SAN JOSE, SAN FRANCISCO
SOMEWHERE IN JULY, 2009
She went home first.
Driving through down Murphy Avenue of Sunnyvale, the place where she and Daniel had grown up and where the Ivanov home was located, Xenia found to her surprise that things seemed quite civilised. People were walking their dogs along the sidewalk, going to work, to school, parents were pushing prams as if nothing had changed and there wasn't a large mothership parked above the city. Whatever damage had been caused during the Pulse had been repaired. Granted there weren’t as many people as usual as she headed into Cherry Chase but that was the case in most of the Visitor controlled cities, she was led to understand.
Of course, the Visitors were also out in force and in their red uniforms and black jack boots, cast an oppressive shadow over what would appear to be typical suburbia. Occasionally she would see them in their white jeeps, patrolling the streets or walking the sidewalks. Shock troopers made themselves seen to remind the people of San Jose that no matter how 'normal' things might seem, they were still in control.
Xenia turned down Cuernavaca Circulo, the street on which her father's home was located. The roadway was cleared and the only evidence of the Pulse was the sight of abandoned cars pushed to the sidewalk waiting collection. The homes in this area were of Spanish design and even though she knew her father was gone, a part of her still felt the same excitement that came whenever she knew she was coming home. The feeling saddened and Xenia had to fight to keep the tears back as she drove into the familiar drive way of the double story Spanish villa styled home that her parents had bought here in the early seventies.
To her surprise, as she emerged from the van, her handbag slung around her shoulder, one hand slipped inside within easy reach of her gun, Xenia noted that her mother's roses had been cared for. She'd expected the house to fall into disrepair or looted, not maintained. In fact, as she looked closer, she noted that the lawns had been mowed too. Was it possible that papa was alive?
The thought almost choked her with its hope and Xenia found herself rapping against the wood of the front door, her heart bursting from the possibility that it could be him. More so when she heard footsteps approaching the door from the other side. However, when the door swung open, Xenia did not find herself staring into Vassily's face but a woman a little older than her. Hispanic, she had dark eyes and exotic skin.
"Yes?" She asked politely, puzzled at Xenia's presence.
"Who are you?" Xenia asked once she swallowed the lump of disappointment in her throat. "What are you doing in my father's house?"
The woman's eyes widened and she stepped back, "oh...this is your..." She didn't seem surprised but expression seemed somewhat crestfallen.
"Who is it Maria?" A man's voice asked and soon he joined his wife. Like her, he was older than Xenia a little but had a pleasant face that didn't appear dangerous.
"This woman says this is her father's home..." she explained to her husband.
"Oh," he said with the same disappointment Xenia saw in his wife a moment earlier. "Please come in," he stepped back and let Xenia into the home.
Xenia stepped into her family, the place where she had grown up and saw that it was different but also the same. The furniture was still the ones she remembered, what she'd grown up with but it was clearly no longer her home. It had a different energy, alien almost. Later on she would realise that it lacked the happy tunes of papa strumming on his balalaika or the scent of mama's roses. "You just took this house?" She stared at them, accusing. "My father's dead but this...this...was my home." She was trying not to cry. For some reason, the loss of this place struck her almost as profoundly as hearing that papa was dead or even Lukas.
"Please," the man tried to explain, his expression mirroring his wife's own anguish. "We had nowhere to go. The pulse destroyed our home in Santa Clara. The Visitors were everywhere and when we went to church Father Frank said..."
"Father Frank?" Xenia exclaimed as it started to dawn on her how this had come about.
"Yes," the woman, Maria, continued. "We went to his church for shelter until things settled down a bit. We have two children, Manuella and Marco, we needed a home for them and Father Frank said he knew of a place where we could stay for awhile. We didn't mean to steal anything.." she declared, her own face showing her determination not to cry but it was shame that Xenia saw her in her eyes, not sadness.
"He said you could stay here." Xenia nodded in understanding because it made perfect sense. After all, why wouldn't Frank make that suggestion? It was something even Daniel would do. After all, papa was dead, Daniel was in San Francisco working with the Underground and Frank had assumed she would have remained in Europe. Why shouldn't Frank offer this place to a family that needed it?
"I see," she turned away from them, "I'm sorry...I didn't mean to..."
"No, please," Maria reached for her, "this home had helped us keep our family together. "I don't know what would have become of us if we hadn't found it. I feel terrible that you've come home and found us here like invaders."
"Stop," Xenia said quickly, wiping her eyes. She remembered that house she and Lukas had found in Tuscany, the place her baby had been conceived. She knew exactly what kind of circumstances had brought these people to her family home and she could not hate them for it. "It's alright. My father is dead and my brother is in San Francisco, I'm going there to find him so this house would have continued to be empty. Papa would rather have a family here instead of it being empty."
Even as she said it, Xenia heard her voice cracking. Knowing papa was dead and seeing a new family in their home, suddenly drove home that he was gone and after losing Lukas too, it seemed like too much for her to bear. She'd tried to be strong but at this moment, she felt terribly alone and the isolation seemed unending, that she'd always be this way.
"Mommy!" A child voice sang out followed by running footsteps from the direction of what use to be Xenia's room. A little girl not more than seven paused at the sight of her, a delightful thing wearing lavender coveralls, with rosy cheeks and pony tails, who stared at Xenia with big brown eyes.
"Manuella," Maria scolded the girl gently, "don't run in the house. We have..." she glanced at Xenia uncertain how to describe her. "Guests," she said finally. "We have guests."
"You're the girl in the pictures," little Manuella pointed out after a moment.
"Pictures?" The child's father asked puzzled.
"On my wall!" She said excitedly, "Come see!" She headed back down the hall expecting them to follow.
A few seconds later, Xenia stepped into the room that Manuella had claimed for her own and couldn't help but smile. Obviously, the family had found some of her things Vassily had kept in storage, belongings she had outgrown. It felt like she had stepped into a past decade because the room was adorned with her old toys, dolls and furniture. While her father kept some of her things in her old room, most of it had been stored away because Xenia spent less and less time at home. Inside, she wished it had been otherwise. Of course he had kept the posters and the one the little girl had mentioned was taken four years ago, when Xenia had taken gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics. For a few seconds, Xenia merely stared at the picture, trying to equate the glossy image with the person she now saw when she looked into the mirror.
"That's you?" Maria's husband, Diego, exclaimed staring at her
"A lifetime ago," Xenia nodded, snapping out of her reverie. "You wouldn't know it looking at me." She patted her belly.
"How far along are you?" Maria asked as Manuella climbed onto her bed and was brushing the hair of a porcelain doll Xenia used to call Iris.
"Almost five months," Xenia replied, suddenly startled by how much time had passed when it felt so much longer than that. Since the Visitors had returned, everything about her life had changed.
"And the father?" Diego inquired, drawing a little noise of disapproval from his wife who nudged him slightly at being so impertinent. Maybe it was something that women could only read in other women, the look of loss and sadness that was permanently in her eyes.
"He didn't make it," Xenia answered simply and left it at that, refusing to let herself feel the pain that always threatened to surface at the mention of his name.
'I’m sorry," Maria said coming to her and taking her hand, "it is your home, if you wish to have it back then we will understand, we will find a new place."
Xenia stared back at the woman's face, grateful for the consideration and knew that this was their home now and she was okay with it. Even though her brother wasn't here, Xenia knew Daniel would feel the same. This place needed to be a home to a family, to the little girl who was treating Iris as reverently as she once had. "No," she shook her head. "This is your home, you should stay. I'd like to take a few things if you don't mind but I think you should stay here, with your family." She smiled at Maria squeezing her hand back. "Papa would have preferred it that way."
Xenia spent the whole day with the Rodriguez family, gathering the things that they'd placed in storage just in case either she or Daniel for which Xenia was grateful. She gathered a few things, old family albums, keepsakes she knew Daniel would want to have and a few choices of her own, like her father's balalaika which thankfully hadn't been broken down for firewood and her mother's skates. Loading the items into van, she set out again, intending to spend the night at Father Frank's church before making the large leg of her journey to San Francisco.
Father Frank's new ministry was in the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Jose where he had been transferred after spending some time in San Marco. Even though he had been happy to see her, she sensed that there was a hint of disapproval in his eyes at her pregnant state. He had no desire to speak of Daniel other than in obligatory responses which confused Xenia to no end. Despite her best efforts to draw out the cause, the padre wasn't speaking and Xenia's sixth sense told her something had happened between them, although she couldn't fathom what that could be.
Despite this, she was able to discern from Father Frank that he had last seen Daniel four months ago, on route to San Francisco from Mexico. Her brother seemed unhurt and had been south of the border when the Visitors returned. Daniel had been assigned by the church and World Liberation Front to St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, where an underground operation was being established to smuggle refugees to the north. It was just the kind of thing that Daniel would involve himself in, after his experiences in Africa and South America.
Xenia had no plan as to what she would do once she arrived in San Francisco, other than being with Daniel. She considered that she could probably help him in his work once the baby was born but her paranoia soon got the better of her. She wondered if Father Frank's reaction to Daniel might be symptomatic of what he'd think when he saw she was pregnant. After all, Daniel always considered her his baby sister; would he disapprove of the condition Xenia found herself in?
Was that why Father Frank was so close mouthed?
No, she told herself, Daniel did not have it in him to be so judgemental especially now. He'd understand, he had to. Xenia couldn't do this without him, she couldn't raise a baby without her brother's support. However, even as she thought it, she knew it was a lie. She'd manage, like she managed all the things she'd had to do since Lukas died. But it wouldn't be the same. Already she was walling up all the characteristics of herself she thought was weak. If she was faced with raising her son alone, she knew that she'd close herself off emotionally and that was no good for a baby that would be coming into this world without a father as it was.
In the end, Xenia chose to leave San Jose sooner rather than later because of Frank's cool manner. There were times she suspected he was on the cusp of some big revelation when they said goodbye to each other the next day, but he'd falter and withdraw, leaving her with only platitudes. Xenia left the Cathedral as the evening approached, wanting an hour or two of daylight before she left town. There was only one bit of business left in San Jose.
Santa Clara Mission Cemetery was the oldest in San Jose, established in the 1770's by a Franciscan Padre who had built in a church in Santa Clara valley. There was no need for Father Frank to tell Xenia how to find it or her father because she and Daniel had made it a point whenever they were both in San Jose at the same time, to visit their mother's grave together. Katerina had been interred in the Santa Clara Cemetery after losing her battle with cancer and Father Frank, knowing that it was what he would have wanted, had Vassily's remains interred next to her.
Once the Visitors had taken control and municipal services had been restored, the cleanup operations post the Pulse had seen the clearing of bodies from the wreckage. Vassily who had died in the massive pile of cars that had resulted from the EMP, had been identified by Frank who took charge of the remains. The burial had been crude, no pine box, merely a hole dug in the earth next to Katerina's grave, the remains placed in a body bag and then simply interred. He was the only one who attended the ceremony.
Now four months later, Xenia found herself at the foot of both graves, reading the headstone that had been Katerina's but now had Vassily's name as well. Grass had sprouted over the newer grave. In a few months, one would never know that he was buried after her. She wondered if Daniel had stood where she did now, living with the reality that both their parents were gone. With Katerina, there had been time to say goodbye, to know the end was coming and prepare. Cancer was an insidious beast but it did offer warning.
Vassily had died suddenly and alone.
Xenia's heart broke a new just knowing that. Her father was a good man, quiet for most part but the undisputed head of the family, no matter how tempestuous her mother could be. He let her rule but put his foot down when it was needed. While Katerina's drive pushed her children towards excellence, Vassily's gift was letting them know it was alright to fail as well. She started weeping for him without even realising it and it was the first tears, she'd cried since Lukas.
If her papa was alive, she knew she'd be at his side, living in their old house. Daniel would come home too, she just knew it. They'd be a family and for the first time, Xenia realised this was what she needed most, it was what had driven her across the planet. She needed to be with family. Now all that was left of the Ivanov's was Daniel, her and the baby she carried inside of her.
In these perilous days, that's all you could count on. Family.
The stop in San Jose had been something of a detour and as was her habit, Xenia avoided the highways which would have gotten her into San Francisco in little over an hour. After weeks of travelling on the road, where the older highways had seen her journey progress much more smoothly, Xenia was reluctant to alter from that tried and true method. Thus instead of taking the Bayshore Freeway, Xenia turned west until she reached the Junipero Serra Freeway and planned to follow it until she reached San Francisco.
The freeway was framed on either side by the urban sprawl of San Jose that would eventually thin out a little before she reached the outskirts of San Francisco. While there were cars on the road, these weren't as numerous as they ought to be and the vehicles Xenia saw were very much like her own trusted kombi, older models that did not have electronic ignitions. Driving through neighbourhoods and commercial areas gave Xenia a sense of relief that even if the Visitors were around, things were relatively normal. It was an environment, she felt safe enough to raise a baby, despite their alien oppressors.
When she took the turn off at Arastradero Road, the freeway shrunk into a two-laned road, framed by Arastradero's open space preserve, an area with long tracts of undeveloped land covered in dried and browning grass. The empty landscape put her more at ease as she crossed the distance with the descended night.
When she turned back onto Interstate 280, Xenia ran into Visitors.
She should have expected the checkpoint but the drive had been so uneventful that she was lulled into complacency when they appeared from the shoulder of the road, flagging her van down. A surge of panic filled her when she realised she was the only car on the road at this time of the night. Furthermore, the area in which she was stopping was pitch black. There was no comforting myriad of lights scattered across the landscape. In fact, it appeared totally deserted.
"Step out of the van," the Visitor ordered when she pulled the van to a stop.
Xenia counted three of them, two near the jeep, one standing next to her. They weren't shock troopers because they wore plain gold helmets without the face plate which meant they might be less suspicious. In any case, Xenia took her handbag with her when stepped onto the road.
"Its past curfew," the Visitor declared, his human covering giving him a Caucasian appearance, complete with blue eyes and blond hair. "What are you doing out so late?"
Xenia decided to go with the truth, even though her hand was already clutching the can of V-spray hidden inside her bag. "I don't know anything about a curfew, I've been travelling from the south, searching for my husband." She used the same story that had gotten her through the San Jose checkpoint.
"You're undocumented," the Visitor declared abruptly.
Xenia stared at him for a moment. The term had been used to describe illegal immigrants before the Pulse but in this context and there was certainly some irony in it, it seemed that the term was used to describe humans they hadn't registered in their own census. "I guess not..." she stammered, even though a wave of dread was rising up from the pit of her.
"You'll have to come with me," he grabbed her arm and started pulling her away from the van.
"Please, no," Xenia protested, having no desire to become 'documented' in their eyes, largely because cataloguing her would also mean having a record of her son's existence. She couldn't have that. Furthermore, she knew that if they took her away, she would be completely at their mercy. They might think a pregnant woman was more valuable in their damn tanks than anywhere else. Certainly, no one was around to see them take her. Not even Daniel knew she was on her way.
She'd simply disappear like thousands before her. Like that family in Tuscany.
With that thought polarizing her brain, sending a dangerous mix of panic and adrenalin through her veins, Xenia pulled out of the atomiser and sprayed the contents directly into the face of the Visitor in front of her. The reaction was immediate and he immediately started choking, his hands flying to his throat as he struggled to breathe. The two Visitors near their jeep swung towards her and Xenia acted without thinking, grabbing the sidearm from the dosed Visitor's holster and squeezing off a shot at the nearest Visitor who was raising his weapon to fire. Xenia got him first, striking him in the chest before she took aim at the next. A blast of energy impacted dangerously close behind her and Xenia found herself stepping into the shadow of the first Visitor who had dropped to the roadway. She dropped to her knees as well, using his body for cover before firing again. The second shot knocked the last Visitor off his feet, the blast impacting against his face.
The Visitor next to her had fallen backwards, twitching and kicking as he clawed at his face, tearing off his human mask, revealing the green scales beneath it. For a moment, she simply stayed where she was, trying to get her breathing under control as her heart raced beneath her chest. Her fingers were still wrapped tightly around the weapon but her hand was shaking. It wasn't as if she hadn't killed them before but this time, time it had struck awful close to home how vulnerable she truly was.
Standing up shakily, Xenia was still trembling when she got back behind the driver's seat of the van and drove the hell out of there, leaving the dead Visitors behind. For the next ten miles, she drove expecting a sky fighter to come blast her out of the sky, her knuckles were white against the steering wheel as she saw the lights of San Francisco become brighter and brighter, until it surrounded her and the road she was travelling on all sides. Remembering what the Visitors had said about a curfew, Xenia drove into a motel in San Bruno, laying awake all night, waiting for the Visitors come.
By dawn, Xenia was still in her bed and the Visitors had not come.
As her fear rescinded, she realised that they wouldn't be. She was 'undocumented' in their eyes and she had left none of the three alive to identify her. Oh, she was convinced there would be a search of some kind but there had been no one on that lonely road, just her and the Visitors she had killed. She had done what she had to get herself and her son safely out of their hands.
As she sat on the motel bed, watching reruns of MASH on television, Xenia realised that she was going to be okay. Not just today but for the rest of her life, however long that might be in these uncertain days. In a few hours, after she’d rested, she would drive to St. Ignatius and find where Daniel was and then finally, she could rest.
Like Magellan, she had crossed half the planet in search of Daniel but it was more than just finding him that had made this trip so important. Someone had once said it wasn't the destination that was so important but the journey. For all the heartache and sorrow she had endured since the Pulse, Xenia knew she had come out of it a stronger person, a better person perhaps.
All her life, she had lived with discipline and rules, where everything was a component of a larger plan. Since meeting Lukas, Xenia was forced to adapt in a world without rules, where the most important person in the world was not her, but the baby she carried inside of her. She had learned the lessons she needed to survive, to roll with the punches, to deal with loss and even to kill. It had made her stronger than she could ever imagined she could be. In knowing this, she realised she was more than a figure skater or an Olympian, more than even the Swan.
She was Xenia Ivanov and she was still here.
Sometimes that was the best that anyone could hope to be.