1. funeral lessons

Yesterday, Semyon died in prison of a stroke. They dumped the body (passed to the family). Grievances, condolences, nothing et al.

Today, Kirill assumed the throne. Bought himself a pack of Dunhills, bottle of bourbon (cracked wide open the bitch) and drowned himself in miserable oblivion.

Life is a sadistic little fucker, He takes another swig.

Nikolai nods, So it is.

The ghosts. Everywhere. They won't leave me alone. I'm covered, swallowed, like I'm their fucking Christmas toy. I see him—my father. He's pissed now. Oh he's gonna really get me now. He's always wanted to burn me alive.

. . .

There is an art to polishing guns—one he can't bother with. It takes a gentle caress, a maniacal twist, and jammed, cinch goes in the barrel. There is a beauty to them, the silvered pistols, the ivory revolver.

Nikolai tickles the trigger. It squirms in his fine grip, a silent wail rising from the deep chambers. It screams as he pulls. Pull, pull. The bullet escapes so easily, effortless, an ingénue blinded in her first dance.

He swallows the vodka and scribbles her a letter. Women (unlike guns) require a pinch of threat. It's all good business. She'll understand

. . .

"Fucking cold tonight."

Yeah?

"I can't even fucking move. Bring the car around, will you?"

As you say.

"Nikolai! Nikolai! Did you hear what I fucking said? Goddamn, goddamnit! You're useless, did you know that? Hurry up before we freeze."

You'll be a corpse before dawn.

"What's that? What's that for, eh? I'm the boss. Can't you understand that? You report to me. What—why—I thought we were brothers, you fucking pederast."

There's no real camaraderie in war.

"You gonna shoot me? Kill me? Do it. I fucking dare you, you bloody queer."

Bang. Who's the bloody one now?

. . .

Every year, on her birthday, Christine would find a gift. A mysterious package, an ill-wrapped mess. She would ask her mother, curious, who the sender was. Each time, Anna would bite her lip and say: No one.

Christine would scoff and shrug and leave in frustration, unable to inquire further. Like why her mother always had a glint of fear in her eye, why she would tremble and rattle like her bones had suddenly been seared.

It is a mutual agreement between them. Christine will ask, and Anna will answer. But never would she say the name. It is tradition.

. . .

Anna thinks she's going crazy. She turns her head and catches a glimpse, a watery silhouette (the fading trail of a slippery man).

She pauses to catch her breath, darting left and right. Up and down. He is nowhere to be found.

Shaking her head, she continues walking, faster, in staccato steps. It's nothing, she tells herself. She is simply going mad.

Safe, home, she lets out a buried breath. She kicks off her sandals and kisses her daughter.

"Mommy!"

Anna smoothes her hair, smiling. "Yes, darling? What is it?"

"There was someone here for you. He left you this—