Short fiction by Alexandra Grunberg.
“I spy, with my little eye, something gray.”
“The deli counter.”
“It’s purple, and no.”
“Excuse me, it’s silver, no.”
“Are you even trying?”
Anya giggled. Grandpa sat sleeping in front of the soft serve machine, his mustache blowing back and forth with each snore.
Katerina flipped through her Seventeen Magazine, a swimsuit issue. The girls in their bathing suits smiled, their bright suits mirroring the tropic backdrops, their faces glowing with real tans and shimmering make up. They smiled with bright pink lips and covered giggles with aqua nails. These imaginary girls were spending their short break with friends, partying and having fun, no consequences or responsibilities.
It was hard for Katerina to believe that somewhere people were enjoying summer, instead of being cooped up in an air-conditioned deli all day. She sat on the counter by the register, which would have been forbidden if Grandpa were awake, between a stack of magazines and a display of postcards. They depicted rural snowy scenes, appropriate for the temperature inside the store, but an odd choice for summertime. Anya stood behind the deli counter, playing with her necklace, sliding the small cross back and forth on its chain. Katerina admitted to herself that her sister’s sweater was more of a pewter color than a grey, but it was an awfully dull pewter, faded due to the fact that she slept in it every night over her pajamas. Katerina would remember thinking that their wardrobes needed more color, not knowing that the nighttime would bring a spatter of red to Anya’s faded sweater.
“Is it your sneakers?”
“Is it the light fixture?”
“Did you really just say ‘light fixture?’ No, not even close.”
“Seriously, is it even in this room?”
“Of course it is. But if you can’t figure it out, just say so.”
The girls stared out of the windows. They were dusty, but the sun still shone through, promising warmth that was present just outside the door. But, even though there were no customers, both Anya and Katerina knew they would pay if they set foot outside the store during open hours.
During the school year they were kept shut up in a private girls school, hidden under knee-length wool skirts and buttoned shirts. After school they went straight to piano lessons for Anya and violin for Katerina, then rushed back home so they could study. During the summer, they were kept locked in the store all day, six days a week, wrapped in sweaters and scarves to protect against the chill of the air-conditioner. Sunday was for church, prayer, and family.
Anya dismissed their rigid lifestyle as the result of an overly protective Grandpa. Everything he did was out of love for them, and since he was taking care of them, they had no reason to complain. It would be worse, infinitely worse, to have family that did not even try to take care of you, who did nothing to protect you. And many of their friends had parents who were just as strict. Anya assumed that if their parents immigrated too, they would support the structured environment.
But Katerina knew that Grandpa did not act out of love. He was afraid.
Since she was little, she saw the fear in every little gesture, every rule, every act of discipline. It was in his eyes when they walked outside, in his hands as he clutched them close whenever an unfamiliar man walked by. It was sewn into the layers of overcoats. And it radiated from every religious symbol hung in their house and around their necks. Throughout elementary school, Katerina could never understand the hope some people saw in a crucifix, when all she saw was fear. That night she would see that true fear resided in the image of an upside-down crucifix, distorted by a figure that knew she only faked sleep and mocked her guilt.
When she was a child, she was sure that Grandpa was afraid of monsters. She was afraid of them herself. According to Grandpa, they waited in graveyards as spirits, ready to inhabit a new, unwilling body. They came as a mist at night and took the form of a lovely horse or beautiful fairy that would snatch up children and drown them in the nearest lake. They slept in basements and attics, awakening at the stroke of midnight to feed on those who forgot to say their bedtime prayers. Katerina remembered lying awake at night, every squeak in the ceiling, every branch scraping against the window, each whisper and howl of the wind a new monster ready to sneak inside if she closed her eyes. She forgave Grandpa for his watchful eyes, his strict bedtime, and his lists of rules because she too was afraid of the creatures of folklore. But as she grew up, she realized Grandpa was not afraid of monsters. He was afraid of men.
If life was strict for Katerina and Anya when they were children, it was worse when they were teens. Even the slightest bit of attention from a boy was worthy of grounding, extra chores, and a tighter leash. If a man eyed Anya on the street, it was her fault for putting impure ideas in his head. If a boy called Katerina after school, even just for help with homework, it was her fault for leading him on. If they were put in a group with boys for a project at school, it was their fault for letting the teacher believe they would enjoy a boy’s attention, for giving off the impression that they were no better than the whores Grandpa saw parading around the school in lipstick and heels. He tried to hide them under frumpy, dull clothes, and keep them locked up at home. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not hide the fact that both Katerina and Anya, even at fourteen and sixteen, were extraordinarily beautiful. And he was afraid.
“Do you give up?”
“No… The tiles.”
“Close, but no.”
“Oh, you failure! Admit defeat!”
Anya giggled. Katerina pulled her scarf tighter around her neck. A girl in the magazine smiled for the camera as she pulled herself out of a pool.
The door opened and a warm breeze entered the store, followed by a young man.
Katerina had never seen anyone like him before. He could not have been more than twenty years old, but he carried himself with the self-assuredness of an adult with a plan. His skin was so pale, paler than hers, with unnaturally red hair pushed back from his forehead. His ripped black t-shirt, tight jeans, and line of earrings up his ear marked him as some sort of punk, or goth, but the smile that curved the corners of his mouth denied him the angst of a rebellious youth. He glanced around the room, his eyes flicking past still-snoring Grandpa, lingering a moment on Katerina, and finally settling on Anya. His smile grew to reveal his teeth. Katerina noticed with some unease that his canines looked especially sharp, and immediately felt like an idiot. He walked up to the deli counter and leaned against it casually. Katerina was horrified to see that Anya’s jaw had dropped.
“Do you happen to have any postcards?”
Anya nodded and pointed toward the display of postcards next to the register. As the man walked toward her, Katerina snapped her own mouth shut. He chose a postcard and took out some cash. While Katerina rang up the order, he leaned against the wall, staring at Anya, a flash of color in the grey. Anya ducked her head a little, embarrassed by the attention. Long strands of her blond hair fell across her face, her blue eyes peering out from behind the thin curtain.
“How old are you?” The man did not need to yell. His voice was quiet, but held such authority it was easily heard. Katerina realized he spoke so quietly, Grandpa did not even stir from his sleep.
“Eighteen,” lied Anya.
“That’s rather young, to be in charge of a store.”
“I’ve been working here forever. And I’m not in charge. Grandpa’s in charge.”
The man glanced at Grandpa, smiled, then put his attention back on Anya. Katerina held out his change, but the man did not take it.
“Excuse my mistake,” he said. “It’s just… You seem very mature. Very in charge. I’m sure you could handle the responsibility.”
Anya giggled, brushing her hair away from her face. Katerina looked at Grandpa, but he just snored. She held the change out to the man, but he had already begun walking back to the deli counter. Katerina thought it was funny that, until that moment, it never occurred to her that something could be a monster and a man.
“That’s an interesting necklace.”
“Grandpa gave it to me.”
“No, it’s a cross. I mean, yes, it’s silver.”
“A cross. Religious? Or Superstitious?” The man laughed, and then lowered his voice. “It’s a little silly.”
A girl in Katerina’s magazine cuddled with her boyfriend on a beach towel, one of his hands around her waist, the other against her neck.
“Do you work here often?”
“Yes, everyday. I mean I’m always here. We live right upstairs.”
“I guess. Oh, I mean, that’s funny.”
A blonde strand of hair fell across her face. He pushed it back and tucked it behind her ear. Grandpa snored gently, doing nothing. Later, Katerina may not have the courage to protect her sister. Later, she may lie in her bed, her eyes squeezed shut, while four feet away Anya’s sweater was spattered with red. Later she would lie still as a shadowy figure distorted the crucifix above her sister’s bed before escaping out the window with the warm breeze, leaving her alone with her shame. But Katerina did not yet realize that she was afraid.
“Your change, sir.”
Both the man and Anya snapped their heads toward Katerina. She had not realized how close they had leaned in toward each other until they pulled apart. The man stiffened up, and walked toward the register. He took the change, stuffing it into his back pocket. He turned back to look at Anya.
“Maybe I’ll see you again?”
Anya giggled and nodded. The man smiled, showing off his teeth once more, and turned to leave.
“Your postcard – “ said Katerina.
The man stiffened again.
“Of course,” he said. For the first time, he brought his attention to Katerina. “Thank you.” As he grabbed the postcard, his eyes caught hers. They were a light blue, like the eyes of a husky dog, but cold and menacing, like melting ice. And worst of all, they were very familiar.
As he left the store, a warm breeze entered, but Katerina felt chilly, and her arms prickled under her jacket. One look at those eyes and she was four years old again, hiding from the monsters of legend and nightmares.
Those eyes had peered at her from inside her closet and under her bed, keeping her awake until the faint light of dawn melted them into nothing. They watched her from the forest that she was forced to walk through alone to get to her violin lesson, eyes she had searched for as a child in order to know her enemy, eyes she ignored as a teenager to pretend they did not exist. But they were there in her nightmares, coloring her sleep with the palate of winter, filling her with the fear that Grandpa was not a superstitious fool. They followed her into the real world, a waking terror, staring down from the attic when she brought down the Christmas decorations, staring up from the grate beneath the deli counter when she replaced the spoiled meat.
“The grate,” said Katerina.
“Hmm?” Anya stared at the door. She took off her necklace, tucking it behind the counter.
“You spied the grate.”