Homecoming

"Welcome home, brave warrior."

Private Andrei Raskov sighed. Everything was as he remembered it. Every pane of glass and every chip of paint. It was as if his khrushchyova had been holding its breath, waiting for its proud soldier to come home.

Piece by piece, the memories came flooding back. There on the table, that red bowl that he refused to eat out of when he was a kid because it reminded him of radishes, which he hated. Here next to the television, that couch where he had his first kiss with Olga, with her blonde hair and big brown eyes. Oh, how she smiled…

Andrei became keenly aware of just how tired he was. It was as if he had run a thousand marathons, lifted a thousand boulders, fought a thousand bears. Every muscle, every cell, every molecule in his body was tired. The only thing he could think of doing was crawling under the sheets of his own bed at last and let himself get lost in the ease of sleep.

"Well? How do you feel?" Mama asked, rubbing Andrei's back and beaming. He glanced at her. Did she always have that many wrinkles?

"I'm tired." Andrei sighed. Mama's expression betrayed the age of her countenance. "Mama, Papa, I'm going to go take a nap. I will see you both for dinner." He moved towards the bedroom.

For a moment, Andrei forgot that his right leg was his bad one now.

"Boy." The gravelly, vodka-soaked timbre of Papa caught Andrei's attention.

"Yes, Papa?" Andrei turned around to face his father. His weathered face was overcome with a strange expression.

"You remember the stories I told you when you were a boy? About the Great Patriotic War?"

"I do."

"Then you know you can talk to me anytime. To us. About anything."

"Yes, Papa. Thank you." Papa pulled Andrei into a short embrace, patting him on the back twice and letting him go.


"Here you go, andryusha. Eat up." The aroma of clued Andrei into what was for dinner well before Mrs. Raskov even brought the bowl to the table. Solyanka. His favorite.

"I hope it's passable," Mrs. Raskov said sheepishly. "I haven't really gotten a chance to make solyanka recently, what with you being…" She trailed off. Andrei brought a spoonful of the soup to his lips and took a small sip.

"I'm sure it's delicious, Mama. Thank you."

"Tatiana! Come eat with your big brother!" Mrs. Raskov called as Andrei processed the taste of the solyanka. The saltiness of cured meat and the acidity of the pickle brine were as if they had been ripped straight out of his childhood.

Andrei was suddenly aware of his sister peering at him from behind a corner. Her slender, adolescent form slinking out from behind the wall moved like a deer approaching a bear. There was an unsettled look in those big brown eyes, a sense of unease towards the stranger sitting at the table. It was the same rictus of fright she had on her face when he used to read stories of kikimoras and boginkas to her before bedtime.

Andrei stared at his bowl, the acidity of the soup still dancing on his taste buds. There was a bitter aftertaste he had never noticed before that killed his appetite.

"What's the matter?" Papa's voice grumbled, sitting to Andrei's left. "Eat up. Solyanka's still your favorite, no?"

Andrei stayed silent.

"Hey." Papa leaned in. "What's the matter? Talk to me, boy."

"I'm… not very hungry. Perhaps I will finish this later." Andrei stood up, pushing his chair from the table and retreating to his bed.

Papa sighed as Andrei


"General Secretary Gorbachev… Tuesday morning…"

Soldiers lifted boxes into a helicopter.

"situation in Afghanistan… untenable…"

The soldiers climbed into the helicopter, the engine whirring as the rotors began to spun.

"withdrawal effective 15 May… expected to be completed by 1987…"

The helicopter takes off.

"Andrei… Look at this!" Mama whispered, transfixed at the grainy images of the television set. Andrei had no choice but to look. The last thing he

Thousands of kilometers away, the last bastions of Soviet hegemony were crumbling into the sand as once-proud soldiers ran far, far away from the mujahideen that humiliated the most powerful military in the world.

"It's over, son," Mr. Raskov sighed, the intonation of his voice stuck somewhere between relieved and despairing.

"That means Yakov's coming home soon, isn't he?" Mrs. Raskov asked, rubbing Andrei's shoulder.

"Yakov's dead, Mom."

It was only after the whole room fell into silence when Andrei realized that he was shouting. He blinked. Blood was rushing to his face.

"Wait—" Mr. Raskov's hands shot out to try and prevent Andrei from storming off, but it was no use. He pushed through the throng of shocked onlookers. He had to hide from the prying eyes of the world. "Son! Talk to me!"

Andrei slammed the door behind him.


The road back home from the cannery was a peaceful one. These walks were what Andrei looked forward to the most, in the dark alone with his thoughts. As he observed his surroundings, he mused to himself that it was as if a cloud was hanging over the city. The streets were empty and silent. When he was a boy, Papa had told him stories about how he and his comrades had raised the hammer and sickle over the ruins of the fascist Reich and marched back to Moscow as heroes, coming home to the trill of trumpets and the roar of cannons with their heads held high.

Today there were no parades, no fireworks, no tanks. Only the shame of defeat.

Andrei's tired hands fumbled as he unlocked the door to his khrushchyovka, his fingertips wrinkled from perspiration and brine. The smell of fish stuck to his clothes. He swung open the door to see his parents sitting on the couch in silence with solemn faces.

"Andrei." Mr. Raskov broke the oppressive din of quiet with his gravelly timbre. "Sit." He patted on the cushion between him and Mrs. Raskov. Andrei obliged.

"Let's talk."

"What is there to talk about?"

"You know."

"No, I don't." There it was again, that irritated inflection in Andrei's voice.

"If this is about the whole thing with Yakov, I'm sorry," Mrs. Raskov burst out, her lower lip quivering. "I didn't know about it! I would never knowingly hurt you, son, you have to believe me!"

"This is a little bit bigger than that, isn't it, dorogaya?" Mr. Raskov told his wife. "Boy… we're worried about you."

"Why? I'm fine."

"This isn't what fine looks like, andryusha," Mrs. Raskov pleaded, her eyes glimmering with moisture, "You barely eat, you barely talk, and you don't come home until midnight. I remember you when you were a little kid, so happy and carefree. This isn't you, Andrei. What happened?" Mrs. Raskov broke out in sniffles, and she reached for a handkerchief with trembling hands.

"Boy," Mr. Raskov reached over to put a hand on Andrei's knee. "talk to us."

Andrei shot up, pushing his father's arm away from him and pushing the pretty pottery off the shelves onto the ground where they shattered into a million pieces, bawling about how everyone always wanted him to fucking talk, how talking wasn't going to bring back Yakov and Vadim and the dozens of his comrades buried in that shitty desert, how talking wasn't going to fix the limp in his leg and the ringing in his ears and the blinding tightness of fear in his chest whenever he hears a bowl clatter to the floor, how talking wasn't going to fill the streets with marching soldiers and rolling tanks and men and women and children cheering them on, how talking wasn't going to distance himself from the cold truth that all of his suffering was for absolutely nothing and the only thing he could do was hang his head as he came home to this hell of shame and disgrace, how he was dying, slowly losing his mind, his brain tearing itself apart.

By the end of it all Andrei's chest was heaving, his breathing quick and rapid, vocal cords hoarse and raw, blood trickling down his wrist from putting his fist through his babushka's prized bowls. Mama had broken down into ragged sobs, holding her face in her shaking hands. Papa sat in the same position, staring at his feet.

"Oh, Mama," Andrei whimpered, slowly returning to what sanity he had left as he rushed to his mother's side, "don't cry…"

"M-My little boy…" Mama gasped as Andrei desperately tried to console her, "what happened to you?" It was only after Mama's wails had quieted into sniffling when Papa spoke again.

"In Leningrad," he began, "I saw a child eating the body of his own mother. He couldn't have been older than eight. You could count every single bone in his body just from looking at him." Papa sighed. "I may have returned with my head held high in pride, but inside I was dying. Every time I saw raw meat I thought of the hunks of flesh that little boy tore off his mother's bones. It made me vomit." Papa gave a great shudder. "And to think that my own son saw the same things I saw… feels the same way I feel…" And Papa, too, broke down into sobs, his great body shaking in grief as he buried his face in his hands.

"Talk to us, son," Papa gasped between sobs, gazing at Andrei through his tears, "just talk to us…" Andrei stared at him. Mama's head rested against his shoulder, her eyes glazed as she stared into space. And suddenly there was a great calmness that washed over Andrei, and he felt the cold walls of his conscious thought crumble as he prepared to say what he had been bottling up for so long now.

He opened his mouth.

"I'm ready."


Click.

The wheels on the tape recorder stopped spinning as a wrinkled finger reaches to press the button on the top.

"Well… we got it." The turbaned man who held the recorder said, leaning back in his chair in satisfaction. He gazed upon the young Russian man lying unconscious on the bed in front of him, his face frozen in an indecipherable expression. One might say he looked at peace—satisfied, even. The rhythmic beeping of the monitor next to him devolved into a long, continuous drone. The bearded man watching the monitor sighed.

"He's gone." The bearded man said in resignation, turning the monitor off to spare both men the annoyance of the drone of flatline. He stood up, reaching out a finger to caress the face of the dead Russian. What kind of a world did he see in his last moments? What compelled him to give in?

"At least… it was peaceful. Much better than bleeding out in the sand." The turbaned man handed over the tape recorder to the bearded one. "Get this to high command. And tell the Americans that their little gift worked just fine."

"What happens next? What are we going to do with this?" The bearded one asked. His companion smiled.

"We attack."

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