When she heard the bell, Kay cursed under her breath and dragged on her jeans, sucking in her breath to zip them as she hopped down the hall. Maybe if she got there first, she could avoid her mother's look that told her Denise was Not The Right Sort Of Girl.
It wasn't Denise, though. Peering through the fisheye lens, Kay frowned at the sight of an unfamiliar male face. "Can I help you?" she demanded through the door and was rewarded by the sight of startled blue eyes, made buggy by the lens, suddenly turned her way.
"I am here to see Mr. Carpenter." His voice had a slight accent, not quite British.
"Mr. Carpenter?" Kay wanted to hear more of the voice.
"Mr. P.T. Carpenter, yes. Is he in?" He was beginning to sound impatient, raising his voice to the blank door.
"Sorry, there's no Mr. Carpenter here," Kay answered dismissively and turned away. Her mother was in the hallway.
"There's some guy looking for Mr. Carpenter. I told him Daddy doesn't live here anymore," she said with calculated venom.
Her mother winced slightly, then pushed past her to peer through the lens and pull open the door. "Can I help you?"
Kay peered over her mother's shoulder to get an undistorted view of the man. He was short and kind of skinny, with blond hair worn longer than men his age wore their hair Kay figured he must be as old as her mother. The eyes weren't buggy anymore, but they still were blue.
"P.T. Carpenter," he said.
"Yes," her mother said.
The man blinked in surprise. "P.T. Carpenter, computer engineer?"
"Yes, can I help you?"
He smiled and Kay saw her mother's stiff back relax a bit. "I suppose this would be considered male chauvinism," he said. "I assumed P.T. Carpenter, computer engineer, was a man."
Kay rolled her eyes, but her mother relaxed even more.
The man pulled out a small wallet from his jacket and Kay saw a flash of a gold card. "My name is Illya Kuryakin, with the U-N-C-L-E. I need to ask you a few questions about a computer design you assisted with recently. If you don't mind...?”
Kay's mother motioned the man in and introduced Kay. He gave her a short nod. Kay stuck out her tongue. The man gave her a surprised glance before following her mother into the living room.
Denise did come, a few minutes later. As Kay led the way to her bedroom, Denise stopped in the hallway, staring into the living room, until Kay's mother looked at her and said with chilly politeness, "Hello, Denise. We're talking business here, girls, if you'll excuse us?"
"Who is he?" Denise demanded as soon as Kay's bedroom door was shut.
Kay shrugged, flipping in a tape. "Some foreign guy who wants to buy computers. Nobody."
"Nobody cute," Denise said, narrowing her heavily-mascaraed eyes and licking her lips. Kay sighed. Sometimes she almost had to agree with her mother about Denise.
That night at dinner, her mother told her about the man, talking on and on in the way that had become a habit with her since there were only two of them at the table.
"You mean he was like a cop?" Kay asked, trying not to let her interest show.
"Um, more like a secret agent," her mother said with a grin that invited shared amusement. "Apparently, that big system I worked on was being used by this Thrush organization, but since I worked on such a small piece of it, I'm afraid I wasn't of much help to him."
She fell into silence for a moment, looking thoughtful. "Too bad," she murmured.
A few days later, Kay's mother confessed with a nervous giggle that she had a date for Saturday night. Kay grunted noncommittally and walked away. Behind her closed bedroom door, she considered ruefully that one of the drawbacks of a continued sulk was that she couldn't ask the questions that she needed answered. Powerless people needed information.
When the doorbell rang, it was like deja vu. The buggy blue eyes glared back at her through the peephole. She pulled the door open and blocked the entrance with her body.
"I'm afraid you've come at a bad time," she said. "My mother is going out for the evening. It really would be a good idea if you called in advance."
"Hello, Kay," he began, then his eyes shifted over her shoulder and he smiled. Kay turned and saw her mother standing there, wearing the red dress she put on for special occasions; the last time she had worn it was when Kay's parents celebrated their last wedding anniversary. She smiled over Kay's head and slipped past her, murmuring, "Keep the door locked, Kay. Don't wait up for me," without looking at her.
Kay watched them walk down the hall, casually moving together, laughing softly (About me, she thought with outrage). Kay was pleased to note that they were the same height. "Runt!" she muttered, and slammed the door.
They went out a lot over the next few weeks. To her surprise, Illya didn't try to charm her. He was coolly polite and distant, nothing more. He also did not, as Denise had predicted, invite her to join them. Although she would have turned them down coldly, Kay found herself resenting the exclusion.
Her mother, to Kay's disgust, positively glowed.
Kay carefully didn't mention the affair to her father, wanting to protect him from the possible hurt. For reasons she didn't understand herself, Kay had from the start given her father her sympathy, her mother her resentment, although it was he who had left.
When she went to visit the small apartment he shared with Carol "that girl with the blonde hair," her mother said, as though she couldn't remember Carol's name - Kay was careful not to mention her mother. And her father didn't ask.
Carol did most of the talking, tossing her long hair and telling endless stories about the adventures and opinions of the artists who spent their days and nights at the coffee house where she sang. Kay pretended interest while her father stared at Carol's delicate face, clearly not listening.
Strange to see her father sitting on pillows on the floor, positioning his legs carefully so he could rise with apparent ease. Embarassing to glance around at the bookcases made of boards and bricks, to hear the neighbors battling through the thin walls. So hard to pretend she believed, as they insisted, that this was simply a temporary arrangement until their finances worked out.
She returned from her visits filled with vague depression and anger at her mother's relative affluence.
Then Illya went away on business. He expected to be back in a week, but the week stretched to three, to six, and Kay's mother stopped trying to make up reasons why.
Kay's spirits soared when, during a shopping trip, her mother picked out a lush dark blue man's robe. When Kay asked why, her mother smiled sadly and said, "I keep hoping.” Kay remembered that her father's birthday was only two weeks off, and she pictured him in the robe, back in their home.
The next week Illya was back. As Kay let him in, she noted his pallor and a barely healed cut on his neck. He greeted her in a hoarse whisper before Kay heard her mother's surprised gasp from the end of the hallway. She hurried down the hall to stare into his face. She reached tentatively toward his bruised cheek and he flinched away, then shrugged apologetically. Her mother grasped his arm possessively and led him into the kitchen. Kay stared after them with the taste of ashes in her mouth.
That night, when she could hear her mother's breathing slow and deepen in sleep, Kay slid out of bed and pulled two credit cards from her mother's purse. She tucked them into her own billfold and fell into a satisfied sleep, a remembered phrase from some junior high class on American Indians echoing in her head counting coup.
The line at the matinee had been too long, so they had given up on the movie. Kay let herself into the apartment and heard the sibilant hiss of the shower, so at least her mother was home for a change. Her stomach tightened with anticipation she could tell her mother in person that she was going to spend the night at Denise's and perhaps they would have a fight. It would give her an excuse to say some of the things she had been wanting to say for a long time. Hateful, hurtful words. Words that would make her mother understand how much Kay was hurting.
She pushed open the half-open bedroom door and froze just inside the room.
He was there, sitting on her father's side of the bed. He lounged back against the headboard, his eyes closed and a faint smile on his lips. He was naked, the sheet pulled up to just below his waist.
Staring at muscular shoulders, scarred skin, the line of golden hair leading beneath the sheet, Kay was frozen with shock. She had suspected they were Doing It, but she had never imagined them naked, her mother naked, in bed.
As if suddenly aware of her stare, Illya abruptly opened his eyes and met her gaze. Before he could say anything, Kay turned and ran to her room.
A few minutes later, her mother came, embarassed and defensive, wrapped chastely in a white terry cloth robe, her dark hair dripping. Kay ignored the flood of words, explaining, coaxing, demanding, and finally her mother left, shutting the door behind her. Kay turned then, to glare after her. "Whore," she whispered.
Denise had found out about the party, in the loft of one of the rising young artists her mother liked to encourage and sleep with. Denise's parents had an "understanding". Her mother enjoyed her young men; her father worked almost constantly. It allowed them to stay together. For Denise's sake.
The loft was chaotic when they arrived, pulsing with music and voices. Faces were distorted by the blinking, multicolored lights.
Overwhelmed and uneasy, Kay drank quickly, wanting the comforting buzz of intoxication. Denise, tired of giggling and whispering in Kay's unresponsive ear, moved away to flirt with a man whose gray hair was pulled into a ponytail.
Alone by a wall, Kay glanced around at all the people who seemed so comfortable here, laughing and shouting to one another over the blare of the music, passing joints and sneering knowledgeably about subjects she knew nothing about. Her eyes fastened on a dark-haired boy man, she mentally corrected herself lounging sensually against the back of a chair. Someone in his circle noticed her stare and leaned to whisper to him with a smile.
He turned beautiful dark eyes on her, looking her over casually. Pushing himself away from the chair, he strolled up to stand, just a bit too close, in front of her. His name, he said, was Zach. He was an artist. He lived in a room in the Village, nothing much, but not far away. It would be a quiet place to talk and he had some wine.
Kay smiled up at the brown eyes and went with him.
The room was awful, in a crumbling hotel that renovation hadn't yet claimed. Clothes and trash were scattered on the floor and the twin bed with its filthy sheet. The trip over, with Zach's arm possessively around her waist, had sobered her enough that Kay knew quite clearly that she only wanted to be away from the place.
But Zach had pulled out a half-empty bottle of red wine and a dirty glass. He filled it and handed it to her, raising the bottle to his lips. The dark eyes, calculating, watched as Kay sipped the harsh wine.
He pulled the glass from her hand, then, and began tugging at the buttons of her blouse.
Suddenly frightened, Kay backed away, feeling behind her for the doorknob. She got the door open a few inches before Zach slammed it with a hand above her head. "What's the problem, princess? Not good enough for you?"
Kay squirmed away, out of reach, eyes searching frantically for another way out of the room. There was only the door, and Zach stood there, leaning against it, arms crossed on his chest.
"Why don't you relax?" he murmured, words slipping together. "Maybe I can teach you something they don't know uptown."
"I'll scream," she said, voice quavering.
"Oh, I think you should," he said, "but don't expect anybody around here to care."
He eased away from the door and began walking toward her.
"I can't," Kay blurted in desperation. "I…I'm having my period." She suddenly dipped her hand into her purse and pulled out the tampon she carried always, holding it aloft in front of her like a crucifix.
Zach made an expression of annoyance. "How about you show me what else you got in there, princess," he said, reaching for the purse. Kay pulled it away from him; it seemed suddenly very important not to surrender anything of herself.
Roughly, he grabbed her wrist, twisting until she let go of the purse with a cry. She grabbed for it again and he shoved her, hard. She stumbled into the comer of a rough, wooden table and landed on hands and knees on the dirty linoleum. Pain shot through her right leg as her knee hit the floor.
She looked up to see Zach dumping the contents of her purse onto the filthy bed. Terrified that he would stop her again, she scrambled to her feet and ran out the door, clinging to the railing as she stumbled down the stairs, past the indifferent night clerk and into the street.
Kay hurried down one street after another, slowing only when she was certain Zach had not followed. As her panic calmed she became more and more aware of the pain in her leg. Her stockings were torn, her knees and palms scraped.
The men and women she passed scarcely glanced at her, too caught up in their own intricate dance of attraction and dominance. She thought about returning to the party, but found she couldn't bear the thought of facing the knowing, smirking faces. She kept walking.
Finally, when she saw a pay phone outside a Chinese market, she staggered toward it as if its meager shelter was a haven.
She fumbled a dime from her loafer, a precaution she had scoffed at when her mother insisted on it.
The phone rang and rang, unanswered. She imagined the apartment, dark and empty, her mother out with Illya and the phone jangling in the silence. With a sob of self-pity and despair, Kay almost hung up. But what then? She clenched the telephone receiver and willed her mother to answer.
When finally the phone was picked up, the words poured out, unstoppable. "Mom, where were you? I need you. Mom, this guy…he hurt me and took my money. Please, please come get me. Mommy…"
Now, in the silence that followed, she heard not her mother's voice, but Illya's.
"Your mother's not here, Kay. Where are you?"
Kay sagged against the wall of the phone booth. What was he doing there, answering their phone?
"Where is my mother? I want to speak to her."
"She had to fly to Phoenix, some problem with the new system she designed for the bank there. Didn't you get the message?"
"No." Her voice was a whisper. Her mother wasn't coming. Her mother wasn't coming. Her mother...
Illya's voice again, competent and calm. "Kay, tell me where you are. I'll come get you."
With a sigh of defeat, Kay murmured, "37th and Lex," before slipping the phone into the cradle. She sank down in the dirty phone booth, clutching her knees to her chest, and waited.
Occasionally, feet would approach. Kay ignored them, and they passed by without pausing. "I could be dead," she thought, "and nobody would stop."
But, finally, someone did. She didn't hear the footsteps this time, but a shadow interrupted the street light. Kay raised her eyes wearily.
Tennis shoes. Worn blue jeans on straight, masculine legs. A leather jacket over a blue sweatshirt. And then his face, neutral, his eyes, assessing.
She clumsily pushed herself to her feet, using the wall for help, ashamed of her vulnerability in the face of her enemy.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
She nodded, wanting desperately for someone to know that she wasn't, to understand, without her having to explain this present pain and all the hurt that preceded it.
Despair and anger and need swelled into a stone that threatened to choke her and the tears could not be fought down. The first strangled cry tore at her throat.
She felt her knees sagging, and a strong hand circling her arm and pulling her upright. Through the blur of tears, she saw Illya's face staring into hers. She straightened her shoulders and gulped away the rest of her tears. He handed her a handkerchief and she wiped roughly at her eyes and nose.
"Can you walk?" he asked, and she nodded again.
Kay hobbled a couple of steps and then Illya was beside her, sliding an arm around her waist, his touch as impersonal as Zach's had been intimate. They walked, side-by-side, to his car where he helped her in and started the engine.
"Where are we going?" Kay asked, anxious.
"You tell me," he said, turning to look at her in the dimly lit interior. "Do you need to go to the hospital? The police?"
"No! I don't…I mean, he didn't hurt me that way."
His eyes were skeptical, but he nodded. "Shall I call your father?"
"No," she felt a wash of self-pity. "Carol would be there. I just want to go home."
He was silent for a moment, then asked mildly, "Where's your purse?"
"Zach, the guy, he has it…" She gasped at the sudden realization. "My keys are in there. And my I.D. and Mom's…" she stopped herself.
"I don't think your apartment is the place to be tonight," Illya said.
"What am I going to do? Where do I go?" The tears were trying to start again.
Illya hesitated. "You could come to my apartment," he said, finally.
Kay began to shake her head, when she realized she couldn't think of any other place to go. "All right," she murmured, then forced out the rest: "Thank you."
To her surprise, Kay found Illya's apartment welcoming small and filled with comfortable furniture and books and odd, exotic-looking things. He helped her to a marshmallow-cushioned couch and disappeared into the small kitchen. He was back in a moment, solemnly holding out a glass to her.
"Drink this," he said, before returning to the kitchen. Orange juice? With a shrug, Kay took a sip and found she was thirsty. She drained the glass.
He returned with a plastic bag full of ice cubes. He handed them to her and settled down in a rocking chair facing her and said quietly, "Now. Tell me."
To her surprise she did. He listened patiently, probed a bit for more information about Zach, the location of the hotel.
"You're not going to call the police, are you?" Kay demanded, panicked.
"That's your choice," was all Illya said.
When the story was out, Kay waited for the inevitable recriminations. But Illya just said, "I think we could use some food," and disappeared to the kitchen again.
Kay balanced the ice on her aching knee.
In a few minutes, he came out, setting big, steaming bowls on the oak dining table. As Kay made her way rather shakily to the table, he disappeared again and returned with a carton of milk and two glasses.
The soup was wonderful, rich and hot and chunky with vegetables. They ate in silence, washing it down with cold milk.
When she was done, Illya asked, "Are you ready to go back to your friend's apartment?"
Kay stared at him in dismay. "I can't," she moaned. "She'll be at that party for hours! Besides, I don't know what to say to her about…what happened. Can't I stay here? Just tonight?"
Illya narrowed his eyes, then glanced at the couch. "Okay," he said. He rose and began clearing the table, but when Kay tried to help, he ordered, "Go take a bath."
The tub was luxuriously large. Kay eased gratefully into the warmth, scrubbing fiercely to get the smell of Zach and the street off her body. A dark blue robe hung on the door. The robe. With a twinge of returning resentment, Kay wrapped its softness possessively around her. Illya's smell surrounded her she hadn't realized she would recognize it.
When she emerged from the bathroom, Illya was tucking a final quilt onto the couch. He stopped when he saw her, the blue eyes unreadable.
"I borrowed your robe," she said, suddenly self-conscious.
As Kay settled on the crisp sheets, still wrapped in the robe, he turned off the lights, all but one pole light that cast a puddle of illumination onto the rocking chair. "I have to go out later," he said, "but I'll wait here until you're asleep." He settled into the rocker with a thick book, kicked off his tennis shoes, and tucked one leg under him before turning his attention to reading.
Kay squirmed into the soft couch, under the comforting weight of covers. She was sleepy and oddly content. The rhythmic creaking of the rocking chair was the last sound she heard.
It was late when she woke, that was clear from the warm light streaming into the room. Illya sat at the table with a large mug of tea, the spicy aroma of it reaching her nose. He looked up from the Times to nod a solemn good morning.
When she got herself untangled from the covers and hobbled on a stiff leg to the table, Kay was startled to see her purse lying there.
"Where did you get this?"
"From Zach," he said calmly. "You'd better check to make sure everything is there."
"You went to see him last night? Why?"
"Your mother wouldn't be very happy if he started using her credit cards." The blue eyes were guileless, but Kay felt her cheeks burning.
"How did you know?"
"Your mother noticed them missing when she left for the trip."
"I didn't use them," Kay said defensively. "I just wanted to have something of hers…" Her voice trailed off uncertainly.
Illya didn't comment, just nodded towards the purse. Kay quickly checked the contents. A $10 bill was gone, but everything else even the tampon was there.
"There's tea and sweet rolls in the kitchen," Illya said, eyes on the newspaper.
Kay stared at the top of his sleek head. "Did you hurt him?" she asked, finally.
He didn't look up. "Yes."
She hobbled to the kitchen to get her breakfast.
After she had eaten, Illya handed her a pair of women's jeans at least they weren't her mother's and a clean sweatshirt. She dressed in the bathroom and brushed her hair and was surprised to find herself smiling into the mirror. When she emerged, Illya picked up his keys and headed purposefully toward the door.
"Wait an minute," Kay called, and he turned. "Look, I know I've been pretty much of a snot for the past couple of months…"
"Three and a half months," he corrected, straight-faced.
"Yeah, thanks. Anyway, I'm sorry. It wasn't you, you know?"
Kay smiled gratefully at him. "So, do you have to work today or anything?"
His eyes were wary. "No."
"Because I was hoping maybe we could spend a little time together. I mean, it looks like you might be around for awhile so maybe we should get to know each other?"
He dropped the keys on the coffee table.
They spent the day together, doing the sorts of things that would have brought a snort of disgust from Denise. They traded sections of the Times and drank tea. Illya played some records, glancing at her occasionally, and Kay realized with a jolt of surprise and pleasure that he was shy about the music and wanted her to like it.
"Are those your parents?" she asked, pointing to an old-fashioned portrait of a man and woman that hung on one wall.
"No." Kay was conscious of him making an effort to say more, to give up a carefully protected secret. "I bought the painting at an antique store in the Village. The woman looks like my mother."
"Don't you have any pictures of her?"
"No. We lived in Leningrad during the war. My parents were killed when our house was destroyed. There wasn't anything left. There was a lot of damage." Kay nodded. "We studied about it in school. What happened to you?"
"My sister and I were at school when our block was hit. After, we were separated. I stayed with one family after another. People wanted to help, but no one had enough in those days to take on another child for long."
Abruptly, he turned from the picture, wearing a polite smile like a protective bandage. "How about a walk? It would be good for your knee."
They went. Surprisingly, she found that the movement did help. As they ate hotdogs on a bench in Central Park, he told her more about Russia, about skating at a park while Rachmaninoff poured from a loudspeaker, about ballet in a golden hall and forbidden jazz performances in abandoned buildings.
Kay told him about school and, apologetically, about her friends and the adventures that had seemed so daring until last night. To her amazement, he seemed interested and amused.
It was not until they were walking back to his apartment beneath a darkening sky that she brought up her mother.
"Are you going to tell her what happened?"
"No, but you should," he said.
She sighed in agreement. "She'll kill me."
He smiled slightly. "She may be more understanding than you give her credit for."
Staring at the portrait of a woman that looked like Illya's mother, Kay dialed the number in Phoenix that he supplied.
Her mother was upset, angry, and frightened at once. Just like mothers are supposed to be. Kay smiled through the tirade. In the end, she gave Illya the phone and he calmed and reassured expertly and promised to take her to her father's after supper.
When he hung up, Kay was exuberant. "Have you ever had Sloppy Joes? I need hamburger and tomato sauce…
It was a month later that her father showed up. He stepped into the foyer looking uncomfortable and out-of-place. "I came to see your mom," he told Kay, and the two of them talked for a long time in the living room while Kay sat in her room with the stereo on and her stomach clenched.
When she heard the door shut, Kay came out. Her mother was standing in the hallway, leaning her forehead against the door. She turned with red eyes and said softly, "We're going to give it another chance."
Kay hopped off the bus near Illya's apartment, hunching her shoulders against the damp wind and shoving her hands into the pockets of her jeans. She hadn't seen him since her father returned, and although she had knocked and slid a note under his door, he had not called her
Her mother had brushed aside her concerns, with a maddening you'll-understand-when-you're-older tone. "Honey, I talked to Illya. He understands, he always understood that this might be a possibility. He's fine."
Well, her mother hadn't heard the loneliness in his voice when he talked about his parents. Her mother hadn't seen how hesitantly he shared his pleasures. She hadn't spent the night in the small apartment had she? Kay quickly pushed that speculation out of sight.
Anyway, someone needed to make sure he was okay.
She trudged up the stairwell, knocked at the thick door.
"Kay! What's wrong?" He looked awful, thin and weary. He moved aside and she stepped into the familiar room.
"I need to talk to you," she said, glancing at the opened suitcase, the dirty clothes in piles on the floor.
He followed her gaze. "I just got back this morning from a…trip. Why don't you make us some tea while I finish unpacking."
Warming their hands around the large mugs, they faced one another across the oak table. "Are you okay?" Kay began.
He shrugged stiffly, wincing. "Just a little tired. It was a rough trip." He stopped at the expression on her face. "Ah, you mean your mother," he said softly. "Yes, I'm okay. It wasn't a complete surprise."
"You sound like her," Kay said bitterly. "'We're all adults here, after all. No harm done. Maybe we'll get together for drinks just to show how civilized we all are.' Like nothing matters!" Furious, she felt tears pricking her eyelids.
Illya stared at her for a long time, and sighed. Again that sense of effort to open himself. "Well, you're right. It all should matter. It does. I'm not happy about what happened. But there's nothing I can do about it. It's more comfortable to pretend it didn't matter." He paused and gave her a lopsided smile. "How's that for honesty?"
"Thanks," Kay whispered.
Because he clearly was tired from whatever his "trip" had been, Kay drank her tea quickly and headed for the door.
She turned back to him in the hallway. "Could 1, maybe, come see you sometimes? I won't be a pest. Promise."
"I would love it," he said, smiling. "I find I have developed quite a taste for Sloppy Joes."