I did not want to be afraid. It was a beautiful evening, not so very cold, and the snow fell in tiny shimmering flakes, just like the first Christmas that Mama Svetlana and I lived in New York. She had taken a break from cooking in her restaurant and we saw the big tree in Rockefeller Center, all lit up and shining. But there was no tree this year. It was no longer allowed. By order of the government, there were to be no lights other than those that were absolutely necessary for public safety. Lights made for crowds which made for tempting targets, or this is what they claimed. So as I walked home, all I had was the snow. And a terrible feeling that I had been followed. I saw nothing, nobody out of the ordinary. Perhaps it was my imagination. Still, Mama Svetlana says that if I feel afraid, and she is out of town, to come to the restaurant and ask one of the men to walk me back to the apartment.
I knew all the men there. From the busboys to the waiters to the Russian businessmen who always took up the round table in the back corner and talked of things that I was not supposed to be hearing. But I happened to arrive when Alexey the dishwasher was due for a break, so he threw on his jacket and said, “I walk you, da?”
I nodded and followed him out. I felt comfortable around Alexey. Not just because he was big and could look intimidating. Or because he was good-looking with nice blue eyes but not so handsome as to make me nervous. But because he was only a few years older than me, and like me, his English was also not very good. So I did not feel the pressure to make conversation. He would always see me not just to the building but up to the apartment door and sometimes inside, to make sure it was safe. I thought that excessive, but gentlemanly, and I offered him tea or a snack, because that is what Mama Svetlana would have wanted me to do for a guest in our home. Usually he would decline, fumbling through enough English for me to feel reassured that it was because he had to get back to the restaurant, and not because I was a burden to him.
That evening, he accepted a cup of tea and some butter cookies that I had baked the night before. They were my favorite. And, it seemed, his too. Soon, though, he made his excuses, and when he reached for his coat, I saw the handle of a gun sticking out of the inside pocket.
I nearly dropped my teacup and pointed toward the firearm. “You need a gun to walk me home?”
“Is not safe,” he said, looking almost apologetic—for the political situation in New York, for the secret immigration police that pulled up in their black SUVs and took people away. Like our neighbor, Mrs. Gonzalez, and her three children.
“But I am legal,” I said. Mama Svetlana had adopted me in London, and we had the proper paperwork to live and work in the US. Even though she had not renounced her Russian citizenship and I… Well, I was not quite sure where I stood. My father was Austrian and my mother a Syrian refugee. But what more ideal kind of American than one who carried the genes of so many civilizations?
He cleared his throat, shifted his eyes left then right as if deciding what and how to tell me. “You are daughter of Russian woman with powerful friends,” he explained. “You make target.” That silenced me. My heart was doing circus tricks, along with my stomach. I thought I might throw up. Then he put his hand over mine. “I not say this to scare you, Anya. I say this so you pay attention.”
That made me angry, and I pulled my posture up straighter. “I don’t pay attention? I have been paying attention my entire life.” I told him what it had been like to grow up in a country in which it was not safe to be a Middle Eastern refugee. I told him about how my parents had died. How Mama Svetlana had adopted me as her own. I even told him what I heard at the restaurant, that some of Mama Svetlana’s friends—the Russian businessmen—have been talking about a plot to undermine the American government and one of them went on in quite some detail about how it could be done. Alexey listened to my barrage of English—very patiently—but when I talked about the Russian businessmen, his eyes iced over.
“You should not listen to these men,” he said. “They are fools with not much better to do with their time.”
I felt afraid again. Of the tone in Alexey’s voice. Of the men. Of the horrible things they had said. Even if they were fools.
Perhaps Alexey saw that on my face, and he pressed a warm hand to my cheek. “Do not let them scare you, Anya. Everything will be fine. Everything will be…as it should be.”
I wanted to bathe in his reassurances, but a shiver went through my body just the same.
We made a bargain that evening. While the lights were out and the snow came down and he ate the rest of my butter cookies. He said he would keep me safe. He said he would not tell Mama Svetlana I had been eavesdropping. For giving me all of this, what he asked for in return was my silence.
I nodded. What else could I have done?
“You are good girl,” he said. “There is no reason to be afraid.”
Then he kissed my forehead, transferred the gun to his front coat pocket, and left.
I peeked through the blinds and watched him disappear into the snowy night. Despite what he had said, I felt more afraid than ever. This time, for all of us.