Artyom emerged from his tent after a long but restless sleep filled with the twitches, mumbles, and groans that, in an unsettling way, mirrored his equally tortured conscious personality. Whose soul wasn’t tortured, though? Certainly in an age when a man as stoic and impervious as the grizzled Artyom was so affected, no human could hope to be spared. Petrov had not only recognized but had accepted that vulnerability in his father. It was something that had to be accepted. And if Artyom wasn’t sweating in his sleep, or calling for his deceased wife between hurried breaths, his son might well think something was wrong.
Petrov watched his father zip the flimsy orange door of the tent with his knotted and worn fingers, careful not to snag on the way around.
“Nothing happened, it was all quiet.” Petrov assured his father. “I think we’re far enough from the city now.” Artyom did not respond, he simply nodded a slow tired nod that made his son feel bad about the unfulfilling sleep. It made him want to tell his father to go back in and lie down, get more rest. But he knew that his father would never allow that, it was surprise enough that he let Petrov keep watch for five hours this time, longer than any other. Besides, Petrov’s eyes had been heavy for the past hour and just minutes before his father emerged from the orange nylon capsule, he caught himself nodding off to the steady warmth of the fire.
Artyom sat across from his son, leaned forward, and uncurled his gnarled hands from their fists and held them above the crackling warmth. The atmosphere was heavy with silence and Petrov understood that his father would not likely want to stumble through light conversation, so he stood up from the log and walked toward the tent, gently placing the semi-auto kalashnikov against his father’s leg.
“Stay.” Grumbled Artyom. Petrov returned and looked into his father’s downcast eyes. “Your mother,” he began, “told me a story.” He poked at the fire then stared through the orange flickering, through the dry mud, though the earth, all the way to the constellation of memories scrawled on the back of his mind. “When she was young, her mother pulled her aside and placed in her hands a small marble figure. A lady in a traditional dress. Her mother said, ‘This, Vasselisa, is you. This little doll is to travel with you on all your journeys, it will always be in your pocket. She will smile with you on your happiest of days and it will soak your tears on the saddest. She will be with you through successes and failures, through love, marriage, and death.’ Yes, my dear Vasselisa carried the marble doll through her entire life. When you were born, the doll sat on the windowsill of the hospital.” Artyom now stared at his son in an endearing way that, at any other time, might have made Petrov uncomfortable but given the circumstances, it filled him with warmth. “She said it was the doll that chose me over all her other admirers. She said it spoke to her the night we met, it told her to get on the metro at the exact time that I got on. It predicted our meeting.” His father’s face turned suddenly and he stared ever deeper into the fire. “Now that she is gone, I’ve kept the doll in here.” He patted the inner chest pocket of his leather jacket. “I’ve heard it now too… Through it your mother has calmed me many times on our journey.”
He pulled it from his chest, rubbed it between his fingers, and handed it head-first to his son. Petrov reached but fumbled the marble figure, knocking it into the fire. He was horrified but Artyom laughed, a reassuring laugh. “So that’s how you’ll do it, you sneaky thing, you…” He was talking to the figure, now. “What are you talking about, father?” “The doll, when your mother passed it along to me back in the city, when everything was going to hell, it dropped on the concrete and fractured.” He skillfully coaxed it from the fire with the stick and held it before Petrov’s eyes. “See the crack is the small shape of a heart?” Petrov saw the fracture, unmistakable as a heart on the back. “And what has she done for you?” Artyom examined the doll, blinking his eyes and drawing it nearer to his nose. “Ah, there.” Artyom exclaimed just before going into a fit of coughing. “There,” he regained himself, “just at the neck is a small white mark, in the shape of a seed, no doubt.” Petrov held the doll to his face and rubbed the white mark on its neck. It was permanent, and most definitely in the shape of a seed, a pumpkin seed. Artyom smiled, “She’s still with us.” Then feverishly began coughing again. Petrov thought about the time they carved pumpkins together, many years ago, and how he would squeeze the slimy seeds between his thumb and forefinger, launching them at his mother and father. From that night on his mother had affectionately called him her ‘Little Pumpkin Seed’, often before smiling and squeezing him in a tight bear hug. “Go to bed, son, and keep that with you forever.” Artyom looked back at the fire and began poking again, sending small clouds of glittering coals into the air. Petrov turned and looked to the edge of the forest from which they came. He thought about the small town before it and the city before that. How all the people were gone, either dead like his mom or run out by the ‘howlers’ like they had been. He walked back to the tent and put his hand on his father’s shoulder on the way, looking down to notice his red stained handkerchief.
(Thanks to Chuck Wendig’s blog post for the prompt that inspired this story)