1 - Elena

It can't be this way. It just can't, her mind reeled. There must be a way out.

Dmitry rented a shanty just a few minutes from there. A place Elena spent countless nights, hating herself for, when all she wanted was to run away. Still, she stayed. She endured whatever, and all, men do to their girlfriends. Only she was never his girlfriend. She hated him.

Olga, Elena's mother, walked alongside, willfully oblivious to anything amiss with her daughter. Composed, confident, even cheerful. What Elena was going through had all been by Olga's own design. Her own mother wanted her trapped! Elena wanted to scream. To tell her how hurt she was. How much it was she, who hurt her. But there was no point. Olga knew what she was doing. Elena's pain was just a snag on the way to her daughter's wedding, the jewel in Olga's crown. Elena had to sacrifice her life. The sooner, the better.

In the pitch dark, stumbling on frozen mud just made it worse. There was no way out. Elena was effectively locked in a dungeon, shackled to the wall. Subsistence and simple acknowledgment was her reward for doing what others expected of her. To do otherwise: to act on her own needs, was anathema. She had obeyed for as long as she could recall, but now she couldn't bear it. She had to stop the pain! Had to get out into the light. Had to be herself!

Day by day, her fate solidified. By then, it might as well have been cast in stone. She had been seeing Dmitry long enough. It was time for Elena to marry him. Everything led in that direction, even their casual strolls home from work. It didn't matter to whom she was married. It could have been Dmitry, or any other man, for that matter. Elena was just another girl to marry off to just another man. There was nothing she could do about it; that was the way of the world.

A wave of fury rose in Elena. No! No! I can't do it. I just can't!

If Elena had the guts, telling her mother the truth would be the end of her world as she knew it. Olga would make sure it all came crashing down, having engineered everything Elena knew and trusted in her life: her freedom, her job, her support. Throughout the years, Olga meticulously planned and steered her daughter's life, nipping anything in the bud that might bolster Elena's resolve, confidence and independence.

If she were to submit, Elena knew, she wouldn't survive. Whenever Dmitry was near, her pain was intolerable, she wanted to howl. Marriage to him would be agony. He would own her. Could command her, dominate her for years, if not her entire life. She was destined to be bound to a man she wanted nothing to do with. All of it, because others told her to. It was madness! No! No!

Elena cast about for a way to escape from the nightmare she was living. Their stroll home from work felt endless. Her days seemed pointless. She was sick of her own submission, yet didn't change a thing. How much longer could she go on, lying to herself, convincing herself that something had to get better? She knew, if she didn't act, the terrifying future she saw, would surely find her. No miracle would spare her from becoming a wife and mother.

It can't be that hopeless, Elena told herself. There must be something she could do. One thing in her favor was that she recognized her pain and didn't deny it. She also knew what was causing it! To end it, she had to find the strength to stop others from hurting her, controlling her. She had to stand up to her jailers.

But where to begin, and did she even have the courage to see it through? With no support, Elena was entirely on her own. The only people she had in her life were those demanding she sacrifice herself for them.

Wrapped in her thoughts, Elena's silence was becoming suspicious. She had better say something to her mother.

"Is there anything on TV tonight?" Elena could let it go for now. She had the evening ahead with her parents.

* * *

The world around her seemed to have gone mad, leaving Elena with no way to survive. Unfortunates, like her – those, who didn't fit in – were forever outsiders. They hid in the dark, meeting in secret places; the Internet being one of them. Elena needed it like air. It was where she could try to find a way out. Find a way to live her life, instead of letting others live it for her.

Olga became incensed any time her daughter went online. Whatever lurked there was beyond her control and influence. Worse than that, it loosened her grip on Elena, challenged her lies, and stole time and deference she owed to her fiance, Dmitry. Their flat was small. Olga had no trouble hearing any suspicious noise, like key clicks or a hard drive spinning up, and came crashing in on Elena without hesitation. Getting online meant waiting, watching, and making sure Olga's obsession with what Elena was thinking or up to was outweighed by something else at the time.

Dinner times presented an opportunity to sneak online. Elena played her part, chit-chatting with her mother and father while the three of them raised shots of vodka. Her father wasn't a problem, Elena knew that. Olga was, but she was finally tipsy, lax and hopefully careless by then. Elena ghosted from the table, washed her plate and fork and quietly left the kitchen. From her room, she heard her parents' relaxed murmuring. This was her chance.

Elena had done all she could to find somebody – anybody – to be her friend, a bit of support, just a part of her life. So far, it had been almost impossible. She was surrounded by people all the time. Online, they were countless, but no one was right for her. Nobody wanted to truly live. Nobody wanted to be themselves and take from their days all there was. Online discussions with women, and especially men, were tedious and contrived. Nothing to do with the world, with wonders that might be concealed somewhere out there. Dignity, pride, curiosity, hunger for experience, empathy, determination, were all glaringly absent. Gone: eradicated so completely, it seemed to Elena, that they had never existed in people before.

Meg's online profile screamed out to Elena. The Canadian woman had no way of knowing how much her quirky, poorly translated profile could say to a woman in Russia. However rough the translation, it was more than enough to give Elena a pretty good picture of Meg. She clearly had, and wrote of, the very qualities Elena so desperately looked for in others.

Elena had no choice but to write to Meg. She couldn't resist, and didn't see why she should. Meg wrote back in hackneyed Russian. They ended up communicating in English. Elena's gut feeling had been right about Meg all along. Their correspondence brought the two of them closer, leaving them more and more curious about each other with every letter.

Elena couldn't believe she finally found the person of her dreams. With every new thing she learned about Meg, the more drawn to her she became. She found their encounters so surreal, so impossible, that she believed Meg was an extraterrestrial that her own mad desire for freedom and love brought to her. In letters to Meg, Elena sometimes called her an alien. Meg went along, finding it amusing without ever knowing what it actually meant for Elena.

She wasn't surprised when the letters from Meg stopped. Nothing new. Things like that happened to her with irrational regularity. Two months passed without a letter. Elena knew she had to let Meg go. Find ways to distract and convince herself, she was happy with the way things were. She dismissed her yearning for life and freedom as a destructive notion with no place in her world. She had Dmitry. One day, very soon, she would be his wife. That's what she had to focus on, and how pleased Olga would be. Elena couldn't conceive of straying from that course by then. There was simply no way: her mother and the tiny flat they lived in was all she ever knew and had.

Elena checked the website. No messages. She glanced, yet again, at Meg's profile. It was unchanged. Her words were there, just as they had been before, but now, they felt callous, cruel, mocking.

Where was Meg now, with her curiosity about Russia and Elena? Where was her energy, Elena was so drawn to? Why did she abandon her at the very moment she started seeing, becoming aware, hungry for the wonders of the world and believing she could reach them?

"Where are you, Meg?" Elena looked out the window. A few feeble stars blemished the night sky. Clouds hid the moon.

There was no answer.

She crawled into bed. She had to sleep. It would be terribly difficult. Lately, the nightmares, she knew were her future, kept her awake, stole her strength. Yet, there had to be a reason to go on.

Elena felt, she knew an enormous secret that nobody was aware of: her life was it. Her life, alone, was the reason to go on, to fight, to wake up in the morning and look forward to the day. She had her life! It was the force. It was the goal. And it was the joy. Complete, indescribable, overwhelming joy.

No matter how much Elena convinced herself otherwise, she couldn't keep betraying herself. She could no longer stand the pain. She had no idea how she would pull it off, but she had to find a way to be in control of her life, to determine its direction. She needed to stop hiding in shadows. Stop letting others crush her spirit, shove her into cracks, erase her. She needed to finally come into being.