The usual haunt.
I was ten years old: my mass diminutive and my body developing. I was thinner than the other girls as, when they took every meal they could when they got it, I salvaged and stored the food I was given under my pillow for the winter, when food became scarcer. The perfect example of what Russia despised: a seemingly weak, poor girl with Hitler’s prized blue eyes, blonde hair and Viking cheekbones. The perfect example of what the Red Room could (and most definitely would) break.
To Stalin I was a great disappointment. Or, more accurately, to Madame I was a great disappointment. The runt of the litter. “Russia needs good, strong, healthy girls, not a malnourished elk,” she would rant during inspections; it did not phase me, I had the advantage... I always had to have the advantage.
I’m always taken back to the day when Madame was ranting to my comrades on how “feeble” I was and how I was a “good example of what not to grow to” when she stopped short, an idea forming in her malicious mind. An announcement. Yes, an announcement, the first of many of this kind.
“Девушки!” Girls. Oh no, this was never good. “You have grown to an age and you’re number has only fell by few. Tomorrow. In the evening, we shall hold a fight, a chance to prove your worth to the Kremlin! A chance to show you are the best, and Stalin will only accept the best.” Eyes hungry with a variation of determination, desperation and curiosity dared to roam slightly to their peers, sizing them up, analysing for weakness, seeking those who might give quarter. The latter was never found. Madame didn’t notice, she was too caught up in her little speech. “Tomorrow two of you will show what you have learnt.” She turned on her heel and began to strut out of the frigid, dilapidating dormitory before looking back and adding with venom in her crisp tone: “The first fight will be between Anya and Семь.” She locked eyes with me for a second before her heels continued to click, echoing down the eerie halls of the nightmarish facility.
I was to fight Anya. Warily, my eyes turned to the brunette in the bed adjacent to mine. An unusual cacophony had broken out as soon as the girls were assured Madame was out of earshot. “Why now?” “Who do you think will win?” “That’s obvious, Anya of course. She’s the best student.” “Who do you think is next?” Ava was proclaiming my certain demise with unbridled glee; although, their squabbling meant nothing to me- it was nothing more than a dull chattering in the back of my mind- so long as I got my advantage.
It was the eyes that gave it away.
Anya had turned to face me, face set in a determined blank though her shoulders were raised a little too high to be seen as defiant. Cowardly. Assured I was perfectly blank (not that I was afraid, fear was for the weak) I stared into her eyes. She stared back. A battle of wills observed by girls who didn’t know the meaning of the word mercy. There: a glimmer of fear in the minute widening of eyes; the longing to be accepted, like any orphan, in the furrowing of brows she tried to disguise as determination; the subtle tremor of her lip revealing her soft hearted morality. Coward.
Turning, I stood to attention in front of my solid, cold bed, the guards would be coming in less than two minutes. By the time the day had passed in its uniform routine, my confidence was strong: I knew what to do.
This is where it always starts.
5:30am. My eyes fly open at the sonorous sound of metal falling against metal, of handcuffs clanging against iron bed frames. As soon as my wrist was freed from the metal circlet I sat up, quickly as though frightened, looking all the world like a frightened snow rabbit. Heaving my legs out of the thin blanket I turned to Anya, of whom had done the same in not as much of a distraught manner, and looked at her in a way that I hoped had communicated “Can I trust you with a secret?” She nodded.
Tentative, untrusting, courageous: a slender hand with bony fingers slid under the wan pillow to grasp hard stale bread. Haltingly, it emerged from under the cushion and was ripped in half. Nibbling on my half, I jerkily offered the other. My offering was taken swiftly and a smile- insincere on my part- was exchanged. For Anya it might’ve been friendship; for me it was duty. It was advantage.
Progressing through the day as usual, I made a point to casually display signs of friendship with my prey. Sitting closest to her as we recited Walt Disney’s atrocity Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (being in close proximity to one another shown the want to be friendly, the want to have a forbidden friendship and go against what the Kremlin has in store for us), mouthing answers to her during American history (helping her to increase the idea of solidarity), practicing ballet on the bar in front of her (willingly showing my back to lull her into a false sense of trust). Despite being the best pupil of us all, Anya was gullible. Her faith in our false friendship was so strong that she had even spoke up in my defence against Ava Petrova’s predictable taunts. Good.
When watery sunlight began to dwindle, yet the sky was still blue, the girls- the soldiers- no, the puppets were assembled in a dusty outside fighting arena. We were in our exercise outfits: discarding the white blouses, skirts and scarlet kerchiefs for tight scarlet shorts and loose white vests we wore no mind how harsh the weather. Madame watched blankly in warmer clothing.
Deliberately, both me and Anya took our times in meeting in the centre, bowing our heads slightly in respect and assuming the state-approved fighting stance. There was a second of silence, where the world held its breath in anticipation. I delivered the first blow. Lashing out in a roundhouse kick that was blocked with a firm forearm, she then dealt a double punch I ducked easily. I grabbed her arm. I dragged her towards me. I hit her firmly in her gut to wind her, bringing my forearm up the little space to her face now she had hunched over. Why was she so damn tall? I doled out another blow to her gut and swagger away her reaching arm punching her in the same spot again, using my primal desperation to my advantage. It was all I had really.
Anya’s usually fair features had distorted into an loathe-filled mess. Her fist made of bricks impacted my face in two swift blows. She lunged for my arm and twisted, though I used the motion to cartwheel out of her firm grip. She had realised my manipulations. Assured she had me won, she stepped forwards, twitching her arm in threat. Instinctively I stepped back. My eyes followed her every move. She was my target. I had to beat her: it was what Stalin wanted after all.
Time slowed down as it always does when a life is about to end. My prey aimed a right hook for my dangerously thin rib cage; however, my left came up and pushed it out of the way as I used her momentum against her. I put my right hand against her side and pushed to make her unbalanced and used an insistent knee to get her on the ground. The confidence of a predator with her prey trapped filled me with a bloodlust, I punched viciously where I knew her diaphragm was located. She lurched under my weight, throwing me off. Scrabbling behind her faster than she could sit up properly, she was in a firm headlock. Her whimpers echoed around the small, enclosed yard. Her hands clawed at mine, trying to find any kind of purchase. I reckon she would have begged for mercy had I heeded her pleas.
Without emotion, I turned to our trainer, seeking the order. Hoping it was given. I would not be able to live with her if the order was not given.
Nod. Snap! Limp.
My eyes jerked open. The same nightmare, the same memory that plagued my sleep each night. After turning the light on, my glacial eyes turned to my watch. Ten minutes. I had only been asleep for ten minutes. It seemed that this memory kept waking me up swifter and swifter.
It was fifteen minutes past one in the morning. Reasoning told me that if Yelena knew I was up so early in the morning she would put sleeping drugs in my vodka. Something I would like to avoid. After careful consideration and a bottle of vodka, I coaxed myself back into the idea of sleep, however not without a look of longing to the bedside cabinet holding my handcuffs. I resisted the urge.
The next nightmare. Her.
The woman of science. The glamorous superstar. The devil. She wore her masks well, better than anybody else I’d seen; however, she reeked of danger and deceit to refined nostrils. That night still instils enough fear into me to put me in temporary paralysis.
My wrists and ankles were bound by thick leather belts. Bound tight. Jabbing pains shot up my left arm at every attempt I tried to wriggle my hands free, leading me- painstakingly- to the conclusion that the scars on my wrists were no longer ‘healed wounds’.
Scanning the surroundings, I began to wonder why. I knew the basement of her housing complex so well now, it seemed unnecessary. From the unshaded lightbulb to the rotting wooden beams, every
Click. Click. Click. No. Not again. Anything but this one. A boa constrictor was squeezing at my chest as my heart transfigured into a jackhammer. Not this one! Not her!
Elegant and intimidating, the blonde beauty emerged from stairs dark as the entrance to the abyss. Curls framed her face elegantly, accentuating the obsidian cracks in her skin. Obsidian fragments, like those of which I see whenever I dare to gaze upon my reflection. Appealing to the eye, intimidating to the soul: the wraith busied herself with peeling gauntlets of leather from dainty hands of ice.
Bolstering courage that had swiftly evaded my grasp, I dragged her attention to me. “Y’know, I’m not in the movie business,” I plastered a false half-smile on my crimson lips. Question: how does one taunt the devil? “But I think you’re gonna need a lot more makeup to cover that up.” Answer: you keep your fear to yourself- or, at least, you try to.
Her smile was the flash of teeth an alpha wolf gave before a kill, the look of sympathy nothing more than crocodile tears, a look clueing me of my demise. My heart stopped. And the world slowed down, in the way the world does before a life is lost. By now, I had learnt to embrace the stillness, the all consuming darkness; this time the world’s delay was for me.
“Well, I’m done with that part of my life.” Her voice was honey sweet, not unlike mine when I played the farm girl from Iowa, yet her voice held the steel of command. The grit of leadership dampened but not drowned in the honey. “It’s taken too much from me for too long: my childhood, my innocence-“ she shot me a pointed look- “you know what that’s like. I can see it in your eyes.”
My throat began to constrict once more as the boa constrictor slithered back around my chest. I couldn’t speak. My jaw was locked. Eyes carefully still. And though fear prevented my speech, the words tumbled from my lips nonetheless. And though adrenaline coursed erratically through my veins, my face was painfully blank. “Yes. We’re so much alike. Let me tell you all my secrets. I feel just from talking to you for a few moments, we're absolutely in the same boat.” Despite how desperately I tried to resist, a memory is a memory and my lips twisted into an uncertain, fear-ridden half smile. A sure act of defiance.
Click. Click. Click. She walked forward like a predator, knowing for certain her prey was in her clutches. “Oh. We’re not in the same boat. We’re not even in the same ocean.” The usual honey in her voice had turned to venom, her teeth bared in an animalistic snarl. All of a sudden, she stopped. Her face turned blank and she reached forward and picked up the diamond choker, her movement causing me to duck backwards in the hope of avoiding flesh-on-flesh contact. I exhaled quickly at her motion, bracing for the inevitable pain. It didn’t come.
“What a finely crafted piece.” A part of me snorted: it was nothing short of a exquisitely crafted collar. Besides, Peggy would be coming soo- “I disabled the tracking device when you arrived.” Дерьмо. “So don’t expect Peggy Carter to come rescue you.” Like a coiled snake, she struck, hand lashing out and grasping at my throat and squeezing tight.
It was like drowning. Drowning in hydrochloric acid. Every cell was ignited, nerves fraying, oxygen lacking. My lungs filled. My hearts pounding was laborious. The dark, so elegantly contrasted against the blank slate of her skin, was being thrusted into my veins, taking the place of my blood. Precious oxygen was wasted to a scream. I was dying.
And then it stopped.
All the pain, all the torture stopped. And she was close. Too close. My breathing was no more than raspy wheezing. Her nose was inches away from my own, my neck craning backwards, trying desperately to be as far away from her as possible.
“Now that we understand each other, what does Peggy Carter want?” Low, almost a growl, was her voice. Demanding an answer.
Mind racing, thoughts scrambled, heart rushing: inarticulate fragments of past protocols were shoved to the side by the insistent alarm bells screaming “Опасность!!” Danger!! And yet the training kept insisting that we don’t spill our guts, that we withhold information. All that got through my gritted jaw was a high pitched “You,” more of a whimper than anything. Movement was felt of the right side of my face, moist and uncomfortable, dripping from the corner of my eye.
In the manner of a irked animal, she threw her head to the side, making the move to engage contact once more. Whimpering escaped my lips as I instinctively strained back, words almost screaming from my lips. “NO! Don’t! Please! Please, she told me to get a sample of your blood!” Her eyes were intense, eager, power-hungry. They bore into me, seeing into the emptiness within. It took another sharp breath in to continue. “A sample of whatever that is- whatever that is inside you...”
When she spoke again, her voice was.... curious. Intrigued and hushed with breathless seriousness. “And did you get it?” A nod. There was pressure behind my eyes, and I felt... I’m not sure of the word. Like my skin was crawling, under scrutiny. Like I’d done something terribly wrong and caught, was this what it felt like to be- what do Americans say?- chewed out?
“Ooh, clever girl.” She cooed, putting on the facade once again. “Why does she want it?”
“For her new boyfriend. He’s a scientist,”
“Wilkes.” The wraith put me under more scrutiny, looking for the hint of a lie.
“No. That’s not possible. Wilkes is dead.”
“He’s a ghost... things pass right through him.” So, that’s why the good doctor was in such a state. The memory of his chocolate coloured hand passing straight through mine flitted swiftly in front of my eyes. The woman hummed thoughtfully, muttering something about molecular intangibility. It was clearly fascinating to her. The glacial eyes were unfocused; they snapped up suddenly to meet my own. Gazing upon me, her features- as beautiful as a silver dagger- melted with pity. Her tone turned to match it too. “Oh, Dottie.” She almost seemed disappointed. Slinking behind me, she pushed my head forwards to a most undignified squeak. She began to fiddle with the diamond choker, setting the trap.
“Congratulations, Miss Underwood. You’re still useful to me.” She purred. Whitney Frost purred, the ground disappearing underneath us with each of her syllables. No grip.
Noise screeched from nowhere. Just noise. Static. A radio? Words, muffled, consumed in static, broke through.
-I know you’re as good as dead to Russia.
From the darkness emerged an image. A man: bleeding incessantly facedown on a bed, eyes and tongue cut out. See no more, speak no more.
-Girl without a country, an assassin without a target.
-Bet I could find a target.
Ava again. Emaciated body mangled, neck bent at an awkward angle. Widened eyes glazed, lips pale. Suicide. The death of myself.
-All alone in the world.
Their faces. Each and every face, flitting through the darkness. Screaming, crying, pleading. No longer sure if it’s mine or theirs. More and more. Endless. Too many. Too. Many. For Russia. Russia. Россия.... survive? But I died long long ago.
Suddenly... silence. Deafening silence. Emerging, eyes dead and cold, skin tinged sickly blue, was my greatest regret. Peggy Carter. Sauntering over, feet finding purchase on a non-existent floor, she crouched next to my ear and whispered: “You thought you loved me. But how could a monster like you ever love anything?” And pushed my shoulder, softly, towards a resumed cacophony. Shrieking, grasping hands taking me, ripping me, shredding...
And the screaming continued, despite the lack of an image. On and on. Tears streaking my face, sobbing racking my hunched body. Clawed hands clutching my scalp, each bone within me quaking.
How could a monster like me ever love anything?
So many people. So many lives. Gone, disintegrating at the same hands pulling my hair. The power of life and death, yielded to carelessly. Presented to a mere child, thrusted upon a girl forced to use it. Still, they were my fault. My fault.
Inhaling rasping breath, my claws unclamped themselves from my head and haltingly wiped away the droplets of salty water from my eyes. How long had it been since I’d cried? Pity was hardly something I sought, from myself nor from others. Help was also in that category. (What use is a girl who cannot look after herself? What soldier is so weak as to require support?)
Jaw clenched and fingers numb, I moved from the bed, I daren’t not glance at the clock stating 1:45AM. Loitering on the problem never helped. Run. Run from the past. Don’t look back or you’ll be consumed. Forget. Try to forget, but I cannot. Barnes makes losing memories sound like a hell, to me it sounds like bliss.
“One. Two.” Muscles straining, tightening. Push up. Push up. Push. “Three. Four.” Don’t think. Allow muscle memory to take over. Don’t think. This is what I was trained to do. What I was made for. “Five. Six.” The lack of burn, of feeling, mirrors the numbness within perfectly. I would be well into the two hundreds before fatigue began to gnaw gently at me. “Seven. Eight.” Move, move. Stopping would mean looking back. Looking back would mean facing what you’ve done. But that’s not what disgusts you, is it? “Nine. Ten.” What disgusts you is that when you think back you feel nothing. No guilt. Glee taking over in it’s stead. Should a soldier enjoy what she does? “Eleven. Twelve.”
I got up. With much deliberation, I walked over to a newly purchased mirror. The jagged shards of the last one still littered the vanity beneath. Eyes closed. I don’t want to see my reflection. But I do. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Eyes open. Stomach sinking. Nothingness stares back.
I look the same as I did when I was 21, when they drugged me; although, my cheeks were gaunter from starvation, my eyes deader from experience, body barely above emaciated. That, I see peering back at me. But also I see the faces again. Flitting swiftly behind me. Faster and faster. My eyes scrunch closed again, hands covering ears as Ava Petrova’s, Madame B’s and Peggy Carter’s voices all chant: “Monster. Monster. Монстр.”
And then another voice, fresher, sharper. “Monstruo.” Maria: the Spanish voice cutting deeper than any knife. Finally, perhaps, seeing the creature within. The agent of chaos. The cause of more evil than good. Nausea was building within my innards. She was getting louder and louder and louder before.... silence.
Hesitantly, I plucked up the courage to open my eyes. No. No. There. There stood Yelena, face contorted in disgust. “Монстр! Ты не моя мамочка!” You are not my mother.... it hurt more than it should have. I never wanted her love, her affection nor her loyalty. In fact, I made a point to show I wanted anything but that; I received all three. Now? Having that taken away? It broke something. Shattered it.
Bile rose in my throat. Insistently. In a matter of seconds I was hunched over a toilet, retching. Tears pricked my eyes. I was a mess. A complete and utter mess. But, still, I knew when somebody asked “How are you today?”, I would smile callously and proclaim I was just dandy.... but I’m not. I’m haunted.