“I didn’t mean to do it,” I mutter after a while.
“I know,” Alexei says. He stays perfectly still, listening to the words that filter underneath the door.
“It was an accident,” I say. “He should know better than to go around grabbing people.”
“He was trying to help you!”
“I was fine,” I say, the words automatic now. I don’t have to mean them. I just have to make everyone else believe them.
But Alexei has never been like everyone else.
“What happened back there?” he asks.
“You were there. You saw it.”
“What did you see?”
I recoil, but Alexei can’t know about the visions or the flashes or the memories. He can’t possibly have guessed that I saw my mother — that I heard her voice and felt her touch. I’m not seeing ghosts. The embassy is not haunted. But I am. And sitting on that hard chair, I know the truth — that what I saw three years ago will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I don’t realize I’m rocking back and forth until Alexei places his hand on my back. I freeze, then pull away.
“Don’t touch me,” I warn him.
“Whatever you say, Gracie.”
“Don’t call me Gracie.”
“Okay.” Alexei slowly nods. “It’s okay. At least, I hope it’s okay.”
When Alexei looks at the closed door I realize I’m not the only one who’s afraid.
“What aren’t you telling me?” I ask, but Alexei says nothing. “Alexei, what is going on?”
“Things have been sort of … tense … lately.” He keeps glancing toward the door.
“We’re the United States. You’re Russia. Things are always sort of tense.”
“It’s gotten worse.”
Diplomatic relations are like an iceberg. About 90 percent of them exist beneath the surface, unseen by the world at large. But they’re always there. And if you’re not careful, they can sink you. I know that I didn’t just fall into a photo op. I fell into treacherous waters — and made things even worse.
“Gracie,” my grandfather says when he opens the door a few minutes later.
I stand and limp toward him. There is still dirt on my clothes, and the palms of my hands are red.
“I’m sorry,” I say for what feels like the millionth time.
“Don’t tell me, Gracie.” Grandpa stands back and points at his Russian counterpart. “Tell him.”
The man is my grandfather’s age, but his hair is thinner and not quite as white. He has taken off his tie, and blood stains his white dress shirt. There is a bandage on his neck where the rosebushes scratched him. His left eye is already starting to blacken, and he glares at me as if I came at him with a switchblade.
“Mr. Ambassador,” I tell him, “I’m so very sorry for my carelessness. It was an accident. I guess I just don’t know my own strength.”
I try to force a laugh. I desperately want it to be funny, but the glaring man doesn’t think so.
It doesn’t have to be a big deal! I want to shout, but it’s no use. The Russian ambassador is bleeding and it happened on US soil — at the hands of a US citizen — so I take a deep breath and lower my head.
“I am sincerely sorry.”
The Russian ambassador nods and then leaves. I might feel relieved except Alexei’s father is coming toward me. “Very well,” he says. Then he snaps, “Alexei. Come.”
When Alexei stands and starts down the hall, I realize something: He’s in trouble, too.
Alexei’s father stops at the end of the hall and glances over his shoulder, back at me. The look on his face is obvious. I’ve been in the country less than eight hours and already I’ve corrupted his son.
“Good night, everyone,” Alexei’s father says. “I trust that this incident will not follow us into tomorrow.”
“Grace, are you okay?” Ms. Chancellor asks, dragging me from the Russian embassy and onto the street. We don’t even wait on Grandpa, who is, presumably, still saying his good-byes inside. “Are you injured?” she asks, but my answer is beside the point. She’s too busy looking at me like I’m broken.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to —”
She holds up a hand to stop me, the universal signal for don’t waste your breath.
“Exactly what were you doing in the garden?” she asks.
“I wanted to go for a walk.”
“I thought you were going to unpack.”
“Yeah. I was, but …”
“I wanted to get some air.”
“Some air?” She puts her hand on her hip and whips off her glasses. “You wanted some air so you decided to attack the Russian ambassador during the middle of the annual tree-planting ceremony? Do you know why your grandfather plants a tree with the Russians every year?”
“I didn’t attack him. It was an accident!”
“It is to symbolize our renewed commitment to cooperation and hope for the future.”
“It was an accident,” I say again, softer this time. “I had to get some air, get out of that room, and …”
“And what?” Ms. Chancellor snaps. “Please, Grace, tell me what was so urgent that you made a man bleed.”
I can’t tell her the truth. I’m too exhausted to make up a lie. So I don’t say anything at all.
After a moment, Grandpa joins us on the street. He looks tired, older than I remember. Of all the changes I’d been expecting, this wasn’t one. I mean, old is old. I’d never really thought of it as something that has degrees. But his hair is whiter. His skin is a little looser. And his eyebrows are definitely bushier. I wonder for a minute how I must look to him.
“I’m sorry,” I say before he can start in on whatever lecture is probably coming. I’m too tired to listen.
“I know you are, Gracie,” he says as if he’s seen me every week for ages, like it hasn’t been years. He puts his hand on my shoulder and steers me toward our gates. “So, how’s your brother?”
“Fine,” I say.
“He’s a West Point man now, I hear.”
“I bet your father’s busting his buttons over that one.”