She glanced out the window, at the cars rolling past. “You were right to leave. We need to figure out where to go from here.”
“Is that what you came to tell me?”
Was it? Even now she wasn’t sure.
He got up from the desk and came toward her. She felt his gaze on her face, searching her eyes for something. “Because that’s not what I’m waiting to hear.”
“I know.” She hated to disappoint him, but she couldn’t give him what he wanted, even though it would be easier to say the words and get her life back and think about it later. “I’m sorry, Jeff. But you changed things, and you got me thinking. For once, I don’t want to do what’s expected. I don’t want to put everyone’s happiness above my own. And right now I don’t know what to say to you.”
“Can you say you don’t love me?”
He thought about that, not quite frowning. “Okay.” He sat down on the edge of his desk, and she felt the distance between them suddenly in a way she hadn’t before. “Maddy said you sent her a care package last week.”
“Jillian got hers the week before.”
He nodded, looked at her. “And your dad’s birthday?”
“I got through it. I’ll tell you about it someday. There’s a funny Nina story in it.”
She was about to ask him about his book when there was a knock at his door. A beautiful young woman with messy blond hair poked her head in his office. “You still up for pizza and beer, Jeff?” she asked, curling her fingers around the doorframe.
Jeff looked at Meredith, who shrugged.
For the first time, she wondered about what he was doing while they were apart. It had never occurred to her that he might forge a new life, make new friends. She smiled a little too brightly and said good-bye in a steady voice. Nodding briefly to Miss Journalism USA in the tight jeans and V-neck sweater, she left the office and drove home. There, she fed the dogs and paid some bills and put in a load of wash. Dinner was a bowl of Raisin Bran, which she ate while standing in front of the sink. Afterward, she called each of the girls and heard about the classes they were taking and the boys they thought were hot.
It was Jillian who asked about Jeff.
“What do you mean, how’s Dad?” Meredith said, stammering, realizing a second too late that it had been an innocent question.
“You know, his allergies. He was coughing like crazy last night.”
“Oh, that. He’s fine.”
“You sound weird.”
Meredith laughed nervously. “Just busy, baby. You know how the apple biz gets this time of year.”
“What does that have to do with Dad?”
“Oh. Well. Tell him I love him, okay?”
The irony of that was not lost on Meredith. “Sure.”
She hung up the phone and stared out her kitchen window at the darkness. On the wall beside her, the kitchen clock ticked through the minutes. For the first time, she felt the truth of this situation: she and Jeff were separated. Separate. Apart. She should have realized that before, of course, but somehow she hadn’t really owned it until now. There’d been so much going on at Belye Nochi that the problems in her own marriage had taken a backseat.
And suddenly she didn’t want to be here alone, didn’t want to watch some sitcom and try to be entertained.
“Come on, puppies,” she said, reaching for her coat, “we’re going for a walk.”
Ten minutes later she was at Belye Nochi. She settled the dogs on the porch and went inside, calling out for Nina.
She found Mom in the living room, knitting.
Her mother nodded but didn’t look up. “Hello.”
Meredith tried not to feel disappointed. “I’m going to start packing again. Do you need anything? Have you eaten?”
“I am fine. Nina made dinner. Thank you.”
“Where is she?”
Meredith waited for more, got nothing, and said, “I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”
Dragging boxes upstairs, she went into her parents’ closet. The left side was Dad’s: a row of brightly colored cardigans and golf shirts. She touched them gently, let her fingers trail across the soft sleeves. Soon his clothes would have to be packed up and given away, but the thought of that was more than Meredith could bear right now.
So she faced Mom’s side. This was where she would start.
She went to the stack of sweaters on the shelf above the dresses. Scooping them up, she dropped the heap onto the carpeted floor. Kneeling, she began the arduous task of choosing, culling, and folding. She was so intent on her job that she barely noticed the passing of time, and was surprised when she heard Nina’s voice.
“Are you comfortable, Mom?” Nina said.
Meredith moved to the closet door, opening it just a crack.
Mom was in bed, with the bedside lamp on beside her. Her white hair was unbound, tucked behind her ears. “I am tired.”
“I’ve given you time,” Nina said, sitting on the floor in front of the cold black hearth.
Meredith didn’t move; instead, she flicked off the closet light and stayed where she was.
Mom sighed. “Fine,” she said, turning off the bedside light.
“Belye nochi,” Mom said, turning the words into liquid magic, full suddenly of passion and mystery. “It is a season of light in the Snow Kingdom, where fairies glow on bright green leaves and rainbows swirl through the midnight sky. The streetlamps come on, but they
are decorations only, golden oases positioned along streets burnished beneath them, and on the rare days when rain falls, everything is mirrored in the light.
On such a day is Vera cleaning the glass cases in the elves’ great lost-manuscript chamber. She has asked for this work. The rumor is that sometimes the elves appear to those who believe in them, and Vera wants to believe again.
Alone in the manuscript room (in these dangerous new times, few scholars dare to ask about the past anymore), she hums a song that her father taught her.
“The library is to be quiet.”
Vera is so startled by the voice that she drops her rag. The woman facing her is storklike: tall and rail-thin, with a beak of a nose. “I am sorry, ma’am. No one ever comes in here. I thought—”
“Do not. You never know who is listening.”
Vera cannot tell if the words are a warning or a rebuke. It is difficult to recognize such nuances these days. “Again, I apologize, ma’am.”
“Good. Madam Dufours tells me that a student from the college requests your assistance. Cleric Nevin has sent him. Help him but do not neglect your duties.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Vera says. On the outside she is calm, but inside she is like a puppy leaping to be let outside. The cleric has found a student who will teach her! She waits for the librarian to leave and then puts away her cleaning supplies.
Moving too quickly (she tries to slow down but cannot; it has been so long since she felt this excited), she barely touches the wooden railing as she hurries down the wide marble steps. Downstairs, the main hall of the library is full of tables and people moving about. A queue snakes back from the head librarian’s desk.
“Veronika.” She hears her name and turns slowly.
He looks exactly as she remembers: with his shock of golden hair that is too long and curly. His wide jaw has been freshly shaven; a tiny red nick on his neck attests to a hurried job. But it is his green eyes that capture her once again.
“Your Highness,” she says, trying to sound casual. “It is good to see you. How long has it been?”
“You know what happened on the Fontanka Bridge.”
Her smile slips; she tries to find it again. She will not show herself to be naïve and silly. Not again. “That was just a night. Years ago.”
“It was no ordinary night, Vera.”
“Please. Don’t tease me, Your Highness.” To her horror, her voice breaks just a little. “And you never came back.”
“You were fifteen,” he says. “I was eighteen.”
“Yes,” she says, frowning. Still she does not understand what he is trying to say.
“I have been waiting for you.”
For the first time in her life, Vera pretends to be ill. She goes to the librarian and complains about gnawing pains in her stomach and begs to be allowed to go home early.
It is a terrible thing to do, and dangerous. If Mama knew of it, Vera would be in trouble, both for the lie and for the choices that will inevitably follow the lie. What if Vera is seen outside when supposedly she is ill?
But a girl her age cannot act out of fear when love is at hand.
Still, she is smart enough to go directly home when she is let go from work. On the trolley, she stands at the brass pole, holding tightly as the car lurches and sways. At the apartment, she opens the door slowly and peers inside.
Her grandmother stands in front of the stove, stirring something in a big black cauldron. “You are home early,” she says, using the back of her plump hand to push the damp gray hair away from her eyes.
The sweet smell of simmering strawberries fills the apartment. On the table, at least a dozen glass jars stand clustered in readiness, their metal tops spread out alongside.
“The library was not busy,” Vera says, feeling her face redden at the lie.
“Then you can—”
“I’m going out to the country,” Vera says. At her grandmother’s sharp look, she adds, “I will pick some cucumbers and cabbage.”
“Oh. Very well, then.”
Vera stands there a moment longer, looking at her grandmother’s stern profile. Her baggy dress is ragged at the hem and her stockings are pocked with tears and snags. A tattered blue kerchief covers her frizzy gray hair.
“Tell Mama I will be out late. I will not be home in time for supper, I am sure.”
“Be careful,” her grandmother says. “You are young . . . and his daughter. It does not do well to be noticed.”
Vera nods to conceal the flushing of her cheeks—again. She goes to the corner of the apartment, where their rusted old bicycle stands propped against the wall. She carries the bike to the door and leaves the apartment.
Never has she flown so on her rickety bicycle down the streets of her beloved Snow Kingdom. Tears blur her eyes and disappear into her waving hair. When people move in front of her, she pings the bell on her handlebars and darts around them. All the way through the city, along the river, and over the bridge, she can feel the rapid beating of her heart and his name repeats in her head.
Sasha. Sasha. Sasha.
He has been waiting for her, just as she has been waiting for him. The luck of this seems impossible, a bit of gold found in the dirty road of her life. At the intricate black scrollwork entrance of the Summer Garden, she eases to a stop and slips off her bike.
The beauty of the castle grounds amaze her. Bordered on three sides by water, the park is a magnificent green haven in the walled city. The air smells of limes and hot stone. Exquisite marble statues line the well-groomed paths.