mean you have to wake me the same time you wake up.»

Still good-naturedly bantering, the Lapins walked to the cashier, and the displeased Vera followed them, losing hope of meeting Jeff.


Jeff carefully peeped out and gasped, seeing Vera had gone. He hastily walked around the shop and saw her on the point of leaving. He left his cart where it was and went out also. Jeff understood that this was his last chance to talk to her today, and he did not want to miss the opportunity.

Seeing that Vera was putting her shopping bags into her car, Jeff increased the speed of his steps. He saw Vera look around for a few seconds.

«She’s looking for me!» Jeff tried to get into her view, but he had to wait as a van passed by, and Vera did not notice him. Sighing, she drove away, and, frustrated, Jeff only followed her car with his eyes.

Whirling, Jeff saw the Lapins walking out of the grocery store and he scolded himself. «Why didn’t I come to them when they talked with Vera? They are friends, I’m sure they wouldn’t make fun of her or set a gossip going


Deeply upset, he drove home, but this time Jeff changed his route.

«What if her car fails?» he thought, cherishing some absurd hope.

Passing her house, Jeff saw Oleg’s car parked next to hers, and painful flaming envy struck the man like the discharge of a police electro-shocker. He barely maintained control of either the vehicle or himself.

«You asked for it, you got it!» his inner voice mocked. «You knew she was married. What did you expect? Her hubby would disappear because of your stupid feelings for his wifey? You are a fool, Jeff Menard. You’re such a fool


At home his thoughts still ran to Vera, and, feeling melancholy, Jeff changed a few channels, found a New Year comedy program, and started to watch.

Soon, cheered up, he was laughing with jokes that a young black stand-up comedian was telling.

However, when the comic started mocking whites, for the first time in his life Jeff felt uncomfortable with it. As this guy took on white women as a subject, thinking about Vera, Jeff changed the channel.

He watched for a while, but his joyful mood was wrecked and he went to bed.

Racked with the pain of love and jealousy he could not sleep for a long time.

«Maybe she doesn’t like me because I’m black,» he thought.

«No.» He recalled her playful glances at him. Jeff saw her eyes brighten every time they met. «I’m sure she likes to see me.» He smiled, but another thought spoiled his gladness again.

«My foolish flirting only flatters her female feelings,» an irritated Jeff said to himself. Yet his love for her could justify any of her actions.

«She’s just a moral woman,» he whispered, suffering with the despair of the situation. «She has to think about the reputation of her family. I’m sure, if she were free…»

Jeff tried to force himself not to think about Vera, but he was unsuccessful. He closed his eyes, and her strange snow-white face stood in his mental view. He yearned to hug her, to feel her slender refined body. For only one kiss of her thin purple lips, he was ready to die.

«Vera,» he repeated, taking pleasure from that sound and tormented at the same time. «Vera…»


...They slowly made their way together along the edge of the summer forest. On the left side a plain stretched to the skyline. Hot yet tender sunshine washed over the young couple.

Jeff walked holding a primitive cotton bag. A bottle of water, a few oranges, and a loaf of bread were inside. It was all their food and neither knew when they would be able to get anything else, but it was no matter for them.

Somehow Jeff was not surprised seeing Vera wearing a strange dress. This indigo robe with a deep décolleté, fleecy and lacy, looked very elegant and expensive, but absolutely out of date.

They reached a barn, and sat on the porch. Jeff looked at Vera with an elated smile; she was his mistress, and she loved him, and they both knew and enjoyed it.

He took out an orange, peeled it, and broke it into segments. He held one out to Vera, and, closing her eyes, the woman took it with her lips, holding and sucking his fingers as well, and, overloaded with desire, they uttered a simultaneous quiet moan.


The beaming sun peeped through the small window of the barn, stealthily spying upon them making love on the fluffy pile of aromatic hay. The magic fragrance of the dried grass made them drunk, increasing the pleasure beyond reality, and some straws pricking their bodies stimulated them like a spur drives a horse.

Panting with overflowing delight Jeff was close to that magic line when nothing exists except the enjoyment when he heard a worried voice, and saw a black girl wearing a very old-fashioned gown.

«They found us,» she said uneasily. «You have to run.»


Helping each other, they ran, struggling through a marshland forest along the bank of a river. The ground was swampy, and Vera ran holding the edge of her very long dark blue skirt.

Looking at her superannuated dress and being clothed himself in a wide shirt and cotton pants, Jeff wondered, «Why are we wearing this?» But another worry pushed this thought aside.

They heard dogs barking behind them, and they knew the hounds had come upon their tracks. They did not have much time.

The thorny branches of the bushes, lianas and brushwood, shrubs and ferns were catching their clothes, making their trail into a nightmare. Every passing yard asked the maximum strain of their decreasing strength.

They had already abandoned the bag with the food and water. A tree branch tore Vera’s blue hat off, but she did not stop. She did not lose even a second of their valuable, diminishing time. She was still running full out, and the chestnut mane of her beautiful hair seemed like wings on her shoulders.

Glimpsing the brave face of his sweetheart with anxiety and helpless compassion, Jeff nevertheless felt sincere veneration. Exhausted, she neither complained nor faltered. She ran as fast as she could, and it was not her fault that the relentless barking was getting closer.

The dying vermilion light of the sunset lit up a glade.

They ran from forest to glade and understood at once — it was the end of their escape. There was no way out.

On one side of the glade the plain was open. The lovers saw horsemen galloping toward them, and Vera’s husband was their leader. The dogs were behind them. On the other edge of the glade the timberland was impenetrable and a river seemed the only possible way out, but when Vera and Jeff went close they saw many huge alligators down the steep slope.

«Better to be eaten up by crocodiles than get back into his claws!» she cried, rushing to the river. Jeff followed her, ready to share her fate no matter how horrible it might be.

Bursting out from behind the trees, the hounds blocked their way, baying and showing their fangs. The bloodshot eyes of the angry animals glowed in the falling darkness, and foam was dripping from their jaws.

Although the dogs could tear Jeff to pieces, they stopped not far away from the hunted victims. Vera covered Jeff’s body with hers and the hounds dared not attack the white woman.

She turned toward Jeff, and they embraced each other. Closing their eyes, they stood still. The lovers knew it was their last hug as the horsemen neared, and any kind of resistance would be pointless because their sheer numbers left not even a little hope of success.

A man roughly pulled Vera from Jeff’s arms, and he felt as if his soul had been brutally torn from his body. He saw the men place a big cross in the middle of the glade, and set fire to it. The reddish orange angry light flooded the glade as it would an area of Hell.

The men tied Jeff’s arms behind his back, while the others threw a rope on the branch of a tree, fastening a noose. He saw the swinging loop waiting for him, but it did not matter to Jeff.

He kept his eyes on only Vera, and thoughts that he could not help or protect her filled Jeff with boundless despair.

Squeezing her elbow the man rudely dragged Vera to her husband. Oleg welted her across the face, knocking her to the ground, and Jeff screamed, feeling such pain, as if it was not the woman who collapsed, but his own heart.

«I’ll deal with you later, my darling,» Oleg said very quietly, yet his words rumbled into Jeff’s ears like thunder.

«No!» he cried out. «It wasn’t her fault! I forced her to go with me!»

«No, Jeff.» Vera slowly got up, and her death-like white face was gleaming in the dusk. «I love you. I’m not sorry that I was with you.»

He saw Oleg take out a gun, and, forgetting everything, Jeff rushed forward and rolled down into a murky abyss.


Covered with cold sweat, he sat up in bed and wildly looked around.

The scarlet and saffron raging light oozed through the blinds and flooded the bedroom. He heard dogs barking outside, and, still caught up in his dream, Jeff did not realize at once that the nightmare was over, and he was in reality again.

«Thank God!» Panting, Jeff pinched himself to be sure he was awake, and smiled, unnerved with the stress. «Just a bad dream. Oh Vera, my beloved. There is no price that I would hesitate to pay to be with you, but I’d rather die than bring you any troubles.»

The fire outside now caught his attention. Menard went to the window and looked through the blinds.

A car in the next parking lot was enveloped with flame, and a sense of duty coupled with ordinary curiosity compelled the policeman to dress and go outside.

He walked to the car and saw the owner, a very young female student, standing not far from the vehicle. Her dog was barking and jumping around. Bill Thompson’s golden retriever was yapping as well from the porch of the house. Neighbor’s dogs echoed them. Jeff decided that it had been these sounds, and gleams of the flame, that had been the basis of his nightmare.

Shimmering lights flashed, a siren sounded as a fire truck arrived, and the fire fighters started extinguishing the fire, covering the car with foam.

The owner looked at Jeff and sniffed.

«I left a bottle of kerosene in the car,» she confessed confusedly, and she cried. «Mom’s gonna kill me.»

«There, there,» Jeff hugged the girl. «It’s not the worst that can happen in life. Take it like a celebration of a New Year.»

This phrase cheered up the student, and she laughed.

They looked around. The expiring flame and the neighbors’ Christmas decorations, bright and shiny, accented with the lights of the fire truck and the oncoming police cars, bizarrely colored the snowy night street.

It was impossible to be angry or upset tonight, this, the second night of the new year. Optimism and hope involuntarily reigned in everyone’s souls. But, recalling his dreams, Jeff sadly thought about the unattainability of being with the woman he dearly loved.

Chapter 9: The Crash

It was getting dark and the freezing rain had turned into a snowstorm.

Ruslan Grafinsky, struggling through the beating wind, was thinking that he would never get home. He walked along scarcely able to see the road. The sidewalk seemed like a skating rink and Ruslan could barely keep his feet.

He was wearing a warm coat, but his pants and gloves, wet after the rain, felt like they were made of ice, and he was chilled to the bone. Dozens of nails pricked his limbs, his frozen hands became numb, and a dagger thrust into his knees with every step.

Ruslan was Russian; he was born and raised in Moscow and had been accustomed to cold. But it was the first time in his life he had faced such weather — when moist gale and frost united their efforts as though planning to terminate all living beings.

«I will be okay,» he thought, walking as if in a bad dream. «But how do the poor animals stand it? Birds, deer, others, who have no hole or shelter.» He recalled the many homeless animals on Moscow’s streets, and he almost did not feel his own pain, suffering with a sense of compassion more than with the cold.

But everything has an end.

He climbed up on the porch and entered the apartment. He took off the hood of his coat and sighed with relief, enjoying the warmth and serenity reigning here.

He saw Vera Grach, and smiled. Nina Lapina was pottering about in the kitchen.

«Dinner is almost ready!» she exclaimed. «Wash your hands.»

«What weather!» Ruslan shook snow off his coat. «I thought I’d become a snow man.»

Vera looked through the window. «My God!» She gasped. «My car didn’t start,» she explained to Ruslan. «So I walked. After school I passed the house and came in here, hoping the weather will ease and I could go home. But I see now I was wrong.»

«Don’t worry.» Nina smiled. «Vlad will be home any second, he’ll drive you.» She checked the refrigerator and became upset. «Sour cream. We’re out of sour cream. How can we eat borsch without sour cream?»

«I’m so hungry.» Ruslan made a puppy face. «I just need some hot food to warm me up.»

«Vlad!» Nina saw her husband enter the apartment. «Don’t take your clothes off. Let’s go, we need sour cream.»

Vlad looked at Nina and sighed. He almost never refused anything she asked, but now he was very tired. He got the first driver’s license in his life less than a month ago, and driving in such weather scared him. However, he did not want to show this to his wife. So he only said, «I’m waiting in the car.» And he went outside.

«Wait!» Nina grabbed her coat. «Guys, we’ll be right back. Vera, dear, could you give Ruslan his dinner, please? Larisa is in her room, please tell that dawdler to start preparing for bed.»

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