*Hello, everyone! I entered this short story into Bella Putt and Lili P.'s (two fellow students from the Young Writer's Workshop) short story contest. I am so excited to announce that it took first place! I'm very honored and so very grateful for the work they put into this contest and for the chance I had to enter! Check out their sites here:
Bella Putt: https://bellaputt.com/
Lili P: https://goodstorylili.wordpress.com/
Now, without further ado, here it is!*
I could see in his eyes—he’d heard us.
The young man leaned against the café table, sipped his coffee, and held my gaze.
I looked down in the ruse of an adjustment to my scarf. I wrapped my scarf around my face to shield it from the London mist—but more to hide the flame of my face.
Everything I did was a ruse.
The only mother I’d ever known, Sasha, strode down the street. I turned to watch her go. She must not have realized he had heard. Likely my gown for tonight’s event filled her mind. The fact she thought of a gown showed how close we’d come.
I waved. Sasha glanced over her shoulder. She didn’t wave back.
I lowered my hand. After tonight, I’d belong to a real family.
Or so I hoped. The words that played over and over in my head could destroy even our sturdiest plans.
We’d come so close. But Sasha’s words. My words.
“By midnight, everyone will believe you are the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova.”
“But I’m not Anastasia Romanova. I’m Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Not Anastasia. Only a pretender named Aleksandra.
Words that now echoed in the mind of the stranger across the street from me.
As if he had heard his name in my thoughts, the stranger left his coffee and strode away, in the same direction as Sasha.
I pulled my scarf tighter.
Nothing must have come of the stranger, for Sasha and I both strode into the ball that evening with our heads held high and a forged invitation in our hand. Apparently, that was the only correct thing I did all evening.
“Stand taller. More regal.”
“Don’t fidget so! You’ll give us both away.”
“No one will recognize you as the Grand Duchess if you stand in a corner all night. Go on. Dance. Laugh. They say Anastasia laughed often.”
But I wasn’t Anastasia. I was Aleksandra. And Aleksandra had precious little to laugh about of late.
“May I have this dance?”
I glanced up at yet another young man I didn’t know, then glanced back to Sasha. She nodded and made a discreet “shoo” motion at her side.
I looked back up at the young man, tossed an Anastasia-styled curl over my shoulder, and laughed. “I’d love to.”
After all, what was one more lie?
The young man swirled me around the dance floor. The Sasha in my head never ceased her instruction. Relax your shoulders, Alek. You’ve practiced these dances a million times. No better dancer, says instructor. Now laugh. And say something witty in regard to his last comment.
The longer we danced, the quieter her voice became. The dance almost made me forget I was pretending.
My partner swung me round in a wide circle. And as I tossed a glance over my shoulder, I caught a gaze—not Sasha’s—in the crowd.
My feet froze to the floor.
No. Not him.
The stranger who had overheard us earlier leaned against the wall, a glass of punch in his hand. As if he only bided his time.
My dance partner leaned closer. Had he said something? “Is something the matter?”
My lips parted, but nothing witty came out.
“I don’t dance quite that badly, do I?”
Laugh. Laugh. Laugh, Alek!
But I couldn’t.
My partner bent to stare into my eyes. “Say . . . you look like that lost princess from Russia. I can’t remember her name, but I saw her portrait in a Russian paper.” He snapped his fingers. “Anya . . . Anna . . . Anastasia! Anastasia Romanova, that’s it!”
The stranger set down his glass.
“How did you know?” I whispered my question to the man by the wall, but my dance partner snatched it for himself.
“You mean, you’re Anastasia Romanova? You’re actually her?”
Sasha clasped her hands in front of her. I could see all our plans come together in her eyes.
The stranger crossed his arms.
I stared up at my dance partner and summoned my brightest—albeit a bit weak—smile. “Yes. I am.”
Meet at the café where we met the last time. I should like to discuss your heritage as revealed two nights ago.
No matter how many times I turned the card over, no signature appeared. Not that it needed one. I knew the stranger had sent it.
I tucked the card under my saucer and reached for my throat. Where was my scarf when I needed to hide behind it?
But no. I’d left it at home. And now here I perched on a luxurious café chair, in wait of the man who could destroy all I’d worked for.
To destroy my only chance of a family.
I set my cup of tea down. I no longer wanted it. Why, oh why had I come?
I exhaled. Because even if he planned to rip us apart, at least here I had a chance to convince him otherwise.
“I hoped you would come.” The stranger slid into the seat across from me and set his own mug across from mine.
I tried to melt into my coat collar. All thoughts of convincing fled my mind, as I dearly wished to do.
“What is your real name?”
I shook my head. Perhaps I should have finished my tea after all. Perhaps it would dissolve this awful lump in my throat.
“A fine name.” He sipped his coffee. “I’m Zakhar.”
I tangled my fingers in my invisible scarf.
Zakhar set down his cup. “I just don’t understand. Why would you do this? Why would you go along with such a scheme?”
I fidgeted with the handle of my cup. I had no intentions to answer him. The Sasha in my mind shouted, “Stay silent, Alek!” But the answer bubbled out before I could stop it.
“I’ve never had a family before. Not here. Not at the orphanage. Not with Sasha. If I can only get the Romanovs to believe I’m Anastasia . . .”
No judgement lurked in his eyes, nor in the furrow in his brow. “How could you live out your life with them with that knowledge? With that lie?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “I’d have a family.”
Zakhar stirred his coffee and stared down into its black depths as if an answer would pop out of the steam at him. “You’re not Anastasia Romanova.”
I picked at a chip in the tabletop.
“You’re so much more.”
Before I could so much as glance up in surprise, Zakhar abandoned his coffee, slapped some coins on the table, and strode down the street.
I clutched my cup closer.
It always amazed me how fast word traveled. And this matter posed no exception. Before I knew it, word came that Grand Duchess Olga and Xenia Alekandrovna—Anastasia’s aunts—had boarded the train to meet me.
A day that came far too soon.
Sasha fussed and fretted for a solid three hours. And then she sent me off to the mansion. Alone. Despite the most impassioned pleas I found in me, she refused to come. “But I’ll wait here for you, dear.”
Those thoughts kept me occupied as the carriage rattled down the street. And those thoughts carried me up the steps and into the house.
Before I knew it, there I stood. And there my future aunts stood before me. I recognized them both from the portraits Sasha had me stare at until I couldn’t dare mistake either of their faces. She drilled me on the most minute of details, until I’d grown accustomed to calling them both “aunt.”
The sheer ridiculousness of this all smacked me full of the face. I could only hope it didn’t show.
I had only to convince them, and they’d accept me with open arms.
Aunt Olga—I recognized her from the portraits Sasha had me stare at until I couldn’t mistake the face—peered through watery spectacles at me. “Impossible.”
“Could it be?” Aunt Xenia whispered.
A pang shot through my heart. A pang of what, I couldn’t imagine.
So much more.
Where on earth did those words come from? Why would I think of them now?
Aunt Xenia ran a hand down my face. “Could you be our Anastasia?”
So much more.
I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t Anastasia. I couldn’t do this to them. My head shook before the word came out. “No.”
Xenia stepped back. So did I.
“No. I’m not Anastasia.” A tear slid down my face. “I am Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Xenia’s face crumpled. She glanced to Olga, much as I always had to Sasha.
Olga’s face hardened. Her arms hung stiff at her sides. I didn’t let myself look away, though I ached to. I’d caused this. I’d hurt them so. I’d face it like Aleksandra Shatalova.
Olga pointed to the door. “Go.”
What else could I do but turn and walk away? A million words I ached to say went unspoken. A million fantasies I’d dreamed to fill a million dark nights died to ashes. I pulled the door closed behind me.
Only a few lampposts dotted the black. My breath danced in the night air. Sasha would know from the papers by morning. She’d never take me back. She’d find another girl. Or another subject. She’d scheme, and then she’d try again.
I was alone.
But I stepped off the final stair to the cobblestone lane as Aleksandra Shatalova.
I pulled off my scarf.
Aleksandra Shatalova. Not a schemer. Not an orphan. Not an imposter.
I tossed the scarf in the air and let it flutter to the street.
So much more.
A shadow hovered by the lamppost. I froze and clutched my handbag closer.
The shadow stepped into the light. Zakhar.
I let out a shaky breath. “I should answer your question. My name is Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Zakhar smiled. Nodded.
I smiled a real Aleksandra smile.
He tipped his cap, and then he vanished.
(C) Rachel Judith Leitch
*This is a short story that I entered in the Hope in Disaster Short Story Contest. I'm so thankful for the ladies who put this together during this time of quarantine. Even though I did not finalize, I'm grateful that I got to participate, for everyone who read the story to get it ready to go, and for the chance to share it all with you!*
“Why don’t you paint, Annabell?”
I turned my face towards the wall.
The mattress sagged as he sank onto the edge of my bunk. “It might make some things . . . clearer.”
I clenched my fist.
“It could help you . . .” My brother, Benjamin’s voice swam. “I don’t even know what I’m saying, Annabell.”
My throat ached, but still I said nothing.
“We have a few months left. Don’t you want to make the most of it?”
I pulled myself up on my elbows and yanked my hair out of my face. “What’s the point? I’m dying, Ben!” Oh, how I wanted to deny it, but there sat the letter from the specialist on the side table.
Mr. and Mrs. DeRose,
I regret to inform you of what I have just informed Benjamin and Annabell. Annabell’s condition was much worse than I could have imagined from your letter. I fear only a few months remain.
“I’m dying.” The whisper died on my lips.
He pressed his fist to his mouth. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
I flopped down and faced the wall. “No, I don’t want to paint.”
With a sigh, the weight lifted from the bunk. “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.”
A rumble shook the ship. “It’s been doing that for the past two hours.” Ben held out a hand. “Come on. We could go see those icebergs L’Angley told us about.”
I curled deeper into the bunk.
The door crashed open. I turned just enough to see a steward poke his head in. “Everyone in their life jackets and up to the main deck!” The door slammed, only for the one next door to bang open. “Everyone—!”
I pulled myself up on shaky wrists. “Ben?”
He stared at the door. Another rumble shook the ship. He shook false cheer into his voice. “You heard the man. Life jackets and up to the main deck.” Ben pulled my life jacket from where I’d tossed it in the bottom drawer. I hadn’t imagined I’d ever need it. Nothing could sink her, they said.
He fitted it over my gown, which I hadn’t bothered to change out of after the night’s insufferable dinner, and eased me into my wheelchair.
But instead of shoving out into the passageway, he doubled back and yanked open one of my drawers. “Benjamin, honestly!”
He pulled out my newest set of watercolors, just purchased in Southampton, where this wretched journey began. He pulled out a canvas from the furthest corner—a painting I’d done of that very city as our ship pulled in.
“You don’t need to—”
Ben set the watercolors and canvas in my lap. He flung open the door and pushed my chair out into the passageway.
People sprinted up the ladder to the deck without a care for anyone or anything else. One mother dragged her child straight into my wheelchair. I huffed and crossed my arms over my middle. “Ben, why—”
“I don’t know.” Ice laced both his words and his breath. He lifted my chair.
A gentleman bumped us with his suitcase on his own charge up the ladder. Ben lost his grip and we both tumbled to the floor. I shrieked and gripped the arms of my wheelchair.
Ben took the paints and canvas back, lifted me from the chair, and sprinted up the ladder.
My chair clattered, abandoned behind us.
Our charge ended in a wall of people. Stewards scurried about. Crew members examined instruments I’d never seen before, tugged on ropes, clambered up and down ladders. And always the people pushing and shoving . . .
“Ben, what do you see?” I craned my neck. For the first time, I realized we stood at an angle.
Not us . . . The ship rested at an angle.
“The women and children are boarding lifeboats.” The frozen breeze frisked his hair as he gazed down at me. “That means you.”
“No, Ben. We stay together.” I clutched at his lapels.
He laid the paints and canvas in my lap. “It’s only for a little while.”
Ben kicked and elbowed his way to one of the lifeboats in time with my protests. He laid me in the seat. I wouldn’t let go. I couldn’t let go. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.
“Cut the ropes!” bellowed a crew member.
“Ben, come quickly, now!” I tugged on his coat.
But Ben only pried my hands free. “Soon, Annabell. Soon.”
The lifeboat lurched, then plunged downward. Splash! Water soaked my hair, coat, and canvas. I dabbed it with my sleeve.
And there we remained. We could do nothing more than row in circles—I could do nothing more than clutch the canvas to my chest and stretch out a hand—as the RMS Titanic slipped beneath the icy waves.
As Ben slipped with it.
The colors bled.
I didn’t watch as we pulled into New York City. Not that I had the chance. Everyone must have forgotten I still huddled down here alone.
I didn’t want to watch anyway.
I pulled the canvas away from my chest. The surface had dried, but I knew the layers beneath still shuddered from the water. No matter how it dried, I could never repair it. I couldn’t even make out that Southampton dock from oh so long ago.
I didn’t remember. Didn’t care to.
At last, a steward deemed it fit to see to me. He dragged me up to the main deck and pushed my new wheelchair down the gangplank. All around me people dashed off the ship, embraced their families, sobbed at their loss, laughed at their good fortune.
No one stood there for me. Father and Mother were late.
The canvas bled against my chest.
The steward left me on the pier across from a young woman not far from my own age. She wrung her hands in the most aggravating manner and stretched up on her tiptoes.
I followed her gaze until I saw what had so enraptured her.
A young man, not far off of Ben’s age. Ben. . .
He ran towards the nervous young woman and caught her in his arms. She mumbled against his shoulder and laughed so hard she cried.
I turned away. Once more, I pulled the canvas away from my chest. Bruised colors smeared against my fingertips.
I tossed the canvas into a pile of crates.
“Why don’t you paint, Annabell?”
Ben’s question. Mother’s voice. I didn’t even grace it with a reply. Only stared out the window in the same manner that I used most of my time as of late. The world went on beneath me in a brilliant rehearsal for how it would in three short months when I no longer joined its dance.
Mother gave up. I leaned my head against the back of my wheelchair.
Only moments passed before footsteps pattered in. They couldn’t hire a decent maid for our stay here? “Marion, I don’t want anything. Please leave.”
“Finally, I’ve found you!”
The voice most certainly did not belong to Marion. It even caused me to drop the hand from my eyes and turn as best I could.
I needn’t have bothered. The footsteps brought a boy of ten to stand in front of me. He carried a bulky cloth-wrapped object under his arm and tatters on his clothes. He looked as out of place in this fine parlor as a mouse or some other such creature might.
“Forgive me for sneaking past the maid, but I’ve been looking for you for months!” A grin lit up his freckled face, like the lights from the Carpathia had lit up the waters.
I laid my head back once more. “I believe you’ve made a mistake.”
“No mistake! See, your signature, right here.” The boy tore the cloth off the object to reveal a canvas.
“I had a time of it deciphering the signature, since it was so smeared and all. Suppose it must have gotten soggy in those crates. But I waited for it to dry, and now . . .” He set the canvas in my lap. “Here.”
I didn’t touch the canvas. The wounded colors wept even more in the sight of day. My shoulders sagged. “Thank you. But I’m sorry you went to so much trouble for this piece of trash.”
He looked at me in horror. “No, no, miss. It’s not trash. It’s too beautiful to be trash. It’s just not finished yet.”
I stared down at the bleary canvas. A drop of orange graced the corner. Like a spark. Like a light from a rescue ship.
“I guess God hadn’t finished it either.” With a wise little bob of his head, he brushed his hands together. “Well, I’m off.”
“Wait.” I brushed his arm and fumbled for my purse. “Please. Let me reward you.”
He frowned and stepped back out of my grip. “But I didn’t come for a reward.” He scrunched up his face. “Wait, I know! If you want to reward me, then reward me by finishing the painting. That’ll be a good reward.”
He gazed at the blur of colors. And I let myself do the same. I tucked my purse away. “Very well, then. So I shall.”
He grinned wide enough to reveal a missing tooth.
“Would you do something for me? Let Marion know to bring my watercolors up.”
“Straightway, miss.” He tipped his cap and scurried away. I turned to the window just in time to watch him skip down the street.
“Your paints, miss.”
I dipped my brush into the cup of water. I lingered over each color I dripped the water into. Where to start? What to paint?
Marion was so kind as to bring up my easel as well. I set the canvas atop it and pulled my wheelchair closer. I looked at the canvas. I looked at my palette.
I dabbed my brush in the sky blue. Ben’s favorite. I brushed it across the canvas. I followed it with a streak of lilac, my personal favorite. The strokes bled together into the sky beyond my window.
Perhaps God hadn’t finished after all.
I turned a corner of my mouth up. “Yes, I’d love to paint.”
(c) Rachel Judith Leitch
*Hello, readers! This is a flash fiction piece that I wrote for the Young Writer's Workshop Community Writing Contest: Hope! While it did not win, I am grateful for the experience and even more excited to now share it with you!*
London, May 1944
Darkness seeps from the walls of the train station.
I’m fifteen years old. I shouldn’t fear the dark.
But I do.
Ash filters through the ceiling of the tube station and showers us all. I brush it away. My elbow strikes a shoulder. “Ow!”
“Sorry,” I mumble. All of London must have taken refuge tonight. The thin blanket someone’s grandmother wrapped around me does nothing to fend off the chill from the stone platform.
I scuff my shoe against the stone platform. The train has stopped. Passengers push, shove, and prod. A dingy clock a few feet away assures me it will remain that way for five more minutes.
I stare out the through the smoke that fills the room. I wish for a window, then change my mind. I don’t want to see. I cough into my ash-stained sleeve.
No one’s come to see me off to America. I have only a slip of paper. An address that promises I’ll find someone waiting for me when I disembark.
I don’t see Mum or Dad. They made it. They had to. They taught me year after year, “At the first sound of the sirens, run for the tube station, no matter what. We’ll meet there.”
When we emerge in the morning, I’ll find them waiting for me.
But I hadn’t. Found them waiting for me, that is.
“All aboard!” the conductor hollers. I gather my two suitcases. I don’t really need two. I could have carried my belongings in one.
I walk the streets alone. Streets I’ve played hopscotch on. Streets I’ve dashed up the first day of every school holiday. Streets I’ve traveled to the store and back again every Friday. I turn the corner.
Nothing but ashes.
I scurry aboard just before the door closes. I choose a seat all the way in the back and stow my luggage above. The latch on my suitcase pops loose and rattles in protest. I try to jiggle it into submission.
A small Book slips out, the cover black as soot.
The pages still smolder. I pick it up anyway. Blow off the ashes.
I give my suitcase one last yank. It works.
The whistle screeches. The train lurches forward. I lose my balance and fold into a seat. I clutch the Book tighter as London vanishes before my window.
A splash of color arrests my eye. A handkerchief amidst the crowd of well-wishers? A mangled playbill torn by the wind? An abandoned suitcase kicked aside?
A butterfly flits about my ears. I swat it away.
The butterfly hops about the ashes and charcoal. She lays down her brilliant violet wings for but a moment. A wisp of smoke hides her from view. I slump back in my seat.
Her wings spring up and she soars through the smoke. She sails away, over the roof of the station.
I lay the Book in my lap and prop my chin on my hand.
I jump. I hadn’t even seen the boy slide in the seat across from me. He, too, holds a Book.
He drums his foot against the floor. “Don’t you think?”
“I’m Kit. Short for Christopher. What’s your name?” He holds out a hand.
I take it. “Hope.”
(C) Rachel Judith Leitch
Hello there! Rachel again, with some of the short stories and flash fiction I've written. Enjoy!