Excerpt for Traveling with Fate ~ Emotional Death Can Bring Renewed Life in a Profound Disguise by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Emotional Death Can Bring Renewed Life in a Profound Disguise

Olya Amanova

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.

Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2017 Olya Amanova

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

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Chapter 1. My dream

It was raining hard ...

I was shaking, not from the cold, but from fear. Everything that was happening seemed to be an endless nightmare: sullen, weary faces all around, chilling cold piercing to the bones, and the disturbing drumbeat of rain on the tarpaulin-covered car. I clung tightly to my grandmother's chest. I wanted to fall asleep and wake up again at home in the warmth, but for some reason it was not happening. Probably, it was due to the swarm of questions buzzing in my head, which sometimes drowned out even the noise of the raging weather. What happened? Where were we being taken? Why were we going somewhere we didn’t know, leaving our homes?

The row of cars slowly crawled toward the mountains, barely moving along a slippery road, washed by the endless rain and sprinkling around the scraps of mud and clay. We were shaking in one of the cars weaving somewhere in the middle of the row. It darkened rapidly outside the window, and the rain did not let up, pouring with full force, casting a depression over everyone who was sitting in the car. Abandoning futile attempts to drown in heavy slumber, I looked around, gazing at the emaciated faces of unfamiliar people. Fear, confusion, fatigue and anxiety were seen on them so clearly that I shivered and pressed myself even closer to my grandmother. She lightly touched my neck with her lips, comforting and calming me. It became a little easier. I'm not alone, my grandmother is with me and someday it will end. I wanted to believe that it was going to be soon.

I could not remember how I got into this car and what exactly happened ... Some vague scraps emerged in the gray haze of the rain outside the window, where only the outlines of rare trees and some structures could be perceived. I dozed off, probably trying to remember, but as soon as I fell asleep, the truck jerked and stopped. Sleepiness disappeared instantly. I jumped up from my seat and found myself near a small gap, hoping to see something in the thickening darkness of the rainy night. There was a tense silence in the car, broken only by the noise of the rain - everyone froze in anxious anticipation.

The man in military uniform came to the driver, handed him some papers and asked without emotion:

- “How many people? Are there any men?”

- “Sixteen. Old men, women and children”, - the driver listed.

The soldier chuckled somewhat unintelligibly, and walking around the truck pulled back the edge of the tarpaulin and looked into the car, shining a flashlight on the people inside. When a piercingly bright beam touched my face, I involuntarily squinted and tried to shield myself from the light with my hands. The man in military uniform made sure that the driver was not deceiving him and chuckled again. He and was about to release the edge of the tarpaulin canopy, but one of the old men spoke out from the depth of the car.

- “Son, when will this all end?”

- “Father, if only I knew”, - answered the military man and smiled sadly. There was fatigue in his voice.

Someone heaved a sigh. The confused whisper of a woman trying to calm a whimpering child sounded. The tarpaulin canopy sank again, scarcely protecting from the rain and not completely providing shelter from the cold.

- “Let the car go!” - the voice of the same soldier sounded now confident and harsh.

The truck jerked and we moved on, leaving the checkpoint behind. I was still glancing at the opening, looking at public buildings and people in military uniform, checking the car behind us or briefly talking to each other. All this seemed to be a part of a nightmare. It was so difficult to believe in the reality of what was happening.

And then I froze when I saw the man on a black horse. He flew past us in a whirlwind, heading in the direction we were moving in. I saw him just a moment, but his image was embedded in my memory for the rest of my life. For an instant, I could see him in all the smallest details: a wet cloak with an oily shine, a gun in the warrior’s right hand, muscles rolling under the shiny skin of his horse and a red bandage on the rider's head. At that moment, everything became clear. I understood the meaning of the word, which I have often heard from my grandmother recently. I understood and felt it with all my heart: “War”…

I woke up in a cold sweat. Again this dream. Fragments of my childhood memories had been leaking into my dreams more often. I had never thought my dreams had any special significance. I had never known how to interpret them, and I thought this was complete nonsense. It's not a man's business, plus, I'm an educated adult. I tried to convince myself that these were just games of the subconscious mind, which had decided to remind me about the most terrible period of my life. This dream was repeated down to the smallest details night after night. I involuntarily began to think if it was a sign. But what was it portending? Was it a bad sign or just a warning? Or were these just memories?

War ... I became acquainted with the terrible meaning of this word when I was only five years old. The confrontation between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks resulted in a bloody war that swept the entire south of the country in the early nineties. Of course, everything could be solved peacefully, but no one wanted to give up their positions and reach a compromise. As a result, the conflict escalated into an armed clash that turned into a real interethnic war. Our family was very fortunate that we had time to evacuate. Old men, women and children were placed into several trucks and taken to a safe place, away from military operations.

Yes, we were running away from the war, and that warrior on a black horse was rushing to meet it. He was rushing to the war’s inferno. I still remember him, although I saw him only for a moment. I remember the expression of calm determination on his face, how confidently he was holding his gun, how his red bandana brightened the rainy night with the tongue of a flame. Red means “ours”, “the warrior of our people”. In the heat of the battle, it was only through these bandanas that one could understand where ours were, and where the enemies were. But I learned about this much later, and at that moment I had only a vague feeling, which was difficult to describe. I wanted to be in that warrior’s place – to dashingly rush to the place from where everyone was fleeing, to protect my homeland, my beloved ones and those people who were, like me, shivering in the cold inside the truck. And I did not care that I was only five years old, could not sit in a saddle confidently and that I had never held a gun in my hands. I was just not thinking about it at that moment. After a while, this episode was gradually wiped out of my memory under the influence of other impressions. But now it returned in this recurring dream. As if re-experiencing all the events of that night, I could still feel the warm touch of my cheek against my grandmother’s chest. Could this all be because of that?

When my mother and I moved to the city, at first I missed my grandmother who stayed in the village. We used to visit her, but then my mother got a new job, and I was completely consumed by school. Could this all be because of this? Having immersed myself in my studies, sports, competitions and other delights of the last school years, I completely forgot about the one who used to care for me when I was a child, about the one who comforted and consoled me in the cold truck, warming me up with her warmth, and then almost every night visited my room to make sure that I was not tormented by nightmares. “I have to visit her when I return! Or at least call and talk about everything, ask about her health”, - I thought, getting out of bed and heading to the bathroom.

I graduated from one of the most prestigious schools in our city, and a plump folder with certificates and diplomas could provide me with admission to any university. But when I was in high school I literally became obsessed with Europe. I was dreaming of enrolling in one of the prestigious universities in the UK. I used to actively immerse myself in English and read the guidebooks on European cities. I was so absorbed by my dream to go abroad, that I did not even try to apply to any higher educational institution in our city. Instead, I bombarded the travel agencies and studied the programs of foreign universities. I was sure that I was going to succeed. I had absolutely all my documents ready, including my passport. I did not doubt for a second that I could make my dream come true. And everything would have been excellent if studying abroad had not been so expensive. Every time I talked about payment, the astronomical sums that consultants were asking threw me into an abyss of despondency. Perhaps, only children of government officials, bankers or businessmen could afford such a pleasure as studying in Europe. But my mother was certainly not able to pay for it. And even if I got a job myself, I would have to spend at least twenty years saving for a trip.

- “Medet, what are you thinking?” - my mother grumbled, looking at my gaunt face after another meeting with a travel agent, which ended in a digit with many zeros, - “Where are you going? Do you think they are waiting for you there with open arms? You could apply somewhere, at least as a fall back plan, and now all opportunities to enter the university have passed. You will have to wait a whole year. What are you going to do now?”

It was getting even worse from her observations. I understood that my mother was right in her own way, and that she was worrying about me, her unlucky dreamer. But it was beyond my strength to give up my grandiose plans for the sake of a stable and measured life, which my former classmates settled for. Europe was appealing to me with its forbidding castles and dreary pavements, magnificent museums and majestic monuments. It attracted me and at the same time eluded me, becoming more and more ghostly.

- “I will not give up!” – I used to insist stubbornly before going to bed, looking through the colorful pages of guidebooks. The next morning everything started again: another meeting with a representative of this or that company, a short interview, another number with a frightening number of zeros, and in the evening a dinner as my mother grumbled. This was continuing until I got totally desperate and there was not a single organization left on my list. With annoyance and anger, I hurled my guidebooks to the far corner of the room, barely stopping myself from tearing them to shreds.

Chapter 2. Friend

The next morning Daniyar called me.

- “Hi! Are you already up?” - he asked in an annoyingly cheerful and happy voice.

- “Now yes.” - I grunted into the phone. I had absolutely no desire to talk to anyone. Especially to him.

- “Then hurry up and get dressed. Come over.” - he said, ignoring my discontented tone.

- “There's something interesting for you. I'm sure you'll like it.”

- “I do not like this anymore!” – I had even less desire to get out of bed and drag myself to him.

- “You probably do not want to go abroad any more?” - Daniyar asked in the tone of conspirator. – “Have you changed your mind?”

I literally jumped out of bed.

- “I'll be right up,” - I said and hung up, but not before hearing my friend’s laughter.

I dressed at a speed that any soldier-rookie would envy. “Go abroad” - this phrase affected me like a magical incantation, having instantly given me strength. It was like sweet music in my head while I was washing up and getting organized. A timid hope emerged in my heart.

Daniyar had been my best friend from the very first grade. Perhaps he was the only one I could call a friend, not just an acquaintance or a classmate. He rescued me so many times in difficult moments, supported me, when something was not right, and he was the only one who believed in me no matter what. His advice has always been incredibly wise and I could totally trust his opinion. I think that many in the class secretly envied his sharp intellect and tremendous ingenuity. The only thing that irritated me from time to time was that he could become a bore trying to be useful. And sometimes he imposed his help and care even where I could easily cope without him.

Unlike me, Daniyar never thought about leaving the country, although he had as many chances as I did. To be completely frank, even more. My friend aced exams and attended one of the best universities in our city. He was sure that skilled specialists were needed here, and people, who went abroad, as a rule, did not come back. Even though I tried hard to convince him that I would definitely come back, I did not succeed. However, this did not stop him from supporting me. It was the same this time. Daniyar was the one who gave me a faint hope that not everything was lost for me.

A few minutes later I was standing on his porch. The door opened after the first knock: Daniyar was already waiting for me. Having exchanged the usual greetings, we went into his room.

Daniyar’s family lived, moderately speaking, modestly, or even too modestly. His mother worked from morning till late night. My best friend had never seen his father, and his stepfather... Every time Daniyar came to school in the morning with his eyes swollen from tears and noticeable bruises on his hands, which he carefully tried to hide, I clenched my fists. “We don’t choose our parents.” - I often heard this phrase, full of humility, from my friend. My heart wept, and I was angry with myself because I could not change anything. Daniyar only smiled guiltily and absentmindedly adjusted the sleeves of his shirt, covering the bruises on his wrists. His stepfather had never worked. He loved to drink alcohol and often got physical. I could not understand why my friend and his mother tolerated all this, but Daniyar did not like to raise this topic and he avoided the conversation all the time. “We don’t choose our parents.” - he used to repeat.

The house was quiet and therefore a bit uncomfortable. Daniyar’s mother was at work as always, and his stepfather, apparently, went to the nearest pub. I wanted to leave this inhospitable home as quickly as possible, so I hurried to get down to business.

- “So what do you have? Don’t torture me, tell me!” - my voice trembled treacherously, betraying my impatience, but I was too intrigued by my friend to control myself.

- “Here you go!” - he handed me a colorful advertising booklet. – “I learned that there is a qualifying contest to the University of Colorado. The specialty is computer science. Only twenty spaces are allocated for our whole republic, but I am almost sure that you will be able to pass the competition. Try it! What if you succeed? You are good in computers and you know English. Take a chance!”

- “Colorado?” – Perplexed, I looked at the neatly folded sheet of expensive glossy paper with three beautifully printed green block letters “Colorado State University”. An opportunity for two dozen happy people who dream of living overseas. I've never been one of them. My dream was completely different. But the words from an old movie sounded in my head: “Green is a color of hope.” My obliging subconscious mind seemed to have already grasped Daniyar’s idea, but for some reason I uttered completely different words.

- “No, Daniyar,” - I tried to speak as gently and calmly as possible. I did not want to offend a friend who showed such concern for my future. It was not his fault that I... - “I'm far from computer science. I can create the simplest program, if necessary. But you know it's not my thing. I have never been interested in this in detail. And Colorado... It is America. That is not my dream. The English there is different from the one I was learning. Plus, who's waiting for me there? No one!”

- “So who is waiting for you in Europe?” - Daniyar frowned slightly. His words made sense.

- “People are really different there,” - I retorted, probably more hotly than I had to. – “There I would find myself, develop and improve. People are kinder in Europe, and rush to help you,” - I was carried away once again for a moment, having become immersed in the excitement of my dreams. – “I would love to see everything that I have read about in history books! Ancient pavement, which was trampled by legendary warriors and knights of old times, magnificent castles and the ruins of the ancient temples. I would love to see the Eiffel Tower, which I have only seen in movies and photographs, to touch the Berlin Wall, if any of it still exists...”

- “Don’t talk like that. So, the nostalgic part was preserved,” - my friend rapped out, interrupting my endless list of European sights, which I dreamed about seeing with my own eyes. – “I wrote the address on the back of the booklet,” - Daniyar mercilessly brought me back to reality. – “If you want - go, if you don’t – it’s your business. But in your situation I would not put off making the choice. The study has already begun, and you with your Europe have not even tried to enter the university. You will remain in a suspended state.”

He was right. Right a thousand times over, damn it! I could not provide any reasonable argument to challenge his arguments. Only my internal stubbornness prevented me from recognizing this at once. But I did not want to part with my dream for the sake of something more tangible. My whole being resisted it. For some reason, my feeling for Europe was getting weaker every minute. The Old World is closer, but the New World is greater! And who said that they will immediately accept me as a student?

At home later I sat on the couch for a long time, looking thoughtfully at the advertising booklet I got from Daniyar with the address neatly written in his handwriting.

- “Colorado. Computer science,” - I even snorted. I had never had a special interest in this profession and I had a very vague idea about it. But having thought that even failing this qualifying competition, I would not lose anything, I decided to go.

Chapter 3. Selection

The contestants crowded the corridor. I had not expected that there would be so many people willing to go to study in Colorado. Hope, excitement and frank enthusiasm could be seen on many faces. I heard fragments of talk saying that “this chance only comes once in a life time and not to everyone.” Perhaps, I was the only one who did not feel any joyful anticipation. I had no idea why I was here, I had already planned my defeat, and it was useless to pass the competitive selection with this attitude. I was already going to leave the building, but before I moved through the crowd in the direction of the exit, someone put a hand on my shoulder. I flinched and turned around.

- “I knew that you would be worried and I came to support you.” - Daniyar's face shone with a satisfied smile. – “The main thing is to breathe and relax your muscles. Massage your temples, it will help you to calm your nerves and concentrate.”

He kept talking, pouring out overly smart words, from which a slight excitement, which gripped me in addition to my own will, as usual before the exam, began to grow into irritation. However, I was glad that he came. It was very pleasant to feel his support and care, although I was not ready to admit it.

My turn came, and I entered the room, where a competitive commission was waiting for me. Despite all of Daniyar's advice and my own efforts, I was still worried. The look of stern faces and frankly appraising views directed at me did not make me anymore certain. In total, there were eight people on the commission. My attention was drawn to two girls about my age who were looking at me with obvious displeasure, which was close to contempt. This confused me even more.

- “Hello,” - I squeezed out, trying to at least somehow defuse the mounting tension. The answer was a cold silence. For a second all eyes turned to me, but after a moment each of the members of this strange commission returned to their business: someone rummaged through a folder, trying to find something in it, someone made notes in a notebook, and one of the girls was examining her impeccable manicure with a bored look. I suddenly felt a sharp desire to leave, but as soon as I thought like this, the oldest one - a man of about forty - broke the ringing silence that prevailed in the room.

- “Tell us about yourself.” - he said in a voice that was colorless and devoid of emotion.

- “I am Askarov Medet. Year of birth is 1985. I was born in Chui oblast in Bishkek,” - I began, learning to manage my excitement, once again feeling the gaze of those around me. I tried not to think about the others and only looked at the person who was the head of the commission. – “I studied in a high school, after that I entered the Lyceum and graduated this year successfully.”

- “You probably know English, if you studied at a Lyceum?” – said a younger man, who was making notes in a notebook.

- “Yes”. - I answered succinctly, looking in his direction. The man nodded slightly and wrote something in his book.

- “Perfect knowledge of English is not obligatory in our competition.” - the chairman of the commission got right to the point, - “So, if you pass the competition, you will have a year to prepare. All foreign students undergo a preparatory course, which includes language training. But the fact that you already know some is, of course, an advantage. Please, continue.”

I did not need to be convinced and continued.

- “I am fond of sports. I actively participated in all school activities. I never missed science fairs among schools. I participated in the city Olympiads and won prizes.” - I was suddenly overcome with a strong desire to win this contest. Without any reason, just like that. Maybe somewhere inside I wanted to prove something to someone. I began to say everything that came to my mind with excitement. – “In my spare time I'm fond of music. I like jazz very much. If there is an opportunity, I will definitely learn to play the saxophone.”

As I was speaking, the views directed at me from all sides were becoming more and more approving and interested. They were asking me questions, and I began to answer confidently and firmly. On the faces of the members of the commission I saw that my answers were fully satisfying them. And only the man who started the conversation remained impassive. His face continued not to express anything, and his voice seemed to be dry and cold. However, I cared neither about his indifference, nor about the approval of the others. Even if I passed this stupid contest, what would it give me? Nothing. It would not bring me closer to my dream. And I would not go to America, even if I passed. I would not go... But then why was I trying so hard to make a favorable impression? I had no answer to this question.

Chapter 4. Unplanned trip.

A phone call woke me up. I looked at the illuminated name - Daniyar...

My best friend had such a bad habit of waking me in the morning to ask how I am doing. And every time I miraculously overcame the desire to throw the phone against the wall. I found the phone and answered the call, trying not to show my irritation.

- “Congratulations!” - Daniyar's enthusiastic voice rang into my ear. – “You won the contest! You're going to America!”

Sleepiness evaporated instantly.

- “Did I pass? Did I do it?” - I could not believe my ears.

Daniyar kept chattering into the phone excitedly, but I could no longer catch the meaning of his words. The phrase “I did it!” was knocking in my head, and I found myself caught up in joy. Not because I was going to America, not because I was going to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I did it! I recalled the crowd of applicants with hope in their eyes. Some of them had a very strong confidence in themselves. How many of them did I bypass? I turned out to be better! I had coped and proved that I was worth something. First of all, I proved it to myself.

Daniyar congratulated me again, and we said goodbye to each other. It was still ringing in my ears, but the euphoria of the unexpected success began to gradually subside, giving way to the cool intellect. Yes, I did it, I passed the competition. So what now? The dream of a fabulous trip to Europe lay on one side of the scales, and the real prospect of studying in the U.S. lay on the other one.

Colorado. Computer science. “This chance only comes once in life time and not to everyone.” - I recalled the phrase of one of the contestants with whom I was not familiar, but whose words somehow crashed into my memory.

The airport was noisy and crowded. A couple of times other “lucky ones” who passed the selection came to me while we were waiting for our plane. Perhaps I did not behave very politely towards them, because attempts to start an acquaintance stopped rather quickly. In fact, I had nothing to talk about with them. I simply didn’t share their enthusiasm for the upcoming trip. Frankly speaking, I did not feel anything about it at all. It was strange: I was going abroad for the first time. Plus, I was going to America. Unlike myself, feelings were literally overflowing from my mother, who came to see me off. She felt both pride and joy that her son managed to achieve something, doubts mixed with anxiety, and the bitterness of the upcoming separation. She was trying to hide her tears, but she could not. I could understand what she was feeling, but I was feeling only emptiness and apathy.

- “You will graduate, you will come back and be one of the best programmers in our country.” - she said. – “Everyone will be proud of you. We are already proud!”

I was mechanically saying something, trying to calm her down. I did not want her to be sad. I probably only agreed to go for this reason. Mom was so happy when she found out that I passed the competition. I did not want to disappoint her. Her joy and her pride in me were more important than my ghostly dreams.

Daniyar came to see me off too. He was shining like a polished copper basin. My friend, was also overflowing with pride for me and, probably, for himself. It was thanks to him that all this became possible. The dream of many had become my reality. I was very sad to part with him. If I knew that it was my last meeting with him, I would probably have told him a lot. He was a childhood friend, my inspiration, my advisor, my excellent conversationalist. We were like kin brothers. We both grew up without our fathers, but he was less fortunate with his stepfather. Why is life so unfair sometimes? Some rascal comes to your family, sits on your mother's neck, beats up someone’s child and behaves like a host in your house. If I could help my friend...

On the plane, I was seized by fear. The stupor that seized me at the airport disappeared, and a flood of doubts and questions poured into its place. I suddenly realized that I was going to a foreign country where all people were strangers and spoke a foreign language. And I could not understand if I wanted this, or if I had to jump out of the plane and return to normal life.

- “Dear passengers, we ask you to fasten your seat belts...”

My hands involuntarily reached towards my pocket, where there was “tumar” with an amulet inside presented by Daniyar as a goodbye. “It will help you in difficult situations.” - my friend said, handing it to me. My fingers felt the amulet, and suddenly it became more comfortable.

- “I will definitely come back! I will finish my studies and come back. I will help you with everything, it's not easy for you now. Hold on. Thank you for everything! Thank you for being a true friend. You are small, but your heart is huge!” - I silently promised Daniyar.

It was too late to change anything. The plane soared into the sky, and I was looking out the window at my hometown, which was far below. I wanted to remember this picture, and I kept watching as the town quickly disappeared from view. And then we plunged into the clouds. I was captivated by the incredibly beautiful view. Doubts ceased to torture my soul, and I could quietly admire the landscapes sweeping far below, trying not to think about what awaited me.

Later, the confidence, which came to me once again, betrayed me. We were flying with a layover in Istanbul, and had to spend some time in the airport. I was staring into the distance through the glass barrier and saw the islands of Foggy Albion, the Eiffel Tower and the Reichstag building as if they were real. Of course, I saw them with my inner gaze, and my heart was sweetly compressed in my chest from realization that I was closer to my cherished dream than I ever had been. If I could just leave the airport right now. But now my goal had changed. I felt responsibility to my family, to Daniyar, to my less fortunate rivals. Soon the invitation to board the flight was made in two languages. We boarded the airplane and soared up again to set our feet on the earth across the ocean on another continent.

Again the airport, the noise and the fuss around me. I got confused for a second, having plunged into the surrounding chaos. Our group separated from the general flow of passengers and moved through the huge hall. I was trying to keep up, though I was pretty exhausted after the long flight. There was real pandemonium around me: there were so many people running in different directions, not noticing each other, almost colliding, as if they themselves were not understanding where and why they were rushing. I was so captured in contemplation that I almost lost my group. Meantime, everyone whom I managed to remember during this short trip, gathered at customs and I hastened to join them. Here we were met by representatives of the program that arranged our travel. They were holding some papers in their hands and were assigning us our host families. Having heard my name, I raised my hand almost automatically.

- “The city of Denver, Hudsons family.” - one of the distributors announced, and I joined his group.

None of us understood what was happening. Being exhausted from a long flight, we all had a hard time figuring everything out and were stupidly following the directions of the people who met us. We were divided into five groups, each of which had its own attendant. Along with two more guys and one girl we were in the group of a middle-aged man of Slavic appearance. He called himself Oleg Yefimovich, and seeing that all of us were in complete disarray, finally explained to us what was happening.

- “University of Colorado gives you the opportunity to study in its branches, which are located in different states. We are going to the southwestern states, they are going to the north, and someone is going even further. Each of you will study at one of the University's branches, and live with an American family that will provide you with everything you need for the duration of your studies. So you can quickly learn and practice American English. You have absolutely nothing to worry about, Americans are a clever and hospitable people. No one will offend you, provided that, of course, you behave decently. You will have to get used to a new family, but these people are trustworthy. If you still have any conflicts, you can contact the branch of our program in your city and get the necessary help. A brochure with contact details will be provided to each of you upon arrival at the site. Any questions?”

I had a lot of questions, as, probably, others, but none of us decided to ask this strict person.

- “If there are no questions, follow me,” - Oleg Yefimovich said, and we followed him to the check-in counters.

We had another flight, this time within the U.S. A crazy thought flashed through my head that after so many ups and downs, I would hate airplanes for the rest of my life. Judging by the faces of my companions, I was not the only one who thought like this. We were all exhausted, tired, and after we were separated, the fear of the unknown surged through us with renewed vigor. I do not know what was happening in the souls of the rest of the guys, but to me everything that was happening seemed to be a strange, prolonged dream.

I thought that we would all live in some dormitory and would be able to stay together. I even had the chance to regret that I got acquainted with those guys who now were going with another group somewhere to the north of this huge foreign country. I involuntarily glanced at the frowning guys and the tired girl, trying to remember their faces. Nobody tried to start a conversation as we understood that our joint trip would be short, and there was no sense in getting acquainted. Soon our small group would be split up and scattered among different houses in neighboring cities. I again involuntarily groped Daniyar's amulet in my pocket and squeezed it like a friend's hand. A small piece of my homeland had warmed in my hand, when another landing was announced.

From the plane to the car, from the car to the bus ...

We continued our journey not having time to admire the local landscapes. Fear gave way to curiosity for a while, and we literally clung to the window panes, looking at exotic trees, strange bushes, cars passing by, people who seemed completely different from the people in our country, although they did not differ much in appearance. There was something elusive in the air, which was constantly reminding us that this was a foreign country and we were just guests here.

The bus has stopped three times, until I was completely alone. The last one was a girl. Already leaving the cabin, she suddenly turned around and looked in my direction. Her face, which appeared exhausted after long travel, was illuminated with an encouraging smile for a moment, and looking into my eyes, she whispered with her lips only: “Good luck!.”

My shelter was a big city, the capital of the state of Colorado called Denver. This name was vaguely familiar to me from movies and therefore was familiar for me. On the way Oleg Yefimovich told me a little about this city. Its population was about six hundred thousand people. There were many hills in the west and in the south, which gave the landscape a special charm. The downtown was noisy and funny, and there were quiet and cozy houses in the suburbs. The people were hospitable and filled with excitement. I was listening to it very carefully, because it was here that I had to live during my entire studies.

Denver met us with a fresh breeze and the smell of fragrant herbs, unusually booming for a semi-desert climate. A little further away the slope of the mountain was covered with green grass. Going through the city to the house, which was to become mine for the next few years, I noticed the boys, who were playing basketball on the playground. Then I still did not know that in America, children played the sport since the age of five. I saw old people actively discussing the latest gossip with their neighbors, who were completely different from our old ladies sitting in the evenings on benches and sharing the latest news, even though they reminded me of them. At that moment, everything seemed completely alien to me, and finding one single resemblance to the world I was familiar with, I could immediately find a thousand differences.

Finally, the bus stopped.

- “Here we are!” - Oleg Yefimovich announced, opening the door. – “Take your luggage, and I'll find Mrs. Hudson. I'm sure you'll get along.”

Chapter 5. Acquaintance with Mary Hudson

I picked up my duffle bag and headed to the house. The flimsy design of wood and plastic seemed so fragile, as if it was ready to crumble at the first gust of strong wind. Being accustomed to heavy building blocks of brick and concrete, I could not even imagine that people could live in such “toy” houses for years.

Mrs. Mary Hudson turned out to be a nice, elderly woman with lively, mischievous green eyes and a friendly smile. She was almost as tall as me, and her face, despite her advanced age, was hardly touched by wrinkles.

Gray hair did not spoil her. On the contrary, it gave the hostess of the “toy” house some special attraction. My tongue would not dare to call her an “old lady”, since she looked so young. Later, when we got to know each other, I found out that she was much older than I thought at first sight.

When during assignments at the airport Oleg Yefimovich announced the “Hudson family”, I assumed that I would get into an ordinary American family: a husband, a wife, children, maybe a dog. For some reason, of course - a golden retriever. Honestly, I was a little worried and was not sure that I could get along with the whole family. But my guess was again far from the truth: Mrs. Hudson was living alone and, apparently, was very glad that someone would brighten up her loneliness. I believed in my own invented fantasies so much, that I was both surprised and, for some reason, a bit confused.

However, the hostess of my new home for three long years was unusually tactful and benevolent. We quickly found a common language, despite the fact that my American English could not be called impeccable. Still, the difference from the British made some words incomprehensible enough that at first we often had to explain ourselves with gestures. At first I was embarrassed, but Grandma Mary used to laugh so infectiously that our linguistic difficulties didn’t upset either of us, but forced us to have real fun. She was generally a surprisingly cheerful and funny woman. Thanks to her support, here, across a huge ocean, I felt her to be the person closest to me. Grandma Mary used to take care of me as if I was her own son, whom she has never had, or her grandson, who unexpectedly came to visit her after a long separation. If she was not with me, I do not know how I would survive in the United States.

I got a separate, very spacious and bright room in a house, which was much more stable than it seemed at first glance. I hung the flag of my country above the bed. Next to it I attached my friend’s amulet. Grandma Mary did not mind, even on the contrary. In the evenings, she sometimes dropped into my room and we talked. She loved to listen to my stories about my native city, the capital where we moved, about school, my mother, my grandmother and Daniyar. Sometimes I was so carried away that I involuntarily switched to my native language, forcing her to ask me to repeat myself. She asked me about national dishes and listened very carefully to my explanations. I felt her sincere interest, and I tried to recall everything I knew about my culture, traditions and customs.

Apparently, her loneliness was very hard for her, and I felt better after our conversations with Grandma Mary too, as adapting to life at the university was a bit more complicated. The first year was more preparatory: an in-depth study of the language, several general courses and just one programming course.

Our entire group consisted completely of foreigners. The majority was made up of people from Latin American countries who tried to stay together and spoke Spanish among themselves. It was difficult to make new acquaintances in such conditions. In fact, I did not aspire to do this myself, having plunged into my studies. I used to spend a lot of time in the library, where I had access to the computer and an opportunity to work on it.

One day, Grandma Mary, smiling, brought home a box with a laptop.

- “Medet, come here, my boy,” - the woman called me, - “This is what I bought at a sale, will you help me to learn computer science? Our neighbor, Mrs. Jane, said that it helps you to find useful information. So I decided that I really needed it.”

I needed only to take a quick glance to understand that this laptop was actually the latest model of a well-known brand.

- “Of course, Grandma Mary! It's nothing complicated. It will only take you a minute to understand it. Let me install everything and I’ll show you how it works.”

- “Thank you, Medet! Then while you're busy, I'll cook dinner.”

Soon she called me to the kitchen, and after eating I began to introduce my hostess to the basics of working on the computer.

- “Oh, Medet, this all is so difficult! Let's do this - when I need something, I'll ask you, and you'll find it. In the meantime, let it stay in your room. Work on it, why should it get dusty in vain.”

I understood Grandma Mary’s maneuver, realizing that it was her way of giving me a gift. To tell the truth, I have always been burdened by her desire to feed me delicious foods and take me to cultural events. I knew that the university makes a contract with such people who host foreign students, and pays a certain compensation for food and utilities. Once, by chance I heard the loud conversation of my noisy temperamental classmates. They were discussing this amount, for some reason having switched to English. It was such a ridiculous payment to “host families” that, having gained courage, I decided to talk with Grandma Mary frankly.

- “Thank you, you are so kind, but it's I have a library card. There I can study as much as I want.”

The woman threw up her hands:

- “Medet, what are you talking about? You have become like my own son. Do not offend me by a refusal, especially since I need your help with this. And in general, you don’t have to be stuck in the library in the evenings. You can get some kind of stomach problems without a hot meal. Your mother will blame me for not taking care of you properly.” - she got up from her chair, making it clear that the conversation was over.

Chapter 6. Bad news

The first frosts came and, along with them, a week-long vacation from the university, but it certainly did not make sense to fly home.

The office of the company that was conducting the student exchange program was located near the university. According to this program, we were allowed to call home free of charge, but not longer than five minutes once a month. International telephone communication was an expensive pleasure. I called my mother, but we did not talk long. I wanted to accumulate more precious minutes, which were charged each month to a kind of account, to be able to talk with my mother and Daniyar.

I came up with a great idea. I wanted to give an e-mail address to my best friend, so that we could communicate several times a day. It would be so great, as I already missed him and his boring, but always useful advice. In some incomprehensible way, he was always right. In addition, in one of telephone conversations, my mother once mentioned that she saw him, and he was all bruised again. I do not know why I didn’t call him that same day. Probably, I did not want to aggravate the situation. He was feeling bad without it. I was also angry with myself that I did not make him participate in the competition with me. He would have definitely passed, and we would have come here together. Perhaps, we could even live in Grandma Mary’s house. There was enough room, and the hostess would be more cheerful with us both there. Well, that was ok. Now we would talk with him often enough!

As usual, I came to the office and dialed Daniyar's home number. I heard a long beep and I froze in joyful anticipation. I had accumulated a lot of news, and his life was most likely not any less saturated.

The phone snapped. I heard the hoarse voice of Aunt Gulya, Daniyar's mother, and when I asked her to call him to the phone, I suddenly heard sobbing.

- “Medet,” - said my best friend's mother, struggling with her own trembling voice. – “Daniyar is not at home. He has not been here for a month...”

The sobs turned into crying, and I frowned involuntarily.

- “Aunt Gulya, do not cry, what happened?”

- “He ran away from home.” - she took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, - “And to this day we do not know anything about his fate. Oh, Lord, help us! It's all my fault! If I knew that he was beating him, I could have saved him. I don’t know now what to do.”

I clenched my teeth and hung up the phone, though I wanted to hurl it with all the anger that had gripped me at that moment. “If I knew...” - a hysterical woman's voice sounded in my head. – “You knew everything! You could not be unaware! You could not have overlooked the bruises on the body of your own son for years. You just did not want to pay attention to it. The man who raised his hand to both you and your only child turned out to be more valuable to you.” But what's the use of moaning into the phone? I had to do something, but I was at an unthinkable distance from my friend. We were separated by the ocean, and there was nothing I could do. I left the building, slamming the door, hardly able to restrain my tears. I did not want to call my mom in such condition. She would start to worry about me. Why should she care? Anyway, I could not change anything. I could before I left, but now... I was overwhelmed with a wave of guilt that I was not with my best friend when he was having a hard time. I felt very bad and I completely do not remember how I got to Grandma Mary’s house. I did not eat dinner because I had no appetite. For the first time during my stay in this house, I locked myself in my room. The hostess tried to knock and anxiously asked what had happened and whether someone had offended me. I answered that I wanted to be alone, trying to speak as politely as possible. She did not insist and went to her room.

Chapter 7. Memories

At night, again I had the dream, which had tortured me in my homeland. But, instead of my real grandmother, Mrs. Hudson was holding me in her arms, which were soothing and tender. And then, as always, a rider galloped towards the car in which we were riding. But this time, Daniyar was riding on a black horse, which had flakes of foam falling from its croup. He was thin, his clothes looked more like rags. His eyes met my eyes for a second, and he raced off. I cried desperately:

- “Daniyar, wait, my friend! Everybody is looking for you! Wait!” - the scream froze in my throat when my gaze followed him.

I could see bleeding wounds and bruises through Daniyar’s ragged shirt, on his back. I must have screamed out loud in my sleep, because soon I heard Grandma Mary knocking at the door. When I opened it, she gently put her hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes.

- “Medet, everything's fine. It's just a bad dream, my boy.”

I could not get rid of the feeling of something terrible and irreparable.

- “Oh, Grandma Mary, forgive me for waking you up. It seems to me that something bad happened to Daniyar.”

The elderly woman smiled encouragingly at me:

- “I was not sleeping, my boy. Come on, let's have some tea and talk.”

Adding from time to time aromatic Earl Gray into our cups, Grandma Mary heard from me about the gloomy side of Daniyar's life, which I had never told her before.

- “It happened that we became friends on the first day at school, and he never rushed home after school. For a couple of months I was taken home by grandmother Nurila, because it was necessary to cross two quite busy streets. No one ever came to pick Daniyar up. He used to accompany me and my grandmother. Then he used to say goodbye to us and went on with a leisurely pace.

One early evening, my mother went to visit her friend and took me with her. Passing by one yard, I noticed Daniyar with a knapsack on a bench. We were surprised. Mom asked if he had forgotten his keys, but my friend only looked away. We wrote a note to his mother on a leaflet, saying that we would bring Daniyar later, and went to our house. Since then, we often stayed at my place after school. My mother was not against it, because she learned the sad story from her friend, who lived, by coincidence, in a nearby house. Daniyar’s father died before his birth, and several years later his mother married a real sadist and tyrant. It turned out that every evening my friend waited for his mother to come from work, sitting on a bench or walking around the neighborhood. The reason was simple - he was afraid to be alone in the apartment with his stepfather. His stepfather used to beat him. Sometimes he extinguished cigarettes by pushing them against Daniyar. My friend had to wear a turtleneck with long sleeves and a collar many times on a hot day. His stepfather used to punish him without guilt. He never needed any reason or offenses.”

I paused, trying to hold back tears from the pain I felt for my friend, and continued.

- “No one can do anything about this scum. He has a brother who is a big man in the city. Time passed, Daniyar and I grew up. His stepfather began to mock not only him, but also Aunt Gulya. My friend used to frantically stand up for her, bringing his stepfather’s anger onto himself, but removing his mother from the attack. “We don’t choose our parents” - that's what he always used to repeat to me. With all this, Daniyar managed to get a brilliant education at school. It was he who insisted that I consider the option of going to America. I am convinced that he would easily pass the competition, but he was afraid to leave his mother alone. And now he's gone, and I feel myself like a traitor. I left and did not even call him, although he needed me.”

- “Do not blame yourself, Medet. You will contact your mother tomorrow and find out the details. Then we will think about what we can do. In the meantime, you need to rest.”

- “Grandma Mary's eyes were glittering. Either the light of electric bulb was reflected in them, or she was hiding her tears.”

I surprisingly managed to fall asleep as soon as I went to bed. It was like falling into blackness. When I woke up, I called my mother from Grandma Mary’s phone. Having briefly asked how she was doing, I asked her to tell me if there was any news from Daniyar. Every week I dialed the familiar number and heard the same thing. A whole month passed. I talked to my mother longer from the office of the company that supervised the students.

She used to only sigh, and I realized that no one knew anything about my friend. The police, as I understood from my mother's evasive answers, were not conducting any special search. It was useless to question her further, and I tried to shift the conversation to some neutral topic, but I could not do it - my thoughts were only about Daniyar. My mother tried to cheer me up and asked me not to do anything stupid. I promised, though I was not sure that I would keep my word. Our conversation was not going well, so we said goodbye to each other quickly, and I trudged back to Grandma Mary's house.

Chapter 8. Wings of hope

She was sitting in the small cozy living room by the fireplace, in which the wood was crackling softly. I politely said hello and was about to go to my room, but her gaze made me stop.

- “Sit down.” – Grandma Mary nodded towards the empty chair.

I obediently sank into it.

- “They called me from the university.” - my hostess said choosing her words carefully. – “Are you skipping classes? What’s going on?”

There was no condemnation in her voice, only concern and care.

It was true, I had missed a few classes. I just could not concentrate on my studies because I kept thinking about Daniyar. I used to sit on a bench near the playground and thought what would have happened if I had not gone to America. The uncertainty was oppressive: there were more questions every day, and there were no answers to them. I did not know what happened to my friend. Was he alive or not? Was he healthy or not? Anything could happen to him, but there was nothing I could do to help him. How could I study?

- “Medet.” - Grandma Mary said softly, having listened to my excuses. – “Will your friend get better if you quit school? Can it help him? Do you think he would want this?”

I was silent.

- “It's very difficult to lose loved ones,” - she continued softly, - “but it is not a reason to put an end to your own life and your own future. No one will become better because of it, believe me. I know what I'm talking about.”

Reflections of the fireplace were dancing in the depths of her eyes. It was the first time I saw such grief and pain in them. Not daring to utter a word, I continued to listen to her soft voice.

- “I came to America many years ago, alone. I was only 17 years old...”

At that time Mary Hudson was Mary Aldridge, born in the small town of Colchester from the county of the same name in the eastern Britain. It was an ordinary town where everyone knew each other and weddings and funerals were the most striking events. The youngest child in the family was a red-haired green-eyed girl, who was not at all inspired by the prospect of marrying Bobby Smith or Tommy O'Brien, having children and spending the rest of her life growing roses and chatting with other moms in the evenings.

Mary had dreamed of becoming an actress since childhood. And not just an actress, but a Hollywood star, like Audrey Hepburn or Bette Davis. Her brothers and sister used to frankly laugh at her stupid fantasies, her father shook his head silently, and her mother advised her to throw all sorts of nonsense out of her head and think about something more tangible. But young Mary was not going to give up. She began to work as a waitress at a local cafe and soon succeeded in saving a little money - just enough to buy herself a ticket for a cargo ship going overseas.

- “A cargo ship?” - I asked to make sure that I understood my interlocutress correctly.

She smiled, a little embarrassed.

- “It was cheaper than flying, although it took me more than a week to get there.”

- “And weren’t you scared?”

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