All original work © 2009 - 2019 Alexey Provolotsky

22 April 2013


I sometimes think the sign is going to kill me. No, it will not get unhinged by humourless, unattended time, by a dramatic wind spasm or by a massive, drawn-out French kiss of a spring shower. The way my mind pictures it now – the road sign will have no business falling down and hitting me on the head with a crude, lethal thud. No, the sign will stay – it will just be me.

She was a girl I sometimes saw hopscotching or rope jumping in our small yard in front of the house. “Anne”, she timidly offered once as we bumped into each other outside the front door. As if the name was her gift for me, albeit a small and inexpensive one – something she felt uneasy about. And suddenly I started seeing a lot more of her. As soon as the winter subsided, she would be there, every evening, at the bus stop, waiting for me. Her lightness, her jokes and her dress, smeared with childish naughtiness, were all that was necessary to lift the tinge of embarrassment those short evenings might have had. I did feel awkward, though. Mostly because I was exhausted after work, didn’t really want to talk, and must have come off as a terrible bore. Thankfully, this never seemed to bother Anne.

It happened one day as we were walking home: I suddenly felt Anne’s tiny thigh gently crash into mine. Ordinarily you wouldn’t even notice a thing like that; absorbed by a walk or an actual conversation, you would follow any direction suggested by all those inconspicuous pushes and inaudible swerves of your friend’s or your lover’s body. However, Anne was neither a friend nor a lover; she was just a girl; her thigh was a thigh I knew nothing about. And, most importantly, I’d been walking that way for five years and felt that a new sound of an annoyed klaxon, a new smell of dense road dust would be so alien and unnecessary they could easily knock me off my feet. Anne sensed my confusion. She touched my arm, she looked into my eyes. And uttered, in a light but strikingly mature whisper: “Come, you should see it. You have to see it”.

Charmed by her ever-present, but elusive prettiness, I couldn’t resist. What was I to her? An unsmiling, morbid old man (who in actual fact was barely forty)? A local loser? Or was I perhaps an unlikely adult friend to whom certain kids develop a strange attachment? I followed Anne to that desolate, dimly lit road that no cars and no feet were bothered to follow. Which seemed so odd, not least because in all these years I myself had never even noticed it. The road was well paved and it led to our house, Anne’s and mine, but somehow nobody ever used it. The very idea of this place was so bizarre that one could have thought it was invented by somebody’s feverish imagination. Maybe a young girl’s mind. Except that there was nothing remotely girlish about those grim, gruesome textures and that lonely, faded road sign, both clumsy and provocative, uselessly sticking out of the empty, vestal pavement. That evening I could hardly imagine that the sign would have such a bearing upon my life. But I kept looking around; no, this could not be painted by a girl, however spoilt and however twisted. Or so I believed.

That evening Anne made a point of telling me this road was her favourite place in the whole town (how much had she seen, I wondered), and immediately I realised that I’d heard something I didn’t really want to hear. “You are going to love it one day. You will love it as much as I do”, she said. But to me the place looked cold and disgusting, which wasn’t even the worst thing about it. The worst thing was that the moment we got there I felt strangely addicted to what I saw. Which, I strongly suspected, came down to the only object that enlivened that morose, slightly unreal world: the road sign. It triggered something, I heard a shrill squeak of ambulance sirens catching up on me from the inside, and I shivered...

Days later I could no longer imagine walking home the old way. This was new, and for the first time in what seemed like eternity I was slowly falling in love with what was new. Like a drunk romantic, I was stroking it, gently but with shaky and uncertain hands, caressing it and kissing its hazy, unspoken features – while it was never too shy. It was hungry, voluptuous, full of lust, and it was taking me by force...

Much time has passed, but it still pains me to remember the evening Anne wasn’t there. Of course it seemed a bit worrying: after all, she’d been at that bus stop every day for almost three months. I took out a book from my briefcase, lowered myself down onto a sad, yellowish bench and started waiting for her. But Anne never appeared, and in half an hour I dragged myself up again and decided to walk home on my own. Limping like an old, bitten dog along the road she had showed me. I was so convinced it was just an innocent cold caused by the teasing, deceptive warmth which spring kept pushing into our uncovered faces and limbs that it never even entered my mind to knock on her door and ask if everything was fine. Also, it was as if we shared a secret, Anne and I, and I didn’t want to let her uncle into it. So for two or three days I didn’t even know what had happened. Somehow, through work or through apathy, I had missed all the mourning and all the tears. I had missed it all, and I didn’t even know that I would never see Anne again. It took one whole week to make me finally knock on that last door down the second-floor corridor...

However, I never abandoned that road. It was hard at first, particularly after Anne’s death, but what could I do with myself?.. After the ambulance sirens came the cries and the moans, the monosyllabic priest, the trembling hands and dozens of newspaper articles I had tried so hard to forget. And it was all in that sign; each time I was passing it now, I saw a new detail, a new image jumping at me like a hungry triffid. Yes, it was that same sign I’d glimpsed as the truck had pulled out of the corner and smashed into us head-on, dead weight. And I wasn’t even there, driving; having done that all night, I was listlessly stretched on the backseat. Trying to fall asleep, but suddenly jerked back into reality. The impact, the screams, the fire, all coming back to me now with each passing evening. The strange purgatory, the private hell, it all reminds me of an odd game where you forget something by remembering it. Down that road: whatever I catch – it disappears. But for all that peace currently gathering inside me, the question is looming higher than the road sign: what is there for me in the end?..

The sign. I sometimes think it is going to kill me. When all my memories are stitched up, when all the pieces of the puzzle finally fall into place, when the full picture is splashed all over my face, when there’s nothing else to look back on. But then I stop myself and think it won’t happen and I will not die. Not just now. Because that would be an impossible act of betrayal, and I could not do that. Not to Anne. So instead I’ve grown to love it, that path, like she believed I would. And maybe I will be at peace, some day, and will finally be able to spit in the old, vile, wrinkled face following me. All thanks to that road which (my mind is so quick to tell me!) has never even existed. For all along – it is just me. Me and Anne.


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    1. To the author of the deleted comment. Sorry, had to take this off! Don't want to be too cruel, but a line has to be drawn.
      I'm glad if you liked the story, not too happy if you didn't. Everything else is personal and can't appear on this site. But thank you all the same.