“Why not?” Five-year-old Yelena pouts her lip, putting her hands on her hips as she looks up at her Daddy.
“Because I said so,” Daddy replies tiredly but Yelena was so sure that he was getting close to bending.
“But why?” She pressed, tilting her chin up stubbornly. “I wanna!”
“I said no!” His voice raised, boom across the room.
Yelena scrunches her face up. “But I wanna!” She stomps her foot, caught completely off guard when something hits her across the face with enough force for her to lose her balance. She tumbles backward, her eyes watering immediately at the pain.
It takes Yelena a second to connect the dots of what happened. She blinks in confusion and then surprise. “You hit me…” Her face burns and throbs as tears well up in her eyes.
Daddy looked down at his hand in horror. “I’m-- I’m sorry. You should have listened to me.”
Yelena’s lower lip wobbles. Her face really, really hurt. She climbs to her feet and darts out the back door before he can stop her.
There’s a forest behind the house and Natasha likes to go and play in it where there is a small part with cherry blossoms. She could almost always be found there.
Mama was gone, out getting groceries. So Yelena turns to the next best person.
Her big sister.
She wipes her nose on her sleeve, trying to calm herself down enough to whistle but she can’t and instead calls out. “Natasha!” She keeps running, not stopping until she literally runs into Natasha.
They’re both knocked to the ground and Natasha shoves her off. “Watch where you’re going!” She snaps.
Yelena can’t stop herself and bursts into tears, so overwhelmed with emotions that her tiny body doesn’t know how to handle.
“What are you--” Natasha’s voice trails off when she looks at Yelena. “You’re hurt! Did I do that?” Natasha’s hands move to grab Yelena’s face but Yelena jerks her head away, her cheek hot and throbbing. “I’ll go get Papa.” Natasha said.
“No!” Yelena slams forward to wrap her arms around Natasha’s waist and keep her there. “No! Don’t! Please!” She cries, curling her fingers into her sister’s shirt.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” Natasha’s arms wrap around her. “Why are you crying? Was it one of the mean neighborhood boys again? I’ll beat them up for you.”
Yelena shakes her head, ignoring the pain on her face to bury her face into Natasha’s shirt.
“Papa can help--” Natasha tries to insist again but Yelena grips onto her tighter.
“He can’t, he can’t!” She denies, shaking her head as she tries to pull herself closer. “My head hurts.” She whines.
Natasha peels Yelena away so that she can crouch and look at Yelena’s face. Yelena starts to cry all over again when she sees the spots of blood left on Natasha’s white shirt. “I’m bleeding--”
“Shh…” Natasha cups Yelena’s face and her cold hand feels nice on Yelena’s burning cheek. “What happened, Lee-lee?”
Yelena hiccups, trying to control her breathing like Mama had taught her to do. “I didn’t mean to--”
Natasha waits patiently for Yelena to get the words out.
“Daddy just got so mad!” Yelena rubs at her eyes and Natasha pulls her hands away, blood speckled on Yelena’s sleeve.
“Alexei did this?” Natasha demands, her face growing dark as her eyes settle on the blood on Yelena’s pink sleeve.
“Alexei?” Yelena repeats quietly, unsure of who exactly that was.
“You know. Daddy. Papa. Did he hurt you?” Natasha clarifies and Yelena nods slowly.
“I didn’t mean to…” Yelena starts to cry again. Natasha pulls her into another hug and Yelena sinks into her.
“It’s okay, Lee-lee. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Natasha assures her softly.
“You don’t even know what happened!” Yelena points out through sniffles.
“I don’t need to,” Natasha brushes Yelena’s hair back out of her face. “Come here. I’ll let you piggyback just this once.”
Natasha crouches and Yelena hops onto her back, wrapping her limbs around her and pushing her face into the back of Natasha’s neck as Natasha carries them back home. Yelena’s thumb worms its way into her mouth so she can suck on it. It was a comforting feeling that brought her security when she was sad and there was no one there to give her a hug.
Natasha carries her into the house and to the kitchen where Mama kept the big first aid kit on the top shelf of the cabinet.
Natasha sets Yelena down, pulling one of the chairs to the counter and climbing onto it to reach the cabinet with Mama’s kit.
Papa enters the kitchen again and Natasha turns and reaches out to grab the handle on one of the big kitchen knives that Mama said never to touch because they were very sharp and dangerous.
“Get out.” Natasha tells him, venom in her voice as Yelena moves to hide behind the back of the chair that Natasha stood on. “Now.”
“Natasha, it was an accident--” Papa replies as he holds his hands up.
Yelena watches, gently biting her thumb as Natasha throws the knife at him. “GET OUT!” The knife lodged into the wall just next to Papa’s head as he scurries out of the kitchen.
Yelena doesn’t mention how angry Mama was gonna be when she comes back to see her nice kitchen knives in the wall. She instead watches Natasha unzip the kit and pull it open. “Come here, Lee-lee.”
Yelena approached her and Natasha helps her climb up onto the chair and then sit on the counter.
“This is gonna burn, okay?” Natasha holds up one of the cotton swabs soaked in the liquid that always stung when Mama used them. Yelena nods her head, taking a deep breath as Natasha grips her chin and dabs at her cheek.
Yelena’s eyes water again at the burning but it fades quickly as Natasha gently blows against her cheek.
Natasha then rifles through the big kit until she can find the band-aids. She pulls out two of them, sticking the navy blue with white stars band-aids onto Yelena’s cheek before kissing over them as Mama did.
Natasha hops off the chair and throws the wrappers away, moving to the freezer and grabbing some of the yucky frozen peas that Yelena hates. “Here. Hold this on your cheek.” Natasha passes it to her.
Yelena does, shivering at the cold but it feels nice against her red hot cheek. “Thank you, Nattie.” She mumbles, watching as Natasha zips Mama’s kit back up and puts it back in the cabinet moments before the front door opens and Mama calls out “I’m back!”
Both girls freeze when Mama enters the kitchen, pausing in the entry as her eyes drink in the sight, flickering from Yelena’s face to the knife in the wall.
“What happened?” She demanded firmly, setting the grocery bags down to move toward Yelena and pull the bag of peas away to inspect her face.
“Alexei hit her!” Natasha said, sticking her chin up. Mama froze, her gaze moving to look at the knife in the wall once again before looking down at Natasha.
“What?” Mama’s voice was calm but firm.
“Alexei hit her,” Natasha repeats, looking up at Yelena. “Right, Lee-lee?”
At her gaze, Yelena nods her head. “I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to be bad.” She feels like she’s going to cry all over again, her thumb brushing against her lower lip as she tries to suck her thumb again but Mama pushes her hand away, instead picking her up off the counter to hug her.
Yelena pushes her good cheek against Mama’s shoulder, sinking into her touch as Mama rubs her back.
“You’re not bad, baby,” Mama said softly as Yelena snuggles into her arms. “I’m sure it was an accident.”
“Bullshit!” Natasha suddenly snaps and Yelena jumps at the abrupt swear word. “Is he gonna do it again? Is he gonna do it to me?” She demands.
“Watch your mouth, Natasha,” Mama warns, moving to cradle Yelena in one arm so that she can reach out the other to touch Natasha.
“No!” Natasha slaps the arm away. “We are supposed to be the perfect family. She can’t go to kindergarten tomorrow looking like that!” She shoves a finger at Yelena’s face.
Yelena lets out a small whimper, pushing her hands over her eyes to make everything disappear. Did her face really look that bad?
“It won’t happen again,” Mama tells Natasha firmly. “I won’t let it happen again.”
Natasha juts her chin out stubbornly but Yelena peeks through her fingers and there are tears in her eyes.
“I threw a knife at him…” Natasha mumbles, finally bowing her head to look at her shoes as she clasped her hands together in front of her. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you are. Come here,” Mama raises her free arm up and Natasha finally shuffles closer to step into the hold. Mama moves to scoop Natasha up and hoists her up onto her hip like Natasha wasn’t ten and too big to be held or that she was already holding Yelena.
Yelena reaches out to touch her sister’s arm and Natasha moves to wrap her arm around Yelena, pulling her closer.
Mama sways in place, humming Yelena’s favorite song from the radio and Yelena slowly feels herself calming down.
Yelena closes her eyes, enjoying the soothing motion of being rocked and the warmth of her sister pressed against her side. She doesn’t even realize how much time has passed or that she was napping until Natasha’s warmth leaves her side when she’s set back down.
“Take your sister up to your room,” Mama said softly to Natasha and Yelena let out a whine when Mama passes her to Natasha. She clings to her sister instead, feeling Natasha carry her out of the kitchen until they reach the bottom of the stairs.
“I can’t carry you up,” Natasha whispers quietly into her ear. “I’m gonna set you down.” Yelena follows Natasha up the stairs on her own two feet.
They reach the bedroom that they shared. It was split down the middle, one side colored in hues of blues and pale yellows while the other side was covered in pinks and purples.
“Come here,” Natasha pulls back the pale blue covers with yellow butterflies on her own bed closest to the door. Yelena leans down to undo the straps on her velcro shoes and kicks them off with little difficulty, climbing into Natasha’s bed.
Natasha sticks her hand between the mattresses and Yelena blinks in surprise, letting out a soft gasp when Natasha pulls out a little sharp blade.
“That’s dangerous…” Yelena informs her quietly.
“I know…” Natasha sets it onto the nightstand, moving to rifle around in their dresser, and pulls out two new shirts. “Arms up.”
Yelena holds her arms up and Natasha pulls her shirt off, Yelena spotting some blood on the pink shirt. Natasha guides her arms through a new green shirt. Natasha then changes her own shirt, balling the stained shirts up and tossing them into the laundry basket.
She moves back toward the bed. “Budge over.” She kicks her own shoes off and climbs into the bed.
Yelena wiggles her way closer to Natasha, tucking her head up just under her chin.
“Has Alexei ever hit you before?” Natasha asked quietly after a few moments.
“No…” Yelena shakes her head, burrowing closer to Natasha before she turns the question on Natasha. “You?”
“Not Alexei,” Natasha pulls Yelena closer and kissed her forehead. “It’s okay. I’ll protect you. That’s what big sisters do.”
Yelena tilts her head up to press a kiss to Natasha’s cheek. “Thank you, Nattie. I love you.”
Natasha’s face softens. “I love you too, Lee-lee.”
The house is eerily quiet for the rest of the night. Yelena gets hungry around dinner time but Natasha pulls a box of Pop-tarts out from under the bed and the two share the box and snack on them because Natasha had told Yelena that it wasn’t safe to go out of the room yet.
Yelena doesn’t understand but she follows what Natasha said. Natasha plays with her and helps her get ready for bed instead of Mama.
“But Mama hasn’t told us a story or kissed us goodnight or tucked us in yet,” Yelena protests when Natasha lifts her back up into bed.
“Mama is tired tonight. Just like when you get really sleepy and grumpy and just want a nap,” Natasha said, climbing back into bed with Yelena. “I can do those things too.”
“Mmm…” Yelena squints at her sister but nods. “M’kay. Just tonight.” She said and Natasha pulls out the big chapter book that Mama had been reading them.
Yelena curls up with her big sisters under the covers as they go to bed that night.
She wakes up when the door to the bedroom opened, the moon still high in the sky as Natasha jerks away and grabs the knife from the nightstand, moving in front of Yelena.
“It’s only me,” Mama said softly as she steps inside the room and moves toward them. “Knife away, Natasha.”
Natasha replaces the knife on the nightstand as Mama takes a seat on the edge of the bed.
“I talked with your daddy. He’s never going to do it again,” Mama said, a sincerity in her tone that made Yelena believe her. “I promise you.”
“You can’t promise that,” Natasha folds her arms with a huff but lets Mama reach out and smooth back her bedhead.
“I know that you will defend yourself and your sister if you need to,” Mama tells Natasha, reaching her arm out toward Yelena. “I’m proud of you.”
Yelena moves out from behind Natasha and burrows her way into her Mama’s hold.
“You will be safe here,” Mama tells them, kissing the tops of their heads. “Come on. It’s bedtime.”
Mama moves and gets them situated once again, tucking them in and brushing their hair out of their faces as she kissed each of their foreheads.
Mama turns out the light but turns on the little ballerina night light before shutting the door behind her as she leaves.
Yelena feels Natasha’s fingers brush the blue with white star bandages on her cheek.
“I’m going to protect you, little sister,” Natasha whispers to her, peering at her through the yellow glow the nightlight cast on the room. “From everybody. You and me against the world.”
Yelena smiles up at her sister, leaning into the hand on her cheek before she closes her eyes and slips easily into sleep.