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    By godlover19, in The Reading Room,


    Everybody told me from an early age blue you cant do that because of your disability.
    So when I got a bad grade at school I just always thought to myself its not my fault its my disability hey I got slow learning and reading so it I could always blame that. But yet something was wrong somehow I knew I could do batter and my family wouldn't like this because this was the fifth time I didn’t pass my test in a month.
    So when the lest bell ring in school filling the halls and the classrooms I knew my family would force me to sleep outside in the cold tonight. So as I knew they would do that its safe to say I tried to stay at school for as much as I could but as I would like to never go home I knew I needed to and face whats coming to me.
    So as I was walking the halls towards the school doors. someone called my name I turned around and I smile a little it was Emily my friend. Emily was the nerdy girl you know the one who wears glasses always reading always getting A’s in her classes always got rewards for her work a girl who would go on to find a cure for the cold. But for now she was my friend and secretly I did like her more then a friend but why would she ever think of me more then a friend I have a disability I don’t do well in school unlike her.
    But as I always starring at her she must have not noticed because she asked to come to my house and I just nodded yes to her. Witch would be ok if I didn’t fail my test again I knew my parents would be mad at me failing a test and then bring someone over. So as we both were walking down the street. I came up with a game and because of the game we didn’t even hear the car coming down the road at 50 mph but as soon as we saw it Emily pushed me to safety. But I wish I could have saved her because as soon as I fall on the sidewalk I looked back in time Emily was smiling wording out im glad your safe and one other thing but I couldn’t make it out because I was balling my eyes out. SCREAMING EMILY name out and thou my tears I saw the car speed right off.
    Crying was all I could do right in front of me was my friend and my crush. I guess someone called an ambulance and a cop car pulled up as the same time as the ambulance but after all that happened I had just a blank face on and blood on my hands and shirt. So they asked me what happened but I couldn’t even speak and the shock of this made me blacked out so I guess I got a ride home from the cop on the seen because as I woke up my mom and dad were standing above me yelling at me asking WHAT DID YOU DO IDIOT? I swear to god if you killed this girl im GOING TO KILL YOU. What what did I do? I said nothing again YOU LIAR you you’re a liar and you failed other test you pick. SO BLUE GET OUT GET THE HELL OUT YOUR NO LONGER OUR SON.as I was running with tears in my eyes I asked but w…where am I to go? I DON’T CARE NEVER TALK TO US AGAIN. And slammed the door behind me to let me know I have no family anymore.
    So I was thinking and crying at the same time its worth a try to go to Emily’s house. Her family knew me and knew I loved her but would they want to see me would they blame me for her death? I know I blame myself. But if they did blame me for her I wouldn't hand it against them. But as I force myself to walk with tears in my eyes I barely make out two headlights coming towards me when I scream out loud COME ON KILL ME I HAVE NOTHING TO LIVE FOR.as I yell kill me to the sky the headlights come to a stop and two people came out of the car saying hey blue get in they were Emily’s folks at first I
    just came closer to the car and hit my head on the gill of the car crying I killed her I killed her. And Judy came down next to me and held my head in place saying come on get up you didn’t kill her she choose to save the only guy who was kind to her. She must have know what she was doing pushing you out of the way. So please never blame yourself. But its so hard not to I should have died not her she had so much in her life going and look at me just a idiot. Just then Judy slapped me right across the face why would you slap me you don’t blame me now don’t you? No we don’t but you have to stop blaming yourself. But why I asked as I cry. Because your cant just cry about it get up and well
    take you home. Uh….I cant go home im no longer wanted. OMG. Well not to worry blue we our going to your new house if your folks wont care if we keep you. We just have to drive over there and get them to sigh the peppers for us to keep you as our son. We all got in the car and driving to the house that was not even a hour ago kicked me out and said never come back again. The car door slowly open as Judy came out and bring walking up to the house door and ring the doorbell. And I saw that drunken asshole again from the car yelling at the top of his lungs yelling get off my lawn . That's fine sir I just came by to get these peppers sighed to keep blue we know you have kicked him out. YES WE have because that low life pick has no future and if you want him you can keep him then why don’t you just keep that asshole in the back of your car. Ok then sir just sigh him over since he is only 13 he cant leave you guys without you saying he can. FINE you happy his your now don’t ever come back.
    Ok ok you don’t have to yell sir I have what I came for now good day.as I see the man close the door he worded fuck you kid. don’t worry blue you'll never have to see them again now lets go set up Emily resting plans and I bring to cry again as her mom said that knowing I see her one last time before I can never see her again. It only was a mile drive but on that day it felt like it took forever and when we got there we walked into the budding where we thought we would never go to. But as we made her plans I kept balling my eyes out and then the guy turned to me and asked would you like to see her?
    Her folks told me you loved her. I weakly said yes I did but she never loved me back oh blue Judy said that's not true Emily always did love you she said from the first time she saw you she was in love with you. But she was scared you wouldn't love her because her always was reading books. She always talked about you non-stop. It drove us crazy and we would always joke what is blue your new husband. So I think she saved you for other reasons to. But please we would be glad to know if you got your chance one last time to see her so please go back there.
    On that day it was raining. I would think maybe the havens were crying because a angel was taken from her life so soon but I knew why it was raining. Everyone was in black and crying. Her friends and family were there. Then I as was crying looking all round I didn’t get why everyone was looking at me.
    Then it dawned on me. I needed to speak bout her witch I didn’t write anything about her but I needed to do this. So I stood up and walk past her resat place I cant help but cry at the thought of never seeing her, her smile, her just her, I walk pest and I said hello to everyone I didn’t have anything written down because I didn’t know I was gonna speak. But I can say some things. I want to tell you all it was 2/08/2012 when we met she come off the bus for school and I was standing right there listening to my ipod and then this girl asked me have she can borrow my ipod witch I said yes to.
    So it didn’t even cross my mind what if I don’t see her again there goes my i pod. But god must have had a plan because we had gym. So I said hi my name is blue then she said her name was Emily. she was great and cute Im so very sorry I should be in that box and she should be up here not me. Im sorry I cant talk about her anymore its hurts so much I loved her so much and I never told her. Im such a idiot. Oh come on blue the mother says don’t think that way not here get up. As I was getting up someone yelled out its your fault she died. Get him some other guy called out hey shut up there cant you cant you tell blue blame himself already? I should punch you but in respect of where we are im just gonna say you batter leave. i brought myself to look up and saw who was yelling it was my dad walking away with my bother the one that cant do anything bad by him so I just let them go and hoped I would never see them again. Ok blue come on lets get to our seats now you'll never have to see them again if you don’t want judy whispered in my ear as we seat down. I looked down the row of seats and saw her dad in tears. And then I seat back and before I knew what was going on they lowed her into the ground while a  someone read a letter that she wrote years ago. And
    it said if I go before my time comes I want you all to know I think of you all as my family to my mom and dad im so thankful I grew up in the house that I did. And I love you guys so much but please don’t cry for me as im going to haven and meeting god my pain of being bulled is no more. So please even thou im gone please go on with your life as nothing has changed that is my wish for you. Now blue its true we have not have knew each other for long but since the day I asked to bower your ipod and you said yes I knew after that we would be friends and I was right. But over the past year I should have told you I had feelings for you more then a friend I just never knew how to tell you. But anyway  goodbye.   
    And with that the workers put dirt over it and we all in our cars with still tears our our eyes still not believing shes gone. But she is and we all have to face that fact. Later that night while I was in my new room at the house I will call home from now on. Laying in my bed just thinking over today and wounding if I could have done anything to have the income not as it is. Well maybe I could have said lets not game in the street maybe we could have walked on the sidewalk. Then I woke from my brought by a noise on  the door. Hey blue can I come in? Yea sure as the door opened it was my new mom JUDY HEY WHAT YOU THINKING BOUT BLUE oh you know how a few hours ago Emily was alive and was walking home with me. If she didn’t walk with me she would still be here. You must hate me I know I would.
    Oh oh no no blue Judy said as she wrapped her arms around him and bring him in tight we don’t hate you we love you as our own now and I know what you were thinking of but please things happen for a reason we just have to hope that we can get thou this. So go back to sleep honey as I lay down she kissed me and said we think about that to but we all have to get on with life.the day after that was about the same I knew school would be hell without her so knowing this I packed my backpack and started walking to school going past the glass case in school brought tears back to my eyes seeing her name on so many rewards my hands on the case but I couldn’t stay there for long because my name was called by Liz the head of the school so I brought myself up to her office to listen to her just saying I know what happened to your friend must be hard for you but that doesn't mean you can just slack
    Of Ok miss.
    A few hours later when I was walking home I just happened to bump into this girl that didn’t look like she ever walk in this town before as I reach my hand out to help her stand up I saw a baclet on the name on it was nagisa nice name I told her I never heard that name before. Thank you nagisa said to me it means a clam beach. People say that meaning is peaceful to them but I think its just a name. But thanks for helping me up but who are you oh I didn’t say im sorry my name is blue. And its nice to meet you but im sorry I have to run. And as I ran away I was just thinking of what I was gonna do when I got home I wounder if mom and dad will have a talk bout my new life with me.


    Reflective and still I am today, though there is a current below the surface, unseen by the passing eye. If you look closely however, you may see a slight disruption in the otherwise gentle consistent flow of life. This disruption runs deeper than most, only those attuned to my essence would realize that something is not right. Not wrong exactly, but not as it was meant to be. As you reach to touch, warmth should meet your hand. As fingers break the surface, you almost expect simply the benign heat of a loving heart and not also the sharper, hotter sensation of agitated energy within. The conscious mind is always aware, yet adept at hiding its tumult from not only the outside world, but from even myself. Though, in times of great distress, hurt, sorrow and anger, my reason is overpowered with the intensity of feelings beneath, and the course of life changes, becoming rapid and unpredictable. You would not want to venture near on those occasions, lest my banks flood with overwhelming pain.
    Eventually, hot tears stream down and add themselves to the increasing depths of my anguish, they cannot be halted by you ar I. There is a sadness so complete and a confusion so dense that you will not find a way to speak to my inner self. I do not see the slate gray clouds sweeping in from the west; my unfocused. tear-filled eyes seem to look into the turbulent swirls and eddies as I kneel at the water’s edge with my head bowed. I cannot hear the gusting wind whipping through the tree branches overhead, only that of the current, running swift and strong. I choose not feel the rain that falls hard and fast, driven by the gale to land like a volley of liquid icicles on my head and neck, soaking my hair and clothes alike. I am unable to smell both the dampness of air and of earth, since my nose is congested with weeping. I do not taste the rapidly cooling air of impending change; instead a warm, salty solution enters my open mouth as I gasp.
    Written by Brittany Tyrrell, 2018 to the present


    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..."
    "Explain what?"
    "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."
    "Who's we?"
    "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?”
    "She's pregnant."
    “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.

    Nikola Dominis

    You are bigger and older than the universe,
    and a billion galaxies,
    and those closest - "Andromeda",
    and those far away hundreds of millions
    light years.
    You were there when they were born,
    before a bit more than
    thirteen billion years,
    then in the mist of prehistory
    you liquated stars and worlds,
    shaped them, built them.

    Yes, You, It was You, 
    when there was no time yet, 
    You told him to start, 
    You commanded him to set in motion, 
    You, It was You, 
    in the daybreak of history 
    You've created everything from nothing…

    "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
    What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
    And the son of man, that thou visitest him?" 

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