Marina’s father dies in April, during the shelling. The hospital is too bright and too loud and too crowded and too frantic, and he holds her hand and her brothers in his own and says, “take care of each other,” before he passes.
The house has a hole in the wall that they cover up with plastic and blankets, and Serhiy is angry. He’s got a year left in school, was supposed to go away to university, but he’s so so angry . Marina is angry too, but she’s quiet in her seething, and Serhiy just boils over into the streets, rifle over his shoulder.
Marina wakes up screaming most nights - half the time she wakes up to an empty house, because Serhiy is out - mask wrapped around his face, hood pulled up. The other half the time she wakes up to Serhiy shaking her awake. They make tea and sit together on the bed in silence until dawn comes or they finally fall asleep.
In the beginning of August she and Serhiy get into a fight about him not going back to school, losing his chance at university overseas like he’d always dreamed. Serhiy slams the door behind him.
Marina stalks around the house for an hour before going to look for him, to apologize, to yell at him some more, she doesn’t know, but the house is unbearable in its emptiness. She takes her father’s old Ukrainian army pistol, because it’s late, and Serhiy had given it to her, made her promise she’d always take it with her for safety.
She finds him at the end of an alley, curled in on himself as a group of four Russian-sympathizing rebels kick him. He looks half conscious, their kicks vicious and deadly. When one of them slams the butt of his rifle down on Serhiy’s face, she doesn’t think. She draws her father’s pistol and shoots him, center mass, right in the chest.
The crack is deafening.
In the ensuing chaos, the soldier collapses onto the cobbles, the rest of the men scramble for their rifles,and Serhiy lurches to his feet, grappling one of their rifles off their backs and swinging it around into another one’s head. “Malinka, get down!” he shouts and Marina throws herself out of the way of the one charging at her. There’s two more gunshots, two more thuds of bodies meeting ground, and then Serhiy is pulling the last soldier off her, fist slamming into the soldier’s face, throwing him on the ground. Serhiy follows him to the stones, crouching over him and hammering with his fists.
“Serhiy!” Marina shouts, “Serhiy stop, stop, stop! Serhiy please stop!” The soldier’s face is nothing but pulp. His legs are twitching and his pants are wet from where he’s soiled himself. Serhiy stands up, shaking. His fists are red, and blood’s dripping down his face, and Marina heaves her stomach up against the building.
“My little Malina, my little Marynushka.” Serhiy grabs her, holds onto her and pulls her into his sweater. “You saved my life, Malina”
The next morning after a sleepless night, Marina goes out to the store, the world still shaky and unreal around her. When she comes back, coffee and bread and things for lunch in her bags, she stops. The door to their house is open and there’s a military truck parked out front. She shrinks back behind a wall.
Four men in plain green uniforms with no markings and white badges around their arms come out the door, her brother dragged between them. He’s limp, heels dragging against the driveway, a black bag over his head. Another two men are standing guard at the back of the truck with rifles and another two standing at the front, smoking a cigarette.
Marina hides and hates herself for it.
When the truck’s gone she runs to town, to her father’s old offices.
“Bad business, Marina,” Leonid says. “Your brother got mixed up in a skirmish last night, shot one of the little green men.”
“What?” Marina says, stomach dropping with dread.
“It’s okay, Marina, we’ve got Russian POWs too. I’ll make sure my superiors know Serhiy’s on our list of people we want to trade back for. We’ll have your brother back to you soon.”
Marina stays with Leonid’s family that night, but insists on going back to their old house the next day. “My aunt’s coming tomorrow, anyway,” she lies, “I want to get it straightened up for her.”
The next week when she stops by Leonid’s office he looks grave. “Marina,” he says, “we’re doing what we can. You know I had a great deal of respect for your father. But Russia’s arguing that Serhiy wasn’t a soldier. That he’s merely guilty of murder, as a civilian.”
“Then why can’t they give him back to the us for a trial!” she cries.
“We’re working on it,” Leonid assures her.
The next week, Leonid takes her into his office. “Marina,” he says this time, “the Russians are denying having your brother at all.”
“I saw them!” she hisses.
“I know, Marina. I know. But…” He looks profoundly uncomfortable. “One of the Russian soldiers that died… I’ve heard that he was the son of someone important enough to be making trouble over it. I can’t find him, Marina. I’ve got a meeting next week with some people from the UN about humans rights concerns. I’m going to mention it to them, but Marina, you need to start preparing yourself. It may be… awhile… before we can get your brother back. If we can get him back at all. Come with me this evening. Oksana is so worried about you, let her feed you, you can stay in our guest room.”
The next week, tanks move into town. It’s an increasingly bad place to be a native Ukraine speaker. There’s fighting always in the streets, and Leonid doesn’t ever let her go out alone. One morning, Leonid shoves a handful of money into her hand, bundles her in a blanket, and shoves her into the back of a supply truck going to Kiev. The soldiers share a chocolate bar at a stop with her. She’s going to Leonid’s sister’s house, Leo had told her. She can go to school there, and he’ll keep her updated on her brother.
They never make it out of the Donetsk Oblast. When gunfire breaks out, Dymtro shoves her down under the seats. It’s loud and terrifying and when it stops Dymtro is bleeding badly and Andriy is driving, white knuckled, calling things in on the radio, and Vitaly is firing his rifle behind them. They make it to a town where Ukraine troops have made an encampment. Dymtro and Vitaly are whisked away to a medical tent and Andriy collapses against the side of the truck and takes out a cigarette, offering one to Marina too with a raised eyebrow. Marina shakes her head and sits down next to him.
“I don’t know if we can get you to Kiev,” he says finally, but Lt. Rushak says there’s a UN outpost and some journalists in the next town over; “We can get you to them and they can get you to Kiev.”
“Okay,” Marina says.
The next morning Marina goes out to get breakfast, thinking it would be nice to surprise Dymtro and Andriy with something hot to eat, a thanks, for everything. She’s walking from the outpost towards the town proper when a truck slows down along the side of the road before stopping, the man in the passenger seat rolling down the window to ask for directions.
“I’m sorry,” he says when she tells him she doesn’t really know the area, “I couldn’t hear you.”
Marina leans closer, leaning over a little into the window.
She wakes up in the back of a truck with eight other girls, a headache, and her wrists tied behind her back. When the truck has to stop and pull over because she almost made it out the back, she gets a slap across the face and a needle in her arm and when she wakes up again she’s in Paris.
In a dark cold warehouse, a man named Tomás looks her over. “This one is too fine for that, Dima,” Tomás says to a group of men in suits with guns, hand brushing over her cheek. “We shouldn’t waste her. Clean her up, she’ll bring in big money in the right circles.”
“As you like,” Dima says, dismissively, “your little projects always earn enough to keep me happy, Tomás.”
By February, she and Tomás have found their equilibrium. Marina is a good girl, and doesn’t cause any trouble, and so no one bothers to give her any drugs anymore. Tomás rewards compliance with carefully allocated rewards - books, choice of television, life in a small, quiet, peaceful apartment that she doesn’t need to have explained to her is much much better than wherever the other girls are. Outright disobedience results in chastisement horrible enough that she learns quickly how to avoid it at all cost.
Unlike the other girls, Marina’s commodification lies in her rarity, in her specialness. Like a gem, Tomás cuts and polishes her into the most appealing shape with carrot and stick as instruments of his craft. Like the House of De Beers, Tomás manufactures a market for that gem, based on artificial scarcity, desirability, affluence, a promise of access to the taboo and untouchable that only power and wealth can afford. Such a gem, of course, is not something that is supposed to be accessible to the average person. “Don’t worry, little wolf,” Tomás tells her after a distressing evening of listening to his colleagues talk business, “I won’t let Eduard ruin my handiwork with his ham-fistedness. You're far too lovely and too clever.”
The worst thing about Tomás is that he tells her exactly what he’s going to do, and why, and how he expects that to affect her behavior. The worst thing about Tomás is that he’s smart - and he expects Marina to be smart too.
In March, Tomás drops her off at the hotel room of a visiting American dignitary. The American talks on his phone after he’s done with her, in English, and Marina listens. Her English is not perfect, but she and Serhiy used to practice together, back when he wanted to go to university in Boston. The American is loud. And an idiot.
When Tomás picks her up later that night, they walk down the streets of Paris to their apartment, and he brushes his hand over her hair and says, “You were a good girl tonight, would you like a treat, we can stop at a bakery.”
“Maybe not a pastry,” Marina says, in polite shaky French.
“Shoes?” he smiles. But Marina shakes her head slightly.
Tomás cuts her a look, but says nothing more.
When they get home he takes off his coat, sits down in the chair in their bare little kitchen and says, “Okay, my little wolf, always scheming, what do you want for being such a good, smart girl?”
Marina sits on his lap and Tomás laughs. “Now I know you want something.”
“Tomás,” she says quietly, “do you think you could find someone from the Russian Embassy for me?”
Tomás jerks back. Looks at her. “A Russian?” he spits. “What are you playing at, little wolf?”
Tomás makes omelets for a late dinner, in silence. Marina showers, goes and lays down in her bedroom and tries not to hope.
A week later, Marina walks alone into the hotel room of a minor Russian dignitary recently stationed in Paris.
“No,” he says, the moment he sees her, “I asked for a woman. Tits and some hips worth holding on to, not...” he waves a disgusted hand at her. “A fucking child.”
Tomás had dressed her up older than she looks normally. She’d hoped she’d look old enough that this Ivan Kuznetsov wouldn’t mind her age. In her experience, most weren’t picky. Kuznetsov looks like he definitely minds. Well. Time for Plan B.
“Would you prefer tits,” Marina says, voice calm despite how much her heart is hammering, her fingers trembling, “or would you like to know what the Chief of ________ was saying about the operative they have working in Syria.”
Kunetzov blinks at her. Then he throws back his head and laughs. “And what do you want, in payment for that.”
“I want to know where they took my brother.”
“The information about the operative is good,” Kuznetsov tells her, later. “But the American you met with…” he sighs wistfully. “I don’t guess he ever sent you pictures? Texts? Anything incriminating?”
Marina puts her chin in her hand. “Does it look like anyone trusts me with a phone.”
Kuznetsov stares at her for a long time.
“I can get pictures.” she says, “Next time, if you want them.” She doesn’t know how she’s going to manage that. Maybe the Russian will give her a phone. A risk - Tomás might take it from her. But he might not, if she didn’t try to hide it - told him about it straight away. If she told him it had been a gift. If not, she’d have to ask Tomás if he could get pictures. He wouldn’t like that, their business was built on discretion, after all. But she could try.
Kuznetsov stands, goes to the mini bar. Pours himself three fingers of Scotch and drinks all of it before he says, “If you can get pictures, I’ll do what I can, about your brother.”
Another visit with the American before he flies back to DC get her bruise on her thighs and back. But more importantly it gives her more information about the agent in Syria, and pictures on a sleek new iPhone Kuznetsov had given her and Tomás had taken, with a dry disapproving turn of his mouth. In return, Ivan Kuznetsov pours her a finger of Scotch a few years older than herself, and tells her that he managed to get her brother moved to a prison in Siberia.
“It doesn’t sound like an improvement,” he says, topping his own glass off, “but he’s alive, and barring the unforeseen, he’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Where he was before wasn’t a prison. It wasn’t a jail. It wasn’t anything. He didn’t exist. At least prisons have rules.” It is, he says, everything that was in his power to do.
In May, Tomás’s boss gets a shipment of heroin and one of Tomás’s underlings tries to double cross him. He has Tomás at gunpoint, Tomás’s most trusted guard bleeding on the ground at his feet, Marina forgotten and ignored in the backseat of the parked car. Marina grabs one of Tomás’s spare guns from under the seat, where Tomás probably thought she didn’t know it existed.
“Let him go,” she says, getting out of the car and pointing the thing at Franko.
Franko scoffs. “You,” he says, “what are you going to do with that? Not shoot me.”
“Won’t I?” Marina says, and shoots him in the knee.
The next day Tomás brings her home a pair of strappy gold and leather gladiator sandals he’d noticed her staring at in window of the Hermès shop the other week. He calls her his clever, brave girl, like there was anything of bravery in Marina’s decision, like Marina had done anything more than realize that if Tomás died and she lived, her life would be a worse hell than now, and if she died everything would, at last, be over.
She tries not to love the sandals, but she does anyway.
In July a different visiting Russian politician lets go of her hair to answer a phone call. Marina catches her breath, face resting against the carpet, and listens. He hasn’t really expected to her talk, but the few words she has said have been in French, and she’d told him her name was Heloise. His conversation is in Russian, and she’s more than capable of multitasking enough to listen to the duration of it, even after his hand finds his way back to her hair.
She hears enough that she risks a call to Kuznetsov from a burner cell phone she buys at the dépanneur waiting for Tomás.
“Thank you,” Kuznetsov says. “Thank you, Marina, I owe you one, you’ve saved my neck.”
Marina hands Tomás the phone as soon as she sees him. He looks at the one number dialed on it, rolls his eyes, kisses her hair, and tosses it into the canal.
Three days later, the Kremlin calls Kuznetsov back to Moscow. A promotion, he says at their last meeting. “You need to keep your head down for a little while, Marina,” he says, “you’re swimming in waters too deep.” He offers her her escape, to remove her from her captors, embarrassed and wry about it, like he knows he should have offered months ago.
“I want my brother,” Marina says. “Save your favors for that.”
“I can’t do anything more for him right now, Marina. Maybe in my new position, once I make some more friends.” He hands her a scotch on a bar napkin. The bar napkin has a series of numbers on it. Marina folds it neatly, tucks it into the waistband of her jeans.
Four days later Tomás takes her on their usual weekly trip to the University of Paris’ library to pick out books. Marina matches the numbers on her scrap of napkin to the classification numbers of the CDU, finds the 2004 book “Soft Power” by Joseph Nye in the English language section and opens it to find a piece a paper that says in Russian: “You do not want the FSB as your masters. Keep your head down and find a different way to pull strings to help your brother. Espionage is a deadly game and never one with a happy ending. There are other ways.”
She checks the book out from the library. Tomás reads the back and hums. “We can it read together,” he says, “good for practising English.”
“It's so sweet how you bring your daughter here every week,” the library person says.
“She's a good girl.” Tomás smiles, putting his arm around her shoulder and kissing her forehead. “I'm very proud of her.”
Almost a year later, in early May, Tomás gives her an afternoon for herself. “Go sit outside a cafe,” he says, “get some sun, be a pretty girl listening to some music, reading a book.” Tomás is of the opinion that the French like their meat free range. Girls, he explained once to Dima, are more appealing, when they get to be real girls, every once in awhile. When they have sun on their cheeks, and some life in their eyes still.
Marina is getting tall. “Shooting up like a weed,” Tomás sighs, and she’s all bony elbows and knees, and jutting clavicles. Coltish and sharp. It changes her clientele, a little.
She’s reading her book, slowly sipping her drink, when a middle aged British man, ambling down the street stops in front of her.
“Good lord,” he says, staring at her.
Marina puts her book down. “Bonjour, monsieur,” she smiles.
He introduces himself, very politely. Marina shakes his hand. “Are your parents around?” he asks. Marina looks around at the empty table. Raises an eyebrow.
The man laughs. He’s wearing a very nice suit. “Yes quite” he acquiesces. “Well, I wonder, if you might give them my card. It’s just, I’d very much like to hire you to be a model.”
Marina laughs. “I am already a ‘model’.”
“Oh,” the British gentleman smiles, “perfectly lovely, do you mind me asking for what agency, I’ll tell someone in my office to ring them up?” He squints at her, “I must say, I don’t think I’ve seen you on any runways. I feel certain I’d remember a face like that. You might consider switching agencies, if they’re not doing a good enough job of getting your name out there. There’s a couple we work with quite frequently, of course, I can get you their numbers.”
“I’m afraid my current contract has severance clauses that are not very forgiving,” Marina demurs, “but I’m sure whatever your needs, my agent can accommodate. He normally charges about ten I think, though he might give you a first time discount.”
“Ten?” He echoes sounding confusing.
Marina looks around. They’re alone, “yes. Ten thousand.” The man still looks confused. “Euros.” she adds, slowly, patiently. “A night.” The man’s mouth is in danger of falling open. “To start. He’ll probably ask for more if you want anything ...elaborate or that will leave any marks.”
He looks… stricken. “My dear girl,” he whispers. “Oh no, no. I think we have ...quite a misunderstanding.” He fishes out his wallet, slides her a card, “I work for Burberry.” Marina looks at his card. His name has a “Sir” in front of it and a lot of initials behind. Her hand is trembling and she feels … scared. In a way she hasn’t in months. Years. “Obviously… I don’t…. I mean my normal job… Well. It doesn’t matter. I’m not normally the person that hires our models. Obviously, since I’m bungling it to hell and back, aren’t I?” He laughs weakly. “It’s just… just the other day the board was talking about it being time for a new face of the company, so to speak and I saw you and thought… oh dear.” He sits back. “I rather think I need a cup of tea.”
He has to make due with a glass of pernod. It’s not the sort of cafe that serves tea for Englishmen. He makes a face as he takes a sip. Finally he says, “well, I don't see that it’s really that much of a difference, whatever your previous employment, I’ll still just… give you the card of an agency and you can come model for us anyway.” He smiles gamely. “A change of scenery and profession might do you some good. Everyone needs a bit of a change now and again and…”
“Sir,” she says firmly, “for your safety and mine I really think we ought to conclude our conversation. I’m very flattered, but my circumstances are not such that I’m in a position to accept such an offer at all.”
“But this is France!” he whispers. “We’re in the EU… this is… there are laws… surely I can just… go to the police. You can come with me, we’ll have it all sorted.”
This daft Brit is going to get her killed. She shouldn’t have talked to him at all. She was only hoping a new client might convince Tomás she wasn’t losing her value.
“Shut. Up,” she hisses. “You may certainly call the police, if you wish to get me shot, and yourself along with me, and anyone else you care about along the way. You think it’s easy ? If it were as easy as talking to the police I would have done it years ago, you stupid man.”
That upsets him.
Marina is so tired. She’s tired of sitting the sun and pretending she’s a real girl, she’s tired of men in too nice suits. She’s tired and she’s shaken and she just wants to get away from this place and go back to her little apartment and curl up on her bed. “If you want me to ‘model’ for you, and you don’t want a gun in your face for it, you can buy me. I’m getting too old anyway.”
She writes Tomás’ business phone number down on a card, tucks her bookmark between her pages and her hair behind her ear, says goodbye, and walks away.
The Englishman meets them in le Parc Monceau. He comes with an American in his 30s wearing expensive cufflinks and shiny shoes, and a briefcase containing £500,000. Marina comes with Tomás, one of the other goons, Yves, and a rolling suitcase containing every item in the world she owns.
The American huffs and says, “All right, let's see her then. I swear, Henry, for 500k, she better be on the front of Vogue this year.” A few minutes later, after he’s walked around her in a circle five times, turned her head by her chin this way and that, he gives a begrudging, “All right, all right, I see it.”
“Would you like to check my teeth too,” Marina snaps.
“I thought we were rescuing some poor trafficked orphan,” the American huffs.
Yves mutters something about “spoiled.” Tomás glares at him and the American.
“All right then,” the Brit says, looking a little sheepish and very nervous, after the money has been exchanged. “Are we done here? I’ve never bought a person before, I”m not quite sure on the etiquette.”
Marina tightens her hold on her suitcase. Hates herself in the moment of weakness that causes her to let go, wrap her arms around Tomás in a hug.
Tomás startles against her then hugs her back. “I’d have thought you’d hate me, little wolf.”
“I do.” Marina says. “I do.”
Marina sits in an office at the British Embassy while Henry pays someone to not look too closely at the forged documents they’d gotten the day before. Henry and the American had decided that dishonesty, evidently, was the best policy. The papers say her name is Svetlana Volkov, a name she picked for herself. Henry tells his fellow countrymen that she’s his recently orphaned distant cousin. Marina tries to look like the sort of sad she was two years ago, not the sort of hollow pointless angry sad of surviving that she is these days, tries to look like a girl that hasn’t ever watched someone bleed to death because he shorted his boss’s money, or who remembers what it was to be nervous about kissing a boy, who doesn’t know half an organized crime cell by name, who’s never been the source of an American politician’s blackmail. The man’s boss comes in and shakes Henry’s hand and offers her a candy and tells her how sorry he is to hear of her parents but that her uncle will take good care of her, and Marina politely declines the candy and pretends she doesn’t recognize him.
“Thank you, Kody.” Henry thanks the American as they situate themselves on the plane to London.
“Not at all,” Kody waves a dismissive hand. “You know I love getting to use slush funds. Most exciting weekend I’ve had in months, my pleasure, boss.”
Henry has a house in London, a husband named Gregory, and an old Brittany spaniel named Lulu. They put her in a guest bedroom with its own guest bathroom - complete with tiny little decorative soaps, and neatly laid out towels. The bedroom and the bathroom have doors with locks that lock from the inside, not the outside, and Marina flips the lock back and forth for minutes, trying to remember if that’s what normal doors in houses are like.
“Do you play?’ Gregory asks when he catches her staring at the piano in their living room.
“No” she says. Serhiy was the musician of the two of them. He played so beautifully. “I used to paint though.”
Gregory hums. “We can buy some paint things. Henry’s studio has wonderful light. I’m sure he wouldn’t you mind putting up an easel in the corner somewhere.”
The next few weeks are a blur of bureaucracy. Shuffled back and forth between immigration and child services. She has to have special paperwork to work, and her visa sorted, and everyone tells her what a lovely girl she is, and how good her English is, and what a shame it is, all that business in the Crimea. Marina isn’t sure when or how “come be a model for Burberry” turned into “adopting you into our household as our long lost niece/cousin/sad orphaned child of a beloved family member they’d sadly lost touch with,” but Henry seems resistant to all other options. “Gregory,” he says, “they’ll put her in some sort of miserable state home for children. Or foster her with someone who could be just as bad...or...”
“I’m not arguing with you, Harry, I just pointing out we haven't exactly been planning for it. There’s a lot of logistics. She needs school things, a routine, god knows she’ll probably need therapy. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
Marina takes a few steps back down the hall and coughs loudly before coming back into the office at the child services bureau where they’re waiting.
“Hello, my dear, find the loo all right?”
“Yes, of course,” she smiles.
“I’m afraid this is all somewhat unusual,” someone in Burberry HR says, which makes the corners of Marina’s mouth twist. “Normally, my dear, you’d be taken on by a modeling agency, and they would work out contracts with whatever design house you’d be working for, for whatever show or ad campaign. This is… well… it’s highly unusual. I mean, if Sir Henry…” She sighs, flustered. Someone else brings them all tea. Marina sits quietly and signs where she’s supposed to sign.
Henry enrolls her in school. He could put her in any school of course. Or even online classes. But he sends her to his alma mater. She had to take make-up GCSEs that summer. “It’s okay if you don’t do well,” Henry had said, “I know you’ve been basically out of school since you were 13, and language concerns...and....”
“Maybe we should wait until next year,” one of her child services case managers say. “There’s no shame in being a year behind.”
“Nonsense.” Henry chuffs. “They’re a formality, really. Of course they’ll take you. I’ve already called Alec about it. No need to worry.”
“I’m not an idiot,” Marina snaps. “I wasn’t locked in some basement. I had books.” I wasn’t a victim, she wants to say, so that they’ll stop treating her like glass. She and Tomás used to practice their English together. He used to help her with her maths. He made her do lessons out of old textbooks. She used to spend hours in the sciences section of the library wishing she could send books to Serhiy, wherever he was, knowing how much he’d miss them. How, in another life, he’d be at University now. She doesn’t mention any of that. Talking about Tomás just makes people pinch their mouths and write things down in notebooks. And she’s not telling anyone about Serhiy.
Marina stomps down the steps on her first day in her school uniform and glares at them. “I made scones,” Gregory smiles. “You look lovely. Very studious.”
“I look ridiculous,” Marina growls. She feels like a joke, like an imposter. Henry and Gregory keeps treating her like a child .
“You are a child,” Marina’s therapist says in one of their one on one sessions.
“We just want you have the best opportunities you can,” Henry and Gregory say in a family therapy session.
Marina hates everyone in her school. To the boys she’s exotic - tall and foreign and a model . To the girls she’s competition. To Marina they’re a persistent inconvenience.
The Russian embassy is on the way between their house in Notting Hill and the school, 25 minutes from school grounds to the embassy gate if she pedals fast. The guards tell her they’re not doing school tours right now.
Gregory finds her crying on the steps of the Royal College of Art. He sits with her until she stops crying and then offers her some gummy bears, which Marina ignores. “Did you put a tracker on my phone,” she asks.
“No,” Gregory says, “an old friend of mine works here. He texted me to tell me there was a weeping 16 year old in Westminster colors on his steps.”
The weeks she’s out of school to work for Burberry are a relief. London’s fall fashion week is in September anyway. Marina walks for the first time, doesn’t fall off the stage or trip. It’s easy to sit quietly and let people do what they want with her hair and her makeup. It’s easier to walk in a straight line under bright lights, looking “like you want to murder everyone in the room.”
“She’s a natural,” one of Henry’s designer’s sighs.
The guy who does her hair is named Andrew. He’s kind and gentle and he tells her about his boyfriend, and all the best gossip about the other designers. Drama from past fashion weeks. He calls her sweetheart and lovey and they laugh about Henry’s mustache together.
Marina has already posed for a magazine shoot for the same clothes debuting on the runway, which will launch immediately after. Various editorial pieces describe her as “haunting,”
“decadent,” and “soulful.” Marina doesn’t really recognize herself in the photos, but she’s pretty sure that’s not really the point. She throws all the press stuff in the trash and paints for a while instead, with Lulu sitting in her lap, fuzzy chin resting on her spare arm.
In November she gets invited to a party by her classmates. She drinks too much vodka, takes two pills of unknown origin or substance, kisses someone with dark hair and warm laugh, and 30 minutes later calls Henry in tears from an upstairs bathroom. She hasn’t been high since those first few weeks in Paris. It’s a nightmare - the familiarity of the feeling, the terror, the foggy lack of control. One of her classmates - Hugh - carries her down the steps and waits with her around the corner for her “Uncle Henry” to come pick her up.
Henry brought bottles of water, stops and lets her puke out the side of his Aston Martin. Gregory makes them all a pot of tea when they get home. They check her eyes and ask her what she took and debate about taking her to the hospital and decide instead on wrapping her in a blanket and watching old Great British Bake Off episodes through the night.
The next morning she’s assured that she is very, very, grounded.
Marina stares at them in shock.
“Grounded,” they repeat back, in a neutral but firm and supportive tone they probably practiced together after watching “parenting a teen” videos on Youtube.
Marina has lost all concept of what “loss of privileges” means to normal people. “You are not my parents!” she shouts instead of asking them what they’re going to take away.
Slamming doors would be more satisfying if she wasn’t so hungover.
She’s still grounded.
Being grounded, evidently, means no cell phone or other “electronics” except as needed for school work, no going out with friends on the weekend. Marina has no friends so that’s hardly a loss. She hands her phone over and doesn’t mention that she’s secretly happy to have it gone, that the worst part of the whole night had been the terrible minutes before she called Henry when she almost called Tomás, drunk and forgetting and hoping he’d come pick her up from whatever bathroom she was in and take her home.
“Straight home from school?” she asks again.
Henry and Gregory look at each other. They look sad. “We’d like you home by 4:30,” Henry says, and she knows that they both know they’re giving her enough time for her daily detour to the Embassy.
Gregory sighs. “And that Hugh lad - he’s welcome to come over if you need to work on school work together. I met his mother at parents’ night. They seem like a very nice, sensible family.”
Marina expects Hugh to have told the whole school, for it to be all over by the next Monday. What he would have told them, she’s not quite sure: that’s she weird, that she cried just because she was drunk and high and scared. That’s she’s a freak. Instead, he’d said nothing, but he smiles hesitantly at her in the hallway, sits next to her during lunch. Hugh’s twin sister sits with them. “We’re here on scholarships,” Amberine tells her, like that explains everything, like that’s enough to make them friends.
In December she winds up on the cover of Vogue . Comments online about the cover shot describe her as “luminous,” “otherworldly,” “stunning,” and “heartbreakingly gorgeous.” Amberine sits next to her in a school assembly and secretly shares one of her earbuds, so they can listen to podcasts instead of the droning lecture.
Just before the Christmas holidays a young man walks out of the Russian embassy - by his suit, his age, his bearing, he looks like an aide. Possibly an aide’s aide. Or an intern. The guard has already politely but firmly informed Marina that there are no school tours today and that neither the Ambassador nor the consulate, nor anyone else in their office has any available appointments. Hugh and Amberine have rolled their eyes fondly at Marina’s “idiosyncrasies” and are arguing about whether or not they should go to Nando’s now that her ritual is complete. The aide has his arms full of papers and he’s looking at this cellphone, very busy, when he accidentally knocks into Marina.
“So sorry,” he apologies, hand on her elbow as he squats down to help her pick up the books that spilled out of her fallen backpack.
There’s the usual British flutter of social niceties. Hugh and Amberine shake his hand. Everyone apologizes to everyone. Marina assures him she’s fine. Everyone smiles. Marina can feel his hand on her elbow, still, like a burn. She waits until they’re back at her house, unpacking their books for calculus homework before looking through her bag.
Amongst all her other things there’s a book - a plain Penguin paperback copy of the English translation of Crime and Punishment that she’s never seen before and certainly hadn’t put there. In it there’s a slip of paper and printed on it in neat cyrillic is a mailing address to a maximum security prison in Siberia, complete with her brother’s name and ID number, and below it’s signed “John Smith.”
“Are you okay, Lana?” Amberine asks and Marina snaps the book shut over the slip of paper.
“Oh god,” Hugh laughs, “Dostoevsky, I’d be looking sick too. Do you have to read that for McIntyre’s class? God, that’s brutal.”
“Is he better in Russian?” Amberine asks, “I always wonder how much things lose in translation.”
“No.” Marina makes herself smile, “He’s not any better in Russian.”
She writes Serhiy that night, alone in her room, and debates for hours about whether or not to include any photos or mention of the Vogue shoot. In the end she realizes she has no other explanation for how she would be writing with a return address of London not Ilovaisk, and she certainly doesn’t want to tell him anything else of the intervening two years, so she folds the pages ripped from Vogue ’s December issue and tucks them in with her letter.
In January Henry and Gregory, and her therapist and her family trauma therapist all sit down and talk about whether Marina is “ready” to go back to Paris, or whether she should maybe sit out this year’s Paris Fall/Winter fashion week.
“I’m fine,” Marina says firmly. No one believes her, but she winds up, ten counseling sessions, an “health and happiness plan,” and a “recognizing destructive thought patterns” plan later, going anyway.
It goes fine. Burberry’s show is a massive success. Marina is very beautiful and everyone tells her so. She only locks herself in a bathroom and cries twice, which Andrew assures her is a pretty average number of times for everyone here, with or without tragic backstories. She keeps expecting she’ll see a glimpse of Tomás somewhere - in the lobby of the hotel, at the train station. She doesn’t. Everything is fine. It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s fine.
Marina brings Hugh and Amberine back handmade chocolate from a chocolaterie, a scarf from the men’s show that no one will miss, a pair of gloves for Amberine.
In March she gets a letter - dingy, banged up, damp, and obviously opened at least three times, from Serhiy. She cries herself to sleep for three days, Lulu the elderly Brittany spaniel curling up next to her in concern and licking her face. Henry takes her to the Tate one afternoon and then gently tries to encourage her to paint more. “Do something you love, my dear. We have to find joy where we can in the world.”
In April she sneaks out of the house, goes to a party in Soho with a bunch of other models, does coke, hooks up in a nightclub bathroom with some actor she ought to recognize but doesn’t, cries, calls Andrew the runway hairstylist to come pick her up because she doesn’t want to be grounded again, and falls asleep on his couch.
She gets grounded anyway. “You’re not my parents!” she screams again at Henry and Gregory. She runs away that night. Spends four days not going to school, couchsurfing with various other models and actors, and only gets found by Henry when she still shows up for a photoshoot she was scheduled for and he’s waiting there for her.
“You scared the hell out of us,” Henry says into her hair as he hugs her.
“Anniversaries of events are hard, ” her therapist tells them all.
Gregory keeps his arm around her after their group hug session. “I know it doesn’t feel possible, but things do get better.”
“I feel like a blight,” Marina tells them, “like a poison. Like everything inside me is ruined and dark and everything I touch gets ruined too. What is the point of all this when none of it means anything. I’m broken, why can’t you all just let me be broken and move on with your lives. I don’t know how to be a normal teenager.”
Henry takes her hand gently into his. “Lana, my dear, running away? Sneaking off to clubs to drinks and do drugs? Skipping school?” He smiles. It’s a wavering, watery, tearful smile, but he smiles, “I hate to break it to you, but that sounds like normal teenage things to me. You’re…. You’re much more a teenager acting your actual age now than the… person… I met outside that cafe in Paris. It’s just… a bumpy road, growing back into yourself. But it’s not hopeless.”
Gregory squeezes her shoulders. “Love, I was doing all the same things, when I was your age. I was the same sad sack of misery that thought there wasn’t any way anything could get better.”
“Oh?” Marina interrupts, bitter and spiteful. “Were you also human trafficked out of your war torn country because all your family was gone, and then sold to the Parisian milieu?”
“No” Gregory says, “I wasn’t. And I can’t pretend to know what sort of pain you felt, Marina. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t spend half of my waking energy talking myself out of killing myself, and the other half of my time finding new and increasingly self destructive waves of killing myself slowly and expensively.” He shares a look with Henry, his eyes are red rimmed and wet. “It gets better, dearheart, it gets better. If you believe nothing else we tell you, please, believe that no matter what you do, you can always come back to us, and that we promise you it does get better.”
In early June, Marina does a photoshoot for Harper’s Bazaar modeling Burberry’s summer resort wear, and finishes her school year with passable grades, and more importantly, no politely worded letter asking for her to not return to Westminster’s aged and respectable halls, like she’d half been expecting. Henry looks very proud. Gregory and Henry tell her they’re planning their usual summer hols, and ask where she’d like to go. “Somewhere warm, we’re hoping,” Greg prompts, “Ibiza? Italy? The Seychelles? Maui?”
“You can bring a school friend or two of course,” Henry adds.
“Hugh is a nice boy,” Henry says as they’re packing for Capri.
“I don’t…. Like him like that.” Marina says, softly, because sometime she wishes she could. Hugh is a nice boy.
“That’s okay, my dear,” Henry says, patting her shoulder, “he’s still a nice boy, whether he’s your friend or your boyfriend. I’m just remarking on Gregory’s and my gratitude that you’re bringing along such quiet, polite company whose parents we don’t detest talking to. Well done.”
“I was thinking about changing my A level courses next year, maybe,” Marina broaches, quietly, on the drive to the airport. “I was thinking of concentrating more on art and design?”
Harry smiles at her, Grey squeezes her hand. “That sounds like a wonderful idea, sweetheart.”
In September, Marina’s design instructor divides them into partners for a project. Marina’s is a tall blond boy named James, who she has no particular fondness for, but no real hatred of either. He’s neither the worst nor best person she’s ever met in her life, but he’s a decent enough partner and at least he doesn’t make her take the notes because she’s a girl. “Your handwriting is terrible, Volkov,” he told her their first day, swiping the notepad away from. Marina goes over to his house one afternoon to work on the ad campaign they’re supposed to be designing, and meets his father who introduces himself as George, although Marina knows he’s in parliament in the house of lords.
When James leaves her alone in the kitchen with him for a moment while he lets the dog out into the backyard, “George” smiles benignly at her in a way that makes her want to run , and says, “and how are you liking England, then, Svetlana?”
“Very well,” Marina says politely. She smooths the pleats in her skirt and tries to quiet her heart rate. “London is lovely this time of year.”
“Yes, London is lovely in the autumn, would you care for anything to drink? Has James offered you tea? The staff’s off for the evening I’m afraid, but I can manage the kettle all right.”
Marina lifts the glass in her hand. “Water is fine, thanks, I’m… fine.”
“So tell me,” he says, settling against the counter, “it’s your last year, you must be thinking about your future, university.”
“Yes, I guess.”
“Hmm… any idea where you’d like to wind up?”
“Umm…. I was looking at art schools. Hen...Uncle Henry wants me to go to the CMS, but I.... I was also considering National School of Fine Arts in Paris … or maybe somewhere in New York.” Henry and Greg thought her going to school in Paris was a “fabulously terrible idea,” but Marina wasn’t going to mention that.
“Really?” He says, “that surprises me, you’d be awfully limited in what you can study in a university like that - no options for politics or international relations degrees at all.”
“I’m not really very interested in politics.”
“Aren’t you? I thought James mentioned that you had an interest in statecraft. Oh well, I must be mixing you up with another of his school chums. Or maybe I heard it elsewhere.” Marina is sure James has never mentioned such a thing, that he never thinks of her at all, outside of their class, if he doesn’t have to. George pours himself another cup of tea. Adds a lemon slice. “Still, really no interest on your part in representing dear old mother Russia on the global stage?”
“I am not Russian,” Marina says, fear ebbing slightly in the wake of anger, “I’m from the Ukraine.”
“Oh yes,” he drawls, “but those borders are always changing, of course. Crimea’s always been a frightful mess.”
Marina sets her water glass down firmly, “Yes, well, the British know a great deal about that, I’m sure.”
George throws his head back and laughs. “You” he says, teeth bright white in his grin, “are a delight. What a ferocious little thing you are. I can’t wait to watch your career.”
“I’ll send you my gallery announcements then,” she says behind teeth clenched in a smile, “excuse me, I have a project to work on.”
Marina goes back upstairs to James’s room, sits on the floor in the farthest corner with her arms wrapped around her knees and just tries to breathe.
“What on earth are you doing?” James says five minutes later when he comes into the room. His dog runs up to Marina and starts licking her face. “God you’re weird. Come on, I want to get this thing written.”
In October she goes to a concert on a Friday night with Hugh and Amberine and two of their friends from home who took the train into London to see visit. Hugh puts her on his shoulders so she can see better, even though he laughs about it. “You’re as tall as me, princess, when do I get to sit on your shoulders.” They ride the underground back to Marina’s house, loud and giggly and covered in glitter, pressed up against each other, and Marina thinks she might be happy.
In November she shoots a perfume commercial for Burberry which makes Henry get in a giant fight with some other man from marketing.
“She’s seventeen,” Marketing Person says for the 30th time. Marina is shamelessly eavesdropping on their hallway conversation. But then so is everyone else in the studio.
“Yes,” Henry snaps, “Which is not 35. Please kindly re-set your shoot for something more age appropriate .”
“It’s not porn, and she’s not an infant. She’s just going to be looking disheveled in a bed. We’ve shot a thousand commercials like this before. With models the same age. You're here because you're her legal guardian, not because you're running this shoot.”
“As Creative Director...”
“No, Henry. Do not even try to argue that your feelings have anything to do with being Creative Director. As her uncle you want her wrapped up in blanket, like her babushka, playing checkers, I'm sure. That’s not possible. This is like all our other commercials.
Marina looks awkwardly over at the male model she’s supposed to be shooting this thing with. She’s pretty sure his name was … Owen? Ewan? Ian? Something. He’s tall and lanky with artfully mussed hair and looks about as bored as she does. He shoves his hands in his pockets of Burberry suit pants and shrugs at her unspoken question.
“Can we just… get the shoot over with while they’re arguing?” Marina offers.
“Thank god,” the camera woman sighs, “yes please. I have to pick my kids up by 4. Okay. Paul, if you can move the lights back… We’ll start with the scene on the balcony this time.”
In December Marina kisses Hugh. It’s cold and his cheeks are red, and he’s wrapped up in a scarf and smiling. They kiss, and it’s soft, and …not terrible. Hugh pulls back when they finish and brushes the hair out of her face, looking a little wistful, and says, “No fireworks?”
Marina looks down and shakes her head, and offers “it was … nice.”
Hugh laughs. “Ouch.”
“Maybe we can...try again?” Because she doesn’t know how to explain that “not terrible” is not a bad thing. That it’s an improvement. That she’s honestly not sure she’s capable of fireworks.
“It’s perfectly normal for you to feel uncertain or reluctant or confused about physical intimacy,” Marina’s therapist tells her that week.
Marina feels her hand tighten on the arm of the chair. Hates herself for the tell, and wills her fingers to loosen. “I’m not confused .” What a terrible word. Could this session be any more torturous?
“We haven’t talked as much as I’d like about Tomás.”
Oh. Apparently it could.
“I don’t want to talk about Tomás.”
“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, but, you’ve been doing so well. If you’re considering entering in a physical or romantic relationship, dealing with past…”
“I was never in a physical or romantic relationship with Tomás,” Marina snaps. “He doesn’t have anything to do with this. And I never said I was thinking about entering a relationship with anyone, anyway. It was one kiss… people kiss people all the time.”
Her therapist sat back in the chair. “People kiss people all the time… but you haven’t. Was it your first kiss?”
Marina snorts, then glances longingly at the clock. 15 minutes left.
When it becomes apparent she’s not going to answer the question about the kiss, her therapist asks, “How would you characterize your relationship with Tomás?”
“He never had sex with me,” Marina says. “I know you all think he did, but he didn’t. Tomás trafficked heroin - he wasn’t dumb enough to do heroin. It was the same with the girls.”
“That doesn’t really say anything about your relationship with him. I can tell you have conflicted feelings about him. It’s understandable to…”
“He was my boss. That’s how I would characterize him.”
“I don’t think it’s as easy as that. He held you against your will. He raised you, in a way. In a twisted sort of way, you trusted him. He taught you to trust him. And he hurt you.”
Marina looks away, blinking fast.
“And he allowed other people to hurt you.”
“No shit,” Marina says, standing quickly. “Oh, look, time’s up. See you next week.”
In January their school arranges for them to have a one-on-one discussion with an advisor to talk to them about universities and degrees, and what school would be best for them.
Marina walks into the office, sees the man sitting at the desk, and feels the muscles in her back tense just looking at him.
“Ah, Ms. Volkov,” the man says, standing to shake her hand, “Lovely, right on time, let’s get started, shall we?” He has a manila folder in front of him and a stack of university brochures and pamphlets.
“You’re not here to talk to me about art,” Marina says, as she sits.
That makes him grin . “Aren’t I?”
He opens a folder on the desk, pulls out a series of photos of her work so far at Westminster. “These are lovely” he says, “I particularly like the color and brush strokes on this one, but it’s this one, really that has me captivated. ” From the bottom of the folder he slides out a black and white still photo of Marina, kneeling on the sidewalk outside the Russian embassy, shoving books in her bag alongside the embassy aide.
Marina swallows reflexively, throat dry, heart thudding.
“As much appreciation as I have for this new digital age of mixed media, nothing really comes close to the beauty of a classic art form.”
Marina clenches her hands at the hem of her skirt.
“Of course, there's always room for improvement. You don’t mind constructive criticism, do you know, my dear? It’s a little rudimentary, a trifle derivative, and if I’m honest, I think the Russian influence in this particular work is a bit much for my tastes. But that’s what university’s for, of course.” He smiles a benevolent old man smile. “Training out all those bad habits.”
He pushes one of the pamphlets across. “Have you thought about Cambridge?”
“I’ve thought about Central Saint Martins.”
“Oh dear.” He shakes his head. “That won’t do at all. You won’t be able to take any of the classes you’ll need for a career with us at a university like that. Art is a lovely hobby, Marina , but you have other talents.”
“And us is who exactly?” she snaps back, desperately trying to cover the fear crawling up her spine at the use of her name.
The man sets the files down and looks at her frankly. “Marina. If you were the sort of girl that needed that spelled out for you, I wouldn’t be here, would I? You know who we are.”
Marina takes a breath. Lets it out. “I don’t want to work for MI5.” she manages to make herself say. "Or MI6
His face is hard. “You want to work for the FSB instead?” and his voice is so, so quiet.
“I think you’ll find,” she says, just as quietly, “that I work for Burberry. But thank you, Mr...what did you say your name was? You actually have been a great aid in helping me make school and career decisions.” At home, on her bookshelf, she has the never returned copy of the book she’d taken from the library in Paris, dog-eared and spine broken, and she suddenly understands, more than she did before, exactly what Kuznetsov had tried so hard to teach her. Standing she looks at him, square in the eye. “I don’t want to work for you. And I certainly am not going to work for the FSB. I’m going to art school. And you, and every other government suit, you can go fuck yourselves.”
In March, Henry and Greg formally, officially, adopt her. Greg cries. Henry dabs his eyes with a handkerchief. Lulu licks her face. They go out for a celebratory dinner, and Marina talks to them about the benefits of Central Saint-Martins vs Paris vs some other university, and eventually decides on New York, if she gets accepted at any of the universities there she’d applied to.
“Of course you will,” Henry says, patting her hand.
Marina kisses Hugh three more times, after the first time, as the weeks count down to the end of the year. Finally, they decide to leave it at friends.
“Maybe I’m a little… not confused … but…” Marina admits to her therapist reluctantly. “He’s so nice . What if I’m not capable of liking nice anymore?” It makes her… angry… if she thinks about it too much. Nameless and futile and frustratingly and pointlessly angry, with nothing to do about it.
But her therapist just smiles and said, “there are a lot of different types of good people in the world. You’ll meet more in your life, and be drawn to some differently than others. That’s normal, Svetlana. You deserve kindness. I have every faith in you.”
At the end of May, Marina graduates. She sits next to Hugh and Amberine in the auditorium, and accepts congratulations from all of Henry and Gregory’s work and family friends.After a huge celebratory dinner, Hugh and Amberine sit out in the backyard with her, while their parents all mingle and drink and laugh on the patio.
“Don’t be coy.” Amberine rolls her eyes at Hugh, when they’re all talking about what acceptance leaders they had or hadn’t received. “You know they’re going to accept you. You’ll get your letter.”
“Hugh,” Marina laughs, “you’re going to Cambridge. Stop being silly. They’d be idiots not to take you.”
Hugh blushes, and Amberine throws her arm around her. “And you’ll be all the way in New York. I’m going to miss you.”
“You’re taking a gap year, you could come visit, in all your globe trotting.”
“I might,” Amberine says, softly. “You’ll be busy though.”
“Not too busy to see friends.” She looks over at Hugh. Heistates. “Promise you won’t join MI6. Cambridge is always where they get spies in novels.”
Hugh lets out a startled laugh. “As if,” he giggles. “I’m taking Business. I’m going to be thoroughly boring. Talk to Amberine, she’s going to wind up building robots for some evil Bond villain who feeds people to sharks.”
“I am not.” Amberine laughs. “I want to build robots for use in the space station.”
“Good.” Marina sighs.
“Did you decide?” Amberine asks. “Between Parsons and the other one?”
“The Institute of Fine Arts? Not yet. I’m going to New York anyway in a few weeks for a Burberry thing, so I’m going to do a tour for each.”
“You’re going to be such a good artist. I mean, you’re already… but you’re...”
“Yes,” Marina says. “I’m going to be secret artist slash famous runway model.” She takes a small breath. “And,” she adds, softly, in Ukrainian, “I’m going to get my brother back.”