by Denis Bushlatov
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The hotel was located on the edge of the city. This inconvenience was well compensated by a panoramic view of the sea. At least that’s how it was described on the website, and Avdeyev sincerely hoped it to be so.
After leaving the center of the city, he turned left and drove for a while along Nikolskaya Street. In the heat of an election campaign, the mayor had remembered his duties and restored most of the main streets, as well as several branching ones. Nikolskaya Street was full of cozy three-storey governor’s mansions intermingled with five-storey Stalinkas. Sycamores grew by the side of the road, sprinkling it with colourful leaves. Rays of the autumn sun, gleaming through the clouds, painted the landscape in romantic and mystical colours.
Avdeyev turned right, passed under the bridge and discovered a completely different part of the city. Neat Stalinkas made way for ugly concrete constructions. Seedy and seemingly uninhabited industrial buildings practically competed in ugliness. Occasional strollers plodded the dirty sidewalk, and wind swept dry leaves along deserted streets. Pavement had been shattered: upturned slabs and potholes were all over. Avdeyev reduced speed and focused on the road.
Passing a bus stop, he saw a few sickly children standing around a burlap sack. Without slowing down, Avdeyev looked into the side-view mirror to see the children kicking the wriggling bag in turns. He even thought he heard a pig-like squeal.
The landscape grew more and more desolate. Single-storey storages lined up along the road, strewn all over with industrial waste; most of the windows were broken, the walls were covered with graffiti. Occasional residential housing — two-storey lopsided coquina buildings — were staring at him with cavernous openings. They looked uninhabited.
Rare passers-by shied away from Avdeyev’s car, and their presence felt awkward, as if this place wasn’t fit for human habitation.
“Dammit,” grumbled Avdeyev. He shivered — that’s how alien his own voice seemed to him — “who would have thought that the road could be so terrible? Maybe I should tell them some jokes on the way? It’s a good thing the hotel is on a seaside.”
He gripped the steering wheel tighter and pressed the gas pedal, shifting into fourth gear. Deep in thought, he was moving too slowly.
Strange that no one has honked yet, he thought. Suddenly he noticed that there weren’t any cars on the way. The district seemed to be devoid of life.
The street he was following ended in an abrupt T-intersection. Avdeyev groaned, turned on emergency lights and stopped at the curb. A traffic light blinked monotonous yellow. There was an open field, covered by dusty dry grass just beyond the crossroad. A smooth track ran on the left. Judging from the rusted-out sign, it would take him back into the city. The road on the right-hand side was laid out with concrete slabs and some withered weeds growing in between. There was no sign there, but logic indicated that Avdeyev needed to turn right.
He shrugged, shifted into second gear, and pulled away from the curb with the Lada’s protesting screech. After about 150 meters, he saw a man standing by the road. Impulsively, Avdeyev drew up, leaned over to the passenger door and rolled down the window.
The man, standing sideways to him, did not budge. He was dressed in a faded sweater and a denim jacket. He was swaying in a wide stance, looking straight ahead of him. There was something unpleasant and unnatural about his pose.
Maybe I am loosing it. But Avdeyev shook off the thought. He smiled as friendly as was humanly possible and addressed the man. “Excuse me, sir. Can you help me?”
The man glanced at him and grinned, widely opening his mouth, which was full of rotten, black, but surprisingly long and sharp teeth overlapping each other.
“If you are looking for the sea,” the man buzzed, “after five hundred meters go right, then another kilometer straight ahead, and you will see it.”
“I’m looking for the Safe Haven,” said Avdeyev politely, trying not to notice the man’s hideous grin or his gnat-like voice.
“Oh, I see. There will be a sign: straight to the ‘Crave Graven’.”
“Wh-what? Sorry?” Avdeyev’s feet went cold.
“I said, there will be a sign that will direct you to the Safe Haven,” buzzed the stranger. Without a pause, he walked away, swinging his long arms.
Avdeyev leaned back in his seat. “He said... he said...” he repeated again and again. “He said nothing. You are hearing things, Vladimir. It is just a weird day today. Maybe, Vladimir, you should visit an endocrinologist?” He laughed but stopped short. In oppressive, hollow silence his own laughter sounded pathetic.
Avdeyev closed the window and pulled away. A few meters farther on, he passed the same stranger, who was standing by the side of the road and seemed to be a perfectly flat cut-out of a scarecrow. Avdeyev gave a short beep and pressed on the gas pedal, trying to avoid looking in the rearview mirror. The stranger seemed to have two transparent wings flapping in the wind behind him.
* * *
Following directions, Adveyev turned right when he reached the intersection. The road was now going through land quite overgrown. At times there were some crooked hovels with boarded-up windows. Naked trees lifted their broken branches in prayer to the hulking, heavy sky. The roadside was coloured only with garbage. Surprisingly large and skinny dogs were scouring the neighbourhood. At the bend, Avdeyev saw two dogs fighting; they were boxing each other with sinewy hands and...
He slammed the brakes so hard that his car began to drift. He looked back, but apart from the piles of garbage he didn’t see anything. His body began to shake. After regaining control of his breathing, Avdeyev pulled down a sun visor and stared at his reflection with bulging eyes.
“You are going crazy,” he whispered. He winced: the word “crazy” had made a buzzing sound.
It was quite obvious that the only way the Poles would move willingly into the Safe Haven was if they were passed-out drunk. No matter what kind of “panoramic view of the sea” the hotel might have, the neighbourhood could only evoke abhorrence and fear.
Logically, he should have called Proskurnya to explain to him that Safe Haven had failed inspection and that he was off to find another hotel.
“Is that so?” squeaked someone in his head. “So, I am going to call Proskurnya and tell him everything? And what if all other hotels are full? What if the other hotels are twice as expensive?” Moreover, thought Avdeyev vindictively, I gave him other choices. It’s his own fault.
At the thought that the Poles would see dogs with human hands and maybe something worse, he felt cold. “I’ll tell Proskurnya I’m sick.” He had an idea: “I’ll stay in bed for a week and come back when everything has sorted itself out.” But something suggested to him that things never sort out right.
The Lada pulled stridently away. The road after the bend was well-groomed, but the landscape remained dull and unattractive. Both sides were covered by a wasteland overgrown with dry weeds. Along the road lay empty bottles, decomposing tires and heaps of construction rubble. There weren’t any dogs around, but Avdeyev felt some movement on the left and the right sides of the car.
The road had led to a spacious asphalt platform. Avdeyev stepped on the gas, topping a small rise, and drove onto the platform. He parked his Lada near an old Ford coated with mud and leaves, shut down the engine, and got out of the car.
The platform was enclosed by a short decorative fence, just beyond which there was a cliff and, further off, about fifty meters away, the sea swayed below.
On the far horizon, where a few silhouettes of ships were barely visible, an impending gray sky united with an enormous mass of water. Gray waves rolled over buoys, broke on the groynes and, with newfound strength, attacked the rocky shore. Cold black water foamed at the crests. The view was as breathtaking as it was alien. Black, unyielding, evil: the sea denied any human association with it. Even the ships on the horizon seemed to be smelted out of water.
Avdeyev just stood there, breathing in the cool sea air. The silence on the platform was broken only by the distant cries of seagulls. Here, on a deserted parking lot, face to face with raging nature, he felt like the last of all living beings, like H. G. Wells’ time wanderer who had seen beyond the event horizon.
When human beings disappear, when the last intelligent primate kicks the bucket, the world won’t change one little bit. The great sea will still roll its waves, leaves will still fall in autumn, the sky will still cry with rain. Seagulls and corroded ships will remain in the harbour, the city will remain behind it and the road will still lead into the city.
Autumn will be followed by winter. Blizzards will come and snow will cover the peaceful ground.
Then spring will happen. The world will wake up, and every drop of dew will sparkle like the rainbow, grass will green in the fields, and first timid sprouts will burst through the cracks in the pavement. We won’t be there to see it. But the world won’t care.
“Well,” he muttered, “whatever makes the Poles happy.”
He looked to the right and saw a crooked road sign: “To Safe Haven.” To crave graven.
Avdeyev grinned stupidly, inhaled deeply, got into his car and, having backed up, went in the direction of a five-storey building located on a nearby hill.
Behind him, the Ford, all caked with mud, lowered itself onto two front wheels and crouched. Avdeyev, however, did not see it.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Denis Bushlatov