“Time for what? I am sorry Aleksandr, but I don’t understand. This is all very strange,” said Sebastian Pavlechenko. He clung then with desperation to his cigarette (almost finished already!), whose every drag produced at least the expected response.
“But you’re doing quite well! Much better than the last fellow, I must say. How about I give you a clue? Point you in the right direction, set you on the proper track,” the man said, mimicking a military march, “that sort of thing. What do you think?” He was smoking two cigarettes at once by this time.
Dread, which had long been pressing against Sebastian Pavlechenko’s skull in prescient headache, invaded his entire body now. He moved to turn around, head back home, but mutinous feet would not lift off the ground. The lone working streetlight had begun to dim. “Please. I just want to leave,” Sebastian Pavlechenko said.
“Leave?” the man said with bunched brows and titled head, before laughter erupted from his mouth. The sound’s echo returned a few seconds later—but changed, less happy. “Leave? Surely you jest. I’m afraid it’s too late for that, for both of us. The only escape lies through victory, Sebastian. Do you understand?”
Sebastian Pavlechenko did not. He tried to shake his head but every muscle resisted, as if transformed into rusted metal. “I—I want to go home,” he moaned.
“As do we all, my friend,” the man said, and with a shrug, cast off his raincoat and leapt fully naked onto the balcony railing.
A thin gasp from an ancient place escaped Sebastian Pavlechenko’s lips; he could not breathe. And at that moment, as he fumbled to remember the prayers from his childhood, Sebastian Pavlechenko felt a great pressure at his back. He screamed, and as the pressure intensified, he thrust his arms outwards, hoping to arrest all forward momentum by flapping his hands like some idiot bird.
It was of no use. The sensation of weightlessness began at the top of Sebastian Pavlechenko’s head—he suddenly felt quite bald—and dribbled down the remainder of the mathematician’s body. It was not an altogether unpleasant sensation but the closer it got to his feet, the more Sebastian Pavlechenko resisted the transformation. He knew that if it were to reach them, he would float away, like a discarded balloon at carnival’s end, and all would be lost.
It was of no use. As much as he wriggled his toes—hoping one would latch onto something (but what?), or perhaps drop off entirely, so that a future policeman, assigned to the mystery of his disappearance, could come across it and deduce the whole of the matter—Sebastian Pavlechenko could do nothing. And when the process completed and he was lifted at last off the ground, Sebastian Pavlechenko felt the pressure, more gentle now, relocate from his back to his chest: he was pulled towards the man on the balcony.
He flew—that he had no control over the action, or its destination, did not diminish this fact. It was not an elegant flight. He tumbled end over end and with each revolution the bric-a-brac from his coat’s pockets fell onto the street below: a pink candy wrapper; job clippings from yesterday’s newspaper (he had not looked at them); the receipt for a television from the electronic store around the corner. The coat too attempted to escape but Sebastian Pavlechenko clung to: it had been a gift from Garbine. To lose it would be unforgivable.
He came to a stop at last, upright, forty feet above the ground. The balcony was at his back, the forgotten town of Kalyazin beneath his feet. Lights dotted the landscape here and there like flickering fireflies. To his left, at the end of the street, roiled the great Volga. Moonlight bounced off its black surface and the current-shifted reflections created the impression not of a river but the scales of a vast serpent, many kilometers wide, slithering onwards toward richer feeding grounds.
“She is beautiful.”
Sebastian Pavlechenko glanced to his right. The man who called himself Aleksandr Ivanov watched the world below with longing from his perch, unconcerned with his naked form. The age of his body, gluttoned with fat and pockmarked with pimpled spots of yellow, did not agree with his handsome face.
Sebastian Pavlechenko did not agree with Aleksandr’s assessment. Mighty, yes, but beautiful? No. He shuddered at the resurfacing of a childhood memory. Attending a friend’s birthday party on the riverbank, he had almost drowned in its tides when playing with the other children. Deep water had held primal fear for him ever since. In vain he tried to think of happier times, but the river called to him, insistent, and he stopped finally to listen. From it rose a great sound, not of rushing water but of broken music, a thousand adagios slain and reanimated in Frankensteinian purpose. A funeral song.
“Ah—so you hear it too!” The man clapped, quickly, twice. “I knew I couldn’t be the only one. What a happy night—to discover one hasn’t gone mad after all!”
“Or we both have,” Sebastian Pavlechenko mumbled.
The man laughed in genuine humor. “Ever the pessimist, Sebastian! Tell me, do you feel mad?”
“Yes. Almost certainly.”
“Exactly! What madman understands his condition? No, no, my good friend, you are just as sane as I,” the man said, flashing perfect teeth in triumph as he pointed to himself.
“A comforting thought, to be sure,” said Sebastian Pavlechenko.
“You doubt yourself too much, Sebastian Pavlechenko. Without reason, I would say, but what do I know?” the man said, and as he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his body, starting from his head, began to ripple like a windswept flag.
“Certainly mad,” mumbled Sebastian Pavlechenko. He slapped one cheek, then the other. “Wake up, wake up, wake up. Please,” he prayed between slaps, to no avail.
“But you have awoken, Sebastian Pavlechenko,” said the rippling man as he opened his eyes once again. Skin and fat sloughed off him now, breaking apart into rainbow thread as they separated entirely from his body. “Come, take my hand, we must get going!” He looked towards the eastern horizon: the first colors of twilight had begun to escape its black mouth.
Sebastian Pavlechenko jumped—or would have had it been possible. “Morning already! But that’s impossible! It cannot have been more than two hours since I left home!” The thought of his apartment brought another matter to his attention. “Oh, Garbine—I have left her all alone, without notice. She must be worried sick! I’m sorry darling!” She must have called the sergeant by now. In expectation he searched the street below, certain police sirens would explode from a corner at any moment.
“We don’t have time for this, Sebastian! Grab my hand!” the thing that had been Aleksandr Ivanov cried out, extending its right hand towards him—the left had already blown away. Its eyes held for the first time fear.
“Mad, mad, certainly mad,” laughed Sebastian Pavlechenko. The river’s music roared. He reached for Aleksandr Ivanov.