Alex and Sasha are twin sisters, physically identical down to their freckles. But the resemblance is only skin deep–Sasha is profoundly autistic, while Alex is not. Sasha can’t communicate and acts bizarrely, and the family revolves around her and her intense needs. Yet the aged, wealthy, and mysterious Aunt Nana seems to have a particular interest in both girls. Offering a helping hand, she encourages the family to move to San Francisco to be near her. And when the young twins discover a tunnel in Nana’s tool shed, it leads them on a journey across the world and back 100 years in time. The tunnel is a pathway to the Firebird Estate, the home of their ancestors, located in rural Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even more remarkable, through the effect that twisting time has on cognition, Sasha is not autistic when she’s at the Firebird Estate. Now, growing up in two strikingly different times and places, the twins must face their separate destinies among the ravages of the incipient Russian Revolution. Can they save their families on both sides of the tunnel? Can they simultaneously stay true to their own hearts, to each other, and to the people they left behind? Each sister must face her own personal challenge–but only together can they discover their own future within their family’s past.
Targeted Age Group:: YA
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
It's difficult to give a voice to someone who doesn't have one. Many people with Autism lack the ability to communicate clearly, yet their internal life is just as complex and beautiful as of any other human. This story is a combination of wanting to write about what it feels like to be autistic and unable to communicate with those you love AND my grandmother's story of living through the Russian Revolution as a little girl (fictionalized to some extent). The result is a haunting fiction that takes place in two times and two very different locations.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The story of Sasha as a little girl is partly based on my grandmother's recollection of living in a small village in rural Russian at the time of the Revolution. The story of Sasha in the present day is based on my extensive research into autism and how hard families have to fight to get help for their children.
There are doors without and doors within. Some doors lead to a career, others to the special people in our lives, and still others to the mysteries of our inner selves. There are doors to stride through with purpose, and doors to peek through with trepidation. But maybe once in a lifetime there is a door to another reality, a door that connects worlds within multiverses. Be warned: stepping through such a door changes your life forever. So be careful what you wish for.
One: 2019 — Fire
"Dad?" There was noise on the line. Alex heard the sirens of emergency vehicles. She had a sick feeling, making her hand tremble as she jammed the cell phone harder against her ear. "Dad!"
"Alex, honey, there was an accident." Alex's father sounded all wrong. "I need you to get to Mills Hospital on the Peninsula right away. Okay?"
"Dad? What's going on? Is Sasha all right? You're really scaring me."
"There was a fire. Aunt Nana has been taken to Mills. Can you get someone to drive you? Mom and I will meet you there." There was more shuffling, and Alex heard someone tell her father to move. Alex's father shouted something back, but it was muffled and she couldn't understand what was being said. Then the line went dead.
Alex held the phone in front of her, hoping to get more information from the mute device. Her legs felt weak as she tried to stand. She needed to borrow a car. It was midday, mid-week, and everyone was in class. Alex had been about to go as well. She was minoring in Russian Literature, and her teacher didn't make late arrivals welcome.
Her roommate's keys were on top of her desk. And then they were in Alex's hands–her subconscious mind had made the decision before she had. She would text an explanation later.
At this time of the day, UC Berkeley was at least an hour away from San Mateo–the small town on the San Francisco Peninsula where Mills Hospital was located. It would be at least an hour before Alex knew what was really going on.
She ran out the door.
The police officer had been trying to speak to the woman, Emma Orlov, but she was clearly in shock, unable to respond. Another officer had been managing the woman's husband, Greg, trying to convince him to escort his wife away from the scene of the fire.
A neighbor called the rest of the family while the police started the evacuations of nearby homes. The house had already burned to the ground, but the fire stubbornly refused to go out, and the firemen worried it might jump to the neighboring structures.
There had been only one critical injury: an old lady they had pulled from the fire. An ambulance had already taken her to the hospital. However, Mr. Orlov insisted that their daughter was also in the house. The girl was autistic, he said, and mute except for her own name: "Sasha." The firemen hadn't been able to locate the girl, but at least there was no evidence that the girl had died in the fire–although it was too early to tell for sure. Still, an alert had been issued: "Svetlana Orlov, a nineteen-year-old special-needs woman, missing after house fire."
"Sir? We're going to have to ask you and your wife to leave now. It's getting dark."
"She's in there somewhere," the girl's father said in a flat tone. "I know it. I dropped her off myself."
The officer realized he wasn't going to be able to get the parents to leave voluntarily. He looked around. The trauma center people should have been here already.
He looked back at the house. It was one of those old mansions built in a Spanish style almost a century ago–stucco and tile with a clay roof–one of the first constructions in the hills of San Mateo. It had been quite lovely, but now it looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Hardly anything was left standing. If there was a body in there, it might take a while to find it.
He shook his head. He had been one of the first on the scene and had been there when they pulled the elderly woman out. She said she was alone; she was adamant about it. She was badly burned, but before they took her away, she insisted that they get in touch with her lawyer. Strange, he thought at the time, but people tend to do strange things when their world goes up in flames.
Alex hated hospitals. The smell of death was always just barely noticeable underneath all the sparkling surfaces. Now she stood beside her great-aunt's hospital bed. The woman was being kept alive by some futuristic spaceship-like life support system.
Alex turned to see a small man in an impeccably tailored conservative suit standing by the door of the intensive care unit.
"I'm Alex," she said. Who is he?
"Alex. I've heard so much about you." The man smiled like he was a family friend. Alex found the strange intimacy of his expression both unnerving and patronizing. Where are my parents? The hospital's reception staff had informed her of the fire, but her parents had not responded to her texts or answered their cell phones.
"I haven't heard of you. If you'll excuse me, my Aunt Nana is in there." Alex tried to maneuver around the man to get into the room.
"I know. Nadezhda Orlova asked me specifically to talk to you."
"While in intensive care?" Alex was getting annoyed. She knew some people were drawn to tragedy, and this man was keeping her from going to see Aunt Nana. She looked around for a nurse or a doctor or an orderly–someone who could get rid of him. Only family was allowed on this floor, and Alex was sure he was not family.
"I can assure you that Ms. Orlova was very specific. If anything were to happen to her, I was to find you right away. You see, I represent your great-aunt's estate–"
"Don't you think this is a very inappropriate time?" Alex was horrified. She was only nineteen and dealing with a family emergency on her own. Where are Mom and Dad? She certainly wasn't qualified to be dealing with legal implications right at this moment, if ever.
"I am here on Ms. Orlova's instructions."
Deciding to go ahead and be rude, Alex tried to push the man aside. But he wouldn't budge–he was stronger than he looked.
"Alex." He reached out to her, but she pulled away and stepped back. "It's very important that I speak with you right away. Please."
Alex was confused and frightened. There was no one around to help, and Aunt Nana was unconscious, swaddled in all that technology, beeping and whooshing, the music of death. "What do you want?" she asked.
"I want to talk to you about Sasha and your Orlov family in Russia," the man said.
There had been no Orlovs in Russia for over half a century, as far as she knew. Except…
Alex almost sat on the floor–it was just too much. But the man took her by her elbow and guided her to an empty nursing station just down the hall. He deposited Alex into one of the two rolling chairs and sat in the other one.
"What do you want from me?" Alex asked at last. "And what do you know about Sasha?" Please tell me Sasha's okay. Sasha was Alex's identical twin. But while Alex was a vibrant young woman studying at the University of California in Berkeley, her sister was profoundly autistic. Aunt Nana was one of the few people Sasha responded to, and today would have been one of the days she spent with her, giving their mother a much-needed break.
The man opened a briefcase–one of those superfine leather ones that Alex always imagined were carried by old lawyers. He carefully took out an envelope and gently slid out a few old sepia photographs. Alex couldn't help but lean over and look. And what she saw took her breath away.
The photos were faded yellow and obviously very old. And yet the faces staring back at her, through the veil of time, were familiar. Very familiar.
The biggest photograph, which also looked the oldest, showed young twin girls dressed in identical white old-fashioned dresses and wearing black shoes and stockings. They were the faces of her and her sister.
Alex wanted to say that these people were fluke lookalikes–girls from another generation who just happened to bear a striking similarity to her and her twin sister–but she knew what she saw. The one girl was clearly her, Alex, and the girl she was holding hands with was just as undoubtedly Sasha. They appeared to be about three or four years old.
Illustration: Photos of Sasha
Alex flipped through the pictures. Two smaller photos showed a woman and a man. The woman looked like Alex, but a bit older. The man she couldn't quite identify, but he did look familiar.
And then Alex found a photo of herself that looked like it could have been taken today–except for the fur hat and collar and the high-necked white shirt. The Alex in this picture was her, at her current age. It was like looking into some faded mirror, some alternate reality.
Alex flipped the photo over. On the back, in Russian, was printed a name and date: "Alexandra Orlova, 1919."
Boris Blackburg was observing Alex carefully, judging her emotional state and her ability to comprehend what he was telling her. She seemed very confused. He wasn't surprised. This was the strangest assignment he had ever accepted. At first, he thought it was some silly notion of a well-to-do old woman. But as the years passed, he got to know Nadezhda well, and he liked the old woman, eccentricities and all. And as he got to know the Orlov family as well–vicariously, of course–the assignment grew more and more strange and intriguing.
Boris was also well compensated for his work. He was going to ensure Nadezhda's wishes were followed. Alex Orlov would inherit her great-aunt's estate and all the accompanying strangeness that came with it. He would make certain of it.
"Where did you get these?" Alex asked.
"Nadezhda, your Aunt Nana, gave these to me about eighteen years ago, shortly after you and Sasha were born."
"I… I…" Alex seemed to want to say something, but couldn't get it out. Boris was prepared to give her time, as long as her parents didn't interfere with his mission by arriving too soon. At least the girl was now of age and the complications of guardianship had gone away–but he needed to complete his assignment before her parents arrived and complicated matters.
"Who's the woman in this photo?" Alex pointed to a small black and white print of a man and a woman walking on the street. The image was very small, and it was difficult to identify the people, both of whom were wearing hats.
"Who do you think it is?" Boris asked. He knew, of course–Nadezhda had identified most of the photos for him, and there was information written on the back of most.
"I don't know. But… it looks like… me?" Alex's voice was small, barely audible.
Two: 2004 — Great-Aunt Nadezhda
Emma tried to relax in the passenger seat of the family car. Svetlana and Alexandra were strapped into their car seats in back, Svetlana whimpering softly and Alex sleeping. They were all on their way to see Nadezhda Orlova.
Emma Orlov had never been clear just how her husband was related to the woman; when she pressed, he told her that she was his grandmother's brother's daughter. But regardless of the precise relationship, everyone called her "Aunt Nana" and treated her like a great-aunt on account of her age.
What was clear, though, was that Greg was very fond of her. He even insisted on naming one of their twins Alexandra in honor of Aunt Nana's mother. Emma didn't mind. It was a good, powerful name, and from the photographs she had seen of the portrait hung in the great room of the old family house in San Mateo's hills, Emma thought Alexandra Orlova looked worthy of a namesake.
Emma had chosen the name for their other daughter. Emma had always liked the name "Svetlana," meaning "light" in Russian. Power and Light–great names for identical twin girls of Russian heritage.
Greg had been born here, in America, as had his parents. But his grandparents had immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, escaping from the newly established Soviet Union via Manchuria some time after the Bolshevik Revolution. Greg's parents were only kids when they lived in the exiled Imperial Russian community in China, but they talked about it like they'd spent a lifetime in the old country. And it was Alexandra Orlova who had been one of the first to leave Manchuria for America, and who had orchestrated the escape of the rest of the family.
Emma had never met the great lady Alexandra Orlova–she died in 1975, when Greg was just five–but he said he remembered her. Emma didn't really believe him; childhood memories are often formed from photos and stories, rather than from real memories of the events themselves. And Emma had only met Aunt Nana twice before.
The first time was at the wedding. Emma felt an immediate attraction to her, as if they'd known each other forever. But they lived on opposite sides of the continent, so Emma didn't see Aunt Nana again until the girls were born. Aunt Nana hadn't announced she was flying in for the birth, but she was suddenly there at Brooklyn Hospital's maternity ward. And when Aunt Nana held Emma's newborn daughters for the first time, Emma thought it felt right. Family is a very strong force.
Aunt Nana was thrilled when Greg told her of their decision to name one of the girls Alexandra; she even cried. And later, she set up an education fund for the girls–an amazing gift.
Everyone will tell you that having twins is very difficult–it's more than twice the work–and Emma and Greg hardly slept the first couple of years. Now that the girls were three, it should have been getting easier. But life never turns out how one plans it. While Alexandra–Alex–was thriving and turning into a clever and beautiful little girl, Svetlana's developmental trajectory was quite different.
The regression started when Svetlana was about eighteen months old. It was difficult to spot at first, and everyone told Emma she was just imagining things. But when the girls were together, it was obvious that something was very different about Svetlana. It took almost two years to get a final diagnosis: autism. By then, the sunny blond little girl couldn't even speak. It was like watching the light drain from their Light Girl, their Svetlana.
Aunt Nana offered Greg help in getting the services Svetlana would need. California was better than New York, she said. The autism epidemic had hit California hard, and the state had responded by making services available. Moving across the country, away from family and friends, was a hard family decision, but Greg and Emma didn't hesitate: Svetlana's well-being came first.
Aunt Nana and her lawyer, a careful and elegant man named Boris Blackburg, helped with the arrangements: selling and buying a house; getting connected to doctors in the Bay Area; helping Greg get a new job at a tech startup, and with a significant raise, too. And Aunt Nana did it all without being too clingy.
Emma's mother, a New Yorker herself, cried at the news that her daughter would be moving so far away, but she agreed with the decision. It was better for Svetlana, end of story. She came out to California to help set up their house and get Emma organized, and then she returned to New York with a teary farewell.
That was a week ago. And now they were headed to Aunt Nana's house.
This, then, would be the third time that Emma would meet Greg's great-aunt. The woman had been wonderful to them, but Emma still felt trepidation showing the girls to her. It was almost like, as a mother, Emma felt responsible for Svetlana's failure to thrive. Like it was all her fault. She knew that such thinking was silly, but she couldn't help it. It was how she felt.
And lately, she'd been taking that anxiety out on Greg. They'd been fighting for the last three days. Emma had even tried to cancel the outing to Aunt Nana's house, but Greg insisted. Now they were driving in angry silence.
When they arrived at the house, Greg hopped out. He and Emma had the whole "get the girls in and out of the car" routine down pat–they were a good team, a well-oiled machine. Greg picked up sleeping Alex and carried her inside while Emma waited in the car with Svetlana. Emma had hoped the ride in the car would knock her out, but no such luck–the girl had been restless all the way here. Now she would be a disaster inside–new place, new person, no sleep.
Emma took a deep breath. So be it. Aunt Nana knew how it was, she just hadn't witnessed it firsthand yet. Emma wiped a tear from her eye and waited for Greg to return.
Greg came back smiling. He loved the great old rambling house. He had told Emma endless stories of his adventures here. When he was little, in the '70s and early '80s, he had spent his summers here. He and his older brother Nick had been free to explore the three-acre estate, climbing the old knobby oaks, eating apples right from the trees, swimming in the pool, and playing in a big tree house Aunt Nana had built especially for them. He spoke of it as a magical place, a great house in which to spend a childhood and build happy memories.
Greg said that Aunt Nana had spent most of her own childhood at the house, too. Her mother built it for them in 1935, right after they immigrated to America, a few years before the rest of the family arrived.
Emma looked at the house now. It looked just as it had in the photos she'd seen: a two-story Spanish stucco house with a large terracotta tile roof. Little balconies were surrounded by wrought-iron railings painted dark orange, and wisteria climbed up the sides of the house, dripping clusters of lilac flowers. Old hand-painted tiles provided architectural accents, while stately old trees encircled the house and ran along the property line. It was very much a fairytale dream home. Alex will like it here, Emma thought.
"Come, let's get Svetlana." Greg leaned in to get their daughter. Emma braced herself for screeching, but it never came. Svetlana allowed her dad to get her out of the car seat and be carried inside. Emma followed, loaded down with endless bags full of diapers, changes of clothing, baby food, and toys.
It was early summer, and the day was warm and sunny, but inside, the house was cool and dark. Emma stopped to drop most of her load by the front door, and then she and Greg stepped into the great room.
Alex was already running circles around a low coffee table, laughing like a tinkling bell. Aunt Nana was seated on a sofa, clapping her hands each time Alex passed. But she looked up as soon as Greg walked in with Svetlana.
Emma felt herself tense up. Greg hesitated too. How would their Svetlana react to this strange house, this unfamiliar person?
Aunt Nana rose and walked over to them, stopping right in front of Greg. She leaned in to catch Svetlana's eyes. The little girl looked at Aunt Nana and extended her arms–the universal child gesture for "hold me." And just like that, Aunt Nana was holding Svetlana, stroking her back, murmuring something softly in her ear.
Illustration: Countess Alexandra Portrait
Emma forgot to breathe. Greg just stood there, his arms hanging by his sides. Svetlana never let strangers hold her, and she never asked to be picked up. Her first reaction to anything new was a high-pitched screeching. Yet here she was, happily being carried by a stranger.
"So, what's your name?" Aunt Nana asked Svetlana.
"Aunt Nana, she–" Greg began, but Aunt Nana cut him off with a stern gaze.
"What's your name, little one?" she asked again.
"Sasha," the girl said.
It was the first word she had uttered in over a year.
"That's a beautiful name," Aunt Nana said approvingly. She sat back down on the sofa with Svetlana–Sasha–on her lap. A larger-than-life portrait of Alexandra Orlova hung on the wall behind her.
Emma just stood there and wept.
"What did you think of the girls?" Boris Blackburg asked when Nadezhda Orlova, Aunt Nana, called him after the family left her house.
"Is she the one?" Boris knew well the large portrait of Countess Orlova in Aunt Nana's living room. He was also very familiar with the Orlov family photos and documents from old Russia. There were quite a few images of the twins, showing them growing up in a rural settlement founded by the Orlov family patriarch almost two centuries ago, northeast of Saint Petersburg.
"She seems bright and sunny. Just like we have always imagined," Aunt Nana said. "But Svetlana is worrisome. I had no idea how profound her disability was. She did tell me her name was Sasha though. So that was something."
"Sasha? As in short for Alexandra?"
"Yes. I know, it's strange."
"So we… you have two potential Alexandras?" Boris asked.
"That has been true from the beginning."
"Nothing's changed," Aunt Nana cut him off.
"Of course." Boris let it go; his job was to serve the Orlovs. But this was certainly an unexpected development.
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