Inhale. Air enters the nostrils. The chest expands.
Air escapes. To the very end. All the way, to empty.
Repeat the cycle. Living now.
In and out. In and....
An itch. Between my right temple and eye. A curiosity to be examined. Moment to moment, it crests. Disappears. Such things always go away.
Saliva below my tongue, between lip and gum.
I swallow, and reset my rhythm.
In, and the chest expands. Out, and I deflate. In...
Who said that?
Involuntary utterance — reflex. Provoked by extreme pain, unavoidable. It's okay. The rhythm can be reset.
Pain can be isolated. In this case — my right jaw. Fascinating. As if a red hot knife had been thrust through my face, and twisted. Searing heat and pressure expanding through the entire right side of my head.
Contain it. Use the rhythm. Deeper, longer.
My chest expands like a bellows.
My lungs collapse like squeezed sponges.
The pain is finite. Conquer it!
Observe! Focus. Examine, rotate, break it down.
Behold its malignant glory, and tame it.
My breathing eases.
And now, only now: out. Good and slow.
All there is, is this: to be at peace or dead. And I am not dead.
"This son-of-a-bitch will never talk. He deserves a dirt reunion with his comrades. Let's finish him."
"Deserves? Who cares what he deserves?"
The two GRU officers conversed in hushed tones in Russian, not fifty meters from Ukrainian corporal Krasinsky. Two days of enhanced techniques had garnered no actionable intel. The larger of the two, Lieutenant Sokolov, frowned at his raw knuckles.
"Bastard's hurt my hands. I think a finger's broke — I mean it. I want payback."
"What you want also means nothing," said Sokolov's superior, Captain Golubev. "This asshole can tell us where and when the offensive is coming. That's all that matters! Orders straight from the General, Sokolov! If we fuck this up, we're dead meat. All of us. There are a dozen BTGs at risk."
"Then give us the tools, right? What do they expect? Like ordnance, fuel, food, everything from the start of the shit operation! How do they expect us to interrogate anyone with slightest training? It'll take days!"
"Of course I know this. That's why we're going to improvise."
"You mean cut him. Big mess, low prob return, and even the General..."
"Not at all," said Golubev. "Wait here."
Sokolov ran a hand over his sweaty, close-cropped scalp as his immediate superior strode across the warehouse to crouch over a pile of junk against a wall. The GRU captain returned with a car battery and set of jumper cables.
You'll kill him with that, sir. He's sixty kilos soaking wet."
"Be judicious, lieutenant, in placement and duration. Do I need to hold your hand?"
Sokolov's demeanor turned hard for a second. Then he stood down, his eyes cast at the concrete floor.
"No, sir. I can take care of it. Electricity and I are well acquainted. It never fails."
"Good. Now, move it. We're running out of time."
The pain in my head is a dull throb. Better! The periodicity slows as well.
Don't let up. Constrain it. Shrink it.
Breath is my fuel.
Oh, my. What now?
Down there it is unlikely they will kill me, even accidentally, without resort to sharp edges or bullets.
As long as they believe I harbor secrets, they withhold the killing blow.
And as long as I live, I breath.
Their application escalates in the hope of breaching a levee within me. Their conceptions are so primitive. Or, perhaps they lack access to other means.
If they had the slightest clue, they'd have been done with me already. Poor fools, flitting from idea to idea. Oblivious.
Remember the Buddhist monks who set themselves aflame.
The Colosseum martyrs.
It is like that.
Worldly sensation, nothing more. Past or future, never now...
Whereas me, I am always in the now.
"He shat himself."
"I can see that," said Golubev, disgust on his face. "Phew-ee. Nothing for us? After all this?"
"Not a thing. Complete wasted effort."
"What's been the sequence? Exactly."
"First the electrodes, obviously. Testicles to begin with, so I could start with lower voltage. Produced some grunts, no words. Nipples next, higher voltage. Grimaces and some drooling. It was frustrating. So I grabbed the pliers."
"You should have called. We weren't authorized for..."
"I thought six thousand men were at risk and we were out of time?"
"They are and we are. Don't worry, I won't leave you hanging when we get back."
"If we get back."
"We will. What happened next?"
I went to work. Crushed his fingers, one by one. And not a word. I mean, he felt what I was doing, when I was doing it. Muscles tightened, breathing deepened. But after a few minutes each time, respirations always came back to a steady baseline. Then..."
"How have you been asking him? Are you dangling rewards, Sokolov? Tantalizing, the way I try to tell you? Because sometimes you..."
"I follow protocol, sir. Just because as an officer I took some initiative and jumped to the pliers doesn't mean..."
"Okay, Sokolov, settle down."
"I cycled through the script," said Sokolov, still heated. "I warned about the pliers each time and gave him plenty of time to answer. Wouldn't open his mouth even for easy stuff like location of base and command personnel. I pressed the water bottle against his face, let him smell the sausage. Our last can, by the way. It's over there, you can have it if you've got any appetite left with this shit-smell in your nose. Yeah. Anyway. So, I patted him on the shoulder. Whispered kindly in his ear. I've been doing this a long time, as long as you — I know what I'm doing."
"Okay, lieutenant, I believe you," said Golubev. He stroked his unshaven chin. "So strange. He didn't even rebuff you. Or lead you on. Someone of this caliber, I'd think he might even goad you."
"Nope. Though, now that you mention it, goad, maybe. A hint a smile, sometimes, the dirty fuck. Hard to tell, in this light, with his face all bloodied. But I think so."
"You're frustrated. A grimace in extremis can appear..."
"No. The more I think about it, now, the more I'm convinced. Fucker's been smiling."
"Fine, lieutenant. Doesn't matter. Well-trained little bastard, though, huh?" Golubev shook his head and added, almost in a whisper, "Shit. Gotta give him some fucking credit."
"He's a dead-end. Let me kill him."
Golubev peered over the lieutenant's shoulder.
"Looks like you went there already."
Sokolov turned his head and smirked. He approached his subject and checked his carotid artery.
"Ha. There's still a thready pulse. Come on..."
"Forget him. We're late. If we don't double-time it back to command, we'll get caught behind the line."
"Krasinsky can ID us! When the top-knots overrun this position, we'll end up on a list at the ICJ."
"Don't worry about that. No Russian will ever see the inside of that Euro-whore court — you know this. Anyway, we haven't used names and there's no chance this khokhol will live to see the sunrise."
"Then what's the difference?"
"Time to move on. The svidomits are on the move and this outpost is in jeopardy. And the General has work for us back over the border. Time to go."
"It'll take two seconds."
"I said no, lieutenant. End of discussion. Let him fucking suffer."
Let the past go.
Let the future come.
My breathing carries me. Moment to moment...
Rolling meadows. A city in the distance.
The war must be...over.
But where is everyone?
Sara's waiting for me. In the city. That city. The one in the distance.
Is it liberated Mariupol?
Already they have rebuilt it. Better than before!
Plenty of time. Isn't this field lovely? The tall grass like velvet against my arms. The sunflowers dazzling and joyous in the sun!
Where are the people?
They must be waiting. In liberated Mariupol. Rebuilt for me!
What about the birds? Why can't I hear them? No planes, either. But isn't the sky a glorious, crystal blue?
There it is. The beautiful city. I'll be there soon. Everyone is waiting.
Silly me. Almost forgot to breath!
In and out. There, I did it. Done.
All the way.