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Sergeant Bertrand

He looked around. A dense black smoke cloud hung over the communal garbage container: the garbage was burning, and smelled so revolting it made Nikolai’s stomach turn. The yard was deserted, but from the corner of his eye he glimpsed someone darting behind the container. Nikolai ran over to it, and stepped right into the thick, black, suffocating cloud. He had to shut his eyes and hold his breath. And when he emerged from the smoke and opened his eyes again, there was nobody there, nobody behind the container. He scanned the yard again, ran into the neighbouring building, but it was abandoned. The neighbouring yard was deserted too, except for some children playing football with a half-deflated rubber ball (the snot-nosed goalkeeper constantly adjusted his torn gloves, which were too big for him), while across the busy road an old lady stood, clutching her bag full of sprouting potatoes, staring at Nikolai who stood barefoot on the cold asphalt. Once home he almost wept. ‘Are you all right?’ Vera asked concerned, awaiting him in their hallway. She attempted to run her fingers through his hair; he brushed her hand aside.

‘I am feeling great’ he retorted, already halfway to his room, and slammed the door shut behind him. And from his room: ‘I’m just spectacular!’ He collapsed onto the bed and covered his face with his hands, just like their son used to do at moments like these, to hide the childish tears which defeated him, when he felt bitter and frightened, when he didn’t want to live anymore, and in fact dreamt of only one thing: to die right then, that very moment, that very second. But then the ludicrous question arose: how could he die, and leave her utterly alone in the world?