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Vita Nostra Julia Meitov Hersey Sergey Dyachenko Marina Dyachenko Our life is brief . . .The definitive English language translation of the internationally best-selling Russian novel – a brilliant dark fantasy combining psychological suspense, enchantment, and terror that makes us consider human existence in a fresh and provocative way.‘A book that has the potential to become a modern classic.’Lev Grossman, best-selling author of The MagiciansOur life is brief . . .While on holiday at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with a sinister air directs her to perform strange and uncomfortable tasks. He rewards her efforts with a strange golden coin.As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her new domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or university, she also feels that somehow it’s the only place she should be. Against her mother’s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.As she quickly discovers, the institute’s ‘special technologies’ are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons maddeningly obscure, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, their families pay a terrible price.Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of… and suddenly all she could ever want.A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy, filtered through a distinct Russian sensibility, this astonishing work – brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey – is reminiscent of modern classics such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Max Barry’s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, but will transport them to a place fantastical and new. Copyright (#u156e426f-1e54-5e77-81ad-da4415abfe87) HarperVoyager An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by HarperVoyager 2018 Copyright © Marina and Sergey Dyachenko 2018 Translation © Julia Meitov Hersey 2018 Cover photography © Josephine Cardin/Trevillion Images (women) Cover design by Micaela Alcaino © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Marina and Sergey Dyachenko assert the moral right to be identified as the authors of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780008272852 Ebook Edition © November 2018 ISBN: 9780008272876 Version: 2018-09-27 Dedication (#u156e426f-1e54-5e77-81ad-da4415abfe87) To our daughter, Anastasia Contents Cover (#ufd15ea87-18fb-5c0c-961d-a0ccccdd0095) Title Page (#u8fe7179c-f820-5106-8aa7-fef34d3a8892) Copyright Dedication Part One Part Two Part Three Footnotes Acknowledgements About the Publisher PART ONE (#u156e426f-1e54-5e77-81ad-da4415abfe87) The prices—oh, the prices were simply ludicrous! In the end, Mom rented a tiny room in a five-story building twenty minutes from the shore, with windows facing west. The other room in the one-bedroom apartment was occupied by a young couple, with whom they would have to share the kitchen, bathroom, and toilet. “Those two are on the beach the whole day,” reasoned the landlady. “They are young … They don’t need much. The sea is right there, you can almost see it out of your window. Pure paradise.” The landlady departed, leaving behind two keys: one for the main entrance and one for the door to their room. Sasha dug her faded, last year’s swimsuit from the bottom of the suitcase and changed quickly in the bathroom, where someone else’s underwear was drying on the space heater. She felt joyful and giddy: just a few more minutes, and hello sea, here we come. Waves, salt on her lips, deep khaki-colored water—all that was forgotten during the long winter. Transparent water changing the color of her skin to yellow-white. Swimming toward the horizon, feeling the sea glide over her stomach and back, then diving deep down, staring at the rocks on the bottom, seaweed and tiny speckled fish … “Should we eat first?” Mom asked. She was exhausted by the long trip in the stuffy economy class seats, the apartment search, negotiations with potential landlords—none of it was easy. “But, Mom … we came to spend time at the beach.” Mom lay down on a couch, a pack of fresh linen under her head substituting for a pillow. “Want me to run down and get some doughnuts?” Sasha aimed to be a dutiful daughter. “We’re not going to live on doughnuts here. We have a decent kitchen.” “Can’t I at least take one little dip?” “Fine.” Mom closed her eyes. “Get some eggs and yogurt on the way back. Oh, and bread, and some butter.” Not hesitating—lest her mother change her mind—Sasha threw a sundress over the swimsuit, slid her feet into a pair of sandals, grabbed a beach bag and one of the towels provided by the landlady, and ran outside, into the sunshine. She had no proper names for the blossoming trees that grew in the yard, but decided to call them “peacock trees.” Behind the unevenly trimmed bushes began the street that led to the shore. Sasha decided it was going to be called just that—the Street That Leads to the Sea. The street sign bore the real name, but it was plain and insignificant. It happened so often—beautiful things had stupid names, and the other way around. Swinging her bag, she walked—no, ran—down the street. People moved in a thick throng, some carrying inflatable mattresses and large sun umbrellas, others burdened only with a beach bag. Children, as expected, were covered by melting ice cream, and their mothers scolded them, wiping faces and shirts with their crumpled handkerchiefs. The sun had toppled over the zenith and now hung above the distant mountains, choosing a place to land. A languid smile on her lips, Sasha walked toward the sea, hot asphalt burning through the soles of her sandals. They’d made it. They’d made it despite the lack of money, despite Mom’s problems at work. They’d made it to the seaside, and in only fifteen, no, ten minutes, Sasha would dive into the water. The street twisted. The sidewalk was almost entirely blocked by advertisements for tourist attractions—the Swallow’s Nest, Massandra, Nikitsky Botanical Garden, Alupka Palace … The din of video games filled the air. A mechanical voice coming from a metal contraption in front of the arcade offered palm reading. Sasha ignored it all and instead stood on tiptoes … And finally saw the sea. Restraining herself from breaking into a gallop, she ran down a steep hill toward the high tide, toward the happy squeals of children and the music of beachside cafés. So close. Of course, the closest beach had an entrance fee. Not letting herself be annoyed by a simple fee, Sasha ran around the fence, jumped off a low concrete railing, and felt the pebbles crunch under her feet. She found a spot on the rocks, threw her towel and sundress down on her beach bag, took off her sandals and made her way down, wincing from the gravel biting into her feet. As soon as she got to the water, she dove in and swam. This was happiness. In the first second, the water seemed cold; in the second, warm, like freshly drawn milk. Right near the beach, seaweed and fragments of plastic bags swayed gently in the waves, but Sasha swam farther and farther away, and the water became clear, leaving behind inflatable mattresses and children with bright-colored floaties. The sea opened all around her and a scarlet buoy flashed like a sign of perfection between two stretches of turquoise cloth. Sasha dove, opened her eyes, and saw a school of gray elongated fish. On the way back she ran—Mom was probably worried. The uphill road seemed unexpectedly long and steep. She stopped at a store, where a harried saleswoman sold bread, eggs, and potatoes, and the queue was long and solemn. After enduring the line for nearly half an hour, Sasha filled up her bag with groceries and ran down the Street That Leads to the Sea into the garden with the “peacock” trees. A man stood near a rental agency, a green booth with permanently closed shutters. Despite the heat, he wore a dark denim suit. Under the peak of his dark-blue cap his face had a jaundiced, waxy tint. Dark glasses reflected the sun’s rays, but Sasha managed to catch his glance. She cringed. She looked away from the strange man, entered the hallway that smelled of many generations of cats, and walked up to the second floor, to the door upholstered in black faux leather with a tin number 25 on it. Every morning Sasha and her mother woke up at four, when their neighbors, the young couple, returned from a nightclub. The neighbors stumbled up and down the corridor, made tea, made the bedsprings creak, and eventually fell quiet; Sasha and her mother dozed off again and woke up next around seven thirty. Sasha made instant coffee for both of them (the kitchen sink brimmed with dirty plates—the neighbors apologized profusely for the mess, but never did the dishes), and they headed for the beach. On the way to the shore, they bought little cups of yogurt or freshly steamed corn sparkling with salt crystals or jam doughnuts. They rented one plastic lounge chair to share, spread their towels over it, and ran toward the water, stumbling on the sharp gravel and hissing from pain. They plopped into the water, dove in, and lingered in the waves. On the second day, Sasha got a sunburn, and Mom smeared yogurt on her shoulders to calm the sting. On the fourth day, they went on a harbor cruise, but the waves were choppy, and both of them felt a touch of motion sickness. On the fifth day, there was a real storm, and half-naked lifeguards strolled around the beach, announcing: “Can’t swim—alligators abound,” as Sasha’s mother quoted from an old children’s rhyme. Sasha played with the waves and managed to get slammed by an errant rock; the painful bruise took a long time to heal. In the evenings, the whole town was drowned in music streaming from the nightclubs. Clusters of guys and girls armed with cigarettes stood near the kiosks or box office windows, or sat around old iron benches and participated in social engagements expected of adolescent mammals. Occasionally, Sasha caught their appraising looks. She did not like those guys with their obnoxious, overly made-up girlfriends, yet she felt uneasy—it was embarrassing for a normal sixteen-year-old to be vacationing with her mother like a little girl. Sasha would have liked to stand just like this, in the center of a noisy group, leaning on a bench and laughing with everybody else, or to linger in a café, sipping gin and Coke from a tin can, or to play volleyball on a square patch of asphalt, split by long cracks like an elephant hide. Instead she would just walk by, pretending she had some urgent, much more fascinating business to attend to, and spend her evenings strolling around with her mother in the park or along the boardwalk, gazing at the creations of the never-ending street artists, haggling over lacquered shells and clay candleholders, doing all these rather nice and not-at-all-boring things—but the peals of laughter coming from the teenage clusters sometimes made her sigh heavily. The storm subsided. The water had been freed of the mud that clung to it, the sea regained its transparency, and Sasha caught a crab, as tiny as a spider. She let it go right away. Half of their vacation had already dissolved into nothingness; it seemed as if they’d just arrived, and now only eight days remained. She met the man in the blue cap at a street market. Moving along the rows, Sasha was pricing black cherries, when, rounding the corner, she saw him in the midst of the shoppers. The man stood nearby, his dark glasses turned toward Sasha. She was sure he was watching her, and her alone. Sasha turned and pushed toward the market exit. After all, she could buy the cherries at her street corner; it was more expensive, but not so much that it was worth sticking around. Swinging her plastic bag, she entered the Street That Leads to the Sea and strode up to her apartment building, trying to stay in the shade thrown by the acacia and linden trees. She looked back after half a block. The man in the dark denim suit was following her. For some reason, she’d believed he had stayed at the market. Of course, there was the possibility that he needed to go in the same direction, but she was not that naïve. Staring into the impenetrable lenses, she felt unutterable terror. The street was packed with beachgoers and vacationers. Ice cream was melting down children’s fronts in the same way as before, open-air kiosks were just as busy selling bubblegum, beer, and vegetables, the afternoon sun was just as scorching, but Sasha’s instant chill felt like a lining of frost in her stomach. Not really aware of why she was so afraid of the dark man, Sasha shot up the street, her sandals drumming a feverish rhythm and passersby hastily moving out of her way. Gulping air, not daring to look back, she burst into the yard with the “peacock” trees. She leapt into the hallway and rang the doorbell. Mom took a long time to open the door; downstairs, in the entrance hall, a door opened, and Sasha heard footsteps … Mom finally made it to the door. Sasha dove into the apartment, nearly toppling her mother. She slammed the door closed and turned the key. “Are you crazy?” Sasha clung to the peephole. Looking distorted, as if through a funny mirror, their next-door neighbor walked up the stairs, carrying a bag of cherry plums, and went farther up to the third floor. Sasha started breathing again. “What happened?” Mom’s voice was tense. “Nothing, really.” Embarrassment moved in. “Somebody was following me …” “Who was?” Sasha began to explain. The story of the dark man, when narrated logically, did not seem frightening, only ridiculous. Nothing she said made any sense, and Mom clearly wasn’t alarmed. “I assume you did not buy any cherries,” Mom concluded. Sasha shrugged guiltily. The right thing to do was to pick up her bag and return to the market, but the very idea of opening the door and walking out into the yard made her knees shake. “I suppose I might as well do it myself.” Mom sighed. She picked up the bag and money and left for the market. Next morning, on the way to the beach, Sasha saw the dark man again. He stood by the tourist center, pretending to examine the offered tours and prices, but in reality he was watching Sasha from behind his dark mirrored lenses. “Mom, look …” Mom followed Sasha’s gaze. Her eyebrow lifted. “I don’t understand. Some guy standing there. And?” “You don’t see anything weird?” Mom continued walking, each step bringing her closer to the dark man. Sasha slowed down. “I’m going to walk to the other side of the street.” “Go ahead, if that’s what you want. I think you have been getting too much sun lately.” Sasha crossed the asphalt, wrinkled and covered by tire tracks. Mom passed the dark man, but he didn’t pay her any attention. He watched Sasha, and only her. His gaze followed her. Once settled on the shore, they rented a beach chair and placed it in the usual spot, but for the first time, Sasha did not feel like swimming. She wanted to return home and lock herself up in the apartment. Although, if she thought about it, the door in the apartment was flimsy, made of plywood, a mere illusion covered with ancient faux leather. It was safer here, on the beach, crowded and noisy, with inflatable mattresses floating in the water; a little boy stood knee-deep in the water, and the floatie around his belly was shaped like a swan with a long neck, and the boy was squeezing its pliant white throat. Mom bought some baklava from a street seller clad in a white apron. Sasha took a long time licking her sticky-sweet fingers, then strolled over to the water to rinse her hands. She walked into the waves, still wearing her plastic flip-flops. The red buoy, a sign of perfection halfway to the horizon, moved gently in the water, the sun reflected in its opaque side. Sasha smiled, shrugging off her tension. And really, such a funny story. Why should she be afraid? In a week she’ll be going home, and, seriously, what can he do to her? She moved deeper into the water, took off her flip-flops, and tossed them onto the beach, aiming far to avoid losing them to a chance wave. She dove, swam a few feet under water, resurfaced, snorted, laughed, and made a beeline for the buoy, leaving behind the shore, the din, the baklava seller, her fear of the dark man … In the afternoon they discovered that they’d forgotten to buy oil to fry their fish. Pink blossoms swayed on the “peacock” trees. Farther down, in the bushes, something else blooming and aromatic was trying to attract bees. An old woman dozed off on the bench. A boy of about four dragged colored chalk over the concrete ridge of the sidewalk. The usual throng of people poured down the Street That Leads to the Sea. Sasha entered the street and took another look around. She ran to the store, to get her errand over with as quickly as possible. “Excuse me, are you the last one in line?” She nodded to the person behind her. The queue moved not too fast, but not too slowly either. Sasha had only three people in front of her when she felt his gaze. The dark man appeared in the store entrance. He took a step inside. Ignoring the queue, he moved to the counter and stopped, pretending to examine the produce. His eyes, covered by sunglasses, bore into Sasha. Bore right through her. She did not move. First, because her feet stuck to the floor. Then because she thought it through and decided that here, in the store, she wasn’t in danger. There was no danger at all … and dropping everything, losing her place in line, and running home would just be stupid. He’d catch her in the hallway. Maybe she could yell for her mother from the yard. Make her look out the window. And then what? Caught in the indecision— “Excuse me, is it your turn?” She asked for some oil, then spilled her change when paying for it. An old man behind her in line helped her pick it up. She considered asking someone for help with the dark man. He stood at the counter, watching Sasha. His stare made her thoughts scramble in her head. Embarrassing, but she really needed to use the bathroom now. Should she scream for help? Nobody would understand. Nobody knew why Sasha felt terrorized by this rather ordinary person—nobody seemed to notice him much at all. So his face was pale—what of it? Then the dark glasses—but many people wore those, too. How could she explain what was happening to her when he stared through those opaque lenses? Squeezing the handle of the shopping bag bulging with butter and oil in her fist, Sasha stepped out of the store. The man followed her. He did not bother pretending. His movements were direct, determined, and businesslike. Once out of the store, she sprinted. Gray pigeons flew from underneath her feet. She crossed the street and dashed toward home, wind screaming in her ears, to her mother, into the familiar courtyard … She had never seen this place before. Sasha looked around—the “peacock” trees bloomed as before and the sidewalk was covered by random designs in colored chalk, but the entrance was completely different, and the bench was in the wrong place. Was it a different courtyard? The dark man did not run—he simply walked, each step bringing him five feet closer. Losing her head in sheer terror, Sasha threw herself into the entrance hall; she should not have done that and she knew it, but she ran inside anyway. A door slammed downstairs. She sprinted up the stairs, but there were only five stories. The staircase ended in a row of locked doors. Sasha rang someone’s doorbell; the sound could be heard clearly inside—ding-dong—but no one opened the door. It was empty. And then the man stood next to her, blocking the exit, blocking her escape. “It’s a dream!” She screamed the first thing that came into her head. “I want it to be a dream!” She woke up in her foldaway bed, in tears, her ear painfully pressed against her pillow. They left the house around eight, as usual, and bought some yogurt on the street corner. Skillfully, Sasha made her mother cross onto the other side of the street, the opposite of the one with the tourist booth. And she was right to do so—the dark man stood under the large poster of the Swallow’s Nest Palace. He watched Sasha from behind his impenetrable lenses. “I can’t take it anymore. It’s psychotic …” “Now what?” her mother said. “There he is again, he’s watching me …” She wasn’t quick enough to stop her mother, who turned and crossed the street. She walked right up to the dark man and asked him something; the man answered, still staring at Sasha. Yet at the same time his face was turned toward her mother, and his mouth looked natural and quite friendly … if there were such a thing as a friendly mouth. Mom returned, simultaneously pleased and annoyed. “Relax; he’s on vacation, just like you and me. I don’t know what your problem is. He’s from Nizhnevartovsk. He’s allergic to direct sun rays.” Sasha was silent. It made sense … and yet it didn’t. Why does he follow me, then? And why doesn’t Mom care? At lunchtime, coming back from the shore, they stopped at the market, and Sasha took great care to make sure they didn’t forget anything. They returned to the empty apartment, heated up water, and took turns with an improvised bucket shower (water was scarce during the day), and started making their lunch. That’s when they realized they were out of salt. The dark man was sitting on the bench in the courtyard. Sasha saw him as soon as she poked her head out of the building. She withdrew her head. An orange cat with a damaged ear was lapping up cream in a small bowl left by some nice person. The cat slurped and licked its chops. Its yellow eye stared at Sasha; the cat continued licking the bowl. Sasha did not know what to do. Turn back? Proceed as if nothing was wrong? It was crazy … The hallway darkened. The man in the blue cap stood in the doorway blocking the light. “Alexandra.” She jerked as if shocked by electricity. “We need to talk. You can run from me forever, but there is no joy or point in it.” “Who are you? How do you know my name?” Immediately, she thought of all those times her mother called her by her name, on the street, on the beach, everywhere. There was nothing surprising about him knowing her name. It wasn’t really difficult. “Let us sit down and talk.” “I am not … if you don’t stop following me, I will … I will call the police.” “Sasha, I am not a thief or a murderer. We need to have a serious discussion, which will influence your entire life. It will be better for you to listen to me.” “I am not going to. Leave me alone!” She turned and ran up the stairs. Toward the black faux leather door numbered 25. All the doors on the second floor were dark brown. The numbers on the small glass plates were completely different. Sasha froze. Behind her back, unhurried steps were getting closer. The dark man moved up the stairs. “I want it to be a dream!” Sasha screamed. She woke up. “Mom, what’s today’s date?” “The twenty-fourth. Why?” “But yesterday was the twenty-fourth!” “Yesterday was the twenty-third. It always happens on vacation—the dates get all mixed up, days of the week slide by …” They came down into the courtyard, into the windless and fragrant white-as-milk morning. The “peacock” trees stood still like two pink mountains covered with apricots. A happy multitude of beachgoers poured down the Street That Leads to the Sea. Sasha walked on, more or less convinced it was yet another dream. A young married couple stood by the kiosk studying the routes and prices. Their little boy—bubble-gum-filled mouth, knees painted by disinfectant—was trying on scuba-diving goggles. The dark man was nowhere in sight, but she still felt the presence of a dream. Sasha and her mother bought a few ears of corn. Sasha held the warm corn while her mother pulled their beach chair out of the hut and placed it on the rocks. The soft yellow ear of corn tasted salty, delicate kernels melted on their tongues. Sasha placed the trash into a plastic bag and carried it to the bin near the beach entrance. The dark man stood far away, in the midst of the crowd. Even in the distance, though, he looked only at Sasha through the impenetrable glasses. “I want it to be a dream,” she said out loud. She woke up in bed. “Mom, let’s go home today.” Shocked, her mother nearly dropped a plate. “What? Where?” “Home.” “But you were so anxious to get to the beach … Don’t you like it here?” “I just want to go home.” Mom touched Sasha’s forehead to check for fever. “Are you serious? Why?” Sasha shrugged. “Our tickets are for the second,” said Mom. “I had to reserve it a month in advance. And this place is all paid until the second. Sasha, I don’t get it, you were so happy.” She looked so confused, so upset and helpless, that Sasha felt ashamed. “Never mind,” she mumbled. “It’s just … nothing.” They came down into the courtyard. The “peacock” trees spread their scent over the sandbox and benches, over somebody’s old car. Down the Street That Leads to the Sea the beachgoers marched heavily, carrying their inflatable devices. The tranquil, scorching, unhurried summer morning of the twenty-fourth of July continued. The tourist booth was deserted. At a nearby café, under the sickly palms, a group of teenagers drank beer and argued over their next trip. All of them were tanned and long-legged, both boys and girls. All wore shorts. All carried half-full backpacks. Sasha wanted to leave with them. She wanted to throw on a backpack, lace up a pair of sneakers, and hitch rides along the dusty Crimean roads. Sasha and her mother walked by the teenagers. They bought some pies, placed their beach chair on the rocks, and sat on it sideways. The sea was a little choppy, the red buoy jumped in the waves, and water scooters’ motors sputtered in the distance. Sasha chewed her pie, not really tasting it. Perhaps everything will turn out fine, and the dark man will never appear again, and tomorrow will finally be the twenty-fifth of July? After lunch, Mom lay down for a nap. The room felt stuffy, the sun leaning west shot right through the closed curtains that used to be green and were now sun-bleached into something vaguely pistachio-colored. The neighbors came home; they chatted happily in the kitchen, there was a sound of poured water and tinkling dishes. Sasha held a book in her lap, stared at the gray symbols, and understood nothing. The metal alarm clock on the bedside table ticked deafeningly, counting seconds. “So, shall we talk, Sasha?” Evening. Mom leaned on the balustrade, chatting with a man of about forty, fair-haired and pale, clearly a new arrival. Mom smiled, and her cheeks dimpled. It was a special smile. Sasha was used to a different one from her mother. Sasha was waiting on the bench under the acacia tree. A second ago the dark man sat down between her and a street artist at the other end of the bench. Even the southern twilight did not force him to lose his dark glasses. Sasha sensed his stare from beneath the black lenses. Out of complete darkness. She could probably call for her mother. She could simply cry for help. She could tell herself it was just a dream. And it would be a dream. A never-ending dream. She needed the dream to end. “What … What do you want from me?” “I want to give you a task to perform. It’s not hard. I never ask for the impossible.” “How … What does it have to …?” “Here is the task. Every day, at four in the morning, you must go to the beach. You will undress, go into the water, swim one hundred meters, and touch the buoy. At four in the morning the beach is empty, there won’t be anyone to hide from.” Sasha felt as if someone had hit her on the head. Was he crazy? Were they both crazy? “What if I won’t do it? Why would I …?” The black lenses hung in front of her like two black holes leading nowhere. “You will, Sasha. You will. Because the world around you is very fragile. Every day people fall down, break their bones, die under the wheels of a car, drown, get hepatitis or tuberculosis. I really don’t want to tell you all this. But it is in your best interest to simply do everything I ask of you. It’s not complicated.” Near the balustrade, Mom was laughing. She turned, waved, and said something to her companion—they may have been talking about her, about Sasha. “Are you a pervert?” asked Sasha hopefully. A pervert she could understand. The black glasses tilted. “No. Let’s just settle this right away before we incapacitate ourselves here: you’re healthy, and I’m not a pervert. You have a choice: dangle forever between a scary dream and a real nightmare. Or you can pull yourself together, calmly perform the task that is asked of you, and continue living normally. You can say ‘This is a dream,’ and wake up again. And then we’ll meet once more, with certain variations. But why would you want to?” People strolled along the boardwalk. Mom exclaimed: “Look! Dolphins!” and pointed toward the sea, her companion broke into a series of excited interjections, passersby stopped and looked for something in the blue cloth of the shore, and Sasha, too, saw the distant black bodies that looked like upside-down parentheses, flying over the sea and disappearing again. “Do we have a deal, Sasha?” Mom chatted, watching the dolphins, and her companion listened attentively, nodding. Mom’s teeth sparkled, her eyes shone, and Sasha suddenly saw how young she still was. And how—at that moment in time—happy. “Tomorrow is your first official takeoff.” The dark man smiled. “But remember: every day, at four in the morning. Make sure you set the alarm. It’s crucial for you not to oversleep and not to be late. Try hard. Got it?” Sasha tossed and turned on her cot, wide awake. The curtains were pushed aside, and the songs of nightingales and sounds of a distant disco music poured into the open window. At two in the morning, the music stopped. A noisy gang walked by. The voices died down in the distance. Three motorbikes, one after another, roared by. A car alarm went off. Mom stirred, turned over, and fell back asleep. At three in the morning, Sasha dozed off. At three thirty, she jumped up as if someone had shoved her. She pulled the alarm clock from under her pillow. In twenty minutes, the short black hand would join the long yellow alarm hand. Sasha pressed down the button and rotated the yellow hand. The alarm clock squeaked and went limp. Sasha got up. She pulled on her swimsuit and a sundress, picked up her keys, and gingerly, trying not to wake up Mom, left the room. She stopped in the empty kitchen, tiptoed out to the balcony, and grabbed a still wet towel from the rope. With her keys in one hand and the towel in the other, she crawled out onto the staircase. A single lightbulb was on. Her neighbors, the blissful young couple, were coming up the stairs, shushing each other. Four bewildered eyes stared up at Sasha. “What happened?” “Nothing.” Sasha was shaking, and her teeth chattered. “I just wanted to go for a swim. See the sunrise.” “Wow, that’s cool!” The guy was clearly impressed. Sasha let them pass and hurried out of the building. It had to be a quarter to four. She was going to be late. Streetlights still burned on the empty street. Sasha ran—running down turned out to be easier than she thought—and she warmed up and stopped shivering. The dark sky was getting lighter. Sasha sprinted by the fence of the official town beach and reached her favorite secluded spot. The sharp white of plastic cups stood out in piles of trash. Five or six windows were lit in the hotel closest to the beach. A large clock in the front of the building showed three minutes to four. Sasha took off her dress. Stumbling on the gravel, she walked into the high tide. Standing neck-deep in the water, she unhooked her top and crumpled it into a ball. She pulled off the bikini bottom. Holding her swimsuit in her balled fist, she swam out to the buoy. In the mottled light of the sunrise, the buoy seemed gray, not red. Sasha slapped its iron side. The buoy responded with a dull echo. Sasha looked back at the shore—no one. It was utterly deserted. She started back. The cold water caused her to shiver again. Barely managing to reach the rocks with her feet, she rose, balancing in the waves, and realized that the ties of her wet swimsuit were hopelessly tangled. With a short sob, she threw the crumpled ball of faded fabric onto the shore, got on all fours, and half crawled, half ran toward her towel. She wrapped herself in it and looked around again. No one. Not a single soul. The sea played with her discarded swimsuit, and the sky was becoming lighter with every minute. Nightingales crooned in the park. Sasha picked up her bikini, sundress, and sandals. She staggered over to the blue changing cabin. She dried herself and suddenly felt well. She straightened her shoulders. Her skin glowed, becoming firm and radiant from the inside, like the skin of a ripe apple. Taking her time, Sasha got dressed, put on her sandals, and found the keys in her pocket. She squeezed water out of her swimsuit, walked out of the changing cabin … and almost immediately doubled over, retching. She fell on her knees and vomited on the gravel. It was mostly seawater, but along with it, strange yellow disks splashed out of her. Sasha coughed and tried to calm her breathing. The retching disappeared as quickly as it came. Three tarnished gold coins lay on the gravel. At home, she locked herself in the bathroom and studied the coins. Three identical disks, an unfamiliar symbol consisting of rounded interconnecting lines on one side—a face, or a crown. Or, perhaps, a flower: the longer Sasha stared at it, the more three-dimensional the symbol appeared, as if it were slowly rising above the surface of the coin. She rubbed her eyes. On the reverse side, a smooth oval resembled a zero or the letter O. Of course, there was no stamp of gold content, and Sasha was not exactly an expert on precious metals, but somehow she had no doubt that the coins were made of pure gold. The first beachgoers appeared on the Street That Leads to the Sea. It was about six in the morning. Hearing them, Sasha stretched on her cot, covered her head with a blanket, and squeezed the coins in her fist, thinking hard. Her throat felt sore, but the nausea had disappeared completely. Of course, one could assume that Sasha’s stomach couldn’t handle yesterday’s baklava, and that the coins were simply lying in the exact place on the gravel where she became sick. And that the man in the dark sunglasses was simply a pervert who used a very convoluted way of spying on naked girls on the beach. In the dark. In the wee hours of the morning. She squeezed her irritated eyes shut. No. One could not assume that. Sasha felt removed, thrown out of the normal world into the unreal. If one believed what one read in books, it did happen to people, and happened quite frequently. Or was it really a dream? Surprisingly, she fell asleep. And when she woke up, it was a perfectly normal morning of July 25. Mom came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel, and gave Sasha a worried look. “Did you go somewhere?” “I went for a swim.” “Are you crazy?” “Why?” Sasha croaked. “It was really cool. The sun was rising. There was no one in sight.” “It’s dangerous,” Mom said. “There are no lifeguards or anything. What if something had happened to you? And why didn’t you say something to me?” Sasha shrugged. “We should go to the beach.” Mom looked at the clock. “It’s almost nine. Let’s hurry up.” Sasha sucked in her breath. “Mom … Do you mind? Can I just lie down for a while? I didn’t sleep well.” “Are you sick?” Mom touched Sasha’s forehead in a familiar gesture of concern. “No, you don’t feel hot. You are asking for it with your night swimming. It’ll spoil the entire vacation.” Sasha did not reply. She squeezed the coins so hard the edges bit into her palm. “I boiled some eggs.” Mom seemed worried. “Mayonnaise is in the fridge. Those lovebirds, the neighbors, ate half of our mayonnaise already, but oh well. What can you do?” She kept wiping her perfectly dry hands. “I made plans to meet up with Valentin at the beach; it would be rude not to show up, you know … I promised we’d be there today.” Sasha thought of yesterday. Valentin was the name of Mom’s new acquaintance, the light-skinned, fair-haired man who seemed so interested in the dolphins. Sasha remembered how Mom had introduced her by her full name: “This is Alexandra.” Mom’s voice had a special note of importance, but Sasha did not pay any attention to it yesterday. This was before the dark man rose and left, leaving behind a task for Sasha to perform—and fear. Sasha had felt chilly in the middle of a warm stuffy evening. The flower beds smelled sweet; Valentin’s cologne was pleasantly woodsy and fresh. Sasha remembered the scent, but could not think of his face. “Sure, go ahead.” Sasha pulled the blanket up to her face. “I’ll just stay in bed for a little, and then I’ll join you guys.” “We’ll be in the same place,” Mom said quickly. “The eggs are on the table. I’m off.” She grabbed her beach bag and hurried to the door. At the threshold, she stopped and looked back. “Don’t forget your swimsuit when you leave. It’s on the balcony, drying off.” She left. The second time Sasha woke up, the metal clock showed half past eleven. At that time of the day, the sun was scorching, and the sea was boiling with the mass of swimming bodies, like matzo ball soup. It was too late to go to the beach, or maybe it was too early. It depended on one’s point of view. Maybe around four o’clock. Sasha was shocked by her own mundane thought process. She stared at the coins in her hand. She’d never loosened her fist in her sleep—the moist skin kept the outline of the round coins. Sasha gingerly moved them from her right hand to her left. What should she do with them? Throw them away? The doorbell made her jump. One coin slid off her palm and rolled underneath the cot. Nervous, Sasha found it on the dusty rug, threw on Mom’s cotton housecoat, and stepped into the dark hallway. “Who is it?” Theoretically, it could be her mother, forgetting her keys. Or a postman. Or … “It’s me. Open the door.” Sasha staggered back. The apartment was empty—the neighbors were at the beach. The door was locked. A flimsy door, made of pressed wood shavings, covered with cheap faux leather. The coins stuck to her sweaty palm. Holding them in one hand, Sasha used the other hand to open the door—a difficult task that took a while. “Good day to you,” the man in dark sunglasses stepped over the threshold. “I’ll just be a minute. Let’s go to the kitchen.” He led the way down the corridor, as if he’d been to this apartment many times before, as if he were its actual owner. Of course, the building was standard enough. Sasha followed him like a dog on a leash. “Sit.” The man pushed a chair toward the middle of the kitchen. Sasha fell onto the chair—her legs gave out from under her. The dark man sat down in front of her. “Coins?” Sasha opened her fist. Three gold disks lay on her red palm, moist, covered with drops of sweat. “Very good. Keep them. Please retain all of them, all that you will get. Don’t bother with the swimsuit—you must enter the water naked, it’s not dangerous, no one is watching you. Continue swimming, don’t be late, and don’t miss any days. Tomorrow. The day after tomorrow. And the day after that.” “I’m leaving on August second,” Sasha said, and was surprised by how thin and pitiful her voice sounded. “I … we have train tickets. I don’t live here, I …” She was convinced that the dark guest would command her to move to this small town forever and ever, and enter the sea at four in the morning in January, and in February, and until death do us part. “Didn’t I say that I won’t be asking for the impossible?” He stretched his lips slowly, and Sasha realized that he was smiling. “On August second you will go for a swim in the morning as usual, and you can leave after breakfast.” “I can?” “You can.” The man got up. “Remember: Don’t oversleep.” He walked over to the door. “Why do you need this?” Sasha whispered. The only answer was the closing door. “Where are you going?” Mom sat up in bed. “For a swim.” “Have you lost your mind? Get back to bed!” Sasha took a deep breath. “Mom, I really need to do this. I’m … building character.” “You’re what?” “You know, building character! I’m building up stamina. In the mornings … Sorry, I’m late.” Gasping for air, she stepped onto the beach. Nervously, she looked behind her—not a soul; even all the windows in the nearby hotels were dark. She took off her sundress, pulled off her underwear, threw herself in the water, and swam, broad front crawl strokes, as if trying to swim out of her own skin. She was having difficulty breathing. Sasha switched to an easy “beach” breaststroke, scooping up water with her feet, holding her chin high above the water. Swimming made her happy. She’d had no previous experience of skinny-dipping and had no idea how good it felt. Cold water prickled her skin, warmed up her body, and seemed to be getting warmer with every stroke. With both hands, Sasha grabbed the buoy and kept still, swaying gently, invisible from the shore. Perhaps she didn’t have to go back at all. She could just keep swimming, across the entire sea, toward Turkey … Sasha shook her head at that. She flipped onto her back and, lazily moving her arms, swam toward the shore. Sparse morning stars dissolved slowly, like sugar crystals in cold water. In the changing cabin, Sasha rubbed herself dry with a towel and got dressed. She stepped outside and listened to herself—nothing was happening. She walked toward the beach entrance; the spasms started when she reached the little shack where the lounge chairs were kept under a barn lock. Coughing, sputtering, and holding her throat, Sasha vomited four gold coins. On the third morning of swimming exercises, she threw up back in the apartment, in the bathroom. The coins clanked into the iron tub. Sasha gathered them up, her hands shaking—the coins were exactly the same, all with the round three-dimensional symbol. Worth zero point zero kopecks. She smirked at her reflection in the mirror, pocketed the coins, washed up, and left the bathroom. Mom was putting her hair up in curlers. There was absolutely no point to it, since the curls would dissipate in the water, but nowadays Mom spent a lot of time doing her hair, putting on makeup, and ironing her outfits. “Would you mind if Valentin and I go to a café tomorrow night? Just the two of us?” As Mom asked the question, she carefully avoided Sasha’s eyes. “You can go to the movies,” she continued. “What’s playing right now, in that theater on the wharf?” “I don’t know.” Sasha fingered the coins in her pocket. “Go ahead. I’ll stay home and read.” “But what to do about the keys?” Sasha’s compliance clearly took a load off Mom’s shoulders. “In case I’m late … I don’t want to wake you up. But if I take the keys—what if you want to go for a walk?” “Take the keys. I’ll read,” Sasha repeated. “But what about fresh air?” “I’ll sit outside on the balcony. With a table lamp.” “But tomorrow, maybe tomorrow you will want to go to a club?” “No.” The next day Valentin took them out to lunch. He seemed like a nice person, with a sense of humor, with a certain charm; Sasha watched her mom’s happiness and counted the days in her head, the twenty-seventh, twenty-eighth. Five days remained. Actually, only four, on the fifth day they were leaving. And it would be all over. She would forget everything. Only five more times … She swam the next morning, and the morning after. And then she overslept. The sun woke her up. It beat into the window that had been left ajar, and Mom’s bed was empty; the alarm clock had twisted from underneath her pillow and lay on the rug. Refusing to believe, Sasha picked it up. The yellow hand stood on half past three. The coil was disengaged. Why didn’t it ring? “Mom! Did you touch my alarm clock?” Mom, content, benevolent, and fresh after her shower, brought in coffee on a tray. “I did not. It fell down; I didn’t pick it up. I don’t want the landlady to think I broke it. Don’t worry about it, you got practically no sleep in the last few days, and you need rest—you’re on vacation, after all. What is it with you?” Sasha slumped at the edge of the cot, laden with the firm conviction that something terrible had just happened. Something unidentifiable, inexplicable, some unknown threat—and thus, her terror grew in a geometric progression. The dark man stood next to the tourist booth, studying a photo of the Swallow’s Nest. Sasha slowed her step. Mom turned to her. “Go ahead,” Sasha said. “I’ll catch up.” Under different circumstances, Mom would argue and start asking questions. But by now, Valentin must have already reserved their lounge chairs; Mom nodded, told Sasha not to dawdle, and walked down to the shore. The asphalt had softened under the morning sun. The tires of passing cars and trucks pressed over a puddle of spilled motor oil and left fancy tracks on the road. “My alarm did not go off,” Sasha said, not knowing what she was apologizing for, or to whom. “It fell …” His eyes could not be seen through the dark glasses. The lenses reflected nothing, as if they were made of velvet. The dark man was silent. “My alarm did not go off!” Sasha burst into tears right there, on the street, from fear, from the unknown, from the emotional strain of the past few days. The passersby turned their heads, staring at the weeping girl. Sasha felt as if she’d dived deep into the sea and was watching a school of pale fish through a thick layer of water. “It’s very bad, but not terrible,” the man in the dark glasses said finally. “As a matter of fact, it’s even good for you—it’ll teach you some discipline. The second such blunder will cost you a lot more, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He turned and departed, leaving Sasha sobbing and vigorously shaking her head to all the questions from the sympathetic passersby. Hiding in a park alley—deserted at this hour—and pulling a handkerchief out of her bag, she was finally able to clean up her tears and snot. Still, she did not manage to calm herself down. Her own dark sunglasses, the ones she’d had for over a year, with a thin frame, hid the redness of her eyes and her swollen lids. Pushing her hat low on her forehead, Sasha walked down the street, avoiding looking at people, keeping her eyes from the pavement. In front of her, a girl of about four stomped her red sandals on the ground, holding her mother’s hand. An ambulance stood in front of the beach entrance. Sasha stopped, and her shoes stuck to the softened asphalt. Almost immediately, she saw her mother. Mom wobbled on the gravel, a towel thrown over her shoulders, holding on to a stretcher. The very pale man lying on the stretcher vaguely resembled a cheerful, sanguine Valentin. Sasha sat down on the balustrade. The stretcher was loaded into the ambulance. The medic said something to Mom; she nodded several times and asked something in return. The medic shook his head and climbed into the ambulance. The ambulance beeped at the crowd, pulled back, reversed in a small parking lot in front of the hotel, and drove up the Street That Leads to the Sea. His words echoed in her head. “Very bad, but not terrible.” “What happened to him, Mom?” Mom turned around. Panic and grief swam in her eyes. “Hospital Number Six,” she chanted, like an incantation. “I’m just … I need to change, and then I’ll go. It’s a heart attack, Sasha. A heart attack. Oh god, oh god …” Like a blind person, she moved through the throng of intrigued beachgoers. Sasha watched for a second, and then followed. Mom spent the night at the local hospital. Almost all of their cash went to the doctors and nurses, and Mom had to go to the post office and call one of her coworkers, who promised to wire them some more money. Sasha spent a sleepless night alone in their room. The alarm clock was no longer reliable. At three in the morning she left the house. Somewhere the nightclubs were still going strong, and the cafés were still lit. Sasha walked down to the dark sea and sat down on the gravel at the water’s edge. Far away, a ship appeared on the horizon. Cicadas shrieked in the gardens behind Sasha’s back. The sea licked the beach, stole tiny rocks and brought them back, polished them, rubbing together their surfaces. The sea had time. And patience enough for two. At quarter to four, Sasha pulled off her clothes and stepped into the water, shivering. She swam, constantly looking back as if expecting a monster in dark glasses to rear its ugly head out of the waves. She slapped the buoy and looked up at the sky: the sun was rising. She glanced into the depth of the sea and saw the barely distinguishable metal anchor chain. She returned to the shore and, barely managing to throw a towel over her shoulders, doubled over retching. Five coins flew out one after another, leaving a sharp pain in her throat and diminishing spasms in her stomach. The coins rolled on the gravel, hiding between the rocks. Mom came back in the afternoon, exhausted and very focused. Valentin felt better—it was not a heart attack, the ambulance had come quickly, and the patient was in no danger. “Everything will be fine,” Mom repeated with an air of detachment. “I am so sleepy, Sasha, I can’t tell you how sleepy I am. If you want, go to the beach by yourself, I’m going to sleep.” “How is he, anyway?” Sasha asked. “Should we send a telegram? To his relatives or whatever?” “The relatives are here already,” Mom informed her with the same air of detachment. “His wife flew in from Moscow. Everything will be just fine. Just go now, please?” His wife … Sasha took her swimsuit off the balcony and left the apartment. She did not feel like going to the beach, so she strolled aimlessly around the park, meager and dusty, but still offering a minimum of shade. “Very bad, but not terrible.” Fear, stress, ruined vacation … On the other hand, who is Valentin, anyway? Only a week ago he was simply Mom’s chance acquaintance. Of course, Mom seemed so happy, but their relationship was doomed from the beginning. It was just a summer fling, a beach affair … Sasha sat down on a bench. Black acacia pods littered the narrow alley. Bitterness and resentment on behalf of her mother ate at Sasha like acid. A summer fling, such a cliché. What was he thinking? And why would he bother with a nice respectable woman, when he could have had any of those girls—a navel ring, jeans cut off right up to the butt cheeks. “It would be better if he were dead,” Sasha thought glumly. “Very bad, but not terrible.” And Sasha did believe that something awful would happen to her mother; her premonition was tangible. From the first moment she saw the man in the dark glasses, fear had gripped her and held her in its fist, just like she herself held her gold coins. It would let go for a minute—only to squeeze again. “This will teach you some discipline.” That’s for sure. From now on she would get up without any alarm clocks, and always at half past three. Or maybe she just wouldn’t sleep at all. Because at the moment when she saw the ambulance in front of the main beach entrance, she’d had a feeling that all in the world was lost forever, all of it … She took a deep breath. Tomorrow morning she would swim out to the buoy, and the day after tomorrow, right before their departure, she would do the same. And then she would return home and forget everything. School, routine, senior year of high school, college entrance exams … She sat on the bench, staring at the handful of coins in her hands. Twenty-nine disks, with the same round symbol, with a zero on the reverse side. Heavy and small, their diameter was the same as the old Soviet kopecks. On the train, Sasha spilled the coins on the floor. She was lying on the top berth staring out the window. The pocket of her denim shorts must have been unbuttoned; the coins spilled out and rolled around the entire carriage, clanking joyfully on the floor. Sasha flew off her berth in a split second. “Wow!” said a little girl from the compartment across from Sasha’s. “Look, money!” Kneeling, Sasha gathered the gold disks, picking them up from underneath somebody’s suitcases, and nearly collided with the train attendant, who was carrying a tray of tea. “Careful there!” The little girl picked up one of the disks and examined it with interest. “Mommy, is it gold?” “No,” answered her mother, still staring at her book. “It’s some kind of an alloy. Give it back.” Sasha was already standing there with her hand outstretched. The little girl returned the coin reluctantly. Facing the window, Sasha counted the coins; she was supposed to have thirty-seven, but had only thirty-six. “Excuse me, have you seen any of these coins?” People in the neighboring compartments shook their heads. Sasha ran up and down the carriage, and again nearly collided with the attendant; a man in a red warm-up suit sat at the very end of the carriage, right near the exit, studying the round symbol on the missing disk. She knew that staring at the symbol long enough made it seem three-dimensional—she wondered if that’s what he saw. “It’s mine.” Sasha stretched out her palm. “I dropped it.” The man lifted his head and gave Sasha an estimating glance. He looked back at the coin. “What is it?” “A souvenir. Please give it back.” “Interesting.” The man was in no hurry. “Where did you get it?” “It was a gift.” The man smirked. “Listen, I want to buy it from you. Is ten dollars enough?” “No, it’s not for sale.” “Twenty dollars?” Sasha was nervous. A woman sitting right next to them was listening to the conversation. “It’s my coin.” Sasha made her voice sound determined and hard. “Give it back to me, please.” “I had a friend.” The man glanced from Sasha to the coin and back. “He was a tomb raider. He did some illegal stuff. Dug up some things in the Crimea. And then someone stabbed him. You see, he probably dug up something he wasn’t supposed to.” “I didn’t dig anything up.” Sasha stared at his hand. “It was a gift. It’s mine.” They stared at each other. The man wanted to say something, in the same measured and patronizing manner, but he bit his tongue. At this point, Sasha was ready to fight—sob, scream, shriek, scratch his face—for her coin; this readiness of hers must have been obvious in her stare. “As you wish.” The gold disk fell into her hand. Sasha clamped her fingers shut and, holding her breath, walked back to her mother. Mom sat in the same spot, staring out the window, having noticed nothing. Autumn came in October, suddenly and irrevocably. Red maple leaves stuck to the wet asphalt like flat starfish. Sasha existed between school and preparatory courses at the university: there were tons of homework, essays, reports, tests. She had no time for anything else—even Sundays were filled with work—but Sasha did not mind. She discovered that her brain, overburdened by studies, flatly refused to believe in mysterious strangers and their tasks, in gold coins produced by one’s stomach. And even the sea, the kind summer sea with a swaying red buoy, seemed surreal, and everything that happened there, by the seaside, seemed just as surreal. And Mom was back to normal. With the end of summer came the end of her depression, especially considering that her office was very busy, as usual. Both of them, locked in the vicious cycle of everyday routine, forbade themselves from thinking of the surreal—each had her own reasons. And up to a certain moment they both succeeded. Then the letter came from Moscow. Mom took it out of the mailbox, aimlessly played with it for a few minutes, and then she opened and read it. “Valentin divorced his wife,” she said, addressing their television set. “So what?” Sasha said, not exactly politely. Mom folded the letter and went to her room. Sasha turned off the TV and sat down with a history textbook; she reread the same paragraph about ten times, without understanding anything. Polabian Slavs, Polabian-Pomeranian … They must have studied them in fifth grade, and here we go again, they are back in the program. Clearly, though, her mind was on other things. Maybe it’ll still work out? People have all sorts of issues in their relationships. Of course, his divorce is not a good thing. And it is even worse that he’s writing to Mom about it. The phone rang. Trying to think about the ancient Slavic tribes, Sasha picked up the receiver. “Hello?” “Good evening, Sasha. It’s me.” The desk lamp was on. It was raining outside. A textbook lay open. Everything was so normal, so real. And—that voice on the phone. “No,” said Sasha softly. “You …” She almost let “You don’t exist” slide off her tongue, but she stopped just in time. “How many coins?” “Thirty-seven.” “And how many were there?” “Thirty-seven, honestly.” “I’m waiting downstairs. Come down for a minute.” She heard the short beeps in the receiver. She kept the coins in an old wallet, in the depths of her desk, behind a stack of books and notepads. Sasha unzipped the wallet and poured the contents onto her desk. She counted them again—still thirty-seven. She put the wallet in the pocket of her raincoat and slid her feet into a pair of old rain boots. She put the raincoat right over her bathrobe. She grabbed an umbrella, still wet, and picked up her keys. The door to her mother’s room remained closed. With that voice … she wasn’t sure it would have mattered if her mother had been standing in front of her. “I’ll be right back,” Sasha said to no one in particular. “I’m … I’m going to get the mail.” She walked down the steps without waiting for the elevator. The neighbor from the fifth floor was entering the hall, all wet, with a huge wet dog on a leash. “Hi,” said Sasha. The neighbor nodded. The dog shook vigorously, drenching everything with rainwater. Sasha went outside in the rain. It was dark already, the windows in the neighboring houses were lit, and maple leaves lay on the black asphalt like colored patches. A man in a dark blue raincoat, similar to Sasha’s and shiny with rain, sat on a wet bench. The lenses in his glasses were smoky rather than dark, but the dusk of an autumn evening made them completely impenetrable. “Hello, Sasha. Did I scare you?” She did not expect his friendly, joking inflection. She swallowed. Cold wind crawled underneath her clothes, licked her naked knees. “Give me the coins.” She handed him the wallet with the coins. He weighed the wallet in his hand and nodded, putting the wallet away in a pocket. “Good. I have a task for you to perform.” Sasha opened her mouth. “It’s a simple task. Very simple. Every morning, at five o’clock, you will go to the park for a jog. Run as much as you can—two laps in the alleys, three laps. When you’ve jogged enough, find thick bushes and urinate on the ground. It’s better if you drink enough water beforehand to avoid any sort of issues. Every morning at five o’clock.” “Why?” Sasha whispered. “Why do you need this?” Rain slid down her cheeks, mixing with tears. The dark man did not answer. Drops of rain hung on his glasses, reflecting the distant streetlights, which made his eyes seem multifaceted. “Once a month you can have some time off during your period. Four days … is four days enough?” Sasha was silent. “Watch the alarm clock. Missing a day or being late even once is a tremendously bad idea. The sequence of actions cannot be altered: plan ahead, drink enough water.” “For the rest of my life?” Sasha burst out suddenly. “What?” “Do I have to run … for the rest of my life?” “No.” The man seemed surprised. “I’ll tell you when to stop. Well, now go home, you’re freezing.” Sasha was shaking. “Come on,” her companion said gently. “Everything will be just fine … Of course, as long as you demonstrate enough discipline.” A lone streetlight burned near the park entrance. Under the iron pole where a town clock hung a long time ago, an old man with a dog lingered, the first and only passerby at this time of day. His eyes slid indifferently over Sasha. She ran through the pouring water. Jogging paths curled around the central flower bed in the middle of the park. Sasha chose the shortest path. Not watching her feet, she flew right into the puddles; cold water splashed from under her sneakers and washed over her sweatpants, right up to the knees. Sasha gritted her teeth and kept running. Water under her feet gurgled just like the contents of her stomach: she had drunk more than a quart of water before leaving the house. The feeling was unbearable. One more lap. One more. She slowed down and stopped. The park was completely deserted. A lone streetlight shimmered through the half-naked branches. Stepping over wet leaves, Sasha crawled into the bushes that drenched her with raindrops and, cursing everything under the moon, fulfilled the last obligation of the ritual. She bitterly thought of herself as a dog being taken for a walk. The short crawl into the bushes brought relief, a quite legitimate one, considering the amount of liquid she had poured into herself. She felt a bit less miserable and even managed to stop crying. At half past five she unlocked the door of her apartment with her own key, crept into the bathroom leaving wet footsteps, hid her jogging suit and squishy sneakers under the sink, and turned on the hot shower. A minute later she threw up. The coins flew onto the bottom of the bathtub, yellow disks on white enamel. Sasha washed her face, took control of her breathing, and collected the coins in her hand. Four coins, the round symbol on one side and a zero on the reverse. They looked very old, as if for many years they were kept in locked chests, an unidentified treasure … Fifteen minutes later Sasha fell asleep in her bed, a deep, dreamless sleep, the kind she hadn’t experienced in a long time. When Mom came to wake her up an hour later, she claimed to be sick and stayed in bed. … And why would she bother with school? Her tutor called in the afternoon, and Sasha lied about being sick. The tutor, displeased, asked to warn her in advance should that happen again. Later that evening she was supposed to attend prep courses at the university. Sasha did not go. She lay on her bed, textbooks thrown aside, and thought, What’s the point? Because clearly the world did not work the way she imagined before. The visible connection between different events—objective laws, consistent patterns, accidents, and regular days—all this simply served as a Chinese screen for another existence, invisible and incomprehensible. If the man in the dark glasses exists—really, truly exists—if his hands hold dreams, reality, accidents … What is the purpose, then, of going to school? Entering a university? When at any moment everything could disappear, be destroyed, simply because Sasha’s alarm clock did not go off on time? Mom returned from the office; she asked worried questions, took Sasha’s temperature, and shook her head in despair. “Did you overexert yourself already? It’s a bit early, it’s only October, and the school year is just starting. I told you to go for a walk on Sunday! Go to the movies, call your classmates. You do have friends, don’t you?” “Don’t worry.” Sasha’s answer sounded prerecorded. “I’ll be fine.” She added to herself, “Of course, as long as I demonstrate enough discipline.” Before bed, she set up three alarm clocks: her own, Mom’s electronic one, and one more, an old one, her grandmother’s. Throughout the night she fell into chunks of sleep, woke up in cold sweat, and glanced at their faces: one in the morning, quarter to two, half past two … At half past four she was almost glad she could get up. In November the weather suddenly improved. Unexpected, conditionally autumnal, but quite tangible warmth returned. The sun came out every day—not for long, but it was generous enough. Dried-up leaves rustled underfoot and smelled fresh and tangy, sad but not without hope. Sasha would wake up at four twenty-nine, one minute before the alarm clocks’ roll call. She deactivated them one after the other, like mines, pulled on a warm jogging suit and a jacket, and walked to the park. In one month, she’d learned all the minute details of the path. She knew where the asphalt was touched by erosion, the places where puddles collected after the rain, knew all the slopes and all the flat spots. Running along the dry alleys, jumping over the piles of leaves gathered by the park rangers, she used the time to repeat her English dialogues, plan that day’s chores, and silently sing a song that she’d heard on the radio the day before. Finishing the third and then the fourth lap around the flower bed, she knew for sure that nothing bad could happen to her, or to Mom. From that, she derived bitter, detached, autumnal joy. Unexpectedly, “the days of rest” spent without the morning jog turned out to be the most excruciating in the last few weeks. Sasha continued to wake up at half past four, and lay without sleep until seven, listening to the waking-up sounds of her building: the rumbling of the dump truck, the din of the elevator, fights between the street cleaners. The ritual was broken; Sasha imagined her fate stretched out like a thread, pulling, drying, about to break. Every day she got more and more nervous, until the morning finally came when she could pull on her sneakers and, leaving footsteps on the frosted grass, walk into the November sunrise. Then Valentin arrived. Sasha came back from school for a minute, to drop off her bag, grab a bite to eat, and run to her lesson. A stranger sat on the bench near the entrance to her building. She said hello (she always said hello to anyone sitting on that bench) and only then recognized the pale-skinned, thin nonstranger. “Hello,” said Valentin. “I noticed no one was home.” “Mom will be back by six,” said a bewildered Sasha. “And I … um.” “I’ll wait.” It was half past two. Sasha glanced at her watch, then at Valentin. There was no hope that he would leave. She did not feel too optimistic about Mom chasing him away. Plus, how could she make any decisions regarding Mom’s fate according to her own desires? “You can call her at the office,” she said frostily. And added, a little too late, “How are you feeling?” She woke up at four twenty-nine, turned off the alarm clocks, shuffled over to the kitchen, and gulped some tea from a thermos. She got dressed and went into the hall; then she left and locked the door. Last night Mom and Valentin had stayed up in the kitchen, talking softly for a long time. Sasha had gone to bed early (she always did these days, the lack of sleep was getting to her), covered her head with a pillow to avoid inadvertent eavesdropping, shut her eyes, and tried to fall asleep. But sleep had evaded her. Sasha thought of life as a collection of identical days. To her, existence consisted of days, and each day seemed to run like a circular ribbon—or, better yet, a bike chain, moving evenly over the cogs. Click—another change of speed, days became a little different, but they still flowed, still repeated, and that very monotony concealed the meaning of life … She was probably falling asleep. Never before had she had thoughts like that, not in a conscious state. A long time ago, when Sasha was little, she wanted to get herself a daddy. Not the one who left and now lived someplace else, without a care in the world, but a real one, one who would live with them, in the same apartment. Audaciously, Sasha tried to convince her mother to date any one of the more or less suitable men they encountered; to her, life “with a mommy and daddy” symbolized true happiness. That was years ago. Now Sasha’s heart ached when she thought of her mother and Valentin. He’d lied to her once, he would probably do it again. Mom realized it, but she still spoke softly to him in the kitchen over a cup of cool tea; they sat, heads almost touching, and talked, even though it was already past midnight … Nocturnal frost made the puddles sparkle. Through her woolen socks and the soles of her sneakers, Sasha could feel how cold the ground had become overnight. Her daily training made running easy. A lone streetlight burned near the park entrance. The old man with the dog lingered, and Sasha nodded to him, as if greeting an old acquaintance. He nodded back. Somebody was in the park. That somebody stood on the path, shifting from foot to foot, wearing a jogging suit, a windbreaker, and sneakers, like Sasha herself. She had to come almost face-to-face with him before she recognized him. It was Ivan Konev—Kon—a classmate. “Hey. Shall we run?” Sasha did not reply. Kon fell into step with her, almost touching her sleeve with his own. When their jacket sleeves did touch, the fabric made a harsh swishing sound—shhikh-shhikh. Sasha ran, skillfully skirting the familiar puddles. Ivan slipped a couple of times; once he broke through the thin ice and stepped into the water, but kept up. “Do you run every day?” he asked, panting. “My grandpa, he’s got insomnia, he walks the dog early, and he said, ‘A girl from your class runs every day like crazy, at five in the morning.’” “Oh!” He stumbled on a tree root and almost fell. She didn’t slow down, and he rushed to catch up. “Are you into sports now? I’ve never thought that about you. Or are you training your willpower?” “Training willpower.” It was the first time she acknowledged him. “That’s what I thought …” They had completed only two laps, but he already seemed out of breath. “And you?” Sasha deigned to ask. “What are you working on?” “Willpower,” Kon said seriously. “I could be in my nice warm bed right now, sleeping soundly.” He slowed down. “Think it’s enough?” Sasha stopped. The sky was peppered with stars, bright like crystals illuminated by spotlights. Red-cheeked and out of breath, Ivan looked at her with unabashed humor. “You’re a strange creature, Samokhina. A transcendental object. A closed book. Now you’re running. My grandpa says, every day, five in the morning. Are you some kind of a coded princess?” He babbled nervously, smirking a little, afraid of appearing ridiculous. She wanted to tell him it was too late. He himself was a closed book, and yet one she’d peeked into. A boy geared toward success. A winner of competitions and a glutton for science fiction, with high cheekbones and dark curls, dressed in shirts always neatly ironed by his mom or sister, a dandy who at sixteen knew three different tie knots. Sasha watched him and thought of one thing: she had to go into the bushes. Immediately. Otherwise the ritual would be broken; plus, to be honest, she wasn’t going to make it home anyway. “Kon, wait for me at the entrance.” He did not understand. He kept talking, smiling coyly in the half-light, kept sputtering nonsense about an encrypted princess, and how she must be deciphered. “Kon, go and wait for me! I’ll be right there!” He did not get it. Idiot. Conceited chatterbox. Time was running out, the run was completed, but the ritual was not. “I have to pee!” Sasha snapped. “Do you get it?” When she left the park, the entrance was deserted. No old man with a dog, no Ivan Konev. Only a chain of footsteps stretched over frosted grass. Valentin left. Sasha hoped for good, but it was not to be. The three of them celebrated the New Year together—like a family, with champagne and a little fir tree that Mom decorated herself, rejecting Sasha’s help. All night fireworks rumbled outside. At half past four, when Mom and Valentin were still watching The Irony of Fate on one of the local channels, Sasha pulled on her boots (she did not dare run over the snow in sneakers) and wound a scarf around her neck. “Are you actually going for a run?” Valentin asked. “That’s some willpower you have, Alexandra. I envy you …” Sasha left without replying. The snow in front of the building was covered with confetti; here and there the stubs of sparklers poked out of the melting piles. Sasha started jogging. The windows were lit. Groups of happy drunks lingered on street corners. Empty champagne bottles lay on the snow. Sasha ran, listening to the crunch of the snow, feeling the bite of the frost on her moist nostrils, watching the cloud of her breath dissolve in the air. “That’s some willpower you have, Alexandra. I envy you …” Anybody would toughen up under these circumstances. Because although the connection between Sasha’s twilight nightmare and a precoronary condition in a stranger was not obvious and could never be proven … But no, not really a stranger at that point. Something had happened to Mom, something had changed; she was still young, but she wouldn’t always be … So that was it. While the connection could not be proven, it existed. Sasha knew that for sure, and she knew she had no room for mistakes. That’s how the first circle locked onto itself. Sasha ran over her own footsteps. She aimed carefully, placing a foot into each footstep, first subconsciously, then with interest. Circle after circle, step after step. She hadn’t seen Ivan’s grandfather with his mutt in a long time. Was he cured of his insomnia? Or sick, and not allowed outside? Since their romantic morning rendezvous ended in such a cringingly vulgar manner, Sasha and Kon almost never spoke. They were civil to each other, reserved, indifferent. As if nothing had ever happened. The princess remained undeciphered. Sasha came to. Which lap was it, eighth, tenth? Her footsteps, repeated endlessly in the white powder, became large and deep, as if the Abominable Snowman had run by planting his enormous feet in the snow. The dark sky released a multitude of snowflakes. An ambulance drove by, sirens wailing. Not for us, Sasha thought with gloomy satisfaction. No need. Nothing can happen to us. Relieving oneself in the freezing cold is a dubious pleasure. Sasha crept out of the bushes, buttoning her clothes, patting off the snow that had fallen from the branches. It would be so nice if no one else ever saw the goddamn coins. But it couldn’t be helped. The day before yesterday Mom saw that day’s “income” and asked what it was. Sasha had lied, said it was brass, tokens for a game. No, of course it’s not a casino, what are you talking about! It’s a game like checkers, everyone plays it at school. A fad. Mom had believed her. Sasha had never lied to her before. Well, almost never. She arrived back home. The door to Mom’s room was shut. Heavy silence hung in the apartment, and only snow swished outside, hitting the tin awnings. Sasha went to the bathroom; she turned on the hot water and took a long time watching the running stream. Then she vomited money. And, paradoxically, she immediately felt better. The heap of coins grew. Sasha stuffed them into an old sock and kept it in the bottom desk drawer, under a pile of old essays. Who knew what Mom would say if she ever found this treasure, but lately Mom had a lot of other things on her mind. A shaving kit was now comfortably placed on the bathroom shelf, an extra toothbrush poked out of a glass, and Sasha no longer dared to roam around the house in her underwear. The smell of men’s cologne overpowered all the other familiar smells. And Mom, who, as long as Sasha could remember, had always belonged to her and her only, now shared her attention between her daughter and Valentin—and the latter, the new kid on the block, got the lion’s share. It was obvious that Valentin intended to establish “close contact” with Sasha. He initiated long meaningful conversations at the dinner table, and Sasha’s upbringing prevented her from leaving right away. Waiting for her were numerous textbooks, many unread chapters, and unfinished papers; then, on the border of night and day, there was her run, a humiliating trip to the bushes, and the clanking of coins hitting the bathroom sink. Yet Valentin asked detailed questions regarding her life, her plans for the future, questioned her desire to become a philologist, inquired whether she’d ever considered literary translation from English, and spoke at length about some business colleges that offered stipends and all sorts of stimulus programs for students with a high grade-point average. Sasha swallowed these conversations like spoonfuls of fish oil, then hid in her room and sat there at her writing desk, mindlessly doodling in her notebooks. Valentin worked in the field of medical technology, something that had to do with research, or testing, or maybe sales, or perhaps all the above. Sasha memorized nothing of his detailed stories about himself. He had two children, either two boys or a boy and a girl, and he spoke of them at length and with gusto, stressing how much he loved them. Stunned by the hypocrisy, Sasha took her cooling tea into her room and sat there, leafing through the college brochures. She struggled to keep her eyes open. In the heart of winter, when the days were short and dark, the lack of sleep felt like torture. In the beginning of February a thaw set in, and then—in one single night—everything was frozen again. Sasha went for a run, completed the ritual, and on the way home, right near the entrance to her building, she slipped, fell, and broke her arm. She sat quietly, enduring the pain, until Mom woke up. Mom saw Sasha’s forearm, panicked, and called for an ambulance. Valentin emerged, volunteered to accompany Sasha, frowned, commiserated, babbled all sorts of nonsense like “All things are difficult before they are easy,” and his stream of consciousness made Sasha feel five hundred times worse. The ambulance took her to the trauma center, where an old surgeon, gray from a sleepless night and cigarette smoke, silently rolled Sasha’s arm into a cast. “Like apples from a tree,” he said to the nurse. “They just keep falling. We should expect more harvest today. And you”—he nodded to Sasha—“you need to make an appointment with your physician. And don’t worry, stuff happens. You young ones heal fast.” Valentin took Sasha home in a taxi. The pain was almost gone. Valentin ruminated on how lucky it was that Sasha had broken her left arm, which meant that she could continue attending school and her college prep classes, and she could still take notes, because her right arm was just fine! Sasha felt as if her head had ceased to be round, had turned into an aerodynamic tunnel, with Valentin’s words getting sucked into one ear and, whistling and roaring, flying out of the other. Mom called from the office, worried, asking how things were going. Deadly calm, Sasha assured her everything was fine; then she went into her room and lay down on the couch, neglecting to remove her sweater. What was she going to do now? It was fourteen degrees outside. How was she supposed to pull her sleeve over the cast? How was she going to manage getting dressed and undressed by herself? Three alarm clocks stood in a row. Two ticktocked quietly, one winked electronic numbers. Every day, every day, and Sasha had two months in the cast … “… People fall, break their bones, die under the wheels of a car …” But Sasha had done everything, met all the conditions! Why did this have to happen to her? Don’t worry, said the old surgeon. Stuff happens. And really, had Sasha been about seventy years old or so, then, yes, it would be truly terrible. And this, this was simply an inconvenience, an unpleasant accident, nothing tragic … Unpleasant, but not tragic. If Valentin had not had his heart spasm on the beach, how would his relationship with Mom have developed? Would it have developed at all? Sasha crept into the kitchen. She poured herself some of Mom’s valerian root mixture, gulped it down—absolutely disgusting!—crawled under the blanket, and fell asleep. At twenty-nine minutes past four Sasha flew up, as if on a trampoline. She sat up, her mind muddled by sleep, and tried to stretch her arm but jerked with sudden pain. She remembered; shook her head—did this mean she’d slept for almost twenty-four hours? Her mouth was dry. Sasha stood up, drank some water from the teapot, managed to pull on her sweatpants, and stuck her feet into her boots. She poked her right arm into a sleeve, grunting, and heaved her jacket over the left shoulder. Holding a ski hat, she went outside. The sky had cleared up again. The stars burned brightly. Icy patches in the courtyard were cleared haphazardly; some spots were heavily covered with sand and salt. The cast grew cold on her arm, a strange, unpleasant sensation. Only a few minutes remained until five o’clock. Sasha walked faster. She went down into the underground crossing, holding the railing with her good arm. Her steps echoed in the dark tunnel. Only seconds remained. A lone streetlight burned at the park entrance. A man stood leaning on its pole. Sasha marched by with bulletlike determination. And only having stepped onto a snowbound path, she startled and glanced back. The streetlight reflected in the smoky lenses. Two bright yellow dots. “Go home,” said the man who stood under the streetlight. “Get some rest. Starting today, you don’t have to run anymore.” Strangely enough, the absence of her morning runs proved to be excruciatingly difficult. It felt as if life had lost meaning. Valentin’s presence aggravated her more and more. Once he even left to stay at a hotel, and Mom did not speak with Sasha for several days. All alone, Sasha roamed aimlessly along the streets, hating school and college prep courses. The tutor ended up canceling their sessions. Valentin reasoned with Mom to be patient. He convinced her that Sasha’s issue was that Sasha was no longer taking painkillers by handfuls. He had a good point. In March, the cast was removed. Mom suggested that now, finally, Sasha’s nerves would get back to normal, and her “weirdness” would cease. And Mom was right as well. Having shed the cast and regaining the use of her arm, Sasha calmed down almost immediately. The chain of everyday existence again settled over the familiar cogs, and it turned and turned again, counting the days: morning. School. College prep. Homework. Evening. Night … A collection of identical days. A settled rhythm. Sasha learned not to jump at seeing passersby in dark glasses; spring came, and more and more people wore shades. At school, money was being collected for the prom. Many arguments ensued, and many disagreements—some parents, like Sasha’s mother, suggested having a modest celebration, and some insisted on expensive gifts for the teachers and a river cruise. Sasha wrote a test essay for her college prep courses and, to her dismay, got a B. “Don’t choose a free topic,” her instructor insisted. “Pick a standard theme and elaborate on it just like you were taught. Free topics are for geniuses and idiots—don’t make the same mistake twice!” Sasha listened, nodded, and knew that sooner or later the man in the dark glasses would appear again … and essays just didn’t seem all that important. He would come, and then he would ask for something again, and Sasha would not be able to refuse. Or could she try? What if Valentin’s heart scare was just a coincidence? Every time she even allowed this thought, Sasha glanced over her shoulder in fear. She knew she could never rebel. She would not even try. It was too frightening. Sasha did not quite make it to the highest graduation rank, but she was not really disappointed. She had known for a while that that was not going to happen. The prom passed her by: Sasha kept falling asleep amid the happy crowds and was pleased that at least there was no river cruise. Ivan Konev danced with Irina, who was in a parallel class. Sasha almost did not care. Kon graduated with highest honors and by the time the prom rolled around, had already been accepted into the School of Mechanics and Mathematics. Sasha went to submit her application for the School of Philology; she went by herself. Mom wanted to accompany her, but Sasha insisted on going alone. Linden trees were beginning to blossom. The rain came down in light sprinkles. Sasha walked and smiled. This year a trip to the seaside was not going to happen, but she was fine with that. If she did not get into the university on the first try … It was an unpleasant thought, but oh well. She could get a job as a secretary, perhaps even at the School of Philology. She could work, make some connections. She could break out of this vicious circle—notes, homework, notes … “Sasha!” She turned around, still smiling. The man in the dark glasses sat on the bench that she’d just passed, lost in her thoughts. Reflecting her smile, he stretched his lips and patted the bench next to him in a welcoming gesture. No longer smiling, she dutifully went over and sat down, putting her bag neatly in her lap. “How’s the arm?” the man asked. “It’s good.” Sparrows fidgeted in the wet linden tree above their heads. Their chirping deafened Sasha. “How many coins do you have?” “Four hundred seventy-two,” she answered without thinking. “You have the passing score.” “I haven’t taken any exams yet …” “Oh, but you have.” He grinned again. “Here you go.” He offered her a yellow piece of paper, some sort of an official letter, with Sasha’s first and last names typed in neatly: Congratulations! Samokhina Alexandra, you are hereby accepted as a first year to the Institute of Special Technologies in the town of Torpa. Classes begin on September 1. And below, in small print: Regarding placement in dormitories, please contact … Sasha tore her eyes away from the paper. She stared at the man sitting next to her. For a couple of minutes she couldn’t say anything. “What is this?” “This is the school you’re going to. It’s a very good school.” “I don’t understand,” Sasha managed. “The university … I …” The man sitting next to her took off his glasses. Sasha expected just about anything. That he had no eyes at all. That his eyes were drawn on the pale, stuck-together eyelids. That his eyes were sewn shut with a coarse thread, that his eye sockets were empty … He had eyes. Brown. Serene. Perfectly ordinary at first glance. “My name is Farit,” he said softly. “Farit Kozhennikov. If you would like to know.” “I would like to know,” Sasha said after a pause. “I’d also like to know: Can you … let me go, Farit?” He shook his head. “Sasha. You passed the preliminary testing, you were accepted into a good school, and you have almost an entire free summer ahead of you. Enjoy your summer—swim, take walks. Gather your strength before school. By August thirty-first, though, get a ticket to Torpa. You can get there a couple of days in advance, get into the dorm, get acquainted—” “But how am I supposed to explain it to my mother?” Sasha almost screamed it. A woman passing by glanced at her with surprise. “You’ll find a way,” Farit said. “Come up with something. You never know, it might happen that you may not need to explain anything to anyone. Embrace the freedom—do whatever you want.” He put his glasses back on. Sasha clutched the bench; the serene face of her companion swam in front of her eyes. “But I’ve already applied to the university—to the School of Philology … I have to …,” she began shrilly. “You can’t … You can’t do anything. Nothing. I don’t believe in you. You … I want it to be a dream!” Nothing happened. The sun peeked through the clouds and was reflected in the puddles. Sasha wanted to say something else, but instead she broke down sobbing—terrified, vulnerable, and ashamed. “Quiet,” Farit said. “Calm down. Didn’t I say I would never ask you to do the impossible? I would never do that.” Sasha wept. Tears dripped onto the typed lines on the yellow paper. “What is wrong with you?” Farit said tiredly. “Do you really need your university? No. It’s not really important. Are you enjoying living in a one-bedroom hole with the newlyweds? You, a newly minted stepdaughter? No, Sasha. But you insist on keeping to the beaten path. Are you afraid of changing things?” “I’m afraid for her!” Sasha screamed through her tears. “She must be … She will be fine, won’t she? Tell me!” “Obviously. She’ll be healthy and even happy. Because you’re an intelligent girl, and you will do everything as I tell you. Don’t ask me what will happen if you do not.” He rose gracefully. “Bring the coins with you—all of them. The address of the institute is on this form. Try not to lose it. Sasha, are you listening to me?” She sat, hiding her face in her hands. “Everything will be fine,” said the man who called himself Farit Kozhennikov. “You can even take the university entrance exams if you’d like. If you don’t want to enjoy your summer—that’s up to you. There’s just one condition: by September first, you must be at Torpa. You will be assigned to a dorm. The meals are free. You will be getting a stipend, too—a small one, but enough to buy some chocolate or whatever. “Just stop crying. I’m ashamed of you, honestly.” Sasha remained on the bench until her tears dried up and her breath grew steady. The rain stopped, then started again. Raindrops struggled through the leaves of the linden tree. Sasha opened her umbrella. She had not thought to ask what sort of special technologies were taught at the Torpa Institute. Frankly speaking, she was not at all interested. What mattered to her was that at seventeen years old, most of her life was now wasted, especially this last year. Notes, textbooks, tutors, studying … what was it all for, if this institute in Torpa was all that was in store for her? Perhaps worse, she had no one to talk to, no one to complain to about a man in dark glasses who called himself Farit Kozhennikov. She had no friends. And Mom had switched her love to Valentin, the same way railroad points are switched from one track to another. She got up. The rain had stopped a while ago, the sun was shining again, but Sasha still held an open umbrella, unaware of the surprised glances as she made her way to the administration building. She stepped up to the entrance, stood in line with the other applicants, handed in her application form, high school diploma, and medical records. Just as she had planned all along. She returned home, gathered all her textbooks and notepads, admired the heap for a few minutes, and then stuck them deep inside her desk. But she quickly pulled them out again. What could she have done, if this—all this!—had been her life for many months? The man who called himself Farit Kozhennikov was right: she could not get off the beaten path. She would sit and study, knowing that all her efforts were in vain, but hoping deep inside that someday it would come in handy, perhaps while learning the “special technologies …” She found a list of places that offered higher education, a reference book for prospective students, and studied it from cover to cover. No town of Torpa, no Institute of Special Technologies. She was not surprised. All her life she had been a good student. Letting things slide during the entrance exams turned out to be harder than she thought. Around her, everyone acted nervous: kids hid cheat sheets in their pockets and their mothers sucked on Valium. Dust floated around in huge echoing rooms, the air smelled of old libraries, and outside it was hot, a real scorcher. Sasha did not care. She felt translucent and indifferent, like a Christmas ornament. The written essay was easy. Taking the oral history exam, she nearly died of shame: she confused all the dates and completely blanked out on one of the questions. She got a B. Leaving the classroom, surrounded by sweaty throngs of people, she asked herself, astonished: What am I doing here? Why do I still care about the Battle of Kulikovo? Mom inquired about the grade and, having heard, was visibly disappointed. “What do you mean, a B? In history, of all things? But what about the preparatory courses? You went there for an entire year …” “There is no point in applying without a bribe.” Valentin shared a profound thought. Mom’s eyes turned fierce. “Without a bribe … she hasn’t opened a textbook in the last few days! As if she couldn’t care less! She skulked around somewhere from morning to night … Were you at the beach? I passed the exams without a bribe, and you did,” she said to Valentin, “and we all did it the first time around!” “The times were different,” Valentin said philosophically. “And now …” “In the worst-case scenario,” Sasha said, surprising herself, “I’ll just apply someplace else.” “What do you mean, ‘someplace else’?” “The world is full of good colleges,” Sasha blurted out and withdrew quickly to her room. Mom and Valentin continued talking for a long time. They were arguing. Of course, she failed the entrance exams. It’s not like anyone was surprised. When the lists of the accepted students were posted, Sasha’s name was not included. Mom was not caught off guard. It had been clear from the beginning that Sasha was not going to get a passing grade, and that her straight-A high school diploma made absolutely no difference. “You were right,” her mother said to Valentin with stoical bitterness. “No matter how much you spend on a tutor … We should have bribed someone. It’s my fault. I should have. The times have changed.” “It’s not like she has military duty,” answered Valentin with histrionic optimism. “She’s not a boy. She’ll get a job for a year, get a taste of grown-up responsibilities …” Sasha opened her mouth and inhaled deeply—and said nothing. She decided to wait a few more days. August came. The heat was replaced with rain. Mom took a few days off; she and Valentin had finally decided to get married. “Just a small ceremony,” Mom said, brushing her hair in front of the mirror, her eyes sparkling. “We’ll get married, and then go to the old resort for a few days. We’ve been there before, remember, they have these wooden cabins and a river very close, a forest …” “Rain,” said Sasha. “Well, not all the time. Plus, it’s kind of nice there even in the rain. They have these canopies. And you can use the fire pits, have a barbecue.” “Mom,” Sasha said, as if plunging into icy water. “I’ve been accepted to this college. It’s called the Institute of Special Technologies. It’s in the town of … Torpa.” Mom turned to face her. Two hairpins stuck out of her mouth, like thin vampire fangs. “I’ve already been accepted,” Sasha repeated. “Since things did not work out with the university, I figure I’ll stay in Torpa for a year. And then maybe I’ll transfer.” She came up with the idea of a transfer just then, staring into Mom’s darkening, wide-open eyes. “What town?” Mom spat out the pins. “Torpa.” “Where is it?” “It’s not far,” Sasha lied. “The room and board are free. And I’ll have a stipend.” “The Institute of what?” “Special Technologies.” “What technologies? You wanted to be a philologist!” “Specialized … Mom, it’s a normal, decent college. It’s not in the capital, fine, it is in the provinces, but …” Sasha faltered. Mom stared at her like an ant would stare at a burning anthill. “Sasha, tell me you’re joking.” Sasha took out the yellow printed letter, warped and wrinkled by rain and tears some time ago, but since then smoothed out with a warm iron. Mom glanced over it and looked at Sasha. “It’s dated last June! Where did you get it?” “It was mailed to me.” “When?” Sasha held her breath. Lying to her mother’s face was difficult, not something she was used to. “A couple of days ago.” “Sasha, you’re lying.” “Mom, it’s a real document! I was accepted! To the Institute of Special Technologies! And I will be a student there!” Sasha’s voice trembled. “I need this, do you understand?” “I understand.” Mom leaned on the table. “I understand. You’re jealous. You—a grown woman—behaving like … like a nasty, spoiled child. Since I … You can’t forgive me, can you? You can’t forgive me and you are being demonstrative about it.” “What? No!” Sasha choked on her tears. “This has nothing to do with him! It’s just that, well … It just happened that I was accepted. I am going to Torpa, and …” “You are not going anywhere.” Mom’s voice was packed with February ice. “You will be a normal student, under normal conditions, at a normal college. I’m very sorry that I raised such a selfish creature, but I will not allow any more extreme behavior. Thank you for a pleasant chat.” And she turned back to face the mirror. After two days of cold, tense communication, Mom came home unusually cheerful, pink-cheeked, and happy. It turned out that the university had opened a part-time evening option, and Sasha could be accepted there. “And you can work in our office,” Mom chattered, setting the table, doling out the stew. “I’ve already made the arrangements. You can work during the day, then go to your evening classes. And then you can transfer to the regular department. I’m sure you can. Your sophomore year, or maybe junior.” Sasha was silent. “Tomorrow morning you need to go talk to the admissions office. Room 32. Are you listening?” “I’m going to Torpa,” Sasha’s voice was barely audible. Dead silence hung over the dinner table. “Sasha,” Valentin said with reproach. “Why are you doing this?” Escaping, Sasha got up. She left her food untouched, went to her room, crawled under the blanket, and pretended to be asleep. Mom and Valentin spoke loudly, and snippets of their conversation carried over to Sasha through the walls and blankets. “Calm down,” Valentin was saying. “Just calm down. Independence …” “She’s underage!” “They get older … They want … It’s not at the ends of the earth …” The voices grew softer, the intensity subsided. Sasha closed her eyes. Everything was coming together beautifully. Mom and Valentin would enjoy being alone in the apartment. Right now they were going to talk it over, and then they would agree to let Sasha go to the unknown Torpa, where who knows what was expecting her … She felt torn in half. If Mom agreed easily, Sasha would be mortally offended. If Mom put up a fight—and that’s what it sounded like—though … No. She would not. They were already laughing softly in the kitchen. Now they were having tea. They must have decided: the girl has her own destiny, she’s independent, let her go wherever the hell she wants. They were pleased. Look at us, we’re so modern. What’s wrong with this? Tons of high school graduates move out after the first summer, looking for grown-up life. Sasha pulled the blanket off her face. Outside her window with its tightly drawn curtains, it was still light. It was eight o’clock. Half past eight. August. Three weeks before school started. Sasha heard a soft knock on her door. “It’s me,” said Valentin. “Could we talk?” They found the town of Torpa in the road atlas. A transparent circle lay right where the faded paper folded in half. “Town of Torpa.” Valentin chuckled. “I’d say it’s more of a village. What kind of an institute are they supposed to have there?” Sasha handed him the yellow sheet. He studied it for a while, flipped it over, then frowned. “Did you apply there?” “No. I mean, yes, I did.” “But your documents were submitted to the university!” “They accept copies. Plus, I didn’t get into the university anyway.” “Torpa Institute of Special Technologies,” Valentin repeated. “What sort of technologies? And who are you supposed to be when you graduate?” “An expert in special technologies,” Sasha said. Valentin glared at her. “Are you making fun of me?” “No.” Sasha squirmed. “You don’t have to declare your major until junior year. Or senior. I don’t know for sure.” “You don’t know for sure, yet you insist on going?” “If I don’t like it, I’ll come back,” Sasha almost whispered. “Honestly. If it turns out to be a bad place, I’ll come back. Just tell Mom not to worry. I need to go there. I really do. It’s not about … I just need to.” She kept repeating the same thing in different words, and Valentin sat in front of her, confused, disoriented, and for the first time Sasha thought of him as no longer a stranger. “Get up, miss. We get to Torpa in half an hour.” “Wha …?” Sasha jumped up and hit her head on the luggage shelf. She’d spent the entire night in a twilight zone between sleeping and waking, and only just recently managed to fall asleep. The train was old and shaky, and somewhere a teaspoon jingled in an empty glass. Shadows and lights swam by, transfusing the open-plan carriage, where half-naked bodies dripped with sweat. Bedsheet corners hung from the cots. Somebody snored, somebody rustled a piece of cellophane, and Sasha lay on a top berth and tried to convince herself: I’ll be back in one week. The condition Farit had laid out was to be there when classes start. No one said anything about staying in Torpa for the entire year. Valentin had wanted to come with her. He’d insisted, actually, and even gone so far as to buy two tickets at the railroad office. He’d intended to check the accreditation of the Torpa Institute, conditions at the dormitory, make sure everything was normal. And deep inside, Sasha felt grateful for his concern. The dark man who called himself Farit Kozhennikov had not specified that Sasha must show up alone. But the day before their departure Valentin received a call from Moscow: his son from his first marriage had been run over by a car, and while he had not suffered any serious injuries, the hospital wasn’t cheap, and Valentin’s presence—with his connections in the medical field—was required to work through the bureaucracy. Valentin, having almost immediately forgotten about Sasha’s issues, dashed away to Moscow. Sasha ended up returning his ticket before the train departed, somehow finding a way during that time to convince Mom that she would be perfectly fine. Mom saw her off. She stood by the train window for a long time, looking through the glass pane, waving, and dispensing last-minute advice. Sasha had wished fervently for the train to start moving. But when the locomotive gave the initial tug, she felt her heart drop down into her knees, and she nearly jumped out of the moving train, into Mom’s arms. This was her first time traveling alone by train. She kept glancing over at the luggage shelf, where her suitcase was stowed. She palpated the little bag full of coins on the bottom of her purse and checked the documents in the inside pocket—passport, high school diploma, medical records, letter of acceptance, and some other papers, all neatly folded into a plastic envelope. She felt unbearable loneliness; she kept thinking how a while back she and Mom had traveled to the seaside in a train just like this one, and poppies had blossomed outside their windows, and she had been happy, peaceful, and safe. She cried, hiding her tears from her fellow travelers, and placed a tremendous blame on herself for giving in to the man in the dark glasses that very first time. Even if she were forever subjected to the eternal nightmare, even if she would have had to wake up on the folding cot in the rented room every morning for the rest of her life, Mom would always be there with her. And there would always be the sea. If one’s life were forever to consist of half of the summer day of July 24, it would still be a pretty good life. At least, it would be a life without gold coins, or Valentin, or a long road to Torpa. The sun went down. Sasha’s fellow passengers were having supper, crunching half-sour pickles, peeling lusterless hard-boiled eggs. Sasha took out Mom’s sandwiches and nearly burst out crying again: this little plastic bag held a piece of home. Without touching the food, she put it away again, had a cup of tea, and crawled onto the top berth. And now she was almost there. “Miss! Are you awake? I’m telling you, Torpa is close.” “Yes, I’m ready.” They reached the border between night and morning. It was around four o’clock, maybe four thirty. After so many months, Sasha was used to getting up this early. She knew that morning would bring relief. Now, gathering her things, lacing up her shoes, dragging the suitcase off the shelf (carefully, trying not to wake up the other passengers, and still accidentally touching people’s arms hanging off the berths), she almost forgot the previous night’s sorrow. The winds of exotic travels, of unexpected discoveries—one had to take all that into account. She was an adult now, an independent person, traveling by herself, without supervision, and this was all part of the journey. She’d just have to see what this Torpa is all about. Sasha dragged her suitcase into the hallway. The train attendant snoozed on a cot covered by a thin blanket. “How long is the stop?” Sasha asked. “In Torpa? One minute. Do you have a lot of luggage?” The train slowed down. The carriages clanked. In the darkness of the August morning Sasha saw nothing, only a blue streetlight barely visible in the sky. The train jerked, clanked, and stopped. The attendant, yawning, started fiddling with the key. “I’m not going to make it!” Sasha was terrified. “Please hurry up!” The attendant swore under her breath. The train jerked again. The attendant finally unlocked the door. The train started moving slowly; Sasha threw her bag over her shoulder, dragged the suitcase behind her, and tumbled down the iron steps. She landed on the low platform and saw the train attendant yawn once more before locking the door behind her. She looked around. This was it. The train was gathering speed. Sasha hauled her suitcase farther away from the edge of the platform. The last car rambled by, and two lights on its tail end quickly melted away in the dark. The green light of the semaphore turned red. Sasha stood alone on the empty platform … But she was not alone. Out of the darkness appeared a scrawny shadow with a large suitcase. The shadow stopped in front of her. A boy Sasha’s age—pale, sleepy, bewildered. “Hey,” he said after a moment’s silence. “Is this Torpa?” “Hey,” said Sasha. “So they say.” “I’ve never been here before,” said the boy. “Me neither.” The boy paused, and then asked tentatively, “The Institute?” Sasha, who was fervently hoping for this very question, nodded enthusiastically: “Uh-huh. You too? Special Technologies?” Visibly relieved, the kid smiled. “Is there another one in this dump?” “I don’t know,” Sasha admitted. “Do you see any kind of town around here?” The kid looked around and put his hands over his eyes, imitating binoculars. “A kick-ass megalopolis. An impressive train station. And there, look, a shed with huge potential!” Sasha laughed. And just like that, they felt better. Hauling their suitcases and trying to outdo each other in wit, the new students walked over to the “shed with huge potential,” which turned out to be the actual train station. In a spark of inspiration, Sasha called it a “chicken coop refurbished to the highest European standards.” Sasha’s new acquaintance appreciated the joke and laughed uproariously. Of course, the station was completely empty. All the cashier windows were locked. Elongated blinking ceiling fixtures lit up the empty cafeteria table, wooden chairs with graffiti scratched here and there, a self-service storage unit with six compartments, all open. The floor, relatively clean, was covered with white and black tiles. “Looks apocalyptic,” said Sasha, glancing around her. A cloud of August flies flew off one of the lighting fixtures and filled the small room with optimistic humming. “Hello!” the boy called out. “Is there anyone here?” The only reply he got was the droning of the flies. “I don’t like it here,” Sasha said. The boy didn’t say anything, and she took that as agreement. They stepped back outside, onto the platform. It was getting a little lighter. Under the lone streetlight they found a “Train Station—Center” bus schedule, blurry from the rainwater. If the schedule was to be trusted, the first bus would depart for the mysterious “Center” in one hour. “We’ll wait,” the boy said decisively. “And if we get lucky, we can always grab a cab. I have money.” His name was Kostya. Perhaps in Sasha’s presence he felt especially manly, or maybe it was just his personality, but he kept trying to take charge. Sasha did not protest. Kostya’s energy, and even his amateur vigor, gave her an illusion of safety. They left their suitcases in storage (the compartments did not require tokens, just a code) and found a comfortable bench on the platform, then unwrapped their provisions. Sasha’s sandwiches, which had made her so sad the night before, disappeared within minutes. She shared with Kostya, he shared with her; a bottle of mineral water was opened, and Kostya brought out a thermos almost full of coffee. Sasha’s nostrils quivered; breakfast put her in a very good mood. A freight train rolled by the station, the rumble died down in the distance. Silence reigned, disturbed only by the birds. “The bus is coming in half an hour,” Kostya said with certainty. “The address of this place is 12 Sacco and Vanzetti Street.” “Do you know who they are, Sacco and Vanzetti?” Kostya shrugged. “Italians, I think.” Another freight train rolled by in the other direction. “Can you please tell me,” Sasha began carefully, “what made you decide to apply to this … Special Technologies thing? Who gave you this … this idea?” Kostya’s face darkened. He looked at her suspiciously, folded dirty napkins and oily paper, and dropped them all into an empty trash barrel next to the bench. “I’m just asking,” Sasha added quickly. “If you don’t want to tell me, don’t, and accept my apology.” “I was forced,” Kostya admitted reluctantly. “You too!” For a minute they stared at each other, both waiting for the other one to speak. “That’s strange,” Kostya said finally. “You’re a girl. You don’t have military duty.” “What does it have to do with military duty?” “Everything,” Kostya said harshly. “Do you think every man should serve in the army?” “I don’t know,” Sasha said. “I guess so.” And, just in case, she added: “But if someone doesn’t want to serve, then he shouldn’t have to.” Kostya sighed and shook his head. “My own father gave me an ultimatum. I didn’t get accepted to law school, twice, actually. I was supposed to get drafted this fall. But my father …” Kostya fell silent. He gave Sasha a side glance, as if wondering why he was sharing intimate details of his life with a chance fellow traveler, whom he’d known for all of an hour. “So you didn’t want to go to this institute?” Kostya shrugged. “Whether I wanted to or not … it doesn’t matter anymore.” They fell silent. The platform was still deserted; not a single person showed up—not an equipment inspector, not a street cleaner, no one. The reddish August sun was rising from the bushes. Birds were chirping. The high blades of grass along the railroad were covered by morning dew, each drop a colorful gem. “And you don’t even have to serve in the army …,” Kostya said pensively. Sasha did not reply. She really did not feel like telling Kostya the story of her meeting with Farit Kozhennikov. She had hoped that Kostya himself was in a similar situation, but his turned out much more banal: failed exams, military summons in the fall, a stern father … “Is it time to go?” she asked nervously, hoping to change the subject. Kostya glanced at his watch. “I guess. Might as well walk over—there’s another bench near the bus stop.” Despite Sasha’s concerns, the metal doors of the storage unit opened easily. Kostya grabbed both suitcases. A crumpled piece of paper was stuck to the bottom of Sasha’s suitcase. “Trash,” Kostya murmured and held the paper gingerly with two fingers. It was a note—large penciled letters could be easily read even now, after the note had gotten wet and dirty: “Leave now.” There was no signature. Half an hour later they sat in a small bus that Kostya called “a hearse.” The stupid piece of paper had spoiled their mood, even though they both tried to pretend it meant absolutely nothing. In a way, it didn’t mean anything to Sasha—she knew she could not leave. Tomorrow was September 1; she had to be there. She had to do what Farit Kozhennikov requested, and only after that she would have to figure it out. Kostya was quiet. His zeal disappeared without a trace. The bus came at five of seven, its driver a perfectly average, solid middle-aged man, wearing a worn denim jacket thrown over a black T-shirt. Sasha and Kostya bought their tickets and settled in the backseat. The driver started the engine, and then suddenly they were joined by an old lady with a basket, a woman carrying a shovel wrapped in sackcloth, and two young empty-handed men. It seemed to Sasha that the young men took particular notice of her and Kostya. Again, she felt lonely and helpless. First, the bus drove among the fields, dotted here and there with tiny human figures. Then they drove into Torpa “proper.” It was not exactly a village as Sasha had imagined: five-story brick buildings mixed with single-family homes. Rather, it was very much a town, albeit one that was very old and not at all modernized: heavy buildings made out of stone, with occasional columns and molding on the facades. These abutted curved streets, in some places paved, but more often covered with black cobblestones. Windows were hidden behind green shutters. Sloping timbered roofs. Steps touched by erosion. “Would you look at this,” Kostya said softly. “You could film a movie here. Not too shabby, is it?” Sasha did not reply. The bus stopped at a small square, the bus stop under a simple awning. “Torpa,” said the driver. “We’re here.” Sasha waited until the two suspicious guys left, and only then did she follow Kostya out. The driver passed them their suitcases, settled back in his seat, stepped on the gas, and the bus disappeared from view before Sasha and Kostya had a chance to look around. Again, they were left alone. The old lady, the woman with a shovel—even the suspicious guys—were all gone. “And whom are we supposed to ask for directions?” Kostya inquired sarcastically. “There is a sign,” Sasha said, looking around. “Here—‘Sacco and Vanzetti, one point five kilometers.’” They started walking. It took them almost half an hour to walk a kilometer and a half; panting, Kostya dragged both suitcases. Surprisingly long, Sacco and Vanzetti Street began at building number 114, then the numbers descended. The sidewalk in turn widened and disappeared entirely. The street expanded like an overflowing river, turning into a boulevard, then narrowed again, turning into a gorge. “Elegance galore,” Kostya murmured. Stone and peeling plaster. Ivy and grapevines stretched over the gutters. Geraniums hung in pots. Sasha kept turning her head in all directions: here was a three-story brownstone stylized as a castle, with cozy-looking alabaster Chimeras. Over there was an uninspiring concrete building with old-style commercial air-conditioning units. And over there a tumbling-down wooden shack, a young birch tree growing on its roof. Each awning housed a swallow’s nest. The birds streaked through the air, covering the street with a moving black net, drawing large complicated circles, diving occasionally into the broken attic windows. Sparrows shrieked above the chestnut and linden trees. “Seems like a decent kind of place.” Sasha rubbed her aching neck. Kostya snorted as the stores were beginning to open. In front of a bakery stood a dignified little queue—three old ladies with shopping bags. Three men in overalls were smoking in front of a liquor store. On the other side of the street a team of workers were fixing a roof: a pulley strained, an enormous vat filled with resin passed above the heads of passersby, and faded, quivering warning flags strewn on a wire protected the danger zone into which one could not, under any circumstances, take even a tiny step … Building number 12 emerged as a large house, clearly redesigned several times: two stories boasted colorful bricks—almost like a gingerbread house—the third story was built out of simple white limestone brick, and the fourth floor was of plain wood. A stone porch, its steps slightly sloping and worn out, led to the main entrance. A black door of impressive height looked haughty and stern. A small plaque shined dully to the left of the entrance: MINISTRY OF EDUCATION. INSTITUTE OF SPECIAL TECHNOLOGIES “We’re here,” said Kostya, dumping the suitcases onto the pavement. Sasha stared at the door. A black rectangle with a shiny brass handle. Four steps leading up. Kostya was out of breath. He had hauled two huge suitcases along the entire Sacco and Vanzetti Street and now had a good reason to be sweaty and clearly short-winded. It was more complicated for Sasha. Trying to control her breathing, she could have sworn that both she and Kostya were thinking the same thing: it was not too late to get out of here. They had one more chance to escape before stepping over the threshold. The moment this door closed behind them, there would be no way back. Kostya was silent, not wanting to seem cowardly in Sasha’s presence, not realizing she was worried about seeming scared in front of him. What am I doing here? thought Sasha in sheer panic. Why am I not home? Why did I go where I have no desire to go, like a passive sheep, an obedient dog on a leash? Why is this my life? Kostya looked around. “I wonder if there is a café or something like that,” he said seemingly to himself. “Would be nice to get a cup of coffee, I’m really thirsty. Look, there is a place!” And in fact, right across from the institute, they saw the entrance to a ground-level cellar with a wooden sign: PASTRY, COFFEE, TEA. A single table with an open striped sun umbrella stood on the sidewalk. Sasha sighed and glanced back to the institute’s building. The windows—small on the first two floors, large on the third, dull on the fourth—watched them with faceted eyes. “Let’s go in,” Sasha croaked. “We can’t sit here with our suitcases all day anyway.” The vast half-lit entrance hall seemed deserted. The glass reception booth was empty. Staircases stretched left and right, and in the center of the hall, under a ray of light coming from above, rose an equestrian statue of stunning proportions. “That’s a stallion.” Kostya stifled a giggle. Mesmerized, Sasha came closer. It certainly was a stallion: the horse’s belly and legs were carved with a great degree of anatomical precision, as were … other things. Colossal bronze hooves trampled upon the granite pedestal. Immense boots hung from the stirrups. The face of the horseman was impossible to see—it was lost far above, and no matter what angle Sasha tried, she could see only a huge upturned chin and a prominent Adam’s apple. “First years?” The voice echoed in the deserted hall. Sasha and Kostya spun around. A short concierge in a printed dress stood by the entrance, her fat finger with a candy-pink nail motioning for them to approach. “You need the dean’s office. Behind the staircase, to the right, you can’t miss it, just look for the sign. You can leave your suitcases, no one will take them.” The long corridor smelled of dust and fresh whitewash. On both sides stretched doors, just like in a high school, but taller and somehow more important looking. The DEAN’S OFFICE sign left them no chance of getting lost. Sasha entered and immediately had to squint. The office was full of light—sunshine burst through the windows. Right in front of Sasha was a wooden partition with an opening. Two women sat on the other side of the partition, one skinny, one corpulent, both wearing white blouses, both with equally impenetrable impressions on very different faces. “First years?” asked the fat one. “Documents.” Sasha fumbled with the inside pocket’s fastening and the pin she’d added for safety. “Hurry up,” said the fat woman. “Young man, if you are ready, you can go first.” Kostya stepped up to the barrier. The woman glanced at his diploma, then opened his passport and checked it against the long list on her desk. “Congratulations, you have been accepted,” she stated lifelessly. “Sign here. This is your dormitory assignment, and here are the tickets for the dining hall. Textbooks will be distributed by your professors. Please wait in the hall while I register the girl.” The skinny woman said nothing. She glanced at the list over her colleague’s shoulder, then stared up at Kostya with a great deal of attention, squinting slightly. Under her watchful eye, Kostya left the room, gripping a gray stamped envelope. Sasha approached the barrier. It was old and worn; time had made its surface grainy and three-dimensional. Sasha couldn’t resist caressing the wood with her palm. “Your name?” asked Ms. Corpulent, not in a rush to open Sasha’s passport. “Samokhina, Alexandra.” “Samokhina.” A long-nailed finger slid down the list. “Samokhina …” “Farit’s girl,” Ms. Skinny mumbled to herself. Sasha flinched; her sudden move caused the opening of the partition to snap closed. “Is Kozhennikov your advisor?” Ms. Corpulent asked, not looking at Sasha. “I guess …” “Be careful,” said Ms. Corpulent. “He’s a good man, but he can be harsh. Here’s your dormitory assignment, your dining hall tickets. Do you have your coins? You’re supposed to have four hundred and seventy-two.” Sasha reached into her bag. The combination of this perfectly ordinary office space and this perfectly ordinary bureaucratic procedure with gold coins of obscure denomination, obtained during bouts of vomiting, made her lose her sense of reality. Even the sun outside the windows now appeared illusory. The woman took the heavy plastic bag out of her hands. She placed it somewhere under her desk; the gold jingled. “All set,” said the fat woman. “Go, move in. Tomorrow morning all the first years are expected to meet at nine in the morning in the assembly hall, straight in front of the main entrance, by the statue, there is a small staircase—you’ll see. Hello, who’s next? Come in!” “Where is the dorm?” Sasha asked, regaining her senses. But they were already done with her. She eventually found the dormitory—it was buried inside a courtyard, accessible only from the institute itself, or from a narrow, dark, and smelly alley off Sacco and Vanzetti. Peeking at the alley from a distance, Sasha vowed to avoid it entirely after dark. From the outside, the dorm appeared to be a long, peeling, rundown, two-story barrack. The main door was locked. Kostya knocked with a bent finger, then banged on it with his fist, then kicked it (rather gingerly). “That’s strange,” Sasha said. “Are they asleep? What time is it?” Kostya turned to answer her, but at that moment the door squeaked and opened. Kostya stepped back, nearly falling off the steps. In the doorway stood a tall, basketball player–sized guy with a black eye patch on his right eye. He was painfully thin and sort of lopsided, as if an entire half of his body was crippled by a permanent seizure. His blue eye looked at Kostya and immediately switched to Sasha. Sasha shrank back. “First years?” the guy asked in a hoarse strained voice. “Moving in? Got the assignments? Come in …” He disappeared in the dark, leaving the door ajar. Sasha and Kostya exchanged glances. “Are we going to be like him?” Kostya inquired with an exaggerated meekness. Sasha did not respond; she found the joke uncalled for. She also wasn’t so sure it was a joke—and was afraid he might be prescient. They entered the barrack, which from the inside was not much more exhilarating than from the outside: brown linoleum, walls painted blue on the bottom and white above eye level, a staircase with metal railings. Steam rose from somewhere, accompanied by the hum of water in a shower. “Here.” The one-eyed guy appeared at the reception desk, over which hung a plywood board with several sets of keys. “The girl is going to room 21, second floor. The boy, room 7, it’s down the corridor, to the right. Here’s the key for room 21. There are two second-year students in room 7—they have already arrived.” “I’m not ‘the boy,’” Kostya muttered. “Do you work here?” Sasha inquired tentatively, ignoring Kostya. “I’m subbing for someone. I’m a third year, actually. Name’s Victor.” The guy winked with his only eye and laughed. Half of his face remained immobile, while the corner of his mouth slid way down. His laughter looked so frightening that Sasha nearly burst into tears. She yanked her heavy bag up the stairs, along a similar corridor, floor covered by the same dull linoleum, with room numbers barely visible on the doors painted white. Sasha reached number 21, fumbled with the key due to her trembling hands, and, after a short struggle, managed to open the door. Three wire bed frames with striped mattresses. Three desks, three bedside tables. Built-in wardrobe. A large window, small, hinged pane slightly ajar, with a dusty windowsill. Sasha hauled her suitcase inside, sat down on the nearest bed, and wept. She had about five minutes to lament over her life and her troubles before she heard steps in the corridor. Sasha barely managed to wipe her tears; there was a short knock on the door, but almost immediately the door opened and two girls walked in. Sasha had seen them briefly in the hallway, on her way from the dean’s office to the dorm. Both were about seventeen, a blonde in a blue denim outfit and a brunette, plump and round, in a knee-length skirt and a jersey top. “Hello.” The brunette had a low basso voice. “Hello,” said the blonde; with one quick glance at Sasha’s red eyes, she inquired,”What’s wrong?” “Nothing.” Sasha looked away. “Homesick.” “Right.” The blonde threw a disinterested look around the room. “Got it.” “I kind of like it here,” the brunette said, pulling her luggage closer to the window. “No one hanging over your shoulder. Do whatever you want. Freedom.” Farit had said something similar to her when she’d been told about her acceptance to Torpa. But Sasha couldn’t see where the “freedom” part came in. All she could think was that she would not be able to do what she wanted for the rest of her life. In fact, the chances were she would have to do what she desperately did not want to do. Stare into Kozhennikov’s eyes, hidden behind the dark glasses, and execute all of his whims under the pain of cruel punishment … Out loud she said nothing. Her voice wasn’t really cooperating anyway. The blonde briefly looked in her direction before saying, “Actually, I am not going to live here myself. I think I’m better off renting an apartment somewhere nearby. It’s better for you, too—you’ll have more space.” Sasha did not respond. The brunette shrugged, her meaning clear: You’re the boss. “My name is Lisa,” the blonde told Sasha. “And this is Oksana.” “Alexandra,” croaked Sasha. “Samokhina, Sasha.” “Looks like we’re classmates.” Lisa kept her blue appraising eyes on Sasha. “Looks like it.” “All this dust,” grumbled Oksana, sliding her plump finger over the desks and the windowsill. “And where are we supposed to get the bed linen, does anyone know? Has anyone seen the superintendent? Easy to get along with?” Lisa took her eyes off Sasha. She walked around the room, touching the door of the wardrobe, which emitted a hoarse squeak. “We should celebrate,” Oksana suggested. Immediately, not waiting for anyone’s consent, she began to take out jars, containers, and packages from her bag. She took out paper plates and peeled three white paper cups off an accordion-pleated snake, then filled each with some liquid from a murky plastic bottle. “Here, girls. We’re roommates now. Help yourself: the sausage is homemade, and here are some pickles. And the bread, well, whatever is left.” “Drink—this early in the morning?” Lisa said. “We’ll have just a drop.” Oksana picked up a thick slice of the sausage. “To good grades, to easy living. Cheers!” Sasha held the cup; whitish liquid splashed on the bottom. It smelled of yeast. “What is it?” “Moonshine.” Oksana gave her a cheerful grin. “Come on, bottoms up!” She bumped her glass with Lisa’s, then with Sasha’s, drank, widened her eyes, and bit into the sausage. Lisa took a small sip. Sasha wanted to refuse, but then thought, Why shouldn’t I? She held her breath and swallowed the murky liquid like medicine. She’s never tasted anything worse. All the alcoholic beverages she’d tasted before—champagne on New Year’s Eve and her birthday, the occasional dry red wine—had had a pleasant taste and a nice smell. The moonshine remained stuck in her throat, preventing her from breathing. “Eat!” Oksana yelled at her. “Have a pickle.” Letting tears stream down her face, Sasha bit into a pickle and then into a fatty sausage and black bread with caraway seeds. Now she was thirsty, but no one had any water. Efficient Oksana assured them that there should be a kitchen, and the kitchen should have a teakettle, and she was going to find everything out. The door closed behind her. Sasha took a deep breath. The room swam in front of her eyes, and she felt not exactly happy, but a little easier, and now she wanted to talk. She wanted to ask Lisa how she ended up at the Institute of Special Technologies. And whether Farit Kozhennikov was part of her life as well. And what she was thinking of doing next. She wanted to tell Lisa about her terror, and the coins, about Valentin with his precoronary, and Mom, and about the note found by accident in the storage compartment at the train station. Sasha opened her mouth, but then stopped. What if Lisa, unlike Sasha herself, is not mad? What if she applied to the institute like a normal student? What if she wants to be here? Who knows what she wants? Maybe she ran away from an odious family situation? Or maybe she’s hiding from a scandal? Or something else, something normal, human, and here was Sasha with her fairy tales? On the other hand, the coins … “Did anyone … did you have to pay anyone?” Sasha asked curtly. “No one accepts bribes here,” said Lisa distractedly. “And if you mean those coins … I gave them to my advisor earlier. If that’s what you are talking about.” The door opened, Oksana burst in with a hot teakettle in one hand and a package of tea in the other. “Girls, there is a decent kitchen there, even pots and pans! Do you want to have tea here, or in the kitchen?” “I don’t want any tea.” Lisa got up. “I’m going for a walk. Don’t forget, lunch is at two. Bring your lunch tickets.” Lisa returned when Sasha and Oksana were almost done with the cleanup; all they had left to do was take out the trash and wash the floor. At first, Sasha, drowsy with the aftereffect of the moonshine, flatly refused to participate, but Oksana turned out to be quite pushy: they weren’t expecting to live in a pigsty, were they, and really, the thing to do was to clean up, and then they could relax. She poked and prodded, and soon Sasha discovered a rag in her hand and then found herself standing in line for bed linen in front of the superintendent’s office. The first years were flowing in, some nervous and frightened, some cheerful and noisy. Sasha met tons of new classmates, and their names immediately flew out of her head. Pale and disheveled, Kostya showed up and disappeared again, looking punch-drunk. Sasha carried three sets of grayish sheets, smelling of detergent, to the second floor; meanwhile, Oksana managed to dust the insides of the wardrobe, the tables, windowsill, and even the legs of the three beds. Lisa came back, stepped over the mound of trash in the doorway, sighed, and proceeded toward her bed with the stack of sheets set on the mattress. “Nice walk?” Oksana inquired cheerfully. Silently, Lisa lay down on the striped mattress and turned her face to the wall. The dining hall was located in the basement. Before September 1, the official start of school, only the self-service station was open, but even there one could get clear soup with round meatballs in shining enamel bowls and chicken with vermicelli. One was even allowed an unlimited amount of fruit compote, three or four glasses, if one wanted. “Good grub,” Oksana stated. Sasha noticed Kostya at a nearby table. Her traveling companion hunched over his plate, crumbling a piece of bread into tiny pieces and looking through the other diners without seeing them. Sasha went over with a firm conviction: if he wasn’t happy to see her, she would leave immediately. Kostya was happy. A lot happier than Sasha had anticipated. He moved out a chair for her to sit down and offered her his portion of compote. Sasha did not refuse. “So, you settled in?” and immediately, without any transition: “Listen, they are crazy.” “Who?” “Those guys they put me in with. The second years. One stutters so much his eyes pop out, and he giggles constantly. And the other one gets stuck.” “What do you mean?” “Well, he stretches his hand to get a book off the shelf, and then he … he gets stuck, like he’s rusted all over. He stands in this really stupid pose, and he pulls, and twitches … and he even sort of squeaks. And then it lets him go. He gets the book and starts reading, as though nothing happened. And they keep looking at each other behind my back, winking … Freaks. What am I supposed to do, sleep in the same room with them?” Kostya stopped short. He suddenly realized that he was spilling his guts—complaining!—to the girl he had only just met that morning. Evidently, according to Kostya’s internal code of honor, this behavior could not be considered masculine. Embarrassed and upset, he lowered his eyes to his plate. “My roommates are first years,” Sasha said. “They seem normal. Relatively.” Kostya looked up, saying, “Just have a look around. The entire second year, and third, they are all crippled. Just look!” Sasha turned around. A group of third years maneuvered between the rows of tables, one-eyed Victor in the lead. Tall, gangly, and lopsided, Victor’s left leg was lame, and the dishes on his tray jumped and jiggled, threatening to fall off. Behind Victor, a square-shouldered guy in a bright red T-shirt and faded jeans directed himself to the empty tables in the back, smiling and constantly bumping into chairs. The chairs rattled, some fell on the floor, but the guy paid no attention and kept moving. Next to him, a girl wearing incredibly high heels took tentative steps. She gazed at the floor, seeing something completely inaccessible to others. Every now and then she aimed her heel at the floor, as if hammering in a nail, froze for a second, lifted her foot with visible effort (her heel seemingly piercing through the floor), and kept walking, swaying slightly. “Panopticon,” Kostya murmured. “Where do they get these people from?” Sasha gave him a fleeting look. “The first years seem normal,” she said, echoing her earlier statement. “Hmm.” Kostya twirled his spoon in the bowl of soup. “Yeah. I’m all set. D’you want to go?” The post office smelled of sealing wax; a young mother with a stroller was mailing a large package tied up with string. There was only one postal worker on duty, so Sasha waited while she helped the young mother, and then she asked the middle-aged purple-haired woman to connect her with a long-distance phone number. She entered an echoing phone booth, and, stifling her heartbeat, listened to the long beeps, then jumped with joy when Mom picked up the phone. “Hello!” Mom was yelling into the receiver, probably having trouble hearing. Sasha yelled too: “Mom! It’s me! Everything is fine! I’m all settled in! They feed us here! Tomorrow is the first day of school! How are you?” She screamed it out, like a team’s fight song, and listened to Mom’s reply: Everything is good, Valentin called from Moscow, everyone is healthy … “I’ll call you again soon. Bye!” Sasha browsed through the postcards and chose one: “For you, from ancient Torpa.” The postcard pictured the fountain square, swans swimming in the water. Sasha bought the postcard, wrote her mother’s address, and tossed it into the huge blue box with a mail symbol on top. The envelope hit the tin bottom with a dull thud. The post office was located about fifteen minutes’ walking distance from the dorm. On the way back, the weather got worse and it started to drizzle. Sasha pulled her head into her shoulders and ran up the concrete porch, yanking the squeaky door open. An unfamiliar boy was walking along the first-floor corridor. He took a couple of steps, and then froze in the middle of his move, like a captured video frame. He stood still for a few seconds, then, with visible effort, forced himself to move and continued walking. Then he turned and walked into the wall near the door. He stepped back. On the second try he grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open … Sasha flung herself up the stairs. Lisa and Oksana were smoking, sitting on their beds. The window was open wide, but the smoke refused to leave; instead, cold wind burst into the room, adorned with shiny beads of rain. “Could you possibly smoke in the bathroom?” Sasha asked hesitantly. All she got in response was ice-cold silence. “Good morning, first years.” The assembly hall was a large dusty room. Only the last three or four rows of chairs were occupied. Dark curtains covered the windows, letting in half of the necessary light. A screen glowed white behind the stage. Looks like a community center, thought Sasha. “The coolest people sit in the back of the bus, like in middle school?” A man stepped up onto the low platform and glanced around the room. “That’s not going to fly.” He added in the same low voice: “Lights, please.” The chandelier was lit immediately, and now the room was filled with bright lights, like an opera theater during intermission. “Everyone move to the front of the room,” the man on the stage commanded. “Hurry up.” The first years began to move, exchanging glances, slowly creeping up closer to the stage. Sasha and Kostya found a spot at the end of the second row, and everyone trying to get to the center seats kept stumbling over their feet. She didn’t care—it seemed incredibly important to be able to leave as quickly as possible if necessary. The man on the stage waited. He looked nothing like Sasha’s image of a college professor: instead of a suit, he wore jeans and a striped sweater. His straight blond hair was pulled into a ponytail, and he wore glasses, long and narrow like razor blades, that seemed specially designed to allow him to look over the lenses. “My name is Oleg Borisovich. Oleg Borisovich Portnov. Young man in the fifth row, yes, you. Don’t be shy, come closer. There are not that many of us, we have plenty of space. I would like to extend my congratulations to you, ladies and gentlemen, on this significant event in your lives: your admission to the first year of Torpa’s Institute of Special Technologies. You are to expect an interesting life and plenty of hard work. Miss”—his finger pointed at Lisa, who leaned over to whisper something to Oksana—“when I speak, everyone else is silent. Please remember that in the future.” Lisa choked. The room was very quiet. Portnov took a few steps along the platform, his eyes traveling from face to face, slowly, like the ray of a flashlight. “Congratulations, you are now students. In honor of your initiation, the student hymn will be performed. If you know the words, please sing along.” A triumphant chord burst out of the sound system. Portnov motioned for everyone to rise. An invisible chorus sang with an appropriate solemnity: Gaudeamus igitur, Juvenes dum sumus! Post jucundam juventutem, Post molestam senectutem Nos habebit humus! Sasha quickly observed the audience. Only a few people were singing along. Lisa stood with her lips tightly shut. Oksana strained to hear the words—her Latin did not seem very strong. Sasha herself knew the text, she’d learned it a while ago in her prep course. The translation of this seemingly joyful song never struck her as happy: After a pleasant youth After a troubling old age The earth will have us. Such a lovely beginning. But then: Vita nostra brevis est, Brevi finietur; Venit mors velociter, Rarit nos atrociter, Nemini parcetur! This part she particularly disliked: in this verse, all men were promised an imminent death that spares no one. Vita nostra … “Our life is brief, / It will shortly end; / Death comes quickly.” Maybe the medieval students didn’t give a hoot, Sasha thought darkly. Maybe if I were listening to “Gaudeamus” at home, at our university, I wouldn’t give a hoot either, and I wouldn’t have any of these thoughts. But I am in Torpa. Vivat Academia, Vivant professores! Vivat membrum quodlibet, Vivat membra quaelibet Semper sint in flore! The song ended. The students sat down, as if ending a moment of silence. Portnov stood at the very edge of the platform, hanging over the first rows, studying their faces. Sasha caught his gaze and lowered her own. “And now we’re going to watch a short film—our school’s official presentation. I would like to ask you to pay attention and refrain from talking and interrupting your neighbors’ viewing. Enjoy the film.” The lights went out. The dark curtains on the windows twitched and moved closer together. Behind the stage, a light rectangle appeared on the screen, reminding Sasha of newsreels of her early childhood: something very archaic was in the black-and-white image displayed on the screen. “Welcome to the ancient town of Torpa,” announced the deep voice of the narrator. “The Institute of Special Technologies salutes you!” A bright logo swam out of the darkness, a rounded symbol, the same as on the front of the gold coins Sasha had collected. Sasha stopped breathing. Last night she’d analyzed everything. She’d whispered: “I want it to be a dream,” squeezing her eyes shut. She’d lain staring at the ceiling. She’d seriously believed that she’d been taken into a secret laboratory, where young boys and girls were subjected to experiments that turned them into cripples. Then she’d calmed down and was able to see some benefit in her situation: what if she were to be taught something amazing, what if Farit Kozhennikov was an alien, and she would have a chance to see other planets … All night the dormitory had been awake: people yelled, sang songs accompanied by guitar chords, listened to a boom box that thundered somewhere. Every now and then somebody stamped down the corridor, this way and then the other. Somebody called for his friends out the window. Somebody laughed uncontrollably. Going mad with insomnia, Sasha had finally plunged into unconsciousness and dreamed strange dreams. At half past six Oksana had started rustling her plastic bags, filling the room with the smell of pickles, and that rustling and the smell forced Sasha wide awake. And now she watched the screen. The film was ancient, older than Sasha herself; the narrator’s voice in the old sound system made her ears pop, but no matter how hard she tried, Sasha heard nothing new or at least informative. Torpa is a beautiful ancient city. Tradition of higher education. Youth stepping into the adult life. Et cetera, et cetera. Black-and-white frames replaced each other: the streets of Torpa (which really were quite picturesque, she had to admit). Swans in the fountain. The institute’s facade, the dormitory’s facade, the glass dome over the equestrian statue. The voice preached the importance of a properly chosen higher education facility, and how this affects one’s employment and career, talked about young specialists who graduate from the school annually, about life in the dormitory, about glorious traditions—the words were familiar and amorphous, they could be placed in any desired combination without losing any meaning. Sasha was caught off guard when the film ended suddenly, the screen darkened, and the lights came back on. The first years squinted, exchanged glances, and shrugged. Portnov took a long stride across the stage, stopped at its edge, and laced his hands behind his back. “This concludes the official part of the proceedings. Let’s start our work. This year, thirty-nine first-year students were accepted, which makes two groups. Let’s call them Group A and Group B. Understood?” The first years were silent. “Students whose mentors are Liliya Popova and Farit Kozhennikov, please come up.” Sasha swallowed and remained seated. Lisa walked up the squeaky stairs, nervously smoothed out her very short skirt, and stood to the side. A tall guy whom Sasha had seen at the dining hall stood next to her. A student elbowed his way out of the center seat and stumbled over Sasha’s feet. “Should we go?” Kostya asked quietly. Sasha got up. The stage was wide; nineteen people could have spread out from curtain to curtain, holding hands. But everyone huddled together, as if trying to hide behind one another’s backs. “Allow me to introduce first years, Group A,” Portnov motioned toward the stage. “Please welcome Group A.” Someone in the audience clapped a few times. “Your schedule will be posted right after the first block. Group B, which is now sitting in the audience, will be going to Physical Education—the gym is on the third floor, class starts in five minutes. Your second block is Specialty; we’ll meet then and have a chance to chat. Group A has Specialty during the first block in auditorium number 1. Everyone, please proceed to your assigned blocks. You now have four minutes—tardiness is not appreciated.” Portnov stepped down the squeaky steps and left the hall through the side entrance. Lisa moved back and smoothed out her miniskirt again. Sasha was shocked by the length of Lisa’s legs. “Sasha!” Sasha looked back. Oksana, still wearing the same jersey sweater, was waving to her from the audience. “We’re going to be in different groups, that’s a shame, isn’t it?” “Off to the gym …,” somebody mumbled. “I don’t even have any sneakers, just regular shoes …” Group B slowly pulled out of the hall. Sasha turned to Kostya. “Who’s this Liliya Popova?” she whispered. Kostya shook his head. “I have no clue.” “What do you mean?” Sasha was surprised. “But you are … how did you get here, anyway? You said your father …” “Yes.” Kostya nodded. “My father is Farit Kozhennikov. Why?” Auditorium number 1 was located on the first floor, off the hall with the equestrian statue. The sun was beating from the outside, the glass dome shined like a projector’s lens. The light was washing over the stallion and equestrian’s sides and rolled off them like water off a seal’s back. Precise shadows of enormous feet in stirrups lay on the floor. “Why didn’t you tell me he was your father?” “How was I supposed to know you knew him too? I thought …” “If he … if you are his son, how could he stick you into this hole?” “How do I know? I hadn’t seen him for many years. He divorced my mother when … that’s not important. He showed up and gave me an ultimatum, and …” “But is he really your father?” “Well, I suppose so, considering that my full name is Kozhennikov, Konstantin Faritovich!” “Holy shit,” said Sasha, utterly astonished. Group A flowed into the small auditorium, similar to a middle-school classroom. A blackboard with a dusty rag and a piece of chalk made the similarity all the more obvious. They barely had time to choose their seats and place their bags on the floor when the bell rang dismally in the hall, and immediately—that very second—Portnov entered: a long blond ponytail down his back, glasses perched on his nose, and an intense stare over the narrow lenses. He pulled his chair away from the massive teacher’s desk. Sat down. Laced his fingers together in front of him. “All right … Good morning again, students.” He was answered by dead silence; only a spaced-out fly kept throwing itself against the windowpane. Portnov opened a thin paper logbook and glanced over the list. “Biryukov, Dmitry.” “Here.” “Bochkova, Anna.” “Here,” said a plump girl with a pale, sickly face. “Goldman, Yulia.” “Here,” a voice said from the back row. “Korotkov, Andrey.” “Here.” “Kovtun, Igor.” “Here.” “Kozhennikov, Kostya.” A chill moved over the auditorium. Many heads turned. Kostya visibly tensed up. “Here,” he croaked. “Myaskovsky, Denis,” Portnov continued as if nothing had happened. “Here!” Sasha listened to the roll call, doodling on the side of the page of her notebook. Nineteen people. Her high school class had almost forty students … “Pavlenko, Lisa.” “That’s me,” said Lisa. “Samokhina, Alexandra.” “That’s me,” Sasha breathed out. “Toporko, Zhenya.” “Here,” murmured a small, very young-looking girl with two long braids. “Everyone is present,” Portnov admitted with satisfaction. “Take out your notebooks. On top of the first page, write ‘Portnov, Oleg Borisovich.’ In case somebody missed it, my subject is Specialty.” The first years fumbled around. Kostya did not have a notepad, and Sasha supplied him with a sheet from her own notepad. “In the future you must bring your textbooks and notepads to every class. Regarding textbooks …” Portnov unlocked a wooden cabinet and took out a stack of books. “Samokhina, give these to your classmates.” Sasha, an eternal straight-A student, got up before she had time to be surprised. Even the most intelligent teacher usually required a few days to memorize the first and last names of his students. Portnov memorized everyone’s name from the first try; or did he pay special attention to Sasha? She accepted a heavy stack of books that smelled like an old library. The books looked identical and not very new. Sasha walked through the auditorium, placing two books on each desk. The cover had an abstract pattern of colored blocks. Black letters folded into two words: “Textual Module.” Underneath was a large number “1.” “Do not open the books,” said Portnov quietly, before one of the first years curiously lifted the cover. Hands jerked back. Again, silence prevailed. Sasha placed the last two books on the desk she shared with Kostya and sat down. “Attention, students,” continued Portnov just as softly. “You are at the beginning of a journey, during which all of your strength will be required. Physical and mental. What we will be studying is not for everyone. Not everyone can handle what this does to a person. You have been carefully selected, and you all have what it takes to make that journey successfully. Our science does not tolerate weakness and takes cruel revenge on laziness, on cowardice, and on the most infinitesimal attempt to avoid learning the entire curriculum. Is that understood?” The fly threw itself at the glass for the last time and fell limply on the windowsill. “To everyone who puts their best effort into the process of learning and does his or her absolute best, I will guarantee: by the time the process is completed, these students will be alive and well. However, negligence and indifference bring students to a sorry end. An extremely sorry end. Understood?” A hand flew up to the left of Sasha. “Yes, Pavlenko,” said Portnov without looking. Lisa got up, convulsively tugging on her skirt. “You see, no one asked our opinion when we were sent here,” her voice trembled. “And?” Portnov looked at her with interest. “But can you expect us … Request that we study so hard … if we don’t want to?” Lisa tried hard not to allow her voice to squeal. “Yes, we can,” Portnov stated lightly. “When a toddler is being potty-trained, no one asks his or her opinion, right?” Lisa remained standing for a moment, and then sat down. Portnov’s answer took her aback. She wasn’t the only one. Sasha and Kostya exchanged glances. “Let us continue,” went on Portnov, as if the interruption didn’t particularly faze him. “You are Group A of the first year. I will be your Specialty professor, responsible for lectures on theory and individual studies. With each new semester, your work will get more complex, and other special subjects will be added. I want you to understand that Physical Education is considered one of the primary subjects in your curriculum. Do remember that. Aside from that, during the first semester you will be studying Philosophy, History, English, and Mathematics. Most of you were good students, so it will be enough to simply do your homework in those subjects. The situation with Specialty is different. It will be difficult. Especially in the beginning.” “You’ve already put the fear of God into us,” someone said from the back row. “Hand, Kovtun—first get your hand up, then share your thought. In the future, a breach of discipline results in an extra Specialty assignment.” Silence. “Good. We have gotten through the introduction. Let’s begin. Kozhennikov, do me a favor: take the chalk and draw a horizontal line on the blackboard.” “In the middle?” Kostya specified. Portnov glanced askance at him over the glasses. Kostya shrugged, looked down, picked up the chalk, and carefully drew a straight line from one edge of the blackboard to the other. “Thank you, you may sit down. Class, look at the board. What is it?” “Horizon,” said Sasha. “Perhaps. What else?” “A stretched rope,” Lisa suggested. “A dead worm, view from the top!” Igor Kovtun quipped. Portnov smirked. He picked up the chalk and drew a butterfly in the top part of the blackboard. Underneath, below the horizontal line, he drew another butterfly, just like the first one, but in a dashed line. “What is that?” “A butterfly.” “A swallowtail.” “A cabbage white!” “Projection,” Sasha said after a short pause. Portnov glanced at her with interest. “Very good. Samokhina, what is projection?” “It’s an image of an object on a flat surface. Reflection. Shadow.” “Come here.” Sasha disentangled herself from her desk clumsily. Rather unceremoniously, Portnov grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her to face the group. Sasha glimpsed a surprised look on Yulia Goldman’s face, a slightly contemptuous one on Lisa’s, a curious one on Andrey Korotkov’s; in the next second, a black scarf descended upon her face, and darkness came. Somebody gave a nervous giggle. “Samokhina, what do you see?” “Nothing.” “Nothing at all?” Sasha paused, afraid of making a mistake. “Nothing. Darkness.” “Does it mean you are blind?” “No.” Sasha was offended. “It’s just if you cover a person’s eyes, the person won’t be able to see.” The audience was by now laughing openly. “Attention, students,” Portnov said drily. “In reality, each one of you is in the same situation as Samokhina. You are blind. You stare into the darkness.” The giggling subsided. “The world, as you see it, is not real. And the way you imagine it—it does not even come close. Certain things seem obvious to you, but they simply do not exist.” “And you, do you not exist?” Sasha couldn’t help herself. “Are you not real?” Portnov removed the scarf from her face. Under his gaze, she blinked confusedly. “I exist,” he said seriously. “But I am not at all what you think.” And, leaving Sasha standing there in a state of complete shock, he crumpled the scarf into a little ball and threw it carelessly on his desk. “Samokhina, you may sit down. Let’s continue.” Sasha held up her hand. The hand trembled, but Sasha continued to hold it stubbornly. Portnov half-closed his eyes and said, “What now?” “I wanted to ask. What are you going to teach us? What specialty? And who are we going to be when we graduate?” An approving whisper fluttered through the audience. “I am going to give you a notion of how the world is structured,” Portnov explained, with a huge emphasis on his alleged leniency. “And, what is even more crucial, a notion of your—every one of you—place in this world. I cannot tell you more at this point, since you will not understand. Any other questions?” The girl with the braids, Zhenya Toporko, held up her hand. “Excuse me …” “Yes?” Irritation could be easily discerned in Portnov’s voice. Zhenya quivered, but made herself go on: “If I don’t want to study here, and I want to cancel my enrollment … May I do it today?” It became very quiet. Kostya gave Sasha a significant look. Lisa Pavlenko’s eyes lit up. “It is very important to dot all the i’s,” Portnov stated unemotionally. “You have passed a very difficult and competitive selection process. You have been accepted into a well-established learning institution that does not tolerate doubt, uncertainty, and other forms of idiocy. So no, you may not cancel your enrollment. You will study here; otherwise, you will be dismissed and simultaneously buried. Your advisors, Liliya Popova and Farit Kozhennikov, will remain in that role until your fifth year. Their responsibilities include stimulating your excellent academic performance. I hope all of you have had a good chance to meet your advisors so you have an idea of how effective they can be in that regard.” A minute before Sasha thought the auditorium was quiet, but now the silence was absolute. It was deadly. “Open your books to page three,” Portnov continued nonchalantly. “Read Section 1, slowly, carefully, paying attention to each letter. You may begin.” He sat down and gave the students one more piercing look. Sasha opened the book. The inside cover was clear of text: no author’s name, no publishing data. “Textual Module 1, Section 1.” The yellowing pages were worn at the corners; the font was absolutely typical, just like any normal textbook … Until Sasha began to read. There was nothing typical about that. She stumbled on the very first line. Word after word, paragraph after paragraph, the book consisted of complete gibberish. Her first thought was “printing error.” She threw a quick glance at Kostya’s textbook, and at the same time he peeked at hers. “Is yours the same garbage?” “No talking,” Portnov said quietly. “Continue reading. Pay attention. I warned you: you will have to work hard.” “It’s not in Russian,” Anya Bochkova squealed softly. “I did not say it was going to be in Russian. Read silently to yourself. You do not have a lot of time left in this class.” Sasha lowered her head. Somebody laughed. Giggles spread over the class, like an epidemic, but Portnov ignored it. The laughter died down on its own. Sasha forged through the long, senseless combinations of letters, and her hair stood on end. She imagined that somebody was repeating those sounds after her in a dark room with mirrors instead of walls, and each word, after reflecting over and over in the mirrors, finally gained meaning, but by then Sasha had moved two sections ahead, and the meaning flew away from her, like smoke from a fast-moving locomotive … When she finished reading the relatively short section, she was dripping with sweat. She labored to catch her breath. Five paragraphs at the very end were underlined with a red pen. The bell rang outside. “Homework,” Portnov said. “Read Section 1 three times, from beginning to end. The underlined paragraphs are to be memorized. By heart. Tomorrow we have one-on-one practice during the third block. Kozhennikov will compile the list.” “Why me?” Kostya jumped up. “Because you are now the prefect,” stated Portnov matter-of-factly. “Class is dismissed. You next class is Physical Education.” Group A, unusually silent, stopped in the hall, at the foot of the massive staircase. Group B was walking down, chatting happily; the gym class seemed to have put them in a good mood. Oksana walked down the stairs, her cheeks burning bright red in the semidarkness, like two slices of watermelon. Upon seeing the other group, Oksana slowed down. “Any reason you look so miserable?” “You’ll find out,” Lisa promised darkly. “We should get to the gym,” Kostya suggested. “No point in standing here until midnight …” “Prefect,” said Lisa with an unidentifiable modulation. “Is your last name Kozhennikov?” “Yeah, why?” “And who is Farit … Sorry, I don’t know his full name?” Kostya clenched his fists. “He’s my father. So?” “Leave him alone, it’s not his fault,” Sasha said softly. “He’s in the same situation as the rest of us. He was forced into it as well.” Lisa turned sharply and started walking up the stairs. The miniskirt clung to her butt, and her long tanned legs flashed in the semidarkness. “Hmm, isnt’t it all so much fun,” said Andrey Korotkov, a tall, square-shouldered guy older than most of them—he probably ended up in Torpa after his military service. Sasha, trying not to look at anyone, followed Lisa up to the third floor, to the door with a modest sign: SPORTS CENTER. The gym teacher was a gorgeous dark-haired creature around twenty-five years of age. A thin yellow shirt clung to his powerful chest and back muscles; bare shoulders and arms demonstrated an impressive physique. In front of the lineup, Dmitry Dmitrievich (that was his name) shared his entire life story with the group: he used to be a professional wrestler, enjoyed considerable success, got hurt during a match, was forced to leave professional sports and become a coach, and since he had no teaching experience, he was happy to be employed by a regional college. While telling them all the minute details, the gym teacher smiled shyly; Sasha understood immeditately why Group B seemed so happy, especially the girls. Dima Dimych—because how else but informally, like a good buddy, could one address him?—resembled a powerful but naïve tiger cub, and the thought that their schedule included four gym classes a week now made them deliriously happy, instead of depressed as it should have. Dima reminded them to wear athletic uniforms and sneakers to each class and promised to teach special classes, wrestling for boys and table tennis for girls. Yulia Goldman, feisty and lively, immediately claimed discrimination—Why, she asked, did he think wrestling was only for boys? Why couldn’t girls wrestle? To the vast amusement of the audience, Dima blushed and promised “to think of something.” By way of warm-up, he suggested they take off their shoes, split into three teams, and play a game of basketball. A very recent thick layer of paint covered the gym floor. Bright green and bright yellow fields, thick white lines, thuds of the orange basketball, the smell of rubber and sweat; Sasha ran between the baskets, imitating action rather than really playing. What was happening then was a perfectly normal, joyful, juicy slice of life, and she had trouble believing that half an hour ago she was reading Section 1, bending under the will of a sadistic professor with elongated glasses on the tip of his nose. As she played, she let her mind wander, and it became clear that here, at this college, they were being bullied. How else could one see it? Forced to read absolute gibberish and commit it to memory. The same senseless process as having to scrub a cobblestone plaza with a toothbrush. Or sort out grains that would later be all mixed together again, and again, and again … Senseless. Punishment. Humiliation. But why? Who needs this Institute of Special Technologies with its entire staff, dining hall, dean’s office, dormitory? What is it, other than a nest of sadism? Kostya passed her the ball over Yulia’s head. Sasha caught it, dribbled a few feet, and threw it toward the hoop, but at the last moment Lisa aimed a heavy blow at her arm. The ball bounced off the hoop, landed in the hands of someone on the other team, and—thump-thump-thump—ended up at the opposite end of the gym; Lisa followed, tugging on her miniskirt, which, frankly speaking, was not the best attire for a basketball game. Sasha’s team lost. “I can’t memorize it! I just can’t!” The textbook flew into the corner, hit the dresser door, landed on the floor, and stayed there, its yellow pages splayed open. Oksana hit the desk with both fists, making the table lamp hop. “I can’t! I am not going to study this! They are making fun of us!” “That’s what I am thinking.” Lisa sat on the windowsill, smoking, a glass jar in front of her full of lipsticked cigarette butts. “What will happen if we don’t learn it?” Sasha asked. All three girls fell silent. The question that had tortured them all day was now out in the open. It was evening. The sun was setting outside their window. Somewhere someone was strumming a guitar. Behind them was the first day of classes—Specialty, Physical Education, Philosophy, and World History. Neither the third, nor the fourth block brought any surprises. Sasha wrote down the definition of the principal point of philosophy and how materialism differs from idealism, took notes on the dwellings of primitive peoples and their customs, and received two perfectly ordinary textbooks. An excellent dinner was consumed in dead silence. First years returned to the dorm, began to study, and soon found out that the homework assigned by Portnov was an impossible task to accomplish. One could read this nonsense, forcing oneself every step of the way. But memorizing the underlined passages—that was unfeasible. The brain refused to function, and spots swam before their exhausted eyes. Oksana was the first one to crack, and now her textbook was crumpled on the floor. “I can’t memorize it!” Oksana sniffled. “Even if he kills me!” Lisa looked like she wanted to say something, but at that moment someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” Sasha said. Kostya entered and closed the door behind him. “Hey. I am … I need to … the schedule for tomorrow. I mean, the individual workshops, they’re during the third and fourth blocks.” “Prefect,” said Lisa with a degree of disdain that had no equal. “It’s not like it was his idea, you know,” Sasha snapped. “Considering whose son he is …” “What difference is it whose son I am?” Kostya burst out, drops of saliva flying in all directions. “What is the difference? Did I ask who your father is? Did I bother you at all?” And before anyone could answer him, he left the room, slamming the door and running down the corridor, Sasha flying behind him. “Kostya. Wait. Don’t pay attention to her. Just wait!” Not answering, Kostya dashed into the men’s bathroom. Sasha slowed down. She considered the situation and perched on the windowsill, prepared to wait. A third year was walking down the corridor, taking each step carefully. He slowly turned his head, as if his neck were made of rusty metal. Now and then he would freeze, as if listening to something, and even his eyes stopped moving, fixed on some unknown point. Then he would start walking again, and this way, step after step, he approached Sasha, perched at the window. Despite the unusually warm, sunny, and almost summery day, he wore woolen gloves. A wide knitted headband covered his forehead, and either it was a fashion statement Sasha didn’t understand or a cure for a headache. “Hello.” Sasha had not expected him to speak and so answered automatically: “Hello.” “First years? Nightmares? Hysterics?” Sasha licked her lips. “I guess so …” “I see,” said the third year. “Were you a straight-A student in high school?” “Why?” Sasha frowned. The guy took a step toward her. He stood swaying, then with an unexpected ease he hopped onto the windowsill next to her. “You should get a haircut, bob your hair. And a brighter lipstick.” “What’s it to you?” Sasha was deeply offended. “I am older than you—I can give you all sorts of advice.” The guy smirked. “Valery.” He extended a gloved hand. Sasha had to force herself to stretch her own hand in return and touch the pilling black wool. “Alexandra …” She took a deep breath and then began talking rapidly, quietly. “Valery, tell me, explain to me, you must know by now … What are they teaching us here?” “To explain is to simplify,” Valery informed her after a short pause. Frustrated at the nonanswer, Sasha jumped off the windowsill. “See you.” “Wait.” Something in Valery’s voice made her stop. “I am not … making fun of you. Laughing at you. Jesting. Having fun at your expense. Needling you. Taunting you … I …” He fell silent, surprised and even confused, his own words like cockroaches running from the bright light. Finally he said, “You see. It really is difficult to explain. The first semester is the hardest. Just survive this semester, that’s all. Then it’s going to get easier each year.” “Do I have a choice?” Sasha asked bitterly. Still sitting on the windowsill, Valery shrugged. “Listen,” Sasha said drily. “Can you please go into the bathroom and tell this guy—the first year—that I’m waiting for him. Tell him to stop hiding.” At half past midnight Sasha gave up. She closed the book and dropped it under the bed, closed her eyes, and fell asleep almost immediately. The smell of a burning cigarette woke her up. Lisa was smoking, sitting by the window, and Oksana was not in the room. “Ugh.” Sasha waved the thick cloud of smoke away from her face. “Can you please smoke in the bathroom?” “Anything else?” Lisa inquired calmly. Sasha forced herself to get up. Half an hour remained before the first block; the corridor was filled with the sounds of running, stomping, laughing, and yelling. She took a shower in the steamy shower room, taking squeamish steps on the waterlogged wooden planks. It was too late to dry her hair. Sasha poked her nose into the kitchen—it was packed with the sound of clanking dishes and loud people waiting for their turn with the electric teakettle—and left immediately. She went back to her room, pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, and jogged over to the back entrance of the institute. Group A was nearly bursting with emotion. Some people were flaunting their indifference, some balanced on the verge of hysterics, some were still trying to memorize the nonsensical text, staring at the accursed Textual Module with the abstract pattern on the faded cover. It was readily apparent that no one had managed to do as Portnov requested: the text refused to be memorized. “It’s going to be just fine,” Andrey Korotkov crooned in basso profundo; from the first day Andrey had played the role of everyone’s older brother. “What could he possibly do to us?” Lisa, thin and haggard looking, watched him through squinted eyes, as if through a cloud of tobacco smoke. Sasha did her best to avoid Lisa. The first block was Mathematics, which Sasha disliked and had hoped to avoid after high school, but it was not to be: standard textbook, review of previous material, trigonometry, triangular coordinates … Despite her initial abhorrence, Sasha found herself deeply interested in half-forgotten high school subjects. The textbook was logical, it was consistent, and each task had meaning. The thin book printed on lousy paper suddenly provoked a bout of nostalgia; Sasha placed it in her bag with a warm, almost tender emotion. The second block was English. The class was held in auditorium 1, and that auditorium, even the blackboard, which the English professor cheerfully covered with English grammatical constructions, elicited some unpleasant memories from many of the students. Listening to the familiar dialogs about the weather, London, and pets, Sasha watched Kostya reread the nonsensical section from the Textual Module. He shook his head hopelessly. Sasha ended up liking the English class as well: the professor, a sarcastic woman with an intricate hairdo, and the textbook, and even what she had to do during the class. Language was logical. The efforts were clear. Even the process of memorization, the learning of new words, was reasonable. They broke for lunch. On the bulletin board where the generic schedule was posted, Kostya hung up a separate list: one-on-one Specialty workshops. Sasha found herself in the first time slot, right after the bell for the third block. “How come you put me first?” “What, you don’t like it?” “Calm down,” Sasha said apologetically. “I’m just asking, no subtext.” “I just thought you’d prefer to get it over with,” Kostya said after a pause. “Plus, you know that idiotic text better than everyone else.” “What the heck makes you think that?” “If you don’t want to go, I’ll take your slot!” The bell rang. Auditorium 38 was hidden behind the dean’s office, a little pigeonhole of a space. Why the auditorium had this high number—or was called an auditorium at all—Sasha had no idea. She knocked on the door and entered. The classroom was tiny, had no windows, and fit only a desk and a few chairs. A single bare bulb hung from the ceiling on a very long cord. The piercing light made Sasha squint. “You are two minutes late, Samokhina.” “I couldn’t find number 38. I thought it was on the third floor.” “I am not interested in that.” Sasha lingered by the door, not knowing where to go or what to do. Portnov beckoned her with a bent finger. She approached; Portnov, in the same striped sweater, sat behind the office desk, watching her intently. His gaze—over the glasses—made Sasha even more uncomfortable. “Just look how bogged down we are,” said Portnov, perhaps to Sasha, perhaps to himself. “Up to our ears. Pure jelly. Why don’t you come here?” He got up, his chair squeaked lightly, and a moment later he was right next to her. Very close. She smelled his cologne—and had a split second to wonder why. For some reason, she didn’t think someone like Portnov would use cosmetics. Above, almost over her head, the bare lightbulb burned brightly. Round black shadows lay on the linoleum floor. Projections. Shadows … “I am listening. Tell me what you have learned.” Sasha began, losing her way, stumbling, absolutely sure that she would never get close even to the end of the first paragraph. And further—after the first ten lines—it was hard to imagine, there existed a black hole, and the gibberish melted into a solid gray hum … “Look in here.” He lifted a hand to her face; she saw a ring on his finger, a ring that was not there before. A large pink stone diffracted the light of the bulb, became bright blue, then green; Sasha held her breath. She felt dizzy, took a step, trying to maintain equilibrium … “Hold it.” She blinked. The ring was no longer there. Portnov stood beside her, holding her shoulders. “Good job,” he said with unexpected kindness. “I can see you worked hard. But it is only a minuscule step. You must work like this every single day. For your next practice, read Section 2. Everything that is underlined in red must be memorized.” “But what about …?” “Good-bye, Samokhina. You are already cutting into somebody else’s time. Go.” Sasha stepped into the hallway, where Andrey Korotkov waited, leaning against the wall. “So?” he asked impatiently. “Did he yell a lot? What happened, anyway?” “I—” “Korotkov, I am waiting,” said Portnov. The door closed behind Andrey. Sasha shook her head, completely bewildered. She lifted her watch to her nose. Fifteen minutes had passed since she entered auditorium 38. “I told you, I did not see him for many years. He showed up in August. I failed the law school entrance exams … And in September I was turning eighteen, so I would be drafted soon. My mother was in shock. And then he shows up! Sort of a savior. Made everything work out … Do you think I wanted to come here? I wanted to enlist! Well, not so much wanted to, but …” Sasha and Kostya were walking down Sacco and Vanzetti Street, and then down Peace Street, and one other street, farther and farther from the town center, not really knowing the destination. At first, Sasha told him about the morning swimming sessions, about the gold coins, about running in the park and the trip to Torpa. Then Kostya spoke. His story was much simpler. “He literally made me. Had I known what it was like here, I’d definitely have enlisted.” “No, you wouldn’t,” Sasha said. Kostya threw her a surprised glance. “My father left when I was a little girl,” Sasha said. “He had another family. And he never showed up again. My entire life it was just Mom and me. Always, just the two of us. And my biggest fear—do you know what it is? That something will happen to her. I remember now what Farit did and said to me. No, he never threatened me openly. He just allowed my fear, all by itself, to break loose and spread all over me. All of me. And my fear brought me here—and is holding me down. And will continue holding me.” The street suddenly ended. Sasha and Kostya went by the last two deserted-looking houses and unexpectedly found themselves on the bank of a narrow but relatively clean river. Grass crept close to the stream. A fisherman in a roomy jacket with a hood stood on the wooden dock. “Would you look at that,” Kostya mused. “I didn’t even know there was a river. Think we can even swim here?” Sasha followed him down to the water. Grass clung to their feet. Cattails swayed gently, and frogs croaked on the opposite bank. Kostya sat down on a fallen tree trunk, old, barkless, mossy in places. Sasha lowered herself next to him. “I wonder if there are any fish here.” Kostya lowered his voice. “I used to love this stuff. I even went fishing in the winter once …” The fisherman gave his line a strong pull. A silver fish the size of a man’s palm flew up over the water, escaped the hook, and fell at Sasha’s feet, then hopped on the grass. The fisherman turned to face them. This time he was not wearing glasses. The brown eyes of Farit Kozhennikov were perfectly friendly. “Good evening, Alexandra. Good evening, Kostya. Sasha, please hand me the fish.” Sasha bent down. The fish trembled in her hand; taking a wide swing, Sasha threw it into the water. Circles stayed on the surface for a few seconds. A few scales stuck to Sasha’s palm. “Have fun catching it,” Sasha’s voice rang out. “Just keep your feet dry.” Kozhennikov smirked. He placed his fishing rod on the grass, unbuttoned his jacket, and sat down on the tree trunk next to his son. Sasha remained standing. Kostya tensed up, but chose to sit still. “How’s everything? Classmates, professors? Are you settling down?” “I hate you,” Sasha said. “And I will find a way to make you pay for it. Not now. Later.” Kozhennikov nodded abstractedly. “I understand. We shall come back to that conversation … in a little while. Kostya, do you also hate me?” “What I want to know,” Kostya said, anxiously rubbing his knee, “is do you really—can you really turn reality into a dream? Or is it hypnosis? Or some other trick?” Still smiling, Kozhennikov spread his hands wide, as if saying—well, that’s just how it works. “And do you have power over accidents?” Kostya continued. “People get sick, die, get run over by cars …” “If one directs the sail, does he direct the wind?” “Cheap sophistry,” Sasha interjected. “The question is”—Kozhennikov glanced at her—“what should be considered a tragic accident, and what should be considered a happy occurrence? And this, my friends, you cannot possibly know.” “Because you keep this knowledge from us,” Sasha cut in again. Kostya asked, “What exactly are the coins?” Kozhennikov absentmindedly stuck his hand into his pocket. He took out a gold disk, and Sasha saw the familiar rounded three-dimensional symbol. “Look. This is a word that has never been pronounced. And it never will be.” Kozhennikov flipped the coin; it flew up and landed back on his palm. “Do you understand?” Sasha and Kostya were silent. “Of course you don’t understand. But you will,” Kozhennikov nodded reassuringly. “Are you interested in fishing? Kostya?” “No,” said Kozhennikov junior with disdain. “We have a lot of work for tomorrow. See you.” Without a backward glance, he walked away from the river, and Sasha quickly followed. Sasha could deal with the mornings and afternoons. She was busy, she had lectures, classes, all sorts of worries. But in the evenings, and especially during the nights, she cried. Every night. Turning her face to the wall. She missed her home, longed terribly for Mom. Dozing off, she would see Mom enter the room, stand right next to her bed … Sasha would wake up—and cry again. She barely managed to fall asleep by the time the alarm clock went off. Sasha had always taken pleasure in learning. Shuffling between courses and tutors, polishing the seat of her skirt at the library, poring over textbooks in advance, she never quite comprehended how lucky she was back then to be learning things that were logical, comprehensible, and elegant, like a geometry problem. But now, when nothing she had to learn was ever logical or comprehensible, even the very sight of the Textual Module, with its pattern of blocks on the cover, made her unbearably bored. A week passed. Then another. Every day she had to read sections, memorize, cram, and grind at snippets of nonsensical, unpleasant text. Sasha herself did not understand why this gobbledygook caused more and more revulsion with each passing day. Reading the barbaric combinations of half-familiar and alien words, she felt something brewing inside her: within her head, a wasp nest was waking up, and it droned and hummed in distress, searching in vain for an exit. People started playing hooky in the second week of school. Andrey Korotkov stopped attending Math, claiming he used to work on problems like this in ninth grade. Lisa Pavlenko occasionally skipped History, Philosophy, English—without any explanation. Some boys skipped gym, but the girls attended Dima Dimych’s class diligently and cheerfully. Adorable, gorgeous, sweet Dima did not torture anyone with backbreaking training; instead, he dedicated most of the time to games. He gave long lectures on the human body with the goal of making the training more effective. Naïvely, he demonstrated the location of tendons, the structure of muscles—first on an educational poster, then on a live model. The live models requested more details and explanations. Dima blushed and explained again and again: here is the knee joint, here is the ankle joint, and these here are very tender ligaments, which are frequently pulled and can even tear … Sasha liked watching the young teacher from a distance, somewhere atop a stack of gym mats. The boldness of her classmates, their audacity and cheekiness surprised and embarrassed her, but also made her a bit envious. Truancy was fine in the other classes, but Specialty was always meticulously attended by all nineteen students of Group A. And every one of them studied the textual sections diligently. Portnov was a master of coercing. In fact, coercing seemed to be his sole teaching skill. “Why do we need these lectures? To learn how to read?” bristled Laura Onishenko, a tall busty girl who carried a plastic bag with her knitting everywhere. “It’s not education,” Kostya said. “It’s obedience training, in the best-case scenario. In the worst-possible-case scenario, it is brainwashing. How’s your head—does it feel normal after one-on-one sessions?” Kostya wasn’t wrong. To a certain degree, one-on-one sessions were even worse than the lectures. Fifteen minutes twice a week. According to Portnov, he controlled their knowledge, although from Sasha’s point of view, they learned nothing, and his method of control smacked of shamanism: Portnov’s ring blinded her, made her thoughts scramble, time made a dizzying leap, and meanwhile Portnov managed to find out everything she had learned, did not quite learn, or did not learn well. “You did not finish Section 5. Tomorrow you will do Section 6, and again Section 5.” “That’s not enough time!” “I am not interested.” It appeared as if Group B was experiencing the same: rosy-cheeked Oksana looked pale and drawn, and spent all her free time at her desk. Lisa continued to smoke in the room, one cigarette after another. Sasha thought she was doing it on purpose; she seemed to enjoy watching Sasha cough and squint from the tobacco smoke. Two weeks of classes passed by. Once, during lunch break, when everyone went to the dining hall, Sasha returned to the dorm, found a stash of cigarettes (several packs) among Lisa’s belongings, and flushed them down the toilet. Lisa said nothing. But the next day the entire contents of Sasha’s makeup bag—powder, eye shadow, lip gloss, and an expensive lipstick, a birthday gift used rarely, only on important holidays—all of it ended up in the trash, broken, crushed, and smeared over the rusty metal sides of the garbage can. Sasha discovered the debacle later in the morning, when Lisa had already left the room. Blind with rage, Sasha dashed to the lecture hall, intending to rip the witch’s hair out. She was too late: the first block, Specialty, had started, and a new dose of the sickening gibberish cooled down Sasha’s wrath faster than a bucket of icy water. After all, she’d started it. She threw out Lisa’s cigarettes. But what else could she do if that witch ignored all her requests! Nothing: as far as Sasha knew, Lisa was supposed to find a rental apartment and move relatively soon. And then Sasha could breathe easier. Oksana would never be a problem. It couldn’t come soon enough. Five minutes remained until the end of the class. Sasha finished reading the section and wiped her moist forehead with a wet, weak palm. “Samokhina, come over here.” Sasha jumped. Portnov stared at her directly over his glasses. “I said, come over here.” Kostya threw her a worried glance. Awkwardly, Sasha climbed from behind her desk, stepping over her bag. “Everyone, look at Samokhina.” Eighteen pairs of eyes—indifferent, sympathetic, some even gloating—stared at her in anticipation. Sasha couldn’t stand it: she looked down. “At this point, this girl has achieved the highest academic success. Not because of her talent—her abilities are fairly average. Some of you are significantly more talented. Yes, Pavlenko, that goes for you as well. Samokhina is ahead of your entire group because she works hard, while the rest of you are wearing out the seats of your pants.” Sasha was silent, her face burning. Some people’s faces reddened as well. Lisa Pavlenko was the color of a ripe tomato. Kostya went pale. Portnov held a long, weighty pause. “Having demonstrated an excellent result, Samokhina gets a personal hands-on assignment. Speech is silver … all of your words are trash, garbage, not worth the air spent in speaking. Silence … Silence is what, Samokhina?” “Golden,” Sasha squeezed out. “Golden. From this point on, Samokhina, you are to be silent. This exercise is intended to speed up certain processes, which are beginning to emerge, but are way too slow at this moment. You are not to speak a single word, neither here, nor outside. Nowhere at all. I forbid you.” Sasha looked up in astonishment. The bell rang in the hall. “Class dismissed,” Portnov said. “For tomorrow, Section 12, close reading, red text is to be memorized. Samokhina, that goes for you too. Study. Work hard.” That day Sasha missed her first gym class. She simply could not remain among the crowds, even at the gym, even with such a lovely teacher as Dima Dimych. Besides, Group A needed some time without her. They needed to discuss her in her absence. She understood perfectly well. She went back to the dorm. Halfway there, she turned around. An empty smoke-filled room, the remains of her favorite makeup in the garbage can—chances are, all this would hardly cheer her up, so she left. Walked down the hall, and down the stairs. Walked out of the school. Sasha followed Sacco and Vanzetti toward the town center; she passed the post office and thought of Mom. How was she supposed to call her now? Oddly, she never considered violating Portnov’s taboo. But she wasn’t sure she could have, anyway: her lips, tongue, and larynx ceased to obey. Forty minutes after the end of the last block she could not open her tightly clenched teeth. It frightened her, especially when she suddenly felt incredibly thirsty. She purchased a bottle of mineral water at a grocery store, having to resort to gestures to explain to the salesperson what exactly she wanted. Only then her teeth unclenched and chattered on the glass lip of the bottle. Sasha drank the entire bottle greedily. Her stomach rumbled; she had to sit down in front of the post office. She’d called Mom last Sunday. Mom had said that Valentin was back from Moscow, but their wedding had been postponed again. Despite everything, Mom sounded cheerful and unconcerned. They are happy without me, Sasha thought. With that in mind, she went into the post office, gestured for one of the telegram slips, and wrote the following: “Everything fine will not be calling telephone broken.” She gave the slip to the surprised woman behind the counter, paid for the telegram, and walked out again. Relieved, a thought hit her: So now I’m the top student. It’s not surprising that Pavlenko blushed like that. But Sasha would give up her favorite lipstick—not just the lipstick, she’d give anything—for Pavlenko to be shown off, for her to be called the best student, despite her average talent, and forbidden to talk. And she, Sasha, would go to the gym with everybody else, and would chat about this curious episode, and tell Dima Dimych about it, and play ball, and sprawl on the stack of mats … Why does she have to be silent? What can she possibly learn that way? What sort of “emerging processes”? At first she planned on skipping Philosophy as well, but did not want to miss anything important. Her notes were becoming so logical, so harmonious, that she did not want to leave a gap in Plato’s place. She went to class. General lectures were attended by both Groups A and B. As usual, Kostya sat on one side of Sasha. Oksana settled on the other side. “Congratulations,” she whispered into Sasha’s ear. Sasha raised an eyebrow. “‘The world of ideas (eidos) exists outside of time and space. This world has a certain hierarchy, on top of which is the idea of Good …’” “Portnov was heaping praises on you,” Oksana babbled. “He says no one in our group even comes close to you …” Sasha sighed. “‘In the allegory of the cave, Good is portrayed as the Sun, and ideas symbolize the creatures and objects that pass in front of the Cave, and the Cave itself is a symbol of the material world with its illusions …’” “And the objects themselves—are they shadows of ideas?” Kostya asked out loud. “Projections?” The professor began explaining. Sasha turned away—and caught Lisa staring at her from the opposite corner of the lecture hall. “To a certain degree, this solves the problem. If Samokhina shuts up, living here is actually a possibility.” Sasha was silent. Lisa couldn’t relax; she wandered between the beds in her underwear, picked something up from the floor and dropped it again, opened the wardrobe, and went through her suitcase. “You were going to rent a place.” Oksana scowled. “And get the hell out of here.” “I am getting out. I just don’t have the time to deal with it. I’m leaving at some point, don’t you worry.” “I am not worried.” “Well, you shouldn’t!” Oksana was the type who gets excited about other people’s exclusivity, even the most minor kind, and who looks to befriend such a person. Lisa was one of those people who long for their own exclusivity and are offended to find themselves overshadowed. Sasha could have said: there is no reason to envy, and no reason to be angry. Lisa herself said that this was not education and not any kind of science, but instead a clear case of shamanism, hypnosis, psychosis, and whatever else. So what should I be proud of—my accomplishments in psychosis? But Sasha was silent. Her only attempt at speaking—last night, with Kostya, when she completely forgot about her ordeal—ended in grunting and spitting. Thinking of it made her feel ashamed. Lisa opened the window wider. The cold September night smelled of dead grass and moisture. Lisa lit up demonstratively. “We asked you not to smoke,” said Oksana. “Go to hell.” Sasha closed her eyes. Meaningless sentences rotated in her brain like tank treads. Sasha was reading Section 20. It was the second week of her muteness, and it seemed as if the world around her was slowly descending into silence. She felt like a blimp filled with soap bubbles. The bubbles—her unspoken words—rose up in her throat and crawled out, hung on her tongue, like clumsy acrobats on a trampoline. Then they popped, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Not a single word was strong enough to conquer the barrier, escape, and fly away. “Your words are trash, garbage …” Portnov was right, Sasha thought. Words did not matter. Glance, inflection, voice—all these thin threads, the antennae pointing into space, informed people of indifference or empathy, calmness, anxiety, love … Words did not. And yet, without the words it was much harder. She read words, though. Or, rather, she read gibberish, she memorized complete nonsense. All in vain: it was a Sisyphean task, the desperate efforts of the Danaides. An Indian summer followed the cold September days. Lisa Pavlenko never found an apartment. She continued smoking just as much, but by now Sasha was used to the constant smell of smoke. She had to write a paper for Philosophy class. Sasha chose Plato and went to the library, for some reason bringing her copy of the Textual Module. It was forbidden to talk in the tiny, confined reading room cramped with bookcases. Sasha was happy about it: nowhere else had she felt as mute as she did in a noisy crowd. She strolled along the bookcases, then chose a seat by the window and opened the Module, purely automatically, unaware of her own intentions. Only a few pages of the book remained unread. Sasha started the familiar process of scraping through the nonsensical combinations of letters. She kept reading until, suddenly, the words broke through the rasping in her brain: “… as enthralling as daylight; she perceived thoughts as a ray of sun …” (#litres_trial_promo) Sasha jerked her head. She was the only person in the reading room. The day outside the window approached nighttime. Through an open window she could smell a distant fire. She tried to reread the paragraph, but nothing worked. She returned to the beginning—having forgotten about Plato and his eidos, about her paper, and the closing time of the reading room, she pored over Textual Module 1. Her headache grew. She felt as if a hundred metal spoons banged on iron pans behind a thin wall, but she kept reading and she could not stop, like a barrel tumbling down a hill. “… that makes its way down the corridor and then everything in the world gains the gift of speech; and the sunlight speaks to you …” The librarian who showed up to lock the room found Sasha prostrate over the open book. She went to the post office and bought three graphed notebooks. A picture was on the back of the cover—a rippled mass of dots and squiggles. If one did not stare directly at the ripples, but instead unfocused and looked through the paper as if through glass, eventually the ripples gave way to a seemingly three-dimensional image: one notebook had an Egyptian pyramid, the other, a horse, and the third one, a fir tree. Some time ago, her physics teacher explained the principle of creating pictures like that, but Sasha had forgotten. She walked down the street, notebooks under her arm. Something niggled at her—something about the very nature of her time at the institute. What it came down to, Sasha thought, was this: That which we are forced to learn has meaning. We do not comprehend it. But it is not just brainwashing, not just cramming: meaning seeps in through this sluggish mess just like a three-dimensional image rises out of dots and squiggles; it is not a “horse,” and definitely not a “fir tree.” Chances are this science cannot be described by a single word. Or even two words. Perhaps words that describe this science, this process, do not even exist. Not a single second year, not to mention the third years, had ever deemed it possible to even hint at what we are being taught here. Maybe Portnov—or some other teacher—made them silent? Maybe. Or, perhaps, they don’t know that either. Victor, the one-eyed third year, told her that after the winter finals his entire group would be going to “another location,” where the fourth years and the graduates reside. Sasha thought of the third year of school, especially the winter finals, as something unbelievably distant, and she did not even feel any curiosity regarding where this “other location” was, or why the older students had to be separated … Darkness came early now. The tops of the linden trees on Sacco and Vanzetti, just yesterday so thick and opaque, now let through the glow of the distant streetlights. Yet the unseasonable warmth did not allow one to believe in the yellow leaves underfoot or the upcoming winter. Sasha stood for a while, taking deep breaths and watching the stars over the tiled roofs of the town of Torpa. Eventually, though, she had to go inside. She had two choices: walk through the school building or through the narrow alleyway that led directly to the dorm. Having considered both options, Sasha decided to take the shortcut. “Why are you playing hard to get?” The whisper eventually grew into a low male voice. “Why are you acting like a virgin? On Friday … in Vlad’s room … that wasn’t you, was it, huh?” “Leave me alone.” Sasha recognized Lisa Pavlenko’s voice. “C’mon, kitten …” “Go to hell, you moron!” Sasha stumbled on an empty bottle. The bottle clinked on the pavement; the voices ceased. “Who’s there?” the man asked. Sasha could not answer. She turned around and, staggering on the rocks, exited the alley. The key for room 21 hung on the board downstairs. Sasha grabbed it, jogged up to the second floor, made a short visit to the bathroom, and quickly brushed her teeth before climbing into bed. Oksana was the first to return. She rustled her plastic bags (where did she get all that crackling plastic?), then settled in with great big sighs, turned a few pages of her textbook, clicked off the lamp, and went to sleep. Sasha lay in the dark, listening to anonymous laughing, shrieking, singing in the kitchen, the banging of dishes; Oksana slept undisturbed, but Sasha could not close her eyes. “Sunlight speaks to you …” Why did Sasha feel so happy when a meaningful sentence swam, all of its own accord, out of a sequence of letters? These words were familiar and grammatically correct, but an actual meaning was still missing—sunlight does not speak. Sunlight is a stream of photons characterized by a wave-particle duality … One cannot imagine it anyway. It’s the same thing as seeing a closed door from both sides simultaneously. By being both on the inside and the outside. It’s so incredibly stuffy in this room … She tossed and turned, and then finally got up, opened the window, and gulped some fresh air. A streetlight burned outside, and its bright artificial rays poured over the windowsill with its many layers of white paint. A makeshift ashtray—a mayonnaise jar—stood in the corner of the window, and somebody’s philosophy textbook lay forgotten. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/julia-meitov-hersey/vita-nostra/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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