This story is by Linda Kasten and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Vera Oblonsky’s heels clicked against the rough stone sidewalk under a slowing stride. With eyes closed, she relished Antosha’s embrace, the prickliness of his soft kisses, the cedar-like aroma emanating from his uniform. She sighed, wishing to hold on to that moment for an eternity. Even the village apartments’ artificial lights lent her a comforting warmth, sweeping Russia’s usual chill from her bones.
“It’ll all work out,” she said aloud, reassuring herself.
Tonight, the upside-down world amazed her. A union’s beautiful love remained tucked close to her heart. The life-altering anticipation enveloped her in giddiness and longing. The wait made her soul ache.
Under the sky’s inky blanket, the moon’s glowing wink offered enough light to marvel at the gold band circling her finger. Reluctantly, she slid it off and dropped it inside her purse.
Harboring such a secret pounded fear into her being like an inchworm prancing upon her nerves. Perhaps her impulsiveness had betrayed her, let her heart rule instead of her head, but the magnetic field between them had been too strong. She’d been weak, foolish, even devilish.
Her mama and papa, sisters and baba, the honor her impulsivity had stolen from them filled her with regret, but she could mend it. Couldn’t she?
The family’s cottage blatantly called her to enter, the hour late, the uncertainty of what awaited on the other side holding her back. If luck accompanied her, she’d slip through the darkness into bed, no one the wiser.
With a soft snap, the door shut and a lantern’s sudden illumination pushed through the room.
“You’re such a liar, Verochka.”
Vera’s sister Nashenka sat in a curled fashion on the sofa, her hair wildly untamed.
A boulder-like lump expanded in Vera’s throat. Unfurling, Nashenka rose to her feet, her nightgown wrinkled. Remaining silent and stone-like, Vera’s gaze followed her sister’s figure while she circled the room and conducted a judgmental inspection.
“What brought that on?” Vera asked, unsure what she had lied about. Many half-truths filled her list, all borne out of necessity.
Nashenka produced a crinkled note. How dare her busybody sister invade her privacy! She snatched it from her and held onto it as if she were caressing Antosha’s hand.
“You went and married him, didn’t you? Against Papa’s wishes. How could you? After everything we discussed?”
“You’re wrong.” The lies accelerated, but Vera could not help herself. She loved Antosha so much she could not live without him.
Nashenka snickered. “I know you. You’re a horrible liar. Well, this time, you’ve done it. Papa will mourn. He warned you. Mama warned you. We all did.”
Having heard their foreboding words of Stalin’s latest rants and edicts, she had failed to heed his wild threats. Did her parents not share love the way she and Antosha did? They did not read her heart. They did not understand. Her future belonged to her. Not them. Not Stalin. One day, they will pass on to another world. And where would she be?
“Until you fall in love, you cannot judge me.”
Vera shed her coat and scarf and placed them on a hook, but Nashenka ignored the hint. “It’s always about you. Never those whom your actions affect.” Menacing shadows turned her sister’s sternly drawn face into a monster’s vicious snarl. “Is it worth the risk? I fear you’ll rue the day, and we’ll all be doomed unless you fix this.”
Before Vera could pivot and demand the solution so freely wielded, her sister had disappeared like a night specter on the prowl to scold someone else. Vera fell onto the sofa, still warm from her sister’s body, and dropped her head into her hands. How could she fix a desire so overpowering it controlled her every breath, act, and thought? The truth was, she didn’t want to fix it. She’d made her choice. Her choice was Antosha.
And as soon as the battles ended, they’d be together, husband and wife, a future for the taking.
As she coached herself to forget Nashenka’s depressing negativity, she lifted the ring from her purse to revive her spirits, to cling to its promises, the joy and hope it brought her. Did any of life’s changes ever come without sacrifice, no matter how minuscule or gargantuan? Life never remained stagnant. Risk, failure, pain, love, successes, dreams, and hope cycled perpetually, and she would not let fear stop her from living.
How she fell asleep that night, she could not explain, but soon she would relish the luxury and pray for dreams to give her body rest and refuge. She’d fallen into oblivion while imagining what her sister had meant, opting to forego her words until the morrow.
But she soon learned the morrow carried a different plan when others were in control.
The explosive pounding at dawn’s first light violently vibrated the morning air, awakening even the dead. Vera heard feet shuffling, voices rising, glass breaking, and doors slamming. Her breath caught in her throat. Her heart’s severe lurching blocked oxygen from reaching her hungry lungs.
Extreme jitteriness prevented her from flinging her bed covers aside to rise. Had something happened to Papa? She conjured disastrous images, none of which she trusted. Her trembling hands finally found her robe, loosely securing the belt.
Before she shoved her feet into her slippers, her door flew open. Nashenka swept through, closed it, and leaned against it. “Get dressed. Quickly!”
As a feverish heat burned her cheeks, Vera stared wildly. “What’s happening?”
“Our biggest fear.” Tears spilled down Nashenka’s face. “Now it’s too late to fix it.”
Haunting words made it impossible for her to snatch clothes from her cabinet, but somehow, she found the will to obey her sister’s command. “Is it Papa?”
A guttural cry caught in Nashenka’s throat, preventing a single word from escaping. Only animalistic gurgles emerged. Another crack blasted against the bedroom door, causing Nashenka’s body to stumble forward. Two uniformed men barged through—Stalin’s secret police.
Nashenka charged forward and embraced her with the strength of a bear, her tears staining her neck with cold, wet streaks. Vera froze. Waves of terror raged all the way to her core. She knew about the secret police. Everyone did. Whenever these brutal men took people into custody, no one ever saw or heard from them again. The purge, they called it, took individuals from their loved ones for the smallest infractions, most not even true.
And women… the most vulnerable… the torture and humiliation… her mind fled when her body couldn’t.
“You’re under arrest.” The police yanked her from Nashenka’s clinging arms. Mama and Papa wailed outside the door, screaming at the invaders to not take her away.
“I’ll be back. Don’t fret.” Vera managed another lie, stretching to touch them as the men dragged her into the hallway. Her mother’s tears dropped on her hand.
Somehow, Vera’s body moved, but not of her own volition. The men’s piercing grips lifted her from the floor, her feet dangling as if she’d just had a rope cinched around her neck. She wished it were so. Death would be a welcome pleasure at the moment.
Her ears would never forget the deafening sounds that morning, her family’s imploring words, the begging, the screaming… and her heart would forever wail for Antosha.
The interrogation room smelled of vomit, urine, and corpse-like body odors. The tiny, dimly lit room enclosed her in a smothering dread she could not bear. Let me out of here!
“Do you know Antonovich Oblonsky?”
“No.” Not a lie. Did anyone really know someone else?
“When did you last see him?” Her interrogator huffed, repeating the trick question, but again she denied it.
With penetrating evil, the man’s sour breath spit in her face. He grabbed her by the hair. “You were not in Ukraine?” She did not answer. The mocking man placed the marriage license in front of her. “He is Ukranian, is he not?”
The man knew he was. The intimidation techniques wore her to a frazzle, her thoughts on what all this meant crashing heavily upon her. She hoped she’d anger him enough to shoot her, save her from an awaiting misery. Her Anton… the despair gripped her without mercy. He’d never know what became of her. Her panic was debilitating, harsh, unforgiving, a punishment worse than the gulag.
“Stalin detests Ukranians, yet you defied the law and married a Ukranian soldier. Your crime carries a penalty of fifteen years’ hard labor.” The man slammed a stamp on a form and left.
Hyperventilating, she watched the tomb fade into blackness, her ears buzzing and her heart pounding louder than a chisel on cement. Everywhere she turned, she cried out for Antosha to save her, but an impossible truth brought a penetrating despair.
Just then, a stout woman burst through the door and slapped her face. “Shut up and strip down. You must be searched to board the train.”
Her journey to hell had begun.