Anya came home to an apartment that smelled the way it always did when her mom was gone—a little sweet, a little organic. Maybe she didn’t empty the trash enough. She opened the windows in the living room, so a breeze could brush in to clean the place while she changed out of her school clothes. Then she lay on her back on the futon. From that angle, she could see nothing but sky.
Her mother was up north with a tourist group. She was a translator; whenever she left, there was less music, less cigarette smoke, less warm food in the apartment. The afternoons passed soundlessly into night. After the last bell rang today, Anya had tried to get Diana to hang out, but Diana said she couldn’t. That her parents wanted her home. Anyway, they’d spent the day before together, and best friends, Diana reminded them both, didn’t need to see each other constantly. So Anya had the place to herself, and no one to make noise with until her mom came back next week with foreign candies as secondhand gifts.
Strands of hair brushed her face. It was fine enough here alone, anyway. Warm, quiet. Even the smell didn’t bother her now. Last spring, their year-seven history teacher had called Anya’s hair a rat’s nest in front of the class, and she had felt thick with humiliation. But over the summer, when she wore thin shirts and her tangled hair tickled her shoulders, she’d thought again and liked that—a rat’s nest. She was a beast. This was her cave. A car honked outside and another one answered.
Anya rolled over to scroll through the news feed on her phone: selfies, skate parks, skirts. Someone’s girlfriend had commented on his status with a heart. She clicked on that girl’s profile, looked at all her pictures, and moved on, looking at mutual friends, scrolling, clicking, skipping. She went back to her news feed and refreshed. She stopped.
Someone had just posted a picture of Diana. Diana sitting on her bed in cropped sweatpants and a pink T-shirt, and Tanya lying down beside her, and Dasha in her school uniform in the back.
She sat up. Texted Diana: “What are you doing?” Couldn’t wait. “Can I come over?”
She shoved off the futon, found her jeans, grabbed her jacket, filled her pockets with her wallet and lip balm and headphones and keys. After class, Diana had said she was going home, but maybe she meant Anya should come with her. Maybe she hadn’t understood. She looked again at the picture. There were four of them together? The girl who posted the picture didn’t even live in Diana’s neighborhood. Anya refreshed. Nothing new. Only more posts from people she didn’t care about. She made sure she had her bus pass, then ran down the stairs to the street.
The sun was bright enough to make her wince. Anya had asked Diana to go to the city center this afternoon—did Diana think she only wanted to go there? Nowhere else? They spent so much time together, they talked on the phone every night. Diana knew Anya was alone. She knew everything about her. Why would she do this?
The parking lot was pitted underneath her feet. She tried leaping over its biggest potholes so she wouldn’t lose her pace. Beyond the rows of identical apartments, Petropavlovsk’s distant hills lit up with leaves—hot yellow. A color like that washed the city clean. Hearing herself, the desperate noise of her shoes slapping, Anya slowed down, then hopped when she saw her bus at the traffic circle and had to dash to catch it.
It lurched as she went down the aisle. On either side, there were rows of adults dressed in uniform after uniform: coveralls, scrubs, blotted military greens. It was already after four o’clock. She found a seat and checked her phone. Diana hadn’t responded. Quickly, Anya typed “???”, sent it, locked the screen, and shut the phone between her hands like that would undo her message. To keep herself from anything else she looked out the window.
Her mother called this time of year “golden autumn.” It was brief and beautiful as a picture. All the trees caught in light like they were on fire. And the air still inviting. Warmer, really, than it had been all summer. Way off on the horizon, the volcano was dotted with its first snow. Cold weather was coming, but it wasn’t here yet.
By now Diana must’ve figured she’d seen the picture. Were they all over there laughing at her?
This was how it went—the closer you were, the more you lied. With people she hardly knew, Anya could say whatever she wanted: “That hurts,” to the pediatrician, or “Put it back, I don’t have enough money,” to the grocery-store cashier. When Yuri Valentzev, pathetic, predictable, bragged about getting the highest score on their first math quiz of the year, Anya could turn away from him. But with her mother, she always had to be cheery, and with Diana, she had to measure herself out in sips.
Just this morning she’d had to bolster Diana, who was refusing to lift her head from her desk. Anya poked her in the side and whispered when their teacher was coming in. They compared their homework at lunch. Diana seemed to believe she was smarter than Anya just because she was better at school. Anya had smiled along with Diana’s corrections, even though in that moment Diana was ugly with smugness. When they were little, Diana had been beautiful; Anya used to admire the back of her head in line as they were led from class to class. Now that they were in year eight, Diana was still blond and oval-faced, and her mouth was red, bright red, exciting like the lacquer of a new car, but she had a belt of acne across her cheeks. Her eyelashes had faded from startling white to transparent nothingness. In one moment she was pretty and in the next she was a ghost.
She pried open the clamshell of her hands to look at the phone. Nothing.
During gym this afternoon, they’d jogged together like always. Anya had made sure their paces matched. With the people that mattered, she could never be free.
Shining leaves and bleached tree trunks. The sooty sides of apartment buildings. The bus’s walls were covered with foreign safety warnings from its Korean manufacturer and fat marker graffiti from its Russian riders. It rolled her steadily downhill.
They slowed at the outdoor market where old women sold pastries then turned right toward Diana’s neighborhood. Anya sank in her seat. She didn’t want to ring Diana’s doorbell out of nowhere—she wanted an invitation, like those other girls must have had. Best friends still needed to be told they were wanted. She took a breath and called Diana. The phone rang, rang, and went to voicemail.
She called again. She called again. They were getting close to Diana’s stop. Still holding the phone to her cheek, Anya squeezed past people’s knees, showed her pass to the driver, and jumped off on the corner she knew so well. Diana’s voicemail message was in her ear. She hung up.
It was a little too hot now from all her rushing around. Standing at the bus stop, Anya dropped her jacket in back so the breeze could hit her shoulders. She refreshed her news feed. It was crowded with music videos. She went to the search bar to type in Diana’s name. The phone buzzed and she almost dropped it.
“Hi!” she said.
“This is Varvara Nikolaevna,” said Diana’s mother.
Anya pulled her jacket up. “Hello.”
“Listen, we can’t have you over this afternoon,” she said. “We’re truthfully not comfortable with you two seeing each other outside of school anymore.”
Anya couldn’t think. There was a couple walking towards her. To give them room, she stepped to the edge of the sidewalk, where the concrete fell away into grass. “What?” she said.
“Diana won’t be able to talk to you outside of school.”
The woman sounded so flat. Anya wasn’t able to reconcile what Varvara Nikolaevna was saying with how plainly she was saying it. The couple had passed her now. “But why?” she asked.
Diana’s mother said, “You’re not a good influence.”
She wasn’t a good influence. “How?” she said. “Why?” One of the girls in that picture with Diana was Dasha Golovkina, who told them last year that she never wore underwear. Dasha had her first boyfriend in year five. Compare that with Anya, who had never even smoked a whole cigarette. All she ever did was listen to Diana, and let her borrow music, and buy her books from overseas each year when her birthday came. As a joke, she sometimes kicked Diana’s ankles under the table when she was invited over for meals. She sometimes copied her work in the mornings. She sometimes laughed when Diana didn’t know what was funny. That’s it. She didn’t do anything wrong.
“There’s nothing to discuss, Anna,” Varvara Nikolaevna said. “It’s your attitude. And your household. We’re not comfortable with it.”
Anya pressed one hand over her eyes. She didn’t want anyone on the street to see her cry. “What household? Do you mean my mom?”
Diana’s mother was silent. “Not only,” she said at last.
“That’s not fair,” Anya said.
“That’s how it’s going to be,” her mother said. “You can see Diana in class, but please don’t bother her anymore outside of that. All right?” Now it was Anya’s turn not to say anything. “Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Anya said, because that was the only way the conversation was going to end.
“All right,” her mother said. “Thank you. That’s all.”
After she hung up, Anya wiped her phone off on her shirt and looked at the smeared blackness of it. Unlocked it. She scrolled to her mother’s name and stopped.
What would she say? “Varvara Nikolaevna thinks we’re a bad influence.” And how would her mother respond? There could be no answer.
Diana’s mother had always looked hard at Anya. The mother was the same kind of whitened blond as the daughter, though she wore mascara to make her eyes look better. An administrator at the elementary school they’d gone to, she constantly had something to say. Like if Diana mentioned Dima—“Dima Morozov?” her mother would interrupt, even if until then she’d been pretending to wipe down the sink. “He’s a troublemaker.” Or, “I remember his older sister. Poor girl.” Or, “When there’s no father…” and she would graze her eyes across Anya, and Anya would try to keep a placid face. Her mother acted like their family was the example everyone else was too foolish to follow. Diana would just listen and nod.
Anya’s mother, though, was fun. When she was home she took the wildest clothes out of her closet for the two girls to try on. If they brought a third friend over, her mother said hello in Japanese. A couple of months ago Diana, feeling full of phrases she’d learned from anime, had tried to answer, and Anya’s mother had stood in the hall and chattered away. Diana tried for five seconds to look like she understood. Then her mouth stretched in distress. “I’m kidding, sunshine,” Anya’s mother said, laughing, and Anya laughed too.
Anya couldn’t ruin that by calling now. No. Varvara Nikolaevna left work every day at three; she had afternoons free to stand in her renovated kitchen, with her dumb husband in an office somewhere downhill, and make up her mind that—that something was wrong with them—because Anya’s mother gave Diana a hard time, because she had to travel, because they didn’t have the money to be stuck-up. Varvara Nikolaevna, who’d fed Anya a thousand snacks and occasional dinners, had all these years been keeping track of their sins.
Anya crouched down and hid her face in her elbow. Cars were going carelessly by.
Better to think of this forever than to tell her mother. To humiliate her in front of tourists. To make her cry.
Anya was Diana’s friend. Her best friend. They’d known each other since year four. No matter how odd Diana could be, distant in one second and overeager the next, Anya looked after her. Diana loved her for that. She borrowed Anya’s T-shirts when she slept over and pretended she wouldn’t give them back before she left. Sometimes she combed Anya’s hair with her fingers and braided it into one tail that became skinny as a chewed-up pencil at the end. Varvara Nikolaevna didn’t understand—Diana liked the way Anya was with her, she liked it, she liked it all.
The sleeve of Anya’s jacket was warm. When she straightened out her arm, she saw a starburst pattern where the fabric had stayed dry.
She stood up and texted Diana again. “Can you talk?” Watched the screen. No response. She wiped her face with both hands, and the phone rubbed hard against her cheek.
Even if Diana were allowed to text right now, she wouldn’t have anything to say. Another excuse—“My mom doesn’t want me going out as much these days. The missing girls. She’s scared.” Today after school, Diana had tried that line. Anya had made her call home to ask anyway. While the other kids were pushing toward the street, while the teachers were shouting at their backs, Diana had said into her call, “Okay, Mama. All right.” Once she hung up, Anya had said, “You really fought back,” and Diana had said, “I don’t fight with people,” with the “I” made to sound an accusation. Anya had swallowed her next words. Diana had looked toward the street. The truth was that Varvara Nikolaevna just hated Anya, hated her mother, for no reason, because she didn’t understand their jokes.
Another bus was chugging to a stop in front of Anya. This one went not back to her apartment but toward the other end of the city. She touched the pass in her pocket. She could get on it. She could do anything she wanted. She was alone.
So she did. It took her down past the police station and the lower campus of the university. Pressed on all sides by bodies, she held onto a hanging strap. It was too crowded to take out her phone so instead she imagined the picture again. Diana didn’t look good in it. Curved shoulders and shiny cheeks. Dasha in the back with her legs crossed. All of them stupid and bright.
She could call up someone else, some other classmate…maybe somebody would meet her in the center. But all the kids she knew had been Diana’s friends first, when they were little, and if they asked her where Diana was—Anya would die.
She glanced at the woman across the aisle, who was staring at her. Probably thinking about her bad attitude. The next stop was the city center. Anya shut her eyes.
When the bus pulled over, Anya got out, pushing back against commuters. She emerged from their bodies to find the center busy. It curved like a moon around the dark mouth of the bay. There was the statue of Lenin, his jacket billowing out, and high-school boys on their bikes around his feet. There was the white municipal building, the brilliant burning hills. The volcano—only its peak was visible from here. The sloping shore. Car exhaust mixed with the smells of grease and saltwater. Anya checked her coat and turned toward the food stands.
“I have 86 rubles,” she told a vendor. The woman nodded toward the posted price list. “Can I get a hot dog, though?”
“Can I get a hot dog without the bun?”
The woman sighed. “You said 86? A soda and a tea are 85.” Anya slid her money across and took back a coin, a handful of sugar packets, a can of Coca-Cola. After a minute, she got her soft plastic cup of tea. Drinks in her fists, one hot, one cold, she picked her way onto the stone-covered shore. There was an empty bench. She took it.
Two oil tankers were out on the water. Tiny waves lapped the rocks in front of her. She drank the soda first, while she listened to the current and the cars and the back-and-forth shouts of the kids by the statue. Then she shook three sugar packets into her tea and drank that, too. People crossed behind her. The rows of cranes farther down the coast were motionless. The workday was done.
She could check her news feed but she didn’t want to. Diana’s mother had probably taken her phone away. She’d probably kicked their friends out. Diana was probably going to cry all night. Tomorrow before their first class, Anya would say, “Why did you let her talk to me that way?”
And Diana would say, “I couldn’t stop her. She just grabbed my phone and called.”
“You never stop her. She’s crazy. She’s the worst.” Anya would be allowed to say that because she’d been treated so poorly, and Diana, after years of acting like her family was perfect, would finally have to agree.
Together they would come up with a plan. Diana could say she’d joined a club so they would have two afternoons each week to go to Anya’s place. No one else would have to know. Anya’s mother wouldn’t tell. Anya ripped open another sugar packet, poured the crystals into her mouth, and chewed. The sugar dissolved on her teeth. She should’ve told Diana’s mother what their friends said about her. That she was nothing but an old bitch who got off on making elementary-school kids cry. Everyone who’d been sent to the office back then came back with stories Diana hated to hear. It didn’t matter; Anya would say it all anyway. She wasn’t going to call back now just to get the last word, but if Varvara Nikolaevna came to school one day to pick up Diana from her made-up club, Anya could meet her there, too, and have her chance.
Swallowing, she brushed her trash onto the ground and lay down across the bench.
The bay made such soft noises. Its ripples appeared a meter or two from shore. Far across the water, there was the dark outline of the opposite coast, tucked against mountains that grew whiter all the way up to the sky. Anya watched the ships make lazy progress. Behind her, cars passed without a break.
On her stomach, under her folded hands, her phone vibrated. She looked down her chest at the screen. “Hi, Mama,” she said when she picked up.
“Hi, rabbit,” her mother said. “Guess what? Mr. Hayashi is allergic to milk.”
Anya wiped her eyes. She giggled, the sound forced at first and then opening up to something halfway natural. “Oh, yeah? How do you know?”
“He ate half a tub of sour cream for lunch.”
“Poor Mr. Hayashi!”
“Poor me!” her mother said. “I was the one who had to stay with him all afternoon. Foreigners are so sensitive. This one wanted me to stay close by but just out of sight—like I couldn’t hear his noises. I started to feel sick myself. How was school?”
“Fine. Normal.” She thought for a second. “Masha Petrova is failing math.”
“The girl with the nose? That dummy!” Her mom laughed. “I’m not surprised.”
“Neither am I. Neither is the teacher.”
“And how are you doing in math?”
“Oh, fine,” Anya said.
Her mother didn’t push it. Instead, she asked, “Do you miss me?” like she did on every call. She sounded so light. Nothing bothered her. And Anya, too, was happy—her jacket sleeve was still damp, but she was filled up to her fingertips with golden light. On calls like this, when she heard her mom’s voice, she was assured that trying her best was working.
“Yes,” Anya said.
The sun was lowering toward the hills, and the pebbles on the shore were beginning to yellow. Soon they would glow. In the dusk, the city was going to turn pink and orange. Anya was the only girl her age in the center. Everyone else was stupid not to be here. Tomorrow, when Anya talked to Diana, she wouldn’t tell her how the colors changed. She wouldn’t tell her this.
“Do you miss me?” she asked her mother.
“Of course I do,” her mom said.
The air was still warm on Anya’s skin. “You better,” she said. She was telling the truth, but only for a minute. It didn’t make Anya bad—to do what people had to have her do. In fact it made her good. It made her good. She knew it.
Julia Phillips has written for The Morning News, Crab Orchard Review, Jezebel, The Cut, The Hairpin, and The Rumpus.