Levi’s father, Henry Stephenson, was the younger brother to a man who happened to be best friends with one of the Sayid princes. With a few phone calls, Levi’s Uncle Alex was able to arrange to have Tiani meet her distant cousins.
The three-hour drive from Cambridge to where the Sayid princes lived near Kingston, New York, was up and over and through hills and valleys and forests and supposedly ended at a place his Uncle Alex referred to as the tree house. Levi wasn’t even sure who owned the house, just that it was the place they all met whenever there was a family gathering.
Tiani and Levi would be spending the night at the tree house, which apparently had to be seen to be understood.
Levi still felt a sense of melancholy from Tiani even though they had come to several understandings, the most important of which was that they were both willing to uproot their lives to be with each other. They also realized life wasn’t going to be as easy as they’d like to imagine in their childish dreams of growing up and getting married and living happily ever after.
Tiani was frustrated about the language barrier and always needing to have translators. She was more determined than ever to learn English, but Levi could tell what she really wanted was to go home. She missed her parents, her friends, her simple life. She didn’t have to play a role or pretend to be someone she wasn’t. She knew her place. She wanted the comfort of normalcy.
After shopping at the university bookstore and bringing home stacks of books, most of them primers designed to help teachers teach basic English and Spanish, she spread the books out on the kitchen table at their townhouse and immersed herself in learning.
Just like when they had stayed at the hotel in Guatemala City, Levi had to lure Tiani to bed with soft words promising he’d teach her more tomorrow. Unlike the night in Guatemala City, she didn’t turn to him for comfort. That was one of the first nights since they’d gotten married that they hadn’t made love.
The only other time was when Tiani had claimed to have stomach pains and told Levi she wouldn’t feel well for a few days and she didn’t want to talk about it. Although he’d never had sisters or a girlfriend, Levi had a basic understanding of women’s monthly cycles and didn’t want to talk about it anymore than Tiani did.
Now, he didn’t even want to think those cliché words about the honeymoon being over. She was just homesick. He hoped the drive over to visit her distant cousins would help break up the overwhelming feeling of trying to assimilate into his world. Neither of them had ever met the princes so this would be new to both of them.
When the navigation system in the Lamborghini instructed them to turn right into a long driveway, it also told them they had arrived at their destination. Although hesitant, Levi took the car’s word for it and crept down the tree-lined path into the woods, no apparent end in sight.
Tiani’s eyes were alight with excitement at driving through the tunnel of trees. The driveway seemed to last forever until finally they came upon a house built up and around and practically in the trees.
Although Levi understood immediately why they called it a tree house, the most impressive feature about the house had nothing to do with the trees and everything to do with the waterfall that literally flowed under and through the foundation of the house. It was as if the designer had wanted the house to overlook the waterfall and be a part of the landscape. The combination was elegant and awe inspiring.
Before the car came to a complete stop, Levi’s uncle Alex rolled to the edge of the driveway in his stylish wheelchair that looked almost impressive enough to be its own sportscar.
Alexander Stephenson, Jr. who was Levi’s father’s older brother, had been in a tragic car accident in his senior year of high school that left him in a coma for three days and nearly paralyzed from the waist down. After months of physical therapy, he was able to stand briefly but had yet to walk. He sure could talk, though. Uncle Alex toured the world as a motivational speaker, inspiring a platform fighting teen drinking.
His best friend, Prince Augustus Sayid, the youngest of the Sayid princes, had been driving that night. Gus, and all three of his brothers, had been as inebriated as Uncle Alex and had driven his car into a telephone pole. They were all lucky to be alive and the experience changed them. And changed the community forever.
“Dang! Where did you get this ride, little man?” Uncle Alex asked as Levi climbed from the Lamborghini. He’d always called both of the twins “little man” because he could never tell them apart.
“Nicholas found this at the Beijing Auto Show a few years back and slapped down the two-seventy to get the first run.” Before stopping to shake his uncle’s hand, Levi opened the passenger door for his bride, being sure to introduce Tiani first. Leading her from the car, he said, “Uncle Alex, may I present my wife, Princess Tiani Sayid.
“I am honored to meet you, Your Highness.” Alex’s words held a reverence unfound in previous introductions, the kind of reverence that comes with having known the royal family personally and holding them in high esteem.
Having heard this sentiment many times in the past few days, Tiani now had an appropriate answer. In broken English she said, “My honor also. No English. I speak Spanish.”
Alex transitioned into Spanish and never missed a beat. There were so many members of the Sayid, Stephenson, and Cohen families who had one or more family members with language barriers that they had all become fluent in Spanish. Many also knew Arabic and Hebrew.
“Whose house is this?” Levi looked around at the forest and the sprawling home that seemed to be symbiotic with the trees and waterfall.
“This home belongs to Prince Marcos and his wife, Princess Hazel. They raised their boys here and I was their unofficial leader.”
“You are still our leader,” a confident and handsome man said as he stepped out the front door. To his credit he was already speaking Spanish. He was about the same age as Uncle Alex and joined them at the edge of the sidewalk. “Even though you were younger than all of us.”
“Gus, this is my nephew, Levi, one of my brother’s twins. And this lovely bride of his is Princess Tiani Sayid. Princess, may I introduce your cousin, Prince Augustus Sayid of Madain Saleh.”
Unlike all the other men who had met Tiani, Gus didn’t attempt to shake hands, nor did he bow his head respectfully to the princess. He boldly and confidently took Tiani in his arms and hugged her. “Welcome to our family.”
When he pulled back slightly, they held each other at arm’s length, and both had tears glistening in their eyes. “Thank you,” Tiani said. “I’m so glad to meet you. I wish my father could be here.”
“Perhaps we can visit him someday,” Gus said.
“I’m sure he would like that.” Tiani nodded, wiping her cheeks. “We didn’t realize we had any other family until we met Levi and his brother.”
“Our father should tell you more about what he knew of you,” Gus said. “Come inside. I’ll introduce you.”
“How many people are here?” Levi asked as they made their way up to the ornately carved front door, worried about overwhelming Tiani.
“Just our wives, and the prince and princess,” Gus replied. Levi must have looked confused because Gus added clarification. “My father and mother.”
“Oh, right. That makes sense.” Sort of. With all the royal family around, Levi wondered why Gus seemed to refer to his parents and the prince and princess.
“Later, others in our family will trickle in and out,” Gus said, holding open the door to the elaborate home. “We can be a rowdy bunch when we all get together. We didn’t want to overwhelm you.”
“We appreciate that, thank you,” Levi said, giving his wife’s shoulders a little squeeze. Together they entered the infamous tree house, not sure what to expect.