The color red. I close my eyes to picture the sun the way I remember it from six years ago in 1922, before the world turned red. Nearly midday, I’m burning precious heat for me and my family by remaining in bed. Last night had been my watch, but still, I should have gotten up almost an hour ago. The wind ripples the sheet stapled over the window, reminding me the outside world is always just a membrane’s width away.
Opening my eyes, I prop myself up and stretch for the grab bar above my bed. The electrical tape wrapped around the metallic surface is sticky and comforting. Dangling from the bar, I jerk twice, shifting my weight until I feel the familiar grooves fall in between my fingers.
Each contraction and expansion of my muscles operates like a bilge pump. Daily I awake drowning in a rancid gall—a bitter caldron of regret cooked by the fires of the dust zone and coursing through my veins. Five reps, I gulp down the first fresh breath of the day, but still want to die. Ten reps, I curse the helium plant and the gates of hell they opened on us all.
Fifteen reps, I stop clenching my teeth and cursing under my breath. Twenty five reps, I remember my Rosalyn—asleep before the hearth, Brothers Karamazov open in her lap. Twenty six reps and I remember her pitching forward into the dirt, blood spatter and brains caught in her fair hair like bracken and foam on a river’s shore. “Georgy Founder,” I curse myself, “it should have been you that day.”
Thirty reps and the tears course through the forest of bristle on my face. Mingling with sweat from my brow, they drip onto my lifeless legs. I keep rising and falling. Thirty five reps, I blame myself for selling out, for accepting handouts from the plant. Forty reps and I feel my heart begin to surface as the poisonous brine dips lower. I keep breathing.
Fifty reps and I know I must keep living for my sons. Their voices carry through the bedroom wall from the kitchen. Fifty five reps, I worry about my youngest, Mik, remembering the glazed look he gave me the night before. Mykola, always lost in books like his mother, but with a heart so dark and bottomless it’s haunting.
Sixty reps, I hear Pyotr arguing with Leonid about the location of the new hemp field. Sixty one and my muscles complain. They say they’re finished, like I’m finished—an old cripple pretending he’s still a whole man because he can do chin-ups. Seventy reps, I curse my body and curse my mind, but not before it reminds me that today is my fortieth birthday. Forty. I repeat it three times until I almost lose count.
Seventy five reps and for the first time since yesterday morning I imagine the numbing comfort of vodka on my tongue, burning my throat, washing away the red dust. Eighty reps, and there is nothing left but rage and the strength of will. Ninety reps, the poison is gone. Determination replaces thought. Ninety five reps, courage replaces fear. One hundred reps and I drop from the bar back onto the creaking mattress and roll to the edge. I love my sons.
“The field has been planted. It stays.” I raise my voice before settling into my chair, fair warning for the whelps to sort themselves out, quickly. I strap down my withered legs with leather at the ankles, all the hair rubbed off long ago. Two slaps reverberate throughout the sturdy craftsman home as I clamp the .44-40 Mare’s Leg and the 12-gauge shotgun in place. “Straighten up. We’re riding to Bertie’s for supplies in thirty.” I hear dishes dropping into the sink, Mykola preparing to wash.
Disengaging the break, I test the wheels with a quick forward and back followed by a 360 degree spin before sidling up to my shelf next to the door. Routine guides me. I drop my bandolier over my neck and arm, sheathe my lance over my right shoulder and with two fingers transfer a single kiss from my lips to the photo of Rosalyn holding our baby Katerina in her lap.