The day Yara came home, Nikolai broke into his father's desk and took the pistol that his father had hidden there. Nikolai could have asked his older brother Maxim for the key to the desk, but he knew that Maxim would never agree to his plan for protecting Yara. It had to be a secret.
He wished that he and Maxim could fight the gangsters together if they came to take her away again, shooting them down one by one on the grimy concrete stairs before they could reach the door. He and Maxim together could save her. Maxim would say that might work in a movie but not in real life. Anyway if he told Maxim what he was planning to do Maxim would take the gun away, because he believed violence was sinful, and because he was a coward.
Nikolai slipped the gun into the inner pocket of his jacket and came downstairs. He paused in the kitchen doorway. The kitchen looked almost the same as it had that night two years ago, the night Yara didn't come home for dinner because Vladmir, the leader of one of the most powerful gangs in the city, had kidnapped her.
That night, he had walked in to see Maxim sitting at the kitchen table, his head in his hands. Maxim looked up when he came in. His eyes were red and wet behind his glasses. “She's in God's hands now,” he said.
"No, she isn't," Nikolai said. "She's in Vladmir's hands. But we're going to bring her back tonight."
"We can't do that, Nikolai. It's not as simple as you think. I wish I could explain..."
"Never mind. God is with her, He is able to protect her even if we can't. And we can't, right now. Do you want to go to America?"
Nikolai stared. Maxim's question was so unexpected and abrupt that it made no sense.
"I've been talking it over with the parents, and they have decided to vist Uncle Sergei this summer instead of next. They're planning to leave as soon as possible, and they'll take Luda, but there's a ticket for you if you want to go too."
"Are you crazy? What makes you think I want to go on vacation in some other country when my twin sister has just been kidnapped? What kind of brother do you think I am?" Nikolai screamed at him.
"It's not about vacation so much as keeping you safe. We want you to be safe."
"Me, Father, Mother, of course."
"I think Yara is the one you should be worried about right now, not me." Nikolai had run out of the kitchen to cry in his room. He couldn't bear to let Maxim see his tears, because that night Maxim didn't seem like his brother anymore. He seemed, in some terrifying and confusing way, to be on the gangsters' side.
Nikolai had been sixteen then, and when Maxim said they couldn't possibly rescue Yara, he had believed him. Now he was eighteen, and the weight of the pistol in his pocket was a promise to himself that Vladmir would die before he touched Yara again.
Tonight, Yara sat alone at the kitchen table in the yellow evening light, cross-legged in her chair, her lap a nest for her swollen stomach. Nikolai studied her, comparing the woman he saw now with the sister he remembered. She was still wearing the heart-shaped crystal earrings that he'd given her on their sixteenth birthday. She had the same kind of clothes too, threadbare jeans and a black tee shirt. Her eyes were still brown, just like his. Was it her eyes that made her seem like a different person?
She looked up when he came in. "Hi, Nikolai. Come and get something to eat. It's almost seven,” she said.
Nikolai walked to the window and put his arm across her shoulders. “Won't you tell me how you are, Yara? And what happened? Tell me how you got away.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder, cradling her stomach in her hands. "There isn't much to tell. Last night Vladmir decided to take me with him when he went to the bar with some of his friends. One of his favorite bars is downtown. We rode the subway down. When we got off, it was really crowded at the station, everyone was milling around trying to get home from work. I just walked away from them. Jesus must have sent an angel to hide me. Vladmir didn't stop me. I don't think anybody even noticed that I was gone. Or maybe he decided to let me go because of the baby."
She shifted backwards with a little grunt.
"Is that a gun in your pocket?"
"What? How could you tell?" His hand flew to his chest.
"It's obvious, Nikolai. You haven't changed much, have you? You could never hide anything." She poked the hard bulge.
Nikolai pulled out the pistol and studied it. It was mesmerizing, both ugly and elegant, frightening and enticing. And one squeeze of the trigger had the power to make everything right again, if Maxim didn't interfere.
"I agree with Maxim," said Yara.
"How did you know I was thinking about Maxim?"
"I know you," Yara almost smiled. “When he said that it's never a sin to suffer violence, only to do it, he was right."
"It isn't a sin when it's for someone you love."
“Maybe. Nikolai, promise you won't do anything foolish. Especially not for me. Before I leave, I'm going to tell Maxim you have a gun."
"You can't leave, you just got home, Yara! Where would you go, anyway?"
"Maybe America," Yara laughed, then sat up straight, her eyes widening. "Oh, now she's kicking! Do you want to feel her?”
She put Nikolai's hand on her stomach. Through the balloon-taut skin, Nikolai could feel something that might be a tiny foot, jabbing, pushing, exploring.
Yara put her hand over Nikolai's. “It's Vladmir's baby," she said. "When I first realized I was pregnant, I couldn't think of the thing inside me as a baby. It was just a mass, like cancer, growing bigger and bigger. Then one day she started to wiggle, and kick. She started to feel real, and I realized I might love her.”
“Well, I don't know if it's a girl, but I really want a girl. I've prayed. I think a girl would feel more mine, less his. But we'll find out any day now. Speaking of that, I need to talk with Maxim and make a plan. Does he usually work late these days?”
“Sometimes he doesn't come home at all.”
“I need to talk with him soon. I shouldn't have come back here. I might be putting you in danger by being here. But I didn't know where else to go.”
“Of course you should have come back here. It's your home.”
“Maxim is going to say I need to leave, Nikolai, and he's right. He knows what he's doing. Father left him in charge for a reason. If I trust him, why can't you?”
Nikolai didn't answer. If he opened his mouth it would be like uncapping a shaken bottle of soda, and if he let all his sadness and anger and hatred of Maxim's cowardice come foaming out, he might hurt Yara accidentally too. He jumped off the windowsill and ran out of the kitchen, and out of the house.
On the doorstep he nearly collided with Maxim, who was talking with a man just outside the door. The conversation stopped abruptly as Nikolai appeared, and the man walked away.
“Yara came home. She wants to talk with you. She's in the kitchen now,” said Nikolai.
“How is she?” Maxim asked. He didn't look happy, he looked worried.
“Oh, I'm sure she's just fine.” Nikolai hoped the jagged edge of his voice cut.
“Did she say much?”
“What are we going to do this time when Vladmir shows up?"
"I don't think he will."
"But what will you do if he does? Will you just fold your hands in a pious pose and say, 'Welcome to her, I won't stop you, I'm a sinless saint and I couldn't hurt a fly?' Like last time.”
“Nikolai, that is not what happened last time.”
“Yes it is. You let Vladmir take her because for some reason all you really care about is not making him angry. Because you're scared.”
The tears that sometimes embarrassed Nikolai when he was angry welled up and ran down his cheeks. He scraped them away.
Maxim's voice stayed calm. “You know that's not true. I wish it hadn't been Yara, but I have a job to do, and there have been times when doing it has put everyone in our family in danger. Why do you think the parents and Luda are still in America? I can't explain everything to you right now. If I could, I already would have.”
Nikolai tried again. He wanted Maxim to get angry too, maybe even hit him. He wanted holy Maxim to yell and cry too, break things, fight.
“What do you mean, you have a job to do? You mean you've got to drive some fat old lady to the hairdresser's on time while Vladmir is probably coming to get Yara? Be sure you say a prayer for him then, because if he comes here he just might end up dead.”
Maxim sighed. “Yes, I have a busy evening ahead. But I doubt Vladmir will come here. He's supposed to be spending the evening at the Sputnik Bar, and I expect he'll be busy.” He put his hand on Nikolai's shoulder. Nikolai stepped back and pushed it away. “Don't touch me,” he said through his teeth. Maxim's hand dropped. His fingertips rested on Nikolai's chest, over the gun.
Maxim paused. “Nikolai, can I trust you not to do anything foolish? God is watching over Yara, and all of us. What is one little gun compared with that?”
So maybe the plan was foolish. It was better to be foolish for a good reason than to be a coward.
* * *
Walk into the bar—shoot Vladmir—walk out, a killer. That was Nikolai's plan. Simple. If Vladmir really was at the neighborhood bar. He had no idea how Maxim would know, but Maxim probably heard a lot, driving around the City all the time. He probably met strange people and heard a lot of interesting things.
Vladmir would have bodyguards, of course, but they would be drunk, or at least not paying much attention. Hopefully.
When people heard the shot and saw Vladmir fall, chaos would break out, yelling, tables knocked over, drinks spilled, just like in a movie. If he was quick enough, as quick as a Wild West hero, he would be able to get away before anyone realized what he had done. And then someday soon he and Maxim and Yara would be able to join the rest of the family in America, where they had been for almost two years now. Nikolai hung the colored pencil drawings that his little sister Luda sometimes sent on the refrigerator. There were drawings of her riding horseback, picking apples, swimming in a wide green river. Nikolai was glad he hadn't gone with them. He was glad he had stayed to wait for Yara to come home, but now she was home, and Nikolai hoped that if America ever happened for him, he would get a chance to ride a horse too.
The sun was almost gone, but heat still rippled a few feet above the pavement as Nikolai walked toward the bus stop. The sunset was fading to gray, matching the tones of the cement box apartments that made up his neighborhood, yellow gray, blue gray, green gray. The only bright colors came from the bits of trash on the street—red cans, yellow wrappers—and in the cigarette advertisement on the side of the bus he hailed—a sultry blond woman stretching her tanned body across a raft floating in a turquoise sea.
Fifteen, twenty minutes on the bus, and another ten minutes' walk, because he'd gotten off early. Halting the squeaking, huffing bus right in front of Vladmir's hangout and stepping out seemed too risky. He paused on the sidewalk for a moment and stroked the gun in his pocket, thinking.
Three men were standing together under a street lamp, smoking, directly across the street from the Sputnik Bar, a low building with a dirty green awning and windows painted black. They were lookouts for Vladmir, probably. How was he going to avoid them when he came out? If Maxim were with him, if they were working together, Maxim would have made a good plan. He wondered if Maxim had guessed what he was going to do. Probably not, or he would have taken the gun. Anyway, when Vladmir was dead, nothing Maxim said would matter at all, because Yara would be safe. He fixed his mind on that thought and walked into the bar.
Dance music pulsed in the floor, shaking shards of light from glass and metal and mirrors but the room was dark. Nobody was dancing. Most people were standing in a half circle at the other end of the room, tense and expectant. He looked around, scanning the faces until he saw Vladmir, who was sitting on the bar counter with a girl in a black leather miniskirt. She draped one leg over his lap and held a glass to his lips for him to drink. Nikolai wondered if Yara had ever had to do that.
Vladmir was handsome, neat dark beard, strong chin, steely blue eyes. Yaroslava's baby should be beautiful. As Nikolai watched him, Vladmir stood and walked with a lithe swagger across the room. Nikolai almost slid his hand inside his jacket, but stopped himself. Not yet. Would God send him to Hell if he killed Vladmir? Maybe Jesus would understand and speak up for him on Judgment Day.
Then Nikolai saw what everyone was waiting for. Two men were dragging a third into the center of the room. It was a foreigner, probably a Russian. Now he knelt on the floor where they had pushed him down, his eyes closed, his head bowed, waiting motionless for whoever decided to hit him next.
He reminded Nikolai of Maxim, partly because they looked a bit alike, wide-set eyes, high cheekbones, thin lips, but the real reason he reminded Nikolai of Maxim was the way he didn't fight back no matter what they did to him.
They twisted his arms behind his back, wrenching his shoulders, hurting him almost as much, maybe, as Nikolai had hurt Maxim that evening, shouting things that bruised whether they were true or not.
Someone put a glass of beer on the floor in front of him. “Drink!” they mocked, “Drink up!”
The man struggled to grip the rim of the glass between his teeth, to lift it and drink with his arms pinned behind his back. Beer sloshed over his face, soaking his neck and shirt and chest, splashing onto the floor. Everyone laughed.
Nikolai's sudden anger made him brave enough to push into the circle of tormenters and kneel next to the Russian in a puddle of beer. He wiped the dripping beer off the man's face with his sleeve.
Someone tapped Nikolai's shoulder and spoke his name, sharp and hard above all the noise. He turned and looked up. It was Vladmir. Nikolai got to his feet, a chill going down his back. He hoped Vladmir wouldn't think he was shaking because he was afraid.
Vladmir spoke first. “Well, Nikolai, I see you've grown up. Eighteen now, same as Yara.”
“Don't talk about my sister," Nikolai said. At least his voice was not shaking.
“Oh?" Vladmir looked amused. “Well, you've certainly got guts coming here and telling me not to talk about your sister. To tell the truth, I'm not particularly interested in your sister anymore, though it's nice to know where she went. It's your brother I want.”
“Maxim? What do you mean?”
“He's been causing me trouble for several years now, and I'm getting tired of it. He seems to know what I'm planning to do as soon as I do. He's always tipping off the police, interfering with my drug dealers. He even landed me in jail once—briefly. So I'll make a bargain with you. You get rid of a problem of mine, and I'll get rid of one of yours. Kill Maxim, and I'll forget about Yara. Simple.”
Nikolai slipped his hand inside his jacket. His fingers closed around the cool metal.
Vladmir shrugged. “I think I'm being fair, giving you a choice. I'll even give you time to think it over, as we escort you back to your house.” He smiled. “I see you already have a gun.”
* * *
Nikolai stood over his sleeping brother. Maxim stirred, turning over onto his back. His blanket slid down a little.
In the moonlight that lay in squares across the bed, his face and body looked white, except for the long dark scar of a knife cut that ran across his collarbone and right shoulder. Nikolai remembered how he had surprised Maxim in the bathroom late one night and Maxim had snatched up his shirt and held it to his chest like an embarrassed girl, knocking the bottle of rubbing alcohol into the sink. Nikolai had made fun of him, pretending, like Maxim wanted him to pretend, that he didn't see the gauze, the bandage, the bottle of alcohol gurgling down the drain. Maxim had never told him what had happened that night, and Nikolai had never thought much about it, until now. Had Maxim been rescuing someone from Vladmir's gang? Someone like the frightened Russian or the girl in the leather skirt?
He felt the eyes of the Madonna and baby Jesus on him as he always did when he entered Maxim's bedroom. The ikon, peeling paint and gold leaf on wood, had hung above Maxim's bed as long as he could remember. Jesus' little face him gazed at him peacefully. Jesus must understand that having to choose between a brother and a sister felt like being crucified. "Help me," Nikolai whispered. But he had planned to commit a terrible sin, maybe the worst possible sin. Why should he deserve a miracle?
Nikolai bent over Maxim and set the barrel of the pistol against his brother's chest. He clenched his teeth. If he pulled the trigger, the bullet would go straight through Maxim's heart. Then he would go outside to where Vladmir waited with his thugs and tell them that Maxim was—no. He couldn't even finish the thought in his mind.
Nikolai slid the gun back inside his coat pocket and crawled into bed beside his brother, curling up against him like he used to do when he was younger and had a bad dream. The minutes slipped by and he lay motionless against Maxim, listening to him breathe, praying for the angel God still might send at the very last minute, with wings of thunder, to save them all.
The door handle rattled. Nikolai closed his eyes. Inside his mind he saw Vladmir striding across the room, riddling Maxim with bullets as he fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table. He saw him dragging Yara away in her nightgown, heard her scream.
He leaped across the room, wrenched the door open, raised the gun. It was Yara, and she really did scream, her eyes wide with surprise and fear. She snatched at the gun. The shot seemed loud enough to shatter the windows.
Yara staggered backwards. She clung to the door frame, her knees buckling. He could see a wet stain between the legs of her gray pajama pants. Beads of sweat broke out on her forehead and upper lip. She was taking long, shuddering breaths, her eyes staring at him without seeing.
“Oh, dear Jesus. Yara!”
White plaster dust sprinkled down on them and Nikolai looked up at the hole he had made in the ceiling.
Yaroslava straightened, laughing shakily. “Nikolai, I'm fine. It's called a contraction. I'm in labor. You or Maxim need to take me to the hospital.The baby is on her way.”
The sound of the gunshot had brought Maxim leaping out of bed. He fumbled for his glasses on the bedside table.
“Maxim, Vladmir's outside.” Nikolai said.
“What? He wasn't arrested?” Maxim paused as he scooped his clothes from the floor. “They said they'd call if he got away. I was sure we would have him behind bars for good after tonight.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There's no time," Maxim exlaimed. "Vladmir's here for me, Nikolai. He only took Yara to make me leave him alone.”
“You rescued other people. Why didn't you try to rescue her?” Nikolai demanded. Knowing about Maxim's secret life only sharpened the pain of the question that had hurt him for almost two years.
“Vladmir told me that if I tried to get her back, he would kill you. And I was afraid that if I explained everything to you, you'd run off and try to give yourself up in exchange for her, and then he would have you both.”
Was Maxim about to cry? No.
“Listen,” Maxim continued, “The money for your plane tickets to America is in the freezer in a clear plastic bag. Underneath the frozen peas. Forget going to America, at least for now, just take the money and get out of this city. Go anywhere. Do you think you can help Yara down the fire escape? Here. The keys.” He tossed Nikolai his key ring. “My taxi's parked out back, just to the right of the trash bins.”
“It's my fault Vladmir's here. I brought them here.” Nikolai said, forcing himself to breathe slowly. “Vladmir told me if I killed you he would leave Yara alone. He heard that gunshot, so he probably thinks I did. Let me go down and talk to them and maybe they'll leave.”
“Yes! Just go. Get out! Get Yara to the hospital.” Nikolai waved the gun at him. “Please, trust me.” There was no one whose trust he deserved less, but Maxim might still love him enough to try, and if someone had to die for Nikolai's foolishness, it would not be Maxim.
Maxim nodded. “All right, then, do what you can, and God will do the rest.”
Before Maxim could change his mind, Nikolai ran down the stairs toward the front door. He had maybe two minutes to stall Vladmir and his men before they realized he was lying and Maxim wasn't dead. Two minutes didn't seem like enough time to help a pregnant woman climb out a second story window and down a fire escape. And what if Vladmir had sent someone around to the back to block that way out?
Nikolai stepped outside onto the landing and closed the apartment door behind him. Vladmir was waiting at the bottom of the stairs with several other men behind him. He looked up at Nikolai, smiling. “You've done me a great favor. If you will excuse us, we'll only be inside a minute,” he said.
“Maxim's dead. You don't need to come in.”
“It will only be a minute.” Vladmir put his foot on the first step. Nikolai walked down the steps toward him. "You're not coming in," he repeated. He stretched out his arms across the stairway, and braced his feet.
Vladmir lunged toward Nikolai, grabbed the front of his jacket to pull him out of the way. Then Vladmir looked up. His hand slipped down. He stared at Nikolai, stared past him, his face frozen. His eyes flashed white with terror. Then he gasped and collapsed backwards down the steps to the ground, where he lay without moving.
Nikolai never looked back as he leaped down the stairs and dodged past the other men as they shielded their faces and cringed against the wall. He was terrified that he might really see an angel.
* * *
At the hospital, Nikolai sat by Yara's bed and cradled the fuzzy bundle that was Anastasia. He studied the tiny hand that clutched his thumb, each finger tipped with a pink nail, until Maxim returned from his return trip to their house, carrying a box of the family treasures, the ikons, their mother's china tea set, their parents' wedding photos. There was no sign of Vladmir or any of the other gangsters, he said. No sign of the angel that had certainly been there. Nikolai didn't think even Maxim would be able to look an angel in the face.
* * *
Nikolai slumped in the passenger seat as Maxim's taxi braked and crawled its way through morning traffic. As they crossed the bridge, Nikolai leaned over and touched his brother's arm.
"Can you pull over a minute? There's something I need to get rid of." He stepped out and climbed over the bridge railing onto the walkway. Behind him the noise of traffic blurred into a steady roar. Above him the pigeons that perched on the spanners of the bridge cooed and preened. A few feathers drifted down towards the river below. Nikolai slid the gun out from inside his coat. He held it out and let go. He watched as it hit the gray water, a tiny plume of white, like a pigeon feather.
Then he climbed back into the taxi, leaned over the gear shift towards Maxim, wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in his brother's shoulder.