“Tell me, Miss Sensibility: what are the chances of us getting a good scoop going to be?”

Aisha always called me that. I didn’t mind. I considered myself rational, and good at making accurate predictions based on the prospect of a situation.

I turned to my friend and coworker. She was a few years younger than me—fresh and new to the business—with much to learn.

“If we aren’t put in prison or faced with any riots I think the chances become much more in our favor.”

We gathered our things from the office and left into the night. We were working at the Global Inquirer, an honest weekly publication that centered on international diplomacy and politics.

The sweat in my boots chilled. The night was cold, bitterly cold. But my sister’s assumptions stung me even more. Younger, and with her rich partner in California, she always sent emails to point out that I had become “as cold as the New York winters.”

We walked across Washington Square towards Greenwich. Aisha shivered.

“I don’t know whether I should be looking forward to this . . . little investigation . . . ” Her voice trailed off and she glanced at me.

“Don’t think of it as that. It’s a conference.”

She buried her nose in her scarf, nodding.

Aisha’s Russian was proficient—a vital means of gathering the facts of the conference. We readily assumed their (Pancevak’s) translator would be feeding us flawed details.

“So are you busy tonight? Not done with packing?” she asked.

“My husband’s helping me pack, so it won’t take that long.”

He really wasn’t, as he went to bed early; nor was I much in the mood to linger, but that’s not to say I’m as cold as the weather usually got during winter.

“Let’s head to the coffee shop.” I said.

     Russian Diaspora. The title of my notes-page for the article. It wouldn’t be the final title, as I always took to finding it towards the end of the report. It was a week ago, pretty late to announce a subject, when my supervisor notified me that I was going abroad to the conference. It takes place in Pancevak, a city in the middle of nowhere, though Russia itself was really a cold wasteland—anywhere there was “the middle of nowhere.” The meeting included several renowned Russians, and diplomats of other Slavic territories. It would focus around the immigrant constituency in Eastern Europe, and a certain deal about America’s own agendas with immigration— including history, present reality, and future potential.

Aisha and I are field reporters. The ones who went beyond the cubicle and out into the world, though becoming Senior Editor staunched me of that privilege as of late.

We were the soldiers. There was Israel, where our entire luggage was checked, fondled, and questioned by bored incompetent soldiers, to Egyptian protesters throwing rocks above our heads at government officials . . .

The danger was part of the work. It was quite exhilarating to be in this field.

Aisha sipped her latte and browsed in her laptop across from me.

“Weather there is going to be very cold. Better bring an extra scarf.”

“Mm.” I sipped my latte. Last thing I wanted to talk about was the cold.

“But I’m sure having dealt with the winters here the weather won’t be much of a problem. You said you were a bit nervous about going there. What makes you nervous about this conference?”

“I don’t think I’m nervous, Miss Therapy.” She smiled, looking down at her coffee. “I just don’t know what to expect. Unless I have a proper guide . . . ?” She looked up.

I shook my head. “I’ve never been there before. Truth be told I have never heard of this place until now.”

“Mysterious! I like it. The last time we sent reporters anywhere in Russia they were nearly sent to Siberia. They didn’t even make a reference to it in their writing. And . . . not to mention the one group that ended up in Grade A prison—”

“Shhh shh.” I waved my hand, ending her brooding. “That’s because they were an ugly group.”

We laughed.

The stirrings of life and porcelain plates within the café engulfed us. I looked away from my phone and stared at the window into the darkness. I wanted to play Alicia Key’s Empire State right then.

“Why don’t we go out more often?” Aisha wondered aloud.

I looked at her and she grinned.

Soon we left our own ways for the night. I took the Path train to Hoboken. Halfway through the ride I put away my phone, rubbing my eyes, taking a break from Candy Crusher. I began to think about Aisha. She was a charming, likeable person. She basically got along with everyone in the building. I always wondered how people like her did that: attracted the attention of nearly any human being.

I wondered if she liked me as a friend. I could tell she didn’t talk to me out of pity, yet I knew her to be a part of the little groupie in our sect. I would only join them for lunch because Aisha nearly forced me to. I was known to be the ‘Alpha bitch’, as she confided in me once. People were cautious when they spoke to me, even more so after I become Senior Editor last year. Oh well. At least I had the natural competency everyone seemed to have lacked. People rushed with work towards deadline, I did not. Maybe it was because I was half Asian. There was some sort of robotic skill in that. I can even hold a decent marriage— as others would be sampling around . . . bored. Everyone there— George, Fatima, Jeffery . . . who wasn’t two-faced or flaky? I was fine in the end, as a person. Aisha made me feel that way sometimes.

My husband was still awake when I got back. He helped me pack, asked if I felt alright, my further thoughts about the trip, etc. We settled in early— I had to wake up at five tomorrow.

Aisha greeted me with a peppy voice.

“How are your senses?” she asked, laughing. “My god, you didn’t put your face on this morning dear . . . your eye bags!”

“Let me make this clear, I look better than you, even without makeup.”

She snickered and then saw my luggage.

“That’s it?” she gawked.

“Soldiers who came back from war were fixated on the adrenaline rush,” I told her when we took off. “The dullness of society,” I continued,“ the normalness of going through the same thing every day was difficult for veterans to cope with.”

She gave me a look.

“Why, are you a veteran?”

“No, but I find this to be exciting. I remember the days and weeks, in years past, when I would be awake all night researching.”

I missed that. It was truly a blessing and a curse, being in the field.

The flight from New York to the airport nearest our destination required a transfer, but otherwise there had been no delays, even with impending snow. That was what worried me the most— obstacles, delays.

“It’s all about making it there alive. That’s the hardest part really,” Aisha said, grinning.

We collected our luggage and headed towards the taxi circle. A man holding a sign that said ‘Jackson’ placed our bags in a ramshackle taxi from the 90s. The inside smelled of old worn leather and cigars, yet it was different from the smell of a New York taxi.

We took the highway, nearly clinging to the doors as he swerved past a tank truck. I squinted my eyes past the white sunlight and gazed at the unfolding scenery. Yeah, there really wasn’t much: sparse trees that made up gloomy ‘forests’ and barren land. More barren land. As twenty minutes passed, my mind began to drift. The city of Pancevak began to form in my reverie.

It would be like the setting of Moscow, but starkly lacking in embellishments and attractive architecture—perhaps people as well. Now that I thought about it, Russia was starkly lacking in everything. I predicted a range of white mountains surrounding the city, and the chance of capturing a glance at the Mongols living within leather tents in the far off plains, all of which could be seen from our hotel room. I wouldn’t let the cold get in the way of my experience of this new cultural setting.

We made it to the state border of our destination after an hour plus. Pancevak was on the near western edge of the vast cold mass, which was Russia. From there a train would take us into the city.

Aisha was as relieved as I was to have gotten on the train. By this point we were pretty much there.

The ricocheting train was the equivalent of being on a subway car back home: the shaking and doubt that comes with the wheels’ alignment to the tracks. Other than that it was decent enough— though with the stale smell of cigarettes. There was almost no one else in our car. Perhaps they saw us boarding and moved.

“The Americans were either tourists or spies, or both,” a Russian friend once told me.

“Coffee?” The train attendant asked. Her hair was a very light tint of blonde, practically white, tied back in a bun. We both said yes.

She smiled and left.

I leaned across the table.

“Was her hair natural to you?” I asked Aisha. The woman was only in her 30s. She didn’t have any wrinkles or anything.

“I mean, there are a lot of ethnic groups within Europe that have really light blonde hair,” Aisha replied, touching her own blonde braids. I much preferred her shade of blond; it felt like she was in the sun more often.

The attendant came back and I smiled, thanking her, trying to avoid staring. She didn’t leave. She stood next to our table.

“You two noticed there are few others on this train, yes?”

“Um, yeah, I guess,” I said.

“You two must be well-respected citizens,” she said.

“No, we’re reporters from New York.”

“Ah, very interesting. It is very difficult to go to this city you are travelling to.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Very difficult…people rarely take this train, as you can see. It is because they can’t.”

“Why not?”

“You need an approved visa to enter Pancevak.”

“Wait, what?” Aisha and I looked at each other.

“But we . . . made it all this way, we are supposed to be going there for a diplomatic conference,” Aisha said.

I shot a look at her to keep quiet.

The attendant was silent for a moment, biting her lip in hesitation.

“Mmm. That will not do.”

“Why not?” I nearly spat.

“This is a special train, which you two were not informed about I see. It’s very difficult to enter the city. The train only makes trips there once a day. You need a ticket to get in. You need the visa.”

“We,” I said, voice getting lower and firmer, “have already confirmed our position by our employers to attend the conference that is going to be held in Pancevak, and we came all this way here and were never informed, like you said, about the visa.”

“No one told you about the train? The city is difficult to get into.”

I nearly exploded before she continued.

“It is a very prestigious city. It is what people call a literary city, Pancevak.” She nodded, agreeing with herself.

“What do you mean by literary?”

The attendant sighed and looked around.

“I apologize for the inconvenience,” I said, “I mean, I can show you my ID, and you can feel free to search our bags.” I growled as I began to open my handbag.

“Let me see what I can do,” the woman said softly.

I looked back at her.

“Okay?” She looked at me and Aisha.

“Yes, please,” Aisha said, nodding.

The attendant left. I didn’t speak until the door slid shut.

My brows furrowed. “Really?”

Aisha’s eyes bulged, she was already flaking.

“I don’t know…weren’t we— aren’t we supposed to be on this train?”

“Yeah, of course!” I said.

“Do you think we can call Janet?” Janet was our supervisor.

“Let’s wait until she gets back. There’s no way I’m going back to New York, Aisha.”

“The hell did she mean by literary city?” I muttered.

Ten minutes passed.

“I spoke to the conductor,” the attendant stated. “I think we are doing a very big favor for you.” She took out two tickets from her pocket and held them up.

“Are those the tickets?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, setting the tickets onto the table. “You two are very lucky. Do not think we allow this kind of situation to pass very often. I’ve done a big favor for you.”

“Thank you,” Aisha said, nearly shaking.

The attendant walked away.

“You two are very lucky.”

She didn’t come back for the rest of the ride.

We were driven by cab to our hotel. That was when I got full view of Pancevak. The city might as well have been straight from the Cold War era. There was nothing modern about it, but that was expected. The buildings were concrete and gray, all of them. The day was cloudy and cold, which added to the effect of a city frozen in time. We saw people dressed in drab thick coats and fur caps walking through the streets. There still weren’t many people.

I wanted to turn to Aisha and say “Welcome to Pancevak,” but thought of the cab driver with us.

We entered the hotel with our small luggage (though Aisha brought a big suitcase filled with clothes and first aid) and checked into our room. The hallway was drab as hell, and the carpet was a faded red, but it wasn’t from use, it was from age. The hotel was probably meant for tourists, the very few that trickled into the ‘very literary city’. We decided to leave for the conference soon after looking at our room. It was utterly depressing. Our room consisted of a bare table, no colors, no pictures . . . and the chances of the place being rigged with cameras was more than likely. From two previous visits to Russia I was aware that the wifi connection was remarkably pitiful, so it was recorders and journals from here on.

I looked at my directions— the conference was being held a couple blocks away. We walked, our noses buried in our scarves, eyes singeing as cars of hard-up quality passed by, shooting smoke towards us.

It was like a dilapidated Barnes and Noble.

The building was not much like a courthouse, or anything regarded as a place for meetings, but more like a book store, a fairly large one with an old-fashioned Victorian interior (though by no means elaborate). The ceiling was domed, with a glass (or possibly plastic) oculus, that provided half the light in the room. Lights hung by visible cords, centering around a gray chandelier that had orange light bulbs. We looked around at the people milling around the bookstore/conference building.

Class of 2017, Cartooning

Tina Pan’s short story, “Pancevak” won second prize in 2014 in the Second Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. She hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is a sophomore majoring in Cartooning. She loves children’s books, and is especially taken by mystery stories, tales of adventure, and yarns about otherworldly cities.