The summer sun hung low in the sky, turning the clouds all shades of orange, red, and purple, sunbeams shining through the pine trees that lined the sides of this unpaved road. They drove slowly in their rental car, taking time to drink in the environment and just to enjoy one another’s company. The vacation had been Dmitri’s idea—he needed it—but he was glad to have the others along. A vacation alone was the last thing he wanted right now. It was good to be home, and he enjoyed acting as tour guide for his friends. Few people understood the beauty of the Russian countryside; the steppe is as deep a part of their collective soul as borscht or vodka.
He had taken them to his birthplace, Moscow, first. They had seen the rainbow spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the towering red brick of the Kremlin walls, Lenin’s mausoleum, the terrifying façade of No. 2 Dzerzhinisky Square and the crumbling remains of Stalin’s pride—the White Sea Canal. They strolled along its banks and viewed the oily, filthy water with disdain, recognizing it as the slave labor project that it was. They saw the tiny plaque and paid homage to the dead, marveling at the fruits of their labor and clucking their tongues at its current state of disrepair, noting that not a single vessel had traversed it during their time there. Strelnikov sighed to himself and viewed it with longing. They did not, could not, understand its true meaning.
He continued driving, allowing them the pleasant respite of the car seats and the soothing sound of gravel under the tires. The road stretched in both directions for miles, small side roads shooting off and leading their travelers across the expanse that was modern-day Russia. He smiled inwardly, a knowing smile that he saved for special occasions such as this. He’d told them that he wanted to go home for a few days, and now he truly was—this was their last stop. The car pulled onto a winding side road and slowed to a stop, a large Russian summer house in the traditional style looming ahead of them. The others perked up and looked around in surprise as he stepped out of the car.
It had belonged to her mother once, she herself purchasing it just after the collapse in 1992 when you could buy property for as cheap as a piece of Japanese electronics. They had fixed it up and spent their summers here, away from the confines and the madness of Moscow proper. He gazed up at it, hands at his sides. The paint was faded to grayness and large portions of it had been peeled and stripped away by the harsh winter elements. The eaves sagged with decay, and the porch swing sat molding, its rusting chains folded underneath it. He heard the car doors close behind him as they exited and stood behind him; he paid them no attention, just stepped onto the porch. It groaned from the pressure, the wood joints no longer sturdy.
Strelnikov tried peering through the front door, but it was covered with a sheet of plywood. He tried the door—locked. It took him a few moments to remember the key stashed away in one of the porch beams; he pried the panel apart with his knife and reached in, ignoring the cobwebs and retrieving the tarnished brass key. It fit the lock perfectly, and he swung the door open and stepped in, the others following suit. He remembered coming here for the first time, seeing the furniture covered in plastic to keep the dust off, remembered the musty smell, remembered her sweeping the dirt through this very door and into the hazy summer air. There was no furniture now, only years of untended dust and dirt.
Stepping further through the hall, he saw the kitchen—its strawberry-printed trim lining the ceiling had faded into unrecognizable shades of white, the only appliance left was the stove where together they had once cooked breakfast. He looked away quickly, casting a nervous and embarrassed glance to his friends.
“…Was my summer home,” he said sheepishly. They nodded and gave him supportive smiles, watching carefully and waiting in the hallway, choosing not to follow as Dmitri walked up the stairs. The wooden planks sighed with each step, bowing dangerously as he climbed and only reluctantly supporting his weight. The upstairs was much the same, save for one room—their bedroom.
It was empty but for a small table with a blue tin box resting atop it. This, too, required his knife to open, but after some fussing he pried it apart and looked inside. His eyes fell upon the note first, and with trembling hands he unfolded it, scanning it in silence.
“My dearest Dmitri,” it began, written in her elegant, wavy Cyrillic handwriting.
“It has been almost two years since I received word of your death. I have waited as long as I can. The other girls tell me to have hope, but I know it is misguided and foolish of me to have even the faintest belief that you will ever return to me. It is so hard without you—sometimes I swear I hear your voice being carried in the breeze, and for the briefest moments it is like you are near to me again. I have waited, Dmitri. But I can wait no longer.
“Maybe the telegram really was a mistake, and you will return here someday to see me. I am leaving you this letter and these small remembrances in the hopes that maybe it will help you to understand and move on, as I have. I held on to them as long as I could, but the hope that you will ever see them is all but vanished from me now. I cannot bear to stay here any longer; it just reminds me of you.
“I want you to know that you meant everything to me; please believe me when I say that I will never forget the way you made me feel, while we were together here. I try to shut out the bad parts as much as I can, and leave the good for another day. I always loved you, and I always will.
“I hope you can understand.” She signed it, as beautiful as ever, Eva Katarinovna Strelnikova. It would have been her name had he ever come home to her.
The memories flooded back at once, taking his breath away and making him weak in the knees as soon as he saw the photographs underneath. He put them down, realizing he didn’t need them; he saw them every night in his sleep.
He saw her standing in the kitchen, the way the sun shone on her hair and illuminated her face like the angel she had been to him when she would cook, wearing her strawberry-patterned apron that matched the décor of the room so well. Worse yet, he saw the look on her face when he told her he was leaving, saw the anguish and the worry, and the glimmer of hope in her eyes when he kissed her and promised that he’d be back for her in one piece.
He felt her in his arms when they sat together on the banks of the White Sea Canal, the way she sprawled across his body and slept with her ear to his chest, listening to him breathe and being soothed by the beat of his heart as they watched the ships drift by lazily. He remembered the soft touch of her skin and the way it glowed in the moonlight when they slept together, the way her hands would curl and lock around his own. He felt her strength and her weakness at the same time as he held her once again, telling her it would be a short war and that he was only there to keep the peace, knowing it was a lie and knowing that she was all too aware.
He heard the soft coo of her voice as they planned their future, talking of how they would sit on the veranda and watch the sun set across the fields, just as it had done today. He remembered her dry laugh when he’d make a terrible joke or do something stupid, and the smile that always accompanied it. In a flash, she was with him now, standing before him, if only in the depths of his own mind. He realized then that she had always been there.
She had been with him during the shelling, when the Chechens flung their rockets at him and when they trained their ancient weapons against him. She had been next to him when he was shot, held his hand in the field hospital and stroked his hair tenderly. She’d been with him up until the Foundation recruited him and took him away from her forever, their liaisons sending word to the Russian Military that he’d been killed in action near Grozny, leaving her nothing but a telegram and an engagement ring.
That was nine years ago.
He held up the stack of photographs, feeling something move underneath. It glinted hauntingly at him, and he recognized the gold band he had given her when he asked her to be his bride two weeks before leaving for the second Chechen war. He saw it, and at that moment he knew it was over—there was nothing left for him here. He tucked the box under his arm and returned downstairs in silence, his fellow travelers eyeing him with curiosity and silently offering him their support. He knew it to be sincere.
They exited together and returned to their rented cottage to sample the stores of vodka. His three compatriots got drunk and spent the night partying in the upstairs bedroom.
He slept alone.