Wow. What a ride. This story started when I won the Amtrak Residency and carelessly decided I would write a book about a train. A train that kills ballerinas. For no reasons. Or so I thought. Turns out, this book has uncovered some deep shit and shaken me up pretty well. Oy. I finished the first draft today, and per my tradition here is the first chapter for you. If you want to beta read the whole thing, here is the PDF file, or email me for the Word file.
I'm taking a couple weeks or more off to dive into prepping for publishing The Badlings and Blue Sparrow 2. I know you're been patiently waiting. Thank you! Soon, soon. May should be it. I don't think it will stretch into June.
And here is the excerpt.
TUBE: Trans-Urban Blitz-Express
A novel by Ksenia Anske, Draft 1
Chapter 1. The Red Shoe
Olesya heard the train breathe in. A deep slow inhale and a shudder. A tremor. A rumble of living fabric under her feet. A dragging laborious stretch, confined, alive and—
In pain. It’s in pain.
Her toes pulsed, reminding her that they hurt from practice. Her fingers momentarily paused. The ribbons hung slack. The pointe shoe, half-unwrapped. She counted. Watched the threads. The stumpy woven threads of the dirty indigo carpet. The stitches running in rows, mauve, violet, velvety blue the color of veins, the liquid that seeped from under the skin of the floor and pushed the matter out in ropes.
Nothing. It’s nothing. It’s the wheels.
She cast a quick glance around the roomette and continued her work. Grizzly work. The big toe smashed, the nail broken to splinters. It didn’t heal enough, and the abuse made it crack and leek. Olesya dabbed the spot with a gentle finger, traced a line.
A glacier. The ice of my feet, and this is a glacier.
A quick rip, gritted teeth, and the second shoe landed with a soft thump next to the first one, already sprawled on the carpet like a squished moth.
“Bleeding again.” That startled her. The sound of her voice, so sharp. It ran over the murmur of the train in an unexpectedly jagged line. It broke the harmony. And then another noise, an impertinence born into an auditory attack. The door slid open with a bang.
Olesya jumped, crying out. Her injured toe scraped the floor, leaving a streak of unsightly moisture on the surface.
Red on blue, flashed through her mind.
“She’s at it again.” A smirk.
Inga’s face, chiseled, tanned, gazed down at Olesya with uncovered contempt. Her perfection bordered on that of a plasticine figurine sculpted at a doll factory, squeezed out of an artificial udder and poured into a mold where it hardened and set. Set for life to scorn and hate. And admire her own symmetry and flawlessness.
Please, go away. Olesya’s fingers crept to her foot, cradling it.
“What? What’s she doing now?” The voice from the corridor.
“Our waltz girl is practicing.” Inga roved her chocolate eyes—not delicious chocolate, but the stale shitty concoction you can buy at any roadside Moscow grocery store—over Olesya’s bloodied toes and stepped in, pointedly pushing her foot so it caught in the flesh.
Olesya choked a groan, hot water gathering in the corners of her eyes. The agony shot up her legs like fire, dissolving somewhere in the hipbones.
“Where? In that closet?” Same voice, interested now. “Nonsense, Inga. There’s no space there.” A new face poked in. The desire to look as pert as Inga printed all over its moon-round flabby depression. Standing out ears. Rivulets of unruly fuzz fringing the circumference of a protruding round forehead. Limpid watery eyes. No lips, save for a line. Excellent wiry body.
“Oh, my God.” Vika flung a hand to her face. Theatrics. Her usual theatrics over everything. “Olesya, what did you do? How...” She swiveled her too large for her body head. Eyes on the narrow mirror. The backs of the seats. The window, the pleated navy curtains. The smudged spot on the roughly painted wall. “What did you do? Standing splits?”
Olesya pressed her hand to the floor. There it was again.
“The train,” she began. “The train is...”
“Still doubting me?” Inga threw a look at Vika.
“No, please. Explain.” A hand on the hip. Vika cocked her head. A bulldog. Once she dug in her teeth, she couldn’t let go. Wouldn’t. The pleasure of causing the other pain.
“I did a pirouette.” Olesya forced her foot flat, clasped the edge of the narrow windowsill. One straightened knee, another. “Like this.” She tiptoed on the healthy leg. Rose. Stretched into infinity. All forgotten. Nothing save the music, the music in her head. Piano, strings, Tchaikovsky and his soul laid out bare in notes, and her dancing. She twisted, swirled, once. Twice. Using the walls for support, spinning, spinning. The warmth from the bare skin chafing the carpet, the exhilaration.
“That’s enough.” Snapped Inga. “Fucking showoff.”
“Excuse me.” A petite redhead with hips perhaps too wide for her slender upper frame stood in the door, a questioning look on her pointy face.
“There comes the protector of the weak.” Inga pulled Vika by the arm, and in a swish of latest designer skirts they disappeared into their confinement across, slamming the door into the slot with such ferocity, in bounced back. Scowling, Inga reached and pulled it shut, drawing the curtain over the window.
Nastya stepped in with a heavy sigh. Her small delicate lips scrunched into a sharp point. The end of her nose. The pupils. Needles. Needles pinked Olesya.
“Why are you doing this?” Breathed Nastya, a quick glance at the door. “Why are you letting them mock you?”
Olesya stroked the window. There were droplets on it, on the other side, a few lines streaked furrows in the grime of the dust.
Like pearls, if pearls could be transparent.
Nastya repeated her concern. “Please. I need to understand. I can’t understand. Why? Why do you allow these whores bully you? Give me a good reason. Doesn’t it bother you?”
Olesya shook her head.
“Well, it bothers me.” She leaned in, her small childish hands gripping kneecaps. “And it bothers the old bitch. You know,” she twisted a manicured finger around her temple.
“You talked to Alla Borisovna?” Olesya’s face fell. Slid off her sunny disposition, colored slightly pink. It became her pallid complexion, making her almost attractive, not so plain and invisible. Straw hair, soft waves of it to the shoulders. Bushy brows, perhaps too heavy to balance off a square jaw. Not the perfect waltz girl, as Alla Borisovna would complain, but the footwork, Olesya’s footwork was unparalleled. She had to do. This threw Inga into fits of conniptions, stuck to dance the dark angel.
“And?” Olesya massaged her foot, now lifted off the floor and poised on the edge of the seat. Her eyes slid over the carpet.
Strange. The blood is gone.
“And nothing. What do you expect? She doesn’t care. You’re good material, the best candidate we’ve had over the last year, but she’d replace you in a heartbeat. Inga is breathing down your neck, Olesya.”
“I know.” A shrug. The droplets, the droplets are gone.
Snowy flats blurred to hills and crags, with dusting of trees, a handful of elk sprinkled like dots, standing still, mesmerized or petrified by the speeding worm.
What else could it be in their eyes?
“A grub? An earth thing of some kind.”
“What?” Nastya rapped her nails on the edge of the plastic tray-table folded up and shoved in a slot like a tongue in a mouth. “What are you talking about?”
“The train, it’s...” Olesya hesitated.
“Ah, don’t mind me. My feet.” She cupped the crushed toes and winced.
“You’re nuts.” Declared Nastya. “Listen to me, I’m trying to help you. If you want a career in ballet, you have to choose your battles carefully. This is a dangerous game. I don’t know, maybe you should try out for the Swan Lake.”
“And quit Serenade?” Olesya’s eyes widened. “Never. I couldn’t do that.”
“Why not? What are you, married to it?” Nastya wrinkled her brows, and a severe line formed between them, giving her a pinched and concerned look. A lock of her hair behind her ear loosened and hung free, hooding her sharp face in a lovely curvy line. Olesya instinctively lifted her hand to trace it.
“Olesya, please.” A sigh of desperation. “You’re impossible. Let it go. He won’t see it and you know it.”
“I’m sorry.” An automatic response. I’m sorry for this, I’m sorry for that, I’m sorry for everything. At least after she apologized, people left her alone.
“What’s wrong?” Nastya’s frown deepened.
Olesya passed her hand over the glass, caressing it with the tips of her fingers, savoring the coolness. It thrummed imperceptibly, sang a song to her bones, and she tore her hand away.
“I...I don’t know. This train, it’s...it doesn’t feel like other trains.”
“Well, duh.” Nastya chuckled in obvious relief. “We’re in America, stupid. This is not your typical ugly interurban jalopy crawling along on rusted rails. It’s smooth. And it’s quiet. Dammit, do you hear how quiet it is? I can barely detect the murmur, the drone. We’re in America, baby. Lighten up. And don’t let those prissy bitches touch you. They will wring your neck if you let them.” She leaned back and kicked off her flats. “Anyway, I’m hungry. Want to go have lunch? It’s first come, first serve. We better snatch some food before it’s gone. Don’t worry”—Olesya grasped her purse—“the company is paying for it. Come on.”
She dug into her bag and pulled out a pair of new lipstick shiny peep-toe flats.
A premonition quickened in Olesya’s stomach. “Can you wear something else?” She stared at the polished lacquer. “You don’t have to change, it’s only lunch.”
Nastya regarded her. “Of course I do. Boys will be there already.” She winked.
Olesya sighed. “I can’t go. I can’t wear shoes, at least today I don’t think I can.”
“Wear slippers. Did you bring a pair? Tell me you did.”
Always forgetful of the most essential things, Olesya shook her head, reddening.
“I can’t believe it. You forgot your slippers?” As if it was some unconceivable crime. “Here. Wear mine.” She produced a pair of rattan wonders, silky, new.
“I’m afraid to mar them, Nastya.”
“I’ll buy a new pair. Take it.” She shoved it in Olesya’s hands.
In another minute they were waddling along the narrow corridor, swaying from side to side in lull with the train, bumping into walls, passing other doors open, half-open, closed, shored off. Behind one a couple was kissing, and the woman threw an irritated glance at Olesya, one she will remember later at very different circumstances and regret she never got to speak to her until it was too late.
At the end of the coach a metal door opened onto a shaky compartment between the wagons. The lips of the grated steel floor overlapped each other, forming a bridge, a passage of the rushing ground underneath, and here the thrumming hit Olesya again like a physical being.
She halted, gripping the ledge.
“What is it? You afraid of Mitya? Come on.” Nastya, already on the other side, waved her to get through.
Olesya couldn’t move. It was as if she had to force herself to step into a mouth, no, a throat, a pulsing throbbing throat that salivated. The perspiration on the walls trickled down in glistening lines. It dripped with a nagging regularity. She could see the moisture thickening on the edges and fly off into the wind below. It breathed underneath her, that same sigh, same movement of air.
Nastya stomped back and seized Olesya’s arm and pulled.
That was when it happened.
Her shoe got stuck. The new sole, so slippery, genuine leather, the heel, caught in the narrow gap between the dovetailing shifting plates. At the same moment the carriage where Olesya stood lurched, creating friction and catching Nastya’s toe in the grind.
The cry was unbearable.
It lasted a long time, or maybe it seemed to Olesya that it went on and on, but when it was over and she opened her eyes and looked at the damage, there was blood, no shoe, and Nastya’s white sweaty face receding into the opposite car in the hands of Mitya and Pushkin, who rushed to her aid and now pushed with their backs into the dinner coach, the servers in their indigo uniforms, Alla Borisovna in a skirt suit, and rest of the Bolshoi troupe staring, immobile, silent.
Nastya’s toe was crushed. Crushed to pulp. And that sealed her ballet career, Olesya knew it. It was nothing compared to the damage she has inflicted to her feet with relentless practice, only she didn’t know yet that it was the smallest of the horrors they were facing.
For some strange reason, against all logic, it seemed to her that it was important to locate the other shoe. The red patent leather. It was gone. And one more thing she noticed. It was the same toe as hers that got maimed. On the same foot. It struck her as odd and significant.
The train. She thought, not fully understanding where the thought had come from. She didn’t think it as much as she felt it in her gut. The train did it.