Chapter 18

Georg reached in his sleep for Maria, but he could not find her. He fumbled for the bedside lamp, and as his eyes adjusted to the light, he discovered that her side of the bed was empty. Finding that odd, Georg rose and put on his robe on top of his pajamas. After locating his slippers he left the room. The first place he looked was Maxim's room, but the infant was sleeping soundly. Next, Georg searched the children's rooms-perhaps one of them woke Maria because of a nightmare and she was putting them back to sleep. However, after checking their rooms he found all his children sleeping soundly and no trace of Maria. Georg wrapped his robe tighter around himself and descended the steps where he finally located her in the kitchen.

He quietly walked into the kitchen so to not alarm Maria, who was standing near the stove waiting for the kettle to boil. Unobserved, Georg carefully watched his young wife. She seemed lost in her thoughts as she stared off into space. Her whole body was tense and she seemed anxious. Georg noticed how thin she had become despite giving birth only three months ago. Her body was rigid as she stood. The kettle had boiled and Maria had not seemed to notice. It was at that point that Georg made his presence known by removing the kettle from the fire.

"Oh Georg!" Maria gasps, obviously startled. "I didn't notice you," she stammered. "Why aren't you sleeping?"

"I woke up and didn't see my beautiful wife, so naturally I went to find her," he said with a small smile, placing a gentle kiss on her soft blond hair. Georg cupped her chin in his hand and concern mounted in his eyes as he observed the dark circles under her eyes and her drawn face. "You seemed lost in your thoughts," he commented. "What is troubling you, my dear?"

"Nothing," she quietly responded, but her eyes did not completely meet his.

He responded to her denial with a raised eyebrow, and with his hand he guided her eyes to look at his, so she could without a doubt see that he did not believe her for an instant.

She looked away from her husband, and began focusing intently on the pattern of his nightshirt that peeked from under his robe. "Maria," he prodded again, "please tell me what's bothering you. Let me help you." He whispered in her ear as he began to trace soft kisses along her neck and jaw.

She let a shaky sigh but said nothing. He continued kissing her, and although his voice was barely above a whisper, he was barely able to contain the urgency that he felt inside. "Tell me, Maria," he practically begged. "Don't shut me out." Upon hearing those words she let out another tense sigh and clutched the collar of his robe. His kisses and soft words started to melt away the stubborn façade that she wore. She felt a small tear escape her eyes as it traced its way down her cheek to her jaw, where the salty drop met Georg's lips. As he continued to kiss her, the tears felt faster and furiously till she finally buried her face in his chest while desperately clutching onto his robe.

It broke his heart to see her this way, but deep inside he rejoiced as he was finally able to penetrate that mask that she always wore. It seemed that this angel he married and loved with all his heart was just as stubborn and headstrong as he was. He vowed to himself, then and there in that sparsely lit kitchen, to never neglect her emotionally ever again, even as she pretends that all is fine. She had been through so much this past year and Georg knew that he could never repay her for all her suffering that she went through, so much of it due to his foolishness and obstinate personality. Georg knew that he could never repay her what she has given him, but he could talk to her and show her how much he appreciated her, and how his own survival and that of his family was and is only due to her strength.

He held her as she continued to cry into his chest. Feelings and fears that she could not express in words she let out, nor could he at the moment express to her his love, devotion, and adoration for her. Words were not necessary. At that moment, he could hold her and support her the way she had supported him the last few months and the way she supported their children during in his absence and since his return.

When Georg felt Maria's tears subside, he led her to sit down at the kitchen table. The room was dark save for the light above the stove. He left her at the table and went to prepare her tea. Carefully he carried two mugs of steaming tea and gently placed one before her and one in his own seat perpendicular to hers. Before he sat down, he stood behind Maria and placed his strong hands on her shoulders. Wordlessly he began to massage her tense shoulders. She closed her eyes and leaned against his strong hands as her anxiety slowly began to melt away. His hands and nimble fingers soothed her muscles that she did not know even ached.

Georg continued to lovingly massage his wife's back till he was sure that she was completely calm. Only when he saw the creases in her face smooth and heard her breathing even out did he stop. Georg knelt before her and cupped her chin and placed a long lingering kiss on her lips before sitting down.

Georg took her hand in his and with his thumb he gently stroked her hand.

"So," he began, he looked at her intently.

"Yes?" he said quietly.

"Whenever you are ready to talk, I am, I always am. I wasn't always," He admitted. "But I'm trying, trying be to worthy of you."

A fresh a batch of tears fell from her eyes at his words.

"Sh sh…" he whispered clutching her hand even tighter. "It's alright, everything will be alright."

Maria wiped her eyes with her sleeve as she took a few deep breaths. "I don't know where to start."

"Start at the very beginning, it is a very good place to start."

Maria gave a shaky laugh before she looked concernedly at him, almost frightened. "I don't want to upset you."

"You won't, I promise you, you won't," he replied. "You need this, I need this."

Maria looked into her husband's eyes and all she saw was love. She didn't see the turmoil or the storm brewing in them as she had seen in the past. Just love. So with a trembling voice she began.

"That night at the mountain, when we were found, I was so scared. I was never so scared. I hoped you would be all right, that you would be safe, but I just knew that you wouldn't be. I hated that feeling, I hated that deep down I had no faith. I started feeling unwell. At first I thought it was because of what happened, but when I found out it was because I was expecting a child, I felt such a rush of bittersweet emotion. I carried a child that came from our love that would never meet his father. I felt so bad for the children. To lose two parents..." Her voice faltered. "I tried to make it as normal for them as I could, but I knew I couldn't.

"When Max told me you were alive, I dared to hope that we would be reunited, I dared to hope that all would be well-that we would be a family again. And when you came back, I had hoped… You came back…but you didn't." Her voice broke and a fresh wave of tears came. "A part of you was lost on that mountain," she cried, "and so was a part of me."

Georg clutched her hands tighter and with closed eyes he held them to his lips, remembering all of the memories that she could not speak aloud, all of the pain he had caused her. How he had nearly lost her because of his own stubborn pride…After a few moments he swallowed hard, and although his eyes were filled with anguish he opened them, and waited for her to continue.

"We've been through so much, the children have been through so much," she continued with a heavy voice. "America feels too far and foreign, so different from what I've known my whole life… I'm a simple mountain-bred girl… To travel halfway around the world…you've been all over the world and me…nowhere.

"I don't know if am ready, or if I'll ever be," she admitted.

She stopped talking and waited. She waited for him to say something, anything. Her hand was still in his, but he was so quiet she was beginning to become nervous.

"Maria," he started with a hoarse yet firm voice. "Listen to me and listen to me closely. Since the moment you walked into my home with that horrible looking dress of yours, you have been nothing short of a blessing. I don't know what good I may have done in my life to deserve you, but through all this family has been through this past year, the one constant has been your strength. No one can deny it and we…I… am so thankful for it." She looked down as he spoke; he took his hand and pushed behind her ear a stray strand of hair.

"Look at me darling," Georg said gently. "What do you see?"

"The man I love," she replied without hesitation.

"If I may add, sitting before you is a foolish and stubborn man, who is the luckiest man in the world only because he has you in his life. I Iove you, Maria, and I will risk anything for you and do anything for you. Since that day by the lake I have been trying to be a better person. There are days that I falter and days that I fail. God knows I failed more than I succeeded, but I am still working on myself and will vow to do so till the day I die."

Maria eyes refilled with tears as he continued to speak. "I don't want to put you through this again, I don't want to uproot the children, but trust me when I say that we have no choice. If we don't leave soon, and something happens to you or the children, I will never forgive myself. For months I thought you were dead. I spent months in prison living with the guilt that my foolishness had spilled your blood. And that guilt slowly ate me alive. Guilt like that is like slow poison that spreads through one's veins till it kills them. I cannot go through that again and I can never let you suffer again. You are right; I died that night on that mountain. I lost my identity and everything that I thought I knew. And, worst of all, it was you that had to suffer the consequences of my foolishness. I pray to God that you never suffer again, and I will do everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen again."

With Maria hands still clutched in his, Georg rose, raising Maria with him. She leaned against him and he held her as she tried to digest all he said. Their tea long cold and forgotten, the two swayed as one in the dimly-lit kitchen. Some more words were whispered between them and, like an ordinary couple, they spoke and communicated not at each other but with each other. Then the husband took his wife upstairs to their room, and he told her without words all of the things that words just couldn't convey: his regret, his gratitude, his promises, his everlasting love.

Later that night the two lay tangled together in their dark bedroom. Side by side they heard their breaths in sync. Although the future was uncertain and their safety was precarious, sleep and peace were finally able to come to both of them.