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Set in an era before PTSD was recognized, and when no one had heard of the Taliban, Soviet Son shows how Russia and the United States are forever linked through war in Afghanistan.
It's 1991, the Soviet Union is on the brink of collapse; bankrupt, in part, due to the decade long war in Afghanistan. Vladimir Verstakov, a 25 year old construction worker drafted into war, emerged the lone survivor after a brutal ambush by Mujahideen fighters. Now home, Vladimir struggles with violent flashbacks, forcing him to constantly relive the battle.
Sverdlovsk, Russia. Soviet Union
It must have been four, maybe four-thirty in the morning. The usual time. Vladimir Verstakov sat wedged between the toilet and sink in the dimly lit bathroom. The usual place. Naked, shivering, knees to chest, thrusting his father's clunky old Makarov beneath his chin, hating himself and this mess he'd become. Once again, he was lost in a memory of Afghanistan.
I am running like hell.
Hyperventilating, heart pounding, sweat pouring, I am sprinting uphill, leaving a trail of gray dust, slipping over shale and skidding around craggy switchbacks, staying low, quick, and small despite my size. It's over now; the whole convoy is dead. But I still hear the two blasts. I still hear the gunfire. I still hear the commands. I am darting around, trying to avoid the bodies, both Afghan and Soviet. They are mostly Soviet.
Finally, the Salang Tunnel. I come to a clumsy halt. The air inside is stagnant, smells like diesel, but, thankfully, it's cool and dark. I lean back against the wall, let my head drop back, try to catch my breath. I pat my chest pocket, pull out a cigarette, then a lighter. My lips sting as I stick the cigarette between them.
A distant sound in the sky grabs my attention, the familiar whir of a helicopter. The Black Tulip is working hard these days. It makes a few passes and lands.
My wife's sparkling voice resonates in my head even louder than the helicopter. "I want to live life." She'd said that to me on the night we met. Zhanna is at home, in Russia, and she is everything. She makes me want to live life, too.
I hustle out of the tunnel. "Hey! Hey!" My voice is gravel. The helicopter is down below, hovering off the ground. I think the pilot sees me, but I'm not sure. I wave my arms overhead and run down the hill, coughing, "Hey! Hey! I'm alive! I'm alive!"
Startled by the harsh memory, Vladimir snapped back to reality. His eyes shot open. His body jerked so hard that his head slammed back against the bathroom tile. No longer running for his life along the Salang Pass in Afghanistan, but trying to end his life here, at home in Sverdlovsk. "Why?" he whispered between short, labored breaths. He put the gun down on the floor near his hip and dropped his forehead to his knees. "Why did I survive?"
"There was a survivor? Wow," says the doctor outside the tent. "That's refreshing, given the goddamn slaughter that's come through here today. You have the survivor's file?" A few seconds go by and then he says, "Verstakov, Vladimir. All right, I'll take a look."
The army doctor walks in through the canvas opening. He looks so smart—file in hand, wearing glasses. He smiles and nods but is utterly spent. I can only imagine the bloody mess he has seen today. Did anyone else survive? I don't think so.
He checks my eyes with a little light, checks my blood pressure, asks me to take several deep breaths as he listens to my lungs. He wraps a bandage around my ankle, tells me to stay off it. Another bandage above my eye, a few stitches. Afterward, he shakes my hand and says I am a real hero. I shrug it off by saying, "Nah, I'm no hero. I just ran like hell." We chuckle, but I start coughing. It hurts to cough. Hurts to do anything.
He gives me a bottle of pills for the pain, tells me I can get more if I need them. Even when I get back to Russia, just go to the pharmacy and show my military ID. I thank him. I know I'm talking too loud, but the noise, it's too much.
The trouble had started out benignly, a little crankiness here and there during the first few months home. Zhanna fully understood and catered to his every need to make the smoothest transition possible from battlefield to home. Everything was fine—a delicate balance at times, yet fine. But the persistent noise of war returned out of nowhere, a constant backdrop of Blast. Gunfire. Commands. Blast. Gunfire. Commands. The vivid flashbacks came along for the ride.
Now, every minute detail played out more clearly, more vividly, with each passing day. Afghanistan and Russia meshing together—present and past, all one eternal loop. Discerning the past from real time was more confusing every day. Loading the supply truck or helping Zhanna put away the laundry? An AK-47 violently shoved in his face or a screwdriver handed over on the construction site? The airy whistle of a teakettle or the sound of a land mine ready to explode?
He picked up the gun and turned it over in his sweaty grasp. It was a clunky old pistol that once belonged to his father, a tortured musician who'd bowed to his demons¾Something Vladimir despised in himself, having a weak father.
"Viva?" came a hurried but sleepy voice. It was Zhanna, frantically turning the doorknob and knocking. Most likely, she was standing there shivering in her thigh-length, red T-shirt and nothing else, because in all her worry, she'd jumped out of bed, forgetting to grab her bathrobe or slippers. She probably had her forehead to the door, looking down to her pink-painted toes. "Viva. Baby, open the door, let me help you," she said.
Vlad kept turning the pistol around in his hand, "You should just let me go. I'm only bringing you down."
Zhanna frantically rattled the doorknob, twice slamming her fist to the door. "Vladimir! Listen to me! I love you. I love you and I need you. Don't leave me! Not like this." Her voice broken by tears, she kept talking. "There are a lot of people who love you," she said. "Oleg calls a lot. Guess he got tired of waiting for you to call him back, so he came by the beauty shop the other day for a haircut."
She gave a fragile laugh and started rambling as she always did when nervous. "You should have seen him, that big brute of a hockey player sitting in the waiting area with all those little old ladies. Once he sat down in my chair, he said he didn't want his hair cut, just asked if you were okay. He says you barely make eye contact with him at work anymore, and he misses you at Wednesday night darts. You two used to have such a good time at Wednesday night darts, remember?"
Another nervous laugh, then she said through tears, "But I cut his hair anyway. Gave him a good conditioning treatment, too. He looks much better."
She paused for a moment before going on. "Your mother and Stepan have been calling, too. Your mother has a poetry reading next week, and Stepan thought it would be nice to get together beforehand, maybe have a light supper."
She sniffed and exhaled. "Viva, I need you, too, and I'm trying real hard not to give up. Please. You need to get some hel¾" She couldn't finish, her voice halted by tears.
He said nothing in return. Couldn't, really. Wednesday night darts with Oleg and the guys—that was a lot of fun, but seemed to belong in a different lifetime. Mother and her poetry, Stepan and his desire to make everything copacetic. Vlad enjoyed spending time with his mother and stepfather, but there was no going back, not after Afghanistan. One by one, fat tears trickled down his face.
He quickly wiped away the tears because Vladimir, which meant "the ruling one," reflected his given name perfectly. He stood just over one hundred ninety centimeters, weighing in at a solid one hundred kilograms, a cool twenty-seven years of age with highly defined cheekbones and dark mahogany hair coupled with green eyes so bright that his mother had once described them as "twin fields of grass, kissed by the morning dew, sparkling like mighty emeralds under the brilliant Slavic sun." Men such as Vladimir were born with the heartiest of Russian souls. They did not need help, and they sure as hell did not cry. "Don't worry, I'm coming out," he said, "Just give me a minute."
He heard Zhanna slowly pad away.
He pulled open the left-hand drawer and watched as the plastic bottle of painkillers rolled to a stop. Five pills no longer brought on sleep, so he spilled seven into his palm. A bottle of vodka waited beneath the sink. He popped the pills into his mouth and took a good swig from the bottle, fistfuls of pills combined with hefty swallows of vodka now the therapeutic routine.
With a head of fog and a chest made of concrete, he shuffled back to the bedroom, where he stopped at the dresser and placed the pistol back in the top drawer under a stack of folded shirts. A pair of damaged eyeglasses lay there, too. He brought out the glasses and held them up to the window, where a three-quarter moon illuminated them. The frame was bent, a faded smudge of blood marred the right lens. The left had a distinct crack running from the bottom right corner to the upper left. He stared at the damaged glasses as the constant background noise in his head grew louder.
"You stare at those glasses every night, Viva. Who did they belong to? Someone in Afghanistan? And where is the gun?" He turned to see Zhanna standing in the doorway, a warm mug of goat's milk mixed with honey in her hand.
He placed the eyeglasses back in the drawer and slid it closed. "Doesn't matter now, let's just go back to bed." He stepped back two paces and slumped down on the bed with a sigh, holding his foggy head in his hands.
"No, we are not going to bed," she said, placing the milk on the nightstand then kneeling down before him, situating herself between his knees, taking his head into her hands. "Look at me. This isn't the first time you've tried to kill yourself since the war. Please, admit something is wrong."
He tried to deny her presence at first, twisting his head out of her grasp, looking to the floor, all for fear of actually seeing in his wife's eyes the disappointment she must be feeling for choosing to be with someone so weak. To be strong for your wife, to make her feel safe and secure with you—that is what marriage is all about. But he had failed and felt it like a gaping wound. Ultimately he could not deny her anymore as the tears ran down his face without control. He nuzzled into her neck, crying, "I hate this, Zha-Zha. I hate this."
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Audrey Lynn lives and writes in Missoula Montana. Soviet Son is her first novel.