“I won’t be gone long,” Vera promises. “The library will call me patriotic. All will be fine.”
Mama only nods. They both know it is a fiction, this promise of Vera’s, but they say nothing. Both of them want to believe.
I think that is enough for tonight,” Mom said.
Meredith was the first to stand. Moving almost cautiously, she crossed the small, carpeted space and stood beside Mom. “You don’t look as tired tonight.”
“Acceptance,” Mom said, staring down at her own hands.
The unexpected answer brought Nina to her feet. She moved in beside her sister. “What do you mean by that?”
“You were right, Nina. Your father made me promise to tell you this story. I did not want to. And fighting a thing tires you out.”
“Is that why you went so . . . crazy after Dad died?” Meredith asked. “Because you were ignoring his wishes?”
“That is perhaps one of the reasons,” her mother said, giving a little shrug, as if to say that reasons didn’t matter much.
Nina and Meredith stood there a moment longer, but whatever slim strand of intimacy had been created tonight was gone now. Again, Mom would barely make eye contact with them.
“Okay,” Meredith finally said. “We’ll come get you in the morning for breakfast.”
“I do not want—”
“We do,” Nina said in a voice that silenced her mother’s protest. “Tomorrow the three of us are going to be together. You can discuss it or argue or yell at me, but you know that I won’t change my mind and in the end I’ll get my way.”
“She’s right,” Meredith said, smiling. “She’s a bitch when she doesn’t get her way.”
“How would we know?” Mom said.
“Was that a joke?” Nina said, grinning.
It was like seeing the sun for the first time or riding your first two-wheeler. The whole world suddenly brightened.
“Go away,” Mom said, but Nina could tell that she was trying not to smile with them, and just that little change gave Nina wings.
“Come on, big sis,” she said, slinging an arm around Meredith.
They left Mom’s stateroom for their own room.
Their long, narrow room was surprisingly spacious. There was a small sitting area—a love seat that could be made into a bed—a coffee table, a television, and two twin beds. A pair of sliding doors led to their private veranda. Nina turned on the television, which showed the ship’s progress on a nautical map. There was no cell phone or Internet service out here in the waters off British Columbia, and no television programming. If they wanted to watch a movie, they needed to borrow one from the ship’s library.
“Dibs on the bathroom,” Meredith said as soon as they closed the door behind them, and Nina couldn’t help laughing. It was a sentence straight from their youth.
Meredith is on my side, Dad, tell her to scoot over.
Nina broke my rock ’em sock ’em robot on purpose.
Don’t make me stop this car, you two.
Nina couldn’t help smiling at that last one. When Meredith came out of the bathroom, looking squeaky clean and ready for bed in her pink flannel pajamas, Nina took her turn and got ready for bed. For the first time in years, she and her sister ended up in side-by-side twin beds.
“You’re smiling,” Meredith said.
“I was just thinking about our camping trips.”
“ ‘ Don’t make me stop this car.’ ” Meredith said, and they both laughed. For a magical moment, the years fell away and they were kids again, fighting over an inch of space in the backseat of a bright red Cadillac convertible, with John Denver singing about being high in the mountains.
“Mom never joined in,” Meredith said, her smile fading.
“How did she stay so quiet?”
“I always thought it was because she didn’t give a shit, but now I wonder. Dad was right: the fairy tale is changing everything.”
Nina nodded and leaned back. “The picture,” she said after a moment. “It’s Anya and Leo, right?”
Nina turned to look at her sister. The question that had been beside them all night, gathering weight and mass, was close now, impossible to ignore. “If Mom really is Vera,” she said slowly, “what happened to her children?”
Nina had been all over the world, but rarely had she seen scenery to rival the magnificence of the Inside Passage. The water was a deep, mysterious blue, and there were islands everywhere—rough, forested hillocks of land that looked exactly as they had two hundred years ago. Behind it all were rugged, snow-draped mountains.
She had come out early this morning and been rewarded with breathtaking shots of dawn breaking across the water. She caught an orca breaching off the bow of the ship, its giant black and white body a stark contrast to the bronzed early morning sky.
She finally stopped shooting at about seven-thirty. By then her hands were frozen and her teeth were chattering so hard it was difficult to keep the camera steady.
“Would you like some hot chocolate, ma’am?”
Nina turned away from the railing and the exquisite view, and found a fresh-faced young deck steward holding a tray of cups and a thermos of hot chocolate. It sounded so good she didn’t even mind that the girl had called her ma’am. “That would be great. Thanks.”
The steward smiled. “There are blankets on the deck chairs, too.” “Does it ever get warm up here?” Nina asked, wrapping her cold fingers around the warm cup.
“Maybe in August.” The girl smiled. “It’s beautiful in Alaska, but the climate isn’t too friendly.”
Nina thanked the steward and went over to one of the wooden deck chairs. She scooped up a heavy, plaid woolen blanket, swung it around her shoulders, and went back to the railing. There, she stared out at the sparkling blue water. A trio of dolphins swam alongside the ship, jumping and diving in perfect synchronicity.
“That’s a sign of good luck,” Meredith said, coming up beside her.
Nina opened one arm, let Meredith snuggle under the blanket beside her. “It’s cold as hell out here.”
Up ahead, a lone lighthouse stood at the rugged green end of an island.
“You were restless last night,” Meredith said, reaching for Nina’s hot chocolate.
“How do you know?”
“I’m an insomniac lately. It’s one of the many prizes you find in the Cracker Jack box of a crumbling marriage. I’m always exhausted and I never sleep. So why were you tossing and turning?”
“We’re three days away from Juneau.”
“I found him.”
Meredith turned to her. The blanket slipped out of Nina’s fingers and slid downward. “What do you mean, you found him?”
“The professor of Russian studies. Dr. Adamovich. He’s in a nursing home on Franklin Street in Juneau. I had my editor track him down.”
“So that’s why we’re on this cruise. I should have guessed. Did you speak to him? ”
Meredith bit down on her lip and looked out at the water. “What are we supposed to do? Can we just show up at his door?”
“I didn’t really think it through. I know. I know. Big surprise. I just got so amped when I found him. I know he’ll have answers for us.”
“He wrote to her. Not us. I don’t think we can tell her. She’s . . . fragile, Neens. Dad was right about that.”
“I know. That’s why I wasn’t sleeping. We can’t tell her we’ve been researching her life, and we can’t just show up at the professor’s nursing home, and we can’t sneak away for a day after all the fuss I made about us being together. And if we did sneak away, he might not talk to us anyway. It’s her he wanted to see.”
“I can see how all that would keep you up. Especially with the rest of it.”
“The rest of it?”
“Your nature, Neens. You can’t not see him.”
“I know. So what do we do?”
“We will go see the professor.”
Nina gasped at the sound of her mother’s voice and turned around. In her surprise, she caught the side of her cup on the railing and hot chocolate splashed everywhere.
“Mom,” Meredith stammered.
“You heard it all?” Nina said, licking chocolate from her fingers. She knew she looked calm—it was one of the many things photojournalism had taught her: how to look calm even if your insides were shaking—but her voice was uneven. Things were going so well with Mom lately; she hated to think she’d ruined that.
“I heard enough,” Mom said. “It is the professor from Alaska, yes? The one who wrote to me years ago?”
Nina nodded. She pulled the blanket off of her and Meredith and carried it over to Mom, wrapping it around her thin shoulders. “It was me, Mom. Not Meredith.”
Mom held the blanket closed at her breast, her fingers pale against the red plaid. She glanced at the deck chair beside her and sat down, covering herself carefully with the blanket.
Nina and Meredith took chairs on either side of her, flipping the blankets out, too. A steward came by and offered them each a hot chocolate.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Nina said. “I should have told you at the beginning.”
“You thought I would not agree to the trip.”
“Yes,” Nina said. “It’s just that I want to get to know you. And not only because I promised Dad.”
“You want answers.”
“How can I—how can we,” she said, including Meredith in this, “not want answers? You are part of who we are, and we don’t know you. Maybe it’s why we don’t know ourselves. Meredith can’t figure out if she loves her husband or what her own dream is. And I’ve got a man waiting for me in Atlanta and all I can think about is Vera.”
Mom leaned back onto the teak chair. “It is time, I suppose,” she said quietly. “Your father spoke to Professor Adamovich, I believe, although I never did. He thought we should talk—I should talk. It’s probably why he kept the letter all these years.”
“What does the professor want to talk about?” It was Meredith who asked this, and although her voice was quiet, the look in her eyes was intent.
“Leningrad,” Mom said. “For years the government hid what happened. We Soviets are good at hiding things, and I was afraid to talk about it. But there is no reason for fear now. I am eighty-one years old tomorrow. Why be afraid?”
“Tomorrow is your birthday?” they said at once.
Mom almost smiled. “It was easier to hide everything. Yes, tomorrow is my birthday.” She sipped her hot chocolate. “I will go see this professor with you, but you two should know now: you will be sorry you began all of this.”
“Why do you say that?” Meredith asked. “How could we be sorry to learn who you are?”
It was a long moment before Mom answered. Slowly, she turned to Meredith and said, “You will.”