7,700 Words

(Translated from Russian by Alex Shvartsman)

Firstly, my name is Marcus.

Grandma sumtimes calls me Marcy. Marcy is a girls name.

I should make her stop caling me by a girls name. But I cant. She washed my soiled diapers when I was litle. She didnt sleep nites. She personaly received me from the stork. She pulled me from the cabbage patch. She did loads of other stuff for me too.

So I cant make her. I can only ask. Ask her not to call me Marcy in front of polite society. (That’s how Grandma says it: “In front of polite society.”) Also, not to call me Bunny.

But sumtimes she forgets. Sumtimes she calls me Marcy. Or Bunny. I roll my eyes and make “that face,” and she apologizes and buys icecream.

She calls me “Marco Polo” only when she wants to needle me. Like when I did sumthing wrong. One time, after she did that, I called her an old crone. She was very upset.

Secondly, write your name at the bottom.

Thirdly: I AM SERIOUS.

P.S. Ostriches.

Ostriches? What do ostriches have to do with anything, Marcus thought.

The note turned out even dumber than usual. But sometimes you have to do dumb things in order to achieve clever results.

Marcus rips the sheet from his notepad. On the back, it says “October 17” and “Homework” in neat letters, very different from the chicken scratch of the note. That’s because he wrote the note just now, while riding on the metro station escalator, but the date he wrote back home, on Grandma’s desk, under her stern gaze. Not the real her, but her portrait where she’s still young, sporting a killer hairdo and a smartly starched shirt.

The rest of the back of the sheet is blank. He never finished the composition about autumn.

The escalator has almost reached the bottom, and time is running out.

Marcus reviews the note. Everything seems in place, exactly as it should be. Even the “October 17” and “Homework” written on the back. Even the mention of “soiled diapers,” which Grandma would have raised her eyebrow at. Sorry, Grandma. It’s necessary.

Everything is in place. All that’s missing is the title. Every important document has an official title, like “Report” or “Declaration” or “Certificate.” In this case he could go with an “Agreement” or even a “Contract.” But too much honesty can be a bad thing in what he’s attempting. Sometimes it’s better to do without a title. He writes at the top of the page in large, messy letters: “UNTILTED.”

Perfect. The letters form a pattern, whisper urgently to each other, grasp at each other as if getting ready for a circle dance.

Marcus jumps off the escalator and shoves the notepad into his backpack as he runs. His steps echo across the empty station, but are quickly drowned out by the sound of an approaching train. His heart skips. Is he too late?

No. The train arrives on the right side of the platform. He needs the left.

He sees the girl—woman?—standing at the very edge of the platform, staring into the darkness of the tunnel.

She’s probably too old to be in high school. Marcus isn’t good at estimating people’s ages. Some dress like teenagers well into their fifties while others look like young retirees while they’re still attending school. Some, like Grandma, glow as though they’re filled to the brim with fireflies, while others are filled only with darkness and bitter smoke from an extinguished candle.

The woman across the platform is among the latter. She looks like a sad outer shell of a nesting doll after someone removed everything inside.

§

He follows her because he needs a guide.

The underpass at Serpukhovsky Square is too long to cross on one’s own. Almost endless. It’s poorly lit, and although it seems harmless, no one in their right mind should brave it alone.

Marcus knows: underpasses lie in wait, stalking lonely pedestrians whose disappearance would not be noticed by the passers-by. And once an underpass captures its victim, it never lets go. At first one wouldn’t even notice that anything is wrong. They’d walk on and on, barely registering that the underpass seems longer than usual. Then they’d realize that there is no exit ahead. They’d turn around and see only darkness.

Marcus feels relatively safe in short underpasses, even when he’s alone. He can walk and talk on a cell phone. Even if his interlocutor doesn’t see him, their voice is a decent anchor. But the Serpukhovsky Square underpass is too long. Also, the battery in Marcus’s phone is dead.

That’s why he needs a guide.

She walks past him, shoulders slumped, face hidden under a hood.

Marcus follows, then overtakes her and walks a few steps in front of her, making sure she can see him. He turns around often. After all, that’s an honest bargain: she guides him, and he guides her.

When they cross the underpass, she lingers a few moments and turns toward the metro station. She is almost out of sight when Marcus realizes he had to catch up to her right away.

§

A gust of wind from the tunnel caresses her blond hair. Marcus can’t see her face, but he’s sure she isn’t smiling. He’s certain she hasn’t smiled for a long time.

Marcus feels her pain. Not as though he’s experiencing it himself; it’s more like watching a YouTube video of a dying dog. (What kind of a person films and posts a thing like that?)

From within the tunnel he can already hear the oncoming train. He can see the glimmers from its headlights reflecting against the rails. Marcus takes a deep breath and approaches the woman. He touches her arm gently to gain her attention, and offers her the note.

These days it’s naïve to assume that a person would accept something from a stranger. This might never work on the street in daylight. But there’s something about the empty subway platform at night that makes Marcus believe she’ll take the note. Then it will be up to the words. They have to work. They must.

The nesting doll turns and looks at him with a mix of surprise and confusion. She accepts the note.

The train rumbles as it enters the station and comes to a stop.

§

The train leaves the station and she’s still reading the note trying to make sense of it. Did a child hand it to her?

She was certain she’d go through with it until the last moment. It would be easy to take just one step. She could have jumped out a window—that’s even easier, especially after a few glasses of Chardonnay. She couldn’t cut her veins, but stepping through a window? Sure. It’s only a single step, same as here.

But there’s something showy about jumping from a window. Something hysterical. “People will talk,” her mother would have said.

It may seem there’s nothing more showy and hysterical than stepping in front of an oncoming train, but Dahlia knows this not to be the case. Metro is such a lonely place, even in the middle of the day, in the middle of a crowd. Especially so at night.

She left her wallet at home. No one will recognize her. No one will search for her. Just another faceless statistic lost among the ones and zeroes of some database. Used to be a one, now a zero.

But she couldn’t do it in front of the child. Where did he come from, so late at night?

An old man pushes his cart out of the train car. He looks at Dahlia suspiciously, mutters something under his breath. The wheels of his cart squeak unpleasantly.

Dahlia realizes she’s shaking. Her head is swimming. Her feet feel weak. She needs to sit down. She was certain she’d go through with it, until the last moment.

She programmed herself to do it step by step, like the Curiosity Rover. Fly to Mars. Collect data. Send data home. Period. What does the rover do if it flies to Mars, but Mars isn’t there?

The rover reads Marcus’s note.

§

Please stand clear of the closing doors. Next stop, Tulskaya Station.

Marcus holds his breath like he always does when someone is reading one of his notes. It’s a little like a papier-mâché volcano school project: you set off the chemical reaction and don’t really expect it to work, but it always does.

The words are like that. They seem stupid, naïve. Childish. All the typos, the asides—they seem like nonsense, as though Marcus wrote them while suffering from a Tourette’s episode. They shouldn’t work but, like the volcano, they do.

This is why Marcus hates writing essays. It requires too much effort to string words together that make sense. In the end, they are just words. In the end, the volcano doesn’t erupt.

Marcus can tell exactly when she reaches the line about the ostriches. He offers her a ballpoint pen with a chewed plastic cap. Grandma’s vintage pen, made back in the Soviet times.

I hope she’s like the girls from school, thinks Marcus, because schoolgirls like to write their names on sheets of paper. They also like to draw hearts and kittens, but mostly they like to write their names.

§

The boy patiently waits for her to finish reading. He is small and wiry, and wears an old-fashioned checkered coat. The sort of coat parents like, but show it to a school bully and it will set them off like waving a red rag in front of a bull. He wears a huge blue backpack, square and silly-looking. A striped hat with a pompon.

Without really knowing why, Dahlia signs the note. The pen puts a small hole through the paper on the last letter.

Should the rover return to Earth if it fails to locate Mars? Can it?

Dahlia looks at the boy. He stares back silently.

She has to break the silence, so she says, “Now what?” Her voice is drowned out by the oncoming train on the opposite platform.

The boy looks at his watch and says, “Cat.”

“What?”

Please stand clear of the closing doors. Next stop, Polyanka Station.

“Cat!” he shouts over the announcement.

So, she heard right. “What do you mean, ‘cat’?” She asks the question realizing there can be no logical answer here. One of them must be nuts.

He waits for the noise of the departing train to abate, then explains with a note of long-suffering indulgence in his voice: “It’s exactly midnight now, so the new day has begun.” He looks at her, realizes she needs more details. The notes of indulgence in his voice crescendo into a symphony. “You know, like when you move into a new apartment, you have to let the cat in first. For luck. Capisce?”

New day? New apartment? Cat for luck? This smacks of surrealism. Maybe she’s gorged on too much Chardonnay and fell asleep? Or perhaps she took that step after all and is lying on the tracks right now like a broken doll, her dying brain hallucinating this conversation?

“Are you insane?”

“Grandma says I’m not.”

He gently takes the note from her and folds it over several times.

“What do you need my name for?”

Another train is approaching. It beckons.

Not in front of the child!

“Maybe I need it to steal your soul with voodoo. I’m kidding! Strictly speaking, I don’t need your name at all. In fact, you shouldn’t give out your name to strangers like this, next time. How do you know I’m not dangerous?” Then he adds, “I’m going to call you Nesting Doll. Do you like it?”

“Then I’ll call you Marcy.”

“Ha! Fine, then.” After a brief silence: “Just so you know, you signed the contract.”

He says “contract” in a way that makes Dahlia certain he’d write it with a capital C. Or in all caps.

Thirdly: I AM SERIOUS.

It’s like with a stray puppy: it finds you in the street and looks at you in that begging manner that only dogs can master. If you give it a piece of bread or even just glance at it, it’ll be ready to follow you to the ends of the earth. One glance and the puppy will make the decision for the both of you.

You’re forced to take the bus just so it can’t follow you, even though you’re only one stop away from home. You rationalize this to yourself: the puppy belongs to someone and you don’t want it to get lost following you around. This sort of inner monolog is tiresome and painful and it ruins your day: far better never to look at the stray puppy—and certainly not to give it bread—in the first place.

It’s really difficult not to ask, “What contract?” But she manages it. She marches toward the escalator.

§

The Nesting Doll—no, Dahlia, what an unusual name—forges ahead, her gaze filled with a hellish mix of anguish, exhaustion, and curiosity. She seems unhappy to be curious (as though she could presently be happy about anything at all), but there isn’t anything she can do about that. It’s the words in the note. They bewitch her.

They ride the escalator up. Dahlia begins walking up the stairs—some people are always in a rush, the speed of the escalator isn’t enough for them—but Marcus slides past her, stops a couple of steps ahead of her and turns to face her. The height of the steps places them eye to eye.

“You’re a quick one,” she says.

“Sure am.”

“Okay, fine. What’s the point of this contract? Not to call you Marcy?”

“That too.”

“Why would anyone call a boy that?”

“It’s because I’m adorable, like a girl. Everyone wants to pinch my cheeks.”

“I don’t.”

“You just don’t know me yet.”

She looks like an actor who studied her lines and dressed the part of Guildenstern only to enter the stage and find herself in the middle of a science fiction play about scientists studying cell division. The actors and the audience all stare at her waiting for some clever twist, but all she’s got is the “Happy, in that we are not over-happy” line.

“How old are you?” she asks.

“What, are you gonna ask me who I want to be when I grow up next?”

“I couldn’t care less.”

Yeah, right. Every single adult he talks to for more than a few moments invariably asks that question.

She looks at the note in his hand. Marcus also looks at it. Seemingly realizes what she’s thinking.

“If you’re wondering about the misspellings, they’re intentional. Part of the plan. Wanna know why?” She is quiet, but not in the leave-me-alone way, so Marcus continues. “First, to divert the focus of your attention. Cognitive dissonance. Our brains are designed to zero in on errors and paradoxes, and weird stuff. It’s like shock therapy for your mind. Drunk sailors riding zebras, that sort of thing.”

He could have diverted her attention in some other way too. Like maybe pull down his pants and pee onto the rails. But then Dahlia probably wouldn’t be talking to him now. At the moment, she’s looking at him as though he did pee on the rails. A typical adult reaction to his theories.

“That worked,” she says. “I missed my train. So, congratulations on all your success.”

“You should congratulate me on the fact that I changed your mind about jumping in front of that train.”

“I didn’t …” She trails off. Frowns. But she doesn’t turn away.

“I know you didn’t really change your mind. But, let’s say, you’ve rescheduled the performance.”

“So … now what?”

Marcus shrugs. The next and most important step is more difficult to explain. Important steps are like that, not easily expressed in words.

He says, “I’m going to rid you of your pain.”

§

I’m going to rid you of your pain. That’s what he said.

Little liar.

Dahlia knows this to be impossible.

They say time heals all wounds. But she knows time is more like a doctor: it diagnoses you, writes you prescriptions, and schedules follow-up visits. But it doesn’t heal.

Time prescribes you pain killers and vitamins, and you gullibly buy them and swallow them by the handful. By the time all your money is gone, you realize that the pain killers are no longer having their effect, and the vitamins make your stomach turn. You realize that the pain only got worse. That you can’t avoid thinking about it.

You can’t stop remembering, again and again—until you find yourself at the metro platform, waiting for the train to arrive so you can take one final step.

§

The nurse said something about “FD.” The doctor replied, “I see it.” Dahlia was on the exam table for the ultrasound, the doctor moving the probe across her belly covered in cold, sticky goo. Then the doctor told her to get dressed and handed her a napkin.

Dahlia had hated ultrasounds since she was a kid. The procedure always invoked something scary and dangerous. When the doctor explained that “FD” meant “fetal demise,” her childhood fears became realized.

She didn’t respond, and the doctor told her, “You’re holding up great. Don’t despair—you can still have kids.”

She stepped outside and saw women with protruding bellies—third trimester—hiding behind the gazebo while they smoked and gossiped. That’s when she began to cry.

She wasn’t holding up well at all.

§

Andrej said, “Everything will be all right, dear. We’ll try again. Time heals all wounds.”

He couldn’t have known that it would never be all right again.

She locked herself in the bedroom and stared at the wallpaper patterns.

From behind the door, he said, “I have to go to work.” He asked, “Can I come in and give you a kiss?”

“Go away,” she told him.

And then some unhinged manager shot up their office. Of course, Andrej tried to stop him. Three gunshot wounds to the chest. There wasn’t even time to call an ambulance.

All because the last thing she said to him was “Go away.”

If only she had let him in.

If only he had come in and kissed her, she would have told him, “Stay. Let’s look for patterns in the wallpaper together.”

If only.

§

“I can help you, but first you have to help me,” he says.

“It was stolen from me,” he says.

“You signed the contract,” he says.

Then he tells her, “At least walk me through the underpass,” and she thinks of stray puppies and she can’t refuse him. It’s one in the morning, it’s dark and cold, and who knows if there isn’t some maniac hiding in the shadows. When they exit the subway onto the street he tells her, “The hotel isn’t far away.” She thinks that’s reasonable: walk him to the hotel so he realizes his plan is no good and agrees to go home, or at least tells her his parents’ phone number.

They amble down some unfamiliar alley, snow in their faces. Dahlia doesn’t even know where they are anymore: still near Serpukhovskaya Metro station or all the way in Saint Petersburg.

“You’re definitely crazy,” she says.

“Grandma says I’m not.”

“Is your grandma a psychiatrist?”

“My grandma’s dead.”

Uncomfortable silence.

“I’m sorry.”

“We’re almost there,” Marcus says.

Dahlia realizes the subway is closed for the night, so she can’t complete the program of her Mars rover even if she wanted to. She could call a taxi and go home, drink her Chardonnay (there’s probably still a bottle left in the fridge) and then step out of the window. But her apartment is only on the third floor. She won’t feel better if she breaks her back.

Or she could spend the night staring at the patterns of her wallpaper again. They won’t be comforting; she’ll catch glimpses of the eyes and teeth of the monsters hidden within.

It’s as though Marcus hears her thoughts. “You signed the contract,” he says.

He looks at her sternly and she capitulates. “Fine. What are you trying to find?”

§

Grandma told him, “Don’t cry, kiddo. Everything will be fine.”

He really was a kid back then. About four years old. Old. By that logic, he’ll one day be seventy years young.

It was all the swing set’s fault. One of those squeaking monsters that can be found on every playground, irritating anyone within earshot. Except for kids, because kids aren’t bothered by the annoying noises. Kids are themselves the source of all things loud and unbearable.

The very existence of this swing set irritated Marcus. It was a trial. A test. The older kids, including the first-grader, told him that no one on the playground was considered a person until they swung all the way around. Marcus didn’t know how to do this. He was afraid. But he tried anyway.

He doesn’t remember what happened exactly, other than flying into the prickly embrace of a bush and then suffering a hellish pain in his knee. And the knowledge that nothing will ever be okay again.

Then he cried hysterically.

Grandma treated the bruises with rubbing alcohol, but he didn’t feel better. Maybe it wasn’t the skinned knee, maybe it was his wounded pride. Because when he flew into the bush, the older kids laughed like they expected him to fail. Someone said, “Wheee!” and added, “Cosmonaut!”

Grandma pulled a box from the shelf and told him, “Look. There will be magic.” But the right thing to say would have been, “Listen.”

She turned the key several times and opened the lid.

Marcus heard music. For a moment, he felt as though instead of sitting on a stool in the kitchen with puffy eyes and a skinned knee he was lying on his back on the surface of a huge ocean, with miles of warm saltwater underneath. A gentle sun warmed his face and slow waves rocked him and carried him somewhere far away.

Grandma closed the box.

Incredible! The knee didn’t hurt anymore. At all. Even the rubbing alcohol didn’t sting. Better yet, the memory of the embarrassing fall dissipated and faded away. It was like a scene featuring a bunch of strangers he saw in an old photograph. It no longer ate at him.

§

He didn’t understand what was happening at first.

He visited Grandma in her room. She was in bed, drowning in pillows and blankets—pre-war artifacts she might have received as wedding gifts. She often asked him to read to her, and Marcus always did. He read from Gone with the Wind, a terribly boring book.

Grandma grew tired quickly.

There was something wrong with Marcus too, but he didn’t understand what it was. It felt as though a monster nested in his chest, putting pressure on his heart. The monster made it difficult to breathe. He constantly wanted to cry. But why? He wasn’t the one who was ill.

Mom asked why he wasn’t visiting Grandma. He said, “I am.”

He would peek into her room, see her lying there without moving, breathing heavily. He would run away, hide in the closet among coats and jackets, and cry.

One time, an ambulance came. Paramedics said Grandma should go to the hospital.

Grandma said no. She said, “I want to die at home.”

But no one listened to her. Mom hugged her from one side. The paramedic supported her from the other. They led her to the front door.

Marcus hid in the closet and watched through the crack in the door. He couldn’t bear to see Grandma like this. But he also couldn’t bear to look away.

It was intolerably painful.

Grandma stopped. She turned and looked, seemingly, right at him. As though she knew he was there. She said, “I’m not going to fight you all, damn it.” Surprisingly, she smiled. It was a pained, pale smile, but it was a smile.

And then she said, “Let’s sit for a moment.” And, “Bring me the music box.”

Marcus wondered if she was talking to him, but Mom went and got it.

Marcus thought, why didn’t I think of that? And neither did Grandma? Why suffer when you can hide the pain away in the music box?

Grandma leaned over the music box, whispered something, and turned the key. She opened the box.

Marcus thought, now everything is going to be fine. He felt light and unburdened, as though someone had scooped out all his pain and fear.

And then he woke up, and Mom told him that Grandma had passed away in the hospital.

§

Something was wrong, but at first, he didn’t realize it.

There was a funeral followed by a wake. Strange people milled around the apartment. They patted him on the head, pitied him. They said, “Poor boy, you loved your grandmother so very much.”

But he didn’t feel a thing. It was as though she’d gone to the store, or left on vacation. Nothing to mourn.

He felt the others mourn. Grandma’s friend was in hysterics but he somehow knew that while she was sad, she wasn’t quite as upset as she made it seem. On the other hand, an old neighbor who would occasionally go with grandma for long walks in the park was far more distraught than he let show.

Far more distraught than Mom was.

But how could Marcus blame Mom if he felt nothing himself? Grandma was dead and he wanted to cry, really wanted to, but he couldn’t.

He also caught himself beginning to forget some of the details about her, as though she had been some insignificant stranger. An unfamiliar old woman in someone’s photo journal.

And then he realized: the music box.

She hadn’t hidden away her pain. She’d hidden his pain.

He also realized he wanted his pain back.

He found the music box and turned the key. It played “Polonaise Farewell” by Oginski and nothing else happened. His pain didn’t come back. He punched the music box, shook it, wound it up all the way. Nothing. The stupid box didn’t work.

Later he picked up a kitten in the yard. It was dirty, wet, and scared. He gave it a saucer of milk and wrapped it in Mom’s Angora wool blanket. But the kitten wouldn’t stop trembling. Whenever Marcus let it go, it hid in the farthest corner under the bed.

Marcus thought that perhaps the music would calm it down. He found the music box in the desk drawer, turned the key and opened it. The box played only a few notes of the polonaise before it stopped, but that was enough. After hearing the music, the kitten climbed out from under the bed and lapped the milk. Marcus’s knee hurt for several days afterward.

That’s how he learned that you can’t simply put the pain away in the music box, or retrieve it. You can only trade one pain for another.

And then the music box disappeared.

§

Marcus finishes the note and shows it to Dahlia. It says:

I am cold and my cellfone batery died and I have to wait for Mom. Please may I wait inside?

Also please can I have sum TEA?

Dahlia looks at Marcus skeptically, then at the night desk clerk, whom she can clearly see through the window. This plan might have worked if the clerk were female. Better yet, an older woman. But behind the counter she sees a young man, the unyielding sort who follows rules to the letter in hopes of accelerating his climb up the corporate ladder, or at least earning a bonus. It’s unlikely that the company handbook covers letting strange children warm up in the lobby, let alone making them tea.

“You’re underestimating the power of words,” says Marcus. “Here I go.”

Dahlia wants to stop him, to say that she doesn’t believe this plan will work, that this is all madness and that she’s done, but Marcus marches inside and looks pleadingly at the clerk as he hands him the note. And then the clerk is pointing Marcus toward the couch in the lobby and heads somewhere deeper into the bowels of the hotel. She can hardly believe it.

While Dahlia ponders if perhaps she should make her escape now that the night clerk seems to have taken responsibility for the child and she no longer has the excuse of “I can’t leave him alone on the street at night,” Marcus retrieves the key he needs from its slot behind the counter, runs out the front door and drags Dahlia inside.

§

He hands her a flashlight and tells her to point it down, and then she is inside and the door closes behind her, and she wonders, how the hell does he do that?

The hotel room is cool and smells pleasantly of men’s cologne.

Dahlia leans with her back against the door, behind which she can hear the boy’s receding footsteps.

She clicks the flashlight on. Its dim beam barely penetrates the darkness. A useless toy. She feels along the wall for a switch and flips it on. Let there be light.

There’s an open suitcase on the floor, shirts and socks hanging over all four of its edges as though they were crawling to freedom, but Dahlia’s presence forced them to temporarily play dead. Andrej would never be this messy, she thought. Her own suitcase might look like this, but Andrej always packed with neat, practical efficiency.

Dahlia hates going through other people’s things. Even when she was a kid she never looked in her mom’s handbag without asking. More than anything, she wants to grab the little troublemaker by his shirttails, and make him rummage through these clothes himself. She chases away the cowardly idea of leaving and telling Marcus that she searched the room and found no music box.

After all, she’s bound by contract. No one forced her to write her name on that silly piece of paper. No one but her is to blame for ending up in this stupid situation. But then, her bloody corpse lying on the rails would have been even more stupid. And even more scary.

She recalls the game she used to play as a child, whenever she was alone and bored, waiting for something. She could pretend she was a little princess, transplanted to a strange world by the power of unknowable magic. Or, perhaps, she’s an alien invader who sneaks into the neighborhood library to get her hands on the valuable tome about the adventures of Tarzan.

Neither scenario quite fits her current predicament. Perhaps she’s James Bond, set out to save the world from her latest nemesis. If so, then her clothes are chockfull of cool spy gadgets and she isn’t afraid of this room’s tenant. Also, if she were James Bond, she’d be buzzed on martinis and ready to overcome any obstacle.

She looks inside the wardrobe, the nightstand, the fridge. She checks under the pillow, the mattress, the bed. She even tries the windowsill behind the curtain and moves the painting on the wall, looking for a hidden safe. She pushes the clothes in the suitcase around with the tail end of her flashlight.

Nothing. There’s no music box. Even James Bond is powerless in this predicament.

Dahlia turns off the light and gets ready to make her escape when she remembers the restroom. Maybe the box is hidden inside the toilet tank? As she’s checking the tank, she hears the front door creak. She hears cautious footsteps. Someone enters the hotel room, stops in front of the restroom door. She hears breathing. Dahlia waits, motionless. From the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror: a ridiculous, disheveled woman in an unkempt down jacket, holding the flashlight above her head like a club.

She can’t stop herself from snorting.

Marcus whispers from behind the door, “Are you in the bathroom?” Without waiting for a response, he opens the door. “Quit wasting time.” He sounds cheerful. He seems like he’s barely holding himself back from giving her a hug. He must’ve been afraid she would split.

The elevator dings in the corridor.

Marcus’s face turns somber. “It’s him.”

She doesn’t have to ask who he means. The tenant of this room has become synonymous with something scary and relentless.

There’s a sound of approaching footsteps, softened by the hallway’s carpet but distinct in the quiet of the night. Dahlia thinks, maybe this is somebody else, headed to another room. Marcus isn’t so optimistic. He turns off the light, grabs her by the hand and pulls her toward the closet. She stumbles over the suitcase in the dark. They get inside the closet. Marcus pulls its door closed just as the front door is opening.

§

Marcus thinks maybe he should not have turned off the light. Or at least shouldn’t have shut the closet door tight. Inside the dark closet, he feels the same way he does in a dark underpass.

Perhaps closets are branches of the underpass. Small field offices. Especially the closet that belongs to That Man.

As well as That Man, himself.

He showed up out of nowhere, looking like he was put together from the faults and flaws of ten different people. People who got chewed up and swallowed by the underpass.

What if the underpass is hunting him?

What if this is a trap?

What if That Man appeared just so he could lure Marcus here?

What if That Man isn’t a man at all, but a golem, a Frankenstein’s monster built out of flaws? Built out of all the things Marcus hates?

Marcus thinks it may not help that there are two of them, so long as each of them feels alone. Perhaps the underpass is capable of swallowing both of them at once. Perhaps they’ll never get out of here alive.

Marcus squeezes Dahlia’s hand.

§

Dahlia thinks she was probably wrong: lying dead on the tracks would be preferable to this.

And then the lights come on and an unfamiliar voice says, “Come out, Marcus. I know you’re there.”

Marcus squeezes her hand tighter as though to say: don’t answer. He can’t possibly know I’m here.

“You come out too, young lady,” the voice adds.

§

“This is ridiculous,” says Dahlia.

“Not at all,” says Marcus.

“It is. Haven’t you heard of Occam’s razor?”

“I’m too young to shave. Just kidding. Yeah, I heard of it. Outdated thinking. The world is much more complex than it appears.”

“Okay, suppose you’re right. Suppose dinosaurs never existed and all those bones and skulls and stuff are fake. Who do you think is behind that? Who benefits?”

They’re sitting in the hotel lobby. This deep scientific discussion is a passable distraction for Dahlia, so she doesn’t have to think about what happened upstairs. About how she helped a child break into a stranger’s room. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so bad if the stranger had shouted at her. She could’ve shouted back, could’ve gotten into an argument. The great thing about arguments is that even if you begin with the full knowledge that you’re wrong, when you keep it up long enough you begin to buy into your own statements until you’re certain there is no version of truth other than your own.

But the man calmly introduced himself as Igor. He said that Marcus’s mother would be there in twenty minutes. And that they could wait at reception. That the night clerk had tea and cookies. And that he, Igor, would gladly invite them to wait in the room, except he is certain Marcus wouldn’t assent.

Marcus exited the closet with all the dignity of a crown prince who was caught in the act of playing the ukulele, and left the room without saying a word to Igor.

So, they’re sitting in the lobby and Marcus is eating a cookie, folding a magazine page into a paper dinosaur, and saying utter nonsense.

“There are lots of options. At a minimum, it benefits the paleontologists. What a wonderful idea, to make up their own profession! I bet they have a secret society, with initiation rites and decoder rings. They get grants, business trips, plenty of fresh air working outdoors. I mean, I’m not judging. It’s not like they were the first to do something like this.”

“Oh? And who was the first?”

“That’s obvious: mathematicians! Physics, chemistry, the exact sciences—I get that. They study the real world. But math is pure abstraction. Hi, Mom!”

Marcus switches the subject so smoothly, for a second Dahlia thinks this may be another one of his games. She turns around.

“Mom, this is Dahlia. Dahlia, Mom.”

Dahlia thinks back to when her own mother brought her to school for the first time. How she stared at all the other moms, evaluating them.

Everyone else’s mom was dressed and made up according to the latest fashion, wearing fancy haircuts and designer purses. Her own mom seemed out of place, like an old Ford sedan that mistakenly drove onto the floor of the auto show displaying the latest sports cars.

Marcus’s mom would have been a Lexus or even a Lamborghini of that group. She was tall, pretty, very well put together. Even after spending half a night searching for her son, her makeup was perfect.

Marcus’s mom doesn’t look at Dahlia. She looks at Marcus. Silently.

Dahlia knows this silent treatment. Her own mother used it when fifteen-year-old Dahlia didn’t come home one evening. Mom stayed up all night waiting for her, then worked her shift at the warehouse. And when she came home and saw her sleepy, hung-over daughter, she didn’t say one word. Despite her fiery temperament, there was no “You’re punished.” No “You’re grounded.” Only a tired silence.

The silence grows awkward.

Finally, Marcus’s mom says, “Dahlia, thank you for watching after Mark.”

That’s how she says it: Mark. This version wasn’t on Marcus’s list. It takes Dahlia a moment to realize she’s talking about him.

She should say something, but she’s afraid. She fears that the evening will end, they will leave and she will be alone with her thoughts.

Marcus’s mom says, “I bought a really nice Darjeeling today. How do you feel about it?”

Dahlia has no idea what Darjeeling is, but she feels fine about it. Just fine.

§

The wind blows snowflakes through the open window.

Marcus finishes his bowl of soup in silence, with a dignified submissiveness of a political prisoner, and is sent to bed.

In the kitchen, his mom, Vika, nervously smokes a long thin cigarette as she talks.

Dahlia drinks tea and listens.

Dahlia can’t help but think the kitchen suits its owner: everything here is new, clean, shiny. Impersonal. But then she sees a string of dried mushrooms hanging on a nail. It draws her eye and makes her comfortable, a humanizing touch among the unbearable sterility of perfection.

Vika says, “He’s just like my mother. She used to bring home all manner of critters. Healed them and fed them and warmed them up. People, too. Like she knew when they needed it, if you know what I mean?”

Then Vika says, “I don’t blame you for getting involved. It’s impossible to say no to Mark. Mother was the only one who could rein him in.”

Dahlia doesn’t respond and it doesn’t seem like her response is needed. She’s trying to figure out whether this woman realizes that her son is hiding behind the door, listening. He must be, if she learned anything about him at all this evening.

“Mother’s death is really hard on him.”

(No, but I’d like it to be, Marcus thinks. He’s sitting on the floor in the corridor, his cheek plastered against the kitchen door. He’s wearing pajamas with kittens and bunnies on them.)

Vika says, “It was to be expected. Mark doesn’t accept Igor. Doesn’t want to let him in.”

Dahlia thinks doesn’t accept is putting it mildly.

“Too many shocks in too short a period of time,” says Vika. “Igor and I were going to get married. Did Mark tell you? We had to postpone it. Not that it’s going to bring her back.”

Dahlia thinks: I can’t judge her. I understand exactly what she means. She remembers what it was like to love someone. When the rest of the world and its details, large and small, seemed insignificant and unimportant.

“Do you know what he was looking for? At Igor’s?” Vika asks.

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Have you tried asking him anything?”

Dahlia thinks there’s no harm in telling her. The look on this woman’s face is proof enough she’s ready to hear any answer. If she says Marcus planned kidnapping and murder, Vika might not be surprised.

“He wanted to find some sort of a music box. He thought it was hidden at the hotel.”

“Oh my God.”

Dahlia is waiting for Vika to add something, but she doesn’t. Instead, she puts out the cigarette and banishes the ashtray to the balcony. Then she calls out, “Mark, bring me my bag.”

Clearly, she knows her son pretty well, after all.

There’s a patter of bare feet in the corridor.

Vika says, “One thing I don’t get. How did he know? He never asks anything, but always seems to know everything.”

Marcus enters carrying a large checkered leather bag—fancy and feminine, the sort Dahlia would never buy—he carries it carefully in extended arms, as though it’s a ticking bomb.

Vika rummages through the bag, pulling out a wallet, keys, glasses, some book, a screwdriver, lipstick, a few ballpoint pens, a notepad. And, finally, a music box.

“Igor did have it,” she explains. “He took it to a shop to get the winding mechanism repaired.”

“Did he wind it?” asks Marcus.

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s a simple question. Did he wind it, or didn’t he?”

“I specifically asked him not to.”

Her answer seems to satisfy Marcus. He hugs the box to his chest like a pet and takes a step toward the door.

“Don’t you want to say anything?”

“What should I say?”

“Igor spent a week looking for a repairman who would agree to fix the clockwork in his presence, so Igor could be certain no one would listen to your precious polonaise.”

“Did he find one?”

“As you can see.”

“What can I say? He’s a responsible person.” Marcus leaves.

Dahlia watches him go. So, this is how the evening ends. The story resolves itself. “Thank you for the tea,” she says. “It was delicious. I think it’s time for me to go.”

“I’ll call you a taxi,” Vika offers.

“No need. I’ll walk a bit, and the Metro is going to open soon.”

§

Dahlia is in the hall outside Marcus’s apartment. She presses her forehead against the window and watches the snowflakes fall. The door behind her opens. Marcus comes out, clad in kittens and bunnies. Dressed like this, he looks like a regular little boy, which is really what he is. Dahlia understands, seeing him like this, how one might call him Marcy.

He’s holding the music box.

Marcus says, “You didn’t think our adventure was over?”

Dahlia doesn’t respond. It’s almost dawn. A new day is starting, and it holds nothing good in store for her. In the morning, the events of this night will seem like a silly dream. Marcus will stay here, with his naïve belief in miracles. She’ll leave.

But her pain will remain, growing ever darker.

Marcus turns the key. Something inside the music box comes alive, creaks and clicks. He says, “Before I do this, I have to warn you: there are side effects. For example, you will experience the desire to help old ladies cross at intersections, and to feed stray kittens.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad. What else?”

“With time, you’ll want your pain back. I know what I’m talking about. Without pain, there’s no memory. And to get it back, you’ll have to really love someone. That’s how the magic works.”

On a flight of stairs in a strange building, in an unfamiliar neighborhood, this is what a little boy wearing kittens-and-bunnies pajamas is saying to her. Unbelievable.

Thirdly: I AM SERIOUS.

She badly wants to interrupt him, to make him stop. To shout at him. To make him forget about his stupid magic. To tell him that the world isn’t black and white: it’s gray and there’s no escaping that. That he knows nothing about pain, and to stop torturing her.

But if his mom is able to tolerate his idiosyncrasies and not say things like that to him, then Dahlia can, too. So, she says nothing. She waits for him to finish his monolog so she can leave.

Marcus leans over the music box and whispers something. Dahlia can’t quite make out the words. But that doesn’t matter. Because he opens the lid, and the box begins to play “Polonaise Farewell.”

She feels light and unburdened. As though someone had scooped out all her darkness and pain. As though gentle waves are carrying her away.

§

They sit together on the staircase, atop Dahlia’s jacket. Marcus wraps himself in a large sweater which his mom brought out and silently handed to him before returning to the apartment. What an incredible woman!

Dahlia hugs Marcus and pats him on his head. He’s almost not crying anymore. Dahlia understands that he needed those tears. And that he needed her, so he could cry them. Still, she refuses to believe that she would ever want her pain back, now that it’s trapped inside the music box.

Meanwhile, Marcus thinks that Dahlia doesn’t really understand much about “city love and sausage slices” as Grandma used to put it.

And that, one day, she will.


K. A. Teryna is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and illustrator. A number of her stories have been published in Russian SF magazines Esli, Mir Fantastiki, and others since 2008. An English translation of her story “Madam Felide Elopes” appeared at Podcastle. She lives in Moscow.

 

 

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