These stories were written by Violet, who is a phenomenal writer and my best friend, in addition to being absolutely crucial to helping me finish this project thanks to their endless patience and kindness. Anyways, I command you to read these, and please go over to their ao3 page and throw them a follow.
Lera's running out of cigarettes. It's a slow process. The packs, all early Soviet brands proclaiming smoking's health benefits, have been turning up less often. Each new box is always a few cigarettes short, all of which give off a faint smell of burning flesh as they smolder. Every time the scent grows worse.
Nika hasn't caught on that these are bad for her. She wrinkles her nose at the smell of smoke but doesn't raise any objection.
She has taken to collecting the butts. Why, or even when, is beyond her but her ashtray always ends up empty. Even the ashes which drip into the empty swimming pool are swept away by something.
Maybe it's Nika. Maybe it's not.
There is something worse in here, or just larger. It's behind her but never in her shadow. She is eclipsed by it, a mouse in its building. She feels it most heavily when "alone".
Nika breaks the tension, alleviating the strain. The gravity of it is great, impossibly so. As if she is always falling back towards it.
Nika lays a hand on hers, pulsing with inconsistent heat, and she's grounded. Still, if she looks too long at the girl's eyes paranoia climbs her spine. She's been sure a hundred times that Nika will push her off the ledge.
What ledge and why are again lost on her.
It's not too bad to have the unknowable as her standard. The yawning pit she skirts around, dimensions shifting and pull varying at least defies logic. There was, in the old world, some overarching code of conduct. She was expected to act perfectly, to shift to match each new condition. A thousand rules only she was unable to wrap her head around.
She, with a dull grey fear at her core, makes more sense than this place. Her blood is inside her, bound by science. She bends to physics and biology. She is now definable, at least in some measure.
Nika is a bundle of facts. Luka plays along with her question games, exploring the definitions of each other.
A short list of what Nika likes best: chocolate, the color blue, summer (or at least what counts for summer here), dogs, chickens, mid afternoon, meatloaf, the way the word "succulent" feels in her mouth.
There's something behind all that. Shot from the back, she would be unrecognizable, unknowable. Ask too many questions and something will come out wrong. She won't be a girl but a starving stout, a mass of flesh, a coin tossed in a well to never hit the bottom.
Fortunately, Luka is want for company. She can't be too scared, not when Nika is her only companion.
The girl doesn't care if Lera says something wrong. She frets at the all too common fevers and headaches. She brings chipping glasses of almost clean water, cans of bread. If Lera's breath picks up, leaving her in ragged gasps and clutching at her chest, Nika will sit with her. She fumbles her way through the chapter books, trying to calm her only friend with a story.
If Lera speaks poorly of herself, or of the building, or of the world, she'll scrunch up her nose. The obvious discomfort has Lera voicing these things less.
Nika has her bad days too. Not the odd absent ones, where she's always in the corner of Lera's eyes. No, these are days when she's mad. Nothing fits right, she whines at the walls and pounds her fists against the swimming pool. Frustration, boredom, and the ever present discomfort get the better of her.
She's more like a child than ever these days. Even bursting into angry tears and stomping her feet, she feels real. Like she could pull something off her back and be just another girl. Lera almost likes her best these days.
They'll sit in the bottom of the pool after she's worn herself out. Lera won't touch her but she'll sing. Songs from the rest of the world, cheesy love ballads that don't play on the radio here.
All that comes through the radio here are war broadcasts, distorted classical, and strangely melodic static.
More often than not these days when Lera eases her way through the morning she'll hear the walls humm and groan. It's starting to sound more and more like music.
In one of the stuffy corners of the university library Lera had found American books. Just three with flimsy covers and awkward translations. Their glossy covers had caught her attention, her fingers catching on the small American flag symbols.
A political science textbook. A collection of Normal Rockwell's art. A psychology workbook.
The workbook was the only one which provided any real interest. She flipped it open to a random page, too burnt out to focus from the beginning.
Would You Hold Yourself A Baby?
Imagine yourself or a friend. Don't think about their bad stuff. Imagine them young, tiny and squirming. See yourself as a fussy baby and hold them, hold them tight to your chest. Curl a finger around their tiny hand.
There had been a stab in the hollow of her chest. Great brass bells echoing through the empty caverns of her heart. She could see her future, blinding bright snowfields and choking smog. In the artificial heat of the library she was frostbitten, frozen in place.
She would never have a hand to hold like that, never have her own held. She would be alone until the end of time, Ozymandias in the desert. This time cast in steel and glass instead of gold. She would have vomited from the loneliness if there had been anything in her stomach.
She had frozen over fully that day, the metal gates of the future closing with the crank of chains.
In the bowels of the apartment building she can feel the floor pulse beneath her. The tiles themselves contract in time with the masses around her. Even the great void, black in a full way somehow, beats in time.
Nika stands perfectly still, arms out. She smiles bright as the stars above. Lera's heart cleaves itself in two, cold and hot all at once. She wants her mother as she was in childhood, the benevolent god of their little apartment. She wants to be cuddled when the pipes shriek, to have a hand card through her hair. She wants to go back to before she was a person beyond her mother's reach.
But she cannot let go. She hears her mother's voice from the last time they talked. It's muffled in the back of her head, the muddled static of a transistor radio.
"Well Lera he- ah, sorry, you know I'm no good at this, she-"
She had hated every second of hearing it but suddenly she couldn't bring herself to go. It hurts but she can't forget her mother trying. The way they stumble around each other on holidays now.
"Nika." The word is rough in her mouth. She sees the sinew inching out like worms, wriggling around the girl's arms. 76 times she had said, 76 failures.
Lera rushes forward, wrapping her own hand around Nika's. She feels warm flesh against hers and pulls, floor rumbling beneath them.
"Lera," She nearly shrieks, "Let me go."
"Please, things will be better if you allow yourself to be incorporated. To be made into something greater, eternal comfort," Nika gathers some more of her composure as she goes on. The walls scream and grind behind them, slamming behind them. Lera ignores it, ignores everything but the step ahead and the warm hand In her hand.
She squeezes hard. The hand squeezes back.
The Trans-Siberian Railway splits the plains in two. There’s a crashing of metal, the steady churn of machinery as the train itself barrels across the wasteland. It rattles and rages, crossing immense distances in the span of a night. It’s passengers are surely asleep right now, curled up in their bunks.
Lera sweats despite the chills running through her body. She grits her teeth, considering how easy it would be to collapse into the snow. After everything she still craves it, a peaceful death. Dying is a hard habit to break.
If she fails here there will be no silence, no body-as-time-capsule. She will be a red mist, a mass of organs and meat across steel. She will not be preserved by the ice, to be found millions of years into the future by some wayward daughter.
She waves one arm wildly, the other holding tight to her flashlight. The army relic is pointed straight into the front window of the train.
There will be no dodging, this is their last chance. Nika is all but motionless in the snow with Lera’s coat wrapped around her shoulders. A few puffs of warm breath stutter weakly from her chest. Their fingers are both a deep shade of blue.
The whistle blows sharp and hard. Lera does not budge. Something slides into place, the great groaning of mechanics against momentum.
The grinding builds to a scream as flecks of sparks scatter across the snow..
Lera’s mother gave birth in their apartment. At the first pangs she had called out to her husband, three months dead. Her neighbor, the retired nurse, had come to check at the commotion.
The labor had ruined the rug. 16 hours of it had soaked through the persian knit with every fluid the human body could produce. There had been no medication, no doctor, no hospital. Just gnarled hands and pain.
Lera had imagined it in flashes when she was young. She had only impressions and ideas to sketch into a coherent picture. She stitched together the pain, the blood, the loneliness, and the love.
Everyone who mentioned the story had laughed. With each huff of humor Lera had only grown more indignant. It was a tragedy, something which could have spelt her mother’s death.
The idea had infected her dreams. In Monet’s brush she sees a thousand shades of red. She hears screams and knows, somehow, that they’re her mothers. Time drips on, dragging through her pain. The number 16 is ever present in her mind, though she’ll only realize why in the morning.
She wakes with a start while a wet tear echoes through her mind. Tangled in the sheets, she struggles through wet sobs. Before she knows it a hand wraps itself around her shoulder. She knows it’s her mother as she did in her dream. It’s inherent, she’ll always know her.
Her mother wraps her body around Lera, pulling her tight to her chest. Her mother sleeps in her day clothes, rough against her daughter’s skin. Lera’s sleep clothes are thin from overwashing, a pale shade of grey.
“Shh,” she murmurs over the heater’s hum, “it’s alright, I’m here.”
Lera sobs into her shoulder. Slowly, she sniffles back towards composure into breathing wetly. She struggles for the words, the clawing strain at her stomach.
“Are you happy I was born? I know it hurt.” The words stumble out. Something in the wording leaves her dissatisfied, but there’s nothing better. Her mother tugs her in tighter as if she could press them into one being.
“No.” It’s soft but fierce. If it was any louder the words would not have cleared her throat for all the force they carry.
“Never,” she repeats, only slightly less intense, “you’re my precious child. They could do anything to me, it would be worth it all for you.”
Lera squeezes back and shudders, trying to accept it..
Nika wants to try everything. Lera obliges when she can, using the last of her savings on food, games, and train tickets. She’s not sure what will happen when they run out or when the train finally brings them to the pacific.
Nika’s loved everything so far; the chocolate as sticky as tar, the freshly baked bread, the salted fish.
She savors each treat. She takes her time, turning over the packages in her hands, tracing fingers across the graphic design. Once she’s satisfied, she’ll split the package open with the precision of a letter opener. From there, she breaks a piece off if possible and closes her eyes when it hits her tongue.
She considers each morsel of freedom, the enjoyment plain on her face.
Lera will peck at her own dinners, rarely making space for snacks throughout the day. She eats more than before but it’s still not enough. She’s hungry, cold, and weak. She survives off the diet of a bird, or maybe a prisoner.
Nika, at least, eats enough for a growing girl. She’s always hungry, eyeing even the most unappetizing foods. Anything new or different and she’s content.
The problem is Nika’s still losing weight. She’s hungry, no matter how many caramels she chews, how many scones she methodically dismantles.
No matter how much she looks human or how warm she is to touch she’s not. Maybe she has 14 stomachs and will never be full. Maybe there’s nothing but prime cut ribs beneath her skin. Whatever she is, she wasn’t made for this world.
She might not make it to Vladivostok..
The conductor lets them on, free of cost. The stewardess rushes to the back of the train for blankets, returning with six piled high in her arms. There’s an eagerness in the clack of her heels, desperate to help.
“Please,” the ticketmaster, flustered slightly by their interruption, pulls one across Nika’s shoulders. The girl is still unconscious but breathing and getting warmer by the second, “there’s a spare bed in the sleeping car.”
Lera grabs a blanket with clumsy, frozen fingers. She tucks it close around herself and gives a full body shudder. She wants Nika back in her arms but acquiesces to letting the ticketmaster carry the girl. The rest of the blankets are unloaded into Lera’s arms. She follows through the crowded sleeping car, full of snores and heavy breathing.
It’s a comfort, as much as it is overwhelming. Secluded in the back of the car, last before the door, they find their bed for the night. Nika is pressed in first and covered with the blankets before Lera slips in after her.
She bids the ticketmaster goodbye with a meek “thank you”.
She focuses on the shallow wheeze of Nika’s breathing as she reaches out a hand. With one on the girl’s shoulder she eases her thumb in a circle. Pressing down more gradually as she keeps circling, urging Nika’s blood to flow.
The girl might not have veins or arteries. The easy massage is probably doing nothing for her. A rough laugh threatens to push itself out of Lera with the thought. The fear from the last few days is still jagged, pressing up against her throat. She doesn’t stop easing the warmth back in..
When Lera cuts Nika free with a broken soda bottle there’s a wet ripping. Blood sprays over them, warm and wet. It’ll ruin their clothes, soaking Lera’s hair already.
Lera pulls Nika after her, hands tight together. Running from oblivion is the most painful thing. 16 hours stumbling through a building trying its level best to kill them.
When Nika takes her first breath of open air, freezing its way down her throat, she breaks into sobs. Lera is a frayed nerve, alive through stubborn will and sheer coincidence. She’s close to collapse. Still, wrapping Nika up in a hug, Lera knows she’d do it all again.
She’d run a thousand times, she’d even lose, just to have Nika with her now..
Nika stares at herself in the long mirror. Propped up against one of the pews she brushes her hands down her new plaid dress. The poor and unlucky of the city mill around them, sorting through the congregation’s charity.
Lera remembers staring at a dress like Nika’s when she had been that age. It had not been a concrete idea then, no structure to speak of, just a vague grasping. Nika looks perfect in it, settling something in Lera’s chest. To passerbys they are unremarkable, just a mother and daughter.
No more than a month ago the idea would have frozen her. In the mirror she would have seen Lenin in the antarctic. It’s the idea of frozen death again, pulling at the hem of her coat.
But no, when she turns to look it’s Nika’s hand. There’s something dark across her features, glancing between Lera and the mirror.
“I’m not a person. I look like one but I’m all fake.” Her voice doesn’t waver. Lera frowns at the comment, reaching over to lay a hand on Nika’s shoulder. She’s not sure she’s touched another person as much as she has Nika, outside of her mother that is.
“You’re not human but that doesn’t stop you from being a person.” She packs as much strength as she can into her words, as though she could force Nika to believe them. They come out crooked, far too harsh, so she tacks on something else. “You get to choose, everybody does.”
“Does everyone really get to choose? You’re made the way you are for a reason. I don’t know if children should forget where they come from.” She’s so sure that it sinks Lera’s heart.
“It’s not something you deserve. Everyone gets to choose. I did.” After the last word Nika finally turns away from the mirror. Lera stiffens, mentally running through what Nika’s ideas of gender might be. Probably nothing, or at least nothing good.
Nika squints into Lera’s eyes. She doesn’t examine Lera’s chest or try to see if there’s a bulge in her pants. Lera is not on display, not something to be split apart and dissected. Nika sees beyond her body, right into the bloody core of her soul, and nods with authority.
“You did.” She smiles and Lera can’t help but smile back..
When Nika says “I’m full” and sets down her plate Lera almost cries. She just barely holds it back, sliding the disposable paper plate into her own lap.
They’re sitting on a bench, still 200 Kilometers from the sea, but she can taste salt on her lips.
It’s the greasiest, most suspect street food Lera’s ever seen. The woman who served it to them, ancient with a crooked back, had smiled. Nika had beamed back.
Architects aren’t supposed to believe in miracles. At university, as her country redefined itself into something practical, she’d learned that. She’d learned to calculate prices, to build apartments which could bring in the most residents. Practical, functional, solid.
But somewhere there’s a tower hunched over St. Petersburg, 400 meters tall.