Anna pulled into the driveway, contented by the full load of groceries she carried in the trunk. The week before she had been skimping, buying only necessities—milk, bread, potatoes—but now that Yuri was employed again she felt no guilt buying ham, a beef roast, and even a little chocolate for the children. She parked the car and carried the first two bags into the back hallway. On the other side of the kitchen door Boba scratched at the wood and whined. Was he trying to tell her something, despite his stupidity? To her surprise she found the door already unlocked.
When she entered the kitchen Boba jumped up and put his paws on her thighs. A loud thump emanated from the living room. Anna froze. Nobody should be home.
She called out, “Hello?”
“Yes,” Yuri answered from the other room.
She was only partially relieved that it was Yuri. What was he doing there, on his first day of work? She went to the living room, and things got much worse.
The couch and the recliner were tipped over onto their fronts, their stubby legs poking in the air. The television and the plants had been moved toward the center of the room. Yuri was crawling along the wall on his hands and knees, holding his face low as if searching for something. Anna did not know how to begin to process this strange scene. She started out simply.
“How did you get home?” she asked. She had dropped him off at the bakery that morning in their one car.
“I walked,” he said.
“Isn’t that far?”
“Yes,” he said, examining the leaves and branches of the rubber plant.
“But Yuri,” she said, “why aren’t you at work?”
He raised a leaf, peered at the underside, dropped it. “I left work.”
“Are you sick?”
“Then why did you leave? Are you going right back?”
“I won’t be going back to that job.”
Her eyes began to burn with tears. Yuri tipped the couch back onto its legs and looked among the cushions that had spilled onto the floor.
“Yuri…” she said. “What happened? What are you doing?”
Yuri rose from the ground and said sotto voce, “I think we should talk outside.”
Without putting on his coat he led her to the back porch and closed the door tightly. He shivered once and said, “He’s in there. Somewhere.”
Anna’s eyes widened. “Who is in there?”
“Kravchuk?” she said, baffled. “You mean, because of Larissa’s dream?”
“That was no dream.” He leaned closer to her and said in a raspy voice. “I saw him, too.”
“You had a dream about him, too?”
“No, I saw him.”
“You saw him? Were you…drinking?”
“Yes I was. That doesn’t matter. I know what I saw. God gave me my eyes. And yes, sometimes drink makes them blurry. But my eyes don’t make up things.”
“When did you see him, Yuri?”
“Last night when I was watching television. My glass fell on the ground and I fell asleep. When I woke up I saw him. He was very small—like a bug—and naked. He was running across the ground with a piece of glass in his arms. Then I fell asleep again. When I woke up I had the cut on my foot.”
Anna said with relief, “See Yuri, that sounds like a dream.”
“It was no dream. I saw him, and Larissa saw him, too. I have to protect you. I’m going to find him and kill him, then you’ll see him too.”
“You’re going to kill him?”
“Once I find him I’ll step on him like a bug.”
“Where do you think he is?”
“He could be anywhere in the house. I started looking where I last saw him, in the living room. Then I’ll look in Larissa’s room, and the boys’ room.”
Anna fought back tears when she realized he had every intention of following through with this plan. She quickly settled on the best course of action for now. “Do you want me to help you find him, Yuri?”
Yuri pondered. “Yes—if I thought you could do so safely. You promise the moment you see him you’ll call for me and I’ll come and step on him?”
“Yes, I promise…But you have to promise me in return that if we look through the house and we don’t find him, that you’ll forget about this idea.”
After thinking it over he said, “No, I can’t promise that. If we don’t find him that just means he’s hiding too well. We have to find him.”
“Okay. Let’s see if we can find him.”
Yuri seemed pleased by her answer. Anna pressed on. “But Yuri, what about your job? Did you get time off?”
Yuri scowled. “Yes. Time off.”
“Is it paid time off?”
His eyes flashed. “I didn’t ask for Pankrat Kravchuk to invade my house! I do what I have to do to protect my family!”
Anna followed him back into the house. For the next several hours she dutifully helped Yuri overturn every chair, rug, bed and any other item remotely close to the ground. For the most part they restored the items to their original positions once they were done searching, but by mid-afternoon the house was a shambles. Anna suggested, “Yuri, the children will be home from school soon.”
“Oh good, they can help us look.”
She bit her lip. “Is that such a good idea? Maybe the very notion would frighten them?”
Yuri nodded slowly. “You talk good sense. I wouldn’t want them to be the ones to find him…But we might not be able to finish the search of the house today, if we don’t have the children’s help.”
“We’ll do our best, Yuri. But what will you tell the children about this?” she said, pointing at Larissa’s overturned mattress on the floor.
“The truth. They’re old enough to know that there are dangers in the world.”
Anna took both of his hands in hers. “Please Yuri, it won’t help the children to know this. It will just frighten them for no reason.”
“Larissa already knows.”
“Yes, perhaps. But why should the younger ones know? Why don’t you quietly go about your business?—hunt the thing, find it, remove it from the house.”
“If I find it I’m going to kill it.”
“Fine, kill it. But do it quietly so as not to upset the children.”
Yuri released his hands from hers. “Okay, Anna, we’ll do it your way.”
He had not finished searching the boys’ room by the time the children arrived home from school, and the house was still fairly disheveled. Anna explained that they had been cleaning. The children thankfully did not wonder why their father was home from work so early, nor ask him how his first day of work went.
As Taras headed towards his room Yuri nearly shouted, “Don’t go in there!”
“Why not?” Taras asked.
“What do you need in your room?”
“It’s my room.”
“But what do you need?”
“I was going to play in my room.”
“You should play in Larissa’s room.”
“But my toys are in my room.”
“Tell me what you want in your room and I’ll put it in Larissa’s room. Or the living room, you can play there too.”
Once the children had their snacks and were settled Yuri ripped apart the boys’ room. Naturally this created curiosity among the children, but he forbid them from entering the room while he was working. After much questioning he arrived at a cover story, telling them, “We think the house has a mouse. We’re trying to find it.”
Taras was delighted. “Can I help you find it?”
“No, it’s a filthy animal, I don’t want you near it.”
Anna went off to make dinner, leaving Yuri to search the boys’ room alone. He took his dinner sitting on the floor of the room, trying to imagine in what nook or cranny Pankrat could be hiding. In the end he did not find him in there. He moved on to his and Anna’s room towards evening. It being much less cluttered than the others he was able to complete his sweep just as the children were brushing their teeth for bed.
Yuri rested in his recliner, enjoying a mild sense of accomplishment. He had managed to search all the important areas—the living room and all of the bedrooms—to his satisfaction, and was confident Pankrat was not in any of those places. That left the kitchen, and also the attic and the cellar. But he was not even certain that Pankrat could be in those distant places; to a bug-sized man, the cellar might as well have been Argentina. But he would have to give the kitchen a good once over. Tomorrow…
Taras walked by in his pajamas. “Tato, can I go back to my room now?”
“But did you catch the mouse?”
Yuri struck a match to light his cigarette. “No.”
“Oh, so the mouse won’t run back into my room?”
Yuri gasped. Taras continued, “Maybe leave Snowman in the room. He’s good at catching mice.” But Yuri wasn’t listening. Lost in thought, the match burned his fingers and startled he dropped it in the ash tray.
Why did he think Pankrat was stationary? Yes, he was small, but given enough hours he could walk the whole length of the house. And when Yuri had been searching he was always focused on just the room at hand. He was not watching the living room, say, when he was searching the boys’ room, and during this time Pankrat might well have walked on his tiny legs from the uninspected kitchen back into the ‘cleared’ living room. How could he have been so stupid?
He knew what he had to do to protect his family from his error. When the children were done brushing their teeth he called the family together.
“You will all sleep together tonight. Max and Taras will sleep in Taras’s bed. Larissa, you will sleep in Max’s bed.”
“But why?” Max grumbled. “Taras kicks.”
“Until I find this mouse it’s best that you all stay in the same room where I can keep an eye on you at night.”
Larissa gave him a quizzical look but said nothing.
“Anna,” he continued, “I’ll set up a cot for you at the foot of Max’s bed and you can sleep on that.”
“Yuri,” she said sharply. “Can I speak with you alone?”
Once they were in their own room with the door shut she said, “I’m sure I will be safe sleeping in our room.”
“Even if Pankrat is in the house, what harm can he do to me if he’s the size of a bug?”
“No, Yuri! I’m not sleeping on a cot.”
Yuri set his jaw, but then relented. “Perhaps you’re right. He’s too small to harm you. But you will allow me to take necessary precautions?”
She agreed. He stepped away and returned with a common household hammer. “Keep this under your pillow when you sleep. If you see Pankrat call out to me—I’ll hear you from the boys’ room. But if you find yourself cornered you can strike him with this hammer. Use the flat side, it’s wider.”
“Yuri, I don’t need a hammer,” she said in exasperation. “If it comes to that I’ll just use my foot.”
“Anna, I insist.”
She took the hammer and put it under her pillow. The children went to bed in their assigned places without further complaint.
A curious sound woke up Larissa—pssht. It took her a moment to recognize it: the sound of the tab being pulled off of a soda can. She opened her eyes, but immediately scrunched them up against a bright light shining in her face. She was puzzled by its source at first—a lamp with an Indian totem pole for a base—but then she recalled it was Max’s bedside lamp, and that she was sleeping in his bed. She scanned her eyes down from the lamp to the bed opposite her, where Max and Taras crammed in together.
At the foot of the bed on the floor she saw a can of soda. No, it said ‘Utica Club.’ It wasn’t soda, it was beer, and even she was old enough to know it was the cheapest kind of beer they sold. Behind the can of beer was a chair from the kitchen. Her father sat there, eyes fixed nowhere in particular, holding another can of beer, probably the one whose opening had woken her up. Larissa closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep.
She lay like that for some time. She didn’t think she could fall asleep with the light shining in her eyes and debated whether to tell her father. But then she heard him speak:
“Oh, it’s you. You…ass.” He spoke in Ukrainian, as always, but the one word ‘ass’ he delivered in English.
Larissa was stunned and her eyes popped open. Why was her father angry at her? But his face was not pointed towards her, rather to the ground. A blob of white fur crossed the floor. Snowman rubbed against Yuri’s leg, but was pushed away.
“No. I don’t want you. Go away.”
Despite the rebuke Snowman did not go far, circling around to rub his other side against Yuri’s leg.
“What kind of useless cat are you?” Larissa could tell by the unevenness of her father’s words that he had been drinking. “You call yourself a cat? What do you do around here? Eat and sleep—like an ass. The house would be no different if you were gone. A waste of a cat, you are. Have you ever even caught a mouse?—besides that one time two years ago. You can’t even catch a tiny little Pankrat Kravchuk.”
Larissa’s stomach went cold. Was it the same little man that she had seen? Why would her father say that if it was just a dream?
Snowman finally had enough abuse and sauntered away.
“Walk away, you coward—or worse. Can’t even keep watch…ass…” He belched.
Larissa closed her eyes tight to block the light and tried to forget the whole scene, until sleep thankfully returned to her.