SWIMMING WITH TCHAIKOVSKY: First Chapter

Chapter 1

Sally kept her eyes on her bowl, cringing every time her spoon scraped against the ceramic. One chair over, Irina sat facing the window with her legs tucked beneath her, and even though she’d stopped eating breakfast long ago, her mama still stood next to the steaming pot, armed with a ladle. The moment Sally got the last bite of kasha into her mouth, the ladle moved in to replenish.

“Thank you,” Sally murmured in Russian. Admitting she was full wasn’t an option – not if it meant looking up into Mama’s unblinking eyes.

Yesterday evening Mikhail Grigoryevich had been drinking tea in the chair across from Sally, asking her questions, complimenting her Russian, treating her like she was part of the family. His mug sat on the table where he’d left it. He’d only gone out to walk the dog.

But Sally had to stay focused. She’d been preparing for this day her whole life. No way was she going to blow it now. Anyway, what could she do to help? Nothing.

She stood up. “I should get going.”

Mama froze with another ladleful of kasha poised halfway between the stove and the table. “What? Go where? Sally dear, you can’t. It’s not safe.”

“But she has to,” Irina said, twisting around in her chair. “The competition starts today. Remember?”

Mama dropped the ladle back into the pot and lowered her voice. “Irina, the District Administration might not stop with your papa. They could be watching our apartment right now.”

“Come on,” Irina said, pushing back from the table. “You know they’re not that organized. And they only found out about the article yesterday.”

“And your papa was kidnapped before dinner.” The metal ladle clanged against the side of the pot as she stirred. “They’re efficient when they want to be.”

Irina’s eyes flashed. “Whatever. I bet the only reason he’s not home yet is because he wants to dig up all sorts of juicy details about them.”

Mama pressed her lips together and kept stirring.

Sally took a few steps toward the hallway. “So, yeah. I’ll just go and come right back, and—”

“Sally, no.” Mama shook her head. “What if you get lost? You only just arrived.”

“But Irina showed me how to get to the concert hall yesterday morning, and I have the map you gave me.” Of course, that assumed she wasn’t going to get picked off the moment she stepped outside by whoever had kidnapped Irina’s papa.

Irina unfolded her legs and stood up. “I’ll go with her.”

Yes, please.

“Irina,” Mama snapped.

“What? So, we’re supposed to let the District Administration ruin Sally’s chances in the competition? I’m sure not about to stay hostage in this apartment for the rest of my life.”

It took ten minutes of Irina talking the fastest Russian Sally had ever heard, before Mama let out a long weary sigh. “Fine. But stay together. And take your cell phone, Irina.”

“Of course. I want to hear about it as soon as Papa comes home. Call me even before you put the water on for tea.”

Mama looked at Irina for a long moment and then nodded.

In the entryway, Sally heaved her cello case onto her back while a large white poodle threatened to knock her down. The dog’s claws skidded joyously on the worn wood floor as it launched itself again at Sally’s black pants.

“Sharra! Get down,” Irina scolded as she pried the poodle off Sally. She eyed the cello. “So, does that thing get heavy?”

Sally managed a smile. “I’m used to it by now.”

Mama hustled up behind them. “Sally dear, is that coat all you have? It’s been so windy, and it’s not even going to be warm in the concert hall. The city doesn’t turn on the heat until October 1st.”

“I’ll be okay.” Sally dug into the pockets of her fleece. “I have some gloves.” She didn’t have any intention of putting them on, though. She was from Minnesota, for crying out loud. She might tear up at sappy commercials, but she was no wuss when it came to cold.

But Mama was already rummaging around in a closet and didn’t say anything until she emerged holding a scarf. “You must keep your throat warm. Very important for your health.”

Sally resisted, but not for long. The scarf was beautiful. Small black flowers twined around each other against a gold background.

“It was my great-grandmother’s,” Irina said, nodding to the scarf before she headed down the hallway to get a mop. A puddle had appeared on the floor. Sharra sat next to it, looking relieved.

At the bottom of the stairwell, Irina pushed open the heavy door, and Sally, with the scarf around her neck, followed her out to the street and glanced around. Nothing like checking for possible kidnappers on the morning of the biggest competition of your life. How can you even tell if someone’s about to kidnap you?

On the street, nothing seemed odd. Just a regular side street: a mother leading a little boy in the other direction, an old woman shuffling along on the opposite sidewalk. Sally’s eyes lingered on a man in a black leather jacket, curled up outside the bar two doors down. “So, you don’t think we have anything to worry about?”

“No way. He’s always there in the morning,” Irina said as she started down the sidewalk. “It just takes him a while to get going. He’s got a good job somewhere – an apartment, too, if you can believe it.” She waved her hand. “Focus on your audition. By the time it’s over, Papa will be back home.”

Sally jogged a few steps to get in step with her. When Aunt Natalya had said Irina would be a great person to show Sally around the city, she hadn’t realized she’d be clinging to her like she was a bodyguard. “You’re sure?”

“Totally. Mama’s paranoid. I mean, I love her, but really. She expects us to never go outside again? That’s ridiculous. And Papa’s coming home today. I don’t care what she says.”

“But you agree that he was kidnapped?” Sally whispered. “That the government overheard what he said to his editor? That means your phone lines could be bugged.”

Irina smirked but lowered her voice, too. “Oh, I’m sure they are. The District Administration has had their eye on him for a while, just waiting for something like this.” She ran fingers through her pink highlights. “So, yeah, they were able to kidnap him, but I bet it only worked because Papa went along with it.”

“Went along with being kidnapped?”

“Sure. He wants to expose their corruption, and then an opportunity to go straight to the source of the story comes along? Papa’s not the kind of journalist who can turn that sort of thing down.” Irina looked at Sally. “Listen, don’t think of it as him being kidnapped; think of it as him being on assignment.”

That sure is one dangerous assignment. Sally bit her lip. As though she needed to add to the generous helping of anxiety already churning away in her stomach. Her mind might be in denial about the looming audition, but her body knew. She rubbed her stomach. In just under two hours, she’d be playing for the panel of judges.

Irina glanced at her. “Are you nervous about your audition?”

“A bit.”

“I suppose you’ve played in so many competitions that it’s easy by now.”

Sally swallowed. “This is the big one, though. It’s more that I haven’t really been thinking about it. You know, with everything that happened yesterday.”

“Oh, you’ve got to get ready then. You must have all sorts of pre-competition rituals. What do you usually do?”

Sally adjusted her cello on her back. “Actually, I usually walk to the audition just like this, but…” She met Irina’s eyes but then looked down at the sidewalk. “I do it alone. I go through the audition piece in my head.”

Irina touched Sally on the arm. “Why didn’t you say something earlier? I’ll leave you alone. You certainly don’t need me here jabbering next to you.”

“But your mama–”

“Listen, my favorite bakery is around the corner. It’ll be fine. You can focus. I can eat pastries. I’ll meet you after your audition. Mama will never be the wiser.”

Which was fine as long as it was true Mama was just being paranoid. But they had already managed to walk past several of alleys without any masked men jumping out. And Sally did need to focus. Up ahead, she could see the traffic on Nevsky Prospect, the main street of St. Petersburg. She just had to turn right on that, and it would bring her straight to the concert hall.

“So, you’ll meet me after my audition?”

“Definitely. You remember how to get there?”

Sally nodded. “Thanks.”

“No problem.” Irina checked over her shoulder for traffic and jogged across the street. “I hope it goes well,” she called out before she turned the corner. And then she was gone.

Sally took a deep breath and tried to listen for the music, and soon the beginning of the Dvorák Cello Concerto rumbled within her. The soles of her tattered sneakers scratched against the concrete like a metronome, and the first passionate phrases of the concerto pulsed through her body. It felt good to settle into the music.

When she turned onto Nevsky Prospect, a blast of wind sent her curls flying. A nearby bus lumbered into motion after making a stop, belching out oily fumes. Sally held her breath until the smell dissipated and pulled out her map. The Bolshoi Concert Hall was only seven blocks ahead, but she didn’t want to be too early for her time slot. Extra time would give her nerves a chance to get out and stretch.

Walking more slowly, Sally heard the gentle phrases from later in the concerto, the ones that shimmered in their stillness. Waves of people in blacks and grays rolled past her, the faces grim, sealed off. But Sally didn’t mind: she had Dvorák.

Sally had always assumed a city meant skyscrapers, but there were no skyscrapers here. The buildings, five stories at the most, were from another era. Even the upper floors of the Kentucky Fried Chicken across the street were adorned with angels, their mouths open, proclaiming who knows what? Probably not something about a bucket of drumsticks. The faces passing her on the street might be expressionless, but emotion bubbled out of the concrete. And the colors of the buildings. Pink. Blue. Green. Peach. That was the first thing she’d noticed when she’d arrived. Why did other cities let buildings be gray when there were so many other possibilities?

A piece of trash blew out of a narrow alley and grazed her hand. With runs of sixteenth notes now spinning through her head, Sally watched it get caught in an updraft and sail off behind her, but the music faded when she tried to figure out what it had been. A piece of pantyhose? A bandage? She didn’t have a clue. That must be the definition of a foreign country, Sally thought: a place where you can’t even recognize the litter. She looked back over her shoulder to get another glimpse of it. But she suddenly didn’t care what it was.

One block back, a squat man was staring at her.

Sally whipped back around, tugged the scarf up over her chin, and started walking faster. It could be her imagination. People were allowed to look at other people, right? Maybe she stood out somehow as an American. She looked down. Did she have to be wearing a purple fleece? Way to scream foreigner.

When a line of cars barreling out from a side street forced her to pause, she glanced back again. He was still there, and his head looked remarkably like a cabbage. But even with his short legs pumping like crazy, people were somehow passing him. He couldn’t be following her. That would just be pathetic.

Unless he was trying to stay back where she couldn’t see him. He only had to watch where she was going, and she sure wasn’t making that difficult – she was going in a straight line, for goodness sake. In a few blocks he’d watch her go into the Bolshoi, and there was no way she’d be able to concentrate at the audition with some guy about to barge in and kidnap her in the middle of it.

Ahead, the road rose into a bridge, and a sidewalk tucked beneath it where pedestrians disappeared into the shadows. Yesterday, Sally had followed Irina over this bridge without a thought, but now she focused on the crowd of people heading below. She just needed to disappear for a moment or two. Let him think she had gone ahead. That’s what they did in movies, right?

She positioned herself between two pairs of people on their way over the bridge, and at the last moment, she darted into a clump of heavily made-up middle-aged women heading underneath. Sally bumped into one of the women, who raised an eyebrow, but the rest kept up their squawking about the price so-and-so had paid for a pomegranate.

If he was just a random guy with short legs and a bulbous head on his way to some boring job, then this would rank up there as one of the sillier things she had ever done. But if he wasn’t…. Well, she was certainly not going to let some cabbage-headed thug mess up her audition.

Hidden from view, Sally didn’t dare peek to see if it had worked, and instead followed the sad notes of a Russian folk song further under the bridge. When Sally stepped into the deep shadows, she had to blink several times before her eyes adjusted. Clustered on stools and blankets, bundled old women were selling trinkets. Their faces poked out from head scarves like the one wrapped around Sally’s neck, threadbare but with the sheen of silk. She fingered her scarf and then saw the musician.

The man had a weathered face, and his eyes were closed as he plucked the strings of a balalaika. The folk song danced above Sally like an injured bird, until it came to rest on her shoulder. The cold wind was gone, and humid, thick air closed in around her. As beads of sweat formed on her upper lip, a stench, rife with decomposition and decay, coated her mouth in rank sweetness. Some buzzing weaved around her, twitching in her ear. Sally couldn’t even hear the balalaika anymore – only the buzzing. Until a man’s voice thundered behind her, and she spun around.

“Unless you want the last thing you see to be the side of this ditch, you’ll keep digging. The tsar ordered this done today. That fellow was lucky to die in the morning.”

The voice was so close, but where was the man? And who was he shouting at? Who had died? Sally saw only the same grumbling crowd, but even they seemed to be fading in and out, rippling with the waves of heat. And the buzzing. Like a mosquito. But it couldn’t be that. It was so cold. At least, it had been. Sweaty hair stuck to the back of her neck. Desperate to cool down, she tore off the scarf.

The buzzing was gone. Cold wind cut at her cheek. She rubbed her neck, and she wasn’t even sweaty. Like she had imagined it.

What was wrong with her? A panic attack? The beginnings of a fever? Fabulous. Getting sick this week on top of everything else was exactly what she needed.

She stuffed the scarf in her pocket. The music had stopped, and the man was tightening the strings on his balalaika. She needed to get out of here. And, anyway, Cabbage Head must have passed over the bridge by now.

Just to be safe, Sally emerged from under the bridge amidst a family of German tourists. Squinting in the sunlight, she spotted the back of that cabbagey head already beyond the bridge, the man’s short legs propelling him away from her.

Thank God.

Just a few more blocks until the Bolshoi Hall. Soon she’d be there and have only one thing to focus on: playing the best cello of her life. But as she walked, she found herself rubbing the back of her hand against her pants. She glanced down at her hand and came to an abrupt halt.

A mosquito bite stared back at her.