Translated by Leigh Mosley
Ekaterina Ivanovna came out of the local bank. She was in a really good mood—she felt the warm spring sunshine, and her beloved granddaughter, Natasha, was waiting for her at home. Ekaterina Ivanovna thought through for the hundredth time what to do with her Social Security money this month. Natasha desperately wanted a Barbie, though, of course, Ekaterina Ivanovna thought they’d be better off buying some fresh fruit, maybe some apples or pears. This time of year they needed all the vitamins they could get. But a few days ago when she and Natasha had been taking a walk, they’d passed the window of a toy store. Natasha stopped dead in her tracks and was mesmerized by a doll. She had stared at it with such terrible longing; Ekaterina Ivanovna could feel that even her little hand suddenly got cold. Her pouty little lips were trembling as she whispered softly, “Oh Granny, look at her! She’s so pretty!”
“All right, Natasha, we’ll get you your doll when I get my Social Security,” Ekaterina Ivanovna gave in.
The beautiful doll was expensive, but you can’t put a price on a child’s happiness and love. And Natasha deserved more happiness in her life than she had experienced. Ekaterina Ivanovna’s daughter, Lena (Natasha’s mother) had died when Natasha was only three, and Natasha’s father, like many men in his situation, soon began drinking and started staying out all night. At first, it was an occasional thing, but then it started happening more and more. And then one morning he left and never came back. It had been a year now since anyone had seen him. Ekaterina Ivanovna tried looking for him and had even reported him missing to the police, but nothing had come of it. Natasha’s father had vanished without a trace.
Ekaterina Ivanovna went into the grocery store and bought a small cake. “If we’re going to celebrate, let’s do it right!” she decided. She dropped her wallet into her shopping bag and left the store without zipping it up. She was usually really careful with her money and kept her wallet tucked away in a safe place, but today her thoughts were on how excited Natasha would be about the doll and how much fun she would have playing with it.
For some reason Ekaterina Ivanovna glanced down and saw somebody’s hand in her shopping bag. What on earth was going on? She stopped dead in her tracks. The hand grabbed her wallet and yanked it out of the bag. For an instant she was too shocked to understand what was happening. She stood dazed, watching as the thief vanished down the street. Then she checked her bag again, as if maybe she had imagined everything and the wallet was still where it belonged. But, of course, the wallet was gone. “How could he do that? Why on earth would a big, strong man take an old woman’s wallet with pennies in it? Why would someone like me be carrying a lot of cash?” Ekaterina Ivanovna wondered in shock. But then it hit her like a bolt of lightning. Her legs buckled and she could hardly breathe, “The money! I’d already cashed my Social Security check and all the cash was in that wallet! I should have screamed, called for help, and chased him. But what good would it have done to run after him? I’m too old to have possibly caught up with him and there’s no one else around to help me! My money! How am I going to make it until the next check comes? I don’t have anything in the bank and nothing stashed at home! I could make it on bread and water, but what about Natasha? I can’t let her go hungry. How do you explain to a child that you don’t have the money to buy anything? And what about the rent? Next month I’ll have to pay double to make up for this month!”
Somehow Ekaterina Ivanovna made it home, although her legs didn’t want to do what she told them. Outside the entrance to her apartment she saw some of the neighbor ladies sitting on a bench. They called her over to visit, but she just gave them a brief wave. She went inside and got out her keys. She wanted to open the door, but then she imagined how she would have to go in and tell that sweet little girl that she wouldn’t be getting her beautiful doll. Thinking of Natasha’s disappointed little face, Ekaterina Ivanovna could no longer hold back her own tears; she slumped against the door frame and wept. Her thin shoulders shook and her hands trembled. Somehow she managed to stop crying, opened the door, and went into the apartment.
Natasha threw herself at her grandmother with a cry of joy.
“Grandma! I’ve been waiting for you forever! I swept the floor and dusted so Barbie would like it when she got here. Do you think she’ll really like living here?” Natasha prattled happily.
Her grandmother looked at her without saying anything. Her heart was so heavy she couldn’t find the right words. Then Natasha looked intently at her grandmother and seemed to sense that something bad had happened—grandma had been crying. Probably she was not going to get the Barbie. She ran to her grandmother and hugged her.
“Don’t cry, Granny! Please! Just tell me what happened. I don’t need a Barbie! All we need is each other and we’ll be fine, just fine. Why are you crying?” The little girl kissed her grandmother and stroked her hair.
Ekaterina Ivanovna hugged Natasha back and thought in amazement how this child already understood so much about life at five years old. She was always so good—she never pouted and she always did whatever you told her to do. She seemed to really understand her grandmother’s situation. She knew that they didn’t have much money and that they needed to be really careful with what they had. She never asked for candy or chocolate, even when you could see in her face how much she wanted it.
They sat for a long time holding each other. Natasha thought, “Why is Grandma crying? What could have happened that’s so bad?” And her grandmother was trying to think where she could get some money. Maybe she could find a job? But what would she do with Natasha? She had never been alone for long. Natasha was scared of strangers and, anyway, her grandmother didn’t want to leave her sweet granddaughter with anyone for very long.
The thief sauntered down the street, whistling. He was in a great mood—after all, he had snagged several wallets that day, and the haul had been pretty good. He saw an old lady walking up ahead. Her bag was unzipped and he could see the wallet she had carelessly tossed in. He didn’t really like to steal from old ladies. First of all, they never had much on them; besides, old women always seemed a little pathetic and completely clueless about the world today. It was so easy to con them—they trusted people and believed you when you promised them something. These old women just couldn’t adapt to the modern world. They didn’t know how to steer clear of the liars and cheaters, and they didn’t know how to be sneaky themselves.
The thief smirked. Granny needed to be taught a lesson. He would grab her wallet and that would shake her up a little! He’d give it back, but he’d tell her she needed to be more careful with her money. He cautiously crept up behind her, snatched her wallet, and then suddenly saw a cop coming around the corner. This seriously rattled him. He was scared of cops. He was already holding the wallet, and in his moment of fear, he bolted down the street. The thief ran into the courtyard of a building, stopped, and looked around. No one was following or chasing him. He sighed in relief, opened the wallet, and found about 4,000 rubles. “Not bad! That’s enough for a decent dinner!” he thought.
He didn’t feel the least bit guilty. He pocketed the money and tossed the wallet in the trash. He really liked his easy life of crime. He lived only for today and tried never to think about tomorrow. If he were to get caught in the act, he might get beaten up and arrested. That’s just the chance you take. But he’d always been pretty lucky. And this thief was a real master of his craft. Yet…this last little slip-up was getting him down. That shouldn’t have happened. That old woman should never have noticed that he’d gotten into her bag. Obviously something had gone wrong. It must have been a coincidence that the old woman looked at her bag at the exact moment he was pick-pocketing her. Soon his mind moved on to other things. He was already thinking about what a great night he was going to have.
A few days later, Ekaterina Ivanovna was racking her brain, trying to think how she could make some money. She had tried to find a job somewhere, even just something off the books, maybe working as a cleaning lady for a few hours a day. But everyone turned her down. No one wanted to hire an old woman, especially one with a little girl in tow.
Her neighbors all knew about what had happened to her and they tried to help her as much as they could. Ekaterina Ivanovna wasn’t used to asking for things, and accepting help from others made her feel uncomfortable. She had spent her entire life taking care of her family and helping her friends. She had always been able to manage on her own. Natasha understood that her grandmother didn’t have any money and she never begged—she just stared at the Barbies and all the yummy pastries and sausages at the store.
They soon went through all the money they had and even the spare change they had scrounged from around the house. And the day finally came when the pantry was empty and they didn’t have one red cent left. Ekaterina Ivanovna trudged home. She had just been turned down for work one more time, and this time they had even yelled at her. She sighed deeply, rounded a corner, and saw a group of panhandlers in the underpass. Some were on their knees and others were bent over with outstretched hands. People walking by were tossing them money. Ekaterina Ivanovna was seized with despair. Hardly realizing what she was doing, she walked over and joined them, standing at the edge of their group. Timidly she stretched out her hand. At first the beggars wanted to run her off, but after seeing how she cringed and trembled, they looked at each other and decided to let the old woman be for now.
The thief walked along the sidewalk and, for lack of anything better to do, checked out the group of panhandlers huddled by the underpass. His eyes fell on one old woman among them and he flinched. He was looking at the very woman whose wallet he had stolen a few days before. “Shit. Have I really sunk so low that I’m stealing money from beggars? I’ve really hit rock bottom.” He suddenly had the urge to go over and kick the nervy old woman. But suddenly he thought, “Panhandlers know how to hold on to their money. So why didn’t she know how to take care of her own wallet? He looked intently at the old woman once again and noticed how she was standing to one side. She was stretching out her hand, but not saying anything. She was as silent as if she had turned to stone. Only her lips were trembling. The thief suddenly realized, “She’s begging because she’s desperate. I obviously took everything she had.” Now her look of grief was unmistakable. He had never thought about his victims before. He stood there and kept looking at the old woman. Then he found his wallet and pulled out a thousand-ruble note. “But how can I give her money? What if she recognizes me? What if she remembers me?” But he quickly came up with a plan.
“Excuse me, Sweetie, could you do me a favor?” he asked a girl who was walking by.
“What do you want?” she reacted brusquely. But after giving him a quick once-over and seeing a pleasant, well-dressed young man, her attitude softened.
“Can I help you?” she asked, looking at him with interest.
“Do you see that elderly woman over there? Could you give her this money?” The thief held out the bill.
“But why don’t you just give it to her yourself?”
“I can’t. She used to be my teacher and it would be too humiliating for her to take money from me. Do you see what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know how proud and super-sensitive old teachers are. OK, let me have it,” said the girl.
The girl went up to the old woman and put the bill in her hand.
“Excuse me! Wait!” the girl heard. “Young lady, I think you’ve made a mistake.” The old woman ran after the girl, holding out the money.
“No, ma’am, there’s no mistake. I won the lottery and decided I should share it with someone. This amount is nothing to me. But I hope that it can bring you some happiness.”
“You have no idea what this money means to me right now. May God bless you.”
The thief stood to one side, watching this small drama. The girl said goodbye to the old woman and then walked back to him.
“So that’s it. I did what you asked.”
“Thank you so much. I’m really grateful. I was wondering if you might like to have dinner with me?”
The girl smiled ironically. “Are we going to have to help someone out again?”
The thief said goodbye to the girl and hurried after the old woman. For some reason he felt compelled to follow her.
She turned a corner and went into a toy store. She emerged a few minutes later carrying a doll. The thief was amazed, “What is this? Has she gone senile?” He had thought she didn’t even have enough money for food and here she was buying a toy!
He watched as the old woman walked to the bus stop and stood, waiting. Now the thief was really curious and decided to keep following her. He got on the bus with her and then got off at her stop. Keeping some distance between them, he followed her right up to her apartment building. He was a little worried that she might notice him, but she was lost in her own thoughts and not paying attention to anything around her.
The old woman went in the entrance. The thief hesitated for a second, not exactly sure what to do, but then went in after her. The thief watched her open her door and saw the little girl run to meet her. She saw the doll at once and her childish voice cried out with joy, “Grandma! I love you! You bought her anyway! Where did you get the money?” The door slammed shut and the thief could no longer see or hear what was happening. But he had seen enough. Now he knew why the old woman had been so miserable. He knew why she had been begging.
Now he felt depressed. He lived alone. He had no family. He had never felt an emotional attachment to anyone and had never wanted to. His father had left him to fend for himself and he had been on his own ever since he was a boy. He had taught himself to steal, taught himself how to survive in this cold, unfriendly world. He had never known love or attachment—his heart was cold and unfeeling.
The thief turned, about to leave, but for some reason could not move. He suddenly wanted to see the old woman’s little granddaughter again. Her cry of joy still rang in his ears.
The next day, he was there again in the courtyard. He chose a place where he could easily see the entire courtyard and settled down to wait. Pretty soon he saw the old woman and the little girl come out of the entrance. The girl was holding the doll close to her chest.
“Grandma, if we take Barbie on a walk with us she’s going to work up a good—and then she’ll have a bowl of oatmeal. And later, when we get some money, we’ll buy her something yummy and get some fruit. Right, Grandma? Dolls need vitamins too, don’t they?” her childish little voice rang out across the courtyard.
An old woman sitting on a bench called out to Ekaterina Ivanovna.
“Natasha, sugar, go show Barbie around the courtyard and introduce her to everyone, but the two of you stay where I can see you,” Ekaterina Ivanovna told her granddaughter, before walking over to the neighbor and taking a seat beside her on the bench.
“So, Katya, how are you?” her neighbor asked kindly.
Ekaterina Ivanovna told her the story of how she had been given the money.
“There really are good people in this world. Somehow Natasha and I are going to make it through. I don’t need anything, but I do like to spoil her a little bit. You see that doll I bought her? Just look at how happy she is.”
“Did you ever hear anything about her father?” her neighbor asked.
“It was like he vanished into thin air. But I guess that might be for the best.”
The thief was standing in the shade of the trees, concentrating on the conversation between the two old women, while also watching Natasha. She was so small and serious.
“Look, Barbie, you must never go into the street or you could get run over. And then I would die of sadness. And don’t touch cats because they might scratch you.” The little girl was earnestly teaching her doll how to behave. But soon her grandmother called her and together they went off to the bakery.
That night the thief paced his apartment and tried to think how he could introduce himself to the grandmother and granddaughter in a seemingly natural way. He wanted to know more about them, about their lives. Finally, he thought of a plan. The thief went to the phone and dialed a number.
“Margo, hi, it’s Igor. What do you mean ‘Igor who?’ How many guys named Igor do you know? Now do you know who this is? Great. Can you come over? I want to talk to you about something. Please come over as soon as you can. Please! I’ll really owe you one. You coming? Thanks. I’ll be waiting.”
Within an hour a tall, elegant woman was at Igor’s door. She smiled affably and asked, “What’s the emergency?”
The thief hesitated.
“Stop torturing me—just say it!” said Margo.
The thief took a deep breath and told her about the old woman and her granddaughter.
“I want you to find out what you can about them. You know if you try you can talk to anybody about anything. I especially want to know if they have any family and where they are. Would you? As soon as you can?”
“All right, tomorrow I’ll see what I can find out,” Margo agreed. “I’ll call you.”
The next day, Margo hurried over to the building where the grandmother and her little girl lived. She pretended to be the head teacher at the local elementary school and had come to meet the future first-graders. The grandmother and the little girl were happy to see her. They answered all her questions without hesitation and offered her tea. They chatted about school and about life. Before she stepped into the apartment, Margo had been trying to figure out why Igor was so interested in these people. But as soon as she saw Natasha, she realized exactly what was going on. “This must be his daughter—they look just alike,” she decided. And one hour later, she knew everything there was to know about their honest, simple life.
“Hello, Igor? You shyster! You didn’t think I’d guess that Natasha’s your daughter? You’re like two peas in a pod. OK, OK, I’ll shut up. I swear no one will find out. You can trust me. I have a lot to tell you. It’s better if I come over and tell you in person.”
Igor hung up and thought about Natasha’s face.
“It’s true, she really does look like me. Whaddya know,” he whistled.
And to be honest, he kind of liked it.
“I don’t want any of our friends to find out about the grandmother and the little girl,” he suddenly thought. “I hope Margo keeps her mouth shut … ”
After all, the world he lived in was a cold-blooded and complicated one. If he screwed up and crossed somebody, he could easily find himself dealing with people capable of hurting Natasha.
“What’s the deal? I don’t even know them and here I am worrying about their safety. This is weird.”
Our thief had always been a lone wolf. He worked only alone. But still, he often crossed paths with criminal types.
Margo told him everything she had found out about the family. She even told him that Natasha’s father had a cousin somewhere up north. And that the grandmother had originally wanted to find him, but then changed her mind—why bother the man, after all?
Igor decided to take action. Soon, the phone rang in Ekaterina Ivanovna’s apartment.
“Hello, can I talk to Leonard?” (Leonard was Natasha’s father, who as you know, had vanished several months ago.)
“Hello, may I ask who’s calling? Leonard hasn’t lived here in a long time,” Ekaterina Ivanovna said.
“Then can I speak to Lena? Or is she not there either? Who can I talk to?”
“There’s just the grandmother and granddaughter here now,” Ekaterina Ivanovna sighed. “Lena died two years ago, and no one’s seen Leonard in quite a while.”
“That’s awful! You’ll have to forgive me. I’m Leonard’s cousin. He told me about you. He gave me this phone number a long time ago. To be honest, he and I weren’t really all that close. But I’m flying in to your city on a business trip and I really wanted to see you and have a look at my niece.”
“Oh, please come. You can stay with us, although our place isn’t very fancy. But we’d be delighted to see you. What’s your name, by the way?”
“My name is Igor. As soon as I get in and get settled, I’ll call you.”
The grandmother was very excited about this phone call. Someone was coming with whom she could talk about Leonard and discuss Natasha. And what’s more, this person wasn’t even a stranger—he was a relative!
Lately, the only person the old woman had to talk to was Natasha. Ekaterina Ivanovna shared everything with her little granddaughter. And so right away her grandmother said to her,
“Natasha we’re going to have company. Your father’s cousin, your uncle.”
The old woman almost never spoke to Natasha about her father. She didn’t want to upset the child.
“We’ll have to make your uncle feel welcome and fix him something good to eat. Why don’t we bake a pie in honor of his arrival?”
Natasha looked at her grandmother with delight. Her eyes sparkled. “Can we buy a carton of juice, too?”
Her grandmother smiled kindly and stroked Natasha’s hair. “All right.”
Three days passed. The phone rang again.
“This is Igor. I’ll be there in about two hours, if that’s all right with you?”
Of course they were all for it. The old woman quickly began putting together the pie, while Natasha hovered around her and showered her with questions.
“Where is my uncle coming from? Where does he live? What does he look like? Do you think he’ll like our apartment?”
“I think he’ll tell us everything when he gets here. But don’t pester him with questions. That’s not polite. If you wear him out with questions, he’ll leave.”
“I won’t, I won’t, Grandma. I promise to be quiet. I’m so glad my uncle is coming to see us.”
At last the doorbell rang. The grandmother and the little girl raced to open it. In the doorway stood a tall, slender, young man with a pleasant smile.
“Well, I finally made it here. Hello, Ekaterina Ivanovna, these are for you.” Igor handed the old woman a bouquet of flowers and a huge box of chocolates. “And what’s your name? Allow me to introduce myself.” He held out his hand to Natasha, “You can call me Uncle Igor.”
“I’m Natasha,” his niece timidly replied.
“I have a present for you,” smiled Igor and he handed Natasha a big box.
“Well, don’t stand outside—please come on in,” the grandmother began bustling about. “Let me make some tea.”
“Yes, Uncle Igor, we baked you a pie,” Natasha announced, examining the box with interest.
“You know, the whole way here I was dreaming about homemade pie. Go ahead and open the box—see what’s inside.”
Natasha carefully removed the lid from the box and found a magnificent white bear.
“Press his button and he’ll talk,” said Igor, pointing to the button on the bear’s stomach.
Natasha pressed the button.
“I love you,” said the bear.
Natasha’s eyes glistened. “Me too,” she softly whispered to the bear.
She stood, clutching the bear, and looked at him cautiously, as if she could not believe that this gift was for her.
“Thank you, Uncle Igor.”
“Now let’s wash our hands and eat,” said the grandmother happily.
Natasha was radiant. She grabbed Uncle Igor’s hand and led him into the bathroom to wash his hands.
Passing into the kitchen, the thief stopped for a moment. “Good Lord, what have I done,” he thought to himself. On the table stood a lonely apple pie, a plate of baloney, and a plate of cookies.
“I’m sorry,” said Ekaterina Ivanovna, “this is all we have to offer you.” She looked away in embarrassment.
Only little Natasha seemed to think that they were having a feast that day.
“And I brought you a little something as well,” Igor suddenly remembered. “I couldn’t come to see you empty-handed.” He brought a bag in from the hallway and, in front of an astounded Natasha, took out a huge cake, some cheese, and fruit.
“Uncle Igor, are you Santa Claus?” Natasha asked in astonishment.
“Maybe so,” Igor smiled. “Let’s all go sit down. You’re so pale, Natasha, I want to see you really eat.”
They talked and talked that evening. Several times Natasha came up to her uncle, took his hand, and stood there, looking at him with rapturous eyes.
“How long will you be here on your business trip?” the grandmother asked.
“A few weeks. And I think maybe afterward I’ll take some vacation time and stay another week or two. And if I like it, I may just move here, since I have such delightful relatives in this city.” Igor smiled.
He didn’t want to leave the grandmother and granddaughter. It was cozy here, and peaceful. But it was getting dark outside. “I shouldn’t overstay my welcome,” Igor decided.
“Well, I guess I should be going.”
Ekaterina Ivanovna invited him to visit them again. She very much wanted him to come back. But she was afraid that Igor would think they were inviting him because of his gifts and delicious food. When she told him goodbye, Natasha clung to her uncle’s neck.
“Sweet Uncle Igor, please come see us again. I want to see you.”
Igor’s heart skipped the beat. “I’ll come for sure, Natasha. Goodbye, I’ll call you tomorrow.”
From that day on, Igor led a double life. By day he was the cocky thief who never got caught, but each evening he plunged into another life—a life with the grandmother and her little girl, in an apartment that always felt warm and cozy. He noticed that he was spending more and more time thinking about them.
That morning he decided to take Natasha on a walk. “I’ll spend the whole day with her,” he thought excitedly.
The uncle went to pick up his niece and only then noticed that she was wearing the same little dress she had had on the day she was walking with her grandmother in the courtyard, and again on the first day he had come to visit them. The dress was always neatly pressed, but it was always the same.
“So,” Igor said to Natasha, “first, you and I are going shopping!”
They went into the first children’s clothing store they could find.
“Girls,” Igor said to the salesclerks, “What finery do you have for this young lady?”
The salesgirls smiled and Natasha’s cheeks flushed red.
Soon, the store staff were fussing over Natasha. She was forced to try on one dress after another. And when they finally showed her to Igor, he had to whistle. She was a real princess.
“Well, Daddy, just look what a lovely daughter you have,” the salesgirl smiled.
Igor looked at Natasha affectionately. She looked up at him with her cornflower blue eyes and gazed steadily at her wonderful uncle.
Then they went to the zoo. Natasha liked all the animals and Igor was touched and amused by how she talked to them.
“Sweet little monkey, where are you climbing? You aren’t even afraid of falling, are you? Baby bear, you’re so fat and white, they probably scrub you every day with soap and a sponge. Oh, what a cute little girl goat.”
But when they got to the elephant’s cage, Natasha just stood there silently.
“Surely she’s got something to say!” Igor was surprised.
“The elephant’s so big—how many loaves of bread can he eat?” Natasha asked Igor with a serious expression.
At that moment, a child cried out right next to them.
“No! I don’t want to! I won’t. I don’t want it!”
Natasha and Igor turned. Beside them stood a man and a little girl about Natasha’s age. She was upset about something and throwing a fit with all her might. Then the girl threw her toy and it rolled away.
“Pick it up right now. Or I’m going to punish you right here,” the man, most likely her father, threatened.
But the little girl paid him no mind and only screamed louder.
Suddenly Natasha pulled away from Igor, picked up the toy that had been tossed aside, and walked over to the spoiled child.
“Here you go, please don’t throw her, she’ll get hurt. Just look how unhappy she is,” said Natasha, handing the girl her toy monkey.
The girl quieted and looked at Natasha in astonishment. And an instant later they were chatting amicably. Igor studied Natasha and thought to himself that life had obviously forced her to grow up faster than she should have.
“Igor, hi, I didn’t recognize you at first. I had no idea you had a daughter, too,” suddenly exclaimed the father of the sulky girl and he stretched out his hand.
Igor turned his gaze from Natasha to the man. It was his old school friend, Anatoly.
The two men chatted. Anatoly had become an entrepreneur and now ran a small company.
“Hey, Igor, why don’t you come work for me? You’re good at everything. And best of all, you’re such a schmoozer—you can always win people over.”
Igor smiled ironically. Maybe he could, but did he want to? Thieving was a seductively attractive life. You need nimble hands but you don’t have to con anyone.
“I know it’s a big decision. You need to think about it,” Anatoly said earnestly. “Bring your family over to our place and we can talk some more.”
Anatoly handed Igor his business card. Igor was about to turn Anatoly down, but as he glanced at Natasha, a terrible thought suddenly occurred to him. What if Ekaterina Ivanovna and Natasha were to find out what he did all day? How would he explain his line of work to them? What was the point of having started all this, anyway? And now the grandmother and the little girl had gotten used to him. He was really spending too much time thinking about them lately. He had become so preoccupied that he started losing his touch. The last time he tried to lift a wallet, someone had nearly snatched his arm.
After they left the zoo, Igor took Natasha to a cafe and bought her a whole assortment of different treats. And then he took her home to grandma. But he didn’t even go inside with her. He claimed he’d gotten an urgent call from the office. Ekaterina Ivanovna closed the door behind him and sighed. “It looks like our good times are over,” she thought. “But how will I explain this to Natasha? She really trusts her uncle and believes that he loves and cares about her.”
He had indeed made a big impression on the child. She hadn’t even noticed how quickly Uncle Igor had dashed off that day. She couldn’t stop chattering, telling her grandmother where they had gone and what they had seen. Her eyes were radiant with happiness.
The thief went home. He felt a huge sense of relief. He had made a difficult decision, but it was over.
That evening his friends called him. One of them was throwing himself a birthday party in a restaurant. The thief wasn’t crazy about these get-togethers, which were as likely to end in a bloody knife fight as in hugs and kisses. And our thief was quite fond of his health and his skilled, nimble hands. But he needed to take his mind off things, so he decided to go anyway. He was really feeling down. Margo was at the restaurant party, too.
“Your daughter is just beautiful. You’re going to have to beat the guys off with a stick someday!” she whispered to the thief.
He didn’t say anything, just kept throwing back one drink after another. Margo watched him in amazement.
What was up with him? He was always so reserved and taciturn. He almost never drank. She finally decided to step in. Someone had to stop him and take him home. Margo remembered how many times he had helped her out. She would always be in his debt.
When the thief woke up the next morning his head was pounding and he barely had the strength to move. “Natasha, her grandmother, what were they doing? Where were they?” he thought immediately. He stood up and staggered over to the phone. He picked it up, but then remembered his decision. He got a grip on himself and hung up again. He sat on the bed and held his head in his hands.
For the next few days, the thief deliberately tried to stamp out any memories associated with Natasha and her grandmother. He spent days wandering the city and hours sprawled on his bed. He half hoped that maybe Ekaterina Ivanovna would call him. But he knew she wouldn’t, “No, the last time I saw her she gave me such a strange look, like she knew what was going on.”
Two weeks passed. Igor couldn’t help himself and several times walked past the building where Natasha and her grandmother lived. But he didn’t see them.
“Why did I make such an impulsive decision? I should have tried to break it to Natasha more gently,” he told himself angrily.
Natasha wasn’t the only one who needed time to get used to the idea of his leaving—so did the thief.
But on the other hand, what did he have to offer them? And what would happen if he were to be caught or arrested? How would he be able to look them in the face?
These questions tortured him. He was driving himself crazy.
And then one day the phone rang. The thief’s heart skipped a beat. It must be a miracle! Someone was calling him! He grabbed his cell phone. It was Ekaterina Ivanovna. Her voice was choked and trembling. She seemed to be crying.
“Natasha,” she sobbed.
“What about Natasha? Ekaterina Ivanovna, please tell me what’s happened to her!”
But he heard only silence. The thief took a deep breath. He knew something awful must have happened. Igor flew out of his apartment, ran to the highway, and tried to flag down a car. But the traffic whizzed right past him and no one stopped. So, in a burst of desperation, Igor threw himself in front of an old Zhiguli sedan.
“Are you out of your mind or just an idiot!?” the driver yelled at him angrily.
But Igor was completely beside himself. He ran up to the car and begged for a ride. At first the driver refused, but after Igor opened his wallet and offered him everything he had, the driver finally agreed. When a car drove up to the entrance of Ekaterina Ivanovna’s building, Igor saw some paramedics not in any hurry to get out of an ambulance. Without even thanking the driver, Igor leapt out of the car and raced up the stairs. Ekaterina Ivanovna opened the door and Igor burst into the room. Natasha was lying unconscious on the floor.
“What happened?” he cried in despair.
After their trip to the zoo, Natasha spent the whole day telling her grandmother how much fun she had had and how nice Uncle Igor was. She didn’t want to take off the dress he had bought her, hoping that he would come take her for a walk again soon. She sat on the couch with her Barbie on one side of her and her new white bear on the other. But whenever Natasha started talking about Uncle Igor, her grandmother stopped talking. She knew that Igor wasn’t staying away because he was too busy to come see them. She figured that he had probably realized that he had enough to worry about without taking on their little family’s problems. What did he need with an old woman and her granddaughter, anyway? He had done his good deed and that was enough. But why did he have to rush off so suddenly? He could have said good-bye and left in a smoother, nicer way. But Natasha thought there was another reason for her grandmother’s silence.
“Granny, please don’t be mad at Uncle Igor. I still love you more than him. I love you better than anybody.”
The old woman looked at her granddaughter and could hardly hold back her tears. “My poor little thing, Why is life so hard on you? The people you love all leave you, one after the other. And someday I’ll have to go, too.”
A few days later, Natasha mentioned her uncle again.
“Grandma, why doesn’t he call us? He promised he would.”
Natasha looked at her grandmother curiously, but the old woman avoided her gaze and tried to change the topic. Finally, little Natasha stopped asking about Igor. She took off the dress and hung it in the closet. After the dress, she put the bear away, too. At first, her grandmother was relieved. Maybe Natasha was starting to forget her uncle. But Natasha became increasingly withdrawn and quiet. She answered questions with a simple “yes” or “no” and spent whole days sitting in a corner of the couch. She didn’t want to take walks or play. Then one morning she stopped eating. Her grandmother realized to her horror that something terrible was happening to the little girl. The child was wilting, fading away.
“Why, why did we ever meet him? The small happiness he brought us can’t be compared to the pain he’s causing now.” The grandmother didn’t know what to do.
“Natasha, baby, I’m going to run out and buy you something you’ll really like.”
She dashed off to the store, hoping to find something that would cheer Natasha up. But when she got back from the store, she saw her granddaughter lying on the floor with her eyes closed and the bear sitting next to her. Terrified, the old woman rushed over to the child and wept piteously. “Natasha, sweetheart, don’t you dare die!”
She called an ambulance and then called Igor.
It seemed like Igor was there in an instant, and the paramedics followed soon after. They checked her pulse and breathing.
“Bring in a stretcher, this one needs to get to the hospital right away,” the doctor ordered.
“Forget the stretcher! You’re going to take all day at this rate!” Igor shouted angrily. He snatched Natasha up in his arms and carried her to the ambulance.
Ekaterina Ivanovna hurried after him.
They took Natasha to the emergency room. Igor said he wasn’t leaving the hospital until he was sure she was OK. Her grandmother didn’t want to leave, either. Days passed and they were both there around the clock. Finally, the doctors said that, although Natasha was still quite weak, her life was out of danger. They would be allowed to stay with her, but only one at a time.
“Let me stay,” Igor begged. “I can’t leave her, not again. You go get some rest.”
Ekaterina Ivanovna looked at Igor and let him stay.
Igor sat down by Natasha’s bed and looked at this extraordinary little girl. As he sat, images from his own life came to him. He remembered the good times and the bad, the hunger and the cold, his victories and his defeats. Then Natasha suddenly stirred and opened her eyes.
“Daddy,” she said. “I knew you’d come. I love you so much.”
The thief wept. He only then realized how close he had come to killing her.
“Natasha, I’m right here with you. And I’m not going anywhere.”
Natasha smiled weakly and Igor took her hand. He pulled out his cell phone and called Ekaterina Ivanovna.
“Everything’s OK, Natasha’s awake.”
His next call was to Anatoly.
“Hey, how’s it going? Is your offer still good? Then I’ll come by tomorrow about that job.”