CHAPTER THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-THREE (part three)
Monday morning — 6:57 A.M. Denver, Colorado
“Ready?” Cody asked.
He was sitting on Tanesha’s couch. Tanesha was sitting in front of her laptop at the dining room table. She was connected to Jeraine and Jabari via a video chat. Tanesha turned to look at Cody. He raised his eyebrows conspiratorially and she nodded. Rodney came out of the kitchen where Blane was cooking up a storm. In the background, the shower was going.
“Here we go,” Cody said.
He picked up his phone and dialed a number.
“It’s Cody,” he said.
The person on the line spoke for a while.
“Yeah,” Cody said. “I found out who it was. I got a photo.”
The person on the other end spoke for a while.
“Yeah, you won’t believe it,” Cody said.
The person said something.
“Gorgeous,” Cody said. “Truly the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.”
Tanesha could hear the person on the other end laughing.
“Hey, you have no idea what I had to do to get this,” Cody said while he looked at Tanesha. “They might kick me out of school.”
The person on the other end had a lot to say to that.
“Same deal,” Cody said. “I send half the image. You send the money.”
The person on the phone must have agreed because Cody nodded. He clicked a few buttons on his phone and sent a partial image of Yvonne. The picture was one from her and Rodney’s second wedding. Yvonne radiated beauty and joy. She was breathtaking. The person on the phone gave an appreciative whistle.
“I’ll send the rest when I get the money,” Cody said and hung up the phone.
He raised his eyebrows at Tanesha and then looked at her horrifying father.
“It’s done,” Cody said. “Now we wait.”
Rodney snorted at Cody and went back into the kitchen. He came out a few minutes later with a cup of tea for Tanesha and a cup of coffee for Cody.
“This is a good idea,” Rodney said to Tanesha. “We keep feeding the machine and they don’t know it’s us.”
“Exactly,” Tanesha said. “Give the image a week to work its way through all the sites, then we respond.”
He stood up and set the vegetables on the counter.
“I thought…” Sissy said. “You…”
He smiled at her and put his arms around her.
“I had the best night’s sleep I think I’ve ever had,” Ivan said. “I had this amazing dream. You and I were swinging — yes, swinging! — in this amazing place of green grass as far as the eye can see and blue, blue clouds.”
“White puffy clouds?” Sissy asked.
“Like a painting,” Ivan said. “I kept trying to touch the perfect clouds. You were laughing and keeping up with me. I’ve never felt such peace and joy. Not at the same time. It was like being reborn.”
“Sounds like Olympia,” Sissy said.
“Olympia?” Ivan asked. He stepped back to look at her but didn’t let go. “Like your dream?”
“Olympia is a real place?” Ivan asked.
“I don’t really know if it’s a real place,” Sissy said. “Maybe it’s a spirit place or a place where only our souls can go.”
“It felt so real,” Ivan said. “Tangible. Alive.”
He kissed her lips.
“Like this.” His mouth hovered near hers. She reached out her lips and kissed his.
“Yes, like that,” Sissy said.
Ivan raised his eyebrows in a “Wow” gesture.
“I am sorry to not be there when you awoke,” Ivan said. “I took it on faith that you would remember that I need the sauna.”
“Is there one here?” Sissy asked.
“In my bathroom; yours as well,” Ivan said. “Was I wrong?”
“I forgot,” Sissy said.
“I imagine that did not feel very good,” Ivan said.
“Can I make it up to you with a refreshing and delicious green smoothie?” he asked with a laugh.
She smiled. He grinned at her. Before she could say anything, he gave her a peck on the lips.
“Don’t be sad, my love,” Ivan said. “We have another chance today to move our bodies, to dance, to live, to love. I am so… excited for it all.”
Ivan gave her a broad smile, and she realized he wasn’t wearing his glasses. He was breathtakingly handsome. He reached into the cabinet to get the immersion blender.
“Me too.” Sissy finally.
Ivan winked at her. Humming to himself, he put together their pre-dance smoothie while she watched.
“I wondered if you could run your brother and Dale through our warm up Pilates routine,” Ivan said. “That will give me a chance to get MJ and Honey started. Do you mind?”
Shaking her head, Sissy scowled.
“I don’t know if I can,” Sissy said.
“You will have to go very slow,” Ivan said. “It will be very hard for them. It might be hard for you as well.”
“Slow is better than injured,” Sissy repeated what he usually said.
“I don’t know what I can do as well,” he said. “We are just days from being in the hospital. We need to start slowly and believe we will be dancing again.”
“Time will tell,” Sissy said.
“Time will tell,” he said.
Sissy didn’t have anything to say, so she didn’t. She watched him get their drinks together. He was humming a noiseless tune. He glanced at her and then smiled.
“What?” Ivan asked.
“You seem really happy,” Sissy said. “It makes me happy.”
“Are you kidding?” Ivan asked. “I am not happy. I am over the moon. My life has just begun.”
Grinning, he began mixing their drinks with the immersion blender. She stoically drank hers down only to discover that it was quite good. He smiled at her reaction and continued making smoothies. He’d just finished when Charlie and Dale came in. They drank the green concoction down without complaint. Ivan gave two drinks to MJ when he stopped by to check in. Charlie and Dale followed Sissy into the workout area.
She was just about to start their Pilates warm-up when she turned to look at Ivan. He was watching her. Noting her look, he gave her a broad, confident smile. She nodded.
Her life had just started and she was over the moon too.
Monday morning — 5:00 A.M. New York City, New York
Sissy knew that she was alone before the alarm went off, before she opened her eyes. The warm, large hand that had lain across her belly all night was gone. When she touched her stomach, it was quite cool. She rolled onto her back and felt for the space that Ivan had lain in. It was also cool.
He’d been gone a while.
She wasn’t sure how to feel. He’d stayed with her last night. He’d just held her tight. That’s all. And it was probably the best night of her life.
Now he was gone.
She’d heard about the “walk of shame,” but she thought that was when people “hooked up.” She realized she wasn’t really sure what “hooked up” meant. Did it mean sleep in the same bed, like she and Ivan had done? Did it mean something else? She made a mental note to ask Sandy when they had lunch on video today. Of course, Sandy would want to know how she felt.
How did Sissy feel? Good. Happy. Safe. She glanced at the clock. Late.
Sissy turned off the oxygen and set the nasal cannula on the register. She hopped out of bed and jogged to her bathroom. Her hair was ready because Ivan had perfectly braided in a long braid down her back. She would leave it. She made quick use of the bathroom and went to find something to wear. All of her ballet clothing hung on one side of the closet. Sissy changed into a pair of footless tights that were now a little too short; a now too tight sports bra, and a pink tank top with a whilte long sleeved T-shirt on top.
She went into the hall and banged on Charlie’s door.
“What?” Charlie yelled.
“Workout in forty-five minutes,” Sissy said as she leaned into the darkened room.
Charlie threw a pillow at her. Laughing, Sissy deftly tucked her head out of the room just in time. The pillow hit the door. Chuckling to herself, she went down the hallway toward the kitchen. She had just turned into the kitchen when the thought hit her.
Maybe Ivan was ashamed of sleeping next to the stupid little baby Sissy, who couldn’t even stand being by herself for a minute.
She stopped dead in her tracks. Her entire body flushed with shame. She closed her eyes and wished that she would do everyone a favor and just disappear.
“Hello, my love.” Ivan’s voice came from behind her. He touched her arm and continued into the kitchen. “I checked last night. We have the ingredients for our delicious and nutritious green smoothie.”
His voice became muffled as if he was in the refrigerator.
“Can you get down the immersion blender?” Ivan muffled voice asked. “It’s in the cabinet on your right. The other blender does a better job but it makes such a racket. After such a late night, I’d prefer peace over perfect texture. Wouldn’t you?”
She hadn’t moved. When she didn’t respond, he turned to look at her.
“What is it?” Ivan asked.
She opened her eyes and took in the sight of him. He was bent over with his head in the refrigerator. His head was cranked in her direction and his hands were full of vegetables for their usual pre-workout drink. She noticed that his skin held a slight wet sheen. The hair on the back of his neck was slightly wet.
She groaned to herself.
Ivan had been instructed to take an infrared sauna when he got up in the morning. He needed the warmth to get moving, especially now. That’s why he’d gotten up. He’d left her for the sauna. She had no idea there was one in the apartment.
He gave her a tight squeeze. Before she could say anything else, he spun on his heel and walked to the door. Turning at the door, he looked at her.
“We will start at six tomorrow,” Ivan said.
Sissy nodded. He smiled and left the room. She sat down on the bed.
It was the first time in a very long time that she’d been alone. Before this, she was at the people-packed Castle. Before that, she’d been at Bestat Behur’s apartment. Before that, she had been in the hospital surrounded by nurses and doctors and Sandy and Delphie and Abi. Before that, Noelle had been at her side every moment she wasn’t in a people packed school.And before that, she lived at the Castle and went to East High in Denver and lived her regular life.
This was her first moment completely alone since… living with her mother.
A wave of desperate loneliness came over Sissy. She started to cry. Crying led to coughing. In less than a minute, she was gasping for breath. Sissy panicked. She heard Charlie scramble next door, and then Ivan’s firm, “I’ve got this.” The world was a wash of red glow when Ivan entered the room. With two steps, he grabbed the oxygen tank and mask.
“Breathe,” he ordered as he put the mask over her head.
Sissy gasped at the air.
“It’s a lot,” Ivan said.
Sissy nodded and focused on the slow healing breaths Ms. Behur’s massage person had instructed her to take. Ivan got up and went into the bathroom. He returned with her big hair brush. She gave him a questioning look.
“Focus on breathing,” Ivan said in a tone that she would dare not disobey. Sissy nodded.
He pulled at the knot in her hair until it unwound. Her long hair fell down her back. He began gently brushing her hair.
“You may not know, but I am an expert at this,” Ivan said. “My mother and father worked so it was my job to get my sister ready for school.”
Sissy felt more than saw movement. She looked up to see that Charlie and Dale were standing at the door. Dale put his hand on Charlie’s arm. Charlie pulled the door closed, and they made their way back to their bedroom. In Ivan’s hand, the brush stroked her long hair. Sissy focused on gasping for breath.
“I made a mess of it for a while,” Ivan said. “I was too impatient. Too much of a boy.”
Sissy heard his words, but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Ivan’s words felt warm and loving. Slowly, she began to feel the air moving in and out of her lungs.
“But I learned,” Ivan said. She leaned into his warmth. “Truth be told, I have wanted to brush your beautiful hair for a long time. But what do you say? ‘Hey baby, can I brush your hair?’ Very creepy.”
Despite herself, Sissy giggled. He stopped brushing.
“I know that it is a lot,” Ivan said. “I know that you are giving a lot, being forced to trust beyond what is reasonable. You are ill and frightened. It is more than enough for any person, let alone a girl who almost died.”
“I’m okay,” Sissy said, but the mask made her words unintelligible.
One look at him and she knew he understood what she was saying. He continued to stroke her hair with the brush. They sat in slow motion — Ivan brushing her hair and Sissy fighting for breath — until long after her breath was easy and her hair was well brushed.
“Would you like me to stay with you?” Ivan asked.
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Despite her fear of what that might mean, she nodded. At this moment, she could not tolerate being away from him.
“As you much or as little,” he said, “always as you wish.”
He turned to escort Marcus out. At the door, Marcus looked back at Sissy. She smiled and nodded to him. He returned her smile.
“I know you will be very happy here,” Marcus said.
“Me too,” Sissy said confidently.
He gave her one last smile and left the room. Ivan went with him to the door. Nadia hugged Sissy and left for her room. Charlie looked at Sissy. He opened his mouth to say something and they heard: “Dude, this is amazing,” coming from the front.
“Go,” Sissy said.
She sat down on the bed and tried to take it all in. She flopped back to stare at the ceiling. On the ceiling, they had placed the star stickers that she and Noelle had on their ceiling. Sissy smiled.
“Oh cool!” Charlie said from out in the apartment.
She heard a distinctive laugh. Sissy got up to go look. Dale was standing next to Honey’s wheelchair. Honey waved to Sissy. Ivan came to her side.
“Last week, she and I worked in the gym together,” Ivan said. “MJ is here for a while so I invited her to come. She has Maggie with her. Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” Sissy said. “She can stay with me.”
“We have an actual guest room,” Nadia said with a smile. “It’s next to mine.”
Nadia leaned in so that only Sissy could hear.
“There’s a research group here that has a technique which uses stem cells to repair an injury like hers,” Nadia said. “I sent them Honey’s medical records and they’ve accepted her into their project. Don’t tell her. MJ wants to tell her himself.”
The elevator rang and MJ, carrying Maggie, stepped into their apartment.
“I must get to bed,” Nadia said. “I have to be at work in three hours.”
“Go,” Ivan said. “I will make sure our guests are settled.”
Ivan touched Sissy’s arm and went to greet MJ and Honey. Charlie rolled back to where Sissy stood. She put her arm around him.
“Get it yourself, lazy ass,” Dale said with a laugh.
“I’ll get yours, Sis,” Charlie said before he rolled to get his bag.
Sissy stood where she was and watched everyone come in. Ivan walked MJ, Honey, and little Maggie to their room next to Nadia’s. Charlie dropped Sissy’s bag on the way to his room. With a smile, Sissy followed them to her room. She was unpacking her clothing when there was a light knock on her door.
Without further comment, he turned in place. Sissy looked up at Marcus. He patted her hand that was still holding onto his arm. They went down the hallway between the bedrooms and the kitchen to the next wooden door. Ivan opened the door and walked inside.
This was it.
Sissy flushed with anxiety. She was about to step into the room where she would live for the next few months and possibly the rest of her life. She would heal here. She would start dancing here. She would sleep, by herself, here. Everything, her entire life!, depended on this room.
She might have run, but Marcus nudged her forward. She gave Charlie a last glance before taking a breath.
She held her breath.
Marcus nudged her again. She glanced up at him. Still holding her breath, she stepped into the room.
Avoiding looking at the bed, Sissy focused on the walls. They were blush colored, like the color of the tulle on the pink tutu she never took off when she was three. There was a large painting on the wall that separated her room from Charlie’s. Unable to see it from where she stood, she let go of Marcus’s arm and slipped into the room. She stopped in front of the painting.
The painting was set in the Castle backyard. The large garden beds were deep brown as if they had just been turned over. The trees were bare and the vine that grew along the fence had only a few leaves. The grass was deep green. In one corner, a single head sprinkler sent an arch of water across the yard. Sissy’s fingers instinctively hovered over the stream as her ears filled with the memory of the “ptat, ptat, ptat” sound of the sprinklers moving across the Castle gardens.
“It’s beautiful,” Sissy said.
“Mikhail painted it for you,” Ivan said. “He wanted you to have something from home.”
She turned. Looking past the bed, she saw the opposite wall. At least forty picture frames hung on the opposite wall. There were pictures of her family — Sandy, Charlie, Noelle, Nash, and Aden; pictures of her friends; pictures of Jill and Jacob; Katy and Paddie; and a photo of the twins laughing. Valerie and Mike were holding Jackie between them. Delphie and Sam stood arm in arm in one picture next to an image of Nadia standing in the ER. There was even a picture of Ivan dancing. Everyone she loved was on this wall. Her eyes welled with tears.
“What do you think?” Ivan asked.
Not wanting to cry, Sissy nodded and smiled. She noticed the oxygen tank next to the bed, the door to the bathroom, and a closet.
“It’s perfect,” Sissy said. “Thank you.”
“Yeah!” Nadia clapped. Ivan smiled, and even Charlie looked happy.
“I hope it’s all right,” Marcus said. “We’ve transferred your clothing from Ms. Behur’s home to the closet. Shall I run you a bath?”
“No,” Sissy said with a yawn. The excitement over, she suddenly felt very tired. “If it’s okay, I’ll go to bed.”
“Of course,” Marcus said. “Your luggage should be waiting for you at the elevator.”