Eight Years Ago
“Nika, wake up.”
When she refused to budge, Alex administered an elbow jab to the ribs, a sure way to get his sleeping cousin out of her slumber.
Nika sprang up, like a cork out of a champagne bottle, banging her forehead against the dashboard in the process. She sat, bolt upright, looking owlishly around the car.
“Ouch!” she yelped, massaging her abused head.
Alex gave her one of his lopsided, pirate’s grins.
“Poor baby. Have a boo-boo?”
“Shut up, cuz. Where are we? And why did we stop?”
“Well, my girl, according to the sign, we are in the fine old town of Fernandina Beach, Florida. As to why we stopped,” he said, grimacing, “the car has finally given up. She couldn’t take it any longer, poor thing. So, here we are.”
“I told you we should take my car instead of this heap. But did you listen?”
“What, take a red, brand-spanking new Ferrari to make our secret escape from Manhattan? Yeah, that would’ve been a very covert operation indeed!”
Nika shrugged off his remark, especially since he was absolutely right. In her car they would’ve been located and stopped in a matter of minutes.
“And why are we in Florida? I thought we were stopping in Georgia for a few days.”
“Well, we reached the Peach State last night, while you were in a deep slumber, but I didn’t feel like stopping. Why? Did you want to see something in particular in there?”
“No, but we are supposed to talk and agree on things, both of us! What if I didn’t want to go to Fernandina Beach?”
“Well, if you don’t, we’ll go somewhere else. As soon as we figure out how.”
Alex patted the dashboard of the now dead car with his hand, and drew a deep breath. Then he grinned at Nika mischievously.
“You wanted an adventure, my girl. I’d say, your wish came true!”
“Yeah, I’d say,” Nika grumbled, pretending to be mad. Secretly she was as pleased as her cousin. But since taking the second-hand heap camouflaging for a car was Alex’s idea, and especially since he passed through Georgia without consulting her first, she wasn’t ready to let him off the hook so easily. She didn’t want to stop anywhere in particular, or see anything in that state, truth be told. It was just a matter of principle. If they were true partners, they should make all the decisions together. Period. On that Nika was firm. When she first presented Alex with her idea of the Grand Adventure (or, more accurately, running away from their fathers), she made sure they both agreed on the most important basic terms. And they were: to share everything, to tell the truth no matter what, and—the cardinal rule— to make all the decisions mutually. Alex took an oath, and violated it in a matter of days by passing Georgia without waking her up, simply because he didn’t feel like stopping. The moron! Nika frowned and looked at her cousin whom she had simply adored since childhood. The idiot was grinning ear-to-ear, happy as can be, sitting in a dead car smack in the middle of a street, in some tiny picturesque town at five in the morning! No wonder she was crazy about him.
“What do you say, my girl?”
“I say, our Grand Adventure came to a screeching halt. What do you propose we should do, partner?” She made an accent on the last word.
“Let’s see, partner.” He fluffed her hair in a familiar manner that had driven her nuts since they both were in diapers. Her crazy mane of curls probably resembled a crow’s nest by now. “How much money do we have?”
Nika, who was their financial manager, replied without a pause, “Ninety-seven dollars, thirty-three cents in cash.”
“Two thousand, give or take. If the fathers didn’t block them yet.”
Their fathers, the identical twins Joseph and Jacob, the heads of the international Manhattan investment bank and financial services Morris & Morris, were a formidable force to be reckoned with. By running away from home Alex and Nika had violated the Two Golden Rules of the Morris’: #1—The Twins (as they were called by friend and foe alike) are always right; #2—if you think otherwise, look for rule #1 or get out of the way. And that is precisely what they did, since both of them disagreed with the rule #1, especially where their life-choices were concerned.
“Let’s hope for the best,” Alex replied, always the optimist. “Or we could always call one or the other?” He looked at Nika questioningly.
“What, call Dad? For money?! Are you out of your mind?”
“Well, you could call my Dad, and I could call yours.”
“And tell them what? That they were right, and we cannot survive without them constantly supervising our every step, or dictating our every move? And prove them right? Out of the question. I’d rather starve.” Nika banged her small fist against the dashboard with a surprising force, wincing afterwards. “Never,”
she repeated with vehemence.
“Yeah, bad idea,” Alex agreed. “Well, there is always Verochka. She supported our cause and even bought this heap, as you call it, for us.”
“Grandmother might support our decision to stand on our own and rule our own lives, but even she wouldn’t go so far as to lend us money secretly from The Twins. She would inevitably let them know about our location, and then all the cops would be after us, trying to capture the fugitive children.”
“They won’t go that far! Would they?” Alex turned his troubled eyes to her face. Looking into those eyes was like looking in the mirror. Only two out of the six children The Twins produced, had inherited the unusual violet-blue shade of eyes of their Grandmother Vera, or Verochka as she was called by everybody.
“You never know, and I don’t want to find out for sure,” Nika replied.
She dragged both hands through the mess of tangled curls the color of rich caramel. Then she shook her mane in a defiant manner and smiled recklessly at her cousin and partner in crime.
“Hell, our luck has held up so far, cuz. I say, let’s stick to the plan and make it a true Grand Adventure! Let’s stop here, in this town, and start building our lives from scratch!”
“Here? In Fernandina Beach?”
Alex looked at her incredulously, then peered out of the window at the tiny sleepy town, quaint and picturesque, and somehow unreal, shimmering mysteriously in the first rays of the rising sun.
“Why not? The weather is always warm in the Sunshine State, or so they claim. A big plus. The ocean is right here, so the seafood and shrimp galore, a huge plus.” Nika, warming up on the subject, leaned forward and started to gesticulate with both arms, a sure sign that she was excited. “The history is all around us, I can feel it! The houses, the streets, the atmosphere—it’s where we are supposed to be, cuz. I can see us here in three, five, even eight years from now! We’ll start a business. Yes! A company we always wanted to start, just the two of us!”
“And what would that company of ours do?” Alex asked with a chuckle. His own misgivings on the subject evaporated shortly after his younger cousin (she was younger by a mere month, but still) started to speak. It was impossible to stay in a bleak mood longer than a few minutes in her presence. Her exuberance and enthusiasm were simply overwhelming, her thirst for adventure and her stubborn belief that life is beautiful were highly contagious. At least, it was always to him. Even as a boy, Alex always shadowing his miniature tornado of a cousin, getting constantly in one trouble after another, but unable to resist the temptation. The most miserable period of his life Alex considered to be the four years of Harvard, when he lived away from Nika—who unlike him, didn’t have an almost genius IQ, and stayed home to attend a local university. Now, they were both the graduates with the freshly minted diplomas they didn’t want or need, and two sets of irate parents they managed to piss off by running away on the Grand Adventure (Nika’s brilliant idea). Their secret escape took place right after the graduation party The Twins had thrown for them two weeks ago, and was designed as a demonstration and proof that both Nika and Alex were responsible adults, able to make their own way. It was a desperate and daring move and yes, a rebellion against the dictatorial regime of the Morris’ households, where Jacob and Joseph reigned supreme.
For anyone who didn’t know their fathers or their methods, this escape might’ve seemed too extreme a measure. But to the members of the family who lived by the Two Golden Rules, the staff of the Morris & Morris bank, and all the children (there were six of them altogether, with Nika and Alex in the middle of each triumvirate set), such wasn’t the case. Even The Twins’ mother, Alex and Nika’s favorite grandmother, Verochka, was in a state of a constant awe (not to mention bafflement) of her own offsprings. It didn’t stop her, however, from aiding and abetting Nika and Alex: Verochka had a very strong independent streak and a firm and unshakable believe in freedom, which included the right of every person to shape his or her own destiny, and the right to be happy. And, of course, because she absolutely adored the pair of them.
“We can do anything we want to! We can try many different things before we find our own milieu. Well, what do you say, partner?”
“Heck, why not? Let’s do it, partner!”
Nika laughed and, launching at him, threw her arms around his neck.
“I’m so happy! I’m happy you decided to drive past Georgia, I’m happy our car has died on us, I’m happy to be here! I just know it’s where we are supposed to be! We’ll make it happen, cuz. Just wait and see. We’ll make it fine on our own. And we will show to the whole wide world what Morris & Morris, Jrs. are capable of.”
“Please,” Alex grimaced, “not Morris & Morris! Whatever we’ll call our future company, I want your solemn promise we absolutely will not mix The Twins’ name into it!”
“You got it, darling.” Nika placed her palm onto his face and gave it a soft caressing pat. She knew the whole ordeal was much harder on him than he let on— her almost-genius, soft-hearted and serious cousin, who would never hurt a fly, Let alone defy their overbearing duo of fathers. He would probably enter Harvard Law School and finish it with flying colors, then join the family firm and be miserable for the rest of his life, if it wasn’t for her and her ingenious escape plan. Well, what was a younger cousin for, Nika thought, delighted for them both and the world in general.
“Let’s name it Before and After, then. Before we came here—and after we settle here, get it? And we make sure that whatever it is we’ll do, it will make a lasting impact on this town and its people! How about that, darling?”
“Before and After. Goddammit, I like it!” Alex grinned, and reminded her once again of a little boy, happy, kind and joyous, who followed her every step and got her out of mischief more than she cared to remember. Or, when he couldn’t talk her out of it, joined her on said mischief. Like right now. Was it any wonder, Nika thought, she loved him more than her own brothers (more than anyone in the world, really), and couldn’t imagine her life without him?
“Fate, you fickle bitch, here we are, and here we stay, for better or worse!”
Alex shouted through the open window of the derelict broken-down car, delirious and carefree.
“Here we are,” Nika joined in, poking her head out through the passenger window, her own voice clear and sonorous like a silver bell, “and here we stay! And let’s see how that fickle bitch Fate will dare to defy us now!”