Several Days Ago…
The clouds hung stubbornly above Mt. Narlassus, blanketing the town in a dreary, hopeless grey. The grasses shifted reluctantly against the chill of the wind, and people huddled close as they could to themselves and against one another for warmth. The colour seemed to drain from the hedges and grasses, and the paint of the houses lost all luminosity, one melting into the next for streets on end. Leaves skittered across the footpaths and flew into back yards, sprinkling the crystalline surface of various pools with their deadened silhouette.
If one were to exit their home and go for a leisurely run, they would find the biting chill of the wind, and the deserted streets of their neighbourhoods inhospitable and foreign. Couples made their way to and from various places; a few of the brave ones even dared to come out and sit upon the wooden park benches, holding gloved hands. Lights flicked on in windows, despite the time, and shutters closed. Cold was not welcomed.
Neither was she.
A figure clad in a long coat stood braced against the cold in the driveway of the looming residence. It was tall and narrow, a two-storey, two bedroom house, built in faux-modern fashion. It extended back into the block of land, making it deceptively deep. The entire street had been built in a similar fashion; boxy and minimalistic with suggested shapes, walls broken up by well-placed light coverings and window frames. The figure grimaced and began to walk toward the front door; it looked like an expensive neighbourhood. She’d never been to a street where the house numbers were spelled out with letters in calligraphic fonts.
She was a tall woman, built strong and angular with excellent posture and straight shoulders. She wore a black tank top that ended just short of her silver belt buckle, and long straight-cut trousers. Her coat stretched to the backs of her knees and split at the small of her back, made of a sturdy and nondescript charcoal grey material. Her cool grey eyes commanded attention and her brow seemed to be creased into a permanent frown, giving the impression that there was always something she wasn’t happy about.
Her gait was steady and sure, every step a carefully calculated movement on the way to the door. She passed a short and shiny Volkswagen and climbed the steps to the porch, a large green duffle bag slung over her shoulder. When she reached the door, she instinctively leant forward for the knob and paused; it really wasn’t her place to just enter. Instead, she reached for the doorbell and pressed. A soft, melodic chime came from within the house, muffled by the door. Footsteps. A muffled sigh came from behind the door before it swung inward.
“Sonia.” The greeting was even less hospitable than the weather.
The black-clad woman’s lips tightened into a small line, and she allowed the barest of nods. “Mother.”
“- Ex-mother,” The older woman in the doorway corrected sharply. Her eyes told of nerves and fear veiled behind anger, and she defensively guarded the entryway like a bird would its nest from intruders. They stared at each other for another few moments, the tension thick and fierce. Eventually, she slackened her shoulders and gave a heaving sigh. “Come in, I set things up.” She invited begrudgingly, turning into the hall. Sonia followed, closing the door behind her. Her boots left no dirt on the floor as they moved into what appeared to be a living room.
Under the warm overhead lights, Sonia’s olive-brown complexion flourished, her eyes surveying the living room. Creature comforts were littered about; a couch and two reclining chairs pointed to a flat-screen television, short candles were scattered over various surfaces, and off to the left, she was able to make out a small, spotless kitchen. A myriad of scents, none of them overpowering or unpleasant, were available to smell. From the musk of the meal cooking in the kitchen, to the natural and earthy perfume of the wood-panelled floors, she might have felt instantly at home if it weren’t for her host’s foul mood. Even then, it was still kind of similar to home - things were never all that relaxed there.
Noelle was a southern-states woman just past forty, sans the drawling accent, with wavy shoulder-length brown hair. She stood at shoulder-height to Sonia, and kept herself in good health. She looked to her tall guest and huffed, leaning on one arm against the table. Furrowing her brow in a curious manner, she asked, “So what did you do?” Sonia stared passively back.
“What did I do?” She repeated, Slavic accent heavy in her English.
“Yes,” Noelle confirmed, “What did you do? I don’t often get calls from your father anymore. In fact, I was just hoping that he’d finally managed to forget I even existed when he - out of the blue - insists that I allow you to come and stay with me.” She continued, her body language strong. She could put someone’s eye out with her flailing arms. “So what did you do? Shoot somebody?”
She hesitated. “No.”
Noelle sighed. “Well damn it, Sonia; I don’t like being treated like a halfway house! How ‘bout we skip my guessing game and you just tell me why your father thought it was so urgent you come to America?”
The taller woman bit her lip out of annoyance and looked away. “I hit him.”
Noelle regarded her with cautious suspicion, not entirely sure a word of what she heard was actually truth. That was the way it had worked with Kazimir - everything was need-to-know. He had always had a rough hand, in his marriage and in his family; a sort of bleeding effect from his business. She could certainly see her once-step-daughter snapping back at him; Sonia was strong-willed and opinionated, like him. She nodded once, and then parted from the table, waving the girl over as she headed further into the house.
Sonia followed through the lounge to find two sets of stairs, and Noelle pointed her to the set that led downward, to the basement.
“Heat’s dead and the bed’s a fold-down,” She warned stiffly.
“Fine…” Sonia mumbled indifferently as she descended.
The steps got dustier and creakier the lower she got. She had the feeling the basement wasn’t often used or maintained. It was musty and smelled of newspaper. A single 60 watt bulb hung in the centre of the large room, a pull-switch slung down beside it. The bed had already been pulled from the wall and been equipped with new sheets and a single pillow. The cold was not a concern; she was used to it after twenty years within the icy claws of Russian winter. Papers were scattered across a desk over to the far left, a treadmill stood off to the far right, and she could see a door that led off to a seldom-used bathroom.
Crossing to the centre of the room, Sonia dumped her duffle bag onto the bed. It rattled with age and rickety construction, causing her to frown more than usual. Hopefully it didn’t plan on upending her during the middle of the night and folding back into the wall, like she’d seen in so many American movies. She smiled at the thought. Perhaps it would be best if it did.
Over the course of the next twenty minutes, Sonia emptied out a chest of drawers found buried beneath a rubber sheet, and dragged it over to the spot next to her bed-head, filling it with her packed clothes and miscellany, including a folded shirt housing Alessia’s gun, and a pair of socks containing its clip. She never really liked guns; they were always better left out of sight.
What she’d said about her father wasn’t a lie; she did hit him - broke one of his ribs, actually.
They were both predominantly Russian, though her skin was a darker olive brown that came from her mother’s Brazilian blood. She died in childbirth. Noelle replaced her when she was three, pregnant, then left her father when she turned ten. Noelle took her daughter with her. She wasn’t ever briefed on the details, but she’d always suspected the reason for Noelle’s absence from then on was her discovering what kind of man her father really was.
It was then that she began to try and grow closer to her father; she took to martial arts and self-defence classes with a zeal that surprised him, and he finally took her under his wing. Her talent and eagerness to please made it easy for him to shape her. For a time, Sonia followed his every command, and was blissfully unaware of her corruption; he was her father, after all; a pillar of strength in her world of crumbling buildings. Naïveté was unavoidable.
To her father, no law was sacred (a hazard of his business). No depth within his organization that he could bring her to was questionable. And for the longest time, Sonia never wanted to disappoint him; no matter how much what he made her do turned her stomach. Organized crime was a slippery slope; it started with collecting money, delivering friendly warnings - things like that. Chasing money turned to threats if some didn’t come up, and after that, to delivering beatings. It quickly escalated.
It felt queer, so unimaginably surreal, to reflect upon her life and where it had gotten her, and the kind of person she had been. Seating herself on the bed, Sonia clasped her hands together over her lap and sighed heavily.
The journey from that dark place in her life to where she was now had become a sickening blur. She guessed Kazimir had seen her as a liability, but rather than dispose of her like he would have any other unwilling pawn, he delegated to have her work in the place she could cause the least amount of damage: America.
Kazimir’s reach extended only so far outside Russian borders, of the notable groups he had assembled within the U.S., the party of three in Mount Narlassus was… Pitiful. It was questionable as to why he’d even bothered to establish a group there. Sonia saw it as a giant middle finger, a message that read ‘Call me when you’re ready to do as you’re told,’ and left it at that. She was anything but willing to let him control her anymore.
Sonia sighed and drew one of her tense hands down over her face. What a life.
The dreary afternoon lights faded quickly behind the cover of clouds as the moon subtly traded places with the sun. The temperature dipped further, and many families sat down to eat their dinner at this hour. On the second floor of the same narrow house, a sliding glass door opened up to an unenclosed section of decking. Potted plants were tucked into the corners of the decking, looking well taken-care of. This section of the house had no ceiling, only a minimalistic overhanging plastic roof designed to shield the deck from hard rain. Beads of moisture gathered along the flat railing that kept the space partially enclosed. There were a couple of deck chairs and a small circular table placed neatly towards the end of the enclosure.
The small enclosure overlooked the neighbourhood, its boxy and simple houses ghostly pale against the moonlight filtering in through the clouds. Cars glimmered in the driveways, most of them small and economical, some large and beastly. Street lamps flickered on, illuminating small patches of the sidewalk on either side of the street, sheltered bulbs hissing against the cold.
Sonia stepped out into the night air from the glass sliding door with curious intent. The upstairs ‘balcony’ was serene, quiet, devoid of tension and masked anger, unlike the other rooms in the house. She was far away from home, in the midst of a complicated situation, and there was still no one to help her. She closed the glass door behind her and examined the dark-stained wooden decking carefully as she moved towards the railing that overlooked the neighbourhood. She couldn’t see any lights, except for the ones in the lamp posts; everyone had closed their curtains for the night.
She glanced to the chair beside her and frowned; it was covered in a fine misting of droplets, likely from the humidity of the recent nights. Not wishing to end up with a damp rear end, she instead extended a leg over the railing of the balcony, then the other, to sit upon it. She was rarely given the chance to appreciate her surroundings back in Volgograd; to be sent somewhere so peaceful and brimming with plant life was a strange experience. Not unwelcome - but strange.
The woman’s frown deepened as she heard the sound of rustling beside her. She let her lips purse and cast her gaze downward, into the driveway. Sonia delved into thought and closed her eyes as the wind rose to a whistle in her ears.
“Idyllic?” A voice said, finishing her thought for her. Sonia’s frown grew more complex. She raised an eyebrow.
“That’s a word for it…” She responded.
“My English never was much good.”
“It sounds good to me.”
“My English is as good as yours is, Sonia.” The voice flatly responded. It was male, deep and thick with the same accent that she held. He lied - his English was always much better than hers.
“I guess.” She tilted her head to her left, saw his legs hanging in an identical fashion to her own, open-kneed and casual. He wore jeans and high tops, both the same colour: black. His left leg was torn at the knee and exposed his pale skin to the moonlight. It seemed to glow when she focused on it.
“Pretty place,” He remarked, his gloved hands coming down upon his thighs. He rubbed at them, as if he were cold. “Bit nippy, though.”
“Really is,” His rubbing slowed to a stop. “Hell of a nice place to drop you.”
She nodded. “Could’ve been worse.”
“Could’ve been in jail,” His voice lifted to bemusement, “really, I’m surprised you’re not; break one of Kazimir Voronov’s ribs and he breaks your life. Would’ve been like that for anyone else. What’s he do to you? Ships you off to--,”
“Hell,” She interrupted. Her brow lifted at the resultant laugh from beside her.
“Hell? Hell?” Its owner asked, “This, my melancholy friend, is paradise. Crystal-clear natural running water, dead silence by night, warbling birds by day, hedges, flowers, white-picket fences…” Her silence led him to continue. “If someone had offered me a ticket to a brand new life in the U.S. of A, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.”
She gave it some thought and knocked her heel against the wall rhythmically. “I’m not you.”
“What, you actually miss Volgograd? The grey buildings, the alleys, the suits, low plant life…”
“It wasn’t so grey once you got out further.” She protested.
“But you weren’t allowed out that far.”
She grew silent once more at that. Her black shoulder length hair, pulled back tightly into a ponytail fluttered and tossed at the collar of her coat in a stronger breeze, then grew peaceful once more. The messy black bangs that clawed at her brow were swept aside by her hand in a useless attempt to tidy. He was right; she’d never been left alone long enough to even have time to get out to the countryside. She’d been on one of the boats on the Volgogradskoye (h2;l6;l3;k5;l6;k5;lk2;k6;l9;l2;l6;k) reservoir, once, when Noelle had still been living with them.
“Why didn’t you just go? Just go and see the fringes of the city sometime?” He asked.
“Molchi!” She exclaimed, slapping the railing in frustration. The person beside her didn’t jump, but shut up, as per her demand. She sighed and looked down at the car in the driveway. “Because… I was scared he’d find out.” Sonia admitted, not without a note of shame.
“A valid reason…” his tone had turned sympathetic. “Sonia, he’s a bad person.”
She twisted herself over the railing again, turning her back to the street. Her legs came to rest on one of the damp decking chairs, and the person beside her did the same. She compared her heavy boots to his high tops. His were pristine, hers were well-travelled. She crossed her ankles and looked to her lap. “I know.”
“What you’re doing, though… Is it really going to work?”
A sigh came from him. “It could all fall apart. You might not know this new group as well as you think you do.”
“I know they’re nervous; itching to do something.” She turned her head to look at the man for the first time since they had begun conversing. A hood from his jacket swallowed most of his head, but his fair skin and petite features were framed by a mess of black hair. He looked troubled by her words. “I’ll be fine.”
He frowned and stared her back. “Providing all goes well, right?”
“How can you be sure it will?”
“Chert, Sonia…” He trailed off, looking away. She didn’t try to pursue it or reassure him anymore. In fact, she had no reason to. Shaking her head, she looked from him to the decking again, then up to the glass sliding door that led back into the house. A particularly chilling breeze swept across her neck and she drew her shoulders closer together to combat the cold.
“I forget sometimes…” She began, sighing softly in her pause.
“What?” He asked.
She examined her reflection in the glass sliding door; she saw herself sitting upon the railing, but without a person sitting next to her. “… That you’re not really here.”
“Oh. That.” He sounded disappointed.
“Yeah,” She took a moment to clear her mind, and then looked to the spot beside her. In the time it took her to blink, the man disappeared, leaving an empty spot beside her on the rail. She reached for it and ran her hand along the cool metal framing; it was chilling to the touch.