“Hey, are you there?”
It’s a tentative, probing voice. There’s no one else in the apartment building but old habits are broken with difficulty. The voice belongs to Max, a young man of nineteen. With boots he’s average height, good posture gives him five feet eight inches. Ash-black hair is cut to his scalp and his eyebrows have been partially burned off. A few days without a shower has left his face with a dark outline of a beard. Under his well-worn coat and jeans is a muscular frame. A gift from his parents to make up for his lack of height. His two brothers both have thirty pounds on him but he regularly wrestles them to the tile over contrived grievances. He likes to remind them that a tiger hides within.
Again, Max’s voice rises out of the darkness and this time Dima catches it.
“Yeah what’s up.. I thought you already passed out, no?
“I wanted to, I fucking tried to but I can’t clear my head. I keep thinking about what happened today. Do you think we could have changed it somehow? Like maybe we could have warned him. I mean we did, but maybe we didn’t try hard enough. I know he was fucking around like an idiot but I feel guilty about the whole thing..”
Max’s voice trails off but the emotion lingers in the air. It’s fucked what happened, and even more fucked that it seems normal now. A lot has changed since summer. The two brothers have been so caught up in it, they can’t tell where the change happened.
“You know..” Dima responds after a long pause “I’ve been thinking about it since we left the airport. I’ve been trying to shake it out of my head but it’s stubborn. It’s like a loose bullet bouncing around in my brain. Bro, I don’t think we could have done anything. No matter what we told that boy, nothing would have convinced him to back out. It’s better to focus on shit that we can still fucking change. You know what I mean?”
It’s a long time before Max responds. He’s sitting on the roof of the car, leaning back, staring up at the ceiling. “It’s not that easy for me. I keep telling myself we could have done more. I feel like shit for not trying harder. We could have dumped him off in some stupid city on the way here. That first night he showed balls. I always felt like he was older at heart. Man, fuck this shit..” Meeting Vic had been accidental, at least on their part. First impressions matter and Vic had stamped his into them with an iron die.
Two nights ago, the two brothers were camping outside. They pulled the car a kilometer off the road before parking. The sun was burying itself behind a small hill while they started a fire. Earlier they had tied an oak chair to the roof of their car. Working under the final words of the sun they dismantled the chair. The old wood broke easily and they used it to kindle a fire on the leeward side of the car. The fire took place in a small hole six inches across, but it burned warm. Max and Dima had become proficient at building fires since they started living out of the ar. They hadn’t cooked on a real stove since fall, hadn’t known the convenience of a fridge since spring.
Crunchy old frozen snow, and ice that cracks like glass, would warn them off an approaching vehicle from a long ways off. They didn’t expect anyone to come on foot. A fresh snow had covered the stale remains in half an inch of sharp, bitter white. It absorbed the noise caused by the troublesome layer underneath. By the time Max and Dima heard the boots digging into the ground, he was twenty feet away.
“Hey mates, listen and don’t move. I’m sure we’re on the same side but I gotta ask anyways. I’m here to fight for Ukraine. Now tell me, what the fuck are you doing out here?”
Accustomed to the light of the fire, Max is unable see out into the dark. If he had to throw a grenade at the stranger, he could only guess the direction by the clutch of words he heard. However, they were in fact on the same side. He wasn’t worried, and was prepared to show it.
“Listen bro, if we were fighting AGAINST Ukraine, we wouldn’t be a kilometer off the road huddled behind some shitty fucking car, cooking sausages over a fire the size of a anorexics frying pan. If we were fighting AGAINST Ukraine, we would be with some sort of convey. We’d have a proper cook doing the work and maybe even some Vodka. ”
Cocky from his bold statement to an unknown assailant, Max closes his well-orated monologue in style; “Who the fuck are you?”
Snow crunches and the farther reaches of the fire begin to dance on the outline of a man. The brothers are surprised. Standing in the impenetrable night, the voice spoke with depth and authority that belayed the speakers age. Five feet away from the fire, it’s easy to see that this kid should be finishing his last year of high school.
“I’m Victor but I like Vic better. Can I sit down?”
It’s a surprising turn of events but little in the last four months has been normal. Max stands up and pulls the last piece of oak off the roof. He puts it on the ground a few feet from the fire, returns to his own seat, motioning Vic to sit down. Nobody speaks as Vic takes off his gloves and throws his hands out towards the fire. He acts oblivious to the four eyes drilling him. Unable to stand the silence any longer, Dima breaks the false calm with the most obvious question.
“What are you doing out here? I’ll bet your missing a test tomorrow.”
“I’m from Mykolaiv. Just left for the first time a few months ago. The war is getting bigger and I want to be a part of it. I know I’m young but I think that-”
“You want to get your fucking head blown off? Is that real enough for you!” interjects Max, who is annoyed with Vic’s ignorance, enamored by his patriotism.
“Just because I’m young doesn’t mean-”
“Yes it does. I’ll give you some advice, go home kid. This isn’t a computer game. When you fuck up out here, you don’t restart.”
“Just because you’re older than me doesn’t mean shit. I’ve worked my ass off to get this far. If you’re going to treat me like shit I’ll go freeze out by the highway. Maybe I’ll meet someone who doesn’t want to be my second father.”
Admonished, Max doesn’t reply. He liked Vic before he stepped into the glow of the fire. He likes him ever more after hearing him justify his age. If he hadn’t liked him he would have treated him better. After encouragement and stories, he would have offered him to the front line as fodder for the cannons. Max sees potential in the stocky kid hunched over the fire. Ukraine needs people to take charge and set a good example. After four months of fighting, Max has seen three men die. They were capable of dying for their country, but they couldn’t find the nerve to live for it. He knew that Vic would die for his country. Max wished he would walk the heroic path and live for it. Explaining the concept would be impossible. Easier to berate Vic and offer discouragement.
Having remained mostly quite, Dima chooses to sweep the tension from the air. He knows why Max is being harsh with Vic. However, unlike Max, Dima didn’t think anything he said would change Vic’s mind. “Alright man, stay here for the night. Forget about my brother and his rotten mouth. He’s been in a foul mood since we ran out of vodka two days ago. In the morning we’ll get a proper look at you and figure out what to do. The sausages are done it looks like, hungry?”
Vic ascents to the invitation by pulling a small bottle of vodka from the folds of his bag. The three men pull their makeshift chairs towards the fire, stacking sausages on their plates. They eat in silence and drink the vodka without a toast. After, the brothers crowd into a tent and Vic stretches out in the back seat of the car. His legs stick out of the window like lumber. In combat against the Ukrainian winter, they are wrapped with all the clothing he owns. It’s a cold night for sleeping outside.
In the morning Vic’s feet are frozen stiffer than the tundra. He vigorously rubs them for twenty minutes before they are worth a damn. In the tent Dima and Max have fared better. The surplus army canvas kept the wind off their sleeping bags. There’s little conversation as they pack the tent into the trunk of the car. The two brothers are stuck in their heads thinking about the town they’re heading for. All of Ukraine, and much of the televised world, is aware of what’s happening there. In a call to a friend fighting in the town, the voice on the other end was punctuated by the crisp clatter of automatic weapons.
After a silent breakfast, the gear is stowed before Max finally addresses Vic. “We’re headed into _______ right now. We’ve heard from a couple of guys there, they said it’s rough. Most of the fighting happens at the airport and that’s where we’re headed.. It’s going to be a mess there. I’ll ask you one last time, will you consider going home?
“If you don’t take me, I’ll find another way to get there” Vic replies firmly.
Silence reigned king in the car as they drive out from behind the hill and join the highway. Even at full speed the heater never fully comes to life. It has to fight against the brooks of frozen air tumbling in. The three men hardly notice the cold. After a night outside at zero degrees, forty feels tropical and indulgent.
Heater on full, air forcing itself in, the noise is devilish. Conversation is discouraged. Not that the three had much to say. Dima and Max said little unless it related to the future and Vic was the unproven recruit. Despite the goodwill from the previous night, he ostensibly remained part of the out-group. Even with the chilly emotions, he was thrilled to be getting close to the front. A chance to see _______ for himself was the fruition of his goal. The brothers didn’t know that Vic was hiding a snub-nose revolver in his bag. Unfortunately, the streams of Vic’s ignorance could fill a pool. For example, he didn’t know that in untrained hands, a revolver would be useless until someone was close enough to kill him with a knife.
Dipping in and out of torn up asphalt, the car made a steady thirty towards _______. The highway had started out rough and deteriorated into medieval. For stretches, the ride was better on the shoulder than in the lane. A year ago the highway had been one of the most travelled in the country. Now, the trio drove for forty-five minutes before passing another vehicle. It was an empty military truck, laboring over the decimated pavement in third. Passing it, they could see a jagged line of finger thick holes in the rear panel of the truck. Thick canvas covered the back entrance, it was impossible to see inside.
Like vodka, the bullet smeared truck effected everyone in the car differently. Dima felt disgusted. His rowdy exterior belied a peaceful interior. His philosophies didn’t spring from moral outrage. Instead, they were the result of a studied approach. Dima didn’t like being inconvenienced by pain. Blood and needles bothered him. Even though he had a hefty advantage, he found contests of strength to be unpleasant. The rational side of his brain often reminded him that war is painful and victory is built on bloodshed. He could easily end up wounded or dead, which would be extremely inconvenient. If Max hadn’t gone, Dima wouldn’t have put himself into such an unpractical situation.
Plodding along at a tumultuous twenty-five now, the villages began to change. The closer they got to _______, the fewer people remained. Three hours from the city the small villages they drove through, or saw in the distance, were functioning. Drawing closer, the situation was becoming more tense. Less smoke came from chimneys and fewer people walked outside. An hour from the outskirts, they saw broken glass in shops lining Main St. It was the first time that Vic felt meaningfully touched by the realities of war.
When he had left, it had not been to the music of a band. His plans had been received with universal discouragement. In Western Ukraine there are no visible effects of the war. Families pay more for their eggs and break, but physically the war is an abstract concept. It exists between the hours when the evening news starts and when it ends. Vic finds it unnerving, seeing the results of war up close. Finally he can’t take the silence anymore. “How far are we from _______ ? It’s already starting to look shitty. Did you see that cow we passed, the thing was swollen up to the size of a car!”
Like a tarp ripped off a heavy load, the silence has been lifted. Max glances in the rearview mirror before offering an anecdote to Vic.
“A couple of us saw another cow like that a few weeks ago. We stood back a ways and shot a few rounds at it to see what would happen. It handled the first few rounds alright. Then we must have hit something important. The damn thing exploded twenty feet into the air. Sounded like a mortar or something. We felt sort of bad afterwards. Should have just left it alone. And we sure as hell didn’t get anywhere near it after that. Probably smelled bad enough to give a guy nightmares.”
Vic smiles when Max tells him about the explosion but his face quickly sobers. Cows don’t normally die of old age. When they approach the end, they are butchered for meat. Letting a thousand pounds of flesh bloat is an astronomical waste of food. It doesn’t happen when the country isn’t preoccupied.
After Max’s story, Dima, sitting in the passenger seat, turns around to face Vic. His expression is serious as he begins speaking. “The real story isn’t the cows. It’s this road we’re driving on. It didn’t always used to be like this. Two years ago I drove down this road doing one hundred. If we tried that shit now the engine would fall out. The Ukrainian army uses this road to supply the guys fighting in _______. So the men we are fighting placed mines on it and they shot RPG’s into the passing trucks. The largest holes are from artillery. Thousands of families used to drive along this road and we haven’t passed another car in twenty minutes. Vic, war is shit. It’s why we think you are crazy to jump into it. I understand you want to do something for Ukraine but trust me on this, the first time your shot at, the first time you see the earth exploding around you, everything gets really fucking serious.”
Sedated by the tentative, authentic tone of the two brothers, Vic doesn’t say a word. They hadn’t been trying to convince him to change his mind. But they did want him to give serious thought to where he was going and what he was doing. Dima and Max had been experiencing the war together since late spring. Initially, their attitude had matched Vic’s. Like boys across the world, they had been raised on violence. However, experience had shown them that what was portrayed on television had no bearing on reality.
Cresting over a drawn-out incline, _______ comes into view. They had known the city was close before they topped the hill. Diluted billows of smoke were blowing across the sky. Gently rising up from the mass of buildings, the smoke stood out against the bright blue. With the wind, the unique streams joined together to create one messy pastel. Closer to the ground, the smoke was thick enough to obscure buildings. It originated from two places in the city, one of which was their destination.
On the far side of the city stands the airport. It’s become the symbolic stronghold in the conflict. Many months have passed since it has served its intended purpose. The runways are shredded after months of late night mortar strikes. Inside the building, the situation is worse. A year ago people had streamed through the terminal, hurrying to reach their gate. Now most of the gates are destroyed. Throughout the airport, the ceiling has fallen to the floor in chunks. Great tentacles of wiring and mangled light fixtures hung down from the ceiling like stalactites. In some places the carpeted ground is hidden under a drywall and broken electronics a foot deep. It looks like a tornado has sprung up inside the airport.
The men had used shovels to clear walkways across the terminal. They scooped worthless remains to the side like black snow. Few jets remained. Most had taken off and never returned. Those that stood defiant made the wrong choice. Their charred corpses are monuments to the chaos that reigns. In the evening, soldiers paste targets on the sides of planes and adjust their rifle sites. They like the noise the bullets make as they pass through the thin aluminum walls of the plane.
No one in the car had seen the airport yet. Dima and Max had had pictures from friends, Vic had seen it on the news. Each lent the situation an impersonal air. The airport was a migraine in the back of the brothers minds. They had come to _______ to help defend it, but it was still a hard decision. They wanted to live in the moment, without thinking about what they would find tomorrow. With the sun setting on the smoky sky, they made a small camp on the outskirts of the city. It would be safer to travel through _______ in the morning.
In the morning Vic was the first one awake. Eager to start, nervous about what they would find and unable to sit still, he shook the Dima and Max awake. “Come on you lazy fucks, get up! The sun is up and it’s almost nine. Guess what I’ve got in my backpack?”
One eye opened towards his brother, Max asks in a slur, “have you got a can, or rock, or something I can throw at him? It might knock some sense into him.. I doubt it. But it’s worth a shot.”
“He’s right though,” replies Dima, “we should get up. We’ve got a long day ahead of us. I want to be squared away at the airport before four. The roads are so fucked in the city, it’s going to take us a long time to get there.”
They get up and together they grab Vic from behind. With a practiced movement they propel him straight into the depths of a snow bank. Justice served, breakfast begins. Vic hurriedly brushes off the snow and produces a small chunk of bacon wrapped in newspaper. It’s cooked in minutes and they discuss their plan across the fire. Between mouthfuls, Max begins.
“Ok Vic listen, our goal is to make that airport by four. But we want you to know something. The airport is fucked. It’s serious shit that’s happening there right now. A couple of guys died last week and a couple more will again die before too long. We don’t think you’ll listen but we want you to know what the situation is. We both think you should go home. You’re too young to throw your life away on this shit. It’s your Ukraine but it’s your parents who fucked it up.”
“Fuck that shit I’m going.”
“We figured that would be the case. We will feel better if we warned you first, just in case anything happens.”
“I think it’s a shit idea.” Dima speaks slowly, emphasizing the last two words. “But like Max said, there’s not much we can do to stop you. Here’s the plan. We’re going to drive through this city towards the airport. We don’t know what we’re going to find. Almost all the civilians have already left so anyone driving through at this point looks awfully suspicious. Before big crossings were going to get out of the car and have a look. I didn’t drive this car a thousand fucking kilometers just to run over a fucking landmine. Also from what we’ve heard, most the roads are fucked. Proper fucked. Holes that make the flak we drove over look like child’s play. So even though it’s only eight kilometers to the airport, it’s probably going to take us six or eight hours.”
“Man this is gonna suck” adds Max thoughtfully.
“Do you think we’ll see anyone?” Asks Vic, trying to contain his excitement.
“I hope not..” Says Dima as he picks at his teeth with a knife. “Alright, let’s get this shit packed up. We gotta go.”
Buildings stand intact near the outskirts of the city. Occasionally, there are signs of life. However, by this point most of the citizens of _______ have abandoned the city. Car wheels crunch over broken panes of glass. Missing windows let tattered curtains dance in the wind. An eerie feeling fills the car as they drive down empty streets, passing burned carcasses of cars. After three hours, the buildings started to change. They deteriorate and begin to look like sponges. Holes from Howitzers and craters from rockets line the walls.
After six hours of leapfrogging through the city and taking detours, they finally arrive at the airport. Without comment Dima drives the car over a gate that used to designate the area as long term parking. Their stay would be complimentary. Few cars remain in the parking lot. Likely their owners had flown out of Ukraine and never returned. Without exception, the cars were looted or burned to a cinder. At the far end of the parking lot, a small Lada has recently been destroyed. Wispy, weak tentacles of smoke work their way up from the engine. The single concentrated stream of smoke makes it look like the car is smoking a cigarette. Since crossing into the parking lot, the three men in the car have felt eyes on them. The care is driving over bullet riddled asphalt, not all visitors are greeted warmly.
The airport stands in front of them, controlling the skyline, taking up more horizon as they near the entrance. It’s original purpose is no longer evident. The front ticketing area has been filled with burdensome, awkward rubble. Too heavy for shovels, a footpath hasn’t been cleaned through yet. Without exception, every window is lying broken on the uneven floor. As they pull the car up next to the door frames, a man emerges from the wreckage and dim light. He looks to be about thirty but with a week old beard it’s impossible to decipher his true age. He wears a grey cap askew on his head. Where his hair peeks out, it shows itself as jet black and regulation short. Fatigue pants are topped by a dark green civilian coat. Large visible bursts of breath are coming from his mouth. He addresses the three as they get out of the car.
“Listen up, I’m Kolya. I’m in charge of this airport. We’ve got about a hundred guys here now. You’re welcome to stay as long as you want. We get food in pretty regularly and we can hook everyone up with an AK. The sons of bitches were fighting have started to get tricky. But anyways, I’m sure everyone will fill you in. Come on in.”
Max dogs Kolya’s tail, followed by Dima and Vic. Rubble makes it impossible to take a straight path. They haphazardly pick their way through the debris, heading towards the makeshift barracks. Vic feels oppressed by what he has gotten himself into. He’s boxed in by destruction. Bullet holes adorn every surface like paintings. Huge chunks of plaster are missing from the walls. Boots crunching on the floor, they walk through metal detectors that haven’t worked in months. Down the concourse, out a door and down a set of steel stairs. Up to this point, they haven’t seen another person. All three are glad that Kolya is leading the way.
After taking a sharp left off the staircase and walking under the airport terminal, they catch signs of life. Distant voices mix with fragrant smoke as they continue deeper under the airport. Finally, they turn a corner and see thirty or forty men sprawled out around a fire. They lounge in a variety of positions. Some men sit with stiff backs on haphazard chairs. Others lounge casually on impromptu beds made out of heaps of clothing.
Kolya brings the three men close to the fire and introduces them. “Guys shut up and listen for a minute. This is Dima and his brother Max. I know them from back home. Good guys, don’t go too hard on them. And they tell me this is Vic. He wants to fight for Ukraine, oblige him. I think he’s too fucking young to have a drink in the bar god bless him anyways. That’s all”
Kolya abruptly ends his speech. Without another word, he turns from the new recruits and walks away from the fire, deeper into the airport. The small fire crackles and breaks the silence that his passing leaves. After a couple of seconds, one of the soldiers stands up and introduces himself. “I’m Rodion and this is the squad. That’s Mike over there, Sasha’s the one who looks like a pedophile, there’s another Mike, he’s the one with the fucked up haircut. That’s Danil sitting on the crate and behind me is Arseni. Don’t let Kolya scare you too bad. He’s been here longer than anyone and it’s starting to get to him.”
Max, who is used to gruff soldiers, adds “he didn’t seem that bad to be honest. When we talked to him on the phone we thought maybe he would throw us out for not being Ukrainian enough or something, I don’t know.”
“Yeah, he seemed alright” Dima adds.
“Fuck that, he was fucking scary!” Vic adds pleasantly, not harboring animosity in his voice.
“He was telling you the same shit we’ve been trying to pound into your head for the last day you fucktard! This isn’t some game, this shit is fucking real.” Dima speaks passionately, emphasizing the words, trying to give them as much meaning as possible.
“Man shut up. I’ve taken enough of your shit already. I’m here, just let me be already.”
After a pause, Max speaks up. “Listen Vic, we just want you to realize how serious this is. But we get it, you’re here and nothing is going to change that. We’ll lay off and let you figure it out for yourself, right Dima..”
Dima nods and then looks at Rodion with a bright face. “You got any food? We’re fucking starving, haven’t eaten since this morning. Give us something to eat and we’ll share our catch of the day. Show ’em Vic.” Vic unlatches the trunk as Max explains.”Passing through the city today we busted out on foot to check the road. We were walking around some rubble when Vic caught a glimpse of the sign on the ground. Never would have known it was a corner store if Vic hadn’t been paying attention. Good thing he did too. Found half a dozen bottles of vodka. The outside was so messed up nobody must have realized what the building was. Vic made the right call on that one.”
Hearing the story, men who hadn’t been paying attention perked up and looked expectantly at Vic. None of the men would deny that food comes regularly, enough to stave off the hunger at least. But as any Ukrainian soldier will dutifully gripe, “they never send us any fucking vodka!”
At the unexpectedly pleasing turn of events, the banter picks up. Plates and glasses materialize and four soldiers drag out a row of airport seats. Sheltered from the wind and in good company, it’s the first warm night the three fresh recruits have had in weeks.
In the morning the smiles are gone. Several messages have been intercepted. The airport’s slated to be attacked and nobody knows when it will happen. That meant being on alert all day. Under such circumstances, the waiting is often worse than the fighting. Once the rockets start, everyone has a clear idea of what needs to be done. A nerve-destroying tension lies in the calm before the explosions. At any second, from an unseen position, the firing can commence. It would be inhuman to feel comfortable. Vic had been an unfaltering source of enthusiasm and conversation for the drive across the city. Now, he wouldn’t speak. The stories he heard last night finally made sense. To hear the names of the dead spoken with personal reverence is touching. It inspires different feelings then a cold, third-party reporter
When it’s time to take up defensive positions, Vic is assigned roof detail. He up to the roof with another soldier. The laddered is rusted and marginally attached to the wall. They climb quickly. On the roof, they hunker over and move hastily, reaching the far end of the roof in less than minute. They have an impressive view. Past the shell-shocked asphalt lies a large field. The snow covered expanse is bordered by a residential area. Ten story apartment buildings make it impossible to see farther into the city. Vic has been given a Kalashnikov which he wears on his back, a pair of binoculars hang from his neck.
Near the edge of the roof they assume a position behind a metal heating duct. It springs up from the roof, runs for ten meters, then dives back down into the terminal. Vic sets the rifle down beside his left hand and takes up the binoculars, looking out over the barren field. Next to him, the soldier clings to a 30-06 hunting rifle he’s brought with him from home. Neither rifle would will be effective at the range they expect the attack to start from. Although, the 30-06 will shoot three times farther than the well-worn Kalashnikov. They wouldn’t chamber the rifles until after the rockets had finished. Both weapons fire a destructive round that is useless against metal targets. They would only fire once soldiers started to run across the runway.
Comfortably adjusted for a long wait, the soldiers begin to banter.
“I’m Timofei, your name’s Vic right?”
“Yeah, nice to meet you Timofei. How long have you been at the airport?”
“Bout a month I guess. I try not to think about the time too much, it gets sort of depressing.”
“When are you gonna leave?”
“When this fucking war ends. Or I’m dead. There’s no way I can just leave the company now. I would be abandoning everything I care about. Besides, what would I do? Go back and home and sit in the flat I grew up in, fuck that. There’s no jobs left anyways. Nah I like being here, it’s good.”
“There’s not much to do where I’m from either. By the way, what am I supposed to do when they come? I’ve never shot a gun before in my life.”
Timofei replies with a raised eyebrow. “Well you sure as hell picked an interesting time to learn. I guess just point that end at whatever you want dead. I wouldn’t worry too much, this roof duty is a pretty good deal. They don’t usually think to shoot up here. When they come, they’re usually too preoccupied with everything happening on the ground.”
“I hope they don’t get so close that I have to use this heavy ass thing. It looks different than it does on television.” Vic looks over the weapon, comparing it to the mental composites he has from video games and movies. In real life it’s much sturdier than he imagined. It’s covered in scratches and a couple of dents. Where the clips feeds into the stock, the black paint has been worn off. The sites are rudimentary, they do nothing to amplify the target. Vic also has no idea that when he starts to fire, the rifle will pummel his shoulder like Muhammad Ali. He’s learning quickly and not everything sits right with him.
“I’m starting to feel sick to my stomach. Is that normal?”
“Normal enough. Have a cigarette, that always helps me.”
In four hours Vic smokes the first ten cigarettes of his life. He inhales them methodically and unconsciously. It’s impossible for him to focus on anything but the edge of the field. The virgin snow stretches out in front of him for two kilometers. At the border between the field and the apartments is a trampled metal fence. Pushed into the ground with tires and boots, it’s only visible when the sun comes out and light is reflected up. Apartments line the field for five-hundred meters. Vic focuses his attention on this narrow stretch, canvassing shattered windows and disused streets with his binoculars.
As the fifth hour of waiting looms large, the accumulated nights of poor sleep reveal themselves. Instead of scanning quickly with the binoculars, Vic slows his pace, eventually focusing on a single building. His left eyelid is drooping closed when his right catches a gleam of metal poking out from the behind a building. It’s hard to tell if his mind is playing tricks or if it really did just appear.
Before he can ask Timofei about it a brief flame erupts from the end, followed by a cloud of smoke. Dark grey and the size of a dolphin, the smoke swims out the end of the barrel. Two seconds later, there is a deafening explosion one-hundred meters to the left. The initial round is quickly followed by three more from different locations. The Howitzer’s are first to fire. They do less damage than the rockets but they’re more accurate. Howitzer shells depend on spotters who call in coordinates. If the soldiers can remain hidden in the airport, the strikes will be ineffective. However, if they are forced to relocate, likely they will be seen. The Howitzer’s will have a target and things will go from unpleasant to fucked.
Vic’s thoughts slow to a crawl and his words are simple, “holy fuck!”
“Don’t worry about the Howitzers” Timofei says, voicing a confidence that he doesn’t have. “The worst part for us is when they get closer. They’ve started using sniper teams. Once they get into range, that’s when our problems will begin.”
A loud, uneasy twenty minutes passes. Periodically shells drop from the sky, granting further destruction on a building past the point of repair. Vic becomes more relaxed in the noise. None of the shells hit closer than one-hundred meters. They are concentrated to the western wing, striking an abandoned terminals. The soldiers have disguised their position well. Gutted walls, tattered seats and unreliable concrete absorb the artillery. Where a pulse beats there are no flames or crashing shells.
Max and Dima lay prone, with twelve other soldiers, at the eastern most part of the airport. The two brothers are sharing a 30 caliber Browning machine gun, effective, and a .44 Magnum pistol, useless. Max sights down the awkward barrel of the automatic while Dima uses unhindered eyes to scan to the left and right. The shells have struck unusually far from them. Either the Howitzer crews have grown soft or, more likely, troops are approaching and the artillery commanders don’t want to friendly fire.
Two minutes before the last shell, an older man to Dima’s right fires the first shot. With a scoped rifle he spots two men lugging a mortar into range. Squaring the stronger of the two in his crosshairs, he pulls the trigger. The soldier falls and his comrade runs before another shot can be produced. Carefully, the soldier with the scoped rifle aims at the mortar tube. When he’s sure of the shot, he gently squeezes the trigger. There’s a loud report and a hole materializes in the middle of the steel tube.
“That fuckers out of commission” he says proudly. He pulls the bolt back, ejecting the spent round. With a smooth movement, shoves it forward again chambering a new round. The erratic sound of firing rifles begins to trickle down to the company of men. From a distance the reports sound like microwave popcorn. Random crackles and pops followed by silence.
On the roof, Vic and Timofei have run out of luck. The men doing the shooting are no longer ignorant of their rooftop antics. After the Howitzers are silenced, a tank materializes from behind the apartments. It quickly aligns itself toward the roofline and begins to fire. For now, it’s well out of range of a RPG. However, Timofei and Vic have an advantage. Long and thin, the roof is a huge target. Unnoticed, it’s not likely they will take a direct round. Still, Timofei finds it disconcerting that they are attracting attention now. It doesn’t bode well for the approaching skirmish.
After ten minutes of continuous firing, the tanks stops firing. Silence controls the airport and normal noises begins to emerge. A story below them a water main has been hit. From the roof Timofei and Vic can hear water escaping from a pipe. It shoots out with the strength of a fire hose before losing momentum. After slowing, the water mixes with dusty debris on the floor. The result is a dark hued sludge that oozes across the floor like cooled lava.
Distracted by the false silence and the rhythmic pulsing of water, neither soldier notices when a shadow appears in the cockpit of the burned out plane. Moving agonizingly slow, the man spends ten minutes pulling himself up from the cockpit floor and into a sitting position. It’s an uncomfortable position and one that he plans to hold for hours if necessary. He adjusts his rifle so that the stock is resting on the co-pilots seat. The barrel is pointed up, towards the edge of the roof.
This anonymous soldier is the commander of the assaulting force. His voice on the radio controls the Howitzers. Two hundred men are stationed in the streets, jammed into troop carriers and manning rocket tubes. They await his signal. Before he calls them in, he has something to take care of.
Casualties from snipers have been the bane of his existence. As commander, it’s his choice to address the problem personally. A helicopter would put an end to the situation in minutes but such a magnificent weapon is unavailable. Instead, he’s relying on his own ingenuity. Crawling into the cockpit was a stupid decision. He presented himself as a target before he had a chance to look down the barrel of his own rifle. However, he felt that the end justified the risk. And this time he’s gotten lucky.
Vic and Timofei remain distracted by the strange, beautiful silence. They train their binoculars out over the field towards the apartment. It doesn’t occur to them to pay closer to the aircraft. Long past it’s last flight, the carcass has become part of the landscape. Neither soldiers notices the commander’s silhouetted form as it begins to take shape in the cockpit. Wearing glasses and a three day beard, he looks like a professor who got lost on his way to class. The boring face is a mask for the killer inside. He didn’t gain control of the company by treading lightly.
When the bearded professor brings the scope up to the edge of his glasses, he doesn’t see anything. He cannot say for sure where the men will be today. However, after months of prolonged fighting, he has a strong hunch about where they are likely to be. If he were lying on the roof, he would choose the spot that his rifle is now pointed towards. It offers protection and a clear view over several kilometers of territory. He methodically works the scope along the roof, looking for anything that would give away a hidden position. After three minutes, he finds an answer. Directly off the edge of the roof, small puffs of smoke gently rise. They stop shortly afterwards but he already has the scent.
Vic is pleased that the shelling has stopped. The world seems normal again. Although he isn’t accustomed to clutching an automatic rifle and lying sprawled out on the roof of a contested airport. Quietly he turns to Timofei and asks “hey can I get another cigarette? I never knew smoking could be so much fun.”
“You won’t be saying that in a fucking year. If you feel like you’re gonna upchuck, do it in the other direction. I don’t get a chance to wash my uniform very often.”
“Don’t worry about it, I feel amazing” he says, touching a flame to the end of the cigarette.
Below, the commander keys his radio, calling for a three round volley, twenty meters to the left of the smoking soldiers. He doesn’t want the shells to decimate the men, too impersonal. This is a job he would prefer to see to himself.
Taking drags, thinking about home, Vic asks “where do you get cigarettes anyways? All the shops are closed in town right?”
“They are. Once a week a guy drives through with his trunk jammed with cartons. We buy as many as we can afford.”
“There’s a business opportunity, I wonder if…” His idea is cut short when they hear the distant thunder of the Howitzer, followed closely by two more crashes. Something is different. The whooshing, screaming noise the shells make as they plunge to earth is louder and startlingly clear. Howling till the last, the first shell strikes thirty meters to the left of Vic and Timofei. It’s quickly followed two more rounds, which both strike twenty meters to their right. The concussion is strong enough to rattle the clip out of Vic’s rifle. Sunlight is blotted out by the massive cloud of dust that rises from the wound.
“That was fucking close!” Vic says in a shallow voice laden with fear. It’s the first time he’s felt afraid for his life. If they had been lying twenty meters to the right, there would be nothing left for the other soldiers to ship home. Eighteen years of hard word would have been undone in a bang.
“Keep your fucking head down. We’re still alive but I think they know where we are. Probably the fucking cigarettes. We’ve got to get off this roof. Even if one of those bastards comes closer, we cannot stand up! Do you hear me? Get up and your fucked. Let’s go” They start crawling backwards, making it only a couple of feet before the Howitzer’s report reaches them again.
“You can crawl all the fuck you want, I’m getting off this roof before I’m blown to bits!” shouts Vic, no longer concerned about silence.
He thrusts himself up to a crouching position and puts his right leg behind him to shove off. Before he can move, it’s the pink mist. A pinkie finger hole starts from behind and blows open the size of a baseball in the front of his head. Mid-lunge Vic collapses. Timofei doesn’t slow down. Bitter experience has taught him that there’s nothing he can do. He can only focus on saving himself. The shells fall to the left, while he crawls away from the edge. He’s numb to the gouges he’s accumulating on his hands and the damage to his uniform. Before the third report rings, he’s off the roof and scrambling towards the regiment. His face is blank, his breathing sporadic. It’s a memory he will fight against for many years.
The night grows over the city of _______ until it became futile to fight. Again, the one hundred men in the airport repel a force twice their number. However, with five casualties they have paid to hold it. After the commander took his shot, he had called in the reserves. They approached the airport like beetles, huddled inside troop carriers. Eighteen in all, the vehicles stopped outside the range of the RPG’s. The men dismounted and the fighting lasted for hours. Dima and Max were stunned by the violence. It had been unlike anything they had seen before. The soldiers they were fighting next to were unthinkably ferocious attitude towards the advancing men. Given the chance, the brothers felt these brethren would go in for the kill with their teeth. An eager bite on the jugular and the long shake. The brothers loathed the thought they may undergo a similar transformation.
After two, they used the light from their cheap Nokias to pick their way across the debris strewn floor. Carefully navigating the hanging wires and powdered cement, they finally emerged into the parking lot. It was an uneasy walk to the car. They both felt like they were abandoning a cause they cared about. And yet both knew they would rather be called cowards then be transformed into the type of men they had seen fighting today. Also, in the back of their minds, was the Vic. He hadn’t made it from sunrise to sunset. What kind of odds would greet them if they stayed?
On the third try the car started. They drove out of long term parking in second gear with their headlights off. Before them lay a city void of light. Streetlights were smashed or they had no electricity to eat. Anyone still living in the city would never draw attention to themselves by keeping their apartment lit after nightfall. Carefully navigating in second, they fought sleep for a two kilometers until finding a suitable place to rest.
On the left of a side road is an apartment building with the bottom floor wall blown out. The cement has fallen in several large chunks and it’s possible to drive the car up the blocks into the room. The car groans and the tires spin but they clear the gaps and park comfortably inside.
Dima stays in the room with the car. The moonlight casts bursts of shadows in between the clouds. Max staggers off to look for a warmer room. Maybe even a bed if he’s lucky. But it’s pointless. Fatigued from fighting but wired with adrenaline, neither brother can sleep. Leaning against the car, Dima tries to light a cigarette. Wind pours through the opening in the wall and the lighter won’t support a flame. He curses the cheap lighter and then pauses.
Max’s voice comes out from the hall.
“Hey, are you there?”