I got myself kicked out of the orphanage-school. It was too easy and I didn’t like the teacher hitting me whenever I got bored. It was hard getting him not to lock me in the refrigerator after, but I blamed some kid that always beat everyone else. He froze to death instead.
After I beat the kid’s pissed-off friends, things were fine. I stayed out of other fights. I hid my food-stash in a crevice and nobody found it. I started biting my nails and couldn’t stop. I imagined running away to the nearby Kazakh town. I didn’t.
They tried filming me for adoption videos but I didn’t cooperate. I was a seven-year-old girl. Only babies went to kindly foreigners.
One rainy summer day everyone was at lessons. I was looking for their stashes. I’d just found one under a mattress. Everything would have been fine, except I got a visitor. So I went.
A big Russian in shabby clothes sat at the small table. He reeked of cigarettes. His face was scarred. His grin looked fierce.
“Hello, I’m Boris.”
He’d brought a large dog. He said it was a husky he’d found on Almaty’s streets. It eyed me hungrily. So did the man, I thought.
I sat and glanced out the window at the mountains.
The man said he was thinking of adopting but wasn’t sure. He’d gotten special permission to visit.
Bullshit. The bribe must’ve been huge.
I watched the man’s sharp blue eyes and waited for him to look away.
He stared back. “What’s your name?”
When I didn’t answer he shrugged. “Did I tell you my husky’s name?”
I shook my head.
“If you tell me your name I’ll say.” He sounded bored.
He squinted at me but nodded and turned to the dog. “She’s Кошка.”
I blinked. Who the hell would name their dog “Cat?”
The man gave a low laugh. “She murdered my real cat, that’s why.”
Nobody would tell such a stupid lie about their dog’s name. I nodded.
“So what’s your real name?”
I smiled at him. “Кошка.”
He snorted. Something unfamiliar came into his eyes. It wasn’t hunger or greed or anything like how the older boys looked at me. Even so I stopped smiling.
The man looked away at a watch he wore. It seemed expensive. Then I noticed his ring. It was gold, battered, and crappily-polished.
“Are you married?” I tested.
His hands spasmed. “If I say, will you tell me your real name?”
“I used to be. Your name?”
“They said you’re Sonia.”
I was. “My friend’s Sonia. They don’t care enough about us to get our names right.”
His eyes glinted. “Well, Marya—”
I gave him a grateful look. He broke off, like he was embarrassed.
“Did your wife die, too?” I asked.
He started. “It—it must be horrible for you in this place, right?”
I leaned forward. “When did she die?”
He let out his breath. He looked at his ring. “Last month in stillbirth,” he mumbled.
He didn’t seem like he was lying. He didn’t even seem like he wanted to be talking about it at all.
“Marya, your nails are bitten raw.” He looked surprised about it for some reason.
I wished I’d hidden them. “Well, nothing’s fair here,” I said instead. To hell with the school.
The man fidgeted with his watch. “You’re obviously smart. What if I said you could leave this awful place and go to America? Nobody there would forget your name or treat you unfairly.”
I ignored his lie. “Nothing’s fair for you either. Your cat’s dead and your wife’s dead and your kid’s dead, and you couldn’t save them.”
His hand fell away from the watch.
I made my lips tremble. I wanted to see how upset I could make him. “And as long as we do what people want, nobody even cares, do they?”
He stared at the table and clenched his jaw. “Stop that, Marya.”
“Why should I if it’s true?”
His mouth opened slightly, but he didn’t speak. Then he looked up, slowly, and I noticed the sharpness had gone out of his eyes. Now there was just a deep pain.
“You’re right,” he said.
I made my breaths shaky. “Boris,” I murmured. “Things like that make me want to slit my wrists.”
The pain left. Now there was just real concern for some imaginary girl called Marya. It made me want to vomit.
“You’d be giving up,” he said. “That’s a shitty thing to do.”
“You—you’re right. I just forget myself,” I said. “But can you help me with something?”
“I hid food under my mattress. The one closest to the door. Can you get it?”
He left. I grinned at Кошка, but the husky was sleeping.
The man came back with the other orphan’s stash. He dumped it on the table and sat.
It tasted great. “Thank you!” I said.
He bit his lip, but I caught how it turned upwards anyway. “Feel better now?” he asked.
“Yeah.” I held out a bread-crust. “Here.”
He smiled openly, shoved it into his mouth, and chewed vigorously.
That strange look was back in his eyes, strong enough to make me feel like sharp claws were scraping against my insides. It pissed me off. I didn’t know why. But I thought of that dead boy in the damn refrigerator and the fights and my daydreams of the nearby town, and I made myself ask, “You want to adopt me?”
The man’s smile widened. “Yeah, actually. I have a room, but I could rig a curtain and shit—”
“What about America?”
He laughed. “Hell, I was making that up.”
I pretended to be disappointed.
“America’s crappy anyway,” the man said. “You’re better off with me.”
He obviously wasn’t lying about that. “Okay.” I smiled. “When can we leave?”
Somewhere, the refrigerator hummed.
Danielle Ranucci was born in Kazakhstan and attends Princeton University. Learn more about her, the books she reads, and the stories she writes on her website, danielleranucci.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter @DanielleRanucci.