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CHAPTER THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-TWO
Monday early morning — 1:30 a.m.
New York City, New York
“Why are we stopping here?” Sissy asked as she looked out the window at the tall building before her. “Ms. Behur doesn’t live here.”
“Your rooms are completed,” Ivan said with a smile.
“Plus, Ms. Behur is in Denver for the trial,” Nadia said. “She said you could stay at her apartment, but we figured you’d like to come home with us.”
Surprised, Sissy looked at Charlie. Her older brother gave her a confident nod.
“How did they do it so fast?” Sissy asked.
“Nadia owns a construction company,” Ivan said.
“Sort of,” Nadia said with a wave of her hands. “My father was an investor in this company. I sit on the board.”
“Oh,” Sissy said.
“I asked if they could look at our little project,” Nadia said. “They called last night to tell me that it was completed.”
“How…?” Sissy bit her lip to keep from asking the same question.
“I know, right?” Nadia said with a laugh.
Sissy looked up at the building. There was an almost tunnel like awning that stretched from the entrance to the curb. The building rose up and seemed to scrap the sky. A man in a top hat and long coat walked toward the taxi.
“You live here?” Sissy asked.
“For a long time,” Ivan said. “I purchased a floor when I moved to United States. No one cared about this area then.”
The doorman opened the door to the cab.
“Shall we?” Ivan asked.
Sissy gave a quick worried nod. The doorman extended his hand to Sissy. She glanced at Charlie, who shrugged.
“You give him your hand and let him help you from the taxi,” Nadia said. “He should call you by name.”
“How would he know it?” Sissy asked.
“I sent your photos ahead so that they would expect us,” Nadia said. “And we could get in.”
“Nadia owns the entire building,” Ivan said. “Except our floor.”
“Oh,” Sissy said.
Sissy tentatively placed her hand in the doorman’s. He helped her from the taxi and tucked her hand into his arm.
“I am Marcus, Ms. Delgado,” he said as he escorted her toward the door. His accent was all New York. Yet, his mannerisms were strictly old world. “If you ever need anything, you can call me. It will be my pleasure to assist you with any task.”
Sissy looked up at the man. He was about Sam Lipson’s age and wore a big mustache. The hat gave him a severe look that was contrary to his kind eyes.
“Thank you,” Sissy said. “My brother doesn’t walk to well and…”
Sissy looked back to see a woman wearing Marcus’s same outfit helping Charlie out of the car and into a wheelchair. Another woman, wearing all black, greeted Ivan with familiar charm. A thin, dark-haired man wearing a black suit, black shirt, and black tie stood to the side of the taxi waiting to assist Nadia.
“So many people,” Sissy said under her breath.
“We are here to help,” Marcus said. “Now, I was told you might need oxygen.”
“Only when I sleep now,” Sissy said.
“That is wonderful news,” Marcus said. “I have arranged for a fresh oxygen tank. It is waiting for you in your room.”
“Have you seen it?” Sissy asked.
Marcus looked down at her anxious face.
“You will be pleased,” Marcus said. His hand covered hers. “It’s such a pleasure to meet you. I just know you’ll be happy here.”
Marcus turned at the door. While they watched, Charlie, Ivan, and Nadia get out of the taxi. The thin man spoke rapidly to Nadia in what Sissy thought must be a dialect of Russian. Nadia answered in the same language. Marcus leaned down.
“They are speaking Ukrainian,” Marcus said in a low voice.
“Oh, thanks,” Sissy said. “I wondered.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Is Nadia…?” Sissy started. She looked up at Marcus.
“Nadia inherited many responsibilities from her mother,” Marcus said. He leaned over so only Sissy could hear. “Mostly debt. Her mother was beautiful, a true angel. But, she was no business woman. Nadia has turned things around. That is good for people like me.”
“Why?” Sissy asked.
“I love my job,” Marcus said. “Good pay, good people. Everyone who works for her says the same thing. We love her and would do anything for her.”
“Like get up in the middle of the night to help us?” Sissy asked.
Marcus chuckled. He gave her hand a squeeze.
“I’m glad you have joined us,” Marcus said.
When Charlie and his helper drew close, Marcus opened the door for them. Ivan said something to her as he passed. Nadia stopped midway to continue her conversation with the man in black. She looked at Ivan before nodding in agreement. She said something to the man in black who said, “Of course.” Ivan and his helper entered the building. When Nadia reached the door, she held out her hands to Marcus.
“Papa Bear,” Nadia said.
Marcus took her hands and kissed her cheeks in warm greeting. Nadia beamed at the man.
“This is my mother’s most favorite human being,” Nadia said to Sissy.
“She would never marry me,” Marcus said. “That’s why I am Papa-Bear.”
“He arranged all of this for us,” Nadia said.
“Thank you,” Sissy said to Marcus.
Marcus blushed. He gestured for Nadia to enter the building which she did. As soon as she passed the threshold, she and the man in black fell into their conversation again.
“You and Nadia’s mother?” Sissy asked.
“She was my angel too,” Marcus said.
He turned Sissy into the building and they went to join the others at the elevators. Nadia and Ivan had left their helpers in the lobby, but Marcus stayed tight at Sissy’s side.
The moment the elevator doors closed, Sissy’s heart raced with panic. What if she didn’t like Ivan’s home? Her mind spun one awful scenario after another. She was so worried that she didn’t notice how many floors they went up. The elevator stopped and Charlie’s helper rolled him out. At the back of the elevator, with Marcus’s arm supporting her, Sissy couldn’t see anything. She heard a door open.
“Whoa,” Charlie said.
Nadia and Ivan exited the elevator but Marcus stayed right at Sissy’s side.
“Shall we?” Marcus asked.
“What if I don’t like it?” Sissy asked.
“Then we will make it into something you love,” Marcus said. He leaned down to speak in her ear. “You love Ivan as much as he loves you?”
Blushing, Sissy nodded.
“Then you will be the lady of this manor,” Marcus said.
Sissy looked up at him with surprise. Marcus nodded. Sissy thought for a moment before pushing her shoulders back and standing tall.
“That’s a girl,” Marcus said.
With her hand on Marcus’s arm, Sissy walked into Ivan’s floor. Her first sight was of the buffed cement floors giving way to the ceiling to floor windows. The space was open and light. It was beautiful in its clean simplicity. There was an open sitting area on Sissy’s left and a large dining table on her right. Most of the space was empty.
“Would you like to see where you will stay?” Ivan said to Sissy. He included Charlie to ease the tension.
“Sure!” Charlie said.
“I will take it from here,” Ivan said to Charlie’s helper.
She nodded and went back to the elevator.
“You don’t have to go?” Sissy asked in a soft voice.
“My instructions were to stay with you until you were settled,” Marcus said in a neutral voice. “Are you settled?”
Sissy shook her head.
“Let’s take a look, then,” Marcus said.
Near the middle of the floor was a modern kitchen. From the kitchen, Sissy could see the wood floors of a thousand square foot workout space in the corner. Sissy looked at Ivan.
“I stay here, next to our practice space,” Ivan said.
He opened the door to a plain large room. The walls were a kind of grey-white. There was a big bed, a built in closet, and a door to what was probably a bathroom. Sissy imagined she would probably spend a lot of time there. The thought made her blush.
“Nice,” Charlie said.
“Your rooms are smaller, of course,” Nadia said. “My room is about this size, but it’s along the other wall.”
She gestured down the hallway to a door at the end.
“We put yours in between ours,” Nadia said. She walked ahead to open the doors. “Charlie, this is kind of a guest room, so it’s not too personal.”
The room was painted a kind of sunny yellow. Two queen beds sat in the middle of the “smaller” space, which was about as large as Sandy and Aden’s entire apartment in the Castle. There was also a built in closet and a door to a bathroom along the walls. There were a few Swiss balls and stretch equipment situated on a swatch of rubber gym mats. Above them was a large painting of a sunflower.
“The equipment is to help you to stretch when you first get up and before bed,” Ivan said.
“Cool,” Charlie said.
“We put two beds in here because your friend Dale said he was coming,” Nadia said.
“He did?” Charlie asked.
“He told me last night that he wanted to come,” Nadia said with a smile. “So I invited him. O’Malley is here and Maresol thought she could spare him. He should be here in a bit.”
“Awesome,” Charlie said. “That’s really great.”
He looked up from his wheelchair and smiled at Nadia.
“We can leave you to get ready for bed,” Nadia said. “Giovanni is helping us around the house. He is here to help you get ready for bed.”
On her words, a smiling young man appeared at the door. He raised a hand in “hello” to Charlie and said, “Hey.” Charlie nodded in return.
“Can I see Sissy’s space?” Charlie asked.
“Of course,” Ivan said.
Without further comment, he turned in place. Sissy looked up at Marcus. He patted her hand that was still holding onto his arm. They went down the hallway between the bedrooms and the kitchen to the next wooden door. Ivan opened the door and walked inside.
This was it.
Sissy flushed with anxiety. She was about to step into the room where she would live for the next few months and possibly the rest of her life. She would heal here. She would start dancing here. She would sleep, by herself, here. Everything, her entire life!, depended on this room.
She might have run, but Marcus nudged her forward. She gave Charlie a last glance before taking a breath.
She held her breath.
Marcus nudged her again. She glanced up at him. Still holding her breath, she stepped into the room.
Avoiding looking at the bed, Sissy focused on the walls. They were blush colored, like the color of the tulle on the pink tutu she never took off when she was three. There was a large painting on the wall that separated her room from Charlie’s. Unable to see it from where she stood, she let go of Marcus’s arm and slipped into the room. She stopped in front of the painting.
The painting was set in the Castle backyard. The large garden beds were deep brown as if they had just been turned over. The trees were bare and the vine that grew along the fence had only a few leaves. The grass was deep green. In one corner, a single head sprinkler sent an arch of water across the yard. Sissy’s fingers instinctively hovered over the stream as her ears filled with the memory of the “ptat, ptat, ptat” sound of the sprinklers moving across the Castle gardens.
“It’s beautiful,” Sissy said.
“Mikhail painted it for you,” Ivan said. “He wanted you to have something from home.”
She turned. Looking past the bed, she saw the opposite wall. At least forty picture frames hung on the opposite wall. There were pictures of her family — Sandy, Charlie, Noelle, Nash, and Aden; pictures of her friends; pictures of Jill and Jacob; Katy and Paddie; and a photo of the twins laughing. Valerie and Mike were holding Jackie between them. Delphie and Sam stood arm in arm in one picture next to an image of Nadia standing in the ER. There was even a picture of Ivan dancing. Everyone she loved was on this wall. Her eyes welled with tears.
“What do you think?” Ivan asked.
Not wanting to cry, Sissy nodded and smiled. She noticed the oxygen tank next to the bed, the door to the bathroom, and a closet.
“It’s perfect,” Sissy said. “Thank you.”
“Yeah!” Nadia clapped. Ivan smiled, and even Charlie looked happy.
“I hope it’s all right,” Marcus said. “We’ve transferred your clothing from Ms. Behur’s home to the closet. Shall I run you a bath?”
“No,” Sissy said with a yawn. The excitement over, she suddenly felt very tired. “If it’s okay, I’ll go to bed.”
“Of course,” Marcus said. “Your luggage should be waiting for you at the elevator.”
“Thank you,” Ivan said.
He turned to escort Marcus out. At the door, Marcus looked back at Sissy. She smiled and nodded to him. He returned her smile.
“I know you will be very happy here,” Marcus said.
“Me too,” Sissy said confidently.
He gave her one last smile and left the room. Ivan went with him to the door. Nadia hugged Sissy and left for her room. Charlie looked at Sissy. He opened his mouth to say something and they heard: “Dude, this is amazing,” coming from the front.
“Go,” Sissy said.
She sat down on the bed and tried to take it all in. She flopped back to stare at the ceiling. On the ceiling, they had placed the star stickers that she and Noelle had on their ceiling. Sissy smiled.
“Oh cool!” Charlie said from out in the apartment.
She heard a distinctive laugh. Sissy got up to go look. Dale was standing next to Honey’s wheelchair. Honey waved to Sissy. Ivan came to her side.
“Last week, she and I worked in the gym together,” Ivan said. “MJ is here for a while so I invited her to come. She has Maggie with her. Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” Sissy said. “She can stay with me.”
“We have an actual guest room,” Nadia said with a smile. “It’s next to mine.”
Nadia leaned in so that only Sissy could hear.
“There’s a research group here that has a technique which uses stem cells to repair an injury like hers,” Nadia said. “I sent them Honey’s medical records and they’ve accepted her into their project. Don’t tell her. MJ wants to tell her himself.”
The elevator rang and MJ, carrying Maggie, stepped into their apartment.
“I must get to bed,” Nadia said. “I have to be at work in three hours.”
“Go,” Ivan said. “I will make sure our guests are settled.”
Ivan touched Sissy’s arm and went to greet MJ and Honey. Charlie rolled back to where Sissy stood. She put her arm around him.
“It’s really great,” Charlie said.
“An adventure,” Sissy said. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Yeah,” Charlie grinned. “Me, too.”
He smiled at Sissy before pointed to his bags.
“Dude, get mine too!” Charlie said to Dale.
“Get it yourself, lazy ass,” Dale said with a laugh.
“I’ll get yours, Sis,” Charlie said before he rolled to get his bag.
Sissy stood where she was and watched everyone come in. Ivan walked MJ, Honey, and little Maggie to their room next to Nadia’s. Charlie dropped Sissy’s bag on the way to his room. With a smile, Sissy followed them to her room. She was unpacking her clothing when there was a light knock on her door.
“Yes?” Sissy asked.
Ivan came in the room.
“I wanted to say good night,” he said.
She hugged him and he kissed her cheek.
“Are you happy?” he asked in a low tone.
“Very,” Sissy said.
He gave her a tight squeeze. Before she could say anything else, he spun on his heel and walked to the door. Turning at the door, he looked at her.
“We will start at six tomorrow,” Ivan said.
Sissy nodded. He smiled and left the room. She sat down on the bed.
It was the first time in a very long time that she’d been alone. Before this, she was at the people-packed Castle. Before that, she’d been at Bestat Behur’s apartment. Before that, she had been in the hospital surrounded by nurses and doctors and Sandy and Delphie and Abi. Before that, Noelle had been at her side every moment she wasn’t in a people packed school. And before that, she’d lived at the Castle and gone to East High in Denver and lived her regular life.
This was her first moment completely alone since… living with her mother.
A wave of desperate loneliness came over Sissy. She started to cry. Crying led to coughing. In less than a minute, she was gasping for breath. Sissy panicked. She heard Charlie scramble next door, and then Ivan’s firm, “I’ve got this.” The world was a wash of red glow when Ivan entered the room. With two steps, he grabbed the oxygen tank and mask.
“Breathe,” he ordered as he put the mask over her head.
Sissy gasped at the air.
“It’s a lot,” Ivan said.
Sissy nodded and focused on the slow healing breaths Ms. Behur’s massage person had instructed her to take. Ivan got up and went into the bathroom. He returned with her big hair brush. She gave him a questioning look.
“Focus on breathing,” Ivan said in a tone that she would dare not disobey. Sissy nodded.
He pulled at the knot in her hair until it unwound. Her long hair fell down her back. He began gently brushing her hair.
“You may not know, but I am an expert at this,” Ivan said. “My mother and father worked so it was my job to get my sister ready for school.”
Sissy felt more than saw movement. She looked up to see that Charlie and Dale were standing at the door. Dale put his hand on Charlie’s arm. Charlie pulled the door closed, and they made their way back to their bedroom. In Ivan’s hand, the brush stroked her long hair. Sissy focused on gasping for breath.
“I made a mess of it for a while,” Ivan said. “I was too impatient. Too much of a boy.”
Sissy heard his words, but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. Ivan’s words felt warm and loving. Slowly, she began to feel the air moving in and out of her lungs.
“But I learned,” Ivan said. She leaned into his warmth. “Truth be told, I have wanted to brush your beautiful hair for a long time. But what do you say? ‘Hey baby, can I brush your hair?’ Very creepy.”
Despite herself, Sissy giggled. He stopped brushing.
“I know that it is a lot,” Ivan said. “I know that you are giving a lot, being forced to trust beyond what is reasonable. You are ill and frightened. It is more than enough for any person, let alone a girl who almost died.”
“I’m okay,” Sissy said, but the mask made her words unintelligible.
One look at him and she knew he understood what she was saying. He continued to stroke her hair with the brush. They sat in slow motion — Ivan brushing her hair and Sissy fighting for breath — until long after her breath was easy and her hair was well brushed.
“Would you like me to stay with you?” Ivan asked.
For a long moment, they stared at each other. Despite her fear of what that might mean, she nodded. At this moment, she could not tolerate being away from him.
“As you much or as little,” he said, “always as you wish.”
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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