All Fall Down, Page 2Ally Carter
I’m not going to have a panic attack. I’m not going to let it come and sweep over me. I’m not going to give anyone a reason to call my father or the doctors, to count my pills or make me talk. I solemnly swear that I will never talk again if I can help it. So I run faster. The stairs come two at a time, swirling, spiraling. Taking me away from the room with the canopy bed, from the hairbrush and the mysteries, from the problems I can’t solve.
But as soon as I reach the landing I can see the bottom of the stairs and the boy who is already standing there, waiting.
I freeze, stunned.
He is not supposed to be here.
When he says, “Well, if it isn’t Grace the Ace,” I know it is too late to run. Wherever I might hide, he’d find me. He was always able to find me.
“Isn’t that what your brother always calls you?” the boy asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer. “Anyway, welcome back.”
He smiles like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be. But he’s not. His accent alone is enough to tell me that he is on the wrong side of the wall.
He’s not supposed to be here.
For a second, I almost wish Ms. Chancellor was still with me. I feel too small again, the embassy too big. It’s like I’m ten and about to be in trouble. Locked in a closet, then scolded for following the boys and told to go back to my room. I feel the sudden urge to jump off the wall or out the window, just to prove I can.
“So when did you get in?” the boy asks.
“I’m sorry,” I say, forcing myself to walk closer to the blue eyes that are staring back at me, too big, too intense. It’s a gaze that might burn if I let it, so I decide not to let it. Not even a little bit. I cock my head and eye him. “Have we met?” I ask.
The boy laughs. “Nice try, Grace. So how’s Jamie?”
“Perfect. As usual. If you actually knew my brother, you’d know that.”
“Oh, but I do know your brother,” the boy says, his accent stronger. “In fact, I know you.” The boy doesn’t wink, but he gives me the kind of smile that goes with one.
“Oh, gee, I’m sorry I don’t remember,” I say as I reach the main floor and turn to start down the hall. “I guess you didn’t make much of an impression.”
“Sure I did. Of course, the last time we saw each other they were scraping what was left of you off of the German courtyard, so I can see how your memory might be impaired.”
“Canadian,” I say. “I was in the Canadian courtyard. I’ve never fallen into Germany.”
I start to push past him, but the boy moves to block my path.
“How long are we going to play this game, Gracie?”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Then allow me to introduce myself,” he says, playing along as he gives me a low bow. “Alexei Volkov, at your service. I live next door.” He nods out the window toward the Russian embassy.
Because that’s the thing about Embassy Row. The boy next door is probably Russian.
He is not supposed to be here.
“Then shouldn’t you be getting home?” I ask. “I’d hate for us to have an international incident. It’s only my first day back.”
“Actually, that’s why I’m here. You see, I’m the guy your brother put in charge of you.”
At this, I have to laugh. “Oh, he did, did he?”
“Yes. I am to … and I quote … ‘keep Grace from killing herself or anyone else.’ Especially me. He was most emphatic about that last part.”
“I don’t need a babysitter.”
“That is not what I hear.” Alexei crosses his arms and leans against the wall, blocking my way. But there’s something in his eyes as he looks at me. “You grew up, Gracie.”
“People do that. Even little sisters.”
“You will always be Jamie’s little sister.”
“So he likes to remind me. But that doesn’t make me your problem.”
“I guess this is where we must … what is it you Americans say? Agree to disagree.”
Alexei has lived on Embassy Row since he was three. He’s attended the English-speaking international school since he was five. His English is as good as mine, but he likes to play this game. They all do. I don’t play any game that I can’t win.
“How have you been, Gracie?” he asks. His voice is too soft now. Too sincere. And I hate the sound of it. It makes me wonder: What does he know? What has Jamie told him?
For better or worse, I lower my head and say, “Alive.”
“Good,” Alexei says. Then a darkness crosses his face, and I can feel the words coming even before he tilts his head and says, “I was very sorry to hear about your mother. She was always very kind to me.”
The doors to the formal living room are open, and when I stare through them I see blankets draped over chair backs. Somebody has built a fort.
“Jamie!” a little blond girl calls. “Alexei!”
But the boys are nowhere to be seen.
A woman sweeps into the room, takes the little girl in her arms. “Gracie, what’s the matter?”
“They left me.” The little girl’s voice quivers, full of tears she won’t let fall. “Jamie and Alexei left me!”
“Oh, Gracie.” The woman holds her tighter. “That’s why I’m here. I will never leave you.”
“Never leave me,” I whisper.
“Grace?” Alexei’s voice comes to me. But it’s deeper than it used to be. He and Jamie will never build a fort again. “Grace, did you say something?”
“I … I have to go.”
“I have to go now!” I shout because he is too close. The past is too close. The emotions I keep bottled up inside of me are pushing to the surface. And, most of all, I am tired. I’m so, so tired. And if I have to stay inside this building one moment longer I might not make it. I might just crumble into ash and blow away.
There’s a small courtyard behind the embassy. It’s filled with rosebushes transplanted from the White House and secluded benches — a few meandering paths that crisscross the grounds.
As I reach for the door, Alexei says, “Grace, you can’t go that way.”
I spin, throw my arms out wide, and shout, “Watch me!”
Then I back into the door, pushing as hard as I can. But I’m bigger than I used to be. Stronger. And the doors open too easily against my weight. The stairs are slick and I lose my balance as soon as I’m through the door. I can feel myself slipping, falling.
A hand grabs me from behind, but it is the exact wrong sensation at the exact wrong time. I feel like a rope has been fraying inside of me, slowly unraveling until …
I turn and lash out. A cry rises up in my throat, primitive and raw, and then I’m pushing and lunging. Falling. As I land in the rosebushes, I can feel the thorns of a rosebush tearing into my skin, clinging to my clothes. But I can’t stop. I have to get away, so I push to my hands and knees and try to crawl through the dirt, but my head is spinning. I see stars.
But … no. Not stars. The bright lights flash with quick clicks, rapid-fire. I brush my hair out of my eyes and look up at the international press corps that stands around me, cameras raised, capturing my every move. There must be at least fifty people in the courtyard. From the edge of the crowd I see Alexei’s father looking on, horrified.
“That’s why,” Alexei says so softly I barely hear him.
Only then do I realize I am not alone on the ground. The Russian ambassador spits and gags beside me. Blood runs from his nose and he brings a hand to his mouth as if he has been hit.
Because he has been hit.
I look down at my own hands. They’re shaking. And on my knuckles there’s a faint smudge of blood.
“Hello, Grace, darling.”
Instantly, I recognize the deep Southern drawl that even after decades in Adria he still hasn’t lost. I squint up through the sun. Vaguely, I make out a dark
suit, a red tie, and white hair — a smile I haven’t seen in years.
I wipe the mud from my face and steal one last glance at the obviously upset Russian.
Then I turn back to the man offering me his hand and say, “Hi, Grandpa.”
I can hear the shouting, but I can’t make out the words. Maybe it’s because the doors to the ambassador’s office are practically soundproof. Maybe it’s because most of the shouting is in Russian.
There is a guard at the end of the hall. He wears camouflage and carries a semiautomatic. We are definitely not in the United States anymore, I realize as I sit on a hard chair, swinging my legs back and forth, trying not to bleed on Russia’s really nice rug.
“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.”
“He’s very proud of Jamie,” I say as I look down at my dirty hands.
No one is proud of me.
“How was your flight?” he asks, his tone so conversational that he might as well be talking about the weather, inquiring about my health.
Then I realize that, no, that is the last thing he would ever ask about. Even small talk is a minefield now, so I just shrug and say, “My flight was fine.”
“Eleanor tells me you don’t like your room.”
I cut my eyes at the woman. “I didn’t say that,” I lie.
“She’s dead, Grace. She’s not going to need it.”
Some people would call my grandfather callous, unfeeling. Cold. In truth, he’s none of those things. And he’s all of those things.
“Your momma would want you to have her old room,” he goes on, and I see the soft, gooey center of his diplomatic shell. “She was happy here. You’ll be happy here. You’ve got to let her go, Gracie.”
Let her go. The words jolt me to a stop. I spin on him.
“You think I don’t know she’s gone?” I shout. “I was there, remembe
r? I watched her die. And now you’re telling me to let her go? No. You don’t get to stroll back into my life and tell me how to deal with anything. Not now. Not after three years.”
Grandpa shakes his head. “That was your father’s doing. When he and your brother came for the funeral … we had words. After that, he didn’t want you and Jamie to come visit for a while.”
“Planes only go one direction?”
“Your father felt that it might be best if you had some space, because …”
He trails off then, but I recognize the silence that follows.
“Because I went crazy,” I fill in. “It’s okay, Grandpa. You can say it.”
“Because you were having a hard time.”
“So that’s the term we’re using now.” For some reason, I have to laugh. “How … diplomatic.”
“Grace,” Ms. Chancellor says, her voice a warning.
“Do you want to hear about the fire?” I ask him, ignoring her. “I was there. I remember everything,” I say, but I don’t elaborate. I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid. There are words I have stricken from my vocabulary completely.
I know it’s no use, and so I do not mention the man I saw — the one who didn’t appear on a single surveillance camera and wasn’t seen by any other witness. It’s no use to talk about the scar that was on his face — the one that was so clichéd and manically sinister that everyone assumed my mind had pulled him straight from central casting.
I don’t tell my grandfather that my mother’s antique store was ransacked. I don’t say that when the building burst into flames, it sounded like a bomb.
These are the things I never say to anyone anymore. Not because I don’t want to say them — I want to scream them. But these are the things that no one else can bear to hear.
“It was an accident, Grace. Your mother died in a terrible, tragic accident.” His voice cracks. Tears well in his eyes.
“I’m not crazy.” My voice stays steady. My eyes don’t tear up. For one split second I feel victorious. But I haven’t won a thing.
“Go to bed, Gracie.” He steps through the embassy gates, past the marines who are constantly standing guard. “You’ve had a long flight and a long day. Tomorrow will be longer. Lots to do.”