Chamomile

Katya Volkova holds a mug of steaming chamomile tea in her hands, and she has never felt lonelier in her life. Her world is spinning around her, with people buzzing as they chase their dreams, head to college, find happiness, and leave her in the dust. And the kicker? She's not sure if she should even try to catch up to them. After all, it's easier to let go. But Viktor Lelikov, the person who insists on giving her the chamomile tea, isn't ready to let her do that. Katya doesn't even know what he wants from her. "Chamomile kickstarts the healing process if you believe in it."

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2. All Saints Eve

Видна́ пти́ца по полёту.

A bird may be known by its song.

“Katya, do you know where you’re going?” says my little sister plaintively in my ear like she has been for the entirety of this car ride. “I don’t think you know—”

“Stop breathing in my ear.” Glancing at my rearview mirror, I catch Nika pouting and slouching back in her seat. My mouth tightens, and I direct my glare at the road instead of at her. No matter how obnoxious she is, as all younger sisters are, it’s not her fault that I’m here. It’s hard to remind myself to not punish her for what Mama ordered me to do.

It’s not her fault I’ve stopped being a child a long time ago. Or not too long ago. Just since I started attending Excelsior. Or hell.

Curtly, after a long silence, I offer her, “We’re passing Giant. It’s five more minutes.”

I’m true to my word. Exactly four minutes and fifty-three seconds later, I pull into the Lelikovs’ driveway. Nika leaps out of the car immediately, slamming the car door behind her. I watch her land on the front porch as she waits expectantly for the door to open. Right on cue, the door flies open with a bang. Sonya, Nika’s Lelikova counterpart, greets her with a smile, and with that, both girls disappear indoors.

Still in my car, I dawdle, adjusting my car mirrors. However, my anti-social skills can only go so far, and I force myself out, taking a deep breath of the chilly night. My skirt swishes against my bare legs. I remember the fight I had with Mama earlier about it and how it stops mid-thigh. It irritates me still—but no matter.

What’s done is done, and I’m still doing whatever the hell I want.

I retrace my sister’s footsteps up the front path and let myself into the house.

Inside, there’s a warm golden glow, and the air is toasty. I blink a couple times, locking out the cold air along with all my feelings of ease and slipping off my high heels. Inhaling shakily, I step in a little further to catch sight of two little girls chucking who-knows-what-dolls at each other in the carpeted living room. I turn 90 degrees to the left and catch Mrs. Lelikova’s eyes as she hustles around the kitchen.

“Katya,” she greets, setting down a bowl of chopped cabbage on the kitchen counter. “How are you? Is school all right?”

I take my time before curtly answering in Russian, “It’s okay.”

Mrs. Lelikova steps out of the kitchen, and we exchange kisses on the cheek. She holds my shoulders, regarding my face for an uncomfortable moment before she speaks in accented English. “Your mama is doing all right?”

“Of course.” I tug at my clingy skirt, which is now riding up my behind. “I’m sorry we couldn’t bring you anything today for dinner, but Mama didn’t have time.”

“That’s okay, душка [1],” she responds with a condescending smile. My eyes can’t help but flicker between her shrewd, dark eyes and the grandfather clock behind her head. “There are plenty of opportunities for having good manners in the future.”

I cough into my fist. “Should we get going soon?” I say, directing my voice at my sister and her playmate. “Viktor should be out soon.”

It’s pathetic how my heart is already starting its usual dance. An air current from the heating system blows against my legs, reminding me of the real reason I chose to wear this skirt today. Biting my cheek, I avoid my sister’s eyes and yank down at my skirt again.

There’s a silence as Mrs. Lelikova leaves me standing on the threshold between the sprawling kitchen and the lofty living room. My eyes wander to the chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and once again, I’m at a loss for words. I shouldn’t be flabbergasted anymore; this type of wealth is a common display at Excelsior High, my personal hellhole. But I never find the right words to explain to my nine-year-old sister why our family can’t afford something like that.

I stand there, suspended in a limbo of indecisiveness and impatience, as Mrs. Lelikova continues in the background to chop her vegetables for boiling later. It mystifies me: I’m exactly on time, something Mama claims is an occurrence as rare as my sister’s clean room. Where is Viktor?

My sister echoes my thought. “Where’s your brother?” she says to Sonya, her playmate who is now preoccupied with her smartphone.

“I dunno,” Sonya responds. “Lemme text someone.”

I can tell that Mrs. Lelikova is about to say something sharp to her daughter about her smartphone use, but the sound of heavy footsteps on the staircase cuts her off. My heartbeat kick-starts again, like I’ve pressed the play button on a remote. What is wrong with me? What right have I?

I have none, I think, as Viktor Lelikov saunters into the living room, passing by me as if I’m nothing but an inconveniently placed lamp. “Had to finish my online class,” he says coolly to his mother in smooth Russian. “I can’t get out of it.”

Mrs. Lelikova sighs. “You made your sister and the Volkova girls late. Hurry with it.”

Viktor shoots a look at me before glaring at his sister, pulling his car keys out of his pocket. “Come on, сестричка [2].”

Our little sisters, both dressed as bumblebees in their sparkly tutus and bright yellow headbands, dart from their place in the living room and out the door before I can blink. Biting my lip, I turn to Mrs. Volkova and offer her a last smile. “Thank you.”

She’s barely paying attention to me. After standing rigidly for a half-second, I decide to accept her nod and step out of the living room. My eyes are burning, and with each step, I feel more and more aware of the bareness of my legs. Viktor is waiting by the door—what, for me?—and he sends me a glance. I take a deep breath of the chilly night air.

The two of us walk side-by-side behind our sisters in silence. The light from the houses on the street is scorching. It’s too bright for a dark holiday like Halloween. I wrinkle my nose. Almost…child-safe. Appropriate. Commercialized. Even the little grim reapers across the street look like kittens.

I had only asked Mama one thing of tonight: darkness. Peace, maybe, if that’s possible when Sonya and Nika are within five feet of each other.

But here, I swear I can see a mouse crawl across the glistening street if I squint hard enough. Children’s shrieks cloak me, and it takes everything in me not to shudder.

Viktor would notice.

As we stop on the sidewalk by each house, always at a distance from our sisters, Viktor maintains his silence. It’s always been like this with him; I’m not surprised or hurt. But for some reason, my fists remain clenched by my sides, and I will myself not to look sideways to him.

Why does it matter? He’s admitted it to everyone: he’s not the type to strike up a conversation whenever he feels a silence is growing tepid. I know better, however, that he isn’t the exact opposite. Although growing up with him may not have taught me what is on his mind, I am fully aware that he cares. Deep, deep inside, maybe, so deep that he’ll never have an opportunity to bring that caring to any good—but he cares.

But not about me.

And I don’t care about him.

My sister Nika beams as she skips down the driveway of a particularly generous old lady. Beside her, Sonya sneaks a glance into her bag. “Wait, no fair! Did she give you that humungous Snickers bar?”

Nika raises her eyebrows at her best friend. “Obviously, she thought I was the cuter one.” She simpers. “Stop complaining about it.”

Innocence makes me sad now. I don’t know why. I’m numb all over, from my exposed legs, which shake as they step on the sidewalk, to my arms in my leather jacket. The cold air burns my throat as I breathe it in. My nose will begin to run soon now. This is pathetic.

Because, really, who cares about having fun in the freezing night when there’s an agenda full of homework waiting at home?

“Mind your right.”

Viktor’s voice startles me out of the back of my head, and I hastily make way for some little kid barreling down the sidewalk in a bike. When I look up from my combat boots, I feel his eyes on the side of my head. My mouth is dry, and I lick my chapped lips. “Thanks.”

“It’s getting late now,” he says. His voice is low and husky. One would never guess that he is fluent in Russian, far more fluent than I am. Nor would one guess that he’s made a name for himself, all due to his own merit and nothing else.

Stereotypes hurt.

I bite my lip. “Maybe we should be heading back.”

The clock ticks. I can feel it.

“I’ll call them, tell them to head back down the other side of the street.” Viktor heads off in front of me to catch up to the girls. They cross the street. I’m left to glance around us. Everyone is fading away slowly, even though some linger. Tomorrow is Saturday, so there is no need to rush. Thus, there is no need for us to rush home either, but Viktor must be so tired of me.

I don’t blame him. I’m tired of myself too.

For whatever reason, Viktor waits half a beat so that we are side-by-side again. He sends me another look, this one a little more inquisitive. I keep my breathing even—but all I want to do is curl up in a blanket at home and sleep for a very, very long time.

“Cold?” he says.

I furrow my brows, looking down at my legs. If I concentrate for long enough, I’ll be able to pick out each goosebump, maybe even draw it in detail. It’s a little strange how long it takes me to gather each sensation in my body and put it all together into a response. The feeling of detachment, like each body part is its own entity, is bizarre, to say the least. Yes, that’s it. I’m freezing.

I repeat my conclusion to Viktor. He glances down at me. “We don’t do the talking business, do we?”

“I…never really saw a point to it. Idle chatter…it means nothing, and that’s half of the conversation, isn’t it?” I mumble. In front of me, the girls are losing their steam, preferring to sneak looks into each other’s overflowing bags. We’re getting closer to the end of the street, where we’ll have to disperse into our respective homes.

Oddly enough, I’m feeling regretful, almost like I’ve wasted my entire evening daydreaming instead of focusing on the present.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch Viktor turning his head toward me. He says nothing for the next minute, only keeps his mouth clamped shut as we dodge someone’s trashcan. At length, he says, “What happened?”

What does he mean?

Licking my lips, I zip up my leather jacket. The chill is getting to my exposed collarbones. There’s not much I can do for my legs. My only hope is that we hurry up enough so that my knees don’t completely fall off. “Excelsior Prep happened.”

Silence.

“Fair enough.” In the yellow light of the street lamps, the side of my companion’s face takes my breath away. Oblivious, he tips his chin up, glancing over some passerby’s head. “Time flies, doesn’t it?”

I have the same question for him. What happened to him? He sounds so sure of everything, everything in his life. I nod, keeping my eyes firmly on our sisters, who are finally slowing down on their rampage through the neighborhood. “And we all change.”

In the back of my mind, I can feel the clock tick, its hands slowly completing their rotation, remaining constant as everything else in the background and leaving everything behind in a blur. Maybe I’m going a little insane. I don’t blame myself for it either because this world is insane. What can I do?

Viktor’s silence nips at me, stinging more than any gust of wind that the night sends.

At last, he catches my arm, yanking me from the middle of the sidewalk, where the same kid from an hour ago whizzes by on his toddler bike. He releases me immediately, like my arm is a venomous scaly reptile. And I can’t deny how a rush of heat races to my cheeks. I can’t deny how I’ve been stupid enough to think that he’ll care about me or what I have to say about myself.

Because who cares about me aside from me?

We’re heading across the street now. Viktor pumps his legs a little harder so that he’s towering over the girls. I’m taken back to the beginning of this trick-or-treat outing, where I’m always trailing behind—forgotten, but not gone. We stop in the driveway. While the girls steal candy from each other, I take the chance to rummage through my leather jacket pockets for my keys.

“What are you afraid of?” Viktor’s voice comes out of nowhere, and I jump.

Shakily, I look up at him. My keys are on the tip of my finger, and I pull them out. “Rehashing the prompts from the admissions test for Excelsior?”

He tilts his head and narrows his eyes at me. “I can’t put a finger on it.”

The keys fall out of my hand, and as quickly as they fell, Viktor scoops them up. Tossing them from hand to hand, he watches my expression. He himself is impenetrable, no matter how forcefully I scrutinize his dark eyes. “What is there to analyze?” I demand, transitioning into Russian. Our sisters, though they understand it, are nowhere as fluent as we are.

“You know I’ll figure it out,” he responds in Russian. “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

I take a step back. “You won’t.” I can feel my chest tightening, the way I always feel when someone is coming too close. “I’m not just some challenge. This isn’t a game.”

“Who said this is a game?” Viktor holds the keys in one hand now. Even the dim lighting can’t hide his prominent cheekbones, and I force myself to hold my breath. “I’ll try to help you, Katya. There’s something off—”

“Don’t tell me that!” I snatch my keys from his hand and march to my sister. “It’s time to go,” I hiss at her. She doesn’t protest for the first time in never, and we’re both in the car before half a minute passes.

I start the engine, but something holds me back. For some stupid reason, a foolish habit of mine, I glance up at the porch, where Viktor stands. His eyes are on me as he holds the door open for his sister to go into their golden home. I close my eyes for a moment, leaning back. My head is pounding. When I open them again, he’s gone.

It’s silent in the car.

So I pull out of the driveway with my heart in my throat. One question: why do I care?

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