By Ekaterina Borovikova
Translated from the Russian by Irina Modelskay
It was a gloomy day, the leaves no longer fell from the trees, the wind did not blow – everything stood still and froze, as if the time of agony and death had passed and a silent, reliable and lingering grief had come. Nothing mattered to Howard, even if the birds were singing in the sky, the lush foliage reflected the sun’s glare, and he was overtaken by girls in short shorts on bicycles. Howard closed the curtains of his window more tightly and turned on the desk lamp, although it was day. He looked at the calendar, thought a bit, then unhesitatingly removed several books from the shelf and laid them on the table. He sat down in a chair, opened a notebook, opened the first book, and eagerly began to read the text, but his thoughts ran up. He fidgeted in the chair, could not find any comfortable position. Howard reached for a pack of cigarettes, but threw it back with irritation. He forgot to do something. He left his small room and opened the opposite door, to the smaller room:
The old woman continued to watch TV. Only when Howard came closer did she notice movement and looked at him. A smile spread across her face, but she said nothing. Her rare curly hair was slightly disheveled, a long nose protruded on her thin face, and her body seemed very small, on the scale of a huge chair. This chair with red upholstery always seemed to Howard hard and uncomfortable, and it always made Lilian, his grandmother, hunch. However, Howard, raising his tone, continued to speak, trying not to be too serious:
“I will have an important exam, nan. So until I say, do not let anyone in, do not let out, and do not make noise or disturb me. Deal?”
Lilian was silent and smiled even wider. Howard did not expect anything else, so he decided not to bother her anymore. He went to the exit, when suddenly, behind him, he heard her voice:
“But the exam will not prepare you for life.”
“What?” Howard asked, not believing his ears.
The old woman was silent.
“But these are my words, nan?”
She looked again at the TV. Howard closed the door and, standing in the corridor, heard the host first say a word, and then repeat it distinctly, spelling, after which there was a laugh. This laughter was not on TV. It was low, guttural and a little hysterical. Wow. Howard was surprised. He hid in his room. The room was dark; the dim light of the lamp illuminated only a table and covered the bookcase nearby and a picture of a mountain landscape, hanging to the left of the table. But due to the dusk in the room, the mountain landscape turned into a night, in which the ominous peaks of the underworld were distinguishable.
Howard read books with great thoroughness, hour by hour, day by day. Information fit in his head in the form of images, it even began to seem to him that the book sheets moved by themselves, especially important lines swelled, slowly floated in front of his eyes and cut into memory with whole phrases. He even had a vision that some pages were burning. Waking up, he realized that he was dozing off at the table. Nothing burned, but the ashes from the cigarette fell on the notebook. He threw the cigarette butt into the ashtray and only now realized that it was full and several cigarette butts were already on the table. He wanted to clean the ashtray, but, raising his hand to it, he discovered how thin his hand had become, his skin was pale and his veins were very visible. He got up, felt weakness in his legs, then, cautiously, experiencing problems with coordination, he went to the exit. He stopped at the mirror, slowly, fascinated by the view, he examined his reflection, and then raised his shirt. The ribs protruded strongly, the stomach fell into. He opened the door and, without turning on the light in the rest of the apartment, went to the kitchen to grab something. It was the third day without eating.
Howard felt sick from eating – his stomach lost the habit of food inside it. Having overcome cramps and nausea, he returned to his room. Things were going well, one book disappeared after another. Could he say with certainty that the information was just as quickly absorbed in his head? He did not want to think about it. He stopped, finding himself between his own room and the door of old Lilian’s room. Despite the absence of any conflicts of cohabitation, he couldn’t make himself to call her “grandma,” let alone “granny”. Howard wanted to pull the handle of her door, come to her, thank her for the silence, but for no reason he broke out in a sweat. There was a bad feeling. It was bizarre. How could his crazy old woman, who, most likely, never heard his speeches, be so obedient this time and get along without her TV for so long? Did she really come up with something new this time? More than anything else, most of all that he could see inside the room, he was afraid to see her smile, right from the threshold, without any preparation. Her eyes, which stupidly stared directly at him and a puppet smile without emotions. Howard shook off his obsession and opened the door to his room.
Happiness gave way to anxiety. The number of cigarette butts around the ashtray began to exceed the number of cigarettes in it. Another day passed, he almost did not sleep a wink, but he no longer advanced in preparation, even for a page. He was reading, but could not catch the point. His mind was completely absorbed in what was happening in the apartment, he eagerly listened to the silence. At first, he thought he was worried about her. His palms were sweating, he often leaned his ear against the door, but not a sound came from the opposite room. Then he realized that he was craving for Lillian not to be alive, but dead. He did not ignore a single rustle. Ascribing this or that noise to the neighbor, or to the sounds coming from the street, he seemed to be released by a huge grip of tension. Then waves of anxiety grew again, and he strained his ears. He wanted to go in her room, see what he had to see, and then call the number that should be called in such cases, but he was afraid. He was afraid because he did not know for sure.
Another day passed, he moved the chair from the table to the door and was sitting, afraid to move and provoke the creak of a chair or floorboards.
Howard lost track of time. There was a feeling that the exam had not arrived yet, that he had in reserve few more days, but maybe the exam had already passed. He was still sitting on a chair in front of the door; on the left was his reflection in the mirror. The room was dark, so he did not see the changes that happened to him. His hands began to tremble again, but stronger than before and he realized that he would have to leave the room again and eat something, although he did not feel hunger.
He opened his door carefully, as if he were not at his own home. Slowly, on tiptoe, he crept along the corridor and suddenly, almost absolute silence was pierced by the sound of the phone. Howard froze. It rang again and again. But nothing happened. No one picked up the phone. Howard did not even hear any movement. There was absolute silence.
Uncertainly, Howard went in the opposite direction, toward Lillian’s door. There was nothing to be afraid of, he decided to himself, it was the right time to look inside. He turned the handle very quietly and slowly opened the door. The room was dark, only due to the streetlights the old woman’s face was distinguishable – she was sitting in her chair, small, hunched over, with disheveled curly hair and a strongly protruding nose. Her eyes were closed. Howard leaned forward, very close to her face. It even seemed to him that he had noticed every red vessel and capillary on this old face.
Gradually, Howard began to pull away. Somewhere here in the dark he had to find a telephone on the table. He almost reached with his hand to the telephone receiver, once again looked at the old woman, as his heart jumped and started to pound furiously: her eyes were wide open.
“You fell asleep, nan?” unusual for him, the most subtle and uncertain voice, stifled by fear, pierced the silence.
“Yes, I did” unexpectedly distinctly answered Lillian. “You can sleep well when you are left with no food.”
Howard removed the hand hanging over the telephone. There was only one thing left, not giving any sight of fright, to close the door behind him and hide in his room. He slowly backed away; it seemed that nothing unusual was happening. Was it real,
the old woman had just dozed off? When he closed the door to Lillian’s room, he instantly ran to himself and slammed his door. He caught his breath and, probably from the adrenaline rush, he felt better and his head began to work more clearly. He set the chair to the table. He shook out all the cigarette butts from the ashtray into the trash can and collected all the scattered on the table. He tried to calm down, to do something familiar – he sat down at the table and picked up a book. Suddenly, he heard the footsteps.
Howard listened. He heard steps very distinctly, first in the distance, then closer and closer. He did not hear at least one door open. His heart was pounding like mad. Is the old woman going to the kitchen? Suddenly, he saw her figure. The door was closed. First, little by little, and then completely, she stood in front of him, in his room. She walked through the door without opening it.
Panic fear made him turn his head away. He shut his eyes tightly, then opened them, in front of him was an open textbook, and because of a drop of sweat falling from his forehead, several printed letters were distorted and blurred.
Howard turned his head. The old woman was already sitting on his bed. Now she smiled. Her eyes stared blankly at him, she did not blink. The mouth spread wide in a puppet smile. Then he heard a familiar old woman’s voice, too persistent, confident, domineering and piercing, like a screech that he had never heard from her:
“ I’ll help you on the exam. Do not worry.”
Ekaterina Borovikova is a writer and screenwriter from Russia. She has been published in Spadina Literary Review and Twist & Twain.