All That’s Lit To Print


By Brandon Cook

Yury Sakhilov knows the tickle on his heels can only be bedbugs, but he doesn't kick the covers to the floor or grab the disinfectant. The bedbugs skim the explosion of covers bunched at his feet–he counts two wading through his leg hair and another crawling across his nipple. He slaps the insect, creating a little meteor of blood, and regrets it immediately.

"Little friend," he tells the squashed pieces, "it's Vadim's fault, you know. He puts all the sheets and pillowcases right back into those rotten wooden shelves. Little friend, you could have just stayed in the shelves, but you had to go looking for blood..."

When he finishes, he wipes blood and pulverized shell onto the pillowcase and takes a long drink of water from the bottle in his chest of drawers. Even after three months in the city, his possessions are spartan. One pair of worn jeans, three long-sleeved t-shirts, his boots, his anorak, two Russian books. There would've also been the shell if he hadn't given it to Vadim.

It belonged to a T-80B, one of the tanks the Chechnyan separatists had taken down at Grozny. Yury, who knew nothing about artillery, less about separatists, who would have liked to study architecture at university if they'd had the money or the connections, still saw a slightly-singed flowerpot, but of course he'd never make such an observation to Vadim.

He takes his straight razor to the communal bathroom and slides the blade over his dark beard. Dear God, he thinks, but his thoughts are too messy for prayer and the rest of it drops away like hairy clods of foam.

The blade scratches tawny fibers. It isn't the first time in his life Yury curses the swarthy, hirsute face, aquiline nose, and puckering Mongol eyes. It didn't matter back home in Krasno'granovsk where everyone had Turk or Tartar in their blood, but in Saint Petersburg his foreignness is a missing arm.

There were stares, but he got used to them quickly enough. What he hadn't gotten used to was being stopped by the police so that they could check his passport, the contents of his bag, even his phone. Not just the police. Cashiers, barmen, the babushkas selling icons next to the cathedral, station attendants. He created minor sensations. Body pat-downs had gotten so bad he hardly ever used the metro anymore. Even worse were the taxi drivers with their broad, bulging faces that reflected generations of distrust.

His Russian is better than the drivers, although his is a second language. Before his move, he'd reread the requisite Petersburg authors. He'd walked and re-walked the canals, knew all the major landmarks, and listened to the tour guides outside talk about Bolsheviks and the February Revolution. He became more a Peterbourgeois than the Peterbourgeoisie.

He shaves as closely as he dares and tosses the blade away. With his cap pulled down and his anorak zipped up, he ought to avoid suspicion. It won't really matter anyway–at least not until he has the bag. "Foot of the escalator, next to the statue of Peter I," Vadim had instructed. "Say 'thank you' to Timur so he knows you've got it, and go to the red line from Vosstaniya to Dostoyevsky. Cut the fuse behind the pillar, and put it on the front tracks. You'll have about two minutes after that. Wait for a crowd. You'll hear the explosion. Be surprised, but walk away. Go to Coffee House, order an Americano, and text me a picture so I know it's done."

"You sure it won't kill anyone?"

"Not if you put them in the right place. Three bombs will make a lot of noise but they won't kill. We want to scare them–nothing more than that. No dead bodies."

"No dead bodies."

Yury zips up the anorak. He tramps down the corrugated iron stairs and opens the door into a cloudy, partially-thawed April day. He toes cigarette butts into a patch of snow and suddenly finds the rest of the prayer: Dear God, let there be no dead bodies.

The sewage-brown, curdling clouds of the April sky are the same as when his train pulled in three months ago. The third-class creeper car was woefully cold and he had a splitting backache from seventeen hours on a bench padded with a mattress with its stuffing ripped out.

PARTY BUS HOSTEL was behind the main street, shuffled between a clutter of run-down Turkish groceries and karaoke clubs. Inside, the reception was bare save for a few miscellaneous flags, a tired receptionist and the smell of vodka. What a dump, he thought, recalling Vadim's description when he offered the job: "Like a ski lodge, right in the center of the action." Whatever Vadim had been doing in the six years since the brothers had last seen each other, if this was his idea of a ski lodge, he hadn't spent much time in one.

Yury dumped the suitcase in his tiny room and pulled on all the layers he could. He had a text from Vadim: Out of town. Talk to Timur about the job. Happy you're here.

Timur, dark-haired and dark-eyed like Yury, worked the night shift while his brother Aziz, the one who'd checked Yury in, worked day. He talked with a whisper and had the same narrow-lidded gaze as his brother. He evinced no emotion when Yury said they were cousins and spoke in nothing but clipped sentences and single words. "Serve breakfast here. This is the milk. Cereal. This is the cleaning machine."

"Stirilna'ya mashinka," Yury corrected. "Washing machine."

They came to his room. There was only the small cabinet and his bed. Timur picked Yury's suitcase up off the sheets and dropped it on the floor like a dead cat. "Keep clean. Vadim thinks it is very important."

Yury said nothing. He did not want to spend any more time with his cousin. He only wanted to know when he would see his brother. If it was the job of the family to create warriors to defend the state, as Vadim alleged, then he'd been an acting general since thirteen and Yury was his infantryman. Those Vadim beat up called him an idiot and a shit-stain but it didn't matter. The only voice he obeyed was his own, and that voice taught him to seek soldiers–not friends.

By sixteen he and a dozen other boys could be found by the river bear-crawling among the bracken, four-foot pieces of plumber's pipe instead of rifles braced between their shoulder-blades. Their necks and knees would be so sore after a drill they'd spend days hunched forward like praying mantises.

Come winter the ground became stiff as iron and the river inundated with icebergs. Even when bundled in two pairs of padded khakis, Yury's knees got so raw scraping through the field the blisters on his knees opened up like two bloodshot eyes. One day he declared he'd had enough of these senseless exercises. He stood up and threw down his pipe and stared Vadim boldly in the face. Vadim picked up the pipe and tossed it into the river. "Get your weapon."

Yury didn't move. Vadim repeated the command. His voice didn't modulate, but somehow the words changed. They slid over from a command to a threat without Vadim even being aware that he was no longer speaking as one brother to another.

The pipe-gun was a few meters from the bank. The water that was soon flooding Yury's boots made them heavy as concrete; his toes wriggled and cried like beached minnows. As he waded deeper a dazzling, needling pain shot through his thighs, turning them to stone. His scrotum shriveled like a walnut. All his strength was gone by the time he reached his weapon. His stomach was churning with painful, sharp nausea, but he managed to tug twice on the slippery metal. The other soldiers watched him with hollow, petrified faces as he waded back through the water. Yury dropped the pipe and squatted like a dog taking a shit. Vadim's handsome face shone with approval. He tossed his golden hair, took off his coat, and wrapped it around his brother's legs. Yury curled up into a ball and hugged his legs and vomited.

He was sick for two weeks. Some time after that, he and Vadim trekked to the riverside firepit to grill shashlik and Vadim presented him with the Chechnya shell.

Ever since Vadim had decided to make revolutionary his occupation, he'd absorbed all he felt like knowing about the rebellions of the Russians and Bolsheviks, the French, Irish, and Americans. He devoured enormous amounts of data and began constructing ideas. He understood what he would of immigration but would not budge from his opinion that Russians belonged in Russia, Uzbeks in Uzbekistan, Ukrainians in Ukraine, and Turks in the ground. He layered his political opinions over his secondhand Marxism: workers were the victims of big empires.

By the time he was in his early twenties, he'd replaced 'big empires' with the word 'government.' The detractors he'd bullied in middle school asked him what kind of government he believed in. "A government where people are free. Where neighbors support neighbors, a leader's job is to show the citizen how best to fulfill his purpose, and no one is greedy because everyone lives according to his means." When they realized Vadim believed in the honesty of his convictions, they mentioned Platonic ideals, Capitalism, Global

ism, and a few other things he'd never heard of. His answer was the same. "Look at Brutus and Caesar," he said seriously. "Look at the IRA. Look at the Bolsheviks. Look at the Viet Cong. Look at Chechnya. They're doing what the Americans did to England."

A few years later his vocabulary changed again. "Look at Al Quaeda. America can't do a fucking thing. That's revolution now."

"That's terrorism," said his detractors. "Extremism. Murder."

Vadim shrugged and went right on scooping his customer's Shawarma. School was expensive. More to the point, it was useless; he'd dropped out at seventeen to work fast food.

"Look at the results," he said.

His detractors said: "People living in fear." "Children blown to pieces. Disgust."

"They were blows to the imperialist powers," said Vadim. "Welcome blows. A few dead in exchange for thousands slaughtered, whether from starvation and taxes or from B-52 bombers and A-10s. You want fries in this? You do? With mayonnaise, too? Well you can go fuck yourself."

At 24, Vadim had had enough. He chucked his job, bought a ticket to Saint Petersburg and vanished. Yury was 16 and working construction to keep him and his mother afloat. She bewailed the loss of their primary breadwinner, all but formally disowning him. Yury felt the betrayal even more keenly than she but he remained quiet. Vadim was a general and a general needed an army. If Yury had been a better soldier...

They hadn't been abandoned. Eight months later, Vadim's checks started to arrive.

The PARTY BUS turned the heater off from midnight until three to keep costs down. The clientele consisted of several drunks and a Slovenian couple that spoke no Russian; as such, there were no complaints. Off the road there was a pile of frozen cribbing boards that could be doused with petrol and burnt for tinder in the fire pit. It had become a tradition of Aziz and Timur's to gather around the pit during the cold hours, smoke half a pack, and drain no less than a crate of Baltika. It was around the pungent wood and cigarette smoke that Yury laid eyes on the brother he hadn't seen in six years.

"You've just gotten here?" he said, transporting the stick of his cigarette to the other side of his mouth.

"A few days ago," Yury said.

Vadim chucked the cigarette as he always had, a quarter unsmoked, and immediately lit another.

"Well get over here. "

Yury didn't know how to react to this man who could be angel and demon, brother, general, hero, and shit-stain all at once. Three days ago, there had been nothing Yury would have liked more than to embrace the man he'd have once gone into battle with, but this scene confused him. They embraced, awkward and quiet, parted quickly and proceeded to treat each other slightly better than strangers. Yury bummed a cigarette he didn't want. Too self-conscious with Aziz and Timur standing there to ask any of his questions, he had to wait until two in the morning when Vadim was liquored up before getting in anything aside from formalities.

"Six years in this place already," he said without knowing whether he meant it as something good or bad.

"It's not all bad. Lots of parks. Shawarma's cheap. You say hello to Abdullah?" He waved at the large greasy fellow holding his shovel poised over the glowing fries. "Gives us free Baltika after midnight. Distant family of Aziz and Timur. Seen the Winter Palace?"

"Sure. It's really something."

"Piece of shit is what it is. Don't know why Lenin didn't burn it down. They got all the cathedrals but missed the biggest target of them all. Least they shot the bastards."

"It's still really beautiful from the outside."

"Got the Italians to thank for that. Best things in this place are imported, you know. There's not a thing here that's Russian. Seen the Spass na krovye? No? You've saved yourself a trip. Just a hundred years old, but they want you to think it's five times that. Alexander knew what tourists were before they'd ever even come to the city. Dressed the whole thing up to make it look medieval but there's nothing inside. Just an act, Yurochka." He dropped into their native dialect and Yury didn't notice. "An act," he repeated. "Like War and Peace. All those rich good-for-nothings throwing their stupid parties while the real people–soldiers, philosophers, poets–they're the ones eating lead at Borodino. Fighting the imperial locusts when Moscow's in embers. Dying," he blew smoke, "for more fucking fancy dinner parties. French fashions. Parlor chit-chat. You see it in the streets here with all these fucking iPhones. Aside from that, Yurochka, nothing's changed."

Yury didn't let his brother know how the nickname irked him. Nor did he say he'd never read War and Peace. "You'd burn it all down again?" he said for a joke.

Vadim shrugged. "If I thought it would make a difference. But then we'd lose Red Square. The cathedral. Lenin's tomb."

They laughed. Vadim ordered them free Baltika from Abdullah. "He works shifts at metro security, too," Vadim said when he sat back down. "Couldn't find a guy that works harder. Those are the ones we ought to be keeping. Not these Petersburg bitches that'll never do anyone any good except their husbands when they divorce 'em. Not their fucking gop'niki. Won't worka day in their lives and think they're fucking KGB."

Vadim was drunk and Yury got his only boots wet stumbling home with his brother's muscular arm slung chummily around his neck.

The metro queues are long. Yury experiences a brief flash of panic–Abdullah already made the transfer. Christ, he thinks, but if I get down there and there's no one? Or if he's in the arms of two strong-armed metro patrolmen checking stranger's passports for a shifty youth that's been ratted on? What the hell am I doing here?

Yury catches the eye of the security guard running metal detector inspections. This man turns slowly to him, regarding him with intense, dark eyes; he nods. The nameplate on his uniform reads IVAN VLADIMIROVICH, same as his counterfeit passport.

The nod is all the encouragement Yury needs. He swipes his 50-piece metro card over the faded green bars of the turnstile.

Yury would never have thought the PARTY BUS could keep running for so long. At the end of February, the Slovenians went off to Moscow. Shortly after the drunks disappeared–for the first ten days of March–there wasn't a single guest in the place. Vadim wasn't worried. He'd weathered slow winters before. But ten days alone with Vadim and a pair of cousins he didn't much like was too much for Yury. He determined to spend the time getting better acquainted with the city, but after two weeks of stares and 'random' inspections, he settled on drinking cups of hot water and flipping through old magazines at Kafe Noche.

Mid-March the PARTY BUS got its first guest in over two weeks. He was a student at the Technology Institute and one of those who registers for two weeks, finds he can't afford his room, and ends up staying half a year. He had a free and easy-going nature and rarely discussed politics, which was a relief after Vadim's spirited tirades. Although they were both equally broke, he often treated Yury to his invariable dinner of fried dumplings and mayonnaise. His name was Oleg.

When the weather,d cleared at the end of the month, they'd gone to Fontanka Street to drink on the docks, walking mostly in silence except for a few quips Oleg made about unbearable Petersburg winters when they passed the Dostoyevsky flat.

"If I get nothing else out of this city, at least now I know how he could have done it."

"Done what?"

"Forgiven a murderer."

This irked Yury but he couldn't articulate why until they'd come a little farther. Fontanka Canal shot out in front of them soon enough.

"But Raskolnikov gets shipped off to Siberia. We understand his guilt but it's the law that wins. Dostoyevsky defends justice, morality–not criminals."

"Every man is guilty until proven innocent," Oleg said. "I think he considered criminals to be the same as everyone else, just a little unluckier. Right about the wrong things..."

The revelation was cut short, however, by the rattle of their two empty beer bottles when Oleg accidentally scraped them against the iron grating around the canal. Oleg thought for a moment, and then hurled one into the ice. It clattered but failed to break.

"You walked on it yet?"

"Sure," Yury lied, hoping Oleg wouldn't suggest they go out. But Oleg was already lowering himself down the other side of the rail. Without testing the ice, he put both feet down and started upstream.

Yury followed. These icy walkways had entranced him since he first arrived and he'd longed for the courage to go. It was true what Vadim said: people in the city spent too much time underground. And for all his horror of the ice shattering, of his being swept into the loathsome dark and spat out in the Gulf of Finland all crispy and blue, he found he liked it, being here between the ice and the black sky.

Yury goes down the escalator and skids his way past the people, down the tunnel towards another escalator. Standing next to the escalator is a large, stucco depiction of Peter the Great, his mustache aimed at the Dostoyevsky station platform, his saber daintily pointed towards a figure with a backpack playing a game on his phone.

Yury commands his body to relax, and–amazingly–it obeys. He can even manage a smile when Timur slips the backpack off his shoulder.

Yury knows now that he is supposed to confirm the contents–three pieces of eighteen-inch long iron water pipe crammed full of gunpowder and potassium chlorate, copper wire charges jerry-rigged to an old battery pack, connected by a larger coil of plastic wire to the face of Yury's old alarm clock. One sets the time, pinches the wire at the base of the plastic with pliers to release the power, and runs like hell. Yury had to repeat all the directions back to Vadim by heart.

Yury feels as if he's been standing in the same place for hours. He looks around, but there is no one save for the statue of Peter the Great.

"When you get down there and Timur gives you the bag, you're going to have second thoughts," the statue says in Vadim'voice. "The first thing to do is to know that you have already committed yourself too much to retreat. Second-guessing yourself will not buy you more options. Then, you must recognize that those thoughts of retreat are the last defenses of the coward inside you. He knows that his time is limited but he still thinks he can bargain for more. You must not let that happen, Yurochka."

He takes the stairs two at a time and arrives at Dostoyevsky platform. His hand roots through the opening in the top and finds the bird's nest of wire coiled neatly into the interior pocket. Then he counts the charges quickly: one, two, three. His hand burrows to the bottom of the bag, counting. Four, five, six, seven, eight–to the back of the bag–nine, settles on ten. Ten charges. Enough to take out an entire car and maybe cave in part of the tunnel. His hand worms around more, fingers clasping around a cylinder thicker than the rest, grooved on the surface, carved with a circular hollowing into which he buries his fist. It's the Chechnya shell. For a moment Yury genuinely thinks it must be an accident that a thing like that should end up in his bag of explosives. But reality screeches into his head like the cars screeching in from Sennya Square, robbing him of any relief he got thinking it all must be an accident.

Why should he bomb this train? He didn't hate the city like Vadim claimed he did. He didn't blame these people for the vodka and the shoddy bar of steel that came loose and killed their father. He didn't really believe the revolution his older brother proclaimed would change anything.

Yury walks the track parallel with the incoming trains. He'd closed the backpack and put it back on his back.

"An explosive is more than just a bomb," had been one of Vadim's many sudden aphorisms. "It's not even about the message. It's the currency. Remember Papa and Vlad and Uncle Vanya playing poker?"

"Sure," said Yury.

Vadim told the story anyway. "In walks Papa, drunk as a God, takes one look at the table and walks out. They'd run out of rubles so they were betting bread and cucumbers and shots of vodka and kopeck pieces. Papa wasn't having it. He comes back a minute later and he's got Grandpapa's old knife with him. Spreads his hand on the table like a starfish and doesn't even take aim, just nails the thing to the table right between his second and third fingers although he took a chunk out of one of them–I saw him mopping it later. You remember what he said after that, Yurochka?" Vadim quoted with a significant look at his brother: " 'I don't play for kopecks.' "

He imagines Vadim saying that to him now, only now Yury isn't thinking about how that story probably came from an old Soviet war movie. He's remembering those words and Vadim's look. It wasn't the look of one brother to another. It was the look you gave the landlord who cheated you, to the drunk who sloshed over your coat and didn't apologize. A concealed threat–the same thing he'd gotten from Timur. "Don't pull anything past me," it said, "call yourself my brother if you want; we're eight year strangers with different mothers and six years without speaking, and if I see you again with that fruitcake university student I'll dump you out in the frozen shit."

The crowd from the departing Sennaya train is moving towards Yury's tracks. He winds the clock, slips the backpack off his shoulders and carries it on his chest to the Dostoyevsky statue. The smell of the gunpowder seeping through the mesh makes him want to sneeze.

He slides through the vague crowd of mute bodies to the far side of the track, invisible. He wiggles out of the shoulder straps and takes a quick look before slipping the bomb onto the gravel between the tracks. He retreats behind the bystanders and waits by a pillar for the next crowd to come out, and realizes he hates his brother. Some of it is hatred for himself and the sick thrill he'd experienced discovering those treacherous pipes; some is directed at his vague conceptions of the city, the PARTY BUS, and Peter the Great. But most of it is aimed at the fear he'd been mistaking for love since his childhood. A brother did not crawl through frozen mud or swim a freezing river for love.

The car is already slowing down. The signs on the indoor walls cease to blur. He sees an advertisement for an omedy he will never watch. In the jumble of bodies that ensues when the doors open, someone looks quickly away from the book of Anna Akhmatova poems he'd been reading and Yury thinks he should be hallucinating. Realization that the figure could only have been Oleg occurs at the same time he realizes he failed to pinch the wire. He laughs the first real laugh he'd had in months imagining ten charges with the power to blow up Stroganoff Palace sitting harmlessly between the tracks like a pile of dog shit. He thinks about the inglorious end of the Chechnya shell.

© 2017, All That's Lit To Print