A chance meeting entangles the lives of three people as Destiny’s hand strikes to determine their fates in a gripping tale of a harrowing past, bitter lies, and shocking revelations.
Cara, an immigrant, arrives in the United States like several others, to chase the American Dream only to find her hopes dashed against the shores of the promised land as reality shatters the mirror of all illusions.
Alex’s fledging aspirations of becoming a writer soon find its promise in Cara, an aspiring documentary director. Allured by his charms, Cara slowly lets down her guard until her old roommate, Billy, turns up.
In what follows is a shocking turn of events, Cara, Alex, and Billy find their fates tied together by a common thread as they come to grips with their past while a harrowing revelation looms over their present seeking to turn the tide on their connections.
Does Cara realize her aspirations and find her soulmate in Alex or does Billy’s arrival in their lives speak of a startling secret that seeks to offset everything?
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Since my novel is a fictionalised autobiography, I drew inspiration from events in my past and from people I have met who have influenced me and who I believe are relevant to others. The works of Murakami and Stephen King have also inspired me and sparked my creativity – but honestly, my father, who is also a writer, naturally guided my steps towards writing long before I read these other two authors.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Each of my characters has something of myself in it. Of course, there are real people I have had the pleasure of meeting, friends, family, and their personalities and mine have led me to create authentic, real-to-life heroes.
-In which a data particle trapped in a black box, travels back in time and sets the future in motion.-
The sweltering summer of August '86, the day before my 12th birthday and a minute before midnight, I stared at the alarm clock, still wide awake. In a household where no one cared about silly rules like bedtime, homework, or school attendance, this was possible, but it was far beyond the time I naturally fell asleep.
Tormented by the heat emanating from the open window directly above my bed, amplified by the circling mosquitoes, I struggled to close my eyes for over two seconds. Anamaria's humming, in harmony with the irritating buzz of the bloodsuckers, didn't make matters any better. She, of all people, was cleaning the living room in the middle of the night, mopping the wooden floor with the energy of a wasp that had drunk five hundred cups of coffee.
Sure, my mother had many quirks that I didn't dispute and had learned to accept as part of the norm. I saw them as typical old people fixations and didn't get upset at her constant interest in interfering with one's fortune. Like her need to seed the lining of my school uniform with white and red yarn to "bring me happiness."
Or her dragging me in a taxi to the outskirts of Bucharest in the middle of the night so she could peel seven onions over my head under the exact light of a full moon reflected in the stream of a river. That, she claimed, was to change my 'bad luck.'
Whenever she insisted on taking me to various fortune tellers to find out my 'destiny,' I just went. That was the time I had some of my best naps. The fortune tellers went into a trance, closing their eyes, trembling and moaning, and as my mother fell silent for a whole half hour, I would drift away, a free ticket to la-la-land.
Of all of them, I liked Vadoma the best. She was our neighbor, the matriarch of a large Romani family that lived next door. That's how I met and befriended her only son, Peter. He was older than me, a lanky fellow, with heavy brown eyes and perfectly round dimples. But a recent misunderstanding over money led to my mother forbidding me to even look at the boy, and Vadoma spitting at my feet whenever she saw me walk by.
Seeing my mother's frenzied activity before midnight, I wondered if it was because of another shouting match with Vadoma, if my mother was venting her frustration at not finding a replacement fortune-teller quickly enough, or the one other cause I feared most?
From time to time, Anamaria would burst into a sudden and intense discontent, rearranging everything she could spot in the open. It was all a disorganized mess, and everything needed to be put in better order. It wasn't because we owned too much stuff, from a massive collection of paintings to an incongruous assortment of furniture and odds and ends, we never used them but we kept it all just in case, she would say.
It wasn't because she welcomed being our relatives' secret repository, where they could deposit their most prized antiques to hide them from the Romanian secret police, the Securitate. Or that even some of our more intrepid neighbors used our house to store whatever bribes they skimmed, from barrels of whiskey to vats of cheese.
But always because the house was simply too small, my mother argued. And then, when her frustration reached the next level, she squeezed us into a van and we moved. Again and again. With the tediousness of a hoarder, she left nothing behind but my feelings on the subject.
With that thought in mind, I reflected on the dimensions of our apartment, still not full of useless things, and I rolled onto my side and hugged Mr. Bear, my best and only friend and confidant. When I was five years old, my grandfather gave me the toy, saying it had once belonged to another princess, the beautiful Anastasia Romanov. He handed over the gift, sat me on his knee, put Mr. Bear in my arms, and told me the story of Romanov's capture and execution by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg.
My grandfather, or as I called him 'Papa,' described the incident in such vivid detail that I shuddered and sobbed like an overflowing river. He paused. He stared at me and then scratched his goatee for a minute, a gesture, and a tuft of hair so fascinating, I ceased crying.
Then he cleared his throat and spoke in a lower, calmer tone. He had bought the teddy bear from Mikhail, a former Bolshevik soldier turned black market entrepreneur, he said. The forbidden transaction which could have sent them both to a gulag on the edge of Siberia went without incident. Mikhail sold all the belongings he had looted while helping Anastasia escape, my grandfather told me. The princess and her rescuer survived, married, and lived happily ever after, which was the plot of a movie, not historical. But at that age, I didn't know any better.
It thrilled me to own a wondrous teddy bear with dainty brown fur that smelled delightfully of summer dust, whey, and cinnamon. But over the years, after many battles with the moths that sprouted from the closets, his fur faded, and his little tummy cracked. Expecting his hay-like guts to drip everywhere and make an annoying mess for Nella, I considered breaking the promise I made to my mother and taking him to Peter's to have him patched up.
"Poor you," I said, sniffing the bear's dull fur. You've been through a lot; I wanted to say, but the words got stuck in my throat and I couldn't get them out. My heartbeat stopped for a moment and an uncomfortable feeling pressed in on me, making the hairs on my arm stand up as if static electricity were feeding them. Something was certainly going on, but what exactly was going on? I heard a startling sound coming from the glass door that separated my bedroom from the living room.
"Mom? Is that you?", I called out in a trembling voice. I lifted my head. But Anamaria had already disappeared somewhere else in the house. I fixed my gaze on the doorknob. It moved as if by itself. There was nothing on the other side, no one. While Mr. Bear clung to my chest, I watched the door open. A blast of icy wind rushed in. I yelped and ran straight into my mother's boudoir.
The space that connected our bedrooms served as a walk-in closet, a tribute to a legion of hat boxes, stacks of feather fans and flapper dresses, and all the other items she had collected over the years.
As I flailed my arms left and right, these items slithered off the shelves and hangers and fell on top of me. After what felt like an eternity, I crawled out from under the pile of clothes and reached my mother's bedroom, leaving Mr. Bear behind.
"Some… a… thing – pushed my door open!" I stammered. "Something bad! No, it happened!", I argued with myself when my mother didn't answer, perched on the bed like a queen with an open book on her chest.
"I'm not lying, mom, I swear I'm scared. Can I sleep in your bed?"
Anamaria craned her neck slightly and nodded. She didn't look very convinced, but now she found a respectable excuse to wake Henrik, her husband, who was squatting half-asleep in an armchair listening to Radio Free Europe. Her stomach ulcer was calling again, causing the knife circles in her stomach, so she roared in his direction.
Henrik rubbed his eyes, still sleepy, but realizing that he needed to complete the task he was most notorious for. The reason my mother initially accepted his courtship was that he knew his way around a kitchen and made excellent ham and cheese sandwiches. Having grown up in a devastated Poland after World War II, he had gone through the famine. There were no leftovers he couldn't turn into a tasty dish, though my mother always admonished him to work more on his presentation.
"You eat with your eyes first, Henrik," she complained about the sloppy look of the food.
"Ana, that's not true, me eats with mouth first, then guts second," he would argue back. "Why matter, it all goes into the stomach where it mixes," he would retort his logic in a constant and everlasting battle with my mother's high-class, high-expectation sensibilities.
As he walked into the enormous kitchen, surrounded by stained glass walls that filtered the light coming from the patio of the courtyard, she bellowed further instructions to check windows and doors for proper closures.
"It's probably the draft, " she said to me as she put the book aside and lit a cigarette. Normally she would quiz me about any paranormal activity, though it was a given for her that ghosts and spirits were wandering around, bumping into doors and making a ruckus. But at that moment, I think she was too tired. The living room itself was as big as my classmate's entire apartment, and the miles of re-plastering the parquet must have taken it out of her.
The Polish Bonhomme, with a florid face, pronounced round belly, and sprightly mustache shuffled his slippers through the kitchen. The slippers matched his beloved nightgown, a long white dress with a matching cap. Nightly, he wore the same one. The linen soothed his sensitive skin, and the hat was his thinking cap, without which he would slip into a coma right after dinner.
"The strigoi have left the house," he joked, stumbling down the corridor that connected the two apartments on the first floor. Ours took up eighty percent, and that of our widowed neighbor – a kleptomaniac topographer who loved to ‘borrow’ the gold Montblanc pens my mother had given me and for whose loss I got in trouble – taking up the rest of the space.
Carefully, Henrik checked the deadbolt on the front door. He listened with his ear at the neighbor’s entrance for noise. When he was sure nothing was moving, he returned to the kitchen to slice bread.
“No spiritos in casa, my dear,” he called back in broken Romanian. Moments later, he came into the bedroom with a well-stacked plate of sandwiches. He admired how quickly we dug into his culinary masterpiece, then went straight to the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
I ate the sandwich, and it tasted stale, bitter, with a hint of mold, and I frowned in confusion. Such a strange taste, considering his chef-like abilities and how fussy my mother was, and that she had a habit of throwing away food right after the expiration date, much to Henrik’s chagrin.
Nella, too, knew how meticulously she had to clean the lump of metal we called a refrigerator. Anamaria believed that a clean fridge and not a crumb of food outside would curb the vermin infestation we’d been dealing with since the first day we’d moved into our apartment.
We lived in a miniature replica of Versailles, with majestic, vaulted ceilings, stained glass doors, and Murano chandeliers, but if I wanted to get a glass of water or maybe a snack from the fridge at night, I had to squeeze past thousands of cockroaches, large and small, hopping around the kitchen to their heart’s content.
Nella often joked that as the royal family, we inherited the most regal and indestructible pests, because we tried everything short of an atomic blast, and they refused to die. We fumigated, we poisoned, we renovated, but the cockroaches mutated and persisted, continuing their lives, their mission to make ours as miserable as possible.
Although my mother did her best to keep the apartment clean, employing several maids and cleaners, the roaches occasionally found their way into places they shouldn’t. Like her morning coffee or my soup. Maybe it happened again, I mused, looking back down at the sandwich to check for any hairy legs sticking out of the bread edges, then in her direction as I saw crystals of the chandelier jiggling behind her head.
“What is wrong?” she asked in a curt tone.
“Um, there,” I said, gesturing upward.
Before Anamaria could turn, a terrible movement loosened the support, and the chandelier fell and shattered into a million pieces, a terrible hissing sound punctuating this sudden violence.
Everything shook and trembled. The curtain rod nose-dived and smashed the glass on my mother's vanity. The massive paintings that lined the wall dropped to the floor like squashed flies. With every fiber in my body and without thinking, I screamed: "I do not want to die! I do not want to die!"
Meanwhile, my right hand crushed the half-eaten sandwich in my fist and dug my brittle nails so deep into the skin of my palm it bled. Without hesitation, Anamaria slapped me across the face. As if unplugged from the power outlet, I stopped, confused about what my next reaction should be to cry, pout, crawl under the bed?
"We are experiencing an earthquake, Cara," she murmured, unimpressed. With amazing ambidexterity, she pulled on the yellow ruffled dress she'd left beside the bed with one hand while reaching for the tinny jewelry box on the nightstand with the other. After making sure her money was still inside, she kicked in the bathroom door.
"Henrik, come out! Open the door! Hurry! We have to take cover!"
Henrik, an earthquake virgin, bent over, surprised by the commotion, and dropped his thinking cap into the toilet. Now bereft of his thoughts, he stumbled out the back door into the living room, where he trotted around the dining room table. He was not sure if World War III was starting. Or the apocalypse:
"Anna! Anna! Bombs! Bomb shelter, where is?"
The three miniature poodles, Bella, York, and Lady sprinted frantically after him, whimpering expletives in dog language. When my mother observed the dogs suddenly running and scratching at the front door, she took it as a sign to leave. She grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her, Henrik following behind us, still screaming.
In the common hallway, Mr. Longfish, the neighbor, stood in the doorway of his apartment. He wore nothing but a questionable shade of spandex temp underpants and a small pavilion of hair on his scrawny chest. Normally he smelled of dried seaweed and tobacco, but this time he gave off intense alcohol fumes. His eyes popped out of his head, redder than his nose. His face expressed no fear, but pride and a slight hint of joy.
"HALT!" he commanded. "No need to bolt; it's OK! It's hicc! Hi-okay!"
Longfish shifted his position, arms up and legs apart, a disheveled version of Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.
"I'm hold-hol-ding the house!" he stuttered between loud hiccups.
And with this proclamation, all hushed. For all I knew, Longfish was a true wizard, or of incredible strength, for the house survived. A few bricks fell, and bits of stucco had chipped off the facade, but the structure stood intact. When Nella came to clean up the next day, my mother ranted on and on about the event, but instead of praising the superhuman neighbor, she attributed the success to the skill of the earlier architects:
"They built their houses to survive, but what a disaster, my china, my paintings!"
She found that two of the forty-four pieces of her finest Meissen porcelain set broke. That left forty-two to go. Since Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was not available in communist Romania and the significance of 42 remaining unknown, my mother instructed Nella to throw the set away.
"It's junk, I cannot serve my guests tea anymore, just hurl it in the garbage disposal."
"But ma'am, it's painted actual gold! I can sell it, buy some," Nella began.
But Anamaria interrupted her mid-sentence.
"Nonsense, you will blow the money. I'll ask Henrik to get you two boxes of Dunhill from the diplomatic shop, because you know he has exclusive access to, well, imports of all kinds. He's an important diplomat!" she boasted.
Nella was pleased. She sought foreign products, especially cigarettes, coffee, soap, shoes, or jeans, even matchboxes made in the USA were precious. The proverbial Turkish custom, adopted during the Ottoman Empire's occupation of Romania, survived the regime change centuries later. It became so ingrained in Romanian culture people bribed to get access to services or things, despite the communist manifesto that theoretically claimed everyone was equal. Limited international trade, a narrow market with tight cycles, spurred people to crave what they could not have, and those with money believed themselves superior.
Money bought relationships. I later understood that having friends in prominent positions in the regime brought a fleeting peace of mind and security. But at that moment, unaware of the deeper politics behind the loss of the dinner set, I concerned myself with a more important and immediate problem. The hand-painted, gold-embossed cups were crucial to the Thursday afternoon tea party I hosted each week for all my many inanimate subjects. How would I serve my mother's Chanel No. 5 tea without the set?
My toys would be so disappointed, and Matilda, my second favorite after Mr. Bear, would call it for what it was. A tragedy. I had to explain to her what her future might look like. More time in the trunk and less socializing. Where was she again?
I looked under my bed and among the books that had fallen off the shelf, remembering that yesterday I had delegated my mother's request to her. My time was better spent reading, daydreaming, or picking my nose than being the silverware police. So, I instructed Matilda to watch Nella like a hawk, as my mother asked me to do, and placed her high on the living room buffet where our finest junk was.
I rummaged around until I spotted her long blonde hair sticking out like a haystack under a pile of broken glass and assorted boxes of chocolates. First, I rescued the candies and set them aside. Then I pulled Matilda by the leg. Poor little doll. Her left glass eye popped out of its socket. An accident at work because of me, and now I have to tell her worse?
I had to think. To make a clear judgment, I had to calm my nerves and silence the voice in my head that was berating me for endangering the life of my toy. What if it was Mr. Bear? What if he had lost his eye? Since nothing calms my mind like chewing on a piece of taffy, after taking every precaution and being sure my mother still argued with Nella in the distance, I opened the first package and shoved as many pieces as I could into my mouth. Too many, because now I could not get my jaw to open. The dilemma came to a head when I saw my mother turn and start walking in my direction.
With effort, I unstuck my teeth and spat out the caramel ball in my right hand while my left still held Matilda. As I bent down to drop it so my mother could not see me eating her bribe stash, something under my foot caught my eye. A black and blue cardboard envelope and a picture of a boy playing with something I'd only seen in the foreign movies I watched with my Uncle Vali whenever my mother put me up with him. Her system to hand me off to relatives who watched me for free was brilliantly cunning.
A computer! The English title said “WARGAMES” in bold, bright letters. I snatched it and hid the box under my blouse because I wanted to keep it so I could show it off at school the next day. I tiptoed around my mother, my heart in my throat. Unlike Vali, my mother loathed everything American. She often complained about their evil, degenerate ways. It reminded her of her terrible childhood. This raised the question of the object’s origins, and that made me very curious.
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