In which EG and Nick arrive bearing trouble.
My name is Ana, and I’m a doormat.
I’m also one of the best virtual assistants in the world, if you’ll pardon my modesty. Being a virtual assistant and a wuss often go hand in hand. Most of us are introverts who prefer to work in cyberspace because human nature is messy and unpredictable and computers aren’t. My excuse is that my family is messier than most and so far beyond volatile as to establish whole new spectrums of the definition, so being their doormat involves a great deal of mud and muddle that I couldn’t take anymore.
So four years ago, I left my family half way around the world, and I never had reason to believe they had interest in finding me until the day my doorbell rang. At the time, I lived and worked in the basement of a Victorian tenement in Atlanta. Expecting the usual FedEx or UPS delivery, I ran up to the foyer, blinking to adjust to the sun filtering through the dirty transom before opening the door. Even though she stood right before me, I still couldn’t believe my eyes.
The last time I had seen EG, she was only five. I had fiercely missed my eccentric half-siblings, but once I developed the gumption to quit enabling my mother’s dysfunctional lifestyle, I had no choice but to walk out on them.
Since escaping, I’ve been practicing hard to overcome my doormat tendencies. Granted, it may not seem that way since I’m small and dark and work at blending in, but in my world, invisibility is a defensive position. After twenty years with my flamboyant, nomadic, mother and half-siblings, I treasured the anonymity I’d achieved since my declaration of independence. Invisibility allows me to be myself, giving me hope of establishing a normal life, with a real home someday.
I’m not angling for sympathy, but growing up as the eldest of a family of drama queens, I felt responsible for their welfare, which required more assertiveness and the best therapists my mother’s government health plan could afford. It took me twenty-six years to conquer my need to act as mother-hen. And apparently, four for my family to find me again.
If I was as good a virtual assistant as I thought, I wouldn’t have been so surprised when EG appeared like a raven of doom that late August afternoon.
“I’ve brought my own bed,” she announced the second I opened the basement door.
In the gloom of the boarded up sidelights, I stared down at her shiny black hair. Since she was only nine, she was still shorter than me.
“EG?” My reaction times were a little off due to lack of use. “How did you get here?”
As far as I was aware, my mother never crossed the Atlantic. Panicked questions like How long were you on an airplane alone? and Who died? ran rampant, but expressing weakness was not a wise idea when it came to my family.
EG favored me to some extent, with long, straight black hair, slender build, and a mind like a steel trap. Unlike me, she wore her hair in bangs that hid her Irish-green eyes, although EG might be the only one of us who is pure American. I smothered an unexpected urge to hug her, except EG wouldn’t have understood a genuine demonstration of love. We’d been raised to be detached citizens of the world. We air-kissed but never hugged.
From beneath the long fringe, EG regarded me incredulously. “Lost a few IQ points since last we met?” she asked, proving my point. She dragged in a wheeled Pullman nearly as big as she was. “The Hungarian Princess gave me her credit card to buy schoolbooks, and whoops, I guess I accidentally booked a plane ticket instead. You know, if you rented that empty apartment upstairs, we wouldn’t have to share the coal cellar.”
My family was used to EG’s ability to answer questions before they’re asked and solve problems before we know we have them. Unfortunately, the rest of the world found it a little disconcerting. Our mother, Magda—referred to as the Hungarian Princess for her fairy tales about our background— once had a boyfriend who invented the Evil Genius sobriquet after EG nailed him as a gambling addict just before he ran off with Magda’s last divorce settlement. EG’s real name is Elizabeth Georgiana.
“I didn’t know another apartment was available or that I needed a new one,” I said, letting her roll her own bag. “Did anyone come with you?”
There hadn’t been anyone on the sidewalk. I checked. Brought up as we had been, we learned to take precautions—and not necessarily against bad guys. Lost nannies, unpaid taxi drivers, even a camel could have waited on my doorstep.
“Nick will be here shortly.” Sidestepping my question, she shoved her bag down the stairs and let it explode on the antique Persian carpet I’d spent a month’s wages on at a flea market. It was the genuine thing, centuries old, frayed, worn, and I’d had high hopes of one day having a real home to put it in. I might as well have hoped the carpet would fly.
As promised, EG’s suitcase explosion produced an inflatable mattress and air pump along with her hoard of books, two pairs of shorts, a silk robe that looked like a cast-off of our mother’s, and some T-shirts.
“I figured you’d need my help when Nick got here,” EG continued, gathering up her books and neatly arranging them in a stack beside the textbooks on my computer table. The textbooks were left over from an assignment that was as yet unfinished—mainly because my client had disappeared. At least he’d had the decency to pay his bill in advance.
I surveyed the clutter rearranging my neat cave. Her books were old hardcovers with faded writing that I’d probably have to explore to make certain none of them said something like Sorcery Made Easy.
“Nick hasn’t the attention span to find me,” I told her, although it came out more question than statement.
EG, like me, had led a nomadic life, never knowing whether we’d be stationed in mud huts or palaces from one day to the next. Loosely speaking, our mother was part of the government diplomatic corps, a foreign correspondent, and/or a camp follower, depending on what man she was with that year. All of us were well versed in the cheapest way to travel to Marrakesh. Still, that a nine-year-old had taken the time and found the resources to locate me when my mother had not made me very, very uneasy. I gathered up EG’s clothes and heaved them back in the suitcase that would have to serve as her dresser. “Nick disapproves of my lifestyle,” I told her. Or lack thereof. As a VA, I stayed safely inside four walls. I communicated with fascinating people who lived exciting lives, without the necessity of bandaging bleeding torsos or chasing baboons out of the kitchen—services my family had been known to require. “I can’t imagine why Nick would want to find me.”
“Because his latest lover stole his car and ran off with his hair stylist, and he’s depressed and has nowhere else to go.” EG plopped her skinny, jeans-encased rear in my computer chair and began accessing her e-mail. All in black, she looked like a miniature me. I even recognized her avoidance technique. She was hiding something. My insides knotted as I imagined all the disasters my brilliant half-siblings could incur.
Magda had named us after royalty. I assume Magda was on a Russian kick when she named her two eldest. I’m Anastasia. Nicholas is four years younger than me. Nick was named after the late czar, rather appropriately as it turned out. He possesses the royal savoir-faire Prince Charles lacks.
I didn’t ask how EG knew he was on the way here. It’s a waste of time asking. She just knew and the sooner one accepted it, the easier it was to move forward.
To outsiders, it might sound as if my family is totally weird, but look at the statistics. Most families end in divorce these days. Single-parent homes are the rule, not the exception. It’s just that in our family, we’re all overachievers, and we had our exceptional mother to thank for that. Had we actually possessed the wealth of royalty—or at least the American equivalent—we would have been lauded as the next generation of Kennedys, capable of running the country or corporate boardrooms. Instead, Magda expressed her ambition and overcompensated with powerful men and numerous offspring.
I was already hyperventilating, imagining the disasters that would divert EG and Nick to my doorstep. Having my most lucrative client disappear leaving a mysterious e-mail message about envelopes, poison, top hats, and pow was as much insanity as I was willing to tolerate.
“Look, this area crawls with drug dealers. It isn’t safe for either of you,” I said, as if EG needed to be told what she no doubt already knew. “What did her Highness do to set you off?”
Pecking away at my keyboard, EG hit the Sendbutton and probably notified the entire planet of my whereabouts. “I’m out for summer vacation, and she wants to visit the ski slopes of Switzerland with the sheik. Since we’re temporarily homeless…”
She didn’t have to finish. I knew the routine by heart. Our mother loved to live like the royalty she claimed to be, but the crown jewels were long since pawned, and nannies could only be paid by men with better-paying positions than Magda’s. Not that we ever knew precisely what her position was. I gave up asking long ago.
“Set up your bed,” I agreed in resignation, once more returning to the role of family doormat. I didn’t want to talk to Magda, but even I realized I’d have to let her know EG was safe. “The cupboard is bare. I have to run to the grocery if you’re staying.”
EG shrugged and waved me off.
None of this was really the kid’s fault. The schism had always been between my mother and me. I believed in homes, security, and routines. Magda was a staunch advocate of chaos.
In rusty caretaking mode, I tugged on my running shoes, grabbed my shoulder bag, and jogged up the stairs and out the tall front door, making mental grocery lists.
Another sister would have felt guilty for leaving a nine-year-old in a run-down apartment house riddled with druggies and psychotics. I was confident EG would have erected an elaborate security system and conned, coerced, or otherwise convinced an alarm company to arm it before I returned. That wasn’t just EG’s genius. It’s what our family’s lifestyle had trained us to do. We are the future—prepared for any event from nuclear holocaust to Martian invasion. Of course, the commonplace, like going to the supermarket or living in houses, eluded the rest of my family. That had always been my job.
I longed to pound out my frustration on the punching bag at my favorite gym down the street, but I didn’t trust EG alone in my apartment that long. A good run would have to suffice.