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A phone ring had sliced up the doughy silence. Terehov winced, but reached out for the air conditioner's remote instead, avoiding the phone, noting that his study was as humid as it gets before the storm. The sky seemed boring and bleak. The only sickly tree, that irritated him so much, jerked slavishly to the gusts of wind.
‘Storm is going to break soon, …’ he mumbled, and looked suspiciously over at the phone, which was diligently trilling a simple and therefore unpleasant ringtone.
He knew it was going to be her without looking at the screen. Who else could be so, so … annoying?
Trying not to lose it, he hastily grabbed the phone, slid his finger across and replied:
‘Hello?’ his tone, impatient and questioning, indicated that he was really busy and not ready for a long and absolutely senseless discussion about new sales in Prada and that this time it's absolutely imperative to…
‘Sanchik, I got lost.’
Terehov choked up. Rarely, very rarely did Lubasha use this sickening-sweet ‘Sanchik’, knowing how it drives him crazy. As a matter fact, upon consideration …. He frowned and abruptly got up from the desk. Lubasha's voice, normally unnaturally high-pitched, now seemed to sound … detached and strained, as if she was about to inform him of her own funeral.
There was something deeply wrong with the phrase itself.
He paced the room in agitation, time after time throwing hateful glances out of the window. The phone was unexpectedly silent. Finally, he broke down and grumbled:
‘What … sorry, what did you do?’
Lubasha seemed to be expecting the question as she immediately started to babble incoherently, getting all her words mixed up.
‘I was driving up Prokhorovskaya Ave, you know, from downtown, and they had these roadworks, er, a sign, like,’We are sorry for your inconvenience’, and this fucking dust all over. And the crows ….’
‘What … what the?’
‘Hold on, don't interrupt, or I'll get totally confused. So, I decided to turn onto Chkalova Street; there's no left turn, but no cops too, so I crossed over the double lines. D'you know what I mean? So I was thinking that if I go through Chkalova and turn onto Estonskaya Ave, then over the bridge and ….’
‘Drive out to Skorostnaya Lane,’ Terehov automatically finished the sentence. He couldn't stand the sound of her voice. The tree outside was brandishing its branches mockingly. Out of the corner of his eyes he caught a movement and, looking over, he noted, with a dull surprise, that a huge black rat was sitting on a thick branch with its back to him.
‘Don't interrupt me!’ Lubasha shrieked. He nearly dropped the phone. ‘Yes, to Skorostnaya, of course. I thought about it. And … Are you listening?’
He nodded, not being able to take his eyes off the rat. The disgusting creature had now turned sideways to him, periodically throwing Terehov sidelong glances with its red inflamed eye.
‘Huh?’ he managed, collecting himself, ‘Yeah, of course, I'm listening. What did you say happened?’
‘I said that you happen to be an idiot!’ she screamed, and to Terehov this turn of conversation was a definite proof that Lubasha had completely lost her mind. He couldn't even find anything to say, still staring at the rat, which kept riding the branch, miraculously holding on.
‘You are not listening to me. Sanchik, please, I'm begging you, just listen quietly, OK?
‘So, I'm driving along Chkalova and then something possesses me to turn right just before Estonskaya. There was some heavy traffic so … fuck it. I thought that if I turn again, I'd come out onto Estonskaya. Well, I should've, you know? But for some reason…,’ her voice went up to a high pitch again, ‘Well, for some bloody reason it just didn't happen. Because there are no exits on that street at all. Straight as a ruler and narrow. All I kept thinking was, what would happen if someone drove at me. There would be no way to pass each other! It's so narrow…. I already said that, didn't I? The road is all destroyed, potholes and all, cars parked everywhere. Buildings, like, old town, you know, all those fucking fired brick romantics. Balconies with cast iron. Trees ….
‘So, I drove on. And on. And still on. And on again. No one was there. Not a single person, only those parked cars on the curb. And balconies. Everything is cracked, peeling, laundered boxers on ropes, like flags, windows are mostly … nailed up. I don't understand why the windows are nailed up, with underwear hanging outside? How can this be, eh?’
Terehov was quiet, standing with his back to the window, trying to convince himself that the feeling of a pinching stare between his shoulder blades was only a product of his own imagination. Lubasha's monologue seemed to be absolutely illogical and yet it aroused some perverse curiosity. He felt like an avid listener of The Twilight Zone radio show.
‘Just don't disappear, OK?’
He only hemmed back.
‘Anyways, this street, at some point I got that everything was just weird. It has no end, no alleys between houses, no byways, no turns. And the road itself, you know, the road bed. Well, at first it was asphalt, right? And then, some concrete shit, slabs like at an airport. Only these ones had been laid sloppily – the wheels just kept jamming in between. I stopped caring about the gears, just wanted to get out and … that's that. And then even the slabs ran out, and there was … well … how should I .., like somebody had poured concrete over … cobblestones, yeah, and it's been a while ago. The concrete had all broken up, and then I kept driving over the open cobblestones.
‘Then the street turned right and I was so happy, I thought, that's it, I'm going to drive out to Estonskaya or … it didn't matter, just drive out to… someplace with people. Besides, I kept hearing traffic sounds. Like a street car somewhere, around.
‘The funniest part – it never occurred to me that I could just turn around and drive back. But now I understand that I wouldn't be able to turn around in such a closed space. So I drove up another half a block and … listen, Terehov, have you ever been to Wairehonngrluse Market?’
He took away the phone and stared at it with some childish horror, as if woodlice were going to come pouring out at any moment.
‘Warehouse? Did you say Warehouse? I can't remem….’
‘Wairehongrluse, I said. Have you heard of it?’
‘No. what are you talking about?’
‘Wairehongrluse Market. A small square with lots of narrow, twisted back streets branching out. Paved with bloody cobblestones and poured over with concrete. What kind of a moron would pour concrete over the cobblestones? They should've poured shit instead.’ She stopped talking for a second, obviously trying to pull herself together, and then continued:
‘There is a long two-storey building in the centre with windows made of… you know that crap like in old Soviet factories, remember?’
‘Glass blocks,’ he uttered, barely audible.
‘Yeah, those. And wouldn't you know, half of those blocks had been broken, just like at the abandoned factories. In the middle – a double wooden door. Also nailed up, why not? And overhead there is a sign: "Wairehongrluse Market". Also, there are some doorsteps, and some old women were just sitting just there selling various garage garbage like at the flea market. Everything was laid out on newspapers and,’ she suddenly sobbed, ‘they were selling rats, Sasha! RAT HEADS!’
‘OK, Luba, calm down now!’ he tried not to raise his voice, to stay calm himself, but how was that possible, if …. He quickly faced the window, feeling trapped, and breathed with relief when he didn't see a trace of the rat on the violently swaying branch. The little fat bastard must've been blown off by the wind.
‘It's only your imagination,’ Terehov stated reasonably and quietly, but she interrupted him.
‘Not a single word. I'll ask you when I need it. Now, listen. I don't have much time.’
He wanted to ask her what in the hell ... but Lubasha didn't even give him a chance.
‘That whole square is … somehow irregular. There is something wrong with the proportions. All those stooped little shops, I didn't even want to know what they were selling, and all those little houses that look like they are going to collapse at any moment. They are unliving, like theatre decorations. But there's more. Apart from those old women on the steps, I didn't see a single person. Several dogs, skinny and dirty, like garbage dump wanderers. That's probably where they were from, and all those women, too. Not a single moving car, nobody at all. When I drove out on the square,… well, I did something stupid there, because the sun was setting and I …’
Bewildered, Terehov looked out of the window. As it was, the tree was convulsing in agony, the sky was still pressing down, but the twilight was only now claiming its rights.
‘… could've turned around and driven back. But instead, for some reason, I decided to keep on moving forward, taking one of those streets, by the old women. I took it into my own head that I can drive out onto the normal road, and that's all. It was like catatonia.
‘In any case, I turned again and I remember getting a glimpse of the "Trapezoid Street" sign. Funny name, isn't it?’ she giggled nervously, ‘And it's all correct, I am telling you this as a mathematics drop-out. Everything is not right there, everything!’ she shouted. ‘Firstly, these houses. Well, they just can't exist, they should've collapsed decades ago. You know, it's like they are leaning over the road, almost touching rooves. And yet they are so narrow at the bottom and they widen at the top. It's just impossible! I don't know,’ she sobbed again, ‘I tried not to look around,. Like a fool I told myself that the track line and the road are not far off and… people.
‘I wasn't wrong about the tracks,’ Lubasha forced out a chuckle, and Terehov went cold. ‘Rather, I felt them first, and then I saw them. Under the wheels. Only I don't understand, really, how a street car could cruise that street and not demolish a house.
‘And then … And then, Sanchik, that street just stopped. Simply, bam, and stopped. I didn't realize it at once, I don't see so well in the dark, but I braked just in time. Otherwise, I would've rammed into it and then I wouldn't call you anymore.’
‘Rammed into ...?’ Terehov echoed.
‘Into a wall, Sasha. Into the wall of those cobblestones. The street runs into the wall. And the rails just keep going up the wall. And I don't know,’ she was screaming now without any control, ‘the height of that wall, because I fucking think that it goes up straight into the fucking sky!’
‘Wait, wait… Luba! What are you saying?’
‘Ah, whatever,’ she brushed him away, ‘wait, I am almost finished. Wait just another minute. Sasha, I braked just in time, a metre away from the wall. Turned the lights on, left the car, looked around.
‘Those damned houses were pushing into the wall. I don't know, it was hard to see in the dark, but it seemed to me that they were made of wood. And were painted either green or blue. Windows were nailed up, but the boards laid every which way, cracks so big my fist could easily go through. And under my feet it felt so soft. I looked down, everything was overgrown with moss. You just listen to me, don't interrupt.
‘Then I was ready to get back into the car, but …’ she lingered, and Terehov felt a strong urge to hang up, to throw the phone at the wall, but then Lubasha started to talk again. Strangely, her voice got stronger and in the same time it became completely mechanical. ‘I heard a sound. Squishy, like a wet rag dragging on the ground. I looked down. I didn't even understand what it was, it was so dark at that time. I thought that it would be nice if some street lamps came on. There was one, just above me, lopsided and weed-bound, and I was sure it didn't work, you know? It was hard to imagine that something worked on that street. So I came closer. Now, the wall was behind me, and that thing, so small, no bigger than a rat,’ at that moment Terehov shuddered and cast a cautious glance out of the window, ‘but I still couldn't understand what in the hell it was. It was crawling towards me. I stepped forward and noticed that that thing wasn't alone. Just a couple of metres away there was another one crawling. And then several more. From where I was, I realized that those were no rats – rats don't move like that. They were more like slugs.
‘Suddenly, like a granted wish, it got light. At first, I didn't even understand what was happening, and then, a second later, I got it – the street light turned on. The one behind my back. And not just that one, all the street lights on both sides of the street. It was just flooded, ugh, disgusting,’ she choked, ‘with such dull, yellow light. It was like pus. I looked ahead, you know? Just to understand how I should drive back out, over that pavement, and I thought I saw, no, I just thought I saw that far into the houses the road was rising, filling up like a blood clot, and from there, up this narrow way, they were coming, crawling, not few, but lots, Sasha, lots of these things. Only with the lights on I realized that they weren't rats at all, but … how should I explain? These were fish torsos!, gutted, headless fish torsos. They were wriggling, flipping, clinging onto the cobblestones with their fins, crawling everywhere. God, that was disgusting! There were very small ones too, but further on I noticed some big ones and then much bigger. But,’ she snorted hysterically, ‘I was right about one thing. Rats were there also. They were darting this way and that among these carcasses, biting them and dragging them somewhere.
‘I don't remember if I screamed or not. Probably not. Had I screamed, I wouldn't have heard the same sound behind me.
‘Those creatures were just dropping from somewhere up the wall. Plopping on the stones and crawling, crawling. Some of them were falling on the car, and twisting happily as if fooling around. Smiling at me with their open bellies.
‘And then I realized, they were going to eat me, Sanchik. I didn't stop to think about it. I had already wasted too much time staring at them. I leapt to the nearest door, naturally, it was nailed up, but so poorly that I didn't even have to force it. I ripped off those two pieces of wood and,… are you listening?’ she asked suddenly, ‘Are you there?’
‘I'm listening,’ Terehov answered, surprised and terrified at his own voice suddenly becoming hoarse.
‘Yeah, you listen, listen. It's good for you. So, I ran into the hall, slammed the door behind me, as well as I could, anyways. It was dark inside, but I could still see something. Just barely. There were, you know, usual things – a short corridor, mailboxes and a large convector in a corner. And a staircase. Never in my life had I run so fast. I thought I was flying. In a moment I ran up to the third floor, two doors per landing, and they were … I don't know … pushed out? Lying flayed on the floor, and that gaping blackness of the flats. Like mouths, Sasha. On the third landing I saw a closed door,’ Lubasha inhaled now and he heard some sound in the background of her voice. Like bubbles popping in a swamp.
‘I ... I don't know what came over me, but …. You don't understand, I heard those fucking fish already inside, flopping up the stairs. And here's this door. Ordinary bicast leather door. And I felt for the doorbell and rang.
‘Such a trill. Remember how you told me that your parents once had a Japanese doorbell that trilled like a nightingale? For a second there, I thought that nobody was inside, because nobody could possibly live in such a house, but then, I swear that I heard someone say: "Just a minute!" And somebody said: "I'm coming!"
‘And I felt calm. Like, when in childhood, it is stormy, and you run to your Mum and jump on her lap, and she pretends to be angry (just don't interrupt me Sashenka, I really don't have much time), but really she is happy, and she holds you close, and you feel safe and cosy against her breast and you listen to her heart beating.
‘And so did I. I heard a heart beating. A level, heavy, wet sound.
‘And then the door began to bulge, began to crackle as if something was forcing it from inside. And all the time I kept hearing: "Coming! I'm coming!" I backed away and went up a couple of steps. I was so scared, but still I HAD to see it, you understand? I thought the door would burst into pieces, but it just.. split open five ways like a starfish, and from inside, it was hard to see through the darkness, but that substance was as black as tar and thick, very thick. It discharged towards me, pooling quickly, and I ran up the stairs, but the stairs, Sasha, they ended in two flights and….’
‘Luba!’ Terehov wanted to say many things, but he couldn't get anything out. He thought that at that moment in time it was important, highly important, that Liubania could hear and listen to his breathing. But instead he physically felt how he was infecting her with his terror.
‘I fell in love with you, Sasha,’ she glutted
and coughed out something wet, ‘Not at first sight, of course,
and I understand that we have a relationship with no strings attached
and,’ she coughed again, ‘and without future, and I thought
I was waiting for, you know, waiting for something bigger, but then
I just realized that you are that “something bigger” and
I don't want anything from you, no money, no presents, just for you
to be next to me, but that would violate,’ she gasped and inhaled
with a nauseating, wheezing sound; her voice was very quiet now, being
overcome by a voracious, raging noise growing louder, ‘the rules
of, oh, Mummy! Of the g-game, there! But you have to know, you just
must know… and….
‘Something gobbled up my fear,’ she said,
more of that greedy squelching sound, ‘that's the end, surely,
the end.’ Evil, triumphant chomping filled the air, and through
that cacophony he thought he heard her elusive whisper:
The phone glutted viscously and the line went dead.
Terehov pressed the phone to his ear, hard, to feel the pain.
‘Hello. Hello!’ he kept saying, beginning at a whisper, then raising his voice to a shout. He knew there wouldn't be an answer, but he kept shouting anyways, trying to block out a memory of a wet chomping sound, which was working itself into Lubasha's monologue. And there was something else.
Not being able to resist, like a deer in headlights, he slowly turned, holding the dead phone to his ear.
Behind the glass, on the branch of the violently swaying tree, was a huge black rat, staring at him with its ferocious and empty red eyes. Thrashing madly in its teeth was a headless gutted fish.
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