With her mouth full of cereal, Jessie stretched across the breakfast table. Out of the blue, she pointed at my nose.
“Josh has a mustache!”
Luckily, no one heard her. There was faint fuzz sprouting on my upper lip. It looked like I hadn’t washed my face since the day before. I rolled my eyes in unhurried circles and pretended everything was the same. Jessie crunched cereal and squinted in my face before she leaned on her elbows, tilted her head, and stared.
My mother, only she wasn’t my mother, intervened from the kitchen before we crossed eyes. “Jessie, elbows off the table and sit down!”
“I am sitting down!”
Sugar and spice and everything nice seldom applied to Jessie. At nine years old, she preferred slugs and snails, though she could be endearing when she wanted. She stared at me through hazel eyes, defying me to blink first. I pretended to waver before rapidly switching my gaze from side to side. On the verge of giggling, she poked out her tongue, her usual response when she was losing.
“Stop annoying Josh!”
“We’re playing a game, Mom.”
“Who has the worst table manners?”
Outside the sliding glass door, doves fluffed their feathers under a garden spray, making mist over the swimming pool and a garden blooming with color.
I used to think I spent half my life in the water. At 12 years old, I went to both morning and afternoon practice, endless laps for three hours, six days a week! For the last three days, I’d swum laps in the pool outside, far more enjoyable with a tropical paradise alongside.
'Sexy Pink’ Heliconia stopped seducing me when Aunt Erin put a platter of toast on the table. Before I could ask what I should call her, she smiled; not a mischievous grin like her daughter, Tanner; a smile that said we’d get along.
“Erin will do just fine, Josh.”
I smiled back. At least someone appreciated what I was going through.
“Aunt Erin said my manners are better than Tanner’s,” Jessie countered, now trying to get my attention by rolling her eyes.
“That’s not saying much,” Erin laughed.
At 8:00 am, Tanner was on her way to school. It was the first day of the Australian school year, so Jessie walked with her to the corner to wait for the bus to Gympie. Since returning, she’d prattled on about the advantages of regular school, which didn’t include being able to spend most of her day reading Ben’s Encyclopedia Britannica.
“I’m trying to cheer him up,” Jessie said.
I was about to say I didn’t need cheering up when Ben dropped his spoon in his bowl and scrutinized me like a biology specimen.
I wallowed in misery. Overnight, my entire life changed. Just ten hours earlier, Aunt Erin became my stepmother. Tanner was now my constantly chattering half-sister. It only got worse. Ben and Jessie were my cousins, not my brother and sister. My mother for 12 years was now Aunt Virginia; her real name was Susan. Not that it mattered, I still couldn’t say it. My father was my Uncle John. His real name was Peter, named after the great Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Uncle Ron was my father. His real name was Nicholai, for Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. And my grandmother, Sarah? She wasn’t even a branch of my family tree. Altogether, it was a stab through the heart.
“Jessie’s right. He’s got facial hair,” Ben declared. “You need to shave, Dude.”
I wasn’t in the mood for imperfections, not even a single hair on my chin. It had been invisible until I looked in the mirror that morning while brushing my teeth. “I’ll be fifteen in three weeks; it’s about time.”
“I’ll get you a razor for a present,” he said jauntily.
He jerked back when I flicked at his nose. Our transformed family situation didn’t seem to bother him at all.
“Better fuzz on my face than fur everywhere else,” I said under my breath.
“Kids have vellus hair.”
Ben got defensive about the silvery down on his arms. He had far more than I did when I was his age. Maybe it was one of those genetic things.
“Body hair changes with puberty. Androgenic hair is thicker and darker.” If anyone was born to be a doctor, Jessie was. At nine, she knew more about the human body than I did.
Ben stole a sideways glance at his mom making toast. She hadn’t said a word to me besides a tactful ‘good morning,’ both of us happily avoiding the elephant in the room. Ben turned to me, his preteen smirk a sure sign he was about to whisper something he wouldn’t dare say in adult company. He stopped just in time as the back door swung open. My father followed Uncle John. They might have been twins; however, a darker tan and sun-bleached hair made it easy to tell them apart.
I could tell from their faces the news wasn’t going to be good. My newly acquired father had returned to his restaurant after I was safely back at his house, seven hours ago.
“Everything okay at Sails?”
I might’ve been talking to myself. They crossed to the coffee maker and poured themselves cups.
“Nothing you’d notice if you weren’t looking for it,” my real father said between sips.
I expected him to call me ‘Sander.’ When he didn’t, it bothered me. “What about Zagarovsky?”
“Skedaddled as soon as he saw Sal kill Faro. I expect he caught the next flight to Los Angeles. The rest, Tony cleaned up.”
He sounded peeved. I thought it undeserved. Sal saved my life. It was hard not to like Sal; Tony too.
My newly minted uncle leaned against the counter, clearly avoiding me, coffee cup in one hand, the other hand clenched with his thumb pressed on top. Each time he rubbed, it sounded like an anchor rode straining when the wind strengthened. Up in the Spray’s bow, the creaking rode kept me awake at night. Now, as much as how he looked at me, it made me feel like I’d done something wrong.
Instead of keeping my mouth shut, I asked, “Cleaned up how?”
My father gave an anemic smile. “It wasn’t my first choice. We stuffed two of Zagarovsky’s goons in a construction site toilet. It’s pretty busy that close to Gympie. Someone will find them by lunchtime.”
“Nick, the last time Tony cleaned up, they were stuffed in a trawler. It sank on the way to Hawaii.” His tone was coldly critical, as much as saying spending even a few hours in a construction toilet fell short of his moral standards.
I studied my cereal bowl, wondering if muesli was uniquely Australian. According to Ben, who chose it over little bricks made from wholegrain wheat, most Aussie kids ate muesli for breakfast. It came in clumpy sugarless lumps of raw oats, seeds, nuts, and dried fruits, with a handful of extra raisins, slices of banana, and soy milk to make it edible. A clever photographer made muesli look appetizing on the recycled, biodegradable box.
“They deserved to die.” I sounded heartless; I didn’t care. Getting rid of Zagarovsky’s hired killers was like putting trash in a can. You didn’t care what happened to it afterwards.
I refused to meet my father’s eyes. He called me ‘Sander’ trying to score points. So what if he’d named me Alexander the day I was born, and called me “Sander’ for more than three years?
My uncle stopped creaking. “Josh, we know how difficult this is for you.”
“Now, I’m Josh?”
He’d made it clear the night before. I wasn’t the Victor Joshua Walker that I’d grown up with. More than my name was different; I wasn’t his son. I filled my spoon with soy milk, no muesli. I’d never tasted soy milk before. It reminded me of coconut water, sweet yet bland. From Ben’s expression, he didn’t like it either. He separated out raisins and bananas with his spoon. The rest he pushed to the side.
“What we call you is no big deal. You’re still who you are, right Mom?” Ben’s voice squeaked at the end.
She exhaled, folded her arms and leaned against the sink. She looked at me, blinking. The last time she was this unhappy we were in a Tahitian hospital. Ben was unconscious in the emergency room.
“We should’ve told you when you were seven...” The rest waited until I met her gaze. “A boy at school teased you. You came home in tears.”
“About being Noah Junior?” My nickname started when word got out that a half-finished boat filled the barn next to our trailer. It made my family sound crazy.
“It was about your scars. You wanted to know how you got them.”
“You told me I fell on a heater.”
“It was too dangerous to tell you the truth. The accident was all over the news when it happened.”
“It wasn’t an accident!” he interjected.
She went on regardless. “For a couple of years, you always wore a long-sleeve shirt so people couldn’t see your arms. You hated the ointment too.”
“It made me itch something awful.”
“Actually, it helped with the itch. The shirt; there wasn’t a choice. If someone remembered and made the connection with you...” Her conclusion dangled in silence.
“Forgetting about the fire was the best thing that could happen,” he said.
“Forget that! I had nightmares every night.”
He interrupted me. “They were never about the fire.”
“Of course, they were. He suppressed the memory. It was easier to blame Slocum than deal with it,” she said.
He wasn’t about to give up. “The important thing is he forgot.”
“He didn’t forget everything.” Her emphasis was puzzling. “Every Sunday he insisted on going to church.”
He exhaled, his way of backing down from a fight. “He was four. Maybe he liked Sunday school. It doesn’t mean he remembered.”
“Remembered what?” I asked when he didn’t elaborate.
“It doesn’t matter,” he muttered. “It was too dangerous to keep going.”
“It was clear to me you hadn’t forgotten some things. You were seven when you asked to join the swim team.” She nodded at my real father to take over.
“When you were little, you used to go to the Y with me. You’d sit on the edge and watch me swim laps. It’s probably why you wanted to join the swim team.”
I glared daggers at him. I wanted to make him squirm for years of lies. “Why didn’t you tell me about my parents?”
“We wanted to. However, you needed time to get well. We thought… if you knew we weren’t your real mom and dad, and they weren’t available, it would be an added complication.”
“You were much safer with them, Sander,” my father added.
I wanted to ask why that justified abandoning me, yet I kept my eyes in my cereal bowl. Muesli was like trail mix from a health food store, not something you ate for breakfast, or because you liked the taste. The box said it had honey in it. If there was, I couldn’t taste it.
“That email about you when you were seven…”
“What about it?” Muesli didn’t help my mood.
“I was in Melbourne at the time. Someone who I thought was a friend said he saw a woman who looked like your mom,” my father said. “It was a risk worth taking.”
I didn’t know who or what to believe. Months earlier, he had said his sister-in-law was dead. Just the night before, my real father said she’d disappeared the night of the fire. One of them was lying.
“It was a trap?”
Ben put down his spoon, giving up on muesli despite what the box said about healthy high fiber and protein. “Duh; they were going to use him to find you.”
“They were still looking for me after three years; yeah, that makes sense.”
“With people like Zagarovsky…” My father hesitated. “When they say they’re going to do something, they follow through. Otherwise, they’re seen as weak.”
“How come he’s not still in prison?”
He answered. “He’s got friends.”
“He got early parole,” my father said. “August 12th, one day after he was sentenced to 25 years, Barkov tried to kill you again. Some bureaucrat in Washington DC decided you weren’t eligible for Witness Protection. We had to hide you ourselves.”
“In a crappy trailer at Arcadia Park,” I finished.
I could tell from the way he studied his feet that I’d hurt him, my father too.
“If Zagarovsky’s still looking for you after 12 years, he’ll never give up,” Ben said.
“What about my mom; you still looking for her?”
“The woman in Melbourne…” My father waited for me to look up. “She was supposed to be playing the organ at a church, not far from where she used to live. It made sense at the time.”
With a grunt, he got my attention. “Remember when we went camping; Spruce Knob Lake in West Virginia?”
A day after my seventh birthday, he’d borrowed a tent and sleeping bags from the O’Neils, who lived across the road from us. We left the same day and spent a miserable week in the middle of a vast pine forest, hiking, reading, and playing cards. Mid-February was too cold to do anything else.
“What about it?” At the time, I thought going camping was a special birthday present. It didn’t matter that the tent stank of Jessie’s dirty diapers.
“We had to disappear, just in case.” He glared at my father. It was clear who he blamed.
“I told them to leave, Sander. There was a good chance my email was hacked in Melbourne. Going there was a big mistake.”
“What happened?” Ben asked.
“I had high hopes. It was the first good lead I’d had. Luckily, I spotted Barkov before he saw me. It still blew up in my face. They were right on my heels for months after that. I didn‘t stop looking behind me until my car broke down a few miles out of Gympie. I figured a tiny town in the middle of nowhere was the last place they’d look.” He smiled at Aunt Erin. “Erin’s dad needed help on the farm so I stayed.”
“That makes it okay to forget about me?”
“Sander, if I returned, I would’ve led them to you. There was no choice. I had nothing left. Living on the run; it’s exhausting.”
“Tell me about it, Nick.” He beat me to it.
My father went on regardless. “I had three jobs until I saved enough to create a new identity, one that Zagarovsky’s people couldn’t discover. I always planned to go back for you.”
“Instead, you opened a restaurant.”
He looked as if I’d slapped him. “You don’t understand. The next year, you were doing better. You’d caught up at school. John sent email a few days after your eighth birthday so he could tell me you won the 8 and under 100 yard freestyle at the Southeast District Championships.”
“Not that big a deal.”
She smeared butter on toast. “It was to us.”
She’d been at the swimming pool, cheering for my team. By Sunday, she was hoarse, yet I still heard her shouts over the roar of applause when my fingers punched the timing pad first.
My father perked up. “It was to me too. He videotaped you so I could watch you on YouTube. Not smart, though definitely worth the risk.”
I couldn’t help myself. “That changes everything.”
“It changed things for me, Sander. You were safe. You had friends. Your teachers were planning to move you up a grade. The next year, things got crazy. I could hardly drag you away.”
“You’ll always be part of our family, Josh.” She spoke softly to get my attention.
I looked up at her. “I don’t even know what to call you.”
She came over and hugged me, one hand massaging my shoulders the same way she did on the way home from swim practice. “You’ll think of something.”
I knew I’d always be able to talk to her. “How about Aunt Mom?”
She laughed. “I think Aunt Vee will do just fine.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry I lied to you for so long.”
I wasn’t ready to call him Uncle John. “Sal said Grandma gave up everything to be with me; and we’re not even related.”
“Not by blood,” she said from behind me. I spun around in my seat. “By everything else that counts, you’re my grandson.”
“But you lost everything because of me. I caused all this.”
“Dude, you were three!” Ben interrupted.
“A very cute three, I might add.” She picked up the muesli box to look at the nutrition label. It was in grams, milligrams, and kilo-joules. She caught Ben’s eye.
“It’s packed full of fiber, vitamins, and protein, Grandma.”
She winked at him as she sat down next to Jessie. “I thought Sal was coming for breakfast?”
My father hesitated. “Sal left an hour ago.”
I hid my disappointment. “Tony too?”
“He is Sal’s bodyguard,” he replied haughtily. “It’s only for a week or two.”
Every time I looked at Uncle John, I still saw my father. Like muesli, it would take time to get used to.
“Sal’s taking advantage of the lull to regroup,” my father went on.
“We need to as well,” I said under my breath.
He let out a tired sigh, perhaps to show what he thought of that idea.
I repeated what Sal said six hours earlier. “We were lucky last night.”
He reacted as the words left my mouth. “It depends on how you look at it.”
“We’ve bought some time!” My father and I seemed to agree on that.
My uncle and father swigged coffee and talked about finding a better hiding place. I chewed buttered toast, of the mind that anything was better than muesli, silently resenting that even though Zagarovsky was on his way back to New York, he was still in control.
“Heading north makes the most sense,” he declared.
“Doesn’t it make more sense to do something they don’t expect?” Sarah was 61, outspoken and stubborn like a teenager. She’d clearly given our situation thought.
“Something like what?” he asked.
She peeled and sliced a mango with a razor-sharp paring knife. She divided slices between herself and Jessie before looking up. “You don’t have to be Einstein to realize that repeating the past and expecting a different outcome is nonsense, John.”
“Not much else we can do at this point.”
“We need to change our names as soon as we can,” my father said. “Sal said he’ll get us new fake IDs in New York; however, it’ll take weeks to set up.”
“What we need are new passports. Sal going to fake those too?” he grumped.
“Once we have IDs, we’ll apply the usual way.”
He exhaled. “It’ll take months!”
“We’ll stay here as long as possible. It’ll be safe until Zagarovsky returns,” my father added. With coffee cups in hand, they headed into the dining room to sit down.
Her mouth full of mango, Jessie turned her table manners on me, “Are you going to shave after breakfast?”
“I don’t plan to.”
“Can I watch if you do?” Jessie twisted in her chair. “Josh’s growing a mustache, Grandma.” She made it sound as if fuzz on my face was peculiar.
“All boys do that when they get older, Honey.”
“It’s because their testicles produce testosterone.” Jessie looked to Ben to make sure she’d pronounced it correctly. “They get hairy all over, and make semen.”
Was I the only one in the room with a crimson face? Even my open-minded ex-grandmother had her hand over her face, shaking her head. Erin cocked a stunned eye at Jessie. It was all Ben could do not to laugh out loud.
With surprising calm, Aunt Vee said, “If Josh takes after his mom, he’ll never be hairy.”
Could it get more embarrassing? I glowered back at her, glad my father and uncle weren’t there to hear it.
“Not my fault she’s been reading the Brit,” Ben hedged. “Grandma said it was okay.”
“What Grandma said was ‘learning new things is good. Sharing it requires insight.’” She brushed back silver-gray curls, her eyes bright with mirth. “Josh, I think you’re old enough to call me Sarah.”
I smiled and nodded. She always made everything easy.
“Now you’re old enough to shave; I have just the thing to get you started.”
Sarah went into her room to get whatever it was. She was gone so long I tried eating muesli. Amongst crunchy nuts and grains, were pumpkin seeds, and flakes of wheat that tasted like honey. It was definitely healthier than American cereal.
She returned with a wooden box. “I’ve been carrying this around since before Christmas.” She moved muesli aside, and placed it on the table before me. “When Sal left Sydney; he wasn’t sure how things would turn out in New York. He asked me to give this to you when you started shaving.”
The box was burled walnut, polished so brightly it mirrored my hands as I opened a tiny gold clasp and lifted back the lid.
“It’s a family tradition,” she went on. “His father gave him one when he started shaving. He would’ve given this to his son, but Zagarovsky stopped that.”
Ben craned his neck to look inside the box. “No way! He’ll cut off his head, like in Monty Python.”
There were four compartments mosaicked with shiny squares of mother-of-pearl, the same as the iridescent flowers on the fingerboard of my guitar. In one compartment was a straight-blade razor, the old fashioned kind with a translucent horn handle. Beside it were a badger-hair brush, a tarnished silver bowl with a round bar of soap, and a rolled-up cowhide belt.
“Sal said to tell you the bowl is Sicilian, from the 1850s. It used to be a salt cellar, so it symbolizes loyalty and friendship; some kind of macho Mafia thing, I expect.”
“More like putting salt on the wounds.” Despite his smile, I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not.
She lifted the razor from its compartment, the blade honed to dull grey, not shiny like a boat knife. ‘Dante’ was incised into the handle.
I looked up. “I can’t accept this.”
“He said there was no one else he would give it to.”
It didn’t seem possible that she was no longer my grandmother.
“It’s really nice of him, but it belongs in his family, Sarah.”
“I’m sure Sal would agree.” She smiled oddly. “However, he wants you to have it.”
“I’m with Ben. I’ll cut my throat.” My morbid humor drew a discouraging grin from Ben.
Like a scene out The Godfather, my grinning father filled the doorway. “A leetle blood maybe. The tricka is getting the angle just so.” He pinched the air. “Thirty degree. Anda move it perpa-dicular to the blade, never sideways.”
“No way am I using it!”
Ben added his support with, “Smart move, Bro. Stick with electric.”
“You going to tell Sal you’re chicken, Vittorio?” He clearly didn’t mean it.
“A coupla nicks will man you up, Sander.”
They were teasing, of course; yet I rose to the challenge. Everyone trooped into the downstairs bathroom to watch, even Erin. While my father stropped blade and leather, his brother puddled soap and hot water in the silver bowl and worked up a thick creamy lather.
“He doesn’t look old enough to shave, John,” my father scoffed.
“Hard to believe he’s almost 15.”
I glared at both of them. “No wonder kids leave home as soon as they can!”
He put the foam-filled brush in my reluctant hand. As my moment of manhood arrived, my feet got colder. The tiles were frigid, virginal white like the marble top on the vanity.
“Let’s make this a bloodless sacrifice, and appease the gods some other time,” Sarah chuckled.
With lather covering my face, I gaped at her. As my grandmother, she’d filled my head with stories about Greek heroes. Not one of them shaved!
“Just go slowly, Sander. You can stop, but don’t move the blade sideways.” My father pressed the razor into my now-unwilling hand. “I’ll show you how if you want me to?”
“On your face or mine?”
“Yours, of course.”
Ben and Jessie thought that was hilarious.
I raised my hand, my eyes switching between the mirror and the blade nearing my foamy nose, expecting blood to appear at any moment.
Behind me, I heard, “It looks awfully sharp.”
“Sal will love this photo. Stop looking so serious, Josh.”
Ben hopped up for a ring-side seat on the vanity. “He ought to practice with a disposable first.”
“Tilt the blade a bit more, Sander.”
My hand was trembling as I adjusted the blade angle. I was so shaky that I took hold of the tip of the blade between my thumb and first finger of my other hand. After a deep breath, I touched the blade right under my nose and cautiously lifted up my head until it reached my upper lip.
“He’ll cut himself if he’s not careful.”
“Don’t bug him, Daddy. He needs to concentrate.”
I tilted my head and looked in the mirror. The razor left a path free of soap, and no blood. It felt tingly. With unwarranted confidence, I turned my head slightly right and repeated the process twice before I breathed out again. If there was any difference, I couldn’t see it. Everyone crowded closer. Jessie hopped up onto the other side of the vanity to see for herself.
“Do I look different?” I asked no one in particular.
“Still the same.” Jessie smirked. “Except you don’t have a mustache anymore.”
“I didn’t have one to begin with.”
Ben craned his neck to look at both sides of my face. “You missed a hair, Dude.”
“I’ll get it next year.” I was about to add that I risked my nose for nothing when the phone in the kitchen rang.
“I wonder who that is.” Erin stepped past my father and through the doorway. She was saying ‘hello’ for the fourth time when someone banged on the back door.
“No one ever visits this early in the morning,” he said to her back.
I inspected my handiwork, not bad at all, a solitary hair left and no blood. In the mirror, gleeful Ben smirked from beside me.
“It looks like you shaved with your eyes closed.”
Boldly, I brushed on lather until I bore a marked resemblance to Santa Claus. I had the razor poised under my chin when the kitchen exploded.