Rumpus Original Fiction: Lera

By

Lera knew something was wrong when she saw the door. It bent into the hallway like a dislocated finger. Behind it, a line of white light shivered out. Her body understood what had happened before her brain did; her heart, which she usually controlled so well, started to race. Both her apartment doors, the outer steel and inner brown one, were hanging open.

From half a flight below, she could hear the blood in her ears. She was alone on the stairway. The double-layered doors of other apartments were shut tight. She held onto the railing for one second, looking up, and then began to call.

“Junior?”

No one answered.

“Junior?” Lera said, climbing now. Running. She pulled the steel door the rest of the way open and pushed back the inner one to find her apartment clean, quiet, frightening. Lera called his name again. She went first to the bedroom, to see if he’d fallen asleep in there—“Junior, come!”—then to the living room, kitchen, bathroom in turn. Got on her hands and knees to look under the tub. Feeling pressure on her palm, she turned it over to find her unused keys still looped around one finger. She pushed them into her pocket and bent deeper on her elbows. He wasn’t there.

He’d gotten out. The building’s entrance had been open for months, all winter long, as snow blew in and mounded ankle-high over the ground floor. That downstairs door either stuck open or closed so they all left it open and wore boots. With her apartment left like this, there was nothing in the way between her and the street. Skin cold in shock, she rushed back to her landing and hurried down the flights of stairs.

“Junior, Junior!” she shouted. The stairway was cool blue, its cement walls washed by springtime light. On the fourth floor, her apartment doors were left open for his return. She was already practically at the building entrance. She was already bursting back out into the world.

She couldn’t stop shaking. There wasn’t enough time to pause and take her panic in hand, so instead, she rode it. Out her building door, she ran downhill. Toward the playground—she and Junior went there some early mornings before she left for work, when the neighborhood was still draped in shadows. Oh, please, she thought. With newly sharp eyes, she looked into the alleys between buildings as she ran. Cables, trash bags, early patches of grass. She watched the ground, too, though it made her sick to picture what she might find. Beyond the playground was a row of shops, so there were always cars coming down these roads. Always trucks. Her shoes flew over the pavement, and her body, so reliable before, vibrated like a trip wire. She thought, let him be there.

Why did she give Kirill her key at lunch? Why did she say he could stop by? All those instructions she gave over their two trays and the speckled plastic table—“Lock the inner one, then leave the security door,” she’d told him expressly (or had she just said to “close the inner one,” she couldn’t remember now, her mind couldn’t sort it out, her breathing was shallow). Pressing the spare key to his palm, she’d said, “This is just so you can pick up your stuff today. That’s all. I don’t want you keeping it and letting yourself in.” He’d wrapped his fingers around it, and her hand, and smiled, and now look what had happened—Junior was gone.

As diverting as Kirill was with his touches and his punch lines, she never really trusted him. Her ex-husband used to roll his eyes during the Saturday dinner parties when Kirill started in on his stories: “I once ran for a rush-hour train, squeezed in the doors at the last minute, and discovered that the stranger whose armpit was in my face was George Clooney.” Please. Her shoes hit the street, never losing pace. “After it was announced I’d been passed over,” Kirill once told their group, “the president’s secretary told me she’d overheard his search committee. They’d said, ‘It’s not his time yet. As soon as we allow him to start rising, he’ll never stop.’” Erik had made to pull out Kirill’s chair. “So go ahead and rise,” he said, not really joking. If someone had told her then that in a year she would be meeting Kirill for meals, pressing her lips to his, momentarily believing in him enough to share the key to that apartment, she would’ve gotten up from her own chair and fled.

The playground held four schoolchildren, two old women, no Junior. Lera could spot his absence from a distance. There were no walls for him to hide behind, just rods, ropes, and slivers of rubber. Still, she circled the little park to make sure.

“Junior,” she called, voice faint behind her pulse.

Once she came back around to where she’d started, she chose the younger-looking of the pair of women and said, “Granny, have you seen a dog?” The other one stared with hot eyes at Lera’s knees. “He’s white,” Lera said, holding her hands apart to show Junior’s length. “A big, beautiful beast, a sled dog, very clean, well-fed, strong.”

“No, sweetheart,” the woman said.

“We don’t look after street dogs,” said the other.

“This isn’t a stray,” said Lera. All the busy blood in her body collected, turned, slammed forward in rage. Lera held her ground, but her hands shook in the air. She could shove the old bitch down. A street dog—a street dog—if this hag had pulled her head out of her own ass for one minute this afternoon and seen Junior, she’d know her mistake. He was no street dog. He was beautiful. Lera made sure of that; she fed him tablespoons of vegetable oil, took him to the mountains to chase weekends away, slept with one hand buried in his brushed fur. He was hers.

Crossing her trembling arms over her chest, she turned away from the women. “Junior!” White dominos of identical apartment blocks filled her view. The sun was cooling down in the sky. Behind her, kids giggled. The two women had fallen back to their conversation and to hear them only renewed Lera’s anger. She chose the wide avenue to her left and started off.

By the time she reached Svetaeva Street, where street dogs tricked her with their movements, she was a column of fire. Her dog was nowhere. She called Kirill from her cell. As soon as he picked up, she said, “Do you have Junior?” He made a noise, so she knew he didn’t, and she cried, “You left my doors open!”

“Wait, is the dog gone?” he said. “You told me—”

“Both doors! What were you thinking? Idiot! Both doors,” she said, and she wasn’t crying, but her voice was cracking. “You know Junior runs. How could you?”

“Lera, hold on, stop,” he said. He was probably ducked over his desk. His voice was quick and quiet. “I did exactly what you told me to do. You didn’t want me to take the key, so I left it on the kitchen table and pulled the doors shut behind me. Junior was there when I left.”

Her teeth actually hurt with anger. “He’s gone now.”

“Where are you?” Kirill asked. She didn’t respond. He didn’t understand. Even Erik hadn’t, really—she met him when the dog was two, and he moved out when the dog was seven. A few months ago, during one of those calls that she’d come to expect from him, those after-midnight ones, those new-girlfriend-is-sleeping ones, she’d told her ex, “Junior almost caught a fox today. He ran off in the forest and came back to me with red fur between his teeth.”

“I’m not interested in what’s been in the dog’s mouth,” Erik said. He lowered his voice so it stroked her ear. “I’m more interested in what’s going to be in yours.”

As much as that memory bit at her, it also somehow soothed. The nighttime sound of Erik. His tongue and teeth waiting for her. She looked across the roaming strays and felt her shoulders lower. Over the line, she could hear Kirill swallow any more arguments in his own defense. “I’ll pick you up as soon as I can leave,” he said. “We’ll look for him together.”

“Don’t bother,” she said. He sighed. To ward off any of his accusations of coldness, she said, “We’ll cover more ground in separate cars.”

“No, I’ll pick you up tonight. Better that you just look for him without having to drive at the same time. I don’t want you distracted at the wheel.”

“All right,” she said finally. A truck rolled past and she shut her eyes against it. “Anyway, I might find him here, by foot, in the next minute or two.”

“Okay,” he said. “Of course.” Then he hung up.

Junior was the firstborn in a small litter. Her coworker had come in one morning with a picture of four pups lined up, as soft and squinty-eyed as polar bear cubs, and she kept returning to his desk that day to look at them. “I need one,” she said at last. He was packing up his bag to go home. Her mother and stepfather had moved earlier that year to Rostov-on-Don, where they wanted to get tan and old together, and the apartment was lonely in a way it never would be again. The coworker hoisted his bag over his shoulder. “Come on, then,” he said, and she followed him home to meet her dog.

Junior came to live with her when he was four weeks old. Lera felt his warm gums with her fingers and fed him a mix of egg yolks and yogurt. Whenever her mother called from Rostov, Lera let Junior bark into the phone. She had to throw out her best shoes after he got to them, and stop wearing dark colors because they showed his fur too easily. Though she’d call him naughty, squeezing his face between her palms, she adored those little inconveniences. She lived for them. She—who grew up an only child, lying on the futon in the living room and hearing her mother’s boyfriends through the wall, always surrounded by school friends who needed her more than she did them, always apart from herself—she didn’t have to be alone anymore.

With such a protective animal, Lera had been nervous to bring Erik over, but Junior had loved the man—who didn’t? Her ex was easy. In university he’d been a nationally ranked cross-country skier, and for the rest of his life he’d have what that sport gave him: long muscles, the thirst for competition, a way of evaluating you with a smile so you knew what he was doing and didn’t mind. He’d flirted at parties to make other women feel good and then taken Lera in his hands at home to reassure her. That first time he met Junior, he stood over the dog and scratched him from his ears to his haunches. Beneath him, Junior shut his eyes, grinned, and melted.

Each morning, Junior woke her up by snuffling in her face, followed her from room to tiny room, and howled in excitement when she picked up the leash. They went together to the park in the mornings, the woods in the evenings, and the mountains on Saturdays and Sundays. Their legs grew the same muscles.

After the divorce, she returned in earnest to the habit she’d formed when her dog was still little: she slept on one side of the bed and Junior slept on the other, and when she woke up in the gray middle of the night, she’d turn over toward him for comfort. They lay facing each other like two parentheses around one short word. His paws pushed across the blanket. She’d reach out a hand to touch the fine hairs that snuck between the softly pebbled pads of his feet, and in his sleep, he’d draw away, lift his head, sniff around, then relax back toward her. She’d tickle his feet again and again until she was almost laughing at his movements in the night. With Erik gone, it became easy to love Junior best. Who else was there?

She asked the vendors at the fruit stands and the kids bicycling by. She looked behind parked cars, underneath trucks, into echoing lobbies. There were other building doors that, like theirs, were left propped open—he might’ve gotten confused and ducked inside. If he were hurt… She peeked, mouth dry, into a dumpster, where someone might have heaved him, God forbid… Reaching the edge of her neighborhood, she crossed into the patch of woods they knew so well. Trees crowded her along the paths.

“Junior,” she called, without seeing him. Her footsteps were the only ones around. It was dark in the woods, and when she emerged, the city, too, had lost light. The phone was buzzing—Kirill.

When he pulled up alongside her, Lera slipped in the passenger side. They rolled down a pitted road together. He let his hand drop from the gearshift to her leg.

“Where to?” he asked, and she said, “Avacha ski track. We spent a lot of time there this winter.” She was staring out the window. “It’s good it’s getting dark,” she said to the car, which was filled by Kirill’s cologne. “I’ll be able to spot his fur in an instant now.”

Maybe Junior left because he hated Kirill’s smell. His too-new shoes, the shine of his watch face, his infiltration. They swung through Avacha’s empty parking lot and then, at Lera’s direction, around the traffic circle, heading southwest from the ski base toward the city center. Kirill told her about Junior’s behavior this afternoon: that the dog was normal, even mellow, sniffing at Kirill’s empty hands, then returning to the bedroom to rest while Kirill gathered the papers he’d left the evening before.

“Junior just wants a little adventure,” he said. “He’ll come back when he’s tired himself out.” She kept her eyes on the street and sidewalks. After some silence, Kirill said, “Today at the office—”

“Please stop talking,” she said, and he did.

They passed the library, two churches, a shuttered vegetable market, and the theater. In the blackness of every sagging bus shelter, she looked for Junior’s white body. He wasn’t there. With her window rolled down, she called his name, and every so often some group of teenagers shouted back. It took almost two hours for the car to climb from one point of their little crescent city to the other. Once they reached its southern tip, where the hills covered with apartment blocks rose into cliffs facing the Pacific, Kirill wordlessly turned the car around.

This was her fault. She pictured Junior somewhere bloody in the dirt on the ground. Couldn’t help it—when they passed other cars, she looked between their headlights for fur, and when they were alone on the road, she imagined all the places Junior might be. Dead. By giving Kirill her key, by letting him unpack and forget half his bag last night, by ever allowing him to stay late to help clean up after one winter party and then slip his hands around her waist in the kitchen and press his gin-soaked mouth against her neck, she had killed her dog, her hope, herself.

You believe that you keep yourself safe, she thought. You lock up your mind and guard your reactions so nobody, not a teacher or a mother or a friend, can break in. You find a job. You pay the bills. When people gossip, you smile, knowing stories, but choosing not to join in. You work out. Your clothing flatters. You keep the edge of your love sharp, a knife, so that those close to you know to handle it carefully. You think you’ve done it and then you discover that you’ve been endangering yourself to everybody you meet all this time.

Even the man she’d married had risked her. One terrible Sunday they parked at the foot of a little mountain and hiked to the clearing on top. She sat down to settle her breath, while Erik threw a stick for Junior. The dog’s black lips were wet with excitement. Listening to Erik’s voice, the joke in it suddenly surfacing, Lera lifted her head in time to see her husband throw the stick over the cliff edge and Junior start to run after. She screamed. She could see it: his perfect body following, its arc, its disappearance. She wouldn’t be able to stop it; she would have to watch it go. The noise ripped through her. In that instant, she was so prepared for tragedy that she couldn’t believe how Junior gave up the game and turned back to jog toward Erik. Her hands were already on the dirt. Her mouth was open and wailing.

Junior, all fresh and dumb with life, was looking at her husband’s hands, expecting the next toy. She threw her arms around the dog’s neck. He smelled like exertion, the outdoors, and her devotion.

“What is wrong with you?” she shouted up at Erik.

“Don’t be foolish, come on,” he said. “He would’ve never jumped.”

Her eyes were filled with the vision of her dog doing exactly that. “He trusts you.”

“This is an animal descended from wolves. You understand? His grandparents survived in the tundra. He has more survival instinct than you or I do.” She buried her face in Junior’s side. “Lerukha, I was playing around,” Erik said, and she cried, “It wasn’t funny.”

They went home that afternoon the way they so often ended up walking, with Lera thirty feet ahead and her husband letting her go. The dog ran back and forth between them—galloping up to one, checking in, and then turning to run back to the other. In the hundredth round of this, Lera dug her hands into his fur. “Stay with me,” she commanded. They were far enough ahead of her husband that she could no longer hear his feet. Junior’s body trembled under her. He stuck to her side for an instant, shaking, then dashed backwards to find Erik and herd them together again.

There had been worse times of her life than that afternoon. When none of her classmates spoke to her for three months after she bit a boy in anger on the playground. When her mother pulled out the photo albums every holiday and made her stare at pictures of her father as a young stranger. When she was fired from her first job, or couldn’t get out of bed after her mother moved away, or found those strings of text messages on Erik’s phone. Worse periods, yes, but no worse moment, because no other grief distilled so perfectly into a single second: that stick sailing off into the sky and her dog following with such deadly faith. No other one allowed her to foretell exactly how her life would shatter.

Kirill guided his car around a curve. The streets poured past her window. Rising curbs, parked cars, empty intersections. Teenagers fell away and old drunk men took their place. Apartment lights were turning out on the hills.

The day’s panic had been replaced by deep exhaustion. After she’d found those text messages last November, told Erik to leave, spent weeks arguing over it, and finally come home near New Year’s to cleaned-out closets, she’d sat on the floor and cried until she felt like she did now—wiped out. Grief had acted on her like water poured over ink. She could barely keep her head up. That day, Junior lay in her lap like he was little. Outside, gray buildings blurred against the black night. She might never have Junior to turn to again.

Kirill squeezed her knee. “Dove, it’s late. Wherever Junior is, he’s sleeping now. Time for us to do the same.” Still facing the window, she shook her head, but he swung his car around the traffic circle toward her neighborhood. “I promise, when you get home, you’re going to find him curled up on your landing.”

She kept seeing bottles, hubcaps, and basement windows turn into spots of white that could be, but never were, her dog.

“Do you want me to stay over?”

“No,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

Her dry face didn’t move. “Give it up.” He turned off the main road. The car slid in neutral down her street. No one was out. In the silence, the phone in her lap started to buzz. She flipped it over, glanced at the screen, and silenced it.

All tight, Kirill said, “So he still tries to call you?”

“Are you really in a position to be asking me questions?” she said. “Because, believe me, when I was looking for my dog’s body on the street, I thought of many questions I’d like to ask you.”

He rolled to a stop in front of her building, left gap-toothed by its entrance, and leaned over to let her out. They didn’t say goodbye. Phone in hand, she climbed up four dark flights.

The landing was empty. She slipped past her apartment doors and called, “Junior?”

He wasn’t there. Lera pressed her hands to her chest, the phone hard against her body as a punishment. Her eyes were shut. She should’ve known. Junior was gone.

Her doors were still ajar, so one stood a foot onto the landing and the other a foot into her home. Outside them the building was sleeping. Standing in her living room, fists still pressed to skin, she blamed herself. Sloppy. As deliberate as she’d tried to be all these years, she’d been sloppy, finally, and this was the consequence: Junior was gone, he was gone, forever. Letting Kirill leave his things here. Pretending Erik wasn’t fooling around. Putting all her love in an animal that at the first opportunity would run away…

She’d been so stupid to think of that day at the mountain as the way her dog would go. Her ex was right—Junior never would have jumped. The world won’t break your heart as easily as that.

***

Rumpus original art by Claire Stringer.


Julia Phillips has written fiction and essays for Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Morning News, The Cut, and Jezebel. She's working on a short-story collection about Kamchatka. Find her on Twitter @jkbphillips. More from this author →