By Julia Phillips
Image: David McSpadden/flickr

Image: David McSpadden/flickr

The men were already at work—she could see them from her kitchen balcony as she smoked. They appeared and disappeared in the window holes of the unfinished concrete building across the street. Four floors below, they looked as small as the fingers on her hand. Still, she recognized them. Their muddy boots. Their black hair shining above the collars of their coveralls. The way they walked: muscular, strange.“What are you doing out there?” Nina’s husband asked through the balcony door.

She put out her cigarette. “Nothing.”

He was doing up his tie. In his uniform, he always looked so serious. Different from the man she’d just watched finish a plate of fried eggs. She slid the door shut behind her and came over to touch his clean shirt. Smoothing her palms over his shoulders, she said, “Handsome man.”

“All right,” he said, a little pleased.

The smell of his toothpaste was fresh between them. She raised herself on her toes to kiss him, and he turned his face. “You stink,” he said. She stepped away. It wasn’t worth it to be bothered. The nicotine had reached down into her chest to put an early calmness there.

Outside their building, the sky was still gray-pink. His shift started at seven. Though Nina was six months into maternity leave, she hadn’t broken the habit of waking with him, making his breakfast, and seeing him off. It was as if they were both getting ready for work—as if she, too, would soon walk out the door for the day—until it wasn’t. Now he was dressed and leaving. In their hall, he was putting on his boots.

“I love you,” she said, and he said it back.

When their apartment doors shut behind him, she listened to his noises disappear down the stairs. Her head cleared, her heart emptied. Masha wouldn’t wake up for two more hours. This was her time now.

This was theirs.

She wasn’t going to go back out on the balcony just yet—she could credit herself with that patience. Instead she washed her husband’s breakfast dishes. Then she set the electric kettle, filled her teacup, and sat down with her phone, scrolling through pictures of people’s pets and weddings and vacations. Four friends from university had gone on a ski trip together. She put the phone down. Her legs were trembling; when she was alone in the apartment, her body refused to be distracted for too long. Around her, the kitchen wallpaper showed overlapping palm leaves.

She shook out another cigarette and slid open the door.

The men below were finished with their site walkthrough. They came to Russia from Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan. The building they worked on was a cement husk built level by level by their gloved hands. Around it, they’d ripped up the sidewalk and laid down boards to walk on. They’d put up scaffolding and suspended pulleys. At the edge of the lot, they’d made a shack from scrap wood with a roof of corrugated metal. She wanted to see inside. Their five-man crew ducked in there every few hours: at six, when they all arrived; at nine, to break for tea; at noon, for lunch; at three or four; at seven, when the sun was going down and the day was done. On the days her husband had a late shift she could catch them holding the shack’s door open and filing out in street clothes. The last man would close the door behind him. The shack, the building, and she would all be left waiting for them to come back again tomorrow.

Nina took another drag on her cigarette. The men broke away from each other. They didn’t look up. Their generator coughed, then whirred.

The air on her arms was fresh and cold. She watched the streets. They were zebra-striped with melting snow. Four kilometers downhill, the city center of Petropavlovk-Kamchatsky spread out, its buildings white, windows dark, parking lots empty. Beyond that was the glassy bay.

Below her, the men were lugging buckets of mixed concrete. They’d used a crane last month to lay down slabs for floors, walls, and ceilings. Now they were tending to details—pouring staircases, ripping out support frames. They had at least another two months to go for the finishes. They bent their necks in concentration as they moved. Looking down at them, she bent her neck like that, too.

The sun was shining white over the bay. She only had a little over an hour left. Flicking the butt over the rail, she went back inside, where she washed her hands and smelled them. The smoke hung on her skin—so what? It flavored her. She brushed her teeth, applied perfume, and stroked on makeup just as carefully as she used to on those mornings before she left for class or work. Foundation, concealer, blush, bronzer, brow pencil. Her cheekbones lifted, her nose narrowed. She ran texturizer through her hair and braided it into a yellow fishtail over her shoulder. Above the collar of her robe, she rose, beautiful as a newlywed.

Until last November, she would’ve gotten dressed, driven up to the volcanological institute, greeted the other girls in the administrative office, and started the day. Now instead she took her flawless face into the kitchen where she wiped down the counters. She organized the row of shoes in the hallway. She mixed the baby’s formula.

Masha woke up crying, surprised all over again at the world in front of her eyes. She looked so small on her little white mattress. Sometimes Nina thought the crib bars must intimidate her, and then she had to remind herself that Masha was still too young to be afraid. All the baby knew to do was sleep and eat. Nina held her, let her suck on the bottle, and wiped her tiny mouth.

“Good morning,” Nina said. “How’d you sleep? Any nightmares?” Masha’s face was pushed in concentration on her meal. The kitchen walls were permanently tropical around them. “Did you have the one where you’re stuck on a desert island? Did you have the one where you’re trapped with a mute little girl?”

At eleven o’clock Nina called her husband. He didn’t pick up. Heart pounding with the permission that gave her to leave, she called Natalia Yurevna on the second floor to ask if she would mind watching Masha—“I’ll be quick,” she told her neighbor. “It won’t take more than an hour.” Groceries, she explained, but it didn’t matter. Natalia Yurevna loved sitting with the baby. The woman wasn’t satisfied with her own grandchildren. She made up games with spoons and songs and measuring cups, and every time she came over, which was often, three or four times a week, she never minded if it took Nina a little too long to wind her way back home.

Nina would see the men. The day cracked open. She hurried to get dressed—satin button-down, dark jeans, and tall-heeled boots—and stood by the door in expectation. Her lungs expanded. The baby started to cry. Nina tugged off her shoes, whipped up another bottle, and lifted Masha to feed.

“Go ahead and get fat, sweetheart,” Nina said to the baby settling against her clean sleeves to drink. Masha had Nina’s same eyes—pale, glacial. A blue-eyed piglet. She kissed her daughter on her forehead to undo her thoughts.

Then the knock. “There’s my darling,” Natalia Yurevna cooed when Nina opened the doors. She scooped Masha into her arms.

“Just an hour,” Nina promised, and she pulled her heels back on and fled.

She could do anything. She pushed the building door open and emerged into the cold light. Her boots were snug around her calves. Her skin was tight, too, waiting. Across the street, the building hid the men away.

She walked forward to line up with the hole of its doorway. Then she stopped to take out a cigarette. Only a minute outside, and her fingers were already cold, useless. She flicked her lighter, but it didn’t catch. The building was shadowy inside. Her timing was off. After minutes of rushing, there was nothing, for the moment, to see, and she prickled with wasted anticipation. She put the cigarette back loose into her purse. She could hear their machines. It was still early; they weren’t on break.

So it was the grocery store. She went there flat and frustrated. Once she’d finally paid, she checked the time—still a few minutes before noon. Instead, then, of turning left out of the store and returning to her building, she headed for the end of the block. The sidewalk split into a set of marble stairs that brought her into the courtyard of the city church. No one could see her from the street. She chose a bench, checked her phone, and scrolled online until she saw a girl she’d known from high school who was living in St. Petersburg. Then she shut her eyes.

She could go anywhere. Take the bus to the Institute. She’d be there in half an hour. She’d walk in and surprise them all, Sveta and Nastia and Alisa and Valentina, in the middle of their lunches. The men’s doors would be closed. The building would smell like it always had, that mix of dust, paper, and bleach. All the girls would say, “Ninichka!”, kissing her on the cheeks. Talking with her just as they had when she was freshly graduated.

But then—there wasn’t really time to get there and back this afternoon—or any. They would ask her for stories, for pictures of the baby. And what did she have to show? Half a year spent indoors—what could she say to them?

She could go down instead to the center. Buy a hot dog from one of the stands by the bay and sit to eat it on the shore. The water quiet, the mountains beyond layered in dark blue, light blue, white. Looking like cut paper. Rocks under her heels. She used to loiter there when she was in school—they’d stay late, drinking on the beach, watching the horizon flatten, seeing the night ships pass… but what if her husband drove by today and saw her? He would want an explanation, and she’d have none. She could… why hadn’t she told Natalia Yurevna that she’d be three hours? An hour wasn’t enough. Neither was a day. She could go to St. Petersburg, too. She could leave. But she wouldn’t. She couldn’t, really. She couldn’t.

She exhaled fog. When she first moved to this apartment, the church was still shut up in scaffolding. This yard was a stretch of gravel, no trees. She was 19, and her mother’s new man had bought her the place to be on her own. That was before she’d met her husband, before they’d renovated; the wallpaper was stained, one stove burner didn’t work, the washing machine shook so hard that it would jostle its plug out of the outlet halfway through a cycle. And she loved it. Some Sunday mornings she’d walk circles around the bedrooms, just looking. It had been all hers.

Things were different now. She checked the time on her phone. Finally. Picking up the groceries, she made her way back down to her street.

Image: Harald Groven/flickr

Image: Harald Groven/flickr

As soon as she turned onto it, she saw the workers. They were standing together on the boards and sipping steaming cups of tea. Her stomach started to knot. The door to their shack was open. These were the few minutes of their lunch break. She came toward them slowly, measuring out her steps to make it last, and as she approached, they broke off their own conversation. To watch her. She felt it. One said, “Hello, miss,” in that half-swallowed way he always did. His accent made it sound dirty.

She looked straight ahead. A rope of heat extended from her eyes, down through her body, out her ribs, and to them. So close. The line was taut. Hot. She swallowed. “Hello,” she said to the street ahead of her. All the rehearsal in her head was meant for this. She was almost past them now. They said nothing in return. She kept her head up, tightened her fingers around the grocery bag, and let herself in the door of her building.

The hall was cold and dark and left her alone again. Her whole body was tight with excitement. If some neighbor brushed past her right now, she would vibrate, as if strummed. Only two words—and still they did this to her.

She could feel all the long muscles in her legs and arms. The wound-up joints of her knees. Her neck pulled up, her jaw hard. A thousand things to say behind her teeth. She pressed her back to the wall and listened to her heart pound them out: I want you, it said in the dark. There was no one around to hear.

Climbing the stairs back up, she pressed herself down, holding fingers on her fantasies so they’d settle. Be still. Natalia Yurevna met her at the apartment door with the baby in her arms. “We knew you were coming home, didn’t we, Mashenka? We saw you from the window.”

Nina kept her face tipped down as she pulled off her boots. “Is that right?” She took the bag into the kitchen. They followed her.

“Did those men say something to you?” Natalia Yurevna asked.

Luckily she was already putting the food away. Behind the refrigerator door, she flinched.

“Who? No.”

“The migrants. It’s dangerous. Nobody keeps an eye on them,” Natalia Yurevna said, “Who knows what they might do to a pretty girl like you?”

She wanted to find out. Their dirtiness, their ignorance—that was what drew her to them. That they came to her from somewhere else. The way, when she was still in school, they used to stand over her on the bus and pretend not to stare. They always stared. They hardly spoke. She didn’t like it when they acted weak—three weeks ago the men had found the door to their shack torn off its hinges, and the way they touched it, dumb and powerless, had made her sick. They were strong enough to build houses. They could turn her life upside-down.

How many times since they’d arrived across the street had she pictured getting into some conversation—accepting an offer of a drink—entering that little cabin, which must smell like sweat, darkness, gasoline. A white woman’s picture stapled to the wall. They would fill in the shack around her, then, while she looked ahead and waited. This wasn’t their country. They had nothing to lose. What would a man do with nobody to stop him? What would these dangerous men do for her?

Natalia Yurevna was still talking about construction workers, different ones. The renovations on the third floor. She was endless this way. Nina took cheese, cucumbers, and tomatoes from the fridge, sliced them up, and set out a platter. She poured them both cups of tea while Natalia Yurevna, holding Masha on her lap with one soft arm, picked up a bit to eat. “Ninichka, you don’t know this, but our building used to be full of humble people. The whole neighborhood was.” The older woman looked down at the food as she talked. Her eyebrows thin, her mouth loose. Bottom teeth lined with stains like the shore when the tide goes out. The baby gummed on her fingers. Natalia Yurevna would talk about the way things were until her stomach was full, then she’d ask Nina about her husband, compliment him, squeeze the baby one last time, and go downstairs. Three times a week and sometimes four. That was Nina’s life.

Nina took a slice of cucumber. When she bit, it opened up into fresh flavor on her tongue.

It was late afternoon before she was alone again. Natalia Yurevna was back downstairs. Masha was laid in her crib. In the kitchen, Nina scrubbed two beef tongues clean and slipped them into boiling water. Garlic, onions, sugar, celery. She covered the pot. While the meat simmered, she chopped columns of carrots. The windows steamed over. She let her mind wander.

The baby at rest. The food on the stove. The apartment hot, its air sticky with starch, the walls beading, her hands freshly washed. And the world outside waiting. She’ll turn the burner down to low. Take her keys and leave her purse. Lock the double doors when she goes; behind them, steel and wood, her home will hang silent, shut, and sleeping.

She’ll hurry down the building’s stairs. Empty landings on every floor. Under her fingers, the railing will be rough from layers of chipped paint. Blue and gray and yellow. Walls of gouged cement. She’ll press the button, release the front door, and go out.

April sun. An afternoon washed in greenish light, the whole city like a bud about to open. And she in its center. And the men. A hundred meters away, traffic will rush by, but no cars will turn down her street. In the building, some of the workers will move past the window frames. Two will be in front of the shack. One squatting over a fuel tank, the other one standing with his arms folded on his chest. She’ll cross to the middle of the street. As she comes closer, they’ll lift their chins. “Hello, miss,” the standing man will say.

The sound of his voice will wet her mouth. His forearms thick with muscle. Eyes narrow. The day’s worth of stubble. He’s close to her age, but working on these sites all day has lined his forehead. He’ll be waiting. Ready. “Hello,” she’ll say back.

The man. His hands. Her mouth. Their shack. Alone there, with them, the quiet, the spring, her apartment upstairs, the pot still on the stove, but nothing to bother her, no one to know. Across the street and in a different universe. Across the street and free.

Dreaming, she peeled the tongues, salted the vegetables, dressed the salad, sliced the bread. When Masha woke up, Nina fed the baby in the kitchen while skimming through photos of old acquaintances on her cell. Her husband was supposed to be back at five-thirty. He was fifteen minutes late and Masha was crying again. Baby on her shoulder, Nina walked a loop through their apartment: from Masha’s room, fresh and yellow, to the master bedroom with its shining television screen, into the bathroom, out again, a hundred thousand times.

It was 6:20 by the time her husband unlocked the doors. He had people with him—two men and a woman. Thudding feet, happy talk. “Look how big she is now,” the woman cried as soon as she saw the baby in Nina’s arms. Nina smiled. She was ripped open. How pathetic she must look, with the table set, the meat on the stove, her baby fussy and whole day laid bare. Now three guests could see how she’d been waiting for her husband like she had nothing else to live for. She could’ve run away today. They didn’t know. She could’ve moved to St. Petersburg. Her husband was shaking off his jacket. When the woman (they’d met at some holiday party—Yelena? Milena?) held out her hands, Nina, tight-eyed with shiny shame, put the baby in them. Then she slid back into the kitchen and whisked the dinner plates away.

Before they’d finished lining up their boots in the hall, she’d taken out a bottle, five shot glasses, and the platter from this afternoon’s visit. “What a hostess!” her husband said when he saw. She held up her face to be kissed. This time she could smell him, the sharp, sweet booziness of his body. “Go ahead and pour, my queen,” he said, and she did.

“So you don’t think Mikhail Sergeivich can do it?” one of the men said. Continuing some stairway conversation. In the woman’s lap, Masha was squirming.

“You make it sound like I don’t trust him. Of course I do,” her husband said. The guests were already picking up their drinks.

“To our esteemed leader, then,” the woman said, one hand supporting the baby and the other around her glass. “To his success.”

“To our success,” the man said. Everyone drank; Nina did too, vodka singing in her throat.

Her husband started in again. “But how do you catch a man that leaves no trace? As if—” He grabbed at the air with both fists. “No footprints. No bodies. It simply can’t be done.”

“Are you our lead detective now?” said the other man. She half-recognized him, too.

“I know how the job is done.”

“Sitting at speed traps all day has made you an expert, then, Kolya?”

Nina poured them another round. “At least I catch my criminals,” her husband said. “That’s more than our pack of proud detectives can say.”

Masha was really worked up now. Nina rushed together a bottle of formula and took the baby from the uniformed woman, who smiled as if they knew each other well. (Alyona, maybe?) She pushed the bottle against Masha’s unhappy mouth but she wouldn’t drink. One of the men was raising his voice.

Nina took the baby into the bedroom, where her husband’s side of the bed was empty and would stay that way until at least midnight. She set down Masha on the orange duvet and lay beside her. On her stomach, the baby lifted her head, arms, and legs, paddling through the air but going nowhere.

“That’s not how you crawl,” Nina said. Masha kept going. Nina watched her fat limbs work. After a minute the baby turned to look at her. Nina put her hand on her daughter’s back, where it fit warm in that arch. “Masha,” she said. “Mashenka. I wish you could talk to me.”

If only these guests would drink a little faster so the quietness at the end of the night could come. She liked those times, him swollen and sweet, Masha asleep down the hall and their apartment empty again. The two of them close, alone. It reminded her of the months before she graduated: going to parties, flirting with new friends, winding up with him eventually in these clean sheets. She did love her husband. She loved him. She turned the baby stomach-up and cupped Masha’s small face in one hand.

They’d first met when he pulled her over. She’d been going too fast down Komsomolskaya. She was 20, in the summer before her last year of university, leaving work to stop at home before heading back out to a birthday party. And he was 24 and seemed so much older. On the gravel-rough side of the road, he watched her from behind his sunglasses, and she stared back. Her cheeks were burning under her foundation. He was tall, broad-shouldered, unimpressed. He held on to the sill of her car door with one hand and looked down the length of his arm at her. She’d tried to tell him she was going to a birthday. She was in a rush. The cars behind his back whooshed by. Finally, he said, “Go on, then.” No ticket.

The next week she was driving home when lights flared again in her rearview mirror. She pulled over, heart quick, hands sweating. She hadn’t been speeding, or she didn’t think she was. After five agonizing minutes, her passenger door opened, and he slid into the seat. His sunglasses were off. He smiled.

Six months later he moved into her apartment. They got married a few weeks after she graduated. By then, she’d already started full-time at the institute, and on her first day back after the wedding the other girls kept bringing her champagne in a mug to celebrate. Their bosses pretended it was just milky tea. She and her husband stayed happy for two years; when she found out she was pregnant, he held her, kissed her cheeks, and told her fairytales. She’d been crying. He hadn’t asked her why. She didn’t know how she could have answered if he had. Now he took her car to and from work, while she stayed home and would for ages more. Enough time had passed that she no longer reminisced about their second meeting, when he slid into her passenger seat. His unfamiliar body strapped into its uniform, looking so adult, and hiding the heart of the man she would marry.

She’d been away too long. As Nina carried the baby back through the dim hall, she heard their voices—still arguing. Some new topic. Then someone in the kitchen said, “Illegals.”

Nina clutched the baby to her. Fear came on like nausea. It was after seven now. The men were gone—but maybe one of her husband’s guests had stepped out on the balcony in time, looked down on them leaving, seen her ashes, and found her out—

She came slowly to the kitchen doorway. “Waste of our time,” her husband was saying. “They call the cops and then say nothing when we arrive.”

“It’s not them who calls,” one man said.

“Then who? Who else gives a shit? Over nothing. Paint and 5,000 rubles’ worth of fuel.” This afternoon’s picture of the workers over the fuel tank came back to her and she blinked. Shifted. Hated herself for it. “They stood and looked at me like a bunch of geese,” her husband said. “Dark and smelly as that, too.”

Image: Martin Lopatka/flickr

Image: Martin Lopatka/flickr

Compact and muscled, lifting mixed concrete. Cheekbones high and eyelids low. Black hair shining. And their accents. She could go for hours on a single word. All day…if she had to be alone all day, why couldn’t it be with them, in the cold, in the building, on the other side of the street…

Masha was wiggling again. Nina waved a hand in front of the baby’s eyes, and Masha fell quiet as her fingers rose and fell. “What are you talking about?” Nina asked from the door.

“Nothing,” her husband said.

“Vandalism,” said the woman.

One of the men corrected her. “Just kids being kids. Graffiti at a construction site. Some broken bottles, some stolen tools.”

Nina couldn’t ask more questions. “Where was that?” she said.

“Nowhere,” her husband said, filling up their glasses. Then he relented. “On the eighth kilometer.” By the institute. Far from here.

She pictured those workers on the eighth kilometer—like hers but not. The kind of men that couldn’t protect themselves. She came to the table for her drink. “So what—” she asked, and as she did, one guest started in saying, “To our—” He stopped, lowering his glass. She waved him on. “To our long days,” he said, “and longer nights.”

“You should know about long nights,” said the other man after they all swallowed. “How’s Anfisa?”

“She’s good for mornings, too.”

“What a gentleman,” said the woman. The first man shrugged as he refilled their glasses. “What honor. What chivalry.”

“What did you do,” Nina asked her husband, “about the vandals?”

“There was nothing to do,” he said.

“So tomorrow when I see Anfisa,” the woman continued, “I should tell her that her gallant prince happened to mention—”

“Our lunch breaks, too,” said the man. “She’s a 24-hour kind of girl.”

Nina said, “But if things were taken. If tools are gone. Don’t you have to catch whoever took them?”

“Why do you care?” said her husband. He looked like the tired version of the man she’d first met. At her car window, in her passenger seat—unpredictable. “Why should you tell me how to do my job? Do I tell you how to do yours? ‘Sit at home all day, get fat, and don’t shower’?”

“Kolya,” a man said.

“Ridiculous,” her husband muttered to the table.

The dinner she had cooked for them sat on the stove. The baby was still watching her fingers. Her husband didn’t know what she was capable of. Outside, the construction site was empty. The building was hollow. The ground there was a mix of mud and snow, and four floors above, she was holding her child, keeping quiet among strangers, waiting for tomorrow to come.

In bed later, her husband was as tender as she knew he’d be. He always was. His cropped hair brushed against her jaw. “Don’t be angry,” he murmured. She stared up into the dark.

“It’s all right,” she said. It wasn’t. But it didn’t matter. The men across the street didn’t know how to pronounce “maternity” or “apology.” They could only keep her company, and she knew by the way they looked at her that they would do that so well.

“Hello, miss,” the migrant will say.

She will say back, “Hello.”

She’ll look up first to check that no one’s watching. Her balcony, that faraway planet, will be bare. Turning back to him, she’ll say, “Do you want to invite me in?” And he won’t understand. He’ll be watching her body instead of her mouth. So she’ll point to the shack, and say, “Take me in there.”

In the little shack, she’ll turn to face him. She’ll back up until she hits their table. Then she’ll reach back, grip it, scoot herself up to sit. Her eyelids will be heavy, pupils dilated to shine black on black. Beyond the thin walls she’ll hear the others moving. She’ll open up her hands to him. “Come here,” she’ll say, and he will.

Tomorrow. She’ll give herself four hours. That’ll be enough to take her through the rest of the year. If she can find a good enough excuse—a doctor’s appointment, maybe—then she’ll have the whole long afternoon to bring her dream to life. No one will know. One afternoon, and then she’ll go back home, tell Natalia Yurevna she’s sick, go to the shower and soap off the trails left by their fingers. She’ll do it slowly, wishing they could stay. When her husband comes home, she’ll kiss him, serve dinner, and know that now she can make it, she has enough to make it, that this one day, these five men, will carry her through the rest of her life.

For a moment when she woke up, Nina didn’t remember what it was she was excited for—and then she did. She could hear her husband in the shower; it was six, and the light in their bedroom was already grainy from the coming dawn. The days were getting longer. She stretched out in the sheets and shut her eyes to picture again everything this stretched-out afternoon promised.

The water in the bathroom was still running when she went to the kitchen and filled the kettle. She brought out two eggs to boil, the bread to slice, white cheese from the drawer in the fridge. Beyond her balcony, the morning was getting so bright. The sky was gray shot through with yellow. It looked windy, thick.

The kettle was almost bubbling. The bathroom door opened, the bedroom door shut. Watching the sky, she took her pack and lighter off the top of the fridge, slid open the balcony door, and stepped outside.

The men were already there. Their bodies made a circle around the wreckage where their little cabin used to be. The rippled sheets of its roof were on the ground now. Gray puffed out across them. One worker had his coat in his hand. Someone had set their shack on fire.

Trembling, she tapped out a cigarette, put it paper-dry between her lips, and flicked at the lighter. It didn’t spark. She wound her fingers around it, tried again, and the flame flared. She was really shaking now. The sun wasn’t up—instead it was the leftover light from them, their ruined shack, the glowing ground, metallic ash in the smoke catching whatever brightness reflected off the bay. The men stood there doing nothing. Do something. She could make up their day together, change the setting, put them in the dark building itself, if they did something—but they just stood there. All five of those foreign workers who were supposed to change her life had nothing to do but stare.

Nina lifted her fingers to draw the cigarette from her mouth but almost couldn’t get a hold on it. One of the men—she couldn’t tell which—put his hands on his waist. He looked down the street where no police car was coming. Then he started to turn around toward her.

She drew back against the window. She couldn’t see them anymore.

The water was probably boiling. She had to finish making breakfast or her husband was going to be late. Carefully, keeping her arm close to the wall, she tossed the cigarette off the balcony. Her hands were still betraying her. She gripped one tight with the other. It only took a few minutes to settle down within herself. When she was ready, she slid the door open and went back inside.


unnamedJulia Philips has spent the last decade between Russia and New York. Her fiction and essays have been published in Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Rumpus, The Morning News, The Cut, and Jezebel. She is at work on a short story collection about Kamchatka. Find her on Twitter @jkbphillips.

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