Now here’s her idiot brother Kostya pounding on the café window like she’s keeping him waiting. If he doesn’t stop he’ll shatter the glass and Olek will take it out of her pay—or worse, he’ll hint that he won’t if she lets him run his fat, hairy hands all over her.
So she unlocks the door, hisses, “What are you doing here?” and Kostya cracks a grin like why isn’t she happy to see him and dodges inside, grabbing the mop, spinning it upside down, and dancing it around like someone’s drunk granny at a wedding.
“My own sister—cleaning that pig-fucker’s floor like a maid!” He flings the mop across the room.
All the blunders in Kostya’s life that have lead Polina to this moment festoon her mind. And in each she can see herself instead of him: if she had been sent to the upper school, if she had been handed the cash to pay the violin instructor, if she had received their parents’ savings to start a business driving weekend tourists to the crumbling castle and bombed-out vineyard, she would have graduated with top grades. She would not have spent the violin money on candy, then cigarettes, then vodka, then God knows what.
She would have driven the car carefully and saved her tips to buy another. And they all know it—Kostya, her parents, the entire town. They all know she would not have squandered every opportunity the way he has, and yet here she is, earning money for her family’s meals while her brother spins through the streets like an errant child.
“What do you want front me?” Polina snatches up the mop and gives the chipped black and white tiles another swipe.
“I need you to do something for me. Now.”“Well, I need to close up.” She’ll have to mop the whole floor again; Kostya’s footprints have left muddy bruises all over. “Where have you been? In the woods?”
“I came through the construction. Short cut. Come on, we have to hurry. Before America closes.” Again, he tosses the mop aside, then snatches her around the forearm. He has always been this way; her whole childhood seems like one long push and shove, drag and pinch.
“Idiot!” She wrenches away. “I can’t just leave!”
“Yes, you can. You’re the only one who can do it. Now come on!” His big hand closes on her arm and he pulls her to the door. “That fat fuck can clean up for himself.”
Admittedly, there is a perverse sliver of her mind that is pleased to imagine the look of shock on Olek’s face if he were to find the café in disarray tomorrow morning. She would lose her job, she supposed, and it would once more be Kostya who ruined something for her. Then again, no one knows about the nest of cash shoved deep in a slash in her mattress: every unaccounted-for bill that she has earned since she began looking after the neighborhood kids is there. She had been astonished by how much it added up to the last time she counted, although maybe she shouldn’t have been; she has never bought herself so much as a new lipstick. But the choice is not hers; Kostya is not going to give back her arm.
Like a feral dog with a bone in its jaws, he pulls her over the slick tiles. “You can still speak English? Write it down, the way you did in school?”
“That was years ago, and why does it matter if I can?”
“Because Vanko is gone. He was the one who did the writing in English.”
“He didn’t—doesn’t know English!” With her own cold fingers, she touches the spot where her arm will bruise. They are on the sidewalk now. She locks the door.
Kostya grabs the key and throws it across the street.
“What? You don’t need it anymore. You do this for me and I’ll cut you in on the profits.” Then he asks, “What do you mean he doesn’t speak English? He was in the same class as you.”
“Yeah. And he spent his whole time drawing tits and cocks on the pictures of American children in the textbook.” She looks across the street; Kostya threw the key into a muddy, littered lot that had been a row of ramshackle-but-decent old houses, until a Russian company knocked them down and built nothing to replace them. Old Branca had lived there forever and she lives there still; she cobbled together a little shack out of the wood and stones from her old house and decorated it with the things that had not been broken to pieces.
Her brother is laughing. “That cocksucker, of course he did. Now, come on.” He takes her wrist this time and pulls her down the pockmarked sidewalk.
Kostya being Kostya, the route he drags her on can’t be straight. They go down one road, cross it and go back up the other side, they cut through abandoned lots, they squeeze through the cobbled streets in the old town.
“Are you hiding from someone?” Polina is irritated; even as a grown man, her brother can’t stop playing bandits.
But the look he darts at her, like a rat exposing its raw pink nose from a cranny, takes her aback. Then he hawks up his familiar guttural laugh, grabs his crotch and says, “Hiding? Yeah, from all the girls that want to jump on this,” and she is reassured.
They pop out of an alley into the trash-strewn square behind the Internet café. Polina hates this place. Even from outside, she can smell the disappointed plans of small-time schemers. And the name, café . . . it’s just a flickering little room with some clunky old computers.
“Don’t tell me you’re wasting money here,” she mutters. Inside it’s hot with electricity.
“Just shut up and look at this.” He cups her shoulders and pushes her down into a hard chair in front of a monitor, then leans over and taps the keyboard violently.
The handful of men who had glanced up when they came in have already forgotten them, pale faces glowing fishlike from light of the machines before them.
“There.” A screen pops up. “See, he answered. What does it say?” Kostya gives her shoulders a little shake.
Polina tries to make sense of what she’s looking at. With Kostya, it could be anything. Anything at all. And the first thing she sees is a picture of herself. Not her whole self, only her face. She doesn’t recognize the photo. It’s her, but from a distance—her hair blown partway over her cheek like she’s in the wind; her head pasted onto a female body in a bikini, with grotesque breasts and skin tanned to a shade that hers will never be.
“What the fuck?”
“Sorry, but your tits are too small.”
“Where’d you get that picture?”
“Vanko had it.” Kostya scoffs. “What was he doing with a picture of you?”
She looks again. Along with the obscene collage is a message in English:
I sexy Ukraine girl to love you good and clean house. I go to America for only you, cowboy. I dream for you.
She throws her head to one side, “Vanko wrote this?” but doesn’t listen for her brother’s response. “There’s an answer.”
“No shit!” Kostya bounces behind her. “What does it say?”
She reads it to herself:
Nobody tells me, but I know I’m dying. It’s coming so much sooner than I ever imagined. You look like an angel. A beautiful angel from heaven. I hope it’s you who comes down and guides my soul when it’s time. Will you hold my hand and lead me? I’m scared.
“Who is this guy?” She looks over her shoulder.
Kostya grabs her head and twists it back toward the screen. “What does it say?” His voice is loud; faces swivel in their direction again.
She stares at the picture and whispers, “If you want my help, you have to tell me what’s going on.”
He lets go her head as if tossing a ball. “What does it look like? We find some stupid American man and tell him that he can have you if he sends money. Everyone knows their women never listen and don’t cook—ever. Vanko paid for a list of emails.”
Polina imagines her face popping up on hundreds of Americans’ computers. “With the money for the car service?” Now her voice is loud. “And what, rich American guy just sends money?”
“Why not? To him a plane ticket is nothing and maybe he gets that.” He jabs at the overinflated breasts. “Now read it.”
She leans toward the screen. “I have an electric dishwasher and clothes dryer. If you come to live with me, you will never have to hang the sheets out again.”
He pinches her upper arm. “Are you sure you’re reading it right?”
She leans closer. “Oh, and: I want to stick my face between your giant breasts.”
Kostya hoots. “That’s more like it! Anything else?”
“Answer him! Tell him to send cash, we have Pay Pal. Four-thousand Euros, how many dollars is that?”
“Four-thousand Euros? That’s how much I’m worth?”
“Not with the tits you’ve got. It’s got to be at least three thousand. No less.”
She wonders what new scam he has been lured into that he needs so much money but refuses to ask. She reads the message again and notes the email address: StephenT479@hotmail.com. I’m dying, he has written. I’m scared.
Her brother twists the flesh gathered from her arm between his sticky fingers. “Write!” His breath is hot and fast in her ear.
“Just a minute,” she snaps. “I can’t do it with you breathing all over me. Go away for a minute so I can think.”
“Ok,” he says, “But make it sound good. And don’t send it until you’ve read it to me.”
The moment her brother turns away her hands spring to the keyboard, typing rapidly, trying to remember how to spell the words she wants. After banging out the last one she sits back and reads it over to herself:
Have you ever waited on city street in snows in darkest part of winter, but no one ever comes for you? That is alone and scared and cold. That will be death and I will not be there to holding your hand. The clean American hospital machines will be buried with the snow, there won’t be no angels for you.
Her heart kicks her ribs, hard.
Kostya is back by her side, cigarette between his fingers. “Read it to me.”
“Send me four-thousand American dollars for a plane ticket and I will feed you homemade dumplings dripping with gravy, they will melt in your mouth the way your cock will in mine—Ouch!” Her fingers fly to her head where he has punched her.
“You little slut, how did you learn to say those things?” He grins. “But it’s good. Better than Vanko. Go on, read the rest.”
“I want to be your dirty little angel, I want to fly to you right now, big boy.”
“Big boy,” he repeats the words—twisted in his mouth. “That’s perfect. Send it. Now!”
Mackenzie is supposed to be closing, but she pushes the mop across the floor as if its weight is too much for her, glancing towards Dora.
Dora understands immediately; she had overheard Mackenzie on the phone, giggling about a party. She does not want to close up; she wants to step out into the promise of the spring evening and go to the party and she is hoping that Dora will offer to do it for her. No, she feels as if Dora should—after all, Dora is an old lady. What else could she possibly need to do?
“Any plans tonight?” Dora calls from behind the register.
“Oh!” Mackenzie stops and holds the mop handle close to her body, like a lover. “There’s a party . . .”
“A party!” Dora repeats. “What will you wear?” She pictures the girl, who is small and slightly plump, in a swingy dress with a floral pattern.
“Wear?” Mackenzie looks down to her leggings and sneakers. “It’s not the kind of thing you, like, change for . . .” but then she looks back at Dora. “And I wouldn’t have time anyway.”
“Why don’t you let me finish?” Dora says brightly. “Then you can go home and freshen up.”
Mackenzie’s face goes alive. “Would you? Really? I don’t want to, like, dump it all on you again . . .” But she’s already sliding toward the register, mop extended.
After she’s done, Dora locks the door and turns to meet the empty parking lot. She smells spring, but can’t imagine where the achy, hopeful scent is coming from. The Starbucks where she was hired two months ago is nestled beside a huge bookstore in a sprawling strip mall a few paved miles from her house.
She and Stephen used to frequent both the bookstore and Starbucks, right up until the weeks before his death—when the baby-chick fuzz covering his skull gave it all away—and she had not been above using the pity of the manager to obtain the twenty hours a week of work. Her children had been slightly horrified. Dora has spent the last thirty years a housewife, but she did not care. She could not stand the thought of living out long days on the empty stage of her marriage.
She drives home slowly, eating a scone that tastes of artificial blueberries, bite by crumbling bite. She doesn’t mind admitting to herself that she doesn’t miss preparing dinner, because it is one of the very few things about life with Stephen that she doesn’t miss tremendously.
At home, she wanders until she comes to the study and sees the computer. Her stomach rolls when she realizes there is a response to the message she had typed out the night before. The instant she hit send, she had wished she could retrieve it. It was so obviously a scam: a half-naked girl with an enormous bust and a few sentences of bad English, yet there had been something about the girl’s face . . . Dora had clearly imagined her taking the hand of Stephen’s soul and gently coaxing it out and up from his stubbornly dead body.
Dora opens the message and reads it, reads it again. The taste of scone rises on bile to her throat. She pictures her husband dead in the hospital bed—he was so swollen by the time he died—being slowly covered with the coldest, lightest, finest snow. She reads the message again and both shame and fury kindle inside her.
Sleep is dry and shallow. When she wakes she goes straight to the computer. Perhaps she composed the response while she slept—it comes so effortlessly.
Kostya left the house in a furious storm of cologne and profanity the night before and has not returned by the time Polina tiptoes past her mother, who is asleep on the couch. Like Vanko, young men from the town disappear regularly, but Polina does not worry about her brother. She trusts his nonsensical luck, despite his tremendous stupidity.
She leaves the brown light of the house for the pink light of morning—intending to get to the café early and mop up before Olek arrives—but dallies on the old stone bridge that crosses the river, wishing she could tug the sky down and veil herself with it.
Fuck the fragile light for seducing her thoughts away. That’s Olek coming toward the bridge, his heavy legs punishing the ground with every step. Even from this distance, she spots the stubble and the fleshy eyes; he has been out all night. Thank God he has not seen the dirty floor yet. She shudders and does not allow herself to wonder where he spends his nights.
He comes at her as if his breaks are out. She is certain she can smell him before he reaches her.
“On your way to work like that? No make-up? Jeans?”
“I’m not supposed to be in until this afternoon.”
His hand covers hers—a hot, damp comforter. “No? I was sure I changed the schedule. Go on over and open up anyway, will you? Look at me—I can’t work like this. I’m like a rich man’s pig, and you? You give me hope. Even dressed like a boy. My head is pounding. There will be a little extra for you.” As he speaks he pulls her so close she fears she will be swallowed by his unwashed girth.
The sun rises and dirties the clouds while she walks to the cafe. Panic closes fingers on her throat as she crosses the street to look for the key. The splintered boards and bricks float in a sea of black mud, unnerving. Things are lost so often: dogs and cats and young men, even certain girls. They are found only sometimes, half-buried. She does not want to uncover anything.
Movement makes her shriek, but it’s only Old Branca. She’s dressed in what could be old curtains.
“Granny,” Polina manages to say through the sticky ball of fear in her throat.
Old Branca smiles, her mouth a little black slice in the shriveled face. She holds up a key.
“Oh!” Polina reaches out. “Thank you. I don’t know how you found it.”
Old Branca drops it into her hand where it glints silver.
“You cleaned it?” Polina tilts the key back and forth.
The old woman laughs, “Old Branca cleans up lots of things that she finds out here in the mud, doesn’t she?”
Once the tiles are scrubbed innocent of her brother’s dirty tracks, the window of his greasy fingerprints, Polina has a handful of empty minutes, and she goes to the computer in Olek’s back office. She had watched Kostya carefully the day before and now she imitates his keystrokes exactly, his password sticking in her throat like gristle: guns&pussy.
She perches gingerly on the edge of his oversized chair and reads:
I thought you were an angel, but now I suspect you are a lovely demon that can see into my soul. See what I fear: that after I die there will nowhere to go. Lost within your blizzard. You are too pretty to be scared, to be alone, to be cold. You should be wearing flowery dresses and going to parties, but instead you are afraid already. Of what?
Polina is not even aware that she has reached out and typed the words that start scrolling through her mind until several minutes later, when she sits back and gasps as if coming up out of water.
The phone is ringing from the nightstand and for an instant Dora is sure it will be Stephen calling from death to tell her what it’s like.
Receiver to her ear, she realizes it’s Mackenzie. Of course she can cover for her, Dora says. Yes, she must be coming down with something—it’s going around. The stupid child sounds wretched and Dora pictures her calling from some bathroom floor between bouts of vomiting. Dora ought to refuse, force Mackenzie to get her pudgy little behind into work, but instead she hangs up with a feeling of immense relief that she now has something to do on her day off besides haunting this house like the ghost of herself.
The barren pots she had neglected to fill with daffodil bulbs in the fall are all that keep her from sinking to the front porch this afternoon after work. She wavers just inside the door, then remembers the emails and is astonished by how eager she is for a message.
I am afraid of my entire life will be like death you see coming. All is here are hungry dogs, smelling old people, buildings that are not buildings anymore and families making houses of their bricks. Fathers who think their sons do horrible acts and mothers who know. I’m afraid to love anyone at all. If I do they take my heart and trade it for vodka or firewood.
Dora begins to cry—and not just a few miserly tears. She sobs, fat drops hitting the keyboard. She has not cried since she wrenched the wedding ring from her dead husband’s puffy finger; tears have threatened but never materialized, like rain burned from clouds on an August day. She cries so hard her stomach cramps. She remembers a night five years into her marriage. There had been the fun-ride fall into love and then there had been the gruelling years of small children and tiny-but-smouldering resentments. She had just discovered that Stephen, drunk at a party, had tried to kiss a friend of hers and they were in the middle of an ugly fight when he suddenly began to cry—she had never seen him cry before—and she can still hear the anguish in his voice.
“I’m afraid, Dora. If I let myself love you, really love you, what will it do to me?”
And with those words, it seemed, the tide turned, pulling tangled clumps of little lies with it, and they fell in love again, but quietly this time. And it lasted. How lucky she has been.
Done crying, Dora blows her nose, reads the message again, and begins to type her response.
Afterward, she leaves the computer and walks upstairs—suddenly and deeply tired. All she wants is to be let into sleep. She stops at the spare room though, and peeks in. Her daughter’s room for years, the girlish things have gradually disappeared, replaced by generic items from Target. For a moment, she looks at the bed—neatly made, wide and empty—before going to her own room and collapsing onto her own bed.
It is Tuesday all over again and her mother will be waiting for help with the laundry—more tubs of soapy water—and beside herself with worry over Kostya, who has been gone for another night, but after she closes the café Polina goes into the office and switches on the computer.
“Stupid waste of time,” she mutters as she slides before the screen, but she reads eagerly.
A young girl like an old man: looking for a way out of the dark, the cold. But an old man, and sick, should be ready for his death, should face it, not cower like a frightened dog. But you, is there not a better path than pedalling your youth, your beauty, out of terror? You trade one trap for another. You must have another way?
She’s late, but still she must pound out an answer.
Almost home, the dark coming faster than she can walk, when suddenly, from out of the slit between two buildings, someone is walking beside her; she barely has time to be terrified before she realizes it’s Vanko. She slows but does not speak. She’ll allow him to walk beside her, but no way will she reveal that her soul is dancing because he’s alive and breathing, not face down rotting unknown in some ditch.
“Do you know where your brother is?” he asks softly, after they are halfway down the block.
Her breath leaves her fast. He’s here about Kostya—that’s all—of course. “In the city? Getting drunk, or whatever he does there—stealing shit? I don’t care.”
“You should care. This time.”
Polina stops. “What’s going on?”
He takes her forearm, but gently, and continues with her down the sidewalk. She wants to pull away just as much as she wants to turn deeper into his hold.
“Polina, the Winter Boys, they have him. That stupid little shit, why go to the city at night?”
Sickness rises in her throat. She won’t ask Vanko if he knows this because he’s one of them. “The Winter Boys? Why? He has nothing to do with them.” But even as she says it, she guesses it’s not true. He has been on a road that leads only into this blackened tunnel for years now.
“He owes them money, he’s been putting them off. You know Kostya, everything’s a joke, but they’re not joking. They’ll come for your family next. You know what happens now.”
“Three-thousand Euros!” She rips her hand away, furious, and quickens her pace, but he matches it. He’s wearing military-style boots but they don’t pound. He’s always been light like a cat. They walk in silence, but when they are close to her house, it’s he who stops.
She should just continue into the house, close the door behind her, but she looks up into his face and is shocked to see how much older he is. Years have been carved into him in months.
“How could you let Kostya use my picture like that? Write that crap?”
“I had to pretend. I’m sorry. No one could know I was leaving.” She’s glad at the shame in his voice.
“I waited for you for hours. I got so cold! Why ask me to wait if you weren’t going to come?”
At least she can make that newly old face crumple. But he doesn’t say anything; he takes her by the shoulder as if he’s asking her a question, and as much as she wants to say yes, she knows that if she does she will go home to bed and cry until she falls asleep, and so she pulls away, looks him hard in the face in case it’s the last time, then spins and runs to the door.
The lock cracks and the door opens before she has even gone for the knob.
“It’s you.” Her mother stands at the threshold of the dark and her eyes skip off Polina’s face like a stone on water before looking with panicked expectancy over her shoulder.
“He’s not home yet,” Polina says.
“He will be. He will be soon. You always say he’s lucky.”
“Mama,” she begins. “Mama, what if this time—”
Her mother grabs her arm. “Be quiet. She doesn’t look at Polina though, continues to stare out into the dark. “Did you think the laundry would do itself? Wring it out before you go to bed. You’ll have to hang it in the morning.”
“The Winter Boys.” Polina coughs up the words like a ball of phlegm.
Her mother’s hand fall from her arm.
“He owes them three-thousand Euros.” Polina grabs at her mother to keep her steady.
“How will we buy him back? We’ve given him everything we have.”
The one thing Dora wants desperately is to keep sleeping, deep sleep with no dreams, a sleep that drags her into mid-morning, but she wakes to the gritty hours before dawn and knows she will stay awake. “Damn it all to hell!” She flings her blankets off, pulls Stephan’s bathrobe on even though she can smell the cancer, and goes to his den.
All my life I look for another way! You think I send my picture to rich old dying mans? My stupid brother does that, uses my photograph. And those aren’t my breasts. I work and work and give all my money to parents who give it to him to waste. But I save a little every time, like a mouse with a crumb I hide in hole, and soon now, when I have enough, I will go away, I will never have to sell myself, I will be braver than you, I will be gone while you run away from your death.
Dora buries her face in her hands for several moments before she takes a deep breath and begins to type, each word loosening something in her heart. After she sends the message, she stares at the screen, her eyes making snow of the pixels, then finds herself ordering a new down comforter online. She has noticed the one in the spare room is getting raggedy, and winters are cold here too.
Polina wakes up, pulls the bag of money from her mattress like the innards of some bloated fish, counts it, then converts it to Euros in her mind. Almost three-thousand, of course. Of course. She sits back on her bare heels. She will be the one to save him. Who else would it be? And then she will be left with nothing and no way out.
She walks slowly to the kitchen to tell her parents, trying to let the utter relief she knows she will see transform her mother’s face buoy her, but feels her soul drowning instead.
And why are they sitting at the kitchen table like obedient school children, hands folded? Her father is up and shaved when he ought to be wallowing in the foul cloud beneath his sheets, sleeping off last night’s vodka. He does not even raise his eyes to her; for years he has been staring out at some menacing fate, just off the horizon.
She needs to tell them quickly, so there will be no way back, but her mother starts to speak before she can, the words rehearsed, springing out like fat, well-trained puppies.
“Polina, Olek, he likes you very much. Anyone can see that. He’s even talked to your father about you at the bar.” She turns to her husband as if to confirm this, but he barely raises his eyes and she continues, “You know we have nothing left. You know what is needed for your brother to come home . . .” She stops here, face expectant as if Polina can continue for her.
Olek? What is her mother talking about? What does that sweaty, nasal man have to do with any of this, other than the fact that much of the money she has hidden is the “extra” he slips her for allowing him to pat her on the bottom and hold her chest against his for too long? But now she sees it, and for a moment all she can do is stare at her mother, who looks away.
“Your brother, Polina. You know what they will do to him.”
Possibly, she’s still asleep. She feels the night heavy on her still, a nightmare where her parents ask her to fuck her disgusting boss in order to get her brother back from a gang of violent thugs who will soon start cutting off his fingers and dropping them by the house like little gifts to remind them to pay up. But no, it makes too much sense to be a nightmare.
“You want him to pay me? Like a prostitute?”
“Polina!” Her mother’s voice is sharp. “Don’t talk like that!” but her voice folds over and implores, “It’s Wednesday, he’ll come in tonight, yes?”
Polina is laughing now. She sounds like her mother—the laugh of a crazy person.
“How can you laugh about this,” her mother hisses.
Her father speaks and they both turn to him. “Laughing is the only thing she has left, this one.”
“You agree with her, Papa?” For an instant, she lets herself believe that he has some secret escape plan he has been keeping for her until she really needs it. But if he has heard her, he doesn’t indicate it. He raises the bottle that was hidden in his lap and drinks deeply, and when it comes away he does not bother to wipe the soggy ends of his mustache.
And then it occurs to Polina that if she does this one thing then her brother can come home, and her family duty will be paid forever, and she will be free to use her money to leave this place—possibly by plane, but certainly by bus.
So, she goes to work and her wayward hands won’t stop shaking and she breaks two cups. She is dimly aware of some tiny mental wormhole to another world, but when she probes it she realizes she is only thinking of the man dying in America and chastises herself: being able to send words across the world is not going to get her out of this one. Still, she goes to the computer during a lull, and reads with mounting surprise.
There is an old person hiding from death, blind from the snow, but it’s not an old man, it’s his wife. Me. Dora. Knowing Stephen, he met death bravely, he was never one to run away, it’s me that can’t let him go. I keep him lingering above his cold body. The girl in the picture. If that is really you, she did look like a good angel and I truly thought she could help me guide him away. We had a good life, a lucky life, we loved one another, it’s just so hard to let it go. So, now you know who I really am, and I know you are not a girl for sale, but who are you?
An old woman! Polina can’t help but chortle. But when she reads the message again it becomes less funny. Is everyone in the whole world lonely? She wonders if her own mother would care if her father died; she doubts it, but then reconsiders.
“Who are you?” she mumbles, the English heavy on her tongue. “Who am I?” she tries, then types the words out fast before she can stop herself.
Olek comes in just before closing, like he always does on Wednesdays, to count the week’s money and invent reasons to rub against her.
Polina locks up with her mouth dry. She follows him into the office. There’s a bottle of vodka and two glasses set out on the small table. He motions for Polina, fills the glasses, and pushes one toward her. He downs his in a single shot.
“You know where your brother is?”
She shouldn’t be surprised. Olek lives on the edge of it all, pocketing cash for secrets. He already knows what she has been sent to do; he’s going to make it easy for her.
“They’ve asked your parents to pay up?” he continues.
She shakes her head. “Not yet.”
“But they will.”
He takes another shot and pushes the still-full glass at Polina. “Drink,” he says. “You are as white as the snow.”
She picks up the glass, smells it, and coughs; her hands are still shaking. “We don’t have the money.”
“Ah, Polinka,” he hoists himself up and stands behind her. “Do you know you smell like the spring?” His tone is mournful, but his arms, coming around her shoulders, are meaty. He pulls her into his spongy chest and thrusts his nose into her hair, sniffing.
She can’t hide her tremor of loathing.
“You think that I’m a monster, but I could protect you. I am not a bad man.”
She downs the alcohol and coughs. She imagines that she should collapse into him now, should twist around and let his slug-like lips find hers, but she hears herself saying, “I’m getting out of here anyway.” She tries to keep her voice airy. “Soon.”
He laughs through his cigarette-clotted throat. “And where are you going? A job in the city? I would be easier on you than that.”
“Of course not. I’m going—I’m going to America. I have a friend there.” To forestall him, she continues, “A woman. She’s sending me a plane ticket.”
Now he laughs fully. “America, Polinka? You think you just get on a plane and fly there? They don’t want another girl like you. No matter how beautiful. Have you heard of visa? Immigration? The only way you’ll get to America is drugged-up in the very bottom of a Russian ship.”
His fingers creep as he talks; he’s hunting for her breast, he’s panting into her hair. She feels the vodka in her stomach try to find a way back up. She counsels her body to submit. Now she wishes she had turned into Vanko’s skinny chest after all.
A furtive noise from the front room snaps the bands around her lungs. Olek’s hands go still and his breathing stops.
There’s the muffled jingle of the bell on the front door and his sweaty arms climb off her. “What is it?” he whispers.
For the moment, Polina doesn’t care, she’s so ecstatic to be liberated.
The faintest of footsteps sound out while Olek edges toward his desk, almost impossibly quiet for such a big man—but everyone in this town knows how to sneak.
And then the hairs on Polina’s arms jump up as a tinny little crackle sounds out, and . . . singing? A broken nursery tune like a scratchy record.
Olek’s eyes go wide. In them, Polina sees the terror that something unknown has come to punish him for what only he knows he has done. He pulls his desk drawer open.
The singing is louder, merry now.
Olek is holding a gun. He bellows, and lumbers toward the front. Polina suddenly realizes who’s singing and follows him, yelling too.
“Nibble, nibble. Mousie made a key,” Old Branca croons just before Olek fires blindly and the pane of glass that Kostya had come so close to cracking cascades in shards to the ground.
“You stupid old hag, what are you doing here? I could have killed you.” There is angry relief in Olek’s voice.
Old Branca is dressed in an oversized and mangy sable coat. She holds a block of white cheese in one hand, a container of milk in the other, the fridge beneath the counter spilling cold light into the dark room and illuminating her ancient face.
“Ah, the fat man.” Old Branca smiles, seemingly unaware of her near miss. “You were a fat boy too, just like your mama. And why she was fat? When everyone else was thin?”
She hoists the cheese. “Not a little mousie, no, your mama was a big sleek cat. And who kept her fed? Most people don’t remember, but Old Branca remembers everything, doesn’t she?”
Olek seems to shrivel under the words. The gun swings by his side. He mutters, “Crazy talk,” but he’s looking down.
Old Branca takes a swallow from the carton of milk. Her mouth shines white. Her gaze bounces off Olek and onto Polina.
“And what about you, pretty? Is the fat man keeping you fed? He leaves his light on some nights, doesn’t he? And I see in.” She whips her gaze back to Vanko. “I see what you do at night!” she hisses at Olek who raises his arm and shies away.
The old woman stretches her hand, scrawny but somehow elegant, out to Polina. “Don’t stay here, pretty. Take me home.”
She waits for Polina to obey, then minces over the broken glass, the cheese swinging from her other hand.
Polina guides her across the street and over the churned-up earth to the scummy sheet of plastic that serves as a front door.
Old Branca’s skeletal hand comes up and cradles Polina’s cheek. “Don’t go back to the fat man. You’d be happier living in a hole eating stolen cheese. Some of us are cats—not you. Here.”
Old Branca offers the gnawed-on cheese to Polina, who is too nonplussed to refuse it.
I am girl that liked to go to school. But brothers keep going not sisters. I thought my little brother is lucky like you, but I am wrong. He’s in stupid trouble and I must get him out. I’m glad you loved your husband, I wanted to love someone but I didn’t let me and now I’m glad because he is gone and I have to pretend to love someone else. No, not love. Fuck. That’s the word, yes. I don’t want to upset you American lady, but I have to fuck someone I disgust to get money to get brother held by violent bandits. Is that right word? I am girl for sale now and no snow to hide in.
Dora sits back from the computer as if it has thrown a punch to her gut. She doesn’t want to, but she reads the message again.
She, too, was a girl who liked to go to school. She liked it right up until she got pregnant her junior year at state and left for the little apartment that Stephen found, then had two more babies and never went back despite telling herself that she could. And when she has looked to the very edge of her grief, she has considered that she might still be able to . . . Now sitting there in her husband’s study, it strikes her that although she always felt there was some barrier imposed on her by her husband or children, this was never the case. She could have returned to school whenever she wanted.
She looks up Ukrainian visa requirements then feels absurdly disappointed. She’s certain that the girl she has been corresponding with does not have proof of income or a bank account, probably not even a passport . . . She pushes back and stands up. Honestly, what is she doing? This is probably some strange, elaborate scheme—how can she know these emails aren’t coming from one of the kids she works with, preying on her grief in an especially cruel fashion?
Half an hour later, she goes back to the computer and looks up the reverse journey: requirements to travel to the Ukraine—so simple. All that is needed is a passport. It occurs to her that hers is up to date. Just before his diagnosis, she and Stephen had booked a long-awaited cruise to the Mediterranean.
Then the phone on the mahogany desk rings and Mackenzie asks apologetically if Dora can come in a bit early and cover the beginning of her shift, she’s still not quite over this horrible flu. Dora says kindly but firmly that she cannot, that, in fact, she won’t be coming into work that day; something has come up, something urgent.
She goes straight down to the basement. The unused suitcase that she bought for the cruise is still where it landed after she hurled it down the stairs.
Unbelievably, light spills bright from every window of the house. Polina’s mouth fills with sour saliva at the thought that her mother would wait up for her to come back still coated in Olek’s filth, not even let her slink inside in shame or give her time to bathe and sleep.
She enters the kitchen. Her parents are sitting at the table again. Only it isn’t there. It’s in pieces against the wall. She imagines the strength needed to heft the heavy slabs of wood.
A wet and ugly but familiar noise draws her attention across the room: Kostya.
And there he is. But not really. That can’t be her baby brother. It’s a young man with a severely beaten face making snotty noises while trying not to, sitting between two older men in shiny black boots. Her real brother must be hiding behind a doorway somewhere laughing at her astonishment.
But Kostya’s voice comes out of those burst-open lips: “Polina, give them the money.”
“Look who’s gotten smart all of a sudden.” The man who speaks is big and meaty, his suit straining to hold him in.
The other one is thin but hard. His light blue eyes move up and down her body calmly. “You didn’t tell us your sister’s hot.”
Kostya’s laugh makes her innards wince. “Her tits are small.”
The cold eyes examine her chest. “But real. Some guys pay for that.”
“The money, girl. Now!” She’s never heard her father speak so fast.
They all look at her.
“It’s in my room.”
“Don’t fuck around,” Kostya says quickly. “Your purse.”
“Polina—” her mother starts.
“Go with her,” the thin guy says.
“It’s not necessary.” Polina darts down the hall, footsteps behind her.
God help her, she has to get the money before he’s in her room.
She flings herself at her bed and digs for the bag like a psychotic squirrel, but he’s crammed into the doorway when she wheels back around.
For a moment, all she feels is blinding red frustration: is the entire road of her life going to be obstructed by stupid men who want to paw at her?
Her hands rise, searching for some unknown and nonexistent object that will clear her path; when they fall, one comes down on a bulky object in the pocket of her coat.
Polina laughs wildly and the man’s broad face goes squishy with confusion.
She pulls out the cheese, holds it high, and dances toward him. “Are you looking for something to eat?” Instinctively, he raises his hand to receive the misshapen chunk, and, like a genie, she wiggles her body around him and darts down the hall.
“Here!” she thrusts the bag at the man with blue eyes, but then hugs it back to her chest. “Let my little brother go first.”
The man scrapes a noise from his throat, hoists Kostya by the forearm, and flings him toward their mother. “Your sister, she’s the one with balls.” He grins at Polina. “See you soon, skinny. You’re worth more than your brother. Even with those little tits.”
Kostya whimpers and kneels between their parents. Their mother’s mottled hand closes on his shoulder.
The big man clomps into the kitchen, wiping his mouth, and the other one spits out, “You fat fuck, can’t you stop eating for a minute?”
When the men are gone and only the smell of cigarettes and grease remains, Kostya looks up at her. “That was my money, wasn’t it?” he asks. “From my stupid American.”
Polina wakes up with nothing, to nothing—only a not-lost brother—and gets dressed for work. She’s scheduled to open the café and is determined to do it, unless Olek is there to tell her not to. Remembering the strange blend of terror and fury on his face the night before, she guesses he’ll pretend nothing even happened. She needs to make enough for a bus ticket. As soon as possible. She believed the thin man: he’ll be back for her. Maybe not today, but soon. She doesn’t let herself wonder what happens after she steps off the bus.
She sweeps up the shattered glass and patches the window with cardboard. As she gathers up the little shot glasses in the office so there’s nothing to remind Olek of his humiliation, she glances at the computer, remembers the lonely American, and shakes her head. What has she been playing at? She needs to tell her goodbye.
Stop! I’ve booked a flight that arrives in Odessa from New York City on THIS Friday at 6:36 pm. Can you get there? I’m not crazy, or maybe I am? I’m just a woman who used to like to go to school too. My husband was a good saver; I’ve got more money than one woman needs. I’ll be looking for you at the airport. I know your face.
Slowly, and with shaking hands, Polina opens the top drawer of Olek’s desk. As she suspected, he was too distracted to take the cash with him the night before. She cracks the envelope and flips through it: enough, certainly, for a bus ticket and a hotel room for two nights. A nice hotel, a safe one, high above the cold streets.
She folds the bills up tight, shoves the wad into her bra, and places her fingers deliberately on the keyboard.
Who is angel now