Home > Moscow but Dreaming(15)

Moscow but Dreaming(15)
Author: Ekaterina Sedia

Helen went to the door, into the long hallway lit by dead fluorescent lights, and all the way to the bathroom where the toilet gurgled habitually.

On her way back, Helen heard voices—husky voices of the older boys, too old to be adopted, too young for the vocational training school where they would be sent once they turned fourteen. The boys everyone knew would grow up to be bad, and already well on their way to fulfilling the expectations. Helen pressed against the wall and listened to their whispers and laughter.

She passed the door of her dormitory and peeked around the corner. They were by the lockers, five or six of them, and there were no adults in sight.

Helen can see it now: there is a girl with them—Tanya, who is older than Helen. She is ten, and she hangs out with the boys; she smokes and drinks with them after the lights-out. But they do not act as her friends. Tanya is crying.

The boys push her against the solid wall of the lockers, and Helen imagines how the cold metal feels against a cheek wet with tears, the faint smell of green paint lingering since last summer.

The boys tell Tanya to shut up, and press harder, her face and chest flat against metal; they lift her dress and pull down her underwear, they force her legs open.

One of the boys, red-headed, cold-eyed, puts his hand between Tanya’s legs; his shoulder is moving as if his hand is searching for something, and his breath is loud in the silence broken only by the occasional sob. He then pulls down his pants and presses against Tanya who cries more as he thrusts with his hips. He steps back and another boy takes his place. Helen thinks she smells the sea, of which she retains a faint memory—she was only two when her real parents took her on vacation.

She stepped away from the corner and ran to her room on light feet, barely touching the linoleum. She ran to her bed and then the monster lunged. She felt its fetid breath on her knees, its clawed hands grabbing her ankles.

She cried and wrestled free, and dove under the covers; until morning she dreamt about cold eyes and sharp claws sliding up her legs and forcing them apart.

Janis tries to be a good mother; even as she finds Helen awake and curled up among the bunched and wet sheets, she does not scold. She only sighs and tosses the soiled sheets into the hamper. She then tells Helen to go eat breakfast.

At the table, Helen is still subdued but wrinkles her nose at slices of toast—she does not like Wonderbread, she misses the chewy thick slices with a golden crust. Janis makes a mental note to pick up some loaves of Italian bread, and butters the toast for her impossible girl.

“Eat,” she says, even as Helen stares at her with uncomprehending eyes. “We’re going to see the doctor.”

Helen smiles at that word. “Papa,” she says.

Janis shakes her head. “No. Nyet. Tom is your papa,” she says. “Not the doctor, not any anyone else. You can’t choose your family, you know.”

Helen does not understand, but Janis does, and she mentally admonishes herself to practice what she preaches, to remember this little adage. Like it or not, she is stuck with Helen; she’s not going to return her like an unloved puppy to the pound. If only she were easier to love.

Janis shakes her head and cleans the table. She nudges Helen up the stairs, and she goes, obedient, to brush her teeth and put on her clothes. Helen does everything quickly, the motions precise and fluid, trained by half a decade of synchronized grooming, dressing, and eating. She makes her bed neatly with hospital corners—even though she still seems baffled by the second sheet instead of the white cloth envelope enclosing the blanket that so vexed Janis during her hotel stay in Siberia.

Janis drives to the doctor. In this part of Edison, there are many Russians and other Slavic nationals—she can hear their rough, guttural speech reaching for her through the open car window, trying to drag Janis back to the snow-covered town in Siberia, run-down buildings parasitically attached to some industrial monstrosity of secretive purpose.

Helen, on the other hand, perks up and sticks her head out of the window, smiling and waving. Janis purses her lips and pulls her inside, and rolls up the windows. Helen has to learn English, not to cling to a misplaced remnant of the life she had left.

The doctor is Russian too—he laughs with an avuncular roll, and reassures Janis in his heavily accented English. He takes Helen to his office on the third floor of the office building, where the windows offer up a view of the adjacent strip mall. Janis follows even though she cannot understand them. They seem to conspire against her—the doctor at his ostentatious mahogany desk (he sits next to it, not behind it) and Helen, sunken into a plush red chair, a box of tissues thoughtfully placed on the small stand by her elbow. Janis sits awkwardly on an uncomfortable ottoman by the door, feeling like a poor relation, an unwelcome intruder.

The doctor and the girl look at her simultaneously, laugh, and resume their conversation. What an ugly language, Janis thinks. There are no tissues by her ottoman.

Helen likes the doctor, the same way she likes all bearded men with calloused hands and a faint smell of cologne and leather clinging to them. She wishes for a new father like that—not her current flabby, pasty one. Helen knows that despite what the doctor says, the family is not permanent—she remembers children who went home with their new parents, only to be returned and given to different ones. The trouble is, Helen does not want to go back to the orphanage where the monsters are relentless and walk freely at all hours. She prefers the ones that stay under the bed and sleep during the day. Helen devises plans to become a monster herself.

“Why are you unhappy?” the doctor asks. His eyes behind the lenses of his spectacles are kind. He often asks this question.

Helen shrugs.

“Aren’t your parents nice to you?”

“They are,” she says. “They are nice.”

“What’s the problem then? Do you miss your friends?”

“No.” She shakes her head. She does not miss anyone. “I want new parents.”

“Some would say you are lucky to have the parents you do. They give you everything you want.”

She nods. She knows she is being ungrateful—always has been, even back in the orphanage where she was lucky to have a roof over her head and a bed to sleep in, where she did not have to freeze to death in the streets. “I know.”

“Then what?” The kindness in the doctor’s voice cracks, about to let something else through. “What’s the problem?”

“There is a monster under my bed,” she says. “It wouldn’t let me go to the bathroom.”

“Is this why you wet your bed?” the doctor asks.

Helen feels her cheeks grow hot—she cannot believe Janis has told on her. Her eyes flash indignation, but the doctor does not notice.

“What kind of monster is it?” he asks.

Helen hikes up her trouser leg and shows him deep bruises the color of plums, the wide gashes barely healed over, running from her kneecap to the top of her white sock. She hears Janis gasp on her ottoman.

Then the doctor starts asking Janis questions Helen does not understand. She only hears fear in Janis’s voice, and feels guilty. Now she knows about the monster too, and probably worries.

Janis looks at the newspaper clipping the doctor has photocopied for her. Some are printouts of the internet articles, and Janis wonders if he collects this stuff and why. But she knows the answer—there are enough of these adopted children and their anxious parents to pay for his office and the mahogany desk and the red plush chairs. Of course he collects the clippings about child murders.

Janis reads the small, too dark print of a poor photocopy, she looks at the photograph that doesn’t look like a child’s face—just a Rorschach of black and white planes; it’s such a bad copy of the picture. Could be a little boy with black pools where his eyes should have been.

She reads the articles—they all say the same thing. An adopted child beaten to death by his parents in Switzerland. Countries and names change from one article to the next, but the story is the same—beaten, dismembered, thrown out of windows, moving vehicles, off bridges. She flips through the clippings, face after face after face in severe black and white. Janis cries then, not for them but for Helen.

The monster growls so softly it sounds like a purr. Its claws tap on the floorboards like castanets. Helen sits on her bed hugging the bruised knees to her chest.

The doctor did not seem to believe the story of the monster, and instead seemed to think that her mom and dad were the ones who hurt Helen. He even said that if they beat her, she should tell him that now and the police would find her new parents. While the proposal seemed tempting, Helen decided that lying was still wrong. The monster growls louder, reminding her of her mistake.

Helen cannot sleep and she thinks back, to what she can remember of the orphanage—so much of it is fading from her memory already. But the monsters she remembers, their long shadows stretching across the chipping walls. The nannies tell her that these are not shadows, just stains from the age-old plumbing leaks. Just blemishes of an unknown origin. They rumble in the pipes, they spread in the puddles of gray light that move across the floor of the classroom as the day wears on. They hide under desks and chairs in the common room, they follow the children outside to the swings and the monkey bars.

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