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Baba had been dead for four days by the time Lissa got to speak with her.
The first day went by in a shocky stutter. 9-1-1. Waiting with Baba’s body on the kitchen floor, even though by then she knew. One of the paramedics squeezing Lissa’s hand before loading the stretcher into the ambulance.
The other paramedic was doing some kind of methodical resuscitation drill, and Baba’s body twitched dully with the movement and lay still again, and Lissa kept looking and then looking away. The ambulance siren blared, the paramedics passed each other implements, the radio buzzed with terse talk, and at the center of all this urgency, Baba was already past help.
Lissa could see a slice of Queen Street through the rear window: cars and bike couriers that had veered from their paths, a streetcar immobile on its track. Within the ambulance, columns of neat drawers and coiled cables, between which the two paramedics moved with the ease of total familiarity, never quite brushing anything. Lissa sat still where they put her.
“You can hold her hand,” one of the paramedics said.
Lissa did. It wasn’t the right temperature, and the skin felt like candle wax. She let go as soon as the paramedic’s gaze moved on.
“Are you her executor? Is there a religious official your grandmother would want present? What are her beliefs around organ donation?”
Yes, and no, and totally opposed, though Lissa could not go into the explanation with anyone. She had to answer the same questions three more times: beside the stretcher in the ER after the doctor had pronounced Baba dead, and then again with a different doctor while Baba’s body was carried away somewhere Lissa was not invited to follow.
Even after the body was gone, Lissa’s mind still kept jarring her with the image of Baba’s face, open-mouthed, eyelids stuck halfway. And the froth at her mouth, which had spilled out and crusted on the kitchen floor. And how was Lissa supposed to get to the sink without coming near that spot?
“Is there someone you’d like to call?” said the last doctor, a young-looking Korean man, pushing a desk phone toward Lissa’s hand.
Lissa flinched and tried to make it look like she’d meant to brush her hair back. “Um. No?” she said.
The doctor made a compassionate face. “Are you sure? You can take as long as you want.”
There was the lawyer, and Father Manoilov, who would arrange the funeral, but Lissa knew that wasn’t what the doctor had meant. He’d meant someone who would look after Lissa. And there wasn’t anyone like that now.
Lissa took a taxi home, though it felt utterly wrong to leave Baba’s body at the hospital. Before she had left, the doctor had handed her a manila envelope containing Baba’s rings and the gold chain she’d worn about her neck. Lissa put the envelope in her pocket, took it out and put it in her purse, took it out again and held it with both hands, just to be certain.
And then there were those calls to make, and all the while, the image of Baba’s face kept coming back to her, along with the feel of room-temperature skin, making her want to wash her hands over and over.
She did that as soon as she reached the house. She sterilized the phone too, which made no sense at all.
As soon as Father Manoilov had confirmed the booking for the church, Lissa found her shaking hands dialing her father’s number.
Dad had never liked Baba, his mother-in-law; thought her superstitious, didn’t like her influence on Lissa. But surely, he’d want to know; surely, he’d want to come—
It was late in London, and he didn’t pick up. Lissa left a voice mail. She sat by the phone in case he called back. She woke up still in the chair, in the early hours, in the silent house. The phone never rang.
Nick didn’t actually remember being kicked in the ribs, but he was sore there and gagging for breath. When he leaned forward to pick up the smoldering joint he’d dropped, blood dripped down his shaggy hair and onto his hand.
“Well, that was … shit,” he said, and he sat back on his heels, feeling a hot trickle down the side of his face. He groped around for his phone. Gone, of course. So were the credit cards. They’d left him some change, a pack of gum, and his student ID.
Jonathan was hanging over the edge of the Dumpster, heaving. “What the fuck?” he said between gasps.
Jonathan shrugged limply. “Think so.” He leaned in to puke again.
Nick got to his feet. Vicious spins rocked him, enough to make him grab on to Jonathan’s shoulder. Sweat ran on him under his T-shirt.
He spent some time just leaning there beside Jonathan, smoking the rest of the joint to steady himself—long enough that the cockroaches started coming out from under the Dumpster again. Nick couldn’t tell if his head was injured or if he just should have passed on that last round of shots. Figured the pot could only help, but it didn’t seem to be kicking in.
Jonathan hauled himself upright and smoothed his rucked T-shirt over his bony chest. “’m okay,” he said. “I think they took all my stuff, though. You?”
“Um,” Nick said.
“Oh, hang on,” Jonathan said, and he went back to vomiting.
“You are bleeding,” said someone else. His voice had an accent—Russian or Polish or something.
“Jesus!” Nick said, surprised to find his eyes shut, dragging them open. “Didn’t hear you coming.”
Nick turned his face toward the light over the bar’s back door. In its halo, all he could see was a brimmed cap and the glint of eyes and teeth in a man’s face; muscular shoulders in a wifebeater, one bicep marked with a tattoo or maybe a scar. An army guy or something. The kind of guy you could maybe allow to take charge in an emergency.
Nick stood still while a fingertip prodded at his temple and forehead. “Do you, like, know first aid?”
“You will bear a scar,” the guy said. “You should be careful in this neighborhood.”
Nick gagged on laughter. He stubbed out the joint on the rusted flank of the Dumpster and carefully stowed the roach in his pocket.
“And your friend? Is he well?”
“Hammered,” Nick said.
The guy was still standing really close. So close that Nick could see his lower lip was split, smeared with blood a little around the tear. It wasn’t reassuring. Nick edged back against the Dumpster.
The guy leaned in as if to get a closer look at Nick’s head. Instead, he laughed: a soft, bitter chuckle.
Nick laughed too, uncertainly.
The guy grabbed Nick’s shoulder hard and kissed him on the temple, right over the jagged cut. Open-mouthed. His tongue probed the torn skin and lapped at the blood. Then with a choked sound, he wrenched away.
Nick belatedly got his hands up. “What the hell—”
The guy stumbled back a few steps. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and licked that too.
Nick got his only good look at the guy then, under the bar’s security light: a tanned face, seamed with sun and wind. Dark eyes under the shadow of the weathered army-green cap.
Nick saw him take a breath as if to speak, but instead, the guy turned and ran away west down the alley.
“Jesus,” Nick said.
“What?” said Jonathan, reeling up from his slouch and wiping at his mouth with the hem of his T-shirt. “Who the hell was that?”
“I don’t know. Totally random,” Nick said, staring down the alley at the runner receding into darkness. He raised his hand to touch the cut. Wet. He jerked his hand back.
“Shit. Your head,” Jonathan said. “Should we call the cops?”
“No. No phone. And I just got baked—no way do I want to deal with the cops.” He looked at his fingertips, smeared with saliva and blood. Was it only his own blood? What if the other guy had hepatitis or something? Nick shuddered. God, he was going to hurl if he kept thinking about it. He tried to shake it off. “It’s fine. Come on, we should get out of here.”
“Get a cab?”
“No money,” Nick reminded him.
“Streetcar, then. Hope they didn’t get our tokens,” Jonathan said. “I’m not fucking walking all the way home.”
“Streetcar,” Nick agreed, shivering harder.
With the change Nick had left, they had just enough for two fares. The driver looked dubiously at Nick’s bloodied face and the smears on Jonathan’s shirt, but she let them board. A girl in the forward seats rolled her eyes. Nick and Jonathan stumbled to the rear. Jonathan took the window, and Nick sidled in close to him, chilled.
The doors flapped shut. The streetcar’s great weight rumbled forward along Queen Street. The girl at the front talked on her cell phone; a couple in the middle leaned their heads in to whisper to each other.
Nick looked over at Jonathan to see his friend scrutinizing him, brown eyes puffy and red-veined. “What the fuck was that?” Jonathan said.
“What?” Nick said. “You’re asking me? Come on. Like this was my fault.”
“Whatever,” Jonathan said. “I told you I didn’t want to smoke that joint.”
“You wanted to celebrate the end of finals, dude. Which, well deserved, by the way. And I’m pretty sure it was your idea to start with bourbon.”
“It’s just … you never know when to stop.”
“Stop when I’m dead. Jerk.”
“That was funny when we were first-years. Which was five years ago, in case you lost count.” Jonathan closed his eyes and let his head drop against the streetcar window.
“It’s still funny,” Nick said. “Come on. I’m hilarious.” There was drying blood on his fingertips. He tried to wipe them on his shorts, but the stickiness wouldn’t come off, and Jonathan wasn’t laughing, wasn’t even looking at him.
On the second day, the funeral was held in the church with all ceremony, though Baba had not been allowed to set foot in the sanctuary in life.
Lissa was still forbidden to enter the sanctuary, though Father Manoilov allowed her into the less holy parts of the building. Father Manoilov had always been polite to Baba, even deferent, as one practitioner of faith to another, both integral to their community, and he told Lissa he was thankful for the chance to welcome Baba’s soul back to the fold.
Father Manoilov ushered Lissa in the side door and let her stand at the foot of the basement stairs. She could hear most of the service.
It was in Russian, which Lissa did not really speak.
She leaned against the wall, creasing her black dress, feeling sweat pool between her breasts. Even standing up, she nearly went to sleep, catching herself upright again with a jerk of knee tendons.
Her eyes stung and burned. She had wept, of course, yesterday, but she felt more weeping under the surface, and she wanted it to stay there, safely invisible, until she could be alone for as long as she wished. As she walked about the basement, Lissa pinched the web of her thumb and bit the inside of her cheek.
She found the church kitchen, where the trays of sweets were laid out, sweating under Saran Wrap.
She found the percolator humming to itself, smelling burned already; who would want hot coffee on a day like this?
She found the refrigerator, and she opened the door wide and leaned into the cold air. The refrigerator contained a bowl of individual creamers, several cartons of milk, one of soy milk; another bowl, this one of butter pats; five pounds of grapes; and, tucked in the door, a baby’s bottle neatly labeled with today’s date and wrapped in a Ziploc bag against leakage.
Lissa picked it up and tilted it back and forth. No sediment: not formula. Why bring milk to the church when there was already—oh!
She opened the bag and then the bottle and sniffed. Definitely fresh, sweet-smelling. Mother’s milk.
After she resealed the bottle, she wrapped the bag around it again and slipped it into her purse.
And just in time: there was a recessional booming out from the organ upstairs and the great creaking shuffle of the congregation rising.
By the time the first of them came down, she was back at the foot of the stairs, composed and ready to receive condolences.
She did not want to stay in the prickling heat with the contraband bottle slowly warming inside her handbag, but she was a one-girl receiving line. Father Manoilov did not stand with her, though he patted her on the shoulder once. The entire congregation filed past and murmured the same things over and over and shook Lissa’s hand. Several of the ladies even called her koldun’ia, crossing themselves: it was the ancient word for a village witch, but here in Canada the village had become a cluster of Russian immigrants centered on the church, and koldun’ia had become something more like an honorific.
Lissa was Baba’s successor, so it was right and natural that they should transfer the title to her, but it sounded achingly strange to her ears, strange and undeserved.
Only one lady asked Lissa about her recipe. Lissa had Baba’s list of orders posted on the side of the refrigerator, but somehow she had not yet thought to review it.
The full moon was that very night, and the spells would work for two more nights after, which would give her plenty of time, at least. Lissa assured the lady she would have it ready and hoped she was not lying.
When she got home from the funeral, instead of beginning on the recipe she checked her voice mail again. One message, and she could tell right away it wasn’t from Dad, because the voice was a girl’s, light and sweet and … British?
“Lissa? I thought I should call ahead in case … look, Dad told me what happened, and I—oh, it’s Stella, I should’ve said. I’m coming. To Canada. I’m so sorry for your loss. I know she meant a lot to you, and I—look, they’re calling my flight; I have to go. See you soon!”
Stella. Lissa hadn’t seen her since the wedding of her dad to Stella’s mother, twelve years ago. She remembered a thin, laughing child in a ribboned frock who had begged Lissa to spin her around.
Stella. Not Dad.
Lissa supposed she ought to be grateful she had any family at all. Some people didn’t.
She didn’t have the family she needed, though. Like a stepsister she’d barely met could possibly do anything for her in the face of losing Baba.
Maybe it was best Dad wasn’t coming: he would have got all involved in the businessy parts, trying to make Lissa sell the house and invest in a new condo or something like that. He wouldn’t be able to help her with the church ladies. He would want her to drop everything Baba had taught her and enroll in an accounting course. At least with Stella, she’d probably just get platitudes.
Lissa dropped the phone on the floor and lay down on the sofa, exhausted beyond anything, and after dark, she woke up briefly to shuck off her dress, and then it was the third day.
Maksim slowed when the sun began to rise behind him, casting the shadow of his running form onto the dew-wet road. He veered off across unkempt grass and ducked through a stand of poplars. The buds smelled like vanilla caramel, intoxicating in the cool dawn air.
He was wringing wet with sweat, his hair and his shirt slicked to his skin. He peeled off his clothes, tossed them over a poplar branch, and strode naked right into the wavelets of Lake Ontario. The water was heavy with weed and cold enough to make him bare his teeth. He forged ahead and dove.
He burst up through the surface, blinked wet eyelashes. Lake water ran down his face, into his mouth; along with the rank freshness of aquatic life, he could taste faint lacings of city soot and jet fuel. The sunrise struck brightness off the glass towers of downtown. Maksim shook droplets from his hair and walked up through the water onto the beach.
He paced over the sand and up onto damp grass. The breeze lifted all the tiny hairs on his skin. Delicious.
With the cold and the light and the long run he’d had, Maksim came to a bit of clarity and recalled there was something not correct about walking naked out of doors beside the water.
Maksim ran his hands through his wet, matted hair and tried to think. He wasn’t supposed to be doing any of this. Was he?
He circled back along the sand to where his clothes hung from the tree; the breeze carried the reek of his own dried sweat lingering on the fabric. And something else too, on the shirt, as he pulled it from the branch and over his head, something both enticing and horrifying. He settled his cap in place and looked down at himself.
Blood. That was blood on his clothing. Only a few droplets and smears, dry and brown, but he could smell it fully now, electric. The scent shot straight to his other nature, his worst and wildest self.
Maksim rubbed the stained cloth over his face. The blood smell, his own and another’s. Whatever he’d been thinking was already lost in the intense and thoughtless pleasure his nature brought on him. His human will was nothing in the face of such intoxication.
He held still for a second with the shirt pressed to his mouth and nose. Something was not right.
Tossing his head didn’t shake off the confusion. He barely remembered to shove his feet into his battered shoes. He strode quickly west along the water’s edge and picked up speed, hitting the sand harder. Nothing in his mind but his body’s command.
Nick woke to Hannah’s voice. He wrapped his arm over his ears but couldn’t quite block it out.
“You know better than that, even if he doesn’t. Christ! You’re like little kids. I don’t know which of you is worse.”
“Hannah,” Jonathan said. “Are you seriously mad at me for getting mugged?”
“I’m mad at you for not taking your best friend to the hospital!” she said. “What if he has a concussion?”
“Me?” Nick said, squinting. “Come on, seriously? I don’t have a concussion; I have a hangover.” He sat up too quickly and saw flashes of color: pale-blue walls, burgundy Ikea love seat, salt-and-pepper shag rug, parquet floor. He pressed a hand to his head. “Why are we at your place, J?”
“You couldn’t find your key,” Jonathan said. He didn’t look so great himself: black hair shower-wet, straggling over his pale forehead, his whole posture slouched and pained.
“I don’t remember that,” Nick said before he could censor himself.
“See?” said Hannah. “Short-term memory loss. That’s not a great sign, in case you weren’t paying attention.” She was bent toward him, big brown eyes too intent and close. Nick thought her eyes were pretty, but not when she was pointing them at him like this.
“That’s a sign that I was plastered,” Nick said as firmly as he could manage. “And high. Also high.”
Hannah shone a flashlight in his face.
“What the hell?”
“Your pupils are normal,” she said, standing upright again and crossing her arms. “Any dizziness?”
“Jonathan, J, God, make your girlfriend leave me alone,” Nick said, scrambling off the love seat and making for the bathroom. “You might’ve signed up for this, but I sure as shit did not.”
“Head pain?” Hannah called after him.
“Yes!” he snapped. “You. You are a pain in my head. Also a pain in my ass. Hangover, remember? I’m helping myself to your Tylenol.”
“Take the aspirin instead. Better for your liver,” Hannah said.
Nick slammed the bathroom door and leaned over the toilet. The heaves tugged a bright net of pain over his left side. He tucked his elbow down reflexively, but it didn’t help. His head throbbed in a hot, tight, feverish way.
He didn’t look at himself in the mirror until he’d rinsed his mouth and swallowed a couple of pills. Then, with Jonathan’s washcloth, he dabbed at the crusty dried-blood trail that led down from his temple. The cut itself was beaded with fresh red and clear ooze by the time he’d finished, and it looked gross but clean. Jonathan didn’t seem to own Band-Aids large enough to cover the whole thing, but Nick put three little ones across the widest part, stretching them tight in the hopes it would pull the skin together.
His eyes looked okay to him: gray green with a dark ring around the iris, like his father’s, usually vivid against his Greek coloring, when he wasn’t busy looking like shit. Right now, his skin was weirdly sallow, and he could actually see why Hannah was freaked out, not that it was any of her business. He splashed cold water on his face until the sweaty dizziness began to recede, and then he had to redo one of the Band-Aids.
By the time he came out, Hannah had given up yelling at Jonathan and was curled up against his side on the cramped love seat, reading Harper’s, her dark bangs covering the frown in her brows.
“Seriously, though,” she said to Nick. “Can you assure me, as a grown-up, that you don’t need medical attention?”
“Don’t you count as medical attention? You’re going to be, like, a brain surgeon by next week or something. You aced everything this year, right?” As if he didn’t know; as if Hannah’s transcript wasn’t stuck to the refrigerator right here in Jonathan’s apartment. Nick didn’t know who was more proud: Hannah of her high marks or Jonathan of the genius he’d managed to convince to date him. It was kind of gross.
“No joking,” Hannah said. “I need to know you’re taking this seriously.”
“Fine,” said Nick. “I’m totally, completely fine. Swear to God.”
“And you’ve learned your lesson.”
“And you’re not going to take Jonathan drinking in bad neighborhoods anymore?”
“Not even to celebrate the end of finals? There are only so many more finals in our lives, you know,” said Nick. He shuffled over to the love seat and slouched down on the arm of it, ignoring the way it creaked. “And as soon as they’re all over, you’re going to make Jonathan marry you, and then neither of us is ever going to have fun ever again.”
“There’s fun, and then there’s fun,” Hannah said with one of her sudden little grins; she glanced up at Jonathan through her eyelashes, and he sighed happily and kissed the side of her head.
“Gross,” Nick said aloud. “J, that was supposed to make you uncomfortable. The marriage thing, I mean. And you’re just sitting there and taking it.”
“It’s not like we haven’t thought about it,” Jonathan said, yawning. “I mean, we’ve been together two years already. I’m only one more semester away from my MA, and then I do my doctorate and Hannah does her residency, and assuming the stress doesn’t make us kill each other…”
“So romantic,” Hannah said, rolling her eyes a little. “I just know he’s going to propose while I’m in the middle of a thirty-hour shift, up to my elbows in placenta or something.”
Nick groaned and wrapped his arms around his head. “You’re going to make me puke,” he said, and it didn’t come out as jokey as he was hoping, given the upsurge of actual nausea in his throat. “I’m unfriending you and moving to Japan to teach English or something.”
“Nope. No way. You’ll be our best man,” Hannah said, reaching up to pat Nick’s cheek. “If you live that long.”
Nick gingerly slid down to the floor away from her hand and propped himself against the love seat’s leg. “If you have any sisters, I’ll try to make it until the wedding.”
“As if I’d ever let my sisters within a mile of you,” Hannah said.
“Pick out my tux while you’re at it,” Jonathan said, stretching. “But let’s do it over eggs.”
“Eggs!” Nick agreed with an enthusiasm he definitely didn’t feel.
He managed to keep it together through a diner breakfast, forcing down enough bacon and pancake to keep Hannah off his back. Jonathan kept going back over the mugging, making up details that Nick swore to. He didn’t mention the other guy—maybe didn’t even remember him—and Nick wasn’t going to be the one to start that.
At least he’d found his house key in the bottom of the wrong pocket of his blood-smeared cargo shorts.
By the time he made it home, he was bagged—cold and exhausted and nauseated, and his ribs burned, and maybe he was being an idiot about not going to the doctor, but he just wanted his own bed.
He went to sleep right away. Sometimes he shivered himself back awake. Sometimes he sweated.
Everything hurt, bone-deep. Everything thrummed with a feverish energy.
Sometimes he heard a voice that might have been his own, whining quietly like a puppy—sometimes, outside, the rush and roar of the city as it rolled over from day toward night.
The third day consisted of organizing the cremation, the transfer of the deed to the house, the bank account.
Also, it was time to wash the kitchen floor.
Lissa was just filling a bucket when the doorbell rang. The church ladies had been coming by since the funeral, but silently. Women brought rugelach and blood sausages and huge Tupperware bowls of borscht and left them on her doorstep. Gifts, as well as food: a little leather purse of subway tokens, a basket of herbal teas, and several envelopes of cash. But they did not interrupt Lissa in her time of grief.
Through the front window, Lissa saw a taxi departing. She dried her hands and opened the door.
A young woman stood before her, tall and smooth-haired, with a silk scarf around her throat and a characteristic way of tilting her chin down. “Stella?” Lissa said.
“Did I make it in time?” Stella said. “I flew out as soon as Dad called me, but I wasn’t sure. He’s in Belgium right now, closing a deal, and Mum couldn’t leave the surgery, but I thought someone should come to you.”
“You missed the funeral,” Lissa said.
“Oh,” Stella said. “I’m sorry.” She stood there, hair and scarf stirring in the warm breeze.
Lissa stood, too, in the doorway of the house, which was her house now—every dim and dusty corner of it, every old book. She felt it hunched behind her like an injured animal, waiting to be put out of its misery.
Stella stepped forward and embraced her carefully. She smelled faintly of expensive scent. After a moment, she let go and patted Lissa’s shoulder, fished in her purse, found a travel pack of Kleenex, and handed one to Lissa.
Lissa took it automatically and kept standing there, and then Stella’s arms came around her again.
“You’ve been doing this all alone, haven’t you?” Stella said. “It’s okay. I’ll help with everything. I can stay as long as you need.” She took the tissue and wiped the tears from Lissa’s face until Lissa pulled away, edging back inside the house.
Stella followed her in. “I’ll just bring my gear in, shall I?” she said, and she started lugging things into the front room: two suitcases, one of which was tagged as overweight; a rolling laptop case; and a handsome leather tote with a scarf tied around the strap.
Lissa backed against the hallway radiator. “You … you don’t have a hotel room, do you?”
“That’s all right, isn’t it?” Stella said over her shoulder. “Dad said the house was big. And the flight pretty much used up my budget.” She came up with the tote and the laptop case and stacked them on Lissa’s sofa. “Dad wanted me to tell you he’s sorry for your loss,” she said, a little stiffly.
“Um. Thanks.” Lissa took the tote and the laptop case from the sofa and placed them fussily beside the lamp in the corner. Stella, seeming not to notice, put one of the suitcases on the sofa instead.
“He didn’t even write a card, the arse,” Stella burst out. “I shouldn’t’ve said that! I’m sorry. I know he feels for you, of course he does, he’s just—”
“He’s just Dad,” Lissa said, moving the suitcase into the corner with the other things. Dad called Lissa once or twice a year, on or near her birthday. On Christmas sometimes too, forgetting that Baba and Lissa followed the Russian tradition of celebrating the new year instead. “It’s fine. I’m used to it.”
“It’s not fine. Family needs to stick together. That’s why I came,” Stella said.
“How long are you here for?” Lissa asked, taking the final suitcase out of Stella’s hands and wheeling it into the corner.
“As long as you’ll have me.” Stella smiled tentatively. “I mean, I figured you might need some help cleaning the house.”
“I don’t have a guest room,” Lissa said. The house had three bedrooms: Baba’s, Lissa’s, and the storage room. She wondered if she sounded like a jerk but didn’t apologize.
“You have a chesterfield,” Stella said, biting her lip. “You won’t even notice me. And I can help—really, I can.”
Stella didn’t look particularly useful: all posh prettiness and sleek blown-out hair, even after however many hours on a plane. She looked like the receptionist at a high-end law office: someone who probably made a great cup of tea and knew people’s official titles. Not what Lissa needed at all. And if Lissa was right, the quickest way to get rid of her was probably to take her up on her offer.
“The kitchen floor needs mopping,” Lissa said. “That’s where Baba died.”
She led Stella into the room, where the bucket still stood, half-filled. She stopped short of pointing out the spot on the floor, not out of kindness but because the words backed up in her throat.
Stella was too tall to look up at Lissa, but with her head ducked down like that she gave a good imitation of it. After a stiff moment, Stella unclenched her hands, took the mop—wordlessly—and the bottle of Mr. Clean, laid her pair of gold rings on the counter, and went to work.
Lissa left her to it, shut herself in the upstairs bathroom, and had a very long shower. When she was as clean as she could get, she still didn’t know what to do next.
She dressed and braided her hair. In the mirror, she saw a person who would never be mistaken for anything other than Stella’s stepsister: six inches shorter, heavier chested, lacking Stella’s lean grace. Fair-haired but not quite blond. Peasant stock. When Lissa got old, she’d look just like Baba, lumpy and square.
That was half of why Dad had left Mum, she thought; bearing Lissa had used up whatever beauty had attracted Dad. Or maybe as he earned more money he’d felt himself entitled to someone more cultured, with less old-country baggage. He’d met Julie while he was on a business trip.
He hadn’t married Julie until well after Mum died. Lissa didn’t know why he’d waited.
She wondered if he’d ever talked with Stella about any of it.
Downstairs, Stella was just putting away the mop in the closet under the stairs. She rolled her head on her neck and said, “It’s just drying. I was wondering—I’m starved—do you have a favorite takeaway? On me, I mean.”
Lissa, feeling like even more of a jerk, picked her way over the damp spots on the kitchen floor to show Stella the refrigerator stuffed with the casseroles and soups from the church ladies.
“My God,” said Stella. “How many people do they think are living here?”
They ended up eating cold borscht and piroshki, sitting on the porch steps. By the time she’d finished her portion, Stella was yawning every minute. “It’s much later at home,” she explained. “I found some sheets in the closet and set up the chesterfield. I was wondering if you have a spare pillow?”
As easy as that, Lissa seemed to have missed her chance to be firm and send Stella to a hotel. For tonight, anyway.
She gave up thinking of it after a minute and helped Stella get settled, locating towels and pillows and toothpaste. Stella went to hug Lissa again when she said good night, and Lissa let her, standing still within the circling arms.
Lissa shut the door and wandered back into the kitchen, where the floor was now clean and she could walk on every part without seeing Baba’s face and the dribble of bloody sputum.
She saw it, anyway. She should have expected it, she said to herself, trembling beside the cabinet, unwilling to cross to the sink.
There were recipes to make for the ladies. Tonight was a day off the full moon, and her unexpected houseguest was sleeping. There would not be a better time.
She still could not face the kitchen. She turned away and went to bed.
And then it was the fourth day, and the lawyer called her to come by for Baba’s lockbox, which turned out to contain the letter and the doll.
Augusta lived in a squalid apartment at the top of a fire escape: iron stairs switchbacking up the side of a pitted cinder-block wall. The motion-sensor light at the top was long dead, but the ambient light of the city was strong enough to show Maksim the way. Some of the stairs were weak with rust. Maksim jogged up them carelessly, feeling the whole assemblage tremble under his weight, daring it to collapse.
“Augusta!” he called as he ascended. He thumped on the door with his fist. “Augusta!”
He couldn’t hear anything from within. The narrow pane of safety glass in the door was dark. Midnight was long past, but from elsewhere in the building, Maksim heard percussive music and shouting. Maybe Augusta was there, partying.
He thought he could scent her near, though: warm and unwashed and boozy. Maybe she was sleeping. She should not sleep when he had need of her.
Maksim settled his weight and punched through the safety glass. It didn’t break on his first try, so he kept at it. First the glass webbed into pale cracks, and then after a few more hits it fell inward, taking a few splinters of the frame with it. Maksim reached through and unbolted the door and let himself in.
Augusta sprawled facedown on her slumped sofa, head pillowed on one arm, the other flung outward. She was snoring very lightly. An army-surplus T-shirt was rucked up above her waist, exposing the worn waistband of her jeans and a few inches of skin.
Maksim kicked the leg of the sofa. “Augusta,” he said, not quite a shout.
She stirred then, finally, with a sleepy murmur. “Maks?”
“Get up,” he said.
“Mmm, nope.” She buried her face in the crook of her arm.
Maksim took hold of the nearest object and threw it at her.
It turned out to be a glass, and it bounced off Augusta’s shoulder and shattered on the floor.
“Asshole!” Augusta growled, sitting up. Her pale hair was crushed flat on one side and matted into a wild tangle on the other. “Stop breaking my shit.”
“I must speak with you.”
“What did I do this time? I don’t remember doing anything.” Her voice was rough with sleep and drink; Maksim wondered if she would even remember this conversation later.
“You did nothing. That I know of,” he said.
“Then it can wait until morning.” But Augusta was already sitting up, scrubbing a hand through her hair, tugging her khaki T-shirt roughly into place, groping around for something. She located it tucked within the threadbare cushions of the sofa: a mostly empty bottle of rum. She upended the bottle over her mouth. Most of the rum made it in.
Maksim sat down beside her, shoulder to shoulder, feeling the sleepy heat of her. “I wish you were sober just now,” he said. “I need your help.”
“You’re being weird. And you’re bloody,” Augusta said, blinking sandy eyes in the dimness. She ran a fingertip over the split knuckles of Maksim’s right hand.
“I broke your door.”
“Haven’t seen you lose your temper in so long, I didn’t know if you were capable of it anymore,” Augusta said. “It’s kind of a relief. You’re not so much better than me, after all.” She raised Maksim’s hand to her mouth and licked gently over the raw, broken skin, soothing it with her tongue.
“I have never been better than you,” Maksim murmured. “I have been so, so much worse. You should turn from me. Maybe you will yet.”
Augusta reared away from him. “What the fuck?” she snapped. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” She emphasized it with a sharp smack from the flat of her hand across Maksim’s chest.
Maksim felt his mouth snarl. “I need help,” he said again. “Something is wrong. I feel like … something is wrong.”
“You smell different,” Augusta said. She leaned in again and sniffed at his neck. “Better.”
He could smell himself: sweat and blood and rust from the fire escape, and none of that was what Augusta meant.
“What did you do?” she said. “You gave up the curse, didn’t you? About fucking time!”
His hand wrapped around her throat, silencing her, before he had even thought. “It is a balm, not a curse, and I did not give it up,” he said. “I cannot. I would not.”
Augusta shoved his hand away. “Then what?”
Maksim was on his feet, turning. “I wish I knew. All I know is that I feel wrong.” Wrong, or all too right. The last couple of days had been too delicious, too much like the old days. The miles he had felt the need to run, the sweet ache in his calves only spurring him on faster. The hot sweat sliding down the hollow of his spine. The way he had not been able to resist that young man. All the pleasures Iadviga’s invocation had blunted.
More than any of those, the craving for harm.
He should have thought of it right away, of course; only he had been drunk with it as he had not been in years. He should have known his pleasure for the ill omen it was.
“I must go to the witch,” he said.
Augusta scowled. “No.”
“You may not command me,” Maksim said, fisting both hands in the denim of his jeans to stop himself lashing out.
“I know I can’t. But you never fight me anymore,” Augusta said and grinned through a yawn.
Maksim tipped her chin up to see her face in the angle of brightness from the streetlight outside. Her eyes looked puffy, lined, older than the rest of her.
“You are too foxed to fight,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
“You were the one who woke me up, breaking shit,” Augusta said. She tugged free of his hand. “Come on. Let’s put some coffee on, and then you can punch my lights out. Just tell me you’ll stay away from that unnatural piece of work.”
Maksim hesitated for a second. Didn’t he usually want to be kind? But Augusta’s tone was too much to swallow when his body thrummed with this urge to move. He slapped her openhanded across the ear.
Augusta laughed and surged to her feet, butting her forehead right into Maksim’s chin, knocking his cap off. “Yeah! Let’s go. Come on.”
He came back with a messy uppercut, catching her in the ribs and making her grunt. At the gym Maksim owned, he taught students of all levels, but none of them were kin, and Maksim was always pulling his punches. Here, and only here, he could let fly with close to his full strength.
“See?” Augusta gasped, ducking to let Maksim’s fist overshoot her head and smack into the door frame. “That’s it!” And he took her full in the cheek with his other fist, splitting the skin.
But she had been passed out drunk earlier while he was furious and on edge, and he shortly sent Augusta reeling backward into the scatter of broken safety glass.
She hit the wall hard with one shoulder and bit off a curse word.
“I take no pleasure in damaging you,” Maksim said.
“Liar,” Augusta said, without heat, twisting to tug down her torn shirt collar and inspect her shoulder.
Maksim picked up the rum bottle and held it up to the wash of light from the window—a finger left, at most.
“Give me that,” said Augusta, stumbling over to drop to the sofa. “It wasn’t my best fight. I’ll do better tomorrow.”
“That is what we all say,” Maksim said, gulping the rum and tossing the empty bottle in the direction of the kitchenette.
Augusta cursed him, so he turned his back on her before he succumbed to the want in his fists again. He left her dim, stuffy room, jogged down the iron stairs, and vaulted over the last half story.
Then he went to see the witch.
Lissa closed her bedroom door. The air hung still and stuffy. She’d told Stella she wanted a nap. She sat on her bed, back against the headboard, and opened the lockbox.
The doll, unclothed muslin body scalloped with faint brown stains, had eyes that opened and closed. Its porcelain head was capped with carefully sewn curls of auburn hair. Human hair. Baba’s hair, it would be, cut when she was young enough that it held no gray. Lissa thought Baba must have made the doll originally for her daughter, Lissa’s mother. Lissa tilted it back and forth, watching the clear, glassy gaze, and laid it on her lap.
The letter was on lined paper torn from a Mead notebook and folded small. Baba had written it in pencil, dark, spiky, and sprawling.
The letter reminded her again of the old story for which Lissa had been named: Vasilissa the Beautiful, or Vasilissa the Wise, depending on the version.
Vasilissa, like so many girls in old stories, grew up with a stepmother who hated her. The stepmother sent Vasilissa into the forest one night to ask the witch Baba Yaga for a light. Baba Yaga lived in a house that strutted about on hen’s legs, and she rode through the sky in a mortar. Her house stood in a yard ringed with a fence of skulls mounted on spears, and the skulls’ eyes burned with fire.
When Vasilissa explained her predicament, Baba Yaga said she might stay and work, and then she assigned her three tasks: cooking enough dinner for ten people, sorting and grinding a sack of millet, and squeezing all the oil from a sack of poppy seeds.
Vasilissa’s sole memento of her departed mother was a doll, which she brought with her everywhere, even into the forest to visit the witch. At the full moon, Vasilissa could ask this doll three questions, because as usual in stories, everything came in threes. Vasilissa asked the doll to help her through the three tests Baba Yaga set for her, and the doll gave her such good advice that Vasilissa was able to do everything the witch had asked. Baba Yaga was so impressed that she agreed to give Vasilissa a light to take back to her stepmother: not just any light, but one of the fiery-eyed skulls.
When Vasilissa returned from the forest, bearing the skull aloft on its spear, her stepmother was at first grateful, for there had been no light in the home since Vasilissa left. But the skull’s flaming eyes began to scorch the stepmother, and when she tried to hide, the skull followed her and burned her to a cinder.
Vasilissa then took up the skull again, went back into the forest, and asked Baba Yaga to teach her all her magic. With the help of her doll, Vasilissa was able to perform all the tasks Baba Yaga demanded in exchange. Eventually, Vasilissa became a powerful witch in her own right, so powerful that she drew the attention of the czar, who made her his wife; and the story said she carried her mother’s doll in her pocket for all her days.
There were other stories about Vasilissa, or maybe there was more than one Vasilissa, but this one was important for the kernel of truth in it, or so Baba said: a witch could make such a doll and hand it down to her daughter or to her granddaughter. Once a month, around the full moon, such a doll could be of help.
Baba’s letter ended with instructions and a charm, which Lissa read through a few times before sneaking down to the kitchen to pick up the supplies she would need.
Back upstairs, she set the doll on the bedside table, crumbled a slice of bread before it, and sprinkled salt from the shaker.
She felt almost embarrassed, even though she was alone: this was a new thing, this ritual, and she had only a folktale to suggest it would work. It wasn’t like Baba could have tested it in advance. Maybe Lissa was getting her hopes up over nothing … and maybe, even if it didn’t work, it would only be because Lissa herself didn’t know how to do it correctly.
Before she could talk herself into a spiral of doubt, Lissa took a sharp breath and whispered the charm: By the white rider of dawn, by the red rider of day, by the black rider of night, I call to you: Iadviga Rozhnata, your scion desires your counsel.
“How long has it been?” said Baba from somewhere in the bottom of Lissa’s brain. Her voice was a cold wind.
“This is the fourth day,” said Lissa. “There was the funeral, and then Stella came, and the lawyer—”
“And on what business do you desire my counsel?”
“I don’t know,” said Lissa. She found she was crying again. She wiped her cheek with the back of her hand and wiped that upon her skirt. “I don’t know.”
“Vnuchka, I am not to be called idly. Ask counsel.”
Baba sounded a bit lecturing, Lissa thought, like always. And very far away.
“Where are you? What’s it like?” Lissa said. “Can you counsel me about that?”
“I may not speak of it.”
“I always thought that story was just a story. I didn’t know you’d be waiting.…”
Baba was silent.
“I’m going to make up some spells for a few of the ladies,” Lissa said. “Will they all still come to me … will they trust me to do it right?”
“You have learned some of my trade,” Baba said. “They will have no cause to complain, so long as you remember your lessons.”
Not quite the wholehearted endorsement she’d been hoping for.
Three questions. Lissa bit down on the tip of her tongue to stop herself from saying anything careless.
Finally, she settled on, “Was there anything you left unfinished?”
Baba did not answer quickly. Her silence felt alive and dark and chilly. Lissa began to wonder if this was another forbidden question or if she had somehow made Baba angry.
“Maksim Volkov,” Baba said. “In life, I was sworn to help him. In death, I may do so no longer. If he comes to you, know that he is kin.”
“Kin? You mean we’re related to him somehow?”
But silence was her only answer. Baba was gone. When Lissa said the charm again, nothing happened. She shook the doll. The eyelids fluttered open and shut; one of them stuck higher than the other, giving the thing an expression of drunkenness.
Lissa carefully jiggled it back into place and set the doll in her lap. She folded the letter up small and zipped it into a pocket of her purse.
“If you can hear me,” she said, “I’ll talk to you again as soon as I’m allowed, next month. I love you. If you’re there.”
When she came downstairs, Stella looked at her face and went to hug her again.
“I’m fine,” Lissa said, backing into the banister and rubbing at her eyes.
“Another delivery came,” Stella said. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
“What was it?”
Stella didn’t answer but led her into the dining room, where a box sat on the table.
“It’s the urn,” she said. “A gentleman from the mortuary brought it over.”
“I never asked her what she wanted done with her ashes,” Lissa said.
“You didn’t know she’d go suddenly,” Stella said. “She was in good health, wasn’t she? Dad said she was strong as a horse. You can’t blame yourself.”
“I should have asked,” Lissa said. Three questions, and she had not managed to make this one of them.
She took the urn upstairs to put it on Baba’s dresser, for now.
Stella followed her into the big, dim room. “How many rooms does this place have?” she said. “I’ll bet this house hasn’t been sorted in a dog’s age.”
“She had better things to do,” Lissa flared, thinking of the third bedroom, a warren of boxes dating from when her mother was still alive. “I should’ve. It was my job to keep things clean.”
“Even her knickers?” Stella said, wincing at the overflowing laundry basket.
“Don’t,” Lissa said. “Don’t.” She couldn’t get anything else out of her mouth. She crowded Stella backward out the door and into the hallway. “Don’t. Don’t.”
Stella stumbled, caught herself on the banister. “I want to help,” she said. “That’s all.”
“I don’t need your help,” Lissa said. “Where were you before?” Which didn’t even make sense, and damn it, when had she started crying again?
Stella had her hands tight together, and she was looking at Lissa with that face, and Lissa pushed past her into the bathroom and locked the door.
“Lissa? I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” A breath. Feet shuffling.
Lissa shoved her fists against her temples and wiped messy tears all over. She unrolled a crumple of toilet paper and blew her nose.
“Lissa … I don’t quite know what to do,” Stella said through the door. “I’m getting it all wrong. I think I should go out for a bit, okay? So you can have some space.”
“Yes. Please,” Lissa managed to say, thick and wet.
Silence. Lissa blew her nose again.
Eventually, she heard Stella’s footsteps moving away, pausing at the top of the stairs, and then descending.
A minute later, the front door opened and closed.
Stupid, this was all stupid and wrong, and she needed to do something different. Well, there was something she’d been avoiding, and today was the last day she’d be able to do it until next month.
She went to the house mains and shut off the breaker. The subterranean hum of the house cut off, leaving blank silence. Lissa wondered how the kolduny had discovered that electricity was unfriendly to magic: had they gathered somewhere in the old country to discuss it? Had they written each other letters? Baba had rarely spoken of such things, but when she did, Lissa could not always tell whether she was learning rules or merely Baba’s habits. The most important Law she knew because of the way Baba looked whenever she mentioned it: flinty and staring, holding Lissa’s eyes until she was sure Lissa understood.
Magic was to be done only on the full moon and the next two days after. Never on or near the new moon. That was Law.
“Like, the kind of law where if you break it other witches will arrest you?” Lissa had asked when she was a young girl. Baba had not laughed but had answered, “No, vnuchka. Law like the law of gravity. Nature imposes it, and if we break it the consequence is inevitable and severe.”
So the kitchen corkboard always had a calendar with the phases of the moon highlighted, right underneath the cookbooks where Lissa could easily see it.
The grimoire of the koldun Anatoliy Ievlev stood on a shelf up higher, inside a cupboard, above the cookbooks and the calendar. It was a heavy tome with ragged-edged pages and a gold-stamped spine, printed in Moscow toward the end of the nineteenth century, probably as a curiosity more than a text; Baba had learned from a different grimoire, she said, but that one had been lost when she fled Russia, and so this one had been ordered at great expense from an antiquarian in Yekaterinburg on the occasion of Lissa’s twelfth birthday. For Lissa’s benefit, Baba had interleaved her own penciled translations, written on envelopes or notebook sheets, tucked in between the musty-smelling pages of Cyrillic. Lissa still had to stand on a step stool to reach that cupboard; she’d done it so many times now that her fingertips found the right book unerringly.
Lissa moved about the room in the dimness, setting out a row of tea lights. She couldn’t see the floor in this light, the stain where Baba had lain, which wasn’t even there anymore. She groped in a drawer for matches, felt a knife blade slide silken over the ball of her thumb.
The first match crumbled. The second fizzled. The third caught. She touched it to the wicks of the tea lights, and the unsteady light made the dark look darker. She licked at the cut on her thumb.
Next came the loosing of bonds. All the kolduny agreed that magic could not be done if the koldun wore anything knotted or clasped. Lissa unfastened her bra and wriggled it out through the armholes of her tank top and opened the clip that held her hair, letting the mass of it down over her shoulders.
She laid out her gear on the kitchen table: Baba’s wooden spoon, the last thing her hand had touched in life; a Pyrex mixing bowl and a tiny spice-toasting pan; mortar and pestle; an assortment of flasks and test tubes, mostly purchased when Brunswick Collegiate closed its doors and sold off the contents of its classrooms.
From the cupboard over the refrigerator, the shoe box full of old baby food jars, some labeled in Lissa’s hand, some in Baba’s. From the fridge itself, a fresh dozen eggs.
The most recent orders from the church ladies were written on a magnetic shopping notepad. For children, Baba had written, in deference to Lissa’s poor Russian. For bones. For sleep.
Lissa tugged strands of hair from her mouth and bent over the grimoire. Fertility was hard; she hadn’t done it before. She would have to learn.
For the base, Anatoliy Ievlev suggested wine, but Stella seemed to have finished off the bottle of pinot grigio from the refrigerator; Baba had often substituted plain white vinegar, and Lissa did so again, splashing a cup into the Pyrex bowl.
Rabbit fur. Anatoliy Ievlev explained, “For they of all the animal kingdom are the best known for their increase.” In one of the baby food jars was a rabbit’s-foot key chain, some of the fur already scraped away for an earlier ritual. Lissa razored off another tuft and placed it in her tiny cast-iron spice-toasting pan upon the stove.
Baba’s old gas stove was of the avocado-colored variety and had no automatic lighter; Lissa had to slide a lit match up to the burner to catch the gas.
Soon the rabbit fur twisted and charred. Another moment and it sprang into flame, and Lissa wrinkled her nose against the stink.
The ashes went into her mortar to be ground fine, and from there into the Pyrex, where they floated atop the vinegar. Lissa had asked once why so many ingredients had to be burned and put into the mortar before going into the recipe: was it something to do with the mortar the witch in the story used to ride around in? Baba had chuckled at that and said it was only that otherwise the texture would end up uneven.
Next, Anatoliy Ievlev directed her to add the more pedestrian clover and raspberry leaves, without explaining in what way they related to fertility. Both herbs toasted crisp and ground to powder, she passed on to the final item on the list: mother’s milk.
From the refrigerator, she withdrew the baby’s bottle she’d stolen during the funeral. You didn’t pass up a chance like that. Anatoliy Ievlev had the right sense of it. The fluids of the body were always, always potent in spells.
She trickled the milk into the vinegar mixture and used Baba’s spoon to stir it all together. She tilted in a few drops of red food coloring until the mixture achieved a dull pink color.
Lastly, the hokey part. When she was younger, she would blush at the sheer weirdness of it, especially the way Baba did it, intoning the words in a voice of drama and mystery.
She knew by now that the manner didn’t matter so much. You didn’t have to shout, either. The spirits would hear you, even if you spoke English, even if you stammered, even if you spoke in a whisper because your father slept upstairs. So long as the moon was full, or near full; so long as the speaker asked politely; so long as the speaker was a witch.
She took up the first egg in her left hand and dipped her right in the vinegar mixture.
“As the seed grows to flower; as the egg grows to chick; as the moon grows to full; so, I ask you, grant healthy increase. Riders of dawn and day and dusk, I ask you. I, Vasilissa, granddaughter of Iadviga, ask you this.”
She finger-painted the egg with the curdled pink mixture and, with it, felt the spell sink into place.
The doorbell rang sometime after midnight.
Right: Lissa had not given Stella a key. After a couple of hours of cooking and chanting and being alone in the house, she felt her earlier emotional reaction seemed out of scale, ridiculous. She set aside a just-completed egg in the carton, washed her hands quickly, and went to let her stepsister in.
It was a man, though, a stranger. Tanned arms, muscled like a martial artist. He wore old jeans and a brimmed cap shadowing his face under the porch light.
“You are the granddaughter,” he said.
“And you are?” asked Lissa, blocking the entrance with her body.
“Maksim Volkov.” His voice had a hoarse, strained edge to it.
“Oh. Yes. You knew my grandmother.”
“For many years,” he said. “Is she not at home?”
“She’s dead,” Lissa blurted.
Maksim Volkov tilted his head and stared at her. She thought he had a funny way of standing, absolutely still but somehow ready to burst into motion.
“I guess you hadn’t heard,” she said. “A few days ago. It was a heart attack.”
“She left nothing for me?” said Maksim.
Lissa shook her head and spread her hands.
“You cannot help me?” He loomed toward her. She backed up a step into the hallway. Maksim crowded closer and caught her by the arm, gripping tight.
“Let me go,” Lissa said, fighting to keep her voice steady.
“I must know if you are also a witch.” His voice was rougher with each word, a dark rasp as of a file on granite.
So he knew and wanted something, and Baba had said he was kin. She nodded, and he abruptly let go of her arm. Mingled with the budding lilacs, she could smell him: a heavy reek of sweat.
“Tell me she taught you,” said Maksim.
“I can do some things. She wanted me to help you. But you can’t just, just push in here.”
“Can you give me calm? Or sleep? I would not ask you,” said Maksim, “except that I have a great need.”
“I can see that,” Lissa said, rubbing her arm. Sleep wasn’t so hard. And Baba had given her his name. She fought down her unease. “Okay.”
He sighed in relief and shuffled along behind Lissa as she led him down the hallway to the kitchen.
“Is it insomnia, then?” she said. “Because you sound like—”
Then she saw him in the light of the kitchen candles. Maksim was filthy: grit spattered his jeans halfway up the calf, and his tank top was far from white. Something dark spotted the fabric down one side of his chest; his lower lip looked bruised. His hair under the brim of his cap was stiff with salt.
He eased himself onto one of the high stools and hunched there, rubbing one palm against his thigh. A muscle in his jaw knotted and released, knotted and released.
“I was thinking tea, but maybe you’d like something stronger,” Lissa said. “There’s some rye. I could do you up a rye and Coke.”
He nodded sharply.
Lissa found the rye and mixed him a fairly stiff drink. “How are you related to my grandmother?” she asked.
Maksim gave Lissa a flat look. “If she kept silence, it is not mine to break. But if you are wondering whether you should send me from the room, there is no need. I have seen your grandmother at her work.”
“All of it?”
“I have seen her mix potions, and I have seen her say runes as she painted eggs. If that is not all of it, it is all I know to ask of you.”
If Lissa hadn’t heard it straight from Baba herself, she wouldn’t have believed it: Someone who knew what they did yet wasn’t part of the community around the church? Someone who had actually been in the room when Baba was working? Someone whom Lissa had never met in all the years she’d lived here?
But the cold voice in the back of her head had been perfectly clear. Lissa had asked Baba about unfinished business, and this man was the answer.
“Here,” she said. “I’ll leave the rye and the Coke beside you; help yourself. I don’t want you walking around, spoiling my concentration.”
To be honest, Maksim’s presence would shake Lissa’s concentration no matter what he did. Strangeness hung about him. But admitting this would not inspire confidence, and while she didn’t really want him watching her, she wanted even less to let him sit unattended in some other part of her house.
She went back to the fertility eggs before the mixture could dry out, fetching another couple of cartons from the refrigerator.
Then she found another page in the grimoire and began on the sleep eggs.
The words were different, and this recipe called for the hair of cats and for valerian and lavender; but this spell was one Lissa had done before, and she moved through the ritual with a bit more confidence. She and Baba had been trading these off for years now, long enough that Baba had stopped bothering to test Lissa’s eggs before handing them out to the ladies.
Across the room, Maksim waited in silence, flames reflecting from his eyes beneath the brim of his cap. Now and then, she heard liquid on glass.
Lissa finished the sleep eggs after another hour. She flipped the main back on, and the refrigerator hummed back to life.
Maksim was squinting at the rye bottle. “Very little is left,” he said. “I apologize.”
Lissa blinked. “Whatever. It’s been in that cupboard for ages. I’m just surprised you got through it all.” She settled on the other stool beside Maksim. “These are ready for you now. You’ll want to take them at home, where you can—”
He took one of the fresh eggs and cracked it into his glass, where it slopped unattractively into the dregs of his rye and Coke. He downed the whole mess in a swallow, grimacing.
Lissa choked. “I was going to tell you to take it in a milk shake.”
After a moment, during which Lissa watched him closely, Maksim let out a breath and slouched a little where he sat. “I think it is good.”
He let his head sink onto his folded arms.
Lissa cleaned the kitchen around him, moving softly. Her newest patient shifted only once to turn his face against his forearm and settle more easily. He breathed slow and deep.
A success, then. She only hoped he could wake up enough to make himself scarce before Stella got back. She refrigerated the newly bespelled eggs, washed out the mixing bowls and spoon, and put away the grimoire.
By that time, Maksim was stirring. He lifted one eyelid and turned to pillow his cheek on his fist. “You are accomplished, koldun’ia,” he murmured.
“That’s the first time you’ve used my title.”
“I was not sure you merited it.” He pushed himself up to lean against the wall and dumped the rest of the rye into his glass. He was too brown-complected to go truly pale, but he was very sallow, so the stubble stood out dark on his chin.
“I hope you didn’t drive here,” Lissa said.
Maksim blinked heavily. “I ran. If I do not keep myself fatigued, there is no telling what I will do.” He quirked the corner of his mouth and swallowed some of the rye, straight. “I have done something that is not permitted already.”
But he shook his head, letting his eyes droop closed. He lay against the wall, boneless.
“I think I infected someone.” Maksim’s voice startled her just as she thought he’d fallen asleep. He sounded drunk, as well he should. “I was not trying. You must understand, I was not the one who hurt him. He was only there, bleeding, and I came upon him. The smell, the sight—it was … irresistible.”
“What did you do?”
“You are right!” he snapped as if she’d accused him. “It is my duty to resist. But it is very hard, and this time I failed.”
“Just tell me what you did.”
“Licked him,” Maksim said, sudden mad laughter in his voice. “Then I ran away.”
“You found some poor guy bleeding—and you licked him and ran away.”
Maksim slouched farther down, one hand over his face. “Part of me is not human, koldun’ia. And the other part is not good.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lissa said. “You need to tell me from the beginning.”
But Maksim slid down from the stool, supporting himself on the counter, and gave her a distracted half smile. “I must go,” he said. “I will take these eggs with me, yes?”
“Yes,” Lissa said. “But I’d really like to know—”
Maksim waved a dismissive hand. “I will tell you another time, when I have more words. These eggs are fine, koldun’ia.”
“That’s … good.” Though he had only slept for a few minutes. Lissa had expected these eggs to be knockouts. “That’s good,” she said again to cover her worry.
He was already walking away from her, down the hallway, trailing his hand along the wall for balance.
“Are you sure you’re okay to get home on your own?”
He chuckled, low and chilly. “No concern for me is warranted, koldun’ia.” He slanted a glance at her from beneath his cap, nodded once, and let the door close.
Copyright © 2016 by Claire Humphrey