Misha sat in the dank confines of a basement, nearly laughing at the connotations of his surroundings. Leaving Russia wasn’t the same as fleeing the Soviet Union. There were ways to get out, all of them legal. But the paperwork was complicated and the fees were expensive. Misha could deal with the expensive part – he had given nearly every Ruble to his name to the man now hunched over an old wooden desk lit by the yellow pall of a single desk lamp.

What he couldn’t deal with was the paperwork. Already, thousands who understood the process better than he, were running to Europe before it closed its doors. Thousands more were pouring into Georgia, which any Russian citizen could do. But Misha knew that wouldn’t be good enough. No, he had to find his way to Europe, where he would be completely beyond the reach of the Russian government so he could add his own tirade to the burgeoning ranks of discontent on social media.

The man stood up from the desk and held out a large envelope. Misha took it in his hands, opened the flap and ran his thumb over the ream of papers inside.

“It’s complicated,” the man said, smiling. “But we’ll go through it all.” He glanced at his watch. “The most important thing is time. By the time we got all this together, some of it was almost expired. You must be on the train tonight or you’ll miss your exit window.”

Misha’s hand froze. “Tonight?”

“Yes. And we still have to go over everything, so we need to hurry.”

“Why? I thought I had more time.”

“I just got the last of it today, Misha. I didn’t know how soon some of these were going to expire until today. I’m sorry. That’s how it goes. Sometimes we don’t get it all in time and we have to start over. At least you have a train to catch.”

Misha eyed the man carefully. “Can I use your phone?”

“Misha, we don’t have time – “

“I didn’t get to say goodbye. I need to call home.”

The man sighed. “I understand, but don’t take too long.” He gestured at the phone on his desk. “I’ll be upstairs. Come get me when you’re ready.” the man walked up a few steps of the wooden stairway leading to the kitchen. “Don’t be too long.”

Misha watched the man leave and close the door behind him before he picked up the phone and punched the numbers, jabbing each one, his fingers small jack-hammers mashing the keys.

His mother answered. “Hello?”

“Mama, it’s Misha. I need to talk to Hanah.”

“She can’t come to the phone right now. Listen, Misha, you need to come home -“

“What do you mean she can’t come to the phone? Mama, I don’t have time. I need to talk to her right now. Go into her room and tell her it’s me. No games right now. I’ll explain later.”

His mother shouted, the shudder of tears lacing her voice. “She can’t come to the phone right now! Now listen to me.”

Misha gulped, wondering what had happened to his sister. Was she dead? Did she finally wander into the street and get run over? What could have possibly happened since he had seen her the day before?

“What is it Mama?”

“Misha, Hanah was arrested by the Rosgvadiya.”

“Why?”

“Protesting.”

Misha clenched his jaw. “Where is she now?”

“The station downtown.”

“Did they say how long they were going to keep her?”

“Everybody gets 15 days and then goes home. Or you pay a few hundred rubles. But they won’t tell me anything. I don’t know, Misha. I just don’t know.” His mother sniffled. “You need to come home. Your sister needs you.”

Misha stared at the envelope, sweat from his palm now seeping into the paper. If the man was talking about the train Misha thought he was, it was leaving in an hour. And it took a half hour to get there. And it would take him a half hour to get to the police station.

Thirty minutes either way.

Misha closed his eyes, took a deep breath. He would have to start over with the paperwork. Which meant he would have to pay for it all again. And he didn’t have the money.

But he couldn’t leave while his sister sat in jail. Even though he had told her now wasn’t the time. Even though he had told her to be careful, to stay quiet and wait until he could find a way to bring her out.

She had meant what she had told him: “This is my country. I’m not leaving. And I’m not giving up on her.”

Misha scampered upstairs with the envelope in his hand. Bursting through the kitchen door, he saw the man sitting at the kitchen table.

“I have to go,” Misha said.

“We don’t have time for that, Misha.” The man tapped his watch. “We need to leave in twenty minutes. And that’s just enough time to go over everything.”

Misha looked at the envelope and carefully laid it on the table, caressing it with his fingertips, as if he were saying goodbye to a lover he knew would never come back.

“We’ll have to do this another time,” Misha said.

“There might not be another time. And the money -“

“I know. But I have to go. I’m sorry.”


©2022 Michael J Lawrence

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