T. Cook

2001 Jul 10 – 2013 Mar 08

2444078.20: New Morning

Now the world tilts and spins, and all around Nadia, blurry shapes make incomprehensible gestures and shout with deafening voices. She is lifted high into the air, terror and vertigo crowding her mind, and she screams an unending wail of anguish. Blunt objects prod her, then she is pinched by something harder and more frigid than anything she has known. Unable to make sense of her surroundings, she flails about, quickly exhausting herself. Darkness and sleep wrap around her, carrying her mind to a quieter place.

2445668: Nightmare

Awakened in the middle of the night, Nadia climbs down the steep, moonlit stairs to the first floor. The third and fifth steps creak at the slightest weight, and seem to sag as the girl touches them. Fearful of their crumbling beneath her, sending her to her doom, she quickly scrambles past them, sliding her bottom with a thump to the next, fingers tightly gripping the front of the stair edge for support. At the bottom, in the darkness, Nadia stands, reaching up and turning the wobbly, iron knob of the front door. The warped, uneven panels, seemingly held together merely by peeling strips of paint, swing open with a dull, gritty sort of groan, revealing a vacant city lot, severe in the pale moonlight. Nadia backs against the rough plywood hanging from splintering fenceposts towering ovearhead. Terrified dismay contorts her features as she turns to go back into the house she just left, now a blank wall. Small upwellings of thick, black fluid dot the rich, uneven earth. By degrees, they swell, then burst, erupting upwards as though spat by some grotesque monster hidden underground. The stuff begins to fall from the sky, in a vile rain that cannot be escaped, whose touch can bring nought but death. Frantic screams fill the air as a crowd of people mills about in terrified confusion, trying to find shelter.

Nadia whimpers and turns in her sleep, her eyes flickering rapidly behind closed lids. Gasping for air, she sits up, shaking and breathing heavily. There is no other sound in the house, apart from the metallic creak of her bed as she shifts her weight. The pale moonlight shines brightly, serenely, through her window onto the floor and wall and the weird pattern of shadow quickly coalesces into the form of twisting, grasping claws. An eerie cry--a hooting wail--carries through the air, and a vague, winged thing flies from the branches of the tree outside. Nadia bites her lip and draws her blanked to her chin, shivering with fear and staring fixedly at the ceiling until sleep claims her once more.

2446078: Failing Intimacy

There is a sound of movement at the doorway of her room, and Nadia looks up from where she is playing to see her father standing over her. A hungry look fills his eyes, and he speaks in a low voice, his voice thick. "Up in bed, Nadia." As she climbs onto her bed, she feels a hand gripping her shoulder, turning her to face the man who now has a wide, toothy grin. He pushes her back, heedless of her feeble attempt to resist. "Just lie back." She stares at the ceiling, confused, then afraid, as he draws down her pants and lowers his head between her legs. An ill-defined urge to urinate, along with a brief nausea, washes over her in a wave as he sucks and works his tongue. Finishing his endeavour, her father stands and gives her an exaggerated wink before turning and leaving. Benumbed by what has just happened, with no sense of how to react, Nadia simply pulls up her pants, turns off the light, and goes to bed, fully clothed.

2446221: Twilight Bird

Cautiously, Nadia picks her way through the undergrowth outside the stone cabin nestled in the woods that surround a deep lake with clear azure water. The muffled sound of loud conversation mixes indistinctly with strains of piano music and closer racket of unseen chirping birds. Pretending not to hear when her name is called out, the girl quickens her pace. Finally enveloped by quiet as she enters a small clearing, Nadia slows to a halt, breathing heavily. As she looks around, she turns in a circle, eyes darting to and fro, eagerly absorbing with wonder the sight of untamed wilderness. With a sigh, Nadia settles down upon a large rock, neatly spreading her dress to her sides and staring at the clouds passing overhead, a look of contentment becalming her features. Slowly, her eyes close and she drifts off to sleep.

Vivid orange light fills the sky when she wakes, the setting sun glittering on the lake just visible through gaps in the trees. Sneezing, Nadia sits up and blinks, trying to recall where she is. Groggily, she stands and stumbles toward the direction from which she came. Crying out in surprise, the young girl jumps back as something at her feet thrashes about, making a discordant warbling noise. Nadia crouches to get a closer look, and finds herself staring directly in the bright eyes of a wounded hawk. It cheeps softly at her, flinching as she reaches out to pet the soft feathers. In the dying light, Nadia frowns as she feels something sticky, and withdraws her hand, sniffing at it then gagging as the odour of rotting meat fills her nostrils. Eyes wide with terror, she watches transfixed as the bird gasps twice, shudders, then is still, its eyes clouding. Tears streaming down her face, Nadia stumbles blindly through the bushes, falling backwards as she runs into a tall person. With a quick movement, the adult's arm reaches out and grabs her, restoring her balance. An angry, loud voice drives into Nadia's head, reprimanding her for wandering off, demanding to know where she has been. Overwhelmed, hungry, and drained, Nadia collapses.

2446459: Yellow Flare

Bleak and cheerless, the early-morning light shines through the bare branches of clusters of trees, glittering on the new-fallen snow that covers the ground. Shivering in the frigid air, Nadia sits huddled in the back seat of a beat-up Zastava and stares at the grey road winding through the sparse forest. When the small car leaves the wooded area, the sun is high in the sky, blinding rays flooding the desolate landscape, combining with the rhythmic motion of the vehicle to lull the young girl into a hazy state of drowsiness. As the road begins to curve around a dry lake bed, a low rumble, growing to a constant thunder, stirs Nadia, and she looks around, blinking sleepily. In fearful wonder, her mouth drops open as her view finally settles on a blazing yellow flare, climbing above the western horizon on a thin column of white smoke.

2447024: Lost Trust

"This is a secret -- you can't ever tell anybody" her father rasps with a conspiratorial whisper, a sickly smile creeping onto his face. Nadia stands in her parents' room on a lazy summer afternoon, summoned by the only other person in the house for most of the day. He does not even bother to close the door behind him. "Hurry, before your mother gets home...say, take off those clothes." Frowning as the girl hesitates, he speaks sharply, in a tone that brooks no argument. "Now." There is not even the possibility of contemplating disobediance; she reacts on pure impulse. Sullenly, Nadia disrobes and stands naked before the grinning man. "Lie down...there. On your stomach. Like that." The bed creaks and shifts as her father climbs into it beside her. Nadia lies there, glassy eyes unfocused, staring at the wall as her father turns into her back, pulling her close. The dull ache filling her abdomen, merely a cheap immitation of the sensation of needing to move one's bowels, is insignificant compared to the tight knot of resentment constricting her heart, and she clenches her teeth, waiting for it to be over, for solitude to be returned to her, untroubled by the intrusions of others. Her father's voice rasps harshly in her ear, a grunting chuckle. "Too bad...you weren't a boy."

2447040: Spark

Nadia slides onto the only remaining bus seat, nervously glancing at the other occupant for several minutes. The ridiculously ornate dress covered with frills and large, ribbon-bedecked straw hat, along with neatly-braided shining coppery hair, gives the petite girl a decidedly porcelain doll-like appearance. She looks back at Nadia with large, soulful eyes and smiles, dimples appearing on her rosy cheeks.

"Whee! Somebody will sit with Sofiya!" she exclaims, clapping her tiny hands. "What's your name?" she asks, her voice faint and airy.

"I...um, Nadia" stammers Nadia, blushing, unused to anybody attempting to converse with her.

"How beautiful!" Sofiya clasps Nadia's hand in her own. "Did you know your name means 'hope', Nadenka? It does." She looks out the window as the bus passes through a copse of trees. "Sofiya hopes that Nadenka can become Sofiya's dear friend."

2447105: Companion

Weary of the chaotic din of conversations between the other students, her head throbbing with pain, Nadia reduces her pace, dropping behind the group several metres, then turns and slips between the thick foliage into the forest. Pushing through ferns and clumps of hanging moss, she walks for many minutes, peering about, looking for a clearing in which to rest. A low rumble overhead makes her pause and glance at the dark clouds gathering overhead. Sitting on a large half-fallen tree trunk, Nadia leans against it and closes her eyes, relaxing in the cool breeze. She flinches slightly as a peal of thunder rolls across the sky, then abruptly turns to find the source of a small cry behind her. The leaves of some bushes rustle, then part to reveal Sofiya, carrying her parasol lightly in one hand and holding her frilly dress with the other, trying to keep it from getting any more damp than it already is.

"Oh, Nadenka," she gasps, pausing to catch her breath, "Sofiya was afraid she had lost you, and was ever so worried!" Nadia exhales slowly, closing her eyes and clearing her throat to speak. With an electric squeal and blinding flash, a bolt of lightning stabs through the sky overhead, followed by an eerie silence. Both girls scream and jump in terror, Sofiya flinging herself at Nadia. Rain streams out of the belly of the cloud, utterly drenching everything beneath. Overwhelmed by the sudden innundation, Sofiya and Nadia dive beneath the large moss-covered mass of wood and huddle together, shivering. Sofiya clutches her parasol, holding it above herself and Nadia in a futile attempt to ward off some of the water. Whimpering, they stare out at the downpour, greyness obscuring the vivid blue-green landscape and transmogrifying the atmosphere into a roiling, breathing beast. Groaning and creaking, the branches of the surrounding trees sway back and forth in the violent gusts of wind, crashing into each other with dissonant claps. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the precipitation ceases, ghostly tendrils of mist rising from the saturated earth, filling the air with a pungent, rich aroma.

2447106: Consequences

A dismal, autumn rain drips from the low grey clouds and slithers down the short, tinted windows high in the brick walls of the school's main office. Webs of red and blue light lance through the twisting rivulets and slide in bizarre patterns along the wall. Fidgeting nervously, a young girl sits on a long bench in the waiting room. The murmur of conversation behind the closed door before her is barely audible over the hum of the air conditioning and fluorescent lights. Slowly, the hands of the clock inch along their path, the thin red second hand seeming to take ages to pass between the small markings. Hunching her shoulders, the girl brushes a few tangled strands of straw-coloured hair from in front of her eyes and allows her gaze to wander over the room's spartan furnishings. Behind her, a large window extends from floor to ceiling and from one side of the room to the other, interrupted by a door to her right leading out to the main hallway. A flag hangs from a brass pole to the left of the reception window in the wall across from her, and a fake plant sits in a large pot at the end of the bench. Other than a framed photo of a balding, fat man wearing a military uniform standing in front of a cathedral, the cement-block walls are bare. Tilting her head to one side, the girl idly picks at the cracked pea-green vinyl padding on the bench. Small flecks of dried blood rub off her fingers and stain the exposed yellow foam. With a start, she jerks her hand away as the inner office door opens, revealing a severe woman with pinched features and glasses, and two police officers. As the woman strides briskly towards her, the girl jumps up, standing rigidly, clasping her hands behind her back. Swallowing, she steals a glance at the police as the woman scrutinizes the girl's bloodstained shirt and narrows her eyes.

"Nadia," she says, voice low and dangerous. Nadia's breath quickens as the woman glances at the police and nods slightly. With a studied air of indifference, the officers turn and look at their paperwork, ignoring both girl and woman. Nadia tenses, but the sting of the first slap burns on her cheek before she even notices the movement of her mother's hand. The second blow sends her halfway across the room, tumbling to the floor, giving a short cry of pain. Roughly, the tall woman grabs the girl's arm and pulls her back up, shoving her towards the door. Dragging her to a small blue car, the woman pushes Nadia inside, slamming the door behind her.

Heart pounding, her throat tight as she fights to hold back hot tears, Nadia stares unseeing at the scenery as they drive through the heavy rain falling over the city. Eventually, the sound of the car motor ceases, and she slowly opens the door and steps onto a cracked, cement driveway. Nadia rushes to stay close to her mother as she enters the two-story house, but the woman quickly closes the door behind her, leaving the young girl standing, shivering in the cold. Tears spill over and run down her cheeks, mingling with the rain as she sinks to the ground and sits, hugging her knees to her chest. As the sun slips below the horizon, the door opens behind her and she turns at a loud sound of disgust.

"You're still out here? You really are a worthless pile of garbage. As soon as you're eighteen, we're no longer legally responsible for you, and you're on your own. Get to your room," spits her mother, who steps around the child and gets in the car, driving away. Shakily, Nadia stands and turns the knob, falling inside as the unlocked door swings open. Sniffling, she closes it behind her and half-crawls into the small living room. A moment later, she frowns in confusion, for she now stands in the kitchen next to the counter. In a daze, she reaches out and closes the drawer of knives someone had left open. Slowly, she turns and makes her way across the house, wearily climbing upstairs. Entering her cramped room, she sits on her bed and stares at the water-stained, peeling wallpaper.

2448501: Grey Morning

Nadia leans drowsily against the shower wall, the searing-hot water cascading down her body, its sharp pinpricks bite into her bare flesh. She flinches and rubs her eyes to rid them of sleep, then yawns. The girl is startled awake as the stream of water shoots into her mouth, making her sputter and shake her head wildly, then thrust out her hand. She howls with pain as her wrist smashes into the valve of the tap. Whimpering, tears streaming down her face, Nadia stumbles out of the tiny bathroom, nursing her injured limb, and falls into her bedroom. A few minutes later, she sits up, shivering as the moisture covering her bare skin evaporates. Hugging herself, Nadia rushes into the bathroom and grabs a towel to wrap it around her body before firmly grasping the spigot in the shower and turning off the water.

Nadia stands next to the small table beside her bed and places her hand on a few loose forms that lay upon it, moving the top paper aside so she can see the schedule printed on the one beneath. Driven by a sudden impulse, she leans over to the window and pushes aside the heavy curtain, squeezing her eyes shut and turning her head as the morning light floods the room. Wiping grime off of the cracked pane of glass, Nadia peers into the distance across the Volga to the other side of the city, towards the clock tower just visible between buildings. As she struggles to make out the time, the faint peals of the bells chiming the hour drift through the sky. Moving her lips as she counts the rings to herself, Nadia glances at the schedule on the table again, then cries out in alarm. She grabs the papers and the half-unpacked shoulder bag on the floor and rushes from her room, nearly losing her balance as she darts down the stairs, and fleeing the house, letting the unlocked door close itself behind her.

Chilly fog clings to dim corners along the street, hiding from the beams of sunlight in the shadows of weathered buildings. Hurrying along a cracked street beside a sluggish green channel branching from the river, Nadia alternately looks at a tattered map and cranes her neck, trying to recognize landmarks, street patterns, and the rare sign legible enough to aid in navigation. On the bridge crossing the river, she looks up the southern bank in an effort to find the building marked on the paper by the text "Школа #9" and a red circle. By the time she reaches the school grounds, her side burns with each breath. Sweat beading her forehead, the girl pauses and leans against the brick pillar of the main gate, legs shaking. Gagging, Nadia crumples to the ground, hunger and fatigue both sapping what remains of her strength. Using the brickwork as a support, she slowly rises to her feet and staggers across the courtyard, approaching the metal double doors set with thick panes of glass. Nadia weakly tugs one open and slips inside. For a few moments, she stands in the entry, her eyes slowly adjusting to the dim light.

A long hallway crosses the building; ochre and grey-green linoleum tiles laid in a checkerboard pattern along the floor gleam dully under flickering fluorescent panels, and chipped ceramic squares cover the walls in a mosaic of soft hues of blue. Running against the wall a few feet inside the doorway is a simple wood-and-glass trophy case, containing some mediocre awards and medals, faded photographs of past alumni, and one or two elaborate statuettes. Doors lead from the passage at intervals, some opening onto side hallways, others bearing faded signs. Nadia passes them slowly, reading each one as she walks down one side of the corridor then returning, stopping at the main office. Timidly, she knocks upon it and enters. Inside, she slides the forms she has been given across a counter to a bored-looking clerk. Yawning, the wrinkled man puts on a pair of spectacles and rubs his hand over the top of his bald head, then picks up the papers. He stares at them for a long while, mumbling, then peers at Nadia. Shifting her weight from one foot to the other, she grips her left wrist tightly and studies the wood grain on the counter.

"You'll excuse me, I'll have to talk with the principal," bleats the man, who then retreats into another room. Long minutes drag by, and the man returns, followed by a very short woman with steel-grey hair wrapped tightly into a bun and dark eyes. Bristling with authoritative energy, she looks once at the slender girl.

"Come to my office," she barks, jabbing an index finger at Nadia, who follows the principal into another room with a large desk. Two plain chairs sit in front of the desk, and a large, velvet-covered wing chair is behind it. An overflowing bookcase stands to the side. "Sit," commands the elderly woman, gesturing at one of the plain chairs, then scurrying around the desk and planting herself upon the large seat which dwarfs her slight figure. Clasping her hands before her and leaning foward on the desk, she narrows her eyes.

Rattling loudly, the door to the classroom slides in its track as Nadia opens it and enters. Trying to calm her breathing, her heart a tight knot in her breast, Nadia stands at the front of the room beside the instructor and faces the class. Whispers and giggles pass among the students, and Nadia self-consciously drops her gaze, blushing and pressing her arms tightly against her sides. The searing rays of midafternoon sunlight lance between the gaps in the drab foliage of the trees outside and burn in dappled patterns on the students and their desks. Overhead, decrepit fans wobble and creak as they turn, stirring up a haze of dust from the chalkboard and window sills. Buzzing fitfully, the last few cicadas of the year gather in warm nooks and crannies among the branches near the windows, their droning harmonizing with, then overwhelming, the instructor's dull voice. Nadia begins to close her eyes as an impatient cough startles her and she jerks, turning her head to see the teacher, looking down his nose at her with no small amount of disgust, pointing to an empty seat. Her ears burning scarlet, Nadia stumbles between the rows of desks, heavy shoes squeaking as they fall upon the dull, cracked lineoleum floor.

2449962: Glimmer

The harsh calls of crows shatter the cool air as a brisk gust of wind sends some crimson and ochre leaves sailing through the air, then swirling in eddies around the roots of slender trees whose partly-denuded branches clutch dazzling dresses of gold and scarlet leaves. Groups of students bundled up in mufflers and coats hurry along the sidewalk toward the glass-and-cement façade of the school. Well apart from her peers, Nadia slows her walk as she crosses the brick courtyard in front of the building and looks behind her, shading her eyes from the bright sunlight shining through gaps in the broken clouds.

Nadia frowns and sighs heavily, hefting her bag on her shoulder. Shuffling her feet, she steps into the darkness of the school and pauses to allow her sight to clear. Irritated by her obstruction, other students grumble loudly and shove her roughly to the side. Nadia murmurs halfhearted apologies, and sullenly goes to her classroom. A few more students straggle in as the bell rings, and take their seats. The teacher, a thin woman with pinched features, begins taking attendance. When she reaches Nadia's name, she pauses and twitches a smile.

"How good of you to join us once more." The class titters and several students sneak glances at Nadia, who hunches forward in her seat, her ears burning with shame. "Since you are no doubt familiar with this material, why don't you go to the blackboard and conjugate the verb 'to pull'."

As she turns and heads back to her seat, Nadia pauses, catching her breath as the cute haircut of the girl a few rows over draws her attention. She peeks over as she sits back down, looking more closely at the other student--a slender young woman with large brown eyes and noble features, her skin a delicate shade of olive, clear and flawless.

2450441: Evening Snowfall

Small points of light twinkle in the clear sky, soft ochre on the western horizon shifting to violet dusk, then darkening to blue-black overhead. Nadia shivers as a cool breeze sweeps around her, carrying fragments of crumbling, dry leaves down the narrow sidewalk. Quickly, she turns the key in the lock, opening the door to her house and stepping inside to the relative warmth. Slipping off her shoes, she pads up to her room and climbs into bed, wrapping the blankets about her and staring out the window. Lights from the town glow cheerily, blurring as her breath fogs the pane of glass. Nadia tugs the worn linens closer, huddling under layers of thin cloth, and watches the pale flakes of snow drift down from the sky, a sad, thoughtful expression on her face.

2450565: Despair

Numbly, Nadia drops her arm limply to her side. All but forgotten, the telephone handset falls from her shaking hand. Shuddering, she stares blankly into the distance. Dimly, through the words echoing in her head that confirm her existence is worthless and hated, one conclusion forms, absolute in its simple logic. Her movements are mechanical, emotionless, as she closes her hand around the heavy scissors.

Long corridors rush past in a blur, the pungent smell of medicine fills her nostrils. A fog fills her head, making it difficult to think. Nadia turns her head slightly, noting with detachment that her left wrist, throbbing with pain, is wrapped tightly in gauze. The bandage hurts, and cuts off circulation so she can't feel her hand. Exhaustion sweeps over her, and she begins to loll to one side. Shaking her head in great arcs, she tries to lift her left arm, but she is too weak. A voice murmurs behind her, and she winces as something jabs her neck. Before she can complain, sleep descends.

2450570: Rain

Sniffling, breath coming in low, quavering rasps, Nadia sits with her bare back pressed against the wall and wraps her thin arms around her legs, clutching them to her chest. Faint grey light shines through the heavy curtains, punctuated by electric blue flashes which are followed by a loud crack, then deafening rumble. With each peal of thunder, Nadia flinches, involuntarily clenching her teeth as her breathing turns to short gasps. Rain, falling incessantly for the past week, drums a slow beat on the window, increasing in frequency until there is a steady dull roar.

Somewhere, in a dark corner of the room, large drops of water splash on the cracked tile floor, staccato dings accenting the endless crescendo of the storm. A quiet tapping on the door is replaced by several loud knocks, and Nadia tenses, concentrating as she tries to distinguish what might be a voice from the background noise of the downpour. With a click, the handle slowly turns and a girl shrouded in a hooded raincoat hesitantly pushes the door open.

"Nadia? Ugh...Nadia Quidam?" she calls softly into the gloom, covering her mouth. "Are you in here? I'm the class representative..." Seeing Nadia's silhouetted form on the bed, she steps inside, wrinkling her nose. "Eww, it stinks in here...hey...you haven't been to school for three days now, they sent me to get you..." she suddenly gags, backing into the hallway and retching, darting towards the bathroom. A minute later, she wipes her mouth and leans, shaking, in the doorway, looking more carefully into the room and at Nadia. Raising her voice, she speaks unsteadily, "h-how can you live in a place like th..." she swallows, her voice trails off. "Just...be in school tomorrow," the girl finishes, letting the door close behind her, then slamming the front door a few moments later as she leaves.

2450571: Precipice

Her chair lurches as the student behind her roughly kicks it, and Nadia snaps out of her reverie and blinks quickly. The instructor stands near her desk, scowling, and several of the other students sit with arms raised. What did the teacher say? Uncertain of what to do, Nadia ducks her head and looks at her hands, clasping and unclasping them atop her desk. The girl in the seat behind her gives a short bark of laughter and reaches for Nadia's wrist and lifts it over her head. Nadia wrenches her arm from the girl's grasp and violently flails about as she lunges from her seat and dives for the back of the room. Breathing heavily, she presses her back against the wall and brings her knees up to her chest and wraps her arms beneath her legs, shivering. The class is completely silent, and the loud thud-thud of her own heartbeat fills Nadia's ears, her eyesight dimming.

When consciousness finally returns to Nadia, the classroom is empty, and the shadows have shifted, giving everything a surreal appearance. Unsteadily, Nadia tries to stand, but crumples to her side as her aching muscles agonizingly relax after being strained for so long. Twitching, she lies on her side, the floor becoming a wooden wall dropping away, desks jutting out like tree branches and the door nearby becoming an impossible goal, the top of a sheer cliff. In a panic, Nadia flails her limbs, clawing for something on which to hang. Suddenly the wave of panic ebbs, and she lurches upright, breathing heavily. Face hot with embarrasment, she creeps to the doorway and looks around, exhaling with relief that nobody has seen her.

In the dim light of the late afternoon, Nadia slowly passes through the silent corridors, running her hand along the cool metal of the narrow lockers that line them. Heedless of her destination, she plods forward, shoes occasionally squeaking on the on mottled earth-tone linoleum and echoing down the long hallway. Eventually, she comes to a stop near the infirmary. She blinks in surprise and edges closer to the wall as the school nurse, an attractive young woman in her twenties with dark hair gathered into a tight bun, exits and glances at her. Nervously, Nadia grips her left wrist tightly and rubs the scar, biting her lip at the pain. The nurse pushes her glasses up her nose and, slipping her hands into the pockets of her lab coat, peers at Nadia. Faintly, the acrid-sweet aroma of rubbing alcohol wafts from the open door by which the nurse stands. Overcome by a sudden wave of vertigo and nausea, Nadia whimpers, shivering violently and backing away from the hospital-smell.

2450911: Spectator

Pandemonium erupts in the classrom with the jangling ring of the bell. Chattering loudly with each other, the students stand and prepare to head to the cafeteria. Folding her arms atop her desk and laying her head upon them, Nadia sits among the chaos like a stone in the twisting eddies of a brook. Eyes half-closed, she watches Katarina chat with her friends, laughing, her beautiful face glowing with joy, now reaching up with slender fingers to tuck a lock of shining hair behind her flawless, perfectly-shaped ear. Lost in a dreamlike state, Nadia is startled when she sees Nikita standing outside the doorway, peering at her with a bemused expression as she pushes her way into the room past those leaving.

"Hey, Nadia," she says simply. "Come on, let's get some food." Before Nadia is able to say anything, Nikita grabs her arm and drags her into the hall. Weaving deftly among the clusters of people, the girl pulls her through the long corridors and into the cafeteria. Rays of shimmering midafternoon sunlight shine through the high windows, making Nikita's coppery hair flares into a wreath of flame. "You were looking at someone, just now. Who was it?" she asks after a moment. Nadia's ears turn scarlet and her step falters. The redhead laughs softly as she steals a glance at the quiet girl, who mumbles uncertainly and grips her left wrist tightly, rubbing the scar and biting her lip at the pain.

2451173: Refugee

Dizzying waves of heat undulate oppressively from the fierce morning sun glaring down from the clear blue sky. A narrow dirt road shaded by a line of trees runs past a decaying barn along the edge of a meadow overgrown by tall grass. In the middle of the field, a low hillock erupts from the surrounding landscape, and on top of the mound, a wizened old tree looms over the scenery. Multitudes of tiny flowers blossom among the dark green foliage of the tree, shimmering as the wind gently brushes against them. Nadia stands in the field gazing into the branches which twist in labyrinthine patterns. Mumbling incoherently, vision frantically tracing random paths on the wood, her eyes widen and she steps backwards. Blood cascades in a dark rivulet from a gash in her left wrist, staining her dress red and pooling at her feet. Numbly, her right arm drops to her side, and the knife held loosely in her hand slowly spins to the ground.

Tears well up in Nadia's eyes as she flinches away from the harsh pain prickling in a red hand-print on the side of her face. Exuding a terrifying aura of power, a vague, shadowy figure stands over her, scowling. Nadia whimpers pitifully and clutches a knife tightly in her right hand, tensing in anticipation of the next, ruthless blow, which sends the blade flying from her grasp.

Eyes wide with horror and wonder, Nadia stares in disbelief at the bloodless cut in her arm. As the other children point at her and jeer, spitting insults which cause greater pain than any physical injury, Nadia frowns and slowly plunges the knife into her arm, ripping open her flesh. In a flash of light, her tormentors vanish, and Nadia lies crumpled on the grassy ground in a pool of her own blood. A dull thudding noise fills her head and she writhes to escape the sound, and an object flies overhead. Nadia's eyes dart about randomly, trying to focus on the shadow blocking the light, but vivid blossoms of intense colour explode around a shimmering haze behind her eyelids, swallowed by inky darkness. She coughs up a mass of blood, convulses violently, then sinks into an oblivious void.

Wincing, slowly opening her right eye, the girl rolls on her side and pushes her small frame to a reclining position, leaning on her right arm. Her ragged gasps for air echo harshly in the dim, cement room. As she shifts her weight to stand up, her hand slides across the slick covering of the bed and plunges towards the floor, scraping against a metal protrusion, leaving a stinging line of torn skin beaded with swelling drops of blood along her forearm. Tears flow down her face as her body convulses with agitation, sending her tumbling to the ground with an anguished yelp and a loud thud. Curled into a ball on the cool cement, her sobs gradually subside and she closes her right eye.

Coughing, the girl awakens and blinks blearily. She stands up stiffly and holds her stinging right arm away from her body. Uncertainly looking around the room, her eyes focus and refocus in the half-light, trying to find any reference point to orient herself. Finally she sees a glint of light on the wall and approaches cautiously. Standing before the silvery rectangle, she stares dully at the girl captured therein. Fine grey hair hangs in limp disarray to her shoulders and in a tangled mess before her face. Absently, the girl in the room brushes the hair away from her eyes with her metallic left hand. Breathing heavily, she freezes, staring with wide-eyed terror at the steely apparatus of her left arm which fits into the intricate workings of the mechanism of her shoulder. A low feral whine bubbles from the back of her throat as she tries to twist away from the cold devices grafted onto her body. Straining her muscles, she flails about, looking down at her chest and gagging. Panting, she gingerly touches the raw seam which runs down the middle of her naked torso and blanches. She clenches her teeth in agony, closes her eyes, and wildly claws and scrapes at the fissure, digging her fingers under the implant and pulling at it. Her stomach twists inside her as a mass of blood erupts from her mouth, and she falls to the floor, doubled over in pain.

Time passes in a hazy blur, dulled by a monotonous humming which drives into the brain. Movement is all but impossible as thick cables burrow into the skin, and writhe through the muscles. The murky atmosphere is thick, and difficult to see through. Amorphous figures mill about beyond the dimness which is punctuated by brilliant flashes of blue-white light. Something cold pricks at the back of the neck, then overcoming resistance and sliding into the spine below the skull. It jets a fluid into the nervous system, sending an icy nausea sweeping through the bloodstream, followed by numbness and oblivion.

The body, naked, is frozen in time, embalmed in a frigid solution that sears all the flesh with pinpricks of fire. The mind, adrift, is free to wander randomly, and incoherent visions and thoughts unspeakable float behind eyes closed against the painful sensation of countless tendrils which dig into the base of the neck. Multitudes of fibres snake along the limbs, twisting just beneath the surface of the skin. Frustration and helplessness explode through the head as any attempts at movement make the limbs spasm and thrash about uncontrollably.

Cool breeze. Dew. Morning. Ivy clings to the rough stone walls of the cottage nestled among tall pine trees. The swing on the shaded front porch creaks as it sways back and forth. Bright sunlight is filtered into dim coruscating speckles of gold on the uneven lawn. Songs of birds, the gently rustling leaves...a warm glow, a feeling of belonging...of Home.

The late winter sun slips slowly to the distant horizon, flickering like a dying fire between the bare branches of the lonely line of trees growing along the far side of the vast snow-covered field. A flock of geese flies low overhead, wings beating slowly against the lavender twilight. Distantly, the mournful wail of a train whistle echoes in the frigid air. Ice crunches underfoot as a young girl, bundled in a heavy fur-lined coat and a pale grey ushanka, gets up from her seat on a cold iron bench on the railway platform and stamps her feet, breathing into her hands to warm them. Darkness settles, and heavy flakes of snow drop through the brisk sky, clinging to the girl's pale eyelashes and draping her with a soft blanket of frost.

Light snow falls, feathery white crystals clinging to mottled marble of a statue of an angel, frost brushing her bare arm raised overhead, gently sweeping around the curve of her exposed breast and filling the folds of a cloak that flows in a wave from a clasp at the shoulder down her side and seems to cling wetly to long legs. Shimmering clumps of ice adorn ornately carved feathers on wings that are spread in flight, and sheathe in rainbows a sword held in the sculpture's hand.

Small drifts of powdery snow swirl around the faceless mid-afternoon pedestrians who rush to the warmth of the coffee shops and curio dealers which face the open plaza. Nadia sits quietly on a bench near the fountain surmounted by the seraph and stares numbly at pigeons which flutter and peck about at her feet.

With a stinging thud, a dirty ball of packed snow and pebbles smacks the side of Nadia's face and falls, leaving behind freezing particles and raw scratches. An unruly group of delinquents points and laughs jeeringly, holding more snowballs. Coughing, Nadia lifts a hand to her face, wincing and looking at her hand, right eye opening wide. As she turns her head to search for her assailants, they yell and scatter at the sight of golden sunlight glinting from the metal shell of the left side of her face. Pressing her hand against her cheek, Nadia turns back to resume staring blankly at the ground in front of the bench.

Hours pass, and the lights hanging among the branches of the trees begin to glow like jewels as the short winter day wanes and the silver moon rises over the far horizon. The crowd thins, and the number of couples daring to brave the weather on intimate strolls dwindles as well. Low, melodic tones ring as the clock over the plaza chimes six times, the last of the shopkeepers closing their businesses for the evening. Night descends, and the lone girl sits, unmoving, on the bench as snow silently drapes a white cloak over the city.

Shortly, the snow stops falling and the clouds disperse. Myriad stars wheel and twinkle overhead as a frigid wind blows, sending snow hissing along the fountain and whipping Nadia's short hair about her face. Rosy fingers of dawn caress the eastern sky, and spread molten gold in shimmering waves from the horizon. Nadia lowers her head, eye glistening and a look of sorrow contorting her features. A sudden expression of terror flickers across her face, and she slumps forward onto the ground, twitching as a pool of blood spreads beneath her. Rays of sunlight, thrown from the rising sun, sparkle on a line of ice on her cheek; tears, frozen as they fell.

Driving in from the wild sea, the thin fingers of salt-laced wind thread amongst the tall heather and twist in eddies along the spidery clumps of moss which grow from cracks in the uneven road haphazardly roaming the broken terrain. Her feet bleeding, cut by the jagged stones on the ground, Nadia stumbles among weathered hulks of cars with shattered windows and skeletons sitting inside. Shuddering a bit as she passes each one, she clutches a battered stuffed animal tightly under her thin left arm. Occasionally, she falls to her knees and vomits, coughing up bile and blood. Eyes watering in pain, she stands shakily and continues to walk forward. The copper sun slides beneath the distant crashing waves, and, along a distant stretch of highway, lights begin to shine like amber gems.

2451183: Doorway

Pallid light spills into the drab room through the iron bars which bind the only window in the room. Cracks meander randomly down the plaster walls, small piles of dust gathering at the places where they plunge into the linoleum floor. Very little furniture occupies the room; the head of an iron-frame bed is against the middle of a side wall under a broad fluorescent light fixture, and a small table is next to the door in the wall across from the window. A girl, dressed in a pale blue hospital gown, lays on her back on the bed, gazing dully at the tiled ceiling. Much of her left side is bandaged, the layers of gauze stained by dark red patches of blood. Moving her lips silently as she stares upwards, the girl talks to herself, inner dialogue played unconsciously on her vacant expression. Dimming slowly, the light fades into darkness, brightening some time later, then repeating in a numbing monotony. The girl is still, slipping into a restless slumber. A diffuse twilight illuminates the room when the girl wakes, and she lurches upright, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. For an indeterminate length of time she sits like this, eyes focussed on nothing.

Abruptly, she stands up and ambles to the door, cautiously turning the knob. Slowly, the door swings open, and the girl steps into the quiet corridor. Breathing heavily, she stumbles, leaning on the doorframe and knocking a clipboard to the floor. Illegible scrawling crowds the first page, but typing at the top spells out the word 'Надя'.

"Nadia," the girl whispers, furrowing her brow in confusion. Her name? She shuffles down the dark hallway, emerging in a bright room with glass walls and doors. Eyes widening in recognition of an exit, Nadia furtively looks about to make certain she isn't seen. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a severe woman behind a desk. Nadia swallows, smiling weakly and raising her hand in an attempt to wave. Noticing the sheath of bandages on her upraised arm, she gawks at the appendage, then quickly drops it to her side, her face darkening. Moving slowly, Nadia begins to approach the doors, and the woman at the desk frowns and reaches for something under it with her right hand. Nadia starts to run, but is startled by a shout behind her. In a dulled haze, she trips, falling slowly and eternally in a lazy spiral, the voices of the orderlies muffled as they drag her back to her room. Roughly, they grasp her wrists and ankles, tightly binding in painful restraints, then force open her mouth and insert a hard leather plate to prevent her from biting her tongue. Stripping off her gown, they inject a drug into her forearm, and her body instantly relaxes. The orderlies file out of the room and lock the door behind them, leaving Nadia's naked body tied to the bed.

2451187: Enter the Outside

Nadia quietly closes the heavy door behind her and sits in the metal folding chair in the centre of the bare room, facing a row of desks behind which sit tired-looking adults. Clasping her hands in her lap, desperately willing herself to be still, to not fidget, she keeps her eyes fixed in front of her, avoiding looking at anything, especially the broad plastic tag secured to her left wrist. Several minutes pass as the panel of interviewers finishes working on their paperwork, finally one clearing his throat and straightening the sheaf in his hands with a tap on the desk.

"Nadia...Quidam, is it?" The man leafs through the papers and peers at one, then looks questioningly at the grey-haired woman sitting beside him, who nods and speaks in a clear voice.

"Nadia was recovered from an automotive accident, with no other survivors. She herself is unable to recall any relevant information, and the only identification we were able to recover was the name engraved on her necklace. Local census data indicates she has no family in the immediate area..the name 'Некто' is rare - from 'quidam', a Latin word meaning, simply, 'someone'...more specifically, a nameless average person, indistinguishable from the masses. We'll keep looking for relatives."

"I...see," noted the man, stifling a yawn and eyeing Nadia over his glasses. "So be it. Nadia Quidam. Date of birth unknown, age approximately..." He takes a pen and writes on the paper. "...eighteen. Nationality Russian, having no known family, finances, et cetera. Level of schooling, unknown, though likely at least some high school, based on these aptitude tests. This organization shall award you, to take place of insurance at current rates, and in consideration of your circumstances, a sum of two million, six hundred thirty-three thousand, seven hundred rubles. We will assist you in finding a place to stay, and reccomend follow-up visits to a psychiatrist until you have adjusted to your situation."

2452123: Sleeping-Place

Ghostly wings of moths dart and circle in the flickering halo of the streetlight under which Nadia pauses and takes out a piece of paper. A wispy cloud escapes her parted lips as she exhales in the cool evening air. Furrowing her brow and turning the paper left and right a few times, she finally lifts her head, taking a few moments to look around, then turns and enters a yard between two warehouses, dead and dying weeds poking up through the frost gathering on the bare dirt. A large cat lounges on a rusted-out car hidden in the shadows, staring at Nadia through half-lidded eyes and yawning. Nadia picks her way across the litter cluttering the area and enters a burnt-out shell of an apartment building.

Feeling her way up unlit stairs, Nadia stumbles several times before arriving at the second floor. In the passage's wan light, she fumbles for a key and unlocks a rusty door that swings open with a groaning creak. Walking into the room, Nadia looks for a light before letting the door close with a dull thud behind her, plunging the room into inky blackness. Moments later, a watery green light blinks unsteadily, then flares into a steady white glow accompanied by a loud buzz. Nadia drops the chain of the switch and places the bag in a relatively clean corner of the room. Weary, she lowers herself onto the bed, raising a cloud of dust that makes her cough. Eyes watering, she bends to untie her shoes and carefully puts them near the head of the bed. Dully, she stares at the opposite wall, face void of expression. As though remembering something long-forgotten, the girl turns and reaches for the light switch and tugs at it, silence enveloping the room as quickly as darkness.

2453706: Black Squirrel

Frozen boughs laden with clumps of snow brush Nadia's head as she slowly passes by an embankment bounding the yard of a small house. Shuffling her feet, she listlessly passes her grocery-filled bag from hand to hand, then swings it behind her, gripping the handle with both hands. Suddenly realizing she is immitating the way Katarina had often carried her bag at school, Nadia blushes, her cheeks turning scarlet. She walks down the narrow street that descends a gentle slope to the embankment along the slow river. A rustle in the bush by her head makes the dark-haired girl stop and study the dim recesses between the earth and branches. Carrying an acorn, a squirrel with black fur and piercing red eyes scampers to the edge of the concrete wall, then sits up, staring at her. For a few minutes, Nadia gazes back at the rodent, a sense of unease growing in her. Unable to bear it any longer, she turns and resumes her journey, breaking into a run.

2453975: Empty Words

Again, today, the man from the adjacent block came to knock on the door. Again, today, asking for money. Ever that which is meaningless to her, yet so neccessary for her very existence. And so she gives. His words of assurance that she will be repaid, that he is a different sort than others who have asked of her...she nods vaguely to acknowledge them, yet knows they are untrue. Her funds will wane. Eventually, to the point where she has nothing, and must make good her unspoken promise with Creation, that her existence must certainly end if she is unable to prove herself in the world by the time her inherentence bleeds dry.

As surely she will be unable to do.

The endless giving of herself to others means nothing to the world. Dependability cannot be purchased, only rented for a short time. Too short a time; and even then, it is a phantom, too easily dissolved when the hand is outstretched to receive aid in kind. Surely the pain of the world is deserved. How else could it be? Such agony, that the entire globe groans in despair... Never light.

Only darkness, apart from the single, shining beacon of perfection that was her memory of Katarina, and the elegant grace of dancers who give of themselves to share beauty with others. Purity, holiness, to the point of divinity. A stark contrast to her own sullied soul. The darkness over her that would lower humanity to the baseness of animals, to imagine that the closest of intimacy were something feral beasts even capable of sharing with humans. Such irony, she muses. Verily, it is humans that are lower than the wild spirits of nature.

Her solitude, constant betrayal, the ghosts of memories that she cannot be certain are real. If there exists a higher power–call it what you will– if tradition is true in declaring it just, then what can she be but a miserable sinner? If she does good deeds, will it bring her some small consolation? How much of her finances must she deplete to quell her unease? All of it? Must she surely, somehow, remove her troublesome self from this world, in the end?

2454089: Alone in a Crowd

Laughing and talking loudly about insignificant things, meaningless things, unpleasant things...Nadia listens to her new roommates and their friends. Nadia wraps her arms around herself and closes her eyes halfway, backing away from the boisterous youths. She shivers and takes a breath, then turns to walk by herself.

"Shto, Nadia, don't want to hang out? We don't bite..." shouted one, voice thick from vodka, accompanied by snickers and a few "...very hard" commentaries.

"I don't belong here," Nadia whispers to herself, and blinks away tears.

2454183: Encounter

"Hello, doch' moikh!" The group slows at the drunken shout. A thin man with pinched features and a sneer swaggers over and drapes his arm across the shoulders of the vagrant boy's girlfriend. "Unless you want the police here, I suggest you back off. NOW." the man growls forcefully, staring with particular intent at the boys. Cowed by the aggressive attitude of the man, Nadia lowers her gaze and grips her left wrist behind her back, tensing her body in anticipation of the assault sure to follow. "Hey." says Peitr softly, nudging her shoulder. "Let's get out of here." Heart pounding and her breathing unsteady, Nadia looks up in surprise at the retreating man and his daughter, then inhales sharply and turns to follow the two boys.