Her Russian Surrender

By: Theodora Taylor

The phone went dead.

“…hang up,” Sam finished with a sad sigh.

She started to stand, but then stopped mid-crouch when the alcove’s door swung open with a quiet creak.

Sam’s heart froze. Was it Mount Nik? Had he found her?

But no… it was a boy, creeping through the open door into the dimly lit room.

A bi-racial boy, Sam realized when the light from the next room hit his face. He had golden brown skin and a wide nose that spoke to his African-American ancestry.

Sam took him in with wide eyes. He was painfully thin, but tall. Six, seven, maybe even eight or nine years old. His clothes, she could see even in the low light, were also dirty, covered in various stains. Further signs of neglect could be found in his hair, a mad nest of kinky brown and blond curls that looked like they’d never seen a pair of scissors, much less hair product. And even though he was ten feet away from her, he smelled, to use one of her Alabama bestie’s terms, “like a billy goat.” Like his current living situation didn’t give him regular access to a bath or shower. Like true neglect.

He froze like a deer in the headlights when he saw her crouched down next to the washing machine.

“Hey, buddy, whatcha up to?” she asked with a bright smile.

One that apparently disarmed him, because he didn’t immediately turn tail and run, like she’d suspected he might if she’d shown how concerned she was for his well-being.

“Nothing,” he answered quickly, his eyes darting from side to side as if he were looking for an excuse to bolt.

“Are you playing a game of hide-and-seek?” she asked. “Because not to brag, but growing up, I was the hide-and-seek queen.”

The boy’s stance relaxed. But just a little.

“You’re not better than me. I’m the best at it.”

“No, no… pretty sure it’s me.” Sam answered. “But I’m always looking for pointers. Do you live here? Where are the other good places to hide?”

He shook his head. “I don’t live here. This is my first time being here.”

“Mine, too!” Sam said, keeping her voice light, although the social worker in her was frantically scrambling to figure out who he belonged to and how she could help him. “Did you walk here from your place?”

“No, it’s too far.” He gave her a quizzical look, as if he were wondering how a grown-up could be so silly. “I drove here with my papa,” the boy told her. Then he looked away from her guiltily. “He told me to wait in the truck, but Mount Nik’s my favorite hockey player in the world. I wanted to see his house. Just once.” He sounded apologetic, and Sam could tell he wasn’t normally the kind of kid who disobeyed orders from his father.

“I don’t blame you,” Sam said cheerfully, all the while wondering what kind of asshole would leave a child in his truck in the middle of one of the coldest Januarys on record. “Can I show you around? I just met the guy who owns this house so I can vouch for you.”

“You know Mount Nik?” the boy said, his voice going a few octaves higher, as if she’d just announced she was close personal friends with the King of the Universe.

“Sure do. Want to come meet him?”

The boy immediately stepped forward, the prospect of meeting his hero apparently enough to get him over his fear of the strange woman he’d just met in a dimly lit alcove.

He wasn’t six, she could tell that immediately as he moved closer, because at full height he nearly came up to her chest. She also noted that he looked even scrawnier up close than she’d originally thought. She could easily see the outline of his ribs through his thin, long-sleeved cotton shirt.

Sam, as she often did when she encountered children who had been neglected or abused by their parents, had to tamp down the urge to go after the kid’s father and punch him in the face. What kind of man didn’t feed his child? Didn’t bathe him? Who would leave him in a cold truck without even a winter coat!?

Just the thought of this child’s father was enough to completely enrage her, but she kept her face calm and composed as she stuck out her hand to the boy.

“Hiya, name’s Sam. What’s your name?”

He not only didn’t take her hand, he frowned in a way that oddly reminded Sam of the house’s owner.

“Sam is a boy’s name,” he informed her.

“Most of the time, yes, but in this case, it’s short for Samantha,” she explained.

“May I call you Samantha?” the boy asked.

Sam was impressed by how politely he asked, but nonetheless responded with a firm, “No.”

“Why not?” he asked, his voice more curious than petulant.

Normally Sam skirted this question, but she decided to tell him the truth.

“Because that’s what my stepfather used to call me.”

The boy nodded, an expression of understanding coming over his face.

“You didn’t like your stepfather?”

That was the understatement of the century, but Sam just answered, “No,” before changing the subject. “What should I call you when I introduce you to Mount Nik?”