Natalia Nicolaeva stood across the street with a torn scrap of paper clutched in one hand. Drifting down from above, a light snow blanketed the sidewalks and the road and the streetlamps in a clean layer of white. The building was four-stories high and encased in dark soot. Most of the windows were shattered, covered in plastic sheeting long since torn to shreds by the elements. This couldn’t be the right place, Natalia thought, carefully comparing the address scrawled on her paper with the numbers tacked to the crumbling façade. They matched.
Dodging a few passing cars as she went, Natalia made her way across to take a closer look. She was tall and thin, wearing calf-skin boots, jeans and a cream-colored parka. Her long brown hair cascaded forward across her shoulders and out from under a fur-fringed hood. When she stepped onto the opposite curb, two men walking up the sidewalk gazed into her large round eyes longer than they should have. Natalia put her head down and moved on past. After a lifetime on her family’s farm, Natalia was a girl largely unaware of her own beauty. She was a more practical type, absorbed by her responsibilities. Free time meant gliding over the hills on her Nordic skis in winter or riding her dirt bike in the summer. It meant stretching out on a blanket on the knoll above the farm, absorbed in a good book. Thanks in large part to her brother’s influence, Natalia was a voracious reader. It was books that provided her view of the outside world. At eighteen years old, this was the first time she’d ever really been away. Never before had she been in a city of any size. By most people’s standards, Tiraspol didn’t count for much. This capital of the tiny, break-away republic of Transnistria held only 160,000 souls, but compared to Drosti, it was enormous.
When she reached the front door she saw that it was slightly ajar, a splintered hole all that remained where the knob had once been. Despite her inexperience, Natalia knew an abandoned building when she saw one. This place looked like nobody had occupied it officially for 20 years or more. Probably not since Soviet times. It just didn’t seem possible that her brother Leon could be living here. He’d sounded so optimistic in the few letters she received. Now she wondered about all of it. The job, the new friends, the room in the boarding house. At least she knew that last part had previously been true. She’d visited the boarding house herself that very afternoon. It was the front desk clerk who told her about this place, though Natalia couldn’t help but think he was wrong. Leon would not live in a place like this. Would he? Would anyone? From inside, Natalia thought she heard something. A banging sound? She leaned closer. Yes, she was sure. “Bang, bang, bang,” followed by some shouts and then “bang, bang, bang,” again. Was that Leon? The voice didn’t sound like his, but from out here on the sidewalk she couldn’t be sure.
Natalia’s instincts told her not to go inside, but curiosity overruled her fears. She simply had to know. With a light push the door slowly swung open. She poked her head in and was met by a strange combination of odors. A fetid, human smell mixed with rotting wood and a hint of smoke. With nobody in sight, Natalia summoned the courage to move past the threshold. A corridor led through toward an inner courtyard. Again she heard the banging sound, coming from somewhere upstairs. She took a few more steps forward. “Bang, bang, bang,” came the noise.
To Natalia’s left, a wooden staircase wound up and around, disappearing from view. Where a banister was once attached, just a few lonely nails protruded at odd angles. Natalia hugged the wall as she started up and around, mentally preparing herself to flee if she encountered any threat. She noticed that the molding along the ceiling was also mostly missing. Doors were removed from hinges and the frames ripped out. It was as though the building itself were being consumed from the inside out. On the third floor, she found the source of the commotion. Two men stood on the stairs above her dressed in filthy, ragged clothing. At first they didn’t notice her. A large, stocky man held a length of metal pipe in both hands. He swung it in rhythm three times, “bang, bang, bang,” smashing the pipe against a remaining section of banister and knocking it loose. The second man was older, with wild, unkempt hair and a dirty gray beard. He used his hands to pry the broken pieces free and then leaned over to stack them on the top of a small pile. When he stood back up his eyes came to rest upon Natalia. He said nothing, but cleared his throat to alert his comrade.
The man with the pipe turned around but didn’t seem particularly surprised to see Natalia standing there. His round, ugly face was covered with a few days worth of stubble. He stared at her with bloodshot eyes. “What do you want?” he said, standing tall.
“I’m looking for my brother,” Natalia answered, glancing back down the stairs again at her escape route.
“He’s not here,” the man replied.
“I haven’t even told you his name,” said Natalia.
“Go away.” The man handed the pipe to his partner and then reached down and scooped up the pieces of broken wood.
“Maybe you’ve seen him. His name is Leon,” Natalia pressed.
“Never heard of him.”
“I was told he might be living here.”
The man walked up the stairway with the older gentleman trailing right behind. Natalia wasn’t about to give up yet. Just like her mother, she’d always had a stubborn streak. Following along to the fourth-floor landing, she saw the men walk on through a doorway and into an abandoned apartment. Natalia tried not to think too hard about what she was doing. If she thought about it she’d have turned and left, but then she’d be no closer to finding Leon. Instead she moved across the landing and walked on into the apartment.
A dim light shone through two intact windows. Mattresses were scattered across the floor, along with empty cans of food, bottles, dirty blankets and stacks of old clothing. Several other people sat around the edges of the room with their backs to the wall. None of them said a word. A mangy-looking dog dozed in one corner, his head resting gently on his paws. A very small fire burned in a fireplace to the right. The stocky man dropped his woodpile beside it and the older man picked up a few pieces to feed the flames.
“I’m looking for my brother,” Natalia said to the others. “His name is Leon.” A girl about Natalia’s age stared back. She had long, messy blonde hair and a narrow face. A blanket was wrapped around her shoulders. “Have you seen him?” Natalia asked the girl directly. “Leon, from Drosti?”
“No,” the girl replied. “I don’t know any Leon.”
“He’s twenty-four years old. Brown hair.”
The girl shrugged. “Lots of people come and go.”
The fresh pieces of wood began to catch, casting a flickering orange glow across the room. “I have a photo,” said Natalia, pulling a folded printout from her pocket. She opened it up and smoothed the creases as best she could before holding it out. The picture showed Leon, smiling with one young child in his arms and another clutching at his leg.
The girl squinted as she tried to make out the image. “He has children?” she said.
“Yes,” Natalia answered. “Two boys and a baby girl.”
Cocking her head sideways, the girl thought to herself for a moment. “I might know who you mean.”
“He’s been here, then?”
“I… I don’t know, maybe. Do you have any cigarettes?”
“No, I’m sorry. When was the last time you saw this person?”
“Not too long ago. Yesterday, perhaps. Or the day before.”
“Do you think he’ll be back?”
The girl put one hand to the floor and pushed herself up, rising to her feet. “Come with me.”
Natalia didn’t hesitate to follow the girl back out to the landing and then down the stairs to the third floor. They moved along a corridor until the girl stopped at the first apartment that actually had a door. She wrapped on it gently with her knuckles. There was no answer. She tried again a little louder. “You might just go on in. He won’t hurt you. He’s nice,” she said and then walked back the way she’d come.
When the girl was gone, Natalia stood alone in front of the door. This one had a handle, too. She reached down and tried the knob. It turned. She pushed the door open and looked inside. The room was empty except for a warped and broken old piano, the wood half-stripped. “Hello!” Natalia called out. “Is anybody here?!” Still no answer. She moved inside. Straight ahead was a kitchen with all of the appliances and the sink torn out. To the right was a doorframe. Inside the darkened room she saw a man sleeping on a single mattress in the center, his back facing her. One arm stretched out in front of the man’s head, his hand grasping a vodka bottle. “Hello,” she tried again. “Leon?”
Natalia walked into the room. Books were scattered across the floor. She picked one up and read the cover. George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, Russian translation. Her heart swelled. This had to be Leon. Natalia moved around to the other side of the mattress for a better look. The man’s face was tucked under his arm. His condition was like the others, with dirty clothes and matted hair. “Leon, is that you?” She gave the mattress a slight push with her foot. The man stirred slightly. “Hello?” Natalia tried again. Suddenly he sat bolt upright, bottle in the air as a weapon, his eyes wide with fear and confusion. Natalia jumped backwards until she was flush against the wall. They stared at each other for a few long seconds.
“Natalia?” he said, lowering his bottle. “What are you doing here?”