Petia packed her shoulder bag, a newer, sportier bag than her usual sling.
“You have to pace yourself,” Milan shouted at her from the kitchen table. His tiny bare feet paced upon pristine linoleum, edged in flawless chrome. Her old table lay broken in a heap in her back yard, either to be converted to kindling or simply surrendered to the barren earth like the rest of man’s waste out here.
“Relax, little lover,” she sang back as she trotted around her kitchen. “A new table isn’t going to kill anyone. Unlike that last one, which was a death-trap to you, practically.” She lifted a new, stylish anorak from the coat rack, having relegated her grandmother’s old quilted jacket to a slowly filling bag of stuff to be donated.
“A new table, a new jacket, a new car? You’re going to attract unwanted attention in this shit-hole town.”
“The car isn’t new, Milan. It had 170,000 km on it when I bought it.”
The tiny man crossed his arms upon his chest and stomped back and forth. His homemade satin track suit jerked and swished furiously. “And how does a schoolteacher suddenly afford a burst of new purchases?”
She planted her palms upon the table, the ring of keys clattering in her grip, and grinned down at him. “Please don’t worry, my sweet little man! No one pays attention to a stupid old schoolteacher like me.” She leaned down and covered his entire head in an embracing kiss. “I’ll be back in an hour, and then you can take me to my room and discipline me like the naughty little girl that I am, okay?”
Milan scowled at her, waving her playful words aside. “You remember what I told you? This is your third delivery to Cvetkov. He’s going to try to cheat you, you just have to be strong…”
“I know, I know! We’ve been over this a hundred times!” She laughed, swept up her keys, and threw open the front door. “You go hop down to your little hole and curl up for a nap. I’ll be back in an hour to tell you how well it went.” Petia waggled her painted fingernails at him and danced out the door.
“And lock your damned door,” he screamed uselessly. Milan heard the used Volvo 240 struggle, then start up—he’d only barely talked her out of a flashier ’99 VW Bora—and he listened to the tires crunching the gravel as she turned around and headed south out of the village. He glanced sadly at the bag of donations by the staircase, full of so many beloved artifacts of her history that she’d decided were no longer worth clinging to, in light of her new wealth. The faded gold sheen of her grandmother’s jacket shone on top of the sack of discarded treasures: a tear here, exposing white fluff, and some stitches missing there, but otherwise perfectly good. If nothing else, he could cut it up for insulation in his little hole in the wall.
Milan rubbed his chin. The table on which he stood was new but Petia hadn’t seen fit to get rid of the motley assortment of chairs around it, at least. If you blow your money on fancy trappings, he warned her, you’ll never get out of Varbovka. But she needed her creature comforts, and the car would be good for business, she’d insisted. Ultimately he was surprised that she’d listened to him as much as she had, despite a sequence of reckless purchases, in his judgment. It could easily have been much worse.
He walked to the edge of the table and braced himself to hop down to a rickety wooden child’s seat, when he heard footsteps approach the front door. “Just look around for now, see what the kushka is hiding from her friendly neighbors,” murmured Sava. “Is that thing loaded?”
“Always,” said Nikifor. He lifted the door so it didn’t scrape on the ground when he swung it open. “Doesn’t matter if no one’s here: always expect the unexpected.”
* * *
“Yes, Mr. Cvetkov, me again,” Petia said cheerily into the handset. “I’m sorry, is two weeks too soon?” Idly she fingered the screen of Milan’s smartphone, where the number for вкусно ястие glowed up at her. “I’m glad to hear that. Yes, I have another pound ready for you.” Around her was the muted clatter of flatware and dishware, and across the room old men grumbled about the news.
She frowned, her gaze hardened. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cvetkov, that is unacceptable. This is the same quality as last time, but the price you’re offering is… well, it’s insulting, sir. The good folks at Elea are quite happy with my product. If you can’t do any better than that, perhaps there’s someone at the Hemingway you might refer me to.” She listened, stretched her neck, then smiled. “I’m glad to hear that. I’ll have it in the mail the instant I see your payment come through. Very good, sir, have a lovely evening.” She rested the café phone in its cradle, switched her boyfriend’s smartphone off. Someone was baking something in the kitchen and Petia hummed at the scent, grinning. It took her back to her grandmother’s farm… Her face fell, and she stroked the sleeve of her new jacket.
“I just wanted something nice,” she said to no one. “Just a little treat. I’ve been working so hard for so long, without anything to show for it.”
The fabric was almost glossy, a woven black sheen running from below her wrist up to her shoulder. The sleeve was narrower, almost as though it had been tailored to her slim body, even though it was lined with a very efficient insulating fabric. Simply seeing it hanging in the store looked like she’d stepped into the future; actually taking it up and knowing she could pay for it in cash, that felt like she’d waken up in another world.
She knew her grandmother wouldn’t begrudge her something nice like that. But her mind went back to yesterday morning, when she rolled up that fluffy, slippery old jacket, stuffed that dingy golden lump into the top of the donation bag. How her heart winced every time she passed it.
She sipped at her coffee, the first really nice coffee she’d had in a couple years, and wondered what kind of world was waiting for her, just outside of Varbovka. “It’s not like I’m moving to Paris or New York,” she said quietly. “I’m not abandoning everything, just… this wretched town…” And the picture of her grandmother’s jacket filled her mind again.
No, the picture of her grandmother wearing it, when Petia was a child. Sunnier days, cleaner air. Grass on the ground. A small white dog: not her family’s, but the pet of a neighbor, when neighbors were friendlier. Grandmother working in her garden, singing a song to Petia, who sat on a stump nearby. The garden full of strange plants and herbs, which Grandmother would hang up and dry for tea or spices, sharing these with the neighbors, earning her the name vèštica but said with love, not condemnation. Not like the vèštica people called her granddaughter, in the town that had since spiraled into blackness, by hearts frozen over and splintered.
Sighing, Petia finished her coffee. She would have liked to walk around and take in the town, but there wasn’t anything to see in Dimcha any more than there was in her hometown. Just two bleak clusters of nearly abandoned buildings in the middle of a wasteland, forgotten by God and the world. Would it be any better in Plovdiv? Sofia was clearly out of her reach, but Plovdiv seemed more accessible. It looked like a smaller Vienna, something that wanted to be elegant but lacked the follow-through. It was still lovely, and it was within reach.
Petia did end up calling the Hemingway Restaurant, in fact, gauging their interest in a pound of white truffles in one week. They were quite interested.
* * *
She pulled the Volvo up to her house. There was no driveway, she just parked on the side of the neglected road. Light glowed in the streaks of dirt on her windshield as she peered up at her house. Was it always this dilapidated? She thought it was amazing how these things crept on you without your noticing. You just live in worsening conditions, degree by degree, until one day you wake up and realize how bad things have gotten.
Then she realized her front door was wide open.
Without cutting the engine she kicked the driver’s side door open and leaped out. “Milan!” she shouted.
Nikifor came tumbling out of the house, pale and terrified. His hands groped at the chilly air as he scrambled for the street, a revolver dangling from his index finger. Beyond thought, Petia stooped and seized a large stone.
He wheeled to face her, stumbling back a step. “Vèštica!” he shrieked. His hands fumbled for his gun.
Petia stepped forward with her left foot, and her right arm whipped behind her and overhead. Her stone flew straight into the side of his head as though guided by wire. The gaunt punk cried out and fell to his knee, but when the young woman rushed him he brought the gun up to his head, then abruptly threw it at her. She dodged it effortlessly, and to her surprise it only bounced off the windshield of the Volvo, then skittered in the dust. When she turned back to Nikifor, he had fled into his house across the street, locks clacking into place.
She charged up her path and burst into the kitchen. There were three bullet holes in her new table, right where she’d left Milan. Sava was lying on the floor, his distended belly shuddering. “You son of a bitch!” Petia growled, kicking him sharply in the ribs. He didn’t respond, only clawed at his throat, and then she noticed his face was turning purple.
She knelt beside the flabby thug. His eyes bugged at her, his cheeks puffed out, and then he twitched and shat himself, and the light went out in his eyes. Petia scanned his body: his sports jacket was unzipped, his white tank top was unblemished with bullet holes or blood, so what…
Her blood turned to ice. Her fingernails scraped at his incisors, but they were clenched hard. She snatched a wooden spoon off the counter and wedged it between his jaws, sobbing as she pried them open, tearing his cheek in the process. But open they did, and she could just see two thin legs in blue satin disappearing down the back of his throat.
“Milan!” She went for a long knife, dull as it was, and drew it savagely across her former tormentor’s throat. Distantly she noted the robbery, in the sense that he was no longer alive for her to really enjoy this, as she sawed through the resistant trachea. It rolled left and right, it smooshed stubbornly under the dull blade. But new energy flowed through Petia’s arms and she bore down, screaming, until the old edge bit through and rotting air whistled up from his lungs.
She slipped the slim fingers of her left hand into the fresh wound. She molded her right hand into a long, narrow fist and secured her fingertips around the tiny man’s thighs and hips, and she gently shoved. The bristly head of raven-black hair nudged at her left hand’s fingertips; she coaxed her fingers below his shoulders, then his spine, and then out he came.
Petia cradled her little man in her palm. He was shirtless and pale, and her tears blotted and washed the blood off his fine chest. She rose slowly, whispering “Milan, Milan,” to the limp and unmoving figure. Pressing him to her chest, she took a long, deep breath and expended all her fury upon the corpse of her neighbor, kicking him, stomping the flab off his face, jumping on his ribs until they snapped, and swearing up a violent storm. She made a tremendous mess of the thug, until he was only recognizable as the manifestation of all of Petia’s stored-up fury.
“Milan,” she wept, “Milan.” Her legs carried her upstairs to her bedroom, their bedroom. She sat down heavily on the edge of her bed and once again regarded her diminutive lover.
His head lolled toward her pinky, his too-thin legs splayed at odd angles. She plucked at the cuffs of his homemade pants until they lay more correctly.
“What do I do, Milan,” she whispered.
Slowly, nervously, she lifted her palm to her face. “Can I..?” She gently nudged one fingertip upon his tiny chest, his soft belly, pulsing it five times, and then she wrapped her lips around his face. She didn’t want to harm him, but she had to do something, but she didn’t know how much force to use, but time was running out if it hadn’t already. Gently she sucked a little, gently she blew a little, and then she pulsed her fingertip upon his frail, still body. She kissed him again, giving and taking, and she nudged him.
Milan’s tiny arms and legs jerked, his whole body racked with coughing. The whites of his little eyes bugged, gaping around him, as his throat struggled to take in all the air at once. She cried and kissed him repeatedly and he was too weak to pretend to fight her off.
* * *
Petia rinsed Milan off and stuffed him into her bra. She filled her new shoulder bag with more cash than she’d ever seen in her life, with enough room for her grandmother’s golden quilted jacket. She made two Molotov cocktails, as well: one that smashed beside Sava’s disassembled head, and one that flew through Nikifor’s front window. The effects of these disappeared in her rearview mirror.
Miles of crumbling gray road disappeared whisked beneath her wheels. “He tried to eat you?” she said, incredulous. “I knew he was a fat, stupid pig, but to eat you…”
“No, no, not like that.” Milan lay draped over her ear, under her hair. He held her lobe securely as he spoke up over the roar of the old engine and its stubborn heater. “I tried to wave them off, tell them to get out, but they just drifted in like storm clouds. They gawked at me, coming closer, but what could I do? The tall, skinny one raised up that fucking hand-cannon and fired at me, but I’m way too small and he’s too crappy of a shot.”
Petia giggled nervously, turning from highway 404 to head south onto 44. “Sevlievo’s nice,” she remarked, glancing at a sign for the nearby city. “Why don’t we set up there, instead?”
A tiny hand punched the upper rim of her ear. “Eyes on the prize, sweetie. I’m here to take you straight to your dreams.” She delicately brushed her fingertips over her tiny lover’s arm and leg, under her hair. “So the skinny one missed me entirely, and he freaked out, running around the kitchen, screaming and shit. The fat one, though, he didn’t scare so easily. He laughed and sat down at the table and put his arms around me, you know, trapping me. I think he saw money in selling me somehow. I got into a shouting match with him, at least. He should’ve just swatted me under his fist.”
“He should have! But that idiot was stuck on what kind of sex we must have, and how he’s a real man, all that bullshit. So his friend’s running into counters and screaming all around him, and all I have to do is question the size of his penis to get him upset. Right? He reaches for me, and I dodge him easily. He reaches again, and my legs carry me just out of reach. That’s when he brought his hand down, flat, trying to flatten me.
“He missed, of course, but in that instant I ran up his arm, climbed up to his shoulder, and when he turned to gape at me I jumped into his throat to choke him.”
“Goddamn it!” Petia pounded the hard plastic steering wheel with the heel of her palm. “You stupid little shit! You asshole!” she spat, punching the horn with these and many other names. “You could’ve died! What if he chewed you? What if he swallowed?”
“Then fuck him! I wasn’t going to let him ruin your dreams!” His tiny voice was very loud in her ear. “You’d better have gone on to the city without me! I don’t care what happens to me: you had to get out of that shit-hole!”
One eye on the road, she felt around for his little arm and pinched it between her fingers, hauling him out from behind her ear. Milan protested as she tugged on his pants, dumping him into her lap. But he had nothing to say when she scooped him up and mashed him against her lips, with a little tongue, holding him there silently from Yavorets through Draganovtsi to Vranilovtsi, even after he came.
They had the same “why don’t we stop here” exchange in Gabrovo, then in Banya, but Milan held firm and they made it to Plovdiv in under four hours. No one came looking for the witch of Varbovka, and her cash was all the background check her new landlord needed. And they would drive out to the woods and dig up another year’s income, and once a month they even ate in the restaurants that bought her truffles.
The rest of the time they slowly exhaled and they smiled more. Her love nestled heavily into the front of his body, and his love curled up in the palm of her hand or wedged neatly between her thighs. And they hardly grew old at all. That’s all.