The entrance to the city was unexpectedly dark and quiet. Our driver suddenly started to move very slowly, and I felt like the car was making almost no sound.
“Turn off the headlights,” the first hastily manufactured road sign. The driver turned off the headlights immediately.
“Be prepared to show your ID,” the second. We took our passports out.
“Get to the roadblock.”
“Wait in line for inspection.”
“Don’t talk, film, or take pictures of anything.”
I held my passport open on the first page but tabbed the registration page, too. Eyes wide open. Back held upright. We sat quietly, staring into the darkness broken by the dim light that slowly traveled between the cars.
A soldier approached our van and asked our driver for his ID. The face of the soldier was covered with a military green balaclava. The tiny light shed by his flashlight revealed a shutter gun hanging on his shoulder. Sandbags covered with camouflage nets blocked the road, two small lights barely illuminating the passage. The soldier checked the driver’s passport, lit up our faces, and allowed us to pass.
Won’t they check everybody? — a sudden thought overtook me as we drove by the roadblock. Another three or four men with shutter guns on their shoulders. Faces covered. Complete silence.
The van soundlessly drove into the city. They didn’t check everybody… the van has local license plates… me and Nastya in the front seat… there were shotguns on their shoulders… they wore weapons… we are home… they didn’t check… it’s war… it’s so quiet… so awfully quiet… where are the lights?
“Where are all the lights?” whispered Nastya looking around with the same confusion. Dark hollowing windows of the buildings were staring right at the empty streets with no lights, cars, or people.
“It’s a dim-out,” my husband leaned forward and whispered. “All the lights are turned off so that russians won’t be able to see the city… and won’t be able to bomb it.”
Deserted streets, black windows, resounding silence, a sole van on the road — ours. Past the hospital, past the bus station, getting off to the central road, turning right by the church, past the cemetery, past the Local Palace of Children and Youth, diving into the residential areas of the Northern neighborhood… I looked up and saw thousands of stars covering the sky.
“Just like in that summer camp amidst nowhere. You remember how it was?” Barely audible, I whispered to myself. Those warm summer nights, hidden deep into the forest thicket and peace of youth, flashed through my mind as we drove by the cold stone buildings.
This city is fake. The houses, the roads, the streets, and shut down traffic lights… The card city someone has placed instead of my real home. A ghost town of a place that once was the city of my childhood. I felt pain in my chest and stomach. Breathe in, breathe in, breathe out. It’s not real. It’s not real!
The van stopped in the middle of the road, and the sound of breaks echoed around the desolate neighborhood. Nastya hopped out of the van with the driver. He opened the trunk and took out her small blue suitcase — the sound of the plastic wheels on the asphalt. Nastya turned around, half-waved goodbye, and disappeared into the muted darkness.
“I’m home,” said her message in the minute.
“She’s home. We can go.”
The driver started the engine and turned on the headlights. My husband leaned forward and put his hand on my shoulder.
“You stay with me today?”
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“Okay. Take the sweets from the dashboard. You have room in your backpack?”
The icy midnight wind itched my knees as I hopped out of the van. I stopped to catch our driver’s gaze and nodded.
“Thank you,” I barely whispered it. I felt like words suddenly got stuck in my throat.
“Don’t turn on the lights,” whispered my husband, grabbing my cold hand. “Especially when we get home.” I nodded. The cardboard city can’t have any life.
We got up to the fifth floor and silently knocked on the door. My husband’s parents let us in. I removed my backpack and felt strong but trembling arms hug me.
“My dear children, my children,” mom cried. “You need anything? You hungry? My dear children!”
“No, no, we need to sleep,” my husband answered.
I heard him quietly whispering something else to his parents as I tried to find my way around in the darkness. I took off a dusty sweater and tight jeans, found an oversized T-shirt and a fresh towel on the chair — and slowly moved back to the bathroom.
“You can turn on the light inside there,” my husband whispered. “There are no windows inside.”
The light burned my eyes. I used a tap with cold water to wash my face and stared into my reflection. Black сharcoal eyes stared back at me — hundred years old. I felt heavy. I felt like collapsing. I need sleep. We’re finally home. It’s safe. We can sleep. It’s safe… at home. I’ll see my mom tomorrow. I’ll see my dad. It’s going to be fine.
I dived under the blanket beside my husband and tucked my head under his arm. He gently scratched my hair.
“It’s okay now,” he said.
I leaned closer to him, clasping my hands around his waist.
“We’re home. It’s going to be fine,” he said, patting my hair.
I felt my tears fall right on his shoulder and soak the T-Shirt. ‘I love you. I love you so much!’ I couldn’t say a word. I clasped my hands around his waist as strongly as I only could.
“It’s going to be fine,” he whispered. “We’re home now.”
I suddenly woke up from a strange hollow sound heard from afar.
“Have you heard?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said my husband and started checking his phone. Dim morning light was barely piercing out outside.
“Olya, they are bombing our airport!” the message from Nastya.
I raised my eyes and caught my husband’s angry gaze. He nodded.
“I’m staying,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Photo supplied by the author.