Shadows and Mirrors
A miasma of drowsiness infected the still air of all the classrooms, a hint that the day must be almost over. A weary Mashka tread down the hallway and out into the sunshine, hoping that by some miracle she would rejuvenate as a canary when the cloth was removed from over the cage. Though the sun lifted her spirits, it did not give her the second wind she needed.
The rest of the day had thankfully been a typical one, save for the occasional strong scent or overheard conversation from a few rooms away. But for now, all such bizarre sensations had subsided. The chill grass crunched beneath her feet, playing out a three-step metre to a song she was attempting to recall. Though the air was chilly, she did not feel a need to wear her coat over her thick sweater. The Baltic Sea had been unusually warm that March. It was typical for there to still be snow, but instead green hues were returning to the gardens. She hoped that there would not be a hard frost to destroy the possibility of early blooms.
Nearby, a quick game of American football had commenced. It was an unusual sight for such a dynamically western game being played in the grand Russian cultural centre of St. Petersburg, but its popularity had been increasing over the past few years. She stopped to observe, her tired eyes at last open wide, invigorated by the chill air.
One of the men made a mighty throw, causing the leather projectile to travel beyond the designated playing field. It seemed that it would glide toward Mashka and pass a couple metres above her head, but some instinctual drive urged her to catch it. Running a few paces, she leaped into the air and felt as if she had just taken flight. With ease, she twisted like a trapeze artist she had once seen, and snatched the projectile, holding it to her chest. When she landed, she gaped in disbelief at the football in her hands.
The would-be receiver ran up to her. “That jump! Spectacular! Where did you learn to do that?”
“S-spasibo,” She glanced to the side in embarrassment, as she tried to figure out exactly how she had accomplished the feat.
From his vantage point, in the second story lounge, Chekhov had beheld a more accurate view of the astonishing act. He absent-mindedly dropped his mug in surprise, and spilled lukewarm coffee on his trousers. However, he was too excited to care. The Association was already aware of her enhanced senses, but they only had a hunch as to whether she had any physical advantages. He certainly had something to report now. Right before his eyes, she must have launched herself at least three metres into the air.
But would it be enough? He did not like the idea of needlessly endangering her with whatever ‘test’ the Administrator had in store. If this was proof enough, all that trouble could be avoided.
It took some effort for Mashka to break away from the group of awestruck students who were bombarding her with compliments and questions such as, “Were you a gymnast?” or “Do you train?”
Mashka broke away, still blushing from the embarrassment, when Chekhov suddenly met her in the hall.
“That was quite a leap. I had no idea you were an athlete.”
“Oh you saw that?” Hurriedly, she averted her eyes, “Umm, well, I‘m not--, a gymnast--, that is--, I did take ballet.” Shrugging dismissively, she distracted herself by straightening her headscarf, as she often did when nervous.
“Ballet does not teach you to jump like that.” Chekhov persisted.
Mashka was beginning to feel uncomfortable. She felt like what she had just done should best be forgotten. Furthermore, something felt odd with Chekhov’s desire to know more. Searching her mind for a way to dismiss the event, she smelled coffee. She looked down and saw his wet trouser leg. “Oh my! Do you need a towel for that?”
He shook his head, allowing her to change the subject. “No, I already tried to dry it. At least I wear trousers the same colour as my choice of drink!"
As a natural diversion, Mashka brought up the reading assignment, “Oh… I have started reading the assigned Charles Dickens' anthology, but I don’t think he is an example of excellent literature as you claimed.”
“Why do you think that?” he sounded taken aback. “Charles Dickens is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest writers. He's iconic! Even our own Tolstoy praised him as the best author of the English language.” he sounded mildly offended, which perplexed Mashka. She chalked it up to him being an English professor.
“Perhaps Tolstoy was making a veiled insult to English literature?” She continued her critique with a sigh, “Dickens was far more verbose in description than he needed to be. He left little room for imagination, no opportunity to use one's own brain.”
“I liked his enthusiasm for detail. And furthermore, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, not exactly the picture of brevity.” Chekhov slipped out of his formal exterior and rolled his eyes.
Seeing a way out, Mashka jumped at the opportunity. “Well, this evening I'll try to find a physical, translated, copy. Maybe reading that as well as the English electronic book will give more context. The library has all of them checked out, but there’s a book-store nearby.” She turned her foot, ready to leave, and opened her mouth to say a quick ‘Da svidanya’, but before she could, Chekhov spoke up again.
“I have an extra copy. I could drop it off at your house. I believe you live somewhere in Kali Tomchaka, am I right? I already have an errand that way.” As the phrase left his mouth, Chekhov mentally flinched.
“Uh,” Mashka paused, taken aback by the offer. She had not calculated for this. The situation did seem a little friendlier than she was comfortable with. Then again, her brother would be home, and the professor did say he had an errand that direction. “Well, I suppose it would be fine.” She pulled out a slip of paper and scribbled down her address. “That should keep you from getting lost. Our house is the fourth building clockwise in the cul-de-sac.”
Chekhov accepted the paper and nodded. “I do think you will enjoy the book more in Russian, though it isn't very appealing to the young and impatient.”
“On the issue of the young and impatient, I need to be at math class.” If all else failed, making it obvious that she did not wish to continue the conversation would have to succeed.
“It seems gifted people like you are always busy. But slow down and keep your eyes and ears open. It pays off in the long run.” He smiled and walked away, humming a tune she had never heard.
She felt something inside her turn. Nervousness clung at her. It was something in his voice. He knew exactly how she had made that leap, even though she did not, and the timing of him mentioning her hearing was rather convenient. She did not want to be paranoid, but something was off about Chekhov.
On the school's flat roof, the high school students of District 266 were organised in lines as they did their callisthenics. Though not a groan was heard, the mood of the students took a turn for the worse, when knee bends were called for. After the exercise, Aleksei and Yegor collapsed on a bench and rested, looking out over the varying rooftops of St. Petersburg, the skyline occasionally pierced with the onion domes of churches.
Aleksei took a deep drink from his cup and sighed contentedly. “You know, Yegor, water only tastes this good after a torture session with Gn. Groznyy.”
“Da, I think he gains sadistic enjoyment from watching us ‘improve our health’.”
Aleksei let out a gentle snicker, imagining a little demon on Gn. Groznyy’s shoulder, shaking in spiteful glee. Once he had banished the image, he shrugged. “I suppose he’s not too bad though. He did stand up for you when you were accused of the graffiti in the hall.”
“And the only way he knew that I was innocent was because he had me cleaning the toilets when the graffiti appeared!” Yegor still found reason to grumble.
“It was your class’s turn to clean the bathrooms. Besides, they’re not that terrib--”
“Yes it was!”
“I’m talking about the knee bends.” Aleksei glared at his friend, not wanting an undesirable and extensive description of those particular latrine woes. “We did all sorts of exercises back when we were part of the kalinka club. Gn. Groznyy is hardly as cruel as Gzha. Lyubova, you do remember what she put us through, right?”
Yegor, spent a few moments in silence, a rare occurrence, as he recalled the various traumas of the kalinka folk dance club. He finally put on a nervous smile as he replied, “Da, I guess so. But that does not leave Groznyy off the hook. At least in dance we could look forward to the applause.”
After some more gruelling exercises, classes resumed in their normal, uneventful way until the school day came to a close. Youths streamed through the halls, stretching and discussing evening plans such as study group or extracurricular classes.
Emerging from the orderly chaos, Yegor and Aleksei stopped at the bicycle rack. The latter unlocked his bicycle whilst reviewing their weekend strategy. “This Friday we are studying at my house, right?”
“Oh, Friday? Err…” Yegor looked around avoiding the withering stare from his friend.
“N-niet, not at all…” Out the side of his mouth, Yegor muttered just above a whisper. “Nadezhda…”
“Congrats, Yegor!” Aleksei smiled infectiously.
“Oh, r-really!” Yegor was surprised at his friend’s approval and grinned nervously.
“Yes, this beats your previous record of two days and eleven hours, for shortest relationship by at least four hours!” Aleksei declared, his toothy, sarcastic smile still frozen to his face.
Yegor’s grin vanished as a puddle on a hot day.
Aleksei’s laughter bubbled up at his friend’s ridiculous, mildly hurt face. After a few seconds, Yegor could not help but realise the comedy of the situation. Before their mirth ridden smiles could subside, Yegor’s mother pulled up in her car. The two friends shouted a casual ‘Poka!’ and parted ways. Neither of them noticed a slender wisp of mist rise from the gutter and drift in pursuit of Aleksei, gaining momentum and size as it went.
Mashka parked her silver Jetta in front of a flower shop. The quaint little store was tucked in the middle of the tightly packed shopping district, and could have easily been missed by the untrained eye.
She walked in and the store-owner greeted her, “Zdravstvuyte Gaspazha, what can I help you with?”
“I need yellow rosebuds on long stems.”
He glanced through his inventory, “They are twenty-six roubles each.”
Mashka nodded, digging into her purse, “I need seven, in a bouquet with baby’s breath.”
The florist’s eyes were sympathetic, “Seven is special number.”
“It is for someone who was very special.” Mashka replied.
The florist nodded solemnly and readied her order. His hands moved quickly, as he trimmed the stems and arranged the bouquet.
As she waited, Mashka casually looked in a mirror on the back wall and caught sight of a man staring at her from outside. Shadows conveniently hid his face. Everything around her seemed to fall back, leaving her vulnerable and alone. Her jaw quivered, and she had no idea what she should do.
The florist startled her when he spoke, “Here you are. That will be one-hundred and eighty-two roubles for the roses and the baby‘s breath is on the house.”
“Uh, Spasibo, they're lovely.” she said with a sweet smile, as she accepted the bouquet.
“My condolences for your loss.”
She smiled gratefully and paid him. Glancing in the mirror again, she saw that the man was gone. She breathed a sigh of relief, and exited the store. As she got in the car, she took the opportunity to non-nonchalantly look around, and saw no one. Beginning to believe the man had been her imagination she got in her car and began pulling out. She was almost in the street when a car zipped past almost hitting her on the narrow street. She honked her horn and glanced in her rear view mirror. At the street corner behind her stood the man, face hidden in darkness. She pulled out on the street as fast as she could and drove away, watching the man shrink in the distance. The whole trip home she drove as fast as she could, keeping an eye on her mirrors.