("Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040," its characters and situations are copyright of their respective owners. Story copyright 2011 by George Pollock, Jr.)
Honor Thy Father
George Pollock, Jr.
She saw the snow bury the small street. From the second-floor window, she watched the whiteness fill the wall-to-wall pavement – wide enough only for a delivery truck, at best, and no sidewalk. The gray footprints of a long-gone passer-by were filling again and would soon be gone.
The sky was light gray, scattered with pure white and dark gray. The snow matched the white yard wall of the two-story house across the way. Its roof had surrendered its dark-gray shingles to the snow, leaving a broad white slope leading to the sky.
To the right, the wall surrounding the house made a sharp right angle away from her view, entering a larger intersecting street. She couldn't see much of the street, aside from just the intersection and a white-gray power pole and its snow-topped lines heading out to God knew where. Around the corner, out of sight, was her parked car.
She sighed, and her breath formed a patch of mist on the window. The circle diminished slowly, as her life's warmth was overtaken by the cold glass. Slowly, eventually, it disappeared.
"The borscht is ready!" a man's voice called from behind her, from the kitchen. "Would you set the table, please?"
"All right, Papa," she answered and turned away from the snow.
The living room that extended into a dining area had white walls tinged slightly yellow by the light from the table lamps in the corners. Lining the living room walls were heavy brown bookcases overloaded with volumes and mementoes, including several nesting matryoshka dolls. A dining table, china hutch and sideboard in the dining area had a similar style, though slightly lighter. All the furniture had a warm yellow undertone in the brown.
As she opened the hutch, she recalled the story her father had told her about bringing it over from Russia. She collected two dinner plates and two soup bowls. In the bowls, she placed two saucers and two teacups. She studied the hutch before turning to the table. There had been more furniture like it in the house she grew up in when she was a girl. Before her father moved to the apartment.
Before the earthquake of 10 years ago. Before her mother's death then.
She was 20 now, and her father still called her his "little bird." And he still considered her his little girl. All fathers of daughters did that, she supposed. So she didn't criticize him for that.
She put the dinnerware on the table, next to a canister of tea and small plastic tub of sour cream. There also was a salt cellar and a loaf of dark-brown bread. On the other side of the table was a sideboard, with its lace covering, formal sterling silver candlesticks and their tapers. Her father lit them on occasion when she was visiting, but mostly, the slightly singed wicks were symbolic. Unlit candles displayed in the open were just decoration, family tradition believed. Wicks lit at least once would symbolize that someone lived there and needed the light and warmth – that the place was a home.
Crowded on the sideboard were an electric samovar and a medley of family photographs, old and new. One showed a gawky little girl with red hair that had a strange hint of pink in it. It was a picture of her. Exactly where the pink came from, no one knew, but the red came from her father, a strong, passionate man in his youth. But she was bleaching her short coif blond now. She had needed a change in her life, and that was what she chose. For now.
She opened the sideboard's central drawer and picked out flatware and two tea-steeping spoons. The sideboard, she knew, had survived the quake that ruined most of the city, and it survived the chaos that followed. Much of the Russian furniture hadn't. That made her sad, but it made her father sadder. Part of his life was gone forever.
That part – and more. Next to the photo of her was an old color image of a man and a woman. Too many years in the open light had faded the reds and yellows, so it now had a ghostly bluish cast. The man – Caucasian – was her father. He was grinning widely, almost laughing, and even in the blue, his eyes were flashing with fun. As if he had just caused harmless but hilarious mischief.
His hands were resting on the shoulders of the woman standing in front of him. An Asian woman in a kimono. Her mother. Her face was turned slightly away from the camera, but her slight open-mouthed smile and laughter-narrowed eyes made her look as if she thought the whole idea of posing for a picture at that moment was silly. The daughter looked at the photo and imagined – as always – that she could hear her mother giggling. And as the daughter had received her red hair from her father, she had received her slightly almond-shaped eyes from her mother.
She lifted her eyes to the wall above the sideboard. They were met by the flat eyes of the Virgin, holding her Son in her arms. They resided in an old – very old – gilded-framed Russian Orthodox icon, dulled and yellowed with age. And the two had pale Byzantine faces, and impossibly long, impossibly thin fingers, and gold-leaf halos. To the left of the pair was the Greek letter alpha. To the right, the letter omega. In the corners flew small angels, also with halos.
She recalled how, as a girl, she imagined that the mother's and child's large, cartoon-like eyes were always watching her when she was near. Always watching over her.
The woman returned to the table and began to set it. She needed someone to watch over her tonight. There was a mission. Not with her police work, for which she was already in uniform: white duty shirt, red tie, dark-blue skirt, and off-white thermal hose for the winter. Her white duty gloves, which she wore now only because it was winter, lay on an end table near a couch in the living room. Her dark-blue duty waist jacket hung on a coat rack by the door, and her black duty shoes lay in the small foyer nearby, next to her father's footwear. Leaving shoes off inside was a bow he had made to his wife's heritage. It was a little thing, but it was respect. He had that for her. And love.
The daughter was a computer tech for the police. Trained at the academy for the streets, yes, but otherwise, her worst fight on any given shift might be rebooting a balky computer. Her father actually liked that. It kept her away from the madness of the streets, he said. To which, she had thought: Then why be a police officer at all?
Her coming mission would be in the dark, after she got off work early tomorrow. And she'd meet her friends at the lingerie store, as always. At the base of operations hidden there, run by the store's owner, a technical genius of a vigilante. From a place of delicate, sensual softness, they'd leave in high-tech combat armor – hardsuits, they were prosaically called – and fight the madness in the night.
Her father knew nothing of that. And that was what she wanted. At least, she thought she wanted that.
She placed the flatware on the table, then the plates and saucers. "Table's set, Papa," she called. "I'm going to start the tea."
"Thank you," the man's voice replied from the kitchen. "Be there in a moment."
Taking the teacups over to the samovar, she turned the spigot and filled each with billowy steamy water. Returning to the table, she filled the steeping spoons with rich brown tea from the canister. It was a strong blend that her father liked. Maybe it was her mother's heritage coming out, but she always preferred the delicacy of green tea. But her father came from a cold land, and the more potent tea seemed to be the only drink that braced him. She didn't hate it; she just wouldn't choose it on her own. But whenever she visited, she always drank it. It was a little thing, but it was respect. She had that for him. And love.
The spoons went into the cups just as a middle-aged man came through a doorway off the dining area. He was older than the man in the bluish photo, but he was the same: Very big, very broad-shouldered, but with a whitening mustache and short beard. His eyes weren't flashing as in the picture, just very bright with his pride as a cook. And as a father delighting in the company of his grown daughter.
He carried a white porcelain tureen with blue trim and a lid that had a ladle sticking out of a slot in it. Steam rose steadily from the slot. She had to admit: Her father's borscht was at its best when it was hot enough to burn your tongue.
"Here we go," he said, setting the tureen on the table. He proceeded to ladle the thick soup into the bowls, then sat down in the chair at the head of the table.
She sat at the side chair at his right hand. "Smells good, Papa," she said. "Like always."
"Thanks." He then put his palms together, closed his eyes and bowed his head. An instant later, she did all those, too.
The silence of solemn supplication ensued. She knew her father was reciting in his mind an ancient prayer, one even she could recite by rote. She had been saying it at dinner with him – and with both parents – since she was a child. Now, though, even though she was grateful for her father's love and spirituality – and the food, of course – she didn't know what exactly to pray for. She hoped that gratitude would be enough. For now, anyway.
"Amen," the man said quietly.
"Amen," she repeated just as quietly, without having really prayed. She reached for the bread and broke off pieces for him and herself. He sprinkled some salt on his piece, and she did the same on hers.
"Budem zdorovy," he said, holding out the bread toward her. "Stay healthy," he translated.
"Budem zdorovy," she answered, holding out her bread as well. They took a bite, then put down the bread and went for the borscht. "Can you pass the sour cream, please?"
"There you go," he replied, passing the small tub. She scooped out two dollops into the thick soup. "Go easy," he said teasingly. "You'll ruin your figure."
The daughter glared at him – and added a third dollop. "I like it creamy …," she deadpanned.
He swirled the soup with his spoon, then ate the portion. "Then you'll have to work it off later," he chuckled.
"I keep active, Papa. I … work out with my friends. I've told you that."
"That's right. You did. One of them's an aerobics instructor, right?"
"She was. She works in an office now. We work out … somewhere else." She ate some soup.
"What's her name again?"
He thought. "Does she have a brother? Available male friend …?"
The woman groaned. She knew where this would lead. She decided to cut him off immediately. "No, Papa. She doesn't. And I don't think I'd be interested if she did. Not right now."
He looked at his bread thoughtfully, then picked it up and took a bite. "Well," he said after swallowing, "you're still young. There's plenty of time."
Inside, she fumed slightly. He was dismissing her point – that she had her own priorities. He would do that. Knowing such, she remained silent. She couldn't change him. She had given up trying.
That didn't mean she didn't love him.
They ate quietly for a time. If not drinking tea or sprinkling salt or eating bread, they focused on their bowls. It was if, for that time, the other person wasn't there.
"How's work?" the man finally asked. The woman almost jumped when he did.
"It's … fine," she answered, trying to calm down after the surprise. "Nothing new. What about you?"
He sighed. "Well … I've been down to the bookstore and coffee shop. I read, and I talk with the other old men, like usual. Took some walks until it got colder earlier this week. And there's a violin recital at the community center tomorrow night. I'm probably going to that."
"Have fun," she said, and meant it. She knew he loved music. And reading. Bookcases filled his apartment for a reason. Then she offered a sly grin. "And you're not an old man. Not yet."
He smiled. "Get back to me when you're my age, Missy …" She chuckled at that. He had nearly finished his bowl, so he indicated the tureen. "More?"
"Just a little, please. I won't have any more sour cream. Promise. Want me to recharge the tea?"
She passed her bowl to her father, and as he ladled out more borscht, she got up, collected the teacups and steeping spoons, and took them to the samovar. When she filled the cups, she returned to the table, and her steaming second helping was waiting for her.
He had refilled his bowl, too. "I'm glad your work is quiet," he said, starting in on the soup.
"I know you are, Papa. And I've told you about this before. I wouldn't mind going out on patrol. I'm a trained officer. I can take care of myself."
He waved his spoon significantly toward her. "I wouldn't want you in the city center. I hear it's crazy down there. All those damned robots – cyborgs, whatever they are – making trouble. You want to run into them?"
" 'Boomers,' Papa," she replied softly. "They're called 'Boomers.' "
The word subdued her. There had been a mission the night before. A bad fight. And she was grateful that her white duty shirt – with its long sleeves – was made of opaque oxford cloth. Her father couldn't see the white elastic brace that clung to her right forearm like a second skin. One of the bastards had connected with a vicious swinging chop to it the night before. Her hardsuit had absorbed most of the blow, but it had hurt like hell. It still did. There was no fracture, as far as the team's scans could tell, but the shockwave had injured the soft tissue. It would be all right as long as she wore the brace until her arm recovered.
But there was tomorrow's early morning mission. The team leader, the lingerie shop's owner, told her to be backup – not to engage in combat. If things got too hot, the three others on the team – and the blond – would just retreat.
"Are three going to be enough?" the officer had asked.
The leader had smiled under her silvery hair. "There won't be three. There'll be four. You'll be scanning the area and updating us. That's how you'll fight. That's how you always do. It's important."
Then she had leaned in closer to the younger woman. "You'll be watching over us. We'll be fine."
As the daughter finished her soup, she wondered. About whether she should finally tell her father about her second life, about the team. That she and Linna and the leader and the wild-girl singer fought danger almost every night. That last night, she nearly lost an arm. That some night, she could lose her life.
But something flashed at that moment. The first rule of the team: Never tell anyone about the team.
And she realized that was her answer. Her father didn't need that terrifying worry. He had lost so much in his life. His wife. The reminders of his homeland. So don't burden him with your other life, she thought. Let him believe his little bird was safe in her high-tech cage with the police.
Just stay alive. For him. And that what was it came down to for her: Don't die before he does. Let him leave life feeling happiness and security for his only child. And feeling love for her, too.
"I love you, Papa," she finally said, quietly.
Bread was half inside his mouth, and it muffled his tender, parental – fatherly – reply: "Huh?"
"I just wanted you to know that."
He bit off some bread, chewed and swallowed. "Well …," he began thoughtfully, I love you, too ..." Then he smirked. "And if I had known it would took my borscht to get you to say that, I'd have made it more often."
She giggled in release. Yes, this man deserved thinking that his daughter was safe and all right. Even though, she admitted, that wasn't strictly true.
He shook his head. "But I'll never get used to that platinum blond of yours."
She rolled her eyes. "It's just something I'm trying. It'll grow back red if I let it."
"Your mother would die if she saw it. She loved your natural color."
"I know she did." She thought. "I miss her, Papa. Maybe I don't show it or talk about it much, but I do."
"I know you do. So I do," He studied the young woman. "And I think of her every time I see your eyes. She's in there. In you. She's not really gone."
Her father was a romantic; she'd known that forever. And it was warm and comforting to her. She glanced at her watch. "Well … they're going to miss me at headquarters if I don't get a move on," she announced.
"OK." He got up and took the tureen off the table. "Want some to go?"
She also got up. "Yes. That'd be nice. Thanks."
"Coming up," he said and headed toward the kitchen.
She stretched after having sat for a while, then went over to the couch in the living room near the small foyer. After slipping on her gloves and waist jacket, she looked around. It wasn't the place she was born into, but it was home. Because her father – her family – lived there. That was home.
"Do you want to take a spoon?" he asked from the kitchen.
"No," she called. "We have plastic ones in the commissary. But thanks."
"All right." A moment later, the man came out with a small sealed plastic container. "Here you go," he said, handing it to her. His face suddenly lit up. "Can you wait another moment? There's something I want to give you."
He disappeared into an adjoining room – his bedroom, she knew. As she heard him moving about – and a dresser drawer being opened – her eyes were drawn again to the icon of the Virgin and her Son. She went over to it, then placed her hands together in prayer. She bowed her head and closed her eyes.
And this time, she prayed.
Holy Mother, she thought, thank you and your Son and the Father in heaven for my blessings. Thank you for my friends. Please watch over them and keep them safe. And please watch over me.
I pray for my mother. I loved her. And thank you for my father. I love him. I am proud to be the daughter of Pyotr Romanov, taking from him my woman's name by his ancient tradition:
"Here we go," the father's voice said behind her. "Oh, there you are."
"Yep," she answered, turning and joining him. "Just saying goodbye to the Virgin."
"Ah. Well, I thought you could use this because it's snowing." He held out a large medium-blue scarf and fringe of the same color. "It was your grandmother's. I … thought you might want it."
She took the cloth and held it up to examine it. For all its unpatterned plainness, she had to admit that the fabric was solid, the weave exquisite.
"It was her babushka," he explained. "Her headscarf."
"I know," she said, still assessing the fabric appreciately. "It's lovely, Papa. Thank you."
"Well, you'd have gotten it someday, anyway, so I figured: Why not now?"
She folded it diagonally and centered the large triangle on her hair, the point falling down the back of her neck. She tied the ends under her chin, struck a playful pose and smiled. "How do I look?"
"Like your grandmother." The father grinned widely as he saw her deflating, slightly irritated expression at the joke. "But it'll keep your hair dry."
She rolled her eyes again and pointed at the scarf. "You know, this isn't regulation," the policewoman said sarcastically.
He shook his head slightly, and his tone assumed a mock-confrontational chuckle. "Then take it off when you get to work!"
She let out a chuckle of her own and realized that she had lost. "OK … Thanks, Papa." Then, slowly, she hugged him. "And thanks for dinner. I'll see you again as soon as I can."
The man hugged his daughter like a big Russian bear, rubbing her back slowly. "I love you, little bird. Be safe."
She drew her head back. "I will," she whispered. Then she tenderly pecked him on a cheek. "Goodbye, Papa."
He joined her as she slipped on her shoes in the foyer, opened the door and left. He watched her head down the stairs at the end of the hallway. At which, he went back into his apartment and looked out the front window. A moment later, she appeared outside the building in the narrow street. She was a spot of blue, a movement of color, against the white and gray of the winter world.
And as the snow fell, he watched her turn onto the larger street and disappear around the corner of the yard wall across the way.
He wasn't worried about her. She'd be all right. She'd be safe. He was absolutely convinced of that.
And he was convinced that for certain, she'd be back for the borscht.