Arkadiy and Stella, Phillip and Junie
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
"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
"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
"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?"
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.