"My concern is that you have never left the palace since you came," King Richard stated as he spread marmalade across his crisp toast. "Adrianne was encouraged to participate in various activities, and so are you. I realize that you are shy, but I ask that you pick some activity to do on a regular basis."
"Why?" Polina blurted out, then recoiled and blushed.
"Because it will benefit your character," King Richard answered more patiently than she expected. "And because a social life would be good for you, as will stretching out of your comfort zone a little. I understand how much easier it is to stay there, believe me. My sister will tell you I stayed in mine too long," he sent her a smile. "But the truth of the matter is you are much better off if you stretch and grow."
"There is a youth group at one of the local churches tonight," Queen Julia remembered. "Maybe that would be a good place to start."
"Tonight?" Polina squeaked.
"Yes. Honey, you'll be all right," Queen Julia added with a gentle chuckle at her startled expression. "You will spend some time with other kids your age, hear a message out of the Bible, pray, make some friends, maybe have some snacks. You have nothing to be afraid of."
Her heart thundered anyway. "People my age?" she confirmed.
"I've been around those. I don't always like them."
"Maybe I could go with her," Adrianne proposed reluctantly.
"Would that help?" King Richard asked her.
"Yes," she squeaked. "If I have to."
"Good," he smiled. "I am proud of you for making that decision. You are to complete your assignment on English literature for children and adults prior to leaving. And Adrianne, you have that math compilation, am I right?"
And so, after breakfast, the girls disappeared into their rooms to complete their scholastic duties. Polina enjoyed her assignment, but it seemed so long. She scarcely saw anyone until it was close to five, aside from a break she took to eat lunch with Adrianne and the monarchs. She was tempted to draw out her work until it was too late to go, but she had the sense that would be unsuccessful.
When the time came to get ready, she set aside her completed work and pulled open her closet door to stare at her wardrobe.
She laid out several outfits and settled on a black tee shirt with a sunflower printed on the chest and a narrow pair of lemon jeans. She pushed a pair of honey bee earrings into her ears and painted honey bees on her nails. She then examined herself in the mirror with a scrutinizing expression.
"So what do you think?" Adrianne asked as she sprawled across the bed, hair cascading over the side.
Polina studied her reflection some more. "Something should be done with my hair."
"I've got it," Adrianne sat up and picked up a brush and a couple hair ties from the vanity. She brushed the strawberry hair until it was smooth, then turned Polina around by the shoulders and braided her hair over each shoulder. When she was done, she looked the girl up and down. "Perfect."
"Should I put on lip gloss? Maybe I should."
Polina reached toward a glass tube at the back of the vanity and smeared a shimmering pink lip gloss across her lips. She stared at Adrianne in the mirror.
"So what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Do you have any nail polish?"
"Some old bottles. Why?"
"Go get them," Polina spun around with a smile. She eyed the black cargo pants and maroon tee shirt Adrianne wore, and then gave an adamant nod. "Yep, you need nail polish."
"Well, thanks a lot," Adrianne smothered a smile as she disappeared to go to her room.
She returned a couple minutes later with maroon nail polish. She held it up to Polina.
"What about that?"
"Approved," Polina said.
Adrianne seated herself at the vanity and set to work. She painted her nails within a minute or two, added another layer, and leaned back against the chair. "And now the waiting."
Someone knocked at the door.
"Come in!" Polina called. The door creaked open and Queen Julia greeted them with a smile.
"You two are beautiful," she praised. "Polina, may I send you along with something?"
Queen Julia disappeared, leaving the door open. Polina watched the door and waited. Soon, the Queen returned with a silken sunflower in her hand. She approached Polina and attacked the sunflower to one side of her head.
"Perfect," she stepped back. "Do you like it?"
"I love it!" Polina touched the petals. "Thank you!"
"You're very welcome!" Queen Julia chuckled.
Soon, the girls thundered down the stairs and climbed into the black car. Adrianne strapped on her seatbelt and started the car to drive south. Polina clasped her hands on her lap and jiggled her knee up and down. Adrianne sneaked her a sideways glance.
"What are you so scared about, girl?"
She raised her shoulders in a shrug. "Everything, I suppose?"
She crossed her arms. Then she reached out and switched the radio station to classical music.
"No. If there is music in this car, it will be hard rock," Adrianne switched it back. Polina reached out again, but Adrianne slapped her hand away. Suddenly, Polina released a smile.
"Should be easy to make everyone believe we're sisters."
"Yeah, well, we sort of are now."
This idea soothed Polina the entire drive south until they reached a brick Russian Orthodox Church. It was compact, with a peaked dome on a rectangular turret. There were lanterns lit on the porch. Adrianne steered into a lot almost concealed behind the church and parked. She climbed out and started toward the church with Polina trotting to keep up with her. She snatched her hand and Adrianne resisted the urge to shake it loose.
The entrance of the church was carpeted in red, and golden paint swirled on the crackled ivory walls. The sanctuary, the room which the entryway opened up to, was ornately decorated with murals and stained glass windows. A room was added on to the left, and that was where the voices and laughed came from. Adrianne steered herself in that direction with Polina scurrying to keep up while sort of managing to hide behind her.
They crossed through the door way and saw a square room outlined with leather couches, where several teens were seated and conversing and smiling. A man in his thirties or so with a golden crew cut and kind blue eyes stood in the middle of the room. He beckoned them closer.
"Welcome!" he exclaimed and approached them with an outstretched hand. "My name is Greg Thompson. We're so glad you could come tonight."
"Adrianne," she reached out and shook his hand. "My sister Polina is the one standing behind me."
She emphasized the last words to drive Polina out from behind her. The girl scooted up beside her and also shook the man's hand.
"Sisters? I can see it in your eyes."
Adrianne snorted, but Polina elbowed her ribs.
"We were about to start a game of dodgeball. We can split the room right down the middle for teams. Look across you and remember your opponents! Look beside you and see who your teammates are. Got it?"
"Yeah," came the collective answer.
"No," Polina hissed behind Adrianne. "I am not going to go out there and get hit!"
"Everyone participates," Greg clapped his palms together. "Don't be shy. You'll get into it in no time."
The teams positioned themselves across from each other and Greg stood in the middle with the ball. Polina sneaked behind Adrianne and clasped her arms around her waist, evoking a groan of exasperation. The ball was tossed into the air and several of the kids rushed toward it.
"Get off me! I can't move!" Adrianne scolded when the ball rushed past her head and bounced off the wall. A smaller boy beside her snatched it up and hurled it across the room. It soared back and nailed Adrianne in the leg. She pushed the arms down and stormed to sit on the couch.
Polina squeaked and shrank against the wall. Another ball was pitched into the game, and a moment later, she raised her eyes to see it come smack her in the nose. A collective "ooh!" arose from the kids, but the game continued and the ball soared back and forth. She scrambled to the couch beside Adrianne and rubbed her nose with her palm, eyes stinging with tears.
"You all right, Polina?" Greg asked.
"Yes," she managed. She wrinkled her nose up and down as the pain subsided and watched the exaggerated leaps and dodges of the boys and the squeals and shrieks of the girls. Two of the boys collided attempting to grab the ball and separated with laughter. Polina released an amused giggle.
When their team won, Greg announced a second game. The girls rose again and Polina stood beside Adrianne this time, although her arms trembled. He tossed the two balls into the air, and Adrianne darted out and snatched one, pitching it into one of the older boys within seconds. Polina beamed with pride, until that same ball came straight at her. She leapt aside.
"There you go," Greg encouraged.
The ball sailed at her again and bounced off her shoe, so she sat down and crossed her arms. Adrianne swept the ball into her hand before it rolled past her and threw it across into a crowd of squealing girls. Two came and dropped down a couch away from Polina. They peered at her, then murmured to each other.
"How old are you?" the closer one asked.
"Thirteen," Polina answered and blushed.
"Deena," admonished Greg with a stern look at her over his shoulder.
Polina stared ahead and swallowed back potential tears. She squeezed her arms around herself.
Adrianne dropped to duck away out of dodgeball range. She was one of two teammates standing. A boy beside her hurled it back across the room and took out one of the older boys. Two against four. One of the more athletic girls on the opposite team pitched it between Adrianne and her teammate. Adrianne pitched it back and got her out, causing her to squeal as well. Polina released another giggle.
In the end, Adrianne was the last one standing on her team, but she lost after striking out two of her opponents. Both of them approached her with congratulatory high-fives, because although she lost, she lasted much longer than either of them expected.
They all seated themselves in the couches. Polina stared around her at the array of boys and girls. They seemed to range in age from about twelve until perhaps twenty or so. Some were clearly athletes, while some looked as though they had never played a sport. All together, there were maybe fifteen.
Greg started to explain the story of Gideon in the Old Testament. Polina listened as she stared down at her hands. She could certainly relate to the fears and doubts of this man in the Bible, and she was relieved that someone so great as a warrior in the Bible could have some of the same problems she did.
Prayer requests were then proposed and prayed for. She was impressed with the heartfelt prayers of a blond boy to her right. And then it was time to leave. She rose to go, but there was a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to see the girl who was seated beside Deena earlier. She was older, with brown curls pulled back and eyeliner around her eyes.
"My name is Melissa," she said with a smile. "I just wanted to let you know that you have the cutest giggle ever, and that you're not tiny. Small, but not tiny."
Polina managed a shy smile. "Thank you."
"Want me to introduce you to everyone?"
Polina blushed and shook her head adamantly. "Thanks ,but I think we have to go."
"See you next week?"
"Yeah. I think so."
"Good," Melissa smiled again and returned to Deena to continue a discussion they had been having.
"Come a little early next week," Greg added. "So we can all get to know each other a little better."
"Will do," Adrianne answered. "We appreciate it!"
The two returned to the car. As Adrianne drove home, still a strange word in their vocabulary, Polina was relieved. She managed to survive an outing away from home and with other people. Maybe this was a start.