Countdown

Tony Marra

Their UK visas were all of five hours old when Sonya’s husband, Alexei, looked up from the computer and announced they would never escape Russia.

“Come on,” she said. “Ticket prices can’t be that bad.”

By now, Sonya was inured to Alexei’s bouts of melodrama and declarations of doom. He was the sort of easily persuaded catastrophist who sourced his medical advice and political opinions from Reddit.

Sonya set her passport on the kitchen table. She’d been smelling the visa itself, which had the fresh, fibrous scent of a newly minted banknote. According to the lady at the British embassy, the paper was fitted with microchips for enhanced security. Paper that was part computer: what better gestured to the brave new world awaiting them in England?

“We’re not going to England,” Alexei repeated. “There are no fucking flights.”

“Language,” Sonya said, nodding to their six-year-old daughter, Masha.

“Since when has she ever listened to me?”

“Fucking, fucking fuck,” Masha said.

“See?” Sonya said. “She’s a sponge, Alexei. Yesterday in the car, she was giving other drivers the middle finger.”

Alexei refreshed the page again. “There are no flights.”

Sonya leaned over his shoulder, assuming, not without reason, that he had no idea what he was doing. The perpetually astonishing fact that her husband, a philology PhD who kept his log-ins and passwords taped to his computer monitor, had found work as a cybersecurity consultant spoke both to his natural charisma and to the wishful thinking of his superiors. Befuddled by entertainment systems with multiple remotes, powerless to disable Siri after weeks of effort, he had—while in the throes of postdoctoral desperation—applied for a job in IT at the headquarters of a grocery chain a few hours east of Moscow. “An arrest for buying cocaine on the dark web doesn’t qualify as IT expertise,” Sonya had told him. But she’d underestimated his talent for bullshit. Of course she had. She’d married him. No one at his office knew enough to know that Alexei knew nothing.

“Refresh it again,” Sonya said. Alexei did, but the website still showed no available departures. “Even flights to Pyongyang are fully booked. What the fuck?”

“Language,” Alexei said. “Maybe someone broke the internet.”

“You can’t break the internet. That’s a meme. It’s not something that happens.”

“Who’s the IT professional, me or you? In my professional opinion, someone broke the
internet.”

“The internet’s not broken,” Sonya repeated, though her husband wasn’t as idiotic as he sounded. Since the first days of the war, everything reliant on Western technology had begun breaking down. The shift was neither immediate nor dramatic, a gradual regression rather than a total collapse, as if Putin were less the president of a nation than the conductor of a time machine reversing into the past. Two years earlier, they could have relied on airfare aggregators to filter and sort flights based on departure and arrival times, layover durations, baggage allowances, legroom. Now that sanctions had severed the Russian banking system from the international economy, the only options were easily hacked .ru e-tailers that catapulted pop-up ads across your screen and planted malware in your hard drive.

“This is the best one I could find,” Alexei said, highlighting an itinerary that swelled to sixteen days, thirteen connections, and sixty-three thousand euros. “We should have left months ago.”

“We had to wait for our visas.”

“We could have waited for them in Georgia or Kazakhstan. Somewhere with airplanes.”

Sonya glanced to the kitchen table, where Masha was watching TV: the misadventures of a dim-witted cartoon bear and his gaggle of woodland pals.

“We agreed that we didn’t want to disrupt her schedule,” Sonya said.

“Masha is about to become a six-year-old exile, and you’re worried about disrupting her schedule?”

“It’s harder for some of us to simply pack up and leave,” Sonya said. She was referring, of course, to her mother, who’d been diagnosed with dementia the prior spring and wouldn’t understand—or if she did understand, wouldn’t remember—why her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter had to emigrate. She would assume they’d forgotten her, at least until she forgot them.

“I’m sorry,” Alexei said. “Let’s not fight. This whole year. Jesus.”

Sonya touched his arm, felt him recoil and then relax under the heat of her hand. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but do you think Galina could help us again?”

Alexei had said he would reach out to Galina a few months earlier, after the Kremlin had begun insisting it had no intention of ordering a general mobilization. Sonya thought he was joking because, come on, who was Alexei Kalugin—with his air of cheerful failure and his unaddressed eczema—to slide into Galina Ivanova’s DMs? Like most of their generation, Sonya could still quote lines from Deceit Web, a movie of unremitting stupidity and irresistible nostalgia. Following its release, Galina had enjoyed a couple years of cultural ubiquity before marrying an oligarch and fading from public view.

“I knew her in Kirovsk,” Alexei had explained.

“Bullshit.”

“It’s true. She dated Kolya in high school.”

Alexei rarely spoke of his older brother, who’d returned from the First Chechen War transformed. When the Russian army reinvaded in 1999, Alexei was eighteen years old, a chronic underachiever with no prospects, and no capacity to survive Putin’s murderous imperial project. That he evaded conscription was due entirely to Kolya, who reenlisted as a contract soldier and leveraged the hefty signing bonus to buy Alexei’s way into university, a guarantee of military deferment. All this history complicated Alexei’s natural inclination to avoid compulsory service in Ukraine, a war he found as politically senseless and morally repugnant as the one that claimed his brother’s life, deep in the Chechen highlands, on a summer day in 2000.

Sonya recalled Alexei taking a few belts of vodka after DMing Galina. An unpracticed drinker, he misjudged the effects of mixing alcohol with the prescription sleeping aid on which he depended for his eight hours, growing increasingly loopy and confessional.

“Who are you most afraid of turning into?” he asked.

“I don’t know. My mother?”

“Your mother’s sweet.”

“Only because of the dementia. She’s forgotten that she’s actually a monster.”

He rattled the pill bottle. “Why’d the doctor say not to take these with booze? It’s great. Hey, would you brush my teeth for me?”

“I’m changing my answer. The person I’m most afraid of turning into is you.”

“Come on. The bathroom’s so far.”

“Didn’t you accuse me of infantilizing you the other day?”

“Doesn’t sound like me.”

Sonya rested her head on his shoulder. “Oh no. That doesn’t sound like you at all. You know your six-year-old daughter can brush her own teeth?”

“She has to keep that filthy mouth of hers clean.”

“You’re the one teaching her curse words.”

“Not me. She’s self-taught. Like Van Gogh.”

“Our daughter, the Van Gogh of vulgarity. Terrific.” Sonya sighed. “What about you? Who are you afraid of turning into?”

“My brother.”

Sonya didn’t respond, turning her eyes to watch him.

“He was a murderer. He murdered people.”

“He was a soldier.”

“Semantics.”

“You’re a lot of things, Alexei, but you’re not a murderer.”

“Yeah? How do you know?”

“You’re a vegetarian.”

“So was Hitler.”

“But Hitler had ambition.”

“Kolya did, too. He had hopes—for after.”

“You know what else Kolya had?” she said, taking the pill bottle from his hand. “A good heart. And you have a good heart. At least you did, before you started playing pharmacist.”

To Sonya’s surprise, Galina not only responded to Alexei’s message the next morning, she offered to help. While her popular profile had evaporated in the two decades since her name last topped the marquee, her actual stature had materialized. She’d relocated to London with her husband, and their sixteen-room Knightsbridge residence had become an informal seat of Russian influence in the UK. Sponsoring visas for an old acquaintance and his family was so easy Galina didn’t even consider it a favor.

Alexei stood from the computer, opened his Instagram account—@AphorismsByAlexei—and tapped out a message to Galina. He was dressed in a rumpled linen shirt and faded jeans, his hairline receding, his temples graying, the fifteen kilos he’d vowed to shed for the duration of their marriage still anchored to his waistline. Prescription lenses magnified his eyes, emphasizing his expression of genial naivety.

Five days before, Sonya had returned home from dropping Masha at school when her phone dinged with the news of Putin’s partial mobilization order, mustering young men and ex-cons. Alexei was still asleep, his glasses on the nightstand. She didn’t wake him, as if she could stay the next chapter.

“Is Galina online?” she asked.

“I don’t know. She’s not responding.” Alexei grabbed his jacket. “How much cash do you have on you?”

“Check my purse. There should be a few thousand rubles. Why?”

“Maybe I’ll have better luck at the airport ticket counter.”

“Alexei. Don’t be an idiot.”

“I’m losing my mind here. I can’t just sit around refreshing Instagram all night.”

“What if the police pull you out of line? I read Moscow has stationed recruitment officers in the metro.”

“There won’t be police at the airport.”

“It’s an international fucking airport—”

“Language,” Masha chimed in.

“—of course there are police. I’ll go, OK? I’ll go.”

Alexei stuffed the cash from Sonya’s purse into his pocket. “What about Masha’s homework?” he said as he walked out the door. “We don’t want to disrupt her schedule.”

“Asshole.”

It felt wrong to think in such terms, but the war had likely saved their marriage. Or postponed its dissolution, at least. Masha’s birth had clarified certain matters for Sonya: namely, that she had two children, which wouldn’t have been an issue if she weren’t married to one of them. In the course of dead-end arguments, Alexei accused her of changing—I don’t even recognize you, you’ve changed, Sonya—as if maturation were a character flaw. Yes, in a normal world, she would have left him. Yet in this grotesque and precarious one, she was leaving Russia with him.

“OK,” Sonya told Masha. “That’s enough TV for today. Let’s do your homework.”

“It’s boring.”

“I know it is.”

“Then why do I have to do it?”

“Because enduring boredom with good cheer will serve you well for the rest of your life.”

And for the next twenty minutes, Masha plodded through a passage glorifying the genocidal exploits of Peter the Great. She’d always struggled with reading comprehension, even in her native language; God knew how she’d fare in British schools. Sonya was trying to coax an answer from her daughter about the vanquishing of the evil Swedes when she heard footsteps in the hallway. They stopped at the door. The intensity of her relief startled Sonya: Alexei had come home. She listened for the jangling of his keys. Instead, a knock.

Sonya crossed soundlessly to the door and peered through the peephole. If not for their uniforms, she would have assumed the two military recruitment officers for food deliverymen: one officer straining under the weight of four bags bulging with groceries, the other flipping through a folio stuffed with what she first took for receipts, until recognizing them for draft notices. The latter brought his fist to the door and pounded so forcefully the peephole’s metal collar bruised her eye socket. She stepped back and bumped the coatrack.

The pounding stopped.

“You can open the door, or we can break it down,” said the blue-eyed officer brandishing the draft notices. “Please choose how we come in.”

So chivalry isn’t dead, Sonya ghoulishly thought, as she opened the door. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

“She didn’t hear us, Boris,” the officer with the grocery bags deadpanned. “That’s the fourth flat in a row. Do you suppose this is a home for the hard of hearing?”

“There’s a plague of deafness going around, Sasha,” said the officer with the draft notices. “It’s a miracle we can still hear ourselves think. We’re here to serve . . . Alexei Kalugin. He about?”

Sonya shook her head.

“Imagine that,” said the officer with the grocery bags. “C’mon, Boris.”

The two men pushed past Sonya, trailing cigarette smoke, waffling the floorboards with grimy boot prints. Masha slipped behind her mother.

“Good evening, little person,” said the officer with the grocery bags. “Is your father home?”

Masha shook her head.

“Imagine that,” said the officer with the draft notices. “Like mother, like daughter.”

“We should check the kitchen, Boris. Just to be thorough.”

“Right you are, Sasha. It’s the burden of perfectionism.”

Sonya watched the two officers commit a home invasion of her refrigerator. While one rooted around the crisper drawer, the other enumerated the provisions pilfered from her neighbors.

“Lettuce, tomato, onions, mushrooms, hard-boiled eggs, black bread, smoked trout, ham, chicken breast, mayonnaise, mustard, butter, caviar—perhaps enough for a sandwich.”

“Nonsense. We haven’t any cheese.”

“There’s a jar of pickles in back. Pass it here.”

Mashing the fifth spear into his mouth, the officer called Sasha noticed a photograph stuck to the fridge door: Alexei on his thirty-eighth birthday. “Look here. I found him.”

“Poor fellow,” said the other, as he added a bottle of horseradish and a jar of chutney to their haul. “Don’t suppose he’ll live to see his next one, do you, Sasha?”

“Not in front of the missus, Boris. It’s unprofessional.”

“But she’s deaf, Sasha—remember? She can’t hear us at all.”

“Is that orange juice fortified with extra vitamin C?”

“You tell me—you’re the health nut.”

The officer called Sasha tipped the carton to his mouth, and Sonya watched the juice spill over his cheeks, staining his uniform and splashing across the floor.

“You know, Sasha, I’ve always had a kind of affection for Ukraine.”

“You have relatives there?”

“My father. He’s buried in Odessa. Killed himself on a family vacation.”

“How awful.”

“Oh, it was. His wife found him hanging in the closet of their hotel, then found out about my mother at the funeral. I’m not sure which upset her more.”

“At least he killed himself with his other family, Boris. At least you have that.”

“It is a consolation, though hardly the sort of thing printed on a sympathy card.”

“Perhaps there’s a market. These days, the most calamitous stories are often the most common.”

“Hard man, my father. Survived three years in Afghanistan and eight years in a Siberian prison, but no more than a few days on the Black Sea with his other family before deciding to end it all. And if that’s what Ukraine did to him, just imagine what it’ll do to a fat, middle-aged IT worker with ten days’ training.”

“So why the affection for such a place?”

“Because my father was a motherfucking prick.”

“Language, Boris. The young are so impressionable.”

“OK, Sasha, OK. Let’s see if”—the officer flipped through the draft notices—“Dmitry Morozov next door has any brie.”

“Why did they come here?” Masha asked once the recruitment officers had gone.

“They were hungry,” Sonya said.

“But why did they want Dad?”

“Your father makes the best sandwiches. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”

Masha nodded.

How much did she understand? Sonya and Alexei had tried to shelter their daughter from the turmoil. The move to England wasn’t a harrowing escape, but rather a thrilling vacation. Masha was too young, and Sonya wouldn’t burden her with the truth of a world she would learn about soon enough. And yet protecting Masha meant replicating the Kremlin’s distortions, denials, and silences within their home. Lying to her became inseparable from loving her: how else could they keep her safe?

“Shall we call your father and see where he is?” Sonya suggested.

Alexei’s line went directly to voicemail.

“Where is he?” Masha asked.

“On his way home.” Sonya tried to smile. “C’mon. Let’s read a book while we wait.”

“OK. Curious George.

Alexei had purchased Curious George as part of a campaign to improve Masha’s English, and for the prior few weeks, Masha asked Sonya to read it to her every night. There were only so many times Sonya could recite the misadventures of an inquisitive primate before hoping the poachers would show up. But now, as Masha curled beside her, she wondered if her daughter wished to return to this story precisely because she already knew it by heart. In a reality where recruitment officers could barge into your flat, demand your father, and steal your pickles, what was better than a fantasy swept clean of uncertainty or suspense?

Footsteps boomed down the hallway.

Masha’s grip tightened on Sonya’s wrist.

How many fathers had been marched out into the dull daylight by uniformed men? How many mothers had sat in darkness in this very flat, silently praying the footsteps wouldn’t stop at her door?

The footsteps stopped at her door.

Then, thank God, the jangle of keys, the lock snapping open, and as Alexei appeared, bearing more disappointment—sanctions prevented Galina from wiring money into Russia, and every international flight was sold out anyway—Sonya and Masha embraced him as if he’d delivered the best possible news.

It was two in the morning when they finally finished packing the car with one suitcase, four cardboard boxes, and eight trash bags. Their most valuable possessions—the family photos—lived on their phones and in the cloud. Alexei hauled the television down the apartment stairs, only to find a dozen of Masha’s stuffed animals occupying the last of the back-seat real estate.

“Are you really sure you need to bring all of them?” he asked.

“I’m really sure,” Masha said.

“It’s just that this is beginning to look like Noah’s Lada.”

“We can’t leave anyone behind.”

“What the hell,” he said, setting the television on the sidewalk. “We watch too much TV anyway.”

He wrapped an arm around Sonya’s shoulder, and when she didn’t shrug it off, Alexei chose to interpret this as the most positive omen. Perhaps a new age of peace and harmony was dawning. A new city, a new country, a new life.

They climbed into the car, Masha in back with her menagerie, Sonya riding shotgun, trash bags of clothes obscuring the rear window. It was a twenty-seven-hour drive to the Georgian border, and Alexei couldn’t remember when he’d last changed the Lada’s oil. Crossing into the Baltic States or Finland would save hours, but on Telegram, Alexei had found conflicting reports on European port-of-entry closures. Were he an actual cybersecurity expert, he might have known if any were from credible sources.

“You ready?”

“No,” Sonya said. “Not remotely.”

“Me neither.”

He put the car into gear.

They stopped for gasoline in Tula, bathrooms in Voronezh. Everywhere, Alexei saw men in need of a shave, a shower, a nap. Men much like himself, driving to the border, alone or with their families, their earthly goods jammed in the trunk, tied to the roof, left by the side of the road. Swiping at their phones at the gas pumps, spreading news of traffic, apprehensions, closed crossings, each one bleary-eyed, exhausted, kept alert by cigarettes and energy drinks and adrenalized panic. The simplest questions of basic time and space—where will I be tomorrow?—became existential mysteries. The known world receded, and no matter what Yandex Maps suggested to the contrary, it was all uncharted wilderness.

Sonya yawned and rubbed her eyes. “How long was I out?”

“A couple hours.”

“You want me to take over?”

“I’ve got it,” Alexei said. And he did. The difficult conversations he and Sonya would have down the line, none of that mattered. What mattered was shrinking the distance to their
deliverance.

“How long has the motor been making that noise?”

He’d hoped she wouldn’t notice the clang coming from the . . . well, whatever those parts were called.

“A couple hundred kilometers.”

“When’d you last have it serviced?”

“I’ve never had it serviced.”

“Alexei.”

“If I’d thought we’d be driving this shit-box across half of Eurasia, I’d have brought it in for a tune-up first.”

“Those gun-nut survivalists in America convinced the world is about to end—what do they call them?”

“Republicans,” Alexei said.

“No, the ones who can build an internal combustion engine out of the odds and ends they hoard in their bunkers.”

“Oh, preppers.”

“That’s right—preppers. I used to think they were crazy,” she said. “Maybe they’re just early.”

“They’re definitely crazy.”

“Perhaps, but while we still have a signal, I might search the internet for one of their diatribes on fashioning a fan belt from a pair of stockings.”

“You know what the real culprit is?” Alexei said. “DIY. You start baking your own bread, and you end up living in a basement with a few thousand rounds of ammunition and a filtration system for drinking your own urine.”

“Is this how you justify abstaining from your share of the cooking?”

“All I’m saying is that I’ve never seen a person who makes their own clothes and thought, Now here’s someone in full control of their faculties.”

“What are we even talking about?”

“The end of the world,” Alexei said, as rain detonated against the windshield. Several silent kilometers passed before he spoke again. “My brother and I used to pretend that the world was ending. We were preppers before the internet made it fashionable.”

“What, you collected canned food?”

“We built a spaceship.”

“Excuse me?” Sonya stared at him with genuine curiosity, trying to recall the last time he’d surprised her in a good way. “How have you never told me this?”

“It was just a bunch of junk we cobbled together and wrapped in tinfoil.”

“A DIY spaceship. And here you are sneering at people who make their own clothes.”

“We’d pretend that the Americans had launched a nuclear attack, and we had to blast off before the bombs landed.”

“The two of you floating around in space, huh?”

“No, just one of us. There was only one seat in the capsule. So one of us would escape, and the other, well, you know. I remember the countdown. Those last moments together.”

“You never talk about your brother.”

“What’s there to say? I hate him for what he did because he loved me.”

“Look,” Sonya said, nodding to the rearview mirror. “She’s finally asleep.”

Alexei listened to their daughter snore in the back seat while the wipers sloshed rain across the windshield, and hoped the clanging engine wouldn’t wake her.

“We’re here,” Alexei said.

Sonya stirred and looked at her phone. “The map says we’re still thirty kilometers from the border. There must be an accident.”

Alexei opened the door and peered ahead. The highway was bricked over in taillights to the horizon. “I don’t think there’s an accident. I think this is the line to leave.”

Hours passed. Alexei measured distance not in kilometers but in car lengths. Sonya asked again if she might take over.

“I’m good,” he said.

“You haven’t slept in two nights.”

“I’ll rest once we get through,” he said. He unzipped his cassette case, popped a mixtape into the tape player, tapped his thumb on the steering wheel to the beat.

Finally, the border came into view: a line of security fencing, sheet metal, stripped paint. Signage with clear instructions belied the general disorder. He counted the cars ahead: twenty-eight, then twenty-seven, then twenty-six.

“We’re nearly there,” he said.

“Who are they?” Sonya asked.

A half-dozen uniformed officers had pulled the driver, a young man, from the next car in line. After glancing at his passport, they hauled him to a bus idling on the other side of the road. A bus with bars over shatterproof windows, pointing opposite the fleeing traffic.

“Turn around,” Sonya said.

“We’re so close.” Twenty cars. Nineteen. Eighteen.

“Turn around, Alexei. We’ll find a different way. We’ll cross into Kazakhstan.”

“Not in this car. It’s got nothing left.”

“Then we’ll go back home. Masha’s only missed two days of school. We’ll go back to the way we were. Just turn around.”

The alarm in her eyes made him feel bewilderingly, unjustifiably loved.

“You have Galina’s address,” he said. “She’ll ensure you have everything you need in London.”

“Turn back, Alexei. Please.”

Seventeen. Sixteen. Fifteen.

An officer tapped on Alexei’s window.

“You’re right, Sonya. You should take over driving for a while.”

Make something of yourself. These were the last words his brother had spoken to him, at a bus depot in Kirovsk, before beginning the journey that would end ten months later in a mined pasture south of the Terek River. And they were the words by which Alexei had—in the twenty-four years since—measured his failures.

Now, as the officers wrenched him from the driver’s seat, he gazed back at the distraught family he’d delivered to the border—a thirty-three-hour slog without pause except for gas and bathroom breaks, and he’d driven every kilometer. That was something, surely, but was it enough?

The wind was kicking Sonya’s hair all over as she stood in the road, her fists balled, her eyes radiating desperation. Don’t turn back, he thought. Please.

The driver behind the Lada laid on his horn, and Alexei watched, heartbroken, as his wife froze, flustered and uncertain, with this asshole’s impatient clamor blaring in her ears.

Then the Lada’s back door flung open, and Masha stepped out, flipping off the driver and uncorking a torrent of the most magnificent profanities. Oh, my little vulgarian, you make your father so proud.

By the time Sonya managed to corral her, there were only four cars ahead.

Alexei stared through the window of the army bus.

Three cars.

I love you.

Two.

Just go.

One.


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