Part 1: Chapter 1 - Aldrich
Tired and wanting nothing more than the comfort of my bed, I kick off my shoes and plop down, head first on my pillow. I sigh, wanting to sleep. However, I’m not going to get that wondrous privilege. My father will want me to join him for dinner as he does every evening. We’ve grown closer over the last several years. I don’t think we would have the bond we have now had my mother never left us.
When I was sixteen years of age, my parents had begun to have harsh arguments. They disagreed on the smallest of subjects, little things that were entirely irrelevant. Perhaps it was the little things that mattered the most. My mother came to me one night several months after the fighting had begun. She asked what I wanted most. I told her I was grateful for all that I had, that I lacked nothing. I had no need for anything. The following weeks turned my life upside down. My father, being the owner of the Ruzmarin Hotel here in Čačak, Serbia was constantly working. My mother took the opportunity to try to flirt with several employees. I believe she had started with the intention of getting my father’s attention.Neither of us knew if she succeeded.
I watched my mother become a spectacle. Eventually, she had feelings for my father’s closest friend. They eloped some months later. My father later filed for divorce. He knew Mother was never coming back. Betrayed by both wife and best friend, he began to work even harder. On my eighteenth birthday, he gave me a permanent job in the hotel. He told me to find my place, and I did. I became a valet. I love seeing the visitors come and go. The exotic automobiles are my favorite part. Getting to drive such cars, even for a few minutes, is awesome.
My father and I slowly began growing closer together when we finally healed from what my mother did. I can’t understand why she would have done such a thing to a man who, in reality, did nothing but lavish her with whatever she wanted. There is a saying that some people think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Perhaps this was the case with my mother. She left us.
I believe I may have fallen asleep. A gentle shake on my shoulder jolts me awake, and I find my father standing beside my bed.
“Are you not hungry, son?” he asks, pulling the chair away from my desk to sit.
“I fell asleep,” I reply, pushing up slowly. “I could eat.”
“Right, then we will go to the hotel restaurant. We shall leave in twenty minutes, yes?”
I nod, swinging my legs over. When my father makes no effort to rise from the chair, I realize he has something on his mind. I look to the calendar above my desk and see the date. Eight years ago today, my father found the letter from my mother saying she was leaving.
“I told you about the day I married your mother,” my father says as he gazes out the window behind me. “How we wrote our own vows.”
I nod, remaining silent as he speaks. When Father speaks of his wedding day, he likes to be heard and not interrupted.
“Your mother’s vows . . .” Father continues, his voice cracking as he clears his throat. “She vowed that she would never leave when times became tough. The hotel was taking flight that year, and I began working much harder for longer hours. It was the only way to keep the hotel afloat . . . I was stressed and exhausted . . .”
As always, my father never speaks of the fights between him and my mother. I rise to my feet and clasp my father’s shoulder. He places his hand over mine, offering a small, sad smile. I give his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before pulling away and collecting my shoes from the floor. My father only stands from the chair as I pull the second shoe onto my foot. I follow him out of my room; though part of my father’s property, it is actually a separate garage-like room off the main house. When I turned twenty, my father asked if I wanted to live on my own. I didn’t feel ready to leave, so we turned the second garage into an apartment.
My father leads the way to the back door of the main house which goes into the kitchen. The housekeeper, Claire, nods as we pass her. Claire and her daughter, our house maid, Laila, moved here from America a year ago. Father had sent out an advertisement seeking a housekeeper or two. Claire and Laila answered the ad, intending to only stay temporarily. However, they do their jobs well, and my father offered them rooms in the house.
They have been here ever since.
“Have a good evening, Mr. Djokovic,” says Laila as we pass through the front room, offering me a pointed smile.
I return the smile, but I do not think my smile is as bright. I once overheard Laila chatting with her mother about me. She thinks I’m cute as they say in America. I do not know what might be cute about me. American girls are strange sometimes. What constantly amazes me about Laila, however, is how quickly she learned to speak Serbian.
My father appears to be in a much brighter mood now that we are away from the house. I do not understand, not entirely anyway, why my father chooses to remain here if it causes him pain by reminding him of my mother. As we enjoy our dinner, many of the guests staying in the hotel come to greet my father. He has made it a terrible habit to greet each guest by name. How he accomplishes this, I shall never know. I offer smiles to the guests, but they are not interested in me. No matter. I prefer to remain behind the scenes.
“The prime minister is staying here, come weekend,” my father says when we are left alone again. “It is a great honor to have him and his wife visiting the hotel so frequently.”
I nod and add, “Especially when there are so many other hotels in the area. I imagine the prime minister sees your hotel as the best of the bunch.”
“Quite so. Why don’t you go see some of your friend after dinner? You worked hard all week. And I believe there is young lady who would enjoy your company.”
“If you speak of Laila, no, Father. I do not see her in that manner. I like her company, but nothing more.”
He nods, understanding. As we finish dinner, I notice a sign outside of the restaurant, in the main lobby. There appears to be an event that will take place in my father’s hotel. Fifty authors from America, Australia, and several other countries will be coming to sign books and take pictures with anyone interested. The list of the authors’ names is not legible from where I sit, but I can tell there are photographs next to their names.
“Father,” I say, motioning to the sign. “When is that event?”
He turns and gazes at the sign a moment before looking back at me.
“The event is scheduled for three months from tomorrow,” he explains, signaling the server for the check. “The company coordinating the event had been looking for the right hotel, and I gave them a list of dates which were available according to their time frame. Strangely, we were the only hotel available.”
I raise an eyebrow. “I find that odd. We have been in competition with many of the surrounding hotels. You would think they’d have jumped at the chance to keep you away from gaining more business.”
“Yes, but that was not the case.”
I nod and rise from my chair to stretch. My father pays the bill, leaving a fair tip for the server. As we exit the restaurant, my father stops to speak with the hostess. I take the opportunity to examine the sign more closely. There are some names that appear familiar, possibly authors who have come here before. Each name has a photograph beside it. They are all older, thirties and forties maybe except for one. The last author on the list is the youngest. She could be my age, I presume. Danica Kensington.
She’s beautiful. Her skin is fair but tinted with a slight tan. Her hair is dark blond, blanketing her shoulders. Her brown eyes are bright, shining even. Gentle laugh lines crinkle at the corners of her eyes. Danica must be a happy kind of woman. I look below her name for any contact information but find nothing. I pull out my phone and take a picture of Danica and her name. If she is coming here, I am interested in knowing a little more about her. My father always says: “Know the customer; observe their needs. You never know when they might need assistance.”
Back home, I sit at my desk, clicking away at the computer. Danica Kensington has not left my mind. A little while later, I find the Danica Kensington I am searching for. It is surprising how many women and girls with the name Danica Kensington there are in America. However, there is only one Danica Kensington who will be in Serbia. The announcement is on her website; she has a list of dates and locations where she will be signing. It is amazing how everything can be found on the internet.
After scrolling through the list of dates, I look through Danica’s books. One in particular catches my eye. It follows a young man who lost his mother and how he secludes himself from everyone but his father. I blink as I open an excerpt of the book. I read slowly, a knot tightening in my chest. The excerpt is emotional. I feel as though an old wound is opening. The scene taking place is much too similar to how my mother left my father and me. I push away from the desk, covering my face with my hands.
This woman, someone whom I have never met in my life, has written a book with a scene that is identical to a moment in my life that brought me so much pain. How can this be possible?