Kristinka arrived at the Belarus orphanage with a cigarette in her hand and anger in her heart. The Russian school director gave her the option of spending a week helping Chausy orphans or unemployment after catching her using the school's computers for her personal use.
He said, "The Belarus government is always asking for help since Chernobyl. Well, they’ll get you for a week at least and you’ll gain some experience with children."
If they knew what she really did, they would send her back to Vorkuta in Siberia.
She put her cigarette out as a horse and cart went by kicking up dust in her face. She coughed and said, "Let’s get this week over." Then she jumped as an old lady tapped on her shoulder with a cane.
"Come with me," she said bluntly.
Kristinka followed her down winding streets until they reached a small house on the corner of a seldom used street as darkness fell on the city.
"I’m Natasha," she said and showed her to a small bedroom. Kristinka sighed.
"Not good enough for you, princess?" Natasha asked.
Kristinka just smiled and thought just one week. Natasha and Belarus reminded her of the old communist government in Russia that she despised. Her grandfather wrote stories that often criticized the political system and they put him in a cold, dark prison where he died of untreated heart problems.
After the old lady went to bed, Kristinka pulled out the laptop she borrowed from the school's supply and set up her web camera. She smiled with relief when she found wireless access. Then she took off her clothes except for her underwear and lit up a cigarette. She pushed a button and the light on the camera illuminated the room while she waited for someone to pay and go in a private room with her. She had a regular group of foreigners that paid to see her in a private chat room. It started in St. Petersburg when her friend introduced her to a man at the internet cafe. He looked at her once and promised her a future in modeling and said, "You’re so beautiful that you can have a great career but you have to start at the bottom and gain notoriety."
The bottom meant sex cams. A dirty business but it provided good money that fed her desire for western fashion and luxuries that was finally available to Russians.
She shut the computer down in the early morning and slept restlessly as she had nightmares of her stepfather climbing into bed, then awoke when she heard someone yelling, "Kristinka, get up."
Through fuzzy vision she saw Natasha raising the tattered curtains.
"Are you crazy?"
"No, your highness. It’s time to go to the orphanage." She shuffled away.
They arrived at the orphanage and Kristinka gasped when she saw how many children were there and the condition of the building. She realized her punishment was more severe then she thought. She started the teacher’s assistant job in St. Petersburg when her mother sent her to live with her relatives to escape her abusive and often drunk step-father. He abused her and often hit her mother but she refused to leave him. Her uncle got her the job with the school system.
She watched the chaos of children of various ages gathering around tables to eat breakfast. She stood in the corner until a girl with scraggly blonde hair ran up to her and hugged her legs.
"Hi, I’m Jurii."
A man approached her.
"Hi," she replied and noticed his handsome smile.
Then Natasha yelled, "Are you going to just stand there?" She put her to work washing dishes and cleaning.
She promised herself not to become emotionally involved. Do the week and return to St. Petersburg. She looked forward to buying new clothes. Jurii sat with her at lunch and she noticed his very clear eyes. She always looked into people’s eyes because during her nighttime activities she only saw her own reflection.
"I’m only here for a week," she said.
"I know. We always need help," he said sadly.
"How did you end up here?" she asked.
"I came here a few years ago after I lost both my siblings to leukemia. I had to do something to help children." Jurii said.
A little girl broke away from the children playing nearby and ran toward Kristinka. She turned and the little girl jumped into her lap and started sucking her thumb. Kristinka raised her eyes toward Jurii. Then without thinking took out a brush from her pocketbook and started brushing her hair as she sucked her thumb.
Jurii looked at her in surprise, "Well her hair is a rat's nest," she said.
"There are many children living on the streets that we can’t help," Jurii said sadly.
"Are there a lot of street children in St. Petersburg?"
"I never saw any." Kristinka said. "I remember they asked for social workers in the school but it pays next to nothing," she said as she left.
On her next to last day, Natasha woke her up as the sun rose. "Today, we take a trip."
Through blurry eyes Kristinka said, "Where to?"
"Savicy, my home."
They travelled in an old car south through empty streets and villages. Kristinka became nervous. "Are we going to Chernobyl?"
"No, but in that direction."
"I need to buy more cigarettes," she said.
Natasha didn’t answer. They arrived at noon. The streets were empty and the quiet became eerie. They saw a wolf dart between crumbling houses. Then they entered a few old houses and saw objects left behind that were reminders of lives lost. She saw lonely dolls and thought of the little orphans.
"Natasha, can I get sick from being here?"
"Do you always think of yourself?" She scolded her.
"Do you know how many people suffer from the radiation? Many can have no children or a normal life. My son was a fireman near Chernobyl. His wife was pregnant and he was one of the first on the scene. In three months he was sick. They sent him to Moscow where he died and then they buried him in a metal lined grave with no tombstone. The baby was born dead and buried in the same grave. My daughter-in-law lost everything and ended up in an asylum. She died shortly after that of a broken heart. I almost…" She couldn’t continue.
They went through Natasha’s old house. Natasha often stopped and stared at certain places lost in a memory. Debris was everywhere as nobody could take anything with them because they were afraid of contamination. She saw a picture of Natasha’s family on the ground and they all looked happy then but now only Natasha was left. A wind blew through the house and Kristinka thought she heard someone crying. She walked over to Natasha and for the first time they hugged. Kristinka forgot what it felt like and when they let go she had to wipe her eyes.
She arrived back in St. Petersburg as snow started to fall gently down from a grey sky. The metro station was packed with tourists. She noticed a boy holding a sign asking for money for food. Other children dressed in dirty clothes ran up to people and begged for money. Most people avoided them or yelled at them to go away and complained about their smell. She entered the crowded Nevskiy Prospect as people lined up going into museums and historical buildings. The temperature dropped as Kristinka walked slowly down a side street toward her apartment then heard a clanging sound. She stopped and followed the sound to a sewer grate and looked in. Two girls sat huddled together while eating some scraps of food.
"Are you all right?" She asked.
"Yes, we are going to the highway soon and then maybe kick some people."
Kristinka knew that the highway was where girls often solicited passing cars for sex and to kick someone meant to rob them. She didn’t know what to say to them and they climbed out.
"How old are you?" She asked.
"Fourteen," they both answered and ran down the snow covered street.
I should have done something, she thought, I never saw them before. She noticed boys hanging outside an internet café passing around a brown bag and even she could smell the karat. The shoe polish was a cheap high for them. She passed by and entered her apartment. She turned the webcam on and then off again right away and fell into her bed. The night passed quickly and the next day with the snow still falling she walked towards the school.
She passed the Church on Spilled Blood and the many people waiting to enter. They admired the architecture and miraculous stories of the saints in the past. They never saw what lurked in the shadows. Nobody noticed the boy in the building around the corner freezing or the girl in the abandoned building shivering from the cold and fear. She couldn’t fault them because like them she never saw them before. Then Kristinka saw the social services building just as the sun broke through the dreary snow clouds and shimmered off the snow illuminating the path in front of her.