“Stay here,” he said.
“Stay here,” he repeated. He grabbed her by the wrist. “Look at me, if you try to run, I will hunt you down. So do not make me do that. You need to realize your original plan was a bad one, because there is nowhere on Earth you could hide from me.”
A chill ran down her back. It felt like she was talking to a stranger. No, that wasn’t it. The truth was it felt like she was talking to his uncle again. She shrank from him. “Let go.”
He did, but not before saying the two words again, this time so viciously they cut through the air like a knife. “Stay here.”
Then he strode out of the room and apparently out of the apartment, because Maria appeared just a few moments later and said, “Why does he not eat the pasta?” Then her eyes went to Eva’s still full plate. “And you do not eat either?”
She looked positively crushed by their seeming rejection of her food, but Eva was too confused to form a coherent answer. What had just happened? Over the past few weeks, Eva had spent an obscene amount of time running scenarios in which she told him the truth about what had happened the night she left him. She had imagined him yelling, she had imagined him accusing her of being a liar. She’d also imagined he’d hug her, apologize, and tell her everything was going to be okay in more hopeful moments.
But never in her wildest dreams had she imagined he would bark a command at her and then just walk out.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Maria, trying to pull herself together. “It was a long trip, and I’m just too tired to eat.”
“Oh, you poor thing. Let me show you to Aaron’s room. You will sleep there.”
She let Maria mother hen her toward the apartment’s third bedroom, which Aaron had been occupying all summer, but then she remembered, “Wait, I need to talk to Aaron, to explain to him…”
“No, no. You need to sleep. You can talk to Aaron when you get up.” Maria sat her on the side of the bed and pulled off her flip-flops.
As soon as she sat down on the bed, the jetlag and lack of food and rest kicked back in, all but erasing the adrenaline that had helped her get through her fight with Alexei. Maria’s twins were lucky to have such a nurturing and kind mother, Eva thought drowsily.
“Thank you,” Eva said, sleep pulling her down to the pillow, beckoning like a warm, insistent embrace she could no longer fight off. The waking world faded to black before Maria was even done tucking her in.
* * * *
The sun was setting when Eva woke up, painting the Italian sky outside her window a dark purple sinking into a bright orange horizon. If the sun was just now going down, she thought, then she’d gotten at least six hours of sleep—which was good, because she’d really needed it. She found a jersey dress, a new sports bra, a package of underwear, a towel, and a wash cloth on a wooden chair near the bed. She assumed these items had been left there for her by her ever-thoughtful sister-in-law. And she couldn’t help but feel a pin prick of jealousy for her brother, who had not only become a Foreign Service officer, but had also gotten the cream of the crop as far as life mates were concerned.
Still, by the time Eva emerged from the shower she felt completely restored. Done feeling sorry for herself and ready to fight Alexei’s uncle and Alexei himself if she had to. She refused to let his last threat deter her from keeping her son safe.
Pulling her hair back into a large puff as she strode down the hallway toward the living room, she began to make plans. First, she’d need to convince Steve to get her and Aaron fake IDs, then she’d run to some place big like California, where a single black mother with a light-skinned child wouldn’t stand out so much. Once there, she’d put together a new plan for what to do if they were found—
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of children giggling in the family room, accompanied by that of male laughter. And that was how she found Alexei, of all people, lying on the floor, pretending Aaron and Steve’s two-year-old twins had him completely pinned and he couldn’t get up.
But the game came to an abrupt end when Aaron saw her standing in the doorway. “Mama! Mama!”
The twins, who were already in their pajamas, abandoned their positions, sitting on Alexei’s chest, and jumped up and down. “Auntie Eba! Auntie Eba!” they cheered, ridiculously cute in their matching pajamas and box braids.
Aaron came rushing over and threw his arms around her waist. “You’re up!”
She rubbed his back, a little nonplussed by the enthusiasm of his greeting.
Her confusion must have shown on her face, because Alexei sat up and said, “You’ve been asleep for over twenty-four hours.”
“What?” She searched for and found a wall clock. “It’s only 9:30.”
“9:30 the night after you arrived. Aaron was worried about you, but Maria and I told him to let you sleep.”
As if on cue, Maria appeared behind her. “You are awake. Good, good, you can finally eat.”
The way Maria proceeded to fuss over her for the next half-hour would make one think the worst thing in the world that could ever happen to a person was to not have anything to eat for a whole twenty-four hours. And Maria would not be satisfied until Eva had eaten several mouthfuls of linguine and a slice of the fresh Italian bread she’d made. Steve was working late at the consulate and everyone else had already eaten dinner, so Maria fixed bowls of gelato for Aaron and Alexei who stayed on at the table, after she left to put the twins down.
Eva hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she took the first bite. After that, getting the pasta into her stomach became her main focus to the point that she wasn’t able to talk with her son and Alexei because her mouth stayed full. But as it turned out, she didn’t have to say a word. They kept up a steady stream of conversation topics that included Aaron’s soccer team, Aaron’s dead bug collection, and Aaron’s trips to both Disneyland Paris and Disneyland California.
Aaron couldn’t believe Alexei had never been to Disneyland and Alexei gravely promised to remedy the situation as soon as possible. “But maybe I will need someone to show me around. I hear Disneyland is very large.”
“Mama and me can show you,” Aaron told him, just as grave. “Maybe we could even go to Disneyworld in Florida next time. But we’re going to have to wait awhile for me to get enough money in my vacation fund.”
Now Eva paused in her eating, waiting to see what Alexei would say. He could easily afford to whisk Aaron away to Disneyworld if he wanted to, whereas she’d have to focus doubly hard on replenishing their vacation fund after her unexpected trip to Italy and using a pay-as-you-go phone to make international calls for two weeks straight.
Alexei raised an eyebrow. “You have a vacation fund? Maybe you are very good with money, da?”
“Mama makes me put ten percent of my allowance in savings, ten percent in a college fund, and ten percent in a vacation fund, so I have money to spend when we go on vacation.”
“That is very smart. How long do you think it will take you to save for Disneyworld?”
Aaron calculated in his head. “At least until Christmas.”
Again she held her breath, waiting for him to supersede the rules she’d already set forth with Aaron, but Alexei just nodded. “Then we will go at your Christmas break.”
“Do you think you can save up enough money by then, Mama?”
She had just finished her last bite of linguine. “We’ll see. It might just be you and…your dad. Or we might have to…” She stopped again, realizing she still had no idea what the future held in store for them, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to make Aaron any promises she wouldn’t be able to keep later. “We’ll see,” she said again, and left it at that.
Alexei’s face grew serious and he turned to Aaron. “It is time for your mother and me to talk. You will go now.”
It took some effort for Eva not to laugh. That wasn’t exactly the way you talked to a seven-year-old. But Aaron didn’t seem to mind. “I’ll go help Maria with the twins.”
“Yes, good idea.”
But before he left, Aaron hugged Alexei, throwing his skinny arms around his father’s massive chest. Alexei dropped a kiss on top of his head and said, “You are a good boy.”
“You won’t leave without saying good-bye this time, right?”
Alexei looked Aaron in the eye, as somber as a priest. “I promise you, I will not.”
That negotiated, Aaron hugged Eva, too, before jogging out the room. Like many boys his age, he tended to run everywhere, as if he had energy to spare.
“So I see you two are getting along,” she said, when he was gone.
“He is easy to get along with,” Alexei answered. A small smile lifted one corner of his mouth. “He told me his allowance is based on him doing the laundry for the both of you.”