“Baba Yaga Knows All, Sees All” by Sarah A. Drew

It’s tough being a picker these days, but things are easier when Baba Yaga’s on your side.

Sure, her home doesn’t spin around on chicken legs, but it’s still a chore getting inside to see her. I hop the fence to her apartment building and say the magic words.

“Baba Yaga knows all, sees all, and her judgment is wise.” I even throw in a little curtsy to make it official, lifting my skirts.

There’s a pause, a moment where it feels nothing will happen or everything could. Then a line of glowing blue appears around the frame of a door on the left side of the building. As I make my way towards it, I hear the hum of the florescent tube making the light.

I open the door and head for the closest stairwell. There’s no point in deviating. All the apartments were stripped of their valuables long ago; all that’s left are the couches, beds and particleboard furniture.

Electrical cords and Christmas lights appear as I make my way up the floors. Some are strung on the edge of the stairs, others stapled to the walls. They seem to breathe, writhe. I imagine this is what it’s like to be in the jungle, surrounded by vines.

When I make my way to the top floor I’m not surprised Baba isn’t waiting for me. But I know where she’s hiding. I tiptoe to the back apartment, the largest one with three bedrooms. My movements are as swift and silent as an ancient ghost.

Her front door is open and light is spilling into the hallway, making me blind. I blink my eyes twice and peer into the doorway.

“Come inside, Hope,” Baba says. “I want to show you something.”

She’s sitting in the center of the living room, crouched in front of three monitors stacked on crates. Her grey hair is pulled back in a plastic tie, the same kind used to organize the cables running around the room. Without looking up, she pats the stack of pillows sitting beside her. They’re mismatched, a few smaller and covered in cartoon characters. She probably took them from the bedrooms in the other apartments. I take off my shoes and sit down at her side. Baba shifts her weight on her own pillows and types on the keyboard spread across her lap.

“We’re working the condo complex down the street,” I say. “I thought I’d stop by to see how my Baba’s doing.”

Baba flexes her wrist and continues typing.

I smile. “How’d you know I was at the door?”

“New cameras, all around the hallways.” She waves her hand through the air. “Have something to drink, dearie.”

A samovar is sitting at my side, steaming with tea. I fill a cup for myself, then another for Baba. It isn’t until I hand it to her that she looks at me, her eyes wrinkled, as if she’s spent a lifetime squinting at monitors in the dark. But there’s a cheer to her face, smile lines at the edges of her lips. Whatever she’s done with her life it must’ve amused her. Baba blows along the surface of the cup and takes a sip.

“I’ve had new cameras installed outside as well,” she says. “Throughout the whole neighborhood.”

Her fingers fly across the keys. A long black road appears on the center monitor, winding across the landscape like a fattened snake. Her fingers move again and the view flicks to a condo building with a sagging roof. Its vinyl siding was stripped away long ago, leaving it white and naked in the sun. People wander into the frame, looking stretched and faceless in the slant of the camera. They pick bricks off the ground and toss them at the windows in lazy arcs.

“You’re getting paranoid in your old age, Baba,” I say.

She looks at me and grimaces, her teeth browned from years of drinking her tea black.

“If you’d done the things I’d done, dearie, you’d be paranoid too.”

I shift my weight to my knees and pluck the keyboard from her lap. It’s still warm from her touch and smells faintly of the cookies and jam she takes with her Darjeeling.

“Let’s have a look at this,” I say.

“It’s complicated.” Baba reaches to help but sees I’m already flipping through the cameras. She laughs. “Perhaps you don’t need your Baba anymore. I’m an old woman. I should be sitting in a home somewhere, waiting for my grandchildren to visit.”

I smile, not quite sure how to take the joke. The subject of children, let alone grandchildren, has never come up. To the best of my knowledge I’m the closest thing she has to a child. The two of us met when I was 13 and fresh across the border. Baba agreed to hire me, to take me on as a mule to smuggle plastic beads from Mexico City to San Antonio. I excelled at the job because of my age, my youthful charm. In response, Baba took me under her wing, showing me the ways of the Solntsevskaya Bratva, her branch of the Russian mafia. Having run away from my own mother, I was more than happy to have a replacement.

It wasn’t until I grew a little older that I realized the fear and awe people felt for my Baba, the woman who’d given me a bed and soothed away my problems. About 4 years ago, just before I left, one of her accountants turned himself over to the FBI as an informant. He’d disappeared from the witness protection program a few days later. The police found him floating in a river, his lungs completely dry. When Baba had decided to move to the country in the first year of her retirement, to live in seclusion, I hadn’t been the least bit surprised.

The monitor flicks to a view of a different condo, newer, with most of the siding still intact. Two brown figures stand in front of it gesturing wildly. From the camera’s place above they look like grasshoppers, crawling, arguing over a patch of grass. The smaller figure clutches something to its chest, while the larger figure reaches for it, trying to rip it away. I lean closer until my nose is nearly touching the monitor.

“Dillon,” I say.

“The boy?” Baba says.

“That rat.”

I stand, scattering the pillows. A wave of nausea hits me and I sink again to the floor.

“Hope?” Baba says.

“Nothing.” I shake my head. “I’m fine.”

Perhaps it’s the tea, or the unseasonal heat. I stand again and head through the hallway, taking no care to be quiet. When I reach the first floor, I pause to find the door I’d come in through. The other entrances and windows are electrified, a few wired with bombs – even Baba admits she’s not quite sure which. But I find it at last, a plain white door marked with a smudge of blue along the frame, as if done by a careless painter. It opens without a crack or a bang, and I’m outside, hopping over the fence. I stop just in front of the microphone, the one embedded in the shortest post. All I have to do is say the magic words and the right door will reveal itself again, highlighted in blue. With a sweep of my arm, I curtsey.

“I’ll see you soon, great and powerful Baba.”

And with that, I turn and sprint across the lawn.

***

When I find Dillon, he’s standing over a little girl, holding a plastic lawn ornament in his hand. He turns to see me and a smile spreads across his face. That’s when I strike him, his nose crunching like an apple under my fist. I can feel the cartilage pop, the bone. He cries and stumbles away clutching his face. I’m not surprised; I always knew he was a big baby.

“Jesus Christ, Hope,” he says. “You broke it.”

“You had it coming, you dirty thief.”

The little girl is staring at me with wide, glistening eyes. She seems to be 5 or 6 – not tall enough yet to reach my waist. I pick the lawn ornament off the ground where Dillon dropped it. It looks like a flamingo, or at least it had once; the pink has bleached away to a flesh tone yellow, as if the bird was stripped of its plumage.

I hand the ornament to the girl. “If he tries to steal from you again, come find me, and I’ll hit him again. Okay?”

The girl nods and clutches the bird to her chest. Without saying a word she runs across the street, disappearing behind a row of condos. Sagging, with their windows smashed out, they remind me of toothless old men. Dillon whimpers like a dog that’s been kicked.

“What were you thinking, stealing from a little girl?” I say.

“Mr. Vinyl’s coming soon, and I haven’t met my quota.” He wipes the blood from his nose and looks at his hands. “You gotta take me to the doctor, Hope. I’m feeling dizzy.”

“Take yourself.”

I follow the girl’s path around the condos. They’re covered in graffiti, crude drawings and even cruder words. Kids put them there, to scare away outsiders, people from the city. Not that any of them would want to come out here to the suburbs.

When I reach the other side of the building I see the sun is hanging low in the sky, right in my eyes. Dillon is right, Mr. Vinyl is coming soon. I make my way across the grass, to the row of condos with the busted in door. Avoiding the entrance, I crawl in through the closest window. The glass around the frame is broken and swept away, probably from people climbing in and out. It’s obvious this building was cleaned out long ago. There’s nothing left for a picker to take.

I make my way to the kitchen, with its dusty granite counters and the blank spot on the wall where the microwave once stood. The refrigerator was ripped out not long ago, and the room looks desolate, abandoned without it.

My stash is hidden under the sink, in a cloth sack. I counted about five pounds of plastic in there, plenty enough to meet my quota. When round the corner I see the little girl is standing in front of cabinets, clutching the sack.

“What are you doing?” I say.

She’s so surprised she nearly drops the bag. Before I can grab her, she’s clambered over the counter, dragging the sack. It splits and a trail of plastic falls in her wake: disposable spoons, knives, plates, razors, pens, bottles, cups. She makes it to the door, but the bag is too much, the weight of it. With a cry, she drops it and sprints across the lawn.

“If you want it that bad,” I say. “You can have it.”

I pick up the bag and toss it in her direction. She stops in the distance and stares, her face unreadable. She probably saw me hiding my stash and was waiting for just the right moment to come and take it.

“I don’t need to buy food today anyway.” I pat my stomach. “I’ve been feeling kind of queasy.”

The girl smiles but doesn’t come any closer. I know she doesn’t trust me, so I disappear back into the condo, giving her plenty of room. From my place in the dark, I see her dart for the bag. I could grab her then, twist her arm until she tells me where her own stash is, so I could make double. But I’m not low, not like Dillon. Besides, when she grows up she’s going to have her fill of people pushing her around, stealing her things.

***

Mr. Vinyl’s meeting place is in the center of the condo complex, in a parking lot separated by a concrete divider. A few domesticated flowers still grow it in, but they’re choked with crab grass, milkweed and goldenrod – peasants surrounding queens. I stand on the outskirts of the lot, kicking at the weeds. The blacktop is lined with people, each carrying a single bag, and the lucky ones two or three. The little girl appears again dragging my stash. She runs to a woman with a teenaged son. I’ve never seen the family before, but it’s not unusual for people to fall in and out of the plastic picking business. I’ve come and gone three times myself. Somehow I always come back.

The first time I left I worked as a dishwasher in the city, at a little place that served chickens that were slaughtered in the back. One of the waitresses there, Honey, would bring me leftover pieces of wings and legs. I’d sit there and chew them, feeling the grease run down my chin, and she’d talk to me, tell me how things were when she was my age. People had lived in the suburbs back then, in neat rows of houses, apartments and condos. But it got too expensive to stay out there, with the cost of oil. At first people had made do, cutting back on other things. But the price got so bad it’d take a whole week’s paycheck just to fill up the tank. That’s when people started fleeing for the city, to be near their jobs. Many people left their things behind, not being able to afford the gas to go back and retrieve them.

That’s where pickers like me came in. When oil became scarce, so did plastic. So pickers started heading out to the suburbs, to see what plastic could be salvaged from the homes. It was a tough job to begin with, but when people like Mr. Vinyl got involved it got worse.

A truck rolls into the parking lot, belching smoke. It shudders like a monster and grinds to a halt a few feet from the people standing at the farthest edge of the blacktop. The passenger side door opens and Mr. Vinyl steps out. Despite the heat, he’s wearing a black vinyl raincoat that stretches from his neck to his shins. I can’t even imagine how much it must’ve cost; more money than anyone here has ever earned. He never has it far from his body; he’s either wearing it or it’s thrown over his shoulders like a Halloween cape. Nobody knows his real name, Mr. Vinyl is something we pickers conjured up, but it seems to fit him better than anything his mother could’ve given him.

Mr. Vinyl walks to the first man at the edge of the parking lot and pulls out a clipboard.

“Irwin,” he says. “What’ve you got?”

Irwin holds up a bulging cloth sack. “It’d say about four pounds, sir.”

“Hmm. More like three and a half.”

Irwin looks at the ground, his lips pursed. “Fine.”

Mr. Vinyl counts out a roll of twenties while Irwin tosses the bag in the back of the truck. They exchange the money quickly, as if Mr. Vinyl fears contamination. When he turns to speak to the next person, Irwin makes a rude gesture at his back.

“Sherman.” Mr. Vinyl looks at his clipboard. “And her two children.”

The little girl’s mother holds up two bags, her arms trembling under the weight of them. Her son picks up another, no larger than his head. It’s pathetic; out of the three of them they’ve only collected nine pounds. Only amateurs could cover a whole condo complex and come back with such a small amount. I can see Mr. Vinyl working out the math in his head, deciding on the lower amount he’s going to con them into.

“Seven pounds,” Mr. Vinyl says.

I step forward and give my biggest, broadest smile. “This bag right here.” I point to the one on the woman’s left. “I collected it myself, and I can assure you, sir, it’s at least five.”

Mr. Vinyl raises his eyebrow. “Five?”

“Have I ever steered you wrong or lied? And besides, anyone can tell it’s five, even someone like myself who’s never so much as stepped foot in a classroom. And an educated man like you can surely count better than me.”

He nods his head. I frown a little, trying to look a bit more serious.

“And if this one is five, then the others must be two pounds each, even as small as they are.” I pretend to add up the math on my fingers. “Which must mean this lot totals nine pounds.”

The woman gives me a puzzled look while Mr. Vinyl leans in closer and weighs the bags with his palm.

“Yes, yes. I can see that now,” he says. “It is nine pounds.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s rare to meet such an honorable man in this business. If I had a home I’d invite you over for dinner as thanks.”

Mr. Vinyl blushes. “Oh, well, I’m just doing my job.”

He counts the money out and hands it to the woman while her son throws the bags in the back of the truck. I lean in close to the little girl, who’s looking at me again in amazement.

“Where did that boy go, the one I punched in the nose?” I say.

The girl points into the distance. “I saw him heading that way, for the road. He looked sick.”

I flash her a smile and run in the direction she’s pointing. It takes me no more than a few minutes to make it to the roadway, but by the time I get there Dillon’s already hitched a ride to the city. I can see him clinging to the back of a truck as it pulls away. He’s taken his t-shirt off and pressed it to his face, the white cloth spotted with red. He doesn’t look back as the truck moves down the road, which is good because this is when a wave of nausea overtakes me and I vomit there, between my legs, on the grass.

***

The hot shower feels so good on my face it seems as if I could stand under it forever. But I know the warm water won’t last much longer, so I flick it off and grab a towel. The steam in the room is heavy, like something I could grab in my hands. When I close my eyes I swear I can feel it rub against the front of my eyelids.

I’m not exactly sure how Baba got the water company to turn on the water to her apartment building, but it’s been running ever since she moved in, that and the electricity. With all the backroom deals she’s done – some with my aid – I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was blackmail.

The towel smells clean, like air, clouds. I wrap it around myself and open the bathroom door. Baba is in the living room, seated on her pillows like a Buddha. A man is on one of the monitors. She’s speaking to him in a voice so low I can’t make out the words. When she sees me she flicks off the screen and stands. She’s wearing a red polyester tracksuit and a vintage pair of rubber sandals. Whoever she’s talking to he must be important; her whole ensemble would put the cost of Mr. Vinyl’s precious coat to shame.

“How are you feeling?” she says.

“Not so great.” Awful would be closer to the truth.

Baba stretches, the bones in her shoulders pop. “Sit down, have something to eat.”

I look at the pot of stew sitting on the floor. A fresh samovar sits beside it. The sight of it, the smell of cabbage and onions, is almost enough to send me back to the bathroom. I settle on a shallow cup of tea.

“How long have you been feeling sick,” Baba says.

“Maybe a month. A little less,” I say.

Baba’s face twists in concern. “When was the last time you saw a doctor?”

A sinking feeling forms in my stomach. “Years. Maybe back when I was living with mom.”

“I think I know what the problem is. But I don’t know. It’s best not to jump to conclusions until you’ve talked to someone.”

She pulls out a card and hands it to me. The front of it is printed with a winged staff surrounded by two snakes.

“It’s a health insurance card,” Baba says. “I’m going to call someone to take you into the city. Go see Dr. Tereshkova. She’s a good woman.”

And probably owes a few favors.

Baba pats me on the knee. “And besides, dearie, if nothing else you’ll get a good checkup.”

***

The waiting room at the doctor’s office is cold, practically icy. It’s the middle of a weekday, so the only other people waiting are old folks, older than Baba. Sitting among them, in my leggings and a Christmas sweater I found an abandoned house, I feel like a small child.

The nurse at the front desk clears her throat. “Hope.”

I nod to the people around me and follow her to a back area. She takes my temperature with a glass thermometer, the kind with a little mercury inside. I’d picked fancier ones out of medicine cabinets in apartments – sleek instruments made of plastic with tiny digital screens. But they went in the back of a truck with everything else, to be melted into something new.

When the nurse leaves me alone in a smaller room, I can’t help but poke through the cabinets. There’s needles made of metal and glass, tins of ointment, and packages of cloth bandages. I’m in the process of slipping a few into my pocket when Dr. Tereshkova comes through the door. She’s a beautiful woman, much younger than I expected, with clear blue eyes. We talk for a little while, about my symptoms, my life. We never mention Baba, but I can feel her there in the back of our minds. Eventually, the two of us fall silent.

“How old are you, Hope?” Dr. Tereshkova says.

“Nineteen.” I’ve lied about my age many times, sometimes moving the numbers up, sometimes down. In this case I’m telling the truth.

“I’m going to need a urine sample, but from your symptoms, the nausea, it’s easy to figure out. Women come in here all the time asking the same thing.”

“What?”

“You’re pregnant.”

It seems that I’m somewhere far away, and all I can see is that little girl, holding the plastic lawn ornament. Dr. Tereshkova hands me a pamphlet, and suddenly I’m back in the room.

“This’ll give you some information on how you should change your diet, and what to expect.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“See the nurse before you leave. We still need to do that test.”

I stand. It takes me a moment to realize I’ve wadded the pamphlet in my hands. Dr. Tereshkova looks at me again with her blue eyes. “And please give my best regards to your friend.”

When I go outside to find the nurse, I see the crowd in the waiting area has changed. Now it’s filled with families and business people just off the bus from work. A mother sits down, cradling two children in her lap. She seems well put together, mature, calm. I’m not like her at all, I can’t be. I’m just a child myself.

***

The thing I remember most about my childhood, back in Brazil, is the birds. The way they landed on the ground, and how they picked through the trash in just the same way as we did. But my mother and I, we didn’t move like those birds. As we picked plastic out of the Jardim Gramacho landfill just outside of Rio we constantly stumbled. The ground was too unstable, too loose, and we were always struggling to stand. A man fell once, into a hole, to be swallowed by layers of paper, dirt and rotting vegetables – the refuse of generations of an older, wasteful culture.

My mother had started working at the landfill shortly after my father left us. At first she’d let me spend the day in her shack, just on the outskirts of Jardim Gramacho and its smell. When I grew old enough, she brought me a pair of boots still too large for my feet and started taking me to work. We’d comb through hundreds of pounds of trash each day, looking for any small pieces of plastic. Mostly we found bottles. They came in every size and shape imaginable and seemed almost endless. We’d collect them into bags, into impossible mounds. But even then there were men like Mr. Vinyl waiting to underpay us, to click their tongues and say we should try collecting more next time.

In her own quiet, understated way my mother flourished in this job. It was better than selling her body, or relying on another man that could leave her at any moment. But it wasn’t enough for me. Even at a young age I knew that wasn’t what I wanted out of life, to run with the other children that smelled like filth, and one day settle down with my own man in a shack on the outskirts of the landfill, where I would raise my own daughter.

Banks weren’t an option for people like my mother. She hid her money in a coffee can in the ceiling of our home. One night I stole it and paid a man to take me north, to the United States. It took us a long time, sometimes by foot, sometimes by train, but eventually we made it over the border.

Sometimes when I’m picking through an apartment complex, a condo, I’ll see one of those birds. I’ll wonder if it’s seen my mother, and if it knows I’m not so different from her, despite how far I’ve run.

***

Baba doesn’t seem the least bit surprised when I tell her the news. She nods her head, as if in deep thought and sets her keyboard on the floor.

“You’ll stay here then,” she says. “And when the child is a bit older you can move to the city. I’ll set up a job for you there.”

I lay back on the pillows I’m sitting on, my hair spilling over the floor. “Dishwashing, or perhaps maid work? Should I practice bowing and calling people ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’?”

Baba snorts. “Of course not, dearie, you’d be too tired to play with your child in the evening. Something sitting down would be better. Perhaps work at the front desk of a hotel.”

With a flick of my wrist, I fling one of the pillows across the room. “I may as well just stay here and do picking, Baba.”

We know what the problem is, the elephant in the room, but neither of us wants to acknowledge it. An illegal immigrant with no education, no social security number, doesn’t have many options, even with a benefactor like Baba. Minimum wage labor is about all I’m good for.

I sit up, feeling a wave of nausea hit me. “Let me work for you again. It doesn’t have to be smuggling anymore. Something easier, running a safehouse or bookkeeping.”

Baba fidgets with the keyboard on the floor. “No more work for me, I’m retired. Besides, you don’t want to get into a life like mine. It’s rotten, and you’ll end up all alone in a building with nothing to keep you company except cameras and the ghosts of the people you’ve sent to their graves.”

In all my life I’ve never known Baba to be poetic. It’s frightening in a way, as if I’ve looked into her very soul.

She turns again to her computer and types in a few words. “Besides, there’s no dishonor in making an honest living.” She stands from her seat. “But enough of this, I have a present for you.”

She takes my hand and lifts me from my seat on the pillows. We make our way through the hallways, Baba shuffling along as best she can. I’m so much faster, nimbler, that before long I’m in front of her, pulling her along. The only guide I have is the direction she moves her wrist.

The front door of one of the apartments is open, exposing nothing but black. Baba leads me inside through the darkened rooms, her eyes honed from years of sitting in the dark, and flicks on a switch. We’re standing in a large room surrounded with toys. They fill the shelves: little elephants, cats and monkeys. In the center stands a crib made of clean white plastic as perfect as a child’s skin.

“It’s beautiful,” I say.

That’s when I start to cry, and although I don’t know why, I’m sure it isn’t because of happiness. Baba pulls me into hug.

“Hush, hush, dearie,” she says. “Everything will be alright.”

But I know it won’t ever be.

***

My body betrays me now. It moves slower, as if I’ve become bloated, fat, and I grow tired from doing something as simple as running across a lawn. Baba’s been trying to get me to stop picking, but I’ve refused.

I’m in a condo, collecting plastic jewelry from a bedroom, when I hear someone in the next room over. They’re ransacking the place, pulling out drawers; I can hear them tumble to the ground. Whoever’s doing it, they must be desperate.

It’s getting on my nerves. I go to the next room, to tell them to stop, to shut up. A man stands up from the pile of drawers, a white bandage wrapped around his face. It’s Dillon. I haven’t seen him in weeks.

“Hope.” He moves forward, perhaps to take me by the shoulders, but thinks better of it. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Why?” I say.

“I heard,” he lowers his voice as if someone’s eavesdropping. “I heard you’re going to have a baby.”

How he found this out I’ll never know. Sometimes it’s as if gossip can move on its own legs.

“I’ll take care of you,” he says. “If you come with me. I can make enough money for the two of us.”

I remember the feeling of his breath on my neck, the warmth of his arms, as we lay down together one cold night in an abandoned bed. It’d been in the master bedroom of a house that’d gone untouched by pickers. The whole place looked so perfect I’d half expected the owners to come back at any moment to catch us in their sheets.

His face is so serious poking out from beneath the bandage, I start to laugh. “You’re just a little boy. You can’t even take care of yourself. You aren’t even able to make your quotas on time.” I rub my stomach. “How do you think you’d be able to take care of her?”

“Him, he’s my child too.” Dillon fingers the bandages on his face. “I have a right to be with him just as much as you do.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

I turn to leave, but he grabs me by my arm. In a blink, I have my fist against his face, my knuckles brushing his nose. We stand that way long enough to take a breath, then Dillon releases his grip. With a nod, I put my own hand down.

That evening, I go back to Baba’s apartment building, to the room with the crib. There’s something sad, morbid about it standing there empty. I collect a few of the toys off the shelves and place them in the little bed, behind the barred sides.

Dillon isn’t any different from my own father. If I left with him, he’d stay by my side for a few years, until he got bored. Then I’d have to take my own child picking with me, to watch over her, until she could help. That wasn’t any sort of option. Or I could go to the city, to live in drudgery, to work myself to the bone. It was better to stay here than serve the people who thought they were better than me, people like Mr. Vinyl. No, something had to change, not for me, but for my daughter. But this time there’d be no coffee cans, no running away.

Tomorrow morning I’d catch a truck back to the city.

***

The tea has cooled by the time I drink it, but it still tastes bitter, strong. Baba has forgotten her own cup. It sits beside her on the floor, half drunken. She’s scrolling through her cameras absentmindedly, staying on each image for the span of a heartbeat. From time to time, when she thinks I’ve walked away, she types a few words on her keyboard. There’s someone out there, someone in the Solntsevskaya Bratva she still speaks to. Perhaps she isn’t as retired as she says. I walk to the other side of the monitors and place my hands over them. Baba looks up, blinking.

“Why did you send me away, Baba?” I say. “In the last year, before you retired. I wanted to become part of your business, and I thought you wanted me to.”

She finds her cup on the floor and drinks.

“To save you from it,” she says. “That’s no place for a girl like you. Not someone so smart and pretty.”

I release the monitors and sit down beside her, crossing my arms over my knees. “It worked out well for you.”

She’d told me the story many times. How when oil became rare and everybody started hoarding gas, she’d gone into the plastic business, securing warehouses of the stuff. As the prices rose she created smuggling routes, through the Mexican border and by boat. When the cost of plastic goods went up so did her power. She never told me quite all the details, but I suspect whatever enemies she couldn’t cow with her influence she did away with, sometimes in person.

I look at her monitors, squinting. “I think I would’ve done well in your business.”

Baba nods. “Yes, dearie. I imagine you would have.”

On the center monitor the little girl appears. From the height of the camera, she looks even smaller, like an infant tottering over the ground. The girl smiles in her unreadable way and looks up at the camera, taking the time to wave.

“The child spotted it.” Baba laughs. “The young have such sharp eyes.”

The girl broadens her smile, showing her teeth. This is when the camera feed on the right monitor goes black.

“I just had that installed.” Baba clicks a few keys, bringing up another camera. But there’s nothing there; the image is dead.

I walk to the back of the apartment, to peer out the window. When I return, the monitor on the left is gone as well. Baba is flicking through the cameras faster than I can blink. The only one still working is the one showing the little girl. She’s stopped smiling now, and just stands, looking. Baba turns to me, her face white.

“What’s going on?” she says.

I rush to her side and throw my arms around her. Her shoulders are stiff, the muscles tensed. It makes me think of when I was a young, when my mother would throw me over her back to carry me through the waste. I nestle my lips near Baba’s ear.

“I think they know, Baba. They know you’re here,” I say.

There’s no need to invoke them, to say their name. Baba’s been afraid of the musor, the police, for so long, they’ve become a boogeyman, a thing.

The lights flicker, but don’t go out. Baba’s body begins to shake. “What should I do?”

I clutch her tighter. “Go.”

We run through the hallway and down the stairs. Baba leads the way, while I lag behind. We don’t stop until we get to the first floor, to the door with the smudge along the frame.

“Keep going,” I say. “Get to the next building. I’ll call for help. Have you been speaking to anyone in the Solntsevskaya Bratva?”

“Titov.”

“Good. Good. I remember him.”

“But what about you? Where will you go?”

“The musor know nothing about me. And besides, if I handled the American border patrol I can handle any idiot in a uniform.”

Baba opens the door and rushes across the ground, her back bowed and her legs stiff from spending so much time sitting. Outside, in the open, she seems fragile, as if the slightest fall could break her. I close the door and rush up the stairs, back to Baba’s apartment. When I sit in front of her computer I hit the ground so hard the pillows lying there scatter.

The camera on the center monitor is still working, but the little girl is gone. I watch as Baba comes into the frame, running across the grass. She stops, startled, her whole body becoming rigid. With a quick motion she turns to run in the opposite direction, back to the safety of her home. A blue arm comes into the frame of the camera, quick as a snake, and grabs her by the shoulder. More arms appear, and men dressed in black and blue come into view. There’s so many of them I can’t make out Baba’s frail body, like watching seagulls swarm over a bit of food. I flick on the microphone in the fence post. Men’s voices, yelling, drifts through the speaker.

“Valentina Leonov. You have the right to remain silent.”

Baba appears on the monitor again, her arms pulled behind in handcuffs. The men in black and blue part like soldiers at a coronation, giving her a clear path through. She holds her head high and looks straight at me, through the camera’s lens. As she moves down the line, she speaks to me. I grab the volume, turn it up all the way, but I can’t make out the words. When she reaches the end of the group, she lowers her head and looks at the ground.

“Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”

The man’s voice is so loud coming over the speaker I nearly jump from the floor. Instead, I flick the volume down again. Baba doesn’t protest as she’s led out of the frame of the camera shot.

I call Titov. He appears on the center monitor almost immediately, clad in a polyester suit. I have enough time to smooth down my hair before he spots me on my own camera. He squints, the edges of his lips curl. It’s easy to guess what he’s going to say.

“Baba Yaga is gone,” I say. “She was taken by the musor.”

His smile fades and he sits for a moment in silence. “Did you?”

I toy with the thought of telling him, just to see his reaction. “Does it matter? She’s retired. Old men and women are not a concern of the Solntsevskaya Bratva. If she was doing work for you I imagine it was only advisory.”

Titov nods. “Yes, that’s true.”

“So why let all this go to waste.” I wave my hand through the air. “Dozens of cameras, microphones, a whole building ready to be filled with stock, just so a little old woman can sit and wait for death.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Make this the center of your local smuggling route. From here I’ll be able to monitor everything coming and going, and we can store things in the unused rooms, there’s plenty of space.”

“What about the police, they’ll wonder about the building Baba’s been living in all these years.”

“I made a deal. They get her and I get this.”

“The pickers out there, they’ll see something’s wrong.”

“They’re underpaid and miserable. Lean on the local plastic recycling company, get them to pay their workers better, and the pickers will love us. They may even do our work.”

Titov sits back and tilts his head. “I need to discuss this before I can give you an answer.”

“Discuss all you want. Your friends will see I’m right.” I move to end the call, but stop. “When you contact the recycling company, mention a foreman named Mr. Vinyl. Don’t worry, they’ll know who you’re talking about. Tell them he needs to be let go immediately.”

The camera images on the left and right monitors spring to life. The little girl’s mother and her son appear, twisting electrical cords and burying them in the ground.

I look at Titov. “There’s a woman named Sherman. She’s a picker and she’s been very helpful to me. Have the company give her the foreman job.” My foot touches Baba’s tea cup. It was kicked over in our rush to get out of the room, and tea has spread across the floor. “Sherman’s loyal and that’s something that’s in short supply these days.”

When the conversation has ended, I lean back on the pillows and rest my head against the largest one. It smells of hair, skin – all that’s left of someone who moved on long ago. I picture Baba’s words as she moves down the line, across the screen and out of my life. The movements of her lips slow and I hear her voice.

I know it was you, but I love you, Hope.

It’s the sweetest thing she’s ever said to me, and I can feel my eyes tear at the thought. I bring my hand down, across my stomach, and cradle where I imagine my daughter’s head to be.

“Your grandmother has given us so much,” I say. “I will call you Valentina. It’s a beautiful name for a beautiful little girl.”

A bit of movement catches my eye. I look again at the monitor. Dillon and the little girl are standing in front of the fence. The girl points towards my building, and Dillon looks at it hard, his eyes searching. I stiffen for a moment, my hand poised over the keyboard to stop the highlighted door from opening. But there’s no need to worry. Dillon stands dumb, his mouth never moving. He doesn’t know the magic words to make the door appear.


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About the Author

Sarah A. Drew graduated from Edinboro University with a bachelor’s degree in Writing. She currently resides in Columbus, OH. Her short story “Golden Curls” was recently published in the anthology LocoThology: Tales of Fantasy & Science Fiction, released by Loconeal Publishing. Her time with the North Columbus Fantasy /SciFi writers group and Ohio Writers group has been invaluable to her.