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A melodious till ring woke Max from the hangover stupor, and he croaked, “All this and a bottle of blackcurrant Absolut, please.” 

He managed a smile of sorts. Even the worst headache of his life could not turn Max into a grumpy drunk, some of whom congregated further down the queue, clutching the bottles of cheap alcohol.

His Absolut was from a different league, displayed on a shelf guarded by the ample forms of a cashier, who smiled back at Max. He collected a change without dropping a single coin, which was hard, because his fingers danced like a troupe of showgirls.

Leaving the shop, Max stepped into the wet wind, dancing over the melting snow of the early spring. A sharp gust slapped his stubbed cheeks, and Max finally came to his senses.

He stood in the middle of the puddle, clutching the shop bag with the staples of a city bachelor who had again woken up with a raging hangover. The fridge glared back at him as if accusing Max of callousness, and he somehow found enough strength to get dressed and leave the flat without vomiting. 

A bile rose again in his throat. Rummaging in the plastic bag, Max tore a chunk of the sour rye bread peppered with coriander seeds. At home, he was going to fry it in the dregs of the fragrant sunflower oil, so temptingly smelling of the roasted seeds. 

Imagining the gleaming salt crystals on the golden bread cubes, he groaned with hunger. A chaser of Absolut was necessary with his soon-to-be late breakfast.

The tower clock of the fire brigade building rang the bell once, and the stray tram on the river embankment hurried away as if encouraged by this sound. Max needn't time or tram because he survived doing odd jobs and spent most of the day drowning in the blessed oblivion of tipsy sleep. 

His old life has crumbled, and nobody knew how to live the new one with currency exchange booths, brand new restaurants and malls where the few select of the year 1990 in Leningrad could buy to their heart content, while the losers like Max were left to ogre the gleaming shopfronts. At least he had enough money for good vodka and modest food.

Still salivating over the heavenly taste of the rye bread, he was startled by the light tap on the shoulder. Turning around, Max almost dropped his bag, vodka and all, in the icy water.

Her blond hair stood as a halo around the perfectly shaped face, and the wind ruffled the white feathers of her wings.

“All this can change,” said the girl matter-of-factly, taking the bag from Max. “Just listen to me.”

At first, Max thought he had stepped into an avant-garde performance and even looked around to find other actors, but a dreary inner-city courtyard was empty, save for the two of them standing in the puddle. The sky above their heads momentarily brightened as if someone there remembered to use a blue color.

Her eyes also turned to be cornflower blue, and Max mumbled, “I don't understand.”

“It's quite simple,” she said as the kindergarten teacher would. 

“I can bring you into the future thirty years from now, keeping your current age," she smiled. “Or to the past, if it's more appealing.”

Max swallowed a chaser in the morning, wallowing in the unkempt bed, but he had never been delirious before today. Snapping his fingers under the girl's nose, he expected the apparition to disappear, but her feet in the dainty pink boots remained rooted in the melting snow. Her wings were growing from the fluffy coat, resembling a light cloud.

“Not the past,” Max responded. “I've had enough of communism, but the future might be interesting. Are you a Devil?”

The girl was bewildered.

“Do I look like one?” she asked, and Max shook his head.

“No, but a man can never be sure.”

She laughed, showing pearly teeth.

“Touché. They thought you'd be better off with me.”

Curbing his curiosity, Max didn't ask about the mysterious They.

“There is a catch,” he said, leaving the puddle. The girl followed him.

“Of course,” she agreed. “I'll get you to the future in exchange for your immortal soul. The usual thing.”

She looked at Max, and he tried to fathom a smile.

“Meaning exactly what?”

The girl swung the bag, and Max gaped at the second bottle of vodka springing out of the thin air next to the first one.

“This is for me,” she explained. “I like vanilla more.”

Max has never heard of Absolut Vanilla and scrunched his nose.

“Sounds disgusting. So, what am I supposed to do?”

“We'll take care of you," promised the girl. 

“You'll live a long and happy life and after you die, you'll become one of us. Eternal youth,” she waved her hand, “placement in Heaven, bonuses for recruited souls. The usual stuff.”

Max perused the peeling advertisement on the wall, promising him the best second-hand from Europe, priced by kilo.

“Can I stay here?” he asked, and the girl snorted.

“No, you have to move forward or backward. That's the deal, and the rest is our business.”

Taking the bag from her, Max sneezed.

“I'll pass,” he gave her the second bottle of vodka. “Raise the toast to my health there,” Max pointed at the sky. “Nice meeting you, and see you around.”

“This way you'll end up in Hell,” the girl said, and Max shrugged.

“I'll risk it.”

Grey clouds once again sheltered the sky, and the fog silenced his steps, carrying him into the maze of the inner-city courtyards.

The End

Bio:

Nelly Shulman is a writer based in Jerusalem. Her short stories appeared on JewishFiction.net, in the Vine Leaves Press Anthology of the Best Flash Fiction, and the various literary magazines and anthologies. She is a winner of the three writing awards.

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