I leaned my forehead against the dark window, welcoming the feel of the cool glass against my feverish skin.
I could feel the night calling to me, though I didn't exactly know what I meant by that. It had been happening more often lately – it was a strange tugging on my mind.
Something was pulling me out into the dark.
In an unguarded moment, my grandmother, 'GM' for short, had told me that my mother had had visions. The way the night called to me, I wondered if this feeling was the beginning of a vision. I wished I could talk to my mother. I'd been wishing for that more and more often lately.
I pushed away from the window and walked to my bed. I picked up the picture that always sat on my nightstand by my pillow. A man and a woman, he with curly brown hair, she pale and blond, smiled as they kneeled on either side of a laughing, fair-haired girl of five. The inscription on the back was hidden by the frame, but I knew what it said. In GM's busy scrawl were the words: Daniel, Katie, and Nadya. My father, me, my mother. Though the memories were faint, I did remember those early days when we lived in Russia. I remembered the big apple tree in our backyard. I remembered the roses that grew at the front of our house. I remembered playing with my red-haired older cousin, Odette.
I remembered, too, the day GM had taken the picture. Little had she known then that her son-in-law and her daughter would be dead soon afterward.
My father had died first in a hiking accident. My mother died just a few weeks later of a fever. GM had moved us to the United States shortly after that. We'd been here for eleven years now, and my old life was beyond my reach for good.
The darkness continued to call to me, and I had an irrational desire to run out into the night. I set the picture down and rubbed my temples. I tried to force my mind back to reality – back to what was normal and safe and unrelated to the unknown out in the dark.
I had school tomorrow and a quiz in English. I had studied, but I still needed to sleep to be sure of doing well. And I would see Simon tomorrow. His presence was always calming.
I suddenly felt a sharp tug on my mind and was seized with a strong desire to run out into the night and keep running until I found the source of the summons.
I closed my eyes and willed the feeling away.
After a moment of concentration, the night calling began to subside and was soon gone. Relief flooded through me. I turned out the light.
I lay in bed for a long time, still unable to sleep, listening to the occasional quiet creak of the house. I was just drifting off to sleep when I was startled by a loud noise. A speeding car tore up our street and screeched to a halt in front of our house. The car turned sharply into our driveway, the tires grinding heavily on the stones.
I sat up. I heard two car doors slam and footsteps crunching in the driveway. Then I heard a chair scrape back in the kitchen below. GM kept late hours and was surely going to investigate all the noise.
I jumped out of bed and scrambled in the dark to find a robe. Who could be in such a hurry to see us in the middle of the night? I had a sudden sense of foreboding. I wasn't going to let my grandmother face these people alone.
As I threw the door to my room open, I heard a heavy pounding on the front door, followed by a high woman's cry.
"Anna! Anna Rost! Annushka! It's Galina!"
I froze. Only GM's oldest friends called her Annushka – and there were precious few of those. Maybe GM would prefer me not to interrupt. And she never liked me getting involved in anything that had to do with the past.
I heard GM quickly unbolt the door and open it.
"Galina!" GM shouted in shock. Her voice rose even higher. "Aleksandr? Is that you, Aleksandr?"
I wished I could see the visitors. GM clearly recognized them, and there was a strange mixture of excitement and fear in her voice. I had a feeling that if I went downstairs now, she would shoo me out. I crept to the top of the stairs and stayed in the shadows – the better to hear without being seen.
"Annushka!" the woman named Galina cried again. She had a heavy Russian accent. GM's was much lighter. "Annushka! I had scarcely allowed myself to believe that we'd actually found you! Oh, Annushka! After all these years!"
"Shhhh!" GM hissed. "You'll wake my granddaughter. Come in. Quickly."
I could hear the clack of a woman's footsteps on the tile floor in the hall, followed by a man's heavier tread. The door was closed and the bolt reset.
I heard GM lead her visitors down the hall to the kitchen.
I tiptoed down the stairs and sat on the bottom step. I wouldn't be able to see from there without actually leaning around the banister, but I knew from experience that I would be able to hear.
"You're not entirely happy to see us, are you, Annushka?" Galina asked.
Three chairs scraped on the kitchen floor. I figured they were seating themselves at the table.
From GM there was a heavy sigh. "I am happy to see you. I am not happy about what it is that you bring with you."
"And what is that?" Galina asked sharply.
"Superstition." GM sighed again. "Since you are here, would you like a cup of tea? How about you, Aleksandr?"
"Yes, thank you, Annushka," Galina said.
I heard water running as GM filled a kettle.
After the kettle was filled, I heard GM sit down at the table. "I suppose you have a good reason for storming my house in the middle of the night?"
"Annushka, we need your help." Galina's voice was urgent.
"Then why didn't you just call?" GM asked angrily. "Why fly all the way here from Russia? You did come from Russia, didn't you?"
I risked a look over the banister. I could see down the hall into the well-lit kitchen. GM's back was to me, and her long silver hair was pulled into a ponytail that flowed like silk down the back of her navy-blue cardigan. She was resting her elbows on the kitchen table as she regarded her two late-night visitors.
Facing GM was a woman who looked a little older than my own mother would have been had she lived. She was blond, and she wore a nondescript beige coat with brightly colored mittens that she hadn't taken off yet. Next to her was a young man who seemed to be in his early twenties. He was wearing an olive-green military-style coat, and his hair was an odd shade of brown – sort of a cinnamon color. There was a strong family resemblance in the faces. I guessed that Galina and Aleksandr were mother and son.
Aleksandr must have felt my eyes on him, as he transferred his gaze from GM to me.
For just an instant, as Aleksandr's eyes met mine, I felt a feeling of strangeness and wrongness wash over me. Something about him was very alien. I quickly pulled my head back behind the banister, my heart racing. I froze, waiting to hear if he would tell GM that he had seen me.
But Aleksandr did not say anything, and silence stretched in the kitchen. I figured my reaction to his gaze had simply been nerves. I relaxed.
"Why didn't I just call you?" Galina said at last, sighing heavily, just as GM had done. "I feared you would not listen. I feared you would hang up on me. Was I wrong about that?"
GM did not reply.
"I tried to keep in contact with you," Galina said mournfully. "You wouldn't answer any of my letters or phone calls."
"Because you wanted to involve my granddaughter in your nonsense," GM snapped. "You wanted to make her believe that fairy tales are real."
"I wanted to teach her," Galina replied angrily.
"So is that what this is about?" GM asked, equally angry. "You, in your great wisdom, have decided that the time has come for you to drag my granddaughter into your world of darkness and ignorance?"
"I did not choose the time, Annushka, it was chosen for me," Galina said ominously. "I feared something like this would happen, and if I'd been working with Ekaterina all the time, maybe we could have prevented this."
I was startled to hear Galina call me by my Russian name – no one ever did that. It was almost as if the name wasn't mine. To my family I had always been Katie – my English father had been responsible for that.
But as surprised as I was to hear myself called Ekaterina, I was even more startled to hear the talk of superstition and teaching. A little frisson of fear ran through me, though I didn't entirely understand why.
"I don't want to hear your nonsense, Galina," GM snapped.
"Annushka, you have to listen!" Galina cried. "He's free! You know who I mean—"
"You will not speak that name in my house!" GM shouted.
Just then the kettle began to whistle, and I jumped. I placed my hand over my heart to control its pounding.
I heard GM get up and shut off the stove. There were other noises as GM poured out for everyone.
No one spoke.
"I am sorry," Galina said softly.
I heard GM's chair scrape as she sat down again.
"I will not discuss this if it upsets you," Galina continued.
I could hear something in Galina's voice, though – something patient and determined. She would try again to get GM to hear her out. And whatever it was she had to say involved me.
"You don't believe in the supernatural, Mrs. Rost?" Aleksandr asked.
GM snorted. "The mischievous spirits and the vampires? No, I do not. Those are just stories designed to scare people."
"They aren't all mischievous spirits." Aleksandr's voice was strangely soothing. "They say the Leshi is quite a good fellow. Though you make an excellent point about fear – there are darker things than vampires in Krov."
"Oh, why can't any of you from the old village have a normal conversation?" GM asked wearily. "Look at me. I started over here. I lead a normal life now. Can't you do the same?"
"I heard you are a graphic designer," Galina said.
"Yes," GM replied.
"I don't even know what that is," Galina said. I could hear a note of wistfulness in her voice.
"There's so much that you miss," GM replied in a rush. "How are you, Galina? Are you happy? You know that in my heart I miss you. And don't you want good things for your son? How are you, Aleksandr?"
"Still unmarried. Ask my mother." Aleksandr sounded deeply amused."
"Hush, Aleksandr," Galina snapped. I was surprised at how sharp her tone was. "Don't be a fool."
"Galina, why don't the two of you move?" GM asked.
"We can't leave—" Galina began.
GM broke in hurriedly. "I don't mean leave Russia. I mean leave the village – leave tiny little Krov. Move to Moscow. Or another big city. Russia is such a beautiful country. You don't have to stay in that dark, tiny corner of it. Move some place where there is life – where there are new things."
"Though you will not admit it, you do know why I can't leave." Galina's voice was quiet and profoundly sad.
There was another long stretch of silence.
"Annushka, there are lights on at the Mstislov mansion," Galina said at last, her tone low and edged with fear. It sounded as if she was afraid of GM's reaction. I had a feeling she was working back to the topic GM had forbidden before.
Galina continued. "The house has been deserted for a long time. You know when that house was last occupied – it was eleven years ago."
I could practically hear GM shrug when she replied, but the unconcern seemed false. "Perhaps his son has decided to take over the place. It would be nice for someone to sweep out the cobwebs. It was a grand old mansion. It should be restored to its former beauty. The house itself certainly never did anything wrong."
"They opened the old airfield two weeks ago and began fitting up a plane," Galina said quickly. She seemed encouraged by GM's non-reaction. "That's what made us decide to come here."
Again, GM was carefully unimpressed. "So? It would be nice for everyone in the area to have a proper airfield. It might encourage good things."
"Annushka," Galina said urgently, "his house is lit up again. And it was his plane they were working on. You know, the one he bought when he first amassed his fortune."
"I saw his plane myself," Aleksandr said. "I believe he reached the U.S. ahead of us. We had to get our travel documents in order."
"Hush, Aleksandr," Galina snapped. "Annushka, please, it's him. He is free. And he will seek out—""
"Galina, I warned you not to bring this up." GM's voice was cold.
"Annushka!" Galina cried despairingly.
"He's dead, Galina," GM said sternly. "Enough."
"He's returned!" Galina cried.
"Nonsense!" GM replied angrily.
"Annushka! How can you say that? He killed your daughter!"
A chair scraped back, and I could tell GM had jumped to her feet.
"Superstition killed my daughter!" GM shouted.
"Annushka! You must listen!" Galina wailed.
"Get out of my house!" GM cried.
I heard porcelain shattering against a wall, and two more chairs scraped back.
I jumped to my feet in alarm.
I watched, horrified, as Galina and Aleksandr ran down the hall with GM chasing after them.
Galina fumbled furiously with the locks, and then she and her son escaped out the door. GM ran out after them.
I quickly followed.
The cold night air cut through my thin nightclothes, and the pavement scraped my bare feet as I hurried down the walkway in front of the house.
GM was standing at the end of the walkway, breathing hard. Strands of silver had worked their way free of her ponytail and settled in scattered array around her head, glinting softly in the moonlight.
Galina and Aleksandr jumped into the car at the end of the driveway. The car's engine roared to life, and they took off down the road.
I watched the red taillights of the departing car disappear into the night. I shivered in the cold, but I knew it wasn't the cold alone that chilled me. I had never seen GM so angry.
"GM, what's going on?"
GM whirled around. She stared hard at me for a moment and then looked down at the silver cross she always wore. It gleamed in the moonlight. She wrapped her fingers around it and gripped it tightly.
"I'm sorry," GM said quietly. "I wanted to spare you all of that. I never should have let them in."
"Are you all right, GM?" I asked. Suddenly the floodgates were open and more questions poured out. "Who were those people? Why did the woman – Galina? – why did she say a man killed my mother? I thought she died of a fever."
Anger blazed in GM's eyes. "Your mother did die of a fever. Galina doesn't know what she's talking about." GM's expression softened as she continued to look at me. "Come back into the house, Katie. It's too cold out here."
GM put her arm around my shoulders and guided me back toward the gold rectangle of light that streamed out through the still-open door.
I stopped suddenly. I thought for just a moment that I had seen a tall figure standing in the shadows near the house. I blinked and looked again.
The figure was gone.
"Is something wrong?" GM asked, looking around as if she feared that Galina and Aleksandr had returned.
"No, it's nothing. I thought I saw something, but it's gone now."
Back inside the house, GM steered me into the kitchen. "How about some warm milk?"
I shivered again as I looked around the room. Three of the chairs around the kitchen table were pulled back and stood awkwardly askew. On the table itself were two of GM's blue-and-white china cups. One of the cups lay on its side, its contents spilled on the table – a brown puddle on the white surface. I could see shards of a third cup littering the floor, and a brown stain ran down the far wall.
"GM, why did you throw a cup of tea at them?"
GM made a derisive sound, and releasing me, she went around the table and kneeled down to examine the broken cup. I knew that GM was very fond of that tea set, and she wasn't the type to lose her temper easily. Something was terribly wrong.
"GM, what made you so angry?"
GM ignored my question. "It occurs to me now that it was a bad idea to bring you in here. I'm sorry you had to see this."
She straightened up and pulled the band off of her ponytail, and the rest of her fine silver hair swung free to join the stray strands, forming a straight, shimmering curtain that covered both sides of her face. With a swift movement, she smoothed the hair into a tight rope and recaptured it in the band. GM was suddenly herself again – all trace of out-of-control emotions banished.
She put her hands on her hips and looked over at me. "I think this will all keep till morning. Never mind about the warm milk now. We've had enough excitement tonight. It's back to bed for both of us."
Frustration welled up within me. "GM!" I cried. "You're acting like nothing happened!"
GM gave me a puzzled, slightly wounded look, and I felt a wave of contrition wash over me. I wasn't used to shouting at my grandmother. I went on more quietly. "Why won't you answer any of my questions?"
"I did answer one – about your mother," GM replied, averting her eyes.
I wasn't going to let her get away so easily. "No, you told me something I already knew – my mother died of a fever. You didn't tell me why anyone would believe she'd been murdered. That is what Galina was saying wasn't it – that a man from your old village had killed her? And why wouldn't you allow Galina to say his name?"
GM looked at me, and I could see a distant flicker of pain in her eyes. I could see, too, that she was fighting against it.
GM held out her hand. "If you go upstairs with me, I will tell you a story. It will help to explain."
I hesitated. Too often, GM had distracted me when I had asked questions like these – she had diverted my attention from the past and sidestepped my questions without ever refusing to answer them outright. I feared she would talk around me again. My questions would evaporate the way they always did.
"Come, Katie, please," GM said, her voice low and pleading. "You know the past is difficult for me."
I resigned myself and took GM's hand.
We went up to my room.
GM switched on the light. The lamp by my bed had a faded shade with yellow sunbursts on it. I'd kept it for years, refusing a new one when GM had wanted to redecorate. For some reason, the old shade reminded me of my mother.
GM smoothed back the quilt on my bed. "Let me tuck you in." She sounded sad and tired.
After I had settled under the covers, GM sat down beside me.
"I will tell you something I have never told you before, Katie. The night your mother died—" GM's voice quavered and she stopped.
I was instantly alert. GM never talked about my mother's death.
I watched as GM's face worked. She was struggling with something within. Eventually, she overcame it, and her expression settled into composed lines.
"The night your mother died was the worst of all – for the fever, I mean. It had raged through her body, and she had reached a point at which she could no longer find comfort of any kind. She couldn't eat or drink; she couldn't sleep. She couldn't even close her eyes for more than a few moments to rest. She said closing them made the burning behind them worse. On that last night, she kept calling for your father, and of course, your poor father was already gone. She was crying out for him to protect you. Even in her delirium, she knew she wouldn't last long."
GM paused again. Her chin had begun to tremble.
Tears were stinging my eyes. It was hard for me to think of my mother wracked with pain and tormented by fear.
GM went on in a low voice. "When I could make her understand who I was – when I could make her understand that I was her mother – she begged me to protect you. She said, 'Swear to me that you will always protect Katie.' She need hardly have asked for that – the desire to protect you had been in my heart since the day you were born. But I swore it to her then, and I swear it to you now. On my life, I will always protect you."
GM stared at me steadily as she said the words, and the tears in my eyes began to sting even more fiercely. Soon they began to fall. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't hold them back.
GM put her arms around me and pressed my head to her heart. I could hear its steady beating.
"After I made my promise," GM said, her tone unsteady, "Nadya seemed to grow calmer. She asked to see you. I brought you in, and she kissed you on the forehead. You were sleeping and didn't wake. Then she sang her favorite piece of music – no words, just a vowel sound. Do you remember it?"
I nodded weakly. When I was a young child, my mother had often sung the same melody to me. It was from a piece of music by Mussorgsky.
GM went on. "Not long after she finished singing, Nadya was gone. I swore I would protect you, and I have. And I will. That's why I moved you out of the old village. That's why I moved you out of Russia. I had to get you as far away as I could from people like Galina. She is a good woman, but her thinking is trapped in the Dark Ages. She would warp your mind as she warped your mother's. She has nothing for you but superstition and shadows."
GM rose. She stood looking at me with uncharacteristic tears streaming down her face. "I love you, Katie. Believe me when I say there is nothing out there. There is nothing in the dark."
She pressed a kiss to my forehead, as she said my mother had once done, and departed.
I was left feeling less comforted, rather than more so. I was grateful to hear a story about my mother, even though it was painful. I could feel my mother's love and concern reaching out to me across the years. But as I had feared, GM had ultimately answered none of my questions and had actually left me with more.
Why had GM said there was nothing in the dark?What was it that GM was afraid of?