My entry for @bananafish's Finish the Story Contest. I wish I had more room for Anton’s father’s disillusionment, his hatred for the place, the impossibility of escape, and the small contentments Anton found, but alas.
Image by Natalia_Kollegova.
"СКБ Прогресс". Space Missile Center Progress.
The writing stood out on the roof of the latrine, indelible against the cobalt blue metal, sparkling under the dirty white sky of a first spring attempt.
Gennadiy waited impatiently, hopping from leg to leg in the mud and throwing stones at the door of the makeshift bathroom.
Not far away, Drogol pointed to a litter of kittens wagging his tail, the snorting nose pressed between the mesh of the net surrounding one of the last houses before the forest. From his sharp eyes and outstretched ears, a curiosity shone halfway between the festive and the ferocious.
"Stop it with these stones, Genna, or there's no deal."
The Siberian husky slipped off his nose from the net, the time to direct a dry bark in the direction of the voice filtered by the rotten wooden boards.
"Even Drogol is annoyed with your complaining, Anton. The sun sets quickly." Gennadiy said, throwing another stone with a theatrical gesture as if he were casting a dark curse. The dirty pebble ended up right in the crack above the door.
"You're a bastard, Genna. Forget me leaving this pisshole”.
Perhaps, it was better to leave him in peace, free to concentrate. It was not only the hours of daylight but also their fathers, who in a few hours would be home with the day's loot and would certainly have wanted to find them ready to help with the recovered material. The boy stared at the makeshift latrine with the mark of the nearby Pleseck's cosmodrome: a missile and a satellite with its orbit in evidence stood out against the blue background and the white silhouette of a planet.
That symbol often appeared in the most unthinkable places of Dolgoščelę, an insignificant village in the Russian region of Mezen, a stone throw away from the Arctic circle. It seemed as if over the years millions of spores from the nearby cosmodrome had taken root and proliferated among the simple urban elements of that group of houses between tundra and sea.
From the time of the cold war, when the launch program intensified, for the population of the region to recover the pieces of the rockets embedded in the snow became an essential second job. One that, eventually, could replace the traditional activities of hunting and fishing and grant those poor families better odds against the sublime yet sharp immensity of nature. Sifting through the snow of the tundra in winter was easier than in summer when even the streets flooded and boats built with rocket shells came back to use after the seasonal dormancy.
Recovered metals such as gold and titanium could be sold to Arcangelo's black market. The activity ended up involving all family members, each with a task in an efficient recycling chain.
The door of the latrine opened wide. Anton, the son of the country's pastor and Gennadiy's inseparable friend, now stood out against the shining metal like a war hero.
"Anton, if they discover us because of your endless shitting, I swear this time your bike is mine."
"Stop worrying and think, instead, of their faces in front of our loot," replied Anton with a seraphic expression.
"East, beyond the lake. Where the caribous' footprints stop," said Gennadiy absorbed, his mind already gliding on the untouched expanse of snow of that spot deep in the forest.
"Aha. Today we go hunting for the wrong pieces," Anton urged hinting a smile.
Both friends nodded solemnly before answering to the tundra's call.
The snow fell thickly, clinging to anything it touched. Anton watched safely from his porch. It had been swept clean less than twenty minutes ago but was once again collecting snow in drifted clumps. No matter how vigilant, it got everywhere. It blanketed and muffled everything, making even the air feel thick.
Like being buried, he thought and immediately made an impatient swatting motion in front of his face.
It was too late to ward off the idea. He swung his arms in semicircles at his sides as he stamped to and fro across the porch, like a man shaking something off. Characteristic gestures his many grandchildren laughed at outside of his hearing. He cleared his throat several times. Every breath and falling flake was another moment gone, bringing him closer.
The noise of snowmobiles cut through the air, snapping Anton from his suffocating thoughts. He concentrated on the sounds of his youngest sons, now adults like all the rest, returning in the midday twilight. They laughed and joked, careless and content, ignorant of any desire for escape or of its futility.
“If you stay here with these savages who choose superstition over salvation,” his father had warned, “you’ll grow hard as the earth.”
But Anton hadn’t. From his first incredible find as a boy which had rendered him rich as Croesus, he’d grasped at every enjoyment life offered because he knew where he’d end up, someday.
When the two boys spotted the gold torque, they yelled and tumbled together in the snow like puppies playfighting. This was real loot, not rubbish they’d have to pick apart like vultures. They dug quickly, too excited to question how inanimate Viking treasure had worked its way up near the surface, through several meters of packed snow.
Their elation held as dusk settled and they put on headlamps. They laughed as they worked until the ground rumbled and a hole appeared.
Anton was just quick enough to throw himself flat and grab Genna’s hands. He drove his boots into the snow and held tight.
“Genna! Genna, I’ve got you.”
Anton’s cries broke through Genna’s panic. The hollow he dangled inside couldn’t be too deep. If he fell, Anton would dig him out.
Suddenly he shrieked anew as his body jerked downwards with more force than gravity could account for.
In the hole, Anton saw the gleam of two pairs of eyes. They challenged him, weakening his hold, promising they’d get him too. Digging later with a whining Drogol by his side, he would find four coins that reflected back his headlamp, but he would always know the creatures had been real.
Genna’s voice was fading. The life or death struggle was quickly wearing away his energy.
“I won’t leave you,” said Anton waveringly.
Genna’s eyes held a glassy sheen but when he turned them directly up, Anton was surprised by their alertness. Behind the terror, he saw discernment and recognition, and beyond that love and understanding for his cowardice. It pricked so sharply he almost let go.
“I know. We’ll always be together, someday.”
He screamed as he felt Genna slip from his grasp.