In the waiting room on the third floor, she found her sister positioned like a sentinel next to an absurdly cheery aquarium full of tropical fish. Nina skidded to a stop, afraid suddenly to say anything. They’d always handled things differently, she and Meredith. Even as girls. Nina had fallen often and picked herself back up; Meredith had moved cautiously, rarely losing her balance. Nina had broken things; Meredith held them together.
Nina needed that now, needed her sister to hold her together. “Mere?” she said quietly.
Meredith turned to her. Even with the length of the waiting room between them and bad fluorescent lighting above, Nina could see how drawn and tired her sister looked. Meredith’s chestnut-brown hair, usually so flawlessly styled, was a mess. She wore no makeup, and without it, her brown eyes looked too big for her pale face, her oversized mouth was colorless. “You’re here,” she said, moving forward, taking Nina into her arms.
When Nina drew back, she was unsteady, her breathing was a little erratic. “How is he?”
“Not good. He had a second massive heart attack. At first they were going to try to operate . . . but now they’re saying he won’t survive it. The damage is too extensive. Dr. Watanabe doesn’t think he’ll make it through the weekend. But they didn’t really think he’d make it through the first night, either.”
Nina closed her eyes at the pain of that. Thank God she had made it home in time to see him.
But how could she lose him? He was her level ground, her North Star. The one person who was always waiting for her to come home.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and looked at her sister again. “Where’s Mom?”
Meredith stepped sideways.
And there she was—a beautiful white-haired woman sitting in a cheap upholstered chair. Even from here, Nina could see how controlled her mother was, how scarily contained. She hadn’t risen to welcome her youngest child home, hadn’t even looked her way. Rather, she was staring straight ahead; those eerie blue eyes of hers seemed to glow against the pallor of her skin. As usual, she was knitting. They probably had three hundred sweaters and blankets, each neatly folded in stacks in the attic.
“How is she?” Nina asked.
Meredith shrugged, and Nina knew what that movement meant. Who knew about Mom? She was alien to them, indecipherable, and God knew they’d tried. Meredith most of all.
Until the night of the Christmas play, all those years ago, Meredith had followed Mom like an eager puppy, begging to be noticed. After that humiliating night, her sister had drawn back, kept her distance. In the years between then and now, nothing had changed; neither had softened. If anything, the distance between them had grown. Nina had handled it differently. She’d given up on the hope of intimacy earlier and chosen to accept her mother’s solitude. In many ways they were alike, she and Mom. They didn’t need anyone except Dad.
Nodding at her sister, Nina left her and crossed the room. At her mother’s side, she sank to her knees. An unfamiliar longing caught her off guard. She wanted to be told that he would be okay.
“Hey, Mom,” she said. “I got here as quickly as I could.”
She heard a tiny fissure in her mother’s voice and that slim weakness connected them. She dared to touch her mother’s thin, pale wrist. The veins were blue and thick beneath the white skin, and Nina’s tanned fingers looked almost absurdly vibrant against it. Maybe for once it was Mom who needed to be comforted. “He’s a strong man with a will to live.”
Her mother looked down at her so slowly it was as if she were a robot with a dying battery. Nina was shocked by how old and weary her mother looked, yet how strong. It should have been an impossible combination, but her mother had always been a woman of contradictions. She’d worried acutely about letting her children leave the yard, but hardly looked at them when they were in the house; she’d claimed that there was no God even as she decorated her holy corner and kept its lamp lit; she ate only enough food to keep her body moving, but wanted her children to eat more than they could stand. “You think that is what matters?”
Nina was taken aback by the ferocity in her mother’s voice. “I think we have to believe he’ll get better.”
“He is in room 434. He has been asking for you.”
Nina took a deep breath and opened the door to her father’s room.
It was quiet except for the mechanical sound of machines. She moved slowly toward him, trying not to cry.
He looked small, a big man who’d been whittled down to fit in a child’s bed.
“Nina.” His voice was so soft and breathy she hardly recognized it. His skin was frighteningly pale.
She forced herself to smile, hoping it looked real. Her father was a man who valued laughter and joy. She knew it would hurt him to see her in pain.
“Hey, Daddy.” The little-girl word slipped out; she hadn’t said it in years.
He knew; he knew and he smiled. It was a faded, tired version of his smile and Nina reached down to wipe the spittle from his lip. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I want . . .” He was breathing hard now. “Go . . . home.”
She had to lean close to hear his quietly spoken words. “You can’t go home, Dad. They’re taking good care of you here.”
He reached for her hand, holding it tightly. “Die home.”
This time she couldn’t will her tears away. She felt them streak down her face and land in tiny gray petals on the white blanket. “Don’t . . .”
He stared up at her, still breathing hard; she saw the light go out of his eyes and the weakening of his will, and that hurt more than words had.
“It won’t be easy,” she said. “You know Meredith likes everything in its place. She’ll want you here.”
The smile he gave her was so sad and sloppy it broke her heart. “You . . . hate easy.”
“I do,” she said quietly, stung by the sudden thought that without him, no one would know her that well.
He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. For a second, Nina thought she’d lost him, that he’d simply fallen away from her and sunk into the darkness, but this time the machines soothed her. He was still breathing.
She sank into the chair beside him, knowing why he’d asked this favor of her. Mom could do it, of course, could force his move home, but Meredith would hate her mother for it. Dad had spent his life trying to create love where none existed—between his wife and his daughters—and he couldn’t give up even now. All he could do was hand his need to her and hope she could accomplish what he wanted. She remembered how often he’d called her his rule-breaker, his spitfire, and how proud he’d been of her courage to go into battle.
Of course she would do as he’d asked. It was perhaps the last thing he’d ask of her.
That night, after the arrangements had been made to have Dad discharged, Nina went out to her rental car. She sat there a long time, alone in the dark parking lot, trying to let go of the fight she and Meredith had had about moving Dad. Nina had won, but it hadn’t been easy. Finally, with a tired sigh, she started the engine and drove away from the hospital. Snow patterned her windshield, disappearing and reappearing with each swipe of the wiper blades. Even with limited visibility, her first view of Belye Nochi made her breath catch.
The house looked as beautiful and out of place as ever in its snowy valley, tucked as it was in a vee of land between the river and the hills. Christmas lights made it even more beautiful, almost magical.
It had always reminded her of the fairy tales they’d once been told, full of dangerous magic and handsome princes and dragons. In short, it reminded her of her mother.
On the porch, she stomped the snow off her leather hiking boots and opened the door. The entry was cluttered with coats and boots. The kitchen counters were a graveyard of coffee cups and empty plates. Her mother’s precious brass samovar glinted in the light from an overhead fixture.
She found Meredith in the living room, all alone, staring at the fireplace.
Nina could see how fragile her sister was right now. Her photographer’s eye noticed every tiny detail: the trembling hands, the tired eyes, the stiff back.
She reached out and pulled her sister into a hug.
“What will we be without him?” Meredith whispered, clinging to her.
“Less,” was all Nina could think of to say.
Meredith wiped her eyes, straightening suddenly, pulling away as if she’d just realized that she’d gone weak for a moment. “I’ll stay the night. Just in case Mom needs something.”
“I’ll take care of her.”
“Yes. We’ll be fine. Go make wild, crazy love to that sexy man of yours.”
Meredith frowned at that, as if perhaps the idea of pleasure were impossible to contemplate. “You sure you’ll be okay?”
“Okay. I’ll be back over early to get the place ready for Dad. He’ll be home at one, remember?”
“I remember,” Nina said, walking Meredith to the door. As soon as her sister was gone, she grabbed her backpack and camera bags off the kitchen table and headed up the steep, narrow stairway to the second floor. Passing her parents’ room, she went into the bedroom she and Meredith had shared. Although it appeared symmetrical—two twin beds, a pair of matching desks, and two white dressers—a closer look revealed the two very different girls who’d lived here and the separate paths their lives would take. Even as girls, they’d had little in common. The last thing Nina really remembered them doing together was the play.
Mom had changed that day and so had Meredith. True to her word, her sister had never listened to another of Mom’s fairy tales, but it had been an easy promise to keep, as Mom never told them a story again. That was what Nina had missed the most. She’d loved those fairy tales. The White Tree, the Snow Maiden, the enchanted waterfall, the peasant girl, and the prince. At bedtime, on the rare nights Mom could be coaxed into telling them a story, Nina remembered being entranced by her mother’s voice, and comforted by the familiarity of the words. All the stories were memorized and were the same every time, even without a book from which to read. Mom had told them that it was a Russian tradition, the ability to tell stories.
After the play, Nina had tried to repair the breach caused by Mom’s anger and Meredith’s hurt feelings, as had her dad. It hadn’t worked, of course, and by the time Nina was eleven, she understood. By then, Nina’s own feelings had been so hurt so often she’d pulled back, too.
She left the room and shut the door.
At her parents’ bedroom, she paused and knocked. “Mom? Are you hungry?”
There was no answer.
She knocked again. “Mom?”
She opened the door and went inside. The room was neat as a pin, and spartan in decor. A big king-sized bed, an antique dresser, one of those ancient Russian trunks, and a bookcase overflowing with small hardcover novels from the club her mother belonged to.
The only thing missing was her mother.
Frowning, Nina went downstairs again, calling out for her mother. She was just beginning to panic when she happened to glance outside.