The Return of the Thing
By: Katerina Ivanov
The Brooklyn Fire Department had encouraged them to open up the hydrants that summer. They gave the kids in Nicky’s building special metal sprinkler caps, so that they’d stop using hollowed cans, and all the kids besides Nicky were outside getting drenched, their whoops harmonizing with the hissing hydrant.
Nicky was not outside, shaking like a dog in the sprinklers. Nicky was locked in the apartment’s boiler room with a notebook and a pencil, until he composed an apology for his neighbors, whose son Nicky had beaten with a trash can lid.
In Nicky’s defense, he had snapped because his neighbor called him a ____, an English slur he did not know how to spell, but knew meant not one of us.
Upon hearing the word, something scummy and cruel rose in his throat, and before he was even able to name the feeling, his hands had found purchase on the aluminum. This happened to Nicky occasionally, a Thing that took his hands, that took good sense and any scraps of kindness rattling around in him, leaving him with bruising rage, roiling like a teakettle.
Nicky’s mother had dragged him to the boiler room when she found out, grumbling in Russian. His mother was extra pissed at him, because he had also gotten himself kicked out of Russian Boy Scouts Camp for fighting. While the other boys learned to tie knots, Nicky only had his little radio, spewing the Mets’ game, to keep him company.
“Do you know how hard it is,” she spat. “To get kicked out?”
It was hard. Last year, Grigori Petrov made some kid drink Lysol. He didn’t even get a letter home. Of course, Grigori looked like a Russian boy, with eyes like Windex and a shock of blonde hair, while Nicky was told to stay out of the sun and keep his hair cropped close, like some experiment gone wrong.
Christ, it was hot. Nicky wiped his neck with a page in his notebook, and picked up his pencil.
Dear Mrs. Anderson, he started.
He chucked his Pensy Pinky against the brick. His mother hadn’t confiscated his ball.
Dear Mrs. Anderson— big bounce, back into his palm— I’m sorry your inbred son called me a — Nicky struggled— called me a ____.
He threw too hard and the ball ricocheted towards the boiler room door like a prayer.
“The fuck was that? Nicky? What are you doing in here?”
The door creaked open, wafting with it an unpleasant smell. The building’s super chain smoked Wild Woodbines and they would seep into the hallway carpet, somehow rotting eggs and stale beer and piss all at once. Nicky had never been so happy to smell it.
“Thank God! Door locked behind me,” Nicky lied. “Was waiting for someone to come by.”
The Super blinked at him, bleary-eyed, and belched, blowing the emissions into Nicky’s face. When The Super wasn’t drunk, The Super was hungover.
“Whatcha doing down here for?” The super said again, clearly suspicious of Nicky. Everyone was suspicious of Nicky— clerks at the corner store who checked his pockets, cops who lingered as he deposited subway tokens, teachers who ripped his papers up before he could say, I just like to write. It was his warped accent and his murky complexion, never one thing, always an unnameable other.
“Was looking for this.” Nicky lied, holding up his rubber ball in response.
“Go play then, and wouldya— ”
“Not tell your mother about this,” Nicky muttered, finishing for him.
Everyone feared Nicky’s mother. People would say Ludmila was the scariest woman in Brooklyn. Maybe, New York.
Can’t be, Nicky thought, there’s gotta be someone worse in the Bronx.
The first time Nicky saw the apartment building, he thought he had gone colorblind. The stone, the smog, the sidewalk— all shades of the same great misery.
His mother had moved them from Brazil and when they saw the city, his mother grumbled, “that’s the ugliest fucking thing I’ve ever seen,” her accent thick as batter, yanking a suitcase behind her. His mother was strong as any man, and twice as mean. When she was angry, her th’s would slip into z’s; her vowels would gape like subway tunnels, voice weighed down by rust and Russian.
Nicky had a suitcase that held their clothes and good silverware. They had left everything else. He struggled with the bag; he was scrawny and looked incredibly stupid because before the ship, he had to get a haircut.
You have to look presentable, his mother told him, or they won’t let us in.
Nicky didn’t want to look presentable, or go to New York. Nicky wanted to stay in Manaus, wanted to raise sheep and lay in the golden grass.
The barber was really a butcher and he kept yanking Nicky’s dark hair, rough and tangled as kelp.
“How do you deal with this mess?” the butcher asked. He was burly and had kielbasa for fingers. Nicky, so thin and dark, looked like his starving shadow.
“He gets it from his father,” his mother said, distaste in the smack of her lips. “Shave it.”
Nicky had to get a lot of vaccines, from needles that left him with markings on the little meat of his arm. But somehow, the haircut was worse, being shaved like a dog, like a lamb, as his mother watched on, flipping a toothpick between her molars.
They had boarded a merchant ship and Nicky got to go around, meet the sailors in his garbled Spanish, the lithe, silver-tongued cousin of Portuguese. They’d rub his scalp and teach him phrases he couldn’t repeat around his mother.
One of the sailors told him that rough seas could be measured by hanging a key on the doorknob. Nicky had remembered looking up into the man’s coffee colored face and thinking, I wish you were my father.
They’d let him lean over the railing until he choked on thick lungfuls of salt. There were these fish that would launch themselves out of the water, with gills were almost like wings. He would watch them fly, airborne for ten whole counts, and land on the ship, thrashing and asphyxiating. After a day on the deck, the stickiness of the sea air would cling to his freshly shaved head.
Their new apartment on India Street was three blocks from the docks, and there was a permanent smell of fishrot in the air, and in the grey of East New York, it almost felt like it hadn’t happened. With his hair grown back, it was like those fish hadn’t flown and they had lived on India Street for a cement-colored forever.
Nicky crept out the back door of the building. Although his mother would be on her way to clean offices from late afternoon until the next morning, there would always be someone loitering, ready to rat out his escape.
The Super was sometimes stationed outside, holding court on folding chairs with his drinking buddy, The Jeep, who earned his nickname after getting his teeth knocked out from being thrown from the titular vehicle. The Jeep always owed somebody money. The Jeep always had something rude to say, but said it as if dispersing advice.
“It’s the Russian in you, that gets in trouble,” he’d say, “You might not look it cause of your Daddy, but you Russians are like radishes. White on the outside, but you bleed commie red.”
“That’s not...that’s not what a radish looks like.”
“How the fuck would you know? What are you, seven?”
Nicky was twelve, but it stung. He knew he looked young, and was often picked on because of his scrawny elbows and knobby knees, like someone who had been stretched in a taffy maker.
Both The Super and The Jeep were nowhere to be found that evening, but some of the older kids were out, hooking their thumbs in their jeans, dangling stolen Lucky Strikes between their front teeth.
Once, after sneaking one of his mother’s cigarettes to see what all the fuss was about, Ludmila had punished Nicky by forcing him to smoke the whole pack, one after another, until his lungs felt shrivelled and weak, until the Thing curled up inside him, admitting defeat.
He tried to make himself smaller, flatten up like an alley cat, but his skin caught the streetlamp in too particular a way, mottled like light under moss and leaves. One of the bigger ones whistled.
Then, “I SAID HEY.”
Some cruel tentacle uncurled in Nicky’s gut, reaching its way up to his jaw, causing him to open his mouth.
“I heard you,” Nicky said. He thought he saw fear flicker in the kid’s eyes, but Nicky needed new glasses and it could have just been the streetlight.
“Heard you messed up the Anderson kid pretty bad.”
“Heard he called you a _____.”
This was not the word the Anderson kid had used. This was a word Nicky hadn’t ever heard before, but he knew what it meant by the way the other boys eyes widened, by the nervous looks they shot at each other, like, we can say that? And how smug the ringleader was, like, Oh, there’s nothing we can’t say, boys. They knew Nicky was younger and skinny as the shadow of a clothesline. They heard about his temper and wanted to play with it, like yanking scraps from a street dog.
Nicky was the first to throw a punch and got hit so hard in return, he was certain they had knocked out a tooth. He spat out an incisor, pearly as a fishbone.
When they came to New York, him and his mother, their first port of call on the cargo ship was a city called Baltimore. A smaller supply boat came to ship, and Nicky had his first ever pineapple juice, drank straight from the can. He was so eager he cut lip on the lid, and the syrup mixed with the tang of his blood.
There was no pineapple juice now, but he remembered it, a phantom in his bloody mouth.
It caused the Thing inside him, the Thing that bashed in the Anderson kid’s head and gotten him kicked out of summer camp, the Thing Nicky was certain came from his father, to stir.
“Fuck you,” Nicky said, the words the sailors taught him, and The Thing reached into his pocket and flipped open his switchblade.
He was certain this time: it wasn’t streetlight, in the other kid’s eyes.
On their last day in Manuas, Nicky’s mother sat him down at the kitchen table and said, we are leaving.
She told him the story of his grandfather. Dedushka and the other prisoners of the Red Army, were put on a barge and told they would be transferred to another work camp. They were not transferred. They were shot into the Volga and washed up for the ice fishers.
If you do not know when to run, his mother said. You will die.
She kept the picture of him, showed it to Nicky, with his white uniform burned out.
While telling Nicky the story, Ludmila’s lids crusted with the salt, the closest to crying he’d seen.
Never saw, but he heard her. Nicky’s father paid a ransom instead of a dowry and Nicky would tear the mattress with his teeth as he listened to his father crack his mother like leather. He heard his mother cry out and he heard the belt and he did not allow himself to cover his ears, forced himself to listen.
It made sense, he thought, that they were the start of Nicky. That Nicky was born from something so terrible and cruel, that he was born little and shriveled and black and blue, and his mother had bled for three days. All the doctors had said the baby wouldn’t make it-- too sickly, too little. But Nicky got stronger, cried louder than the other babies. This, he thought, must have been the Thing, urging his little body to live.
You almost killed me, Ludmila told him. She liked to add. I thought you would be lighter. Look like me.
When the Thing finally relinquished control, Nicky ran to the docks, hid in the shipping crates on docks, suspended above the dead fish bobbing in the water, eyes gummy. The details of the fight were clouded with hydrant spray and the mad dash to the docks, but Nicky had done something like this:
The kid who said the new terrible word had swung at him, and Nicky had pulled out his switchblade. The kid had tried to run, but Nicky, skinny and quick and pulsing with rage, caught up. The Thing pinned the kid down, dug with the knife like a spade into the kid’s forearm.
Here, the Thing said to the boy. You want this word? Let me help.
Nicky wasn’t sure on the spelling, but the Thing knew; the Thing had always known, Nicky suspected. The letters smiled their sanguine smiles on the kid’s forearm as the kid screamed and screamed.
“Stop,” he commanded himself, commanded the Thing. “Stop, stop, stop.”
We can’t, it wailed, loathsome. We can’t.
When he finally slunk home, his mother was sitting at the kitchen counter.
The Thing bristled inside of him at the sight. She hates us, it told Nicky.
Furious, the Thing slammed the switchblade onto the table. His mother didn’t even start.
“Where did you get it?” his mother asked.
His father had pressed it into his palm his last birthday in Brazil, said all men should own a knife.
“I found it,” Nicky lied.
Ludmila looked at him. She knew exactly whose knife it was.
Nicky was certain that his mother was going to say this is the last straw or you almost killed me, Nicky.
“Let’s go,” she said instead, just like that last night in Brazil.
She led him to the back of the building where there was a spigot that ran better than their dribbling sink. She began to clean the blood from his knuckles.
They stood together, in the alley, creaking. The heat had subsided, sometime during the night. The air was filled with the feeling that summer had given up paddling and sunk.
Nicky shivered, but his mother seemed to relish the hint of chill in the air, seemed to swell with it, familiar.
He had hear his mother say there was no fall in Moscow, only winter, when fingers mediated between green and violet. His mother had to be in the right mood, to speak of Russia. Willing to look at his eyes that would never be blue like hers. Look at his skin.
“Am I in trouble?” Nicky asked.
His mother held herself like an old boxer, inspecting his knuckles with a tired kind of pride.
“No,” his mother said and she brushed the curls from his forehead. “You’re not.”
At her touch, as if recognizing kin, the Thing began to purr.
Katerina Ivanov is a Mexican-American writer raised in Northern Florida. Her work in multiple genres has been published in Bird’s Thumb, The Florida Review, and The Nashville Review. She is currently an MFA student at the University of Arizona, where she studies fiction. Recently, she won the John Weston Award for Fiction, judged by Venita Blackburn. You can follow her @kativanovwrites.