by Caitlin Upshall
It was a policy push disguised as a humanitarian effort; everything was these days. Jeanne was the last to be dropped off, so the cars stayed with her. She walked up the pathway to what remained of the home, a look of disdain resting in the cracks of her chapped lips. The bedroom window was just a frame now—the glass long-gone—and a part of the chimney had been toppled by the blast. There were still bricks on the ground and most had moss growing on them. Mikhail stood near a large pile of them and Jeanne tried to ignore him, for a few more seconds, as she walked. Her pulse pounded beneath her gloves and sweat gathered in the downy short hair on her neck.
She’d kept her hair long most of her life—she never wanted to look like a boy—but the refugee camps were filled with lice. It had taken weeks to comb them out of her hair and, after they’d gone, she still felt phantom limbs crawling on her skin. She scratched her scalp so much in her sleep that she would often wake to find her pillow stained with blood. It had only taken one season for her to chop off her locks and reassess her vanity. Jeanne adjusted her grip on the small bag she carried, letting her free hand dart in and feel around for its contents. It was a nice, fleeting distraction. She could feel him watching her and she wished she didn’t care. It was easy not to care about so many things these days.
She adjusted her sunglasses and closed the distance between the two of them in twelve steps, flattening snow beneath her boots. For a brief, uneasy second, she thought she heard a bird whistling the wedding march. But it was a foolish thought. There hadn’t been birds here in a long time.
You came, said Jeanne.
She saw his blank expression and shook her head. Even after nine years of marriage, Mikhail had never picked up on the simplest of phrases. She switched to English, the only language they shared, and said,
“I didn’t know what to expect. Thank you for being here.”
Mikhail shrugged. “You think I wouldn’t come? I come. I’m here.”
“I can see that.”
Jeanne let herself study him for a moment. His hair was longer than she had ever seen it before, held back by a rubber band, but his face was clean shaven. She wondered if that was a requirement where he lived now. He’d lost weight—they both had—but his body had held extra weight to begin with. He almost looked healthier now and that made her sad.
Her new government sent photographs of the damage weeks after the explosion; a courtesy, and a guarantee that she understood how real the war actually was. It had taken seven years for a ceasefire to be discussed and by the time an armistice was signed, she had simply accepted that she would never see the house again. Looking at it now, it would have been easier if that had been the truth.
Jeanne looked past him in the direction that she had come. She couldn’t see the armored vehicles with their white coloring against the white snowbanks, but she had to assume that they were within earshot. As her eyes slowly trailed back to Mikhail, a pair of yellow lights blinked a few hundred meters behind him.
I thought I’d have more time, she muttered.
The yellow lights blinked again, this time in a five-blink sequence: hurry. The cars had escorted a group of them, dropping off individuals and soldiers at other houses and meeting spots along the way. Across from her, Mikhail reached into his coat and pulled out a cigarette. He sheltered it behind his hand while he lit it.
“Cigarette?” he said, noticing her gaze.
“Thank you.” Jeanne puckered her lips around the filter and closed her eyes in bliss at the nicotine. It became easier to breathe, for some reason. “Where do you get these?”
Mikhail blew out a trail of smoke before answering. “Rations.”
“Our government gives us paper for cigarettes but only enough for one a day. And they don’t give us tobacco. I have to pay a man at the end of my street for tobacco.”
Mikhail shook his head, tsking softly.
“You don’t believe me?” Jeanne took another puff. “He claims he gets it close to the border from some freelancer who does supply runs from dead lands to refugee camps.”
“Our government. You say that like you chose it.”
Jeanne took the cigarette away from her lips. She spent a moment collecting her thoughts before she said, “I chose to live. We both did.”
Afraid that she wouldn't have the nerve if she put it off much longer, Jeanne set her bag down on a pile of bricks and took out a bundle of papers and a pen. She had requested that the papers be drafted in English. There was something about seeing the word ‘DIVORCE’ in her second language that made her feel removed from the process. It was no secret why they were here, but she caught the hurt on Mikhail’s face as she handed him the papers.
“If you could just…” she began.
“Where’s the boy?” asked Mikhail, starting to sign on the required lines. “It is a boy, yes?”
“He’s six now. I left him with my mother,” Jeanne replied. A small smile crept onto her face. “I told him I was going to see my doctor.”
Mikhail raised an eyebrow. “I have not been a doctor in years.”
“They don’t recognize your credentials?”
“Dual-citizen refugee. It doesn’t matter that I was born there. I come back as a refugee; I’m treated as such. Interrogated as such.”
He discarded the first page and began signing the second.
Jeanne snubbed out her cigarette and pointed to an unmarked line. “Sign there, too, please.”
The kitchen was the first room to be destroyed; that’s what she’d been told. Mikhail had been at work and she was visiting family. The news warned of bombings for so long that, at some point, everyone stopped believing it would happen; the war would stay contained in unpopulated areas until one side initiated peace talks. That’s how it always happened…until it happened differently. Within hours of the first round of bombings, neighboring second and third-world countries sent ships, planes, and trains, offering to take in refugees. First world countries only offered to take those who held a passport: dual-citizen refugees. It was a new term, but refugee was the most difficult part to understand.
Jeanne and Mikhail had caught each other at the train station, just long enough to trade wedding rings, for him to touch her belly, and for an unbearably uncertain hug before departing on separate rail lines. The war would be over soon, he’d said, and then they would find each other. He’d said it so clinically that she had believed him, even as their trains went farther and farther away. They’d met in the county that was now the site of the war but their birthplaces were two separate flags. Now, she watched as he reached the last page and finished signing, his brow more furrowed than it had been a moment ago.
“I know you can't say what your job is now, but it gives you favors,” Mikhail said. “It must, if they let us do this.”
Jeanne shook her head. “It's not to do with my job. The government just doesn't want anyone to have ties.” She lowered her eyes. “You’re a tie.”
“Here,” Mikhail said, handing the bundle back.
“Thank you.” Jeanne clipped the papers together and tucked them into her bag.
She glanced past him at the yellow lights in the distance. The city she lived in now was so overpopulated that the sky held more smoke than color. Factories replaced mountains and garbage barges had taken over the sea, circling the ports, unable to find landfills with room. If it were night, she could almost pretend the lights were stars
“Mine are gray.”
Jeanne looked at him. “Pardon?”
“Mine are gray,” Mikhail repeated, gesturing behind her. Jeanne turned toward a forested area with tall, dead trees. Even their skeletons made the area dense. “You can't see them through the trees but the cars that brought me here are between the trees there. They keep blinking at me. Do you think they want me to rush?”
“It’s their isolation policies,” Jeanne said softly. “Even traveling here is a risk. After all, this is where the war began. It’s not safe to stay.”
“Because we’re still at war?”
“Must be.” Jeanne’s mouth felt dry. “Otherwise, they’d let us come back here, wouldn’t they?”
Mikhail stared at her for a long moment and she felt him on the verge of arguing with her. Instead, though, he pulled out a second cigarette and lit it.
“You’re probably right,” he said, sounding entirely unconvinced. He looked back at the rubble beside him and whistled slowly. “One house bombed twice. That would be a funny coincidence. Well, I say, fuck them. This is the first moment that’s felt normal in seven years and it’s the end of a marriage? No, I won’t accept that.”
“I think you’ll have to,” Jeanne replied, immediately regretting how callous she sounded. She tried to soften her expression a bit. “I just mean, we’ll have to. Any minute now, one of those cars will open and one or both of us will be dragged…home.” The word felt dirty on her tongue.
Mikhail shrugged and offered the cigarette to her. “Then, stand with me for half a minute?”
Jeanne glanced behind her and saw yellow flashing in the distance, matching the urgency of the cars waiting for her. She hadn't been lying; any moment one of the car doors could open and one or both of them would be taken back. The backs of the cars didn’t have windows. The moment that she sat down, she would be blind again, reliant on fewer senses until the doors opened and she was returned to a misspelled home. But here, for a moment, every sense felt awakened.
When the house had been destroyed, no one was allowed inside but Mikhail had run back to see if anything was salvageable. Jeanne didn’t find out why until she’d opened her suitcase on the train and found a stuffed teddy bear inside. It had been in the nursery, until it was thrown out through a window, and was now sporting mud stains and missing an eye. She’d slept with it every night until the baby was born. Mikhail knew how to approach a rule and defy it without breaking it, and he was especially inclined to do it when it could help someone. She’d always loved that about him.
She looked around, trying to memorize everything about this place. Burnt trees, mossy bricks, and discolored soil that had been absorbing poison for half a decade. Nothing would ever grow here again but the sky was clear.
“What is his name?” Mikhail said.
A car door swung open but Jeanne turned her full attention to him, refusing to acknowledge which car it was. She heard footsteps, as snow crunched beneath spiked boots. She kept her eyes on Mikhail. Her lips stung as she took a long drag of the cigarette, smiled broadly, and said,
Caitlin Upshall (she/her/hers) holds a B.A. in English from Western Washington University. Her work has been published by the tiny journal, OyeDrum, The Sweet Tree Review, and others. In her spare time, she enjoys most things dinosaur-related and trivia nights. You can find her on Instagram at @CaitlinUpshall or at www.caitlinupshall.com.