Where was Dad?
I threw the blanket aside, squirmed out of bed – squashing Rux in the process, provoking a sleepy grunt – and rushed to the master bedroom.
The curtains hung open, making way for the pale winter light through the overlarge window. The bed was made – of course, Mom must’ve been up for hours, if she’d slept at all, considering the circumstances. Having left the parental home a few years ago to live with Ruxandra in the suburbs, most of my parents’ habits had moved to the back of my brain, only to resurface when exposed to them again. As they did now. I remembered the smell of scrambled eggs that used to draw me to the kitchen when I was still a teenager. It hadn’t spoilt my olfactory senses in some years and it didn’t now either, but, as I said, old memories resurfaced.
I tiptoed to the kitchen to find Mom sitting at the table, her thin fingers slowly stroking a coffee mug smeared with souvenir photos of San Francisco – one of the few items that still bound her to her own home. Her stare was lost over the black liquid that didn’t give out steam, which meant she must’ve been staring blankly at it for some time now. Her hair, blond and crisscrossed by gray strands, fell rumpled to her slim shoulders. A fluffy white nightgown clad her thin body.
The sight was disconcerting, considering her usual innate urge of always looking flawless and making an impression of aristocracy on all eyes that fell on her, including the cleaning lady’s. Now the absence of an elegant and shiny chignon and the uncovered wrinkles on her meager face in the presence of a stranger were another definite sign something was wrong.
His sitting with her, the corner cupboard hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles, was even more disturbing. A heavy winter coat hung negligently on the rest of his chair, his chubby hands cupping a coffee mug of his own like pillows of flesh emerging from under thick sweater sleeves. His mien was grave as he set small brown eyes on me.
Round and unfriendly, that’s the impression his face made. Was he her lover? No way, my inner self spat. She would’ve gone for someone less . . . stiff. Plus, he didn’t seem to be feeling awkward, nor did he try to justify his presence.
Just a few moments of puzzling silence, then he stood up, gathered his coat and turned to the door that led directly to the back garden – something told me he’d come in through the same, but I was clueless as to the reason why he refused to use the front door. With a hand on the handle and the coat on the other arm, he turned once more to Mom.
“You know where to find me.”
She nodded, and he left.
I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Still, my sixth sense activated again and sent me with slow steps to the table, then seated me in the man’s place.
Mom didn’t raise her head. On the contrary, she seemed to sink it even closer to the mug, a hunch forming on her slim back that was otherwise as straight as a wood plank. Hadn’t it been for the thick bathrobe, I would’ve seen the skin stretch over her ribs. The truth of the man’s visit must’ve been a burden not much different from an affair. Could it be?
“So?” I managed after a while.
Her fingers still stroked the mug with slow, even moves. “We’ll be under police surveillance. I don’t know for how long.”
“You and your friends. The . . .” she chewed on her lower lip, probably to keep back what looked like a nervous breakdown. Her cheek twitched. “Those people from the mountains. BioDhrome, they told me.”
Panic shot to the tips of my toes.“BioDhrome’s our priority now, Tiberius. They won’t stop here.”
Only now Mom looked me in the eyes, eyebrows up like a crying pet’s. She looked for the way to put it, there was no doubt.
“No, God, please no!”
Mom’s expression grew from wrecked to worried, more alert now, the way it had been at the hospital. She touched my wrist, voice soft and soothing, though it cost her some effort. “No, baby, no. He’s all right, safe and sound.”
“Where is he then?”
This was the news she’d been nervous about, I could tell by the pause and fixed gaze on my eyes. “He’s been extracted, they told me.”
“Extracted? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Another nervous chew on her lip. “This BioDhrome thing.” Then reconsidering, “Alice, this must stay between us. Tell no one, not Ruxandra, not anyone.”
“Just tell me, Mom!”
“Give me your word first. For your own safety, not my comfort.”
“I’m your daughter, you really believe I’d betray your secrets?” A stab in the chest accompanied the words. As I don’t betray Dad’s. “All right, may I die in chains, if a word on this leaves my mouth,” I went for one of the gypsy oath formulations I’d learned in Ruxandra’s crowded home as a child.
Mom shuddered. “Not like that, please. Your word suffices. Keep this all to yourself, for your own good.”
“No need to elaborate on that. Elaborate on extracted.”
She took a deep breath, gathering her nerves. “I’ll have to start with the beginning so you understand.”
“For many years, Tiberius has been working with an international organization whose name he never told me. He’s been analyzing blood samples they delivered him. The results were always classified, your father never spoke of them. They often surprised and baffled him, which filled him with enthusiasm in the beginning. But after we had you, he withdrew in his shell like a turtle. Soon his work started to take too heavy a toll. We had midnight fights more and more often.” Her voice trailed off, lost in painful memory.
“Tell me about it,” I whispered. All those late nights when Dad tiptoed to the master bedroom, the quiet quarrels they thought I didn’t hear played like a movie in my head. All those empty weekends, Mom sunken in her books and I in mine, Dad only a picture on a shelf, even though he was still of this world.
“I put him under pressure to quit what he was doing. I imagine that’s why his heart grew cold to me, and he began seeking comfort elsewhere. Oh, dear baby, I haven’t asked – some coffee? Tea?”
With the premiere of her confession on my shoulders I nodded, and Mom put a kettle on the stove. I let her decide on whether coffee or tea and moved a few inches in to let her sit by me and slide a loving arm around my back, as if to support me through what she’d say next.
“Your father is a BioDhrome target, they tell me, because he works with their direct enemy, an organization which calls itself ‘the good guy,’ but I don’t know. They’re so powerful that they could order the R.I.S. to take your father in while we were still at the hospital in Brasov, and that kind of power is dubious. To be completely honest, I’m no less afraid of them than I am of your attckers in the mountains.”
Enjoyed this? Find the previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII, Episode VIII, Episode IX, Episode X, Episode XI, Episode XII, Episode XIII. More coming up next week! Until then, keep enjoying the goodies on this site, from personality tests to online stories – check out the dark mysteries of The Marquis here.
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