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, GM, my grandmother, 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 turned away from the window and picked up the picture that sat next to my bed. In the picture, a man with curly brown hair and a pale, blond woman 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 well what it said. In GM's busy scrawl were the words Daniel, Katie, Nadya.
My father, me, my mother.
Though the memories were faint, I did remember those early days in Russia. I remembered the big apple tree and the roses that grew at our house. I remembered playing with my red-haired 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 an accident in the mountains. 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.
I set the picture down.
The darkness continued to call to me, and 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 thought of school—and my friends—but even as I did so, I felt a sudden, sharp tug on my mind, and I was seized by an irrational desire to run out into the night—and to keep running until I found the source of the summons.
I closed my eyes and willed the feeling away.
After a moment, the night calling began to subside. I concentrated harder, pushing it further away from me. In another few minutes, the feeling was gone entirely. Relief flooded through me.
I was free.
I climbed into bed and turned out the light.
I was just drifting off to sleep when I was jolted wide-awake by the sound of a car tearing down our street. The car screeched to a halt somewhere below my window, and then turned sharply into our driveway.
I sat up. I heard the muffled slam of two car doors outside, and I heard GM, who usually kept late hours, hurrying toward the door.
I got out of bed and fumbled in the dark to find a robe. I was puzzled—who could possibly have come to see us in the middle of the night?
As I hurried out of my room, I heard a heavy pounding on the front door, followed by a woman's cry.
"GM! GM Rost! Annushka! Open the door!"
I froze. Only GM's oldest friends called her Annushka—and there were precious few of those.
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? How tall you are! I scarcely would have recognized you."
I wished I could see who was at the door, but I knew that if I went downstairs, GM would just order me back to my room. GM clearly recognized her visitors, and they were clearly people she had known back in Russia.
And GM never allowed me to get involved in anything that had to do with the past.
I crept to the top of the stairs but remained in the shadows—the better to hear without being seen.
"Annushka!" Galina cried. She had a heavy Russian accent—much heavier than GM's. "Annushka! I had scarcely allowed myself to believe that we'd actually found you! Oh, Annushka! After all these years!"
"Hush, Galina, hush," GM hissed. "You'll wake my granddaughter. Come in. Quickly, now."
I could hear the clack of a woman's footsteps in the hall, followed by a man's heavier tread. The door was closed and the bolt reset.
GM led 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 into the kitchen from my perch without leaning over the banister, but I knew from experience that I would be able to hear.
GM's voice floated down the hall to me. "Since you're here, Galina," she said, "you and Aleksandr may as well have a seat."
I heard chairs scraping on the kitchen floor.
"You're not entirely happy to see us, are you, Annushka?" Galina asked.
"I am happy to see you," GM said stiffly. "I am not happy about what it is that you bring with you."
"And what is that?" Galina asked sharply.
"Superstition," GM said wearily. "I have a feeling that this conversation is going to be difficult. However, we may as well try to be civilized. May I offer you both a cup of tea?"
"Yes, thank you, Annushka," Galina said.
I heard water running as a kettle was filled.
A moment later, I heard GM sit down at the table again. "I suppose you have a good reason for storming my house in the middle of the night?"
"Annushka, we need your help," Galina said urgently.
"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?"
"Yes, we did."
GM snorted. "Ridiculous. Again, I say, why didn't you just call?"
I figured that everyone in the kitchen was too absorbed in the conversation to notice me, so I risked a look over the banister. GM was sitting with her back to me, and I could see that she had pulled her long silver hair into a ponytail that flowed like silk down her back. She was resting her elbows on the kitchen table as she regarded her visitors.
Facing GM was a woman who was young enough to be her daughter. She was blond, and she wore a nondescript beige coat with brightly colored mittens. 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 between the two of them. I guessed that Galina and Aleksandr were mother and son.
Aleksandr must have felt my eyes on him, for he transferred his gaze from GM to me.
I felt a flash of panic as Aleksandr's eyes met mine, and for just an instant, a feeling of strangeness—something wildly foreign—washed over me. I quickly pulled my head back behind the banister.
I froze, waiting to hear if Aleksandr would tell GM that he had seen me.
But Aleksandr did not say a word, and silence settled on 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, breaking the silence. "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 didn't answer any of my letters or phone calls."
"I didn't answer you," GM said, "because you wanted to involve my granddaughter in your nonsense. You wanted to make her believe that nightmares are real."
"I wanted to teach her," Galina replied angrily.
"So that's what this is all about then?" 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," Galina said. "It was chosen for me. 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 weren't even mine. To my family I had always been Katie—my English father had been responsible for that.
"I don't want to hear your nonsense, Galina," GM said curtly.
"Annushka, you have to listen!" Galina cried. "He's free! You know whom I mean—"
"You will not speak that name in my house!" GM shouted.
Just then the kettle began to whistle, and I jumped.
I heard GM get up, and the whistling soon stopped. There were other noises as GM clattered around, getting the tea ready.
No one spoke.
"I am sorry," Galina said softly, after some time had passed.
I heard GM's chair scrape as she sat down again.
"I will not discuss this if it upsets you," Galina added.
"You don't believe in the supernatural, do you, Mrs. Rost?" Aleksandr asked.
GM snorted. "The mischievous spirits and the vampires? No, I do not. Those are just stories designed to scare people—tales about the supernatural are nothing more than a way to spread fear."
"They aren't all mischievous spirits," Aleksandr said lightly. "They say the Leshi, for example, is actually quite a good fellow. Though you make an excellent point about fear—there are darker things than vampires in Krov."
"You are too young to believe in such foolishness," GM said. "Why can't any of you from the old village have a normal conversation? 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 now," Galina said.
"Yes, I am," GM replied.
"I don't even know what that is," Galina said—there was a note of wistfulness in her voice.
"There's so much that you miss," GM replied in a rush. "How are you doing, Galina? How are you really? Are you happy? You know that in my heart I miss you. And don't you want good things for your son? How about you, Aleksandr? How are you?"
"Still unmarried. Ask my mother," Aleksandr said in amusement.
"Shut your mouth, Aleksandr," Galina snapped, her tone unexpectedly sharp. "Don't be a fool."
"Galina, why don't the two of you move somewhere else?" GM asked.
"We can't leave—"
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," Galina said, "you know why I can't leave."
Silence settled on the kitchen once again.
"Annushka, there are lights on at the Mstislav mansion," Galina said after a time, her voice low and edged with fear. "The house has been deserted for a long time. You know when that house was last occupied—it was eleven years ago."
"Perhaps his son has decided to take over the place," GM said evenly. "It would be nice for someone to sweep out the cobwebs. It was a grand old mansion, and 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. "That's what made us decide to come here."
GM was 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 I mean—he bought it when he first amassed his fortune."
"I saw his plane myself," Aleksandr interjected. "I believe he reached the U.S. ahead of us. It took us time to get our travel documents in order."
"Quiet, 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 sharp.
"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 violently.
"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.
I watched in shock as Galina and Aleksandr ran down the hall to the front door. GM came running after them.
Galina fumbled with the locks, and then she and Aleksandr escaped out into the night. GM ran after them.
I quickly followed.
The cold night air cut through my thin nightclothes as I hurried down the concrete driveway in front of the house.
GM was standing in the middle of the driveway, 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 a car that sat just behind GM's own. The engine roared to life, and the car took off, tires screeching.
I watched the car's red taillights disappear into the night, and then I glanced over at GM—I had never seen her so angry.
"GM, what's going on?" I asked.
GM whirled around. She stared hard at me for a moment and then looked down at the silver cross she always wore. 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?" I asked. "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 of the still-open door.
I stopped suddenly. I'd 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."
GM steered me firmly into the house and shut and locked the door. Then she guided me into the kitchen. "How about a hot drink?"
I looked around the room. Three of the kitchen chairs were standing awkwardly askew. On the kitchen table 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, did you throw a cup of tea at those people?" I asked.
GM simply made a derisive sound and waved her hand. Then she went over and kneeled down to examine the broken teacup. I knew that GM was very fond of that tea set, and she wasn't the type to lose her temper easily.
"GM, what made you so angry?" I asked.
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 calmly retied her ponytail. Then she put her hands on her hips and looked over at me.
"I think this will all keep till morning. Never mind about that drink now. We've had enough excitement tonight. It's up to bed for both of us."
"GM!" I cried as frustration welled up within me. "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 her.
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 also see that she was fighting against it.
GM held out her hand. "If you will 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.
"Please, Katie, come with me," 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 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—dead in that terrible accident. 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.
I felt tears stinging my eyes.
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.
"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 hum. 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 to her that 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 altogether after your mother died. 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 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. But as I had feared, GM had answered none of my questions and had actually left me with more.
Why had GM said there was nothing in the dark?
What was she was afraid of?