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Ticket to ride

The Third Component: Part I, Chapter 12

Alison Christy 11 January 2009

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

Anna stands alone, lost, with her own horror and helplessness and battling a strange feeling of detachment, like even now she is just a tourist

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 12

Detection of Radiative Shocks Following a Catastrophic “Core-collapse” Supernova

At some point Anna looks down at her watch and is astonished at how quickly time has passed. It’s almost six; her train is leaving at 9:30 PM and she had promised to meet Frank at six back at Pushkin Square so he could take her to the train station and help her get her ticket. She and Sasha had spent the afternoon in Gorky Park, an amusement park downtown where they rode the Ferris wheel and sang the Scorpions’ Winds of Change together at the top.

She found herself telling him everything: about John, about her family, even about her grandmother and her trip to Krolosk.

“You are going to Siberia,” he said, his eyebrows straight and serious. “This is very, very brave.” When he said it, she believed it: she was brave, an intrepid adventurer traveling across the world on a quest to find a long-lost relative.

He taught her Russian words while they walked around the amusement park, arm in arm: babushka, grandmother; ya khotchu, I want; mnye nuzhna, I need. He explained that he practiced his English every night, with audio tapes, trying to completely rid himself of his accent. She told him she found his accent charming; she even said that she thought it was sexy.

This wasn’t the kind of thing she usually said. This wasn’t the kind of date she usually went on, if it was a date.

She has a song stuck in her head, one that Frank sang, and the tune is light and jubilant even if the words are not:

It was 1991,
And the cops just stood around
When we grabbed the ropes and riggings
And we brought Dzerzhinsky down
You were standing in the square then
On what once was holy ground
And you jumped up on the pedestal
And flapped your arms and fell down to the ground.

At last there are no whispers,
Now all things can be said;
You say you have to feed the kids
And I'll get back to bed.
We have freedom of speech,
Though we fight for our bread;
But we were so important
When the state wanted all of us dead.

When Iron Felix watched us,
We learned our poems like prayers.
Now we can't recall a word,
Now they're written down somewhere,
and I think I saw your book was out
But no one really cares;
I'm watching on the TV
Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Is this a date? There was that moment, when she was on top of the Ferris wheel with Sasha, and they were looking out over Moscow and they were silent for a moment, and he took her hand in his, and stroked it gently, along the ridges and valleys of the knuckles and, turning it over, running his fingers down the prophetic lines of her palm, and it was clear that something could, possibly, happen. And what she did was take her hand away, awkwardly, and ask him if he knew the song and they started singing it together: I follow the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the wind of change…

“I can’t believe you know that song,” he said.

“I’m thirty years old,” she said, “for crying out loud.” She told him she was already in college when the Soviet Union dissolved; she had a full childhood of fearing nuclear annihilation and thinking that commie was the worst possible playground insult.

Sasha said that he couldn’t believe she was thirty, that being a student had kept her young, and she laughed girlishly that said she wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, because it’s only good that she doesn’t look thirty if it’s bad to actually be thirty, and there was no way she could change that.

Everything was light, and flirtatious, and her heart beat a little too fast, and she kept laughing. But she’s leaving, of course; she’s leaving that very evening. None of this is going anywhere.

When she sees that it’s almost six, Sasha hails a gypsy cab to take them back to Pushkin Square. He holds the car door open for her and takes her hand to support her while she climbs inside.

Traffic is wrapped around the square; their car can’t get through, so they get out and walk quickly down the sidewalk, walking faster when they see what is happening ahead. The air is full of smoke, which they can see now is flooding from the entrance to the Metro, and there are crowds of people everywhere: holding each other, or wailing, with a soot-blackened, bloody face, or lying on the sidewalk and screaming while paramedics try to bandage a fire-blackened arm. It is horrible. It is like being transported suddenly into the television during news coverage of some distant war.

Sasha has run away from her and is talking to a man with a thick black mustache who is gesturing wildly. Sasha is shaking his head in disbelief, a hand over his mouth. Anna stands alone, lost, with her own horror and helplessness and battling a strange feeling of detachment, like even now she is just a tourist, an observer to the blood and the misery around her. Suddenly someone grabs her from behind in an embrace that almost lifts her off her feet.

“Anna!” Frank says. “Are you okay?” His face and shirt are streaked with soot but he is fine; he tells her he was helping to carry people away from the subway, helping them find their own space on the sidewalk so they could be treated for injuries.

He tells her a bomb has gone off at the Pushkinskaya stop on the subway. At least six people are dead and he doesn’t know how many might have been injured. He was so afraid that she might have been on the train, wouldn’t know where the exits were, might still be stuck down there. And the news reports had said that one of the badly injured was an American.

“I’m fine,” Anna manages to say. Frank still has his arms around her; what a strange thing to be distracted by when there are people crying and moaning around them. “Is there something we can do?” she asks.

“We should probably just get out of here. In America this would have been cordoned off in seconds,” he says. “Here, anyone can just walk by and gawk. It’s disgusting. Sasha!” He lets go of Anna to shake Sasha’s hand.

Sasha shakes his head. “It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” he says. “Like last September. Already, they think they know who did it.”

“Chechens,” Frank says.

“It just makes things worse,” Sasha says. He takes Anna’s hand. “I had a lovely time today,” he says, kissing her knuckles. “Good luck in Siberia, I wish you all the best. Please stay safe.” He pats Frank on the shoulder and walks off.

Frank looks at Anna. “We went to Gorky Park,” Anna says. It sounds so stupid, so childish, when they are surrounded by all of this, and she immediately regrets saying it.

“Oh,” Frank says. “Did he tell you about his wife?”

His voice is surprisingly bitter, and Anna looks at him, startled.

“No,” she says. “It never came up, and anyway, he was just showing me around.” And again she wonders to herself why they are talking about that when there is actual human blood on the sidewalk.

“We should go,” she says, and she is the one who turns and starts walking away.

“Are you still planning to leave today?” Frank asks. He sounds surprised at her answer, and she is surprised at his surprise: how could she stay in Moscow, after this? How could she sleep here? How could she ever ride on the subway without waiting for an explosion to set the train car on fire? How could she walk down the streets knowing that at any minute the police could stop her and harass her until she paid them a bribe? Or that a man who is charming and chivalrous and kind might actually be a married philanderer?

She can’t wait to leave Moscow. She can’t wait to leave Russia.

{Continued next week}