The escalator strained slowly upward. In an old station like this, what else would you expect? But the wind swirled like a wild thing inside the concrete pipe — ruffling his hair, tugging the hood off his head, sneaking in under his scarf, pressing him downward.
The wind didn’t want Egor to go up.
The wind was pushing him back.
Strange, but no one else seemed to notice the wind. There was hardly anyone around — it was midnight and the station was already emptying. Only a few people riding down towards Egor and hardly anyone on the up escalator either. One ahead of him, two or three behind.That was it.
Except, of course, for the wind.
Egor stuck his hands in his pockets and turned to look back. For a couple of minutes already, from the moment he stepped off the train, he’d had the feeling he was being watched. It wasn’t a frightening kind of feeling at all, it felt interesting, a sudden, pricking sensation.
Down at the bottom of the escalator there was a tall man in uniform. Not police, a soldier.Then there was a woman with a sleepy little child, clutching her hand. And another man, young, wearing a bright orange jacket, with a walkman. He looked just about dead on his feet too.
Nothing suspicious. Not even for a boy going home so late. Egor looked up again, at the policeman lounging against the gleaming handrails, dejectedly trying to spot some easy prey in this sparse stream of passengers.
Nothing to be afraid of.
The wind gave Egor one last nudge and suddenly dropped away, apparently resigned that the struggle was pointless.The boy glanced back once more and started running up the moving steps as they flattened out under his feet. He had to hurry. He didn’t know why, but he had to. Again he felt a pricking sensation of senseless anxiety and a cold shudder ran through his body.
It was the wind again.
Egor slipped out through the half-opened doors and the piercing cold assailed him with renewed fury. His hair, still wet from the pool — the dryer was broken again — was instantly stiff with ice. Egor pulled the hood back over his head, darted past the vendor kiosks without stopping and hurried into the underpass. Up on the surface there were far more people, but he still had the feeling of alarm. He glanced back now, without slowing down, but there was no one following him. The woman with the small child was walking towards a trolleybus stop, the man with the walkman had paused in front of a kiosk, inspecting the bottles, the soldier still hadn’t come out of the subway.
The boy speeded up through the underpass.There was music coming from somewhere, so quiet he could hardly hear it, but it was incredibly soothing. The delicate trill of a flute, the strum of guitar strings, the chime of a xylophone.The music was calling to him, telling him to hurry. Egor dodged past a group of people hurrying towards him, overtook a happy little drunk who was barely staggering forward. All thought seemed to have been blown out of his head, he was almost running now.
The music was calling.
And now there were words weaving themselves into it . . . not clearly, still too quiet to make out, but just as alluring. Egor bounded out of the underpass and stopped for a moment, gulping in the cold air. A trolleybus was just rolling up to the stop. He could ride just one stop, almost all the way to his house . . .
The boy set off towards the trolleybus, walking slowly, as if his legs had suddenly become numb. It halted for a few seconds with its doors open, then the hinged flaps swung together and it moved away. Egor watched it go with dull, glazed eyes, the music getting louder all the time, filling the whole world, from the semicircular lobby of the high-rise hotel to the ‘box on stilts’ — his own building — that he could see not far away. The music was prompting him to walk.Along the wide, brightly lit avenue, where there were still plenty of people around at this hour. His home was only five minutes away.
But the music was even closer . . .
When Egor had walked about a hundred metres, the hotel was suddenly no longer sheltering him from the wind.The icy blast stung his face, almost drowning out the music that was calling to him. The boy began to stagger, nearly coming to a stop.The enchantment was shattered, but the feeling of being watched was back, this time with a strong undercurrent of fear.He glanced back. Another trolleybus was approaching the stop. And he caught a glimpse of an orange jacket in the light of the streetlamps.The man who had ridden up the escalator with him was walking behind him. Still with his eyes half closed in the same way, but with surprising speed and purpose, as if he could see Egor.
The boy started to run.
The music began again louder than ever, breaking through the curtain of the wind. He could now make out words . . . he could, but he didn’t want to.
The right thing to do now was to walk along the avenue, past the shops, which were closed but still brightly lit, alongside the late-nighters on the pavement, in full view of the cars rushing by.
But Egor turned into an alleyway. To where the music was calling him.
It was almost completely dark, the only things moving were two shadows by the wall. Egor seemed to see them through a dense haze, as if they were lit up by some ghastly bluish glow.A young man and a girl, very lightly dressed, as if the night air wasn’t twenty degrees below zero.
The music rose to a final, crashing, triumphant crescendo.And stopped.The boy felt his body go limp. He was covered in sweat, his legs giving way, he wanted to sit down on the slippery, ice-covered pavement.
‘A pretty one . . .’ said the girl in a quiet voice. She had a thin face, with sunken cheeks and a pale complexion. Only her eyes seemed to be alive: black, huge, magnetic.
‘You can leave . . . just a little bit . . .’ the young man said with a smile. They were as alike as brother and sister, not in their features, but in some indefinable quality that they shared, as if their faces were covered by a dusty, semi-transparent gauze.
‘For you?’ For a moment the girl turned her gaze away from Egor.The numbness eased slightly and terror flooded his mind.The boy opened his mouth, but his eyes met the young man’s and he couldn’t shout.As if he was suddenly wrapped in some cold, elastic membrane.
‘Yes.You hold him!’
The girl gave a mocking snort. Turning her gaze back to Egor, she stretched out her lips as if she were blowing a kiss. In a quiet voice she pronounced those familiar words, the ones that had been woven into the alluring music.
‘Come, come . . . come to me . . .’
Egor stood without moving. He had no strength to run, despite the horror, despite the scream that had burst from his lungs and stuck in his throat. But at least he could simply stand.
A woman walked past the end of the alley with two huge German shepherds on leads. Walking in slow motion, as if she were moving underwater, as if she were part of his terrible dream. Out of the corner of his eye, Egor saw the dogs turn sharply towards the alley, tugging at their leads, and for a moment an insane hope flared up in his soul. The German shepherds started growling uncertainly, with loathing and fear. The woman stopped for a moment and glanced suspiciously into the alley. Egor caught her glance — indifferent, as if she was looking into empty space.
‘Come on!’ She tugged at the leads and the dogs gladly moved back to her side.
The young man laughed quietly.
The woman quickened her step and disappeared from view.
‘He’s not coming to me!’ the girl exclaimed petulantly.‘Look, will you, look, he’s not coming!’
‘Try harder,’ the young man said curtly. He frowned. ‘Learn.’
‘Come! Come to me!’ the girl said, emphasising each word. Egor was less than two metres away, but it seemed to be important to her that he came over to her.
Egor realised that he had no more strength to resist. The girl’s gaze held him, as if binding him with an invisible elastic tether, the words summoned him and he could not help himself. He knew that he should not move, but still he took a step forward.The girl smiled, and he saw her white, even teeth. She said:
‘Take off your scarf.’
He couldn’t hold out any longer. His hands trembled as he threw back his hood and pulled off his scarf without unwinding it. He stepped towards those alluring black eyes.
Something was happening to the girl’s face. Her lower jaw was stretching down, her teeth were moving, curving. He saw the flash of long fangs that were not human.
Egor took another step.