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The Hospitality House

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  09:47:28  10 March 2006
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On forum: 07/31/2003
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The Hospitality House

Some truths are harder than others. Harder to find, harder to accept...harder to live with. But truth is always a good thing, especially when taken in moderation (it just needs to be taken in moderation). Too much truth and a man may shed his soft skin, loose interest in the easy comforts of apathy and double-talk, find himself looking out from a coarse husk and seeking the truth in every object.

Alexei had known the truth, of that much he was sure. Nothing else could explain the look of wry contentment on his face as his guts slowly squirmed out from the grasp he held on his lower abdomen. Visili tried to convince himself the mortar had misfired for the longest time. A freak accident due to corrosion of the oft-derided fuse mechanism. After all, the weather was fiercely invasive in the Khankali basin. The steady rains were seasoned by the Caucasus salt flats and sudden windstorms could fill your barrel with stony grit in no time. Of course they had been warned about these things. But, of course, no one was more dutiful than Alex when it came to maintaining the squads’ equipment.

To even call them a squad at that point was laughable. Evgeni and Ilya had been killed in the Grozny uprising and Arturs, the magnetic jokester was either A.W.O.L or on the longest cigarette break in the history of the Republic. All that remained were Alexei, the man-boy, Ruslan, and himself. After the incident, Visili had told Ruslan to take the rest of the food and go home. The young soldier had argued that there was still much work to be done to liberate the break-away republic.

“The only work left to do here is bury our comrade. If you stay you will lie beside him before too long. You have done a man’s job, Ruslan. It’s important you live long enough to do so again. I pray it is under peaceful circumstances. Head North until you reach the Terek. The river will lead you home. I will tend to Alexei. Go now. Leave your uniform and all identification behind.”

Visili’s tone had the vacant confidence of one speaking in absolute terms. There simply was no alternate point of view. The boy swallowed his reservations and gave his superior and friend a final salute. Visili watched the boy until he was just a fading dot on the horizon. He then retrieved his retractable trench shovel, footing his full weight on the tool’s edge to gain entry into the dusty hardpan.

“I would be…within my rights to shoot you right here. Promoting willful insurrection…is a capital crime…comrade. So is digging a man’s grave…before he is ready to fill it.” Alexei managed to smile as he spoke, a courtesy Visili managed to reciprocate, despite his friend’s gruesome condition.

“The boy was always too good for this place. Its surprising how few people are.” Alexei spoke as he always had, if not for the circumstances Visili would have thought himself in for another evening of philosophical discussion..

“I’ve got some…salted biscuits and deer meat in…my pack. I don‘t think I’ll be needing them. My vodka as well…won’t be needed. At least not in the distant future”, Alexei said with a labored wink.

Visili produced two slender but heavily leaded glasses from a bit of wound ragging inside the pack. He filled them both and helped lift Alexei’s to his cracked lips.

“Arturs… is dead. Died 5 days ago. If only good news…traveled so fast.”

Visili had no mind to speak, lest he steal time from his dying friend. “Before he left he told me to say goodbye…that’s right… I knew he was going… because...I sent him.”

The dying officer’s words seemed to be bolstered by the vodka

“The second meltdown is a fact, Visili. Arturs hails, hailed, from Narowlya. I sent him home to collect his family. Someone found his identification…my name was among his papers. They sent word to me of his death. From what I hear now, Arturs would have been safer had he stayed in this godforsaken hellhole. He would have wanted you to know why he left.”

Vasili stood at the entrance to the Zone. There was no sign announcing its presence, but a blind man would have known where it began. Would probably have known better actually, as the Zone was sensed more than seen. An instinctual, atavistic defense mechanism, long out of service, suddenly sprang to life and pleaded with you to turn around. ‘Go find a good woman’, it said, ‘lose yourself in her and forget about this place. You have no business here.’

But he did have business here. His squad was long gone, and the only way to bury a hard truth, is find a harder truth.

Homes, long abandoned, ringed the outskirts of the Zone. Mausoleums, Vasili thought, they should all have been razed out of decency. But then again, they were never supposed to have been seen. This notion further reinforced the feeling that he shouldn’t be here.

All the homes were the same; dusty relics, void of vitality, museums of dubious utility. The curators had left long ago, never to be replaced. Vasili didn’t like them one bit. He moved past them now without even a glance. Until he saw the stone-work house. It stood with dignity amid the rampant undergrowth, a mini Tudor-style affair betrayed by its brick chimney. It was tucked away in a cul-de-sac where children no-doubt once learned to ride bikes and kick soccer balls. Vasili walked up the front stoop, wiping he feet on the mat before opening the door…

He would forever ask himself what drew him to this particular house. What made him walk up those stairs and open the door. He could have simply kept walking. And given the choice again, he surely would have.

The door opened with a simple turn of the knob. Vasili strode inside, he felt the Tokarev dishonored the memory of place, and so holstered it accordingly. There was something still vibrant and compelling about this home. Not comforting, though. Definitely not that. Visili’s hand brushed the plastic grip of his pistol, just to make sure it was still there. His attention was grabbed by the neatly arranged photos displayed on the mantel, the black and white pictures were especially beautiful. Generation after generation enduring the trials of dictatorship only to end here, with one brutal miscalculation.

Perhaps there were stores in the cellar, tin cans kept underground were safe, or at least safe enough. Vasili’s beam showed the way down the creaky wooden stairs, his pistol was most assuredly in his hand for this trip. But the cellar was quite bare, so he went back upstairs . The ice-box suddenly drew Vasili’s attention. He wondered how he had missed seeing the red splotches, faded as they were, running along the handle and edge of the long-dead appliance. He looked closer at them and realized they were not as old as he had first thought.

With feigned nonchalance Vasili quickly opened the door to the ice-box, and the stench staggered him. So much so that it wasn’t until several seconds later that he saw what lay inside: He stumbled backward, knocking to its side the kitchen table, which he now realized had actually been set, the plate and silverware clattering to the floor.

“Honey, is that you?”

The voice came from upstairs. Or was it in his mind? Was it in his mind?

“It’s about time you came home, darling.”

A heavy thumping accompanied the voice. It was too heavy, and coming down the stairs. Vasili stood frozen…
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