Beyond the Window's Reach - FollowTheMaelstrom (2024)

Once more Vadim cowered next to the blown out window frame. Two boards, hastily installed, were all that separated him from the havoc beyond, from the cruel chaos that had taken hold of his old home town. Each morning anew the streets crackled with an unsteady silence that was soon torn apart by the cacophonous rattling of machine gun fire, grenade blasts and screaming.

For days, perhaps a week now, this crumbling abode had been his shelter from the world outside. Long looted and low on supplies as it was, his hunger and thirst had quickly returned and yet he preferred the pangs of exhaustion to the naked brutality beyond the window's reach. Within the walls of his decrepit hideout, there was this wondrous sense of separation. As if the noise of war outside the walls was not truly there. As if none of it was really here.

But that was over. There were two sets of steps that came closer, had been coming closer for a while now and as their silent tapping had become an audible scrunching of boots against sidewalk, he could no longer deny that they were approaching his location. They knew they would find him here, shaking and afraid.

To his left and right two empty shelves stood against the wall and as the steps grew louder, he sunk deeper and deeper into the little crevice they formed. He did his best to remain quiet and composed. Window to his right and hallway to the front he watched all possible points of entry with anxiously shifting eyes. A shaky gunbarrel pointed down the hallway, at the end of which a crooked entrance door mocked him with the constant threat of intrusion. Then he heard them, there, just beyond the threshold.

They were speaking to each other, murmuring. They knew he was here and they were here for him. A deep voice and a light voice quietly spoke with each other, the deep one felt commanding and composed, but the light one was friendly. Comforting. Eventually the voices turned towards him and Vadim found his terrible suspicion confirmed.

"Drop your weapon and we will not harm you." the deep voice bellowed from beyond the entrance door. Brittle and slanted it hung in its hinges, the lock shattered months ago. It would not protect him. Before he could even respond, he heard the light voice murmur something in response. "You know that's a lie", it chuckled.

The grip around his rifle tightened. Sweaty fingers pressed against cold metal. "I am not afraid to defend myself!" Vadim returned with what broken English he could muster. His voice was shaking. If the men in the street were not exactly deaf, they already knew he was afraid. Terrified. There was a short silence, before the deep voice spoke again. "Drop your rifle. We will not harm you."

"Your friend said that's a lie!" Vadim shouted back. Beads of sweat ran past his wide-eyed gaze. Even if they entered now, with his rifle pointed to the door, they were armored and ready. Who knew if the old thing in his hands could even still fire? But what choice did he have? "That's a risk you're just gonna have to take", the deep voice returned, unamused.

Vadim wrestled with himself. His pulse pounded painfully in his temples, his breathing had reached an unsustainable tempo. He weighed and thought and deliberated, before reflexively tossing the rifle away from him. It clattered loudly as it hit the floor. "I give up!", the man in the ruin shouted, "Please don't shoot me."

The front door creaked open slowly, a flashlight shone brightly into Vadims face, illuminating his pitiful silhouette and defensively raised, dirty hands. "Don't worry friend", the light voice spoke from behind the flashlight, "We keep our word."

As they entered they kept their weapons trained on him, but lowered them quickly when he didn't react. His vision was plunged into darkness for just a moment as his eyes recovered from the flashlights. Without much hesitation the soldiers stepped into the little room with the yet terrified russian man and dropped their bags with loud sighs of relief.

"Christ Almighty, I needed that", spoke the deep voiced man. He was tall and wide, his figure filled the doorframe almost entirely. The other was smaller, lighter on his feet. He was the one with the playful voice, the one that had snickered so tauntingly just beyond the door. He seemed different now. As he began digging through his backpack he quickly produced a can of some sort of foodstuff with a long faded label. The metal scraped against the cement flooring as the soldier put it down. "Hey!" Vadim jumped a little as he was suddenly addressed. Hastily he eyed the man near the satchel. The man turned his head a little, confused at Vadim's reaction. Then he produced another can from his pack. "You want one?"

Vadim felt genuine surprise at the unexpected hospitality. "For me?" he asked, mistrust palpable in his shaky voice. But as the outstretched hand with the can remained just an arm's length away from him despite his inquiries he finally grabbed it. He was still doubting his luck until he had finally opened it. The stench of oiled sardined would have made him sneer on any day of the times past. But after weeks of danger and hunger, weak and frail as he was, the contents of the tin were like a feast to him. Finally tuning out the world around him, even for just a moment, he fell to his knees and gulped down the entire filling in one go. The taste so intense and bombastic, so incredibly exciting after days of near starvation, he feared for a moment he might pass out on the spot.

As he returned to the world around him he found the other two soldiers laughing heartily at him while sharing their own portion of the field rations. They had taken off their helmets. The man that had given him the food was a younger man, stubbly beard, short blonde hair and friendly blue eyes that reminded him of someone he had once known. The tall man looked just as he had expected. Clean shaven, short black hair and a weathered expression.

He was still laughing at Vadim's immediate reaction to the food. "Good, huh?" he chuckled. "Uh huh", all Vadim could do was mutter and nod. "Want seconds?" the younger one asked him with a smirk. Vadim's eyes widened at the proposal, but quickly the man disappointed him. "Sorry, we barely have enough for us. But..." he grinned, "maybe next time we could bring you some more."

"You will return?" Vadim asked the men, faint hope reverberating in his voice. "Hell, if we make it." the tall one said and immediately cracked up. "True", his companion joined in, "if we make it."

"What are your names?" Vadim formulated the question as best as he could. "Oh you think we have names?" The tall man smirked again before chomping down some tuna from his can. "You can call me Shura", said the man with the light voice. "And my friend here is Artyom." "Hey!" Artyom interrupted immediately, spewing chunks of tuna onto the floor and some on his companion, "don't go calling me your friend. Especially if you're gonna give my name away." Shura gave him a smug look, but said nothing. Artyom just returned to his food.

"Artyom," Vadim spoke slowly, "you have my grandfather's name!"

"Well ain't that a thing huh?" the soldier returned unimpressed. "How's the old man doing?"

"He's not... with us anymore."

"Figures."

"Did he die in the conflict?" Shura interjected eventually after an awkward silence.

"Oh no, no" Vadims face lit up just the tiniest amount as he reminisced for a moment about the time before. "He lived full and happy life with his family until he died when he was old."

Shura allowed another short moment to pass. "Beautiful" he muttered approvingly.

With his meal finally scarfed down, Artyom threw the empty can to the side, where it struck a shelf and fell to the floor with a silent clattering. The smell of oily tuna fish wafted through the room for a second and Shura turned up his nose as it hit him.

Unperturbed the larger man began digging around in his backpack again only to finally produce an item that left Vadim's brows furrowed and jaw slightly slacked.

"What kind of soldier carries a violin into war?"

"Well," Artyom smiled for a second, before bringing the instrument to his chin and dragging a worn-out bow from his satchel, "I do, I guess." He shot a look at the russian man. "Hey shut up for a moment and listen, alright?"

Vadim said nothing in response and just awaited what was about to happen.

Slowly and with an unforeseen gentleness the man started to play the instrument. His fingers moved the tattered bow across the strings so delicately, as if he was caressing his baby child. As the notes softly escaped the strings, Vadim felt a faint smile creep up his face. For months not the hint of one had graced his weathered face, but today, on this evening in this nameless ruin, his stony visage slowly curled into a feeble smile. Melancholic and solemn, he recognized the sound. Through old-timey speakers his father had used to play this very song. He barely noticed how a single tear rolled down his cheek, before seeping into his beard. The soldiers noticed his reaction and too, smiled. "Wonderful music, my friend", Vadim spoke after a while, "reminds me of old ages." "I'm sure it does", Shura returned softly. They let the song finish. The melancholy of such a peaceful moment within the heart of his war-torn home left Vadim with a gentle warmth in his heart.

Eventually Artyom returned the instrument into his backpack and looked around. Vadim had not even noticed the man had put his helmet back on. Even through the tinted visor Vadim could see his sudden expression of haste and mistrust. "We better leave", the deep voice boomed. "Alright" returned Shura and immediately rose from his seat next to Vadim. "Friends!" Vadim did not expect such sudden departure, "Friends, wait! The sun has not set!" The happy smile was quickly fading into a confounded sadness.

"We can not stay with you, friend" Shura spoke in a comforting voice, "you are too wounded." "What do you mean?" Vadim returned confused. "Oh Vadim." The pity seeped from his words as he spoke. "Look." The Russian man followed the soldier's pointing finger downwards, below his neck, to the torn and drenched coat he had used to hold so dearly. There were holes in it, at first he saw only two, then three, then four. The cloth was shredded around the edges and a dark liquid had long been seeping into it. The coat was entirely drenched in it, slick with his blood. From outside, tumultuous sounds reached his ears and a sudden flash of light just outside the window painted the picture of an erupting fire. "We need to move", urged Artyom with a flat affect, quickly inserting a fresh magazine into his battle rifle. With a click, the first bullet was loaded into the chamber. Panicked, Vadim looked around. He did not understand. "When did this happen?" he choked, "When was I wounded?"

Through the plexiglass, Vadim could see the pity in Shura's eyes. He too had put his helmet back on, readied himself for combat. "When I shot you", his partner spoke from behind him.

"You shot me?" The man was in disbelief.

"He did." There was a gentle pain in Shura's voice, one that his partner had never echoed. "He warned you to lay down your arms and you did. I'm sure you were terribly afraid." There was a short silence in which the words whirled around in Vadims head, him trying his best to make sense of them. "He shot you anyway."

Suddenly they made sense. "I remember." Vadim muttered through his quaking lips.

"You do?"

"Yes, yes I do. You said to put down the gun and I did. But your friend just came into the hall and--" Vadim choked and coughed up a spray of red. "He just shot me. He did not even look at me." He looked up towards Artyom.

"Sorry, buddy", the soldier returned, "thought you were just another lowlife with a gun, better not to take chances, yknow?"

"You are not here, are you?" Vadim finally brought out. "No", the soldiers replied in unison. "You never did come in here with me, did you?" "Haha, nah man", Artyom chuckled, "I think we never even made it to the next block."

Shura turned to his friend, "We might have, no?" There was a playful light in his voice, but his ally just laughed "Man it sure didn't sound like it." With a routine motion, he finally attached his rifle to his rig. "From the sounds of it, we were out there, dead in the streets, like 2 minutes after, tops." Shura just chuckled in response, "yeah maybe."

"Anyway," he turned to the wounded man again "our time is up, we gotta move." With that the tall soldier mobilized and stepped out into the hall. The last Vadim saw of him was his boot, quickly withdrawn through the doorframe, out into the street, without a last word spoken.

Next to him Shura still stood and both knew he had to leave. "If you are not really here," Vadim tried to bargain, "then why can't you stay? Just few more moments." Shura shook his head. "It's not how it works." Vadim began to say something, but was interrupted as the soldier grabbed his hand.

"This is your moment now. Just- try to think of something nice, okay?" With a final solemn smile, he quickly got up and ran after his ally. Just before reaching the door, he stopped and looked back. "I'm-- I'm so sorry this happened to you." Then he left. The rattling of machine gun fire had gotten so much louder in the past few minutes and as Vadim watched Shura hastily move out into the street, he knew the man would be facing a world of conflict and death. And he would not be able to follow.

"Think-- of something nice" Vadim quietly repeated to himself, tears quietly streaming down his face. "Alright then." So he did. At first he just reminisced about his life, his friends, his wife, making sure not to dwell too hard on their current whereabouts and status. Just remembering. But as the blaze crept in through the window and consciousness began to give out, he soon remembered that song the soldier played. The gentle softness of the strings, the eerie melancholy and its wholesome, homely affect. It drowned out the commotion from the street, the slowly escalating sounds of war right beyond the window's reach. He felt the notes, within, underneath his skin. Soothing. Sedating. Warming. As the gun finally slipped from his slick, sweaty fingers, that long-lost smile returned to his face. And he was happy as he sank into that song from his childhood, one final time.

Beyond the Window's Reach - FollowTheMaelstrom (2024)

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