Years ago, she’d hired a man to build the little enclosed porch that was now her bedroom. Her husband had raged over the expense of adding the porch to the house. A smile tried to tug at the corner of her mouth as she remembered saving money and saving money for over a year to hire someone to build her dream porch, then she hired a native man to build it when her husband was in Mesa City at his father’s funeral. The deed was done before he knew, and he could only rant and rave. The same hint of a smile played at the corner of her mouth, again. She’d always been good about saving money and hiding it away. She thought about her money and looked at the picture of the Holy Mother on her wall and prayed, “Blessed Virgin Mother, protect my savings, and help me visit my nephew.”
The scent of smoke drifted into her small room on the porch. She thought to herself, “I’m old, but I’m tough. If that bastard grandson wants to burn my pictures, I’ll go find the originals.” The pictures were only newspaper clippings about the president of her country. For years, the family had laughed at her, saying, “Don’t be foolish. Those people are no relation to us.”
She’d answered, “I know my own brother when I see him, and this is a picture of him.” She’d tap a picture of an attractive man standing on a piece of railroad equipment or beside Mr. Rouseff, one of the most powerful men in the country. “You don’t understand about the purges. Families were separated. We had no money. We could only run away.”
First, her husband had called her a fool. Next, her son had called her crazy. Now, her grandson, Aaron, had hit her as she sat with tears running down her face over a newspaper article several weeks old about the president’s estranged wife attempting to shoot him.
Aaron had ripped her newspaper and scrapbook from her hands shouting, “Stop that, you crazy old woman. Those people are no kin of ours. You’re no better than our neighbors. You’re an embarrassment to us all.”
She made a grab for her book. “I know my own family.” She fell to her knees as Aaron pulled the book away, then kicked her.
“I’m going to burn this thing and put an end to this nonsense once and for all.” He’d slammed out the back door with her precious scrapbook.
Now, she made up her mind to leave. She’d tried to leave once before when Jake had first become president. Her son had found her on the train and dragged her back home, calling her names every step of the way.
“How did I manage to raise a pack of fools?” The old woman glanced up at the Virgin Mother and prayed again. “Help me find my nephew. I know where he is, but I’m afraid to go alone.”
The following morning, the sound of vomiting woke Virginia. She eased herself off of her cot and followed the sound, finding her great-grandson sitting on the front steps vomiting into the shrubs.
“You’re drunk.” She accused.
“I got paid.” He pointed to three bottles of whisky the Vanderholm distillery used to pay their workers. One bottle was open and about a third gone. “I was so hungry. I was desperate. I know I’m supposed to sell the bottles, but I was hungry.” The lad had just turned fifteen. He leaned on the post to the porch railing and sobbed.
“You should be in school.”
“I worked all night. I can’t go to school.” Bruce retched again with dry heaves. “What am I going to do about the opened bottle? Papa will be furious when he sees it.”
“I’ll help you, but you have to help me.”
The boy looked at his great-grandmother. Desperation to avoid a beating, drove him to trust the crazy old woman. “What can you do?”
“Come inside. Bring your bottles. I have an unopened bottle in my room. We’ll trade, so your papa won’t know you opened a bottle. I’ll get you some breakfast. Then you will help me.”
The young man looked at her sideways. “What do you want?”
The old woman looked away. “I suppose, the same thing everybody wants - a better life. We haven’t always been so poor.”
“Don’t get started on the president again, Grandmama.” A wave of embarrassment over his crazy great-grandmama crashed over the adolescent. He looked at the neighboring houses to see if anybody saw him talking to her.
“You’re smarter than the others. Think for yourself. Look at this house. I own this house. Do you know anybody else who owns their own house?” She lifted her chin.
Her great-grandson picked up his bottles and staggered behind her into the house saying, “Whatever.”
Virginia began to fix breakfast for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Aaron had been pleased when he saw the bottles of whisky Bruce left on the shelf. “Oho, look at this.” He held up the bottle Virginia had substituted. “My boy must have done something special to earn this. I was smart to get him that good job. He’ll make us rich.”
“I believe he will.” Virginia answered and refrained from mentioning school or the university, but those were her plans for her great-grandson.
The house fell silent as the adults left for work and the children kissed their great-grandmama and left for school.
Virginia returned to her room where Bruce sprawled on her bed sleeping off his drunk. “Wake up. Move.” She shook the boy. “Did you get paid any money at all?”
Bruce licked his lips and smacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “Just enough to renew my bus pass.”
“You don’t smell good, but that can’t be helped now. Come.”
“Then let’s go get you something to eat.” Virginia straightened the picture of the Blessed Virgin Mother on her wall and whispered “Thank you. Please watch over us.”
Bruce still had trouble finding the ground with his feet when Virginia led him down the front steps of the house. “Where are we going?” He asked.
“Why, to buy you a nice breakfast of course. You should be in school, but you’ve worked hard and deserve a treat.” The bus stopped in front of them. “Bruce, give me a hand to climb on. Give the man our bus pass.” She led her still-sleepy great-grandson to a seat and smiled when he promptly fell asleep again.
The bus stopped at the train station where early commuters surged forward to get on. Virginia dragged Bruce out the rear door thankful for the crowds that hid them. Maybe nobody who knew them would see them and tattle to Aaron.
At the ticket booth, Virginia nudged her reluctant great-grandson forward whispering, “Ask for two tickets to the capital.”
Bruce turned to the old woman. “Grandmama!”
“Oh hush up. I thought you might like a little adventure. You seem to have more smarts about you than the rest of the fools I raised. I don’t know what I did wrong.” Her voice wobbled and tears threatened to spill down her cheeks.
Bruce quickly turned to the ticket seller. “One student and one senior for the capital, please.”
Virginia watched her great-grandson out of the corner of her eye as she slipped him the money for the tickets. She nodded. He did have more smarts about him. She didn’t know that students and seniors could ride almost free.
Once the train left the station, Virginia patted Bruce’s knee. “Isn’t this fun. Now, let’s get you a grand breakfast. You’re a good lad. We’re going to see so many new things.”
Once fed, Bruce fell asleep again and didn’t wake up until the train slowed in the suburbs outside the capital. “Where are we?”
“I’m not sure. You missed seeing Mesa City and some beautiful countryside. I saw a herd of wild animals. My papa used to call them deer, but I don’t think that is what people here call them.” She continued to stare out the window. “There, I saw a clock on a bank. It’s one thirty-five. We should be in the capital in a few minutes.”
“Grandmama, I don’t think this is a good idea. We could get arrested.”
“Why, what do you think we are going to do?”
“You plan on going to The Compound and telling everybody you are the president’s aunt.”
“Yes, you are brighter than the rest of the family, more like my brother Jacob. Now you listen to me. Think for yourself.” The elderly woman looked the youth straight in the face and spoke slowly and emphatically. “The president is named Jacob Jaconovich, the same as my brother. There are very few people named Jaconovich in this country. Our papa came here from Bohemia. He was a mining engineer. The whole family except for Jacob and myself were killed in a purge. Think child. Think about how many other people you’ve even heard of by our name. At least, think what this could mean for you. You won’t have to work at the distillery. You can go to university and become an engineer like my papa or an attorney like your uncle.”
Bruce hadn’t grown up among the poor of Agros province without learning a thing or two about getting what he wanted. He leaned back in his seat, folded his arms over his chest and squinted at his great-grandmother. A thought slid into his brain, “What if the old woman can pull this off? She’s crazy, but what if the president doesn’t know that? Her story is plausible. I’ll pretend I didn’t know she’s a fraud if she gets caught out. She must have more money on her. If she gets arrested, I’ll take her money and run.” He shrugged then sat up straight. “I’ll use the restroom and freshen up. Maybe we should buy some decent clothes before we visit The Compound.”
Shortly after two in the afternoon, Celia had just left the president’s office and stopped a minute to listen to the chief of staff, Andrew Corbain, tell her about his daughter’s new boyfriend. “I figure she’s smart enough to figure out the blighter is after her money, but I wonder if she’ll ever find someone suitable.” He shook his head.
A commotion at the front doors disturbed the quiet. Caesar, the big guard dog who slept in the president’s office, didn’t come bounding out, so Celia figured the problem at the front entrance wasn’t dangerous. She hurried to the head of the stairs and started down. “What is the problem here?”
Celia, although she had recently married the president, was still classed as a security agent for the Compound with the rank of Colonel, so the guards jumped aside, very willing to let their superior officer deal with the intruder.
An old woman leaning on the arm of an adolescent stepped forward, while Celia’s eyes never left the face of the lad. Her heart began to beat faster as her eyes traced the line of his jaw. Her eyes flicked to the face of the old woman. She recognized those eyes. She barely heard the woman saying something about her papa being a mining engineer. She nodded, then turned, “Andrew!” She turned back to the strangers at the foot of the stairs and smiled as she continued down the stairs to greet the old woman.
The youth stood with his mouth hanging open in a manner that reminded Celia of her step-son. She smiled at him. “Son, close your mouth and introduce me to your grandmama.”
By now, Andrew stood on the third flight of stairs. The Minister of Health stood beside Vice-president Anatole on the second flight. Celia quickly descended to the first floor.
The old woman looked up past the people on the stairs. She held out her arms and cried, “Jacob. Jacob.” Tears started to roll down her cheeks.
Jake’s footsteps pounded down the stairs. “Aunt Virginia?”
The youth’s mouth dropped open again.
Jake reached the bottom of the stairs and scooped the old woman up holding her close to his heart before setting her down and kissing her on top of her head. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you come sooner? Papa is gone now. He looked for you for years. Where have you been?”
“I tried and tried to come to you, but they wouldn’t listen. I tried running away, but they found me and carried me home.” Here the old woman broke down into uncontrolled sobbing.
Celia motioned for the onlookers to go away. “Come. Let’s make you two comfortable.” She led the way to a first floor apartment with rooms that looked out across the lawn toward the cathedral.
Jake had picked the frail old woman up in his arms and carried her to the apartment.
Mariah the vice-president’s wife caught up to the party in the hall outside the apartment. “You’ll need two suites so the young man can do as he pleases while she sleeps.” She turned to the youth. “Sir, will you come with me. You can have the room just across the hall from your Grandmama.”
Mariah’s eyes met Celia’s then flicked down at the genetic testing kit she held in her hand.
Celia nodded and held out two fingers down at her side, indicating she wanted to test both of the people claiming to be her husband’s family. She smiled, thankful that Mariah understood this guest should be treated as any other client in the Family Reconciliation Project.
Jake set the old woman on a sofa then slid to the floor at her feet. “Tell me, do you have children? I’ve always wanted cousins on my papa’s side.”
Celia bustled about, making certain the room had fresh towels, fruit and flowers. She called the clothing bank, a room in the old wing of The Compound where used clothing was kept and shared with those who needed it. After watching her husband hang on every word the old woman said for fifteen minutes, she put her hand on his shoulder. “Sweetheart, I think your aunt is tired. She’s traveled a long way. Can you let her rest for now? You do have your meeting with the governor of Midland Provenance.”
Jake got to his feet and kissed Virginia’s hand. “You will soon learn that my time is never mine. I’m a slave to this job. You rest now, because when I am free you are going to tell me every detail of your life since Papa put you on the train after the purge.”
The medic Kai waited in the hall for Jake to leave the old woman’s room before he entered, insisting that he must check her health before she could have a bath and take her nap. In the process of the brief physical exam, he swabbed her mouth for the genetic testing.
In his room, Bruce didn’t know what to think. All his life he’d been taught that great-grandmama was crazy. He had really expected her to get arrested at the doors to the president’s compound. Instead, she’d been kissed and coddled. He began to believe the old woman had been telling the truth. He twisted the frayed hem of his tee shirt and stared out the window without seeing. “The president does look a little like papa around the chin and mouth,” he thought as he tried to understand his present circumstances. Servants rushed around bringing him trays of food, filling a tub with water for his bath, and bringing him fresh new clothes, finer than he’d ever seen. He began to wonder what his life would have been like as the president’s cousin. In his bath, he thought about Cousin Mary, just a year older than himself. She’d been married off at age thirteen and died in childbirth when she was fourteen. His outrage and anger began to grow over the poverty he’d endured because nobody would believe Grandmama. He leaned back in the tub and wondered if his papa and grandpapa really didn’t believe her, or was their behavior some cruel trick born of a desire to control and hurt, leading the rest of the family to call her crazy. In that moment, Bruce’s world turned upside down. All he’d once believed was true became lies, and all he had once thought were lies became truth.
The genetic testing on both Bruce and Virginia came back a match with the president. For his part, Jake had seen his father’s eyes in his aunt’s face and never doubted. Of course, Virginia’s whole family benefitted to the extent that Jake could forgive their treatment of his aunt. Which was to say that the innocent lived in luxury. Aaron continued to live in the, now repaired, house in Argos Province and work for the sewer department.