The Ring of the Queen
For my husband and son; the people that have to put up with my obsession with writing. Also, to my alter ego, Nina Kindred that lives online, and Brian Wilklow who’s continual support is really the only reason that ever existed.
The Ring of the Queen
A great wind is blowing, and that gives you either imagination or a headache.
—Catherine the Great
“You know, your mother would probably have a stroke,” Dr. Al said to me as I sat in the garage of my grandmother’s house.
I knew that he was referring to the bottle of Corona that I was drinking. I know I was only 17 at the time, but I’d had a really rough year. Forget the fact that my grandma’s death was the third so far, after my dad and brother. I also had discovered that my boyfriend was gay. At the moment that Dr. Al found me drinking a beer in the garage after my grandma’s funeral, the least of my worries was what my mom might think.
Dr. Al was actually Dr. Alfred Dalton. I’d known him my whole life. He was a history professor at Manchester College, or Manchester University, depending on your familiarity with the institution. The name had changed, but I’d been around my whole life and still referred to it as a college. I’d gone to school with Dr. Al’s daughter, Penny, up until that year. She was a year older than me and she’d gone off to college at Purdue to get away from home.
Dr. Al was a portly older man, who’d been all over the world with students studying history. He and my grandma had always been friends, because they both loved Russian history. Because of that, I’d probably known him even better than I knew his daughter.
“I think I’ve earned a drink,” I replied. If only he knew it wasn’t my first beer that day. “I guess the good news is that it should be over.”
“What are you talking about?” Dr. Al replied.
“They say that deaths come in threes. I would think that after dad, grandma and Alex it would be over, right?”
But I forgot to say what was making me so depressed about it. First, my family is from a tiny town in Indiana that goes by the name of North Manchester. My grandfather was a farmer there and my grandma’s house was the place that she bought after grandpa died of a heart attack. She still didn’t like the though finding city, so it sat on the edge of town along State Highway 13 where she could look at the farms across the way, but didn’t have to maintain one. Smart move when you think about it. My parents lived in Servia, a sort of a town that was actually on the edge of North Manchester. It was hard to believe that there was indeed a smaller town than North Manchester. My dad and Alex worked at the truck factory in Fort Wayne. There were no longer any farmers in my family.
Things were fine until recently. It was February when Alex and my dad were both killed in an explosion at the factory. I’m not even sure what exactly happened. I figured that I would understand it more later. The report said that a boiler exploded, but I wasn’t even sure what a boiler was. I was numb at the time that I heard the news, and I couldn’t comprehend much. It was a real shock. My mother was a mess from that moment on. So, for the last three months, I’d been her caretaker. She was pretty much crackers without my dad, and I don’t know how to help someone cope with the loss of a child. Pretty much for the last few months I’d been nothing but a last salvation for my mother. I felt like I was suffocating, because she’d decided that nothing should happen to me, and was dead set on personally making sure that nothing did happen to me. She was crazy overprotective at this point, and I didn’t want to be within 50 miles of the overbearing person who was once my mom.
Most of my life I had spent a lot of time with grandma. She was pretty much my best friend. My mom had always been jealous, and complained about me being at grandma’s all the time. After my dad and Alex died, however, she started insisting that I stay home with her more. She actually decided that I should never leave her side. I was 17 years old, not 7 years old, and didn’t want anything to do with that.
Shortly after my dad and Alex died I had the next blow to my psyche. I remember when I found my boyfriend of three years, Virgil, making out with a wrestler after a meet one night. My mom was the last person that I wanted to talk to about that one. She was really self involved after dad and Alex died, and I understood that. I wanted to talk to grandma about the whole thing, even out about it explained a lot of what I’d known was wrong with our relationship. I was so mad at Virgil that I didn’t know what I should think about it all. I wanted to go and talk to grandma and mom wouldn’t let me. I wanted to punch her right in the face. It took some time, but eventually I got to talk to grandma and she made me see things a little more clearly. Now Virgil was pretty much my best friend and it made sense to me. Grandma had a way of making sense of things for me.
After that, Virgil helped me cope with the deaths of Alex and dad, and everything was fine until the day that grandma died.
“Where is mom, anyway?” I asked Dr. Al.
“She’s running around inside making sure that everyone is comfortable and well fed,” he
“Sounds about right,” I said.
Virgil came up and handed me another beer. He looked over and saw the same judgmental look on Dr. Al’s face that I did. “You won’t tell, will you? She’s had a rough few months, and just because she isn’t 21 yet, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t deserve a beer at a time like this.”
Dr. Al didn’t say much at that point. He shook his head and went back into the house.
Virgil sat for a while and didn’t say much. We’d always had a good relationship, but by the time I’d found out about his preferences I’d really known that we were destined to be good friends. He was probably more effeminate than me, particularly since I was such a tomboy. Most guys saw me as one of them more than one of the girls. I couldn’t help it. I didn’t like dresses or heels or make up or getting my nails done. It just wasn’t me. I was much more at home in a hoodie and jeans with boots or sneakers on. It was just who I was.
“So, what’s going on in that head of yours?” Virgil asked.
“I’m trying not to ask what else could happen, because I don’t want karma to kick in and let me know the answer.”
“Fair enough. So, does this mean that you have to stay with your mom forever and never have a life of your own?”
I took a swig of my beer. “God only knows.”
Ring of the Queen
…some of your greatest pains become your greatest strengths.
I’ll never forget the day my grandma died. I was supposed to spend the weekend with her, but my mom was having one of her episodes. She’s started having them after my dad and brother had died. I never understood them and thought that she was just manipulating me, until grandma passed as well. Then I understood.
I got the call at around 10 pm. I couldn’t believe it. I realized that she lived on a State Highway, but the idea that someone ran into the house floored me. I woke mom up from one of her depression sleeps, where she took a couple too many of her anti-anxiety meds. She really didn’t know what was going on, but I piled her into the car and drove to the emergency room anyway. When we arrived, the doctor on call was waiting. I’d never met the man, but I could tell by the look on his face that it wasn’t good news.
“What happened?” I asked the doctor.
“I don’t know the details of the accident. You’ll have to ask the police about that,” he said. “I do know that all I can do for her is make her comfortable. I wish I had better news.”
My mind ceased to work at that very moment. Still, every time I thought about that moment, I had a hard time breathing. “What do you mean?”
“She has too many injuries for us to operate on her right now. I can only hope that we can stabilize her so that we can try and repair some of the damage.”
“Are you saying that my grandma is going to die?” I asked. I heard the words coming out of my mouth, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around them.
“We just don’t know,” the doctor said.
I remember him leading me down a hall into the intensive care unit. Mom didn’t want to come. She was so out of it that she didn’t realize what was really happening. Since my dad and Alex had died, I felt as though I had become the parent, but there was nothing that I could do about that at that moment.
When I walked into her room, she looked terrible. She had several machines hooked up to her. I didn’t know what they were. She was awake, and she smiled at me. I didn’t know what to think. Deep down inside I knew that no matter how horrible she felt, she would try not to let on to me. There was no one else on Earth that I knew better, and I knew that she would try and put on a brave face no matter what.
“You look worried,” she said to me, struggling to get the words out.
I had to smile. “I don’t know how to answer that, grandma. I love you, and I do worry about you. How do you feel? And don’t tell me that you’re fine.”
She smiled at me again. “I won’t tell you that.”
She caught me by surprise. “Good,” I stammered, not knowing how to reply to that.
“My little princess, I don’t want to lie to you,” Grandma started. “I’m in rough shape, and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna die.”
I fell into a nearby chair. “Don’t say that,” I replied flatly.
“I have to honey. I don’t think that I have much time left, and I need to tell you some things before I go.”
“Put your hand out,” she ordered me.
I did as I was told. She put a ring in my hand. I’d never seen it before, so I didn’t know what it was about. It was gold and the top had a setting that was different than anything I’d ever seen before. It had a picture on it that looked as though it was made out of inlaid gems. I knew that the scene on the ring was Russian, which was no surprise since my grandma was the biggest Russia fanatic that ever walked the face of the Earth.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
“I don’t have time to explain it, but it’s a very important piece of jewelry to me, and I want you to have it.” She folded my hand around the ring. “I don’t have much time, so just trust what I tell you and don’t question it like you do everything else in the world.”
My grandma had never talked to me like that. I wasn’t sure how to react. “Okay.”
“I don’t know what will become of the house and all of the things in it, but I want you to have this.” She was having trouble breathing, and the words were not coming out of her mouth easily. “This is special. I can’t tell you why. It would take too long. If nothing else, I want you to hang onto it, and never let it out of your sight. Promise me.”
She coughed. She was having a hard time breathing. I tried to stand to go and get help, but she grabbed my arm with a force that I wouldn’t have thought possible, considering she could barely breathe.
“Don’t go,” she said.
“You need help. You can barely breathe.”
“I realize that. I’m going to die.”
“Let me get help,” I said.
She let go of my arm, but I realized it was because she had passed. It was over. Just like that, my grandma was gone. She was my best friend. She was the one who taught me everything. She was the most important person in the world to me, and she was gone.
Nurses and the doctor came running in as the machines informed them that grandma had passed. The staff came with equipment to try and revive her, but the doctor stopped them. I realized that I was still holding her hand. I didn’t want to let go.
“I’m so sorry,” the doctor said.
He shooed the staff out of the room. He followed them and left me to have a minute. I wasn’t sure what to do with my minute. She was gone. It would take forever to get used to that. I looked at the ring that she had placed in the palm of my hand. I picked it up and put it on my ring finger. It fit perfectly. Irony wasn’t what I needed at that moment. Unfortunately, irony was all I had to go on. From that moment on, that ring had been the single most important item in my world. I had no idea why it was so important to her, but it was. That was why it was so extremely important to me.
Of all the things that my grandma held dear, I was surprised that the thing that she wanted me to have was a ring that I had never seen before. She had a whole house full of Russian collectibles that she was extremely proud of and protective over. But, no, she wanted me to have a ring.
Every time I wake up from a nightmare about the night that my grandma died, the last thing that I remember is when she insisted that I take that ring. Of all the things that I could remember, that’s the one that sticks in my head. The senseless death doesn’t stick in my head. The part where I found out that the driver of the car also died didn’t stick in my head. The part where my mom was hysterical didn’t stick in my head or the part where the doctor had to sedate my mom. Of all the parts of that horrible night that could make their way into my dreams and make them frightening, I only remember the ring. I figured it was because she died immediately after giving it to me.
The Ring of the Queen
This is all you have. This is not a dry run. This is your life.
College was supposed to be a fun time for me. What with my grandma dying shortly before my high school graduation, it had become a lot more work than I’d anticipated. I hadn’t wanted to go to college at Manchester College, but when I inherited my grandma’s house, it seemed to make sense. I’d planned to go to Ball State in Muncie, so I’d had to ask Dr. Al to get me in after applications had closed. It was nice to have someone to help me with difficult circumstances.
My mom had not wanted me to live in grandma’s house. I wasn’t sure if that was because she was lonely, or if it had something to do with the house. She and my grandma had a very difficult relationship, which didn’t seem like a surprise to me. Grandma was my mom’s mother in law. I wasn’t sure what to do about the house. It was my grandma’s, and I didn’t want to sell it. I didn’t really want to live in it either, because it looked like a Russian antiquities museum.
My grandma had spent my entire life doing what my mother called obsessing about Russia. Her library was full of Russian history books and political science books and biographies about Russian leaders. She’d collected all kinds of Kolkova and lacquer boxes, samovars and tea glasses, and many other items over the years. Her knowledge of the language, the history, the art, and the culture was amazing. It was her insistence that had made me learn to speak Russian. I was hoping that it would be useful in college.
Her tutelage had made me who I was, and my idea was to become a history professor. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue Russian history as a specialty, but it made sense. I loved the tales that my grandma told me about the Soviets, and what little she’d told me about the Tsars. I think she talked about the Soviets more, because they had ruled the country throughout most of her life, and they really pissed her off. She was angry that they’d ever existed, but she also wasn’t too fond of the new democracy. She said that they were no different from the Soviets. She said that they only went by different titles.
At any rate, I started my first semester of college at Manchester, and lived in grandma’s house with the Russian chachkis everywhere I looked. Virgil also went to Manchester, so there was one good friend that I had on campus. History was a tough major socially, so I didn’t make friends the way I would have liked. I tended to find like-minded people on Facebook and chat with them. It made more sense to me, since I didn’t want to spend my time hanging out with a bunch of cheerleaders.
Facebook was where I met Tania. Tania went to Boston College which was her hometown school, and she was studying history as well. We were a couple of geeks when it came to history, and we’d hit it off online and chatted constantly like we’d known each other our entire lives. Tania said that her family was Irish, but she found Russian history fascinating. She was pretty sure she wanted to be a Russian history professor. As sad as it sounds, Tania was my best friend during my first semester at college.
Things were going as well as could be expected. I’d settled into a routine, and was comfortable with my living arrangements, and then everything changed.
It was November, and I was driving home from a late class one night. The weather was this horrible sideways 34-degree rain that only people who have spent their lives in northern Indiana or Iceland can truly appreciate. Since the town of North Manchester was a ridiculously small town that was mostly college students, senior citizens, and several forms of Amish, they didn’t feel the need to spring for very many street lights. All the hipsters hated light pollution, and it just wasn’t in the budget to make it so that people could see where they were going on rainy cold nights in November. I was making my way down Highway 13 to the house, when I saw a car behind me. I didn’t think much of it. It was late, and there was hardly ever any traffic on the road at that hour, but hey, what did I know? It was when the car pulled into my driveway after me that my heart stopped.
I’d started to carry a baseball bat in my car for just such an occasion, because after my family had started dying off, I’d gotten a little paranoid. I pulled into the garage that was attached to the single story ranch style house that my grandma had left to me. The car just sat there, and I couldn’t tell anything in the dark rainy night. I grabbed the Louisville Slugger that I now kept on the seat next to me and prepared to get out of the car. I jumped out of the car, baseball bat in hand and nearly took a swing at Virgil as he emerged from his car.
“Damn you scared me!” I yelled at him, swinging the bat and almost hitting him in the head. “What the hell are you following me for?”
“Because I wanted to talk to you, God,” Virgil replied. “Are we a little paranoid or what?”
I really wanted to hit him with the bat, but instead I put the bat down and walked into the house with Virgil behind me. He didn’t say anything as I put my stuff on the kitchen table and hung up my coat. I walked to the refrigerator.
“So, stalker of mine, are you thirsty?” I asked Virgil.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious what I wanted to tell you?”
I handed him a can of Diet Coke and opened one for myself. “What on Earth could be so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”
I stood and stared at him as if he was insane. “The country? It’s been around a long time, Virgil. I don’t see it going anywhere before 3 pm tomorrow.”
Virgil pulled a piece of yellow paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Russia. There’s a class at Moscow University over Jan Term.”
“So, you need to go.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You live in this Russian museum. You love this shit. Your grandma would make you go. It’s like the stars aligned just right and here’s the opportunity of a lifetime. You can’t pass on this.”
I knew he was right. If there was ever anyone in the world that should go on a trip to Russia it was me. It was like I’d spent my whole life in training to do just that. I’d spent all the years listening to my grandma and looking at her Russian things. I’d written all of my elective papers on Russian topics, because I had a complete library at my grandma’s house to work from. There was so much that I’d learned, but so much that I still didn’t know. Spending time in Russia and taking a class in Russian history would be a great thing to help answer some of the questions I still had about that mysterious country.
“Are you still with me?” Virgil asked, waving his hand in front of my face.
“Sorry, I was just thinking,” I replied.
I looked at the flyer. The class was called “Tsars; Myth, Legend, and Facts.”
“Well, what do you think?” Virgil asked.
“I think it sounds amazing,” I told him. “I also think that there’s no way in hell that I can do this.”
“How can you not do this?”
“I can’t just go running off to Russia on a whim. Not even for a few weeks. My mom would freak so bad that they’d have to lock her up somewhere. Besides, I’ve never really gone anywhere. Russia’s a scary place. It’s big, and no one really seems to know what goes on over there. I’d probably be so lost that I’d never get over it.”
“You’re a wimp.”
“That’s not nice, and you’re right. There, I said it. I’m a wimp. Okay?”
“You know what I think? Honestly?”
I was getting angry with him and wanted to punch him right in the face. “What?”
“I think you’re saying what your mom would want you to. If you did what your grandma would want, it would be going to this class. Your mom is freaky scared of every little thing. I realize that you had a lot of bad luck last year, but none of them would be lying in a grave wanting you to pass up on something that would make a huge difference in your life because of them. Your mom needs to get over it. Shit happens. You should not quit living, because your mom is scared of nonsense.”
“You’re right. I’m afraid my mom will lose her shit, and I’ll be to blame. I’m also scared. I admit it.”
“You can’t be scared for the rest of your life.”
I had an idea. “Then go with me.”
“I would love to, you know that. But, I can’t.”
“Two reasons. One, because it’s cold as hell in January in Russia. It’s cold enough around here, so no thanks. Number two, I already signed up to spend Jan Term in Costa Rica.”
“I do intend to be a doctor, and they go there and work at clinics and stuff. I also bet there are a lot of tan guys on the beach too.”
Great, my gay ex-boyfriend was going to find men in Costa Rica, and I was going to sit cowering in fear of the whole world in North Manchester, Indiana. Even I was wondering if I would ever have the courage to leave Indiana. I’d wanted nothing more my whole life, but yet I was still stuck there. The worst part was that I could blame my mom all I wanted. The real reason was because I was scared to leave my home town. The outside world scared me.
The Ring of the Queen
The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity.
Virgil tried to convince me for a while that I should take the trip to Russia, but he went home weary and unsuccessful. The whole mess left me unable to sleep. The flyer was sitting on the kitchen counter, and I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes away from it. I wanted to go so badly I could taste it, but I was too scared to just do it.
I hadn’t changed a thing since grandma died. One of those things was her liquor cabinet. I wasn’t much for drinking, but once in a while I had that urge. Grandma didn’t keep beer around which was my normal choice of forbidden fruit. I looked in the cabinet and tried to decide what to drink. After much deliberation, I decided that I should try some Vodka. I had orange juice, and I knew the two went together.
After a couple of Vodka and orange juices—I didn’t know that was a Screwdriver, I figured that the stuff was weak or something, because I didn’t feel a thing. I was getting very annoyed with my current mood and place in the universe, and I needed to talk to somebody. I wondered if Tania was online. It seemed as though she never slept, so I thought I would give it a try.
“Tania, are you out there?” I typed into the messenger. I looked at the message and started to wonder if maybe there was something to the Vodka after all, because the message sounded really funny to me.
Seconds later, she replied. “Of course I am. What’s up?”
“Need to talk.”
“I have a chance to do something really amazing, but if I do my mom will completely freak.”
“From what you’ve told me, that could be just about anything. Could you be more specific?”
“I’m looking at a flyer that Virgil gave me for a Jan Term trip to Russia.”
I waited for a moment, but there was no answer. I looked at the conversation. I was starting to feel the vodka and orange juice, so I was just making sure that what I typed made sense in English and all. It did. I didn’t want to ask her if she understood me, because she probably did and then I would sound like a moron. I hated those types of situations. I had some slight self-esteem issues that made me worry about little things like whether or not I sounded like an idiot.
Finally, she messaged me back. “Do you mean the class about the Tsars at Moscow University?” she asked.
“I got that flyer too. It looks great, but I didn’t sign up either.”
“Why didn’t you go for it?”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I said, my mother would go batshit.”
“That sounds like a wuss out to me.”
“Oh yeah, well why didn’t you sign up?”
“I’m chicken shit. Not to be mistaken for wussing out.”
I started laughing. “Are you laughing too? Cause I feel like a fool.”
“Me too,” Tania replied. “Aren’t we a pair? Two Russian history freaks that are too scared to just sign up and go to a class in the country that we’re fascinated with to study something we love. We’re sad.”
She was right. That was sad. At that moment, I looked into my future and saw a scared little girl that never did anything great with her life, because she was too much of a wuss to try anything. What would the rest of my life really be like if I didn’t ever take a chance? Where would I end up? I would probably become some old spinster living with my mother. I would probably have cats. I didn’t really like cats. I realized that in what had become a drunken stupor, I had let my mind wander into some pretty frightening territory.
Then it hit me. “You know, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life not doing things, because I’m chicken.”
“Me neither. What’s your point?”
“I should do this, shouldn’t I?”
“And you should do it too.”
“You said that you would love it. Come with me. We can be chicken shit together.”
“Girl, you have lost your mind. Russia is dangerous. They are talking revolution every day over there. They hate Americans. They hate their own president. No way. I’m not ending up in a war just because you want to go to some class.”
Tania was right. Every time I looked online at the news, there were reports of violence and protests all over Russia. There was this huge movement to return to a Tsarist government, and the current president, Yuri Kostov was determined to keep his job. It seemed like a big mess.
But, the one thing that I hadn’t heard was that anything had actually happened. I remembered my grandma telling me about the August Coup at the end of the Communist era. That had turned Moscow upside down. They’d blockaded Gorbachev by blocking his building with trams for heaven’s sake. I also remember that my grandma had always warned me about the media. She said that they made everything look more dramatic for the sake of their jobs. I remember this story that she told me about a time that the news had reported food shortages in Moscow right after the fall of Communism. They showed these horrible lines in the GUM, the main department store in Moscow at the time, and they said that they were waiting in line for bread. She told me that it turned out that they were waiting in line for Nike sneakers.
“Remember the story I told you that my grandma told me about the Nikes?” I asked Tania.
I waited a while for an answer.
“Yes, I do,” she replied.
“What if that wasn’t the only time that happened?”
“Are you trying to tell me that all of the stuff we hear is exaggerated?”
“I don’t know. What if it is? What if it’s all just one big line for sneakers metaphorically speaking?”
“If it is then I would be staying in the US for no reason, and I would be missing out on the adventure of a lifetime.”
“It can’t all be about Nikes.”
“Do you really think that campuses all around the country would be advertising classes at Moscow University if it was that dangerous?”
“Great, now you’re making sense. It must be too late, or it’s the beer.”
“You’ve been drinking too?”
“I had Vodka and orange juice.”
“So, here we are. We’re drunk. It’s like two in the morning. We are decision making impaired. You’re telling me that angry people in lines in Russia are trying to buy sneakers, and that the people who run our schools are taking the time to put up flyers in the unions in hopes that we will go irregardless of what we see in the news? If we do this, we are idiots.”
“So, what do you say?”
I waited for a moment.
“I’ll sign up if you do,” Tania finally replied.
“I’m going to sign up tomorrow morning. Right after I recover from my hangover.”
I talked with Tania a little more after that. We made plans for me to fly to Boston and then the two of us would fly to Moscow together. We were both scared to death to do something like go to another country. Neither one of us had ever been much of anywhere, and neither one of us had ever been out of the country. We did both speak Russian halfway decent, although Tania insisted that my Russian was way better than hers. It was the only decision that we could make. We were both scared to do it, but we wanted to do it. The only solution was that we do it together. Look out Russia, here we come.
It was four in the morning before I managed to go to sleep. I woke up at ten and puked a little while before getting myself together and calling the number on the flyer. It was easy to sign up. It cost an arm and a leg to go, but I thought that it was going to be worth it. After all of the terrible things that had happened to me over the last year, I thought I deserved a real adventure.
I got my reservation number, ran to the Post Office to apply for a passport, and got a hold of Tania. She had hers too. It was all set. We were going to go to Russia and go to school at Moscow University for three weeks to study the Tsars. It felt like a dream. I wanted to go out and see the city and see all of the sights that I’d read about and seen pictures of online and videos of on YouTube. I couldn’t wait. I had so much that I wanted to learn. I had so many questions that needed answered. I wanted to know everything about Russia.
I looked at my hand as I chatted online with Tania about all the great things we were going to do. I saw the ring that my grandma gave me. I wondered if it really came from Russia. This was going to be my big chance to find out.
The Ring of the Queen
The mother/daughter relationship is one of mankind’s great mysteries and for womankind, it can be hellaciously complicated.
I’d done it. I’d registered to take a class at Moscow University. There was only one problem, and that was my mom. Mom had almost lost her mind the previous year when my father, brother, and grandma had died suddenly. I remember the weeks after my grandma passed when my mom really fell apart hard. One night, I’d found her sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor with a knife. It didn’t seem like she even knew who I was. I tried to talk to her, and finally had to call 911 for help. The ambulance came and the EMT’s took her to the clinic’s emergency room in town. Shortly after she arrived, they hit her with some tranquilizers of some sort and sent her to the psych ward at Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne. They kept her there for two weeks. The doctors said that she’d had a full blown nervous breakdown.
Since that time she’d been a source of smothering to a teenage girl. Especially to a teen age girl that had just inherited a house in town. I was all excited to have some freedom and a chance to be more of an adult. My mother took it as reckless abandonment and texted me and called me constantly. The result had been a somewhat strained relationship. My mom only lived five miles away in Servia on the other side of town, but I hardly ever saw her voluntarily. I told her I was busy all the time.
I did feel guilty about neglecting my mom, but I was an adult in my mind, and I craved independence so desperately that I couldn’t get my mind to give in and think of her. Mom said that I was just a selfish teenager, and she was probably right. But wasn’t I supposed to be? Weren’t teenagers supposed to be selfish and thoughtless? Deep down inside I knew that I was wrong, but I kept convincing myself over and over again that I was right.
I had to find some way to break the news to my mom that I was going to spend three weeks in Russia. I had to find some way to make it sound like a good idea. I knew I needed help with that. I knew that I needed someone that my mother respected to help me convince her that I should go and do this for my future career as a history professor.
First thing Monday morning I was sitting on the floor outside of Dr. Al’s office. Dr. Albert Kleinschmidt was an old friend of the family. He was about three years from retirement as a world history professor at Manchester University. I’d gone to school with his granddaughter and my mom had gone to school with his son. The whole family was like an extension of our own. I thought that if anyone could make my mom understand why I had to do this, it was Dr. Al.
“You could call my phone,” Dr. Al said as he stood over me upon arriving at his office.
I stood up. “I needed to talk to you in person.”
“It’s 7:30 am.”
“I know, sorry.”
He unlocked his office door and motioned me to come inside. I sat down in front of his desk while he took his time to put his things down, hang up his coat, and finally sit down in his desk chair. It was a stereotypical history professor’s office. The desk was cluttered. There were shelves of books that were terribly over filled all around the tiny room. There were some old looking knick knacks scattered about that may have been artifacts, or may have been personal souvenirs. It was hard to tell which. The room did smell musty, and I thought that he could probably use a housekeeper. I would have mentioned it, but it hadn’t been that long since Dr. Al’s wife had died of cancer, so I decided to let that go.
“Now, what’s so important that it got you over here at this hour on a Monday?” Dr. Al asked. “Don’t tell me it has to do with the flyers that I saw in the Student Union Lounge.”
Oh my God, he knew. “How did you know?”
“I saw those things, and I knew you would sign right up.”
“I didn’t even see them.”
Dr. Al looked at me sideways for a moment. “Then what are we talking about?”
“Virgil talked me into it.”
He sighed. “That boy should look out. I know his family too.”
“He meant well.”
Dr. Al didn’t say anything for a moment. It always made me nervous when he was thinking about what he was going to say before he said it. Dr. Al was an imposing man, well over six feet tall. He was almost completely bald, but he had what I called a Santa Claus beard. He wasn’t a thin man either, so had he worn a red suit instead of his usual tweed, he would have looked just like Santa.
“What do I need to know, why do I need to know it, and what do you want from me?” he finally asked.
“I signed up for the course, because I want to know more. I want to see what the place is like. I live in a Russian museum and I want to learn more.”
“Noted. How are you paying for this?”
“I have money. Grandma left me well off.”
“You’ll need a passport.”
“I filed for it Saturday morning at the Post Office.”
“Is Virgil going with you? I don’t recommend that you go on your first trip abroad alone. You know, we have trips from here that go to many places during Jan Term. You could take one of those. Dr. Apfenbahm is taking a group to the Czech Republic. You could get your feet wet on Eastern Europe there.”
I’d heard that tone in Dr. Al’s voice before. It was his unique way of redirecting me, instead of just saying that he hated my idea.
“I want to do this. I didn’t plan on going with Virgil. He’s going to Costa Rica to look at tan men in Speedos.”
“I don’t think you should go alone. Russia is not the kind of place where you want to find yourself with no one you know for thousands of miles around.”
“I’m going with a good friend of mine at Boston College.”
“How do you know someone at Boston College?”
He rolled his eyes. “Look, I know that you kids meet everyone on Facebook and have thousands of friends there, but you don’t really know someone until you spend time breathing the same air. That being said, at least tell me it’s not a guy that you’ve fallen in love with online. That would worry me.”
“Her name is Tania Turin. She’s a first year student at Boston College. She’s a history major who wants to become a professor, and she loves Russian stuff. That’s how we met. We had those common interests.”
He watched me. I could tell he was choosing his words again. “She doesn’t think that this is a date, does she?”
“No! She’s hetero. Trust me. She wants to do something big like I do. This is great for us. What better experience than going to the country to learn the stuff we so anxiously want to know?”
“How long have the two of you been online friends?”
“Well, that’s something. What about Visas?”
“The University is going to handle that.”
“Do you have any idea how dangerous it can be over there right now, especially for you?”
“What do you mean ‘especially for me?’”
“A young American girl from a small town. It’s a huge city. It’s a foreign country. It’s a country that doesn’t appear to like Americans right now. It’s cold. Do you have any idea how cold it gets in Russia in January?”
“It’s an adventure, it’s run by a Russian University, and it’s educational. What else do I need? It gets plenty cold right here in January. A little cold doesn’t scare me.”
He bit his lip. “I guess you have this all figured out. Except the cold. It gets cold here, but it’s damn cold in Moscow. You have my number if you need me, right? You are taking a phone that will work outside of the U.S. right?”
“Fine, then I guess there’s nothing I can say that will change your mind.”
“Why would you want to?”
“It’s hard to explain, so I won’t even try. Now, what do you need from me? That’s the question you haven’t answered.”
“What are you doing for dinner Saturday night?”
Dr. Al grimaced. “I am not going to convince your mother that this is a good idea.”
“Please, Dr. Al.” I begged. “She will freak out ten ways from Sunday if I tell her this. I need you. I’ll have her make her Lasagna.”
“If you think my favorite dinner will make me do this, you’re nuts.”
“Please, do it for me.”
He looked at me for a moment. “You have absolutely no idea what you could be getting yourself into.”
“You sound like a character in a spy movie. It’s just school.”
“Isn’t there anyone else that you can ask to talk to your mother?”
I stared at him.
“Fine, I’ll come to dinner. But I will not promise that I will talk her into this nonsense.”
“That’s something. I’ll see you Saturday night at six at mom’s.”
I got up and stepped to the door, turned the knob and opened it to leave.
“Are you going to do this, regardless of how your mother reacts?”
“I already signed up. I already promised Tania so that she doesn’t have to do it alone. What kind of person would I be if I backed out on a friend?”
“Fine,” he said, obviously exasperated. “I’ll bring a bottle or two of wine. Maybe if I get her drunk, she won’t have a stroke.”
“Thank you!” I shouted as I ran out the door.
There was no way in the world this would work, but I thought it was worth a try.
The Ring of the Queen
When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it is a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.
“I’m so glad you took time out of your busy schedule to come and have dinner,” my mom said as she ran around the kitchen preparing one of her meals fit for a king. “I feel like I never see you anymore.”
My mother was the perfect mom. At least by definition. She wanted the best for her family. She went to church every single Sunday and all the major holidays. She volunteered her time at soup kitchens and food banks. She baked cookies for the volunteer firemen up the road. She kept the house perfect, the kitchen stocked, the porch swept and the car clean. June Cleaver had nothing on her. She looked more like a grandmother however. She was short and stout, but not really fat. She wore the elastic pants that I called old lady pants. She wore flowered blouses and black flats most of the time, but that night she wore a bright red sweater with metallic thread running through it. She still had on black elastic pants, but she’d jazzed it up a little. The thing that had changed recently about mom was her hair. She’d worn bifocals for years, but it was just recently that she’d given up on dying her hair. She’d always covered up her gray by dying her hair it’s natural brown, but since everyone had passed on, she’d gotten away from that. She’d also gotten away from wearing the full face of makeup that I’d been used to my whole life, and now she only wore lipstick.
“You call me every day,” I replied, sitting at the table, snacking on the cucumbers that she’d put out with the veggie plate for appetizers.
“You don’t answer me,” she snorted.
“I’m busy, God. Why don’t you just call me later or text me?”
“First, do not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
“I’m pretty sure he’d understand, but fine.”
“You are so flip. For your information, young lady, I sleep at night, and I want to hear your voice. I don’t text. Texting is for people who don’t really want to communicate.”
“It’s flippant, and texting is just modern. You’re old fashioned. You know, legally I’m an adult.”
“You’ll always be my little girl. And, now you are pretty much my only family. That leaves you with a certain responsibility. I love you. I want to stay close.”
“I know mom, but I want to be me. I want to make a life, and have a family of my own someday. I have all kinds of dreams, and I can’t do any of them if I continue to be your little girl. Can you understand that?”
I could see that she was getting to the last of the dinner preparation even though it was only a little after five. I understood that change was difficult for my mom, and that the world had forced her into way too much of it in the last year. I also realized that the hardest thing in the world is to outlive a child, and I didn’t know if I could even survive such a thing and hoped that I would never have to find out. I wanted to talk to her about the trip, but I knew that I shouldn’t broach that subject until Dr. Al arrived. I didn’t want to be the one to push my mom over the edge, but I had to start doing things for myself. I wanted to be the little girl that she wanted me to be, but I just couldn’t. I looked at my watch, seeing that it hadn’t moved.
Instead of stressing out about the impending conversation that I had to have with mom, I decided that I would set the table. I got up and started to get some mid-range dishes out. My mom had the dishes that she didn’t care about, that you could break and she wouldn’t blink an eye. She had the good china that she used for holidays, weddings, showers, and funerals. Then she had some blue painted stoneware that she got out for meals that she made for guests, but not on special occasions. That was the set that I broke out for that night’s meal.
She watched me for a moment. “Why three places?”
I knew I’d forgotten something. “I forgot to tell you, sorry. I invited Dr. Al.”
She gave me the look. I hated the look that told me that she knew something was up. I had always been really bad at manipulating or lying to my mom, and adulthood hadn’t changed that.
“What’s up?” She asked. “You know I adore Dr. Al, but I don’t think you would have invited him just because.”
“What makes you think that?”
“18 ½ years of experience. Now, give. What is it that you think you need back up to talk to me about? You’re not pregnant, are you?”
“I told you I would tell you if I had a boyfriend. No, I’m not pregnant. Last time I checked, there would have to be a guy involved.”
“Well, maybe if you would do something with that gorgeous blonde curly hair of yours, or you would wear a little makeup.”
“Mom! I don’t really care about dating right now.”
“Just because one boy turned out to be a homosexual doesn’t mean that you should give up. There are still boys that like girls, right?”
“I’m not giving up; I don’t give a crap right now. I’m busy”
The doorbell rang. I was relieved. I hoped to God that it was Dr. Al being his usual 15 minutes early. I nearly ran to the door and opened it. It was Dr. Al. He had a brown paper bag that looked to be full of wine, and was wearing his fancy tweed jacket.
“Dr. Al! I’m so glad you’re here!” I exclaimed as I guided him inside the house. I took his hat and the bag of wine bottles and motioned him to have a seat on the sofa.
Mom entered the room right behind me. “Dr. Al, so good to see you.”
“Look, he brought some wine,” I told mom as I ran the bag to the kitchen.
I came back with a bottle and three wine glasses. “Let’s have a drink.”
“Thank you so much for the wine,” mom said. “I love a good Bordeaux.” She took the open bottle, poured two glasses of wine and handed me the third glass. “You can have yours in about three years.”
I snatched the glass from her and returned it to the kitchen. Nothing like a legal drinking age of 21 to make me feel like a little kid. I couldn’t wait to get to Russia. I could go to a bar there.
“So, what exactly is it that my daughter is scared to tell me?” I heard my mom ask Dr. Al as I walked back into the room.
“That’s not fair,” I objected. “I’m not scared to tell you anything.”
“All evidence to the contrary,” mom replied.
“Just tell her,” Dr. Al said.
“I signed up to take a class at another school for the January Term. It’s just three weeks,” I told her.
I was surprised that she didn’t yell. “What kind of class?”
“History,” I told her.
“Well, you should probably take it then. It’s in your major,” she said.
“Exactly,” I agreed.
“Where is it?” she asked.
I shot a glance at Dr. Al. “It’s in another country,” he told her. “It’s set up so that they experience the culture of the history they’re studying. As a history professor, she’ll actually do a lot of traveling. She’ll do a lot of travel while writing her dissertation and so forth.”
“Dr. Al is right,” I continued. “The best way to learn about history is to go where it happened.”
I knew all of my mom’s looks, and I saw the look come over her face that she had when she knew that I was about to upset her. It was the same look that she had on her face the time that I’d gone to a party and stayed out all night. The only difference was that she didn’t look like she was going to kill me. She just looked anxious and a little scared.
“And where did this history happen?” she asked. Her voice rose at the end of the sentence like when she was about to yell.
I looked at Dr. Al, who motioned me to talk. “Well, it’s kind of in Russia,” I stammered.
Her eyes went wide. Her face got red. The transformation was instant, and I was afraid of what was about to come out of her mouth. “I can’t stop you,” she said.
“I told her that I thought maybe she should start out with something a little easier, but she wants to study the Tsars,” Dr. Al explained.
“It’s a great opportunity,” I said.
“Will you hear me out on a couple of things?” mom asked.
“I’ll listen, but know that I may not agree with you,” I replied.
“Fair enough,” she said. “First of all, I wish that you didn’t feel as though you had to bring back up to tell me something that for all intents and purposes is a good thing.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Secondly, you know that I don’t like the idea of your going to Russia. I blame your grandmother for getting you overly interested in that whole country in the first place.” She paused. “However, that’s water under the bridge. My objections are rational.”
“What are your specific objections?” I asked.
“You’ve never been anywhere before. Russia is quite a leap. I mean, most people go to Canada or some other less culture shocking place first.”
“I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” I countered. “I speak the language and everything.”
“I realize that. Another objection that I have is safety. Even the State Department will tell you that the country is dangerous to Americans.”
“Then why are they inviting us there to study?”
“The class is exclusively for students from English speaking countries,” Dr. Al confirmed.
“So, is this a group trip?” mom asked.
“No, this is a class. It’s not a trip per se,” I replied.
“You cannot go alone,” she said. “I don’t care how old you are; I will not allow you to go to Russia alone. I don’t care if it’s just a class.”
“I’m going with another student,” I explained. “We will be staying on campus at Moscow University and we will be going to class all day for three weeks.”
“Who’s the other student?” mom asked.
“My friend Tania,” I replied.
“That girl you talk to online?” mom asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
Mom took a big gulp of her wine. “So, you want to go to a dangerous country with a girl you only know online for three weeks to study history at a university that you’ve never been to and know virtually nothing about. Is that right?”
“It sounds ridiculous when you put it that way,” I grumbled.
“It does sound ridiculous,” she said. “Now, after hearing the brass tacks of the situation, are you still telling me you intend to do this?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I can’t stop you, as much as I would like to,” mom said. “So, as much as I would like to slap you right in the face and tell you that this is not happening; I can’t. You’re an adult, and you have to do stupid things to learn. I don’t want you to do this. You understand that, right?”
“Yes I do.”
She turned to Dr. Al. “You know what you’ve done,” she said.
“I had nothing to do with this. She got the flyer and signed up. I had no say in it at all,” he replied.
“You know what could happen,” mom said to Dr. Al.
“Did I miss something?” I asked. “It’s like I’m five and you’re talking about me, but I’m right here.”
“I don’t need to explain anything to you, young lady. I won’t try and stop you, but you will make sure that I can reach you at all times, you will call me every day, you will stay on that campus while you are there, you will make sure that you do not go out alone, and you had better come home in one piece.”
“I think you worry too much.”
“I think you have no idea what you’re getting into.”
“That’s why it’s an adventure. So, you have a list of rules. Is that it?” I asked.
“I have one rule that you must obey, is that fair?” she asked me.
“You will not take your grandmother’s ring with you.”
The Ring of the Queen
As with most phobias, the fear of flying does make some sense, but if ever there was a fear worth quashing then this is it.
“Well, here we are,” mom said.
She’d just parked the car at Fort Wayne International Airport. I wasn’t sure what was international about it. It was our local airport, and it was only 40 miles from where we lived. My mom had insisted on giving me a ride to the airport, even though everyone around us knew that she didn’t want me to take the trip. I hadn’t talked to her about it since I told her in the first place. She’d tried on several occasions to bring it up, but I refused to discuss it. I was pretty sure that she’d taken the opportunity to drive me to the airport to nag me about it, but she hadn’t said much about it all the way to Fort Wayne.
“Here we are,” I replied.
“Do you have all your papers? Passport, visas, confirmation for you class, confirmation of you dorm room?”
“Yeah, I have all that.”
“Now, you said that you would be meeting this stranger, Tania at the airport in Boston and flying from there to Moscow?”
“We have to change flights in Frankfurt, Germany.”
“You made sure your bag wasn’t over the allowed weight for overseas flights?”
“Yes. I did everything. Now, aren’t you going to yell at me?”
“Yell at you. Is that what you think of me?”
“You do yell.”
“You might consider that I know things. I know a lot of things that I haven’t explained to you. Right now I wish that I had, but I am intelligent. This is a dangerous idea. I can list everything from international terrorist groups to random street violence in a place like Moscow. You’ve never even been to a real city. What will you do?”
“Tania is from Boston. She’s lived there her whole life. What I haven’t learned from day trips to Chicago, she can help out with. I know you don’t like the idea that she’s an internet friend, but she’s a friend. She’s a good person. I know you don’t believe that I can know that, but I can. She gets me. She likes the stuff I like, and she’s studying the things that I’m studying. She’s like a dorm roommate, but she lives in Boston. She’s the closest thing I will ever have to a best friend from college.”
“You really trust her?”
“I really do. Now, are we good?”
“The ring. Did you leave the ring at home?”
“Of course I did,” I lied.
My grandma had told me never to let the ring out of my sight. In addition to that, I wanted to have it with me so that I could find out more about it. I didn’t even know if it came from Russia, but I was pretty sure that it did. I remembered grandma telling me about a trip that she’d taken to Russia when she was younger. Grandpa had the Russian roots, but he wasn’t interested in his roots. He farmed, and he didn’t really care about going anywhere but his corn and soybean fields. Grandma had taken some kind of a group tour and had a wonderful time. She had pictures of the Kremlin and the Hermitage and Red Square and so on. It was one of the reasons that I wanted to go there as well. She never said that she’d gotten it on that trip, but I was pretty sure about it. Why else would it have been so important to her?
“What is it with you and grandma’s ring anyway?” I asked.
“It’s a long story. I know I should have talked to you about it, but I kept putting it off. I guess now is the time.”
I looked at my phone. We’d made our way through the baggage check in while we were talking, and I had to run in order to get through security in time to make my flight.
“I wish I could hear that, but I have to go. It takes a while to get through security, and I don’t want to risk missing my flight,” I told her.
“I really want to tell you about the ring.”
I kissed her on the cheek and started to walk away toward the line for security checks. “Text me or call me. I mean, it’s just a souvenir, right?”
“Stacey, it’s not a souvenir. Let me explain!” she called after me.
“Bye mom! I love you!” I yelled as I got in line.
I made it to the plane. I was sitting in my seat way in the back in the cheap seats, looking out the window at all the activity on the tarmac. I got the ring that grandma gave me out of my purse and put it on. I looked at it. It was unusual and old and pretty. What I didn’t understand was what the big deal was about it. Why would my mom get so nuts over a ring? I lived in grandma’s house surrounded by Russian books, dishes, Samovars, and all kinds of stuff. That didn’t bother her. All that bothered her was the stupid ring. I couldn’t wait to get to Moscow and check the thing out. Maybe once I researched where it actually came from I would understand why my mom hated the thing so much.
The plane taxied to the runway, and that was fine. The attendants gave the speech about safety and what to do in a crash. Hoped I didn’t need that information. That was the day that my life was going to change. It was my first flight, going on my first adventure on my first time out of the country as well as overseas, with my new best friend that I hadn’t actually met face to face yet. I was going to the largest country in the world to study their history on their land in their way at their university. What could go wrong?
I nearly puked my guts out when that plane took off. Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.
Logan International Airport in Boston is an interesting place. It sits right on the water, and when the plane lands, it looks like you’re actually going to crash right into the Atlantic Ocean. I made a mental note there and then to never sit in a window seat again. After the flaps practically falling out of the wings, which fortunately a fellow passenger explained to me so that I didn’t have to have a stroke, and the pilot telling us how windy it was and that it would make our landing rough; I was ready to take a boat to Russia.
I didn’t have a lot of time in Boston. My layover was two hours, so I didn’t have time to even leave the airport. I did have to stand in line again for international flights to have my passport checked and so on. That took a while. I was supposed to meet up with Tania on the other side of the security check. I’d seen pictures of her, but it was really crowded, and I was concerned that I might not recognize her. I knew that I took horrible photos, so I hoped she could recognize me as well.
“May I see your passport and visa, please?” the man at the security check asked.
I handed him my packet. He looked it over and handed it back to me.
“Did you pack your own bag?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Has your bag been with you the entire time and never out of your sight?”
“Are you carrying anything for anyone other than yourself?”
“Enjoy your flight.”
That was it. I was through and on my way. I’d reached the point of no return. I wasn’t a huge fan of flying at this point, but I was doing it. I was getting on plane and leaving the country and going to Russia and taking a class. I was becoming more brave by the minute. I was sure that at some point I would enjoy all of it. I hoped it would start soon.
I was only a few yards from the security check when I spotted Tania. I was worried for nothing. Her pale white skin, bright blue eyes and curly bright red hair stuck out like a sore thumb in a crowd. The minute I laid eyes on her, I was sure it was her. I was relieved to find her. After my initial flight I’d decided that I needed someone to do this with. I was way too scared to continue alone. I didn’t want to let on, but Tania was the face in the crowd that calmed me at that moment. I was hoping that with her for company, I could actually survive flying over an entire ocean.
She spotted me as well and ran towards me, reaching me in seconds. “Stacey?” she said.
“Tania! It’s so good to finally meet you,” I replied.
We skipped the handshake and gave each other a big hug.
“How was your flight?” Tania asked.
“Not what I expected,” I answered.
“Was it scary?” Tania asked. “I’ve been really nervous, being my first flight and all.”
We started to walk to our gate. “I don’t know if I would call it scary, but it sure wasn’t how I expected it to be,” I said as we walked.
“So, what’s it really like?” Tania asked.
“It’s like a really bad carnival ride that lasts a really long time. It comes with a lot of jabber on speakers from the pilot and flight attendants, and it kind of smells.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“It’s not as bad as that sounds either. You’ll see what I mean. Besides, I intend to sleep on this flight. I’m tired from the last one.”
“It is overnight.”
“Yeah, hopefully you can sleep some too.”
“I’m still excited.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what. You can be excited, and I’ll try to nap. You can even have my window seat.”
Next stop, Frankfurt and a connection to the gigantic capital of the biggest country in the world; Moscow, Russia. The adventure was about to begin, and I was going to be sick. I wondered if it was the orange juice I’d had on the first flight.
The Ring of the Queen
I want to teach. I want to speak. I want to travel.
“Wow! This is amazing!” Tania exclaimed as she looked out her window during takeoff.
Great, she was braver than me. I wondered if I’d done the right thing by taking this trip, going to Russia, taking this class. I wondered if I should have asked Tania to come with me as well. I almost screamed bloody murder when the plane took off on my first flight.
Tania turned and looked at me. “Are you all right?” she asked.
“Sure, why do you ask?” I replied.
“You’re grabbing the armrest so hard that your knuckles are white.”
I realized that I was gripping the armrest at the moment that she mentioned it. I decided that I didn’t want the whole trip to be about hiding stupid stuff from my friend.
“I don’t think I like to fly,” I said.
“Really? Why? Does it scare you?”
“I know it sounds stupid, but it does.”
Tania smiled at me. “Oh, thank God. Cause that scared the crap out of me, almost literally.”
“I thought that you thought it was amazing.”
“I was just trying not to be a wimp.”
I laughed and so did Tania. From that point on, I started to relax. Once that was over with and we were at our cruising altitude over the Atlantic Ocean, we sat and talked like two old friends that hadn’t seen each other in years. Tania told me even more about her and her family than she had when we’d chatted online. I had no idea that her family were politicians of a local type. Her dad and his dad and so on were city councilmen and her great grandfather had even been the mayor in his day. Tania had no such aspirations.
“I’m not even sure what I want to do. I know I like history, and I love Russian history. I’m not sure I’ll be a good teacher though. I have what my mother calls an abrasive personality. I’m not sure what that means, but I think it means that I’m a pain in the ass,” she said.
“You don’t strike me as abrasive,” I replied.
“You haven’t seen me on a subway.”
“I’ve never even been on a subway.”
“Not even in Chicago?”
“No. We normally just go for the tourist stuff like museums and sports; and for that we park in parking garages.”
“Do you drive?” Tania asked me.
“Yes, I do. Have to get around somehow.”
“Well, I’ll teach you about subways, and you can teach me how to drive.”
“You don’t drive?”
“No need to, I have the subway.”
“What happens if you want to go out of the city?”
“This time I took a plane. We’ll see about the next time.”
This was crazy. Here we were, two young girls, leaving the country. I had no idea how to navigate a subway system, and Tania had no idea how to drive a car. Together we might have made one person who could get around, but neither one of us could get around alone. I knew that I had asked her to come along, because I was afraid to go alone. I wondered if she would have come, if I hadn’t come with her.
We talked some about history and about our classes. The attendants brought around food and headphones for us to use with the television and music services that were on our flight. For a while, it seemed like a perfectly normal thing that we were doing. I started to think that this was what it was supposed to be like to fly, and that I was getting that hang of it. I was watching episodes of “The Middle” on TV on the tiny screen in the back of the headrest of the seat in front of me. Tania had dozed off for a bit. I couldn’t sleep. I was of the impression that I would never be able to sleep on a plane. I wasn’t sure why.
Then I found out.
The plane began to shake suddenly as though it were being shaken by the very hand of God. It was a violent shake that I imagined must be similar to an Earthquake. Tania was instantly roused from her nap. She jumped in her seat and threw up the shade on her window.
“What the hell?” she said.
“We’re encountering some minor turbulence,” a voice said over the intercom. “The fasten seatbelt sign has been illuminated. Please return to your seats at this time. Thank you.”
I was holding onto the armrest again. I’d only recently let it go. “A little turbulence? This is a little?”
There was a man sitting across the aisle from me wearing a dark brown suit with a smartly striped tie to match and a light blue shirt. He had very little hair but a pleasant face. “I’ve noticed that this is the first time you girls have flown,” he said to us.
“No shit,” Tania said angrily.
“Anyway,” the man said. “This is fairly common. Just so you know. We’re flying over the Greenland and Iceland area. The winds are always a little different in this area. If you turn on the flight monitor on your screen, it will show you where we are. That’s how I always know when to expect turbulence.”
I did as the man suggested. There it was. Right on my screen there was a map and it showed where we were at the time with a little cartoonish plane. “That’s pretty cool,” I said.
Tania was looking over at my screen. “That is cool. How long does it last normally?”
“From my experience, and I take this flight all the time, I would say about 10 more minutes,” he explained. “It could last a little longer or stop a little sooner. It varies.”
As he finished saying that, the turbulence stopped. He was right. I guessed that he really did know what he was talking about. I was a novice. I knew that I could be a wuss, but I was hoping that by taking my first trip out in the world, I would start to get over my wussiness. My grandma used to say that the only way you would be able to get over a fear was to face it and do the thing that scares you. Then you would see that there was nothing to be afraid of. This was my time. I was afraid to travel, particularly to Russia. My mother was absolutely frantic at the idea, and I was pretty sure that her chronic paranoia was that largest part of my fear. I was sure that there was nothing to be frightened of in Russia, and that when I got there I would learn it for myself. Who knows, from there I might decide to travel the whole world. Once I learned that there was nothing to be scared of about traveling, who knows where I might go.
I guess that the whole idea that turbulence was normal had calmed me down. I woke to the sun shining in our window, and the voice on the intercom telling us that we were about to land in Frankfurt, Germany. My adventure was about to begin.
“Did you hear that?” Tania asked me. “We’re in Germany! Can you believe it?”
“This is the last flight for us today. All passengers must deplane. You can find your connecting flight information at the gate. If you have any questions, there will be staff at the gate to assist you. Have a nice day,” the voice on the intercom said.
Tania and I were thrilled to be in a foreign country. The airport looked like the ones that we’d come from. We guessed that most of them were similar. It was probably a standard thing. I mean airports all over the world must have been made to look alike, right? We found our flight information and we made our way to our next flight. It was already feeling like a familiar process. I had this. I could travel. I could go anywhere. I was going to become savvy and run all over the world. That was the idea anyway.
It wasn’t long before we boarded our next flight. In a few hours we would be in Moscow.
The Ring of the Queen
That’s part of the excitement of life – new people, new experiences.
It was 6 pm Moscow time when we were to arrive. I’d had the world clock on my phone monitoring different time zones all the way there. It was only 11 am at home. I knew that it would take me a few days to get used to the time change. Where I lived, we’d only been doing daylight savings time for a few years, much less all the time zones that we had just crossed. I looked out the window and wondered why the voice on the intercom hadn’t said anything about landing yet. We’d been right on time with all of our flights.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” the voice said in Russian. “We are about to begin our descent into Domodedovo Airport. We were scheduled to land at Sheremetyevo II International Airport, but there are some disturbances there. We apologize for any inconvenience. We will be landing in approximately 20 minutes.”
The arrangements that Tania and I had made said that someone would be at the airport to pick us up. I didn’t know if they had been notified, or if they had been monitoring a web site with updates. I hoped that someone would still be there to pick us up. I also wondered what on Earth was going on at the other airport that would cause flights to be diverted.
I pressed the call button for the attendant. A lovely attendant who had been serving us drinks and snacks the whole way came to us. She was an attractive Slavic woman with dark hair and dark eyes. She was tall and wore the Aeroflot uniform with style.
“What can I do for you?” the attendant asked me.
“I hate to be a bother, but I had a question. This is our first time out of the United States, and our first time flying,” I explained, motioning to Tania to indicate that I was attempting to speak for both of us. “I was just wondering if you knew what was causing us to be rerouted to another airport. We were supposed to be picked up by someone from Moscow University.”
“I do apologize,” the attendant replied. “We were told to reroute because of protests at Sheremetyevo II.”
“What kind of protest would be going on at the airport?” I asked.
“It’s my understanding that there is a protest for the Tsarist movement going on there, and it’s getting a bit out of hand.”
“Are they rerouting all the incoming flights?” Tania asked.
“No, only a few,” the attendant replied.
“Thank you,” I said.
The attendant walked away and I immediately started to get my phone out.
“What makes you think your phone will work up here and in Russia?” Tania asked me.
“It’s not a cell phone, it’s a Sat phone. I’m calling my mom to see if she’s seen anything on the news about this. She’ll be freaking out if she has,” I explained.
It took a while for the call to go through, but soon I heard it ringing. My mom answered quickly.
“Stacey? What’s going on? Did you change your mind? Are you on your way home?” mom asked.
“No, I just wanted to tell you that we are about to land in Moscow. I thought you might be worried,” I replied.
“Well of course I’m worried. Why did you call to see if I was worried? What’s going on?” mom asked.
“They rerouted us because of some protests; it’s no big deal,” I said. “There’s another perfectly good airport right in town where we can land.”
“I’m looking at every news channel I can find. There’s nothing on about it,” mom said. “Can I ask, is it just your plane or all flights that are being rerouted?”
A little voice went off in the back of my head that I couldn’t explain. “Why would you ask that?”
“I was just curious.”
“The attendant said that it was some but not all,” I explained.
“Honey, there’s something that I should have told you before…” my mother started.
“We are beginning our final descent into Domodedovo Airport,” the voice on the intercom said. “Please turn off any electronic devices, make sure you return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts, and return you seats and tray tables to the upright and secure positions. We should be landing in approximately 12 minutes. Thank you.”
“Mom, I gotta go. They said to turn off all our devices. I’ll call you soon,” I told her.
“Honey wait,” mom tried to start to talk to me.
“I have to go, love you.” I turned off the phone. I didn’t want the first thing that happened to me in Moscow to be that I got yelled at by the flight staff.
The landing was pretty smooth. I thought that maybe they should learn how to do that in Frankfurt. That landing had been rough. They said that it was because of the wind, but I wondered. I looked out the window. It was dark, so I didn’t see much. There were a lot of lights in certain places. It wasn’t like the other airports we’d flown to that had lights everywhere and looked like some space station on the moon. It had it dark spots. I immediately assessed that all airports were in fact not alike. I’d been wrong about that.
The attendant walked to our row as soon as the plane hit the ground. “Ladies, your transport will be meeting you at this airport. They were notified of the changes. I thought you would want to know that you had a ride.”
“Thank you so much,” I replied. “Isn’t that nice of her,” I said to Tania.
“How did she know what was going on with us?” Tania asked. “Why didn’t she have any messages for anyone else? Don’t you find that weird?”
“I think you’re being paranoid,” I told her. “How many times have you told me that you thought that there was some kind of plot going on? Sometimes I think you’re a little sensitive. Besides, I told her that we were supposed to have a ride.”
“I just have this thing where red flags fly the minute I think that someone has too much information about me. It freaks me out,” Tania replied.
“Something tells me you’ve come to the wrong place,” I told her.
We both watched out the window as the plane taxied to our gate. I was surprised to see workers rolling the stairs out to the plane. At all of the other airports there had been jet ways that attached to the plane where the door opened. I hadn’t flown before, but from what I’d seen on television; I was pretty sure that stairs were old fashioned.
I exited the plane with Tania right behind me. I’d heard that it was cold in Moscow in the winter time, but wow. When I stepped onto that stairway, I thought my face was going to freeze. They hadn’t said how cold it was before we landed as they had at the other airports. I wondered if they didn’t know or if they just didn’t want to tell us. Honestly, I didn’t want to know what the temperature was, nor did I want to know what the wind chill was. The wind was blowing like crazy, almost knocking us over as we walked to the door that went to our gate at the airport.
When we walked into the airport, we immediately saw a desk with a man at it that looked like a military officer. He had on this military styled uniform and he looked really serious. I couldn’t tell if he was serious looking by nature, or if he was annoyed.
“Passports,” the man said with his hand out when we reached his counter.
I handed him my passport.
“Visa,” he said.
I handed him my Visa.
“Do you have anything to declare?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Welcome to Moskva.”
Tania went through the same procedure, and we were on our way. We found our way to the baggage area and got our bags. We didn’t walk two feet before we were approached by a good looking man. He was everything a girl would want. He was tall, dark haired, brown eyes, well dressed in jeans and a button down shirt. He was smiling the minute I saw him.
“Hello, welcome to Moscow!” he said, shaking hands with me and then with Tania. “Sorry about all the fuss with the airport change and all. I hope you had a pleasant flight.”
Tania and I exchanged puzzled looks. “Yes, our flights were fine,” I said.
“Who are you?” Tania asked.
His face turned red. “Oh my, I’m sorry. My name is Steve Zemecki. Dr. Steve Zemecki. I’m here to pick you up and take you to the university.”
“You’re not Russian,” Tania said. “What the hell is going on?”
Dr. Zemecki smiled. “My apologies. You’re right. I’m not Russian. I’m from Brooklyn.”
“Great, I fly half way around the world to learn something in Russia and run into some expat from New York,” Tania groaned.
“Tania!” I snapped at her. “Be nice.”
“I’m not nice,” she said. “I’m from Boston. I tell it like it is.”
“My apologies,” Dr. Zemecki said. “I would be Russian if I could. As it stands, how about I help you to the van with your bags and we get you safely tucked into your dorm room at the university? The van is right this way.”
He motioned to the door that we were nearing as we walked and talked. He took Tania’s bag from her and hurried along. I wondered why he seemed to be in such a rush. I also wondered how he knew who we were. I’d sent no pictures along.
“You seem to be in a rush,” I said. “This doesn’t have anything to do with the protests at the other airport that the attendant told us about, does it?”
“Maybe a little,” he said as he walked quickly out the door. “It was getting pretty rowdy at the other airport from what I understand.”
The van that he opened in the loading area was just a brown van. It didn’t say anything about the university on it and it looked like it had seen way better days.
“Are you sure you’re from the university?” I asked.
“Yeah, and how do you know who we are?” Tania added.
Dr. Zemecki stopped and looked at us. “I assure you ladies that I am from the university. I got files on all the students before admitting you to the class. There were pictures in your files from your other schools. Besides, you dress like Americans.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Even I had noticed that we stuck out in the crowd. Russians dressed very differently than we did. They wore more utilitarian clothing. It was more geared for the freezing cold weather than ours was. The cold was going to kill me for the next three weeks. I was more sure of it every time I walked outside and got a good gust of wind in the face.
“Fine,” Tania said to Dr. Zemecki. She started to help him load our bags into the van.
I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. When I looked not far down the walk from the area where the van was parked, I saw a small group of people. They were holding signs, and I assumed that they must be more protestors.
I motioned to the group. “What are they protesting,” I asked Dr. Zemecki.
“Recently there’s been a movement to reinstate a Tsar,” he explained. “They don’t like the president here. I don’t blame them. He seems to be a real ass.”
“So, how many protests are there going on around here?” I asked.
“You see them here and there,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “They gather with their little posters about finding a Tsar.”
Dr. Zemecki rushed us into the van and pulled away from the curb. I was really starting to wonder what was going on. The posters were easy for me to read. They said, “Welcome to Moscow.”
The Ring of the Queen
Car designers are just going to have to come up with an automobile that outlasts the payments.
It was cold. The van was cold in part, because the heat obviously didn’t work. I wondered if the university had money problems, or if the van belonged to Dr. Zemecki. I was pretty sure we were riding in the professor’s vehicle. The impression that I’d formed of President Yuri Kostov told me that he would never allow the prized university to have a vehicle like that. The van coughed and smoked as we pulled away from the curb at the airport. I was hoping that we would make it to the university before it seized up for good.
“So, does the university let you run around in this piece of shit, or is it yours?” Tania asked.
I couldn’t believe she said that. She was always saying that Irish people said what was on their minds, but wow. She threw it out there like it was a normal conversation that she was having with someone that she’d known for years, even though they’d just met.
There was a little playfulness in the good doctor’s eyes. I wondered if he was usually happy, or if he was thinking that Tania was hot. I knew he wasn’t thinking about me, because most boys didn’t. I was blonde, and I’d heard that blondes have more fun, but that has to be a myth. I was plain nonetheless. My grandma used to say that I was a classic beauty, but I was pretty sure that her opinion was biased. Tania, on the other hand, was so full of personality that it constantly ran amuck and I was wondering if Dr. Zemecki had picked up on that. I noticed it over the internet.
“This would be my piece of shit,” Dr. Zemecki replied, his blue eyes dancing in their sockets.
He had a full head of dark curly hair, and a dimple in his chin. He wasn’t overly tall, but he was rather stocky, and I mean that in the good way; not that he was fat.
“You need a better car,” Tania said plainly.
“I don’t intend to live in Moscow forever,” Dr. Zemecki started. “I like it here and all. It’s the most interesting single place I’ve ever been. It’s just that I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t get too attached to this place. My goal is to wander the world, teaching everywhere I go. It’s a theory I have about how I can go around the world and have money at the same time.”
“The world does need history professors,” Tania went along. “So, what does your wife think of that theory?”
I had to elbow Tania in the ribs. She was being too forward, and that was all there was to it. She was all about this guy. I wondered what she really thought would come of it. I was certain that any flings that were to be had in Moscow would be the equivalent of the average one-night stand.
Tania looked at me as though I’d just snatched a cookie out of her hand. “What?” she asked me.
“Presumptuous aren’t you?” I whispered.
“No, that was the whole point of asking,” Tania replied in a whisper. “Then I won’t feel stupid later if we start going out and a wife pops up.”
“You sound as though you speak from experience,” I said.
“Let’s just say I learned the hard way not to pick up Celtics players after basketball games.” She turned back to Dr. Zemecki. “Anyway, how about that wife?”
He was grinning from ear to ear now. “No wife. I do like direct women though. I’ll give you that. Just remember I’m your teacher.”
“I like teachers,” Tania continued, unabated. “I intend to be one myself someday. Maybe you’ll come to one of my classes. Then we can get a coffee or something. Or we could cut the crap and get it while I’m here.”
“How about I let you unpack first,” he replied. “But, if you want you can call me Steve. Not when we’re in class.” He winked at Tania.
Tania smacked me in the leg. “He’s such a hottie,” she whispered.
I rolled my eyes at her.
The scenery outside was pretty much what I expected from Russia in the winter time. It was dark and dreary with snow covered everything everywhere you looked. The traffic was worse than I’d anticipated. Most of the cars were either dark and drab or super expensive looking. I’d read a lot of things that said that the gap between rich and poor was extremely wide in Russia. It’s amazing how much it reminds me of home. My entire life I’d listened to the stories about how horrible Russia is to its citizens. It looked pretty normal to me.
I was watching out the window for anything that might ring a bell from pictures that I’d seen in books or on television. Then I saw it approaching along the river. It was shining in the light of the city. The towers, the brick walls, the golden onion towers of the Palace of Facets. It was the Kremlin. All of a sudden the trip became real in my mind. I had actually gotten on a plane and gone to Russia. It was real. It wasn’t a dream. I almost couldn’t believe it.
“Wow,” was the only word that came out of my mouth.
“It’s pretty impressive isn’t it?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
“I’ve seen it in pictures, but they didn’t do it justice,” I replied.
Tania got a strange look on her face. I’d gotten to know her online, but now I was learning what to pay attention to when I was looking at her. I didn’t know what that look meant. She didn’t say anything, so I began to wonder if I would ever know.
“Do we get to visit the Kremlin while we’re here?” Tania asked. “Isn’t that where they crowned the Tsars?”
“Some Tsars were crowned there, but the majority of them were crowned in St. Petersburg,” he explained.
“So, do we get to visit?” Tania reiterated.
“It’s not part of the official program, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have time to take the regular tour,” Dr. Zemecki answered.
Tania elbowed me. “Whatever, I’m going there.”
The ride the rest of the way took no time at all. I’d checked into how far it was from the airport to the university, but all that information went out the window when they sent us to another airport.
“Welcome to Lomonovsky Moscow State University,” Dr. Zemecki said.
I looked out the window and saw us approaching the main building as we turned onto the road that went to it. I recognized the giant building from the many pictures I’d seen of it. There were pictures all over the internet, and that building was the one that you most commonly saw in pictures. It was an imposing building. It was huge with several distinct sections that almost reminded me of a western European castle. I didn’t know how tall it was, but it was impressive and regal looking in a Russian Soviet business like kind of way.
“That is one impressive building,” Tania said. “You know, I looked all over the internet for pictures of this place, and all I could find were pictures of that one building. I swear I started to think that it was the only building on campus.”
“No, it’s the biggest building on campus,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “Your class is there in the section that you’re seeing on your left.”
“I thought that was a business school and administration building,” Tania said.
“Amongst other things,” he replied. “During January it becomes the only building for classes. Most students are on break, so we take advantage of having all of the classes in the one building. It makes it easy for all of you foreign students to find your way around.” He was smiling at Tania while he talked.
“I see,” Tania said. “So, where’s our dorm and what do our rooms look like? I couldn’t find any pictures of dorm rooms on the web. To tell you the truth, it made me a little leery.”
“They did used to have some scary rooms here,” he replied. “I came here to take a class or two when I was in school a couple of years ago. They redid them though and now they look pretty much like any other dorm room you’ve ever seen.”
“I bet that’s not true. Every single dorm room I’ve ever seen is full of crap from IKEA,” Tania said.
“I stand corrected,” Tania said as we walked into our dorm room. “IKEA is everywhere.”
“You do know how close we are to Finland here, don’t you?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
The room was down a depressing Soviet style hallway, apparently in the cellar where there were no windows. The walls of the hallway were cement block in structure and design. The blocks were painted some boring color of beige and there were about a hundred doors on each side that went to dorm rooms.
Our room, while it had no windows, was brighter than the hallway. The walls were white and the IKEA furniture was oak colored. We had bunk beds. That surprised me. Besides that, it was a normal dorm room. It had desks, storage, and a hotplate running down either side of the room, only leaving enough space along one of them for the bunk beds. There was a TV on the wall and a fridge on the counter next to the microwave. Standard. It was a little strange to have no windows, but I thought I could live with it for three weeks.
“He has a point,” I noted. “Finland does share a border. Happy IKEA land.”
“On that note, I will leave you ladies to unpack and settle in. It’s after dinner in the cafeteria, so that’s out. In a little bit the resident aide will come by and show you where the snack machines are. He can also exchange a small amount of currency for you, or you can use a credit card. It takes MasterCard. They just call it Eurocard here. I will see you in the morning. Good night, and welcome to Russia.” With that, Dr. Zemecki left.
Tania fell down on the lower bunk, narrowly missing smacking her head on the top one. “My God, he is so hot!”
“I got that,” I replied.
“Sorry, I don’t always act that way, but once in a while. Damn!”
Damn indeed. I was in Russia.
The Ring of the Queen
“One of the most courageous things you can do is identify yourself, know who you are, what you believe in and where you want to go.”
– Sheila Murray Bethel
I woke before my alarm that next morning. I was shocked given that it was eight hours earlier back home. I was certain that it was the excitement of the adventure. The first night in the dorm had been okay. I was surprised when I met our resident assistant. She was from India and her name was Anji. Somehow I thought that the people we would meet would all be from Russia, and so far I hadn’t met a single Russian.
After following directions to the student cafeteria, we got out the maps that Anji had given us and made our way to our first day of class. I couldn’t wait to get started. I was going to school in Russia. I was at Moscow State University. My life was just starting. “Tsars; Life, Myth and Legend” here I come.
When we found it, the classroom was more like something that I’d sat in during high school than what I pictured at Moscow State. I had this vision that our class would take place in one of the fancy auditorium styled rooms instead of a regular boring old classroom. The tables had white laminate tops and wheels on the bottom to move them around if necessary. They were the same kind that we had in most of the classrooms at Manchester College. I guessed I’d have to settle for the fact that the boring old classroom was in Moscow.
Tania and I found two seats next to each other and sat down. Each place at each table had a book. I hadn’t used a textbook in a while. Most of my classes were done with Chromebooks. I quickly decided that it would be fun to work with actual print material.
“It’s a textbook!” Tania exclaimed quietly. She giggled a little too.
“I think it will be fun,” I replied.
“Could be. I can’t remember the last time I had a print textbook in school. I hope I can remember how to turn the pages,” Tania giggled.
“You are so bad,” I said.
We were early for the class. It was hard to get used to the time. The fact that it was almost 8 am and it was still dark outside wasn’t making it any easier. It did finally look as though the sun might come up if the thick gray clouds would get out of the way. I had been warned that Russia in the winter time was cold, snowy and dark. I guess that the people who wrote that online knew what they were talking about.
Despite the dark and the cold and the fact that the textbook concept was a little outdated, I decided that it was going to be a great experience. I hadn’t flipped through a textbook in years, so I opened the book up while we waited on the other students and Dr. Zemecki to arrive and started to get a feel for the book.
I’d forgotten how cool it was to be able to leaf through a book at school. I flipped through and looked at a lot of the pictures. The book seemed to cover all the Tsars from Ivan through Nicholas II. It was going to be a great class. There were pictures of the palaces, the portraits of the Tsars, the robes, the cathedrals. I turned haphazardly to page 186. It was in the section about Catherine the Great. She was the Tsar that I was most curious about, because she was the one that I was named after. Stacie was short for Anastasia, which came as no surprise to me was the name of one of the daughters of the last Tsar, Nicholas II. Anastasia was my middle name though. Catherine is my first name, and I was never fond of it. That’s how I ended up being called Stacey. Stacey was the best nickname that anyone could come up with for Anastasia.
I was compelled to read that page, because it was about the time that Catherine’s troops conquered the Crimea. It had been late in the empress’ life when that had finally happened. It had been a goal of Russia for a long time, and she had been the one to finally make it happen. She’d managed to finish what Peter the Great had started so many years before. I smiled at the idea that maybe it took a woman to get the job done.
“Good morning!” Dr. Zemecki said as he entered the classroom with a messenger bag and a cup of Starbucks coffee. “I see we all found the room and the books. My apologies for using a textbook, but the material in this book is better than anything that I’ve found in digital sources. And, let’s be honest. History doesn’t change. Now, let’s see if everyone has made it. I think so looking around, but I’ll check.”
Dr. Zemecki rooted around in his bag for a minute while we all looked around the room at one another and got used to the view that we would be seeing for the next few weeks. Dr. Zemecki pulled a piece of paper out of his bag and looked at it.
“All righty then,” he began. “I hate doing roll calls, but I want to make sure I have the right people.” He put on glasses. “Abigail Archer of Florida State at Miami.”
Abigail answered and he continued down the list. It was a pretty big class of 22 people. Most of us were from the United States with some from India, UK, Australia, and New Zealand. We all came from English speaking countries. Apparently the fact that Tania and I spoke Russian didn’t matter at all. I sat and listened to all the names and where they all came from. It was a varied group, but all from out of the country. Still I had not met a single Russian.
“Tania Turin,” Dr. Zemecki called.
“Here,” Tania replied with a smile.
Dr. Zemecki smiled back at her, grinning from ear to ear. I definitely got the impression that he was interested in her. Wow, this could get weird.
“Catherine Zerbst,” Dr. Zemecki called.
“Here,” I said. I noticed Tania staring at me. “What?”
“I thought your name was Stacey.” Tania said.
“Anastasia is my middle name. That’s where Stacey comes from.”
“Catherine Anastasia Zerbst?”
“I know. I told you my family was Russia crazy.”
“I guess.” Tania went back to staring at Dr. Zemecki and shook her head.
I realized that Tania wasn’t the only one that perked up when they heard my name. There were a few students who turned around and looked at me. I hated my name. It was so dramatic and long. Throughout my life I had spent a lot of time wishing that my name had been Ann Marie or something else simple. I felt everyone’s eyes on me, or at least I thought I did. I didn’t want to look back at them staring at me, so I turned my attention back to the book.
I turned the page as I read about Catherine the Great and the Crimea. I was already hooked on this class. I was going to learn all about the people that my grandma had left out. I knew all about Brezhnev and Khrushchev and Stalin and Lenin and Gorbachev, but I didn’t know about the Tsars. This was going to be interesting.
There was a picture of Catherine the Great on page 187. It was as though I was meant to notice it. My hand landed right next to it as I turned the page. There it was. My ring was in the picture. Catherine the Great was wearing it. I stared at it for a moment. I compared the rings. It was small in the picture, but I was pretty sure it was the same. Why would my grandma have a ring that looked like one that belonged to Catherine the Great?
I didn’t think about what I was doing, but soon I realized that I had held my hand up and was looking at the ring. Then I looked back to the book. I did this a couple of times, wondering if there was some real connection or what. It had to be some fake that tourists bought. How else could my grandma have gotten it? The idea that it was a souvenir had occurred to me. That had to be it. They probably sold copies of the ring all over the country.
I realized that Dr. Zemecki had been talking the entire time that I was staring at the ring, and I had missed everything he said. Great, I would be behind already. I shook my head and looked at Dr. Zemecki to refocus and get into the class. When I looked up he was looking at me. It wasn’t the playful look that he kept shooting at Tania. It was a serious deep soulful stare and it was obviously meant for me. His gaze cut straight through to my soul and gave me a creepy shudder such as I had never felt before. With every word he uttered about the syllabus and tests, he remained locked on me. I was uncomfortable. Why was he staring at me?
Fortunately, class was almost over. I didn’t realize that I had spent so much time staring at that picture in the book and thinking about how much it looked like the ring on my finger. Dr. Zemecki dismissed the class. Tania and I packed up our backpacks and I nearly ran for the door with Tania right behind me.
Dr. Zemecki met us at the door. “Stacey, can I talk to you for a moment?”
I stuck the hand with the ring on it into my coat pocket. “Sure,” I replied warily. I just wanted to run and I wasn’t even sure why.
Tania stood with me.
“Tania, you can go if you like,” Dr. Zemecki said.
“Is it okay if she stays?” I asked.
Dr. Zemecki didn’t answer. He motioned to both of us to go back into the classroom. We did and he followed. He shut the door when we were all in the room.
“So, what’s up?” I asked, trying not to hyperventilate. He made me so nervous.
“Stacey, how much do you already know about the Tsars?” he asked me.
“Not much,” I replied. “My grandma always talked about the Soviets. She always wanted to teach me more about the Tsars, but she died before she had a chance I guess.”
“So, you’re really here to learn about them,” Dr. Zemecki said. “You don’t know about any of this.”
“Any of what?” I asked. “I’ve seen and heard some weird stuff since I got here. It’s only been one day.”
“What kind of weird stuff?” he asked.
“Like the protesters at the airport. The airport that we were diverted to because of protests.”
“So?” he asked.
“So, those signs weren’t protesting anything,” I said, starting to get upset. “They said, ‘Welcome to Russia.’ Why did they say that?”
“I see,” Dr. Zemecki replied. He sat and stared at us for a moment, but didn’t answer my question. “What did you see in the book? You were staring at it for most of the class.”
“Just some interesting material,” I replied.
“What’s on your hand?” he asked.
I didn’t want to show him. I was starting to get scared.
“Can we go now?” I asked.
“I’m not trying to scare you, Stacey. I want to help. Please, show me your hand.”
“I believe him,” Tania said to me. “Go ahead and show him.”
“Fine,” I groaned.
I pulled my hand out of my pocket and showed the ring to Dr. Zemecki. He studied it for a moment before he spoke.
Dr. Zemecki took my hand and examined the ring. “Dear God, the stories are true.”
“What stories?” Tania asked.
“Catherine the Great had a ring. It was a gift from her last boyfriend, Grigory Zubov. She handed it down to her family. It disappeared during the revolution,” he told us.
“So what?” I asked, getting more upset.
“No one ever told you about the ring?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
“No,” I replied.
“Just before Catherine the Great died, she made a formal decree, and it’s never been rescinded. The direct line family member who holds the ring is the Tsar of all Russia,” he explained.
“But all the direct line Romanovs are dead,” Tania said.
“There are a lot of people who don’t believe that,” Dr. Zemecki said. “Besides, how did Catherine Anastasia Zerbst end up with The Ring of the Queen?”
“I have to call my mom,” I said.
I didn’t wait for a reply from either one of them. I ran out of the room. What Dr. Zemecki was saying couldn’t be true. That was the single craziest thing I’d ever heard. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to Russia.
The Ring of the Queen
“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
I didn’t wait around for anyone to say anything else. Everything that I had just heard was ridiculous. The one thing that I learned on my own was that all the Tsars were dead. Nicholas II was executed along with his entire family in 1918 in Ekaterinburg, Russia. In the 1990s they had found their remains and had them moved to St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg and they were laid to rest with the rest of the Tsars. That was easy history. That was the part where the Soviets took over and that was where most of my grandma’s talk had started. I could not be a Romanov.
I walked outside to make my way back to our dorm room, and found that all the lights were on, it was snowing, and it was nearly dark. It was only 3 pm. January in Russia. I’d heard about the dark and the snow. I ran all the way to the dorm and made my way to our room. I hurried in and shut the door and locked it behind me.
I grabbed the satellite phone that my mother had made me bring and dialed. She answered on the first ring. “Hello, honey. I’m so glad you called,” she said. “How are you doing? Is everything all right? No one has tried to hurt you have they? Because if you’ve had any trouble, I’m going to make Dr. Al do something.”
All of a sudden, I was certain that she knew nothing about all of this. She couldn’t. She was worried about muggers and stuff. She couldn’t know anything about this ridiculousness that was the stories that I was hearing about the ring that I was wearing on my finger. Moms don’t keep things from you like that you’re a Tsar. Why had I even called? She was going to ask a thousand questions and run the battery down on the phone.
“Stacie, are you still there?” she asked after I hadn’t spoken for a while.
“Sorry, mom. I was thinking. What were you saying?”
“I was wondering how your trip was going. Did you start your class?”
“I started it today. I just got back to my room.”
“How was it?”
“It was a little weird.”
“What do you mean by weird?”
“I saw a picture of Catherine the Great in my textbook. It was a little weird.”
“What was weird?”
“She had on a ring that looked exactly like the one that grandma gave me.”
There was a pause. There was a definite pause. I wondered why. Why would there be a pause because I mentioned the ring?
“Isn’t that interesting,” she finally said.
“That’s not all,” I replied.
“My professor, Dr. Zemecki, says that there’s a legend about the ring.”
“Why don’t you just come home. You can book a flight and come on home. You don’t need to be dealing with wild stories and things like that. I told you this was a bad idea. Russia is not a good place to visit.”
“What the hell is it about this damn ring? Dr. Zemecki took one look at it and said, ‘The stories are true.’ What the hell is up with that?”
“What do you mean ‘he took one look at it?’ You don’t have that ring with you, do you? I told you to leave it at home.”
“Well, it’s too late to argue about it now. I brought the ring. I wanted to check out where it came from.”
“Stacie, I know that I’m overprotective, but you need to come home right now. You never should have taken that ring to Russia. You showed it to your teacher, so now he knows you have it. I can’t explain everything right now, but you are in danger. Please, come home right now before anything else happens.”
“What are you trying to say? Why would I be in danger?”
There was a knock at the door. I ignored my mom for a moment to answer it. It was Adji the Resident Assistant in my dorm.
“Hi, Stacie. Sorry to bother you, but I received a call from the office of the President. He is on his way over here to meet you, so don’t take off.”
“Why would the president of the school want to meet me?” I asked her.
“Not the President of the school. The President. President Kostov.”
“Hang on just a second,” I said to Adji. I spoke into the phone to my mom. “Why would the President of Russia want to meet me?” I asked her.
“Stacie, get out of there now!” my mom yelled.
“Why? I want to know why,” I said to my mom.
“I never wanted you to know,” she said, starting to cry.
“Are the legends true?” I asked. I couldn’t believe that the words were actually coming out of my mouth. “Is that ring crap real?”
“Stacie, you’re in a lot of danger,” mom said. “You are the person that isn’t supposed to exist. Now that your dad and Alex are gone, you are the next in line.”
Tania and Dr. Zemecki came into the room. Adji was still all excited about the President coming.
“Can you believe that President Kostov is coming here to meet Stacie? I didn’t know she was famous or anything,” Adji said.
“You’re kidding, right?” Dr. Zemecki said to Adji.
“No, someone from his office called and said that he’s on his way over here. He wants to meet Stacie,” Adji replied.
Dr. Zemecki looked at me. “It’s true. Is that your mom on the phone? What does she have to say about all this?”
“Stacie who is that talking?” mom asked. “Don’t tell him anything. Grab your things and get out of there! The President is on his way to see you, because he needs to get rid of you. You are the last. If he can get rid of you, or get that ring then the direct line of the Romanovs ceases to exist forever.”
“Stacie, are you all right?” Tania asked.
I felt a little weak and dizzy. “It’s true,” I said to her and Dr. Zemecki.
“Stacie, don’t say a word!” my mom screamed on the phone. “Come home now! Get out of there before it’s too late!”
I couldn’t talk to her anymore. I switched off the phone and almost fell onto the bed.
“Now what do I do?” I asked everyone.
“I’m no authority on the subject, but I have heard the stories,” Dr. Zemecki said. “I know a whole lot of people who believed the legends and want a Tsar back in power here. There are organizations that are looking for the last Romanov. There are groups looking for the owner of that ring. I can’t believe it’s all real. Some of my best friends are believers. I like them, but I always thought that they were nuts.”
“That’s nice, Dr. Steve,” Tania said. “Here’s the thing. Apparently, the President of the country is coming here. I would guess that he’s heard the stories too. I’m guessing that he knows who she is, because he has really good intel. I’m no expert either, but several members of her family just ended up dead last year. You don’t suppose that there’s a connection there do you?”
“What?” I exclaimed. “I never thought of that! Oh shit! This guy wouldn’t kill me, would he? He’s the President!”
“If the stuff I’ve read is true, you wouldn’t be the first person he’d had killed,” Tania replied.
“Dr. Zemecki, what’s going on?” I asked him.
“I don’t know, but I think that Tania has a point,” he said. “I think that we need to get you out of here. The idea that the President wants to meet the girl who apparently is the legal ruler of his country is a little unsettling. The idea that you’ve been here one day and he knows who you are and where to find you is frightening. Grab your things and let’s go. It won’t take him long to get here from his office. It’s not far.”
I started to pack my things quickly. Tania started to pack too.
“What are you doing?” I asked her.
“I’m going with you,” she replied.
“Why would you go with us?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
“I’m a moron,” Tania replied. “I’m stupid and foolish and I just can’t stay here when my friend might be in trouble. Now, let’s stop talking about it and get the hell out of here.”
“Tania, I’m responsible for your safety,” Dr. Zemecki objected.
“Then don’t let anything happen to me,” Tania snapped.
Tania and I each packed a backpack with basic essential items in them and we followed Dr. Zemecki out the door. Adji had gone to the desk to wait for the President. She would have to tell him that we hadn’t been there in the first place and would have to hope that the President of Russia believed her.
We said good bye to Adji and thanked her for helping us. We put on hats and gloves and headed out into the dark in the snow and the cold. As we walked through the door, I looked up and saw a line of black cars pulling up to the front of the building. I turned and ducked inside. Tania and Dr. Zemecki followed me.
“Back door,” Dr. Zemecki said to Adji.
“Down the hall, left at the end,” she replied.
We started down the hall toward the back exit.
“Hey, what about our passports?” Tania asked.
“No time for that now,” Dr. Zemecki said. “We’ll worry about that later.” He looked at me. “You have the ring on you, right?”
“Yes,” I replied.
I had a few belongings, a satellite phone, the ring, and the clothes on my back. I followed Dr. Zemecki and Tania out the back of the dorm and into the night of snow and cold. That was not how I imagined my first trip to Russia.
The Ring of the Queen
I’m not somebody that thinks about destiny and fate, but I don’t walk away from it when something unfolds.
Dr. Zemecki led us to the closest subway station. We were nearly downtown, so we were in one of the old stations that I’d read about in one of my grandma’s books. The escalator seemed long and descended into a tunnel. I didn’t know if it was long for a subway escalator, because I’d never been in a subway station before. The walls were covered with beautiful decorative tiles and the entrance and tunnel were lighted by beautiful crystal chandeliers and etched glass lamps. It was more gorgeous than I even imagined.
“Where are we going?” I asked Dr. Zemecki.
“I know a couple of guys at the GUM who study all this stuff,” he replied. “It’s not far.”
“Will the President know who they are?” Tania asked.
“I don’t know,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “My best friend is an authority on this stuff, but he’s out of town on business at the moment.” He pulled a smartphone out of his pocket. “Let me try him and see when he’s going to be back.”
“Hello, Peter?” Dr. Zemecki started. “It’s Steve. When are you planning to come back to Moscow?” There was a pause. “Well, I have a situation here.” Pause. “It’s a girl. Her name is Stacie, and she’s got the ring of the queen.” Pause. “I think so.” Pause. “You are? That’s great! We’ll meet you at my place as soon as we can.” He disconnected.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“Peter Godunov,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “His whole family has studied this stuff. We were in some classes together a couple of years ago, and we became good friends. I always thought he was a little nuts when he talked about all that stuff, but now I wonder. Meeting you could be the biggest thing that’s ever happened to him.”
“So, we’re going to your apartment?” Tania said.
I was pretty sure that Tania was just along because she thought that Dr. Zemecki was hot. And he was. He was probably the best looking college professor I’d ever seen. I hoped that Tania hadn’t gotten into this mess way over her head because of it however.
“I think I want to stop and have the boys look at it,” Dr. Zemecki said.
“The boys?” I asked.
“Andrei, Alyosha, and Mikhail. They run an Articoli in the GUM. They really know they’re stuff, and they’re into the ring of the queen. I thought I would have them check it out and make sure it’s real,” Dr. Zemecki explained.
“Lord, please let this thing be fake,” I muttered.
“Steve, what do we do if it’s real?” Tania asked.
“It can’t be,” I replied.
“I hope it’s not,” Dr. Zemecki said. “That could be a real mess.”
The subway train pulled in, and Dr. Zemecki motioned us to get on it. We had no idea where we were, so we blindly did as he said. I was beyond out of my element. I presumed that we were on a normal subway train, but how would I know? I was starting to think that my mom had a point when she said that I wasn’t ready for international travel, let alone Russia.
“How are you holding up?” Tania asked me.
“I don’t know what to think. I’ve never even been on a subway, much less anything else that’s going on,” I replied.
“Surely you’ve been on a subway,” Dr. Zemecki said.
I snapped a little. I was having a nervous breakdown over the whole thing. “Do you have any idea where I live? There’s cows and corn and airports that are nothing but grass for a runway. I live in the middle of nowhere. There are no subways or buses or jets or trains. We drive tractors sometimes. People wear plaid shirts and jeans. There are baseball caps everywhere you look and men in big old boots. I’m not used to anything like this.”
“The college that you come from is quite well known as an international school. I assumed that it was a more cosmopolitan city,” Dr. Zemecki said.
“It’s a town full of farmers and Amish people,” I answered.
“Well, this is an educational experience for sure,” Tania said.
The train stopped, and Dr. Zemecki got up to exit it, so we followed. I had no idea where we were. When we came up out of the depths of the subway station, we were in a mall. I didn’t know what to think. It looked like the standard shopping mall that I went to in Fort Wayne, only it had an amazing glass dome in the middle of it, and the whole place reminded me of a globe. The dome had a map of the world in glass. It was spectacular.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Dr. Zemecki was walking quickly through the mall. “It’s the Okhotny Ryad Mall. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
It was an expensive looking mall. There were a lot of high end stores and places to get phones and video games. I presumed that I couldn’t afford to shop at a single shop in the entire mall. I probably couldn’t even afford a video game in that place. We made our way past all the designer shops and electronic gadget shops and took an escalator up.
We exited the mall and the minute I walked out the door, I was looking at the National Museum and Resurrection Gate. I’d seen pictures of it in books and on the internet, but it was way more impressive in person. It was completely dark out now, and the whole area was lit up so bright that I thought that you had to be able to see it from space. Dr. Zemecki motioned us to follow him as he helped us cross the very large and busy boulevard that separated us from Red Square. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of cars zooming around Moscow in the dark. I knew that it was one of the largest and most populated cities in the world, but once again, seeing it for myself made it all real.
I started to follow Dr. Zemecki across the street with Tania behind me. I barely saw the car. It came out of nowhere and nearly hit me as I stepped off the curb. I froze and couldn’t breathe. I wasn’t used to all this crazy city stuff. Then I realized that not only had that car stopped, but so had a few others behind it. Then I realized that it was the convoy that had pulled up at the dormitory. It was the President. It was the exact person that I was running away from. Dr. Zemecki was on the other side of the street peering back at us. I wondered if the President knew what I looked like.
The car stopped and President Yuri Kostov got out. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I replied.
“The streets of my city can be quite dangerous,” he said. “Can I give you a lift?”
“No, that’s fine,” I said, feeling extremely nervous. “I’m just going to meet my guide. I’ll be fine.”
“Well then, my apologies. I did not mean to cause you any distress. I hope it will not ruin your trip to my fine country,” the President said.
“Not at all. Your country is beautiful and I am enjoying it immensely,” I replied.
“Are you from America?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, wanting to throw up.
“I am Yuri Kostov. I am the President of Russia,” he said, holding out his hand to shake mine.
I couldn’t tell him my name. He didn’t seem to recognize me, so I had to think of a name. “I’m honored to meet you, Mr. President,” I said. “I am Virginia Star.”
We shook hands. He looked at me as though he was evaluating me. I wondered if he knew who I was and wasn’t letting on. I wondered if there was any chance that he believed the ridiculous name that I made up. I could feel that I was holding my breath. I hoped he hadn’t noticed that.
“It’s lovely to meet you, Ms. Star,” he said. “I do hope that you enjoy your time in my country.” He handed me a business card with his phone numbers on it. “Do give me a call if there is anything that I can do to make you trip more enjoyable. Have a good evening.”
He didn’t do anything else. He got into his car and his whole posse took off. I was afraid to move. I stood, frozen by the side of the road for what seemed like forever. Then I looked up and saw both Dr. Zemecki and now Tania waiting on the other side of the street for me. They were yelling at me to get me to move. I shook my head to get myself back to reality, and then I ran across the street to where they were.
“What did he say?” Dr. Zemecki asked me.
“I don’t think he knew who I was. He apologized for nearly running me over and gave me his card. He offered me a ride too,” I said.
“We need to get you out of the public,” Dr. Zemecki said.
He took my arm and nearly pulled me with him. Tania was walking alongside me. I didn’t know where all of this was taking me, but I knew at that point that I had to find out.
The Ring of the Queen
The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and must therefore be treated with great caution.
-J. K. Rowling
We entered Red Square at the Resurrection Gate. As we walked through the gate, everything opened up in front of me, and I saw Red Square as a modern tourist and entertainment area. It was a far cry from the visions that I had of it from the Soviet stories that my grandma had told me. Instead of tanks and cannons being toted through the square by hundreds of troops, there was a giant Christmas Tree left over from the holiday, and an ice skating rink with lots of people skating around on it. Saint Basil’s Cathedral did stand at the far end of the Square, and Lenin’s Tomb was on my right directly against the wall of the Kremlin. The square was full of people milling about and there were Christmas lights all over the place. The atmosphere was festive, which was one thing that my grandma had never called Red Square. Off to my left was one of the biggest buildings that I’d ever seen. It looked almost like a giant palace, and it was all lit up with white lights. It was magnificent, and I wanted to go and see what it looked like inside.
I didn’t realize that I had stopped and was staring in shock at the surroundings. “Stacey, come on!” Tania yelled at me.
She was walking behind Dr. Zemecki toward the giant building of lights. They were standing, waiting for me to move, by the ice skating rink. I shook my head and walked quickly to where they were waiting.
“Sorry, it’s all so impressive. I dreamed of seeing all of this,” I told them.
“I’m so sorry that we couldn’t enjoy it more,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “I need to get you out of sight in case Kostov realizes who he was talking to a minute ago.” He motioned for me to follow him and Tania. “Come on.”
“Is that the GUM?” I asked him.
“Haven’t you ever seen pictures of it?” Tania asked.
“Not really,” I replied.
“Well, if you think you’re impressed now, just wait,” Dr. Zemecki said. “The inside is incredible.”
He was not joking. We entered the GUM through the entrance behind the skating rink, from Red Square. What opened up before me was something that I immediately wished I had looked at pictures of on the internet. The building was at least three stories straight up and it was like an old shopping mall. There were possibly hundreds of shops along the main walkways of the building, like an average mall, but the décor was the real show. It was old, early 1920’s. There was a glass cover over it as though it had not been a single building originally. There were railings all along the way of decorative wrought iron. There were grand stairs as well as modern escalators. It was like a museum that you went shopping in.
I was standing and staring again. “Stacey, come on!” Tania yelled at me. “You can be ADHD later. Right now you need to focus.”
I shook my head again and followed Dr. Zemecki and Tania. We went through a couple of throughways inside the GUM until we reached a beautiful fountain. I wanted to stop and check out the remains of a Christmas display, but I didn’t want to get yelled at again. I looked up past the fountain and saw the sign. Articoli. Then I smelled the perfume.
I sneezed. “Wow,” I said. The whole store smelled like a mass of perfume running together to make one overpowering foul stench.
“This place does make me want to sneeze and puke,” Dr. Zemecki said. “I hope that one of the guys is here so we can authenticate that ring.”
“No offense, but what would some perfume guys know about antique jewelry?” Tania asked.
“A shop in the GUM pays better than archaeology,” Dr. Zemecki said.
Tania and I followed Dr. Zemecki into the store. It was a big one. Most of the stores we had passed on the way had been small. I guessed that this was what we would call a hub in America. I couldn’t believe the smell. I was getting to the point where I had to get away from it or I was going to pass out.
“Aloshya, thank God you’re here. I need to talk to you in private,” Dr. Zemecki said to an extraordinarily tall man with curly black hair and what appeared to be black eyes. He was wearing a big wool sweater and corduroy pants. The colors were bland; brown and a deep purple.
Aloshya didn’t stop for a second. “Come with me to the back. I guess you do have something to discuss.”
We all followed the tall dark man in the dark clothes through a curtain that led to an office type area away from the sales floor. There were four desks in the room, all of them decorative and large and made out of dark hardwoods. There was a giant safe in the corner and many filing cabinets along the opposite wall. In the back of the room was a metal door that had an exit sign above it. I presumed it led to the outside somehow. In the maze that seemed to be the GUM, I wasn’t sure where the outside was from there. Aloshya reached behind the curtain and pulled out a door from what appeared to be absolutely nowhere and closed it.
“Are you telling me that you already know about this?” Dr. Zemecki asked him.
“Peter’s programmers hack into the President’s information all the time. He’s been watching her since the plane landed. I was hoping that nothing would come of it,” Aloshya said.
“Are you telling me this is all true?” I asked.
Aloshya looked at Dr. Zemecki. “She didn’t know?”
“No,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
“Hello, I’m Aloshya,” he said. He shook my hand and then Tania’s. “I’m sorry that we didn’t meet under more ideal circumstances.” He looked at Tania. “I don’t know you.”
“I’m Tania,” she said. “I’m Stacey’s friend.”
Aloshya looked at me. “You go by Stacey. Interesting. Was that your idea?”
I was feeling terribly uncomfortable. “No, my grandma called me that.”
“Did it ever occur to you that there was a reason for that?” Aloshya asked me.
“I’m sorry that you are learning about this in this way, however I think that it is time that you learned about your situation and learned why it is so difficult,” Aloshya said.
“She’s a kid,” Dr. Zemecki told him. “She’s not really ready for this. It’s something that no one would ever think about. Even I never believed you guys until now.”
“I guess we all are learning something today,” Aloshya said. He looked at me. “Stacey, you are a very special person. It’s not something that you can deny or avoid. You were born this way. Now, do you have the ring with you?”
I looked at Dr. Zemecki, not knowing what to do.
“We need to know if this thing is for real,” Dr. Zemecki said. “I think you should let him see the ring.”
“Okay,” I groaned.
I handed Aloshya the ring. He took it and got out a magnifying glass. He looked at it for several minutes. Each second that passed made me a little more uncomfortable. I could actually feel my life changing as the seconds ticked away on the clock on the wall. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run. I wanted this all to be a ridiculous miscalculation by a bunch of Russians who would grasp at any hope to get rid of a President that they didn’t like.
Aloshya looked up and handed me the ring back finally. “Well, I have bad news.”
“The ring is a fake?” I asked, hoping to God that it was. Then I could go back to school and act like none of this ever happened.
Aloshya’s face went stone serious. “I wish I could tell you that. The date is inscribed on the inside of the ring.”
“So?” Tania said.
“So, there are maybe half a dozen people in the world that know that,” Aloshya said. “The settings appear to be handmade, the gems are real, and the metal is old. This is the real deal. I would bet any amount of money on it. Isn’t that what they say in America?”
I took out my satellite phone and called my mom. She answered on the first ring. “Honey, I am so worried. Are you all right?”
“I’m not all right,” I said, starting to cry. “You should have told me! How could you keep something like this from me?”
“Honey, I’m sorry,” mom said. She was starting to cry too. “It’s not safe. We thought that if you didn’t know, you would be safer.”
“That’s stupid,” I said.
“I realize that now. Please, come home,” she said.
“I don’t even know if I can,” I replied. “The President is looking for me. I had to run from the dorm without my passport. I don’t know what we’re going to do. Tania came with me, so she’s in this mess too. There are people trying to help me, so hopefully they can figure something out. I wanted you to know that I’m all right. You may not hear from me for a while, so don’t go crazy. I’m mad, so don’t call me every five minutes. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, dear,” she said. “I won’t bother you. I am here if you need me. I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said. “I’m just angry. I’ll get over it, but give me some space. I’ll call again when I can.”
“You are so nice,” Tania said. “I would have ripped her head right off for not telling me that I was a Tsar.” She looked at the two men. “So, now what?”
“We need Peter,” Dr. Zemecki said.
“That sounds like a good idea,” Aloshya said.
“Why do we need this guy Peter?” I asked. “I think I’ve got enough people involved in this already.”
“He has connections,” Aloshya said. “He may be the only one that can get you out of town.”
“Great, then where do we find Peter?” I asked.
“At my apartment in a couple of hours,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
The Ring of the Queen
There are always going to be ridiculous rumours.
– Kim Kardashian
Aloshya closed the store so that we could all leave together. There were people there working who wondered what on Earth was going on, but he didn’t seem to be a bit concerned about it. He explained to them that it was an emergency, and that was all that he was going to say.
I didn’t know what to think, which was becoming my normal mode at this point. The one thing that I couldn’t understand was how did everyone seem to know more about this than me? I also wondered how Aloshya seemed to know about me and he also seemed to know that the President was looking for me. How did he know that? I was beginning to think that I was being lied to by someone. I wasn’t sure who, but it seemed to me that one of these guys was playing me and Tania. For all I knew maybe they both were.
We went to where Aloshya had his vehicle parked and climbed into a four-wheel drive thing that looked something like an SUV. It was enormous and looked menacing to say the least. It was black and had a grill on it that looked like it could take out a bear if it got in the way. The further into this misadventure I got, the more uncomfortable I got. I couldn’t exactly explain it, but I felt like I was being kidnapped, and I didn’t realize it.
“Where are we going again?” I asked.
“My apartment,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
I leaned over to Tania. “Does this seem the slightest bit wrong to you?”
“What do you mean?” she replied. “They are trying to help you. Do you realize what kind of trouble we’re in here?”
“I know that I’m the bumpkin here, but how do we know we can trust these guys?” I whispered to her. “How did this Aloshya guy know that the President was looking for me?”
Tania simply stared at me for a moment. “I don’t know. I never thought about that.”
“We don’t know where we’re going. We don’t know if the President has anything to do with anything. These guys could be crazy. We don’t know,” I persisted.
“What’s bothering you?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
“All the unknowns,” I said.
“Stacey!” Tania exclaimed, swatting me on my shoulder.
“Sorry, but it had to be said,” I replied. “How do we know that the two of you aren’t just a couple of nuts?”
“You don’t,” Aloshya answered.
“Exactly. You could be a couple of serial killers for all we know. Now, how did Aloshya know that the President was looking for us?” I asked.
“My cousin works for him,” Aloshya said. “He is part of his personal security detail.”
“Does your cousin have a name?” I asked.
“Sergei,” he replied. “He was part of the FSB, and was chosen for the detail two years ago when the last man in that position had to leave, because he had lung cancer.”
“I see,” I said, not knowing where to take my inquiry from there.
“See?” Tania said. “Now, will you quit worrying.”
“She is smart,” Aloshya said. “Stacey, do not let anyone tell you to quit worrying. Worrying means you are cautious and smart. You are a stranger in a strange land in a very unusual situation. You shouldn’t trust anyone. I would think that you were extraordinarily naïve if you blindly followed perfect strangers in Moscow. Ask a thousand questions. Ask a million questions. Be sure you have all the answers you need. I won’t be offended.”
“See,” I said to Tania. “All right, Aloshya, how did you find out so quickly from your cousin? And, why was he telling you?”
“Articoli is sort of what you would call a front in America. I make contact with literally thousands of people that belong to the Tsarist Movement here in Moscow and the surrounding areas. I am, what do you call it, a go between. So, I get direct information from my cousin and share it with the others in the movement. So, when the President started looking for you, Sergei texted me.”
“Now, that makes sense,” I said. “So, Dr. Zemecki, where is your apartment? And why are we going there?”
“My apartment is on old Arbat Street,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “I sublet it from Peter, the man I told you about. Peter stays there in the spare room when he’s in town, and I get it for a great price. I didn’t want to get anything too permanent, because I don’t know how long I will be living in Moscow. Peter will meet us there as soon as he can. He has connections that can help you.”
“How far is Arbat Street?” I asked.
The vehicle pulled into a parking lot behind some old looking buildings on a dimly lit street.
“We’re here,” Dr. Zemecki said.
We climbed out of the vehicle and went through the back entrance of a building. The parking lot was dark like a closet. I could see a glow coming from the front of the building that indicated to me that the front of the building was well illuminated. I wondered what was happening on the other side of the building.
“I’ve heard of Arbat Street. This isn’t how I imagined it,” I said.
“This is the back of the building. The front of the building is Arbat Street,” Dr. Zemecki said.
I looked up and could see the giant building at the University. We were still very close to the school. I felt uncomfortable again. I thought the idea was to get away. It seemed as though we were going in circles, but not getting any further away. If the President really was looking for me, he wouldn’t have far to go. I wanted more distance between me and Yuri Kostov if he was looking for me.
Tania and I followed Dr. Zemecki and Aloshya into the building. The minute we walked in, I saw a hallway that led all the way through the building and had glass doors leading out into the street on the opposite side. It didn’t look like an apartment building.
“This doesn’t look right,” I said. “This looks like an office building, not an apartment building.”
Aloshya smiled at Dr. Zemecki. “I like her. She’s quick. She has potential.”
“The apartments are upstairs. There are shops on the first floor,” Dr. Zemecki told me.
Dr. Zemecki led us around a corner to an elevator. We went to the second floor and got off. We walked through a couple of connected hallways until we got to his apartment. It was in the front of the building, so when we all walked in the door, there was light coming from Arbat Street.
When Dr. Zemecki turned on the light, the single light, what I saw surprised me. It looked more juvenile than the dorm room that Tania and I were sharing at the university. There were bean bag chairs, crates for small tables, a stack of crates for a TV stand. There was a cheap floor lamp in the corner of the living room, and it was the only light there. The curtains were basically some rags of material barely covering the windows. The kitchen was merely a kitchenette, and it was old looking and not very clean in appearance. I’d heard of bachelor pads, but the place looked like a real shit hole.
“This place matches your van,” Tania said.
“I sleep here. That’s about it,” Dr. Zemecki replied. “I don’t have guests often.”
“Imagine that,” I said. “Are you sure you aren’t serial killers? This is how I always pictured Son of Sam living.”
“Look, you don’t have to trust me,” Dr. Zemecki said, sounding annoyed. “You are perfectly free to leave and figure all this out on your own. I was just trying to help.” With that, he opened the door and gestured the option for us to leave.’
“Fine, I will. Tania, let’s go,” I said. I walked to the door.
Tania walked over to the door where I was standing. “Are you sure about this? I think we should wait for this guy, Peter and see if he can help us. We don’t have our passports or anything.”
“And maybe we don’t have a problem,” I pointed out. “These guys say that the President is looking for me, because he wants to rub me out to keep me from taking over his country. Doesn’t that sound just a tad bit bonkers to you? Maybe he was coming to the campus to welcome students from other countries to his country. Has that occurred to you? It’s not like he recognized me when he nearly ran me over on the street. This bullshit could all be a simple case of a bunch of lunatics and a huge case of paranoia.”
“I don’t know,” Tania replied.
“I’m leaving. I can see the university from here. I’m going back to my room, and I’m continuing my trip,” I said. “I’ve had enough of this nonsense.”
Tania looked at the two men standing in the horrible apartment. “I should go with her. We came here together, and we should stick together. But, thank you for all you’ve done.”
“You can’t let them leave,” Aloshya said as we were walking out the door.
“I can’t stop them,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
“Are you sure about this?” Tania asked me as we walked to the elevator.
“Are you really ready to believe every word you hear come out of that man just because he’s cute?” I asked her.
“It’s not because he’s cute,” Tania replied.
“Call it a hunch. A lot of strange things have already happened since we got here. Every time something happens, it’s weirder than the last thing. I think something is going on, and since I have no idea what it is or what to do about it, I thought I would listen to someone who seemed to know something. Is that so wrong?”
“No, but this is all wrong. I have to get out of here. Maybe I’ll decide to come back and trust them eventually, but this seems crazy right now.”
I left the elevator, and headed toward the back of the building. Tania stopped me.
“Let’s at least go out the front of the building. Arbat Street is a pedestrian street according to the things I read. It’s well-lit too. It’s got to be safer than roaming around in the dark.”
“You have a point there,” I said, turning to go out the front of the building. “Let’s head out this way and make our way back to the dorm. I need to call my mom again. She has some explaining to do.”
The Ring of the Queen
You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don’t feel like you can trust anybody or talk to anybody, you feel like you’re really alone.
I wasn’t sure if I’d made a good decision in leaving Dr. Zemecki or not, but I couldn’t help feeling as though I had been abducted. I had no idea why it felt right to leave, but it did. I had it in my head that the whole thing was the equivalent of a really bad dream and that all I had to do was make my way back to reality and it would all go away and everything would be fine. That’s what the voices in my head were saying and that’s what I was going with.
When we walked out the door and into Arbat Street, I suddenly had the feeling that I had stepped back in time. I guessed that there was a reason they called it Old Arbat Street. The buildings were mostly from the pre Soviet era with the yellow or blue facades that had iron railings around tiny credenzas that hung over the sidewalks. It was a throwback to the time of the Tsars, and it was the part of Russia that I most wanted to see. I would rather have seen it under different circumstances.
“This is beautiful,” Tania said as she looked around the same way that I imagined I was doing.
“I wish that I could enjoy it, because it is breathtaking,” I replied.
“Well, we wanted to see Moscow.”
“Why couldn’t it have been just a trip?” I asked. “Why did all of this have to happen? It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, and it’s happening to me.”
“Maybe everyone around us is nuts. I think Steve is a total hottie, but I’m starting to wonder if he’s got both oars in the water. Right now, I want to run away and go home. I wish I didn’t want to run away, but I do. This is all too surreal for me. Do you know what I mean?”
I stood looking at the street. There weren’t many vendors around at that hour, but there was one man left a short way up the street with a table full of Kolkova out for sale. I loved the flower patterns painted onto the wooden dishes, spoons, trays, glasses and so on. It was the painting that made them seem exotic and mysterious like Russia itself. I should have enjoyed seeing Russian collectibles out for sale on the street, but I was so overwhelmed by all that I’d been through that it made me cry. I couldn’t help myself. I was overwhelmed and in the middle of the extreme cold which was suddenly coupled with a snow shower, I sat down on the edge of the street and started to cry.
Tania sat down beside me. “We’re going to be all right,” she said. “We can figure all of this out. We just need to get somewhere and come up with a plan for what to do next.”
“I know,” I sobbed. “It’s a lot.”
“I get that. But, it’s snowing, and I think we should find a place to get in out of it so we can decide what to do. I want to go back to the dorm, but I’m starting to think that we should find the American Consulate. What do you think?”
“It couldn’t hurt. Maybe someone there would know what the hell is going on with all this ring nonsense. Maybe they could even send us home.”
“I wish we had our passports.”
“Maybe someone at the Consulate could go over and get them.” I pointed at the university building sticking up between the buildings in the not so far off distance. “It’s not like it’s far.”
“It looks so close, but I’m so lost and the streets make no sense. I’m looking right at it, and it seems a million miles away,” Tania said.
“This place is so twisted geographically that it feels like a house of mirrors,” I replied.
Then I heard a sound. It was music. It wasn’t only music; it was American music. It was “Bad Medicine” by Bon Jovi. I loved old hair band music, and I recognized it immediately. I didn’t know where it was coming from, but I knew it was to my right down the street. I wondered if it could be the Hard Rock Café that I’d heard so much about. I knew that it was in the neighborhood somewhere, but wasn’t sure of the exact location. I thought that it should be a safe place to go. It was one of those spots that American tourists must gravitate to. Maybe, if we were lucky, there might even be someone there that could help us get to the American Consulate.
“Do you hear that?” I asked Tania.
“What?” she replied.
“I hear Bon Jovi music. It’s down there somewhere.” I pointed down the street to my right. “Surely there are Americans at the Hard Rock Café. I bet that’s what I’m hearing.”
Tania strained for a moment and then smiled. “I hear it now. Let’s go.”
We made our way past the man with his Kolkova. He looked cold and a little tired standing in the street directly in front of the building where Dr. Zemecki lived. He had on a thick wool coat and an Ushanka (Russian fur hat) on his head. His gloves were so thick that I wondered if he could feel anything through them at all. I’d seen a lot of such outerwear since I’d landed in Russia. It was the way there. It got brutally cold in the winter time and almost everyone dressed for the weather. It was too cold not to.
As we made our way down the street, the music got louder. I was certain that I was right about the American restaurant that had gone a little rogue and landed in the middle of Moscow. Finally, the canopies that adorned the yellow building, caught my eye. It was the Hard Rock Café, and I was sure that inside I would find some help from a stranger that was also like minded, because they were American. It’s amazing how little you feel you have in common with people just because you come from the same country; then in one moment, you feel as though you should all be best of friends. It’s strange that we feel that way when we’re in danger, since there are 300 million people in America and we don’t all know each other. It’s simply that sometimes all you want is to have something in common with someone in a foreign land where everyone seems to be a completely insane conspiracy theorist.
“Have I mentioned that you’re a genius?” Tania asked me as she nearly ran for the restaurant with me right alongside her.
“No,” I replied.
“I’ve never been so happy to see the Hard Rock. In Boston, we wouldn’t be caught dead in one. It’s for tourists.”
“Well, here you’re a tourist.”
“I’ll pass on that one too. I just want to get the hell out of here. I hope someone in there can help us get out of this crazy country.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. I wanted to run screaming from Russia. The problem is that the concept of running from Russia was breaking my heart. I’d dreamt my whole life of going there, and now that I was there, it seemed as though the whole country was nuts. It was heartbreaking that the place wasn’t the coolest place on Earth which was always how I had imagined it.
We made our way to the entrance. There were no lines waiting to get in. I had heard that there normally were lines to get in a Hard Rock Café. I thought that maybe it was because of the weather which was getting worse every minute. The snow was coming down rather heavily at that point. I hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse. That was just what I needed; for a blizzard to come and make it so that we couldn’t leave and go home.
Tania and I walked into the Hard Rock Café together. Tania took a quick look around the room. “This is a Hard Rock Café all right,” she said. “They all look alike.”
I’d never been in a Hard Rock Café, so I didn’t know what they were supposed to look like, but my gaze was distracted anyway. I wasn’t noticing the items on the walls or the décor. I was noticing that no one in the whole restaurant was dressed like an American. They were all wearing garb that I was quickly learning to equate with Russians. I realized almost immediately that these people were locals, not tourists. We had run away from Russian people and run straight to more Russian people.
“Oh dear God, look,” Tania said, pointing to a TV screen.
I looked at the television that she was pointing to. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was my picture on what looked like the news.
I listened to the reporter talk. “If you have seen this woman, remember that she is delusional, possibly psychotic, and may even be armed. Do not approach her. Call your local police or emergency number if you see her. Once again, this American woman is in Moscow, and she is claiming to be Russian royalty. This is a hoax, and it could be a very dangerous one. Do not take any chances. Any information that you have will be helpful in detaining this woman and sending her back to America. Thank you for your help, and your country and President Kostov thanks you.”
“This is a nightmare,” I muttered to Tania.
I realized that everyone in the restaurant had heard that report and that most of the people had noticed me and were staring at me. I didn’t know what to do. I felt as though I should call the police myself and save everyone the trouble. I didn’t know how to get back to a building that I could see over the buildings from the street. I had no chance of running from the police in this place.
There was a man approaching me. “Hello,” he said. “I am Peter.”
He shook my hand. I didn’t know if it was the situation, or the atmosphere, or the fact that I was losing my mind; but something happened. It sounds hokey and stupid, but our eyes met, and something came over me. When his hand touched mine, I wasn’t scared as much. He calmed me instantly, and I had no idea who he was. I was untrusting and skeptical of everything in my life since I’d discovered that Virgil was gay. This was the first time that I’d felt unwary of a stranger since then.
“Hi, I’m Stacey,” I said, shaking his hand.
He wasn’t gorgeous or muscular, but he was tall and had eyes that a girl could get lost in. I figured it was just me, and I wasn’t sure why I was having those thoughts, but there they were. He had dark hair, brown eyes, and dimples. He looked to be around 25, and he was smiling at me.
He motioned to the TV. “I got that part,” he said.
“Yes, that was a surprise,” I said. “This is Tania.” I motioned to Tania. “As you can probably guess, we’re not having a good day.”
“I can see that,” Peter replied. “So, how can I help you?”
“I think we need to get to a consulate,” I answered him.
“The Moscow American Consulate is closed,” he said.
“What?” Tania asked.
“They were having structural issues so they closed it for renovations. The current operational Consulate is in St. Petersburg.”
“Are You kidding?” I asked. “A lot of good that will do us.”
“Why don’t we start by getting you out of here,” Peter suggested. “These folks are all friends of mine, but you never know when some crazy person may wander in off the street. I have an apartment near here.”
“What do you think?” I asked Tania.
“I don’t know anymore,” she replied.
I made a decision on the spot. I couldn’t help but trust this man. I was sure that I would regret it, but my mind was telling me that he was trustworthy. “Okay, we’ll go with you, but you’d better not be turning us in.”
We followed him out into the night and what was becoming a pretty bad snowstorm. He walked back in the direction that we’d come from. I couldn’t believe it when he motioned us to enter with him into the very building that we had left behind.
“You have an apartment in here?” I asked.
“Let me guess, Steve Zemecki is a friend of yours,” Tania said, dripping with sarcasm.
“Yes,” Peter said. “He rents the apartment from me.”
“Great,” Tania moaned. “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
The Ring of the Queen
Is it worse to be scared than to be bored, that is the question.
I didn’t know what to say when we walked back into the apartment. Dr. Zemecki and the guys were sitting, facing the door when Peter walked in followed by Tania and I. Dr. Zemecki was smiling, and the others were trying not to laugh.
“Look what you found,” Dr. Zemecki said to one of us. I wasn’t sure whom.
“I will never get over the Americans’ fascination with the Hard Rock Café,” Peter replied.
“We were on our way back to the university,” I said.
“Whatever,” Peter replied. “Did you see the news?” he asked Dr. Zemecki.
“No, why?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
“Apparently, Stacey is some kind of enemy of the state, according to the President,” Tania answered.
“I was afraid of that. We need to get her out of town,” Dr. Zemecki said.
“I know. We need to get them to the consulate so they can ask for asylum and go home,” Peter replied.
“The nearest open American consulate is in St. Petersburg, yes?” Aloshya asked.
“As far as I am aware,” Peter said. “Steve, why don’t you grab your phone and check on that.”
Dr. Zemecki didn’t even reply. He pulled out his phone and started to find the answer to the question.
“Why aren’t you looking it up?” Tania asked.
“It is a long story, but my phone is constantly monitored by the government here. Regardless of how many times I change phones or numbers, they follow,” Peter explained.
“What did you do?” Tania asked him.
“I told you, it’s a long story,” Peter replied.
“The closest consulate is in St. Petersburg,” Dr. Zemecki confirmed.
Peter motioned for Dr. Zemecki to hand him the phone. Dr. Zemecki did as Peter asked. Peter started to do something with the phone. Several minutes later, Peter handed the phone back to Dr. Zemecki. He walked into the kitchen and didn’t say a thing.
I didn’t know what to think. I looked at Tania, who looked back at me as blankly as I must have been looking at her. “What are we going to do?” I asked her.
“I have no idea,” she replied. “Steve, what’s the plan?” she asked Dr. Zemecki.
“We have to get you to St. Petersburg,” Peter answered as he returned from the kitchen. “Aloshya, do you still have that ridiculous SUV?”
“Yes, why?” Aloshya answered.
“It won’t be long before Kostov realizes that the two students in Steve’s class are with Steve. I think we should go to the house, and it’s snowing massively hard outside. We need your car. My car will not get there tonight.”
“What house?” I asked.
“I live in Dubna,” Peter replied. “I think we should go there for the night. Tomorrow we can go to the train station in Tver and get you to St. Petersburg from there. Is that acceptable?”
“Do I really have a choice?” I asked.
“You can stay here, but Kostov is very close in this town. I recommend that we get you much farther away from him,” Peter said.
“Farther away sounds good,” Tania concurred.
“Okay, let’s get going,” I gave in.
Peter turned to Aloshya. “Keys?” he asked with his hand out.
Then, I heard a noise. It sounded like a highway outside. I looked out the window and saw nothing. The idea that I could see nothing to go along with the noise scared me even more. The street below was empty and the only thing in it was the gathering snow. I noticed that the vendor that had been in front of the building when we left was gone as well, leaving the street entirely vacant.
“What’s that noise?” I asked. “It sounds like a whole bunch of cars, but there isn’t a thing going on out there.”
“Steve, check out the back,” Peter said with a stern tone that sounded like my grandma when I got a bad grade or didn’t listen to something she told me to do.
Dr. Zemecki nearly ran out the front door. I didn’t understand what was going on, and that was scaring the hell out of me. Tania and I sat and watched each other mostly. Neither one of us knew what to do, so we sat still. It was only a minute or so before Dr. Zemecki came back into the apartment, nearly running.
“Kostov and all of his flunkies are here,” he announced. “We need to get them out of here now.”
Peter thought for a brief moment. He tossed the keys to the truck back to Aloshya. “You go and get the truck. We will go on the Metro. Meet us at Komsomolskaya. We can leave the city from there.” He turned to me. “We have to go out the front now, before they block that entrance.”
Nobody questioned Peter. We all did as we were told like well-behaved school children. As we exited the apartment, I could hear the old elevator coming up from the first floor. Peter led us down the stairs at the end of the hall. We made our way out the front door and nearly ran down the street. We made it to the subway station quickly. I was just beginning to realize how extensive and convenient the subway was in Moscow. I was wondering why anyone bothered to drive in that city, given that the traffic was terrible.
I hoped that Aloshya had gotten away without incident. I was starting to feel like I was in the middle of a thriller story. I was starting to think that at any moment, Matt Damon would pop out from around a corner and say, “You need to come with me, or you will die.” Then I realized that I had seen too many of the Bourne movies.
The subway station was the others we’d been on. The entrance, the station, and even the platforms were elegant and artistic with painted tiles and statues along the way. Moscow was such a beautiful city, with so much history and art to enjoy. It was a real tragedy that I wasn’t able to do any of that. I was starting to be very angry with my mother about all the things that she should have told me.
She could have told me something. My grandma should have told me too. I should have known about the family connection to the Russian throne. That’s the kind of thing that’s important to know about one’s family tree. My entire life I was around all of my family and no one had ever mentioned that I was a direct descendant of Catherine the Great or Nicholas II. I couldn’t believe that my entire family had deemed that it was something that wasn’t worth talking about.
I blindly followed Dr. Zemecki and Peter. Tania followed along with me. We didn’t know at that point where we were or where we were headed. I was behaving like some lost girl who had just joined up with a cult. I was really starting to get tired, however, and I didn’t want to think anymore. I didn’t want to know anything. I didn’t want to think about anything. I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to go to sleep and pray that when I woke up it would all be a seriously bad dream.
Peter was in charge. Even Dr. Zemecki was following all of his leads. Peter paid for the subway and led us to the proper platform. We followed him onto and off of trains. We followed him through connecting stations as we switched from line to line. Finally, we followed him up to the street.
Aloshya was waiting in his SUV which was covered with snow right next to the exit from the station. I wasn’t sure why, but everyone seemed to do what Peter told them too. I wondered what made him the leader and why everyone let him call all the shots. I presumed at that point that it wasn’t something to discuss until a later time. I was curious about it, however.
Peter handed Aloshya a card for the subway. “Keys,” he said.
“Shouldn’t I go with you?” Aloshya asked.
“You should get on the metro and go back to the store. Kostov won’t be suspicious of your involvement that way,” Peter told him.
Aloshya handed him the keys and took the card. “Good luck to you all,” he said. Then he entered the subway station and was gone.
Peter motioned us to get into the monster SUV. The SUV was a four-wheel drive with a lift kit that made it high enough that I had to climb to get into it. It was black which was good. It was a boring color that didn’t stand out in the crowd. With the lift kit, it was conspicuous enough as it was.
Peter started the car and headed for Dubna where he felt that we would be safe. I hoped that he was right. I hoped that he could drive in the white out conditions that the snow was causing. I hoped that the roads were in good enough shape that we could make it to Dubna. I hoped that he knew where he was going. I had no idea where Dubna was.
The Ring of the Queen
Have you ever been hurt and the place tries to heal a bit, and you just pull the scar off of it over and over again.
“How far is it to Dubna?” I asked.
“Just a few kilometers,” Peter answered. “That’s where I actually live. My apologies, it may take some time in this weather.”
“I guess it’s just another part of the adventure,” I replied, sarcastically.
“I am sure this is not what you envisioned when you signed up for a class in Russia,” Peter said.
He couldn’t have been more right. I didn’t know what to expect from a class in Moscow, but I was absolutely certain that I hadn’t envisioned finding out I was a Tsar. That was as far from my mind as becoming a rock star was. I wanted to get my mind off of the whole mess for just one minute, but I couldn’t. It was overwhelming, and I wasn’t sure where the whole thing was going.
The snow was relentless. It was white out conditions the entire way to Dubna. I was impressed that Peter could tell where he was going. I assumed that since he lived there he probably knew his way extremely well. I’d read that the towns that were close to Moscow were populated by people who spent a great deal of time in Moscow, or lived in Moscow and worked in the outlying city. Either way, commuters seem to instinctively know the way home.
An hour went by in the driving snow. The car, even though it was high and four wheel drive, was having a tough time in the snow. I wasn’t sure how much snow had accumulated in such a short time, but it seemed like a lot. As I looked out the window, it seemed that there was no way to tell the difference between road and not road. It was all a level plain of fresh snow. Where I came from that meant it was time to get out the snow machines.
There were houses, or dachas. I wasn’t sure what the difference was between a house and a dacha, but I’d heard the term dacha many times describing dwellings in the Russian countryside. After what seemed like forever, Peter drove up to the front of an enormous mansion. It was covered with snow, but I could tell that it was magnificent. It looked like a large bed and breakfast, but not Victorian like most of them in the states. It was modern and looked like a work of art. It was based on a farmhouse style, but it was so much more. It had gables and a steep pitched roof. There were sections of decorative wood work all along the roof and the wrap around porch. There were several chimneys poking out of the roof. The front doors were etched glass and huge and double. I immediately became nervous. Apparently, Peter was rich.
“Wow, this is your place?” I asked Peter.
“Holy cow, this place is huge,” Tania said.
“It’s a family dacha,” Peter said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“That means he lives with his grandmother,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
“Your grandmother?” I asked.
“Her choice. She doesn’t even like the idea of me staying in the city,” Peter explained. “She’s a little over protective. That’s the American term for it, correct?”
I couldn’t help but smile. She immediately made me think of my mom by his description. “Yes, I believe that’s the American term,” I replied. “I have a mother like that.”
“I empathize,” Peter said.
He pulled up to the side of the house. Even the giant SUV was dwarfed by the enormous dacha. I was very impressed. Peter turned the car off, but did not open the door.
“I hate to ask this of everyone, but we need to be quiet. I try not to wake my grandmother,” Peter explained.
“You mean, you’re scared to wake her,” Dr. Zemecki commented.
“No,” Peter objected.
“Do you mean to tell me that Tish is going to welcome two American girls on the run, because one of them is a Tsar?” Dr. Zemecki asked. “I can’t imagine that one going over well at all.” He looked at us. “You should tread very lightly here, girls. His grandmother does not care for anyone that believes in or supports the Tsarist movement. She is vehemently against her grandson being involved in any of that nonsense.”
“Steve, you do realize that it officially is not nonsense,” Peter said. “That should change her mind, don’t you think?”
“I’ve known your grandmother for about five years now, and one thing that I’ve never seen is her change her mind. Tish is a tough cookie, and she’s not going to like this,” Dr. Zemecki said. “We need to be realistic on this, and behave accordingly. Now, my suggestion is that we sneak into the house and hope that she doesn’t find out what’s going on until after we’ve left in the morning.”
“Sounds like a welcoming woman who loves guests and meeting people from other parts of the world,” Tania said, sarcastically.
“It is not like that,” Peter objected. “She has had some bad things happen because of the Tsarist movement. I cannot blame her for how she feels about the topic.”
“What kind of bad things?” Tania asked.
“I do not wish to discuss it at this time. Shall we go inside before we get too cold sitting in this ridiculous car?” Peter asked.
It was obvious that whatever had happened in his family that Peter had been affected by the “bad things” as well. I decided that I wouldn’t pursue the subject at that time. I was just realizing how late it was. It had been dark for so long that it was difficult to get a grip on exactly what time of the night it was. I looked at my satellite phone and it said that it was after midnight at that point. I was out of sorts with time anyway what with flying halfway around the world, but the darkness was not helping.
Peter opened the door and Dr. Zemecki opened his door. The two men climbed to the ground and helped us climb down after them. When I hit the ground, I realized that the snow was at least three feet deep. I presumed that it wasn’t all from the current snow storm, but there was a little voice in the back of my mind that insisted that it was.
“Is all of this snow from this storm?” I asked.
“Do not be ridiculous,” Peter said. “It’s been snowing for a couple of months. It has been a light snow year.”
I was covered with snow, and I’d only gone about five feet. I was pretty sure that the storm was bringing a whole lot of snow with it. I wondered how long it was supposed to last and how much snow was supposed to fall.
Dr. Zemecki, Tania, and I followed Peter into the house. He kept putting his finger to his mouth to remind us to be quiet, as though we would forget. The entryway was beautiful. There was the head of a moose mounted on the wall as we entered that completely distracted my attention. The walls were wood, like a hunting lodge, except for the crystal chandelier that hung above our heads. In front of us was a winding staircase that was as elegant as a southern plantation’s. On either side of us were doorways leading to other parts of the house. The tile on the floor beneath out feet was some kind of beautiful slate blue stone. I was intimidated by the house and the elegance that was oozing from every nook and cranny except for the moose head.
“Why do you have a moose head?” I whispered to Peter.
“It’s a trophy, in Russia we call them Elk,” came a voice from the stairway. “Peter, who are these girls and why are you sneaking into the house in the middle of the night with them and Stephen?” It was Peter’s grandmother.
“Tish, this is Stacey and Tania,” Peter said to his grandmother. “They are visiting from America. They wanted to see the countryside.”
Tish didn’t reply to Peter. She looked at Dr. Zemecki. “Stephen, I expect my grandson to be involved in things like this, but really. I would not expect to see you involved in such nonsense.”
“They’re students of mine,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
She finished descending the staircase and came to the foyer where we were all standing and walked to me. She put out her hand to shake mine, and I obliged. I was immediately frightened of the woman, although there was no physical reason for my apprehension. She was a five-foot-tall elderly woman with grey and brown hair, blue eyes, wrinkles around her eyes, and a small frame. She looked like she should have been in the kitchen baking cookies. Instead, she was in the entryway intimidating me.
“Elizabeth Zinkov,” she said as she shook my hand. “I have seen you on television.”
“It’s lovely to meet you,” I stammered. “I am sorry that there are such strange circumstances going on around me. I haven’t done anything. I just came to Russia to take a class.”
Elizabeth stared at me for a moment. “Can I see the ring?”
I held up my hand and showed her the ring. I had given up on the idea of keeping it hidden, since it seemed that everyone in Russia knew about it. She examined it closely.
“I thought it was nothing but a myth,” she said. She looked at Peter. “I suppose we should help her.” She walked off into the house.
“That went better than I expected,” Peter said as he followed his grandmother into the house.
We all followed along.
“Why is she so upset?” I whispered to Peter.
“She lost my parents to the Tsarist movement,” Peter replied.
Suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was a reminder of potentially the worst thing that had ever happened to this woman. I could tell that it was going to be difficult to be in that house.
The Ring of the Queen
The worst guilt is to accept an unearned guilt.
We all followed Peter’s grandma, Tish, to the kitchen through an elegant living room that was a cross between the Vanderbilt gilded age mansions and a hunting lodge. It was wood décor with rustic accents, but elegant with fine crystal lamps and an enormous decorated fireplace. The kitchen was the largest kitchen I had ever seen, and all of the appliances were stainless steel and the whole room looked like the kitchen of a restaurant; a really big restaurant. The only thing that didn’t directly remind me of a restaurant was the small breakfast nook off to the side in what appeared to be the back of the house. Grandma Elizabeth, or whatever I was supposed to call her, went to the table and directed us to sit down as well.
“Girls, I don’t wish to give you the impression that I am a cruel old woman, but I am going to be blunt in order to get the information that I need to begin to feel more comfortable with this situation,” Tish said. “I hope you don’t think me an angry old woman.”
“We don’t know you, so we shouldn’t judge,” Tania replied.
“True,” I agreed.
Tish looked at us for a moment and then turned to the men in the group. “Why are they not at a consulate?”
“The one in Moscow has been closed,” Dr. Zemecki answered.
“Am I to understand that Kostov is trying to create a situation?” Tish asked.
“I would presume so, yes,” Dr. Zemecki said. “He came to the university to meet Stacey, and we barely got away from him then.”
“He would not know where to find her, and he would not bother with her unless he knew who she is,” Tish observed. “Would you have any reason to believe that the President knew who you were at the time you arrived in Russia?”
I looked at my feet and didn’t want to answer. This woman was not happy about the situation that had landed in her house. If I told her what we had surmised about my family and the odd deaths in recent years, she might hurt me. I didn’t want that. I could not get over being scared of this woman.
“I will take your reaction as a yes,” Tish said to me. “What has happened in recent times that would lead you to believe that Yuri Kostov thinks you are a Tsar?”
Tania jumped in. “Her father, brother, and grandmother all died in odd accidents in the last couple of years. Her dad and brother died in a freak boiler explosion at work in the factory where they worked together. Her grandmother died of a series of a heart attack that was caused by a car running into her house.”
“I understand the apprehension about the explosion that killed the men, but the car accident seems to be an accident. Kostov would not try to kill the grandmother.” Tish turned to me. “Not if you would survive. She would not be a target.”
“The car ran into the room where I normally slept when I visited her,” I explained. “I was supposed to be there the night of the accident. It was a regular visit day. I went to her house every other weekend, and I should have been there.”
Tish stared at me for a moment. She was making me uncomfortable.
“That does seem suspicious,” she finally replied. “And you say that he was coming to the university to see you?”
“When we got back from our first day of class, the RA at our dorm came to our room and told me not to go anywhere, because the President was coming and he wanted to meet me,” I said. “Not anyone else, just me.”
“And then the consulate closed?” Tish asked.
“The consulate closed mysteriously for renovations yesterday when the girls arrived from America,” Dr. Zemecki replied.
“I understand why you believe that he is up to something,” Tish said. “That man is a slug. I cannot believe that anyone would make him President, and then leave him in office all these many years.” She looked at me. “You did not know about any of this?”
“My grandma told me a lot about Soviets, but not much about Tsars. I came here to learn about them. I’m getting quite an education,” I replied.
“You certainly are,” Tish said. She turned to Dr. Zemecki. “I hold you responsible for this.”
“What did I do?” Dr. Zemecki asked.
“You got my Peter involved in this. You know how I feel about the subject,” Tish scolded him.
“I never believed in any of the old legends,” Dr. Zemecki objected. “I could not believe my eyes when I saw that ring on her finger. I presumed she was just another blonde from the states.” He looked at me. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I replied. “I never even heard about such crazy stories until I got here. I thought my grandma was just crazy about Russia. I didn’t know that it had anything to do with anything like this. I wish she would have told me. I would never have come.”
“I’m with you,” Tania said. “This is nuts. I feel like I just stepped into a Dan Brown novel. I thought that things like this were just stories. It’s surreal.”
“Am I correct in thinking that you have no interest in pursuing your obvious birthright?” Tish asked.
“I need time to absorb all of this before I know what I wish to do,” I snapped. “Imagine how you would feel if you were me. I’m shocked and scared and not able to assess the situation at the moment.”
“I understand,” Tish assured me. “How old are you?”
“Am I to understand that the nearest consulate is in St. Petersburg?” Tish asked.
“To the best of our knowledge,” Peter replied.
“And your goal is purely to get these girls to the consulate?” she asked.
“Yes,” Peter replied.
Tish watched him for a moment. Unfortunately for me, Peter winked at me in that moment.
“That had better be your only goal,” she snapped at Peter. “This young girl is not for you. You are a programming engineer who is going to inherit a great company. You can have any woman you want. This one is dangerous, young, and needs to go back to the country she came from.” She looked at me. “No offense.”
“None taken,” I replied. I wasn’t quite sure what to think of the woman. I realized that she was trying to protect her grandson.
Tish rose from the table and began to gather some things around the kitchen. It eventually became obvious that she was making tea. She had an enormous and fabulous samovar. We sat silently, watching Tish’s every move as she got all the ingredients and turned on the samovar and made the tea. She eventually came back to us with a tray full of the most beautiful tea glass holders and tea glasses that I’d ever seen. She served us as though she was a waitress.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You are welcome,” she replied. “Let us have some tea and then I will show you all to your rooms. We will get you on your way to St. Petersburg in the morning. Just make certain that you do not forget your passports.”
“Their passports did not make the trip,” Dr. Zemecki said. “We had to leave them at the university.”
“Dear God, Stephen,” Tish exclaimed. “I guess I will be making some calls in the morning. Drink your tea. I will be saying prayers for you girls tonight.”
The Ring of the Queen
What good is sitting all alone in your room?
– Liza Minnelli
There was something about Russian tea. I couldn’t explain it, and I still can’t. I didn’t like tea, but the tea in Russia tasted different to me. I didn’t know if it was the atmosphere, or if it was actually the tea. It seemed odd that I was thinking about tea with everything else that was going on around me, but there it was in my head. I figured that maybe it was a natural distraction. Maybe my brain couldn’t handle any more and it was changing gears to protect itself from melting down. I didn’t know, but I knew that my stress levels were way too high. I knew that I should call my mom too, but I didn’t want to be even more stressed. That’s what would happen if she started yelling at me.
Tish waited for all of us to drink some tea, and then she led us to the rooms that she was letting us use for the night. The bedrooms were all on the second floor of the dacha. I still thought that it was odd to call such a palatial mansion a dacha. We followed Tish up the elaborate winding staircase and down the upstairs hall. She stopped first to tell Dr. Zemecki which one was his room, then Tania’s, then mine. I presumed that the bedrooms that Peter and Tish occupied on a regular basis were further down the hall.
Tish opened the door to the room that she had assigned to me. “I think that you will like this room,” she said. She motioned for me to enter the room.
I walked into the room. It reminded me of my grandma’s house. It was what I identified as quintessential Russian. The bed was old looking and carved wood. The mantle over the fireplace was also carved wood. The carving was of cherubs playing instruments. I thought that the piece meant something, whether it be legend or religious, but I didn’t know what. There were black lace curtains on the windows which gave the room an old world feeling. There was velvet upholstered furniture all over the room. There was a painting over the bed that I presumed was Catherine the Great. It looked somewhat like the pictures that I had seen in my textbook. She did look much younger than the pictures I had seen, but it was obviously the Tsarina.
“How do you like it?” Tish asked me.
“I love it. Is that her?” I asked about the painting.
“Yes, it is. It was a painting that was supposed to be placed in a museum, but my husband, God rest his soul, said that he could not risk it being destroyed by the regime. Kostov and his thugs do not always respect historical artifacts. My husband already had it, so he kept it.”
“Well, I’m glad that he kept it,” I said. “It’s lovely. I can’t thank you enough for helping me. This has all been extremely overwhelming, and I wouldn’t have a clue what to do on my own. I never dreamed that I would be fearing for my life by coming here. I guess my mom was right. I should have passed on the trip.”
“It has been a few generations since we had a Romanov in Russia,” Tish said. “I think that it is good that you have come. I believe that the Romanovs belong to Russia, and Russia to them. I know that is considered an old way of thinking, but I cannot help it. It is the way I was raised.”
“What is your family’s background?” I asked her.
“We are descended from Cossacks,” she replied. “My ancestors were loyal to the Tsars. Did your grandmother tell you about them?”
“She mentioned it, but she didn’t tell me about that kind of stuff,” I explained. “I don’t know why. She talked all about the Soviets, but she didn’t talk about Tsars. Maybe she couldn’t figure out what to tell me under the circumstances.”
“Sometimes it is difficult to tell our children the things that we actually should,” Tish said. “Looking back, there are a thousand things that I would have liked to have said to my son. Missed opportunities. What is the American expression? Do not cry over poured milk?”
“Don’t cry over spilt milk,” I corrected her.
“Spilt milk,” she said with a sigh. “There are towels in the closet in your bathroom. There is soap and shampoo in there as well. There are extra blankets in the closet in the bedroom if you get cold. Try to get some sleep. You will have a busy day tomorrow.”
“Thank you Tish,” I said as she started to walk out the door.
“You are welcome,” she replied.
I took a lot of time pondering the way in which I refer to Tish. She’s been a difficult relationship for me. I decided immediately that I couldn’t call her Mrs. Zinkov, and I couldn’t call her grandma or Grandma Elizabeth or Grandma Tish. I couldn’t see her fitting her name, Elizabeth. Tish was what Dr. Zemecki called her, so I went with that. It seemed to fit her personality. I could tell from the moment I met her that she was like an onion, as my grandma would have said. There were a lot of layers in that woman’s personality. I was kind of sad that I wouldn’t have time to get to know them all. There was a warm heart in there somewhere. I wished that I had time to find it.
I looked around the room again after she left. On the bed was an extremely thick down comforter. I would find out down the road a piece that they were very popular in all of —not just in . I had one on my small bed at the university too. I’d already learned to love it. It was the warmest blanket on Earth. Given the fact that I felt that I was sitting in the coldest place on Earth, it seemed fitting and necessary.Europe
The room was littered with various collected antiques. Tish had spent a lot of time traveling. I could tell from the items that were in curios and on shelves. I saw that she had a Wieliczka Lamp, made from the orange colored salt deposits from the mine in . She also had a Navajo Blanket that looked authentic. I thought that maybe this woman had been to the U. S. I saw a piece of rock in a case. It looked like cement. I wondered about that one. I walked over to where it was on the shelf, and noticed that there was a small metal plate with words on it. It was a piece of the Berlin Wall. Over the elaborate fireplace that was opposite my bed, there were a set of what looked like Samurai Swords. It was overwhelming. There were so many things from so many places that I could go on talking about that room for days. I decided that Tish had visited most of the known world. She even had a picture on the wall of her and a very handsome gentleman about half her age that was labeled “Vostok Station, .” , Antarctica
I walked around the bedroom, exhausted but unable to sleep. I had too much adrenaline rushing through my body to lie down and rest. Besides, there were too many fascinating things in that room to ignore. I walked from cabinet to cabinet and piece to piece. That room was a bizarre cross between an old room full of mementos and a museum.
Catherine the Great sat staring down at me from the wall behind the bed. She was wearing her royal robes, and sitting in the most dignified pose that I’d ever seen. I wondered what had possessed Tish’s husband to keep it. She didn’t seem interested in anything that related to the Tsars, but there was the painting. She must have kept it simply because it was her husband’s and a historical relic of the country. From the way she referred to the President, she may have kept it to keep him from having it. I felt as though the picture was watching me. It was eerie, and I wasn’t sure that I would ever fall asleep in that room.
She was so young in the painting, and she was in her royal robes, so she must have been in power at that time. How was she able to rule a country like when she was still so young? Was all of this really happening? Was the ring real? Was I the legendary last Romanov? There was nothing that I could do, even if I was the heir. I was stuck in , in the country, in the middle of a snowstorm, in January.
I decided that it was cold enough that I needed to climb under that wonderful comforter and see if I could get a nap in before the nightmare continued. I saw a photo album on the table next to the bed. I climbed in, pulled the covers up and reached for the album out of pure curiosity. I would have taken a book out of the bookcase, but the photo album was irresistible. I realized that I was more interested in Peter and his family that I had originally thought. I opened the photo album. I could tell immediately that it was family pictures, mostly of Tish and Peter. I flipped through the Christmas photos, the birthday photos, the graduation pictures and so on. I wondered how long Peter’s parents had been gone. I wondered if Peter had been raised by his grandmother from a young age, because I noticed that there weren’t any pictures of him with a parent. I wondered if they fought or if she had simply filed other pictures away because his parents were dead. I knew that in some cultures people removed all reminders of deceased family members or covered their pictures on the walls. I wondered if that was why there were no pictures of his parents. Why I was so curious I had no idea. I felt the need to find out more about the guy. He interested me for some reason. He wasn’t my type. I liked pretty boys, with broad shoulders and big biceps. I’d never looked twice at a stringy geek. Peter was different. He was more than the run of the mill geek. He seemed to be as heroic as he was academic. It was a strange combination of traits that I’d only heard in descriptions of kings and presidents.
I found myself wandering off into the land of what if. What if I was really Russian royalty? What if I was welcomed by the people here to come and rule them? What if I could have a fabulous life here in , and I was throwing it all away by running home? What if I could change the country and make it a great land for all the people to live in? Yeah, right. What if Communism had worked? What if cars ran on urine? What if is a dangerous thought to have.
I was staring out the window next to my bed at the falling snow, when I heard a knock at the door. “What now?” I thought as I padded across the room in my socks and the nightshirt that I’d found in the wardrobe.
I was surprised to see Peter on the other side of the door. “Hi,” I said.
The Ring of the Queen
I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.
I felt my heart skip a beat when I saw Peter. I was happy to see him, and I had been thinking about him anyway. I liked him. I had virtually no information to base that on. I was chalking it up to chemistry. I was a little concerned about it, because he was older than me albeit not by much, and because I had almost no experience with men. The only boyfriend that I really ever had was Virgil, and he turned out to be gay.
He seemed embarrassed. “Hello, may I come in? Never mind. I know it’s late, and you’re probably trying to sleep,” he said.
I opened the door and swung my arm as an invitation for him to come in. “I can’t seem to sleep, anyway. I haven’t been able to sleep much since I came to your country. I should be sleeping all the time as dark as it is, but becoming a Tsar is keeping me awake.”
He walked across the room to one of the velvet upholstered chairs and sat down. “I don’t think that I’d be able to sleep much if I were you either.” He smiled a little.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. It was the closest piece of furniture to the chair where Peter sat. “So, what’s on your mind?” I asked.
“I’m not even sure. There’s something about you that makes me want to find out more about you. I hope that’s not too forward. I’ve never had a conversation of a personal nature with royalty before,” he explained.
“Well, that’s flattering. Just for the record, I’ve never been royalty before, so I wouldn’t worry about protocol. I had a question for you anyway. Are you and grandma way more obsessed with Catherine the Great than you let on?” I looked above me and pointed to the painting over the bed. “So, why does she keep that anyway? Shouldn’t that be in the Hermitage, some other museum? Does she really believe that the President would get rid of it?”
He let out a deep breath. He seemed nervous. I wasn’t sure which item on the agenda made him nervous. There were so many.
“It’s not what you think,” Peter said. “My grandpa had a good reason for arranging to buy it.”
“I would presume that it was sold because everything is for sale in Russia these days. That’s what my grandma used to say.”
“I understand her views. However, it’s the American media poisoning minds in that case. I understand that a lot of that goes on in your country. Actually my grandfather until his death and now my grandmother sits on several boards in this country. She’s very well connected, both politically and privately. She heard that the painting was going to be destroyed, because people were starting to talk about returning a Tsar to the throne. Catherine the Great and Peter the Great are two of the most notable Tsars. They represent the largest threat to the ruling government. Out of sight, out of mind. Tish was going to put it in a museum after my grandfather died, but instead brought it here so that the mobsters couldn’t destroy it. It’s part of our history. It’s almost sacred, and they were going to burn it, like the Nazis would have. She didn’t notify anyone about its location, so no one really knew where it went. That way no one could destroy it.”
“The government was actually going to destroy it?” I was shocked.
“The government here is sensing the winds of change. They can feel the air of revolution. They hate that.”
“But why would they destroy national treasures? It seems a little paranoid and animalistic.”
“Exactly, like Adolf Hitler, hiding in a bunker. Like Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole in the ground. Like Osama Bin Laden hiding in a compound in Pakistan. These people feel that their day is coming soon. They sense that there is a power in their midst that they cannot control. They fear losing control. They are very paranoid, and they feel that they need to do anything necessary to stay in power. It is an old ideology that if they can keep the people ignorant, they will hold onto their power.”
“I feel so stupid,” I said. “I can’t believe that all of these things that I’m told back in my country are all about political relations. I can’t believe that there isn’t any real news anymore. I always respected journalists for the work they do. I can’t believe that so much of it isn’t real.”
“Don’t be too disillusioned. I think that journalists want to report the real news, but they have bosses too. We all have someone or something to answer to. It is an unfortunate fact of life. I have to answer to my grandmother, so that I can have a great career in program engineering. Surely you have some kind of legacy to fall into as well.”
“You mean, besides being a Tsarina?” I asked.
“I mean you must have had a family legacy before all of this came along.” He smiled as he spoke. “We all have something. We all have one cross or another to bear.”
“Most of my family worked in a truck factory,” I replied. “I don’t know how much of a legacy that is. Sometimes I think that since most of the family is dead, I should have a clean slate and be able to do whatever I want to. I don’t know if that will be the way it turns out. I’m not sure what I want to do with the rest of my life. I’m not even sure what I want to major in at school. I don’t think that they have a program for becoming an autocrat. Up until now I had wanted to be a history professor.”
Peter smiled at me. “I wish I had a decision to make about my future. In my family it has always been planned for me. My grandma told me what to study at university. I did what I was told to do. She makes the rules. She always told me that every time someone doesn’t listen to her, bad things happen. Sometimes I wonder if she isn’t right about that.”
“So, what kind of bad things would happen if you didn’t do what she wanted you to?” I asked, wondering why he would listen so closely to Tish, no matter what the rewards were. He didn’t seem to me like the kind of guy who was a follower.
Peter rose from the chair. “Maybe I should go and let you get some sleep.”
I hadn’t meant to upset him. I could tell that I had. “Wait a minute, I’m sorry,” I said, putting my hand on his arm to try and stop him from leaving. “I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject. Don’t leave. I like it that you’re here. You’re the only comforting thing in this room.”
“No I am sorry; it is just that there are some things that upset me. My lack of control over my life is one of them.” He sat back down. He looked at the table where the photo album sat. “I suppose I should tell you a little bit about myself. I am rather complicated once you get to know me.”
I followed his gaze to the photo album. “Not if it’s going to upset you,” I answered.
He wrinkled up his face at me. “Let me guess, you have already looked through that photo album. You sure are a curious one.”
“I was trying to do something to help me relax.” I tried to defend myself of being a busy body.
“My parents are dead. They spent a lot of their time as political activists. My grandmother told them to stay out of politics and protest groups. They did not listen. Now, she is my only family. That is why I have a tendency to listen to her. It is not because I believe that I should stay silent and well behaved, but because she seems to need me. I am her world.”
He looked at me with his big soft eyes. I felt sorry for him. I knew inside that it was wrong, because he would take offense at it, but I couldn’t help it. I could tell that it was important to him to maintain a controlled presence and give the impression that he could handle anything. I remembered how I felt when my father and brother had died, and my grandmother too. I still couldn’t imagine my mother passing. We were very close, even though she’d failed to tell me about the ring and drove me crazy with her smothering.
“There was a big stink—that is what I call it—in Moscow several years ago. There was an attempted coup during Christmas. Some people that you were probably told were terrorists, tried to throw out the gangsters that run the country. Do you remember hearing about that?”
“Yes, it was on the news I was only about eight years old, maybe younger.”
“My parents were part of the opposition or terrorists.” He sighed. “They were killed by the police during the riot in .” He sighed again, trying not to cry. “I was twelve at the time. I watched it all on TV.” He wiped away a tear. “You do not forget a thing like that.”Red Square
“I saw some of that on TV myself. I can’t imagine. I saw these two people being beat by the police and then they were hung, like in the 1800’s or something. I couldn’t believe that they did that to anyone right in the middle of . I couldn’t believe that they would do that to a person at all. It was the first time that I’d ever watched anything like it on TV. I was surprised my mom didn’t turn it off, but I think it caught her by surprise. All my mother said was that barbarism was alive and well.”Red Square
Peter had covered most of his face and wasn’t looking at me anymore. “Those two people were my parents,” he said, barely above a whisper. “I saw that on TV too.”
I felt my heart skip a beat. I didn’t know what to say. How do you comfort someone in that situation? I’d never been in any position anything like it before. I was stunned. There were so many emotions that I was feeling at that single moment, and none of them was good. I was sitting there with probably the saddest man I’d ever met. I’d never met anyone who’d lost anything more or anything so tragically. What he had been through made my father’s, brother’s, and even grandma’s deaths seem less profound. I sat and stared at him, speechless.
Peter took some deep breaths and worked his hand off of his face. “I do not expect you to say anything. There is not a lot to say. Life is not like in the movies. There is not always a happy ending, and the good guys do not always win.”
I reached out and took his hand. I looked him in the eye. I saw more pain than I’d ever seen resting in those eyes. At that moment, I felt something that I’d never felt before. I had no idea what it was, but it compelled me to lean over and kiss him passionately on the lips. He kissed me back, pulled me from the bed onto his lap and kissed me back full and hard. He held me tight and the kiss lingered for quite some time. I finally pulled back.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Purely a reaction. I don’t know what came over me.”
He leaned back and smiled at me. “I do not know, but I am glad, whatever it was. I was hoping that you would not leave the country before I got to see what that was like.”
It felt right. I can’t explain it, but it felt right. I was sitting there on his lap, and I felt like everything was as it should be. I’d been cautious when it came to men after the Virgil debacle, but this time I didn’t care. My mother would call it hormones, but I knew it was more than that. I had no idea what I would think in the morning, but I didn’t really care in that moment.
“Maybe I should be going,” Peter said. He helped me to my feet, but he still held my hand. “Do you think you might let me kiss you one more time?”
I didn’t answer. I was afraid I would say something stupid and ruin the moment. I took his face and pulled it to mine. I kissed him with all my heart and soul. I found myself pulling him onto the bed. I wanted him to hold me. I wanted him to be a part of me. I wanted him. I didn’t care what the consequences might be.
The Ring of the Queen
Confidentially, the type of male I find most enjoyable for a friend is one who has enough fire and assurance to speak up for his convictions.
I started to pull his sweater off over his head. I couldn’t wait to see the chest that lay underneath it. I wanted to see and feel every inch of his body. I couldn’t get close enough to him.
“Are you sure about this?” Peter asked me, as he lay on me, looking me straight in the eyes.
I smiled. “Yes.”
“I don’t want you to feel like a one-night stand,” he said.
“I won’t,” I replied.
“What if I never see you again?”
“Hopefully you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.”
“I already will. This won’t be the reason for me remembering you.”
“I bet I can change your opinion on that.”
He smiled and turned down the light. The rest of the night is somewhat a blur. I’ve never lusted so recklessly after a man in my life, and I didn’t care if I never did again. Everything felt right. I do mean everything. Every kiss, every touch, every thrust, and every whisper, made me feel alive like I’ve never felt before. It was as though all the things that were happening to me in Russia from rings of Tsars to the President chasing me down disappeared. I never thought for a moment about whether or not Peter thought I was a slut, or where the relationship might go. It was pure animal magnetism. I’ve never regretted that night. Not for a single second. There was something about Peter from the moment I laid eyes on him. He was like no other man I’d ever known. He was strong and smart. He was confident and vulnerable. He was unique. I still had to work to figure out what it was about him that made me want to be with him. Love didn’t happen in a day, at least not as far as I knew.
When I woke in the morning, I rolled over to see that there was nothing left of Peter in my bed except for the indentation in the pillow next to me.
I looked at the clock on the mantel over the fireplace. I couldn’t believe that I’d slept so late. It was nearly 9:00. It would start to get light soon. January in Russia was very dark and very cold. I don’t know which part was more intensive, the cold or the night. It was also quiet. Tish lived 9 kilometers from Dubna. I’m not sure how far that is in miles. I’m guessing it wasn’t very far, but it was extremely silent in the country. The winter snow made certain that virtually no one was out and about, so the silence was deafening. In a way, it reminded me of home.
I had barely had time to wonder where Peter had gone and why, when I heard a noise. I didn’t know much about Russian life, but in Indiana, that sound meant a snow machine. I rushed to the window. I saw the little tiny taillights that safety freaks had recommended decades ago for snow machines. They’d said that it would help them on the roads with cars. I have no idea if anyone driving a car during or shortly after a snowstorm could even see the lights, but as long as the safety freaks were happy, politicians could keep their jobs in the Senate and the House. I had many digressional thoughts that morning. That was only the first.
So, I sat watching this snow machine speed away from the mansion dacha, wondering who it was, and where they were going. I was sure that it had to be someone that was staying there at Grandma Tish’s mansion. I wondered who and why. I guessed that I should put on some clothes and go downstairs to find out.
I made my way down the stairs to the eating and living wing of the house. When I got there, Tania and Dr. Zemecki were eating pancakes at the kitchen table. Tania was smiling. Dr. Zemecki was laughing out loud and scarfing down his food at the same time. I wondered if they’d gotten together last night like Peter and I had. They’d gotten along from the second they’d met. Tania, who didn’t seem to trust anyone, seemed to trust Steve. Maybe there was something going on between them. All I could think was that I would be thrilled for them both. They seemed very compatible to me. Dr. Zemecki wasn’t that much older than us. I realized that I’d only known the both of them for a very short time, but it seemed as though it had been years. I thought that I was getting to see many sides of them in a short period of time given the situation that we were all now in.
They both abruptly stopped whatever was going on when they noticed me. Then I was sure about the night before. They had hooked up. I could tell from the looks on their faces. Cool. I guess I was getting to know them both pretty well. I didn’t want to start a conversation about it. Sometimes it ruined everything with new couples if you made things too public for them. Celebrities have that problem. Once again, I digress.
Tish hadn’t come from her room yet I guessed. That was probably good. She did kind of make me nervous. I didn’t really want to be in a room with her unless Peter was present, especially if she had the slightest clue where her grandson spent the night.
Steve stood to greet me. “Hi there.” He pulled out a chair for me to sit down. “Let me get you some breakfast.” He walked over to the stove and pulled a plate of pancakes from inside of the oven below it, where he was keeping them warm. He put the whole plate in front of me. “I thought you would be good and hungry this morning.”
“Why?” I asked, sure that they could tell that I’d spent the night with Peter by the look on my face. Oh my God, these people barely knew me. Now they would think I was a slut.
Tania almost choked on her forkful of pancakes. She giggled. “What’s wrong with you?” She asked. “You look guilty. Did you do something that we should know about?”
“No.” I answered immediately, knowing that I had just made myself sound guiltier. “I just wondered why so many pancakes.”
“I realized when I got up this morning that it had been a long time since any of us had eaten.” Dr. Zemecki said. “I was famished. I thought that maybe you would be too.” He looked sideways at me. “Did you get any sleep?” He asked.
Then I relaxed a little. They didn’t have the slightest clue about me and Peter. Good. “I got enough.” I said. “It’s almost too quiet out here. It reminds me of being snowed in on my mom’s farm. It gets really quiet on the farm in Indiana after a snowstorm.”
“Well it sure as hell is quiet here.” Tania agreed. “I haven’t heard this much silence, well, ever. Boston is noisy and bustling. You hear sirens and traffic and yelling and screaming and loud music all night long there. This is like being in a whole other world.”
“I welcome the quiet.” Steve said. “I get sick and tired of the sirens and the bustle in Moscow. I’ve always liked it out here. I’ve always liked Tish’s dacha.”
“So, you’ve been here before and you know her and Peter.” I commented. I’d wanted to ask him about how they all knew each other.
“My first year of teaching at the University, Peter was one of my students in my Western European history class. It was my first year teaching. I wasn’t even a professor yet. I was still working on my dissertation. I was really nervous, and he was a nice guy. We got to talking, found out we had a lot in common on political views and such, and we became fast friends. We’ve been pretty tight since then. I would have gotten you in touch with him in the first place, but I thought he was still out of town on business for his grandma’s company. I guess it all worked out for the best anyway. You got hooked up with him anyway, so he can help.”
“So, you didn’t know that he was in town until last night?” I asked.
“No. Funny huh? I knew by the time that we got to my apartment, but you insisted on leaving. Who knew you would run right into him when he was coming over anyway? He always stays at my place when he’s in Moscow. He and Tish are my landlords. He probably would have come back in the middle of the night and accidentally laid down on the sofa right on me. Can you imagine?”
I found that I wanted to giggle to myself about the irony of Peter lying down on people. “No, not really.” I said. “So, has anybody seen Peter this morning?”
“Yeah, he took off on his snow machine. He said he was going into town on business.” Tania told me.
“What business?” I asked.
“My guess is he’s trying to find a way to get you girls home without having to go back for your passports.” Steve replied.
“How is that possible?” I asked.
“I suppose he’s trying to make forgeries,” Steve answered. “He’s good at making copies of about anything in that lab of his.”
“Passports are impossible to forge,” I said. “They put all kinds of encrypted chips in them and God knows what. Mine is more hologram than anything else.”
“He works for one of the biggest computer labs at one of the largest computer companies in Russia,” Steve answered. “He’s a top notch programmer. He’s also done a lot of less than official work. I’m sure he can come up with something that will work for you girls.”
“What do you mean less than official work?” I asked.
“He’s a great hacker, not to mention a great design engineer.” Steve said. He saw the shocked look on my face. “Oh, now don’t be so surprised. The world is full of grey areas. Not everything is black and white. I would think that your naiveté would be fading by now. You must have known that Peter is somewhat of a rebel at heart.”
“Yeah, I got that. I thought that hacking was against the law,” I commented.
“Of course it is,” Steve scoffed. “I feel it’s a grey area. Peter would never steal anything like bank funds or secret military correspondence unless it was for a good cause. He puts out what the government here calls negative propaganda. He puts pop ups on websites where they don’t belong, so that people can hear his views on politics. It’s more brave than wrong.”
I could see Peter reveling in the fallout of one of his improper ads on the local government website. I knew that people in many countries had taken to putting pop ups on these sites to make a point about politics. In America, it may as well be legal. It was considered part of the freedom of speech amendment. I was forever seeing things online that shouldn’t be there, and no one in America seemed to care enough to do anything about it.
The Ring of the Queen
I have the heart of a man, not a woman, and I am not afraid of anything.
“So, doesn’t anybody monitor Peter’s podcasts and so forth?” I asked.
“I don’t think that they want to worry about what Peter’s doing. At least they weren’t until you showed up,” Steve said. “They’re much more worried about it now that you are running around their country. People here are restless. They want change. They haven’t heard any good new ideas. That’s why so many of them are talking about going back to the ways of old.” He paused and thought for a second. “I don’t know that I think it would be best. I’ve studied what happened under the Tsars for most of my life. I don’t think that people are aware enough of what that time was like. It doesn’t seem that it was any better than it is now. They have that grass is always greener on the other side of the fence problem around here.”
“So, you don’t want to run me into the Kremlin and put a crown on my head?” I asked. “Good, because the thought of it is staggering.”
“Now, there’s where you’re wrong.” Steve commented. “You are the wildcard. You’re the Romanov, this is true. The thing is, you’re not the kind of Tsar that was here a hundred and fifty years ago. You’re an American. You come here with all the beliefs that are instilled in the private citizens of your country. You don’t even have the perception of a politician from the U.S. You have a different way of life. You could bring this place the real change that it needs. You, my dear, are that one in a million lottery ticket that most of the world is always waiting for.”
“So, the only reason that you want a Tsar, is because I’m American?” I asked.
“If you’d come from the , I wouldn’t be half as interested.” He said. “, , , , any of them would have made you an unattractive choice as a rule. It would still depend on what class of person it was. You just happen to come from the one place that most other folks around the world would like to be from. They want your lifestyle. I’m thinking that if we had one of you as a legitimate Russian Royal, we could live more like you do. You would, after all have the power to bring your ideals to the table and put them into action. It would be all up to you.”Middle EastAfricaSouth America
I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t think that my life was so great. I realized that I didn’t know anything about life in other countries, but how bad could it be? I knew that the things I saw on TV were awful. Maybe some of that stuff was true. I was beginning to wonder which things I saw on television were real and which ones were fantasies. I felt that I should travel more, not less, in order to figure it all out. My mother would have a heart attack if I did something like that.
Out of the blue, the phone rang. I hadn’t heard one of the old fashioned old time bells since my grandmother had been going deaf before she’d died. It was loud, and it scared me. I only heard it once. I figured that Tish had picked it up somewhere else in the house. A couple of minutes later, Tish came barreling into the kitchen.
“Who let my grandson take off this morning?” She demanded.
“No one, Tish.” Steve answered her. “He’s a big boy. He didn’t ask my permission. Why?”
“Did he say where he was going?” She demanded. “Did he say when he thought he would be back?”
“That was the university.” Tish said to Steve. “The detective administration sent some men out there today and confiscated everything from the girls’ room. That was Dr. Rostov on the phone. He said that he’d seen all of you on last night and thought you might be here. He wanted you to know that the police and the detective administration men are combing the city looking for all of you. He doesn’t know if they’re looking for Peter yet, but I’m sure they will be soon.”
I suddenly felt like I wanted to throw up. That was too much. I couldn’t take any more of the cloak and dagger political uprising crap. I didn’t want to be a Romanov. I wanted to hurl. I got up, ran to the bathroom down the hall and puked. When I got back, no one looked surprised that I’d gotten sick.
Tish watched me for a moment as I came back into the room. “Are you done now?” She asked me sarcastically. “This is no time to lose your nerve. We have a real problem here. Now, I’m not losing any more people around here to political issues. I’ve had enough of that. Steve, go get my truck, and go into town to the lab and bring Peter back here. I am sure that is where he went to. Whatever he’s doing, it’s too late now. We have to figure out what to do with these girls.”
“What did she mean by losing people to political issues?” Tania leaned over and whispered to me.
Tish heard her. “My son was hung in and my husband was rammed by a streetcar during the August Coup. Is there anything else I can tell you?” She snapped at Tania.Red Square
“N-no.” Tania stammered. “I’m sorry.”
Tish fell into the chair that was left between me and Tania at the table. “I did nothing those times. I stayed out of it like they told me to. I’ll never do that again. I won’t lose Peter like that.” She glanced at Steve. “What did I tell you?” She yelled at him. “I said, go and get him!”
Steve jumped up out of his chair. “Yes sir, I mean maam.” He said. Then he looked at her for a second. “If you want me to take your truck, I’ll need the keys.” He said, softly.
She threw a set of keys at him so hard that I could tell they hurt his hand when he caught them. He didn’t say a word. He left the room and went and got his coat.
The next thing that I heard was a very loud engine coming out of the garage which was right next to the kitchen. I looked out the window to see a very tall Hummer coming out of the garage. This was no ordinary Hummer either. This was the old fashioned original Hummer H1 Humvee, still painted in camouflage. It had been modified. In addition to resembling a tank, this thing had been built up like a monster truck. I guessed that she’d had that done for just such an occasion as the snowstorm.
As Steve barreled away through the deep snow, I turned back and stared at Tish. “Wow, now that’s a truck.” I said.
“I bought that thing from Swarzkopf after the first Gulf War. He got to keep it, and it didn’t suit him, he said.” She scoffed. “I had to make some modifications on it though. I needed a real car out here. Those pansy Iraqi’s have no idea what tough terrain is like. No one’s tougher than us Russians.”
“So, why didn’t Peter take that thing, instead of a snowmobile?” I asked.
“The snowmobile was Peter’s.” She answered me. “There are a few things that you should know about me, dear. First and foremost, I’m a control freak. That’s how I stay rich and powerful. That’s why I don’t pay those protection payments disguised as taxes. Second, I’m a real bitch. No matter how old Peter gets, he’ll still be a little scared of me. He would never take my prize Hummer without asking me.”
“So, why didn’t he ask?” I said.
“What would have been the point?” She mused. “I would have beaten him like a Soviet propagandist for pulling a stunt like trying to forge passports for the two of you. He knew that.” She sat smiling at me. “I told you I was a bitch.”
“Why don’t you take over the government?” I asked sarcastically.
“I find people to be a general pain in the ass, that’s why.” She said, still smiling. “I hate people, why would I want to deal with more of them than I already have to?”
I sat back in my chair and tried to eat my pancakes again. I’d known it before it had happened. I didn’t want to be in a room with Tish unless Peter was there.
The Ring of the Queen
And I definitely gravitate toward people who use laughter to pull themselves out of the abyss.
It seemed like an eternity in that kitchen. I felt my pancakes coming back up again. I hated feeling so nervous, but I was out of my element, and I was a wreck. I wondered by now if my mother had died of a heart attack, or if she might still be hanging in there hoping for my safe return. I didn’t know what to think as I watched Steve head off over hill and dale in a monster Hummer through some of the deepest snow I’d ever seen.
Tania wasn’t saying much. I think that the idea that the secret police were going through her underwear at the same time that her teacher was driving through the Russian countryside in a monster truck in search of the man who was trying to forge passports for us, had finally pushed her over the edge. I hadn’t seen her that quiet since I’d met her a few months ago and certainly not since we’d arrived in this bizarre version of Russia.
Tish had made every point possible, so she ate her eggs and left the room. She didn’t want us mucking up her life anymore. That was perfectly clear. I didn’t mind that she’d left us. She scared me. Russian police might arrest me, but Tish might kill me if I pissed her off again. My existence seemed to piss her off, so I intended to walk on egg shells until I could get the hell out of there.
Suddenly, as I was staring at the remains of my pancakes, I heard the familiar sound of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” coming from my cell phone. I realized that I’d forgotten to change my ring tones after the holidays. I’d been too busy getting ready for my trip. I knew I should call my mom, but she was still convinced that cell phones caused brain cancer and that I would die. It was the only way that I could talk to her, but I didn’t want her to worry about anything else. Santa Claus is Coming to Town was the caller unknown tone. I looked at the number. It didn’t make any sense at all to me. Then I realized that it was a Russian number. The structure was completely different from the U.S.
Tania was watching me as I answered the phone. “Hello.” I said, not knowing what it could be about.
“Stacie, is that you?” I heard Peter’s voice coming from the other end.
“Yes, Peter?” I asked. I couldn’t believe it. How did he know my number? From the look on Tania’s face, she was wondering the same thing. “How did you know this number?”
“It’s not important.” He replied. I heard a lot of background noise. I wondered where he was. “I have to be quick here. They can trace these pretty well. I need you to do something for me.”
“Like what?” I asked. “Steve left here to look for you. He took the Hummer. Tish told him to. The police are searching for me.”
“That shouldn’t surprise you.” He answered. “They are extremely worried about your existence. But we’ve already covered that.” He paused and said thank you to someone. “Anyway, good. So, Steve’s coming where, to the lab?”
“Yes.” I replied. “That’s where you are, right? That’s what your grandma said.”
“She guessed well and, no, but I’m close. I’ll go over there and meet him.” He paused to tell someone that something looked good. I wondered what the hell was going on. “Look, I have an idea. Therefore, I think that if we get you to St. Petersburg, I can get you home.”
Well, I was getting my money’s worth out of this trip. “Won’t these people be watching St. Petersburg if they’re actually looking for me? And, isn’t it hundreds of miles away?” I asked. I looked over and saw the expression on Tania’s face. She was going to snap at some point along the wild way. She had a crazy look in her eyes.
“Yes, but they aren’t going to be looking for you as diligently up there.” He said. “They wouldn’t think that you would go that far away from your passport. If we run up to Tver, we can catch the train up to St. Petersburg. It will only take a few hours on the train to get there. Then, with your new passports, you can go home. What do you say?”
I guessed that I didn’t have a choice. I also didn’t have a better idea. It wasn’t like I knew anything about travel and survival in Russia. “Sure. Are you sure that the passports will work?” I asked. “I’m sure that they’re encrypted and extremely sophisticated these days. Will they pass?”
“Hey, I don’t know if you’ve heard or not, but I’m one of the best hackers in the business. I think that I can handle a couple of passports. I have another surprise for you too.”
I waited for him to tell me, but he paused and was obviously going to make me ask. “Well, what?”
“I’ll show you when I see you.” He said. I could hear the playfulness in his voice. “I need you and Tania to get ready to go. I’ll go find Steve and we’ll come back there and pick you up. We’ll go to Tver for the night and catch tomorrow’s train. Your picture is all over the television, so I need you to try and change your appearance. Tish dyes her hair. Why don’t you girls break into her stash and change that blonde hair of yours. Then I want you to borrow some of her clothes. Both of you should do that. You’re all about the same size. Take some of her stuff along for tomorrow too. We should be there to pick you up soon.”
He ended the call. I didn’t get a chance to reply. I didn’t know where Tver was. I didn’t know how I was supposed to pay for my plane ticket or my train ticket. I was confused. I didn’t want to get into anything of Tish’s. That woman would probably kill me for touching her stuff.
I looked up at Tania and realized that I had to further upset her fragile composition by telling her that she had to help me steal Tish’s stuff, dye my hair, and then join me in dressing like a Russian grandma. Tania had reached a permanent look of despair. Her expression hadn’t changed since Steve had left. I was hoping that they were having an affair and her sallow expression was because she missed him. I was hoping that it was something shallow and understandable. I didn’t want it to be the full mental meltdown that I feared was eventually coming down the pike.
Tania interrupted my unsettling thoughts. “What did he tell you?” She asked. “Did he say where he was, or when we were going home, or if Steve was okay?”
“Yeah.” I told her. Then I told her what he’d said we should do. I told her that we were going to catch the train from Tver to St. Petersburg. I told her everything he’d told me.
Tania got up and walked to the dishwasher. She gently put her dishes in it. I was worried about her. She turned and looked at me. “He’s serious,” she commented.
“I guess so,” I said. I didn’t know how to answer her.
Tania slowly stretched her face into a huge smile. Then she let out a loud laugh and slapped herself on the leg. “That old bat is going to freak out if we steal her clothes,” she laughed.
I suddenly realized that Tania was all right. She apparently was being cautious about her actions in the house. Suddenly she sounded like the girl I met on Facebook. I started to laugh a little too.
“Forget that. Imagine what she’ll do when we steal her hair dye,” I laughed.
Tania slipped into the chair next to me at the table. She leaned over to me and whispered. “Do you think she’s listening to us?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” I scoffed. She probably was. “I do know that we need to figure out where her stuff is, and how to get to it without her blowing our heads off with a shotgun or something.”
“Well, you could always go and tell her that Peter called, and I’ll go and steal the stuff while you’re telling her. It all has to be in her room and her bathroom, right? I know I’m an American, but we all keep our clothes and stuff in the bedroom, right?”
“Of course,” I said. “Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” Tania replied. “I guess we’ll have to go and look for her. There are a lot of rooms. Where would you go after breakfast if you were Tish?”
That was an interesting question. I figured that she would be more interested in finding her grandson than anything else. Surely she was worried about all of the political problems that could potentially land on her doorstep. I thought about it for a moment, and then I remembered seeing a media room next to the library on the second floor.
“I’ve got her.” I told Tania, as I walked out of the room.
The Ring of the Queen
You don’t need to buy expensive cosmetics; almost anything will do if you know how to apply it.
Tania went to look through Tish’s closet and bathroom as I took off for the main stairs to go to the second floor. I was simply amazed at this mansion in the middle of nowhere. Now that the sun had finally come up, I could get a better look at the décor. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. All of the wood was carved and dark, and it covered the walls, floors and even the ceilings. The artwork on the walls was all from the masters. There were paintings by Monet, Degas, Dali, Renoir, and even Pollack and Warhol. I could tell that they weren’t reproductions. There was no doubt that Tish had more money than God.
I could hear noise coming from the media room that I’d passed the night before. I had no idea how I could guess what this woman would do with her time, but she seemed very predictable to me in certain ways. In other ways, she shocked me. It could have taken me half the day to find her in that house if I hadn’t guessed well. I walked into the room, afraid that she would jump all over me for invading her privacy or something, but she didn’t look as though she minded as I approached her at the desk she had stationed in the middle of the room where she could see all of the TV screens.
“What can I do for you, dear?” She asked in her grandmother tone. I wondered how she did that. One minute she was a grandma, the next a barracuda.
“I wanted to let you know that Peter managed to get my cell phone number, and he called. He’s fine. He’s gone to the lab to meet up with Steve and come back here,” I told her.
She looked at me cautiously. I could almost see the gears turning in her mind. She made me nervous. “Where are you all going when he gets back?” She was good.
“Tver, I guess,” I replied. “That’s what he said.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” she said. “I’m guessing that he stopped by Sadie’s and made passports for the two of you. He wants you to catch the train to and fly home, correct?”
Tish turned away from me and used a remote control to change the channel on the TV opposite where I was standing. Without looking back at me, she spoke. “Don’t be so surprised. I’ve lived with rebels most of my life,” She said.
“I’m sorry that I’ve gotten Peter all mixed up in this,” I apologized. “I’m sorry that I’ve gotten myself mixed up in all of this.”
As I stood and shook my head, I noticed that Tish was watching the news. There was my face again. There was my photo on the television. They were still going nuts looking for me. I was a fugitive in a country that I’d only come to for one class at the university. To say that I regretted coming was an understatement.
“We are still asking for anyone with any information about this woman to please call the police at this number,” the announcer was saying. “There is a reward of 10,000 rubles for information leading to the arrest of the imposter calling herself the ancestor of Catherine the Great. She may be going by the nickname of Stacey and is traveling with another young American woman and two young men. The imposter as well as her companions may be armed so do not approach them, simply call the number on the screen and report the information. These suspects may be dangerous.”
“You’re famous, or is the term infamous,” Tish commented. Then she changed over to some market news to check out her stocks. I waited silently until she turned to me again. She waved her hand at me as though she was judging me in a contest. “Well, this won’t do,” she said.
“Excuse me?” I asked, not knowing how to take her comments.
“You stick out like a sore thumb,” she said. “You need to dress more like a Russian. Those awkward American clothes stand out. They’re so impractical. Like it or not, it’s winter, and you should have on something warm enough to keep you from dying if you get stuck in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard. Come, I’ll find something for you girls to wear.”
“Really?” I asked. I didn’t want her to catch Tania going through her closet. “I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Come on,” she said as she got up and walked to the door. “Your friend won’t find the good stuff. I’ll have to show it to you myself. You should probably dye that blonde looking hair of yours too. I can take care of that.” She looked back at me. “Come on,” she said, motioning to me again. “Tania will need my help raiding my closet.”Hollywood
Tania was surprised when we walked into Tish’s bedroom while she was looking through Tish’s closet. I had no idea how Tish knew everything, but I didn’t care anymore. I was just grateful that she hadn’t killed me over it.
Tish went through and put together three outfits for us. She even let us use her luggage for the trip so that we could pack a change of clothes and look more like Russians traveling. She had some stylish clothes that were also practical. She laughed at our reaction to the fact that her clothes weren’t all frumpy like most older ladies. Her wardrobe seemed vibrant and fashionable. I wondered if there was anything that I would find normal about her. I doubted it. She was bending my mind the way that my grandma had from time to time. Older ladies aren’t always what you expect them to be.
After we assembled our wardrobes, Tish went into her bathroom and got some of her hair dye. It was a dark brown. I had never had dark hair. I would soon find out what it would look like. I took it to the bedroom to dye my hair and change into the outfit that Tish had picked out.
When I’d finished in the bathroom, I went out to see what Tish and Tania thought about my new look. I was disappointed not to find Tish when I entered the bedroom. I found myself getting used to her. I wasn’t sure what to make of Tish. I’d never spent time with the crankiest old power freak in the world. I kind of liked her.
“Here I am!” I exclaimed as I walked across the room to the mirror that was opposite my bed.
“Wow, you look different,” Tania commented as she joined me in front of the mirror.
I was looking at my hair and studying Tania’s face. All of a sudden, she looked pale, like she was going to pass out.
“Are you okay?” I asked, turning to look in her face.
“Oh my God,” she said, barely above a whisper. She turned me around to look in the mirror again.
“What?” I asked, getting upset.
Tish walked up behind us at that moment. I could see the startled look on her face too. “Oh dear Lord,” Tish said.
“What!” I exclaimed. Then I saw it. I saw the picture of Catherine the Great in the mirror. It was hanging over the bed behind me. I watched all the color drain from my own face as I looked at her. I spun around. “This can’t be,” I gasped.
“Well, if there was any doubt about you being her ancestor before, it’s all gone now,” Tish said. “You look just like her.”
There was no time for me to properly react to the latest development in my adventure. I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching the house. It sounded like the Hummer, and I knew it was time for us to go.
“They’re here,” I said, picking up my bag from the bed. I stood for a moment and looked at the picture of Catherine the Great on the wall. No one would believe this back home.
Tish came up behind me and slammed a hat down over my newly dyed hair. “Here, you’ll need this,” she said. “Don’t take that off unless you have to. Too many people will make the connection.”
Tish walked with us to the door to meet the men. We all said our good byes and Tish bid us all farewell. She told Peter to be careful. The sun had already gone for the day. I headed out into the snowy white in the dark once again.
I no longer knew what to think. I looked like Catherine the Great. I was supposed to be her ancestor. I was actually starting to believe the legend of the Ring of the Queen. I was headed to her town, St. Petersburg. I was walking in her footsteps. It was creepy in so many ways that I couldn’t really describe it anymore.
We left in the monster Hummer in the dark for Tver, where we would catch the train to . I wondered if anyone would recognize me and turn me in. I wondered if my passport that Peter had made would work when we got to the airport. I wondered if it was ever day time in Russia in the wintertime. It had to be the coldest, darkest place on Earth.
The Ring of the Queen
I really concentrate on what’s on my plate at the moment and do the very best I can.
-Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“So, the old broad helped you out.” Peter said once we’d pulled away from the house. “She must have decided that she likes you.”
“Is that what that means?” I giggled. “I thought she was anxious to get me out of her house and away from her grandson.”
“I suppose it had something to do with that as well,” he answered. “So, what’s with the hat? Didn’t you like your new look?”
“You wouldn’t believe it!” Tania jumped in from over the front seat where she was sitting next to Steve. Peter and I were sitting in the back. Tish thought that Steve was the better driver, so he was assigned as the chauffer by her. “Stacie, take the hat off,” she ordered me.
I took the hat off and smoothed my dark brown hair. I looked up at Peter.
“Dear God,” he said. “You look beautiful.”
Tania reached over the seat and smacked him in the head. “I know you have the hots for her and all, but look closer. Does she resemble anyone that you’ve ever seen or seen a picture of?”
He looked at Tania, pushed her hand away so she couldn’t slap him again. He looked at me for a moment. “You look like Catherine the Great,” he gasped.
The monster Hummer came to an instant stop as Steve slammed on the brakes. He looked into the back seat at me. “Wow princess, you really are a royal,” he said, smiling. “It’s hard to miss with your new hairstyle.” He glanced around at everyone in the car. “Okay, we’ve all had a look at the Empress in training. Can we get on with it? We need to get this monster to Tver before it gets too late.” He turned to put the car in gear again and drove on. “You’d better keep that hat on,” he told me over his shoulder. “You’d be surprised how many people in this part of the country will notice the resemblance.”
I pulled the hat back over my hair. If I’d been nervous before, it couldn’t match what I was feeling then. I felt as though everyone in Russia would see me and immediately see how much I looked like Catherine the Great. Why did I have to look like her? I was coming to accept that I was her ancestor, but why did I have to look like the single most recognizable woman in the history of Russia? She’d been dead for over two hundred years, and from what Steve was saying it sounded as though everyone still knew what she looked like. If this was some kind of Karma, I didn’t like it one bit. Karma is obviously not a good thing in some cases. In some cases it might get you killed.
The flipside to my angst was the Russian countryside. It was dark, but the moon was full. Everything looked blue in the winter moonlight. I could see what were called villages as we drove on through the eerie blue countryside. It seemed as though anyplace that had a few huts, dachas, houses, or whatever in close proximity was called a village. I didn’t know if there were even roads that connected these villages. I couldn’t see any evidence of road signs. With all of the snow and the fact that we were traveling in a monster Hummer, I didn’t know if we were following roads or crossing fields.
I decided that despite the troubles I was having that taking a class was not the way to see Russia. I was quickly realizing that I would have missed the whole ambience of the country if I’d stayed in Moscow. Out here I felt like I was seeing the real Russia. I knew that both city and country were part of the country’s makeup, but there was something about being in the country that felt real. I’d spent most of my life in the country in Indiana, and my time in Moscow had seemed like a dream. It was so overwhelming and so crowded that it seemed less real to me. Out here where you saw real homes that belonged to real people who had real jobs—that was where real life was. Capitals were for tourists and bureaucrats, gangsters and celebrities . I didn’t to be a tourist. I wanted to be a traveler.
“It’s so beautiful,” I commented after gazing out the window for a long time. “I can’t believe that I would have missed all this if whole Tsarina thing hadn’t come up.”
“There is something mesmerizing about the countryside in winter,” Peter commented. “There’s nothing quite like the blue that comes with a dark January afternoon. So, what’s it like where you come from?”
“It’s a lot like this, only with more daylight,” I replied. “I come from the country pretty much. My mom lives in Servia, Indiana. She lives next to an airfield that’s still grass, and there’s only a few residents. I’m not much for the city. I liked to spend most of my time at my grandmother’s when I was growing up. She lived in a little town called North Manchester, and that was big enough for me. It was a hundred times bigger than Servia and still only had three traffic lights. That’s the middle of nowhere, and I live there in her house now. It’s small, and everyone knows everyone else.”
“Are there a lot of farmers there?” Peter asked.
“Are you kidding?” I replied. “There are virtually nothing but farmers there. They still have a few Amish people around the area. You know, the ones with no cars, that still use horse and buggies? There are some businesses and the college, but that’s about it.”
“Wow, that’s old fashioned all right,” Steve commented from the front seat. “Real Amish?”
“Yes, real Amish. And yes, it’s old fashioned,” I replied. “Anyway, everything there is a little old fashioned. They still have ice cream socials at the local churches. They still have town basketball and softball tournaments. They still have a volunteer fire department. It’s a tiny place. It’s always felt like home.”
“It sounds pretty nice to me,” Peter said. “Dubna is a lot like that. It’s a computer town, but it’s a close community. There aren’t any busy streets or high crime areas. There aren’t any horse and buggies either though.” He smiled at me.
“I wish I had more time to see what Dubna was like,” I said. “I think I probably would like it.” I smiled back at him
Peter and I had a connection. I had thought that maybe we only came together because of our situation, but I could feel now that it was more. I didn’t know what or how much more, but there was something there. I wished that I had time to find out more about the relationship that could never be. It was the one part of the experience that I didn’t want to end.
I decided to change the subject to something less nostalgic. “So, did you manage to make us some passports?” I asked.
“Of course,” Peter answered. He reached in his pocket and pulled out two very authentic looking passports. He handed one to me and gave the other one to Tania in the front seat. “Take a look ladies. Will they do?”
I decided the minute I opened the passport that he was the best techno-criminal in the world. The passport that I held in my hands looked exactly like the one that I’d brought into the country with me. I couldn’t believe the details. I could even see that it had a chip embedded in it. I could only guess that Peter had designed it to work exactly like the original. I felt for the first time like I might make it out of the country without getting arrested and thrown in prison for the rest of my life. It was a comforting thought.
If only I wanted to leave. I felt like Russia could easily feel like home. I had this strange feeling that I belonged there. I couldn’t explain it. It must be the same Karma that I felt when I looked in the mirror and realized that I looked like a deceased Tsarina.
“Well, finally something that gives me hope,” Tania commented from the front seat. “These are great. No one will ever spot these as fakes.”
“Why, thank you,” Peter replied. He looked at me. “What do you think?” he asked me.
“I think I’ll finally be able to get home,” I said softly.
“Don’t sound so enthusiastic,” Tania snapped. “Look, we can’t stay here princess. We have to blow this joint before someone cuts your head off. I know, it’s a cool country and most of the people are great, yadda yadda. I get it, but reality check. We have to get the hell out of here.” She turned around and went back to staring out the windshield. I could tell she wasn’t happy.
“I hate to say it, but she’s right,” Peter said to me. “Sometimes, things aren’t meant to be the way we want them to be.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out my grandmother’s ring. “This is for you,” he said as he handed it to me.
I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know that he’d taken the ring. I didn’t know why he would. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t have told me that he wanted to take it. I didn’t know what was going on, but I tried not to get all bent out of shape before I found out.
I took the ring from him and put it on my finger. “Thanks,” I said. I didn’t say anything else, hoping that he would explain himself.
He smiled at me. “Wow, I’m good,” he said, grinning from ear to ear.
I stared at him. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He eyed me cautiously. “Take the ring off,” he said. I did. “Look inside where the inscription is.” I did. “Look carefully.” I did.
The inscription was wrong. The inside of the ring had always had an inscription that I thought was a year. I didn’t know for certain, but I thought that the numbers were a year. I’d always thought it said 1792. This ring said 1799. It was not my ring.
“I don’t understand,” I said to him.
“That’s not your ring,” Peter announced. “I had a duplicate made. I had Sadie put the wrong date on it, so that we could tell the difference.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because, there’s still a chance that you’ll get caught before you leave the country. I don’t think that you should ever be without that ring. This way, if they take it, it won’t matter. The date is the only way to tell the difference between the rings.” He looked at me for a moment. He pulled the real ring from his pocket and gave it to me. “Put this one where no one can find it. Leave the false one out. That way they can’t get at it.”
I took the ring from him and put it in my pocket. “Thanks,” I said. “I didn’t think of an alternative to giving them the ring. I’m glad you’re looking out for me. But won’t they know that’s the wrong date?”
“I don’t think so. The ring is a myth in the first place. How would they know the date on the inscription?”
He was right. We were the only ones that knew about the inscription. “You’re really something, you know that?”
“You two want to be alone?” Tania asked sarcastically from the front seat.
“It does sound like they’re smitten,” Steve commented from the driver’s seat.
“Are we there yet?” Peter asked, trying to change the subject.
“No,” Steve answered.
“Hey, I was wondering, what does that date have to do with Catherine the Great, anyway?” Tania asked. “I’ve been wondering that since I had my first look at the ring.”
“What was that date?” Steve asked.
Steve thought for a moment. “That’s the year that she conquered the Crimea,” he answered. “That’s tears it. The legend is real. That ring was supposed to be commissioned to celebrate the event.”
Each time I heard another piece of the puzzle, I was more convinced. This was all real. This was my life. This was my country. This was my history. This was the most incredible thing that could happen to me in my entire life. Now I had to run away from it all. I had to run from my true place back to Indiana where no one would try to kill me. Life made no sense.
The Ring of the Queen
No matter how good you are, how brave you are or anything, it comes down to that car so many times.
It was night time when we reached Tver. I don’t know what I would have done without my watch. I don’t think there was any difference between afternoon and night except maybe it was a little bit darker. It was hard to tell. I don’t think that we ever would have found the town through all of that snow if that monster Hummer hadn’t had a good GPS system. I had no idea which direction was which in the dark and the snow. The moon was gone at that point, and it seemed cloudy out.
We pulled into the train station, which seemed modern and state of the art. I’d always viewed European train stations as giant old hangar-like buildings where trains congregated as if they were on display. This one had a modern sculpture in the front and a statue of Lenin, which seemed a little out of place in modern Russia. I hadn’t seen anything so blatantly from the Communist Era until then on my trip. Peter said that they kept it for historical value. I believe that history should be preserved, so I liked it.
There was a small hotel connected to the train station where we checked in for the night. We’d missed the last train of the evening. The man at the desk didn’t seem to recognize me either as the fugitive that the government was looking for or as the spitting image of Catherine the Great. I took the first comfortable breath I’d taken since I’d left Tish’s house. I hoped that I would be able to slip by and make my exit quietly from Russia.
We got two separate rooms for the night. Peter never seemed to be at a loss for money. I guessed that working for his grandmother paid well. He was always pulling out debit cards and credit cards. He never seemed to think about the amounts. I’d never been able to live that way. I wondered what it was like. Rich was not something that I knew anything about.
I was shocked when he handed the second key to Steve and kept one for himself. Before I could bring myself to say anything about it, Tania and Steve nearly ran for the elevator. I knew I was right about the two of them.
“We’ll be back down here in half an hour, so we can find some food,” Tania called as she stepped into the elevator.
I stood smiling, staring down at the floor. “Well, I guess that means that we share a room,” I said to Peter. I was also wondering about the half an hour comment from Tania. Seemed short.
“Is that a problem?” Peter said, smiling at me.
I felt myself blush. How embarrassing. “No,” I said, feeling a stupid grin form on my face.
“Good,” he smiled back. Then he looked at the desk attendant. “Is the museum still open?” Peter asked the man behind the desk.
The man barely looked up at us. “Yes. They’re having some of the local schools through this week, so they’re staying open late. You still have about an hour if you like.”
“Great,” Peter replied. He looked at me and took my hand. “Come on, I have something to show you.”
I followed him out the door of the hotel into the street.
We left the train station hotel, and Peter hailed a taxi. We pulled up in front of a building that said “Old world ” all over it. There appeared to be a whole neighborhood of old buildings. They were beautiful and colorful and majestic, like they would have been in the days before Communism. I felt that we must be close to the museum that he’d been talking about. I didn’t know what else you would do with all those beautiful Tsar era buildings.
Peter motioned to me to follow him up the steps of the yellow one. Inside he paid the entrance fee and we went into the museum. The museum was all about Catherine the Great. I couldn’t believe it. There were paintings of her everywhere. There were pieces of furniture and books and lamps and clothes and jewels and all kinds of things that had belonged to her.
“This was her house,” Peter said to me, as we stood in the first room. “She had it built here for her use when she traveled between and . Everything here actually belonged to her.” He took both my hands. “This is a huge part of your history. I thought you’d like to see it.”
I stood in awe. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. “This woman was family to me,” I said, trying to overcome a feeling of emotion that I couldn’t explain. “This incredible woman was an ancestor of mine. How can this be? I don’t understand. I can’t be one of them. I don’t fit in.”
Peter took my hand and pointed out a painting on the wall. It was of her. “You look just like her honey. Look into those eyes. Those eyes are your past. You are the image of that woman. You are a Tsarina. Whether you fit in or not, it’s your destiny.”
“I know you want me to stay and take on the entire country, but I can’t,” I replied. “I don’t have what it takes to follow in her footsteps.” I said, gesturing to the painting. “I’m sorry.”
Peter reached out to me and drew me in close to him. He held me tight. “It’s okay. It’s a lot to throw at you. I understand. The timing isn’t right. Someday you’ll feel differently. Someday you’ll find a reason to return and fight the government here and take your place. That’s why I made that ring.”
“I think you’re wrong about that,” I told him. “I’m an American. I don’t know how to be Russian.”
Then I heard Santa Claus is Coming to Town again. I reached into my pocket and got out my sat phone. I answered the phone. It was Tania. She sounded hysterical.
“They’re here!” she screamed at me. “The secret police are here! They’re arresting us! Where are you?” The phone shut off.
“We have to go,” I said to Peter.
“What was that all about?” he asked me.
“That was Tania. She and Steve were just arrested.” I saw the look of horror on his face. “That’s all I know. The line went dead on me.”
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. “You don’t want to get involved in this. Let me handle it. You need to stay hidden or you won’t get home.”
“It’s me they’re after. They don’t want Tania or Steve. They want me. We all know that.”
“I thought you didn’t want any part of this? I thought that you said all you wanted was to go back to and get on with your life.”
“What’s your point?” I asked, getting angrier by the minute.
“If you go after Tania and Steve, you may end up in the middle of this after all. There most likely will be no turning back. It’s what they want you to do. They want to draw you out where they can squash you like a bug. Why would you subject yourself to that kind of danger? Why is it suddenly worth risking your life for?”
I stopped by the exit as I was walking out of the building and turned to face Peter. “Why?” I exclaimed. “I’ll tell you why. They can look all over for me. They can steal my passport. They can put my face on TV and call me a criminal. I don’t care. Tania and Steve have nothing to do with this except for the fact that they happened to be around when all of this started and were nice enough to try and help me. Why would I suddenly decide to take them on? I’ll tell you why. Because they are what you said they are. They’re gangsters and thugs. They act like bullies. They’re cowards and I have no respect for them. Now they’ll have to deal with me, because I’m pissed off.” I put my hand out to him, palm up. “Give me the keys to that Hummer. I saw Steve hand them to you at the hotel.” I waited. He just stared at me. “Well?” I asked, half demanding.
Peter slowly reached into his pocket and handed me the keys. “What do you intend to do?” he asked, nervously.
“I’m not completely sure,” I snapped. “I hope your grandma really likes me, cause she’s not going to like what I’m about to do to her car.”
The Ring of the Queen
We’re taught to be ashamed of confusion, anger, fear and sadness, and to me they’re of equal value to happiness, excitement and inspiration.
I couldn’t think straight. I was so upset that I was losing my mind. I swear, I could feel it slipping away from my like the string of a balloon slipping from my fingers. I had to do something. I had no idea what. I knew that I would need that Hummer for something. I had to do damage to someone or something to get Tania and Steve out of trouble. I didn’t want to, but I could see that it was coming to a crux and there was nothing else that I could do. I hoped that I would have to destroy something instead of someone, but I was suddenly prepared to do whatever it took. I’d had enough and at that point, I was mad.
It was beginning to snow again as I trudged through the snowy streets of Tver. It wasn’t far from the museum to the train station’s hotel. I didn’t feel like looking for a taxi at that point. I needed to think, and I felt that the walk in the snow would do me good. It was dark, of course, as it always was in January around there. It made it difficult to see exactly where the sidewalks and the streets were, so I continually stepped into puddles of dirty slush. I didn’t care. I wanted the doomed visit to Russia to end. I wanted to go home to Indiana and deal with my own dirty snow.
Peter followed me silently back to the hotel. He had trouble keeping up with me, even though he was a good head taller than me and his legs were markedly longer as well. I almost ran out of frustration. It was involuntary, but it did work off some of the frustration along the way. I didn’t look back to see if he was keeping up. I didn’t really care. I was so upset and disgusted that I didn’t care at that moment if I never saw him again. I have a tendency to back away from people and go into withdrawal from those around me when I’m upset. I can’t think well unless I’m alone.
I could hear Peter breathing heavily from the walk behind me as I walked into the lobby of the hotel. I walked straight to the main desk where I saw a completely different gentleman than was there when we’d left. I didn’t know if he had been there when the police had come or not. I didn’t know if he’d know a damn thing about all of it, and I didn’t care. I expected him to. I was an American, and I believed that someone should know something if I needed them too. I was still naïve.
“Where is the couple that was arrested?” I demanded of the man behind the hotel desk.
“I’m sorry; I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replied.
I could feel rage welling up in my throat like mercury in a thermometer as it sits in the sun. “There was a couple arrested in this hotel less than an hour ago. Where did they take them?” I demanded once again.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” he replied with an attitude.
Peter took me by the arm and whirled me around to face him. “Look, we have enough trouble already. I don’t think you should make things any worse.” I hated it when a man grabbed me that way.
I didn’t answer Peter. I reached up and pried his hand from my arm and pushed it away. I turned back to the man behind the counter. “Look, I don’t care who you think you are. The girl that was arrested wasn’t Russian. She’s an American citizen. She is being arrested because of some stupid issue that the government here is having with me. This could cause an international incident. Do you want that?”
The man looked past me to Peter. I hate it when men do that. I wanted to reach across the desk and grab him and beat him. I couldn’t do that, so I did the next best thing. I reached across the desk and slapped his face. “You know, you can talk directly to me, asshole,” I said.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard Peter’s voice. “Calm down Stacey.”
“Did he say Stacey?” the man behind the desk asked me.
“Yes, why?” I asked.
“Because, Peter, your grandmother said that I should make sure that you and this Stacey got out of town. The police found you and she told me to have them arrest the others as a diversion,” the man behind the desk explained to Peter, still ignoring my existence.
I didn’t know what to think. Tish was too much. Tish knew too much. Tish had too much power. I turned around to face Peter. “How does your grandmother know so much about everything?”
From behind me the man at the desk spoke. “Ms. Zinkov is my boss. She owns the hotel. I do as she says. When she gives me a direct order, I do only as she says.”
I didn’t even turn to acknowledge that I’d heard him. I continued to face Peter. I waited for him to answer. I was too angry to speak without more information.
“I told you, my grandmother is very well connected,” Peter said, finally. “I’m sure she has our best interests in mind. She’s not as evil as you think she is.”
I finally calmed down enough to speak. “I don’t really care what her motives are. I’m not leaving the country and leaving Tania in jail somewhere in the middle of nowhere. That is where we are, right? We’re in the middle of nowhere. I mean, Catherine the Great had to build a house here in order to have a place to stay while she was traveling between Moscow and St. Petersburg, isn’t that what you told me?”
“Yes,” Peter muttered, head hanging, looking at the floor.
“Great. I’ve never even heard of Tver before, but my friend is in jail here, because the President is all worried about that stupid ring. We need to get them out of there. You will help me. Your grandmother did this. Steve is your friend. You owe them even more than I do.” I waited for some kind of an answer.
“I know,” Peter muttered. “I’m out of ideas. I don’t know what to do.”
I turned to the man behind the desk. “First you’re going to have to tell me where they took my friends,” I said to him. “Don’t tell me you can’t do that.”
“But, miss…” he started.
“What?” I yelled in his face.
“I have to answer to Ms. Zinkov” he replied.
I looked over my shoulder at Peter. I reached up to take the hat off of my head.
“No,” Peter said.
His objections were in vain. I ripped the hat off my head and turned to face the man behind the desk. “Have you ever been to your museum?” I asked. I could see the shocked expression forming on his face. “I see you have. Do you have any idea who I’m supposed to be? Who do I look like, bud?” I put the ring on my finger and held my hand out to his face. “Have you ever seen this?” I asked him.
The man behind the desk stood and backed away from me and the counter. “My God, that’s supposed to be nothing but an old tale,” he gasped. “You’re supposed to be an imposter. That’s what the police are saying.”
“Well, you’ve seen me now,” I snapped. “What do you think?”
“You look like Catherine the Great,” he said eyes still wide. I could tell that he was extremely confused. “Are you really the last Romanov?” he asked.
“I don’t have the slightest idea, but if it will get you to tell me where they took my friends and any other information you have that may help me get them out of jail, sure,” I told him. “I’ll be Mickey Mouse if that’s what it takes.”
It turned out that the man behind the desk was named Boris. Actually, he kind of reminded me of the little criminal from the Bullwinkle cartoons. He’d worked for Tish as the night manager at the hotel since she’d bought it ten years before. He was born and raised in Tver. He was well connected himself. He knew nearly everyone in town. He knew all of the cops. He didn’t care for them. He was one of the masses that thought of them all as gangsters and thugs. He was one of the masses that wanted to throw the government out and get a new one. Once I convinced him to quit listening to Tish, there was no problem getting him to help us against the police.
Boris told us where the police station was located. It wasn’t far from the hotel. He said it was only a few blocks. He told us that there were as many as twenty police officers on duty there at night. There were some significant crime problems in that precinct, so they always had extra people on duty. He felt that it would be difficult to manage to get Tania and Steve out of the police station, unless they could do it with a lawyer.
I couldn’t wait for lawyers. They would be way more interested in me and my stupid ring than they would be in helping my friends. I needed to do something far less conventional to break them out. I had no intention of ending up in there with them. I knew that if the government people ever got a hold of me, that’s exactly where I would be. I needed a plan. I needed a way to confront these policemen without getting killed. I needed leverage. I needed witnesses. I needed a lot for a little country girl who had nothing at her disposal.
I looked at Boris and thought. “How many people do you know that would do you a huge favor?” I asked him.
“Like what?” he asked. “They don’t allow us to carry guns in this country, so they can’t come and be soldiers for you.”
“I need witnesses,” I said.
“What do you want witnesses for?” Peter asked.
“ I have to do something. I didn’t do anything, and neither did Tania or Steve. I don’t think that the government here would stop me from correcting a huge mistake in front of a crowd of witnesses who no longer believe in their government already.”
“And what if they do?” Peter asked.
I held my hand out palm up to Peter. “Call grandma and then give me the phone,” I ordered him. “I think I know her well enough already. I bet grandma can do something to help.”
Peter pushed the number on his phone and handed it to me. I waited. “Hello” I heard Tish say on the other end. “Peter?”
“Guess again,” I said, wanting to punch her.
“Tsarina,” she said, sarcastically.
“Look, old woman, I don’t know who you think you are, but you had our friends arrested.” There was a pause. “I know you did it.”
“I wanted to give the two of you a chance to escape,” she said.
“That’s not going to work,” I told her. “I’m not leaving them here in jail. You caused this; you help me fix it.”
“How do you think I could do that?” she asked.
“I remember that you told me that you had never taken over the country because you thought it would be too much of a pain in the ass. Do you remember that?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Well then, I’m guessing that you have substantial pull with newspapers, radio stations, TV, and maybe the government themselves. Why don’t you use some of that pull right now to help me get our friends out of jail? Then I’ll go home and leave your grandson alone. Do we have a deal?”
“Yes,” she said, flatly. “Give me an hour, and then do what you must. There’s just one thing that I must remind you of missy.”
“What?” I asked; angry with her.
“If you are the cause of one single hair being harmed on my Peter’s head, I’ll see to it that you never make it back to the farm.” The phone clicked off.
I looked at Peter. “She really doesn’t like me.” I handed him his phone. “I really don’t care.”
The Ring of the Queen
I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.
For the next half hour, Boris made calls. He asked all of his closest friends and family to go to the police station and wait outside. He had no trouble convincing anyone to go out at night in the freezing cold during a snowstorm for him. I thought he must be a hell of a nice guy, or criminal of some kind. I wasn’t sure which, but as long as he could get people to come out and watch my scene, I didn’t care. He made at least a dozen calls, and from the sounds of it, everyone he called did the same.
“In about twenty minutes there should be at least 100 people at the police station to watch the show,” Boris said. “Now what?”
I’d been thinking about that. “I need to know when the next train is coming through here,” I said.
Boris looked at his watch. “If you can pull off whatever you have in mind before midnight, you could make an express train. If not, the next train is at 11:00 a.m.”
The time was 8:30 p.m. Three and a half hours was a lot of time, and I wasn’t sure how long a Mexican standoff in Russia would take. I wasn’t sure how long any kind of a standoff anywhere was supposed to take. I’d never done anything like it before. I’d never had to. If I could get back home, I would never have to do anything like it again.
Home was half a world away. It seemed further than that. I may as well have been on Mars. I may as well have been on Mars and having a nightmare. This whole mess was just that; a nightmare. I wished that I could wake up and have it all go away. I wished that I could suddenly snap out of it and find out that it was all a terrible dream and that I was just sleeping off jet lag in my dorm room. If wishes were horses, I would have a stable full. My grandma used to say that.
“Okay, so midnight it is,” I said. “I guess we should get going.”
“What are we going to do?” Peter asked. “You can’t just walk into the police station and tell them to let Tania and Steve go.”
“They won’t listen to you,” he said. “Have you forgotten that it’s you they’re after?”
“Of course not,” I snapped at him. “You people would never let me forget that. I’ll have Alzheimer’s someday, and I’ll still remember that. I’m a Tsarina, I’m an empress, I’m a queen; and it’s all because of some stupid ring. How could I ever forget that?”
“I’m sorry,” Peter apologized. “I wish I could make it all stop, but we both know that it’s about more than a ring. It’s in your blood, and that’s what Yuri Kostov cannot ignore. I know this is getting to you. ”
“You think?” I asked. “I come here to study Tsars and find out that I am one. I get chased around the country by some paranoid president that until a few days ago I thought was a little nuts. My friends are in jail. Your grandmother is nuts. It’s all on my shoulders. You aren’t much help. I don’t even know where I am now, and it’s always dark here. Have I left anything out?”
“No, but I think you need to calm down,” Peter snapped back at me.
“I don’t need to calm down,” I told him. “There’s one thing that you need to understand. Calming down is a bad thing. If I calm down, I won’t have the guts to do anything about this. Anger gives me strength. Anger gives me courage. Anger makes me take action. Anger is a good thing in my case. So, don’t tell me to calm down or you’ll have an even bigger mess on your hands. Let’s go.” I turned and walked toward the parking lot.
“So what are you going to do?” Peter asked.
“Why are you going that way?” Boris asked. “That’s the parking lot. The police station is across the road and down the street.”
Peter didn’t move. I stopped and turned to face them both. “Well, are you coming?” There was no answer. “Come on, both of you. I need witnesses.” I motioned to them to come with me. “Let’s go!” I yelled.
They both jogged to catch up with me, without question. Boris left the desk unattended. I don’t think he knew whether to keep listening to Tish or to listen to me, but he seemed to be more interested in what was going to happen at the police station than he was in his job.
“You’re not going to get my grandmother’s Hummer are you?” Peter asked as we walked.
“Yes,” I said, not turning to look at him as I spoke.
“What do you intend to do with it?” he asked.
“I’m going to drive it right up the front steps of the police station and demand that they let my friends loose.”
“She’s definitely a royal,” Boris commented. “No one else is that crazy.”
I shook my head and kept walking. We got to the Hummer. I pulled down the step and climbed into the beast. I could tell that Boris had seen the car before. He’d probably been in the hotel at some time when Tish had driven up in it. The giant Humvee was memorable. The two men waited while I climbed in before going to the passenger side to climb up in.
Once everyone was finally in the Humvee, I started the engine. Peter was sitting next to me and Boris was sitting in the back. I’d never driven anything quite like a monster truck before. I didn’t care. I’d driven about ten different kinds of four wheel drive trucks, tractors and combines. How hard could it be?
“Are you sure you can handle this thing?” Peter asked.
“Sure, why not?” I replied.
“Well, for one thing, you can’t drive this thing up the steps of the police station,” he said.
He was beginning to annoy me. “Why not?” I asked.
“Because the police station doesn’t have steps,” Boris said from the back seat.
I giggled. I was starting to enjoy this operation. Either that or I had completely lost my mind somewhere along the way. “Well, that’s probably going to suck for them then,” I announced.
“Why?” Peter asked.
“Because that means I’ll have to run over something else.”
I was too angry to feel as intimidated by the monster Hummer as I should have. I figured that if Tish could drive it, then so could I. When I attempted to put it in gear the first time, I wondered if I hadn’t overestimated my driving skills. The gear shift had been extended, to make it long and imposing in between the front seats of the car. I felt more like I was driving a train than an off road vehicle. I almost didn’t get the stick to move at first, but once I realized that there was no way to ease the thing and started slamming it, I was on my way. The initial jolts and jumps made Peter and Boris very nervous. Peter was holding onto the handle over his door. I didn’t bother to look and see what Boris was doing in the back.
I found that the steering wasn’t difficult, so I took off out of the parking lot, around the buildings and headed down the opposite street to the police station. I so wanted to run something over with that Hummer. I mean, who wouldn’t want to? It was a monster Hummer.
I saw the police station come up in front of me quickly. Boris had been right. It wasn’t far. I saw a large crowd of people gathered in the front of the building. I saw a couple of news trucks there too. That had probably been Tish’s doing. She had respected me enough to do a something to help. I wish I’d known what she’d told them when she’d called them. I hoped that she hadn’t decided to go ahead and let the authorities arrest me. I had quickly figured out that Tish was unpredictable.
As I came closer to the police station, I noticed that the people whom Boris had called, and everyone that they’d called were standing all around the area. It was the largest crowd I’d seen at something besides a professional football game in my life. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to hurt any of my witnesses. I pulled up directly behind the police cars that were parked in front of the building and stopped in the middle of the snow covered street.
Peter let go of the handle over his door. “What now?” he asked.
I smiled. I’d spotted the two way radio in the dash of the Hummer. I’d grown up in farmland. Farmers loved their CB radios. Cell phones were the way of the future. CB radios were the way of the Indiana farmer. Peter probably had no idea how the thing worked being into high tech, but if I was right, every CB had a PA system too. All I had to do was switch it on. If it was as I thought it would be, the PA system on a Hummer would kick ass.
I picked up the mike. I saw the button that said “PA” on it. First, I honked the horn on the Hummer. It nearly deafened the crowd in front of me. I could tell by the way they were covering their ears. Cool. That baby was loud. In my unrest, this part was feeling a little bit like fun. It was about time I had fun on my vacation.
Peter slumped down in the seat. Boris did too. I waited for someone in a uniform to come out of the police station. I sat. I waited. I honked the horn again. I deafened the rest of the crowd that time. Cool.
Finally, someone in a police uniform came out the front door of the building. I depressed the button on the mike. “I’m the one you’re looking for. You need to let my friends go,” I announced in a voice that reached for miles. I could tell that everyone heard me out on the street in front of me. A lot of them were covering their ears again.
Everyone seemed a little surprised that I could speak Russian. I don’t know why. That one had puzzled me since I got there. Why would I not speak Russian? I was in Russia. And since I couldn’t seem to leave that cold dark country, I felt it was a damn good thing that I could speak the language.
The police officer motioned to me to get out of the Hummer. I thought he’d lost his mind. I hadn’t planned anything, but I was sure that I hadn’t planned on getting out of the car. Now I had to figure out what I was going to do. I hoped that someday I would have time to make a plan before heading out for an activity.
“No,” I said on the PA.
Another cop came out of the building. He had a bullhorn. At last, someone who realized that I wasn’t coming inside with them. He handed it to the first cop. “You must park the vehicle and come inside, so we can resolve the situation,” he said.
“I can’t do that,” I replied on the mike.
“Why not?” asked the bullhorn.
“Because, I’m certain that you have orders to arrest me,” I said.
“Why would you think that?” the bullhorn asked.
“Because according to the television, I’m a wanted criminal,” I answered.
“Why are you?” the bullhorn asked.
“I’m Catherine Zerbst,” I announced. “I’m the one that they say is trying to impersonate a Romanov.”
The Ring of the Queen
I’d like to be a queen in people’s hearts but I don’t see myself being queen of this country.
A dead silence fell over the crowd in the street. Even the police officer didn’t know what to say for a moment.
The cop with the bullhorn lowered his head for a moment. “I won’t lie to you,” the bullhorn started. “I was told that you were in the area, and that I should arrest you so that they can take you back to Moscow.”
“I know that,” I replied. “Isn’t that why you took the tip to arrest my friends?”
“Yes,” the bullhorn said, after a lengthy pause.
“You’re hearing this,” I said, addressing the crowd in the street and the news people now. “They’re holding my friends hostage to draw me out. This is not a police function. This is the action of a madman. Your police are obligated to work for the powers that run your country. You know this. You know that this is wrong. You know that there is no solid code that gives any rights to the citizens. Why do you stand for it? I’ve heard that you would welcome me back to get rid of them. Why? Why do you need a Romanov to take your country back? Have you ever needed one for that before? Communism was not lead by a Romanov. Modern Democracy and all of this did not come by a Romanov. You can get together and do this on your own. I am not trying to take over the country. I am not trying to be a Tsarina. I want to go home. I was born and raised in the United States of America. I do, however want you to have what you want for a life and a country. I don’t want to see a place where people can be randomly arrested and held because of who they know. Monarchies tend to work that way. You don’t want a royal to come along and be your hero. In essence, you don’t want me. The odds are that would be bad in the end. It’s time that you all took over together. It’s the only way. It’s worked reasonably well for my country for 250 years or so. I want to help, but I don’t have the means. That leaves it up to you.”
I quit speaking on my soapbox issues after that and went back to my attempt at getting my friends released. “Mr. Officer, or whatever I need to call you. I just want to go home. I don’t want to run your country. Please, let my friends go. The girl is from the U.S. This whole thing will end up causing an international incident if you keep her incarcerated. Please, let them go.”
“What do you think you’re going to do if he says no?” Peter asked.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking. You’re interrupting that.” I waited for an answer from the bullhorn.
Finally an answer. “The message on the wire says that you are an imposter, and that we are to do whatever necessary to detain you. I have my orders.”
“Does that include arresting innocent bystanders?” I asked him.
“In a word, yes,” he replied.
I opened the door of the Hummer. “What do you think you’re doing?” Peter asked me.
“I’m going out there to talk to him.”
“He’s going to arrest you. We can’t have that.”
“Have you ever seen a truck rally?” I asked him as I opened the door.
“You mean monster trucks?” he asked, sounding confused.
“Of course, why?”
“Because, when you see Tania and Steve come out of that building, which you will, I will give you a sign. Then you will need to drive up the street and come through here.” I gestured to the parking area full of cop cars in front of the Hummer.
“Here is full of cop cars,” he observed.
“Yes, it is,” I smiled. A look of shock come over his face. I knew that he understood me. I leaned over and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
“What is the sign?” he asked.
“I’m working on it.”
I climbed down from the truck and walked between the parked cop cars to where the officer with the bullhorn and his partner stood. They didn’t lunge for me. They didn’t have any restraints in sight. I didn’t know whether or not they were armed. I didn’t see any restraints either. I wondered if Russian cops carried handcuffs or weapons. I would have to check into that, preferably from my grandma’s house in Indiana after I got home.
“Fine arrest me,” I said to them. “If you really want to keep working for thugs and living in a country where you have to pay the government not to come and tear your house down, then go ahead (I’d seen that story on television at home). Prove that you can’t think for yourselves. Prove that the government you live under is better than a government that was designed by the people and for the people. My country already has that. While it’s nowhere near perfect, it’s better than what’s going on here. I’ve seen enough to tell you that, and I’ve only been here a few days.”
The two officers stood and stared at me. They looked around at the crowd of people and reporters. The officer that had previously held the bullhorn was currently standing with the bullhorn at his side, still and silent. I stood in front of him. I didn’t flinch. I stared him right in the eyes, daring him to arrest me. I knew that if I made it out of there, I would soon collapse. Stress was starting to get to me.
“Who are you, really?” he asked after a pause of at least 30 seconds.
“Release my friends, and I’ll tell you,” I answered. “They’ve done nothing. I’m standing right here. You have me. You don’t need them anymore. Let them go.”
He took a handheld radio from his belt. “Release them. I have the one they want right here,” he said. He stared at me. “Now, who are you, really?”
I waited silently, working hard not to move. My grandma told me that if you stand still and strong, it will make your opponent nervous. I hoped that it worked. I watched the officer. He looked unsettled. I saw his eyes and was fairly sure that he was trying to make sense out of everything that was happening in front of him. I began to think that he wasn’t so sure that his government was worth believing in.
I could see confusion on the faces around me, but I didn’t know where the situation was going yet. Everything that I’d ever learned about Russia led me to believe that the people there had always followed a leader of some kind. It was as though they didn’t realize the power that they had as a group. I wondered where people got that feeling of helplessness from. There were millions of them. Why couldn’t they just change things? I knew that I was naïve, but it seemed so simple in my young mind. I felt bad for them, but they had what it would take. They didn’t need me. I was not the leader that they were looking for. I needed to go home and be a kid for a little longer. I wasn’t ready to grow up, and not my lineage or all the people in Russia could make me.
Finally after we waited for almost half an hour, Steve and Tania emerged from the building. It was getting late. I had a train to catch, God willing. I was glad to see that they hadn’t harmed them. I was worried about them. I didn’t know what a Russian police station was like. I didn’t know what an American police station was like. I‘d never been in any kind of trouble before I’d come to Russia.
Tania ran to me and grabbed me in a huge embrace. “Thank God!” She exclaimed. “I thought that they were going to keep us there forever. Why did they arrest us?” she asked. “Is this all to get to you?”
“I told you…” Steve started as he was giving me a small hug too. “They arrested us to get at Stacey.” He looked at me. “Why did you do this? You cannot be incarcerated in this country. You have a legacy to live up to. Even if you go home, you’re still the only Romanov.”
“It’s for real?” the police officer asked Steve.
Steve reached up and pulled my hat off once again. “What do you think?” he asked the officer.
Several police officers had come out of the building behind Tania and Steve. The crowd of bystanders stood all around us. There wasn’t a noise in the crowd anywhere. You could have heard a pin drop when they got a look at me without anything changing my appearance. The brown hair really did it. Even if I’d thought that I’d only looked like Catherine the Great to me when I was looking a mirror, I knew now that I was wrong. I must have looked like her to bring such a hush to a crowd that large.
“Dear Lord,” the cop with the bullhorn said. “What did you say your name was?”
“Catherine Anastasia Zerbst.” I replied.
He looked at Steve. “I’m telling you, she’s the real thing,” Steve replied. “She’s the real thing and the President is freaking out. That’s why he wants her. You must know that. He feels that if she’s running around the country, she’ll help you all take over. Don’t let him win. Stand up and fight back. Yuri Kostov and his followers are nothing but thugs. You know that. If you help him eliminate her, and don’t think he won’t do it, you will have destroyed the last Russian legacy that could emancipate your country’s people.”
The officers all stood silently for a moment. The one with the bullhorn finally spoke. “The ring. She has the ring? The legend talks of a ring.”
I didn’t wait for Steve to reply. I pulled it out of my pocket. “Yes. I got it from my grandmother when she died.” I held it out.
I thought by the look on his face that Steve was going to have a stroke. I was nervous too, but I didn’t know how else to get through to the people. I could hear Peter revving the engine of the Hummer behind me. He was getting impatient.
“Go get in the Humvee,” I said quietly in Steve’s ear. “Take Tania.”
He shot me a look that I didn’t understand and didn’t take time to process.
“Now!” I snapped as quietly as I could.
As the cops gathered around me and looked at my face and the ring, Steve and Tania slipped away, and climbed into the Humvee. None of the police officers noticed.
The cop with the bullhorn looked up from the ring at me. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you believe enough to let me go back to America. I don’t want to run your country. All of you can do that. I want to go home.”
“If they find out they’ll kill me,” he said.
“You must be the chief here then.”
“Yes. I know my government. I know that they don’t care about the people or our lives. I know that if I don’t do as they say, they will most likely see to it that I’m killed.”
“Are you armed?” I asked.
“Are any of your men armed?” I asked.
I waved my arm at Peter over and behind my head. I heard the Hummer begin to move. I didn’t acknowledge it. I focused on the officer in front of me. He ignored the Hummer as well. He didn’t seem to have the slightest idea what to do next.
“Try to arrest me,” I told the officer.
“What?” he asked, shocked.
“There are a hundred witnesses and members of the press here who can testify to your valiant attempt to arrest me. Now, you try to put handcuffs on me, and I’ll hit you with them. I’ll make it look good.”
I heard a noise. It was the horn on the train. It was pulling into the station down the street as we spoke. “Just trust me,” I said.
He took out handcuffs and reached for my arm. I could hear Peter behind me shifting gears on the Hummer. I felt the lights hit me from the side as he drove toward the parked cars. The witnesses gasped as the monster Hummer came toward the parked police cars. People began to move out of the way. The officer was distracted as the Hummer began to climb and crush the first of six cars parked in a row.
I snatched the handcuffs from the officer’s hands as he watched the Hummer crush his entire fleet of cars one by one. I took the handcuffs and swung them right at his head, striking him above the temple. He fell to the sidewalk. I felt bad, but I hoped that it would keep him from being killed. I took the handcuffs and threw them at the bay window of the police station. I expected it to be safety glass, but it was an old building and the window instantly shattered into a million pieces.
Glass flew everywhere. People started to run out of the way of the oncoming Humvee. The police fanned out to get the situation under control. The Hummer stopped next to me with two police cars left intact. I climbed up and onto Steve’s lap in the passenger side. I was glad that no one shot at us. Peter continued to crush police cars until he landed on the snowy street on the opposite side of the lot.
“We need to catch that train, Peter”
He shifted gears again and headed for the train station.
The Ring of the Queen
One must not let oneself be overwhelmed by sadness.
We made the train. I was glad that it was only a few blocks away. Boris, being the manager of the hotel and train station made it easy to hold up the train. I was assured that trains in Russia were not notably efficient, and delays were not uncommon. It was my first time on a train.
Boris called the engineer from his phone and asked him to wait for us. I exhausted, but I knew that if I wanted to get home, I would have to keep going. I wanted to lay my head down and sleep for a week. The adventure was more than I was accustomed to and the stress was making me ill.
Boris had a bellman meet us on the platform with our luggage and tickets to St. Petersburg. There was talk of the police coming, but I was sure that they wouldn’t actually try to catch us. They had to make some kind of effort so that the hierarchy didn’t realize that they had let us go.
The train looked like a fancy subway. That was the only solid reference I had. It looked like the ones that I’d seen on the Travel Channel. At least I didn’t see any cops waiting. That made me breathe easier.
Tania and I ran to the man who had our bags next to what we hoped was our train. When I reached him, I grabbed my bag and ticket and began to make my way to the steps. I realized that Peter and Steve hadn’t come with us. I looked back to see them standing several feet away, watching. I didn’t understand. I thought that Peter would stay with me until the end. At that moment, it looked to me as though he was going to leave me. I wasn’t prepared for that outcome. I wasn’t ready to be alone on the run in Russia. Peter had been the one that I’d trusted from the beginning. I’d slept with him for God’s sake. He couldn’t leave me. I couldn’t have that.
I walked over to the men. Boris had disappeared, but Steve and Peter were still standing on the platform. “Are you ready?” I asked Peter.
“I can’t come,” he replied.
I looked at Steve.
“He’s right. We can’t come with you girls.”
I could actually feel the ground falling out from under me. I hadn’t realized it, but the last thing I wanted was never to see Peter again. I had no idea how, but in an extremely short time, I thought that I’d fallen in love with him. He was going to run out on me. I didn’t know what to think. I felt like he’d just punched me right in the gut. I wanted to scream or cry or hit something. I was confused and hurt. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. I didn’t know what to say. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.
“What do you mean, ‘You can’t come?’” I asked.
I watched his face and thought that he might cry too. “I’m too well known around these parts. My grandmother has so many connections that everyone knows our family. After what happened here tonight, I think it would be better if someone else helped you on the rest of your journey.”
Tania reached over and slapped Steve in the face. “Are you bailing out on us too?” He said nothing. “You son of a bitch! You coward! I thought you were different than other guys, but I can see that you’re just the same little boy, jackass, cowardly, self centered pussy as every other guy I’ve ever met!” She turned with her bag and walked toward the train. “Come on Stacey!” she yelled over her shoulder. “I’ll find some way to get us home! I won’t leave you hanging! I’m a woman! We don’t run away from shit!” She started sobbing as she walked to the train, climbed the stairs and went inside.
Peter was staring at his feet. Steve was doing the same. “I’m sorry, Stacey,” Peter said, not looking at me. “I want to stay with you. I want you to be safe. I think that I’ll put you at risk. Please understand.”
“I understand,” I replied. “I don’t understand how you could leave me hanging out here. I don’t know anything about riding Russian trains—well any trains, much less any idea about what to do or where to go in St. Petersburg. I can’t just wing this. I’m way too far out of my element here.”
“We know Stacey,” Steve interjected. “We wouldn’t do that to you. Boris is calling some people right now. He knows a lot of people in St. Petersburg. Remember, he runs the train station and hotel here. Lots of people from St. Petersburg are regulars around here. He has lots of friends. He’ll be back in a minute. He’s going to take you girls to St. Petersburg and make sure that you’re all right until he can get you on a plane back to the U.S.”
Boris came walking up to us with bag in hand. “I spoke to my sister, Lydia. She’s going to help us. We’ll be staying at her house until resolved. I’m ready.” He looked at me. “We should go. They won’t hold the train forever. Not even in Russia.” He gave Steve and Peter pats on the shoulder and boarded the train; ticket in hand. “I’ll keep you informed. I have your numbers.”
“My grandmother has known him for years,” Peter said. “I don’t think that she would still have him running this place if she couldn’t trust him.” He kissed me on the forehead. “If only we’d met another way.”
“I would have liked that,” I said, trying to smile.
“Tell Tania that I’ll miss her more than I can say,” Steve said to me. “I’ll miss you too, princess. You keep safe, both of you. You never know, you might change your mind and come back to rule this place someday.”
“I doubt that” I said. “I think I’ve had enough of this whole Tsarina thing. It would take something pretty earth shattering to make me come back here. No offense. This is one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve ever seen. I wish I could see it in the daylight before I go.”
“Well, there’s no hope of that,” Peter smirked. “You think it’s dark down this way. Wait until you get a load of St. Petersburg.” He smiled at me. “I’ll never forget you, Tsarina.”
“Good bye,” I said. I had so many things that I wanted to say, but the train was blowing its whistle, calling to me. I had to go. I turned and walked to the train. One of the last things that I remember about Tver was a skinny young man that for some reason I felt an emotional connection to, standing on the platform behind us, with a tear running down his cheek. Would he really miss me? I thought so.
The next discovery that I made is that Russian trains are great. The only thing that I’d ever heard about them had been from my grandmother. She’d traveled the country in the 1990’s when the big transition from Communism to whatever I was dealing with at the time had been in process. She had her own stories to tell. It would have been great if I could have shared my adventures with her when I got home—if I got home. I really wished that she was still alive. I had so many things to tell her. I had so many questions to ask her. I hoped that she wasn’t the only one who could answer my questions. There were so many things that I wanted to know.
I had to know how the Romanov’s ended up in Indiana. I had to know if there were any other members of the direct bloodline around. I’d never really sought out family before. I wondered if there were others. There could be. Several generations had passed since Anastasia Romanov had disappeared. There were partial Romanov’s all over the place. They lived in Austria and Britain. Some of them were royalty to this day. I hoped that my mother knew something that would help me sort out the details of my existence. I hoped that I would be able to get home and start talking with my mother about it.
Long gone were the Soviet trains that my grandma had told me about. There were no unlivable bathrooms. There was a dining car and a bar car. My cabin was a sleeper, and it was comfortable. Tania and I had a two person sleeper. Boris took the cabin next to us. There was a table next to the window in our cabin. I sat looking out the window at the frozen countryside. As we were pulling out of the train station, I saw the monster Humvee go four wheeling across the fields.
I was too exhausted to think anymore. I laid down and went to sleep.
The Ring of the Queen
Sometimes when you’re overwhelmed by a situation – when you’re in the darkest of darkness – that’s when your priorities are reordered.
I was dreaming of riding horses at my cousin’s house in , when I went crashing onto the floor of my cabin. The train had come to a quick stop. I pulled myself up, as best I could, and looked out the window.,
It was as dark as a cave outside. I had no idea what was going on. There was no moon. It was snowing like crazy to white out conditions, but that seemed to be common in the Motherland. I hoped it wasn’t affecting us. I was getting paranoid, and I knew it but couldn’t help it. All of the cloak and dagger stuff was making me nuts.
Tania was awake. She’d been thrown pretty hard into the wall on her side. She joined me, looking out the window, wondering what was going on. We heard people talking outside in the hall. Everyone was wondering what was going on. I decided that I wasn’t going out of the cabin. I didn’t want to cause any more incidents. I had already been surprised how many people recognized how much I looked like a Tsar from over two hundred years ago. I wanted to stay hidden until I could go home. I knew it was cowardly to some degree, but I wanted to slink away and forget that any of it had happened.
There were all kinds of noises coming from the hall. Most of the noise was from people moving around. The train had a way of amplifying every little sound that was made. I think it was the fact that most trains are little more than rolling aluminum sheds. After several minutes, there was a knock on the door. After checking through what looked like a keyhole, we discovered that it was Boris. Tania unlocked the door and let him in.
Boris sat down on the edge of the bed next to me. “We’re stuck.”
I waited for an answer. “What do you mean, we’re stuck?”
“I mean that there’s a snowstorm going on, and we’re stuck,” he replied.
“This is a train, right?” Tania said, already starting to sound upset. I knew that the stress was getting to her. It didn’t take much to set her off at this point. “How can a snowstorm hold up a train?”
Boris thought about his answer before he spoke. I could hear the stress in Tania’s voice, so I presumed he did as well. “In , a normal snowstorm can be like the blizzard of the century in other places. We get a lot of snow here.”Northern Russia
“What do you call a lot of snow?” I asked. I knew I didn’t want to hear the answer.
“According the attendant, there is a drift on the tracks in front of us. The storm that we are in has already dropped about a meter of snow. It is not supposed to stop for several more hours. The drift itself has been estimated at about four meters in height. It is also almost a kilometer long. We have to wait for the equipment to arrive and take care of the drift before the train can go ahead.” Boris waited for our reactions. I could tell by the look on his face that he didn’t really want to hear them.
“There was no problem in Tver,” Tania noted. “I mean, how much snow could have dropped in a few hours? How much is a meter, anyway? Where are we? Can’t we just get a ride back to Tver and try it again tomorrow night?”
“It is tomorrow,” Boris informed her. “We are almost to . That is where they are trying to send the plow equipment from. A meter is a little more than three feet. I am sorry, girls, but we are going to have to wait. Hopefully we will get there tonight. Once they plow the tracks, it will only take about two hours to get there.”
“How long have we been on this train?” I asked.
“It has been a long hard trip with a lot of stops,” Boris explained. “It has been about eleven hours so far. As I said, we are getting very close. Hopefully tonight.”
I looked out the window into the darkness. “Do you mean to tell me that it’s ?”11:00 am
“Damn, it’s never daytime around here,” Tania said.
I couldn’t have agreed more. I wondered about it all. Why was it that it was always night time, and I could never get any sleep? I gave up and decided to try something new. “Boris, give us a few minutes to change and we’ll meet you in the bar car.”
“You want to go drinking?” Boris and Tania both asked, surprised. They’d never seen me drink alcohol or even mention it.
“I’ve had quite a trip so far. All I want to do is sleep, but since that’s not happening, I need a drink,” I commented. “Boris, I hope you have money. I made need more than one drink.”
“It’s only 11:00 am,” Boris noted.
“So?” I asked, getting annoyed.
“So, drinking is normally a night time activity,” he explained.
I got up and opened the door to the hallway. I motioned to Boris to leave so that we could change into some fresh clothes. He went to the hall and turned to me.
“Are you sure you want to start drinking so early?” he asked me again.
“I don’t have a watch,” I snapped. “It’s dark out. It’s night time enough for me. Now, quit judging and go get your wallet.” I shut the door in his face. I turned to Tania. “Well, now I understand how they got the highest rate of alcoholism in the world.”
Tania glanced out the window. “No shit.”
I left my compartment with Tania in tow. We had to walk through two cars to get to the bar car. I wore my hat. I was hoping that before I left the country I could die my hair back to its natural blond. I didn’t want to keep being spotted as some dead ringer for Catherine the Great everywhere I went. I was certain that since the Tsars had lived primarily in that my recognition problem would only worsen as I got closer to that city. I was too tense at that moment.
When I entered the bar car, I thought for a brief moment that I’d stepped back in time. The car was immaculate. There were beautiful drapes on the windows and linens on the tables. There were waiters in uniforms and bartenders with moustaches. I’d seen the old westerns on old movie channels, and that was exactly what it reminded me of, only in a less brothel, more royal way. I felt underdressed for the room, but when I looked around and saw everyone sitting at tables in their wool and fleece clothing, I realized that in the winter, Russians only care about being warm.
Tania followed me to a booth. There was a lovely large window to look out of, but there was nothing to see in the dark outside. The sun was somewhere, but it was covered up with snow and the white out conditions made it worse. I could see a little bit of a blue glow through the sheet of driving snow. I instinctively looked out the window as I sat down in my seat, fully aware that I could see nothing. I felt as though I would never get used to the fact that it was always dark in January in .
After Boris’ comments about drinking at , I was a little surprised to see that the car was nearly full. I presumed that everyone was drinking, because what else would they be doing in a bar car? The waiter came by and put a candle on our table. He didn’t ask if we’d like to order, or if we needed anything. He just set the candle down and went on to the next table. I thought that the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the waiter must have come from the culture of Soviet times. 11:00 am
I was used to the American way. I’d had it beaten into my head most of my life that the customer is always right. The customer deserves excellent service and quality products. If a customer doesn’t get satisfactory service, they will go elsewhere. I wondered if any Americans had ever been one of only two people in charge of all of the alcoholic beverages available on a train that was stranded in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard. I guessed not. It wasn’t something that came up often in the U.S.
Tania and I sat at our table; neither one of us was sure how we should behave. We were only 18, so neither one of us had a lot of experience with bars. Where we came from we were too young to go into one. I wondered if there were any bars anywhere in the world besides the one on this train that looked like a royal breakfast nook. Tania sniffed at the candle. We didn’t want to talk too much where others could hear, because that would mean that we had to speak in Russian. I was tired and didn’t want to practice my Russian any more. It’s fun when you get to a country where you speak the language at first, but at that point, we both wanted to go home. We’d tired of both and Russian.
A few minutes later, Boris came through the door of the bar car and joined us at our table. Once Boris was sitting next to Tania, the waiter came by and asked him if we were ready to order. I decided that instead of being insulted beyond my wildest dreams, I would chalk it up to a cultural difference. That was the only idea that I could come up with that would keep me from telling him off for being sexist.
It was hard not to feel like a celebrity in the bar car surroundings, even with a sexist waiter. The room was so beautiful that it was impossible to feel like an average person. I couldn’t explain it, but it was the equivalent to spending the night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. I felt like a princess, even though I did not want to be one.
The waiter came by with three tea glasses. Russian tea glasses are some of the most unique cups in the world. The ones that were brought to us were silver, as most were. They had intricate designs on them and four short little silver feet to sit them down on. The only thing about them that was glass, were the small plain glasses that were sitting inside the tea glass holders. Boris told us that they were originally designed to be part of a bride’s dowry. The idea was that the metal would last forever and be a valuable part of the bride’s hope chest. The plain glasses were interchangeable and could be replaced at any time. It was one of the ways that the Russian folks created heirlooms. The tea glasses have always remained a part of Russian tradition, despite the fact that dowries have long since gone away.
I sniffed at my tea glass. I smelled tea. I was starting to get a little bit miffed. I wanted to order my own drink in the first place, but the waiter apparently only served men. That was fine. Boris ordered drinks so that I couldn’t even hear what he told the waiter. That was fine. The drink in my glass was tea. I thought that I’d been direct and clear when I’d told Boris that I wanted an alcoholic beverage. I was starting to have that reverse sexism feeling that made me want to hurt men. I missed Peter. He would never have treated me like a second class citizen.
“I didn’t want tea,” I said. “I wanted alcohol. I thought I was unbearably clear about that.”
“Yes you were,” Boris answered. “Drink your drink.”
The Ring of the Queen
You find out who your real friends are when you’re involved in a scandal.
I looked across at Tania who shrugged at me. She picked up her glass and took a sip of her tea. She swallowed hard and set the glass back on the table. She didn’t say anything. I picked up my glass and took a gulp of the tea. My throat immediately felt as though it was on fire. I could feel my eyes bugging out and my face turning bright red. I didn’t know what was in that tea, but it really packed a punch.
Boris giggled. “You should take smaller sips.”
I was trying to suppress a cough, but a little of it got out. “What is that?”
“What do you call it in America? A hot tottie.”
“I mean, what’s in it?”
“Vodka. You are in Russia, remember?”
I took another sip of the tea. It was harsh, but I kind of liked it. “Why does it taste like mint?”
“There’s a little Crème De Menthe in it too.”
“What else is in this drink?”
“Let’s see, tea Crème De Menthe, Vodka, some tea. That sums it up.”
“It seems strong.”
“That’s because the tea isn’t the main ingredient.”
He couldn’t have been more right about that. I guessed that one glass of tea would probably knock me out. I looked over at Tania. She’d almost finished her tea. No good would come of that.
I glanced out the window again, as I drank my tea and tried to think about what I would do when I finally got back home. I don’t know why I kept thinking. I believed that the train would suddenly move and the sun would shine and I would see the world going by. That’s why I kept looking through the window.
In a way I’d spent my whole life looking through windows. I’d always wanted to see how the rest of the world lived. I’d always believed that I was missing out on something because I was stuck in Indiana learning only about corn and GM trucks. I dreamed of being famous like the movie stars and living the glamorous life of travel and wealth. I’d always wanted to live like a queen. The irony of it all was staggering.
Be careful what you wish for. My grandmother always said that.
“You look like you’re a million miles away,” Tania said. “So, where are you?”
“I was just daydreaming.”
“Was it good?”
“Yeah. I was thinking about the irony of my life. I always dreamed about living like a queen.”
“Well, be careful what you wish for.”
I turned to Boris. “So, are all Russian trains like this, or just the amazing Red Arrow?”
He giggled at me again. “This is not the Red Arrow. You Americans know only a few of our trains. We have many trains with names. This train is called the Nikolaevsky Express. It is the only one with a bar car that I am aware of. Convenient for you.”
“I would think that if there are going to be snow storms bad enough to hold up a train that they would all have bar cars. What else would you do when this happens?” I said, throwing my arms in the air and nearly knocking my tea across the table.
My head was spinning already. I hadn’t even finished half of my tea. I was a real light weight. should I keep drinking? Sure! I didn’t care. I knew it was the alcohol talking, but I didn’t care.
Tania was sitting directly across from me laughing. She was no light weight. She started her second drink. The waiter had set the second drink in front of Boris when he’d brought it over. He was as surprised as I was that Tania grabbed it. That waiter was such a sexist pig.
“So, why is it that everyone in here is drinking special tea?” Tania asked, giggling every word she uttered.
“If everyone were sitting here doing shots in the middle of the day, it would be crass,” Boris told her.
“So, you put it in a glass of hot tea and make it even more potent?” Tania asked.
Though I hadn’t known Tania forlong, I’d come to know her well enough to see that the mounting stress of our situation was going to eventually come to a crux. It was at that moment, in a cloud of alcohol hidden in hot tea, that Tania went insane. I would like to describe it differently, but to this day, it seems the most accurate description. It was a temporary insanity, thank God, but insanity nonetheless.
Tania gulped her second cup of tea and slammed the tea glass down on the table. “God, I love this country!”
“Oh crap,” I muttered. “Tania, calm down. You’ve had too much tea.”
She looked up at me with crazy eyes, smiling like a serial killer that had come up with a new scheme. “I know, ain’t it great?”
“Where else can you get drunk on discreet glasses of tea at 11:00 in the morning? I don’t mean just drunk either. I mean…” She paused as though she’d lost her train of thought in her drunken haze. “Stinking drunk.” She giggled. She waved her hands at me excitedly. “But that’s not even the best part. I could pass out right here, sleep for twelve hours and never know the difference. It’s always night in this God forsaken country, no matter what time it is. And you know what the crazy part is? I could do this in summer too. Yeah. I could get stinking drunk at night on real out in the open drinks, pass out for twelve hours, and wake up to daylight.” She pointed her finger right in my face. “You see how that works? They don’t have summer and winter here. They only have day and night. And they only have one of each every year. How cool is that? They don’t have to worry about extensive wardrobes. Hell, if they change clothes once a day, they only have to change twice a year. How cool is that. More money for booze. I love how they dress too. There are no dresses in the entire country. Have you seen one? I haven’t. You know why? Because it’s too damn cold. Fashion around here must be defined by how classy your long johns are. But honestly, I’ve been looking at this trip all wrong. I’ve been looking at this country all wrong. There are real perks to living this way. Warmth is a fashion statement. Night is a season. Fucking incredible.”
Tania slumped back into her seat. Everyone in the bar car, including the waiter and the bartender were watching and listening to her performance. She’d stopped talking, thank God. I watched her. I didn’t want to say anything for fear that I would start her on another rant. I looked at Boris. He watched Tania very carefully. She sat catatonically looking out the window. I wondered what she saw in her drunken state in the darkness.
A few moments passed before Tania completely passed out and slumped over onto Boris. He hoisted her over his shoulder and carried her out of the car. He told me to wait, not to order any more tea, and that he would be back to sit with me. He said that one passed out girl was enough.
As I watched Boris carry Tania out the door, I started to feel a little queasy. I pushed the rest of my first tea away from me. The waiter came over and asked me if there was anything he could do for me. I asked him if he could bring me a real glass of tea with no additives. He smiled and took my tea glass away. It was only a brief moment before he came back with another glass of tea. I took a sip. It was only tea.
When Boris returned he told me that Tania was comfortably sleeping it off in our cabin. He’d left a bucket by her bed just in case. I didn’t know what to think of her performance. I was stressed too. I’d had a queasy feeling in my stomach all morning. I was sure that the stress catching up with me. Both Tania and I were way too young to handle our situation. Home was too far away. Daylight was too far away.
Boris watched me stare into the darkness for some time before speaking. “Do you see something, or are you going mad as well?”
I looked at him. “I don’t know.”
“I see you ordered another drink.”
“It’s just tea.”
“You Americans are not big drinkers, are you?”
“I’m only 18.”
“Ah, yes. It is not legal to drink in America until you are 21. I forget these things, because I do not see many Americans. Most Americans go to St. Petersburg and Moscow. Once in a great while Americans come to Tver. It is a shame. It is a beautiful town. That is why the Tsars were so fond of it. I suppose that is why rebels burned it to the ground.”
“What do you mean, burned it to the ground?”
“That museum that you visited with Peter? That used to be Catherine the Great’s home when she was in transit between Moscow and St. Petersburg. There was an incident during her rule when nearly the whole town burned down, including the house where she stayed. I have never heard it confirmed that it was any kind of plot, but rarely in Russian history has an entire town burned down by accident.”
“ Tver was special to her?”
“Yes, very. She had many special spots. You should know all about that.”
“The reason I came to Russia was to take a class in Moscow and learn about the Tsars. I’ve certainly been learning on my feet.”
Boris smiled. “I can’t wait until they get this train moving.”
“Me either. I can’t wait to go home.”
His smile faded.
“What?” I asked.
“I hope that you can leave soon. If the train is stuck here for this long, then it will probably be some time before the airport is open.”
Another road block. Another log in the jam. Another lock on the door. When I heard his words, I instantly felt bile coming up my throat. I wanted to go home. At the rate we were going, we were never going to get there. I knew that sooner or later someone would come to St. Petersburg looking for me. I knew that I was still in great danger and running out of time. My head felt foggy and I wanted to puke.
“Stacey, are you all right?” Boris asked.
“How long does the airport close for a storm?” I asked.
“I do not know. We will find out. I promise, as soon as it is humanly possible, I will get you on a plane. I swear.”
“I don’t know how long I can deal with this before I pull a Tania.”
“We will move soon, and then we will be in the city before you know it. I have arrangements to stay at my sister’s house. It is big and beautiful. Her family works for Tish. I will teach you what you came here to learn. I will take you to their homes. You can see it with your own eyes.”
I found the idea of seeing the homes and learning about their lives intriguing. I had come to Russia to learn about the Tsars. They did live in St. Petersburg. They died there too. Except for Nicholas II. I wondered why my fascination with the Tsars was equal to my desire to flee the country. Maybe it was because they were my ancestors.
“You would do that for me?”
“Absolutely. I cannot imagine, what you are going through. You should not leave this country without learning all that you can about them. You, above all people should know about them. It is your family. I will take you to the Hermitage, St. Peter and Paul Fortress—I will even take you to Tsarskoye Selo if possible.”
“The royal village with several palaces. It is called Pushkin now for the famous poet who studied there. It is a fascinating place.”
“It would be a shame not to learn about them.” I felt my stomach lurch. I covered my mouth with my hand. “Where’s the bathroom?”
“At the end by the door.”
I couldn’t speak any more. I was going to throw up. I jumped out of my seat and ran to the bathroom at the end of the car to vomit. As I closed the door behind me in the tiny water closet, I heard a voice on the speaker say, “The plows are finished. We will be on our way in a few moments. Our next stop will be St. Petersburg.”
The Ring of the Queen
We all have our ways of handling fear and managing trying; jumping in or climbing down, a direct approach or a delay, joyful or miserable, a spirit of adventure, or God help me, get this thing over with.
After losing my buzz and all of my tea, I was suddenly famished. Boris and I went to the dining car to eat while the train finished its journey. The dining car had the same elegant atmosphere as bar car. It too was decorated with lavish curtains and fine linens. Boris and I sat down, and we were immediately approached by a waiter. Of course, the waiter spoke to Boris and not me, but I’d come to accept that as customary on Russian trains. I didn’t like it, but there was apparently nothing I could do about it.
I don’t know if it was the surroundings of the dining car, or the time in Russia, but I had the strongest craving for cabbage. I ordered a big bowl of Borscht, with lots of sweet black bread. Russia served sweet black bread everywhere. I hadn’t had a chance to eat much while in the country, but that bread was delicious. I couldn’t get enough of the cabbage. I had two bowls of Borscht, and about a half of a round loaf of the sweet black bread. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten a whole meal, so I ate like there was no tomorrow. Besides, with my stomach feeling queasy, I figured I could use a little food in my belly.
Out the window, it was daylight finally. The land was blue, glowing in the noon light. The eerie blue silhouetted skyline of St. Petersburg appeared on the horizon. There it was, coming up faster than I’d anticipated. Land of the Tsars, the Northern Capital, Russia’s European city. To me it was magic.
Moscow was modern and functional. It was where the current government resided. It was modern and sleek, dirty and bustling, loud and smelly. St. Petersburg was mythical and exotic, frozen and filled with canals, larger than life and elegant. Peter the Great had built this city to be like so many of its European counterparts. Instead, he had created a one of a kind jewel that had been nicknamed the Venice of the north.
It was strange how the sun was due South because of winter, yet the city to the North glowed blue as though the sun was sitting right in the middle of it under a color wheel. I wondered how long the light would last. Days had been short for us before, but now we were bordering the Arctic Circle. Daylight couldn’t last long in the frozen north of St. Petersburg. It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the horizon and the mystical town that was rising up like a blue Phoenix from the death of the Russian winter.
Boris looked out the window as was I. “There she is. The Star of the North. That’s what we call her here in Russia. She’s had so many names that it’s tough to keep up. Leningrad, Petrograd, St. Petersburg more than once. Such an important city that everyone wants it to be named after them. I wonder what they’ll call it next.”
“Surely you jest,” I scoffed. “There is only one St. Petersburg. I would think that after that whole Soviet debacle that people would realize that even if you change its name, it is still St. Petersburg. A rose by any other name you know.”
“Ah yes, Shakespeare. Why is it that your people are so fascinated with England and Paris and Shakespeare, but you have little to no interest in Dostoyevsky, Tsars, and Russia? Are we that boring?”
“Not to me. I don’t know. I suppose it’s just easier to teach the same old stuff. Not much changes in France and England these days. Shakespeare has been the same for over 400 years. Maybe with all of the changes that go on in some parts of the world, it’s easier to follow them.” I thought about that one for a moment. “Did that sound as absurd to you as it did to me?”
“Yes.” Boris looked out the window at the approaching city. “She is beautiful. I hope that I have time enough to show some of it to you.”
“I guess we won’t be going anywhere until the airport is up and running.”
The voice came over the speaker again. “We are approaching St. Petersburg. We will be arriving at St. Petersburg Moscovski Station in approximately 15 minutes. Please have your luggage ready for departure upon arrival. Thank you for traveling on the Nikolaevsky Express. Thank you for your patience with the weather conditions during our journey. We apologize for the inconvenience. For travelers who were planning to fly today, there will be delays and cancellations. There is more inclement weather predicted for the latter part of the day. The airport is closed for the day. Thank you.”
“Looks like we’ll have some time on our hands,” I said. “I don’t know if anything will be open for you to show me, but we can try. That is if there are no police looking for me.”
“I don’t think you will have to worry about the weather. Russians are used to getting around in the snow. We are well practiced on the northern roads. As far as Kostov’s men; I do not know where they are or if they have any idea where you went.”
“I would love it if I had some breathing room. I’ve never been this far north. How cold is it?”
“Damn cold. Most of the time in January, it doesn’t rise above -20 very often.”
“Is that Fahrenheit?” I asked.
“No, Celsius. In Fahrenheit that would be about -5.”
“That doesn’t make it sound much better.”
“Damn cold is the only way I’ve found to accurately describe it.”
Great. Damn cold is the only way to describe it. How about friggin’ dark too.
By the time we left the train, the southern sun was setting for the day. Tania was coming around from her drunken stupor. She’d missed the brief daylight while she was passed out. I didn’t have the heart to talk about it, for fear she’d flip out again. I felt it was best if I helped her get her things together.
St. Petersburg Moscovski was another grand train station. I wished that we had those in America. The one that people traveled from where I lived was just a platform in Waterloo, a small town about thirty miles north of Fort Wayne. It was a far cry from the glass domed enormous multi platform lavishly decorated wonders that I’d been seeing in Russia. The wonderful thing about traveling in Russia was that everywhere I went I felt special. I felt like a celebrity every time I got off of a train in one of those lavish train stations. It was amazing. I felt that even though I was traveling on a budget, I was traveling first class, or so I thought. I wondered suddenly if I’d been traveling like a queen and not known it. Peter had made the arrangements.
I caught up with Boris’ quick pace as I pulled my bag along the platform. Tania lagged behind, barely able to function after her recent inebriation. She would catch up eventually.
It was only for a brief second that I wondered why Boris was walking so fast when he left the train. It was colder than I’d ever felt on those platforms. Suddenly, I felt as though my lungs were freezing. It was difficult to breathe. Oh, my God, it was cold. I nearly ran to the station door. Tania caught up quick once she hit that cold as well.
We caught up with Boris in the main terminal building. It was beautiful. It was elegant. There were marble walls and painted ceilings. There were sculptures and paintings on the walls. It was almost like being inside of an art museum, only it was much colder and a lot busier. Boris looked around the terminal. He was looking for his sister.
“Now what?” Tania asked as she stopped and held her head and squinted at the lights.
“Now we find my sister,” Boris answered. He was still looking around the room.
“If you tell me her name is Natasha, I’m going to hurl,” Tania groaned.
I had to admit, the Bullwinkle cartoons entered my mind every time I heard or thought of the name Boris.
The Ring of the Queen
Big sisters and brothers… I am telling you, it never changes.
“Her name is Lydia,” Boris said. “And there she is! Lydia!”
She ran to us. Boris and Lydia didn’t look much alike. Boris was a stereotypical Russian dude. He had dark hair and dark eyes with rough manly features. Lydia was petite, with a sculpted face, blue eyes, and light brown hair. The shape of their faces were similar.
Lydia gave Boris a big hug. She seemed concerned about him. I couldn’t blame her. I would be going insane with worry if my brother was involved in this. Of course I didn’t have a brother to worry about any more.
Boris pushed her away after a couple of minutes. “Really Lydia. I am fine. Stop smothering me, but thank you for coming.”
Tania leaned over and tried to whisper so that they couldn’t hear her. “Older sister?”
Boris turned to her. “Yes. How did you know?”
“If she was your younger sister, she wouldn’t be so concerned.”
Boris shrugged. I wondered if families were different in Russia. I couldn’t imagine. After all, brothers and sisters were brothers and sisters, no matter where they grew up.
Boris guided his sister to us. “Lydia, this is Tania and this is Stacey.”
“Nice to meet you,” she replied. She stared at me for a moment. “I see what you mean,” she said to Boris. “She does look like Catherine.”
“I know,” he replied. “That is why we are in trouble. The government is concerned about this girl. we want to get her out of the country. The girls are overwhelmed. Stacey has been on TV as a fugitive.”
“I know,” Lydia replied.
“I’m sorry about all of this,” I said to Lydia. “If this is too much trouble for you, I’ll be happy to find another way. I don’t want to cause any trouble for you or your family.”
“Do not think about it,” Lydia said. “I have always wanted to have a more exciting life. I would not miss this. I must know one thing. Are you the one? Are you a Tsar?”
“I guess so. For all I know this could be a dream.”
“This is no damn dream,” Tania assured me. She turned to Nadia. “She’s the one all right. She looks like her. She has the ring. She’s named after Catherine the Great. The government thinks she’s the one. I’d have to say, she’s the one. I hate to be a pain, but could we go somewhere that isn’t freezing before my head explodes?”
“Of course,” Lydia replied. She took Tania’s bag from her. Tania wasn’t in any shape to be lugging it around.
Lydia immediately struck me as a genuinely nice person. I hoped that I didn’t cause her too much trouble. I had no idea how long we would be in St. Petersburg. No one knew. Winter was unpredictable there. I had no idea when the airport would open.
I didn’t know what to do at that point. I knew that I should check in with my mother. She would be going insane still. I hadn’t called her in a while. I wanted to eat again. I was so hungry. I’d never been so hungry in my life. Stress eating, I guessed.
Lydia took us to her car. She had a Nissan Pathfinder. It was bright yellow. As I looked around us on the streets, almost all I saw were Pathfinders and old Ladas. What to drive in the north.
Dark or light, St. Petersburg was beautiful. The streets were lined with lights. It had to take a lot of electricity to light a city that big 24 hours a day. The buildings that loomed behind the lights were large and beautiful. I’d seen pictures of Amsterdam and parts of England as well as pictures of St. Petersburg. Peter the Great had been right. It did look a lot like the pictures that I’d seen of the rest of Europe. There was something Russian about it as there should be.
Lydia lived in what we would call a suburb. The houses were newer than the grand buildings. Lydia and her family had a large Dacha looking house on a street that loosely translated was named Jester’s Court. I wondered if everything in town was based on royalty and royal things.
Lydia’s house was beautiful. The style of the house was sleek and modern. I thought that maybe her décor had been based on some of the styles that that came from nearby Finland. Her family had all modern appliances and entertainment pieces that any American had. It was the most modern and not Russian looking place I’d seen so far. Best of all, it was warm.
Tania looked around the living room. “Lydia, you have a beautiful home. I hate to be a pain again, but is there somewhere that I can go to get some sleep?”
“It is only two in the afternoon,” Lydia commented.
“She’s had a rough day,” I replied.
“There is a room for you upstairs to the right,” Boris told her. “There are two rooms. You can choose. Stacey may take the other one.”
Tania walked away up the stairs mumbling to herself.
“What dear?” Lydia asked after her.
Tania stopped and turned around to face Lydia. “I was just wondering if everyone stares at their watch all the time, or if I’m missing out on some easier way of telling whether it’s day or night here.”
Lydia turned to me, without attempting to answer Tania’s snotty remark. “I take it she was drinking on the train.”
The Ring of the Queen
I would not send a poor girl into the world, ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself.
For a moment I thought I was home. I woke the next day to feel the sun shining through the window on my face. I looked around my pseudo Finnish surroundings and realized that it was still . The clock said , which had to mean . I walked over to look out the window. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky. The sun hadn’t shined since I’d come to this frozen country.12:00noon
All of the houses in Lydia’s neighborhood were single family houses that weren’t attached to anything but a garage. Lydia’s house was two stories, so I could see a little bit of the area from my window. I could see a narrow spire piercing the sky in the distance. I didn’t know what it was. It was probably a well known monument or building. The old part of St. Petersburg was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There was so much to learn. I couldn’t believe that I was spending all of my time trying to leave.
I couldn’t see a whole lot, but I could see enough to know that I wanted to see more. I was pretty sure that I would never get a chance, because if the weather was that beautiful, there was no way that the airport would still be closed.
I got dressed and went downstairs to see what everyone else was doing. When I came down the stairs into the living room, I saw that everyone else was already up and watching television. Television made me nervous in . Every time I turned around I was on it.
Lydia had gotten breakfast for everyone. They were all having bagels. I thought that must really be European if they had bagels. Tania didn’t look any worse for the wear after her drunken stupor. I that she’d be in the bathroom all day, but she was stuffing her face with bagels. Boris was sitting in the room’s recliner with his feet up and the TV remote in his hand. All of a sudden the place looked like any living room in America, Finnish décor included.
“Look who’s finally up?” Tania said, smiling at me.
Lydia got up and brought a bagel with cream cheese on a plate for me. She was smiling. “Good morning, well afternoon. Would you like some tea with that?”
I took the bagel. It looked delicious. I sat down where she indicated on the sofa next to Tania. “Thanks, yes.”
Boris was watching some kind of a sitcom. I hadn’t given TV much thought. The only thing that I’d seen so far was news. Mostly news of me being a fugitive. Of course they had all kinds of programming. It would be ridiculous to think that they didn’t have a variety. I wondered what they watched most.
“I guess we’ll be able to go home todaym” I said. “The weather is more beautiful than I’ve seen it since I arrived. There’s even daylight.”
Boris and Tania shot each other looks. Lydia came back into the room with tea. She handed it to me and sat down in a nearby armchair.
“What’s wrong?” Lydia asked.
“I’m sorry,” Boris said. “Stacey was talking about going home today.”
“You didn’t get to tell her yet,?” Lydia replied.
“What?” I asked.
“There have been some reports on the television. Kostov’s people are waiting for you at the airports around the country. I talked to Peter. He is trying to come up with something to get by it. He said that he will call me as soon as he makes a plan.”
“Great. So, now what do we do? I can’t just sit here for very long. I’m too stressed out for all of this.”
“Boris and I were talking,” Lydia said. “He told me that you came here to study the Tsars. We thought that we would take you out to learn about them. The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
Boris agreed. “The whole town is dedicated to museums, palaces and history. The land of the Tsars is fascinating. This way you could go home having learned about your ancestors first hand, so to speak. We could visit the Hermitage, Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress, Pushkin, Orianienbaum, the Aurora, and any number of places. It would cost you a fortune to go with a guide. This way, you have your own guides. You can’t get a better deal anywhere in the world.”
Boris was right. I couldn’t get a better deal anywhere in the world. People spent years tracing their family history. Most of mine was right here in this exotic of the North. The whole town was a living history of them. I couldn’t get a better education on the subject anywhere else. I really wanted to go home, but I’d come to except the fact that wasn’t going to happen. Why not? I could go around and learn the stuff that I’d always wanted to know. It almost sounded fun.
“Are these places open? There was a hell of a snow storm yesterday.”
Boris laughed. “You call that a hell of a storm? That was nothing. You should be here when we have a blizzard.”
Tania actually laughed. “I don’t want to know what it’s like when you people have a storm bad enough to call a blizzard.” She turned to me. “So, what do you say? I’ve been feeling cheated. At least if we go and see the sights, I won’t feel like I came here and didn’t learn anything that I paid for. Besides, you’ve got to be curious. You’re one of these people. Think about it, when you walk down some portrait hall in some palace, you’ll be looking at your family. How weird is that?”
“I don’t know. What if people recognize me from the television? I wouldn’t want to end up getting caught because I’m out running around the family estate. It’s all still a little overwhelming. Do you really think I should go? I mean, you guys can go. No one is looking for you, because you’re supposed to be a tsarina.”
Tania walked over and put my hat on my head. “Wear a scarf and a coat, and no one will have a clue what you look like. Think about it this way, its winter in the . No one will think twice about you being so bundled up that they can barely see your face. You speak Russian, so you won’t stick out because of your language. I can’t see a single reason why we should keep hiding. I mean, in the first place, we didn’t do anything. Screw the government. We’re tourists. Maybe we can spot the American Consulate while we’re out. That way, we can go there and get home.”Arctic
Boris smiled at me. “Please, don not leave without seeing where your family evolved from. You know, Peter the Great founded this city. He built a log cabin here so that he could oversee the building of everything else. I can show it to you. It is still here. It is one of the only dwellings ever inhabited by a tsar that looks normal. This area was Catherine’s home. I can show you her palaces, her private home, and even her grave.”
I’ve never been so happy that I did anything in my life. One thing that I can say for certain is that there is only one . It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen. I saw it under several feet of snow, and it glistened like it was covered with diamonds. The snow and the cold did nothing to diminish the effect. Tania and I were continually amazed.
It didn’t look like . I’d expected it too, but it was so different. Everything about it said that it had been designed, instead of evolving like most of the major cities in the world. It’s obvious that there was a plan with the main city. Peter the Great had vision. I knew that if I’d come here to this frozen swamp like he had, I would never have seen all of this.
There’s Paris with its monuments like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, there’s Vienna with its park, there’s London with Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, there’s New York with Times Square and the Empire State Building, there’s San Francisco with its Golden Gate Bridge, and there’s Amsterdam with its canals and red light district; but there’s only one place like St. Petersburg. It has canals, like or . It has ancient buildings like or . It has monuments like or . It has parks like or . It has palaces like no other. Some of the grandest palaces on Earth are there.
I was fascinated with every building and every bridge; every park and every view that I saw of the city. Everything sparkled in the sunlight that was already fading at 2:00 pm. What a strange land where the sun would set soon and it was only mid afternoon.
The Ring of the Queen
All I want is an education, and I am afraid of no one.
I’d heard of the Hermitage. I knew that the Winter Palace was there. I had no idea that the museum was a grouping of six giant buildings. Catherine the Great had started the art collection from around the world that had grown into one of the world’s greatest collections.
As we approached the complex in Lydia’s Pathfinder, I was humbled. I’d never seen anything so big and opulent. The buildings were different colors. The Winter Palace was an aqua blue that I’d never seen before on a building. It suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. My ancestors had lived there.
What kind of people had my ancestors been? I hadn’t learned much. Were they kind, or were they tyrants? There had been a revolution, so I thought they must have been the latter. They must have been disconnected and greedy. This one complex alone convinced me of that, much less the fact that there were so many more palaces. I’d grown up in poor farmland. I was one of the serfs that they may have kept in squalor. I was offended and impressed. I was confused. Did I want to acknowledge the Romanov’s as my kin? I needed to learn more.
“I can’t picture me being part of whatever created all of this,” I said.
“I would certainly hope not,” Boris said. “This is not what we are looking for. We have gone from disconnected royalty to corrupt Soviets to mafiosos disguised as elected officials. We are looking for the drive and intelligence that we had with certain leaders over the years. We want a Peter or a Catherine. They were different. They are the ones that you should study. Only the right Tsar will make the country worth living in. We are all hoping that if you are a Tsar that you are that Tsar.”
I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I wanted to go home. Sure I had a heart, but that was exactly the kind of person that didn’t excel in politics. In my own country, the best ones quit because they couldn’t get anything positive accomplished. I knew that there would be no way that even if somehow I managed to take over a foreign country just because I was the ancestor of a tsar, that I could actually make a difference. Those kinds of situations and those kinds of people didn’t exist anymore. It was the kind of thing from the days of the myth of King Arthur. This was reality. Different world.
I sat staring at the courtyard from the massive windows of the Great Hall. I imagined that underneath all of that snow was a beautiful green courtyard with fountains and benches and statues of famous rulers. In my mind it looked beautiful. I wished that I’d come here when I could see it.
I was sad that I couldn’t change the world. I was sad that I couldn’t stay. I was fascinated that all of it was part of my family tree. I was amazed that they’d had all of it and been foolish enough to ruin it. I was embarrassed to be related to anyone who could make an entire country hate them enough to overthrow them and assassinate them. I wished that I had known them. I wished that I had at least known what some of them were like.
I expected us to go to the museum and walk through the buildings and some of the 1,500 rooms in the Winter Palace, but Lydia rounded the grounds and continued on. “I thought we were stopping at the museum,” I said.
“I wish that we could,” Lydia said. “It is the museum that is most visited in the city. I fear that if Kostov’s men are searching for you here, that they may come to the Hermitage. It is a popular stop.”
“Great, one more thing we don’t get to see, because Stacey actually belongs to it,” Tania snapped. “I would never have believed that I was coming to Russia to see nothing but fields of snow and darkness.” Everyone in the car was staring at her. “Sorry, I find it depressing. It’s an amazing country as far as I can tell. I would love to see it.”
Boris sighed. “The story of the Tsars is incredible when you know the whole story. In time you will learn the story of the Romanovs and you will understand.”
I turned to him. “You mean it gets more bizarre than what I already know?”
“Catherine was incredible. She did everything for the good of the people and her family. Her actions were not perfect, but she did well. Peter III, her husband, was a disappointment. Catherine did as she was expected. Peter was influenced by his German background and when he took over, he nearly turned the military into a laughingstock. He was the Tsar that did not appreciate Russia. Peter would not have Catherine as a wife in the marital sense, so she had to come up with alternatives to fulfill her duties. She had to produce an heir, so she did. The Empress Elizabeth feared that Russia would fall to ruins, so Catherine took the reins and created one of the most successful empires in Russia’s history. She did wonders for education and industry. She was a great leader. There are crazy tales about how she accomplished what she did, but she got the job done, as you might say.”
“All of the splendor, it seems so selfish and ridiculous,” I said. “How could someone who did their duty and served the people live like this?”
“Catherine didn’t live like this. She worked like this. She lived here to work. This was the palace that was the home of the museum collection and where official functions were held much of the year. It was like the White House in your country. She did not feel comfortable here. When she went home, she went to her palace.”
Tania turned to us. “What do you mean her palace? I thought the Winter Palace was her palace.”
Boris smiled. “It was. So was the summer palace in Pushkin. But these places were where she entertained and showed her power. These were not her style. She was a simple girl from Anhalt-Zerbst in what is now Germany. She was far more simple in tastes than the rest of the world thought. She dressed the part and spent millions of Rubles on her image, but she had a private side. I do not think that you need to see the Winter Palace. I think you need to learn about your namesake. I think that you need to go to Oranienbaum.”
“Oranienbaum!” Lydia exclaimed. “I love it there. Are we going? I know the curator there. I can get us in.” She turned to me. “Most of the museums are closed this time of year, but I can get access. I can show you Peterhof, the fortress and even Yusopov Palace. Would you like to see them?”
“I would rather go home, thank you,” Tania answered.
“We can’t do that, so why not?” I asked Tania.
“I hate to be a bitch, but does anyone have any idea when we’ll be able to leave?” Tania asked.
“Peter said that I should wait for him to contact me,” Boris said. “He told me that the consulate here has been closed. We presume that it is because Kostov’s men are looking for you.”
“How can they close an American Consulate?” Tania asked.
“I do not know,” Boris replied. “There are reasons that apply to operations of the building that give our government the ability to close the building for a time. I do not know how long they can keep the buildings closed according to their agreements.”
“I’m starting to feel trapped and paranoid,” Tania commented.
“Boris, maybe we should try to go to the consulate and see what is happening there,” Lydia said. “What if we are missing the only opportunity to safely help these girls out of the country? Peter is not in the city. Maybe his information is wrong. Maybe it is misinformation being put out to keep them from trying to leave the country.”
“Well, I don’t suppose that it could hurt,” I commented. “What do you think,Tania?”
Tania was looking excited in a good way for the first time on the entire trip. “I think it sounds like a great idea. At least we would be doing something productive to help ourselves. Do you know where the consulate is?” she asked Lydia.
“It is in the center of the city,” Lydia replied. “Furshtatskaya Ulitsa, 15. I work as for a tour operator. It is something that you learn along the way. It is on the way to Sts. Peter and Paul Fortress.”
“Let’s check it out,” I said.
Lydia drove to the American Consulate. It was off of the main drag that went along the water on a side street with lots of other official looking buildings. Unfortunately, as we approached the building, I understood why we had been told not to go there. The street in front of the building was full of black sedans and there were many people in Russian garb and uniforms that looked military or police on the street in front of the consulate building. There would be no way to drive or walk past the blockade that was sitting in the street.
“Girls, you should probably hide,” Boris said. “Lydia, continue to drive as though you have no intention of stopping here.”
Lydia did as Boris told her. There was room to drive by on the street. I hid on the floor of the Pathfinder and held my breath. It was a reflex action. Lydia drove calmly. I looked up and saw her waving to someone outside the car. I hoped that she wasn’t going to stop. Fortunately, she was able to casually drive away from the scene without anyone trying to stop her.
Boris tapped my shoulder a short while later. “You can sit up now.”
“That answers that question,” Lydia said. “It looks as though the consulate is open. From what I could see, however, there is no way to enter it without confronting Russian Secret Police.”
“Secret Police!” Tania exclaimed as she sat up. “You’re joking.”
“I saw a man I know,” Lydia explained. “His name is Pavel. He is with secret police.”
“Was he the person you waved at?” I asked.
“Yes. Had I not waved, he would have thought there was something unusual. We have been acquainted for many years.”
“Now what do we do?” I asked.
“We wait for Peter to find a solution,” Boris said. “They do not know where you are. If we do nothing but hide at Lydia’s house we will all go crazy. Lydia, could you make arrangements for us to see some of the attractions?”
“I could,” Lydia replied. “Girls?”
“Tania, what do you think?” I asked her. “I would love to see this stuff. It’s what I came here for. We’re here. I say we go for it.”
“It’s better than staring at the walls,” Tania replied. “As long as you’re sure that we won’t get arrested if we show up at one of these palaces.”
“My friends will not tell,” Lydia said. “They love the old ways and the Tsars. I am positive that they would keep very quiet if they could meet one in person.”
I sighed. “Well, if you don’t mind then, I guess that we would love to learn more about the Tsars.”
The Ring of the Queen
I actually don’t want a throne at all, because I don’t view myself as a queen.
The dark was upon us. Night time came early in the far north. We casually pulled over in a park by the water and Lydia made some calls. She wasn’t able to arrange a private tour for us that day, but the next day she would be able to take us to all the places that she’d mentioned. I didn’t see any problem with the idea, because it certainly didn’t seem as though we would be going home.
I wanted to cry, because I couldn’t go home. I also wanted to see St. Petersburg and the palaces. I was torn, and I was tired. I was also hungry and a little nauseated. Stress was killing my stomach.
We decided that we would go back to Lydia’s house for the night and begin again the next day. I watched the spire at the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral as we drove by on our way back to Lydia’s house. It towered over everything else in the area. I had seen it from the bedroom window at Lydia’s house, but I hadn’t know what it was until the moment we drove by. I couldn’t wait to learn more about my family. They seemed fascinating. I also couldn’t wait to go home. I wanted to scream at my mother for never telling me about any of it.
When we arrived at Lydia’s house, her family was home. Lydia’s husband, Grisha, looked to be mid thirties. He was in good shape, with dark hair and dark eyes. Lydia also had two children. Their names were Anna and Nicolai. Anna was twelve and resembled her mother. Nicolai looked like his father and was ten. They were a handsome family, and they seemed happy and content. Grisha and the kids welcomed us with open arms as Lydia had.
The children were excited to see how much I looked like Catherine the Great. I was becoming quite the novelty item in main street . I figured that if I got stuck there forever, I could always make a living as a Catherine the Great impersonator. I took my hat off and let the kids ooh and ah for a while. Then Lydia sent them to do their homework.
Peter had called and talked to Grisha while we were out. He’d said to sit tight. He thought that the manhunt would stop. He’d started a rumor that I’d already left the country. He was well connected, so I hoped that it would work. I didn’t want to be running from the government for the rest of my life. Grisha said that Peter would call again in the morning and let us know any new information that he had. There was nothing to do but have fun being a tourist in . As long as no one official saw me, I could see all the sights.
Lydia made dinner. I don’t know why I expected to eat traditional Russian food for every meal while I was in the country, but I was surprised when Lydia suggested that we have tacos for dinner. They were the kids’ favorites. Hearing about cleanup and simplicity made we think that mothers around the world were all alike. Lydia sounded like my mom. Imagine that, all moms being exactly alike, no matter where in the world they lived.
I was suddenly aware that I was just like Lydia. I could be as Russian as she was. I didn’t say a word to anyone, but I suddenly realized that I could be a Tsar. It wouldn’t be as outlandish as I’d thought it would. Any of us could be anything. We were all a lot alike.
The tacos were great. I kept forgetting to eat on my trip. There was so much going on that it virtually never entered my mind to eat unless someone else brought it up. I ate more than I normally would, but tacos felt like home. It didn’t last long though. It wasn’t long after dinner when I found myself running to the bathroom again, puking up my dinner. Getting sick nearly every time I ate was getting old. I hoped that when the stress was gone, I could get back to eating as usual.
I slept well after getting sick. My body was still confused. There was so much darkness that I always felt tired. Tania said that I was losing my mind, but I was sure it was the dark made me exhausted. Tania said she thought I had the flu. She couldn’t figure out why else I couldn’t seem to eat much and needed to sleep half the time.
The next day, Lydia sent her husband to work, the kids to school, and cooked breakfast for everyone. I managed to keep my breakfast down. That made everyone happy. Breakfast seemed to be the only thing that I could eat.
I called my mother briefly to let her know that I was fine. She whined and cried for a few minutes. I hoped that she would calm down when I came home. She sounded awful. She sounded as though she hadn’t slept since she’d found out what was going on. I couldn’t blame her. I was all she had left, but there was nothing I could do but wait. I couldn’t try to leave the country if there were government officials searching for me.
Peter hadn’t called by , so we went out to take a tour. Lydia and Boris were from St. Petersburg, and she worked with a tour company. She knew someone everywhere we went. She also knew a lot about the Tsars. I couldn’t have hired a better tour guide. If there was one thing that Lydia was an expert on, it was Tsars, because that was what tourists came to learn about. Being the slow season in January, it gave her free time to spend with us.10:00
St. Peter and Paul Fortress was our first stop and was unlike any fort I’d seen in America. It was enormous and majestic. It was more than fort. It was the burial place of the Tsars. I saw a picture of it from the air, and it was shaped like a star. It was a museum and burial place. In the past it guarded the shores of Russia’s capital. It had been a prison and a military base. It was one of the places that was symbolic of St. Petersburg.
The cathedral, the largest building in the fortress, was full of dead Tsars. It was more of a mausoleum than a church. I found it creepy. I saw the tombs of most of the tsars. I saw Catherine’s tomb, right next to Peter III. Her son, Paul had arranged to have them buried together after her death. How could a man have his own father exhumed just to force his parents back together in death? Paul was truly crazy. I was related to him. That worried me.
It was difficult for me to see the tombs. These people were my family. It wouldn’t have been as difficult if they weren’t. I was learning so much now. I was learning about the Tsars, their lives, their deaths. Lydia was a knowledgeable guide. It was creepy, and I wanted to go and see something else, because I felt too uneasy in that church.
We left the church and we left the fortress. Lydia decided that I needed to see Oranienbaun and the Chinese Palace. It was Catherine the Great’s personal hideaway. Most people didn’t even visit it, according to Lydia. In addition to it being a great place to learn more about Catherine, it was a place that no one would be at. That way no one could recognize us.
The weather was nice. I could see quite a ways as we were driving along the . I could see the clouds coming in from the west, but the sun was still shining in what was left of a short day. The ice on the bay and the snow all over was sparkling like cotton full of diamonds. The far north was stunningly beautiful. It was not what I expected. It seemed magical to me. I didn’t mind the cold at all. I actually kind of liked it in . of
“Stacey, are you still with us?” Lydia asked.
“Yes, there’s just so much to look at.”
“It is quite beautiful,” Lydia noted. “It is difficult to understand why anyone would live here until you see it in the summertime, and you have seen a day like this. I could not imagine living anywhere else.”
Tania elbowed me in the side and made the crazy gesture about Lydia. I smiled because I understood Tania’s feelings. Not everyone was cut out for life on the edge of the . I thought that maybe I was though; I wasn’t sure why.Arctic
“I hope that Peter calls with information,” Tania said. “Maybe we should call him.”
“You know, you’re right,” Lydia said. “We keep waiting around for him to call. Boris, get your phone. You call him. Maybe he called after we left. I don’t know why he’s being so archaic in the first place. We all have phones.”
Boris agreed and called Peter. He got voice mail. I was worried. Peter should have called. He would have used a cell phone or something. I didn’t know why he hadn’t called me. I missed him. I wiped a tear from my face. I felt ridiculous having feeling for a man that I barely knew.
Boris checked the news on his phone. “I don’t see anything in the headlines that has to do with you.” He continued to sites for a few minutes. “Hey, wait a minute. Here it is. Tsar imposter fled country. The girl who was reportedly impersonating a Romanov was seen leaving the country at a small airport in early this morning. According to officials, she presented a passport that they knew to be a fake, but they allowed her to leave. The American girl will not be allowed to return to this country. She is still on our most wanted list. Have no fear, good citizens; your lives are no longer in danger of ruin. Your government, will not allow a foreign criminal to come into your country and take away all of the freedoms that we have all fought so hard for. Your government, will always protect your way of life.”
“Great,” Lydia commented. “They are going to protect our way of life. What an oxymoron. There you go girls. I say we let it lie there for one more day, and then we should be able to get you home. I am sure Peter will call sometime today with more information and tell us how to proceed.” She looked over her shoulder at me. “I have known Peter since he was a boy. It seems that you are special to him.”
I felt relieved. It seemed as though it might end. It finally seemed as though I was going home. Tania was excited. I felt bad that I’d gotten her into this mess. I couldn’t imagine what she felt like. She’d gotten on a plane to go and take a class about the Tsars in Moscow with her Facebook friend. The next thing she knew, her roommate was a Romanov and she was being chased around the country as a criminal. It couldn’t be easy on her. I hoped that we would stay friends. I really liked Tania. I’d never met anyone that would stick by me through this hell. She was loyal to a fault, and she didn’t even know me that well. She was a true friend.
The Ring of the Queen
I wanted to tell the truth about secrets: How much pain they give, yet how much relief, even happiness we may feel when at last the motive for secrecy has passed.
-Joyce Carol Oates
Oranienbaum, was out of the way and out of town. We drove along the Bay of Finland past Peterhof to get there. I understood why the Germans didn’t find Oranienbaum during World War II. Being a high profile empress, I could see why Catherine the Great was so fond of it. If no one could find her, then no one could bother her. I knew the place was different when I saw the entrance gate. It had not been preserved. There was an archway with a pagoda on the top. I smiled. I felt that once I got to know her a little better, I was going to like Catherine.
There’s more than one palace in Oranienbaum. There’s the glorious . There’s also Peter III’s miniature palace which was more of a playhouse for adults. We went past all of that to the that was the home of Catherine the Great. There were pagodas and pavilions all over the grounds. It wasn’t royal. It must have felt like a real home to a Tsar.
We met Olga, the curator of the grounds. She was an older woman, dressed like a librarian and carrying a huge set of keys. She led us into the Chinese Palace. I immediately felt as if I had been there before. Déjà vu. I felt at home, even though it was a palace. It had gilding, and one room was decorated with tiny glass beads. It had parquet floors that had up to 17 different kinds of wood in the designs. It wasn’t that the palace was any less impressive than the others that I had seen in , it just seemed to have more personality. It hadn’t been redecorated for every generation that came along, because, as Olga explained, not every generation went there. It was Catherine’s private home, and it still looked the way that she’d designed it. Catherine the Great loved oriental design, and the Chinese Palace was born of it.
Olga insisted that we take a tour of a building called the Sledging Pavilion that stood behind the palace. She told us that it showed how progressive and rebellious Catherine the Great was. The Sledging Pavilion was where Catherine did her private entertaining in the summer. There were many concerts there during her life. This was where birthdays were celebrated and picnics were held. The building was as beautiful as any palace. It was gilded like the other royal buildings.
Olga was right about the Sledging Pavilion providing insight into Catherine’s personality. Lydia showed us where we could walk right out onto the roof. When I asked, she told me that there used to be a primitive roller coaster there. The first known roller coaster in the world. There was a large empty space between the rows of trees that extended a great distance from the building. The roller coaster or slide started at the roof and went over several hills to land in the yard.
A tear rolled down my cheek. I’d spent my time in angry about being related to tyrants. I’d worried that I would be next for execution. All of a sudden I realized that there was at least one of them that had been completely human. She’d had a roller coaster in her back yard and a pagoda over her entrance gate. She was a real person. She was my ancestor. All of a sudden, I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to stay and learn about her. I wanted to know all that there was to know about Catherine the Great.
Olga watched me almost exclusively as our group traveled the grounds at Oranienbaum. She made me nervous, but I tried to slough it off. I knew that many people in Russia were watching me. I thought I should get used to it. It would all be over soon anyway.
Olga was an older woman. She was a little bit hunched over and appeared to be well over sixty. She still had a sparkle in her eyes, especially when she talked about the former empress. She finally came over to me. “I hate to be so forward, dear, but are you her?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
Lydia joined us. “I think she recognizes you.”
Then Lydia did something that shocking. She turned to Olga and said, “Why yes, she is.”
Olga’s eyes grew wide and she slapped her hand over her opened mouth. “I can’t believe it. I thought you were only a tabloid story.”
I’d not even considered that. Great, I was in the RussianNational Enquirer. I didn’t know what to say. “No, I’m real.”
Olga removed her hand from her mouth and held it out for me to shake. I shook it. She stood for a moment, smiling. I felt uneasy. “I’m honored to meet you,” she finally said.
“You mean, you don’t want to turn me in?” I asked.
“Why, of course not. I want to help you. What can I do?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t know. We heard that they think I’ve already left, so I should be all right.”
Her face fell a little. I wondered why. “If I can’t help, then I may at least give you a gift?” Olga asked. “Come.” She motioned to us to follow her.
We followed Olga through the snow from the pavilion back to the Chinese Palace. She didn’t talk in the bitter cold, so we all not knowing what she was taking us to get. Oranienbaum was fascinating. I couldn’t imagine what was next.
Olga led us through the palace to a room that was locked next to the private quarters in the back corner section of the palace. She took out an old key and opened the door. It was a storage closet that looked more like a bank vault. She took a key from her huge key ring that went to a large drawer in an entire wall of drawers. She unlocked it and pulled it open. She picked up a bundle of green material. She handed it to me. It was heavy in my arms. Next, she unlocked the drawer next to it and took out a pair of boots and a three cornered hat. She handed these things to me.
“What’s this?” I asked her.
“It is a military uniform,” Olga replied.
Lydia jumped in. “Is that the one?”
“Would someone like to explain it to us?” Tania asked.
Olga smiled at me. “This is the uniform that Catherine the Great wore when she had Tsar Peter III arrested and took over the country. I thought that if you really are her ancestor, you might want to have it. It has been here in this drawer for over a hundred years. It is one of the most important things that you could have as a family heirloom. She was the only woman ever to directly control troops in this country. She was certainly the only Tsarina to put on a uniform and ride into battle. She was one of a kind. That is why this uniform is still guarded. Please, promise me that you will cherish it and hand it down to your children.”
“Wow,” I replied. “I don’t know what to say.” I looked at the uniform. It was so manly. I’d always seen Tsarinas in gowns and robes. “I love it.”
“I thought that it was in the Hermitage,” Lydia commented.
“That is a replica. They would never let something that precious out where the public could get it. Most of the jewels and everything that you see at the Hermitage are actually here in this vault. Even the crowns are here.” She pointed out the door at a group of cameras. “Most of the time, there are guards standing outside that door. There are over 20 cameras aimed at this room. It is one of the most heavily guarded places in . Fortunately, they do not worry about me going in and out of here.”
I admired the woman’s moxy. “Wow. Are you sure you won’t get in trouble?”
“No. What would they want to punish an old woman for? They will never know it is gone. Try it on and see what you think.”
I couldn’t resist. I took the jacket of the uniform and put it on. I had to take my hat off to do it, and remove the scarf that was hiding half of my face.
“My God, you look just like her,” Olga commented. “You could get yourself a white horse and ride into battle yourself.”
“No thanks. I just want to go home. I should be leaving in the next day or so. I wish I could stay here and help, but I still say that you don’t need me. The power of the people still works. I’m just a kid. I’m not ready for any of this. I need to go home and learn something before I can change the world.”
“Catherine was about your age when she became the Grand Duchess,” Lydia said. “I wouldn’t be so sure that a kid can’t change the world.”
I ignored Lydia’s comment. I turned to Olga. “I can’t thank you enough for this. It means a lot to me. I want to learn more about the family. I will have to do that from the . I’m not safe here.”
“I understand,” Olga replied. “At least now, if you ever change your mind, you’ll have the perfect outfit to wear.”
I smiled. She was right. I looked in one of the shiny as glass pieces of wall in one of the antechambers, and I saw me with the uniform coat on. Even I could not believe how much I looked like the pictures that I had seen of Catherine the Great. It was the most exciting and scariest feeling I’d ever had.
It was almost when we left the grounds at Oranienbaum. I felt as though I’d connected with my ancestors. I didn’t want to leave. There was so much more I needed to know. I wished I had the time. I looked out the back of the Pathfinder as we drove away from the pagoda topped gate. I turned, and saw that snow was falling, illuminated by our headlights.5:00
Then I heard Boris’ phone ring.
The Ring of the Queen
I never take anything for granted. I may slip any minute.
Boris answered his phone. He said hello a few times. The connection was bad. The number was shown as unknown on the phone. I was nervous. Every time a phone rang, we all jumped a little bit. We didn’t know how to act anymore. The idea that the government may or may not be looking for me was driving me crazy. The reports on TV were designed to keep me on edge. The press was putting out what they were told to. It didn’t take a genius to figure that one out.
One minute they were looking for me. The next minute they’d stopped because they had a report that I’d left the country. There were people waiting at the airports and consulates. Every time Boris looked at headlines on his phone, things changed. Last night on TV I was an enemy of the state and the next day I was a hoax. Every move seemed designed to make me wonder. It felt like they thought I was watching the news 24 hours a day. They were right. It was propaganda at its very best.
I wanted to go back to Lydia’s house and see what was on the television this time, but Lydia thought that we should make one more stop. The palace is Peterhof, and there’s no place on Earth quite like it. Peterhof is where Catherine the Great had Peter III arrested so that she could run the country. Peterhof was where Peter the Great lived. Peterhof has elaborate fountains, grand ballrooms, amazing architecture, and infamous throne room. That was the room that we’d come to see.
Lydia knew the curator at Peterhof too, which was how we got in to see the room. We strolled through the halls of the great palace at our leisure. Each palace that I visited seemed more ornate and extravagant than the last. I couldn’t believe it when I got to the throne room. There was the throne with the family crest of the Romanovs, and over it hung the picture of Catherine the Great sitting on her white horse, ready to lead her country once her husband was out of the way. She was wearing the uniform that I had in the back seat of Lydia’s Pathfinder.
I couldn’t deny it. She was truly a wonder of the world all on her own. I was in awe of this woman. Her strength alone was unfathomable to me. I could understand why a country that was overrun by corruption would be filled with citizens who wanted to find a compassionate leader to help them rise above their problems and move ahead in the world.
I couldn’t believe that anyone would think that leader was me.
Catherine’s entire life was about a job. The job was to run one of the greatest empires in history, but it was still a job. I’d read about monarchs over the years. Most of them didn’t sleep a lot and were what we in the modern world called workaholics. From what I’d learned that day, she didn’t have a real marriage. She always had to be on like a modern starlet. How do you learn to live in such a bright spotlight? I couldn’t imagine living like that.
It all started at Peterhof. That’s where she took over. That’s where she showed the world how tough she really was and showed the whole world what a woman could do. Modern women should be proud of her. I had to learn more about her. I had to know who the person that I was named after truly was. I decided to study Russian history a lot more once I finally got home. I decided that day that Russian History would be my PhD. I needed to know more about the people who were my ancestors.
I’d never seen anything quite like St. Petersburg. It was no wonder that they’d made most of the city a world heritage site. In addition to the palaces that we’d visited there were dozens of other historic buildings. We drove by historic buildings on every street in the older part of town. I’d never seen anything like it. In the early years of the city, every Tsar had built their own palace. That’s a lot of palaces. The only one that wasn’t so big that it was surreal was the Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum. We left Peterhof at 4 pm in a bad storm, but in St. Petersburg it was barely mentioned or noticed. I loved it there. It was like a trip to Oz to me, and I didn’t care. The world of St. Petersburg was surreal to me. I could stay in Oz forever. It wouldn’t bother me one little bit.
We arrived at Lydia’s house as her family was preparing dinner. Lydia’s husband was a good cook. That night was homemade pizza. I couldn’t believe how universal pizza was. I felt that Lydia must keep some odd hours, because her husband didn’t ask where we’d been or why we were so late.
There were no messages. There were no missed calls on any of our phones. I was worried. I believed that Peter was trying to help us. I didn’t believe that he would leave me hanging. We shared something special. Maybe I was confusing our one night together with true feelings, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something special existed between us.
Why didn’t he call? Why didn’t Dr. Zemecki call? Something was wrong. I turned on the news. I’d never watched the news so much in my life. I flipped through every news program I could find. I heard nothing. It was as though the ring of the queen and I had never happened. They were intentionally keeping something out of the public eye. I felt it. What was it? I wished that I knew more about the government so that I could read the situation better. If I could get a bead on what they were trying to distract people from, I could figure out what to do.
I was starting to get paranoid. I would sound insane if I said that the government was trying to lull me into a false sense of security. It sounded crazy. I wished I was crazy. The unfortunate truth was that we were all waiting for the other shoe to drop. Boris even said so. He said that he thought there was no way that they would just let it go. Mafiosos don’t ever let anything go.
We ate and watched more news. We talked about it and tried to make sense of it. Tania was more relaxed now that she’d gotten out. A little fresh air and distraction helped a lot, besides,
that was the reason that she’d come. To see Russia and learn about the Tsars. She didn’t like the darkness. It still bothered her to no end. I didn’t mind it myself. I thought it was kind of mystical. I thought it added something to the mystery.
We watched a sitcom that was produced in Kiev, Ukraine. It was strange. It reminded me of Friends, but more formal. It was funny, but different. I watched Lydia and her family watch it. They loved it. They said that it was the most popular TV show in the country. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t live in Russia.
10:00 pm. The news was on again. The airports were closing down for the night for the storm. Trains were still running. There was 16 inches of snow expected during the night. It didn’t seem to surprise or upset Lydia’s family. Tania said she couldn’t take it if she lived there. She kept saying that she would kill herself if she lived there. Lydia and her family didn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with the weather there. I found the differences fascinating.
Lydia could go and live somewhere warmer, but she didn’t want to live anywhere else. I understood that. I loved it there. It felt like home to me. I had no idea why. I thought it was something about being a Romanov. I’d never liked the cold or the dark before, but it was different there. It didn’t feel as cold to me. It was dark, but it was beautiful in the moonlight. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I belonged there. It was true. I was a Romanov.
I didn’t want to go to bed. I was worried about Peter. Everyone said things were fineand that he would have called if anything were wrong. They all went to bed. I sat there with the remote flipping from one news program to another. I knew that there was something wrong. I didn’t know how, but I knew. Tania said that I was losing my mind. I knew she was right.
I finally slept, to no avail, because the phone on the table behind my head woke me at 2:00 am. The TV was still on. I’d fallen asleep while glued to the screen, trying to find the disaster that my head kept telling me was out there. I knew something was wrong. Why else would a phone ring at 2:00 am?
The Ring of the Queen
Until the day I die, or until the day I can’t think anymore, I want to be involved in the issues that I care about.
“Hello?” I said. I rubbed my head to nurse the bump that I’d gotten from falling off of the sofa when I heard the phone ring.
“I’m looking for a Stacey Zerbst.” I couldn’t tell anything except that it wasn’t Peter.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I see. This is Vladimir Zegev. I am head of the Detective Administration’s Political Crimes Unit.”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“You may have heard some things in the media about a woman from America who was impersonating a Romanov.”
“Yes.” I wasn’t saying anything more than necessary. I was so afraid. I didn’t know what the Detective Administration was, but it sounded worse than the CIA.
“We got this number from a phone belonging to one of the persons involved in the affair.”
“Oh my.” I wanted to throw up again.
“I am going to read some names, and I need to know if any of them sound familiar to you.”
“The location on your phone shows that you are at the house of Lydia Medvedev, Boris Fedorov’s sister.”
“This is his sister’s house?” I felt faint.
“Ah yes, it is. And you are…?”
“Anna Garetsky.” I had to think quick. It was the name on a book on the shelf next to me.
“Well Anna, this phone number does indeed show Lydia Medvedev’s house as it’s location. Who might you be in relation to her?”
“I am sorry, but this is an official investigation. I am going to have to ask for you cooperation.”
Then it hit me. “Can I be sure that Boris’ wife won’t know anything about this?”
He sounded surprised. “Yes.”
“I’m Boris’ girlfriend. He comes to Lydia’s to meet me. You can’t let his wife find out. I wouldn’t want Boris to end up never seeing his kids again. Please, understand. I’m in love.”
There was silence. I knew I’d given him something to think about. “Miss Garetsky, I do understand.”
“Oh thank you. ”
“Thank you for your candor, Miss Garetsky.”
I said thank you, but he’d already hung up. I took a deep breath. I turned to see Tania, Lydia, Grisha, and Boris standing on the steps.
“It was a man from something called the Detective Administration,” I announced.
“Dear God,” Boris gasped.
Boris sat in the living room followed by the others. Everyone just sat there. No one said anything.
“What is the Detective Administration?” Tania finally asked.
“It’s like your FBI on the surface, but they are the FSB. Secret Police,” Grisha answered. He looked at me. “What did you tell them?”
“I told them that I was Boris’ girlfriend, and that we meet here so his wife doesn’t find out.”
“That’s not bad,” Lydia said.
“I need to call home,” Boris groaned. He called his house. “I don’t want anyone to call there with that story. I won’t be able to go home again if that happens.” He walked into the kitchen to make his call in private. I hoped that I hadn’t gotten him into trouble with his wife.
Tania picked up the remote and started flipping through the news channels again. There still was nothing about the ring, or an impersonator.
“Well, there’s nothing on the television,” Tania announced, after several minutes of channel flipping.
“But they called here,” I said. “I don’t like this. I feel like I’m waiting for something bad to happen.”
The phone rang again. Everyone stared at it. I picked it up.
“Hello?” It was Peter. “Oh Peter, thank God. I was so worried.”
“Why would I do that? Come on Peter, I was worried about you. What’s going on? Has the government really decided that I left?”
Then I realized that Peter was no longer on the phone.
“So, Miss Garetsky, it seems we do have something to talk about.” It was him again. “Don’t hang up. We can work this out.”
“What do you want from me?”
Everyone in Lydia’s living room froze, and no one made a sound.
“The President would like the property of Russia that you have in your possession to be returned to him. Then we would like you to leave.”
“Trust me; I don’t want to be here. Your country is too damn cold. Just tell me what to do. What does Peter have to do with this?”
“Just call it incentive for you to do the right thing. Mr. Godunov and Mr. Zemecki are waiting to see you.”
“You have both of them?”
“They are fine. We want the ring back. Then we want you to go back to America and leave us alone.”
“You don’t seem like a very nice person. What would you do if I just disappeared again, and didn’t give you your ring back? I’ll be happy to go home, but that ring was a gift from my grandmother.”
“Stacey!” Lydia exclaimed from behind me. “You have no idea what these people will do to you. Do what they say.”
“She sounds like a wise woman. We are not unreasonable. We want the property of Russia back.”
“I say it’s mine. I could vanish.”
“That would be unwise.”
“Why? Do you think that I care about those two guys? You give them a lot of credit. They’re a couple of geeks. Why would I have any interest in either one of them? I don’t think we have any kind of a deal.”
“As you wish.”
“That’s it? I thought you would try and convince me.”
“Good.” I hung up on him.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Tania said, staring at me.
“Oh, come on.” I was getting upset now. “I’ve heard nothing since I got here but stories. I’ve heard stories about the mafia, and stories about thugs, and stories about assassinations and executions. He gave up. He backed right down. I think that you give them way too much credit. I’m an American citizen. They can’t just kill me. That would be a political nightmare. What do you really think they’ll do?”
Tania was looking past me at the TV. She took the remote and turned up the volume.
“In late breaking news, we go to the Kremlin in Moscow.” They switched screens to a crowd gathered in front of the main office building inside the Kremlin. “Two men have been arrested in connection with the story that we have all been following. A woman from America has been masquerading as a Romanov. We have discovered that the two men now arrested, helped the woman steal the ring of Catherine the Great from a secret vault in the Hermitage museum. They then assisted her in her mission to overthrow the Russian government. The woman, known only by her alias, Catherine Anastasia Zerbst, a name that officials say she handpicked for her plan, is still at large. She has the ring, a Russian artifact in her possession. She intends to take it out of the country to America. The two men, Peter Godunov and Dr. Steven Zemecki, are being held on charges of high treason. Federal prosecutors have charged them and will seek the death penalty. There will be an immediate trial beginning tomorrow morning. They expect a decision to be handed down by the court in a matter of days. If the death penalty is used in this case, it will be the first case of its kind in over 100 years. The punishment, currently on the books for the crime of high treason against Russia is death by hanging.”
“That is what they will do,” Lydia finally replied.
My phone rang. I picked it up.
“I trust you were watching the television.”
I hated that voice. “What do you want me to do?”
“If you bring that ring to the President, we will drop the charges.”
I couldn’t let them die. “Fine.”
“There is a train leaving at 10:30 am. Be on it.”
“And if I’m not?”
“It will be a short trial. Remember, this is
“Where do you want me to bring the ring?”
“You bring that ring to the building that you saw on the television.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“Of course not. We already have an international incident. We want to stop this nonsense, so we can get back to real life. A life without rumors of a magic Romanov that will fix every citizen’s personal problems.”
“Are you going to kill Peter and Steve?”
“That depends on whether or not you bring the ring.”
I looked at the ring on my finger. I wanted to cry. I looked up at the mirror on the wall in front of me. I bet Catherine never let some thug get the best of her.
“I’ll be on the train.” I hung up on him.
Everyone was watching me. I had to get a little sleep before I went to the train station in a few hours. I wanted to die. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.
“Stacey?” Tania shook me. “What’s going on?”
“I’m taking them their damn ring so they don’t hang Peter and Steve.” I pulled the blankets that I had been sleeping under back over me. “I told you I couldn’t lead a country. I’m just a kid. I can’t handle this.”
The Ring of the Queen
I seem to smell the stench of appeasement in the air.
Morning came all too soon. The snowfall was minimal. Boris and Tania insisted on escorting me to Moscow. I felt bad for involving them in my mess, but they refused to leave me alone. They didn’t seem to realize how treacherous it really was to be seen with me. I couldn’t believe it was happening in the first place. It was like a spy novel.
The three of us rode to the train station with Lydia in her Pathfinder. When we reached the platform where our train was, my heart sank. I wanted to see more.
“Thank you so much,” I said. “You’ve done so much for me. You showed me things about my family that I will never forget. You made them human to me. I’m sorry that I’ve put your family in such a precarious situation. I’ll try and make sure that they don’t punish you.”
“I would not have missed this for the world,” she said. “You go to Moscow and give them hell. Remember, you are a Romanov. They should bow to you.” She gave me a big hug and watched as we walked to the train.
I was pulling Tish’s luggage with me when I noticed a man standing by the back of our train. He was wearing a Russian military uniform with a gigantic wool overcoat. Most modern military uniforms included parkas, but Russia stuck with the old ways. I couldn’t be sure from several yards away, but I was pretty sure that he was there for me.
I was angry. I felt so unfairly treated that I couldn’t find the words to describe it, and I still can’t as I’m telling this story. I felt betrayed, which made no sense to me. I felt abused, and I didn’t know why. I had started to believe the myth surrounding me, and felt that I deserved better treatment because I was royal. I didn’t want to feel that way. I was from Indiana. I didn’t want to be a Romanov. I wanted to go home and go to bed. The only thing that I could be certain of was that the trip to Russia had changed me. It was more than just the extreme education I was getting. It was a surge of self esteem. It was the sudden need to stand up and be counted and to fight my own battles. I had an insatiable need to win. I felt as though I couldn’t let a government full of gangsters get the best of me. I wondered how Catherine thought in the days before she took over the country. I wondered what she would think of my choosing not to take over. Would she see me as weak?
I stopped a few yards from the officer and turned to Tania and Boris. They knew that he was there for me. I decided once and for all that I was made of the stuff that Tsars were made of. I could feel it coursing through my veins. In an instant, I decided that I should behave like a royal. I should hold my head high and be proud, like my ancestors had. I was going home, but I was going to do it with every bit as much grace as any member of any royal family had ever shown.
I held my head high and walked straight up to the man in the military uniform. “I’m Catherine. I believe you’re waiting for me.”
I could see immediately that I wasn’t what he was expecting. I refused to be scared. I was mad, and I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing how terrified I was underneath.
“Good morning, Miss Zerbst,” The man replied. “May I help you with your bag?”
I handed him the bag. “I would say that’s the least you could do.”
Tania and Boris caught up with me. They were nervous about being taken into this officer’s custody. The man took all of our bags and handed them to a porter on the train. He told the porter to take our things to our cabins.
I didn’t care anymore. I’d decided that they couldn’t kill me. It would make a political mess that the government couldn’t weather. Knowing that made me bold. I had nothing to lose.
“So, do I just get on the train, or do you have to shackle me?”
The man stepped out of my way and motioned to me to the stairs. I walked into the train followed by Tania and Boris. The military man brought up the rear of the group. The porter our cabin. I had a hunch that I wouldn’t be able to go drinking on this trip. I would be kept from public sight.
I went to my cabin and sat by the window. It was dark out. It was only 10 am. The sun would come up soon, provided that the snow was over. I didn’t know what to expect. Nothing like this had ever happened to me. I felt sick. I wasn’t going to throw up for once, but my stomach was queasy. I hoped that I would be able to eat again after this was over.
Tania joined me in the cabin. Boris went to the cabin next to us. I hoped that the military man would let Boris come and visit with us. I didn’t think that he would, because they probably didn’t want us talking too much amongst ourselves.
Tania and I didn’t say anything. The military man stood outside our cabin door with it open. He didn’t say a word. He stood there as though he were guarding Buckingham Palace instead of two college girls from the United States.
The train pulled out of the station. It was after 11:00 by the time the train left town. The sun was rising for its brief winter day visit. I liked the blue light that bounced off the white snow. I looked forward to it. I had so little to look forward to.
I prayed that they wouldn’t hurt Peter and Steve. I couldn’t bear the thought of having anyone’s blood on my hands, however, I wanted to kill the people who were threatening to kill them. I was changing inside. I had it in me to become a ruler. I was beginning to feel a ruthlessness, a strength, a sense of righteousness, and above all a need for control. It was all there. I never would have believed it. I’d been raised a simple daughter of truck builders. My blood was always royal. I was feeling the blood of my ancestors course through my veins. My mindset was changing.
I couldn’t do anything rash. If I was truly who the people of this country thought I was, I couldn’t do anything stupid. Enough of my ancestors had done stupid things. I had to be smart. I had to do something to free the two men. I couldn’t stay here at the moment. I didn’t know the things that a leader needs to know. I would do more harm than good. I knew people all over the country had been watching the story. Were they were secretly hoping I would just jump up and take over? That wouldn’t be prudent. Blood or no, I had not earned the right. I had to finish the business at hand and go home. I could begin to learn what it takes to rule a country then.
Tania stared silently out the window. The military man looked in the door at us. He watched us, but we didn’t say a word. The last thing that I wanted to do was give the guy a reason to do something bad to yet another person that I’d met on my trip to Russia. My grandma used to say that silence was golden. That sentiment seemed to apply there.
I watched the day go by. It didn’t take long. I wondered what it was like in the summertime, when the sun barely set at night. I’d heard of the white nights. I wondered what that would be like. I was sad that I would never know.
More time passed. We stopped in Tver. Boris could have gotten off the train and gone home, but he didn’t. In a way, I wished that he had. It would have been better for him to go home and be with his family. He could have gone back to work and put the whole mess behind him. I wanted him to, but the train moved on, and Boris stayed.
I looked at the ring that I was going to have to give up. It had belonged to my grandmother, and it proclaimed me a tsar. Tears streamed down my face. I didn’t want to give up the ring. It was more to me than a ring that gave me control over a country. It was the most meaningful thing that I had ever gotten from grandma. I took the hand that the ring was on and stuffed it into my pocket where I wouldn’t have to stare at it. When I put my hand into my pocket, I found something else. I found the other ring.
The Ring of the Queen
For in the end, freedom is a personal and lonely battle; and one faces down fears of today so that those of tomorrow might be engaged.
“What?” Tania asked.
I smiled. “Oh military guy. I need to pee.”
Tania scrunched up her face at me.
The military man called a porter and motioned me to follow him, which I did to the bathroom. I sneered at him and slammed the door in his face. I hoped it offended him.
I took out the fake ring that Peter had created and put it on my finger in place of the real one. I had to figure out what to do with the real one. There was no way that anyone would know that it wasn’t real. No one had seen it in two hundred years. It fooled me.
I stared at the mirror, trying to think of some place that no one would ever find it. My shoes? No, everyone had to take their shoes off at the airport. I considered putting it back in my pocket, but I was afraid that they would search at least a little bit before they let me get on a plane. I had to come up with some idea. I wasn’t going to let my grandmother’s ring go. I was going back home. I was running from what was happening, but I wasn’t ready to give up that ring.
There was a small, virtually undetectable pocket inside the right sleeve on the parka that I was wearing. I didn’t know why the manufacturer had put it there, but it was perfect. The coat was in the cabin. I couldn’t hide the ring while I was in the cabin, because the military man was always watching. I put the ring back in my pocket. I would distract the military man for a brief moment and hide the ring.
I felt punchy with a little bit of hope. “Excuse me,” I said to the military man upon my arrival. He stepped aside and let me enter. The porter went away with a nod to the military man.
I grabbed my parka, and I put it on. I was not sure what I was going to do, but I thought that as long as he was distracted, it didn’t matter. The train slowed to a stop. I saw a small platform that belonged to one of the country stops coming up alongside the train.
“Tania, put on your coat,” I ordered her.
“Why? It’s hot in here.”
I was either getting bold or losing my mind. “Put it on. We’re coming into a station. I’m going to jump out the window.”
I opened the window. The military man dove for the window, pushing me in the opposite direction. I slammed into the wall in the hallway and fell to the floor. I got up and ran to the end of the car. The military man wasn’t far behind me. I couldn’t open the door, so I ducked into a cabin and slammed the door behind me. I realized that no one else was on our car. They must have locked the doors to keep me from escaping. I felt like I was in a spy movie.
“Open this door!” the military man shouted.
I didn’t listen. I took my coat off and turned the sleeve inside out to get to the secret pocket. I had to dig the ring out of my pants pocket, shove it into my coat pocket, and put the coat back on before he got the door open.
“Unlike the local police, I have a gun,” the military man announced. “Open the door!”
I finished with the pocket and put the coat back on. I opened the door. I smiled at him. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” I said as I pushed the gun he was holding out of my way and walked to my own cabin. “You can’t blame a girl for trying.”
Tania and Boris looked relieved when they saw me go back into the cabin. I put my coat up on the rack above and sat down by the window again. “Well, I tried, but the son of a bitch can really run.”
“I think you’ve completely lost your mind,” Tania said.
“I can’t take much more of this.”
“None of us can. I feel like I’ve walked into a gangster movie. All they need is some pin striped suits.”
The military man caught his breath. he stood outside the door. I wondered about people like him. I wanted to ask Joe Public what he thought of his country. It was one of my original goals when I’d come to Russia.
“Hey, you!” I called to the military man. He looked at me. I felt the train move again as it left the tiny station. He showed no emotion. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Why?” Still no emotion.
“You almost killed me. I thought I should know your name.”
“My name is Grigory.”
“I’m Stacey. I know I told you Catherine, which is my given name, but most people call me Stacey.”
He stared at me.
“So, Gregory, what branch of the military are you in?”
“Isn’t this a strange assignment for a Naval Officer?”
“Yes. They had to contact the nearest available person to transport you.”
“You don’t feel like a babysitter?”
“I would feel like an underling if I was asked to transport two young girls to Moscow. I mean, isn’t there anything more important that you could be doing, like patrolling the Chinese coast or something?”
“It is not the importance of the assignment, it is about duty.”
I knew that sooner or later my tone would get to him and he would speak.
“Nothing.” I could see that I was beginning to bother him. “I wondered what they told you.”
“Were you wondering what they told me, or were you wondering how you could negate it?”
“Point well taken. What do you think about this nonsense? Did you ever hear any Anastasia stories as a child? Did you ever read anything about the stupid ring or missing Romanovs? What do you know about it? What do you believe?”
He faced me. His face softened. Maybe I was starting to get through to the person behind the soldier. “Forget what I know about the subject. What do you know?”
“I don’t know much. I didn’t know about the ring until I saw it in a book at Moscow University. I’d heard a little bit about the missing princess. I saw the Disney movie. I heard that they dug up the corpses and they didn’t find her. I don’t know much. I’m American. I came here to learn more. I didn’t want to take over anyone’s damn country, much less get my friends killed.”
“You really do not understand this, do you?”
He came into the cabin and sat down across from me, next to Tania. Tania nervously moved to my side of the cabin.
“It is an old legend,” Grigory said. “The family of Nicholas II was taken to Yekaterinburg and were executed. The legend is that some members of the family may have survived. There have been imposters, such as Anna Anderson who was disproved by DNA testing after her death. The ring was simply another legend until you.”
“I don’t know anything either. All I know is what my grandmother told me.”
“What was that?”
“She told me never to let it out of my sight. Then she died. I’m from Indiana.”
“You said Indiana. There is legend that the escaped family members went to Siberia. They could have come to America from there.”
“You mean it could be true?”
“ It could be.”
“So, do you believe me or not?”
He stood up. He opened the door. “It does not matter what I believe. I have a job to do.”
“What if there was a Tsar to take over? Would you personally be in favor of that?”
“I cannot answer that.”
“Can I take that to mean that you would be in favor of it? That you would love to have a different government, but you can’t speak of it? If you like your government, you would say no.”
“You are both as smart and as bold as Catherine the Great supposedly was.” He smiled and shut the door behind him.
Tania flopped back onto her side of the cabin. “I think you really got to him. He finally closed the door so we can talk. What are you up to and how can I help?”
“I’m going to go and give the ring to the President, so that they’ll let Peter and Steve go. Then we’re going home.”
“This hasn’t changed your view?”
“No. I can’t run a country. I can’t stage a coup. I’m a kid. I’m handing over this ring and going home.”
“You’re going to let him win?”
“Maybe if I’d been better prepared, or I knew more. Maybe if my family had told me about all this. This is not something that I can try and fail at. I’m not going to take my one shot at something of this magnitude with no knowledge to help me. I can’t risk that. Maybe if it had happened in another time or another place. This wasn’t meant to be right now. I’m going to give them the damn ring.”
“Catherine the Great would never give up.”
I wiped a tear from my cheek. “I’ve pointed out many times that I’m not Catherine the Great.”
“You could be.”
“I don’t want to discuss it. Olga said that Catherine the Great studied Russia for years before she had the nerve to take it over.”
A voice came on the speaker. “We will be arriving in Moscow in 25 minutes. Please be ready to depart at 6:55.”
I looked at Tania. “And I don’t have that kind of time.”
The Ring of the Queen
I know that, like every woman of the people, I have more strength than I appear to have.
A lump grew in my throat as the train came to a stop. We were in Moscow. We had come full circle. It had been less than two weeks. I couldn’t believe all that had happened. I hoped that it was soon coming to an end.
Grigory escorted Boris, Tania and I from the train. I hadn’t seen Boris for a while. I’d hoped that he’d gotten off in Tver, but he was persistent and was still with us. He looked sullen, like a schoolboy who was about to have to go back to school after a fun suspension. I wondered if he was there on his own or if he had been instructed to stay with us by Peter’s grandmother.
I was the first to walk out of the train, with Tania, Boris and Grigory successively behind me. Standing on the platform were Tish, another Russian military man, and an American in a dark suit. It was true what the Europeans say. At this point, even I could tell an American a mile away.
What now? I wondered. I wanted to throw up again.
Tish would personally blame me for her grandson being arrested by the mafia of a government. I didn’t want to discuss the matter with her. I didn’t even want to know who the other two were. I was at the point that I only wanted to see Peter, Steve and a pilot that could fly us home.
As I approached them, Tish reached out to hug me. I was astonished. It scared me a little. She grabbed me with both arms and pulled me close to her. “Thank God you made it here all right, child. We will take care of everything soon.” She smiled at me.
“I thought you would hate me for all of this.” I was wiping tears from my eyes. I was so nervous that all I could do was tear up.
“Of course not. You are still a Tsarina to me. I contacted the American Consulate for some added help. I do not trust this crew to allow you to leave safely.” She gestured to the two military men. Then she went to Boris and hugged him. “You are a good man, taking care of these girls. Thank you.”
“You are welcome.”
Tish hugged Tania next. “How are you?”
Tania was stammering from all the tension. “I’ll be okay, if we can get this over with. I want to go home.”
The American in the suit stepped up to me. He was tall and large. He reminded me of a professional wrestler. He did have a kind face, with brown hair and blue eyes. “I’m Howard Van Zandt. I’m the American Ambassador to Russia.”
I shook his hand. “I’m Stacie Zerbst. Thanks for coming to help me. I don’t know what I did, but I sure am having a lot of trouble going home.”
“So I hear. I will see to it that you and your friend get home. I can’t stop the President from holding your Russian friends or from confiscating your ring. I want you to know that. I have no way of proving anything about the ring or your lineage at this point in time. I have no information on the subject. I will be happy to look into it at a future date when I can assign someone to investigate the claims of both you and the country of Russia. In the meantime, I will do everything I can to make sure that no one gets hurt in any way, and that you are allowed to return to the U.S.”
He was a politician, but there was something familiar about him. “You seem familiar for some reason.”
“My father, Christian Van Zandt is a senator from Indiana,” he replied. “My father is a personal friend of Mrs. Zinkov as well, so he will be helping in any way that he can. The consulate had been closed for several days by the government here, but Mrs. Zinkov managed to get things moving.”
The old broad liked me. Either that or she believed that I was a Tsarina. It didn’t matter. She did something for me. I was flattered. I looked at her and smiled. “I can’t thank you enough.”
She almost blushed. I don’t think she was used to being seen as nice. “It had to be done. I also have to protect the boys. Peter is all I have left.”
“What about Steve?”
“It is like having two. They both mean the world to me.”
The military man who had been waiting for us with Tish and Ambassador Van Zandt was getting impatient. “We have cars waiting. We must go. The President wishes to finish this meeting quickly. It has been a long and tedious process.”
Grigory and Boris brought the luggage. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to open my luggage to get out of the country. I had Catherine the Great’s uniform hidden underneath all of Tish’s clothes that I had borrowed. I wanted to take that bag home just the way it was. I wasn’t interested in my own things that I’d brought with me anymore.
I got into another Russian Zil. I’d been riding around in monster Hummers and Nissan Pathfinders for days. It felt ethnic to ride in a Zil. I felt a little bit like a movie star. Tish rode in the car with me, Tania and Ambassador Van Zandt. The military man that I hadn’t met drove us. Boris and Grigory rode with another driver in a second Zil.
“It is not far to the Kremlin.” Tish announced. “Do you intend to hand over the ring and walk away?”
“What else can I do?”
“Nothing. I wish that there was another answer. I’ve checked with all of the protocol and legal departments. You have to hand over the ring as they ask,” Ambassador Van Zandt explained.
“Will they let Peter and Steve go if I do this?”
“I hope so.” He didn’t say anything else.
“There has to be something that we can do to ensure that they get to go home. I can’t just let them be hung, like some medieval criminals.”
Tish smiled at me. “I like that you are concerned about them. I know that you have grown close in a short time. I see how my grandson looks at you and I see his expression every time he thinks or talks about you. It is good to see that you have such feelings too. I wish there was more that I could do for you kids and your romantic escapades, but I cannot allow you to stay together. I can ensure that they will be released once the ring has been turned over. I have arranged for them to escort you to the consulate after. That is all I can do. The Mafiosos fear my contacts some, but my influence is limited.”
I’d wondered if Tish liked me or hated me. It had to be one or the other. Apparently she liked me. She was happy that I had feelings of her grandson. I hadn’t anticipated that. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t think that there would be any kind of a future, so the whole topic was mute.
“I don’t suppose you would let him come back to the states with me?”
I couldn’t believe that I’d said it. I didn’t want to be without Peter. Even I was surprised. There was something about that geeky but gentile man. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I couldn’t stop thinking about the night at his grandmother’s house. I couldn’t bear the thought that I would never see him again.
“I can protect him here” Tish said. “I cannot protect him half a world away. I have contacts here. If he were to go to the U.S. he would be vulnerable. These people will not go away. They will keep hounding and hurting people until they are stopped. The government can protect you, but they could do nothing for him. He is Russian. He will be safe here.”
She was right. I knew it. I had to try. Ambassador Van Zandt smiled.
“What?” I asked.
“Peter made quite an impression on you.”
“He’s an impressive guy. That’s more than I can say for most.”
His smile faded immediately.
“I have another favor to ask,” I said to Tish.
“I hope that I can accommodate yet another favor.”
“I wanted to take your bag back with me. I also wanted to take the coat. I’ll send everything back. I just don’t want to have to go through it right now. I’ll take it all home and send your things back.”
“Keep them dear Consider them souvenirs.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind?”
Her expression was confused and amused. I couldn’t tell her what I was up to, but she knew that I had a reason for taking her things home with me. “I do not mind at all.”
I tried to gather my thoughts as we drove across the center of Moscow. I was nervous and felt like throwing up. I looked out the window of the Zil as we made our way through city center on our way to the Kremlin. I didn’t know what the procedure was going to be once we got there. I hoped that it wouldn’t be too outrageous. I was sick and tired of feeling like I was living a full blown drama.
The Ring of the Queen
We quarrel over power, not love.
-Catherine the Great
There were no cars in the streets. That seemed odd. It wasn’t late. It was only a little after 8:00 pm. There were no people walking down the street. It was January, and very cold, but there was not one single person walking. There were no buses. There were no trams. There were no police cars. There were no homeless people. It was deserted on the streets of Moscow.
That lump came up in my throat. I’d learned quickly to notice when things around me were wrong. There was no way that the streets of Moscow would be deserted early on a Friday night.
I looked at Ambassador Van Zandt. “What’s going on?”
I saw the river on one side of us and a wall of the Kremlin on the other. Something was wrong. I didn’t have time to do anything. I decided that I had to escape. I was suddenly more scared than I had ever been in my life. I reached for the door handle in a desperate attempt to run away. The door was locked. There was no lock. I was locked in the car.
“What the hell is going on!” I screamed.
Tish grabbed me by the arm. She pulled me toward her and looked directly into my eyes. “Listen to me! Calm down! There is nothing you can do. They have a ceremony planned. There are thousands of people in Red Square. That is why I contacted the consulate. That is why Ambassador Van Zandt got involved. Yuri Kostov is trying to prove to the people that you are an imposter and a thief. He is trying to publicly force you out of the country so that he can look magnanimous for allowing you to leave without punishment for the crimes that he says you have committed. The situation if far too public for him to harm you. You will be fine. You have to believe me. Have I ever lied to you? Think about it. Have I ever done anything but try to help you? I have given you clothes and transportation. I have funded your travels. I have sent my people with you for help. I called the an American Senator and reached the consulate for your protection. You have to trust me.”
She was right. I had to trust her. “Why is he making such a huge production out of this? Wouldn’t it make more sense if it quietly went away?”
“He wants the people to see his power. He wants them to be scared. He wishes for everyone to be frightened and respect his authority. That is why the elaborate event in Red Square. Rulers have been emphasizing their power that way for many centuries. Ivan beheaded people and put their heads in Red Square in the 1500’s. A lot of people have died there.”
“They’re going to hang them, aren’t they?”
“I wish I could say. I have to believe that the bastard will live up to his word. He insists that he wants you, personally to turn over that ring. He wants you leave the country and never return.”
Tania looked out the window as the car stopped. “Well, they damn sure don’t have to worry about me coming back here.”
I looked out the window. There was a crowd blocking our way. We were at the Iberian Gate and the entrance to Red Square. I couldn’t see a break in the crowd. The military man flashed his lights and honked the horn. Suddenly, soldiers appeared and forced the crowd to clear a path. We drove right into the middle of the mass of onlookers. Red Square was full of spectators. They were all there for the show. They were there for the excitement. They weren’t quite sure whether it would be a hanging, or a Tsarina; but they seemed to be awaiting a good show. I wondered if this happened often in Russia.
Soldiers walked ahead of us, forcing the crowds back. People were trying to look in the windows at us. I felt like a rock star trying to get to a stage. I didn’t know what to think. I’d never been in such a crowd before, much less had I ever been the cause of one. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to run. I wanted to go home.
“This can’t be happening,” Tania said.
Tish looked out the windows too. “Yes it can. You have no idea what he will do to stay in power. He rules with an iron fist, and he will do whatever he has to in order to keep the people of this country under control. The Tsars, the Soviets, the Kostov. They are all the same. Power has corrupted him. He lives in fear of losing control of the country. He fears you.”
“I’m just a kid from America,” I said.
“You are the part of the puzzle that he cannot predict. That makes you dangerous to his position. That is his view of the situation,” Tish replied.
The car stopped. I looked out my window. There was a platform. A soldier opened my door. Tish motioned to me to get out. As I stepped out of the car, I looked up at the platform. We were next to the Kremlin wall, right in front of Lenin’s tomb. The platform was about twelve feet above my head and extended more than 50 yards in front of me. I could see several people on the platform, including the President of Russia, Yuri Kostov. Above him, on a separate platform, stood Peter and Steve. In front of each of them hung a noose.
The soldiers made a path to the platform steps. The people around us were talking. Some of them were looking forward to the hanging. Some of them wanted to see what they would do to the imposter. Most of them, from what I was hearing, wanted me to be a Romanov. Maybe it was the mystique. Maybe they really preferred royalty. Maybe they were at the end of their rope with their current government.
I wanted to help the people, free my friends, and make everything right. I wished that I could have done any one of those things. I couldn’t. I would be lucky to get out of the country alive. I didn’t have my own army, and the mafia did. I was defeated. There was nothing I could do about it at the moment.
I walked up the path to the steps that led to the President and my captive friends. All of a sudden, I heard a chant beginning in the crowd.
“Long live the Empress! Long live the Empress!”
Tania and Tish were walking on either side of me. I looked at them and smiled. They smiled back. I couldn’t believe it. They were cheering for me. They seemed to believe in me. I wished that I could do something.
I walked up the steps onto the platform. I looked up at the guys. Peter smiled at me. He was the most courageous man I’d ever met. Steve was watching Tania more than he was watching me. I smiled back at Peter.
The people in the massive crowd that filled Red Square were cheering now. “Long live the Empress!”
Peter was smiling at me. “Give them what they want!”
The man had no fear. I couldn’t help but smile at him. I hoped Yuri Kostov wasn’t going to hang him. I walked to where the President was sitting. He stood to shake my hand. I didn’t put my hand out to him. He retracted his hand.
My friends and Ambassador Van Zandt stood with me. I looked the President straight in the face. “I trust that if I do as you ask, you will allow me and my friend to leave the country?”
“And you will also release the two men?”
“They are criminals.”
The crowd was cheering. “Long live the Empress!” I could barely hear my own thoughts over them. I turned around to the crowd. I took my hat off as I did every time I wanted to make an impression on Russian people and held both of my hands in the air. The cheering stopped. The crowd was silent.
I turned to face the President. I felt a strength coming from the cheering crowd. “I think that you should let them go.”
“And if I do not?”
I suddenly felt invincible. “I may decide to stay,” I said. Yuri was looking past me to the obedient crowd as I spoke. “You wouldn’t want that,” I told him.
He was silent. Everything was silent. Time stood still. It seemed as though I stood there forever while I waited for his answer. Finally, he said, “Very well, give me the ring, and your friends will be released.”
“And what about after I’m gone?”
“What do you mean?”
This man made me mad. I got as close to his face as I could without kissing him. “If I so much as hear a rumor that you’ve done anything to harm any of my personal friends ever, I will come back. I will give you and your people no peace for the rest of time. I will come back here and take over your country and run it properly. I will have you thrown in jail. I might even hang you right here in this square. The only reason I’m not doing it now, is because I’m more concerned with everyone’s safety. Take that away, and I won’t care what I do to you. Am I clear?”
“Big words from such a little woman.”
I stared at him, but did not dignify his words with a reply.
“Very well.” He turned to the men on the upper platform who were standing by Peter and Steve. “Let them go.” He turned back to me. “You must never return here. You must never come back to Russia.” He held out his hand to me. “Now, the ring.”
I held the ring up. “You will never harm one hair on my friends’ heads?”
“I will personally protect your friends.”
“They will not be treated as criminals in any way, and they will be allowed to continue their lives as before?”
I handed the ring to him. Peter and Steve were unbound, and they climbed down to where we were standing. I hugged Peter and Tania hugged Steve.
The President picked up a microphone. “The ring of the Queen has been returned to the Russian people. We feel that it would be in the best interest of our country not to arrest the impersonator. We still wish to maintain our good relations with the United States of America. Now, we will escort the impersonator to the consulate where the ambassador can arrange for her safe passage home. She will never return to our great country. We do not want criminals here.” He turned to me. He handed me both mine and Tania’s passports. “It is time for you to go.”
Then he turned and walked away, surrounded by his security force. They escorted him to his car, which was parked below the platform. I hoped that would be the last time I would ever see President Yuri Kostov.
The Ring of the Queen
We are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.
I wanted to punch President Yuri Kostov right in the face, but that wasn’t an option. I was thrilled to finally be out of the middle of the controversy and away from politics. I was ready to go home, but I didn’t want to leave Peter. Thank God he was all right. I would never have forgiven myself had he been hanged over a stupid ring.
I sat in the Zil next to Tania watching Moscow go by on our way to the American Consulate. Ambassador Van Zandt sat opposite us. I could finally go home. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted my life back. I wanted my stomach to calm down. I wanted to do so many things at once that I didn’t know what to do. I sat and looked out the car window.
As promised, Peter and Steve were allowed to say good-bye. I was happy about that. They were in the car behind us with Tish and Boris. I saw the American Consulate for the first time. It reminded me of the Soviet buildings that I’d seen in my grandma’s books and online. Things had been tense between the U.S. and Russia for a while, evidenced by the guards around the building and the many kinds of barriers and gates. We pulled up to the main gate and were approached by an entourage of security. They talked to Ambassador Van Zandt for a moment and then they asked us all to get out of the car.
“It was an honor to meet you,” Grigory said to me.
“Likewise,” I replied.
We got out of the car and started to walk to the gate. The American Consulate would not allow a Russian vehicle driven by a Russian military man on the property. We were about to walk into the official property of the United States. We would be safe for the first time in a long time.
Peter ran to me and hugged me. “I cannot believe that I will never see you again,” Peter said, once he finally stopped hugging me.
I wanted to cry. I didn’t want to leave him. “All good things must come to an end.”
“If for no other reason, because we all die sometime. I’m just glad that your time wasn’t today.”
“I have too much to do.”
I laughed at his eternal enthusiasm for the impossible. “Be careful, you’ll give your grandmother a heart attack.”
“That old broad will outlive us all.”
Tish walked up behind him and slapped the back of his head. “I heard that.” She walked over to the men who were unloading the luggage from the cars.
I wanted to laugh. “You could be right.”
“Promise me you will be safe,” Peter said. “Stay safe and stay beautiful.”
“Me? I’m always all right. Will you promise not to get hung by Yuri Kostov?”
“I am sorry, I cannot promise such a thing. I will try.”
“I guess that’s all I can ask.”
I looked over to Tania and Steve having a tender moment of their own. They were both teary eyed, and were oblivious to the rest of the world. I was sorry that I had ruined their chance for romance with my problems. There was nothing that I could do about it. The adventure was over and we had to leave the boys behind. We would have to live with it.
I looked up at Peter. “How will I ever adjust to life in rural Indiana after all of this?”
“You wanted to learn about the Tsars. You got what you came for. I am sorry that it worked out this way. I know how much the ring meant to you. Maybe you should ask how you will get along without your grandmother’s ring?”
I smiled. “I can’t believe you didn’t think of that.”
“I won’t have to get along without it. I have you to thank for that.”
His eyes grew wide. He giggled. “You did not!”
“The bastards don’t deserve it.”
“The bastards are too stupid to know the difference. You are amazing. You did not shake or even blink. You were brave like Catherin the Great.”
He grabbed me with another hug. Then he pulled away from me, looked in my eyes and gave me the most passionate kiss I’d ever experienced. I would never forget him. If only I could see him again.
“I’ll try to keep in touch.” I told him.
“I will try as well.”
The guards were motioning us to come inside the gate. It was time to go. I felt a tear on my cheek.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I will miss you more.” A tear fell from Peter’s eye too.
We joined Tish, Tania, Steve and Boris.
I hugged Boris. “Thank you for showing me St. Petersburg.”
“You remember me when you return to take your place.”
“ That would never happen. You tell that sister of yours thank you from me.”
Then I hugged Tish. “You take good care of that grandson of yours. He’s special.”
“Indeed he is. You remember that no matter what the government says, you are always welcome at my home.”
“I can’t thank you enough for everything. I really owe you.”
“Nonsense. I would not have missed meeting the Tsarina for anything in the world. I believe we will meet again.”
“I certainly hope so.” I hugged her again before I moved on to hug Steve. “You’re quite a teacher.”
“I guess I am. Do you think you learned what you came here to find out?”
I thought about it. There was one piece of information missing. “No. There’s one thing that I still don’t understand.”
“What is that?”
“The ring. Catherine was a Tsarina, a Grand Duchess, an Empress and a Romanov. Why the word Queen? Why not the Russian word, Tsar? The Ring of the Queen. Why?”
Steve smiled. “I was wondering if anyone would ever think about that. Platon Zubov was the last of Catherine’s lovers. He was with her until she died. People say that he was the one that she was craziest about besides Potemkin. He loved to spend money on both her and himself. Platon gave her the ring. Catherine loved everything Asian and French throughout her life, so he had it designed by one of Louis XVI’s favorite artists. To this day, no one knows who the artist was. Catherine thought that since it was a work of art, it should have a name. She asked Zubov to name it. He called it The Ring of the Queen, because of Louis XVI. Louis used to call Catherine the Queen of the World.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” I replied.
The Ring of the Queen
It is up to us to live up to the legacy that was left for us, and to leave a legacy that is worthy of our children and of future generations.
I looked out the window of my plane as we took off from the airport. It would only be about nineteen hours before I landed at . It was over. I hadn’t decided if I’d won or lost, but my ring was in my pocket. I guess I won. I would never get to go back to . That was a shame. I had so much more to learn. I had an amazing family. I wanted to know all about them. I really wanted to know more about my namesake. I’d already learned that she was incredible. She’d been called the Queen of the World. How many people can say that?
Tania and I had been at the consulate for nearly two weeks. There were issues with our Visas, which had originally been for three weeks in the country. It was a nice place, formal and political. It had been a mix of feelings during the duration, both gratitude for being rescued and a feeling of incarceration that came from not being allowed to leave the building.
Tania had made the most of it. He was several years older than her, but she and the young Ambassador had hit it off. Howard and Tania joked around like they had known each other for years, and they had many in depth political discussions while we were waiting to depart. She told me that she was sad over Dr. Zemecki, but I wondered if she wasn’t developing a relationship with Howard Van Zandt as well. She said that she wasn’t.
As we took off from Domodedovo Airport, I started to think about my mom. She was probably already waiting at the airport in Fort Wayne as we took off from . When I was able to tell her that I was coming home, she’d cried. When I called her and told her the time that my flight would come in, she’d cried some more. I couldn’t hold a conversation with her when she cried like that, so I told her what she needed to know. I would tell her the rest later.
North Manchester would never feel the same after my trip. I wanted to do something with my life than sit in Indiana and be a teacher. I didn’t have the slightest idea what. I still wanted to study and its history. I still wanted my PhD in Russian history. I was destined to do something that involved . I wanted to immerse myself in it. I wanted to go someplace that felt Russian. I couldn’t go to . It would be my next project to find the place where I could learn the most about my ancestors.
Tania sat quietly next to me on the flight back to the states. She barely said two words to me for a long time. “So, how are you?” I asked.
“I’ve been better.” She feigned a smile at me.
“I’m sorry if I ruined your trip to .”
She smiled and slapped my leg. “Are you kidding? How many people can say that they’ve ever done anything like what we did? I got to hang out with the last Romanov. I got to meet a Tsarina. I got to make a great friend. It’s been a hell of an adventure. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Howard has the hots for me and I’ll miss Steve, but it was amazing. I’m sorry I flipped out in the middle.”
“I couldn’t blame you for that. What do you mean ‘Howard has the hots for you?’”
“He slipped his numbers in my pocket at the airport. I’m flattered.”
“That’s cool. I’ll miss them all. Well, not that President, but everyone else. I hope that at least you and I can stay in touch.”
“We will. I wish I felt that Steve and I would stay in touch, but I doubt that happens. That’s my one regret. I really liked him. I will never lose touch with you. We’re connected for life. I think that we should look into finding a college that we can attend together, so we can hang out. What do you think?”
“I would love that. I say we look into it. I think I’ve outgrown my college and the town as it is.”
“Me too. Boston isn’t the same after what I’ve seen out there in the world. Let’s find a good one and take off. I need to see a lot more of the world.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
“It’s settled then. We’ll start looking this semester, so next fall we can start somewhere together.”
“We can be roommates.”
Tania laughed. “I don’t know. I’ll have to think about that one after what happened the last time.”
I burst out laughing. It felt good to laugh. I was tired. I wanted to sleep, but the attendant brought us some cabbage stew. I was thrilled. I couldn’t get enough of cabbage. I gobbled it down like I hadn’t eaten in days.
“I have no idea how you can be that crazy about cabbage,” Tania commented.
“Maybe it’s a Russian thing,” I snickered.
Things had ended well. I had the ring in my secret pocket, and Catherine’s uniform in my luggage. I had cabbage stew. I had a best friend for life. I was on my way home. Things were good.
Suddenly, it happened again. “I have to get up.” I told Tania.
She looked at me and got up so I could pass. “Are you sick again?”
I ran to the lavatory and threw up. When I returned to my seat, Tania was still watching me. “What?”
“Are you going to be all right? You should go see a doctor when you get home. You’ve been throwing up half of the trip.”
“It’s probably just stress.”
“Well, go see your doctor. Do it for me.”
Seventeen hours later I said good-bye to Tania at . My flight would continue to . I would miss her. She promised that we would find a college to attend together. She even said that she would be my roommate.
When I arrived at , my mother was waiting. She started sobbing the second she saw me. She ran to me, grabbed me and nearly hugged all the air out of me.
“Thank God you’re alive!” She exclaimed.
“Good.” We started to walk toward the parking garage. She put her arm around me. “I only have one thing to say about all of this, now that you’re home safe.”
The Queen in Exile
The Ring of the Queen
Sneak Preview of
I stood in the terminal of Anchorage International Airport. It had been seven and a half years since I’d seen Tania, and I couldn’t wait to tell her everything that had happened to me. She was going to be surprised.
Tania and I had kept in touch since our adventure in Russia, but we hadn’t gotten together. I came to Alaska to study my ancestor’s while she pursued her studies in New York City. At times I’d envied her, but I loved Alaska. It had become home to me.
Tania kept me up on her life. She’d become a teacher of Russian History and was working on her PhD so that she could become a professor at New York University. The trip and everything that happened to us had put her on a path. Before we’d traveled to Russia and discovered that I was the heir to the Russian Throne, she hadn’t known what she wanted to do with her life. Once we’d returned, she’d quickly gotten herself together and become a scholar. I was proud of her.
I knew that she worried about me. She was upset when I decided to move to Alaska and pursue my immersion version of learning about Russian culture. I’d had no other real avenue to pursue. I couldn’t go back to Russia, so I did the next best thing. I moved to Ninilchik, Alaska. There was an involved Russian history in that town. Everything that I wanted to learn about the culture, I could learn there. For the seven years that I have lived there, I have learned. The things that I couldn’t learn firsthand, I’ve learned while I’ve gotten my masters in Russian studies at the University of Alaska.
The problem that I had as I stood in the terminal, waiting for Tania, was where to start. There were so many things that I hadn’t told her, because I didn’t want her to worry. Now that she was coming to my home, she would have to know all about what had happened to me over the last several years.
As I watched her plane land, I could feel my palms sweat. I couldn’t wait to see her. She was my best friend, and she was like a sister to me. I’d waited for seven years to see her again. It had been an endless string of e-mails and chats on Facebook. Finally, I was going to see my best friend. I was going to see one of the few people who understood all about who I was and what I dealt with in my life.
I hadn’t told anyone in Alaska that I had any connection with the royal family of Russia. I didn’t want anyone to know about my legacy. I wanted to be this anonymous little woman who was fascinated with Russia and its culture. Considering the fact that I didn’t trust the government in Russia, I didn’t want anyone to know much at all about me.
Tania was the first person to enter the terminal from the plane. She hadn’t changed a bit. She still had that fiery red hair and bright blue eyes. She still looked young and full of energy. Her whole face lit up when she saw me. She ran toward me, grabbed me, and hugged me like she hadn’t seen me in decades.
“I can’t believe I’m finally seeing you!” she screeched as she strangled me.
I choked and laughed at the same time. “I’ve missed you.”
After a long time, she let go of my neck, stepped back, and looked at me. “Look at you, northern woman.” She flipped the hood on my parka as it hung down my back. She pointed at my fur boots. “When did you turn into an Eskimo?”
I laughed. “Well, when in Rome you know.”
“Yes. It’s still cold here this time of year. It’s best to come prepared. Besides, I love fur boots. You have no idea how warm and comfy these things are.”
“You’ll have to show me where to get a pair.” She stood and took a good look around the terminal. “This is really different. I’ve never seen an airport with a moose head in it. Where do we go to get my bags?”
I took Tania to the baggage carousel. “You can’t get lost in this place,” she said. “In New York, it’s difficult to get through the airports without getting lost. Man, I feel like that doctor guy in that old show ‘Northern Exposure.’”
I knew exactly what she was talking about. We’d discussed the show online. I’d actually ordered a couple of seasons of the show so I could see what she was talking about. It was a great fish out of water story. “Well, Dr. Fleischman, welcome to Alaska.”
After we got her bags, she turned to me. “Okay, I’m all set. How to we get to that little village of yours? I saw a train, or did you drive?”
I giggled. This was one of the many surprises that lay ahead for Tania. “I drove.” I motioned for her to follow me. “Right this way.”
I led Tania to the hangar where I’d parked my Cessna Skyhawk. “Here’s my ride,”
Tania stopped dead in her tracks at the door of that hangar. “What the hell are you talking about?”
This was what I’d been looking forward to and dreading. We’d talked about a lot of things over the years, but there were several things that I hadn’t mentioned. “This is my ride. Surprise! I know I should have told you, but I learned how to fly. This is my plane. I also run a taxi service with it. It’s my job when I’m not teaching or at school.”
Tania dropped her bags on the ground and walked over to the plane. I watched her as she walked around the plane and took a good look at it. She didn’t say a word for a very long time. “Not bad. I can’t believe you know how to fly! What else haven’t you told me?”
About the Author
Photo by Jared A. Dixon
Terri Dixon is the well traveled internet writer, blogger, and photographer known as Nina Kindred. She has written over 12 stories on Fictionpress since 2004. is her first self published full length novel. She has been writing her weekly travel blog, “Adventures for Anyone” on Blogger for five years. She has been showing and selling her photography on Cafepress, Zazzle, and Pixels for several years. When she is not traveling, writing, working, or taking photos, she is spending time with her husband and son in the Northwest Hills of Connecticut where she lives.
The legend of the survival of the Romanovs is alive and well and has surfaced in modern Russia. Stacey, a college student from the farmlands of Indiana learned a lot about Soviet history from her grandma, an aficionado on the subject. When her grandma dies, she gives Stacey a mysterious ring and tells her never to let it out of her sight. In her first year of college, Stacey takes an opportunity to go to Russia and learn about the Tsars; the part of Russian history that her grandma didn't teach her. Upon her arrival, she finds out that the ring she carries is part of an ancient decree that entitles her to the throne of Russia, and she discovers that she is the last direct connection to the Romanovs. She soon discovers that the corrupt Russian President has been following her family, is aware of who she is and knows that she is in Russia. Will the President catch her? Will she get to keep the ring or simply get out of Russia alive? The adventure begins in part one of The Ring of the Queen trilogy where a young girl finds out about her past and decides where exactly that takes her future. Find out how Stacey deals with her lineage as she travels across western Russia in this epic conflict.