Finally! Saturday and it’s time for Arpad and Lily’s date! Here’s the lead in and parts one and two. I’m hoping to see part three (when they talk together in the park) later today and tomorrow. My goal is have their last scene – which is going round and round in my head – no later than Tuesday. After that I will turn my attention to my “Worlds Without End” edit to get it released by 30 September.
A late-October cool, crisp morning. Arpad converted the temperature in his head; about 4.5C. With running shorts and a tee-shirt on he paused before locking his Walther into the room’s safe. Texas has almost no gun laws but I am a visitor here… I’ll be fine.
It was about a three-and-a-half mile run to the southeast to manmade Lake Waxahachie. He regarded the lay of the land as he ran: both the Hungarian Great Plain as well as the endless steppe that started on the other side of the Carpathian mountains and only ended at China were this flat. With a glance to the reservoir he turned about for the run back to town, returning the waves of all who he passed.
Friendly enough but I do not see myself as a farmer or rancher. Texas is supposed to be some sort of economic powerhouse… perhaps that is some other part of this country?
Back to the hotel and showered and changed into his last suit, Arpad drove the short distance north to Mort’s to pick up the two large paper bags containing lunch, the owner seeing him off with a broad smile and a call of “good luck!”
A fly in a web. How does she stand it?
Made worse when he pulled his borrowed sedan into the orphanage’s parking lot. Working in the garden, playing ball, hanging clothes… every single child found a reason to be out in the U created by the three buildings. He had just got out and waved to them – they all waved back, except for Erik and Karl: their short waves folded into salutes. Arpad returned them sharply just as the Office’s front door opened.
Lily stepped out wearing a purple skirt just past her knees and a cream colored blouse with the sleeves pushed up above her elbows. A purple headband kept her hair back past her shoulders. Given that they might be walking she had sensible shoes on. Her purse was over he left shoulder.
“Ar… Arpad!” she said with only the tiniest hesitation, letting him take her hands into his. In the full glare of the attention of her charges, she closed her eyes and just tilted her head back.
He kissed her. Some of the boys cheered; it seemed a couple of the girls were about to cry.
“Here,” he said, opening the door for her, “please.”
Returning to the driver’s side he shot a look and a small hand motion to his two “sergeants,” Erik and Karl, who both nodded. Back in the car a glance to Lily had her staring straight ahead at nothing with a very odd look on her face.
“You all right?” he asked.
He knew that asking if she was nervous would likely provoke a panicked flight; Arpad said nothing and started the car. Only a few minutes later saw them into another parking spot, this time at the park.
“Did you eat breakfast?” he asked, turning the motor off.
“No. Too nervous,” she admitted.
“Then let’s eat first; we can walk it off later!”
“That sounds fine!”
He opened his door and planned to come ‘round for hers but she was already out and standing. Different continent, different cultures.
“I’ll get our food,” he said, reaching into the back seat for the two bags.
“Given the cooler air,” Arpad began, meeting her just in front of the car, “we’d best find something in the sun if we’re to be sitting.”
Bags in his left he took her elbow with his right.
“Sounds good!” she smiled at him.
The only others at the park appeared to be two couples with their five kids. The adults were talking while the children played upon some of the equipment there. Arpad felt Lily stumble slightly and steadied her.
“Problem?” he asked, always alert to possible threats.
“N… no,” she said, pointing left at a table away from the others. “Let’s sit over there.”
“I cannot imagine the children made you uncomfortable,” he observed.
She kept her peace until they sat; her facing opposite the two families.
“One of those men is a surgeon at my hospital. A good one, too: when I was shot it was he and Ai who saved me,” she said softly. Arpad waited for the rest.
“I… found out later that his uncle had been shot by ExComm as a traitor to the New State; hell!” she tried to laugh before she cried, “at least my dad didn’t have him crucified! When he found out that he’d saved the daughter of Clive Barrett… well… he was less than thrilled.”
“Is it uncomfortable to be still working at the same place?”
“We avoid each other, like now.” She took a great breath. “Hey! Let’s see what Mort put together for us!”
She tipped over one of the two bags. Two water bottles, made in Mexico, and what looked like a sub sandwich wrapped in butcher paper rolled out. Lily gasped when she removed the paper.
“I could feed all my kids dinner from just this one!” she whispered.
“I was told,” Arpad said with a smile, happy to have her diverted, “that ‘everything is bigger in Texas!’ Same thing in this bag! I guess your kids will have two dinners coming!”
“They don’t get it all!” she retorted while pulling her K-Bar knife up from her purse with her left hand. With her right she took the sheath away and cut the huge sandwich in half then in half again. Setting her knife down she passed a quarter over to Arpad.
“Thank you, Lily,” he said, passing a napkin from the other bag back to her. They paused.
“Why don’t you say the blessing, Arpad? It’s been forever since I’ve heard any Hungarian, what with my mom living way down south,” Lily asked.
“Of course.” He lowered his head. “Kedves Jézus légy vendégünk, áld meg amit adtál nékünk, ámen.”
“Amen!” Lily agreed, taking a bite. They ate in silence for a few minutes. Arpad had just opened a water bottle and took a drink when she spoke again.
“Do you believe in love at first sight, Arpad?” she asked, watching him try not spit-take all over her. “I’ve actually seen it with my own eyes: my step-daughter and my nephew, last year.”
“I’m sorry,” he said coughing into his napkin and changing the subject to buy time. “Your step-daughter?”
“It’s a little complicated,” she said, rummaging in her purse again, retrieving her smartphone. She made a few taps before setting it onto the table in front of him. “Her name’s Henge.”
From the glare from the sky he had to pick it up and hold it just so. A girl, maybe five; purple hair and odd tan eyes. He recognized her from the press conference in Austin when the machines had revealed themselves to humanity.
She’s Lily’s step-daughter? How is that possible?
“I’ve never seen nor felt it, Lily,” he said, passing her phone back. “I think it takes time to know someone. To trust them.”
“How about,” she suggested, putting her phone away, “I talk a little here at lunch. Then you do on our walk out. After that… well… maybe we can talk together.”
“Sounds all right to me. Please, Lily!”
He knew some of her story from the files: her backstory about being adopted from China and raised in Ohio and trapped in Japan for the first two years of the Breakup was new, though. As were the details of her parent’s separation.
“I thought my dad was just a bureaucrat or something. At first,” she had said, having finished eating and sipping at her water. “My mom, whose parents had been refugees from the Hungarian and Russian communists, made me older about secret police and terror and mass murder.”
She closed her eyes and looked down at the table.
“How could I believe… my own dad… he was such a regular, boring guy…” After a deep breath she was able to look at Arpad again. “That cop you were talking to last night, Kyle Stephens? He was Dad’s cousin. He got mom settled and me set up at the orphanage. I was able to get into the nurse apprenticeship program a few months after that. After my boyfriend was nuked in Texarkana, I had a hard time. And then I met Ai.”
At last, he thought, her smile came back.
“And my life changed. Completely.” She leaned forward to put their trash into the now-empty bag, obviously thinking about something. Lily pushed the bag aside and took his hands with hers. “And, I hope my life has just changed again, for something even better, right?”
“I’d… I would like that, too, Lily,” he said carefully.
“Before our walk, I want to be completely honest with you, Arpad,” as if she always isn’t, he thought? “I can’t relocate again. A third continent? A third language? I can’t, Arpad!”
She gripped his hands as tightly as she could.
“Please don’t leave me! I…! I lov – !”
“Wait.” His command was low and powerful. He stood and pulled her up. “My turn. Then, you said, we’ll talk together, right, Lily?”
She was not given to hysterics; given all she had been through he’d have been very surprised if she had. Arpad watched her get herself together before taking the one bag of trash to a nearby garbage can. Lily returned, held out her left to him, and smiled.
Hand in hand, they walked just a bit to the northwest where a small, wooden footbridge spanned Waxahachie Creek. After the recent storm the clear water flowed quick and strong under them as they paused in the middle.
“Water under the bridge,” Arpad mused. “I think that’s a saying in every language I know.”
Lily wanted to ask but true to her rules, said nothing.
He let go her hand and put his arm about her shoulders, pulling her into his right.
“As they often did, when I was six, my parents dropped me off at my grandmother’s flat to play for the weekend. Nice place in Budapest: just off the Danube and about a half-mile north of the Parliament Building. I learned later that her husband had made a fortune when communism collapsed way back in the nineteen nineties.”
“Thing was, Sunday evening, they didn’t come get me.”
Lily looked at him sharply.
His right hand slid back down to her left. They crossed the bridge and followed the grassy path upstream. Arpad explained, once the police were involved, it appeared they’d taken a few personal items, emptied out their bank accounts, and vanished.
“I hated the world from that moment on,” he allowed. He told her about the fist-fights at school, dropping out, stealing, joining a gang, rising in its ranks, selling drugs and other blackmarket items. Just before his sixteenth birthday he saw what he thought was an easy mark wearing a silk suit and carrying a leather briefcase in a part of town he shouldn’t have been in.
“I stepped out of an alley with my knife,” he stopped them under a pine tree, recalling the moment. “It was gone and I was face down in the gutter before I knew what happened. How could it be: the guy was no bigger than me… glasses, just starting to go bald.”
Lily watched him shake his head and smile.
“I thought he’d leave me there; maybe call the police. No, that son of a bitch, Laszlo, as I later found out, systematically beat the crap out of me for the rest of the night, all the while forcing me further north along the river someplace. Turned out to be a bar. A bar frequented by men from the thirty-fourth battalion of the Hungarian Army.”
“Their Special Forces unit.” He looked down to her and smiled. “My eyes were swollen shut at that point and he was more carrying me than I could walk, but my ears worked: ‘got us a new recruit, boys!’ he shouted.”
For just a moment he hugged Lily close.
“You had Ai; I had Laszlo; he saved my life.”
They walked some more. He talked about life first in the Hungarian Army then in the Imperial Army once politics changed central Europe. Lily had gasped when he admitted he was part of the team that recovered the stolen Black Madonna of Częstochowa. Arpad admitted without pride that there were other missions that he might never be able to tell her about.
“That means, Lily, that there will always be a lie by omission in… in any life we might have. Got that?”
He skipped lightly on: an offer to work in the Foreign Ministry on “difficult” assignments; becoming a reservist rather than active duty, helping his grandmother into a nursing home as her health began to fail… “and… that’s it, I suppose.”
“Nnn!” he watched Lily shake her head. When he shrugged in confusion she reached up and traced a cross on his forehead with her right index finger.
“Oh, that. Sorry! It was the evening and night after we recovered the Black Madonna. There were some Polish SF with us. The older guys…” Arpad shook his head, remembering, “they were tough as nails; the most bad-ass… Never mind. Exhausted and bleeding, these guys lit candles and stayed up all night in veneration. Most… most of them crying.”
Now he looked up and away at the far western horizon.
“What did they see, Lily? What can move a trained human killer to cry like a child in front of some damned painting?” He kept looking off. Neither spoke.
“Once I asked that question, it was only a matter of time before the answer was dropped into my lap, literally,” his voice was so low Lily strained to hear. “I can’t tell you why I was there, but on the border of Estonia and Russia, a little boy died, bled to death in my arms, asking that I pray for him.”
He looked to Lily, his eyes wet like those Polish SF bad-asses.
“How could I say no? I started praying. I’ve never stopped.”
Crying too, Lily wrapped her arms about him and held on for her life.