Arkadiy and Stella, Phillip and Junie
Lisa Locascio

Stella is on her way to the bathroom, clutching the hem of her Malbec-soaked skirt, when a boy in footed pajamas steps out of the wall with a white ferret in his arms.
"Hello," he says in an accent Stella can't place. "My name is Arkadiy. This is Junie."

The rodent nods its snout.
Stella blinks. "I'm Stella."

The ferret is slung over Arkadiy's shoulder. Stray tufts of white fur decorate his black-and-gray striped pajamas. He holds Junie's torso with his right hand and strokes its—her?—back with his left. Junie curves her long neck up behind his ear and nuzzles him. He turns and kisses the ferret on the nose, seeking her gaze. Then he looks at Stella again. "Are you here for dinner?"

Stella lets go of her skirt with her left hand, smoothing it down over her legs, and bunches the stain in her right. "Yes."
"You will enjoy dinner very much." The boy's smile reveals sharp canines. "It's nice to meet you."

She stares at him. Who is he to tell her what to enjoy? The boy has thick black brows, a thatch of the same stuff on his head, bright green eyes. A little boy's bony body. He is undoubtedly Oksana's son: she can see it in the plump, dissatisfied mouth.

"You spilled wine on your dress."

Stella decides, nonsensically, to lie. "No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did." He pulls her stained hem from her hand. "See."

Junie wriggles, chirping, as if in affirmation. Stella narrows her eyes, suddenly angry. He's judging her. He has an unrealistic standard for female beauty and grace. Of course he does: Oksana is his mother.

"Why aren't you out there playing with your brothers? Don't your mom and dad want you to meet the guests?"

Arkadiy smiles with closed lips. "Henry is not my father. Jack and Henry Junior are my half-brothers."

Stella crosses her arms. "Designations like 'half-sibling' undermine familial relationships," she tells Arkadiy, parroting her textbook for Anthropology of Language.

Arkadiy smiles again. "I don't think so. I think it's exact. I like to be exact." He repositions Junie so that she lays in his arms, belly up, like an infant. Stella feels heat on her thigh. Her skirt is still in his hand. Her eyes trace his arm, first up to the wrist, then the miniature shoulder. Arkadiy's expensive pajamas and carefully groomed ferret make Stella remember her tiny kitchen, the anthropology textbook spread out on the cheap table, the shaky feeling of trying to stay awake to finish her homework.

"Where's the bathroom?" Will she have to tell him to let go of her skirt?

"Behind me," Arkadiy says. She squints, looking for a door she can't find. "Here," he says, and pries open the wall with his toe, revealing a sleek white chamber. "Henry designed this hallway. He likes hidden things. Look." He knocks twice on a different panel and a little square slides up, revealing an iPod jack.

"You can plug in and play your music all over the apartment," Arkadiy tells her.

"Cool," Stella says. "That must come in handy." She wants to befriend a thirteen-year-old. To impress him.

"I'm gonna head in now," Stella tells Arkadiy, the Chicago twang swelling again on her A sound, and turns. He holds firm to her skirt.

"Wait, I want to show you something else," Arkadiy says. "Are you going to use cold water on your stain?"

Is he making fun of her? Arkadiy is at least five inches shorter than Stella, small for his age, she thinks, trying to remember how tall boys were when she was thirteen. Her memory diffuses around her like smoke. Eight years doesn't seem like a very long time. What has happened to her since thirteen? Did she get taller? Does she look actually different, or has she just tweaked the specifics? Has she learned anything real? She still feels like a kid in footed pajamas. But Arkadiy is somehow older than she's ever been, even though he is so small. What does he know about getting Malbec out of a silk dress?

Stella is suddenly terrified that Arkadiy will tell his parents about the wine stain. She doesn't want to become a funny story for his attractive family.

"Maybe," she says. "Excuse me." And she moves again to go into the bathroom, but Arkadiy doesn't let go of her skirt.

"Wait, I want to show you something," he repeats. What happens next happens so quickly that for several days Stella wonders if she imagined it. Arkadiy whistles a high note. The Tibetan terrier comes running down the hallway, pink tongue flashing. When the dog is five feet away, Arkadiy picks up Junie in one hand and pitches her, like a wriggling football. The terrier leaps and catches her tail.

The dog stands there, its own tail wagging, the ferret squirming but unhurt in its gentle teeth, for a moment before Arkadiy makes another sound, a shooing noise from another language: "Brys, brys." At this the terrier turns and goes back down the hallway to the boys, Junie gingerly borne in his jaw like a prize.

"I'm shy," Arkadiy tells her. "I have a hard time around people. But Jack and Henry Junior aren't. And they love Phillip and Junie."

"The dog is called Phillip?"

Arkadiy nods.

Stella feels lightheaded. She looks down. Arkadiy has dropped her skirt, and his palm is pressed into her upper thigh, a few inches from her the exposed bottom hem of her underwear.

"Um," she says.

"Nice to meet you," he says, turning away. He leaves his hand on her leg until the last possible moment, retracting it only when another piece of the wall opens and takes him in. Stella closes her eyes and listens to the happy sounds from the big glass-walled room: Jack and Henry Junior squealing at animals, Henry and Xavier deep in some masculine talk about carpentry, Oksana singing a high sad song over the noise from the stove.

In the bathroom, Stella is able to rinse away the heart of the stain, but the edges linger, forming a blot she can't interpret.

Lisa Locascio lives in Los Angeles, where she's a PhD candidate at USC and fiction editor for Ricochet Editions. She has work in or coming from American Short Fiction, Grist, Northwest Review and others.

Detail of photo on main page courtesy of Doug 88888.

Read LL's postcard.

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