Author's Note: It has been a long time since I've added anything new here on Fiction Press or its sister site FanFiction. Life just happens 24/7/365 and you can't always put it on hold. That's been what has been happening to me. In addition to this being a new story, it is not in a genre that I normally write. I needed a break from a lot of things, included the stories that I haven't completed yet looming over me. So here is the new story. Part drama, part coming of age, part travelogue, part from news from the headlines, part … well part lots of things. It has been very satisfying to write. I hope some of you find it satisfying to read after giving it a chance.
"You got it?"
"Please Derrick. Don't say no," I begged. Derrick is my brother and it felt like he held my life in his hands.
As if reluctant he said, "You're twenty-three years old. I can't stop you."
"Yes you can. You know I won't go if you don't really want me to. Poppa and Momma would expect it."
He sighed. "Veta ... Mom and Dad have been gone almost six years. It is time we all learned to loosen the apron strings or we're going to handicap you. It seems we may be close to doing that now. The truth is I'm not as young as I used to be. You know what the doctors said. And it is going to be the same for the others sooner rather than later. What happens to you when we are no longer around? You need to be able to make your own way."
Trying not to let fear rule me I said bracingly, "It was a small heart attack yes. But you are better now, and they have fixed the valve and you will ..."
"From your lips to God's ears," he said interrupted quietly. Then after a moment he added, "I know what Lena has said but I want to hear what you've done. You've checked this woman out? You're positive this is a legitimate job offer?"
Nodding despite him being unable to see me through the phone lines I answered, "Professor Danbury herself is friends with the family, or at least friends with the boy's parents who are professors of Pre-Columbian Archaeology and are absent most of the time. Up until this year he had been in boarding schools but last year he was the victim of some type of hazing incident and he's been with a tutor since then. They want to give him another year before putting him back in boarding school, but his grandmother thought to give his older brother a year abroad to polish him up or some such and the little brother – my student – is coming along for the ride."
Derrick said cynically, "Must be nice."
Ignoring his words as I know the tone was a result of his lingering weakness from his surgery. "You know of the family as well, at least by reputation, since their foundation supports your father-in-law's attempts to help children who would otherwise be unable to afford his services. My research shows their money was made honestly but whether it was or not, it is now being spent honestly and is frankly none of my business. Professor Danbury did say that that Madam Marchand is a bit of a martinet but given my duties that shouldn't be a problem. The boy's name is Francis Marchand but prefers to be called Frankie and he is nine years old."
"You're positive? I've just never heard of a traveling tutor in this day and age."
He continued to raise some concerns but was open to me addressing them. In the end Derrick gave me his blessing. I really would have turned the job down if he hadn't. As I told him, our parents would have expected it. But as he said, Poppa and Momma have been gone six years. Momma barely managed to see me graduate high school and Poppa died that summer of a heart attack after a severe cold that caused pericarditis. Derrick and the others – all my brothers and sisters – insisted I continue to go to university since it had been my parents' wish and they all helped keep me there when academic scholarships, grants, and any job I could find were occasionally not enough.
I am the youngest of many. Derrick and Angelia are biological children. Karen and Devin are twins that my parents raised but never adopted because the court was against stripping the parental rights of their biological ova and sperm donors; Karen and Devin changed their names themselves as soon as they turned eighteen. Donna, Charlie, and Rachel are biological children. Then comes many foster children, some who remained close and some who – despite all my parents tried to do for them – made choices of a different kind. Rhonda, Barbie, and Dylan were adopted as teenagers and are much closer in age to Derrick and Angelia than I am. I was adopted as a toddler from overseas when my parents were almost sixty. Poppa and Derrick had gone on a medical mission trip to the Ukraine after the powerful Vrancea Earthquake that killed and injured so many that even the Russian government could not help them all. They spotted me while running a clinic out of a local Orthodox Church. I was three years old and was believed to be deaf, blind, and autistic. When asked, they were told my official backstory was buried in the rubble of the village's city hall.
The adoption proceeded quickly compared to how most such things normally are. Both governments – the Ukrainian and the US – were lenient on the rules due to hardship and my supposed medical condition. It was my parents' connection to the local priest that facilitated the speed of the proper papers being filed on one side and Derrick's connection through his father in law to a powerful children's lobby group on the US side.
I only vaguely remember the day we flew away from all I had known in the big airplane to land in a place that was too big, too different, and smelled funny. It is nothing but sensation but in my memories, but it stands out enough that I know what I am remembering. I had grown used to Poppa and Derrick presence though I didn't know who they were at the time, I simply connected them to the priest who had been the ultimate authority at the orphanage and for whatever reason paid some attention to me. But then I smelled flowers, a rarity where I had been living. Following my nose, I turned, and there was Momma. She was a small woman, but her smile went all the way to her eyes, though I could barely see, and I knew she was different from the women that had run the orphanage. It was at that moment that I began to understand the concept that my life changed drastically from what it had been.
The priest had given Poppa a packet that I wasn't to open until I was sixteen. I had always wondered at my parents' insistence that I learn to read and write Ukrainian and to keep in touch with the man that had helped to get me out of the country. The story is a sad one though not so unusual as to be unbelievable for what happens in that country. My biological father, an orphan, was an apprentice of sorts to the old man that helped maintain the church. My biological mother was also an orphan, the daughter of a family who had disappeared into the city to find work but who had never returned for unknown reasons. The two had just been married when the town was swept by a Russian commander and many young men were drafted against their will … and the law. My biological father never knew he had a child on the way as he never even made it out of basic training as he was killed during some kind of hazing incident that went bad. My biological mother, already a frail young woman, deteriorated and, due to the poor health care for such as she, died at my birth. The priest said it was of a broken heart, but Derrick said it was a romanticized tale and was more than likely from sepsis or blood loss based on the description of the nuns that were there at the time. In the packet were the few belongings the old priest had managed to save for me. The biggest surprise was that my biological father was the old priest's nephew. My next letter was returned unopened with a short, but kind, note from the new priest that said that the old priest had died. While I still had questions, there were going to be no further answers than what I already had.
Romantic the tale might have been, but it was as if it had happened in a story book that I had read rather than to me. My real life was more pragmatic. The deafness everyone thought I was born with turned out to be the result of scar tissue from an ear infection I had as an infant. After being examined by US doctors and diagnosed, the scar tissue was removed, tubes were installed in my ear canals, and voila, I was not deaf after all though I am still susceptible to the occasional ear infection if I am not careful. I still remember the day I heard for the first time. I was four years old and it was terrifying and painful. They say I shrieked and climbed in Poppa's lap and could not be coaxed into letting go for almost two hours. The only other person I would go to was Derrick who was a new doctor in the pediatric practice at the time.
It was Momma who finally calmed me and to this day I always associate the smell of flowers with Momma, especially lilac. It remains my favorite perfume, though anything floral is good as well. After they fixed my hearing, they did a surgery to fix the cataracts on my eyes from where I was a preemie. Now I wear protective sunglasses and reading glasses to deal with the remaining vision deficits. I am told if I am consistent and careful, I will avoid losing my eyesight to macular degeneration in old age. It is something that stays on the list of things I pray for.
By some standards, my education has been a unique one. Momma home schooled all of her children because in the early years, before they started foster parenting, they traveled a great deal for mission work. Even many of the foster children that made their way through my parents' home benefitted from her special attention when the State allowed it. But by the time I had come along – a surprise that Poppa brought home to Momma and her only hearing about it from afar – they had not fostered or adopted for almost a decade. She said at the time that it was like starting over with an infant because, though I was a toddler, I was developmentally behind. They had only just begun to suspect that I was not autistic when I regained my hearing; however, I temporarily reverted until I could learn to process all of the information my brain was suddenly receiving.
By the time I was in third grade I had not only caught up with my peers but exceeded them in all areas except socially. My beginnings gave me a fear of people that I struggled with for many years, and if I am honest, I remain an introvert and probably will my entire life. I was in middle school before I ceased having nightmares of the earthquake; and it was high school before I no longer had anxiety attacks brought on by feelings of abandonment. I struggled my freshman year of college, but it was also good for me; I had very good roommates who seemed to enjoy bringing me out of my shell in exchange for free tutoring.
My brothers and sisters took good care of me but most of them already had families of their own they were raising, and I knew I needed to grow up and start taking care of myself. Derrick has remained a constant in my life. He, as much as my parents, adopted me. His wife Lena, while we are not particularly close, still has more than done her part to help me find my independence with common sense and class. She is who taught me the manners and habits of the well-to-do … not the crass in your face wealthy but the "millionaire next door" types who are wealthy without excessive ostentation or vulgar. She is from "old money" and her family – whom I like – helped me to develop the skills necessary to operate amongst that circle. The reason for this is that I always wanted to teach in a private school, rather than public, and in the larger of such establishments that is what the parents are looking for. Lena's father has his own medical practice specializing in pediatric neurobiology and it was his letter of reference, every bit as much as my Master's degree in education that clinched securing my new position. I have come to intimately understand that it is very much who you know, and not just what you know, when it comes to making your way in this life.
Now for the position.
The professor who oversaw my master's dissertation called me into her office one day and told me she had something for me to consider. It is well-known that the hiring freeze is a serious impediment for many graduates seeking to find a teaching position. In fact, that is why I decided to continue straight into my master's program rather than into the career field.
"But Professor I thought you were going to retire and take that position? Or did I misunderstand?"
"No Veta, you didn't. I had every intention of doing just that but after consulting my investment counselor I really need to continue working at this university another five years to maximize my retirement income."
Understanding financial issues as I'd grown intimately aware of such while going to university I nevertheless said, "But it is your dream job."
She smiled. "It was … until I gave it more serious consideration and gave thought to my needs and not just my wants. Now, were I your age I would fight for the job tooth and nail. But I'm not your age, and my first grandchild is due a month into the assignment and … Professor Levitz and I have formed … an attraction that I would like to investigate more."
Professor Danbury and Professor Levitz were an open secret and had been for years … or so I was told … but it appeared that they had finally decided to pursue the relationship in the open and more seriously.
"Now, I have no doubt that at some point you will complete your doctorate but with the job market as it is, whether you will be able to use your degree is another matter. Your facility with languages, ability to blend in to whatever crowd you find yourself in, and … shall we call it … a more cosmopolitan air than your average first year teacher, will all be beneficial in this assignment. I've already tendered my regrets to the Marchand family, and they are willing to consider an application from you on my recommendation. However, there is a stipulation that should you agree to take the position, you must agree to remain in the position through the entire trip regardless of any hardships, or personal issues, you may encounter."
Becoming slight suspicious I asked, "Hardships?"
"Yes, they've been forced to take on an additional tutor for the brother of the boy who is the student. Perhaps less tutor and more a type of life coach to help polish him up. The parents – who have never been anything but absentee in his life – left him to raise himself and frankly he did a very poor job of it. The other thing is that you will not have a private room but share a suite, though I'm not sure the identity of the other party. There will also be some financial commitment on your part for an appropriate wardrobe and any personal items you will want for the duration. The position is essentially room, board, and a modest income rather than straight salary. The perks however more than make up for that shortcoming in my opinion."
After getting the details in full I immediately called Derrick and he called Lena who knew of the family through the Foundation that supported some of her father's work. It took two weeks, but I received an offer letter and after speaking to Derrick one last time, went to the law office that would handle the employment contract to turn in my acceptance.
It was at that moment that I ran into my first reality check. The Marchands wanted me in London a week earlier than I had been led to expect. Furthermore, they needed me to pick up the young boy I would be tutoring and fly with him to meet them in Heathrow Airport. I had barely two weeks to prepare for my new position … I would be tutoring a 9-year-old boy during a two-hundred and forty-five-day voyage around the world on a cruise ship. To say I am excited would be an understatement of the highest order. I am also terrified. I've never been away from the family for so long. There was always someone coming to visit me, or I was going to see them for the weekend. And there is so much planning to do, not the least of which is I have no idea what kind of curriculum, if any, that is being provided for me to work with. I am fighting being overwhelmed.