Short story by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko
(Translation by Max Hrabrov)
– This is Alex, – said the one behind Anton’s left shoulder.
Alex was a seven foot tall, lanky guy in a faded yellow T-shirt with a “9″ on the front.
– And this is Ludowik.
Ludowik was sitting on a rock in the shadow of a crooked fence. His thin-framed glasses kept sliding down his nose and he would occasionally throw his head back to return them to their proper position. Anton could not stop looking at these glasses – it was like his eyes were glued to them. Ludowik chuckled and winked at him through his muddy specs, and that chuckle and that wink sent shivers down Anton’s spine.
– …And this is the ball.
The orange ball jumped up with a ring, and Anton caught it automatically. Felt the bumps on the rubber – a familiar feeling which immediately reminded him of something comfortable. Something from the good old days.
– Alex plays for Ludowik, and you will play for me, – the one who stood behind Anton finally came out into the light. Lifted his head and looked up at the sky, squinting:
– Man, it’s hot today… ok, let’s go.
They called him Mel, and he was kind of short – at least compared to Anton and Alex. He wore an orange T-shirt with a turquoise and yellow drawing on his chest: two pears and an unnaturally blue plum. His jeans were rolled up to his ankles, exposing huge white sneakers.
– This is our court. Like it?
The court was completely covered with snow. The snow, about finger-deep, was icy and hard, and that was annoying, because the sun, invisible, but not any less forgiving for it, burned from above. Yet the snow stayed.
– There, kids, – smiled Mel, and his smile somehow made Anton feel a little calmer. Warm up, take some shots, Ludowik and I will watch. Come on, Antosha, don’t be shy.
There is nothing stranger than playing basketball on packed snow. His sneakers would slip a bit here and there; gangling Alex allowed Anton to bounce the ball around, make a run or two, take a few free-throws – and then they stood in the middle, facing each other.
Alex tried to steal the ball, and succeeded almost immediately. And went for the ring – Anton couldn’t keep up with him; a shot – and the ball was beating in the net. Alex smiled nervously, then, for some reason, glanced back at Ludowik and Mel sitting there quietly in the shadows.
– Come on, let’s go again…
They circled around the court, quickly forgetting about the snow beneath their feet and the invisible sun overhead. Alex was most likely a pro; Anton was ready to stop the game, quit, give up.
At some point Alex’s face came really close, Anton smelled his sweat and heard a mumbled phrase:
– You are skimping… Play the game! Can’t you see he is watching? Work it, bitch! That made Anton angry. He opened Alex up with a fake, finally stole the ball, darted across the frozen field, his skills, his reflexes, his love of the Game returning to him with every bounce.
He even had a second to feel surprised.
Heavy breath behind him; Anton spun around, passed Alex and shot the ball – like dropping an apple into a basket. The orange sphere slid through the net as if covered with butter.
A few claps came from the direction of the spectators. Anton turned: Mel was applauding. Ludowik was grinning, his glasses glistening in the sun.
– Good, – said Alex. His hair stuck to his temples, frozen at the tips. – Let’s go again…
And they played again. Alex scored twice, Anton three times, once practically from mid-field. And every time Alex’s face came next to his, Anton heard a mumbled:
– Play… Don’t goof off…
Finally the ball bounced off Alex’s knee and rolled right towards the spectators. Ludowik stopped it with the tip of his shoe, looked at Mel, then back at Anton and Alex.
– Go ahead, guys, – said Mel. – Anton, meet your teammates.
Alex went ahead, Anton followed. They came round the wooden fence; Anton could barely resist looking back at Mel and Ludowik, still sitting there in the striped shadows of the loosely fitted fence boards.
Alex licked his lips.
– You… you are good. Just don’t goof off. There was this one guy before you… Bottom line – always go all the way. Got it?
– I was going all the way, – said Anton. – I just…
– No one cares, – said Alex. – Here, at least, you got lucky – so take advantage of it…. You pro?
– No, – said Anton. – Didn’t have enough time.
– Mel never picks non-pros, – said Alex. – Guess you are real hot stuff. Good for you… Just don’t sweat it and you’ll be fine. It really isn’t that bad, if you can get used to it.
Anton looked around. About thirty feet off to the side he saw two small groups of guys, of the type whose heads usually tower above the crowd. Four in yellow T’s and four in green. One of them, with a shaved head, held a green shirt in his hands.
– Hey, – said the shaved one. – This one’s yours.
– Anton, – said Anton, putting out his hand.
– Vova, – said the shaved one.
They all had sweaty palms. And strong, honest handshakes.
Alex nodded to his team, and they followed suit:
– Another Slavik…
They all stood there, fidgeting, watching as Anton took off his white tee and put on the green one, smelling of… what?
– So… we will be playing together, – said Vova, with noticeable awkwardness.
– Yep, – said Anton.
– Who did you play for?
– “Zenith”, youth team…
– What do you mean youth?
– Just that… Didn’t have time to go pro…
The guys in green looked at one another.
– He is very good, – said Alex. – Mel accepted him, remember?
– Right, – Vova agreed instantly. Anton sensed relief in his voice.
– Let’s go, – said Alex. – It’s time.
Anton felt like only a minute has passed since Ludowik said “Go ahead, guys”…
Ludowik and Mel were still sitting where they left them. In the shadows, under the fence.
– Ready? – Mel smiled. He had a kind, sincere smile; Anton immediately felt better, smiled back timidly:
– But we… what about practice? Combinations?
– We will be playing with players, not combinations, – said Mel seriously. – I will be helping you guys, Ludowik – them. No fouls, no rough play, listen to the whistle, you’ll figure out the rest, – and Mel nodded, indicating that the time for talk has passed.
– You play offense with me, – whispered Vova.
– But we haven’t practiced, – Anton offered gingerly.
– Just keep your eyes open. I’ll go forward and pull your defender, then overhead pass to you, and you dunk it…
Ludowik pursed his lips and whistled sharply. The ball shot up; Ludowik’s team rushed into offense, quick, tight. For a second Anton froze; Vova pushed him from behind, screamed something vulgar, and Anton “turned on”: saw the ball bouncing off the snow under the wide palm of the yellow number “5″, then saw Alex waiting for a pass, then saw the whole game – all the little wheels and gears, ready to click, connect, and – here we go – the whole mechanism of the opponent’s team comes into motion, and here is Alex going for the net, and Kostya and Igor defending it…
The shot failed. Kostya intercepted, passed to Igor, who passed to Arthur; Anton was being covered by a defender with a number “6″ on his chest, Anton couldn’t remember his name. He had to get rid of him as soon as possible; Vova was waiting for a pass, and Arthur passed him the ball, but Alex – it was Alex! – jumped up and intercepted, and sped towards the net, dancing, avoiding the defenders, then passed the ball to one of his teammates, got it back, jumped up again…
Out of the corner of his eye Anton saw Mel swing his arm. A round stone the size of a chicken egg hit Alex on the back of the head; the ball deflected off the rim. Alex fell, throwing his long ropy arms forward.
– Zero-zero, – said Mel calmly.
Anton was already next to Alex and saw his eyes roll back into focus. Anton offered his hand, but Alex stood up on his own, with an effort. Straightened up, tossed the stone off the court with the tip of his sneaker. Carefully touched the back of his head.
– Don’t just stand there! – he snapped at Anton. – Play!
Anton looked back at Mel in bewilderment.
– Play, Antosha, – said Mel softly. – No big deal.
Anton looked around, trying to find the eyes of his teammates. Some looked away. Some smirked.
The ball was back in the game. Almost immediately the opposite team executed a good combination, setting up one of the Slaviks for a shot, but he missed.
The game is the game; despite the shock and the ringing in the ears Anton was slowly regaining his feel for the court, the ball, the team. He began to understand Vova, mentally completing combinations in his head; he got into a struggle for the ball, won it and made a solid pass to Kostya, got a pass back and passed it off again, to Vova. Vova dashed forward once again, he finally managed to pull off Anton’s defender, Anton opened up, Vova passed, and for the first time since the beginning of the game Anton felt a real rush. He flew up for the dunk…
He had time to see the ball fall into the net. And right then, with a delay, he felt pain: from Anton’s shoulder protruded a small dart, like a sewing pin with a little silk wig on its head.
Fighting the darkness before his eyes, Anton pulled out the dart. There was little blood, and it clotted immediately.
Someone was applauding. The ball rolled off the court.
– Two-nothing, – said Mel, satisfied. – Splendid, Tosha.
Anton looked about in confusion.
– Play, – said Vova quickly.
Anton looked at Mel, not comprehending.
– Forget about that scratch, – said Mel. – You scored! We are up, two-zero. What do you say we extend the advantage?
The game began again, but Anton could no longer understand it. He was just a spectator. He saw the “yellows” scramble for the net, saw the “greens” defend feverishly, saw Vova scream at Igor. Saw Oleg rush forward, jump up for a 3-pointer but instead make a nice pass to Alex, who managed to shake his cover. Alex flew up above the net – and at that second a metal sphere, a ball bearing from some giant wheel, hit him in the temple.
The ball rolled around the rim, but didn’t make it in, and fell to the outside; someone – Ludowik! – cursed, disappointed.
– Still two-nothing, – announced Mel with satisfaction.
Alex rose from the icy snow. Looked about blindly. Glanced over Anton, but didn’t see him.
– Ball back in the game, – said Mel. – What’s wrong, Tosha?
Anton said nothing. He watched Alex stumble across the court – still blindly. As if darkness still clouded his sight.
– What’s wrong, Anton? The game is on…
– But I can’t, not like this, – said Anton.
Ludowik grinned. Jerked his head back, tossing his spectacles back into place. Shook his long, lacklustre hair.
Mel raised his eyebrows:
– No “buts”. Like your mommy told you when you were little, when you wouldn’t eat your cereal.
The word “mommy” was like the sound of metal scratching across the glass. Anton twitched; Mel was smiling meekly, looking into his eyes.
Then Anton wanted to hide – again. Hide from that look, from the word “mommy”, from everything. He picked up the ball; somewhere inside he heard a voice, reminding him that he could hide in the game. He suddenly yearned to put that orange ball into the net, yearned greatly, like one would sometimes yearn to scratch an itchy mosquito bite.
Onward. The ball pounding against the frozen snow. Vova caught on immediately – he is a great playmaker, Vova. A pass, another pass, a fake; a lunge, a spin, a jump…
Something hit Anton from behind. He stumbled and fell, stretched out on the snow; he couldn’t feel his body and couldn’t possibly see his back, but somehow he knew that right in the middle of it was the handle of a heavy throwing knife, that this was the end, that it’s not fair, that it’s low, and yet that the cruel game is finally over, at least…
– Four-nothing, – said a voice, far and above.
– It’s just the beginning, – replied another voice.
– It’s a good beginning…. See, Lu, I was right.
– Let’s keep going…
– Let’s keep going…
Anton closed his eyes, waiting for the annoying echoing in his ears to settle down. For a complete silence.
– Stop laying around! – he felt the tip of a shoe poke him gently in the ribs. – Get up…
And Anton felt the knife – woosh! – come out of his back.
– Come on, come on… Get up.
They grabbed him by the shirt and pulled up; he realized that he can once again move his arms and legs. He felt dull pain in his back, like after a good smack with the shaft of a shovel. He had that happen once, a long time ago, his neighbor got upset over a picked off cherry tree and…
He got up onto his hands and knees. Then squatted; Ludowik was standing next to him, wiping the knife on his pants, his eyes, scoffing, but not unkind, glistening from behind his muddy glasses:
– Mel made a good choice… You are persistent. Keep going?
– Now? – asked Anton quietly. And heard how pathetic the question came out.
– What do you think, let him rest? – Mel’s voice came from somewhere far off.
Anton forced himself up.
– All right, – sneered Ludowik. – Hit the showers, guys.
* * *
The walls of the shower room were covered with white tile. In a few places the tiles fell off, leaving dark squares of concrete; the ceiling was lined with heavy water drops and the shower – a plastic head mounted onto a tall metal pipe – was churning out a wide stream of really, really hot water. Anton tried turning the knobs, but in vain – the temperature could not be controlled.
The guys stood there with their heads up, their foreheads facing the burning water. The shirts were off now, and Anton couldn’t tell his team from the opponent’s, Mel’s players from Ludowik’s.
The shower room was big. There were enough showers for everyone. Accidentally – or not – Anton picked a stall right across from Alex’s.
Of all these guys Anton felt closest to Alex, an opponent. Perhaps because Alex was the first one he met?
– Just get right under it, – said Alex, watching as Anton tried to cool the hot water in his hands. – You’ll get used to it. It’s not boiling or anything.
– Really? – hesitated Anton.
– Listen to me, – said Alex. – Just get right under.
Anton listened. It was unbearable at first, but then – rather quickly – he indeed got used to it.
– So why are you here? – asked Alex, looking at the wet ceiling. His cheeks were way too pale for someone standing under a hot shower.
Anton decided to say nothing.
– I was in the army, – said Alex. – I got … by these bastards… Doesn’t matter. Basically, I was in the army. What about you?
– I was never in the army, – said Anton. – I was in college…
– A civilian? – exclaimed Alex. – Why then?
Anton pretended not to hear.
– I thought I’d like, get a break, or something, – said Alex pensively. – On account of those bastards. Turned out – nothing of the sort. Ludowik just needed a player. Would have gone in on standard charges otherwise…
– What does that mean – on standard charges? – asked Anton.
Alex shifted around under the hot water.
– Who knows. I think it’s worse than this, though… Much worse. That guy, who played with Mel before you – he is in on standard charges now.
– What did you call me a bitch for? – asked Anton.
Alex scowled at him:
– You don’t get it… If you kept playing like you played during those first ten minutes, you wouldn’t be here right now. You’d be somewhere very different.
The water gushed from the showers. The tiles glistened with a white radiance.
– What’s it to you? – asked Anton.
– People have to support one another…
The others were talking nearby. Their voices created a strange, bird-like echo in the steamy room.
– Yeah, – said Anton, just to break the silence.
– Figure this, – said Alex, rubbing his hands over his shoulders. – Even if one of those bastards was in here… I’d wish him well. Honest to God.
– What did he do? – asked Anton quietly. – The guy who played before me?
– He goofed off, – said Alex grudgingly. – Or maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was just the way he was. And he was a pro, too, international level… Mel said he didn’t love the game. That means something – to love the Game… Take you – you scored twice today. And I, I goofed, twice. A couple of more goofs – and off I go on standard charges…
– No, – said Anton quickly.
– No… Because next time I won’t goof.
– How can you love this game? – whispered Anton.
Alex smiled sadly:
– The Game – it’s just what it is… I’ve been in basketball since elementary school. Since first grade. Thought I’d be in it my whole life… But then came the army… I didn’t make it in the army team… They had this bastard of a coach. So they let me go… Also on “standard charges”, – Alex sighed. – So that’s that… You… You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to – I am not prying or anything. Just making conversation, that’s all…
Anton bent backwards, trying to reach the middle of his back, the place where the knife was; there was nothing there. The skin felt completely smooth to the touch.
– It’s only seems brutal in the beginning, – said Alex. – Then you get used to it… The main thing is – don’t think about anything. Take Vovka. Mel changes offenders like diapers… But Vovka holds on… You hold on too…
The water rippled in the background.
– What now? – asked Anton.
– We play.
– Again? What about…
– There is no time – said Alex very sadly. – The worst thing is… There is no time here. No morning, no night… Nothing. There is the court and the showers. That’s all. And a minute or two in the shade, when Ludowik allows it… But you have to ask Mel. And he is worse, I think.
Anton remembered Ludowik, wiping the knife on his pants. Mel is worse?
* * *
He remembered the green lawn under his feet, the squeaking of the tin hood, the glum determination of needing to punish someone for something.
Whom? Himself? Lenka? Mom?
He spent that entire last month finding and writing down the words of great and even just famous people. Words which said that things tend to go from bad to worse, that if things can get worse – they will, that the only free choice in this life is the choice to reject it altogether.
He remembered the moment of the jump. He even remembered a bit of the flight. A split second, a sudden stillness, and the blood in his veins turned into some sort of jello…
And he knew what happened afterwards. Somehow he knew a whole lot of things.
Mom came home from work, washed her hands, and started making dinner. There was a small TV on the kitchen table, some series was on…
The phone rang simultaneously on the screen and in the hallway.
Mom wiped her hand on the towel and picked up the phone.
And a voice, an official, unfamiliar voice, asked her if she was so and so.
And then she knew everything.
* * *
…Alex indeed scored – a beautiful culmination of the green shirt offensive.
And fell immediately because a short arrow with black feathers was sticking out of his neck.
– That one is hard to pull out, – said someone.
They pulled it out just fine. A big drop of blood came out of the little hole and slid down, leaving a glistening, spiraling trail around the neck. The drop came down to the pit of the clavicle and stopped there; Alex wiped his throat with the back of his hand. He didn’t wipe off the blood, only smudged it.
Vova and Anton tried a few combinations, unsuccessfully.
– You have to practice your shooting! – exclaimed Vova heartily. – Combination or not, it all comes down to the same thing in the end… You are letting the team down!
Ludowik was pleased, swinging his foot up and down. Mel gnawed at a straw.
Anton felt tired. His muscles obeyed him, and his legs felt light, like he was at practice – yet he felt deathly tired inside. The invisible sun blazed from above, the icy snow glittered under his feet, the bright orange ball flashed before his eyes like lightning. Vova kept saying something – Anton grasped only bits and pieces.
– Tosha, – called Mel. – Come here…
Anton approached. The shadow from the fence fell on his face – he felt momentary relief.
– Tosha, – said Mel. – I am counting on you, you know. Get yourself together – or I have two candidates for your spot already… Understand?
– I need to rest, – managed Anton.
– You don’t need rest… You are in great physical shape, – either you play right now or you get going… Got it?
Anton nodded silently. Returned to the court; everyone stepped out of his way.
– Play, – begged Alex. – It’s worse there. Trust me.
* * *
There was no morning. There was no night. No one went to sleep. Only now Anton understood what it meant to be without time.
Maybe they played for a day. Maybe for a week. Maybe for a year. The muscles didn’t tire – the nerves gave out. The game kept getting more and more intense; a foul after a foul, a free-throw after a free-throw. The teams, previously more than respectful towards one another, now showered each other with insults at the smallest occasion and even edged towards violence. The score was one thousand two hundred and sixty four to one thousand two hundred and sixty – Mel’s team. Anton scored nine hundred twenty points and had four hundred and five pickups.
Mel and Ludowik also seemed to have fallen prey to the competitive spirit. They squabbled and sat apart, avoiding each other’s eyes, and scurried further and further in the arms race with every point.
At first Anton got rocks to the back of the head. Then a dart to the neck. Then a knife in the back. Then an arrow in the jugular. Then a shot sounded as he made his throw; the ball rolled around the rim and missed the basket. While Anton lay in the snow with a bullet in his spine Mel and Ludowik engaged in a quiet argument: Mel was insisting that his opponent fired before the actual throw took place; Ludowik was countering with the suggestion that Mel at least lose with dignity.
In retaliation Mel also started shooting Ludowik’s players, using calibers fit for elephants. He killed Oleg a hundred times, and Alex – two hundred and seventeen times, completely smashing his skull with the last one, so it took Alex a good three minutes of lying breathless under the backboard before he finally stumbled to his feet.
– Pick up! – screamed Vova.
– Don’t slow down! Use your speed! – yelled Alex.
The score was one thousand three hundred ninety six to one thousand three hundred ninety eight, Ludowik’s team, when Mel pulled out the flamethrower…
* * *
The drops were falling off the ceiling – heavy and transparent, and very cold compared to the rest of the water.
The steam thickened. The world seemed hidden behind a veil.
All of the soot was long gone from Alex’s body, but he kept rubbing his back, his sides, his shoulders. His face. His short stubby hair.
– … it’s hard to admit sometimes, – Vova was saying. – It’s hard to admit to people what a low thing you did…
– Stupid, not low, – corrected Oleg, wincing.
– Low, – put in Alex hoarsely. – Vova is right.
– Hah! – retorted Oleg insolently. – I am an orphan. Who the hell is gonna miss me?
– You could have had children, – said Alex with reproach.
– Or not, – snapped Oleg. – You, who had a mother, a father, who hung yourselves for a piece of gum, you are idiots. But I, I had no choice… I was a goner either way…
– Why don’t you shut your mouth… Who, did you say, hung himself for a piece of gum?!
Anton quietly walked off to the side. Turned away and stared at the wall.
Hot water whipped at the back of his head.
* * *
…Not overnight. Slowly. Over the course of months.
There was still time then.
It had been six months since Lenka had gotten married. Her belly was like a huge basketball. The word on the street was that she was knocked up, and the evil tongues of the town kept telling Anton not to sweat it. Seeing as how she was no great prize and all.
Anton listened. Didn’t nod, but didn’t argue either. Only later, at home, he kept washing his face again and again, rubbing his hands, his cheeks, his ears.
The skin on his face started to chafe. Mom bought him some moisturizer.
Mom watched endless, boring serials.
He would go to the school court and play. By himself. To exhaustion. Sunk the balls into a bold, netless ring. Pounded on the asphalt. In the dark. Blindly. Played.
– Do you understand that if you get kicked out of school you will immediately get drafted?!
He obediently attended the lectures. Understood nothing. Sat there like a porcelain doll.
They made fun of him because of his height. Called him “longshanks”, “polearm”, hell, all basketball players are called all the same names…
In the depth of his desk sat pictures of Lenka and him – he didn’t throw them out. Idiot.
He was sick of mom’s guilt trips. He was sick of the serials. He knew he’d fail the finals.
He hadn’t a single friend.
He was an outsider, an extra.
That day mom made him a cheese sandwich. Poured some tea into a small thermos. And packed him an apple.
He didn’t know about it. He didn’t open his bag. He only knew about it now.
Had he opened his bag, that apple would have held him back.
* * *
Anton realized that he won’t be able to say it. Mel’s eyes were dark-green, viscous, and his sneakers – white, like an egg shell.
– I regret, – managed Anton. – I am sorry.
– That you played badly?
– No… That I…
– Yes? – Mel winked ever so slightly.
– That I am a bastard! – almost screamed Anton. – That I am a traitor…
– So? – chuckled Mel.
Anton shut up.
– Doesn’t matter, – said Mel. – I am not the judge of you. You now have one goal, one thought: how to put that ball in that basket. That is the only solace that I can offer you now… And be happy with that: others don’t even get that much.
* * *
The true meaning of his words came to Anton much later.
The playfield was a replacement for life, the shower room – an analogue of death. A symbol of despair.
During the game he thought only of the ball. Of how to shake the defender and open himself up to the playmaker. Of how to make a more accurate pass. How to dribble. How to steal. How to score.
The commonplace death that awaited him at the moment of a successful shot no longer frightened him. Only the flamethrower still induced terror, but both Ludowik and Mel resorted to flamethrowers only in exceptional cases. Alex and Vova were each burned once before his eyes. He himself has avoided such fate thus far.
In the shower room he always remembered what had happened, though. In the shower room he thought of mom and of the red apple at the bottom of his bag. Stood with his face to the wet tile, listened to the chatter in the nearby cabins, saw the green lawn under his feet – and his mother’s face, when she found out.
He hardly ever remembered Lenka anymore.
She has probably given birth by now. Or maybe it has only been one day… Or maybe a hundred years. And there is no one left of those who had known him. And mom is finally free of…
Or maybe that’s forever.
– Listen, Alex…
– Those bastards, in the army… what did they do to you?
– Buzz off, – Alex immediately became distant, frowned and sombered up.
– You know, – said Anton, swallowing the hot water. – No one made me do it… I am one of them, the ones who “hung themselves for a piece of gum”. Only I didn’t hang myself. I…
– Whatever, – said Alex. – Slavka Jr. over there did the same thing. His father was a businessman. Slavka went to college, in England… but he got sick of it. He chose “freedom”, you see. And you chose “freedom”. And I am here too, with the two of you, in the same basket. By way of these bastards.
– What about your mom? She still there?
Alex looked up, not even squinting under the water, as if his eyes were made of glass.
– That would be fair, at least… But no, no fairness. Ludowik will trade me right out if anything… I keep telling him – you know everything about me. I didn’t do it out of boredom, I did it out of desperation… But he says – so what.
* * *
– What’s wrong with you, Tosha?
Anton said nothing.
For two consecutive matches now he has been outright sabotaging the game. Dropped the ball. Mucked up easy shots. Indifferently followed the game, strolled leisurely along the court like a casual observer.
– What’s wrong, you don’t want to play anymore? Tired of the game? Ready to part with the guys, – and with me?
– Yes, – said Anton.
– I am ready to go in standard charges, – managed Anton, looking above Mel’s head. – That would be fair.
Mel remained silent for a minute. Then put his hand on Anton’s shoulder; his touch was akin to the caress of a giant praying mantis:
– You know something about fairness? Tell me. Because I don’t.
* * *
– This is Danilka, – said Ludowik. – He is great on offense. Please welcome him… Anton, may I ask you to warm up with Daniil one on one?
The guy was seven feet tall and very young. Sixteen, no more. Frowning, tense, but not scared. Wearing a nice T-shirt by a well-known designer.
– Let’s go, – Mel threw the ball to Anton. As he caught it, Anton realized that he would not see Alex again.
“What do you know about fairness?”
He, Anton, voluntarily refused this break. Alex, on the other hand, was always afraid of going in on standard charges…
“Ludowik will trade me right out if anything…”
And here he was, playing with some Danilka.
…This teenager was decisive and confident. And he was 4 inches taller than Anton; the game went in a circle: Daniil would force Anton to the line, the ball would go out. And again: Daniil would force Anton to the line…
– All right, – said Ludowik. – Mel, Anton, wait for me a second.
And went behind the fence – with Daniil.
– What? – asked Anton.
– This one is no good.
– What’s his problem with Alex?!
– He is the one picking his players, not you or I… Right?
Right then Ludowik re-appeared with another guy – this one was Anton’s age, coursed, lanky, in a worn navy shirt.
* * *
When the score in the new game became two thousand one hundred and eight to two thousand ninety, Mel’s team, Ludowik put the army rifle aside. Anton couldn’t yet see the flamethrower, but knew for sure that it was coming; he knew it, but still went for the ring. Knowing he’d pound it in.
The ball was orange, the flame – white. If you looked from the inside. White with thin black streaks that looked like capillaries. Anton ran and burned – for a long time, for a few very long seconds.
Chestnut leaves rolling up in the fire… And pages of someone’s letters – with a child’s handwriting; and photos, black and white, and color, melting like icicles…
Lenka and him at a sea resort. With a postcard view behind them. Lenka is smiling and hugging Anton by the neck.
Lenka in a thin beach robe over her wet body.
“Mom! Get me out of this camp! It’s boring, you have to go to sleep an nine and it’s always raining. And the counselor is mean. I’ll be waiting for you on Sunday…”
When Anton managed to open his eyes the air still smelled of burned flesh. Sneakered feet surrounded him – gray and blue sneakers; then there was a glimmer of an egg shell, and big, heavy sneakers sailed out of somewhere like a great white sea liner, and stopped right before Anton’s eyes.
– Get up, – said Mel.
The soot was everywhere. And the smell.
– Now you have some idea about the place you wanted to go to so much, – whispered Mel in Anton’s ear. – So get yourself together and keep playing.
* * *
The water flowed into a barred drain hole in the middle of the shower room. The guys conversed in a half-whisper, glancing at Anton uneasily. The new guy – his name was Kirill – hunkered down with his hands over his shaved head.
The water was black. The soot didn’t want to come off.
* * *
– I can’t change anything… Take it back. I can’t, can I?
– You want me to make you feel better?
– No, – said Anton. – I was just asking. I thought… It’s hard to score under that flamethrower fire, isn’t it?
– Yes, it’s hard, – agreed Mel.
Anton looked away. Looked at this hands. His palms were gray as ashes.
– What if someone does it? Scores under fire?
Mel examined him for a few moments, then suddenly burst into laughter:
– Are you trying to bargain? No, tell me, do I understand you correctly? You want to make a deal?
He had sharp, even teeth. The big plum on his shirt changed all shades of blue.
* * *
The score was five thousand one hundred and thirty six to five thousand two hundred – Mel’s team. Kirill, the new guy, was very good technically, but weak psychologically. Every time a round of bullets hit him in the back he died seriously and for a long time; he then had to be almost forcefully lifted from the snow and slapped back into reality. And for many minutes after Kirill would stumble around the court like a blind kitten; Ludowik’s team lost points, and Anton knew that soon time would come for the flamethrower.
The time came.
Anton lifted off the foul line – and saw Vova, running for the basket and completely open. Anton passed, and Vova would have surely scored, had a thin streak of fire let out by Ludowik not turned him into a dancing torch.
The ball went out.
Kirill the newbie slid down onto the snow.
Anton walked up to the blackened doll, which was Vova only a second ago, and would be Vova once again in another second, a dirty and reeking Vova.
– My turn, – said Anton sullenly. – Pull off Slavik Jr. and pass to me… Got it?
* * *
…He saw a green lawn below. Big chestnut trees. Parked cars in front of the building. Telephone lines.
He could hear the squeaking of a tin hood.
The branches swayed invitingly. The clouds flowed in soft curves, beckoning him to take flight…
Like a mischievous cat he darted off from the edge of the roof. Stumbling, tripping on some wire, bumping into antennae, knocking down everything in his path – off he went, to the stairs, into the shadows.
Sixteenth floor. Fifteenth. Fourteenth…
Someone drew back, out of his way:
– Are you nuts?!
(The fire clouded both his sight and his mind. The ball was white. Everything was snow-white. His fingers already popped, charred, but his eyes still saw the ultra white light of this final fire.
The fire was dense, like jello. White, with black streaks.
Anton had just enough time to see a blackened rim with burned netting…
By that time he was already gone, had burned almost completely…
…and a big, misshapen ball, sinking down like the head of a snowman…
…rolling around the edge – and falling in…)
He ran out into an unfamiliar courtyard, under an unfamiliar sun, under the sights of these unfamiliar old ladies. The old ladies that never got to witness his flight…
People twisted their fingers at their temples as he went by; he ran along the street, clipping passerbys, ran to a payphone, but couldn’t dial the number and rushed forward again…
(Green lawn under his feet. The squeaking of the tin hood…)
About to open.
* * *
The walls of the shower room were covered with white tile. In a few places the tiles fell off, leaving dark squares of concrete. The ceiling was lined with heavy water drops and the shower was churning out a wide stream of really, really hot water.