“What do you think of her, Yakov?” nine-year-old Victor asked, scooting closer to show the much older man. “Could she be my Mama?”
On the glossy page of an old magazine was a woman draped in white, her pale skin glowing in muted light. Fiery, red hair fell in waves to her thin waist, forelocks framing a heart-shaped face. Slender arms were raised slightly above her, where gold lace looped and fell to the ground. Dark eyes focused straight ahead, but with a distance of one looking at a stranger — it matched her smile. Golden text on the image’s bottom right boasted the name of a well-known perfume brand.
Yakov, his new guardian, grunted from behind his book. He glanced at the magazine with a raised brow. “Your mother?”
Victor nodded, perking slightly at the response. Not that many adults actually paid attention to him when he asked. There was very little reason for Victor to think he was related to this model, but he didn’t have much to go on.
For as long as he could remember, Victor had wondered what his parents looked like. Like with many of the other children he grew up with, his mother and father were a mystery. He had nothing of his family. He was found by the gates of an orphanage with a worn blanket and birth certificate, whose only contents were his name and his date of birth — a mere week prior to being found.
They must have been beautiful, they told him. After all, Victor wouldn’t look the way he did if his parents weren’t equally as gorgeous. He supposed they could be right, but it wasn’t very helpful.
It wasn’t that Victor was upset at having no parents. He wasn’t like some of the older children who still remembered their families. The orphanage was all he knew, and it was more than enough to feel secure and loved. Still, he was curious about the people who were supposed to have raised him. Who were they, he wondered, what did they look like? Why did they leave him? Did he not have any other family but them?
While he would probably never get answers to those questions, Victor decided that he could take matters into his own hands. At the tender age of five, he marched over to their matron and asked for two picture frames and an old magazine. If he would never know what his Mama and Papa really looked like, then he could guess. Victor was certain that his parents, wherever they were, wouldn’t mind if he picked someone else’s photos to stand in for them. Maybe he would even get their faces right one day.
That said, it was about time for him to choose a new pair for the week. Victor hadn’t changed them since he moved into his new room in the Feltsman home — a whole month! In the commotion of paperwork, moving in, and starting both school and skating lessons, he’d actually forgotten to replace the framed photos on his bedside table.
Yakov Spiridonovich looked at him with a raised brow.
“Didn’t Lilia tell you to do your homework before goofing off?” he asked, gesturing to the scattered worksheets beside the magazines.
Lilia Zakharnova was Yakov’s wife. She stood straight as a pole and moved with the grace of the Neva. She wore her dark hair in a severe bun, and had features and a demeanor as sharp as steel. She adored beauty and determination, the former of which made Victor wonder what she saw in Yakov. The couple shared the responsibility of discipline and training, with Lilia more visibly strict with him. That said, she also handed him the very magazine he spent the past hour rifling through.
“What do you mean, she gave it to you?” Yakov asked, a visible tick on his temple.
Victor crossed his arms smugly. “I asked last night, and she gave it to me. That means Lilia Zakharnova gave me permission to do this!”
The man responded with unimpressed, half-lidded eyes and Victor pouted up at him. It stopped working on the orphanage matrons, but maybe he could still use its power on his new guardian.
“If you have time for your games,” Yakov said, “then you have time to walk Caska.”
Victor beamed; he loved walking with Yakov and Lilia’s poodle. Caska was a beautiful standard poodle with the softest brown fur. She was the couple’s third dog, one of their first’s many granddaughters. Perhaps when he was older, he could ask to keep one of Caska’s puppies. He already did a good job of playing and walking with her. Maybe his sad, puppy eyes would work on them — he’d have to practice!
He leaped to his feet without another word, calling for the loveable poodle and quickly grabbing small trash bags and some treats. Caska didn’t need a leash; she was great like that.
“No running in the halls, Vitya!” Yakov bellowed as Victor skipped out the room. “And don’t take too long, we will be meeting Lilia in an hour!”
Yakov gave all the skaters, even Victor, the day off. Today, he had time to drop him off and pick him up from school. And for the first time since Victor first moved in, he would be spending the afternoon with his new guardians away from the rink.
Victor loved the rink, sure, but they were taking him to a fair. He’d never been to a fair before!
He chirped a quick reply before zooming out the door, shiny keys in his pocket and an excitable dog in tow. He ran with her along the paved sidewalks and followed her dutifully when she chose to do her business. Caska seemed to have sensed his suddenly adventurous mood, and led him along an unfamiliar route. He trusted the dog to lead them back home; she was smart like that.
They chose to return when Victor ran out of treats and bags for Caska. The poodle nudged at his legs with her cold, wet nose and huffed impatiently. If he didn’t know better, then he would have thought she understood the large clock by the café they passed— they’d been going on the walk for half an hour now.
Lilia was home when they returned, sitting across from Yakov with a cup of tea. She raised a perfect brow at his appearance.
“Will you be going in that filthy clothing, Victor?” she asked.
Victor looked down at himself, assessing his rumpled shirt and shorts. His shoes, in their cubby by the front door, were scuffed and dirty. He raised his head and shrugged.
“I’m gonna get dirty anyway.”
Yakov snorted at his response and Lilia sent a simmering glare his way. She then turned her disapproving gaze at Victor.
“I will not have my ward looking like a street urchin,” she said. “You may keep your shorts, but change that shirt immediately, Victor.”
Yakov once told him that there was no arguing with her. She was stubborn as a rock and fiercely competitive. And since the puppy dog eyes didn’t seem to work on Lilia either, Victor had no choice but to do as she commanded. He’d seen the couple standoff for hours, and he couldn’t have that on fair day!
They could have easily walked the distance, Yakov argued. However, Lilia insisted on taking the car. So naturally, they took the car. Victor, now in a clean shirt with a snowflake stitched on its breast pocket, peered out the window in anticipation.
He hadn’t been old enough to go to the Autumn Fair when he lived in the orphanage, but the older children told the best stories and occasionally came home with little trinkets for them. There were rides, they said, and games. Stalls lined the perimeter with food and toys too. Victor saved up all his allowance for this day, and he was going to make the best of it!
“Do you remember the rules, Vitya?” Yakov said, holding Victor’s backpack high above him. He pouted up at the man — he needed that.
“Don’t stray too far, don’t mess with displays, don’t be rude,” he grumbled, lower lip jutting out petulantly, “and don’t spend all my money on junk food.”
Lilia smirked. “Good boy. Now run along to one of the game booths and Yakov will win you a prize.”
“Yay!” Victor gripped the man’s arms and tugged him all the way to a ring toss, where the largest, cuddliest stuffed poodle hung from the prize display.
Yakov complained, of course, and his frustrated grumbling persisted until a shady concessionaire handed him three hoops to test the game out.
“Two out of the three!” he cheered when Yakov finished his trial run. The bony game operator peered at them with slitted eyes, glinting triumphantly. “Just one more and you could win a prize. Care to give it a try, sir?”
Victor jumped as Yakov slammed a shiny coin onto the gametable. The sudden fire in his guardian’s eyes made him take a few steps back. Victor cocked his head at the sight of the man hurling plastic hoops with the determination of a man possessed. Lilia put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t fret, child,” she said, a slight smirk gracing her lips. “Yakov is fiercely competitive. He will win you that poodle.”
He didn’t doubt them in the slightest.
They watched on as Yakov played several rounds in succession. Apparently, three successful throws meant a prize from the bottom shelf — an admittedly disappointing display of knickknacks that wouldn’t look out of place in a dump. For Yakov to win his new ward a poodle, he would have to land fifteen in succession. Before the man could spend another ruble on this fruitless effort, Victor tugged on his coat.
“You don’t have to,” he said, trying his best not to let the disappointment show. Getting the chance to go to the Autumn Fair was more than enough of a treat, he reasoned with himself. Yakov had no obligation to spend his well-earned money on trivial things like toys. “I don’t need it.”
Yakov grunted and rolled his eyes at him. “Yes, but you want it, don’t you?”
He blinked up at the older man, perplexed. “I do, but you don’t have to.”
“Well, then I should get it for you,” Yakov deadpanned. “You have been doing well — both in skating and your studies. A toy isn’t too much to ask for.”
He turned his gaze from Victor to his wife. “He must be bored. Take him to the other attractions while I do this. It shouldn’t take long.”
She bent down slightly to take one of Victor’s hands in hers, and spoke. “Come along, Victor. You mentioned rides earlier, didn’t you?”
Still bemused by the situation, all Victor could do was nod and follow. Despite the throng of people present, all the lines had been surprisingly short. Like Yakov, Lilia appeared to have a presence that made people part and give way. Maybe if he worked hard enough, then maybe he could do the same one day.
Lilia waited patiently as Victor bobbed slowly on a sour-faced duck, nodding every time he rounded back to her. When he respectfully demanded to go another round, she simply raised her brow at the operator and Victor was off.
By his fifth — sixth? — round, Yakov had joined Lilia, the telltale fluff of a stuffed poodle under his arm. Victor wasted no time in leaping off the still-moving ride to give the man the tightest hug, which he responded to with an awkward pat on the back. Yakov needed to work on his hugs; Lilia too. Thankfully, they now had Victor around to help.
When Victor returned home later that evening, the first thing he did was return Lilia’s old magazine. He got a reminder to brush his teeth and prepare for his classes tomorrow in return. Next, he decorated his bedroom with the pile of baubles he conned Yakov into buying for him. The man scowled at each one, but made sure to set the giant poodle toy — Makkachin — across Victor’s bed. He reminded Victor of skating lessons after school and left his room without another word.
The last thing Victor did before settling down for the night was to place a simple gold frame on his bedside table, making sure the photo of Yakov, Lilia, and himself faced his bed just right.