Max405

richard_house_the-killsRichard House’s The Kills was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. We published this short story by Richard back in 2010, a compelling slice of obsession and loss.

Image: Fat Man by Shohei Hanazaki
Fat Man by Shohei Hanazaki
He finds him, Max405, Max, but not that Max, the same name but not the same person. Not quite. Similar features, to be sure: that mouth, that shorn red hair, those bright blue eyes, the achingly familiar incline to his shoulders. Max, who walked away without explanation, just upped and disappeared.

He tracks the profile for one week then deletes it from his favourites for no good reason. The proximity of this uncannily familiar face, the very same name, the oddness of it just exhausts him.

Two days later he runs a search and picks him out from 34 pages of Max and Maxims, amazed again, gutted, by this double. His mouth, his eyes: Max405, haughty and distant. He searches on Facebook, on MSN, and finds similar profiles under the same name, Max405, Max but not his Max. The information becomes confusing; details do not tally between the accounts: Max405 on Man2Man lives in London; Max405 on Facebook lives in Rome; Max504 on Gaydar lives in Berlin. He waits to catch him online. A green button in the top left corner. Green: I’m here. Red: I am away. Within one hour Max405 changes his location from London, to Rome, to Berlin, to New York, to Moscow. He sends a message: where are you? and receives a reply within the hour: I am in Moscow – Verkhnyaya Khokhlovka. And you?

He closes his laptop, is halfway across the room before he changes his mind and returns to the profile, adds Max405 as a favourite, saves the message, makes sure not to lose him again, then downloads the three photographs from each of the profiles, which he opens in Photoshop. After increasing the image size, he doubles the pixels, trebles them, but this isn’t the movies, it isn’t CSI, and he can’t add information where nothing exists. He examines these photographs, off and on, for two entire days. Moscow, London, Rome, Berlin? The fuzz surrounding Max’s head tells him only what he already knows: Max405 stands on an external balcony, a grey sky beside him, indicative of no particular place. The apartment unscrolls behind him, the same balconies, the same windows, with no distinct information that tells him this is Moscowthis is not London, Rome, Berlin, or New York.

Max405 stands on a balcony. The sky not grey so much, but certainly not white. His clothes, a marine-blue tracksuit top, Adidas, which might in Russia be an indication of status. In other photographs Max405 leans backward, shoulders against a plastered wall, his top open to show a honed body that carries a little extra weight. Max at the beach, his eyes blue, the sky blue, the camera lowered. His hands, just the fingertips, tuck under the waistband of his shorts. His skin is pale, almost dusty. His hair, a heavy red, is beginning to grow from one look into another. There is the suggestion of a beard.

He pays to join the site. Gains access to a series of private photos, an album. He isn’t sure what he expects, a photograph of Red Square, Max405 outside the Kremlin? He uploads a photograph of himself and sends it to Max with the message I am in London.

In two days he has more concrete information: Max405 lives in Russia, his days are spent in Moscow, in some outer park ringed with apartment blocks. Max405 works as a bouncer for a nightclub, and as a personal trainer for a health club, and is a certified masseur. He is not a prostitute. The photographs were taken by a private client, at a client’s apartment. Max405 prefers men a little older than himself, by one or two years. He does not have a type but prefers men who are active, men who look after themselves, men who are dominant, men who are not feminine. Max405 practices safe sex and says that he is versatile, he does not smoke, he does not take drugs, he does not like the smell of poppers. He lives in a similar apartment to the one in the photographs, which he shares with his sister. He swims twice a week in the summer in an outdoor pool. He takes morning runs through a grove of silver birch. Moscow has been hot this year, plagued with smog and smoke, but he has taken his morning run every day, despite the smoke, despite the heat. He keeps himself in shape, speaks three languages and wants to leave the city. Max405 has relatives in the Crimea, in Istanbul, in Berlin. Max405 likes to kiss and wrestle. He hopes one day for a steady long-term partner, although, right now, it is hard to meet men, and when he does the encounters are unsatisfying. He does not know exactly why, but he feels himself to be different when he is online. Max405 was beaten, humiliated at school, because of this he is stronger now, physically and in mind. He works for himself, he says, because this is easier. One day soon he hopes to visit London, Rome, Berlin, New York.

Max405 marks him as a friend, a favourite, adds a star to his profile, and when they talk he takes off his shirt and sits in front of his computer flexing, proud of himself. You are handsome, he writes, I know you.

 

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Litro #99: Russia

The Journey by artist Iryna Yermolova will be showing at Red Gate Gallery, London, throughout October.



Fishing for Crab in Arctic Russia by Adam Butler

It works like this:

During crab season, October until March, boats go out every day (bearing in mind that ‘day’, during many of these months, is a fairly arbitrary concept up here) stacked with half-cube cages, roughly one man wide by one man long by one four-year-old high. The cages, though – at least on board the boats that we’re interested in here – are often home-made, using processes that don’t lend themselves to uniformity, with the result that these stacks are haphazard and hazardous. [private]The majority of these boats could easily be regarded as exemplary embodiments of the phrase ‘seen better days’ – were it not for the inherent difficulties of the whole ‘day’ thing, up here. ‘Seen better twenty-four-hour periods’ just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, especially in Russian. The boats have names like ‘Melkart’, ‘Matrioska’, ‘Maroanjoca’, ‘Maxim’, ‘Murman-2’. Most of them used to fish for cod, back in the halcyon twenty-four-hour periods when cod from Murmansk fed the whole of Russia.

The thing is, it’s almost impossible to catch cod round here any more: you study the maps, tidal charts, weather, migratory records, the vagaries of the North Atlantic Drift (that global conveyor belt that keeps Murmansk ice-free all year round), maybe even the grounds at the bottom of your coffee cup. All of this to try and figure out where the cod will be – you have to be a codfish, is what the old-timers say, empathise with the fish, put yourself in their fins. Then after all the planning, the calculations, the divination, the role playing, you head up the Tupoma River, blithely ignoring on the left the hulking great Lenin (glorious relic of 1959! the world’s very first nuclear icebreaker! shortly thereafter site of the world’s very first floating nuclear reactor meltdown!) shielding your eyes also from out-of-bounds Severomorsk on the right, with its sad relics of Soviet history, the nuclear submarines lined up grey and rusting like some ghastly whale cancer ward.

Eyes forward, you chug across the Murmansk Bay and out into the Barents Sea, home in on your chosen coordinates, carefully set your nets; wait; carefully haul them in again … and all you end up with is a boatful of giant crabs, flapping about like malfunctioning robotic insects, their huge legs twisted clumsily around the sodden nylon lacework. Maybe a cod or two, if you’re lucky. And you look this horde of – frankly – ugly fuckers, flat on their backs with their legs waving in the air like a rebenok after his first bottle of vodka, or working their way sideways – sideways, for fuck’s sake – across your deck, and you start thinking, maybe it really was better in the old days, when fishing was fishing and a tower block was a tower block and everything happened five years at a time.

So what comes next is obvious: you think, how about I just retool this boat, turn the nets into cages, say dasvidania to the cod and privet to crabs? Because how hard can that be? After all, catching crabs out here is about as easy as falling off the proverbial churban.

You do some research, realise that those stupid ugly crab are worth about five times more, per kilo, than codfish, and suddenly they don’t look so stupid or ugly any more, and you start telling everyone down at the Krechet, knocking back the vodka in your usual seat, that sideways is the new way forward. In fact you’re so proud of this line that you announce it at regular intervals, being too busy laughing at your own astonishing wit to notice the large quantity of eye-rolling that starts to accompany your increasingly loud pronouncements.

But who cares? Because pretty soon (once you’ve finished turning your nets into cages, and fixed that leak in your crane’s hydraulics, and rebuilt the hold so that you can fill it with your catch, and got yourself a new crew) pretty soon you’re going to be catching tons of crab at a time, and basically printing your own rublya.

Eventually, you’re ready. The crew, the crane, the cages, the hold – everything’s finished. Tomorrow’s the day. It’ll be tough, of course, you’re ready for that, you’ll have to wing it at first while you figure out how to do things … but how hard can it be? So you figure you’ll just nip down to the Krechet for one round, maybe two, tops, and you slide into your usual seat under the photo of the starfish with a look on your face that’s half excited grin, half trepid grimace.

You order your first Dovgan, and it tastes good. It tastes of possibility, of future, of money – tastes like your own personal uskoreniye. You savour it on the back of your tongue, the slight burn – it’s almost like you’re tasting it again for the first time – then you take a moment to look at the smeared empty glass, and the hand it’s in, all scratched up from converting your nets, and just as you’re putting the glass down and deciding that two, definitely, will be your limit tonight, someone you only vaguely recognise, maybe a little smarter dressed than your average Krechet local, sidles up to you and says, “So what’s your quota?”

Fool.

Kretin.

How could you not have thought of quotas? Just because the whole sea is crawling with crabs, just because you could catch them with a moth-eaten bridal veil if you wanted to – it doesn’t mean they’ll actually let you. Everything here has a quota.

“Er, quota?”

He laughs, this unusually dapper stranger, an irradiated x-ray cackle that goes straight through you. Then he passes you a business card and walks out, laughter still audible even after he’s halfway down the snowlocked street.

For a few seconds you stare at the still-vibrating door, then look down at the card. Some company or other (no doubt under the name of a brother or a sister of someone on the FGU) and their bank details. The procedure is simple and – you have been led to believe – time-honoured; this is just how capitalism works. A generous donation to this company’s coffers will cause a sudden and spontaneous increase in your chances of receiving an equally generous quota. One gift creates another.

Except that if you actually had any money to generously donate, you wouldn’t’ve set out on this path in the first place, would you?

So there’s no first outing tomorrow, or the tomorrow after that. The retooled boat languishes, the new crew get antsy, and you spend most of your days in the Krechet counting your kopeks. A week passes. You try your uncle, thinking maybe he can spot you enough to start the reciprocation ball rolling – but of course he’s too busy counting out his kopeks at the bar of the Dnem i Notchyu across town.

Another week passes, and eventually you think, chort poberi, are you gonna just waste the rest of your life like this? And you get your crew together, hit them with your best motivational rhetoric, and go out anyway, quota or no quota. You straightaway catch a holdful of snapping giant crabs. It’s all new, haphazard – the crabs are science fiction, the crew’s a slapstick chorus line – but it’s so easy. Once you get back to Murmansk, the crew are not so impressed at being paid in crab, which is the only thing you can do since you’re not allowed to actually sell any of them. But at least you’ve done a day’s work. And just to prove it wasn’t beginner’s luck, the next day you go out and you do it again.

That night, after your second successful outing, another stranger sidles up to you, also from the upper reaches of the Krechet’s sartorial bell curve. Except that this one doesn’t laugh at you. Instead he buys you a vodka, and then leaves in silence. And what he slips you isn’t a business card, it’s a map. On the map is a star. It marks a point on Kildin Island, at the mouth of the Murmansk Bay.

So the next day, you go out, you fill your hold with crab. At one point, you come out of the captain’s cabin as the crew are busy hauling onboard a cage full of crab and flinging them singly into the water-filled hold below. Several of the animals are doing their lateral thing across the icy deck, some primal instinct pushing them into making final, doomed, sideways bids for freedom. You bend over, pick up one that is scuttling at your feet. After staring at it for a few seconds, imagining that you can perhaps open up a kind of communication channel – ask it what it’s really like to be a crab, compare notes on the stringencies of communal living – you realise it has a purple streak above its face that is exactly like the nevus flammeus on the forehead of the final Soviet President. You show the crew, christen it ‘Mikhail’. There is laughter. Mikhail is the ship’s new mascot.

Once the hold is full, you chug on down to the starmarked point and – ne slabo! – it’s a deserted military base, complete with concrete ramparts, tangled rusting skeletons of what might have once been missile launchers. The whole thing’s been converted into a mini port and processing plant. Rickety and home-made, admittedly, but then so’s your boat – you fit right in.

The unloading’s all manual, everyone setting to in silence, and once it’s over a guy with a thick neck and a fistful of tattooed rings counts out a bundle of rublya, then bares blackened teeth in an expression located at some inscrutable coordinate between a smile and a sneer, and hands over half of it. Also in silence. You are, you immediately understand, not welcome to hang around. Casting off, you realise that Mikhail is gone – he has been unloaded with the rest of the catch.

Back in Murmansk, though, there is no silence. Even only half of that bundle was three times what you were making back in the dark days of cod, and for you and your crew this is the first money you’ve seen for weeks. Most of it disappears immediately in the Krechet, transmuted, like backwards alchemy, to a splurge of sound and frenzy – but who cares, right? Because tomorrow morning you’ll get up and do the same thing again (albeit with an icebreaker in your head) and the next day, and the next …

The black-toothed man, meanwhile, takes a few moments’ pleasure in cooking your crab alive, transports them to Severomorsk – covering his tracks with a combination of misdirection and bribery – and sells them on to another man in a transaction that is also silent, and that also involves the handing-over of only half a wad of grimy notes—1000 rubley, a shtúka. From Severomorsk, the crab are taken to Murmansk by one of several satellite-photo-visaged van drivers, and then on to an underground central freezing plant, and are then loaded onto a Petersburg-bound train in a truck that claims it contains scrap metal (the question of why a scrap metal truck needs to be covered and supplied with electricity is, as is very clear to your average train inspector, best left unasked).

Up until this point, the crab have been circulating among the outer tendrils of the Tambovskaya prestupnaya gruppirovka – the Tambov gang – one of the largest and most powerful in the whole of Russia. The boss has one arm, shards of bullet in his heart, is a devout Christian. He denies being the gang’s boss, also denies having ever had connections with Putin. He certainly neither knows nor cares about your crab, which – under his unconcerned auspices – will now fly across the Russian eighth of the planet and into the warm embrace of the Japanese yakuza. Payment will not be made in half wads of yen, but in kind: fake cigarettes from North Korea, perhaps, or Afghan heroin, or some promissory note of future protection. The whole thing’s much like the North Atlantic Drift, just another global conveyor belt – and you are working at its outermost limits.

Mikhail ends up on the plates of diners at a restaurant on Takeshita Street in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. Various parts of him are eaten by: a young politician dining out on his first ever lobbyist backhander; an ageing television presenter who has just discovered that he is being replaced by a teenage girl; a public relations executive from a leading brand of toothpaste who spends the meal trying to work out whether his wife, seated opposite him, is having an affair with her yoga instructor; a journalist who is celebrating the fact that he finally finished, this afternoon, a long piece on connections between Russian and Japanese crime groups (it will never be published); a sportswear model who decides, over the course of a meal spent watching through the window two men selling fake Louis Vuitton handbags, to quit his job and go and study law at Todai University.

Back in Murmansk, you’re fully aware of the fact that you’re now supplying the mafiya – but it’s not as if it makes much difference either way, whether you work with the mafiya or the state, since they’re both as corrupt as each other, right? They’re jammed up against each other in a loggerheaded symbiosis that sometimes feels like it has the whole coast-to-coast enormity that is Russia in its thrall, a culture jam that ensures no-one can ever really move forwards. Only – ho-ho! – sideways.

And at least the mafiya looks after its own. Not like the state, which in the last fifteen years has given up even pretending that it has anyone’s best interest at heart other than its own. If, indeed, it actually has a heart, which seems unlikely.

There was a time, when you were young, when you really believed what you were told: that the rest of the world was rotten, decadent, doomed to be swept away under the rug of history; that only plucky Russia and its loyal satellites (and you didn’t need reminding of the glories of Sputnik) were engaged in the serious task of building, brick by five-year brick, the palace that would house the future of humanity.

But then when it fell apart, this impossible palace, the people nearest the centre of the ruins grabbed as much of the rubble as possible, hoarding the pieces for themselves, freed at long last from the necessity of maintaining the pretence that they ever actually believed the thing could stand up on its own.

How many of you – you demand from your seat beneath the starfish photograph, the Krechet’s very own rhetorician here – how many of you still feel like there’s an edifice underneath you, supporting you? A roof above you, protecting you? Like you are a part of anything larger than yourselves any more? Larger than the daily struggle for food, for shelter, for a hurried shivering fuck in a tower block doorway? Who, in short, you ask, has got your back?

You are, of course, hopelessly naive.

When the morning comes – let’s say it’s the first morning of the year, why not? sometime in February, a morning so embarrassed at its own inadequacies it turns immediately into an evening – and you are found face down in the water, bloated from the time spent there, a single bullet hole in your forehead because you maybe said the wrong thing to the wrong person, or you maybe asked one time too often when they were planning to start giving you the other half of that bundle of notes – when it happens, no-one is surprised. They just roll their eyes, as usual, make some remarks about how they didn’t even care enough about you to cut off your fingertips, pull out your teeth. That’s how much you mattered to them, they mutter, as another gleam-eyed kopek-counter slides into your seat beneath the starfish photo.[/private]

Adam Butler lives in Berlin. As a musician he has released five albums of experimental crunk showtunes under the pseudonym "Vert", and has performed throughout Europe, the US and Asia—including, yes, Murmansk. This, his first published story, is an extract from a novel in progress, provisionally entitled *.




Forty Rubles by Peter Hajinian

Your Honour:

This is my confession, not of murder, but of the events that led to the death of Vladimir Gargarovich Karpuk. Though I was present, I can attest it was an accident, and therefore I beg Your Honour’s leniency in any sentencing.

[private]Karpuk was a bear of a man. He wore his moustache wild. Thick black hair crept out from under the collar of his woolly coat. Everyone who met him thought “swarthy,” but most were too polite to say it. Let the truth be known. You wouldn’t find a lazier man in the entire Russian Empire.

I’m neither tall nor big. In fact, some have called me a bird of a man. My nose is hooked, and my chin disappears when I look down. I don’t have much of an upper lip, but I was born with small teeth. My arms are skinny, so I try to avoid coats and shirts that drape over me. As lazy as Karpuk is, I am diligent. I have mastered my emotions. Only a German expresses less, but it’s been scientifically proven Germans don’t feel much of anything.

But this begins with my sweet wife Emma. We had a happy life in Andropov, a village in the Kazarov District. Our life was happy. Then one day she complained she never enjoys the finer restaurants. I told her we don’t need to eat at the restaurants, because I hired a fine cook with the largest mole in all of Kazarov on her cheek. Emma said it wasn’t good enough. Just the week before Andrei Ivanovich Sokabokavich took his wife Silva to a fine restaurant in Moscow. How can I compete? I love my wife, Your Honour, and did what any man would do when confronted with these claims. I promised her I would take her to St. Petersburg for the finest lunch of smoked sturgeon and pickled eggs.

Trains are getting more and more expensive. Some time ago I had lent a sum of money to Karpuk, and on that fateful day Emma made her wishes known I decided it was time to collect. Everyone in Andropov knew you could find Karpuk sitting in the local public house, doing nothing. And that’s exactly where I found him.

Like a gentleman I asked if he remembered borrowing forty rubles from me. He did. I asked him to kindly pay me back, for it had been close to seventy-two days overdue. As you know, all gentleman’s agreements should be paid back within forty-five days. But Your Honour, he with no honour just laughed at me.

With a straight face, Karpuk claimed he didn’t have the forty rubles. I asked if he could pay me twenty rubles. He said all he could give me was three kopeks. Three kopeks! An obvious insult not only to me, but to gentlemen everywhere who enter in to such agreements. I do not pretend to know how to judge men as you do, and take this not as a confession, but the Russian Empire is stronger with one less Karpuk.

As you recall, I am quite in control of my emotions. But I could not help but steam. I demanded he needed to pay me at least thirty rubles. Karpuk thought in his slow, laboured way, and then told me he would give me the money. But first I had to beat him in a contest. I agreed. I followed him out behind the public house, where it was just the two of us, a bottle of vodka, and two hatchets stuck in a stump. As you see, Your Honour, in this story I have continually acted to resolve this issue peacefully and on his terms.

A vodka-drinking, hatchet-tossing contest is not how gentlemen should settle such disputes. But I remind you, he was no gentleman. And in a moment of weakness, I went along with it. If I could have walked home and told Emma we would be going to St. Petersburg in the autumn instead of the spring, I would. If I could take back the six drinks of vodka I would. Mind you, I do not call back our toasts the health of the Tsar, the empire, the troops, the Archbishop, the mayor of Andropov, to your health, too, Your Honour; but I wouldn’t then pick up a hatchet and try to hit the bulls-eye painted on a tree trunk. Best two of three.

It turned out Karpuk was good at something. He was an ace hatchet thrower, and was on his way to beat me. It would take me so many months to save up. So many months with Emma complaining about Sokabokavich and our cook and my inability to enter a gentleman’s agreement with a trustworthy man. Once again, I am normally a much controlled person. But the vodka spun my thoughts. All these future complaints filled my head and my heart. As they say, any door doubt opens is the one the devil walks through. It was in that moment that the devil acted, and I brought the hatchet back over my shoulder to throw. I knew Karpuk was behind me, but had only meant to scare him, to maybe graze his thick black moustache. To my horror the steel struck bone.

It is obvious to me now that he had to have been leaning in to taunt me. If he had stayed at a safe distance, he would still be alive today. Let the record show what poor decisions a drunk man can make.

When Karpuk fell, I immediately dropped the hatchet and checked for signs of life. Finding none, I looked around for help, but there was no doctor behind the publican’s house. As a matter of fact, there was no one who could stay with him while I went to get a doctor. I thought it was important to stay and explain the situation if anyone came to help. I checked his pockets for papers, hoping to find the name of next of kin. That’s how I found the forty rubles. I thought it likely that he kept a name on a slip of paper hidden in the stack. So you see, I wasn’t counting the greasy notes when the gendarmes discovered me, I was searching for help. You see, Your Honour, it was all a very reasonable situation I was found in: a bystander to the accidental death of a drunken man who had lost control of his balance and facilities.

Every day my dear wife Emma writes and asks when I might return to her. I am a responsible man, but I am no use here in prison. I petition you to release me, and to allow a most useful subject of the great Russian Empire to continue serving the Tsar. I have learned my lesson. Never again will I enter into a gentleman’s agreement with a man who is less than a gentleman.

Most sincerely,
Konstanin Nikolai Spanodrov[/private]

Peter Hajinian lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, their bulldog, and chickens. He spends his days writing advertising copy, and his nights either recording radio dramas or visiting friends in the neighbourhood. A lifelong writer, this is his second publication.




Russian Strays by William Falo

“It may be suggested by some books that it is not a sin to kill an animal, but it is written in our own hearts – more clearly than in any book – that we should take pity on animals in the same way as we do on humans.”  –Leo Tolstoy                 

Petya placed the case of darts on the ground, and aimed the gun at one of the stray dogs that sniffed the bait he’d placed near the entrance to the junkyard; he steadied his shaking until a sharp pain on the back of his leg made him wince. The world spun around him, and he started to black out; something edged into his fading view, and he saw a dark-haired girl glaring at him with canine eyes until a dog barked, and she disappeared along with the light.

[private]He struggled to his feet only to discover the darts broken in pieces except for the one in his leg. “Damn her,” he said. “She won’t stop me from getting those stinking dogs.” Despite his anger, the image of her face with the penetrating eyes made him desire a woman for the first time in years. That night he walked past the vibrant nightclubs filled with excitement, and watched the prostitutes from across the street.

A woman in red boots called out to him, “Why are you staring at me? Come over, and we can get to know each other.” She lifted her skirt up higher than he’d ever seen a woman do before. Snow started to fall when he crossed the street with anticipation burning inside him. “Hey Ekaterina,” another girl called out.

That name made him stop, and his hands shook. The girl walked toward him; her boots clicked on the street despite the snow. The clicking haunted him.

The image of a girl laughing at the scar the dog made on his backside filled his mind. It marked him as a coward because he turned away and the dogs attacked his girlfriend. Ekaterina died from an infection she received from the wounds while he survived with only the scar.

“Are you interested?” the prostitute called out, shattering the nightmare.

“Leave me alone,” he said, and he ran through the cold streets until he reached the subway near the square apartment building where he lived. Out of breath, he dropped onto a bench, before ascending the stairs to his room. The sound of footsteps drew his attention, and he startled when a dog walked out of the metro; he heard stories about strays riding the trains, but never believed it. He followed the dog toward the area where he’d encountered the girl, until he turned away when he heard footsteps around him.

The walk through the frozen streets to the square apartment block seemed to take longer than usual, and he saw people in the windows of the ground floor rooms. A woman cooked on a stove, stirring a pot of boiling water probably filled with potatoes, while two little girls danced around her. A man smoked a crooked pipe by a front door while the smoke plumed through the flurries; he stopped a minute to watch him until a small boy called out for the man to come inside. These images of families haunted him, and he leaned against a dumpster, still feeling nauseous from the tranquilliser. He would have to get more darts from the office, and planned to return to the same location even though she might show up again, or because of it.

The heat shut off in the night, and he shivered under a pile of blankets because he’d forgotten to get wood for his fireplace. The night filled with memories of his father’s anger when he’d failed to protect his girlfriend. The image of his father holding a rifle in Afghanistan, wearing an army uniform with a medal next to it, always made him feel like a failure. Unable to sleep, he dug through dust-covered boxes until he found the picture. The flame of a match caught the edge, and made quick work of the photograph. The medal wouldn’t burn, and he opened the window letting in the cold wet air; against the wind he threw it out into the snow.

The next day, the snow crunched under his feet when he stalked the pack of strays that frequented the area. A search of the location didn’t reveal any footprints, and he aimed the gun. The bang made the dogs startle, but the dart had already pierced the side of a brown terrier. The other dogs ran away in panic, but the terrier collapsed on its side. “Yes,” he said, and ran toward it. After scanning the area he picked the dog up, and carried it to his truck. He drove toward the shelter, knowing the other dogs would not return to that area for a day or two.

A man let him into the remote building where barks filled the air. He handed him the crate; inside the dog stirred to life, and sniffed the air.

“Just one?” the man said.

“For now,” he answered, and waited to get the crate back. The terrier whimpered, when the man grabbed it by the neck, and tossed it into a pen. Another man dragged a brown dog toward a long hallway. The dog fought against the man until a kick knocked it over.

“Where is he taking that dog?” Petya asked.

“To the chamber.”

“You mean –” he stopped.

“Yes, what did you think we do with all the strays? Look in that window.”

He saw a room filled with numerous dogs; many of them ran in circles, or fought each other. But what caught his attention was the ones that didn’t move, the dogs that stayed in the corners, curled into balls with swarms of flies hovering over them. Petya turned away, and rushed out the door.

“Wait, I have your receipt for the dog,” the man yelled, but Petya never looked back. Steam drifted out of the metro station past the bench he sat on, followed by a group of street children. They walked by him holding brown bags, stopping to inhale the contents. Their stained clothes barely covered their bodies, and he wondered how they didn’t freeze to death. He went down the stairs when the smell of glue made him nauseous, fearing the street children might try to rob him.

A shriek filled the station, and the ground below him vibrated, causing Petya to lean against the building. A light flickered inside the ticket booth, and he saw a familiar face. The dog girl. His hand shook, and he stumbled backwards into a dark stairway. A door closed, and the girl walked out of the booth up an adjacent stairway. He followed her into a newer section of Moscow filled with single dwellings that he could never afford. She never looked back, and he stayed in the shadows, stopping to sip vodka that he kept in a small container in his jacket pocket. It felt like fire going down his throat, and the warmth spread through his body.

The houses looked like mansions compared to his apartment. How could anyone be unhappy here? Why did the girl hang around with the stray dogs? She entered one of the larger houses, and his chase was over, until he saw her shadow move into the light of a window. Despite the cold ground he sat behind a bush, and watched. After countless sips from the bottle he dozed off, only to be awakened by yelling. The girl slammed the door, and left the house holding her hands over her face. Petya saw no movement from inside the house. He crept up to the window. The frost of his breath blurred his view, but he saw the man on a chair next to a bottle of vodka. He took out his bottle, and tipped it over; the vodka made a hole in the snow. After relieving himself, he ran to find out where the girl had gone.

The new snow made her tracks easy to follow, and he gained ground on her until he left the plush neighbourhood, and entered a junkyard. The sound of dogs made him stiffen; he smelled their wet fur before he saw them gathered in an opening. The girl sat in a clearing surrounded by a pile of debris. A small terrier like the one he’d recently shot was curled up on her lap. The light from a lantern shimmered in her eyes, highlighting the darkness under them. The man must have hit her. He gasped. The dogs growled, and approached him with bared teeth. He reached for a gun that wasn’t there.

“Fuck,” he said, and backed up. The girl stood up, and saw him.

“What do you want?”

“Please, stop the dogs.” They crept closer to him, their fur stood up on end.

“Only if you stay there, and don’t come any closer.”

“I won’t,” he said, and crouched down.

She whistled, and the dogs returned to her. When she waved her hand, they sat by her side.

“What do you want?” Her voice cracked.

“I’m sorry, but I followed you.”

“Do you work for my husband?”

“No, no,” he said. “I don’t know him. I saw you yesterday.”

“You’re the dog catcher.” She stood up.

“Yes,” he said, and looked down.

“I should let them attack you.”

“I finally saw where they take them. I didn’t realise.”

“How could you not know? Did you think they gave them away as pets?” she asked.

“No, I took the job because –”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re taking away so many of them.” She rubbed her eyes.

“Are you okay?” He heard her sobbing.

“My husband.”

“He hurts you. Why?”

“He wants to control me. I got a job in the metro system, instead of staying at home and serving him. He becomes angry, and hurts me.” She looked down.

“I’m sorry. Did you tell anyone?”

“He works for the government. Nobody would believe me, and Moscow has no help available for abused women. They don’t care what the men do to us and I came from an orphanage while he came from a good family.”

“How did you meet him?”

“He saw me on the streets while he used the metro, and we fell in love. I thought we did anyway. Everyone loved how he saved the street girl.”

“But he did it to have a slave.”

“It turned out that way.”

The silence lingered until a dog howled.

“You knew the dogs from the street. Did you teach them to ride the metro? I saw them do it.”

“Yes, there is more food in the city centre, but it is harder to live there. I taught them to count the stops, and when to get off and on.”

“That’s amazing. You should work with animals.”

“Like you?”

“No, I’m sorry about that. I once was attacked by a dog when walking with a girlfriend. I ran while she stayed.” He paused, and shuffled his feet. “My father called me a coward. Nobody talked to me for a long time, and we even had to move. I blamed the dogs.” He looked at her.

“I’m sorry, but like people there are some bad dogs. Still, I trust them more than most people.”

She lifted up the terrier, and kissed its head. She held it out to him. With a shaking hand he rubbed its soft fur. It sent sparks through him, and his eyes filled up. The girl smiled.

“I’m Zoya by the way.”

“Petya,” he said. She put the dog down.

“I have to go back.”

“Why? He may hurt you worse,” he said.

“It’s still my home. I have nowhere else to live.”

“I only have a small apartment.”

“That’s better than where I live if it’s safe.”

She turned and hurried away. She stopped once, and he saw a sliver of a smile when she waved. He waved back but she disappeared. The dogs all grouped together for warmth, and he walked by them with his hands at his side.

The next day, he searched the subway for Zoya, but only saw a blonde girl in the glass-enclosed booth. After waiting in line, he tapped on the glass, startling the girl.

“What do you want?”

“Zoya,” he asked.

She narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

“I’m a friend,” he said, gulping air. The words were unfamiliar.

“She’s in the hospital,” she said.

“What’s wrong with her?”

“I don’t know, but I have to cover her shift. Tell her to come back soon. I have kids at home, and unlike her I need the money because I didn’t marry a rich husband.”

Petya walked away, and despite carrying the gun, he walked past the dogs on the street. The house looked empty, and he waited until a car approached. Before they could see him, he ducked behind bushes alongside the house. The car stopped, and he saw Zoya’s husband get out with a woman with red boots, and a short skirt. She looked familiar, and he remembered the night looking for a prostitute. The man kissed the girl, and they stumbled like they were drunk. He must have put Zoya in the hospital. When they reached the front door, he took out his gun, and loaded a dart into it. The man saw him, and pointed a finger in his direction.

“What do you want?”

“For you to stop hurting Zoya.”

“I didn’t do anything to my wife. Did she tell you that I did?”

He shook his head. “No, I just know you’re a jerk.”

The woman leaned against the door adjusting her hair. “Let’s go,” she said.

“Get out of here before I call the police,” the man said, and turned toward the house.

Petya took a deep breath and pulled the trigger. The dart penetrated the man’s rear end.

“Damn it,” he yelled, and collapsed to one knee. “Call the police!” he said.

“Not me,” the girl said. Petya ran down the street, and tossed the gun into a waste bin that he passed.


A pack of dogs walked down the steps into the metro station, until they reached the area where people boarded departing trains. Petya followed, and saw a light coming toward them from the end of the tunnel. The dogs stood among the other passengers waiting on the platform until the train screeched to a stop, and the passengers entered the train. They waited until everyone else got on, before they stepped forward just before the door closed. Petya leaped on when the train started moving, and fell onto a bench. The terrier from the junkyard was curled up in a ball next to him. It was the same one that Zoya had held out to him. When he reached out his hand the dog sniffed it, and put its head down, allowing him to pet it. Petya looked at the map, searching for the stop closest to the hospital; the thought of Zoya, and the feel of the dog’s fur, spread warmth through him as the train headed into the darkness.[/private]

William Falo’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Delinquent, Delivered, Mississippi Crow, Bottom of the World, Cantaraville, 34th Parallel, Skyline Review, First Edition, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Oak Bend Review, The Linnet’s Wings, The View From Here, Open Wide Magazine, and many others. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.




Ipatiev House by Louise Phillips

Butka:

A priest visits the village once a month to perform the Sacred Mysteries. On the first Sunday in March he is very late for a baptism. It gets stuffy in the hall where the villagers are waiting. The women rock their unbaptised babies and the men lean outside to peer down Lenin Street. Smoky breath moistens their noses. Nests sway on the tips of bare trees against the white sky.

[private]The batushka arrives with moonshine on his breath. His cheeks are flushed with crimson stipples. He leads toasts after each christening and leaves the final baby in the baptismal font. Only the baby’s mother notices. She pulls her son out of the basin and looks reprovingly at her husband, who was preoccupied with the toast. The soaking wet baby is unperturbed; the priest is impressed. He announces that this baby is a warrior and names him ‘Boris.’

Even though she will have two more children, Borka remains extra special to his mother Klavdia. Sometimes she catches him observing her with an expression of real shrewdness on his face. He loves music. No one in the village owns a radio but their neighbour comes over with his fiddle specifically to play for Boris Nikolayevich, who waves his fists in the air and sways back and forth on his bandy baby legs.

The villagers work on the collective farm. There is a river, brown and stagnant in the summer and frozen for the rest of the year. At night, leashed dogs bark and beams of starlight oscillate, while the river and Butka’s wooden buildings are swallowed up by the darkness of the Siberian plain.

Novgorod Oblast:

Borka is on the roof of a railway carriage, somewhere between Novgorod and Moscow. He has grown into a tall and handsome man, just as the women in the barak in Bereznicki said he would. He is self-conscious about his missing thumb and index finger, which he lost as a schoolboy when he pinched a grenade from an ammunition depot during the Great Patriotic War. It’s a story he tries to avoid telling. He is just thankful it was his left hand.

He is travelling across the country after his first year of engineering studies at the Ural State Technical University. His first year at the UPI was a success. He made lifelong friends and met his wife Anastasia, ‘Naina.’ His friends remember his fondness for drinking sugary condensed milk straight out of the blue cans.

Borka has passed hundreds of wheat fields, birch forests, lakeside settlements, and desolate wood churches. He has seen the Winter Palace and the Kremlin, and he has watched the setting sun turn the Neva River pink.

He sleeps on benches in train stations and parks. When police officers question him he says he’s on his way to visit his grandmother. When they ask for her address he says, ‘Lenin Street’ and makes up a number. He’s hungry, but Boris Nikolayevich is used to hunger and hardship. By his sixth year he was in charge of minding Mikhail and Valentina. In the summers he used to scythe grass with his mother.

He has grown accustomed to the rocking motion and enjoys waking up with the wind on his face. The train speeds past a white cathedral topped with gold onion domes. The sunset is blinding, nectarine with navy blue clouds.

Sverdlovsk:

Boris joined the Party when he turned thirty. He’d stayed in Sverdlovsk after university, where he was assigned a position as foreman. The biggest industry in town is the Ural Heavy Machine Building Plant. By the seventies, eighty-seven percent of Sverdlovsk’s production is military. The city is closed to foreigners. Boris loves it; the white skies and the trams sweeping down its broad streets; the Soviet constructivist architecture and turquoise baroque buildings from the old days. Members of the secret police live downtown in a ten-storey collective housing complex shaped like a hammer and sickle. There is a large military presence, a couple of bases. There’s a top-secret biological weapons facility at Military Compound 19.

The Bolsheviks brought the last Tsar and his family to Sverdlovsk, back when it was called Yekaterinburg. The elegant home of N. N. Ipatiev was appropriated for the prisoners. ‘Citizen Nicholas Romanov, you may enter.’ The Romanovs were held for seventy-eight days in the House of Special Purpose before they were executed in the cellar, the whole family. It’s not a pleasant story. The Ipatiev House was declared a national monument a few years ago, but now suddenly the Politburo wants it gone before the eightieth anniversary of the coronation.

The Chair of the Committee for State Security for the USSR ordered the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk District Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR to destroy the Ipatiev House.

‘It’s practically downtown,’ Boris Nikolayevich remarks when he reads Andropov’s memorandum. ‘Let’s do the job at night to avoid a fuss.’

The first secretary of the Sverdlovsk District Committee puts the matter out of his head. His new jurisdiction stretches across the entire district, 4.72 million people. His word is final. It’s like being a tsar. Boris Nikolayevich loves being first secretary. He gets migraines, though, ‘like the tortures of hell.’ He relaxes by hunting, fishing, and with periodic sprees in restaurants and private homes. He conducts balalaika orchestras and Georgian male choirs with his fork and keeps time with his spoon. Yuri Vizbor is a favourite. The Song of the Old Street Organ Player, those songs. He always joins in.

On the night of the demolition Boris is leading a sing-along with members of his apparat when he has an impulse to visit the site. It’s late September and chilly at night. The moon looks full.

Boris Nikolayevich arrives at the Ipatiev House wearing a pale grey kubanka. It matches his thick hair, which has turned silver. The workers snap to attention but the first secretary puts them at ease with his playful mood:

‘Hello there Comrades, are you looking for something to break? ’

Boris Nikolayevich crowns one of the bulldozer drivers with his kubanka. He is drinking from a flask and has the look of a man determined to enjoy himself.

It takes some doing to demolish the building. N.N. Ipatiev’s house was well-built. The wrecking ball smashes the thick stone walls of the dinning room. Neighbours watch from their windows. Boris Nikolayevich’s spirits plummet with every swing. He grows maudlin and depressed and cries out, ‘He was a husband and a father like any one of us!’ He does not stay to watch the boy in the grey kubanka drive the bulldozer through the corner room where the ex-Tsar, his wife and the ailing ex-Tsarevich Alexis slept.

Birmingham:

It’s all been secretly arranged by their host. There are snacks, comfortable chairs, and a television in the adjacent room.

‘Look,’ he says, ‘I think it’s agreed that we warmly welcome the Belfast Agreement, acknowledge that it presents challenges to all parties, and hope that it will achieve the widest possible support.’

The host looks at his watch and closes his binder. He tells them it’s 4pm and his team Newcastle is playing Arsenal in the F.A. Cup final.

‘And you just gotta watch them play, that right Tony?’ Bill says. He’s beaming. He personally likes to keep everyone waiting while he greets the public, and appreciates a well-executed assertion of dominance.

Jacques is excited, ‘Arsenal has a French manager and there is also a French attacker, Nicolas Anelka, he is very strong. Who is in your Newcastle defence, do you find them strong?’

‘Well, we’ve got …’ Tony laces his fingers and shows Jacques his palms. He smiles with his lips pressed together. They all hear the second hand on the clock mark eight seconds. ‘Look. Let’s see … In the back we’ve got Stuart Pearce.’

Boris Nikolayevich’s hair has gone white. He’s a real Arctic fox now! He’s thinner and paler since his heart attacks and quintuple coronary bypass less than two years ago. In March he dismissed his entire cabinet and appointed a new prime minister who has just been confirmed by the Duma. It must be apparent to everyone that Boris Nikolayevich has not slowed down, not for one second!

Boris sits between Helmut and Ryutaro during the game. Jacques says ‘hop!’ every time Anelka gets the ball. Helmut explains the offside rule to Bill. Romano teases Tony about all the Italian players on the pitch. Ryutaro and Jean look bored and unimpressed. Ryutaro wants to smoke even though he’s wearing a nicotine patch. Jean remarks that the Newcastle strip, ‘is like the uniform of our hockey referees.’ Newcastle loses and Tony says, ‘I’m gutted.’ It is Russia’s second summit as a full member of this club, and Boris Nikolayevich enjoys every second.

Rublyovka:

There are heavily guarded villages of haciendas, Georgian fortresses and Prairie Style mega-mansions in the pine forests just outside of the capital. Hockey players and oligarchs shop in the new Barvikha Luxury Village. They buy knitwear at Loro Piana and silk V-neck sweaters at Ermenegildo Zegna. A billboard on Rublyovskoye Shosse says, ‘Any House. Helicopter as a bonus.’

Boris Nikolayevich is on the dacha. They have an apartment in the city but have spent most of their time since his retirement in Rublyovka at Gorki-9, where Mikhail Sergeyevich used to stay. Of all people.

Borka still gets up at 6am. He drinks tea and makes phone calls. He walks around the house jiggling the change in his pocket, looking for attention. He’s frail; his health is not good. He brings baskets of carrots and sliced apples to the stables. He feeds his pets, two mares and a stallion from the President of Kazakhstan. People were always giving him horses. He doesn’t ride but it soothes him to press his cheek against their muzzles and murmur in their velvety ears. He wants to create a world club of former leaders, elders who can exert a moral influence on the global stage of a multipolar world.

His bodyguard asks him about Vladimir Vladimirovich. Boris says, ‘No sane man weighs every word so carefully.’ He tells his guard he was intrigued by Vladimir Vladimirovich because he was so brusque and closed about his personal life. They take a tour of the grounds in a golf cart. Boris Nikolayevich drives. It gives him a thrill to drive very fast towards a tree and veer away at the last possible second. He’ll have some of Naina’s pierogies for lunch, and he’s going to watch the tennis this afternoon.[/private]

Louise Phillips lives in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in Dream Catcher, 3AM Magazine, the The Copperfield Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Delinquent, and The Dirty Napkin.




Free by Polina Klyukina

The Simferopol train and dusty wool blankets. The train conductor with her tangled black locks and her bowing-and-scraping “shh” in the phrase “Hush now, girls, hush now;” the clinking of the metal tea-glass holders. The rail-thin female convicts, puffy with drink, are crawling back home to Novosibirsk. The road consists of short stories about other people’s long lives and the smiling phrase “Now don’t you go being afraid of us,” there between the loudspeakers and the inner ear membranes. The embarrassed passengers cover up children’s ears at the words “little bitch” and listen curiously to stories about murderers as cellmates.

[private]The car is silent: Sveta is talking about Lyokha, the cannibal from Block Three, and sweet human meat. Calmly, she describes the uncle she killed, as if it were the rude saleslady.

“He used to treat my grandma real bad, he’d smother her with the plastic bag from a loaf of bread and rap two fingers on the table whenever he asked for money.” Sveta taps her plastic nails on her knee. Alyona agrees with her, adding, “People like that need to never even get born at all, much less live their lives; I would’ve also … except I’ve got kids, they’d never forgive a mother who was a murderer.”

They’ve left behind them tons of innocent people, guilty only of rapping on their knees the same way. They don’t throw their cigarette butts on the floor for fear of being put in the hole for ten days, and they don’t buy things on the cheap from their cellmates so they won’t get their parole deferred. Parole is a term that gets heard a lot but is rarely explained. It’s like the long-awaited pa-royal treatment, or pa-roll in the hay: all it means is getting out before your sentence is up. But lots of the ones looking through bars (ones like, for example, Alyona) decode this term differently: pa-rope to hang their husbands with, or else their relatives, whoever locked them up for a couple of years. You can always give the rap on your fellow inmates, you’ll get out earlier, but you won’t get any respect. “My whole life, it’s like my whole life is gone …”

As they approach Novgorod, they start seeing abandoned little shacks, with long, straight rows of potato plants sticking up out of the ground. They are right next to enormous white brick dachas protected by barbed wire, with little holes in the walls for cats.

“I can’t f … believe we’re back!”

“I’m gonna get the kids back out of the orphanage! My little girl is starting school this year.”

An elderly woman catches up to Alyona and Sveta on the platform:

“Hey, Alyona! Alyona! Here, take some money, you’re going to see your kids, after all. What were you in for, anyway?”

Alyona pushes the woman back. “I stole three million …” The woman shoves the money in her pocket and trudges heavily past the train cars.

“Just don’t go and get back at ‘em, girls, don’t get back at your relatives; you’ve done real good, you got out, now just don’t go and get back at ‘em!”

Months go by. Other Alyonas and Svetas fill the prison cells and the Novgorod walls accrete more layers.

It’s been six months now since Sveta returned to her grandmother’s widowed house, its unswept floor covered in spruce needles. She put away the glasses that were on the table, moved the stools out of the middle of the room, and freed the icons from their black drapes. As she went out to the courtyard, she knocked over an overflowing enamel bucket and bumped into Tamara. This old lady had always seemed like she was part of the worn window divided into two unequal triangles by a meandering crack. No one in the village knew who this woman was waiting for, except maybe her husband, who replaced her in the window from time to time. They nodded habitually to passersby without ever smiling and didn’t shoo off the dirty urchins playing in the mud with a tractor gear.

“‘lo, Aunt Tamara!” Aunt Tamara gave her usual nod, muttered an aside, and turned away, and to her silhouette was added a silhouette in a cap. Sveta glanced at the clock and remembered that it was suppertime. In prison camp, this was when they used to take the lids off cauldrons of porridge, belching their burnt smell.

Alyona arrived at Uprising Street, made it to the fifteenth building on the auto-pilot she still hadn’t lost even after the camp, and went into apartment thirty-nine. She went in by herself. She sat down on a stool by herself and by herself she turned on the gas. She hadn’t ended up getting her kids back, since her husband had filed a denunciatory scrawl with the district court that, like an ink blot, marred her already far from spotless motherhood. In the kitchen, the radio peeped out nine o’clock, started singing about dreams in a male voice, and imperceptibly went quiet, leaving behind a familiar, unobtrusive “shhhh,” which gradually faded into the “sss” of the gas.

An hour later, the neighbours from apartment forty, who’d started coughing uncontrollably, opened the windows in apartment thirty-nine and called an ambulance to pick up the dead woman.

The stray dogs were barking furiously, upset at their interrupted sleep; the little boys were getting their heavy-toothed disc stuck in the muddy road, growling and making sound effects with every move.

“Wait, boys, let me just get by.” Sveta was headed for her relatives, and was stepping in every stirred-up puddle. She’d put on a bead necklace, bought some wine, and said a prayer for mercy and forgiveness for all. When she arrived, she knocked on the kitchen window, but when no one came, she went into the outer hallway. It smelled like the frost was drunk. Her brother was sleeping on a mattress, surrounded by colorful cigarette butts. He didn’t notice either the tired barking, or the children’s laughter at the gear stuck in the mud, or Sveta’s appearance in the room.

“Pasha, Pasha, I got out, Pasha, I’m back!”

The courtyards turned morose. Sveta was going back home and was angry at the prayer that hadn’t done her any good. In her hand she carried a thread with the remainder of her beads on it and all the way back to her house she kept repeating “I hate ‘em all!” – familiar words to the cell. She took off her boots, walked in, and started shuffling over to the stove, but feeling a sudden pain, she looked around at the porch. It was the leftovers from the funeral: once the spruce needles had turned into sewing needles, they’d waited that whole time for someone’s feet. Sveta poured iodine over the pinpricks and limped herself over to bed on her tip-toes.

“Sveta! Sveta! Something’s wrong with my old man! Sveta, we’ve got to get an ambulance! Wake up, dummy!” Tamara, wrapped in a calico-print housecoat and holding her shawl in her hand, stood in the doorway. “He can’t talk at all, he’s just moaning something, Sveta, go for help, go right now, or else he’s gonna die!” Forty minutes later the ambulance ambled, rather than raced, up to help Tamara.

“Now what are you all panicked about? Old age is just like that…”

Neither Tamara nor Sveta could sleep that night. It took Sveta three pots of mint tea to recount several years of incarceration and a couple days of freedom. “They took everything from me, the bitches,” combining her brother and the prison camp in the same word, taking a deep drag and, apologising each time, spitting on the floor. She sobbed, wiping the tears into her crude cheekbones and embracing “dear Aunt Tamara, my favourite, my best gramma.”

She came back home at noon. She took the clock off the wall, turned on the radio, and caught the song about dreams, then got to work on the needles on the porch. It wasn’t until evening, when the grey stream of warmth from the oven had swallowed the peeling walls, that Sveta wrote her letter:

“Hey, Alyona! Hello, little sister! It’s hard for you, right? It is for me too. My house isn’t mine any more. Now I fall asleep on my grandmother’s bed looking at that same floor, where he was lying, rapping his fingers on the table, remember? It’s really cold here. Almost as cold as in the cell. I stoke up the stove and choke nights from the smoke. Turns out that’s what freedom smells like: carbon monoxide.

Alyona, so how are you? I can just imagine how happy you are now! You probably go and get the kids in the evening, and you all go for a walk around town. Then you come home and make supper together, and you put them to bed as you sing one of your dumb little songs, like Dreams Come True

Alyona, everything’s really hard for me these days, but summer will come, there won’t be any smoke, it won’t be cold, and I’ll probably even find another place to live. And I was here thinking, maybe I could just go on and move in with you in town? Alyona, we can do it. I promise you. We did it in prison camp, we did it with dignity, but here … Alyona, here we’re free.”[/private]

Translated by Annie Fisher

Polina Klyukina was born in 1986 in the city of Perm in the Urals. She is currently studying at the Moscow Literary Institute and the Publishing University’s Department of Journalism. Her stories have appeared in leading literary magazines. She was a finalist in the Debut Prize in 2008.