A woman in Belarus gives birth, scared, Russian husband gone to war, then gone. Mind racing, how can she work with no one to take care of her infant? How can she feed an infant with no money? How to feed herself? A mother for a minute, confused, churning with anxiety.
The midwife snips the cord, ties it to wither off the baby naturally. As she's wiping blood from the infant, the mother cries out again. Midwife turns.....repeat performance, less screeching this time, the birth portal widened by the first. Out slips another one just like the other one. Girls.
The mother is settling, midwife finds it strange, the babies came silently, silent while they are cleaned. Shrill screams when they are swaddled and laid on separate sides of the mother.
"What's wrong with them?"
Midwife has a thought, takes left girl and puts her next to right girl. Silence.
Mother takes a stab at breast feeding, complains her nipples are too sensitive. Doesn't matter, she's empty, the babies will need milk.
"What am I to do? I have no money for one, now I have two."
"There is a woman, she can care for them while you work. It will be fine. You have two beautiful healthy girls, they will take care of you before long. In the meantime, God will provide, he will not allow such treasures to waste away."
Mother is unconvinced. God, if there is one, has sent a curse. Her husband dead six months, now she's a widow with two hungry brats. She is beautiful, her husband strong and handsome, she will be old before her time with no chance of a new husband, not with these two in tow. Pity the child with a frightened, resentful mother. The firstborn, bad enough, but one might have been bearable. The second she sees as a throwaway. She has no affection for either, as they grow her frustration grows. The second receives most of the random blows, slaps, even sharp kicks. The child has done nothing, just there.
The sisters endure, they are six, so lovely it’s almost painful, like an ice cream headache in your eyes. Mother has fresh resentment, she’s twenty six, works as a housekeeper in a home where even the possibility of meeting a man is out of the question. Two old people, wealthy enough to afford her, have no children, only friends are other old people. In four short years she will be thirty, almost dead for Belarus. A country brimming with gorgeous young girls, too many and not enough men, men who go to war; men who don't return. Or return in no condition to support a wife and family.
The twins are intelligent, brilliant in school. The second has a near mystical memory, there is talk of sending her to a special advanced school. Mother makes a mistake, she relishes telling the girls they may be separated and why.
Mysteriously, the second sinks to mediocre, an average student. The teachers decide she must have had a flash of brilliance, but as the work got more difficult, she regressed. No big deal after all. Mother is incensed, the possibility of the second being sent away and cared for by the state slips away. Second is in for worse, it’s her fault mother is wasting away.
Valeria is the firstborn, Vika, the more unfortunate second. From infancy to this very moment, no one has ever seen them smile. If you see one, you see the other, they have no friends. They are diligent in school, punctual, even if bruised, or a split lip or black eye. At school though, there is one incident. A boy who thinks pushing Valeria out of line was a good idea, he’s older and half again her size, she just a small creepy girl. By the time the teachers pull Vika and Valeria off him, he has a broken ankle, broken rib and needs stitches on his forehead and cheek. Nobody bothers them anymore.
Mother disappears with a man. The girls never see her again. They are placed in a temporary home, right on the Russian border, with an old couple who want the stipend from the state. They are not mean or disagreeable, they look after the girls as best they can, the twins had long learned to care for themselves anyway. If the twins were happy nobody could tell, content just to be left alone.
The old couple are approached by a woman. Money is exchanged. The girls cross deeper into Russia. In a basement for three weeks, they have no idea where. The woman and another man come with food, there’s a shower and toilet, a TV. They are not mistreated, only imprisoned.
The woman comes and explains they are going to live in America. She shows them pictures of a big house, a young man and woman, a dog. They want to adopt, Russian twins are perfect, the man and woman are delighted. The twins express no emotion, no argument about Belarus or Russia. If these people want to make them rich American girls, they would play the part. They are seven, nearly eight. They had seen little of the world, but everyone had heard of America, where shelves overflow with goods and everyone has a new car.
They learned a bit of English at school, but Vika had hidden her memory skills. She could memorize English in days, and she would teach her sister. Teach may even be wrong. The girls move as one, think as one. Vika is the eidetiker, but Valeria can access her sister's mind. If Vika memorizes English, Valeria can pluck it out. Still, they practice. It isn't like they have anything else to do, and the woman is happy they are learning the language, it would raise the price.
An eleven hour flight from St. Petersburg to JFK, five to Houston. There's a big house, not the one in the picture, no happy couple, no dog. There are three Russian men.
Woman, "Beautiful aren't they?"
"Perfect, the bidding will go high, maybe highest price ever."
Woman, "Take the photos, and break them in, do it gently. The customers prefer them prepared, virgins are messy and troublesome. Don't tear them up, damaged goods are bad for business. Word gets around."
Russian One, "I like breaking them in. Screams and tears, then I give them kisses and presents, the pain goes away. Like a dog, they love the one who feeds them. A shame they have to leave, I may buy them myself."
"You don't want to have to explain them Anatoly, do you plan to keep them locked up all the time?"
"No, they will learn to obey. And they could be useful when others are delivered, help them adapt before we sell them off."
"Might work. Make up your mind quickly, a week. We want the product fresh, not used up."
"A week then, maybe after I deflower the angels, they won't be as appealing."
The conversation is in Russian, the girls sitting across from them, as if what they hear doesn't matter.
Vika speaks with no words to her sister, "We will fix this Russian pig."
Valeria, "We are thirsty, is it permitted to get water from kitchen?"
Russian One, "Sure, glasses in the cabinet," he turns to Russian Two, "show them."
He leads the girls to the kitchen, takes a glass, "Watch," he presses it against a lever on the refrigerator, ice clinks out. Then a second lever and water splashes into the glass.
He hands Valeria a second glass, "You do it."
While he watches, Vika studies the kitchen. A block of wood with slits that hold a selection of knives.
The girls are tired, jet lagged, yawning. It's late. They are taken to a room on the second floor. The windows are barred. It has a bathroom with no window. The door closes, a lock clicks, one to keep them in.
Valeria, "How do we get out?"
Vika, "We don't need to get out tonight. Better to sleep."
They shower, the hot water is relaxing. Soon they are curled together asleep.
The twins sleep late, well after midnight when they got to bed. At ten, the door opens. It's the third Russian.
"Tea downstairs, and something to eat. Don't bother getting dressed, you just have to take it off anyway."
The woman is gone, three men sit watching two naked children sip tea and split a croissant.
Russian One, "You can swim in the pool after breakfast, we will take picture first."
The camera clicks, standing, sitting on the couch, lying on the floor face down and up. It isn't for a child porn site. It's to whet the appetite of potential buyers.
Afterwards, Russian One and Two stroke and fondle the girls, get the product accustomed to being handled.
Russian One, "They don't back away, they don't do anything. Good, it will be easier to fuck them. Although I would prefer a bit of tears."
Two, "I like them compliant. Glad you get the virgin business out of the way first. I like it to just slide right in," his right finger slides through a circle of his left thumb and forefinger, he laughs.
Russian Three isn't around, gone to the grocery. He's not about little girls, he prefers boys. There are three or four girls for every boy in their business. The market for boys is good, supply is a problem. Girls are easier to buy in Russia or India, boys can get jobs and help the family make money. Girls are a troublesome expense all the way up to marriage, yet another expense. And marriage isn't so easy with too many available females.
Valeria, "Can we haf glass of water?"
Russian Two, "You know where it is."
No reason to go with them, they know what to do, they're naked, where are they going to go?
A few minutes passes, they don't return.
One, "Go check."
Two stands, "Probably just want to be left alone for a while," he walks through the living room, into the dining room, the kitchen to the left.
As he enters, he says, "What's going....."
Two red lines appear across his throat, circle from the carotids right past the Adam's apple, blood gushes down the sides of his neck. He's in shock, the last thing he feels is cold. The girls leave him bleeding on the floor.
Russian One, Anatoly, is fiddling with the camera, checking the photos, he doesn't hear them approach. Occupied, head down, staring at the images. Valeria walks in front of him, he glances up but can't see the knife she holds alongside her thigh.
He smiles, "These are very goo...."
Vika, behind him, swipes hard, deep into the right side of his neck, Valeria duplicates left side, then jams the knife to the hilt between his ribs to his heart. The camera thumps to the carpet, into a pool of blood. The man thumps to the carpet right behind it.
The twins stare down blankly.
Vika, "Take camera, get rid of picture."
She yanks the knife from his chest. Valeria fools with the camera, figures out how to delete. Even at eight, they're kids who went to school, rather good schools in Belarus and Russia. Not born in a cave in Siberia.
Valeria comes in, "We leave now?"
"Nyet. Other one knows us. He dies, nobody knows us, woman is fly already to New York."
They wait, two naked blood spattered children, crouched behind an SUV parked in the garage. Viking butcher knives in their hands. One big chef's knife, the other an eight inch serrated bread knife that can cut through bone.
Russian Three pulls into the garage, the door trundles down. He steps out of the Mercedes sedan and leans in to collect the grocery bags. Hands full, he bumps the door shut with his hip, moves to the garage entrance to the house. The two girls emerge from behind the SUV. Three in front of them, clueless. One moment he's planning lunch, the next he's collapsed on the concrete, numb and cold, then feels nothing at all.
Vika, "Give me knife, go take shower, wash hair."
Valeria goes upstairs, Vika thoroughly washes and dries the knives, slides them into their slots in the wooden block. She goes to shower.
They take cash from the dead men, Vika says, "Check rooms, maybe more money."
In Anatoly's bedroom, Valeria finds a small portable safe that opens with a key. There’s a set of keys on the dresser, one for the car, house key, a couple of others. The small one opens the safe. A few thousand dollars and a gun, box of bullets, papers. She takes the money, hands the gun and bullets to Vika, "Put it in the bag."
They came with a duffel bag and a few clothes, jeans, sneakers and t-shirts, a light jacket each. Now they have ten thousand dollars, a Glock and a box of nine millimeter ammunition.
Valeria, "Een America only one day, already reech."
Vika, "American dream. Time to go."
They walk out of the wealthy neighborhood and come on a busy divided street. There's a bus stop, they get on and ride. It doesn't matter where the bus goes, only that it goes away. They watch, stone silent. Vika absorbs street information, stores. They ignore people taking a second look at two identical faces.
A few miles further, they get off. There's a park, a convenience store, a place that sells sandwiches.
Valeria, "What ees Subway?"
"We can get something to eat. It must be okay, I saw three on the way here."
They get the big one and split it, roast beef, cheese, peppers, tomato, bag of chips and a soda. They feel better. Until now, they've had nothing but tea, a croissant and bloody corpses.
For two weeks, they take the bus, get out to wander neighborhoods, sit in Starbucks, McDonalds or Barnes and Noble. At night, they find a house for sale and sleep in the back yard. They've bought backpacks, sleeping bags rolled up inside. They take quick wipe down baths in restrooms, then discover hotel lobby restrooms are the cleanest, some even have linen hand towels.
Twins create too much interest. They learn to go into stores and hotels separately. One goes in to buy, the other waits outside. They comb their hair differently, wear sunglasses and different style hats. Apart from those few items and food, they spend little, less than a hundred so far. Vika keeps the cash in a small metal safe they bought at a Walmart. It won't protect it from a stout screwdriver, but it's better than nothing. And they have the gun to discourage any punks. Still, they are careful, hang in good neighborhoods, when it's dark enough to sneak into a backyard, they do. In the morning they leave, like kids walking to school.
Vika learns to load and unload the Glock, reads about guns in Barnes and Noble.
"We are going to need a permanent place and more money eventually."
Valeria, "Da. Ees risky to grab purse every time."
They found that a young girl could approach a woman sitting in a bookstore or coffee shop, ask a question. Simple things, the time, where is such and such street, is there a mall nearby? While one gets an answer, the other snags the purse and evaporates. The marks don't even realize it's gone until they leave. The girls had done it a half dozen times, mostly for practice, they still have most of the Russians' money. They also know not to take credit cards, just cash. Most of the time the purse is found a few steps away, lying in the open. The women, relieved to have their cards and driver's license, resolve to keep their purse slung on their shoulder and let the matter drop.
The twins know this is not a permanent solution.
Vika notices that some homes have lights on at night, but no one is ever there. She studies the places. Some have signs in the windows about security alarms. In the library, she gets on a computer and reads about home security. Armed with the knowledge to spot wired houses, they look for ones with no system. When they find it, it's a simple matter of breaking a back door pane of glass and letting themselves inside. If the power is on, the water is on. They can shower, sleep in a bed. They take turns sleeping, in case the owner shows up, but they never do. They are careful to make sure curtains are tightly drawn, not a lot of lights going off and on. If they watch TV, they keep the sound low. They often get a week or more in a single house.
Tonight, Vika is asleep, Valeria is watching TV, the sound off, it's a foreign language movie subtitled in English. She hears the grinding of the garage door. She shakes her sister.
A man, groggy from a near endless flight and a long drive from the airport, takes his luggage from the back seat and trudges to the door from the garage to his kitchen. When he flicks on the light, he's greeted with a hard bang on the head from a cast iron frying pan. He pitches forward unconscious.
Vika, "Take money."
Valeria finds five hundred and fifty dollars in his wallet. She folds it into her pocket, they leave through the back door and disappear.
Weeks turn into months surfing from house to house, a couple more close calls, but being there when the owner came home had advantages. It was like an ATM without a card and a pin number. There is also the inconvenience of two people and kids coming in at the same time. When that happened, they just hit the door and walk away. It's troublesome to have to be awake half the night, but there's no fix for that. They can't rent a motel room or an apartment. Sleeping in houses for sale is the safest, but they have to pay attention in case somebody came to look at it. Usually the power is on and the water runs, no potential buyer wants to inspect a dark house. They want to see if the toilet flushes, and if the faucets drip. The drawback is there's an obvious broken window, or busted door. If an agent showed the house, they couldn't return to it.
Vika found a solution, buy a set of tools and teach themselves to pick locks. Now, they just open the door. They walk neighborhoods, find a place with no one home, which is easy when mom and dad both work. While one watches for cars, the other roams the house. People keep a few bucks in desk drawers, a box in the closet, just emergency cash. It nets them a few hundred dollars a week. Sometimes they find a thousand or more. They don't make a mess, don't take anything but money. It could be weeks before people even know it's missing. Guess it starts a few arguments, everyone denying they took it.
Valeria, "I luf America, people leaf money lying around, we just peek up."
Vika, "We have more money now than when we left Russian pimp asshole."
They buy money belts, the cash box they have is too small for all of it.
They spend hours in the library self educating. One librarian asks why they aren't in school, Vika says they are from out of town, mother is visiting an aunt in the hospital. After that, they go to libraries after three or on Saturdays. They learn the routines of America, holidays, stores that are open all night, bus routes, get the hang of English. Fast food is ubiquitous and cheap, the girls aren't big eaters anyway. Malls are open all day and into the night, food courts and movie theaters. Nobody thinks twice about kids at a mall.
They buy an IPad, since they can't open any phone accounts, no credit cards, can't open even a bank account, they rely on wifi hotpots. Simple enough, most coffee shops, McDonalds, Barnes and Noble, the library, all have internet access. Have to buy things from physical stores, no way to open an account at Amazon and no place to ship stuff if they did. But Houston is a big city, there's no shortage of stores. Sometimes they lift a purse to stay in practice. Occasionally take a credit card along with the cash. It's no good for cash advances without a pin. Once they got lucky and the card had the pin written on it. They got the machine to cough up a thousand dollars. With a card, they can buy things and use the self checkout. New clothes, coats and hats for winter, sneakers, simple as long as they use the card right away. One store and they ditch it.
It's not hard to live this way, just inconvenient. They can't fill a refrigerator, lay in their own bed, own anything they can't carry. It does make the days speed by, there's no getting comfortable without getting caught.
Occasionally, at a mall or movie, boys will come around. The girls revert to Russian, which interests the boys for a little while, but they soon lose interest in girls that don't respond to anything they say.
Vika, "People want to talk all the time. Boys the worst."
Valeria, "Da, we are pretty, they are boys. We speak Russian, they go away. We do not haf friend. Friend ees problem."
"People are problem. Except when they are not home so we can steal money."
"We should go someplace and shoot gun. We need to know how it works."
"I read about it. Hold tight, gun will kick up. But we will go someplace and shoot."
They take a bus out to the far reaches. There’s a development, and past that a development in progress, then dirt. The go far enough to be out of sight, the sound might carry, but they aren't going to be long.
Vika, "Pick a target, maybe ten meters. Gun is no good for long distance, we have to practice first."
Valeria fires the Glock, she's strong, the gun kicks up a bit, she misses the rock she's aiming at, but not by much. They take turns, use about half the box of bullets. The last half dozen shots, they are accurate at ten or fifteen meters.
Vika, "Good enough, we need to save bullet. They won't sell to us."
"Een America, many people haf gun. We will steal bullet, maybe more gun."
And they do. It's Texas, every second house has guns. In a month, they have five boxes of ammo for the Glock, two revolvers and ammunition for those. Carting around the stuff is getting heavy.
Valeria, "We need a place to keep things."
"Walmart haf everything, we will go."
They buy two waterproof safes big enough for the guns and ammunition, and a shovel. Find a secluded spot in a park, dig a hole twice as deep as the safe, put it in and fill the hole. Repeat a few yards away, throw away the shovel.
Vika, "Shovel is cheap. When we need gun, buy shovel, or steal one from house, everybody has shovel."
Our twins are thirteen, nearly five years living off the grid, right in the middle of the grid. They spend a lot of time walking, they're in excellent shape. In Belarus and Russia, schools teach young kids hygiene, they know to take care of their teeth, to wash their hands, keep their hair clean. They took gymnastics in school, they keep themselves flexible and toned.
They learn the characteristics of the three guns. It's a bit of a pain, go dig up the safe, put it back, dig it up again to store the guns. Options are limited but the girls are practical about life. They are Slavic, a hard life is matter of fact, there are problems with everything. They accept that, fighting it just leads to more problems, frustration doesn't solve anything.
Tonight, they’re walking to the house du jour, past a club of some sort, they hear music blaring, it's not late, only eight thirty. In a dark parking lot, there's an argument.
Woman, "I told you Titus, this is the money. I got no more money, business is slow, ask the other girls."
Titus, "So mo' bitches can lie? Hoes lie. They fuck and suck and lie. Plenny business if you hustle yo' ass."
""I'm tired Titus, not feeling well, I think I got something."
A slap, "You gon' get something bitch,” another slap, a yowl from the woman.
"Okay, okay, beatin’ me ain't gettin’ you no money."
"Hit the street, or I give you a reason to feel bad, real motherfucking bad," another slap.
A black man comes out of the dark, Vika and Valeria are off to the side, in the shadow of a wall. He doesn't see them. Neither does the woman, she staggers out, not a woman, more a girl, maybe twenty, she mumbles, "Fucker, if I could find somebody, I'd pay good money to have your ticket punched."
Vika, "You want man dead?"
She spins, blinks, sees only Vika. She wearing a hoodie, age indeterminate.
"I wish he'd get run over by a bus."
Vika, "How much?"
"How much? A lot, as much as I ever wanted anything."
"How much money?"
She's nonplussed, "Money for what?""
"To kill fucker."
The woman blinks, like she's on slow bandwidth.
Vika, "If you want dead, I will kill. You pay me, he will be dead in a day."
"I don't know you, you step out of the shadows and say you'll off his ass. I give you money, you disappear, I'm fucked."
"Already fucked. But I understand. I will kill him. Then you will pay me five thousand dollars. Do you have five thousand dollars?"
She laughs, "If I had five thousand fucking dollars, I wouldn't be standing here."
"So, what do you have?"
The woman is young, but she makes a life on the street, she's savvy, and wary.
"What do you mean what else, I look like I got anything but a smack habit?"
"Maybe you know more people who need to be dead. Maybe someone else will pay to make them dead."
She thinks about it, "I know lots of people who want someone dead."
"Okay. Maybe we make business."
"You can do that? Off somebody, just like that?"
"Already did, three men who sell children. Black man, he is here every night?"
"Yeah, operates his girls out of the dump."
"You come tomorrow, show me one thousand. Then he is dead, you give me money. If you want business, we make plan. If not, you are anyway free of fucker."
"I got the money, if you pull it off, you get your money. I would get you more, from his other girls, but one of them will run to Titus. Try to get on his good side. He don't have no good side, but some of them wanna believe."
"Good, never tell anyone, only trouble."
She leaves to make a living, Vika walks down the block the other way, Valeria appears.
"How do we keel man?"
"He will go home sooner or later. We wait, you have a gun."
They carry one of the revolvers all the time. Not with a plan to rob or kill anyone. It's dangerous, sleeping in empty for sale houses. When it's cold, sometimes vagrants came around, trying for open windows or unlocked doors. Stupidity isn't income, it's an expense. The twins keep expenses to a minimum.
They wait, watch the parking lot. It's late, nearly one. Titus comes out of the club, gets into a Lincoln Navigator, fires it up and drives off. Bass thumps against the windows.
They walk to tonight's temp house.
Valeria, "Always een America, everywhere empty house, and still more house building someplace. Why?"
"America has too much everything. A hundred kinds of bread in store, most thrown away. Gas pump every corner, three people in three cars, bus empty. Plastic bag, plastic cup, paper all over street, giant dumpster everywhere, full of trash. Everyone fat."
*The twins can talk to each other mentally, read each other’s mind. Those soundless conversations will be in italics.