Howls Unbreakable

“Howls Unbreakable”
by Allison Thai

On her way to see the next patient, Katya scanned through the report made by the ER physician:

“32 year-old Middle Eastern male with no medical history presenting to ED via EMS for evaluation of multiple injuries sustained to the head, abdomen, and lower legs from an assault. At 2330 today, police found him under a bridge. Patient denies loss of unconsciousness on scene and recalls the events, stating he was attacked by multiple assailants…”

She jumped down to the radiology results:

“Chest XR shows penetrating trauma to bilateral lower lobes of the lungs, multiple open fractures to ribs 4-6. XR of lower extremities shows multiple open fractures to bilateral fibulas and tibias.”

Katya quickened her pace, taking stairs over the glacial elevator. Urgent talk and beeps, a symphony of men and machines, greeted her on the trauma floor. She found Zaytsev hovering over his patient, soon to be hers.

She nodded at him. “I read your report-“

“Yeah, I figured, but you probably didn’t have time to read about that.” He jerked his thumb to the patient’s right forearm.

“What about it?”

“I cleaned and dressed the wound already. I’d do the lac repairs too, but that would cut into the time he needs in OR. And…” Zaytsev rubbed a knuckle into his twitching right eye. “And this case put me an hour over my shift…”

“Go home. I’ll sew him up for you.”

His shoulders sagged. “Thanks, Kirillova. You’re the best.”

Three overnights in a row did a number on the new father. He looked like he needed the help, and some rest. Katya took over patient care and tailed the nurses wheeling the assault victim to OR. He looked much older than her, though they shared the same age. Must be the beard. The fractures and soft tissue damage were more emergent, so she worked through the morning to repair those first. Being wrist deep into openings of chest walls and legs, piecing together parts of a fleshy, living puzzle…Katya couldn’t think of anything else more rewarding. Others might call it grueling, back-breaking, and time-consuming. Maybe others needed time for a life outside the hospital, outside of medicine, but she gave all of her time into this. What did she have to lose?

Her hands didn’t ache or throb from handling bone. She hardly needed the power tools. Masked under the gloves, out of sight from the operating team, her hands were the tools. Fingers filled more with bone than flesh and blood, they formed living clamps and pliers. Katya might have gotten mostly Soft—to the shame of her kin, no doubt—but that part of her moving and mending bone would always be Unbreakable.

Satisfied with her work, she closed the incisions along his torso and legs, and finally addressed the right arm next. She unwrapped the dressing, peeled back the last layer seeped in blood, and an unseen hand seized her heart. In Russian, etched with strokes of a knife, the patient’s arm read “desert monkey.” Words cut deep.


Her brother’s foot met her left cheek.


His fist drove her right cheek into the ice and snow.

“I don’t want to fight,” she wanted to scream, but blood filled her mouth. She threw her hands up, and their father roared for them to stop. He stalked over, bearing down on her like a wolf, and grabbed her by the hair.

“What was that?” His voice dipped low, hissing between his fangs and cracked lips. Katya shuddered, and her own lips quivered.

“You were pleading for mercy. That’s what Softs do.” Her father dug his claws into her scalp. “I taught you no such thing,” he snarled. “We are the Unbreakable. Hard and unyielding. Sharp and fierce. Anything but Soft.” He spat out the word like unwanted, uneaten offal, then pushed her face-first into the snow. “How could a daughter of mine be so weak? It’s disgraceful.”

Katya struggled under his vice-like grip.

He nodded to her brother. “Luka, you teach her this time.”

The boy held out one hand, sharpening his fingers into claws, then closed them together to form a single great talon, or the tooth of a cave.

Tears filled her eyes. “Luka, please…”

“Hush, Katya.” Luka’s hand didn’t tremble, but his voice did.

The fur coat ripped away in her father’s claws, baring her back to the cold. And her brother.

Don’t scream. Don’t be Soft. Don’t scream. Still, her cries joined the howling wind.

Skin came together quicker than bone. Katya closed up the patient’s cuts in a few loops and tugs, but she felt bad for etching the slur further into his arm with sutures. Her scars had long since healed, but her back prickled as she surveyed her handiwork. She hadn’t seen what Luka wrote into her back all those years ago. Didn’t need to. Her father had spit out the word. Soft. Rather than letting the wind and snow sweep it away, he had Luka carve it into her.

She began the next day working on a knee replacement and spine fusion, then dropped by the ICU to see last night’s patient. He sat awake, blinking and wincing with every breath. Katya announced her arrival with a knock and permission to come in. He nodded.

“Izzadin Mostafa?”

He nodded again.

Police had shown her his passport from Egypt. “Do you understand Russian?”

At his third nod, she went on, “I’m Dr. Kirillova, the surgeon who operated on you last night. I want to discuss the interventions I made and the plan of care for you here.”

What brought him all the way to Moscow? It wasn’t her place to ask, she supposed. The patient tilted his head toward her as he listened, but didn’t take his eyes off the sutures, the words, on his right arm. Finally she finished, followed his gaze, and shook her head.

“The wound can’t be dressed. It has to breathe. I’m sorry.”

“Wind wipes off tracks in the sand,” he murmured.

But people weren’t made of sand. Katya was unsure what to make of that, so she went on to discuss her post-op plan. Mostafa listened carefully, then expressed agreement. She promised to check on his progress later. She left the room feeling oddly pleased.

Katya could count on one hand the number of patients who didn’t call her cute. Or adorable. Or a nurse. Mostafa bumped up that count to both hands.

She stopped by the doctors’ lounge for coffee, but someone beat her to the Keurig. Someone new. The man turned, looked up from his coffee, and his eyes went wide.

“Well, aren’t you adorable?”

She gave him a tight-lipped smile. “I’m an orthopedic surgeon.”

“Oh, I’m ortho, too. Maxim Petrov.”

“Ekaterina Kirillova.”

He shook her hand, his dwarfing hers. He was a new face, but she was no stranger to the blank disbelief written all over it.

“You must be replacing Medvedev,” she said. “I heard you’d be coming. Transferred here from Irkutsk, is that right?”

“Word gets around, huh?” Petrov sipped his coffee. “Yeah, just a small town guy. Could probably fit my old workplace in here three times over.” He winked. “You’ll hold my hand if I get lost?”

“Only if you’ll let me,” she said.

The disbelief was still there, stretched tight on that wide grin, as if he thought it impossible that she one-upped him in experience here. “I like you. I like you a lot. We’ll get along, I hope.” Petrov headed out and said over his shoulder, “I can do my own operations, though, thank you very much.”

Katya was left to brew her coffee, though she stirred more than sipped it. She too came from the east, but even farther than Irkutsk, where bites from the cold, wind, and snow left marks that still ached to this day. Despite the coffee’s warmth cradled in her hands, she shuddered.

Deep in the caves, where water slid down teeth grown from the roof, little Katya saw herself for the first time in the lake. Her cheeks and nose, sharp and rough, looked like the walls around her. A mouth filled with pointed teeth gaped back. She terrified herself. She screamed. This earned her a cuff on the head from her father, then he showed her how to fish.

Blind and slow, the cave fish couldn’t escape the plunge of his claws. Katya and her father ate the catch raw. The flesh gave way between each bite easily enough, but as she chewed, her teeth kept pricking the soft swells behind her lips. In front of her father, she said nothing of it, and swallowed the blood along with the fish. He gulped down bones without flinching.

“Fish is baby food,” he said. “One day you will bring down wolves and bears.”

She fought back a frown and nodded.

“They are stubborn and stupid,” he went on with a growl. “They think that they own these caves, that they can come here and take what they please.”

“Have we always had them, Father? The caves?”

He snorted. “Silly girl. We come from them.”

“I-I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”

“Oh, I never told you the story, did I? The story of the first Unbreakable?”

She shook her head, relaxing her crouch at the edge of the lake. She much preferred her father when he was in the mood for telling, not hitting. He tipped his head back, straightening out the craggy angles down his neck, nose pointing opposite of the cave teeth above.

“Long ago, long before the Softs crawled out of the sea, we fell with the rain. A great storm brewed, and the rain came down long and hard. It hit the ground and soaked through it, tunneling down and down. Some of the rain stopped short and dried up. Some went deeper, waging war against the earth, until even the earth bowed to the rain’s strength and gave way. The earth emptied itself out, carving out a womb of sharp, hanging teeth and smooth rocks. From that, the first Unbreakable emerged.”

“But not the only one,” she ventured.

“No, not for long. One day his sister joined him, born from the second great storm that wiped out almost all Softs from the earth. The two had children, and from those children came more children, and so on. And here we are.”

“And always will be.” Katya ended more with a rise of a question, but her father seemed to not notice as he regarded her with approval.

“I need you to be strong, Katya. You and Luka both. Be stronger than your mother.”

Wolves had taken her mother’s life. Her father always brought her up as a warning. He rested a hand on her head. “Now you know. We were fathered by storms and mothered by the earth. We never gave in so we could live, and we live to never give in. Remember that.”

This was the nicest her father had ever been to her. That she remembered.

Entering the telemetry unit to reassess Izzadin Mostafa, Katya was surprised to find Petrov at the patient’s door first. The new surgeon raised a hand in defense as she approached.

“I know he’s yours, but his uncle’s mine. Or was. I had to come in to break the bad news.”

Katya frowned. “His uncle?”

“Yeah. TBI from a fall. Pretty much dead on arrival.” Something buzzed in his coat pocket. He pulled out his phone and met the screen with a flash of alarm. “Excuse me, I have to make a call.”

Petrov stepped away, and alarm hit her next as she turned to see Mostafa trying to hoist himself out of bed.

Forgoing pleasantries, she rushed in to intervene. “Hey, you need to stay put. You’ll hurt yourself from moving like tha—“

“I know. I’m sorry,” he wheezed. “I just really want to see my uncle.”

“Dr. Petrov already told you what had happened, didn’t he?” she said gently. “We’re keeping your uncle’s body here. He isn’t going anywhere.”

Mostafa kept his grip white and tight on the bedrails, though his voice shook. “I flew in from Cairo to see him, not to get jumped by a bunch of thugs.” He sagged against the bed. “He’s all that I have, and I’m all he has to clean and bury him.”

The man never raised his voice, no thanks to his damaged lungs. Far from being dramatic or throwing a tantrum, he expressed such lack of theatrics that Katya could only sympathize with him.

“Someone can wheel you down to the morgue. I won’t have a problem with that. Did you call a nurse?”

“I tried, but I think they’re busy.”

“Then I’ll take you myself.”

Katya would get him to the wheelchair quicker than a couple of nurses, and could get her reassessment done during their trip. In her line of work, efficiency was her best friend. The next operation was scheduled an hour from now, so she had time. She pulled up the wheelchair to Mostafa’s left, locked it with a flick of her foot, and extended her arms to him. She expected some resistance, at the very least surprise, but he reacted with neither as he hooked his good arm around her shoulders and eased his knees over her left arm. Bracing her spine, and wherever her white coat covered her upper extremities, she lifted Mostafa out of bed and into the wheelchair, the motion fluid, precise, and unbroken.

“Thank you, doctor,” he murmured.

She had been careful, but if he had felt how her muscles rippled and knotted, he made no mention of it. Maybe he didn’t feel it, after all. Grief made you numb to everything.

Her father had been mad at Luka only once.

On the cusp of summer, when spring snow finally began to thin and gave shoots of grass a fighting chance, the Unbreakable arranged an ambush for the reindeer returning from migration. Her father led the hunt, as he did with most things, while he instructed her and Luka to attack from the ridge. Before attacking, they had to wait. Katya crouched in the snow with the other children, those old enough to be tested. The sun warmed her back. She tried to ignore birdsongs whittling through the trees, and strained to hear hoofbeats. The ground trembled under her claws. Then, even the new grass shook. A big herd. Had to be hundreds of them. Katya caught sight of dust stirred up by the stampede, but not the reindeer themselves.

Among the smallest of her kin, she bit back the urge to lean forward and crane her neck for a better look, so she kept her crouch low. Loose rock and snow caved under her weight, sending her screaming and tumbling down the ridge. The reindeer came thundering in just then, larger and closer than she had ever hoped for. Instinct spurred her into bracing herself, hardening and sharpening every plane and edge on her body. She crashed into the herd’s flank with a resounding crack.

Bellows of pain and bewilderment met her. Hooves pounded down, on and on, so the herd seemed never-ending. She curled into a ball like a hedgehog, hard and sharp from every exposed angle.

I am not Soft. I can’t be. I have to be Unbreakable. I am Unbreak

Something snapped in her right leg. No, not Unbreakable, despite trying her hardest.

Suddenly the hooves no longer rained on her, but around her. She dared a peek, and was stunned to see Luka with her, his back to the stampede as he took the brunt of the flood. He pulled her in close and gripped her tightly. Eyes narrowed to slits, lips pulled back, and fangs bared and grounding on each other, his face mirrored a wolf’s. On any other day, Katya would’ve found that frightening. Now she had never seen something so wonderful and relieving. She let out a sob and clung onto him.

Finally the storm of dust, legs, and hooves relented. Brother and sister untangled from each other and sprawled back on the ground with ragged pants. Katya struggled to stand, but her broken right leg wouldn’t allow it. Luka offered his hand and hoisted her up.

Their father stalked over to them quivering and scowling.

Katya shrank back, ready for a lashing of his tongue or hand. Instead he barked her brother’s name. Both of them flinched.

“It’s my fault,” she burst out.

“That goes without saying,” their father snorted. “You ruined the ambush. But you, Luka, you protected her. That is not our way. How dare you reward her mistake, her weakness, by saving her.”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Luka said, but before he dipped his head in apology, she saw no sign in his eyes that he felt what he had said. She wondered with dread if their father would hit Luka. Her brother had never been hit before.

But their father didn’t raise his hand. He didn’t even say anything. Instead he turned away and barked at the others to regroup. Katya pried off Luka’s supporting hands and trailed behind their father with a limp. She didn’t want Luka to help her anymore, to get him into more trouble.

Following Mostafa’s brief trip to the morgue, Katya put her back into replacing the stubborn, bullet-scarred hip of a 65 year-old Chechen War veteran. Only after all that, she could catch a break during lunch. She managed to snag a small table for herself before hungry staff and families of patients streamed in. As she waited for her soup to cool, her thoughts wandered back to Mostafa.

His uncle had lived here in Moscow and invited Mostafa to visit him. He was lonely and wanted his nephew Izzy to drop by. Mostafa, feeling likewise, booked a flight. When he landed, however, his uncle wouldn’t pick up. Knowing directions to the apartment, but not the reason for the strange silence, Mostafa cut through the inner city when a gang of skinheads sprang on him. They stomped on his legs and torso. They spat out slurs and carved one into his arm. If he had just put up with the rain a bit longer waiting for a taxi, or avoided ducking under bridges for shelter. Regardless, if he had made it home or not, it made no difference. Apparently, on the morning Mostafa landed, his uncle took a tumble down the stairs and split his head open. The landlord found him and paramedics came, but both were too late.

“My uncle’s still waiting for me to see him, in a way,” Mostafa had said to her. “I appreciate you taking me to the morgue. And I’m sorry you got caught up in all this.”

“It’s fine,” she assured him. One way or another, she got tossed into the middle of people’s problems. Never the start. She did her best to work with them to reach the end. As she had pushed him back to his room, she couldn’t help asking, “What will you do after you’re discharged?”

Katya left it at one question, which implied many: How will he find a place to stay? How long? Could he afford it? Where will his uncle be laid to rest, in Egypt or in Russia?

Mostafa had given her a wan smile. “God willing, I’ll figure it all out, somehow. Not all at once…one step at a time.” He shrugged. “That’s all I know for now.”

Whatever he had to do outside the hospital wouldn’t be her business, but she still had her concerns.

A shadow loomed over her soup and stayed. Petrov stood holding his tray and shifting his weight. “Cafeteria’s full,” he said. “All the seats are taken. May I?”

Katya nodded and gestured to the empty seat across from her.

Though it was only midday, shadowed pits marred the bottoms of his eyes.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He blinked slowly, then said, “No. Not really. People ask ‘how are you’ and I always say ‘good’ or ‘fine.’ It’s a habit, and a lie.”

Katya almost didn’t know how to respond to that. “I’m sorry,” she finally replied, because she didn’t want to pry.

Petrov sighed. “It’s my mother,” he said anyway. “And my father with a bad back. And my sister with cerebral palsy. Mostly my mother. Nothing new with the other two, but her lung cancer relapsed. Stage 3. Piss-poor prognosis.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” Katya felt useless for not being able to say or do anything else, but Petrov nodded in understanding. With a fork, he kept pressing a cherry tomato further into the bed of lettuce.

“There’s a top-notch hospital for cancer treatment in Texas. I want to send her there. My father has to stay home and take care of my sister. Someone’s got to pay the bills.”

Now she could see why he was drawn to work at a big city hospital like this one.

“My mother always used to keep me on a tight leash. Always made sure I came home before dark, made the right friends, went to schools where she doesn’t have to take the freeway to get there. She had enough to worry about, with my sister needing constant care, so I tried to stay close.” Then he let out a laugh that bordered on a choking grunt, though he hadn’t eaten a thing since he sat down. “Cancer made her so sick that she became delirious. She stopped remembering me. She probably doesn’t even know I’m at work on the other side of Russia.”

He pressed the knuckle of his thumb against his eye, and Katya bit on her tongue before another “sorry” slipped out. The first time or second was understood as politeness or genuine concern. A third time would just be annoying.

Petrov shot her a sheepish glance before finally biting a forkful of salad. “Didn’t mean to dump my sob story on you. I don’t know…you just look like someone who could hear me out.”

Funny, Mostafa had said something similar to her earlier. Maybe leaving behind her kin opened her up to bearing that kind of weight for others. She didn’t mind. The soup grew cool, but she lost her appetite for it. Something else filled her up—a throbbing, raw, rough ache she thought she had smoothed over years ago.

Ermines slinked about, halfway between their summer-brown and winter-white coats, and the river grew sluggish from gathering frost, when Katya told Luka she would run away.

With fingers formed into fine blades, he was skinning an ermine he had caught. His silence seemed to stretch as long as the river. Finally, gently, he said, “You’ll die if you stay.”

Tears pricked at her eyes. “You think I should leave?”

“You’ll be happier for it, I’m sure.” Luka paused from skinning and raised his gaze to her. Solemn sympathy peeked through his long brown locks. “This kind of life…’our way’…it’s not for you.”

“I’m too weak.”

“You’re too kind.” He returned to skinning and went on, “Three moons before the hunt, I saw how you cared for that hawkling.”

Katya sucked in a sharp breath. She thought no one had noticed. She had snuck out at nights and had taken great pains not to get caught.

“It fell out of the nest and broke its wing,” Luka said. “Its mother abandoned it. Father would have killed it. Better dead than flightless, he would say. But you took it in, wrapped some twine and sticks around its wing, fed it water and mice when it couldn’t get them itself. Then you stopped leaving the caves to care for it, and I thought it died.” He stared at the riverside. “One day, not far from here, I went hunting with Father when I saw a hawk dive down to catch fish. I had seen him before. He can fly now, thanks to you.”

Tears swam in her vision. Brown and white of the ermine coat in Luka’s hands blurred into a single creamy shade.

“You want to fly away like that hawk, don’t you, Katya?”

“What about you?” she asked. “Don’t you want to leave, too?”

Luka pushed and pulled his sharp fingers through the spool of ermine entrails. “It’s better if you go. Both of us would be suspicious. I can put up with Father for a bit longer. Not sure exactly how long, but longer than you, I’m sure.”

Katya nodded in agreement, but after hearing Luka’s honesty, she wished she could take him with her.

Her brother used the packed, frosted ground to rub ermine blood off his fingers, and rose to his feet. “We need to make you disappear. Make it so that Father and the others can never find you.”

She opened her mouth to ask how. Instead she screamed as Luka grabbed her without warning, and sunk his claws into the meat of her forearms. He let go as quickly as he had gripped her. His fingers came away slick with her blood.

“You told me you wanted to run away, and we had a fight,” he said. “We fought too close to the edge, and you fell into the river. It swept you away, and I never saw you again. That’s what I will tell Father.”

Everything he did and said pointed to the promise of a keen hunter. If he had warned her beforehand, rather than catch her off-guard, he wouldn’t have been able to draw blood. The river would wash away her scent, leave no tracks or a body. Her blood on Luka’s hands would bear evidence of her end. He would go through all this trouble, just for her.

“Where will I go?” she whispered.

“Wherever the river takes you. Somewhere far from here. Maybe you’ll live alone, or go live with the Softs. Either way, no matter where you end up, I hope you’ll find happiness there.”

Katya closed the gap between them with her arms around him, despite the pain throbbing and blood welling. She had seen the Softs do this arm wrap before. She had watched from the bushes how they greeted one another or parted ways. To share the happiness or sadness, they would wrap their arms around each other. She didn’t know what that was called, and Luka didn’t know what to make of it. He didn’t return the strange gesture, but murmured into her ear, “You are kind, and kind is not weak. Don’t ever change that.”

Katya forced herself to step back. Something tickled at the back of her throat, rolled on her tongue, pushed at her quivering lips. She didn’t know what it was, or what to say. All she could do was take one last, long look at her brother. He would not see her again. Only that part of his story held true. She squeezed her eyes shut, bit back a whimper, and threw herself into the rush of freezing water.

Later at the orphanage, with rain pattering overhead, and under a lamp that flickered with every boom of thunder, Katya would learn from reading a picture book that she had tried to give Luka a “hug.” And what she had so badly wanted to tell him, what she had felt, after the reindeer hunt and before parting ways, were words that never existed among the Unbreakable: “Thank you.”

Katya was pleased that Mostafa’s recovery took great strides. He seemed well on his way out the double doors, doing much better since the day she had met him.

She could not say the same about Petrov. She tried to avoid gossip among her co-workers, but as she performed an operation, with her team abuzz with the latest news, her efforts proved futile.

“He showed up late again.”

“He almost left a bunch of sponges in some guy’s bowels. Thank God you reminded him, Smirnov. Crisis averted.”

“He’s been getting sloppy with his knots and suturing. I get that he’s new, but I’ve seen schoolkids and arthritic babushkas do better.”

Katya prickled with discomfort all over as the anesthesiologist and nurses complained. “Guys, focus, please. Save that for the lounge.”

“He’s gonna kill patients with the rate he’s going, is all I’m saying, doc,” a nurse quipped, but no one said more of it.

No one else seemed to know the reason behind Petrov’s blunders. It was clear to Katya that his mother’s condition took a toll on his work performance. Somehow she didn’t think it would be right to spill his family problems onto everyone. She wouldn’t appreciate having her own secrets, her otherness, flung open to the world, so she kept quiet. Still, she worried about Petrov, and by extent worried about his patients. So much was on her mind that one day, as soon as she got home, she realized that she had skipped lunch and left it in the lounge fridge. At the end of every week, to keep unclaimed food from going bad, the fridge would be cleared out. Her next shift wasn’t until the Monday after. She woke up early the next morning to retrieve her lunchbox.

She never made it to the lounge. As she crossed the parking lot, she spotted Petrov struggling to get out of his car. After two tries he succeeded with a stagger. Continued to stagger, rather than walk.

Concerned, Katya drew closer. “Hey, you all right?”

“Yeah, just fine. Morning,” he slurred. He didn’t bother to straighten his white coat.

She frowned. “Have you been drinking last night?”

“Maybe a little.”

A tidal wave of alcohol hit her nose. That didn’t smell like a little. She reached out to steady him before he took a nosedive into concrete. “You can’t come to work like this. Go home and rest.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Petrov snapped. “You’re not my mo—“ He dipped forward and his shoulders shook. For a moment she thought he was heaving, about to vomit. No…he was laughing. That same bitter, choking laugh she had heard when they last ate soup and salad together. “My mother…she’s dead, you know. Fucking dead.”

“No, I…I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, Petrov.”

“All of a sudden, now of all times, she remembered, my father said. She asked for me. She wondered where I was. He had to tell her. She fell over and fainted, never woke back up. The shock killed her. I killed her.”

“No, you didn’t,” she said, but clearly he didn’t hear her as he began to cry. He may not have killed his mother, but…

He’s gonna kill patients with the rate he’s going.

Katya tightened her grip over his shoulders. “Listen, the way you are right now, you’ll put your patients in danger. For your sake and theirs, don’t show up to work today.”

He pushed her away. “You’re so cute, trying to pull rank on me,” he spat. “You look like you’re barely out of college. You don’t even have work today. Go back to your dorm, kid.”

Her fingers curled into fists. Her teeth hurt against each other. They hardened and sharpened, and it took her every shred of conscious, willful thought to keep from baring fangs at him. Katya pulled out her wallet, fished for change, pressed it into his hands, and in the end, only her voice cracked down like a whip.

“Here. Use this for the bus ride home, and report yourself to the board.”

Petrov gawked at her, blinking once, twice. Then he stumbled back, clutching the coins, and turned away mumbling. He headed for the bus stop, unsteadily but surely. She blew a sigh of relief. Then she broke out in cold sweats and leaned on the hood of Petrov’s car to steady herself. In those seconds he had stared at her in bleary-eyed disbelief, in bloodshot rage, he could have slapped her. Better for him than for her that he didn’t, or he would have broken his hand. He might’ve seen, or rather felt, that she wasn’t so soft, small and “cute,” after all.

Katya couldn’t push away thoughts of him as she entered the hospital. Someone had to cover his shift, his patients. Among the orthopedic surgeons, besides Petrov, only she was  single, no kids. No one else had the time or interest for last-minute coverage. But someone had to cover Petrov. That someone had to be her. Whether Petrov would explain his no-show to the board or not, she still owed them her reason for scrubbing in today, not Monday. She hated feeling like a snitch. Nevertheless, before reviewing his patients’ cases, she filed a report.

The river had pushed Katya down, pulled her up, tossed her this way and that, buffeted her with an unhinged frigid force that robbed her of breath. The fight for air was a long, hard one. Soon she would lose it. Her hands and feet scrabbled at nothing but water. Then something caught her, snagged her by a wound her brother had gouged into her forearm. Bubbles erupted from her mouth instead of a scream. Whatever had her kept tugging against the current, sending spikes of pain down her arm, until her face and belly hit dirt and gravel. Katya spat, coughed, and gasped, hands and knees trembling on firm ground. A hook slipped from her wound. It connected to a thin line. Her gaze wandered down that line, following it up to an old Soft who held it by a long, flimsy pole. Stiff with fright, she crouched low like a rabbit.

“Are you all right, little one? How did you end up in the Amur?”

She couldn’t understand anything out of his quivering, wrinkly mouth. Most of her fur coat had been ripped away by the river, and she trembled like an autumn leaf.

The old Soft wasn’t alone. A female as stooped and wrinkled as he was climbed down a slope up ahead, bug-eyed and gaping. “Dear God. Where did she come from?”

“She got caught in my fishing hook and I pulled her out. Other than that, haven’t got a clue.”

“She’s bleeding, almost naked, certainly freezing. Give her your spare coat, for God’s sake.”

The male Soft tossed aside his line and pole, then engulfed Katya with a coat smoother than hers had ever been. She shied away. Was he trying to trap her? The coat draped over her gently, and the Soft never raised his voice.

“There, is that better? So, what’s your name?”

She stared up at him, unblinking and uncomprehending. Softs and Unbreakables didn’t share the same tongue. Both old Softs knelt by her now.

“She looks about ten, maybe eleven. Could she be deaf?”

“Or mute. Abuse can do that to a kid.”

“Now that you mention it…”

“Yes, ma’am. Beaten up and thrown into the river, looks like.”

“Poor thing.”

The male Soft spoke a bit louder. “What’s your name, little one?”

Katya flinched, speechless and petrified.

The male Soft rested a hand on his chest. “Kirillov,” he said. He pointed to the female. “Kirillova,” he said. He returned his hand to his chest. “Kirillov,” he said again.

Finally she understood. “Katya,” she rasped.

Kirillov, that old Soft, the fisherman who ran an orphanage with his wife, and the man she would learn to call father wrapped his arms around her.

“Let’s get you dressed and dry, and wrap up those wounds. We’ll take care of you, Katya.”

Tempted to splash hot coffee on her face, Katya dragged herself to work on Monday. The shift she had taken over for Petrov was fraught with complications and attempts to placate unhappy families. She kept calm while sorting out the mess, but came away utterly drained. Now she struggled to keep her eyes open.

Zaytsev called her down to ER to assess another case of assault. “There’s a trooper,” he greeted her. “Sure took one for the team this weekend, huh?”

Katya just shrugged. She really didn’t feel like talking about it. “What do you have for me this time, Zaytsev?”

She never got his answer. The intercom sounded overhead, “Code Black. Building A, fifth floor, parking lot skybridge.”

Code Black—active shooter on the premises. The color drained from everyone’s faces. Everyone who knew the code, that is. A nurse phoned all the rooms in ER, urging patients and their families to stay inside and stay down. Those doors didn’t lock. They would have to make barricades. The staff scattered into bathrooms and supply closets.

“Stay with your patient,” Katya called to Zaytsev, and left the trauma room to hear another warning: “Code Black. Building A, fourth floor, staff stairway.”

Staff…the shooter worked here? Shit—whoever it was knew all the door codes. While everyone scrambled to hide, Katya took off down the halls and listened keenly for the intercom. Third floor. Second floor. Elevators were locked down, so the shooter can only take the stairs.

Next she heard “OR,” and her heart almost stopped. She took two, three steps at a time up the stairs, taking a shortcut through the telemetry unit. Then came two gunshots, each in even succession. Katya cut around the corner and skidded to a halt, gaping in horror. Mostafa was sprawled on the floor, wide-eyed and pale, yet alive. His forearm crutches had fallen and scattered like twigs. Ten feet from her and Mostafa, the shooter stood hidden under a balaclava, dressed in a plain T-shirt and jeans, his revolver aimed at them.

Her throat tight and dry, Katya forced herself to speak. “Petrov. That’s you, isn’t it?”

He neither confirmed nor denied her question, but she knew exactly why he came, who he was really here for. She had reported him to the board, which led to his license suspended and privileges revoked. She made herself a target. She ran up here ready for that.

Slowly Katya raised and stretched out an open palm. “Petrov, I know you’re upset. Please, put the gun down. Let’s talk.”

“I don’t want to talk. I want you dead.”

He really needed help. Again she tried to offer it. Why couldn’t he see that? But the gun didn’t budge an inch. In turn, Katya straightened her shoulders, set her jaw, and placed herself between Petrov and Mostafa. “You’re just after me, right? If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Give me everything you’ve got. Take it all out on me. I won’t let you hurt anyone else today.”

Petrov pulled the trigger. A bullet punched into her belly. No blood. No steps back. No scream, or even a grimace. She kept still, eyes never leaving Petrov, while his flitted between the gun and her.

“What the-?”

The gun trembled in his grip now. He fired again. The bullet grazed her collar, tearing through scrubs and chipping away rocky bits of skin. With that, he forced the hand she’d been trying to keep to herself for years. Crags and ridges erupted along her skin. Valleys and canyons furrowed down her arms and legs. Peaks rose along her spine, straining at her clothes. The roots of her hair stood on end, like fur on the nape of an angry wolf. Petrov swore and unleashed a barrage of hot, lethal lead. Bullets met her flesh just as they would strike a rock wall. Katya growled and grit her teeth under the onslaught, flashing rows of little stalagmites and stalactites.

Another herd of reindeer. She would hold against it this time. She was Unbreakable.

What the hell are you?”

She answered Petrov’s scream with a challenging howl. That howl tearing at her throat stripped away years of medical training, years of striving to blend in and live like a Soft, and sent her back to the caves where she had been born, raised, and taught to fight off the bears and wolves. Her kin’s thirst for battle, for dominance, boiled in her blood. Her skin hissed and cracked under the heat of lodged, building lead. The bullets burned, and they hurt. With a flex of her arms, as if ripping something in two, she freed the bullets lodged into her body in blinding ricochets. They struck the floor, walls, ceiling. And Petrov.

He crumpled to the floor headfirst. Blood spurted from his chest and belly. Katya gaped. She hadn’t meant to hurt him.

Police streamed into the telemetry unit just then, making quick work of identifying and restraining Petrov. At first he resisted. Before they could slap cuffs over his wrists, he lifted a blood-stained hand, aiming a trembling pointed finger at Katya.

She’s the one. That monster. She did this to me.

This never came out of his mouth. He shuddered and went still. Officers exchanged alarmed looks, while Katya felt her blood go cold.

The only witness to her otherness just died.

Her body went numb, and voices milling around her dulled into a low hum. Only when an officer asked loudly, for the third time, if she was hurt, she snapped out of it and stammered back an okay. Paramedics rushed in to join the police. Some took away Petrov’s body. Others tried to move Katya onto a stretcher. One tried to tug off her bullet hole-riddled scrubs.

She waved them away. “Really, I’m fine. Please go see if there are others who were shot.”

Finally they released her and dispersed to search for casualties. Those checking on Mostafa left, too.

Mostafa. Petrov hadn’t been the only witness.

Remembering that hit Katya like a brick wall. Slowly she made her way to her former patient, who had been helped into a wheelchair. “Are you all right? Any gunshot wounds on you?” she pressed.

Though visibly shaken, Mostafa smiled. “None at all, thanks to you.”

She sagged in relief and nodded. No doubt he had seen everything, what she had done to suppress the threat Petrov posed. Still, she didn’t dare ask. She had hoped to diffuse the situation and have Petrov calm down. Of course, that was her being naïve. The disgraced surgeon was bent on spilling blood, so the next best thing on her mind had been to divert his wrath and firepower to herself, to make him spend all his bullets on her instead of anyone else.

Petrov had brought this spiral into disaster onto himself. At the same time, he didn’t. Suddenly she thought of his dead mother, his father with a bad back, his sister with cerebral palsy. A great wave of sadness brought Katya to her knees. She leaned against the wheelchair, her forehead on the armrest. She heard her father then, a voice haunting and taunting her: How can you cry and mourn over your enemy? He tried to kill you. How can you be such a Soft?

“Dr. Kirillova.”

She met Mostafa’s eyes, and he rested his hand over hers.

“Don’t blame yourself for what happened. Your hands are made for healing. His blood isn’t on them.”

Through this patient, this Egyptian man far from home, Katya also heard her brother. You are kind, and kind is not weak. Don’t ever change.

Mostafa whispered into her ear, “Don’t worry about your little secret. It’s safe with me.” Though healing and no longer hurting, her hands still bore cracks. Mostafa’s own hand spread and fell apart into grains of fine sand, filling those cracks, like a desert meeting a cave.


Allison Thai is a born and raised Texan and the oldest daughter of Vietnam War refugees. She has fiction featured in Podcastle, and will be attending Clarion West in 2021.

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