"Yuri?" Adrianne asked as she pressed her cell phone between her cheek and her shoulder so she could continue typing the last of her essay on the history of warfare. "What's the protocol for seeing a movie with a friend?"
"Clear it with the King and Queen, then let me know the time and theater."
Two hours later, she arrived with Yuri at the Balashov Theater. After explaining what time the movie ended (with an extra ten minutes or so to visit with her friend), she climbed out of the black Accord and closed the door. She saw Elena leaning against the driver side of her aqua Carolla across the lot and stopped to allow her to catch up.
"Was that the uncle figure again?" she called as she approached.
The brick theater was quaint, but Adrianne had heard the interior was decorated with an ornate mural reminiscent of historical theaters and satin crimson seats. Beside the door was a sandy haired young man standing behind a card table. He released a warm smile when the two approached.
"Good afternoon, ladies."
"Hello, Ambrose," Adrianne answered. She remembered his charm at school: the compliments he gave to the girls, the sociable relationship he seemed to have with all the teachers, and the upbeat nature that masked the fact that he was homeless his entire school career.
"Come see if you can beat me at the shell game," he covered a pea with a walnut shell and started to casually switch it with the other shells.
"We really have no extra money."
"I get the sense you could get lucky. Start with a cordial, simply because the game is fun."
Elena reached into her purse. "All right," she ventured. "One cordial."
She extracted one coin and slapped it onto the table.
"All right," Ambrose rubbed his palms together with excitement. He reached down and started switching the shells around. "Stare at the shell with the pea, and keep track of it. You can do this, Elena. Show me where the pea is."
He stopped and raised his hands from the shells. She pointed to the middle one and he picked it up.
"We have a winner! Want to go one more time? Double or nothing."
"Sure. Why not?"
Adrianne checked her watch. Ambrose replaced the shell and started moving them around one another. "Eye on the prize. You have done it once, and you can do it again."
He raised his hands up, and she picked the right one. He picked up the shell.
"Ah," he announced with some sympathy. "My turn to win one."
"Yeah, I should have known," Elena rummaged around her purse and dropped two coins onto the table. "Thanks for the entertainment, Ambrose."
"I'm here anytime," he smiled after them as they entered the theater.
The movie theater was as beautiful as Adrianne had heard. She gazed around her at the turquoise design in the middle of the golden painted ceiling, the scarlet carpet, and the mahogany beadboard walls. Elena elbowed her to get her attention when the woman behind the desk asked which ticket she would like to purchase.
The particular room where the movie was shown was cool, and as beautiful if not more beautiful than the entrance. Adrianne had purchased buttered popcorn and another wild cherry Pepsi, as she was never sure when another opportunity would arise, and she propped her legs on the empty seat ahead of her. The seat ended up being too tall, so she dropped her legs back down and enjoyed the movie.
About two hours later, the two exited the movie theater discussing theories on the movie. Ambrose smiled as they came out the door.
"Enjoy the movie?" he asked.
"Yeah," Adrianne answered.
"While you were in there, I came up with something else you may enjoy," he crossed his arms and leaned his shoulder against the brick wall. "Some of our alumni are meeting tomorrow night at a party. A casual get together to reconnect with old companions. I would love to see you both there."
"Perfect," Elena elbowed Adrianne in the ribs. "You could meet some boys that way."
"I don't have to meet boys. I have to make sure I get my school work done."
"Make sure you get your school work done early," Ambrose smiled encouragingly, "and then come over and see us. We would love to see you again and catch up on old times."
Adrianne remembered Ambrose graduated when she was fourteen. She remembered her crush on him that she must have shared with most of the other girls. She never did know him well, though, beyond greeting him between classes and the occasional casual conversation. She never minded chatting with him, but what could they have to catch up on?
"I can see if I can."
"Good," his grin widened even more. "We meet at the house on Rushwood corner at nine."
"See you then," Elena smiled.
As they left, Adrianne ran her mind over what her school schedule was and decided it was worth asking Yuri, should the King and Queen approve.
As it turned out, when she returned to the palace, the King and Queen agreed that it may be an opportunity to connect with previous classmates and stay in touch with old playmates. She made sure to complete her school work by starting earlier than usual and scheduling her self-defense class earlier than the previous schedule. She managed to succeed, satisfied with the quality of the work she did that day as well as the amount of time required to get it done.
When the time came, she dressed in black jeans and a white tee shirt, which she all but covered with a black leather jacket. She seated herself in a chair and leaned down to lace up her suede boots. At last, she secured a red heart cuff over the edge of her right ear and braided her hair down the opposite shoulder, leaving the spurt of crimson unbraided at the end to resemble a flame. The locket with her parents' photos was on her dresser. She retrieved it and clasped it around her neck. With a sprits of ocean spray perfume, she was ready.
"You look nice," Yuri complimented her when she came down the stairs.
"Thank you for driving me," Adrianne responded.
"Have fun, and use sound judgment!" Queen Julia called after them as she and King Richard waved from the parlor.
"See you later!" Adrianne replied.
Rushwood corner was entitled to a property that was on a street corner in the woods, across from one of the rushing streams that came down from the north.
Adrianne expressed gratitude toward Yuri again for driving her and exited the car. Elena awaited her on the porch beside the door and linked an arm through hers when she approached.
"Great to see you," Ambrose emerged out of the house and gave each a welcoming embrace. "Come on in and make yourselves at home."
The open plan house had wooden floors and turquoise walls with black leather couches. And almost every surface had people seated or standing with meat and cheese platter plates and sodas. Adrianne recognized some of the people, but not many. And those she did recognize, she did not know well.
"When did all these people graduate from our school?" she asked.
"At some time or another," Elena answered flippantly as Ambrose closed the door behind them. She made her way straight toward the meat and cheese platters to pile snacks onto a plate. Adrianne awaited her return rather awkwardly in the entryway.
"Please, get something to eat," Ambrose proposed. Adrianne reluctantly accompanied Elena at the counter and gathered some snacks.
Most of the next hour and a half involved her seated beside Elena on a couch while her companion chatted with some people she knew and many she did not. Adrianne was asked some questions, but her answers were curt in reflection to her discomfort. A couple young men whistled at her, but she only raised her palm in a non-committal greeting and shut down any further advances with "no, thanks."
"What is the matter with you?" Elena hissed. "You have a lot of people interested in you."
She leaned back toward her friend and murmured, "I'm not interested."
This was ridiculous. What was the point in batting her eyelashes and giggling like a moron because some stranger decided she was hot?
"All right, everyone," Ambrose announced when he stepped up onto the coffee table in the middle of the couches. "Time for the moment you have all been waiting for."
And what moment is that? Adrianne wondered.
At that moment, two men appeared with cases of beer in each hand.
"We have enough beer for every drinking game you can imagine," he promised. "And there is whiskey in the back, should you decide to impress us with your abilities to through back some shots."
"All right," Adrianne pushed herself up out of the couch and stood. "I did not sign up for this."
"I agree with that," Elena admitted. "Maybe we can have fun without drinking."
"What fun could you possibly have when everyone else is drunk?"
"Good point. Maybe you should call your uncle figure. I'll wait to leave until he comes."
"Much appreciated," Adrianne moved to the back of the room and reached into her pocket for her cell phone.
She pivoted around to see Ambrose with a watery smile. The stench of alcohol was already apparent on his breath.
"Are you leaving already?"
"You said this was an alumni get together," she reproached him. "Not a drinking party."
"Well," he raised up his hands carelessly, "you would never have come if I was honest. Now come on and have some fun."
He came closer and reached toward her hands, but she gave him a sharp slap on the cheek.
"No. You lied to me. You should have grown out of all this by now. I am gone."
He remained stunned while she stormed out to the porch, shaking with anger. Elena came after her and sat beside her on the wooden porch swing while she called Yuri and explained that she needed to be picked up at once.
Twenty minutes seemed a long wait. Elena gave her back an encouraging rub, but was reciting all that she remembered about the people she conversed with while they were at school together. Men stumbled out of the house, drunk and pointing out whatever physical features he appreciated about them. Roars of laughter and the occasional crash sounded from the house.
When Yuri did pull up against the curb, Adrianne gave her companion a one-armed hug around the shoulders and rose.
She made great strides toward the black car until she arrived, wrenched the passenger door open, climbed inside, and slammed it behind her. The cherry scent of the interior always made her crave a cherry Pepsi, no matter how stormy her mood. Yuri steered away from the curb and sneaked a glance at her crossed arms and fierce scowl.
"Anything you want to discuss?"
After a moment, she pushed her extracted Skillet CD back into the player and "What I Believe" started to play. Another minute later, Yuri turned the volume down.
"Explain to me what happened."
"Why?" she asked. "All of it is over and done with. I regret coming and I won't do it again."
"I still want to know."
"Why?" she demanded. "I know your assignment is to escort me everywhere and make sure I do not get into trouble, but I already said I regret coming and will never do it again. There is nothing more to discuss, is there?"
"I'm not asking because of the assignment."
"So why are you asking?" she raised her voice.
"Because I love you!"
Adrianne stared. She reached toward the handle of the door. "Excuse me?"
"Not in that way," Yuri answered with exasperation. "Let me explain in a second."
He steered into an enclave at the side of the road and considered his words a moment. When he was ready, he shut down the music and started on his explanation.
"I knew your father well," he answered eventually. "Misha became a brother to me in college. We played rugby together. We were roommates. He mentored me," here, he swallowed and cleared his throat. "After college, he married his high school sweetheart, she gave birth to you, and they declared me your godfather."
His smile flashed in her mind. She remembered peering up at him as he entered the restaurant. He seemed so youthful. She must have been five or six. Her breath rushed out of her lungs. She could not move, lest she miss a single word.
"My heart broke when the restaurant burned down with your parents inside."
He swallowed again and his lip quivered. He rubbed his eyelids with his thumb and middle finger.
"He asked me to raise you in the event of their deaths. But I was single and my own store recently shut down. I could not provide for you. I surrendered you to the orphanage two days later."
"How could I not remember this? I must have been five!"
"The brain sometimes buries trauma deep in our minds. I should be amazed if you remember much of that period in your life at all."
She considered the events she knew had taken place. Scorching heat and acrid ash. Screams. Tears. Firemen in bright suits. An oxygen mask. Sobbing. Church. Black suits. Eulogy. Cemetery. That was it.
"In my shame, I drank myself into poverty. Married twice, divorced twice. Eventually, I made up my mind to clean up and get started in my life again. Got educated and made myself a gentleman. Was hired in the palace as security. And then Princess Julia started rambling on about adopting a girl, and I called to ask if you were still there. And here you are."
The silence in the car was unnerving. Adrianne could hear her own breathing and the beating of her heart. After some time, she met his eyes and managed in a rattled voice, "You knew my parents?"
He nodded, expression melted as tears streamed down his cheeks. She leaned over and reached her arms around him. He returned the embrace as someone whose loved one was returned to him.
"You are so much like him," Yuri managed between snivels. "You have leadership and sense."
They released each other, and Adrianne smeared her wrist across her eyes. "What else was he like?"
"Warm. And he could convict someone without saying a word. He could keep me on a straight path because I knew he cared about my life. And I never wanted to disappoint him. And then there was your mother," he smiled as some memory crossed his mind. "She was warm as well. And energetic. She could keep a person running to catch up with her! Those two were the perfect match from the start."
Adrianne smiled at the memory of her running to catch up to her mother as they reached the restaurant and entered. She remembered the aromas of garlic bread and minestrone soup. Yuri wiped his own eyes one more time and restarted the car. He steered away from the woodsy enclave and back onto the street with pursed lips as he attempted to retain his composure.
"I reconnected with a kid I used to go to school with," Adrianne explained suddenly. "He is about four years older, but I remembered him. He was orphaned as a small boy, but he stayed on the streets. Came to school, and no one realized he was homeless for years. Anyway," she continued and cleared her throat, "he is a good man, but sometimes he has no common sense. He invited me to this party, and it seemed all right. But when I got there, it was all drinking and pool and that sort of crap. So I slapped him, called you, and left. And I really had no idea what was going to be happening there."
Yuri suppressed a smile. "You slapped him?"
"Yeah," she managed a small smile. "Got his attention."
"I'm sure. Explain this to the King and Queen, and they should understand."
"Look, I would really rather not say anything to them."
"They both know I came to pick you up," Yuri reminded her with a glance her way. "I can see why it would seem intimidating to come to them with a problem, but they are people. They're not these unapproachable entities. They are warm people, like your parents."
She prayed he was right. This was one of those situations she would rather sweep under the rug.
"Who would have imagined we would both live in the palace one day," Yuri chuckled. She smiled.
The palace was alit when they returned. She seemed so small as Yuri opened the door and allowed her to pass into the massive place. King Richard pivoted toward her as though he had been pacing and Queen Julia rose from the parlor settee and strode into the entryway.
"I'm sorry. But I had no idea that this party would have alcohol."
"There was alcohol?" King Richard clarified.
"Yeah. A lot. But I had no idea until I got there. And so I left."
King Richard nodded. "Good call."
Queen Julia smiled at her with assurance. "Are you all right?"
"Good. Go on upstairs and get some sleep. We are proud of your decision to leave."
Yuri sent her a look that said he told her so. She gave a meek smile and started up the stairs.