*Hello, everyone! I entered this short story into Bella Putt and Lili P.'s (two fellow students from the Young Writer's Workshop) short story contest. I am so excited to announce that it took first place! I'm very honored and so very grateful for the work they put into this contest and for the chance I had to enter! Check out their sites here:
Bella Putt: https://bellaputt.com/
Lili P: https://goodstorylili.wordpress.com/
Now, without further ado, here it is!*
I could see in his eyes—he’d heard us.
The young man leaned against the café table, sipped his coffee, and held my gaze.
I looked down in the ruse of an adjustment to my scarf. I wrapped my scarf around my face to shield it from the London mist—but more to hide the flame of my face.
Everything I did was a ruse.
The only mother I’d ever known, Sasha, strode down the street. I turned to watch her go. She must not have realized he had heard. Likely my gown for tonight’s event filled her mind. The fact she thought of a gown showed how close we’d come.
I waved. Sasha glanced over her shoulder. She didn’t wave back.
I lowered my hand. After tonight, I’d belong to a real family.
Or so I hoped. The words that played over and over in my head could destroy even our sturdiest plans.
We’d come so close. But Sasha’s words. My words.
“By midnight, everyone will believe you are the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova.”
“But I’m not Anastasia Romanova. I’m Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Not Anastasia. Only a pretender named Aleksandra.
Words that now echoed in the mind of the stranger across the street from me.
As if he had heard his name in my thoughts, the stranger left his coffee and strode away, in the same direction as Sasha.
I pulled my scarf tighter.
Nothing must have come of the stranger, for Sasha and I both strode into the ball that evening with our heads held high and a forged invitation in our hand. Apparently, that was the only correct thing I did all evening.
“Stand taller. More regal.”
“Don’t fidget so! You’ll give us both away.”
“No one will recognize you as the Grand Duchess if you stand in a corner all night. Go on. Dance. Laugh. They say Anastasia laughed often.”
But I wasn’t Anastasia. I was Aleksandra. And Aleksandra had precious little to laugh about of late.
“May I have this dance?”
I glanced up at yet another young man I didn’t know, then glanced back to Sasha. She nodded and made a discreet “shoo” motion at her side.
I looked back up at the young man, tossed an Anastasia-styled curl over my shoulder, and laughed. “I’d love to.”
After all, what was one more lie?
The young man swirled me around the dance floor. The Sasha in my head never ceased her instruction. Relax your shoulders, Alek. You’ve practiced these dances a million times. No better dancer, says instructor. Now laugh. And say something witty in regard to his last comment.
The longer we danced, the quieter her voice became. The dance almost made me forget I was pretending.
My partner swung me round in a wide circle. And as I tossed a glance over my shoulder, I caught a gaze—not Sasha’s—in the crowd.
My feet froze to the floor.
No. Not him.
The stranger who had overheard us earlier leaned against the wall, a glass of punch in his hand. As if he only bided his time.
My dance partner leaned closer. Had he said something? “Is something the matter?”
My lips parted, but nothing witty came out.
“I don’t dance quite that badly, do I?”
Laugh. Laugh. Laugh, Alek!
But I couldn’t.
My partner bent to stare into my eyes. “Say . . . you look like that lost princess from Russia. I can’t remember her name, but I saw her portrait in a Russian paper.” He snapped his fingers. “Anya . . . Anna . . . Anastasia! Anastasia Romanova, that’s it!”
The stranger set down his glass.
“How did you know?” I whispered my question to the man by the wall, but my dance partner snatched it for himself.
“You mean, you’re Anastasia Romanova? You’re actually her?”
Sasha clasped her hands in front of her. I could see all our plans come together in her eyes.
The stranger crossed his arms.
I stared up at my dance partner and summoned my brightest—albeit a bit weak—smile. “Yes. I am.”
Meet at the café where we met the last time. I should like to discuss your heritage as revealed two nights ago.
No matter how many times I turned the card over, no signature appeared. Not that it needed one. I knew the stranger had sent it.
I tucked the card under my saucer and reached for my throat. Where was my scarf when I needed to hide behind it?
But no. I’d left it at home. And now here I perched on a luxurious café chair, in wait of the man who could destroy all I’d worked for.
To destroy my only chance of a family.
I set my cup of tea down. I no longer wanted it. Why, oh why had I come?
I exhaled. Because even if he planned to rip us apart, at least here I had a chance to convince him otherwise.
“I hoped you would come.” The stranger slid into the seat across from me and set his own mug across from mine.
I tried to melt into my coat collar. All thoughts of convincing fled my mind, as I dearly wished to do.
“What is your real name?”
I shook my head. Perhaps I should have finished my tea after all. Perhaps it would dissolve this awful lump in my throat.
“A fine name.” He sipped his coffee. “I’m Zakhar.”
I tangled my fingers in my invisible scarf.
Zakhar set down his cup. “I just don’t understand. Why would you do this? Why would you go along with such a scheme?”
I fidgeted with the handle of my cup. I had no intentions to answer him. The Sasha in my mind shouted, “Stay silent, Alek!” But the answer bubbled out before I could stop it.
“I’ve never had a family before. Not here. Not at the orphanage. Not with Sasha. If I can only get the Romanovs to believe I’m Anastasia . . .”
No judgement lurked in his eyes, nor in the furrow in his brow. “How could you live out your life with them with that knowledge? With that lie?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “I’d have a family.”
Zakhar stirred his coffee and stared down into its black depths as if an answer would pop out of the steam at him. “You’re not Anastasia Romanova.”
I picked at a chip in the tabletop.
“You’re so much more.”
Before I could so much as glance up in surprise, Zakhar abandoned his coffee, slapped some coins on the table, and strode down the street.
I clutched my cup closer.
It always amazed me how fast word traveled. And this matter posed no exception. Before I knew it, word came that Grand Duchess Olga and Xenia Alekandrovna—Anastasia’s aunts—had boarded the train to meet me.
A day that came far too soon.
Sasha fussed and fretted for a solid three hours. And then she sent me off to the mansion. Alone. Despite the most impassioned pleas I found in me, she refused to come. “But I’ll wait here for you, dear.”
Those thoughts kept me occupied as the carriage rattled down the street. And those thoughts carried me up the steps and into the house.
Before I knew it, there I stood. And there my future aunts stood before me. I recognized them both from the portraits Sasha had me stare at until I couldn’t dare mistake either of their faces. She drilled me on the most minute of details, until I’d grown accustomed to calling them both “aunt.”
The sheer ridiculousness of this all smacked me full of the face. I could only hope it didn’t show.
I had only to convince them, and they’d accept me with open arms.
Aunt Olga—I recognized her from the portraits Sasha had me stare at until I couldn’t mistake the face—peered through watery spectacles at me. “Impossible.”
“Could it be?” Aunt Xenia whispered.
A pang shot through my heart. A pang of what, I couldn’t imagine.
So much more.
Where on earth did those words come from? Why would I think of them now?
Aunt Xenia ran a hand down my face. “Could you be our Anastasia?”
So much more.
I couldn’t do this. I wasn’t Anastasia. I couldn’t do this to them. My head shook before the word came out. “No.”
Xenia stepped back. So did I.
“No. I’m not Anastasia.” A tear slid down my face. “I am Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Xenia’s face crumpled. She glanced to Olga, much as I always had to Sasha.
Olga’s face hardened. Her arms hung stiff at her sides. I didn’t let myself look away, though I ached to. I’d caused this. I’d hurt them so. I’d face it like Aleksandra Shatalova.
Olga pointed to the door. “Go.”
What else could I do but turn and walk away? A million words I ached to say went unspoken. A million fantasies I’d dreamed to fill a million dark nights died to ashes. I pulled the door closed behind me.
Only a few lampposts dotted the black. My breath danced in the night air. Sasha would know from the papers by morning. She’d never take me back. She’d find another girl. Or another subject. She’d scheme, and then she’d try again.
I was alone.
But I stepped off the final stair to the cobblestone lane as Aleksandra Shatalova.
I pulled off my scarf.
Aleksandra Shatalova. Not a schemer. Not an orphan. Not an imposter.
I tossed the scarf in the air and let it flutter to the street.
So much more.
A shadow hovered by the lamppost. I froze and clutched my handbag closer.
The shadow stepped into the light. Zakhar.
I let out a shaky breath. “I should answer your question. My name is Aleksandra Shatalova.”
Zakhar smiled. Nodded.
I smiled a real Aleksandra smile.
He tipped his cap, and then he vanished.
(C) Rachel Judith Leitch