I have completely forgotten about my tradition to post the first chapter of a new draft here. It tells you how much this book has pulled me away from reality. This, and the fact that I haven't blogged in a week. That's unheard of.
Like I mentioned already, something new is happening. My process is changing. Also, my daily routine is changing. Now in the mornings, before I start writing, I go over the list of new words that have accumulated from yesterday's reading, and look up their meanings in Russian, English, their etymology and, if applicable, images. As a result my ability to absorb new vocabulary has accelerated. I have also created 24 little files for every character, and am populating each with specific speech inflections to keep track of (and translating tons of idioms from Russian to English). This is also new and takes up time.
And another thing. Now instead of focusing on producing 2K words a day I focus on spending at least 4 hours on cranking out 1 good scene. So far I've been going at the pace of 1.6K words. My new criteria is the number of hours. Unless I sit in my room for 4 hours uninterrupted, I don't stop. But the word count doesn't matter anymore. I suppose this is all good stuff. I hope it is, because by the time I'm done writing and go online to post stuff on Ello or tweet or whatever, I'm spent.
Well then, here is the first chapter (compare it to the one from the first draft), which took me 4 days to complete, as opposed to my usual a-chapter-a-day pace. If you want to read my daily writing as I do it, donate $1 per month on Patreon, and you'll have it waiting in your Inbox as soon as I complete it. Given this speed, though, and the fact that in my summary (can you believe it? I wrote a summary) there are 106 scenes, this draft might take 3 months to complete. Oof. It's hard to write good shit, but the time spent on it is worth it.
TUBE: Trans-Urban Blitz-Express
A novel by Ksenia Anske, Draft 2
Chapter 1. Red Shoes
The train is breathing.
Olesya thought she heard an inhalation, a shudder under the carpet, thick blue carpet, the blue of varicose veins, near purple. No, she felt it, through the soles of her shoes, new flats acquired especially for this US tour, and not at some filthy roadside market either but in a genuine boutique on Tverskaya, a red lacquer pair that cost her $350, half of her monthly principal ballerina salary, but it was worth it, dammit, it was worth it to spend—
There it is again.
A dragging laborious stretch ran through the casing of the machine as though it expanded and contracted, rushing out the air with a hiss. Olesya tore up her feet. Her heart thrummed.
It can’t be. I’m just—
She glanced out the window. They were standing. According to the large electronic clock it was 11:08 A.M. The train wasn’t due to depart for another five minutes.
I wish we’d leave already. I don’t know if I can stand any more of this...whatever it is, are they checking the wheels? I hear Americans are never late, not like Russians. For us the concept of time doesn’t exist. I’m the only weirdo, always showing up before practice. Should’ve taken a shot of vodka like Nastya said. Now I’m hearing things that aren’t there.
Olesya shook her head and continued to unpack. Her lucky charm—a toy train locomotive—the present her father gave her the year he died, the token of his memory she carried with her ever since, was already unwrapped and sitting on the foldout table, scuffed and scraped by a decade of life in pockets but still discernably red, the bright red of the Soviet flag that faded to the color of a healed scar.
She hung the coat on the hook by the door, stepped into slippers, carefully placed the flats on the floor, unzipped the cosmetic bag, and started brushing her strawberry hair, wavy, trimmed neatly to shoulder length—also in prep for the tour—at the Charodeika hair salon on Novy Arbat the day before departure.
If Alla Borisovna finds out, she’ll kill me.
Olesya quickly rolled it into a bun, a dozen bobby pins between her lips, and proceeded pinning down every wisp that dared to stick out. A moderate amount of hair spray, and she patted her head all around, checking herself in the mirror.
Looks good. I don’t think she’ll be able to tell.
Outside the announcer mumbled something in English. The voice came out warbled, echoey.
What did she say? God, it’s dark. Like in a crypt.
Another inhale. A definite inhale. The carpet rose a fraction of an inch and fell, sagged back into place. Sagged more, inward, bounced back. And a rattle, the type that shakes up moisture in pneumonic lungs.
My God, maybe I’m dizzy.
Goose bumps broke over Olesya’s body. She stared at the floor for a tense moment, then lifted up both legs and pressed her face to the coolness of the glass, forcing herself to think back to Moscow railway stations like Leningradsky with its clocktowers and arcades from where she traveled to her grandmother’s funeral in St. Petersburg, or to Belorusskaya with its mint-green walls that sent her on a trip to Prague, or even the unsightly Kursky with its open concrete platforms from which she departed to spend summers in Crimea.
None of them were as dingy, as oppressing at this Chicago terminal. Dark. Ceilinged. Dully lit. With red-vested personnel scurrying to and fro with luggage trolleys. And the trains. The color of flesh with red vertical stripes between each window, a blue line on the bottom as though they were dipped in venous blood, and that same blue line along the ridge of its roof, flanked by two red ones, all three culminating in round lights at the front of the engine where below its mouth sat the company logo, a creamy smudge of the rushing train bursting out of the inky circle rimmed in red and buttressed by red letters TUBE, and underneath that, smaller, Trans-Urban Blitz-Express.
In this cold artificial light instead of the intended highly refined ecru the carriages looked pink, the unhealthy pink of a human limb that has been severed and—
Olesya shook her head. Her eyes drifted to the carpet threads, woven stitches running in rows, pumping liquid from the head of the train to the cars.
What am I thinking? It’s absurd. It must be the wheels. The wheels are—
The wheels are what?
In pain? The whole train is in pain. It’s hurting.
The thought burrowed through Olesya’s head and departed, leaving her with a headache.
“It’s breathing...” Her voice startled her.
She cast a glance around the compartment: two berths facing one another, tooled in red velvet of an unpleasantly rich hue, with upholstered backs to lean on, and over them on beige walls in place of upper berths of the cheaper, 36-place cars, head-supporting pillows appended on hooks of pale bronze—that same disgusting tone of the carriages, a band of cotton over each adorned with TUBE logo, in protection of the velvet from the oils secreted by scalps, and above them four sconce lights, two on each wall, round, frosted glass held in bronze cilia as though eyes, blind, staring at Olesya in a vain attempt to see her. No nets, no shelves of any kind, no other surface present except the table jutting out like a lip under the window fringed with TUBE curtains, chintzy cotton, same blue line on the top and the bottom, same red vertical stripes as though traced by dripping paint, and, mercilessly, an unadorned shade behind them by closing which, Olesya surmised, it was just possible to make the roomette pitch-black.
Unnecessary, superfluous splendor.
The interior heaved. Perhaps a fraction of an inch, but Olesya saw it, the tubular innards of some vessel that—
She didn’t register the knock at first.
The door slid open, and Olesya jumped, her headache thudding.
In the shaft of the artificial light stood Inga, the girl made of money, her perfection that of a doll, a lump of vinyl squeezed from a rubber udder and poured into a mold where it hardened, her features smooth, tanned to a crisp in an elite sports club at $1 per minute; combined with a skin peeling procedure Fresh Bake, at $100 per visit; combined with sucking off the grisly dick of the club manager Vasiliy Osolodkin, 38, married with two children, free. Whatever extravagances her salary didn’t allow were supplied by multiple protégés in return for her warming their beds. The only hiccup on her path to stardom was this scrawny brainless bitch who charmed the company director with her jerky hips and coltish legs that stabbed the stage, a blasphemy on professional ballet.
Whatever Chuchundra found in you, thought Inga, I don’t get it.
Her almond eyes, lost in the pools of black liner, roved through the compartment and stopped on the heap of bags occupying most of the left couchette. A brow lifted, she gazed at Olesya.
“Lebedeva, how come you’re alone?”
Olesya, still under the influence of her recent vision, couldn’t quite speak.
“What are you, deaf? Answer. How did you score a compartment all for yourself?”
“Alla Borisovna asked...” began Olesya.
“What, Chuchundra put you up here alone? I don’t believe it. “Vika!” she called to the corridor. “Come see. Lebedeva managed to wheedle out a room for herself, sitting here like a queen, wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“You have to see this.”
“Jesus. Chill. Give me a minute.”
“Oh my God, you’re slow. What are you doing in there?”
A moment later the second head appeared in the door, the perpetually displeased countenance of Vika, chicken on stilts bleached blond, nose too large, hands to big, ego barely fitting into the sequin dress that screamed, Fuck me! Whatever went wrong in her life has permanently altered her character to that of a dumb bird, hungry to peck at someone to ease her vexation, seeking relief, finding none, deciding that maybe she didn’t peck hard enough and starting all over again. At present, Olesya was the perfect target to poke for no other reason except the fun of poking.
“Are you kidding me?” Vika fingered the zipper on her dress making sure it was closed.
“I told you.”
“What’s the magic, Lebedeva? How did you do it?”
“I didn’t do anything,” protested Olesya.
“What, you think we’re not worthy of your secret?”
“No, that’s not it at all. Alla Borisovna asked me if I’d be okay with watching over the costumes, and I said, sure, no problem. I can do that.”
“Sure, no problem, she can do that.” Inga smirked. “Did you hear that? She asked her. You know, you suck at lying, Lebedeva. At least come up with a better story next time.” Inga stepped in, pointedly kicking Olesya’s flats under the bed.
“Oops! I’m sorry.”
“Nice shoes,” said Vika. “Where did you get them?”
“On Tverskaya. There is this little boutique—”
“What brand?” interrupted Inga.
“You’re lying. How much?”
“That’s too cheap for Valentino. You got swindled, stupid. And anyhow, where did you get the money for that?” She leaned in, her brown eyes wide, brown of the second-rate shitty chocolate you can buy at any metro kiosk. “Or did you finally clean out the grit from your vagina?”
The girls laughed.
Olesya blushed crimson.
“What’s that you’re holding?” asked Vika suddenly. “A toy?”
Forgotten in the heat of the confrontation, the toy locomotive sat snug in Olesya’s clammy fingers. She didn’t realize she was squeezing it, her knuckles white. She opened her palm.
“Can I see?” Vika plopped on the seat and unceremoniously snatched it, turning it this way and that. “Piece of junk.” She tossed it to Inga who caught it.
Olesya thought she heard the train rumble.
We must be leaving.
The intercom coughed and came to life.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard. My name is Karl Rimmer, and I’m your head engineer. We’re due to depart just about now. Next stopover is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in exactly one hour and thirty-seven minutes according to our schedule. It’ll be a brief stop, so if you decide to go out and stretch your legs, don’t walk off too far. We don’t want to leave without you. Once again, welcome aboard. On behalf of TUBE: Trans-Urban Blitz-express I thank you for choosing us your as your travelling companions.”
A shrill whistle signaled their departure. The carriage jolted, stopped, then lurched again and with a slow measured cadence began moving, slogging along the tracks. Faster. Faster. The dingy platform with its pinkish lights rolled away, replaced by dark skyscrapers. Brick. Iron. Burnished steel sky.
“Finally,” Inga slammed the toy on the table.
The car juddered, swayed around the bend, accelerating. The clattering of the wheels acquired a soothing rhythm, almost music. Pianoforte, strings, like Tchaikovsky’s soul laid out bare on Chicago streets, spinning, spinning.
“It better not snow,” remarked Vika, squinting at the clouds.
“Snow? In March?” asked Inga. “Have you lost your mind?”
“They look like snow clouds.”
There was a polite knock on the door.
The girls shared a scared look.
“May I?” said a pleasant male voice in American English.
“Yes,” replied Olesya.
“Whew. I thought it was Chuchundra for a second.” Inga stood up. “We better go.”
The door opened.
“I hope I’m not disturbing?” A jolly man of about fifty looked in. Behind a pair of round glasses blinked round laughing eyes, a cap sat on the round head, backwards. Everything about him was round, including his belly hugged by the red TUBE uniform. He smiled his perfect thirty-two American teeth.
“Ladies? Sorry if I’m interrupting. I’m Larry Portman. I’ll be your conductor. My compartment is right over there, on the left. On behalf of TUBE, I welcome you onboard. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to press that button.” He pointed to a button by the door. “Launch will be served at 12:30, in about—” he glanced at his wristwatch, “an hour. Would you like some tea or coffee in the meantime?”
Nobody said a word.
Larry politely waited, his eyes jumping from girl to girl, obviously astounded at the thinness of their bodies, so unlike American girls with their well-fed thighs and solid bellies and prominent healthy cheeks.
Holy moly, they’re thin. Like some emaciated inmates from a concentration camp, all eyes, but what eyes, huge! Exotic, I grant it. Foreigners. Must be foreigners. Europe. Eastern Europe? Slavic, look at those cheekbones. That one’s got a nice set of jugs. Too much makeup, though. Eh, Larry, put your cock back where it belongs. You’re fit to be their grandfather. What are they, nineteen? Twenty? Feed them well, get some meat on those bones. Christ, who’d want to marry a skeleton like that. There’s nothing to grab—
“No, thank you,” said Olesya, shaking cobwebs off her broken English, whatever it was she managed to remember from grade school. She meant to refresh her memory before the tour but failed to find the time, then forgot all about it, only remembering her omission when they stepped out of the plane in New York and the first woman who rattled to her a string of directions was so black, Olesya involuntarily opened her mouth and had to be nudged by Nastya to keep moving.
“Thank you,” she repeated.
The conductor didn’t answer, mesmerized, or stupefied, or both.
Did I say the right thing? doubted Olesya.
Inga harbored no such doubts. Noticing Larry’s oily gawking at her breasts, she quickly appraised him for fuckability, and the curious light in her eyes extinguished. A drunk, by the look of him. A womanizer, too. Your regular raunchy Vasja Pupkin. “Let’s go.” She grabbed Vika by the sleeve and not granting Larry an ounce of attention, squeezed past him, bumping into Nastya.
“Oh, lookit. There comes the protector of the weak,” remarked Inga before disappearing into her compartment next door.
Nastya gave her a bewildered stare. “Aha, you’re a good one yourself, curious Varvara.”
Upon hearing the strange tongue, Larry’s interest piqued even further. “Where are you from?” he ventured, “if you don’t mind me asking. I’m rather flabbergasted by your language. For the life of me I cannot guess what it is. Something Eastern European?”
Nastya flitted in and gracefully lowered herself between the bags. “Russia,” she said, “Moscow. Ballet. Bolshoi?” That was usually the clincher.
“Ahhh!” exclaimed Larry. “Bolshoi ballet. I’ve heard about it. Magnificent, magnificent. And you would be on tour?”
“Yes,” replied Nastya with an expression that didn’t invite any further questioning.
“I love your accent. Very piquant. Well, like I said, if you need anything, just press this button. Lunch is in about an hour. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it. I’ll call you. I’ll knock first, of course, so as not to disturb you. And welcome onboard TUBE. We’re happy you chose us as your travelling companion.” He forced himself to step out the door.
You old fool, what nonsense was that dribbling from you mouth? At fifty-three, getting flustered like a little boy. You know better than that. Betsy would give you a piece of her mind if she saw you right now.
Nastya waited until his footsteps receded. “What did they want?”
“Nothing,” said Olesya, looking at her friend, eating up her face, her eyes. She couldn’t help it. She wanted skin like hers, pure faience, luminescent. Chin, feminine, heart-shaped. Hair, copper, the shade that sparkled dark gold in the sun. And the body, that Raphaelian neck, the gentle slope of the shoulders, tiny waist, wide hips—the object of Alla Borisovna’s daily scorn—and tiny feet, tiny hands. Olesya’s seemed to her boyish, angular, awkward.
“Olesya. Stop hanging noodles on my ears. You look like someone forced you through a meat grinder.”
The corners of Olesya’s lips crept up into a shy smile. “I always look like that.”
“No, you don’t. What did they do? What did they want here?”
Olesya shrugged. “Ah, same old...”
Nastya’s delicate lips puckered to a point. Even the end of her nose sharpened, and her pupils. Needles. Needles pinked Olesya. “Why are you doing this? Why do you let them hurt you?”
“I’m not. I’m not letting them anything.” Olesya stroked the window. There were droplets of condensation on it, on the other side, sitting on the dusting of grime—
Like pearls, if pearls could be transparent.
Nastya sighed. She’s slipping me. This is so frustrating. “Please. Don’t escape into one of your fantasy spells. I want to help you, do you understand? Why, Olesya, why? Why do you let those whores bully you? They’re not worth your pinky. Look at me. Give me at least one good reason, okay? Just one.”
She’s not going to answer, she’s not. Stubborn like a mule.
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
Olesya shook her head.
“Well, it bothers me.” Nastya gripped her knees. “I want to help you. Please, let me help you.”
“Thank you. No, really, thank you. I’ll ask for help if I need any. Promise. I just don’t need any help right now.”
“But you’re suffering!”
“Maybe it’s my choice.”
“Why would you choose to suffer?”
“You know what baffles me? That we have this tendency to judge based on our own experiences. We decide that someone is in pain because we think they’re in pain, but maybe they’re not. It’s easier to assume than to ask and listen. Just because Inga, Vika, or Milena say something nasty to me doesn’t mean that I’m hurting. It’s not about me, really. They just spill their insecurities on me, because I’m a convenient scapegoat. Quiet. Timid. Always gone in my head. So I let them.”
“Why would you let them?” asked Nastya, exasperated. “I don’t understand you.”
“There’s too much pain in the world already.” Papa, that’s what you taught me, papa. Olesya looked out the window, following the blur of trees. “I don’t mind. If that makes them feel a little better...”
“You amaze me,” Nastya leaned back. “I wish I had your patience.”
I wish I had your looks. Olesya bit her tongue. “It’s not patience, Nastya, it’s...I don’t know. I just don’t see the point.”
“The point is they’re assholes.”
“God, you’re impossible. Look, I’m sorry I brought this up. I worry about you.”
“Yeah, I get that. It’s okay. I’ll be fine.”
Nastya passed compressed air through her lips. “I talked to Alla Borisovna.”
“You talked to her?” Olesya’s face fell, turning her pallid complexion chalky.
“She says your footwork is unparalleled. Your athleticism, your purity, authenticity and all that bullshit. You’re the perfect lead girl, but then Inga threw a fit, you know her methods, so she’s considering her. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“And?” She’s not getting it. “Inga is one crafty bitch, Olesya. Just warning you.”
“What’s she going to do, smash my toes?”
“I don’t know how, I’m simply communicating to you my worries. She makes me feel uneasy. She called me “protector of the weak” when I was walking here. I didn’t like it.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it does. You’re the best of the troupe, yes, but if something were to happen to you...Chuchundra will replace you in a heartbeat. Inga is breathing down your neck, Olesya.”
“I know that.” The droplets, the droplets are gone. And it’s getting colder. Outside an evergreen forest streaked past. It bore first signs of snow, a mere dusting. There was no wind, and a handful of elk sprinkled rocks, standing still, petrified by the clanking clonking machine speeding by.
No one is going to stop me. Dance. “Dance is all I have.”
“I said—” Olesya squeezed the toy locomotive too hard. A spasm lurched through it, through her hand, through the car. A series of whistles pierced the air, and the clatter of the wheels answered with frantic rattling.
“Did you say something?”
“I thought you said...”
“What’s the matter? You have no face on you.” Nastya leaned it to feel Olesya’s forehead. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I’m fine.” Olesya stared at the toy, absentmindedly rolling the wheels back and forth. “Should’ve taken a shot of vodka like you said. Must be the nerves.”
“You need to eat something,” declared Nastya. “And maybe talk to Chuchundra about trying out for the Swan Lake.”
“And quit Serenade?” Olesya’s eyes widened. “Never.”
“Why not? What are you, married to it?” Nastya wrinkled her brows, and a severe line formed between them. “You know what? I’m sorry if this will annoy you, and I know I told you this a million times, but you need to. Let. Go. Your papa will never see it, and you know it.”
“You don’t understand...” Olesya trailed off. The toy thrummed in her hand. Every little hair rose on her neck. Her mouth went dry. What’s it doing? How is this...how is this possible? She turned it over.
“Oh, yes, I do,” said Nastya impatiently.
“Wait. It’s not about that, Nastya, hold on. I’m just...there’s something...I don’t know. This train...it doesn’t feel like the others, it’s...”
“Well, you’re such a chucha.” Nastya chuckled in relief. “We’re in America, silly. It’s not your crappy Russian jalopy rattling along rusted rails. This is smooth, quiet. Do you hear how quiet it is?”
The intercom rustled, and out came Larry’s voice. “Ladies and gentlemen, Larry speaking. I’m your conductor, as you may recall. It’s 12:30 and we’re starting to serve lunch. Please make your way to the dining car, and you’ll be seated by one of our charming crewmembers. Thank you.”
“Let’s go kill the worm. I’m starving,” said Nastya. “Oy, my dear old mother, what is that on your feet? What horror show is this? For God’s sake, throw them away. You’ve had them for years! What about those new flats? I want to see. Put them on.”
Olesya slipped the toy in her pocket and looked under the bed. There they lay in the shadows, overturned like capsized boats, glistening dull red. A premonition quickened in her stomach. I shouldn’t wear them, I shouldn’t. Red. Red like her blood, like—whose blood? What? What was that?
“You fell asleep there or what? Coming?”
“Aha.” Olesya snatched the shoes from the darkness, her heart beating like a swan forced in a drawer.
“Wow! Stunning. Classy. These won’t go out of fashion any time soon.” Enraptured, Nastya slid a finger on the cool shiny lacquer. “Can I try?”
“Perfect fit. That’s it, I need to get a pair. How much?”
“What? You don’t say! That’s crazy.” Nastya tore her eyes away from the shoes with difficulty, reluctantly stepping out. “Hey, what is it? What’s wrong? You have no face on you. You sure you’re all right?”
“Uh-huh.” Olesya swallowed. Did you hear something? No, I shouldn’t ask. Obviously, she didn’t. It’s some kind of a hallucination, that’s all. I just need to eat, put nourishment in my body. Too much stress lately, jetlag. Yeah, that must be it. Jetlag.
“All right then.” Nastya slid open the door. “Which way?”
“I can’t remember. Maybe it’s at the end?”
They scuttered along the corridor, swaying in lull with the train, passing closed doors on the left, curtained windows on the right, stepping on the long narrow rug which felt like sinking in sludge and gave Olesya an uneasy feeling that when she lifted her feet, it was reluctant to let go, holding onto the soles of her shiny flats with every sticky fiber.
“And that is my coupe, number 5.”
Nastya slid the door open, and Olesya peeked inside.
Same layout, same small table under the window, same two berths upholstered in red velvet, the only difference was the bedding. Nastya, being the domestic kind of a girl that likes her chores done, had already fluffed up the pillow and rolled out the blanket, her suitcase neatly stashed at the foot of the bed. On the bed across reigned artistic chaos: soft shoes, pointe shoes, belts, stretch bands, leg warmers, a diet book, a back brace, rolls of tape, a deodorant, and other ballet paraphernalia scattered over towels tangled with clothes.
“What a mess. Who’re you with?”
Nastya smirked. “Can’t you tell?”
“Aha, our precious Zoloto. At least she washed it all before the trip. Thank God. I would’ve suffocated sleeping in this stink.” She slid the door shut, and they continued forward.
The last door, with the creamy number 9 stenciled on its window, was closed, but the curtain wasn’t drawn all the way, as though leaving about an inch open on purpose. Olesya glanced inside and went cold.
On the bed lay Egor, his shirt open, face sweaty, the golden boy of Alla Borisovna Bayadova’s famous ballet troupe, the star soloist, blond, striking, with a little line of a mustache over his upper lip that gave him a gallant last-century look, and on top of him sat Milena wearing only a bra, a pose that suggested either an upcoming copulation or an accomplished one, her gorgeous chestnut bob in disarray.
“What is it?” Nastya halted.
Just then Milena sensed Olesya’s stare and turned around. Her classic beauty, that dreamy languor of a silent film actress from the 20s, chiaroscuro, eyes pools of ink, nose straight, aristocratic, mouth small and tender, and all of that sitting perched on a long subtle neck, a confection of sweetness below, took away Olesya’s breath, as though she hasn’t seen her before in the changing room, as though she never imagined her silky body under the tights and the leotards and the tulle and the gauze. She did, always comparing her own stick-figure to this impossible softness and femininity, wanting it for herself in more ways than one, getting confused, ashamed, yearning to glimpse more, to see, to touch, like right now.
So beautiful, she’s so beautiful, it hurts. Of course he’d fall for her. What am I next to this? Nothing, nothing to look at. Ah, how I hate this. I hate this! I wish I could just cut him out of my chest and be rid of this stupid infatuation.
Milena saw Olesya’s half-opened mouth through the glass, and smiled. No teeth, only lips, very modest, almost demure. “My, oh, my, I think we have guests. Would you like to join us?”
Egor started. “Who’s that?”
“Ah, our rara avis. Never thought her to be a voyeur.”
“You’d be surprised. She always checks me out after practice when I’m naked—”
Olesya recoiled, her heart ramming.
“No-no, nobody. Was just curious who’s in this room. The curtain was open, so...” If Inga finds out, she’ll kill her.
“Oh, Favin got that one. I think. He’s alone in there, just like you. Lucky duck.”
Nastya stepped past the toilet and wrenched open the door to the vestibule, a cloister of a space at the end of the carriage with exits on both sides and a door leading into the next carriage.
“Brrr! It’s cold in here like in some grave.”
The clattering drone of the wheels instantly rose in intensity, assaulting Olesya’s ears. The floor changed to grated steel, shaky.
Nastya pressed on the handle and stepped into the connecting corridor, a claustrophobic pocket lined with an accordion rubber seal. A pulse of something mechanical and relentless blasted out, and an overwhelming urge to flee washed over Olesya, as though she was too close to the heart of a living, breathing entity, an organism, a—
“It’s locked. I think we’re on the wrong end,” pronounced Nastya, turning around. “The dining car must be that way.”
Olesya stood frozen, watching the steel plates of the passage scrape over one another right above the rushing ground underneath, and the combined noise of their grinding and the piston-pumping coming from behind the locked door, with the stenciled letters DANGER: TUBE STAFF ONLY BEHYOND THIS POINT on the vibrating glass, as though a warning that pulled her and repelled her with its thrumming hit her body like a physical being, hit her hard, hit her vision, causing red ripples to radiate outward, red of her shoes, a red mess chomped down between the plates, the jaws, the teeth—
It wants to hurt me. The train. It wants to—
Olesya gasped, gripping the ledge.
As though in confirmation the horn blew, tearing through her eardrums, reverberating along her bones and exiting at her feet that became one with the floor.
“Did you hear me?”
“Are you coming?”
Moving about in a haze, Olesya followed Nastya, into the corridor, past the doors, to the other side of the car where in an identical vestibule an identical door opened to a merry well-lit dining car filled to the brim with chewing talking people. Everyone was already there, Alla Borisovna and her chosen dancers—except Milena and Egor. Even Larry was here. He sat with other conductors at a separate table.
“Olesya, what is it with you today? Counting the crows again? Come on. Look, see over there? Your loyal Mitya is waiting.” Nastya winked and hopped to the other side.
Olesya couldn’t move. She stared at the connecting passage and saw a throat, a pulsing throbbing gorge that salivated. The perspiration trickled down the rubber in glistening lines and flew off into the void below.
It’s waiting for me to step in, to consume me. It will start with my feet, and then—
Nastya stepped back, seized Olesya by the arm and pulled.
And that’s when it happened.
Sitting snug in the new expensive flat, the patent leather Valentino, genuine—it wasn’t a fake like Inga claimed, it was on clearance, last year’s model sold for half the price—Olesya’s right foot caught on the edge of the plate. She stumbled. The sole, unworn and smooth, slipped on the steel polished with years of use, and the tips of her toes wedged in the gap. At the same moment the carriage lurched and clomped down, gnashing left and right.
Olesya jerked her leg a second too late.
The scream was unbearable.
It lasted a long time, or maybe it seemed to Olesya that it went on and on, independent of her body, but when it was over and she opened her eyes and looked at the damage, there was blood mixed with whatever was left of the shoe, the individual threads of the stitching hanging sadly, reproachfully.
“My shoe,” she said, “my new shoe. It’s ruined.”
The absurdity of her words was met with a gaping wall of faces that gathered to the cry, held in the silent moment of shock. And before the conductors rushed to her help, pushing Nastya aside, before Mitya shoved them all out of the way and caught Olesya, her legs folding, she had another thought, not about the potential danger of this injury that, depending on how bad it was, could bring her ballet career to an end—she was used to chronic injuries and the sight of smashed toes was nothing new—but about the horror she was facing. She didn’t so much think it as she felt it in her gut.
The train. The train did it. It did it on purpose.