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Deeper into the jungle

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 18

Alison Christy 22 February 2009

www.lablit.com/article/472

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

When he stops in the dark entryway of a dark brown building and reaches for her with his huge hands, she can only freeze in horror

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.

C hapter 18

Stabilization of Protein Folding Following Targeted Disruption of Chaperone Complexes

She is sobbing on a plastic chair by the wall in the Taiga train station, and there are worn, provincial Russian people sitting around her, doubtlessly staring, so she buries her face in the side of her bag to try to hide the fact that she is crying. It is a very bad idea to have a breakdown in a train station, but she is lost – lost – in central Siberia, and the worst part is that she knows who stole her money. She tries to tell herself that it might have been the young soldier, but she knows he was never alone with her bag; she knows that the only person who could have possibly taken it was the one person she trusted to be with her bag, for almost thirty minutes while she walked around the station at Novosibirsk: the sweet, friendly, pregnant Tanya.

But Tanya was so nice, she had given Anna bread and sausage, she had smiled at her and had her husband bring them both hot water for tea. And Anna had trusted her, trusted her so much that she didn’t even think of putting her money back in the waist band under her shirt, trusted her so much that she’d taken out some rubles to buy a few pirogi at the station and then had put her wallet back, casually into her bag, right in front of Tanya. Her credit cards are still there, her identification, her passport; only the money is gone, because clearly Tanya didn’t think that they were friends.

She doesn’t speak the language, she can’t ask a stranger for help, she can’t even use the phone – and even if she could, who would she call? Milda? Her mother? The American embassy? How would they find her, how would they get money to her? Would she have to spend days waiting on these plastic chairs in the Taiga station, waiting for someone from the embassy to come like a knight on a horse?

Odysseus never cried. Aeneas wouldn’t have broken down in a train station. They would have run back and killed the person who betrayed them; they would have left the train station and pursued the next adventure, sword drawn.

Each thought just makes her cry harder, wiping her face roughly against the harsh canvas of her duffel bag.

**********

“You don’t have to go,” her mother said. “Not for me.”

But she had mailed Anna a copy of Michael Perch’s article with the name highlighted: Laima Lapegale. What did she expect? How could anyone see the possibilities and not go?

If her sister Milda had been there, Anna thinks, if only Milda hadn’t gotten pregnant and decided not to go, if only Milda had been as passionate about this as she was. Anna wouldn’t have twisted her ankle, she wouldn’t have bribed a police officer, she wouldn’t have lost her wallet on the train. Everything would have been different and easier. Milda spoke Russian and would have arranged their hotels and restaurants, making the whole trip, for Anna, effortless.

But later, in Krolosk, Milda would keep talking. She was better at both Russian and Latvian, and she would tell their grandmother everything, and Laima Lapegale would like her better than Anna. Anna would never get to say what she wanted to say, and her grandmother would never get the chance to see the similarities between herself and Anna. Now, if she keeps going, her grandmother will be all hers.

**********

Anna sniffs and leans her head against her bag, trying to think of what to do next. She decides to look around: maybe she can find an ATM in the train station. Or at least she’ll find the bathroom. Clean up. Fix her hair. Make herself presentable. After all, she hasn’t showered in four days, and could be here a while. She could be stuck here forever, in a biome with a harsh climate and coniferous trees.

She gets up from her seat and throws her duffel over her shoulder, dragging her rolling suitcase behind her. She starts walking to one end of the hall.

There is a man standing by the wall, a huge man in a gray uniform. He is holding his hat in his hands and flipping it into the air, leaning his back against the wall, singing into his breath like he has a song stuck in his head, but she sees him glance at her as she walks by.

Anna smoothes her hair a little, pulls in her stomach and approaches him.

Izvenitye, she says: excuse me. Ya amerikanka. She emphasizes her accent more than she needs to; she smiles, looking up at him through her eyelashes. She shows him her little phrase book, touching him gently on the arm, and points to the phrase: automated teller machine.

He looks at the book and he grins boyishly. He is a big, heavy man, but up close she can see that he can’t be more than eighteen years old; his cheeks are baby pink and smooth. He says something that she can’t understand, and she says Ya ne gavaryoo pa-russki, I don’t speak Russian. She shrugs helplessly, blinks her eyes innocently, and smiles again.

The uniformed man looks around quickly – he is probably a security guard, she thinks, supposed to stay at his post – and then he motions for her to follow him. He takes her out of the station and down the street. Anna is no innocent, not anymore: she calculates what she will do if he grabs her; she prepares to attack the groin, the eyes and the nose. He is bigger than her but she could hurt him, she thinks, and she could run back to the station before he realized what hit him.

But when he stops in the dark entryway of a dark brown building and reaches for her with his huge hands, she can only freeze in horror. There is nothing she can do. She can’t even scream.

His hand brushes her shoulder as he reaches out to open the door: and there, on the opposite wall, is a blue-lit sign that reads Bancomat.

Spasiba, spasiba, Anna gasps, a fresh set of tears forming in her throat, and he says pazhalsta, and then something else that she doesn’t understand.

And then he says, in English, “Very pretty lady.” He grins at her, and bows, and walks away.

Back in the waiting room, ticket in hand, Anna closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. She can do this, she thinks. She can handle Russia all alone. She can handle anything. She doesn’t need chaperones or siblings or anyone to keep her safe.

And just as she is thinking this – because she is thinking this – she hears a shout that reverberates through the hall. A large man with a thick bushy beard and red chapped lips is yelling at another large man, and suddenly the men lunge at each other, falling to the floor in a convulsion of fists. Men move in from all around the room, jumping over the two fighting men, reaching to pull them apart.

The scuffle is quickly over. One man makes an obscene gesture to the other, and both men sit back down. The other men who have come to separate them also sit down, grumbling to each other. Their women look around and shake their heads.

Anna holds her bag close to her chest and tries not to breathe. It’s becoming clear to her now: by coming here, she has gone deeper into the jungle. Catastrophe hangs like a storm cloud on the horizon, bearing down on them all like a train, and as soon as she lets herself become complacent, right when she starts to forget that disasters happen – that’s when they will.

She takes a deep breath and holds her bag tighter. She doesn’t open the book by Michael Perch that is sitting on her lap, under the bag, but she runs her finger along its spine for luck.

{Continued next week}